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Sir Robert preferred to join his wife and sister-in-law in the drawing-room after luncheon. The Marquis, with a courteous word of invitation, led his remaining guest across the grey stone hall into the library beyond—a sparsely furnished and yet imposing looking apartment, with its great tiers of books and austere book cases. On his way, he drew attention carelessly to one or two paintings by old masters, and pointed out a remarkable statue presented by a famous Italian sculptor to his great-grandfather and now counted amongst the world's treasures. His guest watched and observed in silence. There was nothing of the uncouth sight-seer about him, still less of the fulsome dilettante. They settled themselves in comfortable chairs in a pleasant corner of the apartment.
A footman served them with coffee, a second man handed cigars, and the butler himself carried a tray of liqueurs. The Marquis assumed an attitude of complete satisfaction with the world in general.
"I am pleased to have this opportunity of a few words with you, Mr. Thain," he said. "You are quite comfortable in that chair, I trust?"
"Perfectly, thank you."
"And my Larangas are not too mild? You will find darker-coloured cigars in the cabinet by your side."
"Thank you," David Thain replied, "I smoke only mild tobacco."
"Personally," the Marquis sighed, "I can go no further than cigarettes. A vice, perhaps," he added, watching the blue smoke curl upwards, "but a fascinating one. So you came across this man Vont on the steamer. Might I ask under what circumstances?"
"Richard Vont, as I think he called himself," was the quiet reply, "shared a cabin in the second class with my servant. I was over there once or twice and talked with him."
"That is very interesting," the Marquis observed. "He travelled second class, eh? And yet the man has many thousands to throw away in these absurd lawsuits with me."
"He may have money," Thain pointed out, "and yet feel more at home in the second class. I understood that he had been a gamekeeper in England and was returning to his old home."
"Did he speak of his purpose in doing so?"
"On the contrary, he was singularly taciturn. All that I could gather from him was that he was returning to fulfill some purpose which he had kept before him for a great many years."
The Marquis sighed. On his high, shapely forehead could be traced the lines of a regretful frown.
"I was sure of it," he groaned. "The fellow is returning to make himself a nuisance to me. He did not tell you his story, then, Mr. Thain?"
"He showed no inclination to do so—in fact he avoided so far as possible all discussion of his past."
"Richard Vont," the Marquis continued, raising his eyes to the ceiling, "was one of those sturdy, thick-headed, unintelligent yeomen who have been spoiled by the trifle of education doled out to their grandfathers, their fathers and themselves. A few hundred years ago they formed excellent retainers to the nobles under whose patronage they lived. To-day, in these hideously degenerate days, Mr. Thain, when half the world has moved forward and half stood still, they are an anachronism. They find no seemly place in modern life."
David Thain sat very still. There was just a little flash in his eyes, which came and went as sunlight might have gleamed across naked steel.
"But I must not forget," his host went on tolerantly, "that I am speaking now to one who must to some extent have lost his sense of social proportion by a prolonged sojourn in a country where life is more or less a jumble."
"You refer to America?"
"Naturally! As a country resembling more than anything a gigantic sausage machine wherein all races and men of all social status are broken up on the wheel, puffed up with false ideas, and thrown out upon the world, a newly fledged, cunning, but singularly ignorant race of individuals, America possesses great interest to those—to those, in short," the Marquis declared, with a little wave of the hand, "whom such things interest. I am English, my forefathers were Saxon, my instincts are perhaps feudal. That is why I regard the case of Richard Vont from a point of view which you might possibly fail to appreciate. Would it bore you if I continue?"
"Not in the least," David Thain assured him.
"Richard Vont was head-keeper at Mandeleys when I succeeded to the title and estates, an advent which occurred a few years after my wife's death. He was already occupying a peculiar position there, owing to the generosity of my predecessor, whose life he had had the good fortune to save. He had very foolishly married above him in station—the girl was a school mistress, I believe. When I came to Mandeleys, I found him living there, a widower with one daughter, and a little boy, his nephew. The girl inherited her mother's superiority of station and intellect, and was naturally unhappy. I noticed her with interest, and she responded. Consequences which in the days of our ancestors, Mr. Thain, would have been esteemed an honour to the persons concerned, ensued. Richard Vont, like an ignorant clodhopper, viewed the matter from the wrong standpoint.... You said something, I believe? Pardon me. I sometimes fancy that I am a little deaf in my left ear."
The Marquis leaned forward but David Thain shook his head. His lips had moved indeed, but no word had issued from them.
"So far," his host went on, "the story contains no novel features. I exercised what my ancestors, in whose spirit I may say that I live, would have claimed as an undoubted right. Richard Vont, as I have said, with his inheritance of ill-bestowed education, and a measure of that extraordinary socialistic poison which seems, during the last few generations, to have settled like an epidemic in the systems of the agricultural classes, resented my action. His behaviour became so intolerable that I was forced to dismiss him from my service, and finally, to avoid a continuance of melodramatic scenes, which were extremely unpleasant to every one concerned, I was obliged to leave England for a time and travel upon the Continent."
"And, in the meantime, what happened at Mandeleys?" David Thain asked.
"Richard Vont and his nephew appear to have left for the United States very soon after my own departure from England. The cottage he left in the care of an elderly relative, who gave little trouble but much annoyance. She attended a Primitive Methodist Chapel in the village, and she passed both myself and the ladies of my household at all times without obeisance."
"Dear me!" David Thain murmured under his breath.
"After her death, I instructed my lawyers to examine the legal title to the Vont property and to see whether there was any chance of regaining it. Its value would be, at the outside, say six or seven hundred pounds. I advertised and offered two thousand, five hundred pounds to regain, it. My solicitors came into touch with the man Vont through an agent in America. His reply to their propositions on my behalf does not bear repetition. I then instructed my lawyers to take such steps as they could to have the deed of gift set aside, sufficient compensation of course being promised. That must have been some eight years ago. My efforts have come to an end to-day. The cottage remains the property of Richard Vont. My own law costs have been considerable, but by some means or other this man Vont has contrived to defend his property at the expenditure of some five or six thousand pounds. One can only conclude that he must have prospered in this strange country of yours, Mr. Thain."
"To a stranger," the latter observed, "it seems curious that this man should have set so high a value upon a property which must be full of painful associations to him."
"The very arguments I made use of in our earlier correspondence," his host assented. "I have told you the story, Mr. Thain, because it occurred to me that this man might have communicated to you his reason for returning after all these years to the neighbourhood."
"He told me nothing."
"Then I have wasted your time with a long and, I fear, a very dull story," the Marquis apologised gracefully. "Shall we join the others?"
"There was just one question, if I might be permitted," David Thain said, "which I should like to ask concerning the story which you have told me. The girl to whom you have alluded—Vont's daughter—what became of her?"
The Marquis for a moment stood perfectly still. He had just risen to his feet and was standing where a gleam of sunlight fell upon his cold and passionless features. His silence had, in its way, a curious effect. He seemed neither to be thinking nor hesitating. He was just in a state of suspense. Presently he leaned forward and knocked the ash from his cigarette into the grate.
"The lady in question," he replied, "has found that place in the world to which her gifts and charm entitle her. I fear that my sister will be getting impatient. My daughter, too, I am sure, would like to improve her acquaintance with you, Mr. Thain."
David Thain was, in his way, an obstinate and self-willed man, but he found himself, for those first few moments, subject to his host's calm but effectual closure of the conversation. Nevertheless, he recovered himself in time to ask that other question as they left the room.
"The lady is alive, then?"
"She is alive," the Marquis acquiesced, in a colourless tone.
A servant threw open the door of the drawing-room. The Marquis motioned to his guest to precede him.
"As I imagined," he murmured, "I see that my sister is impatient. You will forgive me, Caroline," he went on, turning to the Duchess. "Mr. Thain's conversation was most interesting. Letitia, my dear, do press Mr. Thain to dine with us one evening. This afternoon I fear that I have been unduly loquacious. I should welcome another opportunity of conversing with him concerning his wonderful country."
Letitia picked up a little morocco-bound volume from the table and consulted it. Sir Robert drew the prospective guest a little on one side.
"For heaven's sake," he whispered, "don't give the Marquis any financial tips. He has a fancy that he is destined to restore the fortunes of the Mandeleys on the Stock Exchange. He is a delightfully ornamental person, but I can assure you that as a father-in-law he is a distinct luxury."
David Thain smiled grimly.
"I shall be careful," he promised.
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