Book II. The Haunted Man
Chapter X. Rejected
It was after our second waltz I did it. In the usual quiet corner.--which, that time, was in the shadow of a palm in the hall. Before I had got into my stride she checked me,--touching my sleeve with her fan, turning towards me with startled eyes.
But I was not to be stopped. Cliff Challoner passed, with Gerty Cazell. I fancy that, as he passed, he nodded. I did not care. I was wound up to go, and I went it. No man knows how he can talk till he does talk,--to the girl he wants to marry. It is my impression that I gave her recollections of the Restoration poets. She seemed surprised,--not having previously detected in me the poetic strain, and insisted on cutting in.
'Mr Atherton, I am so sorry.'
Then I did let fly.
'Sorry that I love you!--why? Why should you be sorry that you have become the one thing needful in any man's eyes,--even in mine? The one thing precious,--the one thing to be altogether esteemed! Is it so common for a woman to come across a man who would be willing to lay down his life for her that she should be sorry when she finds him?'
'I did not know that you felt like this, though I confess that I have had my--my doubts.'
'Doubts!--I thank you.'
'You are quite aware, Mr Atherton, that I like you very much.'
'I cannot help liking you,--though it may be "bah."'
'I don't want you to like me,--I want you to love me.'
'Precisely,--that is your mistake.'
'My mistake!--in wanting you to love me!--when I love you--'
'Then you shouldn't,--though I can't help thinking that you are mistaken even there.'
'Mistaken!--in supposing that I love you!--when I assert and reassert it with the whole force of my being! What do you want me to do to prove I love you,--take you in my arms and crush you to my bosom, and make a spectacle of you before every creature in the place?'
'I'd rather you wouldn't, and perhaps you wouldn't mind not talking quite so loud. Mr Challoner seems to be wondering what you're shouting about.'
'You shouldn't torture me.'
She opened and shut her fan,--as she looked down at it I am disposed to suspect that she smiled.
'I am glad we have had this little explanation, because, of course, you are my friend.'
'I am not your friend.'
'Pardon me, you are.'
'I say I'm not,--if I can't be something else, I'll be no friend.'
She went on,--calmly ignoring me,--playing with her fan.
'As it happens, I am, just now, in rather a delicate position, in which a friend is welcome.'
'What's the matter? Who's been worrying you,--your father?'
'Well,--he has not,--as yet; but he may be soon.'
'What's in the wind?'
She dropped her voice,--and her eyes. For the moment I did not catch her meaning.
'Your friend, Mr Lessingham.'
'Excuse me, Miss Lindon, but I am by no means sure that anyone is entitled to call Mr Lessingham a friend of mine.'
'What!--Not when I am going to be his wife?'
That took me aback. I had had my suspicions that Paul Lessingham was more with Marjorie than he had any right to be, but I had never supposed that she could see anything desirable in a stick of a man like that. Not to speak of a hundred and one other considerations,--Lessingham on one side of the House, and her father on the other; and old Lindon girding at him anywhere and everywhere--with his high-dried Tory notions of his family importance,--to say nothing of his fortune.
I don't know if I looked what I felt,--if I did, I looked uncommonly blank.
'You have chosen an appropriate moment, Miss Lindon, to make to me such a communication.'
She chose to disregard my irony.
'I am glad you think so, because now you will understand what a difficult position I am in.'
'I offer you my hearty congratulations.'
'And I thank you for them, Mr Atherton, in the spirit in which they are offered, because from you I know they mean so much.'
I bit my lip,--for the life of me I could not tell how she wished me to read her words.
'Do I understand that this announcement has been made to me as one of the public?'
'You do not. It is made to you, in confidence, as my friend,--as my greatest friend; because a husband is something more than friend.' My pulses tingled. 'You will be on my side?'
She had paused,--and I stayed silent.
'On your side,--or Mr Lessingham's?'
'His side is my side, and my side is his side;--you will be on our side?'
'I am not sure that I altogether follow you.'
'You are the first I have told. When papa hears it is possible that there will be trouble,--as you know. He thinks so much of you and of your opinion; when that trouble comes I want you to be on our side,--on my side.'
'Why should I?--what does it matter? You are stronger than your father,--it is just possible that Lessingham is stronger than you; together, from your father's point of view, you will be invincible.'
'You are my friend,--are you not my friend?'
'In effect, you offer me an Apple of Sodom.'
'Thank you;--I did not think you so unkind.'
'And you,--are you kind? I make you an avowal of my love, and, straightway, you ask me to act as chorus to the love of another.'
'How could I tell you loved me,--as you say! I had no notion. You have known me all your life, yet you have not breathed a word of it till now.'
'If I had spoken before?'
I imagine that there was a slight movement of her shoulders,-- almost amounting to a shrug.
'I do not know that it would have made any difference.--I do not pretend that it would. But I do know this, I believe that you yourself have only discovered the state of your own mind within the last half-hour.'
If she had slapped my face she could not have startled me more. I had no notion if her words were uttered at random, but they came so near the truth they held me breathless. It was a fact that only during the last few minutes had I really realised how things were with me,--only since the end of that first waltz that the flame had burst out in my soul which was now consuming me. She had read me by what seemed so like a flash of inspiration that I hardly knew what to say to her. I tried to be stinging.
'You flatter me, Miss Lindon, you flatter me at every point. Had you only discovered to me the state of your mind a little sooner I should not have discovered to you the state of mine at all.'
'We will consider it terra incognita.'
'Since you wish it.' Her provoking calmness stung me,--and the suspicion that she was laughing at me in her sleeve. I gave her a glimpse of the cloven hoof. 'But, at the same time, since you assert that you have so long been innocent, I beg that you will continue so no more. At least, your innocence shall be without excuse. For I wish you to understand that I love you, that I have loved you, that I shall love you. Any understanding you may have with Mr Lessingham will not make the slightest difference. I warn you, Miss Lindon, that, until death, you will have to write me down your lover.'
She looked at me, with wide open eyes,--as if I almost frightened her. To be frank, that was what I wished to do.
'That is not like you at all.'
'We seem to be making each other's acquaintance for the first time.'
She continued to gaze at me with her big eyes,--which, to be candid, I found it difficult to meet. On a sudden her face was lighted by a smile,--which I resented.
'Not after all these years,--not after all these years! I know you, and though I daresay you're not flawless, I fancy you'll be found to ring pretty true.'
Her manner was almost sisterly,--elder-sisterly. I could have shaken her. Hartridge coming to claim his dance gave me an opportunity to escape with such remnants of dignity as I could gather about me. He dawdled up,--his thumbs, as usual, in his waistcoat pockets.
'I believe, Miss Lindon, this is our dance.'