It was exactly one of the speeches Molly had disliked him for before, and delivered, too, in that kind of underbred manner which showed that it was meant to convey a personal compliment. Molly took great credit to herself for the unconcerned manner with which she went on with her tatting, exactly as if she had never heard it.

“I only hope I may be one of your partners at the first ball you go to. Pray remember my early application for that honour, when you are overwhelmed with requests for dances.”

“I don’t choose to engage myself beforehand,” said Molly, perceiving, from under her dropped eyelids, that he was leaning forward and looking at her as though he was determined to have an answer.

“Young ladies are always very cautious in fact, however modest they may be in profession,” he replied, addressing himself in a nonchalant manner to Mrs. Gibson. “In spite of Miss Gibson’s apprehension of not having many partners, she declines the certainty of having one. I suppose Miss Kirkpatrick will have returned from France before then?”

He said these last words exactly in the same tone as he had used before; but Molly’s instinct told her that he was making an effort to do so. She looked up. He was playing with his hat, almost as if he did not care to have any answer to his question. Yet he was listening acutely, and with a half-smile on his face.

Mrs. Gibson reddened a little, and hesitated—

“Yes; certainly. My daughter will be with us next winter, I believe; and I daresay she will go out with us.”

“Why can’t she say at once that Cynthia is here now?” asked Molly of herself, yet glad that Mr. Preston’s curiosity was baffled.

He still smiled; but this time he looked up at Mrs. Gibson, as he asked—“You have good news from her, I hope?”

“Yes; very. By the way, how are our old friends the Robinsons? How often I think of their kindness to me at Ashcombe! Dear good people, I wish I could see them again.”

“I will certainly tell them of your kind inquiries. They are very well, I believe.”

Just at this moment, Molly heard the familiar sound of the click and opening of the front door. She knew it must be Cynthia; and, conscious of some mysterious reason which made Mrs. Gibson wish to conceal her daughter’s whereabouts from Mr. Preston, and maliciously desirous to baffle him, she rose to leave the room, and meet Cynthia on the stairs; but one of the lost crewels of worsted had entangled itself in her gown and feet, and, before she had freed herself from the encumbrance, Cynthia had opened the drawing-room door, and stood in it, looking at her mother, at Molly, at Mr. Preston, but not advancing one step. Her colour, which had been brilliant the first moment of her entrance, faded away as she gazed; but her eyes—her beautiful eyes— usually so soft and grave, seemed to fill with fire, and her brows to contract, as she took the resolution to come forward and take her place among the three, who were all looking at her with different emotions. She moved calmly and slowly forwards; Mr. Preston went a step or two to meet her, his hand held out, and the whole expression of his face that of eager delight.

But she took no notice of the outstretched hand, nor of the chair that he offered her. She sate down on a little sofa in one of the windows, and called Molly to her.

“Look at my purchases!” said she. “This green ribbon was fourteen-pence a yard, this silk three shillings,” and so she went on, forcing herself to speak about these trifles, as if they were all the world to her, and she had no attention to throw away on her mother and her mother’s visitor.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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