Mrs. Ralston smiled, a soft mother-smile. “You’re a lucky, lucky girl,” she said, “though you don’t realize it, and probably never will. When are you going to bring the little monkey to see me again?”
“She will probably come herself when the mood takes her,” carelessly Mrs. Ermsted made reply. “I assure you, you stand very high on her visiting list. But I hardly ever take her anywhere. She is always so naughty with me.” She chose another cigarette with the words. “She is sure to be a pretty frequent visitor while Tommy Denvers is here. She worships him.”
“He is a nice boy,” observed Mrs. Ralston. “I wish he could have got longer leave. It would have comforted Stella to have him.”
“I suppose she can go down to him at Kurrumpore if she doesn’t mind sacrificing that rose-leaf complexion,” rejoined Mrs. Ermsted, shutting her matchbox with a spiteful click. “You stayed down last hot weather.”
“Gerald was not well and couldn’t leave his post,” said Mrs. Ralston. “That was different. I felt he needed me.”
“And so you nearly killed yourself to satisfy the need,” commented Mrs. Ermsted. “I sometimes think you are rather a fine woman, notwithstanding appearances.” She glanced at the watch on her wrist. “By Jove, how late it is! Your latest protegee will be here immediately. You must have been aching to tell me to go for the last half-hour. You silly saint! Why didn’t you?”
“I have no wish for you to go, dear,” responded Mrs. Ralston tranquilly. “All my visitors are an honour to my house.”
Mrs. Ermsted sprang to her feet with a swift, elastic movement. “Mary, I love you!” she said. “You are a ministering angel, faithful friend, and priceless counsellor, all combined. I laugh at you for a frump behind your back, but when I am with you, I am spellbound with admiration. You are really superb.”
“Thank you, dear,” said Mrs. Ralston.
She returned the impulsive kiss bestowed upon her with a funny look in her blue eyes that might almost have been compassionate if it had not been so unmistakably humorous. She did not attempt to make the embrace a lingering one, however, and Netta Ermsted took her impetuous departure with a piqued sense of uncertainty.
“I wonder if she really has got any brains after all,” she said aloud, as she sped away in her “rickshaw.” “She is a quaint creature anyhow. I rather wonder that I bother myself with her.”
At which juncture she met the Rajah, resplendent in green puggarree and riding his favourite bay Arab, and forthwith dismissed Mrs. Ralston and all discreet counsels to the limbo of forgotten things. She had dubbed the Rajah her Arabian Knight. His name for her was of too intimate an order to be pronounced in public. She was the Lemon-scented Lily of his dreams.