Having been made once or twice before the confidant of the tempestuous romances of Billie’s friends, which always seemed to go wrong somewhere in the middle and to die a natural death before arriving at any definite point, George was not particularly interested, except in so far as the letter afforded rather comforting evidence that he was not the only person in the world who was having trouble of the kind. He skimmed through the rest of it, and had just finished when there was a sharp rap at the front door.
“Come in!” called George.
There entered a sturdy little man of middle age whom at first sight George could not place. And yet he had the impression that he had seen him before. Then he recognized him as the gardener to whom he had given the note for Maud that day at the castle. The alteration in the man’s costume was what had momentarily baffled George. When they had met in the rose-garden, the other had been arrayed in untidy gardening clothes. Now, presumably in his Sunday suit, it was amusing to observe how almost dapper he had become. Really, you might have passed him in the lane and taken him for some neighbouring squire.
George’s heart raced. Your lover is ever optimistic, and he could conceive of no errand that could have brought this man to his cottage unless he was charged with the delivery of a note from Maud. He spared a moment from his happiness to congratulate himself on having picked such an admirable go-between. Here evidently, was one of those trusty old retainers you read about, faithful, willing, discreet, ready to do anything for “the little missy” (bless her heart!). Probably he had danced Maud on his knee in her infancy, and with a dog-like affection had watched her at her childish sports. George beamed at the honest fellow, and felt in his pocket to make sure that a suitable tip lay safely therein.
“Good morning,” he said.
“Good morning,” replied the man.
A purist might have said he spoke gruffly and without geniality. But that is the beauty of these old retainers. They make a point of deliberately trying to deceive strangers as to the goldenness of their hearts by adopting a forbidding manner. And “Good morning!” Not “Good morning, sir!” Sturdy independence, you observe, as befits a free man. George closed the door carefully. He glanced into the kitchen. Mrs. Platt was not there. All was well.
“You have brought a note from Lady Maud?”
The honest fellow’s rather dour expression seemed to grow a shade bleaker.
“If you are alluding to Lady Maud Marsh, my daughter,” he replied frostily, “I have not!”
For the past few days George had been no stranger to shocks, and had indeed come almost to regard them as part of the normal everyday life; but this latest one had a stumbling effect.
“I beg your pardon?” he said.
“So you ought to,” replied the earl.
George swallowed once or twice to relieve a curious dryness of the mouth.