Sylvia did not wish to arouse the suspicions of her hostess, but she smiled.
“I expected you, and I’m glad you came,” she said.
“That’s very nice to hear.”
“Don’t take too much for granted. Still, I thought I’d like to see you, because I’m going to Egypt with Muriel for some time. Indeed, I shall not be back until the spring.”
The man displayed dismayed surprise, and Sylvia waited for his answer with some eagerness. She did not wish to enter into a formal engagement—it was a little too early to make an announcement yet—but she thought it wise to bind him in some degree before she left.
“Until the spring?” he broke out. “You expect me to let you go?”
“You must,” said Sylvia firmly, and added in a softer voice, “I’m rather sorry.”
He saw that he could not shake her decision.
“Then we must have a clear understanding,” he rejoined hotly. “You know I want you—when is this waiting to end? Tell me now, and let me tell all who care to hear, that you belong to me.”
Sylvia made a gesture of protest and coquettishly looked down.
“You must still have patience,” she murmured; “the time will soon pass.”
“And then?” he asked with eagerness.
She glanced up at him shyly.
“If you will ask me again when I come back, I will give you your answer.”
She left him no reason for doubting what that answer would be; and, stretching out his arms, he drew her strongly to him. In a minute or two, however, Sylvia insisted on his returning to his host, and soon afterward Mrs. Kettering came in to look for her.
A bitter wind searched the poplar bluff where George and his hired man, Grierson, were cutting fuel. Except in the river valleys, trees of any size are scarce on the prairie, but the slender trunks and leafless branches were closely massed and afforded a little shelter. Outside on the open waste, the cold was almost too severe to face, and George once or twice glanced anxiously across the snowy levels, looking for some sign of Edgar, who should have joined them with the team and sledge. It was, however, difficult to see far, because a gray dimness narrowed in the horizon. George stood, dressed in snow-flecked furs, in the center of a little clearing strewn with rows of fallen trunks from which he was hewing off the branches. The work was hard; his whole body strained with each stroke of the heavy ax, but it failed to keep him warm, and the wind was growing more bitter with the approach of night.
“I don’t know what can be keeping West,” he said after a while. “We haven’t seen the mail-carrier either, and he’s two hours late; but he must have had a heavy trail all the way from the settlement. I expect he’ll cut out our place and make straight for Grant’s. We’ll have snow before long.”