Exaltation had not left Miltoun. His sallow face was flushed, his
eyes glowed with a sort of beauty; and Audrey Noel who, better than
most women, could read what was passing behind a face, saw those eyes
with the delight of a moth fluttering towards a lamp. But in a very
unemotional voice she said:
"So you have come to breakfast. How nice of you!
It was not in Miltoun to observe the formalities of attack. Had he
been going to fight a duel there would have been no preliminary, just
a look, a bow, and the swords crossed. So in this first engagement
of his with the soul of a woman!
He neither sat down nor suffered her to sit, but stood looking
intently into her face, and said:
"I love you."
Now that it had come, with this disconcerting swiftness, she was
strangely calm, and unashamed. The elation of knowing for sure that
she was loved was like a wand waving away all tremors, stilling them
to sweetness. Since nothing could take away that knowledge, it
seemed that she could never again be utterly unhappy. Then, too, in
her nature, so deeply, unreasoningly incapable of perceiving the
importance of any principle but love, there was a secret feeling of
assurance, of triumph. He did love her! And she, him! Well! And
suddenly panic-stricken, lest he should take back those words, she
put her hand up to his breast, and said:
"And I love you."
The feel of his arms round her, the strength and passion of that
moment, were so terribly sweet, that she died to thought, just
looking up at him, with lips parted and eyes darker with the depth of
her love than he had ever dreamed that eyes could be. The madness of
his own feeling kept him silent. And they stood there, so merged in
one another that they knew and cared nothing for any other mortal
thing. It was very still in the room; the roses and carnations in
the lustre bowl, seeming to know that their mistress was caught up
into heaven, had let their perfume steal forth and occupy every
cranny of the abandoned air; a hovering bee, too, circled round the
lovers' heads, scenting, it seemed, the honey in their hearts.
It has been said that Miltoun's face was not unhandsome; for Audrey
Noel at this moment when his eyes were so near hers, and his lips
touching her, he was transfigured, and had become the spirit of all
beauty. And she, with heart beating fast against him, her eyes, half
closing from delight, and her hair asking to be praised with its
fragrance, her cheeks fainting pale with emotion, and her arms too
languid with happiness to embrace him--she, to him, was the
incarnation of the woman that visits dreams.
So passed that moment.
The bee ended it; who, impatient with flowers that hid their honey so
deep, had entangled himself in Audrey's hair. And then, seeing that
words, those dreaded things, were on his lips, she tried to kiss them
back. But they came:
"When will you marry me?"
It all swayed a little. And with marvellous rapidity the whole
position started up before her. She saw, with preternatural insight,
into its nooks and corners. Something he had said one day, when they
were talking of the Church view of marriage and divorce, lighted all
up. So he had really never known about her! At this moment of utter
sickness, she was saved from fainting by her sense of humour--her
cynicism. Not content to let her be, people's tongues had divorced
her; he had believed them! And the crown of irony was that he should
want to marry her, when she felt so utterly, so sacredly his, to do
what he liked with sans forms or ceremonies. A surge of bitter
feeling against the man who stood between her and Miltoun almost made
her cry out. That man had captured her before she knew the world or
her own soul, and she was tied to him, till by some beneficent chance
he drew his last breath when her hair was grey, and her eyes had no
love light, and her cheeks no longer grew pale when they were kissed;
when twilight had fallen, and the flowers, and bees no longer cared
It was that feeling, the sudden revolt of the desperate prisoner,
which steeled her to put out her hand, take up the paper, and give it
When he had read the little paragraph, there followed one of those
eternities which last perhaps two minutes.
He said, then:
"It's true, I suppose?" And, at her silence, added: "I am sorry."
This queer dry saying was so much more terrible than any outcry, that
she remained, deprived even of the power of breathing, with her eyes
still fixed on Miltoun's face.
The smile of the old Cardinal had come up there, and was to her like
a living accusation. It seemed strange that the hum of the bees and
flies and the gentle swishing of the limetree should still go on
outside, insisting that there was a world moving and breathing apart
from her, and careless of her misery. Then some of her courage came
back, and with it her woman's mute power. It came haunting about her
face, perfectly still, about her lips, sensitive and drawn, about her
eyes, dark, almost mutinous under their arched brows. She stood,
drawing him with silence and beauty.
At last he spoke:
"I have made a foolish mistake, it seems. I believed you were free."
Her lips just moved for the words to pass: "I thought you knew. I
never, dreamed you would want to marry me."
It seemed to her natural that he should be thinking only of himself,
but with the subtlest defensive instinct, she put forward her own
"I suppose I had got too used to knowing I was dead."
"Is there no release?"
"None. We have neither of us done wrong; besides with him, marriage
She had broken his smile, which had been cruel without meaning to be
cruel; and with a smile of her own that was cruel too, she said:
"I didn't know that you believed in release either."
Then, as though she had stabbed herself in stabbing him, her face
He looked at her now, conscious at last that she was suffering. And
she felt that he was holding himself in with all his might from
taking her again into his arms. Seeing this, the warmth crept back
to her lips, and a little light into her eyes, which she kept hidden
from him. Though she stood so proudly still, some wistful force was
coming from her, as from a magnet, and Miltoun's hands and arms and
face twitched as though palsied. This struggle, dumb and pitiful,
seemed never to be coming to an end in the little white room,
darkened by the thatch of the verandah, and sweet with the scent of
pinks and of a wood fire just lighted somewhere out at the back.
Then, without a word, he turned and went out. She heard the wicket
gate swing to. He was gone.