THE FIRST ENCOUNTER
It was a week after the Hunt Ball that Anne Carfax, sitting alone at tea in her drawing-room before a blazing fire, was surprised by the sudden opening of the door, and the announcement of old Dimsdale the butler, “Mr. Nap Errol to see your ladyship!”
She rose to meet him, her surprise in her face, and he, entering with that light, half-stealthy tread of his, responded to it before his hand touched hers.
“I know my presence is unexpected, and my welcome precarious, but as none of my friends have been able to give me any news of you, I determined to chance my reception and come myself to inquire for your welfare.”
“You are very good,” said Anne, but she spoke with a certain stateliness notwithstanding. There was no pleasure in her eyes.
Nap, however, was sublimely self-assured. “I am beginning to think I must be,” he said, “since you say so. For I know you to be strictly truthful.”
Anne made no response. She did not even smile.
“I am in luck to find you alone,” proceeded Nap, surveying her with bold dark eyes that were nothing daunted by her lack of cordiality.
“My husband will be in soon,” she answered quietly.
“I shall be delighted to make his acquaintance,” said Nap imperturbably. “Has he been hunting?”
“Yes.” Anne’s tone was distant. She seemed to be unaware of the fact that her visitor was still on his feet.
But Nap knew no embarrassment. He stood on the hearth with his back to the fire. “You ought to hunt,” he said. “Why don’t you?”
“I do—occasionally,” Anne said.
“What’s the good of that? You ought to regularly. There’s nothing like it. Say, Lady Carfax, why don’t you?” He smiled upon her disarmingly. “Are you wondering if I take one lump or two? I take neither, and no milk, please.”
Against her will she faintly smiled.
“I thought that was it,” said Nap. “Why didn’t you ask me? Are these scones in the fender? May I offer you one?”
He dropped upon his knees to pick up the dish, and in that attitude humbly proffered it to her.
She found it impossible to remain ungracious. She could only seat herself at the tea-table and abandon the attempt.
“Sit down and help yourself,” she said.
He pulled a large hassock to him and sat facing her. “Now we can be sociable,” he said. “Really, you know, you ought to hunt more often. I have never seen you in the field once. What on earth do you do with yourself?”
“Many things,” said Anne.
“What things?” he persisted.
“I help my husband to the best of my ability with the estate and try to keep an eye on the poorest tenants. And then I practise the piano a good deal. I haven’t time for much besides.”
“I say, do you play?” said Nap, keenly interested. “I do myself, a little, not the piano—the violin. Lucas likes it, or I suppose I should have given it up long ago. But I generally have to manage without an accompaniment. There is no one can accompany at our place. It’s a bit thin, you know, playing by yourself.”