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- St. Elmo - 50/104 -
through one of the glass doors into the park.
Edna sat down on the edge of the aquarium, and the hungry little fish crowded close to her, looking up wistfully for the crumbs she was wont to scatter there daily; but now their mute appeal was unheeded.
Her colorless face and clasped hands grew cold as the marble basin on which they rested, and the great, hopeless agony that seized her heart came to her large eyes and looked out drearily.
It was in vain that she said to herself:
"St. Elmo Murray is nothing to me; why should I care if he loves Gertrude? She is so beautiful and confiding and winning. Of course, if he knows her well he must love her. It is no business of mine. We are not even friends; we are worse than strangers; and it can not concern me whom he loves or whom he hates."
Her own heart laughed her words to scorn, and answered defiantly: "He is my king! my king! I have crowned and sceptred him, and right royally he rules!"
In pitiable humiliation she acknowledged that she had found it impossible to tear her thoughts from him; that his dark face followed--haunted her, sleeping and waking. While she shrank from his presence, and dreaded his character, she could not witness his fond manner to Gertrude without a pang of the keenest pain she had ever endured.
The suddenness of the discovery shocked her into a thorough understanding of her own feelings. The grinning fiend of jealousy had swept aside the flimsy veil which she had never before fully lifted; and looking sorrowfully down into the bared holy of holies, she saw standing between the hovering wings of golden cherubim an idol of clay demanding homage, daring the wrath of conscience, the high priest. She saw all now, and saw, too, at the same instant, whither her line of duty led.
The atmosphere was sultry, but she shivered; and if a mirror could have been held before her eyes, she would have started back from the gray, stony face so unlike hers.
It seemed so strange that the heart of the accomplished misanthrope- -the man of letters and science, who had ransacked the world for information and amusement--should surrender itself to the prattle of a pretty young thing, who could sympathize in no degree with his pursuits, and was as utterly incapable of understanding his nature as his Tartar horse or his pet bloodhound.
She had often heard Mrs. Murray say, "If there is one thing more uncertain even than the verdict of a jury--if there is one thing which is known neither in heaven, earth, or hell, and which angels and demons alike waste time in guessing at--it is what style of woman any man will fancy and select for his wife. It is utterly impossible to predict what matrimonial caprice may or may not seize even the wisest, most experienced, most practical, and reasonable of men; and I would sooner undertake to conjecture how high the thermometer stands at this instant on the crest of Mount Copernicus up yonder in the moon, than attempt to guess what freak will decide a man's choice of a bride."
Sternly Edna faced the future, and pictured Gertrude as Mr. Murray's wife; for if he loved her (and did not his eyes declare it?), of course he would sweep every objection, every obstacle to the winds, and marry her speedily. She tried to think of him--the cold, harsh scoffer--as the fond husband of that laughing child; and though the vision was indescribably painful, she forced herself to dwell upon it.
The idea that he would ever love any one or anything had never until this hour occurred to her; and while she could neither tolerate his opinions or respect his character, she found herself smitten with a great, voiceless anguish at the thought of his giving his sinful bitter heart to any woman.
"Why did she love him? Curious fool be still! Is human love the growth of human will?"
Pressing her hand to her eyes she murmured:
"Gertrude is right; he is fascinating, but it is the fascination of a tempting demon! Ah! if I had never come here, if I had never been cursed with the sight of his face! But I am no weak, silly child like Gertrude Powell; I know what my duty is, and I am strong enough to conquer, and if necessary to crush my foolish heart. Oh! I know you, Mr. Murray, and I can defy you. To-day, shortsighted as I have been, I look down on you. You are beneath me, and the time will come when I shall look back to this hour and wonder if I were temporarily bewitched or insane. Wake up! wake up! come to your senses, Edna Earl! Put an end to this sinful folly; blush for your unwomanly weakness!"
As Gertrude's merry laugh floated up through the trees the orphan lifted her head, and the blood came back to her cheeks while she watched the two figures sauntering across, the smooth lawn. Gertrude leaned on Mr. Murray's arm, and as he talked to her his head was bent down, so that he could see the flushed face shaded by her straw hat.
She drew her hand from his arm when they reached the greenhouse, and looking much embarrassed, said hurriedly:
"I am afraid I have kept you waiting an unconscionable time; but Mr. Murray had so many beautiful things to show me that I quite forgot we had left you here alone."
"I dare say your mother thinks I have run away with you; and as I have an engagement, I must either bid you good-bye and leave you here with Mr. Murray, or go back at once with you to the house."
The orphan's voice was firm and quiet; and as she handed the French paper to St. Elmo, she turned her eyes full on his face.
"Have you read it already?" he asked, giving her one of his steely, probing glances.
"No, sir, I did not open it, as I take little interest in continental politics. Gertrude, will you go or stay?"
Mr. Murray put out his hand, took Gertrude's, and said:
"Good-bye till to-morrow. Do not forget your promise."
Turning away, he went in the direction of the stables.
In silence Edna walked on to the house, and presently Gertrude's soft fingers grasped hers.
"Edna, I hope you are not mad with me. Do you really think it is wrong for me to talk to Mr. Murray, and to like him so much?"
"Gertrude, you must judge for yourself concerning the propriety of your conduct. I shall not presume to advise you; but the fact that you are unwilling to acquaint your mother with your course ought to make you look closely at your own heart. When a girl is afraid to trust her mother, I should think there were grounds for uneasiness."
They had reached the steps, and Mrs. Powell came out to meet them.
"Where have you two runaways been? I have waited a half hour for you. Estelle, do come and see me. It is very dreary at the parsonage, and your visits are cheering and precious. Come, Gertrude."
When Gertrude kissed her friend, she whispered:
"Don't be mad with me, dearie. I will remember what you said, and talk to mamma this very evening."
Edna saw mother and daughter descend the long avenue and then running up to her room, she tied on her hat and walked rapidly across the park in an opposite direction.
About a mile and a half from Le Bocage, on a winding and unfrequented road leading to a sawmill, stood a small log-house containing only two rooms. The yard was neglected, full of rank weeds, and the gate was falling from its rusty hinges.
Edna walked up the decaying steps, and without pausing to knock, entered one of the comfortless-looking rooms.
On a cot in one corner lay an elderly man in the last stage of consumption, and by his side, busily engaged in knitting, sat a child about ten years old, whose pretty white face wore that touching look of patient placidity peculiar to the blind. Huldah Reed had never seen the light, but a marvellous change came over her countenance when Edna's light step and clear, sweet voice fell on her ear.
"Huldah, how is your father to-day?"
"Not as well as he was yesterday; but he is asleep now, and will be better when he wakes."
"Has the doctor been here to-day?"
"No, he has not been here since Sunday."
Edna stood for a while watching the labored breathing of the sleeper, and, putting her hand on Huldah's head, she whispered:
"Do you want me to read to you this evening? It is late, but I shall have time for a short chapter."
"Oh! please do, if it is only a few lines. It will not wake him."
The child rose, spread out her hands, and groped her way across the room to a small table, whence she took an old Bible.
The two sat down together by the western window, and Edna asked:
"Is there any particular chapter you would like to hear?"
"Please read about blind Bartimeus sitting by the roadside, waiting for Jesus."
Edna turned to the verses and read in a subdued tone for some moments. In her eager interest Huldah slid down on her knees, rested her thin hands on her companion's lap and raised her sweet face,
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