Doris played with hers until the silence became intolerable, and then, very suddenly and very winningly, she leaned towards him.
“Dear Jeff, surely you are not vexed!” she said.
He looked at her again, and in spite of herself she felt her heart quicken.
“Are you, Jeff?” she said, and held out her hand to him.
For a moment he sat motionless, then abruptly he grasped the hand.
“May I say what I think?” he asked her bluntly.
“Of course,” she said.
“Then I think from all points of view that you had better leave Chesyl alone,” he said.
“What do you mean?” Quickly she asked the question; the colour flamed in her face once more. “Tell my why you think that!” she said.
“I would rather not,” said Jeff.
“But that is not fair of you, Jeff,” she protested.
He released her hand slowly. “I am sorry,” he said. “If I were more to you, I would say more. As it is—well, I would rather not.”
She rose impetuously. “You are very—difficult,” she said.
To which he made answer with that silence which was to her more difficult than speech.
Yet later, when she was alone, her sense of justice made her admit that he had not been altogether unreasonable. She recalled the fact that he had overheard that leisurely proposal of marriage that Hugh had made her in the cornfield on the occasion of their first meeting, and her face burned afresh as she remembered certain other items of that same conversation that he must also have overheard. No, on the whole it was not surprising that he did not greatly care for Hugh—poor Hugh, who loved her and had so narrowly missed winning her for himself. She wondered if Hugh were really very miserable. She herself had passed through so many stages of misery since her wedding-day. But she had sufficient knowledge of herself to realize that it was the loneliness and lack of sympathy that weighed upon her most.
Her feeling for Hugh was still an undeveloped quantity, though the certainty of his love for her had quickened it to keener life. She was not even yet absolutely certain that he could have satisfied her. It was true that he had been deeply stirred for the moment, but how deeply and how lastingly she had no means of gauging. Knowing the indolence of his nature, she was inclined to mistrust the permanence of his feeling. And so resolutely had she restrained her own feeling for him during the whole length of their acquaintance that she was able still to keep it within bounds. She knew that the sympathy between them was fundamental in character, but she had often suspected—in her calmer moments she suspected still—that it was of the kind that engenders friendship rather than passion.
But even so, his friendship was essentially precious to her, all the more so for the daily loneliness of spirit that she found herself compelled to endure. For—with this one exception—she was practically friendless. She had known that in marrying Jeff Ironside she was relinquishing her own circle entirely. But she had imagined that there would be compensations. Moreover, so far as society was concerned, she had not had any choice. It had been this or exile. And she had chosen this.