“Don’t you want tea, Maude?” suddenly cried her mother, who had cast innumerable glances at her from time to time.
“I have wanted it for hours—as it seems to me.”
“It’s a horrid custom for young men, this sitting long after dinner. If he gets into it—But you must see to that, and stop it, if ever you reign at Hartledon. I dare say he’s smoking.”
“If ever I reign at Hartledon—which I am not likely to do—I’ll take care not to wait tea for any one, as you have made me wait for it this evening,” was Maude’s rejoinder, spoken with apathy.
“I’ll send a message to him,” decided Lady Kirton, ringing rather fiercely.
A servant appeared.
“Tell Lord Hartledon we are waiting tea for him.”
“His lordship’s not in, my lady.”
“He went out directly after dinner, as soon as he had taken coffee.”
“Oh,” said the countess-dowager. And she began to make the tea with vehemence—for it did not please her to have it brought in made—and knocked down and broke one of the delicate china cups.
It was eleven o’clock when Lord Hartledon entered. Lady Kirton was fanning herself vehemently. Maude had gone upstairs for the night.
“Where have you been?” she asked, laying down her fan. “We waited tea for you until poor Maude got quite exhausted.”
“Did you? I am sorry for that. Never wait for me, pray, Lady Kirton. I took tea at the Rectory.”
“At the Rectory.”
With a shriek the countess-dowager darted to the far end of the room, turning up her gown as she went, and muffling it over her head and face, so that only the little eyes, round now with horror, were seen. Lord Hartledon gazed in amazement.
“You have been at the Rectory, when I warned you not to go! You have been inside that house of infection, and come home—here—to me—to my darling Maude! May heaven forgive you, Hartledon!”
“Why, what have I done? What harm will it do?” exclaimed the astonished man. He would have approached her, but she warned him from her piteously with her hands. She was at the upper end of the room, and he near the door, so that she could not leave it without passing him. Hedges came in, and stood staring in the same wondering astonishment as his master.
“For mercy’s sake, take off every shred of your clothes!” she cried. “You may have brought home death in them. They shall be thrown into the burning tar. Do you want to kill us? What has Maude done to you that you behave in this way?”
“I do think you must be going mad!” cried Lord Hartledon, in bewilderment; “and I hope you’ll forgive me for saying so. I—”
“Go and change your clothes!” was all she could reiterate. “Every minute you stand in them is fraught with danger. If you choose to die yourself, it’s downright wicked to bring death to us. Oh, go, that I may get out of here.”