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   Chapter 5 LOVE.

Little Novels By Wilkie Collins Characters: 11578

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


FOUR days had passed since the night of the ball.

Although it was no later in the year than the month of February, the sun was shining brightly, and the air was as soft as the air of a day in spring. Percy and Charlotte were walking together in the little garden at the back of Mr. Bowmore's cottage, near the town of Dartford, in Kent.

"Mr. Linwood," said the young lady, "you were to have paid us your first visit the day after the ball. Why have you kept us waiting? Have you been too busy to remember your new friends?"

"I have counted the hours since we parted, Miss Charlotte. If I had not been detained by business-"

"I understand! For three days business has controlled you. On the fourth day, you have controlled business-and here you are? I don't believe one word of it, Mr. Linwood!"

There was no answering such a declaration as this. Guiltily conscious that Charlotte was right in refusing to accept his well-worn excuse, Percy made an awkward attempt to change the topic of conversation.

They happened, at the moment, to be standing near a small conservatory at the end of the garden. The glass door was closed, and the few plants and shrubs inside had a lonely, neglected look. "Does nobody ever visit this secluded place?" Percy asked, jocosely, "or does it hide discoveries in the rearing of plants which are forbidden mysteries to a stranger?"

"Satisfy your curiosity, Mr. Linwood, by all means," Charlotte answered in the same tone. "Open the door, and I will follow you."

Percy obeyed. In passing through the doorway, he encountered the bare hanging branches of some creeping plant, long since dead, and detached from its fastenings on the woodwork of the roof. He pushed aside the branches so that Charlotte could easily follow him in, without being aware that his own forced passage through them had a little deranged the folds of spotless white cambric which a well-dressed gentleman wore round his neck in those days. Charlotte seated herself, and directed Percy's attention to the desolate conservatory with a saucy smile.

"The mystery which your lively imagination has associated with this place," she said, "means, being interpreted, that we are too poor to keep a gardener. Make the best of your disappointment, Mr. Linwood, and sit here by me. We are out of hearing and out of sight of mamma's other visitors. You have no excuse now for not telling me what has really kept you away from us."

She fixed her eyes on him as she said those words. Before Percy could think of another excuse, her quick observation detected the disordered condition of his cravat, and discovered the upper edge of a black plaster attached to one side of his neck.

"You have been hurt in the neck!" she said. "That is why you have kept away from us for the last three days!"

"A mere trifle," he answered, in great confusion; "please don't notice it."

Her eyes, still resting on his face, assumed an expression of suspicious inquiry, which Percy was entirely at a loss to understand. Suddenly, she started to her feet, as if a new idea had occurred to her. "Wait here," she said, flushing with excitement, "till I come back: I insist on it!"

Before Percy could ask for an explanation she had left the conservatory.

In a minute or two, Miss Bowmore returned, with a newspaper in her hand. "Read that," she said, pointing to a paragraph distinguished by a line drawn round it in ink.

The passage that she indicated contained an account of a duel which had recently taken place in the neighborhood of London. The names of the duelists were not mentioned. One was described as an officer, and the other as a civilian. They had quarreled at cards, and had fought with pistols. The civilian had had a narrow escape of his life. His antagonist's bullet had passed near enough to the side of his neck to tear the flesh, and had missed the vital parts, literally, by a hair's-breadth.

Charlotte's eyes, riveted on Percy, detected a sudden change of color in his face the moment he looked at the newspaper. That was enough for her. "You are the man!" she cried. "Oh, for shame, for shame! To risk your life for a paltry dispute about cards!"

"I would risk it again," said Percy, "to hear you speak as if you set some value on it."

She looked away from him without a word of reply. Her mind seemed to be busy again with its own thoughts. Did she meditate returning to the subject of the duel? Was she not satisfied with the discovery which she had just made?

No such doubts as these troubled the mind of Percy Linwood. Intoxicated by the charm of her presence, emboldened by her innocent betrayal of the interest that she felt in him, he opened his whole heart to her as unreservedly as if they had known each other from the days of their childhood. There was but one excuse for him. Charlotte was his first love.

"You don't know how completely you have become a part of my life, since we met at the ball," he went on. "That one delightful dance seemed, by some magic which I can't explain, to draw us together in a few minutes as if we had known each other for years. Oh, dear! I could make such a confession of what I felt-only I am afraid of offending you by speaking too soon. Women are so dreadfully difficult to understand. How is a man to know at what time it is considerate toward them to conceal his true feelings; and at what time it is equally considerate to express his true feelings? One doesn't know whether it is a matter of days or weeks or months-there ought to be a law to settle it. Dear Miss Charlotte, when a poor fellow loves you at first sight, as he has never loved any other woman, and when he is tormented by the fear that some other man may be preferred to him, can't you forgive him if he lets out the trut

h a little too soon?" He ventured, as he put that very downright question, to take her hand. "It really isn't my fault," he said, simply. "My heart is so full of you I can talk of nothing else."

To Percy's delight, the first experimental pressure of his hand, far from being resented, was softly returned. Charlotte looked at him again, with a new resolution in her face.

"I'll forgive you for talking nonsense, Mr. Linwood," she said; "and I will even permit you to come and see me again, on one condition-that you tell the whole truth about the duel. If you conceal the smallest circumstance, our acquaintance is at an end."

"Haven't I owned everything already?" Percy inquired, in great perplexity. "Did I say No, when you told me I was the man?"

"Could you say No, with that plaster on your neck?" was the ready rejoinder. "I am determined to know more than the newspaper tells me. Will you declare, on your word of honor, that Captain Bervie had nothing to do with the duel? Can you look me in the face, and say that the real cause of the quarrel was a disagreement at cards? When you were talking with me just before I left the ball, how did you answer a gentleman who asked you to make one at the whist-table? You said, 'I don't play at cards.' Ah! You thought I had forgotten that? Don't kiss my hand! Trust me with the whole truth, or say good-by forever."

"Only tell me what you wish to know, Miss Charlotte," said Percy humbly. "If you will put the questions, I will give the answers-as well as I can."

On this understanding, Percy's evidence was extracted from him as follows:

"Was it Captain Bervie who quarreled with you?"

"Yes."

"Was it about me?"

"Yes."

"What did he say?"

"He said I had committed an impropriety in waltzing with you."

"Why?"

"Because your parents disapproved of your waltzing in a public ballroom."

"That's not true! What did he say next?"

"He said I had added tenfold to my offense, by waltzing with you in such a manner as to make you the subject of remark to the whole room."

"Oh! did you let him say that?"

"No; I contradicted him instantly. And I said, besides, 'It's an insult to Miss Bowmore, to suppose that she would permit any impropriety.'"

"Quite right! And what did he say?"

"Well, he lost his temper; I would rather not repeat what he said when he was mad with jealousy. There was nothing to be done with him but to give him his way."

"Give him his way? Does that mean fight a duel with him?"

"Don't be angry-it does."

"And you kept my name out of it, by pretending to quarrel at the card-table?"

"Yes. We managed it when the cardroom was emptying at supper-time, and nobody was present but Major Mulvany and another friend as witnesses."

"And when did you fight the duel?"

"The next morning."

"You never thought of me, I suppose?"

"Indeed, I did; I was very glad that you had no suspicion of what we were at."

"Was that all?"

"No; I had your flower with me, the flower you gave me out of your nosegay, at the ball."

"Well?"

"Oh, never mind, it doesn't matter."

"It does matter. What did you do with my flower?"

"I gave it a sly kiss while they were measuring the ground; and (don't tell anybody!) I put it next to my heart to bring me luck."

"Was that just before he shot at you?"

"Yes."

"How did he shoot?"

"He walked (as the seconds had arranged it) ten paces forward; and then he stopped, and lifted his pistol-"

"Don't tell me any more! Oh, to think of my being the miserable cause of such horrors! I'll never dance again as long as I live. Did you think he had killed you, when the bullet wounded your poor neck?"

"No; I hardly felt it at first."

"Hardly felt it? How he talks! And when the wretch had done his best to kill you, and when it came to your turn, what did you do?"

"Nothing."

"What! You didn't walk your ten paces forward?"

"No."

"And you never shot at him in return?"

"No; I had no quarrel with him, poor fellow; I just stood where I was, and fired in the air-"

Before he could stop her, Charlotte seized his hand, and kissed it with an hysterical fervor of admiration, which completely deprived him of his presence of mind.

"Why shouldn't I kiss the hand of a hero?" she cried, with tears of enthusiasm sparkling in her eyes. "Nobody but a hero would have given that man his life; nobody but a hero would have pardoned him, while the blood was streaming from the wound that he had inflicted. I respect you, I admire you. Oh, don't think me bold! I can't control myself when I hear of anything noble and good. You will understand me better when we get to be old friends-won't you?"

She spoke in low sweet tones of entreaty. Percy's arm stole softly round her.

"Are we never to be nearer and dearer to each other than old friends?" he asked in a whisper. "I am not a hero-your goodness overrates me, dear Miss Charlotte. My one ambition is to be the happy man who is worthy enough to win you. At your own time! I wouldn't distress you, I wouldn't confuse you, I wouldn't for the whole world take advantage of the compliment which your sympathy has paid to me. If it offends you, I won't even ask if I may hope."

She sighed as he said the last words; trembled a little, and silently looked at him.

Percy read his answer in her eyes. Without meaning it on either side their heads drew nearer together; their cheeks, then their lips, touched. She started back from him, and rose to leave the conservatory. At the same moment, the sound of slowly-approaching footsteps became audible on the gravel walk of the garden. Charlotte hurried to the door.

"My father!" she exclaimed, turning to Percy. "Come, and be introduced to him."

Percy followed her into the garden.

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