“And doesn’t know it?” suggested Crowther.
“Yes, she does in her heart of hearts,—or soon will. I shall send her a post-card to-morrow and sum up the situation.”
“On a post-card?”
Crowther sounded puzzled, and Piers broke into a laugh and descended to earth.
“Yes, in one expressive word—’Rats!’ No one else will understand it, but she will.”
“A little abrupt!” commented Crowther.
“Yes, I’m going to be abrupt now,” said Piers with imperial confidence. “I’m going to storm the position.”
“And you are sure you will carry it?”
“Quite sure.” Piers’ voice held not the faintest shade of doubt.
“I hope you will, lad,” said Crowther kindly. “And—that being the case—may I say what I set out to say?”
“Oh, go ahead!” said Piers.
“It’s only this,” said Crowther, in his slow, quiet way. “Only a word of advice, sonny, which I shouldn’t give if I didn’t know that your life’s happiness hangs on your taking it. You’re young, but there’s a locked door in your past. Open that door just once before you marry the woman you love, and show her what is behind it! It’ll give her a shock maybe. But it’ll be better for you both in the end. Don’t let there be any locked doors between you and your wife! You’re too young for that. And if she’s the right sort, it won’t make a pin’s difference to her love. Women are like that, thank God!”
He spoke with the utmost earnestness. He was evidently keenly anxious to gain his point. But his words went into utter silence. Ere they were fully spoken Piers’ hand was withdrawn from his arm. His careless, swinging stride became a heavy, slackening tramp, and at last he halted altogether. They stood side by side in silence with their faces to the moon-silvered water. And there fell a long, long pause, as though the whole world stopped and listened.
After all, it was Crowther who broke that tragic silence; perhaps because he could bear it no longer. The path on which they stood was deserted. He laid a very steady hand upon Piers’ shoulder with a compassionate glance at the stony young face which a few minutes before had been so full of abounding life.
“It comes hard to you, eh, lad?” he said.
Piers stirred, almost made as if he would toss the friendly hand away; but in the end he suffered it, though he would not meet Crowther’s eyes.
“You owe it to her,” urged Crowther gently. “Tell her, lad! She’s bound to be up against it sooner or later if you don’t.”
“Yes,” Piers said. “I know.”
He spoke heavily; all the youth seemed to have gone out of him. After a moment, as Crowther waited he turned with a gesture of hopelessness and faced him. “I’m like a dog on a chain,” he said. “I drag this way and that, and eat my heart out for freedom. But it’s all no use. I’ve got to live and die on it.” He clenched his hands in sudden passionate rebellion. “But I’m damned if I’m going to tell anybody! It’s hell enough without that!”