In a few minutes Miss Halcombe entered. She had a preoccupied look, and she made her apologies for being late rather absently.
"I have been detained," she said, "by a consultation with Mr. Fairlie on a domestic matter which he wished to speak to me about."
Miss Fairlie came in from the garden, and the usual morning greeting passed between us. Her hand struck colder to mine than ever. She did not look at me; and she was very pale. Even Mrs. Vesey noticed it when she entered the room a moment after.
"I suppose it is the change in the wind," said the old lady. "The winter is coming—ah, my love, the winter is coming soon!"
In her heart and in mine it had come already!
Our morning meal—once so full of pleasant good-humoured discussion of the plans for the day—was short and silent. Miss Fairlie seemed to feel the oppression of the long pauses in the conversation, and looked appealingly to her sister to fill them up. Miss Halcombe, after once or twice hesitating and checking herself, in a most uncharacteristic manner, spoke at last.
"I have seen your uncle this morning, Laura," she said. "He thinks the purple room is the one that ought to be got ready, and he confirms what I told you. Monday is the day—not Tuesday."
While these words were being spoken Miss Fairlie looked down at the table beneath her. Her fingers moved nervously among the crumbs that were scattered on the cloth. The paleness on her cheeks spread to her lips, and the lips themselves trembled visibly. I was not the only person present who noticed this. Miss Halcombe saw it, too; and at once set us the example of rising from table.
Mrs. Vesey and Miss Fairlie left the room together. The kind sorrowful blue eyes looked at me, for a moment, with the prescient sadness of a coming and a long farewell. I felt the answering pang in my own heart—the pang that told me I must lose her soon, and love her the more unchangeably for the loss.
I turned towards the garden when the door had closed on her. Miss Halcombe was standing with her hat in her hand, and her shawl over her arm, by the large window that led out to the lawn, and was looking at me attentively.
"Have you any leisure time to spare," she asked, "before you begin to work in your own room?"