“Gilbert, there is something which I think I ought to say to you before you go away.”
“What is that, my darling?”
“It is rather hard to say. I fear it will give you pain. I have been thinking about it for a long time. The thought has been a constant reproach to me. Gilbert, it would be better if we were both free; better if you could leave England without any tie to weigh you down with anxieties when you are out yonder, and will have so much occasion for perfect freedom of mind.”
“O, pray, pray don’t think me ungrateful or unmindful of your goodness to me. I am only anxious for your happiness. I am not steady enough, or fixed enough, in my mind. I am not worthy of all the thought and care you have given me.”
“Marian, have I done anything to forfeit your love?”
“O no, no.”
“Then why do you say these things to me? Do you want to break my heart?”
“Would it break your heart if I were to recall my promise, Gilbert?”
“Yes, Marian,” he answered gravely, drawing her suddenly to him, and looking into her face with earnest scrutinising eyes; “but if you do not love me, if you cannot love me—and God knows how happy I have been in the belief that I had won your love long ago—let the word be spoken. I will bear it, my dear, I will bear it.”
“O no, no,” she cried, shocked by the dead whiteness of his face, and bursting into tears. “I will try to be worthy of you. I will try to love you as you deserve to be loved. It was only a fancy of mine that it would be better for you to be free from all thoughts of me. I think it would seem very hard to me to lose your love. I don’t think I could bear that, Gilbert.”
She looked up at him with an appealing expression through her tears—an innocent, half-childish look that went to his heart—and he clasped her to his breast, believing that this proposal to set him free had been indeed nothing more than a girlish caprice.
“My dearest, my life is bound up with your love,” he said. “Nothing can part us except your ceasing to love me.”
The hour for the final parting came at last, and Gilbert Fenton turned his back upon the little gate by which he had watched Marian Nowell standing upon that first summer Sunday evening which sealed his destiny.
He left Lidford weary at heart, weighed down by a depression he had vainly struggled against, and he brooded over his troubles all the way back to town. It seemed as if all the hopes that had made life so sweet to him only a week ago had been swept away. He could not look beyond that dreary Australian exile; he could not bring his thoughts to bear upon the time that was to come afterwards, and which need be no less bright because of this delay.
“She may die while I am away,” he thought. “O God, if that were to happen! If I were to come back and find her dead! Such things have been; and men and women have borne them, and gone on living.”