Were I to answer this handsome and cunning fool according to his folly, in what position should I find myself? No doubt my reply would induce a rejoinder, and that compel another note from me, and that invite yet another from him; and however his might improve in warmth, they were sure not to abate. Was it his impertinent plan, with this show of respect and ceremony, to drag me into a clandestine correspondence? Inexperienced girl as I was, I fired at the idea of becoming his dupe, and fancying, perhaps, that there was more in merely answering his note than it would have amounted to, I said—
’That kind of thing may answer very well with button-makers, but ladies don’t like it. What would your papa think of it if he found that I had been writing to him, and seeing him without his permission? If he wanted to see me he could have’—(I really did not know exactly what he could have done)—’he could have timed his visit to Lady Knollys differently; at all events, he has no right to place me in an embarrassing situation, and I am certain Cousin Knollys would say so; and I think his note both shabby and impertinent.’
Decision was not with me an intellectual process. When quite cool I was the most undecided of mortals, but once my feelings were excited I was prompt and bold.
‘I’ll give the note to Uncle Silas,’ I said, quickening my pace toward home; ‘he’ll know what to do.’
But Milly, who, I fancy, had no objection to the little romance which the young officer proposed, told me that she could not see her father, that he was ill, and not speaking to anyone.
‘And arn’t ye making a plaguy row about nothin’? I lay a guinea if ye had never set eyes on Lord Ilbury you’d a told him to come, and see ye, an’ welcome.’
’Don’t talk like a fool, Milly. You never knew me do anything deceitful. Lord Ilbury has no more to do with it, you know very well, than the man in the moon.’
I was altogether very indignant. I did not speak another word to Milly. The proportions of the house are so great, that it is a much longer walk than you would suppose from the hall-door to Uncle Silas’s room. But I did not cool all that way; and it was not till I had just reached the lobby, and saw the sour, jealous face, and high caul of old Wyat, and felt the influence of that neighbourhood, that I paused to reconsider. I fancied there was a cool consciousness of success behind all the deferential phraseology of Captain Oakley, which nettled me extremely. No; there could be no doubt. I tapped softly at the door.
‘What is it now, Miss?’ snarled the querulous old woman, with her shrivelled fingers on the door-handle.
‘Can I see my uncle for a moment?’
‘He’s tired, and not a word from him all day long.’
‘Not ill, though?’
‘Awful bad in the night,’ said the old crone, with a sudden savage glare in my face, as if I had brought it about.