As Stafford, flinging the reins to one of the grooms, got down, he caught sight of a line of liveried servants in the hall, and he frowned slightly.
Like most young Englishmen, he hated ostentation, which he designated as “fuss.”
“Rub ’em down well, Pottinger,” he said, and he leisurely patted the horses while the gorgeous footmen watched with solemn impressiveness.
“We’ve brought ’em along pretty well,” he said, turning to Howard, who stood beside him with a fine and cynical smile; then he went up the white marble steps slowly, carefully ignoring the footmen who had drawn themselves into a line as if they were a guard of honour, specially drilled to receive him.
Followed by Howard, his cynical smile still lingering about his thin lips, Stafford entered the hall.
It was Oriental in shape and design, with a marble fountain in the centre, and carved arches before the various passages. The principal staircase was also of white marble with an Indian carpet of vivid crimson. Palms reared their tall and graceful heads at intervals, shading statuary in the prevailing white marble. Hangings of rose colour broke the sameness and accentuated the purity of the predominate whiteness.
Howard looked round with an admiration which obliterated his usual cynicism.
“Beautiful!” he murmured.
But Stafford frowned. The luxury, the richness of the place, though chaste, jarred on him; why, he could not have told.
Suddenly, as they were making their way through the lines of richly liveried servants, a curtain at one of the openings was thrown aside, and a gentleman came out to meet them.
He was rather a tall man, with white hair, but with eyebrows and moustache of jet-black. His eyes were brilliant but sharp, and he moved with the ease and alertness of youth.
There was something in his face, in its expression, which indicated strength and power; something in his manner, in his smile, peculiarly electric and sympathetic.
Howard stopped and drew back, but Stafford advanced, and Sir Stephen caught him by the hand and held it.
“My dear Stafford, my dear boy!” he said, in a deep but musical voice. “I expected you hours ago; I have been waiting! But better late than never. Who is this? Your friend, Mr. Howard? Certainly! How do you do, Mr. Howard! Welcome to our little villa on the lake!”
Stafford’s heart warmed at his father’s greeting; indeed it would have been a very callous heart if it had not; for the emotion of genuine affection shone in Sir Stephen’s brilliant eyes, and rang in his musical voice. Stafford was all the more impressed and touched, because the emotion was unusual, or rather, the expression of it.