When Mrs. Ferret had gone, Albert found that while her words had rasped him, they had also made a deep impression on him. He was, then, a jail-bird in the eyes of Metropolisville—of the world. He must not compromise Isa by a single additional visit. He could not trust himself to see her again. The struggle was not fought out easily. But at last he wrote a letter:
“MY DEAR MISS MARLAY: I find that I can not even visit you without causing remarks to be made, which reflect on you. I can not stay here without wishing to enjoy your society, and you can not receive the visits of a ‘jail-bird,’ as they call me, without disgrace. I owe everything to you, and it would be ungrateful, indeed, in me to be a source of affliction and dishonor to you. I never regretted my disgrace so much as since I talked with you last night. If I could shake that off, I might hope for a great happiness, perhaps.
“I am going to Gray’s Village to-morrow. I shall close up my business, and go away somewhere, though I would much rather stay here and live down my disgrace. I shall remember your kindness with a full heart, and if I can ever serve you, all I have shall be yours—I would be wholly yours now, if I could offer myself without dishonoring you, and you would accept me. Good-by, and may God bless you.
“Your most grateful friend, ALBERT CHARLTON.”
The words about offering himself, in the next to the last sentence, Albert wrote with hesitation, and then concluded that he would better erase them, as he did not mean to give any place to his feelings. He drew his pen through them, taking pains to leave the sentence entirely legible beneath the canceling stroke. Such tricks does inclination play with the sternest resolves!
The letter was deposited at the post-office immediately. Charlton did not dare give his self-denying resolution time to cool.
Isa was not looking for letters, and Mrs. Ferret ventured to hint that the chance of meeting somebody on the street had something to do with her walk. Of course Miss Marlay was insulted. No woman would ever do such a thing. Consciously, at least.
And after reading Charlton’s letter, what did Isa do? What could she do? A woman may not move in such a case. Her whole future happiness may drift to wreck by somebody’s mistake, and she may not reach a hand to arrest it. What she does must be done by indirection and under disguise. It is a way society has of training women to be candid.
The first feeling which Isa had was a sudden shock of surprise. She was not so much astonished at the revelation of Charlton’s feeling as at the discovery of her own. With Albert’s abrupt going away, all her heart and hope seemed to be going too. She had believed her interest in Charlton to be disinterested until this moment. It was not until he proposed going away entirely that she came to understand how completely that interest had changed its character.