“I must talk shop,” cried Lady Manorwater when they were seated at table. “Lewie, have you heard the news that poor Sir Robert has retired? What a treasure of a cook you have, sir! The poor man is going to travel, as his health is bad; he wrote me this morning. Now who is to take his place? And I wish you’d get me the recipe for this tomato soup.”
Lewis unravelled the tangled skein of his aunt’s questions.
“I heard about Merkland last night from Wratislaw. I think, perhaps, I had better make a confession to everybody. I never intended to bother with party politics, at least not for a good many years, but some people want me to stand, so I have agreed. You will have a very weak opponent, Stocks, so I hope you will pardon my impertinence in trying the thing.”
The candidate turned a little pale, but he smiled gallantly.
“I shall be glad to have so distinguished an opponent. But I thought that yesterday you would never have dreamed of the thing.”
“No more I should; but Wratislaw talked to me seriously and I was persuaded.”
Wratislaw tried to look guileless, failed signally, and detected a sudden unfavourable glance from Mr. Stocks in his direction.
“We must manage everything as pleasantly as possible. You have my aunt and my uncle and Arthur on your side, while I have George, who doesn’t count in this show, and I hope Wratislaw. I’ll give you a three days’ start if you like in lieu of notice.” And the young man laughed as if the matter were the simplest of jokes.
The laugh jarred very seriously on one listener. To Alice the morning had been full of vexations, for Mr. Stocks had again sought her company, and wearied her with a new manner of would-be gallantry which sat ill upon him. She had come to Etterick with a tenderness towards Lewis which was somewhat dispelled by his newly-disclosed political aims. It meant that the Glenavelin household, including herself, would be in a different camp for three dreary weeks, and that Mr. Stocks would claim more of her society than ever. With feminine inconsistency she visited her repugnance towards that gentleman on his innocent rival. But Mr. Lewis Haystoun’s light-hearted manner of regarding the business struck the little Puritan deeper. Politics had always been a thing of the gravest import in her eyes, bound up with a man’s duty and honour and religion, and lo! here was this Gallio who not only adorned a party she had been led to regard as reprobate, but treated the whole affair as a half-jocular business, on which one should not be serious. It was sheer weakness, her heart cried out, the weakness of the philanderer, the half-hearted. In her vexation her interest flew in sympathy to Mr. Stocks, and she viewed him for the occasion with favour.
“You are far too frivolous about it,” she cried. “How can you fight if you are not in earnest, and how can you speak things you only half believe? I hate to think of men playing at politics.” And she had set her little white teeth, and sat flushed and diffident, a Muse of Protest.