“Who is that man?” asked Sir John sternly.
Saidie shrugged her shoulders.
“You shall tell me—what is he to Bella?”
“He is a good and noble man, and let me tell you there ain’t too many knocking around. If she lives to get over this he will make her his wife.”
And there was silence—a silence in which John Chetwynd read clearly his own heart at last, and stood face to face with facts—facts stripped of false adornments—naked, convincing.
Then he strode across the room and entered that in which Bella lay.
She was asleep, and he drew his chair close to the bedside and fixed his eyes on the wan, thin face, fever flushed, and fought the fiercest battle of his life with his inner self; and when the struggle was over, Pride lay in tatters and Love was conqueror.
She slept at intervals almost the whole of that day. Waking late in the afternoon, her eyes fell on the silent watcher by her side, and she smiled happily, contentedly.
Saidie bent over her and whispered a word or two.
“No—no,” cried Bella vehemently; “send him away. I don’t want to see him.”
“But he is so anxious, dear.”
“Is he?—poor Charlie! Tell him I am in no pain, and I should like to think he will never quite forget me.”
“He will never do that,” said Saidie, going away with her message but half satisfied, and Bella turned a flushed cheek to her pillow.
And then, for the second time, John Chetwynd asked, “Who is that man?”
And Bella tried feebly to tell him. He had been attached to her for a long time, and had come over with her from the States.
“And you—did you mean to marry him, Bella?”
“I had thought of it—it seemed suicidal to say no to such an offer, and then I—oh, Jack, when I saw you I knew I could never love any other man!”
He poured out a draught and held it to her trembling lips.
“I feel so strangely weak,” she said; “you are going to marry Ethel, and I am nothing to you now?”
John Chetwynd drew her close to him, so that the tired head rested on his shoulder with the sweet familiarity of long ago.
“Listen,” he said. “I have been a coward, frightened of the truth. The world was dearer to me than happiness, or I thought so, and I hesitated, afraid of its contempt. But amid my weakness was one thought, one impulse, which no amount of worldly prudence or consideration could stifle, and Bella—my wife—that was my love for you.”
“Jack, Jack, is it true?”
“I have loved you always, through all my life, you and no other. I see now how hard I must have seemed to you and how wild and unreasonable I was in my expectation from you and how at last it drove you from my side. The shame of it is not more yours than mine. We both erred, we both sinned; but I was older and should have been wiser; the burden of it should fall on me. The world is nothing to me now—less than nothing. Let us take up life where we broke it off. Give me back the past, which held for me all of happiness I have ever known.”