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The autumn was creeping fast upon us in all its regal splendor: the oak-trees had here and there a bough of cream-tinted leaves, the maples were already every shade of yellow, and the wild cherry was gorgeous in crimson. The flowers had nearly all disappeared, excepting that an occasional patch of white violets enameled the mossy soil; but, en revanche, the ferns which had grown two or three yards high, were waving in a complete sea of burnished gold, flooding the whole Valley on every side. Whether it was mere force of contrast or actual reality, the rocks seemed to have become more dazzlingly white, and glittered in the sun, while the “Sentinel” shone like a white marble tombstone. The sky was of the deepest blue, and the hushed surging of the wind gave a solemn tone to the whole landscape. I was sitting beneath the great oak that overshadowed the cottage, trying to whittle out the sides of a pincushion from the yellow pine bark,—the cushion itself to be formed of Sequoia, which rivals emery for that purpose,—when my attention was attracted by the crunching of dried ferns. I looked up and saw Egremont approaching. He raised his hat as he caught my eye, but his face was grave and settled.
“I hope you are well this morning, and feel compassionate,” he said, leaning his graceful person against the trunk of a tree adjacent to my seat. “Quite well; but why compassionate?” I asked.
“Because I want you to be pitiful to me this morning. I have come to throw myself upon your mercy, and to ask your help to do what is right. I know I deserve all sorts of censure, but let me implore you not to be too angry with me. I am as much a victim to myself as to circumstances.”
He pulled a handful of the gilded ferns and threw them at my feet; then sliding softly down and leaning upon his arm looked into my face with one of those sweet, imploring smiles which I believe no woman in the world could resist, unless it might be Nell.
“I want you to talk to me,” he said, “as though I were your only son, and that I had no other friend in the world but my mother.”
“What is it, Egremont?” I said, entirely mollified, as I placed my hand on his fair forehead.
“I have made a great mistake,” he said, “one that may appear wicked, but yet a mistake. I never loved your adopted daughter, Zanita, never can love her, and if I had to force myself to make the attempt, should hate her with all the vehemence of my nature.”
While he spoke his color came and went so rapidly that I dreaded he might take a fit. He clutched at the ferns and tore them in morsels; a fierce glare shot from under his long dark lashes which gave him the look of a maniac.
“There is really no occasion for this excitement, Egremont,” I said. “Neither Zanita or any of us wish for any further intimacy between you.”
“She does!” he said bitterly. “She cares no more for me than I do for her; and yet”—he cried, springing suddenly to his feet and poising himself in a defiant attitude—“her ambition would induce her to marry me for whom I am!” A light of scornful grandeur seemed to illumine his whole person, and I thought I had never seen so haughty and noble looking a man.
This speech naturally roused all my latent curiosity, and the mystery of Zanita’s adherence to him.
“Have you then favored Zanita with more information than myself, in whom you profess to place confidence?” I asked, coldly.
“Shootee one big bird!” said a voice close to us. We both started. Fortunately it was only Mu-wah, the Indian, with an immense grouse as large as a hen, which he had just shot. I had necessarily to admire it, and then sent him off with it to the kitchen.
“But I have something more to tell you,” continued Egremont, when we were alone.
“If I was so carried away by anger about Zanita, it is because I love Cozy. I worship her, and cannot live without her. In soul and person she is divine. The light of her blue eyes’ radiance is all I need now and evermore. Do,” he said, seizing both my hands and upsetting my pin-cushions, bag, and joinering tools,—“do give me one other chance in life! Do let me have her! for it all depends on you, and your whole life and her’s shall bless this one moment of trusting. Tell me that you will regard me as you did before that fiend-like beauty crossed my path; let me start afresh with Cozy, as though all this delusion had never begun, and I will prove to you, in five minutes, that you have no reason, in a practical, worldly point of view, to refuse me; and you will not refuse to make us all happy, and everything shall be made clear, and all your speculations as regards me,” he said, with a half smile, “set at rest forever.”
He held my hand nervously with one of his, while he thrust the other into his breast, where he grasped something which he seemed only waiting to produce.
“I am not surprised,” I said, “for I have noticed your feelings toward Cozy, but she is far too young; and it fills me with dismay to observe this passion you have conceived for these two poor children. Do you not think you are more their evil genius than they yours?”
“Not Cozy’s,” he said quickly. “It would be a delight to be torn by wild animals for Cozy’s sake. She is the perfection of all that is lovely and exquisite, and I would rather be thrown from the top of Tu-tock-a-nu-lah than live without her. Tell me I may woo and win her; the rest of her life she shall tread on rose-leaves.”
“I fear you have done that without leave,” I said, gravely.
“Have I? Is she mine in heart?” he exclaimed, as his face glowed with fervent passion. “Great God be thanked!”
Ere I could open my lips to reply, a slight movement in the deep ferns arrested my attention. It was not Mu-wah this time, for the sun shone on the dark gleaming tresses of Zanita as she moved softly away on her hands and knees, very much with the motion of a bear. I caught Egremont by the arm and pointed to where the sun’s rays fell on the shiny hair. He looked, reeled back against the trunk of the tree, and became as pale as death.
“She has heard every word,” I said.
“She must have been there the whole time, and will be revenged on one of us,” said Egremont, gloomily.
“You wrong her,” I interposed. “She has never shown malice toward Rosie, and you can take care of yourself. But Zanita is not vindictive; she forgets too soon.”
“Yes,” he replied, “but her vengeance may be as rapid as her feelings.” I rose to leave him, feeling thoroughly discomfited by the morning’s revelations.
“Tell me,” he said, eagerly,—“tell me, may I hope? and, as regards myself, I will make everything satisfactory to you and Mr. Naunton.”
“I cannot reply at once. I must have time for reflection. I will speak with you again in two or three days, provided you promise me you will make no positive advance to our dear little Rosie.”
“It shall be exactly as you wish,” he said, and bowed with that indescribable grace that was native to him.
I went to my room thoroughly bewildered and perplexed with con-tending emotions. Was it possible that after all he should turn out a fine character,—a man of position and fortune, perhaps a nobleman,—marry Cozy, make her happy, and a duchess? No man but an English nobleman had I ever seen wear such a look as he put on when he said,—“She would marry me for whom I am.” Was it possible that Zanita, with her keen perceptions and vigorous intellect, had really fathomed the mystery and made up her mind to be a duchess? This seemed all absurd, yet the fact remained that here was a young man who had proposed to me for each of my adopted daughters, who pertinaciously persisted in concealing his position, family, and occupation; even now he asked my permission to woo my darling Rosie on the simple intimation that I shall be satisfied with all concerning him when he deigns to elucidate the question. Then arose the difficulty about the feelings of the two girls. Rosie was clearly in love with him in her gentle, delicate, caressing way. No man with a particle of tenderness and manhood could fail to appreciate the sweet, soft, affectionate, womanly nature of Rosie, let alone her dazzling beauty, which almost threw the brilliancy of Zanita into the shade. The effulgence of her blue eyes was truly, as he had said, irresistible, and the damask of her peach-like cheeks alluring to the touch; her full, rosy, laughing mouth would be sure to give her a dozen desperate lovers in any city to which she might be taken, who would only serve to tease and torment the child, for she had no ingredient of coquetry in her composition.
With Zanita, on the contrary, it was impossible to tell whether she was flirting or in earnest. So much was she a born actress that even I could not discover which was the play and which was the reality, and thus it defied my utmost skill to say if she did or did not like Egremont. Even in her escapade of the morning I vainly tried to determine whether she had been treating her imagination to the performance of a grizzly bear, or whether she had been maliciously and wickedly eavesdropping. I felt great reluctance to charge her wrongfully. If I mentioned the circumstance to her father he would be sure to adopt the hypothesis which favored Zanita, for he never could see a fault in her, and owing to his own frank and guileless nature could not be brought to realize the cunning of hers. “Her mother was as pure and open as day,” he would argue, “and I am sure deceit is not one of my faults. Where can she have got it from? It cannot be a part of her nature.”
This he repeated for the hundredth time, when, later on in the day I sought a private talk with him upon the welfare of the children and the present crisis of affairs.
“That is a psychological and ethnological question upon which I cannot precisely enlighten you, but there exists no doubt in my mind that Zanita is the child of some very remote ancestor, we will hope,” I said, laughing, “and that her peculiar qualities are innate and not circumstantial. Everything that affection, example, practical or scientific training can do has been done, but all in vain; no effect has been produced upon her. She has no more conception of the beauty or righteousness of truth than she had when I first saw her as a baby. I never could make her love it, never teach her to admire it. She always liked fiction better than fact.”
“That is so,” replied Mr. Naunton. “She was always fond of the semblance of anything, and more delighted with the peeling of a fruit, put adroitly together, than with its unsullied bloom; and yet she is a great lover of nature, for see how she revels in the midst of it.”
“I do not think it is love that stimulates her in anything,” I replied. “The awe-inspiring, terrific grandeur of these mysterious rocks are congenial with her wild, daring imagination. She does not love their beauty, but glories in contending with their power. But to come to the practical question, What do you think ought to be done in the present emergency?”
“Well,” said Mr. Naunton, stroking down his handsome beard thoughtfully, “I do not anticipate anything very serious will ensue. The cold weather will soon be upon us, and the first snow-storm will necessarily drive him out of the Valley. Zanita, I am sure, will not break her heart,” said her father, smiling humorously—“that’s one blessing! You see, madam, there is some consolation in that.”
“Certainly,” I replied, musingly; “but I never know what other worse thing she might not do, if seriously crossed in her plans or desires.”
“O, she never has a plan, she is all impulse,” said her father. “I wish to goodness she had!”
“Yes, her master of elocution tells me that if she would only carry her conception throughout the play, or even the character, she would make one of the finest actresses the world has ever seen. He says she has all the voluptuous grace of a ‘Siddons,’ with the weird power of ‘Rachel.’ But only fancy what she did at the private rehearsal we had among our friends. She had literally enraptured us all as Lady Macbeth, with her magnificent rating of her Lord, and when she came to the sentence, ‘But screw your courage to the sticking point and we’ll not fail,’ she threw out a magnetic power enough to have swayed a kingdom, at which there was a unanimous burst of applause. She twisted her face to that elfish grimace she has, and stooped to tie bootlace, or garter, I really do not know which. The audience looked aghast for a moment, and then roared with laughter. The Professor of Elocution was furious, and declared that he would never give her another lesson, and my husband fears it would be quite unsafe to produce her before a real audience, as no reliance could be placed upon her not doing anything grotesque if the occasion offered.”
Mr. Naunton cried out mirthfully,—“That is just like my Zanny. I fancy I see her do it. She never had the smallest sense of propriety, or of the fitness of things.”
“We have digressed again,” I said. “What do you think we are to do about Egremont and his offer to Rosie?”
“I would not do anything. I would just adopt Talleyrand’s advice when consulted on a great crisis. He said, Ne faites rien.’ I don’t want Egremont to marry either of my daughters. I don’t quite fancy him for a son-in-law; he is not one of us; he is to me something ‘uncanny.’ He may be an artist, but I don’t think it; he is on a different plane from any-thing we know in this country, and there is something about him as though he expected you to doff your hat and say ‘Your highness’ or ‘Your grace.’”
“Just so,” I remarked, “and however familiar you may become with him,—and you know I had him first as an amanuensis,—yet one never overcomes that sort of easy hauteur which surrounds him. He reminds me excessively of one of the royal dukes we chanced to meet travelling in Europe.”
“No, no,” resumed Mr. Naunton, after a pause, “we must just let him go about his business the end of this fall. My little Cozy does not want to leave her old father yet, and the child is too young to have formed any serious attachment.”
Half a dozen yards from the window of the room where we sat, stood a gnarled and bowed tree, partially consumed by fire, which had left it jagged and picturesque, as only fire can chisel wood. It bore a fresco work of deep black charring, on the silver ground of the barkless trunk. One of its own mighty boughs, split from the junction, and fallen to the ground, had formed a perfect Gothic archway of some fifteen feet in height. A dead tree in most places is an unsightly object; but in the happy Valley even death is lovely. The oak leaves, in their sapless brown, are as beautiful as in their juicy green. The silver trunks of the denuded trees are as handsome as the golden bark of the yellow pine and unscathed Sequoia; and thus the archway, though in mouldering decay, was still rich in mellow coloring. Over it the trumpet honey-suckle hung a few bright flowers and variegated leaves,—for here nothing decays, it only assumes a new form. Just at this moment appeared under the archway, as if set in a frame, a picture of animate nature, that transfixed my gaze with admiration and anxiety. It was the figures of Cozy and Egremont standing together as only lovers stand. They were toying over a flower; and she was making some pretense at explaining its botanical properties; but it needed no diviner to find out that their thoughts were of each other, deeper and more intense than any subject of botany could inspire. Every now and then she would look right up into his face with those winning soft eyes, and the delicate blush which always hovered about her face when speaking emotionally. The sun’s rays caught in the loose meshes of her hair and twined it into a halo of glory round her delicate head; her lips, like parted rose leaves, smiled ever as she spoke; the goddess of happiness sat enthroned upon her young face, which had never known a frown or a shadow since she had wept for her mother. How strangely has nature arranged these things. She seemed to possess, without an effort, all the lovable qualities her sister lacked; she had all the sweet reticence of modesty, combined with that gentle womanly yielding which makes a man believe such women angels. Egremont gazed upon her with adoring, reverential eyes; and the hot color came and went in alternate flashes beneath the transparent skin of his temples. But he would not have cast one shade of fear over that trusting face for the wealth of Golconda. He did not even attempt to touch the little dimpled fingers as they played about the petals of the flower; but he gazed on them longingly, and I half dreaded to see him snatch them, and press them to his lips. There was a subdued self-control about his whole demeanor, which contrasted forcibly with his abandon toward Zanita, and I could not help reflecting how much a man’s disposition is formed by the woman he loves or who loves him.
“Look at that picture,” I said, indicating them to Mr. Naunton. “Is it not exquisite? What a lovely couple they make.”
“Very handsome,” said he. “Only think of papa’s ‘chunck’ having a lover to herself; for there is no mistaking that such he is.”
“No, and I regret to see it. I very much fear they are both in earnest.” “Aye, they are young, they are young,” he said, rising, and he left the room to look out some fishing tackle.
I hesitated whether or no to disturb them: I did not consider myself in duty bound to interfere with Rosie, as I should have done with Zanita, though I loved her fully as well; and her father seemed to think that matters ought to be allowed to take their course. Moreover, the picture possessed a charm for me that I hated to disturb. My eyes clung to it as though it were a last farewell look of some beloved object, and it was thus engravers indelibly on my mind, never to be effaced from that moment. It was not alone the exquisite grace and tenderness of the picture; but my heart seemed suddenly to yearn and weep over it. In that moment I felt I could forgive Egremont all his faults,—as one for-gives the cold, mute face of the dead who have wrought us ill, although the stony lips ask it not, and were so defiant in life. As my eyes became humid with the big tears that filled them, the fair picture moved, and approached the little side window near which I was sitting. Egremont was speaking of his departure.
“When shall you have the first snow-storm?” he asked; “I shall have to leave you then or be a prisoner for the winter.”
“O, that would be delightful,” echoed Rosie in a joyous mellow tone. “The winter here is even more charming than the summer. You see all these rocks and mountains decked out with their choicest jewelry; every single ledge, crag, and projection has its share of gems, amethysts, pearls and rubies, and strings of opals suspended from cliff to cliff; then all the cedars and pines put on their furry white coats, and look so comfortable and happy, as though they dreaded no future storm thus clad; and all is so still and calm, that I have only to tread upon the crunching snow to make the most delicious harmonies. I often hear new tunes, that I can sing and play upon the guitar; and I will show you a thousand new pictures to paint.”
Egremont beamed a glowing smile upon her.
“They would not let me stay all winter,” he said sadly; “but you, Rosie, might come out with us. You have never left the Valley, never seen the great world and all the beautiful things which are in it. Would you not like to live in a splendid mansion, with frescoed walls, and marble pavements, and statues and vases all round, and glorious views from the windows of miles of green lawn, with the deer tamely grouping under the shadow of the wide-spread oaks; where the lakes are filled with gold and silver fish, so trusting that they will come and take the crumbs dropped from your hand; where there are gardens under glass, with every brightest plant, and flowers all through the winter; where a miniature world of brilliant-plumed birds will come at your call, and perch upon your finger; where the rich-toned voices of Italy come to warble to you, and the fine instrumentalists of Germany concert their grandest harmonies for your delight. Cozy, darling Cozy, will you not come to such a home and dwell there with me?” exclaimed he, with a gush of manly tenderness that made me tremble for our rose-bud.
A soft glow spread over her face for a moment, and then she looked up to him, her eyes like two blue violets melting in dew,—“Ah! do you live in such a lovely place? I should like to go, but,” added she, “I should like to go anywhere with you, or stay here with you either.”
“Always, Cozy?” he whispered, leaning over her with bated breath,—“forever, beauty?”
“Him catchee him horsee,” cried Mu-wah, appearing on the scene.
“Well, put my saddle on,” said Rosie, recovering herself, “and saddle the other for Mr. Egremont.”
“Saddle him one other Miss Zany?” asked Mu-wah.
“No,” said Egremont, decisively. “Excuse me,” he said, turning to Rosie, “my interference; but I always feel so uncomfortable riding with Zanita. She is forever trying to break her own or some one’s else neck. “Tell me,” he whispered, “what I asked you: will you go to the home I essayed to paint?”
“Should I have to leave father and aunty, and all of them?” sighed Rosie, a little dismayed.
“Dear child,” he said, “do you remember your mother?”
“No, but I know all about her, and feel just as though I did.”
“You know, then, that she left all behind to come into this wilderness with your father, when even her life was in danger from the Indians. Do you not believe that what your mother did was right?”
“O, indeed I do; papa always says that mamma was perfection.” “And you resemble her in every point,” cried Egremont, tenderly; “so say you will come even before the first snow-storm.”
“Is it very far?” asked Rosie, gradually yielding to her own heart and his importunity. “I am afraid papa would be so lonesome.”
“He could rejoin us, and he would be so amused to see you in a long train-dress, and real jewels, instead of the frost ones you were describing; and we could give him plenty of fishing, and all the new books that are published.”
I could not see Rosie’s face; but I could imagine that some little glance of consent was given, for they moved away, and soon I heard their horses’ feet.
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