IT was singular that though half an hour before he had not felt the want of the assurance he had just asked of her, yet now that he saw it definitely with held it took an importance as instantly as a mirror takes a reflection. This importance was so great that he found himself suddenly scared by what he heard. He thought an instant with intensity. “ In spite of knowing that you’ll disappoint ” he paused a little “the universal hope? ”
“I know whom I shall disappoint; but I must bear that. I shall disappoint Cousin Kate.”
“Horribly,” said Tony.
“And poor Paul to within an inch of his life.”
“No, not poor Paul, Mr. Bream; not poor Paul in the least,” Jean said. She spoke without a hint of defiance or the faintest ring of bravado, as if for mere veracity and lucidity, since an opportunity quite unsought had been forced upon her. “ I know about poor Paul. It’s all right about poor Paul,” she declared, smiling.
She spoke and she looked at him with a sincerity so distilled, as he felt, from something deep within her that to pretend to gainsay her would be in the worst taste. He turned about, not very brilliantly, as he was aware, to some other resource. “ You’ll immensely disappoint your own people.”
“Yes, my mother and my grandmother they both would like it. But they’ve never had any promise from me.”
Tony was silent awhile. “ And Mrs. Beever hasn’t she had? ”
“A promise? Never. I’ve known how much she has wanted it. But that’s all.”
“Ah, that’s a great deal,” said Tony. “If, knowing how much she has wanted it, you’ve come back again and again, hasn’t that been tantamount to giving it? ”
Jean considered. “ I shall never come back again.”
“Ah, my dear child, what a way to treat us!” her friend broke out.
She took no notice of this; she only went on: “ Months ago the last time I was here an assurance, of a kind, was asked of me. But even then I held off.”
“And you’ve gone on with that intention? ” He had grown so serious now that he cross-questioned her, but she met him with a promptitude that was touching in its indulgence. “ I’ve gone on without an intention. I’ve only waited to see, to feel, to judge. The great thing seemed to me to be sure I wasn’t unfair to Paul. I haven’t been I’m not unfair. He’ll never say I’ve been I’m sure he won’t. I should have liked to be able to become his wife. But I can’t.”
“You’ve nevertheless excited hopes,” said Tony. “Don’t you think you ought to consider that a little more?” His uneasiness, his sense of the unex pected, as sharp as a physical pang, increased so that he began to lose sight of the importance of concealing it; and he went on even while something came into her eyes that showed he had not concealed it. “ If you haven’t meant not to do it, you’ve, so far as that goes, meant the opposite. Therefore something has made you change.”
Jean hesitated. “ Everything has made me change.”
“Well,” said Tony, with a smile so strained that he felt it almost pitiful, “ we’ve spoken of the dis appointment to others, but I suppose there’s no use in my attempting to say anything of the disappoint ment to me. That’s not the thing that, in such a case, can have much effect on you.”
Again Jean hesitated: he saw how pale she had grown. “Do I understand you tell me that you really desire my marriage? ”
If the revelation of how he desired it had not already come to him the deep mystery of her beauty at this crisis might have brought it on the spot a spectacle in which he so lost himself for the minute that he found no words to answer till she spoke again. “ Do I understand that you literally ask me for it? ”
“I ask you for it I ask you for it,” said Tony Bream.
They stood looking at each other like a pair who, walking on a frozen lake, suddenly have in their ears the great crack of the ice. “ And what are your reasons? ”
“I’ll tell you my reasons when you tell me yours for having changed.”
“I’ve not changed,” said Jean.
It was as if their eyes were indissolubly engaged. That was the way he had been looking a while before into another woman’s, but he could think at this moment of the exquisite difference of Jean’s. He shook his head with all the sadness and all the tenderness he felt he might permit himself to show just this once and never again. “ You’ve changed you’ve changed.”
Then she gave up. “ Wouldn’t you much rather I should never come back? ”
“Far rather. But you will come back,” said Tony.
She looked away from him at last turned her eyes over the place in which she had known none but emotions permitted and avowed, and again seemed to yield to the formidable truth. “ So you think I had better come back so different? ”
His tenderness broke out into a smile. “As different as possible. As different as that will be just all the difference,” he added.
She appeared, with her averted face, to consider intently how much “ all ” might in such a case prac tically amount to. But “ Here he comes ” was what she presently replied.
Paul Beever was in sight, so freshly dressed that even at a distance his estimate of the requirements of the occasion was visible from his necktie to his boots. Adorned as it unmistakably had never been, his great featureless person moved solemnly over the lawn.
“Take him then take him!” said Tony Bream.
Jean, intensely serious but with agitation held at bay, gave him one more look, a look so infinitely pacific that as, at Paul’s nearer approach, he turned away from her, he had the sense of going off with a sign of her acceptance of his solution. The light in her face was the light of the compassion that had come out to him, and what was that compassion but the gage of a relief, of a promise? It made him walk down to the river with a step quickened to exhilaration; all the more that as the girl’s eyes followed him he couldn’t see in them the tragic intelligence he had kindled, her perception from the very rhythm of the easy gait she had watched so often that he really thought such a virtual confession to her would be none too lavishly repaid by the effort for which he had appealed.
Paul Beever had in his hand his little morocco case, but his glance also rested, till it disappeared, on Tony’s straight and swinging back. “ I’ve driven him away,” he said.
“It was time,” Jean replied. “ Effie, who wasn’t ready for me, must really come at last.” Then without the least pretence of unconsciousness she looked straight at the small object Paul carried.
Observing her attention to it he also dropped his eyes on it, while his hands turned it round and round in apparent uncertainty as to whether he had better present it to her open or shut. “ I hope you won’t be as indifferent as Effie seems to be to the pretty trifle with which I’ve thought I should like to commemorate your birthday.” He decided to open the case and with its lifted lid he held it out to her. “It will give me great pleasure if you’ll kindly accept this little ornament.”
Jean took it from him she seemed to study it a moment. “ Oh Paul, oh Paul!” her protest was as sparing as a caress with the back of the hand.
“I thought you might care for the stone,” he said.
“It’s a rare and perfect one it’s magnificent.”
“Well, Miss Armiger told me you would know.” There was a hint of relaxed suspense in Paul’s tone.
Still holding the case open his companion looked at him a moment. “ Did she kindly select it? ”
He stammered, colouring a little. “ No; mother and I did. We went up to London for it; we had the mounting designed and worked out. They took two months. But I showed it to Miss Armiger and she said you’d spot any defect.”
“Do you mean,” the girl asked, smiling, “ that if you had not had her word for that you would have tried me with something inferior? ”
Paul continued very grave. “ You know well enough what I mean.”
Without again noticing the contents of the case she softly closed it and kept it in her hand. “ Yes, Paul, I know well enough what you mean.” She looked round her; then, as if her old familiarity with him were refreshed and sweetened: “ Come and sit down with me.” She led the way to a garden bench that stood at a distance from Mrs. Beever’s tea-table, an old green wooden bench that was a perennial feature of the spot. “ If Miss Armiger knows that I’m a judge,” she pursued as they went, “ it’s, I think, because she knows everything except one, which I know better than she.” She seated herself, glancing up and putting out her free hand to him with an air of comradeship and trust. Paul let it take his own, which he held there a minute. “I know you.” She drew him down, and he dropped her hand; whereupon it returned to his little box, which, with the aid of the other, it tightly and nervously clasped. “ I can’t take your present. It’s impossible,” she said.
He sat leaning forward with his big red fists on his knees. “ Not for your birthday? ”
“It’s too splendid for that it’s too precious, And how can I take it for that when it isn’t for that you offer it? How can I take so much, Paul, when I give you so little? It represents so much more than itself a thousand more things than I’ve any right to let you think I can accept. I can’t pretend not to know I must meet you half way. I want to do that so much to keep our relations happy, happy always, without a break or a cloud. They will be they’ll be beautiful. We’ve only to be frank. They are now: I feel it in the kind way you listen to me. If you hadn’t asked to speak to me I should have asked it myself. Six months ago I promised I would tell you, and I’ve known the time was come.”
“The time is come, but don’t tell me till you’ve given me a chance,” said Paul. He had listened without looking at her, his little eyes pricking with their intensity the remotest object they could reach. “I want so to please you to make you take a favourable view. There isn’t a condition you may make, you know, of any sort whatever, that I won’t grant you in advance. And if there’s any induce ment you can name that I’ve the least capacity to offer, please regard it as offered with all my heart. You know everything you understand; but just let me repeat that all I am, all I have, all I can ever be or do ”
She laid her hand on his arm as if to help, not to stop him. “ Paul, Paul you’re beautiful!” She brushed him with the feather of her tact, but he reddened and continued to avert his big face, as if he were aware that the moment of such an assertion was scarcely the moment to venture to show it. “You’re such a gentleman!” Jean went on this time with a tremor in her voice that made him turn.
“That’s the sort of fine thing I wanted to say to you” he said. And he was so accustomed, in any talk, to see his interlocutor suddenly laugh that his look of benevolence covered even her air of being amused by these words.
She smiled at him; she patted his arm. “ You’ve said to me far more than that comes to. I want you oh, I want you so to be successful and happy! ” And her laugh, with an ambiguous sob, suddenly changed into a burst of tears.
She recovered herself, but she had brought tears into his own eyes. “ Oh, that’s of no consequence! I’m to understand that you’ll never, never? ”
Paul drew a long, low breath. “Do you know that every one has thought you probably would? ”
“Certainly, I’ve known it, and that’s why I’m glad of our talk. It ought to have come sooner.
You thought I probably would, I think ”
“Oh, yes!” Paul artlessly broke in.
Jean laughed again while she wiped her eyes. “That’s why I call you beautiful. You had my possible expectation to meet.”
“Oh, yes!” he said again.
“And you were to meet it like a gentleman. I might have but no matter. You risked your life you’ve been magnificent.” Jean got up. “And now, to make it perfect, you must take this back.”
She put the morocco case into his submissive hand, and he sat staring at it and mechanically turn ing it round. Unconsciously, musingly he threw it a little way into the air and caught it again. Then he also got up. “They’ll be tremendously down on us.”
“On ‘ us ’? On me, of course but why on you? ”
“For not having moved you.”
“You’ve moved me immensely. Before me let no one say a word about you! ”
“It’s of no consequence,” Paul repeated.
“Nothing is, if we go on as we are. We’re better friends than ever. And we’re happy!” Jean announced in her triumph.
He looked at her with deep wistfulness, with patient envy. “ You are!” Then his eyes took the direction to which her attention at that moment passed: they showed him Tony Bream coming up the slope with his little girl in his hand. Jean went down instantly to welcome the child, and Paul turned away with a grave face, giving at the same time another impulsive toss to the case containing the token she had declined.
Last updated Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 21:02