Luxmore,' said he, 'you certainly misconstrue my remark. As a man of somewhat fiery humour, my conscience repeatedly pricked me when I heard what you had suffered at the hands of persons similarly constituted.'
'Oh, very well indeed,' replied the old lady; 'and a very proper spirit. I regret that I have met with it so rarely.'
'But in all this,' resumed the young man, 'I perceive nothing that concerns myself.'
'I am about to come to that,' she returned. 'And you have already before you, in the pledge I gave Prince Florizel, one of the elements of the affair. I am a woman of the nomadic sort, and when I have no case before the courts I make it a habit to visit continental spas: not that I have ever been ill; but then I am no longer young, and I am always happy in a crowd. Well, to come more shortly to the point, I am now on the wing for Evian; this incubus of a house, which I must leave behind and dare not let, hangs heavily upon my hands; and I propose to rid myself of that concern, and do you a very good turn into the bargain, by lending you the mansion, with all its fittings, as it stands. The idea was sudden; it appealed to me as humorous: and I am sure it will cause my relatives, if they should ever hear of it, the keenest possible chagrin. Here, then, is the key; and when you return at two to- morrow afternoon, you will find neither me nor my cats to disturb you in your new possession.'
So saying, the old lady arose, as if to dismiss her visitor; but Somerset, looking somewhat blankly on the key, began to protest.
'Dear Mrs. Luxmore,' said he, 'this is a most unusual proposal. You know nothing of me, beyond the fact that I displayed both impudence and timidity. I may be the worst kind of scoundrel; I may sell your furniture--'
'You may blow up the house with gunpowder, for what I care!' cried Mrs. Luxmore. 'It is in vain to reason. Such is the force of my character that, when I have one idea clearly in my head, I do not care two straws for any side consideration. It amuses me to do it, and let that suffice. On your side, you may do what you please-- let apartments, or keep a private hotel; on mine, I promise you a full month's warning before I return, and I never fail religiously to keep my promises.'
The young man was about to renew his protest, when he observed a sudden and significant change in the old lady's countenance.
'If I thought you capable of disrespect!' she cried.
'Madam,' said Somerset, with the extreme fervour of asseveration, 'madam, I accept. I beg you to understand that I accept with joy and gratitude.'
'Ah well,' returned Mrs. Luxmore, 'if I am mistaken, let it pass. And now, since all is comfortably settled, I wish you a good- night.'
Thereupon, as if to leave him no room for repentance, she hurried Somerset out of the front door, and left him standing, key in hand, upon the pavement.
The next day, about the hour appointed, the young man found his way to the square, which I will here call Golden Square, though that was not its name. What to expect, he knew not; for a man may live in dreams, and yet be unprepared for their realisation. It was already with a certain pang of surprise that he beheld the mansion, standing in the eye of day, a solid among solids. The key, upon trial, readily opened the front door; he entered that great house, a privileged burglar; and, escorted by the echoes of desertion, rapidly reviewed the empty chambers. Cats, servant, old lady, the very marks of habitation, like writing on a slate, had been in these few hours obliterated. He wandered from floor to floor, and found the house of great extent; the kitchen offices commodious and well appointed; the rooms many and large; and the drawing-room, in particular, an apartment of princely size and tasteful decoration. Although the day without was warm, genial, and sunny, with a ruffling wind from the quarter of Torquay, a chill, as it were, of suspended animation inhabited the house. Dust and shadows met the eye; and but for the ominous procession of the echoes, and the rumour of the wind among the garden trees, the ear of the young man was stretched in vain.