“’Tis not too late!” she said—“’tis not too late yet.”
“For what?” Clorinda asked. “For what, I pray you tell me, if you can find your wits. You go beyond my patience with your folly.”
“Too late to stop,” said Anne—“to draw back and repent.”
“What?” commanded Clorinda—“what then should I repent me?”
“This marriage,” trembled Mistress Anne, taking her poor hands from her face to wring them. “It should not be.”
“Fool!” quoth Clorinda. “Get up and cease your grovelling. Did you come to tell me it was not too late to draw back and refuse to be the Countess of Dunstanwolde?” and she laughed bitterly.
“But it should not be—it must not!” Anne panted. “I—I know, sister, I know—”
Clorinda bent deliberately and laid her strong, jewelled hand on her shoulder with a grasp like a vice. There was no hurry in her movement or in her air, but by sheer, slow strength she forced her head backward so that the terrified woman was staring in her face.
“Look at me,” she said. “I would see you well, and be squarely looked at, that my eyes may keep you from going mad. You have pondered over this marriage until you have a frenzy. Women who live alone are sometimes so, and your brain was always weak. What is it that you know. Look—in my eyes—and tell me.”
It seemed as if her gaze stabbed through Anne’s eyes to the very centre of her brain. Anne tried to bear it, and shrunk and withered; she would have fallen upon the floor at her feet a helpless, sobbing heap, but the white hand would not let her go.
“Find your courage—if you have lost it—and speak plain words,” Clorinda commanded. Anne tried to writhe away, but could not again, and burst into passionate, hopeless weeping.
“I cannot—I dare not!” she gasped. “I am afraid. You are right; my brain is weak, and I—but that—that gentleman—who so loved you—”
“Which?” said Clorinda, with a brief scornful laugh.
“The one who was so handsome—with the fair locks and the gallant air—”
“The one you fell in love with and stared at through the window,” said Clorinda, with her brief laugh again. “John Oxon! He has victims enough, forsooth, to have spared such an one as you are.”
“But he loved you!” cried Anne piteously, “and it must have been that you—you too, sister—or—or else—” She choked again with sobs, and Clorinda released her grasp upon her shoulder and stood upright.
“He wants none of me—nor I of him,” she said, with strange sternness. “We have done with one another. Get up upon your feet if you would not have me thrust you out into the corridor.”
She turned from her, and walking back to her dressing-table, stood there steadying the diadem on her hair, which had loosed a fastening when Anne tried to writhe away from her. Anne half sat, half knelt upon the floor, staring at her with wet, wild eyes of misery and fear.