She stopped short, for he had caught her hands in an eager, boyish clasp. “Olga, don’t—there’s a dear!” he begged with headlong ardour. “I don’t love you any the less because I didn’t do it. I believe myself it’s a beastly hoax, and I’m just as furious as you are. But, I say, can’t we found a partnership on it? Is it asking too much? Pull me up if it is! I don’t want to be premature. Only I won’t have you sick or sorry about it, anyhow so far as I am concerned. You were quite right in thinking that I loved you. I do, dear, I do!”
“But you mustn’t!” she said. She left her hands in his, but the face she raised was tired and sad and unresponsive. “I feel a dreadful pig, Noel,” she said, speaking as if it were an effort. “I almost made you say it, didn’t I? And it’s just the one thing I mustn’t let you say. You’re so nice, so kind, such a jolly friend. But you’re not—not—not—”
“Not eligible as a husband,” suggested Noel.
“Don’t use that horrid adjective!” she protested. “You make me feel worse and worse.”
He laughed, his sudden, boyish laugh. “No, but there’s nothing to feel bad about, really. And you didn’t make me say it. I said it because I wanted to. Also, you’re not bound to take me seriously. I’m not always in earnest—as you may have discovered. Look here, you’ve warned me off. Can’t we talk about something else now?”
“If you’re sure you don’t mind,” she said, smiling rather wistfully.
He cocked his eyebrows humorously. “Of course I mind. I mind enormously. But that’s of no consequence. By the way, I suppose your funny little uncle isn’t given to playing practical jokes?”
“Nick? Why no!” Olga surveyed him in astonishment. “Nick is the soul of wisdom,” she said.
“Is he though?” Noel looked amused. “I must get him to give me a few hints,” he observed. “I wonder if he has left any breakfast. You know, I haven’t had any yet.”
“Oh, let us go back!” said Olga turning. “And please do forget all about this tiresome misunderstanding! Promise you will!”
He waved his hand. “The subject is closed and will never be reopened by me without your permission. At the same time, let me confess that I have presumed so far as to procure a small Christmas offering for your acceptance. You won’t refuse it, will you?”
Olga looked up dubiously; but the handsome young face that looked back would only laugh.
“What is it?” she said at length.
Gaily he made answer. “It’s a parrot—quite a youngster. I picked him up in the bazaar. He isn’t properly fledged yet, but he promises well. I’m keeping him for a bit to educate him. But if you won’t have him, I shall wring his neck.”
“I’m sure you wouldn’t!” she exclaimed.
He continued to laugh, though her face expressed horror. “And you will be morally responsible; think of that! It’s tantamount to being guilty of murder. Horrible idea, isn’t it? You—who never in your life killed so much as a moth! Hullo! What’s up?”