“It can’t—it mustn’t be!”
Then he just clung to her hand; and presently, seeing that her eyes were wet, took courage enough to kiss her cheek.
Trembling and fugitive indeed that first passage of their love. Not much of the conquering male in him, nor in her of the ordinary enchantress.
And then they went, outwardly sober enough, riding their mules down the stony slopes back to Mentone.
But in the grey, dusty railway-carriage when she had left him, he was like a man drugged, staring at where she had sat opposite.
Two hours later, at dinner in her hotel, between her and Mrs. Ercott, with the Colonel opposite, he knew for the first time what he was faced with. To watch every thought that passed within him, lest it should by the slightest sign betray him; to regulate and veil every look and every word he spoke to her; never for a second to forget that these other persons were actual and dangerous, not merely the insignificant and grotesque shadows that they seemed. It would be perhaps for ever a part of his love for her to seem not to love her. He did not dare dream of fulfilment. He was to be her friend, and try to bring her happiness—burn and long for her, and not think about reward. This was his first real overwhelming passion—so different to the loves of spring—and he brought to it all that naivete, that touching quality of young Englishmen, whose secret instinct it is to back away from the full nature of love, even from admitting that it has that nature. They two were to love, and—not to love! For the first time he understood a little of what that meant. A few stolen adoring minutes now and then, and, for the rest, the presence of a world that must be deceived. Already he had almost a hatred of that orderly, brown-faced Colonel, with his eyes that looked so steady and saw nothing; of that flat, kindly lady, who talked so pleasantly throughout dinner, saying things that he had to answer without knowing what they signified. He realized, with a sense of shock, that he was deprived of all interests in life but one; not even his work had any meaning apart from her. It lit no fire within him to hear Mrs. Ercott praise certain execrable pictures in the Royal Academy, which she had religiously visited the day before leaving home. And as the interminable meal wore on, he began even to feel grief and wonder that Olive could be so smiling, so gay, and calm; so, as it seemed to him, indifferent to this intolerable impossibility of exchanging even one look of love. Did she really love him—could she love him, and show not one little sign of it? And suddenly he felt her foot touch his own. It was the faintest sidelong, supplicating pressure, withdrawn at once, but it said: ’I know what you are suffering; I, too, but I love you.’ Characteristically, he felt that it cost her dear to make use of that little primitive device of common loves; the touch awoke within him only chivalry. He would burn for ever sooner than cause her the pain of thinking that he was not happy.