She never knew afterwards quite what she had done to settle it, and at the time she only knew that they presently moved, with vagueness, yet with continuity, away from the picture of the lighted vestibule and the quiet stairs and well up the street together. This also must have been in the absence of a definite permission, of anything vulgarly articulate, for that matter, on the part of either; and it was to be, later on, a thing of remembrance and reflexion for her that the limit of what just here for a longish minute passed between them was his taking in her thoroughly successful deprecation, though conveyed without pride or sound or touch, of the idea that she might be, out of the cage, the very shop-girl at large that she hugged the theory she wasn't. Yes, it was strange, she afterwards thought, that so much could have come and gone and yet not disfigured the dear little intense crisis either with impertinence or with resentment, with any of the horrid notes of that kind of acquaintance. He had taken no liberty, as she would have so called it; and, through not having to betray the sense of one, she herself had, still more charmingly, taken none. On the spot, nevertheless, she could speculate as to what it meant that, if his relation with Lady Bradeen continued to be what her mind had built it up to, he should feel free to proceed with marked independence. This was one of the questions he was to leave her to deal with--the question whether people of his sort still asked girls up to their rooms when they were so awfully in love with other women. Could people of his sort do that without what people of her sort would call being "false to their love"? She had already a vision of how the true answer was that people of her sort didn't, in such cases, matter--didn't count as infidelity, counted only as something else: she might have been curious, since it came to that, to see exactly what.
Strolling together slowly in their summer twilight and their empty corner of Mayfair, they found themselves emerge at last opposite to one of the smaller gates of the Park; upon which, without any particular word about it--they were talking so of other things-- they crossed the street and went in and sat down on a bench. She had gathered by this time one magnificent hope about him--the hope he would say nothing vulgar. She knew thoroughly what she meant by that; she meant something quite apart from any matter of his being "false." Their bench was not far within; it was near the Park Lane paling and the patchy lamplight and the rumbling cabs and 'buses. A strange emotion had come to her, and she felt indeed excitement within excitement; above all a conscious joy in testing him with chances he didn't take. She had an intense desire he should know the type she really conformed to without her doing anything so low as tell him, and he had surely begun to know it from the moment he didn't seize the opportunities into which a common man would promptly have blundered. These were on the mere awkward surface, and their relation was beautiful behind and below them. She had questioned so little on the way what they might be doing that as soon as they were seated she took straight hold of it. Her hours, her confinement, the many conditions of service in the post-office, had--with a glance at his own postal resources and alternatives-- formed, up to this stage, the subject of their talk. "Well, here we are, and it may be right enough; but this isn't the least, you know, where I was going."
"You were going home?"
"Yes, and I was already rather late. I was going to my supper."
"You haven't had it?"
"Then you haven't eaten--?"
He looked of a sudden so extravagantly concerned that she laughed out. "All day? Yes, we do feed once. But that was long ago. So I must presently say good-bye."
"Oh deary me!" he exclaimed with an intonation so droll and yet a touch so light and a distress so marked--a confession of helplessness for such a case, in short, so unrelieved--that she at once felt sure she had made the great difference plain. He looked at her with the kindest eyes and still without saying what she had known he wouldn't. She had known he wouldn't say "Then sup with me!" but the proof of it made her feel as if she had feasted.
"I'm not a bit hungry," she went on.
"Ah you must be, awfully!" he made answer, but settling himself on the bench as if, after all, that needn't interfere with his spending his evening. "I've always quite wanted the chance to thank you for the trouble you so often take for me."
"Yes, I know," she replied; uttering the words with a sense of the situation far deeper than any pretence of not fitting his allusion. She immediately felt him surprised and even a little puzzled at her frank assent; but for herself the trouble she had taken could only, in these fleeting minutes--they would probably never come back--be all there like a little hoard of gold in her lap. Certainly he might look at it, handle it, take up the pieces. Yet if he understood anything he must understand all. "I consider you've already immensely thanked me." The horror was back upon her of having seemed to hang about for some reward. "It's awfully odd you should have been there just the one time--!"
"The one time you've passed my place?"
"Yes; you can fancy I haven't many minutes to waste. There was a place to-night I had to stop at."
"I see, I see--" he knew already so much about her work. "It must be an awful grind--for a lady."
"It is, but I don't think I groan over it any more than my companions--and you've seen they're not ladies!" She mildly jested, but with an intention. "One gets used to things, and there are employments I should have hated much more." She had the finest conception of the beauty of not at least boring him. To whine, to count up her wrongs, was what a barmaid or a shop-girl would do, and it was quite enough to sit there like one of these.
"If you had had another employment," he remarked after a moment, "we might never have become acquainted."
"It's highly probable--and certainly not in the same way." Then, still with her heap of gold in her lap and something of the pride of it in her manner of holding her head, she continued not to move- -she only smiled at him. The evening had thickened now; the scattered lamps were red; the Park, all before them, was full of obscure and ambiguous life; there were other couples on other benches whom it was impossible not to see, yet at whom it was impossible to look. "But I've walked so much out of my way with you only just to show you that--that"--with this she paused; it was not after all so easy to express--"that anything you may have thought is perfectly true."
"Oh I've thought a tremendous lot!" her companion laughed. "Do you mind my smoking?"
"Why should I? You always smoke there."
"At your place? Oh yes, but here it's different."
"No," she said as he lighted a cigarette, "that's just what it isn't. It's quite the same."
"Well, then, that's because 'there' it's so wonderful!"
"Then you're conscious of how wonderful it is?" she returned.
He jerked his handsome head in literal protest at a doubt. "Why that's exactly what I mean by my gratitude for all your trouble. It has been just as if you took a particular interest." She only looked at him by way of answer in such sudden headlong embarrassment, as she was quite aware, that while she remained silent he showed himself checked by her expression. "You have-- haven't you?--taken a particular interest?"
"Oh a particular interest!" she quavered out, feeling the whole thing--her headlong embarrassment--get terribly the better of her, and wishing, with a sudden scare, all the more to keep her emotion down. She maintained her fixed smile a moment and turned her eyes over the peopled darkness, unconfused now, because there was something much more confusing. This, with a fatal great rush, was simply the fact that they were thus together. They were near, near, and all she had imagined of that had only become more true, more dreadful and overwhelming. She stared straight away in silence till she felt she looked an idiot; then, to say something, to say nothing, she attempted a sound which ended in a flood of tears.
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