THE ROCKS OF VALPRE
ETHEL M. DELL
Author of "The Way of an Eagle," "The Knave of Diamonds," etc.
I Dedicate This Book To MY MOTHER
AS A VERY SMALL TOKEN OF THAT LOVE WHICH NO WORDS CAN EXPRESS
"Love is indestructible: Its holy flame for ever burneth, From Heaven it came, to Heaven returneth; Too oft on Earth a troubled guest, At times deceived, at times opprest, It here is tried and purified, Then hath in Heaven its perfect rest: It soweth here with toil and care, Bat the harvest-time of Love is there."
The Curse of Kehama—Robert Southey.
I. THE KNIGHT OF THE MAGIC CAVE II. DESTINY III. A ROPE OF SAND IV. THE DIVINE MAGIC V. THE BIRTHDAY TREAT VI. THE SPELL VII. IN THE CAUSE OF A WOMAN VIII. THE ENGLISHMAN
I. THE PRECIPICE II. THE CONQUEST III. THE WARNING IV. DOUBTS V. DE PROFUNDIS VI. ENGAGED VII. THE SECOND WARNING VIII. THE COMPACT IX. A CONFESSION X. A SURPRISE VISIT XI. THE EXPLANATION XII. THE BIRTHDAY PARTY XIII. PALS XIV. A REVELATION XV. MISGIVINGS XVI. MARRIED
I. SUMMER WEATHER II. ONE OF THE FAMILY III. DISASTER IV. GOOD-BYE TO CHILDHOOD V. THE LOOKER-ON VI. A BARGAIN VII. THE ENEMY VIII. THE THIN END IX. THE ENEMY MOVES X. A WARNING VOICE XI. A BROKEN REED XII. A MAN OF HONOUR XIII. WOMANHOOD
I. WAR II. FIREWORKS III. THE TURN OF THE TIDE IV. "MINE OWN FAMILIAR FRIEND" V. A DESPERATE REMEDY VI. WHEN LOVE DEMANDS A SACRIFICE VII. THE WAY OF THE WYNDHAMS VIII. THE TRUTH
I. THE REFUGEE II. A MIDNIGHT VISITOR III. A FRUITLESS ERRAND IV. THE DESIRE OF HIS HEART V. THE STRANGER VI. MAN TO MAN VII. THE MESSENGER VIII. ARREST IX. VALPRE AGAIN X. THE INDESTRUCTIBLE XI. THE END OF THE VOYAGE XII. THE PROCESSION UNDER THE WINDOWS
THE KNIGHT OF THE MAGIC CAVE
When Cinders began to dig a hole no power on earth, except brute force, could ever stop him till he sank exhausted. Not even the sight of a crab could divert his thoughts from this entrancing occupation, much less his mistress's shrill whistle; and this was strange, for on all other occasions it was his custom to display the most exemplary obedience.
Of a cheerful disposition was Cinders, deeply interested in all things living, despising nothing however trivial, constantly seeking, and very often finding, treasures of supreme value in his own estimation. It was probably this passion for investigation that induced him to dig with such energy and perseverance, but he was not an interesting companion when the digging mood was upon him. It was, in fact, advisable to keep at a distance, for he created a miniature sand-storm in his immediate vicinity that spoiled the amusement of all except himself and successfully checked all intrusive sympathy.
"It really is too bad of him," said Chris, as she sat on a rock at twelve yards' distance and dried her feet in melancholy preoccupation. "It's the third day running, and I'm so tired of having nobody to talk to and nothing to do—not even a crab-hunt."
There was some pleasure to be extracted from crab-hunting under Cinders' ardent leadership, but alone it held no fascinations. It really was just a little selfish of Cinders.
She glanced towards him, and saw that the sand-storm had temporarily abated. He was working away the heap that had collected beneath him in preparation for more extensive operations.
"Cinders!" she called, in the forlorn hope of attracting his attention. "Cinders!" Then, with a sudden spurt of animation, "Cinders darling, just come and see what I've found!"
But Cinders was not so easily deceived. He stood a moment with his stubby little body tensely poised, then plunged afresh with feverish eagerness to his task.
The sand-storm recommenced, and Chris turned with a sigh to contemplate the blue horizon. A large steamer was travelling slowly across it. She watched it enviously.
"Lucky people!" she said. "Lucky, lucky people!"
The wind caught her red-brown hair and blew it out like a cloak behind her. It was still damp, for she had been bathing, and when the wind had passed it settled again in long, gleaming ripples upon her shoulders. She pushed it away from her face with an impatient hand.
"Cinders," she said, "if you don't come soon I shall go and find the Knight of the Magic Cave all by myself."
But even this threat did not move the enthusiastic Cinders. All that could be seen of him was a pair of sturdy hind-legs firmly planted amid a whirl of sand. Quite plainly it was nothing to him what steps his young mistress might see fit to take to relieve her boredom.
"All right!" said Chris, springing to her feet with a flourish of her towel. "Then good-bye!"
She shook the hair back from her face, slipped her bare feet into sandals, slung the towel across her shoulders, and turned her face to the cliffs.
They frowned above the rock-strewn beach to a height of two hundred feet, tunnelled here and there by the sea, scored here and there by springs, rising mass upon mass, in some places almost perpendicular, in others overhanging.
They possessed an immense fascination for Chris Wyndham, these cliffs. There was a species of dreadful romance about them that attracted even while it awed her. She longed to explore them, and yet deep in the most private recesses of her soul she was half-afraid. So many terrible stories were told of this particular corner of the rocky coast. So many ships were wrecked, so many lives were lost, so many hopes were quenched forever between the cliffs and the sea.
But these facts did not prevent her weaving romances about those wonderful caves. For instance, there was the Magic Cave, for which she was bound now, the entrance to which was only accessible at low tide. There was something particularly imposing about this entrance, something palatial, that stirred the girl's quick fancy. She had never before quite reached it on account of the difficulty of the approach; but she had promised herself that she would do so sooner or later, when time and tide should permit.
Both chanced to be favourable on this particular afternoon, and she set forth light-footed upon the adventure, leaving Cinders to his monotonous but all-engrossing pastime. A wide line of rocks stretched between her and her goal, which was dimly discernible in the deep shadow of the cliff—a mysterious opening that had the appearance of a low Gothic archway.
"I'm sure it's haunted," said Chris, and fell forthwith to dreaming as she stepped along the sunlit sand.
Of course she would find an enchanted hall, peopled by crabs that were not crabs at all, but the afore-mentioned knight and his retinue, all bound by the same wicked spell. "And I shall have to find out what it is and set him free," said Chris, with a sigh of pleasurable anticipation. "And then, I suppose, he will begin to jabber French, and I shall wish to goodness I hadn't. I expect he will want to marry me, poor thing! And I shall have to explain—in French, ugh!—that as he is only a foreigner I couldn't possibly, under any circumstances, entertain such a preposterous notion for a single instant. No, I am afraid that would sound rather rude. How else could I put it?"
Chris's brow wrinkled over the problem. She had reached the outlying rocks of the belt she had to cross, and was picking her way between the pools in deep abstraction.
"I wonder!" she murmured to herself. "I wonder!"
Then suddenly her rapt expression broke into a merry smile. "I know! Of course! Absurdly easy! I shall tell him that I am under a spell too—bound beyond all chance of escape to marry an Englishman." The sweet face dimpled over the inspiration. "That ought to settle him, unless he is very persevering; in which case of course I should have to tell him—quite kindly—that I really didn't think I could. Fancy marrying a crab—and a French crab too!"
She began to laugh, gaily, irrepressibly, light-heartedly, and skipped on to the first weed-covered rock that obstructed her path. It was an exceedingly slippery perch. She poised herself with arms outspread, with a butterfly grace as airy as her visions.
Away in the distance Cinders, nearing exhaustion, leaned on one elbow and scratched spasmodically with his free paw.
"Good-bye, Cinders!" she called to him in her high young voice. "I'm never coming back any more."
Lightly she waved her hand and sprang for another rock. But her feet slipped on the seaweed, and she splashed down into a pool ankle-deep.
"Bother!" she said, with vehemence. "It's these silly sandals. I'll leave them here till I come back."
She scrambled out again and pulled them off. "If I really don't come back I shan't want them," she reflected, with her merry little smile.
She arranged sandals and towel on the flat surface of a rock and pursued her pilgrimage unhampered.
She certainly managed better without the sandals, but even as it was she slipped and slid a good deal on the treacherous seaweed. It took her considerably longer than she had anticipated to cross that belt of rocks. It was much farther than it looked. Moreover, the pools were so full of interest that she had to stop and investigate them as she went. Anemones, green and red, clung to the shining rocks, and crabs of all sizes scuttled away at her approach.
"What a lot of retainers he must have!" said Chris.
She was nearing the Gothic archway, and her heart began to beat fast in anticipation. What she really expected to find she could not have said. But undoubtedly this particular cave was many degrees more mysterious and more eerie than any other she had ever explored. It was very lonely, and the cliff that frowned above her was very black. The afternoon sun shone genially upon all things, however, and this gave her courage.
The waves foamed among the rocks but a few yards from the jutting headland. Already the tide was turning. That meant that her time was short.
"I won't go beyond the entrance to-day," said Chris. "But to-morrow I'll start earlier and go right in. P'raps Cinders will come too. It wouldn't be so lonely with Cinders."
The rocks all about her lay scattered like gigantic ruins. She stood upon a high boulder and peered around her. There was certainly something awe-inspiring about the place, the bright sun notwithstanding. It seemed to lie beneath a spell. She wondered if she would come across any bits of wreckage, and suppressed a shudder. The Gothic archway looked very dark and vault-like from where she stood. Should she, after all, go any nearer? Should she wait till Cinders would deign to accompany her? The tide was undoubtedly rising. In any case she would have to turn back within the next few minutes.
Slowly she pivoted round and looked again from the smiling horizon whereon no ship was visible to the Magic Cave that yawned in the face of the cliff. The next instant she jumped so violently that she missed her footing and fell from her perch in sheer amazement. Something—someone—was moving just within the deep shadow where the sunlight could not penetrate!
It was not a big drop, but she came to earth with a cry of pain among a mass of fallen stones, whereon she subsided, tightly clasping one foot between her hands. She had stumbled upon wreckage to her cost; a piece of rusty iron at her side and the blood that ran out between her locked fingers testified to that.
"Oh, dear! Oh, dear!" she wailed, rocking herself, and then glanced nervously over her shoulder, remembering the mysterious cause of the disaster.
The next moment swiftly she released the injured foot and sprang up. A man, attired in white linen, had emerged from the Magic Cave.
He stood a second looking at her, then came bounding towards her over the rocks.
Chris shrank back against her boulder. She was feeling dizzy and rather sick, and the apparition frightened her.
As he drew near she waved a desperate hand to stay his approach. "Oh, please go away!" she cried in English. "I—I don't want any help. I'm only looking for crabs."
He paid no attention whatever to her gesture or to her words. Only, reaching her, he bowed very low, beginning with some formality, "Mais, mademoiselle; permettez-moi, je vous prie," and ending in tones of quick compassion, "Ah, pauvre petite! Pauvre petite!"
Before she knew his intention he was on his knees before her, and had taken the cut foot very gently into his hands.
Chris leaned back, clinging to the boulder. The sunlight danced giddily in her eyes. She felt as if she were slipping over the edge of the world.
"I can't—stand," she faltered weakly.
"No, no, petite! But naturally!" came the reassuring reply. "Be seated, I beg. Permit me to assist you!"
Chris, being quite incapable of doing otherwise, yielded herself to the gentle insistence of an arm that encircled her. She had an impression—fleeting at the time but returning to her later—of friendly dark eyes that looked for an instant into hers; and then, exactly how it happened she knew not, she was sitting propped against the rock, while all the world swam dizzily around her, and someone with sure, steady hands wound a bandage tightly and ever more tightly around her wounded foot.
"It hurts!" she murmured piteously.
"Have patience, mademoiselle! It will be better in a moment," came the quick reply. "I shall not hurt you more than is necessary. It is to arrest the bleeding, this. Mademoiselle will endure the pain like a brave child, yes?"
Chris swallowed a little shudder. The dizziness was passing. She was beginning to see more clearly, and her gaze travelled with dawning criticism over the neat white figure that ministered so confidently to her need.
"I knew he'd be French," she whispered half aloud.
"But I speak English, mademoiselle," he returned, without raising his black head,
"Yes," she said, with a sigh of relief. "I'm very glad of that. Must you pull it any tighter? I—I can bear it, of course, but I'd much rather you didn't if—if you don't mind."
She spoke gaspingly. Her eyes were full of tears, though she kept them resolutely from falling.
"Poor little one!" he said. "But you are very brave. Once more—so—and we will not do it again. The pain is not so bad now, no?"
He looked up at her with a smile so kindly that Chris nearly broke down altogether. She made a desperate grab after her self-control, and by dint of biting her lower lip very hard just saved herself from this calamity.
It was a very pleasing face that looked into her own, olive-hued, with brows as delicate as a woman's. A thin line of black moustache outlined a mouth that was something over-sensitive. He was certainly quite a captivating fairy prince.
Chris shook the thick hair back upon her shoulders and surveyed him with interest. "It's getting better," she said. "It was a horrid cut, wasn't it? You don't know how it hurt."
"But I can imagine it," he declared. "I saw immediately that it was serious. Mademoiselle cannot attempt to walk."
"Oh, but I must indeed!" protested Chris in dismay. "I shall be drowned if I stay here."
He shook his head. "Ah no, no! You shall not stay here. If you will accept my assistance, all will be well."
"But you can't—carry me!" gasped Chris.
He rose to his feet, still smiling. "And why not, little one? Because you think that I have not the strength?"
Chris looked up at him speculatively. She felt no shyness; he was not the sort of person with whom she could feel shy. He was too kindly, too protecting, too altogether charming, for that. But he was of slender build, and she could not help entertaining a very decided doubt as to his physical powers.
"I am much heavier—and much older—than you think," she remarked at length.
He laughed boyishly, as if she had made a joke. "Mais c'est drole, cela! Me, I have no thoughts upon the subject, mademoiselle. I believe what I see, and I assure you that I am well capable of carrying you across the rocks to Valpre. You lodge at Valpre?"
Chris nodded. "And you? No," hastily checking herself, "don't tell me! You live in the Magic Cave, of course. I knew you were there. It was why I came."
"You knew, mademoiselle?" His eyes interrogated her.
She nodded again in answer. "You have lived there for hundreds of years. You were under a spell, and I came and broke it. If I hadn't cut my foot, you would have been there still. Do you really think you can lift me? And what shall you do when you come to cross the rocks? They are much too slippery to walk on."
He stooped to raise her, still smiling. "Have no fear, mademoiselle! I know these rocks by heart."
She laughed with a child's pure merriment. "Oh, I am not afraid, preux chevalier. But if you find me too heavy—"
"If I cannot carry the queen of the fairies," he interrupted, "I am not worthy of the name."
He had her in his arms with the words, holding her lightly and easily, as if she had been an infant. His eyes smiled reassuringly into hers.
"So, mademoiselle! We depart for Valpre!"
"What fun!" said Chris.
It seemed she was to enjoy her adventure after all, adverse circumstances notwithstanding. Her foot throbbed and burned, but she put this fact resolutely away from her. She had found the knight, and, albeit he was French, she was very pleased with him. He was the prettiest toy that had ever yet come her way.
Possibly in this respect the knight's sentiments resembled hers. For she was very enchanting, this English girl, fresh as a rose and gay as a butterfly, with a face that none called beautiful but which most paused to admire. It was the vividness, the entrancing vitality of her, that caught the attention. People smiled almost unwittingly when little Chris Wyndham turned her laughing eyes their way; they were so clear, so blue, so confidingly merry. There was a rare sweetness about her, a spontaneous charm irresistibly winning. She loved everybody without effort, as naturally as she loved life, with an absence of self-consciousness so entire that perhaps it was not surprising that she was loved in return.
"You are much stronger than you look, preux chevalier," she remarked presently. "But wouldn't you like to set me down while you go and fetch my sandals? They are over there on the rocks. It would be a pity for them to get washed away, and I might manage to walk with them on."
He had brought her safely over the most difficult part of the way. He seated her at once upon a flat rock, and stooped to assure himself as to the success of his bandage.
"It gives you not so much of pain, no?" he asked.
"It scarcely hurts at all," she assured him. "You will be quick now, won't you, because I ought to be getting back. If you see Cinders, you might bring him too."
"Cinders?" he questioned, pausing.
"My dog," she explained. "But he doesn't talk French, so I don't suppose he will follow you."
He received the information with a smile. "But I speak English, mademoiselle," he protested for the second time.
"Ah yes, you do—after a fashion," admitted Chris. "But I don't suppose Cinders would understand it. It's not very English English."
He raised his shoulders in a gesture that was purely French. "La belle dame sans merci!" he murmured ruefully. "Bien! I will do my possible."
"Splendid!" laughed Chris. "No one could do more."
She watched him go with eyes that sparkled with merriment. The trim, slight figure was quite good to look upon. He went bounding over the rocks with the sure-footed grace of a chamois.
"I wonder who he really is," said Chris, "and where he comes from."
Over the rocks went the stranger with the careless speed of youth, humming to himself in a soft tenor, his brown face turned to the sun. The pleasant smile was still upon it. He had the look of one in whose eyes all things are good.
Ahead of him gleamed the towel with the sandals upon it, sandals that might have been fashioned for fairy feet. He quickened his pace at sight of them. But she was charming, this English child! He had never before seen anyone quite so dainty. And of a courage unique in one so young!
He was nearing the sandals now, but the sun was in his eyes, and he saw only the towel spread like a tablecloth over the rock. He sprang lightly down on to a heap of shingle, and reached for it, still humming the chanson that the little English girl had somehow put into his head.
The next instant a deep growl arrested him, and sharply he drew back. There was something more than a pair of sandals on the towel above him, something that crouched in an attitude of tense hostility, daring him to approach. It was only a small creature that thus challenged him, only a weird black terrier of doubtful extraction, but he bristled from end to end with animosity. Quite plainly he regarded the sandals as his responsibility. With glaring eyes and gleaming teeth he crouched, prepared to defend them.
The young Frenchman's discomfiture was but momentary. In an instant he had taken in the situation and the humour of it.
"But it is the good Cinders!" he said aloud, and extended a fearless hand. "So, my friend, so! The little mistress waits."
Cinders' growl became a snarl. He sucked up his breath in furious protest, threatening murder. But the stranger's hand was not withdrawn. On the contrary it advanced upon him with the utmost deliberation till Cinders was compelled to jerk backwards to avoid it.
So jerking, he missed his footing as his mistress had before him, lost his balance, and rolled, cursing, clinging, and clambering, over the edge of the rock.
Had the Frenchman laughed at that moment he would have made an enemy for life. But most fortunately he did not regard an antagonist's downfall as a fit subject for mirth. In fact, being of a chivalrous turn, he grabbed at the luckless Cinders, clutched his collar, and dragged him up again. And—perhaps it was the generosity of the action, perhaps only its obvious fearlessness—he won Cinders' heart from that instant. His hostility merged into sudden ardent friendship. He set his paws on the young man's chest, and licked his face.
Thenceforth he was more than welcome to sandals and towel and even the effusive Cinders himself, who leaped around him barking in high delight, and accompanied him with giddy circlings upon his return journey.
Chris, who had viewed the encounter from afar with much interest, clapped her hands at their approach.
"And you weren't a bit afraid!" she laughed. "I couldn't think what you would do. Cinders looked so fierce. But any one can see you understand dogs—even English dogs."
"It is possible that at heart the English and the French resemble each other more than we think, mademoiselle," observed the Frenchman. "One can never tell."
He bent again over the injured foot with the sandal in his hand.
"It's very good of you to take all this trouble," said Chris abruptly.
He flashed her a quick smile. "But no, mademoiselle! It gives me pleasure to be of service to you."
"I'm sure I don't know what I should have done without you," she rejoined. "Ah, that is much better. I shall be able to walk now."
"You think it?" He looked at her doubtfully.
She nodded. "If you will take me as far as the sand, I shall do splendidly then. You see, I can't let you come into Valpre with me because—because—"
"Because, mademoiselle—?" Up went the black brows questioningly.
She flushed a little, but her clear eyes met his with absolute candour. "We have a French governess," she explained, "who was brought up in a convent, so she is very easily shocked. If she knew that I had spoken to a stranger, and a man"—she raised her hands with a merry gesture—"she would have a fit—several fits. I couldn't risk it. Poor mademoiselle! She doesn't understand our English ways a bit. Why, she wouldn't even let me paddle if she could help it. I shall have to keep very quiet about this foot of mine, or it will be 'Jamais encore!' and 'Encore jamais!' for the rest of my natural life. And, after all," pathetically, "there can be no great harm in dipping one's feet in sea-water, can there?"
But the Frenchman looked grave. "You will show your foot to the doctor, will you not?" he said.
"Dear me, no!" said Chris.
She checked him with her quick, winning smile.
"Please don't talk French. I like English so much the best. Besides, it's holiday-time."
"But, mademoiselle," he persisted, "if it should become serious!"
"Oh, it won't," she said lightly. "I shall be all right. Nothing ever happens to me."
"Nothing?" he questioned, with an answering smile.
She was hobbling over the stones with his assistance. "Nothing interesting, I assure you," she said.
"Except when mademoiselle goes to the cavern of the fairies to look for the magic knight?" he suggested.
She threw him a merry glance. "To be sure! I will come and see you again some day when the tide is low. Is there a dragon in the cave?"
"He is there only when the tide is high, mademoiselle, a beast enormous with eyes of fire."
"And a princess?" asked the English girl, keenly interested.
"No, there is no princess."
"Only you and the dragon?"
"Generally only me, mademoiselle."
"Whatever do you do there?" she asked curiously.
His smile was bafflingly direct. "Me? I make magic, mademoiselle."
"What sort of magic?"
"What sort? That is a difficult question."
"May I come and see it?" asked Chris eagerly, scenting a mystery.
"I'll come all by myself," she assured him.
"Mais la gouvernante—"
"As if I should bring her! No, no! I'll come alone—with Cinders."
"If you say that again I shall be cross," announced Chris.
"But—pardon me, mademoiselle—the governess, might she not object?"
"Absurd!" said Chris. "I am not a French girl, and I won't behave like one."
He laughed at that, plainly because he could not help it. "Mademoiselle pleases herself!" he observed.
"Of course I do," returned Chris vigorously. "I always have. I may come then?"
"When you will, mademoiselle."
Chris considered. They had reached the firm sand, and she stood still. "I can't come to-morrow because of my foot, and the day after the tide will be too late. I shall have to wait nearly a fortnight. How dull!"
"In a fortnight, then!" said the Frenchman.
"In a fortnight, preux chevalier!" Her eyes laughed up at him. "But I dare say we shall meet before then. I hope we shall."
"I hope it also, mademoiselle." He bowed courteously.
She held out her hand. "I shall come on the tenth of the month—it's my birthday. I'll bring some cakes, and we'll have a party, and invite the dragon." Her eyes danced. "We will have some fun, shall we?"
"I think that we shall not want the dragon," he smiled back.
"No? Perhaps not. Well, I'll bring Cinders instead."
"Ah, the good Cinders! He is different."
"And we will go exploring," she said eagerly. "I shan't be a bit afraid of anything with you there. The tenth, then! Don't forget! Good-bye, and thank you ever so much! You won't fail me, will you?"
He bent low over the impetuous little hand. "I shall not fail you, mademoiselle. Adieu!"
"Au revoir!" she laughed back. "Come along, Cinders! We shall be late for tea."
He stood motionless on the sunlit sand and watched her go.
She was limping, but she moved quickly notwithstanding. Cinders trotted soberly by her side.
As she reached the little plage, she turned as if aware of his watching eyes and nonchalantly waved the towel that dangled on her arm. The sunlight had turned her hair to burnished copper. It made her for the moment wonderful, and a gleam of swift admiration shot across the Frenchman's face.
"Merveilleux!" he whispered to himself, and half-aloud, "Good-bye, little bird of Paradise!"
With a courteous gesture of farewell, he turned away. When he looked again, the child, with her glorious, radiant hair, had passed from sight.
He went back, springing over the rocks, to the Gothic archway that had fired her curiosity. The tide was rising fast. Already the white foam raced up to the rocky entrance. He splashed through it, and went within as one on business bent.
He was absent for some seconds, and soon a large wave broke with a long roar and rushed swirling into the cave. As the gleaming water ran out again, he emerged.
A single glance was sufficient to show him that retreat by way of the beach was already cut off. He recognized the fact with a rueful grimace. The long green waves tumbling along the rocks were rising higher every instant.
With a quick glance around him, the young man sprang for an upstanding rock, reached it in safety, and paused, keenly studying the black face of the cliff.
It frowned above him like a rampart, gloomy, terrible, impregnable. He shrugged his shoulders with another grimace, then, as the foam splashed up over his feet, leaped lightly onto another rock higher than the first, whence it was possible to reach a great buttress that jutted outwards from the cliff itself.
Once upon this, he began to climb diagonally, clambering like a monkey, availing himself of every inch that offered foothold. A slip would have meant instant disaster, but this fact did not apparently occur to him, or if it did he was not dismayed thereby. He even presently, as he cautiously worked his way upwards, began to hum again in gay snatches the song that a child's clear eyes had set running in his brain that afternoon.
It was a progress that waxed more perilous as he proceeded. The waves dashed themselves to cataracts below him. Return was impossible, and many would have deemed advance equally so. But he struggled on, maintaining his zigzag course upwards, with nerve unfailing and spirits unimpaired.
Gulls flew out above his head and circled about him with indignant protests. He looked somewhat like a gigantic gull himself, his slim white figure outlined against the darkness of the cliff. He cried back to the startled birds reassuringly in their own language, but the commotion continued; and presently, finding precarious foothold on a narrow ledge halfway up, he stopped to wipe his forehead and laugh with merriment unfeigned. He was plainly in love with life—one in whose eyes all things were good, but yet who loved the hazard of them even better.
The ledge did not permit of much comfort. Nevertheless he managed to turn upon it and to lean back against the cliff, with his brown face to sky and sea. He even, after a moment, took out a cigarette and lighted it. The sun shone full in his eyes, and he seemed to revel in it. A sun-worshipper also, apparently!
He smoked his cigarette to the end very deliberately, flicking the ash from time to time towards the raging water below. When he had quite finished, he stretched his arms wide with a gesture of sublime self-confidence, faced about, and very composedly continued his climb.
It grew more and more arduous as he neared the frowning summit. He had to feel his way with the utmost caution. Once he missed his footing, and slipped several feet before he could recover himself, and after this experience he took a clasp-knife from his pocket and notched himself footholds where none offered. It was a very lengthy business, and the sun was dipping downwards to the sea ere he came within reach of his goal. The top of the cliff overhung where he first approached it, and he had to work a devious course below it till he came to a more favourable place.
Reaching a gap at length, he braced himself for the final effort. The surface of the cliff here was loose, and the stones rattled continually from beneath his feet; but he clung like a limpet, nothing daunted, and at last his hands were gripped in the coarse grass that fringed the summit. Sheer depth was below him, and the inward-curving cliff offered no possibility of foothold.
He stood, gathering his strength for a last stupendous effort. It was a supreme moment. It meant abandoning the support on which he stood and depending entirely upon the strength of his arms to attain to safety. The risk was desperate. He stood bracing himself to take it.
Finally, with an upward fling of the head, as of one who diced with the gods, he gripped that perilous edge and dared the final throw. Slowly, with stupendous effort, he hoisted himself up. It was the work of an expert athlete; none other would have attempted it.
Up he went and up, steadily, strongly; his head came level with his hands; he peered over the edge of the cliff. The strain was terrific. The careless smile was gone from his lips. In that instant he no longer ignored what lay behind him; he knew the suspense of the gambler who pauses after he has thrown before he lifts the dice-box to read his fate.
Up, and still up! The grass was beginning to yield in his clutching fingers; he dug them into the earth below. Now his shoulders were above the edge; his chest also, heaving with strenuous effort. To lower himself again was impossible. His feet dangled over space. And the surging of the water below him was as the roaring of an angry monster cheated of its prey.
He set his teeth. He was nearing the end of his strength. Had he, after all, attempted the impossible, flung the dice too recklessly, dared his fate too far? If so, he would pay the penalty swiftly, swiftly, down among the cruel rocks where many another had perished before him.
The surging sounded louder. It seemed to be in his brain. It bewildered him, deprived him of the power to think. A great many voices seemed to clamour around him, but only one could be clearly heard; only one, and that the voice of a child close to him—or was that also an illusion born of the racking strain that had driven all the blood to his head?
"You won't fail me, will you?" it said.
Surely his grasp was slackening, his powers were passing, when like a flashlight those words illuminated his brain. He was as one in deep waters, swamped and sinking; but that voice called him back.
He opened his eyes, he drew a great breath. He flung his whole soul into one last great effort. He remembered suddenly that the little English girl, the child with the glorious hair and laughing eyes, his acquaintance of an hour, would be looking for him exactly two weeks from that moment. He was sure she would look, and—she would be disappointed if she looked in vain. One must not disappoint a child.
The memory of her went through him, vivid, enchanting, compelling. It nerved his sinking heart. It renewed his grip on life. It urged him upwards.
Only a child! Only a child! But yet—
"I shall not—shall not—fail you!" he gasped, and with the words his knees reached the top of the cliff.
His strength collapsed instantly, like the snapping of a fiddle-string. He fell forward on his face, and lay prone...
A little later he worked the whole of his body into security, rolled over on his back with closed eyes to the sky, and waited while his heart slowed down to its normal rhythmic beat.
At last, quite suddenly, he sat up and looked around him. The laughter flashed back into his eyes. He sprang to his feet, mud-stained, dishevelled, yet exultant.
He clicked his heels together and faced the sinking sun, slim and upright, one stiff hand to his head. He had diced with the gods, and he had won.
"Destinee! Je te salue!" he said, and the next instant whizzed smartly round with a soldier's precision of movement and marched away towards the fortress that crowned the hill above the rocks of Valpre.
A ROPE OF SAND
Undoubtedly Mademoiselle Gautier was querulous, and equally without doubt she had good reason to be so; but it made it a little dull for Chris. Accidents would happen, wherever one went, and what was the good of making a fuss?
Of course, every allowance had to be made for poor Mademoiselle in consideration of the fact that she was torn in pieces by the valiant attempt to keep her attention focussed upon three children at once. The effort had not so far been a brilliant success, and Mademoiselle, conscious within herself of her inability to cope adequately with her threefold responsibility, being moreover worn out by her gallant struggle to do so, was inclined to shortness of temper and a severity of judgment that bordered upon injustice.
If Chris would persist in flying about the shore in that wild fashion with her hair loose—that flaming hair which Mademoiselle considered in itself to be almost indecent—what could be expected but that some contretemps must of necessity arrive? It was useless for Chris to protest that it was not her hair that had got her into difficulties, that she had only left it loose to dry it after her bathe, that there had been no one to see—at least, no one that mattered—and that the cut on her foot was solely due to the fact that she had taken off her sand-shoes to climb over the rocks. Mademoiselle only shook her head with pursed lips. Chris etait mechante—tres mechante, and no amount of arguing would make her change her opinion upon that point.
So Chris abandoned argument while the worried little Frenchwoman bathed and bandaged her foot anew. She would not be able to bathe again for at least a week, and this fact was of itself sufficient to depress her into silence. Yet, after a little, when Mademoiselle was gone, a cheery little tune rose to her lips. It was not her nature to be depressed for long.
Mademoiselle Gautier would have been something less than human if she had not yielded now and then under the perpetual strain in which, for many days past, she had lived. She had come to Valpre in charge of Chris and her two young brothers, both of whom had developed diphtheria within a day or two of their arrival. The children's father was absent in India; his only sister, upon whom the cares of his family were supposed to rest, was entertaining Royalty, and was far too important a personage in the social world to be spared at short notice. And so the whole burden had devolved upon poor Mademoiselle Gautier, who had been near her wits' end with anxiety, but had nobly grappled with her task.
The worst of the business, speaking in a physical sense, was now over. Both her patients—Maxwell, who was Chris's twin, and little Noel, the youngest of the family, aged twelve—had turned the corner and were progressing towards convalescence. Over the latter she still had qualms of uneasiness, but the elder boy was rapidly picking up his strength and giving more trouble than he had ever given before in the process.
By inexorable decree Chris was kept away from the two over whom Mademoiselle, aided by a convent nurse, still watched with unremitting care; and it did seem a little hard in the opinion of the harassed Frenchwoman that her one sound charge could not be trusted to conduct herself with circumspection during her days of enforced solitude. Chris Wyndham, however, had been a tomboy all her life, and she could scarcely be expected to reform at such a juncture. She was not accustomed to solitude, and her restless spirit chafed after distraction.
The conventions had never troubled her. Brought up as she had been with three unruly boys, running wild with them during the whole of her childhood, it was scarcely to be wondered at if her outlook on life was more that of a boy than a girl. She had been in Mademoiselle Gautier's charge during the past three years, but somehow that had not sobered her very materially. She was spoilt by all except her aunt, who was wont to remark with some acidity that if she didn't come to grief one way or another, this would probably continue to be the case for the term of her natural life. But it was quite plain that Aunt Philippa expected her to come to grief. Girls like Chris, unless they married out of the schoolroom, usually played with fire until they burnt their fingers. The fact of the matter was Chris was far too attractive, and though as yet sublimely unconscious of the fact, Aunt Philippa knew that sooner or later it was bound to dawn upon her. She did not relish the prospect of steering this giddy little barque through the shoals and quicksands of society, being shrewdly suspicious that the task might well prove too much for her. For with all her sweetness, Chris was undeniably wilful, a princess who expected to have her own way; and Aunt Philippa had a daughter of her own, Chris's senior by three years, as well as a son in the Guards, to consider.
No, she did not approve of Chris, or indeed of any of the family, including her own brother, who was its head. She had not approved of his gay young wife, Irish and volatile, who had died at the birth of little Noel. She doubted the stability of each one of them in turn, and plainly told her brother that he must attend to the launching of his children for himself. She was willing to do her best for them as children, but as grown-ups she declined the responsibility.
His answer to this had been that they must remain children until he could spare the time to attend to them. The eldest boy, Rupert, was now at Sandhurst, Maxwell was being educated at Marlborough, and Noel, who was never very strong, was at present with Chris in Mademoiselle Gautier's care. The summer holiday at Valpre had been Mademoiselle's suggestion, and bitterly had she lived to regret it.
Chris had regretted it, too, for a time, but now that her two brothers were well on the road to recovery it seemed absurd not to extract such enjoyment as she could from the situation. Of course, it was lonely, but there was always Cinders to fall back upon for comfort. She was thankful that she had insisted upon bringing him, though Mademoiselle had protested most emphatically against this addition to the party. How she was to get him back again she had not begun to consider. Doubtless, however, Jack would manage it somehow. Jack was the aforementioned cousin in the Guards, a young man of much kindness and resource, upon whom Chris was wont to rely as a sort of superior elder brother. He would think nothing of running over to fetch them home and to assist in the smuggling of Cinders back into his native land. In fact, if the truth were told, he would probably rather enjoy it.
In the meantime, here was she, stranded with a damaged foot, and all the delights of the sea temporarily denied to her. Perhaps not quite all, when she came to think of it. She could not paddle, but she might manage to hobble down to the shore, and sit on the sun-baked rocks. Even Mademoiselle could surely find no fault with this. And she might possibly find someone to talk to. She was so fond of talking, and it was a perpetual regret to her that she could not understand the speech of the Breton fishermen.
It was on the morning of the second day after her accident that this idea presented itself. All the previous day she had sat soberly in a corner of the little garden that overlooked the little plage where none but bonnes and their charges ever passed. Nothing had happened all day long, and she had been bored almost to tears. The beaming smiles of Mademoiselle, who was thankful to have her within sight, had been no sort of consolation to her, and on the second day she came rapidly to the conclusion that she would die of ennui if she attempted to endure it any longer.
She did not arouse Mademoiselle's voluble protests by announcing her decision. Mademoiselle was busy with the boys, and what was the good? She was her own mistress, and felt in no way called upon to ask her governess's leave.
Her foot was much better. The nurse had strapped it for her, and, beyond some slight stiffness in walking, it caused her no pain. Her hair was tied discreetly back with a black ribbon. It ought to have been plaited, but as Mademoiselle had no time to bestow upon it and Chris herself couldn't be bothered, it hung in glory below the confining ribbon to her waist.
Whistling to Cinders, who was lying in the sunshine snapping at flies, she rose from her chair in the shade, dropped the crochet with which Mademoiselle had supplied her on the grass, and limped to the gate that opened on to the plage.
At this juncture a rhythmical, unmistakable sound made her pause. A quick gleam of pleasure shone in her blue eyes. She turned her head eagerly. A troop of soldiers were approaching along the plage.
Sheer fun flashed into the girl's face. With a sudden swoop she caught up the lazy Cinders.
"Now you are not to say anything," she cautioned him. "Only when I tell you, you are to salute. And mind you do it properly!"
Cinders licked the animated face so near his own. When not drawn by his one particular vice, he was always ready to enter into any little game that his mistress might devise. He watched the oncoming soldiers with interest, a slight frown between his brows.
The soldiers were interested also. Chris of the merry eyes was not a spectacle to pass unheeding. She smiled upon them—there were about forty of them—with the simplicity of a child.
Rhythmically the blue and red uniforms began to swing past. Their wearers stared and grinned at the smiling little Anglaise who was so naively pleased to see them.
She raised an imperious hand. "Cinders, salute!" And into Cinders' ear she whispered, "They are only French, chappie, but you mustn't mind."
And Cinders, quite unconcerned, obeyed his mistress's behest and lifted a rigid paw to his head.
A murmur of appreciation ran through the ranks. The grins widened. One boy, with bold admiration for the petite Anglaise in his black eyes, raised his hand abruptly and saluted in return. Every man who followed did likewise, and Chris was enchanted. Mademoiselle Gautier would have been horrified had she seen her frank nods of acknowledgment, but mercifully Fate spared her this.
Behind the last line of marching men came a trim young officer. His sword clanked at his heels. He swung along with a free swagger, head up, shoulders back, eyes fixed straight before him. A gallant specimen was he, for though of inconsiderable height, he was well made and obviously of athletic build. His thoughts were evidently far away, his handsome, boyish face so preoccupied that it had the look of a face in a picture, patrician, aloof, immobile.
But a sudden glimpse of the girl at the gate—the child with the shining hair—brought him back in a fraction of time, transformed him utterly. Recognition, vivid surprise, undoubted pleasure, flashed over his face. With an eager smile, he paused, clicked his heels together, saluted.
She extended an eager hand—her left; Cinders monopolized her right.
"Oh," she exclaimed, "you! I didn't know you were a soldier!"
He took the hand over the gate, stooped and kissed it. "But I am delighted, mademoiselle!" he said.
Cinders was also delighted, and struggled with yelps of welcome to reach him. He stood up, laughing, and patted the little creature's head.
"And the foot?" he questioned.
"Much better," said Chris. "I am going down to the shore presently. I wish you could come too."
He smiled and shook his head, with a glance after his men retreating up the hill towards the fort. "I wish it also, mademoiselle, but—"
"Couldn't you?" begged Chris. "This afternoon! Just for a little while! There's only Cinders and me."
"Et Mademoiselle la gouvernante—"
"She is looking after the boys, and they are ill," Chris explained cheerfully. "You might come. I'm wanting someone to talk to rather badly."
The young officer hesitated. The blue eyes were very persuasive.
"I would ask you to come in to tea afterwards," she said, "only Mademoiselle is so silly—quite cracked, in fact, on some points. But that needn't prevent your coming down to the shore for a little to play with Cinders and me. You will, won't you? Say you will!"
"I will, mademoiselle." His surrender was abrupt, and quite decisive.
She beamed upon him. "We will play at sand-pictures. You know that game, I expect. One draws and the other has to guess what it's meant for. I shall look out for you, then. Good-bye!"
She waved a careless hand, and he, still smiling, saluted again and hastened after his men.
She was certainly unconventional, this English girl, quite superbly so. She was also sublimely and completely irresistible.
Did she guess of the power that was hers as she turned back into the little garden? Did some dim suggestion of a spell yet dormant present itself as she stood thus on the threshold of her woman's kingdom? Possibly, for her face was thoughtful, and remained so for quite ten seconds after her new playmate's departure.
At the end of the ten seconds she kissed Cinders, with the remark, "Chappie, that little Frenchman is a trump. I'm sure Jack would think so." She and Jack Forest generally saw things in the same light, which may have been the reason that Chris valued his opinion so highly.
She postponed her visit to the shore till the afternoon in consideration of the fact that her sense of boredom had completely evaporated. After all, what was there to be bored about? Life was quite interesting again.
The tide was on the ebb when she finally set forth. She directed her steps towards a little patch of firm sand which she regarded as peculiarly her own. The shore was deserted as usual. The bonnes preferred the plage.
Would he be there before her, she wondered? Yes; almost at once she spied him in the distance. He had discarded his uniform, in favour of white linen. She regretted his preference somewhat, but admitted to herself that linen might be cooler.
He was very busy with a swagger-cane, drawing in the sand, far too intent to note her approach, and as he drew he hummed a madrigal in his soft voice.
Noiselessly Chris drew near, a dancing imp of mischief in her eyes. She wanted to get a glimpse of the work of art that he was elaborating with such care before he discovered her. But his sensibilities were too subtle for her. Quite suddenly he became aware of her and whizzed round.
He made her a low bow, but Chris waived the ceremony of greeting with impatient curiosity. "I want to see what you are doing. I may look?"
"But certainly, mademoiselle."
She came eagerly forward and looked.
"Oh," she said, "is that the dragon? What an awesome creature! Is he really like that? How splendidly you have done his scales! And what frightful claws! Why"—she turned upon him—"you are an artist!"
He shrugged his shoulders, with his ready smile. "I am whatever mademoiselle desires."
"How nice!" said Chris. "Well, go on being an artist, please. Draw something else!"
"I think it is your turn now, mademoiselle," he said.
"Oh, but I'm no good at it," she protested. "I can't compete. You are much too clever."
He laughed at that and began again.
She seated herself on a rock and watched him, deeply interested.
"How quick you are!" she murmured presently. "Whatever is it, I wonder? A horse with a man on it! Ah, yes! St. George killing the dragon! Excellent!" She clapped her hands. "It is a real picture. What a pity for it to be washed away!"
"The destiny of all things, mademoiselle," he remarked, still elaborating his work.
"Not all things!" she exclaimed. "Look at the Sphinx, and Cleopatra's Needle, and—and a host of other things!"
"You think that they will endure for ever?" he said.
"For a very, very long while," she maintained.
"But for ever, mademoiselle?" He turned round to her, quite serious for once. "There is only one thing that endures for ever," he said.
Chris frowned. "I don't want to think about it. It makes me feel giddy," she said. "Please go on drawing. The tide won't be up yet."
He turned back again instantly, looking quizzical. "Alors, shall we build a barrier of stones and arrest the sea?" he suggested.
"Or weave a rope of sand," amended Chris.
THE DIVINE MAGIC
When Chris went bathing it was her custom to slip a mackintosh over her bathing costume and to run down to the shore thus equipped, discarding the mackintosh before entering the water and leaving it in the charge of Cinders.
Cinders never went treasure-hunting on these occasions, but invariably sat bolt upright, brimful of importance, watching his mistress's proceedings from afar with eager eyes and quivering nose. He would never be persuaded to follow her, owing to a rooted objection to wetting his feet. He was, as a rule, very patient; but if she kept him waiting beyond the bounds of patience he howled in a heartrending fashion that always brought her back.
Chris was a good swimmer, and had a boy's healthy love of the sea. Great was her joy when her injured foot healed sufficiently for her to resume the morning bathe. Mademoiselle Gautier's pleasure was not so keen, but then—poor Mademoiselle!—who could expect it? Besides, what could she know of the exquisite enjoyment of floating on a summer sea with the summer sun in one's eyes and wave after gentle wave rocking one to drowsy content?
The only drawback was the impossibility of diving, Chris longed for a dive on that brilliant morning, longed for the headlong rush through water, the greenness of it below the surface, the sparkling spray above. If only she could have commandeered a boat! But that would have entailed a boatman, and Mademoiselle would have been scandalized at the bare suggestion.
"She would make me bathe in a coat and skirt and a hat if she could," reflected Chris, shaking the wet hair out of her eyes.
It was still early, not nine o'clock. The sea lay calm and empty all about her. Was she really the only person in Valpre, she wondered, who cared for a morning dip? She had swum some way from the little town, and now found herself nearing the point where the rocks jutted far out to the sea. The Magic Cave was at no great distance. She saw the darkness of it and the water foaming white against the cliffs. Even in the morning light it was an awesome spot, and she remembered how her friend had told her that the dragon was there when the tide was up. With a timidity half-actual, half-assumed, she began to swim back to her starting-point.
Half-way back, feeling tired, she allowed herself a rest in consideration of the fact that this was the longest swim that she had ever undertaken. Serenely she lay on the water with her hair floating about her. The morning was perfect, the sea like a lake. Overhead sailed a gull with no flap of wings. She wondered how he did it, and longed to do the same. It must be very nice to be a gull.
Regretfully at length—for she was still feeling a little weary—she resumed her leisurely journey towards the shore. As she did so she caught the sound of oars grating in rowlocks. She turned her head, saw a boat cutting through the water at a prodigious rate not twenty strokes from her, caught a glimpse of its one rower, and without a second's hesitation flung up an imperious arm.
"Stop!" she cried. "It's me!"
He ceased to row on the instant, but the boat shot on. She saw the concern in his face as he brought it back. His black head shone wet in the sunlight. He was evidently returning from a bathe himself.
"It's all right," smiled Chris. "Are you in a great hurry? I wondered if you would tow me a little way. I've come too far, and I'm just a tiny bit tired."
He brought the boat near, and shipped his oars. "I will row you to the shore with pleasure, mademoiselle," he said.
"No, no," she said. "Just throw me a rope, that's all."
"But I have no rope, mademoiselle."
He leaned down to her as she swam alongside; but Chris still hung back, with laughing eyes upraised. "You will capsize in a minute, and that won't help either of us. Really, I don't think I will come out."
But she gave him her hand, nevertheless.
His fingers closed upon it in a warm clasp that seemed very sure of itself. He smiled down at her. "I think otherwise, mademoiselle."
She found it impossible to resist him, and so yielded with characteristic briskness of decision. "Very well, if you will let me dive from the boat afterwards. Hold tight, preux chevalier! One—two—three!"
She came up to him out of the sea like a bird rising from the waves. A moment he had her slim young body between his hands. Then she stepped lightly upon the thwart, and he let her go.
And in that instant something happened: something that was like the kindling of spirit into flame ran between them—a transforming magic that only one knew for the Divine Miracle that changes the face of the whole earth.
To the girl, with her wet hair all around her and her face of baby-like innocence, it only meant that the sun shone more brightly and the sea was more blue for the coming of her preux chevalier. And she sang, without knowing why.
To the man it meant the sudden, primal tumult of all the deepest forces of his nature; it meant the awakening of his soul, the birth of his manhood.
He was young, barely twenty-two. Very early Ambition had called to him, and he had followed with a single heart. He had never greatly cared for social pleasures; he had been too absorbed to enjoy them. But now—in a single moment—Ambition was dethroned. At the time, though his eyes were open, he scarcely realized that the old supremacy had passed. Only long afterwards did he ask himself if the death-knell of his success had begun to toll on that golden morning; because a man cannot serve two masters.
"A penny for your thoughts!" laughed the elf in the stern, and he came to himself to wonder how old she was. "No, never mind!" she added. "I daresay they are not worth it, and I couldn't pay if they were."
Her eyes dwelt approvingly upon him as, with sleeves rolled above his elbows, he began to pull at the oars. He was certainly very handsome. She wondered that she had not noticed it before.
"Mademoiselle will not swim so far again all alone?" he suggested gently, after a few steady strokes.
She looked at him frowningly. There was no faintest tinge of dignity about her, only the careless effrontery of childhood and the grace that is childhood's heritage.
"I am going to swim as far as the skyline some day," she announced lightly, "and look over the edge of the world."
She held up an imperious hand. "That is one of the things you are not allowed to say. You are never to talk French to me. It is holiday-time when I am with you, and I never talk French in the holidays, except to Mademoiselle, who won't listen to English. And won't you call me Chris? Everyone else does."
"Chris?" he repeated after her very softly, his eyes upon her, tenderly indulgent. "Ah! let it be Christine. I may call you that?"
"Of course," she returned practically. "My actual name is Christina, but that's a detail. You can call me Christine if you like it best."
"I have another name for you," he said, with slight hesitation.
"Have you?" she asked with interest. "What is it? Do tell me!"
But he still hesitated. "It will not vex you? No?"
She flashed him her merriest smile. "Of course not. Why should it?"
He smiled back upon her, but there was the light of something deeper than mirth in his eyes. "I call you my bird of Paradise," he said.
"How pretty!" said Chris. "Quite poetical, preux chevalier! You may go on calling me that if you like, but it's too long for general use. And what shall I call you? Tell me your Christian name."
She held up an admonitory finger. "Chris!"
"Christine," he said, with his friendly smile.
She nodded. "Now don't forget! I think I shall call you Bertie because it sounds more English. I'm going to dive now, so don't row any farther."
She sprang to her feet and stepped on to the thwart, where she stood balancing, her arms above her head.
He waited motionless to see her go. But she remained poised for several seconds, the sunlight full upon her slim, straight figure and bare, upraised arms. Her hair, that had begun to dry, fluttered a little in the breeze. The splendour of it almost dazzled the onlooker. He sat with bated breath. She was like a young goddess, invoking the spirit of the morning.
Suddenly she turned a laughing face over her shoulder. "Bertie!"
He pulled himself together. "Christine!" he answered, with a quick smile.
She laughed a little more. "Well done! I wondered if you would remember. Will you do something for me?"
"All that you wish," he said.
"Well, when you come to tea with me in the Magic Cave on the tenth bring a lantern. Will you?"
"But certainly," he said.
"I want to explore," said Chris. "I want to find out all the secrets there are."
She turned back to contemplate the deep blue water at her feet, paused a moment longer; then, "Good-bye, Bertie!" she cried, and was gone.
He saw the curve of her young body in the sunshine before she disappeared, felt the spray splash upwards on his face; but he continued to gaze at the spot where she had stood as a man spellbound, while every pulse and every nerve throbbed with the thought of her and the mad, sweet exultation that she had stirred to life within him. Child she might be, but in that amazing moment he worshipped her as man was made to worship woman in the beginning of the world.
THE BIRTHDAY TREAT
It was her birthday, and Chris scampered over the sands with Cinders tugging at her skirt, singing as she ran. She had three good reasons for being particularly happy that day—the first and foremost of these being the long-anticipated adventure that lay before her; the second that her two young brothers had improved so greatly in health that the tedious hours of her solitude were very nearly over; and the third that a letter from Jack, cousin and comrade, was tucked up her sleeve.
Jack's letters were infrequent and ever delightful. He always struck the right note. He had written for her birthday to tell her that he had bought a present for her to celebrate the memorable occasion, but that he was reserving to himself the pleasure of offering it in person when they should meet again, which happy event would, he believed, take place at no distant date. In fact, Chris might see him any day now, since the privilege of escorting her and her following back to England was to be his, and he understood that the ruling power had decreed that their return should not be postponed much longer.
She was by no means anxious to go; in fact, when the time came she would be sorry. But she was not thinking of that to-day. It was not her custom to dwell upon unwelcome things, and Jack had, moreover, made the prospect attractive by the suggestion that they might possibly spend two or three days in Paris on their return. Paris under Jack's auspices would be paradise in Chris's estimation. She could imagine nothing more enchanting.
So she and Cinders were in high spirits and prepared to enjoy the birthday treat to the uttermost. She carried a small—very small—bag of cakes which Mademoiselle had packed for her picnic—poor Mademoiselle, who could not understand how any demoiselle could prefer to eat her food upon the beach. In fact, Chris had only carried the point because it was her birthday, and naturally Mademoiselle had not been informed that she had invited a guest to the meagre feast.
Chris, however, was quite content. With the serenity of childhood she was sure there would be enough. She even told herself privately that it would be the best birthday-party she had ever had. And Cinders was apparently of the same opinion.
They raced nearly all the way to the rocks, spurred by the sight of a familiar white figure awaiting them there. He came to meet them with his customary courtesy, bare-headed, with shining eyes.
"Will you accept my good wishes?" he said, as he bent over her hand.
She laughed and thanked him. "I'm getting horribly old. Do you know I'm seventeen? I shall have to put up my hair next year."
"I grieve to hear it," he protested.
"Never mind. It isn't next year yet. Have you remembered the lantern? Where is it? No, I don't want any help, thank you. I balance best alone."
She was already skipping over the rocks with arms extended. He followed her lightly, ready to give his hand at a moment's notice. But Chris was very sure-footed, and though she allowed him to take her parcel, she would not accept his assistance.
"I haven't brought anything to drink," she remarked presently, "I hope you don't mind."
No, he minded nothing. Like herself, he was enjoying the treat to the uttermost. He had not forgotten the lantern. It was waiting by the Magic Cave. He begged that she would not hasten. The tide would not turn yet.
But Chris was in an impetuous mood. She wanted to start upon her adventure without delay. Should they not explore first and have tea after? It should be exactly as she wished, he assured her. Was it not her fete?
But when at length she reached the shingle under the cliffs, she found a surprise in store for her that made her change her mind.
A white napkin was spread daintily upon a flat-topped rock, and on this were set a large pink and white cake and a box of fondants.
"Goodness!" ejaculated Chris.
"Merveilleux!" exclaimed the Frenchman.
She turned upon him. "Now, Bertie, you needn't pretend you are not at the bottom of it, for I am old enough to know better. No," as he shrugged his shoulders and spread out his hands, "it's not a bit of good doing that. It doesn't deceive me in the least. I know you did it, and you're a perfect dear, and it was sweet of you to think of it. It's the best picnic I ever went to. And you even thought of tea," catching sight of a small spirit-kettle that sang in a sheltered corner. "Let's have some at once, shall we? I'm so thirsty."
He had forgotten nothing. From a basket he produced cups, saucers, plates, knives, and arranged them on his improvised table.
Chris surveyed the cake with frank satisfaction. "What a mercy the gulls didn't seize it while your back was turned! Do cut it, quick!"
"No, no! You will perform that ceremony," smiled Bertrand.
"Shall I? Oh, very well. I expect I shall do it very badly. What lovely sweets! Did they come out of the Magic Cave? I hope they won't vanish before we come to eat them."
"I thought that my bird of Paradise would like them," he said softly.
"Your bird of Paradise loves them," promptly returned Chris. "In fact, if you ask me, I think she is inclined to be rather greedy. Please take the kettle off. It's spluttering. You must make the tea if I'm to cut the cake. And let's be quick, shall we? I believe it's going to rain!"
They were not very quick, however, for, as Chris herself presently remarked, one couldn't scramble over such a cake as that. And the rain came down in a sharp shower before they had finished, and drove them into the Magic Cave for shelter.
The girl's young laughter echoed weirdly along the rocky walls as she entered, and she turned with a slightly startled expression to make sure that her companion was close to her.
He had paused to rescue the remains of the feast. "Quick!" she called to him. "You will be drenched."
"Je viens vite—vite," he called back, and in a few seconds was at her side.
"Comment!" he said. "You are afraid, no?"
"No," said Chris, colouring under his look of inquiry. "But it's horribly eerie. Where is Cinders?"
A muffled bark from the depths of the cave answered her. Cinders was obviously exploring on his own account, and believed himself to be on the track of some quarry.
"Light the lantern—quick!" commanded Chris, her misgivings diverted into another channel. "We mustn't lose him. Isn't it cold!"
She shivered in her light dress, but turned inwards resolutely.
"Tenez!" exclaimed the Frenchman, quick to catch her mood. "I will go to find the good Cinders. He is not far."
"And leave me!" said Chris quickly.
"Eh bien! Let us remain here."
"And leave Cinders!" said Chris.
He smiled and shrugged his shoulders, then stooped without further words and kindled his lamp.
The rain was still beating in fierce grey gusts over the sea and pattering heavily upon the shingle. The waves broke with a sullen roaring. Evidently a gale was rising.
Chris, with her face to the darkness of the cave, shivered again. Somehow her spirit of adventure was dashed.
The flame of Bertrand's lamp shone vaguely inwards, revealing a narrow passage that wound between rugged cliff-walls into darkness. The rock gleamed black and shiny on all sides. Underfoot were stones of all shapes and sizes, worn smooth by the sea.
"What a ghastly place!" whispered Chris, and something seemed to catch the whisper and repeat it sibilantly a great many times as if learning it off by heart.
"Permit me to precede you," said Bertrand. "You will find it not so narrow in a moment. If you look behind you, you will see the sea as in the frame of a picture. It is beautiful, is it not?"
His soft voice and casual words reassured her. She looked and admired, though the sea was grey and the shore all blurred with rain.
"There will be a rainbow soon," he said. "See! It grows more light already."
But he was looking at her as he spoke, though his glance fell directly she turned towards him.
"Do you come here often?" she asked.
"But very often," he said.
"And what do you do here?"
"I will show you by and bye."
"Very well," she said eagerly. "Then we won't go any farther when we have found Cinders."
But this last suggestion was not so easy of accomplishment. The darkness had swallowed Cinders as completely as though the jaws of the dragon had closed upon him.
"Where can he be?" said Chris, a quiver of distress in her voice.
"Have no fear! We will find him," Bertrand assured her.
He moved forward, holding the lantern to guide her. She kept very close to him, especially when a curve in the passage hid the entrance behind her. Her fancy for exploring was rapidly dwindling.
As he had told her, the passage soon widened. They emerged into a cave of some size and considerable height.
"He will be here," announced Bertrand, with conviction.
But he was mistaken; Cinders was nowhere to be seen.
Chris looked around her wonderingly. This chamber in the rock was unlike anything she had ever seen before. The very atmosphere seemed ominous, like the air of a dungeon.
"And you come here often!" she said again incredulously.
He smiled, and, raising his lantern, pointed to a crevice just above his head. "That is where I keep my magic."
Chris stood on tiptoe, and peered curiously. He reached up with his free hand, and drew forward something that gave back dully the flare of the lamp. She saw a black tin box that looked like a miniature safe.
He looked at her with a smile. "It contains my treasures—my black arts," he said, "and my future." He pushed it back again and turned. "Come! we will find the naughty Cinders."
Chris was on the point of asking eager questions regarding this new mystery, but before she could begin to utter them a long and piteous howl—the howl of a lost dog—sent them helter-skelter from her mind.
"Oh, listen!" she cried. "That's Cinders!"
She sprang forward while the miserable sound was still echoing all about them. "Oh, isn't it dreadful?" she gasped. "Do you think he is hurt?"
"No, no!" Bertrand hastened to reassure her. "He is only afraid. We will go to him."
He stretched out a hand to her, and she put hers into it as naturally as a child. Her chin was quivering, and her voice, when she tried to call to the dog, broke down upon a sob.
"He will never know where we are because of the echoes," she said.
"He is not far," declared the Frenchman consolingly. "See, here is the passage. They say that it was made by the contrabandists, but it leads to nowhere; it has been blocked since many years. Do not fall on the stones; they are very slippery."
A passage, even narrower than the first, led from the cave in which they had been standing. Bertrand went first, his hand stretched out behind him, still holding hers.
They had scrambled in this order about a dozen yards when again they heard Cinders' cry for help—a pathetic yelping considerably farther away than it had been before. The unlucky wanderer seemed to have lost his head in the darkness and to be running hither and thither in wild dismay.
"What shall we do?" said Chris in tears. "I've never heard him cry like that before."
Bertrand paused to listen. "The passage divides near here," he said. "Courage, little one! We may find him at any moment. Will you then wait while I search a little farther? I will leave you the lantern. I have some matches."
"Oh, please don't leave me!" entreated Chris. "Why can't I come too?"
"It is too rough for you," he said. "And there are two passages. If I do not find him in the one, without doubt he will return by the other to you."
"You—you'd better take the lantern then," said Chris, with a gulp. "If I am only going to stand still, I—I shan't want it."
"No, no—" he began.
But she insisted. "Yes, really. You will want it. I will wait for you here, if you think it best. Only you will promise not to be long?"
"I promise," he said.
"Then be quick and go," she urged, drawing her hand from his. "We must find him—we must."
But when his back was turned, and she saw him receding from her with the light, she covered her face and trembled. It was the most horrible adventure she had ever experienced.
For a long time she heard his footsteps echoing weirdly, but when they died away at last and she stood alone in the utter, vault-like darkness, her heart failed her. What if he also lost his way?
The darkness was terrible. It seemed to press upon her, to hurt her. Through it came the faint sounds of trickling water from all directions like tiny voices whispering together. Now and then something moved with a small rustling. It might have been a lizard, a crab, or even a bat. But Chris thought of snakes and stiffened to rigidity, scarcely daring to breathe. The roar of the sea sounded remote and far, yet insistent also as though it held a threat. And, above all, thick and hard and agitatingly distinct, arose the throbbing of her frightened heart.
All the horrors she had ever heard or dreamt of passed through her brain as she waited there, yet with a certain desperate courage she kept herself from panic. Cinders might run against her at any moment—at any moment. And even if not, even if she were indeed quite alone in that awful place, she had heard it said that God was nearer to people in the dark.
"O God," she whispered, "I am so frightened. Do bring them both back soon."
After the small prayer she felt reassured. She touched the clammy wall on each side of her, and essayed a tremulous whistle. It was a brave little tune; she knew not whence it came till it suddenly flashed upon her that she had heard it on Bertrand's lips on the day that he had drawn his pictures in the sand. And that also renewed her courage. After all, what had she to fear?
Over and over again she whistled it with growing confidence, improving her memory each time, till suddenly in the middle of a bar there came the rush and patter of feet, a yelp of sheer, exuberant delight, and Cinders, the wanderer, wet, ecstatic, and quite shameless, leaped into her arms.
She hugged him to her heart in the darkness, all her fears swept away in the immensity of her joy at his recovery.
"But, Cinders, how could you? How could you?" was the utmost reproof she could find it in her heart to bestow upon the delinquent.
Cinders explained in his moist, eager way that it had been quite unintentional, and that he was every whit as thankful to be back safe and sound in her loving arms as she was to have him there. They discussed the subject at length and forgave each other with considerable effusion, eventually arriving at the conclusion that no blame attached to either.
And upon this arose the question, What of the Frenchman, Chris's preux chevalier, who had so nobly adventured himself upon a fruitless quest?
"He promised he wouldn't be long," she reflected hopefully. "We shall just have to wait till he turns up, that's all."
She would not suffer her rescued favourite to leave her arms again, and they wiled away some time in the joy of reunion. But the minutes began to drag more and more slowly, till at length anxiety came uppermost again.
Chris began to grow seriously uneasy. What could have happened to him? Had he really lost his way? And if so what could she do?
Plainly nothing, but wait—wait—wait! And she was so tired of the darkness; her eyes ached with it.
Her fears mustered afresh, fantastic fears this time. She began to see green eyes glaring at her, to hear stealthy footfalls above the long, deep roar of the sea, to feel the clammy presence of creatures unknown and hostile. Cinders, too, weary of inaction, began to whimper, to lick her face persuasively, and to suggest a move.
But Chris would not be persuaded. She could without doubt have groped her way back to the cave where Bertrand kept his magic, and even thence to the shore. But she did not for a moment contemplate such a proceeding. She would have felt like a soldier deserting his post. Sooner or later Bertrand would return and look for her here, and here he must find her.
But her fears were growing more vivid every moment, and when Cinders, infected thereby, began to growl below his breath and to bristle under her hand she became almost terrified.
Desperately she grappled with her trepidation and flung it from her, chid Cinders for his foolish cowardice, and fell again to whistling Bertrand's melody with all her might.
Clear and flutelike it echoed through the desolate tunnels, startlingly distinct to her strained nerves. Sometimes the echoes seemed to mock her, but she would not be dismayed. It might be a help to Bertrand, and it certainly helped herself.
A long time passed, how long she had not the vaguest notion. Cinders, grown tired of his own impatience, rested his chin on her shoulder and went phlegmatically to sleep, secure in her assurance that there was nothing whatever to be afraid of. Small creature though he was, her arms ached from holding him, yet she would not let him go, he was too precious for that; and each minute that passed, so she told herself, brought the end of her vigil nearer.
Her heart was like lead within her, but she would not give way to despair. He was bound to come in the end.
And come in the end he did, but not till her hopes had sunk so low that when she heard the first faint sound of his returning feet she would not believe her ears. But when Cinders heard it also, and raised his head to growl, she suffered herself to be convinced. He really was coming at last.
His progress was very slow, maddeningly slow it seemed to Chris. She watched eagerly for the first sign of light from his lantern, but she watched in vain. No faintest ray came to illumine the darkness. Surely it was he; it could be none other!
Nearer and nearer came the footsteps, slow and groping. She listened till she could bear it no longer; then "Bertrand!" she cried wildly. "Bertie! Oh, is it you! Do speak!"
Instantly his voice came to her out of the darkness. "Yes, yes. It is me, little one. I have had—an accident. I am desolated—afflicted; there are no words that can say. And you awaiting me still, my little bird of Paradise, singing so bravely in the darkness!"
"Whistling," corrected Chris; "I can't sing. What on earth has happened? Are you hurt?"
"No, no! It is nothing—a bagatelle. Ah, but you have found the good Cinders! I am rejoiced indeed!"
"Yes, he came to me—ages ago. It is you I have been waiting for all this time. I thought you were never coming. At least, of course, I knew you would come; but oh"—with a great sigh—"it has been a long time!"
"Ah, pardon me!" he said. "But why did you wait?"
"Of course I waited," said Chris. "I said I would."
"And you were not afraid? No?"
He was standing close to her now, and Cinders was wriggling to reach and welcome him.
"Yes, a little," Chris admitted. "That's why I whistled. But it's all right now. Do let us get out."
"Ah!" he said. "But I fear—"
"What?" she asked, with sudden misgiving.
He hesitated a moment, then, "The tide," he said.
"Bertie!" For the first time Chris's bravely sustained courage broke down. She thrust out a clinging hand and clutched his arm. "Are we going to be drowned—here—in the dark?" she said, gasping.
"No, no, no!" His reply was instant and reassuring. He took her hand and held it. "It is not that. The water will not reach us. It is only that we cannot return until the tide permit."
"Oh, well!" Chris's relief eclipsed her dismay. "That doesn't matter so much," she said. "Let us get out of this horrid little tunnel, anyhow. Oh, darling Cinders! He wants to kiss you. Do you mind?"
Bertrand laughed involuntarily. But she was droll, this English child! Was it possible that she did not realize the seriousness of the dilemma in which she found herself? Well, if not—he shrugged his shoulders—it was not for him to enlighten her. As comrades in trouble they would endure their incarceration as bravely as they might.
There was a faint spice of enjoyment in Chris's next remark: "Well, we are all together, that's one thing, and we've got the cake for supper, if we can only find it. Will you go first, please, so that I can hold on to you. It will be nice to see the light again. What happened to the lantern? Did you drop it?"
"I fell," he said. "I thought that I heard the good Cinders in front of me, and I ran. I tripped and struck my head. It stunned me. Apres cela, I lay—depuis longtemps—insensible till I awoke and heard you singing so far—so far away."
"Whistling," said Chris.
"I thought it was a bird at the dawn," he said, "flying high in the sky. And I lay and listened."
"My dear chevalier, you wanted shaking," she interposed, with pardonable severity. "Are you sure you are awake now? Oh, look! There is a ray of light! How heavenly! But why didn't you relight the lantern?"
"It was broken," he said, "and useless. Also I found that I had only three matches."
"I hope it will be a lesson to you," she rejoined, breathing a sigh of relief as they emerged into the dim twilight of the cave. "Oh, isn't it nice to see again! I feel as if I have been blindfolded for years."
"Poor little one!" he said. "Can you ever pardon me?"
They stood together in the deep gloom. They could hear the water lapping the sides of the passage that led inwards from the shore.
"It must be knee-deep round the bend," said Chris. "Yes, I'll forgive you, Bertie. I daresay it wasn't altogether your fault, and I expect your head aches, doesn't it? I hope it isn't very bad. Is there a very big lump? Let me feel."
She passed her hand over his forehead till her fingers encountered the excrescence they sought.
"Oh, you poor boy, it's enormous!" she exclaimed. "Why didn't you tell me before? We must bathe it at once."
But Bertrand laughed and gently drew her hand away. "No—no! It is only a bagatelle. Think no more of it, I beg. I merited it for my negligence. Now, while there is still light, let us decide where you can with the greatest convenience pass the night."
He was prepared for some measure of dismay, as he thus presented to her the worst aspect of the catastrophe. But Chris remained serene. She was rapidly recovering her spirits.
"Oh, yes," she said. "And poor Cinders too! We must find him a nice comfy corner. He can lie on my skirt and keep me warm. Oh, do you know, I heard such a funny story the other day about this very cave. I'll tell you about it presently. But do find the cake first. I'm so hungry. We needn't go to bed yet, need we? It must be quite early. What time do you think the tide will let us get out? Poor Mademoiselle will think I'm drowned."
Chris's awe of the Magic Cave had evidently evaporated. The picnic mood had returned to take its place, and Bertrand knew not whether to be more astounded or relieved. He began to feel about for the basket containing the remnants of their feast, while Chris with much volubility and not a little merriment explained the situation to Cinders.
He calculated that they would be at liberty in the early hours of the morning unless he tempted Fate a second time by climbing the cliff. But Chris would not for a moment consider this proposition, and he was too shaken by his recent fall to feel assured of success if he persisted. Moreover, he seriously doubted if any boat could be brought within reach of her while the tide remained high.
Plainly his only course was to follow her lead and make the best of things. If she managed to extract any enjoyment from a most difficult situation, so much the better. He could but do his utmost to encourage this enviable frame of mind.
Chris, munching cheerfully in the twilight, had evidently quite forgotten her woes. They went down the passage later as far as the bend, and looked at the seething water, all green in the evening light, that held them captive.
"I wish it wasn't going to be quite dark," she said when they returned. "But if we hold hands and talk I shan't mind. That was a lovely cake of yours, Bertie, I shall never forget it."
They found a ledge to sit on, Chris with her feet curled up; and Cinders, grown sleepy after a generous meal, pressed against her. She protested when Bertrand took off his coat and wrapped it round her, but he would take no refusal. There was a penetrating dampness about the place that he feared for her.
"If you sleep, you will feel it," he said.
"But I'm not going to sleep," declared Chris. "I never felt more wide-awake in my life. I often do at bedtime. I hope you are not feeling sleepy either, for I want to talk all night long."
Bertrand professed himself quite willing to listen. "You were going to tell me something about this cave," he reminded her.
"Oh, yes." Chris swooped upon the subject eagerly. "Manon, the little maid-of-all-work, was telling me. She said that no one ever comes here because it is haunted. That's what made Cinders and me call it the Magic Cave. She said that it was well known that no one ever came out the same as they went in even in the daytime, and if any one were to spend the night here they would be under a spell for the rest of their lives. Just think of that, Bertie! Do you think we shall be? She didn't tell me what the spell was. I expect it was something too bad to repeat. That's how Cinders and I came to make up about the knight and the dragon. I hope the dragon won't find us, don't you?"
She drew a little nearer to him and slipped a hand inside his arm. He pressed it close to him,
"Have no fear, cherie. No evil can touch you while I am here."
"I should be terrified if you weren't," she told him frankly. "Did you ever hear about the spell? Do you know what it means?"
"Yes," he said slowly; "I have heard. That was in part why I came here at first, because I knew that I should be alone. I had need of solitude in order to accomplish that which I had begun."
"Your magic?" queried Chris eagerly.
"Yes, little one, my magic. But"—he was smiling—"I have never remained here for the night. And the charm, you say, is not so potent during the day."
"You may be under it already," she said. "I wonder if you are."
"Ah!" Bertrand's tone was suddenly grave. "That also is possible."
"I wonder," she said again. "That may be what made you knock your head. One never knows. But tell me about your magic. What is it? What do you do?"
"I think," he said, "I calculate. And I build."
"What do you build?"
"It is a secret," he said.
"But you will tell me!"
"Because I do so want to know," she urged coaxingly. "And I can keep secrets really. All English people can. Try me!" She thrust forward the little finger of the hand that his arm held. "You must pinch it," she explained, "as hard as you can. And if I don't even squeak you will know I am to be trusted."
He took the finger thus heroically proffered, hesitated a second, then put it softly to his lips. "I would trust you with my life," he said, "with my honour, with all that I possess. Christine, I am an inventor, and I am at the edge of a great discovery—a discovery that will make the French artillery the greatest in the world."
"Goodness!" said Chris, with a gasp; then in haste, "Not—not greater than ours surely!"
He turned to her impetuously in the darkness, her hands caught into his. "Ah, you say that because you are English! And the English—il faut que les anglais soient toujours, toujours les premiers—is it not so—always and in all things? Yet consider! What is it—this national rivalry—this strife for the supremacy? We laugh at it, you and I. We know what it is worth."
But Chris was too young to laugh. "I don't quite like it," she said. "I'm very sorry. Shall we talk of something else?"
But he still held her hands closely clasped. "Listen, Christine, my little one! These things they pass. They are as a dream in the midst of a great Reality. They are not the materials of which we weave our life. Envy, ambition, success—what are they? Only a procession that marches under the windows, and we look out above them, you and I, to the great heaven and the sun; and"—something more than eagerness thrilled suddenly in his voice—"we know that that is our life—the Spark Eternal that nothing can ever quench."
He ceased abruptly. Cinders had stirred in his sleep, and she had drawn away one of her hands to fondle him.
There fell short silence. Then, her voice a little doubtful, she spoke—
"You are not ambitious, then?"
He threw himself back against the rock, and with the movement a certain tension went out of the atmosphere—a tension of which she had been vaguely aware almost without knowing it.
"Ah, yes, I am ambitious," he said. "I am a builder. I have my work to do. And I shall succeed. I shall make that which all the world will envy. I shall be famous." He broke off to laugh exultantly. "Oh, it will be good—good!" he said. "One does not often reach the summit while one is yet young. There are times when it seems too wonderful to be true; and yet I know—I know!"
"Is it a gun?" said Chris.
"Yes, mignonne, a gun! It is also a secret—thine and mine."
She uttered a faint sigh. "I wish it wasn't a gun, Bertie. If it were only an aeroplane, or something that didn't hurt anyone! Of course, you are a soldier and a Frenchman. I couldn't expect you to understand."
He laughed rather ruefully. "But I understand all. And you do not love the French? No?"
"Not so very much," said Chris honestly. "Of course, I'm not being personal. I liked you from the first."
"Ah! But really?" he said.
"Yes, really; and so did Cinders. He always knows when people are nice. We shall miss you quite a lot when we go home."
"Quite a lot!" Bertrand repeated the phrase musingly as if questioning with himself how much it might mean.
"Yes," she went on, "we were so lonely till you came." She broke off to yawn. "Do you know, I'm beginning to get sleepy. Is it the spell, do you think, or only the dark?"
"It is not the spell," he said, with conviction.
"No?" She moved uneasily. "I'm not very comfy," she remarked. "I wish I were like Cinders. He can sleep in any position. It must be so convenient."
"Will you, then, lean on my shoulder?" Bertrand suggested, with a touch of diffidence.
She accepted the offer with alacrity. "Oh, yes, if you don't mind. It would be better than nodding one's head off, as if one were in church, wouldn't it? But what of you? Aren't you sleepy at all?"
"I have no desire to sleep," he told her gravely.
"Haven't you?" Chris's head descended promptly upon his shoulder. "I've never been up all night before," she said. "It feels so funny. How the sea roars! I wish it wouldn't. Bertie, you're sure there isn't such a thing as a dragon really, aren't you?"
His hand closed fast upon hers. "I am quite sure, cherie."
"Thank you. That's nice," she murmured. "I haven't said my prayers. Do you think it matters as I'm not going to bed? I really am tired."
"No, dear," he said. "Le bon Dieu understands."
She moved her head a little. "Are you going to say yours, Bertie?"
"Perhaps, little one."
"Oh, that's all right," she said comfortably. "Good-night!"
His lips were close, so close to her forehead. He could even feel her hair blow lightly against his face. But he remained rigid as a sentry—watchful and silent and still.
Once during that long night she stirred in her sleep—stirred and nestled closer to him with an inarticulate murmur; and he turned, moving for the first time, and gathered her into his arms, holding her there like an infant against his breast. Thereafter she slept a calm, unbroken slumber, serenely unconscious of him and serenely content.
And the man sat motionless, with eyes wide to the darkness, grave and reverent as the eyes of a warrior keeping his vigil on the eve of knighthood. But his heart throbbed all night long like the beat of a drum that calls men into action.
IN THE CAUSE OF A WOMAN
To say that Mademoiselle Gautier was extremely anxious over her young charge's disappearance would be to state the case with ludicrous mildness. She was frantic, she was frenzied with anxiety.
All the evening and half the night she was literally dancing with suspense, intermingled with fits of despair that reduced her, while they lasted, to a state of absolute collapse. Before midnight all Valpre knew that the little English demoiselle was missing, and all Valpre scoured the shore for her in vain. Some of the fishermen put out in boats and continued the search by moonlight as near the rocks as it was possible to go. But all to no purpose.
When the moon went down, they abandoned the quest; but at dawn, when the tide was on the turn, they were out again, searching, searching for a white, drowned face and a mass of red-brown hair. But the sea only laughed in the sunlight and revealed no secrets.
Mademoiselle was quite prostrate by that time. She lay in a darkened room with her head swathed in a black shawl, and called upon all the holy saints to witness that she had always predicted this disaster.
Chris's two young brothers slept fitfully, waking now and then to assure each other uneasily that of course she would turn up sooner or later sound in wind and limb; she always did.
Noel, the younger, who was more or less in Chris's confidence, gave it as his opinion that she had eloped with someone, that officer-chap she met the other day, he'd lay a wager! But Maxwell poured contempt upon the bare suggestion. Chris—elope with a Frenchman! He could as easily see himself eloping with the Goat—a pet name that he and his brother had bestowed upon Mademoiselle Gautier, and which fitted her rather well upon occasion.
Three hours after sunrise the prodigal returned, lightfooted, gay of mien. She was alone when she arrived, having firmly refused Bertrand's escort farther then the end of the plage, lest poor Mademoiselle, who hated men, should have hysterics. But the tale of her adventures had preceded her. All Valpre knew what had happened, and watched her with furtive curiosity. All Valpre knew that the petite Anglaise had spent the night in a cave with one of the officers from the fortress, and all Valpre waited with bated breath, prepared to be duly scandalized.
But Chris was sublimely unconscious of this. Of course, she knew that Mademoiselle would be shocked, but then Mademoiselle's feelings were so extremely sensitive upon all points moral that it was almost impossible to spend an hour in her company without in some fashion doing violence to them. One simply tumbled over them, as it were, at every turn.
She expected and encountered the usual storm of reproach, but when Mademoiselle proceeded to inform her that she was ruined for life, she opened her blue eyes wide and barely suppressed a chuckle. She professed penitence and even asked forgiveness for all the anxiety she had caused, but she could not see that what had happened possessed the tragic importance that Mademoiselle assigned to it. According to her distracted governess, she had almost better have been drowned. For the life of her, Chris couldn't see why.
When the tempest had somewhat spent itself, she retreated to her brothers, to whom she poured out a full and animated account of the night's happenings. They all agreed that Mademoiselle must have rats in the upper story to make such a pother over the adventure, though Maxwell, who held himself to be approaching years of discretion, gave it as his opinion that the whole thing was a piece of bad luck and an experiment not to be repeated.
"It's over anyhow," said Chris. "And we are none the worse, are we, Cinders? So all's well that ends well, and now I'm going to get something to eat."
For the next two days, Mademoiselle continuing to be hysterical at intervals, Chris was exemplary in her behaviour. Perhaps even she had had a surfeit of adventure for the time being. She certainly had no further urgent desire to explore caves, magic or otherwise. She was also a little tired, and inclined, after her excitement, to feel proportionately slack. But early on the morning of the third day her strenuous nature reasserted itself.
The sea and the sunshine awoke her together and she arose and dressed, eager to revel in them both. She wondered if Bertrand were out in his boat, and rather hoped she might encounter him.
Bertrand, however, was nowhere to be seen, and she proceeded to enjoy her morning bathe in solitude. It was an enchanting day, and his absence did not depress her. The tide was low, and she had to wade out a considerable distance through the rippling waves; but she reached deep water at last and proceeded forthwith to enjoy herself to her utmost capacity.