“I’m after the clothes,” she explained. She reached the back landing just in time to see Colonel Cresswell’s head rising up the front staircase. With a quick bound she almost fell into the first room at the top of the stairs.
Bles Alwyn had hurried through his dinner duties and hastened to the Oaks. The questions, the doubts, the uncertainty within him were clamoring for utterance. How much had Mrs. Cresswell ever known of Zora? What kind of a woman was Zora now? Mrs. Cresswell had seen her and had talked to her and watched her. What did she think? Thus he formulated his questions as he went, half timid, and fearful in putting them and yet determined to know.
Mrs. Cresswell, waiting for him, was almost panic-stricken. Probably he would beat round the bush seeking further encouragement; but at the slightest indication she must crush him ruthlessly and at the same time point the path of duty. He ought to marry some good girl—not Zora, but some one. Somehow Zora seemed too unusual and strange for him—too inhuman, as Mary Cresswell judged humanity. She glanced out from her seat on the upper verandah over the front porch and saw Alwyn coming. Where should she receive him? On the porch and have Mr. Maxwell ride up? In the parlor and have the servants astounded and talking? If she took him up to her own sitting-room the servants would think he was doing some work or fetching something for the school. She greeted him briefly and asked him in.
“Good-afternoon, Bles”—using his first name to show him his place, and then inwardly recoiling at its note of familiarity. She preceded him up-stairs to the sitting-room, where, leaving the door ajar, she seated herself on the opposite side of the room and waited.
He fidgeted, then spoke rapidly.
“Mrs. Cresswell—this is a personal affair.” She reddened angrily. “A love affair”—she paled with something like fear—“and I”—she started to speak, but could not—“I want to know what you think about Zora?”
“About Zora!” she gasped weakly. The sudden reaction, the revulsion of her agitated feelings, left her breathless.
“About Zora. You know I loved her dearly as a boy—how dearly I have only just begun to realize: I’ve been wondering if I understood—if I wasn’t—”
Mrs. Cresswell got angrily to her feet.
“You have come here to speak to me of that—that—” she choked, and Bles thought his worst fears realized.
“Mary, Mary!” Colonel Cresswell’s voice broke suddenly in upon them. With a start of fear Mrs. Cresswell rushed out into the hall and closed the door.
“Mary, has that Alwyn nigger been here this afternoon?” Mr. Cresswell was coming up-stairs, carrying his riding whip.
“Why, no!” she answered, lying instinctively before she quite realized what her lie meant. She hesitated. “That is, I haven’t seen him. I must have nodded over my book,”—looking toward the little verandah at the front of the upper hall, where her easy chair stood with her book. Then with an awful flash of enlightenment she realized what her lie might mean, and her heart paused.