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suggested by her own and her father's words made him an object
of peculiar and personal interest. The very uniqueness of their
relations increased her disposition to think about him. It might
be impossible that he should ever become even her friend; he might
become her husband. Her father's remark, "I don't know how much it
might cost you to dismiss him finally," had led to many questionings.
Other young men she substantially understood. She could gauge their
value, influence, and attractiveness almost at once; but what
possibilities lurked in this reticent man who came so near her ideal,
yet failed at a vital point? The wish, the effort to understand
him, gave an increasing zest to their interviews. He had asked her
to be his wife. She had understood him then, and had replied as she
would again if he should approach her in a similar spirit. Again,
at any hour he would ask her hand if she gave him sufficient
encouragement, and she knew it. He would be humility itself in suing
for the boon, and she knew this also, yet she did not understand
him at all. His secret fascinated her, yet she feared it. It must
be either some fatal flaw in his character, or else a powerful
restraint imposed from without. If it was the former she would shrink
from him at once; if the latter, it would indeed be a triumph, a
proof of her power, to so influence him that he would make her the
first consideration in the world.

Every day, however, increased her determination to exert this
influence only by firmly maintaining her position. If he wished
her friendship and an equal chance with others for more, he must
prove himself the equal of others in all respects. By no words
would she ever now hint that he should take their course; but she
allowed herself to enhance his motives by permitting him to see
her often, and by an alluring yet elusive courtesy, of which she
was a perfect mistress.

This period was one of mingled pain and pleasure to Merwyn.
Remembering his interview with Mr. Vosburgh, he felt that he had
been treated with a degree of confidence that was even generous. But
he knew that from Mr. Vosburgh he did not receive full trust, - that
there were certain topics which each touched upon with restraint.
Even with the father he was made to feel that he had reached the
limit of their friendly relations. They could advance no farther
unless the barrier of his reserve was broken down.

He believed that he was dissipating the prejudices of the daughter;
that she was ceasing to dislike him personally. He exerted every
faculty of his mind to interest her; he studied her tastes and views
with careful analysis, that he might speak to her intelligently
and acceptably. The kindling light in her eyes, and her animated
tones, often proved that he succeeded. Was it the theme wholly that
interested her? or was the speaker also gaining some place in her
thoughts? He never could be quite certain as to these points, and
yet the impression was growing stronger that if he came some day
and said, quietly, "Good-by, Miss Vosburgh, I am going to face every
danger which any man dare meet," she would give him both hands in
friendly warmth, and that there would be an expression on her face
which had never been turned towards him.

A stormy day, not far from the middle of April, ended in a stormier
evening. Marian had not been able to go out, and had suffered
a little from ennui. Her mother had a headache, Mr. Vosburgh had
gone to keep an appointment, and the evening promised to be an
interminable one to the young girl. She unconsciously wished that
Merwyn would come, and half-smilingly wondered whether he would
brave the storm to see her.

She was not kept long in suspense, for he soon appeared with a book
which he wished to return, he said.

"Papa is out," Marian began, affably, "and you will have to be
content with seeing me. You have a morbidly acute conscience, Mr.
Merwyn, to return a book on a night like this."

"My conscience certainly is very troublesome."

Almost before she was aware of it the trite saying slipped out,
"Honest confession is good for the soul."

"To some souls it is denied, Miss Vosburgh;" and there was a trace
of bitterness in his tones. Then, with resolute promptness, he
resumed their usual impersonal conversation.

While they talked, the desire to penetrate his secret grew strong
upon the young girl. It was almost certain that they would not be
interrupted, and this knowledge led her to yield to her mood. She
felt a strange relenting towards him. A woman to her finger-tips,
she could not constantly face this embodied mystery without an
increasing desire to solve it. Cold curiosity, however, was not the
chief inspiration of her impulse. The youth who sat on the opposite
side of the glowing grate had grown old by months as if they were
years. His secret was evidently not only a restraint, but a wearing
burden. By leading her companion to reveal so much of his trouble
as would give opportunity for her womanly ministry, might she not,
in a degree yet unequalled, carry out her scheme of life to make
the "most and best of those over whom she had influence"?

"Many brood over an infirmity, a fault, or an obligation till they
grow morbid," she thought. "I might not be able to show him what
was best and right, but papa could if we only knew."

Therefore her words and tones were kinder than usual, and she made
slight and delicate references to herself, that he might be led to
speak of himself. At last she hit upon domestic affairs as a safe,
natural ground of approach, and gave a humorous account of some of
her recent efforts to learn the mysteries of housekeeping, and she
did not fail to observe his wistful and deeply-interested expression.

Suddenly, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, she
remarked: "I do not see how you manage to keep house in that great,
empty mansion of yours."

"You know, then, where I live?"

"Oh, yes. I saw you descend the steps of a house on Madison Avenue
one morning last fall, and supposed it was your home."

"You were undoubtedly right. I can tell you just how I manage, or
rather, how everything IS managed, for I have little to do with the
matter. An old family servant looks after everything and provides
me with my meals. She makes out my daily menu according to her 'own
will,' which is 'sweet' if not crossed."

"Indeed! Are you so indifferent? I thought men gave much attention
to their dinners."

"I do to mine, after it is provided. Were I fastidious, old Cynthy
would give me no cause for complaint. Then I have a man who looks
after the fires and the horses, etc. I am too good a republican to
keep a valet. So you see that my domestic arrangements are simple
in the extreme."

"And do those two people constitute your whole household?" she
asked, wondering at a frankness which seemed complete.

"Yes. The ghosts and I have the house practically to ourselves most
of the time."

"Are there ghosts?" she asked, laughing, but with cheeks that began
to burn in her kindling interest.

"There are ghosts in every house where people have lived and died;
that is, if you knew and cared for the people. My father is with
me very often!"

"Mr. Merwyn, I don't understand you!" she exclaimed, without trying
to disguise her astonishment. The conversation was so utterly unlike
anything that had occurred between them before that she wondered
whither it was leading. "I fear you are growing morbid," she added.

"I hope not. Nor will you think so when I explain. Of course nothing
like gross superstition is in my mind. I remember my father very
well, and have heard much about him since he died. Therefore he
has become to me a distinct presence which I can summon at will.
The same is true of others with whom the apartments are associated.
If I wish I can summon them."

"I am at a loss to know which is the greater, your will or your
imagination."

"My imagination is the greater."

"It must be great, indeed," she said, smiling alluringly, "for
I never knew of one who seemed more untrammelled in circumstances
than you are, or more under the dominion of his own will."

"Untrammelled!" he repeated, in a low, almost desperate tone.

"Yes," she replied, warmly, - "free to carry out every generous and
noble impulse of manhood. I tell you frankly that you have led me
to believe that you have such impulses."

His face became ashen in its hue, and he trembled visibly. He
seemed about to speak some words as if they were wrung from him,
then he became almost rigid in his self-control as he said, "There
are limitations of which you cannot dream;" and he introduced a
topic wholly remote from himself.

A chill benumbed her very heart, and she scarcely sought to prevent
it from tingeing her words and manner. A few moments later the
postman left a letter. She saw Lane's handwriting and said, "Will
you pardon me a moment, that I may learn that my FRIEND is well?"

Glancing at the opening words, her eyes flashed with excitement
as she exclaimed: "The campaign has opened! They are on the march
this stormy night."

"May I ask if your letter is from Strahan?" Merwyn faltered.

"It is not from Mr. Strahan," she replied, quietly.

He arose and stood before her as erect and cold as herself. "Will
you kindly give Mr. Vosburgh that book?" he said.

"Certainly."

"Will you also please say that I shall probably go to my country
place in a day or two, and therefore may not see him again very
soon."

She was both disappointed and angry, for she had meant kindly by
him. The very consciousness that she had unbent so greatly, and
had made what appeared to her pride an unwonted advance, incensed
her, and she replied, in cold irony: "I will give papa your message.
It will seem most natural to him, now that spring has come, that
you should vary your mercantile with agricultural pursuits."

He appeared stung to the very soul by her words, and his hands
clinched in his desperate effort to restrain himself. His white lips
moved as he looked at her from eyes full of the agony of a wounded
spirit. Suddenly his tense form became limp, and, with a slight
despairing gesture, he said, wearily: "It is of no use. Good-by."






CHAPTER XXVI.

MARIAN'S INTERPRETATION OF MERWYN.





Shallow natures, like shallow waters, are easily agitated, and outward
manifestations are in proportion to the shallowness. Superficial
observers are chiefly impressed by visible emotion and tumult.

With all her faults, Marian had inherited from her father a strong
nature. Her intuitions had become womanly and keen, and Merwyn's
dumb agony affected her more deeply than a torrent of impetuous
words or any outward evidence of distress. She went back to her chair
and shed bitter tears; she scarcely knew why, until her father's
voice aroused her by saying, "Why, Marian dear, what IS the matter?"

"Oh, I am glad you have come," she said. "I have caused so much
suffering that I feel as if I had committed a crime;" and she gave
an account of the recent interview.

"Let me reassure you," said her father, gravely. "You did mean
kindly by Merwyn, and you gave him, without being unwomanly, the
best chance he could possibly have to throw off the incubus that
is burdening his life. If, with the opportunity he had to-night,
and under the influence of his love, he did not speak, his secret
is one of which he cannot speak. At least, I fear it is one of
which he dares not speak to you, lest it should be fatal to him and
all his hopes. I cannot even guess what it is, but at all events
it is of a serious nature, too grave to be regarded any longer as
secondary in our estimate of Mr. Merwyn's character. The shadow of
this mystery must not fall on you, and I am glad he is going away.
I hoped that your greater kindness and mine might lead him to reveal
his trouble, that we could help him, and that a character in many
respects so unique and strong might be cleared of its shadows. In
this case we might not only have rendered a fellow-being a great
service, but also have secured a friend capable of adding much to
our happiness. This mystery, however, proves so deep-rooted and
inscrutable that I shall be glad to withdraw you from his influence
until time and circumstance make all plain, if they ever can.
These old families often have dark secrets, and this young man,
in attaining his majority and property, has evidently become the
possessor of one of them. In spite of all his efforts to do well
it is having a sinister influence over his life, and this influence
must not extend to yours. The mere fact that he does not take an
active part in the war is very subordinate in itself. Thousands
who might do this as well as he are very well content to stay at
home. The true aspect of the affair is this: A chain of circumstances,
unforeseen, and uncaused by any premeditated effort on our part, has
presented to his mind the most powerful motives to take a natural
part in the conflict. It has gradually become evident that the
secret of his restraint is a mystery that affects his whole being.
Therefore, whether it be infirmity, fault, or misfortune, he has no
right to impose it on others, since it seems to be beyond remedy.
Do you not agree with me?"

"I could not do otherwise, papa. Yet, remembering how he looked
to-night, I cannot help being sorry for him, even though my mind
inclines to the belief that constitutional timidity restrains him.
I never saw a man tremble so, and he turned white to his very lips.
Papa, have you read 'The Fair Maid of Perth'?"

"Yes."

"Don't you remember MacIan, the young chief of Clan Quhele? This
character always made a deep impression on me, awakening at the
same time pity and the strongest repulsion. I could never understand
him. He was high-born, and lived at an age when courage was the
commonest of traits, while its absence was worse than crime. For
the times he was endowed with every good quality except the power
to face danger. This from the very constitution of his being he
could not do, and he, beyond all others, understood his infirmity,
suffering often almost mortal agony in view of it. For some reason
I have been led to reread this story, and, in spite of myself, that
wretched young Scottish chieftain has become associated in my mind
with Willard Merwyn. He said to-night that his imagination was
stronger than his will. I can believe it from his words. His dead
father and others have become distinct presences to him. In the
same way he calls up before his fancy the horrors of a battle-field,
and he finds that he has not the power to face them, that he cannot
do it, no matter what the motives may be. He feels that he would
be simply overwhelmed with horror and faint-heartedness, and he is
too prudent to risk the shame of exposure."

"Well," said her father, sighing, as if he were giving up a pleasing
dream, "you have thought out an ingenious theory which, if true,
explains Merwyn's course, perhaps. A woman's intuitions are subtle,
and often true, but somehow it does not satisfy me, even though I
can recall some things which give color to your view. Still, whatever
be the explanation, all MUST be explained before we can give him
more than ordinary courtesy."

It soon became evident that Merwyn had gone to his country place,
for his visits ceased. The more Marian thought about him, - and she
did think a great deal, - the more she was inclined to believe that
her theory explained everything. His very words, "You think me a
coward," became a proof, in her mind, that he was morbidly sensitive
on this point, and ever conscious of his infirmity. He was too
ready to resent a fancied imputation on his courage.

She strove to dismiss him from her thoughts, but with only partial
success. He gave her the sense of being baffled, defeated. What
could be more natural than that a high-spirited young man should
enter the army of his own free will? He had not entered it even
with her favor, possibly her love, as a motive. Yet he sought her
favor as if it were the chief consideration of existence. With her
theory, and her ideal of manhood, he was but the mocking shadow of
a man, but so real, so nearly perfect, that she constantly chafed
at the defect. Even her father had been deeply impressed by the
rare promise of his young life, - a promise which she now believed
could never be kept, although few might ever know it.

"I must be right in my view," she said. "He proves his loyalty by
an unflagging interest in our arms, by the gift of thousands. He
is here, his own master. He would not shun danger for the sake of
his cold-hearted mother, from whom he seems almost estranged. His
sisters are well provided for, and do not need his care. He does not
live for the sake of pleasure, like many other young men. Merciful
Heaven! I blush even to think the words, much more to speak them.
Why does he not go, unless his fear is greater than his love for me?
why is he not with Lane and Strahan, unless he has a constitutional
dread that paralyzes him? He is the Scottish chieftain, MacIan,
over again. All I can do now is to pity him as one to whom Nature
has been exceedingly cruel, for every fibre in my being shrinks
from such a man."

And so he came to dwell in her mind as one crippled, from birth,
in his very soul.

Meanwhile events took place which soon absorbed her attention.
Lane's letter announcing the opening of the campaign proved a false
alarm, although, from a subsequent letter, she learned that he had
had experiences not trifling in their nature. On the rainy night,
early in April, that would ever be memorable to her, she had said
to Merwyn, "The army is on the march."

This was true of the cavalry corps, and part of it even crossed the
upper waters of the Rappahannock; but the same storm which dashed
the thick drops against her windows also filled the river to
overflowing, and the brave troopers, recalled, had to swim their
horses in returning. Lane was among these, and his humorous account
of the affair was signed, "Your loyal amphibian!"

A young girl of Marian's temperament is a natural hero-worshipper,
and he was becoming her hero. Circumstances soon occurred which
gave him a sure place in this character.

By the last of April, not only the cavalry, but the whole army, moved,
the infantry taking position on the fatal field of Chancellorsville.
Then came the bloody battle, with its unspeakable horrors and
defeat. The icy Rappahannock proved the river of death to thousands
and thousands of brave men.

Early in May the Union army, baffled, depleted, and discouraged, was
again in its old quarters where it had spent the winter. Apparently
the great forward movement had been a failure, but it was the cause
of a loss to the Confederate cause from which it never recovered, - that
of "Stonewall" Jackson. So transcendent were this man's boldness
and ability in leading men that his death was almost equivalent to
the annihilation of a rebel army. He was a typical character, the
embodiment of the genius, the dash, the earnest, pure, but mistaken
patriotism of the South. No man at the North more surely believed
he was right than General Jackson, no man more reverently asked God's
blessing on efforts heroic in the highest degree. He represented
the sincere but misguided spirit which made every sacrifice possible
to a brave people, and his class should ever be distinguished from
the early conspirators who were actuated chiefly by ambition and
selfishness.

His death also was typical, for he was wounded by a volley fired,
through misapprehension, by his own men. The time will come when
North and South will honor the memory of Thomas J. Jackson, while,
at the same time, recognizing that his stout heart, active brain,
and fiery zeal were among the chief obstructions to the united and
sublime destiny of America. The man's errors were due to causes
over which he had little control; his noble character was due to
himself and his faith in God.

Many days passed before Marian heard from Lane, and she then learned
that the raid in which he had participated had brought him within
two miles of Richmond, and that he had passed safely through great
dangers and hardships, but that the worst which he could say of
himself was that he was "prone to go to sleep, even while writing
to her."

The tidings from her other friends were equally reassuring. Their
regiment had lost heavily, and Blauvelt had been made a captain almost
in spite of himself, while Strahan was acting as lieutenant-colonel,
since the officer holding that rank had been wounded. There was a
dash of sadness and tragedy in the journal which the two young men
forwarded to her after they had been a few days in their old camp
at Falmouth, but Strahan's indomitable humor triumphed, and their
crude record ended in a droll sketch of a plucked cock trying
to crow. She wrote letters so full of sympathy and admiration of
their spirit that three soldiers of the army of the Potomac soon
recovered their morale.

The month of May was passing in mocking beauty to those whose hopes
and happiness were bound up in the success of the Union armies. Not
only had deadly war depleted Hooker's grand army, but the expiration
of enlistments would take away nearly thirty thousand more. Mr.
Vosburgh was aware of this, and he also found the disloyal elements
by which he was surrounded passing into every form of hostile
activity possible within the bounds of safety. Men were beginning to
talk of peace, at any cost, openly, and he knew that the Southern
leaders were hoping for the beginning at any time of a counter-revolution
at the North. The city was full of threatening rumors, intrigues,
and smouldering rebellion.

Marian saw her father overwhelmed with labors and anxieties, and
letters from her friends reflected the bitterness then felt by the
army because the North appeared so half-hearted.

"Mr. Merwyn, meanwhile," she thought, "is interesting himself in
landscape-gardening. If he has one spark of manhood or courage he
will show it now."

The object of this reproach was living almost the life of a hermit
at his country place, finding no better resource, in his desperate
unrest and trouble, than long mountain rambles, which brought
physical exhaustion and sleep.

He had not misunderstood Marian's final words and manner. Delicately,
yet clearly, she had indicated the steps he must take to vindicate
his character and win her friendship. He felt that he had become
pale, that he had trembled in her presence. What but cowardice
could explain his manner and account for his inability to confirm
the good impression he had made by following the example of her
other friends? From both his parents he had inherited a nature
sensitive to the last degree to any imputation of this kind. To
receive it from the girl he loved was a hundred-fold more bitter
than death, yet he was bound by fetters which, though unseen by
all, were eating into his very soul. The proud Mrs. Merwyn was a
slave-holder herself, and the daughter of a long line of slave-owners;
but never had a bondsman been so chained and crushed as was her
son. For weeks he felt that he could not mingle with other men,
much less meet the girl to whom manly courage was the corner-stone
of character.

One evening in the latter part of May, as Mr. Vosburgh and his
family were sitting down to dinner, Barney Ghegan, the policeman,
appeared at their door with a decent-looking, elderly colored
woman and her lame son. They were refugees, or "contrabands," as
they were then called, from the South, and they bore a letter from
Captain Lane.

It was a scrap of paper with the following lines pencilled upon
it: -

"MR. VOSBURGH, No. - - ST.: I have only time for a line. Mammy
Borden will tell you her story and that of her son. Their action
and other circumstances have enlisted my interest. Provide them
employment, if convenient. At any rate, please see that they want
nothing, and draw on me. Sincere regard to you all. - In haste,

"LANE, Captain. - - U.S. Cav."






CHAPTER XXVII.

"DE HEAD LINKUM MAN WAS CAP'N LANE."





It can be well understood that the two dusky strangers, recommended
by words from Lane, were at once invested with peculiar interest
to Marian. Many months had elapsed since she had seen him, but
all that he had written tended to kindle her imagination. This had
been the more true because he was so modest in his accounts of the
service in which he had participated. She had learned what cavalry
campaigning meant, and read more meaning between the lines than
the lines themselves conveyed. He was becoming her ideal knight,



Online LibraryEdward Payson RoeAn Original Belle → online text (page 18 of 37)