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- The Argonauts of North Liberty - 4/19 -
is some virtuous but silly school-girl, who, though she may be intending only an innocent flirtation with him, has made this man actually and deeply in love with her. Yes; it is a fact, Joan. I know Dick Demorest, and if ever there was a man honestly in love, it is he."
"Then you mean to say that this man--an utter stranger to me--a man whom I've never laid my eyes on--whom I wouldn't know if I met in the street--expects me to advise him--to--to--" She stopped. Blandford could scarcely believe his senses. There were tears in her eyes--this woman who never cried; her voice trembled--she who had always controlled her emotions.
He took advantage of this odd but opportune melting. He placed his arm around her shoulders. She tried to escape it, but with a coy, shy movement, half hysterical, half girlish, unlike her usual stony, moral precision. "Yes, Joan," he repeated, laughingly, "but whose fault is it? Not HIS, remember! And I firmly believe he thinks you can do him good."
"But he has never seen me," she continued, with a nervous little laugh, "and probably considers me some old Gorgon--like--like-- Sister Jemima Skerret."
Blandford smiled with the complacency of far-reaching masculine intuition. Ah! that shrewd fellow, Demorest, was right. Joan, dear Joan, was only a woman after all.
"Then he'll be the more agreeably astonished," he returned, gayly, "and I think YOU will, too, Joan. For Dick isn't a bad-looking fellow; most women like him. It's true," he continued, much amused at the novelty of the perfectly natural toss and grimace with which Mrs. Blandford received this statement.
"I think he's been pointed out to me somewhere," she said, thoughtfully; "he's a tall, dark, dissipated-looking man."
"Nothing of the kind," laughed her husband. "He's middle-sized and as blond as your cousin Joe, only he's got a long yellow moustache, and has a quick, abrupt way of talking. He isn't at all fancy- looking; you'd take him for an energetic business man or a doctor, if you didn't know him. So you see, Joan, this correct little wife of mine has been a little, just a little, prejudiced."
He drew her again gently backwards and nearer his seat, but she caught his wrists in her slim hands, and rising from the chair at the same moment, dexterously slipped from his embrace with her back towards him. "I do not know why I should be unprejudiced by anything you've told me," she said, sharply closing the book of sermons, and, with her back still to her husband, reinstating it formally in its place on the cabinet. "It's probably one of his many scandalous pursuits of defenceless and believing women, and he, no doubt, goes off to Boston, laughing at you for thinking him in earnest; and as ready to tell his story to anybody else and boast of his double deceit." Her voice had a touch of human asperity in it now, which he had never before noticed, but recognizing, as he thought, the human cause, it was far from exciting his displeasure.
"Wrong again, Joan; he's waiting here at the Independence House for me to see him to-morrow," he returned, cheerfully. "And I believe him so much in earnest that I would be ready to swear that not another person will ever know the story but you and I and he. No, it is a real thing with him; he's dead in love, and it's your duty as a Christian to help him."
There was a moment of silence. Mrs. Blandford remained by the cabinet, methodically arranging some small articles displaced by the return of the book. "Well," she said, suddenly, "you don't tell me what mother had to say. Of course, as you came home earlier than you expected, you had time to stop THERE--only four doors from this house."
"Well, no, Joan," replied Blandford, in awkward discomfiture. "You see I met Dick first, and then--then I hurried here to you--and-- and--I clean forgot it. I'm very sorry," he added, dejectedly.
"And I more deeply so," she returned, with her previous bloodless moral precision, "for she probably knows by this time, Edward, why you have omitted your usual Sabbath visit, and with WHOM you were."
"But I can pull on my boots again and run in there for a moment," he suggested, dubiously, "if you think it necessary. It won't take me a moment."
"No," she said, positively; "it is so late now that your visit would only show it to be a second thought. I will go myself--it will be a call for us both."
"But shall I go with you to the door? It is dark and sleeting," suggested Blandford, eagerly.
"No," she replied, peremptorily. "Stay where you are, and when Ezekiel and Bridget come in send them to bed, for I have made everything fast in the kitchen. Don't wait up for me."
She left the room, and in a few moments returned, wrapped from head to foot in an enormous plaid shawl. A white woollen scarf thrown over her bare brown head, and twice rolled around her neck, almost concealed her face from view. When she had parted from her husband, and reached the darkened hall below, she drew from beneath the folds of her shawl a thick blue veil, with which she completely enveloped her features. As she opened the front door and peered out into the night, her own husband would have scarcely recognized her.
With her head lowered against the keen wind she walked rapidly down the street and stopped for an instant at the door of the fourth house. Glancing quickly back at the house she had left and then at the closed windows of the one she had halted before, she gathered her skirts with one hand and sped away from both, never stopping until she reached the door of the Independence Hotel.
Mrs. Blandford entered the side door boldly. Luckily for her, the austerities of the Sabbath were manifest even here; the bar-room was closed, and the usual loungers in the passages were absent. Without risking the recognition of her voice in an inquiry to the clerk, she slipped past the office, still muffled in her veil, and quickly mounted the narrow staircase. For an instant she hesitated before the public parlor, and glanced dubiously along the half-lit corridor. Chance befriended her; the door of a bedroom opened at that moment, and Richard Demorest, with his overcoat and hat on, stepped out in the hall.
With a quick and nervous gesture of her hand she beckoned him to approach. He came towards her leisurely, with an amused curiosity that suddenly changed to utter astonishment as she hurriedly lifted her veil, dropped it, turned, and glided down the staircase into the street again. He followed rapidly, but did not overtake her until she had reached the corner, when she slackened her pace an instant for him to join her.
"Lulu," he said eagerly; "is it you?"
"Not a word here," she said, breathlessly. "Follow me at a distance."
She started forward again in the direction of her own house. He followed her at a sufficient interval to keep her faintly distinguishable figure in sight until she had crossed three streets, and near the end of the next block glided up the steps of a house not far from the one where he remembered to have left Blandford. As he joined her, she had just succeeded in opening the door with a pass-key, and was awaiting him. With a gesture of silence she took his hand in her cold fingers, and leading him softly through the dark hall and passage, quickly entered the kitchen. Here she lit a candle, turned, and faced him. He could see that the outside shutters were bolted, and the kitchen evidently closed for the night.
As she removed the veil from her face he made a movement as if to regain her hand again, but she drew it away.
"You have forced this upon me," she said hurriedly, "and it may be ruin to us both. Why have you betrayed me?"
"Betrayed you, Lulu--Good God! what do you mean?"
She looked him full in the eye, and then said slowly, "Do you mean to say that you have told no one of our meetings?"
"Only one--my old friend Blandford, who lives-- Ah, yes! I see it now. You are neighbors. He has betrayed me. This house is--"
"My father's!" she replied boldly.
The momentary uneasiness passed from Demorest's resolute face. His old self-sufficiency returned. "Good," he said, with a frank laugh, "that will do for me. Open the door there, Lulu, and take me to him. I'm not ashamed of anything I've done, my girl, nor need you be. I'll tell him my real name is Dick Demorest, as I ought to have told you before, and that I want to marry you, fairly and squarely, and let him make the conditions. I'm not a vagabond nor a thief, Lulu, if I have met you on the sly. Come, dear, let us end this now. Come--"
But she had thrown herself before him and placed her hand upon his lips. "Hush! are you mad? Listen to me, I tell you--please--oh, do--no you must not!" He had covered her hand with kisses and was drawing her face towards his own. "No--not again, it was wrong then, it is monstrous now. I implore you, listen, if you love me, stop."
He released her. She sank into a chair by the kitchen-table, and buried her flushed face in her hands.
He stood for a moment motionless before her. "Lulu, if that is your name," he said slowly, but gently, "tell me all now. Be frank with me, and trust me. If there is anything stands in the way, let me know what it is and I can overcome it. If it is my telling Ned Blandford, don't let that worry you, he's as loyal a fellow as ever breathed, and I'm a dog to ever think he willingly betrayed us. His wife, well, she's one of those pious saints--but no, she would not be such a cursed hypocrite and bigot as this."
"Hush, I tell you! WILL you hush," she said, in a frantic whisper,
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