With a sense of relief he entered the library and flung himself down in his armchair. The parlour-maid followed, bringing the student lamp and shaking some coals onto the dying fire. When she left he continued to sit motionless, his elbows on his knees, his chin on his clasped hands, his eyes fixed on the red grate.
He sat there without conscious thoughts, without sense of the lapse of time, in a deep and grave amazement that seemed to suspend life rather than quicken it. “This was what had to be, then . . . this was what had to be,” he kept repeating to himself, as if he hung in the clutch of doom. What he had dreamed of had been so different that there was a mortal chill in his rapture.
The door opened and May came in.
“I’m dreadfully late—you weren’t worried, were you?” she asked, laying her hand on his shoulder with one of her rare caresses.
He looked up astonished. “Is it late?”
“After seven. I believe you’ve been asleep!” She laughed, and drawing out her hat pins tossed her velvet hat on the sofa. She looked paler than usual, but sparkling with an unwonted animation.
“I went to see Granny, and just as I was going away Ellen came in from a walk; so I stayed and had a long talk with her. It was ages since we’d had a real talk. . . .” She had dropped into her usual armchair, facing his, and was running her fingers through her rumpled hair. He fancied she expected him to speak.
“A really good talk,” she went on, smiling with what seemed to Archer an unnatural vividness. “She was so dear—just like the old Ellen. I’m afraid I haven’t been fair to her lately. I’ve sometimes thought—”
Archer stood up and leaned against the mantelpiece, out of the radius of the lamp.
“Yes, you’ve thought—?” he echoed as she paused.
“Well, perhaps I haven’t judged her fairly. She’s so different—at least on the surface. She takes up such odd people—she seems to like to make herself conspicuous. I suppose it’s the life she’s led in that fast European society; no doubt we seem dreadfully dull to her. But I don’t want to judge her unfairly.”
She paused again, a little breathless with the unwonted length of her speech, and sat with her lips slightly parted and a deep blush on her cheeks.
Archer, as he looked at her, was reminded of the glow which had suffused her face in the Mission Garden at St. Augustine. He became aware of the same obscure effort in her, the same reaching out toward something beyond the usual range of her vision.
“She hates Ellen,” he thought, “and she’s trying to overcome the feeling, and to get me to help her to overcome it.”
The thought moved him, and for a moment he was on the point of breaking the silence between them, and throwing himself on her mercy.
“You understand, don’t you,” she went on, “why the family have sometimes been annoyed? We all did what we could for her at first; but she never seemed to understand. And now this idea of going to see Mrs. Beaufort, of going there in Granny’s carriage! I’m afraid she’s quite alienated the van der Luydens . . .”