"My dear child, it's absurd to be romantic over such a serious matter as marriage--the greatest mistake, I assure you. Nothing could be more suitable than an alliance with this very eligible young man. He plainly thinks so himself. If you are so unreasonable as to throw away this magnificent chance, I shall really feel inclined to give you up in despair."

The soft, drawling accents fell with a gentle sigh through the perfumed silence of the speaker's boudoir. She was an elderly woman, beautiful, with that delicate, china-like beauty that never fades from youth to age. Not even Lady Raffold's enemies had ever disputed the fact of her beauty, not even her stepdaughter, firmly though she despised her.

She sat behind the tea-table, this stepdaughter, dark and inscrutable, a grave, unresponsive listener. Her grey eyes never varied as Lady Raffold's protest came lispingly through the quiet room. She might have been turning over some altogether irrelevant problem at the back of her mind. It was this girl's way to hide herself behind a shield of apparent preoccupation when anything jarred upon her.

"I need scarcely tell you what it would mean to your father," went on the soft voice. "Ever since poor Mortimer's death it has fretted him terribly to think that the estates must pass out of the direct line. Indeed, he hardly feels that the present heir belongs to the family at all. The American branch has always seemed so remote. But now that the young man is actually coming over to see his inheritance, it does seem such a Heaven-sent chance for you. You know, dear, it's your sixth season. You really ought to think seriously of getting settled. I am sure it would be a great weight off my mind to see you suitably married. And this young Cochrane is sure to take a reasonable view of the matter. Americans are so admirably practical. And, of course, if your father could leave all his money to the estates, as this marriage would enable him to do, it would be a very excellent arrangement for all concerned."

The girl at the tea-table made a slight--a very slight--movement that scarcely amounted to a gesture of impatience. The gentle drone of her stepmother's voice was becoming monotonous. But she said nothing whatever, and her expression did not change.

A faintly fretful note crept into Lady Raffold's tone when she spoke again.

"You're so unreasonable, Priscilla. I really haven't a notion what you actually want. You might have been a duchess by this time, as all the world knows, if you had only been reasonable. How is it--why is it--that you are so hard to please?"

Lady Priscilla raised her eyelids momentarily.

"I don't think you would understand, Charlotte, if I were to tell you," she said, in a voice of such deep music that it seemed incapable of bitterness.

"Some ridiculous sentimentality, no doubt," said Lady Raffold.

"I am sure you would call it so."

A faint flush rose in the girl's dark face. She looked at her stepmother no longer, but began very quietly and steadily to make the tea.

Lady Raffold waited a few seconds for her confidence, but she waited in vain. Lady Priscilla had retired completely behind her shield, and it was quite obvious that she had no intention of exposing herself any further to stray shots.

Her stepmother was exasperated, but she found it difficult to say anything more upon the subject in face of this impenetrability. She could only solace herself with the reflection that the American cousin, who had become heir to the earldom and estates of Raffold, would almost certainly take a more common-sense view of the matter, and, if that were so, a little pressure from the girl's father, whom she idolised, would probably be sufficient to settle it according to her desires.

It was so plainly Priscilla's duty to marry the young man. The whole thing seemed to be planned and cut out by Providence. And it was but natural that Ralph Cochrane should see it in the same light. For it was understood that he was not rich, and it would be greatly to his interest to marry Earl Raffold's only surviving child.

So Lady Raffold reasoned to herself as Priscilla poured out the tea in serious silence, and she gradually soothed her own annoyance by the process.

"Come," she said at length, breaking a long silence, "I should think Ralph Cochrane will be in England in ten days at the latest. We must not be too formal with him as he is a relation. Shall we ask him to luncheon on the Sunday after next?"

Priscilla did not at once reply. When at length she looked up, it was with the air of one coming out of a reverie.

"Oh, yes, if you like, Charlotte," she said, in her deep, quiet voice. "No doubt he will amuse you. I know you always enjoy Americans."

"And you, my dear?" said Lady Raffold, with just a hint of sharpness in her tone.

"I?" Again her stepdaughter paused a little, as if collecting her thoughts. "I shall not be here," she said finally. "I have decided to go down to Raffold for midsummer week, and I don't suppose I shall hurry back. It won't matter, will it? I often think that you entertain best alone. And I am so tired of London heat and dust."

There was an unconscious note of wistfulness in the beautiful voice, but its dominant virtue was determination.

Lady Raffold realised at once to her unspeakable indignation that protest was useless.

"Really, Priscilla," was all she found to say, "I am amazed--yes, amazed--at your total lack of consideration."

But Priscilla was quite unimpressed.

"You won't have time to miss me," she said. "I don't think any one will, except, perhaps, Dad; and he always knows where to find me."

"Your father will certainly not leave town before the end of the season," said Lady Raffold, raising her voice slightly.

"Poor dear Dad!" murmured Priscilla.