Agatha Webb by Anna Katharine Green
Book I. The Purple Orchid
VII. "Marry Me"
"Wait a moment, I must speak to you." It was Amabel who was holding Frederick back. She had caught him by the arm as he was about leaving the room with his father, and he felt himself obliged to stop and listen.
"I start for Springfield to-day," she announced. "I have another relative there living at the house. When shall I have the pleasure of seeing you in my new home?"
"Never." It was said regretfully, and yet with a certain brusqueness, occasioned perhaps by over-excited feeling. "Hard as it is for me to say it, Amabel, it is but just for me to tell you that after our parting here to-day we will meet only as strangers. Friendship between us would be mockery, and any closer relationship has become impossible."
It had cost him an immense effort to say these words, and he expected, fondly expected, I must admit, to see her colour change and her head droop. But instead of this she looked at him steadily for a moment, then slipped her hand down his arm till she reached his palm, which she pressed with sudden warmth, drawing him into the room as she did so, and shutting the door behind them. He was speechless, for she never had looked so handsome or so glowing. Instead of showing depression or humiliation even, she confronted him with a smile more dangerous than any display of grief, for it contained what it had hitherto lacked, positive and irresistible admiration. Her words were equally dangerous.
"I kiss your hand, as the Spaniards say." And she almost did so, with a bend of her head, which just allowed him to catch a glimpse of two startling dimples.
He was astounded. He thought he knew this woman well, but at this moment she was as incomprehensible to him as if he had never made a study of her caprices and sought an explanation for her ever- shifting expressions.
"I am sensible of the honour," said he, "but hardly understand how I have earned it."
Still that incomprehensible look of admiration continued to illumine her face.
"I did not know I could ever think so well of you," she declared. "If you do not take care, I shall end by loving you some day."
"Ah!" he ejaculated, his face contracting with sudden pain; "your love, then, is but a potentiality. Very well, Amabel, keep it so and you will be spared much misery. As for me, who have not been as wise as you---"
"Frederick!" She had come so near he did not have the strength to finish. Her face, with its indefinable charm, was raised to his, as she dropped these words one by one from her lips in lingering cadence: "Frederick--do you love me, then, so very much?"
He was angry; possibly because he felt his resolution failing him. "You know!" he hotly began, stepping back. Then with a sudden burst of feeling, that was almost like prayer, he resumed: "Do not tempt me, Amabel. I have trouble enough, without lamenting the failure of my first steadfast purpose."
"Ah!" she said, stopping where she was, but drawing him toward her by every witchery of which her mobile features were capable; "your generous impulse has strengthened into a purpose, has it? Well, I'm not worth it, Frederick."
More and more astounded, understanding her less than ever, but charmed by looks that would have moved an anchorite, he turned his head away in a vain attempt to escape an influence that was so rapidly undermining his determination.
She saw the movement, recognised the weakness it bespoke, and in the triumph of her heart allowed a low laugh to escape her.
Her voice, as I have before said, was unmusical though effective; but her laugh was deliciously sweet, especially when it was restrained to a mere ripple, as now.
"You will come to Springfield soon," she avowed, slipping from before him so as to leave the way to the door open.
"Amabel!" His voice was strangely husky, and the involuntary opening and shutting of his hands revealed the emotion under which he was labouring. "Do you love me? You have acknowledged it now and then, but always as if you did not mean it. Now you acknowledge that you may some day, and this time as if you did mean it. What is the truth? Tell me, without coquetry or dissembling, for I am in dead earnest, and---" He paused, choked, and turned toward the window where but a few minutes before he had taken that solemn oath. The remembrance of it seemed to come back with the movement. Flushing with a new agitation, he wheeled upon her sharply. "No, no," he prayed, "say nothing. If you swore you did not love me I should not believe it, and if you swore that you did I should only find it harder to repeat what must again be said, that a union between us can never take place. I have given my solemn promise to---"
"Well, well. Why do you stop? Am I so hard to talk to that the words will not leave your lips?"
"I have promised my father I will never marry you. He feels that he has grounds of complaint against you, and as I owe him everything---"
He stopped amazed. She was looking at him intently, that same low laugh still on her lips.
"Tell the truth," she whispered. "I know to what extent you consider your father's wishes. You think you ought not to marry me after what took place last night. Frederick, I like you for this evidence of consideration on your part, but do not struggle too relentlessly with your conscience. I can forgive much more in you than you think, and if you really love me---"
"Stop! Let us understand each other." He had turned mortally pale, and met her eyes with something akin to alarm. "What do you allude to in speaking of last night? I did not know there was anything said by us in our talk together---"
"I do not allude to our talk."
"Or--or in the one dance we had---"
"Frederick, a dance is innocent."
The word seemed to strike him with the force of a blow.
"Innocent," he repeated, "innocent?" becoming paler still as the full weight of her meaning broke gradually upon him.
"I followed you into town," she whispered, coming closer, and breathing the words into his ear. "But what I saw you do there will not prevent me from obeying you if you say: 'Follow me wherever I go, Amabel; henceforth our lives are one.'"
It was all he said, but it seemed to create a gulf between them. In the silence that followed, the evil spirit latent beneath her beauty began to make itself evident even in the smile which no longer called into view the dimples which belong to guileless mirth, while upon his face, after the first paralysing effect of her words had passed, there appeared an expression of manly resistance that betrayed a virtue which as yet had never appeared in his selfish and altogether reckless life.
That this was more than a passing impulse he presently made evident by lifting his hand and pushing her slowly back.
"I do not know what you saw me do," said he; "but whatever it was, it can make no difference in our relations."
Her whisper, which had been but a breath before, became scarcely audible.
"I did not pause at the gate you entered," said she. "I went in after you."
A gasp of irresistible feeling escaped him, but he did not take his eyes from her face.
"It was a long time before you came out," she went on, "but previous to that time the shade of a certain window was thrust aside, and---"
"Hush!" he commanded, in uncontrollable passion, pressing his hand with impulsive energy against her mouth. "Not another word of that, or I shall forget you are a woman or that I have ever loved you."
Her eyes, which were all she had remaining to plead with, took on a peculiar look of quiet satisfaction, and power. Seeing it, he let his hand fall and for the first time began to regard her with anything but a lover's eyes.
"I was the only person in sight at that time," she continued. "You have nothing to fear from the world at large."
The word made its own echo; she had no need to emphasise it even by a smile. But she watched him as it sunk into his consciousness with an intentness it took all his strength to sustain. Suddenly her bearing and expression changed. The few remains of sweetness in her face vanished, and even the allurement which often lasts when the sweetness is gone, disappeared in the energy which now took possession of her whole threatening and inflexible personality.
"Marry me," she cried, "or I will proclaim you to be the murderer of Agatha Webb."
She had seen the death of love in his eyes.