She told herself this with a faint smile, as she took a final glance at herself when her ayah had finished. There never had been any personal vanity about Olga, and that night she told herself she looked positively ugly. What in the world did Noel see in her, she wondered? It seemed incredible that any man could find anything to admire in the colourless image that confronted her.
And yet as she went up the Palace steps with Nick into the blaze of light that awaited them, he was the first to greet her, and she saw his eyes kindle at the sight of her after a fashion that made her heart contract with a sudden pain for which at the moment she was wholly at a loss to account.
“I say, you look topping!” he said, smiling down at her with pleasing effrontery. “Do you know you are very nearly late? I’ve been watching out for you for the past ten minutes.”
“What a waste of time!” said Olga; but she returned his smile, for she could not do otherwise.
“No! Why? I had nothing better to do,” he assured her. “And my patience is well rewarded. Hope you’re keen on music. I’ve brought my banjo for the Rajah’s edification. It’s better than a tomtom anyway. I wonder if the fates have put us next to each other. I’ll lay you five rupees to a sixpence that they haven’t.”
Olga refused to take this generous offer, saying she had no sixpences to spare him, a remark which he declared to be both premature and uncalled for.
“You shouldn’t kick a man before he’s down,” he said. “It’s bad policy. If you have to sit next to me after that, it will serve you right.”
But when she found that he actually was to be her neighbour she was far from quarrelling with the destiny that made him so. He was so blithe and gay of heart, so blandly impudent, the very wine seemed to shine the redder for his presence. It was not in her nature to flirt with any man, but it was utterly impossibly not to enjoy his society. Less and less did she believe that his butterfly pursuit of her had in it the smallest element of serious intention. He was altogether too young and giddy for such things. She dismissed the matter without further misgiving.
Without Noel she would have found that State dinner as dreary as it was pompous. The Rajah was occupied with discussing the laws of British sport with Colonel Bradlaw who regarded himself as an authority on such matters, and expressed his opinions ponderously and at extreme length.
Nick was far away down the long table, seated beside Daisy Musgrave, obviously to their mutual satisfaction. A bubbling oasis of gaiety surrounded them. Evidently the general atmosphere of state and ceremony was less oppressive in that quarter.
“Where would you be without me to take care of you?” said Noel, boldly intercepting her glance in their direction.