Chapter XXXIII. A Sure Test
 

Clancy had gone to Nature to be calmed and healed, but he had brought a spirit at variance with her teachings. He soon recognized that he was neither receptive nor docile. He chafed impatiently and angrily at Mara's obduracy, which, nevertheless, only increased his love for her. The deepest instincts of his nature made him feel that she belonged to him, and he to her. The barrier between them was so intangible that he was in a sort of rage that he could not brush it aside. Reflection always brought him back to the conviction that she did love him. Her passionate words: "If my heart break a thousand times I will never speak to you again," grew more and more significant. Odd fancies, half-waking dreams about her, pursued him into the solitude of the forest. She seemed like one imprisoned; he could see, but could not reach and release her. Again she was under a strange, malign spell, which some day might suddenly be broken--broken all too late.

Then she would dwell in his thoughts as the victim of a species of moral insanity which might pass away. At times her dual life became so clear to him that he was almost impelled to hasten back to the city, in the belief that he could speak such strong, earnest words as would enable her to cast aside her prejudices, and break away from the influences which were darkening and misshaping her life. Then he would despondently recall all that he had said and done, and how futile had been his effort.

He neither fished nor hunted, but passed the time either in long tramps, or in sitting idly tormented by perturbed thoughts. Believing that he had reached a crisis in his life, it was his nature to come to some decision. He was essentially a man of action, strong-willed and resolute. He despised what he termed weakness, forgetting that the impulses of strength often lead to error, for the reason that patience and fortitude are lacking.

In facing the possibilities of the future, he began to yield to the promptings of ambition, a trait which had no mean place in his character. "If Mara denies her love, and sacrifices herself to Bodine," he reasoned, "what is there left for me but to make the most of my life by attaining power and influence? I can only put pleasures and excitements in the place of happiness. I won't go through life like a winged bird."

When such thoughts were in the ascendant, Miss Ainsley presented herself to his fancy, alluring, fascinating, beckoning. She seemed the embodiment of that brilliant career which he regarded as the best solace he could hope for. Often, however, he would wake in the night, and, from his forest bivouac, look up at the stars. Then a calm, deep voice in his soul would tell him unmistakably that, even if he attained every success that he craved, his heart would not be in it, that he would always hide the melancholy of a lifelong disappointment. All these misgivings and compunctions usually ended in the thought: "Caroline Amsley and all that she represents is the best I can hope for now. She may be playing with me--I'm not sure, if she will marry me, I can probably give her as true a regard as she will bestow upon me. She is not a woman to love devotedly and unselfishly, not counting the cost. I could not marry such a woman, for I feel it would be base to take what I could not return; but I could marry her. I would do her no wrong, for I could give to her all the affection to which she is entitled, all that she would actually care for. If I am mistaken, I am totally at fault in the impression which she has made upon me, and I do not think that I am. I am not in love with her, and therefore am not blind. She is not in love with me. It has merely so happened that I have proved agreeable to her, pleased, amused, and interested her. Possibly I have led her to feel that we are so companionable that a life journey together would be quite endurable. My reason, all my instincts, assure me that this beautiful girl has considered this question more than once before--that she is considering it now, coolly and deliberately. I am being weighed in the balances of her mind, for I do not think she has heart enough to enable that organ to have much voice in the matter. Her views and beliefs are intellectual. No strong, earnest feelings sway her. When have her sympathies been touched in behalf of any one or any cause? Oh, my rare beauty! I am not blind. Selfishness is the mainspring of your character; but it is a selfishness so refined, so rational and amenable to the laws of good taste, that it can be calculated upon with almost mathematical accuracy. You are no saint, but a saint might be beguiled into faults which to you are impossible. You are a fit bride for ambition, and would be its crown and glory."

Such was often the tenor of his thoughts, and ambition suggested the many doors to advancement which such an alliance would open. Mr. Ainsley was not only a man of wealth, but also of large, liberal ideas. It certainly would be a pleasure and a constant exhilaration to aid him in carrying out his great enterprises.

Thus Clancy, as well as Mara, was led by disappointment in his dearest hope of happiness to seek what next promised best in his estimation to redeem life from a dreary monotony of negations. He also resolved to have motives and incentives; nor was his ambition purely selfish, for he purposed to use whatever power, wealth and influence he might obtain for the benefit of the people among whom he dwelt. Hers, however, was the nobler motive, and the less selfish, for it involved self-sacrifice, even though it was mistaken, and could lead only to wrong action. It would cost him nothing to carry out his large, beneficent purposes. Indeed, they would add to his pleasures and enhance his reputation. She was but a woman, and saw no other path of escape from the conditions of her lot except the thorny one of self-abnegation.

Alternately cast down, and fired by conflicting thoughts and purposes, Clancy soon discovered that the woods was no place for him, and he resolved to return to the city, there to be guided by the circumstances of the next few weeks. If it became clear that Mara had not been influenced by his warning, but on the contrary was accepting Bodine's attentions, then he would face the truth that she was lost to him beyond hope. Without compunction he would turn to Miss Ainsley, and, with all the wariness and penetration which he could exercise, seek to discover how far she would go with him in his life campaign to achieve eminence. He was glad, however, that he did not regard her as essential to his plans and hopes. Indeed, he had the odd feeling that even if she rejected him as a husband, he could shake hands with her and say: "Very well, Ainsley, we can be good comrades just the same. We amuse and interest each other, we mutually stimulate our mental faculties. Let it end here."

In this mood he fulfilled his promise and wrote as follows:

"My DEAR AINSLEY--Permit me to remind you of my existence--if one can be said to exist in these wilds. An expedition of this kind is a good thing for a fellow occasionally. It enables him to get acquainted with himself, to indulge in egotism without being a nuisance. I have neither hunted, fished, nor studied the natives. I have not seen a "mountain maid" whose embrace I would prefer to that of a bear. I have merely tramped aimlessly about, meanwhile learning that I am not adapted to communion with nature. At this moment I should prefer smoking a cigar with you on the balcony to looking at scenery which should inspire artist and poet. I am neither, merely a man of affairs. Humanity interests me more than oaks, however gigantic. You see I have no soul, no heart, no soaring imagination. I am as matter-of-fact a fellow as you are. That's why we get on so well together. We can chaff, spar, and run intellectual tilts as amicably as any two men in town. This proves you to be quite exceptional--delightfully so. I'm not surprised, however, for, as I have said to you, you are sated with the other kind of thing. How long will this fancy last? Now that you are so manly you should not be fickle. You have not half comprehended the penalties of your new role, for you may find that it involves a distressing frankness. I think I had better close. Letter-writing pre-supposes literary qualities which I do not possess. Men, unless sentimentally inclined, or given to hobbies, rarely write long letters to each other. If unusually congenial they can talk together as long as women. I do not know of a man in town who can equal you as good company; and with this fact in mind, I shall atone for a brief letter by putting in an appearance at an early date. If you have had any flirtations in my absence I shall expect all the details. You know I do not care for such trivial amusements. In this material age, making the world move in the way of business affords ample scope for my limited faculties, while a chat with you is better than a game of chess in the way of recreation, better than moping in the woods. Your friend, CLANCY."

He had barely time to post the letter before the mail-stage left the little hamlet in which it was written. He was soon dissatisfied with himself and the missive, and regretted having written it. Before an hour had passed he muttered: "I never wrote such a letter to a woman before, and I won't again. I put myself in the worst light, in fact was unjust to myself. How differently I would write to Mara! Is it the difference in women which inevitably inspires different thought and action? At any rate, there is a touch of coarseness in this masculine persiflage which grates. When I return we must become friends as man and woman. I wonder if she will feel as I do about it?"

Miss Ainsley was not satisfied with the letter at all, one reason being that it revealed too much penetration on Clancy's part. While she welcomed him with her old cordiality she took him to task at once.

"This is a spurious letter," she said, holding it up. "You would never write such an affair to a male friend. You betrayed a consciousness of my femininity in every line. You preached to me and warned me with the same penful of ink. You write as if you were a commonplace male cynic, and I a woman who was trying to unsex herself by a lot of ridiculous affectations. I wished a genial, jolly letter such as you might write to an old college chum."

"Do you know the reason why I did not, rather could not, write such a letter?"

"No."

"Because you are not an old college chum."

"I was not aware that you were so tremendously sincere."

"I'm not tremendously sincere--not tremendous in any grand sense of the word, but I've learned that I can be tremendously awkward in a false position. It is absurd of you to fancy that I can think of you in any other light than that of a beautiful woman, gifted with more than your share of intellect. I prefer that our friendship should rest on this obvious fact. We are too old 'to make believe,' as children say. I came to this conclusion within an hour after I wrote the letter."

"Oh, you dashed it off hastily, without giving it thought?"

"I've given you two thoughts to your one," he replied, laughing lightly.

"And none of them very complimentary, judging from the letter." And she impatiently tore it up.

"That's right. Put it out of existence."

"I almost wish I had kept it as documentary evidence against you," she remarked.

"Oh, come! Friends do not wish evidence against, but for each other. I could remain away scarcely a week."

"From business, yes."

"Or from my most delightful recreation; yes."

"You find me very amusing then."

"I do indeed, and interesting also. I am quite certain that your society gives me far more pleasure than mine affords you."

"Since I am relegated to woman's sphere I certainly shall not protest against that belief. I am now under no bonds to be distressingly frank."

"You never would have been any franker than you wished to be. For the manifestation of that trait I shall have to depend on something very different."

"And what may that be?"

"Why, simply the quality of your friendship."

"I am satisfied that mine compares very favorably with yours."

"In both instances neither of us can escape one sure test."

"Indeed! What test?"

"That of time," he replied, smiling significantly. "Good-by. I'm quite sure that your regard will survive till to-morrow afternoon when we are to take a sail in the harbor, so Mrs. Willoughby has informed me."

Miss Ainsley gave a little complacent nod in his direction as he disappeared, and thought, "Since you are so content and agreeable as a friend merely, I'm half-inclined to keep you as such, and marry some one else."