WHEN Mrs. Loring went back to her chamber, after Mr. Dexter withdrew from the house, she found Jessie in bed, lying as still as if asleep. She looked up when her aunt came to the bedside--at first with stealthy, half-timid glances--then with more of trust, that changed into loving confidence. Mrs. Loring bent down and kissed her.
"Oh, Aunt Phoebe! that was very cruel in him."
"What was cruel, dear?"
The thoughts of Mrs. Loring went farther back than to the interview in her parlor.
"He tried to ruin me even in your regard."
"But he failed, Jessie. I will not believe the lowest whisper of an evil report against you."
"I am as pure in thought and as true in purpose, Aunt Phoebe, as when I went out from you. I do not love Mr. Dexter--I never loved him. Still that is no crime--only a necessity. He understood this in the beginning, and took the risk of happiness--so did I. But he was not satisfied with all that I could give. He wanted a heart, as well as a hand--a living, loving spirit, as well as a body. These he could not possess in me--for the heart loves not by compulsion. Then jealousy was born in his soul, and suspicion followed. Both were groundless. I felt a degrading sense of wrong; and at times, a spirit of rebellion. But I never gave place to a wandering thought--never gave occasion for wrong construction of my conduct. Ah, Aunt Phoebe! that marriage was a sad mistake. A union unblessed by love, is the commencement of a wretched life. It is the old story; and never loses its tragic interest. It was folly in the beginning, and it is madness now."
Mrs. Loring would have questioned her niece closely as to the meaning of Mr. Dexter's allusion to a certain individual as having been too intimate with his wife, but these closing remarks fell like rebuke upon her ears. She remembered how almost like a victim-lamb, Jessie had been led up to the marriage altar; and how she had overruled all objections, and appealing to her honor, had almost constrained her into the fulfillment of a promise that should never have been extorted. And so she remained silent.
"I knew it must come to this sooner or later," Jessie went on; "I knew that a time must arrive when the only alternative for me would be death or separation. The separation has taken place sooner than I had dared to hope; and for the act, I do not hold myself responsible. He flung me off! To a spirit like mine, his language was a strong repulsion; and I swept away from him with a force it would have been vain to resist. We are apart now, and apart forever."
"You are too much excited, Jessie," said Mrs. Loring, laying her finger upon the lips of her niece, "and I must enjoin silence and rest. I have faith in you. I will be your friend, though all the world pass coldly on in scorn."
Tears glistened in the eyes of Mrs. Dexter as she lifted them, with a thankful expression, to the face of her aunt, from whom she had not dared to hope for so tender a reception. She knew Mrs. Loring to be worldly-minded; she knew her to be a woman of not over delicate feelings; and as one easily affected by appearances. That she would blame, denounce, threaten, she had no doubt. A thought of approval, sympathy, aid or comfort in this fearful trial had not stirred in her imagination. This unlooked for kindness on the part of her aunt touched her deeply.
The fact was, Mr. Dexter had gone a step too far. The grossness of this outrage upon his wife, Mrs. Loring could appreciate, and it was just of the kind to arouse all her womanly indignation. A more refined act of cruelty she would not have understood; and might have adjudged her niece as capricious.
"Thank you, dear Aunt Phoebe, for this love and kindness!" Jessie could not help saying. "I need it; and, for all I have been as a wife, am worthy to receive it. As pure in thought and act as when I parted from you do I return; and now all I ask is to become again the occupant of that little chamber I once called my own; there to hide myself from all eyes--there to remain, forgotten by the gay circles in which I moved for a brief season."
"Dear heart! will you not be quiet?" said Mrs. Loring; laying her fingers once more upon her lips.
Mrs. Dexter sighed as her lashes drooped upon her cheeks. Very still she lay after this, and as her aunt stood looking upon her white, shrunken face and hollow eyes, and noted the purple stain on her cheek and temple, tears of compassion filled her eyes, and tender pity softened all her feelings.
That night Jessie slept in her aunt's room. Morning found her in a calmer state, and with less prostration of body than Mrs. Loring had feared would ensue. She did not rise until late, but met her cousins while yet in bed, with a quiet warmth of manner that placed both them and herself at ease with one another, They bad been frightened witnesses of the exciting scenes in the parlor, when Mrs. Dexter twice confronted her husband and met his intimations of wrong with indignant denial. Beyond this their mother had informed them that their cousin had left her home and might not again return to it. For the present she enjoined silence as to what had occurred; and reserve or evasion of questions should curious inquirers approach them at school or elsewhere.
Before Jessie had arisen, Mr. Dexter called. He looked worn and troubled. It was plain that his night had been sleepless.
"How is she?" he asked of Mrs. Loring, almost fearfully, as if dreading the answer. He did not pronounce the name of his wife.
"Better than I had hoped," was replied.
"Has she required the attention of a physician?"
Mr. Dexter seemed relieved.
"What is her state of mind?"
"She is more tranquil than I had expected to find her."
Mrs. Loring's manner was cold.
"Have you conversed with her this morning?"
"Will she see me?"
"I think not."
"Will you ask her?"
"Not now. She is too weak to bear a recurrence of agitating scenes."
Mr. Dexter bit his lips firmly as if striving with his feelings.
"When can I see her?"
"That question I am unable now to answer, Mr. Dexter. But my own opinion is that it will be better for you to see her to-morrow than to-day: better next week than to-morrow. You must give time for calmness and reflection."
"She is my wife!" exclaimed Mr. Dexter, not able to control himself. The manner in which this was said conveyed clearly his thought to Mrs. Loring, and she replied with equal feeling--
"But not your slave to command!"
"Madam! I warn you not to enter into this league against me--not to become a party in this wicked scheme! If you do, then you must bear the consequences of such blind folly. I am not the man to submit tamely. I will not submit."
"You are simply beating the air," replied Mrs. Loring. "There is no league against you--no wicked scheme--nothing beyond your own excited imagination; and I warn you, in turn, not to proceed one step further in this direction."
"Madam! can I see my wife?" The attitude of Mr. Dexter was threatening.
"No, sir. Not now," was the firmly spoken answer.
He turned to go.
"Well? Say on."
"I do not wish you to call here again."
"Madam! my wife is harboring here."
"I will give my servant orders not to admit you!" said Mrs. Loring, outraged by this remark.
For an instant Dexter looked as if he would destroy her, were it in his power, by a single glance; then turning away he left the house, muttering impotent threats.
And so the breach grew wider.
"I don't wonder that Jessie could not live with him," said Mrs. Loring to herself. "Such a temper! Dear heart! Who can tell how much she may have suffered?"
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