MRS. WILLETT sat in her small and over-furnished living-room in a state of open-eyed amazement. Only five minutes before she had left the room to look for a pair of shoes whose easiness was their sole reason for survival, and as a last hope had looked under Cecilia's bed, and discovered the parcels. Three parcels all done up in brown paper and ready for the post, addressed in Cecilia's handwriting to:—
Mrs. P. Truefitt,
Findlater's Private Hotel,
Finsbury Circus, London.
She smoothed her cap-strings down with trembling hands and tried to think. The autumn evening was closing in, but she made no attempt to obtain a light. Her mind was becoming active, and the shadows aided thought. At ten o'clock her daughter, returning from Tranquil Vale, was surprised to find her still sitting in the dark.
"Why, haven't you had any supper?" she inquired, lighting the gas.
"I didn't want any," said her mother, blinking at die sudden light.
Miss Willett turned and pulled down the blinds. Then she came back, and, standing behind her mother's chair, placed a hand upon her shoulder.
"It—it will be lonely for you when I've gone, mother," she said, smoothing the old lady's lace collar.
"Gone?" repeated Mrs. Willett. "Gone? Why, has that woman consented to go at last?"
Miss Willett shrank back. "No," she said, trembling, "but—"
"You can't marry till she does," said Mrs. Willett, gripping the arms of her chair. "Not with my consent, at any rate. Remember that. I'm not going to give way; she must."
Miss Willett said "Yes, mother," in a dutiful voice, and then, avoiding her gaze, took a few biscuits from the sideboard.
"There's a difference between strength of mind and obstinacy," continued Mrs. Willett. "It's obstinacy with her—sheer obstinacy; and I am not going to bow down to it—there's no reason why I should."
Miss Willett said "No, mother."
"If other people like to bow down to her," said Mrs. Willett, smoothing her dress over her knees, "that's their look-out. But she won't get me doing it."
She went up to bed and lay awake half the night, and, rising late next morning in consequence, took advantage of her daughter's absence to peer under the bed. The parcels had disappeared. She went downstairs, with her faded but alert old eyes watching Cecilia's every movement.
"When does Mr. Truefitt begin his holidays?" she inquired, at last.
Miss Willett, who had been glancing restlessly at the clock, started violently.
"To—to—to-day," she gasped.
Mrs. Willett said "Oh!"
"I—I was going out with him at eleven—for a little walk," said her daughter, nervously. "Just a stroll."
Mrs. Willett nodded. "Do you good," she said, slowly. "What are you going to wear?"
Her daughter, still trembling, looked at her in surprise. "This," she said, touching her plain brown dress.
Mrs. Willett's voice began to tremble. "It's—it's rather plain," she said. "I like my daughter to be nicely dressed, especially when she is going out with her future husband. Go upstairs and put on your light green."
Miss Willett, paler than ever, gave a hasty and calculating glance at the clock and disappeared.
"And your new hat," Mrs. Willett called after her.
She looked at the clock too, and then, almost as excited as her daughter, began to move restlessly about the room. Her hands shook, and going up to the glass over the mantel-piece she removed her spectacles and dabbed indignantly at her eyes. By the time Cecilia returned she was sitting in her favourite chair, a picture of placid and indifferent old age.
"That's better," she said, with an approving nod; "much better."
She rose, and going up to her daughter rearranged her dress a little. "You look very nice, dear," she paid, with a little cough. "Mr. Truefitt ought to be proud of you. Good-by."
Her daughter kissed her, and then, having got as far as the door, came back and kissed her again. She made a second attempt to depart, and then, conscience proving too much for her, uttered a stifled sob and came back to her mother.
"Oh, I can't," she wailed; "I can't."
"You'll be late," said her mother, pushing her away. "Good-by."
"I can't," sobbed Miss Willett; "I can't do it. I'm—I'm deceiving——"
"Yes, yes," said the old lady, hastily; "tell me another time. Good-by."
She half led and half thrust her daughter to the door.
"But," said the conscience-stricken Cecilia, "you don't under—"
"A walk will do you good," said her mother; "and don't cry; try and look your best."
She managed to close the door on her, and her countenance cleared as she heard her daughter open the hall door and pass out. Standing well back in the room, she watched her to the gate, uttering a sharp exclamation of annoyance as Cecilia, with a woebegone shake of the head, turned and came up the path again. A loud tap at the window and a shake of the head were necessary to drive her off.
Mrs. Willett gave her a few minutes' start, and then, in a state of extraordinary excitement, went upstairs and, with fingers trembling with haste, put on her bonnet and cape.
"You're not going out alone at this time o' the morning, ma'am?" said the old servant, as she came down again.
"Just as far as the corner, Martha," said the old lady, craftily.
"I'd better come with you," said the other.
"Certainly not," said Mrs. Willett. "I'm quite strong this morning. Go on with your stoves."
She took up her stick and, opening the door, astonished Martha by her nimbleness. At the gate she looked right and left, and for the first time in her life felt that there were too many churches in Salthaven. For several reasons, the chief being that Cecilia's father lay in the churchyard, she decided to try St. Peter's first, and, having procured a cab at the end of the road, instructed the cabman to drive to within fifty yards of the building and wait for her.
The church was open, and a peep through the swing-doors showed her a small group standing before the altar. With her hand on her side she hobbled up the stone steps to the gallery, and, helping herself along by the sides of the pews, entered the end one of them all and sank exhausted on the cushions.
The service had just commenced, and the voice of the minister sounded with unusual loudness in the empty church. Mr. Truefitt and Miss Willett stood before him like culprits, Mr. Truefitt glancing round uneasily several times as the service proceeded. Twice the old lavender-coloured bonnet that was projecting over the side of the gallery drew back in alarm, and twice its owner held her breath and rated herself sternly for her venturesomeness. She did not look over again until she heard a little clatter of steps proceeding to the vestry, and then, with a hasty glance round, slipped out of the pew and made her way downstairs and out of the church.
Her strength was nearly spent, but the cabman was on the watch, and, driving up to the entrance, climbed down and bundled her into the cab. The drive was all too short for her to compose herself as she would have liked, and she met the accusatory glance of Martha with but little of her old spirit.
"I went a little too far," she said, feebly, as the servant helped her to the door.
"What did I tell you?" demanded the other, and placing her in her chair removed her bonnet and cape, and stood regarding her with sour disapproval.
"I'm getting better," said the old lady, stoutly.
"I'm getting my breath back again. I—I think I'll have a glass of wine."
"Yes, 'm," said Martha, moving off. "The red-currant?"
"Red-currant!" said Mrs. Willett, sharply. "Red-currant! Certainly not. The port."
Martha disappeared, marvelling, to return a minute or two later with the wine and a glass on a tray. Mrs. Willett filled her glass and, whispering a toast to herself, half emptied it.
"Martha!" she said, looking round with a smile.
"If you like to go and get a glass you can have a little drop yourself."
She turned and took up her glass again, and, starting nervously, nearly let it fall as a loud crash sounded outside. The bewildered Martha had fallen downstairs.