Le Sage, in the course of a pleasant little drive with Audrey, asked innumerable questions and answered none. This idiosyncrasy of his greatly amused the young lady, who was by disposition frankly outspoken, and whose habit it never was to consider in conversation whether she committed herself or any one else. Truth with her was at least a state of nature--though it might sometimes have worn with greater credit to itself a little more trimming -and states of nature are relatively pardonable in the young. A child who sees no indecorum in nakedness can hardly be expected to clothe Truth.
'This Sir Francis,' asked the Baron, 'he is an old friend of yours?'
'O, yes !' said Audrey; 'quite an old friend.' 'And favourite?'
'Well, he seems one of us, you see. Don't you like him yourself?'
'I suppose he and your brother are on intimate terms?'
'We are all on intimate terms; Hugh and Frank no more than Frank and I'.
'And no less, perhaps; or perhaps not quite so much?'
'O, yes they are ! What makes you think so? *
'Not quite so intimate, I will put it, as your brother and Mr Bickerdike?'
'I'm sure I don't know. Hugh is great friends with them both'.
'Tell me, now-which would you rather he were most intimate with?'
'How can it matter to me?'
'You have a preference, I expect'.
'I certainly have; but that doesn't affect the question. It was Hugh you were speaking of, not me'.
'Shall I give your preference? It is for Mr Bickerdike'.
'Well guessed, Baron. Am I to take it as a compliment to my good taste?' 'He is a superior man'.
'Isn't he? And always wishes one to know it, too'.
'Aha! Then the Baronet is the man?'
' How absurd you are! Do you value your friends by preference ? Nobody is the man, as you call it. Because I don't much Hke Mr Bickerdike, it doesn't foUow that I particularly Hke anybody else'.
'Why don't you Hke him?' 'I don't know. Perhaps because he likes himself too much.' 'Conceited, is he?'
'Not quite that: a first-rate prig I should call him-always wanting to appear cleverer than he really is'.
'Isn't he clever?*
' O, yes ! Clever after a sort; but frightfully obtuse, too. I wouldn't trust him with a secret. He's so cocksure of himself that he'd always be liable to give it away with his blessing. But I oughtn't to speak Hke that of him. He's a great friend of Hugh's, and he does really Hke to help people, I think, only it must be in his own way and not theirs. Do you Hke him ?'
'I am rather surprised that he and your brother should be on such close terms of friendship'.
'Are you? Why?' , ' Is not Mr Hugo, now, without offence, a rather passionate, self-willed young gentleman ?'
'Very, I should say'.
'Balance and instabiHty-there you are'.
'You mean they are not at all ahke. I should have thought that was the best reason in the world for their chumming. One of oneself is quite enough for most people. Fancy the horror of being a Siamese twin !'
' Is that why you and Sir Francis are on such good terms-because there is nothing in common between you?'
'Isn't there? What, for instance'.
'He presents himself to me, from what Httle I have seen and heard of him, as a rather gentle, spiritual young man, with a taste for books and the fine arts, and a preference in sport, if any, for angling. In aere piscari.' 'What does that mean?'
'I should fancy him a fisherman, by choice, of ideas rather than of streams'.
'And me, I suppose, a cross-tempered, empty-headed country hoyden, who thinks of nothing but dogs and stables?' But she laughed as she bent to Le Sage, looking mockingly into his smiling eyes. ' M. le Baron, what a character !'
'It is not of my giving,' he said. 'A spirited Diana should have been my antithesis'.
'But why should you contrast us at all? Frank and I are not going to five together'.
'You are bearing in mind, I hope,' he said, 'that I promised your father to be back at Wildshott by half-past two ?'
' For chess again ? What can you find in it ?' She pulled up the pony, and, halting in the road, determinedly faced her companion. 'Do you know you never answer anything that's asked of you? Why don't you?'
' I didn't know I didn't'.
'Don't fib, sir'.
He chuckled aloud. 'You are a frank young lady.' He took her slim left hand between his cushiony palms, and patted it paternally. 'When a suspected man is arrested, my dear, the first warning he receives from the police is that anything he says may be used in evidence against him. Supposing we apply that rule to common converse? Then at least we shall avoid self-committal'.
' But are we all, every one of us, suspected people ?'
'One never knows what may lie in a question. For instance, you ask me what can I find in chess. Very seeming innocent; but, O, the suspicion it may embody !'
' What suspicion ?'
'Why,-that chess represents my poor wits, and that I live upon them'.
Audrey tinkled with laughter. 'I never guessed I was such a serpent. But I am afraid I was only thinking of the dullness of it. To sit for ten minutes looking at a board, and then to move a pawn a single inch on it ! Ugh ! By that time I should be screaming for " Grab.'"
'Let us play " Grab " one night,' said the Baron gaily.
TheyMrove on by the pleasant lanes, and presently came out into the High road near Wildshott. As they passed the wicket in the hedge, a gleam of something, quickly seen and quickly withdrawn among the green beyond, caught Le Sage's attention. He laid a hand on the reins, suggesting a halt.
' Was that a private way to the house ?' he asked. ' -there, where the little gate stood ?
Audrey told him yes. That it was called the Bishop's Walk, and that he,might lift the latch and go by it if he pleased. She twinkled as she spoke, and the Baron looked roguish.
'Inquisitive?' said he; 'I admit it, if it is the word for an inquiring mind. But not conceited, I hope. I am going to explore'.