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Christine had a peculiar experience while at West Point. She saw on every side what would have brought her the choicest enjoyment, had her mind been at rest. To her artist nature, and with her passion and power for sketching, the Highlands on the Hudson were paradise. But though she saw in profusion what once would have delighted her, and what she now felt ought to be the source of almost unmingled happiness, she was still thoroughly wretched. It was the old fable of Tantalus repeating itself. Her sin and its results had destroyed her receptive power. The world offered her pleasures on every side; she longed to enjoy them, but could not, for her heart was preoccupied--filled and overflowing with fear, remorse, and a sorrow she could not define.
A vain, shallow girl might soon have forgotten such an experience as Christine had passed through. Such a creature would have been sentimental or hysterical for a little time, according to temperament, and then with the old zest have gone to flirting with some new victim. There are belles so weak and wicked that they would rather plume themselves on the fact that one had died from love of them. But in justice to all such it should be said that they rarely have mind enough to realize the evil they do. Their vanity overshadows every other faculty, and almost destroys those sweet, pitiful, unselfish qualities which make a true woman what a true man most reverences next to God.
Christine was proud and ambitious to the last degree, but she had not this small vanity. She did not appreciate the situation fully, but she was unsparing in her self-condemnation.
If Dennis had been an ordinary man, and interested her no more than had other admirers, and had she given him no more encouragement, she would have shrugged her shoulders over the result and said she was very sorry he had made such a fool of himself.
But as she went over the past (and this now she often did), she saw that he was unusually gifted; nay, more, the picture she discovered in the loft of the store proved him possessed of genius of a high order. And such a man she had deceived, tortured, and even killed! This was the verdict of her own conscience, the assertion of his own lips. She remembered the wearing life of alternate hope and fear she had caused him. She remembered how eagerly he hung on her smiles and sugared nothings, and how her equally causeless frowns would darken all the world to him. She saw day after day how she had developed in a strong, true heart, with its native power to love unimpaired, the most intense passion, and all that her own lesser light might burn a little more brightly. Then, with her burning face buried in her hands, she would recall the bitter, shameful consummation. Worse than all, waking or sleeping, she continually saw a pale, thin face, that even in death looked upon her with unutterable reproach. In addition to the misery caused by her remorse, there was a deeper bitterness still. Within the depths of her soul a voice told her that the picture was true; that he might have awakened her, and led her out into the warmth and light of a happy life--a life which she felt ought to be possible, but which as yet had been but a vague and tantalizing dream. Now the world seemed to her utter chaos--a place of innumerable paths leading nowhere; and her own hands had broken the clew that might have brought her to something assured and satisfactory. She was very wretched, for her life seemed but a little point between disappointment on one side and the blackness of death and nothingness on the other. The very beauty of the landscapes about her often increased her pain. She felt that a few weeks ago she would have enjoyed them keenly, and found in their transference to canvas a source of unfailing pleasure. With a conscious blush she thought that if he were present to encourage, to stimulate her, by the very vitality of his earnest, loving nature, she would be in the enjoyment of paradise itself. In a word, she saw the heaven she could not enter.
To the degree that she had mind, heart, conscience, and an intense desire for true happiness, she was unhappy. Dress, dancing, the passing admiration of society, the pleasures of a merely fashionable life, seemed less and less satisfactory. She was beyond them, as children outgrow their toys, because she had a native superiority to them, and yet they seemed her best resource. She had all her old longing to pursue her art studies, and everything about her stimulated her to this, but her heart and hand appeared paralyzed. She was in just that condition, mental and moral, in which she could do nothing well.
And so the days passed in futile efforts to forget--to drown in almost reckless gayety--the voices of conscience and memory. But she only remembered all the more vividly; she only saw the miserable truth all the more clearly. She suffered more in her torturing consciousness than Dennis in his wild delirium.
After they had been at the hotel about a week, Mr. Ludolph received letters that made his speedy return necessary. On the same day the family of his old New York partner arrived at the house on their return from the Catskills. Mrs. Von Brakhiem gladly received Christine under her care, feeling that the addition of such a bright star would make her little constellation one of the most brilliant in the fashionable world.
The ladies of the house were now immersed in the excitement of an amateur concert. Mrs. Von Brakhiem, bent upon shining among the foremost, though with a borrowed lustre, assigned Christine a most prominent part. She half shrank from it, for it recalled unpleasant memories; but she could not decline without explanations, and so entered into the affair with a sort of recklessness.
The large parlors were filled with chairs, which were soon occupied, and it was evident that in point of attraction elegant toilets would vie with the music. Christine came down on her father's arm, dressed like a princess, and, though her diamonds were few, such were their size and brilliancy that they seemed on fire. Every eye followed Mrs. Von Brakhiem's party, and that good lady took half the admiration to herself.
A superior tenor, with an unpronounceable foreign name, had come up from New York to grace the occasion. But personally he lacked every grace himself, his fine voice being the one thing that redeemed him from utter insignificance in mind and appearance. Nevertheless he was vain beyond measure, and made the most of himself on all occasions.
The music was fine, for the amateurs, feeling that they had a critical audience, did their best. Christine chose three brilliant, difficult, but heartless pieces as her contribution to the entertainment (she would not trust herself with anything else); and with something approaching reckless gayety she sought to hide the bitterness at her heart. Her splendid voice and exquisite touch doubled the admiration her beauty and diamonds had excited, and Mrs. Von Brakhiem basked in still stronger reflected light. She took every opportunity to make it known that she was Miss Ludolph's chaperon.
After her first effort, the "distinguished" tenor from New York opened his eyes widely at her; at her second, he put up his eyeglass in something like astonishment; and the close of her last song found him nervously rummaging a music portfolio in the corner.
But for Christine the law of association had become too strong, and the prolonged applause recalled the evening at Miss Brown's when the same sounds had deafened her, but when turning from it all she had seen Dennis Fleet standing in rapt attention, his lips parted, his eyes glowing with such an honest admiration that even then it was worth more to her than all the clamor. Then, by the same law of association, she again saw that eager, earnest face, changed pale, dead--dead!--and she the cause. Regardless of the compliments lavished upon her, she buried her face in her hands and trembled from head to foot.
But the irrepressible tenor had found what he wanted, and now came forward asking that Miss Ludolph would sing a duet with him.
She lifted a wan and startled face. Must the torturing similarity and still more torturing contrast of the two occasions be continued? But she saw her father regarding her sternly--saw that she was becoming the subject of curious glances and whispered surmises. Her pride was aroused at once, and, goaded on by it, she said, "Oh, certainly; I am not feeling well, but it does not signify."
"And den," put in the tenor, "dis is von grand occazeon to you, for it is so unfrequent dat I find any von vorthy to sing dis style of music vith me."
"What is the music?" asked Christine, coldly.
To her horror she found it the same selection from Mendelssohn that she had sung with Dennis.
"No," she said, sharply, "I cannot sing that."
"Pardon me, my daughter, you can sing it admirably if you choose," interposed her father.
She turned to him imploringly, but his face was inflexible, and his eyes had an incensed look. For a moment she, too, was angry. Had he no mercy? She was about to decline coldly, but her friends were very urgent and clamorous--"Please do," "Don't disappoint us," echoing on every side. The tenor was so surprised and puzzled at her insensibility to the honor he had conferred, that, to prevent a scene she could not explain, she went to the piano as if led to the stake.
But the strain was too great upon her in her suffering state. The familiar notes recalled so vividly the one who once before had sung them at her side that she turned almost expecting to see him--but saw only the vain little animated music-machine, who with many contortions was producing the harmony. "Just this mockery my life will ever be," she thought; "all that I am, the best I can do, will always be connected with something insignificant and commonplace. The rich, impassioned voice of the man who sang these words, and who might have taught me to sing the song of a new and happier life, I have silenced forever."
The thought overpowered her. Just then her part recurred, but her voice died away in a miserable quaver, and again she buried her face in her hands. Suddenly she sprang from the piano, darted through the low-cut open window near, and a moment later ordered her startled maid from the room, turned the key, and was alone.
Her father explained coldly to the astonished audience and the half-paralyzed tenor (who still stood with his mouth open) that his daughter was not at all well that evening, and ought not to have appeared at all. This Mrs. Von Brakhiem took up and repeated with endless variations. But the evidences of sheer mental distress on the part of Christine had been too clear, and countless were the whispered surmises of the fashionable gossips in explanation.
Mrs. Von Brakhiem herself, burning with curiosity, soon retired, that she might receive from her lovely charge some gushing confidences, which she expected, as a matter of course, would be poured into what she chose to regard as her sympathizing ear. But she knocked in vain at Christine's door.
Later Mr. Ludolph knocked. There was no answer.
"Christine!" he called.
After some delay a broken voice answered, "You cannot enter--I am not well--I have retired."
He turned on his heel and strode away, and that night drank more brandy and water than was good for him.
As for Christine, warped and chilled though her nature had been, she was still a woman, she was still young, and, though she knew it not, she had heard the voice which had spoken her heart into life. Through a chain of circumstances for which she was partly to blame, she had been made to suffer as she had not believed was possible. The terrible words of Mr. Bruder's letter rang continually in her ears--"Mrs. Fleet is not dying a natural death; he has been, slain."
For many long, weary days the conviction had been growing upon her that she had indeed slain him and mortally wounded herself. Until to-night she had kept herself outwardly under restraint, but now the long pent-up feeling gave way, and she sobbed as if her heart would break--sobbed till the power to weep was gone. If now some kind, judicious friend had shown her that she was not so guilty as she deemed herself; that, however, frightful the consequences of such acts, she was really not to blame for what she did not intend and could not foresee; more than all, if she could only have known that her worst fears about Dennis were not to be realized, and that he was now recovering, she might at once have entered on a new and happier life. But there was no such friend, no such knowledge, and her wounded spirit was thrown back upon itself.
At last, robed as she had been for the evening, she fell asleep from sheer exhaustion and grief--for grief induces sleep.
The gems that shone in her dishevelled hair; that rose and fell as at long intervals her bosom heaved with convulsive sobs, like the fitful gusts of a storm that is dying away; the costly fabrics she wore--made sad mockery in their contrast with the pale, tear-stained, suffering face. The hardest heart might have pitied her--yes, even the wholly ambitious heart of her father, incensed as he was that a plebeian stranger of this land should have caused such distress.
When Christine awoke, her pride awoke also. With bitterness of spirit she recalled the events of the past evening. But a new phase of feeling now began to manifest itself.
After her passionate outburst she was much calmer. In this respect the unimpeded flow of feeling had done her good, and, as intimated, if kindness and sympathy could now have added their gentle ministrations, she might have been the better for it all her life. But, left to herself, she again yielded to the sway of her old and worst traits. Chief among these was pride; and under the influence of this passion and the acute suffering of her unsoothed, unguided spirit, she began to rebel in impotent anger. She grew hard, cynical, and reckless. Her father's lack of sympathy and consideration alienated her heart even from him. Left literally alone in the world, her naturally reserved nature shut itself up more closely than ever. Even her only friend, Susie Winthrop, drifted away. One other, who might have been--But she could think of him only with a shudder now. All the rest seemed indifferent, or censorious, or, worse still, to be using her, like Mrs. Von Brakhiem and even her own father, as a stepping-stone to their personal ambition. Christine could not see that she was to blame for this isolation. She did not understand that cold, selfish natures, like her own and her father's, could not surround themselves with warm, generous friends. She saw only the fact. But with flashing eyes she resolved that her heart's secrets should not be pried into a hair-breadth further; that she would be used only so far as she chose. She would, in short, "face out" the events of the past evening simply and solely on the ground that she had not been well, and permit no questions to be asked.
Cold and self-possessed, she came down to a late breakfast. Mrs. Von Brakhiem, and others who had been introduced, joined her, but nothing could penetrate through the nice polished armor of her courteous reserve. Her father looked at her keenly, but she coolly returned his gaze.
When alone with her soon afterward, he turned and said, sharply, "What does all this mean?"
She looked around as if some one else were near.
"Were you addressing me?" she asked, coldly.
"Yes, of course I am," said her father, impatiently.
"From your tone and manner, I supposed you must be speaking to some one else."
"Nonsense! I was speaking to you. What does all this mean?"
She turned on him an indescribable look, and after a moment said in a slow, meaning tone, "Have you not heard my explanation, sir?"
Such was her manner, he felt he could as easily strike her as say another word.
Muttering an oath, he turned on his heel and left her to herself.
The next morning her father bade her "Good-by." In parting he said, meaningly, "Christine, beware!"
Again she turned upon him that peculiar look, and replied in a low, firm tone: "That recommendation applies to you, also. Let us both beware, lest we repent at leisure."
The wily man, skilled in character, was now thoroughly convinced that in his daughter he was dealing with a nature very different from his wife's--that he was now confronted by a spirit as proud and imperious as his own. He clearly saw that force, threatening, sternness would not answer in this case, and that if he carried his points it must be through skill and cunning. By some means he must ever gain her consent and co-operation.
His manner changed. Instinctively she divined the cause; and hers did not. Therefore father and daughter parted as father and daughter ought never to part.
After his departure she was to remain at West Point till the season closed, and then accompany Mrs. Von Brakhiem to New York, where she was to make as long a visit as she chose;--and she chose to make a long one. In the scenery, and the society of the officers at West Point, and the excitements of the metropolis, she found more to occupy her thoughts than she could have done at Chicago. She went deliberately to work to kill time and snatch from it such fleeting pleasures as she might.
They stayed in the country till the pomp and glory of October began to illumine the mountains, and then (to Christine's regret) went to the city. There she entered into every amusement and dissipation that her tastes permitted, and found much pleasure in frequent visits to the Central Park, although it seemed tame and artificial after the wild grandeur of the mountains. It was well that her nature was so high-toned that she found enjoyment in only what was refined or intellectual. Had it been otherwise she might soon have taken, in her morbid, reckless state, a path to swift and remediless ruin, as many a poor creature all at war with happiness and truth has done. And thus in a giddy whirl of excitement (Mrs. Von Brakhiem's normal condition) the days and weeks passed, till at last, thoroughly satiated and jaded, she concluded to return home, for the sake of change and quiet, if nothing else. Mrs. Von Brakhiem parted with her regretfully. Where would she find such another ally in her determined struggle to be talked about and envied a little more than some other pushing, jostling votaries of fashion?
In languor or sleep Christine made the journey, and in the dusk of a winter's day her father drove her to their beautiful home, which from association was now almost hateful to her. Still she was too weary to think or suffer much. They met each other very politely, and their intercourse assumed at once its wonted character of high-bred courtesy, though perhaps it was a little more void of manifested sympathy and affection than before.
Several days elapsed in languid apathy, the natural reaction of past excitement; then an event occurred which most thoroughly aroused her.
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