“I will not hear you!” exclaimed Miss Loring, starting to her feet. But Hendrickson caught her hand and restrained her by force.
“You must hear me!” he answered passionately.
“I dare not!”
“This once! I must speak now, and you must hear! God has given you freedom of thought and freedom of will. Let both come into their true activity. The holiest things of your life demand this, Miss Loring. Sit down and be calm again, and let us talk calmly. I will repress all excitement, and speak with reason. You shall hearken and decide. There—I thank you”—
Jessie had resumed her seat.
“We have read each other’s hearts, Miss Loring,” Hendrickson went on. His voice had regained its firmness, and he spoke in low, deep, emphatic tones. “I, at least, have read yours, and you know mine. Against your own convictions and your own feelings, you have been coerced into an engagement of marriage with a man you do not, and never can, love as a wife should love a husband. Consummate that engagement, and years of wretchedness lie before you. I say nothing of Mr. Dexter as regards honor, probity, and good feeling. I believe him to be a man of high integrity. His character before the world is blameless—his position one to be envied. But you do not love him—you cannot love him. Nay it is idle to repel the assertion. I have looked down too deeply into your heart. I know how its pulses beat, Jessie Loring! There is only one living man who has the power to unlock its treasures of affection. To all others it must remain eternally sealed. I speak solemnly—not vainly. And your soul echoes the truth of my words. It is not yet too late!”
“You should not have said this, Mr. Hendrickson!” Jessie resolutely disengaged the hand he had taken, and was clasping with almost vice-like pressure, and arose to her feet. He did not rise, but sat looking up into her pale suffering face, with the light of hope, which for a moment had flushed his own, fast decaying.
“You should not have said this, Mr. Hendrickson!” she repeated, in a steadier voice. “It is too late, and only makes my task the harder—my burden heavier. But God helping me, I will walk forward in the right path, though my feet be lacerated at every step.”
“Is it a right path, Miss Loring? I declare it to be the wrong path!” said Hendrickson.
“Let God and my own conscience judge!” was firmly answered. “And now, sir, leave me. Oh, leave me.”
“And you are resolute?”
“I am! God being my helper, I will go forward in the path of duty. When I faint and fall by the way through weakness, the trial will end.”
“Friends, wealth, social attractions—all that the world can give will be yours. But my way must be lonely—my heart desolate. I shall be”—
“Go, sir!” Miss Loring’s voice was imperative, and there was a flash like indignation in her eyes. “Go sir!” she repeated. “This is unmanly!”