Chapter X.
 

I attended Blanche Montgomery through her slow convalescence, and had many opportunities for observing her and her mother closely. The more intimately I knew them the higher did they rise in my estimation. A purer, sweeter, truer-hearted girl than Blanche I had never seen. There was an artlessness and innocence about her but rarely met with in young ladies of her age. Especially was she free from that worldliness and levity which so often mars young maidenhood. Her mind was well stored and cultivated, and she was beginning to use her mental treasures in a way that interested you, and made you listen with pleased attention when she spoke on even common-place subjects. Her manners had in them a grace and dignity that was very attractive. As she advanced towards health her deportment took on an easy, confiding air, as if she looked upon me as a true friend. Her smile, whenever I appeared, broke over her gentle face like a gleam of sunshine.

Mrs. Montgomery's manner towards me was distinguished by the same frankness that marked her daughter's deportment. The stately air that struck me in the beginning I no longer observed. If it existed, my eyes saw it differently. At her request, when her mind was sufficiently at ease about her daughter to busy itself with the common affairs of life, I brought Judge Bigelow to see her, and she placed her business matters in his hands. The judge was very much struck with her person and manner, and told me the day after his first meeting with her that she came nearer to his ideal of a lady than any woman he had ever met; and as for the daughter she seemed more like a picture he had once seen than a piece of real flesh and blood. I smiled at the Judge's enthusiasm, but did not wonder at the impression he had received.

Other characters in our story now claim attention, and we must turn to them. After Henry Wallingford had gained the mastery over himself:--the struggle was wild, but brief--he resumed his office duties as usual, and few noticed any change in him, except that he withdrew even more than ever into himself. I met him occasionally, and observed him closely. In my eyes there was a marked difference in the aspect of his face. It had an expression of patient suffering at times--and again I saw in it a most touching sadness.

The dashing nephew of Judge Bigelow offered himself to Squire Floyd's daughter in about a week after her rejection of Wallingford's suit, and was accepted. I became immediately cognizant of the fact through my wife, who had the news from Delia's aunt, Mrs. Dean. A day or two afterwards I met her in company with young Dewey, and observed her closely. Alas! In my eyes the work of moral retrocession had already begun. She was gay and chatty, and her countenance fresh and blooming. But I missed something--something the absence of which awakened a sigh of regret. Ralph was very lover-like in his deportment, fluttering about Delia, complimenting her, and showing her many obtrusive attentions. But eyes that were in the habit of looking below the surface of things, saw no heart in it all.

Squire Floyd was delighted with his daughter's fine prospects; and he and Judge Bigelow drew their heads together over the affair in a cosy and confidential way very pleasant to both of them. The Judge was eloquent touching his nephew's fine qualities and splendid prospects; and congratulated the Squire, time and again, on his daughter's fortunate matrimonial speculation. He used the word which was significative beyond any thing that entered his imagination.

A few days after the engagement Ralph Dewey returned to New York. The wedding-day had not been fixed; but the marriage, as understood by all parties, was to take place some time during the next winter.

From that time I noticed a change in Delia. She grew silent in company, and had an absent way about her that contrasted strongly with her former social disposition. Young people rallied her in the usual style about her heart being absent with the beloved one, but I read the signs differently. It could not but follow, that a soul, endowed like hers, would have misgivings in view of an alliance with one like Ralph Dewey. What was there in him to satisfy a true woman's yearnings for conjunction with a kindred nature? Nothing! He was all outside as to good. A mere selfish, superficial, speculating man of the world. While she had a heart capable of the deepest and truest affection. Would he make the fitting complement to her life? Alas! No! That were a thing impossible.

During the few months that preceded this marriage, I often heard its promise discussed by my wife and Mrs. Dean, neither of whom had any strong liking for the young New York merchant.

"It's my opinion," said Mrs. Dean, as she sat with my wife one evening, about two months after the engagement had taken place, "that Ralph has more froth than substance about him. He really talks, sometimes, as if he had the world in a sling and could toss it up among the stars. As far as my observation goes, such people flourish only for a season."

"If Delia were a child of mine," said my good Constance, in her earnest way, "I would a thousand times rather trust her with Henry Wallingford than with Ralph Dewey."

"Yes, and a thousand millions of times," responded Mrs. Dean. "He is a man. You know just what he is, and where he is. But, as for this splashing nephew of Judge Bigelow's--who knows what's below the surface? Delia's father is all taken up with him, and thinks the match a splendid one. Sister don't say much; but I can see that she has her misgivings. I can talk to you freely, you know."

"I don't think," said I, "that Delia has grown more cheerful since her engagement. Brides expectant ought to feel as happy as the day is long."

"More cheerful? Oh, dear, no! She isn't the same that she was at all; but mopes about more than half of her time. It's just my opinion--spoken between friends--that she cares, now, a great deal more for Henry than she does for Ralph."

"Do they ever meet?" I inquired.

"Not very often."

"They have met?"

"Yes, several times."

"Have you seen them together?"

"Oh, yes."

"How does she act towards him?"

"Not always the same. Sometimes she is talkative, and sometimes reserved--sometimes as gay as a lark, and sometimes sober enough; as if there were such a weight on her spirits, that she could not smile without an effort."

"Does the fact of his presence make any change in her?" I inquired. "What I mean is, if she were lively in spirits before he came in, would she grow serious--or if serious, grow excited?"

"Oh, yes, it always makes a change. I've known her, after being very quiet, and hardly having any thing to say, though in the midst of young company, grow all at once as merry as a cricket, and laugh and joke in a wild sort of way. And again, when she has been in one of her old, pleasant states of mind I have noticed that she all at once drew back into herself; I could trace the cause to only this--the presence of Henry Wallingford. But this doesn't often happen, for he rarely shows himself in company."

"Is there anything noticeable about Henry when they meet?" I asked.

"Not to an ordinary observer," replied Mrs. Dean. "But I look with sharper eyes than most people. Yes, there is something noticeable. He always puts himself in her way, but with a kind of forced, resolute manner, as if the act were a trial of strength, and involved a stern heart-discipline. And this I think, is just the real state of the case. He has deliberately and resolutely entered upon the work of unwinding from his heart the cord which love his thrown around it in so many intertwisted folds. So I read him. To break it by sudden force, would leave so many unwound portions behind, that the memory of her might sadden the whole of his after-life. And so he is learning to grow indifferent towards her. To search in her for such things as repel, instead of for those that charm the heart."

"A dangerous experiment," said my wife, "for one who has loved so deeply."

"It would be to most men," I remarked. "But there is stuff about Henry--the stuff that strong, persistent, successful men are made of. If he has begun this work, he will complete it certainly."

A few weeks afterwards, I had an opportunity of seeing them together, and I improved it to observe them closely. It was in a mixed company at the house of Judge Bigelow. Wallingford came in rather late. I was conversing with Delia when he entered the room, and we were at an interesting point in the subject under consideration. I noticed, all at once, a hesitation and confusion of thought, as her eyes rested, with a sudden interest, on some object in the room. Glancing around, I saw the young man. We went on with our conversation, Delia rallying herself, as I could see, with an effort. But she talked no longer from thought, only from memory--uttering mere truisms and common-places. She put on more animation, and affected a deeper interest; but I was not deceived.

We were still in conversation, when Wallingford joined us. I saw him fix his eyes, as they met, searchingly upon her face, and saw her eyes droop away from his. He was fully self-possessed; she not at ease. His mind was clear; hers in some confusion. I remained some time near them, listening to their conversation, and joining in occasionally. Never before had I seen him appear so well, nor her to such poor advantage. She tried to act a part--he was himself. I noticed, as he led the conversation, that he kept away from the esthetic, and held her thought in the region of moral causes; that he dwelt on the ends and purposes of life, as involving everything. Now and then she essayed a feeble argument, or met some of his propositions with light banter. But with a word he obliterated the sophism--and with a glance repressed the badinage. I think she could never before have so felt the superiority of this man, whose pure love--almost worship--she had put aside as a thing of light importance; and I think the interview helped him in the work upon which he had entered, that of obliterating from his heart all traces of her image.

After this interview, they did not draw together again during the evening. Delia tried to be gay and indifferent; but he acted himself out just as he was. I did not observe that he was more social than usual, or that he mingled more than was his wont with the young ladies present. For most of the time, he kept, as was usual with him, in company and in conversation with his own sex.

I could not but pity Delia Floyd. It was plain to me that she was waking up to the sad error she had committed--an error, the consequences of which would go with her through life. Very, very far was she from being indifferent to Wallingford--that I could plainly see.

During the winter, Ralph came up frequently from New York to visit his bride to be. As he was the nephew of Judge Bigelow, he and Wallingford were, as a thing of course, thrown often together during these visits. It can hardly excite wonder, that Wallingford maintained a reserved and distant demeanor towards the young man, steadily repelling all familiarity, yet always treating him with such politeness and respect that no cause of offence could appear. On the part of Dewey, it may be said that he saw little in the grave plodder among dusty law books and discolored parchments, that won upon his regard. He looked upon him as a young man good enough in his way--a very small way, in his estimation--good enough for S----, and small enough for a country town lawyer. He would have put on towards him a patronizing air, and tried to excite in his mind a nobler ambition than to move in our circumscribed sphere, if something in the young man's steady, penetrating, half-mysterious eye had not always held him back:

"I never can talk with that young associate or yours, uncle," he would say, now and then, to Judge Bigelow, "and I can't just make him out. Is he stupid, or queer?"

The Judge would smile, or laugh quietly to himself, or perhaps answer in this wise:

"I think Henry understands himself. Still waters, you know, run deep."

One day in February, on the occasion of a periodical visit to S----, young Dewey called in at Judge Bigelow's office, and finding Wallingford alone, sat down and entered into as familiar a talk with him as was possible, considering how little they had in common. Ralph had a purpose in view, and as soon as he saw, or thought he saw, Wallingford's mind in the right mood, said--

"I am going to ask a particular favor, and you must not refuse."

"If I can serve you in any thing, it will be my pleasure to do so," was the ready answer.

"You know that I am to be married next month?"

"So I have heard," replied Wallingford.

"You will stand my groomsman? Don't say no!"

He had seen an instant negative in the young man's face.

"Almost any thing else, but not that!" replied Henry, speaking with some feeling. He was thrown off his guard by so unexpected a request.

"Come now, my good friend, don't take the matter so much to heart!" said Dewey, in a light way. "Plenty of good fish in the sea yet--as good as ever were caught. You must forgive the girl for liking me the best."

"You jest on a grave subject," said Wallingford, his face growing pale, but his eyes, a little dilated, riveting his companion's where he stood.

"No, I am in earnest," said Dewey, with something in his manner that was offensive.

"Jest or earnest, your familiarity is out of place with me," retorted Wallingford, with a sternness of manner, that quickened the flow of bad blood in Dewey's heart.

"Oh, you needn't take on airs!" replied the other with a sneer of contempt. Then muttering to himself, yet loud enough to be heard,--"I didn't suppose the puppy would growl at a familiar pat on the head."

This was too much for Wallingford. At another time, he might have borne it with a manly self-possession. But only an hour before he had met Miss Floyd in the street, and the look she then gave him had stirred his heart, and left a tinge of shadowy regret on his feelings. He was, therefore, in no mood to bear trifling, much less insult. Scarcely had the offensive words passed Dewey's lips, when a blow in the face staggered him back against the wall. Instantly recovering himself, he sprang towards Wallingford in blind rage, and struck at him with a savage energy; but the latter stepped aside, and let his assailant come, with stunning force, against the wall at the other side of the office, when he fell to the floor.

At this instant, Judge Bigelow came in.

"Henry! Ralph!" he exclaimed--" what is the meaning of this?"

"Your nephew insulted me, and in the heat of anger I struck him in the face. In attempting to return that blow, he missed his aim, and fell against the wall, as you see."

Wallingford spoke without excitement, but in a stern, resolute way. By this time, Dewey was on his feet again. The sight of his uncle, and the unflinching aspect of the person he had ventured to insult, had the effect to cool off his excitement many degrees.

"What is the meaning of this, young men?" sternly repeated Judge Bigelow, looking from one to the other.

"I have answered your question as far as I am concerned," replied Henry.

"Ralph! Speak! Did you offer him an insult?"

To this demand, the nephew replied, with no abatement of his originally offensive manner--

"If he chooses to consider my words as an insult, let him do so. I shall in no case take them back."

"What did you say?"

There was an imperative force in the Judge's manner.

Dewey was silent.

"What did he say,"--Judge Bigelow turned to Wallingford, "that you should answer it with a blow?"

"If he is satisfied with the answer," replied the latter, "the case can rest where it is. If not, I am ready to meet him on any appeal. I He will find me no trifler."

The Judge turned again to his nephew.

"Ralph! I insist upon having this matter explained. I know Henry too well to believe that he would strike you, unless there had been strong provocation."

"Perhaps he regarded it as such; I did not," said Dewey.

"If he is satisfied with his chastisement, there is no occasion to press him farther, Judge." Wallingford was provoked to this by the young man's cool impertinence.

Dewey made a movement as if about to rush upon Wallingford, but the Judge interposed his body to keep them apart. The appearance of a fourth party at this juncture, in the person of Squire Floyd, the prospective father-in-law of one of the belligerents, changed materially the aspect of affairs.

"Good-morning, Squire," said Wallingford, with a quickly assumed cheerfulness of manner, smiling in his usual grave way.

Both the Judge and his nephew saw reason to imitate the example of Wallingford, and thus throw up a blind before the eyes of Squire Floyd, who thought he perceived something wrong as he came in, but was afterwards inclined to doubt the evidence of his senses.

Wallingford retired in a few moments. When he came back to the office an hour afterwards, he found a note of apology on his table, accompanied by a request that so unpleasant an incident as the one which had just occurred, might be suffered to pass into oblivion. No acknowledgment of this communication was made by the young lawyer. He felt the strongest kind of repugnance towards Dewey, and could not gain his own consent to have any intercourse with him. His position, as an associate with Judge Bigelow, occasionally brought him in contact with his nephew, who recognized him always in a respectful manner. But Wallingford held him ever coldly at a distance.