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WHAT an error had been committed! How painfully was this realized by Mrs. Markland. How often had she looked forward, with a vague feeling of anxiety, to the time, yet far distant--she had believed--when the heart-strings of her daughter would tremble in musical response to the low-breathed voice of love--and now that time had come. Alas! that it had come so soon--ere thought and perception had gained matured strength and wise discrimination. The voice of the charmer was in her ears, and she was leaning to hearken.
Fanny did not join the family at the tea-table on that evening; and on the next morning, when she met her mother, her face was paler than usual, and her eyes drooped under the earnest gaze that sought to read her very thoughts. It was plain, from her appearance, that her sleep had been neither sound nor refreshing.
Mrs. Markland deemed it wisest to make no allusion to what had occurred on the previous evening. Her views in regard to answering Mr. Lyon's letter had been clearly expressed, and she had no fear that her daughter would act in opposition to them. Most anxiously did she await her husband's return. Thus far in life they had, in all important events, "seen eye to eye," and she had ever reposed full confidence in his judgment. If that confidence wavered in any degree now, it had been disturbed through his seeming entire trust in Mr. Lyon.
Aunt Grace had her share of curiosity, and she was dying, as they say, to know what was in Fanny's letter. The non-appearance of her niece at the tea-table had disappointed her considerably; and it was as much as she could do to keep from going to her room during the evening. Sundry times she tried to discover whether Mrs. Markland had seen the letter or, not, but the efforts were unsuccessful; the mother choosing for the present not to enter into further conversation with her on the subject.
All eye and all ear was Aunt Grace on the next morning, when Fanny made her appearance; but only through the eye was any information gathered, and that of a most unsatisfactory character. The little said by Fanny or her mother, was as a remote as possible from the subject that occupied most nearly their thoughts. Aunt Grace tried in various ways to lead them in the direction she would have them go; but it was all in vain that she asked questions touching the return of her brother, and wondered what could have taken him off to New York in such a hurry; no one made any satisfactory reply. At last, feeling a little chafed, and, at the same time, a little malicious, she said--
"That Mr. Lyon's at the bottom of this business."
The sentence told, as she had expected and intended. Fanny glanced quickly toward her, and a crimson spot burned on her cheek. But no word passed her lips. "So much gained," thought Aunt Grace; and then she said aloud--
"I've no faith in the man myself."
This, she believed, would throw Fanny off of her guard; but she was mistaken. The colour deepened on the young girl's cheeks, but she made no response.
"If he doesn't get Edward into trouble before he's done with him, I'm no prophet," added Aunt Grace, with a dash of vinegar in her tones.
"Why do you say that?" asked Mrs. Markland, who felt constrained to speak.
"I've no opinion of the man, and never had from the beginning, as you are very well aware," answered the sister-in-law.
"Our estimate of character should have a sounder basis than mere opinion, or, to speak more accurately--prejudice," said Mrs. Markland.
"I don't know what eyes were given us for, if we are not to see with them," returned Aunt Grace, dogmatically. "But no wonder so many stumble and fall, when so few use their eyes. There isn't that man living who does not bear, stamped upon his face, the symbols of his character. And plainly enough are these to be seen in the countenance of Mr. Lyon."
"And how do you read them, Aunt Grace?" inquired Fanny, with a manner so passionless, that even the sharp-sighted aunt was deceived in regard to the amount of feeling that lay hidden in her heart.
"How do I read them? I'll tell you. I read them as the index to a whole volume of scheming selfishness. The man is unsound at the core." Aunt Grace was tempted by the unruffled exterior of her niece to speak thus strongly. Her words went deeper than she had expected. Fanny's face crimsoned instantly to the very temples, and an indignant light flashed in her soft blue eyes.
"Objects often take their colour from the medium through which we see them," she said quickly, and in a voice considerably disturbed, looking, as she spoke, steadily and meaningly at her aunt.
"And so you think the hue is in the medium, and not in the object?" said Aunt Grace, her tone a little modified.
"In the present instance, I certainly do," answered Fanny, with some ardour.
"Ah, child! child!" returned her aunt, "this may be quite as true in your case as in mine. Neither of us may see the object in its true colour. You will, at least, admit this to be possible."
"And suppose you see it in a false colour?"
"Well?" Fanny seemed a little bewildered.
"Well? And what then?" Aunt Grace gazed steadily upon the countenance of Fanny, until her eyes drooped to the floor. "To whom is it of most consequence to see aright?"
Sharp-seeing, but not wise Aunt Grace! In the blindness of thy anxiety for Fanny, thou art increasing her peril. What need for thee to assume for the maiden, far too young yet to have the deeper chords of womanhood awakened in her heart to love's music, that the evil or good in the stranger's character might be any thing to her?
"You talk very strangely, Grace," said Mrs. Markland, with just enough of rebuke in her voice to make her sister-in-law conscious that she was going too far. "Perhaps we had better change the subject," she added, after the pause of a few moments.
"As you like," coldly returned Aunt Grace, who soon after left the room, feeling by no means well satisfied with herself or anybody else. Not a word had been said to her touching the contents of Fanny's letter, and in that fact was indicated a want of confidence that considerably annoyed her. She had not, certainly, gone just the right way about inviting confidence; but this defect in her own conduct was not seen very clearly.
A constrained reserve marked the intercourse of mother, daughter, and aunt during the day; and when night came, and the evening circle was formed as usual, how dimly burned the hearth-fire, and how sombre were the shadows cast by its flickering blaze! Early they separated, each with a strange pressure on the feelings, and a deep disquietude of heart.
Most of the succeeding day Fanny kept apart from the family; spending a greater portion of the time alone in her room. Once or twice it crossed the mother's thought, that Fanny might be tempted to answer the letter of Mr. Lyon, notwithstanding her promise not to do so for the present. But she repelled the thought instantly, as unjust to her beautiful, loving, obedient child. Still, Fanny's seclusion of herself weighed on her mind, and led her several times to go into her room. Nothing, either in her manner or employment, gave the least confirmation to the vague fear which had haunted her.
The sun was nearly two hours above the horizon, when Fanny left the house, and bent her steps towards a pleasant grove of trees that stood some distance away. In the midst of the grove, which was not far from the entrance-gate to her father's beautiful grounds, was a summer-house, in Oriental style, close beside an ornamental fountain. This was the favourite resort of the maiden, and thither she now retired, feeling certain of complete seclusion, to lose herself in the bewildering mazes of love's young dream. Before the eyes of her mind, one form stood visible, and that a form of manly grace and beauty,--the very embodiment of all human excellence. The disparaging words of her aunt had, like friction upon a polished surface, only made brighter to her vision the form which the other had sought to blacken. What a new existence seemed opening before her, with new and higher capacities for enjoyment! The half-closed bud had suddenly unfolded itself in the summer air, and every blushing petal thrilled with a more exquisite sense of life.
Every aspect of nature--and all her aspects were beautiful there--had a new charm for the eyes of Fanny Markland. The silvery waters cast upward by the fountain fell back in rainbow showers, ruffling the tiny lake beneath, and filling the air with a low, dreamy murmur. Never had that lovely creation of art, blending with nature, looked so like an ideal thing as now--a very growth of fairy-land. The play of the waters in the air was as the glad motions of a living form.
Around this fountain was a rosary of white and red roses, encircled again by arbor-vitae; and there were statues of choice workmanship, the ideals of modern art, lifting their pure white forms here and there in chastened loveliness. All this was shut in from observation by a stately grove of elms. And here it was that the maiden had come to hide herself from observation, and dream her waking dream of love. What a world of enchantment was dimly opening before her, as her eye ran down the Eden-vistas of the future! Along those aisles of life she saw herself moving, beside a stately one, who leaned toward her, while she clung to him as a vine to its firm support. Even while in the mazes of this delicious dream, a heavy footfall startled her, and she sprang to her feet with a suddenly-stilled pulsation. In the next instant a manly form filled the door of the summer-house, and a manly voice exclaimed:
"Miss Markland! Fanny! do I find you here?"
The colour left the maiden's cheeks for an instant. Then they flushed to deep crimson. But her lips were sealed. Surprise took away, for a time, the power of speech.
"I turned aside," said the intruder, "as I came up the avenue, to have a look at this charming spot, so well remembered; but dreamed not of finding you here."
He had already approached Fanny, and was holding one of her hands tightly in his, while he gazed upon her face with a look of glowing admiration.
"Oh, Mr. Lyon! How you have startled me!" said Fanny, as soon as she could command her voice.
"And how you tremble! There, sit down again, Miss Markland, and calm yourself. Had I known you were here, I should not have approached so abruptly. But how have you been since my brief absence? And how is your good father and mother?"
"Father is in New York," replied Fanny.
"In New York! I feared as much." And a slight shade crossed the face of Mr. Lyon, who spoke as if off of his guard. "When did he go?"
"Ah! Did he receive a letter from me?"
"Yes, sir." Fanny's eyes drooped under the earnest gaze that was fixed upon her.
"I hoped to have reached here as soon as my letter. This is a little unfortunate." The aspect of Mr. Lyon became grave.
"When will your father return?" he inquired.
"I do not know."
Again Mr. Lyon looked serious and thoughtful. For some moments he remained abstracted; and Fanny experienced a slight feeling of timidity, as she looked upon his shadowed face. Arousing himself, he said:
"This being the case, I shall at once return South."
"Not until to-morrow," said Fanny.
"This very night," answered Mr. Lyon.
"Then let us go to the Lodge at once," and Fanny made a motion to rise. "My mother will be gratified to see you, if it is only for a few moments."
But Mr. Lyon placed a hand upon her arm, and said:
"Stay, Miss Markland--that cannot now be. I must return South without meeting any other member of your family. Did you receive my letter?" he added, abruptly, and with a change of tone and manner.
Fanny answered affirmatively; and his quick eye read her heart in voice and countenance.
"When I wrote, I had no thought of meeting you again so soon. But a few hours after despatching the letter to your father, enclosing yours--a letter on business of importance, to me, at least--I received information that led me to wish an entire change in the programme of operations about to be adopted, through your father's agency. Fearing that a second letter might be delayed in the mails, I deemed it wisest to come on with the greatest speed myself. But I find that I am a day too late. Your father has acted promptly; and what he has done must not be undone. Nay, I do not wish him even to know that any change has been contemplated. Now, Miss Markland," and his voice softened as he bent toward the girlish form at his side, "may one so recently a stranger claim your confidence?"
"From my father and my mother I have no concealments," said Fanny.
"And heaven forbid that I should seek to mar that truly wise confidence," quickly answered Mr. Lyon. "All I ask is, that, for the present, you mention to no one the fact that I have been here. Our meeting in this place is purely accidental--providential, I will rather say. My purpose in coming was, as already explained, to meet your father. He is away, and on business that at once sets aside all necessity for seeing him. It will now be much better that he should not even know of my return from the South--better for me, I mean; for the interests that might suffer are mine alone. But let me explain a little, that you may act understandingly. When I went South, your father very kindly consented to transact certain business left unfinished by me in New York. Letters received on my arrival at Savannah, advised me of the state of the business, and I wrote to your father, in what way to arrange it for me; by the next mail other letters came, showing me different aspect of affairs and rendering a change of plan very desirable. It was to explain this fully to your father, that I came on. But as it is too late, I do not wish him even to know, for the present, that a change was contemplated. I fear it might lessen, for a time, his confidence in my judgment--something I do not fear when he knows me better. Your since, for the present, my dear Miss Markland, will nothing affect your father, who has little or no personal interest in the matter, but may serve me materially. Say, then, that, until you hear from me again, on the subject, you will keep your own counsel."
"You say that my father has no interest in the business, to which you refer?" remarked Fanny. Her mind was bewildered.
"None whatever. He is only, out of a generous good-will, trying to serve the son of an old business friend," replied Mr. Lyon, confidently. "Say, then, Fanny,"--his voice was insinuating, and there was something of the serpent's fascination in his eyes--"that you will, for my sake, remain, for the present, silent on the subject of this return from the South."
As he spoke, he raised one of her hands to his lips, and kissed it. Still more bewildered--nay, charmed--Fanny did not make even a faint struggle to withdraw her hand. In the next moment, his hot lips had touched her pure forehead--and in the next moment, "Farewell!" rung hurriedly in her ears. As the retiring form of the young adventurer stood in the door of the summer-house, there came to her, with a distinct utterance, these confidently spoken words--"I trust you without fear."--And "God bless you!" flung toward her with a heart-impulse, found a deeper place in her soul, from whence, long afterwards, came back their thrilling echoes. By the time the maiden had gathered up her scattered thoughts, she was alone.
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