Hickson did not hear everything, but he caught the idea, and said severely:
“I don’t suppose any one would ask Miss Fenimer to wash dirty dishes.”
Riatt laughed: “No one who had ever seen her try.”
Ussher, who had been fuming in the background, now broke out:
“Upon my word, Christine, that tool-house was like a vault. It was madness to ask any one to spend the night in such a place.”
“Did you spend the night in the tool-house?” said Hickson with unusual directness.
“There are worse places than the tool-house,” said Riatt, as he and Ussher hurried down to the cellar to put out the furnace fire.
Hickson turned to Christine. “The fellow didn’t answer me,” he said.
“Perhaps he thought it was none of your business, Edward, my dear,” she answered.
“Everything connected with you is my business,” he returned.
“Oh, Edward, what a dreary outlook for me!”
“Christine, answer me. Did or did not this man make advances to you?”
“Edward, he did.”
“He gave me a long, tiresome, moral lecture and, judging by you, my dear, that is proof of affection.”
“You’re simply amusing yourself with me!”
“I’m not amusing myself very much, Edward, if that’s any comfort.”
“You drive me mad,” he said and stamped away from her so hard, that Ussher came up from the cellar.
“What’s Edward doing?” he said.
“He says he’s going mad,” returned Christine, “but I thought he was washing the dishes.”
“There’s no pleasing Edward,” said Ussher. “He was in my room at six o’clock this morning trying to get me to start a rescuing party (and I needn’t tell you, Christine, we none of us had much sleep last night), and now that he is here and finds you safe, he seems to be just as restless as ever.” And Ussher returned to the cellar still grumbling.
“You know why I’m restless, Christine,” Hickson said when they were again alone.
Christine seemed to wonder. “The artistic temperament is usually given as the explanation, but somehow, in your case, Edward—”
He came and stood directly in front of her.
“Christine, what did happen last night?”
Although not a muscle of Miss Fenimer’s face moved, she knew very well that this was a turning-point. She had the choice between killing the scandal, or giving it such life and strength that nothing but her marriage with Riatt would ever allay it. She knew that a few sensible words would put Hickson straight, and Hickson would be a powerful ally. On the other hand, if he came back plainly weighted with a terrible doubt, no one would ask any further evidence. The question was, how much would Riatt feel the responsibility of such a situation. It was a fighting chance. Themistocles when he burnt his ships must have argued in very much the same way, but probably not so rapidly.