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The three scenes I am about to describe took place very nearly as they are related.
But, first, a few words of explanation.
I feel that I have scarcely done justice to the character of Carolyn Clifton, in presenting her only by that cold and frosty crust of pride, which was but the superficial covering of a high-spirited, honourable nature. Her manners were cold and haughty, almost scornful and arrogant, it is but too true. And most people, her family included, supposed her to be destitute of sensibility. Perhaps she was lacking in warmth of affection for her immediate domestic circle. Her whole heart, with all its deep, profound, untold, unguessed devotion, was given to Archer Clifton; and while secretly bestowing upon him her entire, undivided love, she openly exacted a full, unshared return—an exclusive worship.
In truth, in her proud, secret heart, she was a little jealous of Clifton's affection for his mother! She did not love her father so devotedly! Why should Clifton worship his mother so? To this jealousy she had never given breath, of course -indeed, to her own passionate love she had never yet given word-preferring, in her high-toned, maiden pride, to leave it to be inferred. She had never even looked her jealousy; yet Mrs. Clifton, with the fine instinct of a woman and a mother, guessed it, and, in her presence, skilfully eluded all demonstrations of affection from her son. And so well was the proud, exacting spirit of Miss Clifton known in her own family, that even the sprightly and mischievous outlaw, Zuleime, dared take no childish liberty with her sister's betrothed. Thus it happened that Frank Fairfax's unlucky jest had deeply offended the arrogant lady, the more especially as in that day, and in that neighbourhood, the term "mountaingirl" was too often the mildest name for an evil woman. This fact, of course, Frank was not acquainted with; and therefore it was that he could not understand Carl Kavanagh's excessive anxiety to send his young sister off the mountain, and could not in the least comprehend the intense indignation of Miss Clifton, and the difficulty Archer Clifton had in restoring her good-humour. Even now Carolyn Clifton had not forgotten the circumstance; and, truth to tell, she was not well pleased at the continued interest displayed by Captain Clifton for his protégée, in bringing her and her family upon his mother's plantation. But she was too proud
again to allude to the subject. Carolyn Clifton had never known a care or a contradiction in her life. Her heart was a sound, strong, high, proud thing, and therefore very like to break itself without fear full tilt against the first impediment that opposed it. She was, besides, like all women of her fair complexion and fine-tempered nerves, "a discerner of spirits;" and this quick, delicate, and sure perception never failed her, except when she was agitated and blinded by inward passion. Thus, perhaps, quite unconsciously, she read the heart of her betrothed, and knew it better than he did himself; and thus, perhaps, involuntarily, she afterwards acted on that knowledge.
At all events, there was quite enough combustible material on hand for a single spark to ignite it and spread a conflagration:
And the spark, and many sparks, were not wanting. A thoughtless jest of Frank's, a slight word dropped by Georgia at exactly the right, or rather the wrong time and place, and the whole neighbourhood of R- County were agog with gossip; and Captain Clifton and his protégée were the subjects. Some, right in the face of his well-known engagement to Miss Clifton, did not hesitate to say that she, his protégée, was a beautiful girl, whom he intended to educate and marry, and that his republican mother was highly in favour of the plan. Others told how tastefully the overseer's house had been furnished and adorned, and, without the slightest foundation in truth, how many hours a day Captain Clifton now spent with his interesting pupil. The suspicious and malignant circulated a still darker tale, and wondered how long it would last, and how it would all end. And then they denounced Captain Clifton, blamed his mother, and pitied Miss Clifton! And all this time, while the whole county was ringing with various and contradictory reports, the persons most concerned knew nothing about it; until, the day before the wedding, it was suddenly brought to the knowledge of both parties in the following manner.
The company assembled at Clifton, consisting of old Mr. Clifton's brother-in-law and sister, Judge and Mrs. Cabell, of Richmond, with their three daughters and son, Frank Fairfax, Zuleime, and Captain Clifton, had gone over to dine, by previous engagement, with Mrs. Clifton of Hardbargain. Carolyn Clifton had been compelled, by a slight headache, to
remain at home; and Georgia had chosen to stay to keep her company. The two ladies sat in the dressing-room of Miss Clifton. Carolyn was silent and abstracted, yet her countenance betrayed more of inward joy than she suspected. A great contrast was her fair, placid face to that of Georgia, dark, and traversed by spasms of pain-like clouds hurling past a stormy sky. But if Carolyn lifted her fair lashes a moment, instantly that dark face cleared, ere its expression could be detected. At length she ventured, in a sweet tone, to say
Carolyn, my dear, to-morrow is your wedding-day; and -but-there is something which you ought to know beforehand, and which, for weeks past, I have been trying to gain courage to tell you.'
"Well, madam ?" asked Miss Clifton, slowly lifting her snowy lids.
"I should—that is, I might expose myself to the resentment of all your family by telling you.'
"Then you had best not tell me, madam."
"And yet you ought to be informed, and must. I should never forgive a friend for keeping such a secret from me."
A vague fear and tremor seized upon Carolyn Clifton and kept her silent. The dark lady went on.
"I think the honour, the happiness, even the tranquillity of your married life depends upon your previous knowledge of this circumstance."
"Madam, the honour, happiness, and tranquillity of my married life pass into the keeping of my husband, Captain Clifton, and in him I have the utmost confidence," remarked Carolyn coldly and proudly, though, alas! not truly.
"Heaven forbid that I should unnecessarily mar that confidence! But, my love, you will be sure to hear it when too late, and from less friendly lips than mine!"
"Will it please you, then, madam, to speak out frankly and honestly, and let us know what it is?" said Carolyn scornfully, at the same time that her heart was rising with emotion.
"Is it possible you do not guess ?"
I do not take the trouble to do so, Mrs. Clifton." “Ah! you have always treated me with scorn and hauteur, Miss Clifton. Yet that, alas! does not relieve me of the painful duty of putting you on your guard. In a word, then,
do you understand the nature of the relations subsisting between Captain Clifton and the sister of his mother's overseer?"
The brow of Carolyn Clifton flushed crimson, but she answered coldly, "Madam, I believe that young person has been the object of Captain Clifton's benevolence.
"Ah! I believe so, too. His benevolence is certainly indisputable, and his honour should be above suspicion !” exclaimed Georgia fervently.
Madam, it is!" coldly replied Miss Clifton.
"Yes; and yet, Carolyn, my love, a poor and beautiful young maiden cannot continue to be the recipient of a handsome young officer's beneficence with credit to herself, honour to him, or peace or safety to his wife!"
"Is she so very beautiful?" was the question surprised from the haughty girl.
"Passing beautiful, I think, Carolyn; and this it is that makes the country gentlemen jest so about the matter. They give a far different motive than benevolence to the kindness of Captain Clifton to his lovely charge. I know that they do him gross injustice! But this thing should not go on; it is a dangerous relation― dangerous to Archer's own fidelity— dangerous to your peace, and most dangerous of all to the poor girl's reputation. I advise you to speak to Archer. I would do so myself, but it is too delicate a matter for me to speak to a young gentleman about. Now, in these palmy days of courtship, he may listen to you as he never would, perhaps, afterwards; and you will be able to prevail with him to send this dangerous young beauty, his protégée, away. Yes; and you may tell Archer that I advise this for the good of all parties. Tell him that the whole neighbourhood is ringing with gossip that may become slander. Tell him that I say the parties most concerned in this rumour, or in any rumour, will be ever the last to hear it. Tell him that I, his friend Georgia, venture to do him this service, informing him through you. Let there be no concealments-let all be open candour. I did feel afraid when I began to tell you this; but now it is out I feel relieved-I have more
"Madam," said Carolyn more haughtily than before, "Captain Clifton is quite capable of directing his own conduct; and, if he were not, I should never resign to him the
future control of mine; and, farthermore, madam," she added sarcastically, "I too highly honour the man about to become my husband-I have too much self-respect and delicacy to inquire into the nature of Captain Clifton's individual and private amusements, whether they relate to hounds, horses, or beggar-girls! I leave such investigations to the daughter of the sign-painter !" and, with an air of the greatest possible scorn and arrogance, she arose and left the room. Yet, under that proud, disdainful bearing, a thousand scorpions of doubt and jealousy maddened her soul. She went at once into her own room, and having locked the door that no rash intruder should look upon her weakness, gave herself up to the anguish of her emotions-now pacing up and down the floor, wringing her hands in distractionnow throwing herself, face downward, upon the bed in despair. And yet she had no confidence in Mrs. Clifton's honesty of purpose either.
In the meantime, the party assembled at Hardbargain were enjoying themselves, and the hospitalities of their hostess, to the fullest extent.
The late dinner was over; the ladies were lounging about in arm-chairs, or on sofas, in the breezy parlour, dozing, reading, or chatting in low tones, all serenely enjoying that pleasant feeling of home freedom and repose into which Mrs. Clifton ever charmed her guests.
The gentlemen had left their wine, and in parties of two and three were strolling about the shady yard, or out through the fields and orchards, to cool their heads, previous to joining the ladies at the tea-table.
"Archer Clifton, with his cousin, Major Charles Cabell, and Frank Fairfax, took the wooded path leading down the south side of the ridge to a fine spring in the hollow. They came to a log-cabin half hidden by surrounding and overhanging elms, and literally covered with climbing and creeping vines. Before the door sat a girl, spinning on a little wheel, who, at the first glimpse of strangers, instantly arose, and, taking up her wheel, retired into the house. Captain Clifton left his companions, and, going up to the door, called, saying, Catherine, my good girl, bring me a gourd here."
Kate Kavanagh came, and, with her eyes fixed upon the