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One evening in late June Mrs. Williamson was sitting by her kitchen window. Her knitting lay unheeded in her lap, and Timothy, though he nestled ingratiatingly against her foot as he lay on the rug and purred his loudest, was unregarded. She rested her face on her hand and looked out of the window, across the distant harbour, with troubled eyes.
"I guess I must speak," she thought wistfully. "I hate to do it. I always did hate meddling. My mother always used to say that ninety-nine times out of a hundred the last state of a meddler and them she meddled with was worse than the first. But I guess it's my duty. I was Margaret's friend, and it is my duty to protect her child any way I can. If the Master does go back across there to meet her I must tell him what I think about it."
Overhead in his room, Eric was walking about whistling. Presently he came downstairs, thinking of the orchard, and the girl who would be waiting for him there.
As he crossed the little front entry he heard Mrs. Williamson's voice calling to him.
"Mr. Marshall, will you please come here a moment?"
He went out to the kitchen. Mrs. Williamson looked at him deprecatingly. There was a flush on her faded cheek and her voice trembled.
"Mr. Marshall, I want to ask you a question. Perhaps you will think it isn't any of my business. But it isn't because I want to meddle. No, no. It is only because I think I ought to speak. I have thought it over for a long time, and it seems to me that I ought to speak. I hope you won't be angry, but even if you are I must say what I have to say. Are you going back to the old Connors orchard to meet Kilmeny Gordon?"
For a moment an angry flush burned in Eric's face. It was more Mrs. Williamson's tone than her words which startled and annoyed him.
"Yes, I am, Mrs. Williamson," he said coldly. "What of it?"
"Then, sir," said Mrs. Williamson with more firmness, "I have got to tell you that I don't think you are doing right. I have been suspecting all along that that was where you went every evening, but I haven't said a word to any one about it. Even my husband doesn't know. But tell me this, Master. Do Kilmeny's uncle and aunt know that you are meeting her there?"
"Why," said Eric, in some confusion, "I--I do not know whether they do or not. But Mrs. Williamson, surely you do not suspect me of meaning any harm or wrong to Kilmeny Gordon?"
"No, I don't, Master. I might think it of some men, but never of you. I don't for a minute think that you would do her or any woman any wilful wrong. But you may do her great harm for all that. I want you to stop and think about it. I guess you haven't thought. Kilmeny can't know anything about the world or about men, and she may get to thinking too much of you. That might break her heart, because you couldn't ever marry a dumb girl like her. So I don't think you ought to be meeting her so often in this fashion. It isn't right, Master. Don't go to the orchard again."
Without a word Eric turned away, and went upstairs to his room. Mrs. Williamson picked up her knitting with a sigh.
"That's done, Timothy, and I'm real thankful," she said. "I guess there'll be no need of saying anything more. Mr. Marshall is a fine young man, only a little thoughtless. Now that he's got his eyes opened I'm sure he'll do what is right. I don't want Margaret's child made unhappy."
Her husband came to the kitchen door and sat down on the steps to enjoy his evening smoke, talking between whiffs to his wife of Elder Tracy's church row, and Mary Alice Martin's beau, the price Jake Crosby was giving for eggs, the quantity of hay yielded by the hill meadow, the trouble he was having with old Molly's calf, and the respective merits of Plymouth Rock and Brahma roosters. Mrs. Williamson answered at random, and heard not one word in ten.
"What's got the Master, Mother?" inquired old Robert, presently. "I hear him striding up and down in his room 'sif he was caged. Sure you didn't lock him in by mistake?"
"Maybe he's worried over the way Seth Tracy's acting in school," suggested Mrs. Williamson, who did not choose that her gossipy husband should suspect the truth about Eric and Kilmeny Gordon.
"Shucks, he needn't worry a morsel over that. Seth'll quiet down as soon as he finds he can't run the Master. He's a rare good teacher--better'n Mr. West was even, and that's saying something. The trustees are hoping he'll stay for another term. They're going to ask him at the school meeting to-morrow, and offer him a raise of supplement."
Upstairs, in his little room under the eaves, Eric Marshall was in the grip of the most intense and overwhelming emotion he had ever experienced.
Up and down, to and fro, he walked, with set lips and clenched hands. When he was wearied out he flung himself on a chair by the window and wrestled with the flood of feeling.
Mrs. Williamson's words had torn away the delusive veil with which he had bound his eyes. He was face to face with the knowledge that he loved Kilmeny Gordon with the love that comes but once, and is for all time. He wondered how he could have been so long blind to it. He knew that he must have loved her ever since their first meeting that May evening in the old orchard.
And he knew that he must choose between two alternatives--either he must never go to the orchard again, or he must go as an avowed lover to woo him a wife.
Worldly prudence, his inheritance from a long line of thrifty, cool-headed ancestors, was strong in Eric, and he did not yield easily or speedily to the dictates of his passion. All night he struggled against the new emotions that threatened to sweep away the "common sense" which David Baker had bade him take with him when he went a-wooing. Would not a marriage with Kilmeny Gordon be an unwise thing from any standpoint?
Then something stronger and greater and more vital than wisdom or unwisdom rose up in him and mastered him. Kilmeny, beautiful, dumb Kilmeny was, as he had once involuntarily thought, "the one maid" for him. Nothing should part them. The mere idea of never seeing her again was so unbearable that he laughed at himself for having counted it a possible alternative.
"If I can win Kilmeny's love I shall ask her to be my wife," he said, looking out of the window to the dark, southwestern hill beyond which lay his orchard.
The velvet sky over it was still starry; but the water of the harbour was beginning to grow silvery in the reflection of the dawn that was breaking in the east.
"Her misfortune will only make her dearer to me. I cannot realize that a month ago I did not know her. It seems to me that she has been a part of my life for ever. I wonder if she was grieved that I did not go to the orchard last night--if she waited for me. If she does, she does not know it herself yet. It will be my sweet task to teach her what love means, and no man has ever had a lovelier, purer, pupil."
At the annual school meeting, the next afternoon, the trustees asked Eric to take the Lindsay school for the following year. He consented unhesitatingly.
That evening he went to Mrs. Williamson, as she washed her tea dishes in the kitchen.
"Mrs. Williamson, I am going back to the old Connors orchard to see Kilmeny again to-night."
She looked at him reproachfully.
"Well, Master, I have no more to say. I suppose it wouldn't be of any use if I had. But you know what I think of it."
"I intend to marry Kilmeny Gordon if I can win her."
An expression of amazement came into the good woman's face. She looked scrutinizingly at the firm mouth and steady gray eyes for a moment. Then she said in a troubled voice,
"Do you think that is wise, Master? I suppose Kilmeny is pretty; the egg peddler told me she was; and no doubt she is a good, nice girl. But she wouldn't be a suitable wife for you--a girl that can't speak."
"That doesn't make any difference to me."
"But what will your people say?"
"I have no 'people' except my father. When he sees Kilmeny he will understand. She is all the world to me, Mrs. Williamson."
"As long as you believe that there is nothing more to be said," was the quiet answer, "I'd be a little bit afraid if I was you, though. But young people never think of those things."
"My only fear is that she won't care for me," said Eric soberly.
Mrs. Williamson surveyed the handsome, broad-shouldered young man shrewdly.
"I don't think there are many women would say you 'no', Master. I wish you well in your wooing, though I can't help thinking you're doing a daft-like thing. I hope you won't have any trouble with Thomas and Janet. They are so different from other folks there is no knowing. But take my advice, Master, and go and see them about it right off. Don't go on meeting Kilmeny unbeknownst to them."
"I shall certainly take your advice," said Eric, gravely. "I should have gone to them before. It was merely thoughtlessness on my part. Possibly they do know already. Kilmeny may have told them."
Mrs. Williamson shook her head decidedly.
"No, no, Master, she hasn't. They'd never have let her go on meeting you there if they had known. I know them too well to think of that for a moment. Go you straight to them and say to them just what you have said to me. That is your best plan, Master. And take care of Neil. People say he has a notion of Kilmeny himself. He'll do you a bad turn if he can, I've no doubt. Them foreigners can't be trusted--and he's just as much a foreigner as his parents before him--though he has been brought up on oatmeal and the shorter catechism, as the old saying has it. I feel that somehow--I always feel it when I look at him singing in the choir."
"Oh, I am not afraid of Neil," said Eric carelessly. "He couldn't help loving Kilmeny--nobody could."
"I suppose every young man thinks that about his girl--if he's the right sort of young man," said Mrs. Williamson with a little sigh.
She watched Eric out of sight anxiously.
"I hope it'll all come out right," she thought. "I hope he ain't making an awful mistake--but--I'm afraid. Kilmeny must be very pretty to have bewitched him so. Well, I suppose there is no use in my worrying over it. But I do wish he had never gone back to that old orchard and seen her."
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