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- At the Mercy of Tiberius - 3/103 -
"Mother dear, humor my childish whim. In defiance of my wishes and judgment, and solely in obedience to your command, I am leaving you for the first time, on a bitterly painful and humiliating mission. To-night, let me be indeed your little girl once more. My heart brings me to your knees, to say my prayers as of yore, and now while I pray, lay your dear pretty hands on my head. It will seem like a parting benediction; a veritable Nunc dimmitas."
"I do not want a carriage. If the distance is only a mile and a half, I can easily walk. After leaving town is there a straight road?"
"Straight as the crow flies, when you have passed the factory, and cemetery, and turned to the left. There is a little Branch running at the foot of the hill, and just across it, you will see the white palings, and the big gate with stone pillars, and two tremendous brass dogs on top, showing their teeth and ready to spring. There's no mistaking the place, because it is the only one left in the country that looks like the good old times before the war; and the Yankees would not have spared it, had it not been such comfortable bombproof headquarters for their officers. It's our show place now, and General Darrington keeps it up in better style, than any other estate I know."
"Thank you. I will find it."
Beryl walked away in the direction indicated, and the agent of the railway station, leaning against the door of the baggage room, looked with curious scrutiny after her.
"I should like to know who she is. No ordinary person, that is clear. Such a grand figure and walk, and such a steady look in her big solemn eyes, as if she saw straight through a person, clothes, flesh and all. Wonder what her business can be with the old general?"
From early childhood Beryl had listened so intently to her mother's glowing descriptions of the beauty and elegance of her old home "Elm Bluff," that she soon began to identify the land-marks along the road, alter passing the cemetery, where so many generations of Darringtons slept in one corner, enclosed by a lofty iron railing; exclusive in death as in life; jealously guarded and locked from contact with the surrounding dwellers in "God's Acre."
The October day had begun quite cool and crisp, with a hint of frost in its dewy sparkle, but as though vanquished Summer had suddenly faced about, and charged furiously to cover her retreat, the south wind came heavily laden with hot vapor from equatorial oceanic caldrons; and now the afternoon sun, glowing in a cloudless sky, shed a yellowish glare that burned and tingled like the breath of a furnace; while along the horizon, a dim dull haze seemed blotting out the boundary of earth and sky.
A portion of the primeval pine forest having been preserved, the trees had attained gigantic height, thrusting their plumy heads heavenward, as their lower limbs died; and year after year the mellow brown carpet of reddish straw deepened, forming a soft safe nidus for the seeds that sprang up and now gratefully embroidered it with masses of golden rod, starry white asters, and tall, feathery spikes of some velvety purple bloom, which looked royal by the side of a cluster of belated evening primroses.
Pausing on the small but pretty rustic bridge, Beryl leaned against the interlacing cedar boughs twisted into a balustrade, and looked down at the winding stream, where the clear water showed amber hues, flecked with glinting foam bubbles, as it lapped and gurgled, eddied and sang, over its bed of yellow gravel. Unacquainted with "piney- woods' branches," she was charmed by the novel golden brown wavelets that frothed against the pillars of the bridge, and curled caressingly about the broad emerald fronds of luxuriant ferns, which hung Narcissus-like over their own graceful quivering images. Profound quiet brooded in the warm, hazy air, burdened with balsamic odors; but once a pine burr full of rich nutty mast crashed down through dead twigs, bruising the satin petals of a primrose; and ever and anon the oboe notes of that shy, deep throated hermit of ravines--the russet, speckled-breasted lark--thrilled through the woods, like antiphonal echoes in some vast, cool, columned cloister.
The perfect tranquillity of the scene soothed the travel-weary woman, as though nestling so close to the great heart of nature, had stilled the fierce throbbing, and banished the gloomy forebodings of her own; and she walked on, through the iron gate, where the bronze mastiffs glared warningly from their granite pedestal--on into the large undulating park, which stretched away to meet the line of primitive pines. There was no straight avenue, but a broad smooth carriage road curved gently up a hillside, and on both margins of the graveled way, ancient elm trees stood at regular intervals, throwing their boughs across, to unite in lifting the superb groined arches, whose fine tracery of sinuous lines were here and there concealed by clustering mistletoe--and gray lichen masses--and ornamented with bosses of velvet moss; while the venerable columnar trunks were now and then wreathed with poison-oak vines, where red trumpet flowers insolently blared defiance to the waxen pearls of encroaching mistletoe.
On the other side, the grounds were studded with native growth, as though protective forestry statutes had crossed the ocean with the colonists, and on this billowy sea of varied foliage Autumn had set her illuminated autograph, in the vivid scarlet of sumach and black gum, the delicate lemon of wild cherry--the deep ochre all sprinkled and splashed with intense crimson, of the giant oaks--the orange glow of ancestral hickory--and the golden glory of maples, on which the hectic fever of the dying year kindled gleams of fiery red;-- over all, a gorgeous blazonry of riotous color, toned down by the silver gray shadows of mossy tree-trunks, and the rich, dark, restful green of polished magnolias.
Half a dozen fine Cotswold ewes browsed on the grass, and the small bell worn by a staid dowager tinkled musically, as she threw up her head and watched suspiciously the figure moving under the elm arches. Beneath the far reaching branches of a patriarchal cedar, a small herd of Jersey calves had grouped themselves, as if posing for Landseer or Rosa Bonheur; and one pretty fawn-colored weanling ran across the sward to meet the stranger, bleating a welcome and looking up, with unmistakable curiosity in its velvety, long-lashed eyes.
As the avenue gradually climbed the ascent, the outlines of the house became visible; a stately, typical southern mansion, like hundreds, which formerly opened hospitably their broad mahogany doors, and which, alas! are becoming traditional to this generation- -obsolete as the brave chivalric, warm-hearted, open-handed, noble- souled, refined southern gentlemen who built and owned them. No Mansard roof here, no pseudo "Queen Anne" hybrid, with lowering, top-heavy projections like scowling eyebrows over squinting eyes; neither mongrel Renaissance, nor feeble, sickly, imitation Elizabethan facades, and Tudor towers; none of the queer, composite, freakish impertinences of architectural style, which now-a-day do duty as the adventurous vanguard, the aesthetic vedettes "making straight the way," for the coming cohorts of Culture.
The house at "Elm Bluff" was built of brick, overcast with stucco painted in imitation of gray granite, and its foundation was only four feet high, resting upon a broad terrace of brickwork; the latter bounded by a graceful wooden balustrade, with pedestals for vases, on either side of the two stone steps leading down from the terrace to the carriage drive. The central halls, in both stories, divided the space equally into four rooms on each side, and along the wide front, ran a lofty piazza supporting the roof, with white smooth round pillars; while the upper broad square windows, cedar- framed, and deeply embrasured, looked down on the floor of the piazza, where so many generations of Darringtons had trundled hoops in childhood--and promenaded as lovers in the silvery moonlight, listening to the ring doves cooing above them, from the columbary of the stucco capitals. This spacious colonnade extended around the northern and eastern side of the house, but the western end had formerly been enclosed as a conservatory--which having been abolished, was finally succeeded by a comparatively modern iron veranda, with steps leading down to the terrace. In front of the building, between the elm avenue and the flower-bordered terrace, stood a row of very old poplar trees, tall as their forefathers in Lombardy, and to an iron staple driven into one of these, a handsome black horse was now fastened.
Standing with one foot on the terrace step, close to the marble vases where heliotropes swung their dainty lilac chalices against her shoulder, and the scarlet geraniums stared unabashed, Beryl's gaze wandered from the lovely park and ancient trees, to the unbroken facade of the gray old house; and as, in painful contrast she recalled the bare bleak garret room, where a beloved invalid held want and death at bay, a sudden mist clouded her vision, and almost audibly she murmured: "My poor mother! Now, I can realize the bitterness of your suffering; now I understand the intensity of your yearning to come back; the terrible home-sickness, which only Heaven can cure."
What is presentiment? The swaying of the veil of futurity, under the straining hands of our guardian angels? Is it the faint shadow, the solemn rustle of their hovering wings, as like mother birds they spread protecting plumes between blind fledglings, and descending ruin? Will theosophy ever explain and augment prescience?
"It may be-- The thoughts that visit us, we know not whence, Sudden as inspiration, are the whispers Of disembodied spirits, speaking to us As friends, who wait outside a prison wall, Through the barred windows speak to those within."
With difficulty Beryl resisted an inexplicable impulse to turn and flee; but the drawn sword of duty pointed ahead.
Striking her hands together, as if thereby crushing her reluctance to enter, she waited a moment, with closed eyes, while her lips moved in silent prayer; then ascending the terrace, she crossed the stone pavement, walked up the stops and slowly advanced to the threshold. The dark mahogany door was so glossy, that she dimly saw her own image on its polished panels, as she lifted and let fall the heavy silver knocker, in the middle of an oval silver plate, around the edges of which were raised the square letters of the name "Darrington." The clanging sound startled a peacock, strutting among the verbena beds, and his shrill scream was answered by the deep hoarse bark of some invisible dog; then the heavy door swung open, and a gray-headed negro man, who wore a white linen apron over his
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