He shrugged his shoulders.
“It doesn’t interest me now. It’s a past phase.”
She longed to ask questions. But his manner didn’t encourage it. And when the half-hour was done he looked at his watch.
“Dressing-time,” he said, smiling, holding it out to Helena. She rose at once. Philip was a delightful artist, but the operations of dressing were not to be trifled with. Her thanks, however, for “a lovely time!” and her pleading for a second show on the morrow, were so graceful, so sweet, that French, as he silently put the drawings back, felt his spirits drop to zero. What could have so changed the thorny, insolent girl of six weeks before—but the one thing? He stole a glance at Buntingford. Surely he must realize what was happening—and his huge responsibility—he must.
Helena disappeared. Geoffrey volunteered to tie up a portfolio they had only half examined, while Buntingford finished a letter. While he was handling it, the portfolio slipped, and a number of drawings fell out pell-mell upon the floor.
Geoffrey stooped to pick them up. A vehement exclamation startled Buntingford at his desk.
“What’s the matter, Geoffrey?”
“Philip! That’s the woman I saw!—that’s her face!—I could swear to it anywhere!”
He pointed with excitement to the drawing of a woman’s head and shoulders, which had fallen out from the very back of the portfolio, whereof the rotting straps and fastenings showed that it had not been opened for many years.
Buntingford came to his side. He looked at the drawing—then at French. His face seemed suddenly to turn grey and old.
“My God!” he said under his breath, and again, still lower—“My God! Of course. I knew it!”
He dropped into a chair beside Geoffrey, and buried his face in his hands.
Geoffrey stared at him in silence, a bewildering tumult of ideas and conjectures rushing through his brain.
Another knock at the door. Buntingford rose automatically, went to the door, spoke to the servant who had knocked, and came back with a note in his hand, which he took to the window to read. Then with steps which seemed to French to waver like those of a man half drunk he went to his writing-desk, and wrote a reply which he gave to the servant who was waiting in the passage. He stood a moment thinking, his hand over his eyes, before he approached his nephew.
“Geoffrey, will you please take my place at dinner to-night? I am going out. Make any excuse you like.” He moved away—but turned back again, speaking with much difficulty—“The woman you saw—is at the Rectory. Alcott took her in last night. He writes to me. I am going there.”
Buntingford walked rapidly across the park, astonishing the old lodge-keeper who happened to see him pass through, and knew that his lordship had a large Whitsuntide party at the house, who must at that very moment be sitting down to dinner.