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But in the first week of her second month Pauline's interest in her surroundings vanished. She was corresponding with Jennie Atwater and Jennie began to write of Dumont--he had returned to Saint X; Caroline Sylvester, of Cleveland, was visiting his mother; it was all but certain that Jack and Caroline would marry. "Her people want it," Jennie went on--she pretended to believe that Jack and Pauline had given each the other up--"and Jack's father is determined on it. They're together morning, noon and evening. She's really very swell, though _I_ don't think she's such a raving beauty." Following this came the Saint X News-Bulletin with a broad hint that the engagement was about to be announced.
"It's ridiculously false," said Pauline to herself; but she tossed for hours each night, trying to soothe the sick pain in her heart. And while she scouted the possibility of losing him, she was for the first time entertaining it--a cloud in the great horizon of her faith in the future; a small cloud, but black and bold against the blue. And she had no suspicion that he had returned from Chicago deliberately to raise that cloud.
A few days later another letter from Jennie, full of gossip about Jack and Caroline, a News-Bulletin with a long article about Caroline, ending with an even broader hint of her approaching marriage--and Dumont sent Pauline a note from the hotel in Villeneuve, five miles from Battle Field: "I must see you. Do not deny me. It means everything to both of us--what I want to say to you." And he asked her to meet him in the little park in Battle Field on the bank of the river where no one but the factory hands and their families ever went, and they only in the evenings. The hour he fixed was ten the next morning, and she "cut" ancient history and was there. As he advanced to meet her she thought she had never before appreciated how handsome he was, how distinguished-looking--perfectly her ideal of what a man should be, especially in that important, and at Battle Field neglected, matter, dress.
She was without practice in indirection, but she successfully hid her jealousy and her fears, though his manner was making their taunts and threats desperately real. He seemed depressed and gloomy; he would not look at her; he shook hands with her almost coldly, though they had not seen each other for weeks, had not talked together for months. She felt faint, and her thoughts were like flocks of circling, croaking crows.
"Polly," he began, when they were in the secluded corner of the park, "father wants me to get married. He's in a rage at your father for treating me so harshly. He wants me to marry a girl who's visiting us. He's always at me about it, making all sorts of promises and threats. Her father's in the same business that we are, and----"
He glanced at her to note the effect of his words. She had drawn her tall figure to its full height, and her cheeks were flushed and her eyes curiously bright. He had stabbed straight and deep into the heart of her weakness, but also into the heart of her pride.
The only effect of his thrust that was visible to him put him in a panic. "Don't--please don't look that way, Polly," he went on hastily. "You don't see what I'm driving at yet. I didn't mean that I'd marry her, or think of it. There isn't anybody but you. There couldn't be, you know that."
"Why did you tell me, then?" she asked haughtily.
"Because--I had to begin somewhere. Polly, I'm going away, going abroad. And I'm not to see you for--for I don't know how long--and--we must be married!"
She looked at him in a daze.
"We can cross on the ferry at half-past ten," he went on. "You see that house--the white one?" He pointed to the other bank of the river where a white cottage shrank among the trees not far from a little church. "Mr. Barker lives there--you must have heard of him. He's married scores and hundreds of couples from this side. And we can be back here at half-past eleven--twelve at the latest."
She shook her head expressed, not determination, only doubt.
"I can't, Jack," she said. "They----"
"Then you aren't certain you're ever going to marry me," he interrupted bitterly. "You don't mean what you promised me. You care more for them than you do for me. You don't really care for me at all."
"You don't believe that," she protested, her eyes and her mind on the little white cottage. "You couldn't--you know me too well."
"Then there's no reason why we shouldn't get married. Don't we belong to each other now? Why should we refuse to stand up and say so?"
That seemed unanswerable--a perfect excuse for doing what she wished to do. For the little white cottage fascinated her--how she did long to be sure of him! And she felt so free, so absolutely her own mistress in these new surroundings, where no one attempted to exercise authority over another.
"I must feel sure of you, Pauline. Sometimes everything seems to be against me, and I even doubt you. And--that's when the temptations pull hardest. If we were married it'd all be different."
Yes, it would be different. And he would be securely hers, with her mind at rest instead of harassed as it would be if she let him go so far away, free. And where was the harm in merely repeating before a preacher the promise that now bound them both? She looked at him and he at her.
"You don't put any others before me, do you, dear?" he asked.
"No, Jack--no one. I belong to you."
"Come!" he pleaded, and they went down to the boat. She seemed to herself to be in a dream--in a trance.
As she walked beside him along the country road on the other shore a voice was ringing in her ears: "Don't! Don't! Ask Olivia's advice first!" But she walked on, her will suspended, substituted for it his will and her jealousy and her fears of his yielding to the urgings of his father and the blandishments of "that Cleveland girl." He said little but kept close to her, watching her narrowly, touching her tenderly now and then.
The Reverend Josiah Barker was waiting for them--an oily smirk on a face smooth save where a thin fringe of white whiskers dangled from his jaw-bone, ear to ear; fat, damp hands rubbing in anticipation of the large fee that was to repay him for celebrating the marriage and for keeping quiet about it afterward. At the proper place in the brief ceremony Dumont, with a sly smile at Pauline which she faintly returned, produced the ring--he had bought it at Saint X a week before and so had started a rumor that he and Caroline Sylvester were to be married in haste. He held Pauline's hand firmly as he put the ring on her finger--he was significantly cool and calm for his age and for the circumstances. She was trembling violently, was pale and wan. The ring burned into her flesh.
"Whom God hath joined together let no man put asunder," ended Barker, with pompous solemnity.
Dumont kissed her--her cheek was cold and at the touch of his lips she shuddered.
"Don't be afraid," he said in a low voice that was perfectly steady.
They went out and along the sunny road in silence. "Whom God hath joined," the voice was now dinning into her ears. And she was saying to herself, "Has God joined us? If so, why do I feel as if I had committed a crime?" She looked guiltily at him--she felt no thrill of pride or love at the thought that he was her husband, she his wife. And into her mind poured all her father's condemnations of him, with a vague menacing fear riding the crest of the flood.
"You're sorry you've done it?" he said sullenly.
She did not answer.
"Well, it's done," he went on, "and it can't be undone. And I've got you, Polly, in spite of them. They might have known better than to try to keep me from getting what I wanted. I always did, and I always shall!"
She looked at him startled, then hastily looked away. Even more than his words and his tone, she disliked his eyes--gloating, triumphant. But not until she was years more experienced did she study that never-forgotten expression, study it as a whole--words, tone, look. Then, and not until then, did she know that she had instinctively shrunk because he had laid bare his base and all but loveless motive in marrying her.
"And," he added, "I'll force father to give me a big interest in the business very soon. Then--we'll announce it."
Announce it? Announce what? "Why, I'm a married woman," she thought, and she stumbled and almost fell. The way danced before her eyes, all spotted with black. She was just able to walk aboard the boat and drop into a seat.
He sat beside her, took her hand and bent over it; as he kissed it a tear fell on it. He looked at her and she saw that his eyes were swimming. A sob surged into her throat, but she choked it back. "Jack!" she murmured, and hid her face in her handkerchief.
When they looked each at the other both smiled--her foreboding had retreated to the background. She began to turn the ring round and round upon her finger.
"Mrs. John Dumont," she said. "Doesn't it sound queer?" And she gazed dreamily away toward the ranges of hills between which the river danced and sparkled as it journeyed westward. When she again became conscious of her immediate surroundings--other than Dumont--she saw a deck-hand looking at her with a friendly grin.
Instantly she covered the ring with her hand and handkerchief. "But I mustn't wear it," she said to Dumont.
"No--not on your finger." He laughed and drew from his pocket a slender gold chain. "But you might wear it on this, round your neck. It'll help to remind you that you don't belong to yourself any more, but to me."
She took the chain--she was coloring in a most becoming way--and hid it and the ring in her bosom. Then she drew off a narrow hoop of gold with a small setting and pushed it on his big little finger.
"And that, sir," she said, with a bewitching look, "may help you not to forget that you belong to me."
She left the ferry in advance of him and faced Olivia just in time for them to go down together to the half-past twelve o'clock dinner.
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