She laid her hand softly upon his knee; she had half raised herself upon the seat by his side, and her head, from which her hat had fallen, pillowed itself with a natural caressing action against his shoulder.
At the soft touch he shivered.
“It was dreadful, was it not? But then, I am not perfect, and I liked the idea of being rich, and I had never loved—I did not even know what it meant. And then I met you—long ago your photograph had arrested my fancy; and do you remember that evening at Shadonake when I first saw you?”
Could he ever forget one single detail of that meeting?
“You stood at the foot of the staircase, waiting, and I came down softly behind you. You did not see me till I was close to you, and then you turned, and you took my hands, and you looked and looked at me till my eyes could no longer meet yours. There came a vague trouble into my heart; I had never felt anything like it before. Maurice, from that instant I must have loved you.”
“For God’s sake, Vera!” he cried out wildly, as though the gentle words gave him positive pain, “do not speak of it. Do you not see the abyss which lies between us—which must part us for ever?”
“Loving you, I will never marry your brother!” she answered, earnestly.
“And I will never rob my brother of his bride. Darling, darling, do not tempt me too far, or God knows what I may say and do! To reach you, love, would be to dip my hands in dishonour and basest treachery. Not even for you can I do this vile thing. Kiss me once more, sweet, and let me go out of your life for ever; believe me, it is better so; best for us both. In time you will forget, you will be happy. He will be good to you, and you will be glad that you were not tempted to betray him.”
“You do not know what you ask of me,” she cried, lifting her face, all wet with tears, to his. “Leave me, if you will—go your way—forget me—it is all the same to me; henceforth there is no other man on earth to me but you. I will never swear vows at God’s altar that I cannot keep, or commit the frightful sin of marrying one man whilst I know that I love another. Yes, yes; I know it is a horrible, dreadful misfortune. Have I sought it, or gone out of my way to find it? Have I not struggled to keep it away from me? striven to blind my eyes to it and to go on as I was, and never to acknowledge it to myself? Do I not love wealth above all things; do I not know that he is rich, and you poor? And yet I cannot help loving you!”
He took her clasped, trembling hands within his own, and held them tightly. In that moment the woman was weak, and the man was her master.
“Listen,” he said. “Yes, you are right, I am poor; but that is not all. Vera, for Heaven’s sake, reflect, and pause before you wreck your whole life. I cannot marry you—not only because I am poor, but also, alas! because I am bound to another woman.”