“I take not one word back”
“I will do you the justice, Mr. Alston, to believe that you did not anticipate this meeting?”
“You will only be doing me justice if you do not believe it,” Hugh said.
The girl bent her proud head. “I did not know that you were a friend of General Bartholomew’s?”
“Nor I till to-day, Miss Meredyth.”
“I don’t understand.”
Hugh explained that he had not seen the General since he was a child, till the General had unearthed him at the Northborough Hotel that afternoon.
Joan frowned. Why had the General done that? Why had he, not three minutes ago, patted her on the shoulder, smiled on her, and told her to run down and wait for him in the drawing-room? Suddenly her face burned with a glowing colour. It seemed as if all the world were in league together against her. But this time this man was surely innocent. She had seen the look of astonishment on his face, and knew it for no acting.
“I came here yesterday,” she said quietly, “in response to a warm invitation from the General, who was my father’s friend.”
“My father’s too!”
“I—I wanted a home, a friend, and I accepted his invitation eagerly, but since you have come—”
“My presence makes this house impossible for you, of course,” Hugh said, and his voice was bitter. “Listen to me, I may never have an opportunity of speaking to you again, Joan.” He used her Christian name, scarcely realising that he did so.
“You feel bitterly towards me, and with reason. You have made up your mind that I have deliberately annoyed and insulted you. If you ask me to explain what I did and why I did it, I cannot do so. I have a reason. One day, if I am permitted, I shall be glad to tell you everything. I came here to London like a fool, a senseless, egotistical fool, thinking I should be doing a fine thing, and could put everything right by asking you to become my wife in reality. I can see now what sort of a figure I made of myself, and how I must have appeared to you when I was bragging of my possessions. I suppose I lack a sense of humour, Joan, or there’s something wrong with me somewhere. Believe me, senseless and crude as it all was, my intentions were good. I only succeeded in sinking a little lower, if possible, in your estimation, and now I wish to ask your pardon for it.”
“I am glad,” she said quietly, “that you understand now—”
“I do, and I have felt shame for it. I shall feel better now that I have asked you to forgive. Joan,” he went on passionately, “listen! A fool is always hard to separate from his folly. But listen! That day when I saw you in the City, when I made my egregious proposal to you—just for a moment you were touched, something appealed to you. I do not know what it was—my folly, my immense conceit—for which perhaps you pitied me. But it was something, for that one moment I saw you change. The hard look went from your face, a colour came into your cheeks, your eyes grew soft and tender—just for one moment—”