“It’s—impossible,” he persisted thickly, but there was bitter relief in his voice. “The blackguard—the filthy blackguard!”
“Don’t, don’t, please don’t! I can’t bear to think of him. I’ve done with even the thought of him.... He was trying to make me marry him. I told you he was quite mad.”
Sharply Falconer pulled himself together, in the tense effort to meet this horrible astonishment like a man.
“And Hill got you out?”
“Yes.... He got me out.”
“But the Evershams—they don’t know——?”
“No, no, I’ve told no one. I’m not going to tell anyone. No one knows of it but you and me—and Billy Hill.”
“That’s right.” He drew another long breath, this time in sharp relief. The color was coming back to his face, splotching it unevenly. “You mustn’t tell anyone. You don’t know how a beastly thing like that would spread. You mustn’t let anyone have a hint. Not even my sister.”
Arlee’s eyes were in shadow. Her voice came slowly. “They would think so badly of me?”
“No—not of you—but it’s the kind of thing, the impossible things—A girl simply can’t afford——”
“She can’t afford to have even speculation against her,” Arlee finished quietly, but a little pulse in her throat was beating away like mad. She knew he spoke the simple truth, but the taste of it was bitter as gall to her mouth. However she had humbled herself in secret self-communion, she had known no such shame as this.... She felt cheapened ... tarnished....
“It’s beastly—but she can’t,” he jerkily agreed, but with evident relief at her sensible understanding. Perhaps he had remembered Billy’s fearful prophecy of the conversation with which the adventure would supply her. “But of course nobody has a notion——”
“Not a notion. And I shan’t give them any—not till I’m a white-haired old lady in Mechlin caps, and then I shall make up for lost time by boring all my world with the story of my romantic youth and the wild deeds done for me!” She laughed airily, pride high in her face, hiding her secret hurts.
“And Hill got you out,” Falconer repeated, with a sudden twinge of jealous envy in his young voice. “He—he’s a lucky one.”
“I’m the lucky one,” Arlee flashed. “Think of the glorious luck for me that sent him to paint there, outside the palace, where a maid mistook him, and so gave a message. Why, it was a chance in a million, in ten million—and it happened!”
“Happened?” Falconer looked at her a minute before continuing. Then he asked quietly, “He told you that he just—happened—there?”
“Yes, he said by accident. He was painting——”
Now Falconer was an honest young man—and a gentleman. Deliberately he brushed away his rival’s generous subterfuge. “He doesn’t paint,” he told her. “He did that for an excuse—for a reason to stay outside the palace. No chance directed it.”