Did you hear that dull crash, gentlemen? Or are your ears not practised enough to pluck it out of the welter of rugged harmony? It was an elm, sirs, an old fellow, full of years, gone to his long home. For the last time the squirrels have swung from his boughs: for the last time the rooks have sailed and cawed about his proud old head. To-morrow there will be another empty stall in that majestic quire which it has taken Time six hundred years to fill....
The distant crash brought Lyveden out of a sleep-ridden reverie. For a second he listened intently, as if he hoped that he had been mistaken, and that the sound he had heard had been but a trick of the wind. Then he gave a short sigh and knocked out his pipe.
* * * * *
"And you've had no answer?" said the Judge, snapping a wafer betwixt his fingers and thumb.
His guest shook his head. Then he hastened to enlighten the wine-waiter, who had been about to refill his glass with port and had construed the gesture as a declension of the nectar.
"Never a line," he said shortly. "Of course the letter may never have reached him. But, if it did, he may not have thought it worth while ... I mean, I wrote very guardedly."
"Naturally," said the Judge, "naturally. Still, I should have thought..."
The two men sat facing each other across a small mahogany table from which the cloth had been drawn. The surface thus exposed gave back such light as fell upon it enriched and mellowed. In this it was typical of the room, which turned the common air into an odour of luxury.
Servants, perfectly trained, faultlessly groomed, stepped noiselessly to and fro, handing dishes, replenishing glasses, anticipating desires. A tremendous fire glowed in its massive cage; a crimson carpet and curtains of almost barbaric gravity contributed to the admirable temperature and deadened unruly noise. A brace of shaded candles to each small table made up nine several nebulae, whose common radiance provoked an atmosphere of sober mystery, dim and convenient. Light so subdued subdued in turn the tones of the company of hosts and visitors. Conversation became an exchange of confidences; laughter was soft and low; the murmurous blend of talk flowed unremarked, yet comforted the ear. The flash of silver, the sparkle of glass, the snow of napery, gladdened the eye. No single circumstance of expediency was unobserved, no detail of propriety was overlooked. Pomp lay in a litter which he had borrowed of Ease.
"Shall I write again?" said the solicitor.
Mr. Justice Molehill stared at his port. After a moment—
"No," he said slowly. "Not at present, at any rate. I don't want to push the matter, because I've got so very little to go on. In moving at all, I'm laying myself open to the very deuce of a snub."
"I shall get the snub," said his guest. "But that's what I'm paid for. Besides, I'm fairly hardened."
That he evinced not the slightest curiosity regarding his mysterious instructions argued a distinction between the individual and the adviser, firmly drawn and religiously observed. For a Justice of the King's Bench suddenly to be consumed by a desire to know the names of the uncles of somebody else's footman smacked of collaboration by Gilbert and Chardenal. Once, however, the solicitor knew his client, he asked no questions. Reticence and confidence were in his eyes equally venerable. Usually he had his reward. He had it now.
"In the spring," said his companion, "of 1914 I went to Sicily. On my way back I stopped for one night at Rome. The day I left, while I was resting after luncheon, the manager of the hotel brought a priest to my room—a Catholic priest of some position, I fancy—an Englishman. I can't remember his name. He spoke very civilly, and begged my instant attention.
"An old Englishman, it seemed, lay dying upon the first floor. He was all alone—no relations—no servant. He could speak no Italian. Realizing that he was dying, he was frantic to make a will. His frenzied attempts to convey this desire to the attendant doctor had resulted in the latter dashing into the street and stopping and returning with the first priest he encountered. This happened to be my friend. Upon beholding him, the patient, who had hoped for a lawyer, had turned his face to the wall. Then, to his relief, he found that, though a priest, yet he was English, and begged him to fetch an attorney. The priest hurried to the manager, and the manager brought him to me....
"You know how much I know about wills. All the same, argument was not to be thought of. To the laity, solicitor, lawyer, barrister, and attorney are synonymous terms. Moreover, they are all will-wrights. A judge is a sort of shop-steward....
"Well, I drew one. To tell you the truth, I don't think it was so bad. I attended the poor man. I took his instructions. And there and then in the sickroom I drew the will upon a sheet of notepaper. He signed it in my presence and that of the priest. The latter then took charge of it, with a view to getting it stamped next morning at the British Consulate. We both had some hazy idea that that was desirable.
"I left Rome the same night.
"Gradually—we've all had a lot to think about in the last seven years—I forgot the whole incident. Then, some two months ago, when I was at Brooch, a fellow gives evidence before me in a burglary case. A footman called Anthony Lyveden. For a long time I couldn't imagine where I'd heard the names before. Then something—I'll tell you what in the smoking-room—brought it all back. Anthony Lyveden was the nephew of the man whose will I made, and he was named as the sole legatee.
"In a way it's no affair of mine, and yet I feel concerned. I'll tell you why. That footman was a gentleman born. Moreover, he was down on his luck. He didn't look like a fellow who'd run through money, and I think the old testator was pretty rich. He gave that impression. And for a will made in such circumstances to go astray it would be easy enough—obviously. The devil of it is, except for the name of Lyveden, I can remember nothing else."
The solicitor sipped his port. Then—
"A search at Somerset House," he said slowly, "should give us the maiden surname of Anthony Lyveden's mother. If she had a brother...."
Sir Giles Molehill raised his eyes and sighed.
"And it never occurred to me," he said. "It's high time I went to the Court of Appeal."
Two days later his lordship received a letter informing him that a search at Somerset House had revealed the fact that a son named Anthony had been born upon the fourteenth of January, 1891, to a Mrs. Katharine Lyveden, formerly Roach.
As he read it, the Judge exclaimed audibly.
The note which he wrote there and then shall speak for itself.
Roach was the surname of the testator. Please go on. When you can submit a Christian name to my memory, please do so. I am not sure that it will respond, but we can try.
Yours sincerely, GILES MOLEHILL.
* * * * *
When Anthony Lyveden had been for a week at Gramarye, he had reluctantly posted a letter containing his new address. This he had done because he had promised to do it. As the letter had fallen into the box, he had prayed fervently, but without the faintest hope, that it might never be delivered. A galley-slave who has broken ship and won sanctuary does not advertise his whereabouts with a light heart. He may be beyond pursuit, yet—he and the galley are both of this world; things temporal only keep them apart, and if the master came pricking, with a whip in his belt.... You must remember that Anthony had been used very ill. At first, bound to the oar of Love, he had pulled vigorously and found the sea silken, his chains baubles. Then a storm had arisen. In his hands the docile oar had become a raging termagant, and, when he would have been rid of it, the baubles had opposed his will. He had been dragged and battered unspeakably. Over all, the lash had been laid upon his bare shoulders; and that with a nicety of judgment which should have been foreign to so white a wrist and to eyes that could look so tender. Now that he had escaped out of hell, it was not surprising that he was loth to discover his refuge. Still, a promise must be respected....
For that matter, supplications do not always go empty away. The answer to Anthony's came in the shape of a fire which attacked the last coach but one upon a London train and partially destroyed two mailbags before its flames were subdued. It follows that, though he did not know it, such friends as the ex-officer had knew no more where he was than did the man in the moon.
It is here convenient, believe me, to go imagining.
We have looked into Anthony's mind at the hour when he posted his letter. Had he posted it this nineteenth day of January, instead of six weeks ago, and we, as before, peered into his brain-pan, we should have found his supplication that the missive might go astray even more urgent. We should have noted that, while he was just as fearful to be reminded of the galley and the tall dark ganger with the red, red mouth and the merciless thong, he also viewed with alarm the possibility of any distraction from his work. The galley-slave was become a votary.
Let us be quite clear about it.
Anthony had come to Gramarye to try to forget. In this he was steadily unsuccessful. At the end of a month he had not advanced one inch. His love for Valerie was as breathless, haunting, wistful as it had ever been. The whole of the kingdom of his heart was hers alone, and, so far as he could see, like to remain hers only for the rest of his life. Since, therefore, he could not dispatch Memory, he sought to immure her. Since Valerie's sovereignty was so fast stablished that it could not be moved, he sought to rule his heart out of his system. Had it been possible, he would, like Aesop's Beaver, have ripped the member from him and gone heartless ever after. The Fabulous Age being dead, Anthony made the best shift he could, and strove to bury kingdom and queen together so deep within him that their existence should not trouble his life. If he could not put out the light, he would hide it under a bushel. It occurred to him that his mind, appropriately occupied, should make an excellent bushel—appropriately occupied.... He resolved that Gramarye should have his mind. Of this he would make a kingdom, mightier and more material than that of his heart. The trouble was, his mind, though more tractable, liked Valerie's occupation, found it desirable, and clung to its present tenant for all it was worth. By no means dismayed, Anthony, as before, had recourse to ejection by crowding out.... Two things, however, made this attempt more formidable. First, he did not have to be for ever scouring the highways and hedges for a new tenantry; Gramarye was always at hand. Secondly, though Anthony did not know it, there was no need for Gramarye to be compelled to come in. He was pressing an invitation upon one who had invited herself. The hooded personality of the place had stolen up to the door: already its pale fingers were lifting the latch.... Before he had been in the Cotswolds for seven weeks, she had thrust and been thrust into the doorway.
It was the thin end of the wedge.
Each passing day fell upon the wedge like the stroke of a hammer. Sometimes they drove it: oftener the wedge stayed still where it was. But it never slipped back. When it was stubbornest, and the days seemed to lose their weight, when Valerie's hold seemed indefeasible, when the woods were quick with memory, when Anthony heard an old faint sigh in the wind, and the laughter of a brook fluted the note of a soft familiar voice, then more than once that strange, cool, silvery call had stolen out of the distance, to melt upon the air as soon as uttered and leave its echoes at play upon the edge of earshot.... Before the echoes had died, the wedge would have moved.
For a master at once so tireless and so devotedly served, Colonel Winchester handled his team with a prudence which must have chafed his infatuation to the bone. Of every week, five and a half days did they labour and not an hour more. No matter how loudly a chore called for completion, no matter how blackly wind and weather were threatening the half-done work, upon Wednesday afternoon and Sunday not an axe was lifted, not a cord hitched, not a nail driven. It was a wise rule and fruitful. The Sabbath rest leavened the labour of the week. As for the midweek breathing space, the men were not monks; however zealous their studies of the lilies of the field, the provision of meat and raiment must have some crumbs of consideration...
It was, indeed, these two commodities which had taken Lyveden to Girdle this January day. The milkman, the baker, the grocer, had all to be interviewed and paid. A kindly farmer's wife, who baked fresh meat for him and sent it thrice a week to his cottage in the shape of a cold pasty, had to be visited and made to accept payment for a slab of sweet fresh butter he had not asked for. A little linen had to be picked up....
By half-past three Anthony's errands were run. He had dealt with them quickly, for there was work waiting at the cottage; a load of fuel had to be stacked, and Patch had been bogged that morning and was, consequently, fit neither to be seen nor smelt. Besides, there was a book about forestry which Winchester had lent him.... Anthony bent his steps homeward eagerly enough.
As he left the village, a horsewoman overtook him, shot him a sharp glance, and passed ahead. Her habit was mired, and it was evident that she had had a fall hunting. That Anthony did not remark this was because he was regarding her horse. There was nothing unusual about the animal, but of the two beings it alone touched his attention. If Valerie was like to be buried, at least she had killed all other women stone dead.
It was consequently in some annoyance that, upon rounding the second bend of the infamous Gallowstree Hill, he saw the lady before him with her mount across the road, placidly regarding a hunting-crop which lay upon the highway. As he came up—
"Would you be so good?" said the girl.
Anthony picked up the crop and offered it. As he did so, the horse became restive, and there was quite a substantial bickering before his mistress could accept the whip. Anthony, if he thought about it at all, attributed the scene to caprice. In this he was right, yet wrong. Caprice was the indirect reason. The direct cause was the heel of a little hunting-boot adroitly applied to a somewhat sensitive flank. There is no doubt at all that Anthony had a lot to learn.
Out of the broil stepped Conversation lightly enough.
"You must forgive us both," said the lady, turning her mount towards Gramarye. "We've had a bad day. Quite early on we took the deuce of a toss, and I lost him. A labourer caught him, and then let him go again. By the time I'd got him, the hounds were miles away. I'd never 've believed it was possible to go so fast or so far as I did and never hear of them. After two solid hours I gave it up."
Anthony was walking by her side, listening gravely.
"What a shame!" he said. Then: "I hope you weren't hurt."
"Shoulder's a bit stiff. I fell on the point. But a hot bath'll put that right. D'you live here?"
"About a mile on. At Gramarye."
The girl stared at him.
"Not at the house," said Anthony. "I live in the cottage at the south-west end of the park."
"Oh, I know. D'you work there, then?"
"That's my job."
"So you're Major Lyveden?" said the girl.
Anthony looked up.
"How did you know?" he said.
A pair of large brown eyes regarded him steadily. Then the red lips parted, and Andre Strongi'th'arm flung back her handsome head and laughed merrily.
"Did you think," she said, panting, "did you really think that you could come to dwell in the parish of Girdle, and the fact escape the notice of the other parishioners?" She hesitated, and a suggestion of mockery crept into her voice. "Or are you too wrapped up in the estate to think about anything else?"
"I believe I am," said Anthony.
"I beg your pardon," said Miss Strongi'th'arm with an elaborate courtesy. "Thank you very much for enduring me for three minutes. If I'd——"
Her hunter broke into a trot.
"No, no," cried Anthony, running beside her. "Please walk again." She pulled the horse up. "I didn't mean to be rude. I meant——"
"I should leave it alone," said Andre. "You'll only make it worse. You're much too honest. Besides, I love the country, and I—I think," she added dreamily, "I can understand."
The eagerness in Anthony's voice was arrestingly pathetic, and Andre started at the effect of her idle words.
"I—I think so. I've given water to a thirsty plant.... I suppose the gratitude of a landscape..."
"That's it," said Lyveden excitedly. "You've got it in one. The place is so pathetically grateful for every stock and stone you set straight, that you just can't hold your hand. And all the time the work's so fascinating that you don't deserve any thanks. You seem to get deeper in debt every day. You're credited with every cheque you draw. If I stopped, it'd haunt me."
"It is plain," said Andre, "that, when you die, 'Gramarye' will be graven upon your heart. All the same, are you sure you were meant for this? Aren't there things in life besides the straightening of stocks and stones?"
"The War's over," said Lyveden.
"I know. But there was a world before 1914. I think your occupation's wonderful, but isn't it a little unnatural—unfair to yourself and others—to give it the whole of your life? As estates go, I fancy the possibilities of Eden were even more amazing than those of Gramarye—I daresay you won't admit that, but then you're biassed—and yet the introduction of Eve was considered advisable."
"With the result that ..."
Miss Strongi'th'arm laughed.
"With the result that you and I are alive this glorious day, with our destinies in our pockets and the great round world at our feet. I wonder whether I ought to go into a nunnery."
"I've tried kicking the world," said Anthony, "and I'm still lame from it. And Fate picked my pocket months and months ago."
"So Faint Heart turned into the first monastery he came to," said Andre, leaning forward and caressing her hunter's neck. "What d'you think of that, Joshua?"
As if by way of comment, the horse snorted, and Anthony found himself joining in Miss Strongi'th'arm's mirth.
"There's hope for you yet," gurgled that lady. "Your sense of humour is still kicking. And that under the mud appears to be a scrap of a dog. When you take your final vows, will you give him to me?"
"In my monastery," said Lyveden, "monks are allowed to keep dogs. There is also no rule against laughter."
"Isn't there, now?" flashed Andre. "I wonder why? There's no rule against idleness either, is there?" She laughed bitterly. "Rules are made to cope with inclinations. Where there's no inclination——" She broke off suddenly and checked her horse. Setting her hand upon Lyveden's shoulder, she looked into his eyes. "You laughed just now, didn't you? When did you last laugh before that?"
Anthony stared back. The girl's intuition was uncanny. Now that he came to think of it, Winchester and his little band never laughed over their work—never. There was—she was perfectly right—there was no inclination. Eagerness, presumably, left no room for Merriment. Or else the matter was too high, too thoughtful. Not that they laboured sadly—far from it. Indeed, their daily round was one long festival. But Laughter was not at the board. Neither forbidden, nor bidden to the feast, she just stayed away. Yet Mirth was no hang-back.... Anthony found himself marvelling.
"Who are you?" he said suddenly,
For a second the brown eyes danced; then their lids hid them. With flushed cheeks the girl sat up on her horse.
"Who am I? I'm a daughter of Eve, Major Lyveden. Eve, who cost Adam his Gramarye. So you be careful. Bar your door of nights. Frame rules against laughter and idleness—just to be on the safe side. And next time a girl drops her crop——"
"I hope," said Anthony gravely, "I hope I shall be behind her to pick it up and have the honour of her company to turn a mile into a furlong."
"O-o-oh, blasphemy!" cried Andre, pretending to stop her ears. "Whatever would Gramarye say? Come on, Joshua."
The next moment she was cantering up the broad white way....
As she rounded a bend, she flung up an arm and waved her crop cheerily.
Anthony waved back.
* * * * *
Miss Valerie French sat in her library at Bell Hammer, with her elbows propped on the writing-table and her head in her hands. She had been free of the great room ever since she could remember. Long before her father's death she had been accustomed to sit curled in its great chairs, to lie upon the huge tiger-skin before the hearth, or gravely to face her father across that very table and draw houses and flights of steps and stiff-legged men and women with flat feet upon his notepaper, while Mr. French dealt with his correspondence. Always, when the picture was completed, it would be passed to him for his approval and acceptance; and he would smile and thank her and audibly identify the objects portrayed; and, if he were not too busy, they would remind him of a tale, the better to follow which she must leave her chair and climb on to his knee....
Then he had died—ten years after her birth, nine years after her mother's death. There were who said he had died of a broken heart—a heart broken nine years before. It may have been true. Valerie loved the room more than ever....
When she was come of age, she made it her boudoir. Flowers and silks and silver lit up its stateliness. Beneath the influence of a grand piano and the soft-toned cretonnes upon the leather chairs, the solemnity of the chamber melted into peace. The walls of literature, once so severe, became a kindly background, wearing a wise, grave smile.
Such comfort, however, as the room extended was to-day lost upon Valerie. Beyond the fact that it was neither noisome nor full of uproar, Miss French derived no consolation from an atmosphere to which she had confidently carried her troubles for at least twenty years. The truth is, she was sick at heart. There was no health in her. She had been given a talent and had cast it into the sea. She had stumbled upon a jewel, more lustrous than any she had dreamed this earth could render, and of her folly she had flung it into the draught. She had suspected him who was above suspicion, treated her king like a cur, unwarrantably whipped from her doors the very finest gentleman in all the world. What was a thousand times worse, he had completely vanished. Had she known where he was, she would have gone straight to him and, kneeling upon her knees, begged his forgiveness. Her pride was already in tatters, her vanity in rags: could she have found him, she would have stripped the two mother-naked. In a word, she would have done anything which it is in the power of a mortal to do to win back that wonder of happiness which they had together built up. It must be remembered that Valerie was no fool. She realized wholly that without Anthony Lyveden Life meant nothing at all. She had very grave doubts whether it would, without him, ever mean anything again. And so, to recover her loss, she was quite prepared to pay to the uttermost farthing. The trouble, was, the wares were no longer for sale; at any rate, they were not exposed to her eyes. The reflection that, after a little, they might be offered elsewhere and somebody else secure them, sent Valerie almost out of her mind. And it might happen any day—easily. The wares were so very attractive.... Moreover, if their recovery was to beggar her, by a hideous paradox, failure to repurchase the wares meant ruin absolute....
When Valerie French had discovered that her jealousy of her lover was utterly baseless, she had had the sense to make no bones about it, but to strike her colours at once. That Anthony was not there to witness her capitulation did not affect her decision. If she was to have their intelligent assistance, the sooner others saw it and appreciated her plight, so much the better for her. Only her aunt and the Alisons could possibly help at all; to those four she spoke plainly, telling the cold facts and feeling the warmth of well-doing in tearing her pride to tatters. Then she rent her vanity and begged their services to find and, if necessary, plead for her with the ex-officer. The Alisons had promised readily, but there was no confidence in their eyes. Lady Touchstone, however, had sent her niece's hopes soaring. She had reason, it seemed, to expect a letter. Major Lyveden had promised to let her have his address. And, he being a man of his word, it was bound to come—bound to come....
For more than a month Valerie hung upon every incoming post. Then she knew that the letter had gone astray.
For the hundredth time Miss French read through the three letters which lay before her upon the table, written in the firm, clear hand of Anthony Lyveden. Except she drew upon the store of Memory, she had nothing else at all that spoke of him. Hence the common envelopes became three reliquaries, the cheap thin notepaper relics above all price, piteously hallowed by the translation of the scribe.
The letters affording no comfort, Valerie rose and moved to a great window which looked on to the terrace and thence into the park. Instantly the memory of one sweet September night rose up before her—a night when he and she had paced those flags together, while music had floated out of the gallery, and the stars had leaped in the heavens, and the darkness had quivered at the breath of the cool night air; when he had wrapped his love in a fairy tale and she had listened with a hammering heart ... when he at last had put her hand to his lips, and she had given back the homage before he could draw away....
The terrace was worse than the letters, and Valerie turned to the books. Idly she moved along the wall, reading the names upon the calf bindings and not knowing whether she read them or no. A sudden desire to look at the topmost shelves made her cross to the great step-ladder and climb to its balustered pulpit. Before she was half-way there the desire had faded, but she went listlessly on. Come to the top, she turned to let her eye wander over the nearest shelf. Old, little-read volumes only met her gaze—Hoole's works, Jessey, John Sadler, Manley.... Of the ten small volumes containing Miss Manley's outpourings, the seventh was out of place, and Valerie stretched out a hand to straighten it. As she did so, she saw the title—The Lost Lover. For a moment she stared at it. Then she turned and, descending one step of the ladder, sat down on the edge of the pulpit and buried her face in her hands.
We will leave her there with her beauty, her shapely head bowed, her exquisite figure hunched with despair, her cold, white, pointed fingers pressed tight upon those glorious temples, her little palms hiding the misery of that striking face, her knees convulsively closed, that shining foot tucked beneath the other in the contortion of grief. We will leave her there on the ladder, learning that sorry lesson which Great Love only will set its favourites when they have gone a-whoring after false gods in whom is no faith.
* * * * *
At half-past six upon the following Monday evening Lyveden returned to his cottage with Patch at his heels. In spite of the hard frost, the work had gone well. A bridge had been finished which should laugh to scorn the elements for a long century; a sore-needed staff had been set beneath the arm-pit of a patriarch oak; a truant stream had been tucked into its rightful bed. It had been a good day.
Arrived at his door, Anthony turned and looked upward. The cold white brilliance of the stars stared winking back; the frozen silence of the firmament hung like a magic cloak upon the shoulders of darkness; the pool of Night lay in a breathless trance, ice-cold and fathomless. Anthony opened the door and passed in.
Within three minutes the lamp and lantern were lighted and a fire was crackling upon the hearth; within ten, fuel had been fetched and water drawn from the well; within twenty, the few odd jobs on whose performance the comfort of regularity depended, had been disposed of; and by seven o'clock the Sealyham had had his dinner, and his master, washed and groomed, was free to sit down to a substantial meal.
At the first glance, the latter's dress was highly reminiscent of the warfare so lately dead. The shade and stuff of the stout breeches, the heavy ankle boots, the grey shirt-cuff emerging from the sleeve of the coarse cardigan, were old familiar friends. The fact that Lyveden had laid aside his collar heightened the comparison. Only his gaiters struck a discordant note. These were of good box-cloth and buttoned from knee to ankle. Tight-fitting about the calf, but not shaped to the leg, they fell well over the tops of the heavy boots, resting, indeed, upon the insteps. They suited Anthony, for whom they might have been made, admirably. They were, moreover, a wholly redeeming feature, and turned his garb from that of a thousand corporals into the homely attire of a gentleman farmer. So soon as you saw them, you forgot the War. The style of them was most effective. It beat the spear into a pruning hook. With this to leaven them, the rough habiliments were most becoming. In a word, they supplied the very setting which manhood should have; and since Anthony, sitting there at his meat, was the personification of virility, they served, as all true settings should, by self-effacement to magnify their treasure. The ex-officer might have stepped out of Virgil's Eclogues.
He had finished his meal, cleared away the remains, set the table for breakfast, and was in the act of filling his pipe, when the Sealyham growled. Anthony, whose ears were becoming sharper every day, listened intently. The next moment came a sharp tapping upon the door. In an instant Patch was across the room, barking furiously....
Laying down his pipe and tobacco, Anthony followed the terrier and, picking him up in his arms, threw open the door.
"So you didn't bar it, after all," said a mocking voice. "Well, my conscience is clear. I warned you. And since you are at home and the door is open, will you extend your hospitality to a benighted Eve?"
Anthony stepped to one side.
"I'm all alone," he said hesitatingly.
"So am I," said Andre, entering. "Oh, what a lovely fire! I'm just perished," she added, crossing to spread her hands to the blaze. "It's not a night to be motoring."
Anthony shut the door and put the terrier down. The latter ran to the lady and sniffed the hem of her garments. After a careful scrutiny he turned away....
"It's not a night," said Anthony, "to be walking the countryside in evening dress. Have you had a breakdown?"
"Not that I know of," replied Miss Strongi'th'arm. "Don't be so modest. I happened to be passing and I happened to see your light, so I thought I'd come and see how Adam was getting on. Is it against the rules?"
"I'm all alone," said Lyveden steadily.
"Is that an order to quit?"
"I'm only thinking of you," said Anthony. "I know I've dropped out of things lately, and the world goes pretty fast, but I'd hate people to talk about you." He felt himself flushing, and went on jerkily: "I mean, I don't honestly know what's done nowadays and what isn't. If you're quite easy ... you see, I'm older than you," he added desperately.
There was a little silence. Then—
"Don't stop," said Andre, with a mischievous smile. "I've never been lectured by a monk before. Besides, I collect points of view."
"Is mine extraordinary?"
"An exceptionally rare specimen. I shall always treasure it." She produced a cigarette case. "May I smoke a cigarette? Or is that also against the rules?"
Without a word Anthony struck a match....
"Thanks," said the lady. She unbuttoned her coat. "It's nice and warm in here," she added comfortably. "Oh, please don't look so reproachful! I just can't bear it. I'm not doing anything wrong, and it makes me feel awful. Of course, if you don't want me..."
"You know it isn't that," he protested. "I only thought possibly—I mean..." He broke off helplessly and touched the back of a chair. "Wouldn't you like to sit down?"
"Shall you sit down if I do?" Anthony shook his head. "Then I shan't either. I'd much rather stand." And, with that, my lady set her back against the side of the fireplace and crossed her shapely ankles.
It must be confessed that she made an arresting picture. Mean as the light was, it woke the luminous beauty of her auburn hair; a sprinkling of freckles gave to her exquisite complexion a jolly look; the bright brown eyes and the merry mouth were those of a Bacchante. Above her plain black frock her throat and chest showed dazzling white; below, the black silk stockings shone with a lustre which was not that of silk alone; over all, the voluminous mink coat framed her from head to toe with a rich luxury.
"And how," said Andre, "is Gramarye? Have you finished the bridge?"
Anthony stared at her.
"How did you know?" he said.
Miss Strongi'th'arm shrugged her fair shoulders.
"What does it matter?" she said. "Let's talk about something else—if you can. Have you thought over what I said? No. I can see you haven't. Well, well.... Have you laughed since we met?"
"I—I don't think I have."
"Ah.... Why not?"
"There's been nothing to laugh at. The work's big—serious."
"Wasn't the War serious?"
Anthony crossed to the hearth and kicked a log into flame.
"I suppose so," he said reluctantly.
"Yet you laughed every day."
"The War was different. You can't compare the two. Then you laughed because it was better than crying. Now there's no reason for it. There's no time on your hands. The work's too urgent—too solemn. It's like restoring a cathedral. You don't feel you want to laugh." He swung round and faced her. "There's a religion in the atmosphere; Gramarye's a sort of temple; when you're in the woods, instinctively you lower your voice; there's something sacred about the place; there's——"
Miss Strongi'th'arm dropped her cigarette and caught her vis-a-vis by the shoulders.
"Don't!" she cried. "Don't! It's all wrong! The place isn't sacred. It's absurd. You're infatuated. Gramarye's getting into your blood. Soon you won't be able to think of anything else. And gradually it'll eat up your life—your splendid, glorious life. I know what I'm talking about. D'you hear? I say I know! I've seen one man go under, and now you're going—you!" The flame died out of her voice leaving it tender and passionate. "And you're too wonderful a thing, lad; you're too perfect a specimen; you're too strong and gentle ... too honest.... Ah"—her hands slipped from his shoulders and her eyes dropped—"you needn't look so reproachful. I know I'm a rotter. I dropped my crop on purpose the other day, because I wanted to talk to you; and I lied to my mother and said I was dining out to-night, and then came here, because..." Anthony put out an appealing hand. The girl laughed bitterly. "All right. I won't say it." She started feverishly to fasten her coat. "It's about time I was going, isn't it? About time...."
In silence Anthony passed with her to the door.
There was simply nothing to say.
Together they walked to her car, a well-found coupe standing dark and silent upon the wasted track, facing the London road. Andre opened its door, thrust in a groping hand.... For a moment her fingers hunted. Then two shafts of light leaped from the head-lamps. A second later the near side-lamp showed Anthony how pale was her face....
The lights in the car went up, and Andre picked up her gloves. Standing with her back to Lyveden, she pulled them on fiercely, but her hands were shaking, and the fastening of the straps was a difficult business.
Patch, who had come with them and was facing the opposite way, put his head on one side and stared up the line of the track. Then he trotted off into the darkness....
The straps fastened, Andre turned about.
Anthony put out his hand.
"Good-bye," he said gently.
For a moment the girl looked at him. Then she gave a little sob, and, putting her arms about his neck, drew down his head and kissed him frantically. A moment later she was leaning wearily against the car, with the sleeve of her right arm across her eyes. As she let it fall, Winchester stepped out of the darkness with Patch at his heels.
"Andre?" he said. And then again, "Andre?" Anthony swung on his heel and faced the speaker. The latter stared at him with smouldering eyes.
"Lyveden?" he said hoarsely.
There was an electric silence.
Then Anthony turned to Miss Strongi'th'arm.
"I most humbly apologize," he said. "My feelings got the better of me. I pray that you will try to forgive me." He turned to Winchester. "This lady needed some water for her radiator, and came to my door——"
"You blackguard!" said Winchester. "You——"
"It's a lie!" flamed Andre.
The cold steel of her tone fairly whistled. Instinctively both men started.
"It's a lie, Richard. He's the cleanest, straightest man that ever breathed. He'd no idea who I was. He hasn't now. He never knew my name till you said it. I forced myself upon him the other day. I forced myself upon him to-night. And he's—he's just turned me down.... He said what he did just now to try and shield me. But he's blameless. It was I who—made the running. And I'm glad you saw it. Glad!" She tore off her left glove. "Because it's your own fault. It's eighteen months since I promised to be your wife. Eighteen solid months. And I'm tired—sick of waiting—fed up. First it was Russia: then the North of France: then—Gramarye. Gramarye!" She flung back her head and laughed wildly. Then she snatched a ring from her finger and hurled it on to the ground. "There's the ring you gave me. God knows why I didn't give it you back yesterday—months ago. I'd reason enough. I suppose I still hoped.... But now you've killed it. I don't even care what happens to you. You've messed up my life, you've messed up your own, and, what's a million times worse, you're doing your level best to mess up his."
Upon the last words her voice broke piteously, and Andre covered her eyes. So she stood for a moment, white-faced, her lips trembling.... Then she whipped into the car and slammed the door. A moment later the engine was running. She let in the clutch, and the car moved forward....
As she turned on to the London road, she changed into second speed ... into third ... top....
The two men stood as she had left them, motionless, the little white dog eyeing them curiously.
The steady purr of the engine grew fainter and fainter.
When it had quite died, Anthony turned and touched the other upon the shoulder.
"There's always Gramarye," he said.
For a moment the giant peered at him. Then he straightened his bowed shoulders and threw up his head.
"Yes," he shouted, "yes. There's always Gramarye!"
"It is only right, Lyveden," said Colonel Winchester, "that you should know that I am losing my mind."
The steady, measured tone of the speaker invested this bald statement with a significance which paralyzed. Anthony stood as if rooted to the floor.
"Yes," said the other, "it was bound to shake you up. But I want you to realize it. Sit down for a minute and think what it means."
Anthony did as he was bid—dazedly. His employer turned his back and stared into the fire.
The silence which ensued was painful. So much so, that Mr. Samuel Plowman, Solicitor and Commissioner for Oaths, whose nerves were less subordinate than those of the two ex-officers, was hard put to it not to scream.
It must be confessed that in the last twenty-five minutes the poor gentleman had encountered a whole pack of things, none of which had been dreamt of in his philosophy. Little had he imagined, when he was desired to attend professionally at Gramarye "precisely at half-past ten on Sunday morning," what that attendance would bring forth. Colonel Winchester had certainly a reputation for eccentricity. His letter was undoubtedly—well, peculiar. Mr. Plowman had smiled upon his finger-nails—a sapient, indulgent smile. He had dealt with eccentricity before. Witness Miss Sinister of Mallwood, who had summoned him in just such a way, but more peremptorily. Then he had been desired to superintend the cremation of a favourite cat. That was nine years ago. For the last eight years he had superintended Mallwood. Mr. Plowman had smiled more than ever....
At twenty-six minutes past ten that February morning he had ascended the broken steps of the old grey mansion, a little curious, perhaps, but, as he would have told you, "ready for anything." There being no bell, he had raised and let fall the great knocker, and then stood still in the sunshine looking placidly about him. The desolation of the park left him unmoved. Money, judiciously expended, could rectify that. And the house seemed sound enough. They knew how to build in the old days. Colonel Winchester was probably using only one wing for the present. In time to come, possibly ... Mr. Plowman had straightened his tie.
Then the door had opened.
Clad like a husbandman, his shirt open at the neck, his sleeves rolled to his elbows, the biggest man Mr. Plowman had ever seen had stood regarding him. The cold majesty of a lion had looked out of those terrible eyes; neck, chest, and arms proclaimed the strength of a Hercules; the pose was that of a demi-god at bay. The carelessly brushed fair hair, the broad forehead, the unusual distance between those steel-grey eyes, the fine colour of the cheeks, the fair, close-cut beard, contributed to make the fellow unearthly handsome. But there was something behind it all—a dominating irresistible force, which rose up in a great wave, monstrous and menacing.
Mr. Plowman, who knew little of personality, felt as if he had been suddenly disembowelled....
Thereafter he had been led stumbling through the semi-darkness of a stark hall, by gaunt mouldering passages to the servants' quarters. A fair-sized parlour, looking upon a courtyard, carpetless, curtainless, and something suggestive of an "Orderly Room," had presently received him.
There a deep bass voice had bade him be seated, and he had been told quite dispassionately that he was present to assist the speaker to prepare for insanity.
All things considered, it is to Mr. Plowman's credit that he was able to appreciate and answer coherently quite a number of questions which his client had put to him upon matters of law. The strain, however, was severe, and he was unutterably relieved when he was directed to move to a table, where paper and ink were waiting, and take down the explicit instructions which the voice would dictate. He had obeyed parrot-wise.
The dictation was hardly over when Lyveden had appeared at the window and, at a nod from Winchester, walked to a side-door and entered the room a moment later....
What immediately followed his entrance, gentlemen, we have already seen. Your time being precious, I have but made use of the silence which poor Mr. Plowman found so distressful.
The great figure before the fire turned slowly about and, folding its mighty arms, leaned against the mantelpiece.
"When it will happen," said the deep voice, "I have no idea. Sometimes it seems very near; at others, as if it may never come. Yet I know it will. So I must be prepared.... Mr. Plowman is here to assist me in this preparation.
"I've tried to tell him, Lyveden, about the estate. I've tried to explain what it means to me. I feel that I've failed." Mr. Plowman was physically unable to utter the deprecative ejaculation which he knew should have been here inserted. His lips framed it, but it was never expressed. "I have, however, explained that I am engaged upon its restoration, and that you are my second-in-command. I have told him that when I—when my call comes, I wish the work to go on. This is where you come in. I have given him certain instructions, all of which depend upon you." The speaker unfolded his arms and stood upright. "When I'm gone, are you willing to carry on?"
Before Anthony could answer, the other had lifted his hand.
"Wait. Don't answer till you know where you are.
"You'll have a Power of Attorney and absolute control. The moment I'm certified, you'll stand in my shoes. Some of my income must be set aside—I shall have to be looked after, you know—the rest you will administer as if you were me. You'll be the master of the other men. Your word will be law. The future of Gramarye will be in your hands. You can follow the line I've taken, or you can strike off on your own. You'll have absolute power. I'm ready to give it you, if you're ready to take it. But you must wash sentiment out. The question of my helplessness mustn't weigh with you. You mustn't consider anything except yourself. If Gramarye means enough to you——"
"It does," said Lyveden.
"Are you sure?"
"There's nothing else in my life."
His keen grey eyes glowing with the light of a visionary, Winchester stepped forward, and Lyveden got upon his feet. For a moment the two men looked one another in the face. Then Winchester shivered suddenly, put a hand to his head, and turned away....
The pathos of the gesture loosened Anthony's tongue.
"You know best, sir, and it isn't my place to try to dissuade you. Let the business go through. Once for all, whatever happens to you, I'll carry on. I'll do everything exactly as if you were there. You can rest easy. But—— Oh, how can you think such a thing? I never in all my life saw any one less likely to go under. You're not the type, sir. It's—it's laughable." The words came tumbling out of an honest heart. "I saw men go mad in France, but they were hardly your sort. Perhaps you're too much alone. Will you let me live with you? Or, if it's insomnia——"
"It isn't insomnia," said the giant. "It's insanity."
Mr. Plowman, who was picking up the pen which for the second time had escaped the play of his trembling fingers, started violently and struck his head against the table. The absurd action attracting annoyed attention, he broke into a cold sweat.
"But you can't know that!" cried Anthony. "Only a doctor can——"
"What doctor would tell me the truth?"
"You needn't ask him. You can ask to be told the symptoms, and then compare them with yours. If they tally——"
"You speak as a child," said Winchester. "Insanity's not like chicken-pox. There's no book of the rules."
"I don't care. You can't possibly know. On a matter like this your own opinion's worthless. It's the one thing no man can say of himself: You can't judge your own judgment." Staring into the fire, Winchester began to tap the floor with his toe. "I've said I'll carry on, and you can put my name in, but I'm sorry I was so quick."
"Because I oughtn't to subscribe to this belief. It's all wrong. I'm admitting a possibility which doesn't exist. I'm humouring a dangerous whim. For over two months I've spent ten hours a day in your company—I've sat at your feet—I've marvelled at your wisdom—I've envied your instinct—I've been dazed by your amazing efficiency—and now I'm to put on record——"
With a stifled roar, Winchester threw back his head and beat with his fists upon his temples.
"You fool!" he raved. "Out of your own mouth.... The very wisdom you marvel at has shown me what you can't see. That instinct you say you envy has opened my eyes. I tell you I'm going mad. Time and again I've seen the writing upon the wall. I walk with Insanity of nights. Three months ago I chucked my revolver into the lake, or I shouldn't be here to-day. You babble of madness; I tell you I know the jade. Why, there are nights when the stars slip and the world lies on her side, and only the woods of Gramarye keep me from falling off. I climb from tree to tree, man. They're like the rungs of a ladder, with their tops swaying in the wind over eternity and their roots stuck fast in a gigantic wall—that's the earth ... on her side ... They're sticking straight out like pegs. And sometimes I hear a roar coming, and the trees are bent like reeds, and the wind screams to glory, and the whole world turns turtle—swings right over and round. Think of it, man. Twelve thousand miles in a second of time. And there are the stars on my right, and I'm climbing the wrong way up.... But Gramarye holds me fast. As long as I'm in the woods—— But the roads are the devil. They make such a gap. You have to climb them to get to the other side. The trees are child's play—they help you. But the roads ... I shall meet it on one of those roads ... one day ... one day...."
The deep sonorous voice faded, and with a whimper Mr. Plowman slid on to the floor.
It was Anthony who picked him up and carried the unconscious lawyer into the open air. As he was helping him to his feet, Winchester appeared with brandy.
"I was so engrossed," he said quietly, "that I never saw you go down. Was the room too hot?"
Mr. Plowman gulped down some spirit before replying. Then—
"Yes," he said jerkily. "I—I think perhaps it was. I must apologize, sir."
Winchester inclined his head.
"You have your instructions," he said. "And you have seen Major Lyveden, and heard him consent to act. Prepare the necessary papers immediately and send them to me for signature. If any question arises, lay it before me by letter. If you must see me"—the unfortunate attorney blenched—"write and say so. I need hardly add that, with regard to what has passed between us, I expect your observation of the strictest confidence."
"M-most certainly, sir."
"One thing more." An envelope passed. "There is a cheque on account. If on reflection you wish to take counsel's opinion, and that is not enough, write and say so." He put out his hand. "Good-bye. I'm much obliged to you for coming. I hope you'll be none the worse."
With starting eyes Mr. Plowman touched the great palm. Then his client turned, and, clapping a hat on his head, strode off into the wilderness.
As the sound of his footsteps died—
"There's a paper—in there—on the table," said Mr. Plowman. "And my hat and coat—and bag..."
"I'll get them," said Anthony.
"It's—it's very good of you."
When he returned, the lawyer had fastened his collar and was nervously bullying his tie into place.
"Have you a conveyance?" said Anthony.
"N-no, sir. I sent the fly away. I had thought I would walk back," he added miserably.
Clearly the chance of encountering Winchester was not at all to his taste.
"You'd better come with me," said Lyveden. "It's the quickest way to Girdle. I live in the cottage close to the London road."
Mr. Plowman felt inclined to put his arms round Anthony's neck....
Three-quarters of an hour later the little attorney stepped, with a sigh of relief, on to the King's highway. Going and pace had tried him pretty hard, and he was simply streaming with sweat. He pushed back his hat and blew out his cheeks comically. Then he set down his bag and started to mop his face.
"By Jove!" he said, panting. "By Jove, I'm glad to be——" His eyes resting upon Anthony, he broke off and fell a-staring. "Why," he cried, "you haven't turned a hair!"
"I take a lot of hard exercise," he explained.
"By Jove!" said Mr. Plowman, wide-eyed. "Well, I'm awfully obliged to you."
"You've nothing to thank me for." Lyveden pointed to the cottage. "That's where I live." He put out his hand. "Are you all right now?"
"Splendid, thanks. Can't think how I came to faint like that. Of course..."
He took the outstretched hand meditatively.
"The room was unusually hot," said Anthony.
The other stared at him.
"Yes," he said slowly. "By Jove, yes...." With a sudden movement he picked up his bag. "Good-bye."
The next moment he was plodding down the broad white road.
Anthony watched him till he could see him no more. Then he turned on his heel and whistled to his dog.
As he did so, the purr of an engine rose out of the distance, and he turned to see a large touring-car sailing towards him from the direction of Town.
"Come on, Patch!" he cried quickly.
The approach of the car made him anxious. The terrier, he knew, had crossed the road, and there was something about this particular reach of metalling that tempted motorists to pass at the deuce of a pace.
The car sailed on.
It was fifty paces away, when Anthony heard Patch flouncing through the undergrowth in response to his call. In another second the terrier would take his customary flying leap from the bank on to the road—on the same side as the car....
In a flash, Anthony was full in its path, spreading out signalling arms.
The tires were tearing at the macadam as Patch leaped into the road and, missing his footing, stumbled on to his nose twenty-five paces ahead.
Anthony ran up to the car, hat in hand.
"I'm awfully sorry," he said. "My dog was coming, and I couldn't stop him. I'd called him before I saw you. I was afraid he'd be run over."
The fresh-faced youth at the wheel stared at him.
"That's all right, sir," he grinned. "How are you? You don't remember me, Every. Met you at Saddle Tree Cross—huntin'. Valerie French introduced us."
"Of course," said Anthony. "I remember you perfectly. Are you all right?"
"Goin' strong, thanks." He turned to a girl at his side. "Joan, let me introduce Major Lyveden—my sister." Anthony bowed. "We're goin' down to Evesham to see some spaniel pups. Are you livin' down here, sir?"
Anthony indicated his cabin with a smile.
"That's my house," he said. "I've turned forester, and I'm working on this estate."
"But how priceless," said Joan. "If I were a man, that's just what I'd——"
"Yes," said her brother. "I can see you gettin' up at dawn an' hewin' down trees an' things with a bead-bag on your wrist an'——"
"I said 'if I was a man,'" protested Joan. "I said..."
The argument waxed, and Anthony began to laugh. So soon as he could get a word in—
"I mustn't keep you," he said.
Peter Every glanced at his watch.
"Twenty-past twelve!" he cried. "George, no! I'll have to put her along. I suppose you won't come on and lunch with us, sir? We'd love it, and we can drop you here on the way back."
"Yes, do," urged Joan.
Anthony shook his head.
"You're very kind," he said, smiling, "but I've any amount to do. When you live alone, and you've only one day a week..."
"I'm sorry," said Every. "Still, if you won't..."
He let in the clutch.
"Good-bye," said Anthony.
"Good-bye," cried the others.
The car slid forward.
A moment later, arrived at the top of the hill, it dropped over the crest and sank out of sight.
* * * * *
It was twelve days later that Mr. Peter Every found his cake to be dough.
Taking advantage of a general invitation, issued when he was six years old, he had asked himself to Bell Hammer ostensibly to enjoy a day's hunting, but in reality with the express intention of inviting Miss Valerie French to become his lady-wife.
All things considered, it was rather hard that before he had been in the house for an hour and a half he should himself have pulled his airy castle incontinently about his ears.
This was the way of it.
It was that soft insidious hour which begins when it is time to dress for dinner and ends in horrified exclamation and a rush for the bath. Valerie, seated at the piano, was playing Massenet's Elegie, and Every was lolling in a deep chair before the fire, studying a map of the county and thinking upon the morrow's hunt. In such circumstances it is not surprising that the printed appearance of Saddle Tree Cross should have remembered Lyveden.
"By the way, Val," he said, raising his voice to override the music, "I met a pal of yours the other day."
Valerie raised her eyebrows and continued to play.
"Did you?" she said, without turning. "Who was that?"
The Elegie died a sudden discordant death, and Valerie started to her feet.
The flame of the inquiry scorched Peter Every's ears.
Dropping the map and getting uncertainly upon his feet, he demanded aggrievedly to be told what on earth was the matter....
On trying subsequently coherently to recall what had happened in the next five minutes, he found his memory pardonably confused.
Valerie had taken him by the shoulders and shaken him like a rat: she had hurled at his head an unending stream of questions—all about Lyveden, and, when he had hesitated, had shaken him again; when he had tried to protest, she had put her hand over his mouth; when she had clearly exhausted his memory, she had announced that they would go up to Town the next day, and that on Sunday morning, sun, rain, or snow, he would motor her down to where Lyveden dwelt; then she had said she was sorry she'd shaken him, smiled him a maddening smile, told him, with a rare blush, that Anthony Lyveden was "the most wonderful man in the world," kissed him between the eyes, and then darted out of the room, calling for Lady Touchstone....
Sitting that night upon the edge of his bed, with his hands in his pockets and a pipe in his mouth, staring moodily upon the carpet, Peter had thought ruefully upon his shattered fortune.
"Blinkin' fine week-end," he muttered, "I don't think. I roll up for a hunt an' a dart at the most priceless girl that ever was foaled, an' I lose the one an' am roped in to help the other to another cove." He laughed bitterly. "'Minds me of a drama-play. S'pose I'm cast for the perishin' strong man wot 'ides 'is bleedin' 'eart." He flung out a dramatic arm. "'Reenunciation, 'Erbert, 'ath its reeward.' (Loud and prolonged cheers.) Well, well...." He rose to his feet and stretched luxuriously. "It's all the same in a hundred years, and so long as she's happy..." And with that little candle of truly handsome philosophy Mr. Peter Every lighted himself to bed.
Upon the following Sunday, at a quarter before midday, he set Miss French down upon the London road at the spot at which he and Joan had met Lyveden a fortnight before.
"I'll wait till you've seen if he's in," he said, nodding towards the cottage. "If he is, I'll come back in an hour. That do?"
Valerie smiled and nodded. She was just twittering. Then she flung her veil back over her shoulder and stepped off the road on to the wasted track....
It was a beautiful day—a handful of sweet-smelling hours filched by Winter out of the wallet of Spring. The wet earth seemed drenched with perfume; the winds kept holy-day; the sun, like a giant surprisedly refreshed, beamed with benevolence.
Her knocking upon the door of the cottage evoking no answer, Miss French decided to try the back.
The venture was fruitful.
There upon the red-brick pavement stood a small snow-white dog, whom Major Anthony Lyveden, seated upon a soap-box, was towelling vigorously.
Between the fuss of the operation and the amicable wrangle which it induced, neither of the parties heard the lady's approach. For a moment she stood spellbound. Then she turned and waved her arm to Every, sitting still in the car fifty odd paces away. Intelligently the latter waved back....
As Valerie turned, there was a scrabble of paws. Followed a sharp exclamation, and the next moment Patch was leaping frantically to lick her face, while Anthony Lyveden, who had risen to his feet, was staring at her and recoiling, towel in hand, as if he had perceived an apparition.
For the two, who had shared big moments, it was the most tremendous of all. Upon a sudden impulse that black king Fate had flung his warder up. Instantly the barriers of Time and Distance had been swept away, and Love, Shame, Fear, and a whole host of Emotions had come swarming pell-mell back into the lists—a surging, leaderless mob, thirsty to flesh their swords, quarrelling amongst themselves....
Sit you there by the king, sirs, if you will watch the tourney. Climb up into his pavilion; make his grim equerries give place. I will answer for their black looks. And the king will laugh at their discomfiture. His jester for the length of my tale, I can twist the tyrant about my little finger.
See, then, the wrangling press take order of battle. Observe the clamorous throng split into two rival companies, each of them captained by Love, with Hope and Shame on one side, and Fear and Mistrust upon the other. These six are the most notable; the rest you shall discover for yourselves, when issue is joined. One other knight only I beg you will remark—him in the cold grey harness, knee to knee with Mistrust, whose device is a broken bough, sirs, whom there is none to counter upon the opposite side.... That is no one of the Emotions, but something less honest—a free-lance, gentlemen, that has ridden unasked to the jousting and cares for neither cause, but, because he will grind his own axe, ranged against Valerie. There is a fell influence behind that vizor that will play a big part this February day.
When Valerie French looked upon her lost lover, she could have wept for joy. The sight of him, indeed, rendered her inarticulate, and, before she had found her voice, came Shyness to tie up her tongue. This is important, because her sudden inability to speak upset everything.
For a month after she had known the man faithful and herself for a fool. Miss French had constantly rehearsed this meeting. Then, when she had almost lost hope that it would ever take place, the rehearsals had lost their savour.... Forty hours ago they had been revived and conducted feverishly by day and night. She had a score of entrances, and humble opening lines to suit them all. Before Anthony could speak, she would have disarmed him by kneeling in the dust. The most submissive sentences her love could utter were to be laid at his feet—calls which, if his love were yet alive, must wake some echoes. Too honest, however, to make a play-actress, Valerie had reckoned without stage-fright....
Lyveden was the first to recover.
"Why, Miss—Valerie," he said, "where have you sprung from?" He came to her smiling and put out his hand. "I can see by your face that I'm forgiven. I'm so glad. I hate to be at variance." Mechanically Valerie laid her hand in his. "I've got such a wonderful job here," he went on easily. "Are you just passing? Or have I time to tell you about it?"
"I'd—I'd love to hear," stammered the girl.
Things were going all wrong. There had been nothing like this in any of her scenes.
"I'm restoring an estate," said Anthony. "When you knew me, I was a footman. Now I'm something between a forester, a landscape-gardener, and a roadman. This"—he lifted an indicating arm—"this belongs to a Colonel Winchester. It's been let go for over a hundred years, and he and I and a few others are working to pull it round. It's just fascinating."
"I'm glad you're happy," she said, and wondered whether that was the moment to speak her unspoken lines. Surely a better opening would present itself. Now that they could not come first, it seemed so awkward to thrust them in without any introduction. While she hesitated, the chance passed.
"I'm sure you are. Would you care to see something of the park? I'd like you to. It'll make it easier for you to understand what we're up against and what an amazing attraction there is in the work." Together they left the cottage and made for the track. "If we go down here for a bit, you'll get an idea of the condition of things, and then I'll show you some of the work we've done. Of course it goes slow. Five thousand acres aren't reclaimed in a day. You see...."
The steady, even tone flowed with a surprising ease. Anthony could hardly believe his ears. How on earth he was able to talk so naturally he could not divine. He was, of course, putting up a tremendous fight. The sudden appearance of Valerie had fairly staggered him. Then instinctively he had pulled himself together, and, with his head still singing from the blow, striven dazedly to ward her off. The great thing, he felt, was to keep talking....
Ever since his dismissal he had fought unceasingly to thrust the lady out of his mind: latterly his efforts had met with a halting success. Now, not only was all this labour utterly lost, but he was faced with a peril more terrifying than death. The prospect of being haled once more unto Pisgah, the hell of viewing once again that exquisite land of promise unfulfilled, loomed big with torment. He simply could not suffer it all again. The path, no doubt, would be made more specious than ever. Oh, indubitably. And the whips which were waiting at the end of it would have become scorpions.... Anthony had braced himself for an immense resistance.
The devil of it was, he loved the girl so desperately that resistance pure and simple would be of no avail. He knew he could never hope to parry the thrusts those beautiful eyes, that gentle voice, were there to offer him. Once before he had tried, and failed signally. It was plain that his only chance of safety lay in attack. He must press her tirelessly. The great thing was to keep talking....
Thank God, there was a subject to hand. Gramarye made a wonderful topic, inviting, inexhaustible. Her blessed woods and streams, her poor blurred avenues, her crumbling roads, the piteous havoc of the proud estate stood him in splendid stead. Anthony found himself not only talking, but waxing enthusiastic. The queer conceit that Gramarye had responded to his cry for help filled him with exultation. Out of his grateful mouth her praise came bubbling....
Settling himself in his saddle with a slow smile, the Knight of the Broken Bough laid on more lustily than before.
It was Patch who unwittingly put a spoke in the latter's wheel.
Miss French's reappearance had affected the dog powerfully. One October day he had known her for Anthony's darling, and as such had become her vassal. He had since seen no reason to withdraw his fealty. As we have seen, at her coming he had leaped for joy. Occasion and personage, however, deserved more honour than that. Ever since the three had begun their ramble, he had been scouring the undergrowth for an offering meet to be laid at the lady's shining feet. It was the way of his heart.
Not until Miss French and Lyveden were standing beside a tottering bridge, and the latter was pointing the traces of a vista which once had gladdened all eyes with its sweetness, but was now itself blind, did the little squire happen upon a treasure worthy in his sight to be bestowed. At this juncture, however, a particularly unsavoury smell attracted his straining nostrils.... A moment later what was, despite the ravages of decomposition, still recognizable as the corpse of a large black bird was deposited with every circumstance of cheerful devotion immediately at Valerie's feet.
To ignore such a gift was impossible. Its nature and condition saw to that. To accept it was equally out of the question. But tacitly to reject such a love-token needed a harder heart than Valerie's or, for the matter of that, than Anthony's, either.
Miss French gave a queer little cry of mingled distaste and appreciation, and Anthony hesitated, lost the thread of his discourse, and stopped.
"How very sweet of you, Patch! No, I mustn't touch it because I'm not allowed dead birds. But I do thank you." She patted the panting head. "Look. Here's a stone I'll throw for you—down into the brook. I'm sure it'll be good for you to wash your mouth." She flung the pebble, and the dog went flying. Valerie turned to Lyveden with a glowing face. "Don't think I'm fishing for another dead bird, but I wish I could feel you'd forgiven me as truly as Patch. Oh, Anthony, I just can't tell you how deadly ashamed I feel, how——"
"My dear girl, you mustn't talk like this. I knew there was some misunderstanding—I didn't know what—and I——"
"I thought you cared for Anne Alison."
"Oh, Valerie...." The wistful reproach of his tone, the sad-faced ghost of a protesting smile hovering about his lips, brought tears to Valerie's eyes. "Well, well.... I'm so glad I'm cleared in your eyes. I'd 've hated you to go through life thinking that I—was like that...." Suddenly he caught at her arm and pointed to the ramshackle bridge. "There's another instance of the rot we're out to stop. Another winter, and that bridge 'd be in the stream, damming it at the deepest and narrowest point. Result, the water's diverted and spreads all over the road, trying to find another way into its channel. No road can stand that, of course. Gradually——"
"Tell me more of yourself," said Valerie.
Anthony let go her arm and put a hand to his head.
"Myself?" he said slowly. "Well, this is my life. I live in the cottage, you know—very simply. It was a wonderful stroke of luck—getting the job. I saw it in the Agony Column."
"Before or after you'd given notice?"
"After. I tell you, I was thankful. And now—I little dreamed what a wonderful billet it was. Living in these beautiful woods, with nothing to——"
"Why did you give notice?" said Valerie.
"Oh, I don't know. I think I was unsettled. After all, a footman's job——"
"Was it because of me?"
There was a long silence. Then—
"Yes," said Anthony. "But that's ancient history," he added quickly. "It wasn't your fault if I chose to take that line. Besides"—he flung out demonstrative arms—"see what you've brought me, Valerie. When I think that less than three months ago I was carrying coals and washing up glasses and waiting at table——"
"And in love with me," said Valerie.
Lyveden's outstretched arms fell to his side.
The worst had happened. Valerie was under his guard....
A pitiful hunted look came into the steady grey eyes. Slowly the brown right hand stole up to his forehead.
"I never ought to have been," he said dully. "I ought to have had more sense. It was always—out of the question ... utterly. I think perhaps if I'd had a job to put my back into, I'd 've——"
He hesitated, at a loss for an expression which would not be ungallant.
Instantly Valerie lunged.
"You'd 've what?"
"Behaved better," he said desperately, turning back the way they had come.
Head back, eyes closed, lips parted, Valerie stood like a statue.
"Behaved ... better?" she whispered. "Behaved ... better?" She shivered, and, when the blue eyes opened, there was the flash of tears springing. "When you talk like that," she said quietly, "you make me feel like death. I deserve it, I know. I deserve anything. But, if you knew how it hurt, I think you'd spare me." Staring into the distance, Anthony dug his nails into his palms. "I came here to-day to pray your forgiveness. Since I—found I was wrong, I've been more utterly wretched than I thought a woman could be. I didn't know there was such agony in this world. Aunt Harriet'll bear me out, and so will the Alisons. I told them the truth. And when, after all these weeks, I found where you were, I just thanked God.... You and I know what we were to each other. Try and put yourself in my place. Supposing you'd turned me down—because you were rotten...." Anthony winced. "Yes, rotten. There's no other word. And then you'd found out your mistake. How would you feel?"
"I'm sure you had cause," blurted Lyveden. "It was a mistake, of course. But you couldn't know that. And I—I've nothing to forgive, dear. I've never thought ill of you—never once. I can't pretend I wasn't shaken, but I always knew there was some mix-up."
"You were—shaken?" said Valerie.
"You see," he explained, "I was terribly——"
"Have you got over it?" said Valerie.
With the point at his throat, Anthony did the only possible thing, and threw down his arms.
"No," he said steadily, "I haven't, and I don't think I ever shall."
There was a long, long silence, which the suck and gurgle of water fretting a crazy sluice-gate had to themselves. Then—
"What d'you mean?" breathed Valerie.
"I think," said Lyveden, "that I shall love you as long as I live."
Valerie just sighed very happily.
"I think," she said, standing a-tiptoe, "I'm the luckiest woman of all the ages."
Then she slid an arm through Anthony's, and they started back....
Anthony's brain was whirling. He did not know what to think. What was worse, he did not know what to do. Did she think he had called back Time? That he had asked her to marry him? Had he? Were his words tantamount to that? Was he prepared to marry her—this wonderful, glorious creature stepping so joyously beside him—this peerless queen, who had wronged him, yet in his eyes could do no wrong? As once before, that touch upon his arm sent the blood singing through his veins. His pulses leaped and danced. An old strange joy came welling.... It was as if a fountain within him had begun to play—an old forgotten fountain, long dry—and the sun was turning its delicate spray to a flourish of sprinkled silver. Against his better judgment he turned and looked at her. My lady felt his gaze, and turned to meet it with a swift smile. All the beauty of youth, all the tenderness of love, all the shyness of maidenhood hung in that glowing countenance. As once before, twin stars had come to light the gentle gravity of those dark blue eyes. The mouth he had kissed in anger was a red flower....
The memory of that kiss came back to him with a rush. He had forgotten it, somehow. He was forgiven, of course. Still, it was only right to speak of it—she had confessed her trespasses so very handsomely.
Standing still, he took hold of her hand.
"Valerie, I quite forgot. The kiss I gave you that day was the kiss of a bully. I've never——"
A small cool hand covered his lips.
"Hush, lad. You mustn't say it. I know you were angry, or you'd never have done it. But that was my fault. You know it was. And"—she hesitated, and a blush came stealing to paint the wild rose red—"it's the only kiss you've ever given me, and—since then—I've been very glad of it."
For a moment Anthony stood trembling. Then he put his arm about Valerie and held her close. There was the whisper of a tremulous sigh in his ears, the warm fragrance of quick-coming breath beat upon his nostrils, the radiance of love-lit beauty flooded his eyes. Slowly he bent his head....
A wandering breeze swept out of the distance, brushed past the leafless woods, set the curtain of silence swaying, and—was gone.
Anthony started violently and threw up his head, listening....
Imagination lent him her ears.
The faintest silvery ripple, the liquid echo of a cool clear call went floating out of audience....
In an instant the man was transfigured.
"The trumpets!" he cried hoarsely. "The trumpets! Didn't you hear them?" The light in his eyes was fanatic. Instinctively Valerie shrank away. Regardless, he let her go. "I forgot. Gramarye—I'm pledged to her. It's too late, Valerie. Oh, why did you come?" He buried his face in his hands. "You'll never understand," he muttered. "I know you never will. It's no good—no good...." Suddenly he stood upright and took off his hat. Then he smiled very tenderly and shook his head. "It's too late, Valerie—my sweet—my darling.... Too late...."
He turned and strode down the track towards the tottering bridge.
For a moment Patch stood looking from him to the girl, uncertain and puzzled. Then he went scampering in Anthony's wake.
* * * * *
"As soon as you've finished, Lyveden, we'll have that fir down. It's the only way. With that list on her, she may go any day. And, when she does, as like as not she'll push half the bank into the road."
Anthony, who was munching bread and meat, nodded agreement. His employer got up and strolled in the direction from which the crunch of wheels upon a rough road argued the approach of a supply of posts and rails.
The fence about the estate was going up.
It was indeed high time. What was left of the old paling was in evil case. Worm and rot had corrupted with a free hand. There was hardly a chain, all told, that merited repair. So Gramarye was to have a new girdle. For the last week Winchester and his little band had been working at nothing else. A spell of fine weather favouring them, the work flew. Master and men worked feverishly, but for once in a way, without relish. The industry of the gnome was still there, but it had become nervous.
The reason for this must be made clear.
Always, till now, the little company had laboured in secret. The thick, dark, lonely woods of Gramarye had sheltered all they did. No strange, unsympathetic eyes had ever peered at their zeal, curious and hostile. This was as well. They had—all ten of them—a freemasonry which the World would not understand. They were observing rites which it was not seemly that the World should watch. Hitherto they had toiled in a harbour at which the World did not touch. Knowing naught else, they had come to take their privacy for granted. Now suddenly this precious postulate had been withdrawn. Since wellnigh the whole of the estate was edged by road, the erection of the fence at once cost them seclusion and showed them how dear they valued it.
All day long the World and his Wife passed by, kindly, mocking, or silent—but always curious. The little fellowship became resentfully self-conscious.... Old wounds reopened; forgotten infirmities lifted up their heads. The three great sailors remembered that they were deaf. The little engineer noticed his trailing leg. The lean, grey-headed joiner thought of the wife who had left him: his fellow recalled the cries of a dying child. Anthony minded Miss French. Only the two old carters were spared the ordeal, their labour keeping them busy under the cover of the woods. Winchester himself felt the unusual exposure most of all. But that the fence was to give them the fee-simple of privacy, he would have abandoned the enterprise. It was not that he was ashamed, but, as an atelier, he had no use for a house-top. "Working in a shop-window," he styled it. If he detested publicity, his resentment of idle curiosity was painfully apparent. Once or twice, indeed, he had broken out and, in a voice of thunder, bade loiterers begone. Happily they had always obeyed....
Anthony finished his lunch, gave a few pieces to Patch, quenched his thirst with a draught of well-water out of an old beer-bottle, and got upon his feet. Winchester had not reappeared, so he strolled across to the fir-tree which had been marked for destruction. As usual, his employer was perfectly right. It would be idle to carry the paling along this piece of bank and leave the tree standing to menace fence and foundation. The sooner it was out of the way, the better.
He crossed to where the sailors were crowded about the engineer, who was drawing a rough diagram upon the sawn face of timber to illustrate some argument. Hard by, upon a log, the joiners were smoking and conversing in a low tone.
"Where are the axes, Blake? The Colonel and I are going to fell that fir."
The grey-headed joiner rose and stepped to a rough litter covered by a tarpaulin. The latter, being turned back, displayed a travelling armoury of tools. As he lifted two axes out of their slots, Winchester came thrusting out of the undergrowth.
"Ready, Lyveden?" he queried. "Right."
Anthony flung off his coat, made Patch fast to a convenient bush—you could not be too careful when trees were falling—and took an axe out of the carpenter's hand. The sailors had disappeared in the direction of the waggon. A moment later the two ex-officers were felling the tree.
It was Winchester's whim to use an axe where he could. He delighted in the pastime, and his tremendous physique enabled him to make such play with the tool as could few men who were not experts. Under his guidance, Anthony had proved an apt pupil, and the two, working together, could send a soft-wood tree toppling in no time. So engaged; they made a wonderful picture. Had any passed by at this moment, they might have been pardoned for staring.
At his fourth stroke Anthony misjudged the angle, and his axe stuck. As he leaned forward to lever it out of the wood, there was the whirr of steel falling, and he flung himself back with a cry. The other had struck without waiting for him to get clear.
As an error of judgment, the thing was inexplicable. A child of six would have known better. And an axe was no pop-gun.
For a moment he stared at Winchester like a man in a dream.
His employer blinked back....
Then his eyes narrowed.
"You're getting curious, are you?" he said thickly.
In spite of himself, Anthony started.
Loosely nursing his implement, the other took a step to one side. There was not much in the movement, but it placed him between Lyveden and the road.
Anthony kept his eyes riveted upon the powerful hands playing with the haft of the axe....
Twenty paces away a saw was going. Raised above the din could be heard the engineer's voice calling for the return of his pencil. A distant clatter of timber told that the waggon was being unloaded.
Anthony moistened his lips.
For another pair of eyes he would have given anything. Any moment now he would have to jump—one way or the other. It did not matter which. The going was equally bad. But if he met an obstruction—caught his foot in a root—fell among briers at the outset, he knew he was doomed. The impulse to glance to one side was terrible. Yet he dared not take his eyes from those terrible itching fingers. If only one of the men——
The noise of the saw stopped, and a piece of wood fell with a thud. Blake's voice was heard asking the whereabouts of his rule. The answer was inaudible, but the next moment somebody started to move in the direction of the fir. As they passed Patch, they chirruped.
In an instant the axe leapt to Winchester's shoulder, and Anthony jumped....
A moment later Blake parted the bushes, to see his employer wrench free an axe which had bitten into the ground, and hurl himself after Lyveden, who was on his feet again and running steadily about six paces ahead.
For a second the fellow stared stupidly. Then he let out a yell and started in pursuit.
The two ex-officers were evenly matched. If Anthony was the lighter and younger, Winchester had run for Oxford. Moreover, the latter knew the woods like the back of his hand. Anthony, who did not, ran blindly. This was not a moment to pick and choose. All the time he was desperately afraid of mire....
Briers tore at his legs, saplings whipped him across the face, a bough stabbed at his eyes and, as he turned, scored his brow savagely; a rabbit-hole trapped his foot and sent him flying, but he caught at a friendly trunk and swung round to find his balance and a new line before him. So quick was the turn, that the giant behind him lost the yard he had gained. Down through a grey beechwood, over a teeming brook, into a sodden drift of leaves, up through a welter of bracken, on to the silence of pine-needles, over the top of the ridge into the cursed undergrowth again, panting, straining, sobbing for breath, his temples bursting, his hands and arms bleeding, unutterable agony in his side, Lyveden tore like a madman. The pace was too awful to last. Always the terror behind clung to his heels.
They were flying downhill now, and the giant's weight was telling. On the opposite side of the valley was another pinewood. If he could only reach that, between the good going and the up-gradient Anthony felt that there was a bare chance. The thing behind, however, was coming up.
The slope grew steeper ... precipitous ... With a shock, Lyveden realized that the giant must be almost above him, that he had only to drop.... With a frightful effort he swerved. A tangle of matted thorn bushes opposed him. Frantically he smashed his way through, kicking desperately at the suckers, plunging to find a footing—a holding—anything. For a moment he trod the air. Then he fell heavily, head first, into a ditch....
Only the sight of the road before him and the firm brown carpet beyond could have got him upon his feet. Dazed and winded, he staggered across into the pinewood and started to struggle up the slope....
A sudden thought came to him, and he glanced over his shoulder. The next moment he was leaning against a tree-trunk, gazing down into the road.
Winchester was flat upon his face, spread-eagled, scrabbling with his nails upon the roadway and cursing horribly. He seemed to be endeavouring to haul himself across. Had the road been a wall, you would have said he was trying to scale it....
He had made no progress by the time the others arrived, and was easily secured. Then ropes were sent for, and two of his magnificent sailors lashed his arms to his sides.
* * * * *
The end of a conversation held this same evening in the hall of Bell Hammer may be recorded.
"He's not himself, Aunt Harriet. There's something wrong. Nobody could have been more gentle—or handsome. He was just wonderful. And then..." Valerie broke off and shrugged her shoulders helplessly. "His work and the place itself—Gramarye, he calls it—seem to have got into his blood. You never saw such enthusiasm. It was unnatural."
"Anthony Lyveden," said Lady Touchstone, "is not the man to go mad."
"I know. But he ought to see somebody—a doctor. There was the queerest light in his eyes.... And he spoke strangely, as if he heard things. Who's the great man for—for brain trouble?"
"Sperm," said Lady Touchstone placidly. "But you're racking my brains for nothing. Anthony Lyveden's not——"
"I know he isn't!" cried Valerie. "That's what makes me certain there's something wrong. He's doing something, or taking something, or being given something, that's affecting his mind. It's not internal; it's some outside influence. If he didn't care, it'd be different. But he does. He said so. But he didn't seem to have room for me and the estate at the same time. It had to be one or the other. It was like a bad dream—past dispute, but illogical."
"I should write to John Forest," said her aunt. "Ask him to come and stay. He's a wise man. I don't feel equal to telling you what to do. I don't know what to tell you. If you'd come back and said that he wouldn't see you, I was going to Chorley Wood——"
"Chipping Norton," corrected Valerie.
"Well, Chipping Norton—myself. I was going to kneel down in the mud and refuse to get up. I was going to wear that blue face-cloth that we both hate. I'd got it all worked out. But, from what you tell me, there's apparently nothing for me to kneel for."
"Nothing whatever," said her niece. "He's given me everything, and—I've come empty away," she added miserably.
Lady Touchstone rose and stooped to kiss the girl tenderly.
"Take my advice," she said, "and write to John Forest to-night. And now don't fret. You're a thousand times better off than you were four days ago. For one thing, you know where he is. What's more, he's content to let bygones be bygones. My darling, you've much to be thankful for. And now go and take a hot bath, and try and get a nap before dinner. Poor child, you must be dead tired."
With a sudden movement Valerie threw her arms about her aunt's neck.
"I don't know why you're so good to me," she said.
Then she kissed her swiftly and, getting upon her feet, passed up the broad stairs.
For a moment Lady Touchstone stood looking after her niece. Then she put a hand to her head and sank into a chair. She was profoundly worried. If any girl other than Valerie had come to her with such an account, she would have been less troubled. But Valerie was so very clear-headed. True, her love had got away with her, and she had had the very deuce of a fall. But she was up again now, and nothing like that would ever happen again. Her judgment was back in its seat as firm as ever. And when she said that something was wrong with Anthony, that he seemed to hear things, that there was "the queerest light in his eyes," Lady Touchstone knew that it was perfectly true. What was worse, she was entirely satisfied that these things meant brain trouble. For three months after his wife had died, Valerie's own father had been under surveillance for precisely similar symptoms. She remembered them fearfully. And this Major Lyveden was so reminiscent of poor Oliver. His voice, his manner, the very way his hair grew about his temples, reminded her strangely of her dead brother. It was not surprising that she attributed Anthony's condition to a somewhat similar cause. What troubled her most was her conscience. She had set her heart upon the match, and she was now uncertain whether it was not her clear duty to try to call it off.
After a little she rose and crossed to a table. Taking a sheet of notepaper, she began to write.
I think it probable that within a few days your secretary will make an appointment for you to see a Miss Valerie French. This is my niece. She does not know we are friends. When she tells you her tale, you need make no allowance for hysteria. Believe every word she says. She will not exaggerate. And please remember this. It is most desirable that she should marry the man about whom she will consult you. But it is still more desirable that she should not marry a madman.
Yours always sincerely, HARRIET TOUCHSTONE.
Then she selected an envelope and addressed it to
Sir Willoughby Sperm, Bart., 55 Upper Brook Street, Mayfair.
* * * * *
After a nightmare three days, work at Gramarye was again in full swing. Anthony's succession to Winchester had been accepted without a murmur. If the men displayed any feeling, it was that of relief. When he had told them that nothing whatever would be changed, shown them his Power of Attorney, explained that he was a steward sworn to continue the work till—till his employer should have recovered, they had stared upon the ground like schoolboys and stammeringly requested an assurance that things would go just the same. Reassured, they had nodded approval and exchanged gratulatory glances. Then they had gone about their business.