“Nancy!” he says, in a low voice, not looking at me, but still facing the flowers and the sunshiny autumn sward, “do you believe that—that— this fellow cares about her really?—she is too good to be made—to be made—a mere cat’s-paw of!”
“A cat’s-paw!” cry I, turning quickly round with raised voice; the blood that so lately retired from it rushing again headlong all over my face; “I do not know—what you mean—what you are talking about!”
He draws his breath heavily, and pauses a moment before he speaks.
“God knows,” he says, looking solemnly up, “that I had no wish to broach this subject again—God knows that I meant to have done with it forever —but now that it has been forced against my will—against both our wills—upon me, I must ask you this one question—tell me, Nancy—tell me truly this time”—(with an accent of acute pain on the word “this")—“can you say, on your honor—on your honor, mind—that you believe this—this man loves Barbara, as a man should love his wife?”
If he had worded his interrogation differently, I should have been sorely puzzled to answer it; as it is, in the form his question takes, I find a loop-hole of escape.
“As a man should love his wife?” I reply, with a derisive laugh, “and how is that? I do not think I quite know!—very dearly, I suppose, but not quite so dearly as if she were his neighbor’s—is that it?”
As I speak, I look up at him, with a malicious air of pseudo-innocence. But if I expect to see any guilt—any conscious shrinking in his face—I am mistaken. There is pain—infinite pain—pain both sharp and long-enduring in the grieved depths of his eyes; but there is no guilt.
“You will not answer me?” he says, in an accent of profound disappointment, sighing again heavily. “Well, I hardly expected it— hardly hoped it!—so be it, then, since you will have it so; and yet—” (again taking up the note, and reading over one of its few sentences with slow attention), “and yet there is one more question I must put to you, after all—they both come to pretty much the same thing. Why”— (pointing, as he speaks, to the words to which he alludes)—“why should you have taken on yourself the blame of—of his departure from Tempest? what had you to say to it?”
In his voice there is the same just severity; in his eyes there is the same fire of deep yet governed wrath that I remember in them six months ago, when Mrs. Huntley first threw the firebrand between us.
“I do not know,” I reply, in a half whisper of impatient misery, turning my head restlessly from side to side; “how should I know? I am sick of the subject.”
“Perhaps!—so, God knows, am I; but had you any thing to say to it?”
He does not often touch me now; but, as he asks this, he takes hold of both my hands, more certainly to prevent my escaping from under his gaze, than from any desire to caress me.