The smile was made the more appealing by the way in which it lit up the ruin of her small dark face, which looked seared and hollowed as by a flame that might have spread over it from her fevered eyes. Durham, accustomed to the pale inward grief of the inexpressive races, was positively startled by the way in which she seemed to have been openly stretched on the pyre; he almost felt an indelicacy in the ravages so tragically confessed.
The sight caused an involuntary readjustment of his whole view of the situation, and made him, as far as his own share in it went, more than ever inclined to extremities of self-disgust. With him such sensations required, for his own relief, some immediate penitential escape, and as Madame de Treymes turned toward the door he addressed a glance of entreaty to his betrothed.
Madame de Malrive, whose intelligence could be counted on at such moments, responded by laying a detaining hand on her sister-in-law’s arm.
“Dear Christiane, may I leave Mr. Durham in your charge for two minutes? I have promised Nannie that she shall see the boy put to bed.”
Madame de Treymes made no audible response to this request, but when the door had closed on the other ladies she said, looking quietly at Durham: “I don’t think that, in this house, your time will hang so heavy that you need my help in supporting it.”
Durham met her glance frankly. “It was not for that reason that Madame de Malrive asked you to remain with me.”
“Why, then? Surely not in the interest of preserving appearances, since she is safely upstairs with your sister?”
“No; but simply because I asked her to. I told her I wanted to speak to you.”
“How you arrange things! And what reason can you have for wanting to speak to me?”
He paused for a moment. “Can’t you imagine? The desire to thank you for what you have done.”
She stirred restlessly, turning to adjust her hat before the glass above the mantelpiece.
“Oh, as for what I have done—!”
“Don’t speak as if you regretted it,” he interposed.
She turned back to him with a flash of laughter lighting up the haggardness of her face. “Regret working for the happiness of two such excellent persons? Can’t you fancy what a charming change it is for me to do something so innocent and beneficent?”
He moved across the room and went up to her, drawing down the hand which still flitted experimentally about her hat.
“Don’t talk in that way, however much one of the persons of whom you speak may have deserved it.”
“One of the persons? Do you mean me?”
He released her hand, but continued to face her resolutely. “I mean myself, as you know. You have been generous—extraordinarily generous.”
“Ah, but I was doing good in a good cause. You have made me see that there is a distinction.”
He flushed to the forehead. “I am here to let you say whatever you choose to me.”