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During the succeeding week Derek Pruyn, having practically announced an engagement which did not exist, found himself in a somewhat ludicrous situation. Too proud to extort a promise of secrecy from Mrs. Bayford, he knew the value of his indiscretion--if indiscretion it were--to any purveyor of tea-table gossip; and while Diane and he remained in the same relative positions he was sure it was being bruited about, with his own authority, that they were to become man and wife. It did not diminish the absurdity of the situation that he was debarred from proposing and settling the affair at once by the grotesque fact that he actually had not time.
There was certainly little opportunity for lovemaking in those hurried days of preparing for his long absence in South America. He was often obliged to leave home by eight in the morning, rarely returning except to go wearily to bed. Though nothing had been said to him, he had more than one reason for suspecting that Mrs. Bayford was at work; and, at the odd minutes when he saw Diane, it seemed to him as if her clearness of look was extinguished by an expression of perplexity.
He would have reproached himself more keenly for his lack of energy in overcoming obstacles had it not been for the fact that, owing to their peculiar position as members of one household, and that household his, he was planning to ask Diane to become his wife on that occasion when he would also be bidding her adieu. She would thus be spared the difficulties of a trying situation, while she would have the season of his absence in which to adjust her mind to the revolution in her life. He resolved to adhere to this intention, the more especially as a small family dinner at Gramercy Park, from which he was to go directly to his steamer, would give him the exact combination of circumstances he desired.
When, after dinner, Miss Lucilla's engineering of the company allowed him to find himself alone with Diane in the library, he made her sit down by the fireside, while he stood, his arm resting on the mantelpiece, as on the afternoon of their first serious interview, over a year before. As on that other occasion, so, too, on this, she sat erect, silent, expectant, waiting for him to speak. What was coming she did not know; but she felt once more his commanding dominance, with its power to ordain, prescribe, and regulate the conditions of her life.
"Doesn't this make you think of--our first long talk together?"
"I often think of it," Diane said, faintly, trying to assume that they were entering on an ordinary conversation. "As you didn't agree with me--"
"I do now," he said, quickly. "I see you were right, in everything. I want to thank you for what you've done for Dorothea--and for me. I didn't dream, a year ago, that the change in both of us could be so great."
"Dorothea was a sweet little girl, to begin with--"
"Yes; but I don't want to talk about that now. She will express her own sense of gratitude; but in the mean while I want to tell you mine. You will understand something of its extent when I say that I ask you to be my wife."
Diane neither spoke nor looked at him. The only sign she gave of having heard him was a slight bowing of the head, as of one who accepts a decree. The first few instants' stillness had the ineffable quality which might spring from the abolition of time when bliss becomes eternity. There was a space, not to be reckoned by any terrestrial counting, during which each heart was caught up into wonderful spheres of emotion--on his side the relief of having spoken, on hers the joy of having heard; and though it passed swiftly it was long enough to give to both the vision of a new heaven and a new earth. It was a vision that never faded again from the inward sight of either, though the mists of mortal error began creeping over it at once.
"If I take you by surprise--" he began, as he felt the clouds of reality closing round him.
"No," she broke in, still without looking up at him; "I heard you intended to ask me."
Though he made a little uneasy movement, he knew that this was precisely what she might have been expected to say.
"I thought you had possibly heard that," he said, in her own tone of quiet frankness, "and I want to explain to you that what happened was an accident."
"So I imagined."
"If I spoke of you as my future wife, I must ask you to believe that it was in the way of neither ill-timed jest nor foolish boast."
"You needn't assure me of that, because I could never have thought so. If I want assurance at all it's on other points."
"If I can explain them--"
"I can almost explain them myself. What I require is rather in the way of corroboration. Wasn't it much as the knight of old threw the mantle of his protection over the shoulders of a distressed damsel?"
"I know what you mean; but I don't admit the justice of the simile."
"But if you did admit it, wouldn't it be something like what actually occurred?"
"You're putting questions to me," he said, smiling down at her; "but you haven't answered mine."
"I must beg leave to point out," she smiled, in return, "that you haven't asked me one. You've only stated a fact--or what I presume to be a fact. But before we can discuss it I ought to be possessed of certain information; and you've put me in a position where I have a right to demand it."
After brief reflection Derek admitted that. As nearly as he could recall the incident at Mrs. Bayford's dinner-party, he recounted it.
"You see," he explained, in summing up, "that, as a snobbish person, she could hardly be expected to forgive you for forgetting her, when she had been introduced to you four times in a season. She not unnaturally fancied you forgot her on purpose, so to speak--"
"I suppose I did," she murmured, penitently.
"What?" he asked, with sudden curiosity. "Would you--"
"I wouldn't now. I used to then. Everybody did it, when people were introduced to us whom we didn't want to know. I've done it when it wasn't necessary even from that point of view--out of a kind of sport, a kind of wantonness. I've really forgotten about Mrs. Bayford now-- everything except her face--but I dare say I remembered perfectly well, at the time. It would have been nothing unusual if I had."
"In that case," he said, slowly, "you can't be surprised--"
"I'm not," she hastened to say. "If Mrs. Bayford retaliates, now that she has the power, she's within her right--a right which scarcely any woman would forego. It was perfectly natural for Mrs. Bayford to speak ill of me; and it was equally natural for you to spring to my defence. You'd have sprung to the defence of any one--"
"No, no," he interjected, hurriedly.
"Of any one whom you--respected, as I hope you respect me. You've offered me," she went on, her eyes filling with sudden tears--"you've offered me the utmost protection a man can give a woman. To tell you how deeply I'm touched, how sincerely I'm grateful, is beyond my power; but you must see that I can't avail myself of your kindness. Your very willingness to repeat at leisure what you said in haste makes it the more necessary that I shouldn't take advantage of your chivalry."
"Would that be your only reason for hesitating to become my wife?"
The deep, vibrant note that came into his voice sent a tremor through her frame, and she looked about her for support. He himself offered it by taking both her hands in his. She allowed him to hold them for a second before withdrawing behind the intrenched position afforded by the huge chair from which she had risen, and on the back of which she now leaned.
"It's the reason that looms largest," she replied--"so large as to put all other reasons out of consideration."
"Then you're entirely mistaken," he declared, coming forward in such a way that only the chair stood between them. "It's true that at Mrs. Bayford's provocation I spoke in haste, but it was only to utter the resolution I had taken plenty of time to form. If I were to tell you how much time, you'd be inclined to scorn me for my delay. But the truth is I'm no longer a very young man; in comparison with you I'm not young at all. You yourself, as a woman of the world, must readily understand that at my age, and in my position, prudence is as honorable an element in the offer I am making you as romance would be in a boy's. I make no apology for being prudent. I state the fact that I've been so only that you may know that I've tried to look at this question from every point of view--Dorothea's as well as yours and mine. I took my time about it, and long before I warned Mrs. Bayford that she was speaking of one who was dear to me, my mind was made up. With such hopes as I had at heart it would have been wrong to have allowed her to go on without a word of warning."
"I can see that it would have that aspect."
"Then, if you can see that, you must see that I speak to you now in all sincerity. My desire isn't new. I can truthfully say that, since the first day I saw you, your eyes and voice have haunted me, and the longing to be near you has never been absent from my heart. I'll be quite frank with you and say that, before you came here, it was my avowed intention not to marry again. Now I have no desire on earth--my child apart--so strong as to win you for my wife. The year we've spent under the same roof must have given you some idea of the man whom you'd be marrying; and I think I can promise you that with your help he would be a better man than in the past. Won't you say that I may hope for it?"
With arms supported by the high back of the chair and cheek on her clasped hands, she gazed away into the dimness of the room, as if waiting for him to continue; but during the silence that ensued it seemed to Derek as if a shadow crossed her features, while her bright look died out in a kind of wistfulness. She had, perhaps, been hoping for a word he had not spoken--a word whose absence he had only covered up by phrases.
"Well? Have you nothing to say to me?" he asked, when some minutes had gone by.
"Of what you say about prudence. I like it. It seems to me I ought to be prudent, too."
"Undoubtedly," he agreed, in the dry tone of one who assents to what he finds slightly disagreeable.
"I mean," she said, quickly, "that I ought to be prudent for you--for us all. There are a great many things to be thought of, things which people of our age ought not to let pass unconsidered. Men think the way through difficulties, while women feel it. I'm afraid I must ask for time to get my instincts into play."
"Do you mean that you can't give me an answer to-night--before I go on this long journey?"
"I couldn't give you an affirmative one."
"But you could say, No?"
"If you pressed the matter--if you insisted--that's what I should have to say."
"That would be--my secret."
"Is it that you think you couldn't love me?"
For the first time the color came to her cheek and surged up to her temples, not suddenly or hotly, but with the semi-diaphanous lightness of roseate vapor mounting into winter air. As he came nearer, rounding the protective barrier of the arm-chair, she retreated.
"I should have to solve some other questions before I could answer that," she said, trying to meet his eyes with the necessary steadiness.
"Couldn't I help you?"
She shook her head.
"Then couldn't you consider it first?"
"A woman generally does consider it first, but she speaks about it last."
"But you could tell me the result of what you think, as far as you've drawn conclusions?"
"No; because whatever I should say you would find misleading. If you're in earnest about what you say to-night, it would be better for us both that you should give me time."
"I'm willing to do that. But you speak as if you had a doubt of me."
"I've no doubt of you; I've only a doubt about myself. The woman you've known for the last twelve months isn't the woman other people have known in the years before that. She isn't the Diane Eveleth of Paris any more than she is the Diane de la Ferronaise of the hills of Connemara, or of the convent at Auteuil. But I don't know which is the real woman, or whether the one who now seems to me dead mightn't rise again."
"I shouldn't be afraid of her."
"But I should. You say that because you didn't know her; and I couldn't let you marry me without telling you something of what she was."
"Then tell me."
"No, not now; not to-night. Go on your long journey, and come back. When it's all over, I shall be sure--sure, that is, of myself--sure on the point about which I'm so much in doubt, as to whether or not the other woman could return."
"I should be willing to run the risk," he said, with a short laugh, "even if she did."
"But I shouldn't be willing to let you. You forget she ruined one rich man; she might easily ruin another."
"That would depend very much upon the man."
"No man can cope with a woman such as I was only a few years ago. You can put fetters on a criminal, and you can quell a beast to submission, but you can't bind the subtle, mischievous woman-spirit, bent on doing harm. It's more ruthless than war; it's more fatal than disease. You, with your large, generous nature, are the very man for it to fasten on, and waste him, like a fever."
She moved back from him, close to the bookshelves against the wall. The eyes which Derek had always seen sad and lustreless glowed with a fire like the amber's.
"You must understand that I couldn't allow myself to do the same thing twice," she hurried on, "and, if I married you, who knows but what I might? I'm not a bad woman by nature, but I think I must need to be held in repression. You'd be giving me again just those gifts of money, position, and power which made me dangerous."
"Suppose you were to let me guard against that?" he said.
"You couldn't. It would be like fighting a poisonous vapor with the sword. The woman's spell, whether for good or ill, is more subtle and more potent than anything in the universe but the love of God."
"I can believe that, and still be willing to trust myself to yours," he answered, gravely. "I know you, and honor you as men rarely do the women they marry, until the proof of the years has tried them. In your case the trial has come first. I've watched you bear it--watched you more closely than you've ever been aware of. I've stood by, and seen you carry your burden, when it was harder than you imagine not to take my part in it. I've looked on, and seen you suffer, when it was all I could do to keep from saying some word of sympathy you might have resented. But, Diane," he cried, his voice taking on a strange, peremptory sharpness, "I can't do it any longer! My power of standing still, while you go on with your single-handed fight, is at an end. If ever God sent a man to a woman's aid, He has sent me to yours; and you must let me do what I'm appointed for. You must come to me for comfort in your loneliness. You must come to me for care in your necessity. I have both care and comfort for you here; and you must come."
Without moving toward her he stood with open arms.
"Come!" he cried again, commandingly.
The tears coursed down her cheeks, but she gave no sign of obeying him, except to drag one hand from the protecting bookcase ledge, to which she seemed to cling.
"Come, Diane!" he repeated! "Come to me!"
The other hand fell to her side, while she gazed at him piteously, as though in reluctant submission to his will.
"Come!" he said once more, in a tone of authority mingled with appeal.
Drawn by a force she had no power to withstand, she took one slow, hesitating step toward him.
"I haven't yielded," she stammered. "I haven't consented. I can't consent--yet."
"No, dearest, no," he murmured, with arms yearning to her as she approached him; "nevertheless--come!"
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