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Chapter 3

III.

From that instant Hewson renounced his purpose, and he remained true to this renunciation in spite of the behavior of St. John, which might well have tempted him to a revenge in kind. No one seemed to have slept late that morning; several of the ladies complained that they had not slept a wink the whole night, and two or three of the men owned to having waked early and not been able to hit it off again in a morning nap, though it appeared that they were adepts in that sort of thing. The hour of their vigils corresponded so nearly with that of Hewson's apparition that he wondered if a mystical influence from it had not penetrated the whole house. The adventitious facts were of such a nature that he controlled with the greater difficulty the wish to explode upon an audience so aptly prepared for it the prodigious incident which he was keeping in reserve; but he did not yield even when St. John carefully led up to the point through the sensation of his guests, by recounting the evidences of the supposed visit of a burglar, and then made his effect by suddenly turning upon Hewson, and saying with his broad guffaw: "And here you have the burglar in person. He has owned his crime to me, and I've let him off the penalty on condition that he tells you all about it." The humor was not too rank for the horsey people whom St. John had mainly about him, but some of the women said, "Poor Mr. Hewson!" when the host, failing Hewson's confession, went on to betray that he had risen at that unearthly hour to go down to the St. Johnswort Inn for a cup of its famous coffee. The coffee turned out to be the greatest kind of joke; one of the men asked Hewson if he could say on his honor that it was really any better than St. John's coffee there before them, and another professed to be in a secret more recondite than had yet been divined: it was that long grim girl, who served it; she had lured Hewson from his rest at five o'clock in the morning; and this humorist proposed a Welsh rarebit some night at the inn, where they could all see for themselves why Hewson broke out of the house and smashed a trellis before sunrise.

Hewson sat silent, not even attempting a defensive sally. In fact it was only his surface mind which was employed with what was going on; as before, his deeper thought was again absorbed with his great experience. He could not, if his conscience had otherwise suffered him, have spoken of it in that company, and the laughter died away from his silence as if it had been his offence. He was not offended, but he was ashamed, and not ashamed so much for St. John as for himself, that he could have ever imagined acquiring merit in such company by exploiting an experience which should have been sacred to him. How could he have been so shabby? He was justly punished in the humiliating contrast between being the butt of these poor wits, and the hero of an incident which, whatever its real quality was, had an august character of mystery. He had recognized this from the first instant; he had perceived that the occurrence was for him, and for him alone, until he had reasoned some probable meaning into it or from it; and yet he had been willing, he saw it, he owned it! to win the applause of that crowd as a man who had just seen a ghost.

He thought of them as that crowd, but after all, they were good-natured people, and when they fancied that he was somehow vexed with the turn the talk had taken, they began to speak of other things; St. John himself led the way, and when he got Hewson alone after breakfast, he made him a sort of amend. "I didn't mean to annoy you, old fellow," he said, "with my story about the burglary."

"Oh, that's all right," Hewson brisked up in response, as he took the cigar St. John offered him. "I'm afraid I must have seemed rather stupid. I had got to thinking about something else, and I couldn't pull myself away from it. I wasn't annoyed at all."

Whether St. John thought this sufficient gratitude for his reparation did not appear. As Hewson did not offer to break the silence in which they went on smoking, his host made a pretext, toward the end of their cigars, after bearing the burden of the conversation apparently as long as he could, of being reminded of something by the group of women descending into the garden from the terraced walk beyond it and then slowly, with little pauses, trailing their summer draperies among the flower-beds and bushes toward the house.

"Oh, by-the-way," he said, "I should like to introduce you to Miss Hernshaw; she came last night with Mrs. Rock: that tall girl, there, lagging behind a little. She's an original."

"I noticed her at breakfast," Hewson answered, now first aware of having been struck with the strange beauty and strange behavior of the slim girl, who drooped in her chair, with her little head fallen forward, and played with her bread, ignoring her food otherwise, while she listened with a bored air to the talk which made Hewson its prey. She had an effect of being both shy and indifferent, in this retrospect; and when St. John put up the window, and led the way out to the women in the garden, and presented Hewson, she had still this effect. She did not smile or speak in acknowledgement of Hewson's bow; she merely looked at him with a sort of swift intensity, and then, when one of the women said, "We were coming to view the scene of your burglarious exploit, Mr. Hewson. Was that the very window?" the girl looked impatiently away.

"The very window," Hewson owned. "You wouldn't know it. St. John has had the trellis put up and the spot fresh turfed," and he detached the interlocutory widow in the direction of their bachelor host, as she perhaps intended he should, and dropped back to the side of Miss Hernshaw.

She was almost spiritually slender. In common with all of us, he had heard that shape of girl called willowy, but he made up his mind that sweetbriery would be the word for Miss Hernshaw, in whose face a virginal youth suggested the tender innocence and surprise of the flower, while the droop of her figure, at once delicate and self-reliant, arrested the fancy with a sense of the pendulous thorny spray. She looked not above sixteen in age, but as she was obviously out, in the society sense of the word, this must have been a moral effect; and Hewson was casting about in his mind for some appropriate form of thought and language to make talk in when she abruptly addressed him.

"I don't see," she said, with her face still away, "why people make fun of those poor girls who have to work in that sort of public way."

Hewson silently picked his steps back through the intervening events to the drolling at breakfast, and with some misgiving took his stand in the declaration, "You mean the waitress at the inn?"

"Yes!" cried the girl, with a gentle indignation, which was so dear to the young man that he would have given anything to believe that it veiled a measure of sympathy for himself as well as for the waitress. "We went in there last night when we arrived, for some pins—Mrs. Rock had had her dress stepped on, getting out of the car—and that girl brought them. I never saw such a sad face. And she was very nice; she had no more manners than a cow."

Miss Hernshaw added the last sentence as if it followed, and in his poor masculine pride of sequence Hewson wanted to ask if that were why she was so nice; but he obeyed a better instinct in saying, "Yes, there's a whole tragedy in it. I wonder if it's potential or actual." He somehow felt safe in being so metaphysical.

"Does it make any difference?" Miss Hernshaw demanded, whirling her face round, and fixing him with eyes of beautiful fierceness. "Tragedy is tragedy, whether you have lived it or not, isn't it? And sometimes it's all the more tragical if you have it still to live: you've got it before you! I don't see how any one can look at that girl's face and laugh at her. I should never forgive any one who did."

"Then I'm glad I didn't do any of the laughing," said Hewson, willing to relieve himself from the strain of this high mood, and yet anxious not to fall too far below it. "Perhaps I should, though, if I hadn't been the victim of it in some degree."

"It was the vulgarest thing I ever heard!" said the girl.

Hewson looked at her, but she had averted her face again. He had a longing to tell her of his apparition which quelled every other interest in him, and, as it were, blurred his whole consciousness. She would understand, with her childlike truth, and with her unconventionality she would not find it strange that he should speak to her of such a thing for no apparent reason or no immediate cause. He walked silent at her side, revolving his longing in his thought, and hating the circumstance which forbade him to speak at once. He did not know how long he was lost in this, when he was suddenly recalled to fearful question of the fact by her saying, with another flash of her face toward him, "You have lost sleep Mr. Hewson!" and she whipped forward, and joined the other women, who were following the lead of St. John and the widow.

Mrs. Rock, to whom Hewson had been presented at the same time as to Miss Hernshaw, looked vaguely back at him over her shoulder, but made no attempt to include him in her group, and he thought, for no reason, that she was kept from doing so on account of Miss Hernshaw. He thought he could be no more mistaken in this than in the resentment of Miss Hernshaw, which he was aware of meriting, however unintentionally. Later, after lunch, he made sure of this fact when Mrs. Rock got him into a corner, and cozily began, "I always feel like explaining Rosalie a little," and then her vague, friendly eye wandered toward Miss Hernshaw across the room, and stopped, as if waiting for the girl to look away. But Miss Hernshaw did not look away, and that afternoon, Hewson's week being up, he left St. Johnswort before dinner.

William Dean Howells

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