Regenia Underwood could scarcely remember when she did not live at the Elms. She was born in Canada. Around her life hung a mystery, as impenetrable as Egyptian darkness, to the curious, but perfectly clear to those who knew the history of Judge Underwood's family. Mrs. Underwood had cared for Regenia from childhood. Little by little, as the child as able to understand it, Mrs. Underwood had related to Regenia the story of her birth. The good woman, wisely determined to circumvent future heart rendings, by leaving no sad revelations, certain to creep out when most to be regretted, to mar the life and hopes of the sweet girl that day by day more closely entwined around her heart. Some things concerning the child's mother, discretion bade her withhold, but all that was necessary to acquaint Regenia with her lineage and race was duly disclosed.
There was a note of sorrow discernible in Mrs. Underwood's voice when speaking of Regenia. No one who saw the beautiful girl with Mrs. Underwood would have suspected that she was an Afro-American. Regenia knew it; but gave the fact no more thought than any other child does who is aware that it is of German, Irish or French descent. She never understood the soft, sad tone which Mrs. Underwood assumed, unintentionally, perhaps, when she spoke of Afro-Americans.
If Regenia's associates knew of the romance of her birth, they were too well bred to make the fact a cause for insult. She grew to womanhood feeling and acting not unlike the other children of her age, little dreaming of the sad awakening she was destined some day to experience. Regenia's mother was Mrs. Underwood's only child. Judge Underwood, a man of pronounced views on every subject, was an ardent disciple of Wendell Phillips. A lover of freedom, his home was the centre of the abolition movement in his county. A man of wealth and influence, a hater of every form of oppression, the cause of the slave appealed with unusual; force to his keen sense of justice. His house was a station of the underground railroad, a peculiar method of assisting runaway slaves to Canada, conducted for years by the most courageous and daring lovers of personal liberty that ever graced American soil.
One dark, rainy night, a few years previous to the great political upheaval which swept away slavery and its attendant evils, a fugitive slave was spirited into Judge Underwood's barn. The slave slept that night in a cave on the premises, the sleuth hounds of oppression being hard on his track. The judge was away on his circuit; but his wife, who, though born in the south, sympathized with her husband's views of slavery, was severely taxed to invent some means of shielding the half-starved, hunted wretch, under opportunity occurred to forward him to Canada. The laws of the land made harboring fugitive slaves a crime that entailed upon those who disregarded them the most severe punishment. How to feed this poor slave, when every movement about the house of watched, became to Mrs. Underwood a question of grave concern. To go to the cave or to send anyone there would attract suspicion in that direction. All the next day, the poor fugitive, half wild from hunger and fear, awaited the coming of succor. Before the sun went down Mrs. Underwood had solved the vexatious problem. She made two long, wide bags, filled them with bread and meat, and pinning them securely to the dress of Ethel, her daughter, she bade her put on her apron and bonnet and drive home the cows.
"When you approach the cave," said Mrs. Underwood, "look carefully about you, and, if no one is near, go into the cave, unpin the bags and leave them for the poor man, who must be almost starved by this time."
Ethel was an intelligent child and quickly comprehended the nature of her mission. Fired with sympathy for the poor slave, she executed her mother's wish in a remarkably short time. In this cave, Ethel first met Regenia's father. George Stewart, a mulatto, with a shock of black hair and dark brown, dreamy eyes, was still in his teens. The southern man-hunters were thrown off the scent and George remained at Judge Underwood's as a servant.
Ethel was always fond of the young man; but her indulgent parents never suspected that her childish admiration might some day ripen into a liking more serious. During each winder George was sent to a seminary near his home, and, being naturally bright, soon became quite well informed. With little change in the friendship between the judge's protege and his daughter, Ethel grew into womanhood. To George Stewart's credit, be it said, he was not aware that his fondness for the sweet girl whose hand first ministered to his wants in direst need, would being the blush of shame to the cheeks of his kind benefactors.
The sentiments which Judge Underwood and his wife cherished for the final liberation of God's oppressed, took deeper root in Ethel's young heart than either of them supposed. With Ethel, sorrow grew into sympathy, sympathy deepened into affection, and at eighteen Ethel was in love with George Stewart. Mrs. Underwood first divined the girl's feelings toward the recent fugitive, and trembling with fear related her suspicions to the judge.
With Judge Underwood, to suspect was to act. He accordingly hastened to sound his daughter upon the state of her feelings toward his servant. She frankly admitted her love for George, and entrenching herself behind her father's oft-repeated arguments of the equality of men, the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of all God's children, completely silenced him. George was questioned, but denied entertaining for Ethel any feelings other than those of kindness and esteem. The judge was thoroughly alarmed.
After a family council, it was decided to send George on to Canada and Ethel away to boarding school. In this way they hoped to end the unfortunate affair.
Ethel Underwood was a very determined young woman. With such a spirit, a change of place by no means argues a change of sentiment. She did not consider the objections offered by her father of sufficient weight to deter her from consummating the plans that were surging through her overwrought brain, concerning the object of her affections. She loved George Stewart; if she believed this before she was sent away, she knew it afterward. She regarded her father's determination to separate her from her lover as a species of the same sort of persecution she had heard him vehemently denounce. Ethel Underwood was not more determined than romantic. Reared in an atmosphere of high pressure sentimentalism, she would have willingly suffered martyrdom for the man she loved. She pictured poor George, driven out upon the charities of a pitiless world, because of his love for her, and linking with this the sad nemesis which had pursued him until shelter and sustenance could only be found in the caves of the earth, she resolved to follow him, and comfort him and make his life happy, whatever the cost.
Poor, misguided sentimental young woman; she never thought once how unhappy she might render two other lives, whose claim upon her love and obedience were more imperative than the much cherished fugitive's. Three weeks after entering the boarding school, she left to seek George Stewart. She found him sick and friendless in a strange land. She nursed him back to life and soon afterward they were married.
It was a pretty romance, this beautiful heiress following the hapless fugitive into exile, and giving up home, friends and luxury, all for love. A pretty sentiment, indeed, but a sad misfortune for the ill-advised child of indulgence who acts upon such sentiment.
Ethel's parents were speechless with horror when the news of their daughter's eccentricity came to their ears. Nor was this blow to fall singly upon the heads of these two life long friends of human rights. The news of Ethel's wilful misconduct had hardly been related when they were stricken with another calamity not less appalling. Judge Underwood was arrested for assisting runaway slaves, and hurried to prison to await the day of trial. It was then that the poor mother, doubly bereaved, longed for the solace of her child.
Ethel, buried in a little inland town in Canada, knew nothing of the awful afflictions through which her parents were passing. In the meantime, war came on, and through that the judge was released from confinement. He left immediately for Europe and did not return for three or four years.
During Judge Underwood's absence, George Steward died. In the arms of his devoted wife, never more devoted than during his last illness, the fugitive slave passed beyond the bay of blood hounds and the fear of the slave catcher. A few months after his death, Regenia came.
Poor, discouraged and alone, Ethel wrote to her parents, but received no answer. Grieving over her sad fate, she grew weaker day by day, until broken hearted and forgotten, she died.
One friend had remained steadfast during all her sorrows – Mrs. Levitt. Under her roof, the fair bride and hapless husband had eaten their wedding dinner. And proud, indeed, had she been that her hands were permitted to care for the sweet young woman who could give up all for her love. After the death of Regenia's mother, Mrs. Levitt took the child to her heart and cared for her as if she had been her own. On the return of the judge and his wife from Europe, they found the letter from her daughter. The judge came on and took little Regenia to Mt. Clare, where they had concluded to settle. Mrs. Levitt could not endure to be separated from the child, and in a few months followed her to Mt. Clare and took up her abode at the "Elms." About two years previous to the events of this story, Judge Underwood, broken in health from the misfortunes through which he had passed, suddenly died. At the death of Mrs. Underwood, Regenia will be sole heiress to the Underwood estates. Every day Mrs. Underwood discovered some new resemblance to her mother in Regenia. She had often intended to tell her of the fortune she would some day inherit, but from one cause or another she had neglected to do so.
After supper, on the evening of the day we last saw Regenia and Lucile tripping up the walk to the "Elms," they passed an hour sitting on the steps of the piazza, recounting interesting experiences.
"I am sure I never could have held out against the united opposition of all my friends, had it not been for you," said Lucile. "I believed that I could succeed, but what does the opinion of one poor, little, silly girl amount to against the conjoined disapproval of an entire community," she continued.
"Yet the one little girl had her way, and demonstrated, beyond our most sanguine expectations, the wisdom of her conclusions," answered Regenia, lightly.
"If one and God be a majority, then the girl with one faithful, sincere friend, as I had, was the largest number after all," said Lucile, laughing heartily at her own wisdom.
"Did you meet with many discouragements? But of course you did, although you were too 'plucky' to mention them in your letters," said Regenia, answering her own question.
"Not half as many as I had nerved myself to endure. Men overlook you, perhaps step on you in their haste, but once it is decided that you are a fixture, they mostly leave you to yourself."
"A fixture?" replied Regenia, "pray, what is that?"
"I only mean that they understand you have come to stay. It is wonderful how opposition ceases when people find out that in spite of them you will hold on your course."
"And Mr. St. John, was he of so much assistance?" asked Regenia innocently.
"He made many suggestions for which, I fear, I was not sufficiently thankful at first, but later on I learned to be secretly grateful for them. His help, however, was moral, rather than physical. His presence seems to breathe new life in one – that is," she said a little confused, "haven't you seen people before now whose very company seemed to drive dull care away?"
"I suppose I have," said Regenia, laughingly, "but I do not recall any of them just at this moment."
"Now, dear, please don't," said Lucile, pleadingly, "you must know what I mean."
"Oh, certainly, I have an idea, but of course there is a meaning that is too deep for signs that I know nothing about yet, but I am beginning to live with the hope that the day will come."
"If you young ladies are going to see the fireworks, you would better be getting reading," called Mrs. Levitt, as she hurried up stairs to her room.
"Shall we go?" asked Regenia.
"'The pleasure of your company will add to its effectiveness,'" said Lucile, as she slipped her arm around Regenia's waist and pulled her through the open door.
Chapter 3 -- Chapter 5