Then, in sudden agitation, he realized that his last moment with this girl—now a child no longer—had been a secret moment of warmth and of emotion; a moment which to her might have meant, in her might have bred, feelings that he had no inkling of. He tried to ignore that fighting and diving of his heart, held out his hand, and murmured:
“Ah, Nell! Back at last! You’ve grown.” Then, with a sensation of every limb gone weak, he felt her arms round his neck, and herself pressed against him. There was time for the thought to flash through him: This is terrible! He gave her a little convulsive squeeze—could a man do less?—then just managed to push her gently away, trying with all his might to think: She’s a child! It’s nothing more than after Carmen! She doesn’t know what I am feeling! But he was conscious of a mad desire to clutch her to him. The touch of her had demolished all his vagueness, made things only too plain, set him on fire.
He said uncertainly:
“Come to the fire, my child, and tell me all about it.”
If he did not keep to the notion that she was just a child, his head would go. Perdita—’the lost one’! A good name for her, indeed, as she stood there, her eyes shining in the firelight—more mesmeric than ever they had been! And, to get away from the lure of those eyes, he bent down and raked the grate, saying:
“Have you seen Sylvia?” But he knew that she had not, even before she gave that impatient shrug. Then he pulled himself together, and said:
“What has happened to you, child?”
“I’m not a child.”
“No, we’ve both grown older. I was forty-seven the other day.”
She caught his hand—Heavens! how supple she was!—and murmured:
“You’re not old a bit; you’re quite young.” At his wits’ end, with his heart thumping, but still keeping his eyes away from her, he said:
“Where is Oliver?”
She dropped his hand at that.
“Oliver? I hate him!”
Afraid to trust himself near her, he had begun walking up and down. And she stood, following him with her gaze—the firelight playing on her red frock. What extraordinary stillness! What power she had developed in these few months! Had he let her see that he felt that power? And had all this come of one little moment in a dark corridor, of one flower pressed into his hand? Why had he not spoken to her roughly then—told her she was a romantic little fool? God knew what thoughts she had been feeding on! But who could have supposed—who dreamed—? And again he fixed his mind resolutely on that thought: She’s a child—only a child!
“Come!” he said: “tell me all about your time in Ireland?”
“Oh! it was just dull—it’s all been dull away from you.”
It came out without hesitancy or shame, and he could only murmur:
“Ah! you’ve missed your drawing!”