Willoughby took in the whole intolerable picture, and yet spoke with kindliness. "Well, Esther! I'm not so late, after all. I hope you did not feel the time dull by yourself?" Then he explained the reason of his absence. He had met a friend he had not seen for a couple of years, who had insisted on taking him home to dine.
His wife gave no sign of having heard him; she kept her eyes rivetted on the paper before her.
"You received my wire, of course," Willoughby went on, "and did not wait?"
Now she crushed the newspaper up with a passionate movement, and threw it from her. She raised her head, showing cheeks blazing with anger, and dark, sullen, unflinching eyes.
"I did wyte then!" she cried. "I wyted till near eight before I got your old telegraph! I s'pose that's what you call the manners of a 'gentleman', to keep your wife mewed up here, while you go gallivantin' off with your fine friends?"
Whenever Esther was angry, which was often, she taunted Willoughby with being "a gentleman," although this was the precise point about him which at other times found most favour in her eyes. But to-night she was envenomed by the idea he had been enjoying himself without her, stung by fear lest he should have been in company with some other woman.
Willoughby, hearing the taunt, resigned himself to the inevitable. Nothing that he could do might now avert the breaking storm, all his words would only be twisted into fresh griefs. But sad experience had taught him that to take refuge in silence was more fatal still. When Esther was in such a mood as this it was best to supply the fire with fuel, that, through the very violence of the conflagration, it might the sooner burn itself out.
So he said what soothing things he could, and Esther caught them up, disfigured them, and flung them back at him with