Now, Henry had not chanced to be at church that first Sunday evening when Cordis obtained an introduction to Madeline, nor was he at Fanny Miller's teaparty. Of the rapidly progressing flirtation between his sweetheart and the handsome drug-clerk he had all this time no suspicion whatever. Spending his days from dawn to sunset in the shop among men, he was not in the way of hearing gossip on that sort of subject; and Laura, who ordinarily kept him posted on village news, had, deemed it best to tell him as yet nothing of her apprehensions. She was aware that the affection between her brother and Madeline was chiefly on his side, and knew enough of her wilfulness to be sure that any attempted interference by him would only make matters worse. Moreover, now that she had warned Cordis that Madeline was pre-empted property, she hoped he would turn his attention elsewhere.
And so, while half the village was agog over the flirtation of the new drug-clerk with Madeline Brand, and Laura was lying awake nights fretting about it, Henry went gaily to and from his work in a state of blissful ignorance. And it was very blissful. He was exultant over the progress he had made in his courtship at the picnic. He had told his love--he had kissed her. If he had not been accepted, he had, at least, not been rejected, and that was a measure of success quite enough to intoxicate so ardent and humble a lover as he. And, indeed, what lover might not have taken courage at remembering the sweet pity that shone in her eyes at the revelation of his love-lorn state? The fruition of his hopes, to which he had only dared look forward as possibly awaiting him somewhere in the dim future, was, maybe, almost at hand. Circumstances combined to prolong these rose-tinted dreams. A sudden press of orders made it necessary to run the shop till late nights. He contrived with difficulty to get out early one evening so as to call on Madeline; but she had gone out, and he failed to see her. It was some ten days after the picnic that, on calling a second time, he found her at home. It chanced to be the very evening of the day on which the conversation between Madeline and Cordis, narrated in the last chapter, had taken place.
She did not come in till Henry had waited some time in the parlour, and then gave him her hand in a very lifeless way. She said she had a bad head-ache, and seemed disposed to leave the talking to him. He spoke of the picnic, but she rather sharply remarked that it was so long ago that she had forgotten all about it. It did seem very long ago to her, but to him it was very fresh. This cool ignoring of all that had happened that day in modifying their relations at one blow knocked the bottom out of all his thinking for the past week, and left him, as it were, all in the air. While he felt that the moment was not propitious for pursuing that topic, he could not for the moment turn his mind to anything else, and, as for Madeline, it appeared to be a matter of entire indifference to her whether anything further was said on any subject. Finally, he remarked, with an effort to which the result may appear disproportionate--
"Mr. Taylor has been making quite extensive alterations on his house, hasn't he?"
"I should think you ought to know, if any one. You pass his house every day," was her response.
"Why, of course I know," he said, staring at her.
"So I thought, but you said 'hasn't he?' And naturally I presumed that you were not quite certain."
She was evidently quizzing him, but her face was inscrutable. She looked only as if patiently and rather wearily explaining a misunderstanding. As she played with her fan, she had an unmistakable expression of being slightly bored.
"Madeline, do you know what I should say was the matter with you if you' were a man?" he said, desperately, yet trying to laugh.
"Well, really"--and her eyes had a rather hard expression--"if you prefer gentlemen's society, you'd better seek it, instead of trying to get along by supposing me to be a gentleman."
"It seems as if I couldn't say anything right," said Henry.
"I think you do talk a little strangely," she admitted, with a faint smile. Her look was quite like that of an uncomplaining martyr.
"What's the matter with you to-night, Madeline? Tell me, for God's sake!" he cried, overcome with sudden grief and alarm.
"I thought I told you I had a headache, and I really wish you wouldn't use profane language," she replied, regarding him with lack-lustre eyes.
"And that's all? It's only a headache?"
"That's quite enough, I'm sure. Would you like me to have toothache besides?"
"You know I didn't mean that."
"Well, earache, then?" she said, wearily, allowing her head to rest back on the top of her chair, as if it were too much of an effort to hold it up, and half shutting her eyes.
"Excuse me, I ought not to have kept you. I'll go now.'
"Don't hurry," she observed, languidly.
"I hope you'll feel better in the morning."
He offered her his hand, and she put hers in his for an instant, but withdrew it without returning his pressure, and he went away, sorely perplexed and bitterly disappointed.
He would have been still more puzzled if he had been told that not only had Madeline not forgotten about what had happened at the picnic, but had, in fact, thought of scarcely anything else during his call. It was that which made her so hard with him, that lent such acid to her tone and such cold aversion to her whole manner. As he went from the house, she stood looking after him through the parlour window, murmuring to herself--.
"Thank Heaven, I'm not engaged to him. How could I think I would ever marry him? Oh, if a girl only knew!"
Henry could not rest until he had seen her again, and found out whether her coldness was a mere freak of coquetry, or something more. One evening when, thanks to the long twilight, it was not yet dark, he called again. She came to the door with hat and gloves on. Was she going out? he asked. She admitted that she had been on the point of going across the street to make a call which had been too long delayed, but wouldn't he come in. No, he would not detain her; he would call again. But he lingered a moment on the steps while, standing on the threshold, she played with a button of a glove. Suddenly he raised his eyes and regarded her in a quite particular manner. She was suddenly absorbed with her glove, but he fancied that her cheek slightly flushed. Just at the moment when he was calculating that she could no longer well avoid looking up, she exclaimed--
"Dear me, how vexatious! there goes another of those buttons. I shall have to sew it on again before I go," and she looked at him with a charmingly frank air of asking for sympathy, at the same time that it conveyed the obvious idea that she ought to lose no time in making the necessary repairs.
"I will not keep you, then," he said, somewhat sadly, and turned away.
Was the accident intentional? Did she want to avoid him? he could not help the thought, and yet what could be more frank and sunshiny than the smile with which she responded to his parting salutation?
The next Sunday Laura and he were at church in the evening.
"I wonder why Madeline was not out. Do you know?" he said as they were walking home.
"You're not nearly so friendly with her as you used to be. What's the matter?"
She did not reply, for just then at a turning of the street, they met the young lady of whom they were speaking. She looked smiling and happy, and very handsome, with a flush in either cheek, and walking with her was the new drug-clerk. She seemed a little confused at meeting Henry, and for a moment appeared to avoid his glance. Then, with a certain bravado, oddly mingled with a deprecating air, she raised her eyes to his and bowed.
It was the first intimation he had had of the true reason of her alienation. Mechanically he walked on and on, too stunned to think as yet, feeling only that there was a terrible time of thinking ahead.
"Hadn't we better turn back, hear?" said Laura, very gently.
He looked up. They were a mile or two out of the village on a lonely country road. They turned, and she said, softly, in the tone like the touch of tender fingers on an aching spot--
"I knew it long ago, but I hadn't the heart to tell you. She set her cap at him from the first. Don't take it too much to heart. She is not good enough for you."
Sweet compassion! Idle words! Is there any such sense of ownership, reaching even to the feeling of identity, as that which the lover has in the one he loves? His thoughts and affections, however short the time, had so grown about her and encased her, as the hardened clay imbeds the fossil flower buried ages ago. It rather seems as if he had found her by quarrying in the depths of his own heart than as if he had picked her from the outside world, from among foreign things. She was never foreign, else he could not have had that intuitive sense of intimateness with her which makes each new trait which she reveals, while a sweet surprise, yet seem in a deeper sense familiar, as if answering to some pre-existing ideal pattern in his own heart, as if it were something that could not have been different. In after years he may grow rich in land and gold, but he never again will have such sense of absolute right and eternally foreordained ownership in any thing as he had long years ago in that sweet girl whom some other fellow married. For, alas! this seemingly inviolable divine title is really no security at all. Love is liable to ten million suits for breach of warranty. The title-deeds he gives to lovers, taking for price their hearts' first-fruits, turn out no titles at all. Half the time, title to the same property is given to several claimants, and the one to finally take possession is often enough one who has no title from love at all.
Henry had been hit hard, but there was a dogged persistence in his disposition that would not allow him to give up till he had tested his fortune to the uttermost. His love was quite unmixed with vanity, for Madeline had never given him any real reason to think that she loved him, and, therefore, the risk of an additional snub or two counted for nothing to deter him. The very next day he left the shop in the afternoon and called on her. Her rather constrained and guarded manner was as if she thought he had come to call her to account, and was prepared for him. He, on the contrary, tried to look as affable and well satisfied as if he were the most prosperous of lovers. When he asked her if she would go out driving with him that afternoon, she was evidently taken quite off her guard. For recrimination she was prepared, but not for this smiling proposal. But she recovered herself in an instant, and said--
"I'm really very much obliged. It is very considerate of you, but my mother is not very well this afternoon, and I feel that I ought not to leave her." Smothering a sick feeling of discouragement, he said, as cheerfully as possible--
"I'm very sorry indeed. Is your mother seriously sick?"
"Oh no, thank you. I presume she will be quite well by morning."
"Won't you, perhaps, go to-morrow afternoon, if she is better? The river road which you admire so much is in all its midsummer glory."
"Thank you. Really; you are quite too good, but I think riding is rather likely to give me the headache lately."
The way she answered him, without being in the least uncivil, left the impression on his mind that he had been duly persistent. There was an awkward silence of a few moments, and he was just about to burst forth with he knew not what exclamations and entreaties, when Madeline rose, saying--
"Excuse me a moment; I think I hear my mother calling," and left the room.
She was gone some time, and returned and sat down with an absent and preoccupied expression of face, and he did not linger.
The next Thursday evening he was at conference meeting, intending to walk home with Madeline if she would let him; to ask her, at least. She was there, as usual, and sat at the melodeon. A few minutes before nine Cordis came in, evidently for the mere purpose of escorting her home. Henry doggedly resolved that she should choose between them then and there, before all the people. The closing hymn was sung, and the buzz of the departing congregation sounded in his ears as if it were far away. He rose and took his place near the door, his face pale, his lips set, regardless of all observers. Cordis, with whom he was unacquainted save by sight, stood near by, good-humouredly smiling, and greeting the people as they passed out.
In general, Madeline liked well enough the excitement of electing between rival suitors, but she would rather, far rather, have avoided this public choice tonight. She had begun to be sorry for Henry. She was as long as possible about closing the melodeon. She opened and closed it again. At length, finding no further excuse for delaying, she came slowly down the aisle, looking a little pale herself. Several of the village young folks who understood the situation lingered, smiling at one other, to see the fun out, and Cordis himself recognized his rival's tragical look with an amused expression, at the same time that he seemed entirely disposed to cross lances with him.
As Madeline approached the door, Henry stepped forward and huskily asked if he might take her home. Bowing to him with a gracious smile of declination, she said, "Thanks," and, taking Cordis's arm, passed out with him.
As they came forth into the shadow of the night, beyond the illumination of the porch lamps of the church, Cordis observed--
"Really, that was quite tragical. I half expected he would pull out a revolver and shoot us both. Poor fellow, I'm sorry for him."
"He was sorrier than you are glad, I dare say, said Madeline.
"Well, I don't know about that," he replied; "I'm as glad as I can be, and I suppose he's as sorry as he can be. I can't imagine any man in love with such a girl as you not being one or the other all the while."
But the tone was a little, a very little, colder than the words, and her quick ear caught the difference.
"What's the matter? Are you vexed about anything? What have I done?" she asked, in a tone of anxious deprecation which no other person but Harrison Cordis had ever heard from her lips.
"You have done nothing," he answered, passing his arm round her waist in a momentary embrace of reassurance. "It is I that am ill-tempered. I couldn't help thinking from the way this Burr pursues you that there must have been something in the story about your having been engaged, after all."
"It is not true. I never was engaged. I couldn't bear him. I don't like him. Only he--he--"
"I don't want to pry into your secrets. Don't make any confessions to me. I have no right to call you to account," he interrupted her, rather stiffly.
"Please don't say that. Oh, please don't talk that way!" she cried out, as if the words had hurt her like a knife. "He liked me, but I didn't like him. I truly didn't. Don't you believe me? What shall I do if you don't?"
It must not be supposed that Cordis had inspired so sudden and strong a passion in Madeline without a reciprocal sentiment. He had been infatuated from the first with the brilliant, beautiful girl, and his jealousy was at least half real, Her piteous distress at his slight show of coldness melted him to tenderness. There was an impassioned reconciliation, to which poor Henry was the sacrifice. Now that he threatened to cost her the smiles of the man she loved, her pity for him was changed into resentment. She said to herself that it was mean and cruel in him to keep pursuing her. It never occurred to her to find Cordis's conduct unfair in reproaching her for not having lived solely for him, before she knew even of his existence. She was rather inclined to side with him, and blame herself for having lacked an intuitive prescience of his coming, which should have kept her a nun in heart and soul.
The next evening, about dusk, Henry was wandering sadly and aimlessly about the streets when he met Madeline face to face. At first she seemed rather unpleasantly startled, and made as if she would pass him without giving him an opportunity to speak to her. Then she appeared to change her mind, and, stopping directly before him, said, in a low voice--
"Won't you please leave me alone, after this? Your attentions are not welcome."
Without giving him a chance to reply, she passed on and walked swiftly up the street. He leaned against the fence, and stood motionless for a long time. That was all that was wanting to make his loss complete--an angry word from her. At last his lips moved a little, and slowly formed these words in a husky, very pitiful whisper--
"That's the end,"