Then, as he saw by her face that the subject was not one for jest, he said, in his hearty way that Mary Penrose likes, "Why not let me buy the place, as mine was the first offer, put it in order, and then lease it to you for three years, with the privilege of buying if you find that your scheme succeeds? If the house is too small to allow two lone men a room each, I can add a lean-to to match Opie's summer kitchen, for you know sometimes a woman finds it comfortable to have a man in the house!"
Maria did not answer at first, but was looking at the one uncurtained window, where the firelight again made opals of the panes. Then turning, she said, "I will think over your offer, Mr. Blake, if everything may be upon a strictly business basis. But how about Amos? He seems better, and I ought to be going. I do not know why I should have been so foolish, but for a moment he did not seem to breathe, and I thought it was a stroke."
"I'm comin' too all in good time, now my mind's relieved," replied the old man, with a chuckle, "and I think I'll weather to-night fer the sake o' fixin' that deed termorrow, Mr. Blake, if you'll kindly give me jest a thimbleful more o' that old liquor o' yourn - I kin manage it fust rate without the water, thank 'ee!"
The Man followed Maria to the door and out into the night. He did not ask her if he might go with her - he simply walked by her side for once unquestioned.
Maria spoke first, and rather more quickly and nervously than usual: "I suppose you think that my scheme in wishing the farm is a madcap one, but I'm sure I could not see why you should wish to own it!"
"Yes and no! I can well understand why you should desire a broader, freer life than your vocation allows, but - well, as for reading women's motives, I have given that up long since; it often leads to trouble though I have never lost my interest in them.
"I think Amos Opie will revive, now that his mind is settled" (if it had been sufficiently light, Maria would have seen an expression upon The Man's face indicative of his belief that the recent attack of illness was not quite motiveless, even though he forgave the ruse). "In a few days, when the deeds are drawn, will you not, as my prospective tenant, come and look over the house by daylight and tell me what changes would best suit your purpose, so that I may make some plans? I imagine that Amos revived will be able to do much of the work himself with a good assistant.
"When would you like the lease to begin? In May? It is a pity that you could not be here in the interval to overlook it all, for the pasture should be ploughed at once for next year's gardening."
"May will be late; best put it at the first of March. As to overseeing, I shall not be far away. I'm thinking of accepting cousin Mary's offer to stay with her and teach the Infant and a couple of other children this winter, which may be well for superintending the work, as I suppose you are off again with the swallows, as usual."
"Oh, no, you forget the reservoir and the tunnelling of Three Brothers for the aqueduct to Bridgeton!"
"Then let it be March first!" said Maria, after hesitating a moment, during which she stood looking back at Opal Farm lying at peace in the moonlight; "only, in making the improvements, please do them as if for any one else, and remember that it is to be a strictly business affair!"
"And why should you think that I would deal otherwise by you?" The Man said quickly, stepping close, where he could see the expression of her face.
Maria, feeling herself cornered, did not answer immediately, and half turned her face away, - only for a moment, however. Facing him, she said, "Because men of your stamp are always good to women, - always doing them kindnesses both big and little (ask Mary Penrose), - and sometimes kindness hurts!"
"Well, then, the lease and all pertaining to it shall be strictly in the line of business until you yourself ask for a modification, - but be careful, I may be a hard landlord!" Then, dropping his guard, he said suddenly, "Why is it that you and I - man and woman - temperamentally alike, both interested in the same things, and of an age to know what in life is worth while, should stand so aloof? Is there no more human basis upon which I can persuade you to come to Opal Farm when it is mine? Give me a month, three months, - lessen the distance you always keep between us, and give me leave to convince you! Why will you insist upon deliberately keeping up a barrier raised in the beginning when I was too stupidly at home in your cousin's house to see that I might embarrass you? Frankly, do you dislike me?"
Maria began two different sentences, stumbled, and stopped short; then drawing herself up and looking The Man straight in the face, she said, "I have kept a barrier between us, and deliberately, as you say, but - " here she faltered - "it was because I found you too interesting; the barrier was to protect my own peace of mind more than to rebuff you."
"Then I may try to convince you that my plan is best?"
"Yes," said Maria, with a glint of her mischievous smile, "if you have plenty of time to spare."
"And you will give me no more encouragement than this? No good wish or omen?"
"Yes," said Maria again, "I wish that you may succeed - " here she slipped her hand in the belt of her gown and drew out a little chamois bag attached to her watch, "and for an omen, here is the opal you gave me - you give it a happy Interpretation and one is very apt to lose an unset stone, you know!"
But as neither walls nor leaves have tongues, Mary Penrose never learned the real ins and outs of this matter.