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- The Odd Women - 70/90 -
'Hush! The day is to be perfect. I won't admit that we could ever tire of each other with reasonable variety of circumstance. You to me are infinitely interesting, and I believe that I might become so to you.'
He did not allow himself to vary from this tone of fanciful speculation, suited to the idle hour. Rhoda said very little; her remarks were generally a purposed interruption of Everard's theme. When the cigar was smoked Out they rose and set forward again. This latter half of their walk proved the most interesting, for they were expectant of the view down upon Wastdale. A bold summit came in sight, dark, desolate, which they judged to be Great Gabel; and when they had pressed on eagerly for another mile, the valley opened beneath them with such striking suddenness that they stopped on the instant and glanced at each other in silence. From a noble height they looked down upon Wastwater, sternest and blackest of the lakes, on the fields and copses of the valley head with its winding stream, and the rugged gorges which lie beyond in mountain shadow.
The descent was by a path which in winter becomes the bed of a torrent, steep and stony, zigzagging through a thick wood. Here, and when they had reached the level road leading into the village, their talk was in the same natural, light-hearted strain as before they rested. So at the inn where they dined, and during their drive homewards--by the dark lake with its woods and precipices, out into the country of green hills, and thence through Gosforth on the long road descending seaward. Since their early departure scarcely a cloud had passed over the sun--a perfect day.
They alighted before reaching Seascale. Barfoot discharged his debt to the driver--who went on to bait at the hotel--and walked with Rhoda for the last quarter of a mile. This was his own idea; Rhoda made no remark, but approved his discretion.
'It is six o'clock,' said Everard, after a short silence. 'You remember your arrangement. At eight, down on the shore.'
'I should be much more comfortable in the armchair with a book.'
'Oh, you have had enough of books. It's time to live.'
'It's time to rest.'
'Are you so very tired? Poor girl! The day has been rather too much for you.'
'I could walk back again to Wastwater if it were necessary.'
'Of course; I knew that. You are magnificent. At eight o'clock then--'
Nothing more was said on the subject. When in sight of Rhoda's lodgings they parted without hand-shaking.
Before eight Everard was straying about the beach, watching the sun go down in splendour. He smiled to himself frequently. The hour had come for his last trial of Rhoda, and he felt some confidence as to the result. If her mettle endured his test, if she declared herself willing not only to abandon her avowed ideal of life, but to defy the world's opinion by becoming his wife without forms of mutual bondage--she was the woman he had imagined, and by her side he would go cheerfully on his way as a married man. Legally married; the proposal of free union was to be a test only. Loving her as he had never thought to love, there still remained with him so much of the temper in which he first wooed her that he could be satisfied with nothing short of unconditional surrender. Delighting in her independence of mind, he still desired to see her in complete subjugation to him, to inspire her with unreflecting passion. Tame consent to matrimony was an everyday experience. Agnes Brissenden, he felt sure, would marry him whenever he chose to ask her--and would make one of the best wives conceivable. But of Rhoda Nunn he expected and demanded more than this. She must rise far above the level of ordinary intelligent women. She must manifest an absolute confidence in him--that was the true significance of his present motives. The censures and suspicions which she had not scrupled to confess in plain words must linger in no corner of her mind.
His heart throbbed with impatience for her coming. Come she would; it was not in Rhoda's nature to play tricks; if she had not meant to meet him she would have said so resolutely, as last night.
At a few minutes past the hour he looked landward, and saw her figure against the golden sky. She came down from the sandbank very slowly, with careless, loitering steps. He moved but a little way to meet her, and then stood still. He had done his part; it was now hers to forego female privileges, to obey the constraint of love. The western afterglow touched her features, heightening the beauty Everard had learnt to see in them. Still she loitered, stooping to pick up a piece of seaweed; but still he kept his place, motionless, and she came nearer.
'Did you see the light of sunset on the mountains?'
'Yes,' he replied.
'There has been no such evening since I came.'
'And you wanted to sit at home with a book. That was no close for a perfect day.'
'I found a letter from your cousin. She was with her friends the Goodalls yesterday.'
'The Goodalls--I used to know them.'
The word was uttered with significance. Everard understood the allusion, but did not care to show that he did.
'How does Mary get on without you?'
'There's no difficulty.'
'Has she any one capable of taking your place?'
'Yes. Miss Vesper can do all that's necessary.'
'Even to inspiring the girls with zeal for an independent life?'
'Perhaps even that.'
They went along by the waves, in the warm-coloured twilight, until the houses of Seascale were hidden. Then Everard stopped.
'To-morrow we go to Coniston?' he said, smiling as he stood before her.
'You are going?'
'Do you think I can leave you?'
Rhoda's eyes fell. She held the long strip of seaweed with bothhands and tightened it.
'Do you _wish_ me to leave you?' he added.
'You mean that we are to go through the lakes together--as we have been to-day?'
'No. I don't mean that.'
Rhoda took a few steps onward, so that he remained standing behind. Another moment and his arms had folded about her, his lips were on hers. She did not resist. His embrace grew stronger, and he pressed kiss after kiss upon her mouth. With exquisitedelight he saw the deep crimson flush that transfigured hercountenance; saw her look for one instant into his eyes, and wasconscious of the triumphant gleam she met there.
'Do you remember my saying in the letter how I hungered to taste your lips? I don't know how I have refrained so long--'
'What is your love worth?' asked Rhoda, speaking with a great effort. She had dropped the seaweed, and one of her hands rested upon his shoulder, with a slight repelling pressure.
'Worth your whole life!' he answered, with a low, glad laugh.
'That is what I doubt. Convince me of that.'
'Convince you? With more kisses? But what is _your_ love worth?'
'Perhaps more than you yet understand. Perhaps more than you _can_ understand.'
'I will believe that, Rhoda. I know, at all events, that it is something of inestimable price. The knowledge has grown in me for a year and more.'
'Let me stand away from you again. There is something more to be said before--No, let me be quite apart from you.'
He released her after one more kiss.
'Will you answer me a question with perfect truthfulness?'
Her voice was not quite steady, but she succeeded in looking at him with unflinching eyes.
'Yes. I will answer you _any_ question.'
'That is spoken like a man. Tell me then--is there at this moment any woman living who has a claim upon you--a moral claim?'
'No such woman exists.'
'But--do we speak the same language?'
'Surely,' he answered with great earnestness. 'There is no woman to whom I am bound by any kind of obligation.'
A long wave rolled up, broke, and retreated, whilst Rhoda stood in silent uncertainty.
'I must put the question in another way. During the past month-- the past three months--have you made profession of love--have you even pretended love--to any woman?'
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