He may have been imprudent in addressing a girl of seventeen in this tender fashion; but the truth was, her short skirts and the two long braids of yellow hair were in his mind associated with that age toward which you may, without offence, assume the role of a well-meaning protector, and where even a kiss need not necessarily be resented. So far from feeling flattered by the unwished-for recollection of Elsie’s feeling for him, he was rather disposed to view it as a pathological phenomenon,—as a sort of malady, of which he would like to cure her. It is not to be denied, however, that if this was his intention, the course he was about to pursue was open to criticism. But it must be borne in mind that Fern was no expert on questions of the heart,—that he had had no blighting experiences yielding him an unwholesome harvest of premature wisdom.
For a long while they walked on in silence, holding each other’s hands like two children, and the sound of their footsteps upon the crisp, crunching sand was singularly exaggerated by the great stillness around them.
“And whom is it you have been visiting so late in the night, Elsie?” he asked, at last, glancing furtively into her face.
“Hush, you mustn’t talk about her,” answered she, in a timid whisper. “It was Gurid Sibyl, and she knows a great many things which nobody else knows except God.”
“I am sorry you have resort to such impostors. You know the Bible says it is wrong to consult sibyls and fortune-tellers.”
“No, I didn’t know it. But you mustn’t speak ill of her, or she will sow disease in your blood and you will never see another healthy day. She did that to Nils Saetren because he mocked her, and he has been a cripple ever since.”
“Pshaw, I am not afraid of her. She may frighten children—”
“Hush! Oh, don’t!” cried the girl, in tones of distress, laying her hand gently over his mouth. “I wouldn’t for the world have anything evil happen to you.”
“Well well, you foolish child,” he answered, laughing. “If it grieves you, I will say nothing more about it. But I must disapprove of your superstition all the same.”
“Oh, no; don’t think ill of me,” she begged piteously, her eyes filling with tears.
“No no, I will not. Only don’t cry. It always makes me feel awkward to see a woman cry.”
She brushed her tears away and put on a resolute little pout, which was meant to be resigned if not cheerful.
Fifteen minutes later they were standing at the foot of the stairs leading up to his room. The large house was dark and silent. Everybody was asleep. Thinking the opportunity favorable for giving her a bit of parting advice, Maurice seized hold of both her arms and looked her gravely in the eyes. She, however, misinterpreting the gesture, very innocently put up her lips, thinking that he intended to kiss her. The sweet, child-like trustfulness of the act touched him; hardly knowing what he did, he stooped over her and kissed her. As their eyes again met, a deep, radiant contentment shone from her countenance. It was not a mere momentary brightening of the features, such as he had often noticed in her before, but something inexpressibly tender, soul-felt, and absolute. It was as if that kiss had suddenly transformed the child into a woman.