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The next day was the Sabbath, and a long, dreary one it was to Christine. But late in the afternoon Susie Winthrop came with a pale, troubled face.
"Oh, Christine, have you heard the news?" she exclaimed.
Christine's heart stood still with fear, but by a great effort she said, composedly, "What news?"
"Mr. Fleet has gone home very ill; indeed, he is not expected to live."
For a moment she did not answer, and when she did it was with a voice unnaturally hard and cold: "Have you heard what is the matter?"
Miss Winthrop wondered at her manner, but replied, "Brain fever, I am told."
"Is he delirious?" asked Christine, in a low tone.
"Yes, all the time. Ernst, the little office-boy, told me he did not know his own mother. It seems that the boy's father is with Mrs. Fleet, helping take care of him."
Christine's face was averted and so colorless that it seemed like marble.
"Oh, Christine, don't you care?" said Susie, springing up and coming toward her.
"Why should I care?" was the quick answer.
Susie could not know that it was in reality but an incoherent cry of pain--the blind, desperate effort of pride to shield itself. But the tone checked her steps and filled her face with reproach.
"Perhaps you have more reason to care than you choose to admit," she said, pointedly.
Christine flushed, but said, coldly: "Of course I feel an interest in the fate of Mr. Fleet, as I do in that of every passing acquaintance. I feel very sorry for him and his friends"; but never was sympathy expressed in a voice more unnaturally frigid.
Susie looked at her keenly, and again saw the tell-tale flush rising to her cheek. She was puzzled, but saw that her friend had no confidence to give, and she said, with a voice growing somewhat cold also: "Well, really, Christine, I thought you capable of seeing as much as the rest of us in such matters, but I must be mistaken, if you only recognized in Dennis Fleet a passing acquaintance. Well, if he dies I doubt if either you or I look upon his equal again. Under right influences he might have been one of the first and most useful men of his day. But they need not tell me it was overwork that killed him. I know it was trouble of some kind."
Christine was very pale, but said nothing; and Susie, pained and mystified that the confidence of other days was refused, bade her friend a rather cold and abrupt adieu.
Left alone, Christine bowed her white face in her hands and sat so still that it seemed as if life had deserted her. In her morbid state she began to fancy herself the victim of some terrible fatality. Her heart had bounded when Susie Winthrop was announced, believing that from her she would gain sympathy; but in strange perversity she had hidden her trouble from her friend, and permitted her to go away in coldness. Christine could see as quickly and as far as any, and from the first had noted that Dennis was very interesting to her friend. Until of late she had not cared, but now for some reason the fact was not pleasing, and she felt a sudden reluctance to speak to Susie of him.
Now that she was alone a deeper sense of isolation came over her than she had ever felt before. Her one confidential friend had departed, chilled and hurt. She made friends but slowly, and, having once become estranged, from her very nature she found it almost impossible to make the first advances toward reconciliation.
Soon she heard her father's steps, and fled to her room to nerve herself for the part she must act before him. But she was far from successful; her pale face and abstracted manner awakened his attention and his surmises as to the cause. Having an engagement out, he soon left her to welcome solitude; for when she was in trouble he was no source of help or comfort.
Monday dragged wearily to a close. She tried to work, but could not. She took up the most exciting book she could find, only to throw it down in despair. Forever before the canvas or the page would rise a pale thin face, at times stern and scornful, again full of reproach, and then of pleading.
Even at night her rest was disturbed, and in dreams she heard the mutterings of his delirium, in which he continually charged her with his death. At times she would take his picture from its place of concealment, and look at it with such feelings as would be awakened by a promise of some priceless thing now beyond reach forever. Then she would become irritated with herself, and say, angrily: "What is this man to me? Why am I worrying about one who never could be much more to me living than dead? I will forget the whole miserable affair."
But she could not forget. Tuesday morning came, but no relief. "Whether he lives or dies he will follow me to my grave!" she cried. "From the time I first spoke to him there has seemed no escape, and in strange, unexpected ways he constantly crosses my path!"
She felt that she must have some relief from the oppression on her spirit. Suddenly she thought of Ernst, and at once went to the store and asked if he had heard anything later. He had not, but thought that his mother would receive a letter that day.
"I want to see your father's picture, and will go home that way, if you will give me the number."
The boy hesitated, but at last complied with her wish.
A little later Christine knocked at Mr. Bruder's door. There was no response, though she heard a stifled sound within. After a little she knocked more loudly. Then the door slowly opened, and Mrs. Bruder stood before her. Her eyes were very red, and she held in her hand an open letter. Christine expected to find more of a lady than was apparent at first glance in the hard-working woman before her, so she said, "My good woman, will you tell Mrs. Bruder I would like to see her?"
"Dis is Mrs. Bruder," was the answer.
Then Christine noticed the letter, and the half-effaced traces of emotion, and her heart misgave her; but she nerved herself to say, "I came to see your husband's picture."
"It is dere," was the brief reply.
Christine began to expatiate on its beauty, though perhaps for the first time she looked at a fine picture without really seeing it. She was at a loss how to introduce the object of her visit, but at last said, "Your husband is away?"
"He is taking care of one of my father's--of Mr. Fleet, I am told. Have you heard from him as to Mr. Fleet's health?"
"Dis is Miss Ludolph?"
"You can no read Sherman?"
"Oh, yes, I can. German is my native tongue."
"Strange dot him should be so."
"Der Shermans haf hearts."
Christine flushed deeply, but Mrs. Bruder without a word put her husband's letter into her hand, and Christine read eagerly what, translated, is as follows:
"MY DEAR WIFE--Perhaps before this reaches you our best friend, our human savior, will be in heaven. There is a heaven, I believe as I never did before; and when Mrs. Fleet prays the gate seems to open, and the glory to stream right down upon us. But I fear now that not even her prayers can keep him. Only once he knew her; then he smiled and said, 'Mother, it is all right,' and dropped asleep. Soon fever came on again, and he is sinking fast. The doctor shakes his head and gives no hope. My heart is breaking. Marguerite, Mr. Fleet is not dying a natural death; he has been slain. I understand all his manner now, all his desperate hard work. He loved one above him in wealth--none could be above him in other respects--and that one was Miss Ludolph. I suspected it, though till delirious, he scarcely ever mentioned her name. But now I believe she played with his heart--the noblest that ever beat--and then threw it away, as if it were a toy instead of the richest offering ever made to a woman. Proud fool that she was; she has done more mischief than a thousand such frivolous lives as hers can atone for. I can write no more; my heart is breaking with grief and indignation."
As Christine read she suffered her veil to drop over her face. When she looked up she saw that Mrs. Bruder's gaze was fixed upon her as upon the murderer of her best friend. She drew her veil closer about her face, laid the letter down, and left the room without a word. She felt so guilty and miserable on her way home that it would scarcely have surprised her had a policeman arrested her for the crime with which her own conscience, as well as Mr. Bruder's letter, charged her; and yet her pride revolted at it all.
"Why should this affair take so miserable a form with me?" she said. "To most it ends with a few sentimental sighs on one side, and as a good joke on the other. All seems to go wrong of late, and I am destined to have everything save happiness and the success upon which I set my heart. There is no more cruel mockery than to give one all save the very thing one wants; and, in seeking to grasp that, I have brought down upon myself this wretched, blighting experience. On this chaotic world! The idea of there being a God! Why, I could make a better world myself!" and she reached her home in such a morbid, unhappy state, that none in the great city need have envied the rich and flattered girl. Mechanically she dressed and came down to dinner.
During the afternoon Ernst, while out on an errand, had slipped home and heard the sad news. He returned to Mr. Ludolph's office crying. To the question, "What is the matter?" he had answered, "Oh, Mr. Fleet is dying; he is dead by dis time!"
Mr. Ludolph was sadly shocked and pained, for as far as he could like anybody besides himself and daughter, he had been prepossessed in favor of his useful and intelligent clerk, and he was greatly annoyed at the thought of losing him. He returned full of the subject, and the first words with which he greeted Christine were, "Well, Fleet will hang no more pictures for you, and sing no more songs."
She staggered into a chair and sat before him pale and panting, for she thought he meant that death had taken place.
"Why, what is the matter?" cried he.
She stared at him gaspingly, but said nothing.
"Here, drink this," he said, hastily pouring out a glass of wine.
She took it eagerly. After a moment he said: "Christine, I do not understand all this. I was merely saying that my clerk, Mr. Fleet, was not expected--"
The point of endurance and guarded self-control was past, and she cried, half-hysterically: "Am I never to escape that man? Must every one I meet speak to me as if I had murdered him?"
Then she added, almost fiercely: "Living or dead, never speak to me of him again! I am no longer a child, but a woman, and as such I insist that his name be dropped between us forever!"
Her father gave a low exclamation of surprise, and said, "What! was he one of the victims?" (this being his term for Christine's rejected suitors).
"No," said she; "I am the victim. He will soon be at rest, while I shall be tormented to the grave by--" She hardly knew what to say, so mingled and chaotic were her feelings. Her hands clenched, and with a stamp of her foot she hastily left the room.
Mr. Ludolph could hardly believe his eyes. Could this passionate, thoroughly aroused woman be his cold, self-contained daughter? He could not understand, as so many cannot, that such natures when aroused are tenfold more intense than those whom little things excite. A long and peculiar train of circumstances, a morbid and overwrought physical condition, led to this outburst from Christine, which was as much a cause of surprise to herself afterward as to her father. He judged correctly that a great deal had occurred between Dennis and herself of which he had no knowledge, and again his confidence in her was thoroughly shaken.
At first he determined to question her and extort the truth. But when, an hour later, she quietly entered the parlor, he saw at a glance that the cold, proud, self-possessed woman before him would not submit to the treatment accepted by the little Christine of former days. The wily man read from her manner and the expression of her eye that he might with her consent lead, but could not command without awakening a nature as imperious as his own.
He was angry, but he had time to think. Prudence had given a decided voice in favor of caution.
He saw what she did not recognize herself, that her heart had been greatly touched, and in his secret soul he was not sorry now to believe that Dennis was dying.
"Father," said Christine, abruptly, "how soon can we start on our eastern trip?"
"Well, if you particularly wish it," he replied, "I can leave by the evening train to-morrow."
"I do wish it very much," said Christine, earnestly, "and will be ready."
After an evening of silence and constraint they separated for the night.
Mr. Ludolph sat for a long time sipping his wine after she had gone.
"After all it will turn out for the best," he said. "Fleet will probably die, and then will be out of the way. Or, if he lives, I can easily guard against him, and it will go no further. If she had been bewitched by a man like Mr. Mellen, the matter would have been more difficult.
"In truth," he continued, after a little, "now that her weak woman's heart is occupied by an impossible lover, there is no danger from possible ones;" and the man of the world went complacently to his rest, believing that what he regarded as the game of life was entirely in his own hands.
The next evening the night express bore Christine from the scene of the events she sought to escape; but she was to learn, in common with the great host of the sinning and suffering, how little change of place has to do with change of feeling. We take memory and character with us from land to land, from youth to age, from this world to the other, from time through eternity. Sad, then, is the lot of those who ever carry the elements of their own torture with them.
It was Christine's purpose, and she had her father's consent, to make a long visit in New York, and, in the gayety and excitement of the metropolis, to forget her late wretched experience.
As it was still early in September, they resolved to stop at West Point and participate in the gayest season of that fashionable watering-place. At this time the hotels are thronged with summer tourists returning homeward from the more northern resorts. Though the broad piazzas of Cozzens's great hotel were crowded by the elite of the city, there was a hum of admiration as Christine first made her round on her father's arm; and in the evening, when the spacious parlor was cleared for dancing, officers from the post and civilians alike eagerly sought her hand, and hundreds of admiring eyes followed as she swept through the mazes of the dance, the embodiment of grace and beauty. She was very gay, and her repartee was often brilliant, but a close observer would have seen something forced and unnatural in all. Such an observer was her father. He saw that the sparkle of her eyes had no more heart and happiness in it than that of the diamonds on her bosom, and that with the whole strength of her resolute nature she was laboring to repel thought and memory. But, as he witnessed the admiration she excited on every side, he became more determined than ever that his fair daughter should shine a star of the first magnitude in the salons of Europe. At a late hour, and wearied past the power of thought, she gladly sought refuge in the blank of sleep.
The next morning they drove out early, before the sun was high and warm. It was a glorious autumn day. Recent rains had purified the atmosphere, so that the unrivalled scenery of the Hudson stood out in clear and grand outline.
As Christine looked about her she felt a thrill of almost delight--the first sensation of the kind since that moment of exultation which Dennis had inspired, but which he had also turned to the bitterness of disaster and humiliation. She was keenly alive to beauty, and she saw it on every side. The Ludolph family had ever lived among the mountains on the Rhine, and the heart of this latest child of the race yearned over the rugged scenery before her with hereditary affection, which had grown stronger with each successive generation.
The dew, like innumerable pearls, gemmed the grass in the park-like lawn of the hotel, and the slanting rays of the sun flecked the luxuriant foliage. Never before had this passion for the beautiful in nature been so gratified, and all the artist feeling within her awoke.
On reaching the street the carriage turned southward, and, after passing the village of Highland Falls, entered on one of the most beautiful drives in America. At times the road led under overarching forest-trees, shaded and dim with that delicious twilight which only myriads of fluttering leaves can make. Again it would wind around some bold headland, and the broad expanse of the Hudson would shine out dotted with white sails. Then through a vista its waters would sparkle, suggesting an exquisite cabinet picture. On the right the thickly-wooded mountains rose like emerald walls, with here and there along their base a quiet farmhouse. With kindling eye and glowing cheeks she drank in view after view, and at last exclaimed, "If there were only a few old castles scattered among these Highlands, this would be the very perfection of scenery."
Her father watched her closely, and with much satisfaction.
"After all, her wound is slight," he thought, "and new scenes and circumstances will soon cause her to forget."
Furtively, but continually, he bent his eyes upon her, as if to read her very soul. A dreamy, happy expression rested on her face, as if a scene were present to her fancy even more to her taste than the one her eyes dwelt upon. In fact she was living over that evening at Miss Winthrop's, when Dennis had told her that she could reach truest and highest art--that she could feel--could copy anything she saw; and exhilarated by the fresh morning air, inspired by the scenery, she felt for the moment, as never before, that it might all be true.
Was he who gave those blissful assurances also exerting a subtile, unrecognized power over her? Certainly within the last few weeks she had been subject to strange moods and reveries. But the first dawning of a woman's love is like the aurora, with its strange, fitful flashes. The phenomena have never been satisfactorily explained.
But, as Mr. Ludolph watched complacently and admiringly, her expression suddenly changed, and a frightened, guilty look came into her face. The glow upon her cheeks gave place to extreme pallor, and she glanced nervously around as if fearing something, then caught her father's eye, and was conscious of his scrutiny. She at once became cold and self-possessed, and sat at his side pale and quiet till the ride ended. But he saw from the troubled gleam of her eyes that beneath that calm exterior were tumult and suffering. Few in this life are so guilty and wretched as not to have moments of forgetfulness, when the happier past comes back and they are oblivious of the painful present. Such a brief respite Christine enjoyed during part of her morning ride. The grand and swiftly varying scenery crowded her mind with pleasant images, which had been followed by a delicious revery. She felt herself to be a true priestess of Nature, capable of understanding and interpreting her voices and hidden meanings--of catching her evanescent beauty and fixing it on the glowing canvas. The strong consciousness of such power was indeed sweet and intoxicating. Her mind naturally reverted to him who had most clearly asserted her possession of it.
"He, too, would have equal appreciation of this scenery," she said to herself.
Then came the sudden remembrance, shrivelling her pretty dreams as the lightning scorches and withers.
"He--he is dead!--he must be by this time!"
And dread and guilt and something else which she did not define, but which seemed more like a sense of great loss, lay heavy at her heart. No wonder her father was perplexed and provoked by the sad change in her face. At first he was inclined to remonstrate and put spurs to her pride. But there was a dignity about the lady at his side, even though she was his daughter, that embarrassed and restrained him. Moreover, though he understood much and suspected far more--more indeed than the truth--there was nothing acknowledged or tangible that he could lay hold of, and she meant that it should be so. For reasons she did not understand she felt a disinclination to tell her troubles to Susie Winthrop, and she was most resolute in her purpose never to permit her father to speak on the subject.
If Mr. Ludolph had been as coarse and ignorant as he was hard and selfish, he would have gone to work at the case with sledge-hammer dexterity, as many parents have done, making sad, brutal havoc in delicate womanly natures with which they were no more fit to deal than a blacksmith with hair-springs. But though he longed to speak, and bring his remorseless logic to bear, Christine's manner raised a barrier which a man of his fine culture could not readily pass.
She joined her father at a late breakfast, smiling and brilliant, but her gayety was clearly forced. The morning was spent in sketching, she seeming to crave constant occupation or excitement.
In the afternoon father and daughter drove up the river to the military grounds to witness a drill. Mr. Ludolph did his best to rally Christine, pointing out everything of interest. First, the grand old ruin of Fort Putnam frowned down upon them. This had been the one feature wanting, and Christine felt that she could ask nothing more. Her wonder and admiration grew as the road wound along the immediate bluff and around the plain by the river fortifications. But when she stood on the piazza of the West Point Hotel, and looked up through the Highlands toward Newburgh, tears came to her eyes, and she trembled with excitement. From her recent experiences her nerves were morbidly sensitive. But her father could only look and wonder, she seemed so changed to him.
"And is the Rhine like this?" she asked.
"Well, the best I can say is, that to a German and a Ludolph it seems just as beautiful," he replied.
"Surely," said she, slowly and in half-soliloquy, "if one could live always amid such scenes as these, the Elysium of the gods or the heaven of the Christians would offer few temptations."
"And among just such scenes you shall live after a short year passes," he answered, warmly and confidently. But with anger he missed the wonted sparkle of her eyes when these cherished plans were broached.
In bitterness Christine said to herself: "A few weeks since this thought would have filled me with delight. Why does it not now?"
Silently they drove to the parade-ground. At the sally-port of the distant barracks bayonets were gleaming. There was a burst of martial music, then each class at the Academy--four companies--came out upon the grassy plain upon the double-quick. Their motions were light and swift, and yet so accurately timed that each company seemed one perfect piece of mechanism. A cadet stood at a certain point with a small color flying. Abreast of this their advance was checked as suddenly as if they had been turned to stone, and the entire corps was in line. Then followed a series of skilful manoeuvres, in which Christine was much interested, and her old eager manner returned.
"I like the army," she exclaimed; "the precision and inflexible routine would just suit me. I wish there was war, and I a man, that I might enter into the glorious excitements."
Luxurious Mr. Ludolph had no tastes in that direction, and, shrugging his shoulders, said: "How about the hardships, wounds, and chances of an obscure death? These are the rule in a campaign; the glorious excitements the exceptions."
"I did not think of those," she said, shrinking against the cushions. "Everything seems to have so many miserable drawbacks!"
The pageantry over, the driver turned and drove northward through the most superb scenery.
"Where are we going?" asked Christine.
"To the cemetery," was the reply.
"No, no! not there!" she exclaimed, nervously.
"Nonsense! Why not?" remonstrated her father.
"I don't wish to go there!" she cried, excitedly. "Please turn around."
Her father reluctantly gave the order, but added, "Christine, you certainly indulge in strange moods and whims of late."
She was silent a moment, and then she began a running fire of questions about the Academy, that left no space for explanations.
That evening she danced as resolutely as ever, and by her beauty and brilliant repartee threw around her many bewildering spells that even the veterans of the Point could scarcely resist.
But when alone in her own room she looked at her white face in the mirror, and murmured in tones full of unutterable dread and remorse, "He is dead--he must be dead by this time!"
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