This was disingenuous, and she felt humiliated by her subterfuge. Anything but a sudden decision was asked of her. Before leaving Chelsea she had ’foreseen this moment, and had made preparations for the possibility of never returning to Miss Barfoot’s house— knowing the nature of the proposal that would be offered to her. But the practical resolve needed a greater effort than she had imagined. Above all, she feared an ignominious failure of purpose after her word was given; that would belittle her in Everard’s eyes, and so shame her in her own that all hope of happiness in marriage must be at an end.
‘You are still doubtful of me, Rhoda?’
He took her hand, and again drew her close. But she refused her lips.
‘Or are you doubtful of your own love?’
‘No. If I understand what love means, I love you.’
’Then give me the kiss I am waiting for. You have not kissed me yet.’
‘I can’t—until I am sure of myself—of my readiness—’
Her broken words betrayed the passion with which she was struggling. Everard felt her tremble against his side.
‘Give me your hand,’ he whispered. ‘The left hand.’
Before she could guess his purpose he had slipped a ring upon her finger, a marriage ring. Rhoda started away from him, and at once drew off the perilous symbol.
’No—that proves to me I can’t! What should we gain? You see, you dare not be quite consistent. It’s only deceiving the people who don’t know us.’
’But I have explained to you. The consistency is in ourselves, our own minds—’
’Take it back. Custom is too strong for us. We should only play at defying it. Take it back—or I shall drop it on the sand.’
Profoundly mortified, Everard restored the gold circlet to its hiding-place and stood gazing at the dim horizon. Some moments passed, then he heard his name murmured. He did not look round.
Was that Rhoda’s voice, so low, tender, caressing? It thrilled him, and with a silent laugh of scorn at his own folly, he turned to her, every thought burnt up in passion.
‘Will you kiss me?’
For an answer she laid her hands on his shoulders and gazed at him. Barfoot understood. He smiled constrainedly, and said in a low voice,—
‘You wish for that old, idle form—?’
‘Not the religious form, which has no meaning for either of us, But—’
’You have been living here seven or eight days. Stay till the fifteenth, then we can get a licence from the registrar of the district. Does that please you?’
Her eyes made reply.
‘Do you love me any the less, Everard?’
She did, and consciousness was lost for them as their mouths clung together and their hearts throbbed like one.
‘Isn’t it better?’ Rhoda asked, as they walked back in the darkness. ‘Won’t it make our life so much simpler and happier?’