In the distress of her mind, however, she did catch at one idea that was, in kind, a compromise. She thought with relief that she could take no initiative. If Alec Trenholme asked her to be his wife—then she knew, at last she knew, that she would not dare to deny the voice at her heart—in the light of righteousness and judgment to come, she would not dare to deny it. But—ah, surely he would not ask! She caught at this belief as an exhausted swimmer might catch at a floating spar, and rested herself upon it. She would deal honourably with her conscience; she would not abate her kindliness; she would give him all fair opportunity; and if he asked, she would give up all—but she clung to her spar of hope.
She did not realise the extent of her weakness, nor even suspect the greatness of her strength.
Robert Trenholme had not told his brother that he had made his confession when he took tea with all the women. He knew that in such cases difference and separation are often first fancied and then created, by the self-conscious pride of the person who expects to be slighted. He refrained from making this possible on Alec’s part, and set himself to watch the difference that would be made; and the interest of all side-issues was summed up for him in solicitude to know what Miss Rexford would do, for on that he felt his own hopes of her pardon to depend.
When he found, the day after Bates’s departure, that Alec must seek Miss Rexford to give Eliza’s message, he put aside work to go with him to call upon her. He would hold to his brother; it remained to be seen how she would receive them together.
That same afternoon Sophia went forth with Winifred and the little boys to gather autumn leaves. When the two brothers came out of the college gate they saw her, not twenty yards away, at the head of her little troop. Down the broad road the cool wind was rushing, and they saw her walking against it, outwardly sedate, with roses on her cheeks, her eyes lit with the sunshine. The three stopped, and greeted each other after the manner of civilised people.
Trenholme knew that the change that any member of the Rexford family would put into their demeanour could not be rudely perceptible. He set no store by her greeting, but he put his hand upon his brother’s shoulder and he said:
“This fellow has news that will surprise you, and a message to give. Perhaps, if it is not asking too much, we may walk as far as may be necessary to tell it, or,” and he looked at her questioningly, “would you like him to go and help you to bring down the high boughs?—they have the brightest leaves.”
“Will you come and help us gather red leaves?” said Sophia to Alec.
She did not see the gratitude in the elder brother’s eyes, because it did not interest her to look for it.
“And you?” she said to him.