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Isabel rose, putting the bracelet and the note in the silver-mounted leather pocket (a present from Hardyman) which hung at her belt. In the hurry of passing round the table to get out, she never noticed that her dress touched Hardyman’s pocketbook, placed close to the edge, and threw it down on the grass below. The book fell into one of the heat cracks which Lady Lydiard had noticed as evidence of the neglected condition of the cottage lawn.

“You ought to hear the pleasant news my sister has just brought me,” said Hardyman, when Isabel joined him in the parlor. “Mrs. Drumblade has been told, on the best authority, that my mother is not coming to the party.”

“There must be some reason, of course, dear Isabel,” added Mrs. Drumblade. “Have you any idea of what it can be? I haven’t seen my mother myself; and all my inquiries have failed to find it out.”

She looked searchingly at Isabel as she spoke. The mask of sympathy on her face was admirably worn. Nobody who possessed only a superficial acquaintance with Mrs. Drumblade’s character would have suspected how thoroughly she was enjoying in secret the position of embarrassment in which her news had placed her brother. Instinctively doubting whether Mrs. Drumblade’s friendly behavior was quite as sincere as it appeared to be, Isabel answered that she was a stranger to Lady Rotherfield, and was therefore quite at a loss to explain the cause of her ladyship’s absence. As she spoke, the guests began to arrive in quick succession, and the subject was dropped as a matter of course.

It was not a merry party. Hardyman’s approaching marriage had been made the topic of much malicious gossip, and Isabel’s character had, as usual in such cases, become the object of all the false reports that scandal could invent. Lady Rotherfield’s absence confirmed the general conviction that Hardyman was disgracing himself. The men were all more or less uneasy. The women resented the discovery that Isabel was — personally speaking, at least — beyond the reach of hostile criticism. Her beauty was viewed as a downright offense; her refined and modest manners were set down as perfect acting; “really disgusting, my dear, in so young a girl.” General Drumblade, a large and mouldy veteran, in a state of chronic astonishment (after his own matrimonial experience) at Hardyman’s folly in marrying at all, diffused a wide circle of gloom, wherever he went and whatever he did. His accomplished wife, forcing her high spirits on everybody’s attention with a sort of kittenish playfulness, intensified the depressing effect of the general dullness by all the force of the strongest contrast. After waiting half an hour for his mother, and waiting in vain, Hardyman led the way to the tent in despair. “The sooner I fill their stomachs and get rid of them,” he thought savagely, “the better I shall be pleased!”

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The luncheon was attacked by the company with a certain silent ferocity, which the waiters noticed as remarkable, even in their large experience. The men drank deeply, but with wonderfully little effect in raising their spirits; the women, with the exception of amiable Mrs. Drumblade, kept Isabel deliberately out of the conversation that went on among them. General Drumblade, sitting next to her in one of the places of honor, discoursed to Isabel privately on “my brother-in-law Hardyman’s infernal temper.” A young marquis, on her other side — a mere lad, chosen to make the necessary speech in acknowledgment of his superior rank — rose, in a state of nervous trepidation, to propose Isabel’s health as the chosen bride of their host. Pale and trembling, conscious of having forgotten the words which he had learnt beforehand, this unhappy young nobleman began: “Ladies and gentlemen, I haven’t an idea —” He stopped, put his hand to his head, stared wildly, and sat down again; having contrived to state his own case with masterly brevity and perfect truth, in a speech of seven words.

While the dismay, in some cases, and the amusement in others, was still at its height, Hardyman’s valet made his appearance, and, approaching his master, said in a whisper, “Could I speak to you, sit, for a moment outside?”

“What the devil do you want?” Hardyman asked irritably. “Is that a letter in your hand? Give it to me.”

The valet was a Frenchman. In other words, he had a sense of what was due to himself. His master had forgotten this. He gave up the letter with a certain dignity of manner, and left the tent. Hardyman opened the letter. He turned pale as he read it; crumpled it in his hand, and threw it down on the table. “By G— d! it’s a lie!” he exclaimed furiously.

The guests rose in confusion. Mrs. Drumblade, finding the letter within her reach, coolly possessed herself of it; recognized her mother’s handwriting; and read these lines:

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“I have only now succeeded in persuading your father to let me write to you. For God’s sake, break off your marriage at any sacrifice. Your father has heard, on unanswerable authority, that Miss Isabel Miller left her situation in Lady Lydiard’s house on suspicion of theft.”

While his sister was reading this letter, Hardyman had made his way to Isabel’s chair. “I must speak to you, directly,” he whispered. “Come away with me!” He turned, as he took her arm, and looked at the table. “Where is my letter?” he asked. Mrs. Drumblade handed it to him, dexterously crumpled up again as she had found it. “No bad news, dear Alfred, I hope?” she said, in her most affectionate manner. Hardyman snatched the letter from her, without answering, and led Isabel out of the tent.

“Read that!” he said, when they were alone. “And tell me at once whether it’s true or false.”