“But law, you know, is not an absolute word.”
Mr. Wishart scented danger. “I can’t argue against your subtleties, but my mind is clear; and I can respect no man who could think otherwise.”
Lewis reddened and looked appealingly at Alice. She, too, was uncomfortable. Her opinions sounded less convincing when stated dogmatically by her father.
Mr. Stocks saw his chance and took it.
“Did you ever happen to be in such a crisis as you speak of, Mr. Haystoun? You have travelled a great deal.”
“I have never had occasion to put a man to death,” said Lewis, seeing the snare and scorning to avoid it.
“But you have had difficulties?”
“Once I had to flog a couple of men. It was not pleasant, and worst of all it did no good.”
“Irrational violence seldom does,” grunted Mr. Wishart.
“No, for, as I was going to say, it was a clear case where the men should have been put to death. They had deserved it, for they had disobeyed me, and by their disobedience caused the death of several innocent people. They decamped shortly afterwards, and all but managed to block our path. I blame myself still for not hanging them.”
A deep silence hung over the table. Mr. Wishart and the Andrews stared with uncomprehending faces. Mr. Stocks studied his plate, and Alice looked on the speaker with eyes in which unwilling respect strove with consternation.
Only the culprit was at his ease. The discomfort of these good people for a moment amused him. Then the sight of Alice’s face, which he wholly misread, brought him back to decent manners.
“I am afraid I have shocked you,” he said simply. “If one knocks about the world one gets a different point of view.”
Mr. Wishart restrained a flood of indignation with an effort. “We won’t speak on the subject,” he said. “I confess I have my prejudices.”
Mr. Stocks assented with a smile and a sigh. In the drawing-room afterwards Lewis was presented with the olive-branch of peace. He had to attend Mrs. Andrews to the piano and listen to her singing of a sentimental ballad with the face of a man in the process of enjoyment. Soon he pleaded the four miles of distance and the dark night, and took his leave. His spirits had in a measure returned. Alice had not been gracious, but she had shown no scorn. And her spell at the first sight of her was woven a thousand-fold over his heart.
He found her alone for one moment in the hall.
“Alice—Miss Wishart, may I come and see you? It is a pity such near neighbours should see so little of each other.”
His hesitation made him cloak a despairing request in the garb of a conventional farewell.
The girl had the sense to pierce the disguise. “You may come and see us, if you like, Mr. Haystoun. We shall be at home all next week.”
“I shall come very soon,” he cried, and he was whirled away from the light; with the girl’s face framed in the arch of the doorway making a picture for his memory.