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Joe's daughter, staying on and on at Dawn Hill, was chief lieutenant, if not principal, in my conspiracy to drift Anita day by day further and further into the routine of the new life. Yet neither of us had shown by word or look that a thorough understanding existed between us. My part was to be unobtrusive, friendly, neither indifferent nor eager, and I held to it by taking care never to be left alone with Anita; Alva's part was to be herself--simple and natural and sensible, full of life and laughter, mocking at those moods that betray us into the absurdity of taking ourselves too seriously.
I was getting ready a new house in town as a surprise to Anita, and I took Alva into my plot. "I wish Anita's part of the house to be exactly to her liking," said I. "Can't you set her to dreaming aloud what kind of place she would like to live in, what she would like to open her eyes on in the morning, what surroundings she'd like to dress in and read in, and all that?"
Alva had no difficulty in carrying out the suggestions. And by harassing Westlake incessantly, I succeeded in realizing her report of Anita's dream to the exact shade of the draperies and the silk that covered the walls. By pushing the work, I got the house done just as Alva was warning me that she could not remain longer at Dawn Hill, but must go home and get ready for her wedding. When I went down to arrange with her the last details of the surprise, who should meet me at the station but Anita herself? I took one glance at her serious face and, much disquieted, seated myself beside her in the little trap. Instead of following the usual route to the house, she turned her horse into the bay-shore road.
"Several days ago," she began, as the bend hid the station, "I got a letter from some lawyers, saying that an uncle of mine had given me a large sum of money--a very large sum. I have been inquiring about it, and find it is mine absolutely."
I braced myself against the worst. "She is about to tell me that she is leaving," thought I. But I managed to say: "I'm glad to hear of your luck," though I fear my tone was not especially joyous.
"So," she went on, "I am in a position to pay back to you, I think, what my father and Sam took from you. It won't be enough, I'm afraid, to pay what you lost indirectly. But I have told the lawyers to make it all over to you."
I could have laughed aloud. It was too ridiculous, this situation into which I had got myself. I did not know what to say. I could hardly keep out of my face how foolish this collapse of my crafty conspiracy made me feel. And then the full meaning of what she was doing came over me--the revelation of her character. I trusted myself to steal a glance at her; and for the first time I didn't see the thrilling azure sheen over her smooth white skin, though all her beauty was before me, as dazzling as when it compelled me to resolve to win her. No; I saw her, herself--the woman within. I had known from the outset that there was an altar of love within my temple of passion. I think that was my first real visit to it.
"Anita!" I said unsteadily. "Anita!"
The color flamed in her cheeks; we were silent for a long time.
"You--your people owe me nothing" I at length found voice to say. "Even if they did, I couldn't and wouldn't take your money. But, believe me, they owe me nothing."
"You can not mislead me," she answered. "When they asked me to become engaged to you, they told me about it."
I had forgotten. The whole repulsive, rotten business came back to me. And, changed man that I had become in the last six months, I saw myself as I had been. I felt that she was looking at me, was reading the degrading confession in my telltale features.
"I will tell you the whole truth," said I. "I did use your father's and your brother's debts to me as a means of getting to you. But, before God, Anita, I swear I was honest with you when I said to you I never hoped or wished to win you in that way!"
"I believe you," she replied, and her tone and expression made my heart leap with indescribable joy.
Love is sometimes most unwise in his use of the reins he puts on passion. Instead of acting as impulse commanded, I said clumsily, "And I am very different to-day from what I was last spring." It never occurred to me how she might interpret those words.
"I know," she replied. She waited several seconds before adding: "I, too, have changed. I see that I was far more guilty than you. There is no excuse for me. I was badly brought up, as you used to say, but--"
"No--no," I began to protest.
She cut me short with a sad: "You need not be polite and spare my feelings. Let's not talk of it. Let us go back to the object I had in coming for you to-day."
"You owe me nothing," I repeated. "Your brother and your father settled long ago. I lost nothing through them. And I've learned that if I had never known you, Roebuck and Langdon would still have attacked me."
"What my uncle gave me has been transferred to you," said she, woman fashion, not hearing what she did not care to heed. "I can't make you accept it; but there it is, and there it stays."
"I can not take it," said I. "If you insist on leaving it in my name, I shall simply return it to your uncle."
"I wrote him what I had done," she rejoined. "His answer came yesterday. He approves it."
"Approves it!" I exclaimed.
"You do not know how eccentric he is," she explained, naturally misunderstanding my astonishment. She took a letter from her bosom and handed it to me. I read:
"DEAR MADAM: It was yours to do with as you pleased. If you ever find yourself in the mood to visit, Gull House is open to you, provided you bring no maid. I will not have female servants about.
"You will consent now, will you not?" she asked, as I lifted my eyes from this characteristic note.
I saw that her peace of mind was at stake. "Yes--I consent."
She gave a great sigh as at the laying down of a heavy burden. "Thank you," was all she said, but she put a world of meaning into the words. She took the first homeward turning. We were nearly at the house before I found words that would pave the way toward expressing my thoughts--my longings and hopes.
"You say you have forgiven me," said I. "Then we can be--friends?"
She was silent, and I took her somber expression to mean that she feared I was hiding some subtlety.
"I mean just what I say, Anita," I hastened to explain. "Friends--simply friends." And my manner fitted my words.
She looked strangely at me. "You would be content with that?" she asked.
I answered what I thought would please her. "Let us make the best of our bad bargain," said I. "You can trust me now, don't you think you can?"
She nodded without speaking; we were at the door, and the servants were hastening out to receive us. Always the servants between us. Servants indoors, servants outdoors; morning, noon and night, from waking to sleeping, these servants to whom we are slaves. As those interrupting servants sent us each a separate way, her to her maid, me to my valet, I was depressed with the chill that the opportunity that has not been seen leaves behind it as it departs.
"Well," said I to myself by way of consolation, as I was dressing for dinner, "she is certainly softening toward you, and when she sees the new house you will be still better friends."
* * * * *
But, when the great day came, I was not so sure. Alva went for a "private view" with young Thornley; out of her enthusiasm she telephoned me from the very midst of the surroundings she found "so wonderful and so beautiful"--thus she assured me, and her voice made it impossible to doubt. And, the evening before the great day, I, going for a final look round, could find no flaw serious enough to justify the sinking feeling that came over me every time I thought of what Anita would think when she saw my efforts to realize her dream. I set out for "home" half a dozen times at least, that afternoon, before I pulled myself together, called myself an ass, and, with a pause at Delmonico's for a drink, which I ordered and then rejected, finally pushed myself in at the door. What, a state my nerves were in!
Alva had departed; Anita was waiting for me in her sitting-room. When she heard me in the hall, just outside, she stood in the doorway. "Come in," she said to me, who did not dare so much as a glance at her.
I entered. I must have looked as I felt--like a boy, summoned before the teacher to be whipped in presence of the entire school. Then I was conscious that she had my hand--how she had got it, I don't know--and that she was murmuring, with tears of happiness in her voice: "Oh, I can't say it!"
"Glad you like your own taste," said I awkwardly. "You know, Alva told me."
"But it's one thing to dream, and a very different thing to do," she answered. Then, with smiling reproach: "And I've been thinking all summer that you were ruined! I've been expecting to hear every day that you had had to give up the fight."
"Oh--that passed long ago," said I.
"But you never told me," she reminded me. "And I'm glad you didn't," she added. "Not knowing saved me from doing something very foolish." She reddened a little, smiled a great deal, dazzlingly, was altogether different from the ice-locked Anita of a short time before, different as June from January. And her hand--so intensely alive--seemed extremely comfortable in mine.
Even as my blood responded to that electric touch, I had a twinge of cynical bitterness. Yes, apparently I was at last getting what I had so long, so vainly, and, latterly, so hopelessly craved. But--why was she giving it? Why had she withheld herself until this moment of material happiness? "I have to pay the rich man's price," thought I, with a sigh.
It was in reaching out for some sweetness to take away this bitter taste in my honey that I said to her, "When you gave me that money from your uncle, you did it to help me out?"
She colored deeply. "How silly you must have thought me!" she answered.
I took her other hand. As I was drawing her toward me, the sudden pallor of her face and chill of her hands halted me once more, brought sickeningly before me the early days of my courtship when she had infuriated my pride by trying to be "submissive." I looked round the room--that room into which I had put so much thought--and money. Money! "The rich man's price!" those delicately brocaded walls shimmered mockingly at me.
"Anita," said I, "do you care for me?"
She murmured inaudibly. Evasion! thought I, and suspicion sprang on guard, bristling.
"Anita," I repeated sternly, "do you care for me?"
"I am your wife," she replied, her head drooping still lower. And hesitatingly she drew away from me. That seemed confirmation of my doubt and I said to her satirically, "You are willing to be my wife out of gratitude, to put it politely?"
She looked straight into my eyes and answered, "I can only say there is no one I like so well, and--I will give you all I have to give."
"Like!" I exclaimed contemptuously, my nerves giving way altogether. "And you would be my wife! Do you want me to despise you?" I struck dead my poor, feeble hope that had been all but still-born. I rushed from the room, closing the door violently between us.
Such was our housewarming.
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