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    Chapter 24

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    Chapter 24
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    A BIT OF INSPIRATION.

    Bressant was in the habit of spending three hours every afternoon at the
    Parsonage. Part of this time was passed in the professor's study,
    pursuing theological lore; for, whatever the young man's ultimate
    expectations with regard to his career and fortune may have been, it was
    no part of his plan to allow his future father-in-law to suspect any
    tiling else than what he had already given him to understand.

    After lessons were over he joined Sophie on the balcony, walked with her
    in the garden, or gave her his arm up the hill. Cornelia was seldom to
    be seen, at least within speaking distance. At the same time she did not
    keep entirely out of the way. Often, when wandering with her sister
    through the garden-paths, Bressant would catch a glimpse of her buoyant
    figure and rich-toned face upon the balcony; or, if himself established
    there, would presently behold her, in a garden hat and shortened skirt,
    raking the fallen leaves off the paths and flower-beds, and perhaps
    trundling them stoutly away in a wheelbarrow afterward. It thus happened
    that, although seldom exchanging a word with her, he was continually
    receiving fresh reminders of her, in one way or another; and he was,
    moreover, haunted by an idea that Cornelia was not unconscious that he
    was observing her.

    Two or three days subsequent to Cornelia's conversation with Sophie on
    the hill-top, Bressant, on his afternoon way to the Parsonage, met the
    former coming in the opposite direction. It was nearly at the end of the
    long level stretch, which was now resplendent with many-colored maples,
    which were interspersed at short intervals between the willows. He had
    been walking; swiftly with his eyes on the ground, when, chancing to
    raise them, lie saw Cornelia walking on toward him.

    How beautifully she trod, erect, her round chin held in, stepping
    daintily yet firmly; it seemed as if the earth were an elastic sphere
    beneath her feet, she moving tirelessly onward. She had plucked a branch
    of gorgeous leaves from one of the maples, which she brandished about
    ever and anon, to keep the flies away. A straw hat, narrow-brimmed,
    slanted downward over hair and forehead. Her oval cheeks were more than
    usually luminous from exercise; her eyes were bright tawny brown, the
    lids shaped in curves, like the edges of a leaf. The vigorous roundness
    of her full and perfect figure was hinted here and there through the
    light drapery of her dress, as she walked forward. The October breeze
    seemed the sweeter for blowing past her.

    "You must be rather late--I don't often meet you!" said she, with a
    smile which put Bressant traitorously at his ease.

    "Early, more than late," responded he, stopping as he saw that she
    stopped.

    "Are you?--well, then--I don't often see you--would you mind walking
    with me just a little way?" and she touched him lightly on the shoulder
    with her maple-branch, as with the wand of an enchantress.

    He, in obedience rather to the touch than the words, turned about and
    walked beside her.

    "I've a right to a sister's privileges, you know," continued she,
    slipping her hand beneath his arm, and letting it rest upon it.

    How very delightful, as well as simple, to solve the problem of their
    intercourse on this basis! Bressant did not know how it might feel to
    have a sister, but he could, at the moment, imagine nothing more
    delightful than to be Cornelia's brother--unless it were to be Sophie's
    husband. But to be both!

    "Do you know," pursued she, with apparent hesitation, looking up in his
    face, and then immediately looking down again, "I've had a notion, since
    coming back from New York, that you don't like me so well as you did?"

    This might be either audacity or delicacy, as one chose to take it.
    Bressant, feeling himself put rather on the defensive, answered hastily
    and without premeditation:

    "I like you more!"

    "Oh! I'm so glad to hear you say so!" exclaimed she warmly, and as she
    spoke he felt her hand a little more perceptibly on his arm. "It takes
    such a load off my heart! seeing you and Sophie love one another so
    much, I couldn't help loving you, too, in my way; and it made me so
    unhappy to think I was disagreeable to you."

    Bressant was quite unprepared for all this. Whatever had been his
    speculations as to the future footing upon which he and Cornelia should
    stand, it had been nothing like that she was now furnishing. It did not
    seem at all in the vein which she had opened on the day of her return.
    He was puzzled: had he been more used to ladies' society, he would have
    mistrusted her sincerity.

    "You could never be disagreeable to me!" was his answer: and he looked
    down at her oval cheek, with his first attempt at fraternal admiration.
    It turned out badly. She looked unexpectedly up: his glance fell through
    her tawny eyes, and sank down, burning deliciously, into her heart. She
    turned pale with the pain and the pleasure: but it was such pain and
    pleasure that she sought, and wanted more of.

    "Well, then! it's all clear between us again--is it?" resumed she,
    drawing a long breath, which sounded more like the irrepressible
    out-come of a tumultuous heart, than a sigh of relieved suspense upon
    the point in question. "No more misunderstandings, or any thing? and you
    won't get out of the way ally more, as if I were poison--will you?"

    "I never did!" protested he, laughing awkwardly. In the last few minutes
    he had developed a sentiment hitherto unknown to him--pique! He had been
    imagining Cornelia in love with him, and angry at his preference for
    Sophie; whereas, it would now seem that the only reason she cared for
    him at all, was because he was Sophie's lover: a most correct spirit in
    her, no doubt; but, instead of being gratified, as was his duty, he felt
    provoked.

    "Oh! yes, you behaved shockingly!" rejoined Cornelia, laughing with him.
    "Mind! I don't care how devoted you are to Sophie--the more the better;
    but, when you do notice me, I want you to do it kindly--won't you?"

    "I'll be sure to, now that I know you care any thing about it."

    "And what made you think I didn't care about it, if you please, sir?"

    "Why," stammered he, quite at a loss what to say, and so coming out with
    the truth, "I thought you were offended at my being engaged to Sophie!"

    "But what should there be in that to offend me?" demanded Cornelia, with
    the mouth and eyes of Innocence.

    "I don't know:--well--I knew you first!" he blurted forth, beginning to
    wish he had been satisfied to hold his tongue.

    Cornelia took her breath once or twice, and then bit it off on her under
    lip, as if about to say something, and afterward hesitating about it.

    "I don't quite understand you," she managed to get out at last; "do
    you--forgive me if I'm wrong--but perhaps you're thinking of that
    time--when--just before I went away?"

    Saying this, she drooped her eyes in a confusion, which, because more
    than half of it was genuine, made her look very fascinating. Nothing is
    more seductive than a little truth. As Bressant looked at her, and
    thought of what lie had done at that last interview, soft thrills crept
    sweetly through his blood, and he felt a most extraordinary tenderness
    for her.

    "I've often thought of it," answered he, in a tone which did not belie
    his words.

    "Well--so have I, to tell the truth!" rejoined Cornelia, looking up for
    a moment with glowing candor. "But we won't either of us think of it any
    more, will we? It seems very long ago, now; and it'll never be again,
    and we ought to forget it ever was at all. But, oh! most of all, you
    must forget it if it will ever be a reason for your disliking me, or
    wishing not to see me! I know how disagreeable it must be to you to
    think of it now."

    Did Cornelia know what she was about? had she netted beforehand all the
    meshes of this web she was throwing over him? the admirable mixture of
    frankness and subtlety, nature and art--must it not have been planned
    and calculated beforehand, to bewilder and mislead?--It may well be
    doubted. No preconceived and elaborated programme can come up to the
    inspiration of the moment, which is genius. Such felicitous wording of
    subject-matter so objectionable: such an unassailable presentation of so
    indefensible a principle--could hardly have been the fruit of
    premeditation. Cornelia was allowing things to take their course.

    "It isn't disagreeable! it's--" Bressant broke off, unable or unprepared
    to say what it was. "Why must we forget it?" he added, with a
    half-assured look of significance. "You said we were brother and sister,
    you know!"

    She laughed in his face, at the same time drawing her hand from his arm,
    and stepping away from him. How tantalizingly lovely she looked!

    "It won't do to carry the privileges of relationship too far, my dear
    sir! at least, not until after you're married. There! go back to your
    Sophie--I didn't mean to keep you so long--really! No, no!" as he made
    an offer to approach her; "go! and be quick, I advise you. Good-by!"

    Bressant, as he walked on to the Parsonage, was possessed by an
    undefined conviction that he was learning a great deal not set down in
    the books. The page of the passions, once thrown open, seems to comprise
    every thing. The world has but one voice for the man of one idea.

    Evidently, this man did not comprehend the nature of his position
    between these two women. Reason told him it was impossible he could love
    both at once; but there her information stopped. His senses assured him
    that, with Cornelia, he experienced a vivid rush of emotion, such as
    Sophie, strongly as he loved her, never awakened in him; but his senses
    could give him no explanation of the fact. His instinct whispered that
    he would not have dared, in his most ardent moments, to feel toward
    Sophie as he invariably felt toward her sister; but no instinct warned
    him of the danger which this implied. A sturdy principle, if it had not
    thrown light upon the question, would, at least, have pointed out to him
    the true course to adopt; but, unfortunately, principles, and the
    impulses which they are formed to control, are neither of simultaneous
    nor proportionate growth. Bressant, while partaking so liberally of
    emotional food, had quite neglected to provide himself with the
    necessary and useful correctives to such indulgences. Thus it happened
    that when he arrived, a little past his usual hour, at the
    Parsonage-door, his mental digestion was in a very disturbed condition.

    In palliation of Cornelia's conduct, there is little or nothing to be
    adduced. Strong forces had been laboring within her during the last few
    months. Love, disappointment, a passionate nature, a sense of wrong--not
    least, her New-York experience--had developed, warped, and transformed
    her. Bressant's homage had been the first, of any value to her, which
    she had ever received. It had come unasked and unexpected, and had been
    all the more attractive, because there was something not quite regular
    about it. Being lost, she had felt a fierce necessity for repossessing
    it, under whatever form, under whatever name. To-day, it was but the
    turn of the conversation that had suggested the expedient of calling
    herself his sister.

    The very beauty and purity of the fraternal relation cloaks the
    miserable rottenness of the imitation. So innocent does it seem, it
    might almost deceive the parties to the deception themselves. "I may
    love him, for I'm his sister!" said Cornelia; but could she in reality
    have become his sister, she would, beyond all else, have shrunk from it.
    "Nothing I do is in itself an impropriety," she could say: but her
    secret sense and motive were enough to make the most innocent act
    criminal. She closed her ears to the inner voice, and her eyes, looking
    at her conduct only through the crimson glass of her desire, pronounced
    it good.

    She walked swiftly, immersed in thought, along the October road, beneath
    the splendid canopy, and over the gorgeous strewn carpet, of the dying
    trees. She was going to call on Abbie, it having occurred to her that
    perhaps the kind of information she wanted concerning Bressant might be
    forthcoming there. Presently, the rapid rise in the road at the end of
    the level stretch checked the current of her ideas, and threw them into
    confusion. Out of the confusion rose unexpectedly one.

    Cornelia stopped in her walk, with one foot advanced, her head thrown
    up, her finger on her chin. She looked like a glorious young sibyl,
    reading a divine prophecy upon the clouds. After a moment, she waved her
    autumn banner over her head, with a gesture of triumph, and, turning on
    her heel, began to walk back toward home.

    The grandest discoveries are so simple! Cornelia laughed to think how
    blind she had been--how stupid! What a sense of power and independence
    was hers now! To turn homeward had been instinctive. So strong was the
    sense of an end gained--a point settled--that, whatever may have been
    the actual errand on which she had started, she felt that her work, for
    that day, at least, was done.

    She had been planning, and speculating, and worrying, to discover a safe
    and sure method of separating Bressant and her sister. Peering into the
    past for materials, and searching on one side or another for sources of
    information, she had overlooked all that was best and nearest at hand.
    What need for her to scrape together a reluctant tale of what had been?
    for was not the future her own? Why rely for assistance upon this or
    that suspicious and unsatisfactory witness? What more trustworthy one
    could she find than herself? Suppose Bressant never to have done any
    thing that could make him unworthy of Sophie, was that a bar against his
    doing something in the future?

    Yes; she had power over him, and would use it. She herself would be the
    means and the cause for attaining the end at which she aimed. She would
    be the accomplice of his indiscretion, and thus obtain over him a double
    advantage. No matter how intrinsically trifling the indiscretion might
    be, it would be just such a one as would be sure to weigh heavily in the
    balance of Sophie's pure judgment. So plain would this be to Bressant
    himself, that Cornelia would be able to rule him (as she argued) merely
    with the threat of accusation. And, since his desertion of Sophie would
    appear to her causeless, the indignation she would feel thereat would
    save her from repining. Cornelia would have him all to herself!

    Well! and what would she do with him when she had him? She did not stop
    to consider. Nor, going on thus from step to step, did she have a sense
    of the hideousness of the wrong she contemplated.
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