MRS. DENISON'S fears were prophetic. Evil, not good, came of her well meant efforts to prevent the coming sacrifice. Instead of awakening generous impulses in the mind of Leon Dexter, only anger and jealousy were aroused; and as they gained strength, love withdrew itself, for love could not breathe the same atmosphere. The belief that Hendrickson was the man to whom Mrs. Denison referred, was fully confirmed by this fact. Dexter had resolved to see Miss Loring that very evening, and was only a short distance from her home, and in sight of the door, when he saw a man ascend the steps and ring. He stopped and waited. A servant came to the door and the caller entered. For a time, the question was revolved as to whether he should follow, or not.
"It is Hendrickson. I'll wager my life on it!"--he muttered, grinding his teeth together. "There is a cursed plot on foot, and this insinuating, saintly Mrs. Denison, is one of the plotters! My very blood is seething at the thought. Shall I go in now, and confront him at his devilish work?"
"It were better not," he said, after a brief struggle with his feelings. "I am too excited, and cannot answer for myself. A false step now might ruin all. First, let me cage my singing bird, and then"--
He strode onwards and passed the house of Mrs. Loring with rapid steps. There was a light in the parlor, and he heard the sound of voices. Ten minutes after, he returned--the light was there still; but though he went by slowly, with noiseless footsteps--listening--not a murmur reached his ears.
"He is there, a subtle tempter, whispering his honeyed allurements!" It was the fiend Jealousy speaking in his heart. "Madness!" he ejaculated, and he strode up the marble steps. Grasping the bell, he resolved to enter. But something held back his hand, and another voice said--"Wait! Wait! A single error now were fatal."
Slowly he descended, his ear bent to the windows, listening--slowly, still listening, he moved onwards again; his whole being convulsed in a stronger conflict of passion than he had ever known--reason at fault and perception blindfold.
A full half hour had elapsed, when Dexter reappeared. He was in a calmer frame of mind. Reason was less at fault, and perception clearer. His purpose was to go in now, confront Jessie and Mr. Hendrickson, and act from that point onward as the nature of the case might suggest. He glanced at the parlor windows. There was no light there now. The visitor had departed. He felt relieved, yet disappointed.
"Is Miss Loring at home?" he asked of the servant.
"Yes, sir." And he entered. The lights, which were burning low in the parlors, were raised, and Dexter sat down and awaited the appearance of Jessie.
How should he meet her? With the warmth of a lover, or the distance of a mere acquaintance? Would it be wise to speak of his interview with Mrs. Denison, or let that subject pass untouched by even the remotest allusion? Mr. Dexter was still in debate, when he heard some one descending the stairs. Steps were in the passage near the door. He arose, and stood expectant.
"Miss Loring says, will you please excuse her this evening?"
"Excuse her!" Mr. Dexter could not veil his surprise. "Why does she wish to be excused, Mary?"
"I don't know sir. She didn't say."
"Is she sick?"
"I don't think she is very well. Something isn't right with her, poor child!"
"What isn't right with her?"
"I don't know, sir. But she was crying when I went into her room."
"Yes, sir; and she cries a great deal, all alone there by herself, sir," added Mary, who had her own reasons for believing that Dexter was not really the heart-choice of Jessie--and with the tact of her sex, took it upon herself to throw a little cold water over his ardor. It may be that she hoped to give it a thorough chill.
"What does she cry about, Mary?"
"Dear knows, sir! I often wonder to see it, and she so soon to be married. It doesn't look just natural. There's something wrong."
"Wrong? How wrong, Mary?"
"That's just what I asked myself over and over again," replied the girl.
"She had a visitor here to-night," said Dexter, after a moment or two. He tried to speak indifferently; but the quick perception of Mary detected the covert interest in his tones.
"Yes." A single cold (sic) monosylable was her reply.
"Who was he?"
"'Deed I don't know, sir."
"Was he a stranger?"
"I didn't see him, sir," answered Mary.
"You let him in?"
"No, sir. The cook went to the door."
Dexter bit his lips with disappointment.
"Will you say to Miss Loring that I wish to see her particularly to-night."
"Why don't you take up my request?" He spoke with covert impatience.
"I am sure she wishes to be excused to-night," persisted the girl. "She's not at all herself; and it will be cruel to drag her down."
But Dexter waved his hand, and said, sharply:
"I wish to hear no more from you, Miss Pert! Go to Miss Loring, and tell her that she will confer a favor by seeing me this evening. I can receive no apology but sickness."
Jessie was sitting as Mary had left her, both hands covering her face, when that kind-hearted creature returned.
"It's too much!" exclaimed the girl, as she entered. "He must see you, he says. I told him you wasn't well, and wished to be excused. But no, he must see you! Something's gone wrong with him. He's all out of sorts, and spoke as if he'd take my head off. He really frightened me!"
Jessie drew a long deep sigh.
"If I must, I must," she said, rising and looking at her face in the mirror.
"I wouldn't go one step, Miss Jessie, if I were you. I'd like to see the man who dared order me down in this style. He's jealous; that's the long and short of it. Punish him--he deserves it."
"Jealous, Mary?" Miss Loring turned to the girl with a startled look. "Why do you say that?"
"Oh, he asked me if you hadn't a visitor to-night."
"I said yes. Only 'yes,' and no more."
"Why yes, and no more?" asked Miss Loring.
"D'ye think I was going to gratify him! What business had he to ask whether you had a visitor or not? You ain't sold to him."
"Mary!" There was reproof in the look and voice of Miss Loring. "You must not speak so of Mr. Dexter."
"Well, I won't if it displeases you. But I was downright mad with him."
"You said yes to his question. What then, Mary?"
"Oh, then he wanted to know who he was."
"Did you tell him?"
"Why? And what did you answer?"
"I wasn't going to gratify him; and I said that I didn't know."
"'Was he a stranger?' said he. 'I didn't see him,' said I. 'You let him in?' said he. 'No, the cook went to the door,' said I. You should have seen him then. He was baffled. Then looking almost savage, he bid me tell you that you must see him to-night."
"Must see him! Did he say must?"
There was rebellion in Jessie's voice.
"Well no, not just that word. But he looked and meant it, which is all the same."
"Then he doesn't know who called to see me?"
"Not from all he got from me, miss. But you're not going down?"
"Yes, Mary; I will see him as he desires. Go and say that I will join him in a few minutes."
The girl obeyed, and Jessie, after struggling a few moments with her feelings, went down to the parlor, where Mr. Dexter awaited her.
"I am sorry to learn that you are not well this evening," said the young man, as he advanced across the room, with his eyes fixed intently on the face of his betrothed. She tried to smile, and receive him with her usual kindness of manner. But this was impossible. She had been profoundly disturbed, and that too recently for self-possession.
"What ails you? Has anything happened?"
Jessie had not yet trusted her lips with words. The tones of Dexter evinced some fretfulness.
"I am not very well," she said, partly turning away her face that she might avoid the searching scrutiny of his eyes.
Dexter took her hand and led her to a sofa. They sat down, side by side, in silence--ice between them.
"Have you been indisposed all day?" inquired Dexter.
"I have not been very well for some time," was answered in a husky voice, and in a manner that he thought evasive.
Again there was silence.
"I called to see Mrs. Denison this evening," said Dexter; and then waited almost breathlessly for a response, looking at Jessie stealthily to note the effect of his words.
There was scarcely a sign of interest in her voice.
"Yes. You have met her, I believe?"
"A few times."
"Have you seen her recently?"
Dexter gained nothing by this advance.
"What do you think of her?" he added, after a pause.
"She is a lady of fine social qualities and superior worth."
Again the young man was silent. He could not discover by Jessie's manner that she had any special interest in Mrs. Denison. This was some relief; for it removed the impression that there was an understanding between them.
"I don't admire her a great deal," he said, with an air of indifference. "She's a little too prying and curious; and I'm afraid, likes to gossip."
"Ah! I thought her particularly free from that vice."
"I had that impression also. But my interview this evening gave me a different estimate of her character."
"Did you come from Mrs. Denison's directly here?" asked Jessie in a changed tone, as if some thought of more than common interest had flitted through her mind. This change Dexter did not fail to observe.
"I did," was his answer.
"Then I may infer," said Jessie, "that your pressing desire to see me this evening has grown out of something you heard from the lips of Mrs. Denison. Am I right in this conclusion?"
Dexter was not quite prepared for this. After a slight hesitation he answered--
The cold indifferent manner of Jessie Loring passed away directly.
"If you have anything to communicate, as of course you have, say on, Mr. Dexter."
As little prepared was he for this; and quite as little for the almost stately air with which Jessie drew up her slight form, returning his glances with so steady a gaze that his eyes fell.
The hour and the opportunity had come. But Leon Dexter had neither the manliness nor the courage to speak.
"Did Mrs. Denison introduce my name?" asked Jessie, seeing that her lover had failed to answer. There was not a quiver in her voice, nor the slightest failing in her eyes.
"Yes; casually." Dexter spoke with evasion.
"What did she say?"
"Nothing but what was good," said Dexter, now trying to resume his wonted pleasant exterior. "What else could she say? You look as if there had been a case of slander."
"She said something in connection with my name," answered Jessie firmly, "that disturbed you. Now as you have disclosed so much, I must know all."
"I have made no disclosures." Dexter seemed annoyed.
"You said you were at Mrs. Denison's."
"And said it with a meaning. I noticed both tone and manner. You came directly here, according to your own admission, and asked for me. Not being well, I desired to be excused. But you would take no excuse. Your manner to the servant was not only disturbed, but imperative. To me it is constrained, and altogether different from anything I have hitherto noticed. So much is disclosed. Now I wish you to go on and tell the whole story. Then we shall understand each other. What has Mrs. Denison said about me that has so ruffled your feelings?"
There was no retreat for the perplexed young man. He must go forward in some path--straight or tortuous--manly or evasive. There was too much apparent risk in the former; and so he chose the latter. All at once his exterior changed. The clouded brow put on a sunny aspect.
"Forgive me, dear Jessie!" he said with ardor, and a restored tenderness of manner. "True love has ever a touch of jealousy; and something that Mrs. Denison intimated aroused that darker passion. But the shadowed hour has passed, and I am in the clear sunlight again."
He raised her hand to his lips, and kissed it with fervor.
"What did she intimate?" asked Miss Loring. Her manner was less excited, and her tone less imperative.
"What I now see to be false," said Dexter. "I was disturbed because I imagined intrigue, and a purpose to rob me of something I prize more dearly than life--the love of my Jessie."
"Intrigue!" was answered; "you fill me with surprise. Mrs. Denison, if I understand her, is incapable of anything so dishonorable."
"I don't know." Mr. Dexter spoke with the manner of one in doubt, and as if questioning his own thoughts. "She has filled my mind with dark suspicions. Why, Jessie!" and he assumed a more animated exterior, "she went so far as to intimate a disingenuous spirit in you!"
"In me!" Miss Loring's surprise was natural. "Disingenuousness!"
"That word is not the true one," said Dexter. "What she said meant something more."
"That you were--but I will not pain your ears, darling! Forgive my foolish indignation. Love with me is so vital a thing, that the remotest suspicion of losing its object, brings smarting pain. You are all the world to me, Jessie, and the intimation"--
"Of what, Leon?"
He had left the sentence unfinished. Dexter was holding one of her hands. She did not attempt to withdraw it.
"That you were false to me!"
The words caused Miss Loring to spring to her feet. Bright spots burned on her cheeks, and her eyes flashed.
"False to you! What did she mean by such words?" was demanded.
"It was the entering wedge of suspicion," said Dexter. "But the trick has failed. My heart tells me that you are the soul of honor. If I was disturbed, is that a cause of wonder? Would not such an allegation against me have disturbed you? It would! But that your heart is pure and true as an angel's, I best know of all the living. Dear Jessie!" and he laid a kiss upon her burning cheek,
"I shall never cease to blame myself for the part I have played this evening. Had I loved you less I had been calmer."
"False in what way?" asked Miss Loring, unsatisfied with so vague an answer.
"False to your vows, of course. What else could she mean?"
"Did she say that?"
"No--of course not. But she conveyed the meaning as clearly as if she had uttered the plainest language."
"What were her words?" asked Miss Loring.
"I cannot repeat them. She spoke with great caution, keeping remote, as to words, from the matter first in her thought, yet filling my mind with vague distrust, or firing it with jealousy at every sentence."
"Can you fix a single clear remark--something that I can repeat?"
"Not one. The whole interview impresses me like a dream. Only the disturbance remains. But let it pass as a dream, darling--a nightmare created by some spirit of evil. A single glance into your dear face and loving eyes rebukes my folly and accuses me of wrong. We are all the world to each other, and no shadow even shall come again between our souls and happiness."
Jessie resumed her seat and questioned no farther. Was she satisfied with the explanation? Of course not. But her lover was adroit, and she became passive.
"You cannot wonder now," he said, "that I was so anxious to see you this evening. I might have spared you this interview, and it would have been better, perhaps, if I had done so. But excited lovers are not always the most reasonable beings in the world. I could not have slept to-night. Now I shall find the sweetest slumber that has yet refreshed my spirit--and may your sleep, dearest, be gentle as the sleep of flowers! I will leave you now, for I remember that you are far from being well this evening. It will grieve me to think that my untimely intrusion, and this disturbing hour, may increase the pain you suffer or rob you of a moment's repose.--Good night, love!" and he kissed her tenderly. "Good night, precious one!" he added. "May angels be your companions through the dark watches, and bring you to a glorious morning!"
He left her, and moved towards the door; yet lingered, for his mind was not wholly at ease in regard to the state of Jessie's feelings. She had not repelled him in any way--but his ardent words and acts were too passively received. She was standing where he had parted from her, with her eyes upon the floor.
She looked up.
"Good night, dear!"
"Good night, Mr. Dexter."
"Mr. Dexter!" The young man repeated the words between his teeth, as he passed into the street a moment afterwards. "Mr. Dexter! and in tones that were cold as an icicle!"
He strode away from the house of Mrs. Loring, but little comforted by his interview with Jessie, and with the fiend Jealousy a permanent guest in his heart.
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