“But it was my own fault that it was left so long. I would not let him tell you when he wished to; I put off the day as long as I could.”
“Since you first knew me?” she asked, in a low voice.
“No! Since you came to live here. I was free before.”
It was the part of his confession which cost him most to utter, and the hearing of it chilled Ida’s heart. Whilst she had been living through her bitterest shame and misery, he had given his love to another woman, forgetful of her. For the first time, weakness overcame her.
“I thought you loved me,” she sobbed, bowing her head.
“I did—and I do. I can’t understand myself, and it would be worse than vain to try to show you how it came about. I have brought a curse upon my life, and worse than my own despair is your misery.”
“Is she a good woman you are going to marry?” Ida asked simply and kindly.
“Only less noble than yourself.”
“And she loves you—no, she cannot love as I do—but she loves you worthily and with all her soul?”
“Worthily and with all her soul—the greater my despair.”
“Then I dare not think of her one unkind thought. We must remember her, and be strong for her sake. You will leave London and forget me soon,—yes, yes, you will try to forget me. You owe it to her; it is your duty.”
“Duty!” he broke out passionately. “What have I to do with duty? Was it not my duty to be true to you? Was it not my duty to confess my hateful weakness, when I had taken the fatal step? Duty has no meaning for me. I have set it aside at every turn. Even now there would be no obligation on me to keep my word, but that I am too great a coward to revoke it.”
She stood near to him.
“Dear,—I will call you so, it is for the last time,—you think these things in the worst moment of our suffering; afterwards you will thank me for having been strong enough, or cold enough, to be your conscience. There is such a thing as duty; it speaks in your heart and in mine, and tells us that we must part.”
“You speak so lightly of parting. If you felt all that I—”
“My love is no shadow less than yours,” she said, with earnestness which was well nigh severity. “I have never wavered from you since I knew you first”
“I meant no reproach, but it will perhaps help you to think of that. You did love her, if it was only for a day, and that love will return.”
She moved from him, and he too rose.
“You shame me,” he said, under his breath. “I am not worthy to touch your hand.”
“Yes,” she returned, smiling amid her tears, “very worthy of all the love I have given you, and of the love with which she will make you happy. I shall suffer, but the thought of your happiness will help me to bear up and try to live a life you would not call ignoble. You will do great things, and I shall hear of them, and be glad. Yes; I know that is before you. You are one of those who cannot rest till they have won a high place. I, too, have my work, and—”