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Marcia, who had dreamed all night of blue skies flecked with little fragments of white cloud, a soft west wind and sun-bathed meadows, descended the creaking stairs of the Inn at Fakenham, paused upon the broad landing to admire the great oak chests and the cupboards full of china, and then made her way to the coffee room. She found Borden standing at the window, looking down into the country street and talking with a stranger, whom he left, however, at her entrance. They took their places at the breakfast table to which a waiter ushered them.
"Still lucky," her companion remarked, as he watched Marcia pour out the coffee. "It's going to be another delightful day."
She glanced out into the sunlit street. Just opposite was a house almost hidden in clematis, and in the background was a tall row of elm trees amongst the branches of which the rooks were cawing.
"I feel like Rip van Winkle," she whispered. "Do you know that twenty-five years ago I came to what is called a Farmers' Ordinary in this very room? Tell me," she went on, "who was the man with whom you were talking? His face is quite familiar to me."
He glanced around. Thain had taken his place at the further end of the room.
"The man of whom we were speaking the other day," he said,—"David Thain. I think that you have met him, haven't you?"
"Why, of course! I didn't recognise him in tweeds. Whatever is he doing down here? But I know before you can tell me," she continued quickly. "He has taken Broomleys, hasn't he?"
"He told me that he had taken a house in the neighbourhood," Borden replied. "He is going over there this morning to meet the present occupiers."
"It is a very small world," Marcia observed. "I wonder whether he recognised me."
"Without undue flattery, I think I might say that I should think it probable."
"And of course he is imagining all sorts of improper things,—chuckling about them, I dare say, in the way men do. He is being what I suppose he thinks tactful. He never glances in this direction at all. I'll give him a surprise in a minute or two!"
They finished their breakfast, and Marcia crossed towards David's table. As soon as he was conscious of her approach, he rose. He welcomed her, however, without a smile.
"From Trewly's at dinner to the Mandeleys Arms for breakfast," she remarked, smiling. "I feel quite flattered that you remembered me, Mr. Thain."
"Did I show any signs of remembering you?" he asked a little grimly.
"Of course you didn't," she acknowledged. "You ignored even my sweetest bow. That is why I felt sure that you recognised me perfectly."
David remained silent, standing still with an air of complete but respectful patience.
"You have taken a house down here, the Marquis tells me," she continued.
"I have taken Broomleys."
"I hope that you will like the neighbourhood," she said. "I used to live here once myself."
"So I understood."
She was for a moment taken aback, conscious now of a certain definitely inimical attitude in the man who stood looking coldly into her eyes.
"You know all about me, then? That is the worst of getting into 'Who's Who.'"
"I know more about you than I do about your companion, certainly," he admitted.
She laughed mockingly. To a downright declaration of war she had no objection whatever.
"That is Mr. Borden, who publishes my stories," she told him. "I don't suppose you read them, do you?"
"I am not sure," he replied. "I read very little modern fiction, and I never look at the names of the authors."
"Then we must take it for granted," she sighed, "that my fame is unknown to you. If you should see the Marquis before I do, please tell him that he was entirely wrong about the best route here. His advice has cost us nearly thirty miles and a punctured tire. You won't forget?"
"Certainly not," he promised.
She turned away with a little nod of farewell, to which David's response was still entirely formal. Left alone in the room he resumed his breakfast, finished it with diminished appetite, and within a few minutes was speeding through the country lanes in his great Rolls-Royce car. The chauffeur sat a little uneasily in his place. It was very seldom that his master showed such signs of haste. In a quarter of an hour they were in the avenue of Mandeleys. Instead of turning to the right, however, to Broomleys, he took the turning to the Abbey and pulled up short when within a hundred yards of the house.
"Wait here for me," he directed. "If you see another car coming up, blow your horn."
He walked across the smooth, ancient turf, stepped over the wire fence and raised the latch of Richard Vont's cottage gate. His uncle, a little disturbed, came hastily down the garden path. His clothes were stained with clay, and the perspiration was on his forehead. David looked at him in surprise.
"Working so early?"
"You forget," he said, "that this is not early for me. All my life I have risen with the sun and gone to bed with it. Come inside, David. I'll get this muck off my hands. You spoke of the afternoon."
"I came direct from the village," David replied, as he followed his uncle into the house. "I came because I thought you would like to know that there is another visitor on the way to see you."
Richard Vont looked round and faced his nephew. His shirt was open at the throat, his trousers were tied up with little pieces of string. In whatever labour he had been engaged, it had obviously been of a strenuous character. He wiped the perspiration from his forehead.
"What's that, David?" he demanded. "A visitor?"
"Marcia is at the Mandeleys Arms," David told him. "I am taking it for granted that she is on her way to see you."
Vont turned deliberately away, and David heard his heavy feet ascending the staircase. In a few moments he called downstairs. His voice was as usual.
"Step round this afternoon, lad, if you think it's well."
David passed out of the little garden, crossed the strip of park, and, taking the wheel, drove slowly round by the longer route to Broomleys. He passed before the front of the Abbey—a mansion of the dead, with row after row of closed blinds, masses of smokeless chimneys, and patches of weeds growing thick in the great sweep before the house. Even with its air of pitiless desertion, its severe, semi-ecclesiastical outline, its ruined cloisters empty to the sky on one wing, its unbroken and gloomy silence, the place had its atmosphere. David slackened the speed of his car, paused for a moment and looked back at the little creeper-covered cottage on the other side of the moat. So those two had faced one another through the years—the Abbey, silent, magnificent, historical, with all the placid majesty of its countless rows of windows; its chapel, where Mandeleys for generations had been christened and buried,—at its gates the little cottage, whose garden was filled with spring flowers, and from whose single stack of chimneys the smoke curled upwards. Even while he watched, Richard Vont stood there upon the threshold with a great book under his arm.
David shivered a little as he threw in the clutch, passed on round the back of the building and through the iron gates of the ancient dower house. He felt a little sigh of relief as he pulled up in front of the long, grey house, in front of which Sylvia Laycey was waiting to receive him. She waved her hand gaily and looked with admiration at the car.
"They are all here, Mr. Thain," she exclaimed,—"Mr. Merridrew and father and your own builder. Come along and quarrel about the fixtures. I thought I had better stay with you because dad loses his temper so."
David descended almost blithely from his car. He was back again in a human atmosphere, and the pressure of the girl's fingers was an instant relief to him.
"I am not going to quarrel with any one," he declared. "I shall do exactly what Mr. Muddicombe tells me—and you."
She was a very pleasant type of young Englishwoman—distinctly pretty, fair-skinned, healthy and good-humoured. Notwithstanding the fact that their acquaintance was of the briefest, David was already conscious of her charm.
"You'll find me, in particular, very grasping," she declared, as they entered the long, low hall. "I want to make everything I can out of you, so that daddy and I can have a real good two months in London. I don't believe you know the value of things a bit, do you—except of railways and those colossal things? Cupboards, for instance? Do you know anything about cupboards? And are you going to allow us anything for the extra bathroom we put in?"
"Well, I am rather partial to bathrooms," he confessed, "and I should hate you to take it away with you."
She drew a sigh of relief.
"So long as you look upon the bathroom matter reasonably, I am quite sure we shan't quarrel. Tell me about Lady Letitia, please? Is she quite well—and the Marquis and all of them? And when are they coming down?"
"They are quite well," he told her, "and Lady Letitia sent you her love. They talk of coming down almost at once."
"I do hope they will," she replied, "because when we leave here dad and I are going to stay for a week or so with some friends quite near. There! Did you hear that noise? That's daddy stamping because he is getting impatient."
"Then perhaps—" David suggested.
"I suppose we'd better," she interrupted. "Be lenient about the bathroom, please. And if you could manage not to notice that the dining room wants papering, you'd be an angel. This way."
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