"You're a great sport. I've never known a woman with finer nerve. But, just the same, the game has got to come to an end."
"Game! You don't understand. It is meat and drink to me. I must have diamonds." She sounded like a woman pleading for some drug to deaden pain, memory, and conscience. Her voice was wild; she put out her hands to him in an imploring gesture. "I have given up everything for them—everything!"
He shook his head.
"We can't do any more of it," he said inflexibly. "Not for a year, at the outside."
Her hands fell on the table. She shivered as though she already felt cold and hunger.
"Suffer torment for a year?" she muttered. "It is impossible. I can't. I have nothing else. I've sacrificed everything to it—duty, friendship, love!" She leaned her head in her hands, and Ravenal did not hear the last words.
"Pull yourself together, my child. It is not like you to give way like this. Listen: Go home now and sit tight. Nerve and a quiet going about your ways are what are needed for the next few weeks. Don't come near me unless you have anything important to communicate; then come in the ordinary way to the shop with some jewel to be mended. But remember: There is no possible channel through which they can connect either of us with Hiangeli, and nothing in the world to fear."
"It is not fear I feel," she said dully.
"I know. It is disappointment. You are broken-hearted because the black diamonds cannot be handed over to you."
She did not speak, but if ever a woman's face betrayed hunger and passionate longing, hers did at that moment. All her beauty was gone. There was nothing but a livid mask with two burning eyes. A pitying look crossed Ravenal's face. He was not an unkindly man.
"Poor child," he said gently, "it's hard on you!" For a moment he seemed to hesitate, then, coming to a swift decision, rose and went over to a safe embedded in the wall, and unnoticeable by reason of a piece of Oriental embroidery pinned above it and a chair standing carelessly before it. Unlocking it, he brought to the table a small jewel-case.
"I'll tell you what I'll do. I can't let you have it for good, because it's not earned yet. Twenty more rough stones are wanted from you before this is yours. That was the bargain. But, considering all the circumstances, I'll lend it to you for a while."
Before he had finished speaking she had seized the case from his hands and pressed it open. A magnificent pendant gleamed up at her with all the smoky, mysterious beauty of black diamonds.
"I know I can trust you with it, for I have trusted you with more than that. My life is in your hands, just as much as yours is in mine. So keep the thing, and finish paying for it when you can. If we're never able to get any more rough diamonds from the mine, you'll have to pay in money."
She hardly seemed to hear, so wrapped was she in the contemplation of her new treasure, brooding and crooning over it like a mother with a child. He watched her for a moment, then rose and fetched the grey veil she had cast off on entering.
"Come now, my child; it is late, and you must be gone. Be careful. I know I need not remind you of the oath between us three."
"Silence—and suicide, if necessary," she murmured mechanically. She had taken the jewel from its case and was threading it on a chain round her throat, "Death rather than betray the other two."
"That's it," said the other, with cheerful firmness. "Now, good-night."
He lowered the lights and opened the door of the room. She passed into the dark passage, and he returned to the table and pressed a button which opened the front door. When he heard it softly close, he knew that she was out of the house and on her way home.
But her adventures were not yet over. Before she had gone very far she was aware of being followed. A mirror in a shop window reflected, afar off, the silhouette of the only other person besides herself in the now silent street—a tall man in a slouch hat. Apparently he had on shoes as light as her own, for his feet made no more noise than hers, though her fine ear detected the steady beat of them behind her. For the first time, she knew terror. Supposing it were a detective who had tracked her from Syke Ravenal's door, and was now waiting to arrest her as she entered her own home! She realized that her courage had lain in the knowledge of absolute security, for now, at the menace of discovery, her heart was paralyzed with fright and she could scarcely breathe. Instinct told her to run, but acquired self-control kept her from this madness, and, by a great effort, she continued walking quietly as before. Gradually her nerve returned. She determined, by feint, to discover whether the man were really following her or if his presence were due to accident. Having now arrived at the residential part of the town, where every house stood back from the road and was sheltered by a garden, she coolly opened a gate at random and walked boldly in. The man was still some way behind, and she had ample time to pass through the garden and reach the veranda before he drew near.
It was a house strange to her, and she had not the faintest idea who lived there. All the windows and doors were closed and shuttered, but light showed through a fanlight over the hall door. The veranda, blinded by heavy green mats, contained the usual array of chairs, and she sank down on one, her heart beating like a drum, her ears strained to hear her pursuer pass. Instead, to her horror, she heard the gate briskly unlatched and footsteps on the path. Terrified by this unexpected move, and sure, now, that the end had come, she sprang to her feet and stood waiting like a straight, grey ghost for the man to enter the veranda. The light above the hall door fell full on him, and it is hard to say whether dismay or horror were strongest in her when she recognized Harlenden.
"Denis!" she stammered.
"Why are you here, Rosanne?" he asked quietly. "Do you need me?"
Astonishment kept her dumb for a moment, then, with a realization of the position, came anger.
"How dare you follow me?" she exclaimed, in a low, tense voice.
"I live in this house."
"You live here?" she faltered, and sat down suddenly, trembling from head to foot.
"Yes; and I have just returned from the club."
"Then it was not you following me?"
At that she sprang up and threw herself into his arms in a frenzy of fear.
"Who was it, then? Oh, Denis, Denis, save me; take me into your house—hide me!"
"Hush!" he said gently, and, keeping a supporting arm about her, guided her round the veranda, took a key out of his pocket, and let her and himself in by a side door. He closed and locked the door behind them, put her into a chair, then examined the window to make sure it was closed as well as shuttered. It was a man's sitting-room, full of the scent of leather and tobacco. Going to a spirit-stand on the table he poured out some brandy.
"Drink this," he said, in the same firm tone he had used all along, and mechanically she obeyed him.
"Where are we?" she murmured. "Whose house is this? I thought you lived at the club?"
"So I did until last week, when this house was lent me. Don't be afraid. The servants are all in bed, and there is no one about. You are much safer here than roaming about the streets at one in the morning."
"Then you were following me?"
"Certainly I was following you. I saw you come out of Syke Ravenal's shop and I walked behind you, but only because your way and mine happened to be in the same direction."
She passed her hand over her eyes with a hopeless gesture. It seemed as though this endless day of terrors and surprises would never be done, and she was weary, weary. He sat regarding her with grave eyes. She looked like a little, tired, unhappy child, and his heart was sick with longing to gather her in his arms and comfort her and take her sorrows on himself. But he knew that there were things beyond his help here, unless she gave him her full confidence and cast her burdens into his hands.
"Rosanne," he said, at last, "I ask you to trust me."
She looked at him with wretched eyes and a mouth tipped at the corners as though she would weep if she could. In truth, the enchantment of this man's love and her love for him was on her again, and the poignant torment of it was almost too exquisite to bear. His voice stole through her senses like the music of an old dream. His lean, strong frame, the stone-grey eyes, and close-lipped mouth all spoke of that power in a man which means safety to the woman he loves. Safety! Only such a storm-petrel as Rosanne Ozanne, weary, with wings beaten and torn by winds whose fateful forces she herself did not understand, could realize the full allure of that word. She felt like a sailor drowning in a wild sea, within sight of the fair land he never would reach. That fair land of safety was not for her feet, that had wandered down such dark and shameful paths. But, oh, how the birds sang on that sweet shore! How cool were the green pastures! Small wonder that her face wore the tortured misery of a little child. Denis Harlenden's heart turned to water at the sight of it, and the blood thrummed in his veins with the ache to crush her to his breast and keep her there against the world and against herself, spite of all the unfathomed things in her which estranged him. But he was strong enough to refrain from even touching her hands. Only his voice he could not stay from its caresses.
"Is not love enough for you, Rosanne?"
She trembled under it like leaves in the wind and lifted her eyes to his. They looked long into each other's souls through those windows which can wear so many veils to hide the truth. But, in that moment, the veils were lifted, and both saw Truth in all her naked terror and beauty. What he saw scorched and repelled but did not daunt him; instead, a nobler love, chivalrous and pitiful, was born of the sight. And she saw that love, and knew it great enough to clothe her even if she came to him stripped of fair repute and the world's honours.
"Yes; it is enough," she said brokenly, and cast a thing she wore about her neck to the floor. Then, suddenly, she collapsed in her chair and fell into a fit of dry weeping. Long, bitter sobs shook her frame and seemed to tear their way out of her body. She was like a woman wrenched upon the rack. Harlenden could do nothing but stand and wait, his own face twisted with pain, until the storm was past. Gradually it died away, with longer and longer intervals between the shuddering sighs. At last, she uncovered her face, bleached and ravaged by the tearless storm, yet wearing a gentler beauty than ever it had known, and rose trembling to her feet.
"Take me home, Denis," she whispered. He wrapped her veil about her and she felt the thrill of his hands upon her, but he did not kiss her. They had come closer to each other than any kiss could bring them. Just as they were passing from the room, she remembered something and stepped back.
"I must touch that vile thing again," she said, "because it does not belong to me and must go back to where it came from." She stooped and picked the black, glittering object from the floor.
A spasm contracted Harlenden's face, but he asked no question. Silently they went from the house and into the dark streets. There was no moon. At her gate, he stooped and kissed her lips.
Mrs. Ozanne got up the morning of the following day with the urgent feeling on her of something to be done. It seemed as if there were some move to be made that would help her and her children in their unhappiness, only she didn't know what the move was. But she always remembered, afterward, with what feverish urgency she dressed, putting on walking-things instead of a wrapper, and stepping from her room into the bustling atmosphere of the house with a determined indifference to the tasks and interests that usually occupied her attention.
Rosalie was as surprised to see her mother dressed for going out as was the mother to find her daughter at the breakfast-table.
"Why, Rosalie, my darling, this is an unexpected joy!"
"Yes, mother; I thought I would make an effort."
It was the first time that the girl had been out of her room for over two weeks, and she looked frail as a snowdrop, and nearly as white.
"You can't have two daughters sick abed, you know," she added, with a wistful smile.
"Is Rosanne still——" Mrs. Ozanne often left questions and remarks about her other daughter unfinished.
The latter had spent the whole of the previous day in her room, seeming physically unable to leave her bed.
"Yes; I'm afraid she's really ill. She just lies there, not speaking or eating, and she looks—oh, mother, she looks so unhappy!"
"I begged her yesterday to see the doctor."
"She says no doctor can do her any good, and that we must just leave her alone. I fancy she's thinking out something that she's terribly worried about."
"There is something wrong," said the mother heavily. "Oh, Rosalie, if she were only like you, and would not hide her heart from those who love her!"
"We can't all be alike, mother darling! Rosanne has a stronger character for better or worse than I have. It is easy for me to throw my troubles on other people's shoulders, but she is capable of bearing in silence far greater sorrows, and of making far greater sacrifices."
"It is not a happy nature," sighed her mother. "I wonder if Kitty Drummund can do any good if I send for her?"
"Better not, mother. She says she wants to see no one at present, and you know she was at Kitty's the night before last."
"I have asked her so often not to go out at night like that—even to Kitty's. I dare say she caught cold driving."
"Poor Rosanne! It is more than a cold she has!"
Sophia Ozanne looked at her little, fair daughter with tender eyes, remembering the heartless way Rosanne had spoken of her sister's grief only two nights before.
"How different you are, my Rosalie—forgetting your own sorrow to think of others!"
The girl's eyes filled with tears, but she did not shed them.
"I'm afraid it's only another form of selfishness, mummie dear. I want to be kind and loving to all the world, just so that God will be good to me and give Dick another chance."
"My poor, poor child!" The mother's arms were round her in a moment, ready for comfort, but Rosalie pushed her gently away, smiling with quivering lips.
"Don't pity me, mother. I'm determined to be brave, whatever comes. But tell me, where are you going, all prinked out in your walking-things?"
"I—I don't know yet, dear." Mrs. Ozanne looked startled and embarrassed. "I have various things to do."
"It's a frightful morning. Do you think you ought to go out?"
"I must," was the elder woman's firm answer, and she bustled away before there was time for further questioning. Not for anything did she mean to be deterred from the pressing desire in her to go out. Rosalie had been perfectly right about the weather. It was that arid time of year when the air swirls in gusts of hot wind, laden with gritty blue sand from the debris-heaps, and the finer red dust of the streets. Kimberley dust is notoriously the worst of its kind in a land plagued with dust. Buluwayo runs it pretty close, and Johannesburg, in the spring months, has special sand-devils of its own, but nothing in Africa has ever quite come up to Kimberley at its worst. This was not one of its worst, however; merely a day on which all who had wisdom sat at home within closed doors and sealed windows, awaiting a cessation of the penetrating abomination of filth.
Often, during the morning, Mrs. Ozanne found herself wondering what she was doing wandering about the town on such a day. Desultorily, and with an odd feeling that this was not what she should be about, she let herself be blown along the street and in and out of shops, face bent down, eyes half closed, bumping blindly into people, her skirts swirling and flacking, her hat striving its utmost to escape and take the hair of her head with it. There were no necessary errands to do. The servants did the shopping, and she rarely went out except to drive in the afternoons. Vaguely she wondered why she had not used the carriage this morning.
Lunch-time came, but she could not bring herself to return home. It seemed to her that there was still something she must do, though she could not remember what.
In the end, she went into a clean, respectable little restaurant and lunched off a lamb chop and boiled potatoes, regardless of the excellent lunch that awaited her at home. Then, like a restless and unclean spirit, out she blew once more into the howling maelstrom of wind and dust.
She began to feel, at last, as if it were a nightmare, this necessity that urged her on, she knew not whither. Dimly, her eyes still blinded by dust, she was aware that she had left the main thoroughfares and was now in a poorer part of the town. With the gait of a sleep-walker, she continued on her way, until suddenly a voice addressing her jerked her broad-awake.
"You come see me, missis?"
A woman had opened the door of a mean tin house and stood there waiting in the doorway, almost as if she had been expecting Sophia Ozanne. The latter stood stone-still, but her mind went racing back to a winter afternoon seventeen years before, when she had sat in her bedroom with the little dying form of Rosanne upon her knees, and a voice speaking from the shadow of her bedroom had said, "Missis sell baby to me for a farthing; baby not die." The same voice addressed her now, and the same woman stood in the doorway of the mean house gazing at her with large, mournful eyes. It was Rachel Bangat, the Malay cook.
"You come see me die, missis?" she questioned, in her soft, languorous voice.
"Die! Are you sick, Rachel?" said Mrs. Ozanne.
"Yes, missis; Rachel very sick. Going die in three days."
Sophia Ozanne searched the dark, high-boned face with horror-stricken eyes, but could see no sign of death on it, or any great change after seventeen years, except a more unearthly mournfulness in the mysterious eyes.
But she had often heard it said that Malays possess a prophetic knowledge of the hour and place of their death, and she could well credit Rachel Bangat with this strange faculty.
"How my baby getting along, missis?"
Such yearning tenderness was in the question that Mrs. Ozanne, spite of a deep repugnance to discuss Rosanne with this woman, found herself answering:
"She is grown up now, Rachel."
"She very pretty?"
"And very rich?"
"We are well-off."
"But she? I give her two good gifts that make her rich all by herself. She no use them?"
"What gifts were those, Rachel?" The mother drew nearer and peered with haggard eyes at the Malay.
"I tell you, missis. Because I love my baby so much and want her be very rich and happy, I give her two good things—the gift of bright stones and the gift of hate well."
Sophia Ozanne drew nearer still, staring like a fascinated rabbit into the mournfully sinister dark eyes, while the soft voice rippled on.
"She no use those gifts I give her? I think so. I think she say, 'I hate that man,' and he die, sometimes quick, sometimes slow. Or she not hate too much, and he only get little sick. Or she wish him bad in his business, and he get bad. That not so?"
Sophia Ozanne thought of the black list she had kept for years of all the people whom Rosanne disliked and who had come to ill. In swift procession they passed through her mind, and Dick Gardner, with his anguished throat, walked at the end of the procession.
"Yes." Her dry lips ejected the word in spite of her wish to be silent.
"Ah!" said the Malay, softly satisfied. "And the bright stones? She not get all she want without buy?"
This time, Mrs. Ozanne did not answer; only her blanched face grew a shade whiter. The woman leaned forward and spoke to her earnestly, imploringly.
"You tell her get rich quick with the bright stones before too late. Her power going soon. Rachel die in three days, and then gifts go away from Rachel's baby. No more power hate or get bright stones. Tell her quick, missis. I make you come here today so you can go back tell her. All night and all morning I stand here make you come to me. Now, go back quick, tell my baby. Three days! Eight o'clock on third night, Rachel die."
As strangely as she had appeared, the Malay withdrew into her wretched shanty and closed the door.
Sophia Ozanne never knew by what means and in what manner she reached her home that day, but at about five o'clock she came into the hall of Tiptree House, and was met by her daughter Rosalie with the news that Rosanne had got up from her bed and left the house, taking a suitcase with her.
"And, oh, mother, I could see that she was in a high fever, her cheeks were so flushed and her eyes like fire! What shall we do?"
Her mother sat down and wiped great beads of moisture from her pallid face.
"I think we will pray, Rosalie," she said slowly.
It was still broad afternoon when Rosanne walked openly into Syke Ravenal's shop, bag in hand. The benevolent-faced old man, occupied in cleaning the works of a watch, looked up with the bland inquiring glance of a tradesman to a customer. But his face changed when he saw her eyes.
"You have news?" he asked, in a low tone.
"Take me to the inner room," she ordered curtly. Without demur, he led the way. The moment the door closed on them she flung the heavy leather bag on to the table.
"Take them," she cried wildly; "take them back! They are all there. Not one is missing."
"Hush, my child—hush!" he gently urged. But she would not be hushed.
"I hate you," she said passionately. "I curse the day I entered this shop, an innocent girl, and was beguiled by you and your son and my mad passion for diamonds into becoming your tool and accomplice. Oh, how I hate you! I can never betray you because of my oath, but I curse you both, and I pray I may never see or hear of you again."
"That's all right, my child," he said soothingly. She threw him one glance of loathing and contempt and walked from the place.
Rosanne had taken to her bed again, and this time when they brought the doctor she was too ill to object, too ill to do anything but lie staring in a sort of mental and physical coma at the ceiling above her.
"Let her be," said the old-fashioned family doctor, who had known her from babyhood. "She has a splendid constitution and will pull through. But let her have no worries of any kind."
So they left her alone, except in the matter of ministering occasional nourishment, which she took with the mechanical obedience of a child.
For two days Rosanne lay there, silent and strange. The third day her sickness took an acute form. She tossed and moaned and called out in her pain, her face twisted with torture. Her mind appeared to remain clear.
"Mother, I believe I am dying," she said, after one such spell, during the afternoon. "I feel as if something is tearing itself loose from my very being. Does it hurt like this when the soul is trying to escape from the body?"
"I have sent for the doctor again, darling."
"It is nothing he can cure. It is here, and here that I suffer." She touched her head and her heart. "But, oh, my body, too, is tortured!"
She lay still a little while, moaning softly to herself while her mother stood by, sick with distress; then she said:
"Send for Denis Harlenden, mother. I must see him before I die."
Mrs. Ozanne asked no question. Her woman's instinct told her much that Rosanne had left unsaid. Within half an hour, Harlenden was being shown into the drawing-room, where she awaited him. He came in with no sign upon his face of the anxiety in his heart. This was the fourth day since he had seen Rosanne, and she had sent him no word.
"Sir Denis, my daughter is very ill. I don't know why she should be calling out for you——" She faltered. Marks of the last few days' anxiety were writ large upon her, but she was not wanting in a certain patient dignity.
Harlenden strode over and took her hands in his as he would have taken the hands of his own mother.
"It is because we love each other," he said gently, "and because, as soon as she will let me, I am going to marry her."
A ray of thankfulness shone across her features.
"Marriage! I don't know, Sir Denis; but, if you love her I can tell you something that will help you to understand her better, and perhaps you can help her."
Briefly, and in broken words, she related to him the strange incident of Rosanne's babyhood, its seeming effect upon her character, and the Malay's extraordinary words of two days before. She did not disguise from him that she believed Rosanne guilty, whether consciously or unconsciously, of many dark things, but she pleaded for her child the certainty that she had been in the clutches of forces stronger than herself.
"About the diamonds," she finished, at last, "I know nothing, and I am afraid to think. Did you read of that awful case of suicide in yesterday's paper—that man, Syke Ravenal, who has been robbing De Beers? I am tormented with the thought that she may have known something of him—yet how could she?"
"You must put such a thought out of your mind for ever and never mention it to a soul," said Harlenden firmly. "That man committed suicide because his only son had been killed by accident in Amsterdam. He left a vast fortune and a number of jewels which had been taken from their settings to De Beers, by way of conscience-money for several thousand pounds' worth of diamonds in the rough which he had stolen from them. There is absolutely no evidence to connect any other person with his crime, except a letter asking the company to deal lightly with a native boy called Hiangeli, who had been a tool of his."
"Then you think it could have nothing possibly to do with my poor child?"
"Certainly not," said Denis Harlenden, without flinching.
"Not that I think that she would have done it in her right senses, but, oh, Sir Denis, she has been under a spell all her life, an evil spell, which, please God, will be broken when that woman dies! You do not think me mad, I hope?"
"I do not," he answered gravely. "I am as sure of what you say as you yourself. What you do not know, Mrs. Ozanne, is that love has already broken that spell. Rosanne is already free from it."
She looked at him questioningly, longingly.
"I cannot tell you more," he said gently. "But, believe me, it is true. May I go to her now?"
The mother led the way. Rosanne, who had just passed through another terrible crisis of anguish, lay on her bed, still and white as a lily. A crimson-silk wrapper swathed about her shoulders, and the clouds of night-black hair, flung in a tangled mass above her pillows, threw into violent contrast the deadly pallor of her face. Her eyes, dark and wide with suffering, looked unseeingly at Harlenden at first, but gradually a ray of recognition dawned in them and she put out her hand with a faint cry.
He took her hand and held it safe, while, with all the strength in him, he willed peace and calmness into her troubled mind.
"Denis, I think I am going to die."
"Dearest, I know you are going to live—for me."
"No, no; I am not worthy of life—or of you. I have been too wicked!"
"I want you to rest now," he said.
"I cannot rest till I have told you everything. I wanted to tell you the other night, you know, but I was too exhausted. Denis, I am a criminal—a thief! I have stolen diamonds under cover of the friendship of another woman. I have received them from another thief in the mines, and taken them to a man, whose son, a merchant in Amsterdam, sent me my share of the robbery in cut stones set as jewels. The rough stolen stones meant nothing to me, but the finished ones dazzled and maddened me. I cannot describe to you what they did to my senses, but I was mad at the sight and touch of them. They had power to benumb every decent feeling in me. For them, I forgot duty. My poor mother, how she has suffered! I betrayed friendship; I debased love! Yes, Denis, I debased our love! I meant just to take the joy of it for a little while, then cast it away when it came to choosing between you and the stones."
"But you did not."
"No, thank God, I could not! It was stronger than my base passion, stronger than myself. Oh, Denis, I thank you for your love! It has saved me from a hell in life, and a hell hereafter, for I think God will not further punish one so deeply repentant as I."
"You are not going to die, Rosanne," he repeated firmly.
"Do you think I would live and let you link your clean, upright life with my dark one?" she said sadly. "You do not even know all the darkness of it yet. Listen: I found I had a power through which I could hurt others by just wishing them ill—and I used it freely. Ah, I have hurt many people! It tortures me to think of how many. I have been lying here for two days and nights trying to undo all the harm I have done, Denis—willing against the evil I have wished for, praying for happiness to be given back to every one of them." Her voice grew faint and far-off. "I have even tried to undo the harm I wished would come to the two people who tempted me into stealing, Denis. But, somehow, I feel that it is too late for them. That something in here"—she touched her heart—"which hurts me so much, tells me I cannot help those two wretched ones."
Her voice broke off; she was shaken like a reed with a terrible spasm of suffering. It was as though she were in the clutches of some brutal giant.
"Denis," she cried faintly, "I feel I am being rent asunder! Part of me is being torn away. Surely, even death cannot be so terrible!"
A clock on the table struck eight. Instantly she raised herself in bed, fell back again, gave a deep sigh, and lay still.
A few hours later, she woke with a gentle flush in her cheeks and a wonderful harmony in all her features. Her first glance fell upon her mother leaning over the foot of the bed, and she gave a happy smile.
"Oh, mother, I have had such a lovely dream! I dreamed Dick was well and coming back soon to Rosalie."
"And so he is, my darling. She has had a wire to say that Doctor Raymond has discovered that the throat trouble is not malignant but quite curable. He will be well in a few weeks."
"Then it may come true, my dream," she said softly and shyly. "My dream that she and I were being married on the same day, she to Dick, and I to—oh, Denis, how strange that you should be here when I was dreaming of you! What brought you here? Have you come to tell mother that we love each other?"
They began to realize dimly then, as they realized fully later on, that, by a merciful gift of Providence her mind was a blank concerning all the dark things of the past.
Memory of them had died with the dying of the Malay woman at eight o'clock on a summer evening, and no shadow of them ever came back to dim the harmony of her life with Denis Harlenden.
She is one of the happiest as well as one of the loveliest women in London today. Wrapped up in her home life and children, she still finds time to be seen about everywhere with her husband, and they are looked upon as one of the few ideally happy couples in society.
It has often been remarked, as a curious fact, that she never wears jewels of any kind, save an emerald ring and some exquisite pearls.
Waterloo Station, greasy underfoot and full of the murky, greenish gloom of a November day, was the scene of a jostling crowd. The mail-boat train for South Africa stretched far down the long platform, every carriage door blocked by people bidding farewell, handing in bouquets of flowers, parcels of books, boxes of chocolates; bartering jests and scattering laughter; sending their love to the veld, to Table Mountain, to Rhodesia, to the Victoria Falls.
Only one first-class reserved compartment had no crowd before it, nor any further audience than a middle-aged woman, with a wistful Irish face and the neat and careful appearance peculiar to superior servants of the old-fashioned type. With her hands full of newly-purchased bookstand magazines and her eyes full of trouble, she stood gazing at the sole occupant of the carriage.
"Oh, Miss Diana your Ladyship . . ." he began once more.
"Shut it, Marney," said Miss Diana her Ladyship, elegantly. "I've had enough. You're not coming with me, and that's that. I'm not a child any longer never to stir about the world alone."
"Shure, and your aunt, Lady Grizel, will turn in her grave at it," keened poor Marney. An expression of scampish glee crossed the girl's face.
"Yes, old Grizzly will do some turning," she murmured. "Thank goodness that's all she can do now."
The maid crossed herself with a shocked air, though it was far from being the first time she had heard those profanities of the dead upon her mistress's lips. The latter gave her no time for further argument.
"What's the use of standing there stuffing up my view?" she demanded crossly. "If you want something to do, go and get me some flowers. Everyone has flowers but me. It's outrageous. Get heaps."
Marney flurried down the platform, bent on her errand, and Diana Vernilands immediately issued from the doorstep of the carriage and gazed eagerly and invitingly at the crowd.
Ordinarily the beauty alone of the sables which muffled her ears and fell to her heels would have focused attention, not to mention the eager liveliness of her face. But on this occasion no one returned her vivid glances. Everyone was busy with their own affairs and friends. The only person seeming as isolated and lonely as herself was another girl, who, having made a tour from one end of the train to the other in vain quest of a seat, was now wearily and furiously doing the return trip. No porter followed her; she carried her own dressing-case and rugs, and she, too, was without flowers. This last fact clenched Lady Diana's decision. A bond of loneliness and flowerlessness existed between them. She hailed the other girl deliriously.
"Hi! Are you looking for a place?" she cried. "Come in here. I've got a carriage to myself."
The other was as astonished as relieved.
"Oh, may I? How awfully good of you!" she said warmly, and stepping into the carriage, bestowed her possessions in such small space as was not already encumbered. Then she looked at Lady Diana in the doorway with a pair of lovely but rather sad violet eyes that had smoky shadows beneath them.
"I shall have to fight about my ticket with the ticket collector when he comes round. It is only a second-class one. I hope you don't mind?"
"Mind!" said Diana. "I hate everyone in authority, and I love rows and cocktails and excitement. Still, it might save time to pay."
"It might," said the other "but I'm not going to. There were no second-class seats left, so the onus is on them. Besides"—her creamy face flushed faintly and her eyes became defiant—"I can't afford it."
Diana could very well believe it, for she had seldom seen a girl so badly dressed. However, the deep blue eyes that had all sorts of pansy tints lying dormant in them, and the winging black satin hair that looked as if smoke had been blown through it, could not be obscured even by a shabby hat. Diana's own hair being a violent apricot and her eyes of the same colour as a glass of sherry with the sun on it, she could admire without pain this type so different to her own.
The fact was that they were as striking a pair of girls as any one could hope to meet in a day's march, but the delicate beauty of one was under a cloud which only a connoisseur's eye could see through—badly-cut garments and an unfashionable hat! On the other hand, Lady Diana's highly-coloured and slightly dairymaidish prettiness would have been more attractive in simpler and less costly clothes. While they were coming to these conclusions about each other an inspector of tickets entered the carriage. Diana delightedly braced herself for a row, but there was no need for it. Whether it was the charm of the strange girl's golden voice, or the subtle air of luxury and independence combined with a faint odour of Russian leather and honey that stole from the furs of Lady Diana Vernilands, none can tell, but the inspector behaved like a man under the influence of hypnotism. He listened to the tale of the second-class ticket as to words of Holy Writ, and departed like a man in a dream without having uttered a single protest, and at Lady Diana's behest, carefully locking the door behind him. A moment later whistles, shouts, and the clicking of hundreds of farewell kisses signalled the train's immediate departure. The devoted Marney, carrying what appeared to be a bridal bouquet of white lilies and roses, dashed up just in time to make a last attempt to accompany her mistress. But the door was unyielding, and the worst she could do was to claw at the window as she panted alongside the now moving train, crying:
"You'd better let me come with you, now, Miss Diana your Ladyship. . . ."
The latter only waved her hand in kind but firm dismissal.
"Go home and look after papa, Marney, and don't worry about me. I shall be back soon." As the train took a jump and finally fled from the station, leaving Marney far behind, she added thoughtfully, "I don't think!" and burst out laughing.
"Just as though I would hurry back to frowsy old England the first time I've ever managed to get away from it on my own!"
The other girl looked at her with deep, reflective eyes.
"If you had been on your own as much as I have you wouldn't think it such a catch," she remarked, with a little dry smile.
"Oh, wouldn't I! I can't imagine anything more heavenly than having no relations in the world. It must be perfect paradise!"
"It's the paradise I have lived in for three years," said April Poole sombrely, "and any one who likes it can have it, and give me their hell instead."
"What!" cried Diana Vernilands, not sympathetic, but astounded and eager. She stared at the other with envious, avid eyes that filled and brightened at last with an amazing plan. It burst from her like a shell from a gun. "Let's change places: I be you, and you be me!"
April considered her, and being very weary of her own destiny, considered the plan also. But though she was as ardent as any one for flyaway schemes and fantastic adventure, this plan looked to her too Arabian-nightish altogether, and not likely to hold water for more than the length of the journey from Waterloo to Southampton.
"How can we? I am a poverty-stricken girl, going out to governess at the Cape. You, a peer's daughter, I suppose, who will be met on the boat and surrounded by every care and attention. . . ."
"Yes, surrounded!" Diana interrupted savagely. With sudden fury she tore off the little sable hat, flung it on the seat beside her and stabbed it viciously with a great pearl pin. "I'm sick of being surrounded! I wish to goodness I were Alexander Selkirk, shipwrecked on a desert island."
"That wouldn't be much fun, either," said April. "I don't think there is much fun anywhere. We have all got what we don't want, and want what we can't get."
"You couldn't not want a face like yours," said Diana, handsomely. It gave her no pain, as has been mentioned before, because April was dark. If she had been addressing a blonde like herself, wild cats could not have torn such a compliment from Diana Vernilands.
"Couldn't I? Good looks without the surroundings and clothes to put them in are not much of a gift. Beauty in a third-class carriage and shabby clothes looks cheap and is fair game for any one's stalking."
"Well, change with me, then," urged Diana. "I'd rather be stalked than gazed at from afar like a brazen image."
She gave her hat another stab. April quivered all over, like a mother who sees a child ill-treated.
"Don't do that," she cried at last, in a poignant voice. She had seen that hat in her dreams for years, but never got so near it before. Diana Vernilands looked at her thoughtfully, then held it out.
"Put it on," she entreated. "Wear it, and be surrounded instead of me. Oh, for Heaven's sake do! I see you are just as keen as I am, and just as sick of being who you are. Try it on."
She may have meant the hat, or she may have meant the plan. April accepted the hat, and with it the plan. From the moment she saw herself in the glass her doom was dight. There was a little star-like purple flower, such as never grew on land or sea, nestling in the golden darkness of the fur. It seemed to April a flower that might have been plucked from the slopes of the blue hills of Nirvana, or found floating on the still waters of Lethe in that land where it is always afternoon. It brought dreams of romance to her heart, and made starry flowers of its own colour blossom in her eyes. She crushed the hat softly down upon her dark, winging hair, crinking and shaping it to frame her face at the right angle. Her fate was sealed.
"All right," she said, in a slow, dreamy voice. "Let's arrange it."
So while the train swooped on its way to the port whence the great ships turn their noses towards the Southern Cross, they drew up the plot, and the roles were cast. Diana Vernilands, for the duration of the voyage only, was to be the penniless, friendless English girl, who could go her ways freely and talk and mix with any one she liked without being watched and criticized. April Poole, in the lovely hats and gowns and jewels of Lady Diana, would accept the dignity and social obligations that hedge a peer's daughter, even on a voyage to South Africa. On arrival at the Cape, each to assume her identity and disappear from the ken of their fellow-travellers: April to be swallowed up by a Cape suburb, where she was engaged to teach music and French to the four daughters of a rich wine-grower; Diana to proceed to her destination—the farm of an eccentric woman painter, somewhere on the veld.
It all looked as simple and harmless as picking apples in an orchard. No one would be any the wiser, they said, and no harm would accrue to anybody, while each girl would have the experience of enjoying herself in a new and original fashion. The only things they did not take into their calculations were their personal idiosyncrasies and the machinations of an old hag called Fate.
"What a time I'll have!" cried Diana. "Though what you will get out of it as the Earl of Roscannon's daughter beats me. You won't be sick of it half way and want to change back, I hope?"
"If you only knew how sick I am of being April Poole you wouldn't be afraid," was the fervent answer. Diana looked at her curiously.
"It can't be only the clothes—though of course I imagine it must be rotten, not having the right clothes. By the way, there are plenty for us both, you know. I did myself well in the shopping line, fortunately."
"I should hardly expect you to wear mine," said April drily. "No, as you rightly suspect, it isn't for the clothes, though they fascinate and lure me. And it isn't for the honour and glory of being Lady Diana, though that is fascinating too, and it will be priceless to have the joke on the rest of the world for once. It is for various subtle reasons which I don't suppose you would altogether understand. . . ."
"Never mind them, then," interrupted Diana. "I'm not a bit subtle, and don't care tuppence for reasons. All I care about is having a topping time for once in my life. Now, listen, I'll tell you a few things about myself, so that you won't get bowled if any one asks you. My father is Lord Roscannon, and our place is Bethwick Castle, in Northumberland. It's a gloomy old place that would give you the creeps. My mother died twenty-two years ago when I was born, and my father doesn't care about anything except archaeology, so I have always been in the clutches of my maiden aunt, Lady Grizel Vernilands, who ruled Bethwick and me as long as I can remember. Everyone called her the Grizzly Bear.
"Never mind, she's dead now, and I have been able to persuade papa that my health needs a sea voyage. He suggested the Continent—of course with a companion. But I have been clawed backwards and forwards on the Continent for years by Aunt Grizel, and have had enough. I chose Africa, because it sounds so nice and racy in novels, doesn't it? Fortunately papa's greatest friend, a parson and also an archaeologist, has a daughter out there. She paints, and lives on a farm somewhere on the veld in the Cape Colony, so I am allowed to go and stay with her for three months.
"I even escaped the company of my maid, as you saw, though she tried hard to persuade papa that I should get into trouble without her. I believe she would have come at the last, even without luggage, if I hadn't been too smart for her and had the door locked. Lucky, wasn't it? We should never have been able to execute our little scheme with her about. Now tell me your story."
"No need to go too closely into that," said April. "No one will put you any piercing questions about my family, or be in a position to contradict your statements."
The Poole family tree, in fact, grew as tall and old as the Roscannon's upon the pages of heraldry, but drink and riotous living had perished its roots and rotted its branches long before April was born. Her father, its last hope, had been a scamp and gamester who broke his wife's heart and bequeathed the cup of poverty and despair to his child's lips. But these were things locked in April's heart, and not for idle telling in a railway carriage.
"I am an orphan without relatives or friends," she went on quietly. "No assets except musical tastes and a knowledge of languages, picked up in cheap Continental schools. I am twenty, and rather embittered by life, but I try not to be, because there's nothing can blacken the face of the sun like bitterness of heart, is there? It can spoil even a spring day."
Diana looked vague. In spite of tilts and tournaments with the Grizzly Bear, she had no more knowledge of that affliction of bitterness to which April referred than of the bitterness of affliction. The fact was patent in the gay light of her sherry-brown eye and her red mouth, so avid for pleasure. The book of life's difficulties, well conned by April Poole, was still closed to the Earl's only daughter.
"Perhaps she will know a little more about it by the end of the voyage," thought April, but without a tinge of malice, for in truth she was neither malicious nor bitter, though she often pretended to herself to be both. Whatever life had done to her, it had not yet robbed her of her powers of resilience, nor quenched her belief in the ultimate benevolence of Fate. Her joy in voyaging to a great unknown land had been a little dimmed by the prospect of the monotonous drudgery that awaits most governesses, but here, already cropping up by the wayside, was a compensating adventure, and her heart, which had been reposing in her boots, took little wings of delight unto itself and nearly flew away with excitement.
Eager as Diana, she threw herself into a discussion of clothes, personal tastes and habits, the exchange of cabins, and ways and means of circumventing the curiosity and suspicion of their fellow-travellers. Diana could not do her own hair, but had ascertained that there was a hairdresser on board whom she could visit every day. The ticket for her first-class stateroom she cheerfully handed over to April, in exchange for one which gave possession of a berth in a cheaper cabin to be shared with another woman.
"We must do the thing thoroughly," she insisted, "and I shan't mind sharing in the least. It may be amusing if the other woman is pleasant. I don't think you and I had better know each other too well to begin with, do you? We can pretend to make friends as the voyage goes on. Or shall we say that we were at school together?"
"Let us say as little as possible," said April, who had an objection to telling lies, even little white ones. But Diana did not share her scruples, and plainly averred her intention of "spinning a yarn" to any one who asked questions.
In a whirl of excitement they arrived at the docks, and were hustled with the rest of the crowd up the steep gangway that led to the deck of the Union Castle Company's latest and most modern liner, the Clarendon Castle. April, who had exchanged her cloth coat for Diana's sables, felt the eyes of the world burning and piercing through the costly furs to the secret in her bosom. But Diana felt no such discomfort, jubilant in her new-found liberty, she paced the decks, inspected the ship, made friends with the first officer and several passengers, and finally went down to lunch in the dining saloon. She seated herself at the general table, and as a number of merry people were toasting each other farewell in champagne, she thought it only fitting to order a half-bottle for herself. Some of the women looked at her curiously, but that did not daunt Diana, especially after she had begun on the champagne.
April, placed at some distance in solitary state, noted and envied the coolness and composure of her fellow-conspirator. She, too, had meant to be one of the general crowd, but already the news of her rank and state had tickled the ears of the chief steward, and she found herself reverently waylaid and conducted with ceremony to a small table, whence she could gaze and be gazed upon by the rest of the world without fear of contamination. A steward, told off for her special service, hovered about her like a guardian angel, and during the meal a gold-braided personality approached and, murmuring the Captain's compliments, hoped that when the voyage had once started she would grace his table by her presence. Afar off, Diana cast her a grin over the rim of a wine-glass, but gave no further sign of recognition.
It is a phenomenon well known to travellers, that when the last warning bell rings on board a departing ship all the pretty women and interesting men go ashore, leaving only the dull and fusty ones behind. Diana and April, however, were not depressed by this spectacle, for to the former, in her position of free-lance, all men looked interesting and all women superfluous; while April, in full possession of the beautifully appointed stateroom on the promenade deck, to which she had retired directly after lunch, was too busy reviewing the position to think about fellow-passengers just then. She was bothered over the business of sitting at the Captain's table. She had seen him on the boat deck as she came aboard, and her heart failed her at the thought of deceiving such a genial, kindly-looking man. It was plain that the experiment of "taking people in" was not going to be so pricelessly funny as she had anticipated. She said so to Diana, who came to her cabin as soon as the ship started to make a selection of clothes. But Diana would listen to none of her virtuous backslidings.
"You can't back out now," she said firmly. "A bargain's a bargain, and I've told everyone I am April Poole, going to Africa to be a governess, and all the ship knows you are Lady Diana Vernilands. We should be a spectacle for the gods if we change back now. No one would believe us, either. We'd only be looked upon with suspicion for the rest of the voyage, and all our fun and pleasure spoilt. For goodness's sake don't be an idiot!"
That was all the slightly conscience-stricken April got for her pains, and Diana stalked off triumphant, lugging a suit-case and an armful of wraps. April heard her explaining to a stewardess in the corridor that her baggage had got mixed up with Lady Diana Verniland's, and that it was very awkward; and then she saw and heard no more of her for several days. For immediately on emerging from the Solent the Clarendon ran into very heavy weather, which continued until the Bay of Biscay was passed, keeping all but the hardiest travellers confined to their cabins. April, who was among the victims, had plenty of solitary leisure in which to repent her misdeed if she felt so inclined. But the impulse to repent soon passed, and workaday wisdom reassured her that what she and Diana were doing was really very harmless and of no consequence to any one but themselves. No very great effort was required to make the best of the situation and enjoy it as much as Diana had evidently determined to do. It was very pleasant, after all, to be waited on and fussed about as though she were a person of infinite importance instead of a shabby, trim governess. She, who had padded the bumps of life for others so long, could now thoroughly appreciate having the same service performed for herself.
Being of a nature neither arrogant nor impatient, she soon endeared herself to the stewardesses and serving-people, who, having some experience in the tempers and tantrums of fine ladies, were agreeably surprised by her gentle and charming manner, and could not do enough for her in return.
After the first few days of frightful illness she began to feel better, and was able to be moved from her cabin to the ladies' lounge. Wrapped in one or other of Diana's ravishing boudoir garments of silk and fur, she was supported there every morning, ensconced on the most luxurious sofa, and surrounded by attentions from the other semi-invalids. Nothing was too good for the peer's delightful daughter, and everyone behaved as if she were an angel dropped from heaven. In fact, with the lovely spirituelle air her illness had given, and the sea bloom just beginning to tint her cheeks again and dew her eyes, she looked rather like one.
The ship's doctor, who was young and susceptible, broke it gently to such of the male passengers who were able to bear the strain that a dazzling joy awaited their eyes when "Lady Diana" should be well enough to appear in public. The story of her charming looks and ways circulated softly round the boat, even as a pleasant wine circulates in the veins.
April knew nothing of these things. She only felt very happy in the kindness of everybody, in the gradual steadying of the ship, now emerging from the troubled Bay into smoother, warmer waters, and in the prospect of soon being allowed to go on deck. Sometimes she wondered why the real Diana gave no sign, but came to the conclusion that she, too, had been ill.
It was a natural enough thing to ask the doctor, when they were alone one day, if Miss Poole was among his patients. He seemed sufficiently astonished by the query.
"Miss Poole!" he echoed. "Oh, no; she's not ill—far from it. Do you know her?"
"Certainly I know her," smiled April, astonished in her turn. "I was wondering why she had not been to see me."
The doctor murmured something cryptic about her having "no doubt been too busy," and seemed to have nothing further to say. The face of the lounge stewardess wore a peculiar expression. A quiet, rather austere-looking woman, she always behaved like a mummy in the doctor's presence, standing behind him with folded hands and mute lips. But when he had gone she came to life.
"Do you mean the young lady whose baggage got mixed with yours at the beginning of the voyage, my lady?" she asked. April remembered the necessity to walk delicately.
"Yes . . . a pretty, fair girl," she said cautiously. "Very gay and bright."
"Very," agreed the stewardess laconically. Then the source of her eloquence dried up even as the doctor's had done. April began to think it was time to go on deck and see what was doing.
The next day was not only gloriously fine, but the ship came to harbour by that island which is as a bouquet of fruit and flowers pinned to a jagged breast. There seems always something sinister lurking behind the wreathed and radiant beauty of Madeira; but to those who come in ships from out the bitter fogs of England she is a siren with a blue and golden smile, and her gift-laden hands are soothing and serene.
April, lying in her deck-chair, thought she had come to fairyland. Escorted upstairs by the doctor and a retinue of stewardesses, she was installed in a sheltered corner that commanded the whole brilliant scene. The purser found her the most comfortable of chairs, the first officer brought her a bamboo table from his cabin for her books, the Captain stayed awhile from his duties to congratulate her on her recovery, and several men loitered near at hand casting reverently admiring glances. But she had eyes for nothing save the vivid scene before her. The smiling island, with its head in the mists and its feet in a sapphire sea still as a painted lake; boats full of flowers, corals, ivories, silken embroideries and unknown fruits; the burnished bodies of diving boys; the odour of spices and sandalwood; the clatter of strange tongues; the dark faces and bright clothes of the invading crowds of natives.
It was a spectacle to enchant the senses. She could not think why so many passengers were scurrying to and fro anxious to be taken ashore. It seemed as foolish as to try to get into a picture instead of sitting before it.
Everyone was wearing light clothes, for summer had come at full bound, and soon they would be in the tropics. There were beautifully cut white linen suits, smart skirts, and filmy blouses. A popular saying on the Cape mail-boats is that passengers to South Africa are all clothes and no money, while passengers returning are all money and no clothes. April did not know the epigram, nor the truth of it. But she could plainly perceive that in the scanty kit of April Poole she would have been very much out of the running among this smart and jaunty crowd.
As it was, clad in a sleek silken muslin of lovely lines, snowy shoes and stockings, and a rose-laden hat, she could hold her own with any one. A longing filled her to see Diana Vernilands. She wanted to talk to her, exchange confidences, thank her, bless her, and, above all, to find out what it was she found so attractive in her side of the game. What on earth could it be that was so much more ravishing than to be at peace with the world, respected by it, liked by it, and yet independent of it? To wear lovely clothes in which you could enjoy the knowledge of looking charming without meeting suspicion in the eyes of women and the "good-hunting" glance in the eyes of men. This last constituted, indeed, that "subtle reason" at which she had hinted to Diana. Life had harried April too much for her few years. Obliged to travel its highways alone and unprotected, some of the adventures encountered there had cut her to the quick. While women looked askance at her, men looked too hard, and too long. Doubtless she had met the wrong kind. Lonely young girls without money or connections do not always find the knightly and chivalrous gentlemen of their dreams! Naturally pure-hearted and high-minded, she had asked nothing of those she did meet save respect and good-comradeship; but either she was too pretty or peculiarly unfortunate, for she had seldom been offered either. It was something, perhaps, that she still kept dreams, and a belief that there were knightly and chivalrous men somewhere in the world, though they might not be for her.
She was still, like Omar, wondering "What the vinters buy one half so precious as the stuff they sell"—lost in cogitations about Diana, when the subject of her thoughts, accompanied by three men, came down a companion-way from an upper deck. They were evidently set for the shore, and making their way to the ship's side as if certain that the best places in the best boats were preserved for them.
Diana's appearance betrayed the lack of a maid. Her dress was crumpled, her shoes badly laced, and her hat cocked carelessly upon her head. But the subtle Italian hand of the ship's coiffeur had touched her hair, saving the situation. Also, there was a sparkle in her eye and a joie de vivre in her laughter that made up for many deficiencies. Her companions appeared to have been picked for their good looks, sleek heads, and immaculate clothes. One, with whom she palpably stood on the happiest of terms, was, in fact, strikingly handsome. The other two, loitering in her wake, seemed content if she tossed them a word over her shoulder from time to time. They all behaved as if they had bought the ship, and found the presence of the rest of the passengers an impertinence. Such of the latter as were still on board returned the compliment according to sex and the ability that was theirs. The men plainly admired Diana's nerve, while wondering with their eyebrows what on earth she could see in those three footling fellows. The women looked pityingly at the men, and with their noses indicated that Diana was some kind of dangerous and unpleasant animal escaped from a menagerie. A lady who had seated herself by April in a chair labelled "Major Sarle," curled her lip at the passing group in a manner painfully familiar to her neighbour. Presently, when they were left alone, the rest of the world having disappeared down the ship's side, she addressed April, but with a very different expression on her face.
"You are Lady Diana Vernilands, I think?" she said, smiling in a friendly manner. "I am Mrs. Stanislaw. So glad to see you up."
April was instantly on the alert. Not only did she know the name of Mrs. Lionel Stanislaw, but had very good cause to remember it as that of the lady with whom she was to have shared a cabin. The smiling face had once been a pretty one, but the tide of youth was fast receding, leaving uncovered a bleak and barren shore, whose chief salients were a disdainful nose and a mouth which looked as if it might be able to say bitter things. The eyes, however, were still handsome, if supercilious, and her manners velvety. No doubt there were claws beneath the velvet, but they were not for April . . . only for the girl who was using April's name! They had not talked for five minutes before she realized that in this woman Diana had an enemy. Not that Mrs. Stanislaw's words were censorious. She was too clever for that. Her remarks were merely deprecative and full of pity.
"A most amazing creature," she said gently, "but rather disturbing to live with. I confess I wish I had been cribbed and cabined with someone who had more conventional manners and kept earlier hours."
Here was something for April to ponder.
"She is very young," she faltered at length, and was unwise enough to add, "and pretty."
These being two heinous offences in the eyes of Mrs. Stanislaw, she proceeded at once to hang, draw, and quarter the criminal. But her voice was tenderer than before.
"Yes, isn't it a pity? . . . and so foolishly indiscreet. Do you know, they tell me that she is spoken of by all the men on the ship as the April Fool, a parody on her name, which is April Poole."
Pleasant hearing for her listener, who flushed scarlet.
"Can you imagine any one who has a living to earn being so unwise? I find it difficult to believe she is going to the Cape to teach someone's children. I only hope that the story of her indiscretions will not precede her, poor girl."
April was dumb. Mrs. Stanislaw came to the conclusion that she was dull and rather lacking in feminine sweetness, and after a while went away to bargain with a native for some embroideries. She would have been delighted to know what a poisoned barb she had implanted and left quivering in the side of the so-called Lady Diana.
Beneath the folded V of filmy lace on April's bosom her heart was beating passionately, and the rose-wreathed hat fortunately drooped enough to hide the tears of mortification that filled her eyes. Her name to be parodied and bandied about the ship on men's lips! A poor thing, but her own! One that for all her ups and downs she had striven and contrived to keep untarnished. How dared Diana Vernilands do this thing to her? What foolishness had she herself been guilty of to put it in another's power to thus injure her?
Her eyes were so blurred with tears that she did not notice at what particular moment another occupant had usurped the chair of Major Sarle. It was a man this time. April hastily seized a book and began to read. He must have stolen up with the silence of a tiger, and he reminded her of tigers somehow, though she could not quite tell why, except that he was curiously powerful and graceful looking. His hair, which grew in a thick short mat, was strongly sprinkled with silver, but his skin, though brick-red, was unlined. She judged him to be a sailor-man, for he had the clear and innocent eye of one who has looked long on great spaces. These were her conclusions, made while diligently reading her book. He, too, was busy reading in the same fashion, but, manlike, was slower in his deductions. By the time she had finished with his hair he had not got much further than her charming ankles. Certainly, he had ascertained that she was a pretty woman before he took possession of his chair, but that was merely instinct, the fulfilling of a human law. Detail, like destruction, was to come after. He lingered over the first detail. They were such very pretty ankles. It did not seem right that they should be resting on the hard deck instead of on a canvas foot-rest. He remembered that his own chair had a foot-rest, but it was in his cabin. Should he go and fetch it? Dared he offer it to her? He was on hail-fellow-well-met terms with lions and tigers, as April had curiously divined, but having enjoyed fewer encounters with women, was slightly shy of them. However, being naturally courageous, he might presently have been observed emerging from a deck cabin with a canvas foot-rest in his hand, and it was only the natural sequence of events that while attempting to hitch it on his chair his guileless gaze should discover that April's feet were without support. He looked so shy and kind for such a sun-bitten, weather-hardened creature, that she had no heart to refuse the friendly offer, even had she felt the inclination. Besides, the advances made to her in the role of Lady Diana were very different to those she had so often been obliged to repulse as April Poole.
She felt, too, that here was a man not trying to make friends with any ulterior motive, but just because on this pleasant, delightful morning it was pleasant and delightful to talk to someone and share the pleasure.
Vereker Sarle had made the voyage to South Africa so many times that he had lost count of them, and knew Madeira so well that it bored him to go ashore there any more.
"We have the best of it from here, in spite of a little coal dust," he told her, for with a great deal of rattling, banging, and singing on the lower decks the ship was taking on her voyage ration of coal. "Still, you should go ashore and see it some time. It is worth a visit for the sake of the gardens, the breakfast of fresh fish at the hotel on the hilltop, and the bumping rush down again in the man-drawn sleighs."
He took it for granted that she was a woman travelling for pleasure and likely to be back this way soon. While she gave a little inward sigh, wondering whether she would ever have the money to return to England, or if it would be her fate to live in exile for ever.
Sarle presented her with one of his simple maxims of life.
"All good citizens of the world should do everything once and once only," he averred, with his frank and disarming smile. "If we stuck to that rule life would never go stale on us."
"I'm afraid it would hardly apply to everyday life and all the weary things we have to do over and over again."
"I was thinking of the big things," he said slowly. "Like potting your first elephant or falling in love. I don't know what equivalents women have for these things."
April could not forbear a little ripple of laughter.
"I believe they fall in love, too, sometimes," she said. But Sarle, with his sea-blue gaze on her, answered gravely:
"I know very little about them."
It was hard to decide whether he was an expert flirt with new methods, or really and truly a man with a heart as guileless as his eyes. But, at any rate, he was amusing, and April forgot her tears and anger completely in the pleasant hour they spent together until the passengers, recalled by the ship's siren, began to return from ashore.
Diana and her bodyguard were the last to arrive, the men laden with fruit, flowers, and numerous parcels, and the girl more openly careless of the rest of the world than before. They took possession of a group of chairs that did not belong to them, and scattered their possessions upon the deck. Pomegranates, nectarines, and bananas began to roll in every direction, to the inconvenience of the passers-by, but what did that matter? Diana lit a cigarette, declaring that it was too hot for words, and that she must have a John Collins. They all ordered John Collinses. The handsome man fanned Diana with a large palm leaf, and she looked at him with languorous eyes.
April grew hot inside her skin. Conversation interrupted by the noise around them, both she and Sarle had immersed themselves once more in their books. But April, at least, was profoundly conscious of everything said and done by the neighbouring group, and she longed to take Diana Vernilands by the shoulders and give her a sound shaking. As for the three men who were encouraging and abetting the little minx, it would have been a pleasure to push them separately and singly overboard. She did not know how she could have managed to sit so still, except that Sarle was there reading by her side, silent and calm, apparently noticing nothing extraordinary in the behaviour of their neighbours.
A steward brought the John Collinses—four tall glasses of pale liquid and ice, some stuff red as blood floating on the top. No sooner had Diana tasted hers than she set up a loud wail that there was not enough Angostura in it. One of the men hurried away to have this grave defect remedied, and the moment he was out of sight Diana took up his as yet untouched glass, and with two long straws between her lips, skilfully sucked all the red stuff from the top of the drink and replaced the glass. Above the delighted laughter of her companions, April heard a woman's scornful remark further down the deck:
"It is only the April Fool!"
That was the little more that proved too much. The real April closed her book sharply and left her chair. Walking to the deck-rail, she stood leaning over, thinking hard, trying to decide how best to get hold of Diana Vernilands and tell her firmly that this folly must stop at once.
She felt very miserable. Madeira, fading in the wake of the ship, with already the blue haze of distance blurring its outlines, seemed to her like the dream she had lived in these last few days . . . the golden dream in which everyone liked and trusted her, and her beauty was a pleasure instead of a burden. Tomorrow she must return to her destiny of shabby clothes and second places, with the added bitterness of knowing her name made the byword of the ship! That was something she could never live down, if the voyage lasted a year. There would merely be two April fools instead of one, and she the wretched masquerader in borrowed plumes not the least of them! Slowly she turned away from the rail and went to her cabin. A line sent by a steward brought Diana there at the double-quick. She burst into the cabin, the open note in her hand.
"What do you mean? Is this the way you keep faith? . . . Trying to slither out of our bargain before it is a week old!"
"It is you who have broken faith," retorted April indignantly. "Surely it was in the bargain that you should behave with common decency and not make my name notorious!"
"Rot!" was the airy answer. "A few old pussy cats with their fur brushed the wrong way, that's all. Who's going to mind what they say?"
"Do you realize that you are known from one end of the ship to the other as the April Fool?"
Diana burst out laughing.
"I know who started that . . . the poisonous asp I share my cabin with. Just because I have seen her putting on her transformation, and know how many kinds of paints she uses to build up her face! If it had been you it would have been just the same. You'd have been the April Fool instead, that's all. You ought to be jolly grateful, instead of bullying me."
She sat down on the lounge, smiling and sparkling, and took out a cigarette. April, in whom laughter was always near the surface, could have smiled herself had she not been nearer weeping. After all, Diana's pranks and antics were in no way vicious, but seemed merely the result of the lifelong drastic restraint hitherto exercised over her. Her vitality was breaking out like a fire that has been too long covered up. But there was no knowing where she would stop, and what would not be consumed in the merry blaze.
"Well, I'm not grateful," she said firmly, "and if you want to be talked about in future, it will have to be under your own name."
"Oh, April!" Diana's jauntiness left her instantly. "I beg of you, don't be unkind. I am having such a topping time. I've never been so happy in my life. If you only knew how dull I've been with old Aunt Grizel always hounding me to death. Don't go and spoil my first good time."
"It is you who are spoiling it. You forget that I have to earn my living and am dependent on the world's good opinion. Where shall I be at the end of the voyage with the frivolous reputation you are building up for me?"
"I won't do it any more. I'll be so good. You'll see how I'll change from now on."
"The mischief is already done, unfortunately."
"All the same, we can't possibly change now," pleaded Diana. "What good will it do us? . . . and you will get the worst of it, my dear. The world is a bundle of snobs, and the people on the ship thoroughly represent it. They will soon forgive me, but your crime will be unpardonable. They will be simply furious with you for taking them in."
This was the tongue of truth, as April knew well. She looked at the other girl ruefully.
"How can I trust you any longer? I saw you with those men on deck . . . playing the fool . . . making yourself cheap. Oh, Diana, how can you? . . . under my name or any other, you are still a lady with certain rules to observe."
"You don't understand . . . I can't explain to you what it means to me to break loose from convention for a little while . . . it's something in my blood that has to come out. But, indeed, April, I swear to you if you will only go on I will behave. I really will. I can't help what is past, but there shall be nothing fresh for them to carp at in the future, anyhow. Do be a sport and consent, won't you?"
In the end, by pleading, beguiling, and piling promise on promise, she got her way, and thereafter the game went on—with a difference. They still called her the April Fool, because names like that stick; but as far as could be seen, she committed no fresh escapades to deserve the title. Yet the real April Poole sometimes wondered if the last phase of this folly was not worse than the first. She could not in justice deny that Diana was much quieter and more orderly, but it seemed a pity that her quietness should take the form of sitting for long hours at a time in rapt silence with a certain extremely handsome man. This was Captain the Hon. Geoffrey Bellew, on his way to South Africa as attache to a Governor somewhere in the interior. He it was with whom Diana had been on such happy terms the day of landing at Madeira. The two other men had been cast forth like Gadarene swine. Bellew and Diana were sufficient unto themselves. Eternally together, sometimes they walked the deck, or threw quoits, or played two-handed card games; but ever they avoided large companionable games, and always they sought the dusky corner in which to sit undisturbed, gazing into each other's eyes. Strictly speaking, there was nothing to cavil at in this. Numbers of other couples were doing the same. These little games of two and two go forward all the time on voyages to the Cape (especially nearing the Equator), and are the joy of the genial-hearted. Even those who have no little games of their own are wont to look on sympathetically, or, better still, to turn away the understanding eye. The long, lazy, somnolent days and the magic nights, star-spangled above and lit with phosphorescent seas below, lend themselves to the dangerous kind of flirtation that says little and looks much, and if there is any place in the world where Cupid is rampant and "Psyche may meet unblamed her Eros," it is on the deck of a liner in the tropics.
But either Diana was one of those unfortunate girls who cannot glance over the garden wall without being accused of stealing peaches, or else she had too thoroughly got people's backs up during the first week at sea, for everyone looked cold-eyed at her romance and called it unromantic names. There were continual little undercurrents of gossip going on about her beneath the otherwise pleasant surface of everyday life. April did not talk gossip nor listen to it, but she was vaguely aware of it. Except for this, she would have been the happiest girl in the world, and, indeed, she did not allow it to bother her too much, having made up her mind to cast care to the winds and enjoy herself while the sun shone. Destruction might come after—at Cape Town, perhaps, but if it did, tant pis!
Something of Diana's recklessness entered into her, only that it did not take the form of outraging the convenances, but just of enjoying life to the full with the permission and approval of the world. She loved the summer seas, and each blue and golden hour seemed all too short for the pleasure to be stuffed into it.
Everyone was delightful to her. Gone were the days when all women's hands were against her and her hand against all men. When she had time to think about it, she fully recognized that most of the admiration and kindness tendered to her by the other passengers was entirely worthless, and merely the result of snobbery.
But she had neither time nor inclination to go too deeply into the matter with herself. Her heart very ardently desired to believe that some at least of the people who made such a fuss over her liked her for herself alone, regardless of the rank and wealth she was supposed to possess. Sarle, for instance—Vereker Sarle, the shy man of wild places as she soon learned him to be, "the man who owned the largest and most up-to-date ranch—Northern Rhodesia," people informed her . . . surely to him she was a charming girl, as well, or before, she was Lady Diana Vernilands. She wanted to believe it, and she did believe it. Not a very difficult task to believe anything on sapphire seas decorated by golden dawns and rose-red sunsets. Cynical truths have no room to blossom in such surroundings. It was sheer joy to be alive, and she threw herself into the merry routine of the days with all the zest of youth. Her beautiful, athletic figure had been trained in many gymnasiums, but never before had she known the delight of exercise in the wild, fresh air of the open sea, where her muscles felt like rippling music, and her blood seemed full of red roses. Her eyes had changed from their smoky sadness to the dewy radiance of hyacinths plucked at dawn, and her skin wore the satiny sheen, rose-tinted, of perfect well-being. She wished the voyage would last for ever.
Nothing succeeds like success. Because she was brilliant and happy, and apparently had everything she wanted, Luck smiled, and all good things came her way. She was acclaimed a champion at deck games, and unremittingly sought as a partner. In the evenings she never lacked companions to help her dance the soles off her shoes. She played auction like a fiend and always held the cards; won all the prizes in the sports for running, jumping, threading the needle, and holding eggs in spoons; bowled everyone at cricket. It seemed she could do nothing wrong or badly. Finally, at the fancy dress ball, when everyone turned out in wonderful garments planned and prepared long months before, she easily captured the votes of the crowd as the wearer of the most original and charming costume created on the spur of the moment.
There had been only one fancy dress in Diana's wardrobe, that of a Persian lady; and for once she showed herself greedy in the matter of clothes, and calmly commandeered it without consulting April. Yet the latter's fanciful imitation of a well-known poster, composed of inexpensive calicoes (bought from that emporium of all wants and wonders—the barber's shop), had triumphed over the gorgeous veils and jewels and silken trousers of the Persian houri and swept the unanimous vote of the ship into April's lap. Enough in all this to turn any girl's head, and though natural dignity and a certain attractive quality of humility that was hers kept April's heart sweet, she was sometimes in danger of becoming slightly tete montee. But she always pinched herself in time, with the reminder that it was all only a dream from which she must awaken very soon. For the nineteen halcyon days of the voyage were speeding by and coming to an end. Hot, hard blue skies gleamed overhead, and at night came the moon of Africa, pearl-white instead of amber-coloured, as it looks in Europe. Strange stars appeared, too, bigger, more lustrous, than the stars of cooler climes, and seeming to brood very low over the world. The "Milky Way" was a path of powdered silver. The "Coal Sack" showed itself full of brilliant jewels. And the Southern Cross! When April first saw it mystically scrolled across the heavens, like a device upon the shield azure of some celestial Galahad, its magic fell across her soul, and would not be lifted.
This is one of the first spells Africa puts upon those whom she means to make her own. Ever after, with the poignant memory of that Cross of straggling stars there is a thought of Africa, and the two cannot be torn apart. For April there was always to be a memory of Vereker Sarle, too, associated with it, for he it was who first picked out the Cross for her in the luminant heavens, and he it was who said to her on the night before they reached Cape Town:
"There seems to be some kind of blessing in that old Cross held out over us as we come trailing back."
After that first day at Madeira she had not seen a great deal of Vereker Sarle. He had dropped back quietly from the crowd that ringed her in, and become a looker-on, sometimes barely that, for he was a great poker-player, and spent much time in the smoke-room with one or two hard-looking citizens who were plainly not drawing-room ornaments. April had missed him, with a little pain in her heart, for instinct told her that he was one of the men who count in the world. Also, she had divined that his heart was as clear as his eyes. Though his face was so scarred and rugged as to inspire in the wit of the ship the jest that it had been chewed at by one of the lions he had hunted, there was yet something in it that suggested the gentleness of a child, and that knight-like chivalry that she had sought but never found in any man. So it hurt her a little when she thought of it in the night hours, that he should keep aloof from her, yet in a way she was glad, for she could not so ardently have enjoyed playing her role if Sarle had looked on too much with his innocent, yet keen gaze. It was by accident that he found her alone that night, between dinner and dancing, and they stayed looking at the stars and talking of the land they were to reach sometime within the next two days. He was not a great talker, and most of the information April gathered was in the form of half-scornful, half-wistful remarks. He spoke of Africa as a man might speak of some worthless woman, whom he yet loved above all peerless women. Of the lure and bane of her. How she was the home of lies and flies, the grave of reputation, the refuge of the remittance man and the bad egg; the land of the unexpected pest, but never the unexpected blessing; of sunstroke and fever; scandals and broken careers; snobbery, bobbery, and highway robbery. How, yet, when one had been away from her for a little while, sometimes for a few months only, one forgot all these things and remembered only with hunger and aching the pink-tipped hills of her, the crystal air, royal sunsets and tender dawns; the unforgettable friends she had given, the exquisite reveries her wild spaces had inspired; the valiant men who lie buried in her breast, the sweeping rivers and leagues and leagues of whispering grasses. How, suddenly, the nostalgia for the burn and the bite of her bitter lips seizes upon the men who have known her too long and too well, dragging them from ease and comfort and the soft cushions of life, back across the seas to her gaunt and arid breast.
"And there seems to be some kind of blessing in that old Cross held over us as we come trailing back!"
His smile was scoffing and a little weary, but behind it April heard longing in his voice, and saw the searching of his eyes towards where land would soon appear. And what he was feeling strangely communicated itself to her. The subtle hand of Africa was laid upon her heart, and she trembled. In that moment she sickened suddenly of her false position. Why was she not coming to this watchful land frankly and with clean hands, instead of in the coils of a foolish pretence? She looked at the fine, open face of the man at her side and was ashamed. An impulse seized her to tell him the truth, but the thought of Diana drew her up sharply. Had she the right to disclose the secret before first consulting the other girl, or at least telling her what she meant to do? There had of late been something about Diana that called for this consideration. She had grown so quiet and pale. Her gay laughter was seldom heard, and though she still sat about with Bellew a great deal, no one ever heard them talking much. They seemed to revel in silence. It was not difficult to divine what spell was upon them, and April was more glad than she could tell.
For if it came to pass that Diana should get something out of this masquerade, something beyond mere frivolous enjoyment, then the means would have justified the end, and neither would have cause for reproach. How fitting, too, for Diana and Bellew, both of the same world and social position, to find each other in such a disinterested way. Really, it looked as if everything were for the best in the best of all possible worlds. It was only when Sarle's clear gaze was upon her that April's soul stirred with a sense of guilt and a longing to discontinue the deceit, harmless as it was. His simple, candid personality made it impossible to remain with him and not be sincere. A very panic of haste seized her to find Diana and arrange some plan of action. Abruptly she left him, and though dancing had begun and she saw her partner bearing down on her, she fled in the direction of the music saloon, where Diana and Bellew might most frequently be found. But they were nowhere in sight, and their dusky and palm-sheltered corner was in possession of Mrs. Stanislaw, who instantly pounced on April with a request for her autograph. Everyone was walking about with birthday and autograph books that night. Others were carrying about large photographs of the ship and begging people to sign their names upon it, as a souvenir of the voyage. These things are done upon every trip to the Cape.
While April stood turning the pages of the autograph album and wondering what name to put down, she got one of the worst jolts of her life.
"I have found out two very interesting things," said Mrs. Stanislaw, in her soft and serpentine manner. "The woman whose children Miss Poole is going to governess at the Cape is Cora Janis, one of my most intimate friends. And . . ." she paused dramatically. April's fingers still fluttered the pages, but her heart took a bound and then stood still.
"How very interesting," she stammered, "and what else?"
"Captain Bellew is a married man!"
April closed the book and handed it back without writing anything.
"If that is true, I really do not see what it has to do with you—or me," she said coldly.
"Oh, I know it is true," said Mrs. Stanislaw, airily ignoring the rest of April's remark. "I had it from a lady who is travelling second-class because she has a bevy of children. She knows Mrs. Bellew quite well, and, curiously enough, is a friend also of Cora Janis, who wrote to her some time ago asking her to look out for Miss Poole on the voyage. Naturally, Cora thought her governess would also be travelling second." Mrs. Stanislaw smiled drily. "She little knows our April Fool."
The girl's fascinated eyes watched the line of her smile. It was like a thin curved knife, all the crueller for being artificially reddened.
"Why should you have such a down on her?"
The older woman's hard, handsome eyes took expression of surprise.
"A down on her? You are mistaken. I am only sorry that a girl should so cheapen herself and her sex generally."
April could have shaken her, but it seemed wiser to try propitiation instead. Her own career, as well as Diana's reputation, was at stake.
"After all, she has harmed no one but herself, Mrs. Stanislaw. As for Captain Bellew, I daresay he told her long ago about his being married. . . ."
"If you think so you think worse of her than I do," said Mrs. Stanislaw acidly, "and I could hardly suppose that!"
"I do not think badly of her at all," retorted April indignantly. "She is only a girl, and if she has been misled—well, it seems to me that the situation calls for a little human charity rather than condemnation."
"Of course," said the soft-voiced one. "I quite agree. Far be it from me to condemn. One has, however, certain duties to one's friends."
April saw clearly what she meant, and that it was as useless to try to divert her from her intention as to argue with an octopus. The very fact that she knew Mrs. Janis would probably put an extinguisher on April's career as a governess. Her impersonation of Lady Diana was bound to come out, and if Mrs. Janis was cut on the same pattern as her friend, she would be truly outraged by such an impertinence in a mere governess. There was little to do but keep a tight lip and hope for the best. For the moment, indeed, her troubles were swamped by a flood of pity for Diana. She felt sure that Diana was in love with Bellew, and feared that he had not told her the truth. On the other hand, he might honourably have done so, and Diana being the reckless scatterbrain she was, still chose to dally on the primrose path of danger. It was hard to know what to do.
On the main deck dancing was in full swing, and the first sight that met her eyes was Diana and Bellew scampering in a tango. Diana wore a satin gown of curious blue that gleamed and shone like the blue light of sulphurous flames, and as she danced she trilled a little French song that was often on her lips:
"Tout le mond Au salon On y tan-gue, on y tan-gue, Tout le mond Au salon On y tan-gue, tout en rang."
It was a parody on an old South of France chanson, and everyone was singing it in Paris that year. Someone far down the deck, who had evidently read the original in Alphonse Daudet's Lettres de Mon Moulin, took up the refrain:
"Sur le pont D'Avignon On y dan-se, on y dan-se, Sur le pont D'Avignon On y dan-se, tout en rond."
Small use trying to stop her and speak serious things to her in that mad frolic. April herself was whirled into the pool of music and movement, and did not emerge until the band, at a late hour, struck up the National Anthem. By special dispensation of the Captain, dancing had been prolonged because it was the last ball of the voyage. The next two nights were to be respectively devoted to a bridge-drive and a grand farewell concert. However, only a score or so of the most ardent dancers were left on deck when the final note of music sounded and the lights went out with a click. Figures became wraith-like in the moonlight, and April gave a sigh as her partner's arm fell from her waist and they drew up by the ship's rail, where Vereker Sarle stood watching them and smoking.
"And that's the end of the story," said she, laughing a little ruefully. Her partner went away to get her a cold drink, and she half expected Sarle to reproach her because it had been his dance and she had purposely avoided dancing with him. But he only said: "Africa is the beginning of many stories."
She shivered a little, though the night was warm.
"I am beginning to be afraid of her—this Africa of yours!"
"No need for you to be afraid anywhere," he smiled. "There will always be those who will stand between you and fear."
"How little you know!" she said abruptly. "I haven't a friend in the world."
There was a short silence, and they looked straight at each other, the slim, tall girl in her diaphanous tulles, the powerful, innocent-eyed man.
"You must be joking," he began. Then he saw the trouble in her eyes and her quivering mouth.
"But even in jest, never say that, while I am in the world," he added gently. She was so grateful for the chivalrous words that she dared not speak for fear the tears should rush out of her eyes. Impulsively she put out her hand, and his brown, firm one closed on it, and held it very close. Then he carried it to his lips. She heard him say one word, very softly: "Diana."
At that she tore her hand from his and sped away swiftly into the darkness. Once in her cabin she locked the door, turned out the lights, and flung herself on to the bed. For a long time she lay there, a rumpled heap of tulle and misery, weeping because life was a cruel brute who kept her gifts for the rich and wellborn or the old and indifferent, mockingly withholding from those who were young and eager and could better appreciate them.
"What is the use of youth and good looks when one is poor and lonely?" she sobbed. "They only mock one! It is like having a Paris hat put on your head while your feet are bare and bleeding and your stomach is empty."
She wished she had never begun this miserable game of Diana Vernilands, never tasted the power of rank and place, the joy of jewels and pretty clothes. She wished she had never left England, never seen Vereker Sarle, and, above all, she wished she were dead.
It was about two in the morning before she had finished wishing and sobbing. Youth began to assert itself then, and she thought of what a sight would be in the morning, with tangled hair and swollen eyes. Languidly at last she rose. The tulle dress was ruined, but little she recked. Rather she felt a fierce satisfaction in the thought that it was done for, and Diana could never wear it.
That wretched Diana! . . .
But when her flushed face was bathed and her hair brushed out she thought more kindly of Diana, remembering that she, too, was in trouble. Well, tomorrow there would have to be a great clean-up of all these miserable pretences and deceits; tonight, at least, she would try and sleep. Her hand was on the switch to turn out the lights when there came a knocking at the door. It was such a strange, peremptory knocking—such a careless outraging of the small hours, that for a moment she stood rooted with astonishment and apprehension, staring at herself in the mirror that composed the back of the door.
"Who is it?" she stammered at last.
"The Captain," said a stern voice, and in the glass she saw her cheeks and lips become pale. What on earth could be wrong? Was the ship on fire, or wrecked? Had their last hour come?
"I am sorry to bother you, but will you please open the door for a moment?"
By a great effort she composed herself and did as she was bid. A little group of people with strained faces and staring eyes presented themselves behind the Captain; she recognized several men, the stewardesses, and Mrs. Stanislaw; while in the shadows beyond them was whispering and much shuffling. The whole ship seemed to be afoot. Captain Carey gave one swift look round the cabin, then his eyes rested on her startled face, and he patted her arm gently and reassuringly.
"Don't be alarmed, my dear Lady Diana," he said, in his tender, Irish voice, from which all sternness had vanished. "It is only that we are looking for Miss Poole, and we thought that possibly she might be in here with you."
The girl's face stiffened and blanched. She put out a hand to support herself against the dressing-table. The Captain signed to a stewardess, and the little crowd moved away. There was loud knocking on another door.
"Why are they searching? . . ."
The stewardess patted her arm, even as the Captain had done, but being a simple woman, she spoke simply, and without waste of words.
"There is a fear that she is not on the ship."
"Not on the ship!" whispered April. "But where else could she be? What other place? . . ."
Then she understood. There was no other place. . . . Her knees trembled, and the stewardess supported her to the sofa. She sat down with chattering teeth, smitten by a great and bitter cold. Diana—the sea . . . warm, merry, gay Diana in the cold sea!
"I don't believe it. It can't be true!"
"Mrs. Stanislaw had reason to think that she intended to commit suicide tonight . . . and when she did not come to bed by two o'clock, she thought it her duty to inform the Captain, who is, of course, bound to search the ship."
"It can't be true. . . . I don't believe it," repeated April mechanically; but all the time her heart was in terror, remembering Diana's pale looks and the news she had heard tonight of Bellew's marriage. Had he told Diana, then . . . and was this the result? All at once it became impossible to sit still any longer. She must know the truth. She jumped up, searched feverishly for a cloak to put on, and pulling the stewardess with her, hurried on deck. But after a few steps they came to a standstill, for the crowd following the Captain had suddenly and curiously broken up and separated before the door of one of the deck cabins. Men and women who a moment before had been clustering and whispering agitatedly together were now hurrying past, each apparently intent on reaching their own cabins in the quickest time possible. For one horrible moment April thought it was some tragic discovery that was scattering them, but a moment later she realized that tragedy had gone from the air. The deck was flooded with electric light, and people's faces could plainly be seen. Many expressions were written there, but none of pity or sorrow. The men, for the most part, looked embarrassed; the women's expressions varied from frozen hauteur to scornful rage. They behaved like people who had been bitterly wronged by some lying tale. The one predominating emotion shared by all seemed to be an intense desire to escape from the scene. In less than two minutes not a soul was left on the deck save the dazed and astounded April. She remained, wondering what on earth it was all about; why without visible reason the search had come to such a sudden end, and what could be the meaning of the phrase Mrs. Stanislaw had flung at her as she passed.