For as he strode up the woodland path to Etterick the wrappings of surface passion fell off from his view of the past hour, and he saw the bald and naked ribs of his own incapacity. It was a trivial incident to the world, but to himself a momentous self-revelation. He was a dreamer, a weakling, a fool. He had hesitated in a crisis, and another had taken his place. A thousand incidents of ready courage in past sport and travel were forgotten, and on this single slip the terrible indictment was founded. And the reason is at hand; this weakness had at last drawn near to his life’s great passion.
He found a deserted house, but its solitude was too noisy for his unrest. Bidding the butler tell his friends that he had gone up the hill, he crossed the sloping lawns and plunged into the thicket of rhododendrons. Soon he was out on the heather, with the great slopes, scorched with the heat, lying still and fragrant before him. He felt sick and tired, and flung himself down amid the soft brackens.
It was the man’s first taste of bitter mental anguish. Hitherto his life had been equable and pleasant; his friends had adored him; the world had flattered him; he had been at peace with his own soul. He had known his failings, but laughed at them cavalierly; he stood on a different platform from the struggling, conscience-stricken herd. Now he had in very truth been flung neck and crop from the pedestal of his self-esteem; and he lay groaning in the dust of abasement.
Wratislaw guessed with a friend’s instinct his friend’s disquietude, and turned his steps to the hill when he had heard the butler’s message. He had known something of Lewis’s imaginary self-upbraidings, and he was prepared for them, but he was not prepared for the grey and wretched face in the lee of the pinewood. A sudden suspicion that Lewis had been guilty of some real dishonour flashed across his mind for the moment, only to be driven out with scorn.
“Lewie, my son, what the deuce is wrong with you?” he cried.
The other looked at him with miserable eyes.
“I am beginning to find out my rottenness.”
Wratislaw laughed in spite of himself. “What a fool to go making psychological discoveries on such a day! Is it all over the little misfortune at the pool?”
Tragedy grew in Lewis’s eyes. “Don’t laugh, old chap. You don’t know what I did. I let her fall into the water, and then I stood staring and let another man—the other man—save her.”
“Well, and what about that? He had a better chance than you. You shouldn’t grudge him his good fortune.”
“Good Lord, man, you don’t think it’s that that’s troubling me! I felt murderous, but it wasn’t on his account.”
“Why not?” asked the older man drily. “You love the girl, and he’s in the running with you. What more?”
Lewis groaned. “How can I talk about loving her when my love is such a trifling thing that it doesn’t nerve me to action? I tell you I love her body and soul. I live for her. The whole world is full of her. She is never a second out of my thoughts. And yet I am so little of a man that I let her come near death and never try to save her.”