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CHAPTER VIII.
Mrs. Nugent had been very unwilling to fulfill her promise and appear at Mrs. Wradisley’s party. She had put off her arrival till the last moment, and as she walked up from the village with her little girl she had flattered herself that, arriving late under shelter of various other parties who made much more commotion, she might have escaped observation. But if Bertram, of whom she knew nothing, had been intent on finding Tiny, Mr. Wradisley was much more intent on finding Tiny’s mother. He had been on the watch and had not missed her from the first moment of her appearance, carefully as she thought she had sheltered it from observation. And even her appearance, though she had condemned it herself as{116} excited and sullen, when she gave herself a last look in the glass before coming away, did not discourage him. Excitement brightens a woman’s eye and gives additional color to her face, or at least it did so to Nelly. The gentle carelessness of the ordinary was not in her aspect at all. She was more erect, carrying her animated head high. Nobody could call her ordinary at any time. She was so full of life and action. But on that day every line of her soft, light dress seemed to have expression. The little curls on her forehead were more crisp, the shining of her eyes more brilliant. There was a little nervous movement about her mouth which testified to the agitation in her. “Is there anything wrong, dear?” asked Mrs. Wradisley, pausing, holding her by the hand, looking into her face, startled by this unusual look, even in the midst of her guests.

“Oh, no—yes. I have had some disturbing news, but nothing to take any notice of. I will tell you afterwards,” Mrs. Nugent said. Lucy too hung upon her, eager to know what was the matter. “Only some blunders{117}—about my affairs,” she had replied, “which I can set right.”

“Oh, if that is all!” Lucy had cried, running off to salute some other new-comers and carrying Tiny in her train. “Affairs” meant business to Lucy, and business, so far as she was aware, touched only the outside, and could have nothing to do with any one’s happiness. Besides, her mind was in a turmoil for the moment with that strange story of Mrs. Bertram which her mother had just told her by way of precaution, filtered from Ralph. “Mr. Bertram is married, it appears; but he and his wife don’t get on,” was what Mr. Wradisley had said. Lucy’s imagination had, as we are aware, been busy about Bertram, and she was startled by this strange and sudden conclusion to her self-inquiry whether by any chance he might be the Ideal man.

It was thus that Mrs. Nugent had been suddenly left without even the protection of her child, and though she had managed for some time to hide herself, as she supposed (though his watchful gaze in reality followed{118} her everywhere), from her host amid the crowd of other people assembled, there came the inevitable moment when she could keep herself from him no longer. He came up to her while the people who surrounded dispersed to examine his collection or to go in for tea.

“But I have seen your collection, Mr. Wradisley,” she said; “you were so kind as to show me everything.”

“It is not my collection,” he said; “it is—a flower I want to show you. The new orchid—the new—Let me take you into the conservatory. I must,” he said, in a lower tone. “You must be merciful and let me speak to you.”

“Mr. Wradisley,” she cried, almost under her breath, “do not, for pity’s sake, say any more.”

“I must,” he said, impetuously. “I must know.” And then he added in his usual tone, “Stevenson is very proud of it. It is a very rare kind, you know, and the finest specimen, he says.{119}”

“Oh, what is that, Mr. Wradisley?—an orchid? May I come too?” said another guest, without discrimination.

“Certainly,” he said; “but all in its order. Simmons comes first, Stevenson afterwards. You have not seen my Etruscan collection.” Mrs. Nugent was aware that he had caught a floating ribbon of the light cloak she carried on her arm, and held it fast while he directed with his usual grave propriety the other lady by her side. “Now,” he said, looking up to her. If it was the only thing that could be done, then perhaps it was better that it should be done at once. He led her through the lines of gleaming glass, the fruit, and the flowers, for Wradisbury was famous for its vineries and its conservatories—meeting a few wanderers by the way, whom it was difficult to prevent from following—till at last they got to the inner sanctuary of all, where a great fantastic blossom, a flower, but counterfeiting something that was not a flower, blazed aloft in the ruddy afternoon light, which of itself could never have produced that unnatural tropical blossom. Neither the man nor the woman looked at the orchid.{120} She said to him eagerly before he could speak: “This is all dreadful to me. You ought to let me go. You ought to be satisfied with my word. Should I speak as I have done if I had not meant it? Mr. Wradisley, for God’s sake, accept what I have already said to you and let me go.”

“No,” he said. She stood beside the flower, her brown beauty shining against the long leaves and strong stem of the beautiful monster, and he planted himself in front of her as if to prevent her escape. “You think I am tyrannical,” he said; “so I am. You are shocked and startled by what I have said to you. It is because I understand that that I am so pressing, so arbitrary now. Mrs. Nugent, you can’t bear that a man should speak to you of love. You think that love only comes once, that your heart should be buried with your husband; that is folly, it is fancy, it is prejudice, it is not a real feeling. That is why I force you almost to hear me. Pause a moment, and hear me.”

“Not a moment, not a moment!” she cried.{121} “It is more than that. Take my word for it, and let me go and say no more.”

“A widow,” he said, “you make up an idea to yourself that it’s something sacred. You are never to love, never to think of any one again. But all that is fiction—don’t interrupt me—it is mere fiction. You are living, and he is dead.”

“You force me,” she cried, “to betray myself. You force me—to tell you my secrets. You have no right to force my secret from me. Mr. Wradisley, every word you say to me is an offense. It is my own fault; but a man ought surely to be generous and take a woman’s word without compelling her in self defense—”

“I know by heart all that you can say in self-defense,” he cried, vehemently, “and you ought to be told that these are all fictions—sentimentalisms—never to be weighed against a true affection—a man’s love—and home and protection—both for yourself and your child.”

The young woman’s high spirit was ar............
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