“Women are handier at picking up appearances; ‘adaptable’ ’s the word. But the trouble with them is to find out whether they have the real thing or not. For my part, if you want the real thing, I believe there are more gentlemen than gentlewomen in the world; and Batty Langton says you may breed out the old Adam, but you’ll never get rid of Eve. . . . But, bless my soul, Dicky, it’s early days for you to be discussing the sex!”
Dicky, however, was perfectly serious.
“But I do mean what you call the real thing, papa. Couldn’t a poor girl be born so that she had it from the start? Oh, I can’t tell what I mean exactly—”
“On the contrary, child, you are putting it uncommonly well; at any rate, you are making me understand what you mean, and that’s the A and Z of it, whether in talk or in writing. ’Is there—can there be—such a thing as a natural born lady?’ that’s your question, hey?” The Collector peeled his walnut and smiled to himself. In other company—Batty Langton’s, for example—he would have answered cynically that to him the phenomenon of a natural born lady would first of all suggest a doubt of her mother’s virtue. “Well, no,” he answered after a while; “if you met such a person, and could trace back her family history, ten to one you’d discover good blood somewhere in it. Old stocks fail, die away underground, and, as time goes on, are forgotten; then one fine day up springs a shoot nobody can account for. It’s the old sap taking a fresh start. See?”
Dicky nodded. It would take him some time work out the theory, but he liked the look of it.
His drowsed young brain—for the hour was past bedtime—applied it idly to a picture that stood out, sharp and vivid, from the endless train of the day’s impressions: the picture of a girl with quiet, troubled eyes, composed lips, and hands that beat upon a blazing curtain, not flinching at the pain. . . . And just then, as it were in a dream, he beat of her hands echoed in a soft tapping, the door behind his father opened gently, and Dicky sat up with a start, wide awake again and staring, for the girl herself stood in the doorway.
“Hey, what is it?” the Collector demanded, slewing himself to the half-about in his chair.
The girl stepped forward into the candle-light. Over her shoulders she wore a faded plaid, the ends of which her left hand clutched and held together at her bosom.
“Your Honour’s pardon for troubling,” she said, and laying a gold coin on the table, drew back with a slight curtsy. “But I think you gave me this by mistake; and now is my only chance to give it back. I am going home in a few minutes.”
The Collector glanced at the coin, and from that to the girl’s face, on which his eyes lingered.
“Gad, I recollect!” he said. “You were the wench that pulled off my boots?”