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The Splendid Folly
by Margaret Pedler
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E-text prepared by Al Haines



THE SPLENDID FOLLY

by

MARGARET PEDLER

Author of the Hermit of Far End, etc.

New York Grosset & Dunlap Publishers

1921



TO MY HUSBAND

W. G. Q. PEDLER



CONTENTS

CHAPTER

I THE VERDICT II FELLOW-TRAVELLERS III AN ENCOUNTER WITH DEATH IV CRAILING RECTORY V THE SECOND MEETING VI THE AFTERMATH OF AN ADVENTURE VII DIANA SINGS VIII MRS. LAWRENCE'S HOSPITALITY IX A CONTEST OF WILLS X MISS LERMONTOF'S ADVICE XI THE YEAR'S FRUIT XII MAX ERRINGTON'S RETURN XIII THE FRIEND WHO STOOD BY XIV THE FLAME OF LOVE XV DIANA'S DECISION XVI BARONI'S OPINION OF MATRIMONY XVII "WHOM GOD HATH JOINED TOGETHER" XVIII THE APPROACHING SHADOW XIX THE "FIRST NIGHT" PERFORMANCE XX THE SHADOW FALLS XXI THE OTHER WOMAN XXII THE PARTING OF THE WAYS XXIII PAIN XXIV THE VISION OF LOVE XXV BREAKING-POINT XXVI THE REAPING XXVII CARLO BARONI EXPLAINS XXVIII THE AWAKENING XXIX SACRIFICE



THE HAVEN OF MEMORY

Do you remember Our great love's pure unfolding, The troth you gave, And prayed for God's upholding, Long and long ago?

Out of the past A dream—and then the waking— Comes back to me, Of love and love's forsaking, Ere the summer waned.

Ah! Let me dream That still a little kindness Dwelt in the smile That chid my foolish blindness, When you said good-bye.

Let me remember, When I am very lonely, How once your love But crowned and blessed me only, Long and long ago!

MARGARET PEDLER.



NOTE:—Musical setting by Isador Epstein. Published by G. Ricordi & Co.; 14 East 43rd Street, New York.



THE SPLENDID FOLLY

CHAPTER I

THE VERDICT

The March wind swirled boisterously down Grellingham Place, catching up particles of grit and scraps of paper on his way and making them a torment to the passers-by, just as though the latter were not already amply occupied in trying to keep their hats on their heads.

But the blustering fellow cared nothing at all about that as he drove rudely against them, slapping their faces and blinding their eyes with eddies of dust; on the contrary, after he had swept forwards like a tornado for a matter of fifty yards or so he paused, as if in search of some fresh devilment, and espied a girl beating her way up the street and carrying a roll of music rather loosely in the crook of her arm. In an instant he had snatched the roll away and sent the sheets spread-eagling up the street, looking like so many big white butterflies as they flapped and whirled deliriously hither and thither.

The girl made an ineffectual grab at them and then dashed in pursuit, while a small greengrocer's boy, whose time was his master's (ergo, his own), joined in the chase with enthusiasm.

Given a high wind, and half-a-dozen loose sheets of music, the elusive quality of the latter seems to be something almost supernatural, not to say diabolical, and the pursuit would probably have been a lengthy one but for the fact that a tall man, who was rapidly advancing from the opposite direction, seeing the girl's predicament, came to her help and headed off the truant sheets. Within a few moments the combined efforts of the girl, the man, and the greengrocer's boy were successful in gathering them together once more, and having tipped the boy, who had entered thoroughly into the spirit of the thing and who was grinning broadly, she turned, laughing and rather breathless, to thank the man.

But the laughter died suddenly away from her lips as she encountered the absolute lack of response in his face. It remained quite grave and unsmiling, exactly as though its owner had not been engaged, only two minutes before, in a wild and undignified chase after half-a-dozen sheets of paper which persisted in pirouetting maddeningly just out of reach.

The face was that of a man of about thirty-five, clean-shaven and fair-skinned, with arresting blue eyes of that peculiar piercing quality which seems to read right into the secret places of one's mind. The features were clear-cut—straight nose, square chin, the mouth rather sternly set, yet with a delicate uplift at its corners that gave it a singularly sweet expression.

The girl faltered.

"Thank you so much," she murmured at last.

The man's deep-set blue eyes swept her from head to foot in a single comprehensive glance.

"I am very glad to have been of service," he said briefly.

With a slight bow he raised his hat and passed on, moving swiftly down the street, leaving her staring surprisedly after him and vaguely feeling that she had been snubbed.

To Diana Quentin this sensation was something of a novelty. As a rule, the men who were brought into contact with her quite obviously acknowledged her distinctly charming personality, but this one had marched away with uncompromising haste and as unconcernedly as though she had been merely the greengrocer's boy, and he had been assisting him in the recovery of some errant Brussels sprouts.

For a moment an amused smile hovered about her lips; then the recollection of her business in Grellingham Place came back to her with a suddenly sobering effect and she hastened on her way up the street, pausing at last at No. 57. She mounted the steps reluctantly, and with a nervous, spasmodic intake of the breath pressed the bell-button.

No one came to answer the door—for the good and sufficient reason that Diana's timid pressure had failed to elicit even the faintest sound—and its four blank brown panels seemed to stare at her forbiddingly. She stared back at them, her heart sinking ever lower and lower the while, for behind those repellent portals dwelt the great man whose "Yea" or "Nay" meant so much to her—Carlo Baroni, the famous teacher of singing, whose verdict upon any voice was one from which there could be no appeal.

Diana wondered how many other aspirants to fame had lingered like herself upon that doorstep, their hearts beating high with hope, only to descend the white-washed steps a brief hour later with the knowledge that from the standpoint of the musical profession their voices were useless for all practical purposes, and with their pockets lighter by two guineas, the maestro's fee for an opinion.

The wind swept up the street again and Diana shivered, her teeth chattering partly with cold but even more with nervousness. This was a bad preparation for the coming interview, and with an irritation born of despair she pressed the bell-button to such good purpose that she could hear footsteps approaching, almost before the trill of the bell had vibrated into silence.

An irreproachable man-servant, with the face of a sphinx, opened the door.

Diana tried to speak, failed, then, moistening her lips, jerked out the words:—

"Signor Baroni?"

"Have you an appointment?" came the relentless inquiry, and Diana could well imagine how inexorably the greatly daring who had come on chance would be turned away.

"Yes—oh, yes," she stammered. "For three o'clock—Miss Diana Quentin."

"Come this way, please." The man stood aside for her to enter, and a minute later she found herself following him through a narrow hall to the door of a room whence issued the sound of a softly-played pianoforte accompaniment.

The sphinx-like one threw open the door and announced her name, and with quaking knees she entered.

The room was a large one. At its further end stood a grand piano, so placed that whoever was playing commanded a full view of the remainder of the room, and at this moment the piano-stool was occupied by Signor Baroni himself, evidently in the midst of giving a lesson to a young man who was standing at his elbow. He was by no means typically Italian in appearance; indeed, his big frame and finely-shaped head with its massive, Beethoven brow reminded one forcibly of the fact that his mother had been of German origin. But the heavy-lidded, prominent eyes, neither brown nor hazel but a mixture of the two, and the sallow skin and long, mobile lips—these were unmistakably Italian. The nose was slightly Jewish in its dominating quality, and the hair that was tossed back over his head and descended to the edge of his collar with true musicianly luxuriance was grizzled by sixty years of strenuous life. It would seem that God had taken an Italian, a German, and a Jew, and out of them welded a surpassing genius.

Baroni nodded casually towards Diana, and, still continuing to play with one hand, gestured towards an easy-chair with the other.

"How do you do? Will you sit down, please," he said, speaking with a strong, foreign accent, and then apparently forgot all about her.

"Now"—he turned to the young man whose lesson her entry had interrupted—"we will haf this through once more. Bee-gin, please: 'In all humility I worship thee.'"

Obediently the young man opened his mouth, and in a magnificent baritone voice declaimed that reverently, and from a great way off, he ventured to worship at his beloved's shrine, while Diana listened spell-bound.

If this were the only sort of voice Baroni condescended to train, what chance had she? And the young man's singing seemed so finished, the fervour of his passion was so vehemently rendered, that she humbly wondered that there still remained anything for him to learn. It was almost like listening to a professional.

Quite suddenly Baroni dropped his hands from the piano and surveyed the singer with such an eloquent mixture of disgust and bitter contempt in his extraordinarily expressive eyes that Diana positively jumped.

"Ach! So that is your idea of a humble suitor, is it?" he said, and though he never raised his voice above the rather husky, whispering tones that seemed habitual to him, it cut like a lash. Later, Diana was to learn that Baroni's most scathing criticisms and most furious reproofs were always delivered in a low, half-whispering tone that fairly seared the victim. "That is your idea, then—to shout, and yell, and bellow your love like a caged bull? When will you learn that music is not noise, and that love—love"—and the odd, husky voice thrilled suddenly to a note as soft and tender as the cooing of a wood-pigeon—"can be expressed piano—ah, but pianissimo—as well as by blowing great blasts of sound from those leathern bellows which you call your lungs?"

The too-forceful baritone stood abashed, shifting uneasily from one foot to the other. With a swift motion Baroni swept up the music from the piano and shovelled it pell-mell into the young man's arms.

"Oh, go away, go away!" he said impatiently. "You are a voice—just a voice—and nothing more. You will nevaire be an artist!" And he turned his back on him.

Very dejectedly the young man made his way towards the door, whilst Diana, overcome with sympathy and horror at his abrupt dismissal, could hardly refrain from rushing forward to intercede for him.

And then, to her intense amazement, Baroni whisked suddenly round, and following the young man to the door, laid his hand on his shoulder.

"Au revoir, mon brave," he said, with the utmost bonhomie. "Bring the song next time and we will go through it again. But do not be discouraged—no, for there is no need. It will come—it will come. But remember, piano—piano—pianissimo!"

And with a reassuring pat on the shoulder he pushed the young man affectionately through the doorway and closed the door behind him.

So he had not been dismissed in disgrace after all! Diana breathed a sigh of relief, and, looking up, found Signor Baroni regarding her with a large and benevolent smile.

"You theenk I was too severe with him?" he said placidly. "But no. He is like iron, that young man; he wants hammer-blows."

"I think he got them," replied Diana crisply, and then stopped, aghast at her own temerity. She glanced anxiously at Baroni to see if he had resented her remark, only to find him surveying her with a radiant smile and looking exactly like a large, pleased child.

"We shall get on, the one with the other," he observed contentedly. "Yes, we shall get on. And now—who are you? I do not remember names"—with a terrific roll of his R's—"but you haf a very pree-ty face—and I never forget a pree-ty face."

"I'm—I'm Diana Quentin," she blurted out, nervousness once more overpowering her as she realised that the moment of her ordeal was approaching. "I've come to have my voice tried."

Baroni picked up a memorandum book from his table, turning over the pages till he came to her name.

"Ach! I remember now. Miss Waghorne—my old pupil sent you. She has been teaching you, isn't it so?"

Diana nodded.

"Yes, I've had a few lessons from her, and she hoped that possibly you would take me as a pupil."

It was out at last—the proposal which now, in the actual presence of the great man himself, seemed nothing less than a piece of stupendous presumption.

Signor Baroni's eyes roamed inquiringly over the face and figure of the girl before him—quite possibly querying as to whether or no she possessed the requisite physique for a singer. Nevertheless, the great master was by no means proof against the argument of a pretty face. There was a story told of him that, on one occasion, a girl with an exceptionally fine voice had been brought to him, some wealthy patroness having promised to defray the expenses of her training if Baroni would accept her as a pupil. Unfortunately, the girl was distinctly plain, with a quite uninteresting plainness of the pasty, podgy description, and after he had heard her sing, the maestro, first dismissing her from the room, had turned to the lady who was prepared to stand sponsor for her, and had said, with an inimitable shrug of his massive shoulders:—

"The voice—it is all right. But the girl—heavens, madame, she is of an ugliness! And I cannot teach ugly people. She has the face of a peeg—please take her away."

But there was little fear that a similar fate would befall Diana. Her figure, though slight with the slenderness of immaturity, was built on the right lines, and her young, eager face, in its frame of raven hair, was as vivid as a flower—its clear pallor serving but to emphasise the beauty of the straight, dark brows and of the scarlet mouth with its ridiculously short upper-lip. Her eyes were of that peculiarly light grey which, when accompanied, as hers were, by thick black lashes, gives an almost startling impression each time the lids are lifted, an odd suggestion of inner radiance that was vividly arresting.

An intense vitality, a curious shy charm, the sensitiveness inseparable from the artist nature—all these, and more, Baroni's experienced eye read in Diana's upturned face, but it yet remained for him to test the quality of her vocal organs.

"Well, we shall see," he said non-committally. "I do not take many pupils."

Diana's heart sank yet a little lower, and she felt almost tempted to seek refuge in immediate flight rather than remain to face the inevitable dismissal that she guessed would be her portion.

Baroni, however, put a summary stop to any such wild notions by turning on her with the lightning-like change of mood which she came afterwards to know as characteristic of him.

"You haf brought some songs?" He held out his hand. "Good. Let me see them."

He glanced swiftly through the roll of music which she tendered.

"This one—we will try this. Now"—seating himself at the piano—"open your mouth, little nightingale, and sing."

Softly he played the opening bars of the prelude to the song, and Diana watched fascinatedly while he made the notes speak, and sing, and melt into each other with his short stumpy fingers that looked as though they and music would have little enough in common.

"Now then. Bee-gin."

And Diana began. But she was so nervous that she felt as though her throat had suddenly closed up, and only a faint, quavering note issued from her lips, breaking off abruptly in a hoarse croak.

Baroni stopped playing.

"Tchut! she is frightened," he said, and laid an encouraging hand on her shoulder. "But do not be frightened, my dear. You haf a pree-ty face; if your voice is as pree-ty as your face you need not haf fear."

Diana was furious with herself for failing at the critical moment, and even more angry at Baroni's speech, in which she sensed a suggestion of the tolerance extended to the average drawing-room singer of mediocre powers.

"I don't want to have a pretty voice!" she broke out, passionately. "I wouldn't say thank you for it."

And anger having swallowed up her nervousness, she opened her mouth—and her throat with it this time?—and let out the full powers that were hidden within her nice big larynx.

When she ceased, Baroni closed the open pages of the song, and turning on his stool, regarded her for a moment in silence.

"No," he said at last, dispassionately. "It is certainly not a pree-ty voice."

To Diana's ears there was such a tone of indifference, such an air of utter finality about the brief speech, that she felt she would have been eternally grateful now could she only have passed the low standard demanded by the possession of even a merely "pretty" voice.

"So this is the voice you bring me to cultivate?" continued the maestro. "This that sounds like the rumblings of a subterranean earthquake? Boom! boo-o-om! Like that, nicht wahr?"

Diana crimsoned, and, feeling her knees giving way beneath her, sank into the nearest chair, while Baroni continued to stare at her.

"Then—then you cannot take me as a pupil?" she said faintly.

Apparently he did not hear her, for he asked abruptly:—

"Are you prepared to give up everything—everything in the world for art? She is no easy task-mistress, remember! She will want a great deal of your time, and she will rob you of your pleasures, and for her sake you will haf to take care of your body—to guard your physical health—as though it were the most precious thing on earth. To become a great singer, a great artiste, means a life of self-denial. Are you prepared for this?"

"But—but—" stammered Diana in astonishment. "If my voice is not even pretty—if it is no good—"

"No good?" he exclaimed, leaping to his feet with a rapidity of movement little short of marvellous in a man of his size and bulk. "Gran Dio! No good, did you say? But, my child, you haf a voice of gold—pure gold. In three years of my training it will become the voice of the century. Tchut! No good!"

He pranced nimbly to the door and flung it open.

"Giulia! Giulia!" he shouted, and a minute later a fat, amiable-looking woman, whose likeness to Baroni proclaimed them brother and sister, came hurrying downstairs in answer to his call. "Signora Evanci, my sister," he said, nodding to Diana. "This, Giulia, is a new pupil, and I would haf you hear her voice. It is magnificent—epatant! Open your mouth, little singing-bird, once more. This time we will haf some scales."

Bewildered and excited, Diana sang again, Baroni testing the full compass of her voice until quite suddenly he shut down the lid of the piano.

"It is enough," he said solemnly, and then, turning to Signora Evanci, began talking to her in an excited jumble of English and Italian. Diana caught broken phrases here and there.

"Of a quality superb! . . . And a beeg compass which will grow beeger yet. . . . The contralto of the century, Giulia."

And Signora Evanci smiled and nodded agreement, patting Diana's hand, and reminded Baroni that it was time for his afternoon cup of consomme. She was a comfortable feather-bed of a woman, whose mission in life it seemed to be to fend off from her brother all sharp corners, and to see that he took his food at the proper intervals and changed into the thick underclothing necessitated by the horrible English climate.

"But it will want much training, your voice," continued Baroni, turning once more to Diana. "It is so beeg that it is all over the place—it sounds like a clap of thunder that has lost his way in a back garden." And he smiled indulgently. "To bee-gin with, you will put away all your songs—every one. There will be nothing but exercises for months yet. And you will come for your first lesson on Thursday. Mondays and Thursdays I will teach you, but you must come other days, also, and listen at my lessons. There is much—very much—learned by listening, if one listens with the brain as well as with the ear. Now, little singing-bird, good-bye. I will go with you myself to the door."

The whole thing seemed too impossibly good to be true. Diana felt as if she were in the middle of a beautiful dream from which she might at any moment waken to the disappointing reality of things. Hardly able to believe the evidence of her senses, she found herself once again in the narrow hall, shepherded by the maestro's portly form. As he held the door open for her to pass out into the street, some one ran quickly up the steps, pausing on the topmost.

"Ha, Olga!" exclaimed Baroni, beaming. "You haf returned just too late to hear Mees Quentin. But you will play for her—many times yet." Then, turning to Diana, he added by way of introduction: "This is my accompanist, Mees Lermontof."

Diana received the impression of a thin, satirical face, its unusual pallor picked out by the black brows and hair, of a bitter-looking mouth that hardly troubled itself to smile in salutation, and, above all, of a pair of queer green eyes, which, as the heavy, opaque white lids above them lifted, seemed slowly—and rather contemptuously—to take her in from head to foot.

She bowed, and as Miss Lermontof inclined her head slightly in response, there was a kind of cold aloofness in her bearing—a something defiantly repellent—which filled Diana with a sudden sense of dislike, almost of fear. It was as though the sun had all at once gone behind a cloud.

The Baroni's voice fell on her ears, and the disagreeable tension snapped.

"A rivederci, little singing-bird. On Thursday we will bee-gin."

The door closed on the maestro's benevolently smiling face, and on that other—the dark, satirical face of Olga Lermontof—and Diana found herself once again breasting the March wind as it came roystering up through Grellingham Place.



CHAPTER II

FELLOW-TRAVELLERS

"Look sharp, miss, jump in! Luggage in the rear van."

The porter hoisted her almost bodily up the steps of the railway carriage, slamming the door behind her, the guard's whistle shrieked, and an instant later the train started with a jerk that sent Diana staggering against the seat of the compartment, upon which she finally subsided, breathless but triumphant.

She had very nearly missed the train. An organised procession of some kind had been passing through the streets just as she was driving to the station, and her taxi had been held up for the full ten minutes' grace which she had allowed herself, the metre fairly ticking its heart out in impotent rage behind the policeman's uplifted hand.

So it was with a sigh of relief that she found herself at last comfortably installed in a corner seat of a first-class carriage. She glanced about her to make sure that she had not mislaid any of her hand baggage in her frantic haste, and this point being settled to her satisfaction, she proceeded to take stock of her fellow-traveller, for there was one other person in the compartment besides herself.

He was sitting in the corner furthest away, his back to the engine, apparently entirely oblivious of her presence. On his knee rested a quarto writing-pad, and he appeared so much absorbed in what he was writing that Diana doubted whether he had even heard the commotion, occasioned by her sudden entry.

But she was mistaken. As the porter had bundled her into the carriage, the man in the corner had raised a pair of deep-set blue eyes, looked at her for a moment with a half-startled glance, and then, with the barest flicker of a smile, had let his eyes drop once more upon his writing-pad. Then he crossed out the word "Kismet," which he had inadvertently written.

Diana regarded him with interest. He was probably an author, she decided, and since a year's training as a professional singer had brought her into contact with all kinds of people who earned their livings by their brains, as she herself hoped to do some day, she instantly felt a friendly interest in him. She liked, too, the shape of the hand that held the fountain-pen; it was a slender, sensitive-looking member with well-kept nails, and Diana always appreciated nice hands. The man's head was bent over his work, so that she could only obtain a foreshortened glimpse of his face, but he possessed a supple length of limb that even the heavy travelling-rug tucked around his knees failed to disguise, and there was a certain soigne air of rightness about the way he wore his clothes which pleased her.

Suddenly becoming conscious that she was staring rather openly, she turned her eyes away and looked out of the window, and immediately encountered a big broad label, pasted on to the glass, with the word "Reserved" printed on it in capital letters. The letters, of course, appeared reversed to any one inside the carriage, but they were so big and black and hectoring that they were quite easily deciphered.

Evidently, in his violent haste to get her on board the train, the porter had thrust her into the privacy of some one's reserved compartment that some one being the man opposite. What a horrible predicament! Diana felt hot all over with embarrassment, and, starting to her feet, stammered out a confused apology.

The man in the corner raised his head.

"It does not matter in the least," he assured her indifferently. "Please do not distress yourself. I believe the train is very crowded; you had better sit down again."

The chilly lack of interest in his tones struck Diana with an odd sense of familiarity, but she was too preoccupied to dwell on it, and began hastily to collect together her dressing-case and other odds and ends.

"I'll find another seat," she said stiffly, and made her way out into the corridor of the rocking train.

Her search, however, proved quite futile; every compartment was packed with people hurrying out of town for Easter, and in a few moments she returned.

"I'm sorry," she said, rather shyly. "Every seat is taken. I'm afraid you'll have to put up with me."

Just then the carriage gave a violent lurch, as the express swung around a bend, and Diana, dropping everything she held, made a frantic clutch at the rack above her head, while her goods and chattels shot across the floor, her dressing-case sliding gaily along till its wild career was checked against the foot of the man in the corner.

With an air of resignation he rose and retrieved her belongings, placing them on the seat opposite her.

"It would have been better if you had taken my advice," he observed, with a sort of weary patience.

Diana felt unreasonably angry with him.

"Why don't you say 'I told you so' at once?" she said tartly.

A whimsical smile crossed his face.

"Well, I did, didn't I?"

He stood for a moment looking down at her, steadying himself with one hand against the doorway, and her ill-humour vanishing as quickly as it had arisen, she returned the smile.

"Yes, you did. And you were quite right, too," she acknowledged frankly.

He laughed outright.

"Well done!" he cried. "Not one woman in twenty will own herself in the wrong as a rule."

Diana frowned.

"I don't agree with you at all," she bristled. "Men have a ridiculous way of lumping all women together and then generalising about them."

"Let's discuss the question," he said gaily. "May I?" And scarcely waiting for her permission, he deliberately moved aside her things and seated himself opposite her.

"But you were busy writing," she protested.

He threw an indifferent glance in the direction of his writing-pad, where it lay on the seat in the corner.

"Was I?" he answered calmly. "Sometimes there are better things to do than scribbling—pleasanter ones, anyway."

Diana flushed. It certainly was an unusual thing to do, to get into conversation with an unknown man with whom one chanced to be travelling, and she had never before committed such a breach of the conventions—would have been shocked at the bare idea of it—but there was something rather irresistible about this man's cool self-possession. He seemed to assume that a thing must of necessity be right, since he chose to do it.

She looked up and met his eyes watching her with a glint of amusement in their depths.

"No, it isn't quite proper," he agreed, answering her unspoken thought. "But I've never bothered about that if I really wanted to do a thing. And don't you think"—still with that flicker of laughter in his eyes—"that it's rather ridiculous, when two human beings are shut up in a box together for several hours, for each of them to behave as though the other weren't there?"

He spoke half-mockingly, and Diana, felt that within himself he was ridiculing her prim little notions of conventionality. She flushed uncomfortably.

"Yes, I—I suppose so," she faltered.

He seemed to understand.

"Forgive me," he said, with a sudden gentleness. "I wasn't laughing at you, but only at all the absurd conventions by which we cut ourselves off from many an hour of pleasant intercourse—just as though we had any too many pleasures in life! But if you wish it, I'll go back to my corner."

"No, no, don't go," returned Diana hastily. "It—it was silly of me."

"Then we may talk? Good. I shall behave quite nicely, I assure you."

Again the curiously familiar quality in his voice! She was positive she had heard it before—that crisp, unslurred enunciation, with its keen perception of syllabic values, so unlike the average Englishman's slovenly rendering of his mother-tongue.

"Of what are you thinking?" he asked, smiling. And then the swift, hawk-like glance of the blue eyes brought with it a sudden, sure sense of recognition, stinging the slumbering cells of memory into activity. A picture shaped itself in her mind of a blustering March day, and of a girl, a man, and an errand-boy, careering wildly in the roadway of a London street, while some stray sheets of music went whirling hither and thither in the wind. It had all happened a year ago, on that critical day when Baroni had consented to accept her as his pupil, but the recollection of it, and the odd, snubbed feeling she had experienced in regard to the man with the blue eyes, was as clear in her mind as though it had occurred only yesterday.

"I believe we have met before, haven't we?" she said.

The look of gay good-humour vanished suddenly from his face and an expression of blank inquiry took its place.

"I think not," he replied.

"Oh, but I'm sure of it. Don't you remember"—brightly—"about a year ago. I was carrying some music, and it all blew away up the street and you helped me to collect it again?"

He shook his head.

"I think you must be mistaken," he answered regretfully.

"No, no," she persisted, but beginning to experience some slight embarrassment. (It is embarrassing to find you have betrayed a keen and vivid recollection of a man who has apparently forgotten that he ever set eyes on you!) "Oh, you must remember—it was in Grellingham Place, and the greengrocer's boy helped as well."

She broke off, reading the polite negation in his face.

"You must be confusing me with some one else. I should not be likely to—forget—so charming a rencontre."

There was surely a veiled mockery in his composed tones, irreproachably courteous though they were, and Diana coloured hotly. Somehow, this man possessed the faculty of making her feel awkward and self-conscious and horribly young; he himself was so essentially of the polished type of cosmopolitan that beside him she felt herself to be as raw and crude as any bread-and-butter miss fresh from the schoolroom. Moreover, she had an inward conviction that in reality he recollected the incident in Grellingham Place as clearly as she did herself, although he refused to admit it.

She relapsed into an uncomfortable silence, and presently the attendant from the restaurant car came along the corridor and looked in to ask if they were going to have dinner on the train. Both nodded an affirmative.

"Table for two?" he queried, evidently taking them to be two friends travelling together.

Diana was about to enlighten him when her vis-a-vis leaned forward hastily.

"Please," he said persuasively, and as she returned no answer he apparently took her silence for consent, for something passed unobtrusively from his hand to that of the attendant, and the latter touched his hat with a smiling—"Right you are, sir! I'll reserve a table for two."

Diana felt that the acquaintance was progressing rather faster than she could have wished, but she hardly knew how to check it. Finally she mustered up courage to say firmly:—

"It must only be if I pay for my own dinner."

"But, of course," he answered courteously, with the slightest tinge of surprise in his tones, and once again Diana, felt that she had made a fool of herself and blushed to the tips of her ears.

A faint smile trembled for an instant on his lips, and then, without apparently noticing her confusion, he began to talk, passing easily from one subject to another until she had regained her confidence, finally leading her almost imperceptibly into telling him about herself.

In the middle of dinner she paused, aghast at her own loquacity.

"But what a horrible egotist you must think me!" she exclaimed. "I've been talking about my own affairs all the time."

"Not at all. I'm interested. This Signor Baroni who is training your voice—he is the finest teacher in the world. You must have a very beautiful voice for him to have accepted you as a pupil." There was a hint of surprise in his tones.

"Oh, no," she hastened to assure him modestly. "I expect it was more that I had the luck to catch him in a good mood that afternoon."

"And his moods vary considerably, don't they?" he said, smiling as though at some personal recollection.

"Oh, do you know him?" asked Diana eagerly.

In an instant his face became a blank mask; it was as though a shutter had descended, blotting out all its vivacious interest.

"I have met him," he responded briefly. Then, turning the subject adroitly, he went on: "So now you are on your way home for a well-earned holiday? Your people must be looking forward to seeing you after so long a time—you have been away a year, didn't you say?"

"Yes, I spent the other two vacations abroad, in Italy, for the sake of acquiring the language. Signor Baroni"—laughingly—"was horror-stricken at my Italian, so he insisted. But I have no people—not really, you know," she continued. "I live with my guardian and his daughter. Both my parents died when I was quite young."

"You are not very old now," he interjected.

"I'm eighteen," she answered seriously.

"It's a great age," he acknowledged, with equal gravity.

Just then a waiter sped forward and with praiseworthy agility deposited their coffee on the table without spilling a drop, despite the swaying of the train, and Diana's fellow-traveller produced his cigarette-case.

"Will you smoke?" he asked.

She looked at the cigarettes longingly.

"Baroni's forbidden me to smoke," she said, hesitating a little. "Do you think—just one—would hurt my voice?"

The short black lashes flew up, and the light-grey eyes, like a couple of stars between black clouds, met his in irresistible appeal.

"I'm sure it wouldn't," he replied promptly. "After all, this is just an hour's playtime that we have snatched out of life. Let's enjoy every minute of it—we may never meet again."

Diana felt her heart contract in a most unexpected fashion.

"Oh, I hope we shall!" she exclaimed, with ingenuous warmth.

"It is not likely," he returned quietly. He struck a match and held it while she lit her cigarette, and for an instant their fingers touched. His teeth came down hard on his under-lip. "No, we mustn't meet again," he repeated in a low voice.

"Oh, well, you never know," insisted Diana, with cheerful optimism. "People run up against each other in the most extraordinary fashion. And I expect we shall, too."

"I don't think so," he said. "If I thought that we should—" He broke off abruptly, frowning.

"Why, I don't believe you want to meet me again!" exclaimed Diana, with a note in her voice like that of a hurt child.

"Oh, for that!" He shrugged his shoulders. "If we could have what we wanted in this world! Though, I mustn't complain—I have had this hour. And I wanted it!" he added, with a sudden intensity.

"So much that you propose to make it last you for the remainder of your life?"—smiling.

"It will have to," he answered grimly.

After dinner they made their way back from the restaurant car to their compartment, and noticing that she looked rather white and tired, he suggested that she should tuck herself up on the seat and go to sleep.

"But supposing I didn't wake at the right time?" she objected. "I might be carried past my station and find myself heaven knows where in the small hours of the morning! . . . I am sleepy, though."

"Let me be call-boy," he suggested. "Where do you want to get out?"

"At Craiford Junction. That's the station for Crailing, where I'm going. Do you know it at all? It's a tiny village in Devonshire; my guardian is the Rector there."

"Crailing?" An odd expression crossed his face and he hesitated a moment. At last, apparently coming to a decision of some kind, he said: "Then I must wake you up when I go, as I'm getting out before that."

"Can I trust you?" she asked sleepily.

"Surely."

She had curled herself up on the seat with her feet stretched out in front of her, one narrow foot resting lightly on the instep of the other, and she looked up at him speculatively from between the double fringe of her short black lashes.

"Yes, I believe I can," she acquiesced, with a little smile.

He tucked his travelling rug deftly round her, and, pulling on his overcoat, went hack to his former corner, where he picked up the neglected writing-pad and began scribbling in a rather desultory fashion.

Very soon her even breathing told him that she slept, and he laid aside the pad and sat quietly watching her. She looked very young and childish as she lay there, with the faint shadows of fatigue beneath her closed eyes—there was something appealing about her very helplessness. Presently the rug slipped a little, and he saw her hand groping vaguely for it. Quietly he tiptoed across the compartment and drew it more closely about her.

"Thank you—so much," she murmured drowsily, and the man looking down at her caught his breath sharply betwixt his teeth. Then, with an almost imperceptible shrug of his shoulders, he stepped back and resumed his seat.

The express sped on through the night, the little twin globes of light high up in the carriage ceiling jumping and flickering as it swung along the metals.

Down the track it flew like a living thing, a red glow marking its passage as it cleft the darkness, its freight of human souls contentedly sleeping, or smoking, or reading, as the fancy took them. And half a mile ahead on the permanent way, Death stood watching—watching and waiting where, by some hideous accident of fate, a faulty coupling-rod had snapped asunder in the process of shunting, leaving a solitary coal-truck to slide slowly back into the shadows of the night, unseen, the while its fellows were safely drawn on to a aiding.



CHAPTER III

AN ENCOUNTER WITH DEATH

One moment the even throbbing of the engine as the train slipped along through the silence of the country-side—the next, and the silence was split by a shattering roar and the shock of riven plates, the clash of iron driven against iron, and of solid woodwork grinding and grating as it splintered into wreckage.

Diana, suddenly—horribly—awake, found herself hurled from her seat. Absolute darkness lapped her round; it was as though a thick black curtain had descended, blotting out the whole world, while from behind it, immeasurably hideous in that utter night, uprose an inferno of cries and shrieks—the clamour of panic-stricken humanity.

Her hands, stretched stiffly out in front of her to ward off she knew not what impending horror hidden by the dark, came in contact with the framework of the window, and in an instant she was clinging to it, pressing up against it with her body, her fingers gripping and clutching at it as a rat, trapped in a well, claws madly at a projecting bit of stonework. It was at least something solid out of that awful void.

"What's happened? What's happened? What's happened?"

She was whispering the question over and over again in a queer, whimpering voice without the remotest idea of what she was saying. When a stinging pain shot through her arm, as a jagged point of broken glass bit into the flesh, and with a scream of utter, unreasoning terror she let go her hold.

The next moment she felt herself grasped and held by a pair of arms, and a voice spoke to her out of the darkness.

"Are you hurt? . . . My God, are you hurt?"

With a sob of relief she realised that it was the voice of her fellow-traveller. He was here, close to her, something alive and human in the midst of this nightmare of awful, unspeakable fear, and she clung to him, shuddering.

"Speak, can't you?" His utterance sounded hoarse and distorted. "You're hurt—?" And she felt his hands slide searchingly along her limbs, feeling and groping.

"No—no."

"Thank God!" He spoke under his breath. Then, giving her a shake: "Come, pull yourself together. We must get out of this."

He fumbled in his pocket and she heard the rattle of a matchbox, and an instant later a flame spurted out in the gloom as he lit a bundle of matches together. In the brief illumination she could see the floor of the compartment steeply tilted up and at its further end what looked like a huge, black cavity. The whole side of the carriage had been wrenched away.

"Come on!" exclaimed the man, catching her by the hand and pulling her forward towards that yawning space. "We must jump for it. It'll be a big drop. I'll catch you."

At the edge of the gulf he paused. Below, with eyes grown accustomed to the darkness, she could discern figures running to and fro, and lanterns flashing, while shouts and cries rose piercingly above a continuous low undertone of moaning.

"Stand here," he directed her. "I'll let myself down, and when I call to you—jump."

She caught at him frantically.

"Don't go—don't leave me."

He disengaged himself roughly from her clinging hands.

"It only wants a moment's pluck," he said, "and then you'll be safe."

The next minute he was over the side, hanging by his hands from the edge of the bent and twisted flooring of the carriage, and a second afterwards she heard him drop. Peering out, she could see him standing on the ground below, his arms held out towards her.

"Jump!" he called.

But she shrank from the drop into the darkness.

"I can't!" she sobbed helplessly. "I can't!"

He approached a step nearer, and the light from some torch close at hand flashed onto his uplifted face. She could see it clearly, tense and set, the blue eyes blazing.

"God in heaven!" he cried furiously. "Do what I tell you. Jump!"

The fierce, imperative command startled her into action, and she jumped blindly, recklessly, out into the night. There was one endless moment of uncertainty, and then she felt herself caught by arms like steel and set gently upon the ground.

"You little fool!" he said thickly. He was breathing heavily as though he had been running; she could feel his chest heave as, for an instant, he held her pressed against him.

He released her almost immediately, and taking her by the arm, led her to the embankment, where he stripped off his overcoat and wrapped it about her. But she was hardly conscious of what he was doing, for suddenly everything seemed to be spinning round her. The lights of the torches bobbed up and down in a confused blur of twinkling stars, the sound of voices and the trampling of feet came faintly to her ears as from a great way off, while the grim, black bulk of the piled-up coaches of the train seemed to lean nearer and nearer, until finally it swooped down on top of her and she sank into a sea of impenetrable darkness.

The next thing she remembered was finding a flask held to her lips, while a familiar voice commanded her to drink. She shook her head feebly.

"Drink it at once," the voice insisted. "Do you hear?"

And because her mind held some dim recollection of the futility of gainsaying that peremptory voice, she opened her lips obediently and let the strong spirit trickle down her throat.

"Better now?" queried the voice.

She nodded, and then, complete consciousness returning, she sat up.

"I'm all right now—really," she said.

The owner of the voice regarded her critically.

"Yes, I think you'll do now," he returned. "Stay where you are. I'm going along to see if I can help, but I'll come back to you again."

The darkness swallowed him up, and Diana sat very still on the embankment, vibrantly conscious in every nerve of her of the man's cool, dominating personality. Gradually her thoughts returned to the happenings of the moment, and then the full horror of what had occurred came back to her. She began to cry weakly. But the tears did her good, bringing with them relief from the awful shock which had strained her nerves almost to breaking-point, and with return to a more normal state of mind came the instinctive wish to help—to do something for those who must be suffering so pitiably in the midst of that scarred heap of wreckage on the line.

She scrambled to her feet and made her way nearer to the mass of crumpled coaches that reared up black against the shimmer of the starlit sky. No one took any notice of her; all who were unhurt were working to save and help those who had been less fortunate, and every now and then some broken wreck of humanity was carried past her, groaning horribly, or still more horribly silent.

Suddenly a woman brushed against her—a young woman of the working classes, her plump face sagging and mottled with terror, her eyes staring, her clothes torn and dishevelled.

"My chiel, my li'l chiel!" she kept on muttering. "Wur be 'ee? Wur be 'ee?"

Reaching her through the dreadful strangeness of disaster, the soft Devon dialect smote on Diana's ears with a sense of dear familiarity that was almost painful. She laid her hand on the woman's arm.

"What is it?" she asked. "Have you lost your child?"

The woman looked at her vaguely, bewildered by the surrounding horror.

"Iss. Us dunnaw wur er's tu; er's dade, I reckon. Aw, my li'l, li'l chiel!" And she rocked to and fro, clutching her shawl more closely round her.

Diana put a few brief questions and elicited that the woman and her child had both been taken unhurt out of a third-class carriage—of the ten souls who had occupied the compartment the only ones to escape injury.

"I'll go and look for him," she told her. "I expect he has only strayed away and lost sight of you amongst all these people. Four years old and wearing a little red coat, did you say? I'll find him for you; you sit down here." And she pushed the poor distraught creature down on a pile of shattered woodwork. "Don't be frightened," she added reassuringly. "I feel certain he's quite safe."

She disappeared into the throng, and after searching for a while came face to face with her fellow traveller, carrying a chubby, red-coated little boy in his arms. He stopped abruptly.

"What in the world are you doing?" he demanded angrily. "You've no business here. Go back—you'll only see some ghastly sights if you come, and you can't help. Why didn't you stay where I told you to?"

But Diana paid no heed.

"I want that child," she said eagerly, holding out her arms. "The mother's nearly out of her mind—she thinks he's killed, and I told her I'd go and look for him."

"Is this the child? . . . All right, then, I'll carry him along for you. Where did you leave his mother?"

Diana led the way to where the woman was sitting, still rocking herself to and fro in dumb misery. At the sight of the child she leapt up and clutched him in her arms, half crazy with joy and gratitude, and a few sympathetic tears stole down Diana's cheeks as she and her fellow-helper moved away, leaving the mother and child together.

The man beside her drew her arm brusquely within his.

"You're not going near that—that hell again. Do you hear?" he said harshly.

His face looked white and drawn; it was smeared with dirt, and his clothes were torn and dishevelled. Here and there his coat was stained with dark, wet patches. Diana shuddered a little, guessing what those patches were.

"You've been helping!" she burst out passionately. "Did you want me to sit still and do nothing while—while that is going on just below?" And she pointed to where the injured were being borne along on roughly improvised stretchers. A sob climbed to her throat and her voice shook as she continued: "I was safe, you see, thanks to you. And—and I felt I must go and help a little, if I could."

"Yes—I suppose you would feel that," he acknowledged, a sort of grudging approval in his tones. "But there's nothing more one can do now. An emergency train is coming soon and then we shall get away—those that are left of us. But what's this?"—he felt her sleeve—"Your arm is all wet." He pushed up the loose coat-sleeve and swung the light of his lantern upon the thin silk of her blouse beneath it. It was caked with blood, while a trickle of red still oozed slowly from under the wristband and ran down over her hand.

"You're hurt! Why didn't you tell me?"

"It's nothing," she answered. "I cut it against the glass of the carriage window. It doesn't hurt much."

"Let me look at it. Here, take the lantern."

Diana obeyed, laughing a little nervously, and he turned back her sleeve, exposing a nasty red gash on the slender arm. It was only a surface wound however, and hastily procuring some water he bathed it and tied it up with his handkerchief.

"There, I think that'll be all right now," he said, pulling down her sleeve once more and fastening the wristband with deft fingers. "The emergency train will be here directly, so I'm going back to our compartment to pick up your belongings. I can climb in, I fancy. What did you leave behind?"

Diana laughed.

"What a practical man you are! Fancy thinking of such things as a forgotten coat and a dressing-bag when we've just escaped with our lives!"

"Well, you may as well have them," he returned gruffly. "Wait here." And he disappeared into the darkness, returning presently with the various odds and ends which she had left in the carriage.

Soon afterwards the emergency train came up, and those who could took their places, whilst the injured were lifted by kindly, careful hands into the ambulance compartment. The train drew slowly away from the scene of the accident, gradually gathering speed, and Diana, worn out with strain and excitement, dozed fitfully to the rhythmic rumbling of the wheels.

She woke with a start to find that the train was slowing down and her companion gathering his belongings together preparatory to departure. She sprang up and slipping off the overcoat she was still wearing, handed it back to him. He seemed reluctant to take it from her.

"Shall you be warm enough?" he asked doubtfully.

"Oh, yes. It's only half-an-hour's run from here to Craiford Junction, and there they'll meet me with plenty of wraps." She hesitated a moment, then went on shyly: "I can't thank you properly for all you've done."

"Don't," he said curtly. "It was little enough. But I'm glad I was there."

The train came to a standstill, and she held out her hand.

"Good-bye," she said, very low.

He wrung her hand, and, releasing it abruptly, lifted his hat and disappeared amid the throng of people on the platform. And it was not until the train had steamed out of the station again that she remembered that she did not even know his name.

Very slowly she unknotted the handkerchief from about her arm, and laying the blood-stained square of linen on her knee, proceeded to examine each corner carefully. In one of them she found the initials M.E., very finely worked.



CHAPTER IV

CRAILING RECTORY

The early morning mist still lingered in the valleys and clung about the river banks as the Reverend Alan Stair, returning from his matutinal dip in the sea, swung up the lane and pushed open the door giving access from it to the Rectory grounds. The little wooden door, painted green and overhung with ivy, was never bolted. In the primitive Devon village of Crailing such a precaution would have been deemed entirely superfluous; indeed, the locking of the door would probably have been regarded by the villagers as equivalent to a reflection on their honesty, and should the passage of time ultimately bring to the ancient rectory a fresh parson, obsessed by conventional opinion concerning the uses of bolts and bars, it is probable that the inhabitants of Crailing will manifest their disapproval in the simple and direct fashion of the Devon rustic—by placidly boycotting the church of their fathers and betaking themselves to the chapel round the corner. The little green door, innocent of lock and key, stood as a symbol of the close ties that bound the rector and his flock together, and woe betide the iconoclast who should venture to tamper with it.

The Rectory itself was a picturesque old house with latticed windows and thatched roof; the climbing roses, which in summer clothed it in a garment of crimson and pink and white, now shrouded its walls with a network of brown stems and twigs tipped with emerald buds. Beneath the warmth of the morning sun the damp was steaming from the weather-stained thatch in a cloud of pearly mist, while the starlings, nesting under the overhanging eaves, broke into a harsh twittering of alarm at the sound of the Rectory footsteps.

Alan Stair was a big, loose-limbed son of Anak, with little of the conventional cleric in his appearance as he came striding across the dewy lawn, clad in a disreputable old suit of grey tweeds and with his bathing-towel slung around his shoulders. His hands were thrust deep into his pockets, and since he had characteristically omitted to provide himself with a hat, his abundant brown hair was rumpled and tossed by the wind, giving him an absurdly boyish air.

Arrived at the flagged path which ran the whole length of the house he sent up a Jovian shout, loud enough to arouse the most confirmed of sluggards from his slumbers, and one of the upper lattice windows flew open in response.

"That you, Dad?" called a fresh young voice.

"Sounds like it, doesn't it?" he laughed back. "Come down and give me my breakfast. There's a beautifully assorted smell of coffee and fried bacon wafting out from the dining room, and I can't bear it any longer."

An unfeeling giggle from above was the only answer, and the Reverend Alan made his way into the house, pausing to sling his bath-towel picturesquely over one of the pegs of the hat-stand as he passed through the hall.

He was incurably disorderly, and only the strenuous efforts of his daughter Joan kept the habit within bounds. Since the death of her mother, nearly ten years ago, she had striven to fill her place and to be to this lovable, grown-up boy who was her father all that his adored young wife had been. And so far as material matters were concerned, she had succeeded. She it was who usually found the MS. of his sermon when, just as the bells were calling to service, he would come leaping up the stairs, three at a time, to inform her tragically that it was lost; she who saw to it that his meals were not forgotten in the exigencies of his parish work, and who supervised his outward man to the last detail—otherwise, in one of his frequent fits of absent-mindedness, he would have been quite capable of presenting himself at church in the identical grey tweeds he was now wearing.

Yet notwithstanding the irrepressible note of youth about him, which called forth a species of "mothering" from every woman of his acquaintance, Alan Stair was a man to whom people instinctively turned for counsel. A child in the material things of this world, he was a giant in spiritual development—broad-minded and tolerant, his religion spiced with a sense of humour and deepened by a sympathetic understanding of frail human nature. And it was to him that Ralph Quentin, when on his death-bed, had confided the care of his motherless little daughter, Diana, appointing him her sole guardian and trustee.

The two men had been friends from boyhood, and perhaps no one had better understood than Ralph, who had earlier suffered a similar loss, the terrible blank which the death of his wife had occasioned in Stair's life. The fellowship of suffering had drawn the two men together in a way that nothing else could have done, so that when Quentin made known his final wishes concerning his daughter, Alan Stair had gladly accepted the charge laid upon him, and Diana, then a child of ten, had made her permanent home at Crailing Rectory, speedily coming to look upon her guardian as a beloved elder brother, and upon his daughter, who was but two years her senior, as her greatest friend.

From the point of view of the Stairs themselves, the arrangement was not without its material advantages. Diana had inherited three hundred a year of her own, and the sum she contributed to "cover the cost of her upkeep," as she laughingly termed it when she was old enough to understand financial matters, was a very welcome addition to the slender resources provided by the value of the living.

But even had the circumstances been quite other than they were, so that the fulfilment of Ralph Quentin's last behest, instead of being an assistance to the household exchequer, had proved to be a drain upon it, Alan Stair would have acted in precisely the same way—for the simple reason that there was never any limit to his large conception of the meaning of the word friendship and of its liabilities.

Diana had speedily carved for herself a niche of her own in the Rectory household, so that when the exigencies of her musical training, as viewed through Carlo Baroni's eyes, had necessitated her departure from Crailing for a whole year, Stair and his daughter had felt her absence keenly, and they welcomed her back with open arms.

The account of the railway accident which had attended her homeward journey had filled them with anxiety lest she should suffer from the effects of shock, and they had insisted that she should breakfast in bed this first morning of her arrival, inclining to treat her rather as though she were a semi-invalid.

"Have you been to see Diana?" asked Stair anxiously, as his daughter joined him in the dining-room.

She shook her head.

"No need. Diana's been in to see me! There's no breakfast in bed about her; she'll be down directly. Even her arm doesn't pain her much."

Stair laughed.

"What a girl it is!" he exclaimed. "One would have expected her to feel a bit shaken up after her experience yesterday."

"I fancy something else must have happened beside the railway accident," observed Joan wisely. "Something interesting enough to have outweighed the shock of the smash-up. She's in quite absurdly good spirits for some unknown reason."

The Rector chuckled.

"Perhaps a gallant rescuer was added to the experience, eh?" he said.

"Perhaps so," replied his daughter, faintly smiling as she proceeded to pour out the coffee.

Jean Stair was a typical English country girl, strictly tailor-made in her appearance, with a predisposition towards stiff linen collars and neat ties. In figure she was slight almost to boyishness and she had no pretensions whatever to good looks, but there was nevertheless something frank and wholesome and sweet about her—something of the charm of a nice boy—that counterbalanced her undeniable plainness. As she had once told Diana: "I'm not beautiful, so I'm obliged to be good. You're not compelled, by the same necessity, and I may yet see you sliding down the primrose path, whereas I shall inevitably end my days in the odour of sanctity—probably a parish worker to some celibate vicar!"

The Rector and Joan were half-way through their breakfast when a light step sounded in the hall outside, and a minute later the door flew open to admit Diana.

"Good morning, dear people," she exclaimed gaily. "Am I late? It looks like it from the devastated appearance of the bacon dish. Pobs, you've eaten all the breakfast!" And, she dropped, a light kiss on the top of the Rector's head. "Ugh! Your hair's all wet with sea-water. Why don't you dry yourself when you take a bath, Pobs dear? I'll come with you to-morrow—not to dry you, I mean, but just to bathe."

Stair surveyed her with a twinkle as he retrieved her plate of kidneys and bacon from the hearth where it had been set down to keep hot.

"Diana, I regret to observe that your conversation lacks the flavour of respectability demanded by your present circumstances," he remarked. "I fear you'll never be an ornament to any clerical household."

"No. Pas mon metier. Respectability isn't in the least a sine qua non for a prima donna—far from it!"

Stair chuckled.

"To hear you talk, no one would imagine that in reality you were the most conventional of prudes," he flung at her.

"Oh, but I'm growing out of it," she returned hopefully. "Yesterday, for instance, I palled up with a perfectly strange young man. We conversed together as though we had known each other all our lives, shared the same table for dinner—"

"You didn't?" broke in Joan, a trifle shocked.

Diana nodded serenely.

"Indeed I did. And what was the reward of my misdeeds? Why, there he was at hand to save me when the smash came!"

"Who was he?" asked Joan curiously. "Any one from this part of the world?"

"I haven't the faintest idea," replied Diana. "I actually never inquired to whom I was indebted for my life and the various other trifles which he rescued for me from the wreck of our compartment. The only clue I have is the handkerchief he bound round my arm. It's very bluggy and it's marked M.E."

"M.E.," repeated the Rector. "Well, there must be plenty of M.E.'s in the world. Did he get out at Craiford?"

"He didn't," said Diana. "No; at present he is 'wropt in mist'ry,' but I feel sure we shall run up against each other again. I told him so."

"Did you, indeed?" Stair laughed. "And was he pleased at the prospect?"

"Well, frankly, Pobs, I can't say he seemed enraptured. On the contrary, he appeared to regard it in the light of a highly improbable and quite undesirable contingency."

"He must be lacking in appreciation," murmured Stair mockingly, pinching her cheek as he passed her on his way to select a pipe from the array that adorned the chimney-piece.

"Are you going 'parishing' this morning?" inquired Diana, as she watched him fill and light his pipe.

"Yes, I promised to visit Susan Gurney—she's laid up with rheumatism, poor old soul."

"Then I'll drive you, shall I? I suppose you've still got Tommy and the ralli-cart?"

"Yes," replied Stair gravely. "Notwithstanding diminishing tithes and increasing taxes, Tommy is still left to us. Apparently he thrives on a penurious diet, for he is fatter than ever."

Accordingly, half an hour later, the two set out behind the fat pony on a round of parochial visits. Underneath the seat of the trap reposed the numerous little packages of tea and tobacco with which the Rector, whose hand was always in his pocket, rarely omitted to season his visits to the sick among his parishioners.

"And why not?" he would say, when charged with pampering them by some starchy member of his congregation who considered that parochial visitation should be embellished solely by the delivery of appropriate tracts. "And why not pamper them a bit, poor souls? A pipe of baccy goes a long way towards taking your thoughts off a bad leg—as I found out for myself when I was laid up with an attack of the gout my maternal grandfather bequeathed me."

Whilst the Rector paid his visits, Diana waited outside the various cottages, driving the pony-trap slowly up and down the road, and stopping every now and again to exchange a few words with one or another of the village folk as they passed.

She was frankly delighted to be home again, and was experiencing that peculiar charm of the Devonshire village which lies in the fact that you may go away from it for several years and return to find it almost unchanged. In the wilds of Devon affairs move leisurely, and such changes as do occur creep in so gradually as to be almost imperceptible. No brand-new houses start into existence with lightning-like rapidity, for the all-sufficient reason that in such sparsely populated districts the enterprising builder would stand an excellent chance of having his attractive villa residences left empty on his hands. No; new houses are built to order, if at all. In the same way, it is rare to find a fresh shop spring into being in a small village, and should it happen, in all probability a year or two will see the shutters up and the disgruntled proprietor departing in search of pastures new. For the villagers who have always dealt with the local butcher, baker, and grocer, and whose fathers have probably dealt with their fathers before them, are not easily to be cajoled into transferring their custom—and certainly not to the establishment of any one who has had the misfortune to be born outside the confines of the county, and is therefore to be briefly summed up in the one damning word "vurriner." [1]

So that Diana, returning to Crailing for a brief holiday after a year's absence, found the tiny fishing village quite unchanged, and this fact imparted an air almost of unreality to the twelve busy, eventful months which had intervened. She felt as if she had never been away, as though the Diana Quentin who had been living in London and studying singing under the greatest master of the day were some one quite apart from the girl who had passed so many quiet, happy years at Crailing Rectory.

The new and unaccustomed student's life, the two golden visits which she had paid to Italy, the introduction into a milieu of clever, gifted people all struggling to make the most of their talents, had been such an immense change from the placid, humdrum existence which had preceded it, that it still held for her an almost dreamlike charm of novelty, and this was intensified at the present moment by her return to Crailing to find everything going on just in the same old way, precisely as though there had been no break at all.

As though to convince herself that the student life in London was a substantial reality, and not a mere figment of the imagination, she hummed a few bars of a song, and as she listened to the deep, rich notes of her voice, poised with that sureness which only comes of first-class training, she smiled a little, reflecting that if nothing else had changed, here at least was a palpable outcome of that dreamlike year.

"Bravo!" The Rector's cheery tones broke in upon her thoughts as he came out from a neighbouring gateway and swung himself up into the trap beside her. "Di, I've got to hear that voice before long. What does Signor Baroni say about it?"

"Oh, I think he's quite pleased," she answered, whipping up the fat pony, who responded reluctantly. "But he's a fearful martinet. He nearly frightens me to death when he gets into one of his royal Italian rages—though he's always particularly sweet afterwards! Pobs, I wonder who my man in the train was?" she added inconsequently.

The Rector looked at her narrowly. He had wondered more than a little why the shock of the railway accident had apparently affected her so slightly, and although he had joked with Joan about some possible "gallant rescuer" who might have diverted her thoughts he had really attributed it partly to the youthful resiliency of Diana's nature, and partly to the fact that when one has narrowly escaped a serious injury, or death itself, the sense of relief is so intense as frequently to overpower for the moment every other feeling.

But now he was thrown back on the gallant rescuer theory; obviously the man, whoever he was, had impressed himself rather forcibly on Diana's mind, and the Rector acknowledged that this was almost inevitable from the circumstances in which they had been thrown together.

"You know," continued the girl, "I'm certain I've seen him before—the day I first went to Baroni to have my voice tested. It was in Grellingham Place, and all my songs blew away up the street, and I'm positive M.E. was the man who rescued them for me."

"Rescuing seems to be his hobby," commented the Rector dryly. "Did you remind him that you had met before?"

"Yes, and he wouldn't recollect it."

"Wouldn't?"

"No, wouldn't. I have a distinct feeling that he did remember all about it, and did recognise me again, but he wouldn't acknowledge it and politely assured me I must be mistaken."

The Rector smiled.

"Perhaps he has a prejudice against making the promiscuous acquaintance of beautiful young women in trains."

Diana sniffed.

"Oh, well, if he didn't think I was good enough to know—" She paused. "He had rather a superior way with him, a sort of independent, lordly manner, as though no one had a right to question anything he chose to do. And he was in a first-class reserved compartment too."

"Oh, was he? And did you force your way into his reserved compartment, may I ask?"

Diana giggled.

"I didn't force my way into it; I was pitchforked in by a porter. The train was packed, and I was late. Of course I offered to go and find another seat, but there wasn't one anywhere."

"So the young man yielded to force majeure and allowed you to travel with him?" said the Rector, adding seriously: "I'm very thankful he did. To think of you—alone—in that awful smash! . . . This morning's paper says there were forty people killed."

Diana gave a little nervous shiver, and then quite suddenly began to cry.

Stair quietly took the reins from her hand, and patted her shoulder, but he made no effort to check her tears. He had felt worried all morning by her curious detachment concerning the accident; it was unnatural, and he feared that later on the shock which she must have received might reveal itself in some abnormal nervousness regarding railway travelling. These tears would bring relief, and he welcomed them, allowing her to cry, comfortably leaning against his shoulder, as the pony meandered up the hilly lane which led to the Rectory.

At the gates they both descended from the trap, and Stair was preparing to lead the pony into the stable-yard when Diana suddenly flung her arms round him, kissing him impulsively.

"Oh, Pobs, dear," she said half-laughing, half-crying. "You're such a darling—you always understand everything. I feel heaps better now, thank you."

[1] Anglice: foreigner.



CHAPTER V

THE SECOND MEETING

Diana threw hack the bedclothes and thrust an extremely pretty but reluctant foot over the edge of the bed. She did not experience in the least that sensation of exhilaration with which the idea of getting up invariably seems to inspire the heroine of a novel, prompting her to spring lightly from her couch and trip across to the window to see what sort of weather the author has provided. On the contrary, she was sorely tempted to snuggle down again amongst the pillows, but the knowledge that it wanted only half an hour to breakfast-time exercised a deterrent influence and she made her way with all haste to the bath-room, somewhat shamefully pleased to reflect that, being Easter Sunday, Pobs would be officiating at the early service, so that she would escape the long trudge down to the sea with him for their usual morning swim.

By the time she had bathed and dressed, however, she felt better able to face the day with a cheerful spirit, and the sun, streaming in through the diamond panes of her window, added a last vivifying touch and finally sent her downstairs on the best of terms with herself and the world at large.

There was no one about, as Joan had accompanied her father to church, so Diana sauntered out on to the flagged path and paced idly up and down, waiting for their return. The square, grey tower of the church, hardly more than a stone's throw distant from the Rectory, was visible through a gap in the trees where a short cut, known as the "church path" wound its way through the copse that hedged the garden. It was an ancient little church, boasting a very beautiful thirteenth century window, which, in a Philistine past, had been built up and rough-cast outside, and had only been discovered in the course of some repairs that were being made to one of the walls. The inhabitants of Crailing were very proud of that thirteenth century window when it was disinterred; they had a proprietary feeling about it—since, after all, it had really belonged to them for a little matter of seven centuries or so, although they had been unaware of the fact.

Below the slope of the Rectory grounds the thatched roofs of the village bobbed into view, some gleaming golden in all the pride of recent thatching, others with their crown of straw mellowed by sun and rain to a deeper colour and patched with clumps of moss, vividly green as an emerald.

The village itself straggled down to the edge of the sea in untidy fashion, its cob-walled cottages in some places huddling together as though for company, in others standing far apart, with spaces of waste land between them where you might often see the women sitting mending the fishing nets and gossiping together as they worked.

Diana's eyes wandered affectionately over the picturesque little houses; she loved every quaint, thatched roof among them, but more than all she loved the glimpse of the sea that lay beyond them, pierced by the bold headland of red sandstone, Culver Point, which thrust itself into the blue of the water like an arm stretched out to shelter the little village nestling in its curve from the storms of the Atlantic.

Presently she heard the distant click of a gate, and very soon the Rector and Joan appeared, Stair with the dreaming, far-away expression in his eyes of one who has been communing with the saints.

Diana went to meet them and slipped her arm confidingly through his.

"Come back to earth, Pobs, dear," she coaxed gaily. "You look like Moses might have done when he descended from the Mount."

The glory faded slowly out of his eyes.

"Come back to heaven, Di," he retorted a little sadly, "That's where you came from, you know."

Diana shook her head.

"You did, I verily believe," she declared affectionately. "But there's only a very small slice of heaven in my composition, I'm afraid."

Stair looked down at her thoughtfully, at the clean line of the cheek curving into the pointed, determined little chin, at the sensitive, eager mouth, unconsciously sensuous in the lovely curve of its short upper-lip, at the ardent, glowing eyes—the whole face vital with the passionate demand of youth for the kingdoms of the earth.

"We've all got our share of heaven, my dear," he said at last, smiling a little. "But I'm thinking yours may need some hard chiselling of fate to bring it into prominence."

Diana wriggled her shoulders.

"It doesn't sound nice, Pobs. I don't in the least want to be chiselled into shape, it reminds one too much of the dentist."

"The gentleman who chisels out decay? You're exactly carrying out my metaphor to its bitter end," returned Stair composedly.

"Oh, Joan, do stop him," exclaimed Diana appealingly. "I'm going to church this morning, and if he lectures me like this I shall have no appetite left for spiritual things."

"I didn't know you ever had—much," replied Joan, laughing.

"Well, anyway, I've a thoroughly healthy appetite for my breakfast," said Diana, as they went into the dining-room. "I'm feeling particularly cheerful just this moment. I have a presentiment that something very delightful is going to happen to me to-day—though, to be sure, Sunday isn't usually a day when exciting things occur."

"Dreams generally go by contraries," observed Joan sagely. "And I rather think the same applies to presentiments. I know that whenever I have felt a comfortable assurance that everything was going smoothly, it has generally been followed by one of the servants giving notice, or the bursting of the kitchen boiler, or something equally disagreeable."

Diana gurgled unfeelingly.

"Oh, those are merely the commonplaces of existence," she replied. "I was meaning"—waving her hand expansively—"big things."

"And when you've got your own house, my dear," retorted Joan, "you'll find those commonplaces of existence assume alarmingly big proportions."

Soon after Stair had finished his after-breakfast pipe, the chiming of the bells announced that it was time to prepare for church. The Rectory pew was situated close to the pulpit, at right angles to the body of the church, and Diana and Joan took their places one at either end of it. As the former was wont to remark: "It's such a comfort when there's no competition for the corner seats."

The organ had ceased playing, and the words "Dearly beloved" had already fallen from the Rector's lips, when the churchdoor opened once again to admit some late arrivals. Instinctively Diana looked up from her prayer-book, and, as her glance fell upon the newcomers, the pupils of her eyes dilated until they looked almost black, while a wave of colour rushed over her face, dyeing it scarlet from brow to throat.

Two ladies were coming up the aisle, the one bordering on middle age, the other young and of uncommon beauty, but it was upon neither of these that Diana's startled eyes were fixed. Behind them, and evidently of their party, came a tall, fair man whose supple length of limb and very blue eyes sent a little thrill of recognition through her veins.

It was her fellow-traveller of that memorable journey down from town!

She closed her eyes a moment. Once again she could hear the horrifying crash as the engine hurled itself against the track that blocked the metals, feel the swift pall of darkness close about her, rife with a thousand terrors, and then, out of that hideous night, the grip of strong arms folded round her, and a voice, harsh with fear, beating against her ears:

"Are you hurt? . . . My God, are you hurt?"

When she opened her eyes again, the little party of three had taken their places and were composedly following the service. Apparently he had not seen her, and Diana shrank a little closer into the friendly shadow of the pulpit, feeling for the moment an odd, nervous fear of encountering his eyes.

But she soon realised that she need not have been alarmed. He was evidently quite unaware of her proximity, for his glance never once strayed in her direction, and, gradually gaining courage as she appreciated this, Diana ventured to let her eyes turn frequently during the service towards the pew where the newcomers were sitting.

That they were strangers to the neighbourhood she was sure; she had certainly never seen either of the two women before. The elder of the two was a plump, round-faced little lady, with bright brown eyes, and pretty, crinkly brown hair lightly powdered with grey. She was very fashionably dressed, and the careful detail of her toilet pointed to no lack of means. The younger woman, too, was exquisitely turned out, but there was something so individual about her personality that it dominated everything else, relegating her clothes to a very secondary position. As in the case of an unusually beautiful gem, it was the jewel itself which impressed one, rather than the setting which framed it round.

She was very fair, with quantities of pale golden hair rather elaborately dressed, and her eyes were blue—not the keen, brilliant blue of those of the man beside her, but a soft blue-grey, like the sky on a misty summer's morning.

Her small, exquisite features were clean-cut as a cameo, and she carried herself with a little touch of hauteur—an air of aloofness, as it were. There was nothing ungracious about it, but it was unmistakably there—a slightly emphasised hint of personal dignity.

Diana regarded her with some perplexity; the girl's face was vaguely familiar to her, yet at the same time she felt perfectly certain that she had never seen her before. She wondered whether she were any relation to the man with her, but there was no particular resemblance between the two, except that both were fair and bore themselves with a certain subtle air of distinction that rather singled them out from amongst their fellows.

In repose, Diana noticed, the man's face was grave almost to sternness, and there was a slightly worn look about it as of one who had passed through some fiery discipline of experience and had forced himself to meet its demands. The lines around the mouth, and the firm closing of the lips, held a suggestion of suffering, but there was no rebellion in the face, rather a look of inflexible endurance.

Diana wondered what lay behind that curiously controlled expression, and the memory of certain words he had let fall during their journey together suddenly recurred to her with a new significance attached to them. . . . "Just as though we had any too many pleasures in life!" he had said. And again: "Oh, for that! If we could have what we wanted in this world! . . ."

Uttered in his light, half-bantering tones, the bitter flavour of the words had passed her by, but now, as she studied the rather stern set of his features, they returned to her with fresh meaning and she felt that their mocking philosophy was to a certain extent indicative of the man's attitude towards life.

So absorbed was she in her thoughts that the stir and rustle of the congregation issuing from their seats at the conclusion of the service came upon her in the light of a surprise; she had not realised that the service—in which she had been taking a reprehensible perfunctory part—had drawn to its close, and she almost jumped when Joan nudged her unobtrusively and whispered:—

"Come along. I believe you're half asleep."

She shook her head, smiling, and gathering up her gloves and prayer-book, she followed Joan down the aisle and out into the churchyard where people were standing about in little groups, exchanging the time of day with that air of a renewal of interest in worldly topics which synchronises with the end of Lent.

The Rector had not yet appeared, and as Joan was chatting with Mrs. Mowbray, the local doctor's wife, Diana, who had an intense dislike for Mrs. Mowbray and all her works—there were six of the latter, ranging from a lanky girl of twelve to a fat baby still in the perambulator stage—made her way out of the churchyard and stood waiting by the beautiful old lichgate, which, equally with the thirteenth century window, was a source of pride and satisfaction to the good folk of Crailing.

A big limousine had pulled up beside the footpath, and an immaculate footman was standing by its open door, rug in hand. Diana wondered idly whose car it could be, and it occurred to her that very probably it belonged to the strangers who had attended the service that morning.

A minute later her assumption was confirmed, as the middle-aged lady, followed by the young, pretty one, came quickly through the lichgate and entered the car. The footman hesitated, still holding the door open, and the elder lady leaned forward to say:—

"It's all right, Baker. Mr. Errington is walking back."

Errington! So that was his name—that was what the E. on the handkerchief stood for! Diana thought she could hazard a reasonable guess as to why he had elected to walk home. He must have caught sight of her in church, after all, and it was but natural that, after the experience they had passed through together, he should wish to renew his acquaintance with her. When two people have been as near to death in company as they had been, it can hardly be expected that they will regard each other in the light of total strangers should they chance to meet again.

Hidden from his sight by an intervening yew tree, she watched him coming down the church path, conscious of a somewhat pleasurable sense of anticipation, and when he had passed under the lichgate and, turning to the left, came face to face with her, she bowed and smiled, holding out her hand.

To her utter amazement he looked at her without the faintest sign of recognition on his face, pausing only for the fraction of a second as a man may when some stranger claims his acquaintance by mistake; then with a murmured "Pardon!" he raised his hat slightly and passed on.

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