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Chapter 24
The professor had the faults of an absent-minded man, and the peculiarities of a reticent one! Once his confidence was gained, there was little he withheld, and he never quite remembered what he had told or not told, and so, sometimes, blurted out a secret unwittingly.

It was with no thought of mischief that he said to Montague, "The fellow's wife is dead!"

"Whose?" asked that young man in astonishment.

"Why, Lawson's!"

"Lawson's!" in incredulous horror; "he was not married?"

"Divorced, you know!"

Montague stopped short, the hazy, misty, spring-tide world reeled about him.

"He met me on the quadrangle this morning and told me." The professor did not[Pg 300] add that his haughty manner of doing so had been a most unpleasant and rankling memory all the day; nor did he know that his uneasiness was the cause of his confidence.

"Said that, as I had known the other, he wished me to know this; as if it mattered," testily.

"How long have you known?"

"Since—since Christmas." The professor was hot and cold, and saw with lightning glance his blunder.

But Montague's manner assured him quickly. His instant return to the subject in hand, his quick and voluble speaking on the affairs they had come out to discuss, blinded him. He had been a fool, he told himself, but it made no difference. It did.

They had been sauntering about the farm and out to the edge of the corn-field. Bill at the farther end was replanting. The crows overhead called raucously, the mountain at their side ran sheer to the sky-line with its waves of color, gray, green, and vivid green. The valley far below [Pg 301]shimmered in the heat, and the far-off mountains beyond it lifted slumberous peaks into the veiling blue haze. Montague had felt all its beauty to the full; with his soft hat pulled over his eyes, and his hands thrust in his pockets, he had been loitering happily about showing the professor his spring work.

It had been a season of unnamable happiness to him; joy after joy undreamed, because it was unknown, had blossomed in his heart, like the sweet spring flowers in the circle of the flower-plot, unseen, unthought-of, until they lifted their heads into the sunny atmosphere, and all the world was more beautiful for their coming; hopes and plans were unfolding about his life like the leaves on the old oaks, slowly, sturdily, of beautiful growth, and steady persistence; the sunny atmosphere of love enwrapped him and brought into his life—restrained and chary of giving its best gifts, though steadfast, true, and deep—thoughts beautiful as the butterflies unfolding their wings, and sweet as the apple-blossoms flushing the[Pg 302] orchard behind the great house, which was no longer empty and lonely, but was filled with a visionary presence.

Now its sunshine was blotted out at a word. He shivered a little as they turned back. "Bring the mare around to the front!" he called as they passed the stable. "I think I will ride back with you!" he added to Mr. Holloway.

He left the professor to attend to some affairs in town, and when he got out to the University he found that Frances was lazily asleep. He sent to ask if she would take a ride, and waited with no show of impatience until she came running down the stair, habited and gloved.

"A ride!" she called. "How delightful! If I had had Starlight, I should not have been so lazy, but father was out with you. Has he any new suggestions?"

"Not one!" Montague smiled, and in the darkened room, Frances did not notice how white he was.

"We had better hurry!" she said, "or we will lose the sunset."

[Pg 303]

Montague opened the door as she spoke. The shadows of the maples stretched long across the quadrangle, and the corridor and houses across the way shimmered in the low and golden sunlight. The vine about the pillar stretched brave new tendrils upward, and proudly waved its glossy leaves.

Frances, with quick sight for each beauty of the outside world and ready speech of field and flower and wayside growth and bloom, kept her own blithe atmosphere about her, as they rode.

Far out where the road climbed high, she drew rein. They were in time for the sunset glory. It flooded the valley below them with mystic light, kindled the skies beyond the hill-tops with scarlet fires, against which the peaks loomed dark, and sent banners of trailing clouds far over the zenith.

With hands clasped upon the pommel, she watched the scene with delighted eyes. Montague pulled his horse close to hers, and leaned over, his hand on Starlight's mane. So, with the golden light of the sun [Pg 304]streaming around her, he could see every line of her face.

What he had to say to her he had determined to say shortly, bravely, with no embroidery of verbiage.

"Frances," he said as he watched her intently, "I heard to-day that Lawson's wife was dead; did you know it?"

Frances straightened in her saddle as if she had been struck. Her eyes, which had been dark and dreamy, flashed. "Yes," she said shortly, "I knew it!"

"Does it make any difference with you?"

"How dare you?"

"It's not a question of daring," he said simply, "but of truth. You remember last winter—" he went on mercilessly.

Frances pulled up her loosened reins. "We had better turn here," she said coldly.

But Montague never moved his hand. "'Turn here'?" He spoke of the way of their love and she read his hidden meaning aright. "Perhaps, but not now. You know, I know that you know, that I value your own happiness beyond my own. I have[Pg 305] thought—but maybe your happiness does not lie with me, Frances?"

She was silent, a curve on her lips he had never seen and did not like to see.

"Are you sure?" he persisted.

"No!" she flashed, "I am sure of nothing, certainly of nothing a man will say or do!"

"It is no time for such words," said Montague; "you know I love you, I could never tell you how much! Day by day I might show you, prove to you—

"I believe," he flushed a little as he spoke, "I could make you happy. But I must give you this opportunity; if there has been any mistake you—you can turn back.

"Only if you wish." He had begun with renunciation; manlike he was ending with pleading. "We have been so happy," he pleaded. He saw the tremble of her lip, "I believe, I believe I could make you happy," he pleaded the old words again.

The reins hung loosened on Starlight's neck, Montague's hand slipped along the horse's mane until it rested on hers.

"Knows so little, knows so little!" rang a[Pg 306] voice in Frances' ears. She stole a glance at him as he waited. She knew, looking through veiled lids, the lithe figure, the strong, earnest face and grave, serious eyes; knew his sunny nature, his strength, his clean, honest love for her. She remembered the agony of the day she thought him dead; she remembered the joy of finding him alive; she remembered the happiness of the days afterward—for they had been happy.

"Frances!" he pleaded, "I am waiting."

She straightened herself in her saddle, and picked up the reins. There was a demure smile on her red lips, and a flash of amusement in the dark eyes the young man could not see for the drooping lashes.

"Suppose we take the road ahead and ride around the other way home—then," with a careless look along the road behind her, "then we need not turn back."

THE END


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