The words had been thoughtless, as the utterances of impatience often are; and Mr. Welland was upon them with a pounce.
“Augusta,” he said, turning pale and laying down his fork, “have you any other reason for thinking that Bencomb is less to be relied on than he was? Have you noticed that he has been less conscientious than usual in following up my case or your mother’s?”
It was Mrs. Welland’s turn to grow pale as the endless consequences of her blunder unrolled themselves before her; but she managed to laugh, and take a second helping of scalloped oysters, before she said, struggling back into her old armour of cheerfulness: “My dear, how could you imagine such a thing? I only meant that, after the decided stand Mamma took about its being Ellen’s duty to go back to her husband, it seems strange that she should be seized with this sudden whim to see her, when there are half a dozen other grandchildren that she might have asked for. But we must never forget that Mamma, in spite of her wonderful vitality, is a very old woman.”
Mr. Welland’s brow remained clouded, and it was evident that his perturbed imagination had fastened at once on this last remark. “Yes: your mother’s a very old woman; and for all we know Bencomb may not be as successful with very old people. As you say, my dear, it’s always one thing after another; and in another ten or fifteen years I suppose I shall have the pleasing duty of looking about for a new doctor. It’s always better to make such a change before it’s absolutely necessary.” And having arrived at this Spartan decision Mr. Welland firmly took up his fork.
“But all the while,” Mrs. Welland began again, as she rose from the luncheon-table, and led the way into the wilderness of purple satin and malachite known as the back drawing-room, “I don’t see how Ellen’s to be got here tomorrow evening; and I do like to have things settled for at least twenty-four hours ahead.”
Archer turned from the fascinated contemplation of a small painting representing two Cardinals carousing, in an octagonal ebony frame set with medallions of onyx.
“Shall I fetch her?” he proposed. “I can easily get away from the office in time to meet the brougham at the ferry, if May will send it there.” His heart was beating excitedly as he spoke.
Mrs. Welland heaved a sigh of gratitude, and May, who had moved away to the window, turned to shed on him a beam of approval. “So you see, Mamma, everything will be settled twenty-four hours in advance,” she said, stooping over to kiss her mother’s troubled forehead.
May’s brougham awaited her at the door, and she was to drive Archer to Union Square, where he could pick up a Broadway car to carry him to the office. As she settled herself in her corner she said: “I didn’t want to worry Mamma by raising fresh obstacles; but how can you meet Ellen tomorrow, and bring her back to New York, when you’re going to Washington?”