When Sybil at length came down, looking much fresher than her sister, they passed an hour together arranging this and other small matters, so that both of them were again in the best of spirits, and Sybil's face was wreathed in smiles.
A number of visitors came to the door that day, some of them prompted by friendliness and some by sheer curiosity, for Mrs. Lee's abrupt disappearance from the ball had excited remark. Against all these her door was firmly closed. On the other hand, as the afternoon went on, she sent Sybil away, so that she might have the field entirely to herself, and Sybil, relieved of all her alarms, sallied out to interrupt Dunbeg's latest interview with his Countess, and to amuse herself with Victoria's last "phase."
Towards four o'clock the tall form of Mr. Ratcliffe was seen to issue from the Treasury Department and to descend the broad steps of its western front.
Turning deliberately towards the Square, the Secretary of the Treasury crossed the Avenue and stopping at Mrs. Lee's door, rang the bell. He was immediately admitted. Mrs. Lee was alone in her parlour and rose rather gravely as he entered, but welcomed him as cordially as she could. She wanted to put an end to his hopes at once and to do it decisively, but without hurting his feelings.
"Mr. Ratcliffe," said she, when he was seated- "I am sure you will be better pleased by my speaking instantly and frankly. I could not reply to you last night. I will do so now without delay. What you wish is impossible. I would rather not even discuss it. Let us leave it here and return to our old relations."
She could not force herself to express any sense of gratitude for his affection, or of regret at being obliged to meet it with so little return.
To treat him with tolerable civility was all she thought required of her.
Ratcliffe felt the change of manner. He had been prepared for a struggle, but not to be met with so blunt a rebuff at the start. His look became serious and he hesitated a moment before speaking, but when he spoke at last, it was with a manner as firm and decided as that of Mrs. Lee herself.