‘What do you mean?’ I repeated quietly. ‘Tell me exactly what you mean.’
I thought she was aiming at the company which I sometimes kept, or the freedom of my diversions on the English Sabbath. I thought what trifles were these compared to the dilemma in which, possibly within a few hours, I should find myself.
‘To put it in as few words as possible,’ said she, ’I mean your relations with a married man. Forgive my bluntness, dear girl.’
Then my secret was not my secret! We were chattered about, he and I. We had not hidden our feeling, our passions. And I had been imagining myself a woman of the world equal to sustaining a difficult part in the masque of existence. With an abandoned gesture I hid my face in my hands for a moment, and then I dropped my hands, and leaned forward and looked steadily at Mrs. Sardis. Her eyes were kind enough.
‘You won’t affect not to understand?’ she said.
I assented with a motion of the head.
‘Many persons say there is a—a liaison between you,’ she said.
‘And do you think that?’ I asked quickly.
‘If I had thought so, my daughter would not have been here to-night,’ she said solemnly. ’No, no; I do not believe it for an instant, and I brought Jocelyn specially to prove to the world that I do not. I only heard the gossip a few days ago; and to-night, as I sat here, it was borne in upon me that I must speak to you to-night. And I have done so. Not everyone would have done so, dear girl. Most of your friends are content to talk among themselves.’
‘About me? Oh!’ It was the expression of an almost physical pain.
‘What can you expect them to do?’ asked Mrs. Sardis mildly.
‘True,’ I agreed.
’You see, the circumstances are so extremely peculiar. Your friendship with her—’
’Let me tell you’—I stopped her—’that not a single word has ever passed between me and—and the man you mean, that everybody might not hear. Not a single word!’
‘Dearest girl,’ she exclaimed; ’how glad I am! How glad I am! Now I can take measures to—.
‘But—’ I resumed.
In a flash I saw the futility of attempting to explain to a woman like Mrs. Sardis, who had no doubts about the utter righteousness of her own code, whose rules had no exceptions, whose principles could apply to every conceivable case, and who was the very embodiment of the vast stolid London that hemmed me in—of attempting to explain to such an excellent, blind creature why, and in obedience to what ideal, I would not answer for the future. I knew that I might as well talk to a church steeple.
‘Nothing,’ I said, rising, ’except that I thank you. Be sure that I am grateful. You have had a task which must have been very unpleasant to you.’
She smiled, virtuously happy.
‘You made it easy,’ she murmured.