Chapter LIV. A Gentle Exorcist
 

Burt's black horse was again white before he approached his home. In the distance he saw Amy returning, the children running on before, Alf whooping like a small Indian to some playmate who was answering further away. The gorgeous sunset lighted up the still more brilliant foliage, and made the scene a fairyland. But Burt had then no more eye for nature than a man would have who had staked his all on the next throw of the dice. Amy was alone, and now was his chance to intercept her before she reached the house. Imagine her surprise as she saw him make his horse leap the intervening fences, and come galloping toward her.

"Burt," she cried, as he, in a moment or two, reined up near her, "you will break your neck!"

"It wouldn't matter much," he said, grimly. "I fear a worse fate than that."

"What do you mean?" she asked, in alarm. "What has happened?"

He threw the bridle over a stake in the fence, and the horse was glad to rest, with drooping head. Then he came and stood beside her, his face flushed, and his mouth twitching with excitement and strong feeling. For a moment he could not speak.

"Burt," she said, "what is the matter? What do you fear?"

"I fear your scorn, Amy," he began, impetuously; "I fear I shall lose your respect forever. But I can't go on any longer detesting myself and feeling that you and Miss Hargrove despise me. I may seem to you and her a fickle fool, a man of straw, but you shall both know the truth. I shan't go away a coward. I can at least be honest, and then you may think what you please of my weakness and vacillation. You cannot think worse things than I think myself, but you must not imagine that I am a cold-blooded, deliberate trifler, for that has never been true. I know you don't care for me, and never did."

"Indeed, Burt, you are mistaken. I do care for you immensely," said Amy, eagerly clasping his arm with both her hands.

"Amy, Amy," said Burt, in a low, desperate tone, "think how few short months have passed since I told you I loved you, and protested I would wait till I was gray. You have seen me giving my thoughts to another, and in your mind you expect to see me carried away by a half-dozen more. You are mistaken, but it will take a long time to prove it."

"No, Burt, I understand you better than you think. Gertrude has inspired in you a very different feeling from the one you had for me. I think you are loving now with a man's love, and won't get over it very soon, if you ever do. You have seen, you must have felt, that my love for you was only that of a sister, and of course you soon began to feel toward me in the same way. I don't believe I would have married you had you waited an age. Don't fret, I'm not going to break my heart about you."

"I should think not, nor will any one else. Oh, Amy, I so despised myself that I have been half-desperate."

"Despised yourself because you love a girl like Gertrude Hargrove! I never knew a man to do a more natural and sensible thing, whether she gave you encouragement or not. If I were a man I would make love to her, rest assured, and she would have to refuse me more than once to be rid of me."

Burt took a long breath of immense relief. "You are heavenly kind," he said. "Are you sure you won't despise me? I could not bear that. It seems to me that I have done such an awfully mean thing in making love to you in my own home, and then in changing."

Her laugh rang out merrily. "Fate has been too strong for you, and I think--I mean--I hope, it has been kind. Bless you, Burt, I could never get up any such feeling as sways you. I should always be disappointing, and you would have found out, sooner or later, that your best chance would be to discover some one more responsive. Since you have been so frank, I'll be so too. I was scarcely more ready for your words last spring than Johnnie, but I was simple enough to think that in half a dozen years or so we might be married if all thought it was best, and my pride was a little hurt when I saw what--what--well, Gertrude's influence over you. But I've grown much older the last few months, and know now that my thoughts were those of a child. My feeling for you is simply that of a sister, and I don't believe it would ever have changed. Who knows? I might eventually have an acute attack also, and then I should be in a worse predicament than yours."

"But you will be my loving sister as long as you live, Amy? You will believe that I have a little manhood if given a chance to show it?"

"I believe it now, Burt, and I can make you a hundredfold better sister than wife. The idea! It seems but the other day I was playing with dolls. Here, now, cheer up. You have judged yourself too harshly;" and she looked at him so smilingly and affectionately that he took her in his arms and kissed her again and again, exclaiming, "You can count on one brother to the last drop of his blood. Oh, Amy, whatever happens now, I won't lose courage. Miss Hargrove will have to say no a dozen times before she is through with me."

At this moment Webb, from the top of a tall ladder in the orchard, happened to glance that way, and saw the embrace. He instantly descended, threw down his basket of apples, and with it all hope. Burt had won Amy at last. The coolness between them had been but a misunderstanding, which apparently had been banished most decidedly. He mechanically took down his ladder and placed it on the ground, then went to his room to prepare for supper.

"Burt," cried Amy, when they were half-way home, "you have forgotten your horse."

"If he were Pegasus, I should have forgotten him to-day. Won't you wait for me?"

"Oh, yes, I'll do anything for you."

"Will you?" he said, eagerly. "Will you tell me if you think Miss Hargrove--"

"No, I won't tell you anything. The idea! After she has refused you half a dozen times, I may, out of pity, intercede a little. Go get your horse, smooth your brow, and be sensible, or you'll have Webb and Leonard poking fun at you. Suppose they have seen you galloping over fences and ditches like one possessed."

"Well, I was possessed, and never was there such a kind, gentle exorcist. I have seen Miss Hargrove to-day; I had just parted from her."

"Did you say anything?"

"No, Amy. How could I, until I had told you? I felt I was bound to you by all that can bind a man."

"Oh, Burt, suppose I had not released you, but played Shylock, what would you have done?" and her laugh rang out again in intense merriment.

"I had no fears of that," he replied, ruefully. "You are the last one to practice Mrs. MacStinger's tactics. My fear was that you and Miss Hargrove both would send me West as a precious good riddance."

"Well, it was square of you, as Alf says, to come to me first, and I appreciate it, but I should not have resented the omission. Will you forgive my curiosity if I ask what is the next move in the campaign? I've been reading about the war, you know, and I am quite military in my ideas."

"I have Miss Hargrove's permission to call to-night. It wasn't given very cordially, and she asked me to bring you."

"No, I thank yon."

"Oh, I told her she would have to forgive me if I came alone. I meant to have it out to-day, if old Chaos came again." When Amy's renewed laughter so subsided that he could speak, he resumed: "I'm going over there after supper, to ask her father for permission to pay my addresses, and if he won't give it, I shall tell him I will pay them all the same--that I shall use every effort in my power to win his daughter. I don't want a dollar of his money, but I'm bound to have the girl if she'll ever listen to me after knowing all you know."

Amy's laugh ceased, and she again clasped her hands on his arm. "Dear Burt," she said, "your course now seems to me manly and straightforward. I saw the strait you were in, but did not think you felt it so keenly. In going West I feared you were about to run away from it. However Gertrude may treat you, you have won my respect by your downright truth. She may do as she pleases, but she can't despise you now. There goes your horse to the stable. He has learned this afternoon that you are in no state of mind to take care of him."