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- The Hollow of Her Hand - 70/75 -
"I thought perhaps he had written you about his plans."
"My father does not know that I have returned to New York."
"Oh, I see. Of course. Um--um! By the way, I think the Colonel is a corker. One of the most amiable thoroughbreds I've ever come across. Ripping. He's never said anything to me about your antipathy toward him, but I can see with half an eye that he is terribly depressed about it. Can't you get together some way on--"
"Really, Mr. Wrandall, you are encouraging your imagination to a point where words ultimately must fail you," she said very positively. Booth could hardly repress a chuckle.
"It's not imagination on my part," said Leslie with conviction, failing utterly to recognise the obvious. "I suppose you know that he is coming over to visit me for six weeks or so. We became rattling good friends before we parted. By Jove, you should hear him on old Lord Murgatroyd's will! The quintessence of wit! I couldn't take it as he does. Expectations and all that sort of thing, you know, going up like a hot air balloon and bursting in plain view. But he never squeaked. Laughed it off. A British attribute, I dare say. I suppose you know that he is obliged to sell his estate in Ireland."
Hetty started. She could not conceal the look of shame that leaped into her eyes.
"I--I did not know," she murmured.
"Must be quite a shock to you. Sit down, Brandy. You look very picturesque standing, but chairs were made to sit upon--or in, whichever is proper."
Booth shrugged his shoulders.
"I think I'll stand, if you don't mind, Les."
"I merely suggested it, old chap, fearing you might have overlooked the possibilities. Yes, Miss Castleton, he left us in London to go up to Belfast on this dismal business." There was something in the back of his mind that he was trying to get at in a tactful manner. "By the way, is this property entailed?"
"I know nothing at all about it, Mr. Wrandall," said she, with a pleading glance at her lover, as if to inquire what stand she should take in this distressing situation.
"If it is entailed he can't sell it," said Booth quietly.
"That's true," said Leslie, somewhat dubiously. Then, with a magnanimity that covered a multitude of doubts he added: "Of course, I am only interested in seeing that you are properly protected, Miss Castleton. I've no doubt you hold an interest in the estates."
"I can't very well discuss a thing I know absolutely nothing about," she said succinctly.
"Most of it is in building lots and factories in Belfast, of course." It was more in the nature of a question than a declaration. "The old family castle isn't very much of an asset, I take it."
"I fancy you can trust Colonel Castleton to make the best possible deal in the premises," said Booth drily.
"I suppose so," said the other resignedly. "He is a shrewd beggar, I'm convinced of that. Strange, however, that I haven't heard a word from him since he left us in London, I've been expecting a cablegram from him every day for nearly a fortnight, letting me know when to expect him."
Hetty had gone over to the window and was looking out over the darkening park.
"Perhaps he means to surprise you, old man," said Booth, with a smile that Leslie did not in the least interpret.
With a furtive glance at the girl, whose back was toward them, he got up from his chair and came quite close to Booth, frowning slightly as he plucked at his moustache with nervous fingers. Lowering his voice to a cautious half-whisper, he inquired:
"I say, Brandy, what do you know about him? Is he on the level, or is he a damned old rascal?"
"Did you lend him any money?" asked Booth, with a malicious grin.
Leslie gulped. A fine perspiration broke out on his forehead. "Yes, I did," he replied, and, on reflection, slyly kicked himself on the ankle, making sure however that Hetty was still looking the other way. "Go on! Break it rudely. He's no good, eh? A shark, eh?"
"Believe me, I don't know anything about him, Les," said Booth, with a sudden feeling of loyalty to the Colonel's daughter. "He may pay up."
Leslie snapped his fingers while they were on the way to his upper lip, and almost missed his moustache by the digression. At any rate, he seemed to be fumbling for it.
"I did it on her account," he explained, nodding his head in Hetty's direction. He thought hard for a moment. "Of course, he won't be such a blithering fool as to come over here, will he?"
"I shouldn't, if I had been able to get what I wanted at home, as he very obviously did," said Booth pitilessly. "How much was it?"
Leslie waved his hand disdainfully. "Oh, a few hundred pounds, that's all. No harm done."
"Are you going to California this winter for the flying?" asked Hetty, coming toward them.
Sara entered at that juncture, and they all sat down to listen for half an hour to Leslie's harangue on the way the California meet was being mismanaged, at the end of which he departed.
He took Booth away with him, much to that young man's disgust.
"Do you know, Brandy, old fellow," said he as they walked down Fifth Avenue in the gathering dusk of the early winter evening, "ever since I've begun to suspect that damned old humbug of a father of hers, I've been congratulating myself that there isn't the remotest chance of his ever becoming my father-in-law. And, by George, you'll never know how near I was to leaping blindly into the brambles. What a close call I had!"
Booth's sarcastic smile was hidden by the dusk. He made no pretence of openly resenting the meanness of spirit that moved Leslie to these caddish remarks. He merely announced in a dry, cutting voice:
"I think Miss Castleton is to be congratulated that her injury is no greater than Nature made it in the beginning."
"What do you mean by 'nature'?"
"Nature gave her a father, didn't it?"
"Well, why add insult to injury?"
"By Jove! Oh, I SAY, old man!"
They parted at the next corner. As Booth started to cross over to the Plaza, Leslie called out after him:
"I say, Brandy, just a second, please. Are you going to marry Miss Castleton?"
"Then, I retract the scurvy things I said back there. I asked her to marry me three times and she refused me three times. What I said about the brambles was rotten. I'd ask her again if I thought she'd have me. There you are, old fellow. I'm a rotten cad, but I apologise to you just the same."
"You're learning, Leslie," said Booth, taking the hand the other held out to him.
While the painter was dining at his club later on in the evening, he was called to the telephone. Watson was on the wire. He said that Mrs. Wrandall would like to know if Mr. Booth could drop in on her for a few minutes after dinner, "to discuss a very important matter, if you please, sir." At nine o'clock, Booth was in Sara's library, trying to grasp a new and remarkable phase in the character of that amazing woman.
He found Hetty waiting for him when he arrived.
"I don't know what it all means, Brandon," she said hurriedly, looking over her shoulder as she spoke. "Sara says that she has come to a decision of some sort. She wants us to hear her plan before making it final. I--I don't understand her at all to-night."
"It can't be anything serious, dearest," he said, but something cold and nameless oppressed him just the same.
"She asked me if I had finally decided to--to be your wife, Brandon. I said I had asked you for two or three days more in which to decide. It seemed to depress her. She said she didn't see how she could give me up, even to you. She wants to be near me always. It is--it is really tragic, Brandon."
He took he hands in his.
"We can fix that," said he confidently. "Sara can live with us if she feels that way about it. Our home shall be hers when she likes, and as long as she chooses. It will be open to her all the time, to come and go or to stay, just as she elects. Isn't that the way to put it?"
"I suggested something of the sort, but she wasn't very much impressed. Indeed, she appeared to be somewhat--yes, I could not have been mistaken,--somewhat harsh and terrified when I spoke of it. Afterwards she was more reasonable. She thanked me and--there were tears in her eyes at the time--and said she would think it over. All she asks is that I may be happy and free and untroubled
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