“I—I am grieved,” she hesitated. And then, in unconscious self-defence, “It was so . . . I had not expected it—just then.”
“Else you would have prevented?” he asked, bitterly.
“Yes. I think I should have. I did not wish to give you pain—”
“Then you expected it, some time?”
“And feared it. But I had hoped . . . I . . . Vance, I did not come into the Klondike to get married. I liked you at the beginning, and I have liked you more and more,—never so much as to-day,—but—”
“But you had never looked upon me in the light of a possible husband—that is what you are trying to say.”
As he spoke, he looked at her side-wise, and sharply; and when her eyes met his with the same old frankness, the thought of losing her maddened him.
“But I have,” she answered at once. “I have looked upon you in that light, but somehow it was not convincing. Why, I do not know. There was so much I found to like in you, so much—”
He tried to stop her with a dissenting gesture, but she went on.
“So much to admire. There was all the warmth of friendship, and closer friendship,—a growing camaraderie, in fact; but nothing more. Though I did not wish more, I should have welcomed it had it come.”
“As one welcomes the unwelcome guest.”
“Why won’t you help me, Vance, instead of making it harder? It is hard on you, surely, but do you imagine that I am enjoying it? I feel because of your pain, and, further, I know when I refuse a dear friend for a lover the dear friend goes from me. I do not part with friends lightly.”
“I see; doubly bankrupt; friend and lover both. But they are easily replaced. I fancy I was half lost before I spoke. Had I remained silent, it would have been the same anyway. Time softens; new associations, new thoughts and faces; men with marvellous adventures—”
She stopped him abruptly.
“It is useless, Vance, no matter what you may say. I shall not quarrel with you. I can understand how you feel—”
“If I am quarrelsome, then I had better leave you.” He halted suddenly, and she stood beside him. “Here comes Dave Harney. He will see you home. It’s only a step.”
“You are doing neither yourself nor me kindness.” She spoke with final firmness. “I decline to consider this the end. We are too close to it to understand it fairly. You must come and see me when we are both calmer. I refuse to be treated in this fashion. It is childish of you.” She shot a hasty glance at the approaching Eldorado king. “I do not think I deserve it at your hands. I refuse to lose you as a friend. And I insist that you come and see me, that things remain on the old footing.”
He shook his head.
“Hello!” Dave Harney touched his cap and slowed down loose-jointedly. “Sorry you didn’t take my tip? Dogs gone up a dollar a pound since yesterday, and still a-whoopin’. Good-afternoon, Miss Frona, and Mr. Corliss. Goin’ my way?”