“I’m sure I don’t know, sir,” answered Mirrable, after a pause, which Mr. Elster thought was involuntary; for she was busy at the moment rubbing the coffee-pot with some wash-leather, her head and face bent over it, as she stood with her back to him. He slipped off the table, and went up to her.
“I saw smoke rising from the shed, and asked Capper what it meant, and she told me about this man Pike. Pike! It’s a curious name.”
Mirrable rubbed away, never answering.
“Capper said he had been suspected of firing the shot that killed my brother,” he continued, in low tones. “Did you ever hear of such a hint, Mirrable?”
Mirrable darted off to the fireplace, and began stirring the milk lest it should boil over. Her face was almost buried in the saucepan, or Mr. Elster might have seen the sudden change that came over it; the thin cheeks that had flushed crimson, and now were deadly white. Lifting the saucepan on to the hob, she turned to Mr. Elster.
“Don’t you believe any such nonsense, sir,” she said, in tones of strange emphasis. “It was no more Pike than it was me. The man keeps himself to himself, and troubles nobody; and for that very reason idle folk carp at him, like the mischief-making idiots they are!”
“I thought there was nothing in it,” remarked Mr. Elster.
“I’m sure there isn’t,” said Mirrable, conclusively. “Would you like some broiled ham, sir?”
“I should like anything good and substantial, for I’m as hungry as a hunter. But, Mirrable, you don’t ask what has brought me here so suddenly.”
The tone was significant, and Mirrable looked at him. There was a spice of mischief in his laughing blue eyes.
“I come on a mission to you; an avant-courier from his lordship, to charge you to have all things in readiness. To-morrow you will receive a houseful of company; more than Hartledon will hold.”
Mirrable looked aghast. “It is one of your jokes, Mr. Val!”
“Indeed, it is the truth. My brother will be down with a trainful; and desires that everything shall be ready for their reception.”
“My patience!” gasped Mirrable. “And the servants, sir?”
“Most of them will be here to-night. The Countess-Dowager of Kirton is coming as Hartledon’s mistress for the time being.”
“Oh!” said Mirrable, who had once had the honour of seeing the Countess-Dowager of Kirton. And the monosyllable was so significant that Val Elster drew down the corners of his mouth.
“I don’t like the Countess-Dowager, sir,” remarked Mirrable in her freedom.
“I can’t bear her,” returned Val Elster.
Had Percival Elster lingered ever so short a time near the clerk’s house that morning he would have met that functionary himself; for in less than a minute after he had passed out of sight Jabez Gum’s door opened, and Jabez Gum glided out of it.