Now and again, the black gauze head- dress nodded, dropped forward, recovered itself. A little heap of stockings slid softly from Madame Dor's lap, and remained unnoticed on the floor. A prodigious ball of worsted followed the stockings, and rolled lazily under the table. The black gauze head-dress nodded, dropped forward, recovered itself, nodded again, dropped forward again, and recovered itself no more. A composite sound, partly as of the purring of an immense cat, partly as of the planing of a soft board, rose over the hushed voices of the lovers, and hummed at regular intervals through the room. Nature and Madame Dor had combined together in Vendale's interests. The best of women was asleep.
Marguerite rose to stop--not the snoring--let us say, the audible repose of Madame Dor. Vendale laid his hand on her arm, and pressed her back gently into her chair.
"Don't disturb her," he whispered. "I have been waiting to tell you a secret. Let me tell it now."
Marguerite resumed her seat. She tried to resume her needle. It was useless; her eyes failed her; her hand failed her; she could find nothing.
"We have been talking," said Vendale, "of the happy time when we first met, and first travelled together. I have a confession to make. I have been concealing something. When we spoke of my first visit to Switzerland, I told you of all the impressions I had brought back with me to England--except one. Can you guess what that one is?"
Her eyes looked stedfastly at the embroidery, and her face turned a little away from him. Signs of disturbance began to appear in her neat velvet bodice, round the region of the brooch. She made no reply. Vendale pressed the question without mercy.
"Can you guess what the one Swiss impression is which I have not told you yet?"
Her face turned back towards him, and a faint smile trembled on her lips.
"An impression of the mountains, perhaps?" she said slyly.
"No; a much more precious impression than that."
"Of the lakes?"
"No. The lakes have not grown dearer and dearer in remembrance to me every day. The lakes are not associated with my happiness in the present, and my hopes in the future. Marguerite! all that makes life worth having hangs, for me, on a word from your lips. Marguerite! I love you!"
Her head drooped as he took her hand. He drew her to him, and looked at her. The tears escaped from her downcast eyes, and fell slowly over her cheeks.
"O, Mr. Vendale," she said sadly, "it would have been kinder to have kept your secret. Have you forgotten the distance between us? It can never, never be!"
"There can be but one distance between us, Marguerite--a distance of your making. My love, my darling, there is no higher rank in goodness, there is no higher rank in beauty, than yours! Come! whisper the one little word which tells me you will be my wife!"
She sighed bitterly. "Think of your family," she murmured; "and think of mine!"
Vendale drew her a little nearer to him.
"If you dwell on such an obstacle as that," he said, "I shall think but one thought--I shall think I have offended you."
She started, and looked up. "O, no!" she exclaimed innocently. The instant the words passed her lips, she saw the construction that might be placed on them. Her confession had escaped her in spite of herself. A lovely flush of colour overspread her face. She made a momentary effort to disengage herself from her lover's embrace. She looked up at him entreatingly. She tried to speak. The words died on her lips in the kiss that Vendale pressed on them. "Let me go, Mr. Vendale!" she said faintly.
"Call me George."
She laid her head on his bosom. All her heart went out to him at last. "George!" she whispered.
"Say you love me!"
Her arms twined themselves gently round his neck. Her lips, timidly touching his cheek, murmured the delicious words--"I love you!"
In the moment of silence that followed, the sound of the opening and closing of the house-door came clear to them through the wintry stillness of the street.
Marguerite started to her feet.
"Let me go!" she said. "He has come back!"
She hurried from the room, and touched Madame Dor's shoulder in passing. Madame Dor woke up with a loud snort, looked first over one shoulder and then over the other, peered down into her lap, and discovered neither stockings, worsted, nor darning-needle in it. At the same moment, footsteps became audible ascending the stairs. "Mon Dieu!" said Madame Dor, addressing herself to the stove, and trembling violently. Vendale picked up the stockings and the ball, and huddled them all back in a heap over her shoulder. "Mon Dieu!" said Madame Dor, for the second time, as the avalanche of worsted poured into her capacious lap.
The door opened, and Obenreizer came in. His first glance round the room showed him that Marguerite was absent.
"What!" he exclaimed, "my niece is away? My niece is not here to entertain you in my absence? This is unpardonable. I shall bring her back instantly."
Vendale stopped him.
"I beg you will not disturb Miss Obenreizer," he said. "You have returned, I see, without your friend?"
"My friend remains, and consoles our afflicted compatriot. A heart- rending scene, Mr. Vendale! The household gods at the pawnbroker's- -the family immersed in tears. We all embraced in silence. My admirable friend alone possessed his composure. He sent out, on the spot, for a bottle of wine."
"Can I say a word to you in private, Mr. Obenreizer?"
"Assuredly." He turned to Madame Dor. "My good creature, you are sinking for want of repose. Mr. Vendale will excuse you."
Madame Dor rose, and set forth sideways on her journey from the stove to bed. She dropped a stocking. Vendale picked it up for her, and opened one of the folding-doors. She advanced a step, and dropped three more stockings. Vendale stooping to recover them as before, Obenreizer interfered with profuse apologies, and with a warning look at Madame Dor. Madame Dor acknowledged the look by dropping the whole of the stockings in a heap, and then shuffling away panic-stricken from the scene of disaster. Obenreizer swept up the complete collection fiercely in both hands. "Go!" he cried, giving his prodigious handful a preparatory swing in the air. Madame Dor said, "Mon Dieu," and vanished into the next room, pursued by a shower of stockings.
"What must you think, Mr. Vendale," said Obenreizer, closing the door, "of this deplorable intrusion of domestic details? For myself, I blush at it. We are beginning the New Year as badly as possible; everything has gone wrong to-night. Be seated, pray--and say, what may I offer you? Shall we pay our best respects to another of your noble English institutions? It is my study to be, what you call, jolly. I propose a grog."
Vendale declined the grog with all needful respect for that noble institution.
"I wish to speak to you on a subject in which I am deeply interested," he said. "You must have observed, Mr.