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- Tales of the Argonauts - 30/34 -
the handkerchief she put to her feverish lips. And then she suddenly grew very faint. The window seemed to recede before her, the floor to sink beneath her feet; and, staggering to the bed, she fell prone upon it with the sandal and handkerchief pressed to her breast. Her face was quite pale, the orbit of her eyes dark; and there was a spot upon her lip, another on her handkerchief, and still another on the white counterpane of the bed.
The wind had risen, rattling the window-sashes, and swaying the white curtains in a ghostly way. Later, a gray fog stole softly over the roofs, soothing the wind-roughened surfaces, and inwrapping all things in an uncertain light and a measureless peace. She lay there very quiet--for all her troubles, still a very pretty bride. And on the other side of the bolted door the gallant bridegroom, from his temporary couch, snored peacefully.
A week before Christmas Day, 1870, the little town of Genoa, in the State of New York, exhibited, perhaps more strongly than at any other time, the bitter irony of its founders and sponsors. A driving snow-storm, that had whitened every windward hedge, bush, wall, and telegraph-pole, played around this soft Italian Capitol, whirled in and out of the great staring wooden Doric columns of its post-office and hotel, beat upon the cold green shutters of its best houses, and powdered the angular, stiff, dark figures in its streets. From the level of the street, the four principal churches of the town stood out starkly, even while their misshapen spires were kindly hidden in the low, driving storm. Near the railroad- station, the new Methodist chapel, whose resemblance to an enormous locomotive was further heightened by the addition of a pyramidal row of front-steps, like a cowcatcher, stood as if waiting for a few more houses to be hitched on to proceed to a pleasanter location. But the pride of Genoa--the great Crammer Institute for Young Ladies--stretched its bare brick length, and reared its cupola plainly from the bleak Parnassian hill above the principal avenue. There was no evasion in the Crammer Institute of the fact that it was a public institution. A visitor upon its doorsteps, a pretty face at its window, were clearly visible all over the township.
The shriek of the engine of the four-o'clock Northern express brought but few of the usual loungers to the depot. Only a single passenger alighted, and was driven away in the solitary waiting sleigh toward the Genoa Hotel. And then the train sped away again, with that passionless indifference to human sympathies or curiosity peculiar to express-trains; the one baggage-truck was wheeled into the station again; the station-door was locked; and the station- master went home.
The locomotive-whistle, however, awakened the guilty consciousness of three young ladies of the Crammer Institute, who were even then surreptitiously regaling themselves in the bake-shop and confectionery-saloon of Mistress Phillips in a by-lane. For even the admirable regulations of the Institute failed to entirely develop the physical and moral natures of its pupils. They conformed to the excellent dietary rules in public, and in private drew upon the luxurious rations of their village caterer. They attended church with exemplary formality, and flirted informally during service with the village beaux. They received the best and most judicious instruction during school-hours, and devoured the trashiest novels during recess. The result of which was an aggregation of quite healthy, quite human, and very charming young creatures, that reflected infinite credit on the Institute. Even Mistress Phillips, to whom they owed vast sums, exhilarated by the exuberant spirits and youthful freshness of her guests, declared that the sight of "them young things" did her good; and had even been known to shield them by shameless equivocation.
"Four o'clock, girls! and, if we're not back to prayers by five, we'll be missed," said the tallest of these foolish virgins, with an aquiline nose, and certain quiet elan that bespoke the leader, as she rose from her seat. "Have you got the books, Addy?" Addy displayed three dissipated-looking novels under her waterproof. "And the provisions, Carry?" Carry showed a suspicious parcel filling the pocket of her sack. "All right, then. Come girls, trudge.--Charge it," she added, nodding to her host as they passed toward the door. "I'll pay you when my quarter's allowance comes."
"No, Kate," interposed Carry, producing her purse, "let me pay: it's my turn."
"Never!" said Kate, arching her black brows loftily, "even if you do have rich relatives, and regular remittances from California. Never!--Come, girls, forward, march!"
As they opened the door, a gust of wind nearly took them off their feet. Kind-hearted Mrs. Phillips was alarmed. "Sakes alive, galls! ye mussn't go out in sich weather. Better let me send word to the Institoot, and make ye up a nice bed to-night in my parlor." But the last sentence was lost in a chorus of half-suppressed shrieks, as the girls, hand in hand, ran down the steps into the storm, and were at once whirled away.
The short December day, unlit by any sunset glow, was failing fast. It was quite dark already; and the air was thick with driving snow. For some distance their high spirits, youth, and even inexperience, kept them bravely up; but, in ambitiously attempting a short-cut from the high-road across an open field, their strength gave out, the laugh grew less frequent, and tears began to stand in Carry's brown eyes. When they reached the road again, they were utterly exhausted. "Let us go back," said Carry.
"We'd never get across that field again," said Addy.
"Let's stop at the first house, then," said Carry.
"The first house," said Addy, peering through the gathering darkness, "is Squire Robinson's." She darted a mischievous glance at Carry, that, even in her discomfort and fear, brought the quick blood to her cheek.
"Oh, yes!" said Kate with gloomy irony, "certainly; stop at the squire's by all means, and be invited to tea, and be driven home after tea by your dear friend Mr. Harry, with a formal apology from Mrs. Robinson, and hopes that the young ladies may be excused this time. No!" continued Kate with sudden energy. "That may suit YOU; but I'm going back as I came,--by the window, or not at all." Then she pounced suddenly, like a hawk, on Carry, who was betraying a tendency to sit down on a snowbank, and whimper, and shook her briskly. "You'll be going to sleep next. Stay, hold your tongues, all of you,--what's that?"
It was the sound of sleigh-bells. Coming down toward them out of the darkness was a sleigh with a single occupant. "Hold down your heads, girls: if it's anybody that knows us, we're lost." But it was not; for a voice strange to their ears, but withal very kindly and pleasant, asked if its owner could be of any help to them. As they turned toward him, they saw it was a man wrapped in a handsome sealskin cloak, wearing a sealskin cap; his face, half concealed by a muffler of the same material, disclosing only a pair of long mustaches, and two keen dark eyes. "It's a son of old Santa Claus!" whispered Addy. The girls tittered audibly as they tumbled into the sleigh: they had regained their former spirits. "Where shall I take you?" said the stranger quietly. There was a hurried whispering; and then Kate said boldly, "To the Institute." They drove silently up the hill, until the long, ascetic building loomed up before them. The stranger reined up suddenly. "You know the way better than I," he said. "Where do you go in?"--"Through the back-window," said Kate with sudden and appalling frankness. "I see!" responded their strange driver quietly, and, alighting quickly, removed the bells from the horses. "We can drive as near as you please now," he added by way of explanation. "He certainly is a son of Santa Claus," whispered Addy. "Hadn't we better ask after his father?" "Hush!" said Kate decidedly. "He is an angel, I dare say." She added with a delicious irrelevance, which was, however, perfectly understood by her feminine auditors, "We are looking like three frights."
Cautiously skirting the fences, they at last pulled up a few feet from a dark wall. The stranger proceeded to assist them to alight. There was still some light from the reflected snow; and, as he handed his fair companions to the ground, each was conscious of undergoing an intense though respectful scrutiny. He assisted them gravely to open the window, and then discreetly retired to the sleigh until the difficult and somewhat discomposing ingress was made. He then walked to the window, "Thank you and good-night!" whispered three voices. A single figure still lingered. The stranger leaned over the window-sill. "Will you permit me to light my cigar here? it might attract attention if I struck a match outside." By the upspringing light he saw the figure of Kate very charmingly framed in by the window. The match burnt slowly out in his fingers. Kate smiled mischievously. The astute young woman had detected the pitiable subterfuge. For what else did she stand at the head of her class, and had doting parents paid three years' tuition?
The storm had passed, and the sun was shining quite cheerily in the eastern recitation-room the next morning, when Miss Kate, whose seat was nearest the window, placing her hand pathetically upon her heart, affected to fall in bashful and extreme agitation upon the shoulder of Carry her neighbor. "HE has come," she gasped in a thrilling whisper. "Who?" asked Carry sympathetically, who never clearly under stood when Kate was in earnest. "Who?--why, the man who rescued us last night! I saw him drive to the door this moment. Don't speak: I shall be better in a moment--there!" she said; and the shameless hypocrite passed her hand pathetically across her forehead with a tragic air.
"What can he want?" asked Carry, whose curiosity was excited.
"I don't know," said Kate, suddenly relapsing into gloomy cynicism. "Possibly to put his five daughters to school; perhaps to finish his young wife, and warn her against us."
"He didn't look old, and he didn't seem like a married man," rejoined Addy thoughtfully.
"That was his art, you poor creature!" returned Kate scornfully. "You can never tell any thing of these men, they are so deceitful Besides, it's just my fate!"
"Why, Kate," began Carry, in serious concern.
"Hush! Miss Walker is saying something," said Kate, laughing.
"The young ladies will please give attention," said a slow, perfunctory voice. "Miss Carry Tretherick is wanted in the parlor."
Meantime Mr. Jack Prince, the name given on the card, and various
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