“Whoever they are,” says Barbara, anxiously, lifting her head from the work over which it is bent, “mind you do not ask after their relations! Think of the man whose wife you inquired after, and found that she had run away with his groom not a month before!”
“That certainly was one of my unlucky things,” answer I, gravely; then, beginning to laugh—“and I was so determined to know what had become of her, too.”
I am still looking out. It is a soft, smoke-colored day; half an hour ago, there was a shower—each drop a separate loud patter on the sycamore-leaves—but now it is fair again. A victoria is coming briskly up the drive; servants in dark liveries; a smoke-colored parasol that matches the day.
“Shall I ring, and say ‘not at home?’” asks Barbara, stretching out her hand toward the bell.
“No, no!” cry I, hurriedly, in an altered voice, for the parasol has moved a little aside, and I have seen the face beneath.
In two minutes the butler enters and announces “Mrs. Huntley,” and the “plain woman—not very young—about thirty—who cannot be very strong, as she sat down through the Psalms,” enters.
At first she seems uncertain which to greet as bride and hostess; indeed, I can see that her earliest impulse is to turn from the small insignificance in silk, to the tall little loveliness in cotton, and as I perceive it, a little arrow—not of jealousy, for, thank God, I never was jealous of our Barbara—never—but of pain at my so palpable inferiority, shoots through all my being. But Barbara draws back, and our visitor perceives her error. We sit down, but the brunt of the talk falls on Barbara. I am never glib with strangers, and I throw in a word only now and then, all my attention and observation having passed into my eyes. A plain woman, indeed! I have always been convinced of the unbecomingness of church, but now more than ever am I fully persuaded of it. And yet she is not pretty! Her mouth is very wide, that is perhaps why she so rarely laughs; her nose cannot say much for itself; her cheeks are thin, and I think—nay, let me tell truth—I hope that in a low gown she would be scraggy, so slight even to meagreness is she! But how thoroughly made the most of! What a shapeless, pin-cushion fit my gown seems beside the admirable French sit of hers! How hard, how metallic its tint beside the indefinite softness of that sweep of smoke-color! What a stiff British erection my hair feels beside the careless looseness of these shining twists! What a fine, slight hand, as if cut in faint gray stone!
At each fresh detail that I note, Musgrave’s anecdote gains ever more and more probability; and my heart sinks ever lower and more low.
One hope remains to me. Perhaps she may be stupid! Certainly she is not affording.
How heavily poor Barbara is driving through the fine weather and the Times! and how little more than “yes” and “no” does she get! I take heart. Roger loves people who talk—people who are merry and make jests. It was my most worthless gabble that first drew him toward me. Cheered and emboldened by this thought, I swoop down like a sudden eagle to the rescue.