As became persons of their rising consequence, the Gormers were engaged in building a country-house on Long Island; and it was a part of Miss Bart's duty to attend her hostess on frequent visits of inspection to the new estate. There, while Mrs. Gormer plunged into problems of lighting and sanitation, Lily had leisure to wander, in the bright autumn air, along the tree-fringed bay to which the land declined. Little as she was addicted to solitude, there had come to be moments when it seemed a welcome escape from the empty noises of her life. She was weary of being swept passively along a current of pleasure and business in which she had no share; weary of seeing other people pursue amusement and squander money, while she felt herself of no more account among them than an expensive toy in the hands of a spoiled child.
It was in this frame of mind that, striking back from the shore one morning into the windings of an unfamiliar lane, she came suddenly upon the figure of George Dorset. The Dorset place was in the immediate neighbourhood of the Gormers' newly-acquired estate, and in her motor-flights thither with Mrs. Gormer, Lily had caught one or two passing glimpses of the couple; but they moved in so different an orbit that she had not considered the possibility of a direct encounter.
Dorset, swinging along with bent head, in moody abstraction, did not see Miss Bart till he was close upon her; but the sight, instead of bringing him to a halt, as she had half-expected, sent him toward her with an eagerness which found expression in his opening words.
"Miss Bart! — You'll shake hands, won't you? I've been hoping to meet you — I should have written to you if I'd dared." His face, with its tossed red hair and straggling moustache, had a driven uneasy look, as though life had become an unceasing race between himself and the thoughts at his heels.
The look drew a word of compassionate greeting from Lily, and he pressed on, as if encouraged by her tone: "I wanted to apologize — to ask you to forgive me for the miserable part I played — — "
She checked him with a quick gesture. "Don't let us speak of it: I was very sorry for you," she said, with a tinge of disdain which, as she instantly perceived, was not lost on him.
He flushed to his haggard eyes, flushed so cruelly that she repented the thrust. "You might well be; you don't know — you must let me explain. I was deceived: abominably deceived — — "
"I am still more sorry for you, then," she interposed, without irony; "but you must see that I am not exactly the person with whom the subject can be discussed."
He met this with a look of genuine wonder. "Why not? Isn't it to you, of all people, that I owe an explanation — — "
"No explanation is necessary: the situation was perfectly clear to me."
"Ah — — " he murmured, his head drooping again, and his irresolute hand switching at the underbrush along the lane. But as Lily made a movement to pass on, he broke out with fresh vehemence: "Miss Bart, for God's sake don't turn from me! We used to be good friends — you were always kind to me — and you don't know how I need a friend now."
The lamentable weakness of the words roused a motion of pity in Lily's breast. She too needed friends — she had tasted the pang of loneliness; and her resentment of Bertha Dorset's cruelty softened her heart to the poor wretch who was after all the chief of Bertha's victims.
"I still wish to be kind; I feel no ill-will toward you," she said. "But you must understand that after what has happened we can't be friends again — we can't see each other."
"Ah, you ARE kind — you're merciful — you always were!" He fixed his miserable gaze on her. "But why can't we be friends — why not, when I've repented in dust and ashes? Isn't it hard that you should condemn me to suffer for the falseness, the treachery of others? I was punished enough at the time — is there to be no respite for me?"
"I should have thought you had found complete respite in the reconciliation which was effected at my expense," Lily began, with renewed impatience; but he broke in imploringly: "Don't put it in that way — when that's been the worst of my punishment. My God! what could I do — wasn't I powerless? You were singled out as a sacrifice: any word I might have said would have been turned against you — — "
"I have told you I don't blame you; all I ask you to understand is that, after the use Bertha chose to make of me — after all that her behaviour has since implied — it's impossible that you and I should meet."
He continued to stand before her, in his dogged weakness. "Is it — need it be? Mightn't there be circumstances — — ?" he checked himself, slashing at the wayside weeds in a wider radius. Then he began again: "Miss Bart, listen — give me a minute. If we're not to meet again, at least let me have a hearing now. You say we can't be friends after — after what has happened. But can't I at least appeal to your pity? Can't I move you if I ask you to think of me as a prisoner — a prisoner you alone can set free?"
Lily's inward start betrayed itself in a quick blush: was it possible that this was really the sense of Carry Fisher's adumbrations?
"I can't see how I can possibly be of any help to you," she murmured, drawing back a little from the mounting excitement of his look.
Her tone seemed to sober him, as it had so often done in his stormiest moments. The stubborn lines of his face relaxed, and he said, with an abrupt drop to docility: "You WOULD see, if you'd be as merciful as you used to be: and heaven knows I've never needed it more!"
She paused a moment, moved in spite of herself by this reminder of her influence over him. Her fibres had been softened by suffering, and the sudden glimpse into his mocked and broken life disarmed her contempt for his weakness.
"I am very sorry for you — I would help you willingly; but you must have other friends, other advisers."
"I never had a friend like you," he answered simply. "And besides — can't you see? — you're the only person" — his voice dropped to a whisper — "the only person who knows."
Again she felt her colour change; again her heart rose in precipitate throbs to meet what she felt was coming. He lifted his eyes to her entreatingly. "You do see, don't you? You understand? I'm desperate — I'm at the end of my tether. I want to be free, and you can free me. I know you can. You don't want to keep me bound fast in hell, do you? You can't want to take such a vengeance as that. You were always kind — your eyes are kind now. You say you're sorry for me. Well, it rests with you to show it; and heaven knows there's nothing to keep you back. You understand, of course — there wouldn't be a hint of publicity — not a sound or a syllable to connect you with the thing. It would never come to that, you know: all I need is to be able to say definitely: 'I know this — and this — and this' — and the fight would drop, and the way be cleared, and the whole abominable business swept out of sight in a second."
He spoke pantingly, like a tired runner, with breaks of exhaustion between his words; and through the breaks she caught, as through the shifting rents of a fog, great golden vistas of peace and safety. For there was no mistaking the definite intention behind his vague appeal; she could have filled up the blanks without the help of Mrs. Fisher's insinuations. Here was a man who turned to her in the extremity of his loneliness and his humiliation: if she came to him at such a moment he would be hers with all the force of his deluded faith. And the power to make him so lay in her hand — lay there in a completeness he could not even remotely conjecture. Revenge and rehabilitation might be hers at a stroke — there was something dazzling in the completeness of the opportunity.
She stood silent, gazing away from him down the autumnal stretch of the deserted lane. And suddenly fear possessed her — fear of herself, and of the terrible force of the temptation. All her past weaknesses were like so many eager accomplices drawing her toward the path their feet had already smoothed. She turned quickly, and held out her hand to Dorset.
"Goodbye — I'm sorry; there's nothing in the world that I can do."
"Nothing? Ah, don't say that," he cried; "say what's true: that you abandon me like the others. You, the only creature who could have saved me!"
"Goodbye — goodbye," she repeated hurriedly; and as she moved away she heard him cry out on a last note of entreaty: "At least you'll let me see you once more?"
Lily, on regaining the Gormer grounds, struck rapidly across the lawn toward the unfinished house, where she fancied that her hostess might be speculating, not too resignedly, on the cause of her delay; for, like many unpunctual persons, Mrs. Gormer disliked to be kept waiting.
As Miss Bart reached the avenue, however, she saw a smart phaeton with a high-stepping pair disappear behind the shrubbery in the direction of the gate; and on the doorstep stood Mrs. Gormer, with a glow of retrospective pleasure on her open countenance. At sight of Lily the glow deepened to an embarrassed red, and she said with a slight laugh: "Did you see my visitor? Oh, I thought you came back by the avenue. It was Mrs. George Dorset — she said she'd dropped in to make a neighbourly call."