“By all means,” said that young man, after perhaps a moment’s hesitation, and throwing off his coat.
“Only please make no noise!” said Miss Le Breton, turning to the group. “Lady Henry might be disturbed.”
Every one came in, as it were, on tiptoe. In each face a sense of the humor of the situation fought with the consciousness of its dangers. As soon as Montresor saw the little Duchess by the fire, he threw up his hands in relief.
“I breathe again,” he said, greeting her with effusion. “Duchess, where thou goest, I may go. But I feel like a boy robbing a hen-roost. Let me introduce my friend, General Fergus. Take us both, pray, under your protection!”
“On the contrary,” said the Duchess, as she returned General Fergus’s bow, “you are both so magnificent that no one would dare to protect you.”
For they were both in uniform, and the General was resplendent with stars and medals.
“We have been dining with royalty.” said Montresor. “We want some relaxation.”
He put on his eye-glasses, looked round the room, and gently rubbed his hands.
“How very agreeable this is! What a charming room! I never saw it before. What are we doing here? Is it a party? Why shouldn’t it be? Meredith, have you introduced M. du Bartas to the Duchess? Ah, I see—”
For Julie Le Breton was already conversing with the distinguished Frenchman wearing the rosette of the Legion of Honor in his button-hole, who had followed Dr. Meredith into the room. As Montresor spoke, however, she came forward, and in a French which was a joy to the ear, she presented M. du Bartas, a tall, well-built Norman with a fair mustache, first to the Duchess and then to Lord Lackington and Jacob.
“The director of the French Foreign Office,” said Montresor, in an aside to the Duchess. “He hates us like poison. But if you haven’t already asked him to dinner—I warned you last week he was coming—pray do it at once!”
Meanwhile the Frenchman, his introductions over, looked curiously round the room, studied its stately emptiness, the books on the walls under a trellis-work, faintly gilt, the three fine pictures; then his eyes passed to the tall and slender lady who had addressed him in such perfect French, and to the little Duchess in her flutter of lace and satin, the turn of her small neck, and the blaze of her jewels. “These Englishwomen overdo their jewels,” he thought, with distaste. “But they overdo everything. That is a handsome fellow, by-the-way, who was with la petite fee when we arrived.”
And his shrewd, small eyes travelled from Warkworth to the Duchess, his mind the while instinctively assuming some hidden relation between them.
Meanwhile, Montresor was elaborately informing himself as to Lady Henry.
“This is the first time for twenty years that I have not found her on a Wednesday evening,” he said, with a sudden touch of feeling which became him. “At our age, the smallest break in the old habit—”