“Oh, Laura,” said Christine, “could I have just a word with you?”
Mrs. Ussher looked up startled. She had been deeply depressed by her unsuccessful conversation with her cousin. He had seemed to her absolutely immovable, but there was no mistaking the significant bride-like modulations of Christine’s voice.
“With me?” she said, and in her eagerness she was already at the door, before Christine stopped her.
“Really,” she said, “I don’t know why only with you. I know you are all enough my friends to be interested—even Mr. Wickham. Max and I wanted to tell you that we are engaged. Only, of course, it’s a secret.”
Riatt had resolved that he would not look at Mrs. Almar, and he didn’t. She was adding up the score, and her arithmetic did not fail her. “And that makes 387, Mr. Wickham,” she said, and then she looked up with her bright, piercing eyes, in time to see Laura fling herself enthusiastically into Riatt’s arms. She got up with a shrewd smile. “Let me congratulate you, too, Mr. Riatt,” she said. “I always like to see people get what they deserve.”
“Oh, Nancy, I’m sure you think I’m getting far more than I deserve,” said Christine.
“You haven’t actually got it yet, darling,” returned Mrs. Almar.
“That sounds almost like a threat, my dear.”
“More in the line of a prophecy.”
At this moment the footman created a diversion by announcing that the sleigh was waiting to take Mr. Riatt to the train, and Riatt explained that he had decided not to take the train that day. Then Christine, on inquiring, found that Hickson was writing letters in the library, and went away to talk to him. She had no fear of leaving Max; she knew he was in safe hands; Laura would not allow Nancy an instant alone with him. Nor, as a matter of fact, was Riatt himself eager to subject himself to the cross-examination of that keen and contemptuous intelligence. Indeed Nancy soon drifted out of the room, and Riatt found himself committed to a long tete-a-tete with Laura on the subject of Christine’s perfections, and his supposed deceitfulness in pretending indifference. “Oh, you protested too much, my dear Max,” Laura insisted with the most irritating exuberance. “I knew when you began to say that she was the last woman in the world you would fall in love with, that your hour had come. No man ever lived who could resist Christine when she chooses to make herself agreeable.”
Riatt felt he was looking rather grim for an accepted lover, as he answered that it was a great comfort to feel one had succumbed only to the irresistible. Before very long Christine came back, and taking in what had been going on, managed to get rid of her friend. Laura made it plain that she was only too glad to accord the lovers a few blissful moments alone.
“I can’t describe to you,” he said crossly, “how intensely disagreeable I find the situation.”