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CHAPTER XXXV. MAN PROPOSES.
Ten days had passed, and during those ten days Gwen had met both Hiram and Colin on two or three occasions. Each time she saw them together she was careful to talk a great deal more with the young American than with his English companion. At last, one Sunday afternoon, both the young men 'had gone out to the Villa Panormi with Audouin, for a cup of afternoon tea in the garden; and after tea was over, they had stolen away in pairs down the long alleys of oranges, and among the broken statues and tazzas filled with flowers upon the mouldering balustraded Italian terraces. 'Come with me, Mr. Winthrop,' Gwen cried gaily to Hiram (with a side glance at Colin once more to see how he took it). 'I want to show you such a lovely spot for one of your pretty little watercolour sketches—a bower of clematis, with such great prickly pears and aloes for the foreground, that I'm sure you'll fall in love with the whole picture the moment you see it.'

Hiram followed her gladly down to the arbour, a little corner at the bottom of the garden, rather English than Italian in its first conception, but thickly overgrown with tangled masses of sub-tropical vegetation. It's very pretty,' he said, 'certainly very pretty. Just the sort of thing that Mr. Audouin would absolutely revel in.'

'Shall I call him?' Gwen asked, going to the door of the arbour and looking about her carelessly. 'He must be somewhere or other hereabout.'

'Oh no, don't, Miss Russell,' Hiram answered hastily. 'He's having a long talk with Churchill about art, from what I overheard. Don't disturb them. Mr. Audouin has a wonderful taste in art, you know: I love to hear him talk about it in his own original pellucid fashion.'

'You're very fond of him, aren't you?' Gwen asked, looking at him with her big beautiful eyes. 'Is he any relation of yours?' 'Relation!' Hiram cried, 'oh dear no, Miss Bussell. But he's been so kind to me, so very kind to me! You can't imagine how much I owe to Mr. Audouin.'

He said it so earnestly, and seemed to want so much to talk about him, that Gwen sat down upon the stone seat in the little arbour and answered with womanly interest, 'Tell me all about it, then, Mr. Winthrop. I should like to hear how you came to pick up with him.'

Thus encouraged, Hiram, to his own immense astonishment, let loose the floodgates of his pent-up speech, and began to narrate the whole story of his lonely childhood, and of his first meeting with Audouin in the primeval woods of Geauga County. He was flattered that Gwen should have asked him indirectly for his history: more flattered still to find that she listened to his hasty reminiscences with evident attention. He told her briefly about his early attempts at drawing in the blackberry bottom; how the deacon had regarded his artistic impulses as so many proofs of original sin; how he had followed the trappers out into the frozen woodland; how he had met Audouin there by accident; and how Audouin had praised his drawings and encouraged him in his fancies, being the first human being he had ever known who cared at all for any of these things. 'And when you spoke so kindly about my poor little landscape the other day, Miss Russell,' he added, looking down and hesitating, 'I felt more happy than I had ever felt before since that day so long ago, in the woods away over yonder in America.'

But Gwen only smiled back a frank smile of unaffected sympathy, and answered warmly, 'I'm so glad you think so much of my criticism, I'm sure, Mr. Winthrop.'

Then Hiram went on and told her how he had worked and struggled at school and college, and at the block-cutting establishment; and how he had longed to go to England and be an artist; and how he had never got the opportunity. And then he spoke of the first day he had ever seen Gwen herself by the Lake of the Thousand Islands.

Till that moment it hadn't struck Gwen how very earnest Hiram's voice was gradually growing; but as he came to that first chance meeting at Alexandria Bay, she couldn't help observing that his lips began to tremble a little, and that his words were thick with emotion. For a second she thought she ought to rise up and suggest that they should join the others over yonder in the garden: but then she changed her mind again, and felt sure she must be mistaken. The young American artist could never mean to have the boldness to propose to her on the strength of so little encouragement. And besides, his story was really so interesting, and she was so very anxious to hear out the rest of it to the very end.

'And so you liked England immensely?' she asked him, when he reached in due course that part of his simple straightforward confidences. 'I wonder you didn't stop there and take regularly to landscape painting.'

'I was sorely tempted to stop,' Hiram answered, daring to look her straight in the eyes now; for he almost flattered himself she knew what he was going to say to her next.

'I came away from England most reluctantly, at Mr. Audouin's particular request: but I longed at the time to remain, for I had borne two words ringing in my ears from America to England, and those two words were just two names—Gwen and Chester.'

Gwen started away suddenly with a half-frightened expression, and said to him in a colder tone, 'Why, what do you mean? Explain yourself, please, Mr. Winthrop. My name you know is Gwen, and papa and I used once to live in Chester.'

Hiram took her hand timidly in his with an air of gentle command, and made her sit down again once more for a minute upon the seat in the arbour. 'You must hear me out to the end now, Miss Bussell,' he said in a very soft, firm voice, 'whatever comes of it. You mustn't go away yet. I didn't mean to speak so soon, but I have been hurried into it. I've staked my whole existence on a single throw, and you mustn't run away and leave me in the midst of it undecided.'

Gwen turned pale with nervousness, and withdrew her hand, but sat quite still, and listened to him attentively.

'From the first moment I ever saw you, Miss Russell,' he went on passionately, 'I felt you were the only woman I had ever loved or ever could love. I didn't know your full name, or who you were, or where you lived; but I heard your father call you Gwen, and I heard you say you had been at Chester. Those were the only two things I knew at all about you. And from the day when I saw you there looking over my sketch beside the Thousand Islands, I kept those two names of Gwen and Chester engraved upon my heart until I came to Europe. I keep one of them engraved there still until this very minute. And whatever you say to me, I shall keep it there unaltered until I die.... Oh, Miss Russell, I don't want you to give me an answer at once, I hope you won't give me an answer at once, because I can see from your face what that answer would most likely be: but I love you, I love you, I love you; and as long as I live I shall always, always love you.'

'I think, Mr. Winthrop,' Gwen said, slowly rising and hesitating, 'we ought to go back now and join the others.'

Hiram looked at her with a concentrated look of terror and despair that fairly frightened her. 'Not for one moment yet,' he whispered quite softly, 'not for one moment yet, I beg and pray of you. I have something else still to say to you.'

Gwen faltered for another second, and then stood still and listened passively.

'Miss Russell,' he began again, with white lips and straining eyeballs, 'I don't want you to give me an answer yet; but I do want you to wait a little and consider with yourself before you give me it. If you say no to me all at once, you will kill me, you will kill me. I have lived for so many weary years in this hope, so long deferred, that it has become a part, as it were, of my very being, and you can't tear it out of me now without lacerating and rending me. But I thought—I fancied—it was wildly presumptuous of me, but still I fancied—that this last week or two you had been more kind to me, more interested in me, more tolerant of me at least, than you used to be formerly.'

Gwen's heart smote her with genuine remorse when she heard that true accusation. Poor young fellow! She had undoubtedly led him into it, and she felt thoroughly ashamed of herself for the cruel ruse she had unwittingly practised upon him. Who would ever have thought, though, that the Yankee painter was really and truly so much in love with her?

She sighed slightly; for no woman can hear a man declare his heartfelt admiration for herself without emotion; and then she answered feebly, 'I... I... I only said I admired your pictures immensely, Mr. Winthrop.' Hiram could hardly gasp out a few words more. 'Oh, Miss Russell, don't give me an answer yet, don't give me an answer yet, I implore you. Wait and think it over a little while, and then answer me. You have never thought of me before in this way, I can see; you haven't any idea about me: wait and think it over, and remember that my whole life and happiness hangs upon it. Wait, oh! please wait and think it over.'

He pleaded with so much earnestness in his tone, and he looked so eagerly into her swimming eyes, that Gwen forgot for the moment his Yankee accent and his plain face and his unpolished manners, and saw him only as he was, an eager lover, begging her for mercy with all the restrained energy of a deep and self-contained but innately passionate nature. She could not help but pity him, he was so thoroughly and profoundly in earnest. For a moment her heart was really touched, not with love, but with infinite compassion, and she answered, half remorsefully, 'I'm afraid I can't hold you out much hope, Mr. Winthrop; but it shall be as you say; I will think it over, and let you have my full answer hereafter.' Hiram seized her hand eagerly. She tried to withdraw it, but he would not let her. 'Thank you,' he cried almost joyously; 'thank you, thank you! Then you don't refuse me utterly; you don't reject me without appeal; you will take my plea into consideration? I will not ask you again. I will not obtrude myself upon your notice unwillingly; but let me know in a fortnight. Do take a fortnight; my whole life is staked upon it; let it have a fortnight.'

Gwen's eyes were brimmed with two rising tears as she answered, trembling, 'Very well, it shall be a fortnight. Now we must go, Mr. Winthrop. We've stopped here too long. The others will be waiting for us.' And she drew her hand away from his as quietly as she was able, but not without a certain small inobtrusive sympathetic pressure. In her heart she pitied him.

As she passed out and joined the party at the far end of the garden, Hiram noticed that she didn't go up to speak at once to Colin Churchill. She let Audouin, nothing loth, lead her off down the alley of orange trees, and there she began speaking to him as if quite casually about Hiram.

'Your friend Mr. Winthrop has been telling me how kind you've been to him, and how much he owes to you,' she said, twirling a flower nervously between her fingers. 'How good of you to do all that you have done for him! Do you know, I quite envy you your opportunities for discovering such a genius in neglected places. I didn't know before, Mr. Audouin, that among all your other good qualities you were also a philanthropist. But your protégé there is quite warm and enthusiastic about all your goodness and kindness to him both here and in America.'

She looked straight at him all unconsciously as she spoke, and her eyes, though of course she had hastily wiped them on leaving the arbour, glistened a little still with the two tears that had risen unbidden to their lids when she was talking a minute before with Hiram. Audouin noticed the glistening with a quiet delight, and naturally coupled that and her words together into a mistaken meaning. 'If only we were quite alone now,' he thought to himself regretfully, 'this would be the exact moment to say what I wish to her. But no matter; another opportunity will crop up before long, I don't doubt, and then I can speak to her quite at my leisure.'

As for Gwen, when she found herself alone in her room that evening, she sat down in the easy-chair by the bedside, and took a most unconscionable time in unfastening her necklet and earrings, and putting them away one by one in the little jewel-case. 'He's very much in love with me, that's certain,' she said to herself meditatively. 'Who could ever have imagined it? I never should have talked to him so much if I had fancied he could possibly have misunderstood me. Poor fellow, I'm awfully sorry for him. And how dreadfully distressed he looked when I didn't answer him! It quite made me take a sort of fancy to him for the moment.... What a romantic history, too! Fell in love with me at first sight, that day by the Thousand Islands! And I never even so much as looked at him..... This necklet doesn't at all become me. I shall get another one next time I go down the Corso.... But he paints beautifully, and no doubt about it; and that charming Mr. Audouin says he's really quite an artistic genius. I'm positively grieved with myself that I shall have to refuse him. He'll break his heart over it, poor young man; I'm sure he'll break his heart over it. Of course one doesn't mind breaking most men's hearts one bit, because, you see, in the long run they're none the worse for it. But this young Mr. Winthrop's another sort of person; if you break his heart, just this one time only, that'll be the end of him at once and for ever.... And what an unhappy life he seems to have had of it, too! One would be quite sorry to add to it by making him miserable with a refusal..... Ah, well, he's really a very good sort of young man in his way. What a pity he should be an American!... And yet why should Americans differ so much from other people, I wonder? What a wistful look he gave me when he asked me not to answer him now immediately. Upon my word, in a sort of way I really do like him just a little bit, the poor young fellow.'


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