“How are you, Mr. Ducaine?” he said. “Awful hour to be out of bed, isn’t it? and all for the slaying of a few fat and innocent birds. Let me see, wasn’t I at Magdalen with you?”
“I came up in your last year,” I reminded him.
“Ah, yes, I remember,” he drawled. “Terrible close worker you were, too. Are you breakfasting down stairs, sir?”
“I think that I had better,” the Duke said. “I suppose you brought some men with you?”
“Half a dozen,” Lord Blenavon answered, “including his Royal Highness.”
The Duke thrust all his letters into his drawer, and locked them up with a little exclamation of relief.
“I will come down with you,” he said. “Mr. Ducaine, you will join us.”
I would have excused myself, for indeed I was weary, and the thought of a bath and rest at home was more attractive. But the Duke had a way of expressing his wishes in a manner which it was scarcely possible to mistake, and I gathered that he desired me to accept his invitation. We all descended the stairs together.
HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS
The long dining-room was almost filled with a troop of guests who had arrived on the previous day. Most of the men were gathered round the huge sideboard, on which was a formidable array of silver-covered hot-water dishes. Places were laid along the flower-decked table for thirty or forty. I stood apart for a few moments whilst the Duke was greeting some of his guests. Ray, who was sitting alone, motioned me to a place by him.
“Come and sit here, Ducaine,” he said; “that is,” he added, with a sudden sarcastic gleam in his dark eyes, “unless you still have what the novelists call an unconquerable antipathy to me. I don’t want to rob you of your appetite.”
“I did not expect to see you down here again so soon, Colonel Ray,” I answered gravely. “I congratulate you upon your nerves.”
Ray laughed softly to himself.
“You would have me go shuddering past the fatal spot, I suppose, with shaking knees and averted head, eh? On the contrary, I have been down on the sands for more than an hour this morning, and have returned with an excellent appetite.”
I looked at him curiously.
“I saw you returning,” I said. “Your boots looked as though you had been wading in the wet sand. You were not there without a purpose.”
“I was not,” he admitted. “I seldom do anything without a purpose.”
For a moment he abandoned the subject. He proceeded calmly with his breakfast, and addressed a few remarks to a man across the table, a man with short cropped hair and beard, and a shooting dress of sombre black.
“You are quite right,” he said, turning towards me suddenly. “I had a purpose in going there. I thought that the gentleman whose untimely fate has enlisted your sympathies might have dropped something which would have been useful to me.”