Degrees of unrest we felt, but the actual thing did not disclose itself. It did not happen.
I felt strangely at sea for a moment. Frances would interpret hesitation as endorsement, and encouragement might be the last thing that could help her.
“Sleeping in a strange house,” I answered at length, “is often difficult at first, and one feels lonely. After fifteen months in our tiny flat one feels lost and uncared-for in a big house. It’s an uncomfortable feeling—I know it well. And this is a barrack, isn’t it? The masses of furniture only make it worse. One feels in storage somewhere underground—the furniture doesn’t furnish. One must never yield to fancies, though—”
Frances looked away towards the windows; she seemed disappointed a little.
“After our thickly-populated Chelsea,” I went on quickly, “it seems isolated here.”
But she did not turn back, and clearly I was saying the wrong thing. A wave of pity rushed suddenly over me. Was she really frightened, perhaps? She was imaginative, I knew, but never moody; common sense was strong in her, though she had her times of hypersensitiveness. I caught the echo of some unreasoning, big alarm in her. She stood there, gazing across my balcony towards the sea of wooded country that spread dim and vague in the obscurity of the dusk. The deepening shadows entered the room, I fancied, from the grounds below. Following her abstracted gaze a moment, I experienced a curious sharp desire to leave, to escape. Out yonder was wind and space and freedom. This enormous building was oppressive, silent, still.
Great catacombs occurred to me, things beneath the ground, imprisonment and capture. I believe I even shuddered a little.
I touched her shoulder. She turned round slowly, and we looked with a certain deliberation into each other’s eyes.
“Fanny,” I asked, more gravely than I intended, “you are not frightened, are you? Nothing has happened, has it?”
She replied with emphasis, “Of course not! How could it—I mean, why should I?” She stammered, as though the wrong sentence flustered her a second. “It’s simply—that I have this ter—this dislike of sleeping alone.”
Naturally, my first thought was how easy it would be to cut our visit short. But I did not say this. Had it been a true solution, Frances would have said it for me long ago.
“Wouldn’t Mabel double-up with you?” I said instead, “or give you an adjoining room, so that you could leave the door between you open? There’s space enough, heaven knows.”
And then, as the gong sounded in the hall below for dinner, she said, as with an effort, this thing:
“Mabel did ask me—on the third night—after I had told her. But I declined.”
“You’d rather be alone than with her?” I asked, with a certain relief.
Her reply was so gravely given, a child would have known there was more behind it: “Not that; but that she did not really want it.”