“Between you and me, do you suspect any direct interest in the young man?”
Montresor shrugged his shoulders.
“I don’t know. Not necessarily. She loves to feel herself a power—all the more, I think, because of her anomalous position. It is very curious—at bottom very feminine and amusing—and quite harmless.”
“You and others don’t resent it?”
“No, not from her,” said the Minister, after a pause. “But she is rather going it, just now. Three or four batteries have opened upon me at once. She must be thinking of little else.”
Sir Wilfrid grew a trifle red. He remembered the comedy of the door-step. “Is there anything that he particularly wants?” His tone assumed a certain asperity.
“Well, as for me, I cannot help feeling that Lady Henry has something to say for herself. It is very strange—mysterious even—the kind of ascendency this lady has obtained for herself in so short a time.”
“Oh, I dare say it’s hard for Lady Henry to put up with,” mused Montresor. “Without family, without connections—”
He raised his head quietly and put on his eye-glasses. Then his look swept the face of his companion.
Sir Wilfrid, with a scarcely perceptible yet significant gesture, motioned towards Lord Lackington. Mr. Montresor started. The eyes of both men travelled across the table, then met again.
“You know?” said Montresor, under his breath.
Sir Wilfrid nodded. Then some instinct told him that he had now exhausted the number of the initiated.
* * * * *
When the men reached the drawing-room, which was rather emptily waiting for the “reception” Mrs. Montresor was about to hold in it, Sir Wilfrid fell into conversation with Lord Lackington. The old man talked well, though flightily, with a constant reference of all topics to his own standards, recollections, and friendships, which was characteristic, but in him not unattractive. Sir Wilfrid noticed certain new and pitiful signs of age. The old man was still a rattle. But every now and then the rattle ceased abruptly and a breath of melancholy made itself felt—like a chill and sudden gust from some unknown sea.
They were joined presently, as the room filled up, by a young journalist—an art critic, who seemed to know Lord Lackington and his ways. The two fell eagerly into talk about pictures, especially of an exhibition at Antwerp, from which the young man had just returned.
“I looked in at Bruges on the way back for a few hours,” said the new-comer, presently. “The pictures there are much better seen than they used to be. When were you there last?” He turned to Lord Lackington.
“Bruges?” said Lord Lackington, with a start. “Oh, I haven’t been there for twenty years.”
And he suddenly sat down, dangling a paper-knife between his hands, and staring at the carpet. His jaw dropped a little. A cloud seemed to interpose between him and his companions.