ON the day after the interview with Mrs. De Lisle, Mrs. Dexter, whose mind had been lifted quite above its morbid state, was sitting alone at one of the parlor windows. She had been noting, with curious interest, the types of character in faces that met her eyes, and then disappeared to give place to others as singularly varied, when a new countenance, on which her eyes fell, lighted up suddenly. It was that of Hendrickson, whom she had not seen since their parting at Newport. He paused, lifted his hat, bowed and went on. It was no cold, formal recognition; but one full of earnest life, and warm with sudden feeling. Mrs. Dexter was conscious of a quick heart-throb that sent a glow to her pale cheeks.
Unfortunate coincidence! The next face, presenting itself almost in the same instant of time, was that of her husband. It was full two hours earlier than the period of his usual return home.
He had seen the expression of Hendrickson's countenance; and also the responsive change in that of his wife. At once it occurred to him that an understanding had been established between him and Mrs. Dexter, and that this was the beginning of a series of interviews, to be carried on during his absence. Mr. Dexter was an impulsive man. Without giving himself time for reflection, he strode into the parlor, and said with a cutting sneer--
"You have your own entertainments, I see, in your husband's absence. But"--and his manner grew stern, while his tones were threatening, "you must not forget that we are in America and not Paris; and that I am an American, and not a French husband. You are going a step too far, madam!"
Too much confounded for speech, Mrs. Dexter, into whose face the blood had rushed, dying it to a deep crimson, sat looking at her husband, an image, in his eyes, of guilt confessed.
"I warn you," he added, "not to presume on me in this direction! And I further warn you, that if I ever catch that scoundrel in my house, or in your company, I will shoot him down like a dog!"
Mrs. Dexter was too feeble for a shock like this. The crimson left her face. While her husband yet glared angrily upon her, a deathly hue overspread her features, and she fainted, falling forward upon the floor. He sprung to catch her in his arms, but it was too late. She struck with a heavy concussion, against temple and cheek, bruising them severely.
When Mrs. Dexter recovered, she was in her own room lying upon her bed. No one was there but her husband. He looked grave to sadness. She looked at him a single moment, then shut her eyes and turned her face away. Mr. Dexter neither moved nor spoke. A more wretched man was scarcely in existence. He believed all against his wife that his words expressed; yet was he conscious of unpardonable indiscretion--and he was deeply troubled as to the consequences of his act. Mrs. Dexter was fully restored to consciousness, and remembered distinctly, the blasting intimations of her husband. But, she was wholly free from excitement, and was thinking calmly.
"Will you send for my aunt?" Mrs. Dexter turned her face from the wall as she said this, speaking in a low but firm voice.
"Not now. Why do you wish to see her?" Mr. Dexter's tones were low and firm also.
"I shall return to her," said Mrs. Dexter.
"What do you mean?" Feeling betrayed itself.
"As I am a degraded being in your eyes, you do not, of course, wish me to remain under your roof. And, as you have degraded me by foul and false accusations, against the bare imagination of which my soul revolts, I can no longer share your home, nor eat the bread which your hand provides for me. Where there is no love on one side and no faith on the other, separation becomes inevitable."
"You talk madly," said Mr. Dexter.
"Not madly, but soberly," she answered. "There is an unpardonable sin against a virtuous wife, and you have committed it. Forgiveness is impossible. I wish to see my aunt. Will you send for her, Mr. Dexter?"
"It was a dark day for me, Jessie, when I first looked upon your face," said Mr. Dexter.
"And darker still for me, sir. Yet, after my constrained marriage, I tried, to the best of my ability, to be all you desired. That I failed, was no fault of mine."
"Nor mine," was answered.
"Let us not make matters worse by crimination and recrimination," said Mrs. Dexter. "It will take nothing from our future peace to remember that we parted in forbearance, instead of with passionate accusation."
"You are surely beside yourself, Jessie!" exclaimed Mr. Dexter.
She turned her face away, and made no response.
Dexter was frightened. "Could it be possible," he asked himself, "that his wife really purposed a separation?" The fact loomed up before his imagination with all of its appalling consequences.
A full half hour passed, without a word more from the lips of either. Then Mr. Dexter quietly retired from the room. He had no sooner done this, than Mrs. Dexter arose from the bed, and commenced making changes in her dress. Her face was very white, and her movements unsteady, like the movements of a person just arisen from an exhausting sickness. There was some appearance of hurry and agitation in her manner.
About an hour later, and just as twilight had given place to darkness, Mrs. Loring who was sitting with her daughters, lifted her eyes from the work in her hands, and leaned her head in a listening attitude. The door bell had rung, and a servant was moving along the passage. A moment of suspense, and then light steps were heard and the rustling of a woman's garments.
"Jessie!" exclaimed Mrs. Loring, as Mrs. Dexter entered the sitting-room." She was enveloped in a warm cloak, with a hood drawn over her head. As she pushed the latter from her partly hidden face, her aunt saw a wildness about her eyes, that suggested, in connection with this unheralded visit of the feeble invalid, the idea of mental derangement. Starting forward, and almost encircling her with her arms, she said--
"My dear child! what is the meaning of this visit? Where is Mr. Dexter? Did he come with you?"
"I am cold," she answered, with a shiver. "The air is piercing." And she turned towards the grate, spreading her hands to the genial warmth.
"Did Mr. Dexter come with you?" Mrs. Loring repeated the question.
"No; I came alone," was the quietly spoken answer.
"You did not walk?"
"Why, Jessie! You imprudent child! Does Mr. Dexter know of this?"
There was no reply to this question.
"Aunt Phoebe," said Mrs. Dexter, turning from the fire, "can I see you alone?"
"Certainly, dear," and placing an arm around her, Mrs. Loring went with her niece from the room.
"You have frightened me, child," said the aunt, as soon as they were alone. "What has happened? Why have you come at this untimely hour, and with such an imprudent exposure of your health?"
"I have come home, Aunt Phoebe!" Mrs. Dexter stood and looked steadily into the face of her aunt.
"Home, Jessie?" Mrs. Loring was bewildered.
"I have no other home in the wide world, Aunt Phoebe." The sadness of Jessie's low, steady voice, went deep down into the worldly heart of Mrs. Loring.
"Child! child! What do you mean?" exclaimed the astonished woman.
"Simply, that I have come back to you again--to die, I trust, and that right early!"
"Where is Mr. Dexter? What has happened? Oh, Jessie! speak plainly!" said Mrs. Loring, much agitated.
"I have left Mr. Dexter, Aunt Phoebe." She yet spoke in a calm voice. "And shall not return to him. If you will let me have that little chamber again, which I used to call my own, I will bless you for the sanctuary, and hide myself in it from the world. I do not think I shall burden you a long time, Aunt Phoebe. I am passing through conflicts and enduring pains that are too severe for me. Feeble nature is fast giving way. The time will not be long, dear aunt!"
"Sit down, child! There! Sit down." And Mrs. Loring led her niece to a chair. "This is a serious business, Jessie," she added, in a troubled voice. "I am bewildered by your strange language. What does it mean? Speak to me plainly. I am afraid you are dreaming."
"I wish it were a dream, aunt. But no--all is fearfully real. For causes of which I cannot now speak, I have separated myself from Mr. Dexter, and shall never live with him again. Our ways have parted, and forever."
"Jessie! Jessie! What madness! Are you beside yourself? Is this a step to be taken without a word of consultation with friends?"
Mrs. Loring, as soon as her mind began clearly to comprehend what her niece had done, grew strongly excited. Mrs. Dexter did not reply, but let her eyes fall to the floor, and remained silent. She had no defence to make at any human tribunal.
"Why have you done this, Jessie?" demanded her aunt.
"Forgive my reply, Aunt Phoebe; I can make no other now. The reason is with God and my own heart. He can look deeper than any human eyes have power to see; and comprehend more than I can put in words. My cause is with Him. If my burdens are too heavy, He will not turn from me because I fall fainting by the way."
"Jessie, what is the meaning of this?" Mrs. Loring spoke in a suddenly changed voice, and coming close to her niece, looked earnestly into her face. "Here is a bad bruise on your right cheek, and another on the temple just above. And the skin is inflamed around the edges of these bruises, showing them to be recent. How came this, Jessie?"
"Bruises? Are you certain?"
"Why, yes, child! and bad ones, too."
Mrs. Dexter looked surprised. She raised her hand to her cheek and temple, and pressing slightly, was conscious of pain.
"I believe I fainted in the parlor this afternoon," she said; "I must have fallen to the floor."
"Fainted! From what cause?" asked Mrs. Loring.
Mrs. Dexter was silent.
"Was it from sudden illness?"
Mrs. Loring was not satisfied with this brief answer. Imagination suggested some personal outrage.
"Was Mr. Dexter in the parlor when you fainted?" she asked.
"Why did he not save you from falling?"
"I am very cold, aunt; and my head turns. Let me lie down." Mrs. Dexter made an effort to rise. As Mrs. Loring caught her arms, she felt them shiver. Quickly leading her to the bed, she laid her in among the warm blankets; but external warmth could not subdue the nervous chill that shook her frame in every part.
"The doctor must be sent for," said Mrs. Loring--and she was about leaving the bedside.
"No, no, aunt!" Mrs. Dexter caught her hand, and held her back. "I want no physician--only quiet and seclusion. Have my own little room prepared for me, and let me go there to-night."
Mrs. Loring sat down undecided, and in great perplexity of mind.
"Listen!" Some one had rung the door-bell violently.
"Aunt!" Mrs. Dexter started up and laid her hand on the arm of Mrs. Loring. "If that is Mr. Dexter, remember that I positively refuse to meet him. I am ill, as you can see; and I warn you that the agitation of a forced interview may cost me my life."
"If it is Mr. Dexter, what shall I say? Hark! Yes! It is his step, and his voice."
"Say that I cannot be seen, and that I have left him forever."
"Aunt Loring, remonstrance is vain! I have not taken this step without a deep consciousness of being right; and no power on earth can lead me to retrace it. Let him comprehend that, in its plain significance; the sooner he does so the better will it be for both."
"Mr. Dexter wishes to see you," said a servant, coming to the door.
"Say that I will be down in a moment."
Mrs. Loring stood for some time, endeavoring to collect her thoughts and calm her feelings. She then went down to the parlor.
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