She made no answer; but she sank again upon the seat beside the lake, and supporting herself on one delicate hand, which clung to the coping of the wall, she turned her pale and tear-stained face to the lake and the evening sky. There was in her gesture an unconscious yearning, a mute and anguished appeal, as though from the oppressions of human character to the broad strength of nature, that was not lost on Delafield. His mind became the centre of a swift and fierce debate. One voice said: “Why are you persecuting her? Respect her weakness and her grief.” And another replied: “It is because she is weak that she must yield—must allow herself to be guided and adored.”
He came close to her again. Any passer-by might have supposed that they were both looking at the distant boat and listening to the pilgrimage chant.
“Do you think I don’t understand why you made that promise?” he said, very gently, and the mere self-control of his voice and manner carried a spell with it for the woman beside him. “It was wrung out of you by kindness for a dying man. You thought I should never know, or I should never claim it. Well, I am selfish. I take advantage. I do claim it. I saw Lord Lackington only a few hours before his death. ’She mustn’t be alone,’ he said to me, several times. And then, almost at the last, ’Ask her again. She’ll consider it—she promised.’”
Julie turned impetuously.
“Neither of us is bound by that—neither of us.”
“Does that mean that I am asking you now because he bade me?”
A pause. Julie must needs raise her eyes to his. She flushed red and withdrew them.
“No,” he said, with a long breath, “you don’t mean that, and you don’t think it. As for you—yes, you are bound! Julie, once more I bring you my plea, and you must consider it.”
“How can I be your wife?” she said, her breast heaving. “You know all that has happened. It would be monstrous.”
“Not at all,” was his quiet reply. “It would be natural and right. Julie, it is strange that I should be talking to you like this. You’re so much cleverer than I—in some ways, so much stronger. And yet, in others—you’ll let me say it, won’t you?—I could help you. I could protect you. It’s all I care for in the world.”
“How can I be your wife?” she repeated, passionately, wringing her hands.
“Be what you will—at home. My friend, comrade, housemate. I ask nothing more—nothing.” His voice dropped, and there was a pause. Then he resumed. “But, in the eyes of the world, make me your servant and your husband!”
“I can’t condemn you to such a fate,” she cried. “You know where my heart is.”
Delafield did not waver.
“I know where your heart was,” he said, with firmness. “You will banish that man from your thoughts in time. He has no right to be there. I take all the risks—all.”