‘I am glad of that, Gladys dear,’ I returned quietly; ’for I have long wanted courage to ask you a question. What is the real reason of your estrangement from Max?’ and then, growing bolder, I whispered in her ear, as she shrank from me, ’I do not ask what are your feelings to him, for I think I have guessed them,—unless, indeed, I am wrong, and you prefer your cousin Captain Hamilton.’ I almost feared that I had been too abrupt and awkward when I saw her sudden paleness: she began to tremble like a leaf until I mentioned Captain Hamilton’s name, and then she turned to me with a look of mingled astonishment and indignation.
’Claude? Are you out of your senses, Ursula? Who has put such an idea into your head?’
I remembered Uncle Max’s injunctions to secrecy, and felt I must be careful.
‘I thought that it could not be Captain Hamilton,’ I returned, rather lamely: ‘you have never mentioned his name to me.’ But she interrupted me in a tone of poignant distress, and there was a sudden trouble in her eyes, brought there by my mention of Claude.
‘Oh, this is dreadful!’ she exclaimed: ’you come to me and talk about Claude, knowing all the time that I have never breathed his name to you. Who has spoken it, then? How could such a thought arise in your mind? It must be Etta, and we are undone,—undone!’
‘My darling, you must not excite yourself about a mere mistake,’ I returned, anxious to soothe her. ’I cannot tell you how it came into my head; that is my little secret, Gladys, my dear: if you agitate yourself at a word we shall never understand each other. I want you to trust me as you would trust a dear sister,—we are sisters in heart, Gladys,’—but here I blushed over my words and wished them unuttered,—’and to tell me exactly what has passed between you and Max.’
THE TALK IN THE GLOAMING
I heard Gladys repeat my words softly under her breath,—she seemed to say them in a sort of dream,—’what has passed between you and Max.’ And then she looked at me a little pitifully, and her lip quivered. ’Oh, if I dared to speak! but to you of all persons,—what would you think of me? Could it be right?—and I have never opened my lips to any one on that subject of my own accord; if Lady Betty knows, it is because Etta told her. Oh, it was wrong—cruel of Giles to let her worm the truth out of him!’
’If Lady Betty and Miss Darrell know, you might surely trust me,—your friend,’ I returned. ’Gladys, you know how I honour reticence in such matters; I am the last person to force an unwilling confidence; but there are reasons—no, I cannot explain myself; you must trust me implicitly or not at all. I do not think you will ever repent that trust; and for your own sake as well as mine I implore you to confide in me.’ For a moment she looked at me with wide, troubled eyes, then she ceased to hesitate.