The Duke pushed his glass from him. ‘Ronald,’ he said, ‘this is intolerable. A future Marchioness of Saltcombe the—the laughing-stock—do you know what you are saying?’
The General crossed his legs, then uncrossed them, leaned back in his chair, filled his glass again, took some candied angelica, and said, looking uncomfortable and nervous, ‘Saltcombe is sensitive. He cannot stand that sort of thing. I hear he will be home to-morrow,’
‘Saltcombe—here! Do you mean to hint that the engagement is off?’
‘I know nothing definitely. I can’t say absolutely off, past all patching up. You can understand that if Miss Dulcina Rigsby gives herself airs unbecoming a lady, Saltcombe will feel it. The old father, too, the coffee-planter, is a rough stick, and perhaps does not know how far liberties are allowed on the footing on which he stands.’
The Duke looked grave. He picked some grapes and ate them. Then he said, ‘Saltcombe knows what befits his position. She who is to be Duchess of Kingsbridge when I am gone must not be an object of ridicule. If she were a princess of blood royal, and failed in tact, she would be unworthy to wear our strawberries. Not for the world would I do what is wrong, not for ten thousand worlds would I excite a jeer.’ He paused. ‘You think Herbert will return. Very well. He will do what is right. I shall be glad to see him. You think the match is broken off. I am content. The house of Kingsbridge does not want Rigsbys to prop it up. Let us rejoin the ladies.’
In the meantime Lady Grace and Lucy were sitting side by side on the sofa in the drawing-room. Grace had her arm round Lucy’s waist, and Lucy held a screen to cut off the red firelight from her friend’s face.
‘How lively you are to-day, Lucy!’ said Lady Grace. ‘I do not know what it was at dinner that put my father and uncle out of spirits, and observing them I lost the desire to talk; but you flew to the rescue, and rattled on, and forced us all to laugh; and now I feel your heart; you are quivering with animation. What is it, Lucy? I have not found you in such buoyant humour for many a day.’
‘Shall I tell you a secret?’
‘It is excellent. I am sure it will rejoice you.
‘Then do tell me.’