Part II
Chapter VI
 

Betty went in search of Harriet, and found her in a summer-house reading an innocuous French romance which her professor had selected. There was no place near by where Miss Trumbull might lie concealed, and Betty went to the point at once.

"Harriet," she said, "I am obliged to say something horribly painful-- if you want to marry any man you must tell him the truth. It would be a crime not to. The prejudices of--of--Southerners are deep and bitter; and--and--Oh, it is a terrible thing to have to say--but I must--if you had children they might be black."

For a moment Betty thought that Harriet was dead, she turned so gray and her gaze was so fixed. But she spoke in a moment.

"Why do you say this to me--now?"

"Because I fear you and Jack--Oh, I hope it is not true. The person who thinks you love each other may have been mistaken. But I could not wait to warn you. I should have told you in the beginning that when the time came either you must tell the man or I should; but it was a hateful subject. God knows it is hard to speak now."

Harriet seemed to have recovered herself. The colour returned slowly to her face, her heavy lids descended. She rose and drew herself up to her full height with the air of complete melancholy which recalled one or two other memorable occasions. But there was a subtle change. The attitude did not seem so natural to her as formerly.

"Your informant was only half right," she said sadly. "I love him, but he cares nothing for me. He is the best, the kindest of friends. It is no wonder that I love him. I suppose I was bound to love the first man who treated me with affectionate respect. I reckon I'd have fallen in love with Uncle if he'd been younger. Perhaps--in Europe--I may get over it. But he does not love me."

Betty rose and looked at her steadily. What was in the brain behind those sad reproachful eyes? She laid her hand on the girl's shoulder.

"Harriet," she said solemnly, "give me your word of honour that you will not marry him without telling him the truth. It may be that he does not love you, but he might--and if you were without hope you would be unhappy. Promise me."

Down in the depths of those melancholy eyes there was a flash, then Harriet lifted her head and spoke with the solemnity of one taking an oath.

"I promise," she said. "I will marry no man without telling him the truth."

This time her tone carried conviction, and Betty, relieved, sought Sally Carter.

"Nonsense!" exclaimed Miss Carter, when Betty had related the interview. "He is in love with her, although for some reason or other he is making an elaborate effort to conceal it."

"She spoke very convincingly," said Betty, who would not admit doubt.

"Anything with a drop of negro blood in it will lie. It can't help it. I wish the race were exterminated."

"I wish the English had left it in Africa. They certainly saddled us with an everlasting curse."

She was tempted to wish that Mr. Walker had never discovered her address; but although she did not love Harriet, she was grateful still for the opportunity to rescue her from the usual fate of her breed. But assuredly she did not wish her old friend to be sacrificed.

Again she observed him closely, and came to the conclusion that Harriet had spoken the truth. He was gayer than of old, but his health was better and he was in cheerful company, not living his days and nights in his lonely damp old house on the Potomac River. He appeared to enjoy talking to Harriet, but there was nothing lover-like in his attitude, and he was almost her guardian. True, he was occasionally moody and absent, but a man must retain a few of his old spots; and if he avoided somewhat the cousin whom he had once loved to melancholy, it was doubtless because she found him as uninteresting as she found all men but one, and was not at sufficient pains to conceal her indifference. And then she admitted with a laugh that in the back of her mind she had never acknowledged the possibility of his loving another woman.

She but half admitted that she wished to believe no storm was gathering under her roof. She had no desire to handle a tragedy.