Something of the lightness faded from her face.
“So you have quite made up your mind to leave us?” she asked slowly. “Mother wasn’t able to persuade you to stay?”
He shook his head.
“She was very kind,” he said, “but there are really grave reasons why I feel that I must not accept Mr. Fentolin’s hospitality any longer. I had,” he went on, “a very interesting talk with your mother.”
She turned quickly towards him. The slightest possible tinge of additional colour was in her cheeks. She was walking on the top of a green bank, with the wind blowing her skirts around her. The turn of her head was a little diffident, almost shy. Her eyes were asking him questions. At that moment she seemed to him, with her slim body, her gently parted lips and soft, tremulous eyes, almost like a child. He drew a little nearer to her.
“I told your mother,” he continued, “all that I have told you, and more. I told her, dear, that I cared for you, that I wanted you to be my wife.”
She was caught in a little gust of wind. Both her hands went up to her hat; her face was hidden. She stepped down from the bank.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” she said quietly.
“Why not?” he demanded. “It was the truth.”
He stooped forward, intent upon looking into her face. The mystic softness was still in her eyes, but her general expression was inscrutable. It seemed to him that there was fear there.
“What did mother say?” she whispered.
“Nothing discouraging,” he replied. “I don’t think she minded at all. I have decided, if you give me permission, to go and talk to Mr. Fentolin this evening.”
She shook her head very emphatically.
“Don’t!” she implored. “Don’t! Don’t give him another whip to lash us with. Keep silent. Let me just have the memory for a few days all to myself.”
Her words came to him like numb things. There was little expression in them, and yet he felt that somehow they meant so much.
“Esther dear,” he said, “I shall do just as you ask me. At the same time, please listen. I think that you are all absurdly frightened of Mr. Fentolin. Living here alone with him, you have all grown under his dominance to an unreasonable extent. Because of his horrible infirmity, you have let yourselves become his slaves. There are limits to this sort of thing, Esther. I come here as a stranger, and I see nothing more in Mr. Fentolin than a very selfish, irritable, domineering, and capricious old man. Humour him, by all means. I am willing to do the same myself. But when it comes to the great things in life, neither he nor any living person is going to keep from me the woman I love.”
She walked by his side in silence. Her breath was coming a little quicker, her fingers lay passive in his. Then for a moment he felt the grip of them almost burn into his flesh. Still she said nothing.