The Trials of Tony/"Man Proposes ..."
"Man Proposes ..."
THEY'RE simply lovely!" cried Dinah.
She bent her graceful little figure till her nose was deep in the vase of flowers, and luxuriously drank in their fragrance.
"They are lovely," Lady Custerd promptly agreed.
"How awfully nice of him," said the girl, with the faintest rise of color.
"It's not every one Tony honors with these attentions, I can assure you," smiled Lady Custerd. "In fact, I never knew him to pick a flower before."
Lord Raymes' charming ward smiled, too, but at the flowers, not at Lady Custerd. She was only just eighteen, and she had never before received gifts from a tall young man with blue eyes and a brushed-up mustache, and the son of a peer, moreover.
"He is such a dear boy!" said Lady Custerd.
She felt as pleased as the girl. Miss Dinah Lowndes was very rich, indeed, and Tony's position critical. Surely if the poor boy's luck were ever going to change, now was the time!
"I don't quite understand him," said Dinah in a moment.
"Yes," his aunt admitted; "there's a wonderful depth in Tony's character."
"And yet I don't know that he strikes me as exactly deep."
"Oh, not in a bad sense! I only mean that he has a great deal in him."
The girl seemed to muse.
"I suppose he must have," she said; "but, of course, I haven't had much experience in drawing men out."
"That's the only reason, dear," Lady Custerd assured her with a confident smile. "But if you want a proof that he has romance in him, just look at these flowers!"
With happy tact the good lady left her alone with this reflection.
On the stairs she met her brother-in-law ascending with a curiously-stealthy tread, and apparently holding something concealed behind his back.
"Dinah seen the flowers?" he inquired eagerly.
"Yes. Isn't it charming of Tony?"
He smiled strangely.
"Devilish," he agreed.
"What are you holding behind your back?" she asked.
He looked round warily, and discovering no one in sight, revealed another bouquet.
"At her age one can't pile it on too thick," he remarked.
Lady Custerd started.
"What!" she cried. "You don't mean, Raymes—you can't mean it was you——?"
"My dear Gwendolen, you didn't suppose poor Tony had the sense to send her those flowers himself?"
"But, Raymes," she gasped, "that—that is deceiving the poor girl."
"All's fair in love," he quoted. "Take them!" he added hastily, and thrust the bouquet into her hands.
A young man had just appeared. He was barely twenty, slender and pleasantly good-looking, with a diffidently well-bred manner. Lord Raymes regarded him coldly.
"Well, Lawrence," he inquired, "what are you doing this morning?"
The young man's color rose.
"Oh—er—nothing in particular," he hesitated.
"Why don't you get hold of Algie and have a game of billiards, or try the golf course? If the mowing-machine's mended, the greens ought to be cut this week."
Again the young man hesitated.
"Miss Lowndes spoke of playing golf——" he began.
"She is otherwise engaged," said his host with disconcerting promptness; "go and try Algie."
The unhappy young man retired. He began to wish sincerely that his father had not proposed to his old friend, Lord Raymes, that his son should spend a week with him. Admiral Foster had thought it would be such a pleasant change for Lawrence from a summer vacation spent at the seaside. He would meet nice people, see good society, and enjoy the enviable sensation of visiting a famous country house. But somehow or other the poor youth found himself apparently in everybody's way—except Miss Lowndes'. And circumstances seemed to conspire to keep him out of hers.
"That young fellow is getting on my nerves," said Lord Raymes. "What the deuce is one to do with him? He's shy of me and he's too brainy for Tony and Algie; and as to letting him play golf with Dinah, I'm hanged if he's going to! Nature has given Tony quite enough to contend with. I wish, Gwendolen, you'd take him away and amuse him."
"But I don't amuse him," she replied.
"Damn!" said his lordship irritably.
With his customary politeness he immediately apologized for the slip.
"Though at the same time," he said, "you must admit that marrying Tony is trying work. However, I think I've brought him up to the scratch at last."
"Really!" she exclaimed. "Oh, I'm so glad! I only hope he won't lose any more time."
"I have been perfectly frank with him," said his father. "I told him plainly his only chance was to pot her sitting."
Lady Custerd opened her eyes.
"I wish you'd express yourself intelligibly, Raymes."
"I mean," he replied, "that he must bag her before she finds him out. No woman who knew poor Tony could ever conceivably marry him. In fact, I told him so. I've just spent the most refreshing half-hour in explaining Anthony to himself. He's got to pop the question before lunch or look for another father. That was my ultimatum."
This was one of the few occasions when Lady Custerd felt sincerely relieved to think that Raymes seldom meant exactly what he said.
Yet he had evidently reported his conversation with some approximation to accuracy, for when Tony regained the shelter of the billiard-room his first words were:
"Dear boy, I'm hooked at last."
"Bravo!" cried Algie. "No gettin' out of it this time; what?"
"It's my duty," replied Tony; "I've got to take the little girl, I'm afraid."
"Jolly, rippin' little thing she is," said Algie consolingly.
"Oh, rippin' and all that—yes. And the guv'nor seems keen on it."
"What did he say?"
"Oh, I dunno; he just jawed away. Sittin' up so late doesn't agree with me. I was half asleep all the time. The guv'nor's deuced borin' when he gets on the gas."
"You don't remember what he gassed about?"
"Not a word—except something about doin' it before lunch."
"Great news!" cried Algie.
At this point they were interrupted by the diffident young man.
"Hullo!" said Tony coldly.
Lawrence regarded them without enthusiasm.
"Neither of you wants to play billiards, I suppose?"
"Not me," said Tony.
"Nor me," said Algie.
"Care for golf?"
"Not much," said Tony.
"No, thanks," said Algie.
Lawrence turned away silently.
"We're trying to think," explained Tony.
Lawrence looked at him curiously.
"Do you find it difficult?" he inquired.
The twain watched his exit in silence. They remembered he was a scholar of Balliol, and made allowances for a certain inanity in his conversation. But as for treating him like a sportsman and human being—how was it possible?
"She's pots of money, I suppose," Algie resumed.
Tony smiled with lordly indifference.
"All the same, it's desperate hard work proposin'," he remarked.
"At it like a sportsman! If you're in form, dear boy, it won't take you more than five minutes."
"I'm not at my best," the ardent lover confessed, "too beastly sleepy."
"Have a whisky and soda."
He sauntered toward the door.
"They're stickin' her in the drawing-room—waitin' for me now, I suppose," he explained.
"Good luck!" cried Algie. "Play you a couple of hundred up when you come back; what?"
"Right you are; you can be spottin' the red."
"There goes a deuced-fine, old-fashioned sportsman!" said Algie to himself enthusiastically. "Gad, he's the best I ever met!"
As her admirer entered the drawing-room, Dinah looked up out of a very bright pair of eyes. She knew why she had been sent to violate the solitude of that apartment. In fact, she had merely been wondering when some one else was going to appear.
"Hullo!" said Tony. "You here; what? Fust rate!"
This was a dashing beginning and fluttered the little lady's heart distinctly. A Napoleon among wooers had come to storm her fortress! Yet she remained demure.
"Yes," she smiled; "I am here."
"Right you are," quoth Tony. "Ha, ha! And so'm I. Rather a coincidence; what?"
Dashing as ever, she thought; yet somehow not quite so dangerous.
"I don't think it's so very extraordinary," she replied; and then realized with horror that this was a very ambiguous thing to say; it might be read as a tribute to her own charms.
"Well—ha—more or less, don't you know; what?"
She breathed more freely. He had let her off: yet was it through magnanimity alone?
"What do you mean by more or less?" she inquired, with a hint of twinkle in her eye.
"What do I mean? Oh, just what one—er—usually does mean, don't you know?"
She remembered his aunt's assurance. Could this be a first glimpse into the unplumbed depths of Tony's soul?
"You are too deep for me," she smiled.
"Deep; what? Me deep? Oh, hang it!"
He played with his virile mustache and gazed at her in silence out of those amiable blue eyes. Suddenly it seemed to her that their expression was remarkably like some animal's. What animal was it? She tried to think.
"Aren't you deep?" she inquired.
"Ain't I? Ha—well—I dunno."
She knew the animal now! It was a cow.
"Oh, by the way, thank you very much for the flowers," she said.
His eyes opened still wider.
"Flowers? What d'ye mean? Rottin' me, are you; what?"
Her eyes began to open now.
"The lovely flowers you sent me—didn't you?"
Dimly he began to recall something his father had told him—something he was to be sure to remember. He wished he hadn't felt so infernally sleepy; he might have known what she was talking about.
"Oh—er—by jove, yes—I know. The Guv'nor mentioned—that's to say—h'm."
The most curious suspicion stole into Dinah's mind. She asked demurely:
"Did Lord Raymes pick the flowers for you?"
Tony was puzzled, positively puzzled.
"Ha, ha!" he laughed. "Ha, ha, ha! I say, don't you know, that's goin' it pretty rapid! Ha, ha, ha!"
He flattered himself he had cleared that fence in pretty good style.
"What is the real name of those flowers?" she asked.
He went at it again courageously.
"Ha, ha, ha! Mean to say you don't know yourself; what? Ha, ha!"
"I only know the Latin name," she said gravely; "what is the English?"
This was a dreadfully difficult jump. Again he stared: for quite a minute on end now. It was beginning to get embarrassing when she was relieved to see the blue eyes blink. They blinked again, and then closed altogether. His head fell forward and then jerked up again.
"Hullo!" he said. "Goin' off to sleep, by George, ha, ha!"
Relentlessly she pushed him at the fence.
"You were telling me the name of those flowers."
"Flowers, you say; what? They were—er—daisies—a kind o' daisies. No, by Jove, not that. Er—I say, I'm awfully sleepy this morning, somehow."
Dinah's heart entirely ceased to flutter. She had discovered what was in this dangerous Tony.
"Wouldn't you like to put up your feet on the sofa?" she suggested.
Her discoveries of his qualities were not yet at an end, she found. In simple good faith he threw up his legs and laid his head upon a cushion.
"Good idea!" he said. "I say, just give me forty winks and I'll be fresh as a bird. Don't go away; I've got something to say to you; but it'll keep for five minutes."
Within ten seconds of the cessation of his voice she heard the first snore.
For a minute or two Dinah studied her slumbering wooer with a very curious expression on her pretty face. She seemed to be reconsidering something. And then a shadow darkened the French window. She turned quickly.
"Hush!" she whispered.
It was the diffident young man who entered, but at the sight of Dinah his diffidence seemed forgotten in some stronger feeling. When he spied Tony his emotion in turn altered.
"What's happening?" he asked with bated breath.
Dinah gave him a little look that uplifted Lawrence's heart strangely. She seemed to be dumbly appealing to him.
"I am waiting for a proposal," she whispered.
He gazed at her.
"As soon as he wakes up."
The courage of despair possessed him.
"Are you going to——?" he asked.
She shrugged her shoulders, and Lawrence gazed harder than ever. There was something in the air—some form of wireless wave—that told him the moment was charged with possibilities. He felt the forelock of opportunity brushing against his hand. But should an impecunious young scholar of Balliol seize it? She was an heiress—dreadfully rich—and were not heiresses reserved for the younger sons of peers and such like? He had been brought up in that belief by a true-blue Tory parent.
"Have you—have you—quite decided?" he procrastinated.
Why are you interested?" she asked.
"Because—because——" The diffident young man stopped, and then suddenly stepped boldly up to the sleeping sportsman and held his hand just above his shoulder.
"Do you want me to wake him up for you?" he demanded.
"No!" she implored him.
And then Lawrence grasped the forelock.
About five minutes later Anthony gradually awoke. There was the deuce of a funny sound in the room. Dreamily he puzzled it out. He was in bed—no, by Jove, he was on the drawing-room sofa. And there was that Lowndes girl waiting. What the deuce was she doing making a noise like that? Gad! he heard a voice! He raised his head and beheld his prospective fiancée locked fast in the arms of Lawrence Foster.
"By George—I say!" he expostulated.
They had the grace to desist, but not to look in the least ashamed of themselves. The ensuing pause was broken by the scholar of Balliol.
"I'm sorry for disturbing you," he said politely; "were you still trying to think?"
Dimly Tony began to suspect that there was something worse than queerness about this beastly fellow's manner. He decided to ignore him altogether. Directing the same steady stare upon the faithless lady, he observed:
"Dash it, you know."
"Dash what?" she inquired.
Her tone also displeased him. There was a want of respect about it.
"Well, I mean this is a bit of a bore."
"Not for me," she assured him with her daintiest smile.
"I don't call it sportin'; not while I was asleep."
"I don't think it sporting of you to go to sleep," she replied.
"I disagree," he retorted with dignity; "and, anyhow, there's no object in keepin' awake any longer, I presume; what?"
"None at all," she assured him. "You may go off again whenever you like."
A snore from that prince of sportsmen acknowledged her kindness.