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She came in swiftly, closing the door behind her, found and lighted a candle, and, setting it upon the table between us, put back the hood of her cloak, and looked at me, while I stood mute before her, abashed by the accusation of her eyes.
"Coward!" she said, and, with the word, snatched the neckerchief from my grasp, and, casting it upon the floor, set her foot upon it. "Coward!" said she again.
"Yes," I muttered; "yes, I was lost--in a great darkness, and full of a horror of coming rights and days, and so--I would have run away from it all--like a coward--"
"Oh, hateful--hateful!" she cried, and covered her face as from some horror.
"Indeed, you cannot despise me more than I do myself," said I, "now, or ever; I am a failure in all things, except, perhaps, the making of horseshoes--and this world has no place for failures--and as for horseshoes--"
"Fool," she whispered. "Oh, fool that I dreamed so wise! Oh, coward that seemed so brave and strong! Oh, man that was so gloriously young and unspoiled!--that it should end here--that it should come to this." And, though she kept her face hidden, I knew that she was weeping. "A woman's love transforms the man till she sees him, not as he is, but as her heart would have him be; the dross becomes pure gold, and she believes and believes until--one day her heart breaks--"
"Charmian!--what--what do you mean?"
"Oh, are you still so blind? Must I tell you?" she cried, lifting her head proudly. "Why did I live beside you here in the wilderness? Why did I work for you contrive for you--and seek to make this desolation a home for you? Often my heart cried out its secret to you--but you never heard; often it trembled in my voice, looked at you from my eyes--but you never guessed--Oh, blind! blind! And you drove me from you with shameful words --but--oh!--I came back to you. And now--I know you for but common clay, after all, and--even yet--" She stopped, suddenly, and once more hid her face from me in her hands.
"And--even yet, Charmian?" I whispered.
Very still she stood, with her face bowed upon her hands, but she could not hide from me the swift rise and fall of her bosom.
"Speak--oh, Charmian, speak!"
"I am so weak--so weak!" she whispered; "I hate myself."
"Charmian!" I cried "--oh, Charmian!" and seized her hands, and, despite her resistance, drew her into my arms, and, clasping her close, forced her to look at me. "And even yet?--what more--what more--tell me." But, lying back across my arm, she held me off with both hands.
"Don't!" she cried; "don't--you shame me--let me go."
"God knows I am all unworthy, Charmian, and so low in my abasement that to touch you is presumption, but oh, woman whom I have loved from the first, and shall, to the end, have you stooped in your infinite mercy, to lift me from these depths--is it a new life you offer me was it for this you came to-night?"
"Let me go--oh, Peter!--let me go."
"Why--why did you come?"
"Why did you come?"
"To meet--Sir Maurice Vibart."
"To meet Sir Maurice?" I repeated dully--"Sir Maurice?" And in that moment she broke from me, and stood with her head thrown back, and her eyes very bright, as though defying me. But I remained where I was, my arms hanging.
"He was to meet me here--at nine o'clock."
"Oh, Charmian," I whispered, "are all women so cruel as you, I wonder?" And, turning my back upon her, I leaned above the mantel, staring down at the long-dead ashes on the hearth.
But, standings there, I heard a footstep outside, and swung round with clenched fists, yet Charmian was quicker, and, as the door opened and Sir Maurice entered, she was between us.
He stood upon the threshold, dazzled a little by the light, but smiling, graceful, debonair, and point-device as ever. Indeed, his very presence seemed to make the mean room the meaner by contrast, and, as he bent to kiss her hand, I became acutely conscious of my own rough person, my worn and shabby clothes, and of my hands, coarsened and grimed by labor; wherefore my frown grew the blacker and I clenched my fists the tighter.
"I lost my way, Charmian," he began, "but, though late, I am none the less welcome, I trust? Ah?--you frown, Cousin Peter? Quite a ghoulish spot this, at night--you probably find it most congenial, good cousin Timon of Athens--indeed, cousin, you are very like Timon of Athens--" And he laughed so that I, finding my pipe upon the mantelshelf, began to turn it aimlessly round and round in my twitching fingers.
"You have already met, then?" inquired Charmian, glancing from one to the other of us.
"We had that mutual pleasure nearly a week ago," nodded Sir Maurice, "when we agreed to--disagree, as we always have done, and shall do--with the result that we find each other agreeably disagreeable."
"I had hoped that you might be friends."
"My dear Charmian--I wonder at you!" he sighed, "so unreasonable. Would you have us contravene the established order of things? It was preordained that Cousin Peter should scowl at me (precisely as he is doing), and that I should shrug my shoulders, thus, at Cousin Peter--a little hate with, say, a dash of contempt, give a zest to that dish of conglomerate vapidity which we call Life, and make it almost palatable.
"But I am not here on Cousin Peter's account," he went on, drawing a step nearer to her, "at this moment I heartily wish him--among his hammers and chisels--I have come for you, Charmian, because I love you. I have sought you patiently until I found you--and I will never forego you so long as life lasts --but you know all this."
"Yes, I know all this."
"I have been very patient, Charmian, submitting to your whims and fancies--but, through it all; I knew, and in your woman's heart --you knew, that you must yield at last--that the chase must end --some day; well--let it be to-night--my chaise is waiting--"
"When I ran away from you, in the storm, Sir Maurice, I told you, once and for all, that I hated you. Have you forgotten?--hated you!--always and ever! and tried to--kill you--"
"Oh, Charmian! I have known such hate transfigured into love, before now--such love as is only worth the winning. And you are mine--you always were--from the first moment that our eyes met. Come, my chaise is waiting; in a few hours we can be in London, or Dover--"
"Never is a long time, Charmian--but I am at your service--what is your will?"
"I shall remain--here."
"Here? In the wilderness?"
"I am going to marry your cousin--Peter Vibart."
The pipe slipped from my fingers and shivered to pieces on the floor, and in that same fraction of time Sir Maurice had turned and leapt towards me; but as he came I struck him twice, with left and right, and he staggered backwards to the wall. He stood for a moment, with his head stooped upon his hands. When he looked up his face was dead white, and with a smear of blood upon it that seemed to accentuate its pallor; but his voice came smooth and unruffled as ever.
"The Mind Feminine is given to change," said he softly, "and--I shall return--yes, I shall come back. Smile, madam! Triumph, cousin! But I shall come between you yet--I tell you, I'll come between you--living or dead!"
And so he turned, and was gone--into the shadows.
But as for me, I sat down, and, leaning my chin in my hand, stared down at the broken fragments of my pipe.
"You are safe now," said I, without looking up, "he is gone--but, oh, Charmian! was there no other way--?"
She was down beside me on her knees, had taken my hand, rough and grimy as it was, and pressed it to her lips, and so had drawn it about her neck, holding it there, and with her face hidden in my breast.
"Oh--strong man that is so weak!" she whispered. "Oh--grave philosopher that is so foolish! Oh--lonely boy that is so helpless! Oh, Peter Vibart--my Peter!"
"Charmian," said I, trembling, "what does it mean?"
"It means, Peter--"
"Will--marry you--whenever you will--if--"
"If you will--only--ask her."
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