Thou would'st be happy, Endlessly happy, Or endlessly wretched.
Helen was quite powerless to do anything whatever after that last piece of misfortune; it seemed as if she could have remained just where she was for hours, shuddering at the sight of what was happening, yet utterly helpless before it. The world was taking a very serious aspect indeed to the bright and laughing girl, who had thought of it as the home of birds and flowers; yet she knew not what to make of the change, or how she was to blame for it, and she could only sit still and tremble. She was in the same position and the same state of mind when her aunt entered the room some minutes later.
Mrs. Roberts stood watching her silently, and then as Helen turned her gaze of pleading misery upon her, she came forward and sat down in a chair by the bedside, and fixed her keen eyes upon the girl.
"Oh, Aunt Polly!" cried Helen; "what am I to do? I am so wretched!"
"I have just been talking to Elizabeth," said Mrs. Roberts, with some sternness, "and she's been telling you about Arthur--is that what is the matter with you, Helen?"
"Yes," was the trembling response, "what can I do?"
"Tell me, Helen, in the first place," demanded the other. "When you saw Arthur that day in the woods, what did you do? Did you make him any promises?"
"Did you hold out any hopes to him? Did you say anything to him at all about love?"
"I--I told him it was impossible," said Helen, eagerly, clutching at that little crumb of comfort.
"Then in Heaven's name, child," cried the other in amazement, "what is the matter with you? If Arthur chooses to carry on in this fashion, why in the world should you punish yourself in this horrible way? What is the matter with you, Helen? Are you responsible to him for your marriage? I don't know which is the most absurd, the boy's behavior, or your worrying about it."
"But, Auntie," stammered the girl, "he is so ill--he might die!"
"Die, bosh!" exclaimed Mrs. Roberts; "he frightened Elizabeth by his ravings; it is the most absurd nonsense,--he a penniless school-teacher, and the Lord only knows what besides! I only wish I'd been there to talk to him, for I don't think he'd have frightened me! What in the world do you suppose he wants, anyway? Is he mad enough to expect you to marry him?"
"I don't know, Aunt Polly," said Helen, weakly.
"I'd never have believed that Arthur could be capable of anything so preposterous as this behavior," vowed Mrs. Roberts; "and then to come up here and find you wearing yourself to a skeleton about it!"
"It isn't only that, Auntie," protested Helen, "there is so much else; I am miserable!"
"Yes," said the other, grimly; "I see it as well as you, and there's just about as much reason in any of it as in the matter of Arthur." Then Mrs. Roberts moved her chair nearer, and after gazing at Helen for a moment, began again. "I've been meaning to say something to you, and it might just as well be said now. For all this matter is coming to a climax, Helen; it can't go on this way very much longer, for you'll kill yourself. It's got to be settled one way or the other, once and for all." And Mrs. Roberts stopped and took a deep breath, preparing for one more struggle; Helen still gazed at her helplessly.
"I'm not going to say anything more about Arthur," declared the woman; "if you choose to torment yourself about such absurdities, I can't help it. Arthur's behavior is not the least your fault, and you know it; but all the other trouble is your fault, and there's nobody else to blame. For the question is just as simple as the day, Helen, and you must see it and decide it; you've got to choose between one of two things, either to marry Mr. Harrison or to give him up; and there's no excuse for your hesitating and tormenting yourself one day longer."
Then the indomitable woman set to work at her old task of conjuring up before the girl's eyes all the allurements that had so often made her heart throb; she, pictured Fairview and all its luxuries, and the admiration and power that must be hers when she was mistress of it; and she mentioned every other source of pleasure that she knew would stir Helen's eager thirst. After having hammered away at that theme until she saw signs of the effect she desired, she turned to the other side of the picture.
"Helen," she demanded, "is it really possible for you to think of giving up these things and going back to live in that miserable little house at Oakdale? Can you not see that you would be simply burying yourself alive? You might just as well be as ugly as those horrible Nelson girls across the way. Helen, you _know_ you belong to a different station in life than those people! You know you have a right to some of the beautiful things in the world, and you know that after this vision of everything perfect that you have seen, you can never possibly be happy in your ignorant girlish way again. You have promised Mr. Harrison to marry him, and made him go to all the expense that he has; and you've told everybody you know, and all the world is talking about your triumph; and you've had Mr. Roberts go to all the trouble he has about your trousseau,--surely, Helen, you cannot dream of changing your mind and giving all this up. It is ridiculous to talk about it."
"I don't want to give it up," protested the girl, moaning, "but, oh, I can't--"
"I know!" exclaimed the other. "I've heard all that a thousand times. Don't you see, Helen, that you've simply _got_ to marry him! There is no other possibility to think of, and all of your weakness is that you don't perceive that fact, and make up your mind to it. Just see how absurd you are, to make yourself ill in this way."
"But I can't help it, Auntie, indeed I can't!"
"You could help it if you wanted to," vowed the other. "I am quite disgusted with you. I have told you a thousand times that this is all an imaginary terror that you are conjuring up for yourself, to ruin your health and happiness. When you have married him you will see that it's just as I tell you, and you'll laugh at yourself for feeling as you did."
"But it's in the, meantime, Aunt Polly--it's having to think about it that frightens me."
"Well, let me tell you one thing," said Mrs. Roberts; "if I found that I couldn't cure myself of such weakness as this, sooner than let it ruin my life and make everyone about me wretched, I'd settle the matter right now and forever; I'd marry him within a week, Helen!" And the resolute little woman clenched her hands grimly. "Yes, I would," she exclaimed, "and if I found I hadn't strength enough to hold my resolution, I'd marry him to-morrow, and there'd be an end to it!"
"You don't realize, Helen, how you treat Mr. Harrison," she went on, as the girl shuddered; "and how patient he is. You'd not find many men like him in that respect, my dear. For he's madly in love with you, and you treat him as coldly as if he were a stranger. I can see that, for I watch you, and I can see how it offends him. You have promised to be his wife, Helen, and yet you behave in this ridiculous way. You are making yourself ill, and you look years older every day, yet you make not the least attempt to conquer yourself."
So she went on, and Helen began to feel more and more that she was doing a very great wrong indeed. Mrs. Roberts' sharp questioning finally drew from her the story of her reception of Mr. Harrison's one kiss, and Helen was made to seem quite ridiculous and even rude in her own eyes; her aunt lectured her with such unaccustomed sternness that she was completely frightened, and came to look upon her action as the cause of all the rest of her misery.
"It's precisely on that account that you still regard him as a stranger," Mrs. Roberts vowed; "of course he makes no more advances, and you might go on forever in that way." Helen promised that the next time she was alone with Mr. Harrison she would apologize for her rudeness, and treat him in a different manner.
"I wish," Mrs. Roberts went on, "that I could only make you see as plainly as I see, Helen, how very absurd your conduct is. Day by day you are filling your mind with the thought of the triumph that is to be yours, so that it takes hold of you and becomes all your life to you; and all the time you know that to possess it there is one thing which you have got to do. And instead of realizing the fact and reconciling yourself to it, you sit down and torment yourself as if you were a creature without reason or will. Can you not see that you must be wretched?"
"Yes, I see," said Helen, weakly.
"You see it, but you make no effort to do anything else! You make me almost give you up in despair. You will not see that this weakness has only to be conquered once, and that then your life can be happy!"
"But, Auntie, dear," exclaimed Helen, "it is so hard!"
"Anything in life would be hard for a person who had no more resolution than you," responded the other. "Because you know nothing about the world, you fancy you are doing something very unusual and dreadful; but I assure you it's what every girl has to do when she marries in society. And there's no one of them but would laugh at your behavior; you just give Mr. Harrison up, and see how long it would be before somebody else would take him! Oh, child, how I wish I could give you a little of my energy; you would go to the life that is before you in a very different way, I promise you! For really the only way that you can have any happiness in the world is to be strong and take it, and if you once had a purpose and some determination you would feel like a different person. Make up your mind what you wish to do, Helen, and go and do it, and take hold of yourself and master yourself, and show what you are made of!"
Aunt Polly was quite sublime as she delivered that little exordium; and to the girl, anxious as she was for her old strength and happiness, the words were like music. They made her blood flow again, and there was a light in her eyes.
"Oh, Auntie," she said, "I'll try to."
"Try!" echoed the other, "what comes of all your trying? You have been reveling for a week in visions of what is to be yours; and that ought surely to have been enough time for you to make up your mind; and yet every time that I find you alone, all your resolution is gone; you simply have no strength, Helen!"
"Oh, I will have it!" cried the girl; "I don't mean to do this way any more; I never saw it so plainly."
"You see it now, because I'm talking to you, and you always do see it then. But I should think the very terror of what you have suffered would serve as a motive, and make you quite desperate. Can you not see that your very safety depends upon your taking this resolution and keeping it, and not letting go of it, no matter what happens? From what I've seen of you, Helen, I know that if you do not summon all your energies together, and fling aside every purpose but this, and act upon it _now_, while you feel it so keenly, you will surely fail. For anybody can withstand a temptation for a while, when his mind is made up; all the trouble is in keeping it made up for a long time. I tell you if I found I was losing, sooner than surrender I would do anything, absolutely anything!"
Mrs. Roberts had many more words of that heroic kind; she was a vigorous little body, and she was quite on fire with enthusiasm just then, and with zeal for the consummation of the great triumph. Perhaps there is no occupation of men quite without its poetry, and even a society leader may attain to the sublime in her devotion to life as she sees it. Besides that the over-zealous woman was exalted to eloquence just then by a feeling that she was nearer her goal than ever before, and that she had only to spur Helen on and keep her in her present glow to clinch the matter; for the girl was very much excited indeed, and showed both by what she said and by the change in her behavior that she was determined to have an end to her own wretchedness and to conquer her shrinking from her future husband at any cost. During all the time that she was dressing, her aunt was stirring her resolution with the same appeal, so that Helen felt that she had never seen her course so clearly before, or had so much resolution to follow it. She spread out her arms and drank deep breaths of relief because she was free from her misery, and knew how to keep so; and at the same time, because she still felt tremblings of fear, she clenched her hands in grim earnestness. When she was ready to descend she was flushed and trembling with excitement, and quite full of her resolution. "She won't have to go very far," Mrs. Roberts mused, "for the man is madly in love with her."
"I want you to look as beautiful as you can, dear," she said aloud, by way of changing the subject; "besides Mr. Harrison, there'll be another visitor at lunch to-day."
"A stranger?" echoed Helen.
"You remember, dear, when I told you of Mr. Howard I spoke of a third person who was coming--Lieutenant Maynard?"
"Oh, yes," said the girl; "is he here?"
"Just until the late train this evening," answered the other. "He got his leave as he expected, but of course he didn't want to come while Mr. Howard was so ill."
Helen remembered with a start having heard someone say that Mr. Howard was better. "Auntie," she cried, "he won't be at lunch, will he? I don't want to see him."
"He won't, dear," was the reply; "the doctor said he could leave his room to-day, but it will be afterwards, when you have gone driving with Mr. Harrison."
"And will he leave soon?" asked Helen, shuddering; the mention of the invalid's name had instantly brought to her mind the thought of Arthur.
"He will leave to-morrow, I presume; he probably knows he has caused us trouble enough," answered Mrs. Roberts; and then reading Helen's thought, and seeing a sign upon her face of the old worry, she made haste to lead her down the stairs.
Helen found Mr. Harrison in conversation with a tall, distinguished-looking man in naval uniform, to whom she was introduced by her aunt; the girl saw that the officer admired her, which was only another stimulant to her energies, so that she was at her cleverest during the meal that followed. She accepted the invitation of Mr. Harrison to go with him to Fairview during the afternoon, and after having been in her room all the morning, she was looking forward to the drive with no little pleasure, as also--to the meeting with the architect whom Mr. Harrison said would be there.
It seemed once as if the plan were to be interrupted, and as if her excitement and resolution were to come to naught, for a telegram arrived for Mr. Harrison, and he announced that he was called away to New York upon some business. But as it proved, this was only another circumstance to urge her on in carrying out her defiant resolution, for Mr. Harrison added that he would not have to leave until the evening, and her aunt gazed at the girl significantly, to remind her of how little time there was. Helen felt her heart give a sudden leap, and felt a disagreeable trembling seize upon her; her animation became more feverish yet in consequence.
After the luncheon, when she ran up for her hat and gloves, her aunt followed her, but Helen shook her off with a laughing assurance that everything would be all right, and then ran out into the hallway; she did not go on, however, for something that she saw caused her to spring quickly back, and turn pale.
"What is it?" whispered her aunt, as Helen put her finger to her lips.
"It's _he!_" replied the girl, shuddering; "wait!"
"He" was the unfortunate invalid, who was passing down the hallway upon the arm of Lieutenant Maynard; Helen shook her head at all her aunt's laughing protests, and could not be induced to leave the room until the two had passed on; then she ran down, and leaving the house by another door, sprang into the carriage with Mr. Harrison and was whirled away, waving a laughing good-by to her aunt.
The fresh air and the swift motion soon completed the reaction from Helen's morning unhappiness; and as generally happened when she was much excited, her imagination carried her away in one of her wild flights of joy, so that her companion was as much lost as ever in admiration and delight. Helen told him countless stories, and made countless half-comprehended witticisms, and darted a great many mischievous glances which were comprehended much better; when they had passed within the gates of Fairview, being on private land she felt even less need of restraint, and sang "Dich, theure Halle, gruss' ich wieder!" and laughed at her own cleverness quite as much as if her companion had understood it all.
After that it was a new delight to discover that work was progressing rapidly upon the trimming of the forest and the turning of the grass-grown road into a broad avenue; likewise the "hay crop" was in, and the lawn plowed and raked and ready for grass seed, and the undesirable part of the old furniture carted away,--all of which things Helen knew had been done according to her commands. And scarcely had all this been appreciated properly before the architect arrived; Helen was pleased with him because for one thing he was evidently very much impressed by her beauty, and for another because he entered so understandingly into all her ideas. He and the girl spent a couple of the happiest hours in discussing the details of the wonderful music room, a thing which seemed to her more full of delightful possibilities than any other in all her radiant future; it was a sort of a child's dream to her, with a fairy godmother to make it real, and her imagination ran riot in a vision of banks of flowers, and of paintings of all things that embody the joys of music, the "shapes that haunt thought's wildernesses." At night the whole was to be illuminated in such a way as to give these verisimilitude, and in the daytime it would be no less beautiful, because it was to be almost all glass upon two sides. Helen was rejoiced that the architect realized the importance of the fact that "a music room ought to be out of doors;" and then as she made the further welcome discovery that the moon would shine into it, she vowed eagerly that there would be no lights at all in her music room at those times. Afterwards she told a funny story of how Schumann had been wont to improvise under such circumstances, until his next-door neighbor was so struck by the romance of it that he proceeded to imitate it, and to play somebody or other's technical studies whenever the moon rose; at which narrative Helen and the architect laughed very heartily, and Mr. Harrison with them, though he would not have known the difference between a technical study and the "Moonlight Sonata."
Altogether, Helen was about as happy as ever throughout that afternoon, tho one who watched her closely might have thought there was something nervous about her animation, especially later on, when the talk with the architect was nearing its end; Helen's eyes had once or twice wandered uneasily about the room, and when finally the man rose to leave, she asked him with a sudden desperate resolution to look over the rest of the rooms and see what he thought of her suggestions. The latter expressed himself as pleased to oblige her, but he would probably have been somewhat chagrined had he known how little Helen really attended to his remarks; her mind was in a whirl, and all that he said sounded distant and vague; her one wish was that he might stay and give her time to think.
But Helen found the uselessness of shrinking, and the time came at last when she saw to her despair that there was no more to say, and that the man must go. In a few minutes more he was actually gone, and she was left all alone in the great house with Mr. Harrison.
The two went back into the dining room, where Mr. Harrison stood leaning his hand upon the table, and Helen stood in front of him, her lips trembling. Twice she made a faint attempt to speak, and then she turned and began pacing up and down the room in agitation. Mr. Harrison was watching her, seeing that there was something on her mind, and also that her emotion made her more beautiful and more disturbing to him than ever.
At last Helen went and sat down upon a sofa at one side, and clenching her hands very tightly about her knees, looked up at him and said, in a faint voice, "I had something to say to you, Mr. Harrison." Then she stopped, and her eyes fell, and her breath came very hard.
"What is it, dear?" asked Mr. Harrison gently.
And Helen's lips trembled more than ever, and her voice sank still lower as she said, "I--I don't know how to begin."
The other was silent for a few moments more, after which he came slowly across the room and sat down beside her.
"Helen," he said, "I had something to say to you also; suppose I say it first?"
The girl's chest was heaving painfully, and her heart throbbing violently, but she gazed into his eyes, and smiled, and answered him "Very well." He took one of her burning hands in his, and she made no resistance.
"Helen, dear," he said, "do you remember it was nearly a week ago that we stood in this same room, and that you promised to be my wife? You were very cold to me then. I have been waiting patiently for you to change a little, not venturing to say anything for fear of offending you. But it is very hard--"
He had bent forward pleadingly, and his face was very close to hers, trying to read her heart. Perhaps it was well that he could not, for it would have frightened him. The moment was one of fearful suffering for Helen, tho there was no sign of it, except that she was trembling like a leaf, and that her lips were white. There was just a moment of suspense, and then with a cruel effort she mastered herself and gazed up at the man, a smile forcing itself to her lips again.
"What is it that you wish?" she asked.
"I want you to care for me," the other said--"to love me just a little, Helen; will you?"
"I--I think so," was the reply, in a scarcely audible voice.
And Mr. Harrison pressed her hand in his and bent forward eagerly. "Then I may kiss you, dear?" he asked; "you will not mind?"
And Helen bowed her head and answered, "No." In this same instant, as she sank forward the man clasped her in his arms; he pressed her upon his bosom, and covered her cheeks and forehead with his passionate, burning kisses. Helen, crushed and helpless in his grasp, felt a revulsion of feeling so sudden and so overwhelming that it was an agony to her, and she almost screamed aloud. She was choking and shuddering, and her cheeks were on fire, while in the meantime Mr. Harrison, almost beside himself with passion, pressed her tighter to him and poured out his protestations of devotion. Helen bore it until she was almost mad with the emotion that had rushed over her, and then she made a wild effort to tear herself free. Her hair was disordered, and her face red, and her whole being throbbing with shame, but he still held her in his tight embrace.
"You are not angry, Helen dear?" he asked.
"No," the girl gasped
"You told me that I might kiss you," he said; and she was so choking with her emotion that she could not answer a word, she could only shudder and submit to his will. And Mr. Harrison, supposing that her emotions were very different from what they were, rested her head upon his shoulder, smoothing back her tangled hair and whispering into her ear how beautiful she was beyond any dream of his, and how the present moment was the happiest of his lifetime.
"I thought it would never come, dear," he said, kissing her forehead again, "you were so very cold." Helen had not yet ceased fighting the fearful battle in her own heart, and so as he looked into her eyes, she gazed up at him and forced another ghastly smile to her lips: they looked so very beautiful that Mr. Harrison kissed them again and again, and he would probably have been content to kiss them many times more, and to forget everything else in the bliss, had Helen been willing.
But she felt just then that if the strain continued longer she would go mad; with a laugh that was half hysterical, she tore herself loose by main force, and sprang up, reminding the other that he had a train to catch. Mr. Harrison demurred, but the girl would hear no more, and she took him by the hand and led him to the door, still laughing, and very much flushed and excited, so that he thought she was happier than ever. It would have startled him could he have seen her as he went to call for the horses,--how she staggered and clung to a pillar for support, as white as the marble she leaned against.
He did not see her, however, and when the two were driving rapidly away she was as vivacious as ever; Helen had fought yet one more conflict, and her companion was not skilled enough in the study of character to perceive that it was a desperate and hysterical kind of animation. Poor Helen was facing gigantic shadows just then, and life wore its most fearful and menacing look to her; she had plunged so far in her contest that it was now a battle for life and death, and with no quarter. She had made the choice of "Der Atlas," of endless joy or endless sorrow, and in her struggle to keep the joy she was becoming more and more frantic, more and more terrified at the thought of the other possibility. She knew that to fail now would mean shame and misery more overwhelming than she could bear, and so she was laughing and talking with frenzied haste; and every now and then she would stop and shudder, and then race wildly on,--
"Like one, that on a lonesome road Doth walk in fear and dread, And having once turned round walks on, And turns no more his head; Because he knows a frightful fiend Doth close behind him tread."And so all through the ride, because the girl's shame and fear haunted her more and more, she became more and more hysterical, and more and more desperate; and Mr. Harrison thought that he had never seen her so brilliant, and so daring, and so inspired; nor did he have the least idea how fearfully overwrought she was, until suddenly as they came to a fork in the road he took a different one than she expected, and she clutched him wildly by the arm. "Why do you do that?" she almost screamed. "Stop!"
"What?" he asked in surprise. "Take this road?"
"Yes!" exclaimed Helen. "Stop! Stop!"
"But it's only half a mile or so farther," said Mr. Harrison, reining up his horses, "and I thought you'd like the change."
"Yes," panted Helen, with more agitation than ever. "But I can't,--we'd have to go through Hilltown!"
The wondering look of course did not leave the other's face at that explanation. "You object to Hilltown?" he asked.
"Yes," said Helen, shuddering; "it is a horrible place."
"Why, I thought it was a beautiful town," laughed he. "But of course it is for you to say." Then he gazed about him to find a place to turn the carriage. "We'll have to go on a way," he said. "The road is too narrow here. I'm sorry I didn't ask you, but I had no idea it made any difference."
They continued, however, for fully a mile, and the road remained narrow, so that there was danger of upsetting in the ditch if they tried to turn. "What do you wish me to do?" Mr. Harrison asked with a smile. "The more we go on the longer it will take us if we are to go back, and I may miss my train; is your prejudice against Hilltown so very strong, Miss Davis?"
"Oh, no," Helen answered, with a ghastly smile. "Pray go on; it's of no consequence."
As a matter of fact, it was of the greatest consequence; for that incident marked the turning point of the battle in Helen's heart. Her power seemed to go from her with every turn of the wheels that brought her nearer to that dreaded place, and she became more and more silent, and more conscious of the fearful fact that her wretchedness was mastering her again. It seemed to her terrified imagination as if everything was growing dark and threatening, as before the breaking of a thunderstorm.
"You must indeed dislike Hilltown, Miss Davis," said her companion, smiling. "Why are you so very silent?"
Helen made no reply; she scarcely heard him, in fact, so taken up was she with what was taking place in her own mind; all her thoughts then were about Arthur and what had become of him, and what he was thinking about her; and chiefest of all, because her cheeks and forehead had a fearfully conscious feeling, what he would think, could he know what she had just been doing. Thus it was that as the houses of Hilltown drew near, remorse and shame and terror were rising, and her frantic protests against them were weakening, until suddenly every emotion was lost in suspense, and the shadows of the great elm-trees that arched the main street of the town closed them in. Helen knew the house where Arthur lodged, and knew that she should pass it in another minute; she could do nothing but wait and watch and tremble.
The carriage rattled on, gazed at by many curious eyes, for everyone in Hilltown knew about the young beauty and the prize she had caught; but Helen saw no one, and had eyes for only one thing, the little white house where Arthur lodges. The carriage swept by and she saw no one, but she saw that the curtain of Arthur's room was drawn, and she shuddered at the thought, "Suppose he should be dying!" Yet it was a great load off her mind to have escaped seeing him, and she was beginning to breathe again and ask herself if she still might not win the battle, when the carriage came to the end of the town, and to a sight that froze her blood.
There was a tavern by the roadside, a low saloon that was the curse of the place, and she saw from the distance a figure come out of the door. Her heart gave a fearful throb, for it was a slender figure, clad in black, hatless and with disordered hair and clothing. In a moment more, as Helen clutched the rail beside her and stared wildly, the carriage had swept on and come opposite the man; and he glanced up into Helen's eyes, and she recognized the face, in spite of all its ghastly whiteness and its sunken cheeks; it was Arthur!
There was just an instant's meeting of their looks, and then the girl was whirled on; but that one glance was enough to leave her as if paralyzed. She made no sound, nor any movement, and so her companion did not even know that anything had happened until they had gone half a mile farther; then as he chanced to glance at her he reined up his horses with a cry.
"Helen!" he exclaimed. "What is the matter?" The girl clutched his arm so tightly that he winced, powerful man that he was. "Take me home," she gasped. "Oh, quick, please take me home!"