Again the Colonel assimilated the hint, but preferred to dissemble. “Oh, you can’t steal him from me, Cardigan,” he laughed. “I warn you in advance—so spare yourself the effort.”
“I’ll try anything once,” Bryce retorted with equal good nature. “However, I don’t want to steal him from you. I want to ascertain from him where he procured this burl. There may be more of the same in the neighbourhood where he got this.”
“He wouldn’t tell you.”
“He might. I’m a persuasive little cuss when I choose to exert myself.”
“Rondeau is not communicative. He requires lots of persuading.”
“What delicious soup!” Bryce murmured blandly. “Miss Sumner, may I have a cracker?”
The dinner passed pleasantly; the challenge and defiance between guest and host had been so skillfully and gracefully exchanged that Shirley hadn’t the slightest suspicion that these two well-groomed men had, under her very nose, as it were, agreed to be enemies and then, for the time being, turned their attention to other and more trifling matters. Coffee was served in the living room, and through the fragrant smoke of Pennington’s fifty-cent perfectos a sprightly three-cornered conversation continued for an hour. Then the Colonel, secretly enraged at the calm, mocking, contemplative glances which Bryce ever and anon bestowed upon him, and unable longer to convince himself that he was too apprehensive—that this cool young man knew nothing and would do nothing even if he knew something—rose, pleaded the necessity for looking over some papers, and bade Bryce good-night. Foolishly he proffered Bryce a limp hand; and a demon of deviltry taking possession of the latter, this time he squeezed with a simple, hearty earnestness, the while he said:
“Colonel Pennington, I hope I do not have to assure you that my visit here this evening has not only been delightful but—er—instructive. Good-night, sir, and pleasant dreams.”
With difficulty the Colonel suppressed a groan. However, he was not the sort of man who suffers in silence; for a minute later the butler, leaning over the banisters as his master climbed the stairs to his library, heard the latter curse with an eloquence that was singularly appealing.
Colonel Seth Pennington looked up sourly as a clerk entered his private office. “Well?” he demanded brusquely. When addressing his employees, the Colonel seldom bothered to assume his pontifical manner.
“Mr. Bryce Cardigan is waiting to see you, sir.”
“Very well. Show him in.”
Bryce entered. “Good morning, Colonel,” he said pleasantly and brazenly thrust out his hand.
“Not for me, my boy,” the Colonel assured him. “I had enough of that last night. We’ll just consider the hand-shaking all attended to, if you please. Have a chair; sit down and tell me what I can do to make you happy.”