The smoking-room was fairly full, but a corner near the big open grate had just been vacated, and here, about a round table, the four disposed themselves. Our French acquaintance being in evening dress had perforce confined himself in his sartorial eccentricities to a flowing silk knot in place of the more conventional, neat bow. He was already upon delightfully friendly terms with the frigid Exel and the aristocratic Sir Brian Malpas. Few natures were proof against the geniality of the brilliant Frenchman.
Conversation drifted, derelict, from one topic to another, now seized by this current of thought, now by that; and M. Gaston Max made no perceptible attempt to steer it in any given direction. But presently:
“I was reading a very entertaining article,” said Exel, turning his monocle upon the physician, “in the Planet to-day, from the pen of Miss Cumberly; Ah! dealing with Olaf van Noord.”
Sir Brian Malpas suddenly became keenly interested.
“You mean in reference to his new picture, ’Our Lady of the Poppies’?” he said.
“Yes,” replied Exel, “but I was unaware that you knew van Noord?”
“I do not know him,” said Sir Brian, “I should very much like to meet him. But directly the picture is on view to the public I shall certainly subscribe my half-crown.”
“My own idea,” drawled Exel, “was that Miss Cumberly’s article probably was more interesting than the picture or the painter. Her description of the canvas was certainly most vivid; and I, myself, for a moment, experienced an inclination to see the thing. I feel sure, however, that I should be disappointed.”
“I think you are wrong,” interposed Cumberly. “Helen is enthusiastic about the picture, and even Miss Ryland, whom you have met and who is a somewhat severe critic, admits that it is out of the ordinary.”
Max, who covertly had been watching the face of Sir Brian Malpas, said at this point:
“I would not miss it for anything, after reading Miss Cumberly’s account of it. When are you thinking of going to see it, Sir Brian? I might arrange to join you.”
“Directly the exhibition is opened,” replied the baronet, lapsing again into his dreamy manner. “Ring me up when you are going, and I will join you.”
“But you might be otherwise engaged?”
“I never permit business,” said Sir Brian, “to interfere with pleasure.”
The words sounded absurd, but, singularly, the statement was true. Sir Brian had won his political position by sheer brilliancy. He was utterly unreliable and totally indifferent to that code of social obligations which ordinarily binds his class. He held his place by force of intellect, and it was said of him that had he possessed the faintest conception of his duties toward his fellow men, nothing could have prevented him from becoming Prime Minister. He was a puzzle to all who knew him. Following a most brilliant