Chapter III.
 

Months elapsed before Edwin Florence ventured again into company.

"Why will you shut yourself up after this fashion?" said an acquaintance to him one day. "It isn't just to your friends. I've heard half a dozen persons asking for you lately. This hermit life you are leading is, let me tell you, a very foolish life."

The friend who thus spoke knew nothing of the young man's heart history.

"No one really misses me," said Florence, in reply.

"In that you are mistaken," returned the friend. "You are missed. I have heard one young lady, at least, ask for you of late, more than a dozen times."

"Indeed! A young lady?"

"Yes; and a very beautiful young lady at that."

"In whose eyes can I have found such favor?"

"You have met Miss Clara Weldon?"

"Only once."

"But once!"

"That is all."

"Then it must be a case of love at first sight--at least on the lady's part--for Miss Weldon has asked for you, to my knowledge, not less than a dozen times."

"I am certainly flattered at the interest she takes in me."

"Well you may be. I know more than one young man who would sacrifice a good deal to find equal favor in her eyes. Now see what you have lost by this hiding of your countenance. And you are not the only loser."

Florence, who was more pleased at what he heard than he would like to have acknowledged, promised to come forth from his hiding place and meet the world in a better spirit. And he did so; being really drawn back into the social circle by the attraction of Miss Weldon. At his second meeting with this young lady he was still more charmed with her than at first; and she was equally well pleased with him. A few more interviews, and both their hearts were deeply interested.

Now there came a new cause of disquietude to Edwin; or, it might be said, the old cause renewed. The going out of his affections towards Miss Weldon revived the whole memory of the past; and, for a time he found it almost impossible to thrust it from his mind. While sitting by her side and listening to her voice, the tones of Edith would be in his ears; and, often, when he looked into her face he would see only the fading countenance of her who had passed away. This was the first state, and it was exceedingly painful while it lasted. But, it gradually changed into one more pleasant, yet not entirely free from the unwelcome intrusion of the past.

The oftener Florence and Miss Weldon met, the more strongly were their hearts drawn toward each other; and, at length, the former was encouraged to make an offer of his hand. In coming to this resolutions, it was not without passing through a painful conflict. As his mind dwelt upon the subject, there was a reproduction of old states. Most vividly did he recall the time when he breathed into the ears of Edith vows to which he had proved faithless. He had, it is true, returned to his first allegiance. He had laid his heart again at her feet; but, to how little purpose! While in this state of agitation, the young man resolved, more than once, to abandon his suit for the hand of Miss Weldon, and shrink back again into the seclusion from which he had come forth. But, his affection for the lovely girl was too genuine to admit of this. When he thought of giving her up, his mind was still more deeply disturbed.

"Oh, that I could forget!" he exclaimed, while this struggle was in progress. "Of what avail is this turning over of the leaves of a long passed history? I erred--sadly erred! But repentance is now too late. Why, then should my whole existence be cursed for a single error? Ah, me! thou not satisfied, departed one? Is it, indeed, from the presence of thy spirit that I am troubled? My heart sinks at the thought. But no, no! Thou wert too good to visit pain upon any; much less upon one who, thou false to thee, thou didst so tenderly love."

But, upon this state there came a natural re-action. A peaceful calm succeeded the storm. Memory deposited her records in the mind's dimly lighted chambers. To the present was restored its better influences.

"I am free again," was the almost audible utterance, of the young man, so strong was his sense of relief.

An offer of marriage was then made to Miss Weldon. Her heart trembled with joy when she received it. But confiding implicitly in her uncle, who had been for the space of ten years her friend and guardian, she could not give an affirmative reply until his approval was gained. She, therefore, asked time for reflection and consultation with her friend.

Far different from what Florence had expected, was the reception of his offer. To him, Miss Weldon seemed instantly to grow cold and reserved. Vividly was now recalled his rejection by Miss Linmore, as well as the ground of her rejection.

"Is this to be gone over again?" he sighed to himself, when alone once more, "Is that one false step never to be forgotten nor forgiven? Am I to be followed, through life, by this shadow of evil?"

To no other cause than this could the mind of Florence attribute the apparent change and hesitation in Clara Weldon.

Immediately on receiving an offer of marriage, Miss Weldon returned to Albany. Before leaving, she dropped Florence a note, to the effect, that he should hear from her in a few days. A week passed, but the promised word came not. It was, now plain that the friends of the young lady had been making inquiries about him, and were in possession of certain facts in his life, which, if known, would almost certainly blast his hopes of favor in her eyes. While in this state of uncertainty, he met the aunt of Edith, and the way she looked at him, satisfied his mind that his conjectures were true. A little while after a friend remarked to him casually--

"I saw Colonel Richards in town to-day."

"Colonel Richards! Miss Weldon's uncle?"

"Yes. Have you seen him?"

"No. I have not the pleasure of an acquaintance."

"Indeed! I thought you knew him. I heard him mention your name this morning."

"My name!"

"Yes."

"What had he to say of me?"

"Let me think. Oh! He asked me if I knew you."

"Well?"

"I said that I did, of course and that you were a pretty clever fellow; though you had been a sad boy in your time."

The face of Florence instantly reddened.

"Why, what's the matter? Oh I understand now! That little niece of his is one of your flames. But come! Don't take it so to heart. Your chances are one in ten, I have no doubt. By the way, I haven't seen Clara for a week. What has become of her? Gone back to Albany, I suppose. I hope you haven't frightened her with an offer. By the way, let me whisper a word of comfort in your ear. I heard her say that she didn't believe in any thing but first love; and, as you are known to have had half a dozen sweethearts, more or less, and to have broken the hearts of two or three young ladies, the probability is, that you won't be able to add her to tie number of your lady loves."

All this was mere jesting; but the words, though uttered in jest, fell upon the ears of Edwin Florence with all the force of truth.

"Guilty, on your own acknowledgment," said the friend, seeing the effect of his words. "Better always to act fairly in these matters of the heart, Florence. If we sow the wind, we will be pretty sure to reap the whirlwind. But come; let me take you down to the Tremont, and introduce you to Colonel Richards. I know he will be glad to make your acquaintance, and will, most probably, give you an invitation to go home with him and spend a week. You can then make all fair with his pretty niece."

"I have no wish to make his acquaintance just at this time," returned Florence; "nor do I suppose he cares about making mine, particularly after the high opinion you gave him of my character."

"Nonsense, Edwin! You don't suppose I said that to him. Can't you take a joke?"

"Oh, yes; I can take a joke."

"Take that as one, then. Colonel Richards did ask for you, however; and said that he would like to meet you. He was serious. So come along, and let me introduce you."

"No; I would prefer not meeting with him at this time."

"You are a strange individual."

The young men parted; Florence to feel more disquieted than ever. Colonel Richards had been inquiring about him, and, in prosecuting his inquiries, would, most likely, find some one inclined to relate the story of Edith Walter. What was more natural? That story once in the ears of Clara, and he felt that she must turn from him with a feeling of repulsion.

Three or four days longer he was in suspense. He heard of Col. Richards from several quarters, and, in each case when he was mentioned, he was alluded to as making inquiries about him.

"I hear that the beautiful Miss Weldon is to be married," was said to Florence at a time when he was almost mad with the excitement of suspense.

"Ah!" he replied, with forced calmness, "I hope she will be successful in securing a good husband."

"So do I; for she is indeed a sweet girl. I was more than half inclined to fall in love with her myself; and would leave done so, if I had believed there was any chance for me."

"Who is the favored one?" asked Florence.

"I have not been able to find out. She received three or four offers, and went back to Albany to consider them and make her election. This she has done, I hear; and already, the happy recipient of her favor is rejoicing over his good fortune. May they live a thousand years to be happy with each other!"

Here was another drop of bitterness in the cup that was at the lips of Edwin Florence. He went to his office immediately, and, setting down, wrote thus to Clara:

"I do not wrongly interpret, I presume, a silence continued far beyond the time agreed upon when we parted. You have rejected my suit. Well, be it so; and may you be happy with him who has found favor in your eyes. I do not think he can love you more sincerely than I do, or he more devoted to your happiness than I should have been. It would have relieved the pain I cannot but feel, if you had deemed my offer worthy a frank refusal. But, to feel that one I have so truly loved does not think me even deserving of this attention, is humiliating in the extreme. But, I will not upbraid you. Farewell! May you be happy."

Sealing Up his epistle, the young man, scarcely pausing even for hurried reflection, threw it into the post office. This done, he sunk into a gloomy state of mind, in which mortification and disappointment struggled alternately for the predominance.

Only a few hours elapsed after the adoption of this hasty course, before doubts of its propriety began to steal across his mind. It was possible, it occurred to him, that he might have acted too precipitately. There might be reasons for the silence of Miss Weldon entirely separate from those he had been too ready to assume; and, if so, how strange would his letter appear. It was too late now to recall the act, for already the mail that bore his letter was half way from New York to Albany. A restless night succeeded to this day. Early on the next morning he received a letter. It was in these words--

"MY DEAR MR. FLORENCE:--I have been very ill, and to-day am able to sit up just long enough to write a line or two. My uncle was in New York some days ago, but did not meet with you. Will you not come up and see me?

"Ever Yours, CLARA WELDON."

Florence was on board the next boat that left New York for Albany. The letter of Clara was, of course, written before the receipt of his hasty epistle. What troubled him now was the effect of this epistle on her mind. He had not only wrongly interpreted her silence, but had assumed the acceptance of another lover as confidently as if he knew to an certainty that such was the case. This was a serious matter and might result in the very thing he had been so ready to assume--the rejection of his suit.

Arriving at length, in Albany, Mr. Florence sought out the residence of Miss Weldon.

"Is Colonel Richards at home?" he inquired.

On being answered in the affirmative he sent up his name, with a request to see him. The colonel made his appearance in short time. He was a tall, thoughtful looking man, and bowed with a dignified air as he came into the room.

"How is Miss Weldon?" asked Florence, with an eagerness he could not restrain.

"Not so well this morning," replied the guardian. "She had a bad night."

"No wonder," thought the young man, "after receiving that letter."

"She has been. sleeping, however since daylight," added Colonel Richards, "and that is much in her favor."

"She received my letter, I presume," said Florence, in a hesitating voice.

"A letter came for her yesterday," was replied; "but as she was more indisposed than usual, we did not give it to her."

"It is as well," said the young man, experiencing a sense of relief.

An hour afterwards he was permitted to enter the chamber, where she lay supported by pillows. One glance at her face dispelled from his mind every lingering doubt. He had suffered from imaginary fears, awakened by the whispers of a troubled conscience.