“Will he?” thought Thomas Carr, as he took his departure by the evening train, having promised to run down the following Saturday for a few hours. “It is an even bet, I think. Poor Val!”
Poor Val indeed! Vacillating, attractive, handsome Val! shrinking, sensitive Val! The nauseous medicine was never taken. And when the Ashtons returned to the Rectory on the Friday night he had not spoken.
And the very day of their return a rumour reached his ear that Mrs. Ashton’s health was seriously if not fatally shattered, and she was departing immediately for the South of France.
BETWEEN THE TWO.
Not in the Rectory drawing-room, but in a pretty little sitting-room attached to her bed-chamber, where the temperature was regulated, and no draughts could penetrate, reclined Mrs. Ashton. Her invalid gown sat loosely upon her shrunken form, her delicate, lace cap shaded a fading face. Anne sat by her side in all her loveliness, ostensibly working; but her fingers trembled, and her face looked flushed and pained.
It was the morning after their return, and Mrs. Graves had called in to see Mrs. Ashton—gossiping Mrs. Graves, who knew all that took place in the parish, and a great deal of what never did take place. She had just been telling it all unreservedly in her hard way; things that might be said, and things that might as well have been left unsaid. She went out leaving a whirr and a buzz behind her and an awful sickness of desolation upon one heart.
“Give me my little writing-case, Anne,” said Mrs. Ashton, waking up from a reverie and sitting forward on her sofa.
Anne took the pretty toy from the side-table, opened it, and laid it on the table before her mother.
“Is it nothing I can write for you, mamma?”
Anne bent her hot face over her work again. It had not occurred to her that it could concern herself; and Mrs. Ashton wrote a few rapid lines:
“My Dear Percival,
“Can you spare me a five-minutes’
visit? I wish to speak with you. We
go away again on Monday.
“Ever sincerely yours,
She folded it, enclosed it in an envelope, and addressed it to the Earl of Hartledon. Pushing away the writing-table, she held out the note to her daughter.
“Seal it for me, Anne. I am tired. Let it go at once.”
“Mamma!” exclaimed Anne, as her eye caught the address. “Surely you are not writing to him! You are not asking him to come here?”
“You see that I am writing to him, Anne. And it is to ask him to come here. My dear, you may safely leave me to act according to my own judgment. But as to what Mrs. Graves has said, I don’t believe a word of it.”
“I scarcely think I do,” murmured Anne; a smile hovering on her troubled countenance, like sunshine after rain.