Without doubt the atmosphere had changed with the coming of Esther. Mrs. Coombe became each moment more fidgety, she became, in fact, jerky! Her hands twitched, her head twitched, she could not stand still and suddenly she twitched herself out of Miss Milligan’s hands altogether and flinging herself into a chair declared that she couldn’t stand any more fitting that day. Even Miss Milligan’s black currant eyes could see that her nerves were terribly wrong—she looked ghastly, poor thing! And all on account of a silly prejudice regarding patent medicines.
Esther, who exhibited no surprise at her mother’s sudden collapse, helped Miss Milligan to unpin the linings.
“My mother has been a little longer than usual without her tonic,” she calmly explained. “The other fittings can wait,” and quickly, yet without flurry, she found Mary’s hat, bag, gloves and parasol and picked up her handkerchief which she had flung upon the floor.
Mrs. Coombe accepted these services without thanks, indulging indeed in a little spiteful laugh which Miss Milligan obligingly attributed to her poor nerves. Things had come to a pretty pass indeed, thought the sympathetic dressmaker, when a grown woman is obliged to have her medicine chosen for her like a baby.
As she stood in the doorway watching the two ladies out of sight, a just indignation grew within the breast so strongly fortified outside, so vulnerable within; and without even waiting to call her giggling young ladies to order, she pinned on her hat and departed to send Mrs. Coombe’s postal note to the Detroit druggist, who, oddly enough, was not a druggist at all.
Esther and her step-mother set out upon their homeward walk in silence. The older woman’s face was drawn and bitter, Esther’s thoughtful and sad. Though there seemed no reason for haste, Mrs. Coombe’s steps grew constantly quicker until she was hurrying breathlessly.
More than once the girl glanced at her anxiously as if about to speak, yet hesitating. Then when the walk threatened to become a run she laid a detaining hand upon her arm.
“If you walk so very rapidly, mother, people will notice.” It was the only argument which never failed of effect. Mrs. Coombe’s steps slackened.
“Besides,” went on Esther eagerly, “every moment is a gain. Ten minutes more will make this the longest interval yet. Don’t you think you could try....”
The word was only a gasp and the face Mary turned for a moment on the girl was livid. The eyes shone with hate. “You—you beast!” she muttered chokingly.
Esther turned a shade paler, but otherwise gave no sign that she had heard. “Mother, just try, you are doing so well, so splendidly. The doctor says ...”