It is no wonder, then, that a woman like Ida de la Molle was facile princeps among such company, or that Harold Quaritch, who was somewhat poetically inclined for a man of his age, at any rate where the lady in question was concerned, should in his heart have compared her to a queen. Even Belle Quest, lovely as she undoubtedly was in her own way, paled and looked shopgirlish in face of that gentle dignity, a fact of which she was evidently aware, for although the two women were friendly, nothing would induce the latter to stand long near Ida in public. She would tell Edward Cossey that it made her look like a wax doll beside a live child.
While Mr. Quest was still watching Ida with complete satisfaction, for she appealed to the artistic side of his nature, Colonel Quaritch arrived upon the scene, looking, Mr. Quest thought, particularly plain with his solid form, his long thin nose, light whiskers, and square massive chin. Also he looked particularly imposing in contrast to the youths and maidens and domesticated clergymen. There was a gravity, almost a solemnity, about his bronzed countenance and deliberate ordered conversation, which did not, however, favourably impress the aforesaid youths and maidens, if a judgment might be formed from such samples of conversational criticism as Mr. Quest heard going on on the further side of his arbutus.
When Ida saw the Colonel coming, she put on her sweetest smile and took his outstretched hand.
“How do you do, Colonel Quaritch?” she said. “It is very good of you to come, especially as you don’t play tennis much—by the way, I hope you have been studying that cypher, for I am sure it is a cypher.”
“I studied it for half-an-hour before I went to bed last night, Miss de la Molle, and for the life of me I could not make anything out of it, and what’s more, I don’t think that there is anything to make out.”
“Ah,” she answered with a sigh, “I wish there was.”
“Well, I’ll have another try at it. What will you give me if I find it out?” he said with a smile which lighted up his rugged face most pleasantly.
“Anything you like to ask and that I can give,” she answered in a tone of earnestness which struck him as peculiar, for of course he did not know the news that she had just heard from Mr. Quest.
Then for the first time for many years, Harold Quaritch delivered himself of a speech that might have been capable of a tender and hidden meaning.
“I am afraid,” he said, bowing, “that if I came to claim the reward, I should ask for more even that you would be inclined to give.”
Ida blushed a little. “We can consider that when you do come, Colonel Quaritch—excuse me, but here are Mrs. Quest and Mr. Cossey, and I must go and say how do you do.”