“If you see all this,” said Lady Caroline, mollified, “our business should be easier, with a little common sense on your part.”
“And it knits you,” pursued Ruth, “into a sort of family conspiracy— the womenkind especially—like bees in a hive. The head of the family is the queen bee, and you respect him amazingly; but all the same you keep your own judgment, and know when to thwart and when to disobey him, for his own and the family’s good. I think you disobeyed Sir Oliver in coming here; or, at least, deceived him and came here without his knowledge.”
“I am not accustomed,” said Lady Caroline, rising, “to direct my conduct upon my nephew’s advice.”
“That, more or less, is what I was trying to say. Dear madam, let me warn you to do so, if you would manage his private affairs.”
They faced each other now, upon declared war. Lady Caroline’s neck was suffused to a purplish red behind the ears. She gasped for speech. Before she found it there came a tapping on the door, and Diana Vyell entered.
“Have you not finished yet?” Miss Diana closed the door, glanced from one to the other, and laughed with a genial brutality. “Well, it’s time I came. Dear mamma, you seem to be getting your feathers pulled.”
There was a byword among the Whig families at home (who, by intermarrying, had learned to gauge another’s weaknesses), that “the Pett medal showed ill in reverse.” Miss Diana had heard the saying. As a Vyell—the Vyells were, before all things, critical—she knew it to be just, as well as malicious; but as a dutiful daughter she ought to have remembered.
As it was, her cool comment stung her mother to fury. The poor lady pointed a finger at Ruth, and spluttered (there is no more elegant word for the very inelegant exhibition),—
“A strumpet! One that has been whipped through the public streets.”
There was a dreadful pause. Miss Diana, the first to recover herself, stepped back to the door and held it open.
“You must excuse dear mamma,” she said coolly. “She has overtired herself.”
But Lady Caroline continued to point a finger trembling with passion.
“Her price!” she shrilled. “Ask her that. It is all these creatures ever understand!”
Miss Diana slipped an arm beneath her elbow and firmly conducted her forth. Ruth, hearing the door shut, supposed that both women had withdrawn. She sank into a chair, and was stretching out her arms over the table to bury her face in them and sob, when the voice of the younger said quietly behind her shoulder,—
“It is always hard, after mamma’s tantrums, to bring the talk back to a decent level. Nevertheless, shall we try?”
Ruth had drawn herself up again, rallying the spirit in her. It was weary, bruised; but its hour of default was not yet. Her voice dragged, but just perceptibly, as she answered Miss Vyell, who nodded, noting her courage and wondering a little,—