“Oh! dear Aunt Roberta, do let me do it all,” she said. “You sit here on the bench and I will run and fetch the epergne—and we can pick what we think best. Or—don’t you think just a big china bowl full of sweet peas would be prettier? The sand might show and, and—the epergne is rather stiff.”
But Miss Roberta looked aggrieved. The epergne with its gold and silver fern leaves climbing up a thin stalk of glass to its top dish for fruit had always come out for dinner parties and she liked not innovations. It was indeed as much as Halcyone could do to get all the flowers of the same kind, a nasturtium and a magenta stock had with care to be smuggled away, leaving the sweet peas sole occupants of the sand. But the effect was very festive and the two carried their work into the dining-room well pleased.
The best Sevres dinner-set was had out, which that traveler Timothy had brought from Paris among other things, and the best cut glass and rat-tailed silver. Old William, assisted by Hester and Priscilla, had been busy polishing most of the day—while the cook and the “young person from the village” were contriving wonders in the vast kitchen. And punctually at seven in broad daylight, the three Misses La Sarthe, the two elder in their finest mauve silk evening dresses, awaited their guests in the Italian parlor.
Miss Roberta’s heart had not fluttered like this since a county ball some forty years ago when a certain whiskered captain of a dashing cavalry regiment stationed at Upminster had whispered in her ear.
Priscilla had let down Halcyone’s white muslin frock and as the tucks were rather large, it was longer than she intended, so that the child might easily have been taken for a girl of fifteen, and her perfect feet were encased in a pair of old-fashioned bronze slippers with elastics crossed up the legs of her white silk stockings. A fillet of blue silk kept back the soft cloud of her mouse-colored hair.
Mr. Miller was announced first—very nervous, as usual, and saying the wrong thing in his flurry. Then up the terrace steps could be seen advancing Mr. Carlyon and his guest. They had walked over from the cottage—and Halcyone, observing from the window, was conscious that against her will she was admiring John Derringham’s arrogant, commanding walk.
“He could very well be as Theseus was after he grew proud,” she said to herself.
And soon they were announced.
Mr. Carlyon was now on the most friendly terms with both old ladies, and as well as coming to the monthly dinner, sometimes dropped in to tea on Sunday afternoons, but he knew this was a real party and must be treated as such.
How agreeable it felt to be once more in the world, Miss Roberta thought, and her faded pale cheeks flushed a delicate pink.
John Derringham had been sulky as a bear at the idea of coming, but something in the quaintly pathetic refinement of the poor and splendid old house pleased him, and the aroma of untouched early-Victorian prudish grace which the ancient ladies threw around them appealed to his imagination, as any complete bit of art or nature always did. He found himself seated between Miss La Sarthe and Halcyone and quite enjoying himself. Everything was of the time from the epergne to the way the bread was cut.