They were still standing by the rose-bush whose desperate fate it was to produce pink roses. With incredulous dismay, the minister saw her turn from him and take a step toward the house.
She had refused him! She was leaving him! At any moment Annabel might finish her Sunday School lesson and come out upon the lawn—all his self-possession vanished like a puff of smoke.
“Esther!” he cried, “Esther! wait. Give me a moment.”
She paused, but did not turn.
“I think there is nothing more to say—I am very sorry.”
Sorry! She was sorry. This young girl upon whom he had set his desire, of whom he had felt so sure, to whom his love should have come as a crown, was sorry. King Cophetua, flouted by the beggar maid, could not have been more astonished, more deeply humiliated!
But the greater wound was not to his pride. At any cost to his dignity and self-respect he could not let her go like this. His ministerial manner fell away, his readiness deserted him. In a moment he became all lover, pleading, entreating, with the one great abandon of his life, with the stammering eloquence of unspeakable desire!
Slowly the girl turned to him. He saw her pure profile, then the full charm of her changing face. The blue eyes, widely open, were darker, lovelier than ever—Surely there was softening in their depths....
“Es—ther, Es—ther!” Miss Annabel’s voice broke upon the tense moment with cheerful insistence, and Miss Annabel herself appeared at the turn of the walk, waving a slip of paper. She saw them at once.
“You’re wanted at home, Esther. Your mother’s come back. To-day! Think of that! On the noon train. In face of the whole town. And all she said when Elder MacTavish met her coming up from the station was that she had forgotten it was Sunday. Fancy!”
Perhaps never, in all her life of inopportune arrivals, had Miss Annabel been so truly welcome—or so bitterly resented! Esther turned to her with a heart-sob of relief, the minister walked away without a word.
“Dear me! What’s the matter?” said the good lady. “You seem all excited. Perhaps I shouldn’t have shouted out the news so abruptly. But it never occurred to me that you might be startled. ’Tisn’t as if your mother had been away a year. Jane’s waiting for you down by the gate. Such a peculiar child! Nothing I could say will induce her to come in. Don’t you find Jane is a peculiar child, Esther?”
“Only a little shy,” said Esther, quickening her steps.
“Shy! Mercy, I shouldn’t call her shy. That child has the self-possession of a Chinee! I hope you won’t mind me saying it, but a little shyness is exactly what Jane needs.”
Esther, whose shaken nerves threatened hysterical laughter, made no reply to this, but hurried toward the small figure by the garden gate.