“Well, I am off, Nancy!” he says, speaking in his usual cool, friendly voice, to which I have now grown so accustomed that sometimes I could almost persuade myself that I had never known any lovinger terms; and standing with the door-handle in his hand.
He rarely kisses me know; never upon any of these little temporary absences. We always part with polite, cold, verbal salutations. Then, with a sudden change of tone, approaching me as he speaks.
“Is there any thing the matter? have you had bad news?”
My eyes drop at length from the scroll and pomegranate flower border of the ceiling. I sit up, and, with an involuntary movement, put my hand over the open letter that lies in my lap.
“I have had news,” I answer, dubiously.
“If it is any thing that you had rather not tell me!” he says, hastily, observing my stupid and unintentional gesture, and, I suppose, afraid that I am about to drift into a second series of lies—“please do not. I would not for worlds thrust myself on your confidence!”
“It is no secret of mine,” I answer, coldly, “everybody will know it immediately, I suppose: it is that Barbara—” I stop, as usual choked as I approach the abhorred theme. “Will you read the letter, please? that will be better!—yes—I had rather that you did—it will not take you long; yes, all of it!” (seeing that he is holding the note in his hand and conscientiously looking away from it as if expecting limitation as to the amount he is to peruse).
He complies. There is silence—an expectant silence on my part. It is not of long duration. Before ten seconds have elapsed the note has fallen from his hand; and, with an exclamation of the profoundest astonishment, he is looking with an expression of the most keenly questioning wonder at me.
I nod. I have judiciously placed myself with my back to the light, so that, if that exasperating flood of crimson bathe my face—and bathe it it surely will—is not it coming now?—do not I feel it creeping hotly up?—it may be as little perceptible as possible.
“It must be a great, great surprise to you!” he says, interrogatively, and still with that sound of extreme and baffled wonder in his tone.
“Immense!” reply I.
I speak steadily if low; and I look determinedly back in his face. Whatever color my cheeks are—I believe they are of the devil’s own painting—I feel that my eyes are honest. He has picked up the note, and is reading it again.
“She seems to have no doubt”—(with-rising wonder in face and voice)— “as to its greatly pleasing you!”
“So it would have done at one time,” I answer, still speaking (though no one could guess with what difficulty), with resolute equanimity.
“And does not it now?” (very quickly, and sending the searching scrutiny of his eyes through me).
“I do not know,” I answer hazily, putting up my hand to my forehead. “I cannot make up my mind, it all seems so sudden.”