IT was an hour from the time Mr. Hendrickson left the house of Mrs. Denison before he found himself in one of Mrs. Loring's parlors. He had been home, where a caller detained him.
Full ten minutes elapsed after his entrance, ere Jessie's light tread was heard on the stairs. She came down slowly, and as she entered the room, Hendrickson was struck with the singular expression of her face. At the first glance he scarcely recognized her.
"Are you not well, Miss Loring?" he asked, stepping forward to meet her.
His manner was warm, and his tones full of sympathy.
She smiled faintly as she answered--
"Not very well. I have a blinding headache."
Still holding the hand she had extended to him in meeting, Mr. Hendrickson led her to a sofa, and sat down by her side. He would have retained the hand, but she gently withdrew it, though not in a way that involved repulsion.
"I am sorry for your indisposition," he said, in a tone of interest so unusual for him, that Miss Loring lifted her eyes, which had fallen to the carpet, and looked at him half shyly--half interrogatingly.
"If you had sent me word that you were not well, Miss Loring"--
He paused, gazing very earnestly upon her face, into which crimsoning blushes began to come.
"I am pleased to meet you, Mr. Hendrickson. I did not wish to be excused," she answered, and then, as if she had been led to utter more than maidenly modesty approved, averted her face suddenly, and seemed confused. There followed a moment or two of silence; when her visitor said, leaning close to her, and speaking in a low, penetrating, steady voice--
"Your reply, Miss Loring, is an admission of more than I had expected--not more than I had hoped."
He saw her start, as if she had touched an electric wire. But her face remained averted.
Warmer words were on his lips, hut he hesitated to give them utterance. There was a pause. Motionless sat the young maiden, her face still partly turned away. Suddenly, and with an almost wild impulse, Hendrickson caught her hand, and raising it to his lips, said--
"I cannot hold back the words a moment longer, dear Miss Loring! From the hour I first looked into your face, I felt that we were made for each other; and now"--
But ere he could finish the sentence, Jessie had flung his hand away and started to her feet.
He was on his feet also. For some moments they stood gazing at each other. The countenance of Miss Loring was of an ashen hue; her lips, almost as pallid as her cheeks, stood arching apart, and her eyes had the stare of one frightened by some fearful apparition.
"Miss Loring! pardon my folly! Your language made me bold to utter what had else slept in my heart eternally silent. Forget this hour!"
"Never! Never!" and she struck her hands together wildly. Her voice had in it a wail of suffering that sent a thrill to the heart of Paul Hendrickson.
Then recollecting herself, she struggled for the mastery over her feelings. He saw the struggle, and awaited the result. A brief interval sufficed to restore a degree of self-possession.
"I have nothing then to hope?" said the young man. His tones were evenly balanced.
"Too late! Too late!" she answered, in a hoarse voice. "The cup is dashed to pieces at my feet, and the precious wine spilled!"
"Oh, speak not thus! Recall the words!" exclaimed Hendrickson, reaching out his hands towards her.
But she moved back a pace or (sic) too repeating the sentence--
"Too late! Too late!"
"It is never too late!" urged the now almost desperate lover, advancing towards the maiden.
But retreating from him she answered in a warning voice--
"Touch me not! I am already pledged to another!"
"Impossible! Oh, light of my life!"
"Sir! tempt me not!" she said interrupting him, "I have said it was too late! And now leave me. Go seek another to walk beside you in life's pleasant ways. Our paths diverge here."
"I will not believe it, Miss Loring! This is only a terrible dream!" exclaimed Hendrickson.
"A dream?" Jessie seemed clutching at the garments of some departing hope. "A dream!" She glanced around in a bewildered manner. "No--no--no." Almost despairingly the words came from her lips. "It is no dream, Paul Hendrickson! but a stern reality. And now," speaking quickly and with energy, "in Heaven's name leave me!"
"Not yet--not yet," said the young man, reaching for his hands and trying to take one of hers; but she put both of her hands behind her and stepped back several paces.
"Spare me the pain of a harsh word, Mr. Hendrickson. I have said--leave me!"
Her voice had acquired firmness.
"Oh, no! Smite me not with an unkind word," said Hendrickson. "I would not have that added to the heavy burden I seem doomed to bear. But ere I go, I would fain have more light, even if it should make the surrounding darkness black as pall."
His impassioned manner was gone.
"I am calm," he added, "calm as you are now, Miss Loring. The billows have fallen to the level plain under the pressure of this sudden storm. You have told me it was too late. You have said, 'leave me!' I believe you, and I will go. But, may I ask one question?"
"Speak, Mr. Hendrickson; but beware how you speak."
"Had I spoken as now this morning, would you have answered: 'Too late?'"
He was looking intently upon her face. She did not reply immediately, but seemed pondering. Hendrickson repeated the question.
"I have said that it was now too late." Miss Loring raised her eyes and looked steadily upon him. "Go sir, and let this hour and this interview pass from your memory. If you are wise, you will forget it. Be just to me, sir. If I have betrayed the existence of any feeling towards you warmer than respect, it has been under sudden and strong temptation. As a man of honor, you must keep the secret inviolate."
There was not a sign of girlish weakness about the calm speaker. Her small head was erect; her slight body drawn to its full height; her measured tones betrayed not a ripple of feeling.
"I am affianced, and know my duty," she added. "Know it, and will perform it to the letter. And now, sir, spare me from this moment. And when we meet again, as meet no doubt we shall, let it be as friends--no more."
The pressure of despair was on the heart of Paul Hendrickson. He was not able to rally himself. He could not retain the calm exterior a little while before assumed.
"We part, then," he said, speaking in a broken voice--"part--and, ever after, a great gulf must lie between us! I go at your bidding," and he moved towards the door. "Farewell, Miss Loring." He extended his hand; she took it, and they stood looking into each other's eyes.
"God bless you, and keep you spotless as the angels!" he added, suddenly raising her hand to his lips, and kissing it with wild fervor. In the next moment the bewildered girl was alone.
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