What was he to do? He dared not go near her; her anger might leap out, and make a new barrier. He walked backward and forward in maddening perplexity.
"Maggie," he said at last, pausing before her, and speaking in a tone of imploring wretchedness, "have some pity — hear me — forgive me for what I did yesterday. I will obey you now; I will do nothing without your full consent. But don't blight our lives forever by a rash perversity that can answer no good purpose to any one, that can only create new evils. Sit down, dearest; wait — think what you are going to do. Don't treat me as if you couldn't trust me."
He had chosen the most effective appeal; but Maggie's will was fixed unswervingly on the coming wrench. She had made up her mind to suffer.
"We must not wait," she said, in a low but distinct voice; "we must part at once."
"We can't part, Maggie," said Stephen, more impetuously. "I can't bear it. What is the use of inflicting that misery on me? The blow — whatever it may have been — has been struck now. Will it help any one else that you should drive me mad?"
"I will not begin any future, even for you," said Maggie, tremulously, "with a deliberate consent to what ought not to have been. What I told you at Basset I feel now; I would rather have died than fall into this temptation. It would have been better if we had parted forever then. But we must part now."
"We will not part," Stephen burst out, instinctively placing his back against the door, forgetting everything he had said a few moments before; "I will not endure it. You'll make me desperate; I sha'n't know what I do."
Maggie trembled. She felt that the parting could not be effected suddenly. She must rely on a slower appeal to Stephen's better self; she must be prepared for a harder task than that of rushing away while resolution was fresh. She sat down. Stephen, watching her with that look of desperation which had come over him like a lurid light, approached slowly from the door, seated himself close beside her, and grasped her hand. Her heart beat like the heart of a frightened bird; but this direct opposition helped her. She felt her determination growing stronger.
"Remember what you felt weeks ago," she began, with beseeching earnestness; "remember what we both felt, — that we owed ourselves to others, and must conquer every inclination which could make us false to that debt. We have failed to keep our resolutions; but the wrong remains the same."
"No, it does not remain the same," said Stephen. "We have proved that it was impossible to keep our resolutions. We have proved that the feeling which draws us toward each other is too strong to be overcome. That natural law surmounts every other; we can't help what it clashes with."
"It is not so, Stephen; I'm quite sure that is wrong. I have tried to think it again and again; but I see, if we judged in that way, there would be a warrant for all treachery and cruelty; we should justify breaking the most sacred ties that can ever be formed on earth. If the past is not to bind us, where can duty lie? We should have no law but the inclination of the moment."
"But there are ties that can't be kept by mere resolution," said Stephen, starting up and walking about again. "What is outward faithfulness? Would they have thanked us for anything so hollow as constancy without love?"
Maggie did not answer immediately. She was undergoing an inward as well as an outward contest. At last she said, with a passionate assertion of her conviction, as much against herself as against him, —
"That seems right — at first; but when I look further, I'm sure it is not right. Faithfulness and constancy mean something else besides doing what is easiest and pleasantest to ourselves. They mean renouncing whatever is opposed to the reliance others have in us, — whatever would cause misery to those whom the course of our lives has made dependent on us. If we — if I had been better, nobler, those claims would have been so strongly present with me, — I should have felt them pressing on my heart so continually, just as they do now in the moments when my conscience is awake, — that the opposite feeling would never have grown in me, as it has done; it would have been quenched at once, I should have prayed for help so earnestly, I should have rushed away as we rush from hideous danger. I feel no excuse for myself, none. I should never have failed toward Lucy and Philip as I have done, if I had not been weak, selfish, and hard, — able to think of their pain without a pain to myself that would have destroyed all temptation. Oh, what is Lucy feeling now? She believed in me — she loved me — she was so good to me. Think of her — — "
Maggie's voice was getting choked as she uttered these last words.
"I can't think of her," said Stephen, stamping as if with pain. "I can think of nothing but you, Maggie. You demand of a man what is impossible. I felt that once; but I can't go back to it now. And where is the use of your thinking of it, except to torture me? You can't save them from pain now; you can only tear yourself from me, and make my life worthless to me. And even if we could go back, and both fulfil our engagements, — if that were possible now, — it would be hateful, horrible, to think of your ever being Philip's wife, — of your ever being the wife of a man you didn't love. We have both been rescued from a mistake."
A deep flush came over Maggie's face, and she couldn't speak. Stephen saw this. He sat down again, taking her hand in his, and looking at her with passionate entreaty.
"Maggie! Dearest! If you love me, you are mine. Who can have so great a claim on you as I have? My life is bound up in your love. There is nothing in the past that can annul our right to each other; it is the first time we have either of us loved with our whole heart and soul."
Maggie was still silent for a little while, looking down. Stephen was in a flutter of new hope; he was going to triumph. But she raised her eyes and met his with a glance that was filled with the anguish of regret, not with yielding.
"No, not with my whole heart and soul, Stephen," she said with timid resolution. "I have never consented to it with my whole mind. There are memories, and affections, and longings after perfect goodness, that have such a strong hold on me; they would never quit me for long; they would come back and be pain to me — repentance. I couldn't live in peace if I put the shadow of a wilful sin between myself and God. I have caused sorrow already — I know — I feel it; but I have never deliberately consented to it; I have never said, 'They shall suffer, that I may have joy.' It has never been my will to marry you; if you were to win consent from the momentary triumph of my feeling for you, you would not have my whole soul. If I could wake back again into the time before yesterday, I would choose to be true to my calmer affections, and live without the joy of love."
Stephen loosed her hand, and rising impatiently, walked up and down the room in suppressed rage.
"Good God!" he burst out at last, "what a miserable thing a woman's love is to a man's! I could commit crimes for you, — and you can balance and choose in that way. But you don't love me; if you had a tithe of the feeling for me that I have for you, it would be impossible to you to think for a moment of sacrificing me. But it weighs nothing with you that you are robbing me of my life's happiness."
Maggie pressed her fingers together almost convulsively as she held them clasped on her lap. A great terror was upon her, as if she were ever and anon seeing where she stood by great flashes of lightning, and then again stretched forth her hands in the darkness.