The Strathsays -
Mrs. Strathsay sat in her broad bower-window, looking down the harbor. A
brave great window it was, and I mind me how many a dark summer's night,
we two leaned over its edge and watched the soft flow of the River
of the Cross, where its shadowy tide came up and lapped the stone
foundations of that old house by the water-side,—I and Angus. Under us
the rowers slipped the wherries and the yawls; in the channel the rafts
floated down a slow freight from the sweet and savage pine-forests,
and the fire they carried on their breasts, and the flames of their
pitch-knots, threw out strange shadows of the steering raftsmen, and
a wild bandrol of smoke flaring and streaming on the night behind
them;—and yet away far up on the yonder side, beneath the hanging
alders and the cedar-trees, the gundalows dropped down, great laden
barges; and perhaps a lantern, hung high in the stern of some huge
East-Indiaman at the wharves of the other town quite across the stream,
showed us all its tracery and spires, dim webs of shadow stretched and
woven against the solemn ground of the starlit sky, and taught us the
limit of the shores. Ah, all things were sweet to us then! we were
little but children,—Angus and I. And it's not children we are now,
small's the pity! The joys of childhood are good, I trow; but who would
exchange for them the proud, glad pulse of full womanhood?—not I. I
mind me, too, that in those days the great world of which I used to hear
them speak always seemed to me lying across the river, and over the
fields and the hills, and away down and out by the skirts of the
mystical sea; and on the morning when I set sail for Edinboro', I
felt to be forever drawing nigher its skurry and bustle, its sins and
pleasures and commotions.
We had no father,—Margray, or Effie, or Mary Strathsay, or I. He had
brought his wife out from their home in Scotland to St. Anne's in the
Provinces, and had died or ever I was born,—and I was the last of the
weans. A high, keen spirit was his wife; she did not bend or break; a
stroke that would have beggared another took no crumb from her cloth;
she let the right in warehouses and wharves lie by, and lie by, and each
year it paid her sterling income. None ever saw tear in those proud eyes
of hers, when they brought in her husband dead, or when they carried him
out; but every day at noon she went up into her own room, and whether
she slept or whether she waked the two hours in that darkened place,
there was not so much as a fly that sang in the pane to tell.
She was a fair, stately woman, taller than any of her girls, and with
half the mind to hate them all because they were none of them a son.
More or less the three were like her, lofty brows and shining hair and
skin like morning light, the lave of them,—but as for me, I was
my father's child. There's a portrait of him now, hangs on the
chimney-pier: a slight man, and not tall,—the dark hair waves away on
either side the low, clear brow,—the eyes deep-set, and large and
dark and starry,—a carmine just flushing beneath the olive of the
cheek,—the fine firm mouth just breaking into smiles; and I remember
that that morning when I set sail for Edinboro', as I turned away from
gazing on that face, and saw myself glinting like a painted ghost in the
long dim mirror beside me, I said it indeed, and proudly, that I was my
father's own child.
So she kissed us, Effie and me. Perhaps mine lingered the longer, for
the color in my cheek was deeper tinct than Scotch, it was the wild bit
of Southern blood that had run in her love's veins; when she looked
at me, I gave her back hot phases of her passionate youth again,—so
perhaps mine was the kiss that left the deeper dint.
Margray, and Mary Strathsay, had been back three years from school, and
the one was just married,—and if she left her heart out of the bargain,
what was that to me?—and the other was to reign at home awhile ere the
fated Prince should come, and Effie and myself were to go over seas and
take their old desks in the famous school at Edinboro'. The mother knew
that she must marry her girls well, and we two younglings were sadly in
Queen Mary Strathsay's way. Yes, Mrs. Strathsay lived for nought but the
making of great matches for her girls; the grandees of the Provinces
to-day sat down at her board and to-morrow were to pay her tribute, scot
and lot; four great weddings she meant should one by one light up her
hearth and leave it lonely with the ashes there. But of them all she
counted on the last, the best, the noblest for Alice,—that was I.
Old Johnny Graeme was the partner in what had been my father's house,
and for fifteen years it had gone prospering as never house did yet,
and making Mrs. Strathsay bitterer; and Johnny Graeme, a little wizened
warlock, had never once stopped work long enough to play at play and
reckon his untold gold.
Just for that summer, too, some ships of the royal fleet anchored there
off Campobello, and the Honorable Charles Seavern, third son of an Earl,
and professional at his cups, swung them at his will, and made holiday
meanwhile among the gay and willing folk of all the little towns around.
There was another yet, a youth growing up to fine estates away off
beyond Halifax. His father sat in the Queen's own Parliament for the
Colonies, had bent to the knightly accolade, and a change of ministry or
of residence might any day create Sir Brenton peer; his mother had been
Mrs. Strathsay's dearest friend:—this child who off and on for half his
life had made her house his home and Alice his companion, while in the
hearts of both children Mrs. Strathsay had cautiously planted and nursed
the seed,—a winning boy, a noble lad, a lordly man.
If Margray had not married old Johnny Graeme, it would have broken Mrs.
Strathsay's will; the will was strong; she did, she married him. If
Mary, with her white moonsheen of beauty, did not bewitch the senses of
Captain Seavern, it would break Mrs. Strathsay's pride; and few things
were stronger than Mrs. Strathsay's pride,—unless 't were Mary's own.
If Effie——but that's nothing to the purpose. If Alice did not become
the bride of Angus Ingestre, it would break Mrs. Strathsay's heart.
God forgive me! but I bethought me once that her heart was the weakest
member in all her body.
So she kissed us, as I say, and we slid down the ten miles of river, and
went sailing past the busy islands and over the broad deeps and out of
the day and into the night, and then two little orphans cried themselves
to sleep with their arms about each other's necks. After all, it was not
much like my picture of the great world, this lonely sea, this plunging
up from billow on to billow, this burrowing down in the heart of
green-gloomed hollows, this rocking and creaking and straining, this
buoyant bounding over the crests,—yet the freedom, the monotony, the
wild career of the winds fired me; it set my blood a-tingle; I liked it.
And then I thought of Angus, rocked to sleep each night, as he was now,
in his ocean-cradle. But once at school, and the world was round me; it
hummed up from the streets, it boomed down from the spires. I became a
part of it, and so forgot it. To Effie there were ever stealing rumors
of yet a world beyond, of courts and coronets, of satin shimmer and
glitter of gems, but they glanced off from me,—and other than thus I
have never yet found that great world that used to lie over the river.
We had been at school a happy while, and but for constant letters,
and for the brief visit of Mrs. Strathsay, who had journeyed over the
Atlantic for one last look at sweet home-things, and to see how all went
with us, and then had flitted back again,—but for that, home would have
seemed the veriest dream that ever buzzed in an idle brain: would so
have seemed to other maidens, not to us, for the fibres of the Strathsay
heart were threads that never wore thin or parted. Two twelvemonths
more, and we should cross the sea ourselves at last; and wearying now
of school a bit, all our visions centred in St. Anne's, and the merry
doings, the goings and comings, that we heard of there; and it seemed to
me as if home were to be the beginning of life, as erst it had seemed
that in school we should find the world.
It was the vacation of the long summer term; there was packing and
padlocking to go each on her way, and the long dormitories rang with
shrill clamor. They all had a nest to seek. Effie was already gone away
with her chief crony, whose lady-mother, a distant kinswoman of our own,
fancied the girl's fair countenance. I was to join them in a week or
two,—not yet, because I had wished to send home the screens painted on
white velvet, and they wanted yet a sennight's work, and I knew Mrs.
Strathsay would be proud of them before the crackle of the autumn fires.
The maids ran hither and yon, and the bells pealed, and the knocker
clashed, and the coaches rolled away over the stone pave of the
court-yard, and there was embracing and jesting and crying, when
suddenly all the pleasant hubbub stood still, for Miss Dunreddin was
in the hall, and her page behind her, and she beckoned me from my post
aloft on a foot-board, summoning the deserters before me and awarding
them future expiations, amidst all manner of jeering and jinking and
A gentleman from the Provinces to see me in the little parlor: he had
brought us letters from home, and after Miss Dunreddin had broken the
seals she judged we might have them, and I was at liberty for an hour,
and meantime Angus Ingestre awaited me. Angus! I sprang down the stairs,
my cheeks aglow, my heart on my lips, and only paused, finger on lock,
wondering and hesitating and fearing, till the door was flung open, and
I drawn in with two hands shut fast on my own, and two eyes—great blue
Ingestre eyes—looking down on me from the face so far above: for he
towered like a Philistine.
"And is it Angus?" I cried. For how was I to know the boy I had left in
a midshipman's jacket, in this mainmast of a man, undress-uniform and
"I've no need to ask, Is it Alice?" he answered. "The same little peach
of a chin!"
"Nay, but, Angus,—'t will never do,—and I all but grown up!"
"Not my little maid any longer, then?"
But so trembling and glad was I to see him, that I dared no more words,
for I saw the tears glistening in my eyelashes and blinding me with
their dazzling flashes.
So he took me to a seat, and sat beside me, and waited a minute; and
after that waiting it was harder to speak than it had been before, and
every thought went clean out of my head, and every word, and I stared
at my hands till I seemed to see clear through them the pattern of
my dress, and at the last I looked up, and there he had been bending
forward and scanning me all the while; and then Angus laughed, and
caught up my hand and pretended to search it narrowly.
"Ah, yes, indeed," said he, "she is reading the future in her palm,
reading it backward, and finding out what this Angus Ingestre has to do
with her fate!"
"Nay, but,"——said I, and then held fast again.
"Here's a young woman that's keen to hear of her home, of her sisters,
of Queen Mary Strathsay, and of Margray's little Graeme!"
"What do I care for Johnny Graeme? the little old man!"
"What, indeed? And you'll not be home a day and night before you'll be
tossing and hushing him, and the moon'll not be too good for him to
have, should he cry for it!"
"No. Angus Graeme!"
"Oh!—Margray has a son? Why didn't you tell me before?"
"When you were so eager to know!"
"It's all in my letters, I suppose. But Margray has a son, and she's
named it for you, and her husband let her?"
"'Deed, he wasn't asked."
"Come, child, read your letters."
"Nay, I've but a half-hour more with you; that was the second quarter
struck; I'll read them when you're gone.—Why not?"
"Johnny Graeme is dead."
That sobered me a thought.
"And Margray?" I asked.
"Poor Margray,—she feels very badly."
"You don't mean to say"——
"That she cared for him? But I do."
"Now, Angus Ingestre, I heard Margray tell her mother she'd liefer
work on the roads with a chain and ball than marry him! It's all you men
know of women. Love Johnny Graeme! Oh, poor man, rest his soul! I'm sore
sorry for him. He's gone where there's no gold to make, unless they
smelt it there; and I'm not sure but they do,—sinsyne one can see all
the evil it's the root of, and all the woe it works,—and he bought
Margray, you know he did, Angus!"
"It's little Alice talking so of her dead brother!"
"He's no brother of mine; I never took him, if Margray did. Brother
indeed! there's none such,—unless it's you, Angus!" And there all the
blood flew into my cheeks, and they burned like two fires, and I was
fain to clap my palms upon them.
"No," said Angus. "I'm not your brother, Ailie darling, and never wish
"And Margray?" I questioned, quickly,—the good Lord alone knew why.
"Poor Margray! tell me of her. Perhaps she misses him; he was not, after
all, so curst as Willy Scott. Belike he spoke her kindly."
"Always," said Angus, gnawing in his lip a moment ere the word. "And
the child changed him, Mary Strathsay says. But perhaps you're right;
Margray makes little moan."
"She was aye a quiet lass. Poor Johnny!—I'm getting curst myself. Well,
it's all in my letters. But you, Angus dear, how came you here?"
"I? My father came to London; and being off on leave from my three
years' cruise, I please myself in passing my holiday, and spend the last
month of it in Edinboro', before rejoining the ship."
All my moors and heather passed like a glamour. The green-wood shaws
would be there another year,—Angus was here to-day. I cast about me,
and knew that Miss Dunreddin would speed away to take her pleasure, and
there'd be none left but the governess and the painting-mistress, with
a boarder or two like myself,—and as for the twain, I could wind them
round my thumb.
"Oh, Angus," I said, breathlessly, "there's Arthur's Seat, and the
palaces, and the galleries and gardens,—it'll be quite as good as the
moors; there'll be no Miss Dunreddin, and you can stay here all the
leelang simmer's day!"
He smiled, as he answered,—
"And I suppose those scarlet signals at the fore signify"——
"Fast colors, I see."
"It's my father's own color, and I'm proud of it,—barring the telltale
"You're proud," said he, absently, standing up to go, "that you are the
only one of them all that heirs him?"
"Not quite. It's the olive in my father's cheek that darkened his wife's
yellow curls into Mary Strathsay's chestnut ones. And she's like me in
more than that, gin she doesn't sell hersel' for siller and gowd."
"I'll tell you what. Mrs. Strathsay is over-particular in speech. She'll
have none of the broad Highland tongue about her. It's a daily struggle
that she has, not to strike Nurse Nannie dumb, since she has infected
you all with her dialect. A word in time. Now I must go. To-morrow night
I'll come and take you to the play, Miss Dunreddin or no Miss Dunreddin.
But sing to me first. It's a weary while since I used to hear that voice
crooning itself to sleep across the hall with little songs."
So I sang the song he chose, "My love, she's but a lassie yet"; and he
took the bunch of bluebells from my braids, and was gone.
The next night Angus was as good as his word. Miss Dunreddin was already
off on her pleasuring, he took the gray little governess for duenna,
and a blither three never sat out a tragedy, or laughed over wine
and oysters in the midst of a garden with its flowers and fountains
afterwards. 'T was a long day since the poor little woman had known such
merrymaking; and as for me, this playhouse, this mimicry of life, was a
new sphere. We went again and again,—sometimes the painting-mistress,
too; then she and the governess fell behind, and Angus and I walked at
our will. Other times we wandered through the gay streets, or we went
up on the hill and sat out the sunsets, and we strolled through the two
towns, high and low. The days sped, the long shine of the summer days,
and, oh, my soul was growing in them like a weed in the sun!
It never entered my happy little thoughts all this time that what was
my delight might yet be Angus's dole; for, surely, a school-girl is so
interesting to no one else as herself, while she continually comes upon
all the fresh problems in her nature. So, when a day passed that I heard
no step in the hall, no cheery voice rousing the sleepy echoes with my
name, I was restless enough. Monday, Tuesday,—no Angus. I ought to have
thought whether or no he had found some of his fine friends, and if they
had no right to a fragment of his time; yet I was but a child. The third
day dawned and passed, and at length, sitting there among the evening
shadows in the long class-room, a little glumly, the doors clanged as
of old, a loud, laughing sentence was tossed up to the little gray
governess at the stair-head, then, three steps at a time, he had
mounted, and was within,—and what with my heart in my throat and its
bewildered beating, I could not utter a word. I but sprang to the window
and made as if I had been amusing myself there: I would have no Angus
Ingestre be thinking that he was all the world to me, and I nought to
"A little ruffled," said he, at the saucy shake of my head. "Well, I
sha'n't tell you where I've been. I've the right to go into the country
for a day, have I not? What is it to Alice Strathsay how often I go to
Loch Rea? There's something Effie begged me to get you!" And he set down
a big box on the table.
So, then, he had been to see Effie. It was fair enough, and yet I
couldn't help the jealous pang. I wouldn't turn my head, though I did
wonder what was in the big box, but, holding out my hand backward, I
"Well, it's no odds where you've been, so long's you're here now. Come
and lean out of the window by me,—it's old times,—and see the grand
ladies roll by in their coaches, some to the opera, some to the balls."
"Why should I watch the grand ladies roll by, when there's one so very
much grander beside me," he said, laughing, but coming. And so we stood
together there and gazed down on the pretty sight, the beautiful women
borne along below in the light of the lamps, with their velvets, their
plumes, and their jewels, and we made little histories for them all, as
"They are only the ugly sisters," said Angus, at length. "But here is
the true Cinderella waiting for her godmother. Throw your cape over your
hair, Ailie dear; the dew falls, and you'll be taking cold. There, it's
the godmother herself, and you'll confess it, on seeing what miracles
can be worked with this little magic-lantern of yours. Come!" and he
proceeded to open the box.
But I waited a minute still; it was seldom the sumptuous coaches
rolled through this by-way which they had taken to-night in their gay
procession, since the pavers had left the broad street beyond blocked up
for the nonce, and I liked to glimpse this little opening into a life
just beyond my sphere.
"You are shivering in your thin frock at the window, Miss Strathsay,"
said the little gray governess.
"Come here, Ailie, and hold the candle," said Angus. "Effie has great
schemes of terror with this in the dormitories, o' nights. There!" and
he whirled the lighted match out of the window.
Just then I turned, the little flame fell on my muslin sleeve,—a cloud
of smoke, a flash, a flare, the cape round my face soared in blaze, it
seemed that I was wrapt in fire!
Angus caught me on the instant, crushed the burning things with his
fingers, had his coat round me, had all drenched in the water that the
governess had raced after, and then I knew no more.
So the women put me to bed, while Angus brought the surgeon; then they
forbade him the room, and attended to my wants; but all night long he
paced the halls and heard my moans, and by daybreak I was stupefied. He
waited a week, but they would not suffer him to see me, and then his
leave of absence had expired.
One night I woke; I felt that the room was darkly rich with the
star-lighted gloom, but I could see nothing, for all the soft, cool
linen folds; and lying there half-conscious for a time, I seemed to feel
some presence in the door-way there.
"Angus, is that you?" I asked.
"Oh, Ailie darling!" he cried, and came forward and fell on his knees by
my side, and covered my hands with his tears.
"Poor Angus!" I said, in my muffled way, and I tried half to rise, and I
was drawing away a hand that I might dash the tears off his face.
Then of a sudden it came over me in one great torrid flush, and I fell
back without a word.
But at the moment, the little gray governess came in again from her
errand, and he went. 'T was no use his waiting, though he lingered still
a day or two in hopes to see me; but my head was still on my pillow.
His time was more than up, he must to the ship, so he left me store of
messages and flowers and glass-bred grapes, and was off.
Time wore away, I got about again, and all was as before, long ere the
girls came back, or Miss Dunreddin. I went near no moors, I looked no
more out of my window, I only sat on the stool by my bedside and kept my
face hid in the valances; and the little gray governess would sit beside
me and cheer me, and tell me it was not so bad when all was said, and
beauty was but little worth, and years would efface much, that my hair
was still as dark and soft, my eyes as shining, my——But all to what
use? Where had flown the old Strathsay red from my cheek, where that
smooth polish of brow, where——I, who had aye been the flower of the
race, the pride of the name, could not now bide to brook my own glance
in the glass.
But the worst of it all would be, I thought,—not recking the worse to
come,—when the girls flocked back. How I dreaded it, how I sought to
escape their mock and go home, poor fool! but the little gray governess
saw them all first, I must believe, for there was not a quip or a look
askance, and they treated me as bairns treat a lamb that has tint its
mother. And so seeing I had lost my fair skin, I put myself to gain
other things in its place, and worked hard at my stents, at my music, my
books. I grew accustomed to things, and would forget there had been a
change, and, being young, failed to miss the being bonny; and if I did
not miss it, who should? and they all were so kind, that the last year
of school was the happiest of the whole. Thus the time drew near my
eighteenth summer, and Miss Dunreddin had heard of a ship bound our
way from Glasgow, and we were to leave the town with all its rare old
histories, and speed through nights and days of seafaring to St. Anne's
by the water-side, to the old stone house with its windows overhanging
the River of the Cross.
So the old brig slid lazily up the river, beneath the high and beauteous
banks, and as between the puffs of wind we lay there in the mid-channel,
the mate,—a dark, hawk-eyed man, at whom Effie liked well to toss a
merry mock, and with whom, sometimes stealing up, she would pace the
deck in hours of fair weather,—a man whose face was like a rock that
once was smitten with sunshine, never since,—a sad man, with a wrathful
lip even when he spoke us fair,—the mate handed me his glass and bade
me look, while he went to the side and bent over there with Effie,
gazing down into the sun-brown, idle current. And I pointed it,—and
surely that was the old stone gable in its woodbines,—and surely, as
we crept nearer, the broad bower-window opened before me,—and surely a
lady sat there, a haughty woman with the clustered curls on her temple,
her needle poised above the lace-work in the frame, and she gazing
dreamily out, out at the water, the woods, the one ship wafting slowly
up,—shrouds that had been filled with the airs of half a hemisphere,
hull that had ere now been soaked in spicy suns and summers,—and all
the glad tears gushed over my eyes and darkened me from seeing. So, as
I said, Mrs. Strathsay sat in her broad bower-window looking down the
harbor, and a ship was coming up, and Effie and I stood on its deck, our
hearts full of yearning. Mine was, at least, I know. And I could but
snatch the glass up, every breathing, as we went, and look, and drop it,
for it seemed as if I must fly to what it brought so near, must fly to
fling my arms about the fair neck bending there, to feel the caressing
finger, to have that kiss imprint my cheek once more,—so seldom her
lips touched us!
They lowered us down in boats at last, the captain going ashore with us,
the porters following with our luggage. The great hall-door below stood
open, and the familiar servants were there to give us greeting, and
we stayed but for a hand's-shake, except that my old nurse, where she
caught it, wet my shawl with her sudden weeping, so that Effie had run
up the stairs before me, and was in the drawing-room and was folded in
the tender grasp, and had first received the welcome. A moment after,
and I was among them. Mrs. Strathsay stood there under the chandelier
in the sunshine, with all its showering rainbow-drops,—so straight and
stately she, so superb and splendid,—her arms held out,—and I ran
forward, and paused, for my veil had blown over my face, to throw it
back and away,—and, with the breath, her shining blue eyes opened and
filled with fire, her proud lips twisted themselves in pain, she struck
her two hands together, crying out, "My God! how horrible!" and fainted.
Mrs. Strathsay was my mother. I might have fallen, too,—I might have
died, it seems to me, with the sudden snap my heart gave,—but all in a
word I felt Mary Strathsay's soft curls brushing about my face, and
she drew it upon her white bosom, and covered the poor thing with, her
kisses. Margray was bending over my mother, with the hartshorn in her
hands, and I think—the Lord forgive her!—she allowed her the whole
benefit of its battery, for in a minute or two Mrs. Strathsay rose, a
little feeble, wavered an instant, then warned us all away and walked
slowly and heavily from the place, up the stairs, and the door of her
own room banged behind her and hasped like the bolt of a dungeon.
I drank the glass of wine Mary brought me, and tried hard not to sadden
them, and to be a woman.
"Poor thing!" said Margray, when she'd taken off my bonnet and looked at
the fashion of my frock, "but you're sorely altered. Never fret,—it's
worth no tear; she counted much on your likely looks, though,—you never
told us the accident took them."
"I thought you'd know, Margray."
"Oh, for sure, there's many escapes.—And this is grenadine? I'd rather
have the old mohair.—Well, well, give a man luck and throw him into the
sea; happen you'll do better than us all. If my mother cannot marry you
as she'd choose, you'll come to less grief, I doubt." And Margray heaved
a little sigh, and ran to tumble up her two-year-old from his rose-lined
I went home with Margray that night; I couldn't bear to sleep in the
little white bed that was mine when a happy child, and with every star
that rose I felt a year the older; and on the morrow, when I came home,
my mother was still in the same taking, so I went back again and whiled
the day off as I could; and it was not so hard, for Mary Strathsay came
over, and Effie, and there was so much to tell, and so much to ask, and
Effie had all along been so full of some grand company she had met that
last year in Edinboro', that the dinner-bells rang ere we thought of
lunch; but still a weight lay on me like a crime on conscience. But by
the next dawning I judged 't was best that I should gather courage and
settle things as they were to be. Margray's grounds joined our own, and
I snatched up the babe, a great white Scotch bairn, and went along with
him in my arms under the dripping orchard-boughs, where still the soft
glooms lingered in the early morn. And just ere I reached the wicket, a
heavy step on the garden-walk beyond made my heart plunge, and I came
face to face with my mother. My tongue clove to the roof of my mouth, I
did not dare glance up, yet I felt her eyes upon me as if she searched
some spot fit for her fine lips, and presently her hand was on my head,
and the kiss had fallen on my hair, and then she gathered me into her
arms, and her tears rained down and anointed my face like chrism. And I
just let the wondering wean slip to the grass, and I threw my arms about
her and cried, "Oh, mother, mother, forgive me, and love me just a
little!" It was but a breathing; then I remembered the child at my feet,
and raised him, and smiled back on Mrs. Strathsay, and went on with a
lighter heart to set my chests and drawers straight.
The days slipped into weeks, and they were busy, one and all, ordering
Effie's wardrobe; for, however much I took the lead, she was the elder
and was to be brought out. My mother never meant to bring me out, I
think,—she could not endure the making of parade, and the hearing
the Thomsons and Lindsays laugh at it all, when 't was but for such a
flecked face,—she meant I should slip into life as I could. We had had
the seamstresses, and when they were gone sometimes Mrs. Strathsay came
and sat among us with her work;—she never pricked finger with fell
or hem, but the heaviest task she took was the weaving of the white
leaf-wreaths in and out the lace-web before her there,—and as we
stitched, we talked, and she lent a word how best an old breadth could
be turned, another gown refitted,—for we had to consider such things,
with all our outside show of establishment.
Margray came running through the garden that afternoon, and up where we
sat, and over her arm was fluttering no end of gay skirts and ribbons.
"I saved this pink muslin—it's real Indian, lascar lawn, fine as
cobweb—for you, Alice," she said. "It's not right to leave it to the
moths,—but you'll never need it now. It shall be Effie's, and she'll
look like a rose-bud in it,—with her yellow locks floating."
"Yes," said I.
"You'll not be wanting such bright things now, child; you'll best wear
grays, and white, and black."
"Indeed, then, I sha'n't," I said. "If I'm no longer lovely myself, I'll
be decked out in braw clothes, that I may please the eye one way or
"No use, child," sighed my mother 'twixt her teeth, and not meaning for
me to hear.
"So would I, Ailie," said Mary Strathsay, quickly. "There's much in fine
fibres and soft shades that gives one the womanly idea. You're the best
shape among us all, my light lissomeness, and your gowns shall fit it
rarely. Nay, Margray, let Alice have the pink."
"Be still, Mary Strathsay!" said my mother. "Alice will wear white this
summer; 'tis most suitable. She has white slips and to spare."
"But in the winter?" urged the other. "'Twill be sad for the child, and
we all so bright. There's my pearl silk,—I'm fairly tired of it,—and
with a cherry waist-piece"——
"You lose breath," said my mother, coldly and half vexed.
So Mary Strathsay bit her lip and kept the peace.
"Whisht now, child, your turn will come," said Margray, unfolding a
little bodice of purple velvet, with its droop of snowy Mechlin. "One
must cut the coat according to the cloth. That's for Effie,—gayly my
heart's beat under you," laying it down and patting it on one side,
lovingly. "There, if white's the order of the day, white let it be,—and
let Mrs. Strathsay say her most, she cannot make other color of this,
and she shall not say me nay. That's for Alice." And she flung all the
silvery silk and blonde lace about me.
"Child, you'll sparkle!" whispered Mary Strathsay in my ear, hastening
to get the glittering apparel aside, lest my mother should gainsay us.
But Mrs. Strathsay did not throw us a glance.
"You're ill-pleased, Effie," said Margray; for our little beauty,
finding herself so suddenly the pet, had learned to toss her head in
pretty saucy ways.
"Not a speck!" Effie answered up. "'Twas high time,—I was thinking."
Margray laughed, and took her chin 'twixt thumb and finger, and tried
to look under the wilful lids that drooped above the blue light in her
"You're aye a faithful pet, and I like you clannish. Stand by them that
stands by you, my poor man used to say. You shall put on as fine a gown,
and finer, of my providing, the day you're wedded."
"I'll gie ye veil o' siller lace,
And troth ye wi' a ring;
Sae bid the blushes to your face,
My ain wee thing!"
"I want none of your silver lace," said Effie, laughing lightly, and we
little dreamed of the girl's thought. "I'll have that web my mother has
wrought with myrtle-leaf and blossom."
"And 'twas begun for me," said Mary, arching her brows, and before she
"You,—graceless girl!" said my mother. "It's no bridal veil will ever
cross your curls!"
"Surely, mother, we've said too much,—you'll overlook old scores."
"'T is hard forgetting, when a perverse child puts the hand to her own
"No hurt to me. You would not have had me take a man at his word when he
recked not what he said."
"Tsh! Tsh! Charles Seavern would have married you. And with the two
brothers gone, he's an earl now,—and you flung him off. Tsh!"
"I never saw the time, mother, solemnly as I've told you, when his right
hand knew what his left hand did,—what with his champagne-suppers, your
Burgundy, and Johnny Graeme's Jamaica. He'd have been sorely shocked
to wake up sober in his earldom some fine morning and find a countess
beside him ready-made to his hand."
"You spared him!" said my mother. And in a minute she added, softwise,
"Ay, were that all!"
"Ah," said Mary, "but I'll take the next one that asks me, if it's only
to save myself the taunts at home! You thought you were winning to a
soft nest, children, where there were nought but larks and thrushes and
maybe nightingales,—and we're all cuckoos.
"'Cuckoo! cuckoo! sweet voice of Spring,
Without you sad the year had been,
The vocal heavens your welcome ring,
The hedge-rows ope and take you in,
"'Cuckoo! cuckoo! O viewless sprite,
Your song enchants the sighing South,
It wooes the wild-flower to the light,
And curls the smile round my love's mouth,
"Have done your claver, Mary!" cried Margray. "One cannot hear herself
think, for the din of your twittering!—I'll cut the sleeve over
crosswise, I think,"—and, heedless, she herself commenced humming, in
an undertone, '"Cuckoo! cuckoo!'—There! you've driven mother out!"
"When I'm married, Ailie," she whispered, "I'll sing from morn till
night, and you shall sit and hear me, without Margray's glowering at us,
or my mother so much as saying, 'Why do you so?'"
For all the time the song had been purling from her smiling lips, Mrs.
Strathsay's eyes were laid, a weight like lead, on me, and then she had
risen as if it hurt her, and walked to the door.
"Or when you've a house of your own," added Mary, "we will sing together
"Oh, Mary!" said I, like the child I was, forgetting the rest, "when I'm
married, you will come and live with me?"
"You!" said my mother, stepping through the door and throwing the words
over her shoulder as she went, not exactly for my ears, but as if the
bubbling in her heart must have some vent. "And who is it would take
such a fright?"
"My mother's fair daft," said Margray, looking after her with a
perplexed gaze, and dropping her scissors. "Surely, Mary, you shouldn't
tease her as you do. She's worn more in these four weeks than in as many
years. You're a fickle changeling!"
But Mary rose and sped after my mother, with her tripping foot; and in a
minute she came back laughing and breathless.
"You put my heart in my mouth, Mistress Graeme," she said. "And all for
nothing. My mother's just ordering the cream to be whipped. Well, little
one, what now?"
"It's just this dress of Margray's,—mother's right,—'t will never do
for me; I'll wear shadows. But 't will not need the altering of a hair
for you, Mary, and you shall take it."
"I think I see myself," said Mary Strathsay, "wearing the dress Margray
married Graeme in!" For Margray had gone out to my mother in her turn.
"Then it's yours, Effie. I'll none of it!"
"I'm finely fitted out, then, with the robe here and the veil there!
bridal or burial, toss up a copper and which shall it be?" said Effie,
looking upward, and playing with her spools like a juggler's oranges.
And here Margray came back.
She sat in silence a minute or two, turning her work this way and that,
and then burst forth,—
"I'd not stand in your shoes for much, Alice Strathsay!" she cried,
"that's certain. My mother's in a rare passion, and here's Sir Angus
"Sir Who?" said Effie puzzled; "it was just Mr. Ingestre two years ago."
"Well, it's been Sir Angus a twelvemonth now and more,—ever since old
Sir Brenton went, and he went with a stroke."
"Yes," said Mary, "it was when Angus arrived in London from Edinboro',
the day before joining his ship."
"And why didn't we ever hear of it?"
"I don't just remember, Effie dear," replied Margray, meditatively,
"unless 't were—it must have been—that those were the letters lost
when the Atlantis went down."
"Poor gentleman!" said Mary. "It was one night when there was a division
in the House, and it divided his soul from his body,—for they found him
sitting mute as marble, and looking at their follies and strifes with
eyes whose vision reached over and saw God."
"For shame, Mary Strathsay, to speak lightly of what gave Angus such
"Is that lightly?" she said, smoothing my hair with her pretty pink
palms till it caught in the ring she wore. "Never mind what I say,
girlie; it's as like to be one word as the other. But I grieved for him.
He's deep and quiet; a sorrow sinks and underlies all that's over, in
"Hear her!" said Margray; "one would fancy the six feet of the Ingestre
stature were but a pocket-piece! The lad! Well, he'll put no pieces in
our pockets, I doubt," (Margray had ever an eye to the main chance,)
"and it's that angers my mother."
"Hush, Margray!" I heard Mary say, for I had risen and stolen forth.
"Thou'lt make the child hate us all. Were we savages, we had said less.
You know, girl, that our mother loved our father's face in her, and
counted the days ere seeing it once more; and having lost it, she
is like one bewildered. 'T will all come right. Let the poor body
alone,—and do not hurt the child's heart so. We're right careless."
I had hung on tiptoe, accounting it no meanness, and I saw Margray
"Well," she murmured, "something may be done yet. 'T will go hard, if by
hook or crook Mrs. Strathsay do not have that title stick among us"; and
then, to make an end of words, she began chattering anent biases
and gores, the lace on Mary Campbell's frill, the feather on Mary
Dalhousie's bonnet,—and I left them.
I ran over to Margray's, and finding the boy awake, I dismissed his
nurses the place, and stayed and played with him and took the charge
till long past the dinner-hour, and Margray came home at length, and
then, when I had sung the child asleep again, for the night, and Margray
had shown me all the contents of her presses, the bells were ringing
nine from across the river, and I ran back as I came, and up and into my
little bed, and my heart was fit to break, and I cried till the sound of
the sobs checked me into silence. Suddenly I felt a hand fumbling down
the coverlid, and 't was Nannie, my old nurse, and her arm was laid
heavily across me.
"Dinna greet," she whispered, "dinna greet and dull your een that are
brighter noo than a' the jauds can show,—the bonny blink o' them! They
sha' na flout and fleer, the feckless queans, the hissies wha'll threep
to stan' i' your auld shoon ae day! Dinna greet, lass, dinna!"
But I rose on my arm, and stared about me in all the white moonlight of
the vacant place, and hearkened to the voices and laughter rippling up
the great staircase,—for there were gallants in belike,—and made as if
I had been crying out in my sleep.
"Oh, Nurse Nannie, is it you?" I said.
"Ay, me, Miss Ailie darling!"
"Sure I dream so deeply. I'm all as oppressed with nightmare."
But with that she brushed my hair, and tenderly bathed my face in the
bay-water, and fastened on my cap, and, sighing, tucked the coverlid
round my shoulder, and away down without a word.
The next day was my mother's dinner-party. She was in a quandary about
me, I saw, and to save words I offered to go over again and stay with
the little Graeme. So it came to pass, one time being precedent of
another, that in all the merrymakings I had small share, and spent the
greater part of those bright days in Margray's nursery with, the boy, or
out-doors in the lone hay-fields or among the shrubberies; for he
waxed large and glad, and clung to me as my own. And to all kind Mary
Strathsay's pleas and words I but begged off as favors done to me, and I
was liker to grow sullen than smiling with all the stour.
"Why, I wonder, do the servants of a house know so much better than the
house itself the nearest concerns of shadowy futures? One night the
nurse paused above my bed and guarded the light with her hand.
"Let your heart lap," she said. "Sir Angus rides this way the morrow."
Ah, what was that to me? I just doubled the pillow over eyes and ears to
shut out sight and hearing. And so on the morrow I kept well out of the
way, till all at once Mrs. Strathsay stumbled over me and bade me, as
there would be dancing in the evening, to don my ruffled frock and be
ready to play the measures. I mind me how, when I stood before the glass
and secured the knot in my sash, and saw by the faint light my loosened
hair falling in a shadow round me and the quillings of the jaconet, that
I thought to myself how it was like a white moss-rose, till of a sudden
Nannie held the candle higher and let my face on me,—and I bade her
bind up my hair again in the close plaits best befitting me. And I crept
down and sat in the shade of the window-curtains, whiles looking out at
the soft moony night, whiles in at the flowery lighted room. I'd heard
Angus's coming, early in the afternoon, and had heard him, too, or e'er
half the cordial compliments were said, demand little Alice; and
they told him I was over and away at Margray's, and in a thought the
hall-doors clashed behind him and his heels were ringing up the street,
and directly he hastened home again, through the gardens this time, and
saw no sign of me;—but now my heart beat so thickly, when I thought of
him passing me in the dance, that, could I sit there still, I feared
'twould of itself betray me, and that warned me to question if the hour
were not ready for the dances, and I rose and stole to the piano and
sat awaiting my mother's word. But scarcely was I there when one came
quietly behind me, and a head bent and almost swept my shoulder; then he
stood with folded arms.
"And how long shall I wait for your greeting? Have you no welcome for
"Yes, indeed, Sir Angus," I replied; but I did not turn my head, for as
yet he saw only the back of me, fair and graceful perchance, as when he
He checked himself in some word.
"Well, then," he said, "give it me, tell it me, look it me!"
I rose from my seat and shifted the piece of music before me,—turned
and gazed into his eyes one long breathing-space, then I let the lids
fall,—waited a minute so,—and turned back ere my lip should be all in
a quiver,—but not till his head bent once more, and a kiss had fallen
on those lids and lain there cool and soft as a pearl,—a pearl that
seemed to sink and penetrate and melt inwardly and dissolve and fill my
brain with a white blinding light of joy. 'Twas but a brief bit of the
great eternities;—and then I found my fingers playing I knew not how,
and heard the dancers' feet falling to the tune of I knew not what.
While I played there, Margray sat beside me, for the merriment was
without now, on the polished oak-floor of the hall, and they being few
but familiars who had the freedom of the house, (and among whom I had
had no need but to slip with a nod and smile ere gaining my seat,) she
took out her needle and set a stitch or two, more, perhaps, to cover
her being there at all than for any need of industry; for Margray loved
company, and her year of widowhood being not yet doubled, and my mother
unwilling that she should entertain or go out, she made the most of that
at our house; for Mrs. Strathsay had due regard of decency,—forbye she
deemed it but a bad lookout for her girls, if the one of them danced on
her good-man's grave.
"I doubt will Sir Angus bide here," said Margray at length; for though
all his boyhood she had called him by every diminutive his name could
bear, the title was a sweet morsel in her unaccustomed mouth, and she
kept rolling it now under her tongue. "Mrs. Strathsay besought him,
but his traps and his man were at the inn. Sir Angus is not the lad he
was,—a young man wants his freedom, my mother should remember."
And as her murmur continued, my thoughts came about me. They were like
birds in the hall; and all their voices and laughter rising above the
jingle of the keys, I doubted was he so sorry for me, after all. Then
the dancing broke, I found, though I still played on, and it was some
frolicsome game of forfeits, and Angus was chasing Effie, and with
her light step and her flying laugh it was like the wind following a
rose-flake. Anon he ceased, and stood silent and statelier than Mrs.
Strathsay's self, looking on.
"See Sir Angus now," said Margray, bending forward at the pictures
shifting through the door-way. "He'd do for the Colossus at
what-you-may-call-it; and there's our Effie, she minds me of a
yellow-bird, hanging on his arm and talking: I wonder if that's what my
mother means,—I wonder will my mother compass it. See Mary Strathsay
there! She's white and fine, I'll warrant; see her move like a swan on
the waters! Ay, she's a lovesome lass,—and Helmar thought so, too."
"What are you saying of Mary Strathsay? Who don't think she's a
"Helmar don't now,—I'll dare be sworn."
"Hush, now! don't get that maggot agait again. My mother'd ban us both,
should her ears side this way."
"What is it you mean, Margray dear?"
"Sure you've heard of Helmar, child?"
Yes, indeed, had I. The descendant of a bold Spanish buccaneer who came
northwardly with his godless spoil, when all his raids upon West-Indian
seas were done, and whose name had perhaps suffered a corruption at our
Provincial lips. A man—this Helmar of to-day—about whom more strange
tales were told than of the bloody buccaneer himself. That the walls of
his house were ceiled with jewels, shedding their accumulated lustre of
years so that never candle need shine in the place, was well known. That
the spellbound souls of all those on his red-handed ancestor's roll were
fain to keep watch and ward over their once treasures, by night and
noon, white-sheeted and faint in the glare of the sun, wan in the moon,
blacker shadows in the starless dark, found belief. And there were those
who had seen his seraglio;—but few, indeed, had seen him,—a lonely
man, in fact, who lived aloof and apart, shunned and shunning, tainted
by the curse of his birth.
"Oh, yes," I said, "of Helmar away down the bay; but the mate of our
brig was named Helmar, too."
Margray's ivory stiletto punched a red eyelet in her finger.
"Oh, belike it was the same!" she cried, so loud that I had half to
drown it in the pedal. "He's taken to following the sea, they say."
"What had Helmar to do with our Mary, Margray?"
"What had he to do with her?" answered Margray in under-voice. "He fell
in love with her!"
"That's not so strange."
"Then I'll tell you what's stranger, and open your eyes a wee. She fell
in love with him."
"Our Mary? Then why didn't she marry him?"
"Yes. If my mother wants gold, there it is for her."
"He's the child of pirates; there's blood on his gold; he poured it
out before my mother, and she told him so. He's the making of a pirate
himself. Oh, you've never heard, I see. Well, since I'm in for it,—but
you'll never breathe it?—and it's not worth while darkening Effie
with it, let alone she's so giddy my mother'd know I'd been giving it
mouth,—perhaps I oughtn't,—but there!—poor Mary! He used to hang
about the place, having seen her once when she came round from Windsor
in a schooner, and it was a storm,—may-happen he saved her life in it.
And Mary after, Mary'd meet him at church, and in the garden, and on the
river; 't was by pure chance on her part, and he was forever in the way.
Then my mother, innocent of it all, went to Edinboro', as you know, and
I was married and out of the reach, and Mary kept the house those two
months with Mrs. March of the Hill for dowager,—her husband was in
the States that summer,—and Mrs. March is no more nor less than
cracked,—and no wonder he should make bold to visit the house. My
mother'd been home but a day and night, 's you may say, when in walks my
gentleman,—who but he?—fine as a noble of the Court, and Mary presents
him to Mrs. Strathsay as Mr. Helmar of the Bay. Oh, but Mrs. Strathsay
was in a stound. And he began by requesting her daughter's hand. And
that brake the bonds,—and she dashed out sconners of wrath. Helmar's
eyes flashed only once, then he kept them on the ground, and he heard
her through. 'T was the second summer Seavern's fleet was at
the harbor's mouth there, and a ship of war lay anchored a mile
downriver,—many's the dance we had on it's deck!—and Captain Seavern
of late was in the house night and morn,—for when he found Mary offish,
he fairly lay siege to her, and my mother behind him,—and there was
Helmar sleeping out the nights in his dew-drenched boat at the garden's
foot, or lying wakeful and rising and falling with the tide under her
window, and my mother forever hearing the boat-chains clank and stir.
She's had the staple wrenched out of the wall now,—'t was just below
the big bower-window, you remember. And when Mary utterly refused
Seavern, Seavern swore he'd wheel his ship round and raze the house to
its foundations: he was—drunk—you see. And Mary laughed in his face.
And my mother beset her,—I think she went on her knees to her,—she led
her a dreadful life," said Margray, shivering; "and the end of it all
was, that Mary promised to give up Helmar, would my mother drop the suit
of Seavern. And at that, Helmar burst in: he was like one wild, and he
conjured Mary,—but she sat there stone-still, looking through him with
the eyes in her white, deadly face, as though she'd never seen him, and
answering no word, as if she were deaf to sound of his voice henceforth;
and he rose and glared down on my mother, who stood there with her white
throat up, proud and defiant as a stag at bay,—and he vowed he'd darken
her day, for she had taken the light out of his life. And Angus was by:
he'd sided with Helmar till then; but at the threat, he took the other
by the shoulder and led him to the door, with a blue blaze in those
Ingestre eyes, and Helmar never resisted, but fell down on his face on
the stones and shuddered with sobs, and we heard them into the night,
but with morning he was gone."
"Oh! And Mary?"
"'Deed, I don't think she cares. She's never mentioned his name. D'you
mind that ring of rubies she wears, like drops of blood all round the
hoop? 'Twas his. She shifted it to the left hand, I saw. It was broken
once,—and what do you think she did? She put a blow-pipe at the
candle-flame, and, holding it up in tiny pincers, soldered the two ends
together without taking it off her finger,—and it burning into the
bone! Strathsay grit. It's on her white wedding-finger. The scar's
there, too.—St! Where's your music? You've not played a note these five
minutes. Whisht! here comes my mother!"
How was Helmar to darken my mother's day, I couldn't but think, as I
began to toss off the tune again. And poor Mary,—there were more scars
than I carried, in the house. But while I turned the thoughts over,
Angus came for me to dance, and Margray, he said, should play, and my
mother signed consent, and so I went.
But 'twas a heavy heart I carried to and fro, as I remembered what I'd
heard, and perhaps it colored everything else with gloom. Why was Angus
holding my hand as we glided? why was I by his side as we stood? and as
he spoke, why was I so dazzled with delight at the sound that I could
not gather the sense? Oh, why, but that I loved him, and that his noble
compassion would make him the same to me at first as ever,—slowly,
slowly, slowly lowering, while he turned to Effie or some other
fair-faced lass? Ah, it seemed to me then in a rebellious heart that my
lot was bitter. And fearful that my sorrow would abroad, I broke into a
desperation of gayety till my mother's hand was on my arm. But all the
while, Angus had been by, perplexed shadows creeping over his brow;—and
in fresh terror lest my hidden woe should rise and look him in the
face, all my mother's pride itself shivered through me, and I turned my
shoulder on him with a haughty, pettish chill.
So after that first evening the days and nights went by, went by on
leaden wings; for I wanted the thing over, it seemed I couldn't wait,
I desired my destiny to be accomplished and done with. Angus was ever
there when occasion granted,—for there were drives and sails and
rambles to lead him off; and though he'd urge, I would not join them,
not even at my mother's bidding,—she had taught me to have a strange
shrinking from all careless eyes;—and then, moreover, there were
dinners and balls, and them he must needs attend, seeing they were given
for him,—and I fancy here that my mother half repented her decree
concerning the time when I should enter society, or, rather, should
not,—yet she never knew how to take step in recedure.
But what made it hardest of all was a word of Margray's one day as I sat
over at her house hushing the little Graeme, who was sore vexed with
the rash, and his mother was busy plaiting ribbons and muslins for
Effie,—Effie, who seemed all at once to be blossoming out of her slight
girlhood into the perfect rose of the woman that Mary Strathsay was
already, and about her nothing lingering rathe or raw, but everywhere a
sweet and ripe maturity. And Margray said,—
"Now, Alice, tell me, why are you so curt with Angus? Did he start when
he saw you first?"
"Nay, I scarcely think so, Margray; he knew about it, you know. 'Sleep,
baby, sleep, in slumber deep, and smite across thy dreaming'"——
"'Deed, he didn't! He told me so himself. He said he'd been ever
fancying you fresh and fair as the day he left you,—and his heart
cracked when you turned upon him."
"Poor Angus, then,—he never showed it. 'Hush, baby, hush'"——
"He said he'd have died first!"
"Then perhaps he never meant for you to tell me, Margray."
"Oh, what odds? He said,—I'll tell you what else he said,—you're a
kind, patient heart, and there's no need for you to fret,—he said, as
he'd done you such injury, were there even no other consideration, he
should deem it his duty to repair it, so far as possible, both by the
offer of his hand, and, should it be accepted, by tender faithfulness
"Oh, Margray! did Angus say that? Oh, how chanced he to? Oh, how dared
"They're not his very words, belike; but that's the way I sensed them.
How came he? Why,—you see,—I'm not content with my mother's slow way
of things,—that's just the truth!—it's like the season's adding grain
on grain of sunshine or of rain in ripening her fruit,—it's oftenest
the quick blow strikes home; and so I just went picking out what I
wanted to know for myself."
"Oh, Margray,—I suppose,—what did he think?"
"Think? He didn't stop to think; he was mighty glad to meet somebody
to speak to. You may just thank your stars that you have such a lover,
"I've got no lover!" I wailed, breaking out in crying above the babe.
"Oh, why was I born? I'm like to die! I wish I were under the sods this
"Oh, goodness me!" exclaimed Margray, in a terror. "What's possessed the
girl? And I thinking to please her so! Whisht now, Ailie girl,—there,
dear, be still,—there, now, wipe away the tears; you're weak and
nervous, I believe,—you'd best take a blue-pill to-night. There's the
boy awake, and none but you can hush him off. It's odd, though, what a
liking he's taken to his Aunt Ailie!"
And so she kept on, diverting me, for Margray had some vague idea that
my crying would bring my mother; and she'd not have her know of her talk
with Angus, for the world;—marriage after marriage would not lighten
the rod of iron that Mrs. Strathsay held over her girls' lives, I ween.
And now, having no need to be gay, I indulged my fancy and was sad; and
the more Angus made as if he would draw near, the more I turned him off,
as scale-armor turns a glancing blade. Yet there had been times when,
seeming as if he would let things go my own gate, he had come and sat
beside me in the house, or joined his horse's bridle to mine in the
woods, and syllables slipped into sentences, and the hours flew winged
as we talked; and warmed into forgetfulness, all the sweet side of
me—if such there be—came out and sunned itself. And then I would
remember me and needs must wear the ice again, as some dancing,
glancing, limpid brook should sheathe itself in impenetrable crystals.
And all those hours—for seldom were the moments when, against my will I
was compelled to gladness—I became more and more alone; for Effie being
the soul of the festivities,—since Mary Strathsay oftenest stood cold
and proudly by, wax-white and like a statue on the wall,—and all
the world looking on at what they deemed to be no less than Angus's
courtship, I saw little of her except I rose on my arm to watch her
smiling sleep deep in the night. And she was heartsome as the lark's
song up the blue lift, and of late was never to be found in those two
hours when my mother kept her room at mid-day, and was over-fond of long
afternoon strolls down the river-bank or away in the woods by herself.
Once I fancied to see another walking with her there out in the
hay-fields beyond, walking with her in the sunshine, bending above her,
perhaps an arm about her, but the leafy shadows trembled between us and
darkened them out of sight. And something possessed me to think that the
dear girl cared for my Angus. Had I been ever so ready to believe my own
heart's desire, how could I but stifle it at that? It seemed as if the
iron spikes of trouble were thrust from solid bars of fate woven this
way and that across me, till with the last and newest complication I
grew to knowing no more where to turn than the toad beneath the harrow.
So the weeks went by. Angus had gone home on his affairs,—for he had
long left the navy,—but was presently to return to us. It was the sweet
September weather: mild the mellow sunshine,—but dour the days to me!
There was company in the house that evening, and I went down another
way; for the sound of their lilting and laughing was but din in my ears.
I passed Mary Strathsay, as I left my room; she had escaped a moment
from below, had set the casement wide in the upper hall, and was walking
feverishly to and fro, her arms folded, her dress blowing about her:
she'll often do the same in her white wrapper now, at dead of dark in
any stormy night: she could not find sufficient air to breathe, and
something set her heart on fire, some influence oppressed her with
unrest and longing, some instinct, some unconscious prescience, made her
all astir. I passed her and went down, and I hid myself in the arbor,
quite overgrown with wild, rank vines of late summer, and listened to a
little night-bird pouring out his complaining heart.
While I sat, I heard the muffled sound of horses' feet prancing in
the flagged court-yard,—for the house fronted on the street, one end
overhanging the river, the back and the north side lost in the gardens
that stretched up to Margray's grounds one way and down to the water's
brink the other, so the stroke of their impatient hoofs reached me but
faintly; yet I knew 'twas Angus and Mr. March of the Hill, whom Angus
had written us he was to visit. And then the voices within shook into a
chorus of happy welcome, the strain of one who sang came fuller on the
breeze, the lights seemed to burn clearer, the very flowers of the
garden blew a sweeter breath about me.
'Twas nought but my own perversity that hindered me from joining the
glee, that severed me from all the happiness; but I chose rather to be
miserable in my solitude, and I turned my back upon it, and went along
and climbed the steps and sat on the broad garden-wall, and looked down
into the clear, dark water ever slipping by, and took the fragrance of
the night, and heard the chime of the chordant sailors as they heaved
the anchor of some ship a furlong down the stream,—voices breathing out
of the dusky distance, rich and deep. And looking at the little boat
tethered there beneath, I mind that I bethought me then how likely
'twould be for one in too great haste to unlock the water-gate of the
garden, climbing these very steps, and letting herself down by the
branch of this old dipping willow here, how likely 'twould be for one,
should the boat but slip from under, how likely 'twould be for one to
sink in the two fathom of tide,—dress or scarf but tangling in
the roots of the great tree reaching out hungrily through the dark,
transparent depth below,—how likely to drown or e'er a hand could raise
her! And I mind, when thinking of the cool, embracing flow, the drawing,
desiring, tender current, the swift, soft, rushing death, I placed my
own hand on the willow-branch, and drew back, stung as if by conscience
that I trifled thus with a gift so sacred as life.
Then I went stealing up the alleys again, beginning to be half afraid,
for they seemed to me full of something strange, unusual sound, rustling
motion,—whether it were a waving bough, a dropping o'er-ripe pear, a
footstep on adjacent walks. Nay, indeed, I saw now! I leaned against
the beach-bole there, all wrapt in shade, and looked at them where they
inadvertently stood in the full gleam of the lighted windows: 'twas
Angus, and 'twas Effie. He spoke,—a low, earnest pleading,—I could
not hear a word, or I had fled,—then he stooped, and his lips had
touched her brow. Oh, had he but struck me! less had been the blow,
less the smart!—the blow, though all along I had awaited it. Ah, I
remembered another kiss, one that had sunk into my brain as a pearl
would sink in the sea, that when my heart had been saddest I had but
just to shut my eyes and feel again falling soft and warm on my lids,
lingering, loving, interpenetrating my soul with its glow;—and this,
oh, 't was like a blade cleaving that same brain with swift, sharp
flash! I flew into the house, but Effie was almost there before me,—and
on my way, falling, gliffered in the gloom, against something, I
snatched me back with a dim feeling that 't was Angus, and yet Angus had
followed Effie in. I slipped among the folk and sat down somewhere at
length like as if stunned.
It was question of passing the time, that went round; for, though all
their words fell dead on my ear at the moment, it was in charactery that
afterward I could recall, reïllume, and read; and one was for games, and
one for charades, and one for another thing;—and I sat silent and dazed
through it all. Finally they fell to travestying scenes from history,
each assuming a name and supporting it by his own wits, but it all
passed before my dulled senses like the phantasmagoria of a troubled
dream; and that tiring, there was a kind of dissolving views managed by
artful ebb and flow of light, pictures at whose ending the Rose of May
was lost in Francesca, who, waxing and waning in her turn, faded into
Astarte, and went out In a shudder of darkness,—and the three were
Effie. But ere the views were done, ere those three visions, when Effie
ran away to dress her part, I after her and up into our room, vaguely,
but as if needs must.
"I've good news for you," said she, without looking, and twisting her
long, bright hair. "I was with Angus but now in the garden. He can bear
it no longer, and he touched my brow with his lips that I promised to
urge his cause; for he loves you, he loves you, Alice! Am I not kind to
think of it now? Ah, if you knew all!"
She had already donned the gown of silvery silk and blonde, and was
winding round her head the long web of lace loosened from my mother's
broidery-frame. She turned and took me by the two shoulders, and looked
into my face with eyes of azure flame.
"I am wild with gladness!" she said. "Kiss me, girl, quick! there's no
time to spare. Kiss me on the cheek,—not the lip, not the lip,—he
kissed me there! Kiss me the cheek,—one, and the other! So, brow,
cheeks, mouth, and your kisses all have signed me with the sign of the
cross. Oh, girl, I am wild with joy!"
She spoke swift and high, held me by the two shoulders with a clasp like
steel, suddenly shook me loose, and was down and away.
I followed her again, as by habit,—but more slowly: I was trying to
distil her words. I stood then in the door of a little ante-room opening
into the drawing-room and looking on the courtyard, and gazed thence at
those three pictures, as if it were all a delirament, till out of them
Effie stepped in person, and danced, trilling to herself, through the
groups, flashing, sparkling, flickering, and disappeared. Oh, but Mrs.
Strathsay's eyes gleamed in a proud pleasure after her!
Hoofs were clattering again below in the yard, for Angus was to ride
back with Mr. March. Some one came my way,—I shrank through the
door-way, shivering from top to toe,—it was Angus searching for his
cap; and it was so long since I had suffered him to exchange a word with
me! I know not what change was wrought in my bewildered lineaments, what
light was in my glance; but, seeing me, all that sedate sadness that
weighed upon his manner fell aside, he hastily strode toward me, took my
hands as he was wont, and drew me in, gazing the while down my dazzled,
happy eyes till they fell.
"Ay, lass," said he then, laughing gleefully as any boy, and catching
both of my hands again that I had drawn away. "I've a puzzle of my own
to show thee,—a charade of two syllables,—a tiny thing, and yet it
holds my world! See, the first!"
He had led me to the mirror and stationed me there alone. I liked not to
look, but I did.
"Why, Angus," I said, "it's I."
"Well done! and go to the head. It's you indeed. But what else, Ailie
darling? Nay, I'll tell you, then. The first syllable—just to suit my
fancy—shall be bride, shall it not?"
"Bride," I murmured.
"And there behold the last syllable!" taking a step aside to the window,
and throwing wide the blind.
I looked down the dark, but there was nought except the servant in the
light of the hanging lamp, holding the curbs of the two horses that
leaped and reared with nervous limbs and fiery eyes behind him.
"Is it horses?—steeds?—oh, bridles!"
"But thou'rt a very dunce! The last syllable is groom."
"Now you shall see the embodiment of the whole word"; and with the step
he was before the glass again. "Look!" he said; "look from under my
arm,—you are just as high as my heart!"
"Why, that's you, Angus,"—and a gleam was dawning on me.
"Of course it is, little stupid! No less. And it's bridegroom too, and
never bridegroom but with this bride!" And he had turned upon me and was
taking me into his arms.
"Oh, Angus!" I cried,—"can you love me with no place on my face to
But he found a place.
"Can I help loving you?" he said,—"Oh, Ailie, I do! I do—when all
my years you have been my dream, my hope, my delight, when my life is
yours, when you are my very self!"
And I clung to him for answer, hiding all my troubled joy in his breast.
Then, while he still held me so, silent and tender,
close-folding,—there rose a great murmur through the rooms, and all the
people surged up to one end, and Margray burst in upon us, calling him.
He drew me forth among them all, his arm around my waist, and they
opened a lane for us to the window giving into the garden, and every
eye was bent there on a ghastly forehead, a grim white face, a terrible
face, pressed against the glass, and glaring in with awful eyes!
"By Heaven, it is Helmar!" cried Angus, fire leaping up his brow;—but
Mary Strathsay touched him to stone with a fling of her white finger,
and went like a ghost herself and opened the casement, as the other
signed for her to do. He never gave her glance or word, but stepped past
her straight to my mother, and laid the white, shining, dripping bundle
that he bore—the trilling hushed, the sparkle quenched, so flaccid, so
limp, so awfully still—at her feet.
"I never loved the girl," he said, hoarsely. "Yet to-night she would
have fled with me. It was my revenge, Mrs. Strathsay! She found her own
death from a careless foot, the eager haste of an arm, the breaking
branch of your willow-tree. Woman! woman!" he cried, shaking his long
white hand before her face, "you took the light out of my life, and I
swore to darken your days!"
Mrs. Strathsay fell forward on the body with a long, low moan. He faced
about and slid through us all, ere Angus could lay hand on him,—his
eye on Mary Strathsay. There was no love on her face, no expectancy, no
passion, but she flung herself between the two,—between Angus following
and Helmar going, for he distained to fly,—then shut and clasped the
window, guarded it beneath one hand, and held Angus with her eye, white,
silent, deathly, no joy, no woe, only a kind of bitter triumph in
achieving that escape. And it was as if Satan had stalked among us
'Twas no use pursuit;—the ship that I had heard weighing anchor was
reached ere then and winging down the river. And from that hour to this
we have never set eyes on Helmar.
Well, at midsummer of the next year Angus married me. We were very
quiet, and I wore the white slip in which he showed me myself in the
glass as a a bride,—for we would not cast aside our crapes so soon, and
Mary wears hers to this day. From morn till night my poor mother used
only to sit and moan, and all her yellow hair was white as driving snow.
I could not leave her, so Angus rented his estates and came and lived
with us. 'Tis different now;—Mrs. Strathsay goes about as of old, and
sees there be no speck on the buttery-shelves, that the sirup of her
lucent plums be clear as the light strained through carbuncles, her
honeycombs unbroken, her bread like manna, and no followers about her
maids. And Mrs. Strathsay has her wish at length;—there's a son in the
house, a son of her own choosing, (for she had ever small regard for
the poor little Graeme,)—none knew how she had wished it, save by the
warmth with which she hailed it,—and she is bringing him up in the
way he should go. She's aye softer than she was, she does not lay her
moulding finger on him too heavily;—if she did, I doubt but we should
have to win away to our home. Dear body! all her sunshine has come out!
He has my father's name, and when sleep's white finger has veiled his
bonnie eyes, and she sits by him, grand and stately still, but humming
low ditties that I never heard her sing before, I verily believe that
she fancies him to be my father's child.
And still in the nights of clear dark we lean from the broad
bower-window and watch the river flowing by, the rafts swimming down
with breath of wood-scents and wild life, the small boats rocking on the
tide, revivifying our childhood with the strength of our richer years,
heart so locked in heart that we have no need of words,—Angus and I.
And often, as we lean so, over the beautiful silence of lapping ripple
and dipping oar there floats a voice rising and falling in slow throbs
of tune;—it is Mary Strathsay singing some old sanctified chant, and
her soul seems to soar with her voice, and both would be lost in heaven
but for the tender human sympathies that draw her back to our side
again. For we have grown to be a glad and peaceful family at length;
'tis only on rare seasons that the old wound rankles. We none of us
speak of Effie, lest it involve the mention of Helmar; we none of us
speak of Helmar, lest, with the word, a shining, desolate, woful phantom
flit like the wraith of Effie before us. But I think that Mary Strathsay
lives now in the dream of hereafter, in the dream that some day,
perchance when all her white beauty is gone and her hair folded in
silver, a dark, sad man will come off the seas, worn with the weather
and with weight of sorrow and pain, and lay himself down at her feet to
die. And shrived by sorrow and pain, and by prayer, he shall be lifted
in her arms, shall rest on her bosom, and her soul shall forth with his
into the great unknown.