"Is Jessie here?" inquired Mr. Dexter, in a hurried manner.
"She is," replied Mrs. Loring.
"I wish to see her."
"Sit down, Mr. Dexter. I want to speak with you about Jessie."
Mr. Dexter sat down, though with signs of impatience.
"What is the meaning of this? What has happened, Mr. Dexter?"
"Only a slight misunderstanding. Jessie is over sensitive. But I must see her immediately; and alone, if you please, Mrs. Loring."
"I am sorry, Mr. Dexter, but Jessie will not see you."
"Not see me!"
"Go and say that I am here, and that I must see her, if only for a single moment."
"She knows you are here, Mr. Dexter; and her message is--'Say that I cannot seen.'"
"Where is she?" Mr. Dexter moved towards the door; but Mrs. Loring, who had taken it into her head that personal abuse--a blow, perhaps--was the cause of Jessie's flight from the residence of her husband--(she could understand and be properly indignant at such an outrage), stepping before him said--
"Don't forget, sir, that this is my house! You cannot pass into any of its apartments unless I give permission. And such permission is now withheld. My niece is in no condition for exciting interviews. There has been enough of that for one day, I should think."
"What do you mean? What has she said?" demanded Mr. Dexter, looking almost fiercely at Mrs. Loring.
"Nothing!" was replied. "She refuses to answer my questions. But I see that her mind is greatly agitated, while her person bears evidence of cruel treatment."
"Mrs. Loring!" Dexter understood her meaning, and instantly grew calm. "Evidences of cruel treatment!"
"Yes, sir! Her cheek and temple are discolored from a recent bruise. How came this?"
"She fainted, and struck herself in falling."
"In your presence?"
"And you did not put forth a hand to save her!"
Mrs. Loring's foregone conclusions were running away with her.
"Excuse me madam," said Mr. Dexter, coldly, "you are going beyond the record. I am not here at the confessional, but to see my wife. Pray, do do not interpose needless obstacles."
There was enough of contempt in the tones of Mr. Dexter to wound the pride and fire the self-love of Mrs. Loring; and enough of angry excitement about him, to give her a new impression of his character.
"You cannot see Jessie to-night," she answered firmly. "She has flown back to me in wild affright--the mere wreck of what she was, poor child! when I gave her into your keeping--and the inviolable sanctity of my house is around her. I much fear, Leon Dexter, that you have proved recreant to your trust--that you have not loved, protected, and cherished that delicate flower. The sweetness of her life is gone?"
The woman of the world had (sic) actally warmed into sentiment.
"It is I who have suffered wrong," said Mr. Dexter. "Sit down, Mrs. Loring, and hear me. If I cannot see my wife--if she willfully persists in the step she has taken--then will I clear my skirts. You, at least, if not the world, must know the truth. Sit down, madam, and listen."
They moved back from the door, and crossing the parlor, sat down together on a sofa.
"What is wrong?" asked Mrs. Loring, the manner and words of Mr. Dexter filling her mind with vague fear.
"Much," was answered.
"Your niece, I have reason to believe, is not true to me," said Dexter.
"Sir!" Astonishment and indignation blended in the tone of Mrs. Loring's voice.
"I happened to come upon her unawares to-day, taking her in the very act of encouraging the attentions of a man whose presence and detected intimacy with her, at Newport, were the causes of her illness there."
"It is false!"
Both Dexter and Mrs. Loring started to their feet.
There stood Jessie, just within the door at the lower end of the parlor, her cheeks flushed, and her eyes bright with indignation.
"It is false, sir!" she repeated, in strong, clear tones.
Mr. Dexter, after the first moment of bewildering surprise, advanced towards his wife.
"It is false--false as the evil spirit who suggested a thought of your wife's dishonor!"
Saying this, Mrs. Dexter turned and glided away. Her husband made a motion to follow, but Mrs. Loring laid her hand upon his arm.
"Light breaks into my mind," she said. "It was because you charged her with dishonorable intent that she fled from you? A man should be well fortified with proofs before he ventures so far. I will believe nothing against her, except on the clearest evidence. Can you adduce it?"
There was a homely force in this mode of presenting the subject that had the effect to open the eyes of Dexter a little to the unpleasant aspect of his position. What proof had he of his wife's infidelity--and yet he had gone so far as to say that he had reason to believe her not true to him, and that she had been detected in questionable intimacy with some one at Newport!
"Can you adduce the evidence, Mr. Dexter?" repeated Mrs. Loring.
"I may have been hasty," he said, moving back into the room. "My words may have signified too much. But she has been imprudent."
"It is not true, sir!"
The voice of Jessie startled them again. She stood almost on the spot from which they had turned a moment before.
"It is not true, sir!" she repeated her words. "Not true, in any degree! All is but the ghost of a jealous fancy! And now, sir, beware how you attempt to connect my name with evil reports or surmises! I may be stung into demanding of you the proof, and in another place than this! Never, even in thought, have I dishonored you. That is a lower deep into which my nature can never fall; and you should have known me well enough to have had faith. Alas that it was not so!"
She passed from her husband's presence again, seeming almost to vanish where she stood.
"What is to be done?" said Mr. Dexter, turning towards Mrs. Loring, with a certain shame-facedness, that showed his own perception of the aspect in which his hasty conduct had placed him.
"It is impossible to answer that question now," replied Mrs. Loring. "These muddy waters must have time to run clear. As for Jessie, it is plain that she needs seclusion, and freedom from all causes of excitement. That you have wronged her deeply by your suspicions, I have not the shadow of a doubt--how deeply, conceding her innocence, you can say better than I."
"You will not encourage her in maintaining towards me her present attitude, Mrs. Loring?"
"Not if I see any hope of reconciliation. But I must know more of your lives during the past few months. I fear that you have wholly misunderstood your wife, and so alienated her that oblivion of the past is hopeless."
"Think of the exposure and disgrace," said Mr. Dexter.
"I do think of it; and the thought sickens me."
"You will surely advise her to return."
"I can promise nothing sir. Wait--wait--wait. I have no other advice to offer. My poor child has passed through fearful trials--that is plain; and she must have time for body and mind to recover themselves. Oh, sir! how could you, knowing her feeble condition, bear down upon her so heavily as you did this day. Your words must have fallen like heavy blows; for it seems that they struck her down senseless. A second attack of brain fever, should it unfortunately follow this agitation, will certainly prove fatal."
Dexter was silent.
"We must keep our own counsel for the present," he said, at length. "The public should know nothing of all this."
"In that we are agreed," answered Mrs. Loring. "My advice to you is, to leave Jessie, for the time being at least, to her own will. Serious prostration of all her faculties, I cannot but fear as a consequence. To-morrow, she will in all probability need her physician's care."
"How will you account for her condition, should his attendance be deemed necessary?"
Mrs. Loring shook her head.
"Events," she answered, "are too recent, and my mind too much bewildered to say what course I may deem it the wisest policy to pursue. I must await the occasion, and govern myself accordingly."
"Be very prudent, madam," said Mr. Dexter. "A single error may wreck everything."
"Her reputation is as dear to me as my own," replied Mrs. Loring, "and you may be very sure, that I will guard it as a most precious thing. The warning as to circumspection I pass to you."
Mr. Dexter made a movement to retire.
"I will see you in the morning," he said, "and in the meantime, account for Jessie's absence, by saying that she paid you a visit, going out imprudently, and found herself too much indisposed to return."
Mrs. Loring merely inclined her head. A little while Dexter stood looking at her, embarrassment and trouble written on every feature. Then bowing coldly, he retired.
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