“Good-night!” he said, with a nod and a sidelong glance.
Sir Stephen went back and poured himself out another liqueur glass of brandy and heaved a sigh of relief. But it would have been one of apprehension if he could have seen the cruel smile which distorted Falconer’s face as he went through the exquisitely beautiful hall and corridors to the luxurious room which had been allotted to him.
There was in the smile and the cold glitter of the eyes the kind of look which the cat wears when it plays with a mouse.
Ida walked home through the rain very thoughtfully: but not sadly; for though it was still pelting in the uncompromising lake fashion, she was half conscious of a strange lightness of the heart, a strange brightness in herself, and even in the rain-swept view, which vaguely surprised and puzzled her. The feeling was not vivid enough to be happiness, but it was the nearest thing to it.
And without realising it, she thought, all the way home, of Stafford Orme. Her life had been so secluded, so solitary and friendless, that he had come into it as a sudden and unexpected flash of sunlight in a drear November day. It seemed to her extraordinary that she should have met him so often, still more extraordinary the offer he had made that morning. She asked herself, as she went with quick, light step along the hills, why he had done it; why he, who was rich and had so many friends—no doubt the Villa would be full of them—should find any pleasure in learning to herd cattle and count sheep, to ride about the dale with only a young girl for company.
If anyone had whispered, “It is because he prefers that young girl’s society to any other’s; it is because he wants to be with you, not from any desire to learn farming,” she would have been more than surprised, would have received this offer of a solution of the mystery with a smile of incredulity; for there had been no candid friend to tell her that she possessed the fatal gift of beauty; that she was one of those upon whom the eyes of man cannot look without a stirring of the heart, and a quickening of the pulse. Vanity is a strong plant, and it flourishes in every soil; but it had found no root in Ida’s nature. She was too absorbed in the round of her daily tasks, in the care of her father and her efforts to keep the great place from going to rack and ruin, to think of herself; and if her glass had ever whispered that she was one of the loveliest of the daughters of Eve, she had turned a deaf ear to it.
No; she assured herself that it was just a whim of Mr. Orme’s, a passing fancy and caprice which would soon be satisfied, and that he would tire of it after a few days, perhaps hours. Of course, she was wrong to humour the whim; but it had been hard to refuse him, hard to seem churlish and obstinate after he had been so kind on the night her father had frightened her by his sleep-walking; and it had been still harder because she had been conscious of a certain pleasure in the thought that she should see him again.