Chapter III
 

The season was drawing to a close when the announcement of Lady Violet Calcott's engagement to Percival Field took the world by storm.

It very greatly astonished Burleigh Wentworth, who after his acquittal had drifted down to Cowes for rest and refreshment before the advent of the crowd. He had not seen Lady Violet before his departure, she having gone out of town for a few days immediately after the trial. But he took the very next train back to London as soon as he had seen the announcement, to find her.

It was late in the evening when he arrived, but this fact did not daunt him. He had always been accustomed to having his own way, and he had a rooted belief, which the result of his trial had not tended to lessen, in his own lucky star. He had dined on the train and he merely waited to change before he went straight to Lord Culverleigh's house.

He found there was a dinner-party in progress. Lady Culverleigh, Violet's sister-in-law, was an indefatigable hostess. She had the reputation for being one of the hardest-working women in the West End.

The notes of a song reached Wentworth as he went towards the drawing-room. Lady Violet was singing. Her voice was rich and low. He stood outside the half-open door to listen.

He did not know that he was visible to any one inside the room, but a man sitting near the door became suddenly aware of his presence and got up before the song was ended. Wentworth in the act of stepping back to let him pass stopped short abruptly. It was Percival Field.

They faced each other for a second or two in silence. Then Field's hand came quietly forth and grasped the other man's shoulder, turning him about.

"I should like a word with you," he said.

They descended the stairs together, Burleigh Wentworth leading the way.

Down in the vestibule they faced each other again. There was antagonism in the atmosphere though it was not visible upon either man's countenance, and each ignored it as it were instinctively.

"Hullo!" said Wentworth, and offered his hand. "I'm pleased to meet you here."

Field took the hand after a scarcely perceptible pause. His smile was openly cynical.

"Very kind of you," he said. "I am somewhat out of my element, I admit. We are celebrating our engagement."

He looked full at Wentworth as he said it with that direct, unflickering gaze of his.

Wentworth did not meet the look quite so fully, but he faced the situation without a sign of discomfiture.

"You are engaged to Lady Violet?" he said. "I saw the announcement. I congratulate you."

"Thanks," said Field.

"Rather sudden, isn't it?" said Wentworth, with a curious glance.

Field's smile still lingered.

"Oh, not really. We have kept it to ourselves, that's all. The wedding is fixed for the week after next--for the convenience of Lady Culverleigh, who wants to get out of town."

"By Jove! It is quick work!" said Wentworth.

There were beads of perspiration on his forehead, but the night was warm. He held himself erect as one defying Fate. So had he held himself throughout his trial; Field recognised the attitude.

The song upstairs had ended. They heard the buzz of appreciation that succeeded it. Field turned with the air of a man who had said his say.

"I don't believe in long engagements myself," he said. "They must be a weariness to the flesh."

He began to mount the stairs again, and Wentworth followed him in silence.

At the drawing-room door Field paused and they entered together. It was almost Wentworth's first appearance since his trial. There was a moment or two of dead silence as he sauntered forward with Field. Then, with a little laugh to cover an instant's embarrassment, Lady Culverleigh came forward. She shook hands with Wentworth and asked where he had been in retreat.

Violet came forward from the piano very pale but quite composed, and shook hands also. Several people present followed suit, and soon there was a little crowd gathered round him, and Burleigh Wentworth was again the popular centre of attraction.

Percival Field kept in the background; it was not his way to assert himself in society. But he remained until Wentworth and the last guest had departed. And then very quietly but with indisputable insistence he drew Lady Violet away into the conservatory.

She was looking white and tired, but she held herself with a proud aloofness in his presence. While admitting his claim upon her, she yet did not voluntarily yield him an inch.

"Did you wish to speak to me?" she asked.

He stood a moment or two in silence before replying; then:

"Only to give you this," he said, and held out to her a small packet wrapped in tissue paper on the palm of his hand.

She took it unwillingly.

"The badge of servitude?" she said.

"I should like to know if it fits," said Field quietly, as if she had not spoken.

She opened the packet and disclosed not the orthodox diamond ring she had expected, but a ring containing a single sapphire very deep in hue, exquisitely cut. She looked at him over it, her look a question.

"Will you put it on?" he said.

She hesitated an instant, then with a tightening of the lips she slipped it on to her left hand.

"Is it too easy?" he said.

She looked at him again.

"No; it is not easy at all."

He took her hand and looked at it. His touch was cool and strong. He slipped the ring up and down upon her finger, testing it. It was as if he waited for something.

She endured his action for a few seconds, then with a deliberate movement she took her hand away.

"Thank you very much," she said conventionally. "I wonder what made you think of a sapphire."

"You like sapphires?" he questioned.

"Of course," she returned. Her tone was resolutely indifferent, yet something in his look made her avert her eyes abruptly. She turned them upon the ring. "Why did you choose a sapphire?" she said.

If she expected some compliment in reply she was disappointed. He stood in silence.

Half-startled she glanced at him. In the same moment he held out his hand to her with a formal gesture of leave-taking.

"I will tell you another time," he said. "Good night!"

She gave him her hand, but he scarcely held it. The next instant, with a brief bow, he had turned and left her.