Read CHAPTER LVII - ZILLAH of Mabel's Mistake , free online book, by Ann S. Stephens, on ReadCentral.com.

As General Harrington hurried through his wife’s journal, his eyes grew bright and cold, like steel when the sun strikes it; his lips, always so soft and sensual in their expression, became rigid with passion, and clung together hardened by the silent rage that burned in the depths of his heart. Had Mabel proved herself vicious or unprincipled in the book so cruelly purloined, he might have forgiven it; but here the struggle to love him had been so great, that it wounded his self-love in every fibre. The struggle to love him General Harrington, the invincible, the adored of so many hearts! “He would soon be an old man, and then the friendship, which was all her heart could ever give, would content him. He an old man he who had solemnly determined never to know what age or infirmity was.” The insult was too much. His outraged vanity hardened into absolute malice. For the first time he positively hated the man who could be loved better than himself. He forgot the self-sacrifice, the wealth given up to his use the sublime devotion which had made James Harrington a guardian angel to Mabel’s son. He forgot everything save that the noble girl he had married for her wealth wealth even on her wedding-day half squandered at the gaming table, by an unfaithful guardian, had give the preference of her taste he cared little for a deeper feeling to one younger than himself, and that one the man to whom his first wife’s wealth had descended in one vast property.

Was it not enough that the young man had stepped into his place on the death of his mother that when he fancied himself in the untrammelled possession of her fortune, a will, undreamed of during her life, should have been found, transmitting every dollar of her property into the uncontrolled possession of a son was not this disappointment enough? Must his self-love and pride be swept into the same vortex? Had both wives proved their treason against him where he was most sensitive?

The old man would not remember that James Harrington had not only allowed him to remain the ostensible possessor of this large fortune, undoubtedly his own just inheritance, but that more than two thirds of the annual income had for nearly twenty years been surrendered to his unquestioned disposal. He forgot that Mabel’s fortune had melted away at the gaming-table without inquiry or protest on her part, and that, in fact, his own luxurious life was fostered only by their magnanimous bounty. All these things were ignored in his rage at the secrets revealed in that unhappy journal, and he really believed himself the most wronged and outraged of human beings wronged because the woman whom he had first married for her wealth alone, had divined the truth, and left all that she possessed to her son, which seemed a new offense to him then and outraged that any woman honored by his preference, should ever have given another place in her thoughts. His grounds for anger went no deeper than this at the moment, for even his stony heart would not give birth to a thought of wrong against Mabel, beyond the erring love so feelingly regretted in every line of that book; but there was a tempter at hand, ready to infuse venom into even his selfish nature.

General Harrington sat with the book open before him. One hand, on which was a costly seal-ring, had, in unconscious warmth, grasped a dozen of the leaves, and half-torn them from the cover, while his eye read on, fascinated, and yet repulsed by the secret thoughts thus torn with unmanly violence from poor Mabel’s life. All the craft and coolness of his nature had disappeared for the moment. His whole being was fired with disgust and bitter rage. Still, in his soul, he felt that these two persons had in reality suffered a deadly wrong from himself; that, after encouraging the attachment which he had hoped might spring up between them before his wife’s death had swept her great wealth out of his hands, he had ruthlessly, and without questioning the state of these two souls, severed them for the accomplishment of his own interests. It had not once occurred to him that any lasting attachment for another could exist, while he condescended to solicit a woman’s preference; and that which had for a time made itself manifest between the two young people, only gave a fresher zest to his conquest. To win a woman from one so much younger than himself, was even then, a triumph almost as agreeable as the possession of Mabel’s fortune.

But now, when he was beginning to feel the approach of age, and to wither under the preference given to younger men a preference rendered each day more decided in a country where statesmen are jostled aside by beardless boys, and the senseless giggle of pert school girls might drive Sappho into a second watery grave, sickened with disgust. His personal vanity became almost a monomania, and he sat there, clutching Mabel’s book, pale as death, and with flecks of foam gathering upon his lips, longing to appease his mortified vanity by tearing fiercely at something, as a baffled hound digs his claws into the earth when his prey is beyond reach.

As he sat there shaking with silent rage, a door, not used for years, opened in his bed-chamber, and a woman came through, leaving the dark and dusty room which had for a short time been occupied by the first Mrs. Harrington, before her fatal voyage to Europe, in total darkness again. She stood for a moment, concealed by the crimson curtains, and keenly watched the old man, as he sat trembling before her in the first rage of his humiliation. Then, having satisfied herself that her hour was propitious, she stole softly into the library, and dropping one arm softly over General Harrington’s shoulder, stooped down and kissed his forehead. The old man started, looked up, and a faint laugh, almost childish in the sudden reaction from which it sprung, broke from his lips.

“Zillah, my beautiful, my true-hearted, is it you?”

The woman dropped on one knee, trembling from head to foot. Some endearing epithet, uttered in French, which converted the laugh on his lips into a smile, broke as it were, unconsciously from her; and he felt the arm upon his shoulder shiver like the wing of a bird just as it settles after flight.

He answered her in French, and his eyes, full of gratitude for the balm her emotion brought to his vanity, sought hers.

“Zillah, you loved me. I am at least sure of that!”

“Loved!” said the woman, lifting her black eyes, to his face. “Loved my master. You speak as if such feelings were not eternal; to say that your poor slave loved once, is nothing; turn over every leaf of her heart, and you will find the same record upon them all. Thank Heaven, I am not entirely white! There is enough of tropical fire in my blood, to save me from burying my soul under the ashes of a dead love.”

“How beautiful you are still,” muttered the old man, passing his palm over the black waves of her hair, with a light caress. “Your presence kindles the very atmosphere. This is to be worshipped worthily. You loved me, and I sold you for her sake. I bartered you off for so much money to another; it was a cruel act, Zillah; but your love surmounted even that, while hers”

“She never loved you; never never!” cried the woman, passionately. “I, I alone of all the women on earth, really loved you. As for her”

“Hush, Zillah, hush! I know all. I have read that book. I know all her treachery; and he, ever a serpent in my path, ever a restraint upon my actions, he has in this point also assailed me.”

“But there is revenge!” said the woman, with a fierce gleam of the eyes; “revenge on him and her!”

“No!” answered the General, gloomily. “To anger him, would be to make myself a beggar. I must bear this in silence.”

“Not if he loves her yet.”

“But, does he? What man ever remained faithful to a first love twenty years?”

A faint moan broke from the woman’s lips, and dropping her face between her hands, she cowered at his feet, as if he had stricken her down with a blow, instead of those cruel words that no physical pain can equal, when they fall upon a woman’s heart.

“What is the matter, Zillah? Why do you moan and droop in this fashion?” said the General, quite unconscious of the pang he had given.

The woman looked up; her eyes were heavy with pain, and a scarcely perceptible quiver stirred her mouth.

“He sold me, and I lived; this cannot kill me either,” she murmured drearily.

“Oh,” said the General, smiling, for he began to divine the cause of her stricken attitude. “But remember, Zillah, you were not my first love. I was no boy when we met, and it was of boyish dreams that I spoke.”