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Mrs. Ormonde tried to jest, but did it nervously.
'Do I seem to you coarser-grained than I used to be?'
'More a man of the world, at all events. No, not fallen off in the way you mean. But I think you judge more soberly about grave matters. I think you know yourself better.'
'Much better, if I am not mistaken.'
'But still can have _la tete montee_, on occasion? Still think of many things in the idealist's fashion?'
'I sincerely hope so. Of everything, I trust.'
'Could make great sacrifices for an imaginary obligation?'
He left his seat again. Mrs. Ormonde was agitated, and both kept silence for some moments.
'It grieves me that you say that,' Walter spoke at length, earnestly. 'This obligation of mine is far from imaginary. That is not very like yourself, Mrs. Ormonde.'
'I cannot speak so clearly as I should like to, Walter. I, too, have my troublesome thoughts.'
'Let us go back to my questioning. Tell me everything about her, from the day when you decided what to do. Will you?'
'Freely, and hide nothing whatever that I know.'
For a long time her narrative, broken by questioning, continued. Egremont listened with earnest countenance, often looking pleased. At the end, he said:
'You have done a good work. I thank you with all my heart.'
'Yes, you owe me thanks,' Mrs. Ormonde returned, quietly. 'But perhaps you give them for a mistaken reason.'
'In what you have told me of the growth of her character, there is nothing that I did not foresee. It is good to know that, even then, I was under no foolish illusion. But the circumstances were needed, and you have supplied them. How can I be mistaken in thanking you for having so tended her who is to be my wife?'
'Wait, Walter. You foresaw into what she might develop; it is true, and it enables us to regard the past without too much sadness. Did you foresee her perfect equanimity, when once she had settled down to a new life?'
He said hesitatingly, 'No.'
'Believing that she had taken such a desperate step purely through love of you, you thought it more than likely that she would live on in great unhappiness?'
'Her cheerfulness surprises me. But it isn't impossible to offer an explanation. She has foreseen what is now going to happen. She knows you are my friend; she sees that you are giving great pains to raise her from her former standing in life; what more likely than that she explains it all by guessing the truth? And so her cheerfulness is the most hopeful sign for me.'
'That is plausible; but you are mistaken. Long ago I talked to her with much seriousness of all her future. I spoke of the chances of her being able to earn a living with her voice, and purposely discouraged any great hope in that direction. Her needlework, and what she had been trained to at the Home, were, I showed her, likely to be her chief resources. I have even tested her on the subject of her returning to live with her sister.'
'Hope has overcome all these considerations. You kept her sister from knowing where she was. Why, if there was not some idea of severing her from her old associations?'
'I explained it to her in one of our talks. I showed her that her rashness had made it very difficult to aid her.'
'You spoke of me to her?'
'Never, as I have told you. Nor has she ever mentioned you. I pointed out to her that of course I could not explain the state of things to the Emersons, and therefore Lydia had better not visit her for some time.'
Egremont sat down at a distance, and brooded.
'But a contradiction is involved!' he exclaimed presently. 'How can a girl of her character have forgotten so quickly such profound emotion?'
'You must not forget that weeks passed between my finding her and her going to live with the Emersons. During all that time the poor girl was wretched enough.'
'Her cheerfulness only came with time, after that.'
'And it is your conviction that she has absolutely put me out of her mind? That she has found sufficient happiness in the progress she has felt herself to be making?'
'That is my firm belief. Her character is not so easy to read as to-day's newspaper. She can suffer, I think, even more than most women, but she has, too, far more strength than most women, a mind of a higher order, purer consolations. And she has art to aid her, a resource you and I cannot judge of with assurance.'
Walter looked up and said:
'You are describing a woman who might be the most refined man's ideal.'
'I think so.'
'You admit that Thyrza is in every way more than fit to be my wife.'
'I will admit that, Walter.'
'Then I am astonished at your tone in speaking of what I mean to do.'
'You have asked me two questions,' said Mrs. Ormonde, her face alight with conviction. 'Please answer two of mine. Is this woman worthy of a man's entire love?'
He hesitated, but answered affirmatively.
'And have you that entire love to give her? Walter, the truth, for she is very dear to me.'
(In her room in London Thyrza sat, and said to herself, 'To-morrow he comes!')
He answered: 'I have not.'
'Then,' Mrs. Ormonde said, a slight flush in her cheeks, 'how can you express surprise at what I do?'
A long silence fell. Walter brooded, something of shame on his face from that confession. Then he came to Mrs. Ormonde's side, and took her hand.
'You are incapable,' he said gently, 'of conscious injustice. Had you said nothing of this to me, I should have gone to Thyrza to-morrow, and have asked her to marry me. She would not have refused; even granting that her passion has gone, you know she would not refuse me, and you know too that I could enrich her life abundantly. My passion, too, is over, but I know well that love for such a woman as she is would soon awake in me. I do not think I should do her any injustice if I asked her to be my wife: shall I be unjust to her if I withhold?'
Mrs. Ormonde did not answer at once. She retained his hand, and her own showed how strongly she felt.
'Walter, I think it would be unjust to her if you asked her-- remembering her present mind. It is not only that your passion for her is dead; you think of another woman.'
'It is true. But I do not love her.'
'You are not ready to behave crazily about her; no. But I believe that you love her in a truer sense than you ever loved Thyrza. You love her mind.'
'Has not Thyrza a mind?'
'You do not know it, Walter. I doubt whether you would ever know it. Recall a letter you wrote to me, in which you dissected your own character. It was frank and in a very great measure true. You are not the husband for Thyrza.'
'You place Thyrza above Annabel Newthorpe?'
It was asked almost indignantly, so that Mrs. Ormonde smiled and raised her hand.
'You, it is clear, resent it.'
He reddened. Mrs. Ormonde continued:
'I compare them merely. I don't think Thyrza will find the husband who is worthy of her, but I think it likely that she will win more love than you could ever give her. I have told you that she is dear to me. To you I would give a daughter of my own with entire confidence, for you are human and of noble impulses. But I do not wish you to marry Thyrza. Yes, you read my thought. It is not solely the question of love. I wish you--I have so long wished you--to marry Annabel. To Thyrza you do not the least injustice by withholding your offer; she is happy without you. You are entirely free to consult your own highest interests. If I counsel wrongly, the blame is mine. But, Walter, you must after all decide for yourself. It is a most hazardous part this that I am playing; at
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