THE VISION OF DESIRE
BY MARGARET PEDLER
AUTHOR OF THE HERMIT OF FAR END, THE MOON OUT OF REACH, ETC.
"Heaven but the Vision of fulfill'd Desire And Hell the Shadow from a Soul on Fire."
—THE RUBAIYAT OF OMAR KHAYYAM
(F. MABEL WARHURST)
WITH MY LOVE
I ANN'S LEGACY
II THE BRABAZONS OF LORNE
III ON THE TOP OF THE WORLD
IV RATS IN A TRAP
V THE VISITORS' BOOK
VI THE MAN WITH THE SCAR
VII A QUESTION OF ILLUSIONS
VIII A LETTER FROM ENGLAND
IX OLDSTONE COTTAGE
X A DISCOVERY
XI THE LADY FROM THE PRIORY
XII A NEW ACQUAINTANCE
XIII "FRIENDSHIP IMPLIES TRUST"
XIV THE ETERNAL TRIANGLE
XV ANCIENT HISTORY
XVII A SPRIG OF HELIOTROPE
XVIII A BATTLE OF WILLS
XIX ACCOUNT RENDERED
XXI THE RETURN
XXII WILD OATS
XXIII THE TEETH OF THE WOLF
XXV THE HALF-TRUTH
XXVII THE TRUTH
XXVIII THE GREY SHADOW
XXIX A PATCH OF SUNLIGHT
XXX THE KEEPING OF A PROMISE
XXXI A BARGAIN
XXXII ON BOARD THE "SPHINX"
XXXIII THE VISION FULFILLED
"Beyond the hill there's a garden, Fashioned of sweetest flowers, Calling to you with its voice of gold, Telling you all that your heart may hold. Beyond the hill there's a garden fair— My garden of happy hours.
"Dream-flowers grow in that garden, Blossom of sun and showers, There, withered hopes may bloom anew, Dreams long forgotten shall come true. Beyond the hill there's a garden fair— My garden of happy hours!"
NOTE:—Musical setting by Margaret Pedler. Published by Edward Schuberth & Co., 11 East 22nd Street, New York.
THE VISION OF DESIRE
"... It's no use pretending any longer. I can't marry you, I don't suppose you will ever understand or forgive me. No man would. But try to believe that I haven't come to this decision hurriedly or without thinking. I seem to have done nothing but think, lately!
"I want you to forget last night, Eliot. We were both a little mad, and there was moonlight and the scent of roses.... But it's good-bye, all the same—it must be. Please don't try to see, me again. It could do no good and would only hurt us both."
Very deliberately the man read this letter through a second time. At first reading it had seemed to him incredible, a hallucination. It gave him a queer feeling of unreality—it was all so impossible, so wildly improbable!
"I want you to forget last night." Last night! When the woman who had written those cool words of dismissal had lain in his arms, exquisite in her passionate surrender. His mouth set itself grimly. Whatever came next, whatever the future might hold, he knew that neither of them would be able to forget. There are some things that cannot be forgotten, and the moment when a man and woman first give their love utterance in words is one of them.
He crushed the note slowly in his hand till it was nothing more than a crumpled ball of paper, and raised his arm to fling it away. Then suddenly his lips relaxed in a smile and a light of relief sprang into his eyes. It was all nonsense, of course—just some foolish, woman's whim or fancy, some ridiculous idea she had got into her head which five minutes' talk between them would dispel. He had been a fool to take it seriously. He unclenched his hand and smoothed out the crumpled sheet of paper. Tearing it into very small pieces, he tossed them into the garden below the veranda where he was sitting and watched them circle to the ground like particles of fine white snow.
As they settled his face cleared. The tension induced by the perusal of the letter had momentarily aged it, affording a fleeting glimpse of the man as he might be ten years hence if things should chance to go awry with him—hard and relentless, with more than a suggestion of cruelty. But now, the strain lessened, his face revealed that charm of boyishness which is always curiously attractive in a man who has actually left his boyhood behind him. The mouth above the strong, clean-cut chin was singularly sweet, the grey eyes, alight and ardent, meeting the world with a friendly gaiety of expression that seemed to expect and ask for friendliness in return.
As the last scrap of paper drifted to earth he stretched out his arms, drawing a great breath of relief. His tea, brought to him at the same time as the letter he had just destroyed, still stood untasted on a rustic table beside him. He poured some out and drank it thirstily; his mouth felt dry. Then, setting down the cup, he descended from the veranda and made his way quickly through the hotel garden to the dusty white road beyond its gates.
It was very hot. The afternoon sun still flamed in the vividly blue Italian sky, and against the shimmer of azure and gold the tall, dark poplars ranked beside the road struck a sombre note of relief. But the man himself seemed unconscious of the heat. He covered the ground with the lithe, long-limbed stride of youth and supple muscles, and presently swung aside into a garden where, betwixt the spread arms of chestnut and linden and almond tree, gleamed the pink-stuccoed walls of a half-hidden villa.
Skirting the villa, he went on unhesitatingly, as one to whom the way was very familiar, following a straight, formal path which led between parterres of flowers, ablaze with colour. Then, through an archway dripping jessamine, he emerged into a small, enclosed garden—an inner sanctuary of flower-encircled greensward, fragrant with the scent of mignonette and roses, while the headier perfume of heliotrope and oleander hung like incense on the sun-warmed air.
A fountain plashed in the centre of the velvet lawn, an iridescent mist of spray upflung from its marble basin, and at the farther end a stone bench stood sheltered beneath the leafy shade of a tree.
A woman was sitting on the bench. She was quite young—not more than twenty at the outside—and there was something in the dark, slender beauty of her which seemed to harmonise with the southern scents and colour of the old Italian garden. She sat very still, her round white chin cupped in her palm. Her eyes were downcast, the lowered lids, with their lashes lying like dusky fans against the ivory-tinted skin beneath, screening her thoughts.
The man's footsteps made no sound as he crossed the close-cut turf, and he paused a moment to gaze at her with ardent eyes. The loveliness of her seemed to take him by the throat, so that a half-stifled sound escaped him. Came an answering sound—a sharp-caught breath of fear as she realised an intruder's presence in her solitude. Then, her eyes meeting the eager, worshipping ones fixed on her, she uttered a cry of dismay.
"You?—You?" she stammered, rising hastily.
In a stride he was beside her.
"Yes. Didn't you expect me? You must have known I should come."
He laughed down at her triumphantly and made as though to take her in his arms, but she shrank back, pressing him away from her with urgent hands.
"I told you not to come. I told you not to come," she reiterated. "Oh!" turning aside with nervous desperation, "why didn't you stay away?"
He stared at her.
"Why didn't I? Do you suppose any man on earth would have stayed away after receiving such a letter? Why did you write it?"—rapidly. "What did you mean?"
She looked away from him towards the distant mountains rimming the horizon.
"I meant just what I said. I can't marry you," she answered mechanically.
"But that's absurd! You've known I cared—you've cared, too—all these weeks. And last night you promised—you said—"
"Last night!" She swung round and faced him. "I tell you we've got to forget last night—count it out. It—it was just an interlude—"
She broke off, blenching at the abrupt change in his expression. Up till now his face had been full of an incredulous, boyish bewilderment, half tender, half chiding. Within himself he had refused to believe that there was any serious intent behind her letter. It was fruit of some foolish misunderstanding or shy feminine withdrawal, and he was here to straighten it all out, to reassure her. But that word "interlude"! Had she been deliberately playing with him after all? Women did such things—sometimes. His features took on a sudden sternness.
"An interlude?" he repeated quietly. "I'm afraid I don't understand. Will you explain?"
Her shoulders moved resentfully.
"Why do you want to force me into explanations?" she burst out. "Surely—surely you understand? We can't marry—we haven't money enough!"
There was a long pause before he spoke again.
"I've enough money to marry on, if it comes to that," he said at last, slowly. "Though we should certainly be comparatively poor. What you mean is that I'm not rich enough to satisfy you, I suppose?"
"Yes. I'm sick—sick of being poor! I've been poor all my life—always having to skimp and save and do things on the cheap—go without this and make shift with that. I'm tired of it! This last two months with Aunt Elvira—all this luxury and beauty," she gestured eloquently towards the villa standing like a gem in its exquisite Italian setting, "the car, the perfect service, as many frocks as I want—Oh! I've loved it all! And I can't give it up. I can't go back to being poor again!"
She paused, breathless, and her eyes, passionately upbraiding, beseeching understanding, sought his face.
"Don't you understand?" she added, twisting her hands together.
His eyes glinted.
"Yes, I'm beginning to," he returned briefly. "But how are you going to compass what you want—as a permanency? Your visit to Lady Templeton can't extend indefinitely."
She was silent, evading his glance. Her foot beat nervously on the flagged path where they stood.
"Is there some one else?" he asked incisively. "Another man—who can give you all these things?"
A dull, shamed red flushed her cheek. With an effort she forced herself to answer him.
"Yes," she said very low. "There is—some one else."
"I wonder if he realises his luck!"
The palpable sneer in his voice cut like a lash. She winced under it.
"One more question—I'd like to know the answer out of sheer curiosity." His voice was clear and hard—like ice, "You knew you were going to do this to me—last night?"
Her lips moved but no words came. She gestured mutely—imploringly.
"Answer me, please."
His implacable insistence whipped her into a sudden flare of defiance. She was like a cornered animal.
"Yes, then, if you must have it—I did know!" she flung at him in a low tone of furious anger.
Involuntarily he stepped back from her a pace, like a man suddenly smitten and stunned.
"While for me last night was sacred!" he muttered under his breath.
Before the utter scorn and repugnance in the low-breathed words her defiance crumbled to pieces.
"And for me, too! Eliot, I wasn't pretending. I do love you. I never meant you to know, but last night—I couldn't help it. I'd promised to marry the—the other man, and then you came, and we were alone—and—Oh!"—desperately, lifting a wrung face to his. "Why won't you understand?"
But the beautiful, imploring face failed to move him one jot. Something had died suddenly within him—the something that was young and eager and blindly trusting. When she ceased speaking he was only conscious that he wanted to take her and break her between his two hands—destroy her as he had destroyed the letter she had written. The blood was drumming in his temples. His hands clenched and unclenched spasmodically. She was so slender a thing that it would be very easy ... very easy with those iron muscles of his.... And then she would be dead. She was so beautiful and so rotten at the core that she would be better dead....
It was only by a supreme effort that he mastered his overwhelming need of some physical outlet for the passion of disgust and anger which swept him bare of any gentler emotion as the incoming tide sweeps the shore bare of sign or footprint. His body grew taut and rigid with the pressure he was putting on himself. When at last he spoke his voice was almost unrecognisable.
"I do understand," he said. "I understand thoroughly. You've made—everything—perfectly clear."
And with that he turned swiftly, leaving her standing alone in a flickering patch of shadow, and strode away across the grass. As he went, a little breeze ran through the garden, wafting the caressing, over-sweet perfume of heliotrope to his nostrils. It sickened him. He knew that he would loathe the scent of heliotrope henceforth.
The sunshine romped down the Grand' Rue at Montricheux, flickering against the panes of the shop-windows and calling forth a hundred provocative points of light from the silver and jewels, the shining silks and embroidery, with which the shrewd Swiss shopkeeper seeks to open the purse of the foreigner. It seemed to chase the gaily blue-painted trams as they sped up and down the centre of the town, bestowing upon them a fictitious gala air, and danced tremulously on the round, shiny yellow tops of the tea-tables temptingly arranged on the pavement outside the pastrycook's.
It was still early afternoon, but already small groups of twos and threes were gathered round the little tables. At one a merry knot of English girl-tourists were enjoying an al fresco tea, at another staid Swiss habitues solemnly imbibed the sweet pink or yellow sirop which they infinitely preferred to tea, while a vivid note of colour was added to the scene by the picturesque uniforms of a couple of officers of an Algerian regiment who were consuming unlimited cigarettes and Turkish coffee, and commenting cynically in fluent French on the paucity of pretty women to be observed in the streets of Montricheux that afternoon.
Typically aloof, a solitary young Englishman was sitting at a table apart. He was evidently waiting for some one, for every now and again he leaned forward and glanced impatiently up the street, then, apparently disappointed, settled himself discontentedly to the perusal of the Continental edition of the Daily Mail.
He was rather an arresting type. His lean young face looked older than his five-and-twenty years would warrant. It held a certain recklessness, together with a decided hint of temper, and he was much too good-looking to have escaped being more or less spoiled by every other woman with whom he came in contact. Like many another boy, Tony Brabazon had been rushed headlong from a public school into the four years' grinding mill of the war, thereby acquiring a man's freedom without the gradual preparation of any transition period—a fact which, with his particular temperament, had served to complicate life.
Physically, however, he had come through unscathed, and his white flannels revealed a lithe, careless grace of figure. When he lifted his head to look up the street there was a certain arrogance in the movement—a hint of impetuous self-will that was attractively characteristic. The irritable drumming of long, sensitive fingers on the table-top, while he scanned the head-lines of the paper, was characteristic, too.
Suddenly a cool little hand descended on his restless one.
"You can stop beating the devil's tattoo on that table, Tony," said an amused voice. "Here I am at last."
He sprang up, regarding the new-comer with a mixture of satisfaction and resentment.
"You may well say 'at last'!" he grumbled. Then the satisfaction completely swamping the resentment, he went on eagerly: "Sit down and tell me why I've been deprived of your company for the whole of this blessed day."
Ann Lovell sat down obediently.
"You've been deprived of my society," she replied with composure, "by some one who had a better right to it."
"Lady Susan, I suppose?"—in resigned tones.
She assented smilingly.
"Yes. A companion-chauffeuse isn't always at liberty to play about with the scapegrace young men of her acquaintance, you know. And this morning my employer was seized with a sudden desire to visit Aigle, so we drove over and lunched at a quaint old inn there. We've only just returned."
As she spoke Ann stripped off her gloves, revealing a pair of slender hands that hardly looked as though they would be competent to manipulate the steering-wheel of a car. Yet there was more than one keen-eyed, red-tabbed soldier whom she had driven during the war who could testify to the complete efficiency of those same slim members.
"I'm dying for some tea, Tony," she announced, tossing her gloves on to the table. "Let's go in and choose cakes."
Tony nodded, and they dived into the interior of the shop, and, arming themselves with a plate and fork each, proceeded to spear up such as most appealed to them of the delectable patisseries arranged in tempting rows along shining trays. Then, giving an order for their tea to be served outside, they emerged once more into the sunlit street.
One of the Algerian officers followed Ann's movements with an appreciative glance. Had she been listening she might have caught his murmured, "V'la une jolie anglaise, hein?" But she was extremely unselfconscious, and took it very much for granted that she had been blessed with russet hair which gave back coppery gleams to the sunlight, and with a pair of changeful hazel eyes that looked sometimes clearly golden and sometimes like the brown, gold-flecked heart of a pansy. She was almost boyishly slender in build, and there was a sense of swift vitality about all her movements that reminded one of the free, untrammelled grace of a young panther.
Tony Brabazon watched her consideringly while she poured out tea.
"Montricheux has been like a confounded desert to-day," he remarked gloomily. He was obviously feeling very much ill-used. "Tell Lady Susan she'll drive me to take the downward path if she monopolises you like this."
"Tony, you've not been getting into mischief?"
Ann spoke lightly, but a faint expression of anxiety flitted across her face as she paused, the teapot poised above her cup, for his answer.
He hesitated a moment, his eyes sullen, then laughed shortly.
"How could I get into mischief—my particular kind of mischief—in Montricheux, with the stakes at the tables limited to five measly francs? If we were at Monte, now—"
If Ann noticed his hesitation she made no comment on it. She finished pouring out her tea.
"I'm very glad we're not," she said with decision. "You'd be too big a handful for me to manage there."
"I've told you how you can manage me—if you want to," he returned swiftly. "I'd be like wax in your hands if you'd marry me, Ann."
"I shouldn't care for a husband who was like wax in my hands, thank you," she retorted promptly. "Besides, I'm not in the least in love with you."
"That's frank, anyway."
"Quite frank. And what's more, you're not really in love with me."
"I should think I'm the best judge of that," he said, haughtily.
"Not a bit. You're too young to know"—coolly.
A look of temper flashed into his face, but it was only momentary. Then he laughed outright. Like most people, he found it difficult to be angry with Ann; she was so transparently honest and sincere.
"I'm three years your senior, I'd have you remember," he observed.
"Which is discounted by the fact that you're only a man. All women are born with at least three years' more common sense in their systems than men."
Tony demurred, and she allowed herself to be led into a friendly wrangle, inwardly congratulating herself upon having successfully side-tracked the topic of matrimony. The subject cropped up intermittently in their intercourse with each other and, from long experience, Ann had brought the habit of steering him away from it almost to a fine art.
He had been more or less in love with her since he was nineteen, but she had always refused to take him seriously, believing it to be only the outcome of conditions which had thrown them together all their lives in a peculiarly intimate fashion rather than anything of deeper root. But now that the boy had merged into the man, she had begun to ask herself, a little apprehensively, whether she were mistaken in her assumption, and she sometimes wondered if fate had not contrived to enmesh her in a web from which it would be difficult to escape. Tony was a very persistent lover, and unfortunately she was not free to send him away from her as she might have sent away any other man.
Fond as she was of him, she didn't in the least want to marry him. She didn't want to marry any one, in fact. But circumstances had combined to give her a very definite sense of responsibility concerning Tony Brabazon.
His father had been the younger son of Sir Percy Brabazon of Lorne, and, like many other younger sons, had inherited all the charm and most of the faults, and very little of the money that composed the family dower. Philip, the heir, and much the elder of the two, pursued a correct and uneventful existence, remained a bachelor, and in due course came into the title and estates. Whereas Dick, lovable and hot-headed, and with the gambling blood of generations of dicing, horse-racing ancestors running fierily in his veins, fell in love with beautiful but penniless Virginia Dale, and married her, spent and wagered his small patrimony right royally while it lasted, and borrowed from all and sundry when it was squandered. Finally, he ended a varied but diverting existence in a ditch with a broken neck, while the horse that should have retrieved his fortunes galloped first past the winning-post—riderless.
Sir Philip Brabazon let fly a few torrid comments on the subject of his brother's career, and then did the only decent thing—took Virginia and her son, now heir to the title, to live with him.
It was then that Ann Lovell, who was a godchild of Sir Philip's, had learned to know and love Tony's mother. Motherless herself, she had soon discovered that the frailly beautiful, sad-faced woman who had come to live with her somewhat irascible godparent, filled a gap in her small life of which, hitherto, she had been only dimly conscious. With the passing of the years came a clearer understanding of how much Virginia's advent had meant to her, and ultimately no bond between actual mother and daughter could have been stronger than the bond which had subsisted between these two.
It was to Ann that Virginia confided her inmost fears lest Tony should follow in his father's footsteps. From Sir Philip, choleric and tyrannical, she concealed them completely—and many of Tony's youthful escapades as well, paying some precocious card-losses he sustained while still in his early teens out of her own slender dress allowance in preference to rousing his uncle's ire by a knowledge of them. But with Ann, she had been utterly frank.
"Tony's a born gambler," she told her. "But he has a stronger will than his father, and if he's handled properly he may yet make the kind of man I want him to be. Only—Philip doesn't know how to handle him."
The last two years of her life she had spent on a couch, a confirmed invalid, and oppressed by a foreboding as to Tony's ultimate future. And then, one day, shortly before the weak flame of her life flickered out into the darkness, she had sent for Ann, and solemnly, appealingly, confided the boy to her care.
"I hate leaving him, Ann," she had said between the long bouts of coughing which shook her thin frame so that speech was at times impossible. "He's so—alone. Philip represents nothing to him but an autocrat he is bound to obey. And Tony resents it. Any one who loves him can steady him—but no one will ever drive him. When I'm gone, will you do what you can for him—for him and for me?"
And Ann, holding the sick woman's feverish hands in her own cool ones, had promised.
"I will do all that I can," she said steadily.
"And if he does get into difficulties?" persisted Virginia, her eager eyes searching the girl's face.
Ann smiled down at her reassuringly.
"Don't worry," she had answered. "If he does, why, then I'll get him out of them if it's in any way possible."
Two days later, Ann had stood beside the bed where Virginia lay, straight and still in the utter peace and tranquillity conferred by death. Her last words had been of Tony.
"I've 'bequeathed' him to you, Ann," she had whispered. Adding, with a faint, humorous little smile: "I'm afraid I'm leaving you rather a troublesome legacy."
And now, nearly four years later, Ann had thoroughly realised that the task of keeping Tony out of mischief was by no means an easy one. Here, at Montricheux, however, she had felt that she could relax her vigilance somewhat. There was no temptation to back "a certainty" of which some racing friend had apprised him, and, as Tony himself discontentedly declared, the stakes permitted at the Kursaal tables were so small that if he gambled every night of the week he ran no risk of either making or losing a fortune.
The chief danger, she reflected, was that he might become bored and irritable—she could see that he was tending that way—and then trouble would be sure to arise between him and his uncle, with whom he was staying at the Hotel Gloria. She recalled his hesitation when she had asked him if he had been getting into mischief. Was trouble brewing already?
"Tony," she demanded shrewdly. "Have you been quarrelling with Sir Philip again? There's generally some disturbing cause when you feel driven into asking me to marry you."
"Well, why won't you? He'd be satisfied then."
"He? Do you mean your uncle?"—with some astonishment.
"Yes. Didn't you know he wanted it more than anything? Just as I do," he added with the quick, whimsical smile which was one of his charms.
Ann shook her head.
"You haven't answered my question," she persisted.
"Well," admitted Tony unwillingly, "he and I did have a bit of a dust-up this morning. I'm sick of doing nothing. I told him I wanted to be an architect."
"It was anything but well! He let me have it good and strong. No Brabazon was going to take up planning houses as a profession if he knew it! I'd got my duty to the old name and estate and the tenants, et cetera, et cetera. All the usual tosh."
Ann's face clouded. She devoutly wished that Sir Philip would allow his nephew to take up some profession—never mind which, so long as it interested him and gave him definite occupation. To keep him idling about between Lorne and the Brabazon town house in Audley Square was the worst thing in the world for him. Privately she determined to approach her godfather on the subject at the very next opportunity, though she could make a very good, guess at the reason for his refusal. It was a purely selfish one. He liked to have the boy with him. Bully him and browbeat him as he might, Tony was in reality the apple of the old man's eye—the one thing in the whole world for which he cared.
There would be nothing gained, however, by letting Tony know her thoughts, so she answered him with trenchant disapproval.
"It's not tosh. After all, your first duty is to Lorne and to the tenants. A good landlord is quite as useful a member of society as a good architect."
"Oh, if I were doing the actual managing, it would be a different thing," acknowledged Tony. "But I don't. He decides everything and gives all the orders—without consulting me. I just have to see that what he orders is carried out, and trot about with him, and do the noble young heir stunt for the benefit of the tenants on my birthday. It's absolutely sickening!"—savagely.
"Well, don't quarrel with your bread-and-butter," advised Ann. "Or with Sir Philip. He's not a bad sort in his way."
"Oh, isn't he?"—grimly. "You try living with him! Thank the powers that be, I shall get a 'day off' to-morrow. He's going over to Evian by the midday boat. The St. Keliers—blessed be their name!—have asked him to dine with them—to meet some exiled Russian princess or other."
"Lady Susan is going, too. She's staying the night there. Is Sir Philip?"
"Yes. There's no getting back the same night. This is topping, Ann." Tony's face had brightened considerably. "Suppose you and I go up to the Dents de Loup for the afternoon, and then have a festive little dinner at the Gloria. Will you? Don't have an attack of common sense and say 'no'!"
His eyes entreated her gaily. They were extremely charming eyes, of some subtly blended colour that was neither slate nor violet, but partook a little of both, and shaded by absurdly long lashes which gave them an almost womanish softness. A certain shrewd old duchess, who knew her world, had once been heard to observe that Tony Brabazon's eyes would get him in and out of trouble as long as he lived.
"That's quite a brain-wave, Tony," she replied. "I won't say no. And if you're very good we'll go down to the Kursaal afterwards, and I'll let you have a little innocent flutter at the tables." Ann had no belief in the use of too severe a curb. She felt quite sure that if Tony's gambling propensities were bottled up too tightly, they would only break out more strongly later on—when he might chance to be in a part of the world where he could come to bigger grief financially than was possible at Montricheux. She glanced down at the watch on her wrist and, seeing that the time had slipped by more quickly than she imagined, proceeded to gather up her gloves. "I think it's time I went back to Villa Mon Reve, now," she said tentatively, fearing a burst of opposition.
But, having got his own way over the arrangements for the morrow, Tony consented to be amenable for once. Together they took their way up the pleasant street and at the gates of the villa he made his farewells.
"I shall drop into the club for a rubber, I think," he vouchsafed, "before going home like a good little boy."
"Don't play high," cautioned Ann good-humouredly.
She could detect the underlying note of resentment in his voice, and she entered the house meditating thoughtfully upon the amazing short-sightedness evinced by elderly gentlemen in regard to the upbringing of their heirs.
THE BRABAZONS OF LORNE
"Ann's the best pal Tony could possibly have, so, for goodness' sake, be content with that and don't get addling your brains by trying to marry her off to him. Match-making isn't a man's job. A female child of twelve could beat the cleverest man that's hatched at the game."
Lady Susan Hallett fired off her remarks, as was her wont, with the vigour and precision of a machine-gun. There was always a delightful definiteness both about her ideas and the expression of them.
The man she addressed was standing with his back to the open French window of the pretty salon, angrily oblivious of the blue waters of Lac Leman which lapped placidly against the stone edges of the quai below. He was a tall, fierce-looking old man, with choleric blue eyes and an aristocratic beak of a nose that jutted out above a bristling grey moustache. A single eyeglass dangled from a broad, black ribbon round his neck. "One of the old school" was written all over him—one of the old, autocratic school which believed that "a man should be master in his own house, b'gad!" By which—though he would never have admitted it—Sir Philip Brabazon inferred a kind of divinely appointed dictatorship over the souls and bodies of the various members of his household which even included the right to arrange and determine their lives for them, without reference to their personal desires and tastes.
It was odd, therefore, that his chief friend and confidante—and the woman he would have married thirty years ago if she would only have had him—should be Lady Susan, as tolerant and modern in her outlook as he was archaic.
She was a tall, sturdily built woman of the out-of-door, squiress type. Her fine-shaped head was crowned by a wealth of grey hair, simply coiled in a big knot on the nape of her neck and contrasting rather attractively with her very black, arched eyebrows and humorous dark eyes. Those same eyes were now regarding Sir Philip with a quizzical expression of amusement.
"Besides," she pursued. "Ann wouldn't have half as much pull with him if she were his wife, let me tell you."
"You think not?"
"I'm sure. A man will let himself be lectured and generally licked into shape by the woman he wants to marry—but after marriage he usually prefers to do all the lecturing that's required himself."
The old man shot a swift glance at her from under a pair of shaggy brows.
"How do you know?" he demanded rudely. "You're not married."
Lady Susan nodded.
"Do you mean—do you mean—" he began stormily, then, meeting her quiet, humorous gaze, stammered off into silence. Presently he fixed his monocle in one of his fierce old eyes and surveyed her from behind it as from behind a barricade.
"Do you mean me to understand that that's the reason you declined to marry me?"
She laughed a little.
"I think it was. I didn't want to be browbeaten into submission—as you browbeat poor Virginia, and as you would Tony if he hadn't got a good dash of the Brabazon devil in him. You're a confirmed bully, you know."
"I shouldn't have bullied you." There was an odd note of wistfulness in the harsh voice, and for a moment the handsome, arrogant old face softened incredibly. "I shouldn't have bullied you, Susan."
"Yes, you would. You couldn't have helped it. You'd like to bully my little Ann into marrying Tony if you dared—monster!"
The grim mouth beneath the clipped moustache relaxed into an unwilling smile.
"I believe I would," he admitted. "Hang it all, Susan, it would settle the boy if he were married. He wants a wife to look after him."
"To look after him?"—with a faintly ironical inflection.
"That's what I said"—irritably. "That's—that's what wife's for, dammit! Isn't it?"
"Oh, no." She shook her head regretfully. "That idea's extinct as the dodo. Antiquated, Philip—very."
He glared at her ferociously.
"Worth more than half your modern ideas put together," he retorted. "Women, don't know their duty nowadays. If they'd get married and have babies and keep house in the good, old-fashioned way, instead of trying to be doctors and barristers and the Lord knows what, the world would be a lot better off. A good wife makes a good man—and that's job enough for any woman."
"I should think it might be," agreed Lady Susan meditatively. "But it sounds a trifle feeble, doesn't it? I mean, on the part of the good man. It's making a sort of lean-to greenhouse of him, isn't it?"
"You're outrageous, Susan! I'm not a 'lean-to' anything, but do you suppose I'd be the bad-tempered old ruffian I am—at least, you say I am—if you'd married me thirty years ago?"
"Twenty times worse, probably," she replied promptly. "Because, like most wives, I should have spoiled you."
Sir Philip looked out of the window.
"I've missed that spoiling, Susan," he said. Once again that incongruous little note of wistfulness sounded in his voice. But, an instant later, Lady Susan wondered if her ears had deceived her, for he swung round and snapped out in his usual hectoring manner: "Then you won't help me in this?"
"Help you to marry off Ann to Tony? No, I won't. For one thing, I don't want to spare her. And if ever I have to, it's going to be to some one who'll look after her—and take jolly good care of her, too!"
"Obstinate woman! Well—well"—irritably. "What am I to do, then?"
"Can't you manage your own nephew?"
"No, I can't, confound it! Told me this morning he wanted to be an architect. An architect!" He spoke as though an architect were something that crawled. "Imagine a Brabazon of Lorne turning architect!"
"Well, why not?" placidly. "It's better than being nothing but a gambler—like poor Dick. Tony always did love making plans. Don't you remember, when he was about eight, he made a drawing of heaven, with seating accommodation for the angels—cherubim and seraphim, and so on—in tiers? The general effect was rather like a plan of the Albert Hall"—smiling reminiscently. "Seriously, though, Philip, if the boy wants work, in the name of common sense, let him have it."
"There's plenty of work for him at Lorne"—stubbornly. "Let him learn to manage the property. That's what I want—and what I'll have. God bless my soul! What have I brought the boy up for? To be a comfort in my old age, of course, and a credit to the name. Architect be hanged!"
As he spoke there came the sound of footsteps in the hall outside—light, buoyant steps—and Lady Susan's face brightened.
"That will be Ann," she said. Adding quickly, as though to conclude the subject they had been discussing: "I warn you, Philip, you're driving the boy on too tight a rein."
Sir Philip greeted Ann good-humouredly. In spite of the fact that she showed no disposition to fall in with his wishes and marry Tony, he was extremely fond of her. She was one of the few people who had never been afraid of him. She even contradicted him flatly at times, and, like most autocrats, he found her attitude a refreshing change from that of the majority of people with whom he came in contact.
"Seen Tony in the town?" he demanded. It was evident the boy was hardly ever out of his thoughts.
"Yes. We've just been having tea together."
Sir Philip nodded approvingly.
"Excellent, excellent. Keep him out of mischief, like a good girl."
Ann laughed, a shade scornfully, but vouchsafed no answer, and soon afterwards Sir Philip took his departure.
"The twelve-thirty steamer to-morrow, then, Susan," he said as he shook hands. "I'll call for you in the car on my way to the debarcadere."
When he had gone Lady Susan and Ann exchanged glances.
"I've been telling him he drives Tony on too tight a rein," said the former, answering the unspoken question in the girl's eyes.
"It's absurd of him," declared Ann indignantly. "He tries to keep him tied to his apron-strings as if he were a child. And he's not! He's a man. He's been through that beastly war. Probably he knows heaps more about life—the real things of life—than Sir Philip himself, who wants to dictate everything he may or may not do."
"Probably he does. And that's just the trouble. When you get a terribly experienced younger generation and a hide-bound older one there are liable to be fireworks."
"All I can say is that if Sir Philip won't let him have a little more freedom, he'll drive Tony just the way he doesn't want him to go."
Lady Susan's keen glance scrutinised the girl's troubled face.
"You can't help it, you know," she remarked briefly.
"That's just it," answered Ann uncertainly. "I sometimes wonder if I could—ought to—" She broke off, leaving her sentence unfinished.
Lady Susan, apparently not noticing her embarrassment, gathered up her belongings preparatory to leaving the room.
"Marrying to reform a rake never pays," she said in level tones. "It's like rolling a stone uphill."
"But Tony isn't a rake!" protested Ann, flushing quickly. "There's any amount of good in him, and he might—might steady down if he were married."
"Let him steady down before marriage, not after"—grimly. "A woman may throw her whole life's happiness into the scales and still fail to turn the balance. Without love—the love that can forgive seventy times seven and then not be tired—she'll certainly fail. And you don't love Tony."
It was an assertion rather than a question, yet Ann felt that Lady Susan was waiting for an answer.
"N-no," she acknowledged at last. "But I feel as though he belongs to me in a way. You see, Virginia 'left' him to me."
"You're not called upon to marry a legacy," retorted Lady Susan.
"No, I suppose not." She was silent a moment. "I wish Sir Philip didn't lead him such a life. It's more than any man could be expected to stand."
Lady Susan paused in the doorway.
"Well, my dear, don't vex your soul too much about it all. However badly people mismanage our affairs for us, things have a wonderful way of working out all right in the long run."
Left alone, Ann strolled out on to the balcony which overlooked the lake, and, leaning her arms on the balustrade, yielded to the current of her thoughts. Notwithstanding Lady Susan's cheery optimism, she was considerably worried about Tony. She could see so exactly what it was that fretted him—this eternal dancing attendance on Sir Philip, who insisted on the boy's accompanying him wherever he went, and she felt a sudden angry contempt for the selfishness of old age which could so obstinately bind eager, straining youth to its chariot wheels. It seemed to her that the older generation frequently fell very far short of its responsibility towards the younger.
With a flash of bitterness she reflected that her own father had failed in his duty to the next generation almost as signally as old Sir Philip, although in a totally different manner. Archibald Lovell had indeed been curiously devoid of any sense of paternal responsibility. Connoisseur and collector of old porcelain, he had lived a dreamy, dilettante existence, absorbed in his collection and paying little or no heed to the comings and goings of his two children, Ann and her brother Robin. And less heed still to their ultimate welfare. He neglected his estate from every point of view, except the one of raising mortgages upon it so that he might have the wherewithal to add to his store of ceramic treasures. He lived luxuriously, employing a high-priced chef and soft-footed, well-trained servants to see to his comfort, because anything short of perfection grated on his artistic sensibilities. And when an intrusive influenza germ put a sudden end to his entirely egotistical activities, his son and daughter found themselves left with only a few hundred pounds between them. Lovell Court was perforce sold at once to pay off the mortgages, and to meet the many other big outstanding debts the contents of the house had to be dispersed without reserve. The collection of old porcelain to which Archibald Lovell had sacrificed most of the human interests of life was soon scattered amongst the dealers in antiques, who, in many instances, bought back at bargain prices the very pieces they had sold to him at an extravagantly high cost. Every one went away from the Lovell sale well-pleased, except the two whose fortunes were most intimately concerned—the son and daughter of the dead man. They were left to face the problem of continued existence.
For the time being the circumstances of the war had acted as a solvent. Robin, home on sick leave, had returned to the front, while Ann, who possessed the faculty of getting the last ounce out of any car she handled, very soon found warwork as a motor-driver. But, with the return of peace, the question of pounds, shillings and pence had become more acute, and at present Robin was undertaking any odd job that turned up pending the time when he should find the ideal berth which would enable him to make a home for Ann, while the latter, thanks to the good offices of Sir Philip Brabazon, had for the last six months filled the post of companion-chauffeuse to Lady Susan Hallett.
The entire six months had been passed at Mon Reve, Lady Susan's villa at Montricheux, and with a jerk Ann emerged from her train of retrospective thought to the realisation that her lines had really fallen in very pleasant places, after all.
It seemed as though there were some truth in Lady Susan's assertion that things had a way of working out all right in the end. But for her father's mismanagement of his affairs—and the affairs of those dependent on him—Ann recognised that she might very well have been still pursuing the rather dull, uneventful life which obtained at Lovell Court, without the prospect of any vital change or happening to relieve its tedium, whereas the catastrophe which had once seemed to threaten chaos had actually opened the door of the world to her.
ON THE TOP OF THE WORLD
The rack-and-pinion railway from Montricheux to the Dents de Loup wound upward like a single filament flung round the mountains by some giant spider. The miniature train, edging its way along the track, appeared no more than a mere speck as it crept tortuously up towards the top. At its rear puffed a small engine, built in a curious tilted fashion, so that as it laboured industriously behind the coaches of the train it reminded one ridiculously of a baby elephant on its knees.
Ann was leaning against the windowless framework of the railway carriage, watching the valleys drop away, curve by curve, as the train climbed. Far below lay the lake, a blue rift glimmering between pine-clad heights. Then a turn of the track and the lake was swept suddenly out of sight, while the mountains closed round—shoulder after green-clad shoulder, with fields of white narcissus flung across them like fairy mantles. The air was full of the fragrance of narcissus mingling with the pungent scent of fir and pine. Ann sniffed luxuriously and glanced round to where Tony was sitting.
"Doesn't it smell clean and delicious?" she said, drawing in great breaths of the pine-laden air. "When I come up to the mountains I always wonder why on earth we ever live anywhere else."
"You'd be the first to get bored if you didn't live somewhere else—now that the winter sports are over," he returned. "After all"—mundanely—"you can't derive more than a limited amount of enjoyment from scenery, however fine. Besides, you must know this route by heart."
"I do. But I love it! It's different every time I come up here. I think"—knitting her brows—"that's what is so fascinating about the Swiss mountains; they change so much. Sometimes they look all misty and unreal—almost like a mirage, and then, the very next day, perhaps, they'll have turned back into hard-edged, solid rock and you can't imagine their ever looking like dream-mountains again."
Gradually, as they mounted, they left the verdant valleys, with their sheltered farms and chalets, behind. The pine-woods thinned, and now and again a wedge of frozen snow, lodged under the projecting corner of a rock, appeared beside the track. The wind grew keener, chill from the eternal snows over which it had swept, and sheer, rocky peaks, bare of tree or herbage, thrust upward against the sky.
Presently, with a warning shriek, the train glided into a tunnel cut clean through the base of a mighty rock. The sides dripped moisture and the icy air tore through the narrow passage like a blast of winter. Ann shivered in the sudden cold and darkness and drew her furs closer round her. She had a queer dread of underground places; they gave her a feeling of captivity, and she was thankful when the train emerged once more into daylight and ran into the mountain station. Tony helped her out on to the small platform.
"Which is it to be?" he asked, glancing towards where a solitary hotel stood like a lonely outpost of civilisation. "Tea first, or a walk?"
Ann declared in favour of the walk.
"Let's go straight up to the Roche d'Or. I always feel as if I'd reached the top of the world there. It's certainly as near the top as I shall ever get!" she added laughing. "I don't feel drawn towards mountaineering, so I shall probably never ascend beyond the limits of the rack-and-pinion."
The Roche d'Or was a steep upward slope, culminating in a rocky promontory from which was visible the vast expanse of the Bernese Oberland. A railed-in platform capped the promontory, for it was a recognised viewpoint. Opposite, across a shallow valley, the Dents de Loup cut the sky-line—two menacing, fang-shaped peaks like the teeth of a wolf, and beyond them a seemingly endless range of mountains stretched away to the far horizon, pinnacle after pinnacle towering upwards with sombre, sharp-edged shadows veiling the depths between. Along immense ridged scarps lay the plains of everlasting snow, infinitely bleak and desolate till a burst of sunlight suddenly transformed them, clothing the great flanks of the mountains in cloth of silver.
Ann stood still, absorbing the sheer beauty of it all.
"It's heavenly, isn't it?" she said at last, a little sigh of ecstasy escaping her.
Tony looked, not at the hills, but at the young, eager face just level with his shoulder.
"It's probably as near heaven as I shall ever get," he answered. "Anyway, just for the moment, I don't feel I've anything particular to complain of."
"I suppose I'm to take that as a compliment," replied Ann. "Anyway"—mimicking him—"I don't really think you have very much to complain of at any time. You're one of the idle rich, you know. How would you like it if you were obliged to keep your nose to the grindstone—like Robin and me?"
"I shouldn't mind"—curtly—"if I could choose my grindstone."
"But that's just it! Robin can't—choose his grindstone, I mean. He's just got to keep slogging away at anything that turns up."
Her face shadowed a little. They were very devoted to each other, she and Robin. From their earliest childhood their father had counted for so little in either of their lives that they had inevitably drawn closer to each other than most brothers and sisters, and the enforced separation of the last few years had been a sore trial to both of them.
"You're very fond of Robin," observed Tony. There was a note of envy in his voice.
"Of course I am. If we could only afford to live together, I think I should be absolutely happy."
He glanced at her quickly.
"Aren't you happy with Lady Susan?"
"Oh, yes, yes! No one could be kinder to me than she is. But—I miss Robin"—rather wistfully. "You see, we've always been everything to each other."
"I see. And what will happen if one day you—or Robin—should get married?"
Ann skirted the topic dexterously.
"Oh, don't let's think about possible calamities on a day like this. Look!" She touched his arm, drawing his attention to a girl who had also climbed the Roche d'Or hill to see the view and had halted near them, a sheaf of freshly-gathered wild-flowers in her hand. "Aren't those blue gentians lovely?"
Tony glanced at the few vividly blue flowers the girl was jealously clasping. She had walked far in search of them and valued them accordingly.
"Do you want some?" he asked eagerly.
"Isn't it getting rather late in the year to find them, though?" she said doubtfully.
The girl with the flowers, overhearing, turned to her with a friendly smile.
"There are very few left," she vouchsafed. "I've been hunting everywhere for them. But you may find one or two over there." She pointed to a distant slope.
Tony's eyes followed her gesture. Then he glanced down at Ann inquiringly.
"Are you game for so long a walk?" he asked.
"I'm game for anything up in this air," she assured him with conviction.
But, as was not infrequently the case, Ann's spirit outstripped her physical strength. The slope indicated was much farther away than it appeared and "the going was bad," as Tony phrased it. Blue gentians proved tantalisingly elusive, and at length, rather disheartened by their unprofitable search, Ann came to a standstill.
"I think I'm beginning to feel a keener interest in tea than gentians, Tony," she confessed at last, ruefully. "It's very contemptible of me, I own. But when I contemplate the distance we've already got to cover before we reach the hotel again, I feel distinctly disinclined to add to it."
"I've let you walk too far!" Tony was overwhelmed with compunction. "Look here, sit down in this little hollow and rest for a few minutes before we turn back, while I just go a bit further and see if I can find you a gentian."
He stripped off his overcoat as he spoke and rolled it together to make a cushion for her.
"No, no, I don't want your coat," she protested. "I don't need it—really!"
But Tony was suddenly masterful.
"You'll do as you're told," he asserted. And somewhat to her own surprise she found herself meekly obeying him.
He strode away, disappearing quickly from sight over the brow of a hill, and with a small sigh of contentment she tucked her feet under her on the improvised cushion and lit a cigarette. She had had a busy morning, and was really more tired than she knew. First of all there had been the car to clean, then there were flowers to be arranged for the house, and after that various small shopping errands had cropped up, so that Ann had found herself very fully occupied until at length, accompanied by Sir Philip, Lady Susan had departed for Evian. She wondered fugitively how the pair were enjoying themselves.
It was very pleasant sitting there. The huge boulder against which she leant sheltered her from the wind and the spot was bathed in brilliant sunshine. She finished her cigarette and lapsed into a brown study provoked by Tony's sudden question: "What will happen if one day you—or Robin—should get married?" She had never asked herself that question. It was so much an understood thing between brother and sister that, as soon as Robin found a sufficiently remunerative post, they should live together, that any alternative had not entered her head.
But now she came to think of it, of course it was quite possible that Robin might some day meet the woman whom he would want to marry. Her mouth twisted in a little wry grimace of distaste. She was sure she should detest any woman who robbed her of her brother. And if such a thing happened, she would certainly take herself off and live somewhere else. Nothing would ever induce her to remain in a married brother's house—an unwanted third.
There would always be one avenue of escape open to her, she reflected ironically—by way of her own marriage with Tony. She wished it were possible to fall in love to order! It would simplify things so much. As Tony's wife she felt sure she could keep him straight and so fulfil the trust Virginia had imposed on her. He had always shown himself sensitively responsive to her influence—like a penitent boy if she scolded him, radiant if he had won her approval. And he had a very special niche of his own in her heart. Next to Robin, there was no one she loved more.
... A sudden cloud across the sun roused her to the fact that she had been sitting still for some time, and that, at that altitude, the air held all the mountain keenness. She felt chilled, and scrambled up hastily to her feet. She would go to the crest of the hill and signal to Tony that she was ready to return.
But, to her utter astonishment, when she had climbed to the top, he was not in sight. The hill brow apparently commanded a view of the surrounding country for a distance of at least two miles, and as far as she could see there was no sign of any living creature in the whole expanse. Hardly believing her own senses, she brushed her hand across her eyes and looked again. But she had made no mistake. Tony was nowhere to be seen. The ground stretched bleakly away on every hand, untenanted by any human soul except herself.
She stood still, staring dazedly around. Tony would never have gone back without her. He must be hidden from view by some dip or inequality of the ground. Or—her heart stood still at the thought—had he slipped and fallen headlong into some hideous crevasse?
Curving her hands on either side her mouth, she called him, sending her voice ringing through the clear, crisp air. But there came no answer. Instead, the utter loneliness and silence seemed to surge up round her almost like a concrete thing. For a moment, sheer terror of what might have happened to him overwhelmed her.
"Tony!... Tony!" Her voice rose to a scream, then cracked on a hoarse note of sudden, desperate relief.
To her left the ground fell away abruptly in a precipitous ravine, and, rising slowly above the lip of the chasm, she could discern Tony's head and shoulders. Instantly her mind leapt to what had happened. Failing to find a gentian in his search over safe ground, he must have caught sight of a late blossom growing in some cranny of the rock face below, and, recklessly regardless of the danger, he had climbed down to secure it.
The mere thought of the risk he had incurred—was still incurring—sent a shiver through her. Her first impulse was to rush towards him. Then, realising that any movement of hers might distract his attention and so add illimitably to his danger, she forced herself by an almost superhuman effort to remain where she was. Motionless, with straining eyes, she watched while he slowly edged himself up. That his foothold was precarious was evident from the careful precision of his movements, so unlike Tony's usual nimbleness.
Now his arm was above the edge ... both arms ... he seemed to be resting a moment, leaning on his chest an instant before making another effort. Should she go to him? Her arms hung stiffly at her sides, her hands opening and shutting in an agony of indecision.
Tony was moving once more, and this time he hoisted himself up so that he succeeded in getting one knee over the top. Another moment and he would be safe.... Then, without a cry, he suddenly toppled backwards and disappeared from view, and Ann could see only the jagged edge of the ravine, stark against the sky-line.
For a fraction of a second she stood paralysed, overwhelmed with the horror of what had happened. Then, choking back the scream which rose to her lips, she set off running in the direction of the spot where Tony had vanished from sight.
RATS IN A TRAP
Breathless, her heart thudding painfully in her side, Ann reached the ravine and, throwing herself face downwards on the ground, crawled to the edge. For an instant she closed her eyes, shrinking with a sick dread from what they might show her—Tony's young, lithe body lying broken on the rocks below, or, perhaps, only the dark blur of some awful and unmeasured depth which would never give up its dead.
It was by a sheer effort of will that she at last forced herself to open her eyes and peer downward. Immediately beneath the brink of the chasm the ground dropped vertically for a few feet, but below that again it sloped gradually outwards, culminating in a broad, projecting ledge which formed the lip of the actual precipice itself. Tony lay on the ledge, motionless, with outflung arms and white, upturned face. He had evidently lost his footing, and, after the first drop, rolled helplessly downward. Only the presence of a jagged, upstanding piece of rock had saved him from falling clean over into the depths below.
Strain as she might to see, Ann could not tell whether he were dead or merely insensible, and the agony of uncertainty seemed to drain her of all strength. For a few moments she lay where she was, unable to control the trembling of her limbs, her aching eyes staring fixedly down at the still, prone figure on the ledge below. But the paralysing terror passed, and, at length, though still rather shakily, she dragged herself to her feet. She must go to him—somehow she must get down to where he lay.
At first she could think of no way of reaching him. Although he himself had attempted, and very nearly successfully accomplished, the upward climb to the brow of the ravine, she knew she dared not attempt to make the descent at that same spot. If there were no way round, she would have to go back to the hotel in search of help. But that would take an hour or more! And meanwhile Tony was lying there untended. She couldn't wait! She must get to him—get to him at once, and know whether he were living or dead. She flung herself down on the ground once more and cast a despairing glance at the inaccessible shelf of rock where he lay. Then it appeared to her that, although narrowing as it went, it ran upwards, forming a kind of rough track below the overhanging summit which, further along, might debouch on to the crest of the ravine.
Springing to her feet, she hurried desperately along the top in the direction which the track seemed to take, and at length, with a gasping sigh of relief, came to a wide fissure that slanted down to meet it.
She was sure-footed as a deer, her slim, supple body balancing itself almost instinctively, but even so the traversing of that narrow, rocky ledge, in parts not more than a foot wide, was a severe test of her endurance. A single false step meant death, instantaneous and inevitable, and the whole terrible ten minutes which it took her to complete the short distance was poignant with the dread of what she might discover at its end.
Moving very cautiously, her bare hands sliding across the rough face of the rock as she edged her way forward, she came at last to where the ledge widened out and the ground above sloped gently upwards. A few steps more and she could see Tony's young, supine figure. The last three yards were accomplished at a run, and an instant later she was kneeling beside him, thrusting swift, urgent hands beneath his shirt to feel whether his heart still beat. The throb of it came softly against her palms—warm, and pulsatingly alive!
Ann rocked a little on her knees. She felt sick and giddy with reaction from the almost intolerable strain of the last few minutes. Then she caught sight of a vivid glint of blue—a single gentian bloom still tightly clasped in the boy's hand, and quite suddenly she began to cry, the tears running unchecked down her face. And it was just then that Tony came back to consciousness—to the vague consciousness of something wet splashing down on to his face. He stirred and opened his eyes.
"Tony!" Ann's voice was hoarse with relief.
His eyes blinked at her uncertainly.
"Hello!" he said rather feebly. "What's happened?"
"I thought you were killed!" she cried unsteadily. "Oh, Tony, I thought you were killed!"
He regarded her consideringly.
"No," he replied seriously. "I'm not at all killed. Why should I be killed?" Then, clearer consciousness returning: "Am I talking rot? What's happened?"
Ann slipped her arm beneath his shoulders and raised him a little so that his head rested on her lap.
"You fell," she said, trying to speak calmly. "You were climbing up and you fell. Where are you hurt, Tony?"
"Oh, I remember.... Yes, I fell—just as I was getting to the top. A rotten old stump gave way under my foot."
"But where are you hurt?" persisted Ann anxiously.
"I don't think I am hurt." He stretched his limbs tentatively. "No, there's nothing broken. I feel a bit buzzy in the head, that's all."
He tried to lift himself up, but Ann pressed him back against her knees.
"Don't move! Don't move!" she cried hastily. "Lie still for a few minutes. Are you sure—sure you're not hurt?"
"Bet you a tenner I'm not," he replied, with the ghost of a grin. "My head's clearing, too. I was only knocked out of time for a minute. Don't worry." He put up his hand and touched her cheek. "Why, you're quite pale, Ann."
"I felt pale—when I saw you fall," she answered grimly. Her spirits were returning now that she was assured he was uninjured. "I was certain you must be killed."
"It would have been one way out of it all, wouldn't it?" he replied with a touch of bitterness.
"Oh, hush! Don't speak like that."
"I won't—if it annoys you. But, anyway, you needn't worry. I shan't die young. The gods don't love me enough."
Ann ignored this.
"Do you think you could stand now?" she asked practically.
Tony's eyes gleamed mirthfully.
"I'm very comfortable as I am," he remarked, rubbing his cheek against her skirt.
She resisted the temptation to smile.
"I'm not—particularly," she returned briefly. "I've got cramp."
He sat up at once.
"Oh, by Jove! Why didn't you say so before?"
"Because I hadn't got it before. I was much too concerned about you to have time for it. How do you feel? Shall I help you up?"
But Tony disclaimed the necessity for any assistance. As he said, he had only been knocked out of time for a few minutes. He might have been made of indiarubber for all the actual harm his fall had done him. He rose to his feet without difficulty and proceeded to help Ann to hers.
"How do we get back?" he asked. Then, glancing upwards: "I'm hanged if I'm going to try and climb up there a second time. How on earth did you get here? You didn't drop from the skies, I suppose, like an angel?"
"There's a ledge—it's rather narrow, but one can just squeeze round, and it brings you out somewhere on the top. Are you sure you can manage it, though? You won't turn faint or anything?"—anxiously.
"No"—with impish gravity. "I shan't 'turn faint or anything.' In fact, I could dance a hornpipe here if you liked. Still, I'll hold your hand—just in case of accidents"—audaciously. "Shall I go first? Oh, by the way"—he paused. "Here's your blue gentian. Won't you have it?"
Ann felt her throat contract as she recalled what the little blue flower had so nearly cost. Her eyes filled in spite of herself.
"Good heavens! Don't cry over it!" Tony laughed carelessly. He had recovered his usual bantering manner of speech which yet always seemed to hold an undercurrent of bitterness. "It's not worth that. See, I'll chuck it away, so that it can't remind you of the unpleasant shock I gave you this afternoon."
He tossed the flower over the edge of the ravine. For an instant it seemed to hover in the air like a blue butterfly. Then it sank slowly out of sight.
"Here endeth the first lesson," commented Tony.
"Lesson on what?"
"On trying to get things which an all-wise Providence has considerately placed out of your reach." Without giving her time to reply, he continued: "Give me your hand—no, you must"—as she hung back. "I'm not going to have you risking this ledge again alone."
He extended one hand behind him, and, recognising the uselessness of argument, Ann yielded and laid hers in it. Somehow she was not altogether sorry to feel that friendly, human grip. In single file they made the perilous return journey along the narrow track, emerging at length on to safe ground. Ann withdrew her hand with a sigh of relief. It was good to feel that they were out of danger at last.
"I think we shall have to hurry if we are to catch our train," she said, keeping determinedly to the practical side of affairs. She felt she did not want to discuss their adventure. It was too vividly impressed upon her mind and had all too nearly ended in disaster. It seemed as though, the wings of Death had brushed her as he passed by.
Tony pulled out his watch.
"Eight, as usual," he replied. "We shall have to sprint. And I've done you out of your tea, too," he added remorsefully.
"Oh, that!" Ann dismissed the matter with a rather uncertain little laugh. "You don't suppose I'm worrying about my tea, do you?"
He looked at her curiously.
"No, I don't suppose you are," he answered.
They set off at a good pace, but they had wandered much further afield than they realised, and when at last the hotel, and the station which practically adjoined it, came into sight, the train was already drawn up at the platform, waiting to start. A shrill whistle cut the air warningly, and instinctively Ann and Tony broke into a run. Tony was the first to recognise the futility of the proceeding. He pulled up.
"We may as well save our breath," he observed laconically. And even as he spoke the train, with a final shriek, moved out of the station.
Ann stood still, her eyes following it with an expression of blank dismay.
"Tony!" Her voice sounded a trifle breathless. "Do you know—have you realised—that that's the last train?"
"And we've missed it."
He appeared completely unconcerned, and she turned on him with a flash of impatience. His inconsequence annoyed her.
"Yes, we've missed it," she repeated. "How do you suppose we're going to get back without a train to take us?"
Tony's soft, slate-coloured eyes surveyed her placidly beneath their long lashes.
"I haven't the faintest idea," he acknowledged.
"Tony!" In spite of her indignation a quiver underlay Ann's voice. Her nerves had been wrought up to a high pitch by the afternoon's events, and she felt unequal to parrying Tony's customary banter.
Immediately his manner changed. When he spoke again it was with a quiet confidence that reassured her completely.
"It's quite true," he said soberly. "I haven't an idea at the moment. But I'll get you safely back to Montricheux this evening somehow. I promise you, Ann. So don't worry."
The sun was hanging low in the sky by the time they reached the hotel, and when he had established Ann in an easy chair and provided her with a cigarette, together with a six-weeks'-old copy of a London magazine which he unearthed from amongst a dusty pile of luridly illustrated handbooks on Switzerland, Tony departed to make inquiries regarding their journey back to Montricheux. He returned within a very short time, his face wearing an unusual look of gravity, and for a moment he stood staring down at her without speaking.
"I've got some bad news for you," he said at last, with obvious reluctance. "I'm not able to keep my promise, Ann. We can't get back to Montricheux to-night."
She glanced up incredulously.
"Can't get back?" she repeated. "Oh, but we must."
Tony shook his head.
"Can't be done," he answered. "It seems that infernal train is the only means of getting up and down from here. You can't motor or drive. There's no road."
The out-of-date magazine slid suddenly off Ann's knee and fell with a plop on the floor.
"Are you serious?" she asked, still hardly able to believe him. "Do you really mean we—we've got to stay the night here?"
She could read the answer to her question in the unmistakable concern which was written on his face.
"Oh, but it's impossible!" she exclaimed in deep dismay. "We can't—we can't stay here!" She sprang up, clasping and unclasping her hands agitatedly. "Don't you see, Tony, that it's impossible?"
"We've no choice," he replied bluntly. "If there were any possible way of getting you back to Villa Mon Reve to-night, I'd move heaven and earth to do it. But there isn't. We've no more chance of getting away from here than rats in a trap."
THE VISITORS' BOOK
It was quite true. They were caught like rats in a trap, and Ann's heart sank. She had lived long enough to know that there are always a certain number of censorious people sufficiently ungenerous and narrow-minded to make mischief out of any awkward happening, no matter how innocently it may have occurred.
"Can't you think of any way out, Tony?" she said at last. "I—I don't seem to know what to do." She looked round her vaguely, feeling confused and unnerved by the awkwardness of their predicament.
"There's not a chalet within reach, or I'd go off there for the night," answered Tony, adding with a twinkle in his eyes: "And although I might, of course, sleep outside, if you preferred—on the top of the Roche d'Or, for instance!—I'm afraid it wouldn't help matters much, as my frozen corpse would require about as much explaining away as the fact that we've stayed the night here."
He had never felt less like joking, but he was rewarded by seeing a faint smile relax the strained expression on her face.
"Don't worry, Ann," he pursued, tucking a friendly arm into hers. "No one need ever know. But I could kick myself for landing you into this mess. It's all my fault. If I hadn't gone fooling about at the top of that ravine and come to grief we should be buzzing comfortably homeward in the train."
"You did it for me," cried Ann quickly. Now that the first shock of realisation was over she was recovering her usual cheery outlook on things. "You mustn't blame yourself. It's no one's fault. It's just—"
"The cussedness of things," vouchsafed Tony, as she paused.
"Yes, Just that. Well"—she gave her shoulders a slight shrug as though she were shaking off a burden—"we may as well make the best of things. At least we shall see the sunset up here. It's supposed to be rather wonderful, isn't it?"
"I believe the sunrise is the special thing to see. You'll have to get up early to-morrow, ma'am." He paused a moment, then went on with frank admiration: "Ann, you're a real little sport! There isn't one girl in twenty would have taken this business as well as you have. They'd have been demanding my head on a charger."
"It wouldn't be any use making a fuss about a pure accident," she returned philosophically. "Let's just enjoy it—the sunset and the moonrise and everything else. Oh! I do hope they'll give us a decent dinner! You did us out of our tea by tumbling over the precipice—don't make a habit of it, please, Tony!—and I'm simply starving."
"I'll go and order some grub—and book rooms." He paused uncertainly. "By the way, I'll have to enter our names in the hotel register, I suppose?"
"Our names?" Ann flushed nervously. "Oh, you can't—I mean—"
"Don't worry," he said soothingly. "I shan't enter us under our own names, of course. What do you say to Smith—nice, inoffensive sort of name, don't you think? 'G. Smith and sister'—I think that'll meet the necessities of the case."
Ann giggled suddenly.
"It's all rather funny if it wasn't so—so—"
"Improper," supplied Tony obligingly.
"Call it unconventional," she supplemented. "It sounds better. And now do go and order some food for 'G. Smith and sister.' Sister is literally starving."
Half an hour later they were light-heartedly demolishing an excellent dinner, and the manager of the Hotel de Loup was congratulating himself upon the acquisition of two unexpected guests during the slack season. Afterwards they made another pilgrimage up to the Roche d'Or to watch the sunset.
When they had reached the top, Ann stood quietly at Tony's side, not speaking. The wonderful beauty of the scene enthralled her, and words would have seemed almost a profanation, breaking across the deep, stirless silence which wrapped them round. Away to their right the golden disc of the sun was sinking royally westward, bathing the mountains in a flood of lambent light, and piercing the darkening blue of the sky with quivering shafts of scarlet and orange and saffron. Across the snow-fields shimmered a translucent rosy glow, so that they seemed no longer bleak and desolate, but lay spread like an unfurled banner of glory betwixt the great peaks which sentinelled them round. Presently the sun dipped below the rim of the horizon, and the splendour faded swiftly. It was as if some one had suddenly closed the doors of an opened heaven, shutting away the brief vision of its radiance.
In the faint, chill light of the risen moon, Ann turned to go, still in silence. She felt awed by the beauty of it all. For the time being she had forgotten the untoward circumstances which had brought her here, forgotten even Tony, except that she was vaguely conscious he was beside her, another human being, sharing with her the deep, eternal quiet of the mountains and the flaming glory of the setting sun. Then his arm slipped through hers, as they began the steep descent, and at the boyish, friendly touch of it, she came back to earth.
"Oh, Tony, I'm almost glad we missed the last train," she said softly, "It's been so wonderful."
"Yes, it's been wonderful," he assented, and there was a queer, excited note in his voice. "It's been wonderful to be up here with you—right away from the rest of the world."
Instinctively she drew a little away from him.
"I wish you wouldn't," she said hastily.
"Wouldn't what?" He linked his arm in hers more firmly. "Help you down this hill? You might trip if I didn't. It's a very rough track"—blandly.
Inwardly Ann admitted to a feeling of helplessness. Tony eluded reproof with a skill that was altogether baffling. Now, as usual, having said what he wanted to say, he retreated behind a fence of raillery.
"You know quite well I didn't mean that," she said indignantly.
"What did you mean, then? That I'm not to make love to you?"
"It isn't fair of you," she urged. "Not now—here."
"No, I suppose it isn't," he acknowledged equably. "But I'm going to do it, all the same. Probably I'll never get you to myself again—alone on the top of the world. But I'll promise you one thing"—his voice deepened to a sudden gravity. "This is going to be the last time I make love to you. If you say 'no' to me now, I shall accept it, and it will be 'no' for always."
Ann's heart beat a little more quickly.
"Tony—" she began protestingly.
"No. Hear me out. I know what's the matter. You don't trust me. You're afraid, if you marry me, that I'll let you down—as my father let my mother down. But I won't! I swear it." He stood still and, slipping his arm from under hers, took both her hands in his and held them tightly. "If you'll marry me, Ann, I promise you that I'll give up gambling—every form of it—from this day forth."
"You couldn't!" she broke in hastily.
"I could do anything—for you," he answered simply. "Because I love you."
There was something very touching in the boyish declaration. Ann looked up and saw his face in the moonlight, white and rather stern. It made her think of the face of some young knight of bygone days taking a sacred vow before he set forth to seek and find the Holy Grail.
He bent down to her.
"Ann, darling," he said gently. "I love you so much. Won't you marry me?"
She felt her heart contract. He had asked her many times before—sometimes half jestingly, sometimes with a sudden imperious passion that would fain have swept everything before it. But this was different. There was a gravity, an earnestness in his speech which she could not lightly brush aside. Alone here, under the wide sky, with only God's open spaces round them, it seemed to her as though his question and her answer to it must partake of the same solemnness as vows exchanged within the hallowed walls of a sanctuary.
She wished intensely that she could give him the answer he desired. And, beyond that, she felt the urge of Virginia's trust in her. Here was her chance. At a word from her he was willing to renounce the one thing for which he craved—the thing that had wrecked his father's life, and which might some day wreck his own. Ought she to say that word—promise to marry him, even though she had no love to give him? Her mind seemed to be going round and round in a maze of uncertainty and doubt.
And then suddenly the remembrance of what Lady Susan had said rushed over her: "A woman may throw her whole life's happiness into the scales, and still fail to turn the balance. Without love—the love that can forgive seventy times seven, and then not be tired—she'll certainly fail."
The words steadied her. "Without love—" and she had no love to give Tony. Not the love that a woman should bring to the man she will call husband. Out of the turmoil of her mind this one thought emerged clear and irrefutable. And in that moment, for good or ill, her decision was taken.
"Tony." She spoke very gently, sore at heart for the pain she knew she must inflict. "I must say no, dear. If I loved you, I'd say yes very gladly. But I don't love you—not like that."
"And you won't marry me?"
"No, I can't marry you."
"Then that's finished." He spoke brusquely. "I shan't ask you again, so you needn't worry. Come along, we'll get back to the hotel. If we're going to watch the sunrise to-morrow, we'd better turn in early. And this air makes one confoundedly sleepy. I believe I could sleep the clock round."
His abrupt return to the commonplace left her feeling confused and disconcerted. It almost seemed as though she must have dreamed the brief conversation which had just taken place. It was incredible that a man could ask you to marry him, promise to forswear a deadly vice that was born in his blood, and then—almost in the same breath, as it were—casually vouchsafe the information that he "could sleep the clock round"!
He had linked his arm in hers again, and was piloting her skilfully down the uneven pathway. She stole a glance at his face. But she could learn nothing whatever from his expression. Apparently he was solely concerned with the matter of conducting her back to the hotel in safety.
They parted in the hall at the foot of the stairs.
"I hope you'll sleep all right," said Tony, smiling down at her. "I'm afraid you'll find it a bit of a picnic, though, without any of the 'comforts of home'!"
He had hardly finished speaking when the hotel door swung open, and a man came striding in from outside. As he paused on the threshold to pull off the heavy coat he was wearing, he shot a casual glance in the direction of the two people standing together by the staircase. Then, his gaze concentrating suddenly, he stared at Tony with an odd intentness.
"Good-night, Tony." Ann's voice travelled softly to his ears, and at the sound of it the man transferred his gaze from Tony's face to hers. He himself remained standing unobserved in the curtained shadow of the entry, and, when Ann had gone upstairs, Tony passed him on the way to his own room on the ground floor without noticing his presence.
The man's glance followed him speculatively. Strolling across to the bureau, he opened the visitors' book, flicking over the leaves till he came to the current page. He ran his fingers down the list of names, pausing abruptly at the last inscription: "G. Smith and sister." Followed the illuminating word, "London."
With a brief, ironical smile he closed the book. Then he, too, took his way to bed, and presently the Hotel de Loup was wrapped in the profound stillness of night.
THE MAN WITH THE SCAR
The sun poured down on to the balcony, and even though the gaily striped sun-blind had long since been lowered the heat was intense. But in the clear, dry atmosphere of Switzerland it could never be too hot to please Ann—she was a veritable sun-worshipper—and she lay back on a wicker chaise-longue, basking contentedly in the golden warmth while she awaited Lady Susan's return from Evian. From below came the drowsy crooning of the lake, as the water lapped idly against the stones that edged it—a lake of a blue so deep as to be almost sapphire.
Ann's eyes rested affectionately on the scene. She had grown to love Lac Leman and the mountains amid which it lay. Opposite her, on the far side of the water, the beautiful Savoy range sloped upwards from the shore, brooding maternally above the villages which fringed the borders of the lake, while to her left the snow-capped Dents du Midi, almost dazzling in the brilliant sunshine, guarded the gracious valley of the Rhone.
It was very calm, and peaceful, and sunshiny. Here at Montricheux one could easily imagine oneself shut away for ever from all that was hard and difficult and sordid—enclosed within a charmed circle of enchanted mountains where life slipped effortlessly on from day to day. This morning Ann felt peculiarly aware of the peaceful atmosphere prevailing. It struck her how smoothly and easily the last few months had passed. To-day seemed typical of all the days which had preceded it. A little work—quite pleasant work, for Lady Susan—a measure of play, sunshine, the keen joy of beautiful surroundings—these things had made up six months of a strangely tranquil existence.
And now, as she sat communing with herself, she was conscious of a queer foreboding that this unruffled period of her life had run its course and was drawing to an end. Almost, it seemed to her, she could hear a low rustle amongst the winds of life—the faint, muttering stir which presages a storm.
Only once before had she experienced a similar sensation of foreboding, a few weeks prior to the death of her father and the subsequent discovery that she and Robin were left practically penniless. She had felt then as though a definite epoch in her life was approaching its close, and something new and difficult impending. And, in that instance, her premonition had been only too accurately fulfilled.
She tried to shake off the odd feeling of presentiment which obsessed her. But it persisted, and it was a real relief when at last the opening of a door and the sound of voices in the hall heralded Lady Susan's return. Unpleasant premonitions and such-like ghostly visitants were prone to melt away in her cheery, optimistic presence like dew before the sun, and Ann hastened out of the room to welcome her back.
But at sight of the little group of people in the hall she paused in dismay. Sir Philip and his chauffeur were supporting Lady Susan on either side, while Marie, the excitable femme de chambre, was wringing her hands and pouring out a voluble torrent of commiseration.
"Be quiet, Marie!" ordered Lady Susan in her brisk voice. "The end of the world hasn't come just because I've sprained my ankle! Go and get some bandages and hot water instead of squawking like a scared fowl."
Ann hurried forward anxiously, but Lady Susan nodded reassurance.
"Don't be alarmed, my dear. It's nothing serious. I slipped on the gangway, coming off the steamer, and turned my ankle. That's all."
"And quite enough, too!" fumed Sir Philip, as, assisted by the chauffeur, he lifted her with infinite care on to a couch. "Now, then, you clumsy fool!" This to the unfortunate chauffeur, who had released his hold a moment too soon, jarring the injured foot.
The man fled, pursued by his master's maledictions, and a few minutes later, hot water and bandages being forthcoming, Ann busied herself in tending the rapidly swelling ankle.
"What about a doctor? Don't you think you'd better have one?" asked Sir Philip, fussing helplessly round and feeling as inadequate as most men in similar circumstances. "You may have broken a small bone or something," he added with concern.
"Doctor? Fiddlesticks!" returned Lady Susan. "Ann's all the doctor I want. There's quite a professional touch about that bandage"—extending her foot for him to see. "Thank goodness, most of our girls know how to give first aid nowadays! Now, run along, Philip, and look after that harum-scarum nephew of yours. I know you're aching to make sure he hasn't got into mischief during your absence," she added with a touch of malice.
Sir Philip demurred a little, but finally went away, promising to look in again in the evening. But when evening came Lady Susan had retired to bed, feeling far too ill to receive visitors.
It was not until after Sir Philip's departure that she would allow herself to admit that she was suffering acutely, and then she lay back against her cushions, looking so white and exhausted that Ann was thoroughly alarmed and despatched Marie in search of the doctor, who promptly prescribed rest and quiet. By the following morning Lady Susan found herself too stiff even to wish to move. She had tripped and fallen suddenly, without being able to save herself at all, and she was more bruised and shaken than she or any one else had suspected.
For the next few days, therefore, she was relegated to the role of invalid. She was suffering a good deal of pain, and in the circumstances Ann felt disinclined to worry her with an account of the predicament in which she and Tony had found themselves during her absence at Evian. So that when Lady Susan asked her how she had amused herself that day, she merely vouchsafed that she had gone up to the Dents de Loup and stayed the night there in order to see the sunrise. Afterwards, it seemed simpler to let it rest at that, rather than enter into fresh explanations. The whole incident had come to assume much smaller proportions in retrospect, and the fact that she and Tony had not encountered any other visitors at the hotel had served to reassure her considerably.