Chapter I.
 

Mark Clifford had come up from New York to spend a few weeks with his maternal grandfather, Mr. Lofton, who lived almost alone on his beautiful estate a few miles from the Hudson, amid the rich valleys of Orange county. Mr. Lofton belonged to one of the oldest families in the country, and retained a large portion of that aristocratic pride for which they were distinguished. The marriage of his daughter to Mr. Clifford, a merchant of New York, had been strongly opposed on the ground that the alliance was degrading--Mr. Clifford not being able to boast of an ancestor who was anything more than an honest man and a useful citizen. A closer acquaintance with his son-in-law, after the marriage took place, reconciled Mr. Lofton in a good measure to the union; for he found Mr. Clifford to be a man of fine intelligence, gentlemanly feeling, and withal, tenderly attached to his daughter. The marriage was a happy one--and this is rarely the case when the external and selfish desire to make a good family connection is regarded above the mental and moral qualities on which a true union only can be based.

A few years previous to the time at which our story opens, Mrs. Clifford died, leaving one son and two daughters. Mark, the oldest of the children, was in his seventeenth year at the time the sad bereavement occurred--the girls were quite young. He had always been an active boy--ever disposed to get beyond the judicious restraints which his parents wisely sought to throw around him. After his mother's death, he attained a wider liberty. He was still at college when this melancholy event occurred, and continued there for two years; but no longer in correspondence with, and therefore not under the influence of one whose love for him sought ever to hold him back from evil, his natural temperament led him into the indulgence of a liberty that too often went beyond the bounds of propriety.

On leaving college Mr. Clifford conferred with his son touching the profession he wished to adopt, and to his surprise found him bent on entering the navy. All efforts to discourage the idea were of no avail. The young man was for the navy and nothing else. Yielding at last to the desire of his son, Mr. Clifford entered the usual form of application at the Navy Yard in Washington, but, at the same time, in a private letter to the Secretary, intimated his wish that the application might not be favorably considered.

Time passed on, but Mark did not receive the anxiously looked for appointment. Many reasons were conjectured by the young man, who, at last, resolved on pushing through his application, if personal efforts could be of any avail. To this end, he repaired to the seat of government, and waited on the Secretary. In his interviews with this functionary, some expressions were dropped that caused a suspicion of the truth to pass through his mind. A series of rapidly recurring questions addressed to the Secretary were answered in a way that fully confirmed this suspicion. The effect of this upon the excitable and impulsive young man will appear as our story progresses.

It was while Mark's application was pending, and a short time before his visit to Washington, that he came up to Fairview, the residence of his grandfather. Mark had always been a favorite with the old gentleman, who rather encouraged his desire to enter the navy.

"The boy will distinguish himself," Mr. Lofton would say, as he thought over the matter. And the idea of distinction in the army or navy, was grateful to his aristocratic feelings. "There is some of the right blood in his veins for all."

One afternoon, some two or three days after the young man came up to Fairview, he was returning from a ramble in the woods with his gun, when he met a beautiful young girl, simply attired, and bearing on her head a light bundle of grain which she had gleaned in a neighboring field. She was tripping lightly along, singing as gaily as a bird, when she came suddenly upon the young man, over whose face there passed an instant glow of admiration. Mark bowed and smiled, the maiden dropped a bashful courtesy, and then each passed on; but neither to forget the other. When Mark turned, after a few steps, to gaze after the sweet wild flower he had met so unexpectedly, he saw the face again, for she had turned also. He did not go home on that evening, until he had seen the lovely being who glanced before him in her native beauty, enter a neat little cottage that stood half a mile from Fairview, nearly hidden by vines, and overshadowed by two tall sycamores.

On the next morning Mark took his way toward the cottage with his gun. As he drew near, the sweet voice he had heard on the day before was warbling tenderly an old song his mother had sung when he was but a child; and with the air and words so well remembered, came a gentleness of feeling, and a love of what was pure and innocent, such as he had not experienced for many years. In this state of mind he entered the little porch, and stood listening for several minutes to the voice that still flung itself plaintively or joyfully upon the air, according to the sentiment breathed in the words that were clothed in music; then as the voice became silent, he rapped gently at the door, which, in a few moments, was opened by the one whose attractions had drawn him thither.

A warm color mantled the young girl's face as her eyes fell upon so unexpected a visitor. She remembered him as the young man she had met on the evening before; about whom she had dreamed all night, and thought much since the early morning. Mark bowed, and, as an excuse for calling, asked if her mother were at home.

"My mother died when I was but a child," replied the girl, shrinking back a step or two; for Mark was gazing earnestly into her face.

"Ah! Then you are living with your--your--"

"Mrs. Lee has been a mother to me since then," said she, dropping her eyes to the floor.

"Then I will see the good woman who has taken your mother's place." Mark stepped in as he spoke, and took a chair in the neat little sitting room into which the door opened.

"She has gone over to Mr. Lofton's," said the girl, in reply, "and won't be back for an hour."

"Has she, indeed? Then you know Mr. Lofton?"

"Oh, yes. We know him very well. He owns our little cottage."

"Does he! No doubt you find him a good landland."

"He's a kind man," said the girl, earnestly.

"He is, as I have good reason to know," remarked the young man. "Mr. Lofton is my grandfather."

The girl seemed much surprised at this avowal, and appeared less at ease than before.

"And now, having told you who I am," said Mark, "I think I may be bold enough to ask your name."

"My name is Jenny Lawson," replied the girl.

"A pretty name, that--Jenny--I always liked the sound of it. My mother's name was Jenny. Did you ever see my mother? But don't tremble so! Sit down, and tell your fluttering heart to be still."

Jenny sunk into a chair, her bosom heaving, and the crimson flush still glowing on her cheeks, while Mark gazed into her face with undisguised admiration.

"Who would have thought," said he to himself, "that so sweet a wild flower grew in this out of the way place."

"Did you ever see my mother, Jenny?" asked the young man, after she was a little composed.

"Mrs. Clifford?"

"Yes."

"Often."

"Then we will be friends from this moment, Jenny. If you knew my mother then, you must have loved her. She has been dead now over three years."

There was a shade of sadness in the young man's voice as he said this.

"When did you see her last?" he resumed.

"The summer before she died she came up from New York and spent two or three weeks here. I saw her then, almost every day."

"And you loved my mother? Say you did!"

The young man spoke with a rising emotion that he could not restrain.

"Every body loved her," replied Jenny, simply and earnestly.

For a few moments Mark concealed his face with his hands, to hide the signs of feeling that were playing over it; then looking up again, he said--

"Jenny, because you knew my mother and loved her, we must be friends. It was a great loss to me when she died. The greatest loss I ever had, or, it may be, ever will have. I have been worse since then. Ah me! If she had only lived!"

Again Mark covered his face with his hands, and, this time, he could not keep the dimness from his eyes.

It was a strange sight to Jenny to see the young man thus moved. Her innocent heart was drawn toward him with a pitying interest, and she yearned to speak words of comfort, but knew not what to say.

After Mark grew composed again, he asked Jenny a great many questions touching her knowledge of his mother; and listened with deep interest and emotion to many little incidents of Jenny's intercourse with her, which were related with all the artlessness and force of truth. In the midst of this singular interview, Mrs. Lee came in and surprised the young couple, who, forgetting all reserve, were conversing with an interest in their manner, the ground of which she might well misunderstand. Jenny started and looked confused, but, quickly recovering herself, introduced Mark as the grandson of Mr. Lofton.

The old lady did not respond to this with the cordiality that either of the young folks had expected. No, not by any means. A flush of angry suspicion came into her face, and she said to Jenny as she handed her the bonnet she hurriedly removed--

"Here--take this into the other room and put it away."

The moment Jenny retired, Mrs. Lee turned to Mark, and after looking at him somewhat sternly for a moment, surprised him with this speech--

"If I ever find you here again, young man, I'll complain to your grandfather."

"Will you, indeed!" returned Mark, elevating his person, and looking at the old lady with flashing eyes. "And pray, what will you say to the old gentleman?"

"Fine doings, indeed, for the likes o' you to come creeping into a decent woman's house when she is away!" resumed Mrs. Lee. "Jenny's not the kind you're looking after, let me tell you. What would your poor dear mother, who is in heaven, God bless her! think, if she knew of this?"

The respectful and even affectionate reference to his mother, softened the feelings of Mark, who was growing very angry.

"Good morning, old lady," said he, as he turned away; "you don't know what you're talking about!" and springing from the door, he hurried off with rapid steps. On reaching a wood that lay at some distance off, Mark sought a retired spot, near where a quiet stream went stealing noiselessly along amid its alder and willow-fringed banks, and sitting down upon a grassy spot, gave himself up to meditation. Little inclined was he now for sport. The birds sung in the trees above him, fluttered from branch to branch, and even dipped their wings in the calm waters of the stream, but he heeded them not. He had other thoughts. Greatly had old Mrs. Lee, in the blindness of her suddenly aroused fears, wronged the young man. If the sphere of innocence that was around the beautiful girl had not been all powerful to subdue evil thoughts and passions in his breast, the reference to his mother would have been effectual to that end.

For half an hour had Mark remained seated alone, busy, with thoughts and feelings of a less wandering and adventurous character than usually occupied his mind, when, to his surprise, he saw Jenny Lawson advancing along a path that led through a portion of the woods, with a basket on her arm. She did not observe him until she had approached within some fifteen or twenty paces; when he arose to his feet, and she, seeing him, stopped suddenly, and looked pale and alarmed.

"I am glad to meet you again, Jenny," said Mark, going quickly toward her, and taking her hand, which she yielded without resistance. "Don't be frightened. Mrs. Lee did me wrong. Heaven knows I would not hurt a hair of your head! Come and sit down with me in this quiet place, and let us talk about my mother. You say you knew her and loved her. Let her memory make us friends."

Mark's voice trembled with feeling. There was something about the girl that made the thought of his mother a holier and tenderer thing. He had loved his mother intensely, and since her death, had felt her loss as the saddest calamity that had, or possibly ever could, befall him. Afloat on the stormy sea of human life, he had seemed like a mariner without helm or compass. Strangely enough, since meeting with Jenny at the cottage a little while before, the thought of her appeared to bring his mother nearer to him; and when, so unexpectedly, he saw her approaching him in the woods, he felt momentarily, that it was his mother's spirit guiding her thither.

Urged by so strong an appeal, Jenny suffered herself to be led to the retired spot where Mark had been reclining, half wondering, half fearful--yet impelled by a certain feeling that she could not well resist. In fact, each exercised a power over the other, a power not arising from any determination of will, but from a certain spiritual affinity that neither comprehended. Some have called this "destiny," but it has a better name.

"Jenny," said Mark, after they were seated--he still retained her hand in his, and felt it tremble--"tell me something about my mother. It will do me good to hear of her from your lips."

The girl tried to make some answer, but found no utterance. Her lips trembled so that she could not speak. But she grew more composed after a time, and then in reply to many questions of Mark, related incident after incident, in which his mother's goodness of character stood prominent. The young man listened intently, sometimes with his eyes upon the ground, and sometimes gazing admiringly into the sweet face of the young speaker.

Time passed more rapidly than either Mark or Jenny imagined. For full an hour had they been engaged in earnest conversation, when both were painfully surprised by the appearance of Mrs. Lee, who had sent Jenny on an errand, and expected her early return. A suspicion that she might encounter young Clifford having flashed through the old woman's mind, she had come forth to learn if possible the cause of Jenny's long absence. To her grief and anger, she discovered them sitting together engaged in earnest conversation.

"Now, Mark Clifford!" she exclaimed as she advanced, "this is too bad! And Jenny, you weak and foolish girl! are you madly bent on seeking the fowler's snare? Child! child! is it thus you repay me for my love and care over you!"

Both Mark and Jenny started to their feet, the face of the former flushed with instant anger, and that of the other pale from alarm.

"Come!" and Mrs. Lee caught hold of Jenny's arm and drew her away. As they moved off, the former, glancing back at Mark, and shaking her finger towards him, said--

"I'll see your grandfather, young man!"

Fretted by this second disturbance of an interview with Jenny, and angry at an unjust imputation of motive, Mark dashed into the woods, with his gun in his hand, and walked rapidly, but aimlessly, for nearly an hour, when he found himself at the summit of a high mountain, from which, far down and away towards the east, he could see the silvery Hudson winding along like a vein of silver. Here, wearied with his walk, and faint in spirit from over excitement, he sat down to rest and to compose his thoughts. Scarcely intelligible to himself were his feelings. The meeting with Jenny, and the effect upon him, were things that he did not clearly understand. Her influence over him was a mystery. In fact, what had passed so hurriedly, was to him more like a dream than a reality.

No further idea of sport entered the mind of the young man on that day. He remained until after the sun had passed the meridian in this retired place, and then went slowly back, passing the cottage of Mrs. Lee on his return. He did not see Jenny as he had hoped. On meeting Mr. Lofton, Mark became aware of a change in the old man's feelings towards him, and he guessed at once rightly as to the cause. If he had experienced any doubts, they would have been quickly removed.

"Mark!" said the old gentleman, sternly, almost the moment the grandson came into his presence, "I wish you to go back to New York to-morrow. I presume I need hardly explain my reason for this wish, when I tell you that I have just had a visit from old Mrs. Lee."

The fiery spirit of Mark was stung into madness by this further reaction on him in a matter that involved nothing of criminal intent. Impulsive in his feelings, and quick to act from them, he replied with a calmness and even sadness in his voice that Mr. Lofton did not expect--the calmness was from a strong effort: the sadness expressed his real feelings:

"I will not trouble you with my presence an hour longer. If evil arise from this trampling of good impulse out of my heart, the sin rest on your own head. I never was and never can be patient under a false judgment. Farewell, grandfather! We may never meet again. If you hear of evil befalling me, think of it as having some connection with this hour."

With these words Mark turned away and left the house. The old man, in grief and alarm at the effect of his words, called after him, but he heeded him not.

"Run after him, and tell him to come back," he cried to a servant who stood near and had listened to what had passed between them. The order was obeyed, but it was of no avail. Mark returned a bitter answer to the message he brought him, and continued on his way. As he was hurrying along, suddenly he encountered Jenny. It was strange that he should meet her so often. There was something in it more than accident, and he felt that it was so.

"God bless you, Jenny!" he exclaimed with much feeling, catching hold of her hand and kissing it. "We may never meet again. They thought I meant you harm, and have driven me away. But, Heaven knows how little of evil purpose was in my heart! Farewell! Sometimes, when you are kneeling to say your nightly prayers, think of me, and breathe my name in your petitions. I will need the prayers of the innocent. Farewell!"

And under the impulse of the moment, Mark bent forward and pressed his lips fervently upon her pure forehead; then, springing away, left her bewildered and in tears.

Mark hurried on towards the nearest landing place on the river, some three miles distant, which he reached just as a steamboat was passing. Waving his handkerchief, as a signal, the boat rounded to, and touching at the rude pier, took him on board. He arrived in New York that evening, and on the next morning started for Washington to see after his application for a midshipman's appointment in the navy. It was on this occasion that the young man became aware of the secret influence of his father against the application which had been made. His mind, already feverishly excited, lost its balance under this new disturbing cause.

"He will repent of this!" said he, bitterly, as he left the room of the Secretary of the Navy, "and repent it until the day of his death. Make a fixture of me in a counting room! Shut me up in a lawyer's office! Lock me down in a medicine chest! Mark Clifford never will submit! If I cannot enter the service in one way I will in another."

Without pausing to weigh the consequences of his act, Mark, in a spirit of revenge towards his father, went, while the fever was on him, to the Navy Yard, and there entered the United States service as a common sailor, under the name of Edward James. On the day following, the ship on board of which he had enlisted was gliding down the Potomac, and, in a week after, left Hampton Roads and went to sea.

From Norfolk, Mr. Clifford received a brief note written by his son, upbraiding him for having defeated the application to the department, and avowing the fact that he had gone to sea in the government service, as a common sailor.