“Please put me aside and consider Mrs. Clephane,” she insisted. “Is she cleverer than—well, than I am?”
“You are the cleverest woman that I have ever known.”
“Is she more intellectual?”
“Preserve me from the intellectual woman!” he exclaimed.
“Is she more travelled?”
“I think not.”
“Is she superficially more cultured?”
“I should say not.”
“Has she a better disposition?”
“No one could have a better disposition than you have ever shown to me.”
“Is she more fascinating in manner?”
“She couldn’t be!”
“She is younger?” tentatively.
Harleston did not reply.
“But very little—two or three years, maybe?” she added.
Again Harleston did not reply.
“Is her conversation more entertaining?” she resumed.
“Or more edifying?”
“Excuse me again!” he exclaimed. “Edifying is in the same class as intellectual.”
“Then all Mrs. Clephane has on me is a few years?”
“Other things don’t count with you, I assume—when they’re of the past, and both have been a trifle tinctured.”
She said it with affected carelessness and a ravishing smile; but Harleston was aware that underneath there was bitterness of spirit, and cold hate of the other woman. She had touched the pinch of the matter. Both knew it, and both knew the answer. Yet she was hoping against hope; and he was loath to hurt her needlessly, because Mrs. Clephane would be sure to catch the recoil, and because he himself was very fond of her—despite all and Mrs. Clephane. He had seen his mistake in time, if it was a mistake, but that did not blind him to Madeline Spencer’s fascinating manner and beautiful person, and to the fact that she cared for him. However, neither might he let pass the charge she had just made against Mrs. Clephane. Yet he tried to be kind to the woman beside him, while defending the woman who was absent, and, as is often the case under such circumstances he played for time—the hotel was but a block away—and made a mess of it, so far as the woman beside him was concerned.
“Who are a trifle tinctured—and with what?” he asked.
She smiled languidly.
“That is scarcely worthy of you, Guy,” she remarked. “You are aiming at—windmills; at least, I think you are not suddenly gone stupid. However, you do not need to answer. Mrs. Clephane, you think, is not tinctured, and you know that I have been—several shades deep. In other words, she surpasses me in your estimation in the petty matter of morals. So be it; you’re no fool, and a pretty woman cannot blind you to the facts for long. Then we shall see which you prefer. The woman who is honest about the tincture, or the woman who is not. Now let us drop the matter, and attend strictly to business until such time as the present business is ended,—and Mrs. Clephane appears as she is.”