The moment the meal was over, he left the room, and in five minutes they met at the place appointed--a building like a miniature Roman temple.
"Oh," said Lufa, as she entered, "I forgot the book. How stupid of me!"
"Never mind," returned Walter. "It was you, not the book I wanted."
A broad bench went round the circular wall; Lufa seated herself on it, and Walter placed himself beside her, as near as he dared. For some moments he did not speak. She looked up at him inquiringly. He sunk at her feet, bowed his head toward her, and but for lack of courage would have laid it on her knees.
"Oh, Lufa!" he said, "you can not think how I love you!"
"Poor, dear boy!" she returned, in the tone of a careless mother to whom a son has unburdened his sorrows, and laid her hand lightly on his curls.
The words were not repellent, but neither was the tone encouraging.
"You do not mind my saying it?" he resumed, feeling his way timidly.
"What could you do but tell me?" she answered.
"What could I do for you if you did not let me know! I'm so sorry, Walter!"
"Why should you be sorry? You can do with me as you please!"
"I don't know about such things. I don't quite know what you mean, or what you want. I will be as kind to you as I can--while you stay with us."
"But, Lufa--I may call you Lufa?"
"Yes, surely! if that is any comfort to you."
"Nothing but your love, Lufa, can be a comfort to me. That would make me one of the blessed!"
"I like you very much. If you were a girl, I should say I loved you."
"Why not say it as it is?"
"Would you be content with the love I should give a girl? Some of you want so much!"
"I will be glad of any love you can give me. But to say I should be content with any love you could give me, would be false. My love for you is such, I don't know how to bear it! It aches so! My heart is full of you, and longs for you till I can hardly endure the pain. You are so beautiful that your beauty burns me. Night nor day can I forget you!"
"You try to forget me then?"
"Never. Your eyes have so dazzled my soul that I can see nothing but your eyes. Do look at me--just for one moment, Lufa."
She turned her face and looked him straight in the eyes--looked into them as if they were windows through which she could peer into the convolutions of his brain. She held her eyes steady until his dropped, unable to sustain the nearness of her presence.
"You see," she said, "I am ready to do anything I can to please you!"
He felt strangely defeated, rose, and sat down beside her again, with the sickness of a hot summer noon in his soul.
But he must leave no room for mistake! He had been dreaming long enough! What had not Sefton told him!
"Is it possible you do not understand, Lufa, what a man means when he says, 'I love you'?"
"I think I do! I don't mind it!"
"That means you will love me again?"
"Yes; I will be good to you."
"You will love me as a woman loves a man?"
"I will let you love me as much as you please."
"To love you as much as I please, would be to call you my own; to marry you; to say wife to you; to have you altogether, with nobody to come between, or try to stop my worshiping of you--not father, not mother--nobody!"
"Now you are foolish, Walter! You know I never meant that! You must have known that never could be! I never imagined you could make such a fantastic blunder! But then how should you know how we think about things! I must remember that, and not be hard upon you!"
"You mean that your father and mother would not like it?"
"There it is! You do not understand! I thought so! I do not mean my father and mother in particular; I mean our people--people of our position--I would say rank, but that might hurt you! We are brought up so differently from you, that you can not understand how we think of such things. It grieves me to appear unkind, but really, Walter! There is not a man I love more than you--but marriage! Lady Lufa would be in everybody's mouth, the same as if I had run off with my groom! Our people are so blind that, believe me, they would hardly see the difference. The thing is simply impossible!"
"It would not be impossible if you loved me!"
"Then I don't, never did, never could love you. Don't imagine you can persuade me to anything unbecoming, anything treacherous to my people! You will find yourself awfully mistaken!"
"But I may make myself a name! If I were as famous as Lord Tennyson, would it be just as impossible?"
"To say it would not, would be to confess myself worldly, and that I never was! No, Walter; I admire you; if you could be trusted not to misunderstand, I might even say I loved you! I shall always be glad to see you, always enjoy hearing you read; but there is a line as impassable as the Persian river of death. Talk about something else, or I must go!"
Here Walter, who had been shivering with cold, began to grow warm again as he answered:
"How could you write that poem, Lady Lufa--full of such grand things about love, declaring love everything and rank nothing; and then, when it came to yourself, treat me like this! I could not have believed it possible! You can not know what love is, however much you write about it!"
"I hope I never shall, if it means any confusion between friendship and folly! It shall not make a fool of me! I will not be talked about! It is all very well and very right in poetry! The idea of letting all go for love is so splendid, it is the greatest pity it should be impossible. There may be some planet, whose social habits are different, where it might work well enough; but here it is not to be thought of--except in poetry, of course, or novels. Of all human relations, the idea of such love is certainly the fittest for verse, therefore we have no choice; we must use it. But because I think with pleasure of such lovers, why must I consent to be looked at with pleasure myself? What obligation does my heroine lay on me to do likewise? I don't see the thing. I don't want to pose as a lover. Why should I fall in love with you in real life, because I like you to read my poem about lovers? Can't you see the absurdity of the argument? Life and books are two different spheres. The one is the sphere of thoughts, the other of things, and they don't touch."
But for pride, Walter could have wept with shame: why should he care that one with such principles should grant or refuse him anything! Yet he did care!
"There is no reason at all," she resumed, "why we should not be friends. Mr. Colman, I am not a flirt. It is in my heart to be a sister to you! I would have you the first to congratulate me when the man appears whom I may choose to love as you mean! He need not be a poet to make you jealous! If he were, I should yet always regard you as my poet."
"And you would let me kiss your shoe, or perhaps your glove, if I was very good!" said Walter.
She took no notice of the outburst: it was but a bit of childish temper!
"You must learn," she went on, "to keep your life and your imaginations apart. You are always letting them mix, and that confuses everything. A poet of all men ought not to make the mistake. It is quite monstrous! as monstrous as if a painter joined the halves of two different animals! Poetry is so unlike life, that to carry the one into the other is to make the poet a ridiculous parody of a man! The moment that, instead of standing aloof and regarding, he plunges in, he becomes a traitor to his art, and is no longer able to represent things as they ought to be, but can not be. My mother and I will open to you the best doors in London because we like you; but pray do not dream of more. Do, please, Walter, leave it possible for me to say I like you--oh, so much!"
She had been staring out of the window as she spoke; now she turned her eyes upon him where he sat, crushed and broken, beside her. A breath of compassion seemed to ruffle the cold lake of her spirit, and she looked at him in silence for a moment. He did not raise his eyes, but her tone made her present to his whole being as she said,
"I don't want to break your heart, my poet! It was a lovely thought--why did you spoil it?--that we two understood and loved each other in a way nobody could have a right to interfere with!"
Walter lifted his head. The word loved wrought on him like a spell: he was sadly a creature of words! He looked at her with flushed face and flashing eyes. Often had Lufa thought him handsome, but she had never felt it as she did now.
"Let it be so!" he said. "Be my sister-friend, Lufa. Leave it only to me to remember how foolish I once made myself in your beautiful eyes--how miserable always in my own blind heart."
So little of a man was our poet, that out of pure disappointment and self-pity he burst into a passion of weeping. The world seemed lost to him, as it seemed at such a time to many a better man. But to the true the truth of things will sooner or later assert itself, and neither this world nor the next prove lost to him. A man's well-being does not depend on any woman. The woman did not create, and could not have contented him. No woman can ruin a man by refusing him, or even by accepting him, though she may go far toward it. There is one who has upon him a perfect claim, at the entrancing recognition of which he will one day cry out, "This, then, is what it all meant!" The lamp of poetry may for a time go out in the heart of the poet, and nature seem a blank; but where the truth is, the poetry must be; and truth is, however the untrue may fail to see it. Surely that man is a fool who, on the ground that there can not be such a God as other fools assert, or such a God as alone he is able to imagine, says there is no God!
Lufa's bosom heaved, and she gave a little sob; her sentiment, the skin of her heart, was touched, for the thing was pathetic! A mist came over her eyes, and might, had she ever wept, have turned to tears.
Walter sat with his head in his hands and wept. She had never before seen a man weep, yet never a tear left its heavenly spring to flow from her eyes! She rose, took his face between her hands, raised it, and kissed him on the forehead.
He rose also, suddenly calmed.
"Then it was our last ride, Lufa!" he said, and left the summer-house.