Dinner that night was a weary meal to the girl. Lady Manorwater prattled about the day’s events, and Lord Manorwater, hopelessly bored, ate his food in silence. The lively Bertha had gone to bed with a headache, and the younger Miss Afflint was the receptacle for the moment of her hostess’s confidences. Alice sat between Mr. Stocks and Arthur, facing a tall man with a small head and immaculate hair who had ridden over to dine and sleep. One of the two had the wisdom to see her humour and keep silent, though the thought plunged him into a sea of ugly reflections. It would be hard if, now that things were going well with him, the lady alone should prove obdurate. For in all this politician’s daydreams a dainty figure walked by his side, sat at his table’s head, received his friends, fascinated austere ministers, and filled his pipe of an evening at home.
Arthur was silent, and to him the lady turned in vain. He treated her with an elaborate politeness which sat ill on his brusque manners, and for the most part showed no desire to enliven the prevailing dulness. But after dinner he carried her off to the gardens on the plea of fresh air and a fine sunset, and the girl, who liked the boy, went gladly. Then the reason of his silence was made plain. He dismayed her by becoming lovesick.
“Tell me your age, Alice,” he implored.
“I am twenty at Christmas time,” said the girl, amazed at the question.
“And I am seventeen or very nearly that. Men sometimes marry women older than themselves, and I don’t see why I shouldn’t. Oh, Alice, promise that you will marry me. I never met a girl I liked so much, and I am sure we should be happy.”
“I am sure we should,” said the girl, laughing. “You silly boy! what put such nonsense in your head? I am far too old for you, and though I like you very much, I don’t in the least want to marry you.” She seemed to herself to have got out of a sober world into a sort of Mad Tea-party, where people behaved like pantaloons and spoke in conundrums.
The boy flushed and his eyes grew cross. “Is it somebody else?” he asked; at which the girl, with a memory of Mr. Stocks, reflected on the dreadful monotony of men’s ways.
A solution flashed upon his brain. “Are you going to marry Lewie Haystoun?” he cried in a more cheerful voice. After all, Lewis was his cousin, and a worthy rival.
Alice grew hotly uncomfortable. “I am not going to marry Mr. Lewis Haystoun, and I am not going to talk to you any more.” And she turned round with a flaming face to the cool depths of the wood.
“Then it is that fellow Stocks. Oh, Lord!” groaned Arthur, irritated into bad manners. “You can’t mean it, Alice. He’s not fit to black your boots.”
Some foolish impulse roused the girl to reply. She defended the very man against whom all the evening she had been unreasonably bitter. “You have no right to abuse him. He is your people’s guest and a very distinguished man, and you are only a foolish boy.”