That evening Miss Assher seemed to carry herself with unusual haughtiness, and was coldly observant of Caterina. There was unmistakably thunder in the air. Captain Wybrow appeared to take the matter very easily, and was inclined to brave it out by paying more than ordinary attention to Caterina. Mr. Gilfil had induced her to play a game at draughts with him, Lady Assher being seated at picquet with Sir Christopher, and Miss Assher in determined conversation with Lady Cheverel. Anthony, thus left as an odd unit, sauntered up to Caterina’s chair, and leaned behind her, watching the game. Tina, with all the remembrances of the morning thick upon her, felt her cheeks becoming more and more crimson, and at last said impatiently, ‘I wish you would go away.’
This happened directly under the view of Miss Assher, who saw Caterina’s reddening cheeks, saw that she said something impatiently, and that Captain Wybrow moved away in consequence. There was another person, too, who had noticed this incident with strong interest, and who was moreover aware that Miss Assher not only saw, but keenly observed what was passing. That other person was Mr. Gilfil, and he drew some painful conclusions which heightened his anxiety for Caterina.
The next morning, in spite of the fine weather, Miss Assher declined riding, and Lady Cheverel, perceiving that there was something wrong between the lovers, took care that they should be left together in the drawing-room. Miss Assher, seated on the sofa near the fire, was busy with some fancy-work, in which she seemed bent on making great progress this morning. Captain Wybrow sat opposite with a newspaper in his hand, from which he obligingly read extracts with an elaborately easy air, wilfully unconscious of the contemptuous silence with which she pursued her filigree work. At length he put down the paper, which he could no longer pretend not to have exhausted, and Miss Assher then said — ‘You seem to be on very intimate terms with Miss Sarti.’
‘With Tina? oh yes; she has always been the pet of the house, you know. We have been quite brother and sister together.’
‘Sisters don’t generally colour so very deeply when their brothers approach them.’
‘Does she colour? I never noticed it. But she’s a timid little thing.’
‘It would be much better if you would not be so hypocritical, Captain Wybrow. I am confident there has been some flirtation between you. Miss Sarti, in her position, would never speak to you with the petulance she did last night, if you had not given her some kind of claim on you.’
‘My dear Beatrice, now do be reasonable; do ask yourself what earthly probability there is that I should think of flirting with poor little Tina. Is there anything about her to attract that sort of attention? She is more child than woman. One thinks of her as a little girl to be petted and played with.’
‘Pray, what were you playing at with her yesterday morning, when I came in unexpectedly, and her cheeks were flushed, and her hands trembling?
‘Yesterday morning? — O, I remember. You know I always tease her about Gilfil, who is over head and ears in love with her; and she is angry at that — perhaps, because she likes him. They were old playfellows years before I came here, and Sir Christopher has set his heart on their marrying.’
‘Captain Wybrow, you are very false. It had nothing to do with Mr. Gilfil that she coloured last night when you leaned over her chair. You might just as well be candid. If your own mind is not made up, pray do no violence to yourself. I am quite ready to give way to Miss Sarti’s superior attractions. Understand that, so far as I am concerned, you are perfectly at liberty. I decline any share in the affection of a man who forfeits my respect by duplicity.’
In saying this Miss Assher rose, and was sweeping haughtily out of the room, when Captain Wybrow placed himself before her, and took her hand. ‘Dear, dear Beatrice, be patient; do not judge me so rashly. Sit down again, sweet,’ he added in a pleading voice, pressing both her hands between his, and leading her back to the sofa, where he sat down beside her. Miss Assher was not unwilling to be led back or to listen, but she retained her cold and haughty expression.
‘Can you not trust me, Beatrice? Can you not believe me, although there may be things I am unable to explain?’
‘Why should there be anything you are unable to explain? An honourable man will not be placed in circumstances which he cannot explain to the woman he seeks to make his wife. He will not ask her to believe that he acts properly; he will let her know that he does so. Let me go, sir.’
She attempted to rise, but he passed his hand round her waist and detained her.
‘Now, Beatrice dear,’ he said imploringly, ‘can you not understand that there are things a man doesn’t like to talk about — secrets that he must keep for the sake of others, and not for his own sake? Everything that relates to myself you may ask me, but do not ask me to tell other people’s secrets. Don’t you understand me?’
‘O yes,’ said Miss Assher scornfully, ‘I understand. Whenever you make love to a woman — that is her secret, which you are bound to keep for her. But it is folly to be talking in this way, Captain Wybrow. It is very plain that there is some relation more than friendship between you and Miss Sarti. Since you cannot explain that relation, there is no more to be said between us.’
‘Confound it, Beatrice! you’ll drive me mad. Can a fellow help a girl’s falling in love with him? Such things are always happening, but men don’t talk of them. These fancies will spring up without the slightest foundation, especially when a woman sees few people; they die out again when there is no encouragement. If you could like me, you ought not to be surprised that other people can; you ought to think the better of them for it.’
‘You mean to say, then, that Miss Sarti is in love with you, without your ever having made love to her.’
‘Do not press me to say such things, dearest. It is enough that you know I love you — that I am devoted to you. You naughty queen, you, you know there is no chance for any one else where you are. You are only tormenting me, to prove your power over me. But don’t be too cruel; for you know they say I have another heart-disease besides love, and these scenes bring on terrible palpitations.’
‘But I must have an answer to this one question,’ said Miss Assher, a little softened: ‘Has there been, or is there, any love on your side towards Miss Sarti? I have nothing to do with her feelings, but I have a right to know yours.’
‘I like Tina very much; who would not like such a little simple thing? You would not wish me not to like her? But love — that is a very different affair. One has a brotherly affection for such a woman as Tina; but it is another sort of woman that one loves.’
These last words were made doubly significant by a look of tenderness, and a kiss imprinted on the hand Captain Wybrow held in his. Miss Assher was conquered. It was so far from probable that Anthony should love that pale insignificant little thing — so highly probable that he should adore the beautiful Miss Assher. On the whole, it was rather gratifying that other women should be languishing for her handsome lover; he really was an exquisite creature. Poor Miss Sarti! Well, she would get over it.
Captain Wybrow saw his advantage. ‘Come, sweet love,’ he continued, ‘let us talk no more about unpleasant things. You will keep Tina’s secret, and be very kind to her — won’t you? — for my sake. But you will ride out now? See what a glorious day it is for riding. Let me order the horses. I’m terribly in want of the air. Come, give me one forgiving kiss, and say you will go.’
Miss Assher complied with the double request, and then went to equip herself for the ride, while her lover walked to the stables.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50