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- The Lion and the Mouse - 30/50 -
her parents that she had accepted an invitation to spend a week or two with an old college chum in New York.
That same evening her mother, the judge, and Stott went for a stroll after dinner and left her to take care of the house. They had wanted Shirley to go, too, but she pleaded fatigue. The truth was that she wanted to be alone so she could ponder undisturbed over her plans. It was a clear, starlit night, with no moon, and Shirley sat on the porch listening to the chirping of the crickets and idly watching the flashes of the mysterious fireflies. She was in no mood for reading and sat for a long time rocking herself, engrossed in her thoughts. Suddenly she heard someone unfasten the garden gate. It was too soon for the return of the promenaders; it must be a visitor. Through the uncertain penumbra of the garden she discerned approaching a form which looked familiar. Yes, now there was no doubt possible. It was, indeed, Jefferson Ryder.
She hurried down the porch to greet him. No matter what the father had done she could never think any the less of the son. He took her hand and for several moments neither one spoke. There are times when silence is more eloquent than speech and this was one of them. The gentle grip of his big strong hand expressed more tenderly than any words, the sympathy that lay in his heart for the woman he loved. Shirley said quietly:
"You have come at last, Jefferson."
"I came as soon as I could," he replied gently. "I saw Father only yesterday."
"You need not tell me what he said," Shirley hastened to say.
Jefferson made no reply. He understood what she meant. He hung his head and hit viciously with his walking stick at the pebbles that lay at his feet. She went on:
"I know everything now. It was foolish of me to think that Mr. Ryder would ever help us."
"I can't help it in any way," blurted out Jefferson. "I have not the slightest influence over him. His business methods I consider disgraceful--you understand that, don't you, Shirley?"
The girl laid her hand on his arm and replied kindly:
"Of course, Jeff, we know that. Come up and sit down."
He followed her on the porch and drew up a rocker beside her.
"They are all out for a walk," she explained.
"I'm glad," he said frankly. "I wanted a quiet talk with you. I did not care to meet anyone. My name must be odious to your people."
Both were silent, feeling a certain awkwardness. They seemed to have drifted apart in some way since those delightful days in Paris and on the ship. Then he said:
"I'm going away, but I couldn't go until I saw you."
"You are going away?" exclaimed Shirley, surprised.
"Yes," he said, "I cannot stand it any more at home. I had a hot talk with my father yesterday about one thing and another. He and I don't chin well together. Besides this matter of your father's impeachment has completely discouraged me. All the wealth in the world could never reconcile me to such methods! I'm ashamed of the role my own flesh and blood has played in that miserable affair. I can't express what I feel about it."
"Yes," sighed Shirley, "it is hard to believe that you are the son of that man!"
"How is your father?" inquired Jefferson. "How does he take it?"
"Oh, his heart beats and he can see and hear and speak," replied Shirley sadly, "but he is only a shadow of what he once was. If the trial goes against him, I don't think he'll survive it."
"It is monstrous," cried Jefferson. "To think that my father should be responsible for this thing!"
"We are still hoping for the best," added Shirley, "but the outlook is dark."
"But what are you going to do?" he asked. "These surroundings are not for you--" He looked around at the cheap furnishings which he could see through the open window and his face showed real concern.
"I shall teach or write, or go out as governess," replied Shirley with a tinge of bitterness. Then smiling sadly she added: "Poverty is easy; it is unmerited disgrace which is hard."
The young man drew his chair closer and took hold of the hand that lay in her lap. She made no resistance.
"Shirley," he said, "do you remember that talk we had on the ship? I asked you to be my wife. You led me to believe that you were not indifferent to me. I ask you again to marry me. Give me the right to take care of you and yours. I am the son of the world's richest man, but I don't want his money. I have earned a competence of my own--enough to live on comfortably. We will go away where you and your father and mother will make their home with us. Do not let the sins of the fathers embitter the lives of the children."
"Mine has not sinned," said Shirley bitterly.
"I wish I could say the same of mine," replied Jefferson. "It is because the clouds are dark about you that I want to come into your life to comfort you."
The girl shook her head.
"No, Jefferson, the circumstances make such a marriage impossible. Your family and everybody else would say that I had inveigled you into it. It is even more impossible now than I thought it was when I spoke to you on the ship. Then I was worried about my father's trouble and could give no thought to anything else. Now it is different. Your father's action has made our union impossible for ever. I thank you for the honour you have done me. I do like you. I like you well enough to be your wife, but I will not accept this sacrifice on your part. Your offer, coming at such a critical time, is dictated only by your noble, generous nature, by your sympathy for our misfortune. Afterwards, you might regret it. If my father were convicted and driven from the bench and you found you had married the daughter of a disgraced man you would be ashamed of us all, and if I saw that it would break my heart."
Emotion stopped her utterance and she buried her face in her hands weeping silently.
"Shirley," said Jefferson gently, "you are wrong. I love you for yourself, not because of your trouble. You know that. I shall never love any other woman but you. If you will not say 'yes' now, I shall go away as I told my father I would and one day I shall come back and then if you are still single I shall ask you again to be my wife."
"Where are you going?" she asked.
"I shall travel for a year and then, may be, I shall stay a couple of years in Paris, studying at the Beaux Arts. Then I may go to Rome. If I am to do anything worth while in the career I have chosen I must have that European training."
"Paris! Rome!" echoed Shirley. "How I envy you! Yes, you are right. Get away from this country where the only topic, the only thought is money, where the only incentive to work is dollars. Go where there are still some ideals, where you can breathe the atmosphere of culture and art."
Forgetting momentarily her own troubles, Shirley chatted on about life in the art centres of Europe, advised Jefferson where to go, with whom to study. She knew people in Paris, Rome and Munich and she would give him letters to them. Only, if he wanted to perfect himself in the languages, he ought to avoid Americans and cultivate the natives. Then, who could tell? if he worked hard and was lucky, he might have something exhibited at the Salon and return to America a famous painter.
"If I do," smiled Jefferson, "you shall be the first to congratulate me. I shall come and ask you to be my wife. May I?" he added.
Shirley smiled gravely.
"Get famous first. You may not want me then."
"I shall always want you," he whispered hoarsely, bending over her. In the dim light of the porch he saw that her tear-stained face was drawn and pale. He rose and held out his hand.
"Good-bye," he said simply.
"Good-bye, Jefferson." She rose and put her hand in his. "We shall always be friends. I, too, am going away."
"You going away--where to?" he asked surprised.
"I have work to do in connection with my father's case," she said.
"You?" said Jefferson puzzled. "You have work to do--what work?"
"I can't say what it is, Jefferson. There are good reasons why I can't. You must take my word for it that it is urgent and important work." Then she added: "You go your way, Jefferson; I will go mine. It was not our destiny to belong to each other. You will become famous as an artist. And I--"
"And you--" echoed Jefferson.
"I--I shall devote my life to my father. It's no use, Jefferson-- really--I've thought it all out. You must not come back to me--you understand. We must be alone with our grief--father and I. Good- bye."
He raised her hand to his lips.
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