“That’ll be another hint,” assented Mr. Jernshaw. “Not that hints are much good to Mrs. Prentice.”
“We’ll see,” said Mr. Barrett.
In accordance with his plan his return to his native town was heralded by a few short visits at respectable intervals. A sort of human butterfly, he streaked rapidly across one or two streets, alighted for half an hour to resume an old friendship, and then disappeared again. Having given at least half-a-dozen hints of this kind, he made a final return to Ramsbury and entered into occupation of his new house.
“It does you credit, Jernshaw,” he said, gratefully. “I should have made a rare mess of it without your help.”
“It looks very nice,” admitted his friend. “Too nice.”
“That’s all nonsense,” said the owner, irritably.
“All right,” said Mr. Jernshaw. “I don’t know the sex, then, that’s all. If you think that you’re going to keep a nice house like this all to yourself, you’re mistaken. It’s a home; and where there’s a home a woman comes in, somehow.”
Mr. Barrett grunted his disbelief.
“I give you four days,” said Mr. Jernshaw.
As a matter of fact, Mrs. Prentice and her daughter came on the fifth. Mr. Barrett, who was in an easy-chair, wooing slumber with a handkerchief over his head, heard their voices at the front door and the cordial invitation of his housekeeper. They entered the room as he sat hastily smoothing his rumpled hair.
“Good afternoon,” he said, shaking hands.
Mrs. Prentice returned the greeting in a level voice, and, accepting a chair, gazed around the room.
“Nice weather,” said Mr. Barrett.
“Very,” said Mrs. Prentice.
“It’s—it’s quite a pleasure to see you again,” said Mr. Barrett.
“We thought we should have seen you before,”
said Mrs. Prentice, “but
I told Louisa that no doubt you were busy, and wanted to surprise her.
I like the carpet; don’t you, Louisa?”
Miss Prentice said she did.
“The room is nice and airy,” said Mrs. Prentice, “but it’s a pity you didn’t come to me before deciding. I could have told you of a better house for the same money.”
“I’m very well satisfied with this,” said Mr. Barrett. “It’s all I want.”
“It’s well enough,” conceded Mrs. Prentice, amiably. “And how have you been all these years?”
Mr. Barrett, with some haste, replied that his health and spirits had been excellent.
“You look well,” said Mrs. Prentice. “Neither of you seem to have changed much,” she added, looking from him to her daughter. “And I think you did quite well not to write. I think it was much the best.”
Mr. Barrett sought for a question: a natural, artless question, that would neutralize the hideous suggestion conveyed by this remark, but it eluded him. He sat and gazed in growing fear at Mrs. Prentice.