The first to regain self-possession was Miss Loring. With a quick motion she withdrew her hand, and moved back a single step. The mantling flush left her brow, and the startled eyes looked calmly into the young man’s face.
“Have you been away from the city, Mr. Hendrickson?” she inquired, in a voice that gave but few signs of feeling.
“No.” He could not trust himself to utter more than a single word.
“I have missed you from the old places,” she said.
“Have you? It is something, even to be missed?” He could not suppress the tremor in his voice.
Jessie almost sprang past him, and hurried away. The tempter was at her side; and she felt it to be an hour of weakness. She must either yield or fly—and she fled; fled with rapid unsteady feet, pausing not until the door of her own chamber shut out all the world and left her alone with Heaven. Weak, trembling, exhausted she bowed herself, and in anguish of spirit prayed—
“Oh, my Father, sustain me! Give me light, strength, patience, endurance. I am walking darkly, and the way is rough and steep. Let me not fall. The floods roar about me—let me not sink beneath them. My heart is failing under its heavy burden. Oh, bear me up! The sky is black—show me some rift in the clouds, for I am fainting in this rayless night. And oh, if I dare pray for him—if the desire for his happiness springs from no wrong sentiment—let this petition find favor—as he asked that I might be kept spotless as the angels, so keep him; and after he has passed through the furnace, let not even the smell of fire be upon him. Send him a higher blessing than that which he has lost. Oh Lord, give strength to both—especially to her whose voice is now ascending, for she is weakest, and will have most to endure.”
For a long time after the murmur of prayer had died on her lips, Jessie remained prostrate. When she arose at last, it was with a slow, weary movement, dreary eyes, and absent manner. The shock of this meeting had been severe—disturbing her too profoundly for even the soothing influence of prayer. She did not arise from her knees comforted—scarcely strengthened. A kind of benumbing stupor followed.
“What ails the girl!” said Mrs. Loring to herself as she vainly strove at dinner-time to draw her forth into lively conversation. “She gets into the strangest states—just like her poor mother! And like her I’m afraid, sometimes, will make herself and every one else around her miserable. I pity Leon Dexter, if this be so. He may find that his caged bird will not sing. Already the notes are few and far between; and little of the old sweetness remains.”
A few days after the meeting between Mr. Hendrickson and Miss Loring, as just mentioned, Mr. Dexter received the following communication: