“You want to hear about Edwin Urquhart. Well, you shall, but first I promise you that I shall talk much less of him than of another person. Why? because it is on account of this other person that I hate him, and solely because of this other person that I avenge myself, or seek to assist others in avenging the justice you say he has outraged.
“We were friends from boyhood. Reared in the same town and under the same influences, there was a community of interests between us that threw us together and made us what is called friends. But I never liked him. That is, I never felt a confidence in him which is essential to a mutual understanding. And, though I accepted his companionship, and was much with him at the most critical time of my life, I always kept one side, and that the better side, of my nature closed to him.
“He was a gentleman with no expectations; I the inheritor of a small fortune that made my friendship of temporary use to him, even if it did not offer him much to rely on in the future. We lived, he with an uncle who was ready to throw him off the moment he was assured that he would not marry one of his daughters, and I in my own house, which, if no manor, was at least my own, and for the present free from debt. I myself thought that Urquhart intended to marry one of the girls to whom I have just alluded. But it seems that he never meant to do this, and only encouraged his uncle to think so because he was not yet ready to give up the shelter he enjoyed with him. But of this, as I say, I was ignorant, and was consequently very much astonished when, one nightfall, in passing the great Dudleigh place, he remarked:
“‘How would you like to drink a glass with me in yonder? Better than in the Fairfax kitchen, eh?’
“I thought he was joking. ”Tis a fine old house,’ I observed. ‘No doubt its wines are good. But it is no tavern, and I question if Miss Dudleigh would make either of us very welcome.’
“‘You do! Then you don’t know Miss Dudleigh,’ he vaunted, with a proud swelling of his person, and a lift of his head that almost took my breath away. For, though he was a handsome fellow — too handsome for a man no worthier than he — I should no more have presumed to have associated him in my thoughts with Miss Dudleigh than if he had been a worker in her fields. Not so much because she was rich — very rich for that day and place — or that her family was an old one, and his but a mushroom stock, as that she was a being of the gentlest instincts and the purest thoughts, while he was what you may have gathered from my words — vain, coarse, cowardly and mean; an abject cur beside her, who was, and is, one of the sweetest women the sun ever shone upon.”
At this expression of admiration on the part of the hermit, which proved him to be in entire ignorance of the crime which had been perpetrated against this woman, I found myself struck so aghast that I could not forbear showing it. But he was too engrossed in his reminiscences to notice my emotion, and presently continued his story by saying:
“I probably betrayed my astonishment to Urquhart, for he gave a great laugh, and forced me about toward the gates.
“‘We will not be turned out,’ he said. ‘Let us go in and pay our respects.’
“‘But,’ I stammered.
“‘Oh, it’s all right,’ he pursued. ‘The fair lady is of age and has the privilege of choosing her future husband. I shall live in clover, eh? Well, it is time I lived in something. I have had a hard enough time of it so far, for a none too homely fellow.’
“I was overwhelmed; more than that, I was sickened by these words, whose import I understood only too well. Not that I had any special interest in Miss Dudleigh; indeed, I hardly knew her; but any such woman inspires respect, and I could not think of her as allied to this man without a spasm of revolt that almost amounted to fear.
“‘You are going to marry her, this white rose!’ I exclaimed. ‘I should as soon have thought of your marrying a princess of the royal house. I hope you appreciate your unbounded good fortune.’
“He pointed to the great chimneys and imposing facade of the fine structure before us. ‘Do you think I am so blind as not to know the advantage of being the master in a house like that? You must not think me quite a fool if I am not as clever a fellow as you are. Remember that I am a poorer one and like my ease better.’
“‘But Miss Dudleigh?’
“‘Oh, she’s a trifle peaked and dull, but she’s fond and not too exacting.’
“I was angry, but had no excuse for showing it. Righteous indignation he could never have understood, and to have provoked a quarrel without any definite end in view would have been folly. I remained silent, therefore, but my heart burned within me.
“It had not lost its heat when we entered her house, and when my eyes fell upon her seated at her spinet in front of a latticed window that brought out her gentle figure in all its sweet simplicity, I felt like clutching, and flinging back over the threshold, which his desecrating foot should never have crossed, the hollow-hearted being at my side, who could neither see her beauty nor estimate the worth of her innocent affection.
“There was an aunt or some such relative in the room with her, but this did not hinder the glad smile from rising to her lips as she saw us — or rather him, for she hardly seemed to notice my presence. I learned afterward that this aunt had been greatly instrumental in bringing these incongruous natures together; that for reasons of her own, which I have never attempted to fathom, she thought Edwin Urquhart the best husband that her niece could have, and not only introduced him into the house, but stood so much his friend during the first days of his courtship that she gradually imparted to her niece her own enthusiasm, till the poor girl saw — or thought she saw — the ideal of her dreams in the base and shallow being whom I called my friend.
“However that may be, she certainly rose from her spinet that night in a pretty confusion that made her absolutely lovely, and advancing with the mingled dignity of the heiress and the tender bashfulness of the maiden in the presence of him she loved, she tendered us a courtesy whose grace put me out of ease with myself, so much it expressed the manners of people removed from the sphere in which it had hitherto been my lot to move.
“But Urquhart showed no embarrassment. His fine figure — he had that — bent forward with the most courtly of bows, and after the introduction of my humble self to her notice, he entered into a conversation which, if shallow, was at least bright, and for the moment interesting. As I had no wish to talk, I gave myself up to watching her, and came away at last more fixed than ever in my belief of her extreme worthiness and of his extreme presumption in thinking of calling so perfect a creature his.
“‘Would to God she was as poor as Janet Fairfax,’ I thought to myself. ‘Then she would never have attracted his attention, and might have known what happiness was with some man who could appreciate her. Now she is doomed, and being fatherless and motherless, will rush on to her fate, and no one can stop her.’
“Thus I thought, and thus I continued to think as chance and Urquhart’s stubborn will led me more and more to her house, and within the radius of her gentle influence. But my thoughts never went further. I never saw her, even in my dreams, fostered by me, or soothed of an old grief by my love and affection. For though she was a dainty and gracious being, with beauty enough to delight the eyes and warm the heart, she was not the one destined to move me, and awake the tumultuous passions that lay dormant in my own scarcely understood nature. Urquhart, therefore, was not acting unwisely in taking me there so often, though, if I could have foreseen what was likely to be the result of those visits, I should have leaped from my house’s roof on to the stones below before I had passed again under those fatal portals.
“And yet — would I? Do we fear suffering or apathy most? Is it from experience or the monotony of a commonplace existence that we quickest flee? A man with passions like mine must love; and if that love comes girt with flame and mysterious death, he still must embrace it, and rise and fall as the destinies will.
“But I talk riddles. I have not yet told you of her; and yet speak of fire and death. I will try to be more coherent, if only to show that the years have brought me some mastery over myself. One day — it was a fall day and beautiful as limpid sunshine and a world of yellowing woods could make it — I went to Miss Dudleigh’s house to apologize for my friend, who had wished to improve the gorgeous sunshine elsewhere.
“I had by this time lost all fear of her, as well as of her rich and spacious surroundings, and passed through the hospitable door and along the wide halls to the especial room in which we were wont to find her, with that freedom engendered by an intimacy as cordial as it was sincere. It was the room where first I had seen her, the room with the wide latticed window at the back, and the spinet beneath it, and the old carven chair of oak in which her white-clad form had always looked so ethereal; and I entered it smiling, expecting to see her delicate figure rise from the window, and advance toward me with that look of surprise and possible disappointment which the absence of Urquhart would be apt to arouse in this too loving nature. But the room was empty and the spinet closed, and I was about turning to find a servant, when I felt an influence stealing over me so subtile and so peculiar that I stood petrified and enthralled, hardly knowing if it were music that held me spell-bound or some unknown and subduing perfume, that, filling my senses, worked upon my brain, and made me feel like a man transported at a breath from the land of reality into a land of dreams.
“So potent the spell, so inexplicable its action, that minutes may have elapsed before I wrenched myself free from its power and looked to see what it was that so moved me. When I did, I found myself at a loss to explain it. Whether it was music or perfume, or just the emanation from an intense personality, I have never determined. I only know that when I turned, I saw standing before me, in an attitude of waiting, a woman of such marvelous attractions, and yet of an order of beauty so bizarre and out of keeping with the times and the place in which she stood, that I forgot to question everything but my own sanity and the reality of a vision so unprecedented in all my experience. I therefore simply stood like her, speechless and lost, and only came to myself when the figure before me suddenly melted from a statue into a woman, and, with a deep and graceful courtesy, almost daring in its abandonment, said:
“‘You must be Master Felt, I take it. Master Urquhart would never be so thrown off his balance by a simple girl like me.’
“There are voices that pierce like arrows and sink deep into the heart, which closes over their sweetness forever. So it was with this voice. From its first sound to its last it held me enthralled, and had she shown but half the beauty she did, those accents of hers would have made me her slave. As it was, I was more than her slave. I instantly became all and everything to her. I breathed but as she breathed, and in the absorbing delight which from that moment took hold of me I lost all sense of the proprieties and conventionalities of social intercourse, and only thought of drinking in at one draught the strange and mysterious loveliness which I saw revealed before me.
“She was not a tall woman, no taller than Miss Dudleigh. Nor was she of marked carriage or build. Her form, indeed, seemed only made to express suppleness and passion, and was as speaking in its slight proportions as if it had breathed forth the nobler attributes of majesty and strength. Her dress was dark, and clung to every curve with a loving persistence bewildering in its effect upon an eye like mine. Upon the bust, and just below the white throat, burned a mass of gorgeous flowers as ruddy as wine; and from one delicate hand a long vine trailed to the floor. But it was in her face that her power lay; in her eyes possibly, though I scarcely think so, for there were curves to her lips such as I have never seen in any other, and a delicate turn to her nostril that at times made me feel as if she were breathing fire. Her skin was pale, her forehead broad and low, her nose straight, and her lips of a brilliant vermilion. I, however, saw only her eyes, though I may have been influenced by the rest of her bewildering physiognomy; they were so large, so changeful, so full of alternating flames and languor, so indeterminate in color, and yet so persistent in their effect upon the eye and the feelings. Looking at them, I swore she was an anomaly. Gazing into them, I resolved that she was this only because she let herself be natural and sought to smother none of the fires which had been enkindled by a bountiful nature within her soul.
“While I was reasoning thus, she made me another mock courtesy, and explaining her presence by saying she was a cousin of Miss Dudleigh’s, ventured to remark that, if Master Felt would be kind enough to state his errand, she would be glad to carry it to Miss Dudleigh. I answered confusedly, but with a fervor she could not fail to understand, and following up this effort by another, led her into a conversation in which my responses gradually became such as she should expect from a gentleman and an equal.
“For with her, notwithstanding her beauty, and the sense of splendor and luxury which breathed from her mysterious presence, I never felt that sense of personal inferiority I experienced at first with Miss Dudleigh. Whether I recognized then, as now, the lack of those high qualities which lift one mortal above another, I do not know. I am only certain that, while I regarded her as a woman to be obeyed, to be loved, to be followed through life, through death, into whatsoever regions of horror, danger, and pain she might lead me, I never looked upon her as a being out of my world or beyond my reach, except so far as her caprice might carry her.
“It was therefore with the fixed determination to force from her some of the interest she had awakened in me, that I grasped at this first opportunity of conversation; and in spite of her unrest — she did not want to linger — held her to the spot till I had made her feel that a man had come into her life whose will meant something, and to whom, if she did not subdue the light of her glances, she must give account for every added throb she caused to beat in his proud heart.
“This done I let her go, for Miss Dudleigh was not well and needed her, and the door closed behind her mysterious smile, and the sound of her steps died out in the hall, and in fancy only could I behold her supple, dark-clad form go up the broad staircase, projecting itself now against the golden daylight falling through one window, and now against the clustering vines that screened another, till she disappeared in regions of which I knew nothing and whither even my daring imagination presumed not to follow. And the vision never left my eyes nor her form my heart, and I went out in my turn, a burning, eager, determined man, where in a short half hour before I had entered cold and self-satisfied, without hope and without exaltation.
“This was the beginning. In a week the earth and sky held nothing for me but that woman. Her name, which I had not learned at our first interview, was Marah Leighton — a fitting watch-word for a struggle that could terminate only with my life! For I had got to the pass that this woman must be mine. I would have her for my wife or see her dead; she should never leave the town with another. Yes; homely as I was, without recommendation of family, or more means than enough to keep a wife from want, I boldly entered upon this determination, and in the face of some dozen lovers, that at the first revelation of her beauty began to swarm about her steps, pressed my claims and pushed forward my suit till I finally gained a hearing, and after that a promise, which, if vague, was more than any of her other lovers could boast of, or why did they all gradually withdraw from the struggle, leaving me alone in my homage?
“The uncertainties of her position (she was an orphan and dependent upon Miss Dudleigh for subsistence) had added greatly to my tenderness for her. It also added to my hope. For if I were poor, she was poorer, and ought to find in the managing of my humble home a satisfaction she could not experience in the enjoyment of a relative’s bounty, even if that relative was a woman like Honora Dudleigh. And yet one doubts an exultant happiness; and as I grew to know her better, I realized that if I ever did succeed in making her mine, I must see to it that my fortunes bettered, as she would never be happy as a poor man’s wife, even if that man brought her independence and love.
“She loved splendor, she loved distinction, she loved the frivolities of life. Not with a childish pleasure or even a girlish enthusiasm, but with a woman’s strong and determined spirit. I have seen her pace through and through those great halls just for the pleasure of realizing their spaciousness; and though the sight made my heart cringe, I have admired her step and the poise of her head as much as if she had been the queen of it all, and I her humblest vassal. Then her luxury! It showed as plainly in her poverty as it could have done in wealth. If it were flowers she handled, it was as a goddess would handle them. None were too beautiful, or too costly, or too rare for her restless fingers to pluck, or her dainty feet to tread on. Had she possessed jewels, she would have worn them like roses, and flung them away almost as freely if they had displeased her or she had grown weary of them. Love was to her a jewel, and she wore it just now because it suited her fancy to do so; but would not the day come when she would grow tired of it or demand another, and so fling it and me to the dogs?
“I did not ask. I was permitted to walk at her side, and pay her my court, and now and then, when the humor took her, to press her hand or drop a kiss upon the rosy palm; and while I could do this, was it for me to question a future which seemed more likely to hold fewer pleasures than more?
“But I grow diffuse; I must return to facts. Honora Dudleigh, who saw my devotion, encouraged it. I wondered at it sometimes, for she knew the smallness of my fortune, and must have known the nature of the woman I expected to share it. But as time passed I wondered less, for her woman’s intuition must have told her, what observation had as yet failed to tell me, that there was trouble in the air, and that Marah needed a protector.
“The day that I first recognized this fact made an era in my life. I had been so happy, so at ease with myself, so sure of her growing confidence and of my coming happiness. That I had cause for this, the conduct of her friends and the jealousy of her lovers seemed to prove. Though she gave no visible token of her regard, she clung to me as to a support, and allowed my passion the constant feast of her presence and the stimulation of her voice.
“Her enchantments, and they were innumerable, were never spared me, nor did she stint herself of a smile that could allure, nor of a glance that could arouse or perplex.
“I was happy, and questioned only the extent of my patience, which I felt fast giving way as the preparations for Miss Dudleigh’s marriage proceeded without my seeing any immediate prospect of my own. You can realize, then, the maddening nature of the shock which I received when, coming quietly into the house as I did one day, I beheld her face disappearing through one of the doorways, with that look upon it which I had always felt was natural to it, but which no passion of mine had ever been able to evoke, and then perceived in the shadow from which she had just glided, Edwin Urquhart, pale as excessive feeling could make him, and so shaken by the first real emotion which had ever probably moved his selfish soul that he not only failed to see me when I advanced, but hastened by me, and away into the solitudes of the garden, without noticing my existence, or honoring with a reply the words of wrath and confusion which, in my misery and despair, I threw after him.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50