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- An Original Belle - 10/94 -
drawing-room when you return."
"Very well," she replied, quietly. Her eyes were dry and hot now, and he could almost see the dark lines deepening under them, and the increasing pallor of her face. "I have only this to say. I now feel that your words are like blows, and they are given to one who is not resisting, who is prostrate;" and she rose as if to indicate that their interview should end.
He looked at her uneasily as she stood before him, with her pallid face averted, and every line of her drooping form suggesting defeat rather than triumph; yes, far more than defeat--the apathetic hopelessness of one who feels himself mortally wounded.
"Will you please tell me just what you mean when you say I have spoiled your life?" he asked.
"How should I know? How should anyone know till he has lived out its bitterness? What do you mean by the words? Perhaps you will remember hereafter that your language has been inconsistent as well as merciless. You said I was neither brainless nor heartless; then added that you had spoiled my life merely for one evening. But there is no use in trying to defend myself: I should have little to urge except thoughtlessness, custom, the absence of evil intention,--other words should prove myself a fool, to avoid being a criminal. Go on and spoil your life; you seem to be wholly bent upon it. Face rebel bullets or do some other reckless thing. I only wish to give you the solace of knowing that you have made me as miserable as a girl can be, and that too at a moment when I was awakening to better things. But I am wasting your valuable time. You believe in your heart that Mr. Strahan can console me with his gossip to-morrow evening, whatever happens."
"Great God! what am I to believe?"
She turned slowly towards him and said, gravely: "Do not use that name, Mr. Lane. He recognizes the possibility of good in the weakest and most unworthy of His creatures. He never denounces those who admit their sin and would turn from it."
He sprung to her side and took her hand. "Look at me," he pleaded.
His face was so lined and eloquent with suffering that her own lip quivered.
"Mr. Lane," she said, "I have wronged you. I am very sorry now. I've been sorry ever since I began to think--since you last called. I wish you could forgive me. I think it would be better for us both if you could forgive me."
He sunk into a chair and burying his face in his hands groaned aloud; then, in bitter soliloquy, said: "O God! I was right--I knew I was not deceived. She is just the woman I believed her to be. Oh, this is worse than death!"
No tears came into his eyes, but a convulsive shudder ran through his frame like that of a man who recoils from the worst blow of fate.
"Reproach--strike me, even," she cried. "Anything is better than this. Oh, that I could--but how can I? Oh, what an unutterable fool I have been! If your love is so strong, it should also be a little generous. As a woman I appeal to you."
He rose at once and said: "Forgive me; I fear that I have been almost insane,--that I have much to atone for."
"O Mr. Lane, I entreat you to forgive me. I did admire you; I was proud of your preference,--proud that one so highly thought of and coveted by others should single me out. I never dreamt that my vanity and thoughtlessness could lead to this. If you had been ill or in trouble, you would have had my honest sympathy, and few could have sacrificed more to aid you. I never harbored one thought of cold-blooded malice. Why must I be punished as if I had committed a deliberate crime? If I am the girl you believe me to be, what greater punishment could I have than to know that I had harmed a man like you? It seems to me that if I loved any one I could suffer for him and help him, without asking anything in return. I could give you honest friendship, and take heart-felt delight in every manly success that you achieved. As a weak, faulty girl, who yet wishes to be a true woman, I appeal to you. Be strong, that I may be strong; be hopeful, that I may hope; be all that you can be, that I may not be disheartened on the very threshold of the better life I had chosen."
He took her hand, and said: "I am not unresponsive to your words. I feel their full force, and hope to prove that I do; but there is a tenacity in my nature that I cannot overcome. You said, 'if you loved'--do you not love any one?"
"No. You are more to me--twice more--than any man except my father."
"Then, think well. Do not answer me now, unless you must. Is there not a chance for me? I am not a shadow of a man, Marian. I fear I have proved too well how strong and concentrated my nature is. There is nothing I would not do or dare--"
"No, Mr. Lane; no," she interrupted, shaking her head sadly, "I will never consciously mislead a man again a single moment. I scarcely know what love is; I may never know; but until my heart prompts me, I shall never give the faintest hope or encouragement of this nature. I have been taught the evil of it too bitterly."
"And I have been your remorseless teacher, and thus perhaps have destroyed my one chance."
"You are wrong. I now see that your words were natural to one like you, and they were unjust only because I was not deliberate. Mr. Lane, let me be your friend. I could give you almost a sister's love; I could be so proud of you!"
"There," he said. "You have triumphed after all. I pledge you my word--all the manhood I possess--I will do whatever you ask."
She took his hand in both her own with a look of gratitude he never forgot, and spoke gladly: "Now you change everything. Oh, I am so glad you did not go away before! What a sad, sleepless night I should have had, and sad to-morrows stretching on indefinitely! I ask very much, very much indeed,--that you make the most and best of yourself. Then I can try to do the same. It will be harder for you than for me. You bring me more hope than sadness; I have given you more sadness than hope. Yet I have absolute faith in you because of what papa said to me last night. I had asked him how I could cease to be what I was, be different, you know, and he said, 'Develop the best in your own nature naturally.' If you will do this I shall have no fears."
"Yet I have been positively brutal to you to-night."
"No man can be so strong as you are and be trifled with. I understand that now, Mr. Lane. You had no sentimentality to be touched, and my tears did not move you in the least until you believed in my honest contrition."
"I have revealed to you one of my weaknesses. I am rarely angry, but when I am, my passion, after it is over, frightens me. Marian, you do forgive me in the very depths of your heart?"
"I do indeed,--that is, if I have anything to forgive under the circumstances."
"Poor little girl! how pale you are! I fear you are ill."
"I shall soon be better,--better all my life for your forgiveness and promise."
"Thank God that we are parting in this manner," he said. "I don't like to think of what might have happened, for I was in the devil's own mood. Marian, if you make good the words you have spoken to-night, if you become the woman you can be, you will have a power possessed by few. It was not your beauty merely that fascinated me, but a certain individuality,--something all your own, which gives you an influence apparently absolute. But I shall speak no more in this strain. I shall try to be as true a friend as I am capable of becoming, although an absent one. I must prove myself by deeds, not words, however. May I write to you sometimes? I will direct my letters under the care of your father, and you may show them to him or your mother, as you wish."
"Certainly you may, and you will be my first and only gentleman correspondent. After what has passed between us, it would be prudery to refuse. Moreover, I wish to hear often of your welfare. Never for a moment will my warm interest cease, and you can see me whenever you wish. I have one more thing to ask,--please take up your old life to-morrow, just where you left off. Do nothing hastily, or from impulse. Remember you have promised to make the most and best of yourself, and that requires you to give conscience and reason fair hearing. Will you also promise this?"
"Anything you asked, I said."
"Then good-by. Never doubt my friendship, as I shall not doubt yours."
Her hand ached from the pressure of his, but the pain was thus drawn from her heart.
A SCHEME OF LIFE.
MARIAN waited for her father's return, having been much too deeply excited for the speedy advent of quiet sleep. When at last he came she told him everything. As she described the first part of the interview his brow darkened, but his face softened as she drew toward the close. When she ceased he said:--
"Don't you see I was right in saying that your own tact would guide you better than my reason? If I, instead of your own nature, had directed you, we should have made an awful mess of it. Now let me think a moment. This young fellow has suggested an idea to me,--a
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