Chapter LIII. Burt's Resolve
 

For the first two or three miles Burt rode as if he were trying to leave care behind him, scarcely heeding what direction he took. When at last he reined his reeking horse he found himself near the entrance of the lane over which willows met in a Gothic arch. He yielded to the impulse to visit the spot which had seen the beginning of so fateful an acquaintance, and had not gone far when a turn in the road revealed a group whose presence almost made his heart stand still for a moment. Miss Hargrove had stopped her horse on the very spot where he had aided her in her awkward predicament. Her back was toward him, and her great dog was at her side, looking up into her face, as if in mute sympathy with his fair mistress.

Hope sprang up in Burt's heart. She could not be there with bowed head if she despised him. Her presence seemed in harmony with that glance by which, when weak and unnerved after escaping from deadly peril, she had revealed possibly more than gratitude to the one who had rescued her. His love rose like an irresistible tide, and he resolved that before he left his home Amy and Miss Hargrove should know the whole truth, whatever might be the result. Meanwhile he was rapidly approaching the young girl, and the dog's short bark of recognition was her first intimation of Hurt's presence. Her impulse was to fly, but in a second she saw the absurdity of this course, and yet she was greatly embarrassed, and would rather have been discovered by him at almost any other point of the globe. She was going to the city on the morrow, and as she had drawn rein on this spot and realized the bitterness of her disappointment, tears would come. She wiped them hastily away, but dreaded lest their traces should be seen.

Turning her horse, she met Burt with a smile that her moist eyes belied, and said: "I'm glad you do not find me in such an awkward plight as when we first met here. I've been giving my horse a rest. Do you not want a gallop?" and away like the wind she started homeward.

Burt easily kept at her side, but conversation was impossible. At last he said: "My horse is very tired, Miss Hargrove. At this pace you will soon be home, and I shall feel that you are seeking to escape from me. Have I fallen so very low in your estimation?"

"Why," she exclaimed, in well-feigned surprise, as she checked her horse, "what have you done that you should fall in my estimation?"

"I shall tell you before very long," he said, with an expression that seemed almost tragic.

"Mr. Clifford, you surprise me. Your horse is all of a foam too. Surely this brief gallop cannot have so tried your superb beast. What has happened? Amy is not ill, or any one?"

"Oh, no," he replied, with a grim laugh. "Everyone is well and complacent. I had been riding rapidly before I met you. My horse has been idle for some days, and I had to run the spirit out of him. Amy wishes to have a chestnutting party to-morrow. Won't you join us?"

"I'm sorry, Mr. Clifford, but I return to the city tomorrow afternoon, and was coming over in the morning to say good-by to Amy and your father and mother."

"I am very sorry too," he said, in tones that gave emphasis to his words.

She turned upon him a swift, questioning glance, but her eyes instantly fell before his intense gaze.

"Oh, well," she said, lightly, "we've had a very pleasant summer, and all things must come to an end, you know." Then she went on speaking, in a matter-of-fact way, of the need of looking after Fred, who was alone in town, and of getting the city house in order, and of her plans for the winter, adding: "As there is a great deal of fruit on the place, papa does not feel that he can leave just yet. You know he goes back and forth often, and so his business does not suffer. But I can just as well go down now, and nearly all my friends have returned to town."

"All your friends, Miss Hargrove?"

"Amy has promised to visit me soon," she said, hastily.

"It would seem that I am not down on your list of friends," he began, gloomily.

"Why, Mr. Clifford, I'm sure papa and I would be glad to have you call whenever you are in town."

"I fear I shall have to disappoint Mr. Hargrove," he said, a little satirically. "I'm going West the last of this month, and may be absent much of the winter. I expect to look about in that section for some opening in business."

"Indeed," she replied, in tones which were meant to convey but little interest, yet which had a slight tremor in spite of her efforts. "It will be a very great change for you."

"Perhaps you think that constitutes its chief charm."

"Mr. Clifford," she said, "what chance have I had to think about it at all? You have never mentioned the matter." (Amy had, however, and Gertrude had not only thought about it, but dreamed of it, as if she had been informed that on a certain date the world would end.) "Is it not a rather sudden plan?" she asked, a little hesitatingly.

"Yes, it is. My father has a large tract of land in the West, and it's time it was looked after. Isn't it natural that I should think of doing something in life? I fear there is an impression in your mind that I entertain few thoughts beyond having a good time."

"To have a good time in life," she said, smiling at him, "is a very serious matter, worthy of any one's attention. It would seem that few accomplish it."

"And I greatly fear that I shall share in the ill-success of the majority."

"You are much mistaken. A man has no end of resources. You will soon be enjoying the excitement of travel and enterprise in the West."

"And you the excitement of society and conquest in the city. Conquests, however, must be almost wearisome to you, Miss Hargrove, you make them so easily."

"You overrate my power. I certainly should soon weary of conquests were I making them. Women are different from men in this respect. Where in history do we read of a man who was satiated with conquest? Well, here we are at home. Won't you come in? Papa will be glad to see you."

"Are you going to the city to-morrow?"

"Yes."

"May I call on you this evening?"

"Certainly. Bring Amy with you, won't you?"

"Will you forgive me if I come alone?"

"I'll try to. I suppose Amy will be tired from nutting."

He did not reply, but lifted his hat gravely, mounted his horse, and galloped away as if he were an aid bearing a message that might avert a battle.

Miss Hargrove hastened to her room, and took off her hat with trembling hands. Burt's pale, resolute face told her that the crisis in her life had come. And yet she did not fully understand him. If he meant to speak, why had he not done so? why had he not asked permission to consult her father?

Mr. Hargrove, from his library window, saw Burt's formal parting, and concluded that his fears or hopes--he scarcely knew which were uppermost, so deep was his love for his daughter, and so painful would it be to see her unhappy--were not to be fulfilled. By a great effort Gertrude appeared not very distraite at dinner, nor did she mention Burt, except in a casual manner, in reply to a question from her mother, but her father thought he detected a strong and suppressed excitement.

She excused herself early from the table, and said she must finish packing for her departure.