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Bella's articles still appeared in the Morning Meteor, for Harry Lancaster had been true to his word and urged her cause with the editor. They were full of self-aggrandizement, and always indicated an intimate acquaintance with people of note, and references to the writers' life "abroad" abounded.
Frequently her whole article was composed of letters she received from abroad relative to places and people, thus saving her own brain further tax upon its never too prolific stores, and proving to the public that she was rich with "tourist friends."
Vey seldom read them, but was glad that Bella was pursuing an honorable career and hoped that she had begun a new record since her return to America, and at the same time she prayed that she might not again encounter her. Somehow it always awoke a bitter rebellion in her heart when she recalled her own past deprivations and compared them with Bella's lot. In spite of Mrs. MacArthur's philosophy she was not able to see the justice of the world in this matter quite yet.
One day in late autumn Vey was invited to sing at a benefit to be given in New York for the fresh air fund.
Mrs. Gray, a charitable society lady, was the moving power in this affair, and offered her elegant residence near Fifth Avenue for the entertainment. The programme was quite ambitious, embracing a number of well known professional stars among its list of attractions, while Miss Volney and "Mrs. H. Ambrose Lancaster" were billed among the brilliant society amateurs who were to assist in the musical part of the performance, one vocally, the other with instrumental solo. Vey called Mrs. MacArthur's attention to the latter name, saying; "You do not suppose it possible, do you, that Bella dares appear in New York under that name? I remember she was quite a skillful musician years ago."
"Oh, no," Mrs. MacArthur responded, "this is the real Mrs. Lancaster. Tom says Mr. Lancaster was married about six months ago to a charming girl from Baltimore. They say he is perfectly devoted to her, and has gone into society and given up all of his vices. You know society is always ready to help a man like that. I have been told that his wife is a remarkable musician and very popular socially."
Vey looked for Mrs. Lancaster with a great deal of interest on the afternoon of the benefit, and while she was glancing about the well-filled, spacious parlors trying to determine which was she her startled gaze fell on Bella. She sat near the parlor door, where she could command a view of the audience, and a note book and pencil suggested that she was there as the representative of some paper. She was handsomely attired, and seemed perfectly at her ease, but Vey noticed a slight indication toward obesity in her always plum, short figure, and the lower lids of her china-blue eyes were tinged with red and somewhat swollen, which marred the former doll-like prettiness of her face. When Mrs. Lancaster played her solo, Bella watched her with furtive glances and took voluminous notes; and Vey felt sick at heart as she thought of her own experiences, and wondered if the happy-faced young bride was to suffer at the hands of this coarse woman.
Mrs. Gray approached Miss Volney immediately after the close of the programme and led her toward Mrs. Lancaster.
"I want to introduce you to our brilliant musicians," she said, presenting the two young women. "Mrs. Lancaster's husband has always been a pet of mine. I have known him since he wore pinafores, and I was the most delighted woman in the world to see him caught in Cupid's nest at last. Mrs. Lancaster is a newcomer here, Miss Volney, and I hope you will be one to assist in making her love the North.
Before Vey could reply, Bella, who had approached with a bold, unabashed smile, was saying: "Dear Mrs. Gray, will you not present me also? I used to know Mr. Lancaster, though I dare say he has quite forgotten me, but I should love to be friends with the lady who succeeded in turning that hopeless bachelor from the errors of his ways."
"Beg your pardon, but your name has slipped my memory," began Mrs. Gray, with a slight embarrassment.
"Bailey--Mrs. Bailey," responded Bella, easily. She had retained this alias, thinking it better to sink Bella Dean, of doubtful reputation, in this new and more discreet (if no more moral) character, whose literary occupation gave a veneering of respectability to her career.
The fact that Vey had met her in London bearing another assumed name--the name now rightfully borne by the woman in whose presence they both stood--did not in the least abash Bella. She believed her power with the press would keep Vey from antagonizing her, and she rather enjoyed the dramatic situation. Excitement was as necessary to her as stimulants to a toper.
As she mentioned the name "Mrs Bailey," Harry Lancaster's bride gave a startled, indignant glance, the soft color in her cheeks paled a trifle, she bowed her head with a dignified gesture, and turned away without having spoken to Bella.
It was a well-bred but most unmistakable cut, and for the first time in her life, perhaps, Bella lost her sangfroid.
She saw plainly that Harry Lancaster had been true to his word, and that he had told his wife the story of his association with her. It hurt her vanity beyond expression to think that he could place her in such a humiliating position, and it robbed her of the revenge she had contemplated, in becoming acquainted with his wife before he could know or interfere. Ever since his marriage she had tried to meet his bride, and now all her carefully laid, adroit plans were crumbled to the dust.
She quickly recovered her composure, however, and turning to Vey said in her sweetest manner:
"I am delighted with your voice, Miss Volney; I think you are a great addition to the musical circle of New York. I hope you will favor me by singing at my receptions the coming season. I am thinking of establishing a salon this winter where I hope to bring all the best literary, musical and dramatic talent of New York and Brooklyn into friendly relations, something after the manner of that delightful society we both enjoyed in London."
"I believe there are already several brilliant literary salons in New York," Mrs. Gray remarked; "some of them quite cosmopolitan, I understand. I have often thought I would like to peep into one of them.."
Bella shrugged her shoulders. "I have attended them all--or nearly all," she said, airily. "You know they run in cliques, each clique at variance with the others, and all of them, the very best to my mind, are rather mixed. Not so exclusive and exceptional as our dear London society, Miss Volney? But then we have no prince to lend tone to society here--and we cannot expect a new world like America to give us such refined society as the old. Yet I have in mind a series of receptions for this winter which I hope to render as brilliant and attractive as the talent of New York and Brooklyn will permit. Having entree to all the various cliques I hope to bring them into greater harmony." So Bella continued to run on in egotistical volubility, pretending to an intimacy with Vey and foreign and home notables, and ignoring the cut she had received from Mrs. Lancaster, until Vey turned and left the room sick at heart with disgust. She had not believed it possible that Bella would stoop to such an act of dangerous malice as seeking to make the acquaintance of Harry Lancaster's wife. She looked for "Investigator's" account of the benefit in the Meteor with a good deal of curiosity the next morning. It was full of fulsome flattery of all parties interested. Bella used her pen always with a view toward advancing her personal interests rather than any desire to promote artistic culture by just criticisms--and it closed with elaborate praise of "the gem of the entertainment," which was declared to be "the brilliant piano solo of Mrs. Ambrose H. Lancaster, the beautiful and charming girl who had so recently turned one of New York's most popular young bachelors into a happy benedict." It further declared that "no report had yet done justice to the accomplishments and charms of Mrs. Lancaster," of whom "Investigator" proceeded to give a description, reporting her conversation and her impressions of the North minutely.
Vey laid down the paper with astonishment.
"Why, one would think that Mrs. Lancaster had talked intimately and confidentially with the writer of that article," she exclaimed, "and I happen to know that she never spoke one word to her. I imagined 'Investigator' would say something very sarcastic about Mrs. Lancaster."
Mrs. MacArthur smiled. "Donít you see through it? I do," she said. "Bella helps to strengthen the shaky foundation on which she stands socially by pretending to be intimately acquainted with such women as Harry Lancaster's wife. It must both amuse and anger Mr. Lancaster to read that article."
In fact, Harry Lancaster was at that moment tossing the paper down with an exclamation of disgust, saying: "D--n that woman. How dare she even write the name of my pure angel, who, thank God, knows the whole miserable story and is armed against her."
Like King Herod, he felt "I would not have my queen come near that wanton, even in a sentence."
Vey found herself thinking of Jack Dayton with more composure than ever before these days. Heretofore she had been obliged to distract her mind from all thoughts of him to avoid pain. Now she could recall their romance with only a feeling of sadness. She liked to imagine him reunited with his wife, happy in his domestic relations, and making the great business success she had always predicted for him.
"I am sure the baby served as a link to bring him and his wife together again," she said to herself. "He will make her a good husband, I am sure, and I thank God that I alone have had to bear the bitter suffering. My heart is dead to pain now--and dead to all deep emotion; but there is much to make life worth living for me."
She felt relieved that Dr. Milford attempted no love making, and she was consciousness of a sense of rest in his presence that soothed her beyond expression, and she was growing to feel an interest in his theosophic researches and to wonder if there could be any truth in the strange ideas he entertained.
"If it is true," she said to him one day, "that we have a series of lives here upon earth, why then all our sorrows and disappointments are of no more account than the buzzing of insects which annoy a sleeper. But somehow I cannot get rid of my early childhood's idea of a future world."
"What was that?" queried the Doctor.
"Well," answered Vey seriously, "I always imagined the Creator to be a large, savage man, who sat on a high throne and watched us down here, with a frown upon his face. Those who displeased him were punished, and those who were very good were allowed to play on a harp and sing his praises forever. But I never could think of heaven without a shudder, and the earth seems far, far more beautiful. So I would be glad, indeed, if I could become a convert to your theories and anticipate a return to this beautiful world some time."
Doctor Milford smiled, but his voice was earnest as he relied, "It is a sad commentary on prevalent creeds that any child should receive such an erroneous idea of the Creator. It seems strange that the churches fail to impress more strongly upon young minds that the word god was originally 'good.' I think if this idea had been kept constantly before you, as a child, you would never have conceived that appalling picture of the 'savage,' frowning man on a throne."
"But he must in savage and cross," persisted Vey, "or he could not allow some of us to suffer so cruelly as we do. I do not see how a Creator who was all goodness and love could permit a poor little girl like me to endure such terrible loneliness, persecution and trouble as fell to my lot until I met you." Her last words, uttered in a soft tone, stirred Max Milford's heart strangely, but he maintained his composure as he replied:
"The truth is that you are merely working out the errors and sins of your last existence. You laugh, but I have read a book recently which I want you to read. It is called 'Karma,' and was written by the greatest of all our students of the occult, I think. It will make my meaning clearer to you. I have passed through some remarkable experiences since you went abroad. I have been enabled to go back and see you in a former state of existence--when you belonged to me. That is why I have always felt so deeply interested in you."
"But why have I not recognized this former relationship also?" asked Vey, with an amused smile.
"In a measure you have," he replied. "On several occasions you have almost recalled some strange, fleeting memory of our past, and you certainly recognized me when I came to your house of pain abroad."
Vey gazed at him with startled eyes. "Then Mrs. MacArthur has told you my dream," she said.
"Mrs. MacArthur has told me nothing," he replied, "and it was no dream. I one day grew suddenly conscious that you were in great need of me, and my spirit self immediately went to you. It went as speedily and easily as a thought goes which you direct to any place or person. I saw you, spoke to you and laid my hand upon your head. I gave you peace and strength and then I was obliged to return to my physical body, which had been left sitting at that desk in my room when I took my spirit flight."
"But how do you attain to this wonderful power?" asked Vey, her curiosity increasing.
"I think it is born with us," he replied, "and descends as a result from our past methods of life, and then is developed or lessened by our methods of life here. If I lived in the senses, gave rein to my appetites, and ignored my spirit, I could not use this power. But I have tried to cultivate only my better self since my mother died, and live as her spirit would have me live, and so this gift has developed more rapidly. I think suffering is a great aid to development of the higher faculties."
"Then I ought to develop rapidly," Vey said.
"Yes," he continued, "if you bear the suffering and pain that come to you wisely and patiently, and try to turn them to the benefit of others whom you can comfort and strengthen by your example, your next return to earth will doubtless be in a sphere of wide usefulness, and crowned with greater blessings. So you can bid farewell to your ghastly fear of sitting on a lonely cloud with a harp through eternity. Meanwhile I wish you would brighten my present incarnation by becoming my wife, Vey. I have been very patient, I am sure, waiting for you."
Vey was taken utterly by surprise, but she answered very quickly: "I have no heart to give you, dear friend; that was broken and buried in my previous existence, for I am sure, if your theories are true, I died there at the hospital, and all my life since then has been a reincarnation. If you care to take me without a heart, I will be your wife. You have been my best friend, and I will do my utmost to make a good wife, but I cannot love again."
"Perhaps you will realize in time that you only imagined you loved before," Dr. Milford said gently. "You were very young and very ignorant of human nature, and you may look upon everything in life from a different standpoint by and by. All I ask now is that you will try and think of me with loving thoughts. Say to yourself that you love me--for even in the saying of these magic words there is creation. I think God said, 'I love the earth,' and the earth sprang into being. I believe we could actually work miracles in our daily lives if we would use this principle of love words more. Say of your enemy even, 'I love him,' and you would after a time find your feelings toward him changed. Say every day to yourself that you do love me, and I will rest content with the result, and will not ask you to consummate our betrothal until you know that you love me in very truth and are willing to tell me so. Will you promise?"
Vey promised, and so the strange betrothal was made, with the understanding that it was to be kept strictly private.
Vey had no expectation of ever being called upon to fulfill her conditional promise of marriage, for she believed her heart was incapable of more than the gentle affection it now gave Max Milford.
But she was willing to humor him in his whim, and she carried out her promise to the letter in a spirit of sorrowful humor.
It was at nearly the close of the theatrical season, when she and Mrs. MacArthur went over to New York one day to attend a matinee of a favorite actor, whom they had been prevented from seeing sooner by a series of circumstances.
During the last act Miss Volney imparted to Mrs. MacArthur the fact that she was consumed with a most persistent hunger. After the close of the performance she repeated the assertion.
"I never can wait until we reach home," she said. "Let us go to a nice, quiet little restaurant I found one day when I was shopping. It isn't as fashionable as some of the more famous resorts, but it is delightfully quiet and retired, and thoroughly French in the cooking and service."
They were cozily ensconced at the table and had given their order, when a woman entered rapidly, glanced excitedly toward them, and then hurried behind a half-drawn portiere, where Vey had heard the low murmur of voices, which was the only evidence that the restaurant held other occupants than herself and Mrs. MacArthur.
There was the sound of an angry altercation for a moment, then the quickly repeated report of a pistol, the horrified cry of a man's voice and the shriek of a woman's, who clutched at the portiere and dragged it with her to the floor, where she fell, with her blood-stained face almost at Vey's feet.
Mrs. MacArthur and Vey clung to each other in terror, and for the moment saw only the disfigured face of--Bella. Then their eyes fell upon another prostrate form of a woman over whom a man was kneeling. The man was Jack Dayton--the woman the one who had entered a moment previous in evident excitement of mind. "Gertrude, Gertrude, speak to me," he cried. "Look up; answer me, dear wife." Then his voice rose into a wild cry as he exclaimed: "Oh, God, she is dead! And I have killed her--my boy's mother." Just at this moment Bella struggled to a sitting posture, moaning piteously, and as Jack turned at the sound his eyes fell upon the horrified face of Vey Volney, who sank off into unconsciousness on Mrs. MacArthur's shoulder just as a policeman made his appearance upon the tragic scene.
The morning papers gave an account of the bloody affray, which was, however, shrouded in a great deal of mystery. "Mrs. Bailey" was reported badly disfigured for life, but her wounds were not necessarily fatal. Mrs. Dayton was dead; Mr. Dayton too much prostrated to be able to give a clear and connected story regarding the tragic affair. Circumstances, however, seemed to indicate that Mr. Dayton had been lunching with Mrs. Bailey, and that Mrs. Dayton, infuriated with jealousy, followed them armed with evident intent to kill, and after attempting to murder her supposed rival committed suicide.
This jealousy was said to be wholly without cause, as Mr. Dayton was (like all men similarly accused) declared to be devotedly attached to his family. His acquaintance with Mrs. Bailey, who was "the esteemed correspondent of several well--known journals," was said to be purely platonic, dating back to their early youth, indeed. Later developments obtained by a persistent reporter contradicted these statements flatly, and proved conclusively that Mr. Dayton had been neglecting his family during the last year for the "Bailey woman," whose past career was brought to light in true reportorial style, and Bella was, for once at least, "thoroughly written up," as she herself would have expressed it. In still later reports Jack was represented as having followed Bella abroad, and after traveling extensively about with her, establishing her in handsome apartments in New York, where he secretly passed much of his time, neglecting his devoted wife and infant son, until the former, driven to desperation by a discovery of his liason with another woman, had ended the unhappy condition of affairs by her desperate deed, which was supposed to have been committed while temporarily insane.
Gertrude's father was interviewed, and his account of the disgraceful conduct of his son-in-law during the last year and a half were bitter and denunciatory in the extreme.
"He was never at home," he said, "and I strove to keep the disgraceful truth from my daughter as long as possible. I only permitted her to remain his wife on account of the child, whom I shall forbid ever seeing his father's face again. Were the truth known, I believe it could be proved that this man shot and killed my daughter after her assault upon her rival."
Gertrude's nagging and unpleasant qualities which marred their domestic relations were, of course, not mentioned, and public sentiment ran wholly against the despicable husband who had deserted a loyal and supposably loving wife for this cheap brazen semi-courtezan, who cloaked her viciousness under a respectable profession.
Mrs. MacArthur and Vey were summoned as witnesses when the matter came to trial, and their testimony helped to clear Jack from the suspicion of participation in the shooting affray. Free from any legal accusation, he went forth from the courtroom crushed with the world's scorn, and passed forever out of Vey Volney's life and heart. As she saw him go, convicted of being a false husband and a disgraced parent, scales seemed to fall from her eyes. A great wave of horror and surprise rolled over her at the thought that this man had so long been her ideal of all things noble and grand.
She threw open the long-closed chamber of her heart, and where she had imagined an embalmed corpse lay sacredly shrouded from sight there was only a crumbling heap of ashes. The cool winds of reason swept the chamber clear of even these.
A wild joy and a feeling of sudden youth and exhilaration took possession of her.
She knelt at Max Milford's side a few evenings later, as they sat alone together, and hid her face upon his breast.
"Dear," she whispered, so low he could scarcely hear her voice, "I love you even as you love me. I have been almost sure of it for many weeks, but now I know. The past was all a dream; the present is reality."
The Adventures of Miss Volneyby Ella Wheeler Wilcox.
Tumwater, WA: The Ella Wheeler Wilcox Society, 2006.
Based on the printing by Street & Smith, c1900.
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