‘Who first used the word, Rhoda?’
‘Yes; I did.’
There was silence. Rhoda stood unmoving, the fire’s glow upon her face, and Barfoot watched her.
‘Perhaps,’ he said at length, ‘I was not quite serious when I—’
She turned sharply upon him, a flash of indignation in her eyes.
’Not quite serious? Yes, I have thought that. And were you quite serious in anything you said?’
‘I loved you,’ he answered curtly, answering her steady look.
‘Yet wanted to see whether—’
She could not finish the sentence; her throat quivered.
‘I loved you, that’s all. And I believe I still love you.’
Rhoda turned to the fire again.
‘Will you marry me?’ he asked, moving a step nearer.
‘I think you are “not quite serious".’
‘I have asked you twice. I ask for the third time.’
‘I won’t marry you with the forms of marriage,’ Rhoda answered in an abrupt, harsh tone.
‘Now it is you who play with a serious matter.’
’You said we had both changed. I see now that our “perfect day” was marred by my weakness at the end. If you wish to go back in imagination to that summer night, restore everything, only let me be what I now am.’
Everard shook his head.
‘Impossible. It must be then or now for both of us.’
‘Legal marriage,’ she said, glancing at him, ’has acquired some new sanction for you since then?’
‘On the whole, perhaps it has.’
’Naturally. But I shall never marry, so we will speak no more of it.’
As if finally dismissing the subject she walked to the opposite side of the hearth, and there turned towards her companion with a cold smile.
‘In other words, then, you have ceased to love me?’
‘Yes, I no longer love you.’
’Yet, if I had been willing to revive that fantastic idealism—as you thought it—’
She interrupted him sternly.
‘What was it?’
’Oh, a kind of idealism undoubtedly. I was so bent on making sure that you loved me.’
’After all, the perfection of our day was half make-believe. You never loved me with entire sincerity. And you will never love any woman—even as well as you loved me.’
‘Upon my soul, I believe it, Rhoda. And even now—’
’And even now it is just possible for us to say goodbye with so mething like friendliness. But not if you talk longer. Don’t let us spoil it; things are so straight—and clear—’
A threatened sob made her break off, but she recovered herself and offered him her hand.
* * *
He walked all the way back to his hotel, and the cold, clammy night restored his equanimity. A fortnight later, sending a Christmas present, with greetings, to Mr. and Mrs. Micklethwaite, he wrote thus—
’I am about to do my duty—as you put it—that is, to marry. The name of my future wife is Miss Agnes Brissenden. It will be in March, I think. But I shall see you before then, and give you a fuller account of myself.’