Sir Eustace and his brother carried out their programme. They dined together, and about half-past nine drove round to Grosvenor Street. Here they were shown into the drawing-room by the solemn footman, who informed Sir Eustace that her ladyship was upstairs in the nursery and had left a message for him that she would be down presently.
“All right; there is no hurry,” said Sir Eustace absently, and the man went downstairs.
Bottles, being nervous, was fidgeting round the room as usual, and his brother, being very much at ease, was standing with his back to the fire, and staring about him. Presently his glance lit upon the blue velvet curtains which shut off the room they were in from the larger saloon that had not been used since Lady Croston’s widowhood, and an idea which had been floating about in his brain suddenly took definite shape and form. He was a prompt man, and in another second he had acted up to that idea.
“George,” he said in a quick, low voice, “listen to me, and for Heaven’s sake don’t interrupt for a minute. You know that I do not like the idea of your marrying Lady Croston. You know that I think her worthless–no, wait a minute, don’t interrupt–I am only saying what I think. You believe in her; you believe that she is in love with you and will marry you, and have good reason to believe it, have you not?”
“Very well. Supposing that I can show you within half an hour that she is perfectly ready to marry somebody else–myself, for instance–would you still believe in her?”
Bottles turned pale. “The thing is impossible,” he said.
“That is not the question. Would you still believe in her, and would you still marry her?”
“Great heavens! no.”
“Good. Then I tell you what I will do for you, and it will perhaps give you some idea of how deeply I feel in the matter; I will sacrifice myself.”
“Yes. I mean that I will this very evening propose to Madeline Croston under your nose, and I bet you five pounds she accepts me.”
“Impossible,” said Bottles again. “Besides, if she did you don’t want to marry her.”
“Marry her! No, indeed. _I_ am not mad. I shall have to get out of the scrape as best I can–always supposing my view of the lady is correct.”
“Excuse me,” said Bottles with a gasp, “but I must ask you–in short, have _you_ ever been on affectionate terms with Madeline?”
“Never, on my honour.”
“And yet you think she will marry you if you ask her, even after what took place with me yesterday?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Because, my boy,” replied Sir Eustace with a cynical smile, “I have eight thousand a year and you have eight hundred–because I have a title and you have none. That you may happen to be the better fellow of the two will, I fear, not make up for those deficiencies.”
Bottles with a motion of his hand waved his brother’s courtly compliment away, as it were, and turned on him with a set white face.
“I do not believe you, Eustace,” he said. “Do you understand what you make out this lady to be when you say that she could kiss me and tell me that she loved me–for she did both yesterday–and promise to marry you to-day?”
Sir Eustace shrugged his shoulders. “I think that the lady in question has done something like that before, George.”
“That was years ago and under pressure. Now, Eustace, you have made this charge; you have upset my faith in Madeline, whom I hope to marry, and I say, prove it–prove it if you can. I will stake my life you cannot.”
“Don’t agitate yourself, my dear fellow; and as to betting, I would not risk more than a fiver. Now oblige me by stepping behind those velvet curtains–_a la_ ‘School for Scandal’–and listening in perfect silence to my conversation with Lady Croston. She does not know that you are here, so she will not miss you. You can escape when you have had enough of it, for there is a door through on to the landing, and as we came up I noticed that it was ajar. Or if you like you can appear from between the curtains like an infuriated husband on the stage and play whatever _role_ occasion may demand. Really the situation has a laughable side. I should enjoy it immensely if _I_ were behind the curtain too. Come, in you go.”