Charles W. Chesnutt
The pianist had struck up a lively two-step, and soon the floor was covered with couples, each turning on its own axis, and all revolving around a common centre, in obedience perhaps to the same law of motion that governs the planetary systems. The dancing-hall was a long room, with a waxed floor that glistened with the reflection of the lights from the chandeliers. The walls were hung in paper of blue and white, above a varnished hard wood wainscoting; the monotony of surface being broken by numerous windows draped with curtains of dotted muslin, and by occasional engravings and colored pictures representing the dances of various nations, judiciously selected. The rows of chairs along the two sides of the room were left unoccupied by the time the music was well under way, for the pianist, a tall colored woman with long fingers and a muscular wrist, played with a verve and a swing that set the feet of the listeners involuntarily in motion.
The dance was sure to occupy the class for a quarter of an hour at least, and the little dancing-mistress took the opportunity to slip away to her own sitting-room, which was on the same floor of the block, for a few minutes of rest. Her day had been a hard one. There had been a matinee at two o’clock, a children’s class at four, and at eight o’clock the class now on the floor had assembled.
When she reached the sitting-room she gave a start of pleasure. A young man rose at her entrance, and advanced with both hands extended—a tall, broad-shouldered, fair-haired young man, with a frank and kindly countenance, now lit up with the animation of pleasure. He seemed about twenty-six or twenty-seven years old. His face was of the type one instinctively associates with intellect and character, and it gave the impression, besides, of that intangible something which we call race. He was neatly and carefully dressed, though his clothing was not without indications that he found it necessary or expedient to practice economy.
“Good-evening, Clara,” he said, taking her hands in his; “I’ve been waiting for you five minutes. I supposed you would be in, but if you had been a moment later I was going to the hall to look you up. You seem tired to-night,” he added, drawing her nearer to him and scanning her features at short range. “This work is too hard; you are not fitted for it. When are you going to give it up?”
“The season is almost over,” she answered, “and then I shall stop for the summer.”
He drew her closer still and kissed her lovingly. “Tell me, Clara,” he said, looking down into her face, —he was at least a foot taller than she, —”when I am to have my answer.”
“Will you take the answer you can get to-night?” she asked with a wan smile.
“I will take but one answer, Clara. But do not make me wait too long for that. Why, just think of it! I have known you for six months.”
“That is an extremely long time,” said Clara, as they sat down side by side.
“It has been an age,” he rejoined. “For a fortnight of it, too, which seems longer than all the rest, I have been waiting for my answer. I am turning gray under the suspense. Seriously, Clara dear, what shall it be? or rather, when shall it be? for to the other question there is but one answer possible.”
He looked into her eyes, which slowly filled with tears. She repulsed him gently as he bent over to kiss them away.
“You know I love you, John, and why I do not say what you wish. You must give me a little more time to make up my mind before I can consent to burden you with a nameless wife, one who does not know who her mother was”——
“She was a good woman, and beautiful, if you are at all like her.”
“Or her father”——
“He was a gentleman and a scholar, if you inherited from him your mind or your manners.”
“It is good of you to say that, and I try to believe it. But it is a serious matter; it is a dreadful thing to have no name.”
“You are known by a worthy one, which was freely given you, and is legally yours.”
“I know—and I am grateful for it. After all, though, it is not my real name; and since I have learned that it was not, it seems like a garment—something external, accessory, and not a part of myself. It does not mean what one’s own name would signify.”
“Take mine, Clara, and make it yours; I lay it at your feet. Some honored men have borne it.”
“Ah yes, and that is what makes my position the harder. Your great-grandfather was governor of Connecticut.”
“I have heard my mother say so.”
“And one of your ancestors came over in the Mayflower.”
“In some capacity—I have never been quite clear whether as ship’s cook or before the mast.”
“Now you are insincere, John; but you cannot deceive me. You never spoke in that way about your ancestors until you learned that I had none. I know you are proud of them, and that the memory of the governor and the judge and the Harvard professor and the Mayflower pilgrim makes you strive to excel, in order to prove yourself worthy of them.”
“It did until I met you, Clara. Now the one inspiration of my life is the hope to make you mine.”
“And your profession?”
“It will furnish me the means to take you out of this; you are not fit for toil.”
“And your book—your treatise that is to make you famous?”
“I have worked twice as hard on it and accomplished twice as much since
I have hoped that you might share my success.”
“Oh! if I but knew the truth!” she sighed, “or could find it out! I realize that I am absurd, that I ought to be happy. I love my parents—my foster-parents—dearly. I owe them everything. Mother—poor, dear mother! —could not have loved me better or cared for me more faithfully had I been her own child. Yet—I am ashamed to say it—I always felt that I was not like them, that there was a subtle difference between us. They were contented in prosperity, resigned in misfortune; I was ever restless, and filled with vague ambitions. They were good, but dull. They loved me, but they never said so. I feel that there is warmer, richer blood coursing in my veins than the placid stream that crept through theirs.”
“There will never be any such people to me as they were,” said her lover, “for they took you and brought you up for me.”
“Sometimes,” she went on dreamily, “I feel sure that I am of good family, and the blood of my ancestors seems to call to me in clear and certain tones. Then again when my mood changes, I am all at sea—I feel that even if I had but simply to turn my hand to learn who I am and whence I came, I should shrink from taking the step, for fear that what I might learn would leave me forever unhappy.”
“Dearest,” he said, taking her in his arms, while from the hall and down the corridor came the softened strains of music, “put aside these unwholesome fancies. Your past is shrouded in mystery. Take my name, as you have taken my love, and I’ll make your future so happy that you won’t have time to think of the past. What are a lot of musty, mouldy old grandfathers, compared with life and love and happiness? It’s hardly good form to mention one’s ancestors nowadays, and what ‘s the use of them at all if one can’t boast of them?”
“It’s all very well of you to talk that way,” she rejoined. “But suppose you should marry me, and when you become famous and rich, and patients flock to your office, and fashionable people to your home, and every one wants to know who you are and whence you came, you ‘ll be obliged to bring out the governor, and the judge, and the rest of them. If you should refrain, in order to forestall embarrassing inquiries about my ancestry, I should have deprived you of something you are entitled to, something which has a real social value. And when people found out all about you, as they eventually would from some source, they would want to know—we Americans are a curious people—who your wife was, and you could only say”——
“The best and sweetest woman on earth, whom I love unspeakably.”
“You know that is not what I mean. You could only say—a Miss Nobody, from Nowhere.”
“A Miss Hohlfelder, from Cincinnati, the only child of worthy German parents, who fled from their own country in ’49 to escape political persecution—an ancestry that one surely need not be ashamed of.”
“No; but the consciousness that it was not true would be always with me, poisoning my mind, and darkening my life and yours.”
“Your views of life are entirely too tragic, Clara,” the young man argued soothingly. “We are all worms of the dust, and if we go back far enough, each of us has had millions of ancestors; peasants and serfs, most of them; thieves, murderers, and vagabonds, many of them, no doubt; and therefore the best of us have but little to boast of. Yet we are all made after God’s own image, and formed by his hand, for his ends; and therefore not to be lightly despised, even the humblest of us, least of all by ourselves. For the past we can claim no credit, for those who made it died with it. Our destiny lies in the future.”
“Yes,” she sighed, “I know all that. But I am not like you. A woman is not like a man; she cannot lose herself in theories and generalizations. And there are tests that even all your philosophy could not endure. Suppose you should marry me, and then some time, by the merest accident, you should learn that my origin was the worst it could be—that I not only had no name, but was not entitled to one.”
“I cannot believe it,” he said, “and from what we do know of your history it is hardly possible. If I learned it, I should forget it, unless, perchance, it should enhance your value in my eyes, by stamping you as a rare work of nature, an exception to the law of heredity, a triumph of pure beauty and goodness over the grosser limitations of matter. I cannot imagine, now that I know you, anything that could make me love you less. I would marry you just the same—even if you were one of your dancing-class to-night.”
“I must go back to them,” said Clara, as the music ceased.
“My answer,” he urged, “give me my answer!”
“Not to-night, John,” she pleaded. “Grant me a little longer time to make up my mind—for your sake.”
“Not for my sake, Clara, no.”
“Well—for mine.” She let him take her in his arms and kiss her again.
“I have a patient yet to see to-night,” he said as he went out. “If I am not detained too long, I may come back this way—if I see the lights in the hall still burning. Do not wonder if I ask you again for my answer, for I shall be unhappy until I get it.”
A stranger entering the hall with Miss Hohlfelder would have seen, at first glance, only a company of well-dressed people, with nothing to specially distinguish them from ordinary humanity in temperate climates. After the eye had rested for a moment and begun to separate the mass into its component parts, one or two dark faces would have arrested its attention; and with the suggestion thus offered, a closer inspection would have revealed that they were nearly all a little less than white. With most of them this fact would not have been noticed, while they were alone or in company with one another, though if a fair white person had gone among them it would perhaps have been more apparent. From the few who were undistinguishable from pure white, the colors ran down the scale by minute gradations to the two or three brown faces at the other extremity.
It was Miss Hohlfelder’s first colored class. She had been somewhat startled when first asked to take it. No person of color had ever applied to her for lessons; and while a woman of that race had played the piano for her for several months, she had never thought of colored people as possible pupils. So when she was asked if she would take a class of twenty or thirty, she had hesitated, and begged for time to consider the application. She knew that several of the more fashionable dancing-schools tabooed all pupils, singly or in classes, who labored under social disabilities—and this included the people of at least one other race who were vastly farther along in the world than the colored people of the community where Miss Hohlfelder lived. Personally she had no such prejudice, except perhaps a little shrinking at the thought of personal contact with the dark faces of whom Americans always think when “colored people” are spoken of. Again, a class of forty pupils was not to be despised, for she taught for money, which was equally current and desirable, regardless of its color. She had consulted her foster-parents, and after them her lover. Her foster-parents, who were German-born, and had never become thoroughly Americanized, saw no objection. As for her lover, he was indifferent.
“Do as you please,” he said. “It may drive away some other pupils. If it should break up the business entirely, perhaps you might be willing to give me a chance so much the sooner.”
She mentioned the matter to one or two other friends, who expressed conflicting opinions. She decided at length to take the class, and take the consequences.
“I don’t think it would be either right or kind to refuse them for any such reason, and I don’t believe I shall lose anything by it.”
She was somewhat surprised, and pleasantly so, when her class came together for their first lesson, at not finding them darker and more uncouth. Her pupils were mostly people whom she would have passed on the street without a second glance, and among them were several whom she had known by sight for years, but had never dreamed of as being colored people. Their manners were good, they dressed quietly and as a rule with good taste, avoiding rather than choosing bright colors and striking combinations—whether from natural preference, or because of a slightly morbid shrinking from criticism, of course she could not say. Among them, the dancing-mistress soon learned, there were lawyers and doctors, teachers, telegraph operators, clerks, milliners and dressmakers, students of the local college and scientific school, and, somewhat to her awe at the first meeting, even a member of the legislature. They were mostly young, although a few light-hearted older people joined the class, as much for company as for the dancing.
“Of course, Miss Hohlfelder,” explained Mr. Solomon Sadler, to whom the teacher had paid a compliment on the quality of the class, “the more advanced of us are not numerous enough to make the fine distinctions that are possible among white people; and of course as we rise in life we can’t get entirely away from our brothers and our sisters and our cousins, who don’t always keep abreast of us. We do, however, draw certain lines of character and manners and occupation. You see the sort of people we are. Of course we have no prejudice against color, and we regard all labor as honorable, provided a man does the best he can. But we must have standards that will give our people something to aspire to.”
The class was not a difficult one, as many of the members were already fairly good dancers. Indeed the class had been formed as much for pleasure as for instruction. Music and hall rent and a knowledge of the latest dances could be obtained cheaper in this way than in any other. The pupils had made rapid progress, displaying in fact a natural aptitude for rhythmic motion, and a keen susceptibility to musical sounds. As their race had never been criticised for these characteristics, they gave them full play, and soon developed, most of them, into graceful and indefatigable dancers. They were now almost at the end of their course, and this was the evening of the last lesson but one.
Miss Hohlfelder had remarked to her lover more than once that it was a pleasure to teach them. “They enter into the spirit of it so thoroughly, and they seem to enjoy themselves so much.”
“One would think,” he suggested, “that the whitest of them would find their position painful and more or less pathetic; to be so white and yet to be classed as black—so near and yet so far.”
“They don’t accept our classification blindly. They do not acknowledge any inferiority; they think they are a great deal better than any but the best white people,” replied Miss Hohlfelder. “And since they have been coming here, do you know,” she went on, “I hardly think of them as any different from other people. I feel perfectly at home among them.”
“It is a great thing to have faith in one’s self,” he replied. “It is a fine thing, too, to be able to enjoy the passing moment. One of your greatest charms in my eyes, Clara, is that in your lighter moods you have this faculty. You sing because you love to sing. You find pleasure in dancing, even by way of work. You feel the joie de vivre—the joy of living. You are not always so, but when you are so I think you most delightful.”
Miss Hohlfelder, upon entering the hall, spoke to the pianist and then exchanged a few words with various members of the class. The pianist began to play a dreamy Strauss waltz. When the dance was well under way Miss Hohlfelder left the hall again and stepped into the ladies’ dressing-room. There was a woman seated quietly on a couch in a corner, her hands folded on her lap.
“Good-evening, Miss Hohlfelder. You do not seem as bright as usual to-night.”
Miss Hohlfelder felt a sudden yearning for sympathy. Perhaps it was the gentle tones of the greeting; perhaps the kindly expression of the soft though faded eyes that were scanning Miss Hohlfelder’s features. The woman was of the indefinite age between forty and fifty. There were lines on her face which, if due to years, might have carried her even past the half-century mark, but if caused by trouble or ill health might leave her somewhat below it. She was quietly dressed in black, and wore her slightly wavy hair low over her ears, where it lay naturally in the ripples which some others of her sex so sedulously seek by art. A little woman, of clear olive complexion and regular features, her face was almost a perfect oval, except as time had marred its outline. She had been in the habit of coming to the class with some young women of the family she lived with, part boarder, part seamstress and friend of the family. Sometimes, while waiting for her young charges, the music would jar her nerves, and she would seek the comparative quiet of the dressing-room.
“Oh, I ‘m all right, Mrs. Harper,” replied the dancing-mistress, with a brave attempt at cheerfulness,—”just a little tired, after a hard day’s work.”
She sat down on the couch by the elder woman’s side. Mrs. Harper took her hand and stroked it gently, and Clara felt soothed and quieted by her touch.
“There are tears in your eyes and trouble in your face. I know it, for I have shed the one and known the other. Tell me, child, what ails you? I am older than you, and perhaps I have learned some things in the hard school of life that may be of comfort or service to you.”
Such a request, coming from a comparative stranger, might very properly have been resented or lightly parried. But Clara was not what would be called self-contained. Her griefs seemed lighter when they were shared with others, even in spirit. There was in her nature a childish strain that craved sympathy and comforting. She had never known—or if so it was only in a dim and dreamlike past—the tender, brooding care that was her conception of a mother’s love. Mrs. Hohlfelder had been fond of her in a placid way, and had given her every comfort and luxury her means permitted. Clara’s ideal of maternal love had been of another and more romantic type; she had thought of a fond, impulsive mother, to whose bosom she could fly when in trouble or distress, and to whom she could communicate her sorrows and trials; who would dry her tears and soothe her with caresses. Now, when even her kind foster-mother was gone, she felt still more the need of sympathy and companionship with her own sex; and when this little Mrs. Harper spoke to her so gently, she felt her heart respond instinctively.
“Yes, Mrs. Harper,” replied Clara with a sigh, “I am in trouble, but it is trouble that you nor any one else can heal.”
“You do not know, child. A simple remedy can sometimes cure a very grave complaint. Tell me your trouble, if it is something you are at liberty to tell.”
“I have a story,” said Clara, “and it is a strange one,—a story I have told to but one other person, one very dear to me.”
“He must be dear to you indeed, from the tone in which you speak of him.
Your very accents breathe love.”
“Yes, I love him, and if you saw him—perhaps you have seen him, for he has looked in here once or twice during the dancing-lessons—you would know why I love him. He is handsome, he is learned, he is ambitious, he is brave, he is good; he is poor, but he will not always be so; and he loves me, oh, so much!”
The other woman smiled. “It is not so strange to love, nor yet to be loved. And all lovers are handsome and brave and fond.”
“That is not all of my story. He wants to marry me.” Clara paused, as if to let this statement impress itself upon the other.
“True lovers always do,” said the elder woman.
“But sometimes, you know, there are circumstances which prevent them.”
“Ah yes,” murmured the other reflectively, and looking at the girl with deeper interest, “circumstances which prevent them. I have known of such a case.”
“The circumstance which prevents us from marrying is my story.”
“Tell me your story, child, and perhaps, if I cannot help you otherwise,
I can tell you one that will make yours seem less sad.”
“You know me,” said the young woman, “as Miss Hohlfelder; but that is not actually my name. In fact I do not know my real name, for I am not the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Hohlfelder, but only an adopted child. While Mrs. Hohlfelder lived, I never knew that I was not her child. I knew I was very different from her and father,—I mean Mr. Hohlfelder. I knew they were fair and I was dark; they were stout and I was slender; they were slow and I was quick. But of course I never dreamed of the true reason of this difference. When mother—Mrs. Hohlfelder—died, I found among her things one day a little packet, carefully wrapped up, containing a child’s slip and some trinkets. The paper wrapper of the packet bore an inscription that awakened my curiosity. I asked father Hohlfelder whose the things had been, and then for the first time I learned my real story.
“I was not their own daughter, he stated, but an adopted child. Twenty-three years ago, when he had lived in St. Louis, a steamboat explosion had occurred up the river, and on a piece of wreckage floating down stream, a girl baby had been found. There was nothing on the child to give a hint of its home or parentage; and no one came to claim it, though the fact that a child had been found was advertised all along the river. It was believed that the infant’s parents must have perished in the wreck, and certainly no one of those who were saved could identify the child. There had been a passenger list on board the steamer, but the list, with the officer who kept it, had been lost in the accident. The child was turned over to an orphan asylum, from which within a year it was adopted by the two kind-hearted and childless German people who brought it up as their own. I was that child.”
The woman seated by Clara’s side had listened with strained attention. “Did you learn the name of the steamboat?” she asked quietly, but quickly, when Clara paused.
“The Pride of St. Louis,” answered Clara. She did not look at Mrs. Harper, but was gazing dreamily toward the front, and therefore did not see the expression that sprang into the other’s face,—a look in which hope struggled with fear, and yearning love with both,—nor the strong effort with which Mrs. Harper controlled herself and moved not one muscle while the other went on.
“I was never sought,” Clara continued, “and the good people who brought me up gave me every care. Father and mother—I can never train my tongue to call them anything else—were very good to me. When they adopted me they were poor; he was a pharmacist with a small shop. Later on he moved to Cincinnati, where he made and sold a popular ‘patent’ medicine and amassed a fortune. Then I went to a fashionable school, was taught French, and deportment, and dancing. Father Hohlfelder made some bad investments, and lost most of his money. The patent medicine fell off in popularity. A year or two ago we came to this city to live. Father bought this block and opened the little drug store below. We moved into the rooms upstairs. The business was poor, and I felt that I ought to do something to earn money and help support the family. I could dance; we had this hall, and it was not rented all the time, so I opened a dancing-school.”
“Tell me, child,” said the other woman, with restrained eagerness, “what were the things found upon you when you were taken from the river?”
“Yes,” answered the girl, “I will. But I have not told you all my story, for this is but the prelude. About a year ago a young doctor rented an office in our block. We met each other, at first only now and then, and afterwards oftener; and six months ago he told me that he loved me.”
She paused, and sat with half opened lips and dreamy eyes, looking back into the past six months.
“And the things found upon you”——
“Yes, I will show them to you when you have heard all my story. He wanted to marry me, and has asked me every week since. I have told him that I love him, but I have not said I would marry him. I don’t think it would be right for me to do so, unless I could clear up this mystery. I believe he is going to be great and rich and famous, and there might come a time when he would be ashamed of me. I don’t say that I shall never marry him; for I have hoped—I have a presentiment that in some strange way I shall find out who I am, and who my parents were. It may be mere imagination on my part, but somehow I believe it is more than that.”
“Are you sure there was no mark on the things that were found upon you?” said the elder woman.
“Ah yes,” sighed Clara, “I am sure, for I have looked at them a hundred times. They tell me nothing, and yet they suggest to me many things. Come,” she said, taking the other by the hand, “and I will show them to you.”
She led the way along the hall to her sitting-room, and to her bedchamber beyond. It was a small room hung with paper showing a pattern of morning-glories on a light ground, with dotted muslin curtains, a white iron bedstead, a few prints on the wall, a rocking-chair—a very dainty room. She went to the maple dressing-case, and opened one of the drawers.
As they stood for a moment, the mirror reflecting and framing their image, more than one point of resemblance between them was emphasized. There was something of the same oval face, and in Clara’s hair a faint suggestion of the wave in the older woman’s; and though Clara was fairer of complexion, and her eyes were gray and the other’s black, there was visible, under the influence of the momentary excitement, one of those indefinable likenesses which are at times encountered,—sometimes marking blood relationship, sometimes the impress of a common training; in one case perhaps a mere earmark of temperament, and in another the index of a type. Except for the difference in color, one might imagine that if the younger woman were twenty years older the resemblance would be still more apparent.
Clara reached her hand into the drawer and drew out a folded packet, which she unwrapped, Mrs. Harper following her movements meanwhile with a suppressed intensity of interest which Clara, had she not been absorbed in her own thoughts, could not have failed to observe.
When the last fold of paper was removed there lay revealed a child’s muslin slip. Clara lifted it and shook it gently until it was unfolded before their eyes. The lower half was delicately worked in a lacelike pattern, revealing an immense amount of patient labor.
The elder woman seized the slip with hands which could not disguise their trembling. Scanning the garment carefully, she seemed to be noting the pattern of the needlework, and then, pointing to a certain spot, exclaimed:——
“I thought so! I was sure of it! Do you not see the letters—M.S.?”
“Oh, how wonderful!” Clara seized the slip in turn and scanned the monogram. “How strange that you should see that at once and that I should not have discovered it, who have looked at it a hundred times! And here,” she added, opening a small package which had been inclosed in the other, “is my coral necklace. Perhaps your keen eyes can find something in that.”
It was a simple trinket, at which the older woman gave but a glance—a glance that added to her emotion.
“Listen, child,” she said, laying her trembling hand on the other’s arm. “It is all very strange and wonderful, for that slip and necklace, and, now that I have seen them, your face and your voice and your ways, all tell me who you are. Your eyes are your father’s eyes, your voice is your father’s voice. The slip was worked by your mother’s hand.”
“Oh!” cried Clara, and for a moment the whole world swam before her eyes.
“I was on the Pride of St. Louis, and I knew your father—and your mother.”
Clara, pale with excitement, burst into tears, and would have fallen had not the other woman caught her in her arms. Mrs. Harper placed her on the couch, and, seated by her side, supported her head on her shoulder. Her hands seemed to caress the young woman with every touch.
“Tell me, oh, tell me all!” Clara demanded, when the first wave of emotion had subsided. “Who were my father and my mother, and who am I?”
The elder woman restrained her emotion with an effort, and answered as composedly as she could,——
“There were several hundred passengers on the Pride of St. Louis when she left Cincinnati on that fateful day, on her regular trip to New Orleans. Your father and mother were on the boat—and I was on the boat. We were going down the river, to take ship at New Orleans for France, a country which your father loved.”
“Who was my father?” asked Clara. The woman’s words fell upon her ear like water on a thirsty soil.
“Your father was a Virginia gentleman, and belonged to one of the first families, the Staffords, of Melton County.”
Clara drew herself up unconsciously, and into her face there came a frank expression of pride which became it wonderfully, setting off a beauty that needed only this to make it all but perfect of its type.
“I knew it must be so,” she murmured. “I have often felt it. Blood will always tell. And my mother?”
“Your mother—also belonged to one of the first families of Virginia, and in her veins flowed some of the best blood of the Old Dominion.”
“What was her maiden name?”
“Mary Fairfax. As I was saying, your father was a Virginia gentleman. He was as handsome a man as ever lived, and proud, oh, so proud!—and good, and kind. He was a graduate of the University and had studied abroad.”
“My mother—was she beautiful?”
“She was much admired, and your father loved her from the moment he first saw her. Your father came back from Europe, upon his father’s sudden death, and entered upon his inheritance. But he had been away from Virginia so long, and had read so many books, that he had outgrown his home. He did not believe that slavery was right, and one of the first things he did was to free his slaves. His views were not popular, and he sold out his lands a year before the war, with the intention of moving to Europe.”
“In the mean time he had met and loved and married my mother?”
“In the mean time he had met and loved your mother.”
“My mother was a Virginia belle, was she not?”
“The Fairfaxes,” answered Mrs. Harper, “were the first of the first families, the bluest of the blue-bloods. The Miss Fairfaxes were all beautiful and all social favorites.”
“What did my father do then, when he had sold out in Virginia?”
“He went with your mother and you—you were then just a year old—to Cincinnati, to settle up some business connected with his estate. When he had completed his business, he embarked on the Pride of St. Louis with you and your mother and a colored nurse.”
“And how did you know about them?” asked Clara.
“I was one of the party. I was”——
“You were the colored nurse?—my ‘mammy,’ they would have called you in my old Virginia home?”
“Yes, child, I was—your mammy. Upon my bosom you have rested; my breasts once gave you nourishment; my hands once ministered to you; my arms sheltered you, and my heart loved you and mourned you like a mother loves and mourns her firstborn.”
“Oh, how strange, how delightful!” exclaimed Clara. “Now I understand why you clasped me so tightly, and were so agitated when I told you my story. It is too good for me to believe. I am of good blood, of an old and aristocratic family. My presentiment has come true. I can marry my lover, and I shall owe all my happiness to you. How can I ever repay you?”
“You can kiss me, child, kiss your mammy.”
Their lips met, and they were clasped in each other’s arms. One put into the embrace all of her new-found joy, the other all the suppressed feeling of the last half hour, which in turn embodied the unsatisfied yearning of many years.
The music had ceased and the pupils had left the hall. Mrs. Harper’s charges had supposed her gone, and had left for home without her. But the two women, sitting in Clara’s chamber, hand in hand, were oblivious to external things and noticed neither the hour nor the cessation of the music.
“Why, dear mammy,” said the young woman musingly, “did you not find me, and restore me to my people?”
“Alas, child! I was not white, and when I was picked up from the water, after floating miles down the river, the man who found me kept me prisoner for a time, and, there being no inquiry for me, pretended not to believe that I was free, and took me down to New Orleans and sold me as a slave. A few years later the war set me free. I went to St. Louis but could find no trace of you. I had hardly dared to hope that a child had been saved, when so many grown men and women had lost their lives. I made such inquiries as I could, but all in vain.”
“Did you go to the orphan asylum?”
“The orphan asylum had been burned and with it all the records. The war had scattered the people so that I could find no one who knew about a lost child saved from a river wreck. There were many orphans in those days, and one more or less was not likely to dwell in the public mind.”
“Did you tell my people in Virginia?”
“They, too, were scattered by the war. Your uncles lost their lives on the battlefield. The family mansion was burned to the ground. Your father’s remaining relatives were reduced to poverty, and moved away from Virginia.”
“What of my mother’s people?”
“They are all dead. God punished them. They did not love your father, and did not wish him to marry your mother. They helped to drive him to his death.”
“I am alone in the world, then, without kith or kin,” murmured Clara, “and yet, strange to say, I am happy. If I had known my people and lost them, I should be sad. They are gone, but they have left me their name and their blood. I would weep for my poor father and mother if I were not so glad.”
Just then some one struck a chord upon the piano in the hall, and the sudden breaking of the stillness recalled Clara’s attention to the lateness of the hour.
“I had forgotten about the class,” she exclaimed. “I must go and attend to them.”
They walked along the corridor and entered the hall. Dr. Winthrop was seated at the piano, drumming idly on the keys.
“I did not know where you had gone,” he said. “I knew you would be around, of course, since the lights were not out, and so I came in here to wait for you.”
“Listen, John, I have a wonderful story to tell you.”
Then she told him Mrs. Harper’s story. He listened attentively and sympathetically, at certain points taking his eyes from Clara’s face and glancing keenly at Mrs. Harper, who was listening intently. As he looked from one to the other he noticed the resemblance between them, and something in his expression caused Mrs. Harper’s eyes to fall, and then glance up appealingly.
“And now,” said Clara, “I am happy. I know my name. I am a Virginia Stafford. I belong to one, yes, to two of what were the first families of Virginia. John, my family is as good as yours. If I remember my history correctly, the Cavaliers looked down upon the Roundheads.”
“I admit my inferiority,” he replied. “If you are happy I am glad.”
“Clara Stafford,” mused the girl. “It is a pretty name.”
“You will never have to use it,” her lover declared, “for now you will take mine.”
“Then I shall have nothing left of all that I have found”——
“Except your husband,” asserted Dr. Winthrop, putting his arm around her, with an air of assured possession.
Mrs. Harper was looking at them with moistened eyes in which joy and sorrow, love and gratitude, were strangely blended. Clara put out her hand to her impulsively.
“And my mammy,” she cried, “my dear Virginia mammy.”