Bottles hesitated. “I can’t hide,” he said.
“Nonsense; remember how much depends on it. All is fair in love or war. Quick; here she comes.”
Bottles grew flurried and yielded, scarcely knowing what he did. In another second he was in the darkened room behind the curtains, through the crack in which he could command the lighted scene before him, and Sir Eustace was back at his place before the fire, reflecting that in his ardour to extricate his brother from what he considered a suicidal engagement he had let himself in for a very pretty undertaking. Suppose she accepted him, his brother would be furious, and he would probably have to go abroad to get out of the lady’s way; and suppose she refused him, he would look a fool.
Meanwhile the sweep, sweep of Madeline’s dress as she passed down the stairs was drawing nearer, and in another instant she was in the room. She was beautifully dressed in silver-grey silk, plentifully trimmed with black lace, and cut square back and front so as to show her rounded shoulders. She wore no ornaments, being one of the few women who are able to dispense with them, unless indeed a red camellia pinned in the front of her dress can be called an ornament. Bottles, shivering with shame and doubt behind his curtain, marked that red camellia, and wondered of what it reminded him.
Then in a flash it all came back, the scene of years and years ago–the verandah in far-away Natal, with himself sitting on it, an open letter in his hand and staring with all his eyes at the camellia bush covered with bloom before him. It seemed a bad omen to him–that camellia in Madeline’s bosom. Next second she was speaking.
“Oh, Sir Eustace, I owe you a thousand apologies. You must have been here for quite ten minutes, for I heard the front door bang when you came. But my poor little girl Effie is ill with a sore throat which has made her feverish, and she absolutely refused to go to sleep unless she had my hand to hold.”
“Lucky Effie,” said Sir Eustace, with his politest bow; “I am sure I can understand her fancy.”
At the moment he was holding Madeline’s hand himself, and gave emphasis to his words by communicating the gentlest possible pressure to it as he let it fall. But knowing his habits, she did not take much notice. Comparative strangers when Sir Eustace shook hands with them were sometimes in doubt whether he was about to propose to them or to make a remark upon the weather. Alas! it had always been the weather.
“I come as a man of business besides, and men of business are accustomed to being kept waiting,” he went on.
“You are really very good, Sir Eustace, to take so much trouble about my affairs.”
“It is a pleasure, Lady Croston.”
“Ah, Sir Eustace, you do not expect me to believe that,” laughed the radiant creature at his side. “But if you only knew how I detest lawyers, and what you spare me by the trouble you take, I am sure you would not grudge me your time.”
“Do not talk of it, Lady Croston. I would do a great deal more than that for you; in fact,” here he dropped his voice a little, “there are few things that I would not do for you, _Madeline_.”
She raised her delicate eyebrows till they looked like notes of interrogation, and blushed a little. This was quite a new style for Sir Eustace. Was he in earnest? she wondered. Impossible!
“And now for business,” he continued; “not that there is much business; as I understand it, you have only to sign this document, which I have already witnessed, and the stock can be transferred.”
She signed the paper which he had brought in a big envelope almost without looking at it, for she was thinking of Sir Eustace’s remark, and he put it back in the envelope.
“Is that all the business, Sir Eustace?” she asked.
“Yes; quite all. Now I suppose that as I have done my duty I had better go away.”
“I wish to Heaven he would!” groaned Bottles to himself behind the curtains. He did not like his brother’s affectionate little ways or Madeline’s tolerance of them.
“Indeed, no; you had better sit down and talk to me–that is, if you have got nothing pleasanter to do.”
We can guess Sir Eustace’s prompt reply and Madeline’s smiling reception of the compliment, as she seated herself in a low chair–that same low chair she had occupied the day before.
“Now for it,” said Sir Eustace to himself. “I wonder how George is getting on?”