"Both those trusts are sacred to me," he said, "and both shall be sacredly kept."
After answering in those terms he paused, and looked at her as if he was waiting to hear more.
"I have said all I wish to say," she added quietly--"I have said more than enough to justify you in withdrawing from your engagement."
"You have said more than enough," he answered, "to make it the dearest object of my life to KEEP the engagement." With those words he rose from his chair, and advanced a few steps towards the place where she was sitting.
She started violently, and a faint cry of surprise escaped her. Every word she had spoken had innocently betrayed her purity and truth to a man who thoroughly understood the priceless value of a pure and true woman. Her own noble conduct had been the hidden enemy, throughout, of all the hopes she had trusted to it. I had dreaded this from the first. I would have prevented it, if she had allowed me the smallest chance of doing so. I even waited and watched now, when the harm was done, for a word from Sir Percival that would give me the opportunity of putting him in the wrong.
"You have left it to ME, Miss Fairlie, to resign you," he continued. "I am not heartless enough to resign a woman who has just shown herself to be the noblest of her sex."
He spoke with such warmth and feeling, with such passionate enthusiasm, and yet with such perfect delicacy, that she raised her head, flushed up a little, and looked at him with sudden animation and spirit.
"No!" she said firmly. "The most wretched of her sex, if she must give herself in marriage when she cannot give her love."
"May she not give it in the future," he asked, "if the one object of her husband's life is to deserve it?"
"Never!" she answered. "If you still persist in maintaining our engagement, I may be your true and faithful wife, Sir Percival-- your loving wife, if I know my own heart, never!"
She looked so irresistibly beautiful as she said those brave words that no man alive could have steeled his heart against her. I tried hard to feel that Sir Percival was to blame, and to say so, but my womanhood would pity him, in spite of myself.
"I gratefully accept your faith and truth," he said. "The least that you can offer is more to me than the utmost that I could hope for from any other woman in the world."
Her left hand still held mine, but her right hand hung listlessly at her side. He raised it gently to his lips--touched it with them, rather than kissed it--bowed to me--and then, with perfect delicacy and discretion, silently quitted the room.
She neither moved nor said a word when he was gone--she sat by me, cold and still, with her eyes fixed on the ground. I saw it was hopeless and useless to speak, and I only put my arm round her, and held her to me in silence. We remained together so for what seemed a long and weary time--so long and so weary, that I grew uneasy and spoke to her softly, in the hope of producing a change.
The sound of my voice seemed to startle her into consciousness. She suddenly drew herself away from me and rose to her feet.
"I must submit, Marian, as well as I can," she said. "My new life has its hard duties, and one of them begins to-day."
As she spoke she went to a side-table near the window, on which her sketching materials were placed, gathered them together carefully, and put them in a drawer of her cabinet. She locked the drawer and brought the key to me.
"I must part from everything that reminds me of him," she said. "Keep the key wherever you please--I shall never want it again."
Before I could say a word she had turned away to her book-case, and had taken from it the album that contained Walter Hartright's drawings. She hesitated for a moment, holding the little volume fondly in her hands--then lifted it to her lips and kissed it.
"Oh, Laura! Laura!" I said, not angrily, not reprovingly--with nothing but sorrow in my voice, and nothing but sorrow in my heart.
"It is the last time, Marian," she pleaded. "I am bidding it good-bye for ever."
She laid the book on the table and drew out the comb that fastened her hair. It fell, in its matchless beauty, over her back and shoulders, and dropped round her, far below her waist. She separated one long, thin lock from the rest, cut it off, and pinned it carefully, in the form of a circle, on the first blank page of the album. The moment it was fastened she closed the volume hurriedly, and placed it in my hands.
"You write to him and he writes to you," she said. "While I am alive, if he asks after me always tell him I am well, and never say I am unhappy. Don't distress him, Marian, for my sake, don't distress him. If I die first, promise you will give him this little book of his drawings, with my hair in it. There can be no harm, when I am gone, in telling him that I put it there with my own hands. And say--oh, Marian, say for me, then, what I can never say for myself--say I loved him!"
She flung her arms round my neck, and whispered the last words in my ear with a passionate delight in uttering them which it almost broke my heart to hear. All the long restraint she had imposed on herself gave way in that first last outburst of tenderness. She broke from me with hysterical vehemence, and threw herself on the sofa in a paroxysm of sobs and tears that shook her from head to foot.
I tried vainly to soothe her and reason with her--she was past being soothed, and past being reasoned with. It was the sad, sudden end for us two of this memorable day. When the fit had worn itself out she was too exhausted to speak. She slumbered towards the afternoon, and I put away the book of drawings so that she might not see it when she woke. My face was calm, whatever my heart might be, when she opened her eyes again and looked at me. We said no more to each other about the distressing interview of the morning. Sir Percival's name was not mentioned. Walter Hartright was not alluded to again by either of us for the remainder of the day.