Mrs. Friend felt too strange to the whole situation to make any move. She could only watch for the entry of the gentlemen. Lord Buntingford, who came in last, evidently looked round for his ward. But Helena had already flitted back to the rest of the company, and admirably set off by a deep red chair into which she had thrown herself, was soon flirting unashamedly with the two young men, with Mr. Parish and the Rector, taking them all on in turn, and suiting the bait to the fish with the instinctive art of her kind. Lord Buntingford got not a word with her, and when the guests departed she had vanished upstairs before anyone knew that she had gone.
“Have a cigar in the garden, Vivian, before you turn in? There is a moon, and it is warmer outside than in,” said Lord Buntingford to his cousin, when they were left alone.
“By all means.”
So presently they found themselves pacing a flagged path outside a long conservatory which covered one side of the house. The moon was cloudy, and the temperature low. But the scents of summer were already in the air—of grass and young leaf, and the first lilac. The old grey house with its haphazard outline and ugly detail acquired a certain dignity from the night, and round it stretched dim slopes of pasture, with oaks rising here and there from bands of white mist.
“Is that tale true you told me before dinner about Jim Donald?” said Lord Buntingford abruptly. “You’re sure it’s true—honour bright?”
The other laughed.
“Why, I had it from Jim himself!” He laughed. “He just made a joke of it. But he is a mean skunk! I’ve found out since that he wanted to buy Preston out for the part Preston had taken in another affair. There’s a pretty case coming on directly, with Jim for hero. You have heard of it.”
“No,” said Buntingford curtly; “but in any case nothing would have induced me to have him here. Preston’s a friend of mine. So when Helena told me at dinner she had asked him for Saturday, I had to tell her I should telegraph to him to-morrow morning not to come. She was angry, of course.”
Captain Lodge gave a low whistle. “Of course she doesn’t know. But I think you would be wise to stop it. And I remember now she danced all night with him at the Arts Ball!”
There was a light tap on Mrs. Friend’s door. She said “Come in” rather unwillingly. Some time had elapsed since she had seen Helena’s fluttering white disappear into the corridor beyond her room; and she had nourished a secret hope that the appointment had been forgotten. But the door opened slightly. Mrs. Friend saw first a smiling face, finger on lip. Then the girl slipped in, and closed the door with caution.
“I don’t want that ‘very magnificent three-tailed Bashaw’ to know we are discussing him. He’s somewhere still.”
“What did you say?” asked Mrs. Friend, puzzled.