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"Not wicked, my dear—only human. You are not the first woman who did not want to divide a love with a mother."
"But it wasn't exactly that, dear Cousin Lavinia, I had never met anyone who obeyed his mother as Ollie did, and—and—I almost hated her for being his guide and counsel when—oh, not because she did not love him too, just as I did—but because I thought that I could really help him most—because I believed in his talent and she did not, and because I knew all the time that she was ruining him, keeping him back, spoiling his career, and"
Again she stopped and straightened herself, her beautiful head held higher. Those who knew Margaret well would have known that the worst part of her confession was yet to come.
"I suppose I was hurt too," she said, slowly accentuating each pause with a slight movement of the head. "That I was little enough and mean enough and horrid enough for that. But he was always talking of his mother as though she never did anything but sit still in that white shawl of hers, listening to music, while everybody waited on her and came to her for advice. And I always thought that she jouldn't understand me nor any other woman who wanted to work. When Ollie talked of you all, and of what you did at home, I couldn't help feeling she must think that I and all my people belonged to some different race and that when she saw me she would judge me by some petty thing that displeased her, the cut of my skirt, or the way I carried my hands, or something else equally trivial, and that she would use that kind of thing against me and, perhaps, tell Ollie, too. Father judged Oliver in that way. He thought that Ollie's joyousness and his courtesy, even his way of taking off his hat, and holding it in his two hands for a moment—you've seen him do it a hundred times—was only a proof of his Southern shiftlessness—caring more for manners than for work. Mother didn't; she understood Ollie better, and so did John, but father never could. That's why I wouldn't come when you asked me. You wouldn't have judged me, I know, but I thought that she would. And now—oh, I'm so sorry I could cry."
"It was only another of the mistakes and misunderstandings that divided us all at that time, my dear," Miss Clendenning answered. "This dreadful war could have been averted, if people had only come together and understood each other. I did not think so then, but I do now."
"And you don't think me wicked, Cousin Lavinia?" Margaret asked with a sudden relaxation of her figure and something infinitely childlike and appealing in her tone. "You really don't think me wicked, do you?"
"Not wicked, dear; only human, as I said a moment ago. Yet you have been stronger than I. You have held on and won; I lot go and lost."
Margaret bent forward and laid her finger on Mist Clendenning's knee.
"Lost what, Cousin Lavinia!" she asked, in surprise.
u My lover."
"When I was just your age."
"Did he die?" asked Margaret in awed tones, overcome all at once with the solemnity of the hour and a strange new note in Miss Lavinia's voice.
"No, he married someone else."
"He never—never loved you, then." There was a positiveness now in her intonations.
"Yes, he did, with all his heart. His mother came between us."
Again silence fell on the room. Margaret would not look at Miss Clendenning. The little old maid had suddenly opened the windows of her heart, but whether to let a long-caged sorrow out or some friendly sympathy in, she could not tell.
"May I know about it?" There was a softer cadence now in the girl's voice.
"It would only make you unhappy, dear. It was all over forty years or more ago. Sallie, when she saw you, put her arms about you. You had only to come together. The oftener she sees you, the more she will love you. My lover's mother shut the door in my face."
"In your face? Why?"
Margaret moved closer to Miss Clendenning, stirred by a sudden impulse, as if she could even now protect her from one who had hurt her.
Miss Lavinia bent forward and picked up the brass tongs that lay on the fender at her feet. She saw Margaret's gesture, but she did not turn her head. Her eyes were still watching the smouldering embers.
"For no reason, dear, that you or any other Northern woman could understand. An old family quarrel that began before I was born."
Margaret's cheeks flushed and a determined look came into her face.
"The coward! I would not have cared what his mother or anybody else did, or how they quarrelled. If I loved you I would have married you in spite of everything."
"And so would he." She was balancing the tongs in her hand now, her eyes still on the fire. She had not looked at Margaret once.
"What happened then?"
Miss Clendenning leaned forward, spread the tongs in her little hands, lifted an ember and tucked it closer to its neighbor. The charred mass crumbled at the touch and fell into a heap of broken coals.
"I am a Clendenning, my dear; that is all," she answered, slowly.
Margaret stared at her with wide-open eyes. That
a life should be wrecked for a mere queition of family pride was something her mind could not fathom.
"Have you regretted it since, Cousin Lavinia?" she asked, calmly. She wanted to follow it out now to the end.
Miss Clendenning heaped the broken coals closer together, laid the tongs back in their place on the fender, and, turning to Margaret, said, with a sigh:
"Don't ask me, my dear. I never dare ask myself, but do you keep your hand close in Oliver's. Remember, dear, close—close! Then you will never know the bitterness of a lonely life."
She rose from her seat, bent down, and, taking Margaret's cheeks between her palms, kissed her on the forehead.
Margaret put her arms about the little lady, and was about to draw her nearer, when the front door opened and a step was heard in the hall. Miss Lavinia raised herself erect, listening to the sound.
"Hark!" she cried, "there's the dear fellow, now "—and she advanced to meet him, her gentle countenance once more serene.
Oliver's face as he entered the room told the story.
"Wot worse? " Margaret exclaimed, starting from her chair.
"Yes—much worse. I have just sent word to
Uncle Nat"—and he kissed them both. "Put on
your things at once. The doctor is anxious."
Miss Lavinia caught up her cloak, handed Mar