She decided badly—how could she decide well?—on what she would say to explain herself.
“I am so sorry,” she told them, “that Mr Finlay is obliged to be away.”
It was quite wrong; it assumed too much, her knowledge and their confidence, and the propriety of discussing Mr Finlay’s absence. There was even an unconscious hint of another kind of assumption in it—a suggestion of apology for Mr Finlay. Advena was aware of it even as it left her lips, and the perception covered her with a damning blush. She had a sudden terrified misgiving that her role was too high for her, that she had already cracked her mask. But she looked quietly at Miss Cameron and smiled across the tide that surged in her as she added, “He was very distressed at having to go.”
They looked at her in an instant’s blank astonishment. Miss Cameron opened her lips and closed them again, glancing at Mrs Kilbannon. They fell back together, but not in disorder. This was something much more formidable than common curiosity. Just what it was they would consider later; meanwhile Mrs Kilbannon responded with what she would have called cool civility.
“Perhaps you have heard that Mr Finlay is my nephew?” she said.
“Indeed I have. Mr Finlay has told me a great deal about you, Mrs Kilbannon, and about his life at Bross,” Advena replied. “And he has told me about you, too,” she went on, turning to Christie Cameron.
“Indeed?” said she.
“Oh, a long time ago. He has been looking forward to your arrival for some months, hasn’t he?”
“We took our passages in December,” said Miss Cameron.
“And you are to be married almost immediately, are you not?” Miss Murchison continued, pleasantly.
Mrs Kilbannon had an inspiration. “Could he by any means have had the banns cried?” she demanded of Christie, who looked piercingly at their visitor for the answer.
“Oh, no,” Advena laughed softly. “Presbyterians haven’t that custom over here—does it still exist anywhere? Mr Finlay told me himself.”
“Has he informed all his acquaintances?” asked Mrs Kilbannon. “We thought maybe his elders would be expecting to hear, or his Board of Management. Or he might have just dropped a word to his Sessions Clerk. But—”