As Mr. Wickfield glanced towards her, sitting at the tea table by Agnes, she seemed to me to avoid his look with such unwonted hesitation and timidity, that his attention became fixed upon her, as if something were suggested to his thoughts.
'There is a post come in from India, I observe,' he said, after a short silence.
'By the by! and letters from Mr. Jack Maldon!' said the Doctor.
'Indeed!' 'Poor dear Jack!' said Mrs. Markleham, shaking her head. 'That trying climate! — like living, they tell me, on a sand-heap, underneath a burning-glass! He looked strong, but he wasn't. My dear Doctor, it was his spirit, not his constitution, that he ventured on so boldly. Annie, my dear, I am sure you must perfectly recollect that your cousin never was strong — not what can be called ROBUST, you know,' said Mrs. Markleham, with emphasis, and looking round upon us generally, ' — from the time when my daughter and himself were children together, and walking about, arm-in-arm, the livelong day.'
Annie, thus addressed, made no reply.
'Do I gather from what you say, ma'am, that Mr. Maldon is ill?' asked Mr. Wickfield.
'Ill!' replied the Old Soldier. 'My dear sir, he's all sorts of things.'
'Except well?' said Mr. Wickfield.
'Except well, indeed!' said the Old Soldier. 'He has had dreadful strokes of the sun, no doubt, and jungle fevers and agues, and every kind of thing you can mention. As to his liver,' said the Old Soldier resignedly, 'that, of course, he gave up altogether, when he first went out!'
'Does he say all this?' asked Mr. Wickfield.
'Say? My dear sir,' returned Mrs. Markleham, shaking her head and her fan, 'you little know my poor Jack Maldon when you ask that question. Say? Not he. You might drag him at the heels of four wild horses first.'
'Mama!' said Mrs. Strong.
'Annie, my dear,' returned her mother, 'once for all, I must really beg that you will not interfere with me, unless it is to confirm what I say. You know as well as I do that your cousin Maldon would be dragged at the heels of any number of wild horses — why should I confine myself to four! I WON'T confine myself to four — eight, sixteen, two-and-thirty, rather than say anything calculated to overturn the Doctor's plans.'
'Wickfield's plans,' said the Doctor, stroking his face, and looking penitently at his adviser. 'That is to say, our joint plans for him. I said myself, abroad or at home.'
'And I said' added Mr. Wickfield gravely, 'abroad. I was the means of sending him abroad. It's my responsibility.'
'Oh! Responsibility!' said the Old Soldier. 'Everything was done for the best, my dear Mr. Wickfield; everything was done for the kindest and best, we know. But if the dear fellow can't live there, he can't live there. And if he can't live there, he'll die there, sooner than he'll overturn the Doctor's plans. I know him,' said the Old Soldier, fanning herself, in a sort of calm prophetic agony, 'and I know he'll die there, sooner than he'll overturn the Doctor's plans.'
'Well, well, ma'am,' said the Doctor cheerfully, 'I am not bigoted to my plans, and I can overturn them myself. I can substitute some other plans. If Mr. Jack Maldon comes home on account of ill health, he must not be allowed to go back, and we must endeavour to make some more suitable and fortunate provision for him in this country.'
Mrs. Markleham was so overcome by this generous speech — which, I need not say, she had not at all expected or led up to — that she could only tell the Doctor it was like himself, and go several times through that operation of kissing the sticks of her fan, and then tapping his hand with it. After which she gently chid her daughter Annie, for not being more demonstrative when such kindnesses were showered, for her sake, on her old playfellow; and entertained us with some particulars concerning other deserving members of her family, whom it was desirable to set on their deserving legs.
All this time, her daughter Annie never once spoke, or lifted up her eyes. All this time, Mr. Wickfield had his glance upon her as she sat by his own daughter's side. It appeared to me that he never thought of being observed by anyone; but was so intent upon her, and upon his own thoughts in connexion with her, as to be quite absorbed. He now asked what Mr. Jack Maldon had actually written in reference to himself, and to whom he had written?
'Why, here,' said Mrs. Markleham, taking a letter from the chimney-piece above the Doctor's head, 'the dear fellow says to the Doctor himself — where is it? Oh! — "I am sorry to inform you that my health is suffering severely, and that I fear I may be reduced to the necessity of returning home for a time, as the only hope of restoration." That's pretty plain, poor fellow! His only hope of restoration! But Annie's letter is plainer still. Annie, show me that letter again.'