“And yet—” he began.
He broke off abruptly in his speech. The hall seemed suddenly full of voices. Jane rose to her feet at the sound of approaching footsteps. She made the slightest possible grimace, but Tallente was oppressed with a suspicion that the interruption was not altogether unwelcome to her.
“Some of my cousins and their friends from Minehead,” she said. “I am so sorry. I expect they have lost the hunt and come here for tea.”
The room was almost instantly invaded by a company of light-hearted, noisy young people, flushed with exercise and calling aloud for tea, intimates all of them, calling one another by their Christian names, speaking a jargon which sounded to Tallente like another language. He stayed for a quarter of an hour and then took his leave. Of the newcomers, no one seemed to have an idea who he was, no one seemed to care in the least whether he remained or went, He was only able to snatch a word of farewell with Jane at the door. She shook her head at his whispered request.
“I am afraid not,” she answered. “How could I? Besides, there is no telling when this crowd will go. You are sure you won’t let me send you home?”
Tallente shook his head.
“The walk will do me good,” he said. “I get lazy in town. But you are sure—”
The butler was holding open the door. Two of the girls had suddenly taken possession of Jane. She shook her head slightly.
“Good-by,” she called out. “Come and see me next time you are down.”
Tallente was suddenly his old self, grave and severe. He bowed stiffly in response to the little chorus of farewells and followed the butler down the hall. The latter, who was something of a politician, did his best to indicate by his manner his appreciation of Tallente’s position.
“You are sure you won’t allow me to order a car, sir?” he said, with his hand upon the door. “I know her ladyship would be only too pleased. It’s a long step to the Manor, and if you’ll forgive my saying so, sir, you’ve a good deal on your shoulders just now.”
Tallente caught a glimpse of the bleak moorland and of the distant hills, wrapped in mist. The idea of vigorous exercise, however, appealed to him. He shook his head.
“I’d rather walk, thanks,” he said.
“It’s a matter of five miles, sir.”
Tallente smiled. There was something in the fresh, cold air wonderfully alluring after the atmosphere of the room he had quitted. He turned his coat collar up and strode down the avenue.
Tallente reached the Manor about an hour and a half later, mud-splashed, wet and weary. Robert followed him into the study and mixed him a whisky and soda.
“You’ve walked all the way back, sir?” he remarked, with a note of protest in his tone.
“They offered me a car,” Tallente admitted. “I didn’t want it. I came down for fresh air and exercise.”