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gray, quaint Canadian town, a dozen rows of straggling streets, tin-roofed houses that wink and twinkle back the frosty fall sunshine—houses uniform in nothing except their dulness and their glistening metal roofs. Dull, very dull they certainly are; two-storied, many-windowed, of dingy red brick or gloomy gray stone; depressing beyond all telling to the eye and mind of the solitary stranger doomed for his sins to drag out a few dreary months in the stagnant—well, let us say—town of Petit St. Jacques. Stagnant—that is the word. Life long ago lay down for a siesta there, and never woke up. Religion is the only thing that seems at all brisk. Many gilt spires point upward to the blue Canadian heaven; a full score of bells clash forth each Sunday, and thrice on that day, and thrice each week-day, the great booming bell of the dim old Cathedral de Nôtre Dame chimes forth the "Angelus Domini," as you may hear in some dreamy, world forgotten town of old France. Beneath its gray stone arches tall pines and feathery tamaracs toss their green plumes in the salt breezes from the stormy gulf, and brilliant-plumaged, shrill-voiced Canadian birds flit among the branches. In the fiercely hot, short-lived Canadian summer grass grows green in the market-places and busiest streets of Petit St. Jacques.
In the summer. But the summer, brief and sweet as a pleasant dream, is at an end; the ides of October are here. Shrill October winds whistle down the wide empty streets; drifts of scarlet maple and orange hemlock leaves swirl in your face; a black frost holds the earth iron bound; your footsteps ring like steel over the unpaved sidewalks; the keen breath of coming winter sets your blood leaping, your eyes sparkling, and lights in dusk Canadian cheeks a hue rosier than all the rouge végétal on earth can give.
"And the last of October will be Halloween! This is the twenty-ninth—only two days more. Girls, do stop whooping like a tribe of Mic-macs gone mad, and list, oh! list to me. Friday next is Halloween."
But the speaker's voice was lost in the shrieking uproar of five-and-thirty school-girls "on the war-path." Afternoon school was over, the day scholars gone home, and the boarders, out in the playground for the last half-hour's recess before evening study, were rending the heavens with the deafening, distracting din that five-and-thirty of those rose-cheeked, gold-haired, corseted angels alone know how to raise.
If there was one thing besides its churches for which Petit St. Jacques was famous, it was the establishment of the Demoiselles Chateauroy for young ladies. It stood in the centre of the Rue St. Dominique; and if there was anything to choose in the matter of dulness and respectability among all the dull and respectable streets of the little town, the Rue St. Dominique should be awarded the palm. There were no shops, there were no people; the houses looked at you as you passed with a sad, settled, melancholy mildew upon them; the doors rarely opened, the blinds and curtains were never drawn; prim little gardens, with prim little gravel-paths, shut in these sad little houses from the street; now and then a pale, pensive face might gleam at you from some upper window, spectre-like, and vanish. The wheels of a passing wagon echo and re-echo down its long silence; the very dogs who sneak out to waggle their tails in the front grass-plot have a forlorn and secret-sorrow sort of air. Take it for all in all, you might travel from the St. Lawrence to the Rio Grande and not find another so absolutely low-spirited and drearily respectable a street as the Rue St. Dominique. Indeed, as Miss Sydney Owenson often and justly remarked, it was a very poor compliment to St. Dominique to christen it after him at all. Miss Sydney Owenson was one of the Demoiselles Chateauroy's five-and thirty boarders; and[Pg 11] it may as well be stated here as elsewhere, had made the Demoiselles Chateauroy more trouble, broken more laws, been condemned to solitary confinement oftener, been the head and front of more frolicsome offendings, and, withal, been better loved by both pupils and teachers during the past three years than the other four-and-thirty put together.
"Miss Owenson is in disgrace every week of her life," Mademoiselle Jeanne Chateauroy was wont to observe, taking a surreptitious pinch of snuff, "and, if strict justice were administered, would be in punishment and disgrace every day of the week; but, ma foi! what would you? It is only high spirits and good health, after all. She keeps the school in a ferment, that is true; there is no mischief of which she is not ringleader, but it is innocent mischief, after all; she has the smile and voice of an angel; it is impossible to be as severe with her as she deserves, and then, Mon Dieu, it is the best heart that ever beat."
This pensionnat des demoiselles of the sisters Chateauroy was situated, as has been said, in the centre of the Rue St. Dominique, fronting directly upon the street—its extensive gardens and playground in the rear. A wooden wall eight feet high shut in this sacred inclosure and its angelic "jeunes filles" from the sacrilegious eye of man. In the face of the fierce summer sun, in the teeth of the fierce winter blasts, the twelve green shutters that protected the twelve front windows were kept jealously closed and barred. No prying, curious daughter of Eve might by any chance look out upon the gay and festive dissipations of the Rue St. Dominique—no daring masculine eye might ever in passing glance in. This prison discipline had only existed within the past two years, and a dark and dreadful legend was whispered about through the dormitories in the "dead waist and middle of the night" to all newcomers of the reason why. As usual, it was all Sydney Owenson's fault. Perched on top of the highest desk in the school-room, her eager head thrust out of the window, this daring, ill-behaved girl had deliberately winked at a passing soldier from the dingy old stone barracks outside the town. The soldier had winked back again; then this totally depraved Miss Owenson had thrown him a kiss; then this dreadful soldier threw her a kiss, and grinned, and went by. Next day he came again; next day Miss Owenson was perched up on the window-sill, like sister Anne on the watch tower, to see if there was anybody coming. Sent by her guardian-angel, no doubt, at this dreadful juncture, Mademoiselle Chat[Pg 12]eauroy the elder came into the school-room; Mademoiselle Chateauroy's horrified eyes beheld Miss Owenson with all the superior half of her person projecting into the Rue St. Dominique: Mademoiselle Chateauroy's stunned ears overheard these words:
"I say, Mr. Lobsterback, who is that lovely young officer I saw prancing all you fellows to the English Church last Sunday? All the girls are dying to know, and I told them I would find out. We're all in love with him. Do tell us his——"
Mademoiselle Chateauroy heard no more. To seize Miss Sydney Owenson, to tear her from her perch, to slam down the window, to glare annihilation upon the grinning red-coat, to confront the offender, livid with horror, was but the work of a second.
What awful fate befell the culprit no pupil knew—no, not to this day; her punishment was enshrouded in the same dark mystery that envelops the ultimate end of the Man in the Iron Mask. She had not been expelled, that was clear, for that was two years ago; and when questioned herself, Miss Owenson was wont to look for a moment supernaturally solemn, and then go off into a peal at the remembrance that made the "welkin ring."
It is close upon five on this October evening, when the thirty-five boarders of the pensionnat are disporting themselves in the primrose light of the dying day, under the watchful and weary eyes of Miss Jones, the English teacher. It is a French play, and a very noisy one. "Brother Hermit, can you dance?" half a dozen tall girls are chanting, in high, shrill, sing-song French. Shrieks of laughter rend the atmosphere, and Miss Jones covers two distracted ears, and calls frantically, and calls in vain:
"Young ladies! Oh, dear me! Young ladies, less noise."
The noise grows fast and furious, the chanting rises shriller and shriller, the screams of laughter wilder and wilder. The "Brother Hermits" caper about like dancing dervishes gone mad. In the midst of it all, a tall, dark, handsome girl, with a double eye-glass across the bridge of her patrician aquiline nose, comes laughingly up to half-delirious Miss Jones.
"It's more like a maison de santé, with the lunatics set loose, than a decorous young ladies' school," she remarks. "I say, Miss Jones, where is Sydney Owenson?"
"I don't know. Oh, if the study bell would but ring! Go and look for Sydney Owenson in the thick of the mêlée; you'll[Pg 13] be sure to find her; they never could make half so much noise without her. Oh, good heaven! hear that."
Another ear-splitting shriek made Miss Jones cover her bruised and wounded tympanums. The dark damsel laughed.
"Miss Hendrick!" screamed Miss Jones.
"The place unmentionable to ears polite. Don't cry out before you're hurt, Miss Jones. No, Syd isn't there, however they manage to raise all that racket without her. Where can she be? I want to tell her that Friday is Hallowe'en, and that Mrs. Delamere has invited all our class who will be allowed to go to a party at her house."
"Indeed, Miss Hendrick!" Miss Jones, the English teacher, fixed two suspicious light-blue eyes upon Miss Hendrick's dark, handsome face, and expressed volumes of disbelief in that one incredulous word.
"Yes, 'indeed,' Miss Jones, and you are not invited, I'm happy to say. You don't believe me, do you? You never do believe anything Cyrilla Hendrick says, if you can help yourself, do you? You see, Mrs. Colonel Delamere happens—unfortunately for you—to be a lady, and has a weakness for inviting young ladies only to her house. That is why, probably, she is blind to the manifold merits of Miss Mary Jane Jones. You're name is Mary Jane, isn't it, Miss Jones? I saw it in your prayer-book. No, don't apologize, please—it's more one's misfortune than one's fault to be born Mary Jane Jones—'A rose by any other name,' etc."
All this, with her black eyes fixed full upon Miss Jones's face, in the slowest, softest voice, an insolent smile on her handsome lips, Miss Cyrilla Hendrick said.
Miss Jones sprang to her feet, passion flashing from her eye, her pale, freckled complexion flushing crimson.
"Miss Hendrick, your insolence is not to be borne! I will not bear it. The moment recreation is over, I will go to Mam'selle Chateauroy and report your impertinent speech."
"Will you, really? Don't excite yourself, dear Miss Jones. If you palpitate in this way, something will go crack. Tell mam'selle anything it pleases your gracious highness; it won't be the first time you've carried stories of me. Mademoiselle[Pg 14] can get a better teacher than you any day, but first-rate pupils don't grow on every tamarac-tree in Lower Canada. Adieu, dear and gentle Miss Jones! I kiss your ladyship's hands. Sydney! Sydney! where are you?"
She walked away, sending her fresh, clear young voice over all the uproar. Miss Jones, the teacher, looked after her with a glare of absolute hatred.
"I'll be even with you yet, Miss Cyrilla Hendrick, or I'll know the reason why! You have given me more insolence during the past year than all the school together. As you say, it's no use complaining to Miss Chateauroy. You're a credit to the school, she thinks, with your brilliant singing, and playing, and painting; but I'll pay you for your jibes and insults one day, mark my words—one day, and that before long."
"Sydney! Sydney!" the clear voice still shouted. "Now, where can that girl be? 'That rare and radiant maiden, whom the angels call Lenore.' Sydney! Sydney-y! Sydney-y-y-y!"
She stops, expending all her strength in one mighty shout that rises over the wild, high singing of the French Canadians, "Frère l'Hermite, savez vous danser?" It comes pealing to an upper window overlooking the playground, and a girl huddled up cross-legged like a Turk takes two fingers out of two pretty pink ears, and lifts a yellow head from a book to listen.
"Sydney! Sydney Owenson! Oh, my own, my long-lost daughter!" cried Miss Hendricks with ear-splitting piercingness, "where in this wicked world are you?"
"Bother!" mutters the girl in the window, and then the yellow head, "sunning over with curls," goes down again, two fingers return into two ears, a pair of gray eyes glue themselves once more to the pages of the book, and Miss Sydney Owenson is lost again to all sublunary things. They may shriek, they may yell, they may rend the heavens with their unearthly cries, they may drive Miss Jones deaf and frantic—Cyrilla Hendrick, the friend of her bosom, the David in petticoats to her Jonathan ditto, may split her voice in her distracted cries for "Sydney," Sydney is a thousand miles away; nothing short of an earth-quake may arouse her, so absorbed is she.
Yes, something does.
"Miss Owenson!" says the awful voice of Mademoiselle Chateauroy the elder, and Miss Owenson drops her book and jumps as though she were shot. "Miss Owenson, what book is that?"[Pg 15]
A small, snuff-colored lady, with a frisette and a head-dress of yellow roses and black beadwork, confronts her—a very small, very snuff-colored lady, with glancing opal eyes—Mademoiselle Stephanie Chateauroy.
Miss Owenson puts her two hands, the book in them, behind her back, and faces Mademoiselle Stephanie à la Napoleon the Great. She is a pretty girl—a very pretty girl of seventeen or so, with gray, large, innocent-looking eyes, a pearly skin, a soft-cut, childish mouth, and curls of copper gold down to her slim girl's waist.
"Yes, mam'selle," says Miss Owenson, in a tone of cheerful meekness; "did you call me, mam'selle?"
"Why are you not in the playground, Mees Owenson?" demands, severely, mademoiselle.
"Oh, well!" responds Miss Owenson, losing a trifle of her cheerful meekness, "I'm sick of 'Brother Hermit' and the other stupid plays, only fit for the babies of the première class. Besides, the noise makes my head ache."
Miss Owenson makes this remarkable statement calmly. The open window at which she has been sitting is just three feet over the heads of the rioters, and in the very thick of the tumult. Its utter absurdity is so palpable that mademoiselle declines to notice it.
"Mees Owenson is aware that absence from the playground, in play hour, is a punishable offence?" goes on mademoiselle with increased ascerbity.
"Oh, yes," says Miss Owenson, quite cheerfully once more; "that's no odds. Nothing's any odds, when you're used to it, and I ought to be used to every species of punishable offences in this school by this time."
"Mees Owenson, what were you reading when I entered this room?"
"A book, mam'selle."
"Mees Owenson, what book?"
"Oh, well—a story-book then, if you will have it, by a person you don't know—a Mr. Dickens. I know it's against the rules, but it was all an accident—upon my word it was, mam'selle."
"An accident, you sitting here in play-hour reading a wicked novel! Mees Owenson!"
"It's not a wicked novel. Dickens never wrote anything wicked in his life. Papa has every one of his books in the library at home, and used to read them aloud to mamma. And[Pg 16] I mean it's an accident my finding the book. It isn't mine; I don't know whose it is; I found it last evening, lying among the cabbages—honor bright, mam'selle! I'll pitch it back there now."
And then, before Mlle. Stephanie can catch her breath, Miss Owenson gives the volume behind her a brisk pitch out of the open casement, and it falls plump upon the head of her sworn friend, Cyrilla Hendrick.
There is a moment's pause, and teacher and pupil confront each other. That an explosion will follow, Miss Sydney Owenson fully expects, but what was she to do? Helen Heme's name was on the fly-leaf. Helen Heme was a day-scholar, who surreptitiously smuggled story-books inside the sacred walls of the pensionnat for the private delectation of the boarders. Helen had been threatened with expulsion the next time she was caught in the act "red-handed," so to say, and it was much more on Helen's account than on her own that Sydney Owenson was palpitating now.
"I coaxed so hard for that 'Pickwick,'" Sydney thinks. "I hope to goodness some of the girls will pick it up and hide it outside. I don't mind mam'selle's flare-up—I'm used to it—but I'd never forgive myself if Nell came to grief through me."
She looks up now into mademoiselle's indignant face, clasps two little white hands imploringly, and begins, with that voice and smile mademoiselle herself declares to be the most charming on earth, to wheedle her out of her just wrath.
"Oh, Mam'selle Stephanie, don't be angry, please. I know it's wrong to break rules, but then I am so tired of the stupid old plays out there, and the girls are so noisy and rude, and my head did ache, and the book was not a bad book—upon my word and honor it wasn't, mam'selle; not a bit like a novel at all, and I did find it among the cabbages last evening, and——"
Mademoiselle Stephanie knows of old that Miss Owenson is perfectly capable of going on in this strain without a single full stop for the next hour. Therefore, without a word, she pulls a letter out of her pocket and hands it to her pet pupil.
"I will overlook your disobedience this once, petite," she said, "because it is probably the very last time you will ever have a chance to disobey. Read your mamma's letter, my dear; I know what it contains, as it came inclosed in one to me. Chérie," mam'selle's voice absolutely falters, "you—you are about to leave school."
Sydney Owenson rises to her feet, the great gray eyes dilate[Pg 17] and grow almost black with some vague terror. She looks at her letter—a look of absolute affright, the last trace of color leaving her pearl-fair skin—then at mademoiselle.
"Papa," she falters. "Oh, mam'selle! don't say papa is——"
"Worse?—No, my dear. You poor child, you are as white as the wall. No, papa is no worse—it isn't that—it is—but read your letter, tres chère; it will tell you all about it, and believe me, my dear," and mademoiselle lays two snuff-colored old hands kindly on the girl's shoulders, "no one in this school will regret the loss of its most troublesome pupil more than I shall."
She toddles away and leaves Miss Owenson to read her letter. "Ah," she sighs, "it is the best, the tenderest little heart in the world, after all. I shall never love another pupil so well. Only a baby of seventeen, and to be married in a month! Hèlas, the poor little one!"
Sydney tears open her letter; it is a lengthy, spidery, woman's scrawl.
"Owenson Place, October 25, 18—.
"My Dear Little Daughter:—I have written to the Mademoiselles Chateauroy, telling them to have all things ready for your departure on Monday, the third of November. You are to leave school, and for good. Papa is not worse really, but he thinks he is, and he pines for you. He has taken it into his head—you know how hypochondriacal he is—that he will die before the year ends, and he insists that you must be married at once, else he will not live to see it. Now don't worry about this, Sydney. I know how foolish you are concerning poor papa's whims, and it is only a whim. Bertie is here, came by the Cunard steamer from England three weeks ago, and is naturally all impatience to see you. It is a very absurd whim of papa's, I think myself, this marrying a child of seventeen and a boy of twenty-two; but what use is it my saying so? I was nine-and-twenty when I married Captain Owenson. Still, I am sure, I hope you will be happy; and Bertie is so nice and good-tempered and gentlemanly and all that, that any one might get along with him. Rebecca will reach Petit St. Jacques Saturday afternoon, and you and she will start for home on Monday morning. Papa has actually sent to Paris for your wedding-dress, and pearls, and veil, as though good enough could not have been got in New York City; but it is another of his whims to look down upon everything in this country, and[Pg 18] think nothing fit for you that doesn't come from Europe. I'm sure sometimes I wonder he ever married an American lady, or that he found a school on this continent fit for his only child. I know he would have sent you to the Sacre Cœur at Paris, only he couldn't bear to put the ocean between himself and you. But this has nothing to do with it. So bid the young ladies and teachers good-by, and be ready to start on Monday morning with Rebecca.
"Your affectionate Mother,
"P.S.—Bertie sends his love and a kiss, he says, to all the pretty girls in the school. He is as foolish as ever, but very handsome and elegant, I must say. Christ Church College has improved him greatly. He wanted to accompany Rebecca, but, of course, I wouldn't hear of anything so improper as that."
"P.S. No. 2.—By the by, papa says you may invite your particular friend, Miss Hendrick, if you like, to be one of your bridemaids. He knew her aunt, Miss Phillis Dormer, in England, and her mother comes of one of the best families in Dorsetshire. As if the best family in Dorsetshire mattered in America."
he long, loosely written, rambling letter dropped on Sydney's lap, her hands folded over it, and she sat strangely quiet (for her), looking out at the faint opaline twilight sky. To leave school on Monday—to be married in a month! Surely enough to startle any school-girl of seventeen. Besides being the daughter of the richest man, besides having double, treble the spending money of any other girl in the pensionnat, besides having silks and laces and jewels as though she were five-and-twenty and "out," besides having beauty and talent and goodness and grace, Sydney Owenson had one other and still greater claim to be "queen rose" of[Pg 19] Mlle. Stephanie's "rosebud garden of girls,"—she was engaged! All and each of the four-and-thirty other boarders of mam'selle—not to speak of the one-and-twenty day-scholars—looked forward in the fulness of time to a possible lover, a prospective engagement, and an ultimate husband, but a real lover and a bona fide engagement none of them had yet attained, with the exception of Miss Owenson. That heighth of bliss Miss Owenson had reached in her sixteenth birthday. The midsummer vacation over, the young lady had returned to Canada from her paternal mansion—a solitaire diamond ablaze on one slim finger, a locket (with a gentleman's portrait and a ring of brown hair) around her white throat—and calmly announced to all whom it might concern that she was engaged.
The first stunning shock of surprise over, a torrent of questions poured upon the blissful fiancée.
"Oh! good gracious! Oh, Mon Dieu! was she really? Oh, how nice! Oh! c'est charmant? What was his name? Where did he live? How did it come about? What did he say? Was he handsome? Was he rich? Did papa and mamma know? Oh, what a love of a ring, and oh, how splendid it was to be engaged at sixteen! And when, O Sydney! when were they going to be married?"
"There! there! there!" cried Miss Owenson shrilly, breaking away from fifty-six eager, excited faces. "I am sorry I told you anything about it! One would think I was the only girl in the world ever engaged before. If you leave me alone I'll answer all your questions. Stand off, and let me see. 'His name?' Well, his name is Albert Vaughan—Bertie Vaughan—a pretty name to begin with. 'Where does he live?' He lives at Oxford at present; at least he was on his way back there when I left home. 'How did it come about?' Well, it didn't come about; it was always to be, destined from all time, and that sort of thing. Ever since I can remember anything, I remember being told I was to marry Bertie some day, if I behaved myself—family arrangements, you see, like a thing in a story. 'What did he say?' Oh, well, he just came to me on my birthday, and slipped this ring on my finger, and said, 'I say, Syd, I want you to marry me this day twelve months, or thereabouts, you know;' and I said, 'All right, Bert, I will.' 'Is he handsome?' Handsome as an angel, Helen—brown eyes, brown curling hair, fair complexion, rosy cheeks like a girl, small hands and feet, and the sweetest little love of a mustache! 'Is he rich?' Poor as a church mouse, Cyrilla—not got a sou in the[Pg 20] earthly world; but as I am to have enough for both, that doesn't signify. 'Do papa and mamma know?' Of course they know, goosies! Bertie and I would never have thought of such a thing if papa hadn't told us to think of it. 'And when are we to be married?' Oh, I don't know—not for ever so long. I don't want to be married—it's dreadfully dowdy and stupid. We won't be married for ages—not until I'm old—oh! ever so old—twenty-one, may be. It's nice enough to be engaged, but married—bah-h-h!"
Miss Owenson pronounced her "bah!" with the disgusted look of one who swallows a nauseous dose, and sprang to her feet.
"I say, girls! let's have a game of 'Prisoners' Base;' I'm dying for a romp. Come!"
Miss Owenson had her romp until the pearl pale cheeks glowed like twin pink roses, and the vivid gray eyes streamed with laughing light. But from that hour a halo of romantic interest encircled her.
She had a lover—she was engaged—she would be married in a year. Oh, happy, thrice happy Sydney Owenson! Every month or so came to her a letter bearing the English postmark, dated "Ch. Ch., Oxford"—real, genuine love-letters. Mlle. Stephanie shook her head, and passed them over in fear and trembling to her engaged pupil. She had never had such a thing before, and to a certain extent it was demoralizing the whole school.
Six-and-forty youthful heads ran more on lovers than on lessons, on engagements than on "Télémaque" or "Chopin's Waltzes." Miss Owenson, as a matter of Christian duty, read those epistles of her young Oxonian faithfully aloud to her six-and-forty fellow-students. On the whole, they were rather a disappointment. They contained a great deal of news about boating on the Isis, riding across country, college supper parties, and a jolly time generally, but very few glowing love-passages to his affianced. Indeed, beyond the "Dear little Syd" at the beginning, and "Your affectionate Bertie" at the end, they didn't contain a single protestation of the consuming passion which it is to be supposed possessed him.
"Of course not," Sydney was wont to cry out indignantly, when some of the more sentimental young ladies objected to these love-letters on that head. "You wouldn't have Bertie spooning all the way across the Atlantic, would you? I suppose, Helen, you would like the sort of letters Lord Mortimer [Pg 21]used to write to namby-pamby, milk-and-waterish Amanda Fitzallan, 'Beloved of my soul!' Ha! ha! I fancy I see Bert writing that sort of rubbish to me. He wouldn't do it twice, let me tell you!"
As may be seen, Miss Owenson was not in the slightest sentimental herself—not one whit in love, in the common acceptation of the word, with Bertie Vaughan. "He was the dearest, jolliest old fellow in the world—Bertie," she was calmly accustomed to observe; "and since she must marry somebody sometime, she would rather marry Bert than anybody else, but to go spooning as they did in books—no, not while either of them kept their senses."
She sits very quietly now, the letter on her lap, looking out at that pale yellow, frosty sky—a little pale, and very thoughtful.
Going to leave school—going to be married! All the old life to end, and the new to begin. And the old life had been such a good life, such a pleasant life; she was so fond of school and of all the girls—well, with about three-and-twenty exceptions. She could never play "Brother Hermit," or "Hunt the Slipper," or "Tag" any more—never any more! Married women never jumped skipping-ropes, never played "Puss in the Corner," or got people to swing them until their heels touched the beam in the barn each time! Never! never! It was all dull and stupid, and dowdy, being married. And great tears rose up in Miss Owenson's gray eyes and splashed, one by one, down upon the fatal letter.
"All alone, Syd?" cries a brisk voice, and, with a swish of dingy skirts, Miss Hendrick is in the room. "And a letter—another love-letter! Happy girl! Well, 'blessed are they who expect nothing, for they shall not be disappointed!' of whom I am one. And how is our beauteous Bertie?"
"It isn't from Bertie," answers Sydney, hastily wiping away the last tear. "It's from mamma, and"—a great gulp—"O Cy, I'm going to leave school!"
"Happy girl once more! When and why?"
"On Monday, and—to be married."
"On Monday, and be married! Happy, happy, happy girl! I wish I were going to leave school on Monday, and be married. I wouldn't sit by myself in the dark and mope, I can tell you. But what's all the hurry about?"
"Read the letter," says Miss Owenson, placing it in her hand, and looking out with a woe-begone face at the fast dark[Pg 22]ening evening sky. One, two, three, four, five more evenings may she watch that little white, cold-looking, half moon float up yonder among the tamaracs, five more evenings may she listen to the discordant shrieks of the thirty-four boarders making day hideous, and then never more for all time. And another large tear comes plump down, at the misery of the thought, in her lap.
Cyrilla Hendrick reads the letter, and throws it back with an envious sigh.
"What a lucky girl you are, Syd! A father and mother who dote upon you—a rich father and mother, a handsome young husband waiting for you, and all the freedom and gayety of a married woman yours, at seventeen. While for me—ah, well!" with a bitter laugh, "as poor Freddy used to say, 'Life can't be all beer and skittles' for the whole of us."
"Freddy!" Sydney exclaimed, looking up at her friend with sudden curiosity, "that is the first time I ever heard you mention any man's name! Who is Freddy?"
"Ah, who indeed?" Miss Hendrick answers with another half laugh. "'Thereby hangs a tale,' which I'm not inclined to tell at present. But I say again, what a happy girl you are, Sydney Owenson!"
"What, because I am to be married next month, Cy!" Sydney cries, opening her great eyes in unfeigned wonder. "You can't mean that."
"I mean that, and everything about your life. You are an heiress, you will be a beauty, you have people who love you, you make friends wherever you go. Why, here in school the girls swear by you—even snuffy, priggish, dried-up little Mam'selle Stephanie, in her dreary way, is fond of you. At sixteen you wear diamonds and 'walk in silk array.' While I——" Again she stopped, with a gesture that was almost passionate in the intensity of its envy. Sydney looked at her in wonder. The bitterness of her tone and words was a new revelation; it was a contrast indeed to the usually cool, almost insolent serenity of Cyrilla Hendrick's manner.
"While you, Cy," Sydney supplemented, "are ten times over better looking than I am, sing better, play better, paint and draw better, speak four languages, and are the cleverest girl, mam'selle says, she ever had in her school. You have an aunt who is fabulously rich, so everybody says, who has adopted you, and whose heiress you are to be. While, as for being married——."[Pg 23]
Cyrilla Hendrick laughed, as Miss Owenson faltered and paused, all her easy insouciance of manner returned.
"While, as for being married, I have only to walk over to St. Jacques Barracks and ask any of the officers, and they will take me on the spot—is that what you want to say, Syd? And I sing well, play well, paint well, and am a famous linguist? Lucky for me I am, since these accomplishments are my stock in trade, with which, until some man does compassionate me, I am to earn the bread I eat."
"I don't understand you."
"Don't you? You never suspected, I suppose, that my brilliant rôle in the drama of life is that of governess?"
"Governess! What nonsense, Cyrilla. The rich Miss Dormer's heiress and niece!"
"The rich Miss Dormer's heiress and niece! Sydney, would you like to know exactly how much Miss Dormer means to do for her pauper niece, Cyrilla Hendrick?"
"If you please, Cy. You know you and your history are darkest mysteries to Mademoiselle Chateauroy's boarders."
Cyrilla laughed, still standing behind her friend. "I knew it, chère belle, and mysteries we all like to remain. Let me unveil the darkness to you a little. I was born in Paris eighteen years ago, in a garret—mark that, daughter of Mammon!—and my mother was the daughter of a baronet; my father was the only brother of the rich Phillis Dormer. My father was one of the handsomest men, one of the cleverest men, and one of the most utterly unprincipled men in Europe—a thorough-paced adventurer, in fact, as Aunt Phil takes care to impress upon my innocent mind every time I see her—an out-and-out Bohemian. Before I was twelve years old I had traversed the Continent from one end to the other, and had a smattering of every European language. No wonder I study them with facility now. When I was twelve my father came to England, his native land, and there, in the parish of Bloomsbury, we set up our household gods, and from utter vagabondism went in for moderately respectable Bohemianism. My mother was dead—luckily for her, poor soul!—and I was housekeeper in the Bloomsbury establishment—think of that, Syd—at twelve years old! From that until I was sixteen, I kept my father's house, and I saw more of life—real, genuine life—in those three years than you, mademoiselle—only child and heiress—will ever see in your whole respectable, rich, Philistine existence! Good heaven, Syd! how happy I used to be with my handsome, clever, vagabond father and my poor, dear little Fred."[Pg 24]
She stopped—passionate pain, passionate regret in her face and voice. Sydney Owenson sat listening with bated breath to this marvellous and rather shocking revelation.
"It was poverty, Syd, but picturesque poverty; that meant truffled turkey and champagne to-day, and a dry crust and a cup of water to-morrow; a seat in the upper tier of a Strand theatre or Astley's circus among the gods of the gallery, big bearded men to take me on their knee, and kiss me, and pet me; men who wrote books, and painted pictures, who wore sock or buskin, who got tipsy on gin and water or Cliquot, as their finances stood. Men who taught me to roll up their cigarettes, and to light them after. By the way, Syd," Cyrilla broke off her half-bitter, half-cynical tone, ending in a sudden laugh, "do you remember the night, after I came here first, that Miss Jones caught me smoking a rose-scented cigarette, a dozen of you standing around in an awestruck and admiring row? She told Mademoiselle Stephanie, as in duty bound, and got me punished. I vowed vengeance, and the vendetta has waged between us ever since."
"I remember, Cy. And what a superior being you seemed to me, to be able to sit there and smoke off four cigarettes without wincing once! Go on."
"Oh, well!" Cyrilla said coolly, "there's nothing more to go on about. When I was sixteen, Aunt Phil sent for me, and I bade farewell to old England and my jolly Bedouin life, and came to America, exchanged the tents of vagabondia for the red brick mansion of respectability. She found me half savage, wholly uneducated, according to her notions, and knowing a great deal I would be much better without. She sent me here—unfolded something of my antecedents to horrified ma'm'selle, and I had to pledge myself to keep my disreputable history to myself before I could be taken into this spotless fold of youth and innocence. That is three years ago—I am almost nineteen, and at Christmas I am to leave school for good."
"To go and live with Miss Dormer?"
"To go and live with Miss Dormer, in the dreariest, gruesomest old house in America; companion to the crossest spitefulest old woman on earth? Don't be shocked, Syd—she is! I'm to read to her, write for her, play for her, sing for her, sew for her, feed the birds and cats, and run her errands, all for my clothes and keep."
"And her fortune when she dies?"
"Not a bit of it! She has two wills made, unsigned.[Pg 25] One bequeaths her hundred thousand dollars to endow an asylum for superannuated maiden ladies; the other bequeaths that sum to myself, on condition——"
"Well?" Sydney cried breathlessly.
"On condition that I'll swear—swear on the Bible, mind!—to do something she wants me to do. I haven't taken the oath yet, and I believe, oath or no oath, she will never trust me an inch farther than she can see me. 'There is bad blood in my niece Cyrilla'"—Miss Hendrick grows dramatic when she narrates, it is a high-pitched old woman's voice that speaks—"'all the Hendricks were reprobates—all, every one!' 'Do we gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?' My niece Cyrilla is—fortunately—the last of the tribe, a Hendrick to her finger-tips, and mark my words! my niece Cyrilla will come to no good end.'"
"Ugh, how horrid!" said Miss Owenson, with something between a laugh and a shudder. "I wonder, thinking that she ever troubled with you at all."
"So do I wonder. She means to utilize me until the final catastrophe comes, and I disappear in the outer darkness to which I was born. It is a wonderful old woman—Aunt Phil! And sometimes, Syd, sometimes," the handsome, youthful face darkened and grew sombre, "when I think of what my past was, when I think of what my father is, when I think of what my future is likely to be, I rank Aunt Phil among the prophets, and believe, with her, that her niece Cyrilla will come to no good end!"
here is a silence for a while. Cyrilla Hendrick has walked away to the curtainless school-room window, and stands looking out at the pale, chill, twilight sky, where a white moon hangs silvery, a few yellow, frosty, sparkling stars near. The tamaracs shiver and toss their feathery green plumes in the evening breeze, a breeze that bears a prophecy of coming winter even now in its breath. Miss Hendrick's handsome brunette face looks darker and sadder than Sydney Owenson has ever seen it before.
"Ten minutes and the study bell will ring, and this horrid tumult end, for which Dieu merci. Look at them, Syd, 'a motley crowd, my masters, a motley crowd.' Of course, all this I've told you is strictly sub rosa. Mademoiselle Stephanie, poor old snuffy soul, would go out of her senses if she thought I was corrupting her favorite pupil by such improper conversation."
She half-turned around, all her gloom gone, the airy ease of manner, so uncommon in a school-girl, and which constituted this school-girl's especial charm, back. Independently of wealth and social position (and no one on earth thought more of wealth and social position than this waif of vagabondia), she liked Sydney Owenson for her own sake.
"I promised not to tell, you know, Syd; and, reprobate as Aunt Phil thinks me, I like to keep my word. I have kept it for three years; all those noisy girls think, as you thought an hour ago, that my life, like their lives, has been the quintessence of dull, drab-colored gentility. Your papa was a captain in the English navy once, wasn't he, and is a great stickler for good birth and breeding? I wonder if he would ask the rich and respectable Miss Phillis Dormer's niece to be your bridemaid if he were listening now?"
"If papa knew you as I do, he would like and admire you as I do," Sydney cried, warmly. "Who could help it? I never saw a man yet whom you did not fascinate in ten minutes if you chose."
"If I chose?" Cyrilla laughed. "Ah, yes, Syd, the men like me, and always will; let that be my comfort. I shall be one of those women whom other women look upon askance, and know as their natural enemy at sight, but men will like me to the end of the chapter. Only be very sure of this, pretty little Sydney." She took the pearl-fair face between her two hands, and stooped and kissed her. "You need never fear me."
"Fear you, Cy? What nonsense! What do you mean?"
"This Mr. Bertie Vaughan is handsome, you say, Syd?" was Cyrilla's inapposite answer. "Let me look at his photo again."
As a rule Miss Owenson wore her lover's picture and locket affectionately in her trunk, but she chanced to have it on to-day. She snatched the slender yellow chain off her neck and handed it to her friend. She had been touched strangely by Cyrilla's confidence, more touched still by the unexpected caress. They had been good friends and staunch comrades dur[Pg 27]ing the past three years, with the average of school-girl quarrels and make-ups; but never before had Cyrilla Hendrick been known to kiss her or any other creature in the school. She was wonderfully chary of enthusiasm or caresses; set down as "that proud, conceited thing" by her fellow-boarders, admired and envied for her superior cleverness and ease of manner, and dark, aristocratic, high-bred face, liked by a few, Sydney Owenson chief among them, and cordially hated by the many. Without knowing why, without being able to reason on the matter, they instinctively felt she was of them, but not like them.
She came into their midst with her pauper head held well aloft, a sort of defiance in her black, derisive eyes, a sort of superior contempt for them and their ignorance of life in her slight sarcastic smile. Wonderfully reticent for a girl of sixteen, she yet said things, and did things, besides the smoking of cigarettes, that proved that she had lived, before coming here, in a very different world from any they had ever known. The sketchy outline of her life she had given to Sydney Owenson—the sketchy outline only—there were details that might have been filled in, which would have raised every red-gold hair on Miss Owenson's pretty head aloft with dismay. She had seen life with her "handsome, clever, reprobate father," as luckily it falls to the lot of few daughters ever to see it. Bacchanalian nights of gambling, song-singing, wine-drinking, and festive uproar. There was not a capital in Europe which she and her doll had not visited at the age of twelve. She had spent three whole months behind his chair at Baden-Baden, with a pin and a perforated card, and starved and feasted as he lost or won. All the jolly outlaws of Bohemia had lounged in the shabby rooms of "Jack Hendrick," where a perpetual "tobacco parliament" seemed to reign. Scions of aristocracy, youthful sprigs of gentility, deep in the books of the children of Israel, made it their headquarters and lounging-place, and lost their last sovereign to their genial host. Clever painters, whose pictures hung on the line in the Royal Academy, had painted "Little Beauty Hendrick"—as Cyrilla had been named—painted her as Cupids, as Undines, as Hebes, as gypsies, as angels, as everything a plump, pretty, black-eyed rosebud of a child could be painted. Clever actors gave her orders to their plays, and coached her in small private theatricals. Old Jean Jacques Dando, teacher of the ballet of the Princess Theatre, taught her to dance, and the first violinist taught her to play the fiddle. She could jabber in five different languages at[Pg 28] twelve, and read French novels by the wholesale. Tall booted and spurred military swells had carried her aloft on their shoulders, and taught her to roll and light their cigarettes. Midnight, as a rule, was this little damsel's hour of lying down, and noonday her time of rising up. Then, in the midst of this jolly, vagabond career, came Miss Phillis Dormer's offer and its acceptance.
"Will you go, Beauty?" her father said, doubtfully. "It will be beastly dull without you, but the old girl's rich, and intends to make you her heiress, no doubt. She'll send you to school, and do the handsome thing by you when she dies. Will you go?"
"Yes, father, I'll go," Cyrilla answered, promptly. "I'll pack my trunk and be ready at once. Freddy says there's a steamer to sail day after to-morrow."
"Ah! Freddy says," her father repeated, still looking at her doubtfully. "Look here, Beauty! I wouldn't say anything about Freddy, or the rest of 'em over there, if I were you. Just tell the old girl and the other Philistines you meet that you came of poor—poor, but honest—parents you know. Mum's the word about the card-playing and the scampering over the world, and—the whole thing, in short."
"You may trust me, father. I know when to hold my tongue and when to speak. I haven't lived with you sixteen years for nothing," calmly says Mademoiselle Cyrilla.
"No, by Jove!" Jack Hendrick cried, admiringly. "You're the cleverest little thing that ever breathed, Beauty! You know on which side your bread's buttered. And you'll not forget the dear old dad, eh, Cy? out there among the purple and fine linen, and your first taste of respectability?"
So Cyrilla came and was received by Miss Dormer—a pale, dark girl, tall and slim, quiet, silent and demure. But Aunt Phil had the keenest old eyes that ever sparkled in the head of a maiden lady of sixty, and read her like a book.
"Ha!" the old voice scornfully cried; "you live sixteen years with Jack Hendrick and then come to me and try to take me in with your mock-modest airs! But I'm an old bird, and not to be caught with chaff. You're a very pretty girl, Cyrilla—you take after your father in that—and you hold your beggar's head well up, which I like to see. You take that and your aquiline nose from your mother. Your mother was a fool, my dear, as I suppose you know, and proved her folly to all the world, by running away with handsome, penniless, scoundrelly[Pg 29] Jack Hendrick. She was the daughter of a baronet, and engaged to a colonel of the Guards—Lord Hepburn to-day—and she ran away one night, just three weeks before her appointed wedding, with your father. Ah! well, she paid for that bit of romance, and is in her grave long ago—the very best place for her. But you're a Hendrick, my niece Cyrilla—a Hendrick to the backbone, and a precious bad lot, I have no doubt. I never knew a Hendrick yet who came to a good end—no, not one! and you take care, niece Cyrilla, or you'll come to a bad end, too."
"I dare say I shall," niece Cyrilla answered, coolly, seeing in a moment that perfect frankness was best with this extraordinary old fairy godmother. "My father always taught me that coming to grief was the inevitable lot of all things here below. At least I hope I shall do it gracefully."
"I'm going to send you to school," the old lady pursued, "for three years, and mind you make the most of your time. You are as ignorant as a Hottentot now of all you ought to know, and horribly thorough in all you ought not. I shall send you to the Demoiselles Chateauroy, at Petit St. Jacques—a very strict school and a very dull place, where even you cannot get into mischief. And mind! don't you go contaminating your fellow-pupils by tales of vagabond life! Don't you offend me, niece Cyrilla; I warn you of that."
"I don't intend to, Aunt Phil," the girl answered, good-humoredly. "I shall study hard, and be a credit to you; trust me. I know my ignorance, and am as anxious to shake the dust of vagabondism off my feet as you can possibly be. I shall do you honor at school."
She had kept her word. She was brilliantly clever, and amazed and delighted her teachers by her progress. She was the pride of the school at each half-yearly exhibition; her playing, her singing were such as had never been heard within these walls before. And in the small milk-and-water dramas performed on these occasions she absolutely electrified all beholders. In truth, she did it so well that the Demoiselles Chateauroy were almost alarmed.
"She goes on more like a real play actress than a school-girl," they said; "it can't be the first time she has tried parlor theatricals."
It was not, indeed. And at one of these exhibitions a little incident had occurred that disturbed Ma'm'selle Stephanie more and more. The rooms were crowded. "Cinderella" had been[Pg 30] dramatized expressly for the occasion, and "Miss C. Hendrick" came on as the Prince, in plumed cap and silk doublet, acting her part, as usual, con amore, and making much more violent love than ever Mlle. Stephanie had intended to the Cinderella of the piece. As she came gracefully forward before the audience, singing a song, a tall, dashing-looking man, an officer newly arrived from England, had started up.
"It is!" he exclaimed; "by Jupiter, it is!—Beauty Hendrick!"
Miss Hendrick had flashed one electric glance from her black eyes upon him, and the play went on. People stared, the Demoiselles Chateauroy turned pale; pupils pricked up curious little ears and looked askance at the big trooper. "He knew Cy Hendrick, and called her Beauty. What did it mean?"
The performance over, Major Powerscourt sought out Mlle. Stephanie, and a low and earnest conversation ensued—the gentleman pleading, the lady inexorable.
"But I knew her in England, knew her intimately, by Jove!" said the gallant major, pulling his long red mustache in perplexity. "Just let me speak to her one moment, mademoiselle!"
Mademoiselle was resolute.
"I would be very happy, monsieur," was her answer, polite, but inexorable, "but it is her aunt's wish that she makes no new gentlemen acquaintances and renews no old ones. What Monsieur the major asks is, I regret, impossible."
"Confound her aunt!" Major Powerscourt muttered inwardly, but he only bowed and turned away. "Little Beauty Hendrick! and here! By Jove! it will go hard with me though if I don't see her."
See her he did not. Mademoiselle Stephanie spoke a few low-toned words to her tall pupil. Miss Hendrick listened with downcast eyes and closed lips; then she bowed.
"It shall be as ma'm'selle pleases, of course," she answered, quietly. "I have no wish to transgress even the slightest of my aunt's commands."
With the words she left the parlors, and appeared no more. Next morning she went for the midsummer vacation to "Dormer Lodge." When she returned, the dangerous Major Powerscourt was gone.
Miss Jones, the second English teacher, had been one of the witnesses of this scene. Miss Jones set her thin lips, and[Pg 31] drew her own conclusions. She hated Cyrilla Hendrick with an absolute hatred,—hated her for her beauty and that indefinable air of haughty, high-bred grace that encircled the girl,—hated her for her bright cleverness and talent,—hated her most of all for her cool impertinence to herself. There was a long debt standing between these two,—a long debt of petty tyrannies on the teacher's part, of serene, smiling insolence on the pupil's.
"And if the day ever comes, Miss Hendrick," Miss Jones was wont to think—"and I think it will—I'll pay off every affront, every sneer, every scornful smile and innuendo with compound interest."
That day was nearer than Miss Jones dreamed.
ell," the sweet girlish voice of Sydney Owenson cried, "have you fallen asleep over Bertie's picture, Cyrilla? What do you think of it?—handsome, isn't he?"
Cyrilla looked up. She had been critically examining the well-looking photographed face of Mr. Bertie Vaughan through her eye-glass, in silence, for the last three minutes. The dark eyes, brilliant as stars, were a trifle short-sighted, black as it is possible for human eyes to be, and consequently the least attractive feature in the very attractive face. She dropped her glass now, and returned the portrait to its owner.
"Very handsome, Syd; but—you won't be offended, will you?"
"Oh, dear, no! Why should I? Go on."
"But rather weak and womanish, rather fickle and unstable, I should say. Not the sort of man to pin your faith to too securely. Men with that sort of mouth and these pretty, girlish dimples in the chin are always weak-minded. You don't mind my saying this, do you?"
"Not a bit. Poor, dear old Bertie! I think I like weak-minded men, Cy. If he were stern and dignified, and all that, he might think me silly and frivolous, as I am, I daresay, and try to improve me, and not let me have my own way. I should[Pg 32] hate being improved, and I always mean to have my own way. Yes, Cy, I prefer weak-minded men."
"No, you don't, Sydney. You may think so now, but you don't. You want a husband you can lean upon, trust, and look up to. And there are such men, for I've met them—glorious fellows, worth a woman's giving her life for. That's the sort of husband for you, chérie, while I——"
"While I want one who will look up to me—not a Bertie Vaughan exactly—I wouldn't like a fickle man—but a husband whom I can rule, who will let me henpeck him, in short! I couldn't love a man I had to look up to—it's dreadfully tiresome, looking up. And I wouldn't live with a man I couldn't love. It would bore me to have a supreme being for my lord and master. And I never mean to bore myself. Those are my principles."
"Mon Dieu! only hear her! One would think she had all mankind by heart. Have you ever met your small, gentle, henpecked ideal, Cy?"
Cyrilla Hendrick did not answer at once, but over her face a smile broke, a smile so soft, so tender, so womanly, that for a moment it transformed her.
"Yes, Syd," she said, softly; "I have met my ideal, poor, dear little fellow, and loved him well, before I ever saw you. Ah! those were the best days of my life I begin to think; and, like all best things, they are gone forever."
"You can't tell that. To a girl as handsome as you are infinite capabilities lie open, as Carlyle would say. I predict that you will make a brilliant match, Cyrilla."