“Here you are! I was growing so frightened about you! What can have made you so late?”
“It was so—so—pleasant! The thrushes were singing so!” reply I thus happily inaugurating my career of invention.
“But, my dear child, the thrushes went to bed two hours ago!”
“Yes,” I answer, at once entirely nonplussed, “so they did!”
“Where have you been?” she asks, in a tone of ever-increasing surprise. “Did you go farther than you intended?”
“I went—to see—the old Busseys,” reply I, slowly; inwardly pondering, with a stupid surprise, as to whether it can possibly have been no longer ago than this very afternoon, that the old man mistook me for the dead Belinda—and that I held the old wife’s soapy hand in farewell in mine; “the—old—Busseys!” I repeat, “and it took—me a long—long time to get home!”
I shiver as I speak.
“You are cold!” she says, anxiously. “I hope you have not had a chill—” (taking my hands in her own slight ones)—“yes—starved!—poor dear hands; let me rub them!” (beginning delicately to chafe them).
Something in the tender solicitude of her voice, in the touch of her gentle hands, gives me an agony of pain and remorse. I snatch away my hands.
“No! no!” I cry, brusquely, “they do very well!”
Again she looks at me, with a sort of astonishment, a little mixed with pain; but she does not say any thing. She goes over to the fire, and stoops to take up the poker.
“Do not!” cry I, hastily, “there is plenty of light!—I mean—” (stammering) “it—it—dazzles me, coming in out of the dark.”
As I speak, I retire to a distant chair, as nearly as possible out of the fire-light, and affect to be occupied with Vick, who has jumped up on my lap, and—with all a dog’s delicate care not to hurt you really —is pretending severely to bite every one of my fingers. Barbara has returned to the hearth-rug. She looks a little troubled at first; but, after a moment or two, her face regains its usual serene sweetness.
“And I have been here ever since you left me!” she says, presently, with a look of soft gayety. “I have had no visitors! Not even”—(blushing a little)—“the usual one.”
“No?” say I, bending down my head over Vick, and allowing her to have a better and more thorough lick at the bridge of my nose than she has ever enjoyed in her life before.
“You did not meet him, I suppose?” she says, interrogatively.
“I” cry I, starting guiltily, and stammering. “Not I! Why—why should I?”
“Why should not you, rather?” she says, laughing a little. “It is not such a very unusual occurrence?”
“Do you think not?” I say, in a voice whose trembling is painfully perceptible to myself. “You do not think I—” ("You do not think I meet him on purpose,” I am going to say; but I break off suddenly, aware that I am betraying myself).