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Chapter 8

A FEW days after the meeting between Mr. Hendrickson and Miss Loring, as just mentioned, Mr. Dexter received the following communication:

"DEAR SIR--I am scarcely well enough acquainted with you to venture this note and request; but I happen to know of something so vital to your happiness, that I cannot feel conscience-clear and not ask an interview. I shall be at home this evening.

"ALICE DENISON."

Early in the evening, Dexter was at the house of Mrs. Denison.

"You have frightened me my dear madam!" he said, almost abruptly, as he entered the parlor, where he found her awaiting him.

"I have presumed on a slight acquaintance, Mr. Dexter, to ask an interview on a very delicate subject," Mrs. Denison replied. "May I speak freely, and without danger of offending, when no offence is designed?"

"I have not had the pleasure of knowing you intimately, Mrs. Denison," replied the visitor, "but it has been no fault of mine. I have always held you in high regard; and always been gratified with our passing intercourse on the few occasions it has been my privilege to meet you. That you have felt enough concern for my welfare to ask this interview, gratifies me. Say on--and speak freely. I am eager to hear."

"You are about to marry Jessie Loring," said Mrs. Denison.

"I am." And Dexter fixed his eyes with a look of earnest inquiry upon the lady's face.

Mrs. Denison had come to the subject more abruptly than she at first intended, and she was already in doubt as to her next remark; but there could be no holding back now.

"Are you sure, Mr. Dexter, that you possess her undivided heart?"

"I marvel at your question, madam!" he answered, with a start, and in a tone of surprise.

"Calmly, my friend." And Mrs. Denison, who was a woman of remarkably clear perceptions, laid her hand upon his arm. "I am not questioning idly, nor to serve any sinister or hidden purpose--but am influenced by higher motives. Nor am I acting at the instance of another. What passes between us this evening shall be sacred. I said that I knew of something vital to your happiness; therefore I asked this interview. And now ponder well my question, and be certain that you get the right answer."

Dexter let his eyes fall. He sat for a long while silent, but evidently in earnest thought.

"Have you her full, free, glad assent to the approaching union?" asked Mrs. Denison, breaking in upon his silence. She saw a shade of impatience on his countenance as he looked up and checked the words that were on his lips, by saying:

"Marriage is no light thing, my young friend. It is a relation which, more than any other, makes or mars the future; and when entered into, should be regarded as the must solemn act of life. Here all error is fatal. The step once taken, it cannot be retraced. Whether the path be rough or even, it must be pursued to the end. If the union be harmonious--internally so, I mean--peace, joy, interior delight will go on, finding daily increase--if inharmonious, eternal discord will curse the married partners. Do not be angry with me then, for pressing the question--Have you her full, free, glad, assent to the approaching union? If not, pause--for your love-freighted bark may be drifting fast upon the breakers--and not yours only, but hers.

"I have reason to fear, Mr. Dexter," continued Mrs. Denison, seeing that her visitor did not attempt to reply, but sat looking at her in a kind of bewildered surprise, "that you pressed your suit too eagerly, and gained a half unwilling consent. Now, if this be so, you are in great danger of making shipwreck. An ordinary woman--worldly, superficial, half-hearted, or no-hearted--even if she did not really love you, would find ample compensation in your fortune, and in the social advantages it must secure. But depend upon it, sir, these will not fill the aching void that must be in Jessie Loring's heart, if you have no power to fill it with your image--for she is no ordinary woman. I have observed her carefully since this engagement, and grieve to see that she is not happy. Have you seen no change?"

Mrs. Denison waited for an answer.

"She is not so cheerful; I have noticed that," replied the young man.

"Have you ever questioned in your own mind as to the cause?"

"Often."

"And what was the solution!"

"I remain ignorant of the cause."

"Mr. Dexter; I am not ignorant of the cause!"

"Speak, then, in Heaven's name!"

The young man betrayed a deeper excitement than he wished to manifest. He had been struggling with himself.

"Her heart is not yours!" said Mrs. Denison, with suppressed feeling. "It is a hard saying, but I speak it in the hope of saving both you and the maiden from a life of wretchedness."

"By what authority and under what instigation do you say this?" was demanded almost angrily. "You are going a step too far, madam!"

The change in his manner was very sudden.

"I speak from myself only," replied Mrs. Denison, calmly.

"If her heart is not mine, whose is it?" Dexter showed strong excitement.

"I am not her confidant."

"Who is? Somebody must speak from her, if I am to credit your assertion."

"Calm yourself, my young friend," said Mrs. Denison; "there are signs which a woman can read as plainly as if they were written words; and I have felt too deep an interest in this matter not to have marked every sign. Miss Loring is not happy, and the shadow upon her spirit grows darker every day. Before this engagement, her glad soul looked ever out in beauty from her eyes; now--but I need not describe to you the change. You have noted its progress. It is an extreme conclusion that her heart is not in the alliance she is about to form."

A long silence followed.

"If you were certain that I am right--if, with her own lips, Jessie Loring were to confirm what I have said--what then?"

"I would release her from this engagement; and she might go her ways! The world is wide."

He spoke with some bitterness.

"The way is plain, then. From what I have said, you are fully warranted in talking to her without reserve. Quote me if you please. Say that I made bold to assert that you did not possess the key that would unlock the sacred places of her heart; and you may add further, that I say the key is held by another. This will bring the right issue. If she truly loves you, there will be no mistaking her response. If she accepts the release you offer, happy will you be in making the most fortunate escape of your life."

"I will do it!" exclaimed Dexter, rising, "and this very night!"

"If done at all, it were well done quickly," said Mrs. Denison, rising also. "And now, my young friend, let what will be the result, think of me as one who, under the pressure of a high sense of responsibility, has simply discharged a painful duty. I have no personal or private ends to gain; all I desire is to save two hearts from making shipwreck. If successful, I shall have my reward."

"One question, Mrs. Denison," said Dexter, as they were about separating. "Its answer may give me light, and the strength to go forward. I have marked your words and manner very closely; and this is my conclusion: You not only believe that I do not possess the love of Jessie Loring, but your thought points to another man whom you believe does rule in her affections. Am I wrong?"

The suddenness of the question confused Mrs. Denison. Her eyes sunk under his gaze, and for some moments her self possession was lost. But, rallying herself, she answered:

"Not wholly wrong."

Dexter's countenance grew dark.

"His name!--give me his name!"

He spoke with agitation.

"That is going a step too far," said Mrs. Denison, with firmness.

"Is it Hendrickson?"

Dexter looked keenly into the lady's face.

"A step too far, sir," she repeated. "I cannot answer your inquiry."

"You must answer it, madam!" He was imperative. "I demand the yes or no. Is it or is it not Paul Hendrickson?"

"Your calmer reason, sir, will tell you to-morrow that I was right in refusing to give any man's name in this connection," replied Mrs. Denison. "I am pained to see you so much disturbed. My hope was, that you would go to Miss Loring in the grave dignity of manhood--But, while in this spirit of angry excitement, I pray you keep far from her."

"Hendrickson is the man!" said Dexter, his brows still contracting heavily. "But if he still hopes to rival me in Jessie's love, he will find himself vastly in error. No, no, madam! If it is for him you are interested, you had better give it up. I passed him in the race long ago!"

A feeling of disgust arose in the mind of Mrs. Denison, mingled with a stronger feeling of contempt. But she answered without a visible sign of either.

"I am sorry that you have let the form of any person come in to give right thought and honorable purpose a distorting bias. I did hope that you would see Miss Loring under the influence of a better state. And I pray you still to be calm, rational, generous, manly. Go to her in a noble, unselfish spirit. If you love her truly you desire her happiness; and to make her happy, would even release her pledged hand, were such a sacrifice needed."

"You give me credit for more virtue than I claim to possess," was answered, a little sarcastically. "Love desires to hold, not lose its object."

"Enough, my young friend," said Mrs. Denison, in her calm, earnest way. "We will not bandy words--that would be fruitless. I grieve that you should have misunderstood me in even the least thing, or let the slightest suggestion of a sinister motive find a lodgment in your mind. I have had no purpose but a good one to serve, and shall be conscience-clear in the matter. A more delicate task than this was never undertaken. That I have not succeeded according to my wishes, is no matter of surprise."

"Good evening, madam!"

Dexter bowed with a cold formality.

"Good evening!" was mildly returned.

And so the young man went away.

"I fear that only harm will come of this," said Mrs. Denison, as she retired from the door. "I meant it for the best, and pray that no evil may follow the indiscretion, if such it be!"


T.S. Arthur

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