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- The Unclassed - 70/74 -
He moved uneasily under her gaze, and affected a cheerfulness which could not deceive her.
"Has your book been a success?" Ida asked.
"No; it fell dead."
"Why didn't you give me a copy?"
"I thought too little of it. It's poor stuff. Better you shouldn't read it"
"But I have read it."
"Got it from the library, did you?"
"No; I bought it."
"What a pity to waste so much money!"
"Why do you speak like that? You know how anything of yours would interest me."
"Oh yes, in a certain way, of course."
"For its own sake, too. I can't criticise, but I know it held me as nothing else ever did. It was horrible in many parts, but I was the better for reading it."
He could not help showing pleasure, and grew more natural. Ida had purposely refrained from speaking of the book when she read it, more than a month ago, always hoping that he would be the first to say something about it. But the news he had brought her to-night put an end to reticence on her side. She must speak out her heart, cost her what it might.
"Who should read it, if not I?" she said, as he remained silent. "Who can possibly understand it half so well as I do?"
"Yes," he remarked, with wilful misunderstanding, "you have seen the places and the people. And I hear you are going on with the work your grandfather began?"
"I am trying to do something. If you had been able to give me a little time now and then, I should have asked you to advise and help me. It is hard to work there single-handed."
"You are too good for that; I should have liked to think of you as far apart from those vile scenes."
"Too good for it?" Her voice trembled. "How can any one be too good to help the miserable? If you had said that I was not worthy of such a privilege--Can you, knowing me as no one else does or ever will, think that I could live here in peace, whilst those poor creatures stint and starve themselves every week to provide me with comforts? Do I seem to you such a woman?"
He only smiled, his lips tortured to hold their peace.
"I had hoped you understood me better than that. Is that why you have left me to myself? Do you doubt my sincerity? Why do you speak so cruelly, saying I am too good, when your real thoughts must be so different? You mean that I am incapable of really doing anything; you have no faith in me. I seem to you too weak to pursue any high end. You would not even speak to me of your book, because you felt I should not appreciate it. And yet you do know me--"
"Yes; I know you well," Waymark said.
Ida looked steadily at him. "If you are speaking to me for the last time, won't you be sincere, and tell me of my faults? Do you think I could not bear it? You can say nothing to me--nothing from your heart--that I won't accept in all humility. Are we no longer even friends?"
"You mistake me altogether."
"And you are still my friend?" she uttered warmly. "But why do you think me unfit for good work?"
"I had no such thought. You know how my ideals oppose each other. I spoke on the impulse of the moment; I often find it so hard to reconcile myself to anything in life that is not, still and calm and beautiful. I am just now bent on forgetting all the things about which you are so earnest."
"Earnest? Yes. But I cannot give my whole self to the work. I am so lonely."
"You will not be so for long," he answered with more cheerfulness. "You have every opportunity of making for yourself a good social position. You will soon have friends, if only you seek them. Your goodness will make you respected. Indeed I wonder at your remaining so isolated. It need not be; I am sure it need not. Your wealth--I have no thought of speaking cynically--your wealth must--"
"My wealth! What is it to me? What do I care for all the friends it might bring? They are nothing to me in my misery. But you . . . I would give all I possess for one kind word from you."
Flushing over forehead and cheeks, she compelled herself to meet his look. It was her wealth that stood between her and him. Her position was not like that of other women. Conventionalities were meaningless, set against a life.
"I have tried hard to make myself ever so little worthy of you," she murmured, when her voice would again obey her will. "Am I still-- still too far beneath you?"
He stood like one detected in a crime, and stammered the words.
"Ida, I am not free."
He had risen. Ida sprang up, and moved towards him.
"_This_ was your secret? Tell me, then. Look--_I_ am strong! Tell me about it. I might have thought of this. I thought only of myself. I might have known there was good reason for the distance you put between us. Forgive me--oh, forgive the pain I have caused you!
"You asking for forgiveness? How you must despise me."
"Why should I despise you? You have never said a word to me that any friend, any near friend, might not have said, never since I myself, in my folly, forbade you to. You were not bound to tell me--"
"I had told your grandfather," Waymark said in a broken voice. "In a letter I wrote the very day he was taken ill, I begged him to let you know that I had bound myself."
As he spoke he knew that he was excusing himself with a truth which implied a falsehood, and before it was too late his soul revolted against the unworthiness.
"But it was my own fault that it was left so long. I would not let him tell you when he wished to; I put off the day as long as I could."
"Since you first knew me?" she asked, in a low voice.
"No! Since you came to live here. I was free before."
It was the part of his confession which cost him most to utter, and the hearing of it chilled Ida's heart. Whilst she had been living through her bitterest shame and misery, he had given his love to another woman, forgetful of her. For the first time, weakness overcame her.
"I thought you loved me," she sobbed, bowing her head.
"I did--and I do. I can't understand myself, and it would be worse than vain to try to show you how it came about. I have brought a curse upon my life, and worse than my own despair is your misery."
"Is she a good woman you are going to marry?" Ida asked simply and kindly.
"Only less noble than yourself."
"And she loves you--no, she cannot love as I do--but she loves you worthily and with all her soul?"
"Worthily and with all her soul--the greater my despair."
"Then I dare not think of her one unkind thought. We must remember her, and be strong for her sake. You will leave London and forget me soon,--yes, yes, you will _try_ to forget me. You owe it to her; it is your duty."
"Duty!" he broke out passionately. "What have I to do with duty? Was it not my duty to be true to you? Was it not my duty to confess my hateful weakness, when I had taken the fatal step? Duty has no meaning for me. I have set it aside at every turn. Even now there would be no obligation on me to keep my word, but that I am too great a coward to revoke it."
She stood near to him.
"Dear,--I will call you so, it is for the last time,--you think these things in the worst moment of our suffering; afterwards you will thank me for having been strong enough, or cold enough, to be your conscience. There _is_ such a thing as duty; it speaks in your heart and in mine, and tells us that we must part."
"You speak so lightly of parting. If you felt all that I--"
"My love is no shadow less than yours," she said, with earnestness which was well nigh severity. "I have never wavered from you since I knew you first"
"I meant no reproach, but it will perhaps help you to think of that. You _did_ love her, if it was only for a day, and that love will return."
She moved from him, and he too rose.
"You shame me," he said, under his breath. "I am not worthy to touch
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