The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 2/Number 4/The Kinloch Estate, and How it Was Settled
THE KINLOCH ESTATE, AND HOW IT WAS SETTLED.
The disappearance of Lucy Ransom did not long remain a secret; it rang through the town, and was accompanied by all sorts of rumors. Some thought she had eloped; but the prevailing opinion was, that she had been tempted into a fatal error, and then, in the frenzy of remorse and shame, had destroyed herself, in order to hide her disgrace from the world. Slight hints were now recalled by many of the poor girl's acquaintance,—hints of love, unrequited and hopeless,—of base and unfeeling treachery,—of remediless sorrow, appealing to the deepest sympathy, and not the less because her heart found utterance in rude and homely phrases. This idea of self-destruction gained the more currency because no one had seen the least trace of the girl after the twilight of the preceding night, and it was deemed improbable that she could have made her way on foot the whole distance to the railway-station without being seen by some one. And when it was reported that a boy had found a shawl not far from the dam, the public became so much aroused that it was determined to make a thorough search. The pond and canal were dragged, and the bank of the river carefully explored for miles below the town. The search was kept up far into the night, the leaders being provided with pitch-pine torches. At every bend, or eddy, or sand-bar, or fallen tree, where it might be supposed that a drifting body would be stopped, the boldest breathed faster, and started at the first glimpse of a white stone or a peeled and bleached poplar-trunk, or other similar object, fearing it might prove to be what they expected, yet dreaded to see. But it was in vain. Lucy, whether alive or dead, was not to be found. Her grandmother hobbled down to the village, moaning piteously; but she could get little consolation, least of all from Mrs. Kinloch. This incident made a lasting impression. The village boys, who remembered the search with shuddering horror, avoided the river, and even Hugh found means to persuade Mildred to give up the pleasant road on its bank and take the hill district for their afternoon rides.
Meanwhile the time for the trial of the ejectment suit was rapidly approaching, and it was difficult to say whether plaintiff or defendant showed the more signs of anxiety. Mr. Hardwick's life seemed to be bound up in his shop; it was dear to him in the memory of long years of cheerful labor; it was his pride as well as his dependence; he had grown old by its flaming forge, and he could never feel at home in any other spot. "Young trees may be moved," he would say; "an old one dies in transplanting." It was noticed by all his friends that the stoop in his shoulders was more decided, his step less elastic, and his ordinary flow of spirits checked.
Mrs. Kinloch, too, grew older unaccountably fast. Her soft brown hair began to whiten, her features grew sharp, and her expression quick, watchful, and intense. Upon being spoken to, she would start and tremble in her whole frame; her cheeks would glow momentarily, and then become waxen again.
Impatient at the slow progress of her son's wooing, and impelled now by a new fear that all her plans might be frustrated, if Mildred should happen to hear any rumor touching the cause of Lucy's disappearance, Mrs. Kinloch proposed to herself to assist him more openly than she had hitherto done--She was not aware that anything implicating Hugh had been reported, but she knew enough of human nature to be sure that some one would be peering into the mystery,--a mystery which she divined by instinct, but had not herself dared to explore. So, finding a favorable opportunity, she sat down beside Mildred, determined to read the secret of her soul; for she made no question that she could scan her, as she might the delicate machinery of the French clock, noiselessly moving under its crystal cover.
Mildred shuddered unconsciously, as she felt her step-mother's thin fingers gently smoothing the hair upon her temples; still more, as the pale and quivering lips were pressed to her forehead. The caress was not a feigned tenderness. Mrs. Kinloch really loved the girl, with such love as she had to bestow; and if her manner had been latterly abstracted or harsh, it was from preoccupation. She was soon satisfied that the suspicion she dreaded had not found place in the girl's mind. Leading the way by imperceptible approaches, she spoke in her softest tones of her joy at Hugh's altered manners, her hopes of his future, and especially of her desire to have him leave the navy and settle on shore.
"How happy we might be, Hugh and we," she said, "if we could live here in this comfortable home, and feel that nothing but death would break up the circle! How much your dear father counted on the happiness in store for him in growing old with his children around him!--and would he not be rejoiced to see us cling together, bound by ties as strong as life, and cherishing his memory by our mutual affection?"
Mildred replied in some commonplaces,--rather wondering at the vein of sentiment, and in no way suspecting the object which her step-mother had in view.
Mrs. Kinloch continued:--"Hugh needs some new attraction now to detain him; he is tired of the sea, but he finds the village dull. He is just of the age to think of looking for some romantic atta chment; but you know how few girls there are here whose manners and education are such as to please a cultivated man."
Mildred grew uneasy, but remained silent. Mrs. Kinloch was every moment more eager in her manner; a novice, waiting for the turn of the cards in _rouge et noir_, would not have manifested a greater anxiety as to the result. But the girl looked out of the window, and did not see the compressed lips, dilated nostrils, and glittering eyes, that gave such a contradiction to the bland words.
"Mildred, my daughter," she continued, "I have no secrets from you,--least of all about matters that concern us both. Don't you see what I would say? Don't you know what would make our circle complete, inseparable? Pardon the boldness of a fond mother, whose only desire is to see her children happy."
Mildred felt a tear dropping upon the hand which Mrs. Kinloch held with a passionate grasp. She felt the powerful magnetism which the woman exerted upon her, and she trembled, but still kept silent.
"It is for Hugh that I speak. He loves you. Has he not told you so?"
"I do not wish to talk with you about it," said Mildred.
"But I have a right, as his mother and your guardian, to know. I should be wanting in my duty, if I suffered your happiness to be perilled for want of a clear understanding between you. Hugh is proud and sensitive, and you bashful and just the least foolish; so that you are at cross purposes."
"Hugh fully understands my feelings towards him."
"You have given him encouragement?" she asked, eagerly.
"None whatever: it would have been wrong in me to do so."
"Wrong to love him! Why, he is your brother only in name."
"Wrong to encourage him in a love I do not and cannot return," replied Mildred, with a mighty effort, at the same time disengaging her hand.
Mrs. Kinloch could not repress a feeling of admiration, even in her despair, as she saw the clear, brave glance, the heightened color, and the heaving bosom of the girl.
"But, in time, you may think differently," she said, almost piteously.
"I wished to be spared this pain, mother," Mildred replied, trembling at her own boldness, "but you will not let me; and I must tell you, kindly, but decidedly, that I never could marry Hugh under any circumstances whatever."
Her mother did not wince at the rebuff, but followed on even closer. "And why? Who is there more manly, well-educated, kindly, dutiful, than Hugh?"
"I don't wish to analyze his character; probably we shouldn't altogether agree in our judgment; but it is enough that I don't feel in the least attracted by him, and that I could not love him, if he were all that you imagine."
"Then you love another!" said Mrs. Kinloch, fiercely.
Mildred was excessively agitated; but, though her knees trembled, her voice was clear and soft as it had been. "Yes, I do love another; and I don't hesitate to avow it."
"That blacksmith's upstart?" in a still louder key.
"You mean Mark Davenport, probably, who deserves more respectful language."
"Brought up in coal-dust,--the spoiled and forward pet of a foolish old stutterer, who depends for his bread on his dirty work, and who, if he had only his own, would have to leave even the hovel he works in." It was fearful to see how these contemptuous words were hissed out by the infuriated woman.
Mildred was courageous, but she had not passed through the discipline that had developed her step-mother's faculties. So she burst into tears, saying, amidst her sobs, that Mark was allowed by all who knew him to be a young man of promise; that, for herself, she didn't care how much coal-dust he had been through,--_that_ would wash off; that, at any rate, she loved him, and would never marry anybody else.
Mrs. Kinloch began to cons ider. Anger had whirled her away once; a second explosion might create an irreparable breach between them.
"Don't lay up what I have said, Mildred," she urged, in a mild voice. "If I object to your choice, it is because I am proud of you and want you to look high. You can marry whom you choose; no rank or station need be considered above you. Come, don't cry, dear!"
But Mildred refused to be soothed. She could not sympathize with the tropical nature, that smiled like sunshine at one moment, and the next burst into the fury of a tornado. She pushed off the beseeching hand, turned from the offered endearments, and, with reddened, tear-stained face, left the room.
Hugh presently passed through the hall. "Well, mother," said he, "I suppose you think you've done it now."
"Go about your business, you foolish boy!" she retorted. "Go and try something that you do know about. You can snare a partridge, or shoot a woodcock, perhaps!"
Mildred had now no peace; after what had happened, she could not meet Hugh and his mother with any composure. The scheming woman had risked everything in the appeal she made to her daughter,--risked everything, and lost. Nothing could restore harmony; neither could forget the struggle and live the old quiet life. Mrs. Kinloch, always pursued by anxiety, was one day full of courage, fruitful in plans and resources, and the next day cast down into the pit of despair. Now she clung to her first hope, believing that time, patience, kindness, would soften Mildred's resolution; then, seeing the blank indifference with which she treated Hugh, she racked her invention to provide other means of attaining her end.
Again, the thought of her inexplicable loss came over her, and she was frightened to madness; creeping chills alternating with cold sweats tortured her. It was a mystery she could not penetrate. She could not but implicate Lucy: but then Lucy might be in her grave. After every circumstance had passed in review, her suspicions inevitably returned and fastened upon her lawyer, Clamp. She almost wished he would come to see her again; for he, being naturally sulky at his first reception, had left the haughty woman severely alone. She determined to send for him, on business, and then to try her fascinations upon him, to draw him out, and see if he held her secret.
"Aha!" thought the Squire, as he received the message, "she comes to her senses! Give a woman like Mrs. Kinloch time enough to consider, and she will not turn her back on her true interest. O Theophilus, you are not by any means a fool! Slow and steady, slow and steady you go! Let the frisky woman _appear_ to have her way,--you will win in the end!"
The wig and best suit were brushed anew, water was brought into requisition for the visible portions of his person, and, with his most engaging expression arranged upon his parchment face, he presented himself before the widow.
There was a skirmish of small talk, during which Mr. Clamp was placid and self-conscious, while his _vis-à-vis_, though smiling and apparently at ease, was yet alert and excited,--darting furtive glances, that would have startled him like flashes of sunlight reflected from a mirror, if he had not been shielded by his own self-complacency.
"You-have-sent-for-me-on-business,-I-believe," said the lawyer, in a tone continuous and bland as a stream of honey.
"Yes, Sir; I have great confidence in your judgment, and I know that you are devoted to the interests of our family. My poor husband always esteemed you highly."
"Oh, Ma'am! you do me honor!"
"If I have not consulted you about our affairs of late, it is because I have had troubles which I did not wish to burden you with."
"We all have our troubles , Mrs. Kinloch."
"They are very sad to bear,--but profitable, nevertheless.
"But I'm sure you must be wonderfully supported in your trials; I never saw you looking better."
And truly, her thin and mobile lips were of a strangely bright coral, and her usually wan cheeks wore a delicate flush, lending her a beauty, not youthful, to be sure, but yet fascinating. One might desire to see an eye less intense and restless, but he would rarely see a woman of forty so charming.
"You notice my color," said Mrs. Kinloch, mournfully, and with a faint smile; "it's only the effect of a headache. I am far enough from well."
"Indeed!" was the sympathetic reply.
"I have met with a great loss, Mr. Clamp,--some papers of the greatest importance. I was going to consult you about them."
"In which I got ahead of you," thought he.
"Now, ever since the disappearance of Lucy, I have thought she had something to do with them. I never went to the secretary, but she was sure to be spying about. And I believe she knew about my affairs as well as I do myself."
"Or I," mentally ejaculated the lawyer,--meanwhile keeping as close as an oyster.
She continued,--"As the girl was ignorant, and without any interest in the matter more than that of curiosity, I am puzzled to account for all this."
"'Tis strange, truly!"
"Yes, I'm sure she must be only the tool of some shrewder person."
"You alarm me! Who can it be?"
"Perhaps Mildred, or some one who is plotting for her. The Hardwicks, you know, expect she will marry Mark Davenport."
"Do they, indeed? Well, now, that's a shrewd conjecture. Then you think Lucy didn't drown herself?"
"She? By no means!"
"But what can I do in the matter, Mrs. Kinloch?"
"We must find Lucy, or else discover her confidant,"--looking fixedly at him.
"Not very easy to do," said he, never once wincing under her scrutiny.
"Not easy for me. But those that hide can find. Nothing is beyond search, if one really tries."
During this cross-examination, Mr. Clamp's premeditated gallantry had been kept in the background; but he was determined not to let the present opportunity pass by; he therefore turned the current of conversation.
"You have not told me, Mrs. Kinloch, _what_ the loss is; so I cannot judge of its importance. You don't wish to have any more repositories of secrets than are necessary; but I think you will readily see that our interests lie in the same direction. If the girl can be found and the papers recovered by anybody, I am the one to do it. If that is impossible, however, the next thing is to be prepared for what may happen; in either emergency, you can hardly do better than to accept my aid."
"Of course, I depend entirely upon you."
"We may as well understand each other," said the lawyer, forgetting the wily ways by which he had intended to approach her. "I have certain views, myself, which I think run parallel with yours; and if I am able to carry you and your property safely through these difficulties, I think you will not scruple to----
"To pay you to your heart's content," she broke in, quickly. "No, I shall not scruple, unless you ask more than half the estate."
"I ask for nothing but yourself," said he, with sudden boldness.
"That is to say, you want the whole of it."
"Charming woman! don't, pray, compel me to talk in this language of traffic. It is you I desire,--not the estate. If there is enough to make you more comfortable than would be possible with my means, I shall be happy for your sake."
Her lips writhed and her eyes shot fire. Should she breathe the scorn she felt, and brave the worst? Or should she temporize? Time might bring about a change, when she could safely send the mercenary suitor back to his dusty and cobwebbed office.
"We do understand each other," she said, slowly. "This is a matter to think of. I had never thought to marry again, and I cannot answer your delicate proposal now. Let me have a week to consider."
"Couldn't we arrange the matter just as well now? I beg your pardon, Ma'am, if I seem too bold."
"Oh, your youthful ardor and impetuosity! To be sure, one must forgive the impatience of a lover in his first passion! But you must wait, nevertheless."
Mr. Clamp laughed. It was a good joke, he thought.
"I must bid you good afternoon, Squire Clamp. I have made my headache worse by talking on a subject I was not prepared for."
So Mr. Clamp was bowed out. He did not clearly understand her quick and subtle movements, but he felt sure of his game in the end. The scornful irony that had played about him like electricity he had not felt.
When he was gone, the woman's worst enemy would have pitied her distress. She believed more than ever that Clamp had used Lucy to abstract her papers, and that he now would hold his power over her to bring about the hated marriage. Her firmness gave way; she sank on the sofa and wept like a child. Would that she might yet retreat! But no, the way is closed up behind her. She must go on to her destiny.
Mark Davenport was prosperous in all his undertakings. His position in the school did not give much scope to his ambition, but the salary he received was ample enough to pay his expenses, while the duties were not so onerous as to engross all his time. All his leisure was given to literary pursuits. He had many times thought he would relinquish the drudgery of teaching, and support himself by his pen; but he remembered the maxim of Scott,--that literature was a good staff, but a poor crutch,--and he stuck to his school. As he grew into a practised writer, he became connected with the staff of a daily newspaper in the great city, furnishing leading articles when called upon, and he soon acquired a position of influence among his associates. He had maintained a correspondence with Mildred, and was looking forward to the time when he should make a visit to his native town, hoping then to be so well established in the world that he might be able to bring her back with him as his bride. Every thought centred in her. He coveted fame, wealth, position, only for her sake; and stimulated by this thought, he had made exertions that would have broken down a man less vigorous and less resolute.
He received a letter from Innisfield one day, after a long interval,--so long that he had become uneasy, and imagined every kind of evil as the cause of delay. He broke the seal; it was not from Mildred, but from his cousin Lizzie. These were the contents:--
"My dear Mark,--I suppose you may have been anxious before this, at not hearing from us; but the truth is, we have not had anything very pleasant to write, and so have put off sending to you. Father is by no means well or strong. The lawsuit, which is now likely to go wrong, has troubled him very much. He has grown thin, he stoops as he walks about, and by night he coughs terribly. I rarely hear him sing as he used to. Then Squire Clamp has complained of him before the church, and you know father is over-sensitive about his relations with 'the brethren,'--even with those who are trying to ruin him. He is melancholy enough. I hope he will be better, if he gets through his difficulties; otherwise I am afraid to think of what may happen.
"You wonder, probably, at not getting a letter from Mildred. Don't be surprised when I tell you that she has left home and is staying at Mr. Alford's. Mrs. Kinloch has for a long time wanted her to marry that hateful Hugh Branning, and became so violent about it that Mildred was afraid of her. Lucy Ransom, who lived there, ran away a short time ago, very mysteriously. It seems that the girl had stolen something from the house, and, after Mildred had plumply refused to marry Hugh, Mrs. Kinloch charged upon her that she had induced Lucy to steal the papers or money, or whatever it was. Mrs. Kinloch acted so like an insane woman, that Mildred would not stay in the house, but ran over to Mr. Alford's, with only the clothes she wore. She passed by our house yesterday and told me this hurriedly. I have heard, too, that Squire Clamp is about to marry Mrs. Kinloch, and that he actually has procured the license. It's a very strange affair.
"To fill out the account of disagreeable things,--last evening, in one of the stores, people were talking of Lucy Ransom's fate, (as they have been for weeks,) when Will Fenton, the cripple, said, 'he guessed Hugh Branning could tell what had become of her, if he chose.' Hugh, it seems, heard of the remark, and to-day he went with a dandyish doctor, belonging to the navy, I believe, and beat the poor cripple with a horsewhip, most shamefully. I think this violence has turned suspicion against him.
"I am sorry not to have one pleasant thing to say, except that we all love you as warmly as ever, and hope to see you soon here. Indeed, Cousin Mark, I dread to write it,--but if you don't come soon, I think you will see father only on his last bed.
"Good-bye, dear Mark! Your Cousin,--LIZZIE."
We will waste no time in attempting to analyze Mark's conflicting emotions, but follow him to Innisfield, whither he went the same day. Great as was his desire to see his betrothed, from whom he had received no letter for many weeks, he went first of all, where duty and affection called, to see the dear old man who had been to him more than a father.
Mr. Hardwick was sitting in the corner, but rose up with a new energy as he heard the well-known voice. Mark was not prepared, even by his cousin's foreboding letter, to see such a change as his uncle exhibited;--the hollow eyes, the wasted cheeks, the bent figure, the trembling hands, bore painful testimony to his enfeebled condition. He held both of Mark's hands in his, and, while his eyes were dim in a tear-mist, said, with a faltering voice, "Bless you, m-my boy! I'm glad to see you once more. I thought I might hear my s-summons before you'd come. You do remember your old uncle!"
Mark could not restrain himself, but wept outright. The old gentleman sank into his chair, still clasping Mark's hands. Neither could speak, but they looked towards each other an unutterable tenderness.
At length, controlling the tide of feeling, Mr. Hardwick said,--"D-don't be cast down, Mark; these tears are not b-bitter, but f-full of joy. Th-there, now, go and kiss your sister and Lizzie."
The girls appeared wiping their eyes, for they had left the room overpowered; they greeted Mark affectionately, and then all sat down about the hearth. Topics enough there were. Mark told of his pursuits and prospects. The village gossip about the lost servant-girl, (of whom Mark knew something, but had reasons for silence,) the approaching marriage of Mrs. Kinloch, and the exile of the heiress from her own home, were all discussed. After a reasonable time, Mark excused himself and went to Mr. Alford's, pondering much on the strange events that had perplexed the usually quiet village. He reached the house, after a brief walk, and was met by Aunt Mercy, the portly mistress, but with something less than her accustomed cordiality.
"Miss Kinloch is not able to see company," she said, "and must be excused."
Mark poured forth a torrent of questions, to which Mrs. Alford listened, her broad features softening visibly; and at length, with an apparent effort, she asked him "to come agin to-morrer or the day arter."
The more Mark reflected on Mrs. Alford's behavior, the more he was puzzled. Had Mildred denied him admission? His own betrothed refuse to see him! No, he was sure she was sick; and besides, she could not have heard of his coming. So he soothed himself. But the imps of suspicion and jealousy still haunted him at intervals, and a more miserable man than the usually buoyant and sanguine Mark it would be difficult to find.
The next day, as soon as breakfast was over, Mark, though trying to cheer up his uncle, was secretly longing for the hour when it would be proper to present himself at Mr. Alford's. But time does move, albeit with lagging pace to a lover, and in due season Mark was on his way. Near the house he met the farmer, who greeted him heartily, and wished him joy with a knowing smile. Mark took a freer breath; if there was any difficulty, Mr. Alford certainly did not know it. But then it occurred to him, that shy young ladies do not often make confidants of elderly husbandmen in long blue frocks, and his spirits fell again.
Mr. Alford leaned against a fence and threshed his hands to keep them warm, while he told Mark that "he had been with Mildred privately out to the Probate Court,--that the case had been stated to the jedge, who allowed, that, as she was above fourteen, she had a right to choose her own guardeen,--that he, Alford, was to be put in, in place of the Squire,--and that then, in his opinion, there would be an overhaulin' so's to hev things set to rights."
Mark shook the hand of his good friend warmly, and commended his shrewdness.
"But 'ta'n't best to stan' talkin' with an ol' feller like me," said the farmer, "when you can do so much better. Jest look!"
Mark turned his head, and through the window of the house saw the retreating figure of Mildred. He bounded across the yard, opened the door without knocking, and rushed into the house. She had vanished: no one was visible but Mrs. Alford, who was cutting up golden pumpkins in long coils to dry.
"Come, Milly," said the good woman, "'ta'n't no use; he saw ye."
And Mildred appeared, coming slowly out of the buttery.
"Ye see, Mildred felt a little hurt about a letter; but I _knew_ there was some mistake; so I wa'n't a-goin' to hev ye go off 'thout some explanation."
"A letter?--explanation?" said Mark, thoroughly bewildered.
"Here it is," said Mildred, taking a letter from her pocket, still looking down. Mark hastily took and opened it. The envelope bore Mildred's address in a hand not unlike his own; the inclosure was a letter from Mildred to himself, which he now saw for the first time.
"Mildred," said he, holding out his hands, "could you doubt me?"
She covered her face with her apron, but stood irresolute. He looked again at the letter.
"Why, the clumsy trick, Mildred! This post-office stamp, 'New York,' is not genuine. Just look! it is a palpable cheat, an imitation made with a pen. The color did not spread, you see, as ink mixed with oil does. This letter never left this village. I never saw it before,--could not have seen it. Do you doubt me now, dear Mildred?"
Even if the evidence had been less convincing, the earnest, heartfelt tone, the pleading look and gesture, would have satisfied a much more exacting woman. She sprang towards her lover, and flung her arms about his neck. The pent-up feeling of days and weeks rushed over her like a flood, and the presence of Mrs. Alford was forgotten.
Mrs. Alford, it would seem, suddenly thought of something; for, gathering herself up, she walked off as fast as the laws of gravitation allowed, exclaiming,--"There! I never did see! Sech hens! Allus a-flyin' into the kitchen. I wonder now who left that are door open."
The frightened cackle of the he ns, the rattling of pots and pans by the assiduous housewife in the kitchen, were unheeded by the lovers, "emparadised in one another's arms." The conversation took too wide a range and embraced too many trivial details to be set down here. Only this I may say: they both believed, (as every enamored couple believes,) that, though other people might cherish the properest affection for each other, yet no man or woman ever did or could experience such intense and all-pervading emotion as now throbbed in their breasts,--in fact, that they had been created to exemplify the passion, which, before, poets had only imagined. Simple children! they had only found out what hearts are made for!
The last picture was a pleasant relief in a rather sombre story, therefore we prefer to commence a stormier scene in a new chapter. Mark and Mildred were sitting cozily by the ample fireplace,--not at opposite corners, you may believe,--when there was a warning _ahem!_ at the door, and the sound of feet "a-raspin' on the scraper." Mr. Alford entered and said, "Milly, your step-mother's team is comin' up the road." In a moment there was a bustle in the house, but before any preparation could be made the carriage was at the gate, and Mrs. Kinloch, accompanied by Squire Clamp, knocked at the door.
"Milly, you go into the kitchen with Mrs. Alford," said the farmer. "I'll attend to matters for them."
"No, Mr. Alford," she answered; "you are very good, but I think I'll stay and see them. Shan't I, Mark?"
Mrs. Kinloch and the lawyer entered. She had left off her mourning, but looked as pale and thoughtful as ever. After the common courtesies, brief and cool in this case, Mrs. Kinloch made known her errand. She had been grieved that Mildred should have left her father's house and remained so long with strangers, and she had now come to beg her to return home. Mildred replied, that she had not left home without cause, and that she had no intention of going back at present. Mrs. Kinloch looked hurt, and said that this unusual conduct, owing partly to the common and wicked prejudice against step-mothers, had wounded her sorely, and she hoped Mildred would do her the simple justice of returning to a mother who loved her, and would make every sacrifice for her happiness. Mildred said she did not wish to go over the ground again; she thought she understood the love that had been shown her; and she did not desire any further sacrifices, such as she had witnessed. The request was renewed in various forms, but to no purpose. Then Squire Clamp interposed with great solemnity, saying, that, if she had forgotten the respect and affection due to the mother who had fostered her, she ought to know that the law had conferred upon him, as her guardian, the authority of a father, and he begged her not to give him the pain of exercising the control which it would be his bounden duty to use.
Mr. Alford had been uneasy during this conversation, and broke in at the first pause.
"Well, Square, I guess you'd best wait till 'bout next week-a-Thursday afore you try to use your 'thority. Probate Court sets on Wednesday, an' I guess that'll 'bout wind up your business as guardeen."
What a magazine of wrath that shot exploded! The lawyer was dumb for a moment, but presently he and Mrs. Kinloch both found breath for their indignation.
The woman turned first upon Mark. "This is your doing, Sir!"
"You do too much honor to my foresight," he replied. "I am heartily glad that my good friend here was thoughtful enough and ready to interfere for the protection of a fatherless girl."
"Insolence!" shouted the lawyer.
"The impertinent puppy!" chimed in the woman.
"Come, come!" said the farmer, "too loud talkin'!"
"Then you uphold this girl in her undutiful behavior, do you?" asked Mrs. Kinloch.
"You are amenable to the statutes, Sir," said the Squire.
Mr. Alford rose to his feet. "Now you might jest as well get inter yer kerridge an' drive back ter town," said he; "you won't make one o' them hairs o' yourn black or white, Square, not by talkin' all day."
The lawyer settled his wig in a foaming rage. "Come, Mrs. Clamp," said he, "we shall not remain here to be insulted. Let us go; I shall know how to protect our property, our authority, and honor, from the assault of adventurers and meddlers."
"I beg your pardon, Sir," said Mark, "but what was the appellation you gave to the lady just now? You can call us what you like."
"Mrs. Clamp, Sir," he answered, with a portentous emphasis,--"Mrs. Clamp,--united to me, Sir, this morning, by the Reverend Mr. Rook, in the holy bands of matrimony."
They swept out of the house. Mildred sank to her chair as if stunned. "O God!" she said, "_my_ mother and father!"
"Poor gal!" said Mr. Alford, "small comfort you'll hev in sich parents. But cheer up; you won't need for friends."
She looked up through her tears at Mark's manly face, full now of sympathy, and blessed the farmer for his words.
Mr. Alford, taking Mark aside, said, "You know about Lucy's runnin' away, most likely. Wal, now, ef she could be found, there's no knowin' what might happen; for it's my opinion she knows about Square Kinloch's affairs. I thought mebbe you might 'a' seen her in York?"
Mark replied, that he did meet her in Broadway late one afternoon, and that she looked as if she would speak; but that he hurried on, for the flaunting style of her dress was not calculated to prepossess the passers by.
"Good gracious! you don't say so! Seen her yourself? Now do you go right back to York an' hunt her up--no matter what it costs."
"But my uncle?"
"We'll look arter him."
It was speedily determined, and Mark set out the same day. Meanwhile, Mildred had promised to go and see Mr. Hardwick and endeavor to make him cheerful.
"It beats all," said Mr. Alford to his wife. "Now 'f he _should_ find that unfort'nate gal! Wal, wal, I begin to think the Lord does look arter things some, even in this world."
We leave Squire Clamp and his new wife to their happiness; it would not be well to lift the decent veil which drops over their household. The dark, perchance guilty, past,--the stormy present, and the retribution of the future,--let memory and conscience deal with them!
Never was a little village in greater commotion than Innisfield after Mark's departure. The succession of events had been such as to engage the attention of the most indifferent. The mysterious exile of Mildred, the failing health and spirits of the blacksmith, the new rumors respecting the fate of Lucy, the sudden and unaccountable marriage of Mrs. Kinloch, and her fruitless attempt to bring her daughter back, were all discussed in every house, as well as in places of public resort. Hugh Branning was soon convinced that the village was no place for him. He had bravely horsewhipped a cripple, but he could not stop the tongues of the whole parish, even if he could protect himself from swift and extempore justice. He gathered his clothes, and, after a long private conference with his mother, started before daylight for the railway-station. As he does not appear on the stage again, we may say here, that, not long after, during a financial panic in New York, he made a fortune of nearly half a million dollars by speculating in stocks. He used to tell his friends in after years that he had " only five thousand to begin with,--the sole property left him by his lamented parents." He has now a handsome mansion in the Fifth Avenue, is a conspicuous member of the Rev. Dr. Holdfast's church, and most zealous against the ill-timed discussions and philanthropic vagaries of the day. What would he not give to forget that slowly-moving figure, with swimming eyes, carrying a flaring candle? How far along the years that feeble light was thrown! He never went through the hall of his house at night without a shudder, dreading to catch a glimpse of that sorrowing face.
It was on Tuesday evening, the night preceding the Probate Court to which Squire Clamp had been cited. Nothing had been heard from Mark, and his friends were much depressed. Mildred sat by Mr. Hardwick's bedside, during the long hours, and read to him from his favorite authors. About ten o'clock, just as the family were preparing to go to bed, Mark drove up to the door. He was warmly welcomed, and at once overwhelmed with questions. "Did he find Lucy?" "What did she know?" "Why did she secrete herself?" To all these Mark merely replied, "I found Lucy; how much I have accomplished I dare not say. But do you, James, come with me. We will go up to old Mrs. Ransom's."
"Why, she's not there; she's gone to the poor-house."
"Broken down with old age and sorrow, I suppose. But I don't care to see her now. Let us go to the old house; and meantime, you girls, go to bed."
But they protested they should wait till he returned,--that they could not sleep a wink until they knew the result.
Provided with a lantern, the young men set out. They found the hovel nearly in ruins; for pilferers had taken such pieces as they could strip off for firewood. Mark eagerly ripped up the floor near the hearth. At the first flash of the light he saw a paper, dusty and discolored. He seized and opened it. _It was the will of Mr. Kinloch, duly signed and attested_. Lucy had not deceived him.
With hurried pace they returned to the village, scarcely stopping to take breath until they reached Mr. Hardwick's house. It was no vain hope, then! It was true! The schemes of the step-mother would be frustrated. The odious control of Squire Clamp would end. Mark began to read the will, then stopped, embraced his cousins and Mildred by turns, then read again. He was beside himself with joy.
All were too much excited to sleep; and when the first transports of surprise were over, they naturally inquired after the unfortunate girl. He had found her, after great difficulty, in a miserable garret. The surmises of the villagers were correct. She was ruined, heart-broken. Dissipation, exposure, and all the frightful influences of her wretched life had brought on a fever, and now, destitute and forsaken, she was left by those who had made merchandise of her beauty, to die. He learned from Lucy what she knew of the affair of the will. She became satisfied, soon after Mr. Kinloch's death, that some wrong was intended, and she watched her mistress. Then Squire Clamp had induced her by threats and bribes to get for him the papers. As she took them out of the desk, one, larger than the rest, and with several seals, attracted her attention. She felt quite sure it was Mr. Kinloch's will; so she secreted it and gave the lawyer the rest. The Monday afternoon following, she took the will to her grandmother's and put it under a plank in the floor. Squire Clamp, strangely enough, chanced to stop just as she had hidden it. He gave her back the papers, as she supposed, and she replaced them in the secretary. On her way home she fell in with Hugh,--a day neither of them would ever forget.
The lawyer, who had counted on an easy victory over Mr. Alford, was greatly surprised, the next day, to see him accompanied by Mark, as he came into court; he had not heard of the young man's return. Besides, their unmistakable air of confidence and exultation caused him some misgivings. But he was boldness itself, compared with his wife. Her face was bloodless, her hands tremulous, and her expression like that of one ready to faint. Imagine the horror with which she saw the production of the will, and then the proof by the only surviving witness, brought to court from his residence in a neighboring town! The letters of administration were revoked, and Mr. Alford, one of the executors, was appointed Mildred's guardian. Completely baffled, dumb and despairing, Squire Clamp and his bride left the room and drove homeward. A pleasant topic for conversation they had by the way, each accusing the other of duplicity, treachery, and folly! The will provided that she should receive an annuity of one thousand dollars _during her widowhood_; so that the Squire, by wedding her, had a new incumbrance without any addition to his resources; a bad bargain, decidedly, he thought. She, on the other hand, had thrown away her sure dependence, in the hope of retaining the control of the whole estate; for when she consented to marry Clamp, she had no doubt that he had possession of the will and would, of course, keep it concealed. Seldom it is that _both_ parties to a transaction are so overreached.
The successful party stopped at Mr. Hardwick's that evening to exchange congratulations. He, as well as Mildred and Mark, was interested in the lost will; for Mr. Kinloch had mentioned the fact of the unsettled boundary-line, and directed his executors to make a clear title of the disputed tract to the blacksmith. The shop was his; the boys, at all events, would be undisturbed. One provision in the will greatly excited Mark's curiosity. The notes which he owed to the estate were to be cancelled, and there was an unexplained reference to his uncle Hardwick and to some occurrences of long ago. Mildred at once recalled to mind her father's dying words,--his calling for Mr. Hardwick, and his mention of the cabinet. She had often thought of her search in its drawers, and of her finding the lock of sunny hair and the dried flower. And the blacksmith now, when asked, shook his head mournfully, and said, (as he had before,) "Sus-some time; nun-not now!"
The next day Mr. Alford came to town and advised Mark to marry forthwith.
"I've ben thinkin' it over," he said, "and I b'lieve it's the best thing to be done. You've got a tough customer to deal with, and it may be some trouble to git all the property out of his hands. But when the heiress is married, her husband can act for her to better advantage. I guess I'll speak to Mr. Rook and have the 'fair 'tended to right away."
Mark submitted the matter to Mildred, who blushed properly, and thought it rather hasty. But Mr. Alford's clear reasoning prevailed, and the time was appointed at once. Mark and Mr. Alford then went to call upon the lawyer. They entered his office without knocking, and by chance found him busy with the accounts and papers; they were scattered over the table, and he was making computations. As soon as he was aware of the presence of visitors, he made an effort to slide the documents under some loose sheets of paper; but Mark knew the bold hand at once, and without a word seized the papers and handed them to Mr. Alford.
"Not very p'lite, Square, I know," said Mr. Alford, "but possession is nine p'ints of the law, as I've heerd you say; and as you won't deny the handwritin', I s'pose you don't question my right to these 'ere."
The rage of Mr. Clamp may be imagined.
"Good mornin', Square," said the triumphant executor. "When we've looked over these affairs, we'll trouble you and the widder that was, to 'count for what the schedool calls for."
The simple preparations for the wedding were soon made, and the honest, great-hearted farmer had the pleasure of giving away the bride. It was a joyful, but not a merry wedding; both had passed through too many trials, and had too many recollections. And the evident decline of Mr. Hardwick made Mark sad and apprehensive. But he devoutly thanked God, as he clasped his bride to his bosom, for the providence that had brought to him the fulfilment of his dearest hopes.
Here we might stop, according to ancient custom, leaving our hero and heroine to their happiness. But though a wedding is always an event of interest, there are other things to be narrated before we have done with our story.
Not long after, Mark called at the Kinloch house, then occupied by Mr. Clamp; as a measure of precaution, he took Mr. Alford with him. Mildred had never regained her wardrobe; everything that was dear to her was still in her stepmother's keeping,--her father's picture, her own mother's miniature, the silver cup she had used from infancy, and all the elegant and tasteful articles that had accumulated in a house in which no wish was left ungratified. Ever since the session of the Probate Court, the house had been shut to visitors, if any there had been. Mrs. Clamp had not been seen once out of doors. But after waiting a time, Mark and his friend were admitted. As they entered the house, the bare aspect of the rooms confirmed the rumors which Mark had heard. Mrs. Clamp received them with a kind of sullen civility, and, upon hearing the errand, replied,--
"Certainly, Mrs. Davenport can have her clothes. She need not have sent more than one man to get them. Is that all?"
"Not quite," said Mark. "Perhaps you are not aware of the change which the discovery of the will may make in your circumstances. I do not speak of the punishment which the fraud merits, but of the rights which are now vested in me. First, I am desired to ask after the plate, jewels, furs, and wardrobe of the first Mrs. Kinloch."
Mrs. Clamp was silent. A word let fall by Lucy suddenly flashed into Mark's mind, and he intimated to the haughty woman his purpose to go into the east front-chamber.
"Fine gentlemen," she said at length, "to pry into a lady's private apartment! You will not dare enter it without my permission!"
And she stood defiantly in the doorway. But, without parley, Mark and Mr. Alford pushed by her and walked up the staircase, not heeding the shout of Mr. Clamp, who had followed them to the house.
"It might seem mean," said Mark to Mr. Alford; "but I think you'll agree presently, that it wasn't a case for ceremony."
He stripped the clothes from the bed. The pillows were stuffed with valuable furs; fine linen and embroideries filled the bolsters. The feather-sack contained dresses of rich and costly fabrics,--the styles showing them to be at least twenty years old. And in the mattress were stowed away the dinner and tea services of silver, together with porcelain, crystal, and Bohemian ware.
"What a deal o' comfort a body could take in sleepin' on a bed stuffed like this 'ere!" said Mr. Alford; "I sh'd think he'd dream of the 'Rabian Nights."
"After this, Madam," said Mark, upon returning to the hall, "you can hardly expect any special lenity from me. The will allowed you an annuity of one thousand dollars while you remained single; since you are married your interest ceases, but you shall receive two hundred a year. The house, however, belongs to my wife. Your husband there has a home to which you can go."
"Yes," said the lawyer, "he _has_ a home, and won't be beholden to any man for a roof to shelter his family."
The pride of the woman was still unbent. Though her cheek was blanched and her lips were bitten blue, still she stood erect and her head turned queenly as ever. The glance she threw to the man who called her wife was enough to have pierced him. Turning to Mark, she said,--
"If you will come to-morr ow,--or Monday, rather,--you can have possession of the house and property. My own things can be easily removed, and it will be a simple matter to make ready for new comers."
"I could keep them out of it a year, if I chose," said Mr. Clamp.
"But I do not choose," said she, with superb haughtiness.
"Wal, good mornin'," said Mr. Alford.
As they left the house, Mrs. Clamp sat down in the silent room. Without, the wind whistled through the naked trees and whirled up spiral columns of leaves; the river below was cased in ice; the passers-by looked pinched with cold, and cast hurried glances over their shoulders at the ill-fated house and the adjacent burying-ground. Within, the commotion, the chill, the hurry, the fright, were even more intense. What now remained to be done? Her son, vanquished in love by a blacksmith's _protégé_, had fled, and left her to meet her fate alone. The will had been discovered, and, as if by a special interposition of Providence, the victim of her son's passions had been the instrument of vengeance. The lawyer who had worked upon her fears had proved unable to protect her. The estate was out of her hands; the property with which she had hoped to escape from the hated town and join her son was seized; she was a ruined, disgraced woman. She had faced the battery of curious eyes, as she walked with the husband she despised to the Sunday services; but what screen had she now that her pride was humbled? The fearful struggle in the mind of the lonely woman in the chill and silent room, who shall describe it? She denied admission to the servants and her husband, and through the long evening still sat by the darkening window, far into the dim and gusty night.
Squire Clamp went to bed moody, if not enraged; but when, on waking, he found his wife still absent, he became alarmed. Early in the morning he tracked her through a light snow, that had sifted down during the night, to the river-bank, at the bend where the current keeps the ice from closing over. An hour after, some neighbors, hastily summoned, made a search at the dam. One of them, crossing the flume by Mr. Hardwick's shop, broke the newly-formed ice and there found the drifting body of Mrs. Clamp. Her right hand, stretched out stiff, was thrust against the floats of the water-wheel, as if, even in death, she remembered her hate against the family whose fortune had risen upon her overthrow!
Mark and Mr. Alford, after their disagreeable interview with the Clamps, went to see Mr. Hardwick, whom they wished to congratulate. At the door they were met by Lizzie, whose sad face said, "Hush!" Mark's spirits fell instantly. "Is he worse?" he asked. A tear was the only answer. He asked Mr. Alford to go for Mildred. "She has just come," said Lizzie.
They found Mr. Hardwick propped up in bed, whence he could look out of the window. The church-spire rose on the one hand, and on the other the chimney of the shop was seen above the trees on the river-bank. By night the column of sparks had gladdened his eye, as he thought of the cheerful industry of his sons. Mark tenderly pressed his uncle's hand, and leaned over him with an affectionate, sorrowing interest.
"Der-don't take it to heart, my boy," said Mr. Hardwick. "I am very h-happy."
"I am glad that the boys won't lose the shop," said Mark. "I see you are looking out to the chimney."
"Yer-yes, it was thoughtful of Mr. Kinloch, and a special Pr-Providence that the will was found."
"You know he mentioned his claim against me," said Mark; "that is paid, and it doesn't matter; but I can't guess the reason for the unusual kindness he has shown towards me."
The old man answered slowly, for his breathing was difficult and often painful. "It is an old story,—old as the dried f-flowers that Mildred told me of,—but it had a f-fragrance once. Yer-your mother, Mark, was as per-pretty a girl as you'd often see. Walter Kinloch ler-loved her, and she him. He sailed to the Indies, an' some der-diff'culty happened, so that the letters stopped. I d-don't know how 'twas. But arter a while sh-she married your father. Mr. Kinloch, he m-married, too; but I guess he nun-never forgot the girl of his choice."
Mark grasped his young wife's hand, at this tale of years gone by.
"The lock of hair and the rose were your mother's, then!" she whispered. "Dear father! faithful, even in death, to his friends, and to the memory of his first love! How much suffering and crime would have been prevented, if he could only have uttered the words which his heart prompted!"
"God forgive the woman!" said Mr. Hardwick, solemnly. None knew then how much she had need of forgiveness, standing as she was on the brink of that last fatal plunge!
Mr. Alford suggested that the fatigue of talking would wear upon the enfeebled man, and advised that he should be left to get some rest, if possible.
"To-morrow is S-Sabba'-day, ef I've counted right," said Mr. Hardwick. "I sh-should like to see the sun on the st-heeple once more."
"Dear uncle, I hope you may see it a great many times. We must leave you to rest."
"Good-night, mum-my children," he replied. "God b-bless you all! Let me put my hands on your h-heads."
They knelt by his bedside, and he blessed them fervently. Mr. Alford and Lizzie remained to attend upon him, and the others withdrew.
The night passed, how wearily! None could sleep, for through all the air there was a presage of sorrow, a solemn "tingling silentness," to which their senses were painfully alive. Who, that has passed the interminable gloomy hours that preceded the departure of a loved and venerated friend into the world of spirits, does not remember this unutterable suspense, this fruitless struggle with eternal decrees, this clinging of affection to the parting soul? What a sinking of the heart even the recollection of such a scene produces!
The day dawned upon sleepless, tear-stained eyes. The dying man was conscious, cheerful, and calmly breathing. In the adjoining room the family sat beside the table on which was spread their untasted breakfast.
The bell began to ring for meeting. Mr. Hardwick roused up at the sound, and called for his children. He blessed them again, and placed his hands on their bowed heads in turn. He thought of the psalms which he had so often led, and he asked all to join in singing Billings's "Jordan."
"There is a land of pure delight,
Where saints immortal reign;
Infinite day excludes the night,
And pleasures banish pain."
With faltering voices they sang the triumphal hymn. The old man's eyes were fixed upon the steeple, which pointed upward through the clear air, and shone in the golden light of the sun. He kept time with a feeble movement, and once or twice essayed to raise his own wavering voice. A smile of heavenly beauty played over his pallid features as the music ceased,—a radiance like that crimson glow which covers the mountain-top at dawn. He spoke almost inaudibly, as if in a trance; then repeating with a musical flow the words of his favorite author,
"Where the bright seraphim in burning row
Their loud uplifted angel-trumpets blow,
And the cherubic host in thousand choirs
Touch their immortal harps of golden wires,
With those just spirits that wear victorious palms
Hymns devout and holy psalms
his voice sank again, though it was easy to see that a prayer trembled on his lips. As a strain of music fades into silence, his tones fell away, fainter and fainter; and with the same seraphic light on his countenance his breathing ceased.