Upon the whole, Verrian thought he would go to see Miss Shirley the next Tuesday, but he did not say so to Miss Macroyd. Now that he knew where the girl was, all the peculiar interest she had inspired in him renewed itself. It was so vivid that he could not pay his usual Thursday call at Miss Andrews's, and it filled his mind to the exclusion of the new story he had begun to write. He loafed his mornings away at his club, and he lunched there, leaving his mother to lunch alone, and was dreamily preoccupied in the evenings which he spent at home, sitting at his desk, with the paper before him, unable to coax the thoughts from his brain to its alluring blank, but restive under any attempts of hers to talk with him.
In his desperation he would have gone to the theatre, but the fact that the ass who rightfully called himself Verrian was playing at one of them blocked his way, through his indignation, to all of them. By Saturday afternoon the tedious time had to be done something with, and he decided to go and see what the ass was like.
He went early, and found himself in the end seat of a long row of many rows of women, who were prolonging the time of keeping their hats on till custom obliged them to take them off. He gave so much notice to the woman next him as to see that she was deeply veiled as well as widely hatted, and then he lapsed into a dreary muse, which was broken by the first strains of the overture. Then he diverted himself by looking round at all those ranks of women lifting their arms to take out them hat-pins and dropping them to pin their hats to the seat-backs in front of them, or to secure them somehow in their laps. Upon the whole, he thought the manoeuvre graceful and pleasing; he imagined a consolation in it for the women, who, if they were forced by public opinion to put off their charming hats, would know how charmingly they did it. Each turned a little, either her body or her head, and looked in any case out of the corner of her eyes; and he was phrasing it all for a scene in his story, when he looked round at his neighbor to see how she had managed, or was managing, with her veil. At the same moment she looked at him, and their eyes met.
The stress of their voices fell upon different parts of the sentences they uttered, but did not commit either of them to a special role.
"How very strange we should meet here!" she said, with pleasure in her voice. "Do you know, I have been wanting to come all winter to see this man, on account of his name? And to think that I should meet the other Mr. Verrian as soon as I yielded to the temptation."
"I have just yielded myself," Verrian said. "I hope you don't feel punished for yielding."
"Oh, dear, no! It seems a reward."
She did not say why it seemed so, and he suggested, "The privilege of comparing the histrionic and the literary Verrian?"
"Could there be any comparison?" she came back, gayly.
"I don't know. I haven't seen the histrionic Verrian yet."
They were laughing when the curtain rose, and the histrionic Verrian had his innings for a long, long first act. When the curtain fell she turned to the literary Verrian and said, "Well?"
"He lasted a good while," Verrian returned.
"Yes. Didn't he?" She looked at the little watch in her wristlet. "A whole hour! Do you know, Mr. Verrian, I am going to seem very rude. I am going to leave you to settle this question of superiority; I know you'll be impartial. I have an appointment—with the dressmaker, to be specific—at half-past four, and it's half-past three now, and I couldn't well leave in the middle of the next act. So I will say good-bye now—"
"Don't!" he entreated. "I couldn't bear to be left alone with this dreadful double of mine. Let me go out with you."
"Can I accept such self-sacrifice? Well!"
She had put on her hat and risen, and he now stepped out of his place to let her pass and then followed her. At the street entrance he suggested, "A hansom, or a simple trolley?"
"I don't know," she murmured, meditatively, looking up the street as if that would settle it. "If it's only half-past three now, I should have time to get home more naturally."
"Oh! And will you let me walk with you?"
"Why, if you're going that way."
"I will say when I know which way it is."
They started on their walk so blithely that they did not sadden in the retrospect of their joint experiences at Mrs. Westangle's. By the time they reached the park gate at Columbus Circle they had come so distinctly to the end of their retrospect that she made an offer of letting him leave her, a very tacit offer, but unmistakable, if he chose to take it. He interpreted her hesitation as he chose. "No," he said, "it won't be any longer if we go up through the park."
She drew in her breath softly, smoothing down her muff with her right hand while she kept her left in it. "And it will certainly be pleasanter." When they were well up the path, in that part of it where it deflects from the drive without approaching the street too closely, and achieves something of seclusion, she said:
"Your speaking of him just now makes me want to tell you something, Mr. Verrian. You would hear of it very soon, anyway, and I feel that it is always best to be very frank with you; but you'll regard it as a secret till it comes out."
The currents that had been playing so warmly in and out of Verrian's heart turned suddenly cold. He said, with joyless mocking, "You know, I'm used to keeping your secrets. I—shall feel honored, I'm sure, if you trust me with another."
"Yes," she returned, pathetically, "you have always been faithful—even in your wounds." It was their joint tribute to the painful past, and they had paid no other. She was looking away from him, but he knew she was aware of his hanging his head. "That's all over now," she uttered, passionately. "What I wanted to say—to tell you—is that I am engaged to Mr. Bushwick."
He could have answered that she had no need to tell him. The cold currents in and out of his heart stiffened frozenly and ceased to flow; his heart itself stood still for an eternal instant. It was in this instant that he said, "He is a fine fellow." Afterwards, amid the wild bounding of his recovered pulse, he could add, "I congratulate him; I congratulate you both."
"Thank you," she said. "No one knows as I do how good he is—has been, all through." Probably she had not meant to convey any reproach to Verrian by Bushwick's praise, but he felt reproach in it. "It only happened last week. You do wish me happy, don't you? No one knows what a winter I have had till now. Everything seeming to fail—"
She choked, and did not say more. He said, aimlessly, "I am sorry—"
"Let me sit down a moment," she begged. And she dropped upon the bench at which she faltered, and rested there, as if from the exhaustion of running. When she could get her breath she began again: "There is something else I want to tell you."
She stopped. And he asked, to prompt her, "Yes?"
"Thank you," she answered, piteously. And she added, with superficial inconsequence, "I shall always think you were very cruel."
He did not pretend not to know what she meant, and he said, "I shall always think so, too. I tried to revenge myself for the hurt your harmless hoax did my vanity. Of course, I made believe at the time that I was doing an act of justice, but I never was able to brave it out afterwards."
"But you were—you were doing an act of justice. I deserved what you said, but I didn't deserve what has followed. I meant no harm—it was a silly prank, and I have suffered for it as if it were a crime, and the consequences are not ended yet. I should think that, if there is a moral government of the universe, the Judge of all the earth would know when to hold his hand. And now the worst of it is to come yet." She caught Verrian's arm, as if for help.
"Don't—don't!" he besought her. "What will people think?"
"Yes, Yes!" she owned, releasing him and withdrawing to the other end of the seat.
"But it almost drives me wild. What shall I do? You ought to know. It is your fault. You have frightened me out of daring to tell the truth."
Had he, indeed, done that? Verrian asked himself, and it seemed to him that he had done something like it. If it was so, he must help her over her fear now. He answered, bluntly, harshly: "You must tell him all about it—"
"But if he won't believe me? Do you think he will believe me? Would you believe me?"
"You have nothing to do with that. There is nothing for you but to tell him the whole story. You mustn't share such a secret with any one but your husband. When you tell him it will cease to be my secret."
"Well, then, you must tell him, unless—"
"Yes," she prompted.
Then they were both silent, looking intensely into each other's eyes. In that moment all else of life seemed to melt and swim away from Verrian and leave him stranded upon an awful eminence confronting her.
"Hello, hello!" a gay voice called, as if calling to them both. "What are you two conspiring?" Bushwick, as suddenly as if he had fallen from the sky or started up from the earth, stood before them, and gave a hand to each—his right to Verrian, his left to Miss Shirley. "How are you, Verrian? How are you, Miss Shirley?" He mocked her in the formality of his address. "I've been shadowing you ever since you came into the park, but I thought I wouldn't interrupt till you seemed to have got through your conversation. May I ask what it was all about? It seemed very absorbing, from a respectful distance."
"Very absorbing, indeed," Miss Shirley said, making room for him between them. "Sit down and let me tell you. You're to be a partner in the secret."
"Silent partner," Bushwick suggested.
"I hope you'll always be silent," the girl shared in his drolling. She began and told the whole story to the last detail, sparing neither herself nor Verrian, who listened as if he were some one else not concerned, and kept saying to himself, "what courage!" Bushwick listened as mutely, with a face that, to Verrian's eye, seemed to harden from its light jocosity into a severity he had not seen in it before. "It was something," she ended towards Bushwick, with a catch in her breath, "that you had to know."
"Yes," he answered, tonelessly.
"And now"—she attempted a little forlorn playfulness—"don't you think he gave me what I deserved?"
Bushwick rose up and took her hand under his arm, keeping his left hand upon hers.
"I don't know any Mr. Verrian. Come, you'll take cold here."
He turned his back on Verrian, who fancied a tremor in her hat, as if she would look round at him; but then, as if she divined Bushwick's intention, she did not look round, and together they left him.
It was days before Verrian could confess himself of the fact to his mother, who listened with the justice instinctive in her. She still had not spoken when he ended, and he said, "I have thought it all over, and I feel that he did right. He did the only thing that a man in love with her could do. And I don't wonder he's in love with her. Yes"—he stayed his mother, imperatively—"and such a man as he, though he ground me in the dirt and stamped on me, I will say, it, is worthy of any woman. He can believe in a woman, and that's the first thing that's needed to make a woman like her, true. I don't envy his job." He was speaking self-contradictorily, irrelevantly, illogically, as a man thinks. He went on in that way, getting himself all out. "She isn't single-hearted, but she's faithful. She'll never betray him now. She's never given him any reason to distrust her. She's the kind that can keep on straight with any one she's begun straight with. She told him all that before me be cause she wanted me to know—to realize—that she had told him. It took courage."
Mrs. Verrian had thought of generalizing, but she seized a single point. "Perhaps not so much courage as you think. You mustn't let such bravado impose upon you, Philip. I've no doubt she knew her ground."
"She took the chance of his casting her off."
"She knew he wouldn't. She knew him, and she knew you. She knew that if he cast her off—"
"Mother! Don't say it! I can't bear it!"
His mother did not say it, or anything more, then. Late at night she came to him. "Are you asleep, Philip?"
"I didn't suppose you were. But I have had a note to-day which I must answer. Mrs. Andrews has asked us to dinner on Saturday. Philip, if you could see that sweet girl as I do, in all her goodness and sincerity—"
"I think I do, mother. And I wouldn't be guilty of her unhappiness for the world. You must decline."
"Well, perhaps you are right." Mrs. Verrian went away, softly, sighing. As she sealed her reply to Mrs. Andrews, she sighed again, and made the reflection which a mother seldom makes with regard to her son, before his marriage, that men do not love women for their goodness.