Down at Tilgate, meanwhile, Elma Clifford had met more than once with Cyri_aring at friends' houses around, for ever since the accident, Society ha_ade up its mind that Elma ought to marry her companion in the tunnel; and,
when Society once makes up its mind on a question of this sort, why, it doe_ts level best in the long run to insure the fulfilment of its own prediction.
Wherever Elma had met her painter, however, during those few short weeks, sh_ad seen him only before the quizzing eyes of all the world; and though sh_dmitted to herself that she liked him very much, she was nevertheless s_horoughly frightened by her own performance after the Holkers' party that sh_lmost avoided him, in spite of officious friends—partly, it is true, from _ure feeling of maidenly shame, but partly also from a deeper-seated an_rofoundly moral belief that with this fierce mad taint upon her as sh_aturally thought, it would be nothing short of wrong in her even to marry.
She couldn't meet Cyril now without thinking at once of that irresistibl_mpulse which had seized her by the throat, as it were, and bent her to it_ild will in her own room after their interview at the Holkers'; and th_hought did far more than bring a deep blush into her rich brown cheek—it mad_er feel most acutely she must never dream of burdening him with that terribl_ncertainty and all it might enclose in it of sinister import.
For Elma felt sure she was mad that night. And, if so, oh, how could sh_oison Cyril Waring's life with so unspeakable an inheritance for himself an_is children?
She didn't know, what any psychologist might at once have told her, that n_ne with the fatal taint of madness in her blood could ever even have though_f that righteous self-denial. Such scruples have no place in the selfis_nsane temperament; they belong only to the highest and purest types of mora_ature.
One morning, however, a few weeks later, Elma had strolled off by herself int_hetwood Forest, without any intention of going anywhere in particular, sav_or a solitary walk, when suddenly, a turn round the corner of a devious pat_rought her face to face all at once with a piece of white canvas, stretche_pposite her on an easel; at the other side of which, to her profound dismay,
an artist in a grey tweed suit was busily working.
The artist, as it happened, didn't see her at once, for the canvas stretche_etween them, shutting her out from his eyes, and Elma's light footstep on th_ossy ground hadn't aroused his attention. So the girl's first impulse was t_etrace her way unobtrusively without exchanging a word, and retire round th_orner again, before Cyril could recognise her. But somehow, when she came t_ry, she couldn't. Her feet refused point blank to obey her will. And thi_ime, in her own heart, she knew very well why. For there in the background,
coiled up against the dense wall of rock and fern, Sardanapalus lay knotted i_leepy folds, with his great ringed back shining blue in the sunlight tha_truggled in round patches through the shimmering foliage. More consciousl_ow than even in the train, the beautiful deadly creature seemed to fascinat_lma and bind her to the spot. For a moment she hesitated, unable to resis_he strange, inexplicable attraction that ran in her blood. That brie_nterval settled it. Even as she paused, Cyril glanced round at the snake t_ote the passing effect of a gleam of light that fell slantwise through th_eaves to dapple his spotty back—and caught sight of Elma. The poor girl gav_ start. It was too late now to retreat. She stood there rooted.
Cyril moved forward to meet her with a frankly outstretched hand. "Goo_orning, Miss Clifford," he said, in his cheery manly voice. "So you'v_ropped down by accident upon my lair here, have you? Well, I'm glad you'v_appened to pass by to-day, for this, do you know, is my very last morning.
I'm putting the finishing touches upon my picture now before I take it back t_own. I go away to-morrow, perhaps to North Wales, perhaps to Scotland."
Elma trembled a little at those words, in spite of resolution; for though sh_ould never, never, never marry him, it was nice, of course, to feel he wa_ear at hand, and to have the chance of seeing him, and avoiding him as far a_ossible, on other people's lawns at garden parties. She trembled and turne_ale. She could never MARRY him, to be sure; but then she could never marr_ny one else either; and that being so, she liked to SEE him now and again, o_eutral ground, as it were, and to know he was somewhere that she could mee_im occasionally. Wales and Scotland are so distant from Surrey. Elma showe_n her face at once that she thought them both unpleasantly remote fro_raighton, Tilgate.
With timid and shrinking steps, she came in front of the picture, and gazed a_t in detail long and attentively. Never before did she know how fond she wa_f art.
"It's beautiful," she said, after a pause; "I like it immensely. That moss i_o soft, and the ferns are so delicate. And how lovely that patch of ric_olden light is on Sardanapalus's shoulder."
The painter stepped back a pace or two and examined his own handicraft, wit_is head on one side, in a very critical attitude. "I don't know that I'_uite satisfied after all with the colour-scheme," he said, glancing askanc_t Elma. "I fancy it's, perhaps, just a trifle too green. It looks all right,
of course, out here in the open; but the question is, when it's hung in th_cademy, surrounded by warm reds, and purples, and blues, won't it look b_omparison much too cabbagey and too grassy?"
Elma drew a deep breath.
"Oh, Mr. Waring," she cried, in a deprecating tone, holding her breath fo_we.
It pained her that anybody—even Cyril himself—should speak so lightly about s_eautiful a picture.
"Then you like it?" Cyril asked, turning round to her full face and frontin_er as she stood there, all beautiful blushes through her creamy white skin.
"Like it? I love it," Elma answered enthusiastically. "Apart from its bein_ours, I think it simply beautiful."
"And you like ME, too, then?" the painter asked, once more, making a sudde_ash at the question that was nearest to both their hearts, after all, tha_oment. He was going away to-morrow, and this was a last opportunity. Wh_ould tell how soon somebody might come up through the woods and interrup_heir interview? He must make the best use of his time. He must make haste t_sk her.
Elma let her eyes drop, and her heart beat hard. She laid her hand upon th_asel to steady herself as she answered slowly, "You know I like you, Mr.
Waring; I like you very, very much indeed. You were so kind to me in th_unnel. And I felt your kindness. You could see that day I was—very, ver_rateful to you."
"When I asked you if you liked my picture, Elma," the young man sai_eproachfully, taking her other hand in his, and looking straight into he_yes, "you said, 'Like it? I love it.' But when I ask you if you like me—as_ou if you will take me—you only say you're very, very grateful."
Elma let him take her hand, all trembling, in his. She let him call her by he_ame. She let him lean forward and gaze at her, lover-like. Her heart throbbe_igh. She couldn't refuse him. She knew she loved him. But to marry him—oh no.
That was quite another thing. There duty interposed. It would be cruel,
unworthy, disgraceful, wicked.
She drew herself back a little with maidenly dignity, as she answered low,
"Mr. Waring, we two saw into one another's hearts so deep in the tunnel tha_ay we spent together, that it would be foolish for us now to make fals_arriers between us. I'll tell you the plain truth." She trembled like a_spen-leaf. "I love you, I think; but I can never marry you."
She said it so simply, yet with such an earnestness of despair, that Cyri_new with a pang she really meant it.
"Why not?" he cried eagerly, raising her hand to his lips, and kissing it wit_ervour. "If you tell me you love me, Elma, all the rest must come. Say that,
and you say all. So long as I've gained your heart, I don't care fo_nything."
Elma drew her hand away with stately reserve. "I mean it, Mr. Waring," sh_aid slowly, sitting down on the bank, and gasping a little for air, just a_he had done in the tunnel. "I really mean it. I LIKED you in the train tha_ay; I was GRATEFUL to you in the accident; I knew I LOVED you the afternoo_e met at the Holkers'. There, I've told you that plainly—more plainly than _hought I ever could tell it to any man on earth—because we knew one anothe_o well when we thought we were dying side by side, and because—because I ca_ee you really love me…. Well, it can never be. I can never marry you."
She gazed at him wistfully. Cyril sat down by her side, and talked it all ove_ith her from a hundred points of view. He pressed his suit hard, till Elm_elt, if words could win, her painter would have won her. But she couldn'_ield, she said for HIS sake a thousand times more than for her own, she mus_ever marry. As the man grew more earnest the girl in turn grew more frank an_onfiding. She could never marry HIM, to be sure, she said fervently, but the_he could never, never, never marry any one else. If she married at all sh_ould marry Cyril. He took her hand again. Without one shadow of resistanc_he let him take it and hold it. Yes, yes, he might love her, if he liked, n_arm at all in that; and SHE, she would always, always love him. All her lif_hrough, she cried, letting her passionate southern nature get the better o_er at last, she would love him every hour of every day in the year, and lov_im only. But she could never marry him. Why, she must never say. It was n_se his trying to read her secret. He must never find it out; never, never,
never. But she, for her part, could never forget it.
So Cyril, eagerly pressing his suit with every art he knew, was forced in th_nd to content himself with that scanty measure. She would love him, she woul_rite to him, even; but she would never marry him.
At last the time came when they must really part, or she would be late fo_unch, and mamma would know all; mamma would read everything. He looked he_istfully in the face. Elma held out her lips, obedient to that mute demand,
with remorseful blush of maidenly shame on her cheek. "Only once," sh_urmured. "Just to seal our compact. For the first and last time. You go awa_o-morrow."
"That was BEFORE you said you loved me," Cyril cried with delight, emboldene_y success. "Mayn't I stay on now, just one little week longer?"
At the proposal, Elma drew back her face in haste before he had time to kis_t, and answered, in a very serious voice—
"Oh no, don't ask me. After this, I daren't stand the strain of seeing yo_gain—at least not just now—not so very, very soon. Please, please, don't as_e. Go to-morrow, as you said. If you don't, I can't let you," she blushed,
and held out her blushing face once more. "Only if you promise me to go to-
morrow, mind," she said, with a half-coquettish, half-tearful smile at him.
Cyril hesitated for a second. He was inclined to temporize. "Those are ver_ard terms," he said. Then impulse proved too much for him. He bent forward,
and pressed his lips just once on that olive-brown cheek. "But I may come bac_gain very soon," he murmured, pushing home his advantage.
Elma seized his hand in hers, wrung it hard and tremulously, and then turne_nd ran like a frightened fawn, without pausing to look back, down the pat_omeward. Yet she whispered one broken sentence through her tears, for al_hat, before she went.
"I shall love you always; but spare me, spare me."
And Cyril was left behind by himself in the wood, completely mystified.