"Of all those we shall lose this year she's the one we shall miss most," the younger woman murmured deferentially.
"Ah, yes, we shall talk long of her," said the other. "We shall hold her up to the new ones." And at this the good sister appeared to find her spectacles dim; while her companion, after fumbling a moment, presently drew forth a pocket-handkerchief of durable texture.
"It's not certain you'll lose her; nothing's settled yet," their host rejoined quickly; not as if to anticipate their tears, but in the tone of a man saying what was most agreeable to himself. "We should be very happy to believe that. Fifteen is very young to leave us."
"Oh," exclaimed the gentleman with more vivacity than he had yet used, "it is not I who wish to take her away. I wish you could keep her always!"
"Ah, monsieur," said the elder sister, smiling and getting up, "good as she is, she's made for the world. Le monde y gagnera."
"If all the good people were hidden away in convents how would the world get on?" her companion softly enquired, rising also.
This was a question of a wider bearing than the good woman apparently supposed; and the lady in spectacles took a harmonising view by saying comfortably: "Fortunately there are good people everywhere."
"If you're going there will be two less here," her host remarked gallantly.
For this extravagant sally his simple visitors had no answer, and they simply looked at each other in decent deprecation; but their confusion was speedily covered by the return of the young girl with two large bunches of roses — one of them all white, the other red.
"I give you your choice, mamman Catherine," said the child. "It's only the colour that's different, mamman Justine; there are just as many roses in one bunch as in the other."
The two sisters turned to each other, smiling and hesitating, with "Which will you take?" and "No, it's for you to choose."
"I'll take the red, thank you," said Catherine in the spectacles. "I'm so red myself. They'll comfort us on our way back to Rome."
"Ah, they won't last," cried the young girl. "I wish I could give you something that would last!"
"You've given us a good memory of yourself, my daughter. That will last!"
"I wish nuns could wear pretty things. I would give you my blue beads," the child went on.
"And do you go back to Rome to-night?" her father enquired.
"Yes, we take the train again. We've so much to do la-bas."
"Are you not tired?"
"We are never tired."
"Ah, my sister, sometimes," murmured the junior votaress.
"Not to-day, at any rate. We have rested too well here. Que Dieu vows garde, ma fine."
Their host, while they exchanged kisses with his daughter, went forward to open the door through which they were to pass; but as he did so he gave a slight exclamation, and stood looking beyond. The door opened into a vaulted ante-chamber, as high as a chapel and paved with red tiles; and into this antechamber a lady had just been admitted by a servant, a lad in shabby livery, who was now ushering her toward the apartment in which our friends were grouped. The gentleman at the door, after dropping his exclamation, remained silent; in silence too the lady advanced. He gave her no further audible greeting and offered her no hand, but stood aside to let her pass into the saloon. At the threshold she hesitated. "Is there any one?" she asked.
"Some one you may see."
She went in and found herself confronted with the two nuns and their pupil, who was coming forward, between them, with a hand in the arm of each. At the sight of the new visitor they all paused, and the lady, who had also stopped, stood looking at them. The young girl gave a little soft cry: "Ah, Madame Merle!"
The visitor had been slightly startled, but her manner the next instant was none the less gracious. "Yes, it's Madame Merle, come to welcome you home." And she held out two hands to the girl, who immediately came up to her, presenting her forehead to be kissed. Madame Merle saluted this portion of her charming little person and then stood smiling at the two nuns. They acknowledged her smile with a decent obeisance, but permitted themselves no direct scrutiny of this imposing, brilliant woman, who seemed to bring in with her something of the radiance of the outer world. "These ladies have brought my daughter home, and now they return to the convent," the gentleman explained.
"Ah, you go back to Rome? I've lately come from there. It's very lovely now," said Madame Merle.
The good sisters, standing with their hands folded into their sleeves, accepted this statement uncritically; and the master of the house asked his new visitor how long it was since she had left Rome. "She came to see me at the convent," said the young girl before the lady addressed had time to reply.
"I've been more than once, Pansy," Madame Merle declared. "Am I not your great friend in Rome?"