“Heir-presumptive to what?” asked the dowager snapping at the words.
“He heir to Hartledon! Don’t trouble yourself, young man, to imagine that Val Elster’s ever likely to come into Hartledon. Do you want to shoot his lordship, as he was shot?”
The uncalled-for retort, the strangely intemperate tones, the quick passionate fling of the hand towards the portrait astonished young Carteret not a little. Others were surprised also; and not one present but stared at the speaker. But she said no more. The pea-green turban and flaxen curls were nodding ominously; and that was all.
The animus to Val Elster was very marked. Lord Hartledon glanced at his brother with a smile, and led the way back to the other drawing-room. At that moment the butler announced dinner; the party filed across the hall to the fine old dining-room, and began finding their seats.
“I shall sit there, Val. You can take a chair at the side.”
Val did look surprised at this. He was about to take the foot of his brother’s table, as usual; and there was the pea-green turban standing over him, waiting to usurp it. It would have been quite beyond Val Elster, in his sensitiveness, to tell her she should not have it; but he did feel annoyed. He was sweet-tempered, however. Moreover, he was a gentleman, and only waited to make one remark.
“I fear you will not like this place, ma’am. Won’t it look odd to see a lady at the bottom of the table?”
“I have promised my dear nephew to act as mistress, and to see after his guests; and I don’t choose to sit at the side under those circumstances.” But she had looked at Lord Hartledon, and hesitated before she spoke. Perhaps she thought his lordship would resign the head of the table to her, and take the foot himself. If so, she was mistaken.
“You will be more comfortable at the side, Lady Kirton,” cried Lord Hartledon, when he discovered what the bustle was about.
“Not at all, Hartledon; not at all.”
“But I like my brother to face me, ma’am. It is his accustomed place.”
Remonstrance was useless. The dowager nodded her pea-green turban, and firmly seated herself. Val Elster dexterously found a seat next Lady Maude; and a gay gleam of triumph shot out of his deep-blue eyes as he glanced at the dowager. It was not the seat she would have wished him to take; but to interfere again might have imperilled her own place. Maude laughed. She did not care for Val—rather despised him in her heart; but he was the most attractive man present, and she liked admiration.
Another link in the chain! For how many, many days and years, dating from that evening, did that awful old woman take a seat, at intervals, at Lord Hartledon’s table, and assume it as a right!