The Parting of The Ways by Lucy Maud Montgomery
Mrs. Longworth crossed the hotel piazza, descended the steps, and walked out of sight down the shore road with all the grace of motion that lent distinction to her slightest movement. Her eyes were very bright, and an unusual flush stained the pallor of her cheek. Two men who were lounging in one corner of the hotel piazza looked admiringly after her.
"She is a beautiful woman," said one.
"Wasn't there some talk about Mrs. Longworth and Cunningham last winter?" asked the other.
"Yes. They were much together. Still, there may have been nothing wrong. She was old Judge Carmody's daughter, you know. Longworth got Carmody under his thumb in money matters and put the screws on. They say he made Carmody's daughter the price of the old man's redemption. The girl herself was a mere child, I shall never forget her face on her wedding day. But she's been plucky since then, I must say. If she has suffered, she hasn't shown it. I don't suppose Longworth ever ill-treats her. He isn't that sort. He's simply a grovelling cad--that's all. Nobody would sympathise much with the poor devil if his wife did run off with Cunningham."
Meanwhile, Beatrice Longworth walked quickly down the shore road, her white skirt brushing over the crisp golden grasses by the way. In a sunny hollow among the sandhills she came upon Stephen Gordon, sprawled out luxuriously in the warm, sea-smelling grasses. The youth sprang to his feet at sight of her, and his big brown eyes kindled to a glow.
Mrs. Longworth smiled to him. They had been great friends all summer. He was a lanky, overgrown lad of fifteen or sixteen, odd and shy and dreamy, scarcely possessing a speaking acquaintance with others at the hotel. But he and Mrs. Longworth had been congenial from their first meeting. In many ways, he was far older than his years, but there was a certain inerradicable boyishness about him to which her heart warmed.
"You are the very person I was just going in search of. I've news to tell. Sit down."
He spoke eagerly, patting the big gray boulder beside him with his slim, brown hand. For a moment Beatrice hesitated. She wanted to be alone just then. But his clever, homely face was so appealing that she yielded and sat down.
Stephen flung himself down again contentedly in the grasses at her feet, pillowing his chin in his palms and looking up at her, adoringly.
"You are so beautiful, dear lady. I love to look at you. Will you tilt that hat a little more over the left eye-brow? Yes--so--some day I shall paint you."
His tone and manner were all simplicity.
"When you are a great artist," said Beatrice, indulgently.
"Yes, I mean to be that. I've told you all my dreams, you know. Now for my news. I'm going away to-morrow. I had a telegram from father to-day."
He drew the message from his pocket and flourished it up at her.
"I'm to join him in Europe at once. He is in Rome. Think of it--in Rome! I'm to go on with my art studies there. And I leave to-morrow."
"I'm glad--and I'm sorry--and you know which is which," said Beatrice, patting the shaggy brown head. "I shall miss you dreadfully, Stephen."
"We have been splendid chums, haven't we?" he said, eagerly.
Suddenly his face changed. He crept nearer to her, and bowed his head until his lips almost touched the hem of her dress.
"I'm glad you came down to-day," he went on in a low, diffident voice. "I want to tell you something, and I can tell it better here. I couldn't go away without thanking you. I'll make a mess of it--I can never explain things. But you've been so much to me--you mean so much to me. You've made me believe in things I never believed in before. You--you--I know now that there is such a thing as a good woman, a woman who could make a man better, just because he breathed the same air with her."
He paused for a moment; then went on in a still lower tone:
"It's hard when a fellow can't speak of his mother because he can't say anything good of her, isn't it? My mother wasn't a good woman. When I was eight years old she went away with a scoundrel. It broke father's heart. Nobody thought I understood, I was such a little fellow. But I did. I heard them talking. I knew she had brought shame and disgrace on herself and us. And I had loved her so! Then, somehow, as I grew up, it was my misfortune that all the women I had to do with were mean and base. They were hirelings, and I hated and feared them. There was an aunt of mine--she tried to be good to me in her way. But she told me a lie, and I never cared for her after I found it out. And then, father--we loved each other and were good chums. But he didn't believe in much either. He was bitter, you know. He said all women were alike. I grew up with that notion. I didn't care much for anything--nothing seemed worth while. Then I came here and met you."
He paused again. Beatrice had listened with a gray look on her face. It would have startled him had he glanced up, but he did not, and after a moment's silence the halting boyish voice went on:
"You have changed everything for me. I was nothing but a clod before. You are not the mother of my body, but you are of my soul. It was born of you. I shall always love and reverence you for it. You will always be my ideal. If I ever do anything worth while it will be because of you. In everything I shall ever attempt I shall try to do it as if you were to pass judgment upon it. You will be a lifelong inspiration to me. Oh, I am bungling this! I can't tell you what I feel--you are so pure, so good, so noble! I shall reverence all women for your sake henceforth."
"And if," said Beatrice, in a very low voice, "if I were false to your ideal of me--if I were to do anything that would destroy your faith in me--something weak or wicked--"
"But you couldn't," he interrupted, flinging up his head and looking at her with his great dog-like eyes, "you couldn't!"
"But if I could?" she persisted, gently, "and if I did--what then?"
"I should hate you," he said, passionately. "You would be worse than a murderess. You would kill every good impulse and belief in me. I would never trust anything or anybody again--but there," he added, his voice once more growing tender, "you will never fail me, I feel sure of that."
"Thank you," said Beatrice, almost in a whisper. "Thank you," she repeated, after a moment. She stood up and held out her hand. "I think I must go now. Good-bye, dear laddie. Write to me from Rome. I shall always be glad to hear from you wherever you are. And--and--I shall always try to live up to your ideal of me, Stephen."
He sprang to his feet and took her hand, lifting it to his lips with boyish reverence. "I know that," he said, slowly. "Good-bye, my sweet lady."
When Mrs. Longworth found herself in her room again, she unlocked her desk and took out a letter. It was addressed to Mr. Maurice Cunningham. She slowly tore it twice across, laid the fragments on a tray, and touched them with a lighted match. As they blazed up one line came out in writhing redness across the page: "I will go away with you as you ask." Then it crumbled into gray ashes.
She drew a long breath and hid her face in her hands.