Georgie turned to her, taking sudden courage.
“Lisbeth,” she said, “you never told me much about your acquaintance with Hector Anstruthers. I wonder how it was. You knew him very well, it seems.”
“I wish,” broke out Lisbeth, almost angrily, “that I had never known him at all.”
The faithful heart, beating in the breast of the girl at her side, leaped nervously.
“It was Lisbeth,” said she to herself. “It was Lisbeth.”
“I wish,” repeated Lisbeth, frowning at the sea, “that I had never seen him.”
“Why?” was Georgie’s quiet question.
“Because—because it was a bad thing for us both,” in greater impatience than ever.
Georgie looked up at her sadly.
“Why, again?” she ventured, in her soft voice. She could not help it.
But for a moment Lisbeth did not answer. 105 She had risen, and stood leaning against the rock, a queer look on her face, a queer darkening in her eyes. At length she broke into a little, hard laugh, as if she meant to defy herself to be emotional.
“How horror-stricken you would be, if I were to tell you why,” she said.
“Does that mean,” Georgie put it to her “that you were unkind to him?”
“It means,” was her strange reply—“it means that it was I who ruined his life forever.”
She made the confession fairly, in spite of herself. And she was emotional—vehement. She could not stand this innocent Georgie, and her beliefs any longer. She had been slowly approaching this mood for months, and now every inner and outer influence seemed to combine against her natural stubborn secretiveness. Perhaps Pen’yllan, the sea, the shore, the sky, helped her on to the end. At any rate, she must tell the truth this once, and hear what this innocent Georgie would say to it.
“I ruined his life for him,” she repeated. “I broke his faith. I believe I am to blame for every evil change the last few years have wrought in him. I, myself—Lisbeth. Do you hear, Georgie?” 106
The face under Georgie’s straw hat was rather pale, but it was not horror-stricken.
“You were too young,” she faltered, “to understand.”
“Too young?” echoed Lisbeth. “I never was young in my life. I was born old. I was born a woman, and I was born cold and hard. That was it. If I had been like other girls, he would have touched my heart, after he had touched my vanity, or he might even have touched my heart first. You would have loved him with all your soul. Are you willing to hear the whole history, Georgie?”
“Quite willing. Only,” and she raised her face with a bright, resolute, affectionate look, “you cannot make me think harshly of you. So, don’t try, Lisbeth.”
Lisbeth regarded her with an entirely new expression, which had, nevertheless, a shade of her old wonder in it.
“I really do not believe I could,” she said. “You are very hard to deal with; at least I find it hard to deal with you. You are a new experience. If there was just a little flavor of insincerity or uncharitableness in you, if you would be false to your beliefs now and then, I should know what to do; but, as it is, you 107 are perplexing. Notwithstanding, here comes the story.”
She put her hands behind her, and bracing herself against the rock, told it from beginning to end, in her coolest, most daring way, even with a half-defiant air. If she had been telling some one else’s story, she could not have been more caustic and unsparing, more determined to soften no harsh outline, or smooth over anything. She set the girl Lisbeth before her listener, just as Lisbeth Crespigny at seventeen had been. Selfish, callous, shallow, and deep, at once: restless, ungrateful, a half-ripe coquette, who, notwithstanding her crudeness, was yet far too ripe for her age. She pictured the honest, boyish young fellow, who had fallen victim to her immature fascinations, simply because he was too guileless and romantic to see in any woman anything but a goddess. She described his sincerity, his unselfish willingness to bear her caprices, and see no wrong in them; his lavish affection for every thing and every one who shared his love for her; his readiness to believe, his tardiness to doubt and see her as she really was; the open-hearted faith which had made the awakening so much harder to bear, when it forced itself upon him at last. She left out the recital of no petty wrong she 108 had done him, and no small tyranny or indignity she had made him feel. She told the whole story, in fact, as she saw it now; not as she had seen it in that shallow, self-ruled girlhood; and when she had touched upon everything, and ended with that last scene in the garden, among Aunt Clarissa’s roses, she stopped.
And there was a silence.
Georgie’s eyelashes were wet, and so were her cheeks. A tear or so stained her pink cravat. It was so sorrowful. Poor Hector again! And then, of course, poor Lisbeth! By her own showing, Lisbeth deserved no pity; but the warm young heart gave her pity enough, and to spare. Something had been wrong somewhere. Indeed, it seemed as if everything had been wrong, but—Poor Lisbeth! She was so fond of Lisbeth herself, and mamma was so fond of her, and the Misses Tregarthyn. So many people were fond of Lisbeth.
And then Lisbeth’s voice startled her. A new voice, tremulous and as if her mood was a sore and restive one.
“You are crying, of course, Georgie? I knew you would.”
“I have been crying.” 109
Pause enough to allow of a struggle, and then—
“Well, since you are crying, I suppose I may cry, too. It is queer enough that I should cry, but—” And to Georgie’s amazement and trouble, Lisbeth put her hand up on the rough rock, and laid her face against it.
“Lisbeth!” cried the girl.
“Wait a moment,” said Lisbeth. “I don’t know what has come over me. It is a new thing for me. I—I——”
It was a new thing, indeed, and it did not last very long. When she raised her head, and turned again, her eyelashes were wet, too, and she was even pale.
“Ah, Lisbeth!” said Georgie, pitying her, “you are sorry.”
Lisbeth smiled, faintly.
“I never was sorry before for anything I had done; never, in my life,” she answered. “I have had a theory that people should take care of themselves, as I did. But now—Well, I suppose I am sorry—for Hector Anstruthers; and perhaps a little for myself. No one will offer me such an unreasoning love again. Very few women are offered such a love once; but I always got more than my share of everything. It is my way. I suppose 110 I was born under a lucky star. Georgie, what do you think of me now?”
Georgie got up, and kissed her, in a most earnest fashion.
“What?” cried Lisbeth, with a dubious smile. “You can’t be moral, and improving, and sanctimonious, even now. Think what an eloquent lecture you might read me! I have sometimes thought I was merely created to point a moral, or adorn a tale! See how reckless I am, after all. You ought to be down on me, Georgie. It is your duty, as a well-trained young woman of the period.”
“Then,” said Georgie, “I can’t do my duty. You are so different from other people. How can I pretend to understand what has made you do things that other people are not tempted to do? And then you know how fond I am of you, Lisbeth.”
“You are a good, pure little soul!” cried Lisbeth, her pale face flushing excitedly. “And the world is a thousand times better for your being in it. I am better myself, and Heaven knows I need something to make me better. Here, let me take hold of your hand, and let us go home.”
And as they turned homeward, on the beach, hand-in-hand, like a couple of children, Georgie 111 saw that there were tears in the inconsistent creature’s eyes again.
They did not say much upon the subject after this. That wise young woman, Miss Esmond, felt that it was a subject of far too delicate a nature to be lightly touched upon. It had been Lisbeth’s secret so long, that, even after this confidence, she could not help regarding it as Lisbeth’s secret still. Perhaps she felt in private that there were certain little confidences of her own, which she would scarcely be willing even for Lisbeth to refer to, as if they were her own property. For instance, that accidental confession, made in the bedroom, on the first night they had spent in it together. How glad she had been that Lisbeth had let it pass, as if she had not noticed it very particularly. But though the subject was not discussed, is it to be supposed that it was not brought to mind at all, but was buried in oblivion? Certainly not. While that terse young woman, Miss Esmond, said little, she thought much, and deeply. She had constantly before her a problem, which she was very anxious to work out. Was it not possible that these two interesting beings might be brought to—might be induced to—well, not to put too fine a point upon it—to think better of each 112 other, and the unfortunate past, and the world generally? Would it not be dreadful to think that so much poetic material had been lost? That these two who might have been so happy, should drift entirely apart, and leave their romance incomplete, as the most unsatisfactory of novels? Probably, having sensibly, even if with a little pang, given up that bud of a romance of her own, the girl felt the need of some loving plot to occupy her mind; and if so, it was quite natural and very charming, that she should turn to her friend. Hector would make his appearance one of these fine days, and then, perhaps, Pen’yllan, and its old familiar scenes, would soften his heart, as she had an idea they had softened Lisbeth’s. Surely, old memories would touch him tenderly, and make him more ready to forgive his injuries. In fact, Miss Georgie painted for herself some very pretty mental pictures, in which the figures of Lisbeth and her ex-lover were always the prominent features. Lisbeth in the trysting-place, the sea-breeze blowing her beautiful hair about, and coloring her pale face; that queer mist of tears in her mysterious eyes. Lisbeth, in one of her soft moods, making those strange, restive, unexpected speeches, which were so fascinating, because so unlookedfor, 113 and Hector Anstruthers standing by, and listening. Such interesting little scenes as these she imagined, and, having imagined them, positively drew some consolation from their phantom existence.