He leaned on the mantel-piece, shading his face with his hand. Lucy stood in silence, striving to suppress her emotion from breaking forth.
“In the old days—very long ago, they seem now, to look back upon—I had the opportunity of assuring my life’s happiness,” he continued in a low, steady tone. “I did not do it; I let it slip from me, foolishly, wilfully; of my now free act. But, Lucy—believe me or not as you like—I loved the one I rejected, more than the one I took. Before the sound of my marriage bells had yet rung out on my ears, the terrible conviction was within me that I loved that other better than all created things. You may judge, then, what my punishment has been.”
She raised her eyes to his face, but he did not see them, did not look at her. He continued—
“It was the one great mistake of my life; made by myself alone. I cannot plead the excuse which so many are able to plead for life’s mistakes—that I was drawn into it. I made it deliberately, as may be said; of my own will. It is but just, therefore, that I should expiate it. How I have suffered in the expiation, Heaven alone knows. It is true that I bound myself in a moment of delirium, of passion; giving myself no time for thought. But I have never looked upon that fact as an excuse; for a man who has come to the years I had should hold his feelings under his own control. Yes; I missed that opportunity, and the chance went by for life.”
“For life?” repeated Lucy, with streaming eyes. It was too terribly real a moment for any attempt at concealment. A little reticence, in her maiden modesty; but of concealment, none.
“I am a poor man now, Lucy,” he explained; “worse than without prospects, if you knew all. And I do not know why you should not know all,” he added after a pause: “I am in debt. Such a man cannot marry.”
The words were spoken quietly, temperately; their tone proving how hopeless could be any appeal against them, whether from him, from her, or from without. It was perfectly true: Lionel Verner’s position placed him beyond the reach of social ties.
Little more was said. It was a topic which Lucy could not urge or gainsay; and Lionel did not see fit to continue it. He may have felt that it was dangerous ground, even for the man of honour that he strove to be. He held out his hand to Lucy.
“Will you forgive me?” he softly whispered.
Her sobs choked her. She strove to speak, as she crept closer to him, and put out her hands in answer; but the words would not come. She lifted her face to glance at his.
“Not a night passes but I pray God to forgive me,” he whispered, his voice trembling with emotion, as he pressed her hands between his, “to forgive the sorrow I have brought upon you. Oh, Lucy! forgive—forgive me!”
“Yes, yes,” was all her answer, her sobs impeding her utterance, her tears blinding her. Lionel kept the hands strained to him; he looked down on the upturned face, and read its love there; he kept his own bent, with its mingled expression of tenderness and pain; but he did not take from it a single caress. What right had he? Verily, if he had not shown control over himself once in his life, he was showing it now.