Read CHAPTER V - ON THE BANKS AND ON THE RIVER of Mabel's Mistake , free online book, by Ann S. Stephens, on ReadCentral.com.

There are moments in every human life when we would gladly flee from ourselves and plunge into action of any kind, to escape from the recognition of our own memories. This recoil from the past seldom comes to early youth, for to that, memories are like the light breezes of April, with nothing but tender green foliage, and opening buds to disturb. With youth the past is so close to the present, that thought always leaps forward into the future, and in the first flush of existence that is invariably beautiful. But it is a different thing when life approaches its maturity. Then the spirit, laden down with events that have culminated, and feelings that have been shaken by many a heart storm, bends reluctantly to the tempest like the stately old forest trees laden with foliage, which bow to nothing but the inevitable tornado.

Mabel Harrington left the old Mansion House with a quicker movement and more rapid step than was natural to her, unless some strong feeling was aroused, or some important aim to be accomplished. At such times her action was quick, almost imperious, and all the evidences of an ardent nature, fresh as youth and strong as maturity, broke forth in each movement of her person and in every thought of her mind.

She walked more and more rapidly as the distance between her and the house increased, for the open air and wider country gave freedom to her spirit. As she walked her earnest grey eyes turned from the river to the sky and abroad upon the hills, as if seeking for something in nature to which her soul might appeal for sympathy in the swell and storm of feeling that a few simple words had let loose upon her, after a sleep of many years.

“Does he know what I have felt and how I have suffered, that he stings me with such words? His father’s marriage! And was I not the spirit nay, the victim of that marriage? Why should he speak to me thus? The air was enough the calm sleep of the winds the fragrance. I was a girl again, till his quiet taunt awoke me. Does he think that I have lost a thought or a feeling because of this dull heavy routine of cares? Why did he speak to me in that cold tone? I have not deserved it. Heaven knows I have not deserved it from him, or from any of them!”

Mabel uttered these words aloud, as she approached the banks of the river, and her voice clear and rich with feeling, was swept out upon the wind which bore it away, mingled with fragrance from the dying leaves.

“Does he think with common men, that the impulses of youth die out and are gone? As if the passions of youth did not become the power of maturity, and mellow at last into the calm grandeur of old age. If love were not immortal, how dreary even this beautiful world would seem, yet being so, I can but look forward to another, when the shackles of this life will fall away.”

It was a relief to speak aloud. The sound of her own voice came back like the sympathy she dared to claim only of the wind and the waters, that flowed on with their eternal rush of sound, like the years of life that Mabel was mourning over. She stood upon the shore, stately and motionless, her eyes full of trouble, her lips tremulous with impulsive words that betrayed a soul at once ardent and pure. The wind rose around her, and seizing upon her shawl swept it in picturesque folds about her person, half drowning her voice, or she would not have dared to give her thoughts this bold utterance.

It was this picturesque attitude which had attracted the attention of her husband in the library, and that moment he resolved to join her on the shore.

As if this resolve had been expressed to her in words, a feeling of unrest seized upon Mabel, and long before the old man was ready to come forth, she was walking rapidly across the brow of a hill that bounded the valley southward, keeping along the bank, but concealed by the undergrowth.

She paused upon a rocky cliff that broke the hill side, breathing more freely as if conscious that she had escaped some unwelcome intrusion. A boat upon the river drew her attention, and she saw within it her son and Lina floating pleasantly down the stream together.

“How happy and how young they are!” she said with a gush of gentle affection. “No cares no broken hopes no wishes unexpressed no secrets; oh! in this lies the great happiness of existence. Until he has a secret to keep, man is, indeed, next to the angels.”

Mabel sat down upon a fallen tree, covered with a drapery of pale green moss. She watched the boat in a sort of dream, as it drifted toward her. How much of the suffering she endured might yet be saved to the young persons it contained! Was not that an object worth living and enduring for? Might she not renew her youth in them?

Renew her youth? What need was there of that? In all her existence had she ever been so full of life so vigorous of mind so capable of the highest enjoyment? In the very prime and glory of all her faculties wise in experience strong from many a silent heart-struggle, what could she gain by a return of youth? Nothing! surely nothing! Yet she watched those two young persons with a vague feeling of sadness. They had life before them, a thousand dreamy delusions a thousand alluring hopes evanescent as the apple blossoms of May, but as sweet also.

Mabel was too noble for envy, but these thoughts subdued her excitement into silent mournfulness. At first, she thought to walk slowly back and meet the young people when they landed, but something withheld her and she sat still, dreamily watching them.

She saw the boat drifting idly upon the current. The gorgeous forest leaves with which it was literally carpeted struck her eyes in rich masses of colors, as if the young people had imprisoned a portion of the sunset around their feet. She could distinguish Ben stooping forward seemingly half asleep upon his oars. All in the boat seemed tranquil and happy, like creatures of another life afloat upon the rivers of paradise; she could almost see their faces those happy faces that made the fancy still more natural.

As she watched them a strange pain stole to her heart. She rose suddenly to her feet, and sweeping a hand across her eyes as if to clear their vision, cast long searching glances toward the boat, striving to read those young faces afar off, and thus relieve her mind of a powerful suspicion.

“Why has this thought never presented itself before?” she said with a pang of self reproach. “Has this eternal dream blinded me, or am I now mistaken? Poor children poor Lina is this cruel destiny to fall on you also?”

The boat came drifting toward her now in the crimson light, again enveloped in purple shadows like those fairy skiffs that glide through our dreams. Mabel watched it till her eyes filled with tears, a strange thing for she was not a woman given to weeping, save as tears are sometimes the expression of a tender or poetic thought. Pain or wrong were things for her to endure or redress; she never wept over them.

That night the interest which she felt in these young persons blended painfully with memories that had risen, like a sudden storm, in her nature. She felt as if they were destined to carry forth and work out the drama of her own life, and that this agency was just commencing. As she stood thus wrapped in turbulent thoughts, there came through the brushwood a crash of branches and a stir of the foliage louder than the wind could have produced.

Mabel Harrington was in no mood for companionship. She had fled from the house to be alone, and this approach startled her.

A little footpath led down the brow of the hill to a tiny promontory on which a few hickory trees were now dropping their nuts. She struck hastily into this path and descended to the river. Close to the bank, half hidden among the dying fern leaves that drooped over it, lay a miniature boat scarcely larger than an Indian canoe. It was a highly ornamented and symmetrical little craft, that any child might have propelled and which a queen fairy would have been proud to own.

Mabel sprang into the boat, and seating herself on a pile of cushions heaped in the centre, pushed out into the stream. There was no hardihood in this, she had been accustomed to action and exercise all her life, and could propel her little skiff with the skill and grace of any Indian girl.

Her boat ran out from the promontory and shot like an arrow across the water, for she trembled lest some voice should call her back, and urged her light oars with all the impetuosity of her nature.

At last, beyond hail from the shore, she looked back and saw a man standing upon the brow of the hill, leaning against the oak that had sheltered her a few moments before. Mabel paused and rested on her oars. The distance would not permit her to distinguish his features, but the size and air might have been that of her husband had his usual habits permitted the idea. She put it aside at once, nothing could have induced the General to climb the steeps of that hill. It must be James. These two persons were alike in stature and partook of the same imposing air. Yes, it must be James Harrington, and was it from him she had fled? Had he repented of the harsh words that had driven her forth and followed her with hopes of atonement? Her heart rose kindly at the thought. She half turned her little boat, tempted back by that longing wish for reconciliation, which was always uppermost in her warm nature.

But then came the wholesome after-thought which had so often checked these genial impulses. She turned the boat slowly back upon its course and let it float with the current, watching the rise of land on which he stood, with sad, wistful glances, that no one saw, save the God who knows how pure they were, and how much the resolution to go on had cost her.

As the boat drifted downward, she saw the person turn as if speaking to some one, and directly a female form stood by his side. They drew close together, and seemed to be conversing eagerly. His look was no longer towards the boat; he had doubtless forgotten its existence.

Mabel held her breath, the color left her lips and she grasped the oars with each hand, till the blood was strained back from her fingers, leaving them white as marble.

“Oh, not that! not that! I can endure anything but that! God help me! O my God, help me! if this is added to the rest, I cannot live.”

Drops of perspiration sprang to her temples as she spoke. Unconsciously she expended the first strength of her anguish on the oars, and the boat shot like a mad thing into the rapids which swept round a projection of rocks, and like some tormented spirit, she was borne away from the sight that had wounded her.

There was danger now. The rush of the current, tortured by hidden rocks, sent the little craft onward, as if it had been a dead leaf cast into the eddy. Mabel liked the danger and the tumult. The rising wind blew in her face. The waters sparkled and dashed around her. The frail oars bent and quivered in her hands. It was something to brave and fight against; but for this scope of action the new anguish that had swept through the soul of that woman must have smothered her.

On the little boat went, dancing and leaping down the current, recoiling with a quiver from the hidden rocks which it touched more than once, but springing vigorously back to its flight, like a bird upon the wing.

“Oh, if this be so, let me die now. Why will it not strike? How came they to make the boat so light and yet so strong? It is true! It is true! I feel it in every throb of my pulse. After this, the life that I thought so dreary, will be a lost paradise, to which, plead as I may, there is no going back. I will know, God help me, but I must know if this is a wild suspicion, or a miserable, miserable reality!”

These words bespoke the concentration of some resolves. She grasped her oars more firmly, and with a sharp glance around, put her boat upon its course. It shot through hidden rocks; it cut across the eddies recklessly as before, but all the time a single course was pursued. At last the little craft entered the mouth of a mountain stream that came sparkling down a pretty hemlock hollow in the hills. The hollow was dusky with coming night, but the tree-tops were still brightened by a red tinge from the sunset, and there was light enough to find a footpath which wound upward along the margin of the brook.