George was gazing over the balcony when the voice spoke behind him, and the muscles of his back stiffened as he recognized its genial note. This was one of the things he had prepared himself for, but, now that it had happened, he felt a wave of stage-fright such as he had only once experienced before in his life—on the occasion when he had been young enough and inexperienced enough to take a curtain-call on a first night. Reggie Byng was friendly, and would not wilfully betray him; but Reggie was also a babbler, who could not be trusted to keep things to himself. It was necessary, he perceived, to take a strong line from the start, and convince Reggie that any likeness which the latter might suppose that he detected between his companion of that afternoon and the waiter of tonight existed only in his heated imagination.
As George turned, Reggie’s pleasant face, pink with healthful exercise and Lord Marshmoreton’s finest Bollinger, lost most of its colour. His eyes and mouth opened wider. The fact is Reggie was shaken. All through the earlier part of the evening he had been sedulously priming himself with stimulants with a view to amassing enough nerve to propose to Alice Faraday: and, now that he had drawn her away from the throng to this secluded nook and was about to put his fortune to the test, a horrible fear swept over him that he had overdone it. He was having optical illusions.
Reggie loosened his collar, and pulled himself together.
“Would you mind taking a glass of lemonade to the lady in blue sitting on the settee over there by the statue,” he said carefully.
He brightened up a little.
“Pretty good that! Not absolutely a test sentence, perhaps, like ‘Truly rural’ or ‘The intricacies of the British Constitution’. But nevertheless no mean feat.”
“I say!” he continued, after a pause.
“You haven’t ever seen me before by any chance, if you know what I mean, have you?”
“You haven’t a brother, or anything of that shape or order, have you, no?”
“No, sir. I have often wished I had. I ought to have spoken to father about it. Father could never deny me anything.”
Reggie blinked. His misgiving returned. Either his ears, like his eyes, were playing him tricks, or else this waiter-chappie was talking pure drivel.
“What did you say?”
“I said, ’No, sir, I have no brother’.”
“Didn’t you say something else?”
Reggie’s worst suspicions were confirmed.
“Good God!” he muttered. “Then I am!”
Miss Faraday, when he joined her on the settee, wanted an explanation.
“What were you talking to that man about, Mr. Byng? You seemed to be having a very interesting conversation.”