He might not have grudged her the last word, had she properly needed it. Its utter superfluity--the perfection of her victory without it-- was what galled him. Yes, she had outflanked him, taken him unawares, and he had fired not one shot. Esprit de l'escalier--it was as he went upstairs that he saw how he might yet have snatched from her, if not the victory, the palm. Of course he ought to have laughed aloud-- "Capital, capital! You really do deserve to fool me. But ah, yours is a love that can't be dissembled. Never was man by maiden loved more ardently than I by you, my poor girl, at this moment."
And stay!--what if she really HAD been but pretending to have killed her love? He paused on the threshold of his room. The sudden doubt made his lost chance the more sickening. Yet was the doubt dear to him . . . What likelier, after all, than that she had been pretending? She had already twitted him with his lack of intuition. He had not seen that she loved him when she certainly did love him. He had needed the pearls' demonstration of that.--The pearls! THEY would betray her. He darted to the fender, and one of them he espied there instantly-- white? A rather flushed white, certainly. For the other he had to peer down. There it lay, not very distinct on the hearth's black-leading.
He turned away. He blamed himself for not dismissing from his mind the hussy he had dismissed from his room. Oh for an ounce of civet and a few poppies! The water-jug stood as a reminder of the hateful visit and of . . . He took it hastily away into his bedroom. There he washed his hands. The fact that he had touched Zuleika gave to this ablution a symbolism that made it the more refreshing.
Civet, poppies? Was there not, at his call, a sweeter perfume, a stronger anodyne? He rang the bell, almost caressingly.
His heart beat at sound of the clinking and rattling of the tray borne up the stairs. She was coming, the girl who loved him, the girl whose heart would be broken when he died. Yet, when the tray appeared in the doorway, and she behind it, the tray took precedence of her in his soul not less than in his sight. Twice, after an arduous morning, had his luncheon been postponed, and the coming of it now made intolerable the pangs of his hunger.
Also, while the girl laid the table-cloth, it occurred to him how flimsy, after all, was the evidence that she loved him. Suppose she did nothing of the kind! At the Junta, he had foreseen no difficulty in asking her. Now he found himself a prey to embarrassment. He wondered why. He had not failed in flow of gracious words to Nellie O'Mora. Well, a miniature by Hoppner was one thing, a landlady's live daughter was another. At any rate, he must prime himself with food. He wished Mrs. Batch had sent up something more calorific than cold salmon. He asked her daughter what was to follow.
"There's a pigeon-pie, your Grace."
"Cold? Then please ask your mother to heat it in the oven--quickly. Anything after that?"
"A custard pudding, your Grace."
"Cold? Let this, too, be heated. And bring up a bottle of champagne, please; and--and a bottle of port."
His was a head that had always hitherto defied the grape. But he thought that to-day, by all he had gone through, by all the shocks he had suffered, and the strains he had steeled himself to bear, as well as by the actual malady that gripped him, he might perchance have been sapped enough to experience by reaction that cordial glow of which he had now and again seen symptoms in his fellows.
Nor was he altogether disappointed of this hope. As the meal progressed, and the last of the champagne sparkled in his glass, certain things said to him by Zuleika--certain implied criticisms that had rankled, yes--lost their power to discommode him. He was able to smile at the impertinences of an angry woman, the tantrums of a tenth-rate conjurer told to go away. He felt he had perhaps acted harshly. With all her faults, she had adored him. Yes, he had been arbitrary. There seemed to be a strain of brutality in his nature. Poor Zuleika! He was glad for her that she had contrived to master her infatuation . . . Enough for him that he was loved by this exquisite meek girl who had served him at the feast. Anon, when he summoned her to clear the things away, he would bid her tell him the tale of her lowly passion. He poured a second glass of port, sipped it, quaffed it, poured a third. The grey gloom of the weather did but, as he eyed the bottle, heighten his sense of the rich sunshine so long ago imprisoned by the vintner and now released to make glad his soul. Even so to be released was the love pent for him in the heart of this sweet girl. Would that he loved her in return! . . . Why not?
Serva Briseis niveo colore
Nor were it gracious to invite an avowal of love and offer none in return. Yet, yet, expansive though his mood was, he could not pretend to himself that he was about to feel in this girl's presence anything but gratitude. He might pretend to her? Deception were a very poor return indeed for all her kindness. Besides, it might turn her head. Some small token of his gratitude--some trinket by which to remember him--was all that he could allow himself to offer . . . What trinket? Would she like to have one of his scarf-pins? Studs? Still more abs-- Ah! he had it, he literally and most providentially had it, there, in the fender: a pair of ear-rings!
He plucked the pink pearl and the black from where they lay, and rang the bell.
His sense of dramatic propriety needed that the girl should, before he addressed her, perform her task of clearing the table. If she had it to perform after telling her love, and after receiving his gift and his farewell, the bathos would be distressing for them both.
But, while he watched her at her task, he did wish she would be a little quicker. For the glow in him seemed to be cooling momently. He wished he had had more than three glasses from the crusted bottle which she was putting away into the chiffonier. Down, doubt! Down, sense of disparity! The moment was at hand. Would he let it slip? Now she was folding up the table-cloth, now she was going.
"Stay!" he uttered. "I have something to say to you." The girl turned to him.
He forced his eyes to meet hers. "I understand," he said in a constrained voice, "that you regard me with sentiments of something more than esteem.--Is this so?"
The girl had stepped quickly back, and her face was scarlet.
"Nay," he said, having to go through with it now, "there is no cause for embarrassment. And I am sure you will acquit me of wanton curiosity. Is it a fact that you--love me?"
She tried to speak, could not. But she nodded her head.
The Duke, much relieved, came nearer to her.
"What is your name?" he asked gently.
"Katie," she was able to gasp.
"Well, Katie, how long have you loved me?"
"Ever since," she faltered, "ever since you came to engage the rooms."
"You are not, of course, given to idolising any tenant of your mother's?"
"May I boast myself the first possessor of your heart?"
"Yes." She had become very pale now, and was trembling painfully.
"And may I assume that your love for me has been entirely disinterested? . . . You do not catch my meaning? I will put my question in another way. In loving me, you never supposed me likely to return your love?"
The girl looked up at him quickly, but at once her eyelids fluttered down again.
"Come, come!" said the Duke. "My question is a plain one. Did you ever for an instant suppose, Katie, that I might come to love you?"
"No," she said in a whisper; "I never dared to hope that."
"Precisely," said he. "You never imagined that you had anything to gain by your affection. You were not contriving a trap for me. You were upheld by no hope of becoming a young Duchess, with more frocks than you could wear and more dross than you could scatter. I am glad. I am touched. You are the first woman that has loved me in that way. Or rather," he muttered, "the first but one. And she . . . Answer me," he said, standing over the girl, and speaking with a great intensity. "If I were to tell you that I loved you, would you cease to love me?"
"Oh your Grace!" cried the girl. "Why no! I never dared--"
"Enough!" he said. "The catechism is ended. I have something which I should like to give you. Are your ears pierced?"
"Yes, your Grace."
"Then, Katie, honour me by accepting this present." So saying, he placed in the girl's hand the black pearl and the pink. The sight of them banished for a moment all other emotions in their recipient. She forgot herself. "Lor!" she said.
"I hope you will wear them always for my sake," said the Duke.
She had expressed herself in the monosyllable. No words came to her lips, but to her eyes many tears, through which the pearls were visible. They whirled in her bewildered brain as a token that she was loved--loved by HIM, though but yesterday he had loved another. It was all so sudden, so beautiful. You might have knocked her down (she says so to this day) with a feather. Seeing her agitation, the Duke pointed to a chair, bade her be seated.
Her mind was cleared by the new posture. Suspicion crept into it, followed by alarm. She looked at the ear-rings, then up at the Duke.
"No," said he, misinterpreting the question in her eyes, "they are real pearls."
"It isn't that," she quavered, "it is--it is--"
"That they were given to me by Miss Dobson?"
"Oh, they were, were they? Then"--Katie rose, throwing the pearls on the floor--"I'll have nothing to do with them. I hate her."
"So do I," said the Duke, in a burst of confidence. "No, I don't," he added hastily. "Please forget that I said that."
It occurred to Katie that Miss Dobson would be ill-pleased that the pearls should pass to her. She picked them up.
"Only--only--" again her doubts beset her and she looked from the pearls to the Duke.
"Speak on," he said.
"Oh you aren't playing with me, are you? You don't mean me harm, do you? I have been well brought up. I have been warned against things. And it seems so strange, what you have said to me. You are a Duke, and I--I am only--"
"It is the privilege of nobility to condescend."
"Yes, yes," she cried. "I see. Oh I was wicked to doubt you. And love levels all, doesn't it? love and the Board school. Our stations are far apart, but I've been educated far above mine. I've learnt more than most real ladies have. I passed the Seventh Standard when I was only just fourteen. I was considered one of the sharpest girls in the school. And I've gone on learning since then," she continued eagerly. "I utilise all my spare moments. I've read twenty-seven of the Hundred Best Books. I collect ferns. I play the piano, whenever . . ." She broke off, for she remembered that her music was always interrupted by the ringing of the Duke's bell and a polite request that it should cease.
"I am glad to hear of these accomplishments. They do you great credit, I am sure. But--well, I do not quite see why you enumerate them just now."
"It isn't that I am vain," she pleaded. "I only mentioned them because . . . oh, don't you see? If I'm not ignorant, I shan't disgrace you. People won't be so able to say you've been and thrown yourself away."
"Thrown myself away? What do you mean?"
"Oh, they'll make all sorts of objections, I know. They'll all be against me, and--"
"For heaven's sake, explain yourself."
"Your aunt, she looked a very proud lady--very high and hard. I thought so when she came here last term. But you're of age. You're your own master. Oh, I trust you; you'll stand by me. If you love me really you won't listen to them."
"Love you? I? Are you mad?"
Each stared at the other, utterly bewildered.
The girl was the first to break the silence. Her voice came in a whisper. "You've not been playing a joke on me? You meant what you said, didn't you?"
"What have I said?"
"You said you loved me."
"You must be dreaming."
"I'm not. Here are the ear-rings you gave me." She pinched them as material proof. "You said you loved me just before you gave me them. You know you did. And if I thought you'd been laughing at me all the time--I'd--I'd"--a sob choked her voice--"I'd throw them in your face!"
"You must not speak to me in that manner," said the Duke coldly. "And let me warn you that this attempt to trap me and intimidate me--"
The girl had flung the ear-rings at his face. She had missed her mark. But this did not extenuate the outrageous gesture. He pointed to the door. "Go!" he said.
"Don't try that on!" she laughed. "I shan't go--not unless you drag me out. And if you do that, I'll raise the house. I'll have in the neighbours. I'll tell them all what you've done, and--" But defiance melted in the hot shame of humiliation. "Oh, you coward!" she gasped. "You coward!" She caught her apron to her face and, swaying against the wall, sobbed piteously.
Unaccustomed to love-affairs, the Duke could not sail lightly over a flood of woman's tears. He was filled with pity for the poor quivering figure against the wall. How should he soothe her? Mechanically he picked up the two pearls from the carpet, and crossed to her side. He touched her on the shoulder. She shuddered away from him.
"Don't," he said gently. "Don't cry. I can't bear it. I have been stupid and thoughtless. What did you say your name was? 'Katie,' to be sure. Well, Katie, I want to beg your pardon. I expressed myself badly. I was unhappy and lonely, and I saw in you a means of comfort. I snatched at you, Katie, as at a straw. And then, I suppose, I must have said something which made you think I loved you. I almost wish I did. I don't wonder you threw the ear-rings at me. I--I almost wish they had hit me . . . You see, I have quite forgiven you. Now do you forgive me. You will not refuse now to wear the ear-rings. I gave them to you as a keepsake. Wear them always in memory of me. For you will never see me again."
The girl had ceased from crying, and her anger had spent itself in sobs. She was gazing at him woebegone but composed.
"Where are you going?"
"You must not ask that," said he. "Enough that my wings are spread."
"Are you going because of ME?"
"Not in the least. Indeed, your devotion is one of the things which make bitter my departure. And yet--I am glad you love me."
"Don't go," she faltered. He came nearer to her, and this time she did not shrink from him. "Don't you find the rooms comfortable?" she asked, gazing up at him. "Have you ever had any complaint to make about the attendance?"
"No," said the Duke, "the attendance has always been quite satisfactory. I have never felt that so keenly as I do to-day."
"Then why are you leaving? Why are you breaking my heart?"
"Suffice it that I cannot do otherwise. Henceforth you will see me no more. But I doubt not that in the cultivation of my memory you will find some sort of lugubrious satisfaction. See! here are the ear- rings. If you like, I will put them in with my own hands."
She held up her face side-ways. Into the lobe of her left ear he insinuated the hook of the black pearl. On the cheek upturned to him there were still traces of tears; the eyelashes were still spangled. For all her blondness, they were quite dark, these glistening eyelashes. He had an impulse, which he put from him. "Now the other ear," he said. The girl turned her head. Soon the pink pearl was in its place. Yet the girl did not move. She seemed to be waiting. Nor did the Duke himself seem to be quite satisfied. He let his fingers dally with the pearl. Anon, with a sigh, he withdrew them. The girl looked up. Their eyes met. He looked away from her. He turned away from her. "You may kiss my hand," he murmured, extending it towards her. After a pause, the warm pressure of her lips was laid on it. He sighed, but did not look round. Another pause, a longer pause, and then the clatter and clink of the outgoing tray.