“Dearest,” warily exclaimed the Creole beauty, with a sudden excess of her pretty accent, “I am in a situation perfectly dreadful!”
Anna drew her to a sofa, seeing pictures of her and Hilary together, and tortured with a belief in their exquisite fitness to be so. “Can I help you, dear?” she asked, though the question echoed mockingly within her.
“Ah, no, except with advice,” said Flora, “only with advice!”
“Ho-o-oh! if I were worthy to advise you it wouldn’t flatter me so to be asked.”
“But I muz’ ask. ’Tis only with you that I know my secret will be—to everybody—and forever—at the bed of the ocean. You can anyhow promise me that.”
“Yes, I can anyhow promise you that.”
“Then,” said Flora, “let me speak whiles—” She dropped her face into her hands, lifted it again and stared into her listener’s eyes so piteously that through Anna ran another cry—“He has not asked! No girl alive could look so if he had asked her!”
Flora seemed to nerve herself: “Anna, every dollar we had, every picayune we could raise, grandma and I, even on our Mobile house and our few best jewels, is—is—”
“Oh, what—what? Not lost? Not—not stolen?”
“Blown up! Blown up with that poor old man in the powder-mill!”
“Flora, Flora!” was all Anna, in the shame of her rebuked conjectures, could cry, and all she might have cried had she known the very truth: That every dollar, picayune, and other resource had disappeared gradually in the grist-mill of daily need and indulgence, and never one of them been near the powder-mill, the poor old man or any of his devices.
“His theories were so convincing,” sighed Flora.
“And you felt so pitiful for him,” prompted Anna.
“Grandma did; and I was so ambitious to do some great patriotic service—like yours, you Callenders, in giving those cannon—and—”
“Oh, but you went too far!”
“Ah, if we had only gone no farther!”
“You went farther? How could you?”
“Grandma did. You know, dear, how suddenly Captain Kincaid had to leave for Mobile—by night?”
“Yes,” murmured Anna, with great emphasis in her private mind.
“Well, jus’ at the las’ he gave Charlie a small bag of gold, hundreds of dollars, for—for—me to keep for him till his return. Anna! I was offended.”
“Oh, but surely he meant no—”
“Ah, my dear, did I ever give him the very least right to pick me out in that manner? No. Except in that one pretty way he has with all of us—and which you know so well—”
An uncourageous faint smile seemed the safest response.
“Yes,” said Flora, “you know it. And I had never allowed myself—”
With eyes down the two girls sat silent. Then the further word came absently, “I refused to touch his money,” and there was another stillness.