He loved at last, but had no time to exult just now, for he could not rejoice with Tommy while his dear one drooped in shame. Ah, so well he understood that she believed she had done the unpardonable thing in woman, and that while she thought so she must remain a broken column. It was a great task he saw before him--nothing less than to make her think that what she had done was not shameful, but exquisite; that she had not tarnished the flag of love, but glorified it. Artfulness, you will see, was needed; but, remember, he was now using all his arts in behalf of the woman he loved.
"You were so long in coming back to me, Grizel. The agony of it!" "Did it seem long?" She spoke in a trembling voice, hiding her face in him. She listened like one anxious to seize his answer as it left his heart.
"So long," he answered, "that it seemed to me we must be old when we met again. I saw a future without you stretching before me to the grave, and I turned and ran from it."
"That is how I felt," she whispered.
"You!" Tommy cried, in excellent amazement.
"What else could have made me come?"
"I thought it was pity that had brought you--pity for me, Grizel. I thought you had perhaps come back to be angry with me--"
"How could I be!" she cried.
"How could you help it, rather?" said he. "I was cruel, Grizel; I spoke like a fool as well as like a dastard. But it was only anxiety for Elspeth that made me do it. Dear one, be angry with me as often as you choose, and whether I deserve it or not; but don't go away from me; never send me from you again. Anything but that."
It was how she had felt again, and her hold on him tightened with sudden joy. So well he knew what that grip meant! He did not tell her that he had not loved her fully until now. He would have liked to tell her how true love had been born in him as he saw her stealing back to him, but it was surely best for her not to know that any transformation had been needed. "I don't say that I love you more now than ever before," he said carefully, "but one thing I do know: that I never admired you quite so much."
She looked up in surprise.
"I mean your character," he said determinedly. "I have always known how strong and noble it was, but I never quite thought you could do anything so beautiful as this."
"Beautiful!" She could only echo the word.
"Many women, even of the best," he told her, "would have resorted to little feminine ways of humbling such a blunderer as I have been: they would have spurned him for weeks; made him come to them on his knees; perhaps have thought that his brutality of a moment outweighed all his love. When I saw you coming to meet me half-way--oh, Grizel, tell me that you were doing that?"
"Yes, yes, yes!" she answered eagerly, so that she might not detain him a moment.
"When I saw you I realized that you were willing to forgive me; that you were coming to say so; that no thought of lowering me first was in your mind; that yours was a love above the littleness of ordinary people: and the adorableness of it filled me with a glorious joy; I saw in that moment what woman in her highest development is capable of, and that the noblest is the most womanly."
She said "Womanly?" with a little cry. It had always been such a sweet word to her, and she thought it could never be hers again!
"It is by watching you," he replied, "that I know the meaning of the word. I thought I knew long ago, but every day you give it a nobler meaning."
If she could have believed it! For a second or two she tried to believe it, and then she shook her head.
"How dear of you to think that of me!" she answered. She looked up at him with exquisite approval in her eyes. She had always felt that men should have high ideas about women.
"But it was not to save you pain that I came back," she said bravely. There was something pathetic in the way the truth had always to come out of her. "I did not think you wanted me to come back. I never expected you to be looking for me, and when I saw you doing it, my heart nearly stopped for gladness. I thought you were wearied of me, and would be annoyed when you saw me coming back. I said to myself, 'If I go back I shall be a disgrace to womanhood,' But I came; and now do you know what my heart is saying, and always will be saying? It is that pride and honour and self-respect are gone. And the terrible thing is that I don't seem to care; I, who used to value them so much, am willing to let them go if you don't send me away from you. Oh, if you can't love me any longer, let me still love you! That is what I came back to say."
"Grizel, Grizel!" he cried. It was she who was wielding the knife now.
"But it is true," she said.
"We could so easily pretend that it isn't." That was not what he said, though it was at his heart. He sat down, saying:
"This is a terrible blow, but better you should tell it to me than leave me to find it out." He was determined to save the flag for Grizel, though he had to try all the Tommy ways, one by one.
"Have I hurt you?" she asked anxiously. She could not bear to hurt him for a moment. "What did I say?"
"It amounts to this," he replied huskily: "you love me, but you wish you did not; that is what it means."
He expected her to be appalled by this; but she stood still, thinking it over. There was something pitiful in a Grizel grown undecided.
"Do I wish I did not?" she said helplessly. "I don't know. Perhaps that is what I do wish. Ah, but what are wishes! I know now that they don't matter at all."
"Yes, they matter," he assured her, in the voice of one looking upon death. "If you no longer want to love me, you will cease to do it soon enough." His manner changed to bitterness. "So don't be cast down, Grizel, for the day of your deliverance is at hand."
But again she disappointed him, and as the flag must be saved at whatever cost, he said.
"It has come already. I see you no longer love me as you did." Her arms rose in anguish; but he went on ruthlessly: "You will never persuade me that you do; I shall never believe it again."
I suppose it was a pitiable thing about Grizel--it was something he had discovered weeks ago and marvelled over--that nothing distressed her so much as the implication that she could love him less. She knew she could not; but that he should think it possible was the strangest woe to her. It seemed to her to be love's only tragedy. We have seen how difficult it was for Grizel to cry. When she said "How could you hurt your Grizel so!" she had not cried, nor when she knew that if she went back to him her self-respect must remain behind. But a painful tear came to her eyes when he said that she loved him less. It almost unmanned him, but he proceeded, for her good:
"I daresay you still care for me a little, as the rank and file of people love. What right had I, of all people, to expect a love so rare and beautiful as yours to last? It had to burn out, like a great fire, as such love always does. The experience of the world has proved it."
"Oh!" she cried, and her body was rocking. If he did not stop, she would weep herself to death.
"Yes, it seems sad," Tommy continued; "but if ever man knew that it served him right, I know it. And they maintain, the wiseacres who have analyzed love, that there is much to be said in favour of a calm affection. The glory has gone, but the material comforts are greater, and in the end--"
She sank upon the ground. He was bleeding for her, was Tommy. He went on his knees beside her, and it was terrible to him to feel that every part of her was alive with anguish. He called her many sweet names, and she listened for them between her sobs; but still she sobbed. He could bear it no longer; he cried, and called upon God to smite him. She did not look up, but her poor hands pulled him back. "You said I do not love you the same!" she moaned.
"Grizel!" he answered, as if in sad reproof; "it was not I who said that--it was you. I put into words only what you have been telling me for the last ten minutes."
"No, no," she cried. "Oh, how could I!"
He flung up his arms in despair. "Is this only pity for me, Grizel," he implored, looking into her face as if to learn his fate, "or is it love indeed?"
"You know it is love--you know!"
"But what kind of love?" he demanded fiercely. "Is it the same love that it was? Quick, tell me. I can't have less. If it is but a little less, you will kill me."
The first gleam of sunshine swept across her face (and oh, how he was looking for it!). "Do you want it to be the same--do you really want it? Oh, it is, it is!"
"And you would not cease to love me if you could?"
"No, no, no!" She would have come closer to him, but he held her back.
"One moment, Grizel," he said in a hard voice that filled her with apprehension. "There must be no second mistake. In saying that love, and love alone, brought you back, you are admitting, are you not, that you were talking wildly about loss of pride and honour? You did the loveliest thing you have ever done when you came back. If I were you, my character would be ruined from this hour--I should feel so proud of myself."
She smiled at that, and fondled his hand. "If you think so," she said, "all is well."
But he would not leave it thus. "You must think so also," he insisted; and when she still shook her head, "Then I am proud of your love no longer," said he, doggedly. "How proud of it I have been! A man cannot love a woman without reverencing her, without being touched to the quick a score of times a day by the revelations she gives of herself--revelations of such beauty and purity that he is abashed in her presence. The unspoken prayers he offers up to God at those times he gives to her to carry. And when such a one returns his love, he is proud indeed. To me you are the embodiment of all that is fair in woman, and it is love that has made you so, that has taken away your little imperfections--love for me. Ah, Grizel, I was so proud to think that somehow I had done it; but even now, in the moment when your love has manifested itself most splendidly, you are ashamed of it, and what I respect and reverence you for most are changes that have come about against your will. If your love makes you sorrowful, how can I be proud of it? Henceforth it will be my greatest curse."
She started up, wringing her hands. It was something to have got her to her feet.
"Surely," he said, like one puzzled as well as pained by her obtuseness, "you see clearly that it must be so. True love, as I conceive it, must be something passing all knowledge, irresistible; something not to be resented for its power, but worshipped for it; something not to fight against, but to glory in. And such is your love; but you give the proof of it with shame, because your ideal of love is a humdrum sort of affection. That is all you would like to feel, Grizel, and because you feel something deeper and nobler you say you have lost your self-respect. I am the man who has taken it from you. Can I ever be proud of your love again?"
He paused, overcome with emotion. "What it has been to me!" he cried. "I walked among my fellows as if I were a colossus. It inspired me at my work. I felt that there was nothing great I was not capable of, and all because Grizel loved me."
She stood trembling with delight at what he said, and with apprehension at what he seemed to threaten. His head being bent, he could not see her, and amid his grief he wondered a little what she was doing now.
"But you spoke"--she said it timidly, as if to refer to the matter at all was cruel of her--"you spoke as if I was disgracing you because I could not conceal my love. You said it was hard on you." She pressed her hands together. "Yes, that is what you said."
This was awkward for Tommy. "She believes I meant that," he cried hoarsely. "Grizel believes that of me! I have behaved since then as if that was what I meant, have I? I meant only that it would be hard on me if Elspeth learned of our love at the very moment when this man is treating her basely. I look as if I had meant something worse, do I? I know myself at last! Grizel has shown me what I am."
He covered his face with his hands. Strong man as he was, he could not conceal his agony.
"Don't!" she cried. "If I was wrong--"
"If you were wrong!"
"I was wrong! I know I was wrong. Somehow it was a mistake. I don't know how it arose. But you love me and you want me to love you still. That is all I know. I thought you did not, but you do. If you wanted me to come back----"
"If I wanted it!"
"I know you wanted it now, and I am no longer ashamed to have come. I am glad I came, and if you can still be proud of my love and respect me----"
"Oh, Grizel, if!"
"Then I have got back my pride and my self-respect again. I cannot reason about it, but they have come back again."
It was she who was trying to comfort him by this time, caressing his hair and his hands. But he would not be appeased at once; it was good for her to have something to do.
"You are sure you are happy again, Grizel? You are not pretending in order to please me?"
"But your eyes are still wet."
"That is because I have hurt you so. Oh, how happy I should be if I could see you smile again!"
"How I would smile if I saw you looking happy!"
"Then smile at once, sir," she could say presently, "for see how happy I am looking." And as she beamed on him once more he smiled as well as he was able to. Grizel loved him so much that she actually knew when that face of his was smiling, and soon she was saying gaily to his eyes: "Oh, silly eyes that won't sparkle, what is the use of you?" and she pressed her own upon them; and to his mouth she said: "Mouth that does not know how to laugh--poor, tragic mouth!" He let her do nearly all the talking. She sat there crooning over him as if he were her child.
And so the flag was saved. He begged her to let him tell their little world of his love for her, and especially was he eager to go straight with it to the doctor. But she would not have this. "David and Elspeth shall know in good time," she said, very nobly. "I am sure they are fond of each other, and they shall know of our happiness on the day when they tell us of their own." And until that great day came she was not to look upon herself as engaged to Tommy, and he must never kiss her again until they were engaged. I think it was a pleasure to her to insist on this. It was her punishment to herself for ever having doubted Tommy.
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