Aunt Hilary fixed her honest eyes on the lad’s face—the lad, so little younger than herself, and yet who at tunes, when he let out sayings such as this, seemed so awfully, so pitifully old; and she felt thankful that, at all risks and costs, they had come to London to be beside him, to help him, to save him, if he needed saving, as women only can. For, after all, he was but a boy. And though as he walked by her side, stalwart and manly, the thought smote her painfully that many a young fellow of his age was the stay and bread winner of some widowed mother or sister, nay even of wife and child, still she repeated cheerfully. “What can one expect from him? He is only a boy.”
God help the women who, for those belonging to them—husbands, fathers, brothers, lovers, sons—have ever so tenderly to apologize.
When they came in sight of St. Pancras’s Church, Ascott said, suddenly, “I think you’ll knew your way now, Aunt Hilary.”
“Because—you wouldn’t be vexed if I left you? I have an engagement; some fellows that I dine with, out at Hampstead, or Richmond, or Blackwell, every Sunday. Nothing wicked, I assure you. And you know it’s capital for one’s health to get a Sunday in fresh air.”
“Yes; but Aunt Johanna will be sorry to miss you.”
“Will she? Oh, you’ll smooth her down. Stay! Tell her I shall be back to tea.”
“We shall be having tea directly.”
“I declare I had quite forgotten. Aunt Hilary, you must change your hours. They don’t suit me at all. No men can ever stand early dinners. By, by! You are the very prettiest auntie. Be sure you get home safe. Hollo, there! That’s my omnibus.”
He jumped on the top of it, and was off.
Aunt Hilary stood quite confounded, and with one of those strange sinkings of the heart which had come over her several times this day. It was not that Ascott showed any unkindness—that there was any actual badness in his bright and handsome young face. Still there was a want there—want of earnestness, steadfastness, truthfulness, a something more discoverable as the lack of something else than as aught in itself tangibly and perceptibly wrong. It made her sad; it caused her to look forward to his future with an anxious heart. It was so different from the kind of anxiety, and yet settled repose, with which she thought of the only other man in whose future she felt the smallest interest. Of Robert Lyon, she was certain that whatever misfortune visited him he would bear it in the best way it could be borne; whatever temptation assailed him he would fight against it as a brave and good Christian should fight. But Ascott?
Ascott’s life was as yet an unanswered query. She could but leave it in Omnipotent hands.
So she found her way home, asking it once or twice of civil policemen, and going a little distance round—dare I make this romantic confession about so sensible and practical a little woman?—that she might walk once up Burton Street and down again. But nobody knew the fact, and it did nobody any harm.