Table of Contents

+ Add to Library

Previous Next

Chapter 15 THE PATH OF DUTY.

  • 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.