Vashti, by Augusta J. Evans Wilson

Vashti, by Augusta J. Evans Wilson

The dining-room was large and airy, with lofty wide windows, and neatly papered walls, where in numerous old-fashioned and quaintly carved frames hung the ancestral portraits of the family. Although one window was open, and the mild 14 air laden with the perfumed breath of spring, a bright wood fire flashed on the hearth, near which Miss Jane sat in her large, cushioned rocking-chair, resting her swollen slippered feet on a velvet stool, while her silver-mounted crutches leaned against the arm of her chair. An ugly and very diminutive brown terrier snarled and frisked on the rug, tormenting a staid and aged black cat, who occasionally arched her back and showed her teeth; and Dr. Grey stood leaning over his sister’s chair, smoothing the soft grizzled locks that clustered under the rich lace border of her cap. He was talking of other days,—those of his boyhood, when, kneeling by that hearth, she had pasted his kites, found strings for his tops, made bags for his marbles, or bound up his bleeding hands, bruised in boyish sports; and, while he read from the fresher page of his memory the blessed juvenile annals long since effaced from hers, a happy smile lighted her withered face, and she put up one thin hand to pat the brown and bearded cheek which nearly touched her head. To the pretty young thing who had paused on the threshold, watching what passed, it seemed a peaceful picture, cosy and complete, needing no adjuncts, defying intruders; but Miss Jane caught a glimpse of the shrinking figure, and beckoned her to the fire-place.

Around the tall figure shining folds of silver poplin hung heavy and statuesque, and over the shoulders a blue crape shawl was held by a beautiful blue-veined hand, where a sapphire asp kept guard; while a cluster of double violets fastened behind one shell-like ear breathed their perfume among glossy bands of gray hair.

Bending her regal head, she inhaled the mingled perfumes, worthy of Sicilian or Cyprian meadows; and, while her slight fingers toyed with the fragile petals, a proud smile lent its sad light to the chill face, and she said aloud, as if striving to comfort herself,—

“‘Not the ineffable stars that interlace
The azure canopy of Zeus himself
Have surer sweetness than my hyacinths
When they grow blue, in gazing on blue heaven,
Than the white lilies of my rivers, when
In leafy spring Selene’s silver horn
Spills paleness, peace, and fragrance.’”

“Yes; I shall not deny that I yield to no one in appreciation of lovely faces; but, if I am aware that, like some rich crimson June rose whose calyx cradles a worm, the heart beneath the perfect form is gnawed by some evil tendency, or shelters vindictive passion and sinful impulses, I should certainly not select it in making up the precious bouquet that is to shed perfume and beauty in my home, and call my thoughts from the din and strife of the outer world to holiness and peace.”

The scarlet spray of pelargonium had withered from the heat of her head, where it had rested all the evening, and the large creamy Grand Duke jasmine fastened at her throat by a sprig of coral, was drooping and fading, but still exhaled its strong delicious perfume.

On the floor lay a dainty handkerchief, and stooping to pick it up, he inhaled the delicate, tenacious perfume of tube-rose, which, blended with orange-flowers, he had frequently discovered when standing near her.

The sun flashed up from his ocean bed, and, as the first beams fell on the woman’s hair, Dr. Grey softly passed his broad white hand over its perfumed masses, redolent of orange flowers.

Turning the bouquet around in order to examine and admire each flower, Mrs. Gerome toyed with the velvet bells, and said, sorrowfully,—
“Their delicious perfume always reminds me of my beautiful home near Funchal, where heliotrope and geraniums grew so tall that they looked in at my window, and hedges of fuchsias bordered my garden walks. Never have I seen elsewhere such profusion and perfection of flowers.”
“When were you in Madeira?”
“Two years ago. The villa I occupied was situated on the side of a mountain, whose base was covered with vineyards; and from a grove of lemon and oleanders that stood in front of the house I could see the surging Atlantic at my feet, and the crest of the mountain clothed with chestnuts, high above and behind me. In one corner of my vineyard stood a solitary palm, which tradition asserted was planted when Zarco discovered the island; and the groves of orange, citron, and pomegranate trees were always peopled with humming-birds, and flocks of green canaries. There, surrounded by grand and picturesque scenery of which I never wearied, I resolved to live and die; but Elsie’s desire to return to America, which held the ashes of her husband and child, overruled my inclination and the dictates of judgment, and reluctantly I left my mountain Eden and came here. Now, when I smell violets and heliotrope, regret mingles with their aroma; and, after all, the sacrifice was in vain, and Elsie would have slept as calmly there, under palm and chestnut, as yonder, where the deodar-shadows fall.”

When Dr. Grey had partially crossed the lawn, he glanced towards the marble temple that gleamed against the dark background of deodars, and saw a woman sitting on the steps of the tomb. Softly he approached and entered the mausoleum by an arch on the opposite side, but, notwithstanding his cautious tread, he startled a white pigeon that had perched on the altar, where fresh violets, heliotrope, and snowy sprigs of nutmeg-geranium were leaning over the scalloped edge of the Venetian glasses, and distilling perfume in their delicate chalices.

“Ah, he has escaped! Well, perhaps it is better so, and there will be no blood shed. Let him go back to Edith,—‘golden-haired Edith Dexter,’—and live out the remnant of his days. He came hoping to find me dead, but I am not as accommodating now as formerly. Where are those violets? Tell Elsie to bring the jars in, where I can smell them.”
He took a bunch of the fragrant flowers from his coat pocket, and put them in her hand, for during her illness she 281 was never satisfied unless there was a bouquet near her; and now, having feebly smelled them, her eyes closed.

For some time Dr. Grey walked up and down the long room, glancing now and then at his patient, and when he saw that the tears had ceased, he brought from a basket in the hall an exquisitely beautiful and fragrant bouquet of the flowers which he knew she loved best,—heliotrope, violets, tube-rose, and Grand-Duke jessamine, fringed daintily with spicy geranium leaves, and scarlet fuchsias.

He leaned towards her, watching eagerly for some symptom of interest in the face before him, and bent his head until he inhaled the fragrance of the violets which clustered on one side of the coil of hair.

The faint yet almost mesmeric fragrance of orange flowers and violets floated in the folds of her garments, and seemed lurking in the waves of gray hair that glistened in the bright steady glow of the red grate; and moved by one of those unaccountable impulses that sometimes decide a man’s destiny, Dr. Grey took the exquisitely beautiful hand from the book and enclosed it in both of his.

Through the windows stole the breath of Salome’s violets, and the sweet, spicy odor of the Belgian honeysuckle that she had planted and twined around the mossy columns that supported the gallery; and with a sigh he closed his eyes, shut out the anatomy of flesh, and began the dissection of emotions.

An anxious look clouded for an instant Dr. Grey’s countenance, but undaunted hope sang on of the hours of hallowed communion that the future held, while in her invalid condition he assumed the care and guardianship of his beloved; and, turning into the lawn, he eagerly searched the winding walks for some trace of her, some flutter of her garments, some faint, subtle odor of orange-flowers or tube-roses.