Chapter XLVI. Father and Daughter
 

That sombre day would ever be a memorable one to Miss Hargrove. Nature seemed weeping passionately over the summer that had gone, with all its wealth of beauty and life. She knew that her girlhood had gone with it. She had cautioned her brother to say nothing of her escape on the previous day, for she was too unnerved to go over the scene again that night, and meet her father's questioning eyes. She wanted to be alone first and face the truth; and this she had done in no spirit of weak self-deception. The shadow of the unknown had fallen upon her, and in its cold gray light the glitter and tinsel of the world had faded, but unselfish human love had grown more luminous. The imminence of death had kindled rather than quenched it. It was seen to be something intrinsically precious, something that might survive even the deadliest poison.

Her father was disposed to regard Burt as one who looked upon life in the light of a pleasure excursion, and who might never take it seriously. His laugh hereafter could never be so light and careless to her but that, like a minor key, would run the thought, "He risked his life for me; he might have died for me."

Her dark, full eyes, the warm blood that her thoughts brought into her face even in the solitude of her chamber, did not belie her nature, which was intense, and capable of a strong and an abiding passion when once kindled.

Mr. Hargrove had watched her with the deepest solicitude on her return, and he felt rather than saw the change that had taken place in his idol. She had pleaded fatigue, and retired early. In the morning she was again conscious of his half-questioning scrutiny, and when he went to his study she followed, and told him what had occurred. He grew very pale, and drew a long, deep breath. Then, as if mastered by a strong impulse, he clasped her to his heart, and said, in trembling tones, "Oh, Trurie, if I had lost you!"

"I fear you would have lost me, papa, had it not been for Mr. Clifford."

He paced the room for a few moments in agitation, and at last stopped before her and said: "Perhaps in a sense I am to lose you after all. Has Mr. Clifford spoken?"

"No, papa; he has only risked his life to save mine."

"You are very grateful?"

"Yes."

"Do not think I underestimate his act, Trurie; but, believe me, if he should speak now or soon, you are in no condition to answer him."

She smiled incredulously.

"He did what any man would do for a woman in peril. He has no right to claim such an immense reward."

"Before I went to the mountains I said I was no longer a child; but I was, compared with what I am now. It seems to me that feeling, experience, more than years, measures our age. I am a woman to-day, one who has been brought so near the future world that I have been taught how to value what may be ours now. I have learned how to value you and your unselfish love as I never did before. Mr. Clifford will not speak very soon, if he ever does, and I have not yet decided upon my answer. Should it be favorable, rest assured more than gratitude will prompt me; and also be assured you would not lose me. Could I not be more to you were I happy than if I went through life with the feeling that I had missed my chance?"

"I fear your mother would never give her consent to so unworldly a choice," he said, with a troubled brow.

"I've yet to be convinced that it would be such a choice. It's scarcely unworldly to make the most and the best of the world one is in, and mamma must permit me to judge for myself, as she chose for herself. I shall never marry any one but a gentleman, and one who can give me a home. Have I not a right to prefer a home to an establishment, papa?"

He looked at her long and searchingly, and she met his scrutiny with a grave and gentle dignity. "I suppose we must submit to the inevitable," he said at last.

"Yes, papa."

"It seems but the other day that you were a baby on my knee," he began, sadly; "and now you are drifting far away."

"No, papa, there shall be no drifting whatever. I shall marry, if ever, one whom I have learned to love according to Nature's simple laws--one to whom I can go without effort or calculation. I could give my heart, and be made rich indeed by the gift. I couldn't invest it; and if I did, no one would be more sorry than you in the end."

"I should indeed be more than sorry if I ever saw you unhappy," he said, after another thoughtful pause; then added, shaking his head, "I've seen those who gave their hearts even more disappointed with life than those who took counsel of prudence."

"I shall take counsel of prudence, and of you too, papa."

"I think it is as I feared--you have already given your heart."

She did not deny it. Before leaving him she pleaded: "Do not make much of my danger to mamma. She is nervous, and not over-fond of the country at best. You know that a good many people survive in the country," she concluded, with a smile that was so winning and disarming that he shook his head at her as he replied:

"Well, Trurie, I foresee what a lovingly obstinate little girl you are likely to prove. I think I may as well tell you first as last that you may count on me in all that is fairly rational. If, with my years and experience, I can be so considerate, may I hope that you will be also?"

Her answer was reassuring, and she went to tell her mother. She had been forestalled. Fred was quite as confidential with his mother as she with her father, and the boy had been wild to horrify Mrs. Hargrove by an account of his sister's adventure. The injunction laid upon him had been only for the previous evening, and Gertrude found her mother almost hysterical over the affair, and less inclined to commend Burt than to blame him as the one who had led her daughter into such "wild, harum-scarum experiences."

"It's always the way," she exclaimed, "when one goes out of one's own natural associations in life."

"I've not been out of my natural associations," Gertrude answered, hotly. "The Cliffords are as well-bred and respectable as we are;" and she went to her room.

It was a long, dismal day for her, but, as she had said to her father, she would not permit herself to drift. Her nature was too positive for idle, sentimental dreaming. Feeling that she was approaching one of the crises of her life, she faced it resolutely and intelligently. She went over the past weeks from the time she had first met Burt under the Gothic willow arch, and tried to analyze not only the power he had over her, but also the man himself. "I have claimed to papa that I am a woman, and I should act like one," she thought. A few things grew plain. Her interest in Burt had been a purely natural growth, the unsought result of association with one who had proved congenial. He was so handsome, so companionable, so vital with spirit and mirthfulness, that his simple presence was exhilarating, and he had won his influence like the sun in spring-time. Had he the higher qualities of manhood, those that could sustain her in the inevitable periods when life would be no laughing matter? Could he meet the winter of life as well as the summer? She felt that she scarcely knew him well enough to be sure of this, but she was still sufficiently young and romantic to think, "If he should ever love me as I can love him, I could bring out the qualities that papa fears are lacking." His courage seemed an earnest of all that she could desire.

Amy's feeling toward him, and the question whether he had ever regarded her in another light than that of a sister, troubled her the most. Amy's assurance of implicit trust, and her promise to deserve it, appeared to stand directly in her path, and before that stormy day closed she had reached the calmness of a fixed resolution. "If Amy loves him, and he has given her reason to do so, I shall not come between them, cost me what it may. I'll do without happiness rather than snatch it from a friend who has not only spoken her trust, but proved it."

Therefore, although her heart gave a great bound as she saw Burt riding toward the house in the late afternoon, she went to her father and said: "Mr. Clifford is coming. I wish you would be present during his call."

The young fellow was received cordially, and Mr. Hargrove acknowledged his indebtedness so feelingly that Burt flushed like a girl, and was greatly embarrassed. He soon recovered himself, however, and chatted in his usual easy and spirited way. Before he left he asked, hesitatingly, "Would you like a souvenir of our little episode yesterday?" and took from his pocket the rattles of the snake he had killed.

"It was not a little episode," Gertrude replied, gravely. "I shall indeed value the gift, for it will remind me that I have a friend who did not count the cost in trying to help me."

Impetuous words rose to Burt's lips, but he checked them in time. Trembling for his resolutions, he soon took his departure, and rode homeward in deeper disquiet than he had ever known. He gave Amy her friend's messages, and he also, in spite of himself, afforded her a clearer glimpse of what was passing in his mind than she had received before. "I might have learned to love him in time, I suppose," she thought, bitterly, "but it's impossible now. I shall build my future on no such uncertain foundation, and I shall punish him a little, too, for it's time he had a lesson."