Part III
Chapter XIX
 

The ice was on the lake this time, although it was melting rapidly, but the sun shone all day. She had to wear her furs in the woods, but the greens had never looked so vivid and fresh, and save for an occasional woodchopper and her own servants, there was not a soul to be met in that high solitude. The hotel across the lake would not open for a month. Even the birds still lingered in the South.

After she had been alone for two days she wondered why, when in trouble before, she had not turned instinctively to solitude in the forest. It is only the shallow mind that dislikes and fears the lonely places of Nature: the intellect, no matter what vapours may be sent up from the heart, finds not only solace in retirement, but another form of that companionship of the ego which the deeply religious find in retreat. The intellectual may lack the supreme self-satisfaction of the religious, but they find a keen pleasure in being able to make the very most of the results of years of consistent effort.

Betty, whether alone by a roaring fire of pine cones in the living- room, or wandering along the edge of the lake in the cold brilliant sunshine, or in the more mysterious depths of the forest, listening to the silence or watching the drops of light fall through the matted treetops, felt more at peace with the world than she had done since her fatal embarkation on the political sea. She put the memory of Harriet Walker, insistent at first, impatiently aside, and in a day or two that shadow crept back to its grave.

For a few days her mind, in its grateful repose, hesitated to grapple with the question which had sent her to the mountains; and on one of them, while thinking idly on the great political questions which had magnetized so much of her thought during the past year, the inspiration for which she had so often longed shot up from the concentrated results of thinking and experience, and revealed in what manner she could be of service to her country. This was, whatever her personal life, to gather about her, once a week, as many bright boys of her own condition as she could find, and interest and educate them in the principles of patriotic statesmanship. With her own burning interest in the subject and her personal fascination, she could accomplish far more than any weary professor could do.

She had come up to these fastnesses to decide the future happiness of one or two of three people, and she felt sober enough; but for almost a week she wished that she could live here alone for the rest of her life: she believed that in time she would be serenely content. She had the largest capacity for human happiness, but she guessed that the imagination could be so trained that when far from worldly conditions it could create a world of its own, and would shrink more and more from the practical realities. For Imagination has the instinct of a nun in its depths and loves the cloister of a picturesque solitude. It is a Fool's Paradise, but not inferior to the one which mortals are at liberty to enter and ruin.

But Betty could not live here alone, she could not ignore her responsibilities in any such primitive fashion; and so long as her heart was alive it would make battle for real and tangible happiness.

She had a question to decide which involved not only the heart but the mind: if she made a mistake now, she would be at odds with her higher faculties for the rest of her life. She dreaded the sophistry which sat on either side of the subject; and it was a question whether the very strength of her impulse toward the man she had loved for a year was not the strongest argument in its favour.

But she had given her word to another man, and she had the high and almost fanatical sense of honour of the Southern race. On the other hand, she had a practical modern brain, and during the last year she had been living in close contact with much hard common-sense. She had imagination, and she knew that she already had made Burleigh suffer deeply, and had it in her power to raise that suffering to acuteness; and if that buoyant nature were soured, a useful career might be seriously impaired. On the other hand, she had made a greater man more miserable still, and while he was finding life black enough she had rushed into the camp of the enemy; and his capacity for suffering was far deeper and more enduring than that of the younger man.

She tried to put herself as much aside from the question as possible, but she had her rights and they made themselves heard. She knew, had known at once, that she had outraged all she held most dear, in engaging herself to one man when she loved another, and she had begun to wonder--in irresistible flashes--before the news had come which sent her to the mountains, if she should falter at the last moment. But breeding has carried many a woman over the ploughshares of life, and her mind was probably strong enough to go on to the inevitable without theatric climax. At the same time the idea of marriage with one man when she loved another was abhorrent; that it was particularly so since marriage with the other had become possible, she understood perfectly. And although she continued to reason and to argue, she had a lurking suspicion that while she might be strong enough to conquer a desire she might not be able to conquer a physical revolt, and that it would rout her standards and decide the issue.

She had made up her mind that she would hesitate for a month and no longer, and she also had determined that she would decide the question for herself and throw none of the responsibility on Senator North; she felt the impulse to write to him impersonally more than once. (Perhaps her sense of humour also restrained her.) She wondered if it were one year or twenty years since she had gone to him for advice; and she knew that whichever way she decided, the desire for his good opinion would have something to do with it.

There are only a certain number of arguments in any brain, and after they have been reiterated a sufficient number of times they pall. From argument Betty lapsed naturally into meditation, and the subject of these meditations, tender, regretful, and impassioned, was one man only; and Burleigh had no place in them. Occasionally she forced him into her mind, but he seemed as anxious to get out as she was to drive him; and after the ice melted and she was able to spend hours on the lake, and rest under spreading oaks, where she had only to shut her eyes to imagine herself companioned, she felt herself unfaithful if she cast a solitary thought to Burleigh.

At the end of the month she was not tired of solitude, but she was tired of her intellectual attitude. She was human first and mental afterward; and she wanted nothing on earth but to be the wife of the man whom she had loved for a lifetime in a year. The moment she formulated this wish, hesitation fled and she could not wind up her engagement with Burleigh rapidly enough. Her letter, however, was very sweet and apologetic, and it was also very honest. She knew that unless she told him she loved another man and intended to marry him, he would take the next train for the Adirondacks and plead his cause in person. His reply was characteristic.

"Very well," it ran. "I do not pretend to say I was not prepared after your last letter from New York. And although I could not guess your motive in accepting me, I knew that you did not love me. But if I am not overwhelmed with surprise, the pain is no easier on that account, and will not be until the grass has had time to grow over it a little. And at least it is a relief to know the worst. Of course I forgive you. I doubt if any man could feel bitterly toward you. You compel too much love for that.

"Don't worry about me. I have work enough to do--a State to talk sense into and a nation to which to devote my poor energies. My brain such as it is will be constantly occupied, which is the next best good a man can have."

ROBERT BURLEIGH.

Betty wrote him four pages of enthusiastic friendliness in reply, and paid him the compliment of postponing her letter to Senator North until the following day.

But on that day she rose with the feeling that the sun never would set.

She was as brief as possible, for she knew that he hated long letters. Nevertheless, she conveyed an exact impression of her weeks of deliberation and analysis.

"I want you to understand," she went on, "that my only wish when I came here for solitary thought was to do the right thing, irrespective of my own wishes in the matter. But it seems to me there is exactly as much to be said on one side as on the other, and it all comes to this: right or wrong, I have decided for you because I love you; and if you no longer can admire me, if you think that I have violated my sense of honour, then at least I shall marry no one else. B. M."

And as her imagination was strong she did allow herself to be tortured by doubts during the three days that elapsed before she heard from him. She had hoped he would telegraph, but he did not, and her imagination and her common-sense had a long and indecisive argument which threatened ultimate depression. On the third night, however, a messenger from the hotel opposite brought her a note from Senator North.

"I don't know that your mental exercise has done you any harm," he had written, "but it certainly was thrown away. You have too much common- sense and too thorough a capacity for loving to do anything so foolish or so outrageous as to marry the wrong man. If you had followed a romantic impulse--induced by nervous excitement--and married him the day you learned that your word might be put to too severe a test, you would have been miserable, and so would Burleigh. A mistaken sense of duty has been the cause of quite one fourth of the unhappiness of mankind, and few have been so bigoted as not to acknowledge this when too late. And a broken engagement is a small injustice to a man compared to a lifetime with an unloving wife. Burleigh is unhappy now, but it is no lack of admiration which prompts me to say that if he had married you he would have been unhappier still. You could do nothing by halves.

"Formalities with us would be an affectation unworthy of either, and I have come to you at once. I knew that you would send for me, but I preferred to wait until you wrote that your engagement was broken. What I felt when I received your note announcing it, I leave to your imagination, and I forgot it as quickly as possible. I understood perfectly, but you exaggerated the dangers; for my love for you is so great and so absorbing, so complete in all its parts, that nothing but marriage would satisfy me. I should have preferred a memory to a failure.

"If your mother were with you, I should go over to-night. But I shall wait for you at five to-morrow morning where you were in the habit of letting me board your boat. And the day will not be long enough! R. N."

Betty slept little that night, but felt no lack of freshness the next morning when she rose shortly after four. A broken night meant little to her now, and happiness would have stimulated every faculty if she had not slept for a week.

She rowed swiftly across the lake. It was almost June now, and the warmth of summer was in the air, the paler greens among the grim old trees of the forest. The birds had come from the South and were singing to the accompaniment of the pines, the roar of distant cataracts; and yet the world seemed still. The stars were white and faint; the moon was tangled in a treetop on the highest peak.

He might have been the only man awake as he stood with the forest behind him, and she recalled her fancy that although her horizon was thick with flying mist his figure stood there, immovable, always. He looked as if he had not moved since he stood there last, but the mist was gone.

As he stepped into the boat, she moved back that he might take the oars.

"I have on a white frock, and a blue ribbon in my hair," she said nervously, but smiling, "else I could not have forgotten that a year has come and gone."

He too was smiling. "I think it is the only year we ever shall want to forget," he said. And he rowed up the lake.

THE END.