Elsie Venner/Chapter XXVIII
THE SECRET IS WHISPERED.
The Reverend Chauncy Fairweather's congregation was not large, but select. The lines of social cleavage run through religious creeds as if they were of a piece with position and fortune. It is expected of persons of a certain breeding, in some parts of New England, that they shall be either Episcopalians or Unitarians. The mansion-house gentry of Rockland were pretty fairly divided between the little chapel, with the stained window and the trained rector, and the meeting-house where the Reverend Mr. Fairweather officiated.
It was in the latter that Dudley Venner worshipped, when he attended service anywhere,--which depended very much on the caprice of Elsie. He saw plainly enough that a generous and liberally cultivated nature might find a refuge and congenial souls in either of these two persuasions, but he objected to some points of the formal creed of the older church, and especially to the mechanism which renders it hard to get free from its outworn and offensive formulae,--remembering how Archbishop Tillotson wished in vain that it could be "well rid of" the Athanasian Creed. This, and the fact that the meeting-house was nearer than the chapel, determined him, when the new rector, who was not quite up to his mark in education, was appointed, to take a pew in the "liberal" worshippers' edifice.
Elsie was very uncertain in her feeling about going to church. In summer, she loved rather to stroll over The Mountain, on Sundays. There was even a story, that she had one of the caves before mentioned fitted up as an oratory, and that she had her own wild way of worshipping the God whom she sought in the dark chasms of the dreaded cliffs. Mere fables, doubtless; but they showed the common belief, that Elsie, with all her strange and dangerous elements of character, had yet strong religious feeling mingled with them. The hymn-book which Dick had found, in his midnight invasion of her chamber, opened to favorite hymns, especially some of the Methodist and Quietist character. Many had noticed, that certain tunes, as sung by the choir, seemed to impress her deeply; and some said, that at such times her whole expression would change, and her stormy look would soften so as to remind them of her poor, sweet mother.
On the Sunday morning after the talk recorded in the last chapter, Elsie made herself ready to go to meeting. She was dressed much as usual, excepting that she wore a thick veil, turned aside, but ready to conceal her features. It was natural enough that she should not wish to be looked in the face by curious persons who would be staring to see what effect the occurrence of the past week had had on her spirits. Her father attended her willingly; and they took their seats in the pew, somewhat to the surprise of many, who had hardly expected to see them, after so humiliating a family development as the attempted crime of their kinsman had just been furnishing for the astonishment of the public.
The Reverend Mr. Fairweather was now in his coldest mood. He had passed through the period of feverish excitement which marks a change of religious opinion. At first, when he had began to doubt his own theological positions, he had defended them against himself with more ingenuity and interest, perhaps, than he could have done against another; because men rarely take the trouble to understand anybody's difficulties in a question but their own. After this, as he began to draw off from different points of his old belief, the cautious disentangling of himself from one mesh after another gave sharpness to his intellect, and the tremulous eagerness with which he seized upon the doctrine which, piece by piece, under various pretexts and with various disguises, he was appropriating, gave interest and something like passion to his words. But when he had gradually accustomed his people to his new phraseology, and was really adjusting his sermons and his service to disguise his thoughts, he lost at once all his intellectual acuteness and all his spiritual fervor.
Elsie sat quietly through the first part of the service, which was conducted in the cold, mechanical way to be expected. Her face was hidden by her veil; but her father knew her state of feeling, as well by her movements and attitudes as by the expression of her features. The hymn had been sung, the short prayer offered, the Bible read, and the long prayer was about to begin. This was the time at which the "notes" of any who were in affliction from loss of friends, the sick who were doubtful of recovery, those who had cause to be grateful for preservation of life or other signal blessing, were wont to be read.
Just then it was that Dudley Veneer noticed that his daughter was trembling,--a thing so rare, so unaccountable, indeed, under the circumstances, that he watched her closely, and began to fear that some nervous paroxysm, or other malady, might have just begun to show itself in this way upon her.
The minister had in his pocket two notes. One, in the handwriting of Deacon Soper, was from a member of this congregation, returning thanks for his preservation through a season of great peril, supposed to be the exposure which he had shared with others, when standing in the circle around Dick Veneer. The other was the anonymous one, in a female hand, which he had received the evening before. He forgot them both. His thoughts were altogether too much taken up with more important matters. He prayed through all the frozen petitions of his expurgated form of supplication, and not a single heart was soothed or lifted, or reminded that its sorrows were struggling their way up to heaven, borne on the breath from a human soul that was warm with love.
The people sat down as if relieved when the dreary prayer was finished. Elsie alone remained standing until her father touched her. Then she sat down, lifted her veil, and looked at him with a blank, sad look, as if she had suffered some pain or wrong, but could not give any name or expression to her vague trouble. She did not tremble any longer, but remained ominously still, as if she had been frozen where she sat.
--Can a man love his own soul too well? Who, on the whole, constitute the nobler class of human beings? those who have lived mainly to make sure of their own personal welfare in another and future condition of existence, or they who have worked with all their might for their race, for their country, for the advancement of the kingdom of God, and left all personal arrangements concerning themselves to the sole charge of Him who made them and is responsible to himself for their safe-keeping? Is an anchorite who has worn the stone floor of his cell into basins with his knees bent in prayer, more acceptable than the soldier who gives his life for the maintenance of any sacred right or truth, without thinking what will specially become of him in a world where there are two or three million colonists a month, from this one planet, to be cared for? These are grave questions, which must suggest themselves to those who know that there are many profoundly selfish persons who are sincerely devout and perpetually occupied with their own future, while there are others who are perfectly ready to sacrifice themselves for any worthy object in this world, but are really too little occupied with their exclusive personality to think so much as many do about what is to become of them in another.
The Reverend Chauncy Fairweather did not, most certainly, belong to this latter class. There are several kinds of believers, whose history we find among the early converts to Christianity.
There was the magistrate, whose social position was such that he preferred a private interview in the evening with the Teacher to following him--with the street-crowd. He had seen extraordinary facts which had satisfied him that the young Galilean had a divine commission. But still he cross-questioned the Teacher himself. He was not ready to accept statements without explanation. That was the right kind of man. See how he stood up for the legal rights of his Master, when the people were for laying hands on him!
And again, there was the government official, intrusted with public money, which, in those days, implied that he was supposed to be honest. A single look of that heavenly countenance, and two words of gentle command, were enough for him. Neither of these men, the early disciple, nor the evangelist, seems to have been thinking primarily about his own personal safety.
But now look at the poor, miserable turnkey, whose occupation shows what he was like to be, and who had just been thrusting two respectable strangers, taken from the hands of a mob, covered with stripes and stripped of clothing, into the inner prison, and making their feet fast in the stocks. His thought, in the moment of terror, is for himself: first, suicide; then, what he shall do,--not to save his household,--not to fulfil his duty to his office,--not to repair the outrage he has been committing,--but to secure his own personal safety. Truly, character shows itself as much in a man's way of becoming a Christian as in any other!
--Elsie sat, statue-like, through the sermon. It would not be fair to the reader to give an abstract of that. When a man who has been bred to free thought and free speech suddenly finds himself stepping about, like a dancer amidst his eggs, among the old addled majority-votes which he must not tread upon, he is a spectacle for men and angels. Submission to intellectual precedent and authority does very well for those who have been bred to it; we know that the underground courses of their minds are laid in the Roman cement of tradition, and that stately and splendid structures may be reared on such a foundation. But to see one laying a platform over heretical quicksands, thirty or forty or fifty years deep, and then beginning to build upon it, is a sorry sight. A new convert from the reformed to the ancient faith may be very strong in the arms, but he will always have weak legs and shaky knees. He may use his hands well, and hit hard with his fists, but he will never stand on his legs in the way the man does who inherits his belief.
The services were over at last, and Dudley Venner and his daughter walked home together in silence. He always respected her moods, and saw clearly enough that some inward trouble was weighing upon her. There was nothing to be said in such cases, for Elsie could never talk of her griefs. An hour, or a day, or a week of brooding, with perhaps a sudden flash of violence: this was the way in which the impressions which make other women weep, and tell their griefs by word or letter, showed their effects in her mind and acts.
She wandered off up into the remoter parts of The Mountain, that day, after their return. No one saw just where she went,--indeed, no one knew its forest-recesses and rocky fastnesses as she did. She was gone until late at night; and when Old Sophy, who had watched for her, bound up her long hair for her sleep, it was damp with the cold dews.
The old black woman looked at her without speaking, but questioning her with every feature as to the sorrow that was weighing on her.
Suddenly she turned to Old Sophy.
"You want to know what there is troubling me;" she said. "Nobody loves me. I cannot love anybody. What is love, Sophy?"
"It's what poor Ol' Sophy's got for her Elsie," the old woman answered. "Tell me, darlin',--don' you love somebody?--don' you love? you know,--oh, tell me, darlin', don' you love to see the gen'l'man that keeps up at the school where you go? They say he's the pootiest gen'l'man that was ever in the town here. Don' be 'fraid of poor Ol' Sophy, darlin',--she loved a man once,--see here! Oh, I've showed you this often enough!"
She took from her pocket a half of one of the old Spanish silver coins, such as were current in the earlier part of this century. The other half of it had been lying in the deep sea-sand for more than fifty years.
Elsie looked her in the face, but did not answer in words. What strange intelligence was that which passed between them through the diamond eyes and the little beady black ones?--what subtile intercommunication, penetrating so much deeper than articulate speech? This was the nearest approach to sympathetic relations that Elsie ever had: a kind of dumb intercourse of feeling, such as one sees in the eyes of brute mothers looking on their young. But, subtile as it was, it was narrow and individual; whereas an emotion which can shape itself in language opens the gate for itself into the great community of human affections; for every word we speak is the medal of a dead thought or feeling, struck in the die of some human experience, worn smooth by innumerable contacts, and always transferred warm from one to another. By words we share the common consciousness of the race, which has shaped itself in these symbols. By music we reach those special states of consciousness which, being without form, cannot be shaped with the mosaics of the vocabulary. The language of the eyes runs deeper into the personal nature, but it is purely individual, and perishes in the expression.
If we consider them all as growing out of the consciousness as their root, language is the leaf, music is the flower; but when the eyes meet and search each other, it is the uncovering of the blanched stem through which the whole life runs, but which has never taken color or form from the sunlight.
For three days Elsie did not return to the school. Much of the time she was among the woods and rocks. The season was now beginning to wane, and the forest to put on its autumnal glory. The dreamy haze was beginning to soften the landscape, and the mast delicious days of the year were lending their attraction to the scenery of The Mountain. It was not very singular that Elsie should be lingering in her old haunts, from which the change of season must soon drive her. But Old Sophy saw clearly enough that some internal conflict was going on, and knew very well that it must have its own way and work itself out as it best could. As much as looks could tell Elsie had told her. She had said in words, to be sure, that she could not love. Something warped and thwarted the emotion which would have been love in another, no doubt; but that such an emotion was striving with her against all malign influences which interfered with it the old woman had a perfect certainty in her own mind.
Everybody who has observed the working of emotions in persons of various temperaments knows well enough that they have periods of incubation, which differ with the individual, and with the particular cause and degree of excitement, yet evidently go through a strictly self-limited series of evolutions, at the end of which, their result--an act of violence, a paroxysm of tears, a gradual subsidence into repose, or whatever it may be--declares itself, like the last stage of an attack of fever and ague. No one can observe children without noticing that there is a personal equation, to use the astronomer's language, in their tempers, so that one sulks an hour over an offence which makes another a fury for five minutes, and leaves him or her an angel when it is over.
At the end of three days, Elsie braided her long, glossy, black hair, and shot a golden arrow through it. She dressed herself with more than usual care, and came down in the morning superb in her stormy beauty. The brooding paroxysm was over, or at least her passion had changed its phase. Her father saw it with great relief; he had always many fears for her in her hours and days of gloom, but, for reasons before assigned, had felt that she must be trusted to herself, without appealing to actual restraint, or any other supervision than such as Old Sophy could exercise without offence.
She went off at the accustomed hour to the school. All the girls had their eyes on her. None so keen as these young misses to know an inward movement by an outward sign of adornment: if they have not as many signals as the ships that sail the great seas, there is not an end of ribbon or a turn of a ringlet which is not a hieroglyphic with a hidden meaning to these little cruisers over the ocean of sentiment.
The girls all looked at Elsie with a new thought; for she was more sumptuously arrayed than perhaps ever before at the school; and they said to themselves that she had come meaning to draw the young master's eyes upon her. That was it; what else could it be? The beautiful cold girl with the diamond eyes meant to dazzle the handsome young gentleman. He would be afraid to love her; it couldn't be true, that which some people had said in the village; she was n't the kind of young lady to make Mr. Langdon happy. Those dark people are never safe: so one of the young blondes said to herself. Elsie was not literary enough for such a scholar: so thought Miss Charlotte Ann Wood, the young poetess. She couldn't have a good temper, with those scowling eyebrows: this was the opinion of several broad-faced, smiling girls, who thought, each in her own snug little mental sanctum, that, if, etc., etc., she could make him so happy!
Elsie had none of the still, wicked light in her eyes, that morning. She looked gentle, but dreamy; played with her books; did not trouble herself with any of the exercises,--which in itself was not very remarkable, as she was always allowed, under some pretext or other, to have her own way.
The school-hours were over at length. The girls went out, but she lingered to the last. She then came up to Mr. Bernard, with a book in her hand, as if to ask a question.
"Will you walk towards my home with me today?" she said, in a very low voice, little more than a whisper.
Mr. Bernard was startled by the request, put in such a way. He had a presentiment of some painful scene or other. But there was nothing to be done but to assure her that it would give him great pleasure.
So they walked along together on their way toward the Dudley mansion.
"I have no friend," Elsie said, all at once. "Nothing loves me but one old woman. I cannot love anybody. They tell me there is something in my eyes that draws people to me and makes them faint: Look into them, will you?"
She turned her face toward him. It was very pale, and the diamond eyes were glittering with a film, such as beneath other lids would have rounded into a tear.
"Beautiful eyes, Elsie," he said,--"sometimes very piercing,--but soft now, and looking as if there were something beneath them that friendship might draw out. I am your friend, Elsie. Tell me what I can do to render your life happier."
"Love me!" said Elsie Venner.
What shall a man do, when a woman makes such a demand, involving such an avowal? It was the tenderest, cruellest, humblest moment of Mr. Bernard's life. He turned pale, he trembled almost, as if he had been a woman listening to her lover's declaration.
"Elsie," he said, presently, "I so long to be of some use to you, to have your confidence and sympathy, that I must not let you say or do anything to put us in false relations. I do love you, Elsie, as a suffering sister with sorrows of her own,--as one whom I would save at the risk of my happiness and life,--as one who needs a true friend more than--any of all the young girls I have known. More than this you would not ask me to say. You have been through excitement and trouble lately, and it has made you feel such a need more than ever. Give me your hand, dear Elsie, and trust me that I will be as true a friend to you as if we were children of the same mother."
Elsie gave him her hand mechanically. It seemed to him that a cold aura shot from it along his arm and chilled the blood running through his heart. He pressed it gently, looked at her with a face full of grave kindness and sad interest, then softly relinquished it.
It was all over with poor Elsie. They walked almost in silence the rest of the way. Mr. Bernard left her at the gate of the mansion-house, and returned with sad forebodings. Elsie went at once to her own room, and did not come from it at the usual hours. At last Old Sophy began to be alarmed about her, went to her apartment, and, finding the door unlocked, entered cautiously. She found Elsie lying on her bed, her brows strongly contracted, her eyes dull, her whole look that of great suffering. Her first thought was that she had been doing herself a harm by some deadly means or other. But Elsie, saw her fear, and reassured her.
"No," she said, "there is nothing wrong, such as you are thinking of; I am not dying. You may send for the Doctor; perhaps he can take the pain from my head. That is all I want him to do. There is no use in the pain, that I know of; if he can stop it, let him."
So they sent for the old Doctor. It was not long before the solid trot of Caustic, the old bay horse, and the crashing of the gravel under the wheels, gave notice that the physician was driving up the avenue.
The old Doctor was a model for visiting practitioners. He always came into the sick-room with a quiet, cheerful look, as if he had a consciousness that he was bringing some sure relief with him. The way a patient snatches his first look at his doctor's face, to see whether he is doomed, whether he is reprieved, whether he is unconditionally pardoned, has really something terrible about it. It is only to be met by an imperturbable mask of serenity, proof against anything and everything in a patient's aspect. The physician whose face reflects his patient's condition like a mirror may do well enough to examine people for a life-insurance office, but does not belong to the sickroom. The old Doctor did not keep people waiting in dread suspense, while he stayed talking about the case,--the patient all the time thinking that he and the friends are discussing some alarming symptom or formidable operation which he himself is by-and-by--to hear of.
He was in Elsie's room almost before she knew he was in the house. He came to her bedside in such a natural, quiet way, that it seemed as if he were only a friend who had dropped in for a moment to say a pleasant word. Yet he was very uneasy about Elsie until he had seen her; he never knew what might happen to her or those about her, and came prepared for the worst.
"Sick, my child?" he said, in a very soft, low voice.
Elsie nodded, without speaking.
The Doctor took her hand,--whether with professional views, or only in a friendly way, it would have been hard to tell. So he sat a few minutes, looking at her all the time with a kind of fatherly interest, but with it all noting how she lay, how she breathed, her color, her expression, all that teaches the practised eye so much without a single question being asked. He saw she was in suffering, and said presently,
"You have pain somewhere; where is it?"
She put her hand to her head.
As she was not disposed to talk, he watched her for a while, questioned Old Sophy shrewdly a few minutes, and so made up his mind as to the probable cause of disturbance and the proper remedies to be used.
Some very silly people thought the old Doctor did not believe in medicine, because he gave less than certain poor half-taught creatures in the smaller neighboring towns, who took advantage of people's sickness to disgust and disturb them with all manner of ill-smelling and ill-behaving drugs. In truth, he hated to give anything noxious or loathsome to those who were uncomfortable enough already, unless he was very sure it would do good,--in which case, he never played with drugs, but gave good, honest, efficient doses. Sometimes he lost a family of the more boorish sort, because they did not think they got their money's worth out of him, unless they had something more than a taste of everything he carried in his saddlebags.
He ordered some remedies which he thought would relieve Elsie, and left her, saying he would call the next day, hoping to find her better. But the next day came, and the next, and still Elsie was on her bed, feverish, restless, wakeful, silent. At night she tossed about and wandered, and it became at length apparent that there was a settled attack, something like what they called, formerly, a "nervous fever."
On the fourth day she was more restless than common. One of the women of the house came in to help to take care of her; but she showed an aversion to her presence.
"Send me Helen Darley," she said, at last.
The old Doctor told them, that, if possible, they must indulge this fancy of hers. The caprices of sick people were never to be despised, least of all of such persons as Elsie, when rendered irritable and exacting by pain and weakness.
So a message was sent to Mr. Silas Peckham at the Apollinean Institute, to know if he could not spare Miss Helen Darley for a few days, if required, to give her attention to a young lady who attended his school and who was now lying ill,--no other person than the daughter of Dudley Venner.
A mean man never agrees to anything without deliberately turning it over, so that he may see its dirty side, and, if he can, sweating the coin he pays for it. If an archangel should offer to save his soul for sixpence, he would try to find a sixpence with a hole in it. A gentleman says yes to a great many things without stopping to think: a shabby fellow is known by his caution in answering questions, for fear of, compromising his pocket or himself.
Mr. Silas Peckham looked very grave at the request. The dooties of Miss Darley at the Institoot were important, very important. He paid her large sums of money for her time,--more than she could expect to get in any other institootion for the edoocation of female youth. A deduction from her selary would be necessary, in case she should retire from the sphere of her dooties for a season. He should be put to extry expense, and have to perform additional labors himself. He would consider of the matter. If any arrangement could be made, he would send word to Squire Venner's folks.
"Miss Darley," said Silas Peckham, "the' 's a message from Squire Venner's that his daughter wants you down at the mansion-house to see her. She's got a fever, so they inform me. If it's any kind of ketchin' fever, of course you won't think of goin' near the mansion-house. If Doctor Kittredge says it's safe, perfec'ly safe, I can't object to your goin', on sech conditions as seem to be fair to all' concerned. You will give up your pay for the whole time you are absent,--portions of days to be caounted as whole days. You will be charged with board the same as if you eat your victuals with the household. The victuals are of no use after they're cooked but to be eat, and your bein' away is no savin' to our folks. I shall charge you a reasonable compensation for the demage to the school by the absence of a teacher. If Miss Crabs undertakes any dooties belongin' to your department of instruction, she will look to you for sech pecooniary considerations as you may agree upon between you. On these conditions I am willin' to give my consent to your temporary absence from the post of dooty. I will step down to Doctor Kittredge's myself, and make inquiries as to the natur' of the complaint."
Mr. Peckham took up a rusty and very narrow-brimmed hat, which he cocked upon one side of his head, with an air peculiar to the rural gentry. It was the hour when the Doctor expected to be in his office, unless he had some special call which kept him from home.
He found the Reverend Chauncy Fairweather just taking leave of the Doctor. His hand was on the pit of his stomach, and his countenance was expressive of inward uneasiness.
"Shake it before using," said the Doctor; "and the sooner you make up your mind to speak right out, the better it will be for your digestion."
"Oh, Mr. Peckham! Walk in, Mr. Peckham! Nobody sick up at the school, I hope?"
"The haalth of the school is fust-rate," replied Mr. Peckham. "The sitooation is uncommonly favorable to saloobrity." (These last words were from the Annual Report of the past year.) "Providence has spared our female youth in a remarkable measure. I've come with reference to another consideration. Dr. Kittredge, is there any ketchin' complaint goin' about in the village?"
"Well, yes," said the Doctor, "I should say there was something of that sort. Measles. Mumps. And Sin,--that's always catching."
The old Doctor's eye twinkled; once in a while he had his little touch of humor.
Silas Peckham slanted his eye up suspiciously at the Doctor, as if he was getting some kind of advantage over him. That is the way people of his constitution are apt to take a bit of pleasantry.
"I don't mean sech things, Doctor; I mean fevers. Is there any ketchin' fevers--bilious, or nervous, or typus, or whatever you call 'em--now goin' round this village? That's what I want to ascertain, if there's no impropriety."
The old Doctor looked at Silas through his spectacles.
"Hard and sour as a green cider-apple," he thought to himself. "No,"; he said,--"I don't know any such cases."
"What's the matter with Elsie Venner?" asked Silas, sharply, as if he expected to have him this time.
"A mild feverish attack, I should call it in anybody else; but she has a peculiar constitution, and I never feel so safe about her as I should about most people."
"Anything ketchin' about it?" Silas asked, cunningly.
"No, indeed!" said the Doctor,--"catching? no,--what put that into your head, Mr. Peckham?"
"Well, Doctor," the conscientious Principal answered, "I naterally feel a graat responsibility, a very graaat responsibility, for the noomerous and lovely young ladies committed to my charge. It has been a question, whether one of my assistants should go, accordin' to request, to stop with Miss Venner for a season. Nothin' restrains my givin' my full and free consent to her goin' but the fear lest contagious maladies should be introdooced among those lovely female youth. I shall abide by your opinion,--I understan' you to say distinc'ly, her complaint is not ketchin'?--and urge upon Miss Darley to fulfil her dooties to a sufferin' fellow-creature at any cost to myself and my establishment. We shall miss her very much; but it is a good cause, and she shall go,--and I shall trust that Providence will enable us to spare her without permanent demage to the interests of the Institootion."
Saying this, the excellent Principal departed, with his rusty narrow-brimmed hat leaning over, as if it had a six-knot breeze abeam, and its gunwale (so to speak) was dipping into his coat-collar. He announced the result of his inquiries to Helen, who had received a brief note in the mean time from a poor relation of Elsie's mother, then at the mansion-house, informing her of the critical situation of Elsie and of her urgent desire that Helen should be with her. She could not hesitate. She blushed as she thought of the comments that might be made; but what were such considerations in a matter of life and death? She could not stop to make terms with Silas Peckham. She must go. He might fleece her, if he would; she would not complain,--not even to Bernard, who, she knew, would bring the Principal to terms, if she gave the least hint of his intended extortions.
So Helen made up her bundle of clothes to be sent after her, took a book or two with her to help her pass the time, and departed for the Dudley mansion. It was with a great inward effort that she undertook the sisterly task which was thus forced upon her. She had a kind of terror of Elsie; and the thought of having charge of her, of being alone with her, of coming under the full influence of those diamond eyes,--if, indeed, their light were not dimmed by suffering and weariness,--was one she shrank from. But what could she do? It might be a turning-point in the life of the poor girl; and she must overcome all her fears, all her repugnance, and go to her rescue.
"Is Helen come?" said Elsie, when she heard, with her fine sense quickened by the irritability of sickness, a light footfall on the stair, with a cadence unlike that of any inmate of the house.
"It's a strange woman's step," said Old Sophy, who, with her exclusive love for Elsie, was naturally disposed to jealousy of a new-comer. "Let Ol' Sophy set at 'th' foot o' th' bed, if th' young missis sets by th' piller,--won' y', darlin'? The' 's nobody that's white can love y' as th' of black woman does;--don' sen' her away, now, there 's a dear soul!"
Elsie motioned her to sit in the place she had pointed to, and Helen at that moment entered the room. Dudley Venner followed her.
"She is your patient," he said, "except while the Doctor is here. She has been longing to have you with her, and we shall expect you to make her well in a few days."
So Helen Darley found herself established in the most unexpected manner as an inmate of the Dudley mansion. She sat with Elsie most of the time, by day and by night, soothing her, and trying to enter into her confidence and affections, if it should prove that this strange creature was really capable of truly sympathetic emotions.
What was this unexplained something which came between her soul and that of every other human being with whom she was in relations? Helen perceived, or rather felt, that she had, folded up in the depths of her being, a true womanly nature. Through the cloud that darkened her aspect, now and then a ray would steal forth, which, like the smile of stern and solemn people, was all the more impressive from its contrast with the expression she wore habitually. It might well be that pain and fatigue had changed her aspect; but, at any rate, Helen looked into her eyes without that nervous agitation which their cold glitter had produced on her when they were full of their natural light. She felt sure that her mother must have been a lovely, gentle woman. There were gleams of a beautiful nature shining through some ill-defined medium which disturbed and made them flicker and waver, as distant images do when seen through the rippling upward currents of heated air. She loved, in her own way, the old black woman, and seemed to keep up a kind of silent communication with her, as if they did not require the use of speech. She appeared to be tranquillized by the presence of Helen, and loved to have her seated at the bedside. Yet something, whatever it was, prevented her from opening her heart to her kind companion; and even now there were times when she would lie looking at her, with such a still, watchful, almost dangerous expression, that Helen would sigh, and change her place, as persons do whose breath some cunning orator had been sucking out of them with his spongy eloquence, so that, when he stops, they must get some air and stir about, or they feel as if they should be half smothered and palsied.
It was too much to keep guessing what was the meaning of all this. Helen determined to ask Old Sophy some questions which might probably throw light upon her doubts. She took the opportunity one evening when Elsie was lying asleep and they were both sitting at some distance from her bed.
"Tell me, Sophy," she said, "was Elsie always as shy as she seems to be now, in talking with those to whom she is friendly?"
"Alway jes' so, Miss Darlin', ever sense she was little chil'. When she was five, six year old, she lisp some,--call me Thophy; that make her kin' o' 'shamed, perhaps: after she grow up, she never lisp, but she kin' o' got the way o' not talkin' much. Fac' is, she don' like talkin' as common gals do, 'xcep' jes' once in a while wi' some partic'lar folks,--'n' then not much."
"How old is Elsie?"
"Eighteen year this las' September."
"How long ago did her mother die?" Helen asked, with a little trembling in her voice.
"Eighteen year ago this October," said Old Sophy.
Helen was silent for a moment. Then she whispered, almost inaudibly,--for her voice appeared to fail her,
"What did her mother die of, Sophy?"
The old woman's small eyes dilated until a ring of white showed round their beady centres. She caught Helen by the hand and clung to it, as if in fear. She looked round at Elsie, who lay sleeping, as of she might be listening. Then she drew Helen towards her and led her softly out of the room.
"'Sh!--'sh!" she said, as soon as they were outside the door. "Don' never speak in this house 'bout what Elsie's mother died of!" she said. "Nobody never says nothin' 'bout it. Oh, God has made Ugly Things wi' death in their mouths, Miss Darlin', an' He knows what they're for; but my poor Elsie!--to have her blood changed in her before--It was in July Mistress got her death, but she liv' till three week after my poor Elsie was born."
She could speak no more. She had said enough. Helen remembered the stories she had heard on coming to the village, and among them one referred to in an early chapter of this narrative. All the unaccountable looks and tastes and ways of Elsie came back to her in the light of an ante-natal impression which had mingled an alien element in her nature. She knew the secret of the fascination which looked out of her cold, glittering eyes. She knew the significance of the strange repulsion which she felt in her own intimate consciousness underlying the inexplicable attraction which drew her towards the young girl in spite of this repugnance. She began to look with new feelings on the contradictions in her moral nature,--the longing for sympathy, as shown by her wishing for Helen's company, and the impossibility of passing beyond the cold circle of isolation within which she had her being. The fearful truth of that instinctive feeling of hers, that there was something not human looking out of Elsie's eyes, came upon her with a sudden flash of penetrating conviction. There were two warring principles in that superb organization and proud soul. One made her a woman, with all a woman's powers and longings. The other chilled all the currents of outlet for her emotions. It made her tearless and mute, when another woman would have wept and pleaded. And it infused into her soul something--it was cruel now to call it malice--which was still and watchful and dangerous, which waited its opportunity, and then shot like an arrow from its bow out of the coil of brooding premeditation. Even those who had never seen the white scars on Dick Venner's wrist, or heard the half-told story of her supposed attempt to do a graver mischief, knew well enough by looking at her that she was one of the creatures not to be tampered with,--silent in anger and swift in vengeance.
Helen could not return to the bedside at once after this communication. It was with altered eyes that she must look on the poor girl, the victim of such an unheard-of fatality. All was explained to her now. But it opened such depths of solemn thought in her awakened consciousness, that it seemed as if the whole mystery of human life were coming up again before her for trial and judgment. "Oh," she thought, "if, while the will lies sealed in its fountain, it may be poisoned at its very source, so that it shall flow dark and deadly through its whole course, who are we that we should judge our fellow-creatures by ourselves?" Then came the terrible question, how far the elements themselves are capable of perverting the moral nature: if valor, and justice, and truth, the strength of man and the virtue of woman, may not be poisoned out of a race by the food of the Australian in his forest, by the foul air and darkness of the Christians cooped up in the "tenement-houses" close by those who live in the palaces of the great cities?
She walked out into the garden, lost in thought upon these dark and deep matters. Presently she heard a step behind her, and Elsie's father came up and joined her. Since his introduction to Helen at the distinguished tea-party given by the Widow Rowens, and before her coming to sit with Elsie, Mr. Dudley Venner had in the most accidental way in the world met her on several occasions: once after church, when she happened to be caught in a slight shower and he insisted on holding his umbrella over her on her way home;--once at a small party at one of the mansion-houses, where the quick-eyed lady of the house had a wonderful knack of bringing people together who liked to see each other;--perhaps at other times and places; but of this there is no certain evidence.
They naturally spoke of Elsie, her illness, and the aspect it had taken. But Helen noticed in all that Dudley Venner said about his daughter a morbid sensitiveness, as it seemed to her, an aversion to saying much about her physical condition or her peculiarities,--a wish to feel and speak as a parent should, and yet a shrinking, as if there were something about Elsie which he could not bear to dwell upon. She thought she saw through all this, and she could interpret it all charitably. There were circumstances about his daughter which recalled the great sorrow of his life; it was not strange that this perpetual reminder should in some degree have modified his feelings as a father. But what a life he must have been leading for so many years, with this perpetual source of distress which he could not name! Helen knew well enough, now, the meaning of the sadness which had left such traces in his features and tones, and it made her feel very kindly and compassionate towards him.
So they walked over the crackling leaves in the garden, between the lines of box breathing its fragrance of eternity;--for this is one of the odors which carry us out of time into the abysses of the unbeginning past; if we ever lived on another ball of stone than this, it must be that there was box growing on it. So they walked, finding their way softly to each other's sorrows and sympathies, each matching some counterpart to the other's experience of life, and startled to see how the different, yet parallel, lessons they had been taught by suffering had led them step by step to the same serene acquiescence in the orderings of that Supreme Wisdom which they both devoutly recognized.
Old Sophy was at the window and saw them walking up and down the garden-alleys. She watched them as her grandfather the savage watched the figures that moved among the trees when a hostile tribe was lurking about his mountain.
"There'll be a weddin' in the ol house," she said, "before there's roses on them bushes ag'in. But it won' be my poor Elsie's weddin', 'n' ol' Sophy won' be there."
When Helen prayed in the silence of her soul that evening, it was not that Elsie's life might be spared. She dared not ask that as a favor of Heaven. What could life be to her but a perpetual anguish, and to those about her but an ever-present terror? Might she but be so influenced by divine grace, that what in her was most truly human, most purely woman-like, should overcome the dark, cold, unmentionable instinct which had pervaded her being like a subtile poison that was all she could ask, and the rest she left to a higher wisdom and tenderer love than her own.