Edith had never noticed so great a change in so short a time, for there was scarcely a vestige left of the once handsome, merry-hearted Arthur in the stooping, haggard man, who stood before her, with blood-shot eyes, and an humble, deprecating manner, as if imploring her forgiveness for the pain he had come to inflict. Nothing could prevent it now. Her matchless beauty was naught to him. He did not even see it. He thought of her only as a being for whose sake he would gladly die the most torturing death that human ingenuity could devise, if by this means, he could rescue her unscathed from the fire he had kindled around her. But this could not be; he had fallen, dragging her down with him, and now he must restore her even though it broke her heart just as his was broken. He had felt the fibres snapping, one by one; knew his life blood was oozing out, drop by drop, and this it was which made him hesitate so long. It was painful for him to speak, his throat was so parched and dry, his tongue so heavy and thick.
“What is it, Arthur?” Edith said at last, as Nina, uttering a cry of fear, hid her face in the grass to shut out Arthur from her sight, “Tell me, what is it?”
Seating himself upon a log near by, and clasping his hands together with a gesture of abject misery, Arthur replied.
“Edith, I am not worthy to look into your face; unless you take your eyes from mine—oh, take them away, or I cannot tell you what I must.”
Had her very life depended upon it, Edith could not have removed her eyes from his. An undefinable fear was curdling her blood—a fear augmented by the position of her two companions—Nina, with her head upon the grass, and that strange, white-faced being on the log. Could that be Arthur St. Claire, or was she laboring under some horrible delusion? No, the lips moved; it was Arthur, and leaning forward she listened to what he was saying,
“Edith, when yesterday I was with you, some words which I uttered and which were wrung from me, I know not how, gave you reason to believe that I was then asking you to become my wife, while something in your manner told me that to such asking you would not answer no. The temptation then to take you to my arms, defying earth and heaven, was a terrible one, and for a time I wavered, I forgot everything but my love for you; but that is past and I come now to the hardest part of all, the deliberate surrender of one dearer than life itself. Edith, do you remember the obstacle, the hindrance which I always said existed to my marrying any one?”
She did not answer; only the eyes grew larger as they watched him; and he continued,
“I made myself forgot it for a time, but Heaven was kinder far than I deserved, and will not suffer me longer. Edith, you cannot be my wife.”
She made a movement as if she would go to him, but his swaying arms kept her off, and he went on;
“There is an obstacle, Edith—a mighty obstacle, I could trample it down if I would, and there is none to question the act; but, Edith, I dare not do you this wrong.”