It was a hesitating step, therefore, that carried him up to the quarters, and a glance of some nervous distress that made him aware, as he stood bowing upon her threshold, clasping with both hands his soft felt hat to his breast, that Mrs. Sand was not displeased to see him. She hastened, indeed, to give him a chair; she said she was very glad he’d dropped in, if he didn’t mind the room being so untidy—where there were children you could spend the whole day picking up. They were out at present, with Captain Sand, in the perambulator, not having more servants than they could help. A sweeper and a cook they did with; it would surprise the people in this country, who couldn’t get along with less than twenty, she often said.
Mrs. Sand’s tone was casual; her manner had a quality somewhat aggressively democratic. It said that under her welcome lay the right to criticise, which she would have exercised with equal freedom had her visitor been the Lord Bishop John Calcutta himself; and it made short work of the idea that she might be over-gratified to receive Holy Orders in any form. She was not unwilling, however, to show, as between Ensign and man, reasonable satisfaction; presently, in fact, she went so far as to say, still vaguely remarking upon his appearance there, that she often thought there ought to be more sociability between the different religious bodies; it would be better for the cause. There was nothing narrow, she said, about her, nor yet about Captain Sand. And then, with the distinct intimation that that would do, that she had gone far enough, she crossed her hands in her lap and waited. It became her to have it understood that this visit need have no further object than an exchange of amiabilities; but there might be another, and Mrs. Sand’s folded hands seemed to indicate that she would not necessarily meet it with opposition.
Stephen made successive statements of assent. He sat grasping his hat between his knees, his eyes fixed upon an infant’s sock which lay upon the floor immediately in front of him, looking at Mrs. Sand as seldom and as briefly as possible, as if his glance took rather an unfair advantage, which he would spare her.
“Yes, yes,” he said. “Yes, certainly,” revolving his hat in his hands. And when she spoke of the fraternity that might be fostered by such visits, he looked for an instant as if he had found an opening, which seemed, however, to converge and vanish in Mrs. Sand’s folded hands. He flushed to think afterwards, that it was she who was obliged to bring his resolution to a head, her scent of his embarrassment sharpening her curiosity.
“And is there anything we Army officers can do for you, Mr. Arnold?” she inquired.
There was a hint in her voice that, whatever it was, they would have done it more willingly if she had not been obliged to ask.
“I am afraid,” he said, “my mission is not quite so simple. I could wish it were. It is so easy to show our poor needs to one another; and I should have confidence—” He paused, amazed at the duplicity that grinned at him in his words. At what point more remote within the poles was he likely to show himself with a personal request?