"... It's no use pretending any longer. I can't marry you, I don't suppose you will ever understand or forgive me. No man would. But try to believe that I haven't come to this decision hurriedly or without thinking. I seem to have done nothing but think, lately!
"I want you to forget last night, Eliot. We were both a little mad, and there was moonlight and the scent of roses.... But it's good-bye, all the same--it must be. Please don't try to see, me again. It could do no good and would only hurt us both."
Very deliberately the man read this letter through a second time. At first reading it had seemed to him incredible, a hallucination. It gave him a queer feeling of unreality--it was all so impossible, so wildly improbable!
"I want you to forget last night." Last night! When the woman who had written those cool words of dismissal had lain in his arms, exquisite in her passionate surrender. His mouth set itself grimly. Whatever came next, whatever the future might hold, he knew that neither of them would be able to forget. There are some things that cannot be forgotten, and the moment when a man and woman first give their love utterance in words is one of them.
He crushed the note slowly in his hand till it was nothing more than a crumpled ball of paper, and raised his arm to fling it away. Then suddenly his lips relaxed in a smile and a light of relief sprang into his eyes. It was all nonsense, of course--just some foolish, woman's whim or fancy, some ridiculous idea she had got into her head which five minutes' talk between them would dispel. He had been a fool to take it seriously. He unclenched his hand and smoothed out the crumpled sheet of paper. Tearing it into very small pieces, he tossed them into the garden below the veranda where he was sitting and watched them circle to the ground like particles of fine white snow.
As they settled his face cleared. The tension induced by the perusal of the letter had momentarily aged it, affording a fleeting glimpse of the man as he might be ten years hence if things should chance to go awry with him--hard and relentless, with more than a suggestion of cruelty. But now, the strain lessened, his face revealed that charm of boyishness which is always curiously attractive in a man who has actually left his boyhood behind him. The mouth above the strong, clean-cut chin was singularly sweet, the grey eyes, alight and ardent, meeting the world with a friendly gaiety of expression that seemed to expect and ask for friendliness in return.
As the last scrap of paper drifted to earth he stretched out his arms, drawing a great breath of relief. His tea, brought to him at the same time as the letter he had just destroyed, still stood untasted on a rustic table beside him. He poured some out and drank it thirstily; his mouth felt dry. Then, setting down the cup, he descended from the veranda and made his way quickly through the hotel garden to the dusty white road beyond its gates.
It was very hot. The afternoon sun still flamed in the vividly blue Italian sky, and against the shimmer of azure and gold the tall, dark poplars ranked beside the road struck a sombre note of relief. But the man himself seemed unconscious of the heat. He covered the ground with the lithe, long-limbed stride of youth and supple muscles, and presently swung aside into a garden where, betwixt the spread arms of chestnut and linden and almond tree, gleamed the pink-stuccoed walls of a half-hidden villa.
Skirting the villa, he went on unhesitatingly, as one to whom the way was very familiar, following a straight, formal path which led between parterres of flowers, ablaze with colour. Then, through an archway dripping jessamine, he emerged into a small, enclosed garden--an inner sanctuary of flower-encircled greensward, fragrant with the scent of mignonette and roses, while the headier perfume of heliotrope and oleander hung like incense on the sun-warmed air.
A fountain plashed in the centre of the velvet lawn, an iridescent mist of spray upflung from its marble basin, and at the farther end a stone bench stood sheltered beneath the leafy shade of a tree.
A woman was sitting on the bench. She was quite young--not more than twenty at the outside--and there was something in the dark, slender beauty of her which seemed to harmonise with the southern scents and colour of the old Italian garden. She sat very still, her round white chin cupped in her palm. Her eyes were downcast, the lowered lids, with their lashes lying like dusky fans against the ivory-tinted skin beneath, screening her thoughts.
The man's footsteps made no sound as he crossed the close-cut turf, and he paused a moment to gaze at her with ardent eyes. The loveliness of her seemed to take him by the throat, so that a half-stifled sound escaped him. Came an answering sound--a sharp-caught breath of fear as she realised an intruder's presence in her solitude. Then, her eyes meeting the eager, worshipping ones fixed on her, she uttered a cry of dismay.
"You?--You?" she stammered, rising hastily.
In a stride he was beside her.
"Yes. Didn't you expect me? You must have known I should come."
He laughed down at her triumphantly and made as though to take her in his arms, but she shrank back, pressing him away from her with urgent hands.
"I told you not to come. I told you not to come," she reiterated. "Oh!" turning aside with nervous desperation, "why didn't you stay away?"
He stared at her.
"Why didn't I? Do you suppose any man on earth would have stayed away after receiving such a letter? Why did you write it?"--rapidly. "What did you mean?"
She looked away from him towards the distant mountains rimming the horizon.
"I meant just what I said. I can't marry you," she answered mechanically.
"But that's absurd! You've known I cared--you've cared, too--all these weeks. And last night you promised--you said--"
"Last night!" She swung round and faced him. "I tell you we've got to forget last night--count it out. It--it was just an interlude--"
She broke off, blenching at the abrupt change in his expression. Up till now his face had been full of an incredulous, boyish bewilderment, half tender, half chiding. Within himself he had refused to believe that there was any serious intent behind her letter. It was fruit of some foolish misunderstanding or shy feminine withdrawal, and he was here to straighten it all out, to reassure her. But that word "interlude"! Had she been deliberately playing with him after all? Women did such things--sometimes. His features took on a sudden sternness.
"An interlude?" he repeated quietly. "I'm afraid I don't understand. Will you explain?"
Her shoulders moved resentfully.
"Why do you want to force me into explanations?" she burst out. "Surely--surely you understand? We can't marry--we haven't money enough!"
There was a long pause before he spoke again.
"I've enough money to marry on, if it comes to that," he said at last, slowly. "Though we should certainly be comparatively poor. What you mean is that I'm not rich enough to satisfy you, I suppose?"
"Yes. I'm sick--sick of being poor! I've been poor all my life--always having to skimp and save and do things on the cheap--go without this and make shift with that. I'm tired of it! This last two months with Aunt Elvira--all this luxury and beauty," she gestured eloquently towards the villa standing like a gem in its exquisite Italian setting, "the car, the perfect service, as many frocks as I want--Oh! I've loved it all! And I can't give it up. I can't go back to being poor again!"
She paused, breathless, and her eyes, passionately upbraiding, beseeching understanding, sought his face.
"Don't you understand?" she added, twisting her hands together.
His eyes glinted.
"Yes, I'm beginning to," he returned briefly. "But how are you going to compass what you want--as a permanency? Your visit to Lady Templeton can't extend indefinitely."
She was silent, evading his glance. Her foot beat nervously on the flagged path where they stood.
"Is there some one else?" he asked incisively. "Another man--who can give you all these things?"
A dull, shamed red flushed her cheek. With an effort she forced herself to answer him.
"Yes," she said very low. "There is--some one else."
"I wonder if he realises his luck!"
The palpable sneer in his voice cut like a lash. She winced under it.
"One more question--I'd like to know the answer out of sheer curiosity." His voice was clear and hard--like ice, "You knew you were going to do this to me--last night?"
Her lips moved but no words came. She gestured mutely--imploringly.
"Answer me, please."
His implacable insistence whipped her into a sudden flare of defiance. She was like a cornered animal.
"Yes, then, if you must have it--I did know!" she flung at him in a low tone of furious anger.
Involuntarily he stepped back from her a pace, like a man suddenly smitten and stunned.
"While for me last night was sacred!" he muttered under his breath.
Before the utter scorn and repugnance in the low-breathed words her defiance crumbled to pieces.
"And for me, too! Eliot, I wasn't pretending. I do love you. I never meant you to know, but last night--I couldn't help it. I'd promised to marry the--the other man, and then you came, and we were alone--and--Oh!"--desperately, lifting a wrung face to his. "Why won't you understand?"
But the beautiful, imploring face failed to move him one jot. Something had died suddenly within him--the something that was young and eager and blindly trusting. When she ceased speaking he was only conscious that he wanted to take her and break her between his two hands--destroy her as he had destroyed the letter she had written. The blood was drumming in his temples. His hands clenched and unclenched spasmodically. She was so slender a thing that it would be very easy ... very easy with those iron muscles of his.... And then she would be dead. She was so beautiful and so rotten at the core that she would be better dead....
It was only by a supreme effort that he mastered his overwhelming need of some physical outlet for the passion of disgust and anger which swept him bare of any gentler emotion as the incoming tide sweeps the shore bare of sign or footprint. His body grew taut and rigid with the pressure he was putting on himself. When at last he spoke his voice was almost unrecognisable.
"I do understand," he said. "I understand thoroughly. You've made--everything--perfectly clear."
And with that he turned swiftly, leaving her standing alone in a flickering patch of shadow, and strode away across the grass. As he went, a little breeze ran through the garden, wafting the caressing, over-sweet perfume of heliotrope to his nostrils. It sickened him. He knew that he would loathe the scent of heliotrope henceforth.
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