But how was it, the very next night, when he dropped in to see Mrs. Despard, and surprised the syren, reading a letter of Miss Clarissa’s, and reading it in the strangest of moods, reading it with a pale face, and heavy, wet lashes.
She did not pretend to hide the traces of her mental disturbance. She did not condescend to take the trouble. She evidently resented his appearance as untimely, but she greeted him with indifferent composure.
“Mrs. Despard will come down, as soon as she hears that you are here,” she said, and then proceeded to fold the letter, and replace it in its envelope; and thus he saw that it bore the Pen’yllan post-mark.
What did such a whim as this mean? he asked himself, impatiently, taking in at a glance the new expression in her face, and the heaviness of her gloomy eyes. This was not one of her tricks. There was no one here to see her, and even if there had been, what end could she 81 serve by crying over a letter from Pen’yllan? What, on earth, had she been crying for? He had never seen her shed a tear before in his life. He had often thought that such a thing was impossible, she was so hard. Could it be that she was not really so hard, after all, and that those three innocent old women could reach her heart? But the next minute he laughed at the absurdity of the idea, and Lisbeth, chancing to raise her eyes, and coolly fixing them on his face at that moment, saw his smile.
“What is the matter?” she asked.
A demon took possession of him at once. What if he should tell her, and see how she would answer? They knew each other. Why should they keep up this pretense of being nothing but ordinary acquaintances, with no unpleasant little drama behind?
“I was thinking what an amusing blunder I had been on the verge of making,” he said.
She did not answer, but still kept her eyes fixed upon him.
“I was trying to account for your sadness, on the same grounds that I would account for sadness in another woman. I was almost inclined to believe that something, in your letter, had touched your heart, as it might have 82 touched Georgie Esmond’s. But I checked myself in time.”
“You checked yourself in time,” she said, slowly. “That was a good thing.”
There was a brief silence, during which he felt that, as usual, he had gained nothing by his sarcasm; and then suddenly she held out her mite of a hand, with Miss Clarissa’s letter in it, rather taking him aback.
“Would you like to read it?” she said. “Suppose you do. Aunt Clarissa is an old friend of yours. She speaks of you as affectionately as ever.”
He could not comprehend the look she wore when she said this. It was a queer, calculating look, and had a meaning of its own; but it was a riddle he could not read.
“Take it,” she said, seeing that he hesitated. “I mean what I say. I want you to read it all. It may do you good.”
So, feeling uncomfortable enough, he took it. And before he had read two pages, it had affected him just as Lisbeth had intended that it should. The worst of us must be touched by pure, unselfish goodness. Miss Clarissa’s simple, affectionate outpourings to her dear Lisbeth were somewhat pathetic in their way. She was so grateful for the tenderness of their 83 dear girl’s last letter, so sweet-tempered were her ready excuses for its rather late arrival, her kind old heart was plainly so wholly dedicated to the perfections of the dear girl in question, that by the time Anstruthers had reached the conclusion of the epistle he found himself indescribably softened in mind, though he really could not have told why. He did not think that he had softened toward Lisbeth herself, but it was true, nevertheless, that he had softened toward her, in a secretly puzzled way.
Lisbeth had risen from her seat, and was standing before him, when he handed back the letter, and she met his eyes just as she had done before.
“They are very fond of me, you see,” she said. “They even believe that I have a real affection for them. They think I am capable of it, just as Georgie Esmond does. Poor Georgie! Poor Aunt Clarissa! Poor Aunt Millicent! Poor everybody, indeed!” And she suddenly ended, and turned away from him, toward the fire.
But in a minute more she spoke again.
“I wonder if I am capable of it,” she said. “I wonder if I am.”
He could only see her side face, but something in her tone roused him to a vehement reply. 84
“God knows,” he said, “I do not. I do not understand you, and never shall.”
She turned to him abruptly then, and let him see her whole face, pale, with a strange, excited pallor, her eyes wide, and sparkling, and wet.
“That is true,” she said. “You do not understand. I do not understand myself, but—Well, I have told you lies enough before, when it has suited me. Now, I will tell you the truth, for once. Your blunder was not such a blunder, after all. My heart has been touched, just as a better woman’s might have been—almost as Georgie’s might have been. And this letter touched it—this effusion of poor Aunt Clarissa’s; and that was why I was crying when you came into the room—why I am crying now.” And having made this unlooked-for confession, she walked out of the room, just as Mrs. Despard came in.
On his next visit to his friends, the Esmonds, Mr. Anstruthers found the pretty head of the lovely Miss Georgie full of a new project. Had he not heard the news? She was going to Pen’yllan with Lisbeth, and they were to stay with the Misses Tregarthyn. Miss Clarissa had written the kindest letter, the dearest, most affectionate letter, as affectionate as 85 if she had known her all her life. Wasn’t it delightful?
“So much nicer, you know, than going to some stupid, fashionable place,” said Miss Georgie, with bright eyes, and the brightest of fresh roses on her cheeks. “Not that I am so ungrateful as to abuse poor old Brighton, and the rest; but this will be something new.”
“And new things are always better than old ones,” suggested Anstruthers.
“Some new things always are,” answered Georgie, with spirit. “New virtues, for instance, are better than old follies. New resolutions to be charitable, instead of old tendencies to be harsh. New——”
“I give it up!” interposed Hector. “And I will agree with you. I always agree with you, Georgie,” in a softer tone.
The poor, pretty face bloomed into blush-rose color, and the sweet eyes met his with innocent trouble.
“Not always,” said Georgie. “You don’t agree with me when I tell you that you are not as good as you ought to be—as you might be, if you would try.”
“Am I such a bad fellow, then?” drawing nearer to her. “Ah, Georgie! etc., etc.——” until, in fact, he wandered off in spite of himself, 86 into that most dangerous ground, of which I have already spoken.
Actually, within the last few days, the idea had occurred to him, that, perhaps—possibly, just possibly—he would not be going so far wrong, if he let himself drift into a gentle passion for Georgie. Perhaps, after all, he could give her a better love than he had ever given to Lisbeth Crespigny. It would be a quieter love. Was not a man’s second love always quieter than the first, and at the same time was it not always more endurable and deep? But perhaps he could make it a love worthy of her. Mind you, he was not shallow or coarse enough to think that anything would do; any mock sentiment, any semblance of affection. It was only that he longed to anchor himself somehow, and admired and trusted this warm-souled young creature so earnestly, that he instinctively turned toward her. She was far too good for him, he told himself, and it was only her goodness that could help her to overlook his many faults; but perhaps she would overlook them; and perhaps, in time, out of the ashes of that wretched passion of his youth, might arise a phœnix, fair enough to be worthy of her womanhood.
So he was something more tender, and so his 87 new tenderness showed itself in his handsome face, and in a certain regret that he was to lose what Pen’yllan and the Misses Tregarthyn were to gain.
“Will you let me come to see you?” he asked, at last. “Will you——”
But there he stopped, remembering Lisbeth. How would she like such a plan?
“Why should you not?” said Georgie, with a pleased blush. “I have heard you say that the Misses Tregarthyn have asked you again and again. And they seem so fond of you; and I am sure mamma and papa would be quite glad if you would run down and look at us, and then run back and tell them all the news. And as to Lisbeth, Lisbeth never objects to anything. I think she likes you well enough when you are good. Come, by all means.” And she seemed to regard his proposition as so natural and pleasant, that he had no alternative but to profess to regard it as such himself; and so it was agreed upon, that, in course of time, he should follow them to Pen’yllan.
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