"Thou majestic in thy sadness."
Upon the present occasion there was no violent demonstration of emotion to alarm the Roberts household, for Helen's grief was not of the kind to vent itself in a passionate outburst and pass away. To be sure, she wept a little, but the thoughts which haunted her were not of a kind to be forgotten, and afterwards she was as wretched as ever. What she had done seemed to her so dreadful that even tears were not right, and she felt that she ought only to sit still and think of it, and be frightened; it seemed to her just then as if she would have to do the same thing for the rest of her days. She spent several hours in her room without once moving, and without being disturbed, for her aunt was sufficiently annoyed at her morning's reception not to visit her again. The lunch hour passed, therefore, unthought of by Helen, and it was an hour or two later before she heard her aunt's step in the hall, and her knock upon the door.
Mrs. Roberts entered and stood in the center of the room, gazing at Helen, and at the look of helpless despair which she turned towards her; the woman's own lips were set very tightly.
"Well?" she said abruptly, "have you had your wish, and are you happy?"
Helen did not answer, nor did she half realize the question, so lost was she in her own misery. She sat gazing at her aunt, while the latter went on: "You have had your way in one thing, at any rate, Helen; Mr. Harrison is downstairs to see you."
The girl gave a slight start, but then she answered quietly: "Thank you, Auntie; I shall go down and see him."
"Helen," said Mrs. Roberts, "do you still refuse to tell me anything of what I ask you?"
Helen was quite too much humbled to wish to oppose anyone just then; and she answered mournfully, "What is it that you wish?"
"I wish to know in the first place why you wanted to see Mr. Harrison."
"I wanted to see him to tell him that I could not marry him, Aunt Polly."
And Mrs. Roberts sat down opposite Helen and fixed her gaze upon her. "I knew that was it," she said grimly. "Now, Helen, what in the world has come over you to make you behave in this fashion?"
"Oh, it is so much to tell you," began the girl; "I don't know--"
"What did you find at Hilltown?" went on her aunt persistently. "Did you see Arthur?"
"No, Aunt Polly, that is what is the matter; he has gone."
"Gone! Gone where?"
"Away, Aunt Polly! Nobody saw him go, and he left a note saying that he would never return. And I am so frightened--"
Mrs. Roberts was gazing at her niece with a puzzled look upon her face. She interrupted her by echoing the word "frightened" inquiringly.
"Yes, Auntie!" cried the girl; "for I may never be able to find him again, to undo what I have done!"
And Mrs. Roberts responded with a wondering laugh, and observed, "For my part, I should think you'd be very glad to be rid of him so."
She saw Helen give a start, but she could not read the girl's mind, and did not know how much she had done to estrange her by those words. It was as if Helen's whole soul had shrunk back in horror, and she sat staring at her aunt with open eyes.
"I suppose you think," the other went on grimly, "that I am going to share all this wonderful sentimentality with you about that boy; but I assure you that you don't know me! He may get you to weep over him because he chooses to behave like a fool, but not me."
Helen was still for a moment, and then she said, in an awe-stricken voice: "Aunt Polly, I have wrecked Arthur's life!" Mrs. Roberts responded with a loud guffaw, which was to the other so offensive that it was like a blow in the face.
"Wrecked his life!" the woman cried scornfully. "Helen, you talk like a baby! Can't you know in the first place that Arthur is doing all this high-tragedy acting for nothing in the world but to frighten you? Wrecked his life! And there you were, I suppose, all ready to get down on your knees to him, and beg his pardon for daring to be engaged, and to promise to come to his attic and live off bread and water, if he would only be good and not run away!"
Mrs. Roberts' voice was bitter and mocking, and her words seemed to Helen almost blasphemy; it had never occurred to her that such grief as hers would not be sacred to anyone. Yet there was no thought of anger in her mind just then, for she had been chastened in a fiery furnace, and was too full of penitence and humility for even that much egotism. She only bowed her head, and said, in a trembling voice: "Oh, Aunt Polly, I would stay in an attic and live off bread and water for the rest of my days, if I could only clear my conscience of the dreadful thing I have done."
"A beautiful sentiment indeed!" said Mrs. Roberts, with a sniff of disgust; and she stood surveying her niece in silence for a minute or two. Then smothering her feelings a little, she asked her in a quieter voice, "And so, Helen, you are really going to fling aside the life opportunity that is yours for such nonsense as this? There is no other reason?"
"There is another reason, Aunt Polly," said Helen; "it is so dreadful of you to ask me in that way. How CAN you have expected me to marry a man just because he was rich?"
"Oh," said the other, "so that is it! And pray what put the idea into your head so suddenly?" She paused a moment, and then, as the girl did not raise her head, she went on, sarcastically, "I fancy I know pretty well where you got all of these wonderful new ideas; you have not been talking with Mr. Howard for nothing, I see."
"No, not for nothing," said Helen gently.
"A nice state of affairs!" continued the other angrily; "I knew pretty well that his head was full of nonsense, but when I asked him here I thought at least that he would know enough about good manners to mind his own affairs. So he has been talking to you, has he? And now you cannot possibly marry a rich man!"
Mrs. Roberts stopped, quite too angry to find any more words; but as she sat for a minute or two, gazing at Helen, it must have occurred to her that she would not accomplish anything in that way. She made an effort to swallow her emotions.
"Helen, dear," she said, sitting down near her niece, "why will you worry me in this dreadful way, and make me speak so crossly to you? I cannot tell you, Helen, what a torment it is to me to see you throwing yourself away in this fashion; I implore you to stop and think before you take this step, for as sure as you are alive you will regret it all your days. Just think of it how you will feel, and how I will feel, when you look back at the happiness you might have had, and know that it is too late! And, Helen, it is due to nothing in the world but to your inexperience that you have let yourself be carried away by these sublimities. You MUST know, child, and you can see if you choose, that they have nothing to do with life; they will not butter your bread, Helen, or pay your coachman, and when you get over all this excitement, you will find that what I tell you is true. Look about you in the world, and where can you find anybody who lives according to such ideas?"
"What ideas do you mean, Aunt Polly?" asked Helen, with a puzzled look.
"Oh, don't you suppose," answered the other, "that I know perfectly well what kind of stuff it is that Mr. Howard has talked to you? I used to hear all that kind of thing when I was young, and I believed some of it, too,--about how beautiful it was to marry for love, and to have a fine scorn of wealth and all the rest of it; but it wasn't very long before I found out that such opinions were of no use in the world."
"Then you don't believe in love, Aunt Polly?" asked Helen, fixing her eyes on the other.
"What's the use of asking such an absurd question?" was the answer. "Of course I believe in love; I wanted you to love Mr. Harrison, and you might have, if you had chosen. I learned to love Mr. Roberts; naturally, a couple have to love each other, or how would they ever live happily together? But what has that to do with this ridiculous talk of Mr. Howard's? As if two people had nothing else to do in the world but to love each other! It's all very well, Helen, for a man who chooses to live like Robinson Crusoe to talk such nonsense, but he ought not to put it in the mind of a sentimental girl. He would very soon find, if he came out into life, that the world isn't run by love, and that people need a good many other things to keep them happy in it. You ought to have sense enough to see that you've got to live a different sort of a life, and that Mr. Howard knows nothing in the world about your needs. I don't go alone and live in visions, and make myself imaginary lives, Helen; I look at the world as it is. You will have to learn some day that the real way to find happiness is to take things as you find them, and get the best out of life you can. I never had one-tenth of your advantages, and yet there aren't many people in the world better off than I am; and you could be just as happy, if you would only take my advice about it. What I am talking to you is common sense, Helen, and anybody that you choose to ask will tell you the same thing."
So Mrs. Roberts went on, quite fairly under way in her usual course of argument, and rousing all her faculties for this last struggle. She was as convinced as ever of the completeness of her own views, and of the effect which they must have upon Helen; perhaps it was not her fault that she did not know to what another person she was talking.
In truth, it would not be easy to tell how great a difference there was in the effect of those old arguments upon Helen; while she had been sitting in her room alone and suffering so very keenly, the girl had been, though she did not know it, very near indeed to the sacred truths of life, and now as she listened to her aunt, she was simply holding her breath. The climax came suddenly, for as the other stopped, Helen leaned forward in her chair, and gazing deep into her eyes asked her, "Aunt Polly, can it really be that you do not know that what you have been saying to me is dreadfully _wicked_?"
There was perhaps nothing that the girl could have done to take her complacent relative more by surprise; Mrs. Roberts sat for a moment, echoing the last word, and staring as if not quite able to realize what Helen meant. As the truth came to her she turned quite pale.
"It seems to me," she said with a sneer, "that I remember a time when it didn't seem quite so wicked to you. If I am not mistaken you were quite glad to do all that I told you, and to get as much as ever you could."
Helen was quite used to that taunt in her own heart, and to the pain that it brought her, so she only lowered her eyes and said nothing. In the meantime Mrs. Roberts was going on in her sarcastic tone:
"Wicked indeed!" she ejaculated, "and I suppose all that I have been doing for you was wicked too! I suppose it was wicked of me to watch over your education all these years as I have, and to plan your future as if you were my own child, so that you might amount to something in the world; and it was wicked of me to take all the trouble that I have for your happiness, and wicked of Mr. Roberts to go to all the trouble about the trousseau that he has! The only right and virtuous thing about it all is the conduct of our niece who causes us to do it all, and who promises herself to a man and lets him go to all the trouble that he has, and then gets her head full of sanctimonious notions and begins to preach about wickedness to her elders!"
Helen had nothing to reply to those bitter words, for it was only too easy just then to make her accuse herself of anything. She sat meekly suffering, and thinking that the other was quite justified in all her anger. Mrs. Roberts was, of course, quite incapable of appreciating her mood, and continued to pour out her sarcasm, and to grow more and more bitter. To tell the truth, the worthy matron had not been half so unselfish in her hopes about Helen as she liked to pretend, and she showed then that like most people of the world who are perfectly good-natured on the surface, she could display no little ugliness when thwarted in her ambitions and offended in her pride.
It was not possible, however, for her to find a word that could seem to Helen unjust, so much was the girl already humbled. It was only after her aunt had ceased to direct her taunts at her, and turned her spite upon Mr. Howard and his superior ideas, that it seemed to Helen that it was not helping her to hear any more; then she rose and said, very gently, "Aunt Polly, I am sorry that you feel so about me, and I wish that I could explain to you better what I am doing. I know that what I did at first was all wrong, but that is no reason why I should leave it wrong forever. I think now that I ought to go and talk to Mr. Harrison, who is waiting for me, and after that I want you to please send me home, because father will be there to-day, and I want to tell him about how dreadfully I have treated Arthur, and beg him to forgive me."
Then, without waiting for any reply, the girl left the room and went slowly down the steps. The sorrow that possessed her lay so deep upon her heart that everything else seemed trivial in comparison, and she had put aside and forgotten the whole scene with her aunt before she had reached the parlor where Mr. Harrison was waiting; she did not stop to compose herself or to think what to say, but went quickly into the room.
Mr. Harrison, who was standing by the window, turned when he heard her; she answered his greeting kindly, and then sat down and remained very still for a moment or two, gazing at her hands in her lap. At last she raised her eyes to him, and asked: "Mr. Harrison, did you receive the letter I wrote you?"
"Yes," the other answered quickly, "I did. I cannot tell you how much pain it caused me. And, Helen--or must I call you Miss Davis?"
"You may call me Helen," said the girl simply. "I was very sorry to cause you pain," she added, "but there was nothing else that I could do."
"At least," the other responded, "I hope that you will not refuse to explain to me why this step is necessary?"
"No, Mr. Harrison," said Helen, "it is right that I should tell you all, no matter how hard it is to me to do it. It is all because of a great wrong that I have done; I know that when I have told you, you will think very badly of me indeed, but I have no right to do anything except to speak the truth."
She said that in a very low voice, not allowing her eyes to drop, and wearing upon her face the look of sadness which seemed now to belong to it always. Mr. Harrison gazed at her anxiously, and said: "You seem to have been ill, Helen."
"I have been very unhappy, Mr. Harrison," she answered, "and I do not believe I can ever be otherwise again. Did you not notice that I was unhappy?"
"I never thought of it until yesterday," the other replied.
"Until the drive," said Helen; "that was the climax of it. I must tell you the reason why I was so frightened then,--that I have a friend who was as dear to me as if he were my brother, and he loved me very much, very much more than I deserve to be loved by anyone; and when I was engaged to you he was very ill, and because I knew I was doing so wrong I did not dare to go and see him. That was why I was afraid to pass through Hilltown. The reason I was so frightened afterwards is that I caught a glimpse of him, and he was in such a dreadful way. This morning I found that he had left his home and gone away, no one knows where, so that I fear I shall never see him again."
Helen paused, and the other, who had sat down and was leaning forward anxiously, asked her, "Then it is this friend that you love?"
"No," the girl replied, "it is not that; I do not love anybody."
"But then I do not understand," went on Mr. Harrison, with a puzzled look. "You spoke of its having been so wrong; was it not your right to wish to marry me?"
And Helen, punishing herself as she had learned so bravely to do, did not lower her eyes even then; she flushed somewhat, however, as she answered: "Mr. Harrison, do you know WHY I wished to marry you?"
The other started a trifle, and looked very much at a loss indeed. "Why?" he echoed. "No, I do not know--that is--I never thought--"
"It hurts me more than I can tell you to have to say this to you," Helen said, "for you were right and true in your feeling. But did you think that I was that, Mr. Harrison? Did you think that I really loved you?"
Probably the good man had never been more embarrassed in his life than he was just then. The truth to be told, he was perfectly well aware why Helen had wished to marry him, and had been all along, without seeing anything in that for which to dislike her; he was quite without an answer to her present question, and could only cough and stammer, and reach for his handkerchief. The girl went on quickly, without waiting very long for his reply.
"I owe it to you to tell you the truth," she said, "and then it will no longer cause you pain to give me up. For I did not love you at all, Mr. Harrison; but I loved all that you offered me, and I allowed myself to be tempted thus, to promise to marry you. Ever afterwards I was quite wretched, because I knew that I was doing something wicked, and yet I never had the courage to stop. So it went on until my punishment came yesterday. I have suffered fearfully since that."
Helen had said all that there was to be said, and she stopped and took a deep breath of relief. There was a minute or two of silence, after which Mr. Harrison asked: "And you really think that it was so wrong to promise to marry me for the happiness that I could offer you?"
Helen gazed at him in surprise as she echoed, "Was it so wrong?" And at the same moment even while she was speaking, a memory flashed across her mind, the memory of what had occurred at Fairview the last time she had been there with Mr. Harrison. A deep, burning blush mantled her face, and her eyes dropped, and she trembled visibly. It was a better response to the other's question than any words could have been, and because in spite of his contact with the world he was still in his heart a gentleman, he understood and changed color himself and looked away, feeling perhaps more rebuked and humbled than he had ever felt in his life before.
So they sat thus for several minutes without speaking a word, or looking at each other, each doing penance in his own heart. At last, in a very low voice, the man said, "Helen, I do not know just how I can ever apologize to you."
The girl answered quietly: "I could not let you apologize to me, Mr. Harrison, for I never once thought that you had done anything wrong."
"I have done very wrong indeed," he answered, his voice trembling, "for I do not think that I had any right even to ask you to marry me. You make me feel suddenly how very coarse a world I have lived in, and how much lower than yours all my ways of thinking are. You look surprised that I say that," he added, as he saw that the girl was about to interrupt him, "but you do not know much about the world. Do you suppose that there are many women in society who would hesitate to marry me for my money?"
"I do not know," said Helen, slowly; "but, Mr. Harrison, you could certainly never be happy with a woman who would do that."
"I do not think now that I should," the man replied, earnestly, "but I did not feel that way before. I did not have much else to offer, Helen, for money is all that a man like me ever tries to get in the world."
"It is so very wrong, Mr. Harrison," put in the other, quickly. "When people live in that way they come to lose sight of all that is right and beautiful in life; and it is all so selfish and wicked!" (Those were words which might have made Mr. Howard smile a trifle had he been there to hear them; but Helen was too much in earnest to think about being original.)
"I know," said Mr. Harrison, "and I used to believe in such things; but one never meets anyone else that does, and it is so easy to live differently. When you spoke to me as you did just now, you made me seem a very poor kind of a person indeed."
The man paused, and Helen sat gazing at him with a worried look upon her face. "It was not that which I meant to do," she began, but then she stopped; and after a long silence, Mr. Harrison took up the conversation again, speaking in a low, earnest voice.
"Helen," he said, "you have made me see that I am quite unworthy to ask for your regard,--that I have really nothing fit to offer you. But I might have one thing that you could appreciate,--for I could worship, really worship, such a woman as you; and I could do everything that I could think of to make myself worthy of you,--even if it meant the changing of all my ways of life. Do you not suppose that you could quite forget that I was a rich man, Helen, and still let me be devoted to you?"
There was a look in Mr. Harrison's eyes as he gazed at her just then which made him seem to her a different sort of a man,--as indeed he was. She answered very gently. "Mr. Harrison," she said, "it would be a great happiness to me to know that anyone felt so about me. But I could never marry you; I do not love you."
"And you do not think," asked the other, "that you could ever come to love me, no matter how long I might wait?"
"I do not think so," Helen said in a low voice. "I wish that you would not ever think of me so."
"It is very easy to say that," the man answered, pleadingly, "but how am I to do it? For everything that I have seems cheap compared with the thought of you. Why should I go on with the life I have been leading, heaping up wealth that I do not know how to use, and that makes me no better and no happier? I thought of you as a new motive for going on, Helen, and you must know that a man cannot so easily change his feelings. For I really loved you, and I do love you still, and I think that I always must love you."
Helen's own suffering had made her alive to other people's feelings, and the tone of voice in which he spoke those words moved her very much. She leaned over and laid her hand upon his,--something which she would not have thought she could ever do.
"Mr. Harrison," she said, "I cannot tell you how much it hurts me to have you speak to me so, for it makes me see more than ever how cruelly unfeeling I have been, and how much I have wronged you. It was for that I wished to beg you to forgive me, to forgive me just out of the goodness of your heart, for I cannot offer any excuse for what I did. It makes me quite wretched to have to say that, and to know that others are suffering because of my selfishness; if I had any thought of the sacredness of the beauty God has given me, I would never have let you think of me as you did, and caused you the pain that I have. But you must forgive me, Mr. Harrison, and help me, for to think of your being unhappy about me also would be really more than I could bear. Sometimes when I think of the one great sorrow that I have already upon my conscience, I feel that I do not know what I am to do; and you must go away and forget about me, for my sake if not for your own. I really cannot love anyone; I do not think that I am fit to love anyone; I only do not want to make anyone else unhappy."
And Helen stopped again, and pressed her hand upon Mr. Harrison's imploringly. He sat gazing at her in silence for a minute, and then he said, slowly: "When you put it so, it is very hard for me to say anything more. If you are only sure that that is your final word--that there is really no chance that you could ever love me,--"
"I am perfectly sure of it," the girl answered; "and because I know how cruel it sounds, it is harder for me to say than for you to hear. But it is really the truth, Mr. Harrison. I do not think that you ought to see me again until you are sure that it will not make you unhappy."
The man sat for a moment after that, with his head bowed, and then he bit his lip very hard and rose from his chair. "You can never know," he said, "how lonely it makes a man feel to hear words like those." But he took Helen's hand in his and held it for an instant, and then added: "I shall do as you ask me. Good-by." And he let her hand fall and went to the door. There he stopped to gaze once again for a moment, and then turned and disappeared, closing the door behind him.
Helen was left seated in the chair, where she remained for several minutes, leaning forward with her head in her hands, and gazing steadily in front of her, thinking very grave thoughts. She rose at last, however, and brushed back the hair from her forehead, and went slowly towards the door. It would have seemed lack of feeling to her, had she thought of it, but even before she had reached the stairs the scene through which she had just passed was gone from her mind entirely, and she was saying to herself, "If I could only know where Arthur is this afternoon!"
Her mind was still full of that thought when she entered the room, where she found her aunt seated just as she had left her, and in no more pleasant humor than before.
"You have told him, I suppose?" she inquired.
"Yes," Helen said, "I have told him, Aunt Polly."
"And now you are happy, I suppose!"
"No, indeed, I am very far from that," said Helen, and she went to the window; she stood there, gazing out, but with her thoughts equally far away from the scene outside as from Mrs. Roberts' warnings and sarcasms. The latter had gone on for several minutes before her niece turned suddenly. "Excuse me for interrupting you, Aunt Polly," she said; "but I want to know whether Mr. Howard has gone yet."
"His train goes in an hour or so," said Mrs. Roberts, not very graciously.
"I think I will see if he is downstairs," Helen responded; "I wish to speak to him before he goes." And so she descended and found Mr. Howard seated alone upon the piazza.
Taking a seat beside him, she said, "I did not thank you when I left you in the carriage, Mr. Howard, for having been so kind to me; but I was so wrapped up in my worry--"
"I understood perfectly," put in the other. "I saw that you felt too keenly about your discovery to have anything to say to me."
"I feel no less keenly about it now," said Helen; "but I could not let you go away until I had spoken to you." She gazed very earnestly at him as she continued: "I have to tell you how much you have done for me, and how I thank you for it from the bottom of my heart. I simply cannot say how much all that you have shown me has meant to me; I should have cared for nothing but to have you tell me what it would be right for me to do with my life,--if only it had not been for this dreadful misfortune of Arthur's, which makes it seem as if it would be wicked for me to think about anything."
Mr. Howard sat gazing in front of him for a moment, and then he said gently, "What if the change that you speak of were to be accomplished, Miss Davis, without your ever thinking about it? For what is it that makes the difference between being thoughtless and selfish, and being noble and good, if it be not simply to walk reverently in God's great temple of life, and to think with sorrow of one's own self? Believe me, my dear friend, the best men that have lived on earth have seen no more cause to be pleased with themselves than you."
"That may be true, Mr. Howard," said Helen, sadly, "but it can do me no good to know it. It does not make what happens to Arthur a bit less dreadful to think of."
"It is the most painful fact about all our wrong," the other answered, "that no amount of repentance can ever alter the consequences. But, Miss Davis, that is a guilt which all creation carries on its shoulders; it is what is symbolized in the Fall of Man--that he has to realize that he might have had infinite beauty and joy for his portion, if only the soul within him had never weakened and failed. Let me tell you that he is a lucky man who can look back at all his life and see no more shameful guilt than yours, and no consequence worse than yours can be." As Mr. Howard spoke he saw a startled look cross the girl's face, and he added, "Do not suppose that I am saying that to comfort you, for it is really the truth. It oftens happens too, that the natures that are strongest and most ardent in their search for righteousness have the worst sins to remember."
Helen did not answer for several moments, for the thought was strange to her; then suddenly she gazed at the other very earnestly and said: "Mr. Howard, you are a man who lives for what is beautiful and high,--suppose that YOU had to carry all through your life the burden of such guilt as mine?"
The man's voice was trembling slightly as he answered her: "It is not hard for me to suppose that, Miss Davis; I HAVE such a burden to carry." As he raised his eyes he saw a still more wondering look upon her countenance.
"But the consequences!" she exclaimed. "Surely, Mr. Howard, you could not bear to live if you knew--"
"I have never known the consequences," said the man, as she stopped abruptly; "just as you may never know them; but this I know, that yours could not be so dreadful as mine must be. I know also that I am far more to blame for them than you."
Helen could not have told what caused the emotion which made her shudder so just then as she gazed into Mr. Howard's dark eyes. Her voice was almost a whisper as she said, "And yet you are GOOD!"
"I am good," said the man gently, "with all the goodness that any man can claim, the goodness of trying to be better. You may be that also."
Helen sat for a long time in silence after that, wondering at what was passing in her own mind; it was as if she had caught a sudden glimpse into a great vista of life. She had always before thought of this man's suffering as having been physical; and the deep movement of sympathy and awe which stirred her now was one step farther from her own self-absorption, and one step nearer to the suffering that is the heart of things.
But Helen had to keep that thought and dwell upon it in solitude; there was no chance for her to talk with Mr. Howard any more, for she heard her aunt's step in the hall behind her. She had only time to say, "I am going home myself this afternoon; will you come there to see me, Mr. Howard? I cannot tell you how much pleasure it would give me."
"There is nothing I should like to do more," the man answered; "I hope to keep your friendship. "When would you like me to come?"
"Any time that you can," replied Helen. "Come soon, for I know how unhappy I shall be."
That was practically the last word she said to Mr. Howard, for her aunt joined them, and after that the conversation was formal. It was not very long before the carriage came for him, and Helen pressed his hand gratefully at parting, and stood leaning against a pillar of the porch, shading her eyes from the sun while she watched the carriage depart. Then she sat down to wait for it to return from the depot for her, which it did before long; and so she bid farewell to her aunt.
It was a great relief to Helen; and while we know not what emotions it may cause to the reader, it is perhaps well to say that he may likewise pay his last respects to the worthy matron, who will not take part in the humble events of which the rest of our story must be composed.
For Helen was going home, home to the poor little parsonage of Oakdale! She was going with a feeling of relief in her heart second only to her sorow; the more she had come to feel how shallow and false was the splendor that had allured her, the more she had found herself drawn to her old home, with its memories that were so dear and so beautiful. She felt that there she might at least think of Arthur all that she chose, and meet with nothing to affront her grief; and also she found herself thinking of her father's love with a new kind of hunger.
When she arrived, she found Mr. Davis waiting for her with a very anxious look upon his countenance; he had stopped at Hilltown on his way, and learned about Arthur's disappearance, and then heard from Elizabeth what she knew about Helen's engagement. The girl flung herself into his arms, and afterwards, quite overcome by the emotions that surged up within her, sank down upon her knees before him and sobbed out the whole story, her heart bursting with sorrow and contrition; as he lifted her up and kissed her and whispered his beautiful words of pardon and comfort, Helen found it a real homecoming indeed.
Mr. Davis was also able to calm her worry a little by telling her that he did not think it possible that Arthur would keep his whereabouts secret from him very long. "When I find him, dear child," he said, "it will all be well again, for we will believe in love, you and I, and not care what the great world says about it. I think I could be well content that you should marry our dear Arthur."
"But, father, I do not love him," put in Helen faintly.
"That may come in time," said the other, kissing her tenderly, and smiling. "There is no need to talk of it, for you are too young to marry, anyway. And in the meantime we must find him."
There was a long silence after that. Helen sat down on the sofa beside her father and put her arms about him and leaned her head upon his bosom, drinking in deep drafts of his pardon and love. She told him about Mr. Howard, and of the words of counsel which he had given her, and how he was coming to see her again. Afterwards the conversation came back to Arthur and his love for Helen, and then Mr. Davis went on to add something that caused Helen to open her eyes very wide and gaze at him in wonder.
"There is still another reason for wishing to find him soon," he said, "for something else has happened to-day that he ought to know about."
"What is it?" asked Helen.
"I don't know that I ought to tell you about it just now," said the other, "for it is a very sad story. But someone was here to see Arthur this morning--someone whom I never expected to see again in all my life."
"To see Arthur?" echoed the girl in perplexity. "Who could want to see Arthur?" As her father went on she gave a great start.
"It was his mother," said Mr. Davis.
And Helen stared at him, gasping for breath as she echoed the words, "His mother!"
"You may well be astonished," said the clergyman. "But the woman proved beyond doubt that she was really the person who left Arthur with me."
"You did not recognize her?"
"No, Helen; for it has been twenty-one or two years since I saw her, and she has changed very much since then. But she told me that in all that time she has never once lost sight of her boy, and has been watching all that he did."
"Where has she been?"
"She did not tell me," the other answered, "but I fancy in New York. The poor woman has lived a very dreadful life, a life of such wretched wickedness that we cannot even talk about it; I think I never heard of more cruel suffering. I was glad that you were not here to see her, or know about it until after she was gone; she said that she had come to see Arthur once, because she was going away to die."
"To die!" exclaimed the girl, in horror.
"Yes," said Mr. Davis, "to die; she looked as if she could not live many days longer. I begged her to let me see that she was provided for, but she said that she was going to find her way back to her old home, somewhere far off in the country, and she would hear of nothing else. She would not tell the name of the place, nor her own name, but she left a letter for Arthur, and begged me to find him and give it to him, so that he might come and speak to her once if he cared to do so. She begged me to forgive her for the trouble she had caused me, and to pray that God would forgive her too; and then she bade me farewell and dragged herself away."
Mr. Davis stopped, and Helen sat for a long time staring ahead of her, with a very frightened look in her eyes, and thinking, "Oh, we MUST find Arthur!" Then she turned to her father, her lips trembling and her countenance very pale. "Tell me," she said, in a low, awe-stricken voice, "a long time ago someone must have wronged that woman."
"Yes, dear," said Mr. Davis, "when she was not even as old as you are. And the man who wronged her was worth millions of dollars, Helen, and could have saved her from all her suffering with a few of them if he cared to. No one but God knows his name, for the woman would not tell it."
Helen sat for a moment or two staring at him wildly; and then suddenly she buried her head in his bosom and burst into tears, sobbing so cruelly that her father was sorry he had told her what he had. He knew why that story moved her so, and it wrung his heart to think of it,--that this child of his had put upon her own shoulders some of that burden of the guilt of things, and must suffer beneath it, perhaps for the rest of her days.
When Helen gazed up at him again there was the old frightened look upon her face, and all his attempts to comfort her were useless. "No, no!" she whispered. "No, father! I cannot even think of peace again, until we have found Arthur!"