“Take this chair, Uncle Rod,” said the boy in a voice of brusk indifference. “Excuse me, mother?” He barely waited for her nod and blundered out of the room.
The girl came round to Rodney’s chair to offer him her hand and drop her curtsy; took a carnation from a bowl on the table and tucked it into his button-hole, slid her arm around his neck and kissed his cheek.
Both the children, Frederica was aware, had remarked something troubled and serious about their uncle’s manner and each had acted on this observation in his own way. The boy, distressed and only afraid of showing it, had bolted from the room with a panicky assumption of indifference. The girl, though two years younger, was quite at ease in expressing her sympathy, and conscious of how decoratively she did it. (This was Frederica’s analysis, anyhow. As is the wont of mothers, she liked the boy better.)
“I think Miss Norris is waiting for you, my dear.”
“Oui, maman,” said Ellen dutifully.
She was supposed to talk French all the morning, but somehow this particular observance of the regime irritated her mother a little and she rather visibly waited while Ellen quite adequately made her farewells to her uncle and gracefully left the room.
The tenseness of her attitude relaxed suddenly when the child was gone. She reached out a cool soft hand and laid it on one of Rodney’s that rested limply on the table. There was rather a long silence—ten seconds perhaps. Then:
“How did you find out about it?” Rodney asked.
They were both too well accustomed to these telepathic short-cuts to take any note of this one. She’d seen that he knew, just with her first glance at him there in the doorway; and something a little tenderer and gentler than most of her caresses about this one, told him that she did. What it was they knew, went of course without saying.
“Harriet’s back,” she said. “She got in day before yesterday. Constance said something to her about it, thinking she knew. They’ve thought all along that you and I knew, too. Harriet was quick enough and clever enough to pretend she did and yet find out about it, all at the same time. So that’s so much to the good. That’s better than having them find out we didn’t know. Of course Harriet came straight to me. I’m glad it was Harriet Constance spoke to about it and not me. I’d probably have given it away. But Harriet never batted an eye.”
“No,” said Rodney, “Harriet wouldn’t.”
It was a certain dryness in his intonation rather than the words themselves Frederica answered.
“She’d do anything in the world for you, Roddy,” she said, with a vaguely troubled intensity.
This time his mind didn’t follow hers. For an instant he misunderstood her pronoun, then he saw what she meant.
“Harriet?—Oh, yes, Harriet’s all right,” he said absently.
She left his preoccupation alone for a minute or two, but at last broke in on it with a question. “How did you find out about it, Roddy? Who told you?”