In the Lane
Maggie had been four days at her aunt Moss's giving the early June sunshine quite a new brightness in the care-dimmed eyes of that affectionate woman, and making an epoch for her cousins great and small, who were learning her words and actions by heart, as if she had been a transient avatar of perfect wisdom and beauty.
She was standing on the causeway with her aunt and a group of cousins feeding the chickens, at that quiet moment in the life of the farmyards before the afternoon milking-time. The great buildings round the hollow yard were as dreary and tumbledown as ever, but over the old garden-wall the straggling rose-bushes were beginning to toss their summer weight, and the gray wood and old bricks of the house, on its higher level, had a look of sleepy age in the broad afternoon sunlight, that suited the quiescent time. Maggie, with her bonnet over her arm, was smiling down at the hatch of small fluffy chickens, when her aunt exclaimed, —
"Goodness me! who is that gentleman coming in at the gate?"
It was a gentleman on a tall bay horse; and the flanks and neck of the horse were streaked black with fast riding. Maggie felt a beating at head and heart, horrible as the sudden leaping to life of a savage enemy who had feigned death.
"Who is it, my dear?" said Mrs. Moss, seeing in Maggie's face the evidence that she knew.
"It is Mr. Stephen Guest," said Maggie, rather faintly. "My cousin Lucy's — a gentleman who is very intimate at my cousin's."
Stephen was already close to them, had jumped off his horse, and now raised his hat as he advanced.
"Hold the horse, Willy," said Mrs. Moss to the twelve-year-old boy.
"No, thank you," said Stephen, pulling at the horse's impatiently tossing head. "I must be going again immediately. I have a message to deliver to you, Miss Tulliver, on private business. May I take the liberty of asking you to walk a few yards with me?"
He had a half-jaded, half-irritated look, such as a man gets when he has been dogged by some care or annoyance that makes his bed and his dinner of little use to him. He spoke almost abruptly, as if his errand were too pressing for him to trouble himself about what would be thought by Mrs. Moss of his visit and request. Good Mrs. Moss, rather nervous in the presence of this apparently haughty gentleman, was inwardly wondering whether she would be doing right or wrong to invite him again to leave his horse and walk in, when Maggie, feeling all the embarrassment of the situation, and unable to say anything, put on her bonnet, and turned to walk toward the gate.
Stephen turned too, and walked by her side, leading his horse.
Not a word was spoken till they were out in the lane, and had walked four or five yards, when Maggie, who had been looking straight before her all the while, turned again to walk back, saying, with haughty resentment, —
"There is no need for me to go any farther. I don't know whether you consider it gentlemanly and delicate conduct to place me in a position that forced me to come out with you, or whether you wished to insult me still further by thrusting an interview upon me in this way."
"Of course you are angry with me for coming," said Stephen, bitterly. "Of course it is of no consequence what a man has to suffer; it is only your woman's dignity that you care about."
Maggie gave a slight start, such as might have come from the slightest possible electric shock.
"As if it were not enough that I'm entangled in this way; that I'm mad with love for you; that I resist the strongest passion a man can feel, because I try to be true to other claims; but you must treat me as if I were a coarse brute, who would willingly offend you. And when, if I had my own choice, I should ask you to take my hand and my fortune and my whole life, and do what you liked with them! I know I forgot myself. I took an unwarrantable liberty. I hate myself for having done it. But I repented immediately; I've been repenting ever since. You ought not to think it unpardonable; a man who loves with his whole soul, as I do you, is liable to be mastered by his feelings for a moment; but you know — you must believe — that the worst pain I could have is to have pained you; that I would give the world to recall the error."
Maggie dared not speak, dared not turn her head. The strength that had come from resentment was all gone, and her lips were quivering visibly. She could not trust herself to utter the full forgiveness that rose in answer to that confession.
They were come nearly in front of the gate again, and she paused, trembling.
"You must not say these things; I must not hear them," she said, looking down in misery, as Stephen came in front of her, to prevent her from going farther toward the gate. "I'm very sorry for any pain you have to go through; but it is of no use to speak."
"Yes, it is of use," said Stephen, impetuously. "It would be of use if you would treat me with some sort of pity and consideration, instead of doing me vile injustice in your mind. I could bear everything more quietly if I knew you didn't hate me for an insolent coxcomb. Look at me; see what a hunted devil I am; I've been riding thirty miles every day to get away from the thought of you."
Maggie did not — dared not — look. She had already seen the harassed face. But she said gently, —
"I don't think any evil of you."
"Then, dearest, look at me," said Stephen, in deepest, tenderest tones of entreaty. "Don't go away from me yet. Give me a moment's happiness; make me feel you've forgiven me."
"Yes, I do forgive you," said Maggie, shaken by those tones, and all the more frightened at herself. "But pray let me go in again. Pray go away."
A great tear fell from under her lowered eyelids.
"I can't go away from you; I can't leave you," said Stephen, with still more passionate pleading. "I shall come back again if you send me away with this coldness; I can't answer for myself. But if you will go with me only a little way I can live on that. You see plainly enough that your anger has only made me ten times more unreasonable."
Maggie turned. But Tancred, the bay horse, began to make such spirited remonstrances against this frequent change of direction, that Stephen, catching sight of Willy Moss peeping through the gate, called out, "Here! just come and hold my horse for five minutes."
"Oh, no," said Maggie, hurriedly, "my aunt will think it so strange."
"Never mind," Stephen answered impatiently; "they don't know the people at St. Ogg's. Lead him up and down just here for five minutes," he added to Willy, who was now close to them; and then he turned to Maggie's side, and they walked on. It was clear that she must go on now.
"Take my arm," said Stephen, entreatingly; and she took it, feeling all the while as if she were sliding downward in a nightmare.
"There is no end to this misery," she began, struggling to repel the influence by speech. "It is wicked — base — ever allowing a word or look that Lucy — that others might not have seen. Think of Lucy."
"I do think of her — bless her. If I didn't — — " Stephen had laid his hand on Maggie's that rested on his arm, and they both felt it difficult to speak.
"And I have other ties," Maggie went on, at last, with a desperate effort, "even if Lucy did not exist."
"You are engaged to Philip Wakem?" said Stephen, hastily. "Is it so?"
"I consider myself engaged to him; I don't mean to marry any one else."
Stephen was silent again until they had turned out of the sun into a side lane, all grassy and sheltered. Then he burst out impetuously, —
"It is unnatural, it is horrible. Maggie, if you loved me as I love you, we should throw everything else to the winds for the sake of belonging to each other. We should break all these mistaken ties that were made in blindness, and determine to marry each other."
"I would rather die than fall into that temptation," said Maggie, with deep, slow distinctness, all the gathered spiritual force of painful years coming to her aid in this extremity. She drew her arm from his as she spoke.