Reports were duly sent up to my lord, but he and her daughters were strictly forbidden to come down. Lady Cumnor wished to be weak and languid, and uncertain both in body and mind, without family observation. It was a condition so different to anything she had ever been in before, that she was unconsciously afraid of losing her prestige, if she was seen in it. Sometimes she herself wrote the daily bulletins; at other times she bade Clare to do it, but she would always see the letters. Any answers she received from her daughters she used to read herself, occasionally imparting some of their contents to ’that good Clare.’ But anybody might read my lord’s letters. There was no great fear of family secrets oozing out in his sprawling lines of affection. But once Mrs. Kirkpatrick came upon a sentence in a letter from Lord Cumnor, which she was reading out loud to his wife, that caught her eye before she came to it, and if she could have skipped it and kept it for private perusal, she would gladly have done so. My lady was too sharp for her, though. In her opinion ’Clare was a good creature, but not clever,’ the truth being that she was not always quick at resources, though tolerably unscrupulous in the use of them.
’Read on. What are you stopping for? There is no bad news, is there, about Agnes?—Give me the letter.’
Lady Cumnor read, half aloud,—
’"How are Clare and Gibson getting on? You despised my advice to help on that affair, but I really think a little match-making would be a very pleasant amusement now that you are shut up in the house; and I cannot conceive any marriage more suitable."’
‘Oh!’ said Lady Cumnor, laughing, ’it was awkward for you to come upon that, Clare: I don’t wonder you stopped short. You gave me a terrible fright, though.’
‘Lord Cumnor is so fond of joking,’ said Mrs. Kirkpatrick, a little flurried, yet quite recognizing the truth of his last words,—’I cannot conceive any marriage more suitable.’ She wondered what Lady Cumnor thought of it. Lord Cumnor wrote as if there was really a chance. It was not an unpleasant idea; it brought a faint smile out upon her face, as she sate by Lady Cumnor, while the latter took her afternoon nap.
Mrs. Kirkpatrick had been reading aloud till Lady Cumnor fell asleep, the book rested on her knee, just kept from falling by her hold. She was looking out of the window, not seeing the trees in the park, nor the glimpses of the hills beyond, but thinking how pleasant it would be to have a husband once more;—some one who would work while she sate at her elegant ease in a prettily-furnished drawing-room; and she was rapidly investing this imaginary bread-winner with the form and features of the country surgeon, when there was a slight tap at the door, and almost before she could rise, the object of her thoughts came in. She felt herself blush, and she was not displeased at the consciousness. She advanced to meet him, making a sign towards her sleeping ladyship.