Long after Mrs. Throckmorton went to her middle-aged repose, I sat up and went through imaginary scenes, and reviewed the situation a hundred times, and tried to convince myself of what I wanted to believe, and ended without any satisfaction.
One thing was certain. If Richard was going to marry Charlotte Benson, he was not going to do it because he loved her. He might not be prevented from doing it because he loved me; but he did not love her. I could not say why exactly. But I knew she was not the kind of woman for him to think of loving, and I would not believe it till I heard it from himself, and I would hear it from himself at the earliest possible date. I did not like to be unhappy, and was very impatient to get rid of this, if it were not true, and to know the worst, at once, if it were.
"My dear Throcky," I said to my companion, at the breakfast-table, "I think you'd better go and take dinner with your niece to-day. I've sent for Mr. Vandermarck to come and dine, and I thought perhaps you'd rather not be bored; we shall have business to talk about, and business is such a nuisance when you're not interested in it."
"Very well, my dear," said Mrs. Throckmorton, with indestructible good-humor.
"Or you might have a headache, if you'd rather, and I'll send your dinner up to you. I'll be sure Susan takes you everything that's nice."
"Well, then, I think I'll have a headache; I'm afraid I'd rather have it than one of Mary Ann's poor dinners. (I'd be sure of one to-morrow if I went.)"
"Paris things have spoiled you, I'm afraid," I said. "Only see that I have something nice for Richard, won't you?—How do you think the cook is going to do?" This was the first sign of interest I had given in the matter of menage; by which it will be seen I was still a little selfish, and not very wise. But Throckmorton was a person to cultivate my selfishness, and there had not been much to develop the wisdom of common life.
She promised me a very pretty dinner, no matter at what trouble, and made me feel quite easy about her wounded feelings. One of the best features of Throckmorton was, she hadn't any feelings; you might treat her like a galley-slave, and she would show the least dejection. It was a temptation to have such a person in the house.
I had sent a note to Richard which contained the following:
/# "DEAR RICHARD:
"I am sure you will be surprised to know we have returned. But the fact is, I got very tired of Italy; and we were disappointed in the apartments we wanted in Berlin, and some of the people we expected to have with us had to give it up, and altogether it seemed dull, and we thought it would be just as pleasant to come home. We were able to get staterooms that just suited us, and it didn't seem worth while to lose them by waiting to send word. We had a very comfortable voyage, and I am glad to find myself at home, though Mrs. Throckmorton doesn't think the rooms are very nice. I want to know if you won't come to dinner. We dine at six. Send a line back by the boy. I want to ask you about some business matters.
And I had received for answer:
/# "MY DEAR PAULINE:
"Of course I am astonished to think you are at home. I enclosed you several letters by the steamer yesterday, none of them of any very great importance, though, I think. I will come up at six.
"P.S. I am very glad you wanted to come home." #/
I read this letter over a great many times, but it did not enlighten me at all as to his intentions about marrying Charlotte Benson. It was very matter-of-fact, but that Richard's letters always were. Evidently he had thought the same of it himself, as he read it over, and had added the postscript. But that did not seem very enthusiastic. Altogether I was not happy, waiting for six o'clock to come.
Time and chance are but a tide, Slighted love is sair to bide.
The dining-room and parlor of our little suite adjoined; the door was standing open between them, as I walked up and down the parlor, waiting nervously for Richard to arrive. The fire was bright, and the only light in the parlor was a soft, pretty lamp, which we had brought from Italy. There were flowers on the table, and in two or three vases, and the curtains were pretty, and there were several large mirrors. Outside, it was the twilight of a dark autumnal day; almost night already, and the lamps were lit. It lacked several minutes of six when Richard came. I felt very much agitated when he entered the room. It was a year and a half since I had seen him: besides, this piece of news! But he looked just the same as ever, and I had not the self-possession to note whether he seemed agitated at meeting me. I do not know exactly what we talked about for the first few moments, probably I was occupied in trying to excuse myself for coming home so suddenly, for I found Richard was not altogether pleased at not having been informed, and thought there must be something yet to tell. He was not used to feminine caprice, and I began to feel a good deal ashamed of myself. I had to remind myself, more than once, that I was not responsible to any one.
"I just felt like it," was such a very weak explanation to offer to this grave business-man, for disarranging two years of carefully-laid plans.
I found I was getting to be a little afraid of Richard: we had been so long apart, and he had grown so much older.
"I hope, at least, you are not going to scold me for it," I said at last, with a little laugh, feeling that was my best way out of it. "I shall think you are not glad, to see me."
"I am glad to see you," he said, gravely; "and as to scolding, it's so long since you've given me an opportunity, I should not know how to go to work."
"Do you mean, because I've been away so long, or because I've been so good?"
Susan, who had been watching her opportunity, now appeared in the dining-room door, and said that dinner was on the table.
Richard asked for Mrs. Throckmorton when we sat down to dinner. I told him she was dining with her niece. (She had reconsidered the question of the headache, and had gone to hear more news.) The dinner was very nice, and very nicely served; but somehow, Richard did not seem to enjoy it very much, that is, not as I had been in the habit lately of seeing men enjoy their meals.
"I am afraid you are getting like Uncle Leonard, and only care about Wall-street," I said. "I shouldn't wonder if you forgot to order your dinner half the time, and took the same thing for breakfast every morning in the year."
"That's just exactly how it is," he said. "If Sophie did not come down to my quarters every week or two, and regulate affairs a little, I don't know where I should be, in the matter of my dinners."
"How is Sophie?" I said.
"Very well. I saw her yesterday. I went to put Charley in College for her."
"I can't think of Charley as a young man."
"Yes, Charley is a strapping fellow, within two inches of my height."
"Impossible! And where is Benny?"
"At school here in town. His mother will not let him go to boarding-school. He is a nice boy: I think there's more in him than Charley."
"And I hear Kilian is married!"
"Yes. Kilian is married—the very day you landed, too."
"Well," I said, with a little dash of temper, "I'm very sorry for you all. I did not think Kilian was going to be so foolish."
"He thinks he's very wise, though, all the same," said Richard, with a smile, which turned into a sigh before he had done speaking.
"I do dislike her so," I exclaimed, warmly. "There isn't an honest or straightforward thing about her. She is weak, too; her only strength is her suppleness and cunning."
"I know you never liked her," said Richard, gravely; "but I hope you'll try to think better of her now."
"I hope I shall never have to see her," I answered, with angry warmth.
Richard was silent, and I was very much ashamed of myself a moment after. I had meant him to see how much improved I was, and how well disciplined. This was a pretty exhibition! I had not spoken so of any one for a year, at least. I colored with mortification and penitence. Richard evidently saw it, and felt sorry for me, for he said, most kindly,
"I can understand exactly how you feel, Pauline. This marriage is a great trial to me. I have done all I could to keep Kilian from throwing himself away, but I might as well have argued with the winds."
"I don't care how much Kilian throws himself away," I said, impulsively. "He deserves it for keeping around her all these years. But I do mind that she is your sister, and that she will be mistress of the house at R——."
There was an awful silence then. Heavens! what had I been thinking about to have said that! I had precipitated the denouement, and I had not meant to. I did not want to hear it that moment, if he were going to marry Charlotte Benson, nor did I want to hear it, if he were saving the old place for me. I felt as if I had given the blow that would bring the whole structure down, and I waited for the crash in frightened silence.
In the meantime the business of the table went on. I ate half a chicken croquette, and Susan placed the salad before Richard, and another plate. He did not speak till he had put the salad on his plate; then he said, without looking at me, in a voice a good deal lower than was usual to him,
"She is not to be mistress of that house. They will live in town."
Then I felt cold and chilled to my very heart; it was well that he did not expect me to speak, for I could not have commanded my voice enough to have concealed my agitation. I knew very well from that moment that he was going to marry Charlotte Benson. Something that was said a little later was a confirmation.
I had recovered myself enough to talk about ordinary things, and to keep strictly to them, too. Richard was talking of the great heat of the past summer. I had said it had been unparalleled in France; had he not found it very uncomfortable here in town?
"I have been out of town so much, I can hardly say how it has been here," he answered. "I was all of August in the country; only coming to the city twice."
My heart sank: that was just what they had said; he had been a great deal at home this summer, and she had been there all the time.
The dinner was becoming terribly ennuyant, and I wished with all my heart Throckmorton had been contented with just half the courses. Richard did not seem to enjoy them, and I—I was so wretched I could scarcely say a word, much less eat a morsel. It had been a great mistake to invite him to take dinner; it was being too familiar, when he had put me at such a distance all these years: I wished for Mrs. Throckmorton with all my heart. Why had I sent her off? Richard was evidently so constrained, and it was in such bad taste to have asked him here; it could not help putting thoughts in both our minds, sitting alone at a table opposite each other, as we should have been sitting daily if that horrid will had not been found. He had dined with us just twice before, but that was at dinner-parties, when there had been ever so many people between us, and when I had not said six words to him during the whole evening.
The only excuse I could offer, and that he could understand, would be that I wanted to talk business to him; I had said in my note that I wanted to consult him about something, and I must keep that in mind. I had wanted to ask him about a house I thought of buying, adjoining the Sisters' Hospital, to enlarge their work; but I was so wicked and worldly, I felt just then as if I did not care whether they had a house or not, or whether they did any work. However, I resolved to speak about it, when we had got away from the table, if we ever did.
Susan kept bringing dish after dish.
"Oh, we don't want any of that!" I exclaimed, at last, impatiently; "do take it away, and tell them to send in the coffee."
I was resolved upon one thing: Richard should tell me of his engagement before he went away; it would be dishonorable and unkind if he did not, and I should make him do it. I was not quite sure that I had self-control enough not to show how it made me feel, when it came to hearing it all in so many words. But in very truth, I had not much pride as regarded him; I felt so sore-hearted and unhappy, I did not care much whether he knew it or suspected it.
I could not help remembering how little concealment he had made of his love for me, even when he knew that all the heart I had was given to another. I would be very careful not to precipitate the disclosure, however, while we sat at table; it is so disagreeable to talk to any one on an agitating subject vis-a-vis across a little dinner-table, with a bright light overhead, and a servant walking around, able to stop and study you from any point she pleases.
Coffee came at last, though even that, Susan was unwilling to look upon as the legitimate finale, and had her views about liqueur, instructed by Throckmorton. But I cut it short by getting up and saying, "I'm sure you'll be glad to go into the parlor; it gets warm so soon in these little rooms."
The parlor was very cool and pleasant; a window had been open, and the air was fresh, and the flowers were delicious, and the lamp was softer and pleasanter than the gas. I went to break up the coal and make the fire blaze, and Richard to shut the window down.
When I had pulled a chair up to the fire and seated myself, he stood leaning on the mantelpiece, on the other side from me. I felt sure he meant to go, the minute that he could get away—a committee meeting, no doubt, or some such nauseous fraud. But he should not go away until he had told me, that was certain.
"What is it that you wanted to ask me about, Pauline?" he said, rather abruptly.
My heart gave a great thump; how could he have known? Oh, it was the business that I had spoken of in my stupid note. Yes; and I began to explain to him what I wanted to do about the hospital.
He looked infinitely relieved. I believe he had an idea it was something very different. My explanation could not have added much to his reverence for my business ability. I was very indefinite, and could not tell him whether it was hundreds or thousands that I meant.
He said, with a smile, he thought it must be thousands, as city property was so very high. He was very kind, however, about the matter, and did not discourage me at all. He always seemed to approve of my desire to give away in charity, and, within bounds, always furthered such plans of doing good. He said he would look into it, and would write me word next week what his impression was; and then, I think, he meant to go away.
Then I began talking on every subject I could think of, hoping some of the roads would lead to Rome. But none of them led there, and I was in despair.
"Oh, don't you want to look at some photographs?" I said, at last, thinking I saw an opening for my wedge. I got the package, and he came to the table and looked at them, standing up. They were naturally of much more interest to me than to him, being of places and people with which I had so lately been familiar.
But he looked at them very kindly, and asked a good many questions about them.
"Look at this," I said, handing him an Antwerp peasant-woman in her hideous bonnet. "Isn't that ridiculously like Charlotte Benson? I bought it because it was so singular a resemblance."
"It is like her," he said, thoughtfully, looking at it long. "The mouth is a little larger and the eyes further apart. But it is a most striking likeness. It might almost have been taken for her."
"How is she, and when have you seen her?" I said, a little choked for breath.
"She is very well. I saw her yesterday," he answered, still looking at the little picture.
"Was she with Sophie this summer?"
"Yes, for almost two months."
"I hope she doesn't keep everybody in order as sharply as she used to?" I said, with a bitter little laugh.
"I don't know," he said. "I think, perhaps, she is rather less decided than she used to be."
"Oh, you call it decision, do you? Well, I'm glad I know what it is. I used to think it hadn't such a pretty name as that."
Richard looked grave; it certainly was not a graceful way to lead up to congratulations.
"But then, you always liked her," I said.
"Yes, I always liked her," he answered, simply.
"I'm afraid I'm not very amiable," I retorted, "for I never liked her: no better even than that fraudulent Mary Leighton, clever and sensible as she always was. There is such a thing as being too clever, and too sensible, and making yourself an offence to all less admirable people."
Richard was entirely silent, and, I was sure, was disapproving of me very much.
"Do you know what I heard yesterday?" I said, In a daring way. "And I hope you're going to tell me if it's true, to-night?"
"What was it that you heard yesterday?" he asked, without much change of tone. He had laid down the photograph, and had gone back, and was leaning by the mantelpiece again.
"Why, I heard that you were going to marry Charlotte Benson. Is it true?"
I had pushed away the pile of photographs from me, and had looked up at him when I began, but my voice and courage rather failed before the end, and my eyes fell. There was a silence—a silence that seemed to stifle me.
"Why do you ask me that question?" he said, at last, in a low voice. "Do you believe I am, yourself?"
"No," I cried, springing up, and going over to his side. "No, I don't believe it. Tell me it isn't true, and promise me you won't ever, ever marry Charlotte Benson."
The relief was so unspeakable that I didn't care what I said, and the joy I felt showed itself in my face and voice. I put out my hand to him when I said "promise me," but he did not take it, and turned his head away from me.
"I shall not marry Charlotte Benson," he said; "but I cannot understand what difference it makes to you."
It was now my turn to be silent, and I shrank back a step or two in great confusion.
He raised his head, and looked steadily at me for a moment, and then said:
"Pauline, you did a great many things, but I don't think you ever willingly deceived me. Did you?"
I shook my head without looking lip.
"Then be careful what you do now, and let the past alone," he said, and his voice was almost stern.
I trembled, and turned pale.
"Women sometimes play with dangerous weapons," he said; "I don't accuse you of meaning to give pain, but only of forgetting that some recollections are not to you what they are to me. I never want to interfere with any one's comfort or enjoyment; I only want to be let alone. I do very well, and am not unhappy. About marrying, now or ever, I should have thought you would have known. But let me tell you once for all: I haven't any thought of it, and shall not ever have. It is not that I am holding to any foolish hopes. It would be exactly the same if you were married, or had died. It simply isn't in my nature to feel the same way a second time. People are made differently, that is all. I'm very well contented, and you need never let it worry you."
He was very pale now, and his eyes had an expression I had never seen in them before.
"Richard," I said, faintly, "I never have deceived you: believe me now when I tell you, I am sorry from my heart for all that's past."
"You told me so before, and I did forgive you. I forgave you fully, and have never had a thought that wasn't kind."
"I know it," I said. "But you do not trust me—you don't ever come near me, or want to see me."
"You do not know what you are talking of," he answered, turning from me. "I forgive you anything you may have done at any time to give me pain. I will do everything I can to serve you, in every way I can; only do not stir up the past, and let me forget the little of it that I can forget."
I burst into tears, and put my hands before my face.
"What is it?" he said, uneasily. "You need not be troubled about me."
Seeing that I did not stop, he said again, "Tell me: is it that that troubles you?"
I shook my head.
"What is it, then? Something that I do not know about? Pauline, you are unhappy, and yet you've everything in the world to make you happy. I often think, there are not many women have as much."
"The poorest of them are better off than I," I said, without raising my head.
"Then you are ungrateful," he said, "for you have youth, and health, and money, and everybody likes you. You could choose from all the world."
"No, I couldn't," I exclaimed, like a child; "and everybody doesn't like me,"—and then I cried again, for I was really in despair, and thought he meant to put me away, memory and all.
"Well, if that's your trouble," he said, with a sigh, "I suppose I cannot help you; but I'm very sorry."
"Yes, you can help me," I cried imploringly, forgetting all I ought to have remembered; "if you only would forgive me, really and in earnest, and be friends again—and let me try—" and I covered my face with my hands.
"Pauline," he said, standing by my side, and his voice almost frightened me, it was so strong with feeling; "is this a piece of sentiment? Do you mean anything? Or am I to be trifled with again?"
He took hold of my wrists with both his hands, with such force as to give me pain, and drew them from my face.
"Look at me," he said, "and tell me what you mean; and decide now—forever and forever. For this is the last time that you will have a chance to say."
"It's all very well," I said, trying to turn my face away from him. "It's all very well to talk about loving me yet, and being just the same; but this isn't the way you used to talk, and I think it's very hard—"
"That isn't answering me," he said, holding me closer to him.
"What shall I say," I whispered, hiding my face upon his arm. "Nothing will ever satisfy you."
"Nothing ever has satisfied me," he said, "—before."