" I understand what you say, miss, and I think you're honest, but you may be mistaken. I saw her meet-up with fine young fellies in the East; I could see they admired her—but she turned them down easily. She's no weak-minded chippy, as I know on me own account —the more shame to me."
"Of course she turns others down, for the reason that Ben fills her heart." She began to weary of her self-imposed task.
He, too, was tired. "We'll see, we'll see," he repeated musingly, and gazed away towards the cloud-enshrouded peaks in sombre silence—the lines of his lips as sorrowful as those of an old lion dying in the desert, arrow-smitten and alone. He had forgotten the hand that pierced his heart.
Thus dismissed, she rose, her eyes burning like deep opals in the parchment setting of her skin.
"Life is so cruel!" she said. "I have wished a thousand times that love had never come to me. Love means only sorrow at the end. Ben has been my life, my only interest—and now—as he begins to forget— Oh, I can't bear it! It will kill me!" She sank back into her chair, and, burying her face, sobbed with such passion that her slight frame shook in the tempest of it.
Haney turned and looked at her in silence—profoundly stirred to pity by her sobs, no longer doubting the reality of her despair. When he spoke his voice was brokenly sweet and very tender.
"'Tis a bitter world, miss, and me heart bleeds for such as you. 'Tis well ye have a hope of paradise, for, if all you say is true, ye must go from this world cheated and hungry like meself. Ye have one comfort that I have not—'tis not your own doing. Ye've not misspent your life as I have done. What does it all show but that life is a game where each man, good or bad, takes his chance. The cards fall against you and against me without care of what we are. I can only say I take me chances as I take the rain and the sun."
Her paroxysm passed and she rose again, drawing her veil closely over her face. "Good-bye. We will never meet again."
"Don't say that," he said, struggling painfully to his feet. "Never is a long time, and good-bye a cruel, sad word to say. Let's call it' so long' and better luck."
"You are not angry with me?" she turned to ask.
"Not at all, miss—I thank ye fer opening me eyes to me selfishness."
"So long! And may ye have better luck in the new deal, miss."
As she turned at the gate she saw him standing as shf had left him, his brow white and sad and stern, his shoulders drooping as if his strength and love of life had suddenly been withdrawn.
While still in this mood she sent word to Ben that she wished to see him at once, and he responded without delay.
He was appalled by the change in her. Her interview with Haney had profoundly weakened her, chilled her. She was like some exquisite lamp whose golden flame had grown suddenly dim, and Fordyce was filled with instant, remorseful tenderness. His sense of duty sprang to arms, and without waiting for her to begin he said: "I hate to think of you as a pensioner in this house. You should be in your own home—our home— where I could take care of you. Come, let me take you out of this private hospital—that's what it is."
She struggled piteously to assure him that she would be back to par in a few days, but he was thoroughly alarmed and refused to listen to further delay.
"Your surroundings are bad, you need a change."
She read him to the soul, knew that this argument sprang not from love, but from pity and self-accusation; therefore, forcing a light tone, she answered: "I don't feel able to take command of a cook and second girl just yet, Bennie dear; besides, you're all wrong about this being a bad atmosphere for me. I'm horribly comfortable here, my own sister couldn't be kinder than Julia is. No, no, wait a few months longer till you get settled a little more securely in business; I may pick up a volt or two more of electricity by that time." Then as she saw his face darken and a tremor run over his flesh, she lost her self-control and broke forth with sudden, bitter intensity: "Why don't you throw me over and marry some nice girl with a healthy body and sane mind? Why cheat yourself and me?"
He recoiled before her question, too amazed to do more than exclaim against her going on.
She was not to be checked. "Let us be honest with ourselves. You know perfectly well I'm never going to get better—I do, if you don't. I may linger on in this way for years, but I will never be anything but a querulous invalid. Now that's the bitter truth. You mustn't marry me—I won't let you!" Then her mood changed. "And yet it's so hard to go on alone—even for a little way."
Her eyes closed on her hot tears, her head drooped, and Ben, putting his arm about her neck and pressing her quivering face against his breast, reproached her very tenderly: "I won't let you say such things, dearest—you must not! You're not yourself to-day."
"Oh yes, I am! My mind is very clear, too horribly clear. Ben dear, I mean all I say—you shall not link yourself to me. I have no delusions now. I'll never be well again—and you must know it."
"Oh yes, you will! Don't give up! You're only tired to-day. You're really much better than you were last week."
"No, I'm not! Let us not deceive ourselves any longer. The change of climate has not done me good. We waited too long. It has all been a mistake. Let me go back to Chester—I'm afraid to die out here. I can't bear the thought of being buried in this soil. It's so bleak and lonely and alien. I want to go back to the sweet, kindly hills—perhaps I can reconcile myself to death there—to sink into the earth on this plain is too dreadful."
He struggled against the weight of her sorrowful pleadings. "This is only a mood, dearest; you are over-tired and things look black to you—I have such days—everybody has these hours of depression, but we must fight them. It would be so much better for us both if I were your husband, then I could be with you and watch over you every hour. I could help you fight these dismal moods. It would be my hourly care. Come, let's go out and seriously set to work to find a cottage."
She was silenced for the moment, but when he had finished his counter-plea she looked up at him with deep-set glance and quietly said: "Ben, it's all wrong. It was wrong from the very beginning. You are lashing yourself into uttering these beautiful words, and you do not realize what you are saying. I am too old for you— Now listen—it's true! I'm twenty years older in spirit. I haven't been really well for ten years. You talk of fighting this. Haven't I fought ? I've danced when I should have been in bed. I've had a premonition of early decay for years—that's why I've been so reckless of my strength. I couldn't bear to let my youth pass dully—and now it's gone! Wait!—I've deceived you in other ways. I've been full of black thoughts, I've been jealous and selfish all along. You deserve the loveliest girl in the world, and it is a cruel shame for me to stand in the way of your happiness just to have you light my darkness for a few hours. I know what you want to say—you think you can be happy with me. Ben, it's only your foolish sense of honor that keeps you loyal to me—I don't want that—I won't have it! Take back your pledge." She pushed away from him and twisted a ring from her finger. "Take this, dear boy, you are absolutely free. Go and be happy."
He drew back from her hand in pain and bewilderment. "Alice, you are crazy to say such things to me." He studied her with suffering in his eyes. "You are delirious. I am going to send the doctor to you at once."
"No, I'm not delirious. I know only too well what I'm saying—I have made my decision. I will never wear this ring again." She turned his words against himself. "You must not marry a crazy woman."
"I didn't mean that—you know what I meant. All you say is morbid and unreasonable, and I will not listen to it. You are clouded by some sick fancy today, and I will go away and send a physician to cure you of your madness."
She thrust the ring into his hand and rose, her face tense, her eyes wonderfully big and luminous. She seemed at the moment to renew her health and to recover the imperious grace of her radiant youth as she exaltedly said: "Now I am free! You must ask me all over again—and when you do, I will say no"
He sat looking up at her, too bewildered, too much alarmed to find words for reply. He really thought that she had gone suddenly mad—and yet all that she said was frightfully reasonable. In his heart he knew that she was uttering the truth. Their marriage was now impossible—a bridal veil over that face was horrifying to think upon.
She went on: "Now run away—I'm going to cry in a moment and I don't want you to see me do it. Please go!"
He rose stiffly, and when he spoke his voice was quivering with anxiety. "I am going to send Julia to you instantly."
"No, you're not. I won't see her if you do. She can't help me—nobody can, but you—and I won't let you even see me any more. I'm going home to Chester to-morrow; so kiss me good-bye—and go."
He kissed her and went blindly out, their engagement ring tightly clinched in his hand. It seemed as if a wide, cold, gray cloud had (for the first time) entirely covered his sunny, youthful world.