THE visit of Hendrickson was an hour too late, Dexter had already been there, and pressed his suit to a formal issue. The bold suitor had carried off the prize, while the timid one yet hesitated. Jessie went back to her room, after her interview with Paul Hendrickson, in spiritual stature no longer a half developed girl, but a full woman grown. The girl's strength would no longer have sustained her. Only the woman's soul, strong in principle and strong to endure, could bear up now. And the woman's soul shuddered in the conflict of passions that came like furies to destroy her--shuddered and bent, and writhed like some strong forest-tree in the maddening whirl of a tempest. But there was no faltering of purpose. She had passed her word--had made a solemn life-compact, and, she resolved to die, but not to waver.
The question as to whether she were right or wrong, it is not for us here to decide. We but record the fact. Few women after such a discovery would have ventured to move on a step farther. But Jessie was not an ordinary woman. She possessed a high sense of personal honor; and looked upon any pledge as a sacred obligation. Having consented to become the wife of Leon Dexter, she saw but one right course, and that was to perform, as best she could, her part of the contract.
How envied she was! Many wondered that Dexter should have turned aside for a portionless girl, when he might have led a jewelled bride to the altar. But though superficial, he had taste and discrimination enough to see that Jessie Loring was superior to all the maidens whom it had been his fortune to meet. And so, without pausing to look deeply into her heart, or take note of its peculiar aspirations and impulses, he boldly pressed forward resolved to win. And he did win; and in winning, thought, like many another foolish man, that to win the loveliest, was to secure the highest happiness. Fatal error! Doubly fatal!
It is impossible for any woman to pass through an ordeal like the one that was testing the quality of Jessie Loring, and not show signs of the inward strife. It is in no way surprising, therefore, that, in her exterior, a marked change soon became visible. There was a certain dignity and reserve, verging, at times, on coldness, not seen prior to her (sic) engagment--and a quiet suppression of familiarity, even with her most intimate friends. The same marked change was visible in her intercourse with Mr. Dexter. She did not meet him with that kind of repulsion which is equivalent to pushing back with the hand. She accepted his loving ardor of speech and act; but passively. There was no responsive warmth.
At first Mr. Dexter was puzzled, and his ardent feelings chilled. He loved, admired, almost worshipped the beautiful girl from whom consent had been extorted, and her quiet, cold manner, troubled his sorely. Glimpses of the real truth dawned into his mind. He let his thoughts go back, and went over again, in retrospection, every particular of their intercourse--dwelling minutely upon her words, looks, manner and emotions at the time he first pressed his suit upon her. The result was far from satisfactory. She had not met his advances as he had hoped; but rather fled from him--and he had gained her only by pursuit. Her ascent had not come warmly from her heart, but burdened with a sigh. Mr. Dexter felt that though she was his, she had not been fairly won. The conviction troubled him.
"I will release her," he said, in a sudden glow of generous enthusiasm. But Mr. Dexter had not the nobility for such a step. He was too selfish a man to relinquish the prize.
"I will woo and win her still." This was to him a more satisfactory conclusion. But he had won all of her in his power to gain. Her heart was to him a sealed book. He could not unclasp the volume, nor read a single page.
Earnestly at times did Jessie strive to appear attractive in the eyes of her betrothed--to meet his ardor with returning warmth. But the effort was accompanied with so much pain, that suffering was unable to withdraw wholly beneath a veil of smiles.
The wordy, restless pleasure evinced by Mrs. Loring, was particularly annoying to Jessie; so much so that any allusion by her aunt to the approaching marriage, was almost certain to cloud her brow. And yet so gratified was this worldly-minded woman, at the good fortune of her niece in securing so (sic) brillant an alliance, that it seemed as if, for a time, she could talk of nothing else.
Mr. Dexter urged an early marriage, while Jessie named a period nearly a year in advance; but, as she could give no valid reason for delaying their happiness so long, the time was shortened to four months. As the day approached, the pressure on the heart of Miss Loring grew heavier.
"Oh, if I could die!" How many times in the silence of night and in the loneliness of her chamber did her lips give forth this utterance.
But the striving spirit could not lay down its burden thus.
Not once, since the exciting interview we have described, had Paul and Jessie met. At places of fashionable amusement she was a constant attendant in company with Dexter, who was proud of her beauty. But though her eyes searched everywhere in the crowded audiences, in no instance did she recognize the face of Hendrickson. In festive companies, where he had been a constant attendant, she missed his presence. Often she heard him inquired after, yet only once did the answer convey any intelligence. It was at an evening party. "Where is Mr. Hendrickson? It is a long time since I have seen him," she heard a lady say. Partly turning she recognized Mrs. Denison as the person addressed. The answer was in so low a tone that her ear did not make it out, though she listened with suspended breath.
"Ah! I'm sorry," responded the other. "What is the cause?"
"A matter of the heart, I believe," said Mrs. Denison.
"Indeed is he very much depressed?"
"He is changed," was the simple reply.
"Who was the lady?"
Jessie did not hear the answer.
"You don't tell me so!" In a tone of surprise, and the lady glanced around the room.
"And he took it very much to heart?" she went on.
"Yes. I think it will change the complexion of his whole life," said Mrs. Denison. "He is a man of deep feeling--somewhat peculiar; over diffident; and not given to showing himself off to the best advantage. But he is every inch a man--all gold and no tinsel! I have known him from boyhood, and speak of his quality from certain knowledge."
"He will get over it," remarked the lady. "Men are not apt to go crazy after pretty girls. The market is full of such attractions."
"It takes more than a painted butterfly to dazzle him, my friend," said Mrs. Denison. "His eyes are too keen, and go below the surface at a glance. The woman he loves may regard the fact as a high testimonial."
"But you don't suppose he is going to break his heart over this matter."
"No--oh, no! That is an extreme disaster."
"He will forget her in time; and there are good fish in the sea yet."
"Time is the great restorer," said Mrs. Denison; "and time will show, I trust, that good will come from this severe trial which my young friend is now enduring. These better natures are oftenest exposed to furnace heat, for only they have gold enough to stand the ordeal of fire."
"He is wrong to shut himself out from society."
"So I tell him. But he says 'wait--wait, I am not strong enough yet.'"
"He must, indeed, take the matter deeply to heart."
Here the voice fell to such a low measure, that Jessie lost all distinction of words. But the few sentences which had reached her ears disturbed her spirit profoundly--too profoundly to make even a ripple on the surface. No one saw a change on her countenance, and her voice, answering a moment after to the voice of a friend, betrayed no unusual sign of feeling.
And this was all she had heard of him for months.
Once, a little while before her marriage, she met him. It was a few weeks after these brief unsatisfactory sentences had troubled the waters of her spirit. She had been out with her aunt for the purpose of selecting her wedding attire; and after a visit to the dressmaker's, was returning alone, her aunt wishing to make a few calls at places where Jessie did not care to go. She was crossing one of the public squares when the thought of Hendrickson came suddenly into her mind. Her eyes were cast down at the moment. Looking up, involuntarily, she paused, for within a few paces was the young man himself, approaching from the opposite direction. He paused also, and they stood with eyes riveted upon each other's faces--both, for a time, too much embarrassed to speak. Their hands had mutually clasped, and Hendrickson was holding that of Jessie tightly compressed within his own.
The first to regain self-possession was Miss Loring. With a quick motion she withdrew her hand, and moved back a single step. The mantling flush left her brow, and the startled eyes looked calmly into the young man's face.
"Have you been away from the city, Mr. Hendrickson?" she inquired, in a voice that gave but few signs of feeling.
"No." He could not trust himself to utter more than a single word.
"I have missed you from the old places," she said.
"Have you? It is something, even to be missed?" He could not suppress the tremor in his voice.
Jessie almost sprang past him, and hurried away. The tempter was at her side; and she felt it to be an hour of weakness. She must either yield or fly--and she fled; fled with rapid unsteady feet, pausing not until the door of her own chamber shut out all the world and left her alone with Heaven. Weak, trembling, exhausted she bowed herself, and in anguish of spirit prayed--
"Oh, my Father, sustain me! Give me light, strength, patience, endurance. I am walking darkly, and the way is rough and steep. Let me not fall. The floods roar about me--let me not sink beneath them. My heart is failing under its heavy burden. Oh, bear me up! The sky is black--show me some rift in the clouds, for I am fainting in this rayless night. And oh, if I dare pray for him--if the desire for his happiness springs from no wrong sentiment--let this petition find favor--as he asked that I might be kept spotless as the angels, so keep him; and after he has passed through the furnace, let not even the smell of fire be upon him. Send him a higher blessing than that which he has lost. Oh Lord, give strength to both--especially to her whose voice is now ascending, for she is weakest, and will have most to endure."
For a long time after the murmur of prayer had died on her lips, Jessie remained prostrate. When she arose at last, it was with a slow, weary movement, dreary eyes, and absent manner. The shock of this meeting had been severe--disturbing her too profoundly for even the soothing influence of prayer. She did not arise from her knees comforted--scarcely strengthened. A kind of benumbing stupor followed.
"What ails the girl!" said Mrs. Loring to herself as she vainly strove at dinner-time to draw her forth into lively conversation. "She gets into the strangest states--just like her poor mother! And like her I'm afraid, sometimes, will make herself and every one else around her miserable. I pity Leon Dexter, if this be so. He may find that his caged bird will not sing. Already the notes are few and far between; and little of the old sweetness remains."
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