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The next morning I felt restless and anxious, expecting Mr. Egremont every moment. Zanita had resumed her perusal of the life of Rachel in undisturbed equanimity.
“Aunty,” she said, presently, “won’t you let me have a horse to ride? I feel so caged up in this small house and garden, I am sure it is that which gives me the headache!”
There was something so reasonable and yet so audacious in this request, at the moment when she ought to have considered herself in deep disgrace, that I paused before making her any reply. In that moment I perceived Mr. Egremont coming up the front garden. “Zanita, go to your room!” I said, peremptorily. She quickly descended from the back of the chair, where she had been perched like a squirrel, and left the room before Martha had attended the door. He came in looking haggard and worn as though he had not slept all night. After a cold salutation had passed we sat for some time in silence. I was trying to frame a speech sufficiently decisive yet without any acrimony, and nervously rejecting each sentence as it presented itself; but no sooner had I opened my lips to speak than he interrupted me with, “Pray, Mrs. Brown, do not upbraid me until you know all. I will tell you exactly as far as I remember, all that occurred, and then submit to whatever comments you may think fit to make.”
“Proceed!” I said.
“I called here last evening to see you, and was told by Martha that you were out, and as she did not seem inclined to let me in, I did not ask for Miss Zanita but went away. As I passed the window Zanita threw it up and said she wanted to speak to me, and I must get in at the window, which invitation I gladly obeyed. We talked a few minutes before she asked me to take a seat on the sofa by her side. She asked me for the flower I had in my buttonhole. I gave it to her with a compliment. She looked so beautiful I put my arm round her waist and kissed her,” said Egremont, wringing out the words as though he was at confession, and coloring like a girl.
“I am surprised, Mr. Egremont, that knowing the peculiar character of my ward, the anxiety I experience on her account, and the intimate footing upon which you have been received in this family, that you should wantonly enter upon a clandestine flirtation with Zanita!”
His handsome lips trembled and curved at this rebuke, and the hot color went and came painfully. He was silent for a few moments, and then said in a choked voice,
“The wanton and clandestine both do me injustice. I was absolutely fascinated and bewitched by her beauty, as I was the first time I saw her. The interview was entirely unpremeditated. But I will resume.
“The idea occurred to me that I should like to exert control over her. I hoped I might gain her devotion, and I thought I would like to try to mesmerize her. I had no thought but a mere experiment. I said something of the kind to her; she replied, ‘Take care, I may magnetize you, as the snakes do the rabbits.’ I believe that is substantially all that passed; I have no recollection whatever of any symptoms of sleep coming over me, or of any premonitory consciousness that I was falling asleep, such as we usually experience; and I swear to you on my honor and conscience this is the truth. My feelings toward Zanita are honorable, and I will be to her whatever she may desire,—friend, lover, or husband.”
“I am glad to hear you speak so frankly, and must accept your explanation, however strange and inexplicable it appears. May I ask, did you ever mesmerize any one before last night?”
“I have done so occasionally,” he replied, the warm wave again mantling his brow. “But that was in the regular way of making passes,” he added.
Unwilling to probe his suffering any further, I closed the interview, by saying, that the matter must rest upon Zanita’s feelings; that, for my own part, I did not wish her to engage herself as yet, still less to rush into such extraordinary proceedings as that of the previous evening; that I did not think her at all calculated to perform the duties of a wife; “nor should I wish,” I said, “to see you her husband, unless I knew more of you.”
He winced at this last remark, and said,—
“Has there been anything in my conduct that you have disapproved of before last night?”
“No,” I said; “but you must remember how little I know of your previous life, and the alarm I should feel at trusting such a wild unmanageable character as Zanita’s with an entire stranger.”
“Entire stranger!” he muttered bitterly, and wished me good-morning, with the understanding that he was to return on the morrow to receive Zanita’s answer to his proposition.
When I made what I considered a necessary explanation to Martha of the affair, desiring her not to mention it in the neighborhood, she exclaimed,
“O, my eyes and Betty Martin! Ma’am, don’t you go for to believe him. They were just a keepin’ company a sitting up with one another, as is reg’lar among young folks. Why, when I was cook aright away down East, there was a young man as used to come along reg’lar at dusk a sitting up with our young lady, an’ the parlor was always dusted a-purpose for them. An’ Mrs. Fishgill she used to make us creep about as quiet as mice, fear o’ disturbing on ’em. Why ma’am, it’s quite natural like, only I don’t see why they should a set so stiff at it. I thought they were dead. I’ll he blessed if I did not!”
I gave up the argument again, recommending discretion.
“All right, ma’am; I’m not the one to be blabbing, about ‘sitting up.’” My interview with Zanita was not more satisfactory.
“Why, aunty, you know what passed last night very well; you have been questioning Mr. Egremont.”
“Yes, my dear, and I want to see if he has told me the truth.”
“O yes,” she cried, “you want the equipoise of evidence. Well, aunty, he has told you the truth, for although he is an enormous false-hood on the whole, he never tells a direct lie. Now the difference between us is, that though I tell a thousand fibs I never practice deception, as he does.”
“Zanita!” I said, “do not talk nonsense; come to the point.”
“Well then, aunty, I called Mr. Egremont in and made him come through the window, as Martha had shut him out of the door. I asked him to sit on the sofa.” She went on talking rapidly as though it were all a matter of course. “He had a flower in his coat, and I asked him to give it to me. He said he should have offered it to me before, as it perfectly resembled me,—‘it was a scarlet camellia,’—but thought I did not care for flowers. I said I liked it, because it was his flower, and then he put his arm round me and kissed me, and I liked that too.”
“Zanita!” I said severely.
“O yes, I like him better than any one except you, aunty.”
I felt wretched, I had dreaded to hear this avowal, and had been hoping against hope.
“And would you like to marry him and become his wife?” I asked despairingly.
“O no, aunty! I could not be bothered!”
I laughed right out at this characteristic reply. Zanita never cared for any one more than would gratify her immediate purpose.
Of love, which in a woman consists of tenderness and devotion, her character was singularly devoid; they were emotions quite foreign and incomprehensible to her. Compassion for man or beast she knew not, and would as soon have strangled her lover as her pet kitten, and experienced no more remorse. When I laughed out at her queer reply, which, nevertheless, came so gratefully to me, she joined in with a terrible reckless glee, that looked almost fiendish upon that young beautiful face.
“O, Zanita!” I said, taking her delicate hand with its long taper fingers in mine. “My dear child, will you never learn to feel for any one but yourself, or reflect how much torture you inflict upon others in order that you may enjoy a small evanescent gratification?”
“What have I done to Mr. Egremont?”
“Zanita, you have done a very wicked thing. You have encouraged him to place his affections upon you, under the impression that they were reciprocated. You have schemed for and obtained from him the choicest and holiest gift a man can offer to a woman,—his heart and hand. And when you have succeeded in winning this, beyond his power to recall, then you reject scornfully the whole wealth of his soul which he has laid at your feet! My opinion is that a woman cannot be guilty of a more heinous and unpardonable sin. Heartlessness ought to be visited with equal reprobation as the weakness of over heartfullness. There is less real evil in the latter than the former.”
“As regards Mr. Egremont,” said Zanita, indifferently, “I don’t think he has either heart or hand to give, so you need not lament the gift thrown away. He admires me because I admire him, and no more; he will not break his heart any more than I shall; and as to his hand it is no doubt given away long ago.”
“What do you mean, Zanita?” for I fancied that with her usual trickiness she had slid into the latter suggestion the better to make out her case. She gave me one of her oblique furtive glances.
“You don’t know that he has not a wife and children in England, or wherever he comes from?” she said.
“Nonsense!” I replied, reprovingly. “Of course he has not. But it is not of consequence, any way, since you do not intend to accept him. I shall inform him of your decision.”
“Whatever you like, aunty,” she said, carelessly, taking up the part of Lady Teazle she was studying.
“Aunty!” she called in her most coaxing voice as I was leaving the room, “can’t I have a horse to ride?”
“I will see about it,”—and I left her.
When I rejoined the Professor in his study and recounted the various items of the inquirendo, he expressed himself highly satisfied with the result.
“I am heartily glad she has rejected him. She would have been the death of him,” laughed my husband. “She would ruin a whole county of men if she were allowed to marry them; and I am very certain,—as I told you when she was a mere infant,—that she is not qualified to form the happiness of any one. She ought to content herself with being wedded to her profession, and I suppose that unless some prince or premier makes her an offer, she will not think it worth while to be bothered, as she calls it.”
“She will never marry except from ambition or love of power,” I said; “yet it is one of the strangest cases of attraction—I will not call it love—I have ever witnessed. It commenced from the very first moment their eyes met, and thus might be classified as ‘Love at first sight.’ But Zanita does not love him, and asserts that he does not care for her, and of course she ought to know best.”
“And yet,” mused the Professor, “you tell me he made a formal offer to marry.”
“Yes, certainly; but I think he might be actuated by other motives than love. He possesses a great deal of that quality the French call respect humain, and would be very sorry to forfeit our good opinion; and the matter having been brought to a climax by the discovery last evening, he has seen no way out of the dilemma but honorable proposal.”
“Very probable,” said the Professor. “But admitting that to be the case, what is the attraction? How was the climax, as you term it, brought about?”
“That is a myth,” I said, “which none of my ologies have yet elucidated. What is love? What, especially at first sight? A man sees a young woman bearing a noble part in her family, enduring patiently a great burden of misery, or struggling heroically with the rough current of the world. He admires, and pities, and reasons logically that such noble qualities if transferred to a more genial soil and planted round his hearth would make his home an Eden. The interest deepens into affection, the pity into tenderness, which is all natural, reasonable, and comprehensible. But that is the passion of love, only in certain minds: love is usually erratic, unreasonable, unruly, and unconquerable. It rushes down like an avalanche, we know not from whence, we guess not whither. It changes all things, transforms the whole face of nature, beautifying, glorifying, and gilding all it approaches. It makes the stars to shine out, and the moon to be intensely bright. What lover does not see the moon bigger than erst was her wont to be? The veriest clown picks gently the flower he has trodden under his hob-nailed shoes all his life, and carries it to his Molly. Nature seems in sympathy with this master-passion of love, which, at the same time, is metamorphosing and making as wild work in our interior and exterior world. The same vivid delusions prevail, as concerning the size of the moon, the brilliancy of the stars, and the beauty of the flowers. This may be called the poetic phase, where love idealizes and makes life a romance. Poets sing it, and artists depict it. Along with it troop a noble band of devotion, worship, self-sacrifice, admiration. We drink it in as an elixir, sometimes accidentally, but often consciously; and like revelers in champagne we know that intoxication is to ensue; we know that the whole world is to be turned like a kaleidoscope, from dull, prosaic gray to rainbow tints of gorgeous hue; we know it is the same old dull piece of glass, but yet it is mingled with such ecstatic moments of faith in the blissful ideal, and disgust of the dronish real, that we clutch the flowing goblet and sip and sip till our souls are wraptin an elysium of bliss. This is all-absorbing love.”
“Or harmless insanity,” put in the Professor.
“Let us imagine it”—I went on, not heeding the sarcasm—“an essence something between spirit and matter floating in ambient air, neither all godlike nor fully human. We imbibe it with our eyes, and ears, and nostrils, and lips, and touch, and every trembling fibre of our whole frame.”
“A sort of epidemic,” suggested my husband, “infectious, like cholera or small-pox.”
“You ought to be the best judge of that,” I retorted, “for you have experienced the three maladies.”
“Well,” he said, “I hope the former has left more trace than the three little marks of the latter,”—placing his finger over three indented white spots on his forehead.
“But, John, I have not come to Zanita’s case yet, and that kind of fascination is the most mysterious to me. She has no love for him of the description we have been speaking of, but still is irresistibly attracted toward Egremont and he to her. Do you not think, Professor, that the condition we found them in was a physical result of negative and positive magnetism operating as imperatively upon these two coming together as the detonation from an electric cloud?”
“That seems a plausible but very dangerous theory, especially if you think they might explode of spontaneous combustion,” replied the Professor, who always worked out my nebulous theory by a little satire.
“They are thrown together by much the same magnetic attraction that draws the lamb to its own mother out of a flock of hundreds of sheep, though it has no mark by which to distinguish her from the rest. And I believe, that thousands of matches are made, and lives marred by mistaking that phenomena for love; for if we call it love among the animals, it ought not to be dignified with that name in human beings, because the soul has really no part in it, and I believe that either Zanita or Egremont, in spite of this attraction, would be capable of forming a real attachment to-morrow.”
“I should be sorry for the object of such an affection,” said the Professor; “but don’t you think, my dear, that it would be an improvement if these negative and positive affinities could also entertain a little devotion and tenderness for each other? If the moon could grow a little larger for them as well as the ploughman, or the streamlets ripple out soft sayings to their longing ears, par example?”
“O, certainly! I should know the touch of your hand in a crowd, though I did not know that you were within miles of me.”
For reply, my husband kissed me, and asked if I should know that, for a sapient little woman as I was. He said, he thought “even an unpoetical Professor of Geology might swear to that in the dark.”
“Yes,” I continued, “you must have noticed that some hands have the power to soothe in sickness whilst certain invalids are irrtated by the touch of a nurse. You know what an objection your sister has to shake hands with strangers, because, she says, in touching some people she experiences the most uncomfortable sensation, amounting sometimes to a galvanic shock; and don’t you think that sometimes, when my hair is emitting electric sparks, that if I laid it upon some persons they would feel some magnetic influence?”
“Without a shadow of doubt, my dear,” said my husband, roguishly. “You used to wear a long curl before we were married, and one day the wind blew it round me, and after that I remember it was all over with me. Since Samson’s time, long hair has been a mighty perilous weapon.”
“Particularly,” I said, “attached to a javelin, like the Spartan women.”
The next day I felt uncomfortably nervous at having to break to Mr. Egremont the unpropitious news of his rejection by Zanita. I tormented myself to find the mildest form in which I could convey it and least wound his sensitive temperament. I rehearsed in imagination phrase after phrase, and sentence after sentence, with a view to making had look better; for that Zanita had behaved badly I felt bitterly conscious, and how deeply he might take it to heart I could not decide. Sometimes I concluded that I would regard it lightly as a mere childish freak; at others, that I would treat it virtuously and indignantly, and condemn Zanita as a heartless coquette who was not worth grieving about. I even went so far as to think of offering my sympathy and influence to coax Zanita into a more amiable frame of mind. That was the most chimerical idea of all. The whole was cut short by the announcement by Martha of Mr. Egremont.
“He’ll be come to fix up about Miss Zanita,” suggested Martha, confidentially, “and no doubt keeping company reg’lar with him an’ sub-due her like. I know when I kep’ company with Abimelech jiggers I felt right badly all the time,—a low sinking like; and when he went away West to fix about some lot of land and wrote me to come on, I didn’t feel like it, so I just put the letters in the fire that he might think I never got them,—post-offices is such uncertin things.”
Still laughing at Martha’s Irish solution of her anti-matrimonial difficulty, I descended to the parlor and made a thorough bungle of all I intended to say, becoming very hot and red in the process.
“I was quite prepared,” answered Mr. Egremont, very coolly, “for your communication;” and a haughty sneer settled on his face, which both irritated and perplexed me. “Zanita having got into somewhat of a scrape with me I thought it best, out of respect for yourself and the Professor, to make the offer I did, without the slightest idea that it would be accepted, and, indeed,” he continued, tapping his boot with his cane, “with the slight knowledge she had of my position, I felt sure she would not.”
“Then,” said I, angrily, “it would appear that I am the only person in earnest in the whole affair?”
He smiled a faint sarcastic smile, which rapidly transfigured him to a totally different person. The gentle, sweet-faced Adonis suddenly appeared like some blasé guardsman, some callous roué seen lounging about most great cities. My eyes flamed up with vexation and surprise. “Under those circumstances, Mr. Egremont,” I said, “I must beg you to avoid such contretemps, as you call scrapes, for the future. I had been considering how I could best spare your feelings in the matter; but now I perceive that you have none.”
“I trust you will not judge me too harshly, Mrs. Brown,” he said, resuming his soft captivating way, “and that in time you will think that this is really the best termination to the affair.” He bowed gracefully with the old sweet smile, and left me.
“Well,” I soliloquized,—for the Professor was out,—“he is gone, and the mystery with him; and I never knew anything more provoking and unsatisfactory in my life. If I only knew what he was or who he was. If I could decide to think well or ill of him, or come to any definite conclusion about him. The vague perplexity is tantalizing in the extreme. Why should Zanita hint at his being married? Why should he assume that if she knew his position she might act differently? How extraordinary that we had been upon such intimate terms, and discussing the nearest relations he could enter into with us, and we know absolutely nothing of him, and he had never let fall one syllable from which we could draw any conclusion.”
The Professor laughed right out when I recounted to him the result of the interview. “He is quite right, my dear; this is the very best ending possible. If you can only write finis now, you have done well, and I congratulate you upon a very narrow escape from trouble.”
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