Tea that evening was partaken of in a fearsome silence. The tide had been at its highest when the children had arrived at Jagborough Cove, so there had been no sands to play on—a circumstance that the aunt had overlooked in the haste of organising her punitive expedition. The tightness of Bobby’s boots had had disastrous effect on his temper the whole of the afternoon, and altogether the children could not have been said to have enjoyed themselves. The aunt maintained the frozen muteness of one who has suffered undignified and unmerited detention in a rain-water tank for thirty-five minutes. As for Nicholas, he, too, was silent, in the absorption of one who has much to think about; it was just possible, he considered, that the huntsman would escape with his hounds while the wolves feasted on the stricken stag.
“You look worried, dear,” said Eleanor.
“I am worried,” admitted Suzanne; “not worried exactly, but anxious. You see, my birthday happens next week—”
“You lucky person,” interrupted Eleanor; “my birthday doesn’t come till the end of March.”
“Well, old Bertram Kneyght is over in England just now from the Argentine. He’s a kind of distant cousin of my mother’s, and so enormously rich that we’ve never let the relationship drop out of sight. Even if we don’t see him or hear from him for years he is always Cousin Bertram when he does turn up. I can’t say he’s ever been of much solid use to us, but yesterday the subject of my birthday cropped up, and he asked me to let him know what I wanted for a present.”
“Now I understand the anxiety,” observed Eleanor.
“As a rule when one is confronted with a problem like that,” said Suzanne, “all one’s ideas vanish; one doesn’t seem to have a desire in the world. Now it so happens that I have been very keen on a little Dresden figure that I saw somewhere in Kensington; about thirty-six shillings, quite beyond my means. I was very nearly describing the figure, and giving Bertram the address of the shop. And then it suddenly struck me that thirty-six shillings was such a ridiculously inadequate sum for a man of his immense wealth to spend on a birthday present. He could give thirty-six pounds as easily as you or I could buy a bunch of violets. I don’t want to be greedy, of course, but I don’t like being wasteful.”
“The question is,” said Eleanor, “what are his ideas as to present-giving? Some of the wealthiest people have curiously cramped views on that subject. When people grow gradually rich their requirements and standard of living expand in proportion, while their present-giving instincts often remain in the undeveloped condition of their earlier days. Something showy and not-too-expensive in a shop is their only conception of the ideal gift. That is why even quite good shops have their counters and windows crowded with things worth about four shillings that look as if they might be worth seven-and-six, and are priced at ten shillings and labelled seasonable gifts.’”