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David Thain, a few hours later, lounged in a basket chair in the one corner of his lawn from which he could catch, through the hedge of yew trees, a furtive glimpse of Mandeleys. By his side stood a small coffee equipage and an unopened box of cigars; in the distance was the vanishing figure of the quiet-mannered and very excellent butler with whom a famous registry office had endowed his household. It was an hour of supreme ease. An unusually warm day was succeeded by an evening from which only the warmth of the sun had departed, an evening full of scents from flowers and shrubs alike, an evening during which the thrushes prolonged their music until, from somewhere in the distant groves at the back of the house, a nightingale commenced, like the tuning up of an orchestra, to make faint but sweet essays at continued song. It was as light as day but there were stars already in the sky, and a pale, colourless moon was there, waiting for the slowly moving mantle of twilight. David Thain was alone with his thoughts.
They had started somewhere in the background, in the first throb and excitement of life, in the moment when his lips had framed that horrible oath which held him now in its meshes. Then had come the real struggle, years of brilliant successes, the final coup, the stepping in a single day on to one of those pedestals which a great republic keeps for her most worshipped sons. Always it seemed to him that there was that old man in the background, waiting. At last had come the question. Yes, he was ready. He had come to England a little protesting, a little incredulous, always believing that those fierce fires which had burned for so long in the grey-haired, patient old man would have burned themselves out, or would become softened by sentimental associations as soon as he set foot in his native place. David's awakening was complete and disconcerting. The fury of Richard Vont showed no signs of abatement. He found himself committed already to one loathsome enterprise—and there was the future. He looked down gloomily at the magnificent pile below, with its many chimneys, its stretching front and far-reaching wings, and some echo of the bitterness which raged in the old man who sat and watched at its gates, found an echo in his own heart. He remembered the amusement with which that subtle but absolutely natural air of superiority, on the part of father and daughter alike, had first imbued him. Their very kindness, the frank efforts of the Marquis, as well as of Lady Letitia, to lead him into some channel of conversation in which he could easily express himself was the kindness of those belonging to another world and fearing lest the consciousness of it might depress their visitor. And with his resentment was mingled another feeling; not exactly acquiescence—his American education had been too strong for that—but admiration for those inherent gifts which seemed to bring with them a certain grace, carried into even the smaller matters of life. Perhaps he exaggerated to himself their importance as he sat there in the soft gathering twilight, poured out his neglected coffee and still played with his unlighted cigar. The rooks had ceased to caw above his head. Some of the peace of night was stealing down upon the land. In the windows of Mandeleys little pinpricks of light were beginning to show.
The iron hand-gate which led from the park into his domain was suddenly opened and closed. The way led through a grove of trees and through another gate into the garden. He turned his head and watched the spot where the figure of his visitor must appear. It was curious that from the first, although his common sense should have told him how impossible such a thing was, he had an intuitive presentiment as to who this visitor might be. He laid down the unlighted cigar upon his table and leaned a little forward in his chair. First he heard footsteps falling softly upon a carpet of pine needles and yielding turf, slowly too, as though the movements of their owner were in a sense reluctant. And then a slim, tall figure in white—a familiar figure! He was up in a moment, striding forwards. She had already passed through the gate, however, and was moving towards him across the lawn.
"Lady Letitia!" he exclaimed.
"Please don't look as though I'd done anything so terribly unusual," she begged. "What a pleasant spot you have chosen for your coffee!"
David's new treasure proved fully equal to the occasion. From some unseen point of vantage he seemed to have foretold the coming of this visitor, and prepared to minister to her entertainment. Lady Letitia sank into her chair and praised the coffee.
"So much better than the stuff we have been trying to drink," she told David. "I must bring dad round one evening. He loves good coffee. How beautiful your trees are!"
"Your trees," he reminded her.
She shrugged her shoulders.
"It seems ages since I was here," she remarked. "Sylvia was away when we were down last, and dad and Colonel Laycey were annoyed with one another about some repairs. You don't want any repairs, do you, Mr. Thain?"
"I have arranged to do whatever is necessary myself," David told her, "in consideration of a somewhat reduced rent."
"I am glad you consider it reduced!" Letitia observed. "Of course, you think I am mad to come and see you like this, don't you?" she added a little aggressively.
"Not in the least," he replied. "I should not have ventured to have expected such a visit, but now that you are here it seems quite natural."
"After all, why isn't it?" she agreed. "I walked round the garden once, thinking about a certain matter in which you are concerned, and then I walked in the park, and it occurred to me that you would probably be sitting out here, only a few hundred yards away, just as you are doing, and that you could, if you would, set my mind at rest."
"If I can do that," he said, "I am very glad that you came."
"I am going to unburden my mind, then," she continued. "It is about those shares you sold father, Mr. Thain."
His manner seemed, to her quick apprehension, instantly to stiffen. Nevertheless, he was expectant. He was willing to go through a good deal if only he could hear her voice for once falter, if even her tone would lose its half-wearied, half-insolent note, if she would raise her eyes and speak to him as woman to man.
"The Pluto Oil shares," he murmured. "Well?"
"Of course, father hadn't the least right to buy them," she went on, "because we haven't a penny in the world, and he couldn't possibly pay for them unless they fetched as much, when the payment fell due, as he gave for them. I am rather stupid at these things, Mr. Thain, but you understand?"
Her long fingers stole into the cigarette box. She accepted a light from him and leaned back once more in her chair.
"Father," she proceeded, "has the most implicit faith in everybody. The fact that you are an American millionaire was ample proof to him that anything in the way of shares you possessed must be worth a great deal more than their face value. I do not know what led to his buying them—you probably do. Did he asked for any assurances as to their intrinsic value?"
"I warned him," David said, "that they were entirely a speculation. He asked my advice as to some way of raising a large sum of money, much larger than he could hope to gain by any ordinary enterprise. I presumed that he was willing to speculate and I suggested these shares. They certainly are as speculative as any man could desire."
"Are they worth any more now than when father bought them?" she enquired.
"To the best of my belief they have not moved," he replied. "As a matter of fact, they have not yet had a chance to prove themselves."
"They are still worth a dollar a share, then?"
"They are worth a dollar a share as much as they were when your father bought them."
She turned her head and looked at him.
"My father," she said, "declines to ask you any questions. He would consider it in bad taste to suggest for a moment that he felt any uneasiness with regard to the necessary payment for them. He is none the less, however, worried. He was foolish enough to tell his lawyers about them, and lawyers, I am afraid, have very little faith in him as a business man. The result of the enquiries they made was most depressing."
"It probably would be," David assented.
"Forty thousand pounds' worth of shares," Letitia continued, "which are worth as much now as when my father bought them, are, I suppose, nothing to you. I wondered whether you would object to have them back again? I think that it would relieve my father's mind."
Thain was silent for a moment. He had lit a cigar now and was smoking steadily.
"You have not much idea of business, Lady Letitia," he remarked.
"Business?" she repeated, with a note of surprise in her tone. "How should I have? There are certain matters of common sense and of honour which I suppose are common to every one of reasonable intelligence. There did not seem to me to be any principle of business involved in this."
"Supposing," David said, "the shares had risen and were worth two dollars to-day, you would not in that case, I presume, have honoured me with this visit?"
"Certainly not," she replied.
"I did not sell those shares to your father as an act of philanthropy," he continued. "He asked me to show him a speculation, and I showed him this. Those shares, so far as I know, are as likely to be worth five times their value next week, or nothing at all. I am a very large holder, and it seemed to me that it would be a reasonable act of prudence to sell a few of them at a price which showed me a small margin of profit."
"Profit?" she repeated wonderingly. "Are you in need of profit?"
"It is the poison of wealth," he observed. "One is always trying to add to what one has."
She turned her head and looked at him intently. For a moment she was almost startled. There was something unreal in the sound of his words. Something that was almost a foreboding chilled her.
"Mr. Thain," she said calmly.
"Had you any reason—any special reason, I mean—for selling those shares to my father?"
His face was inscrutable.
"What reason should I have, Lady Letitia?"
"I can't imagine any," she replied, "and yet—for a moment I thought that you were talking artificially. I probably did you an injustice. I am sorry."
David's teeth came together. There was lightning in his eyes as he glanced down through the trees towards Vont's little cottage.
"Don't apologise too soon, Lady Letitia," he warned her.
She raised her eyebrows.
"I am not accustomed to think the worst of people," she said. "I can scarcely picture to myself any person, already inordinately wealthy, singling out my father as a victim for his further cupidity. Let me return to the question which I have already asked you. Would you care, without letting my father know of this visit and my request, to return his cheque or promissory note, or whatever it was, in exchange for these shares?"
"I am not even sure, Lady Letitia," he reminded her, after a moment's pause, "that your father wishes this."
"You can, I think, take my word that it would be a relief to him," she asserted.
He pondered for a few moments. The light through the trees seemed to be burning brighter in Vont's sitting room.
"I will be frank with you, Lady Letitia," he said. "There has been no increase in the value of these shares. The news which I have expected concerning them has not arrived. The transaction, therefore, is one which at the present moment would probably entail a loss. Do you wish me to make your father a present of twenty or thirty thousand pounds?"
She rose deliberately to her feet and shook the few grains of cigarette ash from her dress. The cigarette itself she threw into a laurel bush.
"I understand," she remarked, "what you implied when you said that women did not understand business."
Her tone was unhurried, her manner expressed no indignation. Yet as she strolled towards the gate, David felt the colour drained from his cheeks, felt the wicker sides of his chair crash in the grip of his fingers. He rose and hurried after her.
"Lady Letitia," he began impulsively—
She turned upon him as though surprised.
"Pray do not trouble to escort me home," she begged.
"It isn't that," he went on, falling into step by her side. "You make me feel like a thief."
"Are you not a thief?" she asked. "I have been told that nearly all very rich men are thieves. I begin to understand that it may be so."
"It is possible to juggle with money honestly," he assured her.
"It is also possible, I suppose," she observed, with faint sarcasm, "to lower the standard of honesty. Thank you," she added, as she passed through the second gate, "you perhaps did not understand me. I should prefer to return alone."
"I am going your way," he insisted desperately.
"My way?" she repeated. "But there is nowhere to go to, unless you are proposing to honour us with a call at Mandeleys."
"I am going in to see old Richard Vont," he said.
She laughed in surprised fashion.
"What, the old man who sits and curses us! Is he a friend of yours?"
"He was on the steamer, coming home," David reminded her. "I told you so before. I take an interest in him."
His point now was momentarily gained, and he walked unhindered by her side. The soft twilight had fallen around them, little wreaths of mist were floating across the meadows, the birds were all silent. The pathway led through another narrow grove of trees. As they neared the gate, Letitia hesitated.
"I think it is just as near across the meadow," she said.
He held open the gate for her.
"You had better stay on the path," he advised. "The grass is wet and your shoes are thin."
She looked into his face, still hesitating. Then she swiftly dropped her eyes. The man must be mad! Nevertheless, she seemed for a moment to lose her will. The gate had fastened behind them with a sharp click. They were in the grove. The way was very narrow and the fir trees almost black. There was only a glimpse of deep blue sky to be seen ahead and in front. The pigeons rustled their wings, and a great owl lumbered across the way. Something happened to Letitia then which had never happened before. She felt both her hands gripped by a man's, felt herself powerless in his grasp.
"Lady Letitia," he exclaimed feverishly, "don't think I'm a fool! I'll not ask for what you haven't got to give—me. You shall have your father's note—you shall have—for him—what will make him free, if you'll only treat me like a human being—if you'll be—kind—a little kinder."
Her eyes flashed at him through the darkness, yet he could see that one thing at least he had achieved. Her bosom was rising and falling quickly, her voice shook as she answered him. For the first time he had penetrated that intolerable reserve.
"Are you mad?" she cried. "Are you trying to buy me?"
"How else should I win even a kind glance?" he answered bitterly.
"You mistake me for a railroad system," she mocked.
"I have never mistaken you for anything but a woman," was the vibrating reply. "The only trouble is that to me you always posture as something else."
His hands were burning upon her wrists, but she showed no resentment.
"Is this the way," she asked, "that Americans woo? Do they imprison the lady of their choice in some retired spot and make a cash offer for their affections? You are at least original, Mr. Thain!"
"If I can't bring myself to ask you in plain words what I am craving for," he answered hoarsely, "you can guess why. I know very well that there is only one thing about me that counts in your eyes. I know that I should be only an appendage to the money that would make your father happy and Mandeleys free. And yet I don't care. I want you—you first, and then yourself."
"You have some faith, then, in your eligibility—and your methods of persuasion?" she observed.
"Haven't I reason?" he retorted. "You people here are all filled up with rotten, time-exploded notions, bound with silken bonds, worshippers of false gods. You don't see the truth—you don't know it. I am not sure that I blame you, for it's a beautiful slavery, and but for the ugly realities of life you'd prosper in it and have children just as wonderful and just as ignorant. But, you see, the times are changing. I am one of the signs of them."
"If this were an impersonal discussion," Letitia began, struggling to compose her voice—
"But it isn't," he broke in. "I am speaking of you and of me, and no one else. I'm fool enough to love you, to be mad about you! Fool enough to make you an offer of which any man with a grain of self-respect should be ashamed."
"I quite agree with you," she said smoothly. "Perhaps it will end this very interesting little episode if I tell you that I am engaged to marry Lord Charles Grantham, and that he is coming down to-morrow."
He released her hands—flung them from him almost.
"Is this the truth?" he demanded.
She laughed lightly.
"Why on earth," she asked, "should I take the trouble to tell you anything else?"
He pointed to the path.
"Get on," he ordered.
She found herself obeying him—without resentment, even. When they reached the gate that led into the park, he held it open and remained. She hesitated for a moment.
"You are going to leave me to brave the perils of the rest of the journey alone?" she asked.
He made no answer. She lifted her skirts a little, for the dew was becoming heavier, and made her graceful way down the slope and across the bridge to the postern gate. Arrived there, she looked round. David Thain had vanished back into the grove.
Letitia made her way into her own room and closed the door. She lit both of the candles upon her dressing table, pulled back the lace of her sleeves and looked at her wrists. There were two red marks there, red marks which, as she stared at them, seemed suddenly again to feel the iron pressure. She stared at them, half in surprise, without anger and yet with a curious emotion. Suddenly she found that she was trembling, obsessed with a strange yet irresistible impulse. She bent down and lightly kissed the flaming marks. Then she blew out the candles, threw herself into the easy-chair which, earlier in the day, she had drawn up to the window, and looked steadily back into the park now fast becoming a phantasy of shadowland.
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