“Would you be alone?”
“Certainly. That, at least, I can still do—lunch as I please, and with whom I please. Who is this coming in? Ah, you needn’t tell me.”
The old lady turned herself towards the entrance, with a stiffening of the whole frame, an instinctive and passionate dignity in her whole aspect, which struck a thrill through her companion.
The little Duchess approached, amid a flutter of satin and lace, heralded by the scent of the Parma violets she wore in profusion at her breast and waist. Her eye glanced uncertainly, and she approached with daintiness, like one stepping on mined ground.
“Aunt Flora, I must have just a minute.”
“I know no reason against your having ten, if you want them,” said Lady Henry, as she held-out three fingers to the new-comer. “You promised yesterday to come and give me a full account of the Devonshire House ball. But it doesn’t matter—and you have forgotten.”
“No, indeed, I haven’t,” said the Duchess, embarrassed. “But you seemed so well employed to-night, with other people. And now—”
“Now you are going on,” said Lady Henry, with a most unfriendly suavity.
“Freddie says I must,” said the other, in the attitude of a protesting child.
“Alors!” said Lady Henry, lifting her hand. “We all know how obedient you are. Good-night!”
The Duchess flushed. She just touched her aunt’s hand, and then, turning an indignant face on Sir Wilfrid, she bade him farewell with an air which seemed to him intended to avenge upon his neutral person the treatment which, from Lady Henry, even so spoiled a child of fortune as herself could not resent.
Twenty minutes later, Sir Wilfrid entered the first big room of the Foreign Office party. He looked round him with a revival of the exhilaration he had felt on Lady Henry’s staircase, enjoying, after his five years in Teheran, after his long homeward journey by desert and sea, even the common trivialities of the scene—the lights, the gilding, the sparkle of jewels, the scarlet of the uniforms, the noise and movement of the well-dressed crowd. Then, after this first physical thrill, began the second stage of pleasure—the recognitions and the greetings, after long absence, which show a man where he stands in the great world, which sum up his past and forecast his future. Sir Wilfrid had no reason to complain. Cabinet ministers and great ladies, members of Parliament and the permanent officials who govern but do not rule, soldiers, journalists, barristers—were all glad, it seemed, to grasp him by the hand. He had returned with a record of difficult service brilliantly done, and the English world rewarded him in its accustomed ways.
It was towards one o’clock that he found himself in a crowd pressing towards the staircase in the wake of some departing royalties. A tall man in front turned round to look for some ladies behind him from whom he had been separated in the crush. Sir Wilfrid recognized old Lord Lackington, the veteran of marvellous youth, painter, poet, and sailor, who as a gay naval lieutenant had entertained Byron in the AEgean; whose fame as one of the raciest of naval reformers was in all the newspapers; whose personality was still, at seventy-five, charming to most women and challenging to most men.