He could say nothing, do nothing. He dared not even touch the dark, bent head. But we may well pity him as he watched her.
The girl’s sobbing wore itself out and presently she lifted tear-drenched eyes, like the blue of the sky after rain. Her tragic, unnatural composure had all been wept away.
“I understand—now,” she faltered. “Before, I didn’t. I thought dreadful things. I thought that I—that you—oh, I couldn’t bear the things I thought! But it’s better now. You did love me—didn’t you?”
She went on dreamily. “It would have been too terrible if you hadn’t—if you had just pretended—had been amusing yourself—been false and base. But I felt all along that you were never that. I knew there must be some explanation and it didn’t seem wrong to ask. Instead of pretending that I didn’t know all the things you had not time to say. Forgive me for ever doubting that you were brave and good.”
She was not yet old enough to understand the tragic appeal. For she leaned nearer, laying her soft hand over his clenched ones.
“It is all so very, very sad,” she said with quaint simplicity which was part of her, “but not so bad—oh, not nearly so bad as if you had been pretending—or I mistaken. Think!—How terrible to give one’s love unworthily or unasked!”
“But you do not love me,” he burst out, “you cannot! You must not!”
Never had he seen her eyes so sweet, so dark.
“I do love you. And I honour you above all men.”
Before he could prevent her, she had stooped—her lips brushed his hand.
“Oh, my Dear!”—He had reached the limit of his strength—instant flight alone remained if he would keep the precious flower of her trust. And she, too, was trembling. But in the soft starlight they looked into each other’s eyes, and what they saw there helped. Their hands clasped, but in that moment of parting neither thought of self, so both were strong.
Mrs. Sykes thought much about her boarder in those days and, for a wonder, said very little. Gossip as she was, she could, in the service of one she liked, be both wise and reticent. Perhaps she knew that oracles are valued partly for their silences. At any rate her prestige suffered nothing, for the less she said, the more certain Coombe became that she could, if she would, say a great deal. Of course her pretence of seeing nothing unusual in the doctor’s engagement was simply absurd. Coombe felt sure that like the pig-baby in “Alice,” she only did it “to annoy because she knows it teases.”
One by one the most expert gossips of the town charged down upon the doctor’s landlady and one by one they returned defeated.