“I knew it would happen in the end,” Hilda said, “and it has happened. The Archdeacon has asked me to tea.”
She was speaking to Alicia Livingstone in the dormitory, changing at the same time for a “turn” at the hospital. It was six o’clock in the afternoon. Alicia’s landau stood at the door of the Baker Institution. She had come to find that Miss Howe was just going on duty and could not be taken for a drive.
“When?” asked Alicia, staring out of the window at the crows in a tamarind tree.
“Last Saturday. He said he had promised some friends of his the pleasure of meeting me. They had besieged him, he said, and they were his best friends, on all his committees.”
“Only ladies?” The crows, with a shriek of defiance at nothing in particular, having flown away, Miss Livingstone transferred her attention.
“Bless me, yes. What Archdeacon has dear men friends! And lesquelles pense-tu, mon Dieu!”
“Mrs. Jack Forrester, Mrs. Fitz—what you may call him up on the frontier, the Brigadier gentleman—Lady Dolly!”
“You were well chaperoned.”
“And—my dear—he didn’t ask a single Sister!” Hilda turned upon her a face which appeared still to glow with the stimulus of the archidiaconal function. “And—it was wicked considering the occasion—I dropped the character. I let myself out!”
“You didn’t shock the Archdeacon?”
“Not in the least. But, my dear love, did you ever permit yourself the reflection that the Venerable Gambell is a bachelor?”
“Hilda, you shall not! We all love him—you shall not lead him astray!”
“You would not think of—the altar?”
Miss Livingstone’s pale small smile fell like a snowflake upon Hilda’s mood, and was swallowed up. “You are very preposterous,” she said. “Go on. You always amuse one.” Then, as if Hilda’s going on were precisely the thing she could not quite endure, she said quickly, “The Coromandel is telegraphed from Colombo to-day.”
“Ah!” said Hilda.
“He leaves for Madras to-morrow. The thing is to take place there, you know.”
“Then nothing but shipwreck can save him.”
“Nothing but—what a horrible idea! Don’t you think they may be happy? I really think they may.”
“There is not one of the elements that give people, when they commit the paramount stupidity of marrying, reason to hope that they may not be miserable. Not one. If he were a strong man I should pity him less. But he’s not. He’s immensely dependent on his tastes, his friends, his circumstances.”
Alicia looked at Hilda; her glance betrayed an attention caught upon an accidental phrase. “The paramount stupidity.” She did not repeat it aloud, she turned it over in her mind.
“You are thinking,” Hilda said accusingly. “What are you thinking about?”