When Miltoun at last came it was past nine o'clock.
Silent, but quivering all over; she clung to him in the hall; and this passion of emotion, without sound to give it substance, affected him profoundly. How terribly sensitive and tender she was! She seemed to have no armour. But though so stirred by her emotion, he was none the less exasperated. She incarnated at that moment the life to which he must now resign himself—a life of unending tenderness, consideration, and passivity.
For a long time he could not bring himself to speak of his decision. Every look of her eyes, every movement of her body, seemed pleading with him to keep silence. But in Miltoun's character there was an element of rigidity, which never suffered him to diverge from an objective once determined.
When he had finished telling her, she only said:
“Why can't we go on in secret?”
And he felt with a sort of horror that he must begin his struggle over again. He got up, and threw open the window. The sky was dark above the river; the wind had risen. That restless murmuration, and the width of the night with its scattered stars, seemed to come rushing at his face. He withdrew from it, and leaning on the sill looked down at her. What flower-like delicacy she had! There flashed across him the memory of a drooping blossom, which, in the Spring, he had seen her throw into the flames; with the words: “I can't bear flowers to fade, I always want to burn them.” He could see again those waxen petals yield to the fierce clutch of the little red creeping sparks, and the slender stalk quivering, and glowing, and writhing to blackness like a live thing. And, distraught, he began:
“I can't live a lie. What right have I to lead, if I can't follow? I'm not like our friend Courtier who believes in Liberty. I never have, I never shall. Liberty? What is Liberty? But only those who conform to authority have the right to wield authority. A man is a churl who enforces laws, when he himself has not the strength to observe them. I will not be one of whom it can be said: 'He can rule others, himself——!”
“No one will know.”
Miltoun turned away.
“I shall know,” he said; but he saw clearly that she did not understand him. Her face had a strange, brooding, shut-away look, as though he had frightened her. And the thought that she could not understand, angered him.
He said, stubbornly: “No, I can't remain in public life.”
“But what has it to do with politics? It's such a little thing.”
“If it had been a little thing to me, should I have left you at Monkland, and spent those five weeks in purgatory before my illness? A little thing!”
She exclaimed with sudden fire:
“Circumstances aye the little thing; it's love that's the great thing.”
Miltoun stared at her, for the first time understanding that she had a philosophy as deep and stubborn as his own. But he answered cruelly:
“Well! the great thing has conquered me!”
And then he saw her looking at him, as if, seeing into the recesses of his soul, she had made some ghastly discovery. The look was so mournful, so uncannily intent that he turned away from it.
“Perhaps it is a little thing,” he muttered; “I don't know. I can't see my way. I've lost my bearings; I must find them again before I can do anything.”
But as if she had not heard, or not taken in the sense of his words, she said again:
“Oh! don't let us alter anything; I won't ever want what you can't give.”
And this stubbornness, when he was doing the very thing that would give him to her utterly, seemed to him unreasonable.
“I've had it out with myself,” he said. “Don't let's talk about it any more.”
Again, with a sort of dry anguish, she murmured:
“No, no! Let us go on as we are!”
Feeling that he had borne all he could, Miltoun put his hands on her shoulders, and said: “That's enough!”
Then, in sudden remorse, he lifted her, and clasped her to him.
But she stood inert in his arms, her eyes closed, not returning his kisses.