The roses fell, one by one, in Miss Clarissa’s flower beds, and so at last did the palest autumn-bloom; the leaves dropped from the trees, and the winds from the sea began to blow across the sands, in chilly gusts. But Lisbeth stayed bravely on. Rainy days dragged by wearily enough, and cold ones made their appearance, but she did not give up even when Mrs. Despard wondered, and Georgie implored in weekly epistles. The winter routine of the Tregarthyn household was not exciting, but it was a sort of safeguard. Better dullness than something worse! Perhaps, in time, by spring, it might be different. And yet she could not say that she found her state of mind improving. And as to her body—well, Miss Clarissa might well sigh over her in secret. If she had been pale and thin before, she had not gained flesh and color. She persisted in her long walks in desperation, and came home after them, looking haggard and hollow-eyed. She wandered about the garden, in self-defense, and was no less tired. She followed Dr. Puddifoot’s 182 directions to the letter, and, to the Misses Tregarthyn’s dismay, was not improved. In fact, as that great man, Dr. Puddifoot, observed, “Something was radically wrong.”
It was an unequal, miserable-enough struggle, but it had its termination; and, like all such terminations, it was an abrupt, unexpected, almost fantastic one. Lisbeth had never thought of such an end to her self-inflicted penance. No such possibility had presented itself to her mind. It was not her way to romance, and she had confined herself to realities.
Sitting at her bedroom window, one chill, uncomfortable December day, she arrived at a fanciful caprice. It was as raw and miserable a day as one would, or rather would not, wish to see. The wind blew over the sea in gusts, the gulls flew languidly under the gray sky, a few dead leaves swirled about in eddies in the road, and yet this caprice took possession of Lisbeth, as she looked out, and appreciated the perfection of desolateness. Since Georgie had left Pen’yllan, she had never once been near the old trysting-place. Her walks had always been in the opposite direction, and now it suddenly occurred to her, that she would like to go and see how things would look in her present mood. In five minutes from the time the 183 fancy seized her, Miss Clarissa caught a glimpse of something through the parlor window, which made her utter an exclamation:
“Lisbeth!” she said. “Out again, and on such a day! Dear me! I do trust she is well wrapped up.”
Lisbeth made her way against the damp, chill wind, with a touch of positively savage pleasure in her own discomfort. The sands were wet, and unpleasant to walk on; and she was not sorry. What did it matter? She was in the frame of mind to experience a sort of malicious enjoyment of outward miseries. The tryst looked melancholy enough when she reached it. She made her way to the nook, behind the sheltering rocks, and stood there, looking out to sea. She had not expected to find the place wearing its summer aspect, but she was scarcely prepared to face such desolateness. Everything was gray—gray tossing sea, gray screaming gulls, gray lowering sky.
“It would have been better to have stayed at home,” she said.
Still she could not make up her mind to turn back at once, and lingered a little, leaning against a rock, shivering, and feeling dreary; and so it was that the man who was approaching first caught sight of her figure. 184
Lisbeth did not see this man. She did not care to see either man or woman, at present. The gulls suited her better than human beings, and she believed herself to be utterly alone, until footsteps upon the sand, quite near, made her turn with an impatient start.
The man—he was not a yard from her side—raised his hat and stood still. The man was Hector Anstruthers.
For a moment neither uttered a word. Lisbeth thought her heart must have stopped beating. She had turned cold as marble. When she could control herself sufficiently to think at all, she thought of Georgie.
“What is the matter?” she exclaimed. “Is somebody ill? Georgie?”
“Georgie is quite well,” he answered.
Then he came close, and held out his hand, with a strange, melancholy smile.
“I ask pardon for alarming you,” he said. “I ask pardon for coming without an excuse; but I have no excuse. Won’t you shake hands with me, Lisbeth?”
She got through the ceremony as quickly as possible, and then drew back, folding her shawl about her. She was shivering with something, besides cold. If she had only been safe at 185 home. If nobody was in danger, what on earth had he come for?
“I was a little startled,” she said. “Pen’yllan is not very attractive to people, as a rule, in winter, and it seemed the most natural thing that Georgie was ill, and had sent you to me.” Then, after a little pause, and a sidelong glance at him, “You look as if you had been ill yourself.”
He certainly did. He was thin, and haggard, and care-worn. His eyes were dangerously bright, and he had a restless air. He was not so sublime a dandy, either, as he had been; there was even a kind of negligence about him.
“Aunt Clarissa must have been very much alarmed when she saw you,” Lisbeth proceeded, trying to get up a creditable smile.
“I have not seen Miss Clarissa,” he answered. “I came here first.”
This was so ominous, that Lisbeth succumbed. She knew, when he said this, that he did not intend to keep up appearances. But she made one more poor effort.
“Then, perhaps, we had better go home,” she remarked.
“No,” he returned, quickly. “I have something to say.” 186
She felt herself losing strength. But what did it matter, let him say what he would? Perhaps it was something about Georgie. She had a dreary feeling that she was ready for anything.
“Go on!” she said.
“Oh!” he cried, in bitter, impatient resignation of her stoicism. “Arm yourself against me; I know you will do that. Sneer at my folly; I am prepared for that, too. But I shall speak. It is Fate. I am a fool, but I must speak.”
“Was it to say this that you came here?” interposed Lisbeth.
“I came because I could not stay away. You are my Fate, I tell you,” almost angrily. “You will not let me rest. When I kissed your hands, that last night, I gave myself up to my madness. I had tried to persuade myself that I had no love for you; but that cured me, and showed me how I had deceived myself. I have never ceased to love you, from the first; and you——”
His words died upon his lips. She looked as he had never seen her look before. She leaned against the rock, as if she needed support. Suddenly her eyes and lashes were wet, and she began to tremble slightly. He checked 187 himself, full of swift remorse. What a rough brute he was!
“Don’t!” he said. “I did not mean to frighten you.”
She lifted her eyes, piteously; her lips parted, as if she was going to speak; but she did not speak. She was even weaker than she had thought. She had never been so helpless and shaken before. She shrank from him, and drooping her face upon the rock, burst into hysterical tears.
He did not pause to ask himself what it meant. He did not understand women’s nerves. He only comprehended that she had given way, that everything was changed, that she was unstrung and weeping. In a moment he had her in his arms, exclaiming, passionately:
“Lisbeth! Lisbeth!” And then the little straw hat, with its blue ribbon, slipping away from the small, pale face, that lay upon his breast, he bent and covered it, this small, pale, tear-wet face, with reckless kisses.
For the moment he did not care what came next, nor what doom he brought upon himself, he was so mad with long pent-up love and misery. He found the little hand under the shawl, too, and fell to kissing that, also, and would not let it go. 188
“Don’t be cruel to me, Lisbeth!” he pleaded, when she tried to draw it away; and she was forced to let it remain. “Don’t be cruel to me,” he said, and still held this hand, when she released herself at last, and stood up, miserable and shame-faced, yet far less miserable than she had been.
“It—it is you who are cruel!” she faltered. “What am I to say to you! You have left me nothing to say.”
She hung back, half afraid of his vehemence. He had begun with bitter ravings, and in five minutes had ended by crushing her in his arms. It was her punishment that she should be so humbled and brought down.
“Say nothing,” he cried. “Let me say all. I love you. It is Fate.”
She could not help seeing the fantastic side of this, and she smiled, a little, daring smile, though she hung her head.
“Are you—proposing to me?” she ventured, hoping to retrieve herself.
He could not stand that, but she would not let him burst out again, and leave her no chance to assert her privilege to struggle at retaining the upper hand.
“You told me that you came in spite of 189 yourself, because you could not stay away. Was it true?” she asked.
She could not help feeling a glow of triumph, and it shone in her eyes.
“I am glad of that,” she said. “I am glad. It saves me so much.”
“And I may stay?” he exclaimed, in his old, impetuous fashion. “Lisbeth——”
Though he held her hand fast, she managed to stoop down, under pretense of rescuing the blue-ribboned hat from the sand.
“You need not go,” she answered.
And that was the end of it.
The three Misses Tregarthyn looked at each in blank dismay, when these two walked into the parlor, an hour after. But Hector grasped his nettle with a matter-of-fact boldness, for which Lisbeth intensely admired him in secret.
“I went out on the beach to find Miss Crespigny, and I found her,” he announced. “Here she is, Miss Clarissa, Miss Millicent, Miss Hetty! She has promised to marry me. Oblige us with your blessing.”
The trio fell upon their beloved Lisbeth, and embraced, as they had done on the previous occasion; but this time she bore it better.
That night Lisbeth sat up until one o’clock, 190 writing a long letter to Georgie Esmond, and trying, in a strangely softened and penitent mood, to be open and straightforward for once.
“I am going to marry Hector Anstruthers, and try to be better,” she wrote. “You know what I mean, when I say ‘better.’ I mean that I want to make Lisbeth Anstruthers a far different creature from Lisbeth Crespigny. Do you think I ever can be a ‘good’ woman, Georgie—like you and your mother? If I ever am one, it will be you two whom I must thank.” And as she wrote this, she shed not unhappy tears over it.
“Perhaps,” she said, “Love will make me as tender as other women.”
And this Love did.