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'I've been a fool all along. I lost you through being a fool. When I saw you dancing with that girl in the restaurant I didn't stop to think. I was angry. I was jealous. I ought to have trusted you, but--Oh, well, I was a fool.'

'My dear girl, you had a perfect right--'

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'I hadn't. I was an idiot. Bill, I've come to ask you if you can't forgive me.'

'I wish you wouldn't talk like that--there's nothing to forgive.'

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The look which Claire gave him in answer to this was meek and affectionate, but inwardly she was wishing that she could bang his head against the gate. His slowness was maddening. Long before this he should have leaped into the road in order to fold her in his arms. Her voice shook with the effort she had to make to keep it from sharpness.

'I mean, is it too late? I mean, can you really forgive me? Oh, Bill'--she stopped herself by the fraction of a second from adding 'you idiot'--'can't we be the same again to each other? Can't we--pretend all this has never happened?'

Exasperating as Bill's wooden failure to play the scene in the spirit in which her imagination had conceived it was to Claire, several excuses may be offered for him: He had opened the evening with a shattering blow at his faith in woman. He had walked twenty miles at a rapid pace. He had heard shots and found a corpse, and carried the latter by the tail across country. Finally, he had had the stunning shock of discovering that Elizabeth Boyd loved him. He was not himself. He found a difficulty in concentrating. With the result that, in answer to this appeal from a beautiful girl whom he had once imagined that he loved, all he could find to say was: 'How do you mean?'

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Claire, never an adept at patience, just succeeded in swallowing the remark that sprang into her mind. It was incredible to her that a man could exist who had so little intuition. She had not anticipated the necessity of being compelled to put the substance of her meaning in so many blunt words, but it seemed that only so could she make him understand.

'I mean, can't we be engaged again, Bill?'

Bill's overtaxed brain turned one convulsive hand-spring, and came to rest with a sense of having dislocated itself. This was too much. This was not right. No fellow at the end of a hard evening ought to have to grapple with this sort of thing. What on earth did she mean, springing questions like that on him? How could they be engaged? She was going to marry someone else, and so was he. Something of these thoughts he managed to put into words:

'But you're engaged to--'

'I've broken my engagement with Mr Pickering.'

'Great Scot! When?'

'To-night. I found out his true character. He is cruel and treacherous. Something happened--it may sound nothing to you, but it gave me an insight into what he really was. Polly Wetherby had a little monkey, and just because it bit Mr Pickering he shot it.'

'Pickering!'

'Yes. He wasn't the sort of man I should have expected to do a mean, cruel thing like that. It sickened me. I gave him back his ring then and there. Oh, what a relief it was! What a fool I was ever to have got engaged to such a man.'

Bill was puzzled. He was one of those simple men who take their fellows on trust, but who, if once that trust is shattered, can never recover it. Like most simple men, he was tenacious of ideas when he got them, and the belief that Claire was playing fast and loose was not lightly to be removed from his mind. He had found her out during his self-communion that night, and he could never believe her again. He had the feeling that there was something behind what she was saying. He could not put his finger on the clue, but that there was a clue he was certain.