The light projected on the situation by Mrs. Fisher had the cheerles_istinctness of a winter dawn. It outlined the facts with a cold precisio_nmodified by shade or colour, and refracted, as it were, from the blank wall_f the surrounding limitations: she had opened windows from which no sky wa_ver visible. But the idealist subdued to vulgar necessities must emplo_ulgar minds to draw the inferences to which he cannot stoop; and it wa_asier for Lily to let Mrs. Fisher formulate her case than to put it plainl_o herself. Once confronted with it, however, she went the full length of it_onsequences; and these had never been more clearly present to her than when, the next afternoon, she set out for a walk with Rosedale.
It was one of those still November days when the air is haunted with the ligh_f summer, and something in the lines of the landscape, and in the golden haz_hich bathed them, recalled to Miss Bart the September afternoon when she ha_limbed the slopes of Bellomont with Selden. The importunate memory was kep_efore her by its ironic contrast to her present situation, since her wal_ith Selden had represented an irresistible flight from just such a climax a_he present excursion was designed to bring about. But other memorie_mportuned her also; the recollection of similar situations, as skillfully le_p to, but through some malice of fortune, or her own unsteadiness of purpose, always failing of the intended result. Well, her purpose was steady enoug_ow. She saw that the whole weary work of rehabilitation must begin again, an_gainst far greater odds, if Bertha Dorset should succeed in breaking up he_riendship with the Gormers; and her longing for shelter and security wa_ntensified by the passionate desire to triumph over Bertha, as only wealt_nd predominance could triumph over her. As the wife of Rosedale—the Rosedal_he felt it in her power to create—she would at least present an invulnerabl_ront to her enemy.
She had to draw upon this thought, as upon some fiery stimulant, to keep u_er part in the scene toward which Rosedale was too frankly tending. As sh_alked beside him, shrinking in every nerve from the way in which his look an_one made free of her, yet telling herself that this momentary endurance o_is mood was the price she must pay for her ultimate power over him, she trie_o calculate the exact point at which concession must turn to resistance, an_he price HE would have to pay be made equally clear to him. But his dappe_elf-confidence seemed impenetrable to such hints, and she had a sense o_omething hard and self-contained behind the superficial warmth of his manner.
They had been seated for some time in the seclusion of a rocky glen above th_ake, when she suddenly cut short the culmination of an impassioned period b_urning upon him the grave loveliness of her gaze.
"I DO believe what you say, Mr. Rosedale," she said quietly; "and I am read_o marry you whenever you wish."
Rosedale, reddening to the roots of his glossy hair, received thi_nnouncement with a recoil which carried him to his feet, where he halte_efore her in an attitude of almost comic discomfiture.
"For I suppose that is what you do wish," she continued, in the same quie_one. "And, though I was unable to consent when you spoke to me in this wa_efore, I am ready, now that I know you so much better, to trust my happines_o your hands."
She spoke with the noble directness which she could command on such occasions, and which was like a large steady light thrown across the tortuous darkness o_he situation. In its inconvenient brightness Rosedale seemed to waver _oment, as though conscious that every avenue of escape was unpleasantl_lluminated.
Then he gave a short laugh, and drew out a gold cigarette-case, in which, wit_lump jewelled fingers, he groped for a gold-tipped cigarette. Selecting one, he paused to contemplate it a moment before saying: "My dear Miss Lily, I'_orry if there's been any little misapprehension between us-but you made m_eel my suit was so hopeless that I had really no intention of renewing it."
Lily's blood tingled with the grossness of the rebuff; but she checked th_irst leap of her anger, and said in a tone of gentle dignity: "I have no on_ut myself to blame if I gave you the impression that my decision was final."
Her word-play was always too quick for him, and this reply held him in puzzle_ilence while she extended her hand and added, with the faintest inflection o_adness in her voice: "Before we bid each other goodbye, I want at least t_hank you for having once thought of me as you did."
The touch of her hand, the moving softness of her look, thrilled a vulnerabl_ibre in Rosedale. It was her exquisite inaccessibleness, the sense o_istance she could convey without a hint of disdain, that made it mos_ifficult for him to give her up.
"Why do you talk of saying goodbye? Ain't we going to be good friends all th_ame?" he urged, without releasing her hand.
She drew it away quietly. "What is your idea of being good friends?" sh_eturned with a slight smile. "Making love to me without asking me to marr_ou?" Rosedale laughed with a recovered sense of ease.
"Well, that's about the size of it, I suppose. I can't help making love t_ou—I don't see how any man could; but I don't mean to ask you to marry me a_ong as I can keep out of it."
She continued to smile. "I like your frankness; but I am afraid our friendshi_an hardly continue on those terms." She turned away, as though to mark tha_ts final term had in fact been reached, and he followed her for a few step_ith a baffled sense of her having after all kept the game in her own hands.
"Miss Lily—" he began impulsively; but she walked on without seeming to hea_im.
He overtook her in a few quick strides, and laid an entreating hand on he_rm. "Miss Lily—don't hurry away like that. You're beastly hard on a fellow; but if you don't mind speaking the truth I don't see why you shouldn't allo_e to do the same."
She had paused a moment with raised brows, drawing away instinctively from hi_ouch, though she made no effort to evade his words.
"I was under the impression," she rejoined, "that you had done so withou_aiting for my permission."
"Well—why shouldn't you hear my reasons for doing it, then? We're neither o_s such new hands that a little plain speaking is going to hurt us. I'm al_roken up on you: there's nothing new in that. I'm more in love with you tha_ was this time last year; but I've got to face the fact that the situation i_hanged."
She continued to confront him with the same air of ironic composure. "You mea_o say that I'm not as desirable a match as you thought me?"
"Yes; that's what I do mean," he answered resolutely. "I won't go into what'_appened. I don't believe the stories about you—I don't WANT to believe them.
But they're there, and my not believing them ain't going to alter th_ituation."
She flushed to her temples, but the extremity of her need checked the retor_n her lip and she continued to face him composedly. "If they are not true,"
she said, "doesn't THAT alter the situation?"
He met this with a steady gaze of his small stock-taking eyes, which made he_eel herself no more than some superfine human merchandise. "I believe it doe_n novels; but I'm certain it don't in real life. You know that as well as _o: if we're speaking the truth, let's speak the whole truth. Last year I wa_ild to marry you, and you wouldn't look at me: this year—well, you appear t_e willing. Now, what has changed in the interval? Your situation, that's all.
Then you thought you could do better; now—"
"You think you can?" broke from her ironically.
"Why, yes, I do: in one way, that is." He stood before her, his hands in hi_ockets, his chest sturdily expanded under its vivid waistcoat. "It's thi_ay, you see: I've had a pretty steady grind of it these last years, workin_p my social position. Think it's funny I should say that? Why should I min_aying I want to get into society? A man ain't ashamed to say he wants to ow_ racing stable or a picture gallery. Well, a taste for society's just anothe_ind of hobby. Perhaps I want to get even with some of the people who cold- shouldered me last year—put it that way if it sounds better. Anyhow, I want t_ave the run of the best houses; and I'm getting it too, little by little. Bu_ know the quickest way to queer yourself with the right people is to be see_ith the wrong ones; and that's the reason I want to avoid mistakes."
Miss Bart continued to stand before him in a silence that might have expresse_ither mockery or a half-reluctant respect for his candour, and after _oment's pause he went on: "There it is, you see. I'm more in love with yo_han ever, but if I married you now I'd queer myself for good and all, an_verything I've worked for all these years would be wasted."
She received this with a look from which all tinge of resentment had faded.
After the tissue of social falsehoods in which she had so long moved it wa_efreshing to step into the open daylight of an avowed expediency.
"I understand you," she said. "A year ago I should have been of use to you, and now I should be an encumbrance; and I like you for telling me so quit_onestly." She extended her hand with a smile.
Again the gesture had a disturbing effect upon Mr. Rosedale's self-command.
"By George, you're a dead game sport, you are!" he exclaimed; and as she bega_nce more to move away, he broke out suddenly—"Miss Lily—stop. You know _on't believe those stories—I believe they were all got up by a woman wh_idn't hesitate to sacrifice you to her own convenience—"
Lily drew away with a movement of quick disdain: it was easier to endure hi_nsolence than his commiseration.
"You are very kind; but I don't think we need discuss the matter farther."
But Rosedale's natural imperviousness to hints made it easy for him to brus_uch resistance aside. "I don't want to discuss anything; I just want to put _lain case before you," he persisted.
She paused in spite of herself, held by the note of a new purpose in his loo_nd tone; and he went on, keeping his eyes firmly upon her: "The wonder to m_s that you've waited so long to get square with that woman, when you've ha_he power in your hands." She continued silent under the rush of astonishmen_hat his words produced, and he moved a step closer to ask with low-tone_irectness: "Why don't you use those letters of hers you bought last year?"
Lily stood speechless under the shock of the interrogation. In the word_receding it she had conjectured, at most, an allusion to her suppose_nfluence over George Dorset; nor did the astonishing indelicacy of th_eference diminish the likelihood of Rosedale's resorting to it. But now sh_aw how far short of the mark she had fallen; and the surprise of learnin_hat he had discovered the secret of the letters left her, for the moment, unconscious of the special use to which he was in the act of putting hi_nowledge.
Her temporary loss of self-possession gave him time to press his point; and h_ent on quickly, as though to secure completer control of the situation: "Yo_ee I know where you stand—I know how completely she's in your power. Tha_ounds like stage-talk, don't it?—but there's a lot of truth in some of thos_ld gags; and I don't suppose you bought those letters simply because you'r_ollecting autographs."
She continued to look at him with a deepening bewilderment: her only clea_mpression resolved itself into a scared sense of his power.
"You're wondering how I found out about 'em?" he went on, answering her loo_ith a note of conscious pride. "Perhaps you've forgotten that I'm the owne_f the Benedick-but never mind about that now. Getting on to things is _ighty useful accomplishment in business, and I've simply extended it to m_rivate affairs. For this IS partly my affair, you see—at least, it depends o_ou to make it so. Let's look the situation straight in the eye. Mrs. Dorset, for reasons we needn't go into, did you a beastly bad turn last spring.
Everybody knows what Mrs. Dorset is, and her best friends wouldn't believe he_n oath where their own interests were concerned; but as long as they're ou_f the row it's much easier to follow her lead than to set themselves agains_t, and you've simply been sacrificed to their laziness and selfishness. Isn'_hat a pretty fair statement of the case?—Well, some people say you've got th_eatest kind of an answer in your hands: that George Dorset would marry yo_omorrow, if you'd tell him all you know, and give him the chance to show th_ady the door. I daresay he would; but you don't seem to care for tha_articular form of getting even, and, taking a purely business view of th_uestion, I think you're right. In a deal like that, nobody comes out wit_erfectly clean hands, and the only way for you to start fresh is to ge_ertha Dorset to back you up, instead of trying to fight her."
He paused long enough to draw breath, but not to give her time for th_xpression of her gathering resistance; and as he pressed on, expounding an_lucidating his idea with the directness of the man who has no doubts of hi_ause, she found the indignation gradually freezing on her lip, found hersel_eld fast in the grasp of his argument by the mere cold strength of it_resentation. There was no time now to wonder how he had heard of he_btaining the letters: all her world was dark outside the monstrous glare o_is scheme for using them. And it was not, after the first moment, the horro_f the idea that held her spell-bound, subdued to his will; it was rather it_ubtle affinity to her own inmost cravings. He would marry her tomorrow if sh_ould regain Bertha Dorset's friendship; and to induce the open resumption o_hat friendship, and the tacit retractation of all that had caused it_ithdrawal, she had only to put to the lady the latent menace contained in th_acket so miraculously delivered into her hands. Lily saw in a flash th_dvantage of this course over that which poor Dorset had pressed upon her. Th_ther plan depended for its success on the infliction of an open injury, whil_his reduced the transaction to a private understanding, of which no thir_erson need have the remotest hint. Put by Rosedale in terms of business-lik_ive-and-take, this understanding took on the harmless air of a mutua_ccommodation, like a transfer of property or a revision of boundary lines. I_ertainly simplified life to view it as a perpetual adjustment, a play o_arty politics, in which every concession had its recognized equivalent: Lily's tired mind was fascinated by this escape from fluctuating ethica_stimates into a region of concrete weights and measures.
Rosedale, as she listened, seemed to read in her silence not only a gradua_cquiescence in his plan, but a dangerously far- reaching perception of th_hances it offered; for as she continued to stand before him without speaking, he broke out, with a quick return upon himself: "You see how simple it is, don't you? Well, don't be carried away by the idea that it's TOO simple. I_sn't exactly as if you'd started in with a clean bill of health. Now we'r_alking let's call things by their right names, and clear the whole busines_p. You know well enough that Bertha Dorset couldn't have touched you if ther_adn't been—well—questions asked before—little points of interrogation, eh?
Bound to happen to a good-looking girl with stingy relatives, I suppose; anyhow, they DID happen, and she found the ground prepared for her. Do you se_here I'm coming out? You don't want these little questions cropping up again.
It's one thing to get Bertha Dorset into line—but what you want is to keep he_here. You can frighten her fast enough—but how are you going to keep he_rightened? By showing her that you're as powerful as she is. All the letter_n the world won't do that for you as you are now; but with a big backin_ehind you, you'll keep her just where you want her to be. That's MY share i_he business—that's what I'm offering you. You can't put the thing throug_ithout me—don't run away with any idea that you can. In six months you'd b_ack again among your old worries, or worse ones; and here I am, ready to lif_ou out of 'em tomorrow if you say so. DO you say so, Miss Lily?" he added, moving suddenly nearer.
The words, and the movement which accompanied them, combined to startle Lil_ut of the state of tranced subservience into which she had insensibl_lipped. Light comes in devious ways to the groping consciousness, and it cam_o her now through the disgusted perception that her would-be accomplic_ssumed, as a matter of course, the likelihood of her distrusting him an_erhaps trying to cheat him of his share of the spoils. This glimpse of hi_nner mind seemed to present the whole transaction in a new aspect, and sh_aw that the essential baseness of the act lay in its freedom from risk.
She drew back with a quick gesture of rejection, saying, in a voice that was _urprise to her own ears: "You are mistaken—quite mistaken—both in the fact_nd in what you infer from them."
Rosedale stared a moment, puzzled by her sudden dash in a direction s_ifferent from that toward which she had appeared to be letting him guide her.
"Now what on earth does that mean? I thought we understood each other!" h_xclaimed; and to her murmur of "Ah, we do NOW," he retorted with a sudde_urst of violence: "I suppose it's because the letters are to HIM, then? Well, I'll be damned if I see what thanks you've got from him!"