"Thank God I am not ill, sir; I hope I know my duty too well to go panting and coughing about the house. But I am an old woman, sir, and it is as an old woman that I venture to speak to you."
"Oh, speak out," said Newman, curiously. "You needn't be afraid of me."
"Yes, sir. I think you are kind. I have seen you before."
"On the stairs, you mean?"
"Yes, sir. When you have been coming to see the countess. I have taken the liberty of noticing that you come often."
"Oh yes; I come very often," said Newman, laughing. "You need not have been wide-awake to notice that."
"I have noticed it with pleasure, sir," said the ancient tire-woman, gravely. And she stood looking at Newman with a strange expression of face. The old instinct of deference and humility was there; the habit of decent self-effacement and knowledge of her "own place." But there mingled with it a certain mild audacity, born of the occasion and of a sense, probably, of Newman's unprecedented approachableness, and, beyond this, a vague indifference to the old proprieties; as if my lady's own woman had at last begun to reflect that, since my lady had taken another person, she had a slight reversionary property in herself.
"You take a great interest in the family?" said Newman.
"A deep interest, sir. Especially in the countess."
"I am glad of that," said Newman. And in a moment he added, smiling, "So do I!"
"So I suppose, sir. We can't help noticing these things and having our ideas; can we, sir?"
"You mean as a servant?" said Newman.
"Ah, there it is, sir. I am afraid that when I let my thoughts meddle with such matters I am no longer a servant. But I am so devoted to the countess; if she were my own child I couldn't love her more. That is how I come to be so bold, sir. They say you want to marry her."
Newman eyed his interlocutress and satisfied himself that she was not a gossip, but a zealot; she looked anxious, appealing, discreet. "It is quite true," he said. "I want to marry Madame de Cintre."
"And to take her away to America?"
"I will take her wherever she wants to go."
"The farther away the better, sir!" exclaimed the old woman, with sudden intensity. But she checked herself, and, taking up a paper-weight in mosaic, began to polish it with her black apron. "I don't mean anything against the house or the family, sir. But I think a great change would do the poor countess good. It is very sad here."
"Yes, it's not very lively," said Newman. "But Madame de Cintre is gay herself."
"She is everything that is good. You will not be vexed to hear that she has been gayer for a couple of months past than she had been in many a day before."
Newman was delighted to gather this testimony to the prosperity of his suit, but he repressed all violent marks of elation. "Has Madame de Cintre been in bad spirits before this?" he asked.
"Poor lady, she had good reason. M. de Cintre was no husband for a sweet young lady like that. And then, as I say, it has been a sad house. It is better, in my humble opinion, that she were out of it. So, if you will excuse me for saying so, I hope she will marry you."
"I hope she will!" said Newman.
"But you must not lose courage, sir, if she doesn't make up her mind at once. That is what I wanted to beg of you, sir. Don't give it up, sir. You will not take it ill if I say it's a great risk for any lady at any time; all the more when she has got rid of one bad bargain. But if she can marry a good, kind, respectable gentleman, I think she had better make up her mind to it. They speak very well of you, sir, in the house, and, if you will allow me to say so, I like your face. You have a very different appearance from the late count, he wasn't five feet high. And they say your fortune is beyond everything. There's no harm in that. So I beseech you to be patient, sir, and bide your time. If I don't say this to you, sir, perhaps no one will. Of course it is not for me to make any promises. I can answer for nothing. But I think your chance is not so bad, sir. I am nothing but a weary old woman in my quiet corner, but one woman understands another, and I think I make out the countess. I received her in my arms when she came into the world and her first wedding day was the saddest of my life. She owes it to me to show me another and a brighter one. If you will hold firm, sir — and you look as if you would — I think we may see it."
"I am much obliged to you for your encouragement," said Newman, heartily. "One can't have too much. I mean to hold firm. And if Madame de Cintre marries me you must come and live with her."
The old woman looked at him strangely, with her soft, lifeless eyes. "It may seem a heartless thing to say, sir, when one has been forty years in a house, but I may tell you that I should like to leave this place."
"Why, it's just the time to say it," said Newman, fervently. "After forty years one wants a change."
"You are very kind, sir;" and this faithful servant dropped another curtsey and seemed disposed to retire. But she lingered a moment and gave a timid, joyless smile. Newman was disappointed, and his fingers stole half shyly half irritably into his waistcoat-pocket. His informant noticed the movement. "Thank God I am not a Frenchwoman," she said. "If I were, I would tell you with a brazen simper, old as I am, that if you please, monsieur, my information is worth something. Let me tell you so in my own decent English way. It IS worth something."