Yates walked merrily down the road, whistling "Gayly the troubadour." Perhaps there is no moment in a man's life when he feels the joy of being alive more keenly than when he goes to propose to a girl of whose favorable answer he is reasonably sure--unless it be the moment he walks away an accepted lover. There is a magic about a June night, with its soft, velvety darkness and its sweet, mild air laden with the perfumes of wood and field. The enchantment of the hour threw its spell over the young man, and he resolved to live a better life, and be worthy of the girl he had chosen, or, rather, that fate had chosen for him. He paused a moment, leaning over the fence near the Howard homestead, for he had not yet settled in his own mind the details of the meeting. He would not go in, for in that case he knew he would have to talk, perhaps for hours, with everyone but the person he wished to meet. If he announced himself and asked to see Margaret alone, his doing so would embarrass her at the very beginning. Yates was naturally too much of a diplomat to begin awkwardly. As he stood there, wishing chance would bring her out of the house, there appeared a light in the door-window of the room where he knew the convalescent boy lay. Margaret's shadow formed a silhouette on the blind. Yates caught up a handful of sand, and flung it lightly against the pane. Its soft patter evidently attracted the attention of the girl, for, after a moment's pause, the window opened carefully, while Margaret stepped quickly out and closed it, quietly standing there.
"Margaret," whispered Yates hardly above his breath.
The girl advanced toward the fence.
"Is that you?" she whispered in return, with an accent on the last word that thrilled her listener. The accent told plainly as speech that the word represented the one man on earth to her.
"Yes," answered Yates, springing over the fence and approaching her.
"Oh!" cried Margaret, starting back, then checking herself, with a catch in her voice. "You--you startled me--Mr. Yates."
"Not Mr. Yates any more, Margaret, but Dick. Margaret, I wanted to see you alone. You know why I have come." He tried to grasp both her hands, but she put them resolutely behind her, seemingly wishing to retreat, yet standing her ground.
"Margaret, you must have seen long ago how it is with me. I love you, Margaret, loyally and truly. It seems as if I had loved you all my life. I certainly have since the first day I saw you."
"Oh, Mr. Yates, you must not talk to me like this."
"My darling, how else can I talk to you? It cannot be a surprise to you, Margaret. You must have known it long ago."
"I did not, indeed I did not--if you really mean it."
"Mean it? I never meant anything as I mean this. It is everything to me, and nothing else is anything. I have knocked about the world a good deal, I admit, but I never was in love before--never knew what love was until I met you. I tell you that----"
"Please, please, Mr. Yates, do not say anything more. If it is really true, I cannot tell you how sorry I am. I hope nothing I have said or done has made you believe that--that--Oh, I do not know what to say! I never thought you could be in earnest about anything."
"You surely cannot have so misjudged me, Margaret. Others have, but I did not expect it of you. You are far and away better than I am. No one knows that so well as I. I do not pretend to be worthy of you, but I will be a devoted husband to you. Any man who gets the love of a good woman," continued Yates earnestly, plagiarizing Renmark, "gets more than he deserves; but surely such love as mine is not given merely to be scornfully trampled underfoot."
"I do not treat your--you scornfully. I am only sorry if what you say is true."
"Why do you say if it is true? Don't you know it is true?"
"Then I am very sorry--very, very sorry, and I hope it is through no fault of mine. But you will soon forget me. When you return to New York----"
"Margaret," said the young man bitterly, "I shall never forget you. Think what you are doing before it is too late. Think how much this means to me. If you finally refuse me, you will wreck my life. I am the sort of man that a woman can make or mar. Do not, I beg of you, ruin the life of the man who loves you."
"I am not a missionary," cried Margaret with sudden anger. "If your life is to be wrecked, it will be through your own foolishness, and not from any act of mine. I think it cowardly of you to say that I am to be held responsible. I have no wish to influence your future one way or another."
"Not for good, Margaret?" asked Yates with tender reproach.
"No. A man whose good or bad conduct depends on anyone but himself is not my ideal of a man."
"Tell me what your ideal is, so that I may try to attain it."
Margaret was silent.
"You think it will be useless for me to try?"
"As far as I am concerned, yes."
"Margaret, I want to ask you one more question. I have no right to, but I beg you to answer me. Are you in love with anyone else?"
"No!" cried Margaret hotly. "How dare you ask me such a question?"
"Oh, it is not a crime--that is, being in love with someone else is not. I'll tell you why I dare ask. I swear, by all the gods, that I shall win you--if not this year, then next; and if not next, then the year after. I was a coward to talk as I did; but I love you more now than I did even then. All I want to know is that you are not in love with another man.
"I think you are very cruel in persisting as you do, when you have had your answer. I say no. Never! never! never!--this year nor any other year. Is not that enough?"
"Not for me. A woman's 'no' may ultimately mean 'yes.'"
"That is true, Mr. Yates," replied Margaret, drawing herself up as one who makes a final plunge. "You remember the question you asked me just now?--whether I cared for anyone else? I said 'no.' That 'no' meant 'yes.'"
He was standing between her and the window, so she could not escape by the way she came. He saw she meditated flight, and made as though he would intercept her, but she was too quick for him. She ran around the house, and he heard a door open and shut.
He knew he was defeated. Dejectedly he turned to the fence, climbing slowly over where he had leaped so lightly a few minutes before, and walked down the road, cursing his fate. Although he admitted he was a coward for talking to her as he had done about his wrecked life, yet he knew now that every word he had spoken was true. What did the future hold out to him? Not even the incentive to live. He found himself walking toward the tent, but, not wishing to meet Renmark in his present frame of mind, he turned and came out on the Ridge Road. He was tired and broken, and resolved to stay in camp until they arrested him. Then perhaps she might have some pity on him. Who was the other man she loved? or had she merely said that to give finality to her refusal? In his present mood he pictured the worst, and imagined her the wife of some neighboring farmer--perhaps even of Stoliker. These country girls, he said to himself, never believed a man was worth looking at unless he owned a farm. He would save his money, and buy up the whole neighborhood; then she would realize what she had missed. He climbed up on the fence beside the road, and sat on the top rail, with his heels resting on a lower one, so that he might enjoy his misery without the fatigue of walking. His vivid imagination pictured himself as the owner in a few years' time of a large section of that part of the country, with mortgages on a good deal of the remainder, including the farm owned by Margaret's husband. He saw her now, a farmer's faded wife, coming to him and begging for further time in which to pay the seven per cent. due. He knew he would act magnanimously on such an occasion, and grandly give her husband all the time he required. Perhaps then she would realize the mistake she had made. Or perhaps fame, rather than riches, would be his line. His name would ring throughout the land. He might become a great politician, and bankrupt Canada with a rigid tariff law. The unfairness of making the whole innocent people suffer for the inconsiderate act of one of them did not occur to him at the moment, for he was humiliated and hurt. There is no bitterness like that which assails the man who has been rejected by the girl he adores--while it lasts. His eye wandered toward the black mass of the Howard house. It was as dark as his thoughts. He turned his head slowly around, and, like a bright star of hope, there glimmered up the road a flickering light from the Bartletts' parlor window. Although time had stopped as far as he was concerned, he was convinced it could not be very late, or the Bartletts would have gone to bed. It is always difficult to realize that the greatest of catastrophes are generally over in a few minutes. It seemed an age since he walked so hopefully away from the tent. As he looked at the light the thought struck him that perhaps Kitty was alone in the parlor. She at least would not have treated him so badly as the other girl; and--and she was pretty, too, come to think of it. He always did like a blonde better than a brunette.
A fence rail is not a comfortable seat. It is used in some parts of the country in such a manner as to impress the sitter with the fact of its extreme discomfort, and as a gentle hint that his presence is not wanted in that immediate neighborhood. Yates recollected this, with a smile, as he slid off and stumbled into the ditch by the side of the road. His mind had been so preoccupied that he had forgotten about the ditch. As he walked along the road toward the star that guided him he remembered he had recklessly offered Miss Kitty to the callous professor. After all, no one knew about the episode of a short time before except himself and Margaret, and he felt convinced she was not a girl to boast of her conquests. Anyhow, it didn't matter. A man is surely master of himself.
As he neared the window he looked in. People are not particular about lowering the blinds in the country. He was rather disappointed to see Mrs. Bartlett sitting there knitting, like the industrious woman she was. Still it was consoling to note that none of the men-folks were present, and that Kitty, with her fluffy hair half concealing her face, sat reading a book he had lent to her. He rapped at the door, and it was opened by Mrs. Bartlett, with some surprise.
"For the land's sake! is that you, Mr. Yates?"
"Come right in. Why, what's the matter with you? You look as if you had lost your best friend. Ah, I see how it is,"--Yates started,--"you have run out of provisions, and are very likely as hungry as a bear."
"You've hit it first time, Mrs. Bartlett. I dropped around to see if I could borrow a loaf of bread. We don't bake till to-morrow."
Mrs. Bartlett laughed.
"Nice baking you would do if you tried it. I'll get you a loaf in a minute. Are you sure one is enough?"
"Quite enough, thank you."
The good woman bustled out to the other room for the loaf, and Yates made good use of her temporary absence.
"Kitty," he whispered, "I want to see you alone for a few minutes. I'll wait for you at the gate. Can you slip out?"
Kitty blushed very red and nodded.
"They have a warrant out for my arrest, and I'm off to-morrow before they can serve it. But I couldn't go without seeing you. You'll come, sure?"
Again Kitty nodded, after looking up at him in alarm when he spoke of the warrant. Before anything further could be said Mrs. Bartlett came in, and Kitty was absorbed in her book.
"Won't you have something to eat now before you go back?"
"Oh, no, thank you, Mrs. Bartlett. You see, the professor is waiting for me."
"Let him wait, if he didn't have sense enough to come."
"He didn't. I offered him the chance."
"It won't take us a moment to set the table. It is not the least trouble."
"Really, Mrs. Bartlett, you are very kind. I am not in the slightest degree hungry now. I am merely taking some thought of the morrow. No; I must be going, and thank you very much."
"Well," said Mrs. Bartlett, seeing him to the door, "if there's anything you want, come to me, and I will let you have it if it's in the house."
"You are too good to me," said the young man with genuine feeling, "and I don't deserve it; but I may remind you of your promise--to-morrow."
"See that you do," she answered. "Good-night."
Yates waited at the gate, placing the loaf on the post, where he forgot it, much to the astonishment of the donor in the morning. He did not have to wait long, for Kitty came around the house somewhat shrinkingly, as one who was doing the most wicked thing that had been done since the world began. Yates hastened to meet her, clasping one of her unresisting hands in his.
"I must be off to-morrow," he began.
"I am very sorry," answered Kitty in a whisper.
"Ah, Kitty, you are not half so sorry as I am. But I intend to come back, if you will let me. Kitty, you remember that talk we had in the kitchen, when we--when there was an interruption, and when I had to go away with our friend Stoliker?"
Kitty indicated that she remembered it.
"Well, of course you know what I wanted to say to you. Of course you know what I want to say to you now."
It seemed, however, that in this he was mistaken, for Kitty had not the slightest idea, and wanted to go into the house, for it was late, and her mother would miss her.
"Kitty, you darling little humbug, you know that I love you. You must know that I have loved you ever since the first day I saw you, when you laughed at me. Kitty, I want you to marry me and make something of me, if that is possible. I am a worthless fellow, not half good enough for a little pet like you; but, Kitty, if you will only say 'yes,' I will try, and try hard, to be a better man than I have ever been before."
Kitty did not say "yes" but she placed her disengaged hand, warm and soft, upon his, and Yates was not the man to have any hesitation about what to do next. To practical people it may seem an astonishing thing that, the object of the interview being happily accomplished, there should be any need of prolonging it; yet the two lingered there, and he told her much of his past life, and of how lonely and sordid it had been because he had no one to care for him--at which her pretty eyes filled with tears. She felt proud and happy to think she had won the first great love of a talented man's life, and hoped she would make him happy, and in a measure atone for the emptiness of the life that had gone before. She prayed that he might always be as fond of her as he was then, and resolved to be worthy of him if she could.
Strange to say, her wishes have been amply fulfilled, and few wives are as happy or as proud of their husbands as Kitty Yates. The one woman who might have put the drop of bitterness in her cup of life merely kissed her tenderly when Kitty told her of the great joy that had come to her, and said she was sure she would be happy; and thus for the second time Margaret told the thing that was not, but for once Margaret was wrong in her fears.
Yates walked to the tent a glorified man, leaving his loaf on the gatepost behind him. Few realize that it is quite as pleasant to be loved as to love. The verb "to love" has many conjugations. The earth he trod was like no other ground he had ever walked upon. The magic of the June night was never so enchanting before. He strode along with his head and his thoughts in the clouds, and the Providence that cares for the intoxicated looked after him, and saw that the accepted lover came to no harm. He leaped the fence without even putting his hand to it, and then was brought to earth again by the picture of a man sitting with his head in his hands beside a dying fire.
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