You forget. You have not yet told me what your accusation is!'
'Why should I?' returned Martin, waving his hand, and moving towards the door. 'You could not know it the better for my dwelling on it, and though it would be really none the worse, it might seem to me to be. No, Tom. Bygones shall be bygones between us. I can take leave of you at this moment, and in this place--in which you are so amiable and so good--as heartily, if not as cheerfully, as ever I have done since we first met. All good go with you, Tom!--I--'
'You leave me so? You can leave me so, can you?' said Tom.
'I--you--you have chosen for yourself, Tom! I--I hope it was a rash choice,' Martin faltered. 'I think it was. I am sure it was! Good- bye!'
And he was gone.
Tom led his little sister to her chair, and sat down in his own. He took his book, and read, or seemed to read. Presently he said aloud, turning a leaf as he spoke: 'He will be very sorry for this.' And a tear stole down his face, and dropped upon the page.
Ruth nestled down beside him on her knees, and clasped her arms about his neck.
'No, Tom! No, no! Be comforted! Dear Tom!'
'I am quite--comforted,' said Tom. 'It will be set right.'
'Such a cruel, bad return!' cried Ruth.
'No, no,' said Tom. 'He believes it. I cannot imagine why. But it will be set right.'
More closely yet, she nestled down about him; and wept as if her heart would break.
'Don't. Don't,' said Tom. 'Why do you hide your face, my dear!'
Then in a burst of tears, it all broke out at last.
'Oh Tom, dear Tom, I know your secret heart. I have found it out; you couldn't hide the truth from me. Why didn't you tell me? I am sure I could have made you happier, if you had! You love her, Tom, so dearly!'
Tom made a motion with his hand as if he would have put his sister hurriedly away; but it clasped upon hers, and all his little history was written in the action. All its pathetic eloquence was in the silent touch.
'In spite of that,' said Ruth, 'you have been so faithful and so good, dear; in spite of that, you have been so true and self- denying, and have struggled with yourself; in spite of that, you have been so gentle, and so kind, and even-tempered, that I have never seen you give a hasty look, or heard you say one irritable word. In spite of all, you have been so cruelly mistaken. Oh Tom, dear Tom, will THIS be set right too! Will it, Tom? Will you always have this sorrow in your breast; you who deserve to be so happy; or is there any hope?'
And still she hid her face from Tom, and clasped him round the neck, and wept for him, and poured out all her woman's heart and soul in the relief and pain of this disclosure.
It was not very long before she and Tom were sitting side by side, and she was looking with an earnest quietness in Tom's face. Then Tom spoke to her thus, cheerily, though gravely:
'I am very glad, my dear, that this has passed between us. Not because it assures me of your tender affection (for I was well assured of that before), but because it relieves my mind of a great weight.'
Tom's eyes glistened when he spoke of her affection; and he kissed her on the cheek.
'My dear girl,' said Tom; 'with whatever feeling I regard her'--they seemed to avoid the name by mutual consent--'I have long ago--I am sure I may say from the very first--looked upon it as a dream. As something that might possibly have happened under very different circumstances, but which can never be. Now, tell me. What would you have set right?'
She gave Tom such a significant little look, that he was obliged to take it for an answer whether he would or no; and to go on.
'By her own choice and free consent, my love, she is betrothed to Martin; and was, long before either of them knew of my existence. You would have her betrothed to me?'
'Yes,' she said directly.
'Yes,' rejoined Tom, 'but that might be setting it wrong, instead of right. Do you think,' said Tom, with a grave smile, 'that even if she had never seen him, it is very likely she would have fallen in love with Me?'
'Why not, dear Tom?'
Tom shook his head, and smiled again.