Copyright
Edward Payson Roe.

An Original Belle online

. (page 15 of 37)
Online LibraryEdward Payson RoeAn Original Belle → online text (page 15 of 37)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


lawyer told Mr. Vosburgh all that was favorable to the young man.

"I think he will prove an unusual character," concluded the lawyer,
"for he is manifesting some of his father's most characteristic
traits," and these were mentioned. "When, after attaining his
majority, the son returned from England, he was in many respects
little better than a shrewd, self-indulgent boy, indifferent
to everything but his own pleasure, but, for some reason, he has
greatly changed. Responsibility has apparently sobered him and made
him thoughtful. I have also told him much about my old friend and
client, his father, and the young fellow is bent on imitating him.
While he is very considerate of his mother and sisters, he has
identified himself with his father's views, and has become a Northern
man to the backbone. Even to a degree contrary to my advice, he
insists on investing his means in government bonds."

This information was eminently satisfactory, and even sagacious
Mr. Vosburgh did not suspect the motives of the lawyer, whom he
knew to be eager to retain his good-will, since it was in his power
to give much business to those he trusted.

"I may become Merwyn's ally after all, if he makes good his own
and Mr. Bodoin's words," was his smiling thought, as he returned
to his office.

He was too wise, however, to use open influence with his daughter,
or to refer to the secret interview. Matters should take their own
course for the present, while he remained a vigilant observer, for
Marian's interest and happiness were dearer to him than his own
life.

Merwyn sought to use his privilege judiciously, and concentrated
all his faculties on the question of his standing in Marian's
estimation. During the first few weeks, it was evident that his
progress in her favor was slow, if any were made at all. She was
polite, she conversed with him naturally and vivaciously on topics
of general interest, but there appeared to be viewless and impassable
barriers between them. Not by word or sign did she seek to influence
his action.

She was extremely reticent about herself, and took pains to seem
indifferent in regard to his life and plans, but she was beginning
to chafe under what she characterized as his "inaction." Giving
to hospitals and military charities and buying United-States bonds
counted for little in her eyes.

"He parades his loyalty, and would have me think that he looks upon
the right to call on me as a great privilege, but he does not care
enough about either me or the country to incur any risk or hardship."

Thoughts like these were beginning not only to rekindle her old
resentment, but also to cause a vague sense of disappointment.
Merwyn had at least accomplished one thing, - he confirmed her
father's opinion that he was not commonplace. Travel, residence
abroad, association with well-bred people, and a taste for reading,
had given him a finish which a girl of Marian's culture could not
fail to appreciate. Because he satisfied her taste and eye, she
was only the more irritated by his failure in what she deemed the
essential elements of manhood. In spite of the passionate words
he had once spoken, she was beginning to believe that a cold,
calculating persistency was the corner-stone of his character, that
even if he were brave enough to fight, he had deliberately decided
to take no risks and enjoy his fortune. If this were true, she
assured herself, he might shoulder the national debt if he chose,
but he could never become her friend.

Then came the terrible and useless slaughter of Fredericksburg.
With the fatuity that characterized the earlier years of the war,
the heroic army of the Potomac, which might have annihilated Lee on
previous occasions, was hurled against heights and fortifications
that, from the beginning, rendered the attack hopeless.

Marian's friends were exposed to fearful perils, but passed through
the conflict unscathed. Her heart went out to them in a deeper and
stronger sympathy than ever, and Merwyn in contrast lost correspondingly.

During the remaining weeks of December, she saw that her father
was almost haggard from care and anxiety, and he was compelled to
make trips to Washington and even to the front.

"The end has not come yet," he had said to her, after one of these
flying visits. "Burnside has made an awful blunder, but he is
eager to retrieve himself, and now has plans on foot that promise
better. The disaffection among his commanding officers and troops
is what I am most afraid of - more, indeed, than of the rebel army.
Unlike his predecessor, he is determined to move, to act, and I
think we may soon hear of another great battle."

Letters from her friends confirmed this view, especially a brief
note from Lane, in which the writer, fearing that it might be his
last, had not wholly veiled his deep affection. "I am on the eve
of participating in an immense cavalry movement," it began, "and
it may be some time before I can write to you again, if ever."

The anxiety caused by this missive was somewhat relieved by
a humorous account of the recall of the cavalry force. She then
learned, through her father, that the entire army was again on the
move, and that another terrific battle would be fought in a day or
two.

"Burnside should cross the Rappahannock to-day or to-morrow, at
the latest," Mr. Vosburgh had remarked at breakfast, to which he
had come from the Washington owl-train.

It was the 20th of December, and when the shadows of the early
twilight were gathering, Burnside had, in fact, massed his army
at the fords of the river, and his troops, "little Strahan" among
them, were awaiting orders to enter the icy tide in the stealthy
effort to gain Lee's left flank. There are many veterans now living
who remember the terrific "storm of wind, rain, sleet, and snow"
that assailed the unsheltered army. It checked further advance more
effectually than if all the rebel forces had been drawn up on the
farther shore. After a frightful night, the Union army was discovered
in the dawn by Lee.

Even then Burnside would have crossed, and, in spite of his opponent's
preparations and every other obstacle, would have fought a battle,
had he not been paralyzed by a foe with which no general could
cope, - Virginia mud. The army mired helplessly, supply trains could
not reach it. With difficulty the troops were led back to their
old quarters, and so ended the disastrous campaigns of the year,
so far as the army of the Potomac was concerned.

The storm that drenched and benumbed the soldiers on the Rappahannock
was equally furious in the city of New York, and Mr. Vosburgh
sat down to dinner frowning and depressed. "It seems as if fate is
against us," he said. "This storm is general, I fear, and may prove
more of a defence to Lee than his fortifications at Fredericksburg.
It's bad enough to have to cope with treachery and disaffection."

"Treachery, papa?"

"Yes, treachery," replied her father, sternly. "Scoundrels in our
own army informed Washington disunionists of the cavalry movement
of which Captain Lane wrote you, and these unmolested enemies
at the capital are in constant communication with Lee. When will
our authorities and the North awake to the truth that this is a
life-and-death struggle, and that there must be no more nonsense?"

"Would to Heaven I were a man!" said the young girl. "At this very
moment, no doubt, Mr. Merwyn is enjoying his sumptuous dinner, while
my friends may be fording a dark, cold river to meet their death.
Oh! I can't eat anything to-night."

"Nonsense!" cried her mother, irritably.

"Come, little girl, you are taking things too much to heart. I am
very glad you are not a man. In justice, I must also add that Mr.
Merwyn is doing more for the cause than any of your friends. It so
happens that I have learned that he is doing a great deal of which
little is known."

"Pardon me," cried the girl, almost passionately. "Any man who
voluntarily faces this storm, and crosses that river to-night or
to-morrow, does infinitely more in my estimation."

Her father smiled, but evidently his appetite was flagging also,
and he soon went out to send and receive some cipher despatches.

Merwyn was growing hungry for some evidence of greater friendliness
than he had yet received. Hitherto, he had never seen Marian alone
when calling, and the thought had occurred that if he braved the
storm in paying her a visit, the effort might be appreciated. One
part of his hope was fulfilled, for he found her drawing-room empty.
While he waited, that other stormy and memorable evening when he
had sought to find her alone flashed on his memory, and he feared
that he had made a false step in coming.

This impression was confirmed by her pale face and distant greeting.
In vain he put forth his best efforts to interest her. She remained
coldly polite, took but a languid part in the conversation, and at
times even permitted him to see that her thoughts were preoccupied.
He had been humble and patient a long time, and now, in spite of
himself, his anger began to rise.

Feeling that he had better take his leave while still under
self-control, and proposing also to hint that she had failed somewhat
in courtesy, he arose abruptly and said: "You are not well this
evening, Miss Vosburgh? I should have perceived the fact earlier.
I wish you good-night."

She felt the slight sting of his words, and was in no mood to
endure it. Moreover, if she had failed in such courtesy as he had
a right to expect, he should know the reason, and she felt at the
moment willing that he should receive the implied reproach.

Therefore she said: "Pardon me, I am quite well. It is natural that
I should be a little distraite, for I have learned that my friends
are exposed to this storm, and will probably engage in another
terrible battle to-morrow, or soon."

Again the old desperate expression, that she remembered so well,
came into his eyes as he exclaimed, bitterly: "You think me a coward
because I remain in the city? What is this storm, or that battle,
compared with what I am facing! Good-night;" and, giving her no
chance for further words, he hastened away.






CHAPTER XXI.

FEARS AND PERPLEXITIES.





MERWYN found the storm so congenial to his mood that he breasted
it for hours before returning to his home. There, in weariness and
reaction, he sank into deep dejection.

"What is the use of anger?" he asked himself, as he renewed the
dying fire in his room. "In view of all the past, she has more
cause for resentment than I, while it is a matter of indifference
to her whether I am angry or not. I might as well be incensed at
ice because it is cold, and she is ice to me. She has her standard
and a circle of friends who come up to it. This I never have done
and never can do. Therefore she only tolerates me and is more than
willing that I should disappear below her horizon finally. I was a
fool to speak the words I did to-night. What can they mean to her
when nothing is left for me, apparently, but a safe, luxurious life?
Such outbreaks can only seem hysterical or mere affectations, and
there shall be no more of them, let the provocation be what it may.
Indeed, why should I inflict myself on her any more? I cannot say
that she has not a woman's heart, but I wronged and chilled it
from the first, and cannot now retrieve myself. If I should go to
her to-morrow, even in a private's uniform, she would give me her
hand cordially, but she compares me with hundreds of thousands who
seem braver men than I. It is useless for me to suggest that I am
doing more than those who go to fight. Her thought would be: 'I
have all the friends I need among more knightly spirits who are
not afraid to look brave enemies in the face, and without whom the
North would be disgraced. Let graybeards furnish the sinews of war;
let young men give their blood if need be. It is indeed strange
that a man's arm should be paralyzed, and his best hope in life
blighted, by a mother!'"

If he could have known Marian's thoughts and heard the conversation
that ensued with her father, he would not have been so despondent.

When he left her so abruptly she again experienced the compunctions
she had felt before. Whether he deserved it or not she could not
shut her eyes to the severity of the wound inflicted, or to his
suffering. In vain she tried to assure herself that he did deserve it.
Granting this, the thoughts asserted themselves: "Why am I called
upon to resent his course? Having granted his request to visit me,
I might, at least, be polite and affable on his own terms. Because
he wishes more, and perhaps hopes for more, this does not, as papa
says, commit me in the least. He may have some scruple in fighting
openly against the land of his mother's ancestry. If that scruple
has more weight with him than my friendly regard, that is his affair.
His words to-night indicated that he must be under some strong
restraint. O dear! I wish I had never known him; he perplexes and
worries me. The course of my other friends is simple and straightforward
as the light. Why do I say other friends? He's not a friend at all,
yet my thoughts return to him in a way that is annoying."

When her father came home she told him what had occurred, and
unconsciously permitted him to see that her mind was disturbed.
He did not smile quizzically, as some sagacious people would have
done, thus touching the young girl's pride and arraying it against
her own best interests, it might be. With the thought of her
happiness ever uppermost, he would discover the secret causes of her
unwonted perturbation. Not only Merwyn - about whom he had satisfied
himself - should have his chance, but also the girl herself. Mrs.
Vosburgh's conventional match-making would leave no chance for
either. The profounder man believed that nature, unless interfered
with by heavy, unskilful hands, would settle the question rightly.

He therefore listened without comment, and at first only remarked,
"Evidently, Marian, you are not trying to make the most and best
of this young fellow."

"But, papa, am I bound to do this for people who are disagreeable
to me and who don't meet my views at all?"

"Certainly not. Indeed, you may have frozen Merwyn out of the list
of your acquaintances already."

"Well," replied the girl, almost petulantly, "that, perhaps, will
be the best ending of the whole affair."

"That's for you to decide, my dear."

"But, papa, I FEEL that you don't approve of my course."

"Neither do I disapprove of it. I only say, according to our bond
to be frank, that you are unfair to Merwyn. Of course, if he is
essentially disagreeable to you, there is no occasion for you to
make a martyr of yourself."

"That's what irritates me so," said the girl, impetuously. "He
might have made himself very agreeable. But he undervalued and
misunderstood me so greatly from the first that it was hard to
forgive him."

"If he hadn't shown deep contrition and regret for that course I
shouldn't wish you to forgive him, even though his antecedents had
made anything better scarcely possible."

"Come down to the present hour, then. What he asked of you is one
thing. I see what he wishes. He desires, at least, the friendship
that I give to those who fulfil my ideal of manhood in these times.
He has no right to seek this without meeting the conditions which
remove all hesitation in regard to others. It angers me that he does
so. I feel as if he were seeking to buy my good-will by donations
to this, that, and the other thing. He still misunderstands me.
Why can't he realize that, to one of my nature, fording the icy
Rappahannock to-night would count for more than his writing checks
for millions?"

"Probably he does understand it, and that is what he meant by
his words to-night, when he said, 'What is this storm, or what a
battle?'"

She was overwrought, excited, and off her guard, and spoke from a
deep impulse. "A woman, in giving herself, gives everything. If he
can't give up a scruple - I mean if his loyalty is so slight that
his mother's wishes and dead ancestors - "

"My dear little girl, you are not under the slightest obligation
to give anything," resumed her father, discreetly oblivious to the
significance of her words. "If you care to give a little good-will
and kindness to one whom you have granted the right to visit you,
they will tend to confirm and develop the better and manly qualities
he is now manifesting. You know I have peculiar faculties of finding
out about people, and, incidentally and casually, I have informed
myself about this Mr. Merwyn. I think I can truly say that he is
doing all and more than could be expected of a young fellow in his
circumstances, with the one exception that he does not put on our
uniform and go to the front. He may have reasons - very possibly, as
you think, mistaken and inadequate ones - which, nevertheless, are
binding on his conscience. What else could his words mean to-night?
He is not living a life of pleasure-seeking and dissipation, like so
many other young nabobs in the city. Apparently he has not sought
much other society than yours. Pardon me for saying it, but you
have not given him much encouragement to avoid the temptations that
are likely to assail a lonely, irresponsible young fellow. In one
sense you are under no obligation to do this; in another, perhaps
you are, for you must face the fact that you have great influence
over him. This influence you must either use or throw away, as
you decide. You are not responsible for this influence; neither are
your friends responsible for the war. When it came, however, they
faced the disagreeable and dangerous duties that it brought."

"O papa! I have been a stupid, resentful fool."

"No, my dear; at the worst you have been misled by generous and
loyal impulses. Your deep sympathy with recent events has made you
morbid, and therefore unfair. To your mind Mr. Merwyn represented
the half-hearted element that shuns meeting what must be met at
every cost. If this were true of him I should share in your spirit,
but he appears to be trying to be loyal and to do what he can in
the face of obstacles greater than many overcome."

"I don't believe he will ever come near me again!" she exclaimed.

"Then you are absolved in the future. Of course we can make no
advances towards a man who has been your suitor."

Merwyn's course promised to fulfil her fear, - she now acknowledged
to herself that it was a fear, - for his visits ceased. She tried
to dismiss him from her thoughts, but a sense of her unfairness
and harshness haunted her. She did not see why she had not taken
her father's view, or why she had thrown away her influence that
accorded with the scheme of life to which she had pledged herself.
The very restraint indicated by his words was a mystery, and
mysteries are fascinating. She remembered, with compunction, that
not even his own mother had sought to develop a true, manly spirit
in him. "Now he is saying," she thought, bitterly, "that I, too,
am a fanatic, - worse than his mother."

Weeks passed and she heard nothing from him, nor did her father
mention his name. While her regret was distinct and positive,
it must not be supposed that it gave her serious trouble. Indeed,
the letters of Mr. Lane, and the semi-humorous journal of Strahan
and Blauvelt, together with the general claims of society and her
interest in her father's deep anxieties, were fast banishing it
from her mind, when, to her surprise, his card was handed to her
one stormy afternoon, late in January.

"I am sorry to intrude upon you, Miss Vosburgh," he began, as she
appeared, "but - "

"Why should you regard it as an intrusion, Mr. Merwyn?"

"I think a lady has a right to regard any unwelcome society as an
intrusion."

"Admitting even so much, it does not follow that this is an intrusion,"
she said, laughing. Then she added, with slightly heightened color:
"Mr. Merwyn, I must at least keep my own self-respect, and this
requires an acknowledgment. I was rude to you when you last called.
But I was morbid from anxiety and worry over what was happening.
I had no right to grant your request to call upon me and then fail
in courtesy."

"Will you, then, permit me to renew my old request?" he asked, with
an eagerness that he could not disguise.

"Certainly not. That would imply such utter failure on my part! You
should be able to forgive me one slip, remembering the circumstances."

"You have the most to forgive," he replied, humbly. "I asked for
little more than toleration, but I felt that I had not the right
to force even this upon you."

"I am glad you are inclined to be magnanimous," she replied,
laughing. "Women usually take advantage of that trait in men - when
they manifest it. We'll draw a line through the evening of the 20th
of December, and, as Jefferson says, in his superb impersonation
of poor old Rip, 'It don't count.' By the way, have you seen him?"
she asked, determined that the conversation should take a different
channel.

"No; I have been busy of late. But pardon me, Miss Vosburgh,
I'm forgetting my errand shamefully. Do not take the matter too
seriously. I think you have no reason to do so. Mr. Strahan is in
the city and is ill. I have just come from him."

Her face paled instantly, and she sank into a chair.

"I beg of you not to be so alarmed," he added, hastily. "I shall
not conceal anything from you. By the merest chance I saw him
coming up Broadway in a carriage, and, observing that he looked
ill, jumped into a hack and followed him to his residence. You had
reason for your anxiety on December 20th, for he took a severe cold
from exposure that night. For a time he made light of it, but at
last obtained sick-leave. He asked me to tell you - "

"He has scarcely mentioned the fact that he was not well;" and
there was an accent of reproach in the young girl's tones.

"I understand Strahan better than I once did, perhaps because better
able to understand him," was Merwyn's quiet reply. "He is a brave,
generous fellow, and, no doubt, wished to save you from anxiety.
There has been no chance for him to say very much to me."

"Was he expected by his family?"

"They were merely informed, by a telegram, that he was on his way.
He is not so well as when he started. Naturally he is worse for the
journey. Moreover, he used these words, 'I felt that I was going
to be ill and wished to get home.'"

"Has a physician seen him yet?"

"Yes, I brought their family physician in the hack, which I had kept
waiting. He fears that it will be some time before his patient is
out again. I have never been seriously ill myself, but I am sure - I
mean, I have heard - that a few words often have great influence in
aiding one in Strahan's condition to triumph over disease. It is
often a question of will and courage, you know. I will take a note
to him if you wish. Poor fellow! he may have his biggest fight on
hand while the others are resting in winter quarters."

"I shall be only too glad to avail myself of your offer. Please
excuse me a moment."

When she returned he saw traces of tears in her eyes. She asked,
eagerly, "Will you see him often?"

"I shall call daily."

"Would it be too much trouble for you to let me know how he is,
should he be very seriously ill?" Then, remembering that this might
lead to calls more frequent than she was ready to receive, or than
he would find it convenient to make, she added: "I suppose you
are often down town and might leave word with papa at his office.
I have merely a formal acquaintance with Mrs. Strahan and her
daughters, and, if Mr. Strahan should be very ill, I should have
to rely upon you for information."

"I shall make sure that you learn of his welfare daily until he
is able to write to you, and I esteem it a privilege to render you
this service."

He then bowed and turned away, and she did not detain him. Indeed,
her mind was so absorbed by her friend's danger that she could not
think of much else.

The next day a note, addressed to Mr. Vosburgh, was left at
his office, giving fuller particulars of Strahan's illness, which
threatened to be very serious indeed. High fever had been developed,
and the young soldier had lost all intelligent consciousness. Days
followed in which this fever was running its course, and Merwyn's
reports, ominous in spite of all effort to disguise the deep anxiety
felt by Strahan's friends, were made only through Mr. Vosburgh.
Marian began to regret her suggestion that the information should
come in this way, for she now felt that Merwyn had received the
impression that his presence would not be agreeable. She was eager



Online LibraryEdward Payson RoeAn Original Belle → online text (page 15 of 37)