Zelma's Vow: In Two Parts
HOW IT WAS MADE.
"WHO does not remember his first play ? —the proudly concealed impatience which seemed seething in the very blood,—the provoking coolness of old play-goers,— the music that rather excited than soothed the fever of expectation,—the mystery of mimic life that throbbed behind the curtain,—the welcome tinkle of the prompter’s bell,— the capricious swaying to and fro of that mighty painted scroll, —its slow uplift, revealing for an instant, perhaps, the twinkle of flying dancers’ feet and the shuffle of belated buskins ? And then, the unveiled wonders of that strange, new world of canvas and pasteboard and trap-doors,—people, Nature, Art, and architecture, never before beheld, and but faintly conceived of,—the magic of shifting scenes,—the suddenness and awfulness of subterranean and aerial descents and ascents,— the solemn stagewalk of the heroine,—the majestic strut of the hero,—the princely sweep of velvet,—the illusive sparkle of paste,—the rattle of Brobdignagian pearls,—the saucy tossing of pages’ plumes,—the smiles, the wiles, the astonishing bounds and bewildering pirouettes of the dancing Houries,—the great sobs and small shrieks of persecuted beauty,—the blighting smile of the villain,—the lofty indifference of supernumeraries !
It was the first play of our heroine, Zelma Burleigh, and of her Cousin Bessie. The morning before, a fragrant May morning, scores of summers ago, Roger Burleigh, a stout Northumbrian Squire, had rolled himself, in his ponderous way, into the snug family-parlor at the Grange, and addressed his worthy dame with a bluff,—
"Well, good wife, wouldn't like to go see the players to-night ? ”
Ere the good lady could collect herself to reply with the decorous deliberateness becoming her years and station, an embroidery-frame at her side was overturned, and there sprang eagerly forward a comely young damsel of the pure Saxon stock, with eyes like England’s violets,—clear, dewy, and wide-awake,— cheeks and lips like its rose-bloom, and hair which held tangled in close, golden folds its fickle and flying sunshine.
“Ay, father!” she cried, “that we would ! Zelma and I have never seen any players, save the tumblers over at the Hall, on Sir Harry’s birthday, and we are in sad need of a little pleasuring.”
“ Who spoke to you, or of you, Mistress Bessie ? ” replied the Squire, playfully. “ And what is all your useless, chattering life but pleasuring? The playhouse is but a perilous place for giddybrained lasses like you ; but for once, harkee, fur once, we’ll venture on taking you, if you’ll promise to keep your silly head sate under the mother-hen’s wing.”
“ Not so close but that I can get a peep at the players now and then,” said Bessie, archly. “ They say there are some handsome young men and a pretty woman or two among them. Eh, Zelma?”
“Handsome young men !—pretty women ! ” exclaimed the Squire, with an explosive snort of contempt. “ An arrant set of vagabonds and tramps,—of ranting, strutting, apish creatures, with neither local habitations nor names of their own. And what does Zelma know about them ? Out with it, girl! ”
The person thus addressed, without lifting the folds of a heavy window-curtain which concealed her, replied in a quiet, though somewhat haughty tone,—
“ I saw them all, yesterday afternoon, on their way to Arden, I found them near the entrance to our avenue. One of their carts had broken down, and somebody was hurt. I dismounted to see if I could be of any assistance. My pony pulled away from me and ran up the road. One of the young men caught her for me. I told Cousin Bessie I thought him handsome and proud enough for a lord. I think so still. That is all I know of the players.”
“ And, gad, that’s enough! Take you to the play, indeed ! Why, we shall have you strolling next, like your”—Here the Squire, for some reason known to himself, suddenly paused and grew very red in the face. Dame Margery took the word, and, in a tone meant to be severe, but which was only dry, remarked,—
“ Zelma is quite too young to go to the play.”
“ Just one week younger than my Cousin Bessie. So, please you, aunt, I will wait a few days,” was the quiet reply from the invisible.
“Right cleverly answered, lass!” said the Squire, with a good-humored chuckle. “ Well, we will try you, too, for once; but mind, if I find you making eyes at any of the villains, I'll cut you off with a shilling.”
“That is more than I look for from you, Uncle Roger,” replied the hitherto hidden speaker, emerging from the window-scat, holding in her hand the fashionable and interminable novel of “ Sir Charles Grandison.” As she spoke, she laughed lightly, but her voice was somewhat cold and bitter, and there was in her laugh more of defiance than merriment.
"Oh, don't, Zella !" exclaimed the Squire, with a look of comic deprecation, —“don't speak in that way to your old uncle! He's blunt and rough-spoken, but he means kindly, and does kindly, in his way,—don’t he?”
“ Yes, that he does! ” said the young girl, frankly; "and I beg his pardon for my pettishness.”
Zelma Burleigh, as she stood thus, a faint, regretful smile softening the habitual hauteur of her face, was beautiful, and something more ; yet nobody in the country round about the Grange had ever dreamed of calling her “ a beauty.” She was a tall, gracefully-formed girl, with that strong, untamable character of figure and feature, and that peculiar, sun-tinted, forest-shadowed hue of the skill, which betray the slightest admixture of gypsy blood. In fact, Zelma Burleigh was the fruit of a strange mésalliance between the younger brother of the Squire, a reckless, dissipated soldier of fortune, and a beautiful Spanish Zineala, whom he met in a foreign campaign, and whom he could nut bind to himself by any tie less honorable than marriage. She was said to be of Rommany bloodroyal, and was actually disowned by her tribe for her mésalliance. She followed the camp for a few years, the willing, though sad and fast-fading slave of her Ishmaelitish lord, himself the slave of lawless passions, yet not wholly depraved,— fitfully tender and tyrannic,—and when, at last, he fell in some inglorious skirmish, she buried him with her own hands, and wept and fasted over his shallow grave till she died. There was a child, but she had no look of the father to charm that poor, broken heart back to life; she was left in the camp and became a little “Daughter of the Regiment.” At last, however, she was taken to England by a faithful comrade of the dead soldier, who sought out her uncle and left her in his care, taking leave of the frightened, clinging little creature with a grim, unspoken tenderness, and a strange quiver of his gray moustache.
Roger Burleigh, after having made himself sure of the legitimacy of the child, adopted the poor, wild thing, made her the companion of his daughter, and honestly strove to treat her, at all times, with parental care and affection.
Here, in the hospitable circle of an English home, the orphan alien had grown up with her kinsfolk, but not of them,—proud, reticent, ambitious, secretly hating the monotonous duties and pursuits, the decorous forms and prescribed pleasures of the social and domestic life around her. Nomadic and lawless instincts stirred in her blood; vague longings for freedom and change, though in wandering, peril, and want, sometimes filled her soul with the spirit of revolt and unrest.
In her bluff uncle’s house all were kind, and one, at least, was fond. Her Cousin Bessie, gay and tender heart, had found the southern exposure of her nature, and had crept up it, and clambered over it, and clasped it, and bloomed against it, and ripened on it, till nothing cold, hard, or defiant could be seen on that side. And Zelma seemed well content to be the sombre background and strong support of so much bloom, sweetness, and graceful dependence.
Nothing could be more unlike than the two cousins. Bessie was small, her form inclining to fulness, her face childlike in dimpled smiles and innocent blushes,—betraying no lack of intellect, but most expressive of a quiet, almost indolent amiability. Zelma was large, but lithe, supple, and vigorous, with a pardlike freedom and elasticity of movement, —dark, with a subdued and changing color,— the fluttering signal of sudden emotion, not the stationary sign of robust health. She had hair of a glistening blackness, which she wore turned back from a strong, compact forehead, in the somewhat severe style which imperial beauty has rendered classic in our time. Her eyes were of the Oriental type,—full, heavy-lidded, ambushed in thick, black lashes,— themselves dark and unfathomable as the long night of mystery which hangs over the history of her wild and wandering race, those unsubduable, unseducible children of Nature,—the voluntary Pariahs of the world. Sad were those eyes always, but with a vague, uncommunicable sadness; soft they were in times of quiet; beautiful and terrible they could be, with live gleams of suddenly awakened passion.
With but one affection not poisoned by a sense of obligation and condescension, and that a sentiment in which her intellect had little share, a gentle, protective, household love, which quickened no daring fancy, inspired no dream of freedom or power, Zelma’s mind was driven in upon itself, and out of the seclusion and triteness of her life fashioned a fairy world of romance and beauty. With the high-wrought, sentimental fictions of the day for her mental aliment, she grew more and more distinct and apart from the actual, prosaic existences around her; the smouldering fires of genius and ambition glowed out almost fiercely at times, through the dark dream of her eyes, startling the dullest apprehension, as she moved amid a narrow circle of country gentry, the fox-hunting guests of her uncle, the prim gossips of her aunt, the gay lovers and companions of her cousin, an unrecognized heroine, an uncrowned tragedy-queen.
The small provincial town of Arden possessed no playhouse proper, but, after a good deal of hesitation and discussion, the venerable Hall of St. George, the glory of all Ardenites, had been accorded to the players, “for a few nights only.”
On the night of the first performance, Squire Burleigh and his family arrived betimes, and took their places with some bustle and ceremony.
The master of Burleigh Grange appeared in the almost forgotten glory of his court suit,—a coat of crimson velvet, a flowered waistcoat, satin knee-breeches, and a sword at his side. The mistress wore an equally memorable brocade, enormous bouquets thrown upon a silvery ground, so stiff and shiny that it seemed a texture of ice and frozen flowers. Her hair was cushioned and powdered; she looked comely and stately, and wore her lustres well. The pretty Bessie was attired in maidenly white muslin, an India fabric of marvellous fineness, with a sash and streamers of blue, and the light fleecy curls of her hair unadorned save by a slight pendent spray of jasmines. Her cousin’s dress, though in reality less costly, was more striking, being composed of materials and colors which admirably harmonized with the darkness and richness of her beauty. Her lustrous black hair was arranged as usual; but a wreath, formed of some delicate vine hung thick with drooping scarlet blossoms, ran like flowering flame around her head. Like the sumptuous exotic of Zenobia, it was an ornament which seemed to bloom out of the character of the woman.
Bessie cast about her bright, innocent looks of girlish curiosity, which yet shrank from any chance encounter with the furtive glance or cool stare of admiration. Zelma sat motionless and impassive. Her eyes wandered naturally, but coldly, over the audience, seeming to take no cognizance of any face, strange or familiar; but when they were lifted above the crowd, to the old carved ceiling of the hall, or dropped upon the beautiful hands which lay listlessly folded in her lap, the cold, blank look she had set against the world went out of them. Then, in their mystic depths of brooding, introverted thought, new spheres of life, rarer, brighter, fairer, seemed rounding into form and dawning like stars.
Mrs. Margery Burleigh sat with her face turned from the stage, to dissemble the secret impatience with which she awaited the uprolling of the curtain, and slowly waved to and fro a huge, flowered fan, which charged the air with a heavy Indian perfume.
At length, soft, mournful music arose from the orchestra, and every heart stirred to the premonitory waver and lift of the curtain. Slowly it rose, and discovered a mourning apartment, with a lady in mourning, sitting in a mourning chair, and attended by a mourning maid. The play was Congreve’s tragedy of "The Mourning Bride,” one of the best of a class of sentimental and stiltified dramatic productions which the public of our great-grandfathers meekly accepted,— quaffing the frothy small-beer of rant and affectation, in lieu of deep draughts of Nature and passion, the rich, red wine of human life, poured generously forth by the dramatists of a better era. The excesses of fashion then prevailing, hoops, high heels, powder, and patches, were not more essentially absurd and artificial than such representations of high-life and hightragedy. In the virtuous, but negative character of Osmyn there was little room for effective declamation ; our actor was fain to content himself with being interesting, through the misfortunes of the Prince of Valentia, his woful lawful love, ami the besettings of an unreturned passion. In this he succeeded so well, that the feminine portion of his audience grew tender with Almeria, and despairing with Zara.
“ The Mourning Bride ” contains a few situations in which real passion can have play, some fine points and poetic passages, and its moral tone is at least respectable,—not great things to say of a famous tragedy, certainly, but they give it an honorable distinction over many plays of its time. There figure in it one or two characters which can be made interesting, and even impressive, by uncommon power in the actor; though they were usually given, at the period of which I write, in a manner sufficiently tame to suit the dullest of courts, —likely to disturb neither my lord in his napping nor my lady in her prim flirting.
Zara, the Captive Queen, is beyond comparison the strong character of this play. There is a spice and fire even in her wickedness, which make her terribly attractive, and give her a more powerful hold on the sympathies than the decorous and dolorous Almeria, for all her virtuous sorrows and perplexities. Zara's passion is of the true Oriental type, leaping from the extremes of love and hate with the fierceness and rapidity of lightning.
It is a character in which several great actresses have distinguished themselves, —chief among them Siddons. On the memorable night at Arden, however, it was but wretchedly rendered by a tall, small-voiced, flaxen-haired young woman, who stalked about the stage in highheeled shoes and prodigious hoops, and declaimed the most fiery passages with an execrable drawl. The remainder of the company were barely passable as strolling players, with the exception of the actor who personated Osmyn. This was a young man named Bury, of respectable parentage and education, it was said, and considerable reputation, though his aspiring buskin had never yet trod the London boards. He was a handsome, shapely person, with an assured, dashing manner, and a great amount of spirit and fire, which usually passed with his audience, and always with himself, for genius.
His voice was powerful and resonant, his elocution effective, if not faultless, and his physical energy inexhaustible. Understanding and managing perfectly his own resources, he produced upon most provincial critics the impression of extraordinary power and promise, few perceiving that he had already come into full possession of his dramatic gifts.
Only finely-trained ears could discover in this sounding, shining metal the lack of the sharp, musical ring of the genuine coin. Young men grew frantic in applause of his bold action, his stormy declamation, his startling tours de force; while young women wondered, wept, languished, and swooned. It was said, that, whenever he died in Romeo, Pierre, or Zanga, numbers of his fair slain were borne out of the playhouse, to be revived with difficulty by the application of salts and the severing of stay-lacings.
But his effects, though so positive, were superficial and evanescent,—audible, visible, and, as it were, physical. There was always wanting that fine shock of genuine passion, striking home to kindred passions in the breasts of his auditors, and sending through every nerve a magnetic shiver of delight,—that subtile, mysterious element of genius, playing like quick flame along the dullest lines of the poet and charging them with its own life and fire.
In the first scene with Almeria, who was a shade worse than the Zara of the night, the young actor indulged himself iu a cool, comprehensive glance at the house, over her fair shoulders. As his keen gaze swept round the small aristocratic circle, it encountered and seemed to recognize the face of Zelma Burleigh, now kindling with a new enthusiasm, which was never wholly to die out of her breast. There was something in the watchful, absorbed gaze of her great dark eyes so unlike the wondering or languishing looks usually bent by women upon the rising actor, that on the instant he was struck, pierced, by those subtile shafts of light, to the heart he had believed till then vowed alone to the love of his art and the schemes of a sleepless ambition.
Reluctantly he withdrew his regard from a face which bespoke a character of singular originality and force, not wanting either in womanly pride or tenderness,—a face in which beauty itself was so subordinate to something higher, more ineffable, that one could scarcely define feature or color through the illuminated and changeful atmosphere of soul which hung about it, — the shadows of great thoughts, the light mists of dreamy and evanescent fancy.
It was toward the close of the second act, when Sir Harry Willerton, of Willerton Hall, entered his box, accompanied by three or four dashing companions, who, it was soon whispered about, were titled young bloods from Loudon.
Sir Harry Willerton was a fresh, franklooking young gallant,— fast, from the fiery impulses of youth and a high spirit, — not pricked on by vanity, nor goaded by low passions,—not heartless, not blasé, —the only kind of a rake for whom reformation is possible or reclamation worth the while.
Sir Harry was not fond of tragedy; and after five minutes’ strained attention to the players, he turned his eyes from the stage, and began casting easy, goodhumored glances of curiosity or recognition over the audience. He bowed to all his neighbors with a kindly familiarity, untainted by condescension, but most courteously, perhaps, to the party from the Grange. He liked the bluff Squire heartily,—as who did not? Then his eye — a laughing blue eye it was—rested and lingered, not on the dark, dramatic face of Zelma, but on the pretty, girlish head of her cousin.
Bessie sat with her face partly averted from the baronet's gay party, and her gaze fixed intently upon the stage. Sir Harry could only see half the rose of one cheek, and the soft sweep of golden hair which lightly shaded it; and feasting his fancy on that bit of fluctuating color, entangled in the meshes of a tremulous screen of curls, he settled himself to await the close of the act.
It was with a child’s eager interest and pliant imagination that Bessie looked and listened,—susceptible, credulous, unfastidious. To her, the Osmyn of the night was radiant with all heroic qualities and manly graces, the weakly simulated sorrow of Almeria brought real tears to her eyes, and she drew her white shoulders forward with a shudder when the wooden Zara kindled into cursing and jealous rage. Illusions most transparent to others hoodwinked her senses ; her willing fancy supplied feeling, and even made up for deficiencies of art in the players, till the mimic world before her became more real than reality.
Not so with Zelma. She was satisfied, even charmed, with the personation of Osmyn; but, from the first, she could not abide either of the heroines, who, each in her part, strove to outdo the other in mincing, mouthing, attitudinizing, and all imaginable small sins against Nature and Art. She saw at once, by the sure intuitions of genius, how everything they did could be done better, and burned to do it. The part of Almeria she soon dismissed from her thoughts, as mere milk-andwater; but she saw that in that of Zara there was a stream of lava, though dulled and crusted over by the coldness of the actress, which might be made to sweep all before it. Her critical dissatisfaction with the personation became, at last, little short of torture ; there was an involuntary lowering of her dark brows, a scornful quiver of her spirited nostril, she bit her lip with angry impatience, and shrugged her shoulders with irrepressible contempt.
In the great scene where Zara surprises Almeria in the cell of Osmyn, it was astonishing how the flaxen-haired representative of the Captive Queen managed to turn her fiery rain of curses into a little pattering shower of womanish reproaches. It was really a masterly performance, in its way.
At this point Zelma threw herself back in utter weariness and disgust, exclaiming, audibly,—“ Miserable !—most miserable !” When, looking round, she saw the traces of her cousin’s innocent emotion, the flush and tearfulness which bespoke her uncritical sympathy with passions so unskilfully represented, she could not suppress a smile at such childish simplicity. And yet this was also her first play.
The tragedy was succeeded by a farce, at which Bessie laughed as heartily as she had wept a little while before, but which was utterly distasteful to Zelma; and at an alarmingly late hour, for that quiet community, the green curtain came heavily plunging down on the final scene of all, and the audience dispersed to their homes.
On the day following. Sir Harry Willerton’s guests returned to town, but, to their surprise, unaccompanied by their host, who seemed to have suddenly discovered that his presence was needed on his estate. So he remained. Soon it was remarked that a singular intimacy had sprung up between him and Squire Burleigh, with whom, at length, the larger portion of his time was passed, either in following the hounds or dining at the Grange. There were rumors and surmises that the attractions which drew the young baronet to his bluff neighbor’s hospitable hall were not the Squire’s hearty cheer, old wine, and older stories, but a pair of shy, yet tender eyes,—red lips, that smiled a wordless welcome, and sometimes pouted at a late coming,—cheeks whose blushes daily grew warmer in love’s ripening glow,—a voice whose tones daily grew deeper, and seemed freighted with more delicious meanings.
There was little discussion as to which of the young ladies of the Grange was the enchantress and the elect Lady Willerton.
“ Surely,” said the gossips, “ it cannot be that gypsy niece of the Squire,—that odd, black-browed girl, who scours over the country in all weathers, on that elfish black pony, with her hair flying,—for all the world as though in search of her wild relations. No, the blood of the Willertons would never run so low as that;— it must be sweet Miss Bessie, and she is a match for a lord.”
For once the gossips were right. But it is with the poor “ Rommany girl,” not with the heiress of Burleigh Grange, that we have to do.
On the morning succeeding the play, Zelma Burleigh, taking in her hand an odd volume of Shakspeare, one of the few specimens of dramatic literature which her uncle's scant library afforded, strolled down a lonely lane, running back from the house, toward the high pasture-lands, on which grazed and basked the wealthy Squire’s goodly flocks and herds. This was her favorite walk, as it was the most quiet, shaded, out-of-the-way by-path on the estate. She now directed her steps to a little rustic seat, almost hidden from view by the pendent branches of an old willow-tree, and close under a hawthornhedge, now in full, fragrant bloom. Here she seated herself, or rather flung herself down, half languidly, half petulantly, an expression of ennui and unrest darkening her face,—the dusky traces of a sleepless night hanging heavily about her eyes. She opened her book at the play of "Romeo and Juliet,” and began to road, not silently, nor yet aloud, but in a low, dreamy tone, in which the sounds of Nature about her, the gurgle of a brook behind the hedge, the sighing of the, winds among the pendulous branches of the willow, the silver shiver of the lance-like leaves, the murmurous coming and going of bees, the loving duets of nest-building birds, all seemed to mingle and merge. As she read, a new light seemed to illumine the page, caught from her recent experience of dramatic personation and scenic effects, limited and unsatisfactory though that experience had been. In fancy, she floated over the stage, as the gay young Juliet at the masquerade; then she caught sight of young Romeo, and, lo! his face was that of the sentimental hero of the last night’s tragedy, but ennobled by the glow and dignity of genuine passion. In fancy, she sat on the balcony, communing with night and the stars,— the newly-risen star of love silvering all life for her. Then, leaning her cheek upon her hand, she poured forth Juliet’s impassioned apostrophe. When she came to the passage,—
“O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?"
she was startled by a rustling of the leaves behind her. She paused and looked round fearfully. A blackbird darted out of the hedge and away over the fields. Zelma smiled at her own alarm, and read on, till she reached the tender adjuration,—
"Romeo, doff thy name;
And for thy name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself! ”
when, suddenly, a fragrant shower of hawthorn-blossoms fell upon the page before her, and the next instant there lightly vaulted over the hedge at her side the hero of her secret thoughts, the young player, Lawrence Bury! He stood before her, flushed and smiling, with his head uncovered, and in an attitude of respectful homage ; yet, w ith a look and tone of tender, unmistakable meaning, took up the words of the play,—
“ I take thee at thy word.
Call me but love, and I'll be new-baptizeil;
Henceforth I never will he Romeo.”
Poor Zelma did not have the presence of mind to greet this sudden apparition of a lover in the apt words oi her part,—
"What man art thou, that, thus bescreened in night,
So stumblest on my counsel?”
She had no words at all for the intruder, but, frightened and bewildered, sprang from her seat and turned her face toward home, with a startled bird’s first impulse to flight. As she rose, her book slid from her lap and fell among the daisies at her feet. The actor caught it up and presented it to her, with the grace of a courtly knight restoring the dropped glove of a princess, but, as he did so, exclaimed, in a half-playful tone, looking at the volume rather than the lady,—
“I thank thee, O my master, for affording me so fair an excuse for mine audacity ! ”
Then, assuming a more earnest manner, he proceeded to make excuses and entreat pardon for the suddenness, informality, anil presumption of his appearance before her:—
“You know, Madam,” he said,—“ if, indeed, you are so unfortunate as to know anything about us,—that we players are an impulsive, unconventional class of beings, lawless and irresponsible, the Gypsies of Art.”
Here Zelma flushed and drew herself up, while a suspicious glance shot from her eyes;—but the stranger seemed not to understand or perceive it, for he went on quite innocently, and with increasing earnestness of tone and manner:—
“I know I have been presuming, impertinent, audacious, in thus intruding myself upon you, and acknowledge that you would be but severely just in banishing me instantly from your bright presence, and in withdrawing from me forever the light of your adorable eyes. Oh, those eyes!” he continued, clasping his hands in an ecstasy of lover-like enthusiasm,—“those wild, sweet orbs !—bewildering lights of love, dear as life, but cruel as death !—can they not quicken, even as they slay? Oh, gentle lady, be like her of Verona!—be gracious, be kind, or, at least, be merciful, and do not banish me !—
‘ For exile hath, more terror in his look,
Much more, than death; do not say banishment !' ”
He paused, but did not remove his passionate looks from the young girl’s face,— looks which, though cast down, for he was much the taller ot the two, had the effect of most lowly and deprecating entreaty;—and then there happened an event,—a very slight, common, natural event,—the result more of girlish embarrassment than of any conscious emotion or purpose, yet of incalculable importance at that moment, and, perhaps, decisive of the fate of two human hearts, — Zelma smiled. It was a quick, involuntary smile, which seemed to escape from the firm lips and half-averted eyes, flashed over the face, touched the cold features with strange radiance, and then was gone,—and, in its place, the old shadow of reserve and distrust, for the moment, darker than ever.
But to the adventurous lover that brief light had revealed his doubtful way clear before him. He saw, with a thrill of exultation, that henceforth he had really nothing to fear from such womanly defences as he had counted on,—coldness, prejudice, disdain,—that all he had taken for these were but unsubstantial shadows. Still he showed no premature triumph in word or look, but remained silent and humble, waiting the reply to his passionate appeal, as though life or death, in very truth, were depending upon it. And Zelma spoke at last,—briefly and coldly, but in a manner neither suspicious nor unfriendly. She herself, she said, was unconventional,—in her instincts, at least, — so could afford to pardon somewhat of lawlessness in another,—especially, she added, with a shy smile, in one whom Melpomene, rather than Cupid, had made mad. Still she was not a Juliet, though he, for all she knew, might be a Romeo; and only in lands verging on the tropics, or in the soul of a poet, could a passion like that of the gentle Veronese spring up, bud, and blossom, in a single night. As for her, the fogs of England, the heavy chill of its social atmosphere, had obstructed the ripening sunshine of romance and repressed the flowering of the heart—
“And kept your beautiful nature all the more pure and fresh!” exclaimed Mr. Lawrence Bury, with real or well-assumed enthusiasm; but Zelma, replying to his interruption only by a slight blush, went on to say, that she had been taught that poetry, art, and romances were all idle pastimes and perilous lures, unbecoming anti unwholesome to a voting English gentlewoman, whose manifest destiny it was to tread the dull, beaten track of domestic duty, with spirit chastened and conformed. She had had, she would acknowledge, some aspirations and rebellious repinings, some wild day-dreams of life of another sort; but it was best that she should put these down,—yes, doubtless, best that she should fall into her place in the ranks of duty and staid respectability, and be a mere gentlewoman, like the rest.—Here a slight shrug of the shoulders and curl of the lip contradicted her words,—yet, with a tone of rigid determination, she added, that it was also best she should cherish no tastes and form no associations which might distract her imagination and further turn her heart from this virtuous resolution ; and therefore must she say farewell, firmly and finally, to the, she doubted not, most worthy gentleman who had done her the honor to entertain for her sentiments of such high consideration and romantic devotion. She would not deny that his intrusion on her privacy had, at first, startled and displeased her, —but she already accepted it as an eccentricity of dramatic genius, a thoughtless offence, and, being, as she trusted, at once the first and the last, pardonable. She wished him happiness, fame, fortune, —and a very good morning ! Then, with a wava of the hand which would have done honor to Oldfield herself, she turned and walked proudly up the lane.
Mr. Bury saw her depart silently, standing in a submissive, dejected attitude, but with a quiet, supercilious smile lightly curling his finely-cut lips; for did he not know that she would return to her haunt the next day, and that he would be there to see ?
And Zelma did return the next day,— persuading herself that she was only acting naturally, and with proper dignity and independence. She argued with herself that to abandon her favorite walk or avoid her usual resting-place would be to confess, if not a fear of the stranger’s presuming and persistent suit, at least, a disturbing consciousness of his proximity, and of the possibility of his braving her displeasure by a second and unpardonable intrusion. No, she would live as she had lived, freely, carelessly; she would go and come, ride and walk, just as though nothing had happened,—for, indeed, nothing had happened that a woman of sense and pride should take cognizance of. So, after a half-hour’s strange hesitation, she took her book and went to the old place. Longer than usual she sat there, idly and abstractedly turning over the leaves of her Shakspeare, starting and flushing with every chance sound that broke on the still, sweet air; yet no presumptuous intruder disturbed her maiden meditations, and she rose wearily at last, and walked slowly homeward, saying to herself, “ It. is well,— I have conquered,” but feeling that nothing was well in life, or her own heart, and that she was miserably defeated. Ah, little did she suspect that her clouded, dissatisfied face had been keenly scanned by the very eyes she dreaded, yet secretly longed to meet,—that her most unconscious sigh of disappointment had been heard by her Romeo of the previous day, now lying just behind the hedge, buried in the long brook-side grass, and laughing to himself a very pleasant laugh of gratulation and triumph.
That night, the good Squire of Burleigh Grange relented from his virtuous resolve, and took his wife, daughter, and niece to the play.
The piece was Rowe’s tragedy of "Tamerlane.” Mr. Bury personated the imperial Tartar, a noble role, which so well became him, costumes and all, and brought him so much applause, that Zelma’s heart was effectually softened, and she even felt a regretful pride in having received and rejected the homage of a man of such parts.
The next day, as the hour for her stroll arrived, she said to herself, “I can surely take my walks in safety now,—he will never come near me more.” So she went,—but, to her unspeakable confusion, she found him quietly seated in her little rustic bower, his head bared to the sunshine, and his “Hyperion curls” tossed and tumbled about by a frolicsome wind.
He rose when the lady appeared, stammered out an apology, bowed respectfully, and would have retired, but that Zelma, feeling that she was the intruder this time, begged him to remain. She thought herself, simple child! merely courteous and duly hospitable, in giving this invitation; but the quick, eager ear of the actor and lover heard, quivering through the assumed indifference and cold politeness of her tones, the genuine impulse and ardent wish of her heart. So he yielded and lingered, proffering apologies and exchanging polite commonplaces.
After a little time, Zelma, to prove her freedom from embarrassment or suspicion, quietly seated herself on the rustic bench, giving, as she did so, a regal spread to her ample skirts, that there might he no vacant place beside her.
The actor stood for a while before her, just going, hut never gone, talking gayly, but respectfully, on indifferent topics, till, at last, touching on some theme of deeper interest, and apparently forgetting everything but it and the fair lady, who neither expressed nor looked a desire to shorten the interview, he flung himself with what seemed a hoy’s natural impulse, upon the soft, inviting turf, under the shade of the willow. There, reclining in the attitude of Hamlet at the feet of Ophelia, he rambled on from subject to subject, in a careless, graceful way, plucking up grass and picking daisies to pieces, as he talked, giving every now and then, from beneath the languid sweep of his heavy eyelashes, quick flashes of tender meaning, as fitful and beautiful as the "heat-lightnings ” of summer twilights, and apparently as harmless.
There was something so magnetic and contagions in this frank, confiding manner, that Zelma, ere she was aware, grew unrestrained and communicative in turn. One by one, the icicles of pride and reserve, which a strange and ungenial atmosphere had hung around her affluent and spontaneous nature, melted in the unwonted sunshine, dropped away from her, and the quick bloom of a Southern heart revealed itself in smiles and blushes. The divine poet whose volume she now held clasped caressingly in both hands had prepared the way for this, by sending through every vein and fibre of her being the sweet, subtile essence of passionate thought, — the spring-tide of youth and love, which makes the story of Romeo and Juliet glow and throb with immortal freshness and vitality.
So, at length, those two talked freely and pleasantly together. They discussed the quiet rural scenery around them, the deep green valley of Arden, shut in by an almost unbroken circle of hills, and Zelma told of a peculiar silvery mist, which sometimes floated over it, like the ghost of the lake which, it was said, once filled it ; they spoke of wood, stream, moor, and waterfall, sunsets and moonlight and stars, poetry and—love; floating slowly, and almost unconsciously, down the smooth current of summer talk and youthful fancies, toward the ocean of all their thoughts, whose mysterious murmurs already filled one heart at least with a tender awe and a vague longing, which was yet half fear.
The next day, and the next, and every day while the players remained at Arden, the two friends met by tacit agreement in the lane of Burleigh Grange, and, gradually, Lawrence Bury became less the actor and more the man, in the presence of a genuine woman, without affectation or artifice, stage-rant or art-cant, —one from whose face the glare of the foot-lights had not stricken the natural bloom, whose heart had never burned with the feverish excitement of the stage. its insatiable ambition, its animosities and exceeding fierce jealousies. For Zelma, she grew more humble and simple and less exacting, the more she bestowed from a “bounty boundless as the sea.”
It was but a brief while, scarcely the lifetime of a rose,—the fragrant snow of the hawthorn blossoms had not melted from the hedges since they met,—and yet, in that little season, the deepest, divinest mystery of human life had grown clear and familiar to their hearts, and was conned as the simplest lesson of Nature.
To Zelma the romance and secrecy of this love had an inexpressible charm. The Zincala in her nature re revelled in its wildness and adventure, in its crime against the respectable conventionalities she despised. She had a keen pleasure in the very management and concealment to which she was compelled;—her imagination, even more than her heart, was engaged in hiding and guarding this charming mystery.
On the day succeeding her first interview with the young actor in the lane, she had tried to beguile her ennui, while lingering in her lonely bower, by curiously peering into the nest of a blackbird, deeply hidden in the long grass at the foot of the hedge, and which she had before discovered by the prophetic murmurs of the mother-bird. She found five eggs in the nest. She took the little blue wonders in her hand, and thought what lives of sinless joy, what raptures and loves, what exultations of sons and soaring slept in those tiny shells! Suddenly, there was an alarmed cry and an anxious flutter of wings in the hedge above her! She turned, and saw the mother-bird eyeing her askance. From that day the lowly nest with its profaned treasures was forsaken, and the world was the poorer in gladness and melody by five bird-lives of joy and song that might have been.
So, had any luckless intruder chanced to discover Zelma’s trysting-place, thrown open to the world the hidden romance in which she took such shy and secret delight, and handled in idle gossip the delicate joys and fragile hopes of young love, it is more than likely that she would have been frightened away from bower and lane, shocked and disenchanted. But the preoccupation of her cousin and her own eccentric and solitary habits prevented suspicion and inquiry,—no unfriendly spy, no rude, untoward event, disturbed the quiet and seclusion of this charmed scene of her wooing, where Nature, Romance, and Poetry were in league with Love.
The players played out their engagement at Arden, with the usual supplement, “A few nights only by special request,” and were off to a neighboring town. On their last night, after the play, Zelma met her lover by moonlight, at the trysting-place in the lane, for a parting interview.
It was there that the actor, doffing the jaunty hat which usually crowned his “comely head,” and, flinging himself on his knees before his fair mistress, entreated her to rule his wayward heart, share his precarious fortunes, and bear his humble name.
Poor Zelma, when in imagination she had rehearsed her betrothal scene, had made her part something like this:—“And then will I extend my hand with stately grace, and say to my kneeling knight,
‘Arise!—and after, in such brief, gracious words as queens may use, (for is not every woman beloved a queen?) pronounce his happy doom.”
But when that scene in her life-drama came on, it was the woman, not the tragedy-queen, that acted. Naturally and tenderly, like any simple girl, she bent over her lover, laid her hand upon his head, and caressingly smoothed back from his brow the straggling curls, damp with night-dew. As she did so, every lock seemed to thrill to her touch, and to wake in her soft, timorous lingers a thousand exquisite nerves that had never stirred before. And then, with broken words and tears, and probing questions and solemn adjurations, she plighted her vows, and sought to bind to her heart forever a faith to which she trusted herself, alas! too tremblingly.
The melodramatic lover was not content with a simple promise, though wrung from the heart with sobs. “Swear it to me!" he said, in a hoarse stage-whisper; and Zelma, again laying her hand upon his head, and looking starward, swore to be his, to command, to call, to nold,—in life, in death, here, hereafter, evermore.
[To be continued.]