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The Dilettante
by [?]

He was excessively pale. “Please tell me exactly what she said of me.”

“She did not speak much of you: she is proud. But I gather that while she understands love or indifference, her eyes have never been opened to the many intermediate shades of feeling. At any rate, she expressed an unwillingness to be taken with reservations–she thinks you would have loved her better if you had loved some one else first. The point of view is original–she insists on a man with a past!”

“Oh, a past–if she’s serious–I could rake up a past!” he said with a laugh.

“So I suggested: but she has her eyes on his particular portion of it. She insists on making it a test case. She wanted to know what you had done to me; and before I could guess her drift I blundered into telling her.”

Thursdale drew a difficult breath. “I never supposed–your revenge is complete,” he said slowly.

He heard a little gasp in her throat. “My revenge? When I sent for you to warn you–to save you from being surprised as I was surprised?”

“You’re very good–but it’s rather late to talk of saving me.” He held out his hand in the mechanical gesture of leave-taking.

“How you must care!–for I never saw you so dull,” was her answer. “Don’t you see that it’s not too late for me to help you?” And as he continued to stare, she brought out sublimely: “Take the rest–in imagination! Let it at least be of that much use to you. Tell her I lied to her–she’s too ready to believe it! And so, after all, in a sense, I sha’n’t have been wasted.”

His stare hung on her, widening to a kind of wonder. She gave the look back brightly, unblushingly, as though the expedient were too simple to need oblique approaches. It was extraordinary how a few words had swept them from an atmosphere of the most complex dissimulations to this contact of naked souls.

It was not in Thursdale to expand with the pressure of fate; but something in him cracked with it, and the rift let in new light. He went up to his friend and took her hand.

“You would do it–you would do it!”

She looked at him, smiling, but her hand shook.

“Good-by,” he said, kissing it.

“Good-by? You are going–?”

“To get my letter.”

“Your letter? The letter won’t matter, if you will only do what I ask.”

He returned her gaze. “I might, I suppose, without being out of character. Only, don’t you see that if your plan helped me it could only harm her?”

“Harm her?”

“To sacrifice you wouldn’t make me different. I shall go on being what I have always been–sifting and sorting, as she calls it. Do you want my punishment to fall on her?”

She looked at him long and deeply. “Ah, if I had to choose between you–!”

“You would let her take her chance? But I can’t, you see. I must take my punishment alone.”

She drew her hand away, sighing. “Oh, there will be no punishment for either of you.”

“For either of us? There will be the reading of her letter for me.”

She shook her head with a slight laugh. “There will be no letter.”

Thursdale faced about from the threshold with fresh life in his look. “No letter? You don’t mean–“

“I mean that she’s been with you since I saw her–she’s seen you and heard your voice. If there is a letter, she has recalled it–from the first station, by telegraph.”

He turned back to the door, forcing an answer to her smile. “But in the mean while I shall have read it,” he said.

The door closed on him, and she hid her eyes from the dreadful emptiness of the room.