Amid the glacial atmosphere of disapproval into which marriage had thrust her, Diane found her only solace in Virginie, a devoted French servant who had formerly been her nurse, and who literally worshipped the ground she walked on. Conversely, Virginie’s attitude towards Miss Vallincourt was one of frank hostility. And deep in the hearts of both Diane and Virginie lurked a confirmed belief that the birth of a child—a son—would serve to bring about a better understanding between husband and wife, and in the end assure Diane her rightful place as mistress of the house.
“Vois-tu, Virginie,” the latter would say hopefully. “When I have a little baby, I shall have done my duty as the wife of a great English milord. Even Miss Catherine will no longer regard me as of no importance.”
And Virginie would reply with infinite satisfaction:
“Of a certainty, when madame has a little son, Ma’moiselle Catherine will be returned to her place.”
And now at last the great moment had arrived, and upstairs Catherine and Virginie were in attendance—both ousted from what each considered her own rightful place of authority by a slim, capable, and apparently quite unconcerned piece of femininity equipped against rebellion in all the starched panoply of a nurse’s uniform, while downstairs Hugh stared dumbly out at the frosted lawns, with their background of bare, brown trees swaying to the wind from the north.
The door behind him opened suddenly. Hugh whirled round. He was a tall man with a certain rather formal air of stateliness about him, a suggestion of the grand seigneur, and the unwontedly impulsive movement was significant of the strain under which he was labouring.
Catherine was standing on the threshold of the room with something in her arms—something almost indistinguishable amid the downy, fleecy froth of whiteness amid which it lay.
Hugh was conscious of a new and strange sensation deep down inside himself. He felt rather as though all the blood in his body had rushed to one place—somewhere in the middle of it—and were pounding there against his ribs.
He tried to speak, failed, then instinctively stretched out his arms for the tiny, orris-scented bundle which Catherine carried.
The next thing of which he was conscious was Catherine’s voice as she placed his child in his arms—very quiet, yet rasping across the tender silence of the room like a file.
“Here, Hugh, is the living seal which God Himself has set upon the sin of your marriage.”
Hugh’s eyes, bent upon the pink, crumpled features of the scrap of humanity nestled amid the bunchy whiteness in his arms, sought his sister’s face. It was a thin, hard face, sharply cut like carved ivory; the eyes a light, cold blue, ablaze with hostility; the pale obstinate lips, usually folded so impassively one above the other, working spasmodically.
For a moment brother and sister stared at each other in silence. Then, all at once, Catherine’s rigidly enforced composure snapped.