Old Jermyn approached the handkerchief a little nearer to the grate and groaned. It was simply a habit he had.

‘I’ve seen her once,’ he declared with mournful indifference. ‘She had a house—’

The stranger in tweeds turned to stare down at him, surprised.

‘She had three houses,’ he corrected, authoritatively. But old Jermyn was not to be contradicted.

‘She had three houses,’ I say,’ he repeated, with dismal obstinacy,—‘a great—big—ugly—white thing. You could see it from miles away—sticking up.’

‘So you could,’ assented the other readily. ‘It was old Colchester’s notion, though he was always threatening to give her up. He couldn’t stand her any more; he declared it was too much of a good thing for him; he would wash his hands of her, if he never got another—and so on. I dare say he would have chucked her, only—it may surprise you—his missus wouldn’t hear of it. Funny, eh? But, with women, you never know how they will take a thing. Mrs Colchester, with her mustaches and big eyebrows, set up for being strong-minded. She used to walk about dressed in brown silk, with a great gold cable flopping about her bosom. You should have heard her snap out “Rubbish!” or “Stuff and nonsense!” I dare say she knew when she was well off. They had no children and had never set up a home anywhere. When in England, Mrs Colchester stayed with some of her relations or just made shift to hang out anyhow in some cheap hotel or boarding-house. I dare say she liked to get back to the comforts she was used to. She knew very well she couldn’t gain by a change. And, moreover, Colchester, though a first-rate man, was not what you may call in his first youth, and perhaps she may have thought that he wouldn’t be able to get another (as he used to say) so easily. Anyhow, for one reason or another, it was “Rubbish” and “Stuff and nonsense” for the good lady. I once overheard Mr Lucian Apse himself say to her confidentially, “I assure you, Mrs Colchester, I am beginning to feel quite unhappy about the name she’s getting for herself.” “Oh!” she said, with her deep little horse-laugh, “if one took notice of all the silly talk!” And she showed Apse all her ugly false teeth at once. “It would take more than that to make me lose my confidence in her, I assure you,” she says.’

At this point, without any change of facial expression, Mr Stone emitted a short, sardonic laugh. It was very impressive, but I didn’t see the joke. I looked from one to the other. The stranger on the hearth-rug had an ugly smile.

‘And Mr Lucian Apse shook both Mrs Colchester’s hands, he was so pleased to hear a good word said for their favourite. All these Apses, young and old, you know were perfectly infatuated with that abominable, dangerous …’

‘I beg your pardon,’ I interrupted, exasperated, for he seemed to be addressing himself exclusively to me, ‘but who on earth have you been talking about?’

‘The Apse family,’ he answered courteously.

Miss Blank put her head in and said that the cab was at the door, if Mr Stone wanted to catch the eleven- three up.*

At once the senior pilot rose in his mighty bulk and began to struggle into his coat with awe-inspiring upheavals. The stranger and I hurried impulsively to his assistance, and directly we laid our hands on him he became perfectly quiescent. We had to raise our arms very high and to make efforts. It was like caparisoning a gentle elephant. With a loud, ‘Thanks, gentlemen!’ Mr Stone dived under and squeezed himself through the door in a great hurry.

We smiled at each other in a friendly way.

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