Indeed, he drifted so far this evening, that there is no knowing how sad a story this of mine might have been, if the fates had not been kinder to pretty Georgie Esmond than they are to the generality of people. Surely it must have been because she deserved something better than the fortune of a disappointed woman, that chance interposed in her behalf before she went to sleep that night.
She had enjoyed herself very much during Hector’s visit. She had sung her sweetest songs, and had been in the brightest of good spirits. Indeed, she had been very happy, and perhaps had felt her innocent, warm heart stirred a little, once or twice, by the young man’s tender speeches, though she was very far from being in the frame of mind to analyze the reasons for her gentle pleasure.
When her visitor had taken his departure, she came to the colonel’s arm-chair, and possibly feeling somewhat conscience-stricken, because she had left “papa” to his own resources 89 for so long a time, she applied herself to the task of petting him in her most seductive manner.
“You are very quiet, papa,” she said, settling herself upon a footstool, at his side. “I hope you are not going to have the gout again, darling. Mamma, what shall we do with him, if he insists on having the gout, when I am going to Pen’yllan? I shall have to stay at home, and so will Lisbeth. He cannot possibly dispense with us, when he has the gout.”
“But I am not going to have the gout,” protested the colonel, stoutly. “I am quite well, my dear; but the fact is—the fact is, I was thinking of a discovery I made this evening—a discovery about Anstruthers.”
“Hector?” exclaimed Georgie, half-unconsciously, and then turned her bright eyes upon the shining fender.
“Yes,” proceeded Colonel Esmond. “Hector himself. I believe I have found out what has changed him so—so deucedly, not to put too fine a point upon it—during the last four or five years. You remember what a frank, warm-hearted lad he was, at three-and-twenty, Jennie?” to Mrs. Esmond.
“Papa,” interposed Georgie, “do you really think he has changed for the worse? In his heart, I mean.” 90
“He has not changed for the better,” answered the colonel. “But his heart is all right, my dear.”
“I am sure,” said Georgie, a little piteously. “I am sure he is good at heart.”
“Of course he is,” said the colonel. “But he has altered very much, in many respects. And Jennie, my dear, I have discovered that the trouble was the one you hinted at, in the beginning. There was a woman in the case. A woman who treated him shamefully.”
“She must have been very heartless,” said Georgie. “Poor Hector!”
The colonel warmed up.
“She was shamefully heartless, she was disgracefully, unnaturally heartless! Such cold-blooded, selfish cruelty would have been unnatural in a mature woman, and she was nothing more than a school-girl, a mere child. I congratulate myself that I did not learn her name. The man who told me the story had not heard it. If I knew it, and should ever chance to meet her, by George!” with virtuous indignation, “I don’t see how a man of honor could remain in the same room with such a woman.”
And then he poured out what he had heard of the story, and an unpleasant enough sound it had, when related with all the additional 91 coloring confidential report had given it. It was bad enough to begin with, but it was worse for having passed through the hands of the men who had gathered it together, by scraps, and odds, and ends, and joined it as they thought best.
“And the worst of it is,” ended Colonel Esmond, “that he has not lived it down, as he fancies he has done. At least there are those who think so. It is said the girl is here in town now, and though they are not friends, Anstruthers cannot keep away from her altogether, and is always most savage and reckless when he has seen her.”
“Poor fellow!” said Georgie, in a low, quiet voice. “Poor Hector!”
But she did not look up at any one, as she spoke. Indeed she had not looked up, even once, during the time in which this unpleasant story had been told.
Having heard it, she confronted it very sensibly. When, indeed, was she not sweet and sensible? While she listened, a hundred past incidents rushed back upon her. She remembered things she had heard Hector say, and things she had seen him do; she remembered certain restless moods of his, certain desperate whims and fancies, and she began to comprehend 92 what their meaning was. Her vague fancies of his unhappiness found a firm foundation. He was wretched, and broken in faith, because this cruel girl had robbed him of his honest belief in love, and truth, and goodness. Ah, poor Hector! She did not say very much while the colonel and Mrs. Esmond discussed the matter, but she was thinking very deeply, and when she bade them good night, and went up to her room, there was a sad sort of thoughtfulness in her face.
She did not begin to undress at once, but sat down by her toilet table, and rested her fresh cheek on her hand.
“I wonder who it was?” she said, softly. “Who could it be? Whom did he know when he was three-and-twenty?”
Surely some fate guided her eyes, just at that moment, guided them to the small, half-opened note, lying at her elbow; a note so opened that the signature alone presented itself to her glance. “Your affectionate Lisbeth.”
She gave a little start, and then flushed up with a queer agitation.
“Lisbeth!” she said, “Lisbeth!” And then, with quite a self-reproach in her tone, “Oh, no! Not Lisbeth. How could I say it? Not Lisbeth!” She put out her hand and 93 took up the note, protestingly. “I could not bear to think it,” she said. “It might be any one else, but not Lisbeth.” And yet the next minute a new thought forced itself upon her, a memory of some words of Lisbeth’s own.
“We were nothing but a couple of children when we met at Pen’yllan,” that young lady had said, a few days before, a trifle cavalierly. “He was only three-and-twenty, and as for me, what was I but a child, a school-girl, not much more than sixteen.”
“But,” protested Georgie, her eyes shining piteously, and the moisture forcing itself into them, “but it might not have been she; and if it was Lisbeth he loved, the story may have been exaggerated. Such stories always are; and if any part of it is true, she was so young, and did not know what she was doing. It was not half so wrong in Lisbeth as it would have been in me, who have had mamma all my life to teach me the difference between right and wrong. She had nobody but the Misses Tregarthyn; and people who are good are not always wise.”
She was not very wise herself, poor, loving, little soul! At least she was not worldly wise. She could not bear the thought of connecting that cruel story with her most precious Lisbeth, 94 in whom she had never yet found a fault. And if it must be connected with her, what excuses might there not be! Oh, she was so sure that it was an exaggerated story, and that, if the truth were known, Lisbeth’s fault had only risen out of Lisbeth’s youth and innocence. She was so disturbed about her friend, that it was quite a long time before she remembered that she had a quiet little pain of her own to contend with, only the ghost of a pain as yet, but a ghost which, but for this timely check, might have been very much harder to deal with than it was.
“I think,” she said, at last, blushing a little at the sound of her own words, “I think that, perhaps, I was beginning to care for Hector more than for any one else; and I am glad that papa told me this, before—before it was too late. I think I should have been more sorry, after a little time, than I am now; and I ought to be thankful. If I did not mean to be sensible, instead of sentimental, perhaps I should try to believe that what is said is not true, and that he has really lived his trouble down; but I would rather be sensible, and believe that he only means to think of me as his friend, as he has done all his life. I must think that,” she thought, eagerly. “I must remember it always, 95 when he is with me. It would be best. And if it is Lisbeth he has loved, and he loves her yet, I—I must try to help them to forgive each other.” And here she bent her face, and as she touched the note lightly with her lips, a bright drop, like a jewel, fell upon the paper. “We must always be true to each other,” she whispered, tremulously. “This would be a sad world if people were not true to each other, and ready to make little sacrifices for the sake of those they love.”
And thus it was that the innocent white rose of love, just turning to the sun, folded its fresh petals, and became a bud again. It was better as it was, much better that it should be a bud for a longer time, than that it should bloom too early, and lose its too lavish beauty before the perfect summer came.