“Oily-looking wretch!” her ladyship thought. “Well?” she asked aloud.
“I am grateful to your ladyship for permitting me to see you.”
“Well, you can see me if that’s all you have come for.”
“No!” he said. “If—if I—” He paused.
“Oh, sit down!” said Lady Linden. “Well, now what is it you want? Have you something to sell? Books, sewing machines?”
“No, no!” He waved a deprecating hand. “I am come on a matter that interests me greatly. I am a financier, I have offices in London. Until lately I was employing a young lady on my staff.”
“Her name was Meredyth, Miss Joan Meredyth.”
“I don’t want to hear anything at all about her,” said Lady Linden. “Why you come to me, goodness only knows. If you’ve come for information I haven’t got any. If you want information, the right person to go to is her husband!”
“Her—her husband!” Mr. Slotman seemed to be choking.
“You seem surprised,” said Lady Linden. “Well, so was I, but it is the truth. If you are interested in Miss Meredyth, the proper person to make enquiries of is Mr. Hugh Alston, of Hurst Dormer, Sussex. Now you know. Is there anything else I can do for you?”
Slotman passed his hand across his forehead. This was unexpected, a blow that staggered him.
“You—you mean, your ladyship means that Miss Meredyth is recently married.”
“Her ladyship means nothing of the kind,” said Lady Linden tartly. “I mean that Miss Meredyth has for some very considerable time been Mrs. Hugh Alston. They were married, if you want to know—and I don’t see why it should any longer be kept a secret—three years ago, in June, nineteen eighteen at Marlbury, Dorset, where my niece was at school with Miss Meredyth. Now you know all I know, and if you want any further information, apply to the husband.”
“But—but,” Slotman said, “I—” He was thinking. He was trying to reconcile what he had heard in his own office when he had spied on Hugh Alston and Joan, when on that occasion he had heard Hugh offer marriage to the girl as an act of atonement. How could he offer marriage if they were already married? There was something wrong, some mistake!
“But what?” snapped her ladyship, who had taken an exceeding dislike to the perspiring Mr. Slotman.
“Is your ladyship certain that they were married? I mean—” he fumbled and stammered.
Lady Linden pointed to the door. “Good afternoon!” she said. “I don’t know what business it is of yours, and I don’t care. All I know is that if Hugh Alston is a fool, he is not a knave, so you have my permission to retire.”
Mr. Slotman retired, but it was not till some hours had passed that he finally left the neighbourhood of Cornbridge. He had been making discreet enquiries, and he found on every side that her ladyship’s story was corroborated.
For Lady Linden talked, and it was asking too much of any lady who was fond of a chat to expect her to keep silent on a matter of such interest. Lady Linden had discussed Hugh Alston’s marriage with Mrs. Pontifex, the Rector’s wife, who in turn had discussed it with others. So, little by little, the story had leaked out, and all Cornbridge knew it, and Mr. Slotman found ample corroboration of Lady Linden’s story.