“How will you account for her condition, should his attendance be deemed necessary?”
Mrs. Loring shook her head.
“Events,” she answered, “are too recent, and my mind too much bewildered to say what course I may deem it the wisest policy to pursue. I must await the occasion, and govern myself accordingly.”
“Be very prudent, madam,” said Mr. Dexter. “A single error may wreck everything.”
“Her reputation is as dear to me as my own,” replied Mrs. Loring, “and you may be very sure, that I will guard it as a most precious thing. The warning as to circumspection I pass to you.”
Mr. Dexter made a movement to retire.
“I will see you in the morning,” he said, “and in the meantime, account for Jessie’s absence, by saying that she paid you a visit, going out imprudently, and found herself too much indisposed to return.”
Mrs. Loring merely inclined her head. A little while Dexter stood looking at her, embarrassment and trouble written on every feature. Then bowing coldly, he retired.
WHEN Mrs. Loring went back to her chamber, after Mr. Dexter withdrew from the house, she found Jessie in bed, lying as still as if asleep. She looked up when her aunt came to the bedside—at first with stealthy, half-timid glances—then with more of trust, that changed into loving confidence. Mrs. Loring bent down and kissed her.
“Oh, Aunt Phoebe! that was very cruel in him.”
“What was cruel, dear?”
The thoughts of Mrs. Loring went farther back than to the interview in her parlor.
“He tried to ruin me even in your regard.”
“But he failed, Jessie. I will not believe the lowest whisper of an evil report against you.”
“I am as pure in thought and as true in purpose, Aunt Phoebe, as when I went out from you. I do not love Mr. Dexter—I never loved him. Still that is no crime—only a necessity. He understood this in the beginning, and took the risk of happiness—so did I. But he was not satisfied with all that I could give. He wanted a heart, as well as a hand—a living, loving spirit, as well as a body. These he could not possess in me—for the heart loves not by compulsion. Then jealousy was born in his soul, and suspicion followed. Both were groundless. I felt a degrading sense of wrong; and at times, a spirit of rebellion. But I never gave place to a wandering thought—never gave occasion for wrong construction of my conduct. Ah, Aunt Phoebe! that marriage was a sad mistake. A union unblessed by love, is the commencement of a wretched life. It is the old story; and never loses its tragic interest. It was folly in the beginning, and it is madness now.”
Mrs. Loring would have questioned her niece closely as to the meaning of Mr. Dexter’s allusion to a certain individual as having been too intimate with his wife, but these closing remarks fell like rebuke upon her ears. She remembered how almost like a victim-lamb, Jessie had been led up to the marriage altar; and how she had overruled all objections, and appealing to her honor, had almost constrained her into the fulfillment of a promise that should never have been extorted. And so she remained silent.