But when the last visitor had gone, and the first real storm had broken a window, then she had sunk like a lump of lead in a bucket of cold water out of which she refused to be lifted.
Leonie was youth incarnate, causing even the courteous folk of Devon to turn and stare as she swung past with a cheery greeting in a skirt and hob-nailed boots ending at her knees.
For the first month, as one always does in Devon, she had walked herself to the verge of scragginess, then had gradually put on weight, as is the correct method. Her whistle could be heard in the woods and fields, and on the beach from Lee to Hartland way; all the country folk loved her, and scolded her for the risks she took in swimming, and she seemingly had no care in the world.
But the great heat of summer, the shriek of the wind, and the scream of the birds in autumn would bring a little pucker between her brows; the storm would drive her spirits up to breaking point, the calm would leave her eyes full of trouble; in the woods she would stop and turn to listen, then frown and trudge along between the trees.
She was not at rest, for an unconfessed fear, a spook without name or shape, was plucking at her will-power and her heart, a phantom of which she would rather have died than have said one word.
So she stood twisting the blind cord and watching the rocks as they gradually disappeared under the swirling waters.
Susan Hetth sat near the fire, which is oft-times necessary in the spring at Lee, and tapped in irritation, and most irritatingly, with her foot against the low fender.
She was worried.
She was not by birth or heredity a bad-tempered woman, merely one of straw, who after the first two months of every quarter invariably found herself in a corner which one injudicious move might render uncomfortably tight.
Her financial situation, in fact, had become so critical, and the bank manager's demeanour so unpropitious, that in the previous year more than once the dawn had found her trying to decide between the Scylla of the thankless post of lady companion to some wealthy parvenu on the Riviera, and the Charybdis of raising money enough to allow her to harbour paying guests in the no-man's-land of Earls Court.
Then Fate crossed her knees, and out of her lap had tumbled a widower possessed of a substantial banking account and four children.
A few more days, a little more encouragement, and he would most certainly have offered her his name and the half of his worldly goods in return for her help in quelling the riotous behaviour of his motherless brood.
But there had supervened the crisis at school.
And grasping for once in her life the necessity of immediate action if she wished to prevent an embellished account of her niece's untoward behaviour from reaching the man's ears, she had fled to Devon, leaving behind a trail of dainty scented notes explaining that it was all on account of a slight nervous breakdown from overstudy on the part of her niece "who," she added casually, "as I think I told you, is the only daughter of my dear brother, Colonel Hetth, V.C."
Snobbish, but quite effective as bait for a person who has not complete control over the eighth letter of the alphabet.
That very morning, quite unheedful of the beauties of the little witch village, she had gone to collect her mail lying at the post office, which in summer is almost hidden in its garden of flowers; and amongst an assortment of spring sale catalogues from emporiums, mostly situated in South Kensington, had found a letter from the widower, begging to be allowed to come down for a change of air, and an opportunity of laying a proposition before her.
She had wandered up the side of the hill, unmindful of the birds and buds almost bursting with the intoxication of spring; had pitched the catalogues anywhere on the grass, as is the wont of the untidy who have no bond with nature, and had tried to solve the problem as she scraped the mud, with the aid of a twig, from her Louis-Quinze heels.
But she was harassed, poor, hapless creature, for more than one reason.
The words of alarm from the nurse, the innuendoes from departing maid-servants, and the direct warning from the old specialist which had long since faded from her mind, had been forcibly revived by the happenings at the school; and being one of those who invariably plump for the worst, and without giving the slightest thought to the criminality of the proceeding, she had definitely decided, if she could coerce the girl into falling in with her plans, to marry her to the highest bidder before worse could happen.
But she was downright afraid of her niece. Afraid of her moral strength which dominated everything and everybody; ill at ease with the straightforward way she had of speaking her mind on occasions, and following up her speech with action. Never an untruth had she known to pass the girl's lips, not once had she heard her say one belittling thing about a living soul, and only twice had she seen the sweetness and gentleness swept with anger.
Cruelty to anything small or weak could transform the girl into a flame of wrath, and her weakest spot was her overpowering sympathy with anyone in distress, without any inquiries into the direct cause of the adversity, which spot caused her to be considerably taken in by many of those who had discerned it.
An almost abnormal moral strength, allied to great gentleness and pity, combined to make a character extraordinary in one so young, and which her aunt summed up and summarily dismissed from her mind in the trite sentence that "she certainly did not take after her parents."
She was considered slow by the youths, and perplexing and therefore to be avoided by the girls of her own age, and dull or frightfully conceited by the men who had fluttered round her almost exotic beauty until they had come up against the icy barrier of her supreme indifference.
To those who knew her intimately, such as the fisherfolk and the farmers, and the tramps with whom she would sit and converse by the wayside and share her lunch, she was the most lovable, cheery soul in the world, which, of course, meant the county of Devon.
"Damn standoffish, what!"
Such had been the verdict passed by someone married who hailed from London town, when Leonie had refused to sit out a dance in a secluded shady nook.
"Just a bit of heaven!" had said the tramp as he turned the corner in the lane, leaving Leonie sitting on the milestone pondering upon the man whose ragged clothes were out of keeping with the shape of his nails, and the timbre of his voice with his unkempt hair.
But leaving all that aside, and in all conscience it was bad enough, the biggest worry hung as heavy and as threatening upon the horizon as does at times the monsoon over the Indian Ocean.
Once upon a time Susan Hetth had committed an indiscretion, nothing really wrong—she hadn't the nerve. But the nuisance of it was, that, in addition to the indiscretion, she had broken the eleventh commandment and had very nearly got hanged for her lamb.
In the second year of her widowhood in the month of November, whilst her hair was still golden and her colouring unpurchased, she had dined a deux in one of those delectable, ghost-ridden, low-ceilinged sets of chambers which are tucked away in a certain Inn within the Fleet Street boundary.
Which is a silly thing to do if you do not own a car and a long-suffering discreet chauffeur.
The diner a deux and a bit of a play had been the honest programme; but the inevitable had happened in an all-enveloping blanket of a fog, on account of which everything in the shape of a hackney carriage had gone home, and an excursion on foot to the nearest tube rendered hopeless by the simple fact that you could not see your hand before your face.
Which would not have mattered a bit if only, as the fog lifted and the clock of St Dunstan's chimed the hour of three a.m., she had emerged from the narrow opening into Fleet Street with the aplomb or savoir-faire, which are almost twins, necessary to the occasion.
She would then have beckoned to and smiled sweetly upon the young ruffian into whom she bumped as he lounged on his way to Covent Garden Market, and promised him just enough to bring her a taxi or something on wheels, into which she would have got if it had materialised, and been whirled away to safety and bed after adieux to her host uttered with the nonchalance necessary to allay the young ruffian's suspicions.
Instead of this she had slunk from the opening with her host close behind, had bumped into the young ruffian and with an exclamation of dismay had shrunk back into the shadows and her host's arms.
In consequence of which action the bare-footed ruffian had shadowed them until they had met a four-wheeler, had held the lady's dress from the wheel and overheard the address given to the driver for which he had received tuppence, and had disappeared into a doorway where he had spat on his unearned increment and made his plans.
The upshot of it all being the admittance a fortnight later of young Wal. Hickle, attired in his best and primed with her family history, into the presence of the terrified woman.
He had simply asked for twenty pounds on the nail in return for his silence.
And she, scared out of her wits, instead of threatening him with the law, had given him a cheque—yes! a cheque—and he, with a flash of that cunning which was to lead him eventually to a seat amongst the plutocrats, had pocketed it and grinned.
"I doan' wan' mor' 'en twenty uv the best, lidy, jus' to mike a start—an' I doan' wanter part wiv yer 'and-writin' niver. So jes' yer send two rustlers, wot means notes, of ten pun each, rigistered, to W. 'ickle spelt wiv a haitch, 2 H'apple Blossom Row, Coving Gardin, afore this toime ter-morrer. An' jes yer remember that h'as long as yer lives I've got yer bit of 'andwritin.' I ain't goin' ter use it, but some dye it might come in 'andy. 'Ardly loikly as 'ow yer'd buy twenty pun wurf of veg from Wal 'ickle eh, lidy?—it 'ud want some h'explanation."
Then this soul made in the image and likeness of his God and found good, but hidden under the civilising process of the twentieth century which had given him the morals of a jackal and the status of a pariah dog, sighed as he looked round the dainty room.
"S'welp me," he said, as he touched a satin cushion with his coarse, broken-nailed finger-tips, "h'if oi h'understand wye a woman the loikes uv you, wiv h'everyfink she wants, cawn't run strite!"
"Oh! but," whimpered the woman, "it was all the fault of the fog, really it was!"
"Garn!" replied the young ruffian as he opened the door and slammed it behind him.
"Surely I am more brutish than any man!"—The Bible.
And just about midsummer Fate tweaked the string to which was hobbled Susan Hetth.
A vulgar but resplendent bachelor middle-aged millionaire, sterling, not dollars, in order to set his gastronomic house in order, had taken a notion for the simple life for just as long as the notion should last, and a perfect bijou of a thatched cottage t'other side of Clovelly for a year.
With a notion of buying the cottage at Lee in which had dwelt the three historic maids, he had swept one day through the village in the latest thing in cars.
Baulked in his intent, and with time upon his podgy hands, he had rolled, minus the car, along the village path over the strippet of water and the sunbaked grass to the harbour.
There he had bent, with ardour and misgivings, to pick up Leonie's towel, just as the soft wind caught her bathing cloak as she stretched out her hand with a smile of thanks.
She had grabbed at the cloak and missed it by a bit, so that it had swept behind her, hanging from one shoulder like some Grecian drapery, and the rotund little man had trotted round her draped side, picked up the cloak by the big button, and completed his trot, covering her up as he moved.
And as he trotted his little porcine eyes had glistened as they lingered upon the perfect figure, from the slim ankles to the confused face, and Leonie had blushed, though you could not have discerned it through the tan, pulled the cloak tighter and hurried across the road to the cottage gate.
But with the clumsy swiftness of the elephantine, the man had run after her and opened the cottage gate just as Susan Hetth opened the cottage door with the welcoming announcement that tea was ready.
"Ha!" he had snorted as he almost ran up the path, leaving Leonie to stand still and stare in amazement at the little scene. "And I'll have some tea, too, Lady Susan Hetth, and how d'you do. Long time since we met, eh?"
Diamonds sparkled in the sun as the man stretched out an effusive hand, and a flame of anger sparkled in the small eyes as Lady Susan drew back frigidly.
Not being of them herself she set all the greater store on knowing those she considered exactly the right people.
"I don't think I have——" she commenced in her most primpsy voice, when she was interrupted with a perfectly odious familiarity.
"Now you're not going to say that you don't remember our little meetings in Earls Court and Fleet Street and"—the man spoke with an extreme slowness as though keeping guard over each letter of each word—"and our little correspondence, come now."
Leonie frowned and moved a step forward protectingly as her aunt caught suddenly at the door handle, and then jerked herself forward with outstretched hand.
But her aunt was speaking in the falsetto of forced levity, and Leonie held her peace and waited for an opportunity to slip past and into the house.
"Why, I do believe," said Susan Hetth, suddenly metamorphosed by a certain tone in the man's voice into the terrified woman of years ago, "Yes! I do believe it is Mr. Walter Hickle——"
"Sir Walter, if you please."
"Indeed, in-deed—how very delightful, and after all these years! Leonie, this is—is—er——"
"I'm one of your aunt's friends, Miss Leonie, bobbed up out of the past. Glad to meet you, hope we shall be friends, too."
Leonie, who had gained the door, looked back over her aunt's shoulder and spoke with a gentle courtesy very much her own.
"I always like to meet Auntie's friends!"
Not knowing the man from Adam she spoke no untruth, but in spite of reiterated calls to come down to tea she remained in her bedroom until the loud-voiced guest had taken his departure.
While the two women were having yet another cup of tea Sir Walter Hickle, millionaire, tradesman, and knight, sat down gingerly upon a rock and made his plans.
He had made his plans as a bull-necked, offensive youth the first day he had pulled out from Covent Garden with a barrow piled with walnuts bought out of two rustlers, value of ten pun each.
"I'll get there!" he had informed the nuts as he tweaked his cap over one eye, and his red neckerchief into place; and had sworn a mighty and quite unprintable oath as he struck a huge fist into a horny palm at the corner of Ludgate Circus and New Bridge Street.
"I'll get there!" he informed the seaweed as he lifted the soft grey hat from his bald head and adjusted the enormous pearl pin in the pale pink satin tie; and he sighed stertorously as he complacently patted his knee with a podgy hand, upon the manicured plebeian fingers of which shone two magnificent diamond rings.
And if you cannot penetrate the strongholds of Devon county, it is not difficult to make acquaintance with her visitors, especially if your visiting card is a gilt edge security for future excursions and diversions done in top-hole style.
Unsuspecting Leonie, who never kept a grudge, after a week or so of astonishment and aversion, thinking in her innocence of heart that she perceived the trend of events, made up her mind to meet the rotund old knight with the simple graciousness due to her aunt's would-be husband.
True, the elasticity of her graciousness did not stretch enough to allow her to accept the never-ending invitations which poured into the cottage; but she would tuck her remonstrating aunt into the car which was ever at the gate, and smile delightfully upon the infatuated old fellow who put her aloofness down to mere girlish waywardness.
Although the corporeal part of the old vulgarian grated on her susceptibilities, she was quite willing to believe that if one chose to dig deep enough it would prove to be only the rough earth covering a positive mine of rare temperamental gems; and in her blindness whistled cheerily as she thought of the joy her aunt would feel at not having to drop her title when she changed her name, and at being able to retain the same initials for her monogram.
"To sell a bargain well is as cunning as fast and loose."—Shakespeare.
"Now I want you to listen to me, Leonie!"
"I am, Auntie!"
"I mean seriously! I want to talk about myself for one thing, and our very straitened means, which do not permit us to go on living even like this; and oh! lots of other things."
"Right, darling!" said her niece, moving across the room to sit on a broad stool at her relation's feet, but twisting her head to one side with a quick movement when her aunt laid her hand dramatically upon the tawny hair.
"Please, Auntie, don't! I can't bear to have my head touched!"
"Just what I want to talk about!" vaguely said Susan Hetth as she tried to disentangle an old-fashioned ring which had unfortunately caught a few shining hairs in its loose setting.
"Please don't touch my head, Auntie!" repeated Leonie as she sat back. "Let my hair go, please!"
"I'm not touching your hair, child," impatiently replied the elder woman. "It's got caught in one of my rings!"
Leonie's eyes were almost closed in a strange kind of psychological agony; then just as though she acted unconsciously she seized her aunt's hands and pulled them quickly from her head, tearing out the hair entangled in the ring by the roots.
"I can't stand it, Auntie. I have never been able to bear anyone touching my head," she said very quietly.
"I think you're insane at times, Leonie, really I do!"
The terrible words were out, and for one long moment the two women stared into each other's eyes.
"You think I am insane at times," whispered Leonie. "You—Auntie, you think I am insane!"
And the elder woman, floundering in dismay at the awful effect of her unconsidered words, sank to her neck in a bog of explanation.
"No! Leonie—no, of course not—I wasn't thinking—of course you're not mad—insane I mean. What an idea! only I am worried about you, you know that, don't you, dear! Do be sensible, dear. Of course your brain is not quite normal. It can't be with all that sleep-walking, can it, and all your abnormally brilliant exams!"
Susan Hetth's disjointed remarks sounded like the clatter of a pair of runaway mules, while Leonie clasped her hands tight as she sat crouched on her stool.
"Of course people will talk, you know, dear! They did when you were quite a baby and began walking in your sleep. And they did, you know, at school after that unfortunate child nearly got strangled by her sheets—I always do think that school fare is most indigestible—and so likely to cause blemishes on the skin!"
Leonie bowed her head.
"Most unfortunate that you should have snubbed young Mr—what's-his-name—so severely—and that his sister should have been at school with you. Out of revenge she has been talking about you and your sleep-walking. People are most unkind and most unjust—and you are far too pretty to receive any consideration from your own sex, however much attention you may receive from the opposition—I mean sex—opposite sex, I mean——"
Leonie sat absolutely still.
"Anyway, my child, we need not worry—there is a way out of our little difficulties."
Sensing that something was coming Leonie sat back with the light of the oil lamp full on her face as she stared at the clutter on the mantelpiece.
"I do so want you to do something for me, darling."
The tone of Susan Hetth's voice and the touch of her hand on the girl's arm were as wheedling as if she were about to ask her to tramp into Ilfracombe on some trifling midnight errand.
Leonie answered quite mechanically.
"What is it, dear!" she said. "Say the word and I'll do it!"
"Is that a promise?"
"Ra-ther! Anything to please you, Auntiekins!"
Susan Hetth took her fence in a rush!
"I want you to get married," she said abruptly out of pure fright, and wrenched at her bead chain when Leonie leapt to her feet.
The girl stood quite still, outlined in her simple low-cut, short-sleeved dress by the wall, her hands pressed back against it.
There was no sound except the soft gurgle and murmur of the water until she spoke, quietly, but with a world of horror in her low-pitched voice.
"You want me to marry—you—when a moment ago you said that you thought I was mad—you want me to marry some honest, unsuspecting man, and bear him children!"
Susan Hetth, shocked to the limit of her Pecksniffian soul, made a nerveless fluttering gesture of protest with her hands.
"Don't speak," said Leonie quickly, "please don't speak until I have done. Marriage! I will tell you what I have thought about it while I have been waiting for my mate."
"Oh!" exploded Susan Hetth vehemently. "My dear! Surely you have not been corresponding with anyone!"
How was she to make her aunt, this shallow, unbalanced being, understand the joyous expectancy with which she had awaited the moment when she should meet the man born for her?
How was she to take the exquisite longings, the veiled desires, the beautiful virgin thoughts, from her heart and lay them before this woman who had taught her nothing but the twenty-third Psalm without its real interpretation, plus the correct Sunday collect and daily prayers.
How explain that to her the little golden ring would not represent a key opening the door to the so-called freedom from which fifty per cent of women descend, via the shallow flight of steps marked a good time, to the plain of discontent; or that to her the word love was sufficient, in that for her it included those of honour and obey, without any separate declaration in public.
When she spoke she spoke hurriedly, flushing from chin to brow.
"Auntie—I correspond with no man—but my—my mate is waiting for me somewhere—calling me all the time ever since—oh! ever since I can remember—and—and I should have married him when I had met him if—if——"
In anger at this fresh complication, piled upon her appalling want of tact of a few moments ago, Susan Hetth struck her hands on the arms of her chair.
"I think you absolutely indecent, Leonie, to go on like this about someone you have never even seen. Now listen to me, and don't be so theatrical. I have had an offer of marriage for you by someone who knows all about you, and who, after my assurance that there is nothing hereditary in your family on either side to account for the strangeness of your actions at times, is perfectly willing, even anxious, to marry you."
"To take the risk, you mean," broke in Leonie. "Oh!—well, go on."
Aunt Susan, somewhat out of breath from the rapidity and unaccustomed lucidity of her words, inhaled deeply and continued.
"He will make you an astounding marriage settlement, give you everything you want, and swears to make you per-fect-ly happy!"
"And his name?"
"Oh! don't be stupid, Leonie, of course you know whom I mean!"
Leonie leant forward, stretching out her hands, her face dead white in the light of the lamp.
"Tell me his name and don't drive me beyond breaking point, Aunt Susan!"
"Tosh!" contemptuously remarked her aunt. "Don't be so childish—I mean Sir Walter Hickle, of course!"
Expecting some violent words of protest the elder woman half rose from her chair, but appalled by the deathly silence and the look on the girl's face, sank back, cowering in her seat, and stared in the direction her niece's hand was pointing.
"Look, Auntie, look!"
Leonie stood with one hand pointing at the mantelpiece and the other pressed against her throat as she tried to speak coherently.
The pupils of her eyes were pin-points as she gazed at a wooden frame which, adorned with edelweiss and the Lucerne Lion, held the snapshot of a complaisant individual leaning over the harbour wall, attired in a well-fitting but ill-placed yachting suit.
"Old Pickled Walnuts! You want me to marry him—when—when—oh! when I thought he wanted to marry you!"
She laughed, a laugh which sounded like the jangling of broken glass, and died almost before it was born; and her aunt, terrified at the sound and the expression on the girl's face, seized the outstretched arm and shook it violently.
"What are you talking about, Leonie!"
Leonie freed her arm with a shudder.
"Please don't touch me!" Then making a desperate effort she continued quietly, so quietly indeed that Susan Hetth looked anxiously over her shoulder towards the door.
"Don't you know that's his nickname? Oh! of course you do! You know he made his fortune by pickling walnuts too rotten to sell. Sir Walter Hickle—twist the name a bit and it's all in a nutshell—a—a pickled walnut shell"—the little unnatural laugh broke across the words—"and you want me to marry him—Auntie! Auntie! he's awful enough, heaven knows, but not bad enough, nobody could be, to have a—a mad wife foisted on him—no! never—I'll go out and work!"
There was something very decisive in the last words, but Susan Hetth, like most weak people, found her strength suddenly in a mulish obstinacy, which is a quite good equivalent for, and often more efficacious than mere strength of will.
This obstinacy, backed by the knowledge that people were beginning to gossip about the girl's aloofness and love of solitude; that the cashing of another cheque would see her overdrawn at the bank; and that until the girl was settled and off her hands she would not be able to solve her own matrimonial problem, drove her to a show of mental energy of which she would not have been capable in an everyday argument.
"Work!" she cried, "work! What can you do? Nothing—except go out as a companion or nursery governess!—and who would take you without a reference—and who would give you one? Tell me!"
Leonie remained silent—stunned.
"As I have told you, we simply cannot afford to live even like this! I'm overdrawn as it is, and——"
"But," broke in Leonie with a gleam of hope, "but I have father's money coming to me. I'm not quite sure how much it is, but you can have it—all!"
"It's two thousand pounds down for yourself, and two hundred and fifty a year in trust for your children—to be given you on your wedding day."
It was just a little pitiful exclamation as the girl realised the net which was closing about her feet, but from the meshes of which she made a last desperate effort to extricate herself.
"I think I—see—a way," she said slowly. "Yes—listen—this terrible mystery that surrounds me, this—this curse which seems to bring disaster or pain to everyone I love, simply makes life not worth living—so if—if I make a will in your favour, Auntie, dear, and go for a swim at Morte Point where the cross currents are—it will——"
But Susan Hetth interrupted violently, horror-stricken at the suggestion made indifferently by the girl she loved as far as she was capable of loving.
"How is suicide going to help?" she demanded shrilly. "There would be an inquest, every bit of gossip, everything you had ever done would be brought to light; the verdict would be insanity——"
Driven to desperation and without finesse Susan Hetth flung down her trump card.
"But—I—I haven't told you the—the worst," she stammered, dabbing her eyes with her handkerchief, and peering from behind it at Leonie who, wearily pushing the hair off her forehead, stood apathetically waiting.
"That—that man"—she jerked her head at the mantelpiece—"has—has a hold on me!"
"What—-do you mean Sir Walter—do you owe him money?" Leonie stared in amazement as she spoke.
"Oh, no—it's worse!" came the reply, followed by a curtailed but sufficiently dramatic recital of the past indiscretion, to which Leonie listened spellbound.
"And you do believe that it was just a bit of bad luck, and that there was nothing really wrong in it all, don't you, dear," insisted the woman who, like ninety-nine per cent of humans, forgot the real tragedy of the moment in the recital of her own pettifogging escapade.
"Absolutely," replied Leonie flatly.
"And you do see the necessity of giving in, now that he has threatened me with exposure if you refuse him when he proposes, don't you, dear?"
"Absolutely," replied Leonie for the second time.
There followed long minutes of silence which the swirl of the waters alone dared to break, and then the girl spoke.
"My life," she said very softly to herself; "my lovely, beautiful free life done. The wind, and the birds, and the sea—Auntie—oh, Auntie—Auntie!"
And she turned and flung herself against the wall with her face crushed into her upstretched arms. "Think of it," she whispered hoarsely, "think of it, my youth, my spirit, my body given into that old man's keeping. I who have kept my thoughts, my lips, my eyes for my mate that was to be; I who have longed for his love, for the hours and the days, and the months, and the years, even unto death, with him. How could——"
There was a click of the gate, and she flung round from the wall, dry-eyed, dry-lipped, desperate, as her aunt hurriedly rose.
"It's him—Sir Walter, Leonie—are you going to accept him?"
"Of course," came the steady reply, and Leonie looked the elder woman straight in the eyes, which darted this, that, and every way. "Will you go upstairs, please."
* * * * * * * *
Just before dawn Leonie slid in through the window, and the water, trickling from the bathing dress which clung to the wonderful figure, formed little pools on the faded carpet.
"Nothing will ever make me clean," she whispered, "nothing—nothing—nothing. There is no ocean big or wide or deep enough for that, oh! God—my God!"
For five long minutes she stood absolutely still, looking straight and unseeingly at the mantelpiece.
Then as a rooster somewhere shrilly heralded the coming day she awoke to her surroundings and moved.
Like a beaten dog she crept to her bedroom, and stood staring at the reflection of her haggard face in the mirror. A bird suddenly burst into a song of welcome to the dawn which was dyeing the sky rose pink, and she crossed to the window-seat, dropped to her knees, and buried her lovely head in her outstretched arms, amid the ruins of her beautiful Castle of Dreams.
"For Fate has wove the thread of life with pain!"—Pope.
When empty Rockham is a haven of delight, whether the little connecting coves be awash with the tide, or the limpets, in an unglued state, are airing themselves awaiting the return of the water.
You can wander at will, if you have the right boots on, over the never-ending sharp ridges of the rocks; you can pass hours gathering laver, though it is not at its best just there; and you can find sea-anemones and such treasure-trove as pit props, and boxes of butter, yea! and even casks of wine after a storm if the gods be kind to you.
Also you can don your bathing dress in comfort behind the wreck, one of many, which has remained as witness to the force of the terrific gales and the ripping propensities of the saw-teethed rocks.
Walk in from Lee or Mortehoe, Woolacombe or Croyde, over fields in which lambs stand on their front feet in exuberance of youth, or caper on their back ones until called to order by their maternal parent; or through lanes lined with primroses and violets, or roses, or nuts, or berries, according to the season, whilst on the top twig of the high hedges yellow-hammers, chaffinches, robins and the like gossip to you about the hawk hovering in the distance.
Arrived there, pause on the edge of the incline. Don't go down if you see a paper bag fluttering in the breeze, because a paper bag is but a forerunner of lanky locks dripping on a towel-covered shoulder, and bare and uncomely feet fiddling in the warm sand, whilst adjacent is the rock over which the faded blue bathing dress hangs out to dry.
Wait for the empty hour and then fly into the second cove, and the next, and the next, but—don't forget the tide!
The sand-covered rough-haired terrier stood with his head cocked on one side, looking at the wonderful, waving, glistening mass in front of him.
It certainly looked like seaweed, but it didn't smell like it, and long bits of it floated in the air just like golden threads; besides, there was something uncanny about it which sent thrills into the roots of his rough hair, causing it to rise in clumps along his spine.
It looked as if there were something dead underneath, too, and yet it didn't; anyway it certainly did not look as though it were meant to be played with or barked at; and he hastened back along the treacherous narrow passage, which connects the two last coves, in search of him-who-knew-all and was never afraid.
"No, old fellow!" was the only response he got to his invitation to "come and see." "I've already been fooled over anemones, and rooks, and passing cloud shadows, and very dead starfish—nothing' doin', so calm yourself!"
But the dog backed into a pool, emitting barks which were strangled at birth, snapped at a bit of rock which caught him unawares upon his unprotected flank, trotted forward, backed again into the pool, and turning, ran down the passage, came back and did it all over again.
Talk about water-drops wearing away a stone, why they are simply not in it when compared with a dog's method of wearing down your resistance. After the fifth repetition of the above tactics the man rose, stretched, put his pipe in his pocket, and hurling a pebble at the delighted quadruped, followed in its wake.
"Just look at that, and don't say I've brought you here for nothing," said the terrier, as plainly as he could with eyes and quivering body and tail.
The man looked and held up a finger, which caused the dog to sit up and beg, and walked as softly as possible up to Leonie who, tired out with worry, heartache, and a long swim, was sitting fast asleep on that one slanting, delightfully comfortable rock seat, with her hair spread out over her face, and down to her knees, mantle wise, to dry.
It is a somewhat ticklish job to lift an unknown lady's hair and tell her abruptly that you think the tide is on the turn, and the man stood in perplexity, while his brain refused obstinately to register anything more practical than an overwhelming admiration for the picture before him.
However, with the attempt to unravel the problem, his hand went instinctively to the pocket which held his pipe, and the slight movement simultaneously upset his balance and solved the problem.
He slipped with a rasp of nails on rock, waved his arms in a manner likely to cause envy in any mere flag-wagger, and recovered himself with all the clatter and confusion inseparable, under such circumstances, from the saving of self-respect and the knees of skirt or breeches.
Quite unconscious that her stockings and high boots were upon another rock, her skirt only reached just below the knee and her legs and beautiful feet were bare, Leonie sat up as straight as she could and peered from between her masses of hair; upon which the dog, thinking that he alone was responsible for the discovery of this wild beast, yelped and barked and growled as he slid in and out of the pools.
Pushing her hair back, and shielding her eyes from the sun and her face from the man, she flashed one swift glance from his shoes to his hair; that non-looking, all-seeing glance of woman which leaves fork lightning at the post, and causes you to wish you had spent a little more time upon your toilet.
Although she had barely looked at him, Leonie could have described the man before her down to the minutest detail.
No doubt about it he was good to look upon, with his steady eyes, the straight ultra-refined nose with slightly-distended nostrils, and a jaw which, in shape and strength, belied the almost feminine beauty of the mouth.
He stood well over six feet, though you would hardly have thought so because of the massive shoulders which seemed to have been created to carry the troubles of the entire world.
His hands, the outward, visible and infallible sign of the inner man, were perfect male hands, long and thin with square-tipped sensitive fingers, and a certain look of steel about the back and wrists.
But although he had been looking at her steadily for quite a minute, owing to some inexplicable overpowering sensation which had seized upon him, he would most certainly not have been able to tell you the colour of her hair or that her feet were bare.
"I beg your pardon," he said quite suddenly and a little hoarsely, "but my dog brought me to you—and as I think the tide is on the turn, I thought——"
But any further description of his thoughts was cut short in most unseemly fashion as, with an ear-splitting bark, the terrier hurled himself into the girl's lap, standing up to put its fore-paws round her neck, wriggling and squirming until the four feet, collar, and head were thoroughly knotted in the beautiful hair.
Leonie held on to her scalp to lessen the pain as stray hairs were literally dragged out by the roots, whilst tears of agony streamed down her face on to the man's hands as he held the squirming animal and endeavoured to loosen its bonds.
"What! All that!"
"Oh! I can spare it, but I can't stand the pain much longer, and I can't bear having my head touched. Look, I'll hold the dog firmly on my lap and bend my head, it won't hurt quite as much then, only do be quick!"
She put both hands on the shivering dog, who seemed to have sensed that something had gone agley, and pressing him down upon her knees bent her head, and her hair fell in waves about the man's feet as he unclasped a pocket-knife.
What there was in the attitude, whether it was the humility of the bent head or the utter abandon of the waving hair about his knees, the man never knew, but he suddenly began to hack savagely and ruthlessly at the great strands until the dog was freed and flung far on to the sands.
Then he bent and took hold of Leonie, lifting her bodily from her seat into his arms, crushing her desperately against his breast.
Just for one moment he stared down with blazing eyes, the nostrils quivering slightly, and the lips drawn back enough to show the white even teeth, whilst the rough tweed of his coat marked her cheek, and the strength of his arms and hands bruised her body even through her clothes; then he frowned, pushed her hair almost roughly right off her face, and looked at her with the dawn of recognition in his eyes.
And for just as long Leonie lay quite still, her eyes half closed, her scarlet mouth opened slightly, enough to show the small white teeth.
And then, she was standing on her feet with her hands clenched in his against his breast.
"And you!" she replied, striving gently to release her hands.
"Forgive me! For God's sake forgive me! I—I have no excuse!"
A seagull perched itself on the point of a jagged rock, uttered its raucous cry and was gone towards Bull Point Lighthouse shining in the sun; a flock of rooks suddenly swirled from the cliffs, screaming battle upon their opponents as Leonie answered.
"There is nothing to forgive! Some things are beyond our ken. Will you get me my boots and stockings?"
Her hands shook ever so slightly under the strain of the control she was forcing upon herself, and the pupils of her eyes were strangely dilated, looking like bits of night sky set in a moon circle; but she spoke and moved quickly as the man, having brought the foot-gear and unwound the cut hair from the abject dog, leant down and picked up a tough seaweed root.
"No!" she said sharply, laying her hand on his. "No! It's too late to beat him!"
"I say no!"
"But you don't understand!"
Her lashes lay like a fringe on the cheek over which swept a flood of colour as she whispered so softly that the lap of the water almost drowned the word.
Save for the murmur of the water there was no sound whatever in the rock-strewn empty spot; and save for the swaying of the seaweed in the pools there was no movement as those two stood close to each other and Fate counted time.
Then Leonie smiled radiantly and sat down upon a rock with a stocking in each hand.
"Come and lunch in the next cove!" her companion said in a matter-of-fact voice, carefully winding the cut strands of hair and slipping them, without asking permission, into his breast pocket. "It's not so sunny in there, and I've cold soup and cold chicken, salad, jelly and cream—will you?"
"Ra-ther!" said she, beginning to lace her boots. And picnicking is fun in the last cove at Rockham. The air smells so heavenly, the wind is so soft, the clouds so lumpy and white; and there are little caves in which to dress and undress for the purpose of bathing, to boil the kettle, or hunt for those little bits of over-dried wood which go off with the report of a pistol and plop out to singe your garments.
And so very few get as far!
Somehow the tide is generally on the turn, and if by chance it is not, the tortuous and narrow passages between the coves, with their rocking rocks and hidden pools, are enough to twist the ankles and temper of anyone who is not Devon born or bred.
"Yes! I am due to sail for India about this day month," said Jonathan Cuxson, Jan for short, a little later, as he drove the cold drumstick of a Devon chicken into the paper bag containing salt, while Leonie, holding the fellow leg in both hands, or at least the fingers of both hands, gnawed right heartily at the middle thereof, and the pardoned dog sat quivering with hope deferred.
"Isn't this perfectly wonderful," he went on, and Leonie mumbled "whum-whum" as interestedly and politely as her bone would allow. "I mean our meeting like this!"
She smiled and sat forward, resting one hand upon the rocks, and the puppy, with a lamentable slump in manners, crawled up from behind and gently relieved her of the bone which still had luscious scraps of white flesh adhering to it, and a dream of a shining gristly knob at the end.
"Your idea of picnicing is somewhat luxurious," she said, taking a cardboard plate full of jelly which he had smothered in cream. "Tell me what you are going to make of your life!"
"You must blame or thank Mrs. Pugsley for the luxury. I'm at Woolacombe, perched on the top of the hill, and she simply spoils me. Will you have a cigarette?"
Leonie shook her head, and the two great, hastily twisted plaits wriggled like shining snakes, causing the dog to lay one paw on his bone and snarl.
"I don't smoke!"
"How delightful!" said Jan Cuxson. "I was sure you didn't—I love women who smell of lavender."
"Won't you smoke—your pipe—and tell me what you are going to make of your life."
"They—the plans—have all been fogged up this morning !" he said slowly after a moment's pause. "How strange it all is. Do you know that I was going up to town next week to hunt up you, of all people? Do you remember anything of my father's death?"
"We don't talk about it," said Leonie quietly, and the man looked at her with a sudden questioning in the steady eyes.
"I am taking on his work, you know, specialising in the brain. I have got through all my exams quite decently, thanks, I think, to his wonderful notes, have travelled a bit in the east, and before settling down intended to go to India—what for do you think?"
Leonie shook her head. "Holiday?"
"Er—yes, almost. You know I simply loved my father, and his very last entry in his book of notes was about you. One line was this: 'Most interesting—shall go to India and find the ayah.' He died of heart failure, you know, and he must have written the last line before he died—it is: 'The answer to the problem concerning Leonie Hetth is in the third volume upon——' There was nothing after that—I thought he would be awfully pleased if I carried out his last wishes, and meant to hunt you up and see if you were still—er—bothered with dreams and then——"
He stopped short as Leonie leapt to her feet and ran back from a wave which had most unexpectedly swirled upon her from behind a rock.
"Quick!" she laughed, "quick—the tide will be in. Where's the dog?"
The dog was cavorting with a crab in a pool.
"Jingles!" sternly admonished his master, who was heaving everything pell-mell into his haversack. "By the way, what became of Jingles the first?"
A shadow crept into Leonie's eyes as she thought of the pain and disaster she invariably seemed to bring to those she loved most.
"He—he was run over—it was my fault, I whistled him across the road and a car caught him. If we hurry," she continued, "we shall be in time for tea—Auntie will love to see you again!"
"Oh! of course—I'd almost forgotten her—will she?"
"He that rebuketh a wicked man getteth himself a blot!"—The Bible.
By all the ill-luck in the world Sir Walter Hickle was sitting in the patch called the garden, turning a small parcel elatedly over and over in his pocket, as Leonie, and her companion, and the dog came sliding down the hill towards the cottage.
For the time being Leonie had totally forgotten the proceedings of the night before, which had metamorphosed her radiant self from a free into a bond woman.
"Oh!" she said, putting one hand unexpectedly on Jan Cuxson's arm and digging her stick fiercely into the ground, as the man in the garden half rose from his chair and sank back with a frown.
"Oh!" she repeated.
Neither of them noticed the little endearing word which had slipped out so naturally, but Leonie's face was wan and her eyes were dead as she dragged herself down the last few yards, while her aunt fluttered down to the gate to meet them, with her mind and skirts in a whirl.
"Jan Cuxson!" she exclaimed, offering a limp hand, and "How very nice," she continued, lying quite successfully. "I should have known you anywhere. Do come in and have tea!"
And in the same breath, and with that strange cruel cunning of the shallow mind, which is the abortive twin of decent feminine intuition, she leapt at the difficulty she saw threatening, and tried to dispel it.
"Let me introduce you to Sir Walter Hickle, my niece's fiance."
Sir Walter ambled forward with outstretched hand as Cuxson, nodding curtly, bent to pick up Leonie's stick, which had clattered to the floor.
A malicious gleam shone in the elder man's little eyes as he looked at the splendid young fellow who had seemed, physically anyway, so fit a match for Leonie as they tramped down the hill together; and though there was no sign of his inward perplexity and repulsion in Jan Cuxson's face as his eyes swept the obese figure of the notorious old knight, his jaw took a sudden, almost ugly, outward thrust with the birth of a mighty resolution.
Leonie walked to the gate with him when he took his departure, having refused tea from a certain undefined feeling that he could not even sit in the same room as the man whom he intended to do out of the odd trick.
He crushed Leonie's hand as he looked straight into her eyes, so desperate and ashamed, and spoke very gently and deliberately as he slipped his hand to her wrist and pulled her a little closer.
"I shall be in the last cove to-morrow at eleven, waiting for you."
And naturally Leonie had responded to the mastery in the voice, as all women do respond when the voice is the right one; and a soft wave of colour swept from chin to brow as she turned from the gate, and walked through the doorway straight to her bedroom; while her future lord pranced furiously among the bric-a-brac, and her aunt's beads and bracelets clashed against the china as she wrung her hands over the tea things, and portending disaster.
Leonie sat down on her bed with her eyes shining like stars.
The lid of her life's casket had opened wide, and from under a hideous heap of fear, disgust, lost illusions, and despair, hope had sprung, spreading her iridescent wings in the warmth of love.
She sat until the shadows crept about her, then got up from her bed with a little laugh, and descended to give battle for her life and freedom.
Think of every synonym connected with the word tumult and you will get a vague idea of the storm which crashed about the girl's defenceless head as she stood with her back to the door of the tiny sitting-room, with a perfectly gorgeous diamond ring sparkling and flashing in front of her upon a table.
"I cannot marry you, Sir Walter, I simply cannot do it," she was saying, slowly and distinctly. "You must let me go. So please give the ring to somebody else, there are heaps of girls ever—oh, ever so much nicer than me!"
She smiled sweetly as she picked up the ring and held it out to the man, who snatched it from her as he sprang to his feet, and hurled it through the window.
Then he moved to the other side of the table and leant both clenched fists upon it as he looked Leonie up and down.
"You needn't wear the ring, my girl," he said slowly, "but no one picks Walter Hickle up one day and throws him down the next. You're going to marry me this day month, you take that straight from me. Let's hear why you've changed your mind so sudden; willing to marry last night, unwilling to marry to-day.
"Come on, now, out with it!" he suddenly shouted, bringing his hand with a crash on the table as Leonie hesitated, blushing divinely.
"Only—be-cause I—I don't love you, Sir Walter, and it's—it's not right to marry without love!"
"Posh! There wasn't so much of this 'ere right to marry last night. Fallen in love with that young feller-me-lad, I suppose. Where did you meet him? What were you doing? How—how——"
Leonie turned the handle of the door, but shrank back as the man, with a bound, flung himself at her and wrenched her hand free; and Susan Hetth clashed her bracelets and bits as she put her hands tightly over her face, in her fright forgetting the mixture of colours she heaped on it daily in the hope of stemming the neap tide of old age.
"Get out, you there!" snarled the man, lashed to fury by the whip of jealousy. "Get out, go away, wash your face—you look like a—a—like a damned fut'rist, get out!"
And not daring to pass the two near the door, she prepared to get, with a great loss of dignity, through the bow window; in fact, one foot was just over the sill when the man called her back.
"Come back," he bellowed, "I want you as witness to what I'm goin' to say to your niece, the young lady what plays fast and loose with honest men. Fast and loose, I don't fink!"
Leonie shuddered as the veneer of refinement cracked under the strain of the man's rage, showing the brutality and grossness immediately underneath.
She pulled her hand free, and backed towards the mantelpiece, against which she leant, staring at him.
"I am not going to marry you!"
The voice was low but positive, and the quiet in the room was intense as Sir Walter bounced up within a foot of her and shook a fat forefinger in her face.
"Aren't you," he said, "aren't you! And I'll just tell you three things what'll make you change your tune, my girl.
"One," he placed the fat forefinger on the ill-bred thumb, "an' the least important, you'll marry me 'cos you're an 'etth, daughter of Colonel Bob Hetth, V.C., an' your fut'rist aunt ain't—hasn't half rubbed it in about the Hetths never breaking their word, I give you mine!"
"Please leave my father's name out of this," quietly replied Leonie, her face dead white from the sickening thudding of her heart.
"Well, if you don't keep your word, Miss tiger cat, I'll run you in for breach of promise, an' bring your father's name into court!"
"Couldn't!—couldn't what?" stormed the man.
"Run," said Leonie gently, and added sweetly, and with great vulgarity, "you're too fat!"
"Two!" continued Sir Walter, purple in the face, but wisely ignoring the insult to his person. "You'll marry me 'cos no one else'll have you. You're batty, my gel—gone in the top storey—can't even go out to work for your living 'cause you ain't always to be trusted. I know all about yer, but I'm willin' to take the risk. There won't be any trapersin' round the 'ouse after dark once yer married to me, I give you my word. Course, if you like to go on spungin' on your aunt, obligin' her to live in a 'ole like this, well, that's your look h'out—'ardly up to mark tho', being an 'etth, daughter of a V.C."
His small eyes gleamed as they rested on Leonie's stricken face.
"Stop, please," she said hurriedly, "I can't stand any more just now. I—I couldn't really. Will you give me a week to think it over?"
The man laughed contemptuously.
"A few days, a few hours, then?"
There was something horrible in the humiliation of the girl's pleading, but it made not the slightest impression on the ex-costermonger, who had at one time been accustomed to enforcing his commands with the buckle end of his waist-belt.
"Not a minute, not a second," he chortled, seeing the end of the chase in sight. "Think of the 'old I have on yer aunt. Lady Susan Hetth, sister of Colonel Bob 'etth, V.C., creeping out h'of a gentleman's rooms at three h'o'clock of the mornin' an' payin' me 'ush money—think of h'it. Now what 'ev you got to say. Why don't you be sensible an' quiet, gal? I've got yer, it ain't no use kickin'. Be sensible an' I'll smother you in di'monds, give yer two Rolls-Royce, yacht, Monty Carlo any time, Park Lane—make every other woman want ter scratch yer eyes out—what more could yer want? Now what have yer got to say!"
What was there to say?
Aunt Susan tried to obliterate herself behind the window curtain; Sir Walter, thumbs in armholes, tilted himself backwards and forwards on toe and heel as Leonie came forward and leant with both hands the table, as she looked from one to the other without speaking.
In fact the silence became intolerable to Sir Walter, who had expected, and would have thoroughly enjoyed a heated altercation, in which he would have known exactly where he was.
"Well, what 'ev yer got to say, my gel?"
Leonie looked from one to the other.
"I will marry you this day month, Sir Walter." She threw up her hand as he laughed triumphantly. "Wait one moment! But until that day I will have nothing to do with you, nothing. I will not meet you nor go out with you, nor bother about a trousseau, nor the future in any way. I shall go out and come in when I like, and go where and how I like. I shall meet whom I like. I won't deceive you, I shall meet Jan Cuxson just as often as I like. And I should advise you not to interfere with me in any way. He is young and strong, and, as an old friend of the family, might resent it. You can trust him, he is a gentleman—which means—oh, well!—you will find the exact meaning in a French dictionary."
She crossed to the door, turned, and looked, slowly from one to the other.
"Is the bargain concluded?"
"Yes!—I'll take yer on those terms—but you'll pay a 'undred per cent interest on the month, I've lent yer—an' then some I give yer my word!"
The door shut quietly as the man sank into a chair.
"Batty!" he said as he mopped his bald head, "absolutely balmy. But it's worth while—it's worth while—let her have 'er month—let 'er—I shall have a whole lifetime to break 'er in."
"Why fret about them if to-day be sweet!"—Omar Khayyam.
The great grey breakers heaved themselves skywards, paused for half a second, split and crashed down upon the rocks the next morning as Leonie and Jan Cuxson sat on the sands under the lowering sky.
They had argued, analysed, plotted, and planned, only to find that each road they launched out upon full of hope, terminated in the blind alley of the old man's power over the girl.
"I've just got to go through with it," said Leonie, "there is simply no way out."
The man caught both hands in his.
"Dear heaven, how I love you, child! How I long to pick you up, as I did all those years ago, and carry you out of all this to happiness. Leonie! Leonie! You must marry me, I love you so."
And she had sat quite still, not daring to move for fear of the mighty passion which surged about her.
Yes! Quite true! They had only met twice; but there is a certain kind of love, exceeding rare it's true in Europe, which from an infinitesimal seed is capable in one second of blossoming into a tree, fruit and all, in the shade of which you can sit content until your life's end.
It simply sprouts all over the East.
Wishing to prevent a conflagration Leonie spoke quite calmly as she withdrew her hands.
"And I couldn't marry you, even if I were free, because—at times—as I have just told you—they say that I—I—am not responsible for my actions? I'm—I'm supposed to be——"
Cuxson pulled her fiercely into his arms, crushing her cheek against his.
"Tell me all, every detail."
They sat there as the tide went out, and the man registered the facts of the tragic tale in his mind, eager to be out on the trail of the mystery overshadowing the girl he loved.
"Mad!" he laughed when she had finished, "mad!—no more than I am, and I'm sane enough in all conscience except in my love for you. I shall go to India, and wring or bribe the truth out of that ayah. But we needn't worry about the date of starting yet a while, and between then and now we shall have found a way out of this seeming impasse. What is it?"
Leonie had twisted herself suddenly out of his arms, looked over her shoulders and shivered.
"It is what I was telling you about, a sensation of someone standing close behind me."
"It's nothing, Leonie, just imagination," said Jan Cuxson.
For how could he see a certain high caste native of India walking slowly down the gangway from the great ship just docked at Tilbury, and smiling inscrutably as he placed his foot in the country which held the white woman he sought?
Leonie turned her head quickly, and shivered again, violently.
"It was just as though someone had called me," she said, speaking just above a whisper.
"Look at me, dear!"
Leonie looked straight into the honest grey eyes, and the fear died out of her own as she met the steady gaze.
"I'm slow, dear, dead slow, plodding I suppose they'd call me, but once I'm on to something I never let go until I've won. Things are black, sweetheart, but something is telling me that I shall find a way out. When—when is——"
It was beyond her power of will to place a limit to her sudden newborn happiness; she would not give a definite date, and relying on the certainty that the man would never allow anyone to gossip to him about the wedding, she lied—deliberately.
"Oh! there's plenty of time, don't let's talk about it."
She sprang to her feet and flung out her arms to the sea.
"Let's forget, Jan, let's forget! Let's steal something from Fate and be happy. Let's be friends, pals; we can't be anything else, because I am in honour bound. And—and—I'm so hungry "—she turned her radiant, laughing face to him—"I'll race you to Barricane for tea."
She was off as she spoke, with Cuxson close behind. They jumped from rock to rock, they slipped, they slithered, they splashed up to their knees in pools and out again.
The man did not break the compact when he caught her in the shadow of the wreck and drew her into the shelter of his arms.
"Pal!" he whispered. "Little pal!"
And she lay quite still until the thud of their hearts, caused by the strenuous exercise, had given place to the stronger, steadier beat of steadfast love; then she slipped down, ducked under his arms and was away, and her laugh was caught by the wind and blown back to him as he ran in hot pursuit.
"Write them upon the table of thine heart!"—The Bible.
Leonie's wrist watch very softly chimed midnight, announcing in gentle tones the birth of her wedding-day, as she sat with her chin in her hands staring out to sea.
She frowned and pulled savagely at the band until it broke; there was a faint crash, and a faint splash, as the watch, hurtling through the air, ricocheted from a rock into a pool as the girl stretched her arms above her head, leant back, and closed her eyes.
Her last midnight swim, the last time she would slip the bathing dress over her beautiful virgin body, the last time she would revel in freedom, oh! the last time of anything decent, and pure, and sweet.
She had not lost her heart or her head, in fact she had gone through none of those amorous gymnastics which seem necessary to the cardiac state of being in love.
She loved, and she knew it, and confessed it on her knees at night, and when she walked, or swam, or rode, or carried her food on her back, or braided her hair in the day. She was loved and she knew it, and thanked her God when she lay down to sleep at night, and when she shopped, or placated her petulant relation, or played bridge or the piano equally badly, or got wet through in the storm, and tanned by the wind.
Many times Sir Walter had almost been on the verge of giving her her desire.
Almost! Because it only needed two things to make him toe the line of sensual infatuation; the first being the graciousness of every line of her beautiful person when she met him by chance; and the second, the ungraciousness of her distinctly unpleasant manner upon the same occasion, over both of which he promised himself as he inwardly raged at her frequent, prolonged and unexplained absences, he would shortly have full control.
The month had slipped by so quickly, the month in which she had indifferently left to her aunt and fiance the choosing of her trousseau, and the arrangement of the ceremony; also the honeymoon, that subsequent insight into purgatory which she was to endure as best she could in an isolated, thatched cottage t'other side of Hartland Point.
A month during which she had walked, and talked, and walked again with Jan Cuxson, who caused her heart to thud heavily even though he did not touch her hand in greeting, or parting, or at any other time.
They had gathered laver—that most delectable vegetable-seaweed—at the base of the Woolacombe rocks; dug and scratched for the elusive cowrie shell in the sands of Barricane Beach; devoured Mrs. Parker's teas of bread and butter and cream, jam and cake, laid on snow-white cloth upon trestle table; and watched their flat-pebbled ducks and drakes skip more or less successfully across the waters.
They had tramped to Croyde, George Ham, Saunton, and all the other lovely spots, and whistled over the lighthouse wall at Bull Point to be regaled by tea on a tray, handed over by one of the perfectly charming family of Howgego, which comprises the lighthouse keeper, his wife, and his bonny daughter.
All this had been done by stealth.
Creeping about the cottage in stockinged feet at dawn, polishing the high boots before retiring to bed until they shone again; packing the haversack, creeping out of the cottage, vaulting the wall to the left to evade the gate which either jammed or creaked, and away up the steep incline, also to the left, and to wherever love listed.
Upbraidings at night are quite bearable when the heart is aglow, and the future dimmed by present happiness; but upbraidings in the early morning are quite intolerable when the outlook into the future shows a black abyss through the medium of an empty stomach.
She had seized upon every passing moment, wringing the uttermost out of it that she might have something put by with which to fill in the blanks of the drear future, the vacuum where should have been a tumultuously throbbing heart of love, and a pulse of life and passion.
Also did she glean and garner, so as to be tucked in stray corners, memories of a flower in a hedgerow, a boat on the wing, a look in a dog's eyes, and the indescribable smell of a mixture of tobacco, sea air, and leather; and all the other little genuine antique, and ever new odds-and-ends of the collection labelled Love in the heart museum.
Not a word had she said about the wedding.
Cowardly? Yes, indeed! But if a prisoner were given a bottle of champagne to drink just before his death by hanging, it's odds on that instead of merely tasting a few drops he would drink the whole bottle, and go to his doom with the exultant thought of something nice, anyway, having happened to cheer him on his final exit.
She simply radiated love, and allowed neither the frequent upbraidings of her distracted aunt, nor the hourly approach of the fatal day to dim the sunlight of the hour in hand.
"Never you worry," she said one day, when her aunt had waylaid and implored her to have her wedding-dress fitted, "We'll pin it with safety-pins if it doesn't hang right, and as long as I'm at the church door on time, nothing else really matters. And I've given you my word on that."
And she had vaulted the wall and taken a short cut through the golf course until she had come up behind the man who loved her; and he, reading the trouble in her strange eyes, had drawn her hands to his heart and held them tight.
How often had they stood in the shade of the fir trees in the heat of the day, with the intoxicating smell of the pines in their nostrils, and the soothing sound of the humming of many bees in their ears.
They had stood so still, so close, and so very much alone.
Oh! he loved her and her ways!
Loved the rarity of her beauty, and the vitality of her body, loved the extreme care she took not to allow her fingers to touch his when passing a cup or a hefty sandwich.
Revelled in the surge of colour which swept her face when sometimes he caught and steadied her on a rock; and the way in which, when sitting on the sand, she would suddenly scrunch up her knees with her arms for no apparent reason, and bury her scarlet mouth, and the eyes which betrayed her, in the rough tweed of her skirt.
He exulted in the little half-catch of her breath, the little happy laugh, the extra polish he knew she put on her boots just for his sake; and, above all, that perfect sense of virgin woman which emanated from her, allied to the promise of a passion which most inhabitants of a northern clime would have utterly misconstrued and misunderstood.
Yes! He revelled and he exulted in every minute of every hour spent with her; blinded with love, led astray by the thought of months ahead in which he felt that Fate surely would find a way out for them, he let the time slip by, up to the moment when Leonie said good-bye quite gravely, shaking her head without a smile at the usual invitation to meet on the morrow.
"Working spells Upon a mind o'erwrought!"—Thomas Hardy.
Secure in the solitude of her last few hours of freedom; oblivious of the fact that her aunt, enraged and alarmed at the unseemly and most untimely absence of the morrow's bride, was idiotically wringing her hands as she ran up and down in front of the cottage; worn out and weary with despair, Leonie, in her bathing dress, had gone to sleep with the full moon shining down upon the small, pale face, full of shadows.
Jan Cuxson, uneasy at the girl's curt refusal to meet him during the last twenty-four hours, had started to walk to Woolacombe from Ilfracombe where he had spent a wretched, restless, futile day.
He had tramped through the sleeping village of Lee without a look at the historic cottage once inhabited by the Three Old Maids, and along to the other little cottage on the sea front where the absence of light in Leonie's room caused him to guess that she was abroad. He passed as quietly and quickly as possible, having determined to avoid the place for fear of meeting the aunt, or old Hickle, and losing his self-control.
As long as you know exactly where to lay your hand on them you don't worry overmuch about your gold cigarette case, or your favourite pipe, or the diamond brooch you pin haphazard into your laces; but mislay them for a moment and see what a turmoil of inquietude you will be in!
Never doubting the honesty of his beloved, tricked as it were by her happy, care-free attitude, the man had drifted contentedly in the sun of love, and the month of June; but to-night a bank of clouds was rising to meet the moon half-way upon her celestial journey, and the winds of doubt and uneasiness were lifting the corners of that warm, comforting mantle of serenity which we seldom have a chance to take down from its peg in the wardrobe of life.
Yesterday she had left him with a flat refusal to meet him, and her eyes had been like the eyes of the dead, and her hands had been like ice, and her voice had been most uncompromisingly final.
All day he had argued with himself, surmised and made excuses, sunned himself in the cove at Rapparree, assuring himself stubbornly that everything was quite all right; and at last, dinnerless, desperate, and afraid, had started off hot foot to find her; intending to crush the resistance out of her with the outpourings of his love, and force her to risk everything for the sake of a life-long happiness.
It was just about one o'clock when he scrunched past the rusty old wreck and clambered up and over the rocks and through the opening to the second cove; and his heart leapt as he steadied himself when his eyes found that which they had eagerly sought; then missed a beat as, for some unknown reason, he stood stock still, and drew back into the shadows.
Leonie was standing knee deep in a pool.
The saw-edged rocks rose behind her, shining like steel in the moonlight; great strands of seaweed swirled about her, for all the world like snakes, weaving in and out of the burnished hair which spread itself fanwise on the water about her knees.
Save for the thinnest, finest silk bathing dress which clung to the perfect body, as does the soft fragrant skin to the peach, she was nude, and so unaware of eyes upon her that the man held his breath, fearing she might spy him in the shade.
He knew, as everyone knows, that through the criminal teaching of the girl-child in Europe, she would have had it instilled into her mind as soon as it was capable of understanding, that the slightly draped tout ensemble of her glorious body was something to be thoroughly well ashamed of, though on other occasions, by means of slit skirts and excessive decolletage, she could expose in sections just as much as she liked to the eyes of any alien waiter who hung over her with the sauce, or any chauffeur who helped her into a car.
Her eyes were wide and staring straight in his direction, and that she was asleep he had not the faintest idea.
So clearly was she outlined against the rock that every line of the lovely limbs, every exquisite curve of the beautiful bosom showed as plainly as if she had been standing in the broad light of noon as she stepped out of the pool.
With face upturned, and arms outstretched to the moon, she stood undulating slightly with the exquisite movements of the nautch girl, which has nothing to do with the danse de ventre and other such disgusting muscular exhibitions.
Watch a spider's thread floating in the air at dawn, then you will get some idea of the gentle, supple, alluring movement.
The wind, blowing up before the storm, blew against her hair, and it streamed out in front of her; her arms, twining and twisting, slid in and out of the silky mass until she appeared to have at least four; her exquisite feet seemed to beat upon a human figure which was really nothing but the shadow of the rock behind her, and Jan Cuxson, in the shadows, suddenly smote his forehead as she lifted up her voice and cried:
"Kali! Kali! Kali!"
The word thrice repeated rose softly on the night air, but struck like a hammer upon the ears of the man who, in studying the brain, had found himself often and inextricably entangled in the religions and mysteries of the East.
"My God!" he whispered, "My God, she is asleep and——"
But he never moved as Leonie suddenly showed that she was aware of his presence.
It was not that she saw him, or that she knew him; she was simply aware that a man was watching her.
Not once did the eyelids close over the glaring eyes shining like two green phosphorescent stones; not a sign of recognition showed in her face as she laughed the sweetest little laugh in the world and moved towards him.
Jan Cuxson had travelled pretty widely in the last few years, and had seen almost every kind of dance in the various ports at which he had called, and the towns he had visited in the East, but for absolute voluptuousness, and the portrayal of physical passions, he had never seen anything to compare with this which he watched horror-stricken by the sea.
"What have they done to her? What have they done to her? What spell has been cast? What cruel thing have they done to her?"
Over and over again the questions raced unanswered through his brain.
For at the thrice repeated cry he had understood in a flash that fastidious, pure, innocent Leonie was unconsciously performing the preliminary rites customary to the worship of Kali, the goddess of death, the wife of Siva, the daughter of the Himalayas; which rights might best be described as a prolonged and terrible orgy of every passion known to man.
And well was it for Leonie Hetth that Jan Cuxson was straight and thoroughbred, and that his love was pure, else might it have gone badly with her, bringing her perchance to the door of the madhouse; for there is but a hair's breadth between those who are wakened roughly from the sleep in which they walk, and act, and speak, and those who rave in padded cells.
She held out her beautiful, bare arms in invitation, and as he remained quite motionless, glided ever so swiftly to him, so close that he felt the sweetness of her breath upon his cheek.
"Behold!" she cried softly in perfect Hindustani, "Behold! O my beloved! has the Sweet One! the Gentle One! the most blessed Mother looked with graciousness upon her children! May our lips cling in worship, yea! and our bodies in worship! She looketh with soft eyes upon our love, blessed is she, O! Durga! most terrible, most fierce, most cruel!"
Jan Cuxson hesitated.
If he put his arms about her she might waken at any moment, and then the shame and horror of it all.
If he did not respond might she not hurt herself in her wrath as do those who worship the Black One, and of whom he had heard in his travels in India.
What on earth was he to do?
And where was he to find the strength to resist the overpowering appeal of the sweet passion she offered him.
He loved her, desired her, hungered for the touch of the sweet mouth, and there she stood in her youth, her innocence, her beauty, asking to be held against his heart, touching his hands gently with her finger-tips, desirous of his mouth, his hands, his love.
And even as he hesitated wild anger swept over the beautiful face, making it terrible to behold as she raised it to the moon with a laugh that made the man shudder to his soul, and gasp as she suddenly tore her bathing suit from her and held it towards him in both hands. He unconsciously took it from her, whereupon she shook from head to foot with wild unseemly laughter, and her glorious hair swept about her, hiding her completely from the desperate eyes that watched her.
"Behold, O Parvati! who steppeth lightly upon the mountains! Behold! has he chosen my raiment, therefore shalt thou be pleased! Yea! and even shall there be blood upon it!" 
And swinging her arm she struck it again and again against the rocks until the flesh was torn and the blood streamed, causing the man to move hurriedly with intent to waken the girl he loved, even at the risk of her reason and his ultimate happiness. But he stopped.
Leonie was standing still with uplifted arms, dripping blood upon her face whilst her sweet, clear voice rose sonorously in the Vega hymn known as the Love Spell.
Jan Cuxson had studied Hindustani in preparation for his travels in India, but he frowned as he listened, for he did not understand one syllable.
And then his eyes opened wide in astonishment as he caught the meaning of a word here and there, and "Sanskrit!" he muttered in amazement.
Pulling a piece of pale green seaweed from the rock, she twined it and whispered, "This plant is honey born; with honey we dig thee; forth from honey art thou engendered; do thou make us possessed of honey.
"At the tip of my tongue, honey; at the root of my tongue, honeyedness; mayest thou be altogether in my power, mayest thou come unto my intent.
"Honeyed is my in-stepping, honeyed my forthgoing, with my voice I speak what is honeyed, may I be of honey aspect.
"Than honey am I sweeter, than the honey plant more honeyed; of me, verily shalt thou be fond, as of a honeyed branch.
"About thee with an encompassing sugar-cane have I gone, in order to absence of mutual hatred; that thou mayest be one loving me, that thou mayest be one not going away from me!"
Leonie swayed slightly as the words passed faintly and yet more faintly, like a moan, from her lips; her eyes were closing slowly, very slowly; and she slipped to her knees, her bleeding arms held out towards the man before whom she knelt, as the breeze blew her glistening hair this way and that, exposing for a second, then hiding the glories of the exquisite white figure from the eyes which could not help but see.
Drooping lower and lower she stretched herself, face downwards, upon the sand, closed her eyes as the moon sank suddenly behind a dense mass of clouds, and peacefully went to sleep.
In one of the rites concerning the worship of Kali, women's garments are thrown in a heap, from which men choose indiscriminately. The garment he chooses gives the man a right to the woman who owns it.
"And wilt thou leave me thus That hath given thee my heart?—Say nay! Say nay!"—Sir T. Wyatt.
What in heaven's name was he to do now?
Touch her he would not; let her know that he had seen her in all her unhidden beauty he could not; yet the gurgling and rustling and whispering between the water and the stones told him that the tide was racing in, and that what he intended to do he must do right quickly.
All he wanted to do was to gather her up in his strong arms, and wakening her with kisses carry her to safety.
Safety from the sea, safety from the unknown spell which had been laid upon her, safety from the horrible future; a safety he felt which could only be found within the circumference of his arms folded about her in love.
But instead he looked round for the garments she must have left somewhere, and seeing them, stepped quietly across the widening pools and gathered up the soft, sweet-smelling heap of dainty raiment; clenching his hands tight upon them to prevent himself from burying his face in the perfumed delicate things which he had not the right even to touch.
A little knot of pale pink bebe ribbon came away in his hand, and he twisted it around the seaweed ring she had twined about his finger, then untwisted them both and slipped them into his pocket, and stooped to pick up something which had slipped from the garments and tinkled on the rocks.
"Oh, you beauty!" he said as he held the jewel out in his open hand, and "Oh, you brute!" he said again is the cat's-eye winked cunningly at him with the knowledge of all ages in its lustrous depths.
Then he went back, crushing his flimsy burden to his heart; and placing it upon a rock near the sleeping girl, strode off to the opening of the little connecting cove, where he stood in the shadows and called;
"Leonie! Are you there, Leonie?"
Leonie stirred, settled down again to sleep, and stirred each time the voice rang insistently.
Who knows if love would have brought her back to consciousness and the immediate necessity to rise and clothe herself, and flee for safety?
Anyway, the tide decided and sent a little wave that thoroughly drenched her and brought her to her knees shivering and bewildered.
She glanced round hurriedly and drew her hand across her eyes.
"Funny!" she said as she retreated before a wave which surged over the rocks and swirled up behind her. "But—why—I've nothing on! And my arm!—why, I'm simply cut to bits. And—and oh! I've been dreaming—and how dark it is; there must be a storm coming!"
As she spoke she hurriedly flung herself into her clothes, biting her lips as the lace and ribbons caught in the horrible gash in her arm, and was standing waiting for the water to recede before she jumped, just as a voice as from heaven itself called.
"Leonie! where are you? Leonie, the tide is coming in!"
She did not wait, she jumped clear, stumbling and falling on the other side, ripping her feet until they bled.
Then she got up and ran blindly, impelled by terror pursued by the fear of something far more terrible than death.
"Jan! Jan! help me!"
Without a word he caught her and lifted her, holding her closely.
Never a word he said as they raced through from one cove to the other, neither when the waters buffeted him nor when weeds twined about his feet, and rocks impeded him.
Swiftly he carried her up the slight incline and laid her on the grass, took off his coat, ripped out his shirt sleeve, and tearing it into strips, bound up the bleeding arm.
Then sitting down beside her he leant over sideways and picked her up bodily, clear from the ground into his arms; no mean feat with a toilet jug full of water, let alone with a hefty maiden weighted with grief.
He held her in that heavenly, comforting clasp known and practised by stout old nurses and some mothers, within which you feel that you can defy anything, even to the onslaughts of peevish Fortune.
His left arm was under and round her shoulders, his left hand gently pressed her head against his breast, his right arm was round her just above the knees, and he rocked her gently.
Oh! the heavenly, comforting bliss!
History was repeating itself, for Leonie, with great dry sobs shaking her from head to feet, was snuffling into Jan Cuxson's collar as she had snuffled into his father's years ago.
"Beloved! there is nothing to cry about—nothing! As I am holding you now, so shall I always hold you, and no harm can come to you from ocean, tempest or life. Nothing can hurt you because I love you!"
She lay absolutely still, unconsciously counting the beats of his heart which was thudding heavily against her right shoulder, and waiting for the moment when she would find the strength at last to turn down her "empty glass."
"Leonie! you've got to listen to me now, and I am not going to ask you to decide because Fate has decided for you. And oh! beloved, beloved, thank heaven that there is still time, that you are still free, that heaven instead of hell is waiting for you. Yes! dear heart. Fate has decided!"
He stroked her hair as he looked down into the little face crushed against his shoulder, and shifted her a wee bit that she might rest more comfortably. Leonie closed her eyes and trembled from head to foot as Fate pinched the decision between claw-like thumb and finger so that it was stillborn.
"Dear," continued Jan Cuxson as he gently patted her shoulder with his left hand, "dear, oh! my dear, just as I hold you now, so I shall always hold you. I am going to keep you, marry you, and take you right away to India next week; I'll telegraph that my things are not to be put on board to-morrow. You must have a nervous breakdown to-day, you darling, just to think of that," and his laugh rang out against the sullen stillness of the dawn, "then we will slip away, and get married, and—oh! Leonie, I love you."
Leonie said no word, but from her head to her feet swept a thrill which the man felt from his feet to his head.
He laughed again, laughed as a god might laugh with the world in his hand, and crushed her fiercely to him.
"Beloved! I love you! love you! love you! And you? Tell me you love me! Why, you dare not look me in the face and say no! You love me, dear! You are part of me; you are bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh! Sorrow shall not touch you when you are all mine, your joys shall be my joys! And—beloved, my children shall be your children!"
With a sudden movement Leonie wrenched herself from his arms and on to her feet, whilst a driving cloud surrounded them, and a growl of thunder came over from Lundy Island way.
"Love you!" cried the girl. "Yes! I love you, if that is the right word to describe what it is I have in my heart for you. No! don't touch me! Listen, I would live for you, die for you in love. Pain through you would be joy, joy through you would be heaven."
She clasped her hands to her breast, then threw them out towards him, palm uppermost, in a wonderful gesture of passionate surrender, but her face was terrible to see, with eyes like burned out fires, and great smears of blood across her mouth and cheek.
"All that I have for you and more—oh! much more—but—I—I cannot marry you!"
The glass went down with a little clatter upon the coldest of life's cold marble slabs as Jan Cuxson, grasping the girl's arms, pulled her roughly towards him.
That he had caught the arm right on the lacerated wound he had no idea as he stood looking down into the eyes which were on a level with the top button, of his coat.
"Beloved! beloved! You are tired, distraught! You don't know what you are saying! You are to go straight home and sleep, for hours, then come out refreshed and gloriously happy to meet me where and when you like! And we will fix everything down to the very smallest detail, oh! dear heart, think of it! and this day week we will sail for India!"
"That day is a day of wrath—a day of clouds and thick darkness."—The Bible.
"India!" repeated Leonie, "India!"
She flung round towards the sea, standing on the very edge of the cliff, the violence of the wind against her the only barrier between her and certain death.
"Tell me," she cried, pointing to the heaving, raging mass of waters with a hand above which shone dully a blood-soaked bandage. "Tell me what I did to myself down there just now. I awoke in a different place from which I went to sleep. I had no—I am cut and bruised. Terrible things happen wherever I am—they follow me. I woke one night in a pitch dark room and saw two green eyes staring at me from the wall. They were my eyes—reflected in a looking-glass—mine—they shine at night like a cat's—and there's a voice calling—often. Oh! I tell you I'm haunted, bewitched, cursed!"
"Come to me, beloved."
She turned and went like a child into the outstretched arms, and he, having wet his handkerchief on the mist-damped grass, bent the weary head back against his shoulder, and wiped away the blood-stains from the despairing face.