THE TOP OF THE WORLD
Ethel M. Dell
Author of "The Way of an Eagle," "The Lamp in the Desert."
I DEDICATE THIS BOOK
TO THE PRECIOUS MEMORY
OF MY MOTHER
"The years shall not outgo my thinking of thee"
When you have reached the top of the world And only the stars remain, Where there is never the sound of storm And neither cold nor rain, Will it be by wealth, success, or fame That you mounted to your goal? Nay, I mount only by faith and love And God's goodness to my soul.
When you have reached the top of the world And the higher stars grow near, When greater dreams succeed our dreams And the lesser disappear, Will the world at your feet seem good to you, A vision fair to see? Nay, I look upward for one I love Who has promised to wait for me.
For to those who reach the top of the world The things of the world seem less Than the rungs of the ladder by which they climbed To their place of happiness, And I think that success and wealth and fame Will be the first to pall, For they reach their goal but by faith and love And God's goodness over all.
I.—ADVICE II.—THE NEW MISTRESS III.—THE WHIP-HAND IV.—THE VICTORY V.—THE MIRACLE VI.—THE LAND OF STRANGERS VII.—THE WRONG TURNING VIII.—THE COMRADE IX.—THE ARRIVAL X.—THE DREAM XI.—THE CROSS-ROADS XII.—THE STAKE
I.—COMRADES II.—THE VISITORS III.—THE BARGAIN IV.—THE CAPTURE V.—THE GOOD CAUSE VI.—THE RETURN VII.—THE GUEST VIII.—THE INTERRUPTION IX.—THE ABYSS X.—THE DESIRE TO LIVE XI.—THE REMEDY
I.—THE NEW ERA II.—INTO BATTLE III.—THE SEED IV.—MIRAGE V.—EVERYBODY'S FRIEND VI.—THE HERO VII.—THE NET VIII.—THE SUMMONS IX.—FOR THE SAKE OF THE OLD LOVE X.—THE BEARER OF EVIL TIDINGS XI.—THE SHARP CORNER XII.—THE COST
I.—SAND OF THE DESERT II.—THE SKELETON TREE III.—THE PUNISHMENT IV.—THE EVIL THING V.—THE LAND OF BLASTED HOPES VI.—THE PARTING VII.—PIET VREIBOOM VIII.—OUT OF THE DEPTHS IX.—THE MEETING X.—THE TRUTH XI.—THE STORM XII.—THE SACRIFICE XIII.—BY FAITH AND LOVE
The Top of the World
"You ought to get married, Miss Sylvia," said old Jeffcott, the head gardener, with a wag of his hoary beard. "You'll need to be your own mistress now."
"I should hope I am that anyway," said, Sylvia with a little laugh.
She stood in the great vinery—a vivid picture against a background of clustering purple fruit. The sunset glinted on her tawny hair. Her red-brown eyes, set wide apart, held a curious look, half indignant, half appealing.
Old Jeffcott surveyed her with loving admiration. There was no one in the world to compare with Miss Sylvia in his opinion. He loved the open English courage of her, the high, inborn pride of race. Yet at the end of the survey he shook his head.
"There's not room for two mistresses in this establishment, Miss Sylvia," he said wisely. "Three years to have been on your own, so to speak, is too long. You did ought to get married, Miss Sylvia. You'll find it's the only way."
His voice took on almost a pleading note. He knew it was possible to go too far.
But the girl facing him was still laughing. She evidently felt no resentment.
"You see, Jeffcott," she said, "there's only one man in the world I could marry. And he's not ready for me yet."
Jeffcott wagged his beard again commiseratingly. "So you've never got over it, Miss Sylvia? Your feelings is still the same—after five years?"
"Still the same," said Sylvia. There was a momentary challenge in her bright eyes, but it passed. "It couldn't be any different," she said softly. "No one else could ever come anywhere near him."
Jeffcott sighed aloud. "I know he were a nice young gentleman," he conceded. "But I've seen lots as good before and since. He weren't nothing so very extraordinary, Miss Sylvia."
Sylvia's look went beyond him, seeming to rest upon something very far away. "He was to me, Jeffcott," she said. "We just—fitted each other, he and I."
"And you was only eighteen," pleaded Jeffcott, "You wasn't full-grown in those days."
"No?" A quick sigh escaped her; her look came back to him, and she smiled. "Well, I am now anyway; and that's the one thing that hasn't altered or grown old—the one thing that never could."
"Ah, dear!" said old Jeffcott. "What a pity now as you couldn't take up with young Mr. Eversley or that Mr. Preston over the way, or—or—any of them young gents with a bit of property as might be judged suitable!"
Sylvia's laugh rang through the vinery, a gay, infectious laugh.
"Oh, really, Jeffcott! You talk as if I had only got to drop my handkerchief for the whole countryside to rush to pick it up! I'm not going to take up with anyone, unless it's Mr. Guy Ranger. You don't seem to realize that we've been engaged all this time."
"Ah!" said old Jeffcott, looking sardonic. "And you not met for five years! Do you ever wonder to yourself what sort of a man he may be after five years, Miss Sylvia? It's a long time for a young man to keep in love at a distance. It's a very long time."
"It's a long time for both of us," said Sylvia. "But it hasn't altered us in that respect."
"It's been a longer time for him than it has for you," said Jeffcott shrewdly. "I'll warrant he's lived every minute of it. He's the sort that would."
Sylvia's wide brows drew together in a little frown. She had caught the note of warning in the old man's words, and she did not understand it.
"What do you mean, Jeffcott?" she said, with a touch of sharpness.
But Jeffcott backed out of the vinery and out of the discussion at the same moment. "You'll know what I mean one day, Miss Sylvia," he said darkly, "when you're married."
"Silly old man!" said Sylvia, taking up the cluster of grapes for which she had come and departing in the opposite direction. Jeffcott was a faithful old servant, but he could be very exasperating when he liked.
The gardens were bathed in the evening sunlight as she passed through them on her way to the house. The old Manor stood out grey and ancient against an opal sky. She looked up at it with loving eyes. Her home meant very much to Sylvia Ingleton. Until the last six months she had always regarded it as her own life-long possession. For she was an only child, and for the past three years she had been its actual mistress, though virtually she had held the reins of government longer than that. Her mother had been delicate for as long as she could remember, and it was on account of her failing health that Sylvia had left school earlier than had been intended, that she might be with her. Since Mrs. Ingleton's death, three years before, she and her father had lived alone together at the old Manor in complete accord. They had always been close friends, the only dissension that had ever arisen between them having been laid aside by mutual consent.
That dissension had been caused by Guy Ranger. Five years before, when Sylvia had been only eighteen, he had flashed like a meteor through her sky, and no other star had ever shone for her again. Though seven years older than herself, he was little more than a boy, full of gaiety and life, possessing an extraordinary fascination, but wholly lacking in prospects, being no more than the son of Squire Ingleton's bailiff.
The Rangers were people of good yeoman extraction, and Guy himself had had a public school education, but the fact of their position was an obstacle which the squire had found insuperable. Only his love for his daughter had restrained him from violent measures. But Sylvia had somehow managed to hold him, how no one ever knew, for he was a man of fiery temper. And the end of if it had been that Guy had been banished to join a cousin farming in South Africa on the understanding that if he made a success of it he might eventually return and ask Sylvia to be his wife. There was to be no engagement between them, and if she elected to marry in the meantime so much the better, in the squire's opinion. He had had little doubt that Sylvia would marry when she had had time to forget some of the poignancy of first love. But in this he had been mistaken. Sylvia had steadfastly refused every lover who had come her way.
He had found another billet for old Ranger, and had installed a dour Scotchman in his place. But Sylvia still corresponded with young Guy, still spoke of him as the man she meant to marry. It was true she did not often speak of him, but that might have been through lack of sympathetic listeners. There was, moreover, about her an innate reserve which held her back where her deepest feelings were concerned. But her father knew, and she meant him to know, that neither time nor distance had eradicated the image of the man she loved from her heart. The days on which his letters reached her were always marked with a secret gladness, albeit the letters themselves held sometimes little more than affectionate commentary upon her own.
That Guy was making his way and that he would eventually return to her were practical certainties in her young mind. If his letters contained little to support this belief, she yet never questioned it for a moment. Guy was the sort to get on. She was sure of it. And he was worth waiting for. Oh, she could afford to be patient for Guy. She did not, moreover, believe that her father would hold out for ever. Also, and secretly this thought buoyed her up in rare moments of depression, in another two years—when she was twenty-five—she would inherit some money from her mother. It was not a very large sum, but it would be enough to render her independent. It would very greatly increase her liberty of action. She had little doubt that the very fact of it would help to overcome her father's prejudices and very considerably modify his attitude.
So, in a fashion, she had during the past three years come to regard her twenty-fifth birthday as a milestone in her life. She would be patient till it came, but then—at last—if circumstances permitted, she would take her fate into her own hands, She would—at last—assume the direction of her own life.
So she had planned, but so it was not to be. Her fate had already begun to shape itself in a fashion that was little to her liking. Travelling with her father in the North earlier in the summer, she had met with a slight accident which had compelled her to make the acquaintance of a lady staying at the same hotel whom she had disliked at the outset and always sought to avoid. This lady, Mrs. Emmott, was a widow with no settled home. Profiting by circumstances she had attached herself to Sylvia and her father, and now she was the latter's wife.
How it had come about, even now Sylvia scarcely realized. The woman's intentions had barely begun to dawn upon her before they had become accomplished fact. Her father's attitude throughout had amazed her, so astoundingly easy had been his capture. He was infatuated, possibly for the first time in his life, and no influence of hers could remove the spell.
Sylvia's feelings for Mrs. Emmott passed very rapidly from dislike to active detestation. Her iron strength of will, combined with an almost blatant vulgarity, gave the girl a sense of being borne down by an irresistible weight. Very soon her aversion became such that it was impossible to conceal it. And Mrs. Emmott laughed in her face. She hated Sylvia too, but she looked forward to subduing the unbending pride that so coldly withstood her, and for the sake of that she kept her animosity in check. She knew her turn would come.
Meantime, she concentrated all her energies upon the father, and with such marked success that within two months of their meeting they were married. Sylvia had gone to that wedding in such bitterness of soul and seething inward revolt as she had never experienced before. She did not know how she had come through it, so great had been her disgust. But that was nearly six weeks ago, and she had had time to recover. She had spent part of that period very peacefully and happily at the seaside with a young married cousin and her babies, and it had rested and refreshed her. She had come back with a calm resolve to endure what had to be endured in a philosophical spirit, to face the inevitable without futile rebellion.
Girt in an impenetrable armour of reserve, she braced herself to bear her burdens unflinching, so that none might ever guess how it galled her. And on that golden evening in September she prepared herself with a smiling countenance to meet her enemy in the gate.
They were returning from a prolonged honeymoon among the Italian lakes, and she had made everything ready for their coming. The great west-facing bedroom, which her father had never occupied since her mother's death, had been redecorated and prepared as for a bride. Sylvia had changed it completely, so that it might never again look as it had looked in the old days. She had hated doing it, but it had been in a measure a relief to her torn heart. It was thus she rendered inviolate that inner sanctuary of memory which none might enter.
As she passed along the terrace in the golden glow, the slight frown was still upon her brow. It had been such a difficult time. Her one ray of comfort had been the thought of Guy, dear, faithful lover working for her far away. And now old Jeffcott had cast a shade even upon that. But then he did not really know Guy. No one knew him as she knew him. She quickened her steps a little. Possibly there might be a letter from him that evening.
There was. She spied it lying on the hall table as she entered. Eagerly she went forward and picked it up. But as she did so there came the sound of a car in the drive before the open front door, and quickly she thrust it away in the folds of her dress. The travellers had returned.
With a resolutely smiling face she went to meet them.
THE NEW MISTRESS
"Here is our dear Sylvia!" said Mrs. Ingleton.
She embraced the girl with much empressement, and then, before Sylvia could reach her father, turned and embraced him herself.
"So very nice to be home, dear!" she said effusively. "We shall be very happy here."
Gilbert Ingleton bestowed a somewhat embarrassed salute upon her, one eye on his daughter. She greeted him sedately the next moment, and though her face was smiling, her welcome seemed to be frozen at its source; it held no warmth.
Mrs. Ingleton, tall, handsome, assertive, cast an appraising eye around the oak-panelled hall. "Dear me! What severe splendour!" she commented. "I have a great love for cosiness myself. We must scatter some of those sweet little Italian ornaments about, Gilbert. You won't know the place when I have done with it. I am going to take you all in hand and bring you up-to-date."
Her keen dark eyes rested upon her step-daughter with a smile of peculiar meaning. Sylvia met them with the utmost directness.
"We like simplicity," she said.
Mrs. Ingleton pursed her lips, "Oh, but there is simplicity and simplicity! Give me warmth, homeliness, and plenty of pretty things. This place is archaically cold—quite like a convent. And you, my dear, might be the Sister Superior from your air. Now, Gilbert darling, you and I are going to be very firm with this child. I can plainly see she needs a guiding hand. She has had much too much responsibility for so young a girl. We are going to alter all that. We are going to make her very happy—as well as good."
She tapped Sylvia's shoulder with smiling significance, looking at her husband to set his seal to the declaration.
Mr. Ingleton was obviously feeling very uncomfortable. He glanced at Sylvia almost appealingly.
"I hope we are all going to be happy," he said rather gruffly. "Don't see why we shouldn't be, I'm sure. I like a quiet life myself. Got some tea for us, Sylvia?"
Sylvia turned, stiffly unresponsive to her step-mother's blandishments. "This way," she said, and crossed the hall to the drawing-room.
It was a beautiful room aglow just then with the rays of the western sun. Mrs. Ingleton looked all around her with smiling criticism, and nodded to herself as if seeing her way to many improvements. She walked to the windows.
"What a funny, old-fashioned garden! Quite medieval! I foresee a very busy time in store. Who lives on the other side of this property?"
"Preston—George Preston, the M.F.H.," said her husband, lounging up behind her. "About the richest man about here. Made his money on the Turf."
She gave him a quick look. "Is he young?" she asked.
He hesitated, "Not very."
"Married?" questioned Mrs. Ingleton, with the air of a ferret pursuing its quarry down a hole.
"No," said the squire, somewhat reluctantly.
"Ah!" said Mrs. Ingleton, in a tone of satisfaction.
"Won't you have some tea?" said Sylvia's grave voice behind them.
Mrs. Ingleton wheeled. "Bless the child!" she exclaimed. "She has a face as long as a fiddle. Let us have tea by all means. I am as hungry as a hunter. I hope there is something really substantial for us."
"It is less than an hour to dinner," said Sylvia.
She hardly looked at her father. Somehow she had a feeling that he did not want to meet her eyes.
He sat in almost unbroken silence while she poured out the tea, "for the last time, dear," as her step-mother jocosely remarked, and for his sake alone she exerted herself to make polite conversation with this new mistress of the Manor.
It was not easy, for Mrs. Ingleton did not want to talk upon indifferent subjects. Her whole attitude was one of unconcealed triumph. It was obvious that she meant to enjoy her conquest to the utmost. She was not in the least tired after her journey; she was one of those people who never tire. And as soon as she had refreshed herself with tea she announced her intention of going round the house.
Her husband, however, intervened upon this point, assuring her that there would be ample time in the morning, and Mrs. Ingleton yielded it not very gracefully.
She was placed at the head of the table at dinner, but she could not accept the position without comment.
"Poor little Sylvia! We shall have to make up for this, or I shall never be forgiven," with an arch look at the squire which completely missed its mark.
There were no subtleties about Gilbert Ingleton. He was thoroughly uncomfortable, and his manner proclaimed the fact aloud. If he were happy with his enchantress away from home, the home atmosphere completely dispelled all enchantment. Was it the fault of the slim, erect girl with the red-brown eyes who sat so gravely silent on his right hand?
He could not in justice accuse her, and yet the strong sense of her disapproval irritated him. What right had she, his daughter, to sit in judgment upon him? Surely he was entitled to act for himself—choose his own course—make his own hell if he wished! It was all quite unanswerable. He knew she would not have attempted to answer if he had put it to her, but that very fact made him the more sore. He hated to feel himself at variance with Sylvia.
"Can't you play something?" he said to her in desperation as they entered the drawing-room after dinner.
She looked at bun, her wide brows slightly raised.
"Well?" he questioned impatiently.
"Ask—Mrs. Ingleton first!" she said in a rapid whisper.
Mrs. Ingleton caught it, however. She had the keen senses of a lynx. "Now, Sylvia, my child, come here!" she commanded playfully. "I can't have you calling me that, you know. If we are going to live together, we must have absolutely clear understanding between us on all points. Don't you agree with me, Gilbert?"
Ingleton growled something unintelligible, and made for the open window.
"Don't go!" said his wife with a touch of peremptoriness. "I want you here. Tell this dear child that as I have determined to be a mother to her she is to address me as such!"
Ingleton barely paused. "You must settle that between yourselves," he said gruffly. "And for heaven's sake, don't fight over it!"
He passed heavily forth, and Sylvia, after a very brief hesitation, sat down in a chair facing her step-mother.
"I am sorry," she said quietly. "But I can't call you Mother. Anything else you like to suggest, but not that."
Mrs. Ingleton uttered an unpleasant laugh. "I hope you are going to try and be sensible, my dear," she said, "for I assure you high-flown sentiment does not appeal to me in the very least. As head of your father's house, I must insist upon being treated with due respect. Let me warn you at the outset, though quite willing to befriend you, I am not a very patient woman. I am not prepared to put up with any slights."
Her voice lifted gradually as she proceeded till she ended upon a note that was almost shrill.
Sylvia sat very still. Her hands were clasped tightly about her knee. Her face was pale, and the red-brown eyes glittered a little, but she betrayed no other signs of emotion,
"I quite understand," she said after a moment. "But that doesn't solve the present difficulty, does it? I cannot possibly call you by a name that is sacred to someone else."
She spoke very quietly, but there was indomitable resolution in her very calm—a resolution that exasperated Mrs. Ingleton almost beyond endurance.
She arose with a sweeping gesture. "Oh, very well then," she said. "You shall call me Madam!"
Sylvia looked up at her. "I think that is quite a good idea," she said in a tone that somehow stung her hearer, unbearably. "I will do that."
"And don't be impertinent!" she said, beginning to pace to and fro like an angry tigress. "I will not put up with it, Sylvia. I warn you. You have been thoroughly spoilt all your life. I know the signs quite well. And you have come to think that you can do anything you like. But that is not so any longer. I am mistress here, and I mean to maintain my position. Any hint of rebellion from you or anyone else I shall punish with the utmost severity. So now you understand."
"I do indeed," said Sylvia.
She had not stirred from her chair, but sat watching her step-mother's agitated pacing with grim attention. It was her first acquaintance with the most violent temper she had ever encountered in a woman, and it interested her. She was no longer conscious of being angry herself. The whole affair had become a sort of bitter comedy. She looked upon it with a species of impersonal scorn.
Mrs. Ingleton was obviously lashing herself to fury. She could not imagine why, not realizing at that stage that she was the victim of a jealousy so fierce as to amount almost to a mania. She wondered if her father were watching them from the terrace, and contemplated getting up to join him, but hesitated to do so, reflecting that it might appear like flight. At the same time she did not see why she should remain as a target for her step-mother's invective, and she had just decided upon departure when Bliss, the butler, opened the door with his own peculiarly quiet flourish and announced, "Captain Preston!"
A clean-shaven little man, with a horsey appearance about the legs which evening-dress wholly failed to conceal, entered, and instinctively Sylvia rose to receive him.
Mrs. Ingleton stopped short and stared as they met in the middle of the room.
"Hullo, Sylvia!" said the little man, and stamped forward as if he had just dismounted after a long ride. He had a loud voice and an assertive manner, and Mrs. Ingleton gazed at him in frozen surprise.
Sylvia turned towards her. "May I introduce Mr. Preston—the M.F.H.?" Her tone was cold. If the newcomer's advent had been a welcome diversion it obviously gave her no pleasure.
Preston, however, plainly did not stand in need of any encouragement. He strode up to Mrs. Ingleton, confronting her with aggressive self-assurance, "Delighted to meet you, madam. You are Sylvia's step-mother, I presume? I hope we shall be more nearly connected before long. Anyone belongin' to Sylvia has my highest esteem. She has the straightest seat on a horse of any woman I know. Ingleton and I between us taught her all she knows about huntin', and she does us credit, by gad!"
He winked at Mrs. Ingleton as he ended, and Sylvia bit her lip. Mrs. Ingleton, however, held out her hand.
"Pray sit down, Mr. Preston! You are most welcome. Sylvia, my dear, will you find the cigarettes?"
Sylvia took a box from the table and handed it to him. He took it from her, openly pinching her fingers as he did so, and offered it to her instead.
"After you, Cherry-ripe! You're lookin' spiffin' to-night, hey, Mrs. Ingleton? What do you think of your new daughter?"
Mrs. Ingleton was smiling. "I am only wondering what all you young men can be about," she said. "I should have thought one of you would have captured her long ago."
Sylvia turned round, disgust in every line, and walked to the window. "I will find Dad," she said.
Preston looked after her, standing with legs wide apart on the hearth-rug. "It's none of my fault, I assure you," he said. "I've been tryin' to rope her for the last two years. But she's so damn' shy. Can't get near her, by George."
"Really?" smiled Mrs. Ingleton. "Perhaps you have not gone quite the right way to work. I think I shall have to take a hand in the game and see what I can do."
Preston bowed with his hand on his heart, "I always like to get the fair sex on my side whenever possible. If you can put the halter on her, you've only to name your price, madam, and it's yours."
"Dear me!" said Mrs. Ingleton. "You're very generous."
"I can afford to be," declared Preston. "She's a decent bit of goods—the only one I've ever wanted and couldn't get. If you can get the whip-hand of her and drive her my way—well, it'll be pretty good business for all concerned. You like diamonds, hey, madam?"
"Very much," laughed Mrs. Ingleton coquettishly. "But you mustn't make my husband jealous. Remember that now!"
Preston closed one eye deliberately and poked his tongue into his cheek. "You leave that to me, my good madam. Anythin' of that sort would be the gift of the bridegroom. See?"
"Oh, quite," said Mrs. Ingleton. "I shall certainly do my best for you, Mr. Preston."
"Good for you!" said Preston jocularly. "It's a deal then. And you play every trump you've got!"
"You may depend upon me," said Mrs. Ingleton.
"Why isn't Mr. Preston engaged to Sylvia?" demanded Mrs. Ingleton of her husband as she faced him across the breakfast-table on the following morning.
"He'd like to be," said Ingleton with his face bent over the morning paper.
"Then why isn't he?" demanded Mrs. Ingleton with asperity. "He is a rich country gentleman, and he has a position in the County. What more could you possibly want for her?"
Reluctantly the squire made answer. "Oh, I'm willing enough. He's quite a decent chap so far as I know. I dare say he'd make her quite a good husband if she'd have him. But she won't. So there's an end of that."
"Ridiculous!" exclaimed Mrs. Ingleton. "And, pray, why won't she?"
"Why? Oh, because there's another fellow, of course. There always is," growled Ingleton. "Girls never fall in love with the right man. Haven't you found that out yet?"
"I have found out," said Mrs. Ingleton tartly, "that Sylvia is a most wilful and perverse girl, and I think you are very unwise to put up with her whims. I should be ashamed to have a girl of that age still on my hands."
"I'd like to know how you'd have managed her any differently," muttered the squire, without looking up.
Mrs. Ingleton laughed unpleasantly. "You don't know much about women, do you, my dear? Of course I could have managed her differently. She'd have been comfortably married for the past two years at least if I had been in command."
Ingleton looked sourly incredulous. "You don't know Sylvia," he observed. "She has a will like cast-iron. You'd never move her."
Mrs. Ingleton tossed her head. "Never? Well, look here! If you want the girl to marry that really charming Mr. Preston, I'll undertake that she shall—and that within a year. How is that?"
Ingleton stared a little, then slowly shook his head. "You'll never do it, my dear Caroline."
"I will do it if it is your wish," said Mrs. Ingleton firmly.
He looked at her with a touch of uneasiness. "I don't want the child coerced."
She laughed again. "What an idea! Are children ever coerced in these days? It's usually the parents who have to put up with that sort of treatment. Now tell me about the other man. What and where is he?"
Ingleton told her with surly reluctance. "Oh, he was a handsome young beggar she met five years ago—the son of my then bailiff, as a matter of fact. The boy had had a fairly decent education; he was a gentleman, but he wasn't good enough for my Sylvia, had no prospects of any sort. And so I put my foot down."
Mrs. Ingleton smiled with her thin, hard lips, but no gleam of humour reached her eyes. "With the result, I suppose, that she has been carrying on with him ever since."
Ingleton stirred uneasily in his chair. "Well, she hasn't given him up. They correspond, I believe. But he is far enough away at present. He is in South Africa. She'll never marry him with my approval. I'm pretty certain now that the fellow is a rotter."
"She probably deems herself very heroic for sticking to him in spite of opposition," observed Mrs. Ingleton.
"Very likely," he conceded. "But I think she genuinely cares for him. That's just the mischief of it. And, unfortunately, in another couple of years she'll be in a position to please herself. She inherits a little money from her mother then."
Mrs. Ingleton's smile became more pronounced, revealing her strong white teeth behind. "You need not look forward so far as that, my love," she said. "Leave Sylvia entirely to me! I will undertake, as I said, to have her married to Mr. Preston well within a year. So you may set your mind at rest on that point."
"He is certainly fond of her," said the squire. "And they both have sporting tastes. He ought to have a very good chance with her if only the other fellow could be wiped out."
"Then leave her to me!" said Mrs. Ingleton, rising. "And mind, dear"—she paused behind her husband's chair and placed large white hands upon his shoulders—"whatever I do, you are not to interfere. Is that a bargain?"
Ingleton moved again uncomfortably. "You won't be unkind to the child?" he said.
"My dear Gilbert, don't you realize that the young lady is more than capable of holding her own against me or anyone else?" protested Mrs. Ingleton.
"And yet you say you can manage her?" he said.
"Well, so I can, if you will only trust to my discretion. What she needs is a little judicious treatment, and that is what I intend to give her. Come, that is understood, isn't it? It is perfectly outrageous that she should have ridden roughshod over you so long. A chit like that! And think how pleasant it will be for everyone when she is settled and provided for. Dear me! I shall feel as if a great weight has been lifted from my shoulders. We shall really enjoy ourselves then."
She smiled down into her husband's dubious face, and after a moment with a curt sigh he pulled her down and kissed her. "Well, you're a woman, you ought to know how to manage your own kind," he said. "Sylvia's mother was an invalid for so long that I expect the child did grow a bit out of hand. I'll leave her to you then, Caroline. If you can manage to marry her to Preston I believe you'll do her the biggest service possible."
"Of course I should like to do that!" said Mrs. Ingleton, kissing him loudly. "Ah! Here she comes! She mustn't catch us love-making at this hour. Good morning, my dear child! What roses to be sure! No need to ask where you have been."
Sylvia came in, riding-whip in hand. Her face was flushed and her eyes shining.
"Had a ripping run, Dad. You ought to have been there," she said. "Good morning!" She paused and kissed him, then turned to her step-mother. "Good morning, Madam! I hope the keys have been duly handed over. I told Mrs. Hadlow to see to it."
Mrs. Ingleton kissed her effusively. "You poor child! I am afraid it is a very sore point with you to part with your authority to me. The only thing for you to do is to be quick and get a home of your own."
Sylvia laughed. "Breakfast is my most pressing need at the present moment. Winnie carried me beautifully, Dad. George says she is a positive marvel for her years; dear little soul."
"George—George!" repeated Mrs. Ingleton with playful surprise. "I presume that is the estimable young man who called upon me last night. Well, well, if you are so intimate, I suppose I shall have to be too. He was in a great hurry to pay his respects, was he not?"
Sylvia was staring at her from the other side of the table. "I meant George the groom," she said coldly after a moment. "Is there any news, Dad?"
She turned deliberately to him, but before he could speak in answer Mrs. Ingleton intervened.
"Now, Sylvia, my love, I have something really rather serious to say to you. Of course, I fully realize that you are very young and inexperienced and not likely to think of these things for yourself. But I must tell you that it is very bad for the servants to have meals going in the dining-room at all hours. Therefore, my child, I must ask you to make a point of being punctual—always. Breakfast is at eight-thirty. Please bear that in mind for the future!"
Again Sylvia's wide eyes were upon her. They looked her straight in the face. "Dad and I are never back by eight-thirty when we go cubbing, are we, Dad?" she said.
The squire cleared his throat, and did not respond.
Mrs. Ingleton smiled. "But we are changing all that," she said. "At my particular request your dear father has promised me to give up hunting."
"What?" said Sylvia, and turned upon her father with a red flash in her eyes. "Dad, is that true?"
He looked at her unwillingly. "Oh, don't make a scene!" he said irritably. "Your mother is nervous, so I have given it up for the present, that's all."
"Please don't call Mrs. Ingleton my mother!" said Sylvia, suddenly deadly calm. "Am I always to hunt alone, then, for the future?"
"You have got—George," smiled Mrs. Ingleton.
Sylvia's eyes fell abruptly from her father's face, but they did not return to her step-mother. She turned away to the sideboard, and helped herself from a dish that stood there. In absolute silence she sat down at the table and began to eat.
Her father sat in uncomfortable silence for a moment or two, then got up with a non-committal, "Well!" gathered up his letters, and tramped from the room.
Mrs. Ingleton took up the paper and perused it, humming. Sylvia ate her breakfast in dead silence.
She rose finally to pour herself out some coffee, and at the movement her step-mother looked up. There was a glitter in her hard grey eyes that somewhat belied the smile she sought to assume. "Now, my dear," she said, in the tone of one lecturing a refractory child, "you were a very wilful and impertinent girl last night. I told you I should punish you, and I have kept my word. I do not advise you to aggravate the offence by sulking."
"Will you tell me what you mean?" said Sylvia, standing stiff and straight before her.
Mrs. Ingleton slightly shrugged her shoulders. "You are behaving like a child of six, and really, if you go on, you will provoke me into treating you as such. The attitude you have chosen to adopt is neither sensible nor dignified, let me tell you. You resent my presence here. Very well; but you cannot prevent it. Would it not be much wiser of you either to submit to my authority or——"
"Or?" repeated Sylvia icily.
"Or take the obvious course of providing yourself with a home elsewhere," said Mrs. Ingleton.
Sylvia put up a quick hand to her throat. She was breathing very quickly. "You wish to force me to marry that horrible Preston man?" she said.
"By no means, my dear," smiled Mrs. Ingleton. "But you might do a good deal worse. I tell you frankly, you will be very much underdog as long as you elect to remain in this establishment. Oh yes!" She suddenly rose to her full majestic height, dwarfing the girl before her with conscious triumph. "I may have some trouble with you, but conquer you I will. Your father will not interfere between us. You have seen that for yourself. In fact, he has just told me that he leaves the management of you entirely to me. He has given me an absolutely free hand—very wisely. If I choose to lock you in your room for the rest of the day he will not interfere. And as I am quite capable of doing so, I warn you to be very careful."
Sylvia stood as if turned to stone. She was white to the lips, but she confronted her step-mother wholly without fear.
"Do you really think I would submit to that?" she said. "I am not a child, I assure you, whatever I may appear to you. You will certainly never manage me by that sort of means."
Her clear, emphatic voice fell without agitation. Now that the first shock of the encounter was past she had herself quite firmly in hand.
But Mrs. Ingleton took her up swiftly, realizing possibly that a moment's delay would mean the yielding of the ground she had so arrogantly claimed.
"I shall manage you exactly as I choose," she said, raising her voice with abrupt violence. "I know very well your position in this house. You are absolutely dependent, and—unless you marry—you will remain so, being quite unqualified to earn your own living. Therefore the whip-hand is mine, and if I find you insolent or intractable I shall use it without mercy. How dare you set yourself against me in this way?" She stamped with sudden fury upon the ground. "No, not a word! Leave the room instantly—I will have no more of it! Do you hear me, Sylvia? Do you hear me?"
She raised a menacing hand, but the fearless eyes never flinched.
"I think you must be mad," Sylvia said.
"Mad!" raved Mrs. Ingleton. "Mad because I refuse to be dictated to by an impertinent girl? Mad because I insist upon being mistress in my own house? You—you little viper—how dare you stand there defying me? Do you want to be turned out into the street?"
She had worked herself up into unreasoning rage again. Sylvia saw that further argument would be worse than useless. Very quietly, without another word, she turned, gathered up riding-whip and gloves, and went from the room. She heard Mrs. Ingleton utter a fierce, malignant laugh as she went.
The commencement of the fox-hunting season was always celebrated by a dance at the Town Hall—a dance which Sylvia had never failed to attend during the five years that she had been in society and had been a member of the Hunt.
It was at her first Hunt Ball, on the occasion of her debut, that she had met young Guy Ranger, and she looked back to that ball with all its tender reminiscences as the beginning of all things.
How superlatively happy she had been that night! Not for anything that life could offer would she have parted with that one precious romance of her girlhood. She clung to the memory of it as to a priceless possession. And year after year she had gone to the Hunt Ball with that memory close in her heart.
It was at the last of these that George Preston had asked her to be his wife. She had made every effort to avoid him, but he had mercilessly tracked her down; and though she had refused him with great emphasis she had never really felt that he had taken her seriously. He was always seeking her out, always making excuses to be alone with her. It was growing increasingly difficult to evade him. She had never liked the man, but Fate or his own contrivance was continually throwing him in her way. If she hunted, he invariably rode home with her. If she remained away, he invariably came upon her somehow, and wanted to know wherefore.
She strongly suspected that her step-mother was in league with him, though she had no direct proof of this. Preston was being constantly asked to the house, and whenever they went out to dine they almost invariably met him. She had begun to have a feeling that people eyed them covertly, with significant glances, that they were thrown together by design. Wherever they met, he always fell to her lot as dinner-partner, and he had begun to affect an attitude of proprietorship towards her which was yet too indefinite for her actively to resent,
She felt as if a net were closing around her from which, despite her utmost effort, she was powerless to escape. Also, for weeks now she had received no letter from Guy, and that fact disheartened her more than any other. She had never before had to wait so long for word from him. Very brief, often unsatisfying, as his letters had been, at least they had never failed to arrive. And she counted upon them so. Without them, she felt bereft of her mainstay. Without them, the almost daily, nerve-shattering scenes which her step-mother somehow managed to enact, however discreet her attitude, became an infliction hardly to be borne. She might have left her home for a visit among friends, but something held her back from this. Something warned her that if she went her place would be instantly filled up, and she would never return. And very bitterly she realized the fact that for the next two years she was dependent. She had not been trained to earn her own living, and she lacked the means to obtain a training. Her father, she knew, would not hear of such a thing, nor would he relinquish the only means he possessed of controlling her actions. She believed that privately he did not wish to part with her, though her presence was a very obvious drawback to his comfort. He never took her part, but also he never threw his weight into the balance against her. He merely, with considerable surliness, looked on.
And so the cruel struggle went on till it seemed to Sylvia that her physical strength was ultimately beginning to fail. She came to dread her step-mother's presence with a feeling akin to nausea, to shrink in every nerve from the constant ordeals so ruthlessly thrust upon her,
So far she had never faltered or shown any sign of weakness under the long-drawn-out persecution, but she was becoming aware that, strive as she might, her endurance had its limits. She was but human, and she was intensely sensitive to unkindness. Her nerves were beginning to give way under the strain. There were even times when she felt a breakdown to be inevitable, and only the thought of her step-mother's triumph warded it off. Once down, and she knew she would be a slave, broken beyond redemption to the most pitiless tyranny. And so, though her strength was worn threadbare through perpetual strain, she clung to it still. If only—oh, if only—Guy would write! If he should be ill—if he should fail her—she felt that it would be the end of everything. For nothing else mattered.
She did not greatly wish to go to the Hunt Ball that year. She felt utterly out of tune with all gaiety. But she could think of no decent excuse for remaining away. And she was still buoying herself up with the thought that Guy's silence could not last much longer. She was bound to hear from him soon.
She went to the Ball, therefore, feeling tired and dispirited, and looking quite passee, as her step-mother several times assured her.
She had endured a long harangue upon jealousy that evening, which vice Mrs. Ingleton declared she was allowing to embitter her whole life, and she was weary to death of the subject and the penetrating voice that had discoursed upon it. Once or twice she had been stung into some biting rejoinder, but for the most part she had borne the lecture in silence. After all, what did it matter? What did it matter?
They reached the Town Hall and went up the carpeted steps. Preston, in hunting pink, received them. He captured Sylvia's hand and pressed it tight against his heart.
She stared at him with wide unsmiling eyes. "Seen the local rag?" he asked, as he grinned amorously into them. "There's something to interest you in it. Our local prophet has been at work."
She did not know what he meant, or feel sufficiently interested to inquire. She pulled her hand free, and passed on. His familiarity became more marked and more insufferable every time she encountered him. But still she asked herself again, what did it matter?
He laughed and let her go.
In the cloak-room people looked at her oddly, but beyond ordinary greetings no one spoke to her. She did not know that it was solely her utter wretchedness that kept them at a distance.
She entered the ballroom behind Mrs. Ingleton, and at once Preston descended upon her again. He had scrawled his name against half a dozen dances on her card before she realized what he was doing. She began to protest, but again that deadly feeling of apathy overcame her. She was worn out—worn out. What did it matter whether she danced with the man or not?
Young Vernon Eversley, a friendly boy whom she had always liked, pursed his lips when he saw her programme.
"It's true then, is it?" he said.
"What is true?" She looked at him questioningly, not feeling greatly interested in his answer.
He met her look with straight, honest eyes. "I saw the announcement of your engagement in the paper this morning; but somehow I didn't believe it. He's a dashed lucky man."
That startled her out of her lethargy. She began a quick disclaimer, but they were interrupted. One of the stewards came up and swept young Eversley away.
The next moment Preston came and took possession of her. He was laughing still as he whirled her in among the dancers, refusing to give her any breathing-space.
"I want to see a little colour in those cheeks of yours, Cherry-ripe," he said. "What's the Ingleton dragon been doin' to you, my pretty?"
She danced with him with a feeling that the net was drawn close about her, and she was powerless to struggle any longer. When he suffered her to stand at last, her head was whirling so that she had to cling to him for support.
He led her to a secluded corner and put her into a chair. Then he bent over her and spoke into her ear. "Look here! I'm not such a bad sort. They've coupled our names together in the local rag. Why not let 'em?"
She looked up at him, summoning her strength with a great effort. "So it was your doing!" she said.
"No, it wasn't!" he declared. "I swear it wasn't! I'm not such a fool as that. But see here, Sylvia! Where's the use of holdin' out any longer? You know I want you, and there's no sense in goin' on pinin' for a fellow in South Africa who's probably married a dozen blacks already. It isn't like you to cry for the moon. Put up with me instead! You might do worse, and anyone can see you're havin' a dog's time at the Manor now. You'll be your own boss anyway if you come to me."
She heard him with her eyes fixed before her. Her brief energy had gone. Her life seemed to stretch before her in a long, dreary waste. His arguments were unanswerable. Physical weariness, combined with the despair which till then she had refused to acknowledge, overwhelmed her. She was down.
He put his hand upon her. "Come, I say! Is it a bargain? I swear I won't bully you. I'm awfully fond of you, Cherry-ripe."
She raised herself slowly. It was her last effort. "One thing first," she said, and put his hand away from her. "I must—cable to Guy, and get an answer."
"Oh, rot!" he said. "What for?"
"Because I haven't heard from him lately, and I must know—I must know"—she spoke with rising agitation—"the reason why. He might be—I don't say it is likely, but he might be—on his way home to me. I can't—I can't give him up without knowing."
Preston grimaced wryly, but he was shrewd enough to grasp and hold such advantage as was his. "Well, failing him, you'll have me, what? That's a promise, is it?"
She looked at him again. "If you want me under those conditions."
He put his arms about her. "Of course I want you, Cherry-ripe! We'd be awfully happy together, you and I. I'll soon make you forget him, if that's all. You can't be very deeply in love with the fellow after all this time. I don't suppose he's in the least the sort of person you take him for. You're wastin' your time over a myth. Come, it's settled, isn't it? We're engaged."
He pressed her closer. He bent to kiss her, but she turned her face away. His lips only found her neck, but he made the most of that. She had to exert her strength to free herself.
"No," she said. "We're not engaged. We can't be engaged—until I have heard from Guy."
He suppressed a short word of impatience. "And suppose you don't hear?" he asked.
She made a blind movement with her hands. "Then—-I give in."
"You will marry me?" he insisted.
"If you like," she answered drearily. "I expect you will very soon get tired of me."
"There's a remedy for everything," he answered jauntily. "But we needn't consider that. I'm just mad to get you, you poor little icicle. I'll warm you up, never fear. When you've been married to me a week, you won't know yourself." She shivered and was silent.
He turned in his tracks, perceiving he was making no headway. "Then we're engaged provisionally anyway," he insisted. "There's no need to contradict the general impression—unless we're obliged. We'll behave like lovers—till further notice."
She got to her feet. Her knees were trembling. The net was close at last. She seemed to feel it pressing on her throat. "You are not—to kiss me," she managed to say.
He frowned at the condition, but he conceded it. The game was so nearly his that he could afford to be generous. Besides, he would exact payment in full later for any little concessions she wrung from him now.
"I'm bein' awfully patient," he said pathetically. "I hope you'll take that into account. You really might just as well give in first as last."
But Sylvia had given in, and she knew it. Nothing but a miracle could save her now. The only loophole she had for herself was one which she realized already was highly unlikely to serve her. She had been practically forced into submission, and she did not attempt to disguise the fact from herself.
Yet if only Guy had not failed her, she knew that no power on earth would have sufficed to move her, no clamour of battle could ever have made her quail. That had been the chink in her armour, and through that she had been pierced again and again, till she was vanquished at last.
She felt too weary now, too utterly overwhelmed by circumstances, to care what happened. Yes, she would cable to Guy as she had said. But her confidence was gone. She was convinced already that no word would come back in answer out of the void that had swallowed him,
She went through the evening as one in a dream. People offered her laughing congratulations, and she never knew how she received them. She seemed to be groping her way through an all-enveloping mist of despair.
One episode only stood out clearly from all the rest, and that was when all were assembled at supper and out of the gay hubbub she caught the sound of her own name. Then for a few intolerable moments she became vividly alive to that which was passing around her. She knew that George Preston's arm encircled her, and that everyone present had risen to drink to their happiness.
As soon as it was over she crept away like a wounded thing and hid herself. Only a miracle could save her now.
"Well, my dear," said Mrs. Ingleton, rising to kiss her step-daughter on the following morning, "I consider you are a very—lucky—girl."
Sylvia received the kiss and passed on without reply. She was very pale, but the awful inertia of the previous night had left her. She was in full command of herself. She took up some letters from a side table, and sat down with them.
Her step-mother eyed her for a moment or two in silence. Then: "Well, my dear?" she said. "Have you nothing to say for yourself?"
"Nothing particular," said Sylvia.
The letters were chiefly letters of congratulation. She read them with that composure which Mrs. Ingleton most detested, and put them aside.
"Am I to have no share in the general rejoicing?" she asked at length, in a voice that trembled with indignation.
Sylvia recognized the tremor. It had been the prelude to many a storm. She got up and turned to the window. "You can read them all if you like," she said. "I see Dad on the terrace. I am just going to speak to him."
She passed out swiftly with the words before her step-mother's gathering wrath could descend upon her. One of Mrs. Ingleton's main grievances was that it was so difficult to corner Sylvia when she wanted to give free vent to her violence.
She watched the girl's slim figure pass out into the pale November sunshine, and her frown turned to a very bitter smile.
"Ah, my girl, you wait a bit!" she murmured. "You've met your match, or I'm much mistaken."
The squire was smoking his morning pipe in a sheltered corner. He looked round with his usual half-surly expression as his daughter joined him.
She came to him very quietly and put her hand on his arm.
"Well?" he said gruffly.
She stood for a moment or two in silence, then:
"Dad," she said very quietly, "I am going to cable to Guy. I haven't heard from him lately. I must know the reason why before—before——" A quiver of agitation sounded in her voice and she stopped.
"If you've made up your mind to marry Preston, I don't see why you want to do that," said the squire curtly.
"I am going to do it," she answered steadily. "I only wish I had done it sooner."
Ingleton burrowed into his paper. "All right," he growled.
Sylvia stood for a few seconds longer, but he did not look up at her, and at length, with a sharp sigh, she turned and left him.
She did not return to her step-mother, however. She went to her room to write her message.
A little later she passed down the garden on her way to the village. A great restlessness was upon her, and she thought the walk to the post-office would do her good.
She came upon Jeffcott in one of the shrubberies, and he stopped her with the freedom of an old servant.
"Beggin' your pardon, missie, but you'll let me wish you joy?" he said. "I heard the good news this morning."
She stood still. His friendly look went straight to her heart, stirring in her an urgent need for sympathy.
"Oh, Jeffcott," she said, "I'd never have given in if Mr. Ranger hadn't stopped writing."
"Lor!" said Jeffcott. "Did he now?" He frowned for an instant. "But—-didn't you have a letter from him last week?" he questioned. "Friday morning it were. I see Evans, the postman, and he said as there were a South African letter for you. Weren't that from Mr. Ranger, missie?"
"What?" said Sylvia sharply.
"Last Friday it were," the old man repeated firmly. "Why, I see the letter in his hand top of the pile when he stopped in the drive to speak to me. We both of us passed a remark on it."
Sylvia was staring at him. "Jeffcott, are you sure?" she said.
"Sure as I stand here, Miss Sylvia," he returned. "I couldn't have made no mistake. Didn't you have it then, missie? I'll swear to heaven it were there."
"No," Sylvia said. "I didn't have it." She paused a moment; then very slowly, "The last letter I had from Guy Ranger," she said, "was more than six weeks ago—the day that the squire brought Madam to the Manor."
"Lor!" ejaculated old Jeffcott again. "But wherever could they have got to, Miss Sylvia? Don't Bliss have the sortin' of the letters?"
"I—don't—know." Sylvia was gazing straight before her with that in her face which frightened the old man. "Those letters have been—kept back."
She turned from him with the words, and suddenly she was running, running swiftly up the path.
Like a young animal released from bondage she darted out of his sight, and Jeffcott returned to his hedge-trimming with pursed lips. That last glimpse of Miss Sylvia's face had—to express it in his own language—given him something of a turn.
It had precisely the same effect upon Sylvia's step-mother a little later, when the girl burst in upon her as she sat writing letters in her boudoir.
She looked round at her in amazement, but she had no time to ask for an explanation, for Sylvia, white to the lips, with eyes of flame, went straight to the attack. She was in such a whirlwind of passion as had never before possessed her.
She was panting, yet she spoke with absolute distinctness. "I have just found out," she said, "how it is that I have had no letters from Guy during the past six weeks. They have been—stolen."
"Really, Sylvia!" said Mrs. Ingleton. She arose in wrath, but no wrath had any effect upon Sylvia at that moment. She was girt for battle—the deadliest battle she had ever known.
"You took them!" she said, pointing an accusing finger full at her step-mother. "You kept them back! Deny it as much as you like—as much as you dare! None but you would have stooped to do such a thing. And it has been done. The letters have been delivered—and I have not received them. I have suffered—horribly—because of it. You meant me to suffer!'
"You are wrong, Sylvia! You are wrong!" Shrilly Mrs. Ingleton broke in upon her, for there was something awful in the girl's eyes—they had a red-hot look. "Whatever I have done has been for your good always. Your father will testify to that. Go and ask him if you don't believe me!"
"My father had nothing to do with this!" said Sylvia in tones of withering scorn. "Whatever else he lacks, he has a sense of honour. But you—you are a wicked woman, unprincipled, cruel, venomous. It may be my father's duty to live with you, but—thank heaven—it is not mine. You have come into my home and cursed it. I will never sleep under the same roof with you again."
She turned with the words to leave the room, and found her father and George Preston just coming out of the library on the other side of the hall. Fearlessly she swung round and confronted them. The utter freedom of her at that moment made her superb. The miracle had happened. She had rent the net that entangled her to shreds.
Mrs. Ingleton was beginning to clamour in the room behind her. She turned swiftly and shut and locked the door. Then she faced the two men with magnificent courage.
"I have to tell you," she said, addressing them both impersonally, "that my engagement to Guy Ranger is unbroken. I have just found out that my step-mother has been suppressing his letters to me. That, of course, alters everything. And—also of course—it makes it impossible for me to stay here any longer. I am going to him—at once."
Her eyes went rapidly from her father's face to Preston's. It was he who came forward and answered her. The squire seemed struck dumb.
"Egad!" he said. "I've never seen you look so rippin' in all my life! That's how you look when you're angry, is it? Now I shall know what to watch out for when we're married."
She answered him with a quiver of scorn. "We never shall be married, Mr. Preston. You may put that out of your mind for ever. I am going to Guy by the next boat."
"Not you!" laughed Preston. "You're in a paddy just now, my dear, but when you've thought it over soberly you'll find there are a good many little obstacles in the way of that. You haven't been brought up to rough it for one. And Guy Ranger, as I think we settled last night, has probably married half a dozen blacks already. It's too great a risk, Cherry-ripe! And—if I know you—you won't take it."
"You don't know me," said Sylvia. She turned, from him and went to her father. "Have you nothing to say," she asked, "about this vile and hateful plot? But I suppose you can't. She is your wife. However much you despise her, you have got to endure her. But I have not. And so I am going—to-day!"
Her voice rang clear and unfaltering. She looked him straight in the eyes. He made a sharp movement, almost as if that full regard pierced him.
He spoke with manifest effort. "You won't go with my consent."
"No?" said Sylvia. "Yet—you would never respect me again if I stayed. I could never respect myself." She glanced over her shoulder at the door which Mrs. Ingleton was violently shaking. "You can let her out," she said contemptuously. "I have had my turn. I leave her—in possession." She turned to go to the stairs, then abruptly checked herself, stepped up to her father, put her hands on his shoulders and kissed him. The anger had gone out of her eyes. "Good-bye, Dad! Think of me sometimes!" she said.
And with that she was gone, passing Preston by as though she saw him not, and ascending the stairs quickly, but wholly without agitation. They heard her firm, light tread along the corridor above. Then with a hunch of the shoulders the squire turned and unlocked the boudoir door.
Mrs. Ingleton burst forth in a fury. "You cad to keep me boxed up here with that little serpent pouring all sorts of poison into your ears! Where is she? Where is she? I'll give her such a trouncing as she's never had before!"
But Ingleton stretched an arm in front of her, barring the way. His face was grim and unyielding. "No, you won't!" he said. "You'll leave her alone. She's my daughter—not yours. And you'll not interfere with her any further."
There was a finality in his tone. Mrs. Ingleton stopped short, glaring at him.
"You take her part, do you?" she demanded.
"On this occasion—yes, I do," said the squire.
"And what about me?" said Preston.
Ingleton looked at him—still barring his wife's progress—with a faint, sardonic smile. "Well, she seems to have given you the boot, anyway. If I were in your place, I should—quit."
"She'll repent it!" raved Mrs. Ingleton. "Oh, she will repent it bitterly!"
"Very likely," conceded Ingleton. "But she's kicked over the traces now, and that fact won't pull her up—anyhow, at present,"
Mrs. Ingleton's look held fierce resentment. "Are you going to let her go?" she said.
He shrugged his shoulders. "Seeing I can't help myself, I suppose I shall. There's no sense in making a fuss now. It's done, so you leave her alone!"
Mrs. Ingleton turned upon Preston. "You can bring an action for breach of promise!" she said. "I'll support you."
He made her an ironical bow. "You are more than kind," he said. "But—I think I shall get on better for the future without your support."
And with the words he turned on his heel and went out.
"Hateful person!" cried Mrs. Ingleton. "Gilbert, he has insulted me! Go after him and kick him! Gilbert! How dare you?"
Ingleton was quietly but firmly impelling her back into the boudoir. "You go and sit down!" he said. "Sit down and be quiet! There's been enough of this."
It was the first time in her knowledge that he had ever asserted himself. Mrs. Ingleton stared at him wildly for a second or two, then, seeing that he was in earnest, subsided into a chair with a burst of hysterical weeping, declaring that no one ever treated her so brutally before.
She expected to be soothed, comforted, propitiated, but no word of solace came. Finally she looked round with an indignant dabbing of her tears. How dare he treat her thus? Was he quite heartless? She began to utter a stream of reproaches, but stopped short and gasped in incredulous disgust. He had actually—he had actually—gone, and left her to wear her emotion out in solitude.
So overwhelming was the result of this piece of neglect, combined with the failure of all her plans, that Mrs. Ingleton retired forwith to bed, and remained there for the rest of the day.
THE LAND OF STRANGERS
It had been a day of intense and brooding heat. Black clouds hung sullenly low in the sky, and a heavy gloom obscured the face of the earth. On each side of the railway the veldt stretched for miles, vivid green, yet strangely desolate to unaccustomed eyes. The moving train seemed the only sign of life in all that wilderness.
Sylvia leaned from the carriage window and gazed blankly forth. She had hoped that Guy would meet her at Cape Town, but he had not been there. She had come unwelcomed into this land of strangers. But he would be at Ritzen. He had cabled a month before that he would meet her there if he could not get to Cape Town.
And now she was nearing Ritzen. Across the mysterious desolation she discerned its many lights. It was a city in a plain, and the far hills mounted guard around it, but she saw them only dimly in the failing light.
Ritzen was the nearest railway station to the farm on which Guy worked. From here she would have to travel twenty miles across country. But that would not be yet. Guy and she would be married first. There would be a little breathing-space at Ritzen before she went into that new life that awaited her beyond the hills. Somehow she felt as if those hills guarded her destiny. She did not fear the future, but she looked forward to it with a certain awe.
Paramount within her, was the desire for Guy, the sight of his handsome, debonair countenance, the ring of his careless laugh. As soon as she saw Guy she knew she would be at home, even in the land of strangers, as she had never been at the Manor since the advent of her father's second wife. She had no misgivings on that point, or she had never come across the world to him thus, making all return impossible. For there could be be no going back for her. She had taken a definite and irrevocable step. There could be no turning back upon this road that she had chosen.
It might not be an easy road. She was prepared for obstacles. But with Guy she was ready to face anything. The adversity through which she had come had made the thought of physical hardship of very small account. And deep in her innermost soul she had a strong, belief in her own ultimate welfare. She was sure that she had done the right thing in thus striking out for herself, and she was equally sure that, whatever it might entail, she would not regret it in the end.
The lights were growing nearer. She discerned the brick building of the station. Over the wide stretch of land that yet intervened there came to her the smell of smoke and human habitation. A warm thrill went through her. In two minutes now—in less—the long five years' separation would be over, and she would be clasping Guy's hand again.
She leaned from the window, scanning the few outstanding houses of the town as the train ran past. Then they were in the station, and a glare of light received them.
A crowd of unfamiliar faces swam before her eyes, and then—she saw him. He stood on the platform awaiting her, distinct from all the rest to her eager gaze—a man of medium height, broader than she remembered, with a keen, bronzed face and eagle eyes that caught and held her own.
She sprang form the train almost before it shopped. She held out both her hands to him.
Her voice came sobbingly. He gripped the hands hard and close.
"So you've got here!" he said.
She was staring at him, her face upraised. What was there about him that did not somehow tally with the Guy of her memory and her dreams? He was older, of course; he was more mature, bigger in every way. But she missed something. There was no kindling of pleasure in his eyes. They looked upon her kindly. Ah, yes; but the rapture—where was the rapture of greeting?
A sense of coldness went through her. Her hands fell from his. He had changed—he had changed indeed! His eyes were too keen. She thought they held a calculating expression. And the South African sun had tanned him almost bronze. His chin had a stubbly look. The Guy she had known had been perfectly smooth of skin.
She looked at him with a rather piteous attempt to laugh. "I wonder I knew you at all," she said, "with that hideous embryo beard. I'm sure you haven't shaved to-day."
He put up a hand and felt his chin. "No, I shaved yesterday," he said, and laughed. "I've been too busy to-day."
That reassured her. The laugh at least was like Guy, brief though it was. "Horrid boy!" she said. "Well, help me collect my things. We'll talk afterwards."
He helped her. He went into the carriage she had just left and pulled out all her belongings. These he dumped on the platform and told her to wait while he collected the rest.
She stood obediently in the turmoil of Britons, Boers, and Kaffirs, that surged around. She felt bewildered, strung up, unlike herself. It was a land of strangers, indeed, and she felt forlorn and rather frightened. Why had Guy looked at her so oddly? Why had his welcome been so cold? Could it be—could it be—that he was not pleased to see her, that—that—possibly he did not want her? The dreadful chill went through her again like a sword thrusting at her heart, and with it went old Jeffcott's warning words: "Do you ever ask yourself what sort of man he may be after five years? I'll warrant he's lived every minute of it. He's the sort that would."
She had felt no doubt then, nor ever since, until this moment. And now—now it came upon her and overwhelmed her. She glanced about her, almost as one seeking escape.
"I've fixed everything up. Come along to the railway hotel! You must be pretty tired." He had returned to her, and he stood looking at her with those strangely keen eyes, almost as if he had never seen her before, she thought to herself desolately.
She looked bade at him with unconscious appeal in her own. "I am tired," she said, and was aware of a sudden difficulty in speaking. "Is it far?"
"No," he said; "only a step."
He gathered up her hand-baggage and led the way, making a path for her through the throng.
She scarcely noticed where she went, so completely did he fill her mind. He had changed enormously, developed in a fashion that she had never deemed possible. He walked with a free swing, and carried himself as one who counted. He had the look of one accustomed to command. She seemed to read prosperity in every line. But was he prosperous? If so, why had he not sent for her long ago?
They reached the hotel. He led the way without pause straight to a small private room where a table had been prepared for a meal.
"Sit down!" he said. "Take off your things! You must be starved."
He rang the bell and gave an order while she mutely obeyed. All her confidence was gone. She had begun to tremble. The wonder crossed her mind if perhaps she, too, had altered, grown beyond all his previous conception of her. Possibly she was as much a stranger to him as he to her. Was that why he had looked at her with that oddly critical expression? Was that why he did not now take her in his arms?
Impulsively she took off her hat and turned round to him.
He was looking at her still, and again that awful sense of doubt mastered and possessed her. A great barrier seemed to have sprung up between them. He was formidable, actually formidable. The Guy of old days, impetuous, hot-tempered even, had never been that.
She stood before him, controlling her rising agitation with a great effort. "Why do you look at me like that?" she said. "I feel—you make me feel—as if—you are a total stranger!"
His face changed a little, but still she could not read his look. "Sit down!" he said. "We must have a talk."
She put out her hand to him. The aloofness of his speech cut her with an anguish intolerable. "What has happened?" she said. "Quick! Tell me! Don't you want to—marry me?"
He took her hand. She saw that in some fashion he was moved, though still she could not understand. "I'm trying to tell you," he said; "but—to be honest—you've hit me in the wind, and I don't know how. I think you have forgotten in all these years what Guy was like."
She gazed at him blankly. Again Jeffcott's words were running in her mind. And something—something hidden behind them—arose up like a menace and terrified her.
"I haven't forgotten," she whispered voicelessly. "I couldn't forget. But go on! Don't—don't mind telling me!"
She was white to the lips. All the blood in her body seemed concentrated at her heart. It was beating in heavy, sickening throbs like the labouring of some clogged machinery.
He put his free hand on her shoulder with an abrupt movement that made him for the moment oddly familiar. "It's a damned shame," he said, and though his voice was low he spoke with feeling. "Look here, child! This is no fault of mine. I never thought you could make this mistake, never dreamed of such a possibility. I'm not Guy at all. I am Burke Ranger—his cousin. And let me tell you at once, we are not much alike now—whatever we have been in the past. Here, don't faint! Sit down!"
He shifted his hand from her shoulder to her elbow, and supported her to a chair. But she remained upon her feet, her white face upraised, gazing at him—gazing at him.
"Not Guy! Not Guy!" She said it over and over as if to convince herself. Then: "But where is Guy?" She clutched at his arm desperately, for all her world was shaking. "Are you going to tell me he is—dead?"
"No." Burke Ranger spoke with steady eyes looking straight into hers. "He is not."
"Then why—then why—" She could get no further. She stopped, gasping. His face swam blurred before her quivering vision,—Guy's face, yet with an inexplicable something in it that was not Guy.
"Sit down!" he said again, and put her with quiet insistence into the chair. "Wait till you have had something to eat! Then we'll have a talk and decide what had better be done."
She was shivering from head to foot, but she faced him still. "I can't eat," she said through white lips. "I can't do anything till—till I know—all there is to know."
He stood looking down at her. The fingers of his right hand were working a little, but his face was perfectly calm, even grim.
As he did not speak immediately, she went on with piteous effort. "You must forgive me for making that stupid mistake. I see now—you are not Guy, though there is a strong likeness. You see, I have not seen Guy for five years, and I—I was allowing for certain changes."
"He is changed," said Burke Ranger.
That nameless terror crept closer about her heart. Her eyes met his imploringly.
"Really I am quite strong," she said. "Won't you tell me what is wrong? He—cabled to me to come to him. It was in answer to my cable."
"Yes, I know," said Ranger.
He turned from her abruptly and walked to the window. The darkness had drawn close. It hung like a black curtain beyond the pane. The only light in the room was a lamp that burned on a side table. It illumined him but dimly, and again it seemed to the girl who watched him that this could be no other than the Guy of her dreams—the Guy she had loved so faithfully, for whose sake she had waited so patiently for so many weary years. Surely it was he who had made the mistake! Surely even yet he would turn and gather her to his heart, and laugh at her folly for being so easily deluded!
Ah! He had turned. He stood looking at her across the dimly-lighted space. Her very heart stood still to hear his voice.
He spoke. "The best thing you can do is to go back to the place you came from—and marry someone else."
The words went through her. They seemed to tear and lacerate her. As in a nightmare vision she saw the bitterness that lay behind her, the utter emptiness before. She still stared full at him, but she saw him not. Her terror had taken awful shape before her, and all her courage was gone. She cowered before it.
"I can't—I can't!" she said, and even to herself her voice sounded weak and broken, like the cry of a lost child. "I can't go back!"
He came across the room to her, moving quickly, as if something urged him. She did not know that she had flung out her hands in wild despair until she felt him gather them together in his own.
He bent over her, and she saw very clearly in his countenance that which had made her realize that he was not Guy. "Look here!" he said. "Have a meal and go to bed! We will talk it out in the morning. You are worn out now."
His voice held insistence. There was no softness in it. Had he displayed kindness in that moment she would have burst into tears. But he put her hands down again with a brief, repressive gesture, and the impulse passed. She yielded him obedience, scarcely knowing what she did.
He brought her food and wine, and she ate and drank mechanically while he watched her with his grey, piercing eyes, not speaking at all.
Finally she summoned strength to look up at him with a quivering smile. "You are very kind. I am sorry to have given you so much trouble."
He made an abrupt movement that she fancied denoted impatience. "Can't you eat any more?" he said.
She shook her head, still bravely smiling. "I can't—really. I think—I think perhaps you are right. I had better go to bed, and you will tell me everything in the morning."
"Finish the drink anyhow!" he said.
She hesitated momentarily, but he pushed the glass firmly towards her and she obeyed.
She stood up then and faced him. "Will you please tell me one thing—to—to set my mind at rest? Guy—Guy isn't ill?"
He looked her straight in the face. "No."
"You are sure?" she said.
"Yes." He spoke with curt decision, yet oddly she wondered for a fleeting second if he had told her the truth.
His look seemed to challenge the doubt, to beat it down. Half shyly, she held out her hand.
"Good night," she said.
His fingers grasped and released it. He turned with her to the door. "I will show you your room" he said.
THE WRONG TURNING
Sylvia slept that night the heavy, unstirring sleep of utter weariness though when she lay down she scarcely expected to sleep at all. The shock, the bewilderment, the crushing dread, that had attended her arrival after the long, long journey had completely exhausted her mentally, and physically. She slept as a child sleeps at the end of a strenuous day.
When she awoke, the night was gone and all the world was awake and moving. The clouds had all passed, and a brilliant morning sun shone down upon the wide street below her window. She felt refreshed though the heat was still great. The burden that had overwhelmed her the night before did not seem so intolerable by morning light. Her courage had come back to her.
She dressed with a firm determination to carry a brave face whatever lay before her. Things could not be quite so bad as they had seemed the previous night. Guy could not really have changed so fundamentally. Perhaps he only feared that she could not endure poverty with him. If that were all, she would soon teach him otherwise. All she wanted in life now was his love.
She had almost convinced herself that this was practically all she had to contend with, and the ogre of her fears was well in the background, when she finally left her room and went with some uncertainty through the unfamiliar passages.
She found the entrance, but a crowd of curious Boers collected about the door daunted her somewhat, and she was turning back from their staring eyes when Burke Ranger suddenly strode through the group and joined her.
She gave him a quick, half-startled glance as they met, and the first thing that struck her about him was the obvious fact that he had shaved. His eyes intercepted hers, and she saw the flicker of a smile pass across them and knew he had read her thought.
She flushed as she held out her hand to him. "Good morning," she said with a touch of shyness. "I hope you haven't been wasting your time waiting for me."
He took her hand and turned her towards the small room in which they had talked together the previous night. "No, I haven't wasted my time," he said. "I hope you have had a good rest?"
"Oh, quite, thank you," she answered. "I slept like the dead. I feel—fit for anything."
"That's right," he said briefly. "We will have some breakfast before we start business."
"Oh, you have been waiting!" she exclaimed with compunction. "I'm so sorry. I'm not generally so lazy."
"Don't apologize!" he said. "You've done exactly what I hoped you'd do. Sit down, won't you? Take the end of the table!"
His manner was friendly though curt. Her embarrassment fell from her as she complied. They sat, facing one another, and, the light being upon him, she gave him a steady look. He was not nearly so much like Guy as she had thought the previous night, though undoubtedly there was a strong resemblance. On a closer inspection she did not think him handsome, but the keen alertness of him attracted her. He looked as if physical endurance were a quality he had brought very near to perfection. He had the stamp of the gladiator upon him. He had wrestled against odds.
After a moment or two he turned his eyes unexpectedly to hers. It was a somewhat disconcerting habit of his.
"A satisfactory result, I hope?" he said.
She did not look away. "I don't consider myself a good character reader," she said. "But you are certainly not so much like Guy as I thought at first sight."
"Thank you," he said. "I must confess I prefer to be like myself."
She laughed a little. "It was absurd of me to make such a mistake. But yours was the only face that looked in the least familiar in all that crowd. I was so glad to see it."
"You have never been in this country before?" he asked.
She shook her head. "Never. I feel a dreadful outsider at present. But I shall soon learn.'
"Do you ride?" he said.
Her eyes kindled. "Yes. I was keen on hunting in England. That will be a help, won't it?"
"It would be," he said, "if you stayed."
"I have come to stay," she said with assurance.
"Wait a bit!" said Burke Ranger.
His manner rather than his words checked her. She felt again that cold dread pressing against her heart. She turned from the subject as one seeking escape.
She ate a good breakfast almost in spite of herself. Ranger insisted upon it, and since he was evidently hungry himself it seemed churlish not to keep him company. He told her a little about the country, while they ate, but he strenuously avoided all things personal, and she felt compelled to follow his lead. He imposed a certain restraint upon her, and even when he rose from the table at length with the air of a man about to face the inevitable, she did not feel it to be wholly removed.
She got up also and watched him fill his pipe with something of her former embarrassment. She expected him to light it when he had finished, but he did not. He put it in his pocket, and somewhat abruptedly turned to her.
"Now!" he said.
She met his look with a brave face. She even smiled—a gallant, little smile to which he made no response. "Well, now," she said, "I want you to tell me the quickest way to get to Guy."
He faced her squarely. "I've got to tell you something about him first," he said.
"Yes?" Her heart was beating very quickly, but she had herself well in hand. "What is it?"
But he stood mutely considering her. It was as if the power of speech had suddenly gone from him.
"What is it?" she said again. "Won't you tell me?"
He made a curious gesture. It was almost a movement of flinching. "You're so young," he said.
"Oh, but I'm not—I'm not!" she assured him. "It's only my face. I'm quite old really. I've been through a lot."
"You've never seen life yet," he said.
"I have!" she declared with an odd vehemence. "I've learnt lots of things. Why—do you look like that? I'm not a child."
Her voice quivered a little in spite of her. Why did he look like that? The compassion in his eyes smote her with a strange pain. Why—why was he sorry for her?
He saw her rising agitation, and spoke, slowly, choosing his words. "The fact is, Guy isn't what you take him for—isn't the right man for you. Nothing on this earth can make him so now, whatever he may have been once. He's taken the wrong turning, and there's no getting back."
She gazed at him with wide eyes. Her lips felt stiff and cold. "What—what—do you mean, please?" she said.
She saw his hands clench. "I don't want to tell you what I mean," he said. "Haven't I said enough?"
She shook her head slowly, with drawn brows. "No—no! I've got to understand. Do you mean Guy doesn't want me after all? Didn't he really mean me to come? He—sent a message."
"I know. That's the infernal part of it." Burke Ranger spoke with suppressed force. "He was blind drunk when he sent it."
"Oh!" She put up her hands to her face for a moment as if to shield herself from a blow. "He—drinks, does he?"
"He does everything he ought not to do, except steal," said Ranger bluntly. "I've tried to keep him straight—tried every way. I can't. It isn't to be done."
Sylvia's hands fell again. "Perhaps," she said slowly, "perhaps I could."
The man started as if he had been shot. "You!" he said.
She met his look with her wide eyes. "But why not?" she said. "We love each other."
He turned from her, grinding the floor with his heel. "God help me to make myself intelligible!" he said.
It was the most forcible prayer she had ever heard. It struck through to her very soul. She stood motionless, but she felt crushed and numb.
Ranger walked to the end of the room and then came straight back to her.
"Look here!" he said. "This is the most damnable thing I've ever had to do. Let's get it over! He's a rotter and a blackguard. Can you grasp that? He hasn't lived a clean life all these years he's been away from you. He went wrong almost at the outset. He's the sort that always does go wrong. I've done my best for him. Anyhow, I've kept him going. But I can't make a decent man of him. No one can. He has lucid intervals, but they get shorter and shorter. Just at present—" he paused momentarily, then plunged on—"I told you last night he wasn't ill. That was a lie. He is down with delirium tremens, and it isn't the first time."
"Ah!" Sylvia said. He had made her understand at last. She stood for a space staring at him, then with a groping movement she found and grasped the back of a chair. "Why—why did you lie to me?" she said.