’There is nothing the matter, and I am delighted to see you, and’—with a sudden inspiration—’if you will be good enough to stay and have tea with me I will ask Mrs. Barton to send in one of her excellent tea-cakes.’
This was evidently what Lady Betty wanted, for she nodded and took off her hat, and began to unbutton her long tan-coloured gloves in a cool, business-like way that amused me. I ran across to the kitchen, and gave Mrs. Barton a carte blanche for a sumptuous tea, and when I returned I found Lady Betty quite divested of her walking-apparel, and patting her dark fluffy hair to reduce it to some degree of smoothness. She had a pretty little head, and it was covered by a mass of short curly hair that nothing would reduce to order.
‘This is just what I like,’ she said promptly. ’When Giles told us about you, and I made up my mind to call, I hoped you would ask me to stay. I do dislike stiffness and conventionality excessively. I hope you mean to be friends with us, Miss Garston, for I have taken rather a fancy to you, in spite of your grave looks. Dear me! do you always look so grave?’
‘Oh no,’ I returned, laughing.
‘That is right,’ with an approving nod; ’you look ever so much nicer and younger when you smile. Well, what did the prime minister say? Was she very gushing and sympathetic? Did she patronise you in a ladylike way, and pat you on the head metaphorically, until you felt ready to box her ears? Ah! I know la belle cousine’s little ways.’
This was so exact a description of my conversation with Miss Darrell that I laughed in a rather guilty fashion. Lady Betty clapped her hands delightfully.
’Oh, I have found you out. You are not a bit solemn, really, only you put on the airs of a sister of mercy. So you don’t like Etta; you need not be afraid of telling me so; she is the greatest humbug in the world, only Giles is so foolish as to believe in her. I call her a humbug because she pretends to be what she is not; she is really a most prosaic sort of person, and she wants to make people believe that she is a soft romantic body.’
’You are not very charitable in your estimate of your cousin, Lady Betty,’
’Then she should not lead Gladys such a life. Poor dear majesty, to be ruled by her prime minister! I should like to see Etta try to dictate to me. Why, I should laugh in her face. She would not attempt it again. I can’t think how it is,’ looking a little grave, ’that she has Gladys so completely under her thumb. Gladys is too proud to own that she is afraid of her, but all the same she never dares to act in opposition to Etta.’
Lady Betty’s confidence was rather embarrassing, but I hardly knew how to check it. I began to think the household at Gladwyn must be a very queer one. Uncle Max had already hinted at a want of harmony between Mr. Hamilton and his step-sisters, and Miss Darrell seemed hardly a favourite with him, although he was too kind-hearted to say so openly.