’Yes—I think I must know you much better before I can consent to any step of that kind.’
‘But,’ he urged, ’if we became acquaintances in the ordinary way, and knew each other’s friends, wouldn’t that be most satisfactory to you?’
’It might be. But you forget that so much would have to be explained. I have behaved very strangely. If I told everything to my friends I should leave myself no choice.’
’Oh, why not? You would be absolutely free. I could no more than try to recommend myself to you. If I am so unhappy as to fail, how would you be anything but quite free?’
’But surely you must understand me. In this position, I must either not speak of you at all, or make it known that I am engaged to you. I can’t have it taken for granted that I am engaged to you when I don’t wish to be.’
Widdowson’s head drooped; he set his lips in a hard gloomy expression.
‘I have behaved very imprudently,’ continued the girl. But I don’t see—I can’t see—what else I could have done. Things are so badly arranged. It wasn’t possible for us to be introduced by any one who knew us both, so I had either to break off your acquaintance after that first conversation, or conduct myself as I have been doing. I think it’s a very hard position. My sisters would call me an immodest girl, but I don’t think it is true. I may perhaps come to feel you as a girl ought to when she marries, and how else can I tell unless I meet you and talk with you? And your position is just the same. I don’t blame you for a moment; I think it would be ridiculous to blame you. Yet we have gone against the ordinary rule, and people would make us suffer for it—or me, at all events.
Her voice at the close was uncertain. Widdowson looked at her with eyes of passionate admiration.
’Thank you for saying that—for putting it so well, and so kindly for me. Let us disregard people, then. Let us go on seeing each other. I love you with all my soul’—he choked a little at this first utterance of the solemn word—’and your rules shall be mine. Give me a chance of winning you. Tell me if I offend you in anything—if there’s anything you dislike in me.’
‘Will you cease coming to look for me when I don’t know of it?’
’I promise you. I will never come again. And you will meet me a little oftener?’
’I will see you once every week. But I must still be perfectly free.’
’Perfectly! I will only try to win you as any man may who loves a woman.’
The tired horse clattered upon the hard highway and clouds gathered for a night of storm.
As Miss Barfoot’s eye fell on the letters brought to her at breakfast-time, she uttered an exclamation, doubtful in its significance. Rhoda Nunn, who rarely had a letter from any one, looked up inquiringly.