While this exchange of pleasantries took place between the two Ralph Touchett wandered away a little, with his usual slouching gait, his hands in his pockets and his little rowdyish terrier at his heels. His face was turned toward the house, but his eyes were bent musingly on the lawn; so that he had been an object of observation to a person who had just made her appearance in the ample doorway for some moments before he perceived her. His attention was called to her by the conduct of his dog, who had suddenly darted forward with a little volley of shrill barks, in which the note of welcome, however, was more sensible than that of defiance. The person in question was a young lady, who seemed immediately to interpret the greeting of the small beast. He advanced with great rapidity and stood at her feet, looking up and barking hard; whereupon, without hesitation, she stooped and caught him in her hands, holding him face to face while he continued his quick chatter. His master now had had time to follow and to see that Bunchie's new friend was a tall girl in a black dress, who at first sight looked pretty. She was bareheaded, as if she were staying in the house — a fact which conveyed perplexity to the son of its master, conscious of that immunity from visitors which had for some time been rendered necessary by the latter's ill-health. Meantime the two other gentlemen had also taken note of the new-comer.
"Dear me, who's that strange woman?" Mr. Touchett had asked.
"Perhaps it's Mrs. Touchett's niece — the independent young lady," Lord Warburton suggested. "I think she must be, from the way she handles the dog."
The collie, too, had now allowed his attention to be diverted, and he trotted toward the young lady in the doorway, slowly setting his tail in motion as he went.
"But where's my wife then?" murmured the old man.
"I suppose the young lady has left her somewhere: that's a part of the independence."
The girl spoke to Ralph, smiling, while she still held up the terrier. "Is this your little dog, sir?"
"He was mine a moment ago; but you've suddenly acquired a remarkable air of property in him."
"Couldn't we share him?" asked the girl. "He's such a perfect little darling."
Ralph looked at her a moment; she was unexpectedly pretty. "You may have him altogether," he then replied.
The young lady seemed to have a great deal of confidence, both in herself and in others; but this abrupt generosity made her blush. "I ought to tell you that I'm probably your cousin," she brought out, putting down the dog. "And here's another!" she added quickly, as the collie came up.
"Probably?" the young man exclaimed, laughing. "I supposed it was quite settled! Have you arrived with my mother?"
"Yes, half an hour ago."
"And has she deposited you and departed again?"
"No, she went straight to her room, and she told me that, if I should see you, I was to say to you that you must come to her there at a quarter to seven."
The young man looked at his watch. "Thank you very much; I shall be punctual." And then he looked at his cousin. "You're very welcome here. I'm delighted to see you."
She was looking at everything, with an eye that denoted clear perception — at her companion, at the two dogs, at the two gentlemen under the trees, at the beautiful scene that surrounded her. "I've never seen anything so lovely as this place. I've been all over the house; it's too enchanting."
"I'm sorry you should have been here so long without our knowing it."
"Your mother told me that in England people arrived very quietly; so I thought it was all right. Is one of those gentlemen your father?"
"Yes, the elder one — the one sitting down," said Ralph.
The girl gave a laugh. "I don't suppose it's the other. Who's the other?"
"He's a friend of ours — Lord Warburton."
"Oh, I hoped there would be a lord; it's just like a novel!" And then, "Oh you adorable creature!" she suddenly cried, stooping down and picking up the small dog again.
She remained standing where they had met, making no offer to advance or to speak to Mr. Touchett, and while she lingered so near the threshold, slim and charming, her interlocutor wondered if she expected the old man to come and pay her his respects. American girls were used to a great deal of deference, and it had been intimated that this one had a high spirit. Indeed Ralph could see that in her face.
"Won't you come and make acquaintance with my father?" he nevertheless ventured to ask. "He's old and infirm — he doesn't leave his chair."
"Ah, poor man, I'm very sorry!" the girl exclaimed, immediately moving forward. "I got the impression from your mother that he was rather intensely active."
Ralph Touchett was silent a moment. "She hasn't seen him for a year."
"Well, he has a lovely place to sit. Come along, little hound."