“Come, my dearest girl!” Wilfrid soothed her. “I can help you, and will, if you’ll take advice. I’ve always known your heart was generous and tender, under that ice you wear so well. How long has this been going on?”
“You want plain speech?”
She wanted that still less.
“We’ll call it ‘this,’” he said. “I have heard of it, guessed it, and now see it. How far have you pledged yourself in ‘this?’”
Wilfrid held silent. Finding that her echo was not accepted as an answer, she moaned his name lovingly. It touched his heart, where a great susceptibility to passion lay. As if the ghost of Emilia were about him, he kissed his sister’s hand, and could not go on with his cruel interrogations.
His next question was dew of relief to her.
“Has your Emilia been quite happy, of late?”
“Oh, quite, dear! very. And sings with more fire.”
“She does not romp. Her eyes are full and bright.”
“She’s satisfied with everything here?”
“How could she be otherwise?”
“Yes, yes! You weren’t severe on her for that escapade—I mean, when she ran away from Lady Gosstre’s?”
“We scarcely alluded to the subject, or permitted her to.”
“Or permitted her to!” Wilfrid echoed, with a grimace. “And she’s cheerful now?”
“I mean, she doesn’t mope?”
“Why should she?”
Cornelia had been too hard-pressed to have suspicion the questions were an immense relief.
Wilfrid mused gloomily. Cornelia spoke further of Emilia, and her delight in the visits of Mr. Powys, who spent hours with her, like a man fascinated. She flowed on, little aware that she was fast restoring to Wilfrid all his judicial severity.
He said, at last: “I suppose there’s no engagement existing?”
“You have not, what they call, plighted your troth to the man?”
Cornelia struggled for evasion. She recognized the fruitlessness of the effort, and abandoning it stood up.
“I am engaged to no one.”
“Well, I should hope not,” said Wilfrid. “An engagement might be broken.”
“Not by me.”
“It might, is all that I say. A romantic sentiment is tougher. Now, I have been straightforward with you: will you be with me? I shall not hurt the man, or wound his feelings.”
He paused; but it was to find that no admission of the truth, save what oozed out in absence of speech, was to be expected. She seemed, after the fashion of women, to have got accustomed to the new atmosphere into which he had dragged her, without any conception of a forward movement.
“I see I must explain to you how we are situated,” said Wilfrid. “We are in a serious plight. You should be civil to this woman for several reasons—for your father’s sake and your own. She is very rich.”