When the party returned to the boat-house in the evening, Sorell, whose boat had arrived first at the landing-stage, helped Constance to land. Pryce, much against his will, was annexed by Nora to help her return the boats to the Isis; the undergraduates who had brought them being due at various engagements in Oxford. Sorell carried Constance off. He thought that he had never seen her look more radiant. She was flushed with success and praise, and the gold of the river sunset glorified her as she walked. Behind them, dim figures in the twilight, followed Mrs. Hooper and Alice, with the two other ladies, their cavaliers having deserted them.
“I am so glad you like Mr. Pryce,” said Sorell suddenly.
Constance looked at him in astonishment.
“But why? I don’t like him very much!”
“Really? I was glad because I suppose—doesn’t everybody suppose?”—he looked at her smiling—“that there’ll be some news in that quarter presently?”
Constance was silent a moment. At last, she said—
“You mean—he’ll propose to Alice?”
“Isn’t that what’s expected?” He too had reddened. He was a shy man, and he was suddenly conscious that he had done a marked thing.
Another silence. Then Constance faced him, her face now more than flushed—aflame.
“I see. You think I have been behaving badly?”
“I didn’t know perhaps—whether—you have been such a little while here—whether you had come across the Oxford gossip. I wish sometimes—you know I’m an old friend of your uncle—that it could be settled. Little Miss Alice has begun to look very worn.”
Constance walked on, her eyes on the ground. He could see the soft lace on her breast fluttering. What foolish quixotry—what jealousy for an ideal—had made him run this hideous risk of offending her? He held his breath till she should look at him again. When she did, the beauty of the look abashed him.
“Thank you!” she said quietly. “Thank you very much. Alice annoyed me—she doesn’t like me, you see—and I took a mean revenge. Well, now you understand—how I miss mamma!”
She held out her hand to him impulsively, and he enclosed it warmly in his; asking her, rather incoherently, to forgive his impertinence. Was it to be Ella Risborough’s legacy to him—this futile yearning to help—to watch over—her orphaned child?
Much good the legacy would do him, when Connie’s own will was really engaged! He happened to know that Douglas Falloden was already in Oxford again, and in a few more days Greats would be over, and the young man’s energies released. What possible justification had he, Sorell, for any sort of interference in this quarter? It seemed to him, indeed, as to many others, that the young man showed every sign of a selfish and violent character. What then? Are rich and handsome husbands so plentiful? Have the moralists ever had their way with youth and sex in their first turbulent hour?