“Peggy——” said Mr. Woods.
“Pardon me,” she interrupted him, her masculine little chin high in the air, “but I wish you wouldn’t call me that. It was well enough when we were boy and girl together, Mr. Woods. But you’ve developed since—ah, yes, you’ve developed into such a splendid actor, such a consummate liar, such a clever scoundrel, Mr. Woods, that I scarcely recognise you now.”
And there was not a spark of anger in the very darkest corner of Billy’s big, brave heart, but only pity—pity all through and through, that sent little icy ticklings up and down his spine and turned his breathing to great sobs. For she had turned full face to him and he could see the look in her eyes.
I think he has never forgotten it. Years after the memory of it would come upon him suddenly and set hot drenching waves of shame and remorse surging about his body—remorse unutterable that he ever hurt his Peggy so deeply. For they were tragic eyes. Beneath them her twitching mouth smiled bravely, but the mirth of her eyes was monstrous. It was the mirth of a beaten woman, of a woman who has known the last extreme of shame and misery and has learned to laugh at it. Even now Billy Woods cannot quite forget.
“Peggy,” said he, brokenly, “ah, dear, dear Peggy, listen to me!”
“Why, have you thought of a plausible lie so soon?” she queried, sweetly. “Dear me, Mr. Woods, what is the use of explaining things? It is very simple. You wanted to marry me last night because I was rich. And when I declined the honour, you went back to your old love. Oh, it’s very simple, Mr. Woods! It’s a pity, though—isn’t it?—that all your promptness went for nothing. Why, dear me, you actually managed to propose before breakfast, didn’t you? I should have thought that such eagerness would have made an impression on Kathleen—oh, a most favourable impression. Too bad it hasn’t!”
“Listen!” said Billy. “Ah, you’re forcing me to talk like a cad, Peggy, but I can’t see you suffer—I can’t! Kathleen misunderstood what I said to her. I—I didn’t mean to propose to her, Peggy. It was a mistake, I tell you. It’s you I love—just you. And when I asked you to marry me last night—why, I thought the money was mine, Peggy. I’d never have asked you if I hadn’t thought that. I—ah, you don’t believe me, you don’t believe me, Peggy, and before God, I’m telling you the simple truth! Why, I hadn’t ever seen that last will, Peggy! It was locked up in that centre place in the desk, you remember. Why—why, you yourself had the keys to it, Peggy. Surely, you remember, dear?” And Billy’s voice shook and skipped whole octaves as he pleaded with her, for he knew she did not believe him and he could not endure the horror of her eyes.
But Margaret shook her head; and as aforetime the twitching lips continued to laugh beneath those tragic eyes. Ah, poor little lady of Elfland! poor little Undine, with a soul wakened to suffering!