FictionForest

Chapter 14 – Which?

Louisa May AlcottNov 05, 2016'Command+D' Bookmark this page

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DAVID.

MR. POWER received Christie so hospitably that she felt at home at
once, and took up her new duties with the energy of one anxious to
repay a favor. Her friend knew well the saving power of work, and
gave her plenty of it; but it was a sort that at once interested and
absorbed her, so that she had little time for dangerous thoughts or
vain regrets. As he once said, Mr. Power made her own troubles seem
light by showing her others so terribly real and great that she was
ashamed to repine at her own lot.

Her gift of sympathy served her well, past experience gave her a
quick eye to read the truth in others, and the earnest desire to
help and comfort made her an excellent almoner for the rich, a
welcome friend to the poor. She was in just the right mood to give
herself gladly to any sort of sacrifice, and labored with a quiet
energy, painful to witness had any one known the hidden suffering
that would not let her rest.

If she had been a regular novel heroine at this crisis, she would
have grown gray in a single night, had a dangerous illness, gone
mad, or at least taken to pervading the house at unseasonable hours
with her back hair down and much wringing of the hands. Being only a
commonplace woman she did nothing so romantic, but instinctively
tried to sustain and comfort herself with the humble, wholesome
duties and affections which seldom fail to keep heads sane and
hearts safe. Yet, though her days seemed to pass so busily and
cheerfully, it must be confessed that there were lonely vigils in
the night; and sometimes in the morning Christie’s eyes were very
heavy, Christie’s pillow wet with tears.

But life never is all work or sorrow; and happy hours, helpful
pleasures, are mercifully given like wayside springs to pilgrims
trudging wearily along. Mr. Power showed Christie many such, and
silently provided her with better consolation than pity or advice.

"Deeds not words," was his motto; and he lived it out most
faithfully. "Books and work" he gave his new charge; and then
followed up that prescription with "healthful play" of a sort she
liked, and had longed for all her life. Sitting at his table
Christie saw the best and bravest men and women of our times; for
Mr. Power was a magnet that drew them from all parts of the world.
She saw and heard, admired and loved them; felt her soul kindle with
the desire to follow in their steps, share their great tasks, know
their difficulties and dangers, and in the end taste the immortal
satisfactions given to those who live and labor for their
fellow-men. In such society all other aims seemed poor and petty;
for they appeared to live in a nobler world than any she had known,
and she felt as if they belonged to another race; not men nor
angels, but a delightful mixture of the two; more as she imagined
the gods and heroes of old; not perfect, but wonderfully strong and
brave and good; each gifted with a separate virtue, and each bent on
a mission that should benefit mankind.

Nor was this the only pleasure given her. One evening of each week
was set apart by Mr. Power for the reception of whomsoever chose to
visit him; for his parish was a large one, and his house a safe
haunt for refugees from all countries, all oppressions.

Christie enjoyed these evenings heartily, for there was no ceremony;
each comer brought his mission, idea, or need, and genuine
hospitality made the visit profitable or memorable to all, for
entire freedom prevailed, and there was stabling for every one’s
hobby.

Christie felt that she was now receiving the best culture, acquiring
the polish that society gives, and makes truly admirable when
character adds warmth and power to its charm. The presence of her
bosom-care calmed the old unrest, softened her manners, and at times
touched her face with an expression more beautiful than beauty. She
was quite unconscious of the changes passing over her; and if any
one had told her she was fast becoming a most attractive woman, she
would have been utterly incredulous. But others saw and felt the new
charm; for no deep experience bravely borne can fail to leave its
mark, often giving power in return for patience, and lending a
subtle loveliness to faces whose bloom it has destroyed.

This fact was made apparent to Christie one evening when she went
down to the weekly gathering in one of the melancholy moods which
sometimes oppressed her. She felt dissatisfied with herself because
her interest in all things began to flag, and a restless longing for
some new excitement to break up the monotonous pain of her inner
life possessed her. Being still a little shy in company, she slipped
quietly into a recess which commanded a view of both rooms, and sat
looking listlessly about her while waiting for David, who seldom
failed to come.

A curious collection of fellow-beings was before herj and at another
time she would have found much to interest and amuse her. In one
corner a newly imported German with an Orson-like head, thumb-ring,
and the fragrance of many meerschaums still hovering about him, was
hammering away upon some disputed point with a scientific Frenchman,
whose national politeness was only equalled by his national
volubility. A prominent statesman was talking with a fugitive slave;
a young poet getting inspiration from the face and voice of a
handsome girl who had earned the right to put M. D. to her name. An
old philosopher was calming the ardor of several rampant radicals,
and a famous singer was comforting the heart of an Italian exile by
talking politics in his own melodious tongue.

There were plenty of reformers: some as truculent as Martin Luther;
others as beaming and benevolent as if the pelting of the world had
only mellowed them, and no amount of denunciatory thunder could sour
the milk of human kindness creaming in their happy hearts. There
were eager women just beginning their protest against the wrongs
that had wrecked their peace; subdued women who had been worsted in
the unequal conflict and given it up; resolute women with "No
surrender" written all over their strong-minded countenances; and
sweet, hopeful women, whose faith in God and man nothing could shake
or sadden.

But to Christie there was only one face worth looking at till David
came, and that was Mr. Power’s; for he was a perfect host, and
pervaded the rooms like a genial atmosphere, using the welcome of
eye and hand which needs no language to interpret it, giving to each
guest the intellectual fare he loved, and making their enjoyment his
own.

"Bless the dear man! what should we all do without him?" thought
Christie, following him with grateful eyes, as he led an awkward
youth in rusty black to the statesman whom it had been the desire of
his ambitious soul to meet.

The next minute she proved that she at least could do without the
"dear man;" for David entered the room, and she forgot all about
him. Here and at church were the only places where the friends had
met during these months, except one or two short visits to the
little house in the lane when Christie devoted herself to Mrs.
Sterling.

David was quite unchanged, though once or twice Christie fancied he
seemed ill at ease with her, and immediately tormented herself with
the idea that some alteration in her own manner had perplexed or
offended him. She did her best to be as frank and cordial as in the
happy old days; but it was impossible, and she soon gave it up,
assuming in the place of that former friendliness, a grave and quiet
manner which would have led a wiser man than David to believe her
busied with her own affairs and rather indifferent to every thing
else.

If he had known how her heart danced in her bosom, her eyes
brightened, and all the world became endurable, the moment he
appeared, he would not have been so long in joining her, nor have
doubted what welcome awaited him.

As it was, he stopped to speak to his host; and, before he
reappeared, Christie had found the excitement she had been longing
for.

"Now some bore will keep him an hour, and the evening is so short,"
she thought, with a pang of disappointment; and, turning her eyes
away from the crowd which had swallowed up her heart’s desire, they
fell upon a gentleman just entering, and remained fixed with an
expression of unutterable surprise; for there, elegant, calm, and
cool as ever, stood Mr. Fletcher.

"How came he here?" was her first question; "How will he behave to
me?" her second. As she could answer neither, she composed herself
as fast as possible, resolving to let matters take their own course,
and feeling in the mood for an encounter with a discarded lover, as
she took a womanish satisfaction in remembering that the very
personable gentleman before her had once been.

Mr. Fletcher and his companion passed on to find their host; and,
with a glance at the mirror opposite, which showed her that the
surprise of the moment had given her the color she lacked before,
Christie occupied herself with a portfolio of engravings, feeling
very much as she used to feel when waiting at a side scene for her
cue.

She had not long to wait before Mr. Power came up, and presented the
stranger; for such he fancied him, never having heard a certain
episode in Christie’s life. Mr. Fletcher bowed, with no sign of
recognition in his face, and began to talk in the smooth, low voice
she remembered so well. For the moment, through sheer surprise,
Christie listened and replied as any young lady might have done to a
new-made acquaintance. But very soon she felt sure that Mr. Fletcher
intended to ignore the past; and, finding her on a higher round of
the social ladder, to accept the fact and begin again.

At first she was angry, then amused, then interested in the somewhat
dramatic turn affairs were taking, and very wisely decided to meet
him on his own ground, and see what came of it.

In the midst of an apparently absorbing discussion of one of
Raphael’s most insipid Madonnas, she was conscious that David had
approached, paused, and was scrutinizing her companion with unusual
interest. Seized with a sudden desire to see the two men together,
Christie beckoned; and when he obeyed, she introduced him, drew him
into the conversation, and then left him in the lurch by falling
silent and taking notes while they talked.

If she wished to wean her heart from David by seeing him at a
disadvantage, she could have devised no better way; for, though a
very feminine test, it answered the purpose excellently.

Mr. Fletcher was a handsome man, and just then looked his best.
Improved health gave energy and color to his formerly sallow,
listless face: the cold eyes were softer, the hard mouth suave and
smiling, and about the whole man there was that indescribable
something which often proves more attractive than worth or wisdom to
keener-sighted women than Christie. Never had he talked better; for,
as if he suspected what was in the mind of one hearer, he exerted
himself to be as brilliant as possible, and succeeded admirably.

David never appeared so ill, for he had no clew to the little comedy
being played before him; and long seclusion and natural reserve
unfitted him to shine beside a man of the world like Mr. Fletcher.
His simple English sounded harsh, after the foreign phrases that
slipped so easily over the other’s tongue. He had visited no
galleries, seen few of the world’s wonders, and could only listen
when they were discussed. More than once he was right, but failed to
prove it, for Mr. Fletcher skilfully changed the subject or quenched
him with a politely incredulous shrug.

Even in the matter of costume, poor David was worsted; for, in a
woman’s eyes, dress has wonderful significance. Christie used to
think his suit of sober gray the most becoming man could wear; but
now it looked shapeless and shabby, beside garments which bore the
stamp of Paris in the gloss and grace of broadcloth and fine linen.
David wore no gloves: Mr. Fletcher’s were immaculate. David’s tie
was so plain no one observed it: Mr. Fletcher’s, elegant and
faultless enough for a modern Beau Brummel. David’s handkerchief was
of the commonest sort (she knew that, for she hemmed it herself):
Mr. Fletcher’s was the finest cambric, and a delicate breath of
perfume refreshed the aristocratic nose to which the article
belonged.

Christie despised herself as she made these comparisons, and felt
how superficial they were; but, having resolved to exalt one man at
the expense of the other for her own good, she did not relent till
David took advantage of a pause, and left them with a reproachful
look that made her wish Mr. Fletcher at the bottom of the sea.

When they were alone a subtle change in his face and manner
convinced her that he also had been taking notes, and had arrived at
a favorable decision regarding herself. Women are quick at making
such discoveries; and, even while she talked with him as a stranger,
she felt assured that, if she chose, she might make him again her
lover.

Here was a temptation! She had longed for some new excitement, and
fate seemed to have put one of the most dangerous within her reach.
It was natural to find comfort in the knowledge that somebody loved
her, and to take pride in her power over one man, because another
did not own it. In spite of her better self she felt the fascination
of the hour, and yielded to it, half unconsciously assuming
something of the "dash and daring" which Mr. Fletcher had once
confessed to finding so captivating in the demure governess. He
evidently thought so still, and played his part with spirit; for,
while apparently enjoying a conversation which contained no allusion
to the past, the memory of it gave piquancy to that long
tete-a-tete.

As the first guests began to go, Mr. Fletcher’s friend beckoned to
him; and he rose, saying with an accent of regret which changed to
one of entreaty, as he put his question:

"I, too, must go. May I come again, Miss Devon?"

"I am scarcely more than a guest myself; but Mr. Power is always
glad to see whoever cares to come," replied Christie rather primly,
though her eyes were dancing with amusement at the recollection of
those love passages upon the beach.

"Next time, I shall come not as a stranger, but as a former – may I
say friend?" he added quickly, as if emboldened by the mirthful eyes
that so belied the demure lips.

"Now you forget your part," and Christie’s primness vanished in a
laugh. "I am glad of it, for I want to ask about Mrs. Saltonstall
and the children. I’ve often thought of the little dears, and longed
to see them."

"They are in Paris with their father."

"Mrs. Saltonstall is well, I hope?"

"She died six months ago."

An expression of genuine sorrow came over Mr. Fletcher’s face as he
spoke; and, remembering that the silly little woman was his sister,
Christie put out her hand with a look and gesture so full of
sympathy that words were unnecessary. Taking advantage of this
propitious moment, he said, with an expressive glance and effective
tone: "I am all alone now. You will let me come again?"

"Certainly, if it can give you pleasure," she answered heartily,
forgetting herself in pity for his sorrow.

Mr. Fletcher pressed her hand with a grateful, "Thank you!" and
wisely went away at once, leaving compassion to plead for him better
than he could have done it for himself.

Leaning back in her chair, Christie was thinking over this interview
so intently that she started when David’s voice said close beside
her:

"Shall I disturb you if I say, ‘Good-night’?"

"I thought you were not going to say it at all," she answered rather
sharply.

"I’ve been looking for a chance; but you were so absorbed with that
man I had to wait."

"Considering the elegance of ‘that man,’ you don’t treat him with
much respect."

"I don’t feel much. What brought him here, I wonder. A French salon
is more in his line."

"He came to see Mr. Power, as every one else does, of course."

"Don’t dodge, Christie: you know he came to see you."

"How do you like him?" she asked, with treacherous abruptness.

"Not particularly, so far. But if I knew him, I dare say I should
find many good traits in him."

"I know you would!" said Christie, warmly, not thinking of Fletcher,
but of David’s kindly way of finding good in every one.

"He must have improved since you saw him last; for then, if I
remember rightly, you found him ‘lazy, cross, selfish," and
conceited.’"

"Now, David, I never said any thing of the sort," began Christie,
wondering what possessed him to be so satirical and short with her.

"Yes, you did, last September, sitting on the old apple-tree the
morning of your birthday."

"What an inconvenient memory you have! Well, he was all that then;
but he is not an invalid now, and so we see his real self."

"I also remember that you gave me the impression that he was an
elderly man."

"Isn’t forty elderly?"

"He wasn’t forty when you taught his sister’s children."

"No; but he looked older than he does now, being so ill. I used to
think he would be very handsome with good health; and now I see I
was right," said Christie, with feigned enthusiasm; for it was a new
thing to tease David, and she liked it.

But she got no more of it; for, just then, the singer began to sing
to the select few who remained, and every one was silent. Leaning on
the high back of Christie’s chair, David watched the reflection of
her face in the long mirror; for she listened to the music with
downcast eyes, unconscious what eloquent expressions were passing
over her countenance. She seemed a new Christie to David, in that
excited mood; and, as he watched her, he thought:

"She loved this man once, or he loved her; and tonight it all comes
back to her. How will it end?"

So earnestly did he try to read that altered face that Christie felt
the intentness of his gaze, looked up suddenly, and met his eyes in
the glass. Something in the expression of those usually serene eyes,
now darkened and dilated with the intensity of that long scrutiny,
surprised and troubled her; and, scarcely knowing what she said, she
asked quickly:

"Who are you admiring?"

"Not myself."

"I wonder if you’d think me vain if I asked you something that I
want to know?" she said, obeying a sudden impulse.

"Ask it, and I’ll tell you."

"Am I much changed since you first knew me?"

"Very much."

"For the better or the worse?"

"The better, decidedly."

"Thank you, I hoped so; but one never knows how one seems to other
people. I was wondering what you saw in the glass."

"A good and lovely woman, Christie."

How sweet it sounded to hear David say that! so simply and sincerely
that it was far more than a mere compliment. She did not thank him,
but said softly as if to herself:

"So let me seem until I be" –

and then sat silent, so full of satisfaction in the thought that
David found her "good and lovely," she could not resist stealing a
glance at the tell-tale mirror to see if she might believe him.

She forgot herself, however; for he was off guard now, and stood
looking away with brows knit, lips tightly set, and eyes fixed, yet
full of fire; his whole attitude and expression that of a man intent
on subduing some strong impulse by a yet stronger will.

It startled Christie; and she leaned forward, watching him with
breathless interest till the song ceased, and, with the old
impatient gesture, David seemed to relapse into his accustomed
quietude.

"It was the wonderful music that excited him: that was all;" thought
Christie; yet, when he came round to say good-night, the strange
expression was not gone, and his manner was not his own.

"Shall I ask if I may come again," he said, imitating Mr. Flctcher’s
graceful bow with an odd smile.

"I let him come because he has lost his sister, and is lonely,"
began Christie, but got no further, for David said, "Good-night!"
abruptly, and was gone without a word to Mr. Power.

"He’s in a hurry to get back to his Kitty," she thought, tormenting
herself with feminine skill. "Never mind," she added, with a defiant
sort of smile; "I ‘ve got my Philip, handsomer and more in love than
ever, if I’m not deceived. I wonder if he will come again?"

Mr. Fletcher did come again, and with flattering regularity, for
several weeks, evidently finding something very attractive in those
novel gatherings. Mr. Power soon saw why he came; and, as Christie
seemed to enjoy his presence, the good man said nothing to disturb
her, though he sometimes cast an anxious glance toward the recess
where the two usually sat, apparently busy with books or pictures;
yet, by their faces, showing that an under current of deeper
interest than art or literature flowed through their intercourse.

Christie had not deceived herself, and it was evident that her old
lover meant to try his fate again, if she continued to smile upon
him as she had done of late. He showed her his sunny side now, and
very pleasant she found it. The loss of his sister had touched his
heart, and made him long to fill the place her death left vacant.
Better health sweetened his temper, and woke the desire to do
something worth the doing; and the sight of the only woman he had
ever really loved, reawakened the sentiment that had not died, and
made it doubly sweet.

Why he cared for Christie he could not tell, but he never had
forgotten her; and, when he met her again with that new beauty in
her face, he felt that time had only ripened the blithe girl into a
deep-hearted woman, and he loved her with a better love than before.
His whole manner showed this; for the half-careless,
half-condescending air of former times was replaced by the most
courteous respect, a sincere desire to win her favor, and at times
the tender sort of devotion women find so charming.

Christie felt all this, enjoyed it, and tried to be grateful for it
in the way he wished, thinking that hearts could be managed like
children, and when one toy is unattainable, be appeased by a bigger
or a brighter one of another sort.

"I must love some one," she said, as she leaned over a basket of
magnificent flowers just left for her by Mr. Fletcher’s servant, a
thing which often happened now. "Philip has loved me with a fidelity
that ought to touch my heart. Why not accept him, and enjoy a new
life of luxury, novelty, and pleasure? All these things he can give
me: all these things are valued, admired, and sought for: and who
would appreciate them more than I? I could travel, cultivate myself
in many delightful ways, and do so much good. No matter if I was not
very happy: I should make Philip so, and have it in my power to
comfort many poor souls. That ought to satisfy me; for what is
nobler than to live for others?"

This idea attracted her, as it does all generous natures; she became
enamoured of self-sacrifice, and almost persuaded herself that it
was her duty to marry Mr. Fletcher, whether she loved him or not, in
order that she might dedicate her life to the service of poorer,
sadder creatures than herself.

But in spite of this amiable delusion, in spite of the desire to
forget the love she would have in the love she might have, and in
spite of the great improvement in her faithful Philip, Christie
could not blind herself to the fact that her head, rather than her
heart, advised the match; she could not conquer a suspicion that,
however much Mr. Fletcher might love his wife, he would be something
of a tyrant, and she was very sure she never would make a good
slave. In her cooler moments she remembered that men are not
puppets, to be moved as a woman’s will commands, and the uncertainty
of being able to carry out her charitable plans made her pause to
consider whether she would not be selling her liberty too cheaply,
if in return she got only dependence and bondage along with fortune
and a home.

So tempted and perplexed, self-deluded and self-warned, attracted
and repelled, was poor Christie, that she began to feel as if she
had got into a labyrinth without any clew to bring her safely out.
She longed to ask advice of some one, but could not turn to Mrs.
Sterling; and what other woman friend had she except Rachel, from
whom she had not heard for months?

As she asked herself this question one day, feeling sure that Mr.
Fletcher would come in the evening, and would soon put his fortune
to the touch again, the thought of Mrs. Wilkins seemed to answer
her.

"Why not?" said Christie: "she is sensible, kind, and discreet; she
may put me right, for I’m all in a tangle now with doubts and fears,
feelings and fancies. I’ll go and see her: that will do me good,
even if I don’t say a word about my ‘werryments,’ as the dear soul
would call them."

Away she went, and fortunately found her friend alone in the
"settin’-room," darning away at a perfect stack of socks, as she
creaked comfortably to and fro in her old rocking-chair.

"I was jest wishin’ somebody would drop in: it’s so kinder lonesome
with the children to school and Adelaide asleep. How be you, dear?"
said Mrs. Wilkins, with a hospitable hug and a beaming smile.

"I’m worried in my mind, so I came to see you," answered Christie,
sitting down with a sigh.

"Bless your dear heart, what is to pay. Free your mind, and I’ll do
my best to lend a hand."

The mere sound of that hearty voice comforted Christie, and gave her
courage to introduce the little fiction under which she had decided
to defraud Mrs. Wilkins of her advice. So she helped herself to a
very fragmentary blue sock and a big needle, that she might have
employment for her eyes, as they were not so obedient as her tongue,
and then began in as easy a tone as she could assume.

"Well, you see a friend of mine wants my advice on a very serious
matter, and I really don’t know what to give her. It is strictly
confidential, you know, so I won’t mention any names, but just set
the case before you and get your opinion, for I’ve great faith in
your sensible way of looking at things."

"Thanky, dear, you’r welcome to my ‘pinion ef it’s wuth any thing.
Be these folks you tell of young?" asked Mrs. Wilkins, with evident
relish for the mystery.

"No, the woman is past thirty, and the man ‘most forty, I believe,"
said Christie, darning away in some trepidation at having taken the
first plunge.

"My patience! ain’t the creater old enough to know her own mind? for
I s’pose she’s the one in the quanderry?" exclaimed Mrs. Wilkins,
looking over her spectacles with dangerously keen eyes.

"The case is this," said Christie, in guilty haste. "The ‘creature’
is poor and nobody, the man rich and of good family, so you see it’s
rather hard for her to decide."

"No, I don’t see nothin’ of the sort," returned blunt Mrs. Wilkins.
"Ef she loves the man, take him: ef she don’t, give him the mittin
and done with it. Money and friends and family ain’t much to do with
the matter accordin’ to my view. It’s jest a plain question betwixt
them two. Ef it takes much settlin’ they ‘d better let it alone."

"She doesn’t love him as much as she might, I fancy, but she is
tired of grubbing along alone. He is very fond of her, and very
rich; and it would be a fine thing for her in a worldly way, I’m
sure."

"Oh, she’s goin’ to marry for a livin’ is she? Wal, now I’d ruther
one of my girls should grub the wust kind all their days than do
that. Hows’ever, it may suit some folks ef they ain’t got much
heart, and is contented with fine clothes, nice vittles, and
handsome furnitoor. Selfish, cold, silly kinder women might git on,
I dare say; but I shouldn’t think any friend of your’n would be one
of that sort."

"But she might do a great deal of good, and make others happy even
if she was not so herself."

"She might, but I doubt it, for money got that way wouldn’t prosper
wal. Mis’able folks ain’t half so charitable as happy ones; and I
don’t believe five dollars from one of ’em would go half so fur, or
be half so comfortin’ as a kind word straight out of a cheerful
heart. I know some thinks that is a dreadful smart thing to do; but
I don’t, and ef any one wants to go a sacrificin’ herself for the
good of others, there’s better ways of doin’ it than startin’ with a
lie in her mouth."

Mrs. Wilkins spoke warmly; for Christie’s face made her fiction
perfectly transparent, though the good woman with true delicacy
showed no sign of intelligence on that point.

"Then you wouldn’t advise my friend to say yes?"

"Sakes alive, no! I’d say to her as I did to my younger sisters when
their courtin’ time come: ‘Jest be sure you’re right as to there
bein’ love enough, then go ahead, and the Lord will bless you.’"

"Did they follow your advice?"

"They did, and both is prosperin’ in different ways. Gusty, she
found she was well on’t for love, so she married, though Samuel Buck
was poor, and they’re happy as can be a workin’ up together, same as
Lisha and me did. Addy, she calc’lated she wan’t satisfied somehow,
so she didn’t marry, though James Miller was wal off; and she’s kep
stiddy to her trade, and ain’t never repented. There’s a sight said
and writ about such things," continued Mrs. Wilkins, rambling on to
give Christie time to think; "but I’ve an idee that women’s hearts
is to be trusted ef they ain’t been taught all wrong. Jest let ’em
remember that they take a husband for wuss as well as better (and
there’s a sight of wuss in this tryin’ world for some on us), and be
ready to do their part patient and faithful, and I ain’t a grain
afraid but what they’ll be fetched through, always pervidin’ they
love the man and not his money."

There was a pause after that last speech, and Christie felt as if
her perplexity was clearing away very fast; for Mrs. Wilkins’s plain
talk seemed to show her things in their true light, with all the
illusions of false sentiment and false reasoning stripped away. She
felt clearer and stronger already, and as if she could make up her
mind very soon when one other point had been discussed.

"I fancy my friend is somewhat influenced by the fact that this man
loved and asked her to marry him some years ago. He has not
forgotten her, and this touches her heart more than any thing else.
It seems as if his love must be genuine to last so long, and not to
mind her poverty, want of beauty, and accomplishments; for he is a
proud and fastidious man."

"I think wal of him for that!" said Mrs. Wilkins, approvingly; "but
I guess she’s wuth all he gives her, for there must be somethin’
pretty gennywin’ in her to make him overlook her lacks and hold on
so stiddy. It don’t alter her side of the case one mite though; for
love is love, and ef she ain’t got it, he’d better not take
gratitude instid, but sheer off and leave her for somebody else."

"Nobody else wants her!" broke from Christie like an involuntary cry
of pain; then she hid her face by stooping to gather up the
avalanche of hosiery which fell from her lap to the floor.

"She can’t be sure of that," said Mrs. Wilkins cheerily, though her
spectacles were dim with sudden mist. "I know there’s a mate for her
somewheres, so she’d better wait a spell and trust in Providence. It
wouldn’t be so pleasant to see the right one come along after she’d
went and took the wrong one in a hurry: would it? Waitin’ is always
safe, and time needn’t be wasted in frettin’ or bewailin’; for the
Lord knows there’s a sight of good works sufferin’ to be done, and
single women has the best chance at ’em."

"I’ve accomplished one good work at any rate; and, small as it is, I
feel better for it. Give this sock to your husband, and tell him his
wife sets a good example both by precept and practice to other
women, married or single. Thank you very much, both for myself and
my friend, who shall profit by your advice," said Christie, feeling
that she had better go before she told every thing.

"I hope she will," returned Mrs. Wilkins, as her guest went away
with a much happier face than the one she brought. "And ef I know
her, which I think I do, she’ll find that Cinthy Wilkins ain’t fur
from right, ef her experience is good for any thing," added the
matron with a sigh, and a glance at a dingy photograph of her Lisha
on the wall, a sigh that seemed to say there had been a good deal of
"wuss" in her bargain, though she was too loyal to confess it.

Something in Christie’s face struck Mr. Fletcher at once when he
appeared that evening. He had sometimes found her cold and quiet,
often gay and capricious, usually earnest and cordial, with a
wistful look that searched his face and both won and checked him by
its mute appeal, seeming to say, "Wait a little till I have taught
my heart to answer as you wish."

To-night her eyes shunned his, and when he caught a glimpse of them
they were full of a soft trouble; her manner was kinder than ever
before, and yet it made him anxious, for there was a resolute
expression about her lips even when she smiled, and though he
ventured upon allusions to the past hitherto tacitly avoided, she
listened as if it had no tender charm for her.

Being thoroughly in earnest now, Mr. Fletcher resolved to ask the
momentous question again without delay. David was not there, and had
not been for several weeks, another thorn in Christie’s heart,
though she showed no sign of regret, and said to herself, "It is
better so." His absence left Fletcher master of the field, and he
seized the propitious moment.

"Will you show me the new picture? Mr. Power spoke of it, but I do
not like to trouble him."

"With pleasure," and Christie led the way to a little room where the
newly arrived gift was placed.

She knew what was coming, but was ready, and felt a tragic sort of
satisfaction in the thought of all she was relinquishing for love of
David.

No one was in the room, but a fine copy of Michael Angelo’s Fates
hung on the wall, looking down at them with weird significance.

"They look as if they would give a stern answer to any questioning
of ours," Mr. Fletcher said, after a glance of affected interest.

"They would give a true one I fancy," answered Christie, shading her
eyes as if to see the better.

"I ‘d rather question a younger, fairer Fate, hoping that she will
give me an answer both true and kind. May I, Christie?"

"I will be true but – I cannot be kind." It cost her much to say
that; yet she did it steadily, though he held her hand in both his
own, and waited for her words with ardent expectation.

"Not yet perhaps, – but in time, when I have proved how sincere my
love is, how entire my repentance for the ungenerous words you have
not forgotten. I wanted you then for my own sake, now I want you for
yourself, because I love and honor you above all women. I tried to
forget you, but I could not; and all these years have carried in my
heart a very tender memory of the girl who dared to tell me that all
I could offer her was not worth her love."

"I was mistaken," began Christie, finding this wooing much harder to
withstand than the other.

"No, you were right: I felt it then and resented it, but I owned it
later, and regretted it more bitterly than I can tell. I’m not
worthy of you; I never shall be: but I’ve loved you for five years
without hope, and I’ll wait five more if in the end you will come to
me. Christie, I need you very much!"

If Mr. Fletcher had gone down upon his knees and poured out the most
ardent protestations that ever left a lover’s lips, it would not
have touched her as did that last little appeal, uttered with a
break in the voice that once was so proud and was so humble now.

"Forgive me!" she cried, looking up at him with real respect in her
face, and real remorse smiting her conscience. "Forgive me! I have
misled you and myself. I tried to love you: I was grateful for your
regard, touched by your fidelity, and I hoped I might repay it; but
I cannot! I cannot!"

"Why?"

Such a hard question! She owed him all the truth, yet how could she
tell it? She could not in words, but her face did, for the color
rose and burned on cheeks and forehead with painful fervor; her eyes
fell, and her lips trembled as if endeavoring to keep down the
secret that was escaping against her will. A moment of silence as
Mr. Fletcher searched for the truth and found it; then he said with
such sharp pain in his voice that Christie’s heart ached at the
sound:

"I see: I am too late?"

"Yes."

"And there is no hope?"

"None."

"Then there is nothing more for me to say but good-by. May you be
happy."

"I shall not be; – I have no hope; – I only try to be true to you and
to myself. Oh, believe it, and pity me as I do you!"

As the words broke from Christie, she covered up her face, bowed
down with the weight of remorse that made her long to atone for what
she had done by any self-humiliation.

Mr. Fletcher was at his best at that moment; for real love ennobles
the worst and weakest while it lasts: but he could not resist the
temptation that confession offered him. He tried to be generous, but
the genuine virtue was not in him; he did want Christie very much,
and the knowledge of a rival in her heart only made her the dearer.

"I’m not content with your pity, sweet as it is: I want your love,
and I believe that I might earn it if you would let me try. You are
all alone, and life is hard to you: come to me and let me make it
happier. I’ll be satisfied with friendship till you can give me
more."

He said this very tenderly, caressing the bent head while he spoke,
and trying to express by tone and gesture how eagerly he longed to
receive and cherish what that other man neglected.

Christie felt this to her heart’s core, and for a moment longed to
end the struggle, say, "Take me," and accept the shadow for the
substance. But those last words of his vividly recalled the compact
made with David that happy birthday night. How could she be his
friend if she was Mr. Fletcher’s wife? She knew she could not be
true to both, while her heart reversed the sentiment she then would
owe them: David’s friendship was dearer than Philip’s love, and she
would keep it at all costs. These thoughts flashed through her mind
in the drawing of a breath, and she looked up, saying steadily in
spite of wet eyes and still burning cheeks:

"Hope nothing; wait for nothing from me. I will have no more
delusions for either of us: it is weak and wicked, for I know I
shall not change. Some time we may venture to be friends perhaps,
but not now. Forgive me, and be sure I shall suffer more than you
for this mistake of mine."

When she had denied his suit before he had been ungenerous and
angry; for his pride was hurt and his will thwarted: now his heart
bled and hope died hard; but all that was manliest in him rose to
help him bear the loss, for this love was genuine, and made him both
just and kind. His face was pale with the pain of that fruitless
passion, and his voice betrayed how hard he strove for self-control,
as he said hurriedly:

"You need not suffer: this mistake has given me the happiest hours
of my life, and I am better for having known so sweet and true a
woman. God bless you, Christie!" and with a quick embrace that
startled her by its suddenness and strength he left her, standing
there alone before the three grim Fates.

 

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