On the evening of the day that had seen the meeting between Holles and Tucker, at about the same hour that Sir John Lawrence was vainly representing at Whitehall the expediency of closing the theatres and other places of congregation in view of the outbreak of plague within the City itself, His Grace of Buckingham was sitting down to supper with a merry company in the great dining-room of Wallingford House.

Eleven sat down to a table that was laid for twelve. The chair on the Duke’s right stood empty. The guest of honour, Miss Farquharson, had not yet arrived. At the last moment she had sent a message that she was unavoidably detained for some little time at home, and that, if on this account it should happen that she must deny herself the honour of sitting down to supper at his grace’s table, at least she would reach Wallingford House in time for the reading with which his grace was to delight the company.

It was in part a fiction. There was nothing to detain Miss Farquharson beyond a revival of her uneasy intuitions, which warned her against the increase of intimacy that would attend her inclusion in the Duke’s supper-party. The play, however, was another affair. Therefore she would so time her arrival that she would find supper at an end and the reading about to begin. To be entirely on the safe side, she would present herself at Wallingford House two hours after the time for which she had been bidden.

His grace found her message vexatious, and he would have postponed supper until her arrival but that his guests did not permit him to have his own way in the matter. As the truth was that there was no first act in existence, for the Duke had not yet written a line of it and probably never would, and that supper was to provide the whole entertainment, it follows that this would be protracted, and that however late she came she was likely still to find the party at table. Therefore her late arrival could be no grave matter in the end. Meanwhile, the empty chair on the Duke’s right awaited her.

They were a very merry company, and as time passed they grew merrier. There was Etheredge, of course, the real promoter of the whole affair, and this elegant, talented libertine who was ultimately—and at a still early age—to kill himself with drinking was doing the fullest justice to the reputation which the winecup had already earned him. There was Sedley, that other gifted profligate, whose slim, graceful person and almost feminine beauty gave little indication of the roistering soul within. Young Rochester should have been of the party, but he was at that moment in the Tower, whither he had been sent as a consequence of his utterly foolish and unnecessary attempt to abduct Miss Mallet two nights ago. But Sir Harry Stanhope filled his vacant place—or, at least, half-filled it, for whilst Rochester was both wit and libertine, young Stanhope was a libertine only. And of course there was Sir Thomas Ogle, that boon companion of Sedley’s, and two other gentlemen whose names have not survived. The ladies were of less distinguished lineage. There was the ravishingly fair little Anne Seymour from the Duke’s House, her white shoulders displayed in a décolletage that outraged even the daring fashion of the day. Seated between Stanhope and Ogle, she was likely to become a bone of contention between them in a measure as they drowned restraint in wine. There was Moll Davis from the King’s House seated on the Duke’s left, with Etheredge immediately below her and entirely engrossing her, and there was that dark, statuesque, insolent-eyed Jane Howden, languidly spreading her nets for Sir Charles Sedley, who showed himself willing and eager to be taken in them. A fourth lady on Ogle’s left was making desperate but futile attempts to draw Sir Thomas’s attention from Miss Seymour.

The feast was worthy of the exalted host, worthy of that noble chamber with its richly carved wainscoting, its lofty ceiling carried on graceful fluted pillars, lighted by a hundred candles in colossal gilded girandoles. The wine flowed freely, and the wit, flavoured with a salt that was not entirely Attic, flowed with it. Laughter swelled increasing ever in a measure as the wit diminished. Supper was done, and still they kept the table, over their wine, waiting for that belated guest whose seat continued vacant.

Above that empty place sat the Duke—a dazzling figure in a suit of shimmering white satin with diamond buttons that looked like drops of water. Enthroned in his great gilded chair, he seemed to sit apart, absorbed, aloof, fretted by the absence of the lady in whose honour he had spread this feast, and annoyed with himself for being so fretted, as if he were some callow schoolboy at his first assignation.

Alone of all that company he did not abuse the wine. Again and again he waved away the velvet-footed lackeys that approached to pour for him. Rarely he smiled as some lively phrase leapt forth to excite the ready laughter of his guests. His eyes observed them, noting the flushed faces and abandoned attitudes as the orgy mounted to its climax. He would have restrained them, but that for a host to do so were in his view an offence against good manners. Gloomily, abstractedly, his eyes wandered from the disorder of the table, laden with costly plate of silver and of gold, with sparkling crystal, with pyramids of fragrant fruits and splendours of flowers that already were being used as missiles by his hilarious guests.

From the chilly heights of his own unusual sobriety he found them gross and tiresome; their laughter jarred on him. He shifted his weary glance to the curtains masking the long windows. They draped the window-spaces almost from floor to ceiling, wedges of brilliant colour—between blue and green, upon which golden peacocks strutted—standing out sharply from the sombre richness of the dark wainscot. He strained his ears to catch some rumble of wheels in the courtyard under those windows, and he frowned as a fresh and prolonged burst of laughter from his guests beat upon his ears to shut out all other sounds.

Then Sedley in a maudlin voice began to sing a very questionable song of his own writing, whilst Miss Howden made a comedy of pretending to silence him. He was still singing it, when Stanhope sprang up and mounted his chair, holding aloft a dainty shoe of which he had stripped Miss Seymour, and calling loudly for wine. Pretty little Anne would have snatched back her footgear but that she was restrained by Ogle, who not only held her firmly, but had pulled her into his lap, where she writhed and screamed and giggled all in one.

Solemnly, as if it were the most ordinary and natural of things, a lackey poured wine into the shoe, as Stanhope bade him. And Stanhope, standing above them, gay and flushed, proposed a toast the terms of which I have no intention of repeating.

He was midway through when the twin doors behind the Duke were thrown open by a chamberlain, whose voice rang solemnly above the general din.

“Miss Sylvia Farquharson, may it please your grace.”

There was a momentary pause as of surprise; then louder than ever rose their voices in hilarious acclamation of the announcement.

Buckingham sprang up and round, and several others rose with him to give a proper welcome to the belated guest. Stanhope, one foot on his chair, the other on the table, bowed to her with a flourish of the slipper from which he had just drunk.

She stood at gaze, breathless and suddenly pale, on the summit of the three steps that led down to the level of the chamber, her startled, dilating eyes pondering fearfully that scene of abandonment. She saw little Anne Seymour, whom she knew, struggling and laughing in the arms of Sir Thomas Ogle. She saw Etheredge, whom she also knew, sitting with flushed face and leering eyes, an arm about the statuesque bare neck of Miss Howden, her lovely dark head upon his shoulder; she saw Stanhope on high, capering absurdly, his wig awry, his speech halting and indecorous; and she saw some others in attitudes that even more boldly proclaimed the licence presiding over this orgy to which she had been bidden.

Lastly she saw the tall white figure of the Duke advancing towards her, his eyes narrowed, a half-smile on his full lips, both hands outheld in welcome. He moved correctly, with that almost excessive grace that was his own, and he at least showed no sign of the intoxication that marked the guests at this Circean feast. But that afforded her no reassurance. From pale that they had been, her cheeks—her whole body, it seemed to her—had flamed a vivid scarlet. Now it was paling again, paling this time in terror and disgust.

Fascinatedly she watched his grace’s advance for a moment. Then incontinently she turned, and fled, with the feelings of one who had looked down for a moment into the pit of hell and drawn back in shuddering horror before being engulfed.

Behind her fell a dead silence of astonishment. It endured whilst you might have counted six. Then a great peal of demoniac laughter came like an explosion to drive her fearfully onward.

Down the long panelled gallery she ran as we run in a nightmare, making for all her efforts but indifferent speed upon the polished, slippery floor, gasping for breath in her terror of a pursuit of which she fancied that already she heard the steps behind her. She reached the hall, darted across this, and across the vestibule, her light silk mantle streaming behind her, and so gained at last the open door, stared at by lackeys, who wondered, but made no attempt to stay her.

Too late came the shout from the pursuing Duke ordering them to bar her way. By then she was already in the courtyard, and running like a hare for the gateway that opened upon Whitehall. Out of this the hackney-coach that had brought her was at that moment slowly rumbling. Panting she overtook it, just as the driver brought it to a halt in obedience to her cry.

“To Salisbury Court,” she gasped. “Drive quickly!”

She was in, and she had slammed the door as the Duke’s lackeys—three of them—ran alongside the vehicle, bawling their commands to stop. She flung half her body through the window on the other side to countermand the order.

“Drive on! Drive quickly, in God’s name!”

Had they still been in the courtyard, it is odds that the driver would not have dared proceed. But they were already through the gateway in Whitehall itself, and the coach swung round to the left in the direction of Charing Cross. Here in the open street the driver could defy the Duke’s lackeys, and the latter dared not make any determined attempt to hinder him.

The coach rolled on, and Miss Farquharson sank back to breathe at last, to recover from her nameless terror and to regain her calm.

The Duke went back with dragging feet and scowling brow to be greeted by a storm of derision upon which in more sober mood his guests would hardly have ventured. He attempted to laugh with them, to dissemble the extent to which he had been galled. But he hardly made a success of it, and there was distinct ill-temper in the manner in which he flung himself down into his great chair. Mr. Etheredge, leaning across Miss Howden, laid a white jewelled hand on his friend’s arm.

He alone of all the company, although he had probably drunk more deeply than any, showed no sign of intoxication beyond the faint flush about his eyes.

“I warned you,” he said, “that the little prude is virtuous, and that she will require much patience. This is your chance to exercise it.”

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