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Playing With Fire by Harriet Prescott Spofford

Apple-blossoms and the pale wild roses that grow in the shadow of woody lanes were things of which she always reminded you, she was so slight and so fair, with just a suggestion of bloom about her—the bloom of youth. Hardly beautiful, but then seventeen summers have a beauty of their own—a beauty of firm round curves and velvety color, whose absence a dozen years later works utter transformation. When Lilian should approach thirty, and the blush that shifted now with every word she spoke, almost with every thought, should have paled—when time and tears should perhaps have dimmed the soft eyes—then she might be, to those who love fleshly magnificence alone, of sufficiently commonplace appearance, but just now there was something about her so unique and so attractive that every one when she passed by turned to discover what it was. For the clear blue of her eye and the lofty purity of her brow seemed to tell of a spirit whose beauty far exceeded that of its temple, and the brightness of the glance and the sweetness of the smile warmed the heart in her behalf as regular outline and perfect contour are seldom known to do. Happiness, too, is a crowning charm to any woman, and Lilian was deeply and contentedly happy: a smile perpetually played in the little, half-guessed dimples at the corners of her mouth, and her wide clear eyes were full of peace. No; though years should rob Lilian of bloom, it was plain that they could but add fresh charms to her soul; and Lilian's lover must needs love her soul.

She was to be married in a couple of years—her mother would not hear of it at present—to one who had been her lover from her cradle, and who loved her with a tender and devoted passion, who thought her embodied loveliness, and who would have made any sacrifice, even to death, for her welfare. She had seemed to him from the hour when he first saw her—a blue-eyed, rosy child with an aureole of palest yellow hair—a being not made of clay—something remote and different as the angels are; and when he first discovered that he loved her he had felt momentarily as if he committed a sacrilege, and though he lost that sensation soon enough, she always, seemed to him a holy and perfect thing. The only cloud that crossed her sky now was sometimes when this passion of Sterling's oppressed her or constrained her, and made her feel that her love was less than his.

Sterling was in the first flush of manhood, some half dozen years her senior—a hazel-eyed, bright-haired Saxon, and a noble, upright fellow: he was as prosperous in his fortunes as he had a right to expect, for his father had established him in a good business, and with suitable thrift and care there was no reason why he should not succeed. His father was a man of such strict adherence to theory that he allowed the boy, as he still called him, only the same chance that he himself had had: he lent him his capital and exacted a rigid payment of the interest. "John shall share my fortune equally with Helen and his mother," Mr. Sterling used to say, "when he has shown me that he deserves it and can double it." And John, sure that any theory of his father's was as right as a law of the universe, was only anxious to keep the warm affection that he knew lay behind the stern principle.

He lived with Lilian's mother, whom he had persuaded, when she found it necessary to make exertion, to come to the city and rent a house there for himself and two or three of his friends. He meant to take the house off her hands as soon as he was able to afford so large an expenditure, and meantime he did all he could to help her render it attractive and homelike. If it was not yet all they wished, or all he intended it should be, he knew that they were young, and felt that they could wait; and he said as much to Lilian when he saw her stand on tiptoe before a picture or look longingly at a bit of bronze; conscious the while that there was an artistic and luxurious side to the child's nature that he did not gratify—with which, indeed, he had little sympathy—and evidence of which it often vexed him to observe, as if it were a barrier between them, when her rapt face revealed feelings unknown to him as she looked into the sunset; as she stood at the door on summer nights while bell-notes and flower-scents went by on the wind; as she listened to orchestral music which in his ears was a noisy snarl. But, for all that, he said to himself that this ideal intelligence, so to call it, of Lilian's, was something higher than his own rude senses; he had no wish to place her on a lower level; he must do away the barrier by surmounting it himself; and he used his leisure time to study pictures and music, to discover the entrance to this world of art whose atmosphere he fancied to be Lilian's native air; and already he began to be able to translate into ideas the strange and awful thrill he felt before some great white marble where genius and inspiration had wrought together, and to find the thread by which he might one day follow the vast windings of those symphonies which Lilian always grew so pale to hear. But he was a person of singular reserves, and Lilian learned nothing of such effort or accomplishment as yet. "You think I am so perfect!" she would say. "You have built up a great hollow idol around me, and it is like living in a vacuum. Don't you know it is very tiresome to be chained up to such a standard?" And John only adored her all the more for her candor, did not believe it, and hastened home from business the sooner.

In fact, if this home, in which they all shared, was not exactly as they would have liked it to be, it was nevertheless a delightful place to John Sterling. He already had a sense of proprietorship in it. He lined its walls with books as he grew able, with prints, with now and then a painting, with plaster till he could get marble; Lilian's ivies clambered everywhere, and her azaleas and great lilies seemed to have a secret of perpetual flowering; a bright fire cast rosy lights and shadows over it all; and John would declare, as he sank into his easy-chair in the half twilight and surveyed the warm place, which seemed only a ruddy background for Lilian's fairness, that he never wanted anything better than this as long as he lived. It hurt him sometimes, though, to remember that Lilian never made any response to such words. "Well, well," he would say to himself in a way he had, "why should she? and why should I expect it of her? If people are born with wings, they do not want to creep. She beautifies everything she touches, and she is only in her right place when all the flower of the world's beauty is about her. But some day that shall be; and meantime there is nothing to hinder my liking this." He had almost an ideal home with Lilian's mother, as he wrote to his own mother, and every time he went out of it in the morning he felt himself a better man than he was when he went into it at night. His mother and father journeyed a thousand miles to see it, and felt as John did himself—thanked Heaven for the promise of a child like Lilian—one so forgetful of herself, so thoughtful for every one else, so candid, so generous, so gentle, so good. "She is nothing but a child," said Mrs. Sterling for the thousandth time, "and yet how lofty she is!—so lofty and so sweet! What will she be at thirty if she is this at seventeen? It makes me tremble to think of John's being blest so, as if it were too much, as if some fate must overtake him."

"He must become a very superior man under the influence of such a wife as Lilian will be," said Mr. Sterling. "Helen shall go on and spend the winter with John: they teach canaries to sing," said he, stroking Helen's black hair, "by hanging up their cages in the same room with a nightingale's."

And so Helen was despatched on the journey, and made another member in the little family, for John's friends merely had rooms, and enjoyed no more sufferance than other guests in the penetralia of the house. She was a gaunt and big-eyed child, with a certain promise of magnificence that, as Reyburn said, might be fulfilled in a year or two in a sumptuous sort of beauty. But now she was a morbid and retiring creature, fourteen or fifteen years old, looking out askance and half suspiciously on the world from under the shadow of her immense eyelashes, and singing from room to room with a strange voice that a year or two would ripen into tones fit for a siren. There was just the difference in age between her and Lilian that, while it allowed them companionship, gave Lilian, together with the fact of her engagement to John, a glorious dignity in Helen's eyes that she would not have her abate a jot. Her gowns, her shawls, her simple laces and few jewels seemed the appanage of a superior state of existence; they brought close to her the possibilities of that charmed time when she too would be a woman grown. She could not tire of gazing at the blush flitting over Lilian's face as she spoke, at the way her steady eyelid slanted toward her cheek as she read: the sound of her voice had an intimate music that acted like a charm; and when this wonderful being entertained her in her well hours and cosseted her in her ill ones, listened to her, waited on her and caressed her, Helen rewarded her by worshiping her. It was Lilian who constantly procured Helen pleasures, who shielded her little faults, who sympathized with her joys and her griefs and her sentimentalities, making merry with her to-day, crying with her to-morrow, and who shone upon her with unvarying sunshine; it was Lilian who did all this in another way for John; it was Lilian who made every one's happiness that came near her; and Helen's affection for her became something romantic and ideal. As for her brother John, Helen had always held him in a place apart: she loved him far better than she loved her strict, stern father; he was a portion of herself; her universe revolved around him; she had never formed a fancy of what life and the world would be without him; and much as she worshiped Lilian, she had more than once doubted if she were altogether worthy of John—not because she was Lilian, but because he was John. She used to watch Lilian sometimes when John's friends came in in the evening—used to watch her and admire her flushing face, her perfect toilette, her gracious manner; but used to wonder if all betrothed women treated their lovers' friends so exactly as they did their lovers, with that same unchanging courtesy and gentle sweetness. Once she saw the manner vary: it was while she herself was singing to them all, facing down the room, and John held his pawn suspended in the crisis of a game of chess, while Mr. Reyburn walked familiarly up and down, now turning the music for her, now bending with a word in Lilian's ear, now joining in the burden of the song:

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,

So deep in luve am I;

And I will luve thee still, my dear,

Till a' the seas gang dry—

Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear,

And the rocks melt wi' the sun.

"What a being Burns was!" interrupted John, without looking up. "How precisely he knew my feelings toward any one who would show me how to escape this checkmate!" And Lilian sprang to her feet, upsetting her workbasket, and ran to him and commenced talking hurriedly, while Mr. Reyburn, whose eyes had been resting on her face for some time, kept on singing after Helen ceased—

Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear,

And the rocks melt wi' the sun.

And Helen, child as she was, looking at him and listening to him, recognized a veiled meaning in the tone of the singing, and thought she hated the singer.

That night, when all the others had gone, and Lilian's mother was folding her work, and John was locking a window, and Helen closing the piano, she saw Mr. Reyburn stoop over Lilian's hand as he said good-night—stoop low, and press his lips upon its dimpled back. In after years Helen might recall his manner of that moment and understand it, half reverence, half passion, as it was, but now she only saw Lilian turn white and tremble, and clasp her hand over her eyes in a bewildered way when he had gone to his rooms on the other side of the hall, and walk up stairs as though she feared to rouse an echo.

"Oh, Lilian," said Helen, following her into her mother's room, "how dared he kiss your hand? How dared he look at you so while he sang? I hate him!"

"Hush, child," said Lilian gently, almost solemnly. And Helen, remembering who Lilian was, and the deep friendship between her brother and the other, felt as if she had committed an unpardonable sin, and crept away to bed, and did not see the man again during the short remainder of her stay.

But Lilian saw him often. Perhaps she never went out without seeing him, perhaps she never remained at home that he did not come in: going by the parlor-door half a dozen times a day, nothing was easier. In fact, few men have friends who think it worth their while to pay such attentions to another's chosen wife as this friend of John's did. To-day he gave flowers and helped her heap them in the vases; on the morrow he brought in for inspection a borrowed portfolio of the wonderful water—colors that some mad artist had dashed off among the painted canons, or brought perhaps the artist himself; when he was absent he wrote her letters, sent to John's care indeed, and conveying messages to John—letters full of what John called Reyburn's transcendental twaddle, but which were meat and drink to Lilian, living half alone in her world of fancy; when he was in town again he took her through galleries of pictures and statues where John had not an entree; he placed his opera-box at her disposal; and when John, who insisted on her acceptance of Reyburn's courtesies, heard them talk together about the mysteries of the music or the ballet there, he could have found it possible to question the justice of Fate that had mated such spirit with such clod in giving Lilian to himself—for he felt that she was already given, and they were mated by their long affection beyond all divorce but death's—could have found it possible to question the justice of Fate if he had not remembered, with a sort of pain, that, charming and brilliant as Reyburn was, having a sweet and reckless gayety and generosity, winning friends who loved him almost as men love women, he was nevertheless as inconstant as the breeze that rifles a rose.

"Yes," said he one day, in speaking of Reyburn to Lilian as they looked at him through the open door of the drawing-room—"yes, we men may love Reyburn safely enough, as we ask for no devotion in return, but woe be to the woman who builds her house on that sand!"

"Will it slide away?" asked Lilian, not glancing from her needle.

"Well—Look at him now. Possession palls on him, they say. Half an hour ago he plucked that bud. If it had hung as high as heaven, he would have climbed for it, having once set his heart on it, and have been tireless till he got it. On the whole, the thing is lucky that he did not tear it to pieces in his dissecting love of laying bare its heart. He has been inhaling its delicious soul this half hour: let us see what he does with it." And as they looked they saw Reyburn lift the half-forgotten flower, whose pale bloom had begun to tarnish ever so little, glance at it lightly and give it a careless fillip to the marble floor of the hall where he was walking up and down, and where, as he came back, he set his heel upon it without knowing that he did so.

It was just after Helen went home that Lilian's health began to fail—to fail gently and slowly, but surely. She shut herself up at first, and lay all day listless and melancholy. She did not come down in the morning before John went out, but he usually found her on the sofa when he came in. And there she stayed, either on the sofa or half lost among the cushions of an arm-chair, during the evenings when John's friends came. But by and by the house-friends one by one ceased to drop in as they passed down the hall; other friends ceased to ring the bell: the old lively evenings were impossible with one so frail and delicate to be cared for.

Reyburn, to be sure, came every day, and no message could shut him out. If Lilian was not in the parlors, he ran up stairs into the little sitting-room: if he could not see Lilian, he would walk in and see her mother. Sometimes John took her out to drive—to give her a color, as he said—but he was unable to do it often, and then Reyburn took his place till she declared she would ride no more. It was not so easy to discover what ailed Lilian as it was to see she failed. One doctor said she had merely functional derangement of the heart; another talked about complicated depression of the nerves; and a third said she was whimsical, and nothing at all was the matter with her, and she had better marry and taste the hard realities of life, and she would soon be cured of her follies. But Lilian firmly and quietly refused to be married yet: possibly she knew that her emotions were not what they should be for marriage with the man to whom she was plighted; possibly hoped that time might make it right; possibly wanted nothing more definite than delay. Once John impressed Reyburn into his service in the matter: they were so thoroughly intimate, so like brothers of one family, that he appealed to him without a second thought. What Reyburn meant by urging her to fix the day for her wedding with John, Lilian might have marveled had he not kept his eyes on the floor while he spoke the few curt sentences, and held her hand with the grip of death. It was no marriage with John that Reyburn wanted for her, she knew too well: he also looked forward to delay. But she told John that when she was herself again it would be time enough to talk of marriage: she should not bind him to a dead woman. And somehow, though the relation between her and John remained the same, the usual evidences of it, one by one, had disappeared. If he took her in his arms, she slipped away; if he bent to kiss her lips, she held her cheek. Still, though caresses ceased, the tender word and the kindly glance remained. John fancied the rest to be but a part of the nervous whims of her illness, from which she was to recover in time; and he waited with all the old love in his soul. And as for Lilian, the old affection was with her too—the affection of childhood and girlhood, the deep and grateful feeling associated with all her life—but it struggled and wrestled with a novel power that while it promised pleasure gave only pain. It made her suffer to see John suffer: she hurt him as little as she could, but for the life of her she was able to do no differently. She thought it would be better for him if she should die; and when she found his great sad eyes fastened on her, with their longing for her return to him, she wished to disappear out of the world and his memory together. She grew whiter and thinner, more tired and sore at heart, all the time, till the two years that had been fixed as the period of their engagement had passed—grew so transparent and spiritual that sometimes, as John hung over her in despair, he felt as if, instead of being bound to a dead woman, he were already bound to an angel.

One evening, after an absence, Reyburn came in as John sat reading by Lilian's side: he brushed away the book and insisted on their playing an odd new game of cards, and Lilian unaccountably brightened and sparkled and laughed, as in the old time, for more than an hour; and as he left them at last he came back to declare his belief that a change was all Lilian needed—other climates, other scenes. "Come, Sterling," said he, "my little yacht, the Beachbird, sails on a cruise next week. I will have a cabin fitted up for Miss Lilian if you will take her and her mother and come along. The house can keep itself; your clerks can keep your books; we shall all escape the east winds. It will be a certain cure for her, and do you good yourself."

And talking of it lightly at first, presently it grew feasible—all the more so that Helen and her father were spending their second winter down there in one of those "summer isles of Eden," and word could be sent to them in advance to be in readiness to join the Beachbird. And the end of all the talk was that at the close of the next week John's business had been left in the hands of others, and John and Lilian and her mother were on the Beachbird's deck as she slipped down the harbor.

Mr. Reyburn's prophecy proved true: whether the sea-breeze fanned Lilian into fresh life, whether there were healing balms in the perpetual summer through which they sailed, or whether she abandoned herself to the pleasures of the flying hours, she began to regain strength and color, her languor disappeared, she spent the day in the soft blissful air with her books or work, her mother knitting and nodding near by; while John, if not sick himself, yet feeling very miserable, lay on a mattress on the deck, sometimes dozing, sometimes following with his eye the graceful lines and snowy dazzle of the perfect little yacht as mast and sheet and shroud made their relief upon the sky; sometimes listening to Lilian and Reyburn; sometimes watching them as they walked up and down in the twilight, her dress fluttering round her and her fair hair blowing in the wind. John wondered at her as he watched her: she seemed to be possessed with an unnatural life; a flickering, dancing sort of fire burned in her eye, on her cheek and lip, in her restless manner: she was like one who after long slumber felt herself alive and receiving happiness at every pore, but a strange, treacherous sort of happiness that might slip away and leave her at any moment, and which she was ever on the alert to keep.

One night Lilian's mother had gone below, John had followed, and they were long since folded in their quiet dreams; and Lilian, unable to sleep, had at last arisen and thrown on some garments, and wrapping a great cloak about her, had stolen on deck. The person still pacing the deck, who saw her ascend and flit along with her fair hair streaming over her white cloak and her face shining white in the starlight, might have taken her for a spirit. But he was not the kind of man that believes in spirits. He went and leaned with her as she leaned over the vessel's edge, and watched the glittering rent they made in the water. They were side by side: now and then the wind blew the silken ends of her hair across his cheek, and his hand lay over hers as it rested on the rail; now and then they looked at one another; now and then they spoke.

"Are you happy, Lilian?" he said.

"Oh, perfectly!" she answered him.

As she said it there was an outcry, a sudden lurch of the vessel, a flapping of the sails and ropes, and a vast shadow swept by them, the hull of a huge steamer, so near that they could almost have touched it with an outstretched hand. But as it ploughed its way on and left them unharmed and rocking on its great waves, Reyburn released her from the arm he had flung about her in the moment's dismay—the arm that had never folded her before, that never did again.

"Oh no! no!" sighed Lilian with a shiver as she quickly drew away—"not perfectly, oh not perfectly! That is impossible here, where that black death can at any moment extinguish all our light."

"Be still! be still!" said Reyburn. "Why do you speak of it?" he cried roughly. "Isn't it enough to know that some day it must come?—

"The iron hand that breaks our band,

It breaks my bliss—it breaks my heart!"

He left her side in a sudden agitation a moment, and walked the deck again; and before he turned about Lilian had slipped below.

The next afternoon the Beachbird anchored within sight of shore and outside a long low reef where they saw a palm-plume tossing, and a boat came off, bringing Helen and her father.

John, who had begun at last to find his sea-legs, stood as eager and impatient to welcome the new-comers, while every dip of the shining oars lessened the distance between them, as if the cruise were just beginning; but Lilian, in the evening shadow behind him, knew that her share in the cruise was over.

"Is it the fierce and farouche duenna who wanted to annihilate me so when I bade you adieu one night?" asked Reyburn, taking Lilian upon his arm for a promenade upon the deck while they waited. "Let me see: she was very young, was she not, and tall, and ugly? Is it her destiny to watch over you? If she proves herself disagreeable, I will rig a buoy and drop her overboard. After all, she is only a child. Ah no," he said, half under his breath, "the end is not yet."

"She is no longer a child," said Lilian, "Her father writes that he hardly dares call her the same name, she is so changed. While I have been withering up in the North, two equatorial years down here have wrought upon her as they do upon the flowers. He says no Spanish woman rivals her. Well, it will please—"

Just then Reyburn handed her the glass he had been using, and pointed it for her.

"Can it be possible?" said Lilian. "Has Helen been transfigured to that?" and something, she knew not what, sent a quiver through her and made the image in the glass tremble—the image of a tall and shapely girl whose round and perfect figure swayed to the boat's motion, lithe as a reed to the wind, while she stood erect looking at something that had been pointed out, and the boatmen paused with their oars in the air; the image of a face on whose dark cheek the rose was burning, in whose dark eye a veiled lustre was shining, around whose creamy brow the raven hair escaped in countless tendril-like ringlets, and whose smile, as she seemed to speak to some one while she stood in the low sunset light, had a radiance of its own. As Lilian looked upon this dazzling picture, backed by the golden and rosy sky, the golden and rosy waters, the palm-plumes tossing in the purpling distance, the silver flashing of the oars, the quiver came again, and she gave the glass to Reyburn, who held it steadily till the boat was within hailing distance, and who himself at last handed the shining creature on board and led her to Lilian and her mother. And then the Beachbird slowly spread her wings, and with her new burden softly floated away into the dusk, and the great colors faded, and the stars one after another seemed to drop low and hang from the heavens like lamps, and rich odors floated off from the receding land, and they moved along folded in the dark splendor of the tropical night. But in some vague way every soul on board the little yacht felt the presence of another influence, and that, though they sailed in the same waters as yesterday, it was in another atmosphere; for an element had come among them that should produce a transformation as powerful as though it wrought a chemic change of their atoms.

Lilian and Reyburn still paced the deck, after their custom, when the first greetings were over, leaving Helen and her father with John for the present. But as the conversation dropped more personal subjects, and John and his father were discussing political matters, Helen began to look about, and chiefly she surveyed Lilian. And as she saw the transparent skin, the vivid flush, the restless air—saw the way Reyburn had, as he walked with her, as he bent to her, as he folded her shawl about her—the way he had of absorbing her, a hasty remembrance of the night when he stooped over Lilian's hand came to her, and she remembered also how she herself had hated him. "The man has bewitched her," said Helen an hour afterward—an hour of watching and puzzling. "She is fond of John still: she cannot bear to break his heart—she would rather break her own—and she is dying of her attraction to the other." As she sat there, still observing them, wondering what could be done, she turned and laid her arm on her brother's shoulder, and rested her head beside it with her eyes full of tears. And at the movement John bent and kissed her forehead, and she saw that he himself was at last awake; and Reyburn, looking at them, saw it too. Perhaps the tears dimmed her sight a little, and gave Lilian a sort of glorified look to her, standing still a moment with the light of the late rising moon on her face; but then as her gaze fell again on Reyburn, on his lofty form and kingly manner, his proud face, his bold bright eye, it seemed to her as if it were Lucifer tempting an angel; and all at once she had resolved what she would do to save Lilian, to save her brother. She could do it well, she said, well and safely—she who already hated the man. Courage came with the resolution, courage and strength: she began to laugh and scatter jests across the grave conversation of John and her father; presently she was humming a gay Spanish air.

"That is right, Helen," said her brother. "Sing something to us. My father says your voice would fill the Tacon theatre."

And at that she sang—not the air of the little bolero again, but a low, melancholy song that began with a sigh, but swelled ever clearer and higher, till, like the bursting of a flower, it opened and deepened into one breath of passionate sweetness and triumph. The rich voice rose to all the meaning of the music, and, though they could not understand the words, they thrilled before the singer, Late into the midnight she sang—the bunch of blossoms that was in her hand as she came on board still shedding its pungent odors round her as the blossoms died—strange wild songs that she had learned in the two years of her tropic life; ancient and plaintive Spanish airs; Moorish songs whose savage tunes were sweet as the honey of the rocks; wild and mournful Indian airs that the Spaniards might have heard in those Caribbean islands when first they burst upon their peaceful seas; and by and by a sleepy nocturne that seemed to lull the wind, to charm the ship, and hold the great moon hovering overhead; and as they rocked from wave to wave of the glimmering water, and that pure voice rose and poured out its melody, the soft vast southern night itself seemed to pause and listen.

Helen did not appear on the deck next day till the sunset came again, for Lilian was ill, and she remained with her; nor did Reyburn see her. But as the heat of the day passed, and the sails, that had been hanging idle ever since the night-breeze fell, began to fill again, Helen ascended.

"You come with the stars," said Reyburn, giving her his hand at the last step; but she merely put out her own hand with the gesture of receiving aid, and passed on, her dark gauzy drapery floating behind her, and the lace of her Spanish mantilla falling round her from her Spanish comb. She went to her brother's side, and sat there and talked, or rose with him and walked: there was everything to say and hear after their two years' separation. As for Reyburn, perhaps her manner was courteous enough to him, but certainly she hardly seemed to see him. Nor could he claim acquaintanceship with her: the gaunt and big-eyed child whom he had known two years ago had a different individuality from this dark girl with the rosy stain on the oval cheek and the immense eyelashes. He heard her gay laugh as John complimented her—a laugh as sweet as her singing; he saw the smile that kindled all her beauty into vivid life; he saw the still face listening to what was said; but he scarcely learned anything further than was thus declared. When at length she sang one parting strain, he wondered if the singing and the beauty were all there was: it occurred to him to find out. He remembered that moment of the evening before when John had betrayed distrust. "I will mislead him," said Reyburn, "and Lilian will understand it all." He stood before Helen as she rose with her father to go down.

"Ask me no more whither doth haste

The nightingale when May is past;

For in your sweet dividing throat

She winters, and keeps warm her note!"

he said, and stepped aside.

"We've taken a mermaid aboard, sir," said the sailing-master. "Nothing else, they say, sings after that fashion, and the men are on the lookout for foul weather."

"Never mind what the men say," said Reyburn, "while your barometer says nothing."

When Mr. Reyburn went on deck at sunrise he found Helen standing there with Lilian—with Lilian, who, after her day's illness, looked strangely wan and worn, looked like the feeble shadow of the other with her rich carnations, her glowing eyes, her picturesque outlines. Reyburn went aft and took Lilian's hand. "You have been so ill!" he said; and then he looked up and saw again this splendid creature, loosely clad in white, her black hair, unbraided and unbound, flowing in wave and ripple far down her back, her sleeve falling from the uplifted arm and perfect hand, that held a fan of the rose-colored spoonbill's feathers above her head, so beautiful and brilliant that she seemed only a projection of that beautiful and brilliant hour, with all its radiant dyes, before the sun was up; and he forgot that Lilian had been ill, forgot for a moment that Lilian existed. "I will find out what she is made of," thought Reyburn. "Are you made of clay?" he said boldly.

"He shall find that there is fire in my clay," said Helen to herself as she appeared not to heed his look or his words.

And there it began. And swift and sudden it went on to the end. She had come on board the yacht that first night to startle it with her beauty and her voice; last night, silent and stately, she had slipped through the evening like a dream; now she stood before him a dazzling creature of the morning: yesterday she was Penseroso; to-day she was Allegro; what would she be to-morrow? How sparkling, as one day followed another, her gayety was! and yet with no shallow sparkle: there was always the shadow of still depths just beyond—seasons of silence, moments of half sadness, times when he had to wonder whither her thoughts had led her. She sang a little song of the muleteers on the mountains, that he admired; then she must teach it to him, she said; they sang the song together, their voices lingering on the same note, rising in the same breath, falling in the same cadence. He had a sonorous tenor of his own: more than once she caught herself pausing in her part to hear it. How soft, and yet how strong, was the language of the song! he said; he must learn Spanish, she replied; and they hung together over the same book, and he repeated the phrase that fell from her lips—an apt pupil, it may be, for more than once the phrase, as he uttered it, deepened the color on her cheek. More than once she was conscious of gazing at him to find the charm that Lilian had found; more than once he caught her glance and held it there suspended; more than once you might have thought, by the quick, impatient manner in which she tore her eyes away, that she had found the charm herself. Perhaps he made some ostentation of his attraction before the others; perhaps the simulation of warmth was close enough to melt a colder heart than hers; perhaps it was not wholly simulation. It may be that her hand lay in his a moment longer than need was, her glance fell before his a moment sooner: it may be that as she fled all her manner beckoned him to follow. She was confiding to him her thoughts, her aspirations, her emotions, as if she wished that he, and he alone, should know them: he was listening as though there were no other knowledge in the world. If presently he thought of her as a creature of romance, if presently she felt the need of that keen interest, what wonder? They were playing with fire, and those that play with fire must needs be burned. And meantime, whether he looked at her languid in the burning noon, gay with the reviving freshness of the dusk, leaning over the bulwarks in the night and gazing up into the great spaces of the stars, he was always fascinated to look again. There was the profile exquisite as sculpture, there was the color as velvet soft as rose-petals, there was the droop of the long silken lashes half belying with its melancholy the rapture of the smile. Whether she spoke or whether she sang, her voice was music's self, and he was longing for the next tone; and presently—presently Lilian had faded like a phantom before this aurora who was fresh and rosy and dewy, with song and color and light—a sad pale phantom wan in a mist of tears.

And as for Lilian in this approaching trouble—in this trouble that was already here—was it to her mother that she turned as the good lady dozed and knitted there? Ah no, but to John himself; and perhaps John comprehended it, and, if he loved her all the more tenderly, suffered the more sharply. Possibly, as she saw Reyburn follow Helen as an entranced man follows a vision, as she saw Helen lead, Lilian knew that she deserved her punishment—knew that she had had her warning. Possibly she realized that the passion which had usurped the place of the love of years with her was but a selfish idealism—possibly saw at last, and with an agony, of what thin stuff the hero of her dream was made—possibly knew that it must be, and knew that it was best; but none the less she must have felt for a little while that there was no place left for her in the world, and she seemed to fade nearer and nearer the verge of it. Her old languor overcame her, her old pallor returned, her eyes were dull with their silent weeping: not yet twenty, she looked twice her years. Reyburn himself saw the change in her with trouble. "The voyage is doing you no good," he said.

"It is killing me!" she cried.

But he did not perceive the meaning of her unguarded cry: he did not know how it was with her, for he had not yet dreamed how it was with himself. But he was soon to discover.

Three weeks they had been wafted about from key to key, from bay to bay; they landed and explored the quaint old towns; they made trips into the tropical forests; great boatloads of juicy mangoes and guavas and bananas came off to them; they scattered coins on the clear bottom for the brown babies tumbling about the shores to dive after. Now at noon they lay anchored in still lagoons under the shadow of an overhanging orange-grove; now at night they were flying across the broad seas. But Lilian felt she could endure no more of it: her life was exhausted; she longed for the yacht's head to be turned northward, that she might die in peace on shore. John also was impatient to be gone. If he could have Lilian once more at home, he thought, he would marry her in spite of her protest, and take her where forgetfulness must needs soothe her, and strange faces make her cling to him in the old way. The way in which she clung to him now was too bitter to be borne. Her mother also began to think of home, and Mr. Sterling had wearied long ago; and at length, further pretences failing, they had been freshly provisioned and had started on their homeward way.

Reyburn had, indeed, been loath to make any change in their luxurious summering, but he was one of those who slide along with the days.

Take the goods the gods provide thee:

The lovely Thais sits beside thee—

was a couplet that he was fond of humming, and he always waited for some unnatural wrench to make the effort he should have made himself. But he had consented at last to the return, because while he was still floating in Southern waters, under Southern skies, with this delicious voice in his ears, this delicious beauty by his side, he could not think that a week's sailing must bring him under other conditions.

Perhaps, though, it would be more than a week's sailing, some one said, for the fair wind that had taken them hither and yon so long, and had waited on their fancies, was apparently on the point of deserting them at last, and the yacht was merely drifting before a fitful breeze that lightly moved a scud of low clouds which the sunset had kindled into a blaze of glory hanging just above them, and whose ragged shreds only now and then displayed a star.

"We are going to have nasty weather," the sailing-master said to his mate. "The barometer is going down with a rush."

"Yes, sir," had come the answer: "we shall catch it in the mid-watch."

"Then stow the light sails, Mr. Mason," the captain said, "and get everything secure for a heavy blow. Keep a sharp lookout, and call me as soon as the weather changes."

"All right, sir."

"I am going down for forty winks," said the captain. Then as he passed Mr. Reyburn: "I don't much like the appearance of things, sir."

"Appearance?" said Reyburn. "Why the sea is as smooth as glass!"

"Too smooth by half, sir, with the barometer falling. I've sailed with that glass a long time, and she's never told me a lie yet. We've already shortened sail."

"So I see. But why in the world did you do it, when you want every stitch of it out to catch what wind there is? However, I am in no hurry," said Reyburn laughing. "Do as you please, skipper: you're sailing the ship."

"I am sailing her, sir," said the captain, a little nettled, "and sailing her on the edge of a hurricane. You had better take the lady below, sir: when it comes it will come with a crack." But Reyburn laughed at him again, and passed over to Helen's side.

They sat together on the deck, Helen and Reyburn, long after all the others had gone to rest; for Mr. Sterling left the arrangement of etiquette and decorum to Lilian's mother; and whether she were a purblind soul, looking delightedly at a new love-match, or whether, with any surmise of the state of things, she felt pleased that Reyburn, led by whatever inducement, should step aside from Lilian's path, she gave no other sign than that when her early withdrawal from the scene left the deck clear for action. As each in turn they fell away into their dreams, those below could still hear Helen singing; and if one there lay sleepless in the pauses of the singing, no one guessed it. All the ship was in shadow save where a lantern shone, but Helen lingered, still irresolute. Now and then she touched the Spanish guitar in the measure of some tune that flitted across her thoughts, now and then she sang the tune, now and then was silent. She was half aware of what the approaching moments held—was half afraid. Was she to avenge herself upon the man who had destroyed her brother's peace? Faithful to Lilian should she go, or faithless stay? He took the guitar himself and fingered the strings, making fewer chords than discords; her own fingers wandered to correct him; their hands met; the guitar slipped down unheeded; the grasp grew closer, grew warmer—ah, Helen, was it Lilian of whom you thought, whom you would save?—and then an arm was around her; shining eyes, only half guessed in the glimmer that the phosphorescent swells sent through the darkness, hung over her rosy upturned beauty; she was drawn forward unresisting, her head was on his breast, she, heard the heavy throbbing of his heart, and his lips lay on hers and seemed to draw her soul away. And so they sat there in the deepening shadow, whispering in faint low whispers, thrilling with a great rapture, their lips meeting in long kisses. Why should he think of Lilian? Never once had he touched her mouth like this, had his arms closed round her so, had he felt the sighing of her breath. As a pale white rushlight burns in the sun, that love seemed now, compared with this great sweet flame. He bowed his face over Helen's as she sat trembling in his embrace, and neither of them remembered past or future in the passion of the present; neither of them felt the yacht swing idly up and down with scarcely a movement forward; neither of them heard the listless flapping of the sails against the masts, or noticed that no dew lay on the rail, or once looked up to see how black and close the air had gathered round them, how deadly hot and sulphurous—till suddenly, and as if by one accord, men were running and voices were crying all about them. They sprang to their feet to hear the sailing-master's shout as one beholds lightning fall out of a blue sky: "See your halyards all clear for running."

"Ay, ay, sir!" came the ringing answer.

"Stand by your halyards and down-hauls."

"Ay, ay, sir!"

"Haul down the flying jib: take the bonnet off the jib, and put a reef in her," came the strong swift sentences. "Brail up the foresail, and double reef the mainsail."

There was a sound far, far off, like a mighty rush of waters, coming nearer and swelling to a roar—an awful roar of winds and waves. And Helen was wildly clasping Reyburn, who was plunging with her down the companion-way.

"Here she comes!" cried the captain. "Hold on all!" And then there was a shock that threw them prostrate, a writhing and twisting of every plank beneath them, and the tornado had struck the yacht and knocked her on her beam-ends.

"Cut away the weather rigging!" they heard the captain thunder through all the rout before they had once tried to regain themselves. The quick, sharp blows resounded across the beating of the billow and the shrieking of the wind and cloud. "Stand clear, all!" and with a crash as if the heavens were coming together the masts had gone by the board, and what there was left of the Beachbird had righted and now rolled a wreck in the trough of the sea.

A half hour's work, but it had done more than wreck a ship: it had wrecked a passion. For as Helen still clung round Reyburn, sobbing and screaming, he had seen the opposite door open, and Lilian landing there, white-robed, white-shawled, with her bright hair about her face as white as a spirit's. "John," she said, "we are in a hurricane."

"Yes, Lilian," he had answered from where he was stationed close beside her door. "But the worst must be over. The wind already abates, and as soon as the sea goes down—"

As he spoke there came the terrible cry, loud above all other clamor, "A leak! a leak!" and then followed the renewed trampling of feet overhead, and the hoarse wheeze of the pumps.

"We are going down," Lilian said, and turned that white face away. "Oh, John!, before we go forgive me," she cried; and John held his outstretched arms toward her and folded her within them.

Reyburn saw it, and even in that supreme moment, when life and death swung in the balance, an awful revulsion seized him. He beheld now with a sickening shudder the woman cowering at his feet whose beauty an hour ago had melted his soul: she was flesh to him only—her beauty was of the earth, and flesh and the earth were passing, and it was other things on which such moments as these were opening—things such as shone in the transfigured face of Lilian—of Lilian whom, if this marsh-light had not dazzled him from his way, he might now be holding to his heart triumphant; for here disguises would have fallen and he could have claimed his own. For, whether it were the terror of the time, or the trancelike and spiritual look of Lilian, or whether it were the jealous pang of seeing her in another's arms, the love on which he had been waiting for two years and more, to which he had sacrificed time and endeavor, which had brought him here to this danger and this death, returned now and overwhelmed him, and the passion of a day and night fell apart and left him in its ruins. This woman at his feet filled him with a strange disgust: that other woman—If this were the last hour of time, he would have risked his chances in eternity to have held her as John did. He threw himself, face down, on the divan, and he cursed God and called upon the drowning wave to come.

The captain leaped down the companion-way, and caught his pistols from a drawer. "Mr. Reyburn, we need you and the other gentlemen," he cried. "We are throwing out our ballast. All hands must take spells at the pumps, for the leak gains, and I shall have all I can do to keep the men at work and the yacht afloat."

"Let her sink!" yelled Reyburn into the cushions where he lay. "Damn her! let her sink!" And he did not stir. But John had gently released Lilian and placed her in a chair near the sofa where her mother lay gasping, and had sprung on deck with his father and the captain.

A horrid hour crept by—a bitter blank below, hard and fierce work above—and then the pumps were choked. Lilian and her mother had crept on deck, holding by whatever they could find, and surveying the amazing scene around them. For the great black storm-cloud was flying up and away, flying into the north-east, and through the torn vapors that followed in its rack a waning moon arose. A tremendous sea was running, monstrous wave breaking on monstrous wave in a mad white frolic far as the eye could see; as one billow bounded along, curling and feathering and swelling on its path, a score leaped round it to powder themselves in a common cloud of spray; and every cloud of spray as it shot upward caught the long ray of the half-risen moon, that but darkly lighted and revealed an immensity of heaven, till all the weltering tumult of gloom and foam was sown with a myriad lunar rainbows.

The beauty of it almost overcame the terror with Lilian as she grasped her mother's hand.

"It is a fit gate to enter heaven by," said John, coming to her side. "We have done all we can," he added.

At the moment the bows dipped with a prodigious sea. Somebody forward sang out, "She's settling, sir! she's settling, sir!" The cry ran along the deck like fire: there was one panicstricken shriek that followed, and the men had jumped for the boats, into which water and provision had been already thrown. Reyburn came staggering up the companion-way with Helen. The dingy and one of the quarter-boats were already swamped in the wild haste: the men were crowding into the other, which had been safely lowered.

"You brutes!" the captain shouted, "are you going to leave the women?"

"Let them come, then," answered a voice, "and make haste about it;" and Lilian found herself drawn forward and looking over the side into the shadow below.

"Are you going, John?" she said hurriedly.

"No, darling: it is impossible, you see, but—"

"Nor I, either," she answered quickly.

"Lilian!"

"No," she said, "no! We were to be together in life, and we shall be in death. Oh, John, do you think I can leave you now?"

"Make haste about it," was repeated harshly from the boat.

"I am going to stay," repeated Lilian firmly.

"Here," cried Reyburn, as he drew up the ropes to bind them round Helen's waist. "Take her." But the boat was already clear of the ship and away; and he flung the ropes down again with a motion of abhorrence, and stood leaning against the stump of the mast, where he could hear the murmurs of John and Lilian, straining his ears to listen, as if he must needs torment himself—to listen to those few low, fervent whispers, with one eager to pour out the love so long restrained, the other to receive it—both in the face of death making the life so lately found too sweet a thing to leave.

Soon the little company remaining on the wreck had clustered around that portion of it; the captain and Mr. Mason were near by, and Lilian's mother sat beside her and kept her hand; Mr. Sterling, not far off, held Helen, who lay faint with fright—faint too with many a pang, snatched as she had been from a dream of warmth and joy to a nightmare of horror; one moment ruling in a heart that in the next moment had cast her forth to be trampled on; bewildered by the repugnance she had too plainly seen in the face of her passionate lover of two hours ago; half heartbroken with the remembrance of the tone in which he had called to the crew of the quarter-boat to take her, and cold with the awful expectancy of the moment. The moon swam slowly up, and the sky cleared about her; the sea rose and fell less violently, its dark expanse everywhere running fire; but the broken yacht still rolled like a log, and they clung to each other as she rolled. She settled slowly, and another hour had passed and left her still afloat.

"We are safe," cried the captain, coming back to their side after a brief absence with the mate. "Mr. Reyburn, do you see?" But Mr. Reyburn did not even hear. A soft lustre began to blanch the violet depths of the lofty sky; a rosy flare welled up from the horizon and half drowned the shriveled moon; a star that was steady in the east was shaking a countless host of stars in the shaking waters round them. And then the rosy flare was a yellow flame that filled the heavens; the long swells that ran up to break against them were like sheets of molten jewels—rubies and beryls and sapphires and chrysolites, changing and flashing as they broke into a thousand splendors; strange mild-eyed birds were hovering about them and alighting on the wreck; the moon was gone; the vaporous gold that overflowed the east was burned away in the increasing glory, and the sunshine fell about them.

"We are not going down," cried Lilian, her face aglow and lovely in the light. "That smoke in the horizon is a steamer's, and she will take us off. Oh, John, we have our lives before us yet!"

The captain and Mr. Mason had already signaled the steamer, and before very long the wreck was quite abandoned, and those whom it had carried were on their northward way again.

It was a singular wedding that I saw one day about two months after the wreck of the Beachbird. I was going by the church of St. Saviour, and being of an inquiring mind in the matter of weddings, I went in. There were two brides there: the husband of the first, the fair one, was just turning away with her. So calm, so pure, so peaceful, so content, were the faces of that new husband and wife, that I could long have looked upon them, as on some picture of strong spirits in the presence of God, had not the beauty of the second bride arrested me. But that was a beauty one hardly sees twice in a lifetime—so perfect in outline, under snowy veils and blossoms, the dark eyes so softly, dewily dark, the white brow whiter for its tendril-like rings of raven hair; and where had I ever seen groom so stately, so lofty, so proud? But what did the pantomime mean? a stranger might well have asked. Was that the man's natural demeanor? or had he brought his mind to the task of taking her by an effort that had destroyed every sentiment of his soul but scorn? And for her? Had the rose forsaken her cheek and the smile her lip because she looked on life as on a desert? Was that utter sadness and dejection a thing that should one day fade away and leave a sparkle of hope behind it? Or was it the scar of one who had played with fire, who had not the strength to release a pledge, and was marrying a man who she knew loathed her and her beauty together?