AN ALGONQUIN MAIDEN
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CHAPTER XX.

THE COMING OF WANDA.

 


THE spectacle of a pair of lovers equally pale and proud alighting at her door was rather dispiriting to Lady Sarah Maitland, but she did not lose heart.  This she rightly considered to be the proper thing for them, not for her to do.  At least they should not escape “the solitude of the crowd,” and opportunities for bringing them into this sort of solitude were not lacking.  The same afternoon an English lord, who had recently been making a tour of the States, with some officers of His Majesty’s 70th Regiment, then stationed at York, arrived at Stamford Cott- age, and in their honour a large number of guests were assembled that eve- ning.  The soft radiance of mingled moonlight and candle light, the artistic luxury of the place and its surroundings, the exquisite robes of soft-voiced women, the cultivated tone and manner of the men, with a sort of subtle and distinguished aroma of British nobility shed over the whole—all of these things held for Edward Macleod a potent witchery.  This evening he was in unusually good spirits, and was entertaining a group of gentlemen, who had gathered about him in the centre of the large drawing-room, by an amusing account of his hunting experiences in the backwoods.  The sounds of subdued mirth that followed his recital induced a passing bevy of ladies to join them.  Lady Sarah took the arm of Hélène, and gave him her flattering attention along with the rest.  A young man never talks poorly from the knowledge that he has gained the ear of his audi- ence.
     “Really, a remarkably bright young fellow,” confided Lord E—to Sir Peregrine, at the close of another story, which was accentuated by little bursts of gentle laughter.
     A slight breeze blew from a suddenly opened door upon the wax tapers, and the next moment a strange figure made [Page 217] its way through that brill- iantly dressed assemblage, and laid its hand upon the arm of Edward.  With his face flushed and eyes brightened by the sweetly breathed flattery that, like wine, was apt to go to his brain, he turned and beheld Wanda.  She had evidently walked all the way from her home for the express purpose of finding him.  Her dress, made up of various coloured garments, the cast-off raiment of those whose charity had fed and lodged her on the way, was covered with dust; her magnificent hair lay in a great straggling heap upon her shoulders.  “My father has gone to the spirit-land,” she said, “and now I come to you.”  Lady Sarah and Rose advanced immediately, with protestations of pity and sympathy, and entreaties that she would go at once with them to find food and rest.  But she was immovable as granite. “I have come to you,” she said, her beautiful eyes fixed upon Edward, and she uttered a few words of endearment in the Huron tongue.  Nobody understood them but the young man, his sister, and hostess.  The latter lady felt herself growing very cold, but she accompanied the pair to a private parlour, and returned to her guests with an amused smile upon her lips.
     “Poor thing!” she said in a clear voice, distinctly audible to all.  “Her foster-father died last week, and left no end of messages and requests to Mr. Macleod, his friend and constant companion in his hunting expeditions.  The girl has that exaggerated idea of filial duty common to the Indian races.  She could not rest until she had fulfilled his dying wishes.”
     No; Lady Sarah certainly did not merit the compliment she had given her husband—she was not the soul of honour—but what would you?  With her cheery voice and confident laugh she had dispelled at a breath the vile suspic- ion of scandal.  The company experienced a wonderful relief, and the conver- sation naturally turned to the peculiarities of savages.  Rose had vanished, and it was generally supposed [Page 218] that she was with her brother and that queer Indian girl.  In reality she was locked in her room, saturating her pillow with her tears.
     Edward was alone with Wanda.  For a moment the blood ran hot in his veins, and he longed to act the part of a man.  He longed to take the hand of this beautiful travel-stained savage, and lead her back into the midst of those fashionably dressed, superficially smiling, ladies and gentlemen.  He longed to declare, nay, rather to thunder forth, the words:  “This is my promised wife!  Through weary days and nights, with sore feet and sorer heart she has been coming to me.  Burned by the sun and blinded with the dust, hungry and thirsty, and aching in every fibre, her trust never faltered, her love never failed.  And her love is matched by mine.  The loyalty and devotion of my life I lay at her poor bleeding feet.”
     That would have satisfied his imagination, but in real life imagination must always go a-hungering.  He sat down beside her with a face far more weary than her own.
     “Wanda,” he burst forth, “my poor fatherless, friendless child, what can I say to you?  I am a villain, a coward, a reptile!  I thought I loved you, and I do not.  No, though my heart aches for you, I do not love you.  Oh, you look as though I were murdering you, and it is better for me to murder you now by a few sharp terrible words, than by a life-time of neglect and loathing.”
     The colour had all ebbed from her face.  She fell on her knees beside him, and her liquid childish eyes and sweet lips were upraised to his.
     “No, no, my little fawn, I must not kiss you.  It is wicked to kiss what we do not love.  And I do not love you.”  He was sheltering himself behind that assertion, but of a sudden he broke into crying, and his tears fell upon her face.  “Child,” he said, rising and pacing the room, “do you know what it is to marry a man who cares a great deal for your lips and [Page 219] eyes, and nothing for your mind and soul?  It is to marry a beast!  You would be wretched with me.  We should grow inexpressibly tired of each other.  Tell me,” he cried, stopping short in his swift walk to and fro, and confronting her with parched lips and wet eyes, “could you endure to have me say cruel things to you every day?  Could you bear to have me think bitter things of you in my heart, though I left them unsaid?  How could you live under my coldness and neglect?  You must learn to hate me—to scorn me,—to think as harshly of me as I shall always think of myself.”
     She was faint and dizzy, but she rose to her feet, and groped feebly to the door, cowering from him as she went, with her hands over her eyes.  Then she turned back with a low wail of irrepressible anguish.
     “I cannot leave you,” she said, “I cannot give you up!”
     Again he was bound in her chains.  Her feverish hands held his, her burning eyes drank up the dew in his own, her magnetic presence thrilled him with a sense of love stronger than any he had dreamed of or imagined.  Neglect, cruelty, coldness, scorn!  What did the words mean?  Like poisonous weeds they had grown fast and rank before his eyes, but in the burning face of this all-conquering love they had shrunk, withered and dead to the earth. Yes, it was the vile earth from which they had sprung, and it was in the radiant heavens that this great love was shining.  Wanda’s victory was nearly complete.  The only thing lacking to make it so was that she should renounce it altogether.  And this she did—not with conscious art but by that sure instinct of womanliness which teaches that a man won by other than indirect methods is not won at all.  Then she said, pushing him gently aside, “I will go away now, and never see you again, because I am a burden to you.  No,” for he had put his hand upon her wrist, “you must not touch me, because—” the words choked her for [Page 220] a moment, and then they fell from her lips with a sound of fathomless despair— “it is as though you were my little child that I was forced to leave forever.”  Again she had reached the door, but this time it was his arm around her that brought her back, his protestations of undying affection that revived her drooping frame.
     There was a light tap at the door, which opened to admit Lady Sarah Maitland.  “My maids will attend to this poor child,” she said, addressing Edward.  “She will have a bath, and food, and a bed.  Meantime, I want you to help to entertain my guests.”
     “Really?” The young man frowned at the idea of rejoining that gay throng.  He was in a state of mental exaltation—so far up in the clouds that the idea of atten- ding a reception given by his brilliant hostess seemed by contrast spiritless and earthy.
     “It would be a great kindness to let me off,” he pleaded.
     “It would be the greatest kindness to compel you to come,” she insisted.  There was a significance in the eye and tone of this thorough-bred woman of the world that were not without effect upon Edward, who at once accompanied her. His bright face, collected manner, and ready speech, lessened the impression made upon the company by the episode which had drawn general attention to him early in the evening.  Not till after the guests had begun to retire did he again see Wanda.  Running upstairs to get a wrap for the fair shoulders of a young lady, who preferred a moon-lit seat on the lawn to the rather oppressive warmth within doors, he chanced into a little sitting-room in which Wanda, left alone for a moment, was resting with closed eyes in a great easy chair.  Fresh from her bath, with her damp heavy hair lying along the folds of a loose white négligé, she looked almost too tired to smile.  Edward advanced with beating heart, but stopped half-way, suddenly smitten by the sight of a pair of little bruised feet, carefully bandaged, [Page 221] resting upon a stool—the little feet that had travelled such a long hard road, that had been torn and wounded for his sake.  A great wave of shame swept over him.
     “I am not worthy to stand in your presence,” he said penitently, kneeling at her side.
     A low murmur of joy escaped the Indian Maiden’s lips.
     She drew his head down for a moment under the dusky curtain of her overhanging hair, and then her eyes closed again.
     Edward rose and beheld in the open doorway Hélène DeBerczy; her large gaze, darker than a thunder cloud, was illumined by a long lightning flash of merciless irony. [Page 222]
     


[Chapter XXI]