"Yes, I must. It's all been our mistake — — "
"It has indeed! But there's no mistake about my loving you, Penelope," he said; and the old-fashioned name, at which she had often mocked, was sweet to her from his lips.
"That only makes it worse!" she answered.
"Oh no!" he gently protested. "It makes it better. It makes it right. How is it worse? How is it wrong?"
"Can't you see? You must understand all now! Don't you see that if she believed so too, and if she — — " She could not go on.
"Did she — did your sister — think that too?" gasped Corey.
"She used to talk with me about you; and when you say you care for me now, it makes me feel like the vilest hypocrite in the world. That day you gave her the list of books, and she came down to Nantasket, and went on about you, I helped her to flatter herself — oh! I don't see how she can forgive me. But she knows I can never forgive myself! That's the reason she can do it. I can see now," she went on, "how I must have been trying to get you from her. I can't endure it! The only way is for me never to see you or speak to you again!" She laughed forlornly. "That would be pretty hard on you, if you cared."
"I do care — all the world!"
"Well, then, it would if you were going to keep on caring. You won't long, if you stop coming now."
"Is this all, then? Is it the end?"
"It's — whatever it is. I can't get over the thought of her. Once I thought I could, but now I see that I can't. It seems to grow worse. Sometimes I feel as if it would drive me crazy."
He sat looking at her with lacklustre eyes. The light suddenly came back into them. "Do you think I could love you if you had been false to her? I know you have been true to her, and truer still to yourself. I never tried to see her, except with the hope of seeing you too. I supposed she must know that I was in love with you. From the first time I saw you there that afternoon, you filled my fancy. Do you think I was flirting with the child, or — no, you don't think that! We have not done wrong. We have not harmed any one knowingly. We have a right to each other — — "
"No! no! you must never speak to me of this again. If you do, I shall know that you despise me."
"But how will that help her? I don't love HER."
"Don't say that to me! I have said that to myself too much."
"If you forbid me to love you, it won't make me love her," he persisted.
She was about to speak, but she caught her breath without doing so, and merely stared at him. "I must do what you say," he continued. "But what good will it do her? You can't make her happy by making yourself unhappy."
"Do you ask me to profit by a wrong?"
"Not for the world. But there is no wrong!"
"There is something — I don't know what. There's a wall between us. I shall dash myself against it as long as I live; but that won't break it."
"Oh!" he groaned. "We have done no wrong. Why should we suffer from another's mistake as if it were our sin?"
"I don't know. But we must suffer."
"Well, then, I WILL not, for my part, and I will not let you. If you care for me — — "
"You had no right to know it."
"You make it my privilege to keep you from doing wrong for the right's sake. I'm sorry, with all my heart and soul, for this error; but I can't blame myself, and I won't deny myself the happiness I haven't done anything to forfeit. I will never give you up. I will wait as long as you please for the time when you shall feel free from this mistake; but you shall be mine at last. Remember that. I might go away for months — a year, even; but that seems a cowardly and guilty thing, and I'm not afraid, and I'm not guilty, and I'm going to stay here and try to see you."
She shook her head. "It won't change anything? Don't you see that there's no hope for us?"
"When is she coming back?" he asked.
"I don't know. Mother wants father to come and take her out West for a while."
"She's up there in the country with your mother yet?"
He was silent; then he said desperately —
"Penelope, she is very young; and perhaps — perhaps she might meet — — "
"It would make no difference. It wouldn't change it for me."
"You are cruel — cruel to yourself, if you love me, and cruel to me. Don't you remember that night — before I spoke — you were talking of that book; and you said it was foolish and wicked to do as that girl did. Why is it different with you, except that you give me nothing, and can never give me anything when you take yourself away? If it were anybody else, I am sure you would say — — "
"But it isn't anybody else, and that makes it impossible. Sometimes I think it might be if I would only say so to myself, and then all that I said to her about you comes up — — "
"I will wait. It can't always come up. I won't urge you any longer now. But you will see it differently — more clearly. Good-bye — no! Good night! I shall come again to-morrow. It will surely come right, and, whatever happens, you have done no wrong. Try to keep that in mind. I am so happy, in spite of all!"
He tried to take her hand, but she put it behind her. "No, no! I can't let you — yet!"