This at least is certain, that not one of them in a thousand sees anything objectionable in the gloomy and hideous evening costume of a gentleman in the nineteenth century. A handsome man is, to their eyes, more seductive than ever in the contemptible black coat and the stiff white cravat which he wears in common with the servant who waits on him at table. After a stolen glance at Romayne, Stella lost all confidence in herself--she began turning over the photographs on the table.
The momentary silence which followed their first greeting became intolerable to her. Rather than let it continue, she impulsively confessed the uppermost idea in her mind when she entered the room.
"I thought I heard my name when I came in," she said. "Were you and Lord Loring speaking of me?"
Romayne owned without hesitation that they had been speaking of her.
She smiled and turned over another photograph. But when did sun-pictures ever act as a restraint on a woman's curiosity? The words passed her lips in spite of her. "I suppose I mustn't ask what you were saying?"
It was impossible to answer this plainly without entering into explanations from which Romayne shrank. He hesitated.
She turned over another photograph. "I understand," she said. "You were talking of my faults." She paused, and stole another look at him. "I will try to correct my faults, if you will tell me what they are."
Romayne felt that he had no alternative but to tell the truth--under certain reserves. "Indeed you are wrong," he said. "We were talking of the influence of a tone or a look on a sensitive person."
"The influence on Me?" she asked.
"No. The influence which You might exercise on another person."
She knew perfectly well that he was speaking of himself. But she was determined to feel the pleasure of making him own it.
"If I have any such influence as you describe," she began, "I hope it is for good?"
"Certainly for good."
"You speak positively, Mr. Romayne. Almost as positively--only that can hardly be--as if you were speaking from experience."
He might still have evaded a direct reply, if she had been content with merely saying this. But she looked at him while she spoke. He answered the look.
"Shall I own that you are right?" he said. "I was thinking of my own experience yesterday."
She returned to the photographs. "It sounds impossible," she rejoined, softly. There was a pause. "Was it anything I said?" she asked.
"No. It was only when you looked at me. But for that look, I don't think I should have been here to-day."
She shut up the photographs on a sudden, and drew her chair a little away from him.
"I hope," she said, "you have not so poor an opinion of me as to think I like to be flattered?"
Romayne answered with an earnestness that instantly satisfied her.
"I should think it an act of insolence to flatter you," he said. "If you knew the true reason why I hesitated to accept Lady Loring's invitation--if I could own to you the new hope for myself that has brought me here--you would feel, as I feel, that I have been only speaking the truth. I daren't say yet that I owe you a debt of gratitude for such a little thing as a look. I must wait till time puts certain strange fancies of mine to the proof."
"Fancies about me, Mr. Romayne?"
Before he could answer, the dinner bell rang. Lord and Lady Loring entered the library together.
The dinner having pursued its appointed course (always excepting the case of the omelet), the head servant who had waited at table was graciously invited to rest, after his labors, in the housekeeper's room. Having additionally conciliated him by means of a glass of rare liqueur, Miss Notman, still feeling her grievance as acutely as ever, ventured to inquire, in the first place, if the gentlefolks upstairs had enjoyed their dinner. So far the report was, on the whole, favorable. But the conversation was described as occasionally flagging. The burden of the talk had been mainly borne by my lord and my lady, Mr. Romayne and Miss Eyrecourt contributing but little to the social enjoyment of the evening. Receiving this information without much appearance of interest, the housekeeper put another question, to which, judging by her manner, she attached a certain importance. She wished to know if the oyster-omelet (accompanying the cheese) had been received as a welcome dish, and treated with a just recognition of its merits. The answer to this was decidedly in the negative. Mr. Romayne and Miss Eyrecourt had declined to taste it. My lord had tried it, and had left it on his plate. My lady alone had really eaten her share of the misplaced dish. Having stated this apparently trivial circumstance, the head servant was surprised by the effect which it produced on the housekeeper. She leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes, with an appearance of unutterable enjoyment. That night there was one supremely happy woman in London. And her name was Miss Notman.
Ascending from the housekeeper's room to the drawing-room, it is to be further reported that music was tried, as a means of getting through the time, in the absence of general conversation. Lady Loring sat down at the piano, and played as admirably as usual. At the other end of the room Romayne and Stella were together, listening to the music. Lord Loring, walking backward and forward, with a restlessness which was far from being characteristic of him in his after-dinner hours, was stopped when he reached the neighborhood of the piano by a private signal from his wife.
"What are you walking about for?" Lady Loring asked in a whisper, without interrupting her musical performance.
"I'm not quite easy, my dear."
"Turn over the music. Indigestion?"
"Good heavens, Adelaide, what a question!"
"Well, what is it, then?"
Lord Loring looked toward Stella and her companion. "They don't seem to get on together as well as I had hoped," he said.
"I should think not--when you are walking about and disturbing them! Sit down there behind me."
"What am I to do?"
"Am I not playing? Listen to me."
"My dear, I don't understand modern German music."
"Then read the evening paper."
The evening paper had its attractions. Lord Loring took his wife's advice.
Left entirely by themselves, at the other end of the room, Romayne and Stella justified Lady Loring's belief in the result of reducing her husband to a state of repose. Stella ventured to speak first, in a discreet undertone.
"Do you pass most of your evenings alone, Mr. Romayne?"
"Not quite alone. I have the company of my books."
"Are your books the companions that you like best?"
"I have been true to those companions, Miss Eyrecourt, for many years. If the doctors are to be believed, my b ooks have not treated me very well in return. They have broken down my health, and have made me, I am afraid, a very unsocial man." He seemed about to say more, and suddenly checked the impulse. "Why am I talking of myself?" he resumed with a smile. "I never do it at other times.