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Shadows on the Snow: A Christmas Story

Part I. How the Shadows Appeared at Warleycombe, and What They Said and Did

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Part I. How the Shadows Appeared at Warleycombe, and What They Said and Did.

Our story commences in a quiet lane in Devonshire—in a narrow, quiet lane where, in the summer, the flowered hedgerows on either side shut out from view the pretty homesteads in their rear, and where, in the winter, the naked branches threaded the air with snow lines fantastically, while the sharp, thin twigs were whitely lighted up with pearl-drooping eyes of icicle. A quiet, narrow lane, luxuriantly dotted with violets and forget-me-nots, delicious in the drowsy summer, when the hum of bees could be faintly heard in the tangled bush of honeysuckles and wild roses. A quiet, narrow lane, at the end of which came, suddenly and quaintly, a view of a shallow reach of a noble river fresh from the sea, where the clear water lay calmly in its rustic shelter, while on its bosom glowed the shadow of its gardened banks. A quiet, narrow lane, page 2 wherein, summer and winter, a thousand new graces unfolded themselves, and where Nature made holiday in every season of the year.

It was the evening of a sharp wintry day in December, so near to Christmas, that the sun threw golden shadows on its holly-crowned head, and welcomed its approach with a fiery splendor. Even the old elm tree that stood outside Stephen Winkworth's house, long before Stephen Winkworth was thought of, blushed crimson sympathetically, and then, as if ashamed that so venerable a piece of timber should be guilty of such emotion, grew gradually grayer and grayer until it resumed its wonted equanimity. Certainly there might have been a cause for this, for Stephen Winkworth himself, as he stood at his door watching the declining day, was no very pleasant addition to the landscape, and did not show in his face any signs of rejoicing. Indeed, had the ancient elm tree possessed reflective powers, it would probably have thought that the obliteration of Stephen Winkworth's presence from the scene would have been no great loss. Be that as it may, there he stood, watching the deepening shadows in the sky. Bitter, morose, and discontented, there he stood, at war with the world and with himself. “Stephen the woman-hater,” people called him; they might have added man-hater also, for all the love he bore his sex. It made one bad-tempered to look at the surly wrinkles in his face, and people felt an inclination to snarl at each other when he was in their company. He was not ungainly, either, and was still in the prime of life; but as be showed himself to the world, he was like a dried-up piece of page 3 anatomy, with every drop of the milk of human kindness squeezed clean out of him.

There was only one occasion throughout the year on which, of his own free will, he mixed with his neighbors, and that was Christmas Eve. And there was only one house in all Devonshire in which, even upon that exceptional occasion, he could be seen in the company of his fellows, and that house was Warleycombe Lodge, the residence of his once firm friend, Reuben Harrild. Harrild and he had been friends in their youthful days, and in one of their boyish confidences had pledged them-selves never to spend Christmas apart from each other. Stephen Winkworth had not broken his promise; and so upon this Christmas eve he stood at his door, watching the glowing tints darkening in the sky, and thinking of the gay company in which he would presently find himself. The house of his friend was within view, and he could see the reflection of the dying sun in each pane of glass, that shone like a fiery eye upon the landscape. No softening influence came upon him, even as he gazed upon this solemn splendor. With deep-set lines upon his face, and with form immovable, he stood like an image carved in stone—stern, impassive, relentless, and unfeeling.

As he stood thus, a cheerful voice accosted him, and he turned abruptly, as if angry at the interruption to his thoughts.

“Good evening, neighbor. Fine weather this for Christmas!”

The speaker was a good-looking man of some five-and-twenty years of age, William Fairfield by name. He was a fanner in the neighborhood of Warleycombe, and page 4 although regarded somewhat in the light of a new-comer, had been cordially welcomed into the society of his neighbors. It was doubtful whether the common life of a small country farmer would have suited a nature such as his—daring, impulsive, and ambitious. But he had been thrown into the society of Reuben Harrild's daughter, Laura, and between the two an attachment had sprung up sufficiently strong to bind him to Warleycombe. William was accompanied by a singular-looking individual, scarcely five feet in height, but with a head so enormous, that it might properly have belonged to one of the sons of Anak. This man was an institution in the neighborhood; had come many years ago from nobody knew where, and had gradually worked himself into the confidence, and gained the love and esteem, of every man, woman, and child, for twenty miles round. Nothing more was known of him than that his name was Bax, that he was a Doctor, and that he practised his profession more for love than for gain. Doctor Bax was welcomed everywhere, and by everybody. He took an interest in everything. Women would speak of him as Dear Doctor Bax, and husbands were not jealous to hear; children would run out to meet him, and “Laocoon” his legs without putting him out of temper; young men in love would press him into their confidence; and young women would whisper their little troubles into his ear. He had a kind word and honest advice for all, and never seemed tired of doing good gratuitously.

Now, one would have thought that the very sight of such a man would have been sufficient to induce some sign of cheerful recognition. But not so thought Stephen page 5 Winkworth; he evidently looked upon the little Doctor as an intrusion, and did not care to conceal his feelings in, the matter. But as for Doctor Bax, bless your soul! sour looks had no more effect upon him than upon the Sphynx, and he returned Stephen's surly recognition with a smile genial enough to have melted all the ice in every water-butt in Devonshire.

“Fine weather, sir!” exclaimed the little Doctor, rubbing his hands and sniffing in the air. “It's finer than fine weather, sir; it's glorious weather. Smell it!” and here, he gave another vigorous sniff. “Take off your hat and bow to it;” and taking off his hat, he bared to the fresh air a poll as smooth as a billiard ball and as polished as a looking-glass. “Fine weather, sir! By the Lord, if one could live in such weather for fifty years, he would not be a day older at the end. If old Parr had had such weather as this, he'd have lived to a thousand. Not a year less, as I am a living man!”

Stephen made no reply, unless the sour look he threw at the speaker could be construed into one.

“We live in a glorious climate,” proceeded Doctor Bax, looking round with a thorough sense of enjoyment. “Christmas would lose half its charm if it were not for the snow, and the ice, and the life-giving cold air. We breathe in youth in such weather as this.”

“You are a fortunate man, Doctor,” said Stephen, with a little cynical laugh.

“Fortunate! yes I am fortunate,” quickly, yet some-what gravely responded Doctor Bax.

“Fortunate,” continued Stephen, who had a manner of pursuing a speech without heeding interruption, “in page 6 disposition, I mean; fortunate in being able to think so well of things. Now, for my part, I think the evening is cold, and chilly, and damp, a friend to rheumatism and bronchitis. I see nothing fine in it.”

Probably not—probably not,” returned the Doctor; “but that is not your fault; that is the fault of your temperament. You can't help that, you know. You were born with it, and you are not to blame. The question is,” continued Doctor Bax, musingly, “who is to blame? You can't throw it upon your father and mother, for they did not know anything about it. We are all born with differently shaped heads; we are not accountable for that. You see, if a child came into the world with two tongues, he could not help speaking double could he? Rather a comical idea, that. Ha! ha! ha!”

But although the Doctor laughed heartily at the notion, and was as heartily joined by William Fairfield, Stephen Winkworth did not seem to think that any demonstration of enjoyment was necessary on his part. On the contrary, he appeared rather displeased with the hilarity of his companions, and a short pause elapsed before he spoke.

“You call yourself a philosopher, I should not wonder,” he then said, scornfully.

“If philosophy mean contentment with things as they are,” said Doctor Bax, “then I say, yes, I am a philosopher.”

“I suppose you have never had any domestic misfortunes,” Stephen said; “you have never experienced any heart-shock that turned your blood from its natural currents and diseased it. You are a happy man, contented with yourself and with the world.”

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“I am happy, and contented with the world,” returned Doctor Bax; “but I have seen misfortune, and I thank God for it.”

“That is your cant, and of a piece with other human hypocrisy,” sneered Stephen. “You thank God for misfortune, because it sounds well. You bless outwardly what I curse inwardly. It is wise in. you—for the world likes you, and welcomes you, while it turns its back even upon my shadow.”

“That is the view you take of it, Stephen Winkworth,” replied the Doctor, gently. “It is not your fault—it is the fault of your temperament, and I pity you.”

“I do not need your pity. Bestow it where it is more welcome. Why, look you here, Doctor Bax, who is the braver of the two, you or I? You, who cringe and crouch beneath unmerited misfortune; or I, who resent it, and curse it? As I do, as I shall, until I die! And so the world may go and hang itself for all the love I bear it; and I might go and hang myself for all the love it bears me. That's my philosophy. A tougher one than yours, I'll engage.”

“A tough one, indeed,” said the Doctor, shaking his head sadly, “but all the fault of your temperament. I lay no blame to you for thinking thus, and I take no credit to myself for being different. Why, here is our young friend,” indicating William Fairfield, “engaged to be married to the sweetest girl in Devonshire. Suppose he thought as you do. A pretty kettle of fish that would be. And nice ideas your's are to carry about with one at Christmas time. I declare, seriously, I think you are much to be pitied.”

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“And so you are going to marry Reuben Harrild's daughter,” said Stephen, turning to the young man. “You love her frantically, of course?”

“I love her as she deserves to be loved,” was the simple reply.

“Take care she does not deceive you!” exclaimed Stephen, with sudden passion. “Watch her—never let her out of your sight, or she is no true woman if she do not play you false.”

“Do not answer him, William, do not answer him,” said the Doctor, checking the reply that rose to William's lips. “He does not know what he is saying—he of all others should not doubt the purity of woman's love.”

“Love!” said Stephen laughing bitterly, “a fiction! a sham! a delusion! It can be bought and sold. Believe in it, trust in it, lavish all your thoughts on it, work for it, centre all the earnestness of your soul on it; and wake up one day from your dream, and look at your idol, defaced, dishonored, lying at your feet.”

“No, no,” interrupted Doctor Bax, earnestly. “He does not mean it, William. Do not believe that he means it. He knows that it is no delusion—he knows that it is all good and holy. Why, William, think of his daughter——”

“Hush, man,” broke in Stephen, casting an almost frightened look round him. “Do not let her hear you.”

“Dear—dear!” said Doctor Bax, as he and William walked away; “what an unfortunate temperament that man has. Come, Will, let us have a race to the house.”

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And off they set, running as fast as their legs would carry them, towards Warleycombe Lodge, where they arrived in a state of laughing breathlessness.

Meanwhile, Stephen Winkworth, with the same stern, relentless look upon his countenance, with the same bitter feelings at his heart, stood watching their departing forms, without a thought in unison with the sacred, peacefulness of the evening. The shadows grew deeper and deeper, and the reflection from the dying sun's couch of fire grew darker and darker every moment. And as the night crept on, his thoughts appeared to keep pace with its increasing sombreness.

“Father!” came a low plaintive voice from within the house, and at the word a quivering emotion passed over Stephen's face.

“My child!” and the man's voice, before so harsh, had a soft sweet sound as the words issued from his lips.

He turned to go in, but to his side had crept a figure so wan, so pitiful, that strange eyes looking upon it for the first time would have filled with grief at the unhappy sight.

A girl, dwarfed and mis-shapen, with a face on which a quiet grief had so firmly set its seal that an expression of gladness upon it seemed almost an impossibility. A girl, scarce eighteen years of age, without a trace of youth in her form or countenance. Yes, one. Humpbacked, ghastly as she was, masses of silken hair enveloped her, and gave her something that belongs to the grace of youth. As the man looked down upon her crippled from, a shudder of remorse passed across his features, and he stooped to lay his cheek against her upturned face, caressingly.

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“Well, my lass,” cried he, “we must make ourselves fine to-night. Reuben Harrild's house will be filled with gay company, to welcome Christmas, forsooth! as if Christmas could not go on well enough without their tom-foolery.”

Nothing but a sigh answered him for a time. Presently—

“Father,” she said, “I wish you would not speak so lightly of Christmas. It is the only holiday we have through the year. It is a good time.”

“No time is good for me, child, when I see you thus,” and his voice trembled with strong emotion as he turned her hair from her face. “I have no holiday while you are suffering.”

“Yes, yes,” she answered dreamily, “it is wearisome, wearisome. But I am not quite unhappy, father. It cannot last for ever. I often feel contented with my pain when I think of by-and-bye. And Christmas is a good time.”

“I could think so, child, if I saw you, as I see others, enjoying the time as they do. All times would be good for me—aye, even me, whom all men hate”——

“No, no, father,” she pleaded.

“All times would be good for me,” he continued, unheeding the interruption, “if I could see you, as I see others of your age, happy and light-hearted—if I could see you as I see you in my dreams, as I should see you but for the blight that fell upon my heart when you were, thank God! oh, thank God! too young to remember. Forgive me, child, for causing these tear. There, let me kiss them away.”

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“It cannot be helped, father,” she said, with a kind of pitiful humor. “Doctor Bax said I could never come straight again;” and she cast a look of pity upon her stunted shape. “And I might be worse, you know. I can see, and hear, and speak; all these are blessings of which I might have been deprived, and so I am thankful. When I look up to the sky, on such an evening as this, I feel almost happy. And the time is good, father, is it not? Christmas is a good time.”

But no assenting answer fell from his lips. He stood there, with his poor maimed child by his side, gazing at the floating clouds, and fighting with his heart.

“I could be happier—I know I could be happier, if you and the world were different to each other—if you did not look upon it as your enemy. But it cannot be, father, can it?”

“No, child, it cannot be.”

“You are good and kind to me, father. Stoop down and kiss me. I love you as dearly as I know you love me. Why should you so love me and be bitter with all others? All men are not bad.”

“Child, child, do not torture me.”

“And nature is full of goodness,” she continued, “still sweetly pleading; “and see, father, see! there is my angel.”

And pointing upward, the child showed him a large gray cloud, with white fleecy wings, which her imagination had quaintly fashioned into the figure of an angel.

“Look at his arms, extended as if he were blessing us and the time. I can sometimes almost distinguish his face. His wings are stretching now as if he would page 12 enfold all heaven to his bosom. I never saw him looking so grand before. I know he is at his best because of the time. Say that Christmas is a good time, and make me happy.”

“Christmas is a good time, child,” he said, almost doggedly.

“No, no! not like that! From your heart, father—I want you to say it from your heart. Look upon me, father, look upon me, with gentle thoughts, and then sit down by my side, for I must tell you something or I shall die.”

There was so much vehement passion in her action, there was so much agonised emotion in her voice, that, almost fear-struck, he seated himself upon the door-step.

For a few moments she could not utter a word. Presently she said—

“Father, I am very much deformed, am I not?”

“Not to me, darling.”

“No, not to you, father, for when you look at me your eyes are in your heart. But I am, in reality, very ugly, very uninteresting, maimed, deformed, and a cripple. It is very sad.”

She had a way of pitying and speaking of herself in commiserating tones that was very touching.

“I am not like any other girl I have ever seen. There is Laura Harrild, now, she is very pretty, is she not? But I know she is, for when I look at her, I feel as glad as when I see the early primroses peeping out of the ground, telling me that Spring is coming.”

A sharp anxious look passed into Stephen's eyes when he heard her mention Laura Harrild's name.

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“And she is like Spring, and as good as Spring. If you were to ask me my idea of perfect happiness, I should say Laura Harrild. For she is young, beautiful, and good—and she loves, and is beloved: oh, my heart!”

There was such anguish in the poor girl's voice, that Stephen's face grew white as he supported her head upon, his shoulder.

“Do you know my secret, father?” she whispered, without moving her head.

“I guess it, dear child.”

“I cannot help it. I have always loved him. He is so brave and strong. And there it is, you see,” she said, recovering herself a little. “He so brave and strong, and I such a poor cripple. What is my life worth; is it worth having, I wonder, in such a shape? If I were anybody else, and could see such a one as myself, I should look down with pity upon her, and wonder whether she would not be happier if she were dead. You have plenty of money, father?”

He nodded assent to her question.

“Yet, what is the use of it? Money will not buy love will it? Money will not make me different to what I am. I wonder if all homes are like ours. There is no light in it; it is desolate and deserted. You and I, father, are like two hermits, shut out from the world. Must it always be so? Surely there must be something better in life than my experience has shown me. There is something better in it. There is love in it, which ah me! I shall never, never have.”

She was speaking to herself now, while he, with humble breath, sat watching her, silently. Unforgiving and page 14 imperious as he was to the world, here he was a slave; and had he possessed the power, he would have laid his heart in her lap, to have made her happy.

“To-night is Christmas,” she resumed, “and we shall go round to Mr. Harrild's house, and see so many young people dancing, and laughing, and playing forfeits—while I shall sit in a corner, watching them, like the envious old witch I have read of in fairy stories. I am quite as hideous, I know; and it is natural and proper that they should not come and pay court to me, as they do to each other. And I deserve it, father,” she continued, her humor suddenly changing again. “I deserve it, for reviling the world and everybody in it, as I am doing. I deserve it for having bad and wicked thoughts at such a good time as Christmas—for it is a good time after all, is it not?”

No words can express the entreating earnestness with which she urged her pleading inquiry; and thoroughly humbled, the hard man said,

“It is a good time, child,” and said it from his heart.

And then they went into the house together.

Now, at Reuben Harrild's there was assembled on this evening as merry and gay a company as ever met within four walls. You would have thought that in the whole of the happy group there did not exist a single anxiety. But it was not so. For anxiety is a component part of the business of human life, and it can be seen at odd moments peeping out from the corner of every man's eyes. Some wear it habitually; others casually; but all possess a stock of it, more or less, stored upon the shelves of the page 15 mind. And it is good thus; for if life were all sweet, affection would be valueless, and happiness a negative good.

I do not suppose that in the kitchen the question was regarded in at all a philosophical light; indeed, it is questionable whether it was thought of at all. But it is certain that even in that region of shining saucepans and stewpans there were heartburns, albeit they were mild ones. For Samuel Nock had, some quarter of an hour since, incontinently come upon Kitty Grater in the passage, and had seen her then and there in the act of being kissed, beneath the miserable pretence of a piece of mistletoe, by a retainer of low degree, who had been engaged to assist in the domestic arrangements. Between Samuel Nock and Kitty Grater an attachment had been supposed to exist for the last fifteen years—an attachment which was always budding into promise, but had not yet blossomed into proposal. Each looked upon each as the other's property, and it was tacitly understood between the two that if any philanthropic individual should happen to step forward and say, “Wilt thou, Kitty Grater, take Samuel Nock to be thy lawfully wedded husband?” or “Wilt thou, Samuel Nock, take Kitty Grater to be thy lawfully wedded wife?” they would jump joyously into each other's arms, and the matter would be settled. But during those fifteen years that happy idea had not occurred to any philanthropic individual, and the twain were still in a state of incipient courtship. The mental condition of the two at the present moment was not analogous; for Samuel Nock stood, pipe in mouth, leaning against the chimney piece, seriously contemplating the advisability page 16 of punching the head of the retainer of low degree, and wondering whether such an act would be accepted by Kitty as a downright declaration, about which there could be no mistake; and Kitty, busy at the dresser, was furtively watching Samuel, inwardly enjoying his state of mind, and wondering whether he would be goaded by jealousy to say something worth hearing, without any nonsense in it. But Samuel Nock's indignation was not easily appeased; his moral dignity was hurt; and he preserved silence.

“Oh, Samuel,” said Kitty, who had just come from the parlor, and who saw that it was no use waiting any longer for him to speak; “Oh, Samuel, they're a playing such a game upstairs.”

Samuel only grunted.

“They're playing,” said Kitty, slily, “I love my love with an A, because he's Amiable, and Amusing, and an Angel, and I hate my love with an A, because he's Aggravating, and Absurd, and Annoying; and his name is Alexander, and he comes from Aberdeen, and I took him to the sign of the Axe and Anchor, and treated him to Apples and Anchovies.”

“And I don't love my love with a We,” grunted Samuel Nock, jumping to the other end of the alphabet, “because she's a Wixen, and Wicious, and Wile; and I hate her with a We, because she's Wulgar, and Wain, and a Wiper, and her name is Wenus, and she comes from Wandieman's Land, and I took her to the sign of the Wenomous Wampire, and treated her to Winegar and Water.”

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“And I hate my love with a B, because he's a Brute, and his name is Samuel,” said Kitty, rather vaguely, and with a very red face.

“Don't be windictive, Kitty,” remonstrated Samuel. “It's a low, wulgar sign.”

“Don't be aggravating, Samuel,” rejoined Kitty, goaded to such a state of mind that, looking upon the retainer of low degree as the cause of the quarrel, she suddenly turned upon that inoffensive individual, and boxed his ears. Not content with which, she seized his head, and rapped it sharply against the kitchen wall; which had such an effect upon Samuel Nock, that he caught her in his arms and kissed her into good humor.

Every room in the house had such a bright look about it that there was no mistaking the time. Had old Father Time himself suddenly made his appearance out of his weather-beaten residence, and told you it was all a mistake, and that it wasn't Christmas, you wouldn't have believed him. Not Christmas! A nice thing, indeed! As if you did not know better! As if every saucepan in the kitchen did not know better! As if the very sparks flying out of the fire up the chimney did not know better! Not Christmas! Ask Mrs. Ramage! Who was Mrs. Ramage? Why Mrs. Ramage was a Large woman (the printer will please put a large L to the word) with a Large mouth, and a Large nose, and Large eyes, and Large limbs, and a Large way of asserting herself which there was no resisting. And in Mrs. Ramage was merged Mr. Ramage, who was a little man (the printer will please here put a little 1) with a little page 18 mouth, and a little nose, and little eyes, and little limbs, and such a very little way of asserting himself that no one took the slightest notice of him. If, by the merest chance, he was mentioned, he was spoken of as one who had vested the whole of his right, title, and interest in and to human life in the wife of his bosom; who, indeed, had parted with it to her so thoroughly and completely that it might be regarded as a sum, which she added up, subtracted from, multiplied, or divided, at her pleasure.

Not Christmas! Why here was Mrs. Ramage, this tremendously solemn and magnificently Large woman, actually laughing, and beaming kindly smiles upon poor little Mr. Ramage, who hopped meekly about her, and bobbed his little head in ecstasy at her affability.

Not Christmas! Ask the Woys and the Wymers, of Messrs. Wymer, Woy, and Wymer, the celebrated firm which transacted all the legal business of the district. The firm originally was Wymer and Woy, but a female Wymer, sister of the senior partner, having in her own particular right become possessed of a sum of money which the firm was anxious to pass to its credit, would only consent to invest it on the condition that her name was added to the firm. As she was a strong-minded and bony old maid, her condition was accepted, and the title thenceforth was Wymer, Woy, and Wymer. They were all long, lank, and lean, and grew, as did their parchments, more shrunken and shrivelled every term. Life to them was not made up of happiness and sorrow, sympathy, love, affection, charity, and other such-like trifles, but it was made up of Law. They talked nothing but Law—they knew nothing but Law—they breathed nothing but page 19 Law. They played the game of existence with Law, and they played it so skilfully that they never missed the odd trick. Yet even they looked frostily pleasant, and thawed a little under the genial influence of the time; dimly recognising that kindliness at such a season was an enactment of some old law of humanity.

And if there was a shadow of a doubt on the subject—if any misguided person still entertained the most infinitesimal particle of disbelief as to the fact—he had but to look at the face of Laura Harrild, and the thing was settled. There was nothing extraordinarily hand-some about Laura—she was simply a dear, lovable woman, gemmed with the graces of a happy, innocent youth. A pleasant gladness rested on her face, and shed its influence upon all around her. Such women are the roses of the world; happy the man who has one blooming in the garden of his life!

“To think,” said Doctor Bax, as he sat dandling on his knee a privileged, curly-headed youngster, “to think of those two children going to get married in three months! Why, Mr. Harrild, what on earth will you do without her?”

The person addressed, a sober-looking man of nearly fifty, gazed thoughtfully at Laura and William, who were sitting among a group of young people, laughing and chatting gaily, but he made no reply.

“Dear, dear!” continued the Doctor. “Three months! And to-morrow we shall be looking back to it, and saying it was only yesterday that they were married. Life, indeed, is nothing but a breath of wind”

“No such thing, sir; no such thing,” interposed Mr. page 20 Wymer, who was close by with the other members of the firm. “Life a breath of wind, indeed! Pooh, pooh Doctor, you know nothing about it. If everybody took such a light view of it, what would become of all its most important relations? What would be the use of making marriage settlements in favor of a breath of wind? What would be the use of making one's will, involving large interests—often tremendously important interests, let me tell you—in favor of a breath of wind? What would be the use of actions at law, writs of ejectment, pleas, interpleas, rules nisi, criminal prosecutions, chancery suits, and insolvencies? What would become of Law?”

“That is no breath of wind, I grant you,” said the Doctor, good humoredly; “it is a grim reality. But I spoke philosophically.”

“Philosophically, my dear doctor,” returned Mr. Wymer, in no way appeased; “of what practical use is it to speak philosophically? Speak legally, and you are all right. Speak legally, act legally, live legally, die legally, and you can go to the other world with your title-deeds in your hand, and take possession. What I find fault with in people now-a-days,” continued the speaker, illustrating the point with his forefinger, “is, that they diverge from the straight course. They are dreamy, sentimental, unpractical, and unbusiness-like. Now, there is no dreaminess or sentimentality in law. You must be wide awake, my friend, when you deal with law. You must be business-like and practical, or you will get the worst of it,” and Mr. Wymer emitted a dry, chuckling laugh, as if he was in the habit of dealing with people who were page 21 unbusiness-like and unpractical, and who were always getting the worst of it.

“But the uncertainty of the law,” Doctor Bax ventured to remark.

“That's the beauty of it,” answered Mr. Wymer, rubbing his hands pleasantly. “You never know where to have it. It always gets the best of you when you least expect it. You might study it for a hundred years, and it would trip you up after all. It is wonderfully and beautifully complex.”

“There are cases which have lasted sixty or seventy years, are there not?” asked the Doctor.

“More, sir; more,” replied Mr. Wymer, gleefully. “What could more fitly illustrate its amazing ingenuity, than such cases? Think of the study, the speeches, the learning, the arguments that have been used in one simple suit. Think of the briefs”——

“The fees,” the Doctor put in slily.

“Of course, they follow, for every laborer is worthy of his hire; and we are all laborers after a fashion.”

“How on earth did the world ever get on without lawyers?” asked Doctor Bax, maliciously.

“It never did, sir. For did not Abraham, the patriarch, buy ‘the field of Ephron, which was in Machphelah, which was before Manure; the field, and the cave which was therein, and all the trees that were in the field, that were in all the borders round about’—the very words, sir, you read in Genesis. And do you mean to tell me that any one but a lawyer could have written such a description? Why, sir——”

“Stop, stop!” exclaimed Doctor Bax, putting his page 22 fingers to his ears. “I yield. I give in. Whoever argued with a lawyer and got the best of it? besides which,” he muttered, as he walked away, “I would sooner have five minutes' chat with Laura and William, than spend a week in the company of that dried-up old folio.”

The lovers were standing at the window, looking out upon the night. The snow flakes were falling fast, and a field of purest white spread before them, as far as eye could reach. The window was in a recess, shut off from the room by heavy curtains, so that they were almost in seclusion. William Fairfield had once an idea of emigrating to the Colonies; but the lucky chance that watches over true love had made the sentiments of these two young people known to each other, and his intention now was to settle down into the quiet life of a country farmer. He was speaking to her tenderly; and her pure, truthful face, though turned somewhat away from him, showed how lovingly she was following his words.

“It is strange,” he was saying, “how entirely my mind has been weaned away from its intense desire of emigrating to the Colonies. I think I must be a miser, Laura dear, for I used absolutely to devour the news of each fresh gold discovery in the other part of the world. I used to dream night after night of tremendous nuggets, almost too heavy to lift, and to wake in a rage to find it a delusion. Why, I went to Wymer, who had found a purchaser for our little farm, and gave instructions to draw up the conveyance. Old Stephen Winkworth was the purchaser; but you know what happened just then, darling?” and her drew her tenderly towards him: “I page 23 discovered; what I scarcely dared to hope, that you loved me, and away to the four winds went all ideas of selling the farm and emigrating.”

His was an impulsive nature, self-willed and obstinate. He had a rapid, confident way of speaking, and was, as he looked, bold, manly, and fearless. Laura gazed into his face somewhat timidly, and said,

“I sometimes think, William, that it would have been better for you if you had gone away”——

“Why, Laura!” he broke in, amazed.

“What I mean is, Will, that it would have done you good. You are going to settle into a quiet, humdrum, life, not suited to you exactly, I think. You are so impulsive”——

“That is just what Stephen Winkworth said. Why, do you know, Laura, when he went to the lawyer's, expecting the deeds were ready for signature (and he went with his money in his hand, I can tell you—six hundred golden sovereigns), and I told him I had altered my mind, and did not intend to sell the farm, he called me rash-headed and impulsive—said that the bargain had been made, and that I could not draw back from it. And there the money is to this day—at least, so old Wymer is always telling me—and there are the deeds, ready for signing; and all I have to do is to go to the office and put my signature, and pocket the six hundred sovereigns, which, of course, I do not intend to do—no, not if there were six hundred thousand instead of six hundred; for your loves, darling, is worth all the gold in the world to me, and I would not lose your love for all the nuggets I have ever dreamt of.”

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And he meant it, did William Fairfield. He loved the girl with his whole heart. A year ago he might have gone away, and time would have cooled his passion; but now, when his love had found expression, it could never be extinguished. He believed in her implicitly: his was a blind faith; he did not question it or doubt it.

“We shall be very happy, William,” presently she said softly. “But tell me, what made you so eager to go to the gold colonies?”

“I can scarcely tell you. It was a restless craving for excitement; and then there was a friend of mine, who had been a seapegrace in his very young days, and he had gone over and reformed, and made lots of money; and he wrote so eloquently about the mode of life, and the independence, and the gold, that it turned my head.”

“Your friend?” said Laura, and then stopped hesitatingly.

“Yes?” he answered, questioning.

“What had he done wrong?”

“A great deal. He forged his father's name”——

“Oh, William!” she cried, in such a voice of pain that he caught her in his arms, and asked her what ailed her.

“Nothing, William, nothing,” she replied, half hysterically, and begging him, between laughing and crying, to proceed with his story.

“Well,” continued William, “he forged his father's name, and it was discovered; and the old man gave him means to take ship to Australia. He escaped, although his father was almost ruined.”

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“And then?” said Laura.

“The old man died, and the young scapegrace made a fortune, and became a first-rate member of society. Why, Laura, you look quite scared.”

“It is a melancholy story, William,” said Laura; “but see, there is Stephen Winkworth and poor Alice.”

“Go and speak to her, Laura, and bring her here. I like to be away from the lights and the people when you are with me. And here in this little nook we can see everything without being seen. How it snows!”

“How beautiful!” said Laura, nestling up to her lover. “The flakes float downwards from heaven to earth, like feathers from the wings of the angels. I will bring Alice here, and we will sit together as long as they don't miss us.”

“Stop, Laura,” exclaimed William, as she was turning away, “what is that outside? There, do you not see it moving?”

It was the shadow of a man, who appeared to be lurking about the house. As Laura looked, her heart sank within her, and she turned as white as the falling snow.

“Evidently some skulker. Not here for any good, that's certain, said William; “I will go out and see who it is.”

“No, no, William,” implored Laura, with sudden earnestness, clinging to his arm, “do not go. I beg, I implore you, do not go.”

“Why, Laura, this is the second time to-night you have almost frightened me with some unaccountable emotion. Let go my arm, my dear.”

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“No, no, no.!” she exclaimed, with strange vehemence, and still clinging to him, “you shall not—you must not go. And see—it is gone—it was only a shadow, after all. We have been standing here away from the lights so long that we are growing fanciful.”

And leaving him, she walked towards Alice Winkworth.

Strange contrasted were these two girls. One, lithe, supple, graceful, handsome; the other, deformed, maimed, white, and sickly. A world of tenderness was expressed in Laura's face, as she bent over Alice's chair.

“I am so glad to see you, Alice,” she said; “William wants you to come and sit with us by the window.”

A glad light passed over the sick girl's face, as she rose and walked with Laura to the curtained recess. Her look turned to one of surprise, when Laura whispered, “Talk to him for a little while, Alice, until I come back. I will not be long gone.”

“Where are you going, Laura?” asked William.

“I must attend to the guests, Will,” Laura replied; “I will be back presently.” And she turned away somewhat abruptly.

“Strange,” muttered William, “she seems quite changed to-night. By heavens, there it is again.”

And, looking out, he saw again the shadow of a man who was lurking about the house.

“I have a good mind to go out and see about it. But, no; Laura will be vexed with me, and perhaps it is nothing, after all.”

So he sat down by the side of Alice, half discontented, and not knowing why.

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In the meantime the snow was falling slowly but steadily outside the study of Reuben Harrild, who had left his guests for a while to their own devices. As he leant his face upon his hand, gazing dreamily out of the window, it could be seen that old memories were passing through his mind. He looked older than he was. Some lives, wild and stormy, are prolific of wrinkles: others, smooth and uneventful, do not raise a furrow on the face. A life is counted, not by years, but by events; and in some men's lives occur earthquakes which leave chasms never to be closed. The pages of a man's life are blotted with tears; and memory, as she scans the records, lives over again, with bitter brevity, the shedding of each tear. As Reuben Harrild sat, wrapt in thought, the ghosts of former joys and former griefs clung about him with their sad faces, and a thousand pale spectres rose and haunted him from the grave of his past life. He was deep in these memories when the presence of his daughter roused him.

“What want you here, child?” he asked gently, smoothing her hair, and kissing her.

“I want a Christmas-box, father,” she said, half laughingly, half earnestly.

“I have a great mind to give you one,” he said, raising his hand playfully; but seeing something in her face that spoke of grief, he asked gravely, “Has anything happened, child? Has William been unkind?”

“No, father, he is too good. I do so wish I could be brave, and speak to you what is in my mind.”

“You may say what you please, dear child, on every subject”——

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“On every subject?” she questioned earnestly.

“But one,” he said, gravely; “and that subject must never be mentioned between us. You know me, Laura; you know how I love you—no father could better love a daughter; but you must obey me, dear child, in this, as you have done in all other things, and be to me always what you have ever been—a child I can love without one shadow of remorse, without one spark of reproach.”

As he spoke, she saw outside the shadow of the man upon the snow, and drawing her father hastily away, she stood between him and the night.

“To-night, Laura,” he said, as he placed his arm around her, and led her out of the study, “I have been thinking of the past. Never a Christmas passes but I think of what I know is in your mind. But I would rather lose my life than my honor. A stab at the one may be cured; at the other, never! And as I have resolved, so will I perform, though it fill my heart with pain. Every man has a skeleton in his house, and I must not grumble at mine. I think I will get an iron safe, and lock my skeleton in it, and throw the keys into the sea, so that it cannot get at me.”

“But it will get at you,” said Doctor Bax, who had heard the last sentence as he came into the passage with the household cat upon his shoulder; “you can't get away from it—no safe is strong enough to keep it. Just think what a lot of skeletons there are in this house at the present moment. I warrant you every man's skeleton has stepped out of its cupboard to accompany its owner to your Christmas party, and that there are a score of them jostling up against us, if we could only see them. Just page 29 for curiosity, now,” he continued, drawing them to the half-open door of the room where some of the elderly people were playing cards, and most of the young ones playing forfeits; “look at Stephen Winkworth: there is a skeleton he has got—it is a perpetual day-mare and night-mare. It never leaves him. It sits grinning upon his shoulder like the bird of ill-omen we read of. And his daughter, poor little child, hasn't she got a skeleton? Heaven help her! her lot is the hardest of all to bear. Look at little Mr. Ramage—Mrs. Ramage is his skeleton—and isn't she an awful one, hanging round a man's neck? Ah! you may laugh,” he said to Laura, who was smiling; “but you have got your skeleton—do not look so grave, my dear—and I have got mine, here! here!” and he smote his breast theatrically, and upset the cat.

“Your skeleton, Doctor Bax,” exclaimed Laura; “why, what sort of a one is that?”

“A tearing, staring, horrible, malicious, wicked skeleton,” said the Doctor, so loudly, that the eyes of every one in the room were turned upon him. “A fearful, hideous, monstrous, hobgoblin kind of skeleton. I will tell you what it is—in confidence: I love you, and you are going to marry another! If it be not true, may this kiss I am going to give you under the misletoe be my last!”

But Laura had darted away, and the little Doctor pursuing her, turned all the card-tables topsy-turvey, and set the whole room in an uproar.

Oh! but it was a merry Christmas party this, and little Doctor Bax was the soul of it. I verily believe he kissed every female in the house half-a-dozen times over. Even page 30 Mrs. Ramage submitted to the salute; and as for Mrs. Wymer, she stepped under the misletoe like a lamb to the slaughter, and smacked her lips after the operation.

There were two or three little rooms about the house, in which the guests found themselves almost by chance, if they happened to stroll out of the drawing-room, where the merriment was going on. In one of these, an hour later, were Stephen Winkworth and his daughter.

“Take me home, father,” said the girl. “I am weary of this; I want to be at home.”

“I thought you wished to be here,” he said wistfully. “It is gayer for you than our dull house.”

“I know it is—but how can I be gay, seeing what I see?” she exclaimed, fretfully. “I am like a baby crying after a toy, which somebody else has got.”

“Oh child,” whispered Stephen, “if William Fairfield loved you, you would be happy.”

“Do not speak of it, father,” sobbed the girl. “It can never, never be.”

“I don't know that,” muttered Stephen to himself, in so low a voice that she could not heat him. “Why should she deceive him as she is doing? I do not love William Fairfield, but I could love anything for her,” glancing at his daughter; “and why should the woman, whom he is going to marry, deceive him? Upon my word,” he added with a cynical laugh, “I could almost persuade myself that I ought to do a good action. What hypocrites we are! By chance, I discover this Laura Harrild—this rival of my child in the affections of the man she loves—playing her lover false. By chance, I see her in the arms of another man, and hear her make an page 31 appointment with him at midnight. At midnight, by the lord!” and his low, bitter laugh floated discordantly on the night air. “This girl, so outwardly fair, this paragon of modesty and virtue, is like the rest—false, false, false to the backbone! Oh, my ladies! shame, shame upon you! I would whip your false bodies with whips made of your delicate hair—aye, every mother's daughter of you!”

There was a strange, biting bitterness in the man's voice. He was like a wild beast, striding up and down the room, with vengeful thoughts and bitter memories glaring out of his eyes.

“Yet, what business is it of mine?” he continued. “Why should I interfere in the character of a virtuous eavesdropper? Let him marry her, and let her deceive him. It is of a piece with the rest. But, my child! she loves him! Oh! God! grant her some compensation for the torture of her life—grant her a recompense for her long misery.”

“What are you saying, father?” said Alice, raising her head, and adding, without waiting for a reply, “I thought this night was to be such a happy one, and it is so different.”

“It may be happy yet, child. Come, darling, I love you, I love you,” and he pressed her passionately to his breast. “I would lose my soul for you “——

“Hush, father!” and she put her hand to his lips.

“I would. We will not go home yet; we will wait another hour. Let us go in.”

As they entered the passage, Laura passed swiftly by them, out of the house. There were traces of tears upon page 32 her face, and William was standing holding the handle of the door in his hand, and looking somewhat annoyed.

“Why, William,” said Stephen Winkworth, “you look as savage as a Bengal tiger.”

“That is no business of yours, Mr. Winkworth,” returned William. “I generally mind my own.”

“Hard words, lad, hard words these, upon Christmas Eve,” said Stephen; “but perhaps I was in the wrong. I beg your pardon.”

“No; I beg yours, Stephen Winkworth,” said William, remorsefully. “There is my hand.”

“And perhaps you are surprised at my speaking to to you,” said Stephen, shaking it. “I am not over-given to conversation, at the best of times; but I would like to speak a word with you, if you will come into the open air.”

And so they went out into the air. The snow-fall had ceased, but had left a thick, soft carpet upon the earth. The moon was peeping out, and the Heavens seemed bright with the glorious whiteness beneath them. As far as eye could reach, everything was shrouded in white. The tall elm trees stood like white sentinels, erect and watchful. The sloping roofs sloped whitely down to the eaves, and the chimney pots reared their heads whitely to the skies, while the cowls upon them looked like the shrouded heads of white monks bending in prayer.

“I knew your father, William Fairfield,” Stephen commenced, after a short pause; and though interest for human things is almost dead within me, I still can feel an interest in you, and wish you well.”

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“You did not wish me well when you wanted to force me to sell my farm and emigrate,” said William. “You seemed to wish to get rid of me quickly, for all your interest.

“That was a matter of business. And my part of the bargain I will carry out any day. I am not a boastful man, but what I do I do, and when I promise I perform. If you go to the lawyer's to-morrow, you will find the money ready for you, if you will only sign your name.”

“I know that. Mr. Wymer has told me so a dozen times.”

“Besides, what better would a young man have than a pocketful of money, and a new land to go to, where, with but common prudence, he could multiply it by ten in a few years?”

“You must have plenty of money, Stephen Wink-worth, to allow six hundred pounds to lie idle for nearly a twelvemonth. It is a pity you have not a family to benefit by it.”

“I have my daughter,” retorted Stephen, quickly. “She will have all; and if I had, or if I have a hundred times as much, she will still have it all. She will bring a rich dower to the man who marries her.”

“William looked sharply at Stephen's face, but it was expressionless as stone.

“Well, you broke that bargain, my lad,” continued Stephen. “The fault of your father was, that he was too impetuous and impulsive. The fault of your father's son is the same. Had you fulfilled your bargain, you, might have been a happy man. As it is”——

“As it is?” said William, impatiently taking up the words as Stephen paused.

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“As it is, I think you stand a fair chance of being anything but a happy man.”

There was no mistaking the meaning Stephen intended to convey, and William Fairfield paused long before he could muster sufficient coolness to speak.

“This is not the first time to-day,” he then said, “that you have thrown out insinuations to which I should not listen. What do you mean by them?”

“Fair and softly, my lad. I mean nothing but what I say. Instead of emigrating, you engaged yourself to Laura Harrild. Would you marry a woman who does not love you?”

“By Heaven!”——

“Forbear, and listen to me. I could be your father, William Fairfield, for the years I bear. Forbear your tongue, and hear me out.”

William Fairfield made no reply, but stood with his back against a tree, clenching his hands, and beating his foot impatiently against the trunk. They had wandered some little way from the house, and the notes of merriment within fell but faintly upon their ears. Otherwise, not a sound broke the stillness of the night.

“You know what I am,” Stephen said; “you know the estimation in which I am held. If any man, woman, or child in Devonshire were asked who in all Devonshire was most disliked, most hated, most shunned, the reply would be—Stephen Winkworth. If any dumb animal in Devonshire could shew its dislike to one person more than to all others, it would be to Stephen Winkworth. No one has a smile of welcome for him. Were he to be deprived of his wealth, and were he lying parched and page 35 starving by the roadside, no one out of love would give him a cup of milk—no one out of compassion would give him a bed of straw to lie upon. Were Stephen Winkworth to die to-morrow, no one but the undertaker Would attend his funeral, and even he would be glad when the job was done.”

The picture he had drawn was true. He spoke in his usual bitter tone, as if he knew well and was satisfied with the penalty he had invited.

“Yes,” he continued, “such is my fate. I do not complain. I have brought it upon myself, and I can bear it. But I was not always thus, William Fairfield.”

“I have heard so; but you were always so in my remembrance.”

“That's right, lad; speak the truth. No, I was not always thus. I once had a happy home—I once had friends!—Friends!” he echoed bitterly, “I would scratch the word out of the dictionary, had I my will, and send it to hell to burn out its false meaning. Friends! vultures! lies! call them what you will; I once had them. Do you know what made me what I am?” he asked abruptly and fiercely, turning to William.

“I do not.”

He took off his hat, and bared his head to the cold wind. In this man's heart was raging a tragic fire which a score of lives could not quench. The memory of early wrongs was burning within him as fiercely as when they were first perpetrated. For years had he been hugging them close, and fanning them into a blaze, which Death alone could extinguish.

“What is this thing that men call life?” he asked.

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“The grave opens wider for us every day that we live. We grow old, feeble, childish in our actions. Years have passed over me like the rest of men, and left their marks upon my frame; but fresh within me as at first burns the wrong which set me against my fellow-men for ever and for ever.”

He stooped and took up a handful of snow, with which he bathed his fevered head, and then resumed.

“You, in the hey-day of youth—you, with the dream of life spread before you like a garden—you love. All men do, some time in their early youth. Each man, in his time, gees some woman whom he sets before him as an idol, and falls down and worships, poor blind fool! as if she were Heaven-born. Even I, in my youth, did this thing; even I set up within my soul a painted sham, a beautiful lie, and worshipped her as if she were my salvation. I have read books wherein, woman's love is described as something divine—wherein a niche in a woman's heart is said to sanctify a man's life, and make him better and fitter for the life to come. Woman's love! What woman loves like a man? Their natures are too false, too petty, to cope even with the idea of the strength of a man's devotion! He sees a smile upon the face which nature gave her, a smile of heavenly sweetness, which fills his soul with adoration; and this trick of the features, which she practises in his absence a hundred times an hour, he believes to be a heart-welcome to him, and to him alone. I who, before my marriage, went courting as you have done to-night, and would snigger up in out-of-the-way corners with my love”—(no pen can express the scornful expression he page 37 put upon the word)—“I would often meet her with such a smile upon her beautiful face, and my heart would laugh within my breast as the sunshine of her eyes fell upon me!”

“Scornful, bitter, as he was, his voice here grew softer as old associations flocked around him.

“She was all in all to me; she was my life, my hope, my prize in the world's lottery! I was always a scheming, money-making man; but I did not yearn for wealth for myself—I yearned for it for her. Every fresh success I gained was doubly welcome, because she would share it. I have often rubbed my hands gladly to myself, and thanked God I had succeeded, for her sake. I used to whisper her name for luck if I entered into a new speculation. With her name upon my tongue, with her image in my hears; every step I mounted in the ladder of life brought me nearer and nearer to Heaven. I took this piece of clay, this image of dust, and fashioned it, and painted it, and beautified it; I filled her face with innocence, her eyes with love, her heart with faith; my devotion gave music to her voice, sanctity to her touch. And I loved her—I loved her as man never loved before!”

There was such a depth of tenderness in the man's voice and action, that William Fairfield instinctively moved nearer to him, and would have taken his hand, pityingly; but Stephen repulsed him, and continued—

“After some time, we were married. There is a Heaven upon earth for some men, during a portion of their lives. Most of us can remember some few weeks, some few months, which shine out from the past as if they belonged to another and a happier life. I can look page 38 back to the first few months of my wedded life, and wonder at myself. It is not often that I am stirred to emotion; but when I think of the glory of happiness which bathed my heart during that brief time, and when I look to my home as it is now——shunned, deserted, cold, and joyless—I am lost in miserable wonder. I had a smile for all men, then; aye, even for one whose name would blister my tongue were I to mention it, the very thought of whom drives my blood from its natural channels, and fills me with a maddening thirst for everlasting revenge!”

In his passion he raised his hand, and struck at the tree as if it were his enemy.

“He was my friend, and I trusted him. He was my friend, and he sat by my hearth like a brother. He was my friend, and was admitted as a sharer of my social happiness. He was my friend, and I lauded him to my wife, and sang his praises in her ear, in our moments of confidence. He was my friend, and he betrayed me. Curse him!”

Again he struck at the tree, and waved his hand defiantly to the clouds.

“I will hunt that man through all the worlds. Whatever may be the life we live when this is done with, in whatever sphere or shape I meet him, he shall expiate the blight he has cast upon me! My wife bore me a child, a daughter, beautiful as the day. I declare that as often as I returned home and saw my darling in her mother's lap, I used to bless God for His goodness. Even, as her little fairy fingers would enlace themselves round one of mine, so did my love for her enlace itself and page 39 grow round the roots of my heart. You would scarcely believe, would you, that this exquisite baby-beauty—straight-limbed, bright-eyed, rosy-cheeked—could become the deformed thing she is now! You would scarcely believe that my poor maimed daughter and my baby-beauty are one—that so fair a shoot should produce such a stunted and mis-shapen tree!”

“Poor Alice!” said William, pityingly.

“Aye, poor Alice!” Stephen echoed, laughing bitterly. “But for me, she might have been the pride of Devon-shire—but for me, she might have been loved, admired, cherished—but for me her life might have been all Spring, and her youth would not be, as it is, a cold and cheerless winter!”

“One day,” he resumed, after a short pause, “I left my home on a journey. I was to be away only twenty-four hours. It was the first night I had passed out of my house since our marriage. Why did not my horse fall down with me and kill me, instead of bringing me safely back to the home I had left, honored and happy? Bat what some men call Fate, others Chance, others Destiny, ordained that I should live and grapple with my misery. For when I arrived home, William Fairfield, I found that my wife had fled—had fled with him I called my friend; I learned that she whom I loved with my wholes soul had betrayed me; that he whom I trusted with my whole heart, had played the Judas. It took me no time to learn all this. I had not been in my house five minutes, before it flashed upon me like a picture suddenly revealed. The past years spread out before me like a map, and every glance and word that had passed page 40 between us during that time, bore a new signification. Her love had been a simulation; for months her heart had not been mine. She had been to me a living lie; and all a woman's artifice had been employed to hide the truth from my knowledge. What would you have done, William Fairfield, had you been stricken with such a a blow? What would you have done, had you found your life's happiness thus suddenly crumbled to ashes upon your household hearth?”

He did not wait for a reply, but went on—

“The thoughts and memories which clung about me in those few moments of time would make an epic. Amidst them all, one picture struggled to the foreground. I saw, in my fancy, the face of my wife lying upon the pillow in the early morning—a face of child-like, almost angelic beauty—a face, which, could an artist paint and call it Innocence, would immortalise his name through all ages. She had fallen asleep in my arms but a few hours before, with words of love upon her lips. I saw her face, and it was heaven to me. But I could not see her heart; and now that it was laid bare in all its naked untruth, faith, love, religion, fled from me affrighted. I looked round and saw her child lying in her cot; she opened her eyes and smiled; and as in that innocent smile I caught the reflex of her false mother's beauty, I raised her in my arms, and in my rage dashed her to the ground.”

The memory of that terrible time raised thick beads of perspiration upon his face; and again, in a wild reckless manner, he scooped up a handful of snow, and scattered it over his head.

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“I scarcely remember what followed. I. know that I pursued them day and night. I cannot remember whether I ate, or drank, or slept. My life was compassed by but one thought—to overtake them and kill them. I flung money about like a madman. Hearing that I was in pursuit, they schemed, and baffled me for some days. Could one for a time destroy all else in nature, and annihilate space and every living thing that intervened between me and my vengeance, what a picture would be seen! The false wife and the false friend flying from the vengeful husband. Pluck from their hearts and minds the thoughts and feelings of the three, and show them in a palpable form, and all other tragedies of human life would pale before the terror of this.”

“William Fairfield shuddered at the vehemence of the man's words, and almost fancied he saw flying through the air the dark shadows of the picture drawn by Stephen.

“At length I came upon them. I do not know how many days or nights had passed, until their faces flashed upon me one night at a railway station. Despite all warning cries, I jumped upon the step of one of the carriages, as the train was moving off. I did not think of my own danger as I was whirled along—I only thought that they were there, and that I must get to them. The window through which I had caught a glimpse of their faces was far in front of me, and with feverish impatience I worked my way along the side of the train. How I escaped being dashed to pieces is a marvel. At last I came to the window, and peering in, I saw them nestling side by side. Never shall I forget the moment when with a glance, came mutual page 42 recognition. I tore at the door like a wild animal, but it was locked, and all my strength was powerless to open it. I shouted—I raved—I believe I must have been, mad. The engine was before me, and at the thought I found myself upon it, struggling, with the engineer, who endeavoured to prevent my mad purpose. I can remember nothing more. A sudden crash—the flying of a million fiery particles in the air—and then, oblivion! When I recovered my senses I learned that a terrible accident, inexplicable now to all but me, had occurred; that my wife and her paramour were killed, with a score of others, and that I should never see their faces again upon this earth!”

At this moment, William, looking towards the house, saw again on the snow the shadow of a man, and he would have moved towards it, had not Stephen's next words stayed him.

“When I arose from my bed of sickness I was another man. I had tasted the sweetness of life, and it had poisoned me. I closed my door upon all my former associates and friends. The shadow of Death was hanging over my house—for oh, William Fairfield, when in my despair I had dashed my baby-beauty to the earth, I had not killed her, although she lingered in pain for many years—I had not killed her, but I had maimed, deformed her, beyond all mortal cure, and she grew what you see her now. I, her father, made her what she is—I, her father, wrecked her young life upon the rock of my despair—and I, her father, hour after hour, and day after day, bear within me the seeds of a remorse so strong and agonising, that I would chop page 43 myself limb from limb to atone for the misery I have made her bear.?

The night was very still; no sound of merriment floated from the house. The shadow, too, had disappeared. As William noted this, there stole into his heart a doubt, which made him shudder.

Do you wonder now that I am morose, sullen, and uncharitable? Do you wonder now that I shun my fellow-men—that I hate them all, scorn, distrust them all? Why have I told you my story? I scarcely know; except it be to save you from the same fate which has fallen to my lot.”

“The same fate!” echoed William.

“Aye, the same fate,” returned Stephen; “you love Laura Harrild's face, as I loved the face of my wife, but do you know her heart?”

“Her heart!”

“All women are the same,” said Stephen, scornfully. “I warrant, now, she plays love and devotion to you when you are together; and yet to-night”——

“To-night!” echoed William.

“This very night, I saw her clasped in another man's arms”——

“Hold!” cried William, in an agonised voice; “hold! Stephen, for God's sake!”

“I must tell you the truth,” continued Stephen, doggedly. “But two hours since, I saw her yonder,”—and he pointed to where William had seen the shadow—“pressing to her heart a man who was not William Fairfield.”

Two hours ago! That was the time that he had page 44 seen the shadow of a man upon the snow, and had called Laura's attention to it—the very time that she had implored him not to go out, and had then left him for full half-an-hour. His heart stood still at the thought. Why, it was but this night that he had drawn again from her lips the sweet confession of her love—but this night that they had pictured forth the home she was to sanctify! He staggered against the tree, and looked vacantly into Stephen's face.

“Aye, it is true, lad,” said Stephen, as if answering some question; “it is hard to bear, but it is true. And there is more yet; for I heard her, as I am a living man, make an appointment to meet him at midnight behind the house!”

An appointment at midnight! His love, whom he had thought as sacredly pure as she was beautiful! Oh, shame! shame! Should he go to her, and accuse her to her face! Should he go to her, and proclaim her shame in the midst of her gay company, and then fling her from him for ever? Was it true as this man said, that all women were frail? Was it true that they lie to a man's face, and laugh at him behind his back? He had given his heart to this girl—he had sold himself to her—and she was playing him false! What was his life worth to him now? The recollection of every tender word she had spoken to him rose in judgment against her. The memory of every loving look he had repeived from her made the present more bitter to bear. Should he openly dishonor her? No, he would watch first; this night he would play the spy upon her, and satisfy himself if Stephen's words were true. If they page 45 were, and if at midnight this false girl met her lover secretly, why, then——

But he could think no further; a dozen times his thoughts carried him to this point, and there he stopped, dazed and confused. Then he looked at Stephen Wink-worth. Was it possible that he should ever grow like this man—hated by and hating all? She had made the world so beautiful to him; his love for her had grown into a faith; and if this faith were overturned, in what or whom could he believe?

If his faith were overturned! Why, already he doubted her! Even now she was not to him what she had been only an hour before; already in his heart her pure image was denied.

“Oh!” he groaned, as he clenched his hands in mental agony; “oh! Laura! Laura! how could you so deceive me?”

He had judged her. Weak, unstable as he was, he had already condemned her; the first thought that she was unfaithful, had been to him a proof of her guilt.

But he would watch to-night. To this his mind was settled; and so resolved, he moved mechanically towards the house.

“Never mind, lad,” said Stephen, as he walked by his side. “It is hard to bear; but it is better now than after.”

“Be silent!” exclaimed William, savagely. “You have told me to-night that which may blast my life.”

Yes; this man had poisoned the well that had sweetened his existence. This, man had made him doubt.

He met Laura in the passage. Uneasy at his long page 46 absence, she had been looking for him about the house, but had never thought that he had been out so long in the cold night. Her face lit up gladly as she ran towards him. Oh! could he not see that there dwelt only purity and innocence! Could he not look into her truthful eyes, and see there the reflex of her stainless soul!

No; doubt and jealousy had blinded him. Maddened by the tale he had heard, by the suspicions that had entered his heart, he pushed almost rudely by her.

“Oh, William!” murmured the poor girl, going up to him, and drawing him back-ward to the porch.

“Forgive me, Laura,” he said, as, with a sudden remorse, he stooped down and kissed her; “I am not well.”

She repressed the tears that were welling to her eyes, and looked up anxiously. Oh! blind and infatuated, could he still look and doubt? She laid her hand timidly upon his shoulder, and nestled up to him confidingly. In her trusting love, she did not notice that he refrained from drawing her closer to him.

“I have missed you ever so long, William” she said, sweetly; “and poor Alice has been asking after you so anxiously, that she must have thought you were lost.”

“Laura,” he said, suddenly, and with a fierce passion in his voice, “do you love me?”

“You frighten me, William,” replied the girl, drawing back from him.

He noticed the action, and misconstrued it.

“Answer me,” he said abruptly. “Do not shrink from me, or evade my question. You know I love you, do you not?”

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“Yes, William.”

Every harsh word he spoke to her wounded him as if it were a dagger's point. He knew the suffering he was inflicting upon her, by his own pain in the infliction, but he set his teeth close, and did not flinch.

“You know how perfectly I love you, Laura. You know the hold you have upon my heart. You know that I had better be dead than live in the belief that you loved me, and find that it is not so. You know this, do you not? Answer me!”

“I believe it, William,” she answered, choking back her sobs.

“And now, answer me again, Laura,” he said, almost solemnly, “do you love me?”

“Yes, William,” she answered, calmly, and looking fearlessly into his eyes.

Did this content him? No. The doubts that beset him were phantoms that Haunted every word she spoke, and bore them to his sense with a distorted meaning. What had Stephen told him? In another man's arms, but an hour agone! Oh, shame! shame!

“I wonder,” he said, with a quiet bitterness, “whether girls often deceive their lovers!”

“Oh, William! William!” cried Laura, turning her face from him, her sobs breaking out almost into a paroxysm.

He was frenzied with his jealousy and his love. Her tears fell upon his heart like scalding rain, withering every flower that erst was blooming in his soul. But he could not be indifferent to her emotion. He bent over her and tried to soothe her; and although she was almost page 48 heart-broken, her sweet, loving nature conquered her womanly resentment, and after a time she looked up through her tears and smiled. Fool that he was! Why did he not then speak to her of his doubts, and ask for an explanation? No (he thought), it will look like an accusation: I will judge for myself.

And so the evening came to an end, and the guests prepared to trudge to their several homes. Each one wished his neighbor a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Even the Woys and the Wymers were jovial and genial enough to shake hands with all sorts of people. And as for Doctor Bax—there was not one in the company who did not behave as if he were in a raging thirst, and book the little Doctor for a pump!

“The worst of it is,” said Doctor Bax, as, his face beaming with good nature, he was tying a cravat round his throat, “that everything must come to an end”——

“Except the Law,” interposed Mr. Wymer—as much as to say, That is Eternal.

“Well, if you like, except the Law,” said the Doctor. “Here is a pleasant evening, pleasantly spent, come to an end before we know where we are. It is distressing to think that, although we shall have plum-pudding tomorrow, we shall be looking back to to-morrow as we are doing now to to-day, and sighing over the remains of the feast we have not yet tasted. But then there are our duties to attend to the day after that. As Mr. Wymer would say,” added the Doctor slily, “there is the Law to look after”—(Mr. Wymer nodded pleasantly) “and no one will grumble at doing that,”—though whether he meant his duty or the law he did not divulge.

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“And it is pleasant, after all, to know that we part from each other with kind feelings in our hearts, and that, when we wish each other a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, we mean it truly and sincerely.”

And so, with many more good wishes, the party; finally broke up.

William Fairfield had wished, Laura good night. He had repressed the passion that was, raging within him, and had somewhat soothed her agitation. But now, as he wandered from the house in the cold night, the jealous fire blazed up with fury. He looked back to the house a dozen times, as if expecting to see evidence of her guilt. Do what he would, he could not get Stephen Winkworth's words out of, his mind. Clasped in another man's arm's!—Could Stephen be lying? What purpose had he to serve by so doing? No—it was true, and she had deceived him! He stopped and conjured up the picture before him—Laura and her lover! and he saw their lips utter voiceless words of affection; and he saw her lay her head upon his shoulder: and he ground his teeth with jealous rage.

This was his Christmas Eve! Next Christmas they were to have had a merry party at their own house: it had been arranged that night. If he proved Stephen's words to be true, where would, his next Christmas be spent? And here he laughed in helpless derision. His future was gone; and what recked he now where or how his life was passed!

Some short distance from the house, but within sight of it, stood an old gnarled tree, prolific in queerly-knotted excrescences and twisted limbs and branches. page 50 It was so old that there had rotted away, nearly at its roots, a space sufficiently large to allow a man to seat himself easily. Here William mechanically rested; and, with a weary body, but active mind, set himself to the task of watching Reuben Harrild's house. Above him spread the fantastic outshoots of the tree, and, looking up, William could almost fancy he saw queer faces peeping down upon him—over-leaning one another to look at him as he sat. Some smiled, some frowned; and one old fellow, with a great knot in his forehead, eyed him so sternly, that he turned away half-angry at the delusion. As he turned, his attention was attracted by the beautiful appearance of the hedgerow which lined the boundary of Reuben Harrild's land. It was nearly man-high; and one could look through the tangled skein of bare and naked bush, snow-lined in purest white, and see pictured a thousand queer fancies in the maze. It needed but little imagination to conjure through the interlaced vista, castles, and rocks, and battlefields, with shreds of armies flying from eager pursuers; or churchyards with a myriad white spectres in their winding-sheets, gauntly stretching out their attenuated limbs. And there, wonder upon wonder! was the same grim old fellow with the knot in his forehead, eyeing him as severely as ever, and beckoning him to approach. William blinked and rubbed his eyes, and looked again; but there still stood the grim old man, beckoning him to come. The old man was not alone this time; but on each side, and at the rear of him, dozens of white phantom-shadows stood, inviting William, With the same beckoning gestures, to join their company. As he looked on with page 51 wonder, their numbers increased. The whole landscape became filled with motioning snow-shadows; and, glancing upwards, a myriad white faces seemed crowding down upon him, urging him to rise. Mechanically he stood upon his feet, and, looking towards the house, found that it had disappeared, and that he was standing on a great plain, carpeted with snow as far as eye could reach, without a single speck or mark upon it to show that it was inhabited. Trees, hedges, houses, all had vanished; but although the plain was crowded with shadows moving restlessly around him, and although he was himself continually turning about to note with amazement their queer antics, the surface of the snow did not present a single mark or stain to show that it was trodden. But now a great wonder took place. A. sudden excitement appeared to possess the phantom throng; and the ranks dividing, a figure of surpassing loveliness approached. It was that of a beautiful Woman, with a crown of crystals upon her head. A thousand corruscated icicles appeared to gleam about her. She was robed in garments of snowy whiteness, which hung loosely upon her form. Her limbs and features were fault-lessly beautiful, and in her eyes there dwelt an expression of such perfect love and goodness, that William felt as though he could have knelt and worshipped her. But the most remarkable thing about her was, that although she appeared to be a palpable embodiment, she was nothing but a crystal transparency, and lying on her heart could be seen the form of a sleeping child.

As William gazed with delight on the vision, he felt a cold touch, upon his arm, and turned, as if expecting page 52 some new sight. But the space was vacant, and a voice whispered into his ear the word,


He knew that the presence of an Invisible Shadow was about him, and that this was the name of the spotless woman who stood before him.

Again the vast mass of white phantoms upheaved, and the woman disappeared; but in her place stood another form, which made him shudder to look upon. The form of a Thing, with scowling features, with dishevelled hair, with bloodshot eyes, with nervous trembling limbs. Its garments were soiled, and close upon its brow was fixed a crown with sharp points pressing inwards on its forehead. It was transparent as the first, and lying on its heart could be seen the form of a sleeping child, with a dagger in its breast.

For the second time, the cold touch came upon his arm, and the voice whispered,


Once more the shadowy throng moved restlessly about, and the scowling form had vanished, while where it stood there crouched a pitiful-looking figure, with tears streaming from its eyes. As it turned its face heavenward, William saw upon it an expression of almost hopeless despair, and noticed that in its arms there lay the form of a child, cold and dead.

And then the voice whispered for the third time, “Remorse!”

No sooner had the word been uttered, than the vast throng of phantom shadows made a sudden leap into the air, as if it were an army performing an evolution, and page 53 plunging headlong into the snow, vanished from his sight.

William trembled with amazement. He looked upon the ground, but could see no traces of the phantom groups; The snow had closed upon them as if it were a sea, and the great plain lay naked in the eyes of heaven. But he knew that he was not alone, for he felt about him the presence of the Invisible Shadow, and he heard the voice addressing him—

“Upon this evening, of all evenings in the year, when men's hearts should be filled with love and goodwill, have you allowed the seeds of doubt to be set within your bateast. Upon this Christmas Eve have you allowed to be defiled the love which hallows life. She whom you love, and who loves you with all the strength of a pure woman's love, is stainless and truthful. This morning, Faith filled your heart—this night, Doubt occupies its place—beware, lest to-morrow comes Remorse! Behold what you were, what you are, and what you shall be, if you let passion and unreason blind you!”

And as the voice ceased, William sank down, down into the snow. In vain he strove to save himself. Down he sank, lower and lower still, until he felt dizzily afraid that each foot beneath him would disclose a yawning precipice, over which he would be dashed to pieces. But, although the soft white snow enveloped him, he felt strangely the presence of shadowy spirits about him, and ever and anon there would gleam athwart his otherwise blinded sight, the vision of a face which filled his soul with wonder. Eyes of lustrous beauty peered suddenly upon him, and as suddenly vanished. page 54 Strangely-familiar faces flashed upon him, and faded slowly, as others usurped their places. Then a thick darkness fell upon him; and when sight was restored, he found himself standing before a house, surrounded by waving fields, the golden corn gleaming in the sun.

Strange! It was his own house before which he was standing; they were his own fields he saw around him: not as he had seen them last—the evidence of careful husbandry and cultivation was everywhere apparent. It was the vision of what he had pictured to himself his home and farm might have been a few years after he had married. And there, in the garden, was Laura, more matronly, but not less beautiful, than in her maiden days. He walked up to her, and laid his hand upon her shoulder, but she did not turn and look up to him. He spoke to her, but she betrayed no sign of recognition. He clasped her in his arms, but she melted from his grasp, and he saw her looking with a glad light in her eyes out on the landscape. Wonder upon wonders! He saw a form approaching—himself, with a little girl upon his shoulders, crowing and clapping her tiny hands to Laura, who ran towards them smiling, and was taken to her husband's embrace. And then he knew that he was a shadow, invisible, impalpable, and that his other self had taken his place in Laura's affections. The day passed, and he saw them in the evening sitting by the window, her head resting lovingly upon his shoulder. And he heard her speak, and he saw in her eyes such an expression of perfect love, that he gnashed h is teeth with despair, as he thought that he had fade d out of his place in the world, and that another filled it. She page 55 was speaking to him of the past, of the time before they were married. “Do you know, William,” she said, “of what I am thinking?”

“No, darling,” he answered, as he pressed his lips to her forehead.

“I am thinking,” she said, “of the last Christmas Eve we were together in my father's house, before we were married. When you went away, I was so unhappy, and I did not sleep the whole of the night. How I sighed for the day to come, so that I might see you, and tell you all. And when I saw you coming over the field, oh, William! I ran up to my bedroom, and cried for very happiness. For I thought that you might not come, and that, perhaps, I should never see you again.”

“Do not speak of it,” he said; “the remembrance of my blind jealousy on that night always fills me with pain.”

“But I like to speak of it, and to think of it, William,” she persisted, “for it was such a proof of your love. And I am so happy in your love, William; and I bless God for it, hourly and daily.”

And then their forms melted in the night, and the history of those two lives passed rapidly before him. He saw them in their youthful wedded days—contented and blessed. Years passed quickly over their heads, and children grew around them, enriching their home with perfect, love. Then sickness came, and he saw them standing in the chamber of death over the lifeless form of one of their young ones, gathering consolation in their bereavement from their mutual affection, and from their faith that He, whose all-seeing eye watches equally over all His earthly children, would yet unit them with their page 56 child again in the blessed band of immortality. And so, through the valley of the years, he watched them living their honored lives, until they were gathered to the fold of Him whose children live through all eternity.

Again, he felt about him the presence of the invisible shadow, and the voice said—

“Such lives as these are the reward of Faith and Love. Doubter of all that is most holy and beautiful, behold what shall spring from the seeds you have allowed this night to be set within your heart!”

And then he saw his home and farm again, but, ah! how changed! Neglected lay the rich fields around his homestead; and in his garden, overrun with weeds, stood Laura, looking out upon the landscape: but not the Laura whom he loved. Although the familiar features were there, the expression of anxious pain upon them struck him with fear. Presently, his second self came up to her; but she was not, as before, taken to her husband's embrace, and he made no response to the yearning look with which she lifted up her eyes to his face. In silence they walked side by side into the house, and then he said—

“Any one been here, Laura?”

“No, William,” she replied.

“Sure?” he exclaimed, sharply.

“There has been no one here, William,” Laura said, with a gasping sigh.

He did not speak again, but turned away from her. And William saw what an unhappy home was here before him: not illumined by Love, but darkened by Doubt: not sanctified by Faith, but gloomed by Disbelief. page 57 The evening came, and he saw the wife creep timidly to her husband's side, while in her eyes there dwelt a mingled look of love and fear.

“William,” said she, “why do you still continue to doubt me?”

“Why do you give me cause?” he asked, gloomily.

“Heaven knows, I do not,” she replied. “I have been true and faithful to you, in deed and thought. Oh, William! our past life has been very unhappy; do not darken the future—there is no cause. Cast from your heart the doubts that beset you, and do not entirely wreck our future happiness. I love you still, despite your unkindness.”

“Of course,” he said, bitterly; “my unkindness—throw it upon me. Like all you women. Stephen Winkworth was right; you are all alike.”

“William, William,” she cried, the hot tears rising to her eyes, “you will break my heart.”

But William left her abruptly, without reply—left her to weep over the cold ashes of her love.

And so the next two or three years passed. Thinner and paler grew the wife—more anxious and haggard grew the husband. Then came a time when she lay upon her bed of death; her still sweet face looking up to his, while the angel of Love and the demon of Doubt were fighting within him.

“Stoop down and kiss me, William,” she said, slowly and painfully. “I am sorry, and glad, to leave you. Our life has been different to what I hoped it would have been. Do you remember how happy we were before we were, married? But it is all ended now; and when we page 58 meet in Heaven you will love me again as you used, will you not?”

He choked back the spasms that rose to his throat, and, kneeling down by the bed, laid his hand in her's.

“Thank God!” she said, as she put his hand to her wasted breast, and then raised it, feebly, to her lips; “it is all over—life was very hard to bear without your love. I gave you all my heart, William; but you took yours from me. When I am gone, think of me sometimes, with love in your thoughts. Look, William, look!”—and she rose in her bed, and pointed out of window—“there is father's house! why, surely it is night, and the snow is falling. It is very cold—but the light is coming”——

And as the light came, her features grew again into youthful beauty, and her soul winged its way to the bosom of Our Heavenly Father.

“Such lives as these,” said the voice of the Invisible Shadow, “are the fruit of Doubt. Behold Remorse!”

And William saw himself, a prematurely old, gray-headed man, sitting alone in the midst of a desolate home. No light of love shone upon his house; the happy voices of children were not heard within its walls. Unfriended, uncared for, he sat with all the evidences about him of a wrecked and wasted life. He was filled with regretful thoughts and remorseful memories, and he shuddered despairingly as the picture of what his life might have been rose before him. And so he went down into his grave, unsanctified by human love or human sympathy.

And for the last time the voice spoke.

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“The story you have heard to-night from, the lips of a hard, bad man is true. But if one sin, are all guilty? Your life is now sanctified by the pure love of a pure woman. Cast it not from you. Live and be blessed with the angel Love! Live and be cursed with the devil Doubt! The choice is before you. You have received your warning!”

And then the voice ceased, and William starting to his feet, rubbed his eyes, and looked, about him. Had he been dreaming? He looked up to the tree, but saw no faces in its twisted limbs and branches. The hedge-row beyond was very beautiful, but no beckoning shadows were there. The stars were shining in the frosty heavens, and the moon was throwing a soft tender light upon the snow fields smiling in her face. The night was very lovely; all nature was in repose. Surely he had been dreaming. He looked towards Laura's house—and there——

His heart stood still, and the next instant his body was full of maddening pulses. Stealing out from, the house? he saw a female, her form, throwing a long Shadow upon the Snow. He could not mistake the step, the graceful turn of the neck as she looked around. It was Laura! Another form meeting hers—the Shadow of a man upon the Snow! As the two met, William pressed forward in mad excitement: he saw warm kisses pass between them—he saw them clinging to each other in fond endearment—he saw her, his Laura! lying in another man's arms: and he dropped into his seat with a bitter cry! His love was stricken dead!”