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been too encouraging, - not intentionally and deliberately you know,
but thoughtlessly. He was the cleverest and the most entertaining
of my friends, and always brought a breezy kind of excitement with
him. Don't you see, papa? That is what I lived for, pleasure and
excitement, and I don't believe that anything can be so exciting
to a girl as to see a man yielding to her fascinations, whatever
they may be. It gives one a delicious sense of power. I shall be
frank, too. I must be, for I want your advice. You men like power.
History is full of the records of those who sold their own souls
for it, and walked through blood and crime to reach it. I think it
is just as natural for a woman to love power also, only now I see
that it is a cruel and vile thing to get it and use it merely for
amusement. To me it was excitement. I don't like to think how it
may all end to a man like Fenton Lane, and I am so remorseful that
I am half inclined to sacrifice myself and make him as good a wife
as I can."

"Do you love him?"

"No. I don't think I know what love is. When a mere girl I had a
foolish little flame that went out with the first breath of ridicule.
Since that time I have enjoyed gentlemen's society as naturally
as any other girl of our set, perhaps more keenly. Their talk and
ways are so different from those of girls! Then my love of power
came in, you see. The other girls were always talking about their
friends and followers, and it was my pride to surpass them all. I
liked one better than another, of course, but was always as ready
for a new conquest as that old fool, 'Alexander the Little,'
who ran over the world and especially himself. What do you think,
papa? Shall I ever see one who will make all the others appear as
nothing? Or, would it be nobler to devote myself to a true, fine
man, like Mr. Lane, no matter how I felt?"

"God forbid! You had better stay at your mother's side till you
are as old and wrinkled as Time himself."

"I am honestly glad to hear you say so. But what am I to do? Sooner
or later I shall have to refuse Mr. Lane, and others too."

"Refuse them, then. He would be less than a man who would ask a
girl to sacrifice herself for him. No, my dear, the most inalienable
right of your womanhood is to love freely and give yourself where
you love. This right is one of the issues of this war, - that the
poorest woman in this land may choose her own mate. Slavery is the
corner-stone of the Confederacy, wherein millions of women can be
given according to the will of masters. Should the South triumph,
phases of the Old-World despotism would creep in with certainly,
and in the end we should have alliances, not marriages, as is the
case so generally abroad. Now if a white American girl does not
make her own choice she is a weak fool. The law and public sentiment
protect her. If she will not choose wisely, she must suffer the
consequences, and only under the impulse of love can a true choice
be made. A girl must be sadly deficient in sense if she loves a weak,
bad, disreputable man, or a vulgar, ignorant one. Such mesalliances
are more in seeming than in reality, for the girl herself is usually
near in nature to what she chooses. There are few things that I
would more earnestly guard you against than a loveless marriage.
You would probably miss the sweetest happiness of life, and you
would scarcely escape one of its worst miseries."

"That settles it, then. I am going to choose for myself, - to stay
with you and mamma, and to continue sending you my bills indefinitely."

"They will be love letters, now."

"Very dear ones, you will think sometimes. But truly, papa, you must
not let me spend more than you can afford. You should be frank on
this point also, when you know I do not wish to be inconsiderate.
The question still remains, What am I to do with Mr. Lane?"

"Now I shall throw you on your own resources. I believe your woman's
tact can manage this question better than my reason; only, if you
don't love him and do not think you can, be sure to refuse him.
I have nothing against Mr. Lane, and approve of what I know about
him; but I am not eager to have a rival, or to lose what I have
so recently gained. Nevertheless, I know that when the true knight
comes through the wood, my sleeping beauty will have another
awakening, compared with which this one will seem slight indeed.
Then, as a matter of course, I will quietly take my place as 'second
fiddle' in the harmony of your life. But no discordant first fiddle,
if you please; and love alone can attune its strings. My time is
up, and, if I don't return early, go to bed, so that mamma may not
say you are the worse for your days in town. This visit has made
me wish for many others."

"You shall have them, for, as Shakespeare says, your wish 'jumps'
with mine."






CHAPTER V.

"BE HOPEFUL, THAT I MAY HOPE."





LEFT to herself Marian soon threw down the book she tried to read,
and thought grew busy with her father's later words. Was there then
a knight - a man - somewhere in the world, so unknown to her that
she would pass him in the street without the slightest premonition
that he was the arbiter of her destiny? Was there some one, to
whom imagination could scarcely give shadowy outline, so real and
strong that he could look a new life into her soul, set all her
nerves tingling, and her blood coursing in mad torrents through
her veins? Was there a stranger, whom now she would sweep with a
casual glance, who still had the power to subdue her proud maidenhood,
overcome the reserve which seemed to reach as high as heaven, and
lay a gentle yet resistless grasp, not only on her sacred form, but
on her very soul? Even the thought made her tremble with a vague
yet delicious dread. Then she sprung to her feet and threw back her
head proudly as she uttered aloud the words, "If this can ever be
true, my power shall be equal to his."

A moment later she was evoking half-exultant chords from the piano.
These soon grew low and dreamy, and the girl said softly to herself:
"I have lived more in two days than in months of the past. Truly
real life is better than a sham, shallow existence."

The door-bell rang, and she started to her feet. "Who can know I
am in town?" she queried.

Fenton Lane entered with extended hand and the words: "I was passing
and knew I could not be mistaken in your touch. Your presence was
revealed by the music as unmistakably as if I had met you on the
street. Am I an intruder? Please don't order me away under an hour
or two."

"Indeed, Mr. Lane, truth compels me to say that I am here in deep
retirement. I have been contemplating a convent."

"May I ask your motive?"

"To repent of my sins."

"You would have to confess at a convent. Why not imagine me a
venerable father, dozing after a good dinner, and make your first
essay at the confessional?"

"You tax my imagination too greatly. So I should have to confess;
therefore no convent for me."

"Of course not. I should protest against it at the very altar, and
in the teeth of the Pope himself. Can't you repent of your sins in
some other way?"

"I suppose I shall have to."

"They would be a queer lot of little peccadilloes. I should like
to set them all under a microscope."

"I would rather that your glass should be a goblet brimmed from
Lethe."

"There is no Lethe for me, Miss Marian, so far as you are concerned."

"Come, tell me the news from the seat of war," she said, abruptly.

"This luxurious arm-chair is not a seat of war."

"Papa has been telling me how Southern girls make all the men
enlist."

"I'll enlist to-morrow, if you ask me to."

"Oh, no. You might be shot, and then you would haunt me all my
life."

"May I not haunt you anyway?" said Lane, resolutely, for he had
determined not to let this opportunity pass. She was alone, and he
would confirm the hope which her manner for months had inspired.
"Come, Miss Marian," he continued, springing to his feet and
approaching her side, his dark eyes full of fire and entreaty; "you
cannot have misunderstood me. You know that while not a soldier I
am also not a carpet-knight and have not idled in ladies' bowers.
I have worked hard and dreamed of you. I am willing to do all that
a man can to win you. Cowardice has not kept me from the war, but
you. If it would please you I would put on the blue and shoulder
a musket to-morrow. If you will permit more discretion and time,
I can soon obtain a commission as an officer. But before I fight
other battles, I wish to win the supreme victory of my life. Whatever
orders I may take from others, you shall ever be my superior officer.
You have seen this a long time; a woman of your mind could not help
it. I have tried to hope with all a lover's fondness that you gave
me glimpses of your heart also, but of this nothing would satisfy
a man of my nature but absolute assurance."

He stood proudly yet humbly before her, speaking with strong,
impassioned, fluent utterance, for he was a man who had both the
power and the habit of expression.

She listened with something like dismay. Her heart, instead of
kindling, grew only more heavy and remorseful. Her whole nature
shrunk, while pity and compunction wrung tears from her eyes. This
was real life in very truth. Here was a man ready to give up safe,
luxurious existence, a career already successful, and face death
for her. She knew him well enough to be sure that if he could wear
her colors he would march away with the first regiment that would
receive him. He was not a man to be influenced by little things,
but yielded absolutely to the supreme impulses of his life. If
she said the word, he would make good his promise with chivalrous,
straightforward promptness, facing death, and all that death could
then mean to him, with a light, half-jaunty courage characteristic
of the ideal soldier. She had a secret wonder at herself that she
could know all this and yet be so vividly conscious that what he
asked could never be. Her womanly pity said yes; her woman's heart
said no. He was eager to take her in his arms, to place the kiss of
life-long loyalty on her lips; but in her very soul she felt that
it would be almost sacrilege for him to touch her; since the divine
impulse to yield, without which there can be no divine sanction,
was absent.

She listened, not as a confused, frightened girl, while he spoke
that which she had guessed before. Other men had sued, although
none had spoken so eloquently or backed their words by such weight
of character. Her trouble, her deep perplexity, was not due to a
mere declaration, but was caused by her inability to answer him.
The conventional words which she would have spoken a few days before
died on her lips. They would be an insult to this earnest man,
who had the right to hope for something better. What was scarcely
worse - for there are few emergencies in which egotism is wholly
lost - she would appear at once to him and to herself in an odious
light. Her course would be well characterized by the Irish servant's
lover, for here was a man who from the very fineness of his nature,
if wronged, might easily go to the devil.

His words echoed her thought, for her hesitation and the visible
distress on her face led him to exclaim, in a voice tense with
something like agony: "O Marian, since you hesitate, hesitate
longer. Think well before you mar - nay, spoil - my life. For God's
sake don't put me off with some of the sham conventionalities current
with society girls. I could stand anything better than that. I
am in earnest; I have always been in earnest; and I saw from the
first, through all your light, graceful disguises, that you were not
a shallow, brainless, heartless creature, - that a noble woman was
waiting to be wakened in your nature. Give me time; give yourself
time. This is not a little affair that can be rounded off according
to the present code of etiquette; it is a matter of life or death
to me. Be more merciful than a rebel bullet."

She buried her face in her hands and sobbed helplessly.

He was capable of feeling unknown depths of tenderness, but there
was little softness in his nature. As he looked down upon her, his
face grew rigid and stern. In her sobs he read his answer, - the
unwillingness, probably the inability, of her heart to respond to
his, - and he grew bitter as he thought of the past.

With the cold, quiet tones of one too strong, controlled, and
well-bred to give way violently to his intense anger, he said:
"This is a different result from what you led me to expect. All
your smiles end in these unavailing tears. Why did you smile so
sweetly after you understood me, since you had nothing better in
store? I was giving you the homage, the choice of my whole manhood,
and you knew it. What were you giving me? Why did your eyes draw
out my heart and soul? Do you think that such a man as I can exist
without heart and soul? Did you class me with Strahan, who can
take a refusal as he would lose a game of whist? No, you did not.
I saw in your very eyes a true estimate of Strahan and all his
kind. Was it your purpose to win a genuine triumph over a man who
cared nothing for other women? Why then don't you enjoy it? You
could not ask for anything more complete."

"Trample on me - I deserve it," she faltered.

After a moment's pause, he resumed: "I have no wish to trample
on you. I came here with as much loyalty and homage as ever a man
brought to a woman in any age. I have offered you any test of my
love and truth that you might ask. What more could a man do? As soon
as I knew what you were to me, I sought your father's permission
to win you, and I told you my secret in every tone and glance. If
your whole nature shrunk from me, as I see it does, you could have
told me the truth months since, and I should have gone away honoring
you as a true-hearted, honest girl, who would scorn the thought of
deceiving and misleading an earnest man. You knew I did not belong
to the male-flirt genus. When a man from some sacred impulse of his
nature would give his very life to make a woman happy, is it too
much to ask that she should not deliberately, and for mere amusement,
wreck his life? If she does not want his priceless gift, a woman
with your tact could have revealed the truth by one glance, by one
inflection of a tone. Not that I should have been discouraged so
easily, but I should have accepted an unspoken negative long since
with absolute respect. But now - " and he made a gesture eloquent
with protest and despair.

"But now," she said, wearily, "I see it all in the light in which
you put it. Be content; you have spoiled my life as truly as I have
yours."

"Yes, for this evening. There will be only one less in your
drawing-room when you return."

"Very well," she replied, quietly. Her eyes were dry and hot now,
and he could almost see the dark lines deepening under them, and
the increasing pallor of her face. "I have only this to say. I now
feel that your words are like blows, and they are given to one who
is not resisting, who is prostrate;" and she rose as if to indicate
that their interview should end.

He looked at her uneasily as she stood before him, with her pallid
face averted, and every line of her drooping form suggesting defeat
rather than triumph; yes, far more than defeat - the apathetic
hopelessness of one who feels himself mortally wounded.

"Will you please tell me just what you mean when you say I have
spoiled your life?" he asked.

"How should I know? How should anyone know till he has lived out
its bitterness? What do you mean by the words? Perhaps you will
remember hereafter that your language has been inconsistent as well
as merciless. You said I was neither brainless nor heartless; then
added that you had spoiled my life merely for one evening. But
there is no use in trying to defend myself: I should have little
to urge except thoughtlessness, custom, the absence of evil
intention, - other words should prove myself a fool, to avoid being
a criminal. Go on and spoil your life; you seem to be wholly bent
upon it. Face rebel bullets or do some other reckless thing. I
only wish to give you the solace of knowing that you have made me
as miserable as a girl can be, and that too at a moment when I was
awakening to better things. But I am wasting your valuable time.
You believe in your heart that Mr. Strahan can console me with his
gossip to-morrow evening, whatever happens."

"Great God! what am I to believe?"

She turned slowly towards him and said, gravely: "Do not use that
name, Mr. Lane. He recognizes the possibility of good in the weakest
and most unworthy of His creatures. He never denounces those who
admit their sin and would turn from it."

He sprung to her side and took her hand. "Look at me," he pleaded.

His face was so lined and eloquent with suffering that her own lip
quivered.

"Mr. Lane," she said, "I have wronged you. I am very sorry now.
I've been sorry ever since I began to think - since you last called.
I wish you could forgive me. I think it would be better for us both
if you could forgive me."

He sunk into a chair and burying his face in his hands groaned aloud;
then, in bitter soliloquy, said: "O God! I was right - I knew I was
not deceived. She is just the woman I believed her to be. Oh, this
is worse than death!"

No tears came into his eyes, but a convulsive shudder ran through
his frame like that of a man who recoils from the worst blow of
fate.

"Reproach - strike me, even," she cried. "Anything is better than
this. Oh, that I could - but how can I? Oh, what an unutterable fool
I have been! If your love is so strong, it should also be a little
generous. As a woman I appeal to you."

He rose at once and said: "Forgive me; I fear that I have been
almost insane, - that I have much to atone for."

"O Mr. Lane, I entreat you to forgive me. I did admire you; I was
proud of your preference, - proud that one so highly thought of
and coveted by others should single me out. I never dreamt that
my vanity and thoughtlessness could lead to this. If you had been
ill or in trouble, you would have had my honest sympathy, and few
could have sacrificed more to aid you. I never harbored one thought
of cold-blooded malice. Why must I be punished as if I had committed
a deliberate crime? If I am the girl you believe me to be, what
greater punishment could I have than to know that I had harmed a
man like you? It seems to me that if I loved any one I could suffer
for him and help him, without asking anything in return. I could
give you honest friendship, and take heart-felt delight in every
manly success that you achieved. As a weak, faulty girl, who yet
wishes to be a true woman, I appeal to you. Be strong, that I may
be strong; be hopeful, that I may hope; be all that you can be,
that I may not be disheartened on the very threshold of the better
life I had chosen."

He took her hand, and said: "I am not unresponsive to your words.
I feel their full force, and hope to prove that I do; but there is
a tenacity in my nature that I cannot overcome. You said, 'if you
loved' - do you not love any one?"

"No. You are more to me - twice more - than any man except my father."

"Then, think well. Do not answer me now, unless you must. Is there
not a chance for me? I am not a shadow of a man, Marian. I fear
I have proved too well how strong and concentrated my nature is.
There is nothing I would not do or dare - "

"No, Mr. Lane; no," she interrupted, shaking her head sadly, "I will
never consciously mislead a man again a single moment. I scarcely
know what love is; I may never know; but until my heart prompts
me, I shall never give the faintest hope or encouragement of this
nature. I have been taught the evil of it too bitterly."

"And I have been your remorseless teacher, and thus perhaps have
destroyed my one chance."

"You are wrong. I now see that your words were natural to one like
you, and they were unjust only because I was not deliberate. Mr.
Lane, let me be your friend. I could give you almost a sister's
love; I could be so proud of you!"

"There," he said. "You have triumphed after all. I pledge you my
word - all the manhood I possess - I will do whatever you ask."

She took his hand in both her own with a look of gratitude he
never forgot, and spoke gladly: "Now you change everything. Oh, I
am so glad you did not go away before! What a sad, sleepless night
I should have had, and sad to-morrows stretching on indefinitely! I
ask very much, very much indeed, - that you make the most and best
of yourself. Then I can try to do the same. It will be harder
for you than for me. You bring me more hope than sadness; I have
given you more sadness than hope. Yet I have absolute faith in you
because of what papa said to me last night. I had asked him how I
could cease to be what I was, be different, you know, and he said,
'Develop the best in your own nature naturally.' If you will do
this I shall have no fears."

"Yet I have been positively brutal to you to-night."

"No man can be so strong as you are and be trifled with. I understand
that now, Mr. Lane. You had no sentimentality to be touched, and
my tears did not move you in the least until you believed in my
honest contrition."

"I have revealed to you one of my weaknesses. I am rarely angry,
but when I am, my passion, after it is over, frightens me. Marian,
you do forgive me in the very depths of your heart?"

"I do indeed, - that is, if I have anything to forgive under the
circumstances."

"Poor little girl! how pale you are! I fear you are ill."

"I shall soon be better, - better all my life for your forgiveness
and promise."

"Thank God that we are parting in this manner," he said. "I don't
like to think of what might have happened, for I was in the devil's
own mood. Marian, if you make good the words you have spoken
to-night, if you become the woman you can be, you will have a power
possessed by few. It was not your beauty merely that fascinated me,
but a certain individuality, - something all your own, which gives
you an influence apparently absolute. But I shall speak no more
in this strain. I shall try to be as true a friend as I am capable
of becoming, although an absent one. I must prove myself by deeds,
not words, however. May I write to you sometimes? I will direct
my letters under the care of your father, and you may show them to
him or your mother, as you wish."

"Certainly you may, and you will be my first and only gentleman
correspondent. After what has passed between us, it would be
prudery to refuse. Moreover, I wish to hear often of your welfare.
Never for a moment will my warm interest cease, and you can see me
whenever you wish. I have one more thing to ask, - please take up
your old life to-morrow, just where you left off. Do nothing hastily,
or from impulse. Remember you have promised to make the most and
best of yourself, and that requires you to give conscience and
reason fair hearing. Will you also promise this?"

"Anything you asked, I said."

"Then good-by. Never doubt my friendship, as I shall not doubt
yours."

Her hand ached from the pressure of his, but the pain was thus
drawn from her heart.






CHAPTER VI.

A SCHEME OF LIFE.





MARIAN waited for her father's return, having been much too deeply
excited for the speedy advent of quiet sleep. When at last he came
she told him everything. As she described the first part of the
interview his brow darkened, but his face softened as she drew
toward the close. When she ceased he said: -

"Don't you see I was right in saying that your own tact would guide
you better than my reason? If I, instead of your own nature, had
directed you, we should have made an awful mess of it. Now let me
think a moment. This young fellow has suggested an idea to me, - a
general line of action which I think you can carry out. There is
nothing like a good definite plan, - not cast-iron, you know, but
flexible and modified by circumstances as you go along, yet so
clear and defined as to give you something to aim at. Confound it,
that's what's the matter with our military authorities. If McClellan
is a ditch-digger let them put a general in command; or, if he
is a general, give him what he wants and let him alone. There is
no head, no plan. I confess, however, that just now I am chiefly
interested in your campaigns, which, after all, stand the best chance
of bringing about union, in spite of your negative mood manifested
to-night. Nature will prove too strong for you, and some day - soon
probably - you will conquer, only to surrender yourself. Be that as
it may, the plan I suggest need not be interfered with. Be patient.



Online LibraryEdward Payson RoeAn Original Belle → online text (page 4 of 37)