THE KNAVE OF DIAMONDS
By ETHEL M. DELL
Author of "The Way Of An Eagle"
I DEDICATE THIS BOOK TO MY FRIEND AND SISTER IN LOVING REMEMBRANCE OF HER SYMPATHY AND HELP
O Charity, all patiently Abiding wrack and scaith! O Faith that meets ten thousand cheats Yet drops no jot of faith! Devil and brute Thou dost transmute To higher, lordlier show, Who art in sooth that lovely Truth The careless angels know!
To the True Romance.
I.—THE MISSING HEART
II.—THE QUEEN'S JESTER
III.—THE CHARIOT OF THE GODS
V.—THE FIRST ENCOUNTER
VI.—AT THE MEET
VIII.—THE RIDE HOME
IX.—THE HEAD OF THE HOUSE
X.—THE HAND OF A FRIEND
XI.—THE STING OF A SCORPION
XIII.—THE JESTER'S INFERNO
XIV.—A BIG THING
XVII.—THE SLAVE OF GOODNESS
XVIII.—THE DESCENT FROM OLYMPUS
XXI.—AT THE MERCY OF A DEMON
XXII.—THE CITY OF REFUGE
I.—THE JESTER'S RETURN
II.—THE KERNEL OF THE DIFFICULTY
III.—THE FIRST ORDEAL
IV.—THE FATAL STREAK
VI.—THE BURIAL OF A HATCHET
VII.—A QUESTION OF TRUST
VIII.—A SUDDEN BLOW
X.—A DAY IN PARADISE
XI.—THE RETURN TO EARTH
XII.—IN THE FACE OF THE GODS
XIII.—AN APPEAL AND ITS ANSWER
XV.—ON THE EDGE OF THE PIT
I.—THE POWER DIVINE
II.—THE WORKER OF MIRACLES
III.—THE WOMAN'S PART
V.—THE SLOUGH OF DESPOND
VI.—A VOICE THAT CALLED
VII.—THE UNINVITED GUEST
VIII.—THE HEART OF A SAVAGE
IX.—THE DIVINE SPARK
X.—THE QUEEN'S PARDON
XII.—A FRIENDLY UNDERSTANDING
XIII.—THE FINAL DEFEAT
XIV.—AT THE GATE OF DEATH
XV.—THE KING'S DECREE
XVI.—THE STRAIGHT GAME
XVII.—THE TRANSFORMING MAGIC
XVIII.—THE LAST ORDEAL
XIX.—OUT OF THE FURNACE
XX.—THE PROMOTION OF THE QUEEN'S JESTER
XXI.—THE POWER THAT CASTS OUT DEVILS
THE MISSING HEART
There came a sudden blare of music from the great ballroom below, and the woman who stood alone at an open window on the first floor shrugged her shoulders and shivered a little. The night air blew in brisk and cold upon her uncovered neck, but except for that slight, involuntary shiver she scarcely seemed aware of it. The room behind her was brilliantly lighted but empty. Some tables had been set for cards, but the cards were untouched. Either the attractions of the ballroom had remained omnipotent, or no one had penetrated to this refuge of the bored—no one save this tall and stately woman robed in shimmering, iridescent green, who stood with her face to the night, breathing the chill air as one who had been on the verge of suffocation. It was evidently she who had flung up the window. Her gloved hands leaned upon the woodwork on each side of it. There was a certain constraint in her whole attitude, a tension that was subtly evident in every graceful line. Her head was slightly bent as though she intently watched or listened for something.
Yet nothing could have been audible where she stood above the hubbub of music, laughter, and stamping feet that rose from below. It filled the night with uproar. Nor was there anything but emptiness in the narrow side-street into which she looked.
The door of the room was ajar and gradually swinging wider in the draught. Very soon it would be wide enough for anyone passing in the passage outside to spy the slim figure that stood so motionless before the open window. It was almost wide enough now. Surely it was wide enough, for suddenly it ceased to move. The draught continued to eddy round the room, stirring the soft brown hair about the woman's temples, but the door stood still as at the behest of an unseen hand.
For fully half a minute nothing happened; then as suddenly and silently as a picture flashed from a magic lantern slide, a man's head came into view. A man's eyes, dusky, fierce, with something of a stare in them, looked the motionless figure keenly up and down.
There followed another interval as though the intruder were debating with himself upon some plan of action, then, boldly but quite quietly, he pushed the door back and entered.
He was a slight, trim man, clean-shaven, with high cheek-bones that made a long jaw seem the leaner by contrast. His sleek black hair was parted in the middle above his swarthy face, giving an unmistakably foreign touch to his appearance. His tread was light and wary as a cat's.
His eyes swept the room comprehensively as he advanced, coming back to the woman at the window as though magnetically drawn to her. But she remained quite unaware of him, and he, no whit disconcerted, calmly seated himself at one of the tables behind her and took up a pack of cards.
The dance-music in the room below was uproariously gay. Some of the dancers were singing. Now and then a man's voice bellowed through the clamour like the blare of a bull.
Whenever this happened, the man at the table smiled to himself a faint, thin-lipped smile, and the woman at the window shivered again.
Suddenly, during a lull, he spoke. He was counting out the cards into heaps with lightning rapidity, turning up one here and there, and he did not raise his eyes from his occupation.
"I say, you know," he said in a drawl that was slightly nasal, "you will have to tell me how old you are. Is that an obstacle?"
She wheeled round at the first deliberate syllable. The electric light flared upon her pale, proud face. She stood in dead silence, looking at him.
"You mustn't mind," he said persuasively, still without lifting his eyes. "I swear I'll never tell. Come now!"
Very quietly she turned and closed the window; then with a certain stateliness she advanced to the table at which he sat, and stopped before it.
"I think you are making a mistake," she said, in a voice that had a hint of girlish sweetness about it despite its formality.
He looked up then with a jerk, and the next instant was on his feet.
"Gad! I'm tremendously sorry! What must you take me for? I took you for Mrs. Damer. I beg you will forgive me."
She smiled a little, and some of the severity went out of her face. For a moment that too seemed girlish.
"It is of no consequence. I saw it was a mistake."
"An idiotic mistake!" he declared with emphasis. "And you are not a bit like Mrs. Damer either. Are you waiting for someone? Would you like me to clear out?"
"Certainly not. I am going myself."
"Oh, but don't!" he begged her very seriously. "I shall take it horribly to heart if you do. And really, I don't deserve such a snub as that."
Again she faintly smiled. "I am not feeling malicious, but you are expecting your partner. And I—"
"No, I am not," he asserted. "My partner has basely deserted me for another fellow. I came in here merely because I was wandering about seeking distraction. Please don't go—unless I bore you—in which case you have only to dismiss me."
She turned her eyes questioningly upon the cards before him. "What are you doing with them? Is it a game?"
"Won't you sit down?" he said, "and I will tell you."
She seated herself facing him. "Well?"
He considered the cards for a little, his brows bent. Then, "It is a magician's game," he said. "Let me read your fortune."
Instantly he looked up. "You are not afraid?"
She met his look, a certain wistfulness in her grey eyes. "Oh, no, not afraid—only sceptical."
"Only sceptical!" he echoed. "That is a worldwide complaint. But anyone with imagination can always pretend. You are not good at pretending?"
His eyes challenged hers. "Perhaps you have never needed an anaesthetic?" he said coolly.
She looked slightly startled. "What do you mean?"
He leaned deliberately forward across the table. "You know what an anaesthetic does, don't you? It cheats the senses of pain. And a little humbug does the same for the mind. Of course you don't believe anything. I don't myself. But you can't stand for ever and contemplate an abyss of utter ignorance. You must weave a little romance about it for the sake of your self-respect."
She looked straight into the challenging eyes. The wistfulness was still in her own. "Then you are offering to weave a little romance for me?" she said, with a faint involuntary sigh.
He made her a brief bow. "If you will permit me to do so."
"To relieve your boredom?" she suggested with a smile.
"And yours," he smiled back, taking up the cards.
She did not contradict him. She only lowered her eyes to the deft hands that were disposing the cards in mystic array upon the table.
There followed a few moments of silence; then in his careless, unmusical drawl the man spoke.
"Do you mind telling me your first name? It is essential to the game, of course, or I shouldn't presume to ask."
"My name is Anne," she said.
The noise below had lessened considerably, and this fact seemed to cause her some relief. The tension had gone out of her bearing. She sat with her chin upon her hand.
Not a beautiful woman by any means, she yet possessed that indescribable charm which attracts almost in spite of itself. There was about her every movement a queenly grace that made her remarkable, and yet she was plainly not one to court attention. Her face in repose had a look of unutterable weariness.
"How old are you please?" said the magician.
He glanced up at her.
"Yes, twenty-five," she repeated. "I am twenty-five to-day."
He looked at her fixedly for a few seconds, then in silence returned to his cards.
She continued to watch him without much interest. The dance-music was quickening to the finale. The hubbub of voices had died away. Evidently a good many people had ceased to dance.
Suddenly her companion spoke. "Do you like diamonds?"
She smiled at the question. "Yes, I like them. I haven't a passion for them."
"No," he said, without raising his eyes. "You haven't a passion for anything at present. You will have soon."
"I think it very unlikely," she said.
"Of course you do." He was manoeuvring the cards rapidly with one hand. "Your eyes have not been opened yet. I see an exciting time before you. You are going to have an illness first. That comes in the near future."
"I have never been ill in my life," she said.
"No? It will be an experience for you, then—not a very painful one, I hope. Are you getting nervous?"
"Not in the least."
"Ah! That's as well, because here comes the King of Diamonds. He has taken a decided fancy to you, and if you have any heart at all, which I can't discover, you ought to end by being the Queen. No, here comes the Knave—confound his impudence!—and, by Jove, yes, followed by the missing heart. I am glad you have got one anyway, even if the King is not in it. It looks as if you will have some trouble with that Knave, so beware of him." He glanced up at her for a moment. "Beware of him!" he repeated deliberately. "He is a dangerous scamp. The King is the man for you."
She received his caution with that faint smile of hers that softened her face but never seemed to reach her eyes.
He continued his contemplation of the cards in silence for some seconds. "Yes," he said finally, "I see an exciting future before you. I hope you will look out for me when you come into your own. I should value your majesty's favour immensely."
"I will give you a place at court as the Queen's jester," she said.
He glanced up again sharply, met her smile, and bowed with much ceremony. "Your majesty's most humble servant!" he declared, "I enter upon my functions from this day forward. You will see my cap and bells in the forefront of the throng when you ride to your coronation."
"You are sure there will be a coronation?" she asked.
"It is quite evident," he replied with conviction.
"Even though I chance to be married already?"
He raised his brows. "That so?" he drawled. "Well, it rather complicates matters, doesn't it? Still—" He looked again at the cards. "It seems pretty certain. If it weren't for that hobgoblin of a Knave I should say it was quite so. He comes between the King and the heart, you see. I shouldn't be too intimate with him if I were you."
She rose, still smiling. "I shall certainly keep him at a respectful distance," she said. "Good-bye."
"Oh, are you going? Let me escort you! Really, I've nothing else to do." He swept the cards together and sprang to his feet. "Where may I take you? Would you like some refreshment?"
She accepted his proffered arm though she instantly negatived his proposal. "Shall we go down to the vestibule? No doubt you have a partner for the next dance."
"Have you?" he questioned keenly.
"That is beside the point," she remarked.
"Not at all. It is the centre and crux of the situation. Do say you are disengaged for the next!" His manner became almost boyishly eager. He had shed his drawl like a garment. "Say it!" he insisted.
She stood in the doorway as one halting between two opinions. "But if I am not disengaged?" she said.
He laughed. "There is a remedy for that, I fancy. And the Queen can do no wrong. Don't be a slave to the great god Convention! He's such a hideous bore."
His bold dark eyes smiled freely into hers. It was evident that he wasted little time before the shrine of the deity he condemned. But for all their mastery, they held a certain persuasive charm as well. She hesitated a moment longer—and was lost.
"Well, where shall we go?"
"I know of an excellent sitting-out place if your majesty will deign to accompany me," he said, "a corner where one can see without being seen—always an advantage, you will allow."
"You seem to know this place rather well," she observed, as she suffered him to lead her away in triumph.
He smiled shrewdly. "A wise general always studies his ground," he said.
THE QUEEN'S JESTER
The chosen corner certainly had the advantage of privacy. It was an alcove at the end of one of the long narrow passages in which the ancient hostelry abounded, and the only light it boasted filtered through a square aperture in the wall which once had held a window. Through this aperture the curious could spy into the hall below, which just then was thronged with dancers who were crowding out of the ballroom and drifting towards the refreshment-room, the entrance to which was also visible.
An ancient settee had been placed in this coign of vantage, and upon this they established themselves by mutual consent.
The man was laughing a little below his breath. "I feel like a refugee," he said.
His companion leaned her arms upon the narrow row sill and gazed downwards. "A refugee from boredom?" she suggested. "We are all that, more or less."
"I dispute that," he said at once. "It is only the bores who are ever bored."
"And I dispute that," she replied, without turning, "of necessity, in self-defence."
He leaned forward to catch the light upon her profile. "You are bored?"
She smiled faintly in the gloom. "That is why I have engaged the services of a jester."
"By Jove," he said, "I'm glad you pitched on me."
She made a slight movement of impatience. "Isn't it rather futile to say that sort of thing?"
"Why?" he asked.
"Because you know quite well it was not a matter of choice."
"Rather a matter of manque de mieux?" he suggested coolly.
She turned from her contemplation of the crowd below. "I am not going to contradict you," she said, "I never foster amour propre in a man. It is always a plant of hardy growth."
"'Hardy' is not the word," he declared. "Say 'rank,' and you will be nearer the mark. I fully endorse your opinion. We are a race of conceited, egotistical jackanapeses, and we all think we are going to lick creation till a pretty woman comes along and makes us dance to her piping like a row of painted marionettes. But is the pretty woman any the happier, do you think, for tumbling us thus ruthlessly off our pedestals? I sometimes wonder if the sight of the sawdust doesn't make her wish she hadn't."
The drawl in his voice was very apparent as he uttered the last sentence. His chin was propped upon his hands. He was obviously studying her with a deliberate criticism that observed and considered every detail.
But his scrutiny held without embarrassing her. She met it with no conscious effort.
"I can't bear cynicism," she told him frankly.
He shrugged his shoulders. "Cynics—real cynics—never can."
"But I am not a cynic."
"Are you sure of that?"
"Yes, quite sure."
"And yet you tell me that you never take the trouble to flatter the inferior male. That's conflicting evidence, you know. Are you a man-hater, by the way?"
She shivered as if at a sudden draught. "I'm not prepared to answer that question off-hand." she said.
"Very prudent of you!" he commented. "Do you know I owe you an apology?"
"I shouldn't have said so."
"No? Well, let me confess. I'm rather good at confessing. I didn't believe you just now when you said you were twenty-five. Now I do. That single streak of prudence was proof absolute and convincing."
"I usually tell the truth," she said somewhat stiffly.
"Yes, it takes a genius to lie properly. I am not so good at it myself as I should like to be. But a woman of twenty-five ought not to look like a princess of eighteen—a tired princess moreover, who ought to have been sent to bed long ago."
Her laugh had in it a note of bitterness. "You certainly are not the sort of genius you aspire to be," she said, "any more than I am a princess of eighteen."
"But you will be a queen at thirty," he said. "Hullo! Here is someone coming! Don't speak, and p'r'aps they won't discover us. They can't stay long."
He rose swiftly with the words and blocked the little spy-hole with his body. Certainly footsteps were approaching, but they ceased before they reached the alcove at the end of the passage. There was another settee midway.
"Oh, this is quite comfortable," said a woman's voice. "Here I am, Major Shirley! It's dark, isn't it, but rather a relief after the glare downstairs. What a crush it is! I am beginning to think the Hunt Ball rather a farce, for it is next to impossible to dance."
"People don't know how to dance nowadays," grumbled Major Shirley in response. "I can't stand these American antics. That young Nap Errol fairly sickens me."
"Oh, but he is a splendid dancer," protested his partner tolerantly.
"Oh course you say so," growled the Major. "All women like that horrid little whipper-snapper. I can't see what in thunder they find to attract them. I call him a downright cad myself, and I'm inclined to think him a blackguard as well. He wouldn't be tolerated if it weren't for his dollars, and they all belong to his brother, I'm told."
"Ah! He is a charming man. Such a pity he is a cripple!"
"He would probably be as insufferable as Nap if he weren't," rejoined the Major gloomily. "I can't think what the County are coming to. They will accept anybody nowadays, it seems to me. I even met that little bounder at the Rifle Club the other day. Heaven knows how he got in. Dollars again, I suppose, confound his audacity!"
His partner made a slight movement of uneasiness. "I wonder where he is. I haven't seen him for some time. I hope he isn't anywhere within earshot."
"Not he! He is stowed away in some corner well out of the way with his latest conquest. He won't turn up again this evening. He never does when once he goes to earth—the wily young fox."
"Who is his latest conquest, I wonder?" mused the woman. "I thought it was Mrs. Damer. But I have just seen her dancing with young Waring."
"Mrs. Damer! Why, that was the day before yesterday!" The Major laughed unpleasantly. "'Anyone for a change, but no one for long,' is his motto. The fellow is an infernal bounder through and through. He will get a sound hiding one of these days, and serve him jolly well right, say I!"
"My dear Major, how you hate him! Anyone would think he had tried to flirt with Violet."
"He'd better," growled the Major.
There came a slight sound from the darkness of the alcove, as though someone faintly chuckled.
"What's that?" asked the woman's voice nervously.
"Nothing—nothing!" said the Major testily. "Somebody laughing in the hall. I wonder where my wife is. I shall clear out soon. I'm tired of this show. Haven't had a decent dance all the evening. Shouldn't think you have either. They ought to build a Town Hall in this place, and do the thing properly."
"There is some talk of it, you know. Now that there is a millionaire in the neighbourhood it really might be done. The Carfaxes would help too, I am sure. Sir Giles is very open-handed."
"Drunken beast!" commented the Major. "A pretty spectacle he has been making of himself to-night. He is sitting in a corner of the refreshment-room now absolutely incapable. He reached the noisy stage very early in the evening. I am not sure that he even came sober."
"No! Isn't it too pitiful for words? That young wife of his! I can't think how she endures it. It must be positive martyrdom."
"Lady Carfax is a fool!" said the Major crossly. "I can't stand these martyrs. If she leads a dog's life it's her own fault. She's a fool to put up with it."
"Perhaps she can't help herself," pleaded the woman.
"Stuff and nonsense! No woman need be the slave of a drunken sot like that. It's a downright offence to me to be in the same room with the fellow. He always reeks of drink. And she has, or professes to have, a certain amount of refinement. Not much, I dare say. She was nothing but his bailiff's daughter, you know, and people of that class don't generally suffer from an exaggerated sense of duty. She probably sticks to the man because she wants to keep in with the County. I don't like the woman, never did. Her airs and graces always rub me up wrong way. Why couldn't Sir Giles have married in his own set? He probably wouldn't be so fond of the whiskey bottle now if he had."
"I must say I like Lady Carfax," broke in the woman with decision. "Whatever her origin, that queenliness of hers is not assumed. I believe her to be intensely reserved, and, perhaps for that very reason, I have a genuine admiration for her."
"My dear Mrs. Randal, you'd find points to admire in a wax candle," grunted the Major. "She always makes me think of one; pale and pure and saintly—I can't stand the type. Let's go downstairs and find Violet."
"Oh, not saintly, I think," protested Mrs. Randal charitably. "Saintly people are so uninteresting."
The Major laughed. He was already on his feet.
"Probably not—probably not. But a show of saintliness is more than enough to frighten me away. A woman who can't understand a wink I invariably strike forthwith off my visiting-list."
"How cruel of you!" laughed Mrs. Randal. They were already moving away down the corridor. Her voice receded as they went. "But I can't understand any man daring to wink at Lady Carfax; I can't, indeed."
"That's just what I complain about," grumbled Major Shirley. "Those wax-candle sort of women never see a joke. What fools they are to leave the place in darkness like this! Can you see where you are going?"
"Yes, we are just at the head of the stairs. It is rather foolish as you say. People might hurt themselves."
"Of course they might. Infernally dangerous. I shall complain."
The voices fell away into distance; the band in the ballroom struck up again, and the woman on the settee in the alcove sat up and prepared to rise.
"Suppose we go down now," she said.
Her companion moved away from the little window as one coming out of a reverie. "Our gallant Major Shirley seems somewhat disgruntled tonight," he said. "Do you know him?"
"Yes, I know him." Her words fell with icy precision.
"So do I." The man's tone was one of sheer amusement. "I had the pleasure of meeting him at the Rifle Club the other day. Someone introduced us. It was great fun. If there were a little more light, I would show you what he looked like. For some reason he wasn't pleased. Do you really want to go downstairs though? It is much nicer here."
She had risen. They were facing one another in the twilight. "Yes," she said, and though still quiet her voice was not altogether even. "I want to go, please."
"Mayn't I tell you something first?" he said.
She stood silent, evidently waiting for his communication.
"It's not of paramount importance," he said. "But I think you may as well know it for your present edification and future guidance. Madam, I am that wicked, wanton, wily fox, that whipper-snapper, that unmitigated bounder—Nap Errol!"
He made the announcement with supreme complacence. It was evident that he felt not the faintest anxiety as to how she would receive it. There was even a certain careless hauteur about him as though the qualities he thus frankly enumerated were to him a source of pride.
She heard him with no sign of astonishment. "I knew it," she said quietly. "I have known you by sight for some time."
"And you were not afraid to speak to such a dangerous scoundrel?" he said.
"You don't strike me as being very formidable," she answered. "Moreover, if you remember, it was you who spoke first."
"To be sure," he said. "It was all of a piece with my habitual confounded audacity. Shall I tell you something more? I wonder whether I dare."
"Wait!" she said imperatively. "It is my turn to tell you something, though it is more than possible that you know it already. Mr. Errol, I am—Lady Carfax!"
He bowed low. "I did know," he said, in a tone from which all hint of banter had departed. "But I thank you none the less for telling me. I much doubted if you would. And that brings me to my second—or is it my third?—confession. I did not take you for Mrs. Damer in the card-room a little while ago. I took you for no one but yourself. No man of ordinary intelligence could do otherwise. But I had been wanting to make your acquaintance all the evening, and no one would be kind enough to present me. So I took the first opportunity that occurred, trusting to the end to justify the means."
"But why have you told me?" she said.
"Because I think you are a woman who appreciates the truth."
"I am," she said. "But I do not often hear it as I have heard it to-night"
He put out his hand to her impulsively. "Say, Lady Carfax, let me go and kick that old scandal-monger into the middle of next week!"
Involuntarily almost she gave her hand in return. "No, you mustn't," she said, laughing faintly. "The fault was ours. You know the ancient adage about listeners. We deserved it all."
"Don't talk about deserts!" he exclaimed, with unexpected vehemence. "He doesn't deserve to have a whole bone left in his body for speaking of you so. Neither do I for suffering it in my presence!"
She freed her hand gently. "You could not have done otherwise. Believe me, I am not altogether sorry that you were with me when it happened. It is just as well that you should know the truth, and I could not have told it you myself. Come, shall we go down?"
"Wait a minute!" he said. "Let me know how I stand with you first. Have you decided to pass over that lie of mine, or are you going to cut me next time we meet?"
"I shall not cut you," she said.
"You are going to acknowledge me then with the coldest of nods, which is even more damnable," he returned, with gloomy conviction.
She hesitated for an instant. Then, "Mr. Errol," she said gently, "will you believe me when I say that, however I treat you in the future, that lie of yours will in no way influence me? You have helped me much more than you realise by your trifling to-night. I am not sure that you meant to do so. But I am grateful to you all the same."
"Then we are friends?" said Nap, quickly.
"Yes, we are friends; but it is very unlikely that we shall meet again. I cannot invite you to call."
"And you won't call either on my mother?" he asked.
"I am afraid not."
He was silent a moment. Then, "So let it be!" he said. "But I fancy we shall meet again notwithstanding. So au revoir, Lady Carfax! Can you find your own way down?"
She understood in an instant the motive that prompted the question, and the impulse to express her appreciation of it would not be denied. She extended her hand with an assumption of royal graciousness that did not cloak her gratitude. "Good-bye, Sir Jester!" she said.
He took her fingers gallantly upon his sleeve and touched them with his lips. "Farewell to your most gracious majesty!" he responded.
THE CHARIOT OF THE GODS
The Hunt Ball was over, and Mrs. Damer, wife of the M.F.H., was standing on the steps of the Carfax Arms, bidding the last members of the Hunt farewell.
Nap Errol was assisting her. He often did assist Mrs. Damer with that careless, half-insolent gallantry of his that no woman ever dreamed of resenting. Like his namesake of an earlier date he held his own wherever he went by sheer, stupendous egotism.
The crowd had thinned considerably, the band had begun to pack up. In the refreshment-room waiters were hurrying to and fro.
"Isn't it horrid?" laughed Mrs. Damer, shrugging her shoulders and shivering. "One feels so demoralised at this end of the night. Nap, I wish you would find my husband. I've said good-night to everybody, and I want to go home to bed."
"Lady Carfax hasn't gone yet," observed Nap. "I saw her standing in the doorway of the ladies' cloak-room just now."
"Lady Carfax! Are you sure? I thought they went long ago. Is their carriage waiting then?"
"Yes. It is still there."
Mrs. Damer hastened into the ladies' cloak-room, still half-incredulous.
At her entrance Anne Carfax, clad in a white wrap that made her face look ghastly, turned from the dying fire.
"My dear Lady Carfax!" exclaimed Mrs. Damer. "I quite thought you left ages ago. What is it? Is anything the matter?"
The pale lips smiled. "No, nothing, thank you. I am only waiting for my husband."
"Ah! Then we are in the same plight. I am waiting for mine." Mrs. Damer hastened to veil her solicitude, which was evidently unwelcome. She caught up her cloak and began to fumble with it. The attendant had gone.
"Let me!" said Anne, in her quiet voice, and took it from her.
Her fingers touched Mrs. Damer's neck, and Mrs. Damer shivered audibly. "Thank you, thank you! You are as cold as ice. Are you well wrapped up?"
"Yes, quite. I am never very warm, you know. It is not my nature. Is Mr. Damer ready? I hope you will not delay your departure on my account. Sir Giles will not be long, I think."
"We will send Nap Errol to find him," said Mrs. Damer.
"Oh, no, thank you. That is quite unnecessary. Please do not trouble about me. A few minutes more or less make little difference."
The words came with the patience of deadly weariness. She was still faintly smiling as she wound a scarf about Mrs. Damer's head.
"I am quite ready, you see," she said. "I shall leave the moment he appears."
"My dear Lady Carfax, you have the patience of a saint. I am afraid Phil does not find me so long-suffering." Mrs. Damer bustled back into the hall. "Are you there, Nap? Do see if you can find Sir Giles. Poor Lady Carfax is half-dead with cold and fit to drop with fatigue. Go and tell him so."
"Please do nothing of the sort," said Lady Carfax behind her. "No doubt he will come when he is ready."
Nap Errol looked from one to the other with swift comprehension in his glance. "Let me put you into your carriage first, Mrs. Damer," he said, offering his arm. "Your husband is busy for the moment—some trifling matter. He begs you will not wait for him. I will drive him back in my motor. I have to pass your way, you know."
Mrs. Damer shook hands hurriedly with Lady Carfax and went with him. There was something imperative about Nap just then. They passed out together on to the baize-covered pavement, and Anne Carfax breathed a faint sigh of relief.
A few seconds later the Damer carriage was clattering down the street, and Nap Errol was once more by her side.
"Look here," he said. "Let me take you home in my motor first. No one will know."
She looked at him, her lips quivering a little as though they still tried to smile. "Thank you very much," she said. "But—I think not."
"No one will ever know," he reiterated. "I will just set you down at your own door and go away. Come, Lady Carfax!" His dark eyes gazed straight into her own, determined, dominating. The high cheek-bones and long, lean jaw looked as though fashioned in iron.
"Come!" he said again.
She made a slight forward movement as if to yield, and then drew back again. "Really, I had better wait and go with my husband," she said.
"You had better not!" he said with emphasis. "I have just seen him. He is in the smoke-room. I won't tell you what he is like. You probably know. But if you are a wise woman you will leave him for Damer to look after, and come with me."
That decided her. She threw the hood of her cloak over her head and turned in silence to the door.
Errol paused to pull on an overcoat and then followed her on to the steps. A large covered motor had just glided up. He handed her into it. "By Jove, you are cold!" he said.
She made no rejoinder.
He stepped in beside her, after a word with the chauffeur, and shut the door.
Almost instantly they were in motion, and in another moment were shooting forward swiftly down the long, ill-lighted street.
Anne Carfax sank back in her corner and lay motionless. The glare of the little electric lamp upon her face showed it white and tired. Her eyes were closed.
The man beside her sat bolt upright, his eyes fixed unblinkingly upon the window in front, his jaw set grimly. He held the gloves he had worn all the evening between his hands, and his fingers worked at them unceasingly. He was rending the soft kid to ribbons.
They left the desolate street behind and came into total darkness.
Suddenly, but very quietly, Anne spoke. "This is very kind of you, Mr. Errol."
He turned towards her. She had opened her eyes to address him, but the lids drooped heavily.
"The kindness is on your side, Lady Carfax," he said deliberately. "If you manage to inspire it in others, the virtue is still your own."
She smiled and closed her eyes again. It was evident that she did not desire to talk.
He looked away from her, glanced at his torn gloves, and tossed them impatiently from him.
For ten minutes neither spoke. The car ran smoothly on through the night like an inspired chariot of the gods. There was no sound of wheels. They seemed to be borne on wings.
For ten minutes the man sat staring stonily before him, rigid as a statue, while the woman lay passive by his side.
But at the end of that ten minutes the speed began to slacken. They came softly to earth and stopped.
Errol opened the door and alighted. "Have you a key?" he said, as he gave her his hand.
She stood above him, looking downwards half-dreamily as one emerging from a deep slumber.
"Do you know," she said, beginning to smile, "I thought that you were the Knave of Diamonds?"
"You've been asleep," he said rather curtly.
She gave a slight shudder as the night air brought her back, and in a moment, like the soft dropping of a veil, her reserve descended upon her.
"I am afraid I have," she said, "Please excuse me. Are we already at the Manor? Yes, I have the key."
She took his hand and stepped down beside him.
"Good night, Mr. Errol," she said. "And thank you."
He did not offer to accompany her to the door. A light was burning within, and he merely stood till he heard the key turn in the lock, then stepped back into the motor and slammed it shut without response of any sort to her last words.
Anne Carfax was left wondering if her dream had been a cause of offense.
"Oh, bother! It's cake morning." Dot Waring turned from the Rectory breakfast-table with a flourish of impatience. "And I do so want to hear all about it," she said. "You might have come down earlier, Ralph."
"My good sister," said the rector's son, helping himself largely to bread and honey, "consider yourself lucky that I have come down at all after dancing half the night with Mrs. Damer, who is no light weight."
"You didn't, Ralph! I am quite sure you didn't! I'm not going to believe anything so absurd." Nevertheless she paused on her way to the door for further details.
"All right. I didn't," said Ralph complacently. "And Sir Giles didn't get drunk as a lord and tumble about the ballroom, and yell comic—awfully comic—songs, till someone hauled him off to the refreshment-room and filled him up with whiskey till he could sing no more!"
"Oh, Ralph! Not really! How utterly beastly! Was Lady Carfax there?"
"She was at first, but she cleared out. I don't know where she went to."
"Oh, poor Lady Carfax! How horrid for her! Ralph, I—I could kick that man!"
"So could I," said Ralph heartily, "if someone would kindly hold him for me. He is a drunken blackguard, and if he doesn't end in an asylum, I shall never express a medical opinion again."
"P'r'aps he'll die of apoplexy first," said Dot vindictively.
"Whatever he dies of," said Ralph, "I shall attend his funeral with the greatest pleasure. Hadn't you better go and make that cake? I shall want it by tea-time."
"You are a pig!" the girl declared, pushing the sunny hair back from her gay young face. "Isn't Bertie late this morning? Perhaps he isn't coming. Dad won't be able to take him anyhow, for old Squinny is bad again and sent for him in a hurry."
"That wretched old humbug! That means more beef-tea, not approaching dissolution. Old Squinny will never dissolve in the ordinary way."
"Well, I must go." Dot reached the door and began to swing it to and fro, gathering impetus for departure. "By the way, was Bertie there?" she asked.
"Bertie Errol, of course. Who else?"
"There are plenty of Berties in the world," remarked Ralph, helping himself again to bread and honey. "No, Bertram Errol was not present. But Napoleon Errol was. It was he who so kindly shunted Mrs. Damer on to me. Nota bene! Give Napoleon Errol a wide berth in future. He has the craft of a conjurer and the subtlety of a serpent. I believe he is a Red Indian, myself."
"Oh, Ralph, he isn't! He is as white as you are."
"He isn't white at all," Ralph declared, "outside or in. Outside he is the colour of a mangold-wurzel, and inside he is as black as ink. You will never get that cake made if you don't go."
"Oh, bother!" Dot swung open the door for the last time, turned to depart, and then exclaimed in a very different tone, "Why, Bertie, so here you are! We were just talking of you."
A straight, well-made youth, with a brown face that laughed good-temperedly, was advancing through the hall.
"Hullo!" he said, halting at the doorway. "Awfully nice of you! What were you saying, I wonder? Hullo, Ralph! Only just down, you lazy beggar? Ought to be ashamed of yourself."
He stood, slapping his riding-boots with a switch, looking at Dot with the direct eyes of good-fellowship. His eyes were clear and honest as a child's.
"Dad's away," said Dot. "He was sent for early this morning."
"Is he though? That means a holiday. What shall we do?"
"I don't know what you will do," said Dot. "I am going to bake cakes."
"I'll come and bake cakes too," said Bertie promptly. "I'm rather a swell at that. I can make fudge too, real American fudge, the most aristocratic thing on the market. It's a secret, of course, but I'll let you into it, if you'll promise not to tell."
"How do you know I can keep a secret?" laughed Dot, leading the way to the kitchen.
"You would keep a promise," he said with conviction.
"If I made one," she threw back.
"I would trust you without," he declared.
"Very rash of you! I wonder if you are as trustworthy as that."
"My word is my bond—always," said Bertie.
She turned and looked at him critically. "Yes, I think it is," she admitted. "You are quite the honestest boy I ever met. They ought to have called you George Washington."
"You may if you like," said Bertie.
She laughed—her own inexpressibly gay laugh. "All right, George! It suits you perfectly. I always did think Bertie was a silly name. Why didn't you go to the Hunt Ball last night?"
Bertie's merry face sobered. "My brother wasn't so well yesterday. I was reading to him half the night. He couldn't sleep, and Tawny Hudson is no good for that sort of thing."
The merriment went out of Dot's face too. It grew softer, older, more womanly. "You are very good to your brother," she said.
He frowned abruptly. "Good to him! Great Scot! Why, he's miles too good for any of us. Don't ever class him with Nap or me! We're just ordinary sinners. But he—he's a king."
A queer little gleam that was not all mirth made Dot's eyes grow brighter. "I like you for saying that," she said.
"Why, of course I say it!" he protested. "It's true! He's the finest chap in the world, all true gold and not a grain of dross. That's how it is we all knock under to him. Even Nap does that, though he doesn't care a tinker's curse for anyone else on this muddy little planet."
"You are awfully fond of him, aren't you?" said Dot sympathetically.
"Fond of Lucas! I'd die for him!" the boy declared with feeling. "He's father and brother and friend to me. There isn't anything I wouldn't do for him. Did you ever hear how he came to be a cripple?"
"Never," said Dot.
"He was knocked down by an electric car," Bertie said, rushing through the story with headlong ardour, "trying to save his best girl's dog from being run over. He did save it, but he was frightfully hurt—paralysed for months. It's years ago now. I was only a little shaver at the time. But I shall never forget it. He always was good to me, and I thought he was done for."
"And the girl?" asked Dot rather breathlessly.
"Married an English nobleman," he rejoined, with a brevity that spoke volumes. "I say, what about those cakes? Hadn't we better begin?"
Dot turned her attention to the fire. "I should like to meet your brother," she remarked. "I've never spoken to a real flesh-and-blood hero in my life."
"Nothing easier," said Bertie promptly. "Come over and have tea. Come this afternoon, you and Ralph."
But Dot hesitated in evident doubt. "I don't know what Dad would say," she said.
"Oh, rats! He wouldn't mind. And my mother would be delighted. Come early and I'll show you the hunters. Nap has just bought a beauty. She's a blood mare, black as ink."
"Like Nap," said Dot absently; then in haste, "No, I didn't mean that. I wasn't thinking."
Bertie was looking at her shrewdly. "What do you know about Nap?" he said.
She coloured deeply. "Nothing, nothing whatever. I only know him by sight."
"And you don't like him?"
"I—I think he looks rather wicked," she stammered.
Bertie grunted. "Do you think I look wicked too?"
"Of course I don't. No one could."
He laughed. "That's all right. You can think what you like of Nap. Everybody does. But even he is not all bad, you know."
"I'm sure he isn't. But—but—" Desperately Dot turned from the fire and faced him. "I've got to say it, Bertie," she said rather piteously. "Please don't be offended. You know I—I'm young. I don't know many people. And—and—though I would like to know your eldest brother immensely, I think I won't come to Baronmead if Nap is there. My father doesn't want me to meet him—unless I am obliged."
She uttered the last words in evident distress. Bertie's face had grown quite serious, even stern. He was looking at her with a directness which for the first time in their acquaintance she found disconcerting.
He did not speak for several seconds. At length, "How old are you?" he said abruptly.
"Eighteen," she murmured.
He continued to look at her speculatively. "Well," he said at length, speaking with something of a twang, "I guess your father knows what he's about, but it beats me to understand why he has me here to study. I guess I'd better shunt."
"Oh, please don't!" she said quickly. "It isn't you at all. It's only Nap."
"Damn Nap!" said Bertie, with some fervour. "Oh, does that shock you? I forgot you were a parson's daughter. Well, it may be your father is right after all. Anyway, I shan't quarrel with him so long as he doesn't taboo me too."
"He won't do that," said Dot, with confidence. "He likes you."
Bertie's good-looking face began to smile again. "Well, I'm not a blackguard anyway," he said. "And I never shall be if you keep on being kind to me. That's understood, is it? Then shake!"
They shook, and Dot realised with relief that the difficult subject was dismissed.
THE FIRST ENCOUNTER
It was a week after the Hunt Ball that Anne Carfax, sitting alone at tea in her drawing-room before a blazing fire, was surprised by the sudden opening of the door, and the announcement of old Dimsdale the butler, "Mr. Nap Errol to see your ladyship!"
She rose to meet him, her surprise in her face, and he, entering with that light, half-stealthy tread of his, responded to it before his hand touched hers.
"I know my presence is unexpected, and my welcome precarious, but as none of my friends have been able to give me any news of you, I determined to chance my reception and come myself to inquire for your welfare."
"You are very good," said Anne, but she spoke with a certain stateliness notwithstanding. There was no pleasure in her eyes.
Nap, however, was sublimely self-assured. "I am beginning to think I must be," he said, "since you say so. For I know you to be strictly truthful."
Anne made no response. She did not even smile.
"I am in luck to find you alone," proceeded Nap, surveying her with bold dark eyes that were nothing daunted by her lack of cordiality.
"My husband will be in soon," she answered quietly.
"I shall be delighted to make his acquaintance," said Nap imperturbably. "Has he been hunting?"
"Yes." Anne's tone was distant. She seemed to be unaware of the fact that her visitor was still on his feet.
But Nap knew no embarrassment. He stood on the hearth with his back to the fire. "You ought to hunt," he said. "Why don't you?"
"I do—occasionally," Anne said.
"What's the good of that? You ought to regularly. There's nothing like it. Say, Lady Carfax, why don't you?" He smiled upon her disarmingly. "Are you wondering if I take one lump or two? I take neither, and no milk, please."
Against her will she faintly smiled.
"I thought that was it," said Nap. "Why didn't you ask me? Are these scones in the fender? May I offer you one?"
He dropped upon his knees to pick up the dish, and in that attitude humbly proffered it to her.
She found it impossible to remain ungracious. She could only seat herself at the tea-table and abandon the attempt.
"Sit down and help yourself," she said.
He pulled a large hassock to him and sat facing her. "Now we can be sociable," he said. "Really, you know, you ought to hunt more often. I have never seen you in the field once. What on earth do you do with yourself?"
"Many things," said Anne.
"What things?" he persisted.
"I help my husband to the best of my ability with the estate and try to keep an eye on the poorest tenants. And then I practise the piano a good deal. I haven't time for much besides."
"I say, do you play?" said Nap, keenly interested. "I do myself, a little, not the piano—the violin. Lucas likes it, or I suppose I should have given it up long ago. But I generally have to manage without an accompaniment. There is no one can accompany at our place. It's a bit thin, you know, playing by yourself."
Anne's face reflected his interest. "Tell me more about it," she said. "What sort of music do you care for?"
"Oh, anything, from Christmas carols to sonatas. I never play to please myself, and Lucas has very varied tastes."
"He is your elder brother?" questioned Anne.
"Yes, and one of the best." Nap spoke with unwonted feeling. "He is hopelessly crippled, poor chap, and suffers infernally. I often wonder why he puts up with it. I should have shot myself long ago, had I been in his place."
"Perhaps he is a good man," Anne said.
He shot her a keen glance. "What do you mean by a good man?"
"I mean a man who does his duty without shirking."
"Is that your ideal?" he said, "There are plenty of men that do that, and yet their lives are anything but blameless."
"Quite possibly," she agreed. "But if a man does his duty, he has not lived in vain. It can be no man's duty to destroy himself."
"And how would you define 'duty'?" said Nap.
She let her eyes meet his for a moment. "I can only define it for myself," she said.
"Will you do so for my benefit?" he asked.
A faint colour rose to her face. She looked past him into the fire. There was a deep sadness about her lips as she made reply.
"I have not been given much to do. I have to content myself with 'the work that's nearest.'"
Nap was watching her closely. "And if I did the same," he questioned in a drawl that was unmistakably supercilious, "should I be a good man?"
"I don't know what your capabilities are," she said.
"I have vast capabilities for evil," he told her, with a cynical twist of his thin-lipped mouth.
She met his look again. "I am sorry," she said.
"Are you really? But why? Doesn't the devil attract you? Honestly now!" He leaned forward, staring straight at her, challenging her. "I tell you frankly," he said, "I am not what you would call a good man. But—the truth, mind!—would you like me any better if I were?"
She smiled a little. There was undoubted fascination in the upturned face with its fiery eyes and savage jaw. Perhaps the lips were cruel, but they were not coarse. They were keenly sensitive.
She did not answer him immediately, and during the pause his eyes never flinched from hers. They were alive, glowing with insistence.
"Yes," she said at length. "Quite honestly, I do prefer good men."
"That wasn't exactly what I asked," said Nap, thrusting out his chin.
"I think you are capable of drawing your own conclusions," she answered gently.
His look fell away from her. He began to munch scone with a contemplative air.
Anne gave him some tea, and he set it on the hearthrug between his feet. The silence became lengthy. She was conscious of something in the atmosphere that made her vaguely uneasy. Was it a cat he resembled, crouching there in front of her? No, there was nothing domestic about him though she had a feeling that he could purr when he was pleased. Yes, there was undoubtedly something feline about him, a supple grace, a noiselessness, a guile, that made her aware of the necessity for caution in her dealings with him. This was a man of many subtleties—she knew it instinctively—a man of tigerish temperament, harmless as a kitten in sunshine, merciless as a fiend in storm. Yes, he was certainly like a tiger, forcible even in repose. She had never before encountered so dominant a personality. It affected her strangely, half-attracting, half-repelling, arousing in her a sense of antagonism that yet was not aversion.
"I wish you would say all that out loud," said Nap. "You have such interesting thoughts, it is really selfish of you not to express them."
"Surely not," she said, "if you know what they are."
He gave her an odd look as he lifted his tea-cup.
"The Queen's jester is a privileged person," he said. "When the door of her pleasaunce is closed to him he climbs up and looks over the wall."
"Not always a discreet proceeding, I fear," Anne remarked.
"Discretion, Lady Carfax, is but another term for decrepitude. I have detected no symptoms of the disease at present." He drained his tea with an arrogant gesture and handed the cup for more. "Which is the exact reason why I have no intention of remaining on the top of the wall," he said. "I will have a stronger dose this time, please."
An unsteady hand began to fumble at the door, and Anne glanced up with a start. The blood rose to her face. "I think it is my husband," she said, in a low voice.
Nap did not turn his head or answer. He sat motionless, still staring at her, till the door began to open. Then, with a sudden, lithe movement, he rose and kicked the hassock to one side.
A big man in riding-dress tramped heavily into the room, and stopped in the centre, peering before him under scowling brows. Not the kindest of critics could have called Sir Giles Carfax handsome, though every feature in his face was well formed. The blotchy complexion of the man and his eyes of glaring malice marred him all too completely. He looked about fifty, to judge by his iron-grey hair and moustache, but he might have been less. He had immensely powerful shoulders that stooped a little.
He continued to stand in the middle of the room and glare at the visitor till Anne quietly bridged the gulf.
"This is Mr. Nap Errol, Giles. Mr. Errol—my husband."
She made the introduction without a tremor, but she kept her eyes downcast as if she did not wish to see them meet. Perhaps she divined that a gleam of supercilious humour flickered in Nap's eyes as he made easy response.
"I have been waiting for the pleasure of meeting you," he drawled. "I dropped in on the chance, and Lady Carfax assured me you wouldn't be long."
Sir Giles scowled more heavily than before. He shot a malignant glance at his wife.
"Who in thunder made her so clever?" he growled. "And what did you want to see me for? Have I ever met you before?"
His voice was thick, the words somewhat difficult to distinguish.
Nap's smile was unmistakably sardonic. "Many times," he said. "You nearly rode over me on the last occasion. Doubtless the episode has escaped your memory, but it made a more lasting impression upon mine."
Sir Giles glared offensively, as if he deemed himself insulted. "I remember," he said. "Your animal came down with you. You pushed in front of me. But it was your own fault. You Americans never observe the rules of sport. I'm always glad to see you come a cropper."
"I am sure of it," said Nap politely. "It must gratify you immensely."
Sir Giles uttered a brief, snarling laugh, and advanced abruptly to the hearth. He towered above the slim American, but the latter did not appear to shirk comparison with him. With his hands in his pockets he nonchalantly opposed his insolence to the other man's half-tipsy tyranny.
And Anne Carfax sat silent behind the tea-table and endured the encounter with a mask-like patience that betrayed no faintest hint of what she carried in her heart.
"Well, what do you want to see me for?" Sir Giles demanded, with a ferocious kick at the coals.
Nap was quite ready with his answer. "I am really here on my brother's behalf. There is a scheme afoot, as no doubt you know, for the building of a Town Hall. My brother considers that the lord of the Manor"—he bowed with thinly-veiled irony—"should have first say in the matter. But I am at liberty to assure you that should you be in favour of the scheme he is ready to offer you his hearty support."
Sir Giles heard him out with lowering brows. It did not improve his temper to see Anne's eyes flash sudden interrogation at Nap's serenely smiling countenance, though he did not suspect the meaning of her glance.
"I am not in favour of the scheme," he said shortly, as Nap ended.
Nap slightly raised his brows. "No? I understood otherwise."
The blood mounted to Sir Giles's forehead. "Either you were misinformed or your intelligence is at fault," he said, with that in his voice that was so nearly an open insult that, for a second, even Nap looked dangerous.
Then quite quietly, without raising her eyes, Anne intervened. "I think you ought to explain to Mr. Errol, Giles, that you have only recently changed your mind."
Sir Giles rounded on her malignantly. "What the devil has that to do with it, or with you, for that matter? Do you think I don't know my own mind? Do you think—"
"I know exactly what Lady Carfax thinks," cut in Nap, moving deliberately so that he stood directly between Sir Giles and the tea-table. His back was turned to Anne, and he kept it so. "And in the main, I agree with her, though my sentiments are a little stronger than hers. I'll tell you exactly what they are some day. I think you would be interested, or at least not bored. But with regard to this Town Hall suggestion, what's wrong with it, anyway? Couldn't you come over and talk it out with my brother? He isn't well enough just now to come to you."
The coolness of this speech took effect. Sir Giles glared for a few moments till the speaker's steady regard became too much for him. Then, with a lurching movement, he turned away.
"No, I won't visit your brother! Why the deuce should I? Do you think I belong to the rag, tag, and bobtail, that'll mix with the very scum of society so long as there's money about? Do you think I'd lower myself to associate with fellows like you?"
"I guess you'd find it difficult," drawled Nap.
He still stood with his back to the tea-table. He seemed to have forgotten the woman who sat so rigid behind him. His fingers drummed a careless tattoo upon the table-edge. He was unquestionably master of the situation, and that without much apparent effort.
And Sir Giles knew it, knew himself to be worsted, and that in his wife's presence. He glanced at her through eyes narrowed to evil slits. Her very impassivity goaded him. It seemed in some fashion to express contempt. With violence he strode to the bell and pealed it vigorously.
On the instant Nap turned. "So long, Lady Carfax!"
She looked up at him. Her lips said nothing, but for that instant her eyes entreated, and his eyes made swift response.
He was smiling with baffling good humour as he turned round to Sir Giles.
"Good-bye, sir! Delighted to have met you. I'll give your message to my brother. It'll amuse him."
He departed without a backward glance as the servant opened the door, elaborately deaf to Sir Giles's half-strangled reply that he might go to the devil and take his brother with him.
He left dead silence in the room behind him, but the moment that the clang of the front door told of his final exit the storm burst.
Sir Giles, livid, stammering with rage, strode up and down and cursed the departed visitor in lurid language, cursed the errand that had brought him, and rated his wife for admitting him.
"I will not know these impertinent, opulent Americans!" was the burden of his maledictions. "As for that damned, insolent bounder, I will never have him in the house again. Understand that! I know him. I've heard Shirley talk of him. The man's a blackguard. And if I ever catch him alone in your company after this, I'll thrash him—do you hear?—I'll thrash him! So now you know what to expect!"
It was at this point that Anne rose, passed quietly, with the bearing of a queen, down the long room, and without a single word or glance went out and closed the door very softly behind her.
AT THE MEET
On one occasion, and one only, in the whole year were the gates of the Manor thrown open to all comers, opulent Americans and impecunious Britons alike. And this was when, in accordance with a custom that had been observed from time immemorial, the foxhounds met upon the Manor lawn.
It was then that Sir Giles, who cursed this obligatory hospitality for weeks beforehand, emerged with a smile as fixed as his scowl, shook hands with the select few whom he deigned to number among his acquaintances and pointedly ignored the many who did not enjoy this privilege.
With old Dimsdale the butler rather than with his master rested the honours of the house, and old Dimsdale did his part nobly; so nobly that Major Shirley was heard to remark more than once that it was a pity he and Sir Giles couldn't change places. It was the great day of Dimsdale's year, and his was the proud task to see that none of the guests were neglected.
Anne usually rode to hounds on this occasion. Tall and stately, clad in the conventional black riding-habit that only added grace to her severity of outline, she moved among her husband's guests. And even those of them who, like Major Shirley, resented that queenliness which was an inborn part of her very nature, were fain to admit that she filled her position as lady of the Manor with striking success. Though she had withdrawn herself more and more of late from the society of the neighbourhood, she acted the part of hostess with unfailing graciousness. On foot she moved among the throng, greeting everyone she knew.
Little Dot Waring, standing in the background with her brother on a certain misty morning in January marked her progress with looks of loving admiration. Lady Carfax's mount, a powerful grey with nervous ears and gleaming eyes, was being held in unwilling subjection close to them.
"Be ready to mount her when she comes this way, Ralph," Dot whispered, as the tall figure drew nearer.
But the honour of mounting Lady Carfax was not for Ralph. A man on a black mare—a slight man with high cheek-bones and an insolent bearing—was threading his way towards them through the crowd. The mare, like the grey, was restive, and her rider swore at her whimsies as he came.
Meeting Dot's frank regard, he checked himself and raised his hat with a courtesy half-instinctive.
Dot stared, coloured, and very slightly bowed.
Ralph sniggered. "Let yourself in for it that time, my child! Here comes Bertie to effect a formal introduction."
"Bertie won't introduce him," she said quickly.
Bertie, looking very handsome and stalwart, was already close to them. He leaned down from the saddle to shake hands.
"Are you following on foot? I wish I was. Never thought of it till this moment."
"I would much rather follow on horseback," Dot declared, looking as if she did not believe him.
He laughed. "I'll take you in front of me if you'll come."
"No. I shouldn't like that," said Dot very decidedly.
"How can you possibly know till you try?"
Dot looked up at him with the sunshine in her clear eyes. "How do you know that you would prefer to follow the hounds on foot? I don't suppose you ever have."
"How do I know?" laughed Bertie. "Because I should be in your company, of course. Isn't that reason enough?"
"Idiot!" said Dot tersely.
"Minx!" said Bertie.
She flushed, looked angry for a moment, and then in spite of herself dimpled into a smile. "Bertie, you're a beast! Say that again if you dare!"
"I daren't," said Bertie.
"No, I thought not. Now apologise!"
"Oh, not now! Not in public!" he pleaded. "I'll drop in this evening and you can shrive me before I go to bed."
"I shan't be at home," said Dot, with her head in the air.
"Oh, yes, you will. Anyway, I'm bound to catch you if I wait long enough." Bertie spoke with cheery assurance. "Hullo! What do you want?"
His expression altered as his glance fell upon his brother, who had just come to his side. He looked inclined to scowl.
But Nap was not apparently desiring an introduction to the rector's daughter. "Hold the mare a minute, will you?" he said.
Bertie complied and he swung himself to the ground.
Lady Carfax was coming towards them and he went to meet her.
Her grey eyes smiled a friendly welcome. "I was just wondering if you were here."
He bowed low. "I am honoured indeed to be in your thoughts for a single instant."
"I hope I do not forget my friends so easily," she said. "Oh, here are some more of them! Excuse me for a moment."
She went straight to Dot, shook hands with her and her brother, and stood chatting for a few seconds.
Nap remained close behind her, and after a little she turned to Include him in the group. "Have you ever met this Mr. Errol. Dot? Mr. Errol—Miss Waring!"
Dot bowed again with a scarlet countenance, but the next instant a friendly inspiration delivered her from the moment's awkwardness.
"And you don't know Bertie Errol, do you, Lady Carfax?" she said eagerly. "Let me introduce him. He studies with Dad, you know."
"When he isn't hunting, or paper-chasing, or—baking cakes," said Bertie. "He's such a nice boy, Lady Carfax. He can do almost anything. I'm sure you'll like him!"
Dot laughed and protested. "He isn't a bit nice, and he isn't clever either, though he thinks he is. I don't believe he learns anything with Dad. They study natural history most of the time."
"Harmless, anyway!" commented Nap, with a sneer.
"Yes, quite harmless," assented Bertie, looking straight at him.
"And very interesting, no doubt," said Lady Carfax, turning towards her mount.
Ralph moved to assist her, but Nap pushed before him. "My job, I think," he drawled, with that in his face which made the English youth draw sullenly back.
"Cad!" whispered Dot fiercely.
And Bertie from his perch above her laughed through clenched teeth.
In a few minutes more the hunt was off. The whole crowd streamed briskly away, hounds leading, horses, motors, carriages, and the usual swarm of pedestrians, following in promiscuous array.
The sun shone through a mist. The weather was perfect for hunting, but looked as if it might end in rain.
Sir Giles rode with the master. He seemed in better spirits than usual. His customary scowl had lifted.
His wife rode nearer the end of the procession with Nap Errol next to her. His brother was immediately behind them, a very decided frown on his boyish face, a frown of which in some occult fashion Nap must have been aware, for as they reached a stretch of turf and the crowd widened out, he turned in the saddle.
"Get on ahead, Bertie! I can't stand you riding at my heels."
Bertie looked at him as if he had a retort ready, but he did not utter it. With tightened lips he rode past and shot ahead.
Nap smiled a little. "That young puppy is the best of the Errol bunch," he said. "But he hasn't been licked enough. It's not my fault. It's my brother's."
"He looks a nice boy," Anne said.
Nap's smile became supercilious. "He is a nice boy, Lady Carfax. But nice boys don't always make nice men, you know. They turn into prigs sometimes."
Anne diverted the subject with an instinctive feeling that it was one upon which they might not agree.
"There is a considerable difference between you?" she asked.
"Eight years," said Nap. "I am thirty, Lucas five years older. Most people take me for the eldest of the lot."
"I wonder why?" said Anne.
He shrugged his shoulders. "It is not really surprising, is it? Lucas has been on the shelf for the past ten years and I"—he glanced at her shrewdly—"have not!"
"Oh!" said Anne, and asked no more.
For the first time the definite question arose in her mind as to whether in admitting this man to her friendship she had made a mistake. He had a disquieting effect upon her, she was forced to acknowledge.
Yet as they drifted apart in the throng she knew with unalterable conviction that the matter did not rest with her. From the outset the choice had not been hers.
He had entered the gates of her lonely citadel on the night of the Hunt Ball, and though she was by no means sure that she liked him there, she fully realised that it was too late now to try to bar him out.
They found a fox after some delay in a copse on the side of a hill, and the run that followed scattered even Anne's sedateness to the winds. Something of youth, something of girlishness, yet dwelt within her and bounded to the surface in response to the wild excitement of the chase.
The grey went like the wind. He and the black mare that Nap Errol rode led the field, a distinction that Anne had never sought before, and which she did not greatly appreciate on this occasion. For when they killed in a chalky hollow, after half-an-hour's furious galloping across country with scarcely a check, she dragged her animal round with a white, set face and forced him from the scene.
Nap followed her after a little and found her fumbling at a gate into a wood.
"I've secured the brush for you," he began. Then, seeing her face, "What is it? You look sick."
"I feel sick," Anne said shakily.
He opened the gate for her, and followed her through. They found themselves alone, separated from the rest of the hunt by a thick belt of trees.
"Do you mean to say you have never seen a kill before?" he said.
"Never at close quarters," murmured Anne, with a shudder.
He rode for a little in silence. At length, "I'm sorry you didn't like being in at the death," he said. "I thought you would be pleased."
"Pleased!" she said, and shuddered again.
"Personally," said Nap, "I enjoy a kill."
Anne's face expressed horror.
"Yes," he said recklessly, "I am like that. I hunt to kill. It is my nature." A red gleam shone suddenly in his fiery eyes. He looked at her aggressively. "What do you hunt for anyway?" he demanded.
"I don't think I shall hunt any more," she said.
"Oh, nonsense, Lady Carfax! That's being ultrasqueamish," he protested. "You mustn't, you know. It's bad for you."
"I can't help it," she said. "I never realised before how cruel it is."
"Of course it's cruel," said Nap. "But then so is everything, so is life. Yet you've got to live. We were created to prey on each other."
"No, no!" she said quickly, for his words hurt her inexplicably. "I take the higher view."
"I beg your pardon," said Nap, in the tone of one refusing a discussion.
She turned to him impulsively. "Surely you do too!" she said, and there was even a note of pleading in her voice.
Nap's brows met suddenly. He turned his eyes away. "I am nothing but an animal," he told her rather brutally. "There is nothing spiritual about me. I live for what I can get. When I get the chance I gorge. If I have a soul at all, it is so rudimentary as to be unworthy of mention."
In the silence that followed he looked at her again with grim comprehension. "P'r'aps you don't care for animals," he suggested cynically. "To change the subject, do you know we are leaving the hunt behind?"
She reined in somewhat reluctantly. "I suppose we had better go back."
"If your majesty decrees," said Nap.
He pulled the mare round and stood motionless, waiting for her to pass. He sat arrogantly at his ease. She could not fail to note that his horsemanship was magnificent. The mare stood royally as though she bore a king. The man's very insignificance of bulk seemed to make him the more superb.
"Will you deign to lead the way?" he said.
And Anne passed him with a vague sense of uneasiness that almost amounted to foreboding. For it seemed to her as if for those few moments he had imposed his will upon hers, had without effort overthrown all barriers of conventional reserve, and had made her acknowledge in him the mastery of man.
Rejoining the hunt, she made her first deliberate attempt to avoid him, an attempt that was so far successful that for the next hour she saw nothing of him beyond casual glimpses. She did not join her husband, for he resented her proximity in the hunting-field.
They drew blank in a wood above the first kill, but finally found after considerable delay along a stubbly stretch of ground bordering Baronmead, a large estate that the eldest Errol had just bought. The fox headed straight for the Baronmead woods and after him streamed the hunt pell-mell along a stony valley.
It was not Anne's intention to be in at a second death that day, and she deliberately checked the grey's enthusiasm when he would have borne her headlong through the scampering crowd. To his indignation, instead of pursuing the chase in the valley, she headed him up the hill. He protested with vehemence, threatening to rebel outright, but Anne was determined, and eventually she had her way. Up the hill they went.
It was a scramble to reach the top, for the ground was steep and sloppy, but on the summit of the ridge progress was easier. She gave the grey the rein and he carried her forward at a canter. From here she saw the last of the horsemen below her sweep round the curve towards Baronmead, and the hubbub growing fainter in the distance told her that the hounds were already plunging through the woods. Ahead of her the ridge culminated in a bare knoll whence it was evident that she could overlook a considerable stretch of country. She urged her animal towards it.
The mist was thickening in the valley, and it had begun to drizzle. The watch on her wrist said two o'clock, and she determined to turn her face homewards as soon as she had taken this final glimpse.
The grey, snorting and sweating, stumbled up the slippery ascent. He was plainly disgusted with his rider's tactics. They arrived upon the summit, and Anne brought him to a standstill. But though she still heard vague shoutings below her the mist had increased so much in the few minutes they had taken over the ascent that she could discern nothing. Her horse was winded after the climb, however, and she remained motionless to give him time to recover. The hubbub was dying away, and she surmised that the fox had led his pursuers out on the farther side of the woods. She shivered as the chill damp crept about her. A feeling of loneliness that was almost physical possessed her. She half wished that she had not forsaken the hunt after all.
Stay! Was she quite alone? Out of the clinging, ever-thickening curtain there came sounds—the sounds of hoofs that struggled upwards, of an animal's laboured breathing, of a man's voice that encouraged and swore alternately.
Her heart gave a sudden sharp throb. She knew that voice. Though she had only met the owner thereof three times she had come to know it rather well. Why had he elected to come that way, she asked herself? He almost seemed to be dogging her steps that day.
Impulse urged her to strike in another direction before he reached her. She did not feel inclined for another tete-a-tete with Nap Errol just then.
She tapped the grey smartly with her switch, more smartly than she intended, for he started and plunged. At the same instant there broke out immediately below them a hubbub of yelling and baying that was like the shrieking of a hundred demons. It rose up through the fog as from the mouth of an invisible pit, and drove the grey horse clean out of his senses. He reared bolt upright in furious resistance to his rider's will, pawed the air wildly, and being brought down again by a sharp cut over the ears, flung out his heels in sheer malice and bolted down the hill, straight for that pandemonium of men and hounds. If the pleasures of the hunt failed to attract his mistress, it was otherwise with him, and he meant to have his fling in spite of her.
For the first few seconds of that mad flight Anne scarcely attempted to check his progress. She was taken by surprise and was forced to give all her attention to keeping in the saddle.
The pace was terrific. The scampering hoofs scarcely seemed to touch the ground at all. Like shadows they fled through the rising mist. It struck chill upon her face as they swooped downwards. She seemed to be plunging into an icy, bottomless abyss.
And then like a dagger, stabbing through every nerve, came fear, a horror unspeakable of the depth she could not see, into which she was being so furiously hurled. She was clinging to the saddle, but she made a desperate effort to drag the animal round. It was quite fruitless. No woman's strength could have availed to check that headlong gallop. He swerved a little, a very little, in answer, that was all, and galloped madly on.
And then—all in a moment it came, a moment of culminating horror more awful than anything she had ever before experienced—the ground fell suddenly away from the racing feet. A confusion of many lights danced before her eyes—a buzzing uproar filled her brain—she shot forward into space....
THE RIDE HOME
Sir Giles was in a decidedly evil temper as he rode home from the hunt in the soaking rain that afternoon. The second fox had led them miles out of the way, and they had not been rewarded by a kill. The brute had eluded them, profiting by the downpour that had washed away the scent. So Sir Giles, having solaced himself several times with neat brandy from the large silver flask without which he never rode abroad, was in anything but a contented mood with the world in general and his own luck in particular. Dusk had long descended when at length he turned in at his own gates. He had given up urging his jaded animal, being too jaded himself for the effort. But, hearing a clatter of hoofs on the drive before him, he did rouse himself to holler into the darkness, supposing that his wife was ahead of him. If it were she, she was later in returning than was her wont, but no answer came back to him, and he did not repeat his call. After all, why should he hail her? He did not want her company, Heaven knew. That stately demeanour of hers which once had attracted him generally inspired in him a savage sense of resentment nowadays. There were times when he even suspected her of despising him—him, the lord of the Manor, who had given her all she possessed in the world!
He swore a furious oath under his breath as he rode. The darkness ahead of him was all pricked by tiny red sparks, that glanced and flashed like fireflies whichever way he looked. He rubbed his eyes and they departed, only to swarm again a little farther on. The rain had soaked him to the skin. He shivered and swore again as he fumbled for his flask.
The fiery gleams faded wholly away as the raw spirit warmed his blood and revived his brain. He drew a breath of relief. Again he heard the sound of a horse's feet some distance in front. They seemed to fall unevenly, as though the animal were lame. Could it be the grey, he asked himself? If so, why had Anne not answered his call? She must have heard him. He ground his teeth. It was like her habitual impudence to ignore him thus. He gathered himself together and sent a furious bellow into the darkness.
But there came back no reply. The hoofs ahead seemed to quicken into a shambling trot, that was all. And after a little he heard them no more.
She had reached the house then, and gone within into light and comfort, and again feverishly he execrated her for not waiting for him, the cold and the rain and the dark notwithstanding. Again fitfully he began to see those leaping points of light; but it was only here and there. Whenever he focussed his attention upon them they eluded him. For these also he held his wife in some fashion responsible. What did she mean by leaving him thus? How dared she enter the house that was his while he was still groping without? He believed that she would shut his own door against him if she dared. He was sure she hated him, as he hated her—as he hated her!
And then—suddenly a strange thing happened. Suddenly, clear-cut as a cameo before his fevered vision, there arose against the dripping darkness his wife's face. Pale and pure as the face of a saint, it shone before him like a star. There was no reproach in the level eyes; there was no contempt. But they looked through him, they looked beyond him, and saw him not.
A violent tremor went through him, a nameless, unspeakable dread. The curses died upon his lips. He stared and stared again.
And while he stared, the vision faded before his eyes into nothingness. He was alone once more in the darkness and the drenching rain; alone with a little gibing voice that seemed to come from within and yet was surely the voice of a devil jeering a devil's tattoo in time to his horse's hoof-beats, telling him he was mad, mad, mad!
Three minutes later he rode heavily into his own stable-yard.
A group of servants scattered dumbly before him as he appeared. The glare of lights dazzled him, but he fancied they looked at him strangely. He flung an oath at the groom who stepped forward to take his horse.
"What are you staring at? What's the matter?"
The man murmured something unintelligible.
Sir Giles dismounted and scowled around. His limbs were stiff and not over steady.
"What's the matter with you all?" he growled. "You look like a crowd of death's heads. Hullo! What's this?"
He had caught sight of something he had not seen before, something that sent him striding furiously forward. For there in the centre of the yard, standing huddled on three legs, was the grey horse his wife had ridden. Limp and draggled, plastered with mud and foam, with a great streaming gash on the shoulder, and head hanging down in utter exhaustion, stood the grey.
"What's this?" demanded Sir Giles again. "Where's her ladyship?"
A shudder seemed to run through the assembled men. There was a moment's silence. Then old Dimsdale, the butler, who was standing in the doorway that led to the servants' quarters, stumped forward and made reply.
"The animal's come home alone, Sir Giles."
"What?" thundered his master.
The old man faced him with respectful firmness. No one had ever seen Dimsdale agitated.
"As I said, Sir Giles," he answered, with a certain deferential obstinacy. "The animal's come back alone."
"Only just come in, sir," chimed in a groom. "We was just beginning to wonder when he came limping in in this state. Looks as if her ladyship had met with a accident."
Sir Giles rounded upon him with a violence that brought his surmisings to an abrupt end. Then, having worked off the first heat of his fury, he turned again to Dimsdale.
"What the devil is to be done? I never saw her after the first kill."
"And where might that be, Sir Giles?" questioned Dimsdale.
"Up Baronmead way. It was hours ago."
Dimsdale considered. "Shall we send and make inquiries at Baronmead, Sir Giles?"
"No, I'm damned if I do!" said Sir Giles.
Dimsdale considered again. "Was her ladyship riding with anyone in particular?" he asked next.
"No, I don't think so. Stay! I believe I saw that Errol bounder talking to her—the one who was here the other day. But I forget when. Anyhow"—his voice rising again—"I won't have any traffic with them. I've said I won't, and I won't!"
Dimsdale grunted. "Seems to me the only thing to do, Sir Giles. You can't leave her lady ship to die under a hedge maybe, and not do anything to find her."
He spoke very deliberately, looking straight into his master's bloodshot eyes as he did so.
"It wouldn't be hardly right, Sir Giles," he pointed out gravely. "It's likely that young Mr. Errol will be able to give us a clue, and we can't leave any stone unturned, being such a serious matter. I'll send on my own responsibility if you like, Sir Giles. But send we must."
The bystanders glanced uneasily at one another in the silence that followed this bold speech. The old butler's temerity was unheard of. Not one among them would have dared thus to withstand the master to his face. They waited, nervously expectant, for the vials of wrath to descend.
Old Dimsdale waited too, still firmly watching Sir Giles. If he felt any anxiety on his own account, however, it was not apparent. Nor did he display any relief when the unpleasant tension passed and Sir Giles with a shrug turned away from him.
"Oh, go your own way, and be damned to you! I don't care what you do. Don't stand gaping there, you fools! Get to your work! Better send for the vet. Can't afford to have a valuable animal spoilt. Dimsdale, take some brandy and hot water up to my room at once, before you do anything else. Do you hear?"
And with that he tramped within, leaving an atmosphere of mingled relief and indignation behind him.
But if his words were callous, the soul of the man was far from easy as he mounted to his room. He flung himself into the nearest chair when he arrived there and sat with eyes fixed sullenly before him. He ought to go in search of her, of course, but he was powerless. His brain was a smouldering furnace in which anxiety and anger strove luridly for the mastery. But through it all he sat there torpidly staring. His body felt as though it were weighted with leaden fetters.
He heard a step in the passage, but did not turn his head. Someone knocked discreetly. He heard, but he took no notice. The door opened softly, and old Dimsdale entered.
"We have news, Sir Giles."
Sir Giles neither looked at him nor spoke. He continued to glare heavily into space.
Dimsdale paused beside him. "A messenger has just come from Baronmead in their motor, Sir Giles," he said, speaking very distinctly. "Her ladyship has had a fall, and has been taken there. Mr. Errol begs that you will go back in the motor, as her ladyship's condition is considered serious."
He stopped. Sir Giles said nothing whatever.
"The messenger is waiting, Sir Giles."
Still no response of any sort.
Dimsdale waited a moment, then very respectfully he bent and touched his master's shoulder.
Sir Giles turned slowly at last, with immense effort it seemed. He glowered at Dimsdale for a space. Then, "Bring some brandy and water," he said, "hot!"
"But the messenger, Sir Giles!"
"What?" Sir Giles glared a moment longer, then as anger came uppermost, the smouldering furnace leapt into sudden seething flame. "Tell him to go to the devil!" he thundered. "And when you've done that, bring me some brandy and water—hot!"
As Dimsdale departed upon his double errand he dropped back into his former position, staring dully before him, under scowling brows.
When Dimsdale returned he was sunk in the chair asleep.
THE HEAD OF THE HOUSE
"Hullo, Lucas! Can I come in?"
Nap Errol stood outside his brother's door, an impatient frown on his face, his hand already fidgeting at the handle.
"Come in, old chap," drawled back a kindly voice.
He entered with an abruptness that seemed to denote agitation.
The room was large and brilliantly lighted. In an easy chair by the fire the eldest Errol was reclining, while his valet, a huge man with the features of an American Indian half-breed and fiery red hair, put the finishing touches to his evening dress.
Nap approached the fire with his usual noiseless tread despite the fact that he was still in riding boots.
"Be quick, Hudson!" he said. "We don't want you."
Hudson rolled a nervous eye at him and became clumsily hasty.
"Take your time," his master said quietly. "Nap, my friend, hadn't you better dress?"
Nap stopped before the fire and pushed it with his foot. "I am not going to dine," he said.
Lucas Errol said no more. He lay still in his chair with his head back and eyes half-closed, a passive, pathetic figure with the shoulders of a strong man and the weak, shrunken limbs of a cripple. His face was quite smooth. It might have belonged to a boy of seventeen save for the eyes, which were deeply sunken and possessed the shrewd, quizzical intelligence of age.
He lay quite motionless as though he were accustomed to remain for hours in one position. Hudson the valet tended him with the reverence of a slave. Nap fell to pacing soundlessly to and fro, awaiting the man's exit with what patience he could muster.
"You can go now, Tawny," the elder Errol drawled at last. "I will ring when I want you. Now, Boney, what is it? I wish you would sit down."
There was no impatience in the words, but his brows were slightly drawn as he uttered them,
Nap, turning swiftly, noted the fact. "You are not so well to-night?"
"Sit down," his brother repeated gently. "How is Lady Carfax?"
Nap sat down with some reluctance. He looked as if he would have preferred to prowl.
"She is still unconscious, and likely to remain so. The doctor thinks very seriously of her."
"Her husband has been informed?"
"Her husband," said Nap from between his teeth, "has been informed, and he declines to come to her. That's the sort of brute he is."
Lucas Errol made no comment, and after a moment Nap continued:
"It is just as well perhaps. I hear he is never sober after a day's sport. And I believe she hates the sight of him if the truth were told—and small wonder!"
There was unrestrained savagery in the last words. Lucas turned his head and looked at him thoughtfully.
"You know her rather well?" he said.
"Yes." Nap's eyes, glowing redly, met his with a gleam of defiance.
"You have known her for long?" The question was perfectly quiet, uttered in the tired voice habitual to this man who had been an invalid for almost the whole of his manhood.
Yet Nap frowned as he heard it. "I don't know," he said curtly. "I don't estimate friendships by time."
Lucas said no more, but he continued to look at his brother with unvarying steadiness till at length, as if goaded thereto, Nap spoke again.
"We are friends," he said, "no more, no less. You all think me a blackguard, I know. It's my speciality, isn't it?" He spoke with exceeding bitterness. "But in this case you are wrong. I repeat—we are friends."
He said it aggressively; his tone was almost a challenge, but the elder Errol did not appear to notice.
"I have never thought you a blackguard, Boney," he said quietly.
Nap's thin lips smiled cynically. "You have never said it."
"I have never thought it." There was no contradicting the calm assertion. It was not the way of the world to contradict Lucas Errol. "And I know you better than a good many," he said.
Nap stirred restlessly and was silent.
Lucas turned his eyes from him and seemed to fall into a reverie. Suddenly, however, he roused himself.
"What does the doctor say about her?"
Nap frowned. "He says very little. After the manner of his tribe, he is afraid to commit himself; thinks there may be this injury or there may be that, but says definitely nothing. I shall get someone down from town to-morrow. I'd go tonight, only—" he broke off, hammering impotently with his clenched fist on the arm of his chair. "I must be at hand to-night," he said, after a moment, controlling himself. "The mater has promised to call me if there is any change. You see," he spoke half-apologetically, "she might feel kind of lonely waking up in a crowd of strangers, and mine is the only face she knows."
Silence followed the words. Lucas had closed his eyes, and there was nothing in his face to indicate the trend of his thoughts.
Nap sat with his face to the fire, and stared unblinkingly into the red depths. There was no repose in his attitude, only the tension of suppressed activity.
Softly at length his brother's voice came through the silence. "Why not dine, dear fellow, while you are waiting? You will do no good to anyone by starving yourself."
Nap looked round. "In Heaven's name, don't talk to me of eating!" he said savagely. "You don't know what I've been through." Again he paused to control himself, then added in a lower tone, "I thought she was dead, you know."
"It was you who picked her up?" Lucas asked.
"Yes. There was no one else near." He spoke with feverish rapidity, as though he found speaking a relief. "It was the old chalk-pit. You know the place—or p'r'aps you don't. It's a ten-foot drop. The brute went clean over, and he must have rolled on her or kicked her getting up." He drew a sharp breath between his teeth. "When I found her she was lying all crumpled up. I thought her back was broken at first."
A sudden shudder assailed him. He repressed it fiercely.
"And then, you know, it was foggy. I couldn't leave her. I was afraid of losing my bearings. And so I just had to wait—Heaven knows how long—till one of the keepers heard me shouting, and went for help. And all that time—all that time—I didn't know whether she was alive or dead."
His voice sank to a hard whisper. He got up and vigorously poked the fire.
Lucas Errol endured the clatter for several seconds in silence: then, "Boney," he said, "since you are feeling energetic, you might lend me a hand."
Nap laid down the poker instantly. "I am sorry, old fellow. I forgot. Let me ring for Hudson."
"Can't you help me yourself?" Lucas asked.
Nap hesitated for a second; then stooped in silence to give the required assistance. Lucas Errol, with a set face, accepted it, but once on his feet he quitted Nap's support and leaned upon the mantelpiece to wipe his forehead.
"I knew I should hurt you," Nap said uneasily.
The millionaire forced a smile that was twisted in spite of him. "Never mind me!" he said. "It is your affairs that trouble me just now, not my own. And, Boney, if you don't have a meal soon, you'll be making a big fool of yourself and everyone will know it."
The very gentleness of his speech seemed to make the words the more emphatic. Nap raised no further protest.
"Go and have it right now," his brother said.
"And—in case I don't see you again—goodnight!"
He held out his hand, still leaning against the mantelpiece. His eyes, blue and very steady, looked straight into Nap's. So for a second or two he held him while Nap, tight-lipped, uncompromising, looked straight back.
Then, "Good-night," Lucas said again gravely, and let him go.
Yet for an instant longer Nap lingered as one on the verge of speech. But nothing came of it. He apparently thought better—or worse—of the impulse, and departed light-footed in silence.
THE HAND OF A FRIEND
What had happened to her? Slowly, with a sensation of doubt that seemed to weigh her down, Anne rose to the surface of things, and looked once more upon the world that had rushed so giddily away from her and left her spinning through space.
She was horribly afraid during those first few minutes, afraid with a physical, overwhelming dread. She seemed to be yet falling, falling through emptiness to annihilation. And as she fell she caught the sounds of other worlds, vague whisperings in the dark. She was sinking, sinking fast into a depth unfathomable, where no worlds were.
And then—how it came to her she knew not, for she was powerless to help herself—out of the chaos and the awful darkness a hand reached out and grasped her own; a hand strong and vital that gripped and held, that lifted her up, that guided her, that sustained her, through all the terror that girt her round.