Выбрать главу

Just what he would have said, he didn’t know, because Miss Whitaker came out on to the terrace in her neat clerical grey with its high-necked shirt and severe black tie. She was the real secretary, and it was stamped all over her. Not bad looking in a rigid way-dark hair impeccably waved, hands carefully tended, eyes quite good if a little closely set, eyebrows shaped to an arch. She came briskly up to them and addressed Lila.

‘Lady Dryden is asking for you.’


Herbert Whitall was in his study, which was so exactly like what a study ought to be that there was very little more to be said about it. The only thing it lacked was that indefinable something which suggests that a room has been lived and worked in for many generations. So far as the actual structure was concerned, this was true enough. It was one of the eighteenth century rooms, well proportioned and well lighted, and it had had time to mellow. Adrian Grey, who had had a hand in assembling the furniture, came to the conclusion that everything was a little too much of one period, with none of these treasured shabby survivals which are generally to be found in a room where a man expects to take his ease. The handsome curtains were as new as yesterday. There wasn’t so much as a rubbed place on arm or seat of any of the leather-covered chairs. It was a good room, a perfectly suitable room, but it missed the touch of familiar comfort.

But then no one would have called Herbert Whitall a comfortable person. His grandfather, shrewd and coarse, had made one of the large mid-Victorian fortunes. Railways, iron, steel- whatever he touched just turned to gold. His son achieved a baronetcy. Herbert Whitall, a competent business man, confirmed the family fortunes, and was understood to have political ambitions. The best tailor in Savile Row had conferred elegance upon a tall, spare frame. He had the high, thin nose and the straight, thin lips of the FitzAscelins. His mother was Adela FitzAscelin, in direct descent from the Ascelin of Ghent who had come over with the Conquerer. If it was this strain which gave him his taste for curious ivories, the stubborn Whitall stock declared itself in the ruthless zest with which the taste was pursued. To lose to another collector was unimaginable. What he fancied he must have, no matter what the effort or the cost. He had a cold acquisitive eye, and the long, thin hands of his mother’s family. But whereas the FitzAscelins had for many generations been letting everything slip, Herbert Whitall could pride himself on the fact that he got what he wanted and knew how to keep it.

He stood in front of the hearth and spread those long fingers to the fire which had just been lighted-a wood fire, as befitted a country house. It gave out a pleasant smell, and he savoured it. They had been cutting down some old apple trees, and Adrian had given orders for the wood to be kept for this room and the drawing-room. Very knowledgeable fellow Adrian-useful.

He turned round as Miss Whitaker came in, and spoke to her, his tone easy and familiar.

‘Sybil Dryden says we had better have some people in tonight. The less of the tête-à-tête business the better. Lila has nerves, it appears. You had better do some ringing up.’

She moved to the writing-table.

‘Who do you want asked?’

‘Well, Eric Haile was coming anyhow. You don’t like him- do you?’

Her carefully arched eyebrows rose a little.

‘It isn’t my business to like-or dislike-either your guests or your relations.’

‘Oh, he’s not such a near relation. My great-aunt Emily’s grandson-what does that make him?’

‘Second cousin, I believe.’

‘You know everything! What a treasure you are, Milly! Why don’t you like Eric Haile?‘

‘I don’t either like or dislike him.’

Herbert Whitall laughed.

‘He is considered charming-the life and soul of every party. That is why I chose him to be my best man. Also he’s about the only relation I’ve got, thank God. Let us hope he will add to the gaiety of tonight’s proceedings. At the moment the prospects are a trifle on the gloomy side.’

She took all this without any sign-any secretary waiting for her employer to come to the point. When he had finished she repeated her former question with the slightest possible variation.

‘Who do you want me to ask?’

‘The Considines-they are friends of Sybil’s. Old Richardson -I’d like to show him that ivory-handled dagger and see if it doesn’t make his mouth water. How is that for numbers?’

‘Five men and three women.’

‘You’d better come in. It’s the best we can do. Richardson has no social feelings, and Sybil will be an excuse for the Considines, but the notice is too short for anyone else. Just say we came down here on the spur of the moment. Say Lila was being overdone in town.’

She lifted the receiver of the table instrument. He turned back to the fire and to his thoughts. The thin lips smiled. He spread his hands to what was now a cheerful blaze.

Millicent Whitaker was being quiet and competent at the telephone. Presently she hung up and said,

‘That’s all right-they’ll come. I said a quarter to eight.’

‘Good. Richardson will be late-he always is.’

She had been sitting at the table. Now she got up.

‘I had better let Marsham know.’

‘If you will.’

She had taken her way towards the door. She stopped now and said,

‘Have you done anything about filling my place?’

He was leaning against the mantelshelf, looking at her without appearing to give very much attention to what she said. There was no grey in his dark hair, but it was beginning to recede from the temples, and he looked his age. When she repeated her question a little sharply he smiled and said,

‘Certainly not.’

She came nearer.

‘Herbert, I will not stay here once you are married. I told you that a month ago.’

‘Forget it, my dear.’

‘I meant what I said. Whether you’ve got anyone else or not, I shall go.’

‘Oh, I think not. It would be so very foolish, and you are a sensible person.’

She shook her head.

‘I won’t stay.’

All at once his expression changed. The hard eyes, the fine nose, the forward thrust of the head, gave him a predatory air.

‘My dear Millicent, you are being not only foolish but tiresome. You are an excellent secretary, and I propose to retain your services. If you want a rise you can have it.’

She shook her head.

‘I won’t stay.’

He laughed.

‘Consider your salary doubled!’

The colour blazed in her cheeks.

‘Take care, Herbert-you may go too far!’

‘And so may you, my dear. There is such a thing as knowing which side your bread is buttered. I shall be signing a new will next week. Under the old one you benefit-quite substantially. Long and faithful service-ten years, isn’t it? Well, it depends entirely on yourself whether that legacy goes into the new will or not. I have always told you that I would make provision for you and the child, and I am prepared to carry out my promise. But if you leave my service the legacy comes out.’

She stood for a moment, mastering herself. At last she said in a quiet voice,

‘Why do you want me to stay?’

‘I don’t like changes. I should never get a more efficient secretary.’

‘I can’t do it. You mustn’t ask me.’

He said, ‘Come here, Milly! I don’t want to hear any more of this nonsense. You’ll stay! If I have any more trouble I’m afraid I shall have to do something you wouldn’t like-I’m really afraid you wouldn’t like it at all. You see, I kept that cheque.’

All the colour drained out of her face. ‘It’s not true. I saw you burn it.’

‘You saw me burn a blank cheque which cost me twopence-a little comedy, just to set your mind at rest. The cheque you, shall we say altered, is-you’d like to know where it is, wouldn’t you? But you just go on guessing. It won’t do you any harm so long as you behave yourself and don’t let me have any more of this nonsense.’