“Fond of her?” she said, abstractedly. “Who is not fond of her?”
“But,” suggested Miss Hetty, “we mean fond of her in—in a different way.”
She had laid her hand on Lisbeth’s shoulder, and, as she spoke, she thought she felt a slight start; but the girl’s voice was steady enough when she spoke the next minute.
“Oh!” she said, laughing a little, “you mean that he is in love with her. I have no doubt you are right, though—though I had scarcely thought of that. Men are always in love with somebody; and if he is in love with Georgie, it does him great credit. I did not think he had the good taste.”
But the fact was, that the idea was something 133 like a new light dawning upon her. Actually she had been so blind as not to think of this. And it had been before her eyes day after day!
“You have been an idiot,” was her unceremonious mental comment upon her own stupidity. “You have thought so much of yourself, that you have seen nothing. It is Hector Anstruthers who has touched her heart. She doubted either herself, or him, when she was ‘not so happy.’ And this is the end of it—the end of it. Good!”
Perhaps she was relieved, and felt more comfortable, for she had never been more amusing and full of spirit than she had appeared when she joined the couple in the garden.
The twilight had been falling when she left the house; and when the soft dusk came on, they still loitered in the garden. The air was warm and balmy. Miss Clarissa’s flower beds breathed forth perfume; the murmur of the waves upon the beach crept up to them; the moon rose in the sky, solemn, watchful, and silver-clear.
“Who would care to go back to earth, and parlors?” said Georgie. “This is Arcadia—silent, odorous, and sweet. Let us stay, Lisbeth.” 134
So they sauntered here and there until they were tired, and then they found a resting-place, under a laburnum tree; and Anstruthers, flinging himself upon the grass, lay at full length, his hands clasped under his head, watching Lisbeth, in newly stirred bitterness and discontent.
Discontent? Ah! what discontent it was. What bitterness! To-night it reached its climax. Was he a man, indeed, or had he gone back to boyhood, and to that old folly upon which his youth had been wrecked? Moonlight was very becoming to Lisbeth. It gave her colorless face the white of a lily leaf, and her great eyes a new depth and shadow. She looked her best, just now, as she had a habit of looking her best, at all inopportune and dangerous times.
Georgie, leaning, in a luxury of quiet dreaming, against the trunk of the laburnum, broke in upon his mental plaints, by speaking to her friend.
“Sing, Lisbeth,” she said. “You look as if you were in a singing mood.”
Lisbeth smiled, a faint smile not unlike moonlight. She was in a singing mood, but she was in a fantastic, half-melancholy mood, too. Perhaps this was why she chose a rather 135 melancholy song. She folded her hands upon her knees, in that favorite fashion of hers, the fashion Anstruthers remembered so well, and began;
“All that I had to give I gave— Good-by! Yet Love lies silent in the grave, And that I lose, which most I crave, Good-by! Good-by! Good-by! “Nay! turn your burning eyes away! Good-by! It comes to this—this bitter day, That you and I can only say, Good-by! Good-by! Good-by! “The rest lies buried with the past! Good-by! The golden days, that sped so fast, The golden days, too bright to last; Good-by! Good-by! Good-by! “The fairest rose blooms but a day, Good-by! The fairest Spring must end with May, And you and I can only say, Good-by! Good-by! Good-by!”
“Ah, Lisbeth!” cried Georgie, when she stopped. “What a sad thing! I never heard you sing it before.”
“No,” answered Lisbeth. “I don’t think 136 anybody ever heard me sing it before. It is an imitation of a little German song I have heard, or read, somewhere. I can’t remember where, indeed. I can remember nothing but that the refrain of ‘Good-by’ haunted me; and the words I have just sung grew out of it.”
Anstruthers said nothing. He had watched her face, as she sung, and had almost lost control over himself, as he was often on the verge of doing lately. What a consummate actress the girl was! The mournful little song had fallen from lips as sweetly and sadly as if both words and music welled from a tender, tried, soft heart. An innocent girl of sixteen might have sung just such a song, in just such a voice, if she had lost her lover. Once he had been amazed by the fancy that the large, mellow, dark eyes were full of tears.
He had been quiet enough before, but after the song was ended, he did not utter a word, but lay silent upon the grass until their return to the house.
Georgie rose first, and then Lisbeth and himself. But Georgie, going on before them, left them a moment together, and as they crossed the lawn, Lisbeth paused, and bending over a bed of lilies to gather a closed white 137 bud, sang, in a low tone, as if unconsciously, the last verse.
“The fairest rose blooms but a day, Good-by! The fairest Spring must end with May, And you and I can only say, Good-by! Good-by! Good-by!” When she stood upright, she found herself confronting a face so pale and agitated, that she drew back a little.
“I wish to God,” he broke out, “I wish to God that you were a better woman!”
She looked up at him for a second, with a smile, cold, and strange, and bitter.
“I wish to God I was!” she said, and, without another word, turned from him and walked away, flinging her closed lilies upon the dewy grass.
When, the next day, at noon, they strolled out upon the lawn, the lilies were lying there, their waxen petals browning and withering in the hot sun. Georgie stooped, and picked one up.
“What a pity!” she said. “They would have been so pretty to-day. I wonder who gathered them.”
Lisbeth regarded the poor little brown bud with a queer smile. 138
“I gathered them,” she said. “It does seem a pity, too—almost cruel, doesn’t it? But that is always the way with people. They gather their buds first, and sympathize with them afterward.” Then she held out her hand. “Give it to me,” she said; and when Georgie handed the wilted thing to her, she took it, still half smiling in that queer way. “Yes,” she commented. “It might have been very sweet to-day. It was useless cruelty to kill it so early. It will never be a flower now. You see, Georgie, my dear,” dryly, “how I pity my bud—afterward! Draw a moral from me, and never gather your flowers too soon. They might be very sweet to-morrow.”
She had not often talked in this light, satirical way of late, but Georgie observed that she began to fall into the habit again after this. She had odd moods, and was not quite so frank as her young admirer liked to see her. And something else struck Georgie as peculiar, too. She found herself left alone with Hector much oftener. In their walks, and sails, and saunterings in the garden, Lisbeth’s joining them became the exception, instead of the rule, as it had been heretofore. It seemed always by chance that she failed to accompany them, but it came to the same thing in the end. 139
Georgie pondered over the matter in private, with much anxiety. She really began to feel as if something strange had happened. Had there been a new quarrel? Hector was more fitful and moody than ever. Sometimes he looked so miserable and pale, that she was a little frightened. When he talked, he was bitter; and when he was silent, his silence was tragical. But he was as fond of her as ever he had been. Nay, he even seemed fonder of her, and more anxious to be near her, at all times.
“I am not a very amusing companion, Georgie, my dear,” he would say, “but you will bear with me, I know. You are my hope and safeguard, Georgie. If you would not bear with me, who would?”
She often wondered at his way of speaking of her, as his safeguard. Indeed, he not only called her his safeguard, but showed, by his manner, that he flew to her as a sort of refuge. Once, when they had been sitting together in silence; for some time, he suddenly seized her hand, and kissed it passionately and desperately.
“Georgie,” he said, “if I were to come to you some day and ask you to save me from a great danger, would you try to do as I asked you?” 140
She did not draw her hand away, but let it rest in his, as she answered him, with a quiet, half-sad smile:
“I would not refuse to try to help any one in the world, who was in danger—even a person I was not fond of,” she said. “And you know we have been friends all our lives, Hector.”
“But if I were to ask a great gift of you,” he persisted, “a great gift, of which I was not worthy, but which was the only thing that could save me from ruin?”
“You must ask me first,” she said, and then, though it was done very gently, she did take her hand away.