When he had quitted them and Mrs. Dyott had candidly asked if her friend had found him rude or crude, Maud replied--though not immediately--that she had feared showing only too much how charming she found him. But if Mrs. Dyott took this it was to weigh the sense. "How could you show it too much?"
"Because I always feel that that's my only way of showing anything. It's absurd, if you like," Mrs. Blessingbourne pursued, "but I never know, in such intense discussions, what strange impression I may give."
Her companion looked amused. "Was it intense?"
"I was," Maud frankly confessed.
"Then it's a pity you were so wrong. Colonel Voyt, you know, is right." Mrs. Blessingbourne at this gave one of the slow soft silent headshakes to which she often resorted and which, mostly accompanied by the light of cheer, had somehow, in spite of the small obstinacy that smiled in them, a special grace. With this grace, for a moment, her friend, looking her up and down, appeared impressed, yet not too much so to take the next minute a decision. "Oh my dear, I'm sorry to differ from any one so lovely--for you're awfully beautiful to-night, and your frock's the very nicest I've ever seen you wear. But he's as right as he can be."
Maud repeated her motion. "Not so right, at all events as he thinks he is. Or perhaps I can say," she went on, after an instant, "that I'm not so wrong. I do know a little what I'm talking about."
Mrs. Dyott continued to study her. "You ARE vexed. You naturally don't like it--such destruction."
"Of your illusion."
"I HAVE no illusion. If I had moreover it wouldn't be destroyed. I have on the whole, I think, my little decency."
Mrs. Dyott stared. "Let us grant it for argument. What, then?"
"Well, I've also my little drama."
"An attachment ?"
"That you shouldn't have?"
"That I shouldn't have."
"Ah thank goodness, no!"
Mrs. Dyott continued to gaze. "The object's unaware--?"
Mrs. Dyott turned it over. "Are you sure?"
"That's what you call your decency? But isn't it," Mrs. Dyott asked, "rather his?"
"Dear no. It's only his good fortune."
Mrs. Dyott laughed. "But yours, darling--your good fortune: where does THAT come in?"
"Why, in my sense of the romance of it."
"The romance of what? Of his not knowing?"
"Of my not wanting him to. If I did"--Maud had touchingly worked it out--"where would be my honesty?"
The inquiry, for an instant, held her friend, yet only, it seemed, for a stupefaction that was almost amusement. "Can you want or not want as you like? Where in the world, if you don't want, is your romance?"
Mrs. Blessingbourne still wore her smile, and she now, with a light gesture that matched it, just touched the region of her heart. "There!"
Her companion admiringly marvelled. "A lovely place for it, no doubt!--but not quite a place, that I can see, to make the sentiment a relation."
"Why not? What more is required for a relation for me?"
"Oh all sorts of things, I should say! And many more, added to those, to make it one for the person you mention."
"Ah that I don't pretend it either should be or CAN be. I only speak for myself."
This was said in a manner that made Mrs. Dyott, with a visible mixture of impressions, suddenly turn away. She indulged in a vague movement or two, as if to look for something; then again found herself near her friend, on whom with the same abruptness, in fact with a strange sharpness, she conferred a kiss that might have represented either her tribute to exalted consistency or her idea of a graceful close of the discussion. "You deserve that one should speak FOR you!"
Her companion looked cheerful and secure. "How CAN you without knowing--?"
"Oh by guessing! It's not--?"
But that was as far as Mrs. Dyott could get. "It's not," said Maud, "any one you've ever seen."
"Ah then I give you up!"
And Mrs. Dyott conformed for the rest of Maud's stay to the spirit of this speech. It was made on a Saturday night, and Mrs. Blessingbourne remained till the Wednesday following, an interval during which, as the return of fine weather was confirmed by the Sunday, the two ladies found a wider range of action. There were drives to be taken, calls made, objects of interest seen at a distance; with the effect of much easy talk and still more easy silence. There had been a question of Colonel Voyt's probable return on the Sunday, but the whole time passed without a sign from him, and it was merely mentioned by Mrs. Dyott, in explanation, that he must have been suddenly called, as he was so liable to be, to town. That this in fact was what had happened he made clear to her on Thursday afternoon, when, walking over again late, he found her alone. The consequence of his Sunday letters had been his taking, that day, the 4.15. Mrs. Voyt had gone back on Thursday, and he now, to settle on the spot the question of a piece of work begun at his place, had rushed down for a few hours in anticipation of the usual collective move for the week's end. He was to go up again by the late train, and had to count a little--a fact accepted by his hostess with the hard pliancy of practice--his present happy moments. Too few as these were, however, he found time to make of her an inquiry or two not directly bearing on their situation. The first was a recall of the question for which Mrs. Blessingbourne's entrance on the previous Saturday had arrested her answer. Had that lady the idea of anything between them?
"No. I'm sure. There's one idea she has got," Mrs. Dyott went on; "but it's quite different and not so very wonderful."
"What then is it?"
"Well, that she's herself in love."
Voyt showed his interest. "You mean she told you?"
"I got it out of her."
He showed his amusement. "Poor thing! And with whom?"
His surprise, if the distinction might be made, was less than his wonder. "You got that out of her too?"
"No--it remains in. Which is much the best way for it. For you to know it would be to end it."
He looked rather cheerfully at sea. "Is that then why you tell me?"
"I mean for her to know you know it. Therefore it's in your interest not to let her."
"I see," Voyt after a moment returned. "Your real calculation is that my interest will be sacrificed to my vanity--so that, if your other idea is just, the flame will in fact, and thanks to her morbid conscience, expire by her taking fright at seeing me so pleased. But I promise you," he declared, "that she shan't see it. So there you are!" She kept her eyes on him and had evidently to admit after a little that there she was. Distinct as he had made the case, however, he wasn't yet quite satisfied. "Why are you so sure I'm the man?"
"From the way she denies you."
"You put it to her?"
"Straight. If you hadn't been she'd of course have confessed to you--to keep me in the dark about the real one."
Poor Voyt laughed out again. "Oh you dear souls!"
"Besides," his companion pursued, "I wasn't in want of that evidence."
"Then what other had you?"
"Her state before you came--which was what made me ask you how much you had seen her. And her state after it," Mrs. Dyott added. "And her state," she wound up, "while you were here."
"But her state while I was here was charming."
"Charming. That's just what I say."
She said it in a tone that placed the matter in its right light--a light in which they appeared kindly, quite tenderly, to watch Maud wander away into space with her lovely head bent under a theory rather too big for it. Voyt's last word, however, was that there was just enough in it--in the theory--for them to allow that she had not shown herself, on the occasion of their talk, wholly bereft of sense. Her consciousness, if they let it alone--as they of course after this mercifully must--WAS, in the last analysis, a kind of shy romance. Not a romance like their own, a thing to make the fortune of any author up to the mark--one who should have the invention or who COULD have the courage; but a small scared starved subjective satisfaction that would do her no harm and nobody else any good. Who but a duffer--he stuck to his contention--would see the shadow of a "story" in it?