TSW Chapter 6.3

 

St. Elmo Murray Proposes Marriage

Excerpt from “St. Elmo” 1867

By Augusta Evans Wilson

 

     The church was remarkably handsome and tasteful, and certainly justified the pride with which the villagers exhibited it to all strangers. The massive mahogany pew-doors were elaborately carved and surmounted by small crosses, the tall, arched windows were of superb stained glass, representing the twelve apostles, the floor and balustrade of the altar, and the grand, Gothic pillared pulpit, were all of the purest white marble, and the capitals, of the airy, elegant columns of the same material, that supported the organ gallery, were ornamented with a rich grape-leaf molding, while the large window behind a above the pulpit contained a figure of Christ bearing his cross -- a noble copy of the great painting of Solario at Berlin.

     As the afternoon sun shone on the glass, a floor of ruby light fell from the garments of Jesus upon the glittering marble beneath, and the nimbus that radiated around the crown of thorns caught a glory that was dazzling.

     With a feeling of adoration that no language could adequately express, Edna had watched and studied this costly painted window for five long years, and found a marvelous fascination in the pallid face stained with purplish blood drops, in the parted lips quivering with human pain and anguish of spirit, in the unfathomably divine eyes that pierced the veil and rested upon the Father’s face. Not all the sermons of Bossuet, or Chalmers, or Jeremy Taylor, or Melville, had power to stir the great deeps of her soul like one glance at that pale, thorn-crowned Christ, who looked in voiceless woe and sublime resignation over the world he was dying to redeem!

     To-day she gazed up at the picture of Emmanuel, till her eyes grew dim with tears, and she leaned her head against the mahogany railing and murmured sadly:

     “And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me! Strenghten me, O my Saviour! So that I neither faint nor stagger under mine!”

     The echo of her words died away among the arches of the roof, and all was still in the sanctuary. The swayings of the trees outside of the windows threw now a golden shimmer, then a violet shadow over the gleaming altar pavement, and the sun sank lower, and the nimbus faded, and the wan Christ looked ghastly and toil-spent.

     “Edna! My darling! My darling!”

     The pleading cry, the tremulous, tender voice so full of pathos, rang startingly through the silent church, and the orphan sprang up and saw Mr. Murray standing at her side, with his arms extended toward her, and a glow on his face, and a look in his eyes which she had never seen there before.

     She drew back a few steps and gazed wonderingly at him, but he followed, threw his arm about her, and, despite her resistance, strained her to his heart.

     “Did you believe that I would let you go? Did you dream that I would see my darling leave me, and go out into the world to be buffeted and sorely tried, to struggle with poverty -- an to suffer alone? O silly child! I would part with my own life sooner than give you up! Of what value would it be without you, my pearl, my sole hope, my only love, my own pure Edna --.”

     “Such language you have no right to utter, and I none to hear! It is dishonorable in you and insulting to me. Gertrude’s lover cannot, and shall not, address such words to me. Unwind your arms instantly! Let me go!”

     She struggled hard to free herself, but his clasp tightened, and as he pressed her face against his bosom, he threw his head back and laughed:

     “‘Gertrude’s lover!’ knowing my history, how could you believe that possible? Am I, think you, so meek and forgiving a spirit as to turn and kiss the hand that smote me? Gertrude’s lover! Ha! Ha! Your jealousy blinds you, my --.”

     “I know nothing of your history, I have never asked, I have never been told one word! But I am not blind, I know that you love her, and I know too, that she fully reciprocates your affection. If you do not wish me to despise you utterly, leave me at once.”

     He laughed again, and put his lips to her ear, saying softly, tenderly—ah! How tenderly;

     “Upon my honor as a gentleman, I solemnly swear that I love but one woman, that I love her as no other woman ever was loved, with a love that passes all language, a love that is the only light and hope of a wrecked, cursed, unutterably miserable life, and that idol which I have set up in the lonely gray ruins of my heart is Edna Earl!”

     “I do-not believe you! You have no honor! With the touch of Gertrude’s lips and arms still on yours, you come to me and dare to perjure yourself! 0 Mr. Murray! Mr. Murray! I did not believe you capable of such despicable dissimulation! In the catalogue of your sins, I never counted deceit. I thought you too proud to play the hypocrite. If you could realize how I loathe and abhor you, you would get out of my sight! You would not waste time in words that sink you deeper and deeper in shameful duplicity. Poor Gertrude, how entirely you mistake your lover’s character! How your love will change to scorn and detestation!”

     In vain she endeavored to wrench away his arm, a band of steel would have been as flexible, but St. Elmo’s voice hardened, and Edna felt his heart throb fiercely against her cheek as he answered:

     “When you are my wife you will repent your rash words, and blush at the remembrance of having told your husband that he was devoid of honor. You are piqued and jealous, just as I intended you should be, but, darling, I am not a patient man, and it frets me to feel you struggling so desperately in the arms that henceforth will always enfold you. Bo quiet and hear me, for I have much to tell you. Don’t turn your face away from mine your lips belong to me. I never kissed Gertrude in my life, and so help me God, I never Will! Hear --.”

     “No! I will hear nothing! Your touch is profanation. I would sooner go down to my grave, out there in the church-yard, under the granite slabs, than to become the wife of a man so unprincipled. I am neither piqued nor jealous, for your affairs cannot affect my life, I am only astonished and mortified and grieved. I would sooner feel the coil of a serpent around my waist than your arms.”

     Instantly they fell away. He crossed them on his chest, and his voice sank to a husky whisper, as the wind hushes itself just before the storm breaks.

   “Edna, God is my witness that I am not deceiving you, that my words come from the great troubled depths of a wretched heart. You said you know nothing of my history. I find it more difficult to believe you than you to credit my declaration. Answer one question, has not your pastor taught you to distrust me? Can it be possible that no hint of the past has fallen from his lips?”

     “Not one unkind word, not one syllable of your history has he uttered. I know no more of your past than if it were buried in mid-ocean.”

     Mr. Murray placed her in one of the cushioned chairs designed for the use of the choir and leaning back against the railing of the gallery, fixed ‘his eyes on Edna’s face.

     “Then it is not surprising that you distrust me, for you know not my provocation. Edna, will you be patient? Will you go back with me over the scorched and blackened track of an accursed and sinful life? Ha! It is a hideous waste I am inviting you to traverse! Will you?”

     “I will hear you, Mr. Murray, but nothing you can say will exculpate your duplicity to Gertrude, and --.”

     “D--n Gertrude! I ask you to listen, and suspend your judgment till you know the circumstances.”

     He covered his eyes with his hand, and in the brief silence she heard the ticking of his watch.

     “Edna, I roll away the stone from the charnel-house of the past, and call forth the Lazarus of my buried youth, my hopes, my faith in God, my trust in human nature, my charity, my slaughtered manhood! My Lazarus has tenanted the grave for almost twenty years, and comes forth, at my bidding, a grinning skeleton. You may or may not know that my father Paul Murray, died when I was an infant, leaving my mother the sole guardian of my property and person. I grew up at La Bocage under the training of Mr. Hammond, my tutor, and my only associate, my companion from earliest recollection, was his son Murray, who was two years my senior, and named for my father. The hold which that boy took upon my affection was wonderful, inexplicable! He wound me around his finger as you wind the silken threads with which you embroider. We studied, read, played together; I was never contented out of his sight, never satisfied until I saw him liberally supplied with everything that gave me pleasure. I believe I was very precocious, and made extraordinary strides in the path of learning, at all events, at sixteen, I was considered a remarkable boy. Mr. Hammond had six children and as his salary was, rather meager, I insisted on paying his son’s expenses as well as my own when I went to Yale. I could not bear that my Damon, my Jonathan, should be out of my sight; I must have my idol always with me. His father was educating him for the ministry, and he had already commenced the study of theology, but, No! I must have him with me at Yale, and so to Yale we went. I had fancied myself a Christian, had joined church, was zealous and faithful in all my religious duties. In a fit of pious enthusiasm I planned this church -- -ordered it built. The cost was enormous, and my mother objected, but I intended it as a shrine for the ‘apple of my eye’, and where he was concerned, what mattered the expenditure of thousands? Was not my fortune just as much at his disposal as at mine? I looked forward with fond pride to the time when I should see my idol -- Murray Hammond -- standing in yonder shining pulpit, Ha: at this instant it is filled with a hideous spectral I see him there! His form and features mocking me, daring me to forget! Handsome as Apollo! Treacherous as Apollyon!”

     He paused, pointing to-the pure marble pile where a violet flame seemed flickering, and then with a groan bowed his head upon the railing. When, he spoke again, his face wore an ashy hue, and his stern mouth was unsteady.

     “Hallowed days of my blessed boyhood! Ah! They rise before me-now, like holy burning stars, breaking out in a stormy howling night, making the blackness blacker still! My short happy springtime of life! So full of noble aspirations, of glowing hopes, of philanthropic schemes, of all charitable, projects, I would do so much with my money! My heart was brimming with generous impulses, with warm sympathy and care for my fellow-creatures. Every needy sufferer should find relief at my hands, as long as I possessed a dollar or acrust! As I look back now at that dead self, and remember all that I was, all the purity of my life, the nobility of my character, the tenderness of my heart -- I do not wonder that people who knew me then, predicted that I would prove an honor, a blessing to my race! Mark you: That was St. Elmo Murray -- as nature fashioned him, before man spoiled God’s handiwork, Back! Back to your shroud and sepulchre, O Lazarus of my youth, and when I am called to the final judgment, rise for me, stand in my place, and confront those who slaughtered you! ----- My affection for my chum, Murray, increased as I grew up to manhood, and there was not a dream of my brain, a hope of my heart which was not confided to him. I reverenced, I trusted, I almost -- nay I quite worshipped him! When I was only eighteen, I began to love his cousin, whose father was pastor of a church in New-Haven, and whose mother was Mr. Hammond’s sister. You have seen her. She is beautiful even now, and you can imagine how lovely Agnes Hunt was in her girlhood. She was the belle the pet of the students, and before I had known her a month, I was her accepted lover, I loved her with all the devotion of my chivalric, ardent, boyish nature, and for me she professed the most profound attachment. Her parents favored our wishes for an early marriage, but my mother refused to sanction such an idea until I completed my education, and visited the old world. I was an obedient, affectionate son then, and yielded respectfully, but as the vacation approached, I prepared to come home, hoping to prevail on mother to consent to my being married just before we sailed for Europe the ensuing year after I graduated. Murray was my confidant and adviser. In his sympathizing ears I poured all my fond hopes and he insisted that I ought to take my lovely bride with me, it would be cruel to leave her so long, and besides, he was so impatient for the happy day when he should call me cousin. He declined coming home, on the plea of desiring to prosecute his theological studies with his uncle, Mr. Hunt. Well do I recollect the parting between us. I had left Agnes in tears -- inconsolable because of my departure, and I flew to Murray for words of consolation. When I bade him good-bye my eyes were full of tears, and as he passed his arm around my shoulders, I whispered.”

     “Murray, take care of my angel. Agnes for me! Watch over and comfort her while I am away!” Alas! as I stand here to-day, I hear again ringing over the ruins of the past twenty years, his sweet loving musical tones answering:

     “My dear boy, trust her to my care. St. Elmo, for your dear sake I will steal time from my books to cheer her while you are absent. But hurry back, for you know I find black-letter more attractive than blue eyes. God bless you my precious friend. Write to me constantly.”

     “Since then, I always shudder involuntarily when I hear parting friends bless each other -- for well; well do I know the stinging curse coiled up in those smooth liquid words! I came home and busied myself in the erection of this church, in plans for Murray’s advancement in life, as well as my own. My importunity prevailed over my mother’s sensible objections, and she finally consented that I should take my bride to Europe, while I informed Mr. Hammond that I wished Murray to accompany us, that I would gladly pay his traveling expenses -- I was so anxious for him to see the East, especially Palestine. Full of happy hopes, I hurried back earlier than I had intended, and reached new Haven very unexpectedly. The night was bright with-moonshine, my heart was bright with hope, and too eager to see Agnes, whose letters had breathed the most tender solicitude and attachment, I rushed up the steps, and was told that she was walking about the flower-garden. Down the path I hurried, and stopped as I heard her silvery laugh blended with Murray’s, then my name was pronounced in tones that almost petrified me. Under a large apple tree in the parsonage-garden they sat on a wooden bench, and only the tendrils and branches of an Isabella grape-vine divided us. I stood there, grasping the vine -- looking through the leaves at the two whom I had so idolized, and saw her beautiful golden head flashing in the moonlight as she rested it on her cousin’s breast, heard and saw their kisses, heard -- what wrecked, blasted me! I heard myself ridiculed -- sneered at -- maligned, heard that I was to be a mere puppet -- a cat’s paw, that I was a doting, silly fool easily hoodwinked, that she found it difficult, almost impossible, to endure my caresses that she shuddered in my arms, and flew for happiness to his! I heard that from the beginning I had been duped, that they had always loved each other -- always would, but that poverty stubbornly barred their marriage -- and she must be sacrificed to secure my princely fortune for the use of both! All that was uttered I cannot now recapitulate, but it is carefully embalmed, and lies in the little Taj Mahal, among other cherished souvenirs of my precious friendships! While I stood there, I was transformed, the soul of St. Elmo seemed to pass away -- a fiend took possession of me, love died, hope with it and an insatiable thirst for vengeance set my blood on fire. During those ten minutes my whole nature was warped, distorted, my life blasted -- mutilated -- deformed. The loss of Agnes’ love I could have borne, nay -- fool that I was -- I think my quondam generous affection for Murray would have made me relinquish her almost resignedly, if his happiness had demanded the sacrifice on my part. If he had come to me frankly and acknowledged all, my insane idolatry would have made me place her hand in his, and remove the barrier of poverty, and the assurance that I had secured his life-long happiness would have sufficed for mine. Oh! The height and depth and marvelous strength of my love for that man passes comprehension! But their scorn, their sneers at my weak credulity, their bitter ridicule of my awkward, overgrown boyishness, stung me to desperation. I wondered if I were insane, or dreaming, or the victim of some horrible delusion. My veins ran fire as I listened to the tangling of her silvery voice with the rich melody of his, and I turned and left the garden, and walked back toward the town, the moon was full, but I staggered and groped my way like one blind to the college building I knew where a pair of pistols was kept by one of the students, and possessing myself of them, I wandered out on the road leading to the parsonage. I was aware that Murray intended coming into the town, and at last I reeled into a shaded spot near the road, and waited for him. Oh! The mocking glory of that cloudless night! To this day, l hate the cold glitter of the stars, and the golden sheen of midnight moons! For the first time in my life, I cursed the world and all it held, cursed the contented cricket singing in the grass at my feet, cursed the blood in my arteries that beat so thick and fast, I could not listen for the footsteps I was waiting for. At last I heard him whistling a favorite tune, which all our lives we have whistled together, as we hunted through the woods around Le Bocage, and, as the familiar sound of ‘The Braes of Balquither’ drew nearer and nearer, I sprang up with a cry that must have rung on the night air like the yell of some beast of prey. Of all that passed I only know that I cursed and insulted and maddened him till he accepted the pistol, which I thrust into his hand. We moved ten paces apart -- and a couple of students who happened, accidently, to pass along the road and heard our altercation, stopped at our request, gave the word of command, and we fired simultaneously. The ball entered Murray’s heart, and he fell dead without a word. I was severely wounded in the chest, and now I wear the here in my side. Ah! A precious in memoriam of murdered confidence!”

     Until now Edna had listened breathlessly, with her eyes upon his, but herd a groan escaped her, and she shuddered violently, and hid her face in her hands.

     Mr. Murray came nearer, stood close to her, and hurried on.

     “My last memory of my old idol is as he lay with his handsome, treacherous face turned up to the moon, and the hair which Agnes had been fingering dabbled with dew, and the blood that oozed down his side. When I-recovered my consciousness Murray Hammond had been three weeks in his grave. As soon as I was able to travel, my mother took me to Europe, and for five years we lived in Paris, Naples, or wandered to and fro. Then she came home, and I plunged into the heart of Asia. After two years I returned to Paris, and gave myself up to every species of dissipation. I drank, gambled, and my midnight carousals would sicken your soul, were I to paint all their hideousness’s. You read in the Scriptures of persons possessed of devils? A savage, mocking, tearing devil held me in bondage. I sold myself to my Mephistopheles, on condition that my revenge might be complete. I hated the whole world with an intolerable murderous hate, and to mock and make my race suffer was the only real pleasure I found, the very name, the bare mention of religion maddened me. A minister’s daughter, a minister’s son, a minister himself, had withered my young life, and I blasphemously derided all holy things. O Edna, my darling! It is impossible to paint all the awful wretchedness of that period, when I walked in the world seeking victims and finding many. Verily;”

‘There’s not a crime

But takes its proper change out still in crime,

If once rung on the counter of this world,

Let sinners look to it.’

 

     “Ah! Upon how many lovely women have I visited Agnes’ sin of hypocrisy! Into how many ears have I poured tender words, until fair hands were as good as offered to em, and I turned their love to mockery! I hated and despised all womanhood, and even in Paris I became celebrated as a heartless trifler with the affections I won and trampled under my feet, whenever a brilliant and beautiful woman crossed my path, I attached myself to her train of admirers, until I made her acknowledge my power and give public and unmistakable manifestation of her preference for me: then I left her -- a target for the laughter of her circle. It was not vanity, oh! No, no! That springs from self-love, and I had none. It was hate of everything human, especially of everything feminine. One of the fairest faces that ever brightened the haunts of fashion -- a queenly, elegant girl -- the pet of her family and of society, now wears serge garments and a black veil, and is immured in an Italian convent, because I entirely won her heart, and when she waited for me to declare my affection and ask her to become my wife, I quitted her side for that of another belle, and never visited her again. On the day when she bid adieu to the world, I was among the spectators, and as her mournful but lovely eyes sought mine, I laughed, and gloried in the desolation I had wrought. Sick of. Europe, I came home.....”

     “And to a part I come where no light shines.”

     “My tempting fiend pointed to one whose suffering would atone for much of my misery. Edna, I withhold nothing, there is much I might conceal, but I scorn to do so. During one terrible fatal winter, scarlet-fever had deprived Mr. Hammond of four children, leaving him an only daughter -- Annie -- the image of her brother Murray. Her health was feeble, consumption was stretching its skeleton hands toward her, and her father watched her as a gardener tends his pet -- choice -- delicate exotic. She was about sixteen, very pretty, very attractive. After Murray’s death, I never spoke to Mr. Hammond, never crossed his path, but I met his daughter without his knowledge, and finally I made her confess her love for me. I offered her my hand, she accepted it. A day was appointed for an elopement and marriage, the hour came, she left the parsonage, but I did not meet her here on the steps of this church as I had promised, and she received a note, full of scorn and derision, explaining the revengeful motives that had actuated me. Two hours later, her father found her insensible on the steps, and the marble was dripping with a hemorrhage of blood from her lungs. The dark stain is still there, you must have noticed it. I never saw her again. She kept to her room from that day, and died three months after. When on her death-bed she sent for me, but I refused to obey that summons. As I stand here, I see through the window the gray, granite vault overgrown with ivy, and the marble slab where sleep in untimely death Murray and Annie Hammond, the victims of my insatiable revenge. Do you wonder that I doubted you when you said that afflicted father, Allan Hammond, had never uttered one unkind word about me?”

     Mr. Murray pointed to a quiet corner of the church-yard but Edna did not lift her face, and he heard the half-smothered, shuddering moan that struggled up as she listened to him.

     He put his hand on hers, but she shivered and shrunk away from him.

     “Years passed, I grew more and more savage, the very power of love seems to have died out in my nature. My mother endeavored to drag me into society, but I was surfeited, sick of the world -- sick of my own excesses, and gradually I became a recluse, a surly misanthrope. How often have I laughed bitterly over these words of Mill’s: ‘yet nothing is more certain than that improvement in human affairs is wholly the work of uncontented characters!’ My indescribable, my tormenting discontent, daily belied his aphorism. My mother is a woman of stern character and sincerity of purpose, but she is worldly and ambitious and inordinately proud, and for her religion I had lost all respect. Again I went abroad, solely to kill time, was absent two years and came back. I had ransacked the world, and was disgusted, hopeless, prematurely old. A week after my return I was attacked ‘by a very malignant fever, and my life was despaired of, but I exulted in the thought that at last I should find oblivion. I refused all remedies and set at defiance all medical advice, hoping to hasten the end, but death cheated me. I rose from my bed of sickness, cursing the mockery, realizing that indeed:

..................The good die first,

And they whose hearts-are dry as summer dust

burn to the socket.’

 

     “Some months after my recovery, while I was out on a camp-hunt, you were brought to Le Bocage, and the sight of you made me more vindictive than ever I believed you selfishly designing, and I could not bear that you should remain under the same roof with me. I hated children as I hated men and women. But that day when you defied me in the park, and told me that I was sinful and cruel, I began to notice you closely. I weighed your words, watched you when you little dreamed I was present, and often concealed myself in order to listen to your conversation. I saw in your character traits that annoyed me, because they were noble, and unlike what I had believed all womanhood or girlhood to be. I was aware that you dreaded and disliked me, I saw that very clearly, every time I had occasion to speak to you. How it all came to pass I cannot tell -- I know not -- and it has always been a mystery even to me, but Edna, after the long lapse of years of sin and reckless dissipation, my heart stirred and turned to you, child though you were, and a strange, strange, invincible love for you sprang from the bitter ashes of a dead affection for Agnes Hunt. I wondered at myself, I sneered at my idiotcy, I cursed my mad folly, and tried to believe you as unprincipled as I had found others, but the singular fascination strengthened day by day. Finally I determined to tempt you, hoping your duplicity and deceit would wake me from the second dream into which I feared there was danger of my falling. Thinking that at your age curiosity was the strongest emotion, I carefully arranged the interior of the Taj Mahal, so that it would be impossible for you to open it without being discovered, and putting the key in your hands, I went abroad. I wanted to satisfy myself that you were unworthy and believed that you would betray the trust. For four years I wandered, restless, impatient, scorning myself more and more because I could not forgot your sweet, pure, haunting face, because, despite my jeers, I knew that I loved you. At last I wrote to my mother from Egypt that I would go to Central Persia, and so I intended. But one night as I sat alone, smoking amid the ruins of the Propylon at Philae, a vision of Le Bocage rose before me, and your dear face looked at me from the lotus-crowned columns of the ancient temple. I forgot the hate I bore all mankind, I forgot everything but you, your pure, calm, magnificent eyes, and the longing to see you, my darling -- the yearning to look into your-eyes once more, took possession of me, I sat there till the great, golden dawn of the desert fell upon, and but far down in the abysses of my distorted nature hope had kindled a little feeble, flickering ray. I tried to smother it, but its flame clung to some crevice in my heart, and would not be crushed. While I debated, a pigeon that dwelt somewhere in the crumbling temple fluttered down at my feet, cooed softly, looked in my face, then perched on a mutilated, red granite sphinx immediately in front of me, and after a moment rose, circled above me in the pure, rainless air and flew westward. I accepted it as an omen, and started to America instead of to Persia. On the night of the Tenth of December, four years after I bade you good-by at the park gate, I was again at Le Bocage -- Silently and undiscovered I stole into my own house, and secreted myself behind the curtains in the library. I had been there one hour before you and Gordon Leigh came in to examine the Targum. O Edna! how little you dreamed of the eager, hungry eyes that watched you, during that hour that you two sat there bending over the same book I became thoroughly convinced that while I loved you as I never expected to love any one, Gordon loved you also, and intended if possible to make you his wife. I contrasted my worn, haggard face and grayish locks with his, so full of manly hope and youthful beauty, and I could not doubt that any girl would prefer him to me Edna, my retribution began then. I felt that my devil was mocking me, as I had long mocked others, and made me love you when it was impossible to win you. Then and there I was tempted to spring upon and throttle you both before he triumphantly called you his. At last Leigh left, and I escaped to my own rooms. I was pacing the floor when I heard you cross the rotunda, and saw the glimmer of the light you carried. Hoping to see you open that little Taj, I crawled behind the sarcophagus that holds my two mummies, crouched close to the floor, and peeped at you across the gilded byssus that covered them. My eyes, I have often been told, possess magnetic or mesmeric power. At all events, you felt my eager gaze, you were restless, and searched the room to discover whence that feeling of a human presence came. Darling, were you superstitious, that you avoided looking into the dark corner where the mummies lay? Presently you stopped in front of the little tomb, and swept away the spider web, and took the key from your pocket, and as you put it into the lock I almost shouted aloud in my savage triumph! I absolutely panted to find Leigh’s future wife as unworthy of confidence as I believed the remainder of her sex. But you did not open it. You merely drove away the spider and rubbed the marble clean with your handkerchief, and-held the key between your fingers. Then my heart seemed to stand still, as I watched the light streaming over your beautiful, holy face and warm crimson dress, and when you put the key in your pocket and turned away, my groan almost betrayed me. I had taken out my watch to see the hour, and in my suspense I clutched it so tightly that the gold case and the crystal within all crushed in my hand. You heard the tinkling sound and wondered whence it came, and when you had locked the door and gone, I raised one of the windows and swung myself down to the terrace do you remember that night?”

     “Yes, Mr. Murray.”

     Her voice was tremulous and almost inaudible.

     “I had business in Tennessee, no matter now, what, or where, and I went on that night. After a week I returned, that afternoon when I found you reading in my sitting-room. Still I was skeptical, and not until I opened the tomb, was I convinced that you had not betrayed the trust which you supposed I placed in you. Then as you stood beside me, in all your noble purity and touching girlish beauty -- as you looked up half reproachfully, half defiantly at me -- it cost me a terrible effort to master myself -- to abstain from clasping you to my heart, and telling you all that you were to me. Oh! How I longed to take you in my arms, and feed my poor famished heart with one touch of your lips! I dared not look at you, lest I should lose my self control. The belief that Gordon was a successful rival sealed my lips on that occasion, and the dreary wretchedness of the days of suspense that followed. I was a starving beggar who stood before what I coveted above everything else on earth, and saw it labeled with another man’s name and beyond my reach. The daily sight of that emerald ring on your finger maddened me, and you can form no adequate idea of the bitterness of feeling with which I noted my mother’s earnest efforts and maneuvers to secure for Gordon Leigh -- to sell to him the little hand which her own son would have given worlds to claim in the sight of God and man! Continually I watched you when you least suspected me, I strewed infidel books where I knew you must see them, I tempted you more than you dreamed of teased and tormented and wounded you whenever an opportunity offered, for I hoped to find some flaw in your character, some defect in your temper, some inconsistency between your professions and your practices. I knew Leigh was not your equal, and I said bitterly, ‘She is poor and unknown, and will surely marry him for his money, for his position -- as Agnes would have married me...’ But you did not! And when I knew that you had positively refused his fortune, I felt a great dazzling light had broken suddenly upon my darkened life, and, for the first time, since I parted with Murray Hammond, tears of joy filled my eyes. I ceased to struggle against my love -- I gave myself up to it, and only asked how can I overcome her aversion to me? You were the only tie that linked me with my race, and for your sake I almost felt as if I could forget my hate. But you shrank more and more from me, and my punishment overtook me when I saw how you hated Clinton Allston’s blood-smeared hands, and with what unfeigned horror you regarded his career. When you declared so vehemently that his fingers should never touch yours -- Oh! It was fearful apprehension of losing you that made me catch your dear hands and press them to my aching heart. I was stretched upon a rook that taught me the full import of Isaac Taylor’s grim words, ‘remorse is a man’s dread prerogative!’ Believing that you knew all my history and that your aversion was based upon it, I was too proud to show you my affection. Douglass Manning was as much my friend as I permitted any man to be, we had travelled together through Arabia, and with his hand writing I was familiar. Suspecting your literary schemes, and dreading a rival in your ambition, I wrote to him on the subject, discovered all I wished to ascertain, and requested him, for my sake to reconsider, and examine your MS. He did so to oblige me, and I insisted that he should treat your letters and your MS. with such severity as to utterly crush your literary aspirations. O child! Do you see how entirely you fill my mind and heart? How I scrutinize your words and actions? O my darling --.”

     He paused and leaned over her, putting his hand on her head, but she shook off his touch and exclaimed:

     “But Gertrude! Gertrude!”

     “Be patient, and you shall know all, for as God reigns above us, there is no recess of my heart into which you shall not look. It is, perhaps, needless to tell you that Estelle came here to marry me for my fortune. It is not agreeable to say such things of one’s own cousin, but to-day I deal only in truths and facts sustain me. She professes to love me! Had absolutely avowed it more than once in days gone by. Whether she really loves anything but wealth and luxury, I have never troubled myself to find out, but my mother fancies that if Estelle were my wife, I might be less cynical. Once or twice I tried to be affectionate toward her, solely to see what effect it would have upon you, but I discovered that you could not be easily deceived in that direction -- the mask was too transparent, and besides, the game disgusted me. I have no respect for Estelle, but I have a shadowy traditional reverence for the blood in her veins, which forbids my flirting with her as she deserves. The very devil himself brought Agnes here. She had married a rich old banker only a few months after Murray’s death, and lived in ease and splendor until a short time since, when her husband failed and died, leaving her without a cent. She knew how utterly she had blasted my life, and imagined that I had never married because I still loved her! With unparalleled effrontery she came here, and trusting to her wonderfully preserved beauty, threw herself and her daughter in my way. When I heard she was at the parsonage, all the old burning hate leaped up strong as ever. I fancied that she was the real cause of your dislike to me, and that night, when the game of billiards ended, I went to the parsonage for the first time since Murray’s death. Oh! The ghostly thronging memories that met me at the gate, trooped after me up the walk, and hovered like vultures as I stood in the shadow of the trees, where my idol and I had chatted and romped and shouted and whistled in the far past, in the sinless bygone! Unobserved I stood there, and looked once more, after the lapse of twenty years, on the face that had caused my crime and ruin. I listened to her clear laugh, silvery as when I heard it chiming with Murray’s under the apple-tree on the night that had branded me, and drove me forth to wander like Cain, and I resolved, if she really loved her daughter, to make her suffer for all that she had inflicted on me. The first time I met Gertrude I could have sworn my boyhood’s love was restored to me, she is so entirely the image of what Agnes was. To possess themselves of my home and property is all that brought them here, and whether as my wife or as my mother-in-law I think Agnes cares little. The first she sees is impracticable, and now to make me wed Gertrude is her aim. Like mother, like daughter!”

     “Oh! No, no! Visit not her mother’s sins on her innocent head! Gertrude is true and affectionate, and she loves you dearly.”

     Edna spoke with a great effort, and the strange tones of her own voice frightened her.

     “Loves me? Ha, ha! Just about as tenderly as her mother did before her! That they do both ‘dearly love’ -- my heavy purse, I grant you, hear me but. Agnes threw the girl constantly and adroitly in my way, the demon here in my heart prompted revenge, and, above all, I resolved to find out whether you were indeed as utterly indifferent to me as you seemed. I know that jealously will make a woman betray her affection sooner than any other cause, and I deliberately set myself to work to make you believe that I loved that pretty cheat over yonder at the parsonage -- that frolicsome wax-doll, who would rather play with a kitten than talk to Cicero, who intercepts me almost daily, to favor me with manifestations of devotion and shows me continually that I have only to put out my hand and take her to rule over my house, and trample my heart under her pretty feet? When you gave me that note of hers a week ago, and looked so calmly, cooly in my face, I felt as if all hope were dying in my heart, for I could not believe that, if you had one atom of affection for me, you could be so generous, so unselfish, toward one whom you considered your rival. That night I did not close my eyes, and had almost decided to revisit South America, but the next morning my mother told me you were going to New York -- that all entreaties had failed to shake your resolution. Then once more a hope cheered me, and I believe that I understood why you had determined to leave those whom I know you love tenderly -- to quit the home my mother offered you and struggle among strangers. Yesterday they told me you would leave on Monday, and I went out to seek you, but you were with Mr. Hammond, and instead of you I met -- that curse of my life—Agnes! Face to face, at last, with my red-lipped Lamia! Oh! It was a scene that made jubilee down in Pandemonium! She plead for her child’s happiness -- ha, ha, ha! -- Implored me most pathetically to love her Gertrude as well as Gertrude loved me, and that my happiness would make me forget the unfortunate past! She would willingly give me her daughter, for did she not know how deep, how lasting, how deathless was my affection? I had Gertrude’s whole heart, and I was too generous to trifle with her tender love! Edna, darling, I will not tell you all she said -- you would blush for your sister-hood. But my vengeance was complete when I declined the honor she, was so eager to force upon me, when I overwhelmed her with my scorn, and told her that there was only one woman whom I respected or trusted, only one woman upon the broad earth whom I loved, only one woman who could ever be my wife, and her name was -- Edna Earl!”

     His voice died away, and all was still as the dead in their grassy graves.

     The orphan’s face was concealed, and after a moment St. Elmo Murray opened his arms, and said in that low winning tone which so many women had found it impossible to resist: “Come to me now, my pure, noble Edna. You whom I love, as only such a man as I have shown myself to be can love.”

     “No, Mr. Murray, Gertrude stands between us.”

     “Gertrude! Do not make me swear here, in your presence -- do not madden me by repeating her name! I tell you she is a silly child, who cares no more for me than her mother did before her. Nothing shall stand between us, I love you, the God above us is my witness that I love you as I never loved any human being, and I will not -- I swear I will not live without you, you are mine, and all the legions in hell shall not part us!”

     He stooped and snatched her from the chair as if she had been an infant, and folded her in his strong arms.

     “Mr. Murray, I know she loves you. My poor little trusting friend! You trifled with her warm heart, as you hope to trifle with mine, but I know you, you have shown me how utterly heartless, remorseless, unprincipled you are, you had no right to punish Gertrude for her mother’s sins, and if you had one spark of honor in your nature, you would marry her, and try to atone for the injury you have already done.”

     “By pretending to give her a heart which belongs entirely to you? If I wished to deceive you now, think you I would have told all the hideous past, which you cannot abhor one half as much as I do?”

     “Your heart is not mine! It belongs to sin, or you could not have so maliciously deceived poor Gertrude. You love nothing but your ignoble revenge and the gratification of your self-love! You --.”

     “Take care, do not rouse me. Be reasonable, little darling. You doubt my love? Well, I ought not to wonder at your skepticism. After all you have heard. But you can feel how my heart throbs against your cheek, and if you will look into my eyes, you will be convinced that I am fearfully in earnest, when I beg you to be my wife to-morrow -- to-day -- now! If you will only let me send for a minister or a magistrate! You are ----.”

     “You asked Annie to be your wife, and --.”

     “Hush! Hush! Look at me, Edna, raise your head and look at me.”

     She tried to break away, and finding it impossible, pressed both hands over her face and hid it against his shoulder.

     He laughed and whispered:

     “My darling, I know what that means. You dare not look up because you cannot trust your own eyes! Because you dread for me to see something there, which you want to hide, which you think it your duty to conceal.”

     He felt a long shudder creep over her, and she answered resolutely:

     “Do you think, sir, that I could love a murdered? A man whose hands are red with the blood of the son of my best friend?”

     “Look at me then.”

     He raised her head, drew down her hands, took them firmly in one of, his and placing the other under chin, lifted the burning face close to his own.

     She dreaded the power of his lustrous, mesmeric eyes, and instantly her long silky lashes swept her flushed cheeks.

     “Ah! You dare not! You cannot look me steadily in the eye and say, St. Elmo, I never have loved -- do not -- and never can love you! You are too truthful, your lips can not dissemble. I know you do not want to love me, your reason, your conscience forbid it, you are struggling to crush your heart, you think it your duty to despise and hate me. But, my own Edna -- -My darling! My darling! You do love me! You know you do love me, though you will not confess it! My proud darling!”

     He drew the face tenderly to his own, and kissed her quivering lips repeatedly and at last a moan of anguish told how she was wrestling with her heart.

     “Do you think you can hide your love from my eager eyes? I know that I am unworthy of you! I feel it more and more every day, every hour. It is because you seem so noble -- so holy -- to my eyes; that I reverence while I love you. You are so far above all other women -- so glorified in your pure consistent piety -- that you only have the power to make my future life -- redeem the wretched and sinful past. I tempted and tried you, and when you proved so true and honest and womanly, you kindled a faint beam of hope that, after all, there might be truth and saving, purifying power in religion. Do you know that since this church was finished I have never entered it until a month ago, when I followed you here, and crouched downstairs -- yonder behind one of the pillars, and heard your sacred songs, your hymns so full of grandeur, so full of pathos, that I could not keep back my tears while I listened? Since then I have come every Saturday afternoon, and during the hour spent here my unholy nature was touched and softened as no sermon ever touched it. Oh, you wield a power over me -- over all my future, which ought to make you tremble! The first generous impulse that has stirred my callous bitter soul since I was a boy, I owe to you. I went first to see poor Reed, in order to discover what took you so often to that cheerless place, and my interest in little Hildah arose from the fact that you loved the child; O my darling! I know I have been Sinful and cruel and blasphemous, but it is not too late for me to atone! It is not too late for me to do some good in the world, and if you will only love me, and trust me, and help me ----.”

     His voice faltered, his tears fell upon her forehead, and stooping he kissed her lips softly, reverently, as if he realized the presence of something sacred.

     “My precious Edna, no oath shall ever soil my lips again, the touch of yours has purified them. I have been mad -- I think, for many, many year, and loathe my past life, but remember how sorely I was tried, and be merciful when you judge me. With your dear little hand in mine to lead me, I will make amends for the ruin and suffering I have wrought, and my Edna -- my own wife shall save me!”

     Before the orphan’s mental vision rose the picture of Gertrude, the trembling coral mouth, the-childish wistful eyes, the lovely head nestled down so often and so lovingly on her shoulder, and she saw too the bent figure and white locks of her beloved pastor, as he sat in his old age, in his childless desolate home, facing the graves of his murdered children.

     “O Mr. Murray! You cannot atone! You cannot call your victims from their tombs. You cannot undo what you have done! What amends can you make to Mr. Hammond, and to my poor little confiding Gertrude? I cannot help you! I cannot save you!”

     “Hush! You can, you shall! Do you think I will ever give you up? Have mercy on my lonely life! My wretched darkened soul. Lean your dear head her on my heart, and say ‘St. Elmo, what a wife can do to save her erring, sinful husband, I will do for you.’ If I am ever to be saved, you, you only can effect my redemption, for I trust, I reverence you. Edna as you value my soul, my eternal welfare, give yourself to me! Give me your pure aimless life to purify mine.”

     With a sudden bound she sprang from his embrace, and lifted her arms toward the Christ, who seemed to shudder as the flickering light of fading day fell through wavering foliage upon it.

     “Look yonder to Jesus, weeping, bleeding! Only his blood and tears can wash away your guilt. Mr. Murray, I can never be your wife, I have no confidence in you. Knowing how systematically you have deceived others, how devoid of conscientious scruples you are, I should never be sure that I too was not the victim of your heartless machinations. Beside, I ----.”

     “Hush! hush! To your keeping I commit my conscience and my heart.”

     “No! No! I am not vicegerent of an outraged and insulted God! I put no faith in any man, whose conscience another keeps. From the species of fascination which you exert, I shrink with unconquerable dread and aversion, and would almost as soon entertain the thought of marrying Lucifer himself. Oh! Your perverted nature shocks, repels, astonishes, grieves me. I can neither respect nor trust you. Mr. Murray, have mercy upon yourself! Go yonder to Jesus, he only can save and purify you.”

     “Edna, you do not, you can not intend to leave me! Darling----.”

     He held out his arms and moved toward her, but she sprang past him, down the steps of the gallery, out of the church, and paused only at the sight of the dark, dull spot on the white steps, where Annie Hammond had lain insensible.

 

 

 

 

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"The Scribbling Women"
Copyright ~ Estate of Andre Norton
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