AN ALGONQUIN MAIDEN
.


 

CHAPTER XIX.

AT STAMFORD COTTAGE.

 


NOT more than three miles from the Falls of Niagara, between them and Queenston, lies the pretty village of Stamford, in which, over sixty years ago, Upper Canada’s Lieutenant-Governor built the summer home which became his favourite place of abode.  Set in the midst of a vast natural park, its appearance corresponded perfectly to Mrs. Jameson’s description of an elegant villa, framed in the interminable forests.  Here, within sound of the great cataract and, on clear, typically Canadian days, within sight of York, thirty miles distant across the lake, Sir Peregrine and Lady Sarah Maitland found a grateful retreat from the cares of public life.  Not that they loved society less, but solitude more; especially, to use a Hibernicism, when that solitude was shared.  In the early summer of 1827 Stamford Cottage was filled with people after its pretty mistress’s own heart.  If she suspected one of her guests of being also after the heart of another, it did not endear him the less to her.  Why should she not remove from the paths of her protégés the scarcely perceptible obstacles which prevented them from being as happily married as herself?  But one day she discovered that the role of match-maker is as arduous as it is alluring, and with this she went at once to her husband’s study.
     “Dear,” she began, “I have become greatly interested in a young man, and I thought it only right that you should know about it before it goes any further.”
     “Ah, yes, certainly.”  The gentleman looked rather abstracted.  “And the young fellow—is he interested too?”
     “Oh, interested is a feeble word.  He is desperately in love.” [Page 208]
     “Then you haven’t taken me into your confidence a moment too soon.  Has he declared his passion?”
     “”No; that’s just the trouble.  He goes mooning round and mooning round, and never saying a word.  And I’m sure,” added the lady in an aggrieved tone, “I’ve given him every opportunity.  Yesterday after infinite pains I brought him and Hélène together in the arbour, and made some pretext for escaping into the house.  What did that—infant—do but follow me out?”
     “Quite natural, if his feelings towards you are such as you have described.”
     “Towards me!  You don’t imagine I am talking of myself.”
     “That is what your words would lead one to believe.”
     “Oh, dear husband, you know perfectly well what I mean.  I do think that when a man sets out to be stupid he succeeds a thousand times better than a woman.  Surely you have noticed how badly Edward Macleod and Hélène DeBerczy are behaving.”
     “Really, my dear, I have not.  I supposed they were behaving remarkably well.”
     “In one sense—yes.  They are as ‘polite as peas.’  But why should they be polite?”
     “Well, it is a custom of the country, I suppose.  It’s hard to account for all the strange things one sees in a foreign land.”
     “My object is not so much to account for it as to put an end to it.  It’s ridiculous for two people, who have known each other from babyhood, to be standing aloof, and looking as if the honour of each other’s acquaintance was the last thing to be desired.  And now Mademoiselle Hélène wants to go home.  She does not complain or repine or importune, but every day, and several times a day, she presents the idea to her mother, with varying degrees of emphasis, and in the tone of one who believes that continual dropping [Page 209] will wear away the stone.  Madame DeBerczy as yet remains sweetly obdurate.  She is enjoying her visit, and there seems to be no special good reason why it should be terminated.  I particularly wish them to stay, as I want if possible to bring about a better understanding between Hélène and Edward.  We must not let them escape.”
     In pursuance of the policy suggested by his wife, Sir Peregrine took occasion to have a special kindly little chat with Hélène, with a view to overcome her reluctance to remain.  Naturally of a reserved disposition his cordial hospitality found expression in looks and actions rather than words, and these took a greater value from the infrequency with which they were uttered.
     “What is this I hear about your wanting to leave us?” he said, addressing Hélène, who, with her mother, was seated on his left at dinner that evening.  “Have you really grown very tired of us all?”
     The young lady laid down her knife and fork, and the unconscious movement, combined with her unusual pallor, gave one the impression that she was indeed very tired.
     “No, Sir Peregrine, only of myself.  I seem to be suffering from a prolonged attack of spring fever.  Don’t you think home is the best place for those who have the bad taste to be in poor health?”
     “No doubt of it,” replied the gentleman, at which she gave him a grateful glance, thinking she had won an unexpected ally; “but,” he continued, “I hoped you would feel at home here.”
     Hélène assured him that it was impossible for her to enjoy her visit more than she was doing.  As she made this perfectly sincere statement her melancholy eyes by chance encountered the deep blue ones of her unacknowledged lover.  In their depths lurked an expression of absolute relief.  Could he then be glad to hear of their projected departure?  She hoped so.  It would be very much better [Page 210] for both.  “Has it never occurred to you,” she asked of Sir Peregrine, “that the pleasantest things in this world are very seldom the best for us?”
     “I am sorry to hear you say that,” he rejoined pleasantly, “as I was about to ask you to go out driving with me to-morrow morning.  There is a view near the Falls that I believe you have never yet seen, and the gratification of showing it to you would be to me one of the pleasantest things in the world.”
     The young lady very willingly admitted that this was an exception to the rule she had just laid down.  Lady Sarah, who thus far had approved her husband’s tactics, now gave him a slightly questioning glance, but he returned her such a look of self-confident good cheer, that she knew at once he must be involved in a deep-laid plot of his own.  As a rule she had small respect for masculine plots, and before another day had elapsed her sentiment on the subject was abun- dantly shared by at least two of her guests.  Mademoiselle DeBerczy had always entertained a genuine admiration and liking for the Lieutenant-Governor.  His chivalrous courtesy, picturesque appearance, and the exquisite refinement of his tone and manner pleased her fastidious taste.  So it was with almost a light heart that she made her preparations next morning for the drive.  But when seated in the carriage, and waiting with a bright face the appearing of her delin- quent attendant, it was not pleasant to be told by the gentleman himself that important dispatches had just arrived by the morning’s mail, which demanded his personal and immediate attention.  “Besides that fact,” said His Excellency, “I had forgotten an appointment I have with the Hon. Mr. Hamilton Merritt to talk over his great project of the Welland Canal between the two Lakes, and I cannot disappoint him.”  He couldn’t think of asking her to wait until the sun was hot, and the pleasure of the drive spoiled, added the Lieutenant-Governor.  But here was Edward [Page 211] Macleod, who would no doubt be glad to take his place.  At this announcement Hélène longed to fly to her room, but she could think of no valid excuse.  The young man, sitting with the last Gazette in hand in a rustic chair on the veranda, listened to the summons with silent horror.  He actually turned pale, but like Hélène, he could think of no possible excuse for evading the turn affairs had taken.  He rose mechanically, gave inarticulate utterance to the pleasure he did not feel, and took his seat beside the unhappy girl, who shrank visibly into her corner.
     “Admirable!” exclaimed Lady Sarah, softly stepping out to witness the unusual phenomenon of Edward and Hélène driving away together.  “I never supposed a man could have so much sagacity and foresight.  Here have I been cudgelling my brains to keep those two from playing hide and seek—no, hide and avoid—ever since they came, and now you accomplish it in the easiest and most natural way in the world.  See what it is to have a clever husband!  How did you happen to think of those important dispatches?”
     Emphasis would indicate too coarsely the delicate stress laid upon the last two words.  The gentleman looked extremely puzzled.
     “Happen to think?  I am obliged to think of them.”
     “Really?  What a lucky accident!  So you are not the sly designing schemer I supposed.  Ah, well, you are the soul of honour, and that is infinitely better.
     Certainly to her mind in the present case that was what appearances would seem to indicate; but the poor wretches who were tending slowly toward the brink of some indefinable horror, more awful to their imaginations than the great cataract itself, thought not so much upon the means by which they were brought into their present painful position, as upon the impossibility of escape from it.  To the eye of a casual wayfarer these handsome young people, driving [Page 212] abroad through the dewy freshness of the morning, with the long lovely day before them, could not be considered objects of pity.
     For a while they took refuge in commonplaces, relieved by lapses of eloquent silence; then as the winding road conducted them by easy gradations into greener depths of leafy solitude they looked involuntarily into each other’s eyes, and realized that, beneath all the bitterness and pride and cruel estrangement, their love was the truest, most unalterable, part of their life.
     “Perhaps,” said Edward, speaking as though the words were wrung from him, “it is better that we should meet once more alone, though it be for the last time.”
     The girl gave a low murmur of assent.  Her eyes were looking straight forward.  The solitude was permeated by the deep thunder of the Falls, and it voiced the depth of her despair.  “For the last time, she said within herself, “for the last time.”
     “I have a favour to ask,” he continued, “a favour that I verily believe a man never yet asked of a woman he loved; and I do love you, my darling—there, let me say it once, since I can never say it again—I love you with all my heart and soul.”  He bowed his head, and she could see the blue vein in his temple growing bluer and swelling as he spoke.  He had not laid a finger upon her, he could not so much as lift his eyes up to her face, but a mocking breeze suddenly blew a fold of her raiment against his cheek, and he kissed it passionately.  Hélène held her hands tightly together; they were trembling violently.
     “I want to beg of you,” he said, still without looking up, “to look upon me with suspicion, aversion, and distrust; to disbelieve any good you may hear of me; to hate me if you can; to treat me as long as you live with uniform coldness and indifference.” [Page 213]
     “I understand,” she replied with icy brevity, “you think there is danger of my treating you otherwise.”
     Now, since the discovery of the locket, and its tell-tale contents, this was precisely the danger that Edward had feared, but he was a diplomatist.
     “Have you ever given me the slightest reason to think so?” he demanded.  “At my least approach your natural pride changes to haughtiness, arrogance, and scorn.  But the one thing greater than your pride is my love.  Ah, you know nothing about it—you cannot imagine its power.  Madmen have warned those who were dearest to them to fly from their sight, lest in spite of themselves an irreparable injury be inflicted.  And so I urge you to continue avoiding me, to cast behind not even a single glance of pity, lest in spite of your pride, in spite of my reason, I should bend all my power to the one object of winning you.”
     This calamity, it may be supposed, was not quite so great and horrible to the mind of the young lady as it was in the excited imagination of her lover.  “I do not understand you,” she said quietly.  “What is it you wish to ask of me?”
     “Only this: that you will never think of me with the slightest degree of kindness; that you will drop me from your acquaintance; that you will forget that I ever existed.”
     “Very well;” her tones were even quieter than before, and a great deal colder!  “I promise never to think any more of you than I do at this moment.”  And all the time she was crying with inward tears, “O, darling, darling, as though I could think any more of you than I do now!  As though I could, as though I could!”
     “Thank you,” said Edward, “you are removing a terrible temptation from my way, and helping to make me stronger and less ignoble than I am.  Let me tell you all about it, Hélène.  Do you remember that night in the conservatory last winter, when you treated me so cruelly?  Yes, I own I [Page 214] was a wild animal; but you might have tamed me, and instead you infuriated me.  I went from you to Wanda, the Indian girl with whom I flirted last summer.  She was in civilized garb, in my mother’s home, quiet as a bird that has been driven by the storms of winter into a place of shelter.  I too had been tempest-driven, and her warm welcome, her beauty and tenderness, stole away my senses.  She soothed my injured vanity, satisfied my desperate hunger for love, and I lived for weeks in the belief that we were made for each other.  But with the return of summer the untamed spirit of her race took possession of her, and when I saw her with you,—ah, dearest, is there need for me to say more?  I cannot marry her; every fibre of my being, every sentiment of my soul, revolts from it; but neither am I such a monster of iniquity as to try to win any one else, and found my life-long happiness upon that poor girl’s broken-hearted despair.  No, Hélène, you have no right to look at me in that way.  I never wronged her in the base brutish sense of the word—never in a way that the spirit of my dead mother might not have witnessed—but I have robbed her of her heart, and find too late that I do not want it.  I cannot free her from her suffering, but at least I shall always share it.”
     And I too, was Hélène’s internal response.  Aloud she suggested that it was time for them to return.  Her indifference was precisely what Edward had begged for, but now in return for his confidence it chilled him.  She noticed his disappointment, and with a sudden impulse of sympathy, she laid a tiny gloved hand upon his arm.  “Oh, you are right,” she breathed, “perfectly right.  It is infinitely better to suffer with her than to be happy and contemptible and forget her.  Believe me I shall not be a hindrance to you.”
     He took in his own the little fluttering hand, and held it in what he believed to be a quiet friendly clasp.  It was an immense relief to unburden his mind to any one, and her approval was very sweet to a heart that had been torn for [Page 215] weary days and nights by self-accusation and self-contempt.  Unconscious- ly he leaned nearer to her, still holding the little hand, which its owner did not withdraw, because it was for “the last time.”  In the reaction from the severe strain of the days and weeks gone past they were almost light-hearted.  Before re-entering the village Edward stopped the horse in a leafy covert, where for a few minutes they might be secure from observation.
     “It is only to say good-bye, my heart’s idol,” he explained.  “Since I have proved myself unworthy even of your liking I must go away from you forever.  But our parting must be here in private.”  He held both her hands now in a tight, strong grasp, and looked into her face with unutterable love.  “Ah, heaven,” he groaned, “I cannot give you up! I cannot, I cannot!”  He bowed his face upon the lilies in her lap, but the languid bloodless things could not cool the fever in his cheeks.  For her life she could not help laying her hand tenderly upon his head—the young golden head that lay so wearily close to her empty arms; but she said nothing.  A woman’s heart is dumb, not because it is created so, but because society has decreed that that is the only proper thing for it to be.  “Hélène,” he murmured, lifting his head with a strange dazed look, “I believe I have been delirious all the morning.  What possible good could my suffering be to Wanda?  I don’t know what I have said, but I wish you would forget it all.  I wish you would remember nothing except that I love you—love you—love you!”
     The girl laughed aloud and bitterly.  “So that is the length of a man’s remorse!  No!  You have begged me to despise you, and now I shall beg you not to make it dangerously easy for me to do so.”
     Her contempt was a tonic.  It reminded the young man that he deserved, not only that but his own contempt as well.  They drove home without exchanging another word. [Page 216]


[Chapter XX]