The boat went cutting through the tide-waves and dashing the spray over her bows, the wide sea was opening all around them,—the salt wind stung his brain to keener life. To what horrid fate were they hurrying, she alone with this maniacal man? Out there beyond, away and away, the mighty billows tossed in their cruel glee, silvered their crests and horns in the moonlight, and grew and disappeared like phantoms. Her heart sank down abysses with every beat,—she covered her face with her hands in some vain call for miraculous aid.
Just then another boat came by and took the wind from their sails. Éloise felt the slackened speed, and looked up. First the figure of a horseman standing against the sky on the cliff above, as if a portion of the stone itself, caught her eye; next, the sail sheering by them; then she was on her feet beside Marlboro'. She reached out her hand to the tiller; she looked in his face and laughed in her old way. It was hardly an effort, for all at once her heart had grown light as a bubble.
"Mr. Marlboro'," she said, in the sweet natural ring of her every-day tones and without a quiver, "these are the Blue Bluffs close above us."
The voice, the air, the meaning, made him irresolute. At the same moment the tiller obeyed her hand, that threw out all its strength, the sails flapped loosely across their bending brows, they went about, heading for the little cove of still water.
"You are right," said he. "That is our home. What fiercely glad wild dream have I had? Our home!"
The keel grated on the pebbles,—some one came dashing down the narrow path, shoved them off, and leaped on board.
"Now, Marlboro'," said Mr. St. George, "the rudder is mine. A pretty dance with Death have you been leading Miss Changarnier! How long do you suppose this cockle-shell could buffet such a sea as is playing outside? Do you fancy I can countenance such treatment of my ward? Ease that rope a little, Miss Éloise. Here we go! What will Murray say, Marlboro', when he sees me come sailing by with you?
" 'A-sailing and a-sailing,
My love he left me sad;
A-sailing and a-sailing,
Let him come and make me glad!'"
sang Mr. St. George, and they went flying up the river.
"The south winds blow, the waters flow,
His sail is in the sun;
Though twenty storms between us go,
His heart and mine are one,"
sang Éloise, in jubilant response at her safety,—and Marlboro', fain to follow, echoed the air they trolled.
Up the stream, this way and that, tacking and veering, past the boats that hung on their oars and cheered them this time lustily themselves, touching shore,—and the hunters had their boat again. Then all trooping back across the turf, her hand in his, to the place where Marlboro's horse waited with pawing hoofs. What a mad evening it had been! And in the whirl of it Éloise had uttered no word to break her bonds. But broken they must be;—in what insanity had she riveted them,—set free this slave of his passion? His bottle-imp—had not her master once said it?—must grow into a demon that with his wide wings would blacken the sky. One experience of it was too much. Oh, why had nobody warned her?
Every one must have a cup of coffee to counteract the damp. Mrs. Arles had it ready. The horse at the door gave a loud, impatient neigh. The rider would not wait.
"You were right, Marlboro'," said, in his significant undertone, Mr. St. George to him from the other side, as he mounted, while Éloise stood on the step above. "Success perched on your banners. I should have lost, if I had tossed."
"You know it, then? Why, then, of course, it's true. I am half afraid lest it prove one of my cloud-capped dreams. I shall need no more opium to-night, I have other magic," said Marlboro',—bent down and would have kissed the forehead of Éloise, when the horse curvetted, reared, and galloped off.
Was she really pledged? then thought Éloise, as the bead of all her defiant effervescence fell. Was there no loop of escape? Had she so rashly given all at once? Should she inevitably become the wife of Marlboro'? Were the chains upon her? Was she doomed? Nobody guessed her misery, as she reëntered with a fanfare of jests, unless it were the gay St. George himself.
"Are you to be congratulated?" asked the low-voiced Mrs. Arles, having smilingly approached.
"No, no, indeed!" exclaimed Éloise, in a smothered agony; and Mrs. Arles, misunderstanding her, supposed it was not finally arranged.
"What a reckless rider!" cried Miss Murray, looking down the moonlit way after Marlboro'.
"It is not the only reckless thing he does," said her brother.
"No," interpolated Mr. Dean. "The way in which Marlboro' manages his affairs is too Plutonic. But what a gloss those shining sovereign manners of his do put upon it all!"
"Sovereign manners! Don't talk of sovereign manners, unless you mention Mr. St. George's," said Lottie Humphreys under her breath, and glancing to see if he could possibly hear with the length of the room between them. "Mr. St. George puts my heart in a flutter, when he asks will I have ice or cream."
"I've no doubt of it," whispered Emma Houghton, with meaning.
"Sure you're right, Dean?" asked Mr. Humphreys. "I should not like to have at home the dangerous cattle Marlboro' can put finger on."
"Perhaps they would be less dangerous, if the fingers were less weighty."
"Here's Marlboro's theory, and in the long run it's about the true one, you must confess.—Shut that door, Kate, my dear.—A cramped stature does not feel a cramped roof; but raise the stature, and the slave outgrows his institution, and there's revolt. Eh? There's such a thing as equally bad extremes. Our old friend Mr. Erne's of late, and St. George's now,—beg your pardon, St. George,—are both of them just as bad the other way."
"You are severe," said St. George, as he set the chessmen.
"Our host yonder," continued Mr. Humphreys, in the best of humors, sipping his coffee, "among his other crotchets, endows his people with what Nature saw fit to deny to them,—souls. But he's one of those men autocratic enough to reverse Nature. Indeed,—I am out of all patience,—the whole place is managed other than I think at all wise."
"That is to be regretted," said St. George, challenging his adversary.
"Well, here is an instance, a single instance, trivial enough, but dragging after it a train as enormous as the Genius drew from the fisherman's jar. These people are reared to a degree of independence that will stop no one knows where. They supply the house with poultry, eggs, and vegetables from their own yards, which the house purchases with money, or with commodities beyond the usual allowance,—actually pays for,—do you mark? Any labor of extra hours is always compensated; there is a system of holidays; the quarters are, so to say, palatial; and, in fact, a very detrimental policy is pursued,—one that occasions discontent on all the neighboring plantations. Marlboro' 'd have less trouble, if St. George had different discipline. It will not do,—I've told you so, St. George,—I'm older than you,—it will not do. There are hands on the place who, as their master says, have found their manhood and felt their slavery: there's one of them now, that coachman Ned. I'd sell him to-morrow."
"Will Mr. St. George?"
"He? Oh, no! There's this Quixotic chivalry again! You listen, my dear fellow? He will let the man purchase his freedom,—if he don't lend him the money to do it himself! Ha! ha! ha!"
"But," said Mr. Dean, "I've tried St. George's plan, on his recommendation, these three or four months, Humphreys,—not wishing to be illiberal, or have the world outstrip me,—and, so far, I find that it will do very well,—that it will do admirably."
"Well, we won't speak of new brooms."
"Yet there's a great deal of disturbance everywhere about, I hear. You don't know, perhaps," said Mr. Houghton, in an under-voice, and nervously drawing up his chair, "that Marlboro' has had his place under guard these three weeks?"
"Crowded on all his steam, and now he's sitting on the valve. What a blessed life it is!" said Mr. Dean.
"Come, come, Dean, we shall have to look up your record!"
"Dear me!" said Miss Murray, "why will you talk about it? It's worse than ghost-stories just before bed. I've heard you gentlemen insinuating so much together that I fancy every night I hear the great alarm-bell booming in my dreams."
"There's no danger of that here."
"But it would be so terrible anywhere!"
"Here is Will," said her mother, as the young brother of Laura entered. "If, my dear friends, we should change the subject for bed-candles"———
"Check!" said Mr. St. George, rising.
It was a balmy meridional night, and Éloise, at length alone in her misery, leaned from her window to breathe the wind that floated in over the fields, fragrant and gentle. Leaning there, and great resplendent stars seeming to hang out of heaven close above her, the minutes went slipping into the hours, and the house-clock struck one, startling her with its peal, as doubtless it did Miss Murray. Bending her head that she might not strike the sash, a dark cobweb caught Éloise's eye;—it was a lace shawl, which the draught had borne through the window, and caught outside upon the thorny vine. It was too firmly fixed to disentangle at a touch; she put out her hand, and, taking the stem, shook the whole blossoming mass, scattering a rain of dew and perfume, and the filmy thing detached and fluttered to the ground. Without waiting to think, Éloise hastened down and found an exit. Coming round beneath the gable, the great dog following with his nose in her hand, she found herself insphered in a soft light that stole from the open cabinet-casement, but, hoping to escape notice, flitted on after the lace, with which the breeze was already frolicking. Suddenly the dog perceived her object and bounded after it. Fear possessed her soul; it was Laura Murray's; he would rend and mouth the costly thing, which her whole year's salary, she thought, could not buy, as he would her handkerchief. She softly called him away; but the dog refused to hear.
"Rounce!" cried another voice, and Rounce came tumbling and gambolling back, while Mr. St. George obtained the shawl, and was beside her.
"So, Miss Changarnier, it was this little thing that brought you out here after midnight? Never do it again. It is forbidden. Nothing could be more unsafe."
"Thank you, Mr. St. George; I did not perceive danger."
As she spoke, and while they paused, there stole upon them the far and faint pulsation of a bell. It was the tide-bell placed on a distant reef to swing and ring with the ebb and flow.
"Era già l'ora che volge 'l desio
A' naviganti, e intenerisce 'l cuore
Lo dì ch' an detto a' dolci amici a Dio;
"E che lo nuovo peregrin d'amore
Punge, se ode squilla di lontano
Che paia 'l giorno pianger che si muore,"
murmured Mr. St. George, half lifting the book in which his bitter mood had sought stinging solace, and where his finger yet kept the place.
"It is many hours too late for that sweet vesper-bell," said Éloise.
"Any slow bell at night is like it. The tones of a bell are always homesick tones to me,—who have no home!"
"You, Sir!" said Éloise, forgetfully,—half losing sight of her own burden.
Mr. St. George, for all response, gazed at her a moment. Was she entirely plighted to Marlboro'? Could she care for him? How far did that tacit promise go?
"Éloise!" he said.
But suddenly she turned away her head, outstretching a forbidding hand. Abruptly he bowed and stepped aside, and followed her only at a distance.
When Mr. Marlboro' appeared just at breakfast the next morning, with a color fanned into his cheek by the half-score miles of gallop, Vane came trotting along behind him.
"Vane," said Mr. Marlboro', after he had saluted Éloise as warmly as he dared, "this is your mistress."
And Éloise felt her fetters close miserably upon her. This had been his device to know if he had dreamed or not on the night before, to detect whether his joy were solid truth or mounting laudanum-fumes. But as for Vane, so soon as his bow was made and homage paid, he fled away round the corner and lost himself in Hazel's happy arms.
At dinner that day the ladies rose early, as they were to dress for a wedding-party that awaited them some miles away. Just as Éloise, who was the last, passed out of the door which Mr. St. George held open, he produced from somewhere and placed in her hand a braided trencher of broad vine and fig-leaves that bore a mass of strange and beautiful growth. Scarcely had she plunged taper fingers between the scented layers, when a box with Mr. Marlboro's compliments was delivered, which, on being laughingly opened, proved to hold rare wreaths of pinky buds and bells.
"Four gray walls and four gray towers
Overlook a space of flowers,"
hummed Lottie; but Mr. St. George was consummately oblivious, and returned to his friends. Why it fell out, that, when Miss Changarnier came floating down the staircase again, robed in something thin, white, and glittering as the hoar-frost itself, the darkness of her hair was twined neither with the roseate Marlboro' bells, nor yet with the long acacia-sprays whose golden balls should have expanded and bloomed in the light and heat till they seemed like fragrant drops of lustre, Miss Changarnier could best tell for herself.
But the wedding passed as weddings do,—to-day cake, to-morrow crumbs,—and at length the carriages were ordered for The Rim. The evening had not been without its triumphs to Éloise, however many masks she wore over her inner depression. St. George had forgotten her till a late hour, and, conspicuous as Marlboro's devoir had been, her own acceptance of it had been scarcely less so. Perhaps there was nothing in the world, of its kind, more beautiful than Éloise Changarnier's dancing. Fragrances, if they were visible, would float with just such a dreamy grace from flower to flower. Simple and sensuous, yet airy and fine, was the spirit of every motion; and with every wave, with every look, she appealed to the beholder's heart. Swimming down the room on the slow circles of the indolent languor of the waltz, perfumes fanning all about her, the wind lifting the curtains and letting in gleams of amethyst heavens and low-hanging stars, the music pulsing in passionate throbs,—once only she raised her eyes, and the great beryl jewels rested on Earl St. George Erne's, as he leaned against the wall with his supreme indifference of lordly manner; and if he revenged himself with the swift gleam of that involuntary smile that must never kindle for her, though it shot its light over brow and lip forever, he never knew it. An instant afterwards he was beside her, yet he dared not with the next strain suffer it to be his arm that upheld her, and Éloise sat where he placed her and danced no more. And then Mrs. Murray came, and they all took their seats in the carriages: Laura jubilant, but stately; Lottie eminently dishevelled, and still clutching the crumpled list of her partners; Master Will with his fists in his eyes, and heavy beneath a drowsiness from which he soon had enough to waken him; while in Mr. St. George's deportment to every one there was a shade of the old sardonic displeasure with which he was occasionally wont to favor his friends. But Lottie, after a few furlongs, was asleep in somebody's arms; the rest were, perhaps, living the evening over again in reverie; the other carriages were far, far ahead, and theirs, which, having been detained, was the last, trundled on slowly over a bad road. At length Laura stirred, and exclaimed,—
"Did you ever hear such divine music, Éloise? Why didn't Mrs. Arles come, do you know, Mr. Marlboro'?"
"Does Mrs. Arles go into such general society?" replied Mr. Marlboro'.
"Can't say. How long she wore black! so long that it has really become quite gray! Has she been husbanding her charms, or is she husbanding them now? Don't you shake your fan at me, Éloise Changarnier, or I shall tell how you said it yourself this very noon!"
The carriage-top had been thrown open, and at the moment of these words Miss Changarnier saw Mr. St. George, from his seat on the box beside the coachman, hastily start and turn, but whether on account of Mrs. Arles, or at something in the road, she could not discern; for Marlboro's horse having very singularly fallen lame in the stables that night, she had heard Mr. St. George muttering something about foul play, as he offered the other a seat, and she felt that he entertained apprehensions. Had she seen Marlboro's arm raised quiveringly, while the lash of the riding-whip fell across the groom's face in a welt, as he dismissed him, she might have felt also a womanly fear that the apprehensions were not groundless. For Marlboro', unable to get speech with Éloise one moment apart from others that day, had fled home in a fury, and had thus, when his anger cooled, been obliged to ride alone to the place of merry rendezvous.
Gradually, now, as they jogged along, Mrs. Murray began nodding here and there about the carriage, dropping her head very much as if she meant to drop it for good and all; one by one the others forgot themselves; but Éloise could see Marlboro' in the opposite corner sitting alert and pale and sparkling-eyed, and felt that Mr. St. George was watching every brier on the road-side, beneath his slouching brim. At length the carriage stopped with a jerk just as they reached the little log-bridge that crossed the creek, and Mr. St. George appeared at the door.
"You must all alight a moment," he said. "Here is a break-down;—and, moreover, a log of the bridge has been displaced,"—the last in an aside to Marlboro'.
It took but a few moments to repair the road, and to tie up the broken springs of the coach as they could; but, after a trial, it was found impossible for all to ride.
"I will walk," said Éloise, stepping down before any one could arrest her. "We were all too much crowded. Come with me, Will,—if only, Mr. St. George, you will take the reins yourself and spare Ned to us?"
"No," said Mr. St. George, perhaps knowing from old experience that it would be useless to oppose Éloise, and having no time to lose. "Keep your place, Will; do you hear? The horses are best used to the customary driver. That makes it all right."
"Certainly, St. George, this should be my duty!" exclaimed Marlboro'.
But, as he sprang up, Mr. St. George's arm barred the way.
"You have quite enough to do to take care of yourself, Marlboro'!" said he, thrusting his revolver into the other's hand. "Drive on, Ned. Only keep us in sight."
"Mas'r Sin George, Sah," said the stolid Ned, "you are safe enough. Expect, 'f you want him safe," with supreme contempt, "I'd better get de go out o' dese yer critters wile dey feel der oats!"
"Wretched insolence!" murmured Marlboro', still incensed. And in a few minutes the coach had disappeared round the winding way.
"So much for Marlboro's theories!" burst forth St. George, in a moment. "A man's works follow him. Sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind is too much of a good thing. He has been away so long and so often, there has been such mismanagement under a long minority, such changes and such misrule, such a hard hand and such a high hand, that the whole place is a fester. How dares he prowl round the country so after nightfall? I wouldn't give a pin for his life this moment, if it weren't for that white defiance of his that would back him against a whole Ashantee tribe! If he were the coward that I am, he'd be a better master; but he's what the poor trash call a damned aristocrat,—which means an aristocrat past salvation, I take it."
Éloise laughed to hear the words from Mr. St. George's autocratic lips. "It is very odd," said she, "that so formidable an aristocracy must needs underlie so powerful a democracy!"
The night was clear and deep; great shadows floated down from the heavens, as if of beings travelling on the winds: one of those perfect seasons when the powers of the dark seem to be surprised at their work, although low in the horizon behind lay a glimmer, as if the hour were soon to bring forth its marvel,—a glimmer which made the whole more weird, and hung the very spirit of summer nights about them as they walked.
"What should you have thought of yourself, Miss Éloise," said Mr. St. George, "if a year ago, you had seen your image prospected on the canvas of a dark and lonely highway, extremely late at night, or early in the morning,—as you choose,—with, for sole companion, a creature who indulges himself in pipes, porter, and parties, a usurper, a demagogue,—in fact, one who can be represented only as disreputable? A very improper young woman?"
One year ago! The tears sprang to Éloise's eyes. She dared not look up, but let them fall from the downcast lashes. Yet Mr. St. George saw them.
"And what is there, so painful in the picture, may I ask?" said he.
"A year ago my father was alive, Mr. St. George."
A change came over his face,—pallor like a soft cloud.
"Yet you are better off than I," he said, with singular unreserve for him. "It is twelve times as long since my father was with me. And you could hardly have worshipped the one more than I worship the memory of the other."
Yet, as if this at least were a sympathy between them, his manner became for the moment tenderer, and he forgot himself in order to arouse her. For Éloise was already full of reproach at having made one at so gay a reunion,—not remembering that all the rest had seriously vowed they would stay at home, unless she joined them, and that the wedding had been also that of a dear friend. So Mr. St. George was no longer lofty; he told her strange legends of the region that somehow she had never heard, repeated tiny droplets of song that would have lost their volatile essence in any alembic of translation, pointed out to her all the signs of the night, for the nonce forgot politics, and gathered spray after spray of the gorgeous creepers from the way-side, whose names and natures he knew.
"How is it," she asked, "that you, whose mind is certainly filled with things of an apparently vaster scale,—with legislation and war and finance,—can care for these bubbles, these songs and flowers?"
"Do you know Homer, Miss Éloise,—Chapman's Homer? Although I'm not sure but that the old English poet breathes a bloom upon the Greek. Well, I do not forget, that, when the envoys went to appease the enraged Æacides, that thunderer in arms,—
"The quarter of the Myrmidons they reached, and found him set
Delighted with his solemn harp, which curiously was fret
With works conceited through the verge; the bawdrick that embraced
His lofty neck was silver twist; this, when his hand laid waste
Aëtion's city, he did choose as his especial prize,
And, loving sacred music well, made it his exercise."
"That is superb! You must find me the place to-morrow. But Achilles playing on the harp? I am afraid he will suffer in Will Murray's estimation."
"Hush! don't breathe it! Will doesn't know it yet,—perhaps may never find it out. Do you know, Miss Éloise, as you go flitting along in that misty dress, with the little scarf dropping from your hair, that you are like the very soul of a white cloud fallen from above and trailing along beside me?"
"I? with my dark skin?" said Éloise, before she thought.
"Yes, you, Egypt! White, because there combine all colors that are; and in you—pardon me—there is a universal wealth of tint, be it carnation, sea-green, black, or cream, so harmonized that one looks a hundred times before finding it all. You recollect how a great painter produces his effect of white,—of white sunlight on a stem? He lays the solar spectrum there, the seven colors of light,—and their union in the beholder's eye makes the dash of sunshine, the white lustre. Do you know, in fact, what you remind me of?"
"No,—how should I?—Hark! what was that?"
It was the pealing of a bell, the far and faint pulsation of that bell she had once before heard, as it rang out the changes of the sea, now above and now below the flashing, falling foam-crests.
"It is the tide-bell," said Mr. St. George, stiffly; and, with the word, the previous midnight rose as if by incantation, and she kept her eyes on the ground. Yet, as they walked, it seemed to Éloise that her quickened senses detected a hidden rustle and murmur, as if the distant morasses, the neighboring thickets, were alive. She seemed to be aware of soft and stealthy soundless foot-falls; shadowy forms, she would have said, were gliding around them in the night. Cold terror made her heart stand still. Suddenly all these fears condensed into shape,—two flaming eyeballs glared in the copse,—a shock, a flash, a smell of powder, just as she had seized Mr. St. George's arm and snatched him back. Then the boughs crashed, and the dark shade went leaping away. Terror died in Éloise's heart. Intrepid rage possessed her. She sprang forward, still holding him back with the continued gesture of the light hand on his arm, and gazed over the bushes, the very incarnation of splendid fearlessness and defiance. Mr. St. George laughed.
"Is there nothing that excites your indignation?" she cried. "Could you not have throttled him?"
"A flash in the pan," said he, coolly. "However, it might have been worse. It has blown a breeze through my sombrero,"—taking off the hat, which the ball had partly twisted around. "It was meant for Marlboro', Miss Changarnier. I am in his place to-night, you see. You have misled the rascals. Listen!" he murmured, in a lower tone, beside her. "There is a freemasonry among these black devils,—doubtless the tide-bell signals some secret meeting. They are all about us. Here! you are the last person to be seen. Take this, and hurry on while I wait; you can walk fast. Go!"
And the handle of a knife, a great broad blade, produced from some hidden sheath, was between her fingers.
But Éloise did not stir.
"Go!" he repeated, in the same smothered murmur.
"Place you in such danger? Leave you so?" said Éloise. "Never!"
"Do as I bid you!" he replied, in a tone as full of cold, unsuppressed bitterness as a north wind, motioning her away, and moving back.
The moon behind him, as he stepped, was floating up from the horizon, a great bubble of glory, whitening the tops of the whole dark landscape, throwing out in glittering points, like frosted silver-work, the rimy, dewy tracery of budding boughs, studding each twig with gems, and pouring light into the high hollow heaven, like vast draughts shed crystal-clear from some shining drinking-horn. When, then, Mr. St. George mounted the stump by the way-side and stood there erect, weaponless and with folded arms, the moonlight upslanted full on face and form, and made him as distinctly and rigidly visible to all the low land on either side the road as if he had been some statue set up for a mile-stone. A little time he remained so. A night-hawk slowly wheeled from a distant grove, and came dreamily sailing high above his head. There was an instant's flare that revealed a group of dusky faces in the swamp below, a report, and the night-hawk plunged downwards and fell at his feet.
"Mas'r Sin George," cried a voice, grim with murder ten minutes since, "we lebe you our card. Good night!"
Mr. St. George stood there a moment and watched the group till it faded off from sight in the shadows of that distant cypress-grove, and then stepped down and found Éloise with clasped hands exactly where he had left her.
"Why didn't you obey?" he said,—but this time with what a different voice! "You could not feel your danger! You did not know your risk! Great God, Éloise"———
Mr. St. George silenced himself abruptly.
"Well," he continued, after a few paces, "I convinced the wretches of my identity. It is quite like life in the Romagna, an hour with the brigands of the Marches, is it not? It is pleasant to play the hero for five minutes. But you! They know Marlboro' can be hurt through you. Truth runs in subtle channels here. Come, hasten! By God! if I had such people as Marlboro's, I would sell them, and that with a tan-toasting!—or I'd send them all to the North, that's so fond of them! Come, hasten!"—and, half dragging her on his arm, he strode forward, wordless and fierce, till they reached the house.
I do not know what thoughts whirled through Éloise's dreamless brain during the rest of that night, nor with what half-trembling resolutions she arose, nor how much pride she had drowned in a vaster flood. But when she descended, she found the house ablaze with fearful rumors that had risen like marsh-lights everywhere out of the ground. All was not right at Blue Bluffs, they said; some escaping slave—perhaps the compunctious Vane himself, who knew?—had dared to breathe of great disturbance and of retaliatory examples during the week before, which, seen in the light of last night's broken bridge and gunshots, struck up fresh terror. At noon Marlboro' came, but only for a brief stay. There had been trouble with the creatures on his place, he said, contemptuously, owing to some conspiracy among them, suspicions and punishments. He could not account for such a state of affairs, unless through incendiary emissaries. If further punishments were found necessary, they should be just within the letter of the law, he vowed in an angry aside to Mr. Humphreys,—the thing must now be settled once for all. He would be here again on the next day, no new occurrence detaining him at home, he said, as calmly as if that covered nothing; and with his fair hair shining in the sun, and the handsome Vandyck-face laughing over the shoulder, he rode off in gay heart and knightly guise, accompanied by Evan Murray and Earl St. George Erne.
They were all standing on the piazza that night, looking for Mr. St. George's return ere going to bed. A sudden toll, and then a sharp, quick ringing, broken by other tolls, burst the air close above them.
It was the alarm-bell, and Ned the saturnine, rebellious in reason and loyal in love, stood at the wheel. Mr. Murray, the father, leaped away. Mr. Humphreys drew his brood within-doors. There was mustering of weapons, shrieking of children; Miss Houghton fell in hysterics; Mrs. Arles brought her the camphor, as quietly as she would have done at any other time; Miss Changarnier stood like the expiatory victim for the white race. Then came runners, overseers galloped up the avenue, gentlemen, crackers, and leashed blood-hounds. There followed hurried words and counter-commands; then part remained, part dashed away on the road to Blue Bluffs. Nobody thought of sleeping; in the dead of night the dull tramp of infantry resounded from the distant turnpike, and later they heard the clang of grounding arms, and by the faint morning light they saw the forms of the silent sentries stalking stalwart about them, while, all around, the Erne slaves pursued, some their usual routine, some the steps of the moment's master or mistress, and others watched, huddled into frightened groups. Éloise stood leaning against one side of the long drawing-room window; without knowing it, her fingers constantly closed around the knife that lay in her belt, and which she had failed to restore to its owner. All night she kept her motionless position, looking far out and away to the eastward, till the dark mass of Blue Bluffs should resolve itself into the azure mist of castellated height that by daylight ever loomed upon the sea-horizon.
Hours of suspense and of silence. At length, hurriedly resounding hoofs, and St. George once more stood among them.
"A revolt at Blue Bluffs," said he.
"As I have expected every night this month," said Mr. Dean.
"They have captured the ringleaders?" demanded Mrs. Arles.
"What have they done with them?" cried Emma Houghton.
Every one paused.
"Never mind," said Mr. St. George, with a terrible hiatus.
"And where is Mr. Marlboro'?"
"Where should you expect a man to be who crowds down the steam and sits on the valve,—who walks on crater-crust? Marlboro',—poor Marlboro'!—Marlboro' is dead."
Éloise dropped in a heap upon the floor.
The women gathered over her and got her away, laid at last upon her bed,—and then she ordered them all to leave her, which glad enough were they to do.
Mr. St. George walked the room in silence then, and finally sitting down and resting his elbows on the table, remained so a long time,—his knotted brow hidden by the tightly clasped hands. Nobody got any further information from him. They must wait till Evan Murray returned with the officers from the forts. Then he rose.
"You are in no danger here," he said to Mr. Murray. "There is a guard detailed for every adjacent plantation. The affair is altogether crushed.—I must go just the same," he muttered, and entered his cabinet alone.
It was about two hours afterward, that Éloise—with whom, after having roused herself from the horror of the shock, a feeling of unspeakable pity, awe, and quaking terror had merged in another of equally indescribable and cruel relief and freedom—was wakened from the dull dream that sogged upon her brain in answering the place of two nights' lost rest, by a servant at the door who brought to her a note. All confused at the instant of starting, suddenly memory struck out the late events in letters of fire. Half awake, with her pulse beating in great shocks all about her wherever a pulse could play, she tore the note open and read its but half-interpretable hieroglyphs twice before she comprehended it.
"Distasteful as the thought of me may be at such a time, you must endure it for a moment.
"I return to you to-day the property of which many months ago I despoiled you. I leave it in better condition than I found it, and so well has it met my demands, that, in spite of all expenditure, you will find the customary income for the length of time in the cabinet-escritoire untouched.
"I leave it because it becomes impossible for me to retain it. I leave it because it becomes impossible for me to live longer in the house with you, to breathe the air you breathe, to feel myself growing desperate beneath the sound of your voice. Because I cannot see you in sorrow for another. Because self-control can go no farther. I leave it, Éloise, because I love you!
"If I cherished one hope, it would not be at this time that I should tell you my deadly secret. I have none, and therefore I go.
"Earl St. George Erne."
A sickly thrill of something like disgust swept over Éloise as she read, that one could think of anything but the great horrid fact of the hour. Then she trembled from head to foot, and hid her face with shame and sobs. "What does it mean?" she cried. "'At such a time'? What time? Oh! he thinks—can he think?—I love Marlboro'! Will no one keep him? Is he gone? He leaves because he loves me? Why, if he loves me, I should think he would stay! Oh, is it true? is it true? St. George, St. George, do you love me?" Hurriedly she smoothed her hair while she exclaimed, threw over her shoulders the scarf of blue and silver hanging across the mirror, and ran down.
Mr. St. George had that moment left, saying he was absolutely obliged to depart, but that he hoped his guests would remain the guests of Miss Changarnier. His luggage was to be sent after him.
"Which way had he gone? towards Blue Bluffs?"
"No, the other way."
Éloise summoned Vane and Hazel to follow her, and, flashing out of the house, went rapidly down the mazes of the woody avenue, over the fields, to the nearest place where the road crossed the creek. If Mr. St. George was on the winding highway, by taking this straight cut she would reach the creek even before his galloping horse could do so. At length she paused, stationed Hazel and Vane behind her,—busy enough in themselves, for Hazel, become happy again, had again become coquette,—and went on alone. There had been a heavy shower that morning; Éloise stooped and examined the clayey path that led up from the creek, to see if footprints had lately been set there, and found nothing. The minutes dragged away like hours, and when thirty elapsed, she wondered why it was not growing dark. "He has not come this way!" she exclaimed. "He is gone! I never shall know where he is!"—and she threw herself down among the wild, rich growth that half rose and buried her. Gradually, when her fever of sobs had died away, a sound broke on her ear, the sound of a slow, steady tramp. Was it the beating of her heart?—or was it Earl St. George? It drew nearer; she dared not rise and see. She heard the splash of the feet in the water, in the intense light within her brain could seem to see the dark water strike up and break in showers of prisms. Then the feet left it, and came up the bank. Should she dare? If she delayed———Suddenly that apparition tangled in the blue and silver scarf rose and confronted Mr. St. George.
The horse knew her, as he swerved, then bent to rub his cheek on her shoulder; Rounce, who, from stopping to plant his nose deep in every rose upon his way, had just rushed up breathless, knew her too, and fell to frolicking about her feet. She stood with both her arms about the horse's bending neck, with her face half drooping there, and the black, falling tress curving forward on the cheek.
"I never loved him!" was what she murmured. "I never meant to marry him!"
"Miss Changarnier!" exclaimed Mr. St. George, dismounting, thinking, perhaps, that trouble made her wild. "Here? To-day? Alone? You must return at once!"
"I never, never will return, unless you take me back!" she said, raising her head, but not daring to raise her quivering glance.
"Éloise! Éloise! Do you know what you say?"
She ventured just a glimpse at the dark eyes above her, glowing and glooming, smiles breaking out of their pain, and then with a little blind motion the tender face was hidden in his breast.
Just there a cloud peeled off the sun and went all radiant upon its way, the silent birds fell into one deep chorus, the locust shot out its great whirring lance of jubilant sound, the whole forest grew astir and alive over the glad secret it had learned.
The sun was setting, when Mr. St. George, leading his horse, on whose back Éloise was throned, and followed by Hazel and Vane, came into view of the wondering, waiting, indignant party on the piazza. The party, fickle as any mob, be it patrician or plebeian, was easily appeased with such quarry as it found, and changed itself straightway with acclaim into a bridal party. That night St. George brought in and tried upon the third finger of the white left-hand a narrow glittering band.
"Nothing but a wedding-fetter?" he asked. "Yet capable of great things, that fetter! It holds the famous elixir which sinks two identities in one; it is the visible sign of a sacrament; it is to be the type of our souls' union, pure, perfect, and without end"———
But here, perhaps, the eyes of Éloise silenced him, perhaps the mouth. And when life settled in its new channel at The Rim, Éloise, wearing at last her father's name, sat at the head of her husband's table, and Mrs. Earl St. George Erne herself entertained her guests. They lingered a little while, with the disinclination that any group finds to separate, and circumstances had knitted a bond among them all. And then, when deepening summer ended the renewed cheer, Mrs. Arles put on her widow's-cap once more, her little foot went into obscurity, and the gold and ebony riding-whip hung reclaimed above her mantel.