“Of course, I know that a quiet, well-meanin’ fool like myself hasn’t much of a chance with women, but I just thought I’d give you the opportunity of refusin’ me, and then we should know where we were.”
It was leisurely uttered, and without any hint of agitation. The speaker was lying on his back at the end of a long, green lawn. His hat was over the upper part of his face, leaving only his mouth visible. It was a singularly kindly mouth. Some critics called it weak, though there was no sign of nervousness about it. The clean lips made their statement without faltering, and without apparent effort, and, having spoken, relaxed into a faint smile that was pleasantly devoid of self-consciousness.
The girl at whose side he lay listened with a slight frown between her eyes. She was quivering inwardly with embarrassment, but she would have died sooner than have betrayed it. The shyest child found it hard to be shy with Tots Waring. His full name was Tottenham, but nobody dreamed of using it. From his cradle onwards he had been Tots to all who knew him. His proposal was followed by a very decided pause. Then, still frowning, the girl spoke.
“Is it a joke?”
“Never made a joke in my life,” said Tots.
“Then why don’t you do it properly?”
There was a decided touch of irritation in the question. The girl was leaning slightly forward, her hands clasped round her knee. Her black brows looked decidedly uncompromising, and there was a faintly contemptuous twist about her upper lip.
“Don’t be vexed!” pleaded Tots. “I suppose you know by experience how these things are managed, but I don’t. You see, it’s my first attempt.”
Unwillingly, as it were in spite of itself, the contemptuous curve became a very small smile. The girl’s dark eyes dwelt for several seconds upon that portion of her suitor’s countenance that was visible under the linen hat. There was a wonderful serenity about the mouth and chin she studied. They did not look in the least as if their owner were taking either himself or her seriously. Her own lips tightened a little, and a sudden gleam shot up behind her black lashes–a gleam that had in it an elusive glint of malice. She suffered her eyes to pass beyond him and to rest upon a distant line of firs. The man stretched out beside her remained motionless.
“Why,” she said at last, with slight hesitation, “should you take it for granted that I should refuse you?”
“Eh?” said Tots. He stirred languidly, and removed the hat from his face, but he still maintained his easy attitude. He had heavy-lidded eyes, upon the colour of which most people disagreed–eyes that never appeared critical, and yet were somehow not wholly in keeping with the kindly, half-whimsical mouth. “I’m not takin’ it for granted,” he said. “I only think it likely. You see, all I have to go upon is this: Every one hereabouts is gettin’ married or engaged, except you and me. That, of course, is all right for them, but it isn’t precisely excitin’ for us. I thought it might be more fun for both of us if we did the same. At least, I thought I’d find out your opinion about it, and act accordin’ly. If we don’t see alike about it, of course, there’s no more to be said. We’ll just go on as we were before, and hope that somethin’ else nice will turn up soon.”
“To relieve our mutual boredom!” The girl’s laugh sounded rather hard. “Don’t you think,” she asked, after a moment, “that we should bore each other even worse if we got engaged?”
“Oh, I don’t know!” Tots laughed too–an easy, tolerant laugh. “Could but try, eh?” he suggested. “I’m tired of this everlastin’ lookin’ on.”
“So am I–horribly tired.” The girl rose suddenly, with a movement curiously vehement.
“But I shouldn’t have thought you’d care,” she said, with a touch of bitterness. “I should have thought a bovine existence suited you.”
Tots sat up deliberately and put on his hat. His manner betrayed no resentment.
“Really?” he said, with his pleasant smile. “You see, one never knows.”
He reached up a hand to her, and, wondering a little at herself, she gave him her own to assist him to rise.
He got to his feet and stood before her–a loose-limbed, awkward figure that towered above her, making her feel rather small.
“It’s done, then, is it?” he questioned, still keeping her hand in his.
She looked up at him with a nervous laugh. Secretly she was wondering how far he was going to carry the joke.
“Why, of course,” she said. “Can you imagine any sane woman refusing such a magnificent offer?”
Though she suffered that ring of mockery in her voice, she was still thinking as she spoke that it would serve him right if she frightened him well by letting him imagine that she was taking him seriously.
“Good!” said Tots, in the tone of one well pleased with his bargain. “It shall be my business to see that you do not regret it.”
And with the words he drew her hand through his arm, laughing back at her with baffling complacence, and led her down the long lawn with the air of one who had taken possession.
Ruth Carey had been accustomed to fend for herself nearly all her life. Her lot had been cast in a very narrow groove, and it had not contained a single gleam of romance to make it beautiful. The whole of her early girlhood had been spent buried in a country vicarage, utterly out of touch with all the rest of the world. Here she had lived with her grandfather, leading a wild and free existence, wholly independent of society, hewing, as it were, a way for herself in a desert that was very empty and almost unthinkably barren.
Then, when she was eight-and-twenty, a silent, curiously undeveloped woman, the inevitable change had come. Her grandfather had died, and she had gone out at last beyond the sky-line of her desert into the crowded thoroughfares of men.
The gay crowd of cousins with whom she made her home found her unattractive, and took no special pains to discover further. They were all younger than she was, and full to the brim of their own various interests. Of the five girls, three were already engaged, and one was on the eve of marriage.
It was at this juncture that Tots had lounged into Ruth’s consideration and proposed himself as a candidate for her favour.
Tots was a familiar friend of the family. Every one liked him in a tolerant, joking sort of way. No one took him seriously. He was to act as best man at the forthcoming wedding, being a near friend and the host of the bridegroom.
Uniformly kind to man and beast, he had made himself lazily pleasant to the unattractive cousin. Circumstance had thrown them a good deal together, and he had not quarrelled with circumstance. He had acquiesced with a smile.
He made it appear in some fashion absurd that they should not at least be friends, and then, having gained that much, he astounded her by proposing to her. It was a preposterous situation. Having at length freed herself from him, she escaped to the house to review it with burning cheeks. It was nothing but a joke, of course–of course, however he might repudiate the fact, and she resented it with all her might. She would teach him that such jokes were not to be played upon her with impunity. She had no one to defend her from this species of insult. She would defend herself. She would fool him as he sought to fool her.
But there was a yet more painful ordeal in store for her that night in the billiard-room, had she but known it. The morrow’s bridegroom, Fred Danvers, having failed to execute an easy shot, some one accused him of possessing shaky nerves.
“You’ll never get through to-morrow if you can’t do an easy thing like that,” was the laughing remark.
Tots looked up.
“Oh, rot! The bridegroom has no business to suffer with the jumps. That’s the best man’s privilege. He does all the work, and has all the responsibility. Why, I’m shakin’ in my shoes whenever I think of to-morrow, but if it were my own weddin’ I shouldn’t turn a hair.”
Young Danvers guffawed at this.
“Bet you’ll turn the colour of this table when the time comes, if it ever does come, which I doubt!”
“Why?” questioned Tots.
Danvers laughed again, enjoying the joke. Tots was always more or less of a butt to his friends.
“In the first place, you’d never have the courage or the energy to propose. In the second, no girl would ever take you seriously. In the third–“
He broke off, struck silent by a wholly unexpected display of energy on the part of Tots, who had suddenly hurled a piece of chalk at him from the other end of the room. It hit him smartly on the shoulder, leaving a white patch to testify to the excellence of Tots’s aim.
“I beg your pardon,” said Tots mildly. “But you really shouldn’t talk such rot, particularly in the presence of my fiancee.”
He turned round to Ruth, who was shrinking into a corner behind him, and with a courtly gesture drew her forward.
“In the first place,” he said, addressing the assembled company with a good-humoured smile, “I had the courage and the energy to propose only this afternoon. In the second place, this lady did me the inestimable favour of takin’ me seriously. And in the third place, we’re goin’ to get married as soon as possible.”
In the astounded silence that followed these announcements, he stooped, with no exaggeration of reverence, and kissed the icy, trembling hand he held.
Ruth never knew afterwards how she came through those terrible moments. She was as one horror-stricken into acquiescence. She scarcely heard the nightmare buzz of congratulation all about her. The only thing of which she was vividly conscious, over and above her dumb anguish of consternation, was the fast grip of Tots’s hand. It seemed to hold her up, to sustain her, while the very soul of her was ready to faint with dismay.
She did not even remember later how she effected her escape at last, but she had a vague impression that Tots managed it for her. It was all very dreadful and incomprehensible. She felt as if she were suddenly caught in a trap from which there could never be any escape. And she was terrified beyond all reason.
All the night she lay awake, turning the matter over and over, but in every respect it presented to her a problem too complicated for her solution. When morning came she was tired out physically and mentally, conscious only of an ardent desire to flee from her perplexities.
Her cousin’s wedding occupied the minds of all, and she spent the earlier hours in comparative peace in the bustle of preparation. She saw nothing of Tots, and she hoped his responsibilities would keep him too busy to spare her any of his attention.
Vain hope! When she went to her room to don her bridesmaid’s dress, she found a small parcel awaiting her. With a sinking heart, she opened it, a jeweller’s box with a strip of paper wound about it. The paper contained a message in four words: “With love from Tots.”
A wild tumult arose within her, and her fingers shook so that she could scarcely remove the lid of the box. Succeeding at length, she stood motionless, staring with wide, scared eyes at the ring that lay shining in the sunlight, as though she beheld some evil charm. The diamonds flashed in her eyes and dazzled her, making her see nothing but tiny pin-points of intolerable light. Her heart thumped and raced as though it would choke her. Unconsciously she gasped for breath. That ring was to her another bar in the door of her prison-house.
At an urgent call from one of her cousins, she started and almost threw the box, with its contents, into a drawer. Feverishly she began to dress. It was much later than she had realised. When she appeared in the hall with the other bridesmaids, some one remarked upon her deathly pallor, but she shrank away behind the bride, anxious only to screen herself from observation. She would have given all she had to have avoided Tots just then, but there was no escape for her. He was in the church-porch as she entered it, though there was no time for more than a hurried hand-clasp.
The church was very hot, and the crush of guests great. She listened to the marriage service as a prisoner might listen to his death sentence. The irrevocability of it was anguish to her tortured imagination. And all the while she was conscious–vividly, terribly conscious–of Tots’s presence, Tots’s inscrutable scrutiny, Tots’s triumph of possession. He would never let her go, she felt. She was his beyond all dispute. He had asked, and she had bestowed, not understanding what she was doing.
There could be no withdrawal now. She could not picture herself asking for it, and she was sure he would not grant it if she did. He would only laugh.
There fell a sudden silence in the church–a curious, unnatural silence. It seemed to be growing very dark, and she wondered, panting, if it were the darkness that so smothered her. With a sharp movement she lifted her face, gasping as a half-drowned person gasps. And everywhere above, around her, were tiny, dancing points of light.
“That’s better,” said Tots. “Don’t be frightened. It’s all right.”
He rubbed her cheek softly, reassuringly, and then fell to chafing her weak hands. Ruth lay back against a grave-mound and stared at him. He was wonderfully gentle with her, almost like a woman. On her other side one of her fellow bridesmaids was stooping over her, holding a glass of water.
“You fainted from the heat,” she explained. “But you are better now. I shouldn’t go back if I were you. It’s just over.”
With a sense of shame Ruth withdrew her hand from Tots.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured.
“Nonsense!” said Tots kindly. “Nobody’s blamin’ you, my child. It’s this infernal heat. You stay quietly here for a bit. I must go back and see that Danvers signs his name all right. But I’ll come and fetch you afterwards.”
He departed, and Ruth suddenly realised an urgent need for solitude. She turned to her cousin.
“Do please go! I shall be all right. It is cool and shady here. And they will be looking for you in the vestry. Please go! I will wait till–Tots comes back.”
Her cousin demurred a little, but it was obvious that her inclination fell in with Ruth’s request, and it was also quite obvious that Ruth did not want her. So, after some persuasion, she yielded and went.
During the interval that followed, Ruth sat in the quiet corner just out of sight of the vestry door, bracing herself to meet Tots and implore him to set her free. It was a bad quarter of an hour for her, and when, at the end of it, Tots came, she looked on the verge of fainting again.
“Sorry I couldn’t come before,” said Tots. “But my responsibilities are over now, thank the gods. I suppose, now, you didn’t have time for anything to eat before you came?”
This was the actual truth. Ruth owned it with a feeling of guilt. And suddenly she found that she could not speak then. There was something that made it impossible. Perhaps it was the loud clash of the bells overhead.
“I am very sorry,” she said again.
“You must manage better at our own weddin’,” he said. “There’s nothin’ like fortifyin’ yourself with a good substantial meal for an ordeal of this sort. You’re feelin’ better, eh? Take my arm.”
She obeyed him, still quivering with her fruitless effort to tell him of the miserable deception she had unintentionally practised upon him. She had a feeling that, if she made him angry, the world itself would stop. Surely no one had ever found Tots formidable before.
At the touch of his hand upon hers, she started.
“What’s wrong with it?” queried Tots softly. “Doesn’t it fit?”
She glanced up in confusion. She was trembling so that she could scarcely stand. He slipped his arm about her reassuringly, comfortably.
“Never mind. We must look at it together. I’ll take it back if it isn’t right. We’ll go through the church, shall we? It’s the shortest way.”
He led her, unresisting, back into the building, and the clamour of the bells merged into the swelling chords of the organ. As they walked side by side down the empty aisle the strains of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March transformed their progress into a triumphant procession, and Tots looked down into the girl’s face with a smile….
There was no help for it. She could not tell him to his face. Gradually the conviction dawned upon her through another night of racking thought. And there was only one thing left to do. She must go.
Soon after sunrise she was up, and writing a note to her aunt. She experienced small difficulty in this. It was quite simple to express her thanks for all the kindness shown her, and to explain that she had decided to pay a visit to her old home. She scarcely touched upon the suddenness of her departure. The Careys were all of them sudden in their ways. This move of hers would hardly strike them as extraordinary. She was, moreover, so much a stranger among them that it did not seem to matter in the face of her great need what they thought.
But a note to Tots was a different matter altogether, and she sat for nearly two hours motionless above a sheet of paper, considering. In the end she was again overcome by the almost physical impossibility of putting the intolerable situation into bald words. Simply, she felt utterly incapable of dealing with it. He had told her he was not joking. She had believed the contrary in spite of this assurance. And she had dared to trifle with him, to treat his offer as a jest.
How could she explain, how apologise, for such a mistake as this? The thing was beyond words, and at length she gave up the attempt in despair. She would send him back his ring in silence, and perhaps he would understand. At least, he would know that she was unworthy of that which he had offered her. She took the ring from its hiding-place, and once more the sunlight flashed upon its stones. For a space she stood gazing fixedly, as one fascinated. And then, suddenly, inexplicably, her eyes filled with tears, and she packed up the little box hurriedly with fingers that trembled.
She directed the parcel to Tots, and put it aside with the intention of posting it herself. A tiny strip of paper on the floor attracted her attention as she turned. She picked it up. It was only Tots’s simple message in four short words. She caught her breath sharply as she slipped it into her dress….
Home! Ruth Carey stood in the little inn-parlour that smelt of honeysuckle and stale tobacco, and looked across the village street. It looked even narrower than in the old days, and the pond on the green had shrunk to a mere dark puddle. The old grey church on the hill looked like a child’s toy, and the quiet that brooded everywhere was the quiet of stagnation. An ancient dog was limping down the road–the only living thing in sight.
The girl turned from the window with a heavy sigh. She was conscious of a great emptiness, of a craving too intense to be silenced, a feverish longing that had in it the elements of a bitter despair. She had fled from captivity to the desert. But she had not found relief. She had escaped indeed. But she was like to perish of starvation in the wilderness.
She slept that night from sheer weariness, but, waking in the early morning, she lay for hours, listening to the cheery pipings of the birds, and wondering what she should do with her life. For there was no one belonging to her in a truly intimate sense. She had no near ties. There was no one who really wanted her, except–The burning colour rushed up to her temples. No; even he did not want her now. And again the loneliness and the emptiness seemed more than she could bear.
Dressing, she told herself suddenly and passionately that her home-coming had been a miserable farce, a sham, and a delusion. And she called bitterly to mind words that she had once either read or heard: “Where the heart is, there is home.”
The scent of honeysuckle and stale tobacco was mingled with that of fried bacon as she opened the door of the inn-parlour. It rushed out to greet her in a nauseating wave, and she nearly shut the door again in disgust. But the sight of an immense bunch of roses waiting for her on the table checked the impulse. She went forward into the room and picked it up, burying her face in its fragrance.
There was a tiny strip of paper twisted about one of the stalks which she did not at first perceive. When she did, she unfolded it, wondering. Four words met her eyes, written in minute characters, and it was as if a meteor had flamed suddenly across her sky. They were words that, curiously, had never ceased to ring in her brain since the moment she had first read them: “With love from Tots.”
Fully five minutes passed before Ruth crossed the room to the honeysuckle-draped window, the roses pressed against her thumping heart. Outside, an ancient wooden bench that sagged dubiously in the middle stood against a crumbling stone wall. It was a bench greatly favoured by aged labourers in the summer evenings, but this morning it had but one occupant–a loose-knit, lounging figure with a straw hat drawn well down over the eyes, and a pipe thrust between the teeth.
As Ruth gazed upon this negligent apparition, it suddenly moved, and the next instant it stood up in the sunshine and faced her, hat in one hand, pipe in the other.
“Mornin'” said Tots. “Got somethin’ nice for breakfast?” His brown face smiled imperturbably upon her. He looked pleased to see her, but not extravagantly so.
Ruth fell back a step from the window, her roses clutched fast against her. She was for the moment speechless.
Tots continued to smile sociably.
“Nice, quiet little place–this,” he said. “There’s a touch of the antediluvian about it that I like. Good idea of yours, comin’ here. No one to get in the way. It won’t be disturbin’ you if I sit on the window-sill while you have your breakfast?”
Ruth experienced a sudden, hysterical desire to laugh. He was beyond her, this man–utterly, hopelessly beyond her.
She sat down at the table, not with the idea of eating anything, but from a sense of sheer helplessness. Tots knocked the ashes from his pipe and took his seat on the window-sill. He did not seem to be aware of any strain in the situation.
After a pause, during which Ruth sat motionless, he turned a little to survey her.
“Not begun yet?” he queried.
She looked back at him with a species of desperate courage.
This sort of thing could not go on. She must be brave for once. Unconsciously she was still gripping the roses with both hands.
“Mr. Waring–” she began.
“Tots,” he substituted gently.
“Well–Tots,” she repeated unwillingly, “I–I want to ask you something.”
“Fire away!” said Tots.
“I want to know–I want to know–” She stumbled again, and broke off in distress.
Tots wheeled round as he sat, and brought his long legs into the room.
“Please don’t,” she begged hastily. “I–I want you inside.”
He did not retire again, nor did he advance.
“You want to know–” he said.
With a stupendous effort she faced and answered him.
“I want to know what made you ask me to marry you.”
Tots did not at once reply. He sat on his perch with his back to the light, and contemplated her.
“I should have thought a clever little girl like you might have guessed that,” he said at length.
This was intolerable. She felt her courage ebbing fast.
“I’m not clever,” she said, a desperate quiver in her voice, “and I–I’m not good at guessing riddles.”
In the silence that followed, she wondered wildly if she had made him angry at last. Then he spoke in his usual good-natured drawl, and her heart gave a great throb of relief.
“I think you’re chaffin’,” he said.
“I’m not,” she assured him feverishly. “I’m not indeed. I always mean what I say. That is—-“
“Of course,” said Tots, with kindly reassurance. “I knew that. Why, my dear child, that’s just what made me do it. I took a likin’ to you for that very reason.”
She stared at him speechlessly. There was absolutely nothing left to say. He really cared for her, it seemed. He really cared! And she? With a gasp of despair she abandoned the unequal strife, and hid her face from him in an agony of tears. Why, why, why, had this knowledge come to her so late?
He was by her side in an instant, stroking, soothing, comforting her, as though she had been a child. When she partially recovered herself her head was against his shoulder, and he was drying her eyes clumsily but tenderly with his own handkerchief.
“There! there!” he said. “Don’t cry any more. Some one’s been troublin’ you. Just let me know who it is, and I’ll wring his neck.”
She raised herself weakly. The desire to laugh quite left her. She leaned her head in her hands, and forced down her tears.
“You–don’t understand,” she said at last.
“Don’t I?” said Tots. “Why, I thought we were gettin’ on so well.”
“I know. I know.” She was making a supreme effort. It must be now or never. “You have been very good to me. But–but–we never have got on really. It was all a mistake.”
“What do you mean?” said Tots.
She fancied his tone had changed a little. It sounded somehow brisker than usual. He was angry, whispered her panting heart, and if she angered him–ah, how should she bear it? But the next instant a big, consoling hand pressed her shoulder, and the misgiving passed.
“Don’t tremble like this, little one,” he said. “You can’t be afraid of me. No one ever was before. There has been a mistake, you say. What was it? Can’t you bring yourself to tell me?”
There was something in his voice that moved her strangely, kindling that in her which turned her passionate regret to tragedy. Her head sank a little lower in her hands. How could she tell him? How could she? Yet he must know, even if–even if it transformed his love to hatred. The bare thought hurt her intolerably. He was the only friend she had. And yet–and yet–he must know. She swallowed a desperate sob, and spoke.
“I’ve been deceiving you. I’ve trifled with you. When you proposed to me–I didn’t know–didn’t realise–you were in earnest. No one had ever proposed to me before. I didn’t understand. And when I accepted you–I wasn’t in earnest either. I–I was just spiteful. Afterwards–when I found out–it was too late. I couldn’t tell you then.”
The confession went haltingly out into silence. She dared not raise her head. Moreover, she was weeping, and she did not want him to know it.
There was a motionless pause. Then at length the hand on her shoulder began to rub up and down, comfortingly, caressingly.
“Don’t cry!” said Tots. “Hadn’t you better have some breakfast? That bacon must be gettin’ pretty beastly.”
He was not angry, then. That was her first thought. And then again came that insane desire to laugh. After all, why was she crying? Tots apparently saw no cause for discomfiture.
With an effort she controlled herself.
“No; I’m not hungry,” she said. “Won’t you–please–settle this matter now?”
“Only stop cryin’,” said Tots. “You have? I say, what a fib! Well, I suppose I must take your word for it. Now, little one, what is it you want me to do?”
She raised her head in sheer astonishment.
No, there was no trace of anger in his face, neither did it betray any disappointment. Complacent, kindly, quizzical, his eyes met hers, and her heart gave a sudden, inexplicable bound.
“I–thought you would understand,” she faltered. “We–we can’t go on being engaged, can we?”
“No,” said Tots with instant decision. “Shouldn’t dream of borin’ you to that extent. I’ve had enough of it myself as well.” He uttered his pleasant, careless laugh. “I really don’t wonder that my courtin’ made you feel spiteful,” he said. “I’m glad you’re in favour of cuttin’ it too.”
Ruth stared at him blankly. Was he laughing at her? Was this to be her punishment?
He had straightened himself and was smiling down at her, his head within a foot of the bulging ceiling.
“Tell you what!” he suddenly said. “You eat some breakfast like a good girl, and then–I’ll show you somethin’. Perhaps you’ll let me join you?”
He did not wait for her consent, but sat down at the table. Ruth rose. He was putting her off, she felt, and she could not bear it. It had cost her more than he would ever realise to tell him the truth.
“I’m very sorry,” she said unsteadily, “but–I don’t think we quite understand each other yet. You know”–her voice failed suddenly, but she struggled to recover it, and succeeded–“I am not clever–like other women. I want plain speaking, not hints, I want to be told–in so many words–that you have set me free.”
“Why should I tell you what isn’t true?” said Tots. He stretched out his hand to her without rising. “I haven’t set you free,” he said, “and I’m not goin’ to. Is that plain enough?”
He caught her hand with the words and drew her gently towards him. “I’ll tell you what I am goin’ to do,” he said. “Come quite close. I want to whisper. You needn’t be anxious. This chair is strong enough for two.”
Gentle as he was in speech and action, there was something irresistible about him at that moment–something to which Ruth yielded because there was no alternative. She went to him trembling, and he drew her down beside him, holding her every instant closer to him.
“Still frightened?” he asked her very tenderly. “Still wantin’ to run away?”
She hid her face against him dumbly. She could not answer him in words.
He went on speaking, softly, soothingly, as if she had been a child.
“People make a ridiculous fuss about gettin’ married,” he said. “It’s the fashion nowadays to make a sort of Punch and Judy show of it for all the people one ever met, and a few hundreds besides, to come and gape at. But you and I are not goin’ to do that. We’re goin’ to show some sense, and get married on the quiet, in a little village church I know of; and then we’re goin’ into retirement for a time, and when we come out we shall be old married people, and no one will want to pelt us with shoes and things. Now I’ve got a weddin’-ring in my pocket, and I hope it’ll fit better than the other. And I’ve got a special license too. It’s a nice, fine mornin’, isn’t it? And that’s all we want. Let’s have some breakfast, and then go and get married!”
Ruth raised her head with a gasp. Unexpected as was the whole turn of events, she was utterly unprepared for this astounding suggestion.
“But–but–” she faltered.
And then for the first time she saw Tots’s eyes, opened wide and looking at her with an expression there was no mistaking. He took her face between his hands.
“Yes, I know all that,” he said, speaking below his breath. “But it doesn’t count, dear–believe me, it doesn’t. The only thing that is really indispensable, we have. So why not–make that do?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she gasped. “I don’t know.”
She was quivering as a harp quivers under the fingers of one who knows, and her whole soul was thrilling to the wild, tumultuous music that he had called into being there. It was almost more than she could bear–this miracle that had been wrought upon her. Tots’s eyes still held her own, and it was as if thereby he showed her all that was best in life.
“Why not?” he said again very softly.
And suddenly she realised overwhelmingly how close his lips were to her own. In that moment she also knew that greater thing which is immortal. And so she answered him at last in his own words, with a rush of passionate willingness that swept away all fear:
As their lips met, it seemed to her that her eyes were opened for the first time in her life; and everywhere–above, around, within her–were living sparks, dazzling, wonderful, unquenchable, of the Eternal Flame.