“Oh, it’s simple enough,” Billy assured her. “You see, she—well, I think she would have married me once. Yes, she cared for me once. And I quarreled with her—I, conceited young ass that I was, actually presumed to dictate to the dearest, sweetest, most lovable woman on earth, and tell her what she must do and what she mustn’t. I!—good Lord, I, who wasn’t worthy to sweep a crossing clean for her!—who wasn’t worthy to breathe the same air with her!—who wasn’t worthy to exist in the same world she honoured by living in! Oh, I was an ass! But I’ve paid for it!—oh, yes, Kathleen, I’ve paid dearly for it, and I’ll pay more dearly yet before I’ve done. I tried to avoid her yesterday—you must have seen that. And I couldn’t—I give you my word, I could no more have kept away from her than I could have spread a pair of wings and flown away. She doesn’t care a bit for me now; but I can no more give up loving her than I can give up eating my dinner. That isn’t a pretty simile, Kathleen, but it expresses the way I feel toward her. It isn’t merely that I want her; it’s more than that—oh, far more than that. I simply can’t do without her. Don’t you understand, Kathleen?” he asked, desperately.
“Yes—I think I understand,” she said, when he had ended. “I—oh, Billy, I am almost sorry. It’s dear of you—dear of you, Billy, to care for me still, but—but I’m almost sorry you care so much. I’m not worth it, boy dear. And I—I really don’t know what to say. You must let me think.”
Mr. Woods gave an inarticulate sound. The face she turned to him was perplexed, half-sad, fond, a little pleased, and strangely compassionate. It was Kathleen Eppes who sat beside him; the six years were as utterly forgotten as the name of Magdalen’s first lover. She was a girl again, listening—with a heart that fluttered, I dare say—to the wild talk, the mad dithyrambics of a big, blundering boy.
The ludicrous horror of it stunned Mr. Woods.
He could no more have told her of her mistake than he could have struck her in the face.
“Kathleen—!” said he, vaguely.
“Let me think!—ah, let me think, Billy!” she pleaded, in a flutter of joy and amazement. “Go away, boy dear!—Go away for a little and let me think! I’m not an emotional woman, but I’m on the verge of hysterics now, for—for several reasons. Go in to breakfast, Billy! I—I want to be alone. You’ve made me very proud and—and sorry, I think, and glad, and—and—oh, I don’t know, boy dear. But please go now—please!”
In the living-hall he paused to inspect a picture with peculiar interest. Since Kathleen cared for him (he thought, rather forlornly), he must perjure himself in as plausible a manner as might be possible; please God, having done what he had done, he would lie to her like a gentleman and try to make her happy.
A vision in incredible violet ruffles, coming down to breakfast, saw him, and paused on the stairway, and flushed and laughed deliciously.