Again he spoke, in spite of himself.
“I shall not burn them,” he said.
“Shall not? shall not?”
“I shall not,” he said again.
There was silence. Ralph’s soul was struggling desperately within him. He put out his hand mechanically and took up the papers once more, as if to guard them from this fierce, imperious woman. Beatrice’s eyes followed the movement; and then rested once more on his face. Then she spoke again, with a tense deliberateness that drove every word home, piercing and sharp to the very centre of his spirit.
“Listen,” she said, “for this is what I came to say. I know what you are thinking—I know every thought as if it were my own. You tell yourself that it is useless to burn those secrets; that there are ten thousand more—enough to cast my lord. I make no answer to that.”
“You tell yourself that you can only save yourself by giving them up to his enemies. I make no answer to that.”
“You tell yourself that it will be known if you destroy them—that you will be counted as one of His Highness’s enemies. I make no answer to that. And I tell you to burn them.”
She came a step nearer. There was not a yard between them now; and the fire of her words caught and scorched him with their bitterness.
“You have been false to every high and noble thing. You have been false to your own conscience—to your father—your brother—your sister—your Church—your King and your God. You have been false to love and honour. You have been false to yourself. And now Almighty God of His courtesy gives you one more opportunity—an opportunity to be true to your master. I say nothing of him. God is his judge. You know what that verdict will be. And yet I bid you be true to him. He has a thousand claims on you. You have served him, though it be but Satan’s service; yet it is the highest that you know—God help you! He is called friendless now. Shall that be wholly true of him? You will be called a traitor presently—shall that be wholly true of you? Or shall there be one tiny point in which you are not false and treacherous as you have been in all other points?”
She stopped again, looking him fiercely in the eyes.
* * * * *
From the street outside there came the sound of footsteps; the ring of steel on stone. Ralph heard it, and his eyes rolled round to the window; but he did not move.
Beatrice was almost touching him now. He felt the fragrance that hung about her envelop him for a moment. Then he felt a touch on the papers; and his fingers closed more tightly.
The steps outside grew louder and ceased; and the house suddenly reverberated with a thunder of knocking.
Beatrice sprang back.
“Nay, you shall give me them,” she said; and stood waiting with outstretched hand.
Ralph lifted the papers slowly, stared at them, and at her.