"I must go rather a long way back," said Lucetta, the difficulty of explaining herself satisfactorily to the pondering one beside her growing more apparent at each syllable. "You remember that trying case of conscience I told you of some time ago - about the first lover and the second lover?" She let out in jerky phrases a leading word or two of the story she had told.
"O yes - I remember; the story of your friend," said Elizabeth drily, regarding the irises of Lucetta's eyes as though to catch their exact shade. "The two lovers - the old and the new: how she wanted to marry the second, but felt she ought to marry the first; so that she neglected the better course to follow the evil, like the poet Ovid I've just been construing: ""Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor."""
"Oh no; she didn't follow evil exactly!" said Lucetta hastily.
"But you said that she - or as I may say you" - answered Elizabeth, dropping the mask, "were in honour and conscience bound to marry the first?"
Lucetta's blush at being seen through came and went again before she replied anxiously, "You will never breathe this, will you, Elizabeth-Jane?"
"Certainly not, if you say not."
"Then I will tell you that the case is more complicated - worse, in fact - than it seemed in my story. I and the first man were thrown together in a strange way, and felt that we ought to be united, as the world had talked of us. He was a widower, as he supposed. He had not heard of his first wife for many years. But the wife returned, and we parted. She is now dead; and the husband comes paying me addresses again, saying, ""Now we'll complete our purpose. ""But, Elizabeth-Jane, all this amounts to a new courtship of me by him; I was absolved from all vows by the return of the other woman."
"Have you not lately renewed your promise?" said the younger with quiet surmise. She had divined Man Number One.
"That was wrung from me by a threat."
"Yes, it was. But I think when any one gets coupled up with a man in the past so unfortunately as you have done, she ought to become his wife if she can, even if she were not the sinning party."
Lucetta's countenance lost its sparkle. "He turned out to be a man I should be afraid to marry," she pleaded. "Really afraid!And it was not till after my renewed promise that I knew it."
"Then there is only one course left to honesty. You must remain a single woman."
"But think again! Do consider - "
"I am certain," interrupted her companion hardily. "I have guessed very well who the man is. My father; and I say it is him or nobody for you."
Any suspicion of impropriety was to Elizabeth-Jane like a red rag to a bull. Her craving for correctness of procedure was, indeed, almost vicious. Owing to her early troubles with regard to her mother a semblance of irregularity had terrors for her which those whose names are safeguarded from suspicion know nothing of. "You ought to marry Mr Henchard or nobody - certainly not another man!" she went on with a quivering lip in whose movement two passions shared.
"I don't admit that!" said Lucetta passionately.
"Admit it or not, it is true!"