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Grantham, who had been unusually silent throughout the service of dinner, slipped away from the room a few minutes before the other men. He found Letitia arranging a bridge table, and drew her a little on one side.
"Letitia," he said, "I am annoyed."
"My dear Charles," she replied, "was anything ever more obvious!"
"You perhaps do not realise," he continued, "that you are the cause."
She shrugged her shoulders.
"In the first place," he complained, "you are not wearing my ring."
"I thought I told you," she reminded him, "that I would prefer not to until we formally announced our engagement."
"Why on earth shouldn't we do that at once—this evening?" he suggested. "I can see no reason for delay."
"I, on the other hand, have a fancy to wait," she replied carelessly, "at least until your visit here is over.
"Your hesitation is scarcely flattering," he remarked with some irritation.
"Is there anything else you wish to say?" she enquired. "I really must get out those bridge markers."
He began to show signs of temper. Watching him closely for the first time, Letitia decided that he had most unpleasant-looking eyes.
"I should like to know the subject of your conversation with that Thain fellow when I came in this evening," he demanded.
"I am sorry," she said coolly. "We were speaking upon a private subject."
The anger in his eyes became more evident.
"Private subject? You mean to say that you have secrets with a fellow like that?"
"A fellow like that?" she repeated. "You don't like Mr. Thain, then?"
"Like him? I don't like him or dislike him. I think he ought to be very flattered to be here at all—and you are the last person in the world, Letitia, I should have expected to find talking in whispers with him, with your heads only a few inches apart. I feel quite justified in asking what that confidence indicated."
Letitia smiled sweetly but dangerously.
"And I feel quite justified," she retorted, "in refusing to answer that or any similar question. Are you going to play bridge, Charlie?"
"No!" he replied, turning away. "I am going to talk to Miss Laycey."
Sylvia was quite willing, and they soon established themselves on a settee. The Duchess, rather against her inclinations, was included in the bridge quartette. Letitia, having disposed of her guests, strolled over towards David, who was standing with his hands behind him, gloomily studying one of the paintings.
"I must show you our Vandykes, Mr. Thain," she said, leading him a little further away. "When these wonderful oil shares of yours have made us all rich, we shall have little electric globes round our old masters. Until then, I find it produces quite a curious effect to try one of these."
She drew an electric torch from one of the drawers of an oak cabinet and flashed a small circle of light upon the picture. Thain gave a little exclamation. The face which seemed to spring suddenly into life, looking down upon them with a faintly repressed smile upon the Mandeleys mouth, presented an almost startling likeness to the Marquis.
"Fearfully alike, all our menkind, aren't they?" she observed, lowering the torch. "Come and I will show you a Lely."
They passed further down the gallery. She looked at him a little curiously.
"Is it my fancy," she asked, "or have you something on your mind? The note which reached you contained no ill news, I hope?"
"I don't know," he answered, with unexpected candour. "I have a great deal on my mind."
"I am so sorry," she murmured.
They had reached the further end of the gallery now. She sank into the window seat and made room for him by her side. For a moment he looked out across the park. In the moonless night the trees were like little dark blurs, the country rose and fell like a turbulent sea. And very close at hand, ominously close at hand as it seemed to him, a bright light from Richard Vont's cottage was burning steadily.
"Let me ask you a question," he begged a little abruptly. "Supposing that you had given your word of honour, solemnly, in return for a vital service rendered, to commit a dishonourable action; what should you do?"
"Well, that is rather a dilemma, isn't it?" she acknowledged. "To tell you the truth, I can't quite reconcile the circumstances. I can't, for instance, conceive your promising to do a dishonourable thing."
"At the time," he explained, "it did not seem dishonourable. At the time it seemed just an act of justice. Then circumstances changed, new considerations intervened, and the whole situation was altered."
"Is it a monetary matter?" she enquired, "one in which money would make any difference, I mean?"
He shook his head.
"Money has nothing to do with it," he replied. "It is just a question whether one is justified in breaking a solemn oath, one's word of honour, because the action which it entails has become, owing to later circumstances, hideously repugnant."
"Why ask my advice?"
"I do not know. Anyhow, I desire it."
"I should go," she said thoughtfully, "to the person to whom I had bound myself, and I should explain the change in my feelings and in the circumstances. I should beg to be released from my word."
"And if they refused?"
"I don't see how you could possibly break your word of honour," she decided reluctantly. "It is not done, is it?"
He looked steadily down the gallery, through the darkened portion, to where the soft, overhead lights fell upon the two card tables. There was very little conversation. They could even hear the soft fall of the cards and Sylvia's musical laugh in the background. All the time Letitia watched him. The strength of his face seemed only intensified by his angry indecision.
"You are right," he assented finally. "I must not."
"Perhaps," she suggested, "you can find some way of keeping it, and yet keeping it without that secondary dishonour you spoke of. Now I must really go and see that my guests are behaving properly."
She rose to her feet. Sylvia's laugh rang out again from the far corner of the gallery, where she and Grantham were seated, their heads very close together. Letitia watched them for a moment tolerantly.
"I will recall my fiancÚ to his duty," she declared, "and you can go and talk nonsense to Sylvia."
"Thank you," he answered, "I am afraid that I am not in the humour to talk nonsense with anybody."
She turned her head slightly and looked at him.
"Sylvia is such an admirer of yours," she said, "and she has such a delightful way of being light-hearted herself and affecting others in the same fashion. If I were a man—"
"I should marry Sylvia."
"And if I," he declared, with a sudden flash in his eyes, "possessed that ridiculous family tree of Lord Charles Grantham's—"
"I should marry you."
She looked at him through half-closed eyes. There was a little smile on her lips which at first he thought insolent, but concerning which afterwards he permitted himself to speculate. He stopped short.
"Lady Letitia," he pleaded, "there is a door there which leads into the hall. You don't expect manners of me, anyway, but could you accept my farewell and excuse me to the others? I have really a serious reason for wishing to leave—a reason connected with the note I received at dinner time."
"Of course," she answered, "but you are sure that you are well? There is nothing that we can do for you?"
He paused for a moment with his hand upon the fastening of the door.
"There is nothing anybody can do for me, Lady Letitia," he said. "Good-by!"
She stood for a moment, watching the door through which he had passed with a puzzled frown upon her face. Then she continued her progress down the room. Arrived at the bridge table, she stooped for a moment to look over her aunt's score.
"Finished your flirtation, my dear?" the latter asked coolly.
Letitia accepted the challenge.
"So effectually," she replied, "that the poor man has gone home. I am to present his excuses to every one."
The Duchess paused for a moment in the playing of her hand. Her brother, with unfailing tact, threw himself into the breach.
"I suppose," he said, "that we can scarcely realise the responsibilities which these kings of finance carry always upon their shoulders. They tell me that Mr. Thain has his telegrams and cables stopped in London by a secretary and telephoned here, just to save a few minutes. He receives sometimes as many as half a dozen messages during the night."
The Duchess continued to play her hand.
"After all," she remarked, "I fear that I shall not be able to ask Mr. Thain to Scotland. One would feel the responsibility so much if he were to lose anything he valued, by coming."
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