“Yes, it’s right. I’ll help you with the rest. If Dr. Ashton—”
“Why, Val! Is it you? I heard Lord Hartledon had come down.”
Percival Elster turned. A lad of seventeen had come bounding in at the window. It was Dr. Ashton’s eldest living son, Arthur. Anne was twenty-one. A son, who would have been nineteen now, had died; and there was another, John, two years younger than Arthur.
“How are you, Arthur, boy?” cried Val. “Edward hasn’t come. Who told you he had?”
“Mother Gum. I have just met her.”
“She told you wrong. He will be down to-morrow. Is that Dr. Ashton?”
Attracted perhaps by the voices, Dr. and Mrs. Ashton, who were then out on the lawn, came round to the window. Percival Elster grasped a hand of each, and after a minute or two’s studied coldness, the doctor thawed. It was next to impossible to resist the genial manner, the winning attractions of the young man to his face. But Dr. Ashton could not approve of his line of conduct; and had sore doubts whether he had done right in allowing him to become the betrothed of his dearly-loved daughter.
The guests had arrived, and Hartledon was alive with bustle and lights. The first link in the chain, whose fetters were to bind more than one victim, had been forged. Link upon link; a heavy, despairing burden no hand could lift; a burden which would have to be borne for the most part in dread secrecy and silence.
Mirrable had exerted herself to good purpose, and Mirrable was capable of it when occasion needed. Help had been procured from Calne, and on the Friday evening several of the Hartledon servants arrived from the town-house. “None but a young man would have put us to such a rout,” quoth Mirrable, in her privileged freedom; “my lord and lady would have sent a week’s notice at least.” But when Lord Hartledon arrived on the Saturday evening with his guests, Mirrable was ready for them.
She stood at the entrance to receive them, in her black-silk gown and lace cap, its broad white-satin strings falling on either side the bunch of black ringlets that shaded her thin face. Who, to look at her quick, sharp countenance, with its practical sense, her active frame, her ready speech, her general capability, would believe her to be sister to that silly, dreaming Mrs. Gum? But it was so. Lord Hartledon, kind, affable, unaffected as ever was his brother Percival, shook hands with her heartily in the eyes of his guests before he said a word of welcome to them; and one of those guests, a remarkably broad woman, with a red face, a wide snub nose, and a front of light flaxen hair, who had stepped into the house leaning on her host’s arm—having, in fact, taken it unasked, and seemed to be assuming a great deal of authority—turned round to stare at Mirrable, and screwed her little light eyes together for a better view.