“Ah no, I haven’t forgotten,” she said. “But I was a good deal younger then. I didn’t know much of life. I have changed—I have changed enormously.”
“You have changed—in that respect?” he asked her, and she heard in his voice that note of stubbornness which she had heard on that night that seemed so long ago—the night before her marriage.
She freed one hand from his hold and set it pleadingly against his breast. “That is a difficult question to answer,” she said. “But do you think a slave would willingly go back into servitude when once he has felt the joy of freedom?”
“Is that what marriage means to you?” he said.
She bent her head. “Yes.”
But still he did not let her go. “Stella,” he said, “I haven’t changed since that night.”
She trembled again, but she spoke no word, nor did she raise her eyes.
He went on slowly, quietly, almost on a note of fatalism. “It is beyond the bounds of possibility that I should change. I loved you then, I love you now. I shall go on loving you as long as I live. I never thought it possible that you could care for me—until you told me so. But I shall not ask you to marry me so long as the thought of marriage means slavery to you. All I ask is that you will not hold yourself back from loving me—that you will not be afraid to be true to your own heart. Is that too much?”
His voice was steady again. She raised her eyes and met his look. The passion had gone out of it, but the dominance remained. She thrilled again to the mastery that had held Tommy back from death.
For a moment she could not speak. Then, as he waited, she gathered her strength to answer. “I mean to be true,” she said rather breathlessly. “But I—I value my freedom too much ever to marry again. Please, I want you to understand that. You mustn’t think of me in that way. You mustn’t encourage hopes that can never be fulfilled.”
A faint gleam crossed his face. “That is my affair,” he said.
“Oh, but I mean it.” Quickly she broke in upon him. “I am in earnest. I am in earnest. It wouldn’t be right of me to let you imagine—to let you think—” she faltered suddenly, for something obstructed her utterance. The next moment swiftly she covered her face. “My dear!” he said.
He led her back to the table and made her sit down. He knelt beside her, his arms comfortingly around her.
“I’ve made you cry,” he said. “You’re worn out. Forgive me! I’m a brute to worry you like this. You’ve had a rotten time of it, I know, I know. No, don’t be afraid of me! I won’t say another word. Just lean on me, that’s all. I won’t let you down, I swear.”
She took him at his word for a space and leaned upon him; for she had no alternative. She was weary to the soul of her; her strength was gone.
But gradually his strength helped her to recover. She looked up at length with a quivering smile. “There! I am going to be sensible. You must be worn out too. I can see you are. Sit down, won’t you, and let us forget this?”