CHAPTER XXII--FIXING THE BOUNDS
Leonard came towards Normanstand next forenoon in considerable mental disturbance. In the first place he was seriously in love with Stephen, and love is in itself a disturbing influence.
Leonard's love was all of the flesh; and as such had power at present to disturb him, as it would later have power to torture him. Again, he was disturbed by the fear of losing Stephen, or rather of not being able to gain her. At first, ever since she had left him on the path from the hilltop till his interview the next day, he had looked on her possession as an 'option,' to the acceptance of which circumstances seemed to be compelling him. But ever since, that asset seemed to have been dwindling; and now he was almost beginning to despair. He was altogether cold at heart, and yet highly strung with apprehension, as he was shown into the blue drawing-room.
Stephen came in alone, closing the door behind her. She shook hands with him, and sat down by a writing-table near the window, pointing to him to sit on an ottoman a little distance away. The moment he sat down he realised that he was at a disadvantage; he was not close to her, and he could not get closer without manifesting his intention of so doing. He wanted to be closer, both for the purpose of his suit and for his own pleasure; the proximity of Stephen began to multiply his love for her. He thought that to-day she looked better than ever, of a warm radiant beauty which touched his senses with unattainable desire. She could not but notice the passion in his eyes, and instinctively her eyes wandered to a silver gong placed on the table well within reach. The more he glowed, the more icily calm she sat, till the silence between them began to grow oppressive. She waited, determined that he should be the first to speak. Recognising the helplessness of silence, he began huskily:
'I came here to-day in the hope that you would listen to me.' Her answer, given with a conventional smile, was not helpful:
'I am listening.'
'I cannot tell you how sorry I am that I did not accept your offer. If I had know when I was coming that day that you loved me . . . ' She interrupted him, calm of voice, and with uplifted hand:
'I never said so, did I? Surely I could not have said such a thing! I certainly don't remember it?' Leonard was puzzled.
'You certainly made me think so. You asked me to marry you, didn't you?' Her answer came calmly, though in a low voice:
'Then if you didn't love me, why did you ask me to marry you?' It was his nature to be more or less satisfied when he had put any one opposed to him proportionally in the wrong; and now his exultation at having put a poser manifested itself in his tone. This, however, braced up Stephen to cope with a difficult and painful situation. It was with a calm, seemingly genial frankness, that she answered, smilingly:
'Do you know, that is what has been puzzling me from that moment to this!' Her words appeared to almost stupefy Leonard. This view of the matter had not occurred to him, and now the puzzle of it made him angry.
'Do you mean to say,' he asked hotly, 'that you asked a man to marry you when you didn't even love him?'
'That is exactly what I do mean! Why I did it is, I assure you, as much a puzzle to me as it is to you. I have come to the conclusion that it must have been from my vanity. I suppose I wanted to dominate somebody; and you were the weakest within range!'
'Thank you!' He was genuinely angry by this time, and, but for a wholesome fear of the consequences, would have used strong language.
'I don't see that I was the weakest about.' Somehow this set her on her guard. She wanted to know more, so she asked:
'Harold An Wolf! You had him on a string already!' The name came like a sword through her heart, but the bitter comment braced her to further caution. Her voice seemed to her to sound as though far away:
'Indeed! And may I ask you how you came to know that?' Her voice seemed so cold and sneering to him that he lost his temper still further.
'Simply because he told me so himself.' It pleased him to do in ill turn to Harold. He did not forget that savage clutch at his throat; and he never would. Stephen's senses were all alert. She saw an opportunity of learning something, and went on with the same cold voice:
'And I suppose it was that pleasing confidence which was the cause of your refusal of my offer of marriage; of which circumstance you have so thoughtfully and so courteously reminded me.' This, somehow, seemed of good import to Leonard. If he could show her that his intention to marry her was antecedent to Harold's confidence, she might still go back to her old affection for him. He could not believe that it did not still exist; his experience of other women showed him that their love outlived their anger, whether the same had been hot or cold.
'It had nothing in the world to do with it. He never said a word about it till he threatened to kill me--the great brute!' This was learning something indeed! She went on in the same voice:
'And may I ask you what was the cause of such sanguinary intention?'
'Because he knew that I was going to marry you!' As he spoke he felt that he had betrayed himself; he went on hastily, hoping that it might escape notice:
'Because he knew that I loved you. Oh! Stephen, don't you know it now! Can't you see that I love you; and that I want you for my wife!'
'But did he threaten to kill you out of mere jealousy? Do you still go in fear of your life? Will it be necessary to arrest him?' Leonard was chagrined at her ignoring of his love-suit, and in his self-engrossment answered sulkily:
'I'm not afraid of him! And, besides, I believe he has bolted. I called at his house yesterday, and his servant said they hadn't heard a word from him.' Stephen's heart sank lower and lower. This was what she had dreaded. She said in as steady a voice as she could muster:
'Bolted! Has he gone altogether?'
'Oh, he'll come back all right, in time. He's not going to give up the jolly good living he has here!'
'But why has he bolted? When he threatened to kill you did he give any reason?' There was too much talk about Harold. It made him angry; so he answered in an offhand way:
'Oh, I don't know. And, moreover, I don't care!'
'And now,' said Stephen, having ascertained what she wanted to know, 'what is it that you want to speak to me about?'
Her words fell on Leonard like a cold douche. Here had he been talking about his love for her, and yet she ignored the whole thing, and asked him what he wanted to talk about.
'What a queer girl you are. You don't seem to attend to what a fellow is saying. Here have I been telling you that I love you, and asking you to marry me; and yet you don't seem to have even heard me!' She answered at once, quite sweetly, and with a smile of superiority which maddened him:
'But that subject is barred!'
'How do you mean? Barred!'
'Yes. I told you yesterday!'
'But, Stephen,' he cried out quickly, all the alarm in him and all the earnestness of which he was capable uniting to his strengthening, 'can't you understand that I love you, with all my heart? You are so beautiful; so beautiful!' He felt now in reality what he was saying.
The torrent of his words left no opening for her objection; it swept all merely verbal obstacles before it. She listened, content in a measure. So long as he sat at the distance which she had arranged before his coming she did not fear any personal violence. Moreover, it was a satisfaction to her now to hear him, who had refused her, pleading in vain. The more sincere his eloquence, the larger her satisfaction; she had no pity for him now.
'I know I was a fool, Stephen! I had my chance that day on the hilltop; and if I had felt then as I feel now, as I have felt every moment since, I would not have been so cold. I would have taken you in my arms and held you close and kissed you, again, and again, and again. Oh, darling! I love you! I love you! I love you!' He held out his arms imploringly. 'Won't you love me? Won't--'
He stopped, paralysed with angry amazement. She was laughing.
He grew purple in the face; his hands were still outstretched. The few seconds seemed like hours.
'Forgive me!' she said in a polite tone, suddenly growing grave. 'But really you looked so funny, sitting there so quietly, and speaking in such a way, that I couldn't help it. You really must forgive me! But remember, I told you the subject was barred; and as, knowing that, you went on, you really have no one but yourself to blame!' Leonard was furious, but managed to say as he dropped his arms:
'But I love you!'
'That may be, now,' she went on icily. 'But it is too late. I do not love you; and I have never loved you! Of course, had you accepted my offer of marriage you should never have known that. No matter how great had been my shame and humiliation when I had come to a sense of what I had done, I should have honourably kept my part of the tacit compact entered into when I made that terrible mistake. I cannot tell you how rejoiced and thankful I am that you took my mistake in such a way. Of course, I do not give you any credit for it; you thought only of yourself, and did that which you liked best!'
'That is a nice sort of thing to tell a man!' he interrupted with cynical frankness.
'Oh, I do not want to hurt you unnecessarily; but I wish there to be no possible misconception in the matter. Now that I have discovered my error I am not likely to fall into it again; and that you may not have any error at all, I tell you now again, that I have not loved you, do not love you, and never will and never can love you.' Here an idea struck Leonard and he blurted out:
'But do you not think that something is due to me?'
'How do you mean?' Her brows were puckered with real wonder this time.
'For false hopes raised in my mind. If I did not love you before, the very act of proposing to me has made me love you; and now I love you so well that I cannot live without you!' In his genuine agitation he was starting up, when the sight of her hand laid upon the gong arrested him. She laughed as she said:
'I thought that the privilege of changing one's mind was a female prerogative! Besides, I have done already something to make reparation to you for the wrong of . . . of--I may put it fairly, as the suggestion is your own--of not having treated you as a woman!'
'As you observe so gracefully, it is annoying to have one's own silly words come back at one, boomerang fashion. I made up my mind to do something for you; to pay off your debts.' This so exasperated him that he said out brutally:
'No thanks to you for that! As I had to put up with the patronage and the lecturings, and the eyeglass of that infernal old woman, I don't intend . . . '
Stephen stood up, her hand upon the gong:
'Mr. Everard, if you do not remember that you are in my drawing-room, and speaking of my dear and respected aunt, I shall not detain you longer!'
He sat down at once, saying surlily:
'I beg your pardon. I forgot. You make me so wild that--that . . . ' He chewed the ends of his moustache angrily. She resumed her seat, taking her hand from the gong. Without further pause she continued:
'Quite right! It has been Miss Rowly who paid your debts. At first I had promised myself the pleasure; but from something in your speech and manner she thought it better that such an act should not be done by a woman in my position to a man in yours. It might, if made public, have created quite a wrong impression in the minds of many of our friends.'
There was something like a snort from Leonard. She ignored it:
'So she paid the money herself out of her own fortune. And, indeed, I must say that you do not seem to have treated her with much gratitude.'
'What did I say or do that put you off doing the thing yourself?'
'I shall answer it frankly: It was because you manifested, several times, in a manner there was no mistaking, both by words and deeds, an intention of levying blackmail on me by using your knowledge of my ridiculous, unmaidenly act. No one can despise, or deplore, or condemn that act more than I do; so that rather than yield a single point to you, I am, if necessary, ready to face the odium which the public knowledge of it might produce. What I had intended to do for you in the way of compensation for false hopes raised to you by that act has now been done. That it was done by my aunt on my behalf, and not by me, matters to you no more than it did to your creditors, who, when they received the money, made no complaint of injury to their feelings on that account.
'Now, when you think the whole matter over in quietness, you will, knowing that I am ready at any time to face if necessary the unpleasant publicity, be able to estimate what damage you would do to yourself by any expose. It seems to me that you would come out of it pretty badly all round. That, however, is not my affair; it entirely rests with yourself. I think I know how women would regard it. I dare say you best know how men would look at it; and at you!'
Leonard knew already how the only man who knew of it had taken it, and the knowledge did not reassure him!
'You jade! You infernal, devilish, cruel, smooth-tongued jade!' He stood as bespoke. She stood too, and stood watching him with her hand on the gong. After a pause of a couple of seconds she said gravely:
'One other thing I should wish to say, and I mean it. Understand me clearly, that I mean it! You must not come again into my grounds without my special permission. I shall not allow my liberty to be taken away, or restricted, by you. If there be need at any time to come to the house, come in ceremonious fashion, by the avenues which are used by others. You can always speak to me in public, or socially, in the most friendly manner; as I shall hope to be able to speak to you. But you must never transgress the ordinary rules of decorum. If you do, I shall have to take, for my own protection, another course. I know you now! I am willing to blot out the past; but it must be the whole past that is wiped out!'
She stood facing him; and as he looked at her clear-cut aquiline face, her steady eyes, her resolute mouth, her carriage, masterly in its self-possessed poise, he saw that there was no further hope for him. There was no love and no fear.
'You devil!' he hissed.
She struck the gong; her aunt entered the room.
'Oh, is that you, Auntie? Mr. Everard has finished his business with me!' Then to the servant, who had entered after Miss Rowly:
'Mr. Everard would like his carriage. By the way,' she added, turning to him in a friendly way as an afterthought, 'will you not stay, Mr. Everard, and take lunch with us? My aunt has been rather moping lately; I am sure your presence would cheer her up.'
'Yes, do stay, Mr. Everard!' added Miss Rowly placidly. 'It would make a pleasant hour for us all.'
Leonard, with a great effort, said with conventional politeness:
'Thanks, awfully! But I promised my father to be home for lunch!' and he withdrew to the door which the servant held open.
He went out filled with anger and despair, and, sad for him, with a fierce, overmastering desire--love he called it--for the clever, proud, imperious beauty who had so outmatched and crushed him.
That beautiful red head, which he had at first so despised, was henceforth to blaze in his dreams.