“You will ruin his life,” said one of the two women. As the phrase escaped her she remembered, or seemed to remember, having met with it in half a dozen novels. She had nerved herself for the interview which up to this moment had been desperately real; but now she felt herself losing grip. It had all happened before . . . somewhere; she was reacting an old scene, going through a part; the four or five second-hand words gave her this sensation. Then she reflected that the other woman, too, had perhaps met them before in some cheap novelette, and, being an uneducated person, would probably find them the more impressive for that.
The other woman had in fact met them before, in the pages of Bow Bells, and been impressed by them. But since then love had found her ignorant and left her wise; wiser than in her humiliation she dared to guess, and yet the wiser for being humiliated. She answered in a curiously dispassionate voice: “I think, miss, his life is ruined already; that is, if he sent you to say all this to me.”
“He did not.” Miss Bracy lifted the nose and chin which she inherited from several highly distinguished Crusaders, and gave the denial sharply and promptly, looking her ex-maid straight in the face. She had never– to use her own words–stood any nonsense from Bassett.
But Bassett, formerly so docile (though, as it now turned out, so deceitful); who had always known her place and never answered her mistress but with respect; was to-day an unrecognisable Bassett–not in the least impudent, but as certainly not to be awed or brow-beaten. Standing in the glare of discovered misconduct, under the scourge of her shame, the poor girl had grasped some secret strength which made her invincible.
“But I think, miss,” she answered, “Mr. Frank must have known you was coming.” And this Miss Bracy could not deny. She had never told a lie in her life.
“It is very likely–no, it is certain–that he guessed,” she admitted.
“And if so, it comes to the same thing,” Bassett persisted, with a shade of weariness in her voice.
“You ungrateful girl! You ungrateful and quite extraordinary girl! First you inveigle that poor boy at the very outset of his career, and then when upon a supposed point of honour he offers to marry you–“
“A ‘supposed’ point, miss? Do you say ‘supposed’?”
“Not one in a thousand would offer such a redemption. And even he cannot know what it will mean to his life–what it will cost him.”
“I shall tell him, miss,” said Bassett quietly.
“And his parents–what do you suppose they would say, were they alive? His poor mother, for instance?”
Bassett dismissed this point silently. To Miss Bracy the queerest thing about the girl was the quiet practical manner she had put on so suddenly.
“You said, miss, that Mr. Frank wants to make amends on a ‘supposed’ point of honour. Don’t you think it a real one?”
Miss Bracy’s somewhat high cheekbones showed two red spots. “Because he offers it, it doesn’t follow that you ought to accept. And that’s the whole point,” she wound up viciously.
Bassett sighed that she could not get her question answered. “You will excuse me, miss, but I never ‘inveigled’ him, as you say. That I deny; and if you ask Mr. Frank he will bear me out. Not that it’s any use trying to make you believe,” she added, with a drop back to her old level tone as she saw the other’s eyebrows go up. It was indeed hopeless, Miss Bracy being one of those women who take it for granted that a man has been inveigled as soon as his love-affairs run counter to their own wishes or taste; and who thereby reveal an estimate of man for which in the end they are pretty sure to pay heavily. All her answer now was a frankly incredulous stare.