At The Opera
The sun came warmly in at the great west window of the picture gallery, and showed Olive sitting before a tall frame, and working busily at the sketch that lay in her lap. Very near to her lay Jean, on a luxurious little divan, with an open book in her hands, from which she read a little now and then, and watching her sister in the meantime. It was very still, for when Olive was at work she was always too absorbed to think of aught else, and objected to being talked to, so the deep silence lay unbroken, and Jean satisfied herself with being allowed to watch to her heart's content.
At last Olive raised her head with a sigh, partly of fatigue, and partly of blissful content, and after taking a professional squint at her subject and her copy, passed it over to Jean with the remark:
"There, how do you like that, Jean? Does his nose look right?"
"Just beautiful!" cried Jean with enthusiasm. "How splendidly you do it, Olive. He looks as if he was going to speak. It must be so nice to be an artist; you'll be a great one, some day, won't you?"
"I want to be," answered Olive, who had lately learned that nothing so threw Jean into raptures, as to be appealed to, and confided in. "After I learn to draw heads just as nicely as possible, I am going to sketch yours and Ernestine's for mama."
"Are you really?" exclaimed Jean in delight, "and like that one?"
"Yes, like this," said Olive, looking at her sketch, which was a copy of a magnificent head of Demosthenes, cast in bas-relief against black velvet. "Don't you think she will like it?"
"Oh, she'll just be too happy!" cried Jean, slipping from her lounge, and limping over to Olive with her cane. "I want to talk a little while now, will you, Olive?"
The young artist cast a hasty regretful look at her drawing, and was on the point of putting off the little talk, for her fingers fairly trembled to go on with her work, and catch with her pencil the peculiar life-like expression about the mouth of the great orator; but the temptation was thrust aside, and the next moment, Jean was sitting in her lap, with the contented air of one who expects no rebuffs or unreturned caresses.
"I've been watching you so long," she began, touching with loving fingers, the long, heavy braid of beautiful hair, that had fallen over Olive's shoulder, "and I just wanted to tell you how different you look from the way you used to, you know."
"Yes," answered Olive, who had grown used to these loving bursts of admiration from the observing little girl.
"I used to think," continued Jean, "that you was the most unhappy girl I ever saw, and it made me feel so sorry, 'cause I thought it must be somebody's fault, and then I wanted to kiss you, or something, but you always looked so, I didn't know whether you'd like it or not, and so I never did."
"But I would have been glad," said Olive, who could remember very well the many times she had frozen the little girl's loving advances.
"I'll tell you why I was so unhappy, Jeanie; I thought no body loved me, and that I was in the way."
"Why, Olive! Olive!" cried Jean in greatest amaze. "How could you think so; who made you?"
"I made myself," said Olive. "I was so cross, that I made you all stay away from me, and then I thought it was because no one cared for me, because I was so ugly."
"You wasn't pretty then," was Jean's honest remark. "But you are now, really, and so splendid looking some way. You haven't got rosy cheeks like Miss Foster, nor yellow hair like Ernestine, but somehow I love to look at you, and so does Cousin Roger, 'cause sometimes when you are drawing, he just looks right straight at you all the whole time."
"Does he?" laughed Olive, and then revealed the utter want of romance in her nature, by never giving the complimentary fact another thought. "I'll tell you something, Jean, if you'll not repeat it."
"Oh, no, Olive, never!"
"Well, I'm drawing Cousin Roger's head."
"You are, and he don't know it?"
"No, I take good looks when he don't see, then go and draw awhile; it's good practise, and he has such a strong, clear face, and splendidly shaped head, that I have to work hard to make my picture good, and I find it is helping me a great deal," said Olive, with never a thought of doing a thing that might be termed romantic.
"How nice, and may I see it?"
"Yes, when it is done."
"And may I
see it?" inquired a new voice, that made them both start and turn, to see Roger Congreve coming down the gallery. "Did you hear?" asked Olive, looking a little vexed; and Jean opened her mouth to say something, then shut it in a hurry.
"No, I didn't except the last two sentences; but from the way you both look, I think it must be something that I ought to hear," answered the gentleman, sitting down on Jean's divan with a laugh.
"Tell him," whispered Jean, and as Olive looked up, and saw his head with gleams of sunshine falling across it, she realized the advantage of having it to look at steadily, and how grand his forehead was.
"Yes, I'd just as soon tell you as not," she said frankly. "I've been taking a sketch of your head."
"Have you indeed," he exclaimed, with a sudden light in his face that Olive could not understand, if indeed, she thought anything about it.
"Yes, it makes a splendid study, but I haven't made much progress, because I've had so few chances."
"Why did you do it on the sly?" he asked, hoping to detect a little confusion in her answer, such as might indicate a little deeper interest than the mere study; but not a bit of it; she answered readily enough:
"I thought you might consider it a bore to sit still, doing nothing, just for the sake of being copied, so I never said anything about it, but studied by piece-meal." "On the contrary, believe me, nothing would be greater bliss than to sit still doing nothing, by the hour, for the sake of being copied--by you," said Roger with an unmistakable accent.
"It is very kind of you, I am sure," replied Olive, on whom all such things were thrown away; as indeed he had found out long ago, being a little nettled at the discovery. Not that he was given such, to any extreme, but then he was a society man, born and bred, with all of society's pleasing little airs, which might have made him a society fool, if he had not also possessed too much manhood and good common sense. Between his handsome self, and it being known that he was "old Congreve's heir," it's a never ending wonder that he wasn't spoiled; but he had kept clear headed, and also clear hearted so far, and had come to find out that there were but few women who were not susceptible to flattery, and who would not drop into a harmless flirtation with little invitation. Therefore, when Olive came, and never seemed to regard him as any extraordinary being, he decided to make her; so after trying indifference, equal to her own awhile, he was somewhat amazed to find that his was feigned, and hers was too genuine to be complimentary; after which he tried the attentive, which rarely fails to bring a girl around, and was astonished beyond measure, to find that it was in vain. To be sure, Olive accepted his flowers, sometimes wearing a bud or two in her hair, and seemed to think it very kind in him to remember her in that way. And she went riding day after day with him, with the most hearty enjoyment, for did she not see the most magnificent scenery from the mountain roads, round which they cantered in the lovely days? And they frequently spent evenings together, when at her request he would read aloud from books she might name, and then they would discuss them, when he would find that hers was no ordinary school-girlish mind, that could be bent according to another's ideas. And so, at last, he came to feel a genuine desire to win some feeling from her, since she was rousing so much in him; but the genuine desire seemed as vain as the former idle one, for while Olive undoubtedly enjoyed his society, since he assisted her in discovering the best sketching points, and was an able conversationalist in what he had read and seen; there was nothing beyond it, and she would have enjoyed the same, just as well, in any one else. Most any girl but Olive, would have come to understand and appreciate, the evident preference he at last professed for her society, above that of the Staunton belles; and most any girl would have been flattered by the attentions which now bore sincerity in their face; but to Olive they seemed only courtesies paid to her as a guest, for which she was grateful, and gave no extra thought. She was wrapped too deeply in her art to have any thought of lovers, besides she was not at all romantic; all her cravings for affection were satisfied in the home circle, and the deeper fountains of her heart, that, once reached, would be a well-spring of deathless unchanged devotion, lay deeply buried now. So it was that Roger Congreve had met the first woman whom he could not attract in some way, who won from him the strongest feelings, and gave him nothing in return but polite friendliness; and that she should be nothing but a seventeen year old girl, was something rather humiliating. When the study on the head began, as it did the next day, it was both a pleasure and almost a pain to him to feel that he might as well have been a piece of statuary as for all the attention she gave him, aside from the long careful looks her thoughtful eyes bestowed on some particular curve to his nose, or expression about his mouth. But then it gave him plenty of time to study the quiet face, with its clear colorlessness, the lowered eyelids with curling lashes, the nose, that was purely aristocratic in its fine outline, and the wavy sweep of brown hair from the high, white brow. The study was always a pleasure to him, and made ten times stronger his resolve to win some feeling and expression thereof from her.
"Are you sleepy?" Olive asked once, when he had fallen into a reverie, and was regarding her with eyes dreamily tender. "I'm ready for your eyes now, and that expression will never do. I've put your head and face in an expression of strong defiance, and those eyes would ruin it. Look real angry for a minute, and let me catch the expression!--no, not that way, it's too fierce; but just steady and earnest, as though you were determined to do something, whether or no."
"Very well; look at me now," he said, turning his eyes on her with a flash of determination, such as set her pencil to work in a hurry. "I want to tell you that I have made up my mind to do a certain thing, which I will tell you about when accomplished."
She was too busy replacing that look on paper to heed the gracious promise; and he had the questionable pleasure of knowing that he was entirely forgotten for the next few minutes, save in the capacity of a model, and that thought accomplished what Olive wanted, for it kept that look of roused defiance in his eyes.
Occasionally old Mr. Congreve would come into the gallery and take a look at the work, on which he would pass some characteristic comment, and then depart, taking Jean with him, and saying to her with a chuckle, that sounded like intense satisfaction:
"Come along with me, Jeanie, and let's leave the young folks alone with their drawing. I guess they can manage it better alone;" and Jean would go regretfully, and with an innocent wondering how her staying would make any difference.
One evening, towards the latter part of September, Roger came up from the city, and meeting Olive on the lawn, drew two tickets from his pocket, and threw them into her lap.
MR. CONGREVE WOULD COME INTO THE GALLERY.
"There! The first opera of the season, and pretty early for that, too! but I hear they are rather good, and they give 'Bohemian Girl' to-night, so I bought tickets. Shall we go?"
"Yes, it was kind of you. I would like to hear it very much," answered Olive with a pleased smile. "Do you know, I never heard an opera in my life."
"Is it possible?" in intense surprise. "Why, we will go every night they are here, if you say so."
"Oh, no," with an air of reproof. "That would be very nice, but too extravagant. I know money is nothing to you, but then it wouldn't seem right to spend so much for mere pleasure when there are so many poor."
He looked at her in surprise for a moment, but was too modest to tell that he gave twice as much to worthy poor as he ever gave to personal pleasure; so the subject dropped, and they were silent until Olive asked, with a sudden recollection of how she had frequently heard him describe ladies' toilets:
"Do they--I will have to ask you because there is no one else--but do the ladies dress much at opera, here?"
"Just as they please. It is not so popular as formerly. Street dress is mostly worn now."
"Well, I don't know as it makes any difference, for I've got just so much to dress in, and would have to wear it anyhow," said Olive, with a composed laugh, which indicated how little she cared for what was popular aside from a polite desire to be becomingly attired in the eyes of her escort.
"Will you wear some flowers if I will send them up to you?"
"Yes, thank you."
"Why do you always thank me for every little thing as if we were perfect strangers?" he exclaimed, with a little impatience, and a sort of vague feeling that if she realized or cared for the devotion accompanying the acts, she would accept them more as a matter of course.
"Why should I not thank you?" with an air of surprise. "Is it any reason that I should not be polite since we are well acquainted?"
"No, to be sure not," with a slight laugh; "but, then--what flowers do you prefer?"
"Make your own selection."
"I shall choose white then. Are you going in?"
"Yes; this is Jean's day to go to the doctor's, and I promised to go with her," and with a little nod, she walked off and left him where he had thrown himself on the grass at her feet.
That night, many a glass was turned towards their box for Roger Congreve was too eligible not to be a perfect magnet of interest, and any lady that he might choose to show a slight preference for, became, at once, a target for glances and comments; so, for a while, Olive was conscious of a dazzling battery of eyes and glasses; but Roger noticed, with some wonder, that the fact did not seem to disturb her more than as though it had been the commonest occurrence in her life. She looked exceedingly well to-night, dressed entirely in black, with lillies-of-the-valley in her hair, and fastened in the lace at her throat, while the pleasing excitement brought a bright flash into her eyes, and more color than usual into the lips that clearly showed their curved outline.
The evening's amusement began, and progressed pleasurably through the first act, to which Olive listened attentively, saying with a little sigh of regret when the curtain fell:
"How lovely it all is! Ernestine always wanted to go on the stage! It must be delightful if one can?"
"Delightful, possibly; but a life of drudgery until one has worked to the top, and even then, there are hardships," Roger answered, noting how a look of sadness chased the gay smile from her lips when she spoke of the absent sister. Somehow, the place seemed replete with memories of Ernestine; the music which she had often played, the glitter of wealth and fashion that she always loved and longed for, the very atmosphere of gayety and excitement, such as she had always craved to draw breath in, seemed to recall her now, as Olive, caring so little for it, sat in its midst, and lost in memory. Roger regretted that any sadness should have obtruded itself, and was relieved to see, that when the curtain rose on the second act, that Olive soon became absorbed in the picturesque gypsy scene and lovely music. The robbery of Florestein was being committed with the usual success of brilliancy, and the gipsies were taking French leave, when the figure of a woman enters, drops her cloak, and--Roger sees no more. He hears a sudden painful gasp at his side, and turns to see Olive, whiter than her lilies, rising from her seat slowly, as if faint.
"Olive," he exclaimed, hastily drawing the curtain between them and the audience, but she put out her hand, and then sank back in her chair, too weak to stand, for the first time in her life:
"Ernestine!" she said, huskily. "It is Ernestine!"
In incredulous amaze, he looked back at the stage, just as the queen was leading Florestein off, and he sees a frail-looking figure heaped in gaudy toggery, that looks as though it would drag her down with its weight; and, above it, is a pale flower-like face, with great dark, weary-looking eyes, and a heavy coronet of yellow hair twisted with tinsel and gauze.
"How can I go to her?" Olive is saying with intense eagerness, and leaving her seat with a new strength. "Tell me quick, for I must go at once--tell me, quick."
"It will do no good," said Roger, laying a detaining hand on her arm. "Listen to me a moment, Olive,"--as she threw it off in wild impatience. "They would not admit us behind the scenes, and besides, do you not see how frail and weak she looks? The shock would unfit her for the rest of the performance and--"
"What do I care for that? She shall leave them at once. I will go to her. I'll go alone, if you will not go with me," cried Olive with glowing eyes and trembling lips, and moving towards the door.
"But she dare not leave, and they would not allow you to see her," said Roger earnestly. "Only wait until the performance is over, and we will be at the stage entrance to meet her as she comes out. It will be best so; believe me, and trust in my interest, that is doubly deep for your sake."
Olive hesitated, but reason conquered, and she came trembling back to her seat, saying in an excited whisper:
"I cannot look at her again; I shall certainly betray myself if I do. Oh, how deathly she looks! I cannot bear it!"
Roger did not doubt her self-control, until the gypsy queen appeared from her tent to disturb the love-scene of Thaddeus and Arline; and then, as Olive started forward and leaned against the box-rail, with parted, colorless lips, he certainly thought the name hovering on them would escape. But it did not. She pressed her hands tightly together and looked down, with such glittering eyes that it is a wonder their intense gaze did not make itself felt, and draw an answering look from the pale, worn queen, who, it was very evident, was making every particle of her strength work, to carry her through her part. Roger noticed, with an excitement almost equal to Olive's, that as she advanced to unite the lovers' hands, that she cleared her throat huskily and grew even yet paler in the tent-lights, and that twice she opened her lips before any sound crossed them. The next moment Olive had sprung to her feet, as with the first words:--
"Hand to hand, and heart to heart--"
The voice ceased, a thin stream of blood crossed the queen's white lips and the curtain was rung down in a hurry, as she fell back into the gypsy's arms and was carried off.
"This way, give me your arm," said Roger, pausing to say nothing else as they left the box and made their way through the dim little hall to the stage door. It was locked, and the most imperative and repeated knocks, failed to bring any response; and pitying the trembling eagerness that made Olive cling to his arm, he turned back, making all possible haste through the auditorium. The greater part of the audience still kept their seats to hear what would follow, but several were leaving, so that their hurrying through was hardly noticed, though neither gave it a thought. Just as they turned into the alley-way, from which the stage entrance led, a hack was seen to drive hurriedly from the door, and Olive's trembling strength almost forsook her, as she gasped out--
"That is she--they are taking her away,--and we do not know where!"
But it only took a moment to find where, to call another hack, help Olive in, to shout: "To the Virginia!" and then to be rattled off, through the darkness, in frantic haste; as cabby realized, from the excited order, that greatest speed was wanted.
Olive spoke no word through that drive, but the moment the hack stopped before the hotel, she sprang from it, and rushed into the house, appealing eagerly to the first one met--
"Where is she--the lady they have just brought in?"
"The actress? Miss Clare? Third floor, but I don't know the number."
Olive turned to see Roger coming in with a tall, kindly faced man, who hurried up stairs, while Roger said to her:
"It is the doctor, we will follow him;" and together they went up, through the dim halls, and climbing the steep stairs, until they saw him enter a door, around which several curious persons stood, and then Roger paused, saying with decision:
"You risk her life if you go in now, when she is in such a condition; the shock might bring on another hemorrhage."
"I will wait," said Olive, beginning to feel the stern necessity of rigid self-control. "But cannot you go in, and ask the doctor how she is, and ask him how long before I can see her?"
"I will try, wait here;" and Olive waited, while he went to the door, and tapped. She saw that he was refused admittance; but that in a few moments the doctor came out, and talked with him, after which they walked down to where she stood.
"Dr. Pierce, Olive; and I have told him a few of the sad facts of the case," was Roger's hurried introduction and explanation.
"And can I see her?" asked Olive, with trembling eagerness.
"I think not, but I am sorry," was the kindly answer. "The hemorrhage was not very severe, but she is perfectly prostrated with overwork and excitement, so that I would dread the effect of any shock. Besides I have given her an opiate, from which she may not wake for hours, if it has the desired effect."
"But may I not see her when she gets to sleep?" pleaded Olive, tremulously. "I will be very quiet indeed."
"Yes, you may; I will call you," answered the doctor, and then some of the bystanders brought Olive a chair, and she dropped into it, and leaning her head against the door casing, waited, hardly noticing that through the hour that followed, Roger Congreve stood close by her side and studied the pale, anxious face, while pondering the revelation made to him that evening. He had almost decided that she had no heart, simply because it had not responded to his; but had she not?
"You may come now," whispered an attendant, opening the door; and with her heart bounding so that she could scarcely stand, Olive went in slowly, and holding her breath as she drew near the bed whereon lay the motionless figure. Oh, could it be Ernestine? She stood and looked, with eyes blinded by hot tears, and once ventured to touch one of the thin waxen-like hands lying on the coverlid. Did it seem possible? Light-hearted, beautiful Ernestine Dering, and this white, shadowy, motionless being, one and the same? The face, as seen in the glare of lights, and under its gaudy trappings, was a picture of health, compared to what it was now, lying on the small, hard pillow, with the golden hair pushed straight back, and the face as pallid as marble, with sunken eyes, and pinched, white lips. Olive stood and looked for several moments, with the sobs swelling in her throat; then she knelt down beside the bed, and hid her face in the coverings, and no one disturbed her; but with Ernestine's first move she drew back, and out of sight across the room, which was needless, for the sleeper only turned her head, and then sank into that death-like stillness again.
"Has she been ill long?" asked Olive of the single woman who still remained in the room. "Do you know anything about her?"
"Oh, yes, miss. I am Madame T----, the prima donna's maid, and I helped dress Miss Clare to-night," answered the quiet-faced woman, who was nearly dead with curiosity, but stood in some awe of the tall, strange young lady. "She has not been strong any of the time since she's been with us; but yesterday, Miss Downs took sick, and Mr. Hurst, he's the manager, put Miss Clare in her place, and she's studied and sung every minute since, to be ready for to-night; and I thought when I dressed her, that she looked more like going into her coffin, than on the stage in all that toggery. She needs proper good care now, or she'll be like to die;--might you be a--friend, miss?"
"Yes; and I shall remove her from here as soon as she is able. What has she in the way of clothes, and where are they?"
"Laws! miss, not much, I guess, only that little trunk there," answered the woman, pointing to what might have been a good sized band-box, that stood in the corner, and which, in other days would hardly have held Ernestine's sashes, ribbons and trinkets, let alone the smallest corner of her wardrobe.
"I am going," said Roger, tiptoeing carefully to Olive's side. "It is past eleven, and the carriage will have come for us and gone back, and Uncle Ridley will be alarmed. I shall return immediately, and is there anything you want brought?"
"Yes," whispered Olive. "Pillows, eight or ten of them, wine, and my blue wrapper; Jean will be asleep; Bettine will get it for you;--that is all, I think;" and he went carefully away, to bear the startling news out to Congreve Hall; and Olive was left to her lonely vigil, for the troupe arrived presently from the theatre, and the maid was obliged to attend to Madame T----. Most of the performers had rooms on the third floor, and after a loiter down stairs, came up noisily, singing and chatting right by the sick-room, and Olive was horrified to hear that they stopped next door, from which place the merriment continued to flow forth unceasing. Did they not know that the sick girl lay next door, or at least that she was in the house? Olive stood it as long as she could, then sprang to her feet, and in a moment had tapped at the next door.
The sounds ceased for a moment, then some one threw it open, and the light flashed on her pale, indignant face and flashing eyes, with the wilted lilies at her throat, and the unmistakable air of a woman "born to command," in her erect head, and clear, indignant glance.
"Are you not aware,"--she had no time to couch her language in pleasing terms,--"Are you not aware that a lady lies at the point of death in the next room?"
The four men looked at the apparition in silent amaze for a moment, then one of them said, with an unmistakable hiccough and a silly smile:
"You don't say so! hic, come in, an' tell us all about it."
"Shut up, Bunce! can't you see it's a lady?" retorted he, who sheepishly held the door. "I'm--I'm sorry, mam," he continued, with a bow to Olive. "I--we--forgot; I hope we've not disturbed her much; there shall be no more noise, I promise you."
Olive disappeared, and returned to Ernestine, her heart swelling with furious indignation. If she had not been there, would the maid have gone to Madame T----, and would the sick girl have been left alone in that death-like stupor? It seemed too heartlessly cruel to be true; Olive could not understand it.
Roger Congreve returned just before twelve, and found Olive sitting alone by the sleeper, and his wrath was fully equal to hers.
"But they all know you are with her," he said, "and there are all manner of curious conjectures floating round. Here are pillows, and wine, and I have brought Bettine back with me."
"Oh, I am so glad," said Olive, with a sigh of relief, "I have been pondering what I would do if she should wake up. What did Uncle Ridley say?"
"Say? Why, it was all I could do to keep him from coming here right away; and I left him trying to comfort Jean, who was nearly in a spasm of joy. She was awake and insisted on knowing why you did not come; otherwise I should not have told her to-night. Here, Bettine, bring one of those largest pillows."
Bettine came forward from where she stood near the door, bringing a large, soft pillow, very unlike the little hard one on which Ernestine's head rested; and as Olive carefully lifted the sleeper's head, they were exchanged, without disturbing the heavy stupefied slumber.
"I think the manager will be up here in a moment," said Roger, when Olive had taken her seat and Bettine had retreated to the corner, wiping her eyes on the rough little pillow-case; and even as he spoke, there came steps in the hall and a slight tap at the door, and Bettine admitted the doctor, followed by a tall, surly-faced man, who looked fiercely around the room, and scowled at Olive, who took her seat by the bed, with an instinctive feeling that the unconscious sleeper might need her protection.
"You see for yourself," said the doctor, stepping to the bed with the stranger, after having bowed to Olive and Roger. "She is alive, and really doing better than I expected; but a slight turn may be her instant death, or she may live several months yet with perfect rest and comfort. She can never be of further use to you, for her last note had been sung, and her last act given."
The manager scowled down at the death-like sleeper.
"Nevertheless, I have a claim on her. I paid her fifty dollars in advance to buy necessary stage-wardrobe," he said, with a heartless coolness. "I never was such a fool before, but she had a fine voice and good stage air, and I thought she'd last."
Almost before he finished speaking, Olive had leaped to her feet with flashing eyes and quivering white lips, but before she could speak, Roger's quiet voice interrupted:
"Will you step this way, sir, and make out your bill against the young lady? I am quite ready to cancel all or any demands."
The manager turned and looked at him for a moment, in silence, then crossed the room with a shrug of his shoulders, and took the pencil held out to him, also the little page of blanks.
"Sign her release, while I make out your check," said Roger, drawing his bank book from his pocket, and hastily filling a page, while the manager slowly scrawled a few words on the blank, attached his name, and passed it over, receiving the check in exchange.
"It's not half what I ought to receive," he said, with surly grimace. "Here I've got to go and look up some one else, and she made the performance fizzle out to-night, besides being a deal of trouble all along with her delicate airs."
"Leave the room!" cried Olive fiercely, trembling and white with uncontrollable rage. "You have killed her. I hope you will remember it to your last day. You are her murderer, and whatever you paid her, it is more than likely she had given her life to work out for you, so what you are paid now is wages for your brutish work. Leave the room, I say; you have no longer a right here, nor any claim, if indeed you ever had one, for I tell you I don't believe you ever paid her a cent, even what you owed her, and you shall not breathe the same air with her longer."
"Young woman, be careful!" thundered the manager, growing an irate scarlet, as the fiercely uttered words rolled in upon him; but Olive met his gaze with flashing, undaunted eyes, and then the good doctor recovered from his speechless amaze and came between them, after which, Bettine, trembling with awe and fright, let the two gentlemen out. Olive dropped back into her seat, and through it all, Ernestine slept, her thin hands folded over her quiet bosom, and an air of utter repose on her face, as of one too near another world to heed struggles in this, even though they reached her weary hearing.
So the night wore on, and save the doctor returning for a moment, utter silence reigned. Olive never moved from her low seat by the bed, with her face hid. Bettine dropped asleep in her chair, and Roger, over by the window, found that his busy thoughts kept him awake for hours, but that he finally grew drowsy, and at last dropped into a doze, with his head against the casing.
As the city bell tolled the hour of three, Ernestine opened her eyes slowly, with a weary air that seemed like regret, and looked about the dimly lighted room, with only a half conscious air. Roger received a slow wondering look, then Bettine, and then her eyes fell on the figure by the bed, with crushed white flowers in her hair, and face bowed from sight; but it seemed to matter little who they all were, for she made no move and looked away beyond them all, with a dreamy air of lingering stupor, that still held thoughts and memory in check. But presently a brighter light of reason crept into the eyes that made them open wider and look about once more at the three silent figures, with more wonder and closer attention, and at last she put out her hand slowly, and touched the bowed head beside her; and startled by the light pressure, Olive raised her head quickly, and they looked at each other.
For a moment her heart stood still in terror, as the dark eyes rested on her face, then there came a feeble, husky moan of delirious joy. "Olive! Oh, Olive!" and Roger, wakened by the slight sound, sprang up, to find Ernestine fainted entirely away, and Olive rushed wildly for water; at which Bettine also awakened, and shaking with fright, as her first thought was, that Ernestine was dying. But she was not, for with moistened lips and dampened brow, they brought a feeble flutter of life back, and with the first lifting of the eyelids, Olive bent down to lay her lips to those that tried to speak.
"Not another word for your life's sake, darling. I am here. I am going to take you home to mama, but you must not speak."
Words cannot describe the incredulous joy and perfect peace that touched the wan face at the words, nor the bewildering happiness that lighted the sunken eyes, as the feeble arms tried to clasp themselves about Olive's neck, but fell weakly down.
Roger found his eyes blinded by tears as he stepped back to get the wine. "Give her some," he said, handing the glass to Olive, and slipping his arm under Ernestine's pillow to raise her head slightly, and Ernestine sipped slowly at the wine held to her lips, never once moving her eyes from Olive's face, then lay back with that contented, peaceful look, like some who, from facing despair, desperation, and the bitterest heart-ache, suddenly find themselves cradled in perfect peace, with no trouble, no want, no sadness, and too weak to wonder, hold fast their wild joy and are content.
For a long time it seemed as though Ernestine cared to know nothing, save that Olive was beside her, held her hand, and bent to kiss her every few moments; but, after a long time her eyes went to Roger, as though she had just discovered his presence, and Olive answered the question in them.
"It is our Cousin Roger, dear, and Uncle Ridley, and Jean will be here in the morning; can't you go to sleep, so as to be stronger then?"
Ernestine's lips trembled with joy, but she shut her eyes instantly, as though to win sleep and hasten the morning; but no sleep came, and so till daylight touched the world, Olive sat and held the hands that trembled eagerly, as the moments went by. At last, she grew perfectly quiet, and Olive, knowing she had dropped asleep drew back from the long-held position that had made every muscle ache.
"Won't you lie down?" whispered Roger. "You look like a ghost. I am going to sit out in the hall so as to keep things quiet when the boarders begin to leave their rooms."
"How good you are!" said Olive, looking up at him with a sudden gratitude, and noting how pale and worn he looked from the long night of sleeplessness and anxiety. "I can never thank you."
"Do not try," he answered, pressing the hand she had held out to him, and looking at her with eyes she could not have failed to read had she not been in such a tumult of absorbing thoughts, and then he went carefully out, and Olive, bidding sleepy Bettine to lie down, took her seat again by the bed, and daylight came up brightly, while she watched Ernestine's sleeping face, with eyes that were continually blinded by thankful tears.
Soon after breakfast, the carriage from the Hall came dashing up to the Virginia, and in a few moments, Mr. Congreve was stamping hurriedly up stairs, while James followed, carrying Jean, who was trembling like a leaf with eager excitement.
"God bless my soul! I never did!" cried Mr. Congreve, as Roger, hearing them coming, met them at the top of the last flight. "Such thundering stairs! Why I sha'n't breathe straight again for a month, and I don't want to go in on the dear child puffing like a crazy porpoise. Let me sit right down here to blow my nose and get my breath. How is she, Roger?"
"Better this morning. She ate a little breakfast and drank some wine, but is very weak yet. Jeanie, that is the room. You may go in, but go quietly," said Roger, and Jean, being placed on the floor, almost forgot to use her cane, as she limped hurriedly along.
Ernestine was watching the door with eager, hungry eyes, and the moment Jean appeared, she held out her feeble hands, and the next moment, Jean's kisses were covering her face, and the little girl was saying in joyous eagerness:
"I knew God would bring you back. I've asked Him every night since you went away. Oh, my precious, darling, Ernestine, I'm so glad that I can't help crying," the delighted sobs bubbling up as she spoke; while Ernestine, forbidden to speak, fondled the curly hair and dear little face, and feebly smiled her happiness.
"Well, my child, God bless you, I'm glad we've got you again," was Mr. Congreve's greeting, as he came in, making every effort not to be noisy or speak too loud, in consequence of which, his voice was dropped to a sepulchral whisper, and he walked as if the floor was spread with eggs. But his kind, sharp eyes were full of tears, his voice shook, and he held her frail hand as though it was a precious wafer, that slight pressure might demolish.
"The doctor was here, just now," said Olive, "He says we may take her out home by to-morrow, if she continues to do well."
"Yes, yes, to be sure," answered Mr. Congreve, retreating to the corner and employing both hands and an immense handkerchief to wipe away the tears. "Has the child everything that she wants, Olive? I--God bless my soul! she looks half dead already, as though she had been starved and treated like a dog! Confound my eyes! but then I must cry; I'd like to take a good out and out bellow, I would, indeed; I haven't felt so stuffed with tears for fifty years. Have you sent word to your mother?"
"No; I wanted to ask you about it. Ernestine is out of danger, and yet, if mama knows she is found and so ill, it will make her sick with anxiety and waiting, so I thought we had better wait until she is able to be taken home, then write."
"Just so, exactly; you're right, no doubt. I hope the dear child can be moved to-morrow, for this place is like a musty chicken coop; I wouldn't put my worst enemy's dog in such a room, and I think I'll go down and blow off my feelings by telling the man who runs this shanty, just what I think of him;" and away went the excited old gentleman in a hurry, after telling Olive once more to spare no expense, if the dear child wanted anything.
The next day Ernestine was taken to Congreve Hall.
How many times had the girls thought of Ernestine, with her beauty, her grace, and queenly little airs, as being in Congreve Hall. How they had imagined her ornamenting its stately rooms, sweeping through the great halls, and queening it to her happy heart's content, a fit inmate to its splendor.
Now, on a bed, that could be lifted from the carriage, by two careful servants, and slowly taken in at the great entrance, wan, wasted, and helpless, Ernestine was going into Congreve Hall at last.