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- From Jest to Earnest - 70/79 -
In his case also sleep proved "nature's sweet restorer." In the morning faith and reason sat together on their throne, and he recognized his duty to act the part of a man and a Christian, whatever the truth might be.
He sat down at last and calmly tried to disentangle the web. Second thoughts brought wiser judgment, for, after going over every day and hour of his acquaintance with Lottie, he could scarcely resist the conclusion that if she had begun in falsehood she was ending in truth. If she, in all her words and manner, had been only acting, he could never trust his senses again, or be able to distinguish between the hollow and the real.
Hour after hour he sat and thought. He held a solemn assize within his own breast, and marshalled all he could remember as witnesses for and against her. Much in her conduct that at first had puzzled him now grew clear in view of her purpose to victimize him, and, even as late as Christmas eve, he remembered how her use of the word "comedy" had jarred unpleasantly upon his ear. But on the other hand there seemed even more conclusive evidence that she had gradually grown sincere, and come to mean all she said and did. Could the color that came and went like light from an inner flame,--could tears that seemed to come more from her heart than from her eyes,--could words that had sounded so true and womanly, and that had often dwelt on the most sacred themes, be only simulated?
"If so," he groaned, "then there are only two in the wide universe that I can ever trust,--God and mother."
Moreover, in her trial, Lottie had an eloquent advocate to whom even deliberate reason appeared only too ready to lend an attentive ear,--the student's heart.
Therefore she finally received a better vindication than the Scotch verdict "not proven," and the young man began to condemn himself bitterly for having left so hastily, and before Lottie had time to explain and defend herself.
His first impulse was to go back at once and give her another hearing. But, almost before he was aware, he found a new culprit brought to the bar for judgment,--himself.
If the trial, just completed, had failed to prove Lottie's guilt, it had most conclusively shown him his love. He saw how it had developed while he was blind to its existence. He saw that his wild agony of the preceding day was not over falsehood and deception in the abstract, but over the supposed falsehood of a woman whom he had come to love as his own soul. And even now he was exulting in the hope that she might have passed, as unconsciously as himself, into like sweet thraldom. In the belief of her truthfulness, how else could he interpret her glances, tones, actions, and even plainly-spoken words?
But the flame of hope, that had burned higher and brighter, gradually sank again as he recalled his aunt's words, "How is all this sentiment to end?--in only sentiment?"
He remembered his chosen calling. Could he ask this child of luxury to go with him to the far West and share his life of toilsome privation? He had long felt that the work of a missionary was his vocation. She had never had any such feeling. He recalled her words, spoken but yesterday, it seemed: "Do you imagine that any nice girl will go out with you among the border ruffians?"
That is the way it appeared to her then. If such a thing were possible, that she had become attached to him, would it not be an unfair and almost a mean thing to take advantage of her affection, and, by means of it, commit her to a life for which she was unfitted, and which might become almost a martyrdom? The change from her luxurious home to frontier-life would be too great. If she had felt called of God to such a work,--if she had laid herself as a sacrifice upon the Divine Altar, that would be very different, for the Master would give no task without imparting strength and patience for its fulfilment. Besides, He had Heaven to give in return.
But Frank Hemstead's unselfish manhood told him plainly that he had no right to ask any such sacrifice.
Incidentally, Lottie had mentioned the number of her residence, and he hastily went up Fifth Avenue, and saw her palace of a home. Every stone in the stately abode seemed part of the barrier between them.
An elegant carriage with liveried coachman and footman came around to the entrance, and a lady who had Lottie's features, except that they had grown rigid with pride and age, entered it, and was driven away. As he saw her stately bearing, and the pomp and show of her life, he could almost believe his aunt,--that this proud woman of the world would rather bury the daughter of whom she expected so much than marry her to an obscure home missionary.
His heart grew heavy as lead, and he groaned, "Even if she loves me I have lost her."
Then came the supreme temptation of his life. Why must he be a home missionary? Who was there to compel such a sacrifice of himself? He might come to this city, and win a place as high as hers, as many poorer and more friendless than himself had done. He might even seek some well-situated Eastern church. He might aim to be one of the great popular preachers of the day; and so be able to come to the door of that proud home and ask what it would be no condescension to grant.
Again he was out in the storm; again he was in the thick of the battle;--passionate longings and love on one hand; stern, steady conscience on the other. In painful pre-occupation he again walked unknown distances. His aimless steps took him away from the mansions of the rich down among the abodes of the poor. As he was crossing a street his troubled eyes rested upon a plain cross over a lowly chapel door. He stopped before it like a superstitious Romanist,--not reverencing the emblem, however, but in vivid remembrance of Him who suffered thereon. He recalled His self-sacrifice and His words, "Whosoever doth not bear his cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple."
He bowed his head a moment, then turned quietly, and went back to his hotel.
The conflict was over,--the temptation passed,--and he was loyal.
MR. DIMMERLY CONCLUDES TO "MEDDLE."
Hemstead found some solace, during the next two days, in the selection of books for his library. He did not expect to visit the East again for many years, and made all his arrangements accordingly. He wrote Mr. and Miss Martell a letter, which they regarded as a model in its expression of delicate appreciation and manly modesty.
Towards the end of the week he returned to Mrs. Marchmont's, by no means sure whether he would find Lottie there or not, and quite certain that the less he saw of her the better.
He walked from the depot, and went around by the way of the pond. His resolution almost failed him, as he looked at the "fallen tree," especially as he believed he saw evidence, from traces in the snow, that Lottie had visited the place in his absence.
Lottie looked forward with a strange blending of hope and fear to the meeting with him, and had portrayed to herself every possible way in which she imagined it could take place. But it happened, as such things usually do, after the most prosaic fashion possible. They were all sitting in the parlor, after dinner, and Hemstead opened the door and walked in.
Her face became scarlet, but his was so pale as to remind her of the time when he had carried Miss Martell into that room. It was, indeed, the pallor of one who was making a desperate moral effort. But he was successful, and spoke to her, giving his hand, in almost the same manner as to his aunt. His bearing towards even De Forrest was most courteous. He then sat down composedly, and began to talk on ordinary topics.
Lottie's heart failed her. This was entirely different from what she had expected. His manner was not in the least cold or resentful, but his words seemed to come from a great distance, and his eyes no longer sought her face, as if she only had for him the true sunlight. Their old, quick, subtile interchange of sympathy and thought appeared lost as completely as if a thick wall rose between them. The warm-hearted girl could not act his part. She was silent, and her head bent low over her work.
Mrs. Marchmont and Bel were greatly pleased, and gave Hemstead credit for being a "very sensible young man, who, having been shown his folly, could act like a gentleman and not make a fuss."
Even De Forrest looked at the student approvingly, especially as he had been to a city tailor and was clothed in taste and harmony with his manly proportions. No amount of grace and virtue could find recognition in De Forrest's eyes, unless dressed in the latest mode.
Mr. Dimmerly, from behind his newspaper, stared for a long time at Lottie and his nephew, and then snarled abruptly: "It's getting deuced cold. The brook will stop running down hill to-night, I'm a-thinking,--freeze up"; and he stirred the fire as if he had a spite against it.
Lottie's head bent lower. She was beginning to understand her crotchety uncle. She, too, thought that it was getting very "cold."
After a while Hemstead quietly left them, went to his room, and did not appear again till they were all at supper. He then, with a simple, yet quiet, high-bred ease,--the bearing of a natural gentleman,--gave sketches of what he had seen in New York, and the latest literary gossip. His manner towards Lottie was, as nearly as possible, the same as towards Bel and his cousin. He so completely
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