AT Albany, Mr. Hendrickson found Miss Arden awaiting him. The warmth of her reception showed that he was more in her eyes than a pleasant friend. And in his regard she held the highest place--save one.
The meeting with Mrs. Dexter at Newport was unfortunate. Hendrickson had looked right down into her heart; reading a page, the writing on which she would have died rather than have revealed. Her pure regard for him was her own deeply hidden secret. It was a lamp burning in the sepulchre of buried hope. She could no more extinguish the sacred fire than quench her own existence.
But thrown suddenly off her guard, she had betrayed this secret to unlawful eyes. Hendrickson had read it. And she too had read his heart. After the lapse of more than a year they had met; and without wrong on either side had acknowledged a mutual inextinguishable love.
"You are not well, Mr. (sic) Henrickson." Many times, and with undisguised concern, was this said by Miss Arden, during the journey to Niagara.
"Only a slight headache;" or, "I'm well enough, but feel dull;" or, "The trip from Newport fatigued me," would be answered, and an effort made to be more companionable. But the task was difficult, and the position in which the young man found himself particularly embarrassing. His thoughts were not with Miss Arden, but with Mrs. Dexter. Before the unexpected meeting at Newport, he had believed himself so far released from that entanglement of the heart, as to be free to make honorable advances to Miss Arden. But he saw his error now. With him marriage was something more than a good matrimonial arrangement, in which parties secure external advantages. To love Miss Arden better than any other living woman, he now saw to be impossible--and unless he could so love her, he dared not marry her. That was risking a great deal too much. His position became, therefore, an embarrassing one. Her brother was an old friend. They had been college companions. The sister he had known for some years, but had never been particularly interested in her until within a few months. Distancing his observation, her mind had matured; and the graces of art, education and accomplishment, had thrown their winning attractions around her. First, almost as a brother, he began to feel proud of her beauty and intelligence; admiration followed, and, before he was aware of the tendency of his feelings, they had taken on a warmer than fraternal glow.
All things tended to encourage this incipient regard; and, as Miss Arden herself favored it, and ever turned towards Hendrickson the sunniest side of her character, he found himself drawn onwards almost imperceptibly; and had even begun to think seriously of her as his wife, when the meeting with Mrs. Dexter revealed the existence of sentiments on both sides that gave the whole subject a new aspect.
A very difficult problem now presented itself to the mind of Mr. Hendrickson, involving questions of duty, questions of honor, and questions of feeling. It is not surprising that Miss Arden found a change in her travelling companion, nor that her visit to Niagara proved altogether unsatisfactory. No one could have been kindlier, more attentive, or more studious to make her visit attractive. But his careful avoidance of all compliments, and the absence of every thing lover-like, gave her heart the alarm. It was in vain that she put forth every chaste, womanly allurement; his eyes did not brighten, nor his cheeks glow, nor his tones become warmer. He was not to be driven from the citadel of his honor. A weaker, more selfish, and more external man, would have yielded. But Hendrickson, like the woman he had lost, was not made of "common clay," nor cast in any of humanity's ruder moulds. He was of purer essence and higher spiritual organization than the masses; and principle had now quite as much to do with his actions as feeling. He could be a martyr, but not a villain.
Two days were spent at Niagara, and then Hendrickson and Miss Arden returned, and went to Saratoga. It did not, of course, escape the notice of Hendrickson, that his manner to his travelling companion was effecting a steady change in her spirits; and he was not lacking in perception as to the cause. It revealed to him the sincerity of her regard; but added to the pain from which he was suffering, increasing it almost to the point where endurance fails.
It was a relief to Hendrickson when he was able to place Miss Arden under the care of her mother, who had remained at Saratoga. On the evening after his arrival, he was sitting alone in one of the drawing-rooms, when a lady crossed from the other side, and joined another lady near him.
"Mrs. De Lisle," said the latter, as she arose.
"Good evening, Mrs. Anthony!" and the ladies sat down together.
"I have just received a sad letter from Newport," said Mrs. De Lisle.
"Indeed! What has happened there?"
"Our sweet young friend is dangerously ill."
"Who? Mrs. Dexter?"
"Mrs. De Lisle! She was in perfect health, to all appearance, when she left here."
"So I thought. But she has suddenly been stricken down with a brain fever, and her physicians regard her condition as most critical."
"You distress me beyond measure!" said Mrs. Anthony.
"My friend writes that three physicians are in attendance; and that they report her case as dangerous in the extreme. I did not intend going there until next week, but, unless my husband strongly objects, I will leave to-morrow. Good nursing is quite as essential as medical skill."
"Go, by all means, if you can," replied Mrs. Anthony. "Dear child! I shouldn't wonder if that jealous husband of hers had done something to induce this attack. Brain fever don't come on without mental excitement of some kind. I can't bear him; and I believe, if the truth were known, it would be found that she hates the very sight of him. He's a man made of money; and that's saying the best that can be said. As to qualities of the mind and heart, she ranks, in everything, his superior. What a sacrifice of all that such a woman holds dear must have been made when she consented to become the wedded wife of Leon Dexter!"
Hendrickson heard no more, for a third party coming up at the moment, led to a change in the conversation. At the same instant Mrs. Arden and her daughter entered the room, and he arose and stepped forward to meet them.
"How pale you look, Mr. Hendrickson!" said Mrs. Arden, with concern. "Are you not well?"
"I have not felt as bright as usual, for some days," he answered, trying to force a smile, but without success. "Your daughter has, no doubt, already informed you that I proved myself one of the dullest of travelling companions."
"Oh, no," Miss Arden spoke up quickly. "Ma knows that I gave you credit for being exceedingly agreeable. But, indeed, Mr. Hendrickson, you look ill."
"I am slightly indisposed," he answered, "and with your leave will retire to my room. I shall feel better after lying down."
"Go by all means," said Mrs. Arden.
Hendrickson bowed low, and, passing them, left the parlor almost hurriedly.
"Dangerously ill! A brain fever!" he said aloud, as he gained his own apartment and shut the door behind him. He was deeply disturbed. That their unexpected meeting had something to do with this sudden sickness he now felt sure. Her strong, though quickly controlled agitation he had seen; it was a revelation never to be forgotten; and showed the existence of a state of feeling in regard to her husband which must render her very existence a burden. That she was closely watched, he had seen, as well as heard. And it did not appear to him improbable, considering the spirit he had observed her display, that coincident with his departure from Newport, some jealous accusations had been made, half maddening her spirit, and stunning her brain with excitement.
"Angel in the keeping of a fiend!" he exclaimed, as imagination drew improbable scenes of persecution. "How my heart aches for you--yearns towards you--longs for the dear privilege of making all your paths smooth and fragrant; all your hours golden-winged; all your states peaceful! How precious you are to me! Precious as my own soul--dear counterpart! loving complement! Vain, as your own strife with yourself, has been my strife. The burden has been too heavy for us; the ordeal too fiery. My brain grows wild at thought of this terrible wrong."
The image of Miss Arden flitted before him.
"Beautiful--loving--pure!" he said, "I might win you for my bride; but will not so wrong you as to offer a divided heart. All things forbid!"
Mr. Hendrickson did not leave his room that evening. At ten o'clock a servant knocked at his door. Mrs. Arden had sent her compliments, and desired to know if he were better than when he left her?
"Much better," he answered; and the servant departed.
Midnight found him still in strife with himself. Now he walked the floor in visible agitation; and now sat motionless, with head bowed, and arms folded across his bosom. The impression of sleep was far from his overwrought brain. One thing he decided, and that was to leave Saratoga by the earliest morning train, and go with all possible haste to Newport. Suspense in regard to Mrs. Dexter he felt it would be impossible for him to bear.
"But what right have you to take all this interest in a woman who is another's lawful wife?" he asked, in the effort to stem the tide of his feelings.
"I will not stop to debate questions of right," so he answered within his own thoughts. "She is the wife of another, and I would die rather than stain her pure escutcheon with a thought of dishonor. I cease to love her when I imagine her capable of being false, in even the smallest act, to her marriage vows. But the right to love, Heaven gave me when my soul was created to make one with hers. I will keep myself pure that I may remain worthy of her."
On the evening of the next day Hendrickson arrived at Newport. Almost the first man he encountered was Dexter.
"How is Mrs. Dexter?" he asked, forgetting in his anxiety and suspense the relation he bore to this man. His eager inquiry met a cold response accompanied by a scowl.
"I am not aware that you have any particular interest in Mrs. Dexter!"
And the angry husband turned from him abruptly.
"How unfortunate!" Hendrickson said to himself as he passed.
At the office he put the same inquiry.
"Very ill," was the answer.
"Is she thought to be dangerous?"
"I believe so."
Beyond this he gained no further intelligence from the clerk. A little while afterwards he saw Mrs. Florence in one of the parlors, and joined her immediately. From her he learned that Mrs. Dexter remained wholly unconscious, but that the physicians regarded her symptoms as favorable.
"Do they think her out of danger?" he asked, with more interest in his manner than he wished to betray.
He could scarcely withhold an exclamation.
"What do you think, madam?" he inquired.
"I cannot see deeper than a physician," she answered. "But my observation does not in anything gainsay the opinion which has been expressed. I am encouraged to hope for recovery."
"Do you remain here any time?"
"I shall not leave until I see Mrs. Dexter on the safe side and in good hands," was replied.
"Have you heard any reason assigned for this fearful attack?" inquired Hendrickson.
Mrs. Florence shook her head.
Not caring to manifest an interest in Mrs. Dexter that might attract attention, or occasion comment, Hendrickson dropped the subject. During the evening he threw himself in the way of the physician, and gathered all he desired to know from him. The report was so favorable that he determined to leave Newport by the midnight boat for New York and return home, which he accordingly did.
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