Poor Billy stared at her; and his heart gave a great bound and then appeared to stop for an indefinite time.
“Good Lord!” said Mr. Woods, in his soul. “And I thought I was an ass last night! Why, last night, in comparison, I displayed intelligence that was almost human! Oh, Peggy, Peggy! if I only dared tell you what I think of you, I believe I would gladly die afterward—yes, I’m sure I would. You really haven’t any right to be so beautiful!—it isn’t fair to us, Peggy!”
But the vision was peeping over the bannisters at him, and the vision’s eyes were sparkling with a lucent mischief and a wonderful, half-hushed contralto was demanding of him:
“Oh, where have you been, Billy
boy, Billy boy?
Oh, where have you been, charming Billy?”
And Billy’s baritone answered her:
“I’ve been to seek a wife—”
and broke off in a groan.
“Good Lord!” said Mr. Woods.
It was a ludicrous business, if you will. Indeed, it was vastly humorous—was it not?—this woman’s thinking a man’s love might by any chance endure through six whole years. But their love endures, you see; and the silly creatures have a superstition among them that love is a sacred thing, stronger than time, victorious over death itself. Let us laugh, then, at Kathleen Saumarez—those of us who have learned that love is only a tinkling cymbal and faith a sounding brass and fidelity an obsolete affectation: but for my part, I honour and think better of the woman who through all her struggles with the world—through all those sordid, grim, merciless, secret battles where the vanquished may not even cry for succour—I honour her, I say, for that she had yet cherished the memory of that first love which is the best and purest and most unselfish and most excellent thing in life.
Breakfast Margaret enjoyed hugely. I regret to confess that the fact that every one of her guests was more or less miserable moved this hard-hearted young woman to untimely and excessive mirth. Only Mrs. Saumarez puzzled her, for she could think of no reason for that lady’s manifest agitation when Kathleen eventually joined the others.
But for the rest, the hopeless glances that Hugh Van Orden cast toward her caused Adele to flush, and Mrs. Haggage to become despondent and speechless and astonishingly rigid; and Petheridge Jukesbury’s vaguely apologetic attitude toward the world struck Miss Hugonin as infinitely diverting. Kennaston she pitied a little; but his bearing toward her ranged ludicrously from that of proprietorship to that of supplication, and, moreover, she was furious with him for having hinted at various times that Billy was a fortune-hunter.
Margaret was quite confident by this that she had never believed him—“not really, you know”—having argued the point out at some length the night before, and reaching her conclusion by a course of reasoning peculiar to herself.