After the first flush of Hewson's triumph had passed he began to enjoy it less, and by-and-by he did not enjoy it at all. He had done right not only in keeping St. John from plundering Miss Hernshaw, but in standing firm and taking the punishment which ought to fall upon him and not on her. But the sense of having done right sufficed him no more than the sense of having got the better of St. John. What was lacking to him? In the casuistry of the moment, which was perhaps rather emotional than rational, it appeared to Hewson that he had again a duty toward Miss Hernshaw, and that his feeling of dissatisfaction was the first effect of its non-fulfilment. But it was clearly impossible that he should go again to see her, and tell her what had passed between him and St. John, and it was clearly impossible that he should write and tell her what it was quite as clearly her right to know from him. If he went to her, or wrote to her, he felt himself in danger of wanting to shine in the affair, as her protector against the rapacity of St. John, and as the man of superior quality who had outwitted a greedy fellow. The fear that she might not admire his splendor in either sort caused him to fall somewhat nervelessly back upon Providence; but if the moral government of the universe finally favored him it was not by traversing any of its own laws. By the time he had determined to achieve both the impossibilities which formed his dilemma—had decided to write to Miss Hernshaw and call upon her, and leave his letter in the event of failing to find her—his problem was as far solved as it might be, by the arrival of a note from Miss Hernshaw herself, hoping that he would come to see her on business of pressing importance.
She received him without any pretence of Mrs. Rock's intermediary presence, and put before him a letter which she had received, before writing him, from St. John, and which she could not answer without first submitting it to him. It was a sufficiently straightforward expression of his regret that he could not accept her very generous offer for St. Johnswort because the place was already sold. He had the taste to forbear any allusion to the motives which (she told Hewson) she had said prompted her offer; but then he became very darkling and sinuous in a suggestion that if Miss Hernshaw wished to have her offer known as hers to the purchaser of St. Johnswort he would be happy to notify him of it.
"You see," she eagerly commented to Hewson, "he does not give your name; but I know who it is, though I did not know when I made him my offer. I must answer his letter now, and what shall I say? Shall I tell him I know who it is? I should like to; I hate all concealments! Will it do any harm to tell him I know?"
Hewson reflected. "I don't see how it can. I was trying to come to you, when I got your note, to say that St. John had been to see me, and offered to release me from my offer, because, as I thought, you had made him a better one. He's amusingly rapacious, St. John is."
"And what did you—I beg your pardon!"
"Oh, not at all. I said I would stand to my offer."
She repressed, apparently, some form of protest, and presently asked,
"And what shall I say?"
"Oh, if you like, that you have learned who the purchaser of St.
Johnswort is, and that you know he will not give way."
"Well!" she said, with a quick sigh, as of disappointment. After an indefinite pause, she asked, "Shall you be going to St. Johnswort?"
"Why, I don't know," Hewson answered. "I had thought of going to Europe. But, yes, I think I shall go to St. Johnswort, first, at any rate. One can't simply turn one's back on a piece of real estate in that way," he said, recognizing a fact that would doubtless have presented itself in due order for his consideration. "My one notion was to forget it as quickly as possible."
"I should not think you would want to do that," said the girl, seriously.
"No, one oughtn't to neglect an investment."
"I don't mean that. But if such a thing had happened to me, there, I should want to go again and again."
"You mean the apparition? Did I tell you how I had always had the expectation that I should see it again, and perhaps understand it? But when I had behaved so shabbily about it, I began to feel that it would not come again."
"If I were in your place," said the girl, "I should never give up; I should spend my whole life trying to find out what it meant."
"Ah!" he sighed. "I wish you could put yourself in my place."
"I wish I could," she returned, intensely.
They looked into each other's faces.
"Miss Hernshaw," he demanded, solemnly, "do you really like people to say what they think?"
"Of course I do!"
"Then I wish you would come to St. Johnswort with me!"
"Would that do?" she asked. "If Mrs. Rock—"
He saw how far she was from taking his meaning, but he pushed on. "I don't want Mrs. Rock. I want you—you alone. Don't you understand me? I love you. I—of course it's ridiculous! We've only met three or four times in our lives, but I knew this as well the first moment as I do now. I knew it when you came walking across the garden that morning, and I haven't known it any better since, and I couldn't in a thousand years. But of course—"
"Sit down," she said, wafting herself into a chair, and he obeyed her. "I should have to tell my father," she began.
"Why, certainly," and he sprang to his feet again.
She commanded him to his chair with an imperative gesture. "I have got to find out what I think, first, myself. If I were sure that I loved you—but I don't know. I believe you are good. I believed that when they were all joking you there at breakfast, and you took it so nicely; I have always believed that you were good."
She seemed to be appealing to him for confirmation, but he could not very well say that she was right, and he kept silent. "I didn't like your telling that story at the dinner, and I said so; and then I went and did the same thing, or worse; so that I have nothing to say about that. And I think you have behaved very nobly to Mr. St. John." As if at some sign of protest in Hewson, she insisted, "Yes, I do! But all this doesn't prove that I love you." Again she seemed to appeal to him, and this time he thought he might answer her appeal.
"I couldn't prove that I love you, but I feel sure of it."
"And do you believe that we ought to take our feelings for a guide?"
"That's what people do," he ventured, with the glimmer of a smile in his eyes, which she was fixing so earnestly with her own.
"I am not satisfied that it is the right way," she answered. "If there is really such a thing as love there ought to be some way of finding it out besides our feelings. Don't you think it's a thing we ought to talk sensibly about?"
"Of all things in the world; though it isn't the custom."
Miss Hernshaw was silent for a moment. Then she said, "I believe I should like a little time."
"Oh, I didn't expect you to answer me at once,—I"
"But if you are going to Europe?"
"I needn't go to Europe at all. I can go to St. Johnswort, and wait for your answer there."
"It might be a good while," she urged. "I should want to tell my father that I was thinking about it, and he would want to see you before he approved."
"Why, of course!"
"Not," she added, "that it would make any difference, if I was sure of it myself. He has always said that he would not try to control me in such a matter, and I think he would like you. I do like you very much myself, Mr. Hewson, but I don't think it would be right to say I loved you unless I could prove it."
Hewson was tempted to say that she could prove it by marrying him, but he had not the heart to mock a scruple which he felt to be sacred. What he did say was: "Then I will wait till you can prove it. Do you wish me not to see you again, before you have made up your mind?"
"I don't know. I can't see what harm there would be in our meeting." "No, I can't, either," said Hewson, as she seemed to refer the point to him. "Should you mind my coming again, say, this evening?"
"To-night?" She reflected a moment. "Yes, come to-night."
When he came after dinner, Hewson was sensible from the perfect unconsciousness of Mrs. Rock's manner that Miss Hernshaw had been telling her. Her habit of a wandering eye, contributed to the effect she wished to produce, if this were the effect, and her success was such that it might easily have deceived herself. But when Mrs. Rock, in a supreme exercise of her unconsciousness, left him with the girl for a brief interval before it was time for him to go, Miss Hernshaw said, "Mrs. Rock knows about it, and she says that the best way for me to find out will be to try whether I can live without you."
"Was that Mrs. Rock's idea?" asked Hewson, as gravely as he could.
"No it was mine; I suggested it to her; but she approves of it. Don't you like it?"
"Yes. I hope I sha'n't die while you are trying to live without me. Shall you be very long?" She frowned, and he hastened to say, "I do like your idea; it's the best way, and I thank you for giving me a chance."
"We are going out to my father's ranch in Colorado, at once," she explained. "We shall start to-morrow morning."
"Oh! May I come to see you off?"
"No, I would rather begin at once."
"May I write to you?"
"I will write to you—when I've decided."
She gave him her hand, but she would not allow him to keep it for more than farewell, and then she made him stay till Mrs. Rock came back, and take leave of her too; he had frankly forgotten Mrs. Rock, who bade him adieu with averted eyes, and many civilities about seeing him again. She could hardly have been said to be seeing him then.
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