When Bill woke next morning it was ten o'clock; and his first emotion, on a day that was to be crowded with emotions of various kinds, was one of shame. The desire to do the fitting thing is innate in man, and it struck Bill, as he hurried through his toilet, that he must be a shallow, coarse-fibred sort of person, lacking in the finer feelings, not to have passed a sleepless night. There was something revolting in the thought that, in circumstances which would have made sleep an impossibility for most men, he had slept like a log. He did not do himself the justice to recollect that he had had a singularly strenuous day, and that it is Nature's business, which she performs quietly and unromantically, to send sleep to tired men regardless of their private feelings; and it was in a mood of dissatisfaction with the quality of his soul that he left his room.
He had a general feeling that he was not much of a chap and that when he died--which he trusted would be shortly--the world would be well rid of him. He felt humble and depressed and hopeless.
Elizabeth met him in the passage. At the age of eleven or thereabouts women acquire a poise and an ability to handle difficult situations which a man, if he is lucky, manages to achieve somewhere in the later seventies. Except for a pallor strange to her face and a drawn look about her eyes, there was nothing to show that all was not for the best with Elizabeth in a best of all possible worlds. If she did not look jaunty, she at least looked composed. She greeted Bill with a smile.
'I didn't wake you. I thought I would let you sleep on.'
The words had the effect of lending an additional clarity and firmness of outline to the picture of himself which Bill had already drawn in his mind--of a soulless creature sunk in hoggish slumber.
'We've had breakfast. Nutty has gone for a walk. Isn't he wonderful nowadays? I've kept your breakfast warm for you.'
Bill protested. He might be capable of sleep, but he was not going to sink to food.
'Not for me, thanks,' he said, hollowly.
He followed her meekly. How grimly practical women were! They let nothing interfere with the essentials of life. It seemed all wrong. Nevertheless, he breakfasted well and gratefully, Elizabeth watching him in silence across the table.
She hesitated for a moment.
'Well, Bill, I've slept on it. Things are in rather a muddle, aren't they? I think I had better begin by explaining what led up to those words you heard Nutty say last night. Won't you smoke?'
'You'll feel better if you do.'
A bee had flown in through the open window. She followed it with her eye as it blundered about the room. It flew out again into the sunshine. She turned to Bill again.
'They were supposed to be words of consolation,' she said.
Bill said nothing.
'Nutty, you see, has his own peculiar way of looking at things, and it didn't occur to him that I might have promised to marry you because I loved you. He took it for granted that I had done it to save the Boyd home. He has been very anxious from the first that I should marry you. I think that that must have been why he asked you down here. He found out in New York, you know, who you were. Someone you met at supper recognized you, and told Nutty. So, as far as that is concerned, the girl you were speaking to at the gate last night was right.'
He started. 'You heard her?'
'I couldn't help it. She meant me to hear. She was raising her voice quite unnecessarily if she did not mean to include me in the conversation. I had gone in to find Nutty, and he was out, and I was coming back to you. That's how I was there. You didn't see me because your back was turned. She saw me.'
Bill met her eyes. 'You don't ask who she was?'
'It doesn't matter who she was. It's what she said that matters. She said that we knew you were Lord Dawlish.'
'Did you know?'
'Nutty told me two or three days ago.' Her voice shook and a flush came into her face. 'You probably won't believe it, but the news made absolutely no difference to me one way or the other. I had always imagined Lord Dawlish as a treacherous, adventurer sort of man, because I couldn't see how a man who was not like that could have persuaded Uncle Ira to leave him his money. But after knowing you even for this short time, I knew you were quite the opposite of that, and I remembered that the first thing you had done on coming into the money had been to offer me half, so the information that you were the Lord Dawlish whom I had been hating did not affect me. And the fact that you were rich and I was poor did not affect me either. I loved you, and that was all I cared about. If all this had not happened everything would have been all right. But, you see, nine-tenths of what that girl said to you was so perfectly true that it is humanly impossible for you not to believe the other tenth, which wasn't. And then, to clinch it, you hear Nutty consoling me. That brings me back to Nutty.'
'Let me tell you about Nutty first. I said that he had always been anxious that I should marry you. Something happened last night to increase his anxiety. I have often wondered how he managed to get enough money to enable him to spend three days in New York, and last night he told me. He came in just after I had got back to the house after leaving you and that girl, and he was very scared. It seems that when the letter from the London lawyer came telling him that he had been left a hundred dollars, he got the idea of raising money on the strength of it. You know Nutty by this time, so you won't be surprised at the way he went about it. He borrowed a hundred dollars from the man at the chemist's on the security of that letter, and then--I suppose it seemed so easy that it struck him as a pity to let the opportunity slip--he did the same thing with four other tradesmen. Nutty's so odd that I don't know even now whether it ever occurred to him that he was obtaining money under false pretences; but the poor tradesmen hadn't any doubt about it at all. They compared notes and found what had happened, and last night, while we were in the woods, one of them came here and called Nutty a good many names and threatened him with imprisonment.
'You can imagine how delighted Nutty was when I came in and told him that I was engaged to you. In his curious way, he took it for granted that I had heard about his financial operations, and was doing it entirely for his sake, to get him out of his fix. And while I was trying to put him right on that point he began to console me. You see, Nutty looks on you as the enemy of the family, and it didn't strike him that it was possible that I didn't look on you in that light too. So, after being delighted for a while, he very sweetly thought that he ought to cheer me up and point out some of the compensations of marriage with you. And--Well, that was what you heard. There you have the full explanation. You can't possibly believe it.'
She broke off and began to drum her fingers on the table. And as she did so there came to Bill a sudden relief from all the doubts and black thoughts that had tortured him. Elizabeth was straight. Whatever appearances might seem to suggest, nothing could convince him that she was playing an underhand game. It was as if something evil had gone out of him. He felt lighter, cleaner. He could breathe.
'I do believe it,' he said. 'I believe every word you say.'
She shook her head.
'You can't in the face of the evidence.'
'I believe it.'
'No. You may persuade yourself for the moment that you do, but after a while you will have to go by the evidence. You won't be able to help yourself. You haven't realized what a crushing thing evidence is. You have to go by it against your will. You see, evidence is the only guide. You don't know that I am speaking the truth; you just feel it. You're trusting your heart and not your head. The head must win in the end. You might go on believing for a time, but sooner or later you would be bound to begin to doubt and worry and torment yourself. You couldn't fight against the evidence, when once your instinct--or whatever it is that tells you that I am speaking the truth--had begun to weaken. And it would weaken. Think what it would have to be fighting all the time. Think of the case your intelligence would be making out, day after day, till it crushed you. It's impossible that you could keep yourself from docketing the evidence and arranging it and absorbing it. Think! Consider what you know are actual facts! Nutty invites you down here, knowing that you are Lord Dawlish. All you know about my attitude towards Lord Dawlish is what I told you on the first morning of your visit. I told you I hated him. Yet, knowing you are Lord Dawlish, I become engaged to you. Directly afterwards you hear Nutty consoling me as if I were marrying you against my will. Isn't that an absolutely fair statement of what has happened? How could you go on believing me with all that against you?'
'I know you're straight. You couldn't do anything crooked.'
'The evidence proves that I did.'
'I don't care.'
She shook her head.
'It's dear of you, Bill, but you're promising an impossibility. And just because it's impossible, and because I love you too much to face what would be bound to happen, I'm going to send you away.'
'Send me away!'
'Yes. It's going to hurt. You don't know how it's going to hurt, Bill; but it's the only thing to do. I love you too much to live with you for the rest of my life wondering all the time whether you still believed or whether the weight of the evidence had crushed out that tiny little spark of intuition which is all that makes you believe me now. You could never know the truth for certain, you see--that's the horror of it; and sometimes you would be able to make yourself believe, but more often, in spite of all you could do, you would doubt. It would poison both our lives. Little things would happen, insignificant in themselves, which would become tremendously important just because they added a little bit more to the doubt which you would never be able to get rid of.
'When we had quarrels--which we should, as we are both human--they wouldn't be over and done with in an hour. They would stick in your mind and rankle, because, you see, they might be proofs that I didn't really love you. And then when I seemed happy with you, you would wonder if I was acting. I know all this sounds morbid and exaggerated, but it isn't. What have you got to go on, as regards me? What do you really know of me? If something like this had happened after we had been married half a dozen years and really knew each other, we could laugh at it. But we are strangers. We came together and loved each other because there was something in each of us which attracted the other. We took that little something as a foundation and built on it. But what has happened has knocked away our poor little foundation. That's all. We don't really know anything at all about each other for certain. It's just guesswork.'
She broke off and looked at the clock.
'I had better be packing if you're to catch the train.'
He gave a rueful laugh.
'You're throwing me out!'
'Yes, I am. I want you to go while I am strong enough to let you go.'
'If you really feel like that, why send me away?'
'How do you know I really feel like that? How do you know that I am not pretending to feel like that as part of a carefully-prepared plan?'
He made an impatient gesture.
'Yes, I know,' she said. 'You think I am going out of my way to manufacture unnecessary complications. I'm not; I'm simply looking ahead. If I were trying to trap you for the sake of your money, could I play a stronger card than by seeming anxious to give you up? If I were to give in now, sooner or later that suspicion would come to you. You would drive it away. You might drive it away a hundred times. But you couldn't kill it. In the end it would beat you.'
He shrugged his shoulders helplessly.
'I can't argue.'
'Nor can I. I can only put very badly things which I know are true. Come and pack.'
'I'll do it. Don't you bother.'
'Nonsense! No man knows how to pack properly.'
He followed her to his room, pulled out his suitcase, the symbol of the end of all things, watched her as she flitted about, the sun shining on her hair as she passed and repassed the window. She was picking things up, folding them, packing them. Bill looked on with an aching sense of desolation. It was all so friendly, so intimate, so exactly as it would have been if she were his wife. It seemed to him needlessly cruel that she should be playing on this note of domesticity at the moment when she was barring for ever the door between him and happiness. He rebelled helplessly against the attitude she had taken. He had not thought it all out, as she had done. It was folly, insanity, ruining their two lives like this for a scruple.
Once again he was to encounter that practical strain in the feminine mind which jars upon a man in trouble. She was holding something in her hand and looking at it with concern.
'Why didn't you tell me?' she said. 'Your socks are in an awful state, poor boy!'
He had the feeling of having been hit by something. A man has not a woman's gift of being able to transfer his mind at will from sorrow to socks.
'Like sieves!' She sighed. A troubled frown wrinkled her forehead.
'Men are so helpless! Oh, dear, I'm sure you don't pay any attention to anything important. I don't believe you ever bother your head about keeping warm in winter and not getting your feet wet. And now I shan't be able to look after you!'
Bill's voice broke. He felt himself trembling.
She was kneeling on the floor, her head bent over the suitcase. She looked up and met his eyes.
'It's no use, Bill, dear. I must. It's the only way.'
The sense of the nearness of the end broke down the numbness which held him.
'Elizabeth! It's so utterly absurd. It's just--chucking everything away!'
She was silent for a moment.
'Bill, dear, I haven't said anything about it before but don't you see that there's my side to be considered too? I only showed you that you could never possibly know that I loved you. How am I to know that you really love me?'
He had moved a step towards her. He drew back, chilled.
'I can't do more than tell you,' he said.
'You can't. And there you have put in two words just what I've been trying to make clear all the time. Don't you see that that's the terrible thing about life, that nobody can do more than tell anybody anything? Life's nothing but words, words, words; and how are we to know when words are true? How am I to know that you didn't ask me to marry you out of sheer pity and an exaggerated sense of justice?'
He stared at her.
'That,' he said, 'is absolutely ridiculous!'
'Why? Look at it as I should look at it later on, when whatever it is inside me that tell me it's ridiculous now had died. Just at this moment, while we're talking here, there's something stronger than reason which tells me you really do love me. But can't you understand that that won't last? It's like a candle burning on a rock with the tide coming up all round it. It's burning brightly enough now, and we can see the truth by the light of it. But the tide will put it out, and then we shall have nothing left to see by. There's a great black sea of suspicion and doubt creeping up to swamp the little spark of intuition inside us.
'I will tell you what would happen to me if I didn't send you away. Remember I heard what that girl was saying last night. Remember that you hated the thought of depriving me of Uncle Ira's money so much that your first act was to try to get me to accept half of it. The quixotic thing is the first that it occurs to you to do, because you're like that, because you're the straightest, whitest man I've ever known or shall know. Could anything be more likely, looking at it as I should later on, than that you should have hit on the idea of marrying me as the only way of undoing the wrong you thought you had done me? I've been foolish about obligations all my life. I've a sort of morbid pride that hates the thought of owing anything to anybody, of getting anything that I have not earned. By and by, if I were to marry you, a little rotten speck of doubt would begin to eat its way farther and farther into me. It would be the same with you. We should react on each other. We should be watching each other, testing each other, trying each other out all the time. It would be horrible, horrible!'
He started to speak; then, borne down by the hopelessness of it, stopped. Elizabeth stood up. They did not look at each other. He strapped the suitcase and picked it up. The end of all things was at hand.
'Better to end it all cleanly, Bill,' she said, in a low voice.
'It will hurt less.'
He did not speak.
'I'll come down to the gate with you.'
They walked in silence down the drive. The air was heavy with contentment. He hummed a tune.
'Good-bye, Bill, dear.'
He took her hand dully.
'Good-bye,' he said.
Elizabeth stood at the gate, watching. He swung down the road with long strides. At the bend he turned and for a moment stood there, as if waiting for her to make some sign. Then he fell into his stride again and was gone. Elizabeth leaned on the gate. Her face was twisted, and she clutched the warm wood as if it gave her strength.
The grounds were very empty. The spirit of loneliness brooded on them. Elizabeth walked slowly back to the house. Nutty was coming towards her from the orchard.
'Halloa!' said Nutty.
He was cheerful and debonair. His little eyes were alight with contentment. He hummed a tune.
'Where's Dawlish?' he said.
'He has gone.'
Nutty's tune failed in the middle of a bar. Something in his sister's voice startled him. The glow of contentment gave way to a look of alarm.
'Gone? How do you mean--gone? You don't mean--gone?'
They had reached the house before he spoke again.
'You don't mean--gone away?'
'Do you mean--gone away?'
'You aren't going to marry him?'
The world stood still. The noise of the crickets and all the little sounds of summer smote on Nutty's ear in one discordant shriek.
'Oh, gosh!' he exclaimed, faintly, and collapsed on the front steps like a jelly-fish.