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Derek Pruyn was guilty of an injustice to the Marquis de Bienville in supposing he would make the incident at Lakefield a topic of conversation among his friends. His sense of honor alone would have kept him from betraying what might be looked upon as an involuntary confidence, even if it had not better suited his purposes to intrust the matter, in the form of an amusing anecdote, told under the seal of secrecy, to Mrs. Bayford. In her hands it was like invested capital, adding to itself, while he did nothing at all. Months of insinuation on his part would have failed to achieve the result that she brought about in a few days' time, with no more effort than a rose makes in shedding perfume.
Before Derek had been able to recover from the feeling of having passed through a strange waking dream, before Dorothea and he had resumed the ordinary tenor of their life together, before he had seen Diane again, he was given to understand that the little scene on Bienville's arrival at the Bay Tree Inn was familiar matter in the offices, banks, and clubs he most frequented. The intelligence was conveyed by a score of trivial signs, suggestive, satirical, or over-familiar, which he would not have perceived in days gone by, but to which he had grown sensitive. It was clear that the story gained piquancy from its contrast with the staidness of his life; and his most intimate friends permitted themselves a little covert "chaff" with him on the event. He was not of a nature to resent this raillery on his own account; it was serious to him only because it touched Diane.
For her the matter was so grave that he exhausted his ingenuity in devising means for her protection. He refrained from even seeing her until he could go with some ultimatum before which she should be obliged to yield. An unsuccessful appeal to her, he judged, would be worse than none at all; and until he discovered arguments which she could not controvert he decided to hold his peace.
Action of some sort became imperative when he found that Miss Lucilla Van Tromp had heard the story and drawn from it what seemed to her the obvious conclusion.
"I should never have believed it," she declared, tearfully, "if you hadn't admitted it yourself. I told Mrs. Bayford that nothing but your own words would convince me that any such scene had taken place."
"Allowing that it did, isn't it conceivable that it might have had an honorable motive?"
"Then, what is it? If you could tell me that--"
"I could tell you easily enough if there weren't other considerations involved. I should think that in the circumstances you could trust me."
"Nobody else does, Derek."
"Whom do you mean by nobody else?--Mrs. Bayford?"
"Oh, she's not the only one. If your men friends don't believe in you--"
"They believe in me, all right; don't you worry about that."
"They may believe in you as men believe in one another; but it isn't the way I believe in people."
"I know how you believe in people if ill-natured women would let you alone. You wouldn't mistrust a thief if you saw him stealing your watch from your pocket."
"That's not true, Derek. I can be as suspicious as any one when I like."
"But don't you see that your suspicion doesn't only light, on me? It strikes Diane."
"That's just it."
"Lucilla! he cried, reproachfully.
"Well, Derek, you know how loyal I've been to her. It's been harder, too, than you've ever been aware of; for I haven't told you--I wouldn't tell you--one-half the things that people have hinted to me during the past two years."
"Yes; but who? A lot of jealous women--"
"It's no use saying that, Derek; because your own actions contradict you. Why did Diane leave your house, if it wasn't that you believed--?"
"Don't." He raised his hand to his face, as if protecting himself from a blow.
"I wouldn't," she cried, "if you didn't make me. I say it only in self-defence. After all, you can only accuse me of what you've done yourself. Diane made me think at first that you had misjudged her; but I see now that if she had been a good woman you wouldn't have sent her away."
"I didn't send her away. She went."
"Yes, Derek; but why?"
"That has nothing to do with the question under discussion."
"On the contrary, it has everything to do with it. It all belongs together. I've loved Diane, and defended her; but I've come to the point where I can't do it any longer. After what's happened--"
"But, I tell you, what's happened is nothing! If it was only right for me to explain it to you, as I shall explain it to you some day, you'd find you owed her a debt that you never could repay."
"Very well! I won't dispute it. It still doesn't affect the main point at issue. Can you yourself, Derek, honestly and truthfully affirm that you look upon Diane as a good woman, in the sense that is usually attached to the words?"
"I can honestly and truthfully affirm that I look upon her as one of the best women in the world."
"That isn't the point. Louise de la Valliere became one of the best women in the world; but there are some other things that might be said of her. But I'll not argue; I'll not insist. Since you think I'm wrong, I'll take your own word for it, Derek. Just tell me once, tell me without quibble and on your honor as my cousin and a gentleman, that you believe Diane to be--what I've supposed her to be hitherto, and what you know very well I mean, and I'll not doubt it further."
For a moment he stood speechless, trying to formulate the lie he could utter most boldly, until he was struck with the double thought that to defend Diane's honor with a falsehood would be to defame it further, while a lie to this pure, trusting, virginal spirit would be a crime.
"Tell me, Derek," she insisted; "tell me, and I'll believe you."
He retreated a pace or two, as if trying to get out of her presence.
"I'm listening, Derek; go on; I'm willing to take your word."
"Then I repeat," he said, weakly, "that I believe her, I know her, to be one of the best women in the world."
"Like Louise de la Valliere?"
"Yes," he shouted, maddened to the retort, "like Louise de la Valliere! And what then?" He stood as if demanding a reply. "Nothing. I have no more to say."
"Then I have; and I'll ask you to listen." He drew near to her again and spoke slowly. "There were doubtless many good women in Jerusalem in the time of Herod and Pilate and Christ; but not the least held in honor among us to-day is--the Magdalen. That's one thing; and here's something more. There is joy, so we are told, in the presence of the angels of God--plenty of it, let us hope!--but it isn't over the ninety-and-nine just persons who need no repentance, so much as over the one poor, deserted, lonely sinner that repenteth--that repenteth, Lucilla, do you hear?-and you know whom I mean."
With this as his confession of faith he left her, to go in search of Diane. He had formed the ultimatum before which, as he believed, she should find herself obliged to surrender.
It was a day on which Diane's mood was one of comparative peace. She was engrossed in an occupation which at once soothed her spirits and appealed to her taste. Madame Cauchat, the land-lady, bewailing the continued illness of her lingere, Diane had begged to be allowed to take charge of the linen-room of the hotel, not merely as a means of earning a living, but because she delighted in such work. Methodical in her habits and nimble with her needle, the neatness, smoothness, and purity of piles of white damask stirred all those house-wifely, home-keeping instincts which are so large a part of every Frenchwoman's nature. Her fingers busy with the quiet, delicate task of mending, her mind could dwell with the greater content on such subjects as she had for satisfaction.
They were more numerous than they had been for a long time past. The meeting at Lakefield had changed her mental attitude toward Derek Pruyn, taking a large part of the pain out of her thoughts of him, as well as out of his thoughts of her. She had avoided seeing him after that one night, and she had heard nothing from him since; but she knew it was impossible for him to go on thinking of her altogether harshly. She had been useful to him; she had saved Dorothea from a great mistake; she had done it in such a way that no hint of the escapade was likely to become known outside of the few who had taken part in it; she had put herself in a relation toward him which, as a final one, was much to be preferred to that which had existed before. She could therefore pass out of his life more satisfied than she had dared hope to be with the effect that she had had upon it. As she stitched she sighed to herself with a certain comfort, when, glancing up, she saw him standing at the door. The nature of her thoughts, coupled with his sudden appearance, drew to her lips a quiet smile.
"They shouldn't have shown you in here," she protested, gently, letting her work fall to her lap, but not rising from her place.
"I insisted," he explained, briefly, from the threshold.
"You can come in," she smiled, as he continued to stand in the doorway. "You can even sit down." She pointed to a chair, not far from her own, going on again with her stitching, so as to avoid the necessity for further greeting. "I suppose you wonder what I'm doing," she pursued, when he had seated himself.
"I'm not wondering at that so much as whether you ought to be doing it."
"I can relieve your mind on that score. It's a case, too, in which duty and pleasure jump together; for the delight of handling beautiful linen is like nothing else in the world."
"It seems to me like servants' work," he said, bluntly.
"Possibly; but I can do servants' work at a pinch--especially when I like it."
"I don't," he declared.
"But then you don't have to do it."
"I mean that I don't like it for you."
"Even so, you wouldn't forbid my doing it, would you?"
"I wish I had the right to. I've come here this afternoon to ask you again if you won't give it to me."
For a few minutes she stitched in silence. When she spoke it was without stopping her work or lifting her head.
"I'm sorry that you should raise that question again. I thought it was settled."
"Supposing it was, it can be reopened--if there's a reason."
"But there is none."
"That's all you know about it. There's a very important reason."
"Do you mean anything that Monsieur de Bienville may have said?"
"That wouldn't be a reason--for me."
"But you don't know--"
"I can imagine. Monsieur de Bienville has already done me all the harm he can. It's beyond his power to hurt me any more."
"But, Diane, you don't know what you're saying. You don't know what he's doing. He's--he's--I hardly know how to put it--He's destroying your reputation."
She glanced up with a smile, ceasing for an instant to sew.
"You mean, he's destroying what's left of it. Well, he's welcome! There was so little of it--"
"For God's sake, Diane, don't say that; it breaks my heart. You must consider the position that you put me in. After you've rendered me one the greatest services one person can do another, do you think I can sit quietly by while you are being robbed of the dearest thing in life, just because you did it?"
"I should be sorry to think the opinion other people hold of me to be the dearest thing in life; but, even if it were, I'd willingly give it up for--Dorothea."
"It isn't for Dorothea; it's for me."
"Well, wouldn't you let me do it--for you? I'm not of much use in the world, but it would make me a little happier to think I could do any one a good turn without being promised a reward."
"A reward! Oh, Diane!"
"It's what you're offering me, isn't it? If it hadn't been for--for--the great service you speak about, you wouldn't he here, asking me again to be your wife."
"That's your way of putting it, but I'll put it in mine. If it hadn't been for the magnitude of the sacrifice you're willing to make for me, I shouldn't have dared to hope that you loved me. When all pretexts and secondary causes have been considered and thrust aside, that's why I'm here, and for no other reason whatever. If you love me," he continued, "why should you hesitate any longer? If you love me, why seek for reasons to justify the simple prompting of your heart? What have you and I got to do with other people's opinions? When there's a plain, straightforward course before us, why not go right on and follow it?"
She raised her eyes for one brief glance.
The words were spoken quietly, but they startled him.
"Yes, Diane; I do forget. Rather, there's nothing left for me to remember. I know what you'd have me recall. I'll speak of it this once more, to be silent on the subject forever. I want you to forgive me. I want to tell you that I, too, have repented."
"Repented of what?"
"Of the wrong I've done you. I believe your soul to be as white as all this whiteness around you."
"Then," she continued, questioning gently, "you've changed your point of view during the last six months?"
"I have. You charged me then with being willing to come down to your level; now I'm asking you to let me climb up to it. I see that I was a self-righteous Pharisee, and that the true man is he who can smite his breast and say, God be merciful to me a sinner!"
"A sinner--like me."
"I don't want to be led into further explanations," he said, suddenly on his guard against her insinuations. "You and I have said too much to each other not to be able to be frank. Now, I've been frank enough. You've understood what I've felt at other times; you understand what I feel to-day. Why draw me out, to make me speak more plainly?"
"I am not drawing you out," she declared. "If I ask you a question or two, it was to show you that not even the woman that you take me for--not even the forgiven penitent--could be a good wife for you. I can't marry you, Mr. Pruyn. I must beg you to let that answer be decisive."
There was decision in the way in which she folded her work and smoothed the white brocaded surface in her lap. There was decision, too, in the quickness with which he rose and stood looking down at her. For a second she expected him to turn from her, as he had turned once before, and leave her with no explanation beyond a few laconic words. She held her breath while she awaited them.
"Then that means," he said, at last, "that you put me in the position of taking all, while you give all."
"I don't put you in any position whatever. The circumstances are not of my making. They are as much beyond my control as they are beyond yours."
"They're not wholly beyond mine. If there are some things I can't do, there are some I can prevent."
His tone alarmed her, and she struggled to her feet.
"You're willing to make me a great sacrifice; but at least I can refuse to accept it."
"What do you mean?" She moved slightly back from him, behind the protection of one of the tables piled breast-high with its white load.
"You're willing to lose for me the last vestige of your good name--"
"I don't care anything about that," she said, hurriedly.
"But I do. I won't let you."
"How can you stop me?" she asked, staring at him with large, frightened eyes.
"I shall tell Dorothea's part in the story."
"You'd--?" she began, with a questioning cry.
"All who care to hear it, shall. They shall know it from its beginning to its end. They shall lose no detail of her folly or of your wisdom."
"You would sacrifice your child like that?"
"Yes, like that. Neither she nor I can remain so indebted to any one, as you would have us be to you."
"Not to so terrible an extent. If it's a choice between your good name and hers--hers must go. She'd agree with me herself. She wouldn't hesitate for one single fraction of an instant--if she knew. She'd be grateful to you, as I am; but she couldn't profit by your magnanimity."
"So that the alternative you offer me is this: I can protect myself by sacrificing Dorothea, or I can marry you, and Dorothea will be saved."
"I shouldn't express it in just those words, but it's something like it."
"Then I'll marry you. You give me a choice of evils, and I take the least."
"Oh! Then to marry me would be--an evil?"
"What else do you make it? You'll admit that it's a little difficult to keep pace with you. You come to me one day accusing me of sin, and on another announcing my contrition, while on the third you may be in some entirely different mood about me."
"You can easily render me ridiculous. That's due to my awkwardness of expression and not to anything wrong in the way I feel."
"Oh, but isn't it out of the heart that the mouth speaketh? I think so. You've advanced some excellent reasons why I should become your wife, and I can see that you're quite capable of believing them. At one time it was because I needed a home, at another because I needed protection, while to-day, I understand, it is because I love you."
"Is this fair?"
"I dare say you think it isn't; but then you haven't been tried and judged half a dozen times, unheard, as I've been. I'll confess that you've shown the most wonderful ingenuity in trying to get me into a position where I should be obliged to marry you, whether I would or not; and now you've succeeded. Whether the game is worth the candle or not is for you to judge; my part is limited to saying that you've won. I'm ready to marry you as soon as you tell me when."
"To save Dorothea?"
"To save Dorothea."
"And for no other reason?"
"For no other reason."
"Then, of course, I can't keep you to your word."
"You can't release me from it except on one condition."
"That Dorothea's secret shall be kept."
"I must use my own judgment about that."
"On the contrary, you must use mine. You've made me a proposal which I'm ready to accept. As a man of honor you must hold to it--or be silent."
"Possibly," he admitted, on reflection. "I shall have to think it over. But in that case we'd be just where we were--"
"Yes; just where we were."
"And you'd be without help or protection. That's the thought I can't endure, Diane. Try to be just to me. If I make mistakes, if I flounder about, if I say things that offend you, it's because I can't rest while you're exposed to danger. Alone, as you are, in this great city, surrounded by people who are not your friends, a prey to criticism and misapprehension, when it is no worse, it's as if I saw you flung into the arena among the beasts. Can you wonder that I want to stand by you? Can you be surprised if I demand the privilege of clasping you in my arms and saying to the world, This is my wife? When Christian women were thrown to the lions there was once a heathen husband who leaped into the ring, to die at his wife's side, because he could do no more. That's my impulse--only I could save you from the lions. I couldn't protect you against everything, perhaps, but I could against the worst. I know I'm stupid; I know I'm dull. When I come near you, I'm like the clown who touches some exquisite tissue, spun of azure; but I'm like the clown who would fight for his treasure, and defend it from sacrilegious hands, and spend his last drop of blood to keep it pure. It's to be put in a position where I can't do that that I find hard. It's to see you so defenceless--"
"But I'm not defenceless."
"Why not? Whom have you? Nobody--nobody in this world but me."
"Oh yes, I have."
She smiled faintly at the fierceness of his brief question.
"It's no one to whom you need feel any opposition, even though it's some one who can do for me what you cannot."
"What I cannot?"
"What you cannot; what no man can. Asperges me hyssopo, et mundabor. Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean. Derek, He has purged me with hyssop, even though it has not been in the way you think. With the hyssop of what I've had to suffer He has purged me from so many things that now I see I can safely commit my cause to Him."
"So that you don't need me?"
She looked at him in silence before she replied:
"Not for defence."
"Nor for anything else?"
She tried to speak, but her voice failed her.
"Nor for anything else?" he asked again.
Her voice was faint, her head sank, her body trembled, but she forced the one word, "No."
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