Poor Mrs. Lee was quite disconcerted by the directness of the attack. This fatal question met her at every turn. Hardly had she succeeded in escaping trom it at the ball scarcely an hour ago, by a stroke of good fortune for which she now began to see she was indebted to Sybil, and here it was again presented to her face like a pistol. The whole town, then, was asking it.
Ratcliffe's offer must have been seen by half Washington, and her reply was awaited by an immense audience, as though she were a political returning-board. Her disgust was intense, and her first answer to Sybil was a quick inquiry:
"Why do you ask such a question? have you heard anything,--has anyone talked about it to you?"
"No!" replied Sybil; "but I must know; I can see for myself without being told, that Mr. Racliffe is trying to make you marry him. I don't ask out of curiosity; this is something that concerns me nearly as much as it does you yourself. Please tell me! don't treat me like a child any longer! let me know what you are thinking about! I am so tired of being left in the dark!
You have no idea how much this thing weighs on me. Oh, Maude, I shall never be happy again until you trust me about this."
Mrs. Lee felt a little pang of conscience, and seemed suddenly to become conscious of a new coil, tightening about her, in this wretched complication. Unable to see her way, ignorant of her sister's motives, urged on by the idea that Sybil's happiness was involved, she was now charged with want of feeling, and called upon for a direct answer to a plain question.
How could she aver that she did not mean to marry Mr. Ratcliffe? to say this would be to shut the door on all the objects she had at heart. If a direct answer must be given, it was better to say "Yes!" and have it over; better to leap blindly and see what came of it. Mrs. Lee, therefore, with an internal gasp, but with no visible sign of excitement, said, as though she were in a dream:
"Well, Sybil, I will tell you. I would have told you long ago if I had known myself. Yes! I have made up my mind to marry Mr. Ratcliffe!"