“It’s a pleasant day, isn’t it?” said Francis’s voice in her ear, when Mrs. Maxwell began pouring the tea.
“Real pleasant,” said Lois.
Mrs. Maxwell had on her black gloves pouring the tea. The women eyed them surreptitiously. She wore them always in company, but this was an innovation. They did not know how she had put them on to conceal the burn in her wrist which she had gotten in her blind fury as she flew about the kitchen preparing supper, handling all the household utensils as if they were weapons to attack Providence.
Mrs. Maxwell poured the tea and portioned out the sugar with her black-gloved hands, and Mrs. Field stiffly buttered her biscuits. Nobody dreamed of the wolves at the vitals of these two old women.
However, the eyes of the guests from the first had wandered to a cake in the centre of the table. It was an oblong black cake; it was set on a plate surrounded thickly with sprigs of myrtle, and upon the top lay a little bouquet of white flowers and green leaves. Mrs. Lowe and Mrs. Robbins, who sat side by side, looked at each other. Mrs. Lowe’s eyes said, “Is that a wedding-cake?” and Mrs. Robbin’s said: “I dunno; it ain’t frosted. It looks jest like a loaf she’s had on hand.”
But nothing could exceed the repose and dignity with which Mrs. Maxwell, at the last stage of the meal, requested her nephew to pass the cake to her. Nobody could have dreamed as she cut it, every turn of her burned wrist giving her pain, of the frantic haste with which she had taken that old fruit cake out of the jar down-cellar, and pulled those sprigs of myrtle from the bank under the north windows.
“Will you have some weddin’-cake?” said she.
The ladies each took a slice gingerly and respectfully. Mrs. Lowe and Mrs. Robbins nodded to each other imperceptibly. The cake was not iced with those fine devices which usually make a wedding-loaf, it was rather dry, and not particularly rich; but Mrs. Maxwell’s perfect manner as she cut and served it, her acting on her own little histrionic stage, had swayed them to her will. Mrs. Lowe and Mrs. Robbins both thought she knew. But the minister’s wife still doubted; and later, when the other women were removed from the spell of her acting, their old suspicions returned. It was always a mooted question in Elliot whether or not Mrs. Jane Maxwell had known of her daughter’s marriage. Not all her subsequent behavior, her meeting the young couple with open arms at the station on their return, and Flora’s appearance at church the next Sunday in the silk dress which her mother had concocted during her absence, could quite allay the suspicion, although it prevented it from gaining ground.
All that evening Mrs. Maxwell’s courage never flagged. She entertained her guests as well as a woman of Sparta could have done. She even had the coolness to prosecute other projects which she had in mind. She kept Mrs. Field and Lois behind the rest, and walked home with the mother, that Francis might have the girl to himself. And she went into the house with Mrs. Field, and slipped a parcel into her pocket, while the two young people had a parting word at the gate.