Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton.

The Bell in the Fog and Other Stories online

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typed her as belonging to the small middle-class of an interior town of
the eastern United States.

"You are not the child's mother?"

"Yes, sir. Everybody is surprised; you needn't apologize. She doesn't
look like any of us, although her brothers and sisters are good enough
for anybody to be proud of. But we all think she strayed in by mistake,
for she looks like any lady's child, and, of course, we're only
middle-class."

Orth gasped. It was the first time he had ever heard a native American
use the term middle-class with a personal application. For the moment,
he forgot the child. His analytical mind raked in the new specimen. He
questioned, and learned that the woman's husband had kept a hat store in
Rome, New York; that her boys were clerks, her girls in stores, or
type-writing. They kept her and little Blanche - who had come after her
other children were well grown - in comfort; and they were all very happy
together. The boys broke out, occasionally; but, on the whole, were the
best in the world, and her girls were worthy of far better than they
had. All were robust, except Blanche. "She coming so late, when I was no
longer young, makes her delicate," she remarked, with a slight blush,
the signal of her chaste Americanism; "but I guess she'll get along all
right. She couldn't have better care if she was a queen's child."

Orth, who had gratefully consumed the bread and milk, rose. "Is that
really all you can tell me?" he asked.

"That's all," replied the daughter of the house. "And you couldn't pry
open father's mouth."

Orth shook hands cordially with all of them, for he could be charming
when he chose. He offered to escort the little girl back to her
playmates in the wood, and she took prompt possession of his hand. As he
was leaving, he turned suddenly to Mrs. Root. "Why did you call her
Blanche?" he asked.

"She was so white and dainty, she just looked it."

Orth took the next train for London, and from Lord Teignmouth obtained
the address of the aunt who lived on the family traditions, and a
cordial note of introduction to her. He then spent an hour anticipating,
in a toy shop, the whims and pleasures of a child - an incident of
paternity which his book-children had not inspired. He bought the finest
doll, piano, French dishes, cooking apparatus, and playhouse in the
shop, and signed a check for thirty pounds with a sensation of positive
rapture. Then he took the train for Lancashire, where the Lady Mildred
Mortlake lived in another ancestral home.

Possibly there are few imaginative writers who have not a leaning,
secret or avowed, to the occult. The creative gift is in very close
relationship with the Great Force behind the universe; for aught we
know, may be an atom thereof. It is not strange, therefore, that the
lesser and closer of the unseen forces should send their vibrations to
it occasionally; or, at all events, that the imagination should incline
its ear to the most mysterious and picturesque of all beliefs. Orth
frankly dallied with the old dogma. He formulated no personal faith of
any sort, but his creative faculty, that ego within an ego, had made
more than one excursion into the invisible and brought back literary
treasure.

The Lady Mildred received with sweetness and warmth the generous
contributor to the family sieve, and listened with fluttering interest
to all he had not told the world - she had read the book - and to the
strange, Americanized sequel.

"I am all at sea," concluded Orth. "What had my little girl to do with
the tragedy? What relation was she to the lady who drove the young man
to destruction - ?"

"The closest," interrupted Lady Mildred. "She was herself!"

Orth stared at her. Again he had a confused sense of disintegration.
Lady Mildred, gratified by the success of her bolt, proceeded less
dramatically:

"Wally was up here just after I read your book, and I discovered he had
given you the wrong history of the picture. Not that he knew it. It is a
story we have left untold as often as possible, and I tell it to you
only because you would probably become a monomaniac if I didn't. Blanche
Mortlake - that Blanche - there had been several of her name, but there
has not been one since - did not die in childhood, but lived to be
twenty-four. She was an angelic child, but little angels sometimes grow
up into very naughty girls. I believe she was delicate as a child, which
probably gave her that spiritual look. Perhaps she was spoiled and
flattered, until her poor little soul was stifled, which is likely. At
all events, she was the coquette of her day - she seemed to care for
nothing but breaking hearts; and she did not stop when she married,
either. She hated her husband, and became reckless. She had no children.
So far, the tale is not an uncommon one; but the worst, and what makes
the ugliest stain in our annals, is to come.

"She was alone one summer at Chillingsworth - where she had taken
temporary refuge from her husband - and she amused herself - some say,
fell in love - with a young man of the yeomanry, a tenant of the next
estate. His name was Root. He, so it comes down to us, was a magnificent
specimen of his kind, and in those days the yeomanry gave us our great
soldiers. His beauty of face was quite as remarkable as his physique; he
led all the rural youth in sport, and was a bit above his class in every
way. He had a wife in no way remarkable, and two little boys, but was
always more with his friends than his family. Where he and Blanche
Mortlake met I don't know - in the woods, probably, although it has been
said that he had the run of the house. But, at all events, he was wild
about her, and she pretended to be about him. Perhaps she was, for women
have stooped before and since. Some women can be stormed by a fine man
in any circumstances; but, although I am a woman of the world, and not
easy to shock, there are some things I tolerate so hardly that it is all
I can do to bring myself to believe in them; and stooping is one. Well,
they were the scandal of the county for months, and then, either because
she had tired of her new toy, or his grammar grated after the first
glamour, or because she feared her husband, who was returning from the
Continent, she broke off with him and returned to town. He followed her,
and forced his way into her house. It is said she melted, but made him
swear never to attempt to see her again. He returned to his home, and
killed himself. A few months later she took her own life. That is all I
know."

"It is quite enough for me," said Orth.

The next night, as his train travelled over the great wastes of
Lancashire, a thousand chimneys were spouting forth columns of fire.
Where the sky was not red it was black. The place looked like hell.
Another time Orth's imagination would have gathered immediate
inspiration from this wildest region of England. The fair and peaceful
counties of the south had nothing to compare in infernal grandeur with
these acres of flaming columns. The chimneys were invisible in the lower
darkness of the night; the fires might have leaped straight from the
angry caldron of the earth.

But Orth was in a subjective world, searching for all he had ever heard
of occultism. He recalled that the sinful dead are doomed, according to
this belief, to linger for vast reaches of time in that borderland which
is close to earth, eventually sent back to work out their final
salvation; that they work it out among the descendants of the people
they have wronged; that suicide is held by the devotees of occultism to
be a cardinal sin, abhorred and execrated.

Authors are far closer to the truths enfolded in mystery than ordinary
people, because of that very audacity of imagination which irritates
their plodding critics. As only those who dare to make mistakes succeed
greatly, only those who shake free the wings of their imagination brush,
once in a way, the secrets of the great pale world. If such writers go
wrong, it is not for the mere brains to tell them so.

Upon Orth's return to Chillingsworth, he called at once upon the child,
and found her happy among his gifts. She put her arms about his neck,
and covered his serene unlined face with soft kisses. This completed the
conquest. Orth from that moment adored her as a child, irrespective of
the psychological problem.

Gradually he managed to monopolize her. From long walks it was but a
step to take her home for luncheon. The hours of her visits lengthened.
He had a room fitted up as a nursery and filled with the wonders of
toyland. He took her to London to see the pantomimes; two days before
Christmas, to buy presents for her relatives; and together they strung
them upon the most wonderful Christmas-tree that the old hall of
Chillingsworth had ever embraced. She had a donkey-cart, and a trained
nurse, disguised as a maid, to wait upon her. Before a month had passed
she was living in state at Chillingsworth and paying daily visits to her
mother. Mrs. Root was deeply flattered, and apparently well content.
Orth told her plainly that he should make the child independent, and
educate her, meanwhile. Mrs. Root intended to spend six months in
England, and Orth was in no hurry to alarm her by broaching his ultimate
design.

He reformed Blanche's accent and vocabulary, and read to her out of
books which would have addled the brains of most little maids of six;
but she seemed to enjoy them, although she seldom made a comment. He was
always ready to play games with her, but she was a gentle little thing,
and, moreover, tired easily. She preferred to sit in the depths of a big
chair, toasting her bare toes at the log-fire in the hall, while her
friend read or talked to her. Although she was thoughtful, and, when
left to herself, given to dreaming, his patient observation could detect
nothing uncanny about her. Moreover, she had a quick sense of humor, she
was easily amused, and could laugh as merrily as any child in the world.
He was resigning all hope of further development on the shadowy side
when one day he took her to the picture-gallery.

It was the first warm day of summer. The gallery was not heated, and he
had not dared to take his frail visitor into its chilly spaces during
the winter and spring. Although he had wished to see the effect of the
picture on the child, he had shrunk from the bare possibility of the
very developments the mental part of him craved; the other was warmed
and satisfied for the first time, and held itself aloof from
disturbance. But one day the sun streamed through the old windows, and,
obeying a sudden impulse, he led Blanche to the gallery.

It was some time before he approached the child of his earlier love.
Again he hesitated. He pointed out many other fine pictures, and Blanche
smiled appreciatively at his remarks, that were wise in criticism and
interesting in matter. He never knew just how much she understood, but
the very fact that there were depths in the child beyond his probing
riveted his chains.

Suddenly he wheeled about and waved his hand to her prototype. "What do
you think of that?" he asked. "You remember, I told you of the likeness
the day I met you."

She looked indifferently at the picture, but he noticed that her color
changed oddly; its pure white tone gave place to an equally delicate
gray.

"I have seen it before," she said. "I came in here one day to look at
it. And I have been quite often since. You never forbade me," she added,
looking at him appealingly, but dropping her eyes quickly. "And I like
the little girl - and the boy - very much."

"Do you? Why?"

"I don't know" - a formula in which she had taken refuge before. Still
her candid eyes were lowered; but she was quite calm. Orth, instead of
questioning, merely fixed his eyes upon her, and waited. In a moment she
stirred uneasily, but she did not laugh nervously, as another child
would have done. He had never seen her self-possession ruffled, and he
had begun to doubt he ever should. She was full of human warmth and
affection. She seemed made for love, and every creature who came within
her ken adored her, from the author himself down to the litter of
puppies presented to her by the stable-boy a few weeks since; but her
serenity would hardly be enhanced by death.

She raised her eyes finally, but not to his. She looked at the portrait.

"Did you know that there was another picture behind?" she asked.

"No," replied Orth, turning cold. "How did you know it?"

"One day I touched a spring in the frame, and this picture came forward.
Shall I show you?"

"Yes!" And crossing curiosity and the involuntary shrinking from
impending phenomena was a sensation of aesthetic disgust that _he_
should be treated to a secret spring.

The little girl touched hers, and that other Blanche sprang aside so
quickly that she might have been impelled by a sharp blow from behind.
Orth narrowed his eyes and stared at what she revealed. He felt that his
own Blanche was watching him, and set his features, although his breath
was short.

There was the Lady Blanche Mortlake in the splendor of her young
womanhood, beyond a doubt. Gone were all traces of her spiritual
childhood, except, perhaps, in the shadows of the mouth; but more than
fulfilled were the promises of her mind. Assuredly, the woman had been
as brilliant and gifted as she had been restless and passionate. She
wore her very pearls with arrogance, her very hands were tense with
eager life, her whole being breathed mutiny.

Orth turned abruptly to Blanche, who had transferred her attention to
the picture.

"What a tragedy is there!" he exclaimed, with a fierce attempt at
lightness. "Think of a woman having all that pent up within her two
centuries ago! And at the mercy of a stupid family, no doubt, and a
still stupider husband. No wonder - To-day, a woman like that might not
be a model for all the virtues, but she certainly would use her gifts
and become famous, the while living her life too fully to have any place
in it for yeomen and such, or even for the trivial business of breaking
hearts." He put his finger under Blanche's chin, and raised her face,
but he could not compel her gaze. "You are the exact image of that
little girl," he said, "except that you are even purer and finer. She
had no chance, none whatever. You live in the woman's age. Your
opportunities will be infinite. I shall see to it that they are. What
you wish to be you shall be. There will be no pent-up energies here to
burst out into disaster for yourself and others. You shall be trained to
self-control - that is, if you ever develop self-will, dear child - every
faculty shall be educated, every school of life you desire knowledge
through shall be opened to you. You shall become that finest flower of
civilization, a woman who knows how to use her independence."

She raised her eyes slowly, and gave him a look which stirred the roots
of sensation - a long look of unspeakable melancholy. Her chest rose
once; then she set her lips tightly, and dropped her eyes.

"What do you mean?" he cried, roughly, for his soul was chattering.
"Is - it - do you - ?" He dared not go too far, and concluded lamely, "You
mean you fear that your mother will not give you to me when she
goes - you have divined that I wish to adopt you? Answer me, will you?"

But she only lowered her head and turned away, and he, fearing to
frighten or repel her, apologized for his abruptness, restored the outer
picture to its place, and led her from the gallery.

He sent her at once to the nursery, and when she came down to luncheon
and took her place at his right hand, she was as natural and childlike
as ever. For some days he restrained his curiosity, but one evening, as
they were sitting before the fire in the hall listening to the storm,
and just after he had told her the story of the erl-king, he took her on
his knee and asked her gently if she would not tell him what had been in
her thoughts when he had drawn her brilliant future. Again her face
turned gray, and she dropped her eyes.

"I cannot," she said. "I - perhaps - I don't know."

"Was it what I suggested?"

She shook her head, then looked at him with a shrinking appeal which
forced him to drop the subject.

He went the next day alone to the gallery, and looked long at the
portrait of the woman. She stirred no response in him. Nor could he feel
that the woman of Blanche's future would stir the man in him. The
paternal was all he had to give, but that was hers forever.

He went out into the park and found Blanche digging in her garden, very
dirty and absorbed. The next afternoon, however, entering the hall
noiselessly, he saw her sitting in her big chair, gazing out into
nothing visible, her whole face settled in melancholy. He asked her if
she were ill, and she recalled herself at once, but confessed to feeling
tired. Soon after this he noticed that she lingered longer in the
comfortable depths of her chair, and seldom went out, except with
himself. She insisted that she was quite well, but after he had
surprised her again looking as sad as if she had renounced every joy of
childhood, he summoned from London a doctor renowned for his success
with children.

The scientist questioned and examined her. When she had left the room he
shrugged his shoulders.

"She might have been born with ten years of life in her, or she might
grow up into a buxom woman," he said. "I confess I cannot tell. She
appears to be sound enough, but I have no X-rays in my eyes, and for all
I know she may be on the verge of decay. She certainly has the look of
those who die young. I have never seen so spiritual a child. But I can
put my finger on nothing. Keep her out-of-doors, don't give her sweets,
and don't let her catch anything if you can help it."

Orth and the child spent the long warm days of summer under the trees of
the park, or driving in the quiet lanes. Guests were unbidden, and his
pen was idle. All that was human in him had gone out to Blanche. He
loved her, and she was a perpetual delight to him. The rest of the world
received the large measure of his indifference. There was no further
change in her, and apprehension slept and let him sleep. He had
persuaded Mrs. Root to remain in England for a year. He sent her theatre
tickets every week, and placed a horse and phaeton at her disposal. She
was enjoying herself and seeing less and less of Blanche. He took the
child to Bournemouth for a fortnight, and again to Scotland, both of
which outings benefited as much as they pleased her. She had begun to
tyrannize over him amiably, and she carried herself quite royally. But
she was always sweet and truthful, and these qualities, combined with
that something in the depths of her mind which defied his explorations,
held him captive. She was devoted to him, and cared for no other
companion, although she was demonstrative to her mother when they met.

It was in the tenth month of this idyl of the lonely man and the lonely
child that Mrs. Root flurriedly entered the library of Chillingsworth,
where Orth happened to be alone.

"Oh, sir," she exclaimed, "I must go home. My daughter Grace writes
me - she should have done it before - that the boys are not behaving
as well as they should - she didn't tell me, as I was having such a
good time she just hated to worry me - Heaven knows I've had enough
worry - but now I must go - I just couldn't stay - boys are an awful
responsibility - girls ain't a circumstance to them, although mine are
a handful sometimes."

Orth had written about too many women to interrupt the flow. He let her
talk until she paused to recuperate her forces. Then he said quietly:

"I am sorry this has come so suddenly, for it forces me to broach a
subject at once which I would rather have postponed until the idea had
taken possession of you by degrees - "

"I know what it is you want to say, sir," she broke in, "and I've
reproached myself that I haven't warned you before, but I didn't like to
be the one to speak first. You want Blanche - of course, I couldn't help
seeing that; but I can't let her go, sir, indeed, I can't."

"Yes," he said, firmly, "I want to adopt Blanche, and I hardly think you
can refuse, for you must know how greatly it will be to her advantage.
She is a wonderful child; you have never been blind to that; she should
have every opportunity, not only of money, but of association. If I
adopt her legally, I shall, of course, make her my heir, and - there is
no reason why she should not grow up as great a lady as any in England."

The poor woman turned white, and burst into tears. "I've sat up nights
and nights, struggling," she said, when she could speak. "That, and
missing her. I couldn't stand in her light, and I let her stay. I know
I oughtn't to, now - I mean, stand in her light - but, sir, she is dearer
than all the others put together."

"Then live here in England - at least, for some years longer. I will
gladly relieve your children of your support, and you can see Blanche as
often as you choose."

"I can't do that, sir. After all, she is only one, and there are six
others. I can't desert them. They all need me, if only to keep them
together - three girls unmarried and out in the world, and three boys
just a little inclined to be wild. There is another point, sir - I don't
exactly know how to say it."

"Well?" asked Orth, kindly. This American woman thought him the ideal
gentleman, although the mistress of the estate on which she visited
called him a boor and a snob.

"It is - well - you must know - you can imagine - that her brothers and
sisters just worship Blanche. They save their dimes to buy her
everything she wants - or used to want. Heaven knows what will satisfy
her now, although I can't see that she's one bit spoiled. But she's just
like a religion to them; they're not much on church. I'll tell you, sir,
what I couldn't say to any one else, not even to these relations who've
been so kind to me - but there's wildness, just a streak, in all my
children, and I believe, I know, it's Blanche that keeps them straight.
My girls get bitter, sometimes; work all the week and little fun, not
caring for common men and no chance to marry gentlemen; and sometimes
they break out and talk dreadful; then, when they're over it, they say
they'll live for Blanche - they've said it over and over, and they mean
it. Every sacrifice they've made for her - and they've made many - has
done them good. It isn't that Blanche ever says a word of the preachy
sort, or has anything of the Sunday-school child about her, or even
tries to smooth them down when they're excited. It's just herself. The
only thing she ever does is sometimes to draw herself up and look
scornful, and that nearly kills them. Little as she is, they're crazy
about having her respect. I've grown superstitious about her. Until she
came I used to get frightened, terribly, sometimes, and I believe she
came for that. So - you see! I know Blanche is too fine for us and ought
to have the best; but, then, they are to be considered, too. They have
their rights, and they've got much more good than bad in them. I don't
know! I don't know! It's kept me awake many nights."

Orth rose abruptly. "Perhaps you will take some further time to think it
over," he said. "You can stay a few weeks longer - the matter cannot be
so pressing as that."

The woman rose. "I've thought this," she said; "let Blanche decide. I
believe she knows more than any of us. I believe that whichever way she
decided would be right. I won't say anything to her, so you won't think
I'm working on her feelings; and I can trust you. But she'll know."

"Why do you think that?" asked Orth, sharply. "There is nothing uncanny
about the child. She is not yet seven years old. Why should you place
such a responsibility upon her?"

"Do you think she's like other children?"

"I know nothing of other children."

"I do, sir. I've raised six. And I've seen hundreds of others. I never
was one to be a fool about my own, but Blanche isn't like any other
child living - I'm certain of it."

"What _do_ you think?"

And the woman answered, according to her lights: "I think she's an
angel, and came to us because we needed her."

"And I think she is Blanche Mortlake working out the last of her
salvation," thought the author; but he made no reply, and was alone in a
moment.

It was several days before he spoke to Blanche, and then, one morning,
when she was sitting on her mat on the lawn with the light full upon
her, he told her abruptly that her mother must return home.

To his surprise, but unutterable delight, she burst into tears and flung
herself into his arms.

"You need not leave me," he said, when he could find his own voice. "You


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