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Chapter 12

XII.

Hewson ate the meal before him, and it was a very good one, as from time to time he noted, in a daze which was as strange a confusion of the two consciousnesses as he had ever experienced. Whatever the convention was between Miss Hernshaw and Mrs. Rock with regard to the matter in hand, or lately in hand, it dropped, after a few uninterested inquiries from Mrs. Rock, who was satisfied, or seemed so, to know that Miss Hernshaw had got at the worst. She led the talk to other things, like the comparative comforts and discomforts of the line to Genoa and the line to Liverpool; and Hewson met her upon these polite topics with an apparent fulness of interest that would have deceived a much more attentive listener.

All the time he was arguing with Miss Hernshaw in his nether consciousness, pleading with her to keep her away from the fact that he had himself bought St. Johnswort, until he could frame some fitting form in which to tell her that he had bought it. With his outward eyes, he saw her drooping on the opposite side of the table, and in spite of her declaration that she wanted her breakfast, making nothing of it, after the preliminary melon, while to his inward vision she was passionately refusing, by every charming perversity, to be tempted away from the subject.

As the Cunard boats always get in on Saturday, this morrow of their arrival was naturally Sunday; and after a while Hewson fancied symptoms of going to church in Mrs. Rock. She could not have become more vague than she ordinarily was, but her wanderings were of a kind of devotional character. She spoke of the American church in Rome, and asked Hewson if he knew the rector. Then, when he said he was afraid he was keeping her from going to church, she said she did not know whether Rosalie intended going. At the same time she rose from the table, and Hewson found that he should not be allowed to sit down again, unless by violence. He had to go away, and he went, as little at ease in his mind as he very well could be.

He was no sooner out of the house than he felt the necessity of returning. He did not know how or when Miss Hernshaw would write to St. John, but that she would do so, he did not at all doubt, and then, when the truth came out, what would she think of him? He did not think her a very wise person; she seemed to him rather a wild and whirling person in her ideals of conduct, an unbridled and undisciplined person; and yet he was aware of profoundly and tenderly respecting her as a creature of the most inexpugnable innocence and final goodness. He could not bear to have her feel that he had trifled with her. There had not been many meetings between them, but each meeting had been of such event that it had advanced their acquaintance far beyond the point that it could have reached through weeks of ordinary association. From the first there had been that sort of intimacy which exists between spirits which encounter in the region of absolute sincerity. She had never used the least of those arts which women use in concealing the candor of their natures from men unworthy of it; she had not only practiced her rule of instant and constant veracity, but had avowed it, and as it were, invited his judgment of it. Hitherto, he had met her half-way at least, but now he was in the coil of a disingenuousness which must more and more trammel him from her, unless he found some way to declare the fact to her.

This ought to have been an easy matter, but it was not easy; upon reflection it grew rather more difficult. Hewson did not see how he could avow the fact, which he wished to avow, without intolerable awkwardness; without the effect of boasting, without putting upon her a burden which he had no right to put. To be sure, she had got herself in for it all by her divine imprudence, but she had owned her error in that as promptly as if it had been the blame of some one else. Still Hewson doubted whether her magnanimity was large enough to go round in the case of a man who tried to let his magnanimity come upon her with any sort of dramatic surprise. This was what he must seem to be doing if he now left her to learn from another how he had kept St. John from loss by himself assuming the chance of depreciation in his property. But if he went and told her that he had done it, how much better for him would that be?

He took a long, unhappy walk up into the Park, and then he walked back to the Walholland. By this time he thought Mrs. Rock and Miss Hernshaw must have been to church, but he had not the courage to send up his name to them. He waited about in the region of the dining-room, in the senseless hope that it would be better for him to surprise them on their way to luncheon, and trust to some chance for introducing his confession, than to seek a direct interview with Miss Hernshaw. But they did not come to luncheon, and then Hewson had the clerk send up his card. Word came back that the ladies would see him, and he followed the messenger to Mrs. Rock's apartment, where if he was surprised, he was not disappointed to be received by Miss Hernshaw alone.

"Mrs. Rock is lying down," she explained, "but I thought that it might be something important, and you would not mind seeing me."

"Not at all," said Hewson, with what seemed to him afterwards superfluous politeness, and then they both waited until he could formulate his business, Miss Hernshaw drooping forward, and looking down in a way that he had found was most characteristic of her. "It is something important—at least it is important to me. Miss Hernshaw, may I ask whether you have done anything—it seems a very unwarrantable question—about St. Johnswort?"

"About buying it?"

"Yes. It will be useless to make any offer for it."

"Why will it be useless to do that?"

"Because—because I have bought it myself."

"You have bought it?"

"Yes; when he came to me last night, and made those representations—Well, in short, I have bought the place."

"To save him from losing money by that—story?"

"Well—yes. I ought to have told you the fact this morning, as soon as you said you would buy the place. I know that you like people to be perfectly truthful. But—I couldn't—without seeming to—brag."

"I understand," said Miss Hernshaw.

"I took the risk of your writing to St. John; but then I realized that if he answered and told you what I ought to have told you myself, it would make it worse, and I came back."

"I don't know whether it would have made it worse; but you have come too late," said Miss Hernshaw. "I've just written to Mr. St. John."

They were both silent for what Hewson thought a long time. At the end of it, he asked, "Did you—you must excuse me—refer to me at all?"

"No, certainly not. Why should I?"

"I don't know. I don't know that it would have mattered." He was silent again, with bowed head; when he looked up he saw tears in the girl's eyes.

"I suppose you know where this leaves me?" she said gently.

"I can't pretend that I don't," answered Hewson. "What can I do?"

"You can sell me the place for what it cost you."

"Oh, no, I can't do that," said Hewson.

"Why do you say that? It isn't as if I were poor; but even then you wouldn't have the right to refuse me if I insisted. It was my fault that it ever came out about St. Johnswort. It might have come out about you, but the harm to Mr. St. John—I did that, and why should you take it upon yourself?"

"Because I was really to blame from the beginning to the end. If it had not been for my pitiful wish to shine as the confidant of mystery, nothing would have been known of the affair. Even when you asked me that night if it had not happened at St. Johnswort, I know now that I had a wretched triumph in saying that it had, and I was so full of this that I did not think to caution you against repeating what I had owned."

"Yes," said the girl, with her unsparing honesty, "if you had given me any hint, I would not have told for the world. Of course I did not think—a girl wouldn't—of the effect it would have on the property."

"No, you wouldn't think of that," said Hewson. Though he agreed with her, he would have preferred that she should continue to blame herself; but he took himself severely in hand again. "So, you see, the fault was altogether mine, and if there is to be any penalty it ought to fall upon me."

"Yes," said Miss Hernshaw, "and if there has been a fault there ought to be a penalty, don't you think? It would have been no penalty for me to buy St. Johnswort. My father wouldn't have minded it." She blushed suddenly, and added, "I don't mean that—You may be so rich that—I think I had better stop."

"No, no!" said Hewson, amused, and glad of the relief. "Go on. I will tell you anything you wish to know."

"I don't wish, to know anything," said Miss Hernshaw, haughtily.

Her words seemed to put an end to an interview for which there was no longer any excuse.

Hewson rose. "Good-by," he said, and he was rather surprised at her putting out her hand, but he took it gratefully. "Will you make my adieux to Mrs. Rock? And excuse my coming a second time to trouble you!"

"I don't see how you could have helped coming," said Miss Hernshaw, "when you thought I might write to Mr. St. John at once."

Whether this implied excuse or greater blame, Hewson had to go away with it as her final response, and he went away certainly in as great discomfort as he had come. He did not feel quite well used; it seemed to him that hard measure had been dealt him on all sides, but especially by Miss Hernshaw. After her futile effort at reparation to St. John she had apparently withdrawn from all responsibility in the matter. He did not know when he was to see her again, if ever, and he did not know what he was to wait for, if anything.

Still he had the sense of waiting for something, or for some one, and he went home to wait. There he perceived that it was for St. John, who did not keep him waiting long. His nervous ring roused Hewson half an hour after his return, and St. John came in with a look in his greedy eyes which Hewson rightly interpreted at the first glance.

"See here, Hewson," St. John said, with his habitual lack of manners. "I don't want to get you in for this thing at St. Johnswort. I know why you offered to buy the place, and though of course you are the original cause of the trouble, I don't feel that it's quite fair to let you shoulder the consequences altogether."

"Have I been complaining?" Hewson asked, dryly.

"No, and that's just it. You've behaved like a little man through it all, and I don't like to take advantage of you. If you want to rue your bargain, I'll call it off. I've had some fresh light on the matter, and I believe I can let you off without loss to myself. So that if it's me you're considering—"

"What's your fresh light?" asked Hewson.

"Well," said St. John, and he swallowed rather hard, as if it were a pill, "the fact is, I've had another offer for the place."

"A better one?"

"Well, I don't know that I can say that it is," answered St. John, saving his conscience in the form of the words.

Hewson knew that he was lying, and he had no mercy on him. "Then I believe I'll stick to my bargain. You say that the other party hasn't bettered my offer, and so I needn't withdraw on your account. I'm not bound to withdraw for any other reason."

"No, of course not." St. John rubbed his chin, as if hesitating to eat his words, however unpalatable; but in the end he seemed not to find it possible. "Well," he said, disgustedly, as he floundered up to take his leave, "I thought I ought to come and give you the chance."

"It's very nice of you," said Hewson, with a smile that made itself a derisive grin in spite of him, and a laugh of triumph when the door had closed upon St. John.

William Dean Howells

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