Chapter XV. The Path of Duty.
 

Down at Tilgate, meanwhile, Elma Clifford had met more than once with Cyril Waring at friends' houses around, for ever since the accident, Society had made up its mind that Elma ought to marry her companion in the tunnel; and, when Society once makes up its mind on a question of this sort, why, it does its level best in the long run to insure the fulfilment of its own prediction.

Wherever Elma had met her painter, however, during those few short weeks, she had seen him only before the quizzing eyes of all the world; and though she admitted to herself that she liked him very much, she was nevertheless so thoroughly frightened by her own performance after the Holkers' party that she almost avoided him, in spite of officious friends--partly, it is true, from a pure feeling of maidenly shame, but partly also from a deeper-seated and profoundly moral belief that with this fierce mad taint upon her as she naturally thought, it would be nothing short of wrong in her even to marry. She couldn't meet Cyril now without thinking at once of that irresistible impulse which had seized her by the throat, as it were, and bent her to its wild will in her own room after their interview at the Holkers'; and the thought did far more than bring a deep blush into her rich brown cheek--it made her feel most acutely she must never dream of burdening him with that terrible uncertainty and all it might enclose in it of sinister import.

For Elma felt sure she was mad that night. And, if so, oh, how could she poison Cyril Waring's life with so unspeakable an inheritance for himself and his children?

She didn't know, what any psychologist might at once have told her, that no one with the fatal taint of madness in her blood could ever even have thought of that righteous self-denial. Such scruples have no place in the selfish insane temperament; they belong only to the highest and purest types of moral nature.

One morning, however, a few weeks later, Elma had strolled off by herself into Chetwood Forest, without any intention of going anywhere in particular, save for a solitary walk, when suddenly, a turn round the corner of a devious path brought her face to face all at once with a piece of white canvas, stretched opposite her on an easel; at the other side of which, to her profound dismay, an artist in a grey tweed suit was busily working.

The artist, as it happened, didn't see her at once, for the canvas stretched between them, shutting her out from his eyes, and Elma's light footstep on the mossy ground hadn't aroused his attention. So the girl's first impulse was to retrace her way unobtrusively without exchanging a word, and retire round the corner again, before Cyril could recognise her. But somehow, when she came to try, she couldn't. Her feet refused point blank to obey her will. And this time, in her own heart, she knew very well why. For there in the background, coiled up against the dense wall of rock and fern, Sardanapalus lay knotted in sleepy folds, with his great ringed back shining blue in the sunlight that struggled in round patches through the shimmering foliage. More consciously now than even in the train, the beautiful deadly creature seemed to fascinate Elma and bind her to the spot. For a moment she hesitated, unable to resist the strange, inexplicable attraction that ran in her blood. That brief interval settled it. Even as she paused, Cyril glanced round at the snake to note the passing effect of a gleam of light that fell slantwise through the leaves to dapple his spotty back--and caught sight of Elma. The poor girl gave a start. It was too late now to retreat. She stood there rooted.

Cyril moved forward to meet her with a frankly outstretched hand. "Good morning, Miss Clifford," he said, in his cheery manly voice. "So you've dropped down by accident upon my lair here, have you? Well, I'm glad you've happened to pass by to-day, for this, do you know, is my very last morning. I'm putting the finishing touches upon my picture now before I take it back to town. I go away to-morrow, perhaps to North Wales, perhaps to Scotland."

Elma trembled a little at those words, in spite of resolution; for though she could never, never, never marry him, it was nice, of course, to feel he was near at hand, and to have the chance of seeing him, and avoiding him as far as possible, on other people's lawns at garden parties. She trembled and turned pale. She could never marry him, to be sure; but then she could never marry any one else either; and that being so, she liked to see him now and again, on neutral ground, as it were, and to know he was somewhere that she could meet him occasionally. Wales and Scotland are so distant from Surrey. Elma showed in her face at once that she thought them both unpleasantly remote from Craighton, Tilgate.

With timid and shrinking steps, she came in front of the picture, and gazed at it in detail long and attentively. Never before did she know how fond she was of art.

"It's beautiful," she said, after a pause; "I like it immensely. That moss is so soft, and the ferns are so delicate. And how lovely that patch of rich golden light is on Sardanapalus's shoulder."

The painter stepped back a pace or two and examined his own handicraft, with his head on one side, in a very critical attitude. "I don't know that I'm quite satisfied after all with the colour-scheme," he said, glancing askance at Elma. "I fancy it's, perhaps, just a trifle too green. It looks all right, of course, out here in the open; but the question is, when it's hung in the Academy, surrounded by warm reds, and purples, and blues, won't it look by comparison much too cabbagey and too grassy?"

Elma drew a deep breath.

"Oh, Mr. Waring," she cried, in a deprecating tone, holding her breath for awe.

It pained her that anybody--even Cyril himself--should speak so lightly about so beautiful a picture.

"Then you like it?" Cyril asked, turning round to her full face and fronting her as she stood there, all beautiful blushes through her creamy white skin.

"Like it? I love it," Elma answered enthusiastically. "Apart from its being yours, I think it simply beautiful."

"And you like me, too, then?" the painter asked, once more, making a sudden dash at the question that was nearest to both their hearts, after all, that moment. He was going away to-morrow, and this was a last opportunity. Who could tell how soon somebody might come up through the woods and interrupt their interview? He must make the best use of his time. He must make haste to ask her.

Elma let her eyes drop, and her heart beat hard. She laid her hand upon the easel to steady herself as she answered slowly, "You know I like you, Mr. Waring; I like you very, very much indeed. You were so kind to me in the tunnel. And I felt your kindness. You could see that day I was--very, very grateful to you."

"When I asked you if you liked my picture, Elma," the young man said reproachfully, taking her other hand in his, and looking straight into her eyes, "you said, 'Like it? I love it.' But when I ask you if you like me--ask you if you will take me--you only say you're very, very grateful."

Elma let him take her hand, all trembling, in his. She let him call her by her name. She let him lean forward and gaze at her, lover-like. Her heart throbbed high. She couldn't refuse him. She knew she loved him. But to marry him--oh no. That was quite another thing. There duty interposed. It would be cruel, unworthy, disgraceful, wicked.

She drew herself back a little with maidenly dignity, as she answered low, "Mr. Waring, we two saw into one another's hearts so deep in the tunnel that day we spent together, that it would be foolish for us now to make false barriers between us. I'll tell you the plain truth." She trembled like an aspen-leaf. "I love you, I think; but I can never marry you."

She said it so simply, yet with such an earnestness of despair, that Cyril knew with a pang she really meant it.

"Why not?" he cried eagerly, raising her hand to his lips, and kissing it with fervour. "If you tell me you love me, Elma, all the rest must come. Say that, and you say all. So long as I've gained your heart, I don't care for anything."

Elma drew her hand away with stately reserve. "I mean it, Mr. Waring," she said slowly, sitting down on the bank, and gasping a little for air, just as she had done in the tunnel. "I really mean it. I liked you in the train that day; I was grateful to you in the accident; I knew I loved you the afternoon we met at the Holkers'. There, I've told you that plainly--more plainly than I thought I ever could tell it to any man on earth--because we knew one another so well when we thought we were dying side by side, and because--because I can see you really love me.... Well, it can never be. I can never marry you."

She gazed at him wistfully. Cyril sat down by her side, and talked it all over with her from a hundred points of view. He pressed his suit hard, till Elma felt, if words could win, her painter would have won her. But she couldn't yield, she said for his sake a thousand times more than for her own, she must never marry. As the man grew more earnest the girl in turn grew more frank and confiding. She could never marry him, to be sure, she said fervently, but then she could never, never, never marry any one else. If she married at all she would marry Cyril. He took her hand again. Without one shadow of resistance she let him take it and hold it. Yes, yes, he might love her, if he liked, no harm at all in that; and she, she would always, always love him. All her life through, she cried, letting her passionate southern nature get the better of her at last, she would love him every hour of every day in the year, and love him only. But she could never marry him. Why, she must never say. It was no use his trying to read her secret. He must never find it out; never, never, never. But she, for her part, could never forget it.

So Cyril, eagerly pressing his suit with every art he knew, was forced in the end to content himself with that scanty measure. She would love him, she would write to him, even; but she would never marry him.

At last the time came when they must really part, or she would be late for lunch, and mamma would know all; mamma would read everything. He looked her wistfully in the face. Elma held out her lips, obedient to that mute demand, with remorseful blush of maidenly shame on her cheek. "Only once," she murmured. "Just to seal our compact. For the first and last time. You go away to-morrow."

"That was before you said you loved me," Cyril cried with delight, emboldened by success. "Mayn't I stay on now, just one little week longer?"

At the proposal, Elma drew back her face in haste before he had time to kiss it, and answered, in a very serious voice--

"Oh no, don't ask me. After this, I daren't stand the strain of seeing you again--at least not just now--not so very, very soon. Please, please, don't ask me. Go to-morrow, as you said. If you don't, I can't let you," she blushed, and held out her blushing face once more. "Only if you promise me to go to-morrow, mind," she said, with a half-coquettish, half-tearful smile at him.

Cyril hesitated for a second. He was inclined to temporize. "Those are very hard terms," he said. Then impulse proved too much for him. He bent forward, and pressed his lips just once on that olive-brown cheek. "But I may come back again very soon," he murmured, pushing home his advantage.

Elma seized his hand in hers, wrung it hard and tremulously, and then turned and ran like a frightened fawn, without pausing to look back, down the path homeward. Yet she whispered one broken sentence through her tears, for all that, before she went.

"I shall love you always; but spare me, spare me."

And Cyril was left behind by himself in the wood, completely mystified.