“Mark dear, I’m ten years older than you. I’m going to be a nun for what of my life remains. And I can never love anybody else. Don’t make this visit of mine a misery to me. I’ve had to conquer so much and I need your prayers.”
“I wish you needed my kisses.”
“What did I say? Oh, Esther, I’m a brute. Tell me one thing.”
“I’ve already told you more than I’ve told anyone except my confessor.”
“Have you found happiness in the religious life?”
“I have found myself. The Reverend Mother wanted me to leave the community and enter a contemplative order. She did not think I should be able to help poor girls.”
“Esther, what a stupid woman! Why surely you would be wonderful with them?”
“I think she is a wise woman,” said Esther. “I think since we came picking St. John’s wort I understand how wise she is.”
“Esther, dear dear Esther, you make me feel more than ever ashamed of myself. I entreat you not to believe what the Reverend Mother says.”
“You have only a fortnight to convince me,” said Esther.
“And I will convince you.”
“Mark, do you remember when you made me pray for his soul telling me that in that brief second he had time to repent?”
Mark nodded grimly.
“You still do think that, don’t you?”
“Of course I do. He must have repented.”
She thanked him with her eyes; and Mark looking into their depths of hope unfathomable put away from him the thought that the damned soul of Will Starling was abroad to-night with power of evil. Yes, he put this thought behind him; but carrying an armful of St. John’s wort to hang in sprays above the doors of the church he could not rid himself of the fancy that his arms were filled with Esther’s auburn hair.
Mark left Wych-on-the-Wold next day; although he did not announce that he should be absent from home so long, he intended not to return until Esther had gone back to Shoreditch. He hoped that he was not being cowardly in thus running away; but after having assured Esther that she could count on his behaving normally for the rest of her visit, he found his sleep that night so profoundly disturbed by feverish visions that when morning came he dreaded his inability to behave as both he would wish himself and she would wish him to behave. Flight seemed the only way to find peace. He was shocked not so much by being in love with Esther, but by the suddenness with which his desires had overwhelmed him, desires which had never been roused since he was born. If in an instant he could be turned upside down like that, could he be sure that upon the next occasion, supposing that he fell in love with somebody more suitable, he should be able to escape so easily? His father must have married his mother out of some such violent