“Big Bear,” she said, “I’ve got something to say to you. What I told you yesterday was quite true. And I’m in great trouble about it. I thought we were going to Heaven together. That was how I came to say it. But it was very wicked of me to be so impulsive. I’ve done other things that were wicked in just the same way. It’s just my nature. And p’r’aps you’ll try to forgive me when you think how I truly meant it. I’m telling you this because I want you to do something for me. It’ll be real difficult, Big Bear. Only you’re so strong.”
She faltered a little and paused to recover herself. Merefleet was standing close to her. He could have taken her into his arms. But something held him back. Moreover he knew the nature of her request before she uttered it.
“Will you do what I ask you?” she said suddenly, facing him directly. “Will you, Big Bear?”
Merefleet did not answer her.
She went on quickly.
“My dear, it’s hard for me, too, though I’m bad and I deserve to suffer.”
Her voice broke and Merefleet made a convulsive movement towards her. But he checked himself. And Mab ended in a choked whisper with an appealing hand against his breast.
“Just go right away!” she said. “Take up your life where it was before you met me! Will you, dear? It—will make it easier for me if you will.”
A dead silence followed the low words. Then, moved by a marvellous influence which worked upon him irresistibly, Merefleet stooped and put the slight hand to his lips. He did not understand. He was as far from reading the riddle as he had been when he entered. But his love for this woman conquered his desire. He had thought to win an empire. He left the room a beaten slave.
Men said that Bernard Merefleet, the gold-king, was curiously changed when once more he went among them. Something of the old grimness which had earned for him his sobriquet yet clung to his manner. But he was undeniably softer than of yore. There was an odd gentleness about him. Women said that he was marvellously improved. Among such as had known him in New York he became a favourite, little as he attempted to court favour.
Towards the end of the year he went down to the Midlands to stay with his friend Perry Clinton. They had not met for several years, and Clinton, who had married in the interval, also thought him changed.
“Is it prosperity or adversity that has made you so tame, dear fellow?” he asked him, as they sat together over dessert one night.
“Adversity,” said Merefleet, smiling faintly. “I’m getting old, Perry; and there’s no one to take care of me. And I find that money is vanity.”
“Better go round the world,” he said. “That’s the best cure for that.”
But Merefleet shook his head.