One of the men-servants answered it, not Peter; and, seeing somebody very smart before him, bowed deferentially.
"Miss Hallijohn is residing here, I believe. Is she within?"
"Miss Hallijohn; Miss Joyce Hallijohn," somewhat sharply repeated the lady, as if impatient of any delay. "I wish to see her."
The man was rather taken aback. He had deemed it a visitor to the house, and was prepared to usher her to the drawing-room, at least; but it seemed it was only a visitor to Joyce. He showed her into a small parlor, and went upstairs to the nursery, where Joyce was sitting with Wilson--for there had been no change in the domestic department of East Lynne. Joyce remained as upper maid, partially superintending the servants, attending upon Lucy, and making Miss Carlyle's dresses as usual. Wilson was nurse still.
"Miss Joyce, there's a lady asking for you," said the man. "I have shown her into the gray parlor."
"A lady for me?" repeated Joyce. "Who is it? Some one to see the children, perhaps."
"It's for yourself, I think. She asked for Miss Hallijohn."
Joyce looked at the man; but she put down her work and proceeded to the gray parlor. A pretty woman, vain and dashing, threw up her white veil at her entrance.
"Well, Joyce, how are you?"
Joyce, always pale, turned paler still, as she gazed in blank consternation. Was it really Afy who stood before her--Afy, the erring?
Afy it was. And she stood there, holding out her hand to Joyce, with what Wilson would have called, all the brass in the world. Joyce could not reconcile her mind to link her own with it.
"Excuse me, Afy, but I cannot take your hand, I cannot welcome you here. What could have induced you to come?"
"If you are going to be upon the high ropes, it seems I might as well have stayed away," was Afy's reply, given in the pert, but good-humored manner she had ever used to Joyce. "My hand won't damage yours. I am not poison."
"You are looked upon in the neighborhood as worse than poison, Afy," returned Joyce, in a tone, not of anger but of sorrow. "Where's Richard Hare?"
Afy tossed her head. "Where's who?" asked she.
"Richard Hare. My question was plain enough."
"How should I know where he is? It's like your impudence to mention him to me. Why don't you ask me where Old Nick is, and how he does? I'd rather own acquaintance with him than with Richard Hare, if I'd my choice between the two."
"Then you have left Richard Hare? How long since?"
"I have left--what do you say?" broke off Afy, whose lips were quivering ominously with suppressed passion. "Perhaps you'll condescend to explain. I don't understand."
"When you left here, did you not go after Richard Hare--did you not join him?"
"I'll tell you what it is, Joyce," flashed Afy, her face indignant and her voice passionate, "I have put up with some things from you in my time, but human nature has its limits of endurance, and I won't bear _that_. I have never set eyes on Richard Hare since that night of horror; I wish I could; I'd help to hang him."
Joyce paused. The belief that Afy was with him had been long and deeply imbued within her; it was the long-continued and firm conviction of all West Lynne, and a settled belief, such as that, is not easily shaken. Was Afy telling the truth? She knew her propensity for making false assertions, when they served to excuse herself.
"Afy," she said at length, "let me understand you. When you left this place, was it not to share Richard Hare's flight? Have you not been living with him?"
"No!" burst forth Afy, with kindling eyes. "Living with him--with our father's murderer! Shame upon you, Joyce Hallijohn! You must be precious wicked yourself to suppose it."
"If I have judged you wrongly, Afy, I sincerely beg your pardon. Not only myself, but the whole of West Lynne, believed you were with him; and the thought has caused me pain night and day."
"What a cannibal minded set you all must be, then!" was Afy's indignant rejoinder.
"What have you been doing ever since, then? Where have you been?"
"Never mind, I say," repeated Afy. "West Lynne has not been so complimentary to me, it appears, that I need put myself out of my way to satisfy its curiosity. I was knocking about a bit at first, but I soon settled down as steady as Old Time--as steady as you."
"Are you married?" inquired Joyce, noting the word "settled."
"Catch me marrying," retorted Afy; "I like my liberty too well. Not but what I might be induced to change my condition, if anything out of the way eligible occurred; it must be very eligible, though, to tempt me. I am what I suppose you call yourself--a lady's maid."
"Indeed!" said Joyce, much relieved. "And are you comfortable, Afy? Are you in good service?"
"Middling, for that. The pay's not amiss, but there's a great deal to do, and Lady Mount Severn's too much of a Tartar for me."
Joyce looked at her in surprise. "What have you to do with Lady Mount Severn?"
"Well, that's good! It's where I am at service."
"At Lady Mount Severn's?"
"Why not? I have been there two years. It is not a great deal longer I shall stop, though; she had too much vinegar in her for me. But it poses me to imagine what on earth could have induced you to fancy I should go off with that Dick Hare," she added, for she could not forget the grievance.
"Look at the circumstances," argued Joyce. "You both disappeared."
"But not together."
"Nearly together. There were only a few days intervening. And you had neither money nor friends."
"You don't know what I had. But I would rather have died of want on father's grave than have shared his means," continued Afy, growing passionate again.
"Where is he? Not hung, or I should have heard of it."
"He has never been seen since that night, Afy."
"Nor heard of?"
"Nor heard of. Most people think he is in Australia, or some other foreign land."
"The best place for him; the more distance he puts between him and home, the better. If he does come back, I hope he'll get his desserts--which is a rope's end. I'd go to his hanging."
"You are as bitter against him as Mr. Justice Hare. He would bring his son back to suffer, if he could."
"A cross-grained old camel!" remarked Afy, in allusion to the qualities, social and amiable, of the revered justice. "I don't defend Dick Hare--I hate him too much for that--but if his father had treated him differently, Dick might have been different. Well, let's talk of something else; the subject invariably gives me the shivers. Who is mistress here?"
"Oh, I might have guessed that. Is she as fierce as ever?"
"There is little alteration in her."
"And there won't be on this side the grave. I say, Joyce, I don't want to encounter her; she might set on at me, like she has done many a time in the old days. Little love was there lost between me and Corny Carlyle. Is Mr. Carlyle at home?"
"He will be home to dinner. I dare say you would like some tea; you shall come and take it with me and Wilson, in the nursery."
"I was thinking you might have the grace to offer me something," cried Afy. "I intend to stop till to-morrow in the neighborhood. My lady gave me two days' holiday--for she was going to see her dreadful old grandmother, where she can't take a maid--and I thought I'd use it in coming to have a look at the old place again. Don't stare at me in that blank way, as if you feared I should ask the grand loan of sleeping here. I shall sleep at the Mount Severn Arms."
"I was not glancing at such a thought, Afy. Come and take your bonnet off."
"Is the nursery full of children?"
"There is only one child in it. Miss Lucy and Master William are with the governess."