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- From Jest to Earnest - 50/79 -
had driven up to town, crossed on the ferry-boat, and were paying some visits on the other side of the river.
He now purposed to call again as soon as they returned, but was unexpectedly detained until quite late in the evening. He approached the familiar place that now enshrined, to him, the jewel of the world, in both a humble and an heroic mood. He would not presume again, but in silence live worthily of his love for one so lovely. He would be more than content--yes, grateful--if she would deign to help him climb toward her moral height.
As he stood on the piazza, after ringing the door-bell, he was in greater trepidation than when he had made his first plea in court, and was so intent in trying to frame his thoughts into appropriate language that he did not note for the moment that no one answered. Again he rang, but there was no response. There were lights in the house, and he knocked upon the door quite loudly. A housemaid soon after appeared, with a scared and anxious face.
"Is Miss Martell at home?" he asked, a sudden boding of evil chilling his heart.
"Indade an' she is not. Would to God she was!"
"What do you mean?"
"Faix, an' I'm sure I'm glad ye's come, Misther Harcourt. The coachman is down at the shore, and he'll tell ye all."
Harcourt dashed through the snow and shrubbery, over rocks and down steeps that gave him one or two severe falls, that he might, the nearest way, reach Mr. Martell's boat-house. Here he found the coachman peering out upon the dark waters, and occasionally uttering a hoarse, feeble shout, which could scarcely be heard above the surf that beat with increasing heaviness upon the icy beach.
The man seemed nearly exhausted with cold and anxiety, and was overjoyed at seeing Harcourt; but he told the young man a story which filled him with deepest alarm. It was to this effect:
Mr. and Miss Martell had been delayed in leaving a friend's house on the opposite side of the river until it was too late to reach the boat on which it was their intention to cross. They had been prevailed upon by their hospitable host to send their sleigh up to a later boat, while they remained for an early supper, and then should cross in a boat rowed by an experienced oarsman, who was a tenant on the gentleman's place.
"It was quite a bit after dark when I got back, but Mr. Martell and the young lady hadn't come over yet. I first thought they was goin' to stay all night, and that I should go arter them in the mornin'; but the woman as sews says how she was sittin' at one of the upper winders, and how she sees, just afore night, a light push out from t'other side and come straight across for a long while, and then turn and go down stream. I'm afeard they've caught in the ice."
"But what became of the light?" asked Harcourt, half desperate with fear and anxiety.
"Well, the woman as sews says it went down and down as long as she could see."
A faint scream from the house now arrested their attention, and hastening up the bank they heard the servants crying from the upper windows of the mansion, "There it comes! there it comes again!"
Harcourt rushed to the second story of the house. A door leading into an apartment facing the river was open, and without a thought he entered and threw open the blinds. Away to the south, where the river enters the Highlands, he saw a faint light, evidently that of the lantern carried in the boat. Familiar with the river, the whole state of things flashed upon him. In the last of the ebb tide their boat had become entangled in the ice, but had been carried down no very great distance. Now that the tide had turned, it was coming back, with the mass of ice in which it had become wedged.
And could that faint glimmer indicate the presence of the one who never before had been so dear? Could Miss Martell, the child of luxury, so beautiful and yet so frail and delicate, be out in the darkness and cold of this winter night, perishing perhaps, with the lights of this her elegant home full in view?
Then, for the first time, he recognized that the room he was in must be Miss Martell's sleeping apartment. Though the light was low and soft, it revealed an exquisite casket, in keeping with the jewel it had once held, but might no more enshrine. On every side were the evidences of a refined but Christian taste, and also a certain dainty beauty that seemed a part of the maiden herself, she having given to the room something of her own individuality.
It would be hard to describe Harcourt's sensation as a hasty glance revealed the character of the place. He felt somewhat as a devout Greek might, had he stumbled into the sacred grotto of his most revered goddess.
But this thought was uppermost in his mind,--"Here is where she should be; yonder--terrible thought--is where she is. What can I do?"
Again he dashed back to the shore, calling the coachman to follow him. When the man reached the water's edge, he found that Harcourt had broken open the boat-house, and was endeavoring to get out the boat.
"Ye'll gain nothing there, wid that big boat," said the coachman. "The master has been away so long that it's all out o' order. The water can get in it as soon as yerself. The young lady's little scollop--the one as is called Naughty Tillus--is sent away for the winter."
"Stop your cursed croaking," cried Harcourt, excitedly, "and help me out with this boat. If I can't save her, I can at least drown with her."
"Divil a lift will I give ye. It will do the master and young lady no good, and I'll not have your drownding on my conscience."
Harcourt soon found that he could not manage the large boat alone, and the matches he struck to guide him revealed that the man had spoken truly, and that the craft was in no condition for the service he proposed.
"Great God!" he cried, "is there no way to save her?"
He sprang upon the boat-house, and there, away to the south, was the dim light coming steadily up the stream. The moon had not yet risen; the sky was overcast with wildly flying clouds; the wind was rising, and would drive and grind the ice more fiercely. It was just the night for a tragedy, and he felt that if he saw that light disappear, as a sign that the boat had been crushed and its occupants swallowed up by the wintry tide, the saddest tragedy of the world would have taken place.
He groaned and clenched his hands in his impotent anguish.
"O God!" he cried, "what can I do to save her."
He clasped his throbbing temples, and tried to think. It soon occurred to him that Mrs. Marchmont's boat might be in better condition. Hemstead was strong and brave, and would assuredly join him in the effort to rescue them. Without a word he rushed up the bank, sprang into his cutter, gave his spirited horse a cut from the whip, which caused him at once to spring into a mad gallop, and so vanished from the eyes of the bewilderd and terrified servants, who were left alone to their increasing fears.
"Save her,--save her," muttered the coachman, as, stiff and numb with cold, he followed Harcourt more slowly to the house. "It's kind o' queer how he forgits about the old man."
A TRUE KNIGHT.
As the dusk deepened into night upon this memorable evening, Hemstead stood at the parlor window, and looked out so long and intently that Lottie joined him at last, and asked, "What can you see without, and in the darkness, so much more attractive than anything within?"
"Do you see that faint light out there upon the river?"
"Well, I've been watching it for some time, and it troubles me. I noticed this afternoon that there was ice coming down with the tide. Is it possible that some one, in crossing with a small boat, has been caught in the ice and carried downward?"
"Why should you think that? Nothing is more common than lights upon the river at night."
"Yes, but not of late. Since the last severe cold I have noticed that the river was almost deserted, and the papers state that it is freezing north of us. But it is the peculiarity in the movement of the light that perplexes me. When I saw it first, it appeared as if coming across the river. Suddenly, when quite over toward this side, it seemed to stop a moment, then turn directly down the stream."
"Uncle," cried Lottie, "you know all about the river. How do you account for what Mr. Hemstead has seen?" and she explained.
"Lights are very deceptive at night, especially upon the water," said Mr. Dimmerly, sententiously. "It's probably a hardy water-rat of a boatman dropping down with the tide to a point opposite to where he wishes to land."
"Yes, that is it, Mr. Hemstead, so dismiss your fears. Your brow is as clouded as that murky sky there."
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