He was taken aback.
“How did you find that out?” he asked.
“On the steamer,” she answered, “the last few days. People got to know, I am not sure how, and in any case it does not matter.”
A light began to break in upon him.
“I believe,” he said, “that it is because you know you will not marry me.”
“Oh! it isn’t only that,” she answered. “It is utterly, absolutely impossible. My people live on a little farm in America, and have barely enough money to live on. We are terribly poor.”
He frowned for a moment thoughtfully. He was looking at her expensive clothes. He did not understand.
“And besides,” she continued, “there is another reason why I should never think of it. Now, please, won’t you believe me and go away? It is not kind of you to make it so difficult for me.”
“Very well, Virginia,” he said quietly, “for the present I will ask you no more. But can you tell me any reason why I should not be your friend?”
“None at all,” she answered. “You can be what you like, if you will only go away and leave me alone.”
“That,” he answered, “is not my idea of friendship. If we are friends, I have the right to help you in your troubles, whatever they may be.”
“That,” she declared, “is impossible.”
Then he began to realize that this child, with her soft great eyes, her delightful mouth, her girlish face, which ever since he had first seen it had seemed to him the prototype of all that was gentle and lovable, possessed a strength of character incredible in one of her years and appearance. He realized that he was only distressing her by his presence. The timidity of her manner was no sign of weakness, and there was finality even in that earnest look which she had fixed upon him.
“You decline me as a husband then, Virginia,” he said, “and you decline me as a friend. You want to have nothing more to do with me. Very well, I will go away.”
She drew a sharp breath between her teeth, and if he noticed it he made no sign. He drew a paper from his pocket and calmly tore it into pieces.
“That,” he said, “was the paper which was to have made us happy. Good-bye!”
“Good-bye!” she gasped, tearfully.
He laughed as he took her into his arms. She did not make the least resistance.
“You little idiot!” he said. “Do you know that I very nearly went?”
Her head was buried upon his shoulder, and she was not in the position for a moment to make any reply.
He helped Virginia to descend from the automobile, and led her up the steps in front of the great house in Grosvenor Square.
“You are not frightened, dear?” he asked.
“I am terrified to death,” she answered frankly. He touched her hand reassuringly.