I needed no further invitation. As I passed the dining-room door I could hear Miss Darrell’s little tinkling laugh and Mr. Hamilton’s deep voice answering her. The next moment Thornton came out of the room, and I had only time to whisk round the corner. I confess this narrow escape very much alarmed me, and my heart beat a little quickly as I tapped at Gladys’s door; then, as I heard her weak ‘Come in,’ I entered.
The room was full of some pungent scent, hot and unrefreshing. Some one had moved the dressing-table, and Gladys lay on a couch in the circular window, within the curtained enclosure. I always thought it the prettiest window in the house. It looked full on the oak avenue, and on the elms, where the rooks had built their nests. There was a glimpse of the white road, too, and the blue smoke from the chimneys of Maplehurst was plainly visible.
The evening sunshine was streaming full on Gladys’s pale face, and my first action after kissing her was to lower the blind. I was glad of the excuse for turning away a moment, for her appearance gave me quite a shock.
She looked as though she had been ill for weeks. Her face looked dark and sunken, and the blue lines were painfully visible round her temples. Her forehead was contracted, as though with severe pain, and her eyes were heavy and feverish. When she raised her languid eyelids and looked at me, a sudden fear contracted my heart.
‘Ursula, thank God you have come!’
‘We must always thank Him, dearest, whatever happens,’ I returned, as I knelt down by her and took her burning hand in mine. ’And now you must tell me what is wrong with you, and why I find you like this.’
‘I do not know,’ she whispered, almost clinging to me. And it struck me then that she was frightened about herself. ’As I told Giles, I feel very ill. The heat tries me, and my head always aches,—such a dull, miserable pain; and, most of all, I cannot sleep, and all sorts of horrid thoughts come to me. Sometimes in the night, when I am quite alone, I feel as though I were light-headed and should lose my senses. Oh, Ursula, if this goes on, what will become of me?’
’We will talk about that presently. Tell me, have you ever been ill in this way before?’
’Yes, last summer, only not so bad. But I had the pain and the sleeplessness then. Giles was so good to me. He said I wanted change, and he took a little cottage at Westgate-on-Sea and sent me down with Lady Betty and Chatty, and I soon got all right.’
‘So I thought. And now—’
‘Oh, it is different this time,’ she replied nervously. ’I did not have dreadful thoughts then, or feel frightened, as I do now. Ursula, I know I am very ill. If you leave me to Etta and Leah, I shall get worse. I have sent for you to-night to remind you of your promise.’
‘What promise?’ I faltered. But of course I knew what she meant. A sense of wretchedness had been slowly growing on me as she talked. If it should come to that,—that I must remain under his roof! I felt a tingling sense of shame and humiliation at the bare idea.