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- Nature's Serial Story - 70/78 -
"Trurie," he began, as he entered, "you had better dress. Bless me, I thought you were packing!"
"You were expecting some one?"
"Mr. Clifford said he would call--to bid me good-by, I suppose."
"Was that all you supposed, Trurie?"
"Indeed, papa, I told him I was going to town to-morrow, and he asked if he might call."
"Did he speak of his object?"
"No, papa. I'm sure it's quite natural he should call, and I have been packing."
"Well, I can assure you that he has a very definite object. He has asked me if he might pay his addresses to you, and in the same breath assured me that he would in any event."
"Oh, papa," she said, hiding her face on his shoulder, "he was not so unmannerly as that!"
"Indeed, he went much further, declaring that he would take no refusal from you, either; or, rather, that he would take it so often as to wear out your patience, and secure you by proving that resistance was useless. He had one decided fault to find with you, also. He much regrets that you have wealth."
"Oh, papa, tell me what he did say;" and he felt her heart fluttering against his side like that of a frightened bird.
"Why, Trurie, men have offered you love before."
"But I never loved before, nor knew what it meant," she whispered. "Please don't keep me in suspense. This is all so strange, so sacred to me."
"Well, Trurie, I hope your match may be one of those that are made in heaven. Your mother will think it anything but worldly wise. However, I will reconcile her to it, and I'm glad to be the one with whom you will associate this day. Long after I am gone it may remind you how dear your happiness was to me, and that I was willing to give up my way for yours. Mr. Clifford has been straightforward and manly, if not conventional, and I've told him that if he could win you and would keep his promise to do his best for you and by you, I would be his friend, and that, you know, means much. Of course, it all depends upon whether you accept him. You are not committed in the least."
"Am I not, papa? Here is an organ"--with her hand upon her heart--"that knows better. But I shall not throw myself at him. Must I go down now?"
"Oh, no, I can excuse you," he said, with smiling lips but moist eyes.
"Dear papa, I will, indeed, associate you with this hour and every pleasant thing in life. You will find that you have won me anew instead of losing me;" and looking back at him with her old filial love shining in her eyes, she went slowly away to meet the future under the sweet constraint of Nature's highest law.
If Burt had been impatient in the library, he grew almost desperate in the parlor. Horrible doubts and fears crossed his mind. Might not Miss Hargrove's pride rise in arms against him? Might she not even now be telling her father of his fickleness, and declaring that she would not listen to a "twice-told tale"? Every moment of delay seemed ominous, and many moments passed. The house grew sepulchral in its silence, and the wind without sighed and moaned as if Nature foreboded and pitied him in view of the overwhelming misfortune impending. At last he sprang up and paced the room in his deep perturbation. As he turned toward the entrance he saw framed in the doorway a picture that appeared like a radiant vision. Miss Hargrove stood there, looking at him so intently that, for a second or two, he stood spell-bound. She was dressed in some white, clinging material, and, with her brilliant eyes, appeared in the uncertain light too beautiful and wraith-like to be human. She saw her advantage, and took the initiative instantly. "Mr. Clifford," she exclaimed, "do I seem an apparition?"
"Yes, you do," he replied, coming impetuously toward her. She held out her hand, proposing that their interview should at least begin at arm's length. Nevertheless, the soft fire in his eyes and the flush on his handsome face made her tremble with a delicious apprehension. Even while at a loss to know just how to manage the preliminaries for a decorous yielding, she exulted over the flame-like spirit of her lover.
"Ah, Mr. Clifford," she cried, "you ought to know that you are not crushing a ghost's hand."
"Pardon me. What I meant was that I thought I had seen you before, but you are a new revelation every time I see you."
"I can't interpret visions."
"Please don't say that, for I must ask you to interpret one to-night. What does Shakespeare say about those who have power? I hope you will use yours mercifully. Oh, Miss Hargrove, you are so beautiful that I believe I should lose my reason if you sent me away without hope."
"Mr. Clifford, you are talking wildly," was her faint response.
"I fear I am. I am almost desperate from fear, for I have a terribly hard duty to perform."
"Indeed!" she said, withdrawing her hand, which he relinquished most reluctantly, dreading that he might never receive it again.
"Do not assume that attitude, Miss Hargrove, or I shall lose courage utterly."
"Truly, Mr. Clifford," she said, a little satirically, seating herself on a sofa, "I never imagined you deficient in courage. Is it a terrible duty to entertain me for a half-hour, and say good-by?"
"Yes. Nothing could be worse than that, if that were all;" and he looked at her appealingly and in such perplexed distress that she laughed outright.
"I am very much in earnest, Miss Hargrove."
"You are very enigmatical, Mr. Clifford. Must I be present while you perform this terrible duty?"
"I think you know what I must confess already, and have a world of scorn in store for me. Do not judge me harshly. Whatever the end may be, and my sense of ill-desert is heavy indeed, I shall begin on the basis of absolute truth. You shall know the worst. I've asked your father for the privilege of winning your love;" and then he hesitated, not knowing how to go on.
"Is that the worst?" she asked, demurely.
"No, I fear it will be the best, for he kindly gave his consent, and I know it would be hard for him to do as much for any man, much more so for one not wholly to his mind. Miss Hargrove, I must appear awkwardness and incoherency personified. I hardly know how to go on. I shall appear to you fickle and unmanly. How can I excuse myself to you when I have no excuse except the downright truth that I love you better than my life, better than my own soul, better than all the world and everything in it. I never knew what love was until you became unconscious in my arms on the mountain. Forgive me for referring to it. I'm only trying to explain myself; and yet I had thought that I knew, and had spoken words of love to your friend, Amy Winfield, who is worthy of the love of the best and noblest man that ever breathed. She did not welcome my words--they only wounded her--and she has never eared for me except as a true and gentle sister cares. But I promised to wait till she did care. I can't keep that promise. You fascinated me from the first hour of our meeting. I feel now that I cherished an unworthy purpose toward you. I thought that, by attentions to you, I could make Amy care; I thought that you were but a brilliant society girl; but every hour I spent with you increased my admiration, my respect; I saw that you were better and stronger than I was. On the first day we went into camp on the mountain I saw whither my heart was leading me, and from that hour until to-day I have tried to conquer my love, feeling that I had no right to give it, that you would despise it if I did. You can't have any confidence in me now. All my hope is that you will give me a chance to prove that I am not a fickle wretch. I will accept of any probation, I will submit to any terms. I can't take an absolute refusal now, for I feel you are seeing me at my worst, and I know that you could do with me anything you pleased."
Her head bowed lower and lower as he poured out these words like a torrent. "Does Amy--have you told her that you cannot keep your promise to her?" she faltered, in a low tone.
"Oh, yes, I told her so a few hours ago--since I met you this afternoon. I was going away to the West, like a coward, to escape from my dilemma, for I felt you would never listen to me after you knew that I had broken my word to Amy. I feared that I had already become a by-word between you for all that was weak and fickle. But after I saw you I could not go till I spoke. I determined to reveal the whole truth, and if you ever gave me a chance to retrieve myself, gratitude would be no name for my deep feeling._
"Did--did Amy release you?"
"Yes, she was kindness itself. She told me in good plain English that she wanted neither me nor my promise; that she didn't think that she ever could have loved me, no matter how long I might have waited. But I could not look into your clear eyes and say, 'I love you,' and know that you might learn from her or any one that I had said this before. If you won't trust me, having had the whole truth, then I must bear my hard fate as best I can."
"How long would you be willing to wait for me?" she asked, in tones so low that he could scarcely catch the words.
He bounded to her side, and took her unresisting hand. "Oh, Gertrude," he pleaded, "prove me, give me a chance, let me show that I am not without manhood and constancy. Believe me, I know the priceless gift I'm asking, but what else can I do? I have tried for weeks to conquer the feeling you have inspired, tried with all the help that pride and sense of duty and honor could give, but it has been utterly useless. I now am free; I have the right to speak. I have concealed nothing from you. I'm wholly at your mercy."
At last she raised her downcast eyes and averted face to his, and for a moment he was dazed at their expression. In tones sweet, low, and deep with her strong emotion, she said, "Burt, how glad I am that you men are blind! I found out that I loved you before we went to our mountain camp."
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