Surely, so serious a question was never so dismissed in so short a time. For these few busy moments, the matter was as completely disposed of, as if they had spent hours in arguing it. He scarcely knew how it was that he felt so sure that he need say no more; that the brave, simple, pretty Georgie had set his poor, weak plans aside so easily, and yet so tenderly. Much as he admired and reverenced her, there was a depth in her girlish nature which he had never sounded. It was all over for him with Georgie Esmond, though he need not fear that her friendship would ever waver.
“If I was only wise enough to help you,” she repeated; “if you would only trust me, and let me try.”
“If any one could help me, you could,” he said, “but there is no help for me.”
He had never once admitted to himself that this miserable passion could ever make him happy. It had never occurred to his mind that its termination would be anything but a 159 wretched and humiliating one. As Georgie had suggested, he loved, but had not forgiven, and he told himself that his love was degraded infatuation. What was there to tie to in such a feeling? Did he trust the woman to whom he was in secret a slave? No, he trusted her no more to-day than he had done before. But she had a hold upon his heart-strings, nevertheless. The old witchery was exercising its full power upon him. It had been so strong, at last, that he had been maddened into making this coward’s effort to free himself. If Georgie would stretch out her hand, she might save him a fatal weakness, and so, even while he despised himself for his selfish folly, he had resolved to throw himself upon Georgie’s mercy. And here was the end of it! Georgie was wiser than himself, clearer of sight, truer of soul, stronger, with a brave simplicity; and she had proved to him what a shameful folly it was. Georgie would have none of him; and yet how sweet she was, God bless her!
“I shall leave Pen’yllan, in the morning,” he said. “There is nothing to keep me here now, since you do not want me. Say that you forgive me, Georgie, and we will bid each other good-by, for the present.”
“You must not think that I have anything to 160 forgive,” she answered; “but I do not say that you will be wrong in going. I believe it will be best. You do not quite understand yourself yet. Go away, and give yourself time to find out, whether you can conquer your heart, or not. The time will come when you will know.”
“And then?” somewhat bitterly.
“Something will happen, I think,” her simple faith in the kindness of Fortune asserting itself. “I cannot believe that you will always be as unhappy as you are now. One of you will be sure to do or say something that will help the other.”
A sudden color leaped to his face. Her words held a suggestion of which he had never once thought, and which set his pulses beating hard and fast.
“What?” he exclaimed, his new feeling giving him no time to check himself. “You do not think the time will ever come, when she—when she might feel, too——”
“I think,” said the girl, in a grave, almost reverent voice, “I think the time has come now.”
When they returned to the house, Lisbeth, seeing them from the parlor window, made a mental comment. 161
“Judging from his face,” she observed, “I should say that he had asked her to marry him, and had been accepted. Judging from hers, I should say her answer had been ‘No.’ You are not easy to read, for once, Georgie. What does it mean?”
Georgie came into the house, with a more composed look than her face had worn for several days. She laid her garden hat upon the hall table and walked straight into the parlor to her dear Lisbeth. She had a very shrewd idea that her dear Lisbeth knew nothing of their guest’s intended departure, and she wanted to be the first to break the news to her. It would not matter if any little secrets were betrayed to herself. So she went to the window, and laid her hand on Lisbeth’s shoulder.
“Did Hector tell you that he was going?” she asked, as if his having done so would have been the most natural thing in the world.
“That he was going?” repeated Lisbeth.
Georgie gazed considerately out into the garden.
“Yes. Back to London, you know—to-morrow. I suppose he thinks he has been idle long enough.”
Lisbeth shrugged her shoulders. 162
“Rather sudden, isn’t it?” she commented. “I think you have been the first to hear the news.”
“Gentlemen always do things suddenly,” remarked Georgie, astutely.
She had no need to have been so discreet. Lisbeth had been very cool under the information. An indifferent observer might have easily concluded that she cared very little about it; that her interest in Hector Anstruthers’ going and coming was an extremely well-controlled feeling. When he came into the room himself, a few minutes later, she was quite composed enough to touch upon the subject with polite regrets.
“Aunt Clarissa will positively mourn,” she ended, with one of her incomprehensible smiles. “She has been almost radiant during your visit.” And there her share in the matter seemed to terminate. She said nothing when the three old ladies, hearing the news, poured forth affectionate plaints, from the first course at dinner until the last. She listened composedly, without remark, though once or twice she looked at Georgie with rather an interested air. It was her turn to feel curious now, and she was curious enough. Georgie blushed when she was looked at scrutinizingly, but her 163 manner was decidedly not that of a girl who had just accepted a lover.
“And,” said Lisbeth, examining her coolly, “she would not refuse him. She must be fond of him; and if she is fond of him, she is too sweet-natured and straightforward to coquet with him. And yet—well, it is decidedly puzzling.”
She found the evening rather a bore, upon the whole. How was it that it dragged so, in spite of her efforts? She thought it would never come to an end. When, with long-suffering good-nature, Hector drew out the chess-table, and challenged the delighted Miss Clarissa to a game, her patience fairly gave way. She turned to the piano for refuge, and sang song after song, until she could sing no more. Then, when Georgie took her place, she made a furtive exit, and slipped out through the hall and a side door into the garden. What made her turn her steps toward Miss Clarissa’s rose-thicket? She did not know. But she went there. There she had bidden her boy-lover good-by, and broken his heart; there she had sung her little song to Georgie and Hector. On both occasions it had been warm, and balmy, and moonlight; and now it was warm, and balmy, and moonlight again. She stood and looked through 164 the trees, catching silvery glimpses of the sea. In a minute or so she moved her hand in an impatient gesture.
“I am sick of it all,” she cried, breaking the silence. “I am sick of the whole world, and of myself more than the rest. How I wish I was like Aunt Clarissa.”
She began to wander about restlessly, pulling at the roses with no particular object, but because she could not keep still. Buds and blossoms, red, and cream, and white, were torn from their stems ruthlessly, until her hands were full, and then she stopped again, half wondering at herself.
“What am I thinking of?” she said. “What do I want them for? Poor things!” remembering her parable bitterly. “They might have been very sweet to-morrow.”
She held the cool, fresh things close up to her face, breathing in their fragrance eagerly; and when she took them away, their blossoms were bright here and there—perhaps with dew; certainly with dew, if it was dew that wet her fevered cheeks, and softened her eyes so strangely.
Scarcely three minutes later she turned with a start, and then stood listening. Some one had left the house, and was coming across the 165 lawn toward her. She waited a few seconds, to make sure that she was not mistaken, and then she bent down over a bush, and began leisurely to gather more roses, though she was overloaded already.
“Where is Georgie?” she asked, calmly, of the intruder, when he reached her side.
“Georgie,” returned a rather constrained voice, “is talking to Miss Hetty. Miss Clarissa sent me here to remind you that the dew is falling, and that you are not strong enough to bear the night air.”
“Miss Clarissa is very good,” Lisbeth answered. “And so are you. But dear Miss Clarissa has been threatening me with an untimely grave, as the result of night air, ever since I was six months old; so, perhaps, I am not so grateful as I ought to be. I love darkness rather than light, upon the whole, and don’t find that it disagrees with me; perhaps because my deeds are evil.”
For fully two minutes, she gathered her flowers in silence, while Anstruthers waited, and looked at her; but at last she stood upright, and their eyes met.
“It is a beautiful night,” she remarked, sententiously. 166
“We have had a great number of lovely nights, lately.”
She busied herself with her roses for a little while, to the exclusion of everything else, and then she gave it up.
“Well,” she said, “suppose we go into the house. I can do nothing with them here. The fact is, I don’t know why I gathered them, unless it was from an impulse of destructiveness. Let us go.”
“Stop a moment,” he said; nay, almost commanded her.
She paused, not seeming in the least disturbed, however. She would have cut off her right hand, almost, before she would have exhibited an emotion.
“I had a reason of my own for coming here,” he went on, “apart from Miss Clarissa’s commands. I want to bid you good-by.”
“You must be going,” she commented, “very early in the morning.” And yet her heart was beating like a trip-hammer.
“It is not that,” was his reply, “though I am going early. I had a whim—you remember my whim about the song—a fancy that I 167 should like to say my good-by here, where I said a good-by once before.”
“It is easily said,” answered Lisbeth, and held out one of her hands. “Good-by.”
He took it, with a pretense at a coolness as masterly as her own, but he could not keep it up. He gave way to some swift, passionate, inexplicable prompting, and in an instant had covered it with kisses, had even fiercely kissed her slender wrist.
She snatched it from his grasp, breathless with anger, forgetting her resolve to control herself.
“What do you mean?” she cried. “You are mad. How dare you?”
He drew back a step, confronting her defiantly.
“I do not know what I mean,” he answered, “unless, as you say, I am mad. I think I am mad; so, being a madman, I will not ask you to pardon me. It was a farewell. It is over now, however. Will you let me take your roses, and carry them to the house?”
She vouchsafed him no answer, but turned away, and left him to follow, if he chose. Her helplessness against him drove her fairly wild. Nothing she could say, or do, would ever wipe out the memory of those mad kisses. He 168 either loved or despised her utterly; and remembering his manner toward Georgie, she could only conclude that he despised her, and had offered her a deadly insult. The blood shot into her cheeks, like a rush of fire, and her eyes blazed ominously.
“My dear Lisbeth,” bleated good little Miss Clarissa, the moment she saw her, “you have caught fresh cold, I am convinced. You are in a high fever.”
Fever, indeed! She had never been in such a fever in her life; but it was a fever of anger and humiliation.
“I think it probable,” she said, seriously, “that I am going to have measles, or scarlatina, Aunt Clarissa. Which would you prefer?”
Georgie came up stairs, long after she had shut herself in her room, to find her sitting by the open window, looking worn out and wretched.
“Lisbeth,” she ventured, “is it possible that you are going to be ill?”
Probably Georgie Esmond had never been so spoken to in her life, as she was when her dear Lisbeth turned upon her at this simple remark.
“Georgie, my dear,” she said, “if you ask 169 me such a question again, I believe I shall turn you out of the room, and lock the door.”
Georgie regarded her for a moment in mute amazement; but after that she managed to recover herself.
“I—I beg pardon, Lisbeth,” she faltered, and then discreetly turned her attention to the performance of her nightly toilet, preparatory to going to bed.
But in the morning, it was Lisbeth to whose share the meekness fell. Her mood had changed altogether, and she was so astoundingly humble, that Georgie was alarmed.
“You have more patience with me than I have with myself, Georgie,” she said, “or I should know it was not worth my while to say a word to you. Do have pity on me. I—well, I was out of sorts, or something. And I have such a horrible temper.”
Really, her demon might have departed from her that night. She showed no more temper; she became almost as amiable as a more commonplace young woman. She made so few caustic speeches, that the Misses Tregarthyn began to fear that her delicate health had affected her usual flow of spirits; and accordingly mourned over her in secret, not feeling it discreet to do so openly. 170
“She used to be so spirited,” sighed Miss Hetty, over her sewing, to Georgie. “Don’t you observe an alteration in her, my love? Sister Clarissa, and sister Millicent, and myself really do not know what to think. It would be such a comfort to us, if she could only be persuaded to see Dr. Puddifoot. He is such a dear man, and so extremely talented.”
“Because I have been trying to behave myself decently, they think I am ill,” said Lisbeth, smiling a little mournfully. “Just think how I must have treated them, Georgie. They are so used to my humors, that, if I am not making myself actively unpleasant, they fancy it is because I have not the strength to do it. If I were to snub Aunt Hetty, and snap at Aunt Clarissa, I believe they would shed tears of joy.”