|←Chapter XXXVIII. "God Bless You!"|| Haworth's by
Chapter XXXIX. "It is done with"
|Chapter XL. "Look Out!"→|
After the departure of Haworth and Murdoch, Mr. Ffrench waited for some time for his daughter's appearance. He picked up a pamphlet and turned over its leaves uneasily, trying to read here and there, and making no great success of the effort. He was in a disturbed and nervous mood, the evening had been a trial to him, more especially the latter part of it during which Haworth sat on the other side of the table in his usual awkwardly free and easy posture, his hands in his pockets, his feet thrust out before him. His silence and the expression he wore had not been of a kind to relieve his companion of any tithe of the burden which had gradually accumulated upon his not too muscular shoulders. At the outset Ffrench had been simply bewildered, then somewhat anxious and annoyed, but to-day he had been stunned. Haworth's departure was an immense relief to him. It was often a relief to him in these days. Then he heard Murdoch descend the stairs and leave the house, and he waited with mingled dread and anxiousness for Rachel's coming. But she did not make her appearance. He heard her walk across the room after Murdoch left her, and then she did not seem to move again.
After the lapse of half an hour he laid his pamphlet aside and rose himself. He coughed two or three times and paced the floor a little—gradually he edged toward the folding doors leading into the front room and passed through them.
Rachel stood at one of the windows, which was thrown open. She was leaning against its side and looking out into the night. When she turned toward him something in her manner caused in Ffrench an increase of nervousness amounting to irritation.
"You wish to say something to me," she remarked. What is it?"
"Yes," he answered. "I wish to say something to you."
He could not make up his mind to say it for a moment or so. He found himself returning her undisturbed glance with an excited and bewildered one.
"I—the fact is"—he broke forth, desperately, "I—I do not understand you."
"That is not at all singular," she replied. "You have often said so before."
He began to lose his temper and to walk about the room.
"You have often chosen to seem incomprehensible," he said, "but this is the most extraordinary thing you have done yet. You—you must know that it looks very bad—that people are discussing you openly—you of all women!"
Suddenly he wheeled about and stopped, staring at her with more uncertainty and bewilderment than ever.
"I ought to know you better," he said, "I do know you better than to think you capable of any weakness of—of that kind. You are not capable of it. You are too proud and too fond of yourself, and yet"——"And yet what?" she demanded, in a peculiar, low voice. He faltered visibly.
"And yet you are permitting yourself to—to be talked over and—misunderstood."
"Do you think," she asked, in the same voice, "that I care for being 'talked over?'"
"You would care if you knew what is said," he responded. "You do not know."
"I can guess," she replied, "easily."
But she was deadly pale and he saw it, and her humiliation was that she knew he saw it.
"What you do," he continued, "is of more consequence than what most women do. You are not popular. You have held yourself very high and have set people at defiance. If you should be guilty of a romantic folly, it would go harder with you than with others."
"I know that," she answered him, "far better than you do."
She held herself quite erect and kept her eyes steadily upon him.
"What is the romantic folly?" she put it to him. He could not have put it into words just then if his life had depended upon his power to do it.
"You will not commit it." he said. "It is not in you to do it, but yon have put yourself in a false position, and it is very unpleasant for both of us."
She stopped him.
"You are very much afraid of speaking plainly," she said. "Be more definite."
He flushed to the roots of his hair in his confusion and uneasiness. There was no way out of the difficulty.
"You have adopted such a manner with the world generally," he floundered, "that a concession from you means a great deal. You—you have been making extraordinary concessions. It is easy to see that this young fellow is madly enamored of you. He does not know how to conceal it, and he does not try. You have not seemed to demand that he should. You have let him follow you, and come and go as his passion and simplicity prompted him. One might say you had encouraged him—though encouraged seems hardly the word to use."
"No," she interrupted, "it is not the word to use."
"He has made himself conspicuous arid you too, and you have never protested by word or deed. When he was in danger you actually risked your life for him."
"Great heaven!" she ejaculated.
The truth of what he said came upon her like a flash. Until this moment she had only seen the night from one stand-point, and to see it from this one was a deadly blow to her. She lost her balance.
"How dare you?" she cried breathlessly. "I was mad with excitement. If I had stopped to think——"
"You usually do stop to think," he put in. "That was why I was amazed. You did a thing without calculating its significance. You never did so before in your life. You know that it is true. You pride yourself upon it."
He could have said nothing so bitter and terrible. For the moment they had changed places. It was he who had presented a weakness to her. She did pride herself upon her cool power of calculation.
"Go on!" she exclaimed.
"He has been here half the day," he proceeded, growing bolder. "You were out in the garden together all the afternoon—he has only just left you. When you contrast his position with yours is not that an extraordinary thing? What should you say if another woman had gone so far? Two years ago, he was Haworth's engineer. He is a wonderful fellow and a genius, and the world will hear of him yet. I should never think of anything but that if I were the only individual concerned, but you you treated him badly enough at first."
She turned paler and paler.
"You think that I—that I——"
She had meant to daunt him with the most daring speech she could make, but it would not complete itself. She faltered and broke down.
"I don't know what to think," he answered desperately. "It seems impossible. Good heavens! it is impossible!—you—it is not in your nature."
"No," she said, "it is not."
Even in that brief space she had recovered herself wholly. She met his glance just as she had met it before, even with more perfect.
"I will tell you what to think," she went on. "I have been very dull here. I wished from the first that I had never come. I hate the people, and I despise them more than I hate them. I must be amused and interested, and they are less than nothing. The person you speak of was different. I suppose what you say of him is true and he is a genius. I care nothing for that in itself, but he has managed to interest me. At first I thought him only absurd; he was of a low class and a common workman, and he was so simple and ignorant of the world that he did not feel his position or did not care. That amused me and I led him on to revealing himself. Then I found out that there was a difference between him and the rest of his class, and I began to study him. I have no sentimental notions about his honor and good qualities. Those things do not affect me, but I have been interested and the time has passed more easily. Now the matter will end just as it began,—not because I am tired of him or because I care for what people say, but because I think it is time,—and I choose that it should. It is done with from to-night."
"Good heaven!" he cried. "You are not going to drop the poor fellow like that?"
"You may call it what you please," she returned. "I have gone as far as I choose to go, and it is done with from to-night."
Mr. Ffrench's excitement became something painful to see. Between his embarrassment as a weak nature before a strong one,—an embarrassment which was founded upon secret fear of unpleasant results,—between this and the natural compunctions arising from tendencies toward a certain refined and amiable sense of fairness, he well-nigh lost all control over himself and became courageous. He grew heated and flushed and burst forth into protest.
"My dear," he said, "I must say it's a—a deuced ungentlemanly business!"
Her lack of response absolutely inspired him.
"It's a deuced ill-bred business," he added, "from first to last."
She did not reply even to that, so he went on, growing warmer and warmer."You have taunted me with being afraid of you," he said, "though you have never put it into so many words. Perhaps I have been afraid of you. You can make yourself confoundedly unpleasant at times,—and I may have shrunk from saying what would rouse you,—but I must speak my mind about this, and say it is a deucedly cruel and unfair thing, and is unworthy of you. A less well-bred woman might have done it." A little color rose to her cheek and remained there, but she did not answer still.
"He is an innocent fellow," he proceeded, "an unworldly fellow; he has lived in his books and his work, and he knows nothing of women. His passion for you is a pure, romantic one; he would lay his world at your feet. Call it folly, if you will,—it is folly,—but allow me to tell you it is worthy of a better object."
He was so astonished at his own daring that he stopped to see what effect it had produced.
She replied by asking a simple but utterly confounding question.
"What," she said, "would you wish me to do?"
"What would I wish you to do?" he stammered. "What? I—I hardly know."
And after regarding her helplessly a little longer, he turned about and left the room.