“SO you go to parties nowadays,” said Mrs. Linforth, and Sir John Casson, leaning his back against the wall of the ball-room, puzzled his brains for the name of the lady with the pleasant winning face to whom he had just been introduced. At first it had seemed to him merely that her hearing was better than his. The “nowadays,” however, showed that it was her memory which had the advantage. They were apparently old acquaintances; and Sir John belonged to an old-fashioned school which thought it discourtesy to forget even the least memorable of his acquaintances.
“You were not so easily persuaded to decorate a ball-room at Mussoorie,” Mrs. Linforth continued.
Sir John smiled, and there was a little bitterness in the smile.
“Ah!” he said, and there was a hint, too, of bitterness in his voice, “I was wanted to decorate ball-rooms then. So I didn’t go. Now I am not wanted. So I do.”
“That’s not the true explanation,” Mrs. Linforth said gently, and she shook her head. She spoke so gently and with so clear a note of sympathy and comprehension that Sir John was at more pains than ever to discover who she was. To hardly anyone would it naturally have occurred that Sir John Casson, with a tail of letters to his name, and a handsome pension, enjoyed at an age when his faculties were alert and his bodily strength not yet diminished, could stand in need of sympathy. But that precisely was the fact, as the woman at his side understood. A great ruler yesterday, with a council and an organized Government, subordinated to his leadership, he now merely lived at Camberley, and as he had confessed, was a bore at his club. And life at Camberley was dull.
He looked closely at Mrs. Linforth. She was a woman of forty, or perhaps a year or two more. On the other hand, she might be a year or two less. She had the figure of a young woman, and though her dark hair was flecked with grey, he knew that was not to be accounted as a sign of either age or trouble. Yet she looked as if trouble had been no stranger to her. There were little lines about the eyes which told their tale to a shrewd observer, though the face smiled never so pleasantly. In what summer, he wondered, had she come up to the hill station of Mussoorie.
“No,” he said. “I did not give you the real explanation. Now I will.”
He nodded towards a girl who was at that moment crossing the ball-room towards the door, upon the arm of a young man.
“That’s the explanation.”
Mrs. Linforth looked at the girl and smiled.
“The explanation seems to be enjoying itself,” she said. “Yours?”
“Mine,” replied Sir John with evident pride.
“She is very pretty,” said Mrs. Linforth, and the sincerity of her admiration made the father glow with satisfaction. Phyllis Casson was a girl of eighteen, with the fresh looks and the clear eyes of her years. A bright colour graced her cheeks, where, when she laughed, the dimples played, and the white dress she wore was matched by the whiteness of her throat. She was talking gaily with the youth on whose arm her hand lightly rested.
“Who is he?” asked Mrs. Linforth.
Sir John raised his shoulders.
“I am not concerned,” he replied. “The explanation is amusing itself, as it ought to do, being only eighteen. The explanation wants everyone to love her at the present moment. When she wants only one, then it will be time for me to begin to get flurried.” He turned abruptly to his companion. “I would like you to know her.”
“Thank you,” said Mrs. Linforth, as she bowed to an acquaintance.
“Would you like to dance?” asked Sir John. “If so, I’ll stand aside.”
“No. I came here to look on,” she explained.
“Lady Marfield,” and she nodded towards their hostess, “is my cousin, and—well, I don’t want to grow rusty. You see I have an explanation too—oh, not here! He’s at Chatham, and it’s as well to keep up with the world—” She broke off abruptly, and with a perceptible start of surprise. She was looking towards the door. Casson followed the direction of her eyes, and saw young Linforth in the doorway.
At last he remembered. There had been one hot weather, years ago, when this boy’s father and his newly-married wife had come up to the hill-station of Mussoorie. He remembered that Linforth had sent his wife back to England, when he went North into Chiltistan on that work from which he was never to return. It was the wife who was now at his side.
“I thought you said he was at Chatham,” said Sir John, as Dick Linforth advanced into the room.
“So I believed he was. He must have changed his mind at the last moment.” Then she looked with a little surprise at her companion. “You know him?”
“Yes,” said Sir John, “I will tell you how it happened. I was dining eighteen months ago at the Sappers’ mess at Chatham. And that boy’s face came out of the crowd and took my eyes and my imagination too. You know, perhaps, how that happens at times. There seems to be no particular reason why it should happen at the moment. Afterwards you realise that there was very good reason. A great career, perhaps, perhaps only some one signal act, an act typical of a whole unknown life, leaps to light and justifies the claim the young face made upon your sympathy. Anyhow, I noticed young Linforth. It was not his good looks which attracted me. There was something else. I made inquiries. The Colonel was not a very observant man. Linforth was one of the subalterns—a good bat and a good change bowler. That was all. Only I happened to look round the walls of the Sappers’ mess. There are portraits hung there of famous members of that mess who were thought of no particular account when they were subalterns at Chatham. There’s one alive to-day. Another died at Khartoum.”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Linforth.
“Well, I made the acquaintance of your son that night,” said Sir John.
Mrs. Linforth stood for a moment silent, her face for the moment quite beautiful. Then she broke into a laugh.
“I am glad I scratched your back first,” she said. “And as for the cricket, it’s quite true. I taught him to keep a straight bat myself.”
Meanwhile, Dick Linforth was walking across the floor of the ball-room, quite unconscious of the two who talked of him. He was not, indeed, looking about him at all. It seemed to both his mother and Sir John, as they watched him steadily moving in and out amongst the throng—for it was the height of the season, and Lady Marfield’s big drawing-room in Chesterfield Gardens was crowded—that he was making his way to a definite spot, as though just at this moment he had a definite appointment.
“He changed his mind at the last moment,” said Sir John with a laugh, which gave to him the look of a boy. “Let us see who it is that has brought him up from Chatham to London at the last moment!”
“Would it be fair?” asked Mrs. Linforth reluctantly. She was, indeed, no less curious upon the point than her companion, and while she asked the question, her eyes followed her son’s movements. He was tall, and though he moved quickly and easily, it was possible to keep him in view.
A gap in the crowd opened before them, making a lane—and at the end of the lane they saw Linforth approach a lady and receive the welcome of her smile. For a moment the gap remained open, and then the bright frocks and black coats swept across the space. But both had seen, and Mrs. Linforth, in addition, was aware of a barely perceptible start made by Sir John at her side.
She looked at him sharply. His face had grown grave.
“You know her?” asked Mrs. Linforth. There was anxiety in her voice. There was also a note of jealousy.
“Who is she?”
“Mrs. Oliver. Violet Oliver.”
“A widow. I introduced her to your son at La Grave in the Dauphiné country last summer. Our motor-car had broken down. We all stayed for a couple of days together in the same hotel. Mrs. Oliver is a friend of my daughter’s. Phyllis admires her very much, and in most instances I am prepared to trust Phyllis’ instincts.”
“But not in this instance,” said Mrs. Linforth quietly. She had been quick to note a very slight embarrassment in Sir John Casson’s manner.
“I don’t say that,” he replied quickly—a little too quickly.
“Will you find me a chair?” said Mrs. Linforth, looking about her. “There are two over here.” She led the way to the chairs which were placed in a nook of the room not very far from the door by which Linforth had entered. She took her seat, and when Sir John had seated himself beside her, she said:
“Please tell me what you know of her.”
Sir John spread out his hands in protest.
“Certainly, I will. But there is nothing to her discredit, so far as I know, Mrs. Linforth—nothing at all. Beyond that she is beautiful—really beautiful, as few women are. That, no doubt, will be looked upon as a crime by many, though you and I will not be of that number.”
Sybil Linforth maintained a determined silence—not for anything would she admit, even to herself, that Violet Oliver was beautiful.
“You are telling me nothing,” she said.
“There is so little to tell,” replied Sir John. “Violet Oliver comes of a family which is known, though it is not rich. She studied music with a view to making her living as a singer. For she has a very sweet voice, though its want of power forbade grand opera. Her studies were interrupted by the appearance of a cavalry captain, who made love to her. She liked it, whereas she did not like studying music. Very naturally she married the cavalry officer. Captain Oliver took her with him abroad, and, I believe, brought her to India. At all events she knows something of India, and has friends there. She is going back there this winter. Captain Oliver was killed in a hill campaign two years ago. Mrs. Oliver is now twenty-three years old. That is all.”
Mrs. Linforth, however, was not satisfied.
“Was Captain Oliver rich?” she asked.
“Not that I know of,” said Sir John. “His widow lives in a little house at the wrong end of Curzon Street.”
“But she is wearing to-night very beautiful pearls,” said Sybil Linforth quietly.
Sir John Casson moved suddenly in his chair. Moreover, Sybil Linforth’s eyes were at that moment resting with a quiet scrutiny upon his face.
“It was difficult to see exactly what she was wearing,” he said. “The gap in the crowd filled up so quickly.”
“There was time enough for any woman,” said Mrs. Linforth with a smile. “And more than time enough for any mother.”
“Mrs. Oliver is always, I believe, exquisitely dressed,” said Sir John with an assumption of carelessness. “I am not much of a judge myself.”
But his carelessness did not deceive his companion. Sybil Linforth was certain, absolutely certain, that the cause of the constraint and embarrassment which had been audible in Sir John’s voice, and noticeable in his very manner, was that double string of big pearls of perfect colour which adorned Violet Oliver’s white throat.
She looked Sir John straight in the face.
“Would you introduce Dick to Mrs. Oliver now, if you had not done it before?” she asked.
“My dear lady,” protested Sir John, “if I met Dick at a little hotel in the Dauphiné, and did not introduce him to the ladies who were travelling with me, it would surely reflect upon Dick, not upon the ladies”; and with that subtle evasion Sir John escaped from the fire of questions. He turned the conversation into another channel, pluming himself upon his cleverness. But he forgot that the subtlest evasions of the male mind are clumsy and obvious to a woman, especially if the woman be on the alert. Sybil Linforth did not think Sir John had showed any cleverness whatever. She let him turn the conversation, because she knew what she had set out to know. That string of pearls had made the difference between Sir John’s estimate of Violet Oliver last year and his estimate of her this season.