“Yes—well—I suppose he spoke strongly in the heat of the moment.”
There was a pause. Lord Hartledon had his hand still on his wife’s shoulder, but his eyes were bent on the table near which they stood. She was waiting for him to speak.
“Won’t you tell me what has happened?”
“I can’t tell you, Maude, to-night,” he answered, great drops coming out again on his brow at the question, and knowing all the time that he should never tell her. “I—I must learn more first.”
“You spoke of disgrace,” she observed gently, swaying her fan before her by its silken cord. “An ugly word.”
“It is. Heaven help me!”
“Val, I do think you are the greatest simpleton under the skies!” she exclaimed out of all patience, and flinging his hand off. “It’s time you got rid of this foolish sensitiveness. I know what is the matter quite well; and it’s not so very much of a disgrace after all! Those Ashtons are going to make you pay publicly for your folly. Let them do it.”
He had opened his lips to undeceive her, but stopped in time. As a drowning man catches at a straw, so did he catch at this suggestion in his hopeless despair; and he suffered her to remain in it. Anything to stave off the real, dreadful truth.
“Maude,” he rejoined, “it is for your sake. If I am sensitive as to any—any disgrace being brought home to me, I declare that I think of you more than of myself.”
“Then don’t think of it. It will be fun for me, rather than anything else. I did not imagine the Ashtons would have done it, though. I wonder what damages they’ll go in for. Oh, Val, I should like to see you in the witness-box!”
He did not answer.
“And it was not a parson?” she continued. “I’m sure he looked as much like one as old Ashton himself. A professional man, then, I suppose, Val?”
“Yes, a professional man.” But even that little answer was given with some hesitation, as though it had evasion in it.
Maude broke into a laugh. “Your friend, Pleader Carr—or whatever he calls himself—must be as thin-skinned as you are, Val, to fancy that a rubbishing action of that sort, brought against a husband, can reflect disgrace on the wife! Separate, indeed! Has he lived in a wood all his life? Well, I am going upstairs.”
“A moment yet, Maude! You will take a caution from me, won’t you? Don’t speak of this; don’t allude to it, even to me. It may be arranged yet, you know.”
“So it may,” acquiesced Maude. “Let your friend Carr see the doctor, and offer to pay the damages down.”
He might have resented this speech for Dr. Ashton’s sake, in a happier moment, but resentment had been beaten out of him now. And Lady Hartledon decided that her husband was a simpleton, for instead of going to sleep like a reasonable man, he tossed and turned by her side until daybreak.