She tried to speak, but he silenced her by a gesture. “No, do not answer yet. Although you must have known what I have felt for you, you are startled by my suddenness, I can see that. I have told you that it was not my intention to speak so soon. Circumstances have hurried me. I felt that I must have this settled. That—that episode of last week alone would have determined me. Things like that must not recur. I must have the right to advise, to—to protect you. You are so young. You do not know the world, its wickedness, its incredible vileness.” His face was white with intense inward passion. “With me you will be safe. My God! to think of you at the mercy of that man—of any man! It stirs a madness of hate in me. Hate is a sin, I know, but God will understand—it is born of love, of my love for you.”
Again the girl tried to force some words from her trembling lips. And again he stopped her.
“Do not speak yet. I apologise for my violence. Forgive it. We need not refer to this aspect of the matter again. Let us dwell only upon the sweeter idea of our love—for you do love me? You will love me—Esther?”
But the time for speech had gone. To her own intense surprise and to the minister’s consternation, Esther burst into tears.
She was frightened, angry, stung with pity and a kind of horror. She felt herself honoured and insulted at the same time; and with this strange medley of emotions was a consciousness of youth and inexperience very different from the calm, untried confidence of a few minutes before.
“Forgive me, forgive me!” pleaded the conscience stricken suitor. “I have been too sudden! I should have prepared you. I should have allowed you to see more plainly.” With a lover’s first, fond air of possession he attempted to take her hand.
“Don’t!” The word was sharp as a pistol shot. Esther’s tears were suddenly stayed. Furtively she slipped the hand he had touched behind her. With the other she felt for her handkerchief and frankly wiped her eyes.
“You startled me,” she explained presently. “And I am so sorry, so very sorry! I never dreamed that you thought of me at all—in that way, any more than I have thought of you. You honour me very much. But it is impossible. Quite, quite impossible.”
“You mean my position here, as minister? Believe me, I have thought of all that. There may be difficulties but we will conquer them together. Nothing is impossible if you love me, dear.”
“Oh!” She turned wide blue eyes upon him. “That is just it. I do not love you.”
The blow fell swift, unerring, dealt by the mercilessly honest hand of youth. Esther’s eyes were quite dry now. Her nervousness was passing. Regret and pity were merged in one overpowering, instinctive desire: the desire to show him beyond all manner of doubt that she repudiated that possessive touch upon her hand. “I could not ever possibly marry you,” she said, as calmly as if she had been accustomed to dismissing suitors all her life.