He took it at its face value. They had had some delightful conversations. If her words awakened anything in him it was the remembrance of these. The solace of her companionship presented itself to him again, and her statement gave their mutual confidence another seal; that was all. They sat where they were for half an hour, and something like antagonism and displeasure towards the secretaries’ wives settled upon them, from which Hilda, interrupting a glance or two from the ladies purring past, drew suspicion. “I am going now,” she said. “It—it isn’t quite suitable here,” and there was just enough suggestion in the point of her fan to make him think of his frock. “It is an unpardonable truth that if we stay any longer I shall make people talk about you.”
He turned astonished eyes upon her, eyes in which she remembered afterwards there was absolutely nothing but a literal and pained apprehension of what she said. “You are a good woman,” he exclaimed. “How could such a thing be possible!”
The faintest embarrassment, the merest suggestion of distress, came into her face and concentrated in her eyes, which she fixed upon him as if she would bring his words to the last analysis, and answer him as she would answer a tribunal.
“A good woman?” she repeated, “I don’t know—isn’t that a refinement of virtue? No; standing on my sex I make no claim, but as people go I am good. Yes, I am good.”
“In my eyes you are splendid,” he replied, content, and gave her his arm. They went together through the reception-rooms, and the appreciation of her grew in him. If in the bright and silken distance he had not seen his Bishop it might have glowed into a cordiality of speech with his distinctive individual stamp on it. But he saw his Bishop, his ceinture tightened on him, and he uttered only the trite saying about the folly of counting on the sensibility of swine.
“Yes,” she laughed into her good-night to him, “but I’m not sure that it isn’t better to be the pig than the pearl.”
“Not long ago,” said Hilda, “I had a chat with him. We sat on the grass in the middle of the Maidan, and there was nothing to interfere with my impressions.”
“What were your impressions? No!” Alicia cried. “No! Don’t tell me. It is all so peaceful now, and simple, and straightforward. You think such extraordinary things. He comes here quite often, to talk about her. He is coming this afternoon. So I have impressions too—and they are just as good.”
“All right.” Hilda crossed her knees more comfortably. “What did you say the Surgeon-Major paid for those Teheran tiles?”
“Something absurd—I’ve forgotten. He writes to her regularly, diary letters, by every mail.”
“Do you tell him what to put into them?”
“Hilda, sometimes—you’re positively gross.”