Rhoda's week at the seashore was spoilt by uncertain weather. Only two days of abiding sunshine; for the rest, mere fitful gleams across a sky heaped with stormclouds. Over Wastdale hung a black canopy; from Scawfell came mutterings of thunder; and on the last night of the week—when Monica fled from her home in pelting rain—tempest broke upon the mountains and the sea. Wakeful until early morning, and at times watching the sky from her inland-looking window, Rhoda saw the rocky heights that frown upon Wastwater illuminated by lightning-flare of such intensity and duration that miles of distance were annihilated, and it seemed but a step to those stern crags and precipices.
Sunday began with rain, but also with promise of better things; far over the sea was a broad expanse of blue, and before long the foam of the fallen tide glistened in strong, hopeful rays. Rhoda wandered about the shore towards St. Bees Head. A broad stream flowing into the sea stopped her progress before she had gone very far; the only way of crossing it was to go up on to the line of railway, which here runs along the edge of the sands. But she had little inclination to walk farther. No house, no person within sight, she sat down to gaze at the gulls fishing by the little river-mouth, their screams the only sound that blended with that of the subdued breakers.
On the horizon lay a long, low shape that might have been mistaken for cloud, though it resembled land. It was the Isle of Man. In an hour or two the outline had grown much clearer; the heights and hollows were no longer doubtful. In the north became visible another remote and hilly tract; it was the coast of Scotland beyond Solway Firth.
These distant objects acted as incentives to Rhoda's imagination. She heard Everard Barfoot's voice as he talked of travel—of the Orient Express. That joy of freedom he had offered her. Perhaps he was now very near her, anxious to repeat his offer. If he carried out the project suggested at their last interview, she would see him to-day or to-morrow morning—then she must make her choice. To have a day's walk with him among the mountains would be practically deciding. But for what? If she rejected his proposal of a free union, was he prepared to marry her in legal form? Yes; she had enough power over him for that. But how would it affect his thought of her? Constraining him to legal marriage, would she not lower herself in his estimation, and make the endurance of his love less probable? Barfoot was not a man to accept with genuine satisfaction even the appearance of bondage, and more likely than not his love of her depended upon the belief that in her he had found a woman capable of regarding life from his own point of view—a woman who, when she once loved, would be scornful of the formalities clung to by feeble minds. He would yield to her if she demanded forms, but afterwards—when passion had subsided—.
A week had been none too long to ponder these considerations by themselves; but they were complicated with doubts of a more disturbing nature. Her mind could not free itself from the thought of Monica. That Mrs. Widdowson was not always truthful with her husband she had absolute proof; whether that supported her fear of an intimacy between Monica and Everard she was unable to determine. The grounds of suspicion seemed to her very grave; so grave, that during her first day or two in Cumberland she had all but renounced the hopes long secretly fostered. She knew herself well enough to understand how jealousy might wreck her life—even if it were only retrospective. If she married Barfoot (forms or none—that question in no way touched this other), she would demand of him a flawless faith. Her pride revolted against the thought of possessing only a share in his devotion; the moment that any faithlessness came to her knowledge she would leave him, perforce, inevitably—and what miseries were then before her!
Was flawless faith possible to Everard Barfoot? His cousin would ridicule the hope of any such thing—or so Rhoda believed. A conventional woman would of course see the completest evidence of his untrustworthiness in his dislike of legal marriage; but Rhoda knew the idleness of this argument. If love did not hold him, assuredly the forms of marriage could be no restraint upon Everard; married ten times over, he would still deem himself absolutely free from any obligation save that of love. Yet how did he think of that obligation? He might hold it perfectly compatible with the indulgence of casual impulse. And this (which she suspected to be the view of every man) Rhoda had no power of tolerating. It must be all or nothing, whole faith or none whatever.
* * *
In the afternoon she suffered from impatient expectancy. If Barfoot came to-day—she imagined him somewhere in the neighbourhood, approaching Seascale as the time of his appointment drew near—would he call at her lodgings? The address she had not given him, but doubtless he had obtained it from his cousin. Perhaps he would prefer to meet her unexpectedly—not a difficult thing in this little place, with its handful of residents and visitors. Certain it was she desired his arrival. Her heart leapt with joy in the thought that this very evening might bring him. She wished to study him under new conditions, and—possibly—to talk with him even more frankly than ever yet, for there would be opportunity enough.
About six o'clock a train coming from the south stopped at the station, which was visible from Rhoda's sitting-room window. She had been waiting for this moment. She could not go to the station, and did not venture even to wait anywhere in sight of the exit. Whether any passenger had alighted must remain uncertain. If Everard had arrived by this train, doubtless he would go to the hotel, which stood only a few yards from the line. He would take a meal and presently come forth.
Having allowed half an hour to elapse, she dressed and walked shoreward. Seascale has no street, no shops; only two or three short rows of houses irregularly placed on the rising ground above the beach. To cross the intervening railway, Rhoda could either pass through the little station, in which case she would also pass the hotel and be observable from its chief windows, or descend by a longer road which led under a bridge, and in this way avoid the hotel altogether. She took the former route. On the sands were a few scattered people, and some children subdued to Sunday decorum. The tide was rising. She went down to the nearest tract of hard sand, and stood there for a long time, a soft western breeze playing upon her face.
If Barfoot were here he would now be coming out to look for her. From a distance he might not recognize her figure, clad as she was in a costume such as he had never seen her wearing. She might venture now to walk up towards the dry, white sandheaps, where the little convolvulus grew in abundance, and other flowers of which she neither knew nor cared to learn the names. Scarcely had she turned when she saw Everard approaching, still far off, but unmistakable. He signalled by taking off his hat, and quickly was beside her.
'Did you know me before I happened to look round?' she asked laughingly.
'Of course I did. Up there by the station I caught sight of you. Who else bears herself as you do—with splendid disdain of common mortals?'
'Please don't make me think that my movements are ridiculous.'
'They are superb. The sea has already touched your cheeks. But I am afraid you have had abominable weather.'
'Yes, rather bad; but there's hope to-day. Where do you come from?'
'By train, only from Carnforth. I left London yesterday morning, and stopped at Morecambe—some people I know are there. As trains were awkward to-day, I drove from Morecambe to Carnforth. Did you expect me?'
'I thought you might come, as you spoke of it.'
'How I have got through the week I couldn't tell you. I should have been here days ago, but I was afraid. Let us go nearer to the sea. I was afraid of making you angry.'
'It's better to keep one's word.'
'Of course it is. And I am all the more delighted to be with you for the miserable week of waiting. Have you bathed?'
'Once or twice.'
'I had a swim this morning before breakfast, in pouring rain. Now you can't swim.'
'No. I can't. But why were you sure about it?'
'Only because it's so rare for any girl to learn swimming. A man who can't swim is only half the man he might be, and to a woman I should think it must be of even more benefit. As in everything else, women are trammelled by their clothes; to be able to get rid of them, and to move about with free and brave exertion of all the body, must tend to every kind of health, physical, mental, and mortal.'
'Yes, I quite believe that,' said Rhoda, gazing at the sea.
'I spoke rather exultantly, didn't I? I like to feel myself superior to you in some things. You have so often pointed out to me what a paltry, ineffectual creature I am.'
'I don't remember ever using those words, or implying them.'
'How does the day stand with you?' asked Everard in the tone of perfect comradeship. 'Have you still to dine?'
'My dining is a very simple matter; it happens at one o'clock. About nine I shall have supper.'
'Let us walk a little then. And may I smoke?'
Everard lit a cigar, and, as the tide drove them back, they moved eventually to the higher ground, whence there was a fine view of the mountains, rich in evening colours.
'To-morrow you leave here?'
'Yes,' Rhoda answered. 'I shall go by railway to Coniston, and walk from there towards Helvellyn, as you suggested.'
'I have something else to propose. A man I talked to in the train told me of a fine walk in this neighbourhood. From Ravenglass, just below here, there's a little line runs up Eskdale to a terminus at the foot of Scawfell, a place called Boot. From Boot one can walk either over the top of Scawfell or by a lower track to Wastdale Head. It's very grand, wild country, especially the last part, the going down to Wastwater, and not many miles in all. Suppose we have that walk to-morrow? From Wastdale we could drive back to Seascale in the evening, and then the next day—just as you like.'
'Are you quite sure about the distances?'
'Quite. I have the Ordnance map in my pocket. Let me show you.'
He spread the map on the top of a wall, and they stood side by side inspecting it.
'We must take something to eat; I'll provide for that. And at the Wastdale Head hotel we can have dinner—about three or four, probably. It would be enjoyable, wouldn't it?'
'If it doesn't rain.'
'We'll hope it won't. As we go back we can look out the trains at the station. No doubt there's one soon after breakfast.'
Their rambling, with talk in a strain of easy friendliness, brought them back to Seascale half an hour after sunset, which was of a kind that seemed to promise well for the morrow.
'Won't you come out again after supper?' Barfoot asked.
'Not again to-night.'
'For a quarter of an hour,' he urged. 'Just down to the sea and back.'
'I have been walking all day. I shall be glad to rest and read.'
'Very well. To-morrow morning.'
Having discovered the train which would take them to Ravenglass, and connect with one on the Eskdale line, they agreed to meet at the station. Barfoot was to bring with him such refreshment as would be necessary.
Their hopes for the weather had complete fulfilment. The only fear was lest the sun's heat might be oppressive, but this anxiety could be cheerfully borne. Slung over his shoulders Barfoot had a small forage-bag, which gave him matter for talk on the railway journey; it had been his companion in many parts of the world, and had held strange kinds of food.
The journey up Eskdale, from Ravenglass to Boot, is by a miniature railway, with the oddest little engine and a carriage or two of primitive simplicity. At each station on the upward winding track—stations represented only by a wooden shed like a tool-house—the guard jumps down and acts as booking-clerk, if passengers there be desirous of booking. In a few miles the scenery changes from beauty to grandeur, and at the terminus no further steaming would be possible, for the great flank of Scawfell bars the way.
Everard and his companion began their climb through the pretty straggling village of Boot. A mountain torrent roared by the wayside, and the course they had marked upon the map showed that they must follow this stream for some miles up to the tarn where it originated. Houses, human beings, and even trodden paths they soon left behind, coming out on to a vast moorland, with hill summits near and far. Scawfell they could not hope to ascend; with the walk that lay before them it was enough to make a way over one of his huge shoulders.
'If your strength fails,' said Everard merrily, when for an hour they had been plodding through grey solitudes, 'there is no human help. I should have to choose between carrying you back to Boot or on to Wastdale.'
'My strength is not likely to fail sooner than yours,' was the laughing reply.
'I have chicken sandwiches, and wine that maketh glad the heart of man. Tell me when hunger overcomes you. I should think we had better make our halt at Burmoor Tarn.'
That, indeed, proved to be the convenient resting-place. A wild spot, a hollow amid the rolling expanse of moorland, its little lake of black water glistening under the midday sun. And here stood a shepherd's cottage, the only habitation they had seen since leaving Boot. Somewhat uncertain about the course to be henceforth followed, they made inquiry at this cottage, and a woman who appeared to be quite alone gave them the needful direction. Thus at ease in mind they crossed the bridge at the foot of the tarn, and just beyond it found a spot suitable for repose. Everard brought forth his sandwiches and his flask of wine, moreover a wine-glass, which was for Rhoda's use. They ate and drank festively.
'Now this is just what I have enjoyed in imagination for a year or more,' said Barfoot, when the luncheon was over, and he lay propped upon his elbow, gazing at Rhoda's fine eyes and her sun-warmed cheeks. 'An ideal realized, for once in one's life. A perfect moment.'
'Don't you like the scent of burning peat from that cottage?'
'Yes. I like everything about us, in heaven and earth, and most of all I like your companionship, Rhoda.'
She could not resent this first use of her Christian name; it was so natural, so inevitable; yet she moved her head as if with a slight annoyance.
'Is mine as agreeable to you?' he added, stroking the back of her hand with a spray of heather. 'Or do you just tolerate me out of good-nature?'
'I have liked your companionship all the way from Seascale. Don't disturb my enjoyment of it for the rest of the way.'
'That would be a misfortune indeed. The whole day shall be perfect. Not a note of discord. But I must have liberty to say what comes into my mind, and when you don't choose to answer I shall respect your silence.'
'Wouldn't you like to smoke a cigar before we start again?'
'Yes. But I like still better not to. The scent of peat is pleasanter to you than that of tobacco.'
'Oblige me by lighting the cigar.'
'If you command—' He did her bidding. 'The whole day shall be perfect. A delightful dinner at the inn, a drive to Seascale, an hour or two of rest, and then one more quiet talk by the sea at nightfall.'
'All but the last. I shall be too tired.'
'No. I must have that hour of talk by the sea. You are free to answer me or not, but your presence you must grant me. We are in an ideal world remember. We care nothing for all the sons and daughters of men. You and I will spend this one day together between cloudless heaven and silent earth—a memory for lifetime. At nightfall you will come out again, and meet me down by the sea, where you stood when I first saw you yesterday.'
Rhoda made no reply. She looked away from him at the black, deep water.
'What an opportunity,' he went on, raising his hand to point at the cottage, 'for saying the silliest of conceivable things!'
'What might that be, I wonder?'
'Why, that to dwell there together for the rest of our lives would be supreme felicity. You know the kind of man that would say that.'
'Not personally, thank goodness!'
'A week—a month, even—with weather such as this. Nay, with a storm for variety; clouds from the top of Scawfell falling thick about us; a fierce wind shrieking across the tarn; sheets and torrents and floods of rain beating upon our roof; and you and I by the peat-fire. With a good supply of books, old and new, I can picture it for three months, for half a year!'
'Be on your guard. Remember "that kind of man".'
'I am in no danger. There is a vast difference between six months and all one's life. When the half-year was over we would leave England.'
'By the Orient Express?'
They laughed together, Rhoda colouring, for the words that had escaped her meant too much for mere jest.
'By the Orient Express. We would have a house by the Bosphorus for the next half-year, and contrast our emotions with those we had known by Burmoor Tarn. Think what a rich year of life that would make! How much we should have learnt from nature and from each other!'
'And how dreadfully tired of each other we should be!'
Barfoot looked keenly at her. He could not with certainty read her countenance.
'You mean that?' he asked.
'You know it is true.'
'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 both hands 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 exquisite delight he saw the deep crimson flush that transfigured her countenance; saw her look for one instant into his eyes, and was conscious 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?'
'To no woman whatever,' he answered firmly.
'That satisfies me.'
'If I knew what is in your mind!' exclaimed Everard, laughing. 'What sort of life have you imagined for me? Is this the result of Mary's talk?'
'Still, she planted the suspicion. Believe me, you have been altogether mistaken. I never was the kind of man Mary thought me. Some day you shall understand more about it—in the meantime my word must be enough. I have no thought of love for any woman but you. Did I frighten you with those joking confessions in my letters? I wrote them purposely—as you must have seen. The mean, paltry jealousies of women such as one meets every day are so hateful to me. They argue such a lack of brains. If I were so unfortunate as to love a woman who looked sour when I praised a beautiful face, I would snap the bond between us like a bit of thread. But you are not one of those poor creatures.'
He looked at her with some gravity.
'Should you think me a poor creature if I resented any kind of unfaithfulness?—whether love, in any noble sense, had part in it or not?'
'No. That is the reasonable understanding between man and wife. If I exact fidelity from you, and certainly I should, I must consider myself under the same obligation.'
'You say "man and wife." Do you say it with the ordinary meaning?'
'Not as it applies to us. You know what I mean when I ask you to be my wife. If we cannot trust each other without legal bonds, any union between us would be unjustified.'
Suppressing the agitation which he felt, he awaited her answer. They could still read each other's faces perfectly in a pale yellow light from across the sea. Rhoda's manifested an intense conflict.
'After all, you doubt of your love for me?' said Barfoot quietly.
That was not her doubt. She loved with passion, allowing herself to indulge the luxurious emotion as never yet. She longed once more to feel his arms about her. But even thus she could consider the vast issues of the step to which she was urged. The temptation to yield was very strong, for it seemed to her an easier and a nobler thing to proclaim her emancipation from social statutes than to announce before her friends the simple news that she was about to marry. That announcement would excite something more than surprise. Mary Barfoot could not but smile with gentle irony; other women would laugh among themselves; the girls would feel a shock, as at the fall of one who had made heroic pretences. A sure way of averting this ridicule was by furnishing occasion for much graver astonishment. If it became known that she had taken a step such as few women would have dared to take—deliberately setting an example of new liberty—her position in the eyes of all who knew her remained one of proud independence. Rhoda's character was specially exposed to the temptation of such a motive. For months this argument had been in her mind, again and again she decided that the sensational step was preferable to a commonplace renunciation of all she had so vehemently preached. And now that the moment of actual choice had come she felt able to dare everything—as far as the danger concerned herself; but she perceived more strongly than hitherto that not only her own future was involved. How would such practical heresy affect Everard's position?
She uttered this thought.
'Are you willing, for the sake of this idea, to abandon all society but that of the very few people who would approve or tolerate what you have done?'
'I look upon the thing in this way. We are not called upon to declare our principles wherever we go. If we regard each other as married, why, we are married. I am no Quixote, hoping to convert the world. It is between you and me—our own sense of what is reasonable and dignified.'
'But you would not make it a mere deception?'
'Mary would of course be told, and any one else you like.'
She believed him entirely serious. Another woman might have suspected that he was merely trying her courage, either to assure himself of her love or to gratify his vanity. But Rhoda's idealism enabled her to take him literally. She herself had for years maintained an exaggerated standard of duty and merit; desirous of seeing Everard in a nobler light than hitherto, she endeavoured to regard his scruple against formal wedlock as worthy of all respect.
'I can't answer you at once,' she said, half turning away.
'You must. Here and at once.'
The one word of assent would have satisfied him. This he obstinately required. He believed that it would confirm his love beyond any other satisfaction she could render him. He must be able to regard her as magnanimous, a woman who had proved herself worth living or dying for. And he must have the joy of subduing her to his will.
'No,' said Rhoda firmly. 'I can't answer you tonight. I can't decide so suddenly.'
This was disingenuous, and she felt humiliated by her subterfuge. Anything but a sudden decision was asked of her. Before leaving Chelsea she had foreseen this moment, and had made preparations for the possibility of never returning to Miss Barfoot's house—knowing the nature of the proposal that would be offered to her. But the practical resolve needed a greater effort than she had imagined. Above all, she feared an ignominious failure of purpose after her word was given; that would belittle her in Everard's eyes, and so shame her in her own that all hope of happiness in marriage must be at an end.
'You are still doubtful of me, Rhoda?'
He took her hand, and again drew her close. But she refused her lips.
'Or are you doubtful of your own love?'
'No. If I understand what love means, I love you.'
'Then give me the kiss I am waiting for. You have not kissed me yet.'
'I can't—until I am sure of myself—of my readiness—'
Her broken words betrayed the passion with which she was struggling. Everard felt her tremble against his side.
'Give me your hand,' he whispered. 'The left hand.'
Before she could guess his purpose he had slipped a ring upon her finger, a marriage ring. Rhoda started away from him, and at once drew off the perilous symbol.
'No—that proves to me I can't! What should we gain? You see, you dare not be quite consistent. It's only deceiving the people who don't know us.'
'But I have explained to you. The consistency is in ourselves, our own minds—'
'Take it back. Custom is too strong for us. We should only play at defying it. Take it back—or I shall drop it on the sand.'
Profoundly mortified, Everard restored the gold circlet to its hiding-place and stood gazing at the dim horizon. Some moments passed, then he heard his name murmured. He did not look round.
Was that Rhoda's voice, so low, tender, caressing? It thrilled him, and with a silent laugh of scorn at his own folly, he turned to her, every thought burnt up in passion.
'Will you kiss me?'
For an answer she laid her hands on his shoulders and gazed at him. Barfoot understood. He smiled constrainedly, and said in a low voice,—
'You wish for that old, idle form—?'
'Not the religious form, which has no meaning for either of us. But—'
'You have been living here seven or eight days. Stay till the fifteenth, then we can get a licence from the registrar of the district. Does that please you?'
Her eyes made reply.
'Do you love me any the less, Everard?'
She did, and consciousness was lost for them as their mouths clung together and their hearts throbbed like one.
'Isn't it better?' Rhoda asked, as they walked back in the darkness. 'Won't it make our life so much simpler and happier?'
'You know it will.' She laughed joyously, trying to meet his look.
'Perhaps you are right.'
'I shall let no one hear of it until—. Then let us go abroad.'
'You dare not face Mary?'
'I dare, if you wish it. Of course she will laugh at me. They will all laugh at me.'
'Why, you may laugh as well.'
'But you have spoilt my life, you know. Such a grand life it might have been. Why did you come and interfere with me? And you have been so terribly obstinate.'
'Of course; that's my nature. But after all I have been weak.'
'Yielding in one point that didn't matter to you at all? It was the only way of making sure that you loved me.'
Barfoot laughed slightingly.
'And what if I needed the other proof that you loved me.'