Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Abbot's Ghost, or Maurice Treherne's Temptation: A Christmas Story, Page 2

Louisa May Alcott

  Chapter II


  A right splendid old dowager was Lady Treherne, in her black velvet andpoint lace, as she sat erect and stately on a couch by the drawing-roomfire, a couch which no one dare occupy in her absence, or shareuninvited. The gentlemen were still over their wine, and the threeladies were alone. My lady never dozed in public, Mrs. Snowdon nevergossiped, and Octavia never troubled herself to entertain any guests butthose of her own age, so long pauses fell, and conversation languished,till Mrs. Snowdon roamed away into the library. As she disappeared, LadyTreherne beckoned to her daughter, who was idly making chords at thegrand piano. Seating herself on the ottoman at her mother's feet, thegirl took the still handsome hand in her own and amused herself withexamining the old-fashioned jewels that covered it, a pretext foroccupying her telltale eyes, as she suspected what was coming.

  "My dear, I'm not pleased with you, and I tell you so at once, that youmay amend your fault," began Madame Mere in a tender tone, for though ahaughty, imperious woman, she idolized her children.

  "What have I done, Mamma?" asked the girl.

  "Say rather, what have you left undone. You have been very rude to Mr.Annon. It must not occur again; not only because he is a guest, butbecause he is your--brother's friend."

  My lady hesitated over the word "lover," and changed it, for to herOctavia still seemed a child, and though anxious for the alliance, sheforbore to speak openly, lest the girl should turn willful, as sheinherited her mother's high spirit.

  "I'm sorry, Mamma. But how can I help it, when he teases me so that Idetest him?" said Octavia, petulantly.

  "How tease, my love?"

  "Why, he follows me about like a dog, puts on a sentimental look when Iappear; blushes, and beams, and bows at everything I say, if I ampolite; frowns and sighs if I'm not; and glowers tragically at every manI speak to, even poor Maurice. Oh, Mamma, what foolish creatures menare!" And the girl laughed blithely, as she looked up for the first timeinto her mother's face.

  My lady smiled, as she stroked the bright head at her knee, but askedquickly, "Why say 'even poor Maurice,' as if it were impossible foranyone to be jealous of him?"

  "But isn't it, Mamma? I thought strong, well men regarded him as one setapart and done with, since his sad misfortune."

  "Not entirely; while women pity and pet the poor fellow, his comradeswill be jealous, absurd as it is."

  "No one pets him but me, and I have a right to do it, for he is mycousin," said the girl, feeling a touch of jealousy herself.

  "Rose and Blanche Talbot outdo you, my dear, and there is no cousinshipto excuse them."

  "Then let Frank Annon be jealous of them, and leave me in peace. Theypromised to come today; I'm afraid something has happened to preventthem." And Octavia gladly seized upon the new subject. But my lady wasnot to be eluded.

  "They said they could not come till after dinner. They will soon arrive.Before they do so, I must say a few words, Tavia, and I beg you to giveheed to them. I desire you to be courteous and amiable to Mr. Annon, andbefore strangers to be less attentive and affectionate to Maurice. Youmean it kindly, but it looks ill, and causes disagreeable remarks."

  "Who blames me for being devoted to my cousin? Can I ever do enough torepay him for his devotion? Mamma, you forget he saved your son's life."

  Indignant tears filled the girl's eyes, and she spoke passionately,forgetting that Mrs. Snowdon was within earshot of her raised voice.With a frown my lady laid her hand on her daughter's lips, sayingcoldly, "I do not forget, and I religiously discharge my everyobligation by every care and comfort it is in my power to bestow. Youare young, romantic, and tender-hearted. You think you must give yourtime and health, must sacrifice your future happiness to this duty. Youare wrong, and unless you learn wisdom in season, you will find that youhave done harm, not good."

  "God forbid! How can I do that? Tell me, and I will be wise in time."

  Turning the earnest face up to her own, Lady Treherne whisperedanxiously, "Has Maurice ever looked or hinted anything of love duringthis year he has been with us, and you his constant companion?"

  "Never, Mamma; he is too honorable and too unhappy to speak or think ofthat. I am his little nurse, sister, and friend, no more, nor ever shallbe. Do not suspect us, or put such fears into my mind, else all ourcomfort will be spoiled."

  Flushed and eager was the girl, but her clear eyes betrayed no tenderconfusion as she spoke, and all her thought seemed to be to clear hercousin from the charge of loving her too well. Lady Treherne lookedrelieved, paused a moment, then said, seriously but gently, "This iswell, but, child, I charge you tell me at once, if ever he forgetshimself, for this thing cannot be. Once I hoped it might, now it isimpossible; remember that he continue a friend and cousin, nothing more.I warn you in time, but if you neglect the warning, Maurice must go. Nomore of this; recollect my wish regarding Mr. Annon, and let your cousinamuse himself without you in public."

  "Mamma, do you wish me to like Frank Annon?"

  The abrupt question rather disturbed my lady, but knowing her daughter'sfrank, impetuous nature, she felt somewhat relieved by this candor, andanswered decidedly, "I do. He is your equal in all respects; he lovesyou, Jasper desires it, I approve, and you, being heart-whole, can haveno just objection to the alliance."

  "Has he spoken to you?"

  "No, to your brother."

  "You wish this much, Mamma?"

  "Very much, my child."

  "I will try to please you, then." And stifling a sigh, the girl kissedher mother with unwonted meekness in tone and manner.

  "Now I am well pleased. Be happy, my love. No one will urge or distressyou. Let matters take their course, and if this hope of ours can befulfilled, I shall be relieved of the chief care of my life."

  A sound of girlish voices here broke on their ears, and springing up,Octavia hurried to meet her friends, exclaiming joyfully, "They havecome! they have come!"

  Two smiling, blooming girls met her at the door, and, being at anenthusiastic age, they gushed in girlish fashion for several minutes,making a pretty group as they stood in each other's arms, all talking atonce, with frequent kisses and little bursts of laughter, as vents fortheir emotion. Madame Mere welcomed them and then went to join Mrs.Snowdon, leaving the trio to gossip unrestrained.

  "My dearest creature, I thought we never should get here, for Papa had atiresome dinner party, and we were obliged to stay, you know," criedRose, the lively sister, shaking out the pretty dress and glancing atherself in the mirror as she fluttered about the room like a butterfly.

  "We were dying to come, and so charmed when you asked us, for we haven'tseen you this age, darling," added Blanche, the pensive one, smoothingher blond curls after a fresh embrace.

  "I'm sorry the Ulsters couldn't come to keep Christmas with us, for wehave no gentlemen but Jasper, Frank Annon, and the major. Sad, isn'tit?" said Octavia, with a look of despair, which caused a fresh pealof laughter.

  "One apiece, my dear, it might be worse." And Rose privately decided toappropriate Sir Jasper.

  "Where is your cousin?" asked Blanche, with a sigh of sentimentalinterest.

  "He is here, of course. I forget him, but he is not on the flirtinglist, you know. We must amuse him, and not expect him to amuse us,though really, all the capital suggestions and plans for merrymakingalways come from him."

  "He is better, I hope?" asked both sisters with real sympathy, makingtheir young faces womanly and sweet.

  "Yes, and has hopes of entire recovery. At least, they tell him so,though Dr. Ashley said there was no chance of it."

  "Dear, dear, how sad! Shall we see him, Tavia?"

  "Certainly; he is able to be with us now in the evening, and enjoyssociety as much as ever. But please take no notice of his infirmity, andmake no inquiries beyond the usual 'How do you do.' He is sensitive, andhates to be considered an invalid more than ever."

  "How charming it must be to take care of him, he is so accomplished anddelightful. I quite envy y
ou," said Blanche pensively.

  "Sir Jasper told us that the General and Mrs. Snowdon were coming. Ihope they will, for I've a most intense curiosity to see her--"began Rose.

  "Hush, she is here with Mamma! Why curious? What is the mystery? For youlook as if there was one," questioned Octavia under her breath.

  The three charming heads bent toward one another as Rose replied in awhisper, "If I knew, I shouldn't be inquisitive. There was a rumor thatshe married the old general in a fit of pique, and now repents. I askedMamma once, but she said such matters were not for young girls to hear,and not a word more would she say. _N'importe_, I have wits of myown, and I can satisfy myself. The gentlemen are coming! Am I all right,dear?" And the three glanced at one another with a swift scrutiny thatnothing could escape, then grouped themselves prettily, and waited, witha little flutter of expectation in each young heart.

  In came the gentlemen, and instantly a new atmosphere seemed to pervadethe drawing room, for with the first words uttered, several romancesbegan. Sir Jasper was taken possession of by Rose, Blanche intended todevote herself to Maurice Treherne, but Annon intercepted her, andOctavia was spared any effort at politeness by this unexpected move onthe part of her lover.

  "He is angry, and wishes to pique me by devoting himself to Blanche. Iwish he would, with all my heart, and leave me in peace. Poor Maurice,he expects me, and I long to go to him, but must obey Mamma." AndOctavia went to join the group formed by my lady, Mrs. Snowdon, thegeneral, and the major.

  The two young couples flirted in different parts of the room, andTreherne sat alone, watching them all with eyes that pierced below thesurface, reading the hidden wishes, hopes, and fears that ruled them. Asingular expression sat on his face as he turned from Octavia's clearcountenance to Mrs. Snowdon's gloomy one. He leaned his head upon hishand and fell into deep thought, for he was passing through one of thosefateful moments which come to us all, and which may make or mar a life.Such moments come when least looked for: an unexpected meeting, apeculiar mood, some trivial circumstance, or careless word produces it,and often it is gone before we realize its presence, leavingaftereffects to show us what we have gained or lost. Treherne wasconscious that the present hour, and the acts that filled it, possessedunusual interest, and would exert an unusual influence on his life.Before him was the good and evil genius of his nature in the guise ofthose two women. Edith Snowdon had already tried her power, and accidentonly had saved him. Octavia, all unconscious as she was, never failed torouse and stimulate the noblest attributes of mind and heart. A yearspent in her society had done much for him, and he loved her with astrange mingling of passion, reverence, and gratitude. He knew why EdithSnowdon came, he felt that the old fascination had not lost its charm,and though fear was unknown to him, he was ill pleased at the sight ofthe beautiful, dangerous woman. On the other hand, he saw that LadyTreherne desired her daughter to shun him and smile on Annon; heacknowledged that he had no right to win the young creature, crippledand poor as he was, and a pang of jealous pain wrung his heart as hewatched her.

  Then a sense of power came to him, for helpless, poor, and seemingly anobject of pity, he yet felt that he held the honor, peace, and happinessof nearly every person present in his hands. It was a strong temptationto this man, so full of repressed passion and power, so set apart andshut out from the more stirring duties and pleasures of life. A fewwords from his lips, and the pity all felt for him would be turned tofear, respect, and admiration. Why not utter them, and enjoy all thatwas possible? He owed the Trehernes nothing; why suffer injustice,dependence, and the compassion that wounds a proud man deepest? Wealth,love, pleasure might be his with a breath. Why not secure them now?

  His pale face flushed, his eye kindled, and his thin hand lay clenchedlike a vise as these thoughts passed rapidly through his mind. A look, aword at that moment would sway him; he felt it, and leaned forward,waiting in secret suspense for the glance, the speech which shoulddecide him for good or ill. Who shall say what subtle instinct causedOctavia to turn and smile at him with a wistful, friendly look thatwarmed his heart? He met it with an answering glance, which thrilled herstrangely, for love, gratitude, and some mysterious intelligence met andmingled in the brilliant yet soft expression which swiftly shone andfaded in her face. What it was she could not tell; she only felt that itfilled her with an indescribable emotion never experienced before. In aninstant it all passed, Lady Treherne spoke to her, and Blanche Talbotaddressed Maurice, wondering, as she did so, if the enchanting smile hewore was meant for her.

  "Mr. Annon having mercifully set me free, I came to try to cheer yoursolitude; but you look as if solitude made you happier than society doesthe rest of us," she said without her usual affectation, for his mannerimpressed her.

  "You are very kind and very welcome. I do find pleasures to beguile myloneliness, which gayer people would not enjoy, and it is well that Ican, else I should turn morose and tyrannical, and doom some unfortunateto entertain me all day long." He answered with a gentle courtesy whichwas his chief attraction to womankind.

  "Pray tell me some of your devices, I'm often alone in spirit, if not soin the flesh, for Rose, though a dear girl, is not congenial, and I findno kindred soul."

  A humorous glimmer came to Treherne's eyes, as the sentimental damselbeamed a soft sigh and drooped her long lashes effectively. Ignoring thetopic of "kindred souls," he answered coldly, "My favorite amusement isstudying the people around me. It may be rude, but tied to my corner, Icannot help watching the figures around me, and discovering their littleplots and plans. I'm getting very expert, and really surprise myselfsometimes by the depth of my researches."

  "I can believe it; your eyes look as if they possessed that gift.Pray don't study _me_." And the girl shrank away with an air ofgenuine alarm.

  Treherne smiled involuntarily, for he had read the secret of thatshallow heart long ago, and was too generous to use the knowledge,however flattering it might be to him. In a reassuring tone he said,turning away the keen eyes she feared, "I give you my word I never will,charming as it might be to study the white pages of a maidenly heart. Ifind plenty of others to read, so rest tranquil, Miss Blanche."

  "Who interests you most just now?" asked the girl, coloring withpleasure at his words. "Mrs. Snowdon looks like one who has a romance tobe read, if you have the skill."

  "I have read it. My lady is my study just now. I thought I knew herwell, but of late she puzzles me. Human minds are more full ofmysteries than any written book and more changeable than the cloudshapes in the air."

  "A fine old lady, but I fear her so intensely I should never dare to tryto read her, as you say." Blanche looked toward the object of discussionas she spoke, and added, "Poor Tavia, how forlorn she seems. Let me askher to join us, may I?"

  "With all my heart" was the quick reply.

  Blanche glided away but did not return, for my lady kept her as well asher daughter.

  "That test satisfies me; well, I submit for a time, but I think I canconquer my aunt yet." And with a patient sigh Treherne turned to observeMrs. Snowdon.

  She now stood by the fire talking with Sir Jasper, a handsome, reckless,generous-hearted young gentleman, who very plainly showed his greatadmiration for the lady. When he came, she suddenly woke up from herlistless mood and became as brilliantly gay as she had been unmistakablymelancholy before. As she chatted, she absently pushed to and fro asmall antique urn of bronze on the chimneypiece, and in doing so shemore than once gave Treherne a quick, significant glance, which heanswered at last by a somewhat haughty nod. Then, as if satisfied, sheceased toying with the ornament and became absorbed in Sir Jasper'sgallant badinage.

  The instant her son approached Mrs. Snowdon, Madame Mere grew anxious,and leaving Octavia to her friends and lover, she watched Jasper. Buther surveillance availed little, for she could neither see nor hearanything amiss, yet could not rid herself of the feeling that somemutual understanding existed between them. When the party broke up forthe night, she lingered till all were go
ne but her son and nephew.

  "Well, Madame Ma Mere, what troubles you?" asked Sir Jasper, as shelooked anxiously into his face before bestowing her good-night kiss.

  "I cannot tell, yet I feel ill at ease. Remember, my son, that you arethe pride of my heart, and any sin or shame of yours would kill me. Goodnight, Maurice." And with a stately bow she swept away.

  Lounging with both elbows on the low chimneypiece, Sir Jasper smiled athis mother's fears, and said to his cousin, the instant they were alone,"She is worried about E.S. Odd, isn't it, what instinctive antipathieswomen take to one another?"

  "Why did you ask E.S. here?" demanded Treherne.

  "My dear fellow, how could I help it? My mother wanted the general, myfather's friend, and of course his wife must be asked also. I couldn'ttell my mother that the lady had been a most arrant coquette, to put itmildly, and had married the old man in a pet, because my cousin and Ideclined to be ruined by her."

  "You _could_ have told her what mischief she makes wherever she goes,and for Octavia's sake have deferred the general's visit for a time. Iwarn you, Jasper, harm will come of it."

  "To whom, you or me?"

  "To both, perhaps, certainly to you. She was disappointed once when shelost us both by wavering between your title and my supposed fortune. Sheis miserable with the old man, and her only hope is in his death, for heis very feeble. You are free, and doubly attractive now, so beware, orshe will entangle you before you know it."

  "Thanks, Mentor. I've no fear, and shall merely amuse myself for aweek--they stay no longer." And with a careless laugh, Sir Jasperstrolled away.

  "Much mischief may be done in a week, and this is the beginning of it,"muttered Treherne, as he raised himself to look under the bronze vasefor the note. It was gone!