How she got into the room—the isolated big drawing-room, which somebody else, who was aware of his arrival, had directed that he was to be shown into—Mary knew not; but she was there. He stood perfectly still, massive and inflexible, to receive her. Without approaching him —or he her—to shake hands, without looking at his face or anywhere near it, she perceived the adamantine set of lips, the cold gaze, more withering than fire, which informed her that he knew all; and she sank crouching into a chair, and hid her face. But her back was against the wall now. The coward stage was past. In the most desperately false position that a girl could occupy, she made no further attempt to run away from the truth, perhaps because she saw that it was useless. When he began, very politely, but with no beating about the bush, to say: “I daresay you are surprised to see me, Miss Pennycuick, but I was told— and since I came up here I have been told again by several different persons—something that I want you to help me to understand,” she jerked herself upright, and stopped him with a swift gesture and the cry of: “I know! I know what you have been told; and I have nothing to say. I cannot contradict it.”
She was a piteous object, in her shaking anguish; but he looked at her, of course, without a scrap of pity.
“Do you think you really know?” he questioned her, with cold gravity. “Perhaps I have been given an exaggerated version. I was in hopes that it was altogether an invention of Miss Francie’s—I know of old that she is prone to make reckless statements—”
“She was kind enough to write me a long letter, to congratulate me on my promotion. She told me all the family news. And she said—she asked me—but really I haven’t the cheek to repeat her words—”
His cold face had become hot, and his manner agitated.
“Go on,” said she, calming under the perception that the worst had come utterly to the worst.
“Well, if you will forgive me—she asked me, in effect, when I was coming to marry you, and why I had kept the engagement a secret so long.” He paused, one dark red blush, to note the effect of so brutal a stroke.
She said, meeting his eyes for the first time:
“And you believed it at once—of me?”
“No, Miss Pennycuick. I laughed. I said to myself: ’Here is another of Miss Francie’s mare’s nests.’ But when I read on—she told me so many things—they were incredible, but still I felt I had to sift the matter; and since I came up today, other people—I’ve been to Five Creeks and had a talk with Jim Urquhart—now I don’t know what to think; at least, there is but one thing that I can think.”
The chair she had taken had a high back, and against this she laid her head, as if too weary to support it. Lack of sleep and appetite had paled her florid colour to a sickly hue, and she looked wan and languid as a dying woman. But still he did not pity her, as he must have done had her face been half as beautiful as Deb’s or Francie’s.