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But now that she was within reach, he wavered; he had given his word--was he going to break it? Then she turned, and saw him; and he could not go back. In the biting easterly wind her face looked small, and pinched, and cold, but her eyes only the larger, the more full of witchery, as if beseeching him not to be angry, not to send her away.
"I had to come; I got frightened. Why did you write such a tiny little note?"
He tried to make his voice sound quiet and ordinary.
"You must be brave, Nell. I have had to tell her."
She clutched at his arm; then drew herself up, and said in her clear, clipped voice:
"Oh! I suppose she hates me, then!"
"She is terribly unhappy."
They walked a minute, that might have been an hour, without a word; not round the Square, as he had walked with Oliver, but away from the house. At last she said in a half-choked voice: "I only want a little bit of you."
And he answered dully: "In love, there are no little bits--no standing still."
Then, suddenly, he felt her hand in his, the fingers lacing, twining restlessly amongst his own; and again the half-choked voice said:
"But you will let me see you sometimes! You must!"
Hardest of all to stand against was this pathetic, clinging, frightened child. And, not knowing very clearly what he said, he murmured:
"Yes--yes; it'll be all right. Be brave--you must be brave, Nell. It'll all come right."
But she only answered:
"No, no! I'm not brave. I shall do something."
Her face looked just as when she had ridden at that gravel pit. Loving, wild, undisciplined, without resource of any kind--what might she not do? Why could he not stir without bringing disaster upon one or other? And between these two, suffering so because of him, he felt as if he had lost his own existence. In quest of happiness, he had come to that!
Suddenly she said:
"Oliver asked me again at the dance on Saturday. He said you had told him to be patient. Did you?"
"I was sorry for him."
She let his hand go.
"Perhaps you would like me to marry him."
Very clearly he saw those two going round and round over the shining floor.
"It would be better, Nell."
She made a little sound--of anger or dismay.
"You don't really want me, then?"
That was his chance. But with her arm touching his, her face so pale and desperate, and those maddening eyes turned to him, he could not tell that lie, and answered:
"Yes--I want you, God knows!"
At that a sigh of content escaped her, as if she were saying to herself: 'If he wants me he will not let me go.' Strange little tribute to her faith in love and her own youth!
They had come somehow to Pall Mall by now. And scared to find himself so deep in the hunting-ground of the Dromores, Lennan turned hastily towards St. James's Park, that they might cross it in the dark, round to Piccadilly. To be thus slinking out of the world's sight with the daughter of his old room-mate--of all men in the world the last perhaps that he should do this to! A nice treacherous business! But the thing men called honour--what was it, when her eyes were looking at him and her shoulder touching his?
Since he had spoken those words, "Yes, I want you," she had been silent--fearful perhaps to let other words destroy their comfort. But near the gate by Hyde Park Corner she put her hand again into his, and again her voice, so clear, said:
"I don't want to hurt anybody, but you will let me come sometimes-- you will let me see you--you won't leave me all alone, thinking that I'll never see you again?"
And once more, without knowing what he answered, Lennan murmured:
"No, no! It'll be all right, dear--it'll all come right. It must-- and shall."
Again her fingers twined amongst his, like a child's. She seemed to have a wonderful knowledge of the exact thing to say and do to keep him helpless. And she went on:
"I didn't try to love you--it isn't wrong to love--it wouldn't hurt her. I only want a little of your love."
A little--always a little! But he was solely bent on comforting her now. To think of her going home, and sitting lonely, frightened, and unhappy, all the evening, was dreadful. And holding her fingers tight, he kept on murmuring words of would-be comfort.
Then he saw that they were out in Piccadilly. How far dared he go with her along the railings before he said good-bye? A man was coming towards them, just where he had met Dromore that first fatal afternoon nine months ago; a man with a slight lurch in his walk and a tall, shining hat a little on one side. But thank Heaven!-- it was not Dromore--only one somewhat like him, who in passing stared sphinx-like at Nell. And Lennan said:
"You must go home now, child; we mustn't be seen together."
For a moment he thought she was going to break down, refuse to leave him. Then she threw up her head, and for a second stood like that, quite motionless, looking in his face. Suddenly stripping off her glove, she thrust her warm, clinging hand into his. Her lips smiled faintly, tears stood in her eyes; then she drew her hand away and plunged into the traffic. He saw her turn the corner of her street and disappear. And with the warmth of that passionate little hand still stinging his palm, he almost ran towards Hyde Park.
Taking no heed of direction, he launched himself into its dark space, deserted in this cold, homeless wind, that had little sound and no scent, travelling its remorseless road under the grey-black sky.
The dark firmament and keen cold air suited one who had little need of aids to emotion--one who had, indeed, but the single wish to get rid, if he only could, of the terrible sensation in his head, that bruised, battered, imprisoned feeling of a man who paces his cell-- never, never to get out at either end. Without thought or intention he drove his legs along; not running, because he knew that he would have to stop the sooner. Alas! what more comic spectacle for the eyes of a good citizen than this married man of middle age, striding for hours over those dry, dark, empty pastures--hunted by passion and by pity, so that he knew not even whether he had dined! But no good citizen was abroad of an autumn night in a bitter easterly wind. The trees were the sole witnesses of this grim exercise--the trees, resigning to the cold blast their crinkled leaves that fluttered past him, just a little lighter than the darkness. Here and there his feet rustled in the drifts, waiting their turn to serve the little bonfires, whose scent still clung in the air. A desperate walk, in this heart of London--round and round, up and down, hour after hour, keeping always in the dark; not a star in the sky, not a human being spoken to or even clearly seen, not a bird or beast; just the gleam of the lights far away, and the hoarse muttering of the traffic! A walk as lonely as the voyage of the human soul is lonely from birth to death with nothing to guide it but the flickering glow from its own frail spirit lighted it knows not where. . . .
And, so tired that he could hardly move his legs, but free at last of that awful feeling in his head--free for the first time for days and days--Lennan came out of the Park at the gate where he had gone in, and walked towards his home, certain that tonight, one way or the other, it would be decided. . . .
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