The Step-mother: A Romance, Volume 2




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Dec 31, 1845
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There was a voice of many waters--the bland musical tone of mountain streams singing as they wend their way over the smooth round pebbles of their hilly bed towards the sea. And the song of life, too, was heard from every field, and every glade, and every valley; the trilling of innumerable birds, the hum of insect myriads, the lowing of distant cattle, winding down from the uplands to pen or fold, the plaintive, subdued bleating of the patient sheep, the merry voice of the light-hearted herd as he led home his flock from the hills, after a long warm southern day in the maturity of spring. Manifold sweet sounds--all blended into one happy harmony, softened by distance, rendered more melodious to the heart by associations felt but not defined, and made more touching by the soft evening hour--filled the whole air, and spread a calm, bright, contemplative charm over the listening senses.

The eye, too, could find the same delight as the ear, equal in depth, similar in character; for though sweet April had sunk in the warm arms of May, still, even in that land of the bright south, the reign of summer had not yet begun: not a leaf, not a flower, not a blade of grass had lost a hue under the beams of the sun, and many a balmy and refreshing shower, during a long and humid spring, had nourished the verdure and enlivened the bloom.

From the high round knoll upon the left, crowned with the five tall cypresses which perhaps flourished as seedlings on that spot in the young and palmy days of Greece, might be seen that unrivalled view which has never yet found eye to gaze on it uncharmed--that view which, of all prospects in the world, has greatest power, when suddenly beheld, to make the heart beat fast, and the breath come thick with mingled feelings of wonder and delight. On one side, at about a mile's distance, where the ground sloped gently down towards the sea, rose the palace of Diocletian, vast and extensive, massy without being heavy, and equally sublime from its beauty and its dimensions. Clear, upon the bright back-ground of the evening sky, cut the graceful lines of the architecture; and, though a sudden break in the outline of the frieze, with the massy form of a fallen capital rolled forward before the steps of the magnificent portico which fronted the sea, told that the busy, unceasing, unsparing hand of man's great enemy had already laid upon that splendid building the crumbling touch of ruin; yet, as, it then stood, with the setting sun behind it, and the deep blue shadows of the evening involving all the minute parts of the side that met the eye, the effects of decay even added to the beauty of the object, by making the straight lines of the architecture at once contrast and harmonize with the graceful irregularities of nature whereby it was surrounded. Several groups of old and stately trees, too, still more diversified the prospect on that side; and through the pillars of the portico might be caught the glistening line of the bright sea where it met and mingled with the sky.

ÊThough the weather was hot and sultry, and the summer was at its height, yet the evening was gloomy, and low, angry clouds hung over the distant line of the sea, when, under the shelter of some low-browed cliffs upon the Irish coast, three persons stood together, two of whom were talking earnestly. About four or five miles from the shore, looking like a spectre upon the misty background of clouds, appeared a small brig with her canvas closely reefed, though there was little wind stirring, and nothing announced the approach of a gale, unless it were a long, heavy swell that heaved up the bosom of the ocean as if with a suppressed sob. The three persons we have mentioned were standing together close at the foot of the rocks; and, though there was nothing in their demeanour which would imply that they were seeking concealment by the points and angles of the cliff,Ñfor they spoke loud, and one of them laughed more than once with the short but jocund laugh of a heart whose careless gaiety no circumstances can repress,Ñyet the spot was well calculated to hide them from any eye, unless it were one gazing down from the cliffs above, or one looking towards the shore from the sea.
The party of which we speak comprised two men not quite reached the middle age, and a fine, noble-looking boy of perhaps eight years old or a little more; but all the conversation was between the two elder, who bore a slight family likeness to each other. The one had a cloak thrown over his arm, and a blue handkerchief bound round his left hand. His dress in other respects was that of a military man of the period; a long-waisted, broad-tailed coat, with a good deal of gold lace and many large buttons upon it, enormous riding boots, and a heavy sword. He had no defensive armour on, indeed, though those were days when the soldierly cuirass was not yet done away with; and on his head he only wore an ordinary hat trimmed round with feathers.
The spot through which the travellers were riding, and which was a wide piece of forest ground, one might have supposed, from the nature of the scenery, to be as common to all lands as possible; but no such thing! and any one who gazed upon it required not to ask themselves in what part of the world they were. The road, which, though sandy, was smooth, neat, and well tended, came down the slope of a long hill, exposing its course to the eye for near a mile. There was a gentle rise on each side, covered with wood; but this rise, and its forest burden, did not advance within a hundred yards of the road on either hand, leaving between--except where it was interrupted by some old sand-pits--a space of open ground covered with short green turf, with here and there an ancient oak standing forward before the other trees, and spreading its branches to the way-side. To the right was a little rivulet gurgling along the deep bed it had worn for itself among the short grass, in its way towards a considerable river that flowed through the valley at about two miles' distance; and, on the left, the eye might range far amid the tall, separate trees--now, perhaps, lighting upon a stag at gaze, or a fallow deer tripping away over the dewy ground as light and gracefully as a lady in a ballroom--till sight became lost in the green shade and the dim wilderness of leaves and branches.
Amid the scattered oaks in advance of the wood, and nestled into the dry nooks of the sand-pits, appeared about half a dozen dirty brown shreds of canvass, none of which seemed larger than a dinner napkin, yet which--spread over hoops, cross sticks, and other contrivances--served as habitations to six or seven families of that wild and dingy race, whose existence and history is a phenomenon, not among the least strange of all the wonderful things that we pass by daily without investigation or inquiry. At the mouths of one or two of these little dwelling-places might be seen some gipsy women with their peculiar straw bonnets, red cloaks, and silk handkerchiefs; some withered, shrunk, and witch-like, bore evident the traces of long years of wandering exposure and vicissitude; while others, with the warm rose of health and youth glowing through the golden brown of their skins, and their dark gem-like eyes flashing undimmed by sorrow or infirmity, gave the beau idŽal of a beautiful nation long passed away from thrones and dignities, and left but as the fragments of a wreck dashed to atoms by the waves of the past.
It was a dark and stormy night,Ña very dark night indeed. No dog's mouth, whether terrier, mastiff, or Newfoundland, was ever so dark as that night. The hatches had been battened down, and every aperture but one, by which any of the great, curly-pated, leaping waves could jump into the vessel, had been closed.
What vessel? the reader may perhaps inquire. Well, that being a piece of reasonable curiosity,Ñalthough I do wish, as a general thing, that readers would not be so impatient,ÑI will gratify it, and answer the inquirer's question; and, indeed, would have told him all about it in five minutes if he would but have given me time.
What vessel? asks the reader. Why, a little, heavy-looking, fore-and-aft, one-masted ship, somewhat tubbish in form, which had battled with a not very favorable gale during a long stormy day, and had, as the sun went down, approached the coast of France, it might be somewhat too close for safety. The atmosphere in the cabin below was hot and oppressive. How indeed could it be otherwise, when not one breath of air, notwithstanding all the bullying and roaring of Boreas, had been able to get in during the whole day? But such being the case, and respiration in the little den being difficult, the only altogether terrestrial animalÑsailors are, of course, amphibiousÑwhich that vessel contained had forced his way up to the deck through the only narrow outlet which had been left open.
The amphibia have always a considerable dislike and some degree of contempt for all land-animals, and the five sailors, with their skipper, who formed all the crew so small a craft required, would probably have driven below the intruder upon their labors, had they had time, leisure, or light to notice him at all. But for near two hours he stood at the stern on the weather side of the ship, holding on by the bulwarks, wet to the skin, with his hat blown off and probably swimming back toward Old England, and his hands numbed with cold and with hard grasping.
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