She looked at my ugly wrinkled face, with a bright gratitude so new to me in my experience of my fellow-creatures, that I was at a loss how to answer her. Nothing had prepared me for her kindness and her beauty. The misery of many years has not hardened my heart, thank God. I was as awkward and as shy with her, as if I had been a lad in my teens.
"Where is he now?" she asked, giving free expression to her one dominant interest - the interest in Mr. Blake. "What is he doing? Has he spoken of me? Is he in good spirits? How does he bear the sight of the house, after what happened in it last year? When are you going to give him the laudanum? May I see you pour it out? I am so interested; I am so excited - I have ten thousand things to say to you, and they all crowd together so that I don't know what to say first. Do you wonder at the interest I take in this?"
"No," I said. "I venture to think that I thoroughly understand it."
She was far above the paltry affectation of being confused. She answered me as she might have answered a brother or a father.
"You have relieved me of indescribable wretchedness; you have given me a new life. How can I be ungrateful enough to have any concealment from you? I love him," she said simply, "I have loved him from first to last - even when I was wronging him in my own thoughts; even when I was saying the hardest and the cruellest words to him. Is there any excuse for me, in that? I hope there is - I am afraid it is the only excuse I have. When to-morrow comes, and he knows that I am in the house, do you think - - "
She stopped again, and looked at me very earnestly.
"When to-morrow comes," I said, "I think you have only to tell him what you have just told me."
Her face brightened; she came a step nearer to me. Her fingers trifled nervously with a flower which I had picked in the garden, and which I had put into the button-hole of my coat.
"You have seen a great deal of him lately," she said. "Have you, really and truly, seen THAT?"
"Really and truly," I answered. "I am quite certain of what will happen to-morrow. I wish I could feel as certain of what will happen to-night."
At that point in the conversation, we were interrupted by the appearance of Betteredge with the tea-tray. He gave me another significant look as he passed on into the sitting-room. "Aye! aye! make your hay while the sun shines. The Tartar's upstairs, Mr. Jennings - the Tartar's upstairs!"
We followed him into the room. A little old lady, in a corner, very nicely dressed, and very deeply absorbed over a smart piece of embroidery, dropped her work in her lap, and uttered a faint little scream at the first sight of my gipsy complexion and my piebald hair.
"Mrs. Merridew," said Miss Verinder, "this is Mr. Jennings."
"I beg Mr. Jennings's pardon," said the old lady, looking at Miss Verinder, and speaking at me. "Railway travelling always makes me nervous. I am endeavouring to quiet my mind by occupying myself as usual. I don't know whether my embroidery is out of place, on this extraordinary occasion. If it interferes with Mr. Jennings's medical views, I shall be happy to put it away of course."
I hastened to sanction the presence of the embroidery, exactly as I had sanctioned the absence of the burst buzzard and the Cupid's wing. Mrs. Merridew made an effort - a grateful effort - to look at my hair. No! it was not to be done. Mrs. Merridew looked back again at Miss Verinder.
"If Mr. Jennings will permit me," pursued the old lady, "I should like to ask a favour. Mr. Jennings is about to try a scientific experiment to-night. I used to attend scientific experiments when I was a girl at school. They invariably ended in an explosion. If Mr. Jennings will be so very kind, I should like to be warned of the explosion this time. With a view to getting it over, if possible, before I go to bed."
I attempted to assure Mrs. Merridew that an explosion was not included in the programme on this occasion.
"No," said the old lady. "I am much obliged to Mr. Jennings - I am aware that he is only deceiving me for my own good. I prefer plain dealing. I am quite resigned to the explosion - but I DO want to get it over, if possible, before I go to bed."
Here the door opened, and Mrs. Merridew uttered another little scream. The advent of the explosion? No: only the advent of Betteredge.
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Jennings," said Betteredge, in his most elaborately confidential manner. "Mr. Franklin wishes to know where you are. Being under your orders to deceive him, in respect to the presence of my young lady in the house, I have said I don't know. That you will please to observe, was a lie. Having one foot already in the grave, sir, the fewer lies you expect me to tell, the more I shall be indebted to you, when my conscience pricks me and my time comes."
There was not a moment to be wasted on the purely speculative question of Betteredge's conscience. Mr. Blake might make his appearance in search of me, unless I went to him at once in his own room. Miss Verinder followed me out into the corridor.
"They seem to be in a conspiracy to persecute you," she said. "What does it mean?"
"Only the protest of the world, Miss Verinder - on a very small scale - against anything that is new."
"What are we to do with Mrs. Merridew?"
"Tell her the explosion will take place at nine to-morrow morning."
"So as to send her to bed?"
"Yes - so as to send her to bed."
Miss Verinder went back to the sitting-room, and I went upstairs to Mr. Blake.
To my surprise I found him alone; restlessly pacing his room, and a little irritated at being left by himself.
"Where is Mr. Bruff?" I asked.
He pointed to the closed door of communication between the two rooms. Mr. Bruff had looked in on him, for a moment; had attempted to renew his protest against our proceedings; and had once more failed to produce the smallest impression on Mr. Blake. Upon this, the lawyer had taken refuge in a black leather bag, filled to bursting with professional papers. "The serious business of life," he admitted, "was sadly out of place on such an occasion as the present. But the serious business of life must be carried on, for all that. Mr. Blake would perhaps kindly make allowance for the old-fashioned habits of a practical man. Time was money - and, as for Mr. Jennings, he might depend on it that Mr. Bruff would be forthcoming when called upon." With that apology, the lawyer had gone back to his own room, and had immersed himself obstinately in his black bag.