‘Have you been here often?’ whispered the latter, as soon as they came in view of the place. Its aspect delighted her, but the conflict of her emotions was so disturbing that she had to pause and seek the support of her sister’s arm.
‘I’ve never been inside,’ Monica answered indistinctly. ’Come; we shall be unpunctual.’
‘I do wish you would tell me, dear—’
’I can’t talk, Virgie. Try and keep quiet, and behave as if it were all quite natural.’
This was altogether beyond Virginia’s power. It happened most luckily, though greatly to Widdowson’s annoyance, that the sister-in-law, Mrs. Luke Widdowson, arrived nearly half an hour later than the time she had appointed. Led by the servant into a comfortable drawing-room, the visitors were received by the master of the house alone; with a grim smile, the result of his embarrassment, with profuse apologies and a courtesy altogether excessive, Widdowson did his best to put them at their ease—of course with small result. The sisters side by side on a settee at one end of the room, and the host seated far away from them, they talked with scarcely any understanding of what was said on either side—the weather and the vastness of London serving as topics— until of a sudden the door was thrown open, and there appeared a person of such imposing presence that Virginia gave a start and Monica gazed in painful fascination. Mrs. Luke was a tall and portly woman in the prime of life, with rather a high colour; her features were handsome, but without much refinement, their expression a condescending good-humour. Her mourning garb, if mourning it could be called, represented an extreme of the prevailing fashion; its glint and rustle inspired awe in the female observer. A moment ago the drawing-room had seemed empty; Mrs. Luke, in her sole person, filled and illumined it.
Widdowson addressed this resplendent personage by her Christian name, his familiarity exciting in Monica an irrational surprise. He presented the sisters to her, and Mrs. Luke, bowing grandly at a distance, drew from her bosom a gold-rimmed pince-nez, through which she scrutinized Monica. The smile which followed might have been interpreted in several senses; Widdowson, alone capable of remarking it, answered with a look of severe dignity.
Mrs. Luke had no thought of apologizing for the lateness of her arrival, and it was evident that she did not intend to stay long. Her purpose seemed to be to make the occasion as informal as possible.
‘Do you, by chance, know the Hodgson Bulls?’ she asked of her relative, interrupting him in the nervous commonplaces with which he was endeavouring to smooth the way to a general conversation. She had the accent of cultivation, but spoke rather imperiously.
‘I never heard of them,’ was the cold reply.
’No? They live somewhere about here. I have to make a call on them. I suppose my coachman will find the place.’