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- Dr. Heidenhoff's Process - 5/18 -
The big fellow stood before her, sheepish, dogged, contrite, desperate, all in one.
"I couldn't help it," he blurted out. The plea was somehow absurdly simple, and yet rather unanswerable. Angry as she was, she really couldn't think of anything to say, except--
"You'd better help it," with which rather ineffective rebuke she turned away and walked toward the picnic ground. Henry followed in a demoralized frame. His mind was in a ferment. He could not realize what had happened. He could scarcely believe that he had actually done it. He could not conceive how he had dared it. And now what penalty would she inflict? What if she should not forgive him? His soul was dissolved in fears, But, sooth to say, the young lady's actual state of mind was by no means so implacable as he apprehended. She had been ready to be very angry, but the suddenness and depth of his contrition had disarmed her. It took all the force out of her indignation to see that he actually seemed to have a deeper sense of the enormity of his act than she herself had. And when, after they had rejoined the party, she saw that, instead of taking part in the sports, he kept aloof, wandering aimless and disconsolate by himself among the pines, she took compassion on him and sent some one to tell him she wanted him to come and push her in the swing. People had kissed her before. She was not going to leave the first person who had seemed to fully realize the importance of the proceeding to suffer unduly from a susceptibility which did him so much credit. As for Henry, he hardly believed his ears when he heard the summons to attend her. At that the kiss which her rebuke had turned cold on his lips began to glow afresh, and for the first time he tasted its exceeding sweetness; for her calling to him seemed to ratify and consent to it. There were others standing about as he came up to where Madeline sat in the swing, and he was silent, for he could not talk of indifferent things.
With what a fresh charm, with what new sweet suggestions of complaisance that kiss had invested every line and curve of her, from hat-plume to boot-tip! A delicious tremulous sense of proprietorship tinged his every thought of her. He touched the swing-rope as fondly as if it were an electric chain that could communicate the caress to her. Tom Longman, having done all the work that offered itself, had been wandering about in a state of acute embarrassment, not daring to join himself to any of the groups, much less accost a young lady who might be alone. As he drifted near the swing, Madeline said to Henry--
"You may stop swinging me now. I think I'd like to go out rowing." The young man's cup seemed running over. He could scarcely command his voice for delight as he said--
"It will be jolly rowing just now. I'm sure we can get some pond-lilies."
"Really," she replied, airily, "you take too much for granted. I was going to ask Tom Longman to take me out."
She called to Tom, and as he came up, grinning and shambling, she indicated to him her pleasure that be should row her upon the river. The idea of being alone in a small boat for perhaps fifteen minutes with the belle of Newville, and the object of his own secret and distant adoration, paralysed Tom's faculties with an agony of embarrassment. He grew very red, and there was such a buzzing in his ears that he could not feel sure he heard aright, and Madeline had to repeat herself several times before he seemed to fully realize the appalling nature of the proposition. As they walked down to the shore she chatted with him, but he only responded with a profusion of vacant laughs. When he had pulled out on the river, his rowing, from his desire to make an excuse for not talking, was so tremendous that they cheered him from the shore, at the same time shouting--
"Keep her straight! You're going into the bank!"
The truth was, that Tom could not guide the boat because he did not dare to look astern for fear of meeting Madeline's eyes, which, to judge from the space his eyes left around her, he must have supposed to fill at least a quarter of the horizon, like an aurora, in fact. But, all the same, he was having an awfully good time, although perhaps it would be more proper to say he would have a good time when he came to think it over afterward. It was an experience which would prove a mine of gold in his memory, rich enough to furnish for years the gilding to his modest day-dreams. Beauty, like wealth, should make its owners generous. It is a gracious thing in fair women at times to make largesse of their beauty, bestowing its light more freely on tongue-tied, timid adorers than on their bolder suitors, giving to them who dare not ask. Their beauty never can seem more precious to women than when for charity's sake they brighten with its lustre the eyes of shy and retiring admirers.
As Henry was ruefully meditating upon the uncertainty of the sex, and debating the probability that Madeline had called him to swing her for the express purpose of getting a chance to snub him, Ida Lewis came to him, and said--
"Mr. Burr, we're getting up a game of croquet. Won't you play?"
"If I can be on your side," he answered, civilly.
He knew the girl's liking for him, and was always kind to her. At his answer her face flushed with pleasure, and she replied shyly--
"If you'd like to, you may."
Henry was not in the least a conceited fellow, but it was impossible that he should not understand the reason why Ida, who all the morning had looked forlorn enough, was now the life of the croquet-ground, and full of smiles and flushes. She was a good player, and had a corresponding interest in beating, but her equanimity on the present occasion was not in the least disturbed by the disgraceful defeat which Henry's awkwardness and absence of mind entailed on their aide.
But her portion of sunshine for that day was brief enough, for Madeline soon returned from her boat-ride, and Henry found an excuse for leaving the game and joining her where she sat on the ground between the knees of a gigantic oak sorting pond-lilies, which the girls were admiring. As he came up, she did not appear to notice him. As soon as he had a chance to speak without being overheard, he said, soberly--
"Tom ought to thank me for that boat-ride, I suppose."
"I don't know what you mean," she answered, with assumed carelessness.
"I mean that you went to punish me."
"You're sufficiently conceited," she replied. "Laura, come here; your brother is teasing me."
"And do you think I want to be teased to?" replied that young lady, pertly, as she walked off.
Madeline would have risen and left Henry, but she was too proud to let him think that she was afraid of him.. Neither was she afraid, but she was confused, and momentarily without her usual self-confidence. One reason for her running off with Tom had been to get a chance to think. No girl, however coolly her blood may flow, can be pressed to a man's breast, wildly throbbing with love for her, and not experience some agitation in consequence. Whatever may be the state of her sentiments, there is a magnetism in such a contact which she cannot at once throw off. That kiss had brought her relations with Henry to a crisis. It had precipitated the necessity of some decision. She could no longer hold him off, and play with him. By that bold dash he had gained a vantage-ground, a certain masterful attitude which he had never held before. Yet, after all, I am not sure that she was not just a little afraid of him, and, moreover, that she did not like him all the better for it. It was such a novel feeling that it began to make some things, thought of in connection with him, seem more possible to her mind than they had ever seemed before. As she peeped furtively at this young man, so suddenly grown formidable, as he reclined carelessly on the ground at her feet, she admitted to herself that there was something very manly in the sturdy figure and square forehead, with the curly black locks hanging over it. She looked at him with a new interest, half shrinking, half attracted, as one who might come into a very close relation with herself. She scarcely knew whether the thought was agreeable or not.
"Give me your hat," she said, "and I'll put some lilies in it."
"You are very good," said he, handing it to her.
"Does it strike you so?" she replied, hesitatingly. "Then I won't do it. I don't want to appear particularly good to you. I didn't know just how it would seem."
"Oh, it won't seem very good; only about middling," he urged, upon which representation she took the hat.
He watched her admiringly as she deftly wreathed the lilies around it, holding it up, now this way and now that, while she critically inspected the effect.
Then her caprice changed. "I've half a mind to drop it into the river. Would you jump after it?" she said, twirling it by the brim, and looking over the steep bank, near which she sat, into the deep, dark water almost perpendicularly below.
"If it were anything of yours instead of mine, I would jump quickly enough," he replied.
She looked at him with a reckless gleam in her eyes.
"You mustn't talk chaff to me, sir; we'll see," and, snatching a glove from her pocket, she held it out over the water. They were both of them in that state of suppressed excitement which made such an experiment on each other's nerve dangerous. Their eyes met, and neither flinched. If she had dropped it, he would have gone after it.
"After all," she said, suddenly, "that would be taking a good deal of trouble to get a mitten. If you are so anxious for it, I will give it to you now;" and she held out the glove to him with an inscrutable face.
He sprang up from the ground. "Madeline, do you mean it?" he asked, scarcely audibly, his face grown white and pinched. She crumpled the obnoxious glove into her pocket.
"Why, you poor fellow!" she exclaimed, the wildfire in her eyes quenched in a moment with the dew of pity. "Do you care so much?"
"I care everything," he said, huskily.
But, as luck would have it, just at that instant Will Taylor came running up, pursued by Laura, and threw himself upon Madeline's protection. It appeared that he had confessed to the possession of a secret, and on being requested by Laura to impart it had flatly refused to do so.
"I can't really interfere to protect any young man who refuses to tell a secret to a young lady," said Madeline, gravely. "Neglect to tell her the secret, without being particularly asked to do so, would be bad enough, but to refuse after being requested is an offence which calls for the
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