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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesAn Ambitious Man - Chapter 13
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An Ambitious Man - Chapter 13 Post by :BizSuccess Category :Long Stories Author :Ella Wheeler Wilcox Date :May 2012 Read :3095

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An Ambitious Man - Chapter 13

CHAPTER XIII

Two weeks later the organ loft of St Blank's Church was occupied by a stranger. For a few hours the Baroness felt a wild hope in her heart that Miss Irving had been sent away.

But inquiry elicited the information that the young musician had merely employed a substitute because her mother was lying seriously ill at home.

It was then that the Baroness put into execution a desire she had to make the personal acquaintance of Joy Irving.

The desire had sprung into life with the knowledge of the rector's interest in the girl. No one knew better than the Baroness how to sow the seeds of doubt, distrust and discord between two people whom she wished to alienate. Many a sweetheart, many a wife, had she separated from lover and husband, scarcely leaving a sign by which the trouble could be traced to her, so adroit and subtle were her methods.

She felt that she could insert an invisible wedge between these two hearts, which would eventually separate them, if only she might make the acquaintance of Miss Irving. And now chance had opened the way for her.

She made her resolve known to the rector.

"I am deeply interested in the young organist whom I had the pleasure of meeting some weeks ago," she said, and she noted with a sinking heart the light which flashed into the man's face at the mere mention of the girl. "I understand her mother is seriously ill, and I think I will go around and call. Perhaps I can be of use. I understand Mrs Irving is not a churchwoman, and she may be in real need, as the family is in straitened circumstances. May I mention your name when I call, in order that Miss Irving may not think I intrude?"

"Why, certainly," the rector replied with warmth. "Indeed, I will give you a card of introduction. That will open the way for you, and at the same time I know you will use your delicate tact to avoid wounding Miss Irving's pride in any way. She is very sensitive about their straitened circumstances; you may have heard that they were quite well-to-do until the stroke of paralysis rendered her father helpless. All their means were exhausted in efforts to restore his health, and in the employment of nurses and physicians. I think they have found life a difficult problem since his death, as Mrs Irving has been under medical care constantly, and the whole burden falls on Miss Joy's young shoulders, and she is but twenty-one."

"Just the age of Alice," mused the Baroness. "How differently people's lives are ordered in this world! But then we must have the hewers of wood and the drawers of water, and we must have the delicate human flowers. Our Alice is one of the latter, a frail blossom to look upon, but she is one of the kind which will bloom out in great splendour under the sunshine of love and happiness. Very few people realise what wonderful reserve force that delicate child possesses. And such a tender heart! She was determined to come with me when she heard of Miss Irving's trouble, but I thought it unwise to take her until I had seen the place. She is so sensitive to her surroundings, and it might be too painful for her. I am for ever holding her back from overtaxing herself for others. No one dreams of the amount of good that girl does in a secret, quiet way; and at the same time she assumes an indifferent air and talks as if she were quite heartless, just to hinder people from suspecting her charitable work. She is such a strange, complicated character."

Armed with her card of introduction, the Baroness set forth on her "errand of mercy." She had not mentioned Miss Irving's name to Mabel or Alice. The secret of the rector's interest in the girl was locked in her own breast. She knew that Mabel was wholly incapable of coping with such a situation, and she dreaded the effect of the news on Alice, who was absorbed in her love dream. The girl had never been denied a wish in her life, and no thought came to her that she could be thwarted in this, her most cherished hope of all.

The Baroness was determined to use every gun in her battery of defence before she allowed Mabel or Alice to know that defence was needed.

The rector's card admitted her to the parlour of a small flat. The portieres of an adjoining room were thrown open presently, and a vision of radiant beauty entered the room.

The Baroness could not explain it, but as the girl emerged from the curtains, a strange, confused memory of something and somebody she had known in the past came over her. But when the girl spoke, a more inexplicable sensation took possession of the listener, for her voice was the feminine of Preston Cheney's masculine tones, and then as she looked at the girl again the haunting memories of the first glance were explained, for she was very like Preston Cheney as the Baroness remembered him when he came to the Palace to engage rooms more than a score of years ago. "What a strange thing these resemblances are!" she thought. "This girl is more like Senator Cheney, far more like him, than Alice is. Ah, if Alice only had her face and form!"

Miss Irving gave a slight start, and took a step back as her eyes fell upon the Baroness. The rector's card had read, "Introducing Mrs Sylvester Lawrence." She had known this lad by sight ever since her first Sunday as organist at St Blank's, and for some unaccountable reason she had conceived a most intense dislike for her. Joy was drawn toward humanity in general, as naturally as the sunlight falls on the earth's foliage. Her heart radiated love and sympathy toward the whole world. But when she did feel a sentiment of distrust or repulsion she had learned to respect it.

Our guardian angels sometimes send these feelings as danger signals to our souls.

It therefore required a strong effort of her will to go forward and extend a hand in greeting to the lady whom her rector and friend had introduced.

"I must beg pardon for this intrusion," the Baroness said with her sweetest smile; "but our rector urged me to come and so I felt emboldened to carry out the wish I have long entertained to make your acquaintance. Your wonderful music inspires all who hear you to know you personally; the service lacked half its charm on Sunday because you were absent. When I learnt that your absence was occasioned by your mother's illness, I asked the rector if he thought a call from me would be an intrusion, and he assured me to the contrary. I used to be considered an excellent nurse; I am very strong, and full of vitality, and if you would permit me to sit by your mother some Sunday when you are needed at church, I should be most happy to do so. I should like to make the acquaintance of your mother, and compliment her on the happiness of possessing such a gifted and dutiful daughter."

Like all who sat for any time under the spell of the second Mrs Lawrence, Joy felt the charm of her voice, words and manner, and it began to seem as if she had been very unreasonable in entertaining unfounded prejudices.

That the rector had introduced her was alone proof of her worthiness; and the gracious offer of the distinguished-looking lady to watch by the bedside of a stranger was certainly evidence of her good heart. The frost disappeared from her smile, and she warmed toward the Baroness. The call lengthened into a visit, and as the Baroness finally rose to go, Joy said:

"I will take you in and introduce you to mamma now. I think it will do her good to meet you," and the Baroness followed the graceful girl through a narrow hall, and into a room which had evidently been intended for a dining-room, but which, owing to its size and its windows opening to the south, had been utilised as a sick chamber.

The invalid lay with her face turned away from the door. But by the movement of the delicate hand on the counterpane, Joy knew that her mother was awake.

"Mamma, I have brought a lady, a friend of Dr Stuart's, to see you," Joy said gently. The invalid turned her head upon the pillow, and the Baroness looked upon the face of--Berene Dumont.

"Berene!"

"Madam!"

The two spoke simultaneously, and the invalid had started upright in bed.

"Mamma, what is the matter? Oh, please lie down, or you will bring on another haemorrhage," cried the startled girl; but her mother lifted her hand.

"Joy," she said in a firm, clear voice, "this lady is an old acquaintance of mine. Please go out, dear, and shut the door. I wish to see her alone."

Joy passed out with drooping head and a sinking heart. As the door closed behind her the Baroness spoke.

"So that is Preston Cheney's daughter," she said. "I always had my suspicions of the cause which led you to leave my house so suddenly. Does the girl know who her father is? And does Senator Cheney know of her existence, may I ask?"

A crimson flush suffused the invalid's face. Then a flame of fire shot into the dark eyes, and a small red spot only glowed on either pale cheek.

"I do not know by what right you ask these questions, Baroness Brown," she answered slowly; and her listener cringed under the old appellation which recalled the miserable days when she had kept a lodging-house--days she had almost forgotten during the last decade of life.

"But I can assure you, madam," continued the speaker, "that my daughter knows no father save the good man, my husband, who is dead. I have never by word or line made my existence known to anyone I ever knew since I left Beryngford. I do not know why you should come here to insult me, madam; I have never harmed you or yours, and you have no proof of the accusation you just made, save your own evil suspicions."

The Baroness gave an unpleasant laugh.

"It is an easy matter for me to find proof of my suspicions if I choose to take the trouble," she said. "There are detectives enough to hunt up your trail, and I have money enough to pay them for their trouble. But Joy is the living evidence of the assertion. She is the image of Preston Cheney, as he was twenty-three years ago. I am ready, however, to let the matter drop on one condition; and that condition is, that you extract a promise from your daughter that she will not encourage the attentions of Arthur Emerson Stuart, the rector of St Blank's; that she will never under any circumstances be his wife."

The red spots faded to a sickly yellow in the invalid's cheeks. "Why should you ask this of me?" she cried. "Why should you wish to destroy the happiness of my child's life? She loves Arthur Stuart, and I know that he loves her! It is the one thought which resigns me to death; the thought that I may leave her the beloved wife of this good man."

The Baroness leaned lower over the pillow of the invalid as she answered: "I will tell you why I ask this sacrifice of you."

"Perhaps you do not know that I married Judge Lawrence after the death of his first wife. Perhaps you do not know that Preston Cheney's legitimate daughter is as precious to me as his illegitimate child is to you. Alice is only six months younger than Joy; she is frail, delicate, sensitive. A severe disappointment would kill her. She, too, loves Arthur Stuart. If your daughter will let him alone, he will marry Alice. Surely the illegitimate child should give way to the legitimate.

"If you are selfish in this matter, I shall be obliged to tell your daughter the true story of her life, and let her be the judge of what is right and what is wrong. I fancy she might have a finer perception of duty than you have--she is so much like her father."

The tortured invalid fell back panting on her pillow. She put out her hands with a distracted, imploring gesture.

"Leave me to think," she gasped. "I never knew that Preston Cheney had a daughter; I did not know he lived here. My life has been so quiet, so secluded these many years. Leave me to think. I will give you my answer in a few days; I will write you after I reflect and pray."

The Baroness passed out, and Joy, hastening into the room, found her mother in a wild paroxysm of tears. Late that night Mrs Irving called for writing materials; and for many hours she sat propped up in bed writing rapidly.

When she had completed her task she called Joy to her side.

"Darling," she said, placing a sealed manuscript in her hands, "I want you to keep this seal unbroken so long as you are happy. I know in spite of your deep sorrow at my death, which must come ere long, you will find much happiness in life. You came smiling into existence, and no common sorrow can deprive you of the joy which is your birthright. But there are numerous people in the world who may strive to wound you after I am gone. If slanderous tales or cruel reports reach your ears, and render you unhappy, break this seal, and read the story I have written here. There are some things which will deeply pain you, I know. Do not force yourself to read them until a necessity arises. I leave you this manuscript as I might leave you a weapon for self-defence. Use it only when you are in need of that defence."

The next morning Mrs Irving was weakened by another and most serious haemorrhage of the lungs. Her physician was grave, and urged the daughter to be prepared for the worst.

"I fear your mother's life is a matter of days only," he said.

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