You who have read thus far will care little for the legalities which followed the events just related, but you may wish to know to a fuller extent some of the facts in Ermentrude Taylor’s life which led to this tragic end of all her hopes.
Her story is twofold, the portion connecting her with Carleton Roberts being entirely dissociated from that which made her the debtor of Antoinette Duclos. Let me tell the latter first, as it preceded the other, and tell it in episodes.
Two girls stood at one end of a long walk of immemorial yews. At the other could be seen the advancing figure of a man, young, alert, English-clad but unmistakably foreign. They were school girls and bosom friends; he their instructor in French; the walk one attached to a well-known seminary. When they had entered this walk, it had been empty. Now it held for one of them — and possibly for the other, too — a world of joy and promise; — the world of seventeen. Innocent and unthinking, neither of them had known her own heart, much less that of her fellow. But when in face of that approach, eye met eye with an askance look of eager question, revelation came, crimsoning the cheeks of both, and marking an epoch in either life.
Noble of heart and tender each toward the other, they were yet human. Arm fell from arm, and with an equally spontaneous movement, they turned to search each the other’s countenance, not for betrayal — for that had already been made — but for those physical charms or marks of mental superiority which might attract the eye or win the heart of a man of the ideality of this one.
Alas! these gifts, for gifts they are, were much too unequally distributed between these two to render the balance at all even.
Ermentrude was handsome; Antoinette was not.
Ermentrude had besides, what even without beauty would have made her conspicuous to the eye, the figure of a goddess and the air of a queen. But Antoinette was small and had to feel secure and in a happy mood to show the excellence of her mind and the airy quality of her wit.
Then, Ermentrude had money and could dress, while Antoinette, who was dependent upon an English uncle for everything she possessed, wore clothes so plain that but for their exquisite neatness, one would never dream that she came from French ancestry, and that ancestry noble.
Yes, she had that advantage; rank was hers, but not the graces which should accompany it. More than that, she had nothing with which to support it. Better be of the yeoman class like Ermentrude, and smile like a duchess granting favors. Or so she thought, poor girl, as her meek regard passed from the friend whose attractions she had thus acknowledged to the man whose approbation would make a goddess of her too.
He was coming — not with his usual indifferent swing, but eagerly, joyously, as though this moment meant something to him too. She knew it did. Small memories rushing upon her, made no doubt of that. But why? Because of Ermentrude or because of herself? Alas! she could recall nothing which would answer that. They were much together; he had scarcely ever seen them separate. It might be either —— Hardly alive from suspense, she watched him coming — coming. In a moment he would be upon them. On which would his eyes linger?
That would tell the tale.
In an anguish of ungovernable shyness, she slipped behind the ample figure of her friend till only her fluttering skirt betrayed her presence. Perhaps she was saved something by this move; perhaps not. She did not see the beam of joy sparkling in his eye as he greeted Ermentrude; but she could not but mark the heaviness of his step as he passed them by and wandered away into the shadows.
And that she understood. Ermentrude had not smiled upon him. To him, the moment had brought pain.
It was enough. Now she knew.
But why had not Ermentrude smiled?
A dormitory lighted only by the moon! Two beds close together; in one a form of noble proportions, and in the other the meagre figure of a girl almost buried from sight among pillows and huddled-up blankets. Both are quiet save for an occasional shudder which shakes the bed of the latter. Ermentrude lies like the dead, though the moonlight falls full upon her face blanching it to the aspect of marble. Even her lashes rest moveless on her cheek.
But she is not sleeping; she is listening — listening to the sobs, almost inaudible, which now and then escape from the beloved one at her side. As they grow fainter and fainter and gradually die away altogether till stillness reigns through the whole dormitory, she rouses and bending forward on her elbow, looks long and lovingly at the wet brow of her sleeping mate. She then sinks back again into rigidity, with a low moan, ending in the whispered words:
“He does not love — not yet. A slight thing will turn him. Did I not see him glance back twice, and both times at her? The look with which she greeted him was so wonderful.”
A village street in Britanny; a parish church in the distance; two women bidding each other farewell amid a group of wedding-guests, gay as the heavens are blue.
“Au revoir!“ was the whisper breathed by the bride into the ear of the other. ”Au revoir, my Ermentrude. May you have a happy year in Switzerland!”
“Au revoir! little Madame. You will be happy I know in those United States to which you are going.”
And the tears stood in the eyes of both.
“You will write?”
“I will write.”
But the bride did not seem quite satisfied. Glancing about and finding her young husband busy with his adieux, she drew her friend apart and softly murmured:
“There is something I must say — something I must know, before the sea divides us. You remember the day we all left school and you went home and I came to Britanny? Ermentrude, Achille tells me that on that day he sought the whole house over for you till he came upon you in one of the classrooms; and that you whom I had sometimes seen so sad were very gay and told him between laughing and crying that you were bidding a solemn farewell to all the nooks and corners of the old seminary, because your fiancé awaited you at home, and there would be no coming back.”
“I meant my music.”
“He did not know that, Ermentrude,” and here she laid her hands upon the other’s shoulders, drawing back as she did so to look earnestly up into her face. “Was that done for me?”
They were too near for anything but the truth to pass from eye to eye. Ermentrude tried to laugh and utter a quick No, no! but the little bride was not deceived. Again upon her face there appeared that wonderful look of hers, which made her face for the moment verily beautiful, and unclasping her hands, she threw them about the other’s neck, whispering in awed tones:
“Yet you loved him! loved him too!”
Then after a moment of silence dear to both their hearts, she drew back to give her friend one other look, and quietly said:
“His heart is mine now, Ermentrude, wholly and truly mine. And so you would have it be, I am sure. Life looks fair to me and very sweet; but however fair, however sweet, that life is yours if ever you want it and when you want it. The time may come — one never knows — when I can pay you back this debt. Till then, let there be perfect trust and perfect love between us. Give me your hand upon it — not just your lips — for I speak as men speak when they mean to keep their word.”
Their eyes met, their hands clasped; then the bridegroom drew away his bride, and Ermentrude turned with bowed head and glistening eyes, to enter upon the new life awaiting her in ways she had yet to tread.
The second series of episodes opens with the meeting of a man and woman on a rustic bridge spanning a Swiss chasm. They are strangers to each other, yet both instinctively pause and a flush of intuitive feeling dyes the cheek of each.
The eternal, ever-recurring miracle has happened. He sees Woman for the first time, though he had thought himself in love before and had wandered thus far in an effort to forget. So, likewise, with her. She had had her fancies, or rather her one fancy; but when in strolling along this road ahead of her party she saw rising between her and the glorious landscape which had hitherto filled her eye the fine masculine head and perfect figure of Carleton Roberts, this fancy floated from her mind like the veriest thistledown, leaving it free to expand in fuller hopes and deeper joys than visit many women even when they think they love.
Alas! why in that instant of mutual revelation had not the further grace been given them of quick catastrophe shutting the door upon a future of which neither could then dream or sense the coming doom.
It was not to be.
He passed, she passed, and for the time the look they gave each other was all; but the world had been glorified for them both — and Destiny waited.
“Good looks? Yes; but nothing else; very ordinary connections, very. A little money, true. Her uncle, whom by the way I judge you have not seen, will leave her a few thousands; but meanwhile he is a fixture — will not leave her or let her leave him, which is a misfortune since in a social way he is simply impossible. No sort of match for you, Roberts. Cut and run while there is time; that’s my advice to you, given in the most friendly spirit.”
“Thank you. As I have but just met Miss Taylor, don’t you think such advice is a little premature?”
“No, I don’t. She is a woman who must be loved or left; that’s all. You’ve heard me.”
Did Carleton Roberts heed these words? No. What man in the thrall of his first romance ever did.
“You love me, Ermentrude?”
“I love you, Carleton.”
“For a day, for a month or for a year?” he smiled.
“Forever,” she answered.
“That’s a long time,” he murmured, with his eyes on a little clock hanging in the shop window before which they had stopped in one of their infrequent walks together. “A long time! That foolish little clock will beat out the hours of its short life and go the way of all things, before we shall hardly have entered upon the soul’s ‘forever.’”
“That clock will last our lifetime, Carleton. Afterward, love will not be counted by hours.”
As she said this she turned her face his way and he saw it in its full flower with the light of heaven upon it. In later years he may have forgotten the emotions of that moment, but they were the purest, the freest from earthly stain that he was ever destined to know.
“I will love you forever,” he whispered. “That little clock shall be my witness.” And he drew her into the shop.
Ermentrude glanced up; the clock hung on her wall.
“Oh,” she murmured, “each hour it will speak to me of him and his words,” then softly, like one adream in Paradise:
“I love but thee,
And thee will I love to eternity.”
Such was the event to her. What was it to him? Let us see:
A hotel room — a view of Pilatus, but with its top lost in enveloping clouds.
Seated before it with pen in hand above a sheet of paper, Carleton Roberts eyes these clouds but does not see them; he is hunting in his brain for words and they do not come. Why? His mother’s name is on the page and he has only to write that she has been quite correct in her judgment as to the unfitness of the marriage he had had in mind:— that youth should mate with youth and that if she could see the glorious young girl whose acquaintance he had made here, she would be satisfied with his new choice which promised him the fullest happiness. Why then a sheet yet blank and a hesitating hand, when all it had to do was to write?
Who can tell? Man knows little of himself or of the conflicting passions which sway him this way or that, even when to the outward eye, and possibly to the inner one as well, action looks easy.
Did he feel, without its reaching the point of knowledge, that this mother of keenest expectation and highest hope would not be satisfied with what this charming but undeveloped girl of middle class parentage would bring him? Or was there, deep down in his own undeveloped nature, a secret nerve alive to ambitions yet unnamed, to hopes not yet formulated, which warned him to think well before he spoke the irrevocable word linking a chain which, though twined with roses, was nevertheless a chain which nothing on earth should have power to break.
He never sounded his soul for an answer to this question; but when he rose, the paper was still blank. The letter had not been written.
“I do not like secrecy.”
“Only for a little while, Ermentrude. My mother is difficult. I would prepare her.”
“What of Uncle?”
“He made me take an oath to-day.”
“That I would not leave him while he lived.”
“And you could do that?”
“I could do nothing else. He’s a sick man, Carleton. The doctors shake their heads when they leave him. He will not live a year.”
“A year? But that’s an eternity! Can you wait, can I wait a year?”
“He loves me and I owe everything to him. Next week we go to Nice. These are days of parting for you and me, Carleton.”
Parting! What word more cruel. She saw that it shook him, and held her breath for his promise that she should not be long alone. But it did not come. He was taking time to think. She hardly understood his doing this. Surely, his mother must be very difficult and he a most considerate son. She knew he loved her; perhaps never with a more controlling passion than at this moment of palpitating silence.
As she smiled, he caught her to his breast.
“We have yet a week,” he cried, and left her hurriedly, precipitately.
It was their last ride and they had gone far — too far, Ermentrude thought, for a day so chilly and a sky so threatening. They had entered gorges; they had skirted mountain streams, had passed a village, left a ruined tower behind, and were still facing eastward, as if Lucerne had no further claims upon them and the world was all their own.
As the snows of the higher peaks burst upon their view, she made an attempt to stop this seeming flight.
“My uncle,” she said. “He will be counting the hours. Let us go back.”
Then Carleton Roberts spoke.
“Another mile,” he whispered, not because he feared being overheard by their driver, but because Love’s note is instinctively low. “You are cold; we shall find there a fire, and dinner — and — Listen, Ermentrude — a minister ready to unite us. We are going back, man and wife.”
“Yes, dear, it is quite understood. Letters are urging my return to New York. Your uncle is holding you here. I cannot face an uncertain separation. I must feel that you are mine beyond all peradventure — must be able to think of you as my wife, and that will hold us both and make it proper for you to come to me if I cannot come to you, the moment you are free to go where you will.”
“But why this long ride, this far-away spot? Why couldn’t a minister be found in Lucerne? Is our marriage to be as secret as our engagement? Is that what you wish, Carleton?”
“Yes, dear; for a little while, just for a little while, till I have seen my mother, and rid our way of every obstacle to complete happiness. It will be better. When one has promised to love forever, what are a few weeks or months. Make me happy, dear. You have it in your power to do so. Happy! When once I can whisper ‘wife,’ the world will not hold a happier man than I.”
Did she yield because of her own great longing? No, it was by that phrase he caught her: The world will not hold a happier man than I.
Mountains! Icy peaks, with sides heavy with snow! And so near! Almost they seemed to meet across the narrow valley. She gave them one quick glance, then her eyes and her heart became absorbed in what she could see of this Alpine village, holding up its head in the eternal snows like an edelweiss on the edge of a glacier.
It was to be the scene of her one great act in life; the spot she was entering as a maiden and would leave as a wife. What other spot would ever be so interesting! To note its every detail of house and church would not take long — it was such a little village, and the streets were so few; and the people — why she could count them.
Afterward, she found that the exact number and the difference in color of the short line of timbered houses stretching between them and the church were imprinted on her brain; but she did not know it at the time for her attention was mainly fixed upon the people when once she had seen them, for there was a strangeness in their looks and actions she did not understand, all the more that it seemed to have nothing to do either with Carleton or herself.
It was not fear they showed, not exactly, though consternation was not lacking in their aspect, so strangely similar in all, whether they were men or women, or whether they stood in groups in the street or came out singly on the doorstep to glance about and listen, though there seemed to be nothing to listen to, for the air was preternaturally still.
“Carleton, Carleton,” she asked as he came to lift her to the ground, “see those people how oddly they act. The whole town is in the street. What is the matter?”
“Nothing, except that if we do not hasten we shall have to return unmarried. The minister is waiting for us.”
“What, in the church?”
“Yes, dear. We are a little late.”
She took his arm, and though they were a fine couple and the event was almost an unprecedented one in that remote village, only a few followed them; the rest hung round their homes or gazed with indecision at the mountains or up and down along the empty roads.
“Wilt thou have this woman. . . . ”
The ceremony had proceeded thus far and all seemed well, when with a rush and a cry a dozen people burst into the building.
“The snows are moving!” rang up the aisles in accents of mad terror. “Save yourselves!”
Then came the silence of emptiness. Every soul had left the church save the three before the pulpit.
An avalanche! and the ceremony was as yet incomplete! Ermentrude never forgot Carleton Roberts’ look. Doubtless he never forgot hers. Meanwhile the minister spoke.
“There is a chance for escape. Take it; the good God will pardon you.”
But the bridegroom stood firm and the bride shook her head.
“Not till the words are said which make us man and wife,” declared Carleton Roberts. “Unless”— and here his perfect courtesy manifested itself even in this crisis of life and death —“you feel it your duty to carry what assistance you can to the saving of your frightened flock.”
“God must save my flock,” said the minister with a solemn glance upward. “I am where my duty places me.” And calmly as though the pews were filled with guests and joy attended the ceremony instead of apprehended doom, he proceeded with the rite.
“Wilt thou have this man. . . . ”
The glad “I will” leaped bravely from Ermentrude’s lips; but it was lost in loud calls and shrieks from without, mingled with that sound — terrible to all who hear — impossible to describe — of the might of the hills made audible in this down-rushing mass, now halting, now gathering fresh momentum, but coming — always coming, till its voice, but now a threat, swells into thunder in which all human cries are lost, and only from the movement of the minister’s lips can this couple see that the words which make them one are being spoken.
Then comes the benediction, and with the falling of those holy hands, a headlong rush into the open air — a vision of flying forms here, there, and everywhere — men staggering under foolish burdens — women on their knees with arms lifted to heaven or flung around their babes — hope lost under the bowing mountain; and in the midst of it all, plain to the view of all, the stranger’s horse and carriage which, standing there, stamped with undying honor these terrified villagers, who had seen and not touched them though Death had them by the hair.
“Quick! quick! You mother there with the child, get in, get in; there is room here for one more.”
But another got the place. The driver, reeling as he ran, sprang for the empty seat and hung there between the wheels as the horses plunged and tore away to safety just as the great mass with its weight of gathered boulders and uprooted forests crashed in final doom upon that devoted village, burying it from sight as though it had never been.
To safety? Yes, for two of them; the other, struck by a flying stone, fell in the road and was covered in a trice. So close were they to destruction’s edge at this moment of headlong flight.
Not till the painted towers encircling Lucerne had come again into sight did the newly wedded pair find words or make the least attempt to speak. Then Carleton kissed his bride and for a moment love was triumphant. Was it triumphant enough to lead him to acknowledge their marriage? She looked anxiously in his face to see and finally she asked:
“How much of this are we to tell, Carleton?”
“All about the catastrophe; but nothing more,” he answered.
And while her heart retained its homage, the light in her eyes was veiled.
Married but not acknowledged! Would it not have been better if the avalanche had overwhelmed them? She almost thought so, till bending, he murmured in her ear:
“I shall follow you soon. Did you think I could go on living without you?”
“Why so thoughtful, Ermentrude? You are not quite yourself to-day?”
“Uncle is very ill. The doctors say that he may not live a month.”
“And does that grieve you?”
A yes was on her lips, but she did not utter it. Instead, she drew a little ribbon from her breast, on which hung a plain gold ring, and gazing earnestly at this token she remarked very quietly:
“Carleton, have you ever thought that but for this ring no proof remains in all this world of our ever having been married?”
“But our hearts know it. Is that not enough?” he asked.
“For to-day, yes. But when uncle goes. . . . ”
His kisses finished the sentence for her, and love resumed its sway; but when alone and wakeful on her pillow, she recalled his look, the sting of her first doubt darted through her uneasy heart, and feeling eagerly after the ring she tore it from its ribbon and put it on her finger.
“It is my right,” she whispered. “Henceforth I shall wear it. He loves me too well to quarrel with my decision. Now am I really his wife.”
Did she see a change in him? Did he come less frequently? Did he stay less long? Was there uneasiness in his eye — coolness — languor? No, no. It was her exacting heart which thus interpreted his look — which counted the days — forgot his many engagements — saw impatience in the quickness with which he corrected her faults in manner or language instead of the old indulgence which met each error with a smile. Love cannot always keep at fever-heat. He, the cynosure of the whole foreign element, had the world at his feet here as in Lucerne. It needed no jealous eye to see this; while she — well, she had her attractions too, as had been often proved, and with God’s help she would yet be a fit mate for him. What she now lacked, she would acquire. She would watch these fine ladies who blushed with pleasure at his approach, and when her time of mourning was over she would astonish him with her graces and her appearance. For she knew how to dress, yes, with the best of them, and hold her head and walk like the queen she would feel herself to be when once she bore his name. Patience then, till she had stored her mind and learned the ways he was accustomed to in others. She had money enough now that her uncle was dead, and she could do things. . . .
Yes, but something had gone out of her face, and the ring hung loose on her finger.
And he? Had her fears read him aright? Had he grown indifferent or was he simply perplexed? Let us watch him as he paces his hotel room one glorious afternoon, now stopping to re-read a letter he held in his hand, and now to gaze out with unseeing eyes to where the blue of the sea melts into the blue of the sky on the far horizon.
Love had been sweet; but man has other passions, and he is in the grip of the one mightiest in men of his stamp — the all-engrossing, all-demanding one of personal ambition.
Without solicitation, without expectation even, a hand had been held out to him whose least grasp meant success in the one field most to his mind — a political career under auspices which had never been known to fail. But there were conditions attached — conditions which a year before would have filled him with joy, but which now stood like a barrier between him and his goal, unless. . . . But he was not yet ready to disavow his wife, trample upon her heart, nay on his own as well; — that is, without a struggle.
For the third time he read the letter which you will see was from his mother.
My Son:— I have an apology to make and a bit of news to give you. When I urged you to give up Lucie and to seek distraction abroad, I felt that I was doing justice to your immaturity and saving you from ties which might very easily jeopardize your future happiness.
But I have lately changed my mind. In seeing more of her I have not only learned her worth but the advantage such a woman would be to one of your tastes and promise. And she loves you more devotedly, perhaps, than you have loved her. How do I know this? Let me tell you of an interview I had with a certain relative of hers last night. I allude to her brother, and for a recognized boss buried out of sight in politics, he has more heart in his breast than I have ever given him credit for. Not having children of his own, he has centered his affections on this choice little sister of his, and finding her far from happy, came to see me yesterday evening with this proposition: If I would consent to your union with Lucie, and withdraw my opposition to your immediate marriage, he would take your future in charge and put you in the way of political advancement only to be limited, as he says, by your talents, which he is good enough to rate very high.
After this, how can I do otherwise than bid you follow your impulses and marry Lucie in spite of the disparity of years to which I have hitherto taken exception. Were she as poor as she is accounted rich, I should say the same, now that I have sounded the depths of her lovely disposition and the rare culture of a mind which those seven years have enriched beyond what is usual even in women of intellect. Her money does not influence me in her favor, nor does it weigh with me in my present opinion of her complete fitness for the position you are so eager to give her. That this will make you happy I know. Let it hasten your return which cannot be too speedy.
This was the bombshell which had disturbed Carleton Roberts’ complacency, bared his own soul to his horrified view, and revealed to him the weakness of his moral nature which he had hitherto considered strong. For his first impulse was one of recoil, not only from the secret marriage which shut him off from these new hopes, but from his youthful bride as well. He found himself weary of his flowery bonds and eager for a man’s life in his native city. Oh, why had he urged this immature girl to take the ride which had led him into slavery to one who could not advance him in life, however queen-like she moved and talked and smiled upon the world from the heights of her physical perfections. It was brain that was needed — an understanding like Lucie’s, tempered, like hers, by years, not months, of culture and refined association.
It was at this point he paused in his restless walk and looked for inspiration to the far-off waters of the bluest of all seas.
Suddenly he resumed his walk; then quickly stopping again sat down at his desk and with an air of desperate haste began a letter to his mother with the announcement:
It is too late. Unfortunately for your scheme, I am already. . . .
He never got any further. A fresh impulse drove him into the street. He could not thus summarily settle his future fate. It meant too much to him. He must take time to think. His heart clamors loudly for its rights; he is only twenty-six — and in a rush of feeling which should have been his salvation, he turned toward that nest among the flowers where help was to be had if help was to come at all in this crisis of conflicting passions.
The hour was noon, one which he had never chosen before for a visit to Ermentrude. Would he find her in? Would she be in spirits to meet him? Would she look beautiful — worthy of his name, worthy of the greatest sacrifice a man can make for a woman? He half hoped that she would; that he would find his chains riveted and secure beyond the power of any force to break.
As his musings faltered, he turned the knob of the little side door and went in. As he did so a shower of rose-leaves fell upon him from the vines enveloping the balcony.
He shuddered slightly and passed down the hall. Everything was very still.
She was asleep. Lying on a couch in utter weariness or pain, she had drifted off into the land of dreams, and he felt that he had a moment of respite. He could look and weigh the question: Love or a quick success? A weakling’s paradise or the goal of the strong man?
Meanwhile, she was not as beautiful as he thought. But she was more touching — less robust, less bounteous of aspect, more child-like, more appealing — a woman who, if he were no more of a man than he appeared to be in this hurly-burly of pleasure and fashion, might in time do him credit and hold him back from follies.
But he was not just the man these casual friends and admirers considered him. There was much more to him than that. He knew this better than Lucie did or her powerful brother, or even his adoring mother. Great opportunities awaited him and a large space in the affairs of men if not of nations. Such confidence did he feel in himself at this fevered moment that he never doubted that eventually he would gain all this, even with the handicap of a good-looking but unsophisticated wife.
But not quickly; . . . step by step perhaps . . . and he was longing to take it all at a bound.
Poor girl! and she lay there under his eyes all unmindful of his conflict or of the fact that her fate as well as his was trembling in the balance; unmindful, though her dreams were far from joyous — or why the tear welling from between her lashes as he gazed.
She was alone in the house; he knew it by the complete silence. He could look and look and study her every feature, without fear of interruption; wait for her waking and be ready to meet her first glance of tender astonishment which might restore him to his better self.
Drawing up a chair, he sat down; then started upright again with dilating eyes and a strange shadow on his brow. One of her arms lay uppermost and on the hand — almost as fine as Lucie’s, but not quite — he saw the ring — his ring, and it hung loosely. The poor child was growing thin, very thin. “If she were to hold her hand downward,” he muttered to himself, “I believe that ring would fall off.” Did some stray glimpse of his own features, wearing a look never seen on them before, confront him from some near-by mirror that he started so guiltily as this heart murmur rose to his lips? Or was it at a thought, hideous but tempting, which held him, gained upon him and soon absolutely possessed him, till his own hand went out stealthily and with hesitations toward those helpless fingers of hers, now approaching, now withdrawing, and now approaching them again but not touching them, great as his impulse was to do so, for fear she should wake, while yet the devil gripped his arm and lit up baleful fires in his eyes.
He had remembered those words of hers: “Have you ever thought that with the exception of this ring no proof exists in all the world of our ever having been married?” Remember them? He had not remembered them; he had heard them, sounding and resounding in his ears till the whole room seemed to palpitate with them. Then the devil made his final move. Ermentrude shuddered, and her position changing, the hand which had been uppermost fell down at her side and the ring slipped — left her finger — paused on the edge of the couch — then came to rest in his palm held out to receive it.
He had not drawn it from her hand. Fate had restored it. As he forced himself to look at it lying in his grasp, a faintness as of death seized and held him for a moment; then this passed and he slowly rose and step by step with sidelong looks and hair starting upright on his forehead, like one who has walked in blood and sees the trail of guilt following him along the floor, he left her side — he left the room — he left the house — and the rose-leaves fell about him once more, maddening him with their color, maddening him with the memories inseparable from their sweetness — a sweetness which spoke of her, of love, and the attachment of a true heart destined to grieve for a little while at least, for he was never going back, never, never.
There was no eye to see, and no tongue to tell him that the seed, destined to flower into awful crime some dozen or more years later, put forth its first bud at this fatal hour.
He wrote her a letter. He had the grace to do that. Addressing her simply as Ermentrude, he told her that he had been called home to enter upon the serious business of life. That he was not likely to come back, and as she was not really his wife, however pleasing the fiction had been in which they had both indulged, it seemed to him wiser to end their happy romance thus suddenly and while much of its glamour remained, than to linger on and see it decay day by day before their eyes till nothing but bitterness remained. He loved her and felt the wrench more than she did, but duty and his obligations as a man, etc., etc., till it ended in his signature limited to initials like his love.
Despicable! the work of a man without conscience or heart! Yes, and he knew it, and for weeks his sleep was broken by visions and his waking hours rendered dreadful by fears. How had she taken this cool assumption that the ceremony performed in the path of the snow was voided by lack of proof? To whom had she ascribed the loss of her ring, and what must she think of him? He had left Nice almost immediately, but wherever he went, in whatever hotel he stayed, or through whatever street he passed, he was always expecting to see her figure rise up before him in the majesty of innocence and outraged love.
Thus several weeks passed, and seeing nothing of her, hearing nothing from her, a different apprehension darkened his days and despoiled him of rest at night. Grief if not shame had killed her; and the weight of her fancied doom lay heavy on his heart. At last he could bear it no longer, and stealing back to Nice he entered it one dark night and prepared to learn for himself what he feared to trust to the discretion of another. Alone, with hidden face and heavily throbbing heart, he trod the familiar ways and encircled the familiar walls. Had she been there ——
But the windows were blank and the place desolate, and he fled the spot and the town, with his questions unasked and his fears unallayed. In two days he had sailed for home. With the ocean between them he might forget; and in time he did. As week followed week, and the silence he had half trusted, half feared, remained unbroken, his equanimity gradually returned, and he prepared to face the prospect of his new marriage much as a man who watches for a dreaded door to open moves with restored confidence about his affairs, when at last convinced that the door is padlocked and the key lost.
One precaution and one only he was wise enough to take. He told his story to Lucie’s brother, and left it to him to say whether or not he should marry his sister. And the answer was yes; that if trouble came he would see him through it. A marriage which could not be proved was no marriage, and as for anything else, Lucie’s happiness must not be sacrificed to a boy’s peccadillos. What were a few wild oats sown by a man of his promise?
And was this the end? Did Ermentrude accept her doom without a struggle?
Let us see.
One afternoon in June, there entered the parlor of the old-fashioned mansion of the Roberts family a lady who had asked to see Mrs. Roberts on business of an important nature. Though plainly clad, her appearance possessed an elegance which insured respect; but when alone and seated in the darkest corner of the great drawing room she put up a trembling hand to thrust back her veil, the countenance thus revealed betrayed an emotion hardly in keeping with the quiet bearing with which she had advanced under the servant’s eye.
His home! and these the surroundings amid which he had grown to manhood! Why should the sight of all this rouse emotions she believed eliminated by a treachery most cruel in face of promises most sacred? Why, as she looked about, and noted object after object which must have been there previous to his birth, did she see him as a child and boy and not as the man who had first won and then deserted her? She would not have had it so at this hour when strength was needed rather than tenderness. But she could not help her nature, or still the wild surging of her rebellious heart, as his portrait seen upon the wall challenged her constancy and whispered of the hour when his “forever” echoed her “forever” and the compact for eternity was sealed.
He had broken this compact — broken it soon — broken it before the honeymoon had passed. But she! Was she to show no firmer spirit whose love was of the soul and took no note of time? She was his wife, and acknowledged or unacknowledged, must yet prove to be his blessing though he — he ——
But this would not do. The interview before her called for calmness. She would not add to the turbulence of her spirits by another glance at what brought back too much of the past to fortify her for the impending struggle. She had to do credit to his choice, to impress a difficult woman with her dignity as a wife. She must not shake nor weep.
Yet when she heard a step at the door, instinct told her to pull down her veil till the first greetings were over — a precaution for which she was deeply grateful when in another moment a young woman entered instead of her husband’s mother for whom she had asked and whom she naturally expected to see.
In the humiliation of the moment, her disappointment took words and she muttered within herself:
“A companion or possibly a relative. I am to be put off with kindly excuses; begged to state my errand — rehearse my claims and my hopes to some gentle go-between! I have not strength for that. I must see the mother — the mother. God give me wisdom and keep me calm — calm.”
Meanwhile the young woman she had instinctively called gentle advanced into the center of the room. Mechanically, Ermentrude rose to meet her, and thus stepped into a better light. Tragedy came with her. This it was impossible not to see — not to feel. But the warning which her aspect gave passed as she spoke and said in tones a little tremulous, perhaps, but with an air of perfect courtesy:
“I had hoped to see Mrs. Roberts herself.”
The smile with which this was greeted, the flush of pride and the joy of possession which lit the other’s pleasing features as she replied, “I am Mrs. Roberts,” should have carried the truth to Ermentrude.
But they did not. She looked surprised — baffled, and after the briefest hesitation, observed:
“I am a stranger in this city and have doubtless made some mistake. The Mrs. Roberts I have called to see — and I was told she lived here — is the mother of a gentleman of the name of ——”
She could not speak it.
But the other could.
“Carleton?” she asked; and at Ermentrude’s agitated nod, added with friendly interest: “This is her home; but she has left it for a while to us. I am Mr. Carleton Roberts’ wife.”
There are blows which prostrate; there are others which sear but leave the body intact — feet still supporting it — eyes still gazing ahead unmoved — lips moving with mechanical exactness and sometimes still retaining their smile. Only the soul which gave life to all of this is dead. The image is there but the spirit is gone; and if sufficiently preoccupied, the one who struck the blow sees no change. So was it with Ermentrude and Lucie.
“We are looking for mother to return next week,” added the latter as Ermentrude stood stark and silent before her. “Would you like to leave a message for her?”
At these words uttered with the sweetness of a rich and sympathetic nature, the soul returned to Ermentrude’s body. With a long and earnest look which took in the full measure of the other’s personality, radiant with happiness and the consciousness of an assured wifedom, she answered softly:
“No, I will leave no message,” and turned as if to go.
“Nor any name?” queried Lucie, eying with admiration the noble lines of a figure with whose perfect proportions her own could never hope to compete.
“Nor any name,” came back in indescribable accents from the doorway.
Lucie paused, and gazing in vague trouble after her rapidly disappearing visitor, murmured to herself, “Who is she?”
But the one who could have answered her was gone.
“Carleton, you seldom see such a woman. Younger than I, she had the poise of a woman of thirty. Who could she have been?”
“I wish I could; I hardly saw her face; it was her figure, her voice, her way of moving and holding herself. I felt as small and quiet as a little mouse beside her. Only I was happy and she was not. That much I feel now that I recall her look in leaving.”
“Was she American or — or foreign?” he asked, hiding his trouble, for a great fear had seized him.
“She had an English accent which added very much to her charm.”
“Forget her.” For a moment his accent was almost fierce, then he laughed the matter off, assuring this bride of a month that she made him cross with her self-depreciation, that there was no one of finer mien and manner than herself, the chosen of his heart upon whom he always looked with pride. Which subtle tribute to what was her greatest charm accomplished its end; she did forget the stranger.
But he did not; he knew what was before him and prepared himself for the inevitable meeting which would be followed by — what?
Not by what he had every right to expect and evidently did. Ermentrude had learned all she would both of this marriage and of the woman who had supplanted her, and had made her resolve. This he saw as they came together in the isolation of a quiet corner of the Park, and so was not greatly surprised, though a little moved, as after the first few words, and with an earnest look, she said:
“I am your wife, I, Ermentrude Roberts, married to you in the sight of God and man. I cannot prove it, but as you once said, our hearts know it and will continue to know it as long as either of us lives. But I am not going to obtrude my claims upon you, Carleton, or stand like a specter in your path. Had this woman you have deceived been weak or foolish or unloving, or indeed anything but what she is, I might have held to my rights and insisted upon a recognition which would have profited you in the end. But I cannot shame that woman — I can neither shame her nor bring her to grief. You have broken one heart, but you shall be saved the remorse of breaking two. I had rather suffer myself. I am alone in the world. I have means. I can ultimately be useful and face good men and women without fear. Why then should I drag down to the dust one as innocent as myself, or take from you what may make you the man I once thought you and hope to see you again. But that I may have strength for this and for all the sacrifices it involves, you must declare here, now, in this open park where we stand, with no one within sight much less within hearing, that I am your wife.”
“You are my wife.”
“It is enough. Now I can say what otherwise could never have left my lips. I love you, Carleton, love you to eternity as I promised; but I shall never seek you again, and you can go on your way unperturbed. I have consolations here,” laying her hand on her breast. “It will no longer be my portion to watch your face for signs of a failing regard. What I have is mine, and that is the undying memory of two months of perfect happiness.”
She would have said more, but she saw that he had been greatly shaken. She feared the renewal of a flame not yet altogether extinct in a heart which once beat for her alone, and so contenting herself with a low farewell, she was turning swiftly away, when one last thought made her pause and say:
“I cannot return you your ring. It is lost. I was careless with it and it fell unnoticed from my hand. But to-night I will send you back the little clock which unites our initials. Destroy it if you will, but if some sentiment bids you keep it, let it be this one and no other: ‘I recall Ermentrude only that I may be faithful to Lucie.’”
With a low cry his head fell upon his breast in extreme self-abasement, then he slowly lifted his eyes and seeing in her face a full knowledge of his sin, murmured in overwhelming shame and contrition:
“You know me for the wretch I am. I have the ring; it fell from your hand into mine one day while you lay asleep. I do not ask for forgiveness, but this I promise you, Ermentrude:— if the little clock comes back, I will make a place in it for this ring, and neither clock nor ring shall leave me again while I live.”
Instinctively her hands went out to him, then they fell back on her breast.
“God will hold you to that promise,” she said; and melted away from his sight in the mist which had been gradually enveloping them without being seen by either.
Thus the struggle ended for him, which for her had simply begun.
Not till she found herself in the South with her girl friend, Antoinette Duclos, did she discover that the closest bond which can unite man and woman held her in spite of her late compact with Carleton Roberts. Should she reassert her rights and demand that the father should recognize his child? Her generous heart said No. The old arguments held good. She appealed to Antoinette for advice.
The result we know. When Antoinette’s own child died at birth, she took Ermentrude’s to her heart and brought it up as her own. There was little difficulty in this, as the Professor had already yielded to a Southern fever and lay at rest in a New Orleans cemetery.
And this brings us to another episode.
The widow in fact and the widow in heart stood face to face above a sleeping infant. They were both dressed for traveling and so was the babe. The dismantled rooms showed why. Young still, for the years of either’s romance had been few, each face, as the other contemplated it, told the story of sorrow which Time, for all its kindliness, would never efface. But the charm of either remained — perceptible at this hour as perhaps it would never be again to the same extent. Antoinette basked in the light of Ermentrude’s beauty ennobled by renunciation, and Ermentrude in that wonderful look in her friend’s plain face which came at great crises and made her for the moment the equal of the best.
They had said little; and they said little now, as is the way of the strong amongst us when an act is to be performed which wrings the heart but satisfies the conscience.
The child was legitimate. It must not grow up under a shadow. To insure its welfare and raise no doubt in its own mind as it grew in knowledge and feeling, the two women must separate. No paltering with this duty, and no delay. A month of baby cries and baby touches might weaken the real mother. It should be now. It should be to-day.
But first, a final word — a parting question. It was uttered by Ermentrude.
“You will go back to France?”
“Yes. I can easily live there. And you, Ermentrude?”
“To New York. I shall never go far from him. But he and I will never meet. My world will not be his world. I shall make my own place.”
“As Ermentrude Taylor?”
“As Mrs. Ermentrude Taylor. I am a wife. I shall never forget that fact.”
“And the child? Will you never come to see it?”
Ermentrude’s head fell and she stood a long time without answering. Then with a steady look she calmly said:
“I can think of but one contingency which might shake my resolution to leave her yours without the least interruption from me. If he— Antoinette, if he were left alone and childless, I might see my duty differently from now. You must be prepared for that.”
“Ermentrude, when you send me this little shoe — See, I will leave one on and give you the other, I shall know that you are coming, or that you want the child. My life is yours as I once promised, and do you think I would hold back the child?”
And again their hands met as once before, in that strong clasp, which means:
“Trust me to the death and beyond it.”
With Antoinette it was to the death, as we have seen. Warned by Ermentrude of the appalling results of their plan to bring father and child together, and entreated to fly lest her story should imperil the secret upon the preservation of which his very life now hung, she answered to the call as she had promised, and thus acquitted her debt though she failed to save him.
Of her previous act in disfiguring his photograph in her temporary lodging-place, we shall never know the full story. The picture had been hers for years, given her by Ermentrude on their parting, so that the child should not be without some semblance of her father even if she should not know him as such, and it was to secure this clue to their now doubly dangerous secret that Madame Duclos ransacked her baggage previous to her flight from the New York hotel. But whether its destruction in the peculiar manner we know was the result of simple precaution, or of a feeling of antagonism so strong against this destroyer of her beloved’s peace, that it had to be expended in some way before she felt strong enough for that supreme sacrifice in his favor toward which events seemed hurrying her, may be known in Eternity but will never be told in Time.
And Ermentrude? What of her? Alone, robbed of husband and child and friend — where shall we look for her in this world of extreme tribulation? Search the hospitals of France where they press closest to the trenches. There will you find the woman who losing all has found much. Blessing and blest! the angel of the battlefield whom the bullets spare since her work on earth is not yet accomplished!
This web edition published by:
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University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50