Poor Richard: A Story in Three Parts. Part Iii
IN country districts, where life is quiet, incidents do duty as events ; and accordingly Captain Severn’s sudden departure for his regiment became very rapidly known among Gertrude’s neighbors. She herself heard it from her coachman, who had heard it in the village, where the Captain had been seen to take the early train. She received the news calmly enough to outward appearance, but a great tumult rose and died in her breast. He had gone without a word of farewell! Perhaps he had not had time to call upon her. But bare civility would have dictated his dropping her a line of writing, — he who must have read in her eyes the feeling which her lips refused to utter, and who had been the object of her tenderest courtesy. It was not often that Gertrude threw back into her friends’ teeth their acceptance of the hospitality which it had been placed in her power to offer them ; but if she now mutely reproached Captain Severn with ingratitude, it was because he had done more than slight her material gifts : he had slighted that constant moral force with which these gifts were accompanied, and of which they were but the rude and vulgar token. It is but natural to expect that our dearest friends will accredit us with our deepest feelings ; and Gertrude had constituted Edmund Severn her dearest friend. She had not, indeed, asked his assent to this arrangement, but she had borne it out by a subtile devotion which she felt that she had a right to exact of him that he should repay, — repay by letting her know that, whether it was lost on his heart or not, it was at least not lost to his senses,—that, if he could not return it, he could at least remember it. She had given him the flower of her womanly tenderness, and, when his moment came, he had turned from her without a look. Gertrude shed no tears. It seemed to her that she had given her friend tears enough, and that to expend her soul in weeping would be to wrong herself. She would think no more of Edmund Severn. He should be as little to her for the future as she was to him.
It was very easy to make this resolution : to keep it, Gertrude found another matter. She could not think of the war, she could not talk with her neighbors of current events, she could not take up a newspaper, without reverting to her absent friend. She found herself constantly harassed with the apprehension that he had not allowed himself time really to recover, and that a fortnight’s exposure would send him back to the hospital. At last it occurred to her that civility required that she should make a call upon Mrs. Martin, the Captain’s sister ; and a vague impression that this lady might be the depositary of some farewell message — perhaps of a letter — which she was awaiting her convenience to present, led her at once to undertake this social duty. The carriage which had been ordered for her projected visit was at the door, when, within a week after Severn’s departure, Major Luttrel was announced. Gertrude received him in her bonnet. His first care was to present Captain Severn’s adieus, together with his regrets that he had not had time to discharge them in person. As Luttrel made his speech, he watched his companion narrowly, and was considerably reassured by the unflinching composure with which she listened to it. The turn he had given to Severn’s message had been the fruit of much mischievous cogitation. It had seemed to him that, for his purposes, the assumption of a hasty, and as it were mechanical, allusion to Miss Whittaker, was more serviceable than the assumption of no allusion at all, which would have left a boundless void for the exercise of Gertrude's fancy. And he had reasoned well; for although he was tempted to infer from her calmness that his shot had fallen short of the mark, yet, in spite of her silent and almost smiling assent to his words, it had made but one bound to her heart. Before many minutes, she felt that those words had done her a world of good. “ He had not had time ! ” Indeed, as she took to herself their full expression of perfect indifference, she felt that her hard, forced smile was broadening into the sign of a lively gratitude to the Major.
Major Luttrel had still another task to perform. He had spent half an hour on the preceding day at Richard’s bedside, having ridden over to the farm, in ignorance of his illness, to see how matters stood with him. The reader will already have surmised that the Major was not pre-eminently a man of conscience : he will, therefore, be the less surprised and shocked to hear that the sight of the poor young man, prostrate, fevered, and delirious, and to all appearance rapidly growing worse, filled him with an emotion the reverse of creditable. In plain terms, he was very glad to find Richard a prisoner in bed. He had been racking his brains for a scheme to keep his young friend out of the way, and now, to his exceeding satisfaction, Nature had relieved him of this troublesome care. If Richard was condemned to typhoid fever, which his symptoms seemed to indicate, he would not, granting his recovery, be able to leave his room within a month. In a month, much might be done ; nay, with energy, all might be done. The reader has been all but directly informed that the Major’s present purpose was to secure Miss Whittaker’s hand. He was poor, and he was ambitious, and he was, moreover, so well advanced in life — being thirty-six years of age —that he had no heart to think of building up his fortune by slow degrees. A man of good breeding, too, he had become sensible, as he approached middle age, of the many advantages of a luxurious home. He had accordingly decided that a wealthy marriage would most easily unlock the gate to prosperity. A girl of a somewhat lighter calibre than Gertrude would have been the woman — we cannot say of his heart ; but, as he very generously argued, beggars can’t be choosers. Gertrude was a woman with a mind of her own ; but, on the whole, he was not afraid of her. He was abundantly prepared to do his duty. He had, of course, as became a man of sense, duly weighed his obstacles against his advantages ; but an impartial scrutiny had found the latter heavier in the balance. The only serious difficulty in his path was the possibility that, on hearing of Richard’s illness, Gertrude, with her confounded benevolence, would take a fancy to nurse him in person, and that, in the course of her ministrations, his delirious ramblings would force upon her mind the damning story of the deception practised upon Captain Severn. There was nothing for it but bravely to face this risk. As for that other fact, which many men of a feebler spirit would have deemed an invincible obstacle, Luttrel’s masterly understanding had immediately converted it into the prime agent of success,—the fact, namely, that Gertrude’s heart was preoccupied. Such knowledge as he possessed of the relations between Miss Whittaker and his brother officer he had gained by his unaided observations and his silent deductions. These had been logical ; for, on the whole, his knowledge was accurate. It was at least what he might have termed a good working knowledge. He had calculated on a passionate reactionary impulse on Gertrude’s part, consequent on Severn’s simulated offence. He knew that, in a generous woman, such an impulse, if left to itself, would not go very far. But on this point it was that his policy bore. He would not leave it to itself: he would take it gently into his hands, attenuate it, prolong it, economize it, and mould it into the clew to his own goodfortune. He thus counted much upon his skill and his tact; but he likewise placed a becoming degree of reliance upon his solid personal qualities, — qualities too sober and too solid, perhaps, to be called charms, but thoroughly adapted to inspire confidence. The Major was not handsome in feature ; he left that to younger men and to lighter women ; but his ugliness was of a masculine, aristocratic, intelligent stamp. His figure, moreover, was good enough to compensate for the absence of a straight nose and a fine mouth ; and his general bearing offered a most pleasing combination of the gravity of the man of affairs and the versatility of the man of society.
In her sudden anxiety on Richard’s behalf, Gertrude soon forgot her own immaterial woes. The carriage which was to have conveyed her to Mrs. Martin’s was used for a more disinterested purpose. The Major, prompted by a strong faith in the salutary force of his own presence, having obtained her permission to accompany her, they set out for the farm, and soon found themselves in Richard’s chamber. The young man was wrapped in a heavy sleep, from which it was judged imprudent to arouse him. Gertrude, sighing as she compared his thinly furnished room with her own elaborate apartments, drew up a mental list of essential luxuries which she would immediately send him. Not but that he had received, however, a sufficiency of homely care. The doctor was assiduous, and the old woman who nursed him was full of rough good-sense.
" He asks very often after you, Miss,” she said, addressing Gertrude, but with a sly glance at the Major. “ But I think you’d better not come too often. " I'm afraid you ’d excite him more than you’d quiet him.”
" I ’m afraid you would, Miss Whittaker," said the Major, who could have hugged the goodwife.
" Why should I excite him ? ” asked Gertrude, “ I’m used to sick-rooms. I nursed my father for a year and a half.”
“ O, it’s very well for an old woman like me, but it’s no place for a fine young lady like you,” said the nurse, looking at Gertrude’s muslins and laces.
“ I ’m not so fine as to desert a friend in distress,” said Gertrude. “ I shall come again, and if it makes the poor fellow worse to see me, I shall stay away. I am ready to do anything that will help him to get well.”
It had already occurred to her that, in his unnatural state, Richard might find her presence a source of irritation, and she was prepared to remain in the background. As she returned to her carriage, she caught herself reflecting with so much pleasure upon Major Luttrel’s kindness in expending a couple of hours of his valuable time on so unprofitable an object as poor Richard, that, by Way of intimating her satisfaction, she invited him to come home and dine with her.
After a short interval she paid Richard a second visit, in company with Miss Pendexter. He was a great deal worse ; he lay emaciated, exhausted, and stupid. The issue was doubtful. Gertrude immediately pushed forward to M-, a larger town than her own, sought out a professional nurse, and arranged with him to relieve the old woman from the farm, who was worn out with her vigilance. For a fortnight. moreover, she received constant tidings from the young man’s physician. During this fortnight, Major Luttrel was assiduous, and proportionately successful.
It may be said, to his credit, that he had by no means conducted his suit upon that narrow programme which he had drawn up at the outset. He very soon discovered that Gertrude’s resentment—if resentment there was — was a substance utterly impalpable even to his most delicate tact, and he had accordingly set to work to woo her like an honest man, from day to day, from hour to hour, trusting so devoutly for success to momentary inspiration, that he felt his suit dignified by a certain flattering faux air of genuine passion. He occasionally reminded himself, however, that he might really be owing more to the subtle force of accidental contrast than Gertrude’s lifelong reserve — for it was certain she would not depart from it — would ever allow him to measure.
It was as an honest man, then, a man of impulse and of action, that Gertrude had begun to like him. She was not slow to perceive whither his operations tended ; and she was almost tempted at times to tell him frankly that she would spare him the intermediate steps, and meet him at the goal without further delay. It was not that she was prepared to love him, but she would make him an obedient wife. An immense weariness had somehow come upon her, and a sudden sense of loneliness. A vague suspicion that her money had done her an incurable wrong inspired her with a profound distaste for the care of it. She felt cruelly hedged out from human sympathy by her bristling possessions. “ If I had had five hundred dollars a year,” she said in a frequent parenthesis, “ I might have pleased him.” Hating her wealth, accordingly, and chilled by her isolation, the temptation was strong upon her to give herself up to that wise, brave gentleman who seemed to have adopted such a happy medium betwixt loving her for her money and fearing her for it. Would she not always stand between men who would represent the two extremes ? She would anticipate security by an alliance with Major Luttrel.
One evening, on presenting himself, Luttrel read these thoughts so clearly in her eyes, that he made up his mind to speak. But his mind was burdened with a couple of facts, of which it was necessary that he should discharge it before it could enjoy the freedom of action which the occasion required. In the first place, then, he had been to see Richard Clare, and had found him suddenly and decidedly better. It was unbecoming, however, — it was impossible, — that he should allow Gertrude to linger over this pleasant announcement.
"I tell the good news first,” he said, gravely. “ I have some very bad news, too, Miss Whittaker.”
Gertrude sent him a rapid glance. Some one has been killed,” she said.
“ Captain Severn has been shot,” said the Major, — “ shot by a guerilla.”
Gertrude was silent. No answer seemed possible to that uncompromising fact. She sat with her head on her hand, and her elbow on the table beside her, looking at the figures on the carpet. She uttered no words of commonplace regret; but she felt as little like giving way to serious grief. She had lost nothing, and, to the best of her knowledge, he had lost nothing. She had an old loss to mourn, — a loss a month old, which she had mourned as she might. To give way to passion would have been but to impugn the solemnity of her past regrets. When she looked up at her companion, she was pale, but she was calm, yet with a calmness upon which a single glance of her eye directed him not inconsiderately to presume. She was aware that this glance betrayed her secret; but in view both of Severn’s death and of the Major's attitude; such betrayal mattered less. Luttrel had prepared to act upon her hint, and to avert himself gently from the topic, when Gertrude, who had dropped her eyes again, raised them with a slight shudder. “ I ’m cold,” she said. “ Will you shut that window beside you, Major ? Or stay, suppose you give me my shawl from the sofa.”
Luttrel brought the shawl, placed it on her shoulders, and sat down beside her, These are cruel times,” he said, with studied simplicity. “ I ‘m sure I hardly know what ’s to come of it all.”
“ Yes, they are cruel times,” said Gertrude. “ They make one feel cruel. They make one doubt of all he has learnt from his pastors and masters."
“ Yes, but they teach us something new also.”
" I’m sure I don’t know,” said Gertrude, whose heart was so full of bitterness that she felt almost malignant. “ They teach us how mean we are. War is an infamy, Major, though it is your trade. It 's very well for you, who look at it professionally, and for those who go and fight : but it’s a miserable business for those who stay at home, and do the thinking and the sentimentalizing. It 's a miserable business for women ; it makes us more spiteful than ever.”
“ Well, a little spite is n’t a bad thing, in practice,” said the Major. “War is certainly an abomination, both at home and in the field. But as wars go, Miss Whittaker, our own is a very satisfactory one. It involves something. It won’t leave us as it found us. We ’re in the midst of a revolution, and what's a revolution but a turning upside down? It makes sad work with our habits and theories and our traditions and convictions. But, on the other hand,” Luttrel pursued, warming to his task, "it leaves something untouched, which is better than these, — I mean our feelings, Miss Whittaker.” And the Major paused until he had caught Gertrude’s eyes, when, having engaged them with his own, he proceeded. “ I think they are the stronger for the downfall of so much else, and, upon my soul, I think it’s in them we ought to take refuge. Don't you think so ? ”
“ Yes, if I understand you.”
"I mean our serious feelings, you know, — not our tastes nor our passions. I don’t advocate fiddling while Rome is burning. In fact it’s only poor, unsatisfied devils that are tempted to fiddle. There is one feeling which is respectable and honorable, and even sacred, at all times and in all places, whatever they may be. It does n’t depend upon circumstances, but they upon it; and with its help, I think, we are a match for any circumstances. I don’t mean religion, Miss Whittaker,” added the Major, with a sober smile.
“ If you don't mean religion,” said Gertrude, “ I suppose you mean love. That’s a very different thing.”
“ Yes, a very different thing ; so I’ve always thought, and so I ’m glad to hear you say. Some people, you know, mix them up in the most extraordinary fashion. I don’t fancy myself an especially religious man ; in fact, I believe I ’m rather otherwise. It’s my nature. Half mankind are born so, or I suppose the affairs of this world would n’t move. But I believe I ’m a good lover, Miss Whittaker.”
“ I hope for your own sake you are, Major Luttrel.”
“ Thank you. Do you think now you could entertain the idea for the sake of any one else ? ”
Gertrude neither dropped her eyes, nor shrugged her shoulders, nor blushed. If anything, indeed, she turned somewhat paler than before, as she sustained her companion’s gaze, and prepared to answer him as directly as she might.
“ If I loved you, Major Luttrel,” she said, “ I should value the idea for my own sake.”
The Major, too, blanched a little. “ I put my question conditionally,” he answered, “and I have got, as I deserved, a conditional reply. I will speak plainly, then, Miss Whittaker. Do you value the fact for your own sake ? It would be plainer still to say, Do you love me ? but I confess I’m not brave enough for that. I will say, Can you ? or I will even content myself with putting it in the conditional again, and asking you if you could; although, after all, I hardly know what the if understood can reasonably refer to. I ’m not such a fool as to ask of any woman—least of all of you — to love me contingently. You can only answer for the present, and say yes or no. I should n’t trouble you to say either, if I did n’t conceive that I had given you time to make up your mind. It does n’t take forever to know James Luttrel. I ’m not one of the great unfathomable ones. We 've seen each other more or less intimately for a good many weeks ; and as I ’m conscious, Miss Whittaker, of having shown you my best, I take for granted that if you don’t fancy me now, you won’t a month hence, when you shall have seen my faults. Yes, Miss Whittaker, I can solemnly say,” continued the Major, with genuine feeling, “ I have shown you my best, as every man is in honor bound to do who approaches a woman with those predispositions with which I have approached you. I have striven hard to please you,”—and he paused. “ I can only say, I hope I have succeeded.”
“ I should be very insensible," said Gertrude, “ if all your kindness and your courtesy had been lost upon me.”
" In Heaven's name, don't talk about courtesy,” cried the Major.
“ I am deeply conscious of your devotion, and I am very much obliged to you for urging your claims so respectfully and considerately. I speak seriously, Major Luttrel,” pursued Gertrude. “ There is a happy medium of expression, and you have taken it. Now it seems to me that there is a happy medium of affection, with which you might be content. Strictly, I don't love you. I question my heart, and it gives me that answer. The feeling that I have is not a feeling to work prodigies."
“May it at least work the prodigy of allowing you to be my wife ? ”
“ I don't think I shall over-estimate its strength, if I say that it may. If you can respect a woman who gives you her hand in cold blood, you are welcome to mine.”
Luttrel moved his chair and took her hand. “ Beggars can’t be choosers,” said he, raising it to his mustache.
“ O Major Luttrel, don’t say that,” she answered. “ I give you a great deal; but I keep a little, —a little,” said Gertrude, hesitating, “which I suppose I shall give to God.”
“ Well, I shall not be jealous,” said Luttrel.
“ The rest I give to you, and in return I ask a great deal.”
“ I shall give you all. You know I toid you I ’m not religious.”
“ No. I don't want more than I give,” said Gertrude.
“ But, pray,” asked Luttrel, with a delicate smile, “what am I to do with the difference ? ”
“ You had better keep it for yourself. What I want is your protection, sir, and your advice, and your care. I want you to take me away from this place, even if you have to take me down to the army. I want to see the world under the shelter of your name. I shall give you a great deal of trouble. I ’m a mere mass of possessions : what I am, is nothing to what I have. But ever since I began to grow up, what I am has been the slave of what I have. I am weary of my chains, and you must help me to carry them,” — and Gertrude rose to her feet as if to inform the Major that his audience was at an end.
He still held her right hand ; she gave him the other. He stood looking down at her, an image of manly humility, while from his silent breast went out a brief thanksgiving to favoring fortune.
At the pressure of his hands, Gertrude felt her bosom heave. She burst into tears. “ O, you must be very kind to me ! ” she cried, as he put his arm about her, and she dropped her head upon his shoulder.
When once Richard’s health had taken a turn for the better, it began very rapidly to improve. “Until he is quite well,” Gertrude said, one day, to her accepted suitor, “ I had rather he heard nothing of our engagement. Lie was once in love with me himself,” she added, very frankly. “ Did you ever suspect it ? But I hope he will have got better of that sad malady, too. Nevertheless, I shall expect nothing of his good judgment until he is quite strong; and as he may hear of my new intentions from other people, I propose that, for the present, we confide them to no one.”
“ But if he asks me point-blank,” said the Major, “ what shall I answer ? ”
“ It’s not likely he ’ll ask you. How should he suspect anything ? ”
“O,” said Luttrel, “ Clare is one that suspects everything.”
“ Tell him we ’re not engaged, then. A woman in my position may say what she pleases.”
It was agreed, however, that certain preparations for the marriage Should meanwhile go forward in secret; and that the marriage itself should take place in August, as Luttrel expected to be ordered back into service in the autumn. At about this moment Gertrude was surprised to receive a short note from Richard, so feebly scrawled in pencil as to be barely legible. “ Dear Gertrude,” it ran, “don’t come to see me just yet. I ’m not fit. You would hurt me, and vice versa. God bless you ! R. CLARE.” Miss Whittaker explained his request, by the supposition that a report had come to him of Major Luttrel’s late assiduities (which it was impossible should go unobserved); that, leaping at the worst, he had taken her engagement for granted ; and that, under this impression, he could not trust himself to see her. She despatched him an answer, telling him that she would await his pleasure, and that, if the doctor would consent to his having letters, she would meanwhile occasionally write to him. “ She will give me good advice,” thought Richard impatiently ; and on this point, accordingly, she received no account of his wishes. Expecting to leave her house and close it on her marriage, she spent many hours in wandering sadly over the meadowpaths and through the woodlands which she had known from her childhood. She had thrown aside the last ensigns of filial regret, and now walked sad and splendid in the uncompromising colors of an affianced bride. It would have seemed to a stranger that, for a woman who had freely chosen a companion for life, she was amazingly spiritless and sombre. As she looked at her pale cheeks and heavy eyes in the mirror, she felt ashamed that she had no fairer countenance to offer to her destined lord. She had lost her single beauty, her smile ; and she would make but a ghastly figure at the altar. “ I ought to wear a calico dress and an apron,” she said to herself, “and not this glaring finery.” But she continued to wear her finery, and to lay out her money, and to perform all her old duties to the letter. After the lapse of what she deemed a sufficient interval, she went to see Mrs. Martin, and to listen dumbly to her narration of her brother’s death, and to her simple eulogies.
Major Luttrel performed his part quite as bravely, and much more successfully. He observed neither too many things nor too few ; he neither presumed upon his success, nor mistrusted it. Having on his side received no prohibition from Richard, he resumed his visits at the farm, trusting that, with the return of reason, his young friend might feel disposed to renew that anomalous alliance in which, on the hapless evening of Captain Severn’s farewell, he had taken refuge against his despair. In the long, languid hours of his early convalescence, Richard had found time to survey his position, to summon back piece by piece the immediate past, and to frame a general scheme for the future. But more vividly than anything else, there had finally disengaged itself from his meditations a profound aversion to James Luttrel.
It was in this humor that the Major found him; and as he looked at the young man’s gaunt shoulders, supported by pillows, at his face, so livid and aquiline, at his great dark eyes, luminous with triumphant life, it seemed to him that an invincible spirit bad been sent from a better world to breathe confusion upon his hopes. If Richard hated the Major, the reader may guess whether the Major loved Richard. Luttrel was amazed at his first remark.
“ I suppose you ’re engaged by this time,” Richard said, calmly enough.
“ Not quite,” answered the Major. “ There’s a chance for you yet.”
To this Richard made no rejoinder. Then, suddenly, “Have you had any news of Captain Severn ? ” he asked.
For a moment the Major was perplexed at his question. He had assumed that the news of Severn’s death had come to Richard’s ears, and he had been half curious, half apprehensive as to its effect. But an instant’s reflection now assured him that the young man’s estrangement from his neighbors had kept him hitherto and might still keep him in ignorance of the truth. Hastily, therefore, and inconsiderately, the Major determined to confirm this ignorance. “ No,” said he ; “ I ‘ve had no news. Severn and I are not on such terms as to correspond.”
The next time Luttrel came to the farm, he found the master sitting up in a great, cushioned, chintz-covered armchair which Gertrude had sent him the day before out of her own dressingroom.
“ Are you engaged yet?” asked Richard.
There was a strain as if of defiance in his tone. The Major was irritated. “ Yes,” said he, “ we are engaged now.”
The young man's face betrayed no emotion.
“ Are you reconciled to it ? ” asked Luttrel.
“ Yes, practically I am.”
“ What do you mean by practically ? Explain yourself.”
“ A man in my state can’t explain himself. I mean that, however I feel about it, I shall accept Gertrude’s marriage.”
“ You ’re a wise man, my boy,” said the Major, kindly.
“ I ’m growing wise. I feel like Solomon on his throne in this chair. But I confess, sir, I don’t see how she could have you.”
“ Well, there 's no accounting for tastes,” said the Major, good-humoredly.
“Ah, if it’s been a matter of taste with her,” said Richard, “ I have nothing to say.”
They came to no more express understanding than this with regard to the future. Richard continued to grow stronger daily, and to defer the renewal of his intercourse with Gertrude. A month before, he would have resented as a bitter insult the intimation that he would ever be so resigned to lose her as he now found himself. He would not see her for two reasons : first, because he felt that it would be — or that at least in reason it ought to be — a painful experience to look upon his old mistress with a coldly critical eye ; and secondly, because, justify to himself as he would his new-born indifference, he could not entirely cast away the suspicion that it was a last remnant of disease, and that, when he stood on his legs again in the presence of those exuberant landscapes with which he had long since established a sort of sensuous communion, he would feel, as with a great tumultuous rush, the return of his impetuous manhood and of his old capacity. When he had smoked a pipe in the outer sunshine, when he had settled himself once more to the long elastic bound of his mare, then he would see Gertrude. The reason of the change which had come upon him was that she had disappointed him, — she whose magnanimity it had once seemed that his fancy was impotent to measure. She had accepted Major Luttrel, a man whom he despised ; she had so mutilated her magnificent heart as to match it with his. The validity of his dislike to the Major, Richard did not trouble himself to examine. He accepted it as an unerring instinct : and. indeed, he might have asked himself, had he not sufficient proof? Moreover he labored under the sense of a gratuitous wrong. He had suffered an immense torment of remorse to drive him into brutishness, and thence to the very gate of death, for an offence which he had deemed mortal, and which was after all but a phantasm of his impassioned conscience. What a fool he had been ! a fool for his nervous fears, and a fool for his penitence. Marriage with Major Luttrel, — such was the end of Gertrude’s fancied anguish. Such, too, we hardly need add, was the end of that idea of reparation which had been so formidable to Luttrel. Richard had been generous; he would now be just.
Far from impeding his recovery, these reflections hastened it. One morning in the beginning of August, Gertrude received notice of Richard’s presence. It was a still, sultry day, and Miss Whittaker, her habitual pallor deepened by the oppressive heat, was sitting alone in a white morning-dross, languidly fanning aside at once the droning flies and her equally importunate thoughts. She found Richard standing in the middle of the drawing-room, booted and spurred.
“ Well, Richard,” she exclaimed, with some feeling, “you 're at last willing to see me ! ”
As his eyes fell upon her, he started and stood almost paralyzed, heeding neither her words nor her extended hand. It was not Gertrude he saw, but her ghost.
“ In Heaven’s name what has happened to you ? ” he cried. “ Have you been ill ? ”
Gertrude tried to smile in feigned surprise at his surprise ; but her muscles relaxed. Richard’s words and looks reflected more vividly than any mirror the dejection of her person ; and this, the misery of her soul. She felt herself growing faint. She staggered back to a sofa and sank down.
Then Richard felt as if the room were revolving about him, and as if his throat were choked with imprecations,— as if his old erratic passion had again taken possession of him, like a mingled legion of devils and angels. It was through pity that his love returned. He went forward and dropped on his knees at Gertrude’s feet. “ Speak to me ! ” he cried, seizing her hands. “ Are you unhappy ? Is your heart broken ? O Gertrude ! what have you come to ? ”
Gertrude drew her hands from his grasp and rose to her feet. “Get tip, Richard," she said. “ Don’t talk so wildly. I ’m not well. I ’m very glad to see you. You look well.”
“ I ’ve got my strength again, — and meanwhile you’ve been failing. You ’re unhappy, you 're wretched ! Don’t say you ’re not, Gertrude : it’s as plain as day. You "re breaking your heart.”
“The same old Richard ! ” said Gertrude, trying to smile again.
“ Would that you were the same old Gertrude ! Don’t try to smile ; you can't! ”
“ I shall ! ” said Gertrude, desperately. “ I an going to be married, you know.”
“Yes, I know. I don’t congratulate you.”
“ I have not counted upon that honor, Richard. I shall have to do without it.”
“You’ll have to do without a great many things ! ” cried Richard, horrified by what seemed to him her blind selfimmolation.
“ I have all I ask,” said Gertrude.
“You have n’t all I ask then ! You have n’t all your friends ask.”
“ My friends are very kind, but I marry to suit myself.”
“You’ve not suited yourself!” retorted the young man. “ You’ve suited— God knows what!—your pride, your despair, your resentment.” As he looked at her, the secret history of her weakness seemed to become plain to him, and he felt a mighty rage against the man who had taken a base advantage of it. “ Gertrude ! ” he cried, “ I entreat you to go back. It’s not for my sake, —I 'll give you up, — I ’ll go a thousand miles away, and never look at you again. It's for your own. In the name of your happiness, break with that man ! Don’t fling yourself away. Buy him off, if you consider yourself bound. Give him your money. That s all be wants.”
As Gertrude listened, the blood came back to her face, and two flames into her eyes. She looked at Richard from head to foot. “ You are not weak,” she said, “ you are in your senses, you are well and strong ; you shall tell me what you mean. You insult the best friend I have. Explain yourself! you insinuate foul things, — speak them out!” Her eyes glanced toward the door, and Richard’s followed them. Major Luttrel stood on the threshold.
“ Come in, sir ! ” cried Richard. “ Gertrude swears she ’ll believe no harm of you. Come and tell her that she ’s wrong ! How can you keep on harassing a woman whom you ’ve brought to this state ? Think of what she was three months ago, and look at her now! ”
Luttrel received this broadside without flinching. He had overheard Richard’s voice from the entry, and he had steeled his heart for the encounter. He assumed the air of having been so amazed by the young man's first words as only to have heard his last ; and he glanced at Gertrude mechanically as if to comply with them. “ What’s the matter ? ” he asked, going over to her, and taking her hand; “are you ill?” Gertrude let him have her hand, but she forbore to meet his eyes.
“ Ill ! of course she ’s ill! ” cried Richard, passionately. “ She's dying, — she’s consuming herself! I know I seem to be playing an odious part here, Gertrude, but, upon my soul, I can't help it. I look like a betrayer, an informer, a sneak, but I don’t feel like one ! Still, I ’ll leave you, if you say so.”
“ Shall he go, Gertrude ? ” asked Luttrel, without looking at Richard.
“ No. Let him stay and explain himself. He has accused you,'—let him prove his case.”
“ I know what he is going to say,” said Luttrel. “ It will place me in a bad light. Do vou still wish to hear it ? ”
Gertrude drew her hand hastily out of Luttrel's. “ Speak, Richard ! ” she cried, with a passionate gesture.
“ I will speak,” said Richard. “ I Ve done you a dreadful wrong, Gertrude. How great a wrong, I never knew until I saw you to-day so miserably altered. When I heard that you were to be married, I fancied that it was no wrong, and that my remorse had been wasted. But I understand it now ; and he understands it, too. You once told me that you had ceased to love Captain Severn. It was n't true. You never ceased to love him. You love him at this moment. If he were to get another wound in the next battle, how would you feel ? How would you bear it ? ” And Richard paused for an instant with the force of his interrogation.
“ For God's sake,” cried Gertrude, “respect the dead ! ”
“ The dead ! Is he dead ? ”
Gertrude covered her face with her hands.
“ You beast !” cried Luttrel.
Richard turned upon him savagely. “Shut your infernal mouth ! ” he roared. “ You told me he was alive and well ! ”
Gertrude made a movement of speechless distress.
“ You would have it, my dear,” said Luttrel, with a little bow.
Richard had turned pale, and began to tremble. “ Excuse me, Gertrude,” he said, hoarsely, “ I 've been deceived. Poor, unhappy woman ! Gertrude,” he continued, going nearer to her, and speaking in a whisper, “I killed him.”
Gertrude fell back from him, as he approached her, with a look of unutterable horror. “ I and he," said Richard, pointing at Luttrel.
Gertrude’s eyes followed the direction of his gesture, and transferred their scorching disgust to her suitor. This was too much for Luttrel’s courage. “ You idiot!” she shouted at Richard, “speak out! ”
“ He loved you, though you believed he did n’t,” said Richard. “ I saw it the first time I looked at him. To every one but you it was as plain as day. Luttrel saw it too. But he was too modest, and he never fancied you cared for him. The night before he went back to the army, he came to bid you good by. If he had seen you, it would have been better for every one. You remember that evening, of course. We met him, Luttrel and I. He was all on fire, — he meant to speak. I knew it, you knew it, Luttrel: it was in his fingers’ ends. I intercepted him. I turned him off, — I lied to him and told him you were away. I was a coward, and I did neither more nor less than that. I knew you were waiting for him. It was stronger than my will, — I believe I should do it again. Fate was against him, and he went off. I came back to tell you, but my damnable jealousy strangled me. I went home and drank myself into a fever. I ’ve done you a wrong that I can never repair. I 'd go hang myself if I thought it would help you.” Richard spoke slowly, softly, and explicitly, as if irresistible Justice in person had her hand upon his neck, and were forcing him down upon his knees. In the presence of Gertrude’s dismay nothing seemed possible but perfect self-conviction. In Luttrel’s attitude, as he stood with his head erect, his arms folded, and his cold gray eye fixed upon the distance, it struck him that there was something atrociously insolent; not insolent to him,—for that he cared little enough, — but insolent to Gertrude and to the dreadful solemnity of the hour. Richard sent the Major a look of the most aggressive contempt. “As for Major Luttrel,” he said, “ he was but a passive spectator. No, Gertrude, by Heaven !” he burst out; he was worse than I ! I loved you, and he did n’t! ”
“ Our friend is correct in his facts, Gertrude,” said Luttrel, quietly, "He is incorrect in his opinions. I was a passive spectator of his deception. He appeared to enjoy a certain authority with regard to your wishes, — the source of which I respected both of you sufficiently never to question, — and I accepted the act which he has described as an exercise of it. You will remember that you had sent us away on the ground that you were in no humor for company. To deny you, therefore, to another visitor, seemed to me rather officious, but still pardonable. You will consider that I was wholly ignorant of your relations to that visitor ; that whatever you may have done for others, Gertrude, to me you never vouchsafed a word of information on the subject, and that Mr. Clare’s words are a revelation to me. But I am bound to believe nothing that he says. I am bound to believe that I have injured you only when I hear it from your own lips.”
Richard made a movement as if to break out upon the Major ; but Gertrude, who had been standing motionless with her eyes upon the ground, quickly raised them, and gave him a look of imperious prohibition. She had listened, and she had chosen. She turned to Luttrel. “ Major Luttrel,” she said, “ you have been an accessory in what has been for me a serious grief.
It is my duty to tell you so. I mean, of course, a profoundly unwilling accessory. I pity you more than I can tell you. I think your position more pitiable than mine. It is true that I never made a confidant of you. I never made one of Richard. I had a secret, and he surprised it. You were less fortunate.” It might have seemed to a thoroughly dispassionate observer that in these last four words there was an infinitesimal touch of tragic irony. Gertrude paused a moment while Luttrel eyed her intently, and Richard, from a somewhat tardy instinct of delicacy, walked over to the bow-window. “This is the most painful moment of my life,” she resumed. “ I hardly know where my duty lies. The only thing that is plain to me is, that I must ask you to release me from my engagement. I ask it most humbly, Major Luttrel,” Gertrude continued, with warmth in her words, and a chilling coldness in her voice, — a coldness which it sickened her to feel there, but which she was unable to dispel. “ I can’t expect that you should give me up easily; I know that it 's a great deal to ask, and ”— she forced the chosen words out of her mouth — “ I should thank you more than I can say if you would put some condition upon my release. You have done honorably by me, and I repay you with ingratitude. But I can’t marry you.” Her voice began to melt. “ I have been false from the beginning. I have no heart to give you. I should make you a despicable wife.”
The Major, too, had listened and chosen, and in this trying conjuncture he set the seal to his character as an accomplished man. He saw that Gertrude’s movement was final, and he determined to respect the inscrutable mystery of her heart. He read in the glance of her eye and the tone of her voice that the perfect dignity had fallen from his character, — that his integrity had lost its bloom ; but he also read her firm resolve never to admit this fact to her own mind, nor to declare it to the world, and he honored her forbearance. His hopes, his ambitions, his visions, lay before him like a colossal heap of broken glass ; but he would be as graceful as she was. She had divined him ; but she had spared him. The Major was inspired.
You have at least spoken to the point,” he said. “ You leave no room for doubt or for hope. With the little light I have, I can’t say I understand your feelings, but I yield to them religiously. I believe so thoroughly that you suffer from the thought of what you ask of me, that I will not increase your suffering by assuring you of my own. I care for nothing but your happiness. You have lost it, and I give you mine to replace it. And although it’s a simple thing to say,” he added, “ I must say simply that I thank you for your implicit faith in my integrity,” — and he held out his hand. As she gave him hers, Gertrude felt utterly in the wrong; and she looked into his eyes with an expression so humble, so appealing, so grateful, that, after all, his exit may be called triumphant.
When he had gone, Richard turned from the window with an enormous sense of relief. He had heard Gertrude’s speech, and he knew that perfect justice had not been done ; but still there was enough to be thankful for. Yet now that his duty was accomplished, he was conscious of a sudden lassitude. Mechanically he looked at Gertrude, and almost mechanically he came towards her. She, on her side, looking at him as he walked slowly down the long room, his face indistinct against the deadened light of the white-draped windows behind him, marked the expression of his figure with another pang. “ He has rescued me,” she said to herself ; “ but his passion has perished in the tumult. Richard,” she said aloud, uttering the first Words of vague kindness that came into her mind, “ I forgive you.”
Richard stopped. The idea had lost its charm. “You ’re very kind,” he said, wearily. “You’re far too kind. How do you know you forgive me ? Wait and see.”
Gertrude looked at him as she had never looked before; but he saw nothing of it. He saw a sad, plain girl in a white dress, nervously handling her fan. He was thinking of himself. If he had been thinking of her, he would have read in her lingering, upward gaze, that he had won her ; and if, so reading, he had opened his arms, Gertrude would have come to them. We trust the reader is not shocked. She neither hated him nor despised him, as she ought doubtless in consistency to have done. She felt that he was abundantly a man, and she loved him. Richard on his side felt humbly the same truth, and he began to respect himself. The past had dosed abruptly behind him, and tardy Gertrude had been shut in. The future was dimly shaping itself without her image. So he did not open his arms.
“ Good by,” he said, holding out his hand. “ I may not see you again for a long time.”
Gertrude felt as if the world were deserting her. “Are you going away?” she asked, tremulously.
“ I mean to sell out and pay my debts, and go to the war.”
She gave him her hand, and he silently shook it. There was no contending with the war, and she gave him up.
With their separation our story properly ends, and to say more would be to begin a new story. It is perhaps our duty, however, expressly to add, that Major Luttrel, in obedience to a logic of his own, abstained from revenge ; and that, if time has not avenged him, it has at least rewarded him. General Luttrel, who lost an arm before the war was over, recently married Miss Van Winkel of Philadelphia, and seventy thousand a year. Richard engaged in the defence of his country, on a captain’s commission, obtained with some difficulty. He saw a great deal of fighting, but he has no scars to show. The return of peace found him in his native place, without a home, and without resources. One of his first acts was to call dutifully and respectfully upon Miss Whittaker, whose circle of acquaintance had apparently become very much enlarged, and now included a vast number of gentlemen. Gertrude’s manner was kindness itself, but a more studied kindness than before. She had lost much of her youth and her simplicity. Richard wondered whether she had pledged herself to spinsterhood, but of course he did n’t ask her. She inquired very particularly into his material prospects and intentions, and offered most urgently to lend him money, which he declined to borrow. When he left her, he took a long walk through her place and beside the river, and, wandering back to the days when he had yearned for her love, assured himself that no woman would ever again be to him what she had been. During his stay in this neighborhood he found himself impelled to a species of submission to one of the old agricultural magnates whom he had insulted in his unregenerate days, and through whom he was glad to obtain some momentary, employment. But his present position is very distasteful to him, and he is eager to try his fortunes in the West. As yet, however, he has lacked even the means to get as far as St. Louis. He drinks no more than is good for him. To speak of Gertrude’s impressions of Richard would lead us quite too far. Shortly after his return she broke up her household, and came to the bold resolution (bold, that is, for a woman young, unmarried, and ignorant of manners in her own country) to spend some time in Europe. At our last accounts she was living in the ancient city of Florence. Her great wealth, of which she was wont to complain that it excluded her from human sympathy, now affords her a most efficient protection. She passes among her fellow-countrymen abroad for a very independent, but a very happy woman ; although, as she is by this time twentyseven years of age, a little romance is occasionally invoked to account for her continued celibacy.