“No, go to-day. I should be glad, Johnny. Go to-day and take Ellice, I am so much better alone; and by the time you come home perhaps I shall have been able to sleep it off.”
So Johnny Everard drove Ellice over to Starden that afternoon.
Helen Everard received them in the drawing-room. She was fond of Johnny Everard and his sister. This dark-faced girl she did not know, though she had heard of her. And now she looked at her with interest. It was an interesting face, such a face as one does not ordinarily see.
“One day, if she lives, she will be a beautiful woman,” Helen thought. “To-day she is a gawky, passionate, ill-disciplined child; and I am afraid, terribly afraid, she is very much in love with that great, cheery, good-looking nephew of mine.”
“Come,” she said, “Joan is in the garden. I promised that when you came I would take you to her. You have heard about her of course?” Helen added to John.
“Only a little, that she is an heiress, and has come into Starden.”
“She was very poor, poor child, and I think she had a hard and bitter time of it. Then the wheel of fortune took a turn. Her uncle died, and left her Starden and a great deal of money. So here she is.”
Helen felt a hand grip her arm, and turned to look down into a thin face, in which burned a pair of passionate eyes.
“Is she—pretty?” the girl asked.
“I think,” Helen said slowly, “that she is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.”
Unlike his usual self, John Everard was very silent and thoughtful as he drove home later that evening. Helen had said that Joan Meredyth was the most beautiful woman she had ever seen. He agreed with her whole-heartedly. She had received him and Ellice kindly, yet without much warmth, and now as he drove home in the light of the setting sun Johnny Everard was thinking about this girl, going over all that had happened, remembering every word almost that she had uttered.
“She is very beautiful, wonderfully beautiful,” he thought. And perhaps he uttered his thoughts aloud, for the girl, as silent as himself, who sat beside him, started and looked up into his face, and into the passionate, rebellious heart of her there came a sudden wave of jealous hatred.
Lady Linden patted the girl’s small white hand.
“Yes, child,” she said comfortably, “Colonel Arundel and I had a nice long talk last night, and you may guess what it was about. He and I were boy and girl together, there’s no better blood in the kingdom than the Arundel’s—what was I saying? Oh yes, we decided that it would be a good plan to have a two years’ engagement, or better still, none for eighteen months, and then a six months’ engagement. During that time Tom can study modern scientific farming and that sort of thing, you know, and then when you and he are married, he could take over these estates. I am heartily sick of Bilson, and I always fancy he is robbing me—what did you say, child?”