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She leaned over him, one hand on the back of his chair, the other seeking in vain for his.
"Lawrence," she said, "you grow colder and more unkind every day. What have I done to change you so? I am a foolish woman, I know, but there are things which I cannot forget."
He rose at once to his feet, and stood apart from her.
"I thought," he said, "I believed that we understood one another."
She laughed softly.
"I am very sure that I do not understand you," she said. "And as for you--I do not believe that you have ever understood any woman. There was a time, Lawrence--"
His impassivity was gone. He threw out his hands.
"Remember," he said, "there is a promise between us. Don't break it. Don't dare to break it!"
She looked at him curiously. A new idea concerning this man and his avoidance of her crept into her mind. It was at least consoling to her vanity, and it left her a chance. She had roused him too, at last, and that was worth something.
"Why not?" she asked, moving a step towards him. "It was a foolish promise. It has done neither of us any good. It has spoilt a part of my life. Why should I keep silence, and let it go on to the end? Do you know what it has made of me, this promise?"
He shrank back.
"Don't! I have done all I could!"
"All you could!" she repeated, scornfully. "You drew a diagram of your duty, and you have moved like a machine along the lines. You talk like a Pharisee, Lawrence! Come! You knew me years ago! Do you find me changed? Tell me the truth."
"Yes," he admitted, "you are changed."
"You admit that. Perhaps, perhaps," she continued more slowly, "there are things about me now of which you don't approve. My friends are a little fast, I go out alone, I daresay people have said things. There, you see I am very frank. I mean to be! I mean you to know that whatever I am, the fault is yours."
"You are as God or the Devil made you," he answered, hardly. "You are what you would have become, in any case."
Already he hated the memory of his words. True or not, they were spoken to a woman who was cowering under them as under a lash. He was at a disadvantage now. If she had met him with anger they might have cried quits. But he had seen her wince, seen her sudden pallor, and it was not a pleasant sight.
"Forgive me," he said. "I do not know quite what I am saying. You have broken a compact which I had hoped might have lasted all our days. Let us be better friends, if you will, but let us keep that promise which we made to one another."
"It was so many years ago," she said, in a low tone. "I am afraid to think how many. It makes me lonely, Lawrence, to look ahead. I am afraid of growing old!"
He looked at her steadily. Yes, the signs were there. She was a good-looking woman to-day, a handsome woman in some lights, but she had reached the limit. It was a matter of a few years at most, and then--He stood with his hands behind his back.
"It is a fear which we must all share," he said, quietly. "The only antidote is work."
"Work!" she repeated, scornfully. "That is the man's resource. What about us? What about me?"
"It is no matter of sex," he declared. "We all make our own choice. We are what we make of ourselves."
"It is not true," she answered, bluntly. "Not with us, at any rate. We are what our menkind make of us. Oh, what cowards you all are."
"Yes. You do what mischief you choose, and then soothe your conscience with platitudes. You will take hold of pleasure with both hands, but your shoulders are not broad enough for the pack of responsibility. Don't look at me as though I were a mile off, Lawrence, as though this were simply an impersonal discussion. I am speaking to you--of you. You avoid me whenever you can. I don't often get a chance of speaking to you. You shall listen now. You live the life of a poet and a scholar, they tell me. You live in a beautiful home, you take care that nothing ugly or disturbing shall come near you. You are pleased with it, aren't you? You think yourself better than other men. Well, you are making a big mistake. A man doesn't have to answer for his own life only. He has to carry the burden of the lives his influence has wrecked and spoilt. I know just what you think of me. I am a middle-aged woman, clinging to my youth and pleasures--the sort of pleasures for which you have a vast contempt. There isn't an hour of my days of which you wouldn't disapprove. I'm not your sort of woman at all. And yet I was all right once, Lawrence, and what I am now--" she paused, "what I am now--"
Hester came in, followed by a maid with the tea-tray. She looked from one to the other a little anxiously. The atmosphere of the room seemed charged with electricity. Mannering's face was grey. Her mother was nervously crumpling into a ball her tiny lace handkerchief. Mrs. Phillimore rose abruptly from her seat.
"Have you got the brandy and soda, Hester?" she asked.
"I'm afraid I forgot it, mother," the girl answered. "Mayn't I make you some Russian tea? I've had the lemon sliced."
The woman laughed, a little unnaturally.
"What a dutiful daughter," she exclaimed. "That's right! I want looking after, don't I? I'll have the tea, Hester, but send it up to my room. I'm going to lie down. That wretched motoring has given me a headache, and I'm dining out to-night. Good-bye, Mr. Mannering, if I don't see you again."
She nodded, without glancing in his direction, and left the room. The maid arranged the tea-tray and departed. Hester showed no signs of being aware that anything unusual had happened. She made a little desultory conversation. Mannering answered in monosyllables.
When at last he put his cup down he rose to go.
"You are quite sure, Hester," he said. "You have made up your mind?"
She, too, rose, and came over to him.
"You know that I am right," she answered, quietly. "The life you offer me would be paradise, but I dare not even think of it. I may not do any good here, perhaps I don't, but I can't come away."
"You are a true daughter of your sex," he said, smiling. "The keynote of your life must be sacrifice."
"Perhaps we are not so unwise, after all," she answered, "for I think that there are more happy women in the world than men."
"There are more, I think, who deserve to be, dear," he answered, holding her hand for a moment. "Good-bye!"
Mannering walked in somewhat abstracted fashion to the corner of the street, and signalled for a hansom. With his foot upon the step he hesitated.
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