Two days later, Ralph again knocked on Bertha’s door. He looked paler than usual, almost haggard; his immaculate linen was a little crumpled, and he carried no cane; his lips were tightly compressed, and his face wore an air of desperate resolution.
“It is done,” he said, as he seated himself opposite her. “I am going.”
“Going!” cried she, startled at his unusual appearance. “How, where?”
“To America. I sail to-night. I have followed your advice, you see. I have cut off the last bridge behind me.”
“But, Ralph,” she exclaimed, in a voice of alarm. “Something dreadful must have happened. Tell me quick; I must know it.”
“No; nothing dreadful,” muttered he, smiling bitterly. “I have made a little scandal, that is all. My father told me to-day to go to the devil, if I chose, and my mother gave me five hundred dollars to help me along on the way. If you wish to know, here is the explanation.”
And he pulled from his pocket six perfumed and carefully folded notes, and threw them into her lap.
“Do you wish me to read them?” she asked, with growing surprise.
“Certainly. Why not?”
She hastily opened one note after the other, and read.
“But, Ralph,” she cried, springing up from her seat, while her eyes flamed with indignation, “what does this mean? What have you done?”
“I didn’t think it needed any explanation,” replied he, with feigned indifference. “I proposed to them all, and, you see, they all accepted me. I received all these letters to-day. I only wished to know whether the whole world regarded me as such a worthless scamp as you told me I was.”
She did not answer, but sat mutely staring at him, fiercely crumpling a rose-colored note in her hand. He began to feel uncomfortable under her gaze, and threw himself about uneasily in his chair.
“Well,” said he, at length, rising, “I suppose there is nothing more. Good-by.”
“One moment, Mr. Grim,” demanded she, sternly. “Since I have already said so much, and you have obligingly revealed to me a new side of your character, I claim the right to correct the opinion I expressed of you at our last meeting.”
“I am all attention.”
“I did think, Mr. Grim,” began she, breathing hard, and steadying herself against the table at which she stood, “that you were a very selfish man—an embodiment of selfishness, absolute and supreme, but I did not believe that you were wicked.”
“And what convinced you that I was selfish, if I may ask?”
“What convinced me?” repeated she, in a tone of inexpressible contempt. “When did you ever act from any generous regard for others? What good did you ever do to anybody?”
“You might ask, with equal justice, what good I ever did to myself.”
“In a certain sense, yes; because to gratify a mere momentary wish is hardly doing one’s self good.”
“Then I have, at all events, followed the Biblical precept, and treated my neighbor very much as I treat myself.”
“I did think,” continued Bertha, without heeding the remark, “that you were at bottom kind-hearted, but too hopelessly well-bred ever to commit an act of any decided complexion, either good or bad. Now I see that I have misjudged you, and that you are capable of outraging the most sacred feelings of a woman’s heart in mere wantonness, or for the sake of satisfying a base curiosity, which never could have entered the mind of an upright and generous man.”
The hard, benumbed look in Ralph’s face thawed in the warmth of her presence, and her words, though stern, touched a secret spring in his heart. He made two or three vain attempts to speak, then suddenly broke down, and cried:
“Bertha, Bertha, even if you scorn me, have patience with me, and listen.”
And he told her, in rapid, broken sentences, how his love for her had grown from day to day, until he could no longer master it; and how, in an unguarded moment, when his pride rose in fierce conflict against his love, he had done this reckless deed of which he was now heartily ashamed. The fervor of his words touched her, for she felt that they were sincere. Large mute tears trembled in her eyelashes as she sat gazing tenderly at him, and in the depth of her soul the wish awoke that she might have been able to return this great and strong love of his; for she felt that in this love lay the germ of a new, of a stronger and better man. She noticed, with a half-regretful pleasure, his handsome figure, his delicately shaped hands, and the noble cast of his features; an overwhelming pity for him rose within her, and she began to reproach herself for having spoken so harshly, and, as she now thought, so unjustly. Perhaps he read in her eyes the unspoken wish. He seized her hand, and his words fell with a warm and alluring cadence upon her ear.
“I shall not see you for a long time to come, Bertha,” said he, “but if at the end of five or six years your hand is still free, and I return another man—a man to whom you could safely intrust your happiness—would you then listen to what I may have to say to you? For I promise, by all that we both hold sacred—”
“No, no,” interrupted she, hastily. “Promise nothing. It would be unjust to yourself, and perhaps also to me; for a sacred promise is a terrible thing, Ralph. Let us both remain free; and, if you return and still love me, then come, and I shall receive you and listen to you. And even if you have outgrown your love, which is, indeed, more probable, come still to visit me wherever I may be, and we shall meet as friends and rejoice in the meeting.”
“You know best,” he murmured. “Let it be as you have said.”
He arose, took her face between his hands, gazed long and tenderly into her eyes, pressed a kiss upon her forehead, and hastened away.
That night Ralph boarded the steamer for Hull, and three weeks later landed in New York.