He was afraid to remain alone with his cousin, yet he could not resist the temptation of seeking such opportunities. He would say bitter things to her, and rail about the uselessness of woman, and the follies of the age. He would take sudden interest in her music, or her singing, and then affect to have forgotten all about it when he next met her. He would ask for a particular song, and then pretend to have forgotten that he had asked for it. He would go into the room where she was, and then affect supreme indifference to her presence.
This conduct puzzled her. She dared not refer to his confession of love for her, and yet she hoped that he might himself refer to it. He dared not speak to her, and yet longed to take her in his arms and tell her all.
“She will hate me,” he thought. “I dare not tell her;” and then he would resolve to brave all risks and trust to her love for him. But he dared not, for his heart told him that she would not hate, but despise him.
So both were miserable, and ate their own hearts silently.
When Kate saw that her lover held aloof, maiden pride came to her assistance, and she assumed an indifference that she did not feel. She tried to read her own heart, in vain. She was dimly conscious, though she told herself twenty times a day that she loved Cyril, that yet that love was not as perfect as she could wish it. She loved, she thought, but it was not the love of her dreams, the pure self-sacrificing, all-sufficient love that she had—like other women—pictured to herself as the end of her youth and the crowning glory of her womanhood. She seemed to have had her eyes opened, and to see that Cyril was not the hero she had made him. He was the same, and yet different. He was the same graceful, clever, daring boy she had known him; but the light in his eyes was colder, and his voice was harsher, and the golden halo of romance with which she had surrounded him had paled its lustre. She fought against the feeling in vain; the cold, distrait, cynical young man, was not the Cyril of old times—the Cyril that was enthusiastic and poetic, and on fire with youth and ambition.
But she said that she loved him, and so she would not listen to these suspicious promptings.
The days passed on, and no conclusion had been arrived at. Lady Loughborough drove out, and ate and drank, and was merry. Saville Chatteris passed his mornings in riding over the estate, and his evenings in reading in the library. Kate and Cyril were constantly together, and at last the storm burst.
The day had been dull and cold, and the night had set in with a wild wind and furious intermittent rain. Cyril was seated in a corner, with an open book on his knees, gazing into vacancy. Kate was playing strange snatches of old songs, and singing the while in a low voice, that nevertheless rang clear and distinct through the silent room.
Cyril raised his eyes and watched her. The graceful pose, the upturned face, the softly-falling hair, touched his sense of beauty, and he felt his heart beat quicker. Just then the unconscious girl glided off into some old silly, childish song about love and youth, and blisses and kisses, and all the old poetical nonsense that our fathers sang to our mothers in the days that are dead. Cyril rose, and went to the piano. She stopped suddenly, and their eyes met.
He took her hand and kissed it. She shuddered.
“Kate, my darling, why are you so cold?”
There was no reply, but the fair head drooped, and the soft clasp of the fingers tightened. He grew more reckless, and took her in his arms.
She took his hot kisses without a word, but the sudden change from indifference to love was too much for her, and she burst into tears.
Then the lava-stream broke forth. He poured forth a wild, incoherent medley of love and passion, and marriage. His fierce lips covered her hands and hair with kisses, and his own were salt with her tears. She was terrified at his vehemence, and struggled to be free, but he held her fast.
“My love, how I have suffered for you! I have longed for you, dreamt of you, hungered for a touch of your hand, a glance from your eyes. I have been living a life of torture since I saw you. I have tried to forget you, but I could not. Kate, my love! Kate, my wife—”
He did not know what he said. He had never checked a thought or a desire since he knew how to think, and he was borne headlong down the stream of his own passions.
“Will you not answer me, Kate? Say that you love me—one word, only one. You love me, dearest, do you not? You will be mine; you will be my wife, darling? Kate, answer me!”
She could not speak for sobbing, but she turned her face to his and their lips met. Then she broke from his arms, and he was alone.
The first moment of triumph over, he was stunned. What had he done? Engaged himself to his cousin, and his wife was yet alive! What should he do? How escape? He might tell all, but then—then he would be for ever despised and hated. He would lose his love, and he could not bear to lose it. His prevailing selfishness made him afraid to retract. His wife! He thought of her with disgust. All her faults of manner and lack of breeding rose up before him. She had no virtues—only the loving him—and he was weary of that. Let her go. He dared not think how, even with the thrill of Kate’s kiss upon his lips. He cursed himself for marrying her; he cursed her for entrapping him; he cursed all who were party to the shameful lie he had enacted, when, in the shabby London church, he promised to love and protect a woman whom he now knew he hated. Suddenly there came up before him a vision. He remembered how, on the steps of the gambling-house in Jermyn-street, Dacre had asked him if he had married the woman who called herself his wife, and how he had denied that marriage. He remembered, too, how at the time a vague feeling of jealousy had possessed him. Jealousy! He was not jealous now.
Why should he be bound for life to a woman whom he despised? His eyes were opened, and he knew that in marrying the soft-eyed, silly little woman, who had crept into his heart, he had ruined his social prospects for ever. Cyril Chatteris was not one of those men who could be content with honesty and honour. His vanity would not allow him to rest satisfied. He would willingly have married Carry, and set to work to gain bread for himself and her, if the world would have applauded the doing; but he could not conceal from himself the fact that his friends would laugh at him, and that the whole fabric of Don Juanism and gentlemanly profligacy, which he had been at such pains to raise, would crumble away to nothingness. He could not bear to have it said that Cyril Chatteris, the cynical, brilliant, Byronic, experienced Cyril Chatteris, should have been “caught” by the ill-educated daughter of an ignorant lodging-housekeeper. He had been a fool, he owned it. He could never now be the darling of drawing-rooms, the caressed of women, the cynosure of lady-like virginity. His father would disinherit him, his relatives would look down on him, and his friends would laugh at him. He had not the courage, he confessed, to take the woman who had trusted him to his heart, and defy the world with her. He was a coward—he knew it. Moreover, he loved Kate. That worldly sentiment of “honour,” which the basest and most reckless libertine possesses, warned him to leave her, but he was too weak. He refused to look his position in the face. He would “stand the hazard of the die.” All might be well, and even if all were ill, he cared not. He would not draw back. He had avowed his love, and his love had been returned. He would run all risks now.
He sat down to think, and in his mind there arose an idea which, as he thought of it, filled him with fear, and disgust at himself. Yet if his baseness were unknown to all save himself, he would not be base. The motto of his life had been—“not to leave undone, but to keep unknown.” “I was jealous of her once,” he repeated, “but I am not jealous now.”