Sibylla made no reply.
“You have never seen a look or heard a word pass between me and Lucy Tempest that was not of the most open nature, entirely compatible with her position, that of a modest and refined gentlewoman, and of mine, as your husband. I think you must be mad, Sibylla.”
The words Jan had used. If such temperaments do not deserve the name of madness, they are near akin to it. Lionel spoke with emotion: it all but over-mastered him, and he went back to his place by the mantel-piece, his chest heaving.
“I shall leave this residence as speedily as maybe,” he said, “giving some trivial excuse to my mother for the step. I see no other way to put an end to this.”
Sibylla, her mood changing, burst into tears. “I don’t want to leave it,” she said quite in a humble tone.
He was not inclined for argument. He had rapidly made his mind up, believing it was the only course open to him. He must go away with his wife, and so leave the house in peace. Saying something to that effect, he quitted the room, leaving Sibylla sobbing; fractiously on the pillow of the chair.
He went down to the drawing-room. He did not care where he went, or what became of him. It is an unhappy thing when affairs grow to that miserable pitch, that the mind has neither ease nor comfort anywhere. At the first moment of entering, he thought the room was empty, but as his eyes grew accustomed to the dusk, he discerned the form of some one standing at the distant window. It was Lucy Tempest. Lionel went straight up to her. He felt that some apology or notice from him was due. She was crying bitterly, and turned to him before he could speak.
“Mr. Verner, I feel my position keenly. I would not remain here to make things unpleasant to your wife for the whole world. But I cannot help myself. I have nowhere to go until papa shall return to Europe.”
“Lucy, let me say a word to you,” he whispered, his tones impeded, his breath coming thick and fast from his hot and crimsoned lips. “There are moments in a man’s lifetime when he must be true; when the artificial gloss thrown on social intercourse fades out of sight. This is one.”
Her tears fell more quietly. “I am so very sorry!” she continued to murmur.
“Were you other than what you are I might meet you with some of this artifice; I might pretend not to know aught of what has been said; I might attempt some elaborate apology. It would be worse than folly from me to you. Let me tell you that could I have shielded you from this insult with my life, I would have done it.”
“Yes, yes,” she hurriedly answered.
“You will not mistake me. As the daughter of my father’s dearest friend, as my mother’s honoured guest, I speak to you. I speak to you as one whom I am bound to protect from harm and insult, only in a less degree than I would protect my wife. You will do me the justice to believe it.”