“You!” said Merefleet.
Did he hear a sob in the darkness beside him? He fancied so. The hand that lay beneath his own twitched as if agitated.
“What do you know about trouble?” said Merefleet.
She did not answer him. Only he heard a long, hard sigh. Then she laughed rather mirthlessly.
“Well,” she said, “there aren’t many things in this world worth crying for. You’ve had enough of me, I guess. It’s time I shunted.”
She tried to withdraw her hand, but Merefleet’s hold tightened.
“No, no. Not yet,” he said, almost as if he were pleading with her. “I’ve behaved abominably. But don’t punish me like this!”
She laughed again and yielded.
“You ought to know your own mind by now,” she said, with something of her former briskness. “It’s a rum world, Mr. Merefleet.”
“It isn’t the world,” said Merefleet. “It’s the people in it. Now, Miss Ward, I have a favour to ask. Promise me that you will never again imagine for a moment that I am not pleased—more, honoured—when you are good enough to stop by the way and speak to me. Of your charity you have stooped to pity my loneliness. And, believe me, I do most sincerely appreciate it.”
“My!” she said. “That’s the nicest thing you’ve said yet. Yes, I promise that. You’re real kind, do you know? You make me feel miles better.”
She drew her hand gently away. Merefleet was trying to discern her features in the darkness.
“Are you really lonely, I wonder?” he said. “Or is that a figure of speech?”
“It’s solid fact,” she said. “But, never mind me! Let’s talk of something nicer.”
“No, thanks!” Merefleet could be obstinate when he liked. “Unless you object, I prefer to talk about you.”
She laughed a little, but said nothing.
“I want to know what makes you lonely,” he said. “Don’t tell me, of course, if there is any difficulty about it!”
“No,” she responded coolly. “I won’t. But I guess I’m lonely for much the same reason that you are.”
“I have never been anything else since I became a man,” said Merefleet.
“Ah!” she said. “I might say the same. Fact is”—she spoke with sudden startling emphasis—“I ought to be dead. And I’m not. That’s my trouble in a nutshell.”
“Great heavens, child!” Merefleet exclaimed, with an involuntary start. “Don’t talk like that!”
“Why not?” she asked innocently. “Is it wrong?”
“It isn’t literal truth, you know,” he answered gravely. “You will not persuade me that it is.”
“I’m no judge then,” she said, with a note of recklessness in her voice.
“You have your cousin,” Merefleet pointed out, feeling that he was on uncertain ground, yet unaccountably anxious to prove it. “You are not utterly alone while he is with you.”
She uttered a shrill little laugh. “Why,” she said, “I believe you think I’m in love with Bert.”