‘What is it you want to know?’ she asked, in a low voice.
’Everything, all that has passed between you and my poor Max, who always seems so terribly unhappy. Is it not you who have to answer for that unhappiness?’
A pained expression crossed her face.
’It is true that I made him unhappy once, but that is long ago; and men are not like us: they get over things. Oh, I must explain it to you, or you will not understand. Do not be hard upon me: I have been sorely punished,’ she sighed; and for a few moments there was silence between us. I had no wish to hurry her. I knew her well: she was long in giving her confidence, but when once she gave it, it would be lavishly, generously, and without stint, just as she would give her love, for Gladys was one of those rare creatures who could do nothing meanly or by halves.
Presently she began to speak of her own accord:
’You know how good Mr. Cunliffe was to me in my trouble; at least you can guess, though you can never really know it. When I was most forlorn and miserable I used to feel less wretched and hopeless when he was beside me; in every possible way he strengthened and braced me for my daily life; he roused me from my state of selfish despondency, put work into my hands, and encouraged me to persevere. If it had not been for his help and sympathy, I never could have lived through those bitter days when all around me believed that my darling Eric had died a coward’s death.’
‘Do not speak of Eric to-night, dearest,’ I observed, alarmed at her excessive paleness as she uttered his name.
‘No,’ with a faint smile at my anxious tone; ’we are talking about some one else this evening. Ursula, you may imagine how grateful I was,—how I grew to look upon him as my best friend, how I learned to confide in him as though he were a wise elder brother.’
‘A brother!—oh, Gladys!’
‘It was the truth,’ she went on mournfully: ’no other thought entered my mind, and you may conceive the shock when one morning he came to me, pale and agitated, and asked me if I could love him well enough to marry him.
’How I recall that morning! It was May, and I had just come in from the garden, laden with pink and white May blossoms, and long trails of laburnum, and there he was waiting for me in the drawing-room. Every one was out, and he was alone.
’I fancied he looked different,—rather nervous and excited,—but I never guessed the reason until he began to speak, and then I thought I should have broken my heart to hear him,—that I must give him pain who had been so good to me. Oh, Ursula! I had never had such cruel work to do as that.
’But I must be true to him as well as myself: this was my one thought. I did not love him well enough to be his wife; he had not touched my heart in that way; and, as I believed at that time that I could never care sufficiently for any man to wish to marry him, I felt that I dared not let him deceive himself with any future hopes.’