LEON DEXTER was not wrong in his suspicions. It was Hendrickson who visited Miss Loring on the evening of his interview with Mrs. Denison. The young man had striven, with all the power he possessed, to overcome his fruitless passion--but striven in vain.--The image of Miss Loring had burned itself into his heart, and become ineffaceable. The impression she had made upon him was different from that made by any woman he had yet chanced to meet, and he felt that, in some mysterious way, their destinies were bound up together. That, in her heart, she preferred him to the man who was about to sacrifice her at the marriage altar he no longer doubted.
"Is it right to permit this sacrifice?" The question had thrust itself upon him for days and weeks.
"Leon Dexter cannot fill the desire of her heart." Thus he talked with himself. "She does not love; and to such a woman marriage unblessed by love must be a condition worse than death. No--no! It shall not be! Steadily she is moving on, nerved by a false sense of honor; and unless some one comes to the rescue, the fatal vow will be made that seals the doom of her happiness and mine. It must not--shall not be! Who so fitting as I to be her rescuer? She loves me! Eyes, lips, countenance, tones, gestures, all have been my witnesses. Only an hour too late! Too late? No--no! I will not believe the words! She shall yet be mine!"
It was in this spirit, and under the pressure of such feelings, that Paul Hendrickson visited Jessie Loring on the night Dexter saw him enter the house. The interview was not a very long one, as the reader knows. He sent up his card, and Miss Loring returned for answer, that she would see him in a few moments. Full five minutes elapsed before she left her room. It had taken her nearly all that time to school her agitated feelings; for on seeing his name, her heart had leaped with an irrepressible impulse. She looked down into her heart, and questioned as to the meaning of this disturbance. The response was clear. Paul Hendrickson was more to her than any living man!
"He should have spared me an interview, alone," she said to herself. "Better for both of us not to meet."
This was her state of feeling, when after repressing, as far as possible, every unruly emotion, she left her room and took her way down stairs.
"Is not this imprudent?" The mental question arrested the footsteps of Miss Loring, ere she had proceeded five paces from the door of her chamber.
"Is not what imprudent?" was answered back in her thoughts.
"What folly is this!" she said, in self-rebuke, and passed onward.
"Miss Loring!" There was too much feeling in Hendrickson's manner. But its repression, under the circumstances, was impossible.
"Mr. Hendrickson!" The voice of Miss Loring betrayed far more of inward disturbance than she wished to appear.
Their hands met. They looked into each other's eyes--then stood for some moments in mutual embarrassment.
"You are almost a stranger," said Jessie, conscious that any remark was better, under the circumstances, than silence.
"Am I?" Hendrickson still held her hand, and still gazed into her eyes. The ardor of his glances reminded her of duty and of danger. Her hand disengaged itself from his--her eyes fell to the floor--a deep crimson suffused her countenance. They seated themselves--she on the sofa, and he on a chair drawn close beside, or rather nearly in front of her. How heavily beat the maiden's heart! What a pressure, almost to suffocation, was on her bosom! She felt an impending sense of danger, but lacked the resolution to flee.
"Miss Loring," said Hendrickson, his unsteady voice betraying his inward agitation, "when I last saw you"--
"Sir!" There was a sudden sternness in the young girl's voice, and a glance of warning in her eye. But the visitor was not to be driven from his purpose.
"It is not too late, Jessie Loring!" He spoke with eagerness.
She made a motion as if about to rise, but he said in a tone that restrained her.
"No, Miss Loring! You must hear what I have to say to-night."
She grew very pale; but looked at him steadily.
So unexpected were his intimations--so imperative his manner, that she was, in a degree, bereft for the time of will.
"You should have spared me this, Mr. Hendrickson," she answered, sadly, and with a gentle rebuke in her tones.
"I would endure years of misery to save you from a moment's pain!" was quickly replied. "And it is in the hope of being able to call down Heaven's choicest blessings on your head, that I am here to-night. Let me speak without reserve. Will you hear me?"
Miss Loring made no sigh; only her eyelids drooped slowly, until the bright orbs beneath were hidden and the dark lashes lay softly on her colorless cheeks.
"There is one thing, Miss Loring," he began, "known to yourself and me alone. It is our secret. Nay! do not go! Let me say on now, and I will ever after hold my peace. If this marriage contract, so unwisely made, is not broken, two lives will be made wretched--yours and mine. You do not love Mr. Dexter! You cannot love him! That were as impossible as for light to be enamored of dark"--
"I will not hear you!" exclaimed Miss Loring, starting to her feet. But Hendrickson caught her hand and restrained her by force.
"You must hear me!" he answered passionately.
"I dare not!"
"This once! I must speak now, and you must hear! God has given you freedom of thought and freedom of will. Let both come into their true activity. The holiest things of your life demand this, Miss Loring. Sit down and be calm again, and let us talk calmly. I will repress all excitement, and speak with reason. You shall hearken and decide. There--I thank you"--
Jessie had resumed her seat.
"We have read each other's hearts, Miss Loring," Hendrickson went on. His voice had regained its firmness, and he spoke in low, deep, emphatic tones. "I, at least, have read yours, and you know mine. Against your own convictions and your own feelings, you have been coerced into an engagement of marriage with a man you do not, and never can, love as a wife should love a husband. Consummate that engagement, and years of wretchedness lie before you. I say nothing of Mr. Dexter as regards honor, probity, and good feeling. I believe him to be a man of high integrity. His character before the world is blameless--his position one to be envied. But you do not love him--you cannot love him. Nay it is idle to repel the assertion. I have looked down too deeply into your heart. I know how its pulses beat, Jessie Loring! There is only one living man who has the power to unlock its treasures of affection. To all others it must remain eternally sealed. I speak solemnly--not vainly. And your soul echoes the truth of my words. It is not yet too late!"
"You should not have said this, Mr. Hendrickson!" Jessie resolutely disengaged the hand he had taken, and was clasping with almost vice-like pressure, and arose to her feet. He did not rise, but sat looking up into her pale suffering face, with the light of hope, which for a moment had flushed his own, fast decaying.
"You should not have said this, Mr. Hendrickson!" she repeated, in a steadier voice. "It is too late, and only makes my task the harder--my burden heavier. But God helping me, I will walk forward in the right path, though my feet be lacerated at every step."
"Is it a right path, Miss Loring? I declare it to be the wrong path!" said Hendrickson.
"Let God and my own conscience judge!" was firmly answered. "And now, sir, leave me. Oh, leave me."
"And you are resolute?"
"I am! God being my helper, I will go forward in the path of duty. When I faint and fall by the way through weakness, the trial will end."
"Friends, wealth, social attractions--all that the world can give will be yours. But my way must be lonely--my heart desolate. I shall be"--
"Go, sir!" Miss Loring's voice was imperative, and there was a flash like indignation in her eyes. "Go sir!" she repeated. "This is unmanly!"
The last sentence stung Mr. Hendrickson, and he arose quickly. Miss Loring, who saw the effect of her words, threw up, with a woman's quick instinct, this further barrier between them--
"I marvel, sir, knowing, as you do, the sacred obligations under which I rest, that you should have dared utter language such as my ears have been compelled to hear this night! I take it as no compliment, sir."
The young man attempted to speak; but with a sternness of manner that sent a chill to his heart, she motioned him to be silent, and went on--
"Let this, sir, be the last time you venture to repeat what I cannot but regard as dis"--
Dishonorable was the word on her lips, but she suddenly checked herself. She could not say that to him.
Waking or sleeping, alone or in society, for weeks, months and years afterwards, the image of that young man's despairing face, as she saw it then, was ever before her.
"Insult! Dishonor!" he said, as if speaking to himself. "I could die for her--but not that!--not that!"
And without a parting glance or a parting word, Paul Hendrickson turned from the woman who was destined to influence his whole life, and left her alone in his bewilderment and wretchedness. It is difficult to say on which heart the heaviest pressure fell, or which life was most hopeless. It is alleged that only men die of broken hearts--that women can bear the crushing heel of disappointment, live on and endure, while men fall by the way, and perish in the strife of passion. It may be so. We know not. In the present case the harder lot was on Miss Loring. If she bore her pain with less of exterior token, it is no argument in favor of the lighter suffering. The patiently enduring oftenest bear the most.
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