His manner was—what man’s is not?—so much that of one who would love and cherish and defend her under any conditions, changes, charges, or revelations, that her gloom lessened as she basked in it. The season meanwhile was drawing onward to the equinox, and though it was still fine, the days were much shorter. The dairy had again worked by morning candlelight for a long time; and a fresh renewal of Clare’s pleading occurred one morning between three and four.
She had run up in her bedgown to his door to call him as usual; then had gone back to dress and call the others; and in ten minutes was walking to the head of the stairs with the candle in her hand. At the same moment he came down his steps from above in his shirt-sleeves and put his arm across the stairway.
“Now, Miss Flirt, before you go down,” he said peremptorily. “It is a fortnight since I spoke, and this won’t do any longer. You MUST tell me what you mean, or I shall have to leave this house. My door was ajar just now, and I saw you. For your own safety I must go. You don’t know. Well? Is it to be yes at last?”
“I am only just up, Mr Clare, and it is too early to take me to task!” she pouted. “You need not call me Flirt. ’Tis cruel and untrue. Wait till by and by. Please wait till by and by! I will really think seriously about it between now and then. Let me go downstairs!”
She looked a little like what he said she was as, holding the candle sideways, she tried to smile away the seriousness of her words.
“Call me Angel, then, and not Mr Clare.”
“Angel dearest—why not?”
“’Twould mean that I agree, wouldn’t it?”
“It would only mean that you love me, even if you cannot marry me; and you were so good as to own that long ago.”
“Very well, then, ‘Angel dearest’, if I MUST,” she murmured, looking at her candle, a roguish curl coming upon her mouth, notwithstanding her suspense.
Clare had resolved never to kiss her until he had obtained her promise; but somehow, as Tess stood there in her prettily tucked-up milking gown, her hair carelessly heaped upon her head till there should be leisure to arrange it when skimming and milking were done, he broke his resolve, and brought his lips to her cheek for one moment. She passed downstairs very quickly, never looking back at him or saying another word. The other maids were already down, and the subject was not pursued. Except Marian, they all looked wistfully and suspiciously at the pair, in the sad yellow rays which the morning candles emitted in contrast with the first cold signals of the dawn without.
When skimming was done—which, as the milk diminished with the approach of autumn, was a lessening process day by day—Retty and the rest went out. The lovers followed them.
“Our tremulous lives are so different from theirs, are they not?” he musingly observed to her, as he regarded the three figures tripping before him through the frigid pallor of opening day.