Whilst Tallente was trying to make up for the years of pleasant good-fellowship which his overstudious life had cost him and to recover touch with the friends of his earlier days, Stephen Dartrey, filled with a queer sense of impending disaster, was climbing the steps to Nora’s flat. On the last landing he lingered for a moment and clenched his fingers.
“I am a coward,” he reflected sadly. “I have asked for this and it has come.”
He stood for a moment perfectly still, with half-closed eyes, seeking for self-control very much in the fashion of a man who says a prayer to himself. Then he climbed the last few stairs, rang the bell and held out both his hands to Nora, who answered it herself.
“Commend my punctuality,” he began.
“Why call attention to the one and only masculine virtue?” she replied. “Let me take your coat.”
He straightened his tie in front of the looking-glass and turned to look at her with something like wonder in his eyes.
“Dear hostess,” he exclaimed, “what has come to you?”
“An epoch of vanity,” she declared, turning slowly around that he might appreciate better the clinging folds of her new black gown. “Don’t dare to say that you don’t like it, for heaven only knows what it cost me!”
“It isn’t only your gown—it’s your hair.”
“Coiffured,” she confided, “by an artist. Not an ordinary hairdresser at all. He only works for a few of our aristocracy and one or two leading ladies on the stage. I pulled it half down and built it up again, but it’s an improvement, isn’t it?”
“It suits you,” he admitted. “But—but your colour!”
“Natural—absolutely natural,” she insisted. “You can wet your finger and try if you like. It’s excitement. If you look into the depths of my wonderful eyes—I have got wonderful eyes, haven’t I?”
“You will see that I am suffering from suppressed excitement. To-night is quite an epoch. To tell you the truth, I am rather nervous about it.”
“Is he here?”
“You shall see him presently,” she promised. “Come along.”
“Where is Susan?” he asked, as he followed her.
“Gone out. So has my maid. I had a fancy to turn every one else out of the flat. Your only hot course will be from a chafing-dish. You see, I am anxious to impress—him—with my culinary skill. I hope you will like your dinner, but it will be rather a picnic.”