If the fair forms crowding to the fete at Deerham Hall had but known how near that fete was to being shorn of its master’s presence, they had gone less hopefully. Scarcely one of the dowagers and chaperones bidden to it, but cast a longing eye to the heir, for their daughters’ sakes; scarcely a daughter but experienced a fluttering of the heart, as the fond fancy presented itself that she might be singled out for the chosen partner of Sir Edmund Hautley—for the night, at any rate; and—perhaps—for the long night of the future. But when the clock struck six that evening, Sir Edmund Hautley had not arrived.
Miss Hautley was in a fever—as nearly in one as it is in the nature of a cold, single lady of fifty-eight to go, when some overwhelming disappointment falls abruptly. According to arranged plans, Sir Edmund was to have been at home by middle day, crossing by the night boat from the continent. Middle day came and went; afternoon came and went; evening came—and he had not come. Miss Hautley would have set the telegraph to work, had she known where to set it to.
But good luck was in store for her. A train, arriving between six and seven, brought him; and his carriage—the carriage of his late father, which had been waiting at the station since eleven o’clock in the morning—conveyed him home.
Very considerably astonished was Sir Edmund to find the programme which had been carved out for the night’s amusement. He did not like it; it jarred upon his sense of propriety; and he spoke a hint of this to Miss Hautley. It was the death of his father which had called him home; a father with whom he had lived for the last few years of his life upon terms of estrangement—at any rate, upon one point; was it seemly that his inauguration should be one of gaiety? Yes, Miss Hautley decisively answered. Their friends were not meeting to bewail Sir Rufus’s death; that took place months ago; but to welcome his, Sir Edmund’s, return, and his entrance on his inheritance.
Sir Edmund—a sunny-tempered, yielding man, the very opposite in spirit to his dead father, to his live aunt—conceded the point; doing it with all the better grace, perhaps, that there was now no help for it. In an hour’s time the guests would be arriving. Miss Hautley inquired curiously as to the point upon which he and Sir Rufus had been at issue; she had never been able to learn it from Sir Rufus. Neither did it now appear that she was likely to learn it from Sir Edmund. It was a private matter, he said, a smile crossing his lips as he spoke; one entirely between himself and his father, and he could not speak of it. It had driven him abroad she believed, Miss Hautley remarked, vexed that she was still to remain in the dark. Yes, acquiesced Sir Edmund; it had driven him abroad and kept him there.
He was ready, and stood in his place to receive his guests; a tall man, of some five-and-thirty years, with a handsome face and pleasant smile upon it. He greeted his old friends cordially, those with whom he had been intimate, and was laughing and talking with the Countess of Elmsley when the announcement “Lady and Miss Verner” caught his ear.