“Oh, Hugh, don’t; you break my heart. I’d rather you should scorn, or even hate me, for the sorrow I have brought. Such unselfish kindness will kill me,” Alice sobbed, for never had she been so touched as by this insight into the real character of the man she had refused.
He would not hold her long in his arms, though it were bliss to do so, and putting her gently in the chair, he leaned his own poor sick head upon the mantel, while Alice watched him with streaming eyes and an aching heart, which even then half longed to give itself into his keeping. At last it was her turn to speak, hers the task to comfort. The prayer she had inwardly breathed for guidance to act aright had not been unheard, and with a strange calmness she arose, and laying her hand on Hugh’s arm, bade him be seated, while she told him what she had to say. He obeyed her, sinking into the offered chair, and then standing before him, she began:
“You do not wish me to go away, you say. I have no desire to go, except it should be better for you. Even though I may not be your wife, I can, perhaps, minister to your happiness; and, Hugh, we will forget to-night, forget what has occurred, and be to each other what we were before, brother and sister. There must be no particular perceptible change of manner, lest others should suspect what has passed between us. Do you agree to this?”
He bowed his head, and Alice drew a step nearer to him, hesitating a moment ere she continued:
“You speak of a rival. I do not know that you have one. Sure it is I am bound to no one by any pledge, or promise, or tie, unless it be a tie of gratitude.”
Hugh glanced up quickly now, and the words, “You are mistaken; it was not Irving Stanley,” trembled on his lips, but his strong will fought them back, and Alice went on.
“I will be frank with you, and say that I have seen one who pleased me, both for the noble qualities he possessed, and because I had thought so much of meeting him, of expressing to him my thanks for a great favor done when I was only a child. There’s a look in your face like his; you remind me of him often; and, Hugh—” the little hand pressed more closely on Hugh’s shoulder, while Alice’s breath came heavily, “And, Hugh, it may be, that in time I can conscientiously give you a different answer from what I did to-night. I may love as your wife should love you; and—and, Hugh, if I do, I’ll tell you so at the proper time.”
There was a gleam of sunshine now to illumine the thick darkness, and, in the first moments of his joy Hugh wound his arm around the slight form, and tried to bring it nearer to him. But Alice stepped back and answered:
“No, Hugh, that would be wrong. It may be I shall never come to love you save as I love you now, but I’ll try—I will try,” and unmindful of her charge to him, Alice parted the damp curls clustering around his forehead, and looked into his face with an expression which made his heart bound and throb with the sudden hope that even now she loved him better than she supposed.