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The Abbot's Ghost, or Maurice Treherne's Temptation: A Christmas Story

Louisa May Alcott

  Produced by Suzanne Shell, Martin Agren, Charles Franks,and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team



  A Christmas Story

  By A.M. Barnard


  Chapter I


  "How goes it, Frank? Down first, as usual."

  "The early bird gets the worm, Major."

  "Deuced ungallant speech, considering that the lovely Octavia is theworm," and with a significant laugh the major assumed an Englishman'sfavorite attitude before the fire.

  His companion shot a quick glance at him, and an expression of anxietypassed over his face as he replied, with a well-feigned air ofindifference, "You are altogether too sharp, Major. I must be on myguard while you are in the house. Any new arrivals? I thought I heard acarriage drive up not long ago."

  "It was General Snowdon and his charming wife. Maurice Treherne camewhile we were out, and I've not seen him yet, poor fellow!"

  "Aye, you may well say that; his is a hard case, if what I heard istrue. I'm not booked up in the matter, and I should be, lest I make someblunder here, so tell me how things stand, Major. We've a good half hourbefore dinner. Sir Jasper is never punctual."

  "Yes, you've a right to know, if you are going to try your fortunewith Octavia."

  The major marched through the three drawing rooms to see that noinquisitive servant was eavesdropping, and, finding all deserted, heresumed his place, while young Annon lounged on a couch as he listenedwith intense interest to the major's story.

  "You know it was supposed that old Sir Jasper, being a bachelor, wouldleave his fortune to his two nephews. But he was an oddity, and as thetitle _must_ go to young Jasper by right, the old man said Mauriceshould have the money. He was poor, young Jasper rich, and it seemed butjust, though Madame Mere was very angry when she learned how the willwas made."

  "But Maurice didn't get the fortune. How was that?"

  "There was some mystery there which I shall discover in time. All wentsmoothly till that unlucky yachting trip, when the cousins were wrecked.Maurice saved Jasper's life, and almost lost his own in so doing. Ifancy he wishes he had, rather than remain the poor cripple he is.Exposure, exertion, and neglect afterward brought on paralysis of thelower limbs, and there he is--a fine, talented, spirited fellow tied tothat cursed chair like a decrepit old man."

  "How does he bear it?" asked Annon, as the major shook his gray head,with a traitorous huskiness in his last words.

  "Like a philosopher or a hero. He is too proud to show his despair atsuch a sudden end to all his hopes, too generous to complain, for Jasperis desperately cut up about it, and too brave to be daunted by amisfortune which would drive many a man mad."

  "Is it true that Sir Jasper, knowing all this, made a new will and leftevery cent to his namesake?"

  "Yes, and there lies the mystery. Not only did he leave it away frompoor Maurice, but so tied it up that Jasper cannot transfer it, and athis death it goes to Octavia."

  "The old man must have been demented. What in heaven's name did he meanby leaving Maurice helpless and penniless after all his devotion toJasper? Had he done anything to offend the old party?"

  "No one knows; Maurice hasn't the least idea of the cause of this suddenwhim, and the old man would give no reason for it. He died soon after,and the instant Jasper came to the title and estate he brought hiscousin home, and treats him like a brother. Jasper is a noble fellow,with all his faults, and this act of justice increases my respect forhim," said the major heartily.

  "What will Maurice do, now that he can't enter the army as he intended?"asked Annon, who now sat erect, so full of interest was he.

  "Marry Octavia, and come to his own, I hope."

  "An excellent little arrangement, but Miss Treherne may object," saidAnnon, rising with sudden kindling of the eye.

  "I think not, if no one interferes. Pity, with women, is akin to love,and she pities her cousin in the tenderest fashion. No sister could bemore devoted, and as Maurice is a handsome, talented fellow, one caneasily foresee the end, if, as I said before, no one interferes todisappoint the poor lad again."

  "You espouse his cause, I see, and tell me this that I may stand aside.Thanks for the warning, Major; but as Maurice Treherne is a man ofunusual power in many ways, I think we are equally matched, in spite ofhis misfortune. Nay, if anything, he has the advantage of me, for MissTreherne pities him, and that is a strong ally for my rival. I'll be asgenerous as I can, but I'll _not_ stand aside and relinquish the woman Ilove without a trial first."

  With an air of determination Annon faced the major, whose keen eyes hadread the truth which he had but newly confessed to himself. MajorRoyston smiled as he listened, and said briefly, as steps approached,"Do your best. Maurice will win."

  "We shall see," returned Annon between his teeth.

  Here their host entered, and the subject of course was dropped. But themajor's words rankled in the young man's mind, and would have beendoubly bitter had he known that their confidential conversation had beenoverheard. On either side of the great fireplace was a door leading to asuite of rooms which had been old Sir Jasper's. These apartments hadbeen given to Maurice Treherne, and he had just returned from London,whither he had been to consult a certain famous physician. Enteringquietly, he had taken possession of his rooms, and having rested anddressed for dinner, rolled himself into the library, to which led thecurtained door on the right. Sitting idly in his light, wheeled chair,ready to enter when his cousin appeared, he had heard the chat of Annonand the major. As he listened, over his usually impassive face passedvarying expressions of anger, pain, bitterness, and defiance, and whenthe young man uttered his almost fierce "We shall see," Treherne smileda scornful smile and clenched his pale hand with a gesture which provedthat a year of suffering had not conquered the man's spirit, though ithad crippled his strong body.

  A singular face was Maurice Treherne's; well-cut and somewhat haughtyfeatures; a fine brow under the dark locks that carelessly streaked it;and remarkably piercing eyes. Slight in figure and wasted by pain, hestill retained the grace as native to him as the stern fortitude whichenabled him to hide the deep despair of an ambitious nature from everyeye, and bear his affliction with a cheerful philosophy more patheticthan the most entire abandonment to grief. Carefully dressed, and withno hint at invalidism but the chair, he bore himself as easily andcalmly as if the doom of lifelong helplessness did not hang over him. Asingle motion of the hand sent him rolling noiselessly to the curtaineddoor, but as he did so, a voice exclaimed behind him, "Wait for me,cousin." And as he turned, a young girl approached, smiling a gladwelcome as she took his hand, adding in a tone of soft reproach, "Homeagain, and not let me know it, till I heard the good news by accident."

  "Was it good news, Octavia?" and Maurice looked up at the frank facewith a new expression in those penetrating eyes of his. His cousin'sopen glance never changed as she stroked the hair off his forehead withthe caress one often gives a child, and answered eagerly, "The best tome; the house is dull when you are away, for Jasper always becomesabsorbed in horses and hounds, and leaves Mamma and me to mope byourselves. But tell me, Maurice, what they said to you, since you wouldnot write."

  "A little hope, with time and patience. Help me to wait, dear, helpme to wait."

  His tone was infinitely sad, and as he spoke, he leaned his cheekagainst the kind hand he held, as if to find support and comfort there.The girl's face brightened beautifully, though her eyes filled, for toher alone did he betray his
pain, and in her alone did he seekconsolation.

  "I will, I will with heart and hand! Thank heaven for the hope, andtrust me it shall be fulfilled. You look very tired, Maurice. Why go into dinner with all those people? Let me make you cozy here," she addedanxiously.

  "Thanks, I'd rather go in, it does me good; and if I stay away, Jasperfeels that he must stay with me. I dressed in haste, am I right,little nurse?"

  She gave him a comprehensive glance, daintily settled his cravat,brushed back a truant lock, and, with a maternal air that was charming,said, "My boy is always elegant, and I'm proud of him. Now we'll go in."But with her hand on the curtain she paused, saying quickly, as a voicereached her, "Who is that?"

  "Frank Annon. Didn't you know he was coming?" Maurice eyed her keenly.

  "No, Jasper never told me. Why did he ask him?"

  "To please you."

  "Me! When he knows I detest the man. No matter, I've got on the color hehates, so he won't annoy me, and Mrs. Snowdon can amuse herself withhim. The general has come, you know?"

  Treherne smiled, well pleased, for no sign of maiden shame or pleasuredid the girl's face betray, and as he watched her while she peeped, hethought with satisfaction, Annon is right, _I_ have the advantage,and I'll keep it at all costs.

  "Here is Mamma. We must go in," said Octavia, as a stately old lady madeher appearance in the drawing room.

  The cousins entered together and Annon watched them covertly, whileseemingly intent on paying his respects to Madame Mere, as his hostesswas called by her family.

  "Handsomer than ever," he muttered, as his eye rested on the bloominggirl, looking more like a rose than ever in the peach-colored silk whichhe had once condemned because a rival admired it. She turned to reply tothe major, and Annon glanced at Treherne with an irrepressible frown,for sickness had not marred the charm of that peculiar face, socolorless and thin that it seemed cut in marble; but the keen eyes shonewith a wonderful brilliancy, and the whole countenance was alive with apower of intellect and will which made the observer involuntarilyexclaim, "That man must suffer a daily martyrdom, so crippled andconfined; if it last long he will go mad or die."

  "General and Mrs. Snowden," announced the servant, and a sudden pauseensued as everyone looked up to greet the newcomers.

  A feeble, white-haired old man entered, leaning on the arm of anindescribably beautiful woman. Not thirty yet, tall and nobly molded,with straight black brows over magnificent eyes; rippling dark hairgathered up in a great knot, and ornamented with a single band of gold.A sweeping dress of wine-colored velvet, set off with a dazzling neckand arms decorated like her stately head with ornaments of Roman gold.At the first glance she seemed a cold, haughty creature, born to dazzlebut not to win. A deeper scrutiny detected lines of suffering in thatlovely face, and behind the veil of reserve, which pride forced her towear, appeared the anguish of a strong-willed woman burdened by a heavycross. No one would dare express pity or offer sympathy, for her wholeair repelled it, and in her gloomy eyes sat scorn of herself mingledwith defiance of the scorn of others. A strange, almost tragical-lookingwoman, in spite of beauty, grace, and the cold sweetness of her manner.A faint smile parted her lips as she greeted those about her, and as herhusband seated himself beside Lady Treherne, she lifted her head with along breath, and a singular expression of relief, as if a burden wasremoved, and for the time being she was free. Sir Jasper was at herside, and as she listened, her eye glanced from face to face.

  "Who is with you now?" she asked, in a low, mellow voice that wasfull of music.

  "My sister and my cousin are yonder. You may remember Tavia as a child,she is little more now. Maurice is an invalid, but the finest fellowbreathing."

  "I understand," and Mrs. Snowdon's eyes softened with a suddenglance of pity for one cousin and admiration for the other, for sheknew the facts.

  "Major Royston, my father's friend, and Frank Annon, my own. Do you knowhim?" asked Sir Jasper.


  "Then allow me to make him happy by presenting him, may I?"

  "Not now. I'd rather see your cousin."

  "Thanks, you are very kind. I'll bring him over."

  "Stay, let me go to him," began the lady, with more feeling in face andvoice than one would believe her capable of showing.

  "Pardon, it will offend him, he will not be pitied, or relinquish anyof the duties or privileges of a gentleman which he can possiblyperform. He is proud, we can understand the feeling, so let us humorthe poor fellow."

  Mrs. Snowdon bowed silently, and Sir Jasper called out in his hearty,blunt way, as if nothing was amiss with his cousin, "Maurice, I've anhonor for you. Come and receive it."

  Divining what it was, Treherne noiselessly crossed the room, and with nosign of self-consciousness or embarrassment, was presented to thehandsome woman. Thinking his presence might be a restraint, Sir Jasperwent away. The instant his back was turned, a change came over both: analmost grim expression replaced the suavity of Treherne's face, and Mrs.Snowdon's smile faded suddenly, while a deep flush rose to her brow, asher eyes questioned his beseechingly.

  "How dared you come?" he asked below his breath.

  "The general insisted."

  "And you could not change his purpose; poor woman!"

  "You will not be pitied, neither will I," and her eyes flashed; then thefire was quenched in tears, and her voice lost all its pride in apleading tone.

  "Forgive me, I longed to see you since your illness, and so I'dared' to come."

  "You shall be gratified; look, quite helpless, crippled for life,perhaps."

  The chair was turned from the groups about the fire, and as he spoke,with a bitter laugh Treherne threw back the skin which covered hisknees, and showed her the useless limbs once so strong and fleet. Sheshrank and paled, put out her hand to arrest him, and cried in anindignant whisper, "No, no, not that! You know I never meant such cruelcuriosity, such useless pain to both--"

  "Be still, someone is coming," he returned inaudibly; adding aloud,as he adjusted the skin and smoothed the rich fur as if speaking ofit, "Yes, it is a very fine one, Jasper gave it to me. He spoils me,like a dear, generous-hearted fellow as he is. Ah, Octavia, what canI do for you?"

  "Nothing, thank you. I want to recall myself to Mrs. Snowdon's memory,if she will let me."

  "No need of that; I never forget happy faces and pretty pictures. Twoyears ago I saw you at your first ball, and longed to be a girl again."

  As she spoke, Mrs. Snowdon pressed the hand shyly offered, and smiled atthe spirited face before her, though the shadow in her own eyes deepenedas she met the bright glance of the girl.

  "How kind you were that night! I remember you let me chatter away aboutmy family, my cousin, and my foolish little affairs with the sweetestpatience, and made me very happy by your interest. I was homesick, andAunt could never bear to hear of those things. It was before yourmarriage, and all the kinder, for you were the queen of the night, yethad a word for poor little me."

  Mrs. Snowdon was pale to the lips, and Maurice impatiently tapped thearm of his chair, while the girl innocently chatted on.

  "I am sorry the general is such an invalid; yet I dare say you findgreat happiness in taking care of him. It is so pleasant to be of use tothose we love." And as she spoke, Octavia leaned over her cousin to handhim the glove he had dropped.

  The affectionate smile that accompanied the act made the color deepenagain in Mrs. Snowdon's cheek, and lit a spark in her softened eyes. Herlips curled and her voice was sweetly sarcastic as she answered, "Yes,it is charming to devote one's life to these dear invalids, and findone's reward in their gratitude. Youth, beauty, health, and happinessare small sacrifices if one wins a little comfort for the poorsufferers."

  The girl felt the sarcasm under the soft words and drew back with atroubled face.

  Maurice smiled, and glanced from one to the other, saying significantly,"Well for me that my little nurse loves her labor, and finds nosacrifice in it. I am fortunate in my choice."

/>   "I trust it may prove so--" Mrs. Snowdon got no further, for at thatmoment dinner was announced, and Sir Jasper took her away. Annonapproached with him and offered his arm to Miss Treherne, but with anair of surprise, and a little gesture of refusal, she said coldly:

  "My cousin always takes me in to dinner. Be good enough to escort themajor." And with her hand on the arm of the chair, she walked away witha mischievous glitter in her eyes.

  Annon frowned and fell back, saying sharply, "Come, Major, what are youdoing there?"

  "Making discoveries."