Page images
PDF
EPUB

"A great object ?"

"To avenge the blood of the innocent upon the head of the ruthless destroyer."

“And thou believest still in that object of pursuit, my Winnifred ?" “ Believe it, Tiny ! it is a part of my religious faith." “ Even so.”

“Has not Alaric himself instructed me in his proceedings, and wamed me against putting false constructions upon conduct which might otherwise appear in the light of question ?"

A bright beam lighted up the countenance of Tiny as she gazed upon the loving face of her foster-brother's betrothed; and turning away she muttered softly to herself

“The pure soul cannot perceive the flaw in other natures. To it all is invested with the reflex of its own translucent clearness. Heaven bless Winnifred, and strengthen her faith even in spite of demonstrative evidence!”

“ Did you speak to me, Tiny ?" “No, dear Winnifred.”

“Do you think Alaric will be home to-day? Do you think he will come, Tiny ?” said Winnifred, after a pause.

“I do not know. He has sent no message.”

“Ah, well! I must have patience. His work is not yet done. Who is that?”

This ejaculation was elicited by a heavy tread, which now became audible on the outer landing ; both turned round, and the next moment the doorway was darkened by the tall and graceful figure of Alaric St. Valerie.

"Alaric !” almost screamed Winnifred, rushing towards him with open arms.

"I am parched, Winnifred,” said Alaric, with a repulsive wave of the hand. “ Have you any water ?”.

"Here," said Winnifred, filling a glass from a tumbler of pure liquid that stood at hand.

"Thank you. I was exhausted,” said Alaric, returning the empty glass. “I am better now.”

"You are ill, Alaric,” said Winnifred, tenderly; "so heavy a burden upon your mind! It is too much for you."

“It is so," said Alaric, breathing heavily. “The burden—too much for heart and brain-for heart and brain, Winnifred !”

“ Dear Alaric !”

“ Not that, Winnifred !” said Alaric, starting, and averting his face. " For God's sake, not that!”

“ What ails you, Alaric ?" said Winnifred. « There is some distemper of body as well as of mind. Dear, dear Alaric !”

“Winnifred !” said Alaric, taking her two hands in his, and gazing with a wild haggard expression into her countenance; " we are not the shapers of our own destiny, neither are we the gaolers of our passions and desires; we may strive to keep them within the prescribed limits of prudence and convention, but, in the end, nature will assert her prerogative; and our feelings, bursting these narrow boundaries, make their way into a province as vast as the huge universe of matter in which we move. I must go on, Winnifred, though what I have to add will make you hate me.”

"I cannot hate what I have once loved, Alaric," said Winnifred, gently. “But go on."

“The heart is an incongruous myth, Winnifred," said Alaric, in a voice husky with emotion. “Why it is it should prefer the semblance of truth to the real inherent thing itself, I do not know—but so it is. And the heart is a self-developed spontaneity, Winnifred, and will not be coerced.”

“You are right in that, Alaric. Go on."

“I have become the object of my own detestation, Winnifred. It is a craven heart that you would covet. The interests of all objects out of myself have sunk into insignificancy, in the growing intensity of my own heartless selfishness. I seek only my own individual enjoyment in the present; if, in so doing, I entail suffering and disaster upon others -I cannot help it. I am incapable of wrestling with the demon in my soul.”

“ Alaric !” said Winnifred, “what is all this to result in ?"

“ Winnifred,” said Alaric, his voice growing hoarser and hoarser with his increasing emotion, “my heart is changed; it no longer reposes in the love it once so coveted—that love no longer suffices to satisfy its yearnings !”

“ You have ceased to love me, Alaric ?"
A low moan was his only answer.
"You love Estelle St. Clair !
"It is a passion !

passion !” said Alaric, suddenly. « A madness! I have struggled against it-striven to cast it behind me like an unholy spectre that lured my body to my soul's destruction—but 'tis useless. It rises before me like the oft-returning colours of the spectrum, and destroys the very faculty of volition. I am no longer a being endowed with free-will and self-dependent energies, but the slave of an idol who fetters me irresistibly to her shrine. I must love her, or die-die-die!”

And he buried his face in his hands.

“ Alaric, my Alaric !” said Winnifred, softly. “This is but an hallucination of the brain-the fever of an overwrought imagination. You need rest, my Alaric. Alas! it is the physician you require, and not the mistress.”

"Winnifred !.” said Alaric, rising and pacing up and down the room. “Do not deceive yourself—it is a thraldom that can never be uplifted from my heart this side the grave-in the eternal I may be delivered—but in time, never. It is all over with me in this world, unless—” he drew his hand across his forehead. “ But 'tis useless speculating. Her love is the single bond uniting soul to body; without it each must separate, and the spirit penetrate unfettered the mysterious regions of the infinite. With her, life-without her, death! Winnifred, is our engagement cancelled ?"

I love thee, Alaric !” said Winnifred. “Thy happiness is mine." “ Then I am free ?”

“I would not hold thee but as a willing bondsmar ;" was the reply of Winnifred.

“Heaven bless thee, Winnifred !” said Alaric, taking her hand and raising it to his lips. “This heroic self-denial will meet its reward in

this life or the next. I have still left sufficient reason glimmering through the mists of lawless passion to perceive the ignominy of my conduct, and to despise my own ungoverned nature. God forgive me! I leave suffering behind me, but an irresistible impulse urges me forward in a mad pursuit of selfish enjoyment, regardless of the claims of honour, justice, or religion. Farewell, Winnifred! God bless you! God bless

you!”

With a gesture of wild, reckless abandonment, he dashed through the

а open doorway, and Tiny and Winnifred were left alone.

Winnifred stood with her elbow resting against the casement, and her head supported in her hand.

Tiny crept noiselessly to the top of an adjacent stool, and laid her head lovingly on her adopted sister's bosom.

“Winnifred," said Tiny, in a soft, plaintive voice ; “Winnifred, you are suffering."

" It is good to suffer, Tiny." “ You are weeping."

“Not for myself, Tiny, but for him-Alaric. He follows what he thinks a flowery path ; little recking that when he rounds the curve that shrouds the wilderness, the flowers will turn to bristles.”

“Right !” said Tiny sadly. “The flowers will turn to bristles.”

“ This is a disease—a madness !” said Winnifred. “He will survive it.”

“Ha!" ejaculated Tiny.
“He will be disenchanted of his idol."
“Well ?"

“He will be amazed at his folly, and return to the shrine he has deserted."

“ Thou thinkest so ?”

“I know so, Tiny. I will win him back-the task may be difficult, but I will achieve it."

“ Achieve it! By what means ? “By faith.” “ Ah! Faith in what?” “In the permanency of his affection, and the integrity of his feelings." “In spite of his own assertion to the contrary ?”

“Yes,” said Winnifred, “he is suffering under an hallucination for which he is not responsible. It is but temporary. Relieve the burden of distemper from his mind, and his affection is permanent-his feelings are just.”

" Thy faith is strong, Winnifred.” “It shall not waver, Tiny."

Right," said Tiny; " by faith all things shall be accomplished.” “ Even so I have been taught to believe from my cradle.”

May the end be as thou hast prophesied, my Winnifred!“Do not doubt it,” said Winnifred. “In the future all shall be amended. He will come back to me, Tiny, never fear; he will come back to me.

Dear Alaric !"

CHAPTER X.

THE SHADOW OF DEATH.

In a high vaulted chamber, whose lofty arches and rich mosaic carvings were in strange contrast with the pale attenuated figure that lay beneath the silken trappings of the ornamented couch, was the expiring Lord St. Valerie. Supported against the pillows upon which reposed the head of the venerable patriarch, was the elfin form of Tiny, bathing with cool refreshing liquids the forehead of her more than parent; on the other side of the bed, her hands clasped lovingly between the fingers of the dying sage, knelt the betrothed of her foster-brother, Winnifred. At the head of the couch stood the experienced leech, whose grey hairs and silvery beard illustrated a long toilsome life, spent in alleviating the sufferings of his stricken brethren.

In the sick chamber nothing further was visible, save a dim shadow, so diminutive as to be scarcely cognizable to the human faculties, stealing along the sides of the tesselated floor-slowly, slowly—up the quaint and decorated walls-stealthily, stealthily-across the stained and sombre casements, casting as it goes its dim reflection upon the sculptured ceiling--creeping, creeping—advancing as the seconds circle into minutes, the minutes into hours, nearer and nearer beneath the canopy of the sick man's couch. And as the eternal sands pursue their onward course through time's unerring hour-glass, Lord St. Valerie sinks faster and faster beneath the burden of his mortal sickness; and, as the sun

declines further and further towards the horizon, his prayers grow fervent and more fervent for the return of the prodigal, who, at this awful moment, is absent from his post, basking in the loathsome sunshine of unlawful passion.

“No tidings yet,” he murmured; “has the strayed sheep departed for ever from the fold? How long is it since the messenger was despatched ? "

“Since break of day, my father," replied Winnifred.

“Ah, who is it speaks?" cried the dying man, making a sudden movement on his pillow ; "who calls me father? Father-I loved the name when I heard it lisped from Alaric's infant lips—when I heard it sped so sweetly from the mouth of his doomed brother. But now-one is in his grave, and the other—I have no son—no son—no son!” and he buried his face in the counterpane.

“ Am not I thy child ? ” said Winnifred, soothingly; "am not I thy child, my father?

« Thou shouldst have been," said the dying patriarch, “thou shouldst have been ; but he left thee, too-thee, his betrothed-his honour-the world-all, all, for her; the false-hearted, the unrepenting one !"

"Ere the sun has sunk to rest he will be here, my father.”

“ Alas! the sun is even now dissolving into the glow of a crimson setting. The messenger went forth at daybreak, he should have cheered the bed of his dying parent before the sun's meridian.”

Winnifred held down her head.

“Tiny, my foster-child,” said Lord St. Valerie, addressing the foundling he had reared and fostered, “thou hast oft-times prophesied too truly of coming evil. If thou hast prescience, speak. Thinkest thou thy foster-brother will be here to-night?”

u Tiny is but mortal,” said his foster-child; "she cannot penetrate the veil of mysteries. The future is to her, even as to thee, a darkened landscape. She cannot speak by reason of her ignorance."

St. Valerie put his hand to his forehead and groaned.

Nearer and nearer approached the shadow to the sick man's bedside; creeping so stealthily as if afraid of its own dread purpose. But no one heeded it; all eyes were turned upon Lord St. Valerie, whose tears of bitterness and parental anxiety fell heavily upon the snow-white sheets between which his venerable form was shrouded.

“He will not come !” he exclaimed at length, throwing up his arms in despair. “I shall die, and my degenerate son unreclaimed from the error of his ways."

Still crept the shadow along the tesselated floor-slowly, slowlyuntil it arrived at the very foot of the gilded bedstead; then, pondering on its inscrutable mission, awhile it lingered.

« PreviousContinue »