"I have heard from Marian," she went on, "that I have only to claim my release from our engagement to obtain that release from you. It was forbearing and generous on your part, Sir Percival, to send me such a message. It is only doing you justice to say that I am grateful for the offer, and I hope and believe that it is only doing myself justice to tell you that I decline to accept it."
"I have not forgotten," she said, "that you asked my father's permission before you honoured me with a proposal of marriage. Perhaps you have not forgotten either what I said when I consented to our engagement? I ventured to tell you that my father's influence and advice had mainly decided me to give you my promise. I was guided by my father, because I had always found him the truest of all advisers, the best and fondest of all protectors and friends. I have lost him now--I have only his memory to love, but my faith in that dear dead friend has never been shaken. I believe at this moment, as truly as I ever believed, that he knew what was best, and that his hopes and wishes ought to be my hopes and wishes too."
Her voice trembled for the first time. Her restless fingers stole their way into my lap, and held fast by one of my hands. There was another moment of silence, and then Sir Percival spoke.
"May I ask," he said, "if I have ever proved myself unworthy of the trust which it has been hitherto my greatest honour and greatest happiness to possess?"
"I have found nothing in your conduct to blame," she answered. "You have always treated me with the same delicacy and the same forbearance. You have deserved my trust, and, what is of far more importance in my estimation, you have deserved my father's trust, out of which mine grew. You have given me no excuse, even if I had wanted to find one, for asking to be released from my pledge. What I have said so far has been spoken with the wish to acknowledge my whole obligation to you. My regard for that obligation, my regard for my father's memory, and my regard for my own promise, all forbid me to set the example, on my side, of withdrawing from our present position. The breaking of our engagement must be entirely your wish and your act, Sir Percival-- not mine."
The uneasy beating of his foot suddenly stopped, and he leaned forward eagerly across the table.
"My act?" he said. "What reason can there be on my side for withdrawing?"
I heard her breath quickening--I felt her hand growing cold. In spite of what she had said to me when we were alone, I began to be afraid of her. I was wrong.
"A reason that it is very hard to tell you," she answered. "There is a change in me, Sir Percival--a change which is serious enough to justify you, to yourself and to me, in breaking off our engagement."
His face turned so pale again that even his lips lost their colour. He raised the arm which lay on the table, turned a little away in his chair, and supported his head on his hand, so that his profile only was presented to us.
"What change?" he asked. The tone in which he put the question jarred on me--there was something painfully suppressed in it.
She sighed heavily, and leaned towards me a little, so as to rest her shoulder against mine. I felt her trembling, and tried to spare her by speaking myself. She stopped me by a warning pressure of her hand, and then addressed Sir Percival one more, but this time without looking at him.
"I have heard," she said, "and I believe it, that the fondest and truest of all affections is the affection which a woman ought to bear to her husband. When our engagement began that affection was mine to give, if I could, and yours to win, if you could. Will you pardon me, and spare me, Sir Percival, if I acknowledge that it is not so any longer?"
A few tears gathered in her eyes, and dropped over her cheeks slowly as she paused and waited for his answer. He did not utter a word. At the beginning of her reply he had moved the hand on which his head rested, so that it hid his face. I saw nothing but the upper part of his figure at the table. Not a muscle of him moved. The fingers of the hand which supported his head were dented deep in his hair. They might have expressed hidden anger or hidden grief--it was hard to say which--there was no significant trembling in them. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, to tell the secret of his thoughts at that moment--the moment which was the crisis of his life and the crisis of hers.
I was determined to make him declare himself, for Laura's sake.
"Sir Percival!" I interposed sharply, "have you nothing to say when my sister has said so much? More, in my opinion," I added, my unlucky temper getting the better of me, "than any man alive, in your position, has a right to hear from her."
That last rash sentence opened a way for him by which to escape me if he chose, and he instantly took advantage of it.
"Pardon me, Miss Halcombe," he said, still keeping his hand over his face, "pardon me if I remind you that I have claimed no such right."
The few plain words which would have brought him back to the point from which he had wandered were just on my lips, when Laura checked me by speaking again.
"I hope I have not made my painful acknowledgment in vain," she continued. "I hope it has secured me your entire confidence in what I have still to say?"
"Pray be assured of it." He made that brief reply warmly, dropping his hand on the table while he spoke, and turning towards us again. Whatever outward change had passed over him was gone now. His face was eager and expectant--it expressed nothing but the most intense anxiety to hear her next words.
"I wish you to understand that I have not spoken from any selfish motive," she said. "If you leave me, Sir Percival, after what you have just heard, you do not leave me to marry another man, you only allow me to remain a single woman for the rest of my life. My fault towards you has begun and ended in my own thoughts. It can never go any farther. No word has passed--" She hesitated, in doubt about the expression she should use next, hesitated in a momentary confusion which it was very sad and very painful to see. "No word has passed," she patiently and resolutely resumed, "between myself and the person to whom I am now referring for the first and last time in your presence of my feelings towards him, or of his feelings towards me--no word ever can pass--neither he nor I are likely, in this world, to meet again. I earnestly beg you to spare me from saying any more, and to believe me, on my word, in what I have just told you. It is the truth. Sir Percival, the truth which I think my promised husband has a claim to hear, at any sacrifice of my own feelings. I trust to his generosity to pardon me, and to his honour to keep my secret."