“A scandal in high life!” she said, in an attempt to make the conversation farcical. “Elopement surprises society!”
“That’s what I mean—that’s what I mean!” he said eagerly, yet bashfully too. “What’s the matter with our—our getting married, Susan? You and I’ll get married, d’ye see?”
And as, astonished and frightened and curiously touched she stood up, he caught at her skirt. Susan put her hand over his with a reassuring and soothing gesture.
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” he said, beginning to cough again. “You said you would. And I—I am terribly fond of you—you could do just as you like. For instance, if you wanted to take a little trip off anywhere, with friends, you know,” said Kenneth with boyish, smiling generosity, “you could always do it! I wouldn’t want to tie you down to me!” He lay back, after coughing, but his bony hand still clung to hers. “You’re the only woman I ever asked to undertake such a bad job,” he finished, in a whisper.
“Why—but honestly—–” Susan began. She laughed out nervously and unsteadily. “This is so sudden,” said she. Kenneth laughed too.
“But, you see, they’re hustling me off,” he complained. “This weather is so rotten! And El’s keen for it,” he urged, “and Mother too. If you’ll be so awfully, awfully good—I know you aren’t crazy about me—and you know some pretty rotten things about me—”
The very awkwardness of his phrasing won her as no other quality could. Susan felt suddenly tender toward him, felt old and sad and wise.
“Mr. Saunders,” she said, gently, “you’ve taken my breath away. I don’t know what to say to you. I can’t pretend that I’m in love with you—”
“Of course you’re not!” he said, very much embarrassed, “but if there’s no one else, Sue—”
“There is someone else,” said Susan, her eyes suddenly watering. “But—but that’s not going—right, and it never can! If you’ll give me a few days to think about it, Kenneth—”
“Sure! Take your time!” he agreed eagerly.
“It would be the very quietest and quickest and simplest wedding that ever was, wouldn’t it?” she asked.
“Oh, absolutely!” Kenneth seemed immensely relieved. “No riot!”
“And you will let me think it over?” the girl asked, “because—I know other girls say this, but it’s true!—I never dreamed—”
“Sure, you think it over. I’ll consider you haven’t given me the faintest idea of how you feel,” said Kenneth. They clasped hands for good-by. Susan fancied that his smile might have been an invitation for a little more affectionate parting, but if it was she ignored it. She turned at the door to smile back at him before she went downstairs.
Susan went straight downstairs, and, with as little self-consciousness as if the house had been on fire, tapped at and opened the door of Stephen Bocqueraz’s study. He half rose, with a smile of surprise and pleasure, as she came in, but his own face instantly reflected the concern and distress on hers, and he came to her, and took her hand in his.