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Chapter 7

  • 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!"