ON leaving Mr. Dexter, Jessie Loring almost flew to her room, like one escaping from peril. Closing and locking the door, she crossed the apartment, and falling forward against the bed, sunk down upon her knees and buried her face in a pillow. She did not pray. There was no power in her to lift a petition upwards. But weak, in bewilderment of spirit and abandonment of will she bent in deep prostration of soul and body.
It was nearly an hour before she arose. Very calm had her mind become in this long interval--very calm and very clear. With the plummet line of intense thought, quickened by keen perception, she had sounded the depths of her heart. She found places there--capacities for loving--intense yearnings--which had remained hidden until now. The current of her life had hitherto run smoothly in the sunshine, its surface gleaming and in breezy ripples. But the stream had glided from the open meadows and the sunshine, and the shadow of a great rock had fallen upon it. The surface was still as glass; and now looking downward, she almost shuddered as sight descended away, away into bewildering depths. She held her breath as she gazed like one suspended in mid-air.
"Too late! too late!" she murmured, as she lifted herself up. "Too late!"
Her countenance was pale, even haggard. There was no color in her lips--her eyes were leaden--her aspect like one who had been shocked with the news of a great calamity.
Mrs. Loring, Jessie's aunt, had been informed by the servant of whom she made inquiry, as to the identity of the gentleman who had called that morning to see her niece--or at least as to the identity of one of them. She did not make out by the servant's description the personality of Mr. Hendrickson, but that of Mr. Dexter was clear enough. She was also informed that the one whose name she could not guess, made only a brief visit, and that Mr. Dexter remained long, and was for most of the time in earnest conversation with Jessie. Her hopes gave her conclusions a wide latitude. She doubted not that the elegant, wealthy suitor was pressing a claim for the hand of her niece.
"Will she be such a little fool as to throw this splendid chance away?" she questioned with herself. "No--no;" was the answer. "Jessie will not dare to do it! She is a strange girl in some things, and wonderfully like her mother; but she will never refuse Leon Dexter, if so lucky as to get an offer."
Mrs. Loring heard Mr. Dexter leave the house, and with expectation on tip-toe, waited for Jessie to join her in the sitting-room. But while she yet listened for the sound of footsteps on the stairs below, her ears caught the light rustle of Jessie's garment as she glided along the passages and away to her own chamber.
"Something has taken place!" said Mrs. Loring to herself. "There's been a proposal, I'll bet my life on't! Why didn't the girl come and tell me at once? Ain't I her nearest relative--and haven't I always been like an own mother to her? But she's so peculiar--just as Alice used to be. I don't believe I shall ever understand her."
And Mrs. Loring fretted a little in her moderate way, not being capable of any very profound emotion. Ten, fifteen, twenty minutes--half an hour she waited for Jessie to appear. But there was no movement in the neighborhood of her chamber.
"Didn't Jessie go to her room, after the gentleman went away?" asked Mrs. Loring, speaking to a servant, who was passing down the stairs.
"Is she there now?"
"I believe so ma'am. I haven't seen her anywhere about the house."
The servant passed on, and Mrs. Loring waited for full half an hour longer. Then, unable to repress impatient curiosity, she went to Jessie's room and knocked at the door. Twice she knocked before there was a sound of life within. Then she heard footsteps--a bolt was withdrawn, and the door opened.
"Jessie!" exclaimed Mrs. Loring, "how white you are! What has happened?"
"Come in dear aunt!" said Jessie, "I have been wanting to see you; but had not yet made up my mind to seek you in the sitting-room. I am glad you are here."
Mrs. Loring passed in and Jessie closed the door.
"Take this seat aunt," and she pointed to an easy-chair: "I will sit here," drawing a lower one close to that which Mrs. Loring had taken.
"Now, dear, what has happened?" Mrs. Loring's curiosity had been so long upon the stretch, that she could ill endure delay.
"Will you listen to me patiently, Aunt Phoebe?"
There was a calmness of manner about Jessie that seemed to Mrs. Loring unnatural.
"Speak, dear--you will find me all attention."
"I am in a--strait. I must act; but cannot of my own reason, determine what action is right," said Jessie, "you must think for me, and help me to a just decision."
"Go on dear," urged Mrs. Loring.
Then as briefly and as clearly as possible, Jessie related all that had passed in her excited interview with Mr. Dexter. On concluding, she said with much earnestness of manner:
"And now, Aunt Phoebe, what I wish to know is this--will Mr. Dexter be warranted in regarding either my words or my actions, as an acceptance of his offer?"
"Certainly," was the unhesitating reply of Mrs. Loring.
There was a tone of anguish in the voice of Jessie; and her pale lips grew paler.
"Why, what can ail you, child?" said Mrs. Loring.
"I had hoped for a different decision. Mr. Dexter took me at unawares. In a certain sense, I was mesmerized by the stronger action of his mind, quickened by an ardent temperament. Self-consciousness was for a time lost, and I moved and acted by the power of his will. There was no consentation in the right meaning of the word, Aunt Phoebe, and I cannot think I am bound."
"Bound, fully, in word and act Jessie," was Mrs. Loring's firmly spoken answer. "And so every one will regard you. Mr. Dexter, I am sure, will not admit your interpretation for an instant. He, it is plain, looks upon you as affianced. So do I!"
"Oh, aunt! aunt!" cried Jessie, clasping her hands, "say not so! say not so! Knowing, as you do, all that occurred, even to the utmost particulars of my strange position in the interview, how can you take part against me?"
"Take part against you, (sic) clild! How strangely you talk! One who did not know Mr. Dexter, might suppose him to be an Ogre, or second Blue Beard. I think the events of this morning the most fortunate of your life."
"While I fear they will prove most disastrous," said Jessie.
"Nonsense, child! you are excited and nervous. There is always something novel and romantic to a young girl in an offer of marriage. It (sic) it the great event of her life. I do not wonder that you are disturbed--though I am surprised at the nature of this disturbance. Time will subdue all this. You have a beautiful life before you, darling! The cherished bride of Leon Dexter must tread a path of roses."
A long sigh parted the lips of Miss Loring, and her face, to which not even the faintest tinge of color had yet returned, bent itself downward. She was silent.
"You leaned your face against him?" said Mrs. Loring.
"He drew my head down. I had no power of resistance, aunt. There was a spell upon my senses."
"You did not reject his ardent kisses?"
"I could not."
"And when he extended his hand, and asked you to lay your own within it, as a sign and a token of love, you gave him the sign and the token. Your hands clasped in a covenant of the heart! So he regarded the act. So do I; and so will all the world regard it. Jessie, the die is cast. You cannot retreat without dishonor."
"Will you leave me, aunt?" said Jessie, after a long silence. Her tones were sad. "I am very much excited. All this has unnerved me. I would like to be alone again."
"Better come down into the sitting-room," replied Mrs. Loring.
"No, aunt. You must let me have my way."
"Willful, and like your mother," said Mrs. Loring, as she arose.
"Was my mother willful?" inquired Jessie, looking at her aunt.
"Was she happy?"
"No. I do not think she ever understood or rightly appreciated your father. But, I should not have said this. She was a beautiful, fascinating young creature, as I remember her, and your father was crazy to get her. But I don't think they were very happy together. Where the blame lay I never knew for certain, and I will make no suggestions now."
"They were uncongenial in their tastes, perhaps," said Jessie.
"Dear knows what the reason was! But she died young, poor thing! and your father was in a sad way about it. I thought, of course, he would marry again. But he did not--living a widower until his death."
"Is my mother's picture very much like her, Aunt Phoebe?"
"Very like her; but not so handsome."
"She was beautiful?"
"Oh, yes; and the reigning belle before her marriage."
Jessie questioned no farther. Her aunt's recollections of her mother were all too external to satisfy the yearnings of her heart towards that mother. Often had she sat gazing upon the picture which represented to her eyes the form and face of a parent she had never seen; and sought to comprehend some of the meanings in the blue orbs that looked down upon her so calmly. But ever had she turned away with vague, unquiet, restless feelings.
"If my mother had lived!" she would sometimes say to herself, "she could comprehend me. Into her ears I could speak words that now sleep on my lips in perpetual silence.
"Oh, if my mother were alive!" sobbed the unhappy girl, as the door closed on the retiring form of wordly-minded Aunt Phoebe. "If my mother were only alive!
"Affianced!" she said a little while after, as thought went back to the interview between herself and Mrs. Loring which had just closed. "Affianced! Yes, that was the word. 'He regards you as affianced, and so do I!' How completely has this web invested me! Is there no way of escape?" A slight shudder went through her frame. "Ah, well, well!"--low and mournfully--"It may be that my woman's ideal has been too exalted, and above the standard of real men. Mr. Dexter is handsome; kind-hearted enough, no doubt; moderately well cultivated; rich, elegant in manner, though a little too demonstrative; and, most to be considered, loves me--or, at least, declares himself my lover. That he is sincere I cannot doubt. His was not the role of a skillful actor, but living expression. I ought to be flattered if not won by the homage he pays me."
Then she sat down, and began looking into her heart again, her keen vision penetrating to its farthest recesses. A long fluttering sigh breathed at length through her lips, and starting up she said,
"I am weak and foolish! Life is a reality; not a cycle of dreamy romance. All poetry lies in the dim distance--a thing of memory or anticipation--the present is invariably prose. How these vague ideals do haunt the mind! Love! Love! I had imagined something deeper, purer, holier than anything stirring in my heart for Leon Dexter! Was I deceived? Is the poet's song but jingling rhyme?--a play of words in trancing measure? Let me bind back into quietude these wildly leaping impulses, and clip the wings of these girlish fancies. They lead not the soul to happiness in a world like ours."
Again her form drooped, and again she sat for a long period so lost in the mazes of her own thoughts, that time and place receded alike from her consciousness. Not until dinner-time did she join her aunt. Her cousins had returned from school, and she met them as usual at the table. Her exterior was carefully controlled, so that the only change visible was a slight pallor and a graver aspect. Mrs. Loring scrutinized her countenance closely. This she bore without a sign of embarrassment. She partook but lightly of food. After the meal closed she retired to her own room, once more to torture her brain in a fruitless effort to solve this great problem of her life.
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