Verrian stared at her now from a visage that was an entire blank, though behind it conjecture was busy, and he was asking himself whether his companion was some new kind of hair-dresser, or uncommonly cultivated manicure, or a nursery governess obeying a hurry call to take a place in Mrs. Westangle's household, or some sort of amateur housekeeper arriving to supplant a professional. But he said nothing.
Miss Shirley said, with a distress which was genuine, though he perceived a trace of amusement in it, too, "I see that I will have to go on."
"Oh, do!" he made out to utter.
"I am going to Mrs. Westangle's as a sort of mistress of the revels. The business is so new that it hasn't got its name yet, but if I fail it won't need any. I invented it on a hint I got from a girl who undertakes the floral decorations for parties. I didn't see why some one shouldn't furnish suggestions for amusements, as well as flowers. I was always rather lucky at that in my own fam—at my father's—" She pulled herself sharply up, as if danger lay that way. "I got an introduction to Mrs. Westangle, and she's to let me try. I am going to her simply as part of the catering, and I'm not to have any recognition in the hospitalities. So it wasn't necessary for her to send for me at the station, except as a means of having me on the ground in good season. I have to thank you for that, and—I thank you." She ended in a sigh.
"It's very interesting," Verrian said, and he hoped he was not saying it in any ignoble way.
He was very presently to learn. Round a turn of the road there came a lively clacking of horses' shoes on the hard track, with the muted rumble of rubber-tired wheels, and Mrs. Westangle's victoria dashed into view. The coachman had made a signal to Verrian's driver, and the vehicles stopped side by side. The footman instantly came to the door of the carryall, touching his hat to Verrian.
"Going to Mrs. Westangle's, sir?"
"Mrs. Westangle's carriage. Going to the station for you, sir."
"Miss Shirley," Verrian said, "will you change?"
"Oh no," she answered, quickly, "it's better for me to go on as I am. But the carriage was sent for you. You must—"
Verrian interrupted to ask the footman, "How far is it yet to Mrs. Westangle's?"
"About a mile, sir."
"I think I won't change for such a short distance. I'll keep on as I am," Verrian said, and he let the goatskin, which he had half lifted to free Miss Shirley for dismounting, fall back again. "Go ahead, driver."
She had been making several gasping efforts at speech, accompanied with entreating and protesting glances at Verrian in the course of his brief colloquy with the footman. Now, as the carryall lurched forward again, and the victoria wheeled and passed them on its way back, she caught her handkerchief to her face, and to Verrian's dismay sobbed into it. He let her cry, as he must, in the distressful silence which he could not be the first to break. Besides, he did not know how she was taking it all till she suddenly with threw her handkerchief and pulled down her veil. Then she spoke three heart-broken words, "How could you!" and he divined that he must have done wrong.
"What ought I to have done?" he asked, with sullen humility.
"You ought to have taken the victoria."
"How could I?"
"You ought to have done it."
"I think you ought to have done it yourself, Miss Shirley," Verrian said, feeling like the worm that turns. He added, less resentfully, "We ought both to have taken it."
"No, Mrs. Westangle might have felt, very properly, that it was presumptuous in me, whether I came alone in it or with you. Now we shall arrive together in this thing, and she will be mortified for you and vexed with me. She will blame me for it, and she will be right, for it would have been very well for me to drive up in a shabby station carryall; but an invited guest—"
"No, indeed, she shall not blame you, Miss Shirley. I will make a point of taking the whole responsibility. I will tell her—"
"Mr. Merriam!" she cried, in anguish. "Will you please do nothing of the kind? Do you want to make bad worse? Leave the explaining altogether to me, please. Will you promise that?"
"I will promise that—or anything—if you insist," Verrian sulked.
She instantly relented a little. "You mustn't think me unreasonable. But I was determined to carry my undertaking through on business principles, and you have spoiled my chance—I know you meant it kindly or, if not spoiled, made it more difficult. Don't think me ungrateful. Mr. Merriam—"
"My name isn't Merriam," he resented, at last, a misnomer which had annoyed him from the first.
"Oh, I am so glad! Don't tell me what it is!" she said, giving a laugh which had to go on a little before he recognized the hysterical quality in it. When she could check it she explained: "Now we are not even acquainted, and I can thank a stranger for the kindness you have shown me. I am truly grateful. Will you do me another favor?"
"Yes," Verrian assented; but he thought he had a right to ask, as though he had not promised, "What is it?"
"Not to speak of me to Mrs. Westangle unless she speaks of me first."
"That's simple. I don't know that I should have any right to speak of you."
"Oh yes, you would. She will expect you, perhaps, to laugh about the little adventure, and I would rather she began the laughing you have been so good."
"All right. But wouldn't my silence make it rather more awkward?"
"I will take care of the awkwardness, thank you. And you promise?"
"Yes, I promise."
"That is very good of you." She put her hand impulsively across the goat-skin, and gave his, with which he took it in some surprise, a quick clasp. Then they were both silent, and they got out of the carryall under Mrs. Westangle's porte-cochere without having exchanged another word. Miss Shirley did not bow to him or look at him in parting.