Chapter LV. Burt Tells His Love Again
 

Webb appeared at the supper-table the personification of quiet geniality, but Amy thought she had never seen him look so hollow-eyed. The long strain was beginning to tell on him, decidedly, and to-night he felt as if he had received a mortal blow. But with indomitable courage he hid his wound, and seemed absorbed in a conversation with Leonard and his father about the different varieties of apples, and their relative value. Amy saw that his mother was looking at him anxiously, and she did not wonder. He was growing thin even to gauntness.

Burt also was an arrant dissembler, and on rising from the table remarked casually that he was going over to bid Miss Hargrove good-by, as she would return to town on the morrow.

"She'll surely come and see us before she goes," Mrs. Clifford remarked. "It seems to me she hasn't been very sociable of late."

"Certainly," said Amy. "She'll be over in the morning. She told me she was coming to say good-by to us all, and she has asked me to visit her. Come, Webb, you look all tired out to-night. Let me read to you. I'll stumble through the dryest scientific treatise you have if I can see you resting on the sofa."

"That's ever so kind of you, Amy, and I appreciate it more than you imagine, but I'm going out this evening."

"Oh, of course, sisters are of no account. What girl are you going to see?"

"No girl whatever. I am too old and dull to entertain the pretty creatures."

"Don't be fishing. You know one you could entertain if she isn't a pretty creature, but then she's only a sister who doesn't know much."

"I'm sorry--I must go," he said, a little abruptly, for her lovely, half-laughing, half-reproachful face, turned to his, contained such mocking promise of happiness that he could not look upon it. What was his urgent business? His rapid steps as he walked mile after mile indicated that the matter was pressing indeed; but, although it was late before he returned, he had spoken to no one. The house was dark and silent except that a light was burning in Burt's room. And his momentous fortunes the reader must now follow.

Miss Hargrove, with a fluttering heart, heard the rapid feet of his horse as he rode up the avenue. Truly, he was coming at a lover's pace. The door-bell rang, she heard him admitted, and expected the maid's tap at her door to follow. Why did it not come? Were the tumultuous throbs of her heart so loud that she could not hear it? What had become of him? She waited and listened in vain. She opened her door slightly; there was no sound. She went to her window. There below, like a shadow, stood a saddled horse. Where was the knight? Had the stupid girl shown him into the drawing-room and left him there? Surely the well-trained servant had never been guilty of such a blunder before. Could it have been some one else who had come to see her father on business? She stole down the stairway in a tremor of apprehension, and strolled into the parlor in the most nonchalant manner imaginable. It was lighted, but empty, and her expression suddenly became one of troubled perplexity. She returned to the hall, and started as if she had seen an apparition. There on the rack hung Burt's hat, as natural as life. Voices reached her ear from her father's study. She took a few swift steps toward it, then fled to her room, and stood panting before her mirror, which reflected a young lady in a costume charmingly ill adapted to "packing."

How flow swiftly the minutes passed! how eternally long they were! Would she be sent for? When would she be sent for? "It was honorable in him to speak to papa first, and papa would not, could not, answer him without consulting me. I cannot be treated as a child any longer," she muttered, with flashing eyes. "Papa loves me," she murmured, in swift alternation of gentle feeling. "He could not make my happiness secondary to a paltry sum of money."

Meanwhile Burt was pleading his cause. Mr. Hargrove had greeted him with no little surprise. The parting of the young people had not promised any such interview.

"Have you spoken to my daughter on this subject?" Mr. Hargrove asked, gravely, after the young fellow had rather incoherently made known his errand.

"No, sir," replied Burt, "I have not secured your permission. At the same time," he added, with an ominous flash in his blue eyes, "sincerity compels me to say that I could not take a final refusal from any lips except those of your daughter, and not readily from hers. I would not give up effort to win her until convinced that any amount of patient endeavor was useless. I should not persecute her, but I would ask her to reconsider an adverse answer as often as she would permit, and I will try with all my soul to render myself more worthy of her."

"In other words," began Mr. Hargrove, severely, "if I should decline this honor, I should count for nothing."

"No, sir, I do not mean that, and I hope I haven't said it, even by implication. Your consent that I should have a fair field in which to do my best would receive from me boundless gratitude. What I mean to say is, that I could not give her up; I should not think it right to do so. This question is vital to me, and I know of no reason," he added, a little haughtily, "why I should be refused a privilege which is considered the right of every gentleman."

"I have not in the slightest degree raised the question of your being a gentleman, Mr. Clifford. Your course in coming to me before revealing your regard to my daughter proves that you are one. But you should realize that you are asking a great deal of me. My child's happiness is my first and only consideration. You know the condition of life to which my daughter has been accustomed. It is right and natural that I should also know something of your prospects, your ability to meet the obligations into which you wish to enter."

Poor Burt flushed painfully, and hesitated. After a moment he answered, with a dignity and an evident sincerity which won golden opinions from Mr. Hargrove: "I shall not try to mislead you in the least on this point. For my own sake I wish that your daughter were far poorer than I am. I can say little more than that I could give her a home now and every comfort of life. I could not now provide for her the luxury to which she has been accustomed. But I am willing to wait and eager to work. In youth and health and a fair degree of education I have some capital in addition to the start in life which my father has promised to his sons. What could not Miss Hargrove inspire a man to do?"

The man of experience smiled in spite of himself at Burt's frank enthusiasm and naivete. The whole affair was so different from anything that he had ever looked forward to! Instead of a few formalities between himself and a wealthy suitor whom his wife, and therefore all the world, would approve of, here he was listening to a farmer's son, with the consciousness that he must yield, and not wholly unwilling to do so. Moreover, this preposterous young man, so far from showing any awe of him, had almost defied him from the start, and had plainly stated that the father's wealth was the only objection to the daughter. Having seen the drift of events, Mr. Hargrove had long since informed himself thoroughly about the Clifford family, and had been made to feel that the one fact of his wealth, which Burt regretted, was almost his only claim to superiority. Burt was as transparent as a mountain brook, and quite as impetuous. The gray-haired man sighed, and felt that he would give all his wealth in exchange for such youth. He knew his daughter's heart, and felt that further parleying was vain, although he foresaw no easy task in reconciling his wife to the match. He was far from being heartbroken himself, however, for there was such a touch of nature in Burt, and in the full, strong love waiting to reward the youth, that his own heart was stirred, and in the depths of his soul he knew that this was better than giving his child to a jaded millionaire. "I have money enough for both," he thought. "As she said, she is rich enough to follow her heart. It's a pity if we can't afford an old-fashioned love-match."

Burt was respectfully impatient under Mr. Hargrove's deep thought and silence.

At last the father arose and gave him his hand, saying: "You have been honest with me, and that, with an old merchant, counts for a great deal. I also perceive you love my daughter for herself. If she should ever inform me that you are essential to her happiness I shall not withhold my consent."

Burt seized his hand with a grasp that made it ache, as he said, "Every power I have, sir, shall be exerted that you may never regret this kindness."

"If you make good that promise, Mr. Clifford, I shall become your friend should your wooing prove successful. If you will come to the parlor I will tell Miss Hargrove that you are here."

He went up the stairs slowly, feeling that he was crossing the threshold of a great change. How many thoughts passed through his mind as he took those few steps! He saw his child a little black-eyed baby in his arms; she was running before him trundling her hoop; she came to him with contracted brow and half-tearful eyes, bringing a knotty sum in fractions, and insisting petulantly that they were very "vulgar" indeed; she hung on his arm, a shy girl of fifteen, blushingly conscious of the admiring eyes that followed her; she stood before him again in her first radiant beauty as a debutante, and he had dreamed of the proudest alliance that the city could offer; she looked into his eyes, a pale, earnest woman, and said, "Papa, he saved my life at the risk of his own." True, true, Mr. Clifford had not spoken of that, and Mr. Hargrove had not thought of it in the. interview so crowded with considerations. His heart relented toward the youth as it had not done before. Well, well, since it was inevitable, he was glad to be the one who should first bring the tidings of this bold wooer's purpose. "Trurie will never forget this moment," he mattered, as he knocked at her door, "nor my part in her little drama." O love, how it craves even the crumbs that fall from the table of its idol!

"Trurie," he began, as he entered, "you had better dress. Bless me, I thought you were packing!"

"I--I was."

"You were expecting some one?"

"Mr. Clifford said he would call--to bid me good-by, I suppose."

"Was that all you supposed, Trurie?"

"Indeed, papa, I told him I was going to town to-morrow, and he asked if he might call."

"Did he speak of his object?"

"No, papa. I'm sure it's quite natural he should call, and I have been packing."

"Well, I can assure you that he has a very definite object. He has asked me if he might pay his addresses to you, and in the same breath assured me that he would in any event."

"Oh, papa," she said, hiding her face on his shoulder, "he was not so unmannerly as that!"

"Indeed, he went much further, declaring that he would take no refusal from you, either; or, rather, that he would take it so often as to wear out your patience, and secure you by proving that resistance was useless. He had one decided fault to find with you, also. He much regrets that you have wealth."

"Oh, papa, tell me what he did say;" and he felt her heart fluttering against his side like that of a frightened bird.

"Why, Trurie, men have offered you love before."

"But I never loved before, nor knew what it meant," she whispered. "Please don't keep me in suspense. This is all so strange, so sacred to me."

"Well, Trurie, I hope your match may be one of those that are made in heaven. Your mother will think it anything but worldly wise. However, I will reconcile her to it, and I'm glad to be the one with whom you will associate this day. Long after I am gone it may remind you how dear your happiness was to me, and that I was willing to give up my way for yours. Mr. Clifford has been straightforward and manly, if not conventional, and I've told him that if he could win you and would keep his promise to do his best for you and by you, I would be his friend, and that, you know, means much. Of course, it all depends upon whether you accept him. You are not committed in the least."

"Am I not, papa? Here is an organ"--with her hand upon her heart--"that knows better. But I shall not throw myself at him. Must I go down now?"

"Oh, no, I can excuse you," he said, with smiling lips but moist eyes.

"Dear papa, I will, indeed, associate you with this hour and every pleasant thing in life. You will find that you have won me anew instead of losing me;" and looking back at him with her old filial love shining in her eyes, she went slowly away to meet the future under the sweet constraint of Nature's highest law.

If Burt had been impatient in the library, he grew almost desperate in the parlor. Horrible doubts and fears crossed his mind. Might not Miss Hargrove's pride rise in arms against him? Might she not even now be telling her father of his fickleness, and declaring that she would not listen to a "twice-told tale"? Every moment of delay seemed ominous, and many moments passed. The house grew sepulchral in its silence, and the wind without sighed and moaned as if Nature foreboded and pitied him in view of the overwhelming misfortune impending. At last he sprang up and paced the room in his deep perturbation. As he turned toward the entrance he saw framed in the doorway a picture that appeared like a radiant vision. Miss Hargrove stood there, looking at him so intently that, for a second or two, he stood spell-bound. She was dressed in some white, clinging material, and, with her brilliant eyes, appeared in the uncertain light too beautiful and wraith-like to be human. She saw her advantage, and took the initiative instantly. "Mr. Clifford," she exclaimed, "do I seem an apparition?"

"Yes, you do," he replied, coming impetuously toward her. She held out her hand, proposing that their interview should at least begin at arm's length. Nevertheless, the soft fire in his eyes and the flush on his handsome face made her tremble with a delicious apprehension. Even while at a loss to know just how to manage the preliminaries for a decorous yielding, she exulted over the flame-like spirit of her lover.

"Ah, Mr. Clifford," she cried, "you ought to know that you are not crushing a ghost's hand."

"Pardon me. What I meant was that I thought I had seen you before, but you are a new revelation every time I see you."

"I can't interpret visions."

"Please don't say that, for I must ask you to interpret one to-night. What does Shakespeare say about those who have power? I hope you will use yours mercifully. Oh, Miss Hargrove, you are so beautiful that I believe I should lose my reason if you sent me away without hope."

"Mr. Clifford, you are talking wildly," was her faint response.

"I fear I am. I am almost desperate from fear, for I have a terribly hard duty to perform."

"Indeed!" she said, withdrawing her hand, which he relinquished most reluctantly, dreading that he might never receive it again.

"Do not assume that attitude, Miss Hargrove, or I shall lose courage utterly."

"Truly, Mr. Clifford," she said, a little satirically, seating herself on a sofa, "I never imagined you deficient in courage. Is it a terrible duty to entertain me for a half-hour, and say good-by?"

"Yes. Nothing could be worse than that, if that were all;" and he looked at her appealingly and in such perplexed distress that she laughed outright.

"I am very much in earnest, Miss Hargrove."

"You are very enigmatical, Mr. Clifford. Must I be present while you perform this terrible duty?"

"I think you know what I must confess already, and have a world of scorn in store for me. Do not judge me harshly. Whatever the end may be, and my sense of ill-desert is heavy indeed, I shall begin on the basis of absolute truth. You shall know the worst. I've asked your father for the privilege of winning your love;" and then he hesitated, not knowing how to go on.

"Is that the worst?" she asked, demurely.

"No, I fear it will be the best, for he kindly gave his consent, and I know it would be hard for him to do as much for any man, much more so for one not wholly to his mind. Miss Hargrove, I must appear awkwardness and incoherency personified. I hardly know how to go on. I shall appear to you fickle and unmanly. How can I excuse myself to you when I have no excuse except the downright truth that I love you better than my life, better than my own soul, better than all the world and everything in it. I never knew what love was until you became unconscious in my arms on the mountain. Forgive me for referring to it. I'm only trying to explain myself; and yet I had thought that I knew, and had spoken words of love to your friend, Amy Winfield, who is worthy of the love of the best and noblest man that ever breathed. She did not welcome my words--they only wounded her--and she has never eared for me except as a true and gentle sister cares. But I promised to wait till she did care. I can't keep that promise. You fascinated me from the first hour of our meeting. I feel now that I cherished an unworthy purpose toward you. I thought that, by attentions to you, I could make Amy care; I thought that you were but a brilliant society girl; but every hour I spent with you increased my admiration, my respect; I saw that you were better and stronger than I was. On the first day we went into camp on the mountain I saw whither my heart was leading me, and from that hour until to-day I have tried to conquer my love, feeling that I had no right to give it, that you would despise it if I did. You can't have any confidence in me now. All my hope is that you will give me a chance to prove that I am not a fickle wretch. I will accept of any probation, I will submit to any terms. I can't take an absolute refusal now, for I feel you are seeing me at my worst, and I know that you could do with me anything you pleased."

Her head bowed lower and lower as he poured out these words like a torrent. "Does Amy--have you told her that you cannot keep your promise to her?" she faltered, in a low tone.

"Oh, yes, I told her so a few hours ago--since I met you this afternoon. I was going away to the West, like a coward, to escape from my dilemma, for I felt you would never listen to me after you knew that I had broken my word to Amy. I feared that I had already become a by-word between you for all that was weak and fickle. But after I saw you I could not go till I spoke. I determined to reveal the whole truth, and if you ever gave me a chance to retrieve myself, gratitude would be no name for my deep feeling._

"Did--did Amy release you?"

"Yes, she was kindness itself. She told me in good plain English that she wanted neither me nor my promise; that she didn't think that she ever could have loved me, no matter how long I might have waited. But I could not look into your clear eyes and say, 'I love you,' and know that you might learn from her or any one that I had said this before. If you won't trust me, having had the whole truth, then I must bear my hard fate as best I can."

"How long would you be willing to wait for me?" she asked, in tones so low that he could scarcely catch the words.

He bounded to her side, and took her unresisting hand. "Oh, Gertrude," he pleaded, "prove me, give me a chance, let me show that I am not without manhood and constancy. Believe me, I know the priceless gift I'm asking, but what else can I do? I have tried for weeks to conquer the feeling you have inspired, tried with all the help that pride and sense of duty and honor could give, but it has been utterly useless. I now am free; I have the right to speak. I have concealed nothing from you. I'm wholly at your mercy."

At last she raised her downcast eyes and averted face to his, and for a moment he was dazed at their expression. In tones sweet, low, and deep with her strong emotion, she said, "Burt, how glad I am that you men are blind! I found out that I loved you before we went to our mountain camp." She sprang up and gave him her other hand as she continued: "Can love impose such hard conditions as you suggest--months of doubtful waiting for one who risked his life for me without a second's hesitation? That is not my nature, Burt. If I have power over you, I shall show it in another way."

She would never forget his look as he listened to these words, nor his humility as he lowered his head upon her shoulder, and murmured, "I am not worthy of this." It touched the deepest and tenderest chord in her heart. His feeling was not the exultation of success, but a gratitude too deep for words, and a half-conscious appeal that she would use her woman's power to evoke a better manhood. It was not mere acknowledgment of her beauty, or the impulse of his passion; it was homage to the best and noblest part of her nature, the expression of his absolute trust. Never had she received such a tribute, and she valued it more than if Burt had laid untold wealth at her feet.

A great joy is often as sobering as a great sorrow, and they talked long and earnestly together. Gertrude would not become engaged until she had told her mother, and shown her the respect that was her due. "You must not be resentful," the young girl said, "if mamma's consent is not easily won. She has set her heart on an establishment in town, I've set my heart on you; so there we differ, and you must give me time to reconcile her to a different programme."

The clock on the mantel chimed eleven, and Burt started up, aghast at the flight of time. Gertrude stole to her father's library, and found that he was pacing the floor. "I should not have left him alone so long to-night," she thought, with compunction. "Papa," she said, "Mr. Clifford is going. Will you not come and speak to him?"

He looked into his daughter's flushed, happy face, and needed no further explanation, and with her hands on his arm he went to the drawing-room. Burt said but few and very simple words, and the keen judge of men liked him beter than if he had been more exuberant. There was evidence of downright earnestness now that seemed a revelation of a new trait.

"You spoke of going to the West soon," Mr. Hargrove remarked, as they lingered in parting. "Have you any objection to telling me of your purpose?"

Burt explained. Mr. Hargrove's face soon expressed unusual interest. "I must talk with you further about this," he said. "I have land in the same locality, and also an interest in the railroad to which you refer. Perhaps I can make your journey of mutual service."

"Oh, papa," cried his daughter, "you are my good genius!" for she well understood what that mutual service meant.

After Burt had gone, Mr. Hargrove said, "Well, well, this Western-land business puts a new aspect on the affair, and mamma may have little ground for complaint. It's my impression that the Cliffords will realize a very respectable fortune out of that land."

"Papa," said the young girl, "Burt gave me something better than wealth to-night--better even than love, in the usual sense of the word. He gave me his faith. He acted as if he saw in me the power to help him to be a true man, and what higher compliment can a woman receive? He did not express it so much by word as by an unconscious manner, that was so sincere and unpremeditated that it thrilled my very soul. Oh, papa, you have helped me to be so very happy!"