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    Chapter 24

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    Chapter 25
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    CHAPTER XXIV - MISTAKES CLEARED UP

    'Your beauty was the first that won the place,

    And scal'd the walls of my undaunted heart,

    Which, captive now, pines in a caitive case,

    Unkindly met with rigour for desert;--

    Yet not the less your servant shall abide,

    In spite of rude repulse or silent pride.'

    WILLIAM FOWLER.

    The next morning, Margaret dragged herself up, thankful that the
    night was over,--unrefreshed, yet rested. All had gone well
    through the house; her mother had only wakened once. A little
    breeze was stirring in the hot air, and though there were no
    trees to show the playful tossing movement caused by the wind
    among the leaves, Margaret knew how, somewhere or another, by
    way-side, in copses, or in thick green woods, there was a
    pleasant, murmuring, dancing sound,--a rushing and falling noise,
    the very thought of which was an echo of distant gladness in her
    heart.

    She sat at her work in Mrs. Hale's room. As soon as that forenoon
    slumber was over, she would help her mother to dress after.
    dinner, she would go and see Bessy Higgins. She would banish all
    recollection of the Thornton family,--no need to think of them
    till they absolutely stood before her in flesh and blood. But, of
    course, the effort not to think of them brought them only the
    more strongly before her; and from time to time, the hot flush
    came over her pale face sweeping it into colour, as a sunbeam
    from between watery clouds comes swiftly moving over the sea.

    Dixon opened the door very softly, and stole on tiptoe up to
    Margaret, sitting by the shaded window.

    'Mr. Thornton, Miss Margaret. He is in the drawing-room.'

    Margaret dropped her sewing.

    'Did he ask for me? Isn't papa come in?'

    'He asked for you, miss; and master is out.'

    'Very well, I will come,' said Margaret, quietly. But she
    lingered strangely. Mr. Thornton stood by one of the windows,
    with his back to the door, apparently absorbed in watching
    something in the street. But, in truth, he was afraid of himself.
    His heart beat thick at the thought of her coming. He could not
    forget the touch of her arms around his neck, impatiently felt as
    it had been at the time; but now the recollection of her clinging
    defence of him, seemed to thrill him through and through,--to
    melt away every resolution, all power of self-control, as if it
    were wax before a fire. He dreaded lest he should go forwards to
    meet her, with his arms held out in mute entreaty that she would
    come and nestle there, as she had done, all unheeded, the day
    before, but never unheeded again. His heart throbbed loud and
    quick Strong man as he was, he trembled at the anticipation of
    what he had to say, and how it might be received. She might
    droop, and flush, and flutter to his arms, as to her natural home
    and resting-place. One moment, he glowed with impatience at the
    thought that she might do this, the next, he feared a passionate
    rejection, the very idea of which withered up his future with so
    deadly a blight that he refused to think of it. He was startled
    by the sense of the presence of some one else in the room. He
    turned round. She had come in so gently, that he had never heard
    her; the street noises had been more distinct to his inattentive
    ear than her slow movements, in her soft muslin gown.

    She stood by the table, not offering to sit down. Her eyelids
    were dropped half over her eyes; her teeth were shut, not
    compressed; her lips were just parted over them, allowing the
    white line to be seen between their curve. Her slow deep
    breathings dilated her thin and beautiful nostrils; it was the
    only motion visible on her countenance. The fine-grained skin,
    the oval cheek, the rich outline of her mouth, its corners deep
    set in dimples,--were all wan and pale to-day; the loss of their
    usual natural healthy colour being made more evident by the heavy
    shadow of the dark hair, brought down upon the temples, to hide
    all sign of the blow she had received. Her head, for all its
    drooping eyes, was thrown a little back, in the old proud
    attitude. Her long arms hung motion-less by her sides. Altogether
    she looked like some prisoner, falsely accused of a crime that
    she loathed and despised, and from which she was too indignant to
    justify herself

    Mr. Thornton made a hasty step or two forwards; recovered
    himself, and went with quiet firmness to the door (which she had
    left open), and shut it. Then he came back, and stood opposite to
    her for a moment, receiving the general impression of her
    beautiful presence, before he dared to disturb it, perhaps to
    repel it, by what he had to say.

    'Miss Hale, I was very ungrateful yesterday--'

    'You had nothing to be grateful for,' said she, raising her eyes,
    and looking full and straight at him. 'You mean, I suppose, that
    you believe you ought to thank me for what I did.' In spite of
    herself--in defiance of her anger--the thick blushes came all
    over her face, and burnt into her very eyes; which fell not
    nevertheless from their grave and steady look. 'It was only a
    natural instinct; any woman would have done just the same. We all
    feel the sanctity of our sex as a high privilege when we see
    danger. I ought rather,' said she, hastily, 'to apologise to you,
    for having said thoughtless words which sent you down into the
    danger.'

    'It was not your words; it was the truth they conveyed,
    pun-gently as it was expressed. But you shall not drive me off
    upon that, and so escape the expression of my deep gratitude,
    my--' he was on the verge now; he would not speak in the haste of
    his hot passion; he would weigh each word. He would; and his will
    was triumphant. He stopped in mid career.

    'I do not try to escape from anything,' said she. 'I simply say,
    that you owe me no gratitude; and I may add, that any expression
    of it will be painful to me, because I do not feel that I deserve
    it. Still, if it will relieve you from even a fancied obligation,
    speak on.'

    'I do not want to be relieved from any obligation,' said he,
    goaded by her calm manner. Fancied, or not fancied--I question
    not myself to know which--I choose to believe that I owe my very
    life to you--ay--smile, and think it an exaggeration if you will.
    I believe it, because it adds a value to that life to think--oh,
    Miss Hale!' continued he, lowering his voice to such a tender
    intensity of passion that she shivered and trembled before him,
    'to think circumstance so wrought, that whenever I exult in
    existence henceforward, I may say to myself, "All this gladness
    in life, all honest pride in doing my work in the world, all this
    keen sense of being, I owe to her!" And it doubles the gladness,
    it makes the pride glow, it sharpens the sense of existence till
    I hardly know if it is pain or pleasure, to think that I owe it
    to one--nay, you must, you shall hear'--said he, stepping
    forwards with stern determination--'to one whom I love, as I do
    not believe man ever loved woman before.' He held her hand tight
    in his. He panted as he listened for what should come. He threw
    the hand away with indignation, as he heard her icy tone; for icy
    it was, though the words came faltering out, as if she knew not
    where to find them.

    'Your way of speaking shocks me. It is blasphemous. I cannot help
    it, if that is my first feeling. It might not be so, I dare say,
    if I understood the kind of feeling you describe. I do not want
    to vex you; and besides, we must speak gently, for mamma is
    asleep; but your whole manner offends me--'

    'How!' exclaimed he. 'Offends you! I am indeed most unfortunate.'

    'Yes!' said she, with recovered dignity. 'I do feel offended;
    and, I think, justly. You seem to fancy that my conduct of
    yesterday'--again the deep carnation blush, but this time with
    eyes kindling with indignation rather than shame--'was a personal
    act between you and me; and that you may come and thank me for
    it, instead of perceiving, as a gentleman would--yes! a
    gentleman,' she repeated, in allusion to their former
    conversation about that word, 'that any woman, worthy of the name
    of woman, would come forward to shield, with her reverenced
    helplessness, a man in danger from the violence of numbers.'

    'And the gentleman thus rescued is forbidden the relief of
    thanks!' he broke in contemptuously. 'I am a man. I claim the
    right of expressing my feelings.'

    'And I yielded to the right; simply saying that you gave me pain
    by insisting upon it,' she replied, proudly. 'But you seem to
    have imagined, that I was not merely guided by womanly instinct,
    but'--and here the passionate tears (kept down for
    long--struggled with vehemently) came up into her eyes, and
    choked her voice--'but that I was prompted by some particular
    feeling for you--you! Why, there was not a man--not a poor
    desperate man in all that crowd--for whom I had not more
    sympathy--for whom I should not have done what little I could
    more heartily.'

    'You may speak on, Miss Hale. I am aware of all these misplaced
    sympathies of yours. I now believe that it was only your innate
    sense of oppression--(yes; I, though a master, may be
    oppressed)--that made you act so nobly as you did. I know you
    despise me; allow me to say, it is because you do not understand
    me.'

    'I do not care to understand,' she replied, taking hold of the
    table to steady herself; for she thought him cruel--as, indeed,
    he was--and she was weak with her indignation.

    'No, I see you do not. You are unfair and unjust.'

    Margaret compressed her lips. She would not speak in answer to
    such accusations. But, for all that--for all his savage words, he
    could have thrown himself at her feet, and kissed the hem of her
    wounded pride fell hot and fast. He waited awhile, longing for
    garment. She did not speak; she did not move. The tears of her to
    say something, even a taunt, to which he might reply. But she was
    silent. He took up his hat.

    'One word more. You look as if you thought it tainted you to be
    loved by me. You cannot avoid it. Nay, I, if I would, cannot
    cleanse you from it. But I would not, if I could. I have never
    loved any woman before: my life has been too busy, my thoughts
    too much absorbed with other things. Now I love, and will love.
    But do not be afraid of too much expression on my part.'

    'I am not afraid,' she replied, lifting herself straight up. 'No
    one yet has ever dared to be impertinent to me, and no one ever
    shall. But, Mr. Thornton, you have been very kind to my father,'
    said she, changing her whole tone and bearing to a most womanly
    softness. 'Don't let us go on making each other angry. Pray
    don't!' He took no notice of her words: he occupied himself in
    smoothing the nap of his hat with his coat-sleeve, for half a
    minute or so; and then, rejecting her offered hand, and making as
    if he did not see her grave look of regret, he turned abruptly
    away, and left the room. Margaret caught one glance at his face
    before he went.

    When he was gone, she thought she had seen the gleam of washed
    tears in his eyes; and that turned her proud dislike into
    something different and kinder, if nearly as
    painful--self-reproach for having caused such mortification to
    any one.

    'But how could I help it?' asked she of herself. 'I never liked
    him. I was civil; but I took no trouble to conceal my
    indifference. Indeed, I never thought about myself or him, so my
    manners must have shown the truth. All that yesterday, he might
    mistake. But that is his fault, not mine. I would do it again, if
    need were, though it does lead me into all this shame and
    trouble.'
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