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The last week that I proposed to spend at the farmhouse was passing quietly and uneventfully away. I was gaining steadily though not rapidly in physical strength, but not in my power to endure my disappointment with equanimity, much less with resignation. In the delirium of my fever I kept constantly repeating the words--so Mrs. Yocomb told me--"It's all wrong." Each successive day found these words on my lips again with increasing frequency. It seemed contrary to both right and reason that one should so completely enslave me, and then go away leaving me a bound and helpless captive. The conviction grew stronger that no such power over me should have been given to her, if her influence was to end only in darkening my life and crippling my power to be a forceful man among men. I felt with instinctive certainty that my burden would be too heavy to leave me the elastic spring and energy required by my exacting profession. A hopeful, eager interest in life and the world at large was the first necessity to success in my calling; but already I found a leaden apathy creeping over me which even the powerful motives of pride, and my resolute purpose to seem cheerful that she might go on to her bright future unregretfully, were not sufficiently strong to banish. If I could not cope with this despondency in its inception, how could I face the future?
At first I had bitterly condemned my weakness; but now I began to recognize the strength of my love, which, so far from being a mere sudden passion, was the deep, abiding conviction that I had met the only woman I could marry--the woman whom my soul claimed as its mate, because she possessed the power to help me and inspire me to tireless effort toward better living and nobler achievement. Her absolute truth would keep me true and anchored amid the swift, dark currents of the world to which I was exposed. I feared, with almost instinctive certainty, that I would become either a brooding, solitary man or else a very ambitious and reckless one, for I was conscious of no reserve strength which would enable me to go steadfastly on my way under the calm and inexorable guidance of duty.
Such was my faith in her that I had no hope whatever. If she loved and had given her troth to another man, it would not be in her nature to change, therefore my purpose had simplified itself to the effort to get through this one week at the farmhouse in a manner that would enable me to carry away the respect of all its inmates, but especially the esteem of one to whom I feared I seemed a rash, ill-balanced man. So carefully had I avoided Miss Warren's society, and yet so freely and frankly, apparently, had I spoken to her in the presence of her affianced, that his suspicions were evidently banished, and he treated me with a gracious and patronizing benignity. He saw no reason why he should not turn on me the light of his full and smiling countenance, which might be taken as an emblem of prosperity; and, in truth, I gave him no reason. So rigid was the constraint under which I kept myself that jealousy itself could not have found fault.
With the exception of the two momentary interviews recorded in the previous chapter, we had not spoken a syllable together, except in his presence, nor had I permitted my eyes to follow her with a wistful glance that he or she could intercept. Even Mrs. Yocomb appeared to think that I was recovering in more senses than one, and by frequent romps with the children, jests and chaffing with Mr. Yocomb and Reuben, by a little frank and ostentatious gallantry to Adah, which no longer deceived even her simple mind, since I never sought her exclusive society as a lover would have done, I confirmed the impression.
And yet, in spite of all efforts and disguises, the truth will often flash out unexpectedly and irresistibly, making known all that we hoped to hide with the distinctness of the lightning, which revealed even the color of the roses on the night of the storm.
The weather had become exceedingly warm, and Miss Warren's somewhat portly suitor clung persistently to the wide, cool veranda. Adah sat there frequently also; sometimes she read to the children fairy stories, of which Adela, Mr. Hearn's little girl, had brought a great store, and she seemed to enjoy them quite as much as her eager-eyed listeners; but more often she superintended their doll dressmaking, over which there were the most animated discussions. The banker would look on with the utmost content, while he slowly waved his palm-leaf fan. Indeed the group was pretty enough to justify all the pleasure he manifested.
The rustic piazza formed just the setting for Adah's beauty, and her light summer costume well suggested her perfect and womanly form, while the companionship of the children proved that she was almost as guileless and childlike as they. The group was like a bubbling, sparkling spring, at which the rather advanced man of the world sipped with increasing pleasure.
Miss Warren also gave much of her time to the children, and beguiled them into many simple lessons at the piano. Zillah was true to her first love, but Adela gave to Adah a decided preference; and when they entered on the intense excitement of making a new wardrobe for each of the large dolls that Mr. Hearn had brought, Adah had the advantage, for she was a genius in such matters, and quite as much interested as the little girls themselves.
In my desperate struggle with myself, I tried not even to see Miss Warren, for every glance appeared to rivet my chains, and yet I gained the impression that she was a little restless and distraite. She seemed much at her piano, not so much for Mr. Hearn's sake as her own, and sometimes I was so impressed by the strong, passionate music that she evoked that I was compelled to hasten beyond its reach. It meant too much to me. Oh, the strange idolatry of an absorbing affection! All that she said or did had for me an indescribable charm that both tortured and delighted. Still every hour increased my conviction that my only safety was in flight.
My faithful ally, Reuben, still took me on long morning drives, and in the afternoon, with my mail and paper, I sought secluded nooks in a somewhat distant grove, which I reached by the shady lane, of which I had caught a glimpse with Miss Warren on the first evening of my arrival. But Friday afternoon was too hot for the walk thither. The banker had wilted and retired to his room. Adah and the children were out under a tree. The girl looked up wistfully and invitingly as I came out.
"I wish I were an artist, Miss Adah," I cried. "You three make a lovely picture."
Remembering an arbor at the further end of the garden, I turned my steps thither, passing rapidly by the spot where I had seen my Eve who was not mine.
I had entered the arbor before I saw it was occupied, and was surprised by the vivid blush with which Miss Warren greeted me.
"Pardon me," I said, "I did not know you were here," and I was about to depart, with the best attempt at a smile that I could muster.
She sprang up and asked, a little indignantly: "Am I infected with a pestilence that you so avoid me, Mr. Morton?"
"Oh, no," I replied, with a short, grim laugh; "if it were only a pestilence--I fear I disturbed your nap; but you know I'm a born blunderer."
"You said we should be friends," she began hesitatingly.
"Do you doubt it?" I asked gravely. "Do you doubt that I would hesitate at any sacrifice--?"
"I don't want sacrifices. I wish to see you happy, and your manner natural."
"I'm sure I've been cheerful during the past week."
"No, you have only seemed cheerful; and often I've seen you look as grim, hard, and stern as if you were on the eve of mortal combat."
"You observe closely, Miss Warren."
"Why should I not observe closely? Do you think me inhuman? Can I forget what I owe you, and that you nearly died?"
"Well," I said dejectedly, "what can I do? It seems that I have played the hypocrite all the week in vain. I will do whatever you ask."
"I was in hopes that as you grew well and strong you would throw off this folly. Have you not enough manhood to overcome it?"
"No, Miss Warren," I said bluntly, "I have not. What little manhood I had led to this very thing."
"Enthrallment, you may call it."
"No, I will not; it's a degrading word. I would not have a slave if I could."
"Since I can't help it, I don't see how you can. I may have been a poor actor, but I know I've not been obtrusive."
"You have not indeed," she replied a little bitterly; "but you have no cause for such feelings. They seem to me unnatural, and the result of a morbid mind."
"Yes, you have thought me very ill balanced from the first; but I'm constrained to use such poor wits as I possess. In the abstract it strikes me as not irrational to recognize embodied truth and loveliness, and I do not think the less of myself because I reached such recognition in hours rather than in months. I saw your very self in this old garden, and every subsequent day has confirmed that impression. But there's no use in wasting words in explanation--I don't try to explain it to myself. But the fact is clear enough. By some necessity of my nature, it is just as it is. I can no more help it than I can help breathing. It was inevitable. My only chance was never meeting you, and yet I can scarcely wish that even now. Perhaps you think I've not tried, since I learned I ought to banish your image, but I have struggled as if I were engaged in a mortal combat, as you suggested. But it's of no use. I can't deceive you any more than I can myself. Now you know the whole truth, and it seems that there is no escaping it in our experience. I do not expect anything. I ask nothing save that you accept the happiness which is your perfect right; for not a shadow of blame rests on you. If you were not happy I should be only tenfold more wretched. But I've no right to speak to you in this way. I see I've caused you much pain; I've no right even to look at you feeling as I do. I would have gone before, were it not for hurting Mrs. Yocomb's feelings. I shall return to New York next Monday; for--"
"Return to New York!" she repeated, with a sudden and deep breath; and she became very pale. After a second she added hastily, "You are not strong enough yet; we are the ones to go."
"Miss Warren," I said, almost sternly, "it's little that I ask of you or that you can give. I may not have deceived you, but I have the others. Mrs. Yocomb knows; but she is as merciful as my own mother would have been. I'm not ashamed of my love--I'm proud of it; but it's too sacred a thing, and--well, if you can't understand me I can't explain. All I ask is that you seem indifferent to my course beyond ordinary friendliness. There! God bless you for your patient kindness; I will not trespass on it longer. You have the best and kindest heart of any woman in the world. Why don't you exult a little over your conquest? It's complete enough to satisfy the most insatiable coquette. Don't look so sad. I'll be your merry-hearted friend yet before I'm eighty."
But my faint attempt at lightness was a speedy failure, for my strong passion broke out irresistibly.
"O God!" I exclaimed, "how beautiful you are to me! When shall I forget the look in your kind, true eyes? But I'm disgracing myself again. I've no right to speak to you. I wish I could never see you again till my heart had become stone and my will like steel;" and I turned and walked swiftly away until, from sheer exhaustion, I threw myself under a tree and buried my face in my hands, for I hated the warm, sunny light, when my life was so cheerless and dark.
I lay almost as if I were dead for hours, and the evening was growing dusky when I arose and wearily returned to the farmhouse. They were all on the veranda except Miss Warren, who was at her piano again. Mrs. Yocomb met me with much solicitude.
"Reuben was just starting out to look for thee," she said.
"I took a longer ramble than I intended," I replied, with a laugh. "I think I lost myself a little. I don't deserve any supper, and only want a cup of tea." Miss Warren played very softly for a moment, and I knew she was listening to my lame excuses.
"It doesn't matter what thee wants; I know what thee needs. Thee isn't out of my hands altogether yet; come right into the dining-room."
"I should think you would be slow to revolt against such a benign government," remarked Mr. Hearn most graciously, and the thought occurred to me that he was not displeased to have me out of the way so long.
"Yes, indeed," chimed in Mr. Yocomb; "we're always all the better for minding mother. Thee'll find that out, Richard, after thee's been here a few weeks longer."
"Mr. Yocomb, you're loyalty itself. If women ever get their rights, our paper will nominate Mrs. Yocomb for President"
"I've all the rights I want now, Richard, and I've the right to scold thee for not taking better care of thyself."
"I'll submit to anything from you. You are wiser than the advanced female agitators, for you know you've all the power now, and that we men are always at your mercy."
"Well, now that thee talks of mercy, I won't scold thee, but give thee thy supper at once."
"Thee always knew, Richard, how to get around mother," laughed the genial old man, whose life ever seemed as mellow and ripe as a juicy fall pippin.
Adah followed her mother in to assist her, and I saw that Miss Warren had turned toward us.
"Why, Richard Morton!" exclaimed Mrs. Yocomb, as I entered the lighted dining-room. "Thee looks as pale and haggard as a ghost. Thee must have got lost indeed and gone far beyond thy strength."
"Can--can I do anything to assist you, Mrs. Yocomb?" asked a timid voice from the doorway.
I was glad that Adah was in the kitchen at the moment, for I lost at once my ghostly pallor. "Yes," said Mrs. Yocomb heartily, "come in and make this man eat, and scold him soundly for going so far away as to get lost when he's scarcely able to walk at all. I've kind of promised I wouldn't scold him, and somebody must."
"I'd scold like Xanthippe if I thought it would do any good," she said, with a faint smile; but her eyes were full of reproach. For a moment Mrs. Yocomb disappeared behind the door of her china closet, and Miss Warren added, in a low, hurried whisper to me, "You promised me to get well; you are not keeping your word."
"That cuts worse than anything Xanthippe could have said."
"I don't want to cut, but to cure."
"Then become the opposite of what you are; that would cure me."
"With such a motive I'm tempted to try," she said, with a half- reckless laugh, for Adah was entering with some delicate toast.
"Miss Adah," I cried, "I owe you a supper at the Brunswick for this, and I'll pay my debt the first chance you'll give me."
"If thee talks of paying, I'll not go with thee," she said, a little coldly; and she seemingly did not like the presence of Miss Warren nor the tell-tale color in my cheeks.
"That's a deserved rebuke, Miss Adah. I know well enough that I can never repay all your kindness, and so I won't try. But you'll go with me because I want you to, and because I will be proud of your company. I shall be the envy of all the men present."
"They'd think me very rustic," she said, smiling.
"Quite as much so as a moss-rose. But you'll see. I will be besieged the next few days by my acquaintances for an introduction, and my account of you will make them wild. I shall be, however, a very dragon of a big brother, and won't let one of them come near you who is not a saint--that is, as far as I am a judge of the article."
"Thee may keep them all away if thee pleases," she replied, blushing and laughing. "I should be afraid of thy fine city friends."
"I'm afraid of a good many of them myself," I replied; "but some are genuine, and you shall have a good time, never fear."
"I'll leave you to arrange the details of your brilliant campaign," said Miss Warren, smiling.
"But thee hasn't scolded Richard," said Mrs. Yocomb, who was seemingly busy about the room.
"My words would have no weight. He knows he ought to be ashamed of himself," she answered from the doorway.
"I am, heartily," I said, looking into her eyes a moment.
"Since he's penitent, Mrs. Yocomb, I don't see as anything more can be done," she replied, smilingly.
"I don't think much of penitence unless it's followed by reformation," said my sensible hostess. "We'll see how he behaves the next few weeks."
"Mr. Morton, I hope you will let Mrs. Yocomb see a daily change for the better for a long time to come. She deserves it at your hands," and there was almost entreaty in the young girl's voice.
"She ought to know better than to ask it," I thought. My only answer was a heavy frown, and I turned abruptly away from her appealing glance.
"I think Emily Warren acts very queer," said Adah, after the young lady had gone; "she's at her piano half the time, and I know from her eyes that she's been crying this afternoon. If ever a girl was engaged to a good, kind man, who would give her everything, she is. I don't see--"
"Adah," interrupted her mother, "I hoped thee was overcoming that trait. It's not a pleasing one. If people give us their confidence, very well; if not, we should be blind."
The girl blushed vividly, and looked deprecatingly at me.
"You meant nothing ill-natured, Miss Adah," I said, gently; "it isn't in you. Come, now, and let me tell you and your mother what a good time I'm planning for you in New York," and we soon made the old dining-room ring with our laughter. Mr. Yocomb, Reuben, and the children soon joined us, and the lovers were left alone on the shadowy porch. From the gracious manner of Mr. Hearn the following morning, I think he rather thanked me for drawing off the embarrassing third parties.
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