IN WHICH HUGH BREAKS THE NEWS
Lady Linden had just come in from one of her usual and numerous inspections, during which she had found it necessary to reprove one of the under-gardeners. She had described him to himself, his character, his appearance and his methods from her own point of view, and had left the man stupefied and amazed at the extent of her vocabulary and her facility of expression. He was still scratching his head, dazedly, when she came into the drawing-room.
“Hugh, you here? Where is Marjorie?”
“Down by the pond, I think,” he said, with an attempt at airiness.
“In a moment you will make me angry. You know what I wish to know. Did you propose to Marjorie, Hugh?”
“Did I—” He seemed astonished. “Did I what?”
“Propose to Marjorie! Good heavens, man, isn’t that why I sent you there?”
“I certainly did not propose to her. How on earth could I?”
“There is no reason on earth why you should not have proposed to her that I can see.”
“But there is one that I can see.” He paused. “A man can’t invite a young woman to marry him—when he is already married!”
It was out! He scarcely dared to look at her. Lady Linden said nothing; she sat down.
“Hugh!” She had found breath and words at last. “Hugh Alston! Did I hear you aright?”
“I believe you did!”
“You mean to tell me that you—you are a married man?”
He nodded. He realised that he was not a good liar.
“I would like some particulars,” she said coldly. “Hugh Alston, I should be very interested to know where she is!”
“I don’t know!”
“You are mad. When were you married?”
“June nineteen eighteen,” he said glibly.
“Good gracious! That is where Marjorie used to go to school!”
“Yes, it was when I went down to see her there, and—”
“You met this woman you married? And her name?”
“Joan,” he said—“Joan Meredyth!”
“Joan—Meredyth!” said Lady Linden. She closed her eyes; she leaned back in her chair. “That girl!”
A chill feeling of alarm swept over him. She spoke, her ladyship spoke, as though such a girl existed, as though she knew her personally. And the name was a pure invention! Marjorie had invented it—at least, he believed so.
“You—you don’t know her?”
“Know her—of course I know her. Didn’t Marjorie bring her here from Miss Skinner’s two holidays running? A very beautiful and brilliant girl, the loveliest girl I think I ever saw! Really, Hugh Alston, though I am surprised and pained at your silence and duplicity, I must absolve you. I always regarded you as more or less a fool, but Joan Meredyth is a girl any man might fall in love with!”