THE STRAIN upon Gordon’s nerves had become intolerable. When he first mounted the outhouse roof he had been wholly absorbed in the horror of his conjecture that Hawke’s midnight visitor was the girl to whom he was betrothed, and the need of either verifying or disproving it was the one thing clear to him amid the turmoil of his brain. Of what the visit might actually imply he took no thought. Now, however, he knew; the interview which he had witnessed left him not a glimmer of doubt. But during the two years of their engagement, Kate Nugent had so grown into the heart of his life, had become so real a part of him, that she was not easily dethroned from his respect. He clung instinctively to a vague hope that there might have been some compelling cause of which he knew nothing to account for her subjection to Hawke. That this subjection meant treachery to him, treachery of an unpardonable kind, whatever its cause, he realised in a way, but as yet did he not feel it. The blow had stunned his reason, had even dulled his senses, had, in a word, struck at the very roots of his being. He was adrift in a maze of bewilderment. The scene he was witnessing grew in the end shadowy and unreal. Even Hawke seemed to lose his individuality; he became just a detail in the sum of the mystery, a thing to be explained, not a man to be punished. Gordon, in fact, was left conscious of but one feeling—the overwhelming desire to see the woman he had worshipped face to face with him, to speak with her, and realising the necessity of getting solid ground beneath his feet, if he was to accomplish his wish, he clambered from his perch—just too soon to see Kate strike Hawke across the mouth, as her answer to the last words he had only dimly heard.
Gordon reached the earth securely and crept softly back to his garden gate. The sky had cleared during the last half hour, and the valley lay pure and clean in the starlight. After a while a sound reached him. It struck upon muffled senses at first, meaninglessly; but its continued repetition fixed his attention, and he perceived that it was the sound of Kate’s footsteps on the stones again at the bottom of the lane. She was returning. Gordon was still in that dazed condition when the brain, unable to take a complete impression, or, to speak more plainly, unable to combine its different impressions into one whole, fixes itself upon some small particular sensation and magnifies that, to the thorough exclusion of the rest. So, now as he listened to her steps drawing nearer and nearer, he noticed acutely a diflerence in the manner of her walk, a certain hesitancy, absent when she swept by him on her way to the Inn. Then her footfalls had rung surely and rhythmically, betokening some quest in view; now they wavered, timidly, with uncertain beats as if the hope had gone out of her limbs. The sound was somehow familiar to Gordon, and, curiously ransacking his memories, he discovered the reason. He had marked women walk like that, with the same weariness, with the same hopelessness, late at night in the quiet of the London streets. This chance association of ideas acted on him like a shock. It woke him from his stupor, revivified him, set him with clear vision fronting facts. He grasped the full meaning of Kate’s interview with Hawke. It rose before him like an acted scene in a play, and he recollected with a sudden horror those last words, “They will cost more.” How long was it since he had climbed down from the outhouse roof? How long had he been waiting by the gate? He had been unconscious of time. Hours might have lapsed for all he knew. Meanwhile the steps drew nearer. He saw her plainly advancing towards him. She was walking with her eyes on the ground, and so did not observe him barring her path until she almost knocked against him. She lifted her head, stood for a second looking searchingly into his face, as if he were a ghost, the fancied embodiment of her fears, and then, with an inarticulate moan like the cry of the dumb, she reeled agaiast the wall of the lane. Gordon heard her breath coming and going in quick jets and the scrabbling of her finger-nails as she clutched at the stones.
“Is it you?” she said, attempting a light surprise. “How you startled me! I am late, very late. I was delayed. I came over to—to”—
“To recover your letters,” Gordon broke in bitterly upon her labouring effort to dig up an excuse. “You were right to come late. That kind of errand can’t be run by daylight.”
Kate drew herself up and moved toward him, but he thrust his hands out with a gesture of repulsion to check her approach.
“Those last three letters?”
“He them still.”
“Come in!” Gordon said. The relief he experienced gave a gentleness to the tone of his voice. That loathsome dread at all events was dispelled. For even then he did not doubt the truth of her words.
“Come in!” and he turned and went into the parlour. The girl followed him in silence, drew a chair close to the dying fire and hung over it, shivering. Gordon lit the lamp, saying—
“Yes; it is cold. These April nights always are up here.”
Kate looked at the clock, and Gordon’s eyes followed her gaze. The hands pointed to half-past one. He had heard her implore Hawke that it was past the hour, some time before he quitted his post of observation. So there could have been but the briefest interval between her departure and his own.
“Be quick! What do you want with me? I have no time to lose!”
Kate flung the words at him petulantly. The knowledge that she had been discovered exasperated her against Gordon.
“Well, why don’t you speak?”
She turned towards him. Gordon was still standing at the table by the lamp. For, now that his object was attained and she was alone with him, he found no words to express the questions he had meant to ask. The night fell full upon the delicate beauty of her face, and indeed nearly drove the questions themselves from his mind. “You always look to me as if you had just come out of a convent,” he had once said to her; and that sentence most exactly indicated the nature of the passion he had felt for her—an intense love refined and exalted by a blind, unreasoning reverence. There was, in truth, a certain air of spirituality about her manifest to most people on their first introduction. But it belonged to the face, not to the expression. It was due to the fragile purity of her features, not to the mind which animated them, and was consequently more noticeable when she was in repose. The impression, as a rule, wore off upon a closer acquaintance, but Gordon had fallen in love and saw her always through the mist of his feelings.
So the memory of all that she had meant to him kept him silent now. His thoughts seemed almost a sacrilege—plainly impossible to speak unless Kate gave him a decided lead. He waited and watched her. The skin of her wrist had broken when Hawke gripped it, and every now and then a drop of blood would fall on to her white dress and trickle down in a red wavering line. The sight somehow fascinated Gordon, and as each drop fell he waited and watched for the next.
To Kate, his silence became intolerable. She would have preferred reproaches, abuse, even violence—anything, in a word—to this leaden reticence. For it accused her more sharply than any words. Her lover had always been as an easy book to her keen intelligence, and she could read clearly enough that what kept his lips locked now was the conflict between his new knowledge and his old loyalty. In a flash she imagined Hawke’s behaviour under the like circumstances and contrasted it with Gordon’s bearing. Side by side the two men toed the line for her mental inspection, and the result was a feminine outcry against Fate, the Powers above and below—what you will, in a word, except her concrete self.
“What brought you over here?” she cried. “You said you were going to Ravenglass. You told me so. What brought you over to Wastdale?”
She spoke fiercely, almost vindictively, and it seemed as if the pair had suddenly changed places, as if she were the accuser and he the culprit, standing meekly selfcondemned. Indeed, to complete the illusion, there was even a tinge of remorse in his tone as he answered her.
“God, perhaps. Who knows?”
“Oh! yes, yes, yes!” she went on. “Preach to me! Preach to me! Go on! Only be quick about it and make the sermon short!”
“Don’t, Kitty!” he said, and added, wistfully, “It can’t be your true self that is speaking.”
“Yes, it is,” she replied, struggling with a sense of pity for him (evoked by the quiet sadness of his voice). “My very own self, my real true self, that you have never known—that you never would know. You always had wrong ideas about me. I tried to open your eyes at first, but it was no good, and I gave it up. You always dressed me up in virtues that didn’t fit me. I used to feel as if I were wearing a strait- waistcoat.”
Gordon drew up a chair and sat opposite to her on the other side of the fireplace.
“Then it was all my fault,” he said.
Kate glanced at him quickly, but there was no trace of irony in his manner. He was speaking quite seriously. As a matter of fact, it had just begun to dawn on him that a frank expectation of ideal behaviour is the most exacting form of tyranny a man can exercise over a woman.
“No,” she replied. “No! It was my fault. I ought never to have become engaged to you; for I never loved you, even at the beginning. Oh, it is no use shirking the truth now,” she went on, as Gordon rose with a cry of pain. “I never loved you. I realised that very soon after we were engaged. I had always liked you. I liked you better than any man I had met, and so in time 1 thought I might come to love you as well. I don’t know whether I ever should have reached that if I had been left alone. But you made it impossible. You would not see that I had faults and caprices. You would not see that those very faults pleased me, that I meant to keep them, that I did not want to change. No! Whenever you came to me, I always felt as if I was being lifted up reverently and set on a very high and a very small pedestal. And there I had to stand, with my heels together, and my toes turned out, in an attitude of decorum until you had gone. Well, you want people with flat heels to enjoy that. I always wore high ones, and the attitude tired me.”
Instinctively she stretched one foot out as she spoke. The sparkle of the firelight on the buckle caught Gordon’s eye, and he saw that she was wearing thin kid slippers with a strap across the instep.
“You must be wet through,” he exclaimed.
“No,” she answered. “I rode to the head of the Pass, and left the horse tied up to the footbridge over the stream. It was dry enough the rest of the way.”
“You rode over here! “he exclaimed. “Then they must have known you were coming?”
“Who must have known?” she asked, in a sudden alarm.
“Your father and your aunt. She is staying with you still, I suppose.”
“Yes. But they knew nothing, of course. My father had some people to dinner to-night. I left them early, saying that I was tired. I should have had no time to change if I had thought of it, as it was close on ten. I had told Martin, our groom, that I should want a horse—you know he would do anything for me—and he had it ready saddled. So I locked my room door, took the key with me, and came away just as I was.”
She stopped abruptly. The mention of her home aroused her to the consequences of her detection. Up till now the fact that Gordon had found her out had alone possessed her mind. Now, however, she was compelled to look forward. What would he do? He was to have married her in a week, in just seven days. Would he disclose the truth? She scanned his face for an answer to her conjectures.
Gordon was leaning against the mantel-shelf above her, and his eyes met her inquiring gaze.
“Well?” he asked.
“So you see,” she faltered, “I am pretty safe for to-night; but to-morrow?”
“To-morrow?” He seemed not to have grasped her drift.
“Yes! To-morrow,” she repeated. “What do you mean to do?”
The question startled Gordon. He had been thinking of her, not of himself. Yes, to-morrow he would have to act. But how?
“I don’t know,” he answered. “I must have time to think. I have not mastered today yet.”
“You will spare me as much as you can?”
There was something very pitiful in the childlike entreaty; at least so it seemed to Gordon. She was so young for all this misery. Her very humility pained him, all the more because it was so strange to him.
“I will spare you altogether, child,” he replied. “You need not bo afraid of me. I have loved you too well to hurt you now.”
For a moment or two he paced about the room restlessly, trying to discover some means by which he could break the marriage off and take the blame upon himself. But no likely plan occurred to him. His brain refused to act. Disconnected scraps of ideas and ludicrous reminiscences, all foreign to the matter, forced themselves upon his mind, the harder he strove to think. He gave the effort up. He would be able to concentrate his attention better when he was alone. Besides, he recollected he had not heard the whole story as yet. Some clue to an issue might perhaps be found in the untold remainder.
“Tell me the rest!” he said, returning to his chair.
“The rest?” she inquired. Gordon’s generosity had pierced straight to her heart at last, and had sent the tears rolling down her cheeks.
“Yes! The rest of the story down to tonight.”
“Oh! I can’t,” she cried. “Not now! I can’t! If you had been rough and harsh, yes! But you have been so gentle with me.”
“It will be the kindest way for me,” Gordon rephed. “I must know the truth some way or another, and I would rather have you tell it me than ferret it out for myself.”
“Very well, then,” she said, wearily; and for a space there was silence in the room.