He did not seem to care particularly for women; he never hovered about them, offering little favors and courtesies; rather, he let them come to him. Nor did he care for dancing. But he was always ready to make up a table at bridge; and a shrewd capable player he was, too.
The music in the ballroom stopped.
“Will you be so good, Miss Killigrew, as to tell me why you Americans call a palace like this—a cottage?” Lord Monckton’s voice was pleasing, with only a slight accent.
“I’m sure I do not know. If it were mine, I’d call it a villa.”
“Do you like Americans?”
“I have no preference for any people. I prefer individuals. I had much rather talk to an enlightened Chinaman than to an unenlightened white man.”
“I am afraid you are what they call blase.”
“Perhaps I am not quite at ease yet. I was buffeted about a deal in the old days.”
Lord Monckton dropped back into the wicker chair, in the deep shadow. Kitty did not move. She wondered what Thomas was doing. (Thomas was rubbing ointment on his raw knuckles.)
“I am very fond of the sea,” remarked Lord Monckton. “I have seen some odd parts of it. Every man has his Odyssey, his Aeneid.”
Aeneid. It seemed to Kitty that her body had turned that instant into marble as cold as that under her palms.
The coal of the man’s cigar glowed intermittently. She could see nothing else.
Thomas slammed the ball with a force which carried it far over the wire backstop.
“You must not drive them so hard, Mr. Webb; at least, not up. Drive them down. Try it again.”
Tennis looked so easy from the sidelines that Thomas believed all he had to do was to hit the ball whenever he saw it within reach; but after a few experiments he accepted the fact that every game required a certain talent, quite as distinct as that needed to sell green neckties (old stock) when the prevailing fashion was polka-dot blue. How he loathed Thomas Webb. How he loathed the impulse which had catapulted him into this mad whirligig! Why had not fate left him in peace; if not satisfied with his lot, at least resigned? And now must come this confrontation, the inevitable! No poor rat in a trap could have felt more harassed. Mentally, he went round and round in circles, but he could find no exit. There is no file to saw the bars of circumstance.
That the lithe young figure on the other side of the net, here, there, backward and forward, alert, accurate, bubbling with energy . . . Once, a mad rollicking impulse seized and urged him to vault the net and take her in his arms and hold her still for a moment. But he knew. She was using him as an athlete uses a trainer before a real contest.
There was something more behind his stroke than mere awkwardness. It was downright savagery. Generally when a man is in anger or despair he longs to smash things; and these inoffensive tennis-balls were to Thomas a gift of the gods. Each time one sailed away over the backstop, it was like the pop of a safety-valve; it averted an explosion.