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- St. Elmo - 80/104 -
were pointed out to me in church, I saw that in your countenance which distressed and alarmed me; for its marble pallor whispered that your days were numbered. Frequently I have been tempted to come and expostulate with you, but I knew it would be useless. You have no reader who would more earnestly deplore the loss of your writings, but, for your own sake, I beg you to throw away your pen and rest."
She raised her head and a faint smile crept feebly across her face.
"Rest! rest! If my time is so short I can not afford to rest. There is so much to do, so much that I have planned, and hoped to accomplish. I am only beginning to learn how to handle my tools, my life-work is as yet barely begun. When my long rest overtakes me, I must not be found idly sitting with folded hands. Since I was thirteen years old I have never once rested; and now I am afraid I never shall. I would rather die working than live a drone."
"But, my dear Miss Earl, those who love you have claims upon you."
"I am alone in this world. I have no family to love me, and my work is to me what I suppose dear relatives must be to other women. For six years I have been studying to fit myself for usefulness, have lived with and for books; and though I have a few noble and kind friends, do you suppose I ever forget that I am kinless? It is a mournful thing to know that you are utterly isolated among millions of human beings; that not a drop of your blood flows in any other veins. My God only has a claim upon me. Dr. Howell, I thank you for your candor. It is best that I should know the truth; and I am glad that, instead of treating me like a child, you have frankly told me all. More than once I have had a singular feeling, a shadowy presentiment that I should not live to be an old woman, but I thought it the relic of childish superstition, and I did not imagine that--that I might be called away at any instant. I did not suspect that just as I had arranged my workshop, and sharpened all my tools, and measured off my work, that my morning sun would set suddenly in the glowing east, and the long, cold night fall upon me, 'wherein no man can work'--"
Her voice faltered and the physician turned away, and looked out of the window.
"I am not afraid of death, nor am I so wrapped up in the mere happiness which this world gives; no, no; but I love my work! Ah! I want to live long enough to finish something grand and noble, something that will live when the hands that fashioned it have crumbled back to dust; something that will follow me across and beyond the dark, silent valley; something that can not be hushed and straightened and bandaged and screwed down under my coffin-lid--oh! something that will echo in eternity! that grandpa and I can hear 'sounding down the ages,' making music for the people, when I go to my final rest! And, please God! I shall! I will! Oh, doctor! I have a feeling here which assures me I shall be spared till I finish my darling scheme. You know Glanville said, and Poe quoted, 'Man doth not yield himself to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.' Mine is strong, invincible; it will sustain me for a longer period than you seem to believe. The end is not yet. Doctor, do not tell people what you have told me. I do not want to be watched and pitied, like a doomed victim who walks about the scaffold with a rope already around his neck. Let the secret rest between you and me."
He looked wonderingly at the electric white face, and something in its chill radiance reminded him of the borealis light, that waves its ghostly banners over a cold midnight sky.
"God grant that I may be in error concerning your disease; and that threescore years and ten may be alloted you, to embody the airy dreams you love so well. I repeat, if you wish to prolong your days, give yourself more rest. I can do you little good; still, if at any time you fancy that I can aid or relieve you, do not hesitate to send for me. I shall come to see you as a friend, who reads and loves all that has yet fallen from your pen. God help and bless you, child!"
As he left the room she locked the door, and walked slowly back to the low mantelpiece. Resting her arms on the black marble, she laid her head down upon them, and ambition and death stared face to face, and held grim parley over the coveted prey.
Taking the probable measure of her remaining days, Edna fearlessly fronted the future, and pondered the possibility of crowding into two years the work which she had designed for twenty.
To tell the girl to "rest," was a mockery; the tides of thought ebbed and flowed as ceaselessly as those of ocean, and work had become a necessity of her existence. She was far, far beyond the cool, quiet palms of rest, far out on the burning sands; and the Bahr-Sheitan rippled and glittered and beckoned, and she panted and pressed on.
One book was finished, but before she had completed it the form and features of another struggled in her busy brain, and she longed to put them on paper.
The design of the second book appeared to her partial eyes almost perfect, and the first seemed insignificant in comparison. Trains of thought that had charmed her, making her heart throb and her temples flush; and metaphors that glowed as she wrote them down, ah! how tame and trite all looked now, in the brighter light of a newer revelation! The attained, the achieved tarnished in her grasp. All behind was dun; all beyond clothed with a dazzling glory that lured her on.
Once the fondest hopes of her heart had been to finish the book now in the publisher's hands; but ere it could be printed, other characters, other aims, other scenes usurped her attention. If she could only live long enough to incarnate the new ideal!
Moreover, she knew that memory would spring up and renew its almost intolerable torture the moment that she gave herself to aimless reveries; and she felt that her sole hope of peace of mind, her only rest, was in earnest and unceasing labor. Subtle associations, merciless as the chains of Bonnivard, bound her to a past which she was earnestly striving to forget; and she continually paced as far off as her shackles would permit, sternly refusing to sit down meekly at the foot of the stake. She worked late at night until her body was exhausted, because she dreaded to lie awake, tossing helplessly on her pillow; haunted by precious recollections of days gone by forever.
Her name was known in the world of letters, her reputation was already enviable; extravagant expectations were entertained concerning her future; and to maintain her hold on public esteem, to climb higher, had become necessary for her happiness.
Through Mr. Manning's influence and friendship she was daily making the acquaintance of leading men in literature, and their letters and conversation stimulated her to renewed exertion.
Yet she had never stooped to conciliate popular prejudices, had never written a line which her conscience did not dictate and her religious convictions sanction; had bravely attacked some of the pet vices and shameless follies of society, and had never penned a page without a prayer for guidance from on High.
Now in her path rose God's Reaper, swinging his shining sickle, threatening to cut off and lay low her budding laurel wreath.
While she stood silent and motionless in the quiet library, the woman's soul was wrestling with God for permission to toil a little while longer on earth, to do some good for her race, and to assist in saving a darkened soul almost as dear to her as her own.
She never knew how long that struggle for life lasted; but when the prayer ended, and she lifted her face, the shadows and the sorrowful dread had passed away, and the old calm, the old sweet, patient smile reigned over pale, worn features.
Early in July, Felix's feeble health forced his mother to abandon her projected tour to the White Mountains; and in accordance with Dr. Howell's advice, Mr. Andrews removed his family to a seaside summer-place, which he had owned for some years, but rarely occupied, as his wife preferred Newport, Saratoga, and Nahant.
The house at the "Willows" was large and airy, the ceilings were high, windows wide, and a broad piazza, stretching across the front, was shaded by two aged and enormous willows, that stood on either side of the steps, and gave a name to the place.
The fresh matting on the floors, the light cane sofa and chairs, the white muslin curtains and newly-painted green blinds imparted an appearance of delicious coolness and repose to the rooms; and while not one bright-hued painting was visible, the walls were hung with soft, gray, misty engravings of Landseer's pictures, framed in carved ebony and rosewood and oak.
The gilded splendor of the Fifth Avenue house was left behind; here simplicity and quiet comfort held sway. Even the china wore no glitter, but was enamelled with green wreaths of vine-leaves; and the vases held only plumy ferns, fresh and dewy.
Low salt meadow-lands extended east and west, waving fields of corn stretched northward, and the slight knoll on which the building stood sloped smoothly down to the ever-moaning, foam-fretted bosom of the blue Atlantic.
To the governess and her pupils the change from New York heat and bustle to seaside rest, was welcome and delightful; and during the long July days, when the strong ocean breeze tossed aside the willow boughs, and swept through the rustling blinds, and lifted the hair on Edna's hot temples, she felt as if she had indeed taken a new lease on life.
For several weeks her book had been announced as in press, and her publishers printed most flattering circulars, which heightened expectation, and paved the way for its favorable reception. Save the first chapter, rejected by Mr. Manning long before, no one had seen the MS., and while the reading public was on the qui vive, the author was rapidly maturing the plot of a second work.
Finally, the book was bound; editors' copies winged their way throughout the country; the curious eagerly supplied themselves with the latest publication; and Edna's destiny as an author hung in the balance.
It was with strange emotions that she handled the copy sent to her, for it seemed indeed a part of herself. She knew that her own heart was throbbing in its pages, and wondered whether the great world- pulses would beat in unison.
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