She needed courage. The Collector’s handsome face greeted her with a scowl and a hard stare; he could be intractable in his cups.
“Excuse me, madam, but I sent for Miss Josselin.”
She answered him, but first made low obeisance. “Ruth Josselin will attend, sir, with all despatch. The sedan is capable of accommodating but one at a time.”
There stood an empty chair on the Collector’s right. To set it for her Mr. Langton had, as a preliminary, to stoop and drag aside the legs of a reveller procumbent on the floor. The effort flushed him; but Miss Quiney, with an inclination of the head, slipped into the seat as though she had seen nothing unusual.
“And it gives me the occasion,” she continued respectfully, as her eyes passed over the form of young Manley opposite, who stood with his glass at an angle, spilling its wine on the mahogany, “of expressing—I thank you. . . . What? Is it Mr. Silk? A pleasure, indeed! . . .Yes, I rarely take wine, but on such an occasion as this—an occasion, as I was saying, to felicitate Sir Oliver Vyell on his accession to a title which we, who have served him, best know his capacity to adorn.”
“Oh, damn!” growled the Collector under his breath.
“Half a glassful only!” Miss Quiney entreated, as Mr. Silk poured for her. She was, in fact, desperately telling herself that if she attempted to lift a full glass, her shaking hand would betray her.
“Yo’ Honah—Mis’ Josselin!”
Mr. Langton had caught the sound of Manasseh’s footfall in the corridor without, and was on the alert before the girl entered. But at sight of her in the doorway he fell back for a moment.
Yes, the Collector’s promise had come true—and far more than true. She was marvellous.
It was by mere beauty, too, that she dazzled, helped by no jewels but the one plain rope of pearls at her throat. She stood there holding herself erect, but not stiffly, with chin slightly lifted; not in scorn, nor yet in defiance, though you were no sooner satisfied of this than a tiniest curve of the nostril set you doubting. But no; she was neither scornful nor defiant—alert rather, as a fair animal quivering with life, confronting some new experience that for the moment it fails to read. Or—borrowing her morning’s simile, to convert it—you might liken her to huntress-maiden Diana, surprised upon arrested foot; instep arched, nostril quivering to the unfamiliar, eyes travelling in sudden speculation over a group of satyrs in a glade. For a certainty that poise of the chin emphasised the head’s perfect carriage; as did the fashion of her head-tire, too—the hair drawn straight above the brows and piled superbly, to break and escape in two careless love-locks on the nape of the neck—in the ripple of each a smile, correcting the goddess to the woman. The right arm hung almost straight at her side, the hand ready to gather a fold of the white brocaded skirt; the left slanted up to her bosom, where its finger-tips touched the stem of a white rose in the lace at the parting of the bodice. . . .