“My dear, my dear,” Daisy said in distress, “I do pray that I haven’t done wrong.”
“You haven’t,” Olga said. “It was dear of you to tell me, and I’m very grateful.”
She kissed Daisy very lovingly and let her go. There was nothing tragic in her manner, only an unwonted aloofness that kept the elder woman from attempting to pursue the subject.
The return of Noel a few minutes later was a relief to them both. He came in full of animation and merriment, precipitating himself upon them with a gaiety that overlooked all silences. As Daisy was wont to say, Noel was the most useful person she knew for filling in tiresome gaps. He did it instinctively, without so much as seeing them.
In his cheery company the rest of the evening slid lightly by. Olga encouraged him to be frivolous. She seemed to enjoy his society more than she had ever done before; and Noel was nothing loth to be encouraged.
When the card-players joined them, they were busily engaged in drawing up a programme for what Noel termed “the Bassett week,” and so absorbed were they that they did not so much as glance up till Nick came between them and demanded to know what it was all about.
Max, cynically tolerant, looked on from afar; and Daisy, who had been feeling somewhat conscience-stricken at his entrance, rapidly found herself detesting him more heartily than ever. She was glad when Major Hunt-Goring drifted to her side and engaged her in conversation, and she more nearly resumed her old intimacy with him in consequence than she had done before.
The party broke up late, as Olga, Noel, and Nick continued their discussion until their elaborate schemes were complete. By that time Max and his host had retired for a final smoke, and had to be unearthed by Nick, who declared himself scandalized to find anyone still up at such an immoral hour.
Olga was standing with Noel, dressed for departure, waiting to go, when Hunt-Goring sauntered up to her.
“Well, Miss Ratcliffe,” he said conversationally, “and how do you like India?”
It was the first time he had deliberately accosted her. She glanced up at him sharply, and made a slight, instinctive movement away from him. At once, albeit almost imperceptibly, Noel moved a little nearer to her. She was conscious of his intention to protect, and threw him a brief smile as she made reply.
“I am enjoying it very much.”
“Really!” said Hunt-Goring. “And you are engaged to be married, I hear?”
Olga did not instantly reply. It was Noel who answered shortly: “Yes, to my brother. No objection, I suppose?”
It was aggressively spoken. Noel had quite obviously taken a dislike to the newcomer, a sentiment which Olga knew to be instantly reciprocated by the calm fashion in which Hunt-Goring ignored his intervention.
She found him waiting markedly for her reply, and braced herself to enter the arena. “Is it news to you?” she asked coldly.