“My dear old chap,” said I, leaning forward. “I’ve got something to tell you. I didn’t like to write about it. But it has got to be told, and I may as well get it over now.”
* * * * *
It was a subdued and half-scared Jaffery who greeted Barbara and Susan at our front door. The jollity had gone out of him. He was nothing but a vast hulk filled with self-reproach. It was his fault, his very grievous and careless fault for having postponed the destruction of the papers, and for having left them loose and unsecured in his rooms. He all but beat his breast. If Doria had died of the shock his would be the blame. He saluted Barbara with the air of one entering a house of mourning.
“You mustn’t look so woe-begone,” she said. “Something like this was bound to happen. I have dreaded it all along—and now it has happened and the earth hasn’t come to an end.”
We stood in the hall, while Franklin divested the visitors of their outer wraps and trappings.
“And, Liosha,” Barbara continued, throwing her arms round as much of Liosha as they could grasp—she had already kissed her a warm welcome—“it’s a shame, dear, to depress you the moment you come into the place. You’ll wish you were at sea again.”
“I guess not,” said Liosha. “I know now I’m among folks who love me. Isn’t that true, Susan?”
“Daddy loves you and mummy loves you and I adore you,” cried Susan.
Whereupon there was much hugging of a spoiled monkey.
We went upstairs. At the drawing-room door Barbara gave me one of her queer glances, which meant, on interpretation, that I should leave her alone with Jaffery for a few minutes so that she could pour the balm of sense over his remorseful soul, and that in the meantime it would be advisable for me to explain the situation to Liosha. Aloud, she said, before disappearing:
“Your old room, Liosha, dear—you’ll find everything ready.”
In order to carry out my wife’s orders, I had to disentangle Susan from Liosha’s embrace and pack her off rueful to the nursery. But the promise to seat her at lunch between the two seafarers brought a measure of consolation.
“Come into the library, Liosha,” said I, throwing the door open. I followed her and settled her in an armchair before a big fire; and then stood on the hearthrug, looking at her and feeling rather a fool. I offered her refreshment. She declined. I commented again on her fine physical appearance and asked her how she was. I drew her attention to some beautiful narcissi and hyacinths that had come from the greenhouse. The more I talked and the longer she regarded me in her grave, direct fashion, the less I knew how to tell her, or how much to tell her, of Doria’s story. The drive had been a short one, giving time only for a narration of the facts of the discovery. Liosha, although accepting my apology, had sat mystified; also profoundly disturbed by Jaffery’s unconcealed agitation. Her life with him during the past four months had drawn her into the meshes of the little drama. For her own sake, for everybody’s sake, we could not allow her to remain in complete ignorance. . . . I gave her a cigarette and took one myself. After the first puff, she smiled.