The bitterness had taken on some impetuosity as Philip went on speaking; the words were evidently an outlet for some immediate feeling of his own, as well as an answer to Maggie. There was a pain pressing on him at that moment. He shrank with proud delicacy from the faintest allusion to the words of love, of plighted love that had passed between them. It would have seemed to him like reminding Maggie of a promise; it would have had for him something of the baseness of compulsion. He could not dwell on the fact that he himself had not changed; for that too would have had the air of an appeal. His love for Maggie was stamped, even more than the rest of his experience, with the exaggerated sense that he was an exception, — that she, that every one, saw him in the light of an exception.
But Maggie was conscience-stricken.
"Yes, Philip," she said, with her childish contrition when he used to chide her, "you are right, I know. I do always think too much of my own feelings, and not enough of others', — not enough of yours. I had need have you always to find fault with me and teach me; so many things have come true that you used to tell me."
Maggie was resting her elbow on the table, leaning her head on her hand and looking at Philip with half-penitent dependent affection, as she said this; while he was returning her gaze with an expression that, to her consciousness, gradually became less vague, — became charged with a specific recollection. Had his mind flown back to something that she now remembered, — something about a lover of Lucy's? It was a thought that made her shudder; it gave new definiteness to her present position, and to the tendency of what had happened the evening before. She moved her arm from the table, urged to change her position by that positive physical oppression at the heart that sometimes accompanies a sudden mental pang.
"What is the matter, Maggie? Has something happened?" Philip said, in inexpressible anxiety, his imagination being only too ready to weave everything that was fatal to them both.
"No, nothing," said Maggie, rousing her latent will. Philip must not have that odious thought in his mind; she would banish it from her own. "Nothing," she repeated, "except in my own mind. You used to say I should feel the effect of my starved life, as you called it; and I do. I am too eager in my enjoyment of music and all luxuries, now they are come to me."
She took up her work and occupied herself resolutely, while Philip watched her, really in doubt whether she had anything more than this general allusion in her mind. It was quite in Maggie's character to be agitated by vague self-reproach. But soon there came a violent well-known ring at the door-bell resounding through the house.
"Oh, what a startling announcement!" said Maggie, quite mistress of herself, though not without some inward flutter. "I wonder where Lucy is."
Lucy had not been deaf to the signal, and after an interval long enough for a few solicitous but not hurried inquiries, she herself ushered Stephen in.
"Well, old fellow," he said, going straight up to Philip and shaking him heartily by the hand, bowing to Maggie in passing, "it's glorious to have you back again; only I wish you'd conduct yourself a little less like a sparrow with a residence on the house-top, and not go in and out constantly without letting the servants know. This is about the twentieth time I've had to scamper up those countless stairs to that painting-room of yours, all to no purpose, because your people thought you were at home. Such incidents embitter friendship."
"I've so few visitors, it seems hardly worth while to leave notice of my exit and entrances," said Philip, feeling rather oppressed just then by Stephen's bright strong presence and strong voice.
"Are you quite well this morning, Miss Tulliver?" said Stephen, turning to Maggie with stiff politeness, and putting out his hand with the air of fulfilling a social duty.
Maggie gave the tips of her fingers, and said, "Quite well, thank you," in a tone of proud indifference. Philip's eyes were watching them keenly; but Lucy was used to seeing variations in their manner to each other, and only thought with regret that there was some natural antipathy which every now and then surmounted their mutual good-will. "Maggie is not the sort of woman Stephen admires, and she is irritated by something in him which she interprets as conceit," was the silent observation that accounted for everything to guileless Lucy. Stephen and Maggie had no sooner completed this studied greeting than each felt hurt by the other's coldness. And Stephen, while rattling on in questions to Philip about his recent sketching expedition, was thinking all the more about Maggie because he was not drawing her into the conversation as he had invariably done before. "Maggie and Philip are not looking happy," thought Lucy; "this first interview has been saddening to them."
"I think we people who have not been galloping," she said to Stephen, "are all a little damped by the rain. Let us have some music. We ought to take advantage of having Philip and you together. Give us the duet in 'Masaniello'; Maggie has not heard that, and I know it will suit her."
"Come, then," said Stephen, going toward the piano, and giving a foretaste of the tune in his deep "brum-brum," very pleasant to hear.
"You, please, Philip, — you play the accompaniment," said Lucy, "and then I can go on with my work. You will like to play, sha'n't you?" she added, with a pretty, inquiring look, anxious, as usual, lest she should have proposed what was not pleasant to another; but with yearnings toward her unfinished embroidery.
Philip had brightened at the proposition, for there is no feeling, perhaps, except the extremes of fear and grief, that does not find relief in music, — that does not make a man sing or play the better; and Philip had an abundance of pent-up feeling at this moment, as complex as any trio or quartet that was ever meant to express love and jealousy and resignation and fierce suspicion, all at the same time.
"Oh, yes," he said, seating himself at the piano, "it is a way of eking out one's imperfect life and being three people at once, — to sing and make the piano sing, and hear them both all the while, — or else to sing and paint."
"Ah, there you are an enviable fellow. I can do nothing with my hands," said Stephen. "That has generally been observed in men of great administrative capacity, I believe, — a tendency to predominance of the reflective powers in me! Haven't you observed that, Miss Tulliver?"
Stephen had fallen by mistake into his habit of playful appeal to Maggie, and she could not repress the answering flush and epigram.
"I have observed a tendency to predominance," she said, smiling; and Philip at that moment devoutly hoped that she found the tendency disagreeable.
"Come, come," said Lucy; "music, music! We will discuss each other's qualities another time."
Maggie always tried in vain to go on with her work when music began. She tried harder than ever to-day; for the thought that Stephen knew how much she cared for his singing was one that no longer roused a merely playful resistance; and she knew, too, that it was his habit always to stand so that he could look at her. But it was of no use; she soon threw her work down, and all her intentions were lost in the vague state of emotion produced by the inspiring duet, — emotion that seemed to make her at once strong and weak; strong for all enjoyment, weak for all resistance. When the strain passed into the minor, she half started from her seat with the sudden thrill of that change. Poor Maggie! She looked very beautiful when her soul was being played on in this way by the inexorable power of sound. You might have seen the slightest perceptible quivering through her whole frame as she leaned a little forward, clasping her hands as if to steady herself; while her eyes dilated and brightened into that wide-open, childish expression of wondering delight which always came back in her happiest moments. Lucy, who at other times had always been at the piano when Maggie was looking in this way, could not resist the impulse to steal up to her and kiss her. Philip, too, caught a glimpse of her now and then round the open book on the desk, and felt that he had never before seen her under so strong an influence.
"More, more!" said Lucy, when the duet had been encored. "Something spirited again. Maggie always says she likes a great rush of sound."
"It must be 'Let us take the road,' then," said Stephen, — "so suitable for a wet morning. But are you prepared to abandon the most sacred duties of life, and come and sing with us?"
"Oh, yes," said Lucy, laughing. "If you will look out the 'Beggar's Opera' from the large canterbury. It has a dingy cover."
"That is a great clue, considering there are about a score covers here of rival dinginess," said Stephen, drawing out the canterbury.
"Oh, play something the while, Philip," said Lucy, noticing that his fingers were wandering over the keys. "What is that you are falling into? — something delicious that I don't know."
"Don't you know that?" said Philip, bringing out the tune more definitely. "It's from the 'Sonnambula' — 'Ah! perchè non posso odiarti.' I don't know the opera, but it appears the tenor is telling the heroine that he shall always love her though she may forsake him. You've heard me sing it to the English words, 'I love thee still.'"