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CHAPTER II

They went into the dining-room, and the table conversation strayed from one thing to another, beginning with the Herewards' short visit abroad whence they had just returned. Paris, according to Millicent Hereward, was looking quite lovely, and had been very amusing. They had gone about a good deal, and she had brought back some pretty things. Next week they were going to spend in town, and she would wear them all. She liked London in June, but she liked the country better, especially when she had been out of England and had just come back. A week in town was long enough for her, at one time. They would go up again later, for another week, perhaps. "I'm not so sure you don't look a tiny bit tired, after your Paris dissipations," said Mrs. Forestier.

Lady Hereward smiled, though in reality she was vexed. At forty-two to look tired was to look old. "If I do, it's nothing," she replied. "I always feel excited in Paris, I hardly know why; as if things would happen. I don't sleep well there, though I always enjoy it so much; and when I do sleep I have the most horrid dreams. I don't suppose in the fortnight we were in Paris, I had forty-eight hours sleep. And now the heat's oppressive, isn't it? A brooding, ominous sort of feeling in the air. I shall be quite right again, when I've had a little good sleep, and the weather changes."

"Of course you will, better than ever," said Mrs. Forestier, who was never uncomplimentary or uncomfortable for long. "As for me I adore this sort of weather. It doesn't feel ominous to me. The world's looking so divine. I love my bit of it."

"So do I, mine," Lady Hereward hastened to reply. "It was good to come to dear old Friars' Moat again, wasn't it, Ian?"

"Yes," he said, smiling pleasantly at her, if a little absent-mindedly.

Mrs. Forestier wondered if she knew what he was really thinking about. It was difficult to be sure whether Sir Ian was romantically inclined or not, and yet—he had a romantic profile, she told herself; the kind of profile and the kind of romance that one associated with knights of old, and King Arthur's Round Table and all that. The gravity of his expression when not actually smiling was very marked, but suitable to a soldier who had gone through experiences which sober and age a man before his time. Sir Ian's eyes looked rather wistful, too, if you met them unexpectedly, catching his soul unprepared for attack, as it were; but very likely this did not mean anything as exciting as it appeared to mean. He was a happy and fortunate man, with a charming and devoted wife whom he must have married for love, since she had no money, and he had not been poor; a man who thoroughly enjoyed the country life to which he had settled down after inheriting his uncle's title and place, a few years ago.

"We walked through the woods, and we're going to walk home," went on Millicent Hereward.

"Oh!" said Nina Forestier. "Well, if you're planning to do that, perhaps I ought to tell you something I'm supposed not to tell. I've set my heart on keeping you as long as I can, and showing you the rose-garden. It's quite a dream now, yet if you want to walk home—how long does it take you from here to Friars' Moat?"

"One could do it in forty minutes," said Sir Ian.

"But one doesn't if one is with one's wife, and wanting to enjoy oneself," Millicent finished for him. "One does it in an hour. What is it you ought to tell me and are supposed not to tell?"

"Why—Maud Ricardo mentioned that she was going to take Terry over to pay you a surprise call about half-past four, the day after you came back from Paris. I think she rather wanted Terry to burst upon you; and yet, she'd hate to miss you, of course. I certainly shan't let you leave me till long after three, and if you don't want to miss them, won't you change your mind, and let me send you over in my motor, just in time to arrive by a quarter-past four? You can motor in ten or fifteen minutes."

"No, thank you very much, I can't give up the walk," said Millicent, slowly and rather thoughtfully. "I think we must start early and take plenty of time."

"I'm almost sorry I told you about Maud and Terry Ricardo," said Mrs. Forestier. "But as Maud mentioned her idea to me, she might think it spiteful if I were the one to make you miss her and her cousin."

"If the call was to be a surprise, she couldn't have blamed us for being out," said Sir Ian. He was a very hospitable man, yet he spoke as if he would not be sorry for an excuse to miss the visitors.

"She would blame us, though," said Millicent, "for she would ask where we were; and when she heard we'd been lunching here, she'd be sure to think Nina had told us, and that we'd stopped out late simply because we didn't care about seeing them."

"Who would tell her?" asked Sir Ian. "Not one of the footmen."

"She would very likely ask to see Miss Verney."

"By the way, Miss Verney didn't once come over here while you were gone," said Mrs. Forestier, "though I begged her to drop in any day, or every day, to tea, thinking she might be lonely."

"Nora isn't the sort of girl to be lonely, while she has the run of the library," remarked Sir Ian. "Still, I wonder she didn't come over."

"She is sulking," said Lady Hereward.

"Isn't that rather an unkind thing to say?" asked Sir Ian.

"Not at all," Millicent answered somewhat sharply. "Nora doesn't care who knows. Indeed, I think she likes people to know that she's furious with me."

"Why, I thought she adored you—as everybody does—and even a little more," exclaimed Mrs. Forestier. "I'm sure she ought to. You've been an angel to her—and so has Sir Ian."

Sir Ian smiled at the suggestion, as concerned himself: "One would have to be decidedly fiendish not to be good to Nora."

"Oh, of course she's clever and pretty, and all that," admitted Mrs. Forestier, "but the fact remains that you and Milly came forward when she was left without a penny in the world, and nobody else was inclined to bother much about her, though she had crowds of relatives."

"Her relatives are all poor," said Lady Hereward. "We were glad to do what we could for her."

"And we've been well paid for what we have done," said Sir Ian. "Milly took her, it's true, not because she particularly felt the need of having a companion, but because she was heartily sorry for the poor child when the vicar died, leaving nothing. However, now that Nora has been nearly six months in the house, I'm sure Milly would hardly know what to do without her. She s made herself useful—almost indispensable in a thousand ways, little and big; and not only is she pretty and clever, as you say, but she is good. A most unusual girl."

"I should like to have you as my champion, if I needed one," laughed Nina Forestier.

"Nora doesn't need a champion, though," protested Lady Hereward. "Nobody is oppressing her. Nobody is unjust to her. On the contrary, everybody is very good and considerate. I am just as fond of her as ever, though I am hurt, and think I have a right to be hurt, because she has entirely changed to me in the last two months. It isn't my fault that she fell in love with the one most undesirable man in the world—her world, anyhow; and he being what he is, it isn't my fault that my very love for the girl prevented me from handing her over to him with my blessing."

"Milly is quite right, isn't she, Sir Ian?" said Mrs. Forestier, soothingly, seeing, or fancying she saw, that tears were not far from her friend's eyes.

"Quite right," responded Sir Ian, smiling at his wife. "She usually is right. By the way, she has brought back a present for all her pets in the village, from old bodies in their second childhood, to young bodies just beginning their first."

"She would!" exclaimed Nina Forestier, aware that the subject was changed. "How they all worship her! But then, as I said, everybody does."

"Not everybody," answered Lady Hereward, looking out of the window with a far-away look, which went past the green lawn and the flower border blazing in the sun.

"She has brought a present for you, too," Sir Ian went on.

"Only a quaint old seal I picked up at an antique shop," said his wife. "It's nothing."

Mrs. Forestier protested that it was sure to be lovely, and even if it weren't, in itself, it would be lovely to her as a proof—unneeded, really—that Millicent never forgot her friends.

After that, they talked about some of those friends, great and humble; Mrs. Forestier told of the small happenings of county and village, while the Herewards had been away; and altogether it was a very pleasant luncheon. When it was over Sir Ian left the table with the ladies; they had coffee on the loggia which opened out from Mrs. Forestier's boudoir, and later, gave a few moments to the rose-garden, but only a few, for Lady Hereward insisted that they must not miss the Ricardos. As she and Sir Ian walked away together, with their pleasant air of good comradeship, Nina Forestier, looking after them from the loggia, thought how punctiliously conscientious her friend was. It was not probable that Milly could really be pleased at the idea of seeing Teresina Ricardo, and it would have been easy enough to have missed the intended "surprise visit" without appearing to have avoided it intentionally. Yet, rather than run the risk of seeming inhospitable to a woman who had not the slightest claim upon her, Milly would cut short her visit to Riding Wood. To be sure, she might have stopped a little longer, and still have reached home in time, if she had accepted the offer of Mrs. Forestier's motor. But, if one could get at her real reason or refusing it, very likely it would turn out to be consideration for the chauffeur, or something else absurdly unselfish, rather than her own desire for a second walk through the woods.

"However," thought Mrs. Forestier, as she saw the two tall, erect figures disappear over the brow of the slight hill which separated them from the long stretch of wood, "however, Milly is so desperately in love with Sir Ian after all these thirteen years of being his wife, that I believe she actually enjoys a tête-à-tête with him better than anything else. He's perfectly delightful to her, too, and they're the greatest friends. Yet I wonder if he's as much in love with her as she is with him, or——

She did not finish the sentence in her mind, but let it break off vaguely as she lost sight of Sir Ian and Lady Hereward, walking companionably together, shoulder to shoulder.