What Answer?

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5. Chapter V



"A breathing sigh, a sigh for answer,
A little talking of outward things.
"

JEAN INGELOW

Ah, the weeks that followed! People ate and drank and slept, lived and loved and hated, were born and died,--the same world that it had been a little while before, yet not the same to them,--never to seem quite the same again. A little cloud had fallen between them and it, and changed to their eyes all its proportions and hues.

They were incessantly together, riding, or driving, or walking, looking at pictures, dancing at parties, listening to opera or play.

"It seems to me Will is going it at a pretty tremendous pace somewhere," said Mr. Surrey to his wife, one morning, after this had endured for a space. "It would be well to look into it, and to know something of this girl."

"You are right," she replied. "Yet I have such absolute faith in Willie's fine taste and sense that I feel no anxiety."

"Nor I; yet I shall investigate a bit to-night at Augusta's."

"Clara tells me that when Miss Ercildoune understood it was to be a great party, she insisted on ending her visit, or, at least, staying for a while with her aunt, but they would not hear of it."

"Mrs. Lancaster goes back to England soon?"

"Very soon."

"Does any one know aught of Miss Ercildoune's family save that Mrs. Lancaster is her aunt?"

"If 'any one' means me, I understand her father to be a gentleman of elegant leisure,--his home near Philadelphia; a widower, with one other child,--a son, I believe; that his wife was English, married abroad; that Mrs. Lancaster comes here with the best of letters, and, for herself, is most evidently a lady."

"Good. Now I shall take a survey of the young lady herself."

When night came, and with it a crowd to Mrs. Russell's rooms, the opportunity offered for the survey, and it was made scrutinizingly. Surrey was an only son, a well-beloved one, and what concerned him was investigated with utmost care. Scrutinizingly and satisfactorily. They were dancing, his sunny head bent till it almost touched the silky blackness of her hair. "Saxon and Norman," said somebody near who was watching them; "what a delicious contrast!"

"They make an exquisite picture," thought the mother, as she looked with delight and dread: delight at the beauty; dread that fills the soul of any mother when she feels that she no longer holds her boy,--that his life has another keeper,--and queries, "What of the keeper?"

"Well?" she said, looking up at her husband.

"Well," he answered, with a tone that meant, well. "She's thorough-bred. Democratic or not, I will always insist, blood tells. Look at her: no one needs to ask who she is. I'd take her on trust without a word."

"So, then, you are not her critic, but her admirer."

"Ah, my dear, criticism is lost in admiration, and I am glad to find it so."

"And I. Willie saw with our eyes, as a boy; it is fortunate that we can see with his eyes, as a man."

So, without any words spoken, after that night, both Mr. and Mrs. Surrey took this young girl into their hearts as they hoped soon to take her into their lives, and called her "daughter" in their thought, as a pleasant preparation for the uttered word by and by.

Thus the weeks fled. No word had passed between these two to which the world might not have listened. Whatever language their hearts and their eyes spoke had not been interpreted by their lips. He had not yet touched her hand save as it met his, gloved or formal, or as it rested on his arm; and yet, as one walking through the dusk and stillness of a summer night feels a flower or falling leaf brush his check, and starts, shivering as from the touch of a disembodied soul, so this slight outward touch thrilled his inmost being; this hand, meeting his for an instant, shook his soul.

Indefinite and undefined,--there was no thought beyond the moment; no wish to take this young girl into his arms and to call her "wife" had shaped itself in his brain. It was enough for both that they were in one another's presence, that they breathed the same air, that they could see each other as they raised their eyes, and exchange a word, a look, a smile. Whatever storm of emotion the future might hold for them was not manifest in this sunny and delightful present.

Upon one subject alone did they disagree with feeling,--in other matters their very dissimilarity proving an added charm. This was a curious question to come between lovers. All his life Surrey had been a devotee of his country and its flag. While he was a boy Kossuth had come to these shores, and he yet remembered how he had cheered himself hoarse with pride and delight, as the eloquent voice and impassioned lips of the great Magyar sounded the praise of America, as the "refuge of the oppressed and the hope of the world." He yet remembered how when the hand, every gesture of which was instinct with power, was lifted to the flag,--the flag, stainless, spotless, without blemish or flaw; the flag which was "fair as the sun, clear as the moon," and to the oppressors of the earth "terrible as an army with banners,"--he yet remembered how, as this emblem of liberty was thus apostrophized and saluted, the tears had rushed to his boyish eyes, and his voice had said, for his heart, "Thank God, I am an American!"

One day he made some such remark to her. She answered, "I, too, am an American, but I do not thank God for it."

At another time he said, as some emigrants passed them in the street, "What a sense of pride it gives one in one's country, to see her so stretch out her arms to help and embrace the outcast and suffering of the whole world!"

She smiled--bitterly, he thought; and replied, "O just and magnanimous country, to feed and clothe the stranger from without, while she outrages and destroys her children within!"

"You do not love America," he said.

"I do not love America," she responded.

"And yet it is a wonderful country."

"Ay," briefly, almost satirically, "a wonderful country, indeed!"

"Still you stay here, live here."

"Yes, it is my country. Whatever I think of it, I will not be driven away from it; it is my right to remain."

"Her right to remain?" he thought; "what does she mean by that? she speaks as though conscience were involved in the thing. No matter; let us talk of something pleasanter."

One day she gave him a clew. They were looking at the picture of a great statesman,--a man as famous for the grandeur of face and form as for the power and splendor of his intellect.

"Unequalled! unapproachable!" exclaimed Surrey, at last.

"I have seen its equal," she answered, very quietly, yet with a shiver of excitement in the tones.

"When? where? how? I will take a journey to look at him. Who is he? where did he grow?"

For response she put her hand into the pocket of her gown, and took out a velvet case. What could there be in that little blue thing to cause such emotion? As Surrey saw it in her hand, he grew hot, then cold, then fiery hot again. In an instant by this chill, this heat, this pain, his heart was laid bare to his own inspection. In an instant he knew that his arms would be empty did they hold a universe in which Francesca Ercildoune had no part, and that with her head on his heart the world might lapse from him unheeded; and, with this knowledge, she held tenderly and caressingly, as he saw, another man's picture in her hand.

His own so shook that he could scarcely take the case from her, to open it; but, opened, his eyes devoured what was under them.

A half-length,--the face and physique superb. Of what color were the hair and eyes the neutral tints of the picture gave no hint; the brow princely, breaking the perfect oval of the face; eyes piercing and full; the features rounded, yet clearly cut; the mouth with a curious combination of sadness and disdain. The face was not young, yet it was so instinct with magnificent vitality that even the picture impressed one more powerfully than most living men, and one involuntarily exclaimed on beholding it, "This man can never grow old, and death must here forego its claim!"

Looking up from it with no admiration to express for the face, he saw Francesca's smiling on it with a sort of adoration, as she, reclaiming her property, said,--

"My father's old friends have a great deal of enjoyment, and amusement too, from his beauty. One of them was the other day telling me of the excessive admiration people had always shown, and laughingly insisted that when papa was a young man, and appeared in public, in London or Paris, it was between two police officers to keep off the admiring crowd; and," laughing a gay little laugh herself, "of course I believed him! why shouldn't I?"

He was looking at the picture again. "What an air of command he has!"

"Yes. I remember hearing that when Daniel Webster was in London, and walked unattended through the streets, the coal-heavers and workmen took off their hats and stood bareheaded till he had gone by, thinking it was royalty that passed. I think they would do the same for papa."

"If he looks like a king, I know somebody who looks like a princess," thought the happy young fellow, gazing down upon the proud, dainty figure by his side; but he smiled as he said, "What a little aristocrat you are, Miss Ercildoune! what a pity you were born a Yankee!"

"I am not a Yankee, Mr. Surrey," replied the little aristocrat, "if to be a Yankee is to be a native of America. I was born on the sea."

"And your mother, I know, was English."

"Yes, she was English."

"Is it rude to ask if your father was the same?

"No!" she answered emphatically, "my papa is a Virginian,--a Virginia gentleman,"--the last word spoken with an untransferable accent,--"there are few enough of them."

"So, so!" thought Willie, "here my riddle is read. Southern--Virginia--gentleman. No wonder she has no love to spend on country or flag; no wonder we couldn't agree. And yet it can't be that,--what were the first words I ever heard from her mouth?" and, remembering that terrible denunciation of the "peculiar institution" of Virginia and of the South, he found himself puzzled the more.

Just then there came into the picture-gallery, where they were wasting a pleasant morning, a young man to whom Surrey gave the slightest of recognitions,--well-dressed, booted, and gloved, yet lacking the nameless something which marks the gentleman. His glance, as it rested on Surrey, held no love, and, indeed, was rather malignant.

"That fellow," said Surrey, indicating him, "has a queer story connected with him. He was discharged from my father's employ to give place to a man who could do his work better; and the strange part of it"--he watched her with an amused smile to see what effect the announcement would have upon her Virginia ladyship--"is that number two is a black man."

A sudden heat flushed her cheeks: "Do you tell me your father made room for a black man in his employ, and at the expense of a white one?"

"It is even so."

"Is he there now?"

Surrey's beautiful Saxon face crimsoned. "No: he is not," he said reluctantly.

"Ah! did he, this black man,--did he not do his work well?"

"Admirably."

"Is it allowable, then, to ask why he was discarded?"

"It is allowable, surely. He was dismissed because the choice lay between him and seven hundred men."

"And you"--her face was very pale now, the flush all gone out of it--"you have nothing to do with your father's works, but you are his son,--did you do naught? protest, for instance?"

"I protested--and yielded. The contest would have been not merely with seven hundred men, but with every machinist in the city. Justice versus prejudice, and prejudice had it; as, indeed, I suppose it will for a good many generations to come: invincible it appears to be in the American mind."

"Invincible! is it so?" She paused over the words, scrutinizing him meanwhile with an unconscious intensity.

"And this black man,--what of him? He was flung out to starve and die; a proper fate, surely, for his presumption. Poor fool! how did he dare to think he could compete with his masters! You know nothing of him ?"

Surely he must be mistaken. What could this black man, or this matter, be to her? yet as he listened her voice sounded to his ear like that of one in mortal pain. What held him silent? Why did he not tell her, why did he not in some way make her comprehend, that he, delicate exclusive, and patrician, as the people of his set thought him, had gone to this man, had lifted him from his sorrow and despondency to courage and hope once more; had found him work; would see that the place he strove to fill in the world should be filled, could any help of his secure that end. Why did the modesty which was a part of him, and the high-bred reserve which shrank from letting his own mother know of the good deeds his life wrought, hold him silent now?

In that silence something fell between them. What was it? But a moment, yet in that little space it seemed to him as though continents divided them, and seas rolled between. "Francesca!" he cried, under his breath,--he had never before called her by her Christian name,--"Francesca!" and stretched out his hand towards her, as a drowning man stretches forth his hand to life.

"This room is stifling!" she said for answer; and her voice, dulled and unnatural, seemed to his strangely confused senses as though it came from a far distance,--"I am suffering: shall we go out to the air?"