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- St. Elmo - 30/104 -


De Guerin on the table; it will be at your disposal after to-day."

He stooped to light a cigar, and she walked away to her own room.

As the door closed behind her, he laughed and reiterated the favorite proverb that often crossed his lips, "Bithus contra Bacchium!"

CHAPTER XIII.

The darling scheme of authorship had seized upon Edna's mind with a tenacity that conquered and expelled all other purposes, and though timidity and a haunting dread of the failure of the experiment prompted her to conceal the matter, even from her beloved pastor, she pondered it in secret, and bent every faculty to its successful accomplishment. Her veneration for books--the great eleemosynary granaries of human knowledge to which the world resorts--extended to those who created them; and her imagination invested authors with peculiar sanctity, as the real hierophants annointed with the chrism of truth. The glittering pinnacle of consecrated and successful authorship seemed to her longing gaze as sublime, and well-nigh as inaccessible, as the everlasting and untrodden Himalayan solitudes appear to some curious child of Thibet or Nepaul; who gamboling among pheasants and rhododendrons, shades her dazzled eyes with her hand, and looks up awe-stricken and wondering at the ice-domes and snow-minarets of lonely Deodunga, earth's loftiest and purest altar, nimbused with the dawning and the dying light of the day. There were times when the thought of presenting herself as a candidate for admission into the band of literary esoterics seemed to Edna unpardonably presumptuous, almost sacrilegious, and she shrank back, humbled and abashed; for writers were teachers, interpreters, expounders, discoverers, or creators--and what could she, just stumbling through the alphabet of science and art, hope to donate to her race that would ennoble human motives or elevate aspirations? Was she, an unknown and inexperienced girl, worthy to be girded with the ephod that draped so royally the Levites of literature? Had God's own hand set the Urim and Thummim of Genius in her soul? Above all, was she mitred with the plate of pure gold--"Holiness unto the Lord?"

Solemnly and prayerfully she weighed the subject, and having finally resolved to make one attempt, she looked trustingly to heaven for aid and went vigorously to work. To write currente calamo for the mere pastime of author and readers, without aiming to inculcate some regenerative principle, or to photograph some valuable phase of protean truth, was in her estimation ignoble; for her high standard demanded that all books should be to a certain extent didactic, wandering like evangels among the people, and making some man, woman, or child happier, or wiser, or better--more patient or more hopeful--by their utterances. Believing that every earnest author's mind should prove a mint, where all valuable ores are collected from the rich veins of a universe--are cautiously coined, and thence munificently circulated--she applied herself diligently to the task of gathering, from various sources the data required for her projected work: a vindication of the unity of mythologies. The vastness of the cosmic field she was now compelled to traverse, the innumerable ramifications of polytheistic and monotheistic creeds, necessitated unwearied research, as she rent asunder the superstitious veils which various nations and successive epochs had woven before the shining features of truth. To-day peering into the golden Gardens of the Sun at Cuzco; to-morrow clambering over Thibet glaciers, to find the mystic lake of Yamuna; now delighted to recognize in Teoyamiqui (the wife of the Aztec God of War) the unmistakable features of Scandinavian Valkyrias; and now surprised to discover the Greek Fates sitting under the Norse tree Ygdrasil, deciding the destinies of mortals, and calling themselves Nornas; she spent her days in pilgrimages to mouldering shrines, and midnight often found her groping in the classic dust of extinct systems. Having once grappled with her theme, she wrestled as obstinately as Jacob for the blessing of a successful solution, and in order to popularize a subject bristling with recondite archaisms and philologic problems, she cast it in the mould of fiction. The information and pleasure which she had derived from the perusal of Vaughan's delightful Hours with the Mystics, suggested the idea of adopting a similar plan for her own book, and investing it with the additional interest of a complicated plot and more numerous characters. To avoid anachronisms, she endeavored to treat the religions of the world in their chronologic sequence, and resorted to the expedient of introducing pagan personages. A fair young priestess of the temple of Neith, in the sacred city of Sais--where people of all climes collected to witness the festival of lamps-- becoming skeptical of the miraculous attributes of the statues she had been trained to serve and worship, and impelled by an earnest love of truth to seek a faith that would satisfy her reason and purify her heart, is induced to question minutely the religious tenets of travellers who visited the temple, and thus familiarized herself with all existing creeds and hierarchies. The lore so carefully garnered is finally analyzed, classified, and inscribed on papyrus. The delineation of scenes and sanctuaries in different latitudes, from Lhasa to Copan, gave full exercise to Edna's descriptive power, but imposed much labor in the departments of physical geography and architecture.

Verily! an ambitious literary programme for a girl over whose head scarcely eighteen years had hung their dripping drab wintry skies, and pearly summer clouds.

One March morning, as Edna entered the breakfast-room, she saw unusual gravity printed on Mrs. Murray's face; and observing an open letter on the table conjectured the cause of her changed countenance. A moment after the master came in, and as he seated himself his mother said:

"St. Elmo, your cousin Estelle's letter contains bad news. Her father is dead; the estate is wretchedly insolvent; and she is coming to reside with us."

"Then I am off for Hammerfest and the midnight sun! Who the deuce invited her I should like to know?"

"Remember she is my sister's child; she has no other home, and I am sure it is very natural that she should come to me, her nearest relative, for sympathy and protection."

"Write to her by return mail that you will gladly allow her three thousand a year, provided she ensconces herself under some other roof than this."

"Impossible! I could not wound her so deeply."

"You imagine that she entertains a most tender and profound regard for both of us?"

"Certainly, my son; we have every reason to believe that she does."

Leaning back in his chair, St. Elmo laughed.

"I should really enjoy stumbling upon something that would overtax your most marvellous and indefinitely extensible credulity! When Estelle Harding becomes an inmate of this house I shall pack my valise, and start to Tromso! She approaches like Discord, uninvited, armed with an apple or a dagger. I am perfectly willing to share my fortune with her, but I'll swear I would rather prowl for a month through the plague-stricken district of Constantinople than see her domesticated here! You tried the experiment when she was a child, and we fought and scratched as indefatigably as those two amiable young Theban bullies, who are so often cited as scarecrows for quarrelsome juveniles. Of course, we shall renew the battle at sight."

"But, my dear son, there are claims urged by natural affection which it is impossible to ignore. Poor Estelle is very desolate, and has a right to our sympathy and love."

"Poor Estelle! Hoeredipetoe! The frailties of old Rome survive her virtues and her ruins!"

Mr. Murray laughed again, beat a tattoo with his fork on the edge of his plate, and, rising, left the room.

Mrs. Murray looked puzzled, and said: "Edna, do you know what he meant? He often amuses himself by mystifying me, and I will not gratify him by asking an explanation."

"Hoeredipetoe were legacy-hunters in Rome, where their sycophantic devotion to people of wealth furnished a constant theme for satire."

Mrs. Murray sighed heavily, and the orphan asked:

"When do you expect your niece?"

"Day after to-morrow. I have not seen her for some years, but report says she is very fascinating, and even St. Elmo, who met her in Europe, admits that she is handsome. As you heard him say just now, they formerly quarreled most outrageously and shamefully, and he took an unaccountable aversion to her; but I trust all juvenile reminiscences will vanish when they know each other better. My dear, I have several engagements for to-day, and I must rely upon you to superintend the arrangement of Estelle's room. She will occupy the one next to yours. See that everything is in order. You know Hagar is sick, and the other servants are careless."

Sympathy for Miss Harding's recent and severe affliction prepared Edna's heart to receive her cordially, and the fact that an irreconcilable feud eristed between the stranger and St. Elmo, induced the orphan to hope that she might find a congenial companion in the expected visitor.

On the afternoon of her arrival, Edna leaned eagerly forward to catch a glimpse of her countenance, and as she threw back her long mourning-veil, and received her aunt's affectionate greeting, the first impression was, "How exceedingly handsome--how commanding she is!" But a few minutes later, when Mrs. Murray introduced them, and the stranger's keen, bright, restless eyes fell upon the orphan's face, the latter drew back, involuntarily repelled, and a slight shiver crept over her, for an unerring instinctive repulsion told her they could never be friends.

Estelle Harding was no longer young; years had hardened the outline of her features, and imparted a certain staidness or fixedness to her calm countenance, where strong feeling or passionate impulse was never permitted to slip the elegant mask of polished suavity. She was surprisingly like Mrs. Murray, but not one line of her face resembled her cousin's. Fixing her eyes on Edna, with a cold, almost stern scrutiny more searching than courteous, she said:


St. Elmo - 30/104

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