“You have been very good to me,” he said. Adrian raised startled eyes. “Very good. I am quite aware that you dislike me”—he hesitated and the ghost of a smile hovered about his lips—“and I have always disliked you. Please!” He raised a silencing hand. “You don’t mind my saying so? No. Very well, then, there is something I want to tell you. Afterward I will never mention it again. I dare say our mutual dislike is due to the inevitable misunderstanding that exists between the generations. But it is not important. The point is that we have always been well-bred toward each other. Yes, that is the point. You have always been a gentleman, very considerate, very courteous, I cannot but admire you. And I think you will find I have done the best I could. I am not a rich man, as such things go nowadays, but I will hand you on the money that will be yours quite unimpaired, possibly added to. I feel very strongly on that subject. I am old-fashioned enough to consider the family the most important thing in life. After all, we are the only two McCains left.” He hesitated again, and twisted for a moment his bloodless hands in his lap, then he raised his eyes and spoke with a curious hurried embarrassment. “I have sacrificed a great deal for that,” he said. “Yes, a great deal.”
The soft-footed butler stood at his elbow, like an actor in comedy suddenly cast for the role of a portentous messenger.
“Miss Niles is calling you again, sir,” he said.
“On, yes!—ah—Adrian, I am very sorry, my dear fellow. I will finish the conversation when I come back.”
This time the telephone was within earshot; in the hall outside. Adrian heard his uncle’s slow steps end in the creaking of a chair as he sat down; then the picking up of the receiver. The message was a long one, for his uncle did not speak for fully a minute; finally his voice drifted in through the curtained doorway.
“You think ... only a few minutes?”
“... Ah, yes! Conscious? Yes. Well, will you tell her, Miss Niles?—yes, please listen very carefully—tell her this. That I am not there because I dared not come. Yes; on her account. She will understand. My heart—it’s my heart. She will understand. I did not dare. For her sake, not mine. Tell her that. She will understand. Please be very careful in repeating the message, Miss Niles. Tell her I dared not come because of my heart.... Yes; thank you. That’s it.... What? Yes, I will wait, Miss Niles.”
Adrian, sitting in the library, suddenly got to his feet and crossed to the empty fireplace and stood with his back to it, enlightenment and a puzzled frown struggling for possession of his face. His uncle’s heart! Ah, he understood, then! It was discretion, after all, but not the kind he thought—a much more forgiveable discretion. And, yet, what possible difference could it make should his uncle die suddenly in Mrs. Denby’s house? Fall dead across her bed, or die kneeling beside it? Poor, twisted old fool, afraid even at the end that death might catch him out; afraid of a final undignified gesture.