“Indeed, Lady Bassett, I think your feminine weakness does you credit,” was the kind response this elicited. “We must all of us sympathise most deeply with the poor little wanderer, who, I am well assured, could not be in better hands than she is at the present moment. Your protecting care must, I am convinced, atone to her in a very great measure for all that she has been called upon to undergo.”
“So sweet of you to say so!” murmured Lady Bassett. “Words cannot express my reluctance to explain to her the actual state of affairs, or my relief that I have been able to avoid doing so with a clear conscience. Ah! Your cup is empty! Will you let me refill it? No? But you are not thinking of leaving me yet, surely?”
“Ah, but indeed we must. We are dining with the Boltons to-night, and going afterwards to the Parkers’ dance. You will be there of course? How delightful! Then we shall soon meet again.”
The penetrating voice was accompanied by the sounds of a general move, and there ensued the usual interchange of compliments at departure, Lady Bassett protesting that it had been so sweet of her friends to visit her, and the friends assuring her of the immense pleasure it had given them to do so. All the things that are never said by people who are truly intimate with each other were said several times over as the little party moved away. Their voices receded into the distance, though they continued for a while to prick through the silence that fell like a velvet curtain behind them.
Finally they ceased altogether. The summer-house was empty, and an enterprising monkey slipped down the trunk of a tree and peered in. But he was a nervous beast, and he had a feeling that the place was not so wholly devoid of human presence as it seemed. He approached cautiously, gibbering a little to himself. It looked safe enough, and there was some dainty confectionery within. But, uneasy instinct still urging him, he deemed it advisable to peer round the corner of the summer-house before he yielded to the promptings of a rapacious appetite.
The next instant his worst fears were realised, and he was scudding up the nearest tree in a panic.
There, on the ground, face downwards on the pine-needles, lay a human form. True, it was only a woman lying there. But her silence and her stillness were eloquent of tragedy even to his monkey-intelligence. From a safe height he sat and reviled her till he was tired for having spoilt his sport. Finally, as she made no movement, he forgot his grievance, and tripped airily away in quest of more thrilling adventures.
But the woman remained prone upon the ground for a long, long time.
Nick’s fit of virtue evaporated with his third letter, and he got up, feeling that he had spent an unprofitable afternoon. He also discovered that he was thirsty, and while quenching his thirst he debated with himself whether he would after all stroll round to the Musgraves. He and Will were old school-fellows, and the friendship between them was of the sort that wears forever. He was moreover dissatisfied with regard to Daisy’s appearance, and he wanted to know the doctor’s verdict.