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CHAPTER XXXIX. GWEN'S DECISION.
There were five days yet to run before the expiration of the fortnight which Gwen had promised to give to the consideration of Hiram's proposal, and in the course of those five days Gwen met her Yankee admirer again, quite accidentally, on two separate occasions, though both times in company with other people. Half insensibly to herself, since the sudden collapse of that little bubble fancy about Colin Churchill, she had begun to take a somewhat different view of poor Hiram's earnest entreaty. Of course she didn't in the least intend to say yes to him at last, in spite of Cecca's timely disclosures; she wasn't the sort of girl to go and throw herself into the arms of the very first man who happened to ask her, for no better reason in the world than merely because she had just met with a first serious disappointment; but still, she couldn't help reflecting to herself how deeply the young American was in love with her, and contrasting his eager, single-hearted, childlike devotion with the English sculptor's utter insensibility and curious indifference. Ah, yes, there could be no denying that much at any rate, that Hiram Winthrop was most profoundly and desperately in love with her. Love at first sight, too! How very romantic! He had carried away her image for ever with him through all these long weary years, ever since the day when he first met her, so long ago, by the merest accident, beside the Lake of the Thousand Islands.

A first serious disappointment, did she say? Well, well, that was really making a great deal too much, even to herself, of a girl's mere passing maidenly fancy. She had never herself been actually in love—not to say exactly in love, you know—with Mr. Colin Churchill. Oh, no, she had never gone so far as that, of course, even in her most unguarded moments of self-abandoned day-dreaming. Girls will have their fancies, naturally, and one can't prevent them; you think a particular young man is rather nice, and rather handsome, and rather agreeable; and you imagine to yourself that if he were to pay you any very marked attentions, don't you know—well there, one can't help having one's little personal preferences, anyhow, now can one? But as to saying she was ever really in love with Mr. Churchill—why, how can you possibly ever be in love with a man who never for a single moment takes as much as the slightest notice of you? And yet—how odd!—men and women must certainly be very differently constituted in these respects, when one comes to think of it; for that poor little Mr. Winthrop had been madly in love with her for years and years, almost without her ever even so much as for one moment discovering it or suspecting it!

Oh, no, she had never been in the least in love with Mr. Colin Churchill. And even if she had been (which she hadn't, but only—well, what you may call rather struck with him, he was such a very clever sculptor, and she was always so fond of artists' society)—but still, even if she had been (just to put the case, you know), she couldn't think of going on with it any further now, of course, for it wouldn't be Christian to try and entice that poor little governess girl's lover away from her, even if it hadn't been the case that she had been once upon a time a common servant. Poor little thing! though it was a pity that Mr. Churchill should ever think of throwing himself away on such an utter little nonentity as she was, still it would be very hard on her undoubtedly, if, after she had taken the trouble to raise herself as much as she could into his position in life, she should go and lose her lover after all, that she had so long been looking up to. Yes, in its own way it was a very proper arrangement indeed that Mr. Churchill should end at last by marrying the poor little dowdy governess.

And yet he was a very great sculptor, to be sure, and she, Gwen, had always had a wonderful fancy for marrying an artist.

But Mr. Winthrop's landscapes were really very beautiful too; and after all, painters are so very much more human in the end than those cold, impassive, marble-hearted sculptors. And what a lonely life Mr. Winthrop had always led! and how he seemed to yearn and hunger and thirst, as he spoke to her, for warm living and human sympathy! He had never had a sister, he said, and his mother, crushed and wearied by hard farm life and his father's religious sternness, had died while he was still a mere schoolboy. And he had never known anybody he could love but Gwen, except only, of course, dear Mr. Audouin; and after all, say what you will of it, a man, you know, a man is not a woman. Poor fellow, in her heart of hearts she was really sorry for him. And what a rage papa would be in, too, if only she were to accept him!

Papa would certainly be in a most dreadful temper; that was really quite undeniable. Gwen hardly knew herself, in fact, what ever he would do or say to her. He had a most unreasoning objection to artists in the concrete, regarding them, in fact, as scarcely respectable, and he had a still more unreasoning objection to all Americans, whom he hated, root and branch, as a set of vulgar, obtrusive, upstart nobodies. To be sure, Mr. Winthrop, now, was by no means obtrusive: quite the contrary; nor was he even vulgar, though he did certainly speak with a very faint American accent; and as to his being a nobody, why, if it came to that, of course it was papa himself who was really the nobody (though he was a Howard-Russell and a colonel in the line), while Mr. Winthrop was a very clever and interesting artist. So in fact, if,—just to put the case again—she ever did decide upon accepting him, she wasn't going to stand any nonsense of that sort from papa, you know, and that was just the long and the short of it.

With a girl of Gwen's high-spirited temperament it is probable that Hiram could hardly have had a better ally in his somewhat hopeless suit than this dim hypothetical consciousness on her part of the colonel's decided objection to Hiram as a possible husband.

If you want very much to marry a girl like Gwen, suggest to her incidentally, as you make your offer, that her parents will of course be very much opposed to a marriage between you. If that doesn't decide her to take your view of the matter, nothing on earth will, you may depend upon it.

And so the fortnight sped away, and at the end of it, Hiram Winthrop came up, as if by accident, one morning early to the Villa Panormi. The earl and the colonel were having a quiet game, with their after-breakfast cigars, in the billiard-room, and Hiram and Gwen had the big salon entirely to themselves for their final interview.

As Hiram entered, hardly daring to hope, and pale with restrained passion, Gwen had already made up her mind beforehand that she must say no to him: but at the very sight of his earnest face and worn eyelids her resolution suddenly faltered. He was desperately in love with her:—that was certain; she could hardly find it in her heart to dismiss him summarily. She would delay and temporise with him just for the moment. Poor fellow, if she blurted it out to him too bluntly and hastily, it might almost stun him. She would break her refusal to him gently, very gently.

'Well, Miss Russell,' he said to her eagerly, taking her hand as he entered with a faint hesitating pressure, 'you see I have come back for my answer; but before you give it to me, for good or for evil, there are one or two matters yet that I want to talk over with you very particularly.'

Gwen trembled a little as she seated herself on the big centre ottoman, and answered nervously, 'Well, Mr. Winthrop, then let me hear them.'

'I ought to plead for myself,' Hiram went on in a feverish voice, looking down on the ground and then up in her face alternately every half second. 'I ought to plead for myself with all my power, and all my soul, and all my energy, Miss Russell; for though to you this is only a matter of saying yes or no to one more suitor—and no doubt you have had many—to me it is a matter of life and death, for I never in my life for one moment imagined that I loved or could love any other woman; and if you refuse me now, I never in my life shall love another. If you refuse me, I shall lose heart altogether, and throw up this foolish painting business at once and for ever, and go back again to drive the plough and cut the corn once more in my own country. To that I have made my mind up irrevocably; so I ought to plead for myself, seeing how much is at stake, with all my heart and soul and energy.'

Gwen crumpled up the corners of the oriental antimacassar in her tremulous fingers as she answered very softly, 'I should be sorry to think you meant to do anything so unwise and so unjust to the world and to yourself on my account, Mr. Winthrop.'

'I ought to plead for myself, and to plead only,' Hiram went on, like one who has got a message to deliver and feels impelled to deliver it without heed of interruptions. 'I ought to say nothing that might in any way interfere with any faint chance I may possibly possess of winning your favour. I know how little likely I am to succeed, and I can't bear to make my own case seem still weaker and feebler to you. But, Miss Russell, before you answer me—and I'm not going to let you answer me yet, until you have heard me to the end fully—there are one or two things more I feel constrained to say to you. I want to make you understand exactly what you will have to do and to put up with if by any chance you promise to marry me.' (Gwen blushed slightly at the word, so seriously spoken, but could not take her eyes away from his earnest face as he still went on rapidly speaking.) 'In the first place, I am a very poor painter, and I have nothing on earth but my art to live upon.'

'If that were all,' Gwen said, unconsciously taking his part, as it were, 'I don't think that to be an artist's wife, however poor he may be, is a life that any woman on earth need be anything but proud of.'

'Thank you,' Hiram said fervidly, looking up at her once more with a sudden gleam of newborn hope upon his pale worn countenance. 'Thank you, thank you. I know you are one of those who can value art at its true worth, and I was sure before I spoke that that at least need be no barrier between us. And as I am an American, and as proud of my old Puritan New England ancestry as any gentleman in old England could possibly be of his Norman forefathers or his broad acres, I won't pretend to apologise to you on the score of birth, or connections, or social position. That is a thing, if you will excuse my saying so, Miss Russell, that no American can under any circumstances stoop to do. Your father is proud, I know; but every descendant of the New England pilgrims is indeed in his own democratic way a great deal prouder.'

That was a point of view that, to say the truth, had never struck Gwen before as even possible; still, as Hiram said it, so boldly and unaffectedly, she felt in her heart that it was really nothing more than the truth, and though she couldn't quite understand it or sympathise with the feeling, she respected him for it, and admired his open manliness in saying it so straightforwardly.

'But while I think nothing of what your own relations would doubtless consider the disparity in our positions,' Hiram went on earnestly, 'I do think a great deal of this—that I have at present absolutely no means of my own upon which to marry. If you consent, as I begin to hope you will consent, to be my wife, sooner or later, we may have to wait a long long time, perhaps even for years, before we can marry. I have risked everything upon my success as a painter. I have eaten up my capital to keep myself alive through my student period. I can find no purchasers now for the pictures I am painting. And I don't know whether the public will ever care to buy them at all, because I can't make up my own mind, even, whether I really am or am not a tolerable painter.'

'Upon that point, Mr. Winthrop,' Gwen said decidedly, 'I haven't myself the very slightest doubt or hesitation. I know you are a painter, and a very touching one; and I'm sure the world must find it out some day, sooner or later.'

Quite unconsciously to himself, Hiram was playing his own game in the very surest possible manner by seeming to take sides for the moment against himself, and so compelling Gwen, out of the mere necessities of the conversation, to argue the case for the defence with all a woman's momentary impetuosity.

'But I ought to have thought of all this before I ever spoke to you at all,' he went on earnestly. 'I ought to have reflected how cruel it was of me to ask you for a promise when I couldn't even tell whether I might ever be in a position to enable you to perform it. It was wrong of me, very wrong; and I felt angry with myself for having been led into doing it, the minute after I left you. But I was betrayed into my confession by the accidents of the moment. You must forgive me, because I had loved you so long—and so silently. I wouldn't have spoken to you even then if I hadn't imagined—it was ever so wrong and foolish of me, but still I imagined—that you seemed just then to be a little more interested than before in my work and my future. Oh, Miss Russell, I have loved you desperately; and I ventured, therefore, in a moment of haste to tell you that I loved you. But if you say yes to me to-day, it may be years and years, perhaps, before we can marry. I can't say when or how I may ever begin to earn my livelihood at all by painting pictures.'

'If I really loved a man, Mr. Winthrop,' Gwen answered in a lower voice, 'I shouldn't be afraid to wait for him as long as ever circumstances compelled it—if I really loved him. And apart altogether from that question, which you say I am not at present to answer, I can't believe that the world will be much longer yet in discovering that you have genius—yes, I will say genius. Mr. Churchill himself declares he is quite certain you have real genius.

Hiram smiled and shook his head incredulously. 'Still,' he said, 'it is at least some comfort to me to know that, putting the matter in its most abstract form, you have no absolute objection to a long engagement. If you loved a man, you would be ready to wait for him. I knew you would, indeed, like every brave and true woman. I didn't doubt that you could be steadfast enough to wait; I only doubted whether it would be just of any man to beg you to wait under such more than doubtful circumstances. But, remember, Miss Russell, I have this excuse to plead in my own case, that it wasn't the passing fancy of a moment, but a love that has grown with me into my very being. There is only one more consideration now before I go on to ask you that final answer to my question, and it is this. You must reflect whether you would be willing to brave the anger of your father. I can't disguise from myself the fact that Colonel Howard-Russell would be very ill satisfied at the idea of your waiting to marry a penniless unknown American painter.'

Gwen looked at him proudly, almost defiantly, as she answered in a clear bold tone, 'If I loved a man really, Mr. Winthrop, I would marry him and wait for him as long as I chose, even if my father cast me off for it for ever the very next minute. If ever I marry I shall marry because I have consulted my own heart, and not because I have consulted my father.'

'I knew that too,' Hiram answered, with just a touch of triumph in his trembling voice. 'I only spoke to you about it because I thought it right to clear the ground entirely for my final question. Then, Gwen, Gwen, Gwen—I will call you Gwen for this once in my life, if I never call you Gwen again as long as I live here; I have thought of you as Gwen for all these years, and I will think of you so still, whatever comes, till my dying minute—oh, Gwen, Gwen, Gwen, I ask you finally—and all my life hangs upon the question—can you love me, will you love me, do you love me?'

Gwen let him fold her passionately in his arms as she murmured twice, almost inaudibly, 'I love you! I love you!'

Yes, yes, she couldn't any longer herself withstand the conviction. She loved him. She loved him.

As for Hiram, the blood thrilled through his veins as though his heart would burst for very fulness. The dream of his existence had come true at last, and he cared for nothing else on earth now he had once heard Gwen say with her own dear lips that she loved him, she loved him.


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