In the LaneMAGGIE had been four days at her aunt Moss's giving the early June sunshine quite a new brightness in the care-dimmed eyes of that affectionate woman, and making an epoch for her cousins great and small, who were learning her words and actions by heart, as if she had been a transient avatar of perfect wisdom and beauty. She was standing on the causeway with her aunt and a group of cousins feeding the chickens, at that quiet moment in the life of the farmyard before the afternoon milking-time. The great buildings round the hollow yard were as dreary and tumbledown as ever, but over the old garden wall the straggling rose-bushes were beginning to toss their summer weight, and the grey wood and old bricks of the house, on its higher level, had a look of sleepy age in the broad after-noon sunlight, that suited the quiescent time. Maggie with her bonnet over her arm, was smiling down at a hatch of small fluffy chickens when her aunt exclaimed,
`Goodness me! who is that gentleman coming in at the gate?'
It was a gentleman on a tall bay horse; and the flanks and neck of the horse were streaked black with fast riding. Maggie felt a beating at head and heart - horrible as the sudden leaping to life of a savage enemy who had feigned death.
`Who is it, my dear?' said Mrs Moss, seeing in Maggie's face the evidence that she knew.
`It is Mr Stephen Guest,' said Maggie, rather faintly. `My cousin Lucy's - a gentleman who is very intimate at my cousin's.'
Stephen was already close to them, had jumped off his horse, and now raised his hat as he advanced.
`Hold the horse, Willy,' said Mrs Moss to the twelve-year-old boy.
`No, thank you,' said Stephen, pulling at the horse's impatiently tossing head. `I must be going again immediately. I have a message to deliver to you, Miss Tulliver - on private business. May I take the liberty of asking you to walk a few yards with me?'
He had a half-jaded, half-irritated look, such as a man gets when he has been dogged by some care or annoyance that makes his bed and his dinner of little use to him. He spoke almost abruptly, as if his errand were too pressing for him to trouble himself about what would be thought by Mrs Moss of his visit and request. Good Mrs Moss, rather nervous in the presence of this apparently haughty gentleman, was inwardly wondering whether she would be doing right or wrong to invite him again to leave his horse and walk in, when Maggie, feeling all the embarrassment of the situation, and unable to say anything, put on her bonnet and turned to walk towards the gate.
Stephen turned too and walked by her side, leading his horse.
Not a word was spoken till they were out in the lane and had walked four or five yards, when Maggie, who had been looking straight before her all the while, turned again to walk back saying, with haughty resentment,
`There is no need for me to go any farther. I don't know whether you consider it gentlemanly and delicate conduct to place me in a position that forced me to come out with you - or whether you wished to insult me still further by thrusting an interview upon me in this way.'
`Of course you are angry with me for coming,' said Stephen, bitterly. `Of course it is of no consequence what a man has to suffer - it is only your woman's dignity that you care about.'
Maggie gave a slight start, such as might have come from the slightest possible electric shock.
`As if it were not enough that I'm entangled in this way - that I'm mad with love for you - that I resist the strongest passion a man can feel, because I try to be true to other claims - but you must treat me as if I were a coarse brute who would willingly offend you. And when, if I had my own choice, I should ask
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