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    Chapter 20

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    Chapter 20
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    BRESSANT CONFIDES A SECRET TO THE FOUNTAIN.

    Sophie went flitting up the garden-path toward the house, and in a
    moment more the sisters were in one another's arms. Bressant, glad of
    the concealment afforded by the shrubbery, remained gazing moodily at
    the fountain, his head on his hand. The two girls entered the house, and
    sat down in the professor's study, where the old gentleman (who had been
    the first to meet Cornelia) sat enclouding himself with smoke, but
    betraying no other symptom of his huge delight.

    "But how came you to get here so soon, you dear darling?" said Sophie,
    looking with lighted eyes at her sister. "We thought it would be a week
    at least."

    "Oh, bless your heart, I couldn't wait, you know. So awfully tired I got
    of seeing new things and people. Dear me!"--and Cornelia threw herself
    back in her chair and uplifted her gloved hands in a little gesture of
    ineffability--"you would never imagine what a bore society is, after
    all."

    The professor, from his cloud, cast, unobserved, a glance of quiet
    scrutiny at his daughter. A certain jaunty embroidery of tone and manner
    struck him at once--she wasn't quite the same simple little woman who
    had gone to New York two months ago. Well, well, they would wear off,
    perhaps, these little affectations; and then, too, it was not to be
    expected of her that she'd be a girl all her life. They all must needs
    pass through this stage to something better--or worse: all women of pith
    and passion like Cornelia.

    "How did you leave Aunt Margaret?" inquired he.

    "Oh, _désolée_, because I would go away," replied Cornelia, with a very
    pretty laugh. "She vowed she could have spared me much better six weeks
    earlier; for, you see, after I'd learned the ropes, and how to take care
    of myself, I became, as she expressed it, 'such a dear, sweet,
    _invaluable_ little _attachée_.'"

    Sophie laughed at the comical air with which her sister repeated the
    sentence; yet, when her laugh was gone, there remained a slight shadow
    of disappointment. She, too, was unwillingly aware of some alteration.

    "Is she such a grand lady as you expected?" asked she.

    "Oh, my dear, grandeur's a humbug, let me tell you. Gracious! by the
    time I'd been there a week, I could put it on as well as anybody. Aunt
    Margaret, she was no end of a swell, and all that; but, as for
    grandeur!--And she was such an odd old thing. Sometimes I seemed to like
    her, and sometimes she almost made me faint. Once in a while I thought
    she was trying to pump me about something; though, to be sure, there was
    nothing in me to be pumped. I told her about Abbie, for one thing, as
    much as I knew, and she seemed awfully interested--it was put on, I
    suppose, very likely; and yet she really did seem to mean it. I remember
    she couldn't get over my forgetting Abbie's last name: she even told me
    to mention it the first time I wrote to her. So queer of the old
    person."

    "No necessity for you to write, my dear," observed the professor at this
    point. "I've been intending to do it myself for some time, and I'll
    thank her for her hospitality, and so forth."

    Cornelia nodded, yawned, and then allowed her eyes to wander around the
    room.

    "How nice and cozy and home-like every thing does look! And so small.
    Why, I should almost believe I was looking through the small end of the
    telescope, or something."

    "New York houses are so big, I suppose?" said Sophie.

    "Gracious, dear!" exclaimed Cornelia, laughing again. "Why, the very
    cupboards are bigger than this whole house. It'll take me ever so long
    to get over being afraid to knock my head against something when I stand
    up."

    "You can sit out-doors until the weather gets too cold," observed the
    professor. "The sky is as high here as in New York, isn't it?"

    Cornelia ignored this remark with admirable self-poise. "Aunt Margaret
    was asking a good deal about Mr. Bressant, too," said she. "She said
    she'd only heard about him from you, papa; but I thought, sometimes, she
    must be fibbing. Once in a while, you know, she acted just as if she had
    forgotten having said she didn't know him. However, that's absurd, of
    course. By-the-way, where is he? Here still?"

    "Oh, yes. O Neelie dear, I have such news to tell you. But--yes, he's
    out there by the fountain, I believe. Go out and speak to him, and then
    come up to my room and hear the secret."

    "All right, I'll be there directly;" and, springing from her chair with
    a sudden overflow of animal spirits, drowning out the small growth of
    affectation, the beautiful woman danced out upon the balcony, and down
    the steps. Sophie went to her chamber, and the professor remained in his
    study to indulge his own thoughts, which, by the way, appeared to be
    neither light nor agreeable.

    As Cornelia neared the fountain, her steps grew more staid. The
    clustering shrubbery hid Bressant from sight until she was close upon
    him. She thought, perhaps, in the few moments that passed as she walked
    down the path, of that other time when she had picked her way, in his
    company, between the rain-besprinkled shrubs. Here was the same tea-rose
    bush, and hardly a flower left upon it. Yes, here was one, full-blown,
    to be sure, and ready to fall to pieces; but still, perhaps he would
    smile and remember when he saw it in her bosom; or perhaps--and Cornelia
    smiled secretly to herself at the thought--perhaps he needed no
    reminder. He was sitting by the fountain now. What more likely than that
    he was thinking over that first strange scene that had been enacted
    between them there? Dear fellow! how he would start and redden with
    pleasure when he saw her appear, in flesh and blood, in the midst of his
    reverie! Cornelia blushed; but some of the loose petals of the overblown
    rose in her bosom became detached, and floated earthward.

    All at once her heart began to beat so as to incommode her: she was
    uncertain whether she was pale or red. It seemed to require all her
    courage to get over the last few steps of garden-path that brought her
    into view. What was it? A premonition? Now she saw him, as he sat with
    his legs crossed, his head resting on his hand, turned away from her,
    staring moodily before him.

    He did not look up until Cornelia stood almost beside him; then, become
    aware of her presence, he leaped suddenly to his feet, and towered
    before her, one hand grasping the fantastically-curved limb which
    ornamented the back of the rustic seat.

    In the space that intervened while Cornelia, startled at his abrupt
    movement, remained motionless in front of him, the piece of branch which
    his hand held parted with a sharp crack. It broke the pause, and
    Cornelia laughed.

    "You seem to be recovering your strength pretty well, if you can break
    the limb of a tree short off just by laying your hand upon it! How do
    you do? Aren't you glad to see me?" and she held out her hand with a
    frankness not all real, for she felt a secret misgiving, and an
    undefined fear.

    But the strain of Bressant's suspense was removed. He concluded that
    either Cornelia had as yet heard nothing of his bond with Sophie, or
    that, having heard it, it had not seriously affected her. Of the two
    suppositions he was inclined to the first (and correct) one; but he kept
    scanning her face with an uneasy curiosity. He took her hand, shook it,
    and dropped it.

    "How do you do?" said he.

    They took their places side by side upon the bench. Cornelia felt a
    great weight pressing heavily and more heavily upon her, crushing out
    life and vivacity. This was not what she had expected; what did it
    mean? was it indifference? was it aversion? could it--could it be an
    uncouth way of showing joy? Poor Cornelia held her clasped hands in her
    lap, and knew not what to say.

    When the silence had lasted so long that in another moment she must have
    screamed, she chanced to remember the watch. It was ticking steadily in
    her belt. She dragged it out, her hands feeling stiff and numb, and then
    commanding herself by a not inconsiderable effort to speak naturally,
    she put it in his hand, which he opened mechanically to receive it.

    "Here it is, all safe. You can't think how punctual I've learned to be
    since I've had it. I got to be quite superstitious about winding it up;
    but it did run down once--just about six weeks after I left. It was in
    the forenoon, about eleven. I--I happened to be looking at it at the
    time, and suddenly the second-hand began to go slower and slower, and at
    last it stopped. You can't think how frightened I was. I couldn't help
    thinking that something must have happened at home. I wrote to Sophie
    that I would come home the same afternoon. Of course you know"--here
    Cornelia interrupted the hurried and nervous flow of her words to force
    a laugh--"of course it wasn't any thing but that I'd been up late
    talking with Aunt Margaret, and had forgotten to wind it. It isn't out
    of order or any thing."

    She was out of breath now, and had to pause. She would gladly have kept
    on indefinitely, for the sake of avoiding another of those dreadful
    silences.

    Bressant was not in the habit of paying much attention to coincidences,
    but it happened to occur to him that the stoppage of the watch must have
    taken place pretty nearly, if not exactly, at the time of his engagement
    to Sophie, and the thought rendered his discomposure still more painful.

    "Won't you keep the watch?" said he at length.

    "Keep it?" repeated Cornelia, timidly, uncertain what might be coming
    nest. Her breath went and came unevenly. "How can I keep it?" faltered
    she. "They know--papa and Sophie know--that I haven't any such watch.
    I--I have no right to keep it."

    She could hardly have spoken more plainly; indeed, she had been
    surprised into speaking much more plainly than she intended. The moment
    after her pride rebuked her, and made her cheeks burn with shame; and a
    feeling of anger at having so betrayed herself put a sparkle into her
    eyes. Bressant, looking at her, was stricken by the angry glow of her
    beauty. It began to dazzle his reason, and bind his will. Their eyes met
    fully for a moment; a world of fatal significance can sometimes be
    conveyed by a glance. The extremity of his danger perhaps aroused the
    young man to a realization of it. He stood up, and pressed one hand over
    his eyes.

    "If you've no right to keep the watch, I've no right to give it you, I
    suppose," said he, sullenly.

    "I owe you an apology, certainly, Mr. Bressant," exclaimed Cornelia,
    interrupting what more he might have been going to say. She was tingling
    to her fingertips with the intolerable anger of a woman who finds
    herself rejected and befooled. "Really, I am surprised at myself for
    persecuting you so relentlessly. Not satisfied with depriving you of
    your timepiece for two whole months, I actually am unable to surrender
    my--my ill-gotten booty without giving you an uncomfortable feeling that
    I want to task your beneficence further yet. Well, I've not a word to
    say for myself. I had no grudge to pay. I'm sure your conduct to me has
    always been--most unexceptionably polite! The most charitable
    explanation is, that I was crazy. I hope you'll consent to accept it;
    and I do assure you that I'm perfectly sane now, and mean to keep so.
    You needn't," she continued laughing, "you really needn't be afraid of
    my persecutions any longer. I'm going to be as circumspect as--as you
    are. Now, good-by for the present." She held out her hand with an air of
    formal courtesy. "I promised Sophie I'd be back directly. I'll see you
    at dinner, I suppose?"

    As she came to the good-by, Cornelia had risen from her seat; by the
    action the remaining petals of the tea-rose had been shaken off, leaving
    the nucleus bare and unprotected. Bressant's eyes fastened idly upon it,
    but he said nothing, and did not move, Cornelia withdrew her unaccepted
    hand, smiled, and, turning about, walked up the path to the house with
    an easy and dignified grace, which was not so much natural as the
    inspired result of passion.

    Bressant looked down at the watch in his hand, and saw it marking the
    hour at which a dark epoch in his life began. He knelt on one knee by
    the basin of the fountain--but not to pray. Grasping in one hand the
    guard-chain of his watch, he dashed the watch itself two or three times
    against the stone basin-rim. When it was completely shattered, he tossed
    it into the water, and then rose lightly to his feet.
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