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11 Complete Works of Charlotte M. BrameA Fair MysteryA Mad LoveCoralieDora ThorneLove Works WondersMarion Arleigh's PenanceMy Mother's RivalThe Coquette's VictimThe Shadow of a SinThe Tragedy of the Chain PierWife in Name Only
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The Complete Collection of Charlotte M. Brame
A Fair Mystery
A Mad Love
Love Works Wonders
Marion Arleigh's Penance
My Mother's Rival
The Coquette's Victim
The Shadow of a Sin
The Tragedy of the Chain Pier
Wife in Name Only
A FAIR MYSTERY
BYBERTHA M. CLAYAUTHOR OF "DORA THORNE," "BEYOND PARDON," "LOVE WORKS WONDERS," ETC.
NEW YORK INTERNATIONAL BOOK COMPANY17 AND 19 WAVERLEY PLACE
A FAIR MYSTERY.
THE STORY OF A COQUETTE.
BY CHARLOTTE M. BRAEME.
CHAPTER I. A VOICE AND A FACE IN THE NIGHT.
"Hush! For the love of mercy, hush, I cannot bear it!"
But that which called forth this protest was only the lisping prayer of a little child at its mother's knee.
Patty Brace lifted the white-robed figure to her lap, and rested the brown head on her bosom.
"Mark!" she said, in mild remonstrance, looking at her husband.
"I say I cannot bear it. You have her pray, 'God bless my home.' It is too much."
"But why not? On this wild, stormy night, when other little ones may be out in the dashing rain and moaning wind, is it not right to pray, 'God bless our home?'"
"But how long will we have a home, Patty? Think of to-morrow! oh, Heaven help me to-morrow! Ruined, disgraced, going out from the home where I was born, and forced into exile. I cannot bear it. We shall never have a home again, and our child will grow up homeless!"
"Dear Mark, you cannot go out disgraced when you have done no wrong; and homeless you will not be, for home is where the heart is, and in any land we three will be together, and Heaven over all."
"I cannot feel as you do, Patty. I am not gentle and good as you. I blame myself that by going security for that smooth-tongued rascal, whom may a curse——"
"Hush!" said Patty, with sudden authority. "Mark, you shall not curse friend, neighbor, nor enemy. It is not your nature; it is wrong. If you curse any one how can you look to have prayer answered?"
"Prayer!" said Mark, bitterly. "I begin not to believe in prayer, or goodness, or any such thing. You have prayed, and that innocent little victim on your bosom has prayed, in her baby way, and has Heaven heard? No! We lose our home, and I was born here!"
Heavier grew the round brown head of the two-year-old child on Patty's breast, the little tanned hands fell apart with a sleepy grace, and the plump, sunburnt face took the moist flush of childhood's deep rest.
Patty looked at her husband. He leaned against the wooden mantel-shelf, the ruddy light of the fire leaped across his sorrowful face, and the wife saw his bronzed cheek wet, with not unmanly tears.
Beyond him, in the range of her vision, was the window looking toward the garden, and between the bushes of lilac and guelder-roses, Patty had a swift vision of a tall woman, robed in black, a thin white face, looking eagerly into the cheerful farm-kitchen.
She leaped to her feet. But the vision had faded; only the wind swept the wet lilac boughs against the pane, only the guelder-roses looked like tall, dark, draped forms in the stormy night.
"What is it?" said Mark, as she started.
"Nothing," said the wife; "little Mattie sleeps; I must carry her up to bed." She chided herself for her fancies.
"Nothing!" said Mark. "I have become nervous and womanish with my misery. Do you know, Patty, even now I keep looking for some one or something to come and save me."
"It is never too late," said Patty. "Heaven could save you now—save you even by so frail a thing as this baby child."
She passed to the upper room, and left Mark still in his misery hastily retracing his past, in gloomy thought. Patty returned and stood wistfully, her hand on his arm.
"Don't despond, Mark. We are young, strong, loving. We will give honest work for honest bread."
"It is not right for the innocent to perish with the guilty," cried Mark, vehemently; "for you and baby Mattie to perish with me."
"You are not perishing, and how have you been guilty."
"I seem to have been guilty, somehow, all along. My father left me this farm in fairly good order, the lease for my life and one after me. I could not rest content. I must improve the land, and improve the outbuildings, and improve the breed of my cattle and sheep, like a fool."
"No, like neither a knave nor a fool; like an enterprising farmer, wanting to improve his prospects and grow with the age. Did not the Duke of Downsbury say you were one of his best tenants, and that you were a pattern of good farming and industry?"
"And then," said Mark, intent on saying bitter things of himself, "I had a thousand pounds, my father's savings, and instead of leaving it where he placed it, at safe, low interest, I must let the men of the great new Bank of Downsbury persuade me to give all to them for big interest; and that bubble burst, the bank collapsed, swindled every one, and left me nothing."
"No blame to you, and you were left your good name. Are you not known, in all the country, as Honest Mark Brace?"
"I must be a scoundrel some way, Patty, to have such luck."
"Go on and tell your sins," said Patty. "You married a girl without money, Patty Leslie by name; you took care of her widowed mother till she died; and you were so foolish as to have a little girl-child, who can only eat and not earn."
"Heaven bless her and you!" said Mark. "Marrying the best wife in the world was about the only good deed I ever did——What do you start that way for again, Patty?"
"Hark! I heard such a strange noise—a pitiful wail."
"Not further off than my heart," said Mark. "I heard nothing. Once married, Patty, think how harvest after harvest has been poor, and seasons bad, so I could not lay up a penny."
"Not your fault——Mark, I know I hear a cry."
"No, no; my ears are keen; I hear nothing. It is the storm. Even the wind and rain are crying after the out-going of the Brace blood from the farm of Brackenside. Oh, Patty, why could I not let well enough alone, and not go and sign security for that villain, Amwell?"
"You did it out of pure heart-kindness. You thought him honest and in trouble; you helped him."
"And he left me with a hundred pounds to pay. He meant to do it all along. He robbed me; I robbed you; and to-morrow my goods must be seized. The crops will be bid off as they stand in the ground, and the farm tools and the house goods with them, for this terrible security. I have tried everywhere to get help. I spent all to-day seeking for some one to lend to me. But since Farmer Dobbs holds a mortgage on my live stock for the debt the burning of the big barn brought me into, I cannot get any help. The lease must be sold to finish paying up Dobbs. I will not run off in debt like that scoundrel Amwell, and, with what is left, we can emigrate. Patty, oh, how can I go! I love every stick, and every tree, and every sod. My mother and father lie here in yon churchyard, and I had hoped to lie by them."
Honest Mark Brace covered his face with his hands, and his strong, tall figure shook with the storm of his sorrow. He loved every foot of this land, where, boy and man, he had sung at his work and lived popular and respected. A fine, stalwart young Englishman, intensely a home-lover, it seemed to him impossible that other skies could be so blue, other breezes so jocund, other fields so green, as these that blessed his birthplace.
Patty, in mute sympathy, clasped her arms about his neck, friend in woe as in joy. She, too, loved and suffered. But hers was a cheerful, hopeful, pious soul: she could not despair as Mark did. Mark had been loudly accusing himself where he was guiltless; now, with the inconsistency of misery, he turned to declare his own uprightness and, by implication, the injustice of Heaven.
"Why has this come to me? Other worse men have happier fortune. Have I swindled men like the bankers, who carried off my all? Have I lied like Ned Amwell? Did I ever cheat in my men's wages? Have I sent the poor empty from my door? Have I failed to pay my tithes, or missed church on Sundays? Do I drink? Do I swear? Do I ever go to sleep in church? Why, then, have I such trouble?"
The wild minglings of crimes, errors, and peccadilloes might have made a disinterested listener laugh. It did not make Patty laugh, nor did it call forth an answer. She turned an intent ear to the outer world and said, uneasily:
"Mark, listen! Other souls are in pain. It is not the wind that I hear—not the dashing rain. I have heard sobs, and moans, and crying in the night—a child crying—like a little baby soul that has lost its way and can find neither earth nor heaven."
"Your fancies make me mad," cried Mark, angrily.
"My troubles are real, and so will yours be to-morrow——"
Shrill and clear the cry quivered on the air. He, too, heard it.
"It is little Mattie," he cried. "Run to her."
And he followed Patty, fleet-footed, up the stairs.
But little rosy Mattie slept tranquilly, and the two came slowly down. Patty opened the kitchen window, and the swirling rain drenched her dark hair as she leaned into the darkness.
"Come in; there will be nights enough to face storms," said Mark, hardly. "We are only both fanciful; or, as my old grannie used to tell me, since we are flitting from the hearth where we have kept warm so long, the souls of my ancestors are mourning for my sorrow. Poor old grannie! little she knew how I should leave the old roof-tree."
Patty sprung to her feet.
"Mark, come with me! It is no fancy—no spirit. It is real; some human being out in this tempest. Let us search everywhere, and give the homeless a shelter this last night that we have a home."
She ran from the room, and Mark followed her into the stone-flagged entry. Her vehemence carried him away. He reached over her shoulder, and aided her trembling hands to undo the door-bolt.
Starless the night; no balm on the summer air; the raw chill of autumn brooding under the beating rain; a murky heaven over land and sea; and once again that wild, only half-human wail, coming up now from their very feet!
Patty sprung into the dark, vine-draped porch; the red light from the kitchen crept fitfully to the threshold, and close beside the door-sill, lay a bundle in the poor shelter of the latticed porch.
From that bundle came, shrill and piteous, that miserable cry.
CHAPTER II. A FAIRY CHANGELING.
"Mark! Mark! it is a child, a poor forsaken baby," said Patty, stooping down and gathering into her womanly arms the weeping waif-fragment of the seething sea of humanity so strangely drifted to her door. "A child! Dear Heaven! such a very little child!"
She hurried into the kitchen and laid the bundle on the table in the circle of lamplight, and with careful, eager fingers, began to loosen the wrappings.
"A child!" said Mark, amazed and dull—"a child!"
Then with sudden anger he cried out:
"A child, to the homeless! A child to us, who will not be able to care for our own—a child for forced exiles! Why did they not carry it to the poor-house? There, at least, it might have stayed!"
"Hush, dear!" said Patty. "God only asks of us duty for to-day. To-night we have a home, and can take the stranger in. God will take care of it to-morrow."
"Not that I grudge the poor little wretch," said Mark, looking over his wife's shoulder.
Patty unpinned the tartan shawl, and snugly wrapped within lay a little babe; a delicate veil covered the small face within the lace and satin cap, and Patty lifted in motherly hands one of the most singularly lovely infants that sun had ever looked upon. Dimpled, snow-white, with exquisitely molded features, and neck and hands; soft rings of golden, silken hair, a faint perfume of costly odors breathing from its garments.
Patty's tender heart melted at the divine innocence, loveliness, helplessness of the little one, and raising the rosebud face to her own, she kissed it softly again and again.
This motion caused the white cashmere cloak to fall back, and Mark gave a cry at some dark thing broadly pinned against the quilted satin lining.
As his wife kissed the babe, murmuring: "Little, lovely angel! Who sent you? Who could abandon you?" Mark unpinned this object and held it near the light. Then he gave such a cry that his wife, clasping the babe closer, turned to him in alarm. In his shaking hand he held a packet of bank-notes. He cried out:
"Patty! Patty! Did God send this? See! Just the amount of my debt! Patty! Patty! am I safe? Is this ours?"
"How much is there?" she demanded, breathlessly.
"Twenty fives! A hundred pounds!"
"Mark, just what we owe?"
"Just that. Oh, Patty, we are saved!"
He staggered to a seat, white and weak, and then, first, Patty realized what his anguish of soul had been. The strong young farmer shook like a reed; drops of perspiration rolled over his face.
"But is it ours?" demanded Patty, sitting down also, and beginning to unfasten the baby's cap and cloak.
"See if there is anything more—any message—any word—quick—oh, Patty, Patty. I am weak!"
Patty rose up, stroked his cheek, kissed him, said: "Courage, Mark! Heaven has helped us!" and then she set to searching the child.
On the lace bosom of the little dress was sewed a letter. She unfastened it and held it to her husband.
"You read it, Mark. I am so frightened, my eyes are dim. See, it is to us; it says on the outside—'TO MARK AND PATTY BRACE.'"
Mark restrained himself, and as Patty softly rocked the child to and fro on her breast, he read aloud:
"To you a most sorrowful mother sends this little child. You have never seen that mother, probably you never will; but she has heard of you—of honest Mark Brace and Patty Brace, his kind, good wife. Oh, be tender to this little child, deprived of father and of mother. Be patient with it; think how its mother's heart ached at parting: think of your own little child. Let this baby be yours, and your child's sister. It is lovely and white as an angel. Will you try to keep its soul white and pure, and bring it up simply, like your own, just to be good? There is a little mark on the right shoulder—a little red leaf. But I may never be able to claim my own again. Then let it be yours, and rear it, as you will answer for it to God. With the child the mother sends you a hundred pounds, and every year will send you the same. This is a child of noble blood and honest birth. Its mother prays you, for the sake of mercy and pity, to make no effort to find her. Never show this letter, never try to learn the child's surname; her Christian name is DORIS. Will you say you have taken charge of the child for a lady who has gone abroad? Say only that, and night and day a heart's best prayers will go up for you, who are good to little Doris."
Mark and Patty looked at each other in silence.
"Oh, Mark! you doubted—doubted God and prayer!"
"Did I? May God pardon me—I was wild with misery!"
"Whose child can this be?" said Patty.
"Patty," said Mark, "if we use this money, as we must and shall, it is part of a bargain, you know—a bargain to keep the child tenderly and faithfully, and make no effort to discover who sends it. We must keep faith."
"It will be very easy to be loving and tender to such a lovely baby," said Patty. "Look, did you ever see anything so wonderful, so beautiful, in all your life?"
"Fair as an angel," said Mark, gently kissing the wee white hand. "God bless the baby, the little angel baby that saved us."
"A hundred a year! This is very much money, just for keeping one little child," said Patty.
"We must pay ourselves what is fair, and keep the rest to educate the child, or make her dower."
"And we must keep her soul white and fair. The letter says, we are to train her like our own, Mark."
"Only, Patty, it is a child of noble blood, and if, some day, the mother claims her, she must not be ashamed of the child, Patty."
"Oh, Mark!" cried Patty, in terror, "suppose the mother is in all this storm? Go, Mark—take a light and look for her. Do go!"
"She cannot possibly be lingering here, Patty."
"Oh, Mark, she is no doubt waiting to see what we will do. I am sure I saw her looking in the window before I took Mattie to bed."
Mark took a lantern from its hook by the chimney-side, and went out into the storm. There was no trace of any one. The gate was fastened, no foot-print marked the gravel walk; nothing but sighing wind and plashing rain filled the darkness. He returned to the house.
"There is no one. Whoever was here has done the errand and gone. I cannot believe it yet, Patty. My debt is paid! my home is saved! I shall live where my fathers lived, and die where they died; and all by means of this little child. I feel as if I could never love it enough!"
Patty looked at the babe on her arm. She cried:
"How could a mother give up such a lovely creature! I would rather die! Oh, poor mother! Mark, a heart has broken to-night in this storm."
"I wonder if the poor soul was married?" said Mark.
"She must have been! Look at the letter, Mark. It is the letter of a good woman. She wants the child's soul kept white and pure. A wicked woman would think of the body, but not of the soul!"
The child opened its eyes—eyes like spring violets, softly blue. It stirred uneasily. Patty went for milk to feed it.
"There are no clothes with it, Mark. Whoever knew us to write to us, knew about little Mattie, and expected us to let this baby wear her clothes, and be reared just like our own."
She went for a night-dress that had been worn by Mattie a year before, and taking off the infant's rich clothes, put on instead the simple little gown. About the child's neck was a gold chain, with a locket; in the locket was a tress of curly golden hair, and one of dark shining brown.
"Mark," said Patty, "let us put the letter and the locket and these rich clothes away. Some day they may be needed to show whose child this is."
Mark folded the articles together and locked them in a strong box, which for years had held the especial valuables of the owners of Brackenside Farm. Never before had such singular treasures been placed among those simple rustic relics.
"Now," said Patty. "I shall take this baby up and put her in Mattie's trundle bed; they are sisters now."
She carried the wee stranger up-stairs and laid it by her own little daughter. Mark held the light.
"There is a great difference between them," said Patty, as she looked at the two little ones in the same bed. "It is not only that one is two years and one is two months, but one looks like a child of the nobles, the other like a child of the people."
"The people are the bone and sinew of the land, and the heart, too," said Mark, sturdily. "I don't believe a mother of the people would give such a baby away in this fashion. You note my words, wife; it is pride, rank pride, that has cast this child out among strangers."
Patty sighed, still looking at the children. Little Doris, a jewel child, pearly skin, golden hair and brows, and a little red mouth like a thread of rubies; Mattie, brown, plump, sturdy, child of soil, wind, and sun.
"I like my own best," said Mark, bravely, "if she is not half so fair. Our Mattie has what will last all her life—a warm, true, honest little heart in her strong little body."
"Of course you will like our own best," said Patty half offended. "It would be a fine story if the coming of this little beauty could crowd our girl out of the first place in our hearts."
"I wonder if they will love each other," said Mark.
"Of course they will, as they are to be sisters," said Patty, with edifying faith in humanity.
"And I wonder if she will love us?"
"Surely, since we are to be her parents, and will be always kind and faithful to her."
"I hope so," said Mark, shaking his head; "but there are some things, Patty, that do not mix well—as, say, oil and water—and belike blood will tell, and this little lady will not take to our homely ways. Besides, we shall always be considering how much is due her for that hundred pounds a year; and I, for one, will always be remembering how she came like a little angel to save a home that is like my heart's blood to me."
Then they went down-stairs, leaving the dark child and the fair child sleeping together.
CHAPTER III. A DAUGHTER OF PATRICIANS.
Mark and Patty Brace sat down again by their hearth-stone. They were too much excited to think of sleep. Mark made up the fire and trimmed the lamp, and ruddy glow and golden gleam seemed the joyful reflection of their strangely-brightened fortunes.
Honest Mark, who seldom thought of even locking his door when he went to bed, suddenly felt that thieves might break in to steal that blessed hundred pounds that saved him from ruin. He buttoned the notes up in his waistcoat, and longed for the day-dawn when he might pay his debt and be free.
Upon Patty's simple heart rested the shadow of a new care. It was to her upright spirit a terrible responsibility to rear a stranger's child. What disposition would this little one inherit?
Could she obey that unknown mother's behest and keep this soul white and pure? Suppose the child should be willful, full of faults, proud, hard to govern, in all points the opposite to her own simple, gentle, good little girl—would she be able by love and kindness to govern and mold her into goodness? And suppose the child grew day by day into her heart, until it seemed like her very own, and then that unknown mother came and took her away? Suppose, too, that after all her humble cares, when the mother came, she should be dissatisfied and complain of the rudeness of the child's rearing?
But Patty need not have feared that; she had herself the best of good breeding, that which comes from a generous, thoughtful, unselfish spirit.
Then she began to wonder who was the mother of this babe. She told over to herself all the ladies of the adjacent village of Brakebury; not one had a hundred pounds a year to spare. She thought of all the ladies she had met in the narrow limits of life, in which she had never been fifty miles from her home. There was not one whom it would not be the utmost absurdity to charge with the maternity of this charge.
"I give it up," said Patty aloud, with a sigh.
"Give what up?" asked Mark, starting from a reverie.
"Guessing who is the mother of this little Doris."
"So you should give it up," said honest Mark, stoutly. "A bargain is a bargain, Patty, and you know all that money is not to pay for one baby's milk, tendance, and bits of clothes; nor is it to buy our faith, for faith cannot be bought; but it is given us as pledge of a secret kept with that child's mother, and to use to defend that secret; and so we must. Questions, Patty, we must not ask nor answer; if curiosity is troublesome, we'll even bear it till it dies out naturally; we are paid for the trouble of bearing our neighbor's curiosity."
"That is true," said Patty; "we will make silence our rule."
So they sat by the fire, while the storm ceased, the winds fell, the rain-heavy grass and leaves lifted themselves, the east brightened with a new day, the birds broke forth into matin-song, and then a broad bar of sunshine fell over the kitchen floor, through the very window where the black-veiled figure had stood the night before.
"Mark," said Patty, "here is a new day."
"And a very happy day," said Mark. "I shall go pay my debt the first thing; and then, Heaven helping me, when this harvest is gathered in, I can settle with neighbor Dobbs and stand up a free man. After that, Patty, I'll starve before I beg, borrow, steal, or go security. In my eye, it's all one; it's robbing your own or your neighbors in any case."
How happy felt Mark Brace that morning, as, with springing step, and whistling like a mavis, loud and clear, he strode off to Brakebury to pay his debt. His sinewy hand trembled convulsively as he took his receipt.
"I'm as thankful as you are, Mark," said his creditor; "it would have gone to my heart to ruin you. I lay awake all night thinking of it; but I must have this money or be sold out myself, and my wife is ill in bed, and my old mother blind, and cleaving to this home she was born in as ivy cleaves to the wall."
"I know how it goes," said Mark; "I've felt it. And after this, I'll hold the Scripture rule, to owe no man anything but to love one another."
Mark felt his heart large enough to love all the world that morning, especially that golden-haired mystery who had brought him safety. He hurried home, longing to be at work again. He felt energy for everything. Never had there been such a fair day, never such a lovely home, never such beautiful fields, standing thick to the sickle. Heaven be praised, he was his own man again!
He met his laborers coming to the work. In answer to his questions, one said that, crossing a field after dark, he had met a tall woman, in black, veiled, carrying a bundle which, at the time, he fancied might be a child. Another, returning late from the Blue Boar, had passed a tall woman, in black, veiled, hurrying on, with empty arms swinging at her side, but heard her sob and moan as she went by.
This was all Mark Brace heard about that eventful night.
The neighbors, finding a golden-haired, dainty babe in Patty Brace's cradle, said, wisely:
"No doubt she was well paid." "Mark Brace had seemed flush of money of late." "It was well to have friends. The child very surely belonged to some great lady."
But whether its mother lived or was dead, or where she was, Patty never opened her lips to tell; and, after two months, gossip died away, and the baby at Brackenside Farm was an accepted fact.
One person asked questions with more show of authority, and to him Mark and Patty told part of the truth. This one person was the Rector of Brakebury. They told him that the child had been left at their door, with a letter and a sum of money. The letter said the child was legitimate and christened, and that the hundred pounds would come each year. The rector was so astonished at this story that he told it to his bishop when he dined with him.
"And what kind of a child is it?" asked the Bishop of Lansdown.
"The most marvelously beautiful creature; fairly angelic."
A few weeks later, in November, the bishop was dining with the Duke of Downsbury, and bethought himself to tell the tale, beginning:
"Does not the village of Brakebury belong entirely to your grace? and is not Mark Brace one of your tenant farmers?"
The bishop told the story, as he told every story, admirably.
"And they have no clew to the child's family," asked the duchess.
"Not the least. It was the most cleverly-managed thing I ever heard of in my life."
When the ladies returned to the drawing-room, Lady Estelle Hereford, the duke's only child, asked her mother:
"What was that story the bishop was telling?"
Lady Estelle was not nineteen. Her mother felt that this tale of a foundling was not a proper thing to pour into the ear of innocence.
"Really, my dear, I was shocked at the bishop's speaking of such a thing before you," said her Grace of Downsbury.
"Why, mamma, there may be nothing really wrong about it after all," said Lady Estelle, quietly, and the duchess privately thanked Heaven for her daughter's simplicity.
"There is always some wrong where there is concealment," said the duchess, with decision. "Honor does not shun the day. I prefer you do not talk of it, Estelle."
"But, dear mamma, I want to know. So little happens here in the country, I hoped it was something to interest me."
"No, my dear. Only a little child, left at Mark Brace's door—with some money—and I think that is all, my dear."
"And Mark Brace is going to keep the child, mamma?"
"So I understand. Very admirable, honest people, the Braces."
"It is just like a novel, mamma—nicer than a written one. I am sick of novels, as I am sick of everything. I would like to see that child, if it is so pretty, mamma."
"My dearest love! But Brackenside is fifteen miles off, and you could not go so far in this chill autumn weather. You know the doctor says you must get to Italy at once."
Lady Estelle leaned back as one completely bored and weary of life, and toyed with her fan and flowers. A beauty, an heiress, a duke's daughter, Lady Estelle had been for a year and a half the idol of the most fashionable circle in London. Proud, stately, cold, calm, with sudden gleams of tenderness and fire in her great violet eyes, she had been courted by some of the noblest men of England, and dismissed each with the same indifference. But the excitement of gay life, or a nervous shock received in traveling with her friend, Lady Agnes Delapain, in Switzerland, had stolen the wild-rose tint from her cheek and the elasticity from her graceful step, and baffled physicians ordered her to be taken to a warmer climate.
"I am sorry to lose you again, Lady Hereford," said the bishop, when the gentlemen joined the ladies in the drawing-room.
"Thank you. But I am rather glad to go. I may find in Italy something to amuse me, or wake my cold, calm soul to romance. Here, it seems to me, it is very dull. Only the little incident that you told to-day rises over the prosaic."
Lady Estelle, with a swift glance, assured herself that the duchess was at the most remote corner of the room.
"Ah, yes, that has a flavor of romance," said the bishop.
"And you say the child is healthy and pretty?"
"Both, I am told, to an unusual degree. It has the fatal gift of beauty."
"Why fatal?" asked Lady Estelle, with listless politeness.
"Not fatal to those born to rank, parents, and every care, but fatal to the poor, the unprotected, the unknown. I cannot imagine a more terrible gift to a friendless girl."
"I never thought of that," said Lady Estelle, and then her brief interest in the little child seemed to pass into the gentle indifference with which she regarded all the events of life.
For hours afterward Lady Estelle Hereford thought of the fair foundling that had been left at Brackenside Farm, and an uneasy feeling came over her as she reflected upon the bishop's words:
"The child possesses the fatal gift of beauty. I cannot imagine a more terrible gift to a friendless girl."
CHAPTER IV. THE MARBLE PSYCHE.
Mark Brace was the tenant of the Duke of Downsbury, as his fathers before him had for many generations been the tenants of the duke's ancestors; yet no two lines of life seemed to run farther apart than those of the duke and the farmer. The duke respected and appreciated his tenant, and the tenant sturdily held loyal faith in his duke, as the noblest duke in England.
Yet, when Downsbury Castle was shut up, and all the family were abroad, seeking, year by year, health for the patrician daughter, that absence of the noble patron made no change in the current of life at the farm. Patty and Mark, when the duke came to their minds, hoped he would find for his only child the health he sought.
"How we should feel if our Mattie was delicate!" said Patty.
"What a pity it is," said Mark, "that the duke has no son. He has hoped and hoped, but now he knows he will be the last Duke of Downsbury."
"But Lady Estelle will get strong, perhaps, and marry, and he will have great comfort in his grandchildren," said Patty.
Meanwhile, at Brackenside Farm, little Doris grew every day in beauty and brightness. Never was such a winsome wee thing. Patty felt sure the saucy blue eyes would count many victims when Doris bloomed into girlhood's beauty. Patty was tender of her charge, as of some strange tropic bird that had fluttered into her homely nest. Mattie, with her frank simplicity, adored, waited on, yielded to, her "little sister." Honest Mark fell a complete slave to the fascinations of her beauty: he could not give a severe look, nor a reproving word: the twining of those dimpled arms around his neck brought instant submission to any whim of Miss Doris.
"Mark, Mark, you are like all the men—you think the world and all of a pretty face," said Patty, laughing.
"She's just a wonder, and I can't cross her," said Mark. "Not but I like Mattie best. You can rely on Mattie, somehow: she's worth twenty of this pretty Doris; but I can say 'no' to her, and I can try to train her up to be a good woman; but this little golden and pearly thing is just like a butterfly or a humming-bird to me, that's a fact. And then, Patty, we have had luck ever since she came; her hands brought us blessings."
Was it any wonder that it came about that when one child was to yield to the other, Mattie yielded to Doris? Mattie was older and stronger, and, truth to say, yielded more readily. If Patty called on a child to help her, to pick up toys, or a spool, or run to call Mark, was it not natural that Mattie, true, industrious child of the house, was the one called on, rather than the child who paid a hundred pounds a year? Was it strange that, thinking of that lady-mother, who might any day come to claim her own, Patty protected the snowy beauty of her nurse-child with nankeen mitts, and sleeves, and wide-brimmed hat? Did it seem less than honest, when one considered that yearly hundred pounds, and the gentle birth, to give the child finer shoes and daintier garments than little Mattie had?
Thus it came about that pride, and vanity, and indolence, and imperious self-will, were nursed insensibly in this child, whose soul Patty greatly desired to keep white and pure.
Mark Brace, too, felt the duties that the yearly payment pressed upon him. When Doris was three years and a half old, he said to his wife:
"We must make her mannerly, lest her mother should not be satisfied. When she gets big she must learn music and languages; now she must learn to sew and to read. We will let our Mattie learn what she does. She is our only child; we can afford it."
"And you mean me to teach them?" asked Patty.
"Oh, no, wife. You are too busy. We will send them every day to Brakebury, to the Misses Hopwell."
The Misses Hopwell were very genteel ladies; a surgeon's daughters, fallen into narrow circumstances, and keeping a little school, very genteel indeed, where they taught the making of samplers, the tables, reading, writing, the globes, etc., in prim, old-fashioned style.
To this "ladies' school" went Mattie and Doris every day, in a little wicker cart, drawn by a donkey, beside which ran a bare-foot farm-boy as their charioteer. And so time went on, and Doris had been four years at the farm, and news now spread abroad that Lady Estelle Hereford was better at last, and the duke was coming home.
Back to England finally, and the castle was filled with guests.
"I believe," said the duchess to the duke, "that the best thing for our daughter would be a happy marriage. She is over twenty-two. If we could rouse her up to take any interest in any one—all she lacks is animation. She is a Psyche before the coming of Cupid. I heard a gentleman in Italy calling her 'the marble Psyche,' speaking to a friend."
"I cannot understand it," said the duke. "During her first year in society she seemed animated and interested. I believe I even once spoke sharply to her for dancing twice with Captain Rodney Alnwick."
"You were quite right," said the duchess. "I spoke to her myself about him. He was entirely ineligible in every particular. But that all passed by. I thought she liked him a little, and I was glad when he exchanged his regiment and went off to India. A ne'er-do-well family, if an old one."
"We must bring together the best partis," said the duke, "and she may fancy some one. I long to see her settled, and to have grandchildren about me."
The guests came; and among them, calm, gracious, lovely, went Lady Estelle, untouched by adoration, a goddess moving in a nimbus of her own impregnable repose.
There was a dinner-party given for the Bishop of Lansdown, and, as usual, the bishop was full of stories, and told them well.
"I remember," said Lady Estelle, "before we went abroad, you told me some story that interested me—something about a child——"
"No doubt—about the child left at Mark Brace's door."
"Perhaps that might be it. I suppose it has been claimed."
"Not at all. Mark has it yet, and shows himself a most honest man in his care of it."
"Ah! In what way?"
"He not only adores the child, but he rears it delicately, and he means to educate her."
"Yes? And can one be educated at Brakebury?" said the soft, caressing, languid, scarcely interested voice.
"The child is very young yet. She goes in a little donkey-carriage to a really nice little school, kept by two ladies in reduced circumstances. When she gets too old for that school, Mark means to find a better one for her."
"Quite thoughtful of him; and the child is pretty?"
"More pretty than I can tell you. I am sure she is nobly born. I saw her after service the day I held confirmation."
"And her parents have never been found?" asked the duchess.
"No; and surely never will be. Great care has been taken to secure secrecy, and Mark feels bound to maintain it."
"I do not know but it may be quite as well," said her grace; and then dinner was announced.
CHAPTER V. "I WANT TO BE JUST LIKE YOU."
"My dear Estelle," said the Duchess of Downsbury, "I had hoped that with returning health you would have more earnestness and animation—be more like your early self."
"Possibly my early self was a great simpleton, mamma, and as for animation, most girls are overdoing that. Calmness, what you call indifference, may be my style. Don't you think people like it, mamma?"
"Your style is simply perfection," said her grace, "and there are two or three eligible men here just now who plainly think so; if you could only give them a little encouragement."
"I'm quite sick of eligible men, mamma. Is it ten or a dozen that I have 'declined with thanks?' I do not give them encouragement because they offer themselves soon enough without it. They don't interest me."
"And what will interest you?" asked the perplexed duchess.
Lady Estelle waved to and fro, in a meditative manner, her feather fan, as if considering what she could desire.
"I believe, now I think of it, it would interest me to go and see that child the Bishop of Lansdown told us of."
"My dear, that is not a nice story at all. It is suspicious."
"But the Braces are very proper people, and the child may be a very nice child. Brakebury village belongs to us, and I think I never was there. In fact, I have never been over half our estate, nor do I know any of our people."
"It is hardly necessary that you should, Estelle."
"Because I am not a son and heir, mamma, that is not my fault. I think I should rather have been a boy than a girl. As a boy I might have found something to interest me."
She was relapsing into indifference.
"We will go and see the child by all means," said the duchess, hastily. "To-morrow at eleven the carriage shall be ready, and your father will accompany us; he wishes to look over the estate a little."
At noon next day the ducal party were whirling over the broad, level Downsbury roads toward the home of honest Mark Brace, who, all unconscious of coming honor drove his team afield, while Patty guided her household affairs in their usual shining order.
It was Saturday and there was no school for the little ones. Mattie, in brown linen dress, was trotting about after her mother, helping here and there, active and useful. Little Beauty was making bouquets for herself; dressed in white, because white she would wear continually, and decorated with a sash and shoulder knots; and deprived of these ornaments she shrieked vigorously.
"And this," said Lady Estelle, as they drove up, "is Brackenside. I did not know it was so pretty. A fit place for a romance."
Honest Mark, abashed but happy, was anything but a hero of romance as he came up to greet his duke.
"Good-morning, Mr. Brace," said the duchess, frankly. "We have heard so much of your little foster-child, your fairy changeling, that we drove over to hear her story and to see her. We would like, also, to see your wife and your own little girl."
Mark Brace told the story in his matter-of-fact way, as he ushered the guests in the seldom-used parlor, the pride of Patty's soul.
"It is not half so romantic a story as I thought," yawned Lady Estelle; "but let us see the child since we are here."
Mark withdrew to summon his family.
"Goodness, mamma!" drawled Estelle, "what a stiff, hideous place; framed samplers and horsehair chairs. I should die of it. It is well we are not all born alike."
She lost herself in contemplation of a tall, eight-day clock.
Enter Mark, leading Mattie, and Mrs. Brace carrying the golden-haired mystery.
The child was beautiful as our dreams of angels. One small hand rested on Patty's shoulder, the other hung in a graceful curve; her large, clear, smiling eyes met her august guests, sweet and unabashed. The duchess raised her hands.
"She is perfectly angelic!"
"A true fairy," said the duke, taking the child from Patty, and standing her, as a thing to be admired, on the table.
"What is your name, my dear?"
"Doris," said the child, with a gracious little inclination of the head, extending her hand with ease, as if she had now found suitable acquaintances.
Fair, pearly fair, her cheeks and lips mantled with the dainty bloom of the wild rose; her hair like spun gold, flowing over her molded shoulders; her eyes large, shining as stars under dark brows and lashes, fearless, free, not a trace of rustic embarrassment; taper fingers, ears like small pink shells, true child of the nobles, set now among her peers.
"Estelle! do look at her!" cried her grace.
Estelle roused herself from contemplating the clock; she drew off her gloves, and the jewels gleamed on her hands, as she took the child's soft palm, and gently stroked her golden hair.
"You are like sunshine! Speak to me, little one."
"Will you tell me what to say?" asked Doris, promptly.
"What would you like best of anything—tell me?"
"I would like to be just like you! I want to be tall, to have rings, and your pretty dress, and ride in a carriage. I don't like brown clothes, and donkey wagons."
Her little lips curled with scorn, as she looked toward Patty.
"Oh," said Lady Estelle, shocked and remonstrant, "would you not like best of all to be good, very good?"
Doris broke into a frank, silvery laugh, showing dimples and pearly teeth.
"No," she said, with charming candor. "I like pretty things more than being good. Mattie can be good for us both. I am pretty. To be good is so dull," she sighed with grace.
The duke laughed heartily, crying:
"Woman, true woman!"
"Not true woman at all," said the duchess, indignantly, "a very vain little girl."
"All little girls should be good," said Lady Estelle, sagely.
Doris laughed again incredulously, with all her heart.
Patty Brace stepped forward, looking distressed.
"Please do not believe her—she is very good, most of the time, unless she is crossed. She has that odd way of talking, but Mark and I try our best to teach her goodness, and so do the ladies at the school. She will be good, I am sure."
"Poor child," said the duchess, "I hope so."
"Promise me that you will be good," said Lady Estelle.
"Oh, I'll promise; but then, I don't keep promises. I don't think I shall be good. I shall laugh in school, and eat all the red apples, and run away to ride, when I am told not."
"Very small sins, overcome in time," laughed the duke.
"Perhaps you would like me to sing for you," said Doris, and with a voice sweet, strong, and clear, she broke into an old ballad, caught from Patty's lips, but vastly improved in her rendering. Her visitors were enchanted.
"You are a very clever little lady," said the duke.
"Oh, yes, I am a lady," said Doris, positively, "and when I am big I shall be just like you," she added to Estelle.
"We must go," said Lady Estelle Hereford, hastily. "Mamma, I feel quite warm and faint. I want outdoor air."
CHAPTER VI. FAITHLESS AND DEBONAIR.
The duke placed a shining gold sovereign in the hand of Doris, and another in the hand of the quiet Mattie. The duchess looked at the honest, healthy, pleasant face of little Mattie, her frank brown eyes, and simple, rustic manners, and said, suddenly:
"I like this child best. She promises better; she fits her place; she will make the world better for her being in it."
"Thank your grace," said the gratified Patty. "I hope so. But little Doris is very good, too, only we cannot help spoiling her; she has such curious ways."
"Perhaps you wish to see me dance," said Doris, who had been placed on the floor. "Mattie can't dance; she won't learn the steps. I learn, and I make some steps; see me."
Full of grace as a true fairy, she caught one side of her little white gown, and with a glance of veiled coquetry at the duke, began to dance.
The duke clapped his hands in hearty admiration.
The duchess, looking at her daughter, saw that she was deadly pale.
"My dear; you are ill; you are over-fatigued!"
"No, no, I am quite well," said Lady Estelle, calm and proud; "I only want fresh air; the room is close."
They made hasty adieus, and Mark followed them to the carriage; Mattie stood, a good little figure, framed in the doorway. Doris danced like a butterfly over the turf near the gate.
Mark, overcome by his great honors, returned to the parlor, and refreshed himself with a draught of cowslip wine.
"Here's an uncommon bit of civility, Patty," he said. "A duke is a duke, say what one may! And what a duke ours is! And what a rare gracious lady is the duchess! But the Lady Estelle—oh, she is rather a proud piece, I fear. But God bless her, she's young, and doesn't know what life is yet. I hope she'll live to be a comfort and honor to them. Patty! Why don't you speak, my girl? You are pale as the dead. This visit has overdone you."
"Oh, no; I'm only—thinking—very hard, Mark."
Mark knew of old that when Patty set herself to hard thinking she might as well be let alone, so he went off to his work among the barley. But Patty worked that day with a burden on her heart.
"Well, well," said the duke, as they drove back, "I did not expect to see such a wonderfully beautiful child. Even lovelier than you were, Estelle, when you were little."
"Was I pretty?" asked the languid Estelle. "Yes, this child is pretty, and seems to be rather bright."
"The prettiest, brightest child I ever saw," said the duke.
"But such shocking ideas! I never saw so young a child with such bad tendencies!" cried the duchess. "It is easy enough to see how she will end."
"How will she end, mamma?" said Lady Estelle's slow, sweet voice.
"Very badly, my dear. She loves luxury; she is willful; she is scornful. She will hate the plain ways of those good people, and they will be able to do nothing with her. Gifts and beauty—dangerous dower for this young bird of paradise, in a wood-dove's nest."
"They are bringing up their own child well, I fancy."
"Yes, my dear; she is their own; they understand her; they are under no restraint concerning her."
"Honest Mark worships that little beauty," said the duke; "his eyes followed her every movement. She will govern him, and so much the worse for her. Your protegee will have tragedy as well as comedy in her life, Estelle."
"Why call her myprotegee?" said Lady Estelle, indolently. "Surely I have sins and follies enough to answer for, papa, without assigning to my protection a child of whom my mother prophesies such evil."
"I wish we could do something for her," said the duke.
"What could we do? She is admirably well kept; she goes to school. If that good Patty Brace could not succeed with her, could we, where life and fashion would fill her head with nonsense? Perhaps I only speak so because I am constitutionally indolent."
"You are quite right. She has too much flattery and indulgence now," said the duchess.
"Sometimes I think that simple, unworldly life is best for everybody," said Lady Estelle. "I get tired of society and display, and fancy I should like to wear a print gown and lie all day under an apple-tree in bloom."
"But apple-trees don't bloom all the year, and the ground is often outrageously damp," laughed the duke.
"And these simple people cannot lie under trees all day, or much of the day; consider they must be making butter and cheese, and curing bacon," added her grace.
"So?" drawled Lady Estelle. "Then no doubt I had better stay as I am."
"My dear girl," said her father, seriously, "it is time to reconsider that determination to stay as you are. Not long ago you refused the Marquis of Bourne. You said he was too old and too plain. Now I have a proposal from the Earl of Seaton for your hand. He is neither old nor plain; he is in every way eligible."
"Now you are boring me again, papa," drawled Lady Estelle.
"But, my dear, I approve of the earl. I really wish to see you married. What shall I say to him?"
"Tell him to go away and not trouble me, papa."
"My daughter, he deserves a better answer. You are my only child; I shall not live forever; I must consider your future. Marriage will contribute to your happiness."
"I am happy enough, papa."
"Then think of our happiness—your mother's and mine. Oh, Estelle! when I saw that lovely little child, how I wished I had a grandchild like that!"
A ruddy blush dyed Lady Estelle's face, and she was silent.
"Daughter," said the duchess, "do not wait and refuse all offers from some romantic fancy about falling in love. That does not belong to your rank. Perhaps your nature is not to love any man very passionately: but you will care for your husband when you are married, and you will love your children."
Lady Estelle drooped her eyelids until the long lashes rested on her swiftly paling cheek.
"Mamma, I hate the word marriage!" she said, with far more than her usual vehemence.
"We will drop the question at present," said her mother, anxiously. "You are looking very pale and ill. This long ride has been too much. I wish I had not permitted it."
Yes, Lady Estelle was the worse for her visit. She looked paler each day, and often when alone she whispered:
"Faithless and debonair—faithless and fair; faithless and debonair!"
The duke soon concluded that he must begin his wanderings again in search of health and strength for his idolized only child. The suitors were sent sway, the castle was closed, and the family of Downsbury went far from Brackenside and little Doris.
CHAPTER VII. ALL, ALL IS VANITY.
Meanwhile, at the farm little Doris grew under the protection of Mark and Patty, and yearly, as the day came round which was the anniversary of her arrival, Mark received a hundred pounds, in golden sovereigns, or in fresh, new Bank of England notes. And Mark, in his sturdy honesty, and far-seeing common sense, developed rare qualities as a guardian. Plain man as he was, he guessed at what a girl of good family or high social position should know, and preparing Doris for that position to which some day her unknown mother might call her, he resolved that she should receive accomplishments.
Fortune favored him. In Brakebury lived a Frenchman, a political exile, a gentleman of high accomplishments. Monsieur D'Anvers was held in great awe in the village; his courtly grace, the foreign tongues he spoke, the pictures that he drew, the water-color landscapes which he painted and sold in London, his playing on various instruments—all lifted him far above his neighbors.
To Monsieur D'Anvers went honest Mark, when Doris was eight years old, and offered him fifty pounds a year to tutor the two little girls, the brown and the fair.
"You will teach Mattie what she wants to learn, and what she can learn," said Mark; "but Doris can learn anything, and I want you to teach her all you know."
So Doris was taken daily to her tutor, as she had been to the school of the Misses Hopwell, and the old French courtier bowed down and worshiped her, as in all her life did all the men who were brought into contact with her. To teach her was a labor of love. Her aptitude was marvelous. She learned to speak French and German fluently; she drew and painted with taste and skill; her little fingers, with some inherited grace, flew over the ivory keys, or touched the shining cords of harp and guitar. Manners—the manners of courts—the banished Frenchman taught her, and she learned them intuitively.
"Mon Dieu!" cried the old gentleman; "but this child is lovely! She surpasses Ninon D'Enclos and Diana de Poitiers! She has spirit, wit, originality—everything that is admirable! A queen might be proud to be her mother!"
Doris swayed and enchanted her old preceptor. Mattie, quietly studying French, drawing, and English literature, was left far behind by her foster-sister, who was speedily learning all that the tutor could teach.
"You should have been born a princess, ma belle!" the old man would say, delighted with some flash of wit, some piquant performance. "What will you do with all your beauty here on a farm?"
"Am I very beautiful?" demanded Doris.
"More beautiful than Helen, for whom thousands died; than Cleopatra, who had the world's conquerors at her feet! What will you do with so much beauty?"
"Make the most of it!" and the words jarred on the aristocrat.
All men said the same. Even the rector unwisely cried:
"Little maid, you have beauty enough to turn your head. Do not let it make you proud."
"Who made me beautiful?" asked Doris.
"God, my child."
"Is it not right to be proud of God's work and gifts?"
"You have beauty enough to be a snare," said the doctor.
"God gave me my beauty, and God is good, and does not set snares," said Doris, quickly, making Mark and the doctor laugh at her ready wit.
"A beautiful body is nothing without a beautiful soul," said Mark, mindful of the letter saying, "Keep her soul white and pure."
"I would rather have a beautiful body than a beautiful soul," said Doris, promptly.
"Why, my dear?" demanded the good man, in amaze.
"Because my body is where people can see it. Who can see my soul?" said Doris, scornful of her best possession.
Mark was shocked.
"That comes from every one praising you so foolishly; you will be ruined!" he exclaimed.
"Mattie can have the beautiful soul, and I will have the beautiful body," retorted Doris. "Monsieur D'Anvers says wisdom is the best gift, the gift for kings. I say beauty is the best gift, the gift for queens; and queens have always ruled kings."
Mark shook his head. It is hard labor to rear an eagle in a sparrow's nest.
"Mother," said Doris, one day, when she was twelve, "this shall not go on longer—I'm sick of it."
"What, my child? Of what are you sick?"
"Of the village, of the farm, of our way of living. I hate it. If I am kept here longer I know I shall run away."
"My dear, are we not good to you?"
"Oh, yes, you are good, of course; but it is not goodness I want; it is change; I want something new—some more style."
"But how and where, Doris?"
"Send me to boarding-school. I want to know more of the way ladies do and live. We see no one here. If Mattie does not want to go, I ought not to be kept home. I have learned all Monsieur D'Anvers knows. I talk French and German as fast as he does—we go over the same old things."
"That is true, mother," said Mattie. "Doris is a great scholar. I cannot go away from home; I don't want to; I love to stay and help you; but let Doris go."
"I will ask your father," said Patty, hesitatingly.
"And he'll say to let the child have her own way," said Doris, with a laugh.
"Well, I must consult your father."
"Consult my father!" said Doris, with wonderful scorn.
She had a singular contempt for all about her, though no hint that she was other than the child of the Braces had been given her.
She had her way; she went to a fashionable boarding-school. For her clothing and tuition honest Mark paid the entire hundred pounds each year. She elected to visit schoolmates at vacation, and for four years Brackenside Farm knew no more of the golden-haired mystery.
At sixteen she came home again, beautiful as a fairy, ripe for mischief, mad for display—a tireless reader of French novels.
She looked about that home of rustic goodness, and covert scorn dwelt in the violet eyes and sat lightly on the chiseled lips; her parents were "so plain," her sister Mattie "a country simpleton."
They on their part rose up to do her homage; they bowed down and worshiped at beauty's shrine. And was she not most beautiful?
"Beauty was hers in dower, such as earthDoth rarely reckon 'mid her fading things:A glory lit her tears, and in her mirthShook the sweet laughter of translucent springs."
Already an adept in coquetry, she sighed at once for a victim for her charms. Alas! she found him near.
"Are there any new people?" she asked of Mattie.
"Only Earle Moray."
"Eh? A decent sounding name. Who is he?"
"A poet and a gentleman," cried Mattie, enthusiastically.
"A poet? Poets live, I understand, in garrets."
"But Earle has some money," said Mattie, simply.
"Earle? So? You seem to know him rather well."
Poor Mattie blushed crimson.
CHAPTER VIII. THE YOUNG COQUETTE.
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