Georgie stood still, and looked after her. She blushed more deeply than ever. A queer distress and discomfort came upon her, and filled her mind. She had only wondered, before, if it was possible that Lisbeth did not know, did not wholly understand; but now the truth revealed itself in an uncomfortable flash of recognition.
“Oh!” she exclaimed, under her breath. “She does not see. She thinks—I am sure she thinks—” But she did not put the rest into words.
Pen’yllan, and the lovely weather, quite lost their charm for the moment. As she walked slowly down the hall, toward the parlor, holding her mother’s letter in her hand, she would almost have been glad to run away. She remembered so many little peculiarities she had noticed in Lisbeth’s manner, of late. She had managed to leave her alone with Hector so often; she had taken so many of those long walks by herself; she had not looked well; she 149 had sometimes been abstracted and restless. The girl’s heart quite fluttered at the thought which all these things forced upon her. She was afraid to indulge in such a fancy. That day, when her confession had been made upon the beach, Lisbeth had confessed that she was sorry for her past cruelty. Could it be that her remorse had developed into a stronger feeling? Could it be that she was more than sorry now? That she was beginning to value the love she had thrown away, even to long for it? As I have said, the thought frightened Georgie a little. She had seen so much to admire in Hector Anstruthers, that she had often wondered, innocently, how it was possible that Lisbeth could have resisted his numerous charms and perfections. How, indeed, could any woman whom he loved be so hard to please as not to appreciate him? She, herself, had appreciated him, she told herself, blushing, even though he had not loved her at all as he had loved Lisbeth. And yet she felt now as if it would be almost dreadful to think that Lisbeth, cool, self-controlled Lisbeth, had given way, in spite of her coolness and self-control. And then, if this was the true state of affairs, how much more dreadful it became to feel that she was misunderstood; that Lisbeth saw in 150 her a rival. Something must be done, it was plain, but it was a difficult matter to decide what the something should be. Ah! if it had only been a matter she could have talked over with mamma, who knew everything, and could always advise her. But it was Lisbeth’s secret—Lisbeth’s and Hector’s; and so she must be loyal to her trust.
She was quite sad, in the midst of her labyrinth, all the afternoon; so sad, that when Anstruthers came in from the village, to partake of Miss Clarissa’s tea, he marked the change in her at once. But he was in a gloomy mood himself; so it is not to be wondered at that the small party around the table was not nearly so gay as usual. Lisbeth had a headache. Her eyes were heavy, and she said but little, and disappeared as soon as the meal was at an end.
Georgie would have followed her at once, but in the hall Hector stopped her.
“Come into the garden, Georgie,” he said; “I have something to say to you.”
“Very well,” said Georgie, “as soon as I have asked Lisbeth to come, too.”
“But,” he returned, “I do not want Lisbeth. What I have to say I must say to you, not Lisbeth.” 151
Georgie had been standing with one foot on the lowest stair, and her hand on the balustrades, but a tone in his voice made her turn round, and look up questioningly. He was pale and haggard. She saw in an instant that he was not quite himself. A little pain shot through her tender heart. How unhappy he looked!
“You are very pale, Hector,” she said, pityingly.
He tried to smile, but it was a constrained effort.
“I suppose I am nervous,” he answered. “Be good to me, Georgie, my dear.” And he held out his hand to her. “Come,” he said, “Lisbeth does not care for our society much. She always avoids us when she can.”
Georgie’s face fell. Had he seen it, too?
Then surely it must be true that Lisbeth did avoid them.
She was so full of her trouble about Lisbeth, that it scarcely occurred to her mind that he had made a very simple request, in an unusual way. She did not even ask herself what he could be going to say, that he would not say before Lisbeth.
But she became more conscious of the strangeness of his mood every moment. He 152 hardly spoke half a dozen more words, until they reached their usual seat, under the laburnum. There, when she sat down, he flung himself upon the grass, at her side, in his favorite unceremonious fashion; but for a minute or so, he did not even look at her. She had never thought him boyish before, but just then the thought entered her mind, that he was very boyish indeed, and she began to pity and wonder at him more and more.
Suddenly he turned toward her and spoke.
“Georgie, my dear,” he said, his voice quite trembling, “I am going to ask you for that great gift, of which I am so unworthy.”
What need that he should say another word? She knew quite well, then, what he meant, and why it was that he had not wanted Lisbeth. And, ready as she usually was with her blushes, she did not blush at all. She even lost all her bright color at once, and confronted him with a face quite pale and altered.
“You may go on, Hector,” she said; “I will listen.”
So he broke out hurriedly and desperately, and poured forth his appeal.
“I don’t know how I dare ask so much,” he said. “I don’t know how I dare speak at all. 153 You do not understand what my life has been. God forbid that you should! But what is left of it is not worthy of you, Georgie—the sweetest, purest woman that God ever made. And yet I think it is because I honor you so much, that I dare to throw myself on your mercy. I want to be a better man, my dear, and—and—will you help me? You see what I am asking you for, Georgie?” And he bent his pale face over her hand, kissing it as some sad penitent might kiss a saint’s.
A strange love-making, indeed! The girl gave a little sob. Yes, actually, a little sob. But she let him hold her hand, just as she had let him hold it, that day before. She had put her budding love aside, and outlived it bravely; but there was a pang in this, nevertheless, and she could not help but feel it. It would be over in a moment, but it stung sharply, for the instant.
“Yes, Hector, I see,” she answered, almost directly. “You are asking me if I will marry you.”
“Yes, my dear.” And he kissed her hand again.
Then there was a silence, for a little while; and he waited, wondering and feeling, God knows what strange hope, or fear, at heart. At 154 length, however, another fair, small hand was laid softly on his, causing him to glance up, questioningly.
“Is that the answer?” he ventured, with a new throb of the heart.
But she shook her head, smiling a sweet, half-sad smile.
“It is not that answer,” she said, “but it is an answer in its way. It means that I am going to speak to you, from my heart.”
“I think you always do that,” he said, unsteadily.
“Yes, always; but now, more than ever, I must be very true to you, indeed, to-day, because—because you have made a mistake, Hector.”
“A mistake! Then it is not the first.”
But what a craven he felt at soul! How hard it was to meet her clear, bright eyes!
“You have made a mistake,” she went on. “Oh, if I was not true to you, and to myself as well, your whole life might be a mistake from this hour, and everything might go wrong. You fancy that, because you can admire and trust me, that you could learn to love me, too, in that best way, as you do not now, when I was your wife. But you could not, however hard you might try, and however hard I might 155 try, too; you could not. You could only teach yourself a poor imitation of that best way, and you would be unsatisfied at heart, Hector; and so should I. Husbands and wives ought to have that best kind of love, and nothing else, because nothing else will fill its place—the place in their hearts that God made to be filled by it. Because you are honest and true to me,” with a warm grasp of the small hand, though warm tears were in her eyes, “you do not say that you have that kind of love to offer me, and I know you have not. I think that, perhaps, you could not give it to me, even if—don’t be angry, Hector, because I could not help seeing it—you had not given it, almost in spite of yourself, to some one else——”
“To some one else!” he exclaimed.
“Yes,” she said, sorrowfully, “to Lisbeth.”
He drew his hands away, and covered his face with them, with something like a groan of despair.
“I am answered,” he said. “Don’t say anything more, Georgie. That is enough.”
“Don’t misunderstand me,” cried the girl. “You could not help it. How could you? The old love never died out, really. And now, when you see her so much better, and more 156 beautiful, how could it be otherwise than that it should spring into new life, and be stronger than ever? It is Lisbeth you love, Hector, and she is worthy of your love—of anybody’s love, if you would only understand her rightly. Is it pride that holds you back from showing your heart to her, or is it because, even though you love her, you have not forgiven her for your old misery? Tell me.”
“Do I love her,” he asked, “or hate her?”
“You love her,” answered Georgie.
“And yet,” he said, gloomily, “I have asked you to marry me, and you have answered me, as gently as an angel might have done.”
“It was only that you made a mistake,” said the girl.
“A mistake!” he echoed. “Ay, it was a mistake! And, as I said, it is not the first I have made. My life has been full of blunders.”
“Oh!” said Georgie, “how I wish I was wise enough to know how to set them right. If you would only trust me and let me try.”
He gave her a mournful smile.
“I thought there was a way,” he said, “but you did not agree with me.”
“I knew better,” shaking her head, and coloring. “And perhaps I was too proud 157 and jealous. I am not so good as you think me. I am very fond of you, but not fond enough to take your half-loaf. Let us forget it altogether.”