Her Hero by Ethel M. Dell
"Funny, wasn't it, sweetheart?"
The soft voice reached her through a buzz of other louder voices. Priscilla moved slightly, but she did not turn her head.
"You will have to explain," she said. "I don't understand anything yet."
"Nor I," came the quiet retort. "It's the woman's privilege to explain first, isn't it?"
Against her will, the blood rose in her face. She threw him a quick glance.
"I can't possibly explain anything here," she said.
He met her look with steady eyes.
"Let me tell you the story of a fraud," he said; and proceeded without further preliminary. "There was once a man--a second son, without prospects and without fame--who had the good fortune to do a service to a woman. He went away immediately afterwards lest he should make a fool of himself, for she was miles above his head, anyway. But he never forgot her. The mischief was done, so far as he was concerned."
He broke off, and raised his champagne to his lips as if he drank to a memory.
Priscilla was listening, but her eyes were downcast. She wore the old, absent look that her stepmother always deprecated. The soft drawl at her side continued, every syllable distinct and measured.
"Years passed, and things changed. The man had belonged to a cadet branch of an aristocratic British family. But one heir after another died, till only he was left to inherit. The woman belonged to the older branch of the family, but, being a woman, she was passed over. A time came when he was invited by the head of the house to go and see his inheritance. He would have gone at once and gladly, but for a hint at the end of the letter to the effect that, if he would do his part, what the French shamelessly call a mariage de convenance might be arranged between his cousin and himself--an arrangement advantageous to them both from a certain point of view. He didn't set up for a paragon of morality. Perhaps even, had things been a little different, he might have been willing. As it was, he didn't like the notion, and he jibbed." He paused. "But for all that," he said, his voice yet quieter and more deliberate, "he wanted the woman, if he could make her care for him. That was his difficulty. He had a feeling all along that the thing must be an even greater offence to her than it was to him. He worried it all through, and at last he worked out a scheme for them both. He called himself by an old school alias, and came to her as a stranger----
"You're not eating anything, sweetheart. Wouldn't it be as well, just for decency's sake? There's a comic ending to this story, so you mustn't be sad. Who's that boy scowling at me on the other side of the table? What's the matter with the child?"
"Never mind," murmured Priscilla hastily. "He doesn't mean anything. Please go on."
He began to laugh at her with gentle ridicule.
"Impatient for the third act? Well, the scheme worked all right. But it so chanced that the woman decided to be subtle, too. She knew him for an old friend the instant she saw him. But he pretended to have forgotten that old affair in New York. He didn't want her to feel in any way under an obligation. So he played the humble stranger, and she--sweetheart--she played the simple, country maiden, and she did it to perfection. I think, you know, that she was a little afraid her name and title would frighten him away."
"And so he humoured her?" said Priscilla, a slight quiver in her deep voice.
"They humoured each other, sweetheart. That was where it began to be funny. Now I am going to get you to tell me the rest of the story."
She turned towards him again, her face very pale.
"Yes; it's very funny, no doubt--funny for the man, I mean; for the woman, I am not so sure. How does she know that he really cared for her from the beginning; that he was always quite honest in his motive? How can she possibly know this?"
Again for a moment their eyes met. There was no hint of dismay in the man's brown face.
"She does know it, sweetheart," he answered, with confidence. "I can't tell you how. Probably she couldn't, either. He was going to explain everything, you know, under the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral. But for some reason it didn't come off. He spent three solid hours waiting for her, but she didn't come. She had found him out, perhaps? And was angry?"
"Perhaps," said Priscilla, her voice very low.
Again he raised his glass to his lips.
"We will have the end of the story presently," he said; and deliberately turned to his left-hand neighbour.