Her highly colored comely face was very hot and flushed and she rather restlessly played with her parasol handle. Miss La Sarthe’s voice grew a little acid as she said:
“This is our great-niece, Halcyone La Sarthe, Mrs. Anderton”—and then—“It is unfortunate that you should have been so long absent, child.”
“I am very sorry,” Halcyone returned gently, and she shook hands. She made no excuse or explanation.
Mrs. Anderton plunged into important matters at once.
“Your father, Mr. Anderton”—how that word “father” jarred upon Halcyone’s sensitive ears!—“wished me to come and see you, dear, and hopes you will return with me to-morrow to London, for a little visit to us, that you may make the acquaintance of your brother and sisters.”
Halcyone had already made up her mind what to do, before she had left her room. She would agree to anything they suggested in order to have no obstacles put in her way—not admitting for a moment that these people had any authority over her. Then, if in the morning she received a letter from her Beloved, she would follow its instructions implicitly. Always having at hand her certain mode of disappearance, she could slip away, and if it seemed necessary, just leave them to think what they pleased. Priscilla would be warned to allay at once the anxiety of her aunts, and for the Andertons she was far too desperate to care what they might feel.
“Thank you; it is very good of you,” she said as graciously as she could. “My old nurse has told me of your kind invitation, and is already beginning the preparations. I trust you left Mr. Anderton and my stepbrother and sisters well?”
“Hoity-toity!” thought Louisa Anderton. “Of the same sort as the old spinsters. This won’t please James, I fear!” But aloud she answered that the family were all well, and that James Albert, who was thirteen now, would soon be going to Eton.
Over Halcyone, in spite of her numbness and the tension she was feeling, though controlled by her firm will, there came the memory of the red, crying baby, for whose life her own sweet mother had paid so dear a price. And Mabel and Ethel—noisy, merry little girls!—she had thought of them so seldom in these latter years—they seemed as far-off shadows now. But James Anderton and her mother stood out sharp and clear.
The strain and anguish of the day had left her very pale. Mrs. Anderton thought her plain and most uncomfortably aloof; she really regretted that she had put into her husband’s head the idea of giving this invitation. He would gladly have left Halcyone alone, but for her kindly thought. Mabel was just seventeen, and such a handful that her father had decided she should stay in the schoolroom with her sister for another year, and Mrs. Anderton had felt it would be a good opportunity for Halcyone to rejoin the family circle at a time when her presence, if she proved good-looking, could not in any way interfere with her stepsister’s debut.