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Blue-Bird Weather Part 8

The question startled her. She looked at him, striving to think clearly, trying to see this offered miracle through calm, impartial eyes.

"I--I would do anything--almost--for Jim," she said. "I'd have no pride left, if his chances lay in the balance. But men--my father--may be different."

He said slowly: "Suppose I offered the same chance to you?"

"What!" she said crisply.

"Suppose I offered you a college finishing, Miss Herold. Would you accept?"

She slowly grew scarlet under his gaze. "That would be insulting," she said, in a low voice.

"Why, when only kindness is meant--as I mean it for Jim?"

"It is not the same. I am a grown woman capable of caring for myself.

Such an offer, however kindly meant, could only hurt me, humiliate me--and--I thought you found me companionable as I am. Friends do not offer to better each other--in such a way."

"I have not offered it to you, Miss Herold."

She looked up, still flushed and brilliant eyed; then her face changed softly. "I know it. I was foolishly sensitive. I know you couldn't offer such a thing to me. But I wish I knew whether we could accept for Jim.

He is such a darling--so intelligent and perfectly crazy for an education. I've saved a little--that's why I wanted you to hire me for your bayman. You see I don't spend anything on myself," she added, with a blush.

Marche was fighting hard for self-restraint; he was young and romantic, and his heart was very full. "What I'd like to do," he said, "would be to send Jim to some first-rate school until he is ready for college.

Then I'd like to see him through college, and, if he cared for it, start him with me in business."

"Oh," she cried softly, "is it possible! Is there--can any man really do such heavenly things? Have you any idea what you are saying? Do you realize what you are doing to me--with every word you utter?"

"What am I doing to--to you?" he asked unsteadily.

"Making me your slave," she said, in a low voice, thrilling with generous passion. "Even for the thought--even if father will not accept--what you have said to me to-night has put me in your debt forever. Truly--truly, I know what friendship is, now."

She clasped her hands tightly and said something else, sweetly incoherent; and, in the starlight, Marche saw the tears sparkling on her lashes.

With that he sprang nervously to the shore and began to tramp up and down the shingle, his mind in a whirl, every sense, common or the contrary, clamoring for finality--urging him to tell her the truth--tell her that he loved her, that he wanted her--her alone, out of all the world of women--that it was for love and for her, and for love of her, that he offered anything, did anything, thought anything now under the high stars or under the circling sun.

And now, as he tramped savagely to and fro, he realized that he had begun wrong; that he should have told her he loved her first of all, and then acted, not promised.

Would she look on his offer scornfully, now? Would she see, in what he asked of her, a bribe desired for the offer he had made in her brother's behalf? She did not love him. How could she, in a week? Never had there been even a hint of sentiment between them. What would she think--this young girl, so tranquilly confident in her friendship for him--what would she think of him and his love? He knew there was nothing mercenary or material in her character; he knew she was young, sweet tempered, reticent concerning herself, clean hearted, and proud. How could he come blundering through the boundaries of her friendship with such an avowal, at a moment's notice?

He returned slowly to the boat and stood looking up at her; and he saw that she was smiling down at him in the starlight.

"Why did you start off so abruptly and tramp up and down?" she asked.

He looked up at her. "Shall we walk back, now?" he said.

She extended her hands to him, and he swung her to the beach. For a moment he retained her hands; she looked at him, smiling, thrilling with all that he had said, meeting his eyes frankly and tenderly.

"You are like some glorious magic prince to me," she said, "appearing among us here to win our hearts with a word."

"Have I won yours with what I have said?"

"Mine? Oh, don't you know it? Do you think--even if it doesn't come true--that I can ever forget what you have wished to do for Jim?"

Still holding her hands, he lifted them, joined her fingers, and laid his lips to them. She bent her head and caught her breath in surprise.

"I am going North to-morrow," he said.

For a moment she did not comprehend his words. Then, a trifle dazed, she looked up at him. "To-morrow?"

"Yes."

"Are you coming back?"

"Perhaps--next year."

"_Next--year!_"

"Do you--find it--a long time?"

Her straight brows bent inward a little, the startled gray eyes became clear and steady. "Of course I knew that you must go--some time. But I had no idea that it would be so soon. Somehow, I have thought of you as being--here----"

"Do you care?"

Her honest eyes widened. "Care?" she repeated.

"Yes. How greatly do you care?"

The straight brows contracted still more as she stood considering him--so close that the fresh and subtle youth of her freshened the night again with its faint perfume.

Again he touched her hands with his lips, she watching him palely, out of clear, gray eyes; then, as they turned away together, he encircled her slender waist with his arm.

That she was conscious of it, and not disturbed by it, was part of her new mystery to him. Only once, as they walked, when his circling clasp tightened, did she rest her own hand over his where it held her body imprisoned. But she said nothing; nor had he spoken when the belt of pines loomed against the stars once more.

Then, though neither had spoken, they stopped. He turned to face her, drew her into his arms, and the beating of his heart almost suffocated him as he looked into her eyes, clear, unshrinking eyes of gray, with a child's question in their starry depths.

And he answered the question as in a dream: "I love you. I want you for my wife. I want you to love me. You are the first woman I have cared for. All that you are I want--no more than you are. You, as you are now, are all that I care for in the world. Life is young for us both, yet.

Let us grow up together--if you can love me. Can you?"

"I don't know."

"Can you not care for me a little, Molly?"

"I do. I know--nothing about--love--real love."

"Can you not imagine it, dear?"

"I--it is what I _have_ imagined--a man--like you--coming this way into my loneliness. I recognize it. I have dreamed that it was like this.

What is it that I should do--if this is really to come true?"

"Love me."

Chapter end

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