Autres Temps ..., by Edith Wharton

V

Mrs. Lidcote, though she had made the gesture of ringing for her maid, had not done so.

When the door closed, she continued to stand motionless in the middle of her soft spacious room. The fire which had been kindled at twilight danced on the brightness of silver and mirrors and sober gilding; and the sofa toward which she had been urged by Miss Suffern heaped up its cushions in inviting proximity to a table laden with new books and papers. She could not recall having ever been more luxuriously housed, or having ever had so strange a sense of being out alone, under the night, in a windbeaten plain. She sat down by the fire and thought.

A knock on the door made her lift her head, and she saw her daughter on the threshold. The intricate ordering of Leila’s fair hair and the flying folds of her dressinggown showed that she had interrupted her dressing to hasten to her mother; but once in the room she paused a moment, smiling uncertainly, as though she had forgotten the object of her haste.

Mrs. Lidcote rose to her feet. “Time to dress, dearest? Don’t scold! I shan’t be late.”

“To dress?” Leila stood before her with a puzzled look. “Why, I thought, dear — I mean, I hoped you’d decided just to stay here quietly and rest.”

Her mother smiled. “But I’ve been resting all the afternoon!”

“Yes, but — you know you do look tired. And when Susy told me just now that you meant to make the effort — ”

“You came to stop me?”

“I came to tell you that you needn’t feel in the least obliged — ”

“Of course. I understand that.”

There was a pause during which Leila, vaguely averting herself from her mother’s scrutiny, drifted toward the dressing-table and began to disturb the symmetry of the brushes and bottles laid out on it.

“Do your visitors know that I’m here?” Mrs. Lidcote suddenly went on.

“Do they — Of course — why, naturally,” Leila rejoined, absorbed in trying to turn the stopper of a salts-bottle.

“Then won’t they think it odd if I don’t appear?”

“Oh, not in the least, dearest. I assure you they’ll all understand.” Leila laid down the bottle and turned back to her mother, her face alight with reassurance.

Mrs. Lidcote stood motionless, her head erect, her smiling eyes on her daughter’s. “Will they think it odd if I do?”

Leila stopped short, her lips half parted to reply. As she paused, the colour stole over her bare neck, swept up to her throat, and burst into flame in her cheeks. Thence it sent its devastating crimson up to her very temples, to the lobes of her ears, to the edges of her eyelids, beating all over her in fiery waves, as if fanned by some imperceptible wind.

Mrs. Lidcote silently watched the conflagration; then she turned away her eyes with a slight laugh. “I only meant that I was afraid it might upset the arrangement of your dinner-table if I didn’t come down. If you can assure me that it won’t, I believe I’ll take you at your word and go back to this irresistible sofa.” She paused, as if waiting for her daughter to speak; then she held out her arms. “Run off and dress, dearest; and don’t have me on your mind.” She clasped Leila close, pressing a long kiss on the last afterglow of her subsiding blush. “I do feel the least bit overdone, and if it won’t inconvenience you to have me drop out of things, I believe I’ll basely take to my bed and stay there till your party scatters. And now run off, or you’ll be late; and make my excuses to them all.”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30