Philip went home soon after in a state of hideous doubt mingled with wretched certainty. It was impossible for him now to resist the conviction that there was some mutual consciousness between Stephen and Maggie; and for half the night his irritable, susceptible nerves were pressed upon almost to frenzy by that one wretched fact; he could attempt no explanation that would reconcile it with her words and actions. When, at last, the need for belief in Maggie rose to its habitual predominance, he was not long in imagining the truth, — she was struggling, she was banishing herself; this was the clue to all he had seen since his return. But athwart that belief there came other possibilities that would not be driven out of sight. His imagination wrought out the whole story; Stephen was madly in love with her; he must have told her so; she had rejected him, and was hurrying away. But would he give her up, knowing — Philip felt the fact with heart-crushing despair — that she was made half helpless by her feeling toward him?
When the morning came, Philip was too ill to think of keeping his engagement to go in the boat. In his present agitation he could decide on nothing; he could only alternate between contradictory intentions. First, he thought he must have an interview with Maggie, and entreat her to confide in him; then, again, he distrusted his own interference. Had he not been thrusting himself on Maggie all along? She had uttered words long ago in her young ignorance; it was enough to make her hate him that these should be continually present with her as a bond. And had he any right to ask her for a revelation of feelings which she had evidently intended to withhold from him? He would not trust himself to see her, till he had assured himself that he could act from pure anxiety for her, and not from egoistic irritation. He wrote a brief note to Stephen, and sent it early by the servant, saying that he was not well enough to fulfil his engagement to Miss Deane. Would Stephen take his excuse, and fill his place?
Lucy had arranged a charming plan, which had made her quite content with Stephen's refusal to go in the boat. She discovered that her father was to drive to Lindum this morning at ten; Lindum was the very place she wanted to go to, to make purchases, — important purchases, which must by no means be put off to another opportunity; and aunt Tulliver must go too, because she was concerned in some of the purchases.
"You will have your row in the boat just the same, you know," she said to Maggie when they went out of the breakfast-room and upstairs together; "Philip will be here it half-past ten, and it is a delicious morning. Now don't say a word against it, you dear dolorous thing. What is the use of my being a fairy godmother, if you set your face against all the wonders I work for you? Don't think of awful cousin Tom; you may disobey him a little."
Maggie did not persist in objecting. She was almost glad of the plan, for perhaps it would bring her some strength and calmness to be alone with Philip again; it was like revisiting the scene of a quieter life, in which the very struggles were repose, compared with the daily tumult of the present. She prepared herself for the boat and at half-past ten sat waiting in the drawing-room.
The ring of the door-bell was punctual, and she was thinking with half-sad, affectionate pleasure of the surprise Philip would have in finding that he was to be with her alone, when she distinguished a firm, rapid step across the hall, that was certainly not Philip's; the door opened, and Stephen Guest entered.
In the first moment they were both too much agitated to speak; for Stephen had learned from the servant that the others were gone out. Maggie had started up and sat down again, with her heart beating violently; and Stephen, throwing down his cap and gloves, came and sat by her in silence. She thought Philip would be coming soon; and with great effort — for she trembled visibly — she rose to go to a distant chair.
"He is not coming," said Stephen, in a low tone. "I am going in the boat."
"Oh, we can't go," said Maggie, sinking into her chair again. "Lucy did not expect — she would be hurt. Why is not Philip come?"
"He is not well; he asked me to come instead."
"Lucy is gone to Lindum," said Maggie, taking off her bonnet with hurried, trembling fingers. "We must not go."
"Very well," said Stephen, dreamily, looking at her, as he rested his arm on the back of his chair. "Then we'll stay here."
He was looking into her deep, deep eyes, far off and mysterious at the starlit blackness, and yet very near, and timidly loving. Maggie sat perfectly still — perhaps for moments, perhaps for minutes — until the helpless trembling had ceased, and there was a warm glow on her check.
"The man is waiting; he has taken the cushions," she said. "Will you go and tell him?"
"What shall I tell him?" said Stephen, almost in a whisper. He was looking at the lips now.
Maggie made no answer.
"Let us go," Stephen murmured entreatingly, rising, and taking her hand to raise her too. "We shall not be long together."
And they went. Maggie felt that she was being led down the garden among the roses, being helped with firm, tender care into the boat, having the cushion and cloak arranged for her feet, and her parasol opened for her (which she had forgotten), all by this stronger presence that seemed to bear her along without any act of her own will, like the added self which comes with the sudden exalting influence of a strong tonic, and she felt nothing else. Memory was excluded.
They glided rapidly along, Stephen rowing, helped by the backward-flowing tide, past the Tofton trees and houses; on between the silent sunny fields and pastures, which seemed filled with a natural joy that had no reproach for theirs. The breath of the young, unwearied day, the delicious rhythmic dip of the oars, the fragmentary song of a passing bird heard now and then, as if it were only the overflowing of brimful gladness, the sweet solitude of a twofold consciousness that was mingled into one by that grave, untiring gaze which need not be averted, — what else could there be in their minds for the first hour? Some low, subdued, languid exclamation of love came from Stephen from time to time, as he went on rowing idly, half automatically; otherwise they spoke no word; for what could words have been but an inlet to thought? and thought did not belong to that enchanted haze in which they were enveloped, — it belonged to the past and the future that lay outside the haze. Maggie was only dimly conscious of the banks, as they passed them, and dwelt with no recognition on the villages; she knew there were several to be passed before they reached Luckreth, where they always stopped and left the boat. At all times she was so liable to fits of absence, that she was likely enough to let her waymarks pass unnoticed.
But at last Stephen, who had been rowing more and more idly, ceased to row, laid down the oars, folded his arms, and looked down on the water as if watching the pace at which the boat glided without his help. This sudden change roused Maggie. She looked at the far-stretching fields, at the banks close by, and felt that they were entirely strange to her. A terrible alarm took possession of her.
"Oh, have we passed Luckreth, where we were to stop?" she exclaimed, looking back to see if the place were out of sight. No village was to be seen. She turned around again, with a look of distressed questioning at Stephen.
He went on watching the water, and said, in a strange, dreamy, absent tone, "Yes, a long way."
"Oh, what shall I do?" cried Maggie, in an agony. "We shall not get home for hours, and Lucy? O God, help me!"
She clasped her hands and broke into a sob, like a frightened child; she thought of nothing but of meeting Lucy, and seeing her look of pained surprise and doubt, perhaps of just upbraiding.
Stephen moved and sat near her, and gently drew down the clasped hands.
"Maggie," he said, in a deep tone of slow decision, "let us never go home again, till no one can part us, — till we are married."
The unusual tone, the startling words, arrested Maggie's sob, and she sat quite still, wondering; as if Stephen might have seen some possibilities that would alter everything, and annul the wretched facts.