When they returned, the book had disappeared and the incident was apparently forgotten. They had tea to the accompaniment of much light-hearted chatter on the parts of Violet and Max Wyndham. Colonel Campion sat in heavy silence, and Olga instinctively held aloof. There was something in Max’s attitude that puzzled her, but it was something so intangible that she could not even vaguely define it to herself. All his careless banter notwithstanding, she was fully convinced in her own mind that he was not in the smallest degree dazzled or so much as attracted by the brilliant beauty that so dominated her own imagination. Though he laughed and joked in his customary cynical strain, she had a feeling that his mental energies were actually employed elsewhere. He was like a man watching behind a mask. Watching—for what?
Suddenly she remembered again the tragedy she had witnessed in the glen that afternoon, and her heart recoiled.
Was it the atmosphere of the place that made her morbid? Or was there indeed some evil influence at work in her friend’s life which she by her headlong action had somehow rendered active?
Before they left the Priory, she had begun to repent almost passionately the impulse that had taken her thither. But wherefore she thus repented she could not have explained.
“It’s very kind of Olga to provide us with distractions,” said Nick, as he dropped into an arm-chair, with a cigar, “but I almost think we are better off without them. If I see much of that girl, it will upset my internal economy. Is she real by any chance?”
“Haven’t you ever seen her before?” asked Max.
“Several times, but never for long together. Jove! What a face she has!” He turned his head sharply, and looked up at Max who stood on the hearth-rug. “You’re not wildly enthusiastic over her anyhow,” he observed. “Are you really indifferent or only pretending?”
“I?” The corners of Max’s mouth went down. He stuffed his pipe into one of them and said no more.
Nick continued to regard him with interest for some seconds. Suddenly he laughed. “Do you know, Wyndham,” he said, “I should awfully like to give you a word of advice?”
“What on?” Max did not sound particularly encouraging. He proceeded to light his pipe with exceeding deliberation. He despised cigars.
Nick closed his eyes. “In my capacity of chaperon,” he said. “It’s a beastly difficult position by the way. I’m weighed down by responsibility.”
“So I’ve noticed,” remarked Max drily.
“Well, you haven’t done much to lighten the burden,” said Nick. “I suppose you haven’t realized yet that I am one of the gods that control your destiny.”
“Well, no; I hadn’t.” Max leaned against the mantelpiece and smoked, with his face to the ceiling. “I knew you were a species of deity of course. I’ve been told that several times. And I humbly beg to offer you my sympathy.”