Read CHAPTER XII of The Primadonna, free online book, by F. Marion Crawford, on ReadCentral.com.

Opinion was strongly against Mr. Van Torp.  A millionaire is almost as good a mark at which to throw mud as a woman of the world whose reputation has never before been attacked, and when the two can be pilloried together it is hardly to be expected that ordinary people should abstain from pelting them and calling them bad names.

Lady Maud, indeed, was protected to some extent by her father and brothers, and by many loyal friends.  It is happily still doubtful how far one may go in printing lies about an honest woman without getting into trouble with the law, and when the lady’s father is not only a peer, but has previously been a barrister of reputation and a popular and hard-working member of the House of Commons during a long time, it is generally safer to use guarded language; the advisability of moderation also increases directly as the number and size of the lady’s brothers, and inversely as their patience.  Therefore, on the whole, Lady Maud was much better treated by the society columns than Margaret at first expected.

On the other hand, they vented their spleen and sharpened their English on the American financier, who had no relations and scarcely any friends to stand by him, and was, moreover, in a foreign country, which always seems to be regarded as an aggravating circumstance when a man gets into any sort of trouble.  Isidore Bamberger and Mr. Feist had roused and let loose upon him a whole pack of hungry reporters and paragraph writers on both sides of the Atlantic.

The papers did not at first print his name except in connection with the divorce of Lady Maud.  But this was a landmark, the smallest reference to which made all other allusions to him quite clear.  It was easy to speak of Mr. Van Torp as the central figure in a cause célèbre:  newspapers love the French language the more as they understand it the less; just as the gentle amateur in literature tries to hide his cloven hoof under the thin elegance of italics.

Particular stress was laid upon the millionaire’s dreadful hypocrisy.  He taught in the Sunday Schools at Nickelville, the big village which had sprung up at his will and which was the headquarters of his sanctimonious wickedness.  He was compared to Solomon, not for his wisdom, but on account of his domestic arrangements.  He was indeed a father to his flock.  It was a touching sight to see the little ones gathered round the knees of this great and good man, and to note how an unconscious and affectionate imitation reflected his face in theirs.  It was true that there was another side to this truly patriarchal picture.  In a city of the Far West, wrote an eloquent paragraph writer, a pale face, once divinely beautiful, was often seen at the barred window of a madhouse, and eyes that had once looked too tenderly into those of the Nickelville Solomon stared wildly at the palm-trees in the asylum grounds.  This paragraph was rich in sentiment.

There were a good many mentions of the explosion in New York, too, and hints, dark, but uncommonly straight, that the great Sunday School teacher had been the author and stage-manager of an awful comedy designed expressly to injure a firm of contractors against whom he had a standing grudge.  In proof of the assertion, the story went on to say that he had written four hours before the ‘accident’ happened to give warning of it to the young lady whom he was about to marry.  She was a neurasthenic young lady, and in spite of the warning she died very suddenly at the theatre from shock immediately after the explosion, and his note was found on her dressing-table when she was brought home dead.  Clearly, if the explosion had not been his work, and if he had been informed of it beforehand, he would have warned the police and the Department of Public Works at the same time.  The young lady’s untimely death had not prevented him from sailing for Europe three or four days later, and on the trip he had actually occupied alone the same ‘thousand dollar suite’ which he had previously engaged for himself and his bride.  From this detail the public might form some idea of the Nickelville magnate’s heartless character.  In fact, if one-half of what was written, telegraphed, and printed about Rufus Van Torp on both sides of the Atlantic during the next fortnight was to be believed, he had no character at all.

To all this he answered nothing, and he did not take the trouble to allude to the matter in the few letters he wrote to his acquaintances.  Day after day numbers of marked papers were carefully ironed and laid on the breakfast-table, after having been read and commented on in the servants’ hall.  The butler began to look askance at him, Mrs. Dubbs, the housekeeper, talked gloomily of giving warning, and the footmen gossiped with the stable hands; but the men all decided that it was not derogatory to their dignity to remain in the service of a master who was soon to be exhibited in the divorce court beside such a ’real lady’ as Lord Creedmore’s daughter; the housemaids agreed in this view, and the housekeeper consulted Miss More.  For Mrs. Dubbs was an imposing person, morally and physically, and had a character to lose; and though the place was a very good one for her old age, because the master only spent six weeks or two months at Oxley Paddox each year, and never found fault, yet Mrs. Dubbs was not going to have her name associated with that of a gentleman who blew up underground works and took Solomon’s view of the domestic affections.  She came of very good people in the north; one of her brothers was a minister, and the other was an assistant steward on a large Scotch estate.

Miss More’s quiet serenity was not at all disturbed by what was happening, for it could hardly be supposed that she was ignorant of the general attack on Mr. Van Torp, though he did not leave the papers lying about, where little Ida’s quick eyes might fall on a marked passage.  The housekeeper waited for an occasion when Mr. Van Torp had taken the child for a drive, as he often did, and Miss More was established in her favourite corner of the garden, just out of sight of the house.  Mrs. Dubbs first exposed the situation, then expressed a strong opinion as to her own respectability, and finally asked Miss More’s advice.

Miss More listened attentively, and waited till her large and sleek interlocutor had absolutely nothing more to say.  Then she spoke.

‘Mrs. Dubbs,’ she said, ’do you consider me a respectable young woman?’

‘Oh, Miss More!’ cried the housekeeper.  ’You!  Indeed, I’d put my hand into the fire for you any day!’

’And I’m an American, and I’ve known Mr. Van Torp several years, though this is the first time you have seen me here.  Do you think I would let the child stay an hour under his roof, or stay here myself, if I believed one word of all those wicked stories the papers are publishing?  Look at me, please.  Do you think I would?’

It was quite impossible to look at Miss More’s quiet healthy face and clear eyes and to believe she would.  There are some women of whom one is sure at a glance that they are perfectly trustworthy in every imaginable way, and above even the suspicion of countenancing any wrong.

‘No,’ answered Mrs. Dubbs, with honest conviction, ‘I don’t, indeed.’

‘I think, then,’ said Miss More, ’that if I feel I can stay here, you are safe in staying too.  I do not believe any of these slanders, and I am quite sure that Mr. Van Torp is one of the kindest men in the world.’

‘I feel as if you must be right, Miss More,’ replied the housekeeper.  ’But they do say dreadful things about him, indeed, and he doesn’t deny a word of it, as he ought to, in my humble opinion, though it’s not my business to judge, of course, but I’ll say this, Miss More, and that is, that if the butler’s character was publicly attacked in the papers, in the way Mr. Van Torp’s is, and if I were Mr. Van Torp, which of course I’m not, I’d say “Crookes, you may be all right, but if you’re going to be butler here any longer, it’s your duty to defend yourself against these attacks upon you in the papers, Crookes, because as a Christian man you must not hide your light under a bushel, Crookes, but let it shine abroad.”  That’s what I’d say, Miss More, and I should like to know if you don’t think I should be right.’

’If the English and American press united to attack the butler’s character,’ answered Miss More without a smile, ’I think you would be quite right, Mrs. Dubbs.  But as regards Mr. Van Torp’s present position, I am sure he is the best judge of what he ought to do.’

These words of wisdom, and Miss More’s truthful eyes, greatly reassured the housekeeper, who afterwards upbraided the servants for paying any attention to such wicked falsehoods; and Mr. Crookes, the butler, wrote to his aged mother, who was anxious about his situation, to say that Mr. Van Torp must be either a real gentleman or a very hardened criminal indeed, because it was only forgers and real gentlemen who could act so precious cool; but that, on the whole, he, Crookes, and the housekeeper, who was a highly respectable person and the sister of a minister, as he wished his mother to remember, had made up their minds that Mr. V.T. was Al, copper-bottomed ­Mrs. Crookes was the widow of a seafaring man, and lived at Liverpool, and had heard Lloyd’s rating quoted all her life ­and that they, the writer and Mrs. Dubbs, meant to see him through his troubles, though he was a little trying at his meals, for he would have butter on the table at his dinner, and he wanted two and three courses served together, and drank milk at his luncheon, like no Christian gentleman did that Mr. Crookes had ever seen.

The financier might have been amused if he could have read this letter, which contained no allusion to the material attractions of Torp Towers as a situation; for like a good many American millionaires, Mr. Van Torp had a blind spot on his financial retina.  He could deal daringly and surely with vast sums, or he could screw twice the normal quantity of work out of an underpaid clerk; but the household arithmetic that lies between the two was entirely beyond his comprehension.  He ‘didn’t want to be bothered,’ he said; he maintained that he ’could make more money in ten minutes than he could save in a year by checking the housekeeper’s accounts’; he ’could live on coffee and pie,’ but if he chose to hire the chef of the Cafe Anglais to cook for him at five thousand dollars a year he ’didn’t want to know the price of a truffled pheasant or a chaudfroid of ortolans.’  That was his way, and it was good enough for him.  What was the use of having made money if you were to be bothered?  And besides, he concluded, ’it was none of anybody’s blank blank business what he did.’

Mr. Van Torp did not hesitate to borrow similes from another world when his rather limited command of refined language was unequal to the occasion.

But at the present juncture, though his face did not change, and though he slept as soundly and had as good an appetite as usual, no words with which he was acquainted could express his feelings at all.  He had, indeed, consigned the writer of the first article to perdition with some satisfaction; but after his interview with Logotheti, when he had understood that a general attack upon him had begun, he gathered his strength in silence and studied the position with all the concentration of earnest thought which his exceptional nature could command.

He had recognised Feist’s handwriting, and he remembered the man as his partner’s former secretary.  Feist might have written the letter to Logotheti and the first article, but Van Torp did not believe him capable of raising a general hue and cry on both sides of the Atlantic.  It undoubtedly happened sometimes that when a fire had been smouldering long unseen a single spark sufficed to start the blaze, but Mr. Van Torp was too well informed as to public opinion about him to have been in ignorance of any general feeling against him, if it had existed; and the present attack was of too personal a nature to have been devised by financial rivals.  Besides, the Nickel Trust had recently absorbed all its competitors to such an extent that it had no rivals at all, and the dangers that threatened it lay on the one hand in the growing strength of the Labour Party in its great movement against capital, and on the other in its position with regard to recent American legislation about Trusts.  From the beginning Mr. Van Torp had been certain that the campaign of defamation had not been begun by the Unions, and by its nature it could have no connection with the legal aspect of his position.  It was therefore clear that war had been declared upon him by one or more individuals on purely personal grounds, and that Mr. Feist was but the chief instrument in the hands of an unknown enemy.

But at first sight it did not look as if his assailant were Isidore Bamberger.  The violent attack on him might not affect the credit of the Nickel Trust, but it was certainly not likely to improve it and Mr. Van Torp believed that if his partner had a grudge against him, any attempt at revenge would be made in a shape that would not affect the Trust’s finances.  Bamberger was a resentful sort of man, but on the other hand he was a man of business, and his fortune depended on that of his great partner.

Mr. Van Torp walked every morning in the park, thinking over these things, and little Ida tripped along beside him watching the squirrels and the birds, and not saying much; but now and then, when she felt the gentle pressure of his hand on hers, which usually meant that he was going to speak to her, she looked up to watch his lips, and they did not move; only his eyes met hers, and the faint smile that came into his face then was not at all like the one which most people saw there.  So she smiled back, happily, and looked at the squirrels again, sure that a rabbit would soon make a dash over the open and cross the road, and hoping for the rare delight of seeing a hare.  And the tame red and fallow deer looked at her suspiciously from a distance, as if she might turn into a motor-car.  In those morning walks she did not again see his lips forming words that frightened her, and she began to be quite sure that he had stopped swearing to himself because she had spoken to him so seriously.

Once he looked at her so long and with so much earnestness that she asked him what he was thinking of, and he gently pushed back the broad-brimmed hat she wore, so as to see her forehead and beautiful golden hair.

‘You are growing very like your mother,’ he said, after a little while.

They had stopped in the broad drive, and little Ida gazed gravely up at him for a moment.  Then she put up her arms.

‘I think I want to give you a kiss, Mr. Van Torp,’ she said with the utmost gravity.  ‘You’re so good to me.’

Mr. Van Torp stooped, and she put her arms round his short neck and kissed the hard, flat cheek once, and he kissed hers rather awkwardly.

‘Thank you, my dear,’ he said, in an odd voice, as he straightened himself.

He took her hand again to walk on, and the great iron mouth was drawn a little to one side, and it looked as if the lips might have trembled if they had not been so tightly shut.  Perhaps Mr. Van Torp had never kissed a child before.

She was very happy and contented, for she had spent most of her life in a New England village alone with Miss More, and the great English country-house was full of wonder and mystery for her, and the park was certainly the Earthly Paradise.  She had hardly ever been with other children and was rather afraid of them, because they did not always understand what she said, as most grown people did; so she was not at all lonely now.  On the contrary, she felt that her small existence was ever so much fuller than before, since she now loved two people instead of only one, and the two people seemed to agree so well together.  In America she had only seen Mr. Van Torp at intervals, when he had appeared at the cottage near Boston, the bearer of toys and chocolates and other good things, and she had not been told till after she had landed in Liverpool that she was to be taken to stop with him in the country while he remained in England.  Till then he had always called her ‘Miss Ida,’ in an absurdly formal way, but ever since she had arrived at Oxley Paddox he had dropped the ‘Miss,’ and had never failed to spend two or three hours alone with her every day.  Though his manner had not changed much, and he treated her with a sort of queer formality, much as he would have behaved if she had been twenty years old instead of nine, she had been growing more and more sure that he loved her and would give her anything in the world she asked for, though there was really nothing she wanted; and in return she grew gratefully fond of him by quick degrees, till her affection expressed itself in her solemn proposal to ‘give him a kiss.’

Not long after that Mr. Van Torp found amongst his letters one from Lady Maud, of which the envelope was stamped with the address of her father’s country place, ‘Craythew.’  He read the contents carefully, and made a note in his pocket-book before tearing the sheet and the envelope into a number of small bits.

There was nothing very compromising in the note, but Mr. Van Torp certainly did not know that his butler regularly offered first and second prizes in the servants’ hall, every Saturday night, for the ‘best-put-together letters’ of the week ­to those of his satellites, in other words, who had been most successful in piecing together scraps from the master’s wastepaper basket.  In houses where the post-bag has a patent lock, of which the master keeps the key, this diversion has been found a good substitute for the more thrilling entertainment of steaming the letters and reading them before taking them upstairs.  If Mrs. Dubbs was aware of Mr. Crookes’ weekly distribution of rewards she took no notice of it; but as she rarely condescended to visit the lower regions, and only occasionally asked Mr. Crookes to dine in her own sitting-room, she may be allowed the benefit of the doubt; and, besides, she was a very superior person.

On the day after he had received Lady Maud’s note, Mr. Van Torp rode out by himself.  No one, judging from his looks, would have taken him for a good rider.  He rode seldom, too, never talked of horses, and was never seen at a race.  When he rode he did not even take the trouble to put on gaiters, and, after he had bought Oxley Paddox, the first time that his horse was brought to the door, by a groom who had never seen him, the latter could have sworn that the millionaire had never been on a horse before and was foolishly determined to break his neck.  On that occasion Mr. Van Torp came down the steps, with a big cigar in his mouth, in his ordinary clothes, without so much as a pair of straps to keep his trousers down, or a bit of a stick in his hand.  The animal was a rather ill-tempered black that had arrived from Yorkshire two days previously in charge of a boy who gave him a bad character.  As Mr. Van Torp descended the steps with his clumsy gait, the horse laid his ears well back for a moment and looked as if he meant to kick anything within reach.  Mr. Van Torp looked at him in a dull way, puffed his cigar, and made one remark in the form of a query.

‘He ain’t a lamb, is he?’

‘No, sir,’ answered the groom with sympathetic alacrity, ’and if I was you, sir, I wouldn’t ­’

But the groom’s good advice was checked by an unexpected phenomenon.  Mr. Van Torp was suddenly up, and the black was plunging wildly as was only to be expected; what was more extraordinary was that Mr. Van Torp’s expression showed no change whatever, the very big cigar was stuck in his mouth at precisely the same angle as before, and he appeared to be glued to the saddle.  He sat perfectly erect, with his legs perpendicularly straight, and his hands low and quiet.

The next moment the black bolted down the drive, but Mr. Van Torp did not seem the least disturbed, and the astonished groom, his mouth wide open and his arms hanging down, saw that the rider gave the beast his head for a couple of hundred yards, and then actually stopped him short, bringing him almost to the ground on his haunches.

’My Gawd, ‘e’s a cowboy!’ exclaimed the groom, who was a Cockney, and had seen a Wild West show and recognised the real thing.  ’And me thinkin’ ‘e was goin’ to break his precious neck and wastin’ my bloomin’ sympathy on ‘im!’

Since that first day Mr. Van Torp had not ridden more than a score of times in two years.  He preferred driving, because it was less trouble, and partly because he could take little Ida with him.  It was therefore always a noticeable event in the monotonous existence at Torp Towers when he ordered a horse to be saddled, as he did on the day after he had got Lady Maud’s note from Craythew.

He rode across the hilly country at a leisurely pace, first by lanes and afterwards over a broad moor, till he entered a small beech wood by a bridle-path not wide enough for two to ride together, and lined with rhododendrons, lilacs, and laburnum.  A quarter of a mile from the entrance a pretty glade widened to an open lawn, in the middle of which stood a ruin, consisting of the choir and chancel arch of a chapel.  Mr. Van Torp drew rein before it, threw his right leg over the pommel before him, and remained sitting sideways on the saddle, for the very good reason that he did not see anything to sit on if he got down, and that it was of no use to waste energy in standing.  His horse might have resented such behaviour on the part of any one else, but accepted the western rider’s eccentricities quite calmly and proceeded to crop the damp young grass at his feet.

Mr. Van Torp had come to meet Lady Maud.  The place was lonely and conveniently situated, being about half-way between Oxley Paddox and Craythew, on Mr. Van Torp’s land, which was so thoroughly protected against trespassers and reporters by wire fences and special watchmen that there was little danger of any one getting within the guarded boundary.  On the side towards Craythew there was a gate with a patent lock, to which Lady Maud had a key.

Mr. Van Torp was at the meeting-place at least a quarter of an hour before the appointed time.  His horse only moved a short step every now and then, eating his way slowly across the grass, and his rider sat sideways, resting his elbows on his knees and staring at nothing particular, with that perfectly wooden expression of his which indicated profound thought.

But his senses were acutely awake, and he caught the distant sound of hoofs on the soft woodland path just a second before his horse lifted his head and pricked his ears.  Mr. Van Torp did not slip to the ground, however, and he hardly changed his position.  Half a dozen young pheasants hurled themselves noisily out of the wood on the other side of the ruin, and scattered again as they saw him, to perch on the higher boughs of the trees not far off instead of settling on the sward.  A moment later Lady Maud appeared, on a lanky and elderly thoroughbred that had been her own long before her marriage.  Her old-fashioned habit was evidently of the same period too; it had been made before the modern age of skirted coats, and fitted her figure in a way that would have excited open disapproval and secret admiration in Rotten Row.  But she never rode in town, so that it did not matter; and, besides, Lady Maud did not care.

Mr. Van Torp raised his hat in a very un-English way, and at the same time, apparently out of respect for his friend, he went so far as to change his seat a little by laying his right knee over the pommel and sticking his left foot into the stirrup, so that he sat like a woman.  Lady Maud drew up on his off side and they shook hands.

‘You look rather comfortable,’ she said, and the happy ripple was in her voice.

’Why, yes.  There’s nothing else to sit on, and the grass is wet.  Do you want to get off?’

‘I thought we might make some tea presently,’ answered Lady Maud.  ‘I’ve brought my basket.’

‘Now I call that quite sweet!’ Mr. Van Torp seemed very much pleased, and he looked down at the shabby little brown basket hanging at her saddle.

He slipped to the ground, and she did the same before he could go round to help her.  The old thoroughbred nosed her hand as if expecting something good, and she produced a lump of sugar from the tea-basket and gave it to him.

Mr. Van Torp pulled a big carrot from the pocket of his tweed jacket and let his horse bite it off by inches.  Then he took the basket from Lady Maud and the two went towards the ruin.

‘We can sit on the Earl,’ said Lady Maud, advancing towards a low tomb on which was sculptured a recumbent figure in armour.  ’The horses won’t run away from such nice grass.’

So the two installed themselves on each side of the stone knight’s armed feet, which helped to support the tea-basket, and Lady Maud took out her spirit-lamp and a saucepan that just held two cups, and a tin bottle full of water, and all the other things, arranging them neatly in order.

‘How practical women are!’ exclaimed Mr. Van Torp, looking on.  ’Now I would never have thought of that.’

But he was really wondering whether she expected him to speak first of the grave matters that brought them together in that lonely place.

‘I’ve got some bread and butter,’ she said, opening a small sandwich-box, ‘and there is a lemon instead of cream.’

‘Your arrangements beat Hare Court hollow,’ observed the millionaire.  ‘Do you remember the cracked cups and the weevilly biscuits?’

’Yes, and how sorry you were when you had burnt the little beasts!  Now light the spirit-lamp, please, and then we can talk.’

Everything being arranged to her satisfaction, Lady Maud looked up at her companion.

‘Are you going to do anything about it?’ she asked.

‘Will it do any good if I do?  That’s the question.’

‘Good?  What is good in that sense?’ She looked at him a moment, but as he did not answer she went on.  ’I cannot bear to see you abused in print like this, day after day, when I know the truth, or most of it.’

’It doesn’t matter about me.  I’m used to it.  What does your father say?’

’He says that when a man is attacked as you are, it’s his duty to defend himself.’

‘Oh, he does, does he?’

Lady Maud smiled, but shook her head in a reproachful way.

’You promised me that you would never give me your business answer, you know!’

‘I’m sorry,’ said Mr. Van Torp, in a tone of contrition.  ’Well, you see, I forgot you weren’t a man.  I won’t do it again.  So your father thinks I’d better come out flat-footed with a statement to the press.  Now, I’ll tell you.  I’d do so, if I didn’t feel sure that all this circus about me isn’t the real thing yet.  It’s been got up with an object, and until I can make out what’s coming I think I’d best keep still.  Whoever’s at the root of this is counting on my losing my temper and hitting out, and saying things, and then the real attack will come from an unexpected quarter.  Do you see that?  Under the circumstances, almost any man in my position would get interviewed and talk back, wouldn’t he?’

‘I fancy so,’ answered Lady Maud.

’Exactly.  If I did that, I might be raising against another man’s straight flush, don’t you see?  A good way in a fight is never to do what everybody else would do.  But I’ve got a scheme for getting behind the other man, whoever he is, and I’ve almost concluded to try it.’

‘Will you tell me what it is?’

‘Don’t I always tell you most things?’

Lady Maud smiled at the reservation implied in ‘most.’

’After all you have done for me, I should have no right to complain if you never told me anything,’ she answered.  ’Do as you think best.  You know that I trust you.’

‘That’s right, and I appreciate it,’ answered the millionaire.  ’In the first place, you’re not going to be divorced.  I suppose that’s settled.’

Lady Maud opened her clear eyes in surprise.

‘You didn’t know that, did you?’ asked Mr. Van Torp, enjoying her astonishment.

‘Certainly not, and I can hardly believe it,’ she answered.

‘Look here, Maud,’ said her companion, bending his heavy brows in a way very unusual with him, ’do you seriously think I’d let you be divorced on my account?  That I’d allow any human being to play tricks with your good name by coupling it with mine in any sort of way?  If I were the kind of man about whom you had a right to think that, I wouldn’t deserve your friendship.’

It was not often that Rufus Van Torp allowed his face to show feeling, but the look she saw in his rough-hewn features for a moment almost frightened her.  There was something Titanic in it.

‘No, Rufus ­no!’ she cried, earnestly.  ’You know how I have believed in you and trusted you!  It’s only that I don’t see how ­’

‘That’s a detail,’ answered the American.  ’The “how” don’t matter when a man’s in earnest.’  The look was gone again, for her words had appeased him instantly.  ‘Well,’ he went on, in his ordinary tone, ’you can take it for granted that the divorce will come to nothing.  There’ll be a clear statement in all the best papers next week, saying that your husband’s suit for a divorce has been dismissed with costs because there is not the slightest evidence of any kind against you.  It will be stated that you came to my partner’s chambers in Hare Court on a matter of pure business, to receive certain money, which was due to you from me in the way of business, for which you gave me the usual business acknowledgment.  So that’s that!  I had a wire yesterday to say it’s as good as settled.  The water’s boiling.’

The steam was lifting the lid of the small saucepan, which stood securely on the spirit-lamp between the marble knight’s greaved shins.  But Lady Maud took no notice of it.

‘It’s like you,’ said she.  ‘I cannot find anything else to say!’

‘It doesn’t matter about saying anything,’ returned Mr. Van Torp.  ’The water’s boiling.’

‘Will you blow out the lamp?’ As she spoke she dropped a battered silver tea-ball into the water, and moved it about by its little chain.

Mr. Van Torp took off his hat, and bent down sideways till his flat cheek rested on the knight’s stone shin, and he blew out the flame with one well-aimed puff.  Lady Maud did not look at the top of his head, nor steal a furtive glance at the strong muscles and sinews of his solid neck.  She did nothing of the kind.  She bobbed the tea-ball up and down in the saucepan by its chain, and watched how the hot water turned brown.

‘But I did not give you a “business acknowledgment,” as you call it,’ she said thoughtfully.  ’It’s not quite truthful to say I did, you know.’

‘Does that bother you?  All right.’

He produced his well-worn pocket-book, found a scrap of white paper amongst the contents, and laid it on the leather.  Then he took his pencil and wrote a few words.

‘Received of R. Van Torp L4100 to balance of account.’

He held out the pencil, and laid the pocket-book on his palm for her to write.  She read the words with out moving.

‘"To balance of account” ­what does that mean?’

’It means that it’s a business transaction.  At the time you couldn’t make any further claim against me.  That’s all it means.’

He put the pencil to the paper again, and wrote the date of the meeting in Hare Court.

’There!  If you sign your name to that, it just means that you had no further claim against me on that day.  You hadn’t, anyway, so you may just as well sign!’

He held out the paper, and Lady Maud took it with a smile and wrote her signature.

‘Thank you,’ said Mr. Van Torp.  ’Now you’re quite comfortable, I suppose, for you can’t deny that you have given me the usual business acknowledgment.  The other part of it is that I don’t care to keep that kind of receipt long, so I just strike a match and burn it.’  He did so, and watched the flimsy scrap turn black on the stone knight’s knee, till the gentle breeze blew the ashes away.  ‘So there!’ he concluded.  ’If you were called upon to swear in evidence that you signed a proper receipt for the money, you couldn’t deny it, could you?  A receipt’s good if given at any time after the money has been paid.  What’s the matter?  Why do you look as if you doubted it?  What is truth, anyhow?  It’s the agreement of the facts with the statement of them, isn’t it?  Well, I don’t see but the statement coincides with the facts all right now.’

While he had been talking Lady Maud had poured out the tea, and had cut some thin slices from the lemon, glancing at him incredulously now and then, but smiling in spite of herself.

‘That’s all sophistry,’ she said, as she handed him his cup.

‘Thanks,’ he answered, taking it from her.  ’Look here!  Can you deny that you have given me a formal dated receipt for four thousand one hundred pounds?’

‘No ­’

’Well, then, what can’t be denied is the truth; and if I choose to publish the truth about you, I don’t suppose you can find fault with it.’

‘No, but ­’

’Excuse me for interrupting, but there is no “but.”  What’s good in law is good enough for me, and the Attorney-General and all his angels couldn’t get behind that receipt now, if they tried till they were black in the face.’

Mr. Van Torp’s similes were not always elegant.

‘Tip-top tea,’ he remarked, as Lady Maud did not attempt to say anything more.  ’That was a bright idea of yours, bringing the lemon, too.’

He took several small sips in quick succession, evidently appreciating the quality of the tea as a connoisseur.

‘I don’t know how you have managed to do it,’ said Lady Maud at last.  ’As you say, the “how” does not matter very much.  Perhaps it’s just as well that I should not know how you got at the Patriarch.  I couldn’t be more grateful if I knew the whole story.’

’There’s no particular story about it.  When I found he was the man to be seen, I sent a man to see him.  That’s all.’

‘It sounds very simple,’ said Lady Maud, whose acquaintance with American slang was limited, even after she had known Mr. Van Torp intimately for two years.  ’You were going to tell me more.  You said you had a plan for catching the real person who is responsible for this attack on you.’

’Well, I have a sort of an idea, but I’m not quite sure how the land lays.  By the bye,’ he said quickly, correcting himself, ’isn’t that one of the things I say wrong?  You told me I ought to say how the land “lies,” didn’t you?  I always forget.’

Lady Maud laughed as she looked at him, for she was quite sure that he had only taken up his own mistake in order to turn the subject from the plan of which he did not mean to speak.

‘You know that I’m not in the least curious,’ she said, ’so don’t waste any cleverness in putting me off!  I only wish to know whether I can help you to carry out your plan.  I had an idea too.  I thought of getting my father to have a week-end party at Craythew, to which you would be asked, by way of showing people that he knows all about our friendship, and approves of it in spite of what my husband has been trying to do.  Would that suit you?  Would it help you or not?’

‘It might come in nicely after the news about the divorce appears,’ answered Mr. Van Torp approvingly.  ’It would be just the same if I went over to dinner every day, and didn’t sleep in the house, wouldn’t it?’

‘I’m not sure,’ Lady Maud said.  ’I don’t think it would, quite.  It might seem odd that you should dine with us every day, whereas if you stop with us people cannot but see that my father wants you.’

‘How about Lady Creedmore?’

’My mother is on the continent.  Why in the world do you not want to come?’

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ answered Mr. Van Torp vaguely.  ’Just like that, I suppose.  I was thinking.  But it’ll be all right, and I’ll come any way, and please tell your father that I highly appreciate the kind invitation.  When is it to be?’

’Come on Thursday next week and stay till Tuesday.  Then you will be there when the first people come and till the last have left.  That will look even better.’

‘Maybe they’ll say you take boarders,’ observed Mr. Van Torp facetiously.  ‘That other piece belongs to you.’

While talking they had finished their tea, and only one slice of bread and butter was left in the sandwich-box.

‘No,’ answered Lady Maud, ‘it’s yours.  I took the first.’

‘Let’s go shares,’ suggested the millionaire.

‘There’s no knife.’

‘Break it.’

Lady Maud doubled the slice with conscientious accuracy, gently pulled the pieces apart at the crease, and held out one half to her companion.  He took it as naturally as if they had been children, and they ate their respective shares in silence.  As a matter of fact Mr. Van Torp had been unconsciously and instinctively more interested in the accuracy of the division than in the very beautiful white fingers that performed it.

‘Who are the other people going to be?’ he asked when he had finished eating, and Lady Maud was beginning to put the tea-things back into the basket.

’That depends on whom we can get.  Everybody is awfully busy just now, you know.  The usual sort of set, I suppose.  You know the kind of people who come to us ­you’ve met lots of them.  I thought of asking Miss Donne if she is free.  You know her, don’t you?’

’Why, yes, I do.  You’ve read those articles about our interview in New York, I suppose.’

Lady Maud, who had been extremely occupied with her own affairs of late, had almost forgotten the story, and was now afraid that she had made a mistake, but she caught at the most evident means of setting it right.

’Yes, of course.  All the better, if you are seen stopping in the same house.  People will see that it’s all right.’

’Well, maybe they would.  I’d rather, if it’ll do her any good.  But perhaps she doesn’t want to meet me.  She wasn’t over-anxious to talk to me on the steamer, I noticed, and I didn’t bother her much.  She’s a lovely woman!’

Lady Maud looked at him, and her beautiful mouth twitched as if she wanted to laugh.

‘Miss Donne doesn’t think you’re a “lovely” man at all,’ she said.

‘No,’ answered Mr. Van Torp, in a tone of child-like and almost sheepish regret, ’she doesn’t, and I suppose she’s right.  I didn’t know how to take her, or she wouldn’t have been so angry.’

‘When?  Did you really ask her to marry you?’ Lady Maud was smiling now.

’Why, yes, I did.  Why shouldn’t I?  I guess it wasn’t very well done, though, and I was a fool to try and take her hand after she’d said no.’

‘Oh, you tried to take her hand?’

’Yes, and the next thing I knew she’d rushed out of the room and bolted the door, as if I was a dangerous lunatic and she’d just found it out.  That’s what happened ­just that.  It wasn’t my fault if I was in earnest, I suppose.’

‘And just after that you were engaged to poor Miss Bamberger,’ said Lady Maud in a tone of reflection.

‘Yes,’ answered Mr. Van Torp slowly.  ’Nothing mattered much just then, and the engagement was the business side.  I told you about all that in Hare Court.’

’You’re a singular mixture of several people all in one!  I shall never quite understand you.’

’Maybe not.  But if you don’t, nobody else is likely to, and I mean to be frank to you every time.  I suppose you think I’m heartless.  Perhaps I am.  I don’t know.  You have to know about the business side sometimes; I wish you didn’t, for it’s not the side of myself I like best.’

The aggressive blue eyes softened a little as he spoke, and there was a touch of deep regret in his harsh voice.

‘No,’ answered Lady Maud, ’I don’t like it either.  But you are not heartless.  Don’t say that of yourself, please ­please don’t!  You cannot fancy how it would hurt me to think that your helping me was only a rich man’s caprice, that because a few thousand pounds are nothing to you it amused you to throw the money away on me and my ideas, and that you would just as soon put it on a horse, or play with it at Monte Carlo!’

‘Well, you needn’t worry,’ observed Mr. Van Torp, smiling in a reassuring way.  ’I’m not given to throwing away money.  In fact, the other people think I’m too much inclined to take it.  And why shouldn’t I?  People who don’t know how to take care of money shouldn’t have it.  They do harm with it.  It is right to take it from them since they can’t keep it and haven’t the sense to spend it properly.  However, that’s the business side of me, and we won’t talk about it, unless you like.’

‘I don’t “like"!’ Lady Maud smiled too.

’Precisely.  You’re not the business side, and you can have anything you like to ask for.  Anything I’ve got, I mean.’

The beautiful hands were packing the tea-things.

‘Anything in reason,’ suggested Lady Maud, looking into the shabby basket.

‘I’m not talking about reason,’ answered Mr. Van Torp, gouging his waistcoat pockets with his thick thumbs, and looking at the top of her old grey felt hat as she bent her head.  ’I don’t suppose I’ve done much good in my life, but maybe you’ll do some for me, because you understand those things and I don’t.  Anyhow, you mean to, and I want you to, and that constitutes intention in both parties, which is the main thing in law.  If it happens to give you pleasure, so much the better.  That’s why I say you can have anything you like.  It’s an unlimited order.’

‘Thank you,’ said Lady Maud, still busy with the things.  ’I know you are in earnest, and if I needed more money I would ask for it.  But I want to make sure that it is really the right way ­so many people would not think it was, you know, and only time can prove that I’m not mistaken.  There!’ She had finished packing the basket, and she fastened the lid regretfully.  ’I’m afraid we must be going.  It was awfully good of you to come!’

’Wasn’t it?  I’ll be just as good again the day after to-morrow, if you’ll ask me!’

‘Will you?’ rippled the sweet voice pleasantly.  ’Then come at the same time, unless it rains really hard.  I’m not afraid of a shower, you know, and the arch makes a very fair shelter here.  I never catch cold, either.’

She rose, taking up the basket in one hand and shaking down the folds of her old habit with the other.

‘All the same, I’d bring a jacket next time if I were you,’ said her companion, exactly as her mother might have made the suggestion, and scarcely bestowing a glance on her almost too visibly perfect figure.

The old thoroughbred raised his head as they crossed the sward, and made two or three steps towards her of his own accord.  Her foot rested a moment on Mr. Van Torp’s solid hand, and she was in the saddle.  The black was at first less disposed to be docile, but soon yielded at the sight of another carrot.  Mr. Van Torp did not take the trouble to put his foot into the stirrup, but vaulted from the ground with no apparent effort.  Lady Maud smiled approvingly, but not as a woman who loves a man and feels pride in him when he does anything very difficult.  It merely pleased and amused her to see with what ease and indifference the rather heavily-built American did a thing which many a good English rider, gentleman or groom, would have found it hard to do at all.  But Mr. Van Torp had ridden and driven cattle in California for his living before he had been twenty.

He wheeled and came to her side, and held out his hand.

‘Day after to-morrow, at the same time,’ he said as she took it.  ‘Good-bye!’

‘Good-bye, and don’t forget Thursday!’

They parted and rode away in opposite directions, and neither turned, even once, to look back at the other.