Chapter III
 

It was two hours later that Carey presented himself at his cousin's house. He entered unobtrusively, as his manner was, knowing himself to be a welcome guest.

The first person to greet him was Gwen, who, accompanied by a college youth of twenty, was roasting chestnuts in front of the hall fire. She sprang up at the sound of his voice, and, flushed and eager, rushed to meet him.

"Why, Reggie, my dear old boy, who would have thought of seeing you to-night? Come right in! Aren't you very cold? How did you get here? Have you dined? This is Charlie Rivers, the Admiral's son. Charlie, you have heard me speak of my cousin, Mr. Carey."

Charlie had, several times over, and said so, with a grin, as he made room for Carey in front of the blaze, taking care to keep himself next to Gwen.

Carey considerately fell in with the manoeuvre and, greetings over, they huddled sociably together over the fire, and fell to discussing the birthday party which was to be held on the morrow.

Gwen was a curious blend of excitement and common sense. She had been busily preparing all day for the coming festivity.

"There's one visitor I want you both to be very good to," she said, "and see that she takes plenty of refreshments, whether she wants them or not."

Young Rivers grimaced at Carey.

"You can have my share of this unattractive female," he said generously. "It's Gwen's schoolmistress, and I'll bet she's as heavy as a sack of coals."

"I can't dance. I'm lame," said Carey. "But I don't mind sitting out in the refreshment room to please Gwen. How old is she, Gwen? About twice my age?"

Gwen did not stop to calculate.

"Older than that, I should think. Her hair is quite grey, and she's very sad and quiet. I am sure she has had a lot of trouble. Very likely she won't want to dance either, so there will be a pair of you. Her name is Mademoiselle Treves, but she is only half French, and speaks English better than I do. She never goes anywhere, so I do want her to have a good time. You will be kind to her, won't you? I'll introduce you to her as early as possible. We are all going to wear masks till midnight."

"Stupid things--masks," said Charlie very decidedly. "Don't like 'em."

Gwen turned upon him.

"It's much the fairest way. If we didn't wear them, the pretty girls would get all the best dances."

"Oh, well, you wouldn't be left out, anyway," he assured her.

At which compliment Gwen sniffed contemptuously, and pointedly requested Carey to give her a few minutes in strict privacy before they parted for the night.

He saw that she meant it; and when Charlie had reluctantly taken himself off he went with his young cousin to her own little sitting-room upstairs before seeking Lady Emberdale in the drawing-room.

Gwen could scarcely wait till the door was closed before she began to lay her troubles before him.

"It's Mummy!" she told him very seriously. "You can't think how sick and disgusted I am. Sit down, Reggie, and I'll tell you all about it! Being Mummy's trustee, perhaps you will have some influence over her. I have none. She thinks I'm prejudiced. And I'm not, Reggie. There's nothing to make me so except that Charlie is a nice boy, and the Admiral a perfect darling."

She paused for breath, and Carey patiently waited for further enlightenment. It came.

"Of course," she said, seating herself on the arm of his chair, "I've always known that Mummy would marry again some day or other. She's so young and pretty; and I haven't minded the idea a bit. Poor, dear Dad was always such a very, very old man! But I do want her to marry someone nice now the time has come. All through the summer holidays I felt sure it was going to be the Admiral, and I was so pleased about it. Charlie and I used to make bets about its coming off before Christmas. He was ever so pleased, too, and we'd settled to join together for the wedding present so as to get something decent. It was all going to be so jolly. And now," with a great sigh, "everything's spoilt. There's--there's someone else."

"Good heavens!" said Carey. "Who?"

He had been suppressing a laugh during the greater part of Gwen's confidence, but this last announcement startled him into sobriety. A very faint misgiving stirred in his soul. What if--but no; it was preposterous. He thrust it from him.

Gwen slid a loving arm about his neck.

"I like telling you things, Reggie. You always understand, and they never worry me so much afterwards. For I am--horribly worried. Mummy met him in the hunting field. He has come to live quite near us--oh, such a brute he is, loud and coarse and bullying! He rode a horse to death only a few weeks ago. They say he's mad, and I'm nearly sure he drinks as well. And he and Mummy have chummed up. They are as thick as thieves, and he's always coming to the house, dropping in at odd hours. The poor, dear Admiral hasn't a chance. He's much too gentlemanly to elbow his way in like--like this horrid Major Coningsby. Oh, Reggie, do you think you can do anything to stop it? I don't want her to marry him, neither does Charlie. My, Reggie, what's the matter? You don't know him, do you? You don't know anything bad about him?"

Carey was on his feet, pacing slowly to and fro. One hand--the maimed left hand--was thrust away out of sight, as his habit was in a woman's presence. The other was clenched hard at his side.

He did not at once answer Gwen's agitated questioning. She sat and watched him in some anxiety, wondering at the stern perplexity with which he reviewed the problem.

Suddenly he stopped in front of her.

"Yes; I know the man," he said. "I knew him years ago in South Africa, and I met him again to-night. I must think this matter over, and consider it carefully. You are quite sure of what you say--quite sure he is attracted by your mother?"

Gwen nodded.

"Oh, there's no doubt of that. He treats her already as if she were his property. You won't tell her I told you, Reggie? It will simply precipitate matters if you do."

"No; I shan't tell her. I never argue with women." Carey spoke almost savagely. He was staring at something that Gwen could not see.

"Do you think you will be able to stop it?" she asked him, with a slightly nervous hesitation.

His eyes came back to her. He seemed to consider her for a moment. Then, seeing that she was really troubled, he spoke with sudden kindliness:

"I think so, yes. But never mind how! Leave it to me and put it out of your head as much as possible! I quite agree with you that it is an arrangement that wouldn't do at all. Why on earth couldn't your friend the Admiral speak before?"

"I wish he had," said Gwen, from her heart. "And I believe he does, too, now. But men are so idiotic, Reggie. They always miss their opportunities."

"Think so?" said Carey. "Some men never have any, it seems to me."

And he left her wondering at the bitterness of his speech.