After an interval, he rose and went into the library.
It was empty, like the drawing-room. The bell was close by him. He lifted his hand to ring it—and drew back. As brave a man as ever lived, he knew what fear was now. The father’s courage failed him before the prospect of summoning a servant, and hearing, for all he knew to the contrary, that his child was dead.
How long he stood there, alone and irresolute, he never remembered when he thought of it in after-days. All he knew was that there came a time when a sound in the drawing-room attracted his attention. It was nothing more important than the opening of a door.
The sound came from that side of the room which was nearest to the grand staircase—and therefore nearest also to the hall in one direction, and to the bed-chambers in the other.
Some person had entered the room. Whether it was one of the family or one of the servants, he would hear in either case what had happened in his absence. He parted the curtains over the library entrance, and looked through.
The person was a woman. She stood with her back turned toward the library, lifting a cloak off a chair. As she shook the cloak out before putting it on, she changed her position. He saw the face, never to be forgotten by him to the last day of his life. He saw Sydney Westerfield.
Linley had one instant left, in which he might have drawn, back into the library in time to escape Sydney’s notice. He was incapable of the effort of will. Grief and suspense had deprived him of that elastic readiness of mind which springs at once from thought to action. For a moment he hesitated. In that moment she looked up and saw him.
With a faint cry of alarm she let the cloak drop from her hands. As helpless as he was, as silent as he was, she stood rooted to the spot.
He tried to control himself. Hardly knowing what he said, he made commonplace excuses, as if he had been a stranger: “I am sorry to have startled you; I had no idea of finding you in this room.”
Sydney pointed to her cloak on the floor, and to her hat on a chair near it. Understanding the necessity which had brought her into the room, he did his best to reconcile her to the meeting that had followed.
“It’s a relief to me to have seen you,” he said, “before you leave us.”
A relief to him to see her! Why? How? What did that strange word mean, addressed to her? She roused herself, and put the question to him.
“It’s surely better for me,” he answered, “to hear the miserable news from you than from a servant.”
“What miserable news?” she asked, still as perplexed as ever.
He could preserve his self-control no longer; the misery in him forced its way outward at last. The convulsive struggles for breath which burst from a man in tears shook him from head to foot.