“I can’t, of course. You know I can’t.”
“Why not? If my company is objectionable I can go away when you come. If you dislike me I—”
“You know I don’t dislike you personally.”
“I’m awfully glad of that.”
“But it’s impossible. Uncle respects and is fond of Aunt Keziah, but he wouldn’t hear of my visiting the parsonage.”
“But don’t you think your uncle might be persuaded? I’m sure he misunderstands me, just as I should him if it weren’t for Mrs. Coffin—and what you’ve said. Don’t you think if I called on him and he knew me better it might help matters? I’ll do it gladly. I will!”
“No, no. He wouldn’t listen. And think of your own congregation.”
“Confound my congregation!”
“Why, Mr. Ellery!”
She looked at him in amazement; then her lips began to curl.
“Why, Mr. Ellery!” she repeated.
The minister turned very red and drew his hand across his forehead.
“I—I don’t mean that exactly,” he stammered. “But I’m not a child. I have the right to exercise a man’s discretion. My parish committee must understand that. They shall! If I choose to see you—Look out!”
She was close to the overhanging edge of the bluff and the sod upon which she stood was bending beneath her feet. He sprang forward, caught her about the waist, and pulled her back. The sod broke and rattled down the sandy slope. She would have had a slight tumble, nothing worse, had she gone with it. There was no danger; and yet the minister was very white as he released her.
She, too, was pale for a moment, and then crimson.
“Thank you,” she gasped. “I—I must go. It is late. I didn’t realize how late it was. I—I must go.”
He did not answer, though he tried to.
“I must go,” she said hurriedly, speaking at random. “Good afternoon. Good-by. I hope you will enjoy your walk.”
“I have enjoyed it.” His answer was unstudied but emphatic. She recognized the emphasis.
“Will you come to see Mrs. Coffin?” he asked.
“No, no. You know I can’t. Good-by. The sunset is beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Yes. I—I think the sunsets from this point are the finest I have ever seen. I come here every Sunday afternoon to see them.”
This remark was given merely to cover embarrassment, but it had an unexpected effect.
“You do?” cried the minister. The next moment he was alone. Grace Van Horne had vanished in the gloom of the pine thickets.
It was a strange John Ellery who walked slowly back along the path, one that Keziah herself would not have recognized, to say nothing of Captain Elkanah and the parish committee. The dignified parson, with the dignified walk and calm, untroubled brow, was gone, and here was an absent-minded young fellow who stumbled blindly along, tripping over roots and dead limbs, and caring nothing, apparently, for the damage to his Sunday boots and trousers which might result from the stumbles. He saw nothing real, and heard nothing, not even the excited person who, hidden behind the bayberry bush, hailed him as he passed. It was not until this person rushed forth and seized him by the arm that he came back to the unimportant affairs of this material earth.