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- St. Elmo - 60/104 -
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 years, and I loath 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.
"Oh, Mr. Murray! You can not atone! You can not call your victims from their tombs. You can not undo what you have done! What amends can you make to Mr. Hammond, and to my poor little confiding Gertrude? I can not help you! I can not 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 here 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 your pure, sinless 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 waving foliage upon it.
"Look yonder to Jesus, bleeding! Only his blood 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 cynicism. Beside, I--"
"Hush! hush! To your keeping I commit my conscience and my heart."
"No! no! I am no 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 sight of the dark, dull spot on the white steps, where Annie Hammond had lain insensible.
An hour later, St. Elmo Murray raised his face from the mahogany railing where it had rested since Edna left him, and looked around the noble pile which his munificence had erected. A full moon eyed him pityingly through the stained glass, and the gleam of the marble pulpit was chill and ghostly; and in that weird light the Christ was threatening, wrathful, appalling.
As St. Elmo stood there alone, confronting the picture--confronting the past-memory, like the Witch of Endor, called up visions of the departed that were more terrible than the mantled form of Israel's prophet; and the proud, hopeless man bowed his haughty head, with a cry of anguish that rose mournfully to the vaulted ceiling of the sanctuary:
"It went up single, echoless, 'My God! I am forsaken!'"
The weather was so inclement on the following day that no service was held in the church; but, notwithstanding the heavy rain, Edna went to the parsonage to bid adieu to her pastor and teacher. When she ascended the steps Mr. Hammond was walking up and down the portico with his hands clasped behind him, as was his habit when engrossed by earnest thought; and he greeted his pupil with a degree of mournful tenderness very soothing to her sad heart.
Leading the way to his study, where Mrs. Powell sat with an open book on her lap, he said gently:
"Agnes, will you be so kind as to leave us for a while? This is the last interview I shall have with Edna for a long time, perhaps forever, and there are some things I wish to say to her alone. You will find a better light in the dining-room, where all is quiet."
As Mrs. Powell withdrew he locked the door, and for some seconds paced the floor; then, taking a seat on the chintz-covered lounge beside his pupil, he said eagerly:
"St. Elmo was at the church yesterday afternoon. Are you willing to tell me what passed between you?"
"Mr. Hammond, he told me his melancholy history. I know all now-- know why he shrinks from meeting you, whom he has injured so cruelly; know all his guilt and your desolation."
The old man bowed his white head on his bosom, and there was a painful silence. When he spoke, his voice was scarcely audible.
"The punishment of Eli has fallen heavily upon me, and there have been hours when I thought that it was greater than I could bear-- that it would utterly crush me; but the bitterness of the curse has passed away; and I can say truly of that 'meekest angel of God,' the Angel of Patience:
'He walks with thee, that angel kind, And gently whispers, Be resigned; Bear up, bear on; the end shall tell, The dear Lord ordereth all things well!'
"I tried to train up my children in the fear and admonition of the Lord; but I must have failed signally in my duty, though I have never been able to discover in what respect I was negligent. One of the sins of my life was my inordinate pride in my only boy--my gifted, gifted, handsome son. My love for Murray was almost idolatrous; and when my heart throbbed with proudest hopes and aspirations, my idol was broken and laid low in the dust; and, like David mourning for his rebellious child Absalom, I cried out in my affliction, 'My son! my son! would God I had died for thee!' Murray Hammond was my precious diadem of earthly glory; and suddenly I found myself uncrowned, and sackcloth and ashes were my portion."
"Why did you never confide these sorrows to me? Did you doubt my earnest sympathy?"
"No, my child; but I thought it best that St. Elmo should lift the veil and show you all that he wished you to know. I felt assured that the time would come when he considered it due to himself to acquaint you with his sad history; and when I saw him go into the church yesterday I knew that the hour had arrived. I did not wish to prejudice you against him; for I believe that through your agency the prayers of twenty years would be answered, and that his wandering, embittered heart would follow you to that cross before which he bowed in his boyhood. Edna, it was through my son's sin and duplicity that St. Elmo's noble career was blasted, and his most admirable character perverted; and I have hoped and believed that through your influence, my beloved pupil, he would be redeemed from his reckless course. My dear little Edna, you are very lovely and winning, and I believe he would love you as he never loved any one else. Oh! I have hoped everything from your influence! Far, far beyond all computation is the good which a pious, consistent, Christian wife can accomplish in the heart of a husband who truly loves her."
"Oh, Mr. Hammond! you pain and astonish me. Surely you would not be willing to see me marry a man who scoffs at the very name of religion; who wilfully deceives and trifles with the feelings of all who are sufficiently credulous to trust his hollow professions-- whose hands are red with the blood of your children! What hope of happiness or peace could you indulge for me, in view of such a union? I should merit all the wretchedness that would inevitably be my life--long portion if, knowing his crimes, I could consent to link my future with his."
"He would not deceive you, my child! If you knew him as well as I do, if you could realize all that he was before his tender, loving heart was stabbed by the two whom he almost adored, you would judge him more leniently. Edna, if I whom he has robbed of all that made life beautiful--if I, standing here in my lonely old age, in sight of the graves of my murdered darlings--if I can forgive him, and pray for him, and, as God is my witness, love him! you have no right to visit my injuries and my sorrows upon him!"
Edna looked in amazement at his troubled earnest countenance, and exclaimed:
"Oh! if he knew all your noble charity, your unparalleled magnanimity, surely, surely, your influence would be his salvation! His stubborn, bitter heart would be melted. But, sir, I should have a right to expect Annie's sad fate if I could forget her sufferings and her wrongs."
Mr. Hammond rose and walked to the window, and after a time, when he resumed his seat, his eyes were full of tears, and his wrinkled face was strangely pallid.
"My darling Annie, my sweet, fragile flower, my precious little daughter, so like her sainted mother! Ah! it is not surprising that she could not resist his fascinations. But, Edna, he never loved my pet lamb. Do you know that you have become almost as dear to me as my own dead child? She deceived me! she was willing to forsake her father in his old age; but through long years you have never once betrayed my perfect confidence."
The old man put his thin hand on the orphan's head and turned the countenance toward him.
"My dear little girl, you will not think me impertinently curious when I ask you a question, which my sincere affection for and interest in you certainly sanction? Do you love St. Elmo?"
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