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THE SMOKE OF HIDDEN FIRES.
"No, I don't like turn-down collars," remarked Daisy Medland.
"I'm very sorry," said Norburn. "You never said so before, and they're so comfortable."
"And why don't you wear a high hat, and a frock-coat? It looks so much better. Mr.--well, Mr. Coxon always does when he goes anywhere in the afternoon."
"I didn't know Coxon was your standard of perfection, Daisy. He didn't use to be in the old days."
"Oh, it's not only Mr. Coxon."
"I know it isn't," replied Norburn significantly.
"I wonder the Governor lets you come in that hat," continued Daisy, scornfully eyeing Norburn's unconventional headgear.
"It's very like your father's."
"My father's not a young man. What would you think if the Governor laid foundation-stones in a short jacket and a hat like yours?"
"I should think him a very sensible man."
"Well, I should think him a guy," said Miss Medland, with intense emphasis.
This method of treating an old friend galled Norburn excessively. When anger is in, the brains are out.
"I suppose Mr. Derosne is your ideal," he said.
Daisy accepted the opening of hostilities with alacrity.
"He dresses just perfectly," she remarked, "and he doesn't bore one with politics."
This latter remark was rather shameless, for Daisy was generally a keen partisan of her father's, and very ready to listen to anything connected with his public doings.
"You never used to say that sort of thing to me."
"Oh,'used!' I believe you've said 'used' six times in ten minutes! Am I always to go on talking as I used when I was in the nursery? I say it now anyhow, Mr. Norburn."
Norburn took up the despised hat. Looking at it now through Daisy's eyes he could not maintain that it was a handsome hat.
"It's your own fault. You began it," said Daisy, stifling a pang of compunction, for she really liked him very much, else why should she mind what he wore?
"I began it?"
"Yes. By--by dragging in Mr. Derosne."
"I only mentioned him as an example of fashionable youth."
"You know you wouldn't like it if I went about in dowdy old things."
"I don't mind a bit what you wear. It's all the same to me."
"How very peculiar you are!" exclaimed Daisy, with a look of compassionate amazement. "Most people notice what I wear. Oh, and I've got a charming dress for the flower-show at Government House."
"You're invited, are you?" asked Norburn, with an ill-judged exhibition of surprise.
"Of course I'm invited."
"I'm sorry to hear it."
"Why, pray, Mr. Norburn? Are you going?"
"Yes. I suppose I must."
"Not in that hat!" implored Daisy.
"Certainly," answered Norburn, though it is doubtful if he had in truth intended to do so, but for Daisy's taunts.
A tragic silence followed. At last, Miss Medland exclaimed,
"What will Lady Eynesford think of my friends?"
"I didn't know you cared so much for what Lady Eynesford thought. Besides, I need not present myself in that character."
"Oh, if you're going to be disagreeable!"
"For my part, I'm sorry you're going at all."
"Thank you. Is that because I shall enjoy it?"
"I don't care for that sort of society."
"I like it above everything."
Matters having thus reached a direct issue, Norburn clapped the causa belli on his head, and walked out of the room, dimly conscious that he had done himself as much harm as he possibly could in the space of a quarter of an hour. When he grew cool, he confessed that the momentary, if real, pleasure of being unpleasant was somewhat dearly bought at the cost of enmity with Daisy Medland. Indeed this unhappy young man, for all that his whole soul was by way of being absorbed in reconstructing society, would have thought most things a bad bargain at such a price. But his bitterness had been too strong. It seemed as though all his devotion, ay, and--he did not scruple to say to himself--all his real gifts were to weigh as nothing against the cut of a coat and the "sit" of a cravat--for to such elemental constituents his merciless and jealous analysis reduced poor Dick Derosne's attractions.
Little recked Dick of Norburn's feelings in the glow of his triumph. He was convinced that he alone had persuaded Lady Eynesford into including Daisy in her invitation to luncheon at the opening of the flower-show. It would have been a pity, in the mere interests of truth, to interfere with this conceit of Dick's, and Eleanor forbore to disclose her own share in the matter, or to hint at that long interview between the Governor and his wife.
"We shall live to regret it," said Lady Eynesford, "but it shall be as you wish, Willie."
So the Medlands came with the rest of the world to the flower-show, and were received with due ceremony and regaled with suitable fare. And afterwards the Governor took Daisy for a stroll through the tents, and, having thus done his duty handsomely, handed her over to Dick; but she and Dick found the tents stuffy and crowded, and sat down under the trees and enjoyed themselves very much, until Mr. Puttock espied them and came up to them, accompanied by a friend.
"I hope you're not very angry with me, Miss Daisy?" said Puttock, thinking she might resent his desertion of the Premier.
"Oh, but I am!" said Daisy, and truly enough, whatever the reason might be.
"Well, you mustn't visit it on my friend here, who is anxious to make your acquaintance. Miss Medland--Mr. Benham."
Benham sat down and began to make himself agreeable. He had a flow of conversation, and seemed in no hurry to move. Captain Heseltine appeared with a summons for Dick, who sulkily obeyed. Puttock caught sight of Jewell, and, with an apology, pursued him. Benham sat talking to Daisy Medland. Presently he proposed they should go where they would see the people better, and Daisy, who was bored, eagerly acquiesced. They took a seat by the side of the broad gravel walk.
"Will no one rescue me?" thought Daisy.
"He's bound to pass soon," thought Benham.
Benham's wish was the first to be fulfilled. Before long the Premier came in sight, accompanied by Coxon.
"Ah, there's your daughter," said the latter. "You were wondering where she was."
Medland looked, and saw Daisy and Benham sitting side by side. He quickened his pace and went up to them. Benham rose and took off his hat. Medland ignored him.
"I was looking for you, Daisy," he said. "I want you."
Daisy stood up, with relief.
"Good day, Mr. Medland," said Benham. "I have enjoyed making" (he paused, but barely perceptibly) "Miss Medland's acquaintance."
Medland bowed coldly.
"Mr. Puttock was good enough to introduce me."
"I am ready, father," said Daisy. "Good-bye, Mr. Benham."
Benham took her offered hand, and, with a smile, held it for a moment longer than sufficed for an ordinary farewell. Still holding it, he began--
"I hope we shall meet often in the future and--"
Medland, in a sudden fit of anger, seized his daughter's arm and drew it away.
"I do not desire your acquaintance, sir," he said, in loud, harsh tones, "for myself or my daughter."
Benham smiled viciously; Coxon, who stood by, watched the scene closely.
"Ah!" said Benham, "perhaps not; but you know me--and so will she," and he in his turn raised his voice in growing excitement.
Daisy, frightened at the angry interview, clung to Medland's arm, looking in wonder from him to Benham. Some half-dozen people, seeing the group, stopped for a moment in curiosity and, walking on, cast glances back over their shoulders. A lull in the babble of conversation warned Medland, and he looked round. Alicia Derosne was passing by in company with the Chief Justice. Near at hand stood Kilshaw, watching the encounter with a sneering smile. The Chief Justice stepped up to Medland.
"What's the matter?" he asked, in a low tone.
"Nothing," said Medland. "Only I do not wish my daughter to talk to this gentleman."
The contempt of his look and tone goaded Benham to fury.
"I don't care what you wish," he exclaimed. "I have as good a right as anybody to talk to the young lady, considering that she's----"
Before he could finish his sentence, Kilshaw darted up to him, and caught him by the arm.
"Not yet, you fool," he whispered, drawing the angry man away.
Benham yielded, and Kilshaw caught Medland's look of surprise.
"Come, Mr. Benham," he said aloud, "you and Mr. Medland must settle your differences, if you have any, elsewhere."
Medland glanced sharply at him, but accepted the cue.
"You are right," he said. "Come, Daisy," and he walked away with his daughter on his arm, while Kilshaw led Benham off in the opposite direction, talking to him urgently in a low voice. Benham shook his head again and again in angry protest, seeming to ask why he had not been allowed his own way.
The group of people passed on, amid inquiries who Benham was, and conjectures as to the cause of the Premier's anger.
"Now what in the world," asked Sir John, fitting his pince-nez more securely on his nose, "do you make of that, Miss Derosne?"
Sir John thought that he was addressing an indifferent spectator, and Alicia's manner did not undeceive him.
"How should I know, Sir John? It must have been politics."
"They wouldn't talk politics here--and, if they did, Medland would not quarrel about them."
"Did you hear what he said, Chief Justice?" asked Coxon.
"Yes, I heard."
"Curious, isn't it?"
"It's most tantalisingly curious," said Sir John.
"But, all the same, we mustn't forget the flowers," remarked Alicia, with affected gaiety.
They moved on, and the onlookers, still canvassing the incident, scattered their various ways.
It was Coxon who told Lady Eynesford about it afterwards, and her comment to the Governor that evening at dinner was,
"There, Willie! Didn't I tell you something horrid would come of having those people?"
No one answered her. The Governor knew better than to encourage a discussion. Dick swore softly under his breath at Coxon, and Alicia began to criticise Lady Perry's costume. Lady Eynesford followed up her triumph.
"I hope all you Medlandites are satisfied now," she said.
And Lady Eynesford was not the only person who found some satisfaction in this unfortunate incident, for when Daisy told Norburn about it, he remarked, with an extraordinary want of reason,
"I knew you'd be sorry you went."
"I'm not at all sorry," protested Daisy. "But why was father angry?"
"I'm sure I don't know. Didn't he tell you?"
"Oh, I recollect. This Benham has been worrying him about some appointment."
"That doesn't account for his saying that he had as good a right as anybody to talk to me. I don't understand it."
"Well, neither do I. But you would go."
"Really, you're too absurd," said Daisy pettishly.
And poor Norburn knew that he was very absurd, and yet could not help being very absurd, although he despised himself for it.
The real truth was that Daisy had told him that, except for this one occurrence, she had had a most charming afternoon, and that Dick Derosne had been kindness itself.
This was enough to make even a rising statesman angry, and, when angry, absurd.
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