“One has to guard one’s value at times.”
Kitty’s disdain for John increased. “How crude!”
Hortense did not make any answer.
“How crude!” Kitty, after some silence, repeated. She seemed to have found the right word.
Steps sounded upon the bridge, and the voice of Gazza cried out that the stupid key was at the imbecile club-house, whither he was now going for it, and not to be alarmed. Their voices answered reassuringly, and Gazza was heard growing distant, singing some little song.
Kitty was apparently unable to get away from John’s crudity. “He actually said that?”
“Where was it? Tell me about it, Hortense.”
“We were walking in the country on that occasion.”
Kitty still lingered with it. “Did he look—I’ve never had any man—I wonder if—how did you feel?”
“Not disagreeably.” And Hortense permitted herself to laugh musically.
Kitty’s voice at once returned to the censorious tone. “Well, I call such language as that very—very—”
Hortense helped her. “Operatic?”
“He could never be taught in those ways either,” declared Kitty. “You would find his ardor always untrained—provincial.”
Once more Hortense abstained from making any answer.
Kitty grew superior. “Well, if that’s to your taste, Hortense Rieppe!”
“It was none of it like Charley,” murmured Hortense.
“I should think not! Charley’s not crude. What do you see in that man?”
“I like the way his hair curls above his ears.”
For this Kitty found nothing but an impatient exclamation.
And now the voice of Hortense sank still deeper in dreaminess,—down to where the truth lay; and from those depths came the truth, flashing upward through the drowsy words she spoke: “I think I want him for his innocence.”
What light these words may have brought to Kitty, I had no chance to learn; for the voice of Gazza returning with the key put an end to this conversation. But I doubted if Kitty had it in her to fathom the nature of Hortense. Kitty was like a trim little clock that could tick tidily on an ornate shelf; she could go, she could keep up with time, with the rapid epoch to which she belonged, but she didn’t really have many works. I think she would have scoffed at that last languorous speech as a piece of Hortense’s nonsense, and that is why Hortense uttered it aloud: she was safe from being understood. But in my ears it sounded the note of revelation, the simple central secret of Hortense’s fire, a flame fed overmuch with experience, with sophistication, grown cold under the ministrations of adroitness, and lighted now by the “crudity” of John’s love-making. And when, after an interval, I had rowed my boat back, and got into the carriage, and started on my long drive from Udolpho to Kings Port, I found that there was almost nothing about all this which I did not know now. Hortense, like most riddles when you are told the answer, was clear:—