"THERE is a gentleman in the parlor, Miss Jessie," said Mary, the chambermaid, opening the door and presenting her plain, but pleasant face. It was an hour after Miss Loring had left her aunt in the sitting room.
"Who is it, Mary?"
The girl handed her a card.
On it was engraved, PAUL HENDRICKSON. The heart of Jessie Loring gave a sudden leap, and the blood sprung reddening to her very temples.
"Say that I will be with him in a few minutes."
The servant retired, and Jessie, who had arisen as she received the card, sat down, so overcome by her feelings, that she felt all bodily strength depart.
"Paul Hendrickson!" she said, whispering the name. "How little did I expect a visit from him! After our first interview last evening, he seemed studiously to avoid me."
Then she arose hastily, but in a tremor, and made some hurried changes in her dress. She was about leaving her room, when Mary again presented herself.
"Another gentleman has called," and she handed another card. Jessie took it and read LEON DEXTER!
Could anything have been more inopportune! Jessie felt a double embarrassment.
"The fates are against me I believe!" she murmured, as, after a few moments of vigorous expression of feeling, she left her room, and descended to the parlor, entering with a light but firm tread. Dexter stepped quickly forward, giving his hand in the most assured style, and putting both her and himself entirely at ease. She smiled upon him blandly, because she felt the contagion of his manner. Hendrickson was more formal and distant, and showed some embarrassment. He was not at ease himself, and failed to put Jessie at ease.
After all were seated, Dexter talked freely, while Hendrickson sat, for the most part silent, but, as Jessie felt, closely observant. Light and playful were the subjects introduced by Mr. Dexter, and his remarks caused a perpetual ripple of smiles to sparkle over the countenance of Miss Loring. But whenever Mr. Hendrickson spoke to her, the smiles faded, and she turned upon him a face so changed in expression that he felt a chill pervade his feelings. She did not mean to look grave; she did not repress the smiles purposely; there was neither coldness nor repulsion in her heart. But her sentiments touching Mr. Hendrickson were so different from those entertained for Mr. Dexter; and her estimation of his character so widely variant that she could not possibly treat him with the smiling familiarity shown towards the other. Yet all the while she was painfully conscious of being misunderstood. If she had met Mr. Hendrickson alone, she felt that it must have been different. A degree of embarrassment might have existed, but she would not have been forced to put on two opposite exteriors, as now, neither of which, correctly interpreted her state of mind, or did justice to her character.
"I did not see much of you last evening, Mr. Hendrickson. What were you doing with yourself?" she remarked, trying to be more familiar, and giving him a look that set his pulses to a quicker measure. Before he could answer, Dexter said, gaily, yet with covert sarcasm.
"Oh, Mr. Hendrickson prefers the society of elderly ladies. He spent the evening in sober confabulation with Mrs. Denison. I have no doubt she was edified. I prefer maid to matron, at any time. Old women are my horror."
Too light and gay were the tones of Dexter to leave room for offence. Hendrickson tried to rally himself, and retort with pleasant speech. But his heart was too deeply interested,--and his mood too serious for sport. His smile did not improve the aspect of his countenance; and if he meant his words for witticisms, they were perceived as sarcasms. Jessie was rather repelled than attracted--all of which he saw.
Conscious that he was wholly misrepresenting himself in the young lady's eyes, and feeling, moreover, that he was only spoiling pleasant company, Hendrickson, after a brief call, left the field clear to his rival. Jessie accompanied him to the door.
"I shall be pleased to see you again, Mr. Hendrickson," she said, in a tone of voice that betrayed something of her interest in him.
He turned to look into her eyes. They sustained his penetrating gaze only for a moment and then her long lashes lay upon her crimsoning cheeks.
"Not if I show myself as stupid as I have been this morning," said the young man.
"I have never thought you stupid, Mr. Hendrickson."
"I am dull at times," he said, hesitating, and slightly confused. "Good morning!" he added, abruptly, and turned off without another look into the eyes that were upon him; and in which he would have read more than his heart had dared to hope for.
"What a boor!" exclaimed Dexter as Miss Loring returned to the parlor.
"Oh, no, not a boor, sir. Far, very far from that," answered the young lady promptly.
"Well, you don't call him a gentleman, do you?"
"I have seen nothing that would rob him of the title," said Miss Loring.
"A true gentleman will put on a gentlemanly exterior; for he is courteous by instinct--and especially when ladies are present. A true gentleman, moreover, is always at his ease. Self-possession is one of the signs of a well bred man. Hendrickson is not well bred. Any one who has been at all in society, can perceive this at a glance. Did you notice how he played with his watch chain; crossed his legs in sitting; took out his pencil case, and moved the slide noisily backwards and forwards; ran his fingers through his hair; exhibited his pocket-handkerchief half-a-dozen times in as many minutes, and went through sundry other performances of which no well bred man is guilty? I marvel, that a young lady of your refinement can offer a word of apology for such things. I see in it only kindness of heart; and this shall be your excuse."
So gaily were the closing sentences uttered; yet with so manifest a regard softening the final words, that Miss Loring's rising anger against the young man, went down and was extinguished in a pleasing consciousness of being an object of marked favor by one whose external attractions, at least, were of the highest order.
"But the subject is not agreeable to either of us, Miss Loring," said Dexter in a voice pitched to a lower tone, and with a softer modulation. "I did not expect to find a visitor here at so early an hour; and I fear that I have permitted myself to experience just a shade of annoyance. If I have seemed ill-natured, pardon me. It is not my nature to find fault, or to criticise. I rather prefer looking upon the bright side. Like Sir Joshua Reynolds, 'I am a wide liker.' There are times, you know, in which we are all tempted to act in a way that gives to others a false impression of our real characters."
"No one is more conscious of that than I am," replied Miss Loring. "Indeed, it seems often, as if I were made the sport of adverse influences, and constrained to act and to appear wholly different from what I desire to seem. There are some of life's phenomena, Mr. Dexter, that puzzle at times my poor brain sorely."
"Don't puzzle over such things, Miss Loring," said Mr. Dexter; "I never do. Leave mysteries to philosophers; there is quite enough of enjoyment upon the surface of things without diving below, into the dark caverns of doubt and vague speculation. I never liked the word phenomenon."
"To me it has ever been an attraction. I always seem standing at some closed door, hearkening to vague sounds within and longing to enter. The outer life presents itself to me as moving figures in a show, and I am all impatient, at times, to discover the hidden machinery that gives such wonderful motion.
"Morbid; all morbid!" answered Dexter, in a lively manner. "Dreams in the place of realities, Miss Loring. Don't philosophize; don't speculate; don't think--at least not seriously. Your thinkers are always miserable. Take life as it is--full of beauty, full of pleasure. The sources of enjoyment are all around us. Let us drink at them and be thankful."
"You are a philosopher, I perceive," said Miss Loring, with a smile, "and must have been a thinker, in some degree, to have formed a theory."
"I am a cheerful philosopher."
"Are you always cheerful, Mr. Dexter?" inquired Miss Loring.
"Never feel the pressure of gloomy states? Have no transitions of feeling--sudden, unaccountable; as if the shadow of a cloud had fallen over your spirit?"
"You are singularly fortunate."
"Am I, Miss Loring?" and the young man's voice grew tender as he leaned nearer to the maiden.
"I am blessed with a cheerful temper," he added, "and I cultivate the inheritance. It is a good gift--blessing both the inheritor and his companions. Neither men nor women are long gloomy in my presence."
"I have often noticed your smiling face and pleasant words," said Jessie, "and wondered if you moved always in a sunny atmosphere."
"You are answered now," he replied.
A little while there was silence. Jessie did not feel the repulsion which had at first made Dexter's presence annoying; and as he drew his chair closer, and leaned still nearer, there was on her part no instinctive receding.
"Yes," she murmured softly, almost dreamily, "I am answered."
"Jessie." The young man's breath was on her cheek--his hand touching her hand. She remained sitting very still--still as an effigy.
"Jessie." How very low, and loving, and musical was the voice that thrilled along the chords of feeling! "Jessie; forgive me if I have mistaken the signs." His hand tightened upon hers. She felt spell-bound. She wished to start up and flee. But she could not. There was a strange, overshadowing, half paralyzing power in the man's presence. Without a purpose to do so, she returned the pressure of his hand. It was enough.
"Thanks, dear one!" he murmured. "I was sure I had not mistaken the signs. The heart has language all its own."
Still the maiden's form was motionless; and her hand lay passive in the hand that now held it with a strong clasp. Yet, how wildly did her heart beat! How tumultuous were all her feelings! How delicious the thrill that pervaded her being!
"I love you, Jessie! Dear one! Angel! And by this token you are mine!" said Dexter, his voice full of passion's fine enthusiasm. And he raised her hand to his lips, kissing it half-wildly as he did so.
"The gods have made this hour propitious!" he added, as he drew her head down against his bosom, and laid his ardent lips to hers. "Bless you, darling! Bless you!" he went on. "My life is crowned this hour with its chiefest delight! Mine! mine!"
Yet, not a word had parted the maiden's lips, thus spirited away, as it were, out of herself, and strangely betrayed into consenting silence. She had neither given her yea nor her nay--and dared as little to speak the one as the other.
Almost bereft of (sic) physicial power, she sat with her face hidden on the bosom of this impulsive lover, for many minutes. At last, thought cleared itself a little, and, with a more distinct self-consciousness, were restored individuality and strength. She raised herself, moved back a little, and looked up into the face of Mr. Dexter. The aspect of her own was not just what the young man had expected to see. He did not look upon a countenance blushing in sweet confusion; nor into eyes radiant with loving glances; but upon a pale face, and eyes whose meanings were a mystery. Slowly, yet persistently, did she withdraw her hand from his clasp, while slowly her form arose, until it gained an erect position.
"You have taken me off my guard, Mr. Dexter," she said, a tremor running through her voice.
"Say not a word, Jessie! say not a word! I am only too happy to have taken your heart captive. You are none the less my own, whether the means were force or stratagem."
"Speak not too confidently, sir. Have I"--
Mr. Dexter raised his hand quickly, and uttered a word of warning. But were silent again. Then the young man said, his manner growing deferential, and his voice falling to a low and subdued tone--
"Miss Loring, I here offer you heart and hand; and in making this offer, do most solemnly affirm that you are precious to me as life.--The highest boon I can crave from heaven is the gift of your dear self."
As he spoke, he extended his hand towards her. But her own did not stir from her lap, where it lay as still as if paralyzed.
"This is no light matter, Mr. Dexter," she said; still with the huskiness and tremor which had before veiled her voice. "I cannot decide on a thing of such infinite moment, in hot blood and on the spur of a sudden occasion. You must give me time for reflection."
"The heart knows no time. It neither reasons nor deliberates; but speaks out upon the instant, as yours has already done, Miss Loring," replied Dexter, with reviving ardor.
"Time, Mr. Dexter, time! I must have time!" said Jessie, almost imploringly.
But Dexter, who saw that time might turn the scale against him, resolved to press his suit then to the final issue.
"I cannot accept delay," he answered, throwing the most winning tenderness into his voice. "And why should you hesitate a moment?"
"My aunt"--murmured Jessie.
"Consult her with all maidenly formality. That is right--that is prudent," he said, leaning again very near to her. "But, ere we separate this morning, let me ask one question--I am not disagreeable to you?"
"Oh, no, no, Mr. Dexter!" was the quick, earnest reply.
"Nor is your heart given to another?"
"No lips but yours have ever uttered such words as have sounded in my ears this day."
"And no lips, speaking in your ears, can ever utter such words with half the heart-warmth that were in mine, dear Jessie! True love is ever ardent, and cannot wait. I must have a sign from you before I leave. You need not speak; but lay your hand in mine," and he reached his hand towards her.
It was a moment of strong trial. Again her thoughts fell into confusion. Again a wild delicious thrill swept like a strain of music through all her being. She was within the sphere of an irresistible attraction. Her hand fluttered with a sudden impulse, and then, moving towards the hand of Dexter, was seized and covered with kisses.
"Thanks, dearest!" he murmured. "Thanks! By this token I know that I am loved--by this token you are mine--mine forever! Happy, happy day! It shall be the golden one in all the calendar of my life."
With the ardor of passion he drew her to his side again, and clasping his arm around her, kissed her with all the fervor of an entranced lover--kissed her over and over again, wildly.
All this was not mere acting on the part of Mr. Dexter. He did love the sweet young girl as truly as men of his peculiar character are capable of loving. He was deeply in earnest. There was a charm about Jessie Loring which had captivated him in the beginning. She was endowed with rich mental gifts, as well as personal beauty; and with both, Dexter was charmed even to fascination. Superficial, vain of his person, and self-satisfied from his position, he had not been much troubled by doubts touching his ability to secure the hand of Miss Loring, and by his very boldness and ardor, won his suit ere she had sufficient warning of his purpose to throw a mail-clad garment around her.
Dexter remained for only a short period after this ardent declaration. He had penetration enough to see that Miss Loring was profoundly disturbed, and that she desired to be alone. He saw with concern that her countenance was losing its fine warmth, and that the lustre of her eyes was failing. Her look was becoming more inverted each moment. She was trying to read her heart, and understand the writing inscribed thereon.
"I will see you this evening, Jessie," said Mr. Dexter, on rising to depart. Their intercourse had already been touched with a shade of embarrassment.
Miss Loring forced a smile and simply inclined her head. He bent forward and kissed her. Passively--almost coldly was the salute received. Then they parted. A film of ice had already formed itself between them.
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