"The Turfleighs?" he said, with something that was almost a frown; and, seeing it, the countess noticed how stern his face had become.
"Yes. Lady Luce and her father will arrive to-morrow, just in time for the dance. They are staying at a place near here—the Wolfers'. You remember them? They are coming with her, of course."
"Quite a gathering of the clans," he said, as brightly as he could. "It is a long time since Anglemere had such a beau fete. Who is that?" he broke off to inquire. "One of the guests?"
Lady Angleford looked out of the window.
"I am so near-sighted——"
"A tall, thin man, with long hair," he said. "He has just gone round the corner toward the lodge."
"That must be the man who is staying at the south lodge," she said. "His name is Falconer, and he is a musician."
"A musician staying at the south lodge?" said Drake, with surprise. "Ah, yes! I remember hearing the violin, as I passed the other day."
"Yes," said Lady Angleford. "The young fellow the engineers sent down is staying at the lodge with his sister and their friend, this Mr. Falconer. They were to have gone yesterday, when the work was completed; but I thought they had better stay a few days, until after the dance, at any rate, in case anything should go wrong with the electric light. It is such a nuisance if they happen to pop out all of a sudden; and they generally do when there is something on. You don't mind their being here?"
"Why should I? It was a good idea to keep him. I suppose there is to be a resident engineer?"
"Yes; I suppose so. It would not be a bad idea to keep this young fellow, for I'm told that he has done the work very well. I've not seen him or his sister. I hear that she is an extremely pretty girl, and very ladylike, and I meant calling at the lodge and asking if they were comfortable; but I have been so busy."
"I can quite understand that," he said. "I only hope you will not have tired yourself out for to-morrow night."
"I am not easily tired; and I'm tough, though I'm small," she retorted, with her pretty twang. "By the way, speaking of to-morrow night. I wonder whether this Mr. Falconer would come up and play——"
She hesitated, and looked at him doubtfully.
"You think he may be some swell musician?" he said. "Too swell to play for money? It's likely."
"No, it wasn't that; I was thinking that I could scarcely ask him without asking the girl. He's engaged to her, I'm told."
"That's one of those problems which a man is quite unqualified to solve," he said indifferently.
"Well, I'll ask them, and chance it. Oh, here are some of the carriages. Would you like to run away, or will you——"
But he went to the front to meet and greet his guests.
A couple of hours later, while the trio at the lodge were at supper, the servant brought in two notes.
"One for me, and one for you, Mr. Falconer. And from the house! Do you see the coronet on the envelope? I wonder what it is? Perhaps a polite intimation that we are to clear out!" said Nell.
"Or an equally polite request that we will keep off the grass," said Dick. "Do you know how to find out what's in that envelope, Nell?"
"No," she said, holding it up to the light.
"By opening it, my brainless one!"
"Mr. Falconer, you are nearer him than I am; will you oblige me by kicking him? Oh, Dick! It's an invitation to the dance to-morrow—for you and me."
"And for me," said Falconer. "And will I be so very kind as to bring my violin?"
"Very kind of 'em," said Dick. "I should like it very much," as he lifted his tankard, "but there won't be any dancing for me to-morrow night, unless I indulge in a hornpipe in the engine room. I'm going to stick there on guard right away from the beginning to the end of the hop. I should never forgive myself if anything went wrong with those blessed lights. But you and Falconer can go and foot it to your heart's content."
"Quite impossible," said Nell emphatically. "I haven't a dress. So that settles me. Besides, Mrs. Hawksley, the housekeeper, has been kind enough to ask me to go into the gallery and look on, and I accepted gratefully."
"Among the servants?" said Dick, rather dubiously.
"Why not?" said Nell, stoutly. "I don't in the least mind. I shall enjoy looking down—for the first time in my life—upon Mr. Falconer."
Falconer smiled and shook his head.
"I haven't a dress suit, and I can't dance, Miss Lorton; and if I had and could, I shouldn't go without you. But I'd like to go and play. I owe these people a heavy debt for permitting me, through you, to spend the happiest days of my life—yes, I'll go and play. They won't mind my old velvet jacket, I'm sure."
"Quite the correct thing, my boy," said Dick. "You look no end of a musical swell in it; a Paderewski and Sarasati rolled into one. And to tell you the truth, I'm relieved to think you're disposed of; for I was afraid you'd offer to keep me company in the engine room; and the last time you were there you very nearly got mixed up with the engines and turned into sausage meat."
Nell was looking at her envelope.
"Lady Angleford addresses me as Miss 'Norton,'" she said, with a smile. "I wonder if she would know me if she saw me. Very likely not."
"The right honorable the earl arrived this afternoon, I'm told," said Dick. "'I very nearly missed missing him,' as the Irishman said. He'd gone into the house just before I came out. There's to be a fine kick-up to-morrow night. Not sure that I shan't come up to the gallery for a minute or two, after all; only the conviction that the beastly lights will know that I am gone and all go out, will prevent me."
On the following evening Dick and Falconer went up to the house before Nell, Dick wanting to be present at the lighting up, and Falconer being desirous of ascertaining exactly where he "came in" with his violin; and Nell, having donned her best dress, went round to the housekeeper's room. She had found Mrs. Hawksley "partaking" of a cup of tea, in which Nell was easily induced to join, and Mrs. Hawksley chatted in the stately way which thinly hid a wealth of motherly kindness.
"I am so glad you have come, Miss Lorton; for it will be a grand sight, the like of which you have probably not seen, and may not see again."
And Nell nodded, suppressing a smile as she thought of her short sojourn in the world of fashion.
"Some of the dresses, the maids tell me, are magnificent; and the jewels! But, there; none of them can be finer than the Angleford diamonds. I do hope the countess will wear them, though it's doubtful, seeing that her ladyship's still in mourning. You say you've seen the countess, Miss Lorton? A sweet-looking lady. It's quite touching to see her ladyship and his lordship together, she so young, and his aunt, too! You haven't seen the earl yet, have you?"
"No; tell me what he is like, Mrs. Hawksley," said Nell, knowing how delighted the old lady would be to comply.
"Well, Miss Lorton, though I suppose I shouldn't, seeing he kind of belongs to us, I must say that his lordship will be the handsomest and finest gentleman in the room to-night, let who will be coming. Not but what he's changed. It gave me quite a turn—as the maids say," she picked herself up apologetically—"when he came right into this very room, with his hand stretched out, and his 'Well, Mrs. Hawksley, and how are you, after this long time?'"
"Because he was so friendly?" asked Nell innocently.
The old lady drew herself up.
"No, Miss Lorton. The Anglefords were always friendly to their old servants, because they know that we shouldn't take advantage of it and forget our proper places. No, but because he was so changed. He used to be so bright and—and boyish, as one may say, with all respect; but now he's as grave as grave can be—almost stern-looking, so to speak—and there's gray hairs at his temples, and he's a way of looking beyond you in a sad sort of fashion. His lordship's had some trouble, I know. I said so to his man, but he wouldn't say anything. He hasn't been with the earl for some time, and mightn't know——There's the music; and, hark; I can hear them moving into the ballroom. We'd better be going up to the gallery; and I do hope you will enjoy yourself, Miss Lorton."
Nell followed the old lady into the small gallery, where some chairs had been placed for the servants, behind the musicians. She saw Falconer in front, his whole soul absorbed in his business; but he turned his eyes as she entered, and smiled for a moment.
"Can you see?" asked Mrs. Hawksley. "Go a little nearer to the front. Make room for Miss Lorton, please."
Nell shook her head.
"I can see very well," she said, also in a whisper, for she did not want to be seen.
She craned forward and looked down on the brilliant, glittering crowd. The lights of which Dick was so proud dazzled her for a moment or two; but presently her eyes became accustomed to them, and she recognized Lady Angleford, the Wolfers, and others. Lady Angleford was in black satin and lace, and, at Drake's request, had put on the family diamonds.
"You are right, Mrs. Hawksley," said Nell. "They are magnificent. What a lovely scene!"
"I am glad you are pleased, Miss Lorton," responded the old lady, as if she had got up the whole show for Nell's sole benefit. "I am looking for the earl, to point him out to you; but I don't see him. He must be under the gallery at this moment. Ah! yes; here he comes. Now, quick! lean forward. There! that tall gentleman with the fair lady on his arm. Lean forward a little more, and you will see him quite plainly. The lady's in a kind of pale mauve silk——"
Nell leaned forward with all a girl's eager curiosity; then she uttered a faint cry, and drew back. The couple Mrs. Hawksley had pointed out were Drake and Lady Luce. Drake!
"What is the matter? Did any one squeeze you? Did you see his lordship?" asked Mrs. Hawksley.
"No," said Nell, trying to keep her voice steady. "I—I saw that gentleman with the lady in mauve; but——"
Mrs. Hawksley stared at her.
"Well, that is the earl. That is Lord Angleford with Lady Luce Turfleigh on his arm."
Nell sat still—very, very still. The vast room seemed to rise and sway before her like a ship in a heavy sea; the lights danced in a mad whirl; the music roared a chaos of sound in her ears, and a deathly feeling crept over her.
"I will not faint—I will not faint!" she said to herself, clenching her teeth hard, and gripping her dress with her cold hands. "It is a mistake—a mistake. It is not Drake. I thought I saw him the other night; it is thinking, always thinking of him, that makes me fancy any one like him must be he! Yes; it is a mistake."
She closed her eyes for a moment, and when she opened them and found that the room had ceased rocking, and the lights were still, she leaned forward, calling all her courage to her aid, and looked again.
A waltz was in progress, and the rich dresses, the flashing jewels whirled like the colored pieces of a kaleidoscope, and for a moment or two she could not distinguish the members of the glittering crowd; but presently she saw the tall figure again. He was dancing with Lady Luce; they came down toward the gallery end of the room, floating with the exquisite grace of a couple whose steps are in perfect harmony, and Nell saw that she had made no mistake—that it was Drake indeed.
She drew a long breath, and sank back; Mrs. Hawksley leaned toward her.
"Do you feel faint, Miss Lorton? It's very hot up here. Would you like to go down——"
"No, no!" said Nell quickly, almost anxiously. She did not want to go. It was agony to see him dancing with this beautiful woman, whose hair shone like gold, whose grace of form and movement were conspicuous even among so many graceful and beautiful women; but a kind of fascination made Nell feel as if she could not go, as if she must drain her cup of misery to the dregs. "No, no; I am not faint—not now. It is hot, but I am—all right."
She gazed with set face and panic-stricken eyes at the couple, as they floated down the room again. It was Drake, but—how changed! He looked many years older—and his face was stern and grave—sterner and graver and sadder even than when she had first seen it that day the horse had flung him at her feet. It had grown brighter and happier while he had stayed at Shorne Mills—it had been transformed, indeed, for the few short weeks he had been her lover; but the look of content, of joy in life which it wore in her remembrance, had gone again. Had he been ill? she wondered. Where had he been; what had he been doing?
But it did not matter, could not matter to her. He was back in England, and dancing with the woman he loved—with the beautiful Lady Luce, whom he had kissed on the terrace.
"And what do you think of his lordship?" Mrs. Hawksley asked, as if the Right Honorable the Earl of Angleford were her special property. "I wasn't far wrong, was I, Miss Lorton, when I said that he would be the finest, handsomest man in the room?"
"No," said Nell, scarcely knowing what she answered. "That is——" She put her hand to her lips. Even now she had not realized that her Drake and the earl were one and the same man. "Oh, yes; he is handsome, and——" she finished, as the old lady eyed her half indignantly. "But I—I have made a mistake. I mean——What was Lord Angleford called before he succeeded to the title?"
Mrs. Hawksley looked at her rather curiously.
"Why, Lord Selbie, of course," she said. "He ought, being one of the Anglefords, to have been Lord Vernon, Drake Vernon; but his father was a famous statesman, a governor of New South Wales and they made him a viscount. Do you understand?" she asked, proud of her own knowledge of these intricacies of the earl's names and titles.
Poor Nell looked confused. But it did not matter. She had learned enough. Drake Vernon, who had made her love him, and had asked her to be his wife, had been Lord Selbie. Why had he concealed his rank? Why had he deceived her? He had seemed so honest and true, that she would have trusted him with her life as freely as she had given him her love; and all the while——Oh, why had he done it? Was it worth while to masquerade as a mere nobody, to pretend that he was poor? Had he, even from the very first, not intended to marry her? Was he only—amusing himself?
Her face was dyed, with the shame of the thought, for a moment, then the hot flush went and left her pale and wan.
Drake was the Earl of Angleford, and she—she the girl whose heart he had broken, was in his house, looking on at him among his guests! The thought was almost unendurable, and she slowly rose from her chair; then she sat down again, for she was trembling and quite incapable of leaving the gallery.
How long she sat in this state she did not know. The ball went on. She saw Drake—no, the earl—would she never realize it?—dancing frequently. Sometimes he joined the group of dowagers and chaperons on the dais at the other end of the room, or leaned against the wall and talked with the nondancing men; and wherever he went she saw that he was received with that subtle empressement with which the children of Vanity Fair indicate their respect for high rank and wealth.
"You can see how high his lordship stands not only in the county, but everywhere," said Mrs. Hawksley proudly. "They treat him almost as if he were a prince of the blood; and he is the principal gentleman here, though there's some high and mighty ones down there, Miss Lorton, I assure you. That's the Duchess of Cleavemere in that big chair on the dais; and that's her eldest daughter—she'll be as big as the duchess, mark my words—seated beside her; and that's the Marquis of Downfield, that tall gentleman with the white hair. He's a great man, but he can't hold a candle, in appearance, to our earl; and he's a poor man compared with his lordship. And that's Lord Turfleigh, that old gentleman with the very black hair and mustache; dyed, of course, my dear. The 'wicked Lord Turfleigh' they call him—and no wonder. He's the father of Lady Luce. Ah! his lordship's going to dance with her again! Look how pleased her father looks. See, he's nodding and smiling at her; I'll be bound I know what he's thinking of! And I shouldn't be surprised if it came off. Lord Selbie and she used to be engaged, but it was broken off when his lordship's uncle married. The Turfleighs are too poor to risk a marriage without money. But his lordship's the earl now, and, of course——"
Nell understood. It was because the woman he loved had jilted him that Drake had hidden himself from the world at Shorne Mills. That was why he had looked so sad and cast down the day she had first seen him.
"It's a pity your brother doesn't come up," said Mrs. Hawksley, who was standing behind Nell, and could not see the white, strained face. "He'd enjoy the sight, I'm sure. I'm half inclined to send a word to him."
Nell caught her arm. Dick must not come up here and recognize Drake, must not see her white face and trembling lips. If possible, she must leave Anglemere in the morning; must induce Dick to go before he could learn that Drake and Lord Angleford were one and the same.
"My brother would not come," she said. "Please do not send for him. He—the lights——"
Mrs. Hawksley nodded.
"As you think best, my dear," she said. "But it's a pity. Here's the interval now. What is going on in the orchestra?"
Nell looked toward the band, which had ceased playing; but Falconer was softly tuning his violin. About half the dancers had left the room, and those that remained were pacing up and down, talking and laughing, or seated in couples in the alcoves and recesses.
Falconer finished tuning, glanced toward Nell—the gallery was too dimly lit for him to see the pallor of her face—then began to play a solo.
Coming after the dance music, the sonata he had chosen was like a breath of pure, heather-scented air floating in upon the gas-laden atmosphere of the heated room; and at the first strains of the delicious melody the people below stopped talking, and turned their eyes up to the front of the gallery, where the tall, thin form in its worn velvet jacket stood, for that moment, at least, the supreme figure.
Nell, as she listened, felt as if a cool, pitying hand had fallen upon her aching heart; as if a voice of thrilling sweetness were whispering tender consolation. Never loud, but with an insistent force which held the listeners in thrall, sometimes so low that it was but a murmur, the exquisite music stole over the senses of all, awakening tender memories, reviving scattered hopes, softening, for the short space it held its sway, world-hardened hearts.
The tears gathered in Nell's eyes, bringing her infinite relief; but she could see through her tears that the great hall was filling with the hasty return of those who had been within hearing of the music, and when it ceased there rose a burst of applause, led by the earl himself.
"How very beautiful!" exclaimed the duchess, who was on his arm. "The man must be a genius. Where did you find him, Lord Angleford?"
Drake did not reply for a moment, as if he had not heard her. The music had moved him more deeply, perhaps, than it had moved any other. His face was set, his brows knit, and his head drooped as if weighed down by some memory. He had been so occupied by his duties as host that he had forgotten the past for that hour or two, at any rate; but at the first strains of the music Nell came back to him. It was the swell of the tide against the Annie Laurie; it was Nell's voice itself which he heard through the melody of the famous sonata. He listened with an aching longing for those past weeks of pure and perfect love, with a loathing for the empty, desolate present. "Nell! Nell!" his heart seemed to cry.
"I beg your pardon," he said. "I did not find him. He is here by chance."
"He must be a very great musician," said the duchess enthusiastically. "What is his name?"
"Falconer," replied Drake. "He's staying at one of the lodges."
"He played superbly. Do you think I could persuade him to come on to the court for the ninth? I wish you'd ask him. But surely he is going to play again?" she added eagerly.
"I will ask him," said Drake.
"Yes, do, Drake," murmured Lady Luce, who had reentered the room and glided near him. The divine music had not touched her in the least; indeed, she had thought the solo rather out of place at a dance—quite too sad and depressing; but as she seconded the duchess' request, her blue eyes seemed dim with tears, and her lips tremulous. "It was so very beautiful! I am half crying!" and the perfectly shaped lips pouted piteously.
Drake nodded, led the duchess to a chair, and went slowly up the room toward the gallery stairs.
Nell, who had been watching him in a dull, vacant way, lost him for a moment or two; then she heard his voice near her, and saw him dimly standing in the gallery doorway.
She stifled a cry, and shrank back behind Mrs. Hawksley, so that the stout form of the old lady completely hid her.
"Mr. Falconer?" she heard the deep voice say gravely.
Falconer bowed, his violin under his arm, his pale, thin face perfectly composed. His music was still ringing in his ears, vibrating in his soul, too great to be stirred by the applause which had again broken out.
"I have come to thank you for the sonata, Mr. Falconer, and to ask you to be so kind as to play again," said Drake, in the simple, impassive manner of the Englishman.
"I shall be very pleased, my lord," said Falconer quietly; and he placed his violin in position.
Drake looked absently round the gallery. It was only dimly lit by the candles in the music stands, and the servants had respectfully drawn back, so that Nell was still hidden; but she trembled with the fear that those in front of her might move, and that he might see her; for she knew how keen those eyes of his could be.
Drake felt that the dim light was a pleasant contrast to the brilliance of the room below, and he lingered, leaning against the wall, his arms folded, his head drooped. He was so near Nell that she could almost have touched him—so near that she almost dreaded that he must hear the wild throbbings of her heart. Once, as the violin wailed out a passionate, despairing, yet exquisitely sweet passage of the Raff cavatina Falconer was playing, she heard Drake sigh.
The cavatina came to an end, the last notes—those wonderful notes!—floating lingeringly like a human voice, and yet more exquisite than any human voice. Falconer lowered his violin, the applause broke out again as vehemently and enthusiastically as if the crowd below were at an ordinary concert, and Drake made his way to the player. As he did so, he stumbled over a violin case, the servants with a little cry—for the stumble of an Earl of Angleford is a matter of importance—moved apart, and Drake, putting out his hand as he recovered himself, touched Mrs. Hawksley's arm.
"I beg your pardon," he said. "Ah! is it you, Mrs. Hawksley? You are so pleasantly dark up here."
His eyes wandered from her face to that of the girl who had been shrinking behind her, and he paused, as if smitten by some sudden thought or memory. But Nell rose quickly and hid herself in the group, and Drake went on to Falconer.
"Thank you again," he said. "I have never heard the cavatina—it was it, wasn't it?—better played. I am the bearer of a message from the Duchess of Cleavemere, Mr. Falconer. If you are not engaged, the duchess would be very glad if you could play for her at Cleavemere Court on the ninth of next month. I ask you at once and so unceremoniously, because her grace is anxious to know. The ninth."
"May I consider, my lord?" he began hesitatingly.
"Why, certainly," said Drake, in the frank, pleasant fashion which Nell knew so well. "Will you send me word? Thanks. That is a fine violin you have."
"It was my father's," said Falconer simply, and unconsciously pressing the instrument closer to him, as if it were a living thing, a well-beloved child.
He had often sold, pawned his belongings for bread, and as often had forgotten his cold and hunger because his precious violin had remained in his possession; that he had never pawned.
Drake nodded, as if he understood; then he looked round.
"Isn't there some supper going, Mrs. Hawksley?" he said pleasantly.
The old lady curtsied in stately fashion.
"Yes, my lord."
"Then it's high time Mr. Falconer—and the rest of us—were at it," he said; and, with a smile and a nod, he left the gallery.
He would have taken Falconer with him to the supper in the banquet room below, but he knew that, though none of the men or women there would have remarked, or cared about, the old velvet jacket, the musician would be conscious of it, and be embarrassed by it.
While Drake had been absent, Lady Luce had stood, apparently listening with profound attention and sympathy, but the movement of her fan almost gave her away, for it grew rapid now and again, and when Lord Turfleigh came up beside her, his hawklike eyes glancing sharply, like those of a bird of prey, from their fat rims, she shot an angry and unfilial glance at him.
"Where's Drake?" he asked, lowering his thick voice.
"Up there in that gallery somewhere; gone to pay compliments to that fiddler fellow who is playing now."
"Gad!" said his lordship, with a stare of contempt at the rapt audience. "What the devil does he want with the 'Dead March in Saul,' or whatever it is, in the middle of a dance. Always thought he was mad! Has he spoken, said anything?"
He lowered his voice still more, and eyed her eagerly.
She shook her head slightly by way of answer, and the coarse face reddened.
"Curse me, if I can understand it—or you," he said, his hand tugging at his dyed mustache. "You told me, God knows how long ago, that he was 'on' again; then he bolts—disappears."
"Do you want all these people to hear you?" she asked, her eyes hidden by her slowly moving fan.
Her father had been several times to the refreshment buffet, and had "lowered"—as he would have put it—the best part of a bottle of champagne, and was a little off the guard which he usually maintained so carefully.
"They can't hear. I'm not shouting. And you always evade me. You're not behaving well, Luce. Dash it all! I've reason to be anxious! This match means a good deal to me in the present state of our finances!"
"Hush!" she whispered warningly. "I can't explain now. I don't understand it myself; but I've seen enough to know that I should only lose him altogether if I tried to force him. You know him, or ought to do so! Did you ever get anything from Drake by driving him? He had no opportunity of speaking, of explaining."
"By gad! I don't understand it!" he muttered. "Either you're engaged to him or you're not. You led me to believe that the match was on again——"
The fan closed with a snap, and her blue eyes flashed at him with bitter scorn.
"Hadn't you better leave me to play the game?" she asked. "Or perhaps you think you can play it better than I can? If so——The man has stopped; Drake will be down again. I don't want him to see us talking. Go—and get some more champagne."
Lord Turfleigh swore behind the hand that still fumbled at his mustache, and walked away with the jerky, jaunty gait of the old man who still affects youth, and Lady Luce composed her lovely face into a look of emotional ecstacy.
"Oh, how beautiful, Drake!" she said. "Do you know that I have been very nearly crying? And yet it was so sweet, so—so soothing! Who is he? And what are we going to do now?" she asked, without waiting for an answer to her first question, about which she was more than indifferent.
Drake looked round for the duchess.
"I must take the duchess in to supper," he said apologetically. "I will find some one for you—or perhaps you will wait until I will come for you?"
"I will wait, of course," she said, with a tender emphasis on the "of course."
Those who had been listening followed Drake and the duchess to the supper room, talking of the wonderful violin playing as they went; and Lady Luce seated herself in a recess and waited. Several men came to her and offered to take her to supper, but she made some excuse for refusing, and presently Drake returned.
She rose and took his arm, and glanced up at him, not for the first time that evening, curiously. The easy-going, indolent Drake of old seemed to have disappeared, and left in his place this grave and almost stern-mannered man. She had always been just a little afraid of him, with the fear which is always felt by the false and shifty in the presence of the true and strong; and to-night she was painfully conscious of that vague and wholesome dread.
He found a place for her at a small table, and a footman brought them things to eat and drink; but though she affected a blythe and joyous mood, tapping her satin-clad foot to the music which had begun again, she was too excited, too anxious, to enjoy the costly delicacies before her.
"I have so much to tell you, Drake!" she said, in a low voice, after one or two remarks about the ball and its success. "It seems years, ages, since I saw you! Why—why did you go away for so long, Drake? And why did you not write to me?"
He looked at her with his grave eyes, and her own fell.
"I wrote to no one; I was never much of a hand at letter writing," he said.
"But to me, Drake!" she whispered, with a pout. "I wanted to hear from you so badly! Just a line that would have given me an excuse for writing to you and telling you—explaining——"
He did not smile. He was not the man to remind a woman of her falseness, but something in his eyes made her falter and lower her own.
"I went away because I was tired of England," he said. "I came back because—well, because I was obliged."
"But you won't go away again?" she said, with genuine dismay in her voice and face. "I—I feel as if, as if it were my fault; as if—ah, Drake, have you not really forgiven me?"
Her eyes filled with tears, as genuine as her dismay—for think of the greatness of the prize for which she was playing—and Drake's heart was touched with a pity which was not wholly free from contempt.
"There shall be no such word as forgiveness between us, Luce," he said gravely. She caught at this, though it was but a straw, and her hand, from which she had taken her glove, stole over to his, and her eyes sought his appealingly.
But before he could take her hand—if he had intended doing so—Lady Angleford came up to them.
"Drake, they want you to lead the cotillon," she said.
He rose, but stood beside Luce.
"Directly Lady Luce has finished her supper, countess. Please don't hurry."
But Lady Luce sprang up at once.
"I have finished long ago; I was not hungry."
"Come, then," he said, and he offered her his arm, "Will you dance it with me?"
Her heart leaped.
"Yes. It will not be for the first time—Drake!" and as she entered the room with him, her heart thrilled with hope, and her blue eyes sparkled with a triumph which none could fail to notice.
Certainly not poor Nell, who still remained in her dim corner in the gallery. Mrs. Hawksley had begged her to come down to the supper which had been laid for her and her brother and Falconer; but Nell, who felt that it would be impossible to make even a pretense of eating or drinking, had begged them to excuse her; and when they had gone and the gallery was empty, she leaned her head against the wall and closed her eyes; for she was well-nigh exhausted by the conflicting emotions which racked her. She longed to go, to leave the place, to escape from the risk of Drake's presence; but she could not leave the house alone, and to go from the gallery and absent herself for the rest of the evening might attract notice and comment.
Was it possible that Drake had been near her, so near as to almost have touched her? She trembled—and thrilled—at the thought; then crimsoned with shame for the sinful thrill of joy and happiness which his nearness had caused her.
What was he to her now? Nothing, nothing! She had yielded him up to the beautiful woman he had loved before he saw her, Nell; and it was shameful and unwomanly that she should feel a joy in his proximity.
Falconer came up before the rest of the orchestra, and brought a glass of wine and a biscuit for her.
"I am afraid you have a headache, the lights and the music—they are so near; and it is hot up here. Will you drink some of this, Miss Lorton?"
His voice was low and tender, though he strove to give it a conventional touch and merely friendly tone.
"Thank you, yes," said Nell gratefully. "How good of you to think of me! How magnificently you played! I can't tell you how happy your success has made me! And such a success! I was as proud as if it were I who was playing; and I was prouder still when I saw how quietly you took it. Ah, you felt that it was just your due. I suppose genius always takes the crowd's applause calmly."
His face flushed, and his dark eyes glowed.
"There is some applause I, at any rate—who am no genius, however—cannot take calmly," he said. "I would rather have those words of approval from you than the shouting and clapping of a multitude. Yes, it made me happy; but I am happier now than words can express."
If Nell had looked up into the eyes bent on hers, she must have read his secret in them; but the band had begun to play, and at that moment Drake was leading Lady Luce to her place for the cotillon, and Nell's eyes were drawn, riveted to the fair face, the blue eyes shining triumphantly; and she forgot not only Falconer's presence, but his existence.
As he saw that she did not heed him, the color died out from his face, and the light from his eyes, and, with a sigh, he left her and went back to his place in the orchestra.
The dance proceeded through all its graceful and intricate evolutions, and even to the spectators in the gallery it was evident that Lady Luce had stepped into the position of the belle of the ball. The excitement of hope and fear, the gratification of vanity which sprang from her consciousness that she was occupying the most prominent place as the earl's partner, had given to her face the touch of warmth it needed to make its beauty well-nigh perfect. Her lips were parted with a smile, the blue eyes—ordinarily a trifle cold—were glowing, and the diamonds sparkled fiercely on her heaving bosom.
Nell could not remove her eyes from her, but sat like a bird held by the fascination of the serpent. She was blind to all else but those two—the man she loved, the woman to whom she had surrendered him.
The time passed unheeded by her, and Falconer's voice sounded miles away as he bent over her.
"Dick has sent up to say that we can go," he said. "There's no fear of the lights now; indeed, the ball is nearly over. This is the last dance."
Nell rose stiffly and wearily.
"I—I am glad," she said.
"You are tired, very tired," he said. "Will you let me give you my arm?"
He felt her hand tremble as she put it on his arm, and he looked down at her anxiously.
"I wish I had taken you out of this before," he said remorsefully. "I have spoken to you—asked you—once or twice; but—but you did not seem to hear me. It is my fault. I ought to have insisted upon your going."
"No, no!" said Nell. "It is nothing. I am a little tired, and——Is it late?"
"Yes," he said. "Most of the people are leaving. It has been a great success. Is this the way?"
They had gone down the stairs leading to the lower hall, but here Falconer hesitated doubtfully. This second hall led into the larger one, through which the guests were passing.
Nell caught a glimpse of them, and shrank back.
"Not there," she said warningly. "There must be a door——"
"Ah, here it is!" he said; and he led her through an opening between portiere curtains. They found themselves in a small conservatory, and Falconer again stopped.
"It is very stupid!" he said apologetically.
"There may be an opening to the terrace," said Nell nervously; "once we are outside——"
"Here we are, out in the open air."
Nell drew a long breath, and pushed the hair from her forehead.
"We must go down these steps, and then to the right. I remember——"
They crossed the terrace, when two or three persons came out through a window behind them. They were talking, and Nell heard a voice which made her wince, and her hand grip Falconer's arm convulsively; for the voice was Drake's.
"They have a fine night to go home in," he was saying. "Not much of a moon, but better than none."
Nell stopped and looked despairingly at the patch of light which the window threw right across their path to the steps.
"Come quickly," said Falconer, in a low voice.
"No, no; we shall be seen!" she implored, in an agitated whisper.
But Falconer deemed it best to go on, and did so.
As they moved, Drake saw them, but indistinctly.
"Good-night, once more!" he called out, in the tone of a host speeding parting guests.
Falconer raised his soft felt hat.
"Good-night, my lord," he responded. At the same moment they stepped into the stream of light. Drake had been on the point of turning away, but as he recognized Falconer's voice and figure, he stopped and took a step toward them. Then, as suddenly, he stopped again, gazing after them as a man who gazes at a vision of the fancy.
"Who—who is that?" he demanded, almost fiercely.
Lady Luce was just behind him.
"That was the man who played the violin," she said. "Didn't you recognize him? How romantic he looks! Quite the idea of a musician."
Drake put his hand to his brow and stood still, looking after the two figures, now disappearing in the darkness, made more intense by the contrasting streaks of light from the windows.
"My God! How like!" he muttered, taking a step or two forward unconsciously.
But Lady Luce's voice aroused him from the half stupor into which he had fallen, and he turned back to her.
"I must be mad or dreaming!" he muttered. "What folly! And yet how like—how like!"
"Why, what is the matter, Drake?" asked Lady Luce, laying her hand on his arm, and looking up at him anxiously. "You are quite pale. You look"—she laughed—"as if you had seen a ghost!"
He smiled grimly. She had described his feelings exactly. In the resemblance of the girl, whoever she was, on the violinist's arm, he had in very truth seen the ghost of Nell of Shorne Mills.
Nell hurried Falconer along, but presently was forced to stop to regain her breath. Her heart was beating so wildly that she had to fight against the sensation of suffocation which threatened to overcome her.
"Let us wait a minute," said Falconer gently. "You are nervous, overtired. We will wait here."
But Nell had got her breath again by this time.
"No, no!" she said, almost vehemently. "Let us go. I know the way——"
"Dick will be waiting for us at the door of the east wing," he said. "If you can find that——"
"I know," she said quickly. "That is it on our left. But—but I do not want to see any one."
"All the guests are leaving by the front of the house; we are not likely to meet any one."
He was somewhat surprised at her agitation, and her evident desire to leave the place unseen; for Nell was usually so perfectly self-possessed and free from nervousness or gaucherie.
She drew him to the side park under the shadow of the wing, in which few of the windows were lighted, and as they waited she gradually recovered herself.
"There is Dick," said Falconer presently. "He is waiting for us by that window."
Nell looked in the direction he indicated.
"Is that Dick?" she said, peering at the figure. "It is so dark I can scarcely see. I don't think it is Dick. If it is, why is he looking in at the window?"
"He may be talking to some one inside," said Falconer. "I'll call him. Dick!"
As he called, the figure half turned, then swung round away from them, and with lowered head moved quickly away from the window, and passed into the darkness of the shrubbery.
"How strange!" said Falconer; and he felt puzzled. Why should Dick start at the sound of his name, and make off into the darkness?
Falconer bit his lip. It was just possible that Dick, who was young, and also particularly good-looking, was carrying on a flirtation with some one in the house. If so, the explanation of his sudden flight was natural enough.
"Why did he run away? Where has he gone?" said Nell. "You were wrong. It was not Dick."
"Very likely," assented Falconer. "It was so dark——Yes, I was wrong, for there he stands by the door," he broke off, as, coming round the corner, they saw Dick, who was engaged in lighting his pipe.
"Hallo! here you are, at last," he said, cheerfully. "Couldn't tear yourselves away from the festive scene? By George! if you'd spent the night in an engine room, you'd be glad enough to cut it."
"Poor Dick!" said Nell.
"Oh, I haven't had such a bad time," he said. "They brought me a ripping supper, and a special dish with the chef's compliments. I don't know where the chef's going when he leaves this terrestrial sphere; but, wherever it is, it's good enough for me. Well, Nellikins, enjoyed yourself?"
Nell forced a smile.
"Very much," she replied. "It—it was a great success."
"So I hear," said Dick. "But you seem to have taken the cake to-night, old man. They told me that you created a perfect furore, whatever that is. Anyway, Mrs. Hawksley and the rest came down with the most exciting account of your triumph. Seriously, Falconer, I congratulate you. I won't say that I prophesied your success long ago, because that's a cheap kind of thing to say; but I always did believe you'd hit the bull's-eye the first time you got a chance; and you've done it."
"I think they were pleased," said Falconer.
"His lordship and the rest of the swells ought to be very much obliged," remarked Dick. "You've given eclat to his dance. Observe the French again? There is no extra charge."
"His lordship was extremely kind," said Falconer, "and his thanks more than repaid me for my poor efforts. I don't wonder at his popularity. I've always heard that the higher the rank the simpler the manners; and Lord Angleford is an instance of it. My acquaintance with the nobility is extremely limited——"
"Ditto here," said Dick. "Though the young lady on your arm has lived in marble halls, and hobnobbed with belted earls and lords of high degree. But I'm glad to hear that this one is affable."
"Affable is the wrong word; it means condescension, doesn't it? And Lord Angleford was anything but condescending. He might have known me for years, if one judged by the tone of his voice and manner; and, as I said, I'm more than repaid."
"Well, I'm glad to hear he made a favorable impression on you," Dick said. "I haven't had the pleasure of making his acquaintance yet; but I shall probably see him before I go. But your success doesn't end here, Falconer. I'm told that you are going to play at Cleavemere Court. By George! if you knock them there as you did here—which, of course, you will do—your fortune's made. The duchess has no end of influence, and you'll be paragraphed in the papers, and get engagements at the houses of other swells, and before we know where we are, we shall see 'Senor Falconer's Recitals at St. James' Hall,' advertised on the front page of the Times. And serve you right, old man, for if ever a man deserved good luck, it is you. Eh, Nell?"
"Yes, yes," said Nell.
"And did you see his lordship, our all-puissant earl, my child?"
"Yes," she said, beginning to tremble—but, indeed, she had been trembling all through the conversation. How should she be able to get away from the house—the place which belonged to Drake? "Yes, I saw him. Dick, did a man—a man with a slight figure something like yours—pass you just before we came up?"
"No," he said.
"Are you sure? He must have passed by you."
"A figure like mine, did you say? Yes; I'm quite sure he didn't. I have too keen an eye for grace of form to let such a figure pass unnoticed."
"It may have been a servant or one of the guests," Falconer said.
"Oh, draw it mild!" remonstrated Dick. "Do I look like a flunkey or a groom? What is it you think you have seen?"
"A man was standing looking in at one of the windows of the inner side of the wing," said Nell. "We thought it was you; but, when Mr. Falconer called, the man, whoever he was, turned and walked into the shrubbery."
"A 'particular friend' of one of the maids, I dare say," remarked Dick easily. "And I've no doubt you have broken up a very enjoyable spooning. Now, would you like——Now what is it?"
For Nell had stopped short, and had seized his arm.
"There!" she exclaimed, in a whisper. "There he is again—that is the man!"
They had come to the lodge by this time, and Nell was gazing rather nervously toward the big gates.
"Where?" asked Dick. "I can see no one. Nell, you have had too much champagne. You'll be seeing snakes presently if you don't mind. Where is he?"
Nell laughed, but a little shakily.
"He has gone, of course. He went quickly through the gate."
"And why shouldn't he?" said Dick, with a yawn. "Oh, Falconer! when I think of the cool tankard into which I shall presently plunge my beak——What's come to you, Nell? It isn't like you to 'get the nerves.'"
The man whom Nell and Falconer had mistaken for Dick passed through the lodge gates, and, turning to the right, walked quickly, but not hurriedly, beside the high park fencing, and presently came up with a dogcart which was being walked slowly along the road.
The cart was a very shabby one, but the horse was a very good one, and looked as if it could stretch itself if it were required to do so. In the cart was a young man in clerical attire. He looked like a curate, and his voice had the regulation drawl as he leaned down and asked:
The man addressed as Ted shook his head.
"The girl was right," he said, with an air of disappointment. "She's got 'em all on."
"Then it's no use trying it to-night," said the curate. "Perhaps a little later? It must be darkish for some time."
Ted shook his head again.
"No use! Too risky. It will be hours before they all go to bed and the house is quiet; the servants always keep it up after a big affair like this; some of 'em won't go to bed at all, perhaps. Besides, I was spotted just now."
The Parson, as he was called by the burgling fraternity, of which he and Ted were distinguished members, swore under his breath.
"How was that?" he asked.
"I was looking in at one of the windows of the servants' quarters, getting a word or two with the girl, when a couple of the swells came along. They saw me, and mistook me for some one by the name of Dick, and called to me. I walked off as quickly as I could, and I swear they didn't see my face, neither then nor just now, when, as luck would have it, they caught sight of me going out of the gates. They went into the lodge with the young fellow they'd mistaken me for."
The Parson swore again.
"What's to be done? Did you see the things?"
Ted nodded emphatically.
"Yes! They're the best swag I've ever seen. There's a fortune in them; and, if we had any luck, we might get a few more in addition."
"They'll be in the bank to-morrow," said the Parson gloomily. "These swells know how to take care of their jewelry, especially when they're family diamonds like these. We've lost our chance for the present, Ted. Jump up."
But Ted shook his head.
"Not yet. The girl promised to meet me if she could, and I reckon she'll try to." He smiled and smoothed his mustache. "You drive on slowly and wait for me at the turn of the road. I'll come to you, say, in a quarter of an hour."
The dogcart went on, and Ted followed until he came to a small gate in the park fencing, and, opening this, he stood just inside it. His hand went to his pocket for his pipe, but, with the smoker's sigh, he dropped it back again, for he could not risk striking a match.
After he had been waiting there for a few minutes he heard footsteps and the rustle of a skirt among the undergrowth, and presently a woman stole out from the darkness, and, running up to the man, clutched his arm, panting and trembling with fear and excitement.
Now, when Lord and Lady Wolfer had started for the Continent, on the day of what may be called their reconciliation, Burden, her maid, had refused to go. She was a bad sailor, and hated what she called "foreign parts"; and she begged her mistress to leave her behind. Lady Wolfer, full of sympathy in her newly found happiness, had not only let the girl off, but had made her a handsome present, and given her an excellent written character.
Burden took a holiday, and went home to her people, who kept what is called a "sporting public" in the east of London.
Sport, like charity, is made to cover a lot of sins; and Burden, while assisting in the bar of the pub, made the acquaintance of several persons who were desirable neither in the matter of morals nor manners.
One of these was a good-looking young fellow who went by the name of Ted. He was supposed to be a watchmaker and jeweler by trade—a working jeweler—but he spent most of his time at the public which Burden now adorned, and though he certainly did not carry on his trade there, always appeared to have as much money as leisure.
Cupid, who seems to be indifferent to his surroundings, hovered about the smoky and beery regions of the Blue Pig, and very soon worked mischief between Burden and Ted.
He was pleasant spoken as well as good-looking, and had a free-and-easy way, was always ready with an order for the play or one of the music halls, and—in short, Burden fell in love with him. But when he asked her to marry him, Burden, who was a respectable girl, and, as Lady Wolfer's maid, had held a good position for one of her class, began to make inquiries.
She did not go on with them, but she learned enough to rouse her suspicions.
The jewelry business evidently served as a blind for less honest pursuits. She took alarm, and, like a sensible girl, fled the paternal pub and sought a fresh situation.
As chance—there is no such thing, of course—would have it, Lady Luce was changing maids at this time.
Burden, armed with her most excellent and fully deserved "character," applied for and obtained the situation.
She ought to have been thankful for her escape, and happy and contented in a service which, though very different from that of Lady Wolfer's, was good enough. But Burden had lost her heart; and when one has lost one's heart, happiness is impossible.
She longed for a sight, just a sight, of her good-looking Ted; and one day, while the Turfleighs were stopping at Brighton, her heart's desire was gratified.
She saw her handsome Ted on the pier. He was, if anything, handsomer than ever, was beautifully dressed—quite the gentleman, in fact, and though Burden had fully intended to just bow and pass on, she stopped and talked to him. Cupid slipped round her the chains from which she had so nearly freed herself, and——The woman who goes back to a man is indeed completely lost.
They met every day; but alas, alas! Ted no longer spoke of marriage; and his influence over the woman who loved him unwisely and too well, grew in proportion to her devotion and helplessness.
She soon learned that the man to whom she had given herself was a criminal, one of a skillful gang of burglars. But it was too late to draw back; too late even to refuse to help him.
It was Burden who clung to the man in hiding behind the park gate.
"What made you hurry so, old girl?" he said soothingly, and putting his arm round her. "What's your fear?"
"Oh, Ted, Ted!" she gasped. "It's so dark——"
"All the better," he said coolly. "Less chance of any one seeing you."
"But some one saw you as you were standing by the window. It was Miss Lorton—they called out—they may have suspicions."
"Don't you worry," he said. "They only thought it was some one after one of the girls. And it was the truth, wasn't it? What a frightened little thing it is! You'd be scared by your own shadow!"
"I am! I am, Ted!" said the unhappy girl. "I start at the slightest noise; and I'm so—so nervous, that I expect Lady Lucille to send me away every day."
The man frowned.
"She mustn't do that," he said, half angrily. "I can't have that; it would be precious awkward just now! That would spoil all our plans."
"I know! I know!" she moaned. "Oh, if you'd only give it up! Give it up this time, only this one time to please me, Ted, dear."
He shook his head.
"I'd do anything to please you, but I'm not alone in this plant, you know; there's others; and I can't go back on my pals; so you mustn't go back on me."
He spoke in the tone which the man who has the woman in his power can use so effectually; then his voice grew softer, and he stroked her cheek gently.
"And think of what this means if we pull this off, Fan! No more dodging and hiding, no more risks of chokee and a 'life' for me, and no more slaving and lady's-maiding for you! We'll be off together to some foreign clime, as the poet calls it; and, with plenty of the ready, I fancy you'll cut a dash as Mrs. Ted."
It was the one bait which he knew would be irresistible. She caught her breath, and, pressing closer to him, looked up into his eyes eagerly.
"You mean it, Ted? You won't deceive me again? You'll keep your word?"
"Honor bright!" he responded. "Why shouldn't I? You know I'm fond of you. I'd have married you months ago if I'd struck a piece of luck like this; but what was the use of marrying when I had to—work, and there was the chance of my being collared any day of the week? No! But I promise you that if we pull this off, I am going to settle down; I shall be glad enough to do it. We'll have a little cottage, or a flat on the Continong, eh, Fan? Is the countess going to send the diamonds back to the bank to-morrow?"
He put the question abruptly, but in a low and impressive voice.
Burden shook her head.
"No," she replied reluctantly. "I—I asked her maid; they were talking about them just before I came out. Everybody was talking about them at the ball, and her ladyship's maid gives herself airs on account of them."
"Gases about them? Very natural. And she says?"
"There's a dinner party the night after next, and the countess thought it wasn't worth while sending them to the bank for one day. She's going to keep them in the safe in her room."
Ted's eyes glistened, and he nodded.
"Who keeps the key of the safe, Fan?" he asked; and though they were far from any chance of listeners, his voice dropped to a whisper.
"The countess," replied Burden, still reluctantly.
"I must have that key, Fan. Yes, yes! Remember what we are playing for, you and me! You get that key and put it in the corner of the windowsill where I was standing to-night."
"No, no!" she panted. His arm loosened, and he looked down at her coldly.
"You mean that you won't? Very well, then. But look here, my girl, we mean having these diamonds, with or without your help. You can't prevent us, for I don't suppose you'd be low enough to split and send me to penal servitude——"
"Ted! Ted!" she wailed, and put her arms round him.
He smiled to himself over her bowed head.
"What's the best time? While they're at dinner?"
She made a sign in the negative.
"No," she whispered, setting her teeth, as if every word were dragged from her. "No; the maid will be in the room putting the countess' things away; afterward—while they are in the drawing-room."
He bent and kissed her, his eyes shining eagerly.
"There! You've got more sense than I have, by a long chalk! I should never have thought of the maid being in the room. Clever Fan! Now, you'll put the key on the sill—when? Say ten o'clock. And you'll see, Fan, that the little window on the back staircase isn't locked, and keep at watch for us?"
"No, no!" she panted. "I will not! I cannot! I—I should faint! Don't ask me, Ted; don't—don't, dear! I shall say 'I'm ill'—and I shall be—and go to bed!"
"Not you!" he said, cheerfully and confidentially. "You'll just hang about the landing and keep watch for us; and if there's any one there to spoil our game, you'll go to the window and say, just loud enough for us to hear: 'What a fine night!'"
She hid her face on his breast, struggling with her sobs.
"Why, what is there to be afraid of!" he said. "If all's clear we shall have the things in a jiffy, and if it isn't we shall take our hook as quietly as we came, and no one will be the wiser. Should you like Boulogne, Fan, or should you like Brussels? We could be married directly we got on the other side. Boulogne's not half a bad place, and you'd look rather a swell at the Casino."
It was the irresistible argument again. She raised her head.
"You—you will go quietly; there will be no—no violence, Ted?"
"Is it likely?"
"There—there was in that case at Berkeley Square, Ted!" and she shuddered again.
His face darkened.
"That was an accident. The gentleman was an obstinate old fool. But there's no fear of anything of that kind in this affair. I tell you we shall not be in the house more than five minutes, and if we're seen it won't matter. I'm in decent togs, and my pal is the model of a curate. Any one seeing us would think we were visitors in the house. You shall have a regular wedding dress, Fan. White satin and lace—real lace, mind you! Come, give us a kiss to say that it's done with, Fan!"
He took her face in his hands and kissed her, and with a choking sob she clung to him for a moment as if she could not tear herself away. But, having got what he wanted, the man was anxious to be off.
"Ten o'clock, mind, Fan! And a sharp lookout. There, let me put your shawl round your head. I'll wait here till I hear you're out of the wood."
But he remained only a moment or two after she had left him, and, with quick, light steps, he joined his confederate.
"It's all right," he said, as he got into the dogcart. "I've found out what I wanted. And I've managed with the girl. Had a devil of a job, though! That's the worst of women! You've always got to play the sentimental with them; nothing short of making love or offering to marry 'em is any use. It's a pity this kind of thing can't be worked without a petticoat. There's always trouble and bother when they come in. To-morrow night, Parson, ten o'clock, you and I are men or mice; but it's going to be men," he added, between his teeth. "Did you bring my barker as well as your own?"
The Parson touched the side pocket of his overcoat, and nodded significantly.
The day following a big dance is always a slack one, and the house party at Anglemere came down late for breakfast, the last stragglers endeavoring to screen their yawns behind their hands, and receiving the usual "plans for the day" with marked coolness.
Drake, though he had slept but little, did his duty manfully, and proposed sundry rides and drives; but the majority of the party seemed to prefer a lounge in the drawing-room, or a quiet saunter in the garden; but eventually a drag started for some picturesque ruins, and some of the more energetic rode or drove to a flower show in the neighborhood.
It is an understood thing nowadays that your host, having provided for your amusement, is not necessarily compelled to join in your pursuits; in short, that his house shall not only be Liberty Hall for his guests, but for himself, and Drake, having dispatched the various parties, started a quiet game in the billiard room, and seen that the drawing-room windows were open and shaded, took his hat and stick and went out for a walk.
Lady Luce had not yet put in an appearance. She remained in bed or in her room on such occasions, and only sallied forth in time for luncheon, thereby presenting a fresh complexion and bright eyes with which to confound her less prudent sisters.
Drake had been thinking of her as well as of Nell. He knew that he would have to marry. The present heir to the title and estates was anything but a desirable young man, and it behooved Drake to keep him out of the succession if possible.
Drake, with all his freedom from pride and side, was fully sensible of the altitude of his position, and he knew the world looked to him for an heir to Angleford.
Yes, he would have to marry, and as he had lost Nell, why, not marry Luce? He had an idea that she cared for him, as much as she cared for any other than herself, and he knew that she would fill the place as well as, if not better than, another.
Their names had been coupled together. Society expected the match. Why should he not ask her to renew the engagement, and ask her at once? The house would be comparatively empty, for most of the guests would not return until dinner time, and he would have the opportunity of making his proposal.
He stopped dead short, half resolved to obey the impulse; then, after the manner of men, he walked on again, and away from Anglemere, and, instead of returning to the house in time for lunch, found himself at one of the outlying farms.
It is needless to say that he was accorded a hearty welcome. They did not fuss over him; the Anglemere tenants were prosperous and self-respecting; and though they regarded their lord and master as a kind of sovereign, and felt greatly honored by his presence under their roof, there was nothing servile in their attentions.
Drake sat down to the midday meal with a ruddy-cheeked child on each side of him, and chatted with the farmer and his wife, the farmer eating his well-earned dinner with his usual appetite, the latter waiting on them with assiduity and perfect composure. Now and again Drake made a joke for the sake of the children, who laughed up at him with round eyes and open mouths; he discussed the breeding and price of poultry, the rival merits of the new churns and "separators" with the dame, and the prospects of the coming harvest with the good man. For a wonder the farmer did not grumble. The Anglefords were good landlords; there was no rack-renting, no ejections, and a farm falling vacant from natural causes was always eagerly tendered for.
After the meal, which Drake enjoyed exceedingly, he and the farmer sat at the open window with their pipes and a glass of whisky and water, and continued their conversation.
"I'm hearing that your lordship thinks of coming to Anglemere and living among us," said the farmer. "And I hope it's true, with all my heart. The land needs a master's presence—not that I've anything to complain of. Wood, the steward, has acted like a gentleman by me, and I hear no complaints of him among the neighbors. But all the same, it ain't like having the earl himself over us. It makes one's heart ache to see that great place shut up and empty most o' the year. Seems as if there ought to be some one living there pretty nigh always, and as if there ought to be little children running about the terrace an' the lawns. Begging your lordship's pardon, if I'm too free."
"That's all right, Styles," said Drake. "I know what you mean."
The farmer nodded, and stopped his pipe with his fat little finger.
"I make so bold because I remember your lordship a wee chap so high." He put his hand about eighteen inches from the floor, as usual. "And a rare, hot-spirited youngster you was! Many's the time you've made me lift you into the cart, and you'd allus insist upon driving, though the reins were most too thick for your hands. Well, my lord, what we feels is that we'd like to live long enough to see another little chap—a future lordship—a-running about the place."
Drake nodded gravely and took a drink. Even this simple fellow was aware of Drake's duty to the title and estates.
"Perhaps you may some day, Styles," he said, smiling, and checking the sigh.
The farmer nodded twice, with pleasure and satisfaction.
"Glad to hear it, my lord; and I hope the wedding's to be soon."
"Soon or late, I hope you will come and dance at the wedding ball, Styles," Drake responded, with a laugh, as he got up to go.
But the laugh was not a particularly happy one, and he walked toward home in anything but a cheerful mood; for it is hard to be compelled to have to marry one woman while you are in love with another.
He entered the park by the small gate behind which Ted and Burden had stood on the preceding night, and was treading his way through the wood when he saw two figures—those of a man and a girl—walking in the garden behind the south lodge. He glanced at them absently for a moment, then he stopped, and, leaning heavily on his stick, caught his breath.
The man was Falconer, and the girl was—Nell!
They were pacing up and down the path slowly, she with her eyes downcast, some flowers in her hands, he with his face turned toward her, a rapt look in his eyes, his hands, folded behind his back, twitching nervously. They turned full face to Drake as he stood watching them, and he saw her distinctly. It seemed marvelous to him that he had not fully recognized her last night, that he had not guessed that the young engineer was Dick. The blood rushed to his face, then left it pale, and he stood, unseen by them, gnawing at his mustache.
In all his musings on the past, all his thoughts and dreams of her, the possibility of her being engaged or married had never occurred to him. He had always pictured her as still "Nell of Shorne Mills," living at The Cottage as she had done when she and he were lovers.
And it was she—she, Nell!—to whom this musician was engaged! A wave of bitterness swept over him, and in the agony of his jealousy he could have laughed aloud.
He had been sighing for her, longing for her, feeding his soul on his memory of her, all these months, while she had not only forgotten him, but had learned to love another man!
He stood and stared at them, as if he saw them through a mist, too overwhelmed to move; but presently he saw Nell look up with tears in her eyes, and hold out her hand slowly, timidly.
Falconer took it and put his lips to it. The sight broke the spell that held Drake, and, with a muttered oath, he turned and walked away quickly through the wood toward the house.
The first dinner bell was ringing as he entered the hall. Most of the guests had gone up to dress, but one or two still lingered in the hall, and among them Lady Angleford and Lady Luce. The former came to meet him as he entered.
"Why, where have you been, Drake?" she said, with the little maternal manner with which she always addressed him.
Lady Luce was lounging in a chair, playing with a grayhound, and she looked up at him with a smile, then lowered her eyes, as if she were afraid their welcome should be too marked.
"I've been for a walk," he said. His face was flushed, his eyes bright—too bright—with suppressed emotion. "I've been lunching at the Styles' farm——"
"That's a long way! Aren't you tired? Will you have some tea? I'll get some made in a moment or two. Do!"
"No, no; thanks!" he said, as he pitched his cap on the stand. "It's too late."
As he spoke he went up to Lady Luce and looked down at her, his face still flushed, his eyes still unnaturally bright.
"What have you been doing with yourself, Luce?" he asked.
She glanced up at him for a moment, then lowered her eyes and drew the dog's sleek head close to her.
"I don't know," she said, with a slight shrug of the shoulders. "Nothing, I think. It has been an awfully long day."
"Luce has been bored to death, and—for once—has admitted it," said Lady Angleford, laughing. "Her yawns and sighs have been too awful for words."
He stood and looked down at her. She was perfectly dressed, and looked like a girl in the light frock, with its plain blouse and neat sailor knot. At any rate, if he married her he would have a beautiful wife; and that was something. That she loved him, was still more.
Now that he knew Nell had forgotten him, there was no reason why he should hesitate.
He bent lower, and his hand fell on the dog's head and touched hers.
"Luce!" he said.
She looked up, saw that the words she had been longing for were trembling on his lips, and her face grew pale.
"Luce, I want to speak to you," he said, in a low voice. Lady Angleford had gone to a table to collect her work; there was no one within hearing. "I want to ask you——"
Before he could finish the all-important sentence, Wolfer and one or two other men who had been riding came in at the door.
"Bell gone?" exclaimed Wolfer. "Afraid we are late. Had a capital ride, Angleford! What a lovely country it is! Is my wife in yet?"
Drake bit his lip; for, having made up his mind to the plunge, he disliked being pulled up on the brink.
"After dinner," he whispered, bending still lower, and he went upstairs with the other men. Lord Turfleigh, who was with them, paused at the landing, murmured an excuse, and toddled heavily down again. Lady Luce had picked up her book and risen, and she lifted her head and looked at her father with an unmistakable expression on her face.
He raised his heavy eyebrows and stretched his mouth in a grin of satisfaction.
"No!" he said, in a thick whisper. "Really?"
She nodded, and flashed a smile of exultant triumph round the hall.
"Yes. He had nearly spoken when you came in! My luck, of course! Another minute! But he will speak to-night!"
"My dear gyurl!" he murmured. "You make your poor old father a proud and happy man. My own gyurl!"
She glanced at Lady Angleford warningly, and going up to her, took her arm and murmured sweetly:
"Let us go upstairs together, dear."
Lady Angleford looked at her with a meaning smile.
"How changed you have suddenly become, Luce!" she said. "Where are all your yawns gone? One would think you had heard news!"
Luce turned her face with a radiant smile.
"Perhaps I have," she said, in a low voice. "I—I will tell you—to-morrow!"
They parted at the door of Lady Angleford's room, Lady Luce's being farther down the corridor. Next to Lady Angleford's was the suite which had been prepared for Drake, and he came out of the room which adjoined the one she used as a dressing room as she was going into it.
"I'm sorry if my absence to-day was inconvenient, countess," he said.
"Not in the least! Everybody was disposed of; indeed, I was so free that Lady Wolfer and I went for a long drive. How changed she is! I don't know a happier woman! And she has given up all that woman's rights business."
Drake nodded, with, it must be admitted, little interest.
"By the way," he said, as casually as he could, "what is the name of the young engineer and his sister who are staying at the lodge?"
"Lorton," replied the countess. "So stupid of me! I thought it was Norton, and I addressed the invitation so; but Mrs. Hawksley tells me that it is Lorton. The brother comes from Bardsley & Bardsley."
Drake nodded. He needed no confirmation of the fact of Nell's presence.
"And she's engaged to this Mr. Falconer?"
"Oh, yes," replied the countess. "There can be no doubt of it. Mrs. Harksley says that his attentions to her last night—at the ball, I mean—were quite touching. They walked home together arm in arm. I really must call on her. They say she is extremely pretty."
"No need to call, I think," he said. "I mean," he went on, as the countess looked surprised, "that—that they will be gone directly."
"Oh, but I thought he might be going to remain as resident engineer."
"No, I think not," said Drake, almost harshly. "From all I hear, he's too young."
Lady Angleford nodded, and went into her room, where her maid was awaiting her.
"Will you wear your diamonds, my lady?" she asked.
The countess nodded absently, and took the key of the safe from her purse; but when the maid placed the square case which held the marvelous jewels on the dressing table, Lady Angleford changed her mind.
"No, no," she said; "not to-night. It is only a house party. Put them back, please."
The maid replaced the case in the safe, but she could not turn the key.
"You must be quick. I am afraid I'm late," said the countess.
"I can't turn the key, my lady," said the woman.
Lady Angleford rose and tried to turn it, but the key remained obstinately immovable.
"Knock at the earl's door and ask him if he will be kind enough to come to me," she said.
The maid did so, and Drake came in.
"I can't lock the safe, Drake," said the countess. "I am so sorry to trouble you."
"It's no trouble," he responded. "Literally none," he added, with a short laugh. "You hadn't quite closed the door. See?"
"We were stupid. How like a woman!" she said penitently.
"Take care of the key," he said. "The diamonds had better be sent to the bank the day after to-morrow, unless you want to wear them again soon."
"No," she said. "They make such a fuss about them; and—well, they are rather too much of a blaze for such a little woman as I am."
"Nonsense!" he said. "Here's the key."
He laid it on the dressing table, and she was about to take it up to replace it in her purse, and put the purse in one of the small drawers of the dressing table, when there came a knock at the door, and Burden entered.
"I—I beg your ladyship's pardon," she faltered, drawing back.
"What is it?" asked the countess.
"I wanted to borrow some eau de Cologne for my lady," said Burden. "I thought your ladyship had gone down, or I wouldn't——"
"Give her the eau de Cologne," said the countess to her maid. "Please ask Lady Luce to keep it. I shall not want it."
Burden took the bottle and went out. On the other side of the door she paused a moment and caught her breath. Chance, or the devil himself, was working on Ted's behalf, for she had happened to enter the room at the very moment the countess had put the key in the purse, and the purse in the drawer. And all day Burden had been wondering how she should get that key.
She went on after a moment or two, and Lady Luce looked up from her chair in front of the dressing table, as Burden entered.
"Where have you been?" she asked sharply.
"I went to borrow some eau de Cologne, my lady," replied Burden.
"Well, please be quick; you know we are late. I will wear——" she paused a moment. She wanted to look her best that night. The beauty which had caught Drake in the past, the beauty which was to ensnare him again, and win for her the Angleford coronet, must lack no advantage dress could lend it. "The silver gray and the pearls, please," she said, after a moment or two of consideration. "Why, what is the matter with you?" she asked sharply, as she saw the reflection of Burden's face in the glass. "Are you ill, or what?"
Burden tried to force the color to her face and keep her hands steady.
"I—I am not very well, my lady," she faltered. "I—I have had bad news."
"Bad news! What news?" asked Lady Luce coldly.
"My—mother is very ill, my lady," replied Burden, on the spur of the moment.
Lady Luce moved impatiently.
"It is a singular thing that persons of your class are always in some trouble or other; you are either ill yourselves, or some of your relations are dying. I am very sorry and all that, Burden, but I hope you were not thinking of asking me to let you go home, because I really could not just now."
"No, my lady; perhaps a little later——"
"Well, I'll see," said Lady Luce irritably. "I don't suppose you could do any good if you were to go home; I suppose there's some one to look after your mother; and, after all, she may not be so bad as you think. Servants always look at the worst side of things, and meet troubles halfway."
"Yes, my lady," said Burden.
"And do, for goodness' sake, try and look more cheerful, my good girl! It's like having a ghost behind me. Besides, if you are worrying yourself about your mother you can't dress me properly; and I want you to be very careful to-night—of all nights!"
She leaned back and smiled at her face in the glass, and thought no more of the maid's pale and anxious one. Had she been not so entirely heartless, had she even only affected a little interest and expressed some sympathy, the unhappy girl might have broken down and confessed her share in the meditated crime; but Lady Luce was incapable of pretending sympathy with a servant. In her eyes servants were of quite a different order of creation to that of her own class; hewers of wood and drawers of water, of no account beyond that which they gained from their value to their masters or mistresses. To consider the feelings of the servants who waited upon her would have seemed absurd to Lady Luce, almost, indeed, a kind of bad form.
The dinner bell had rung before she was dressed, and she hurried down to find herself the last to arrive in the drawing-room. She sought Drake's face as she entered. It still wore the expression of suppressed excitement which she had noticed when he came in from his walk, and he smiled with a kind of reluctant admiration as he noticed the magnificent dress, and the way in which it set off her beauty.
At dinner his altered mood was so marked that several persons who were near him noticed it. He, who had been so quiet and grave, almost stern in his manner and speech, to-night talked much and rapidly, and laughed freely.
The flush on his face deepened, and his eyes flashed so brightly that Wolfer, who was sitting near him, could not help noticing how often Drake permitted the butler to fill his glass, and wondered whether anything had happened, and whether he were drinking too much.
But Drake's gayety was infectious enough, and the dinner was a much livelier one than any that had preceded it.
Lady Luce was, perhaps, the most quiet and least talkative; but she sat and listened to Drake's stories and badinage, with a smile in her eyes and her lips slightly apart.
In a few hours he would speak the word which would make her the future Countess of Angleford!
The ladies lingered at the table rather longer than usual, for Drake's stories had suggested others to the other men, and his high spirits had awakened those of the persons near him. But Lady Angleford rose at last, and the ladies filed off to the drawing-room.
The men closed up their ranks, and Drake sent the wine round briskly. There was no dance to cut short the pleasant "after-the-ladies-have-gone" time; and they sat long over their wine, so that it was nearly ten o'clock when Drake, with his hand on the decanter near him, said:
"No more, anybody? Sure? Turfleigh, you will, surely!"
But the old man knew that he had had enough. He, too, was excited, and under a strain, and he rose rather unsteadily and shook his head.
"No, thanks. Er—er—I fancy we've rather punished that claret of yours to-night, my dear boy."
"It's a sad heart that never rejoices!" Drake retorted, with a laugh which sounded so reckless that Wolfer glanced at him with surprise.
"We'd better have a cigarette in the smoking room before we go into the drawing-room," said Drake, and he led the way.
As they went, talking and laughing, together across the hall, a white-faced woman leaned over the balustrade above, and watched them.
The other servants were in the servants' hall, enjoying themselves; the gentlemen were in the smoking room, and the ladies in the drawing-room. She was alone in the upper part of the house, which was so quiet and still that the sound of a clock, in one of the rooms, striking ten was like that of a church bell in her ears.
She started and pressed her hand to her heart, then stole to the window on the back staircase, and, keeping behind the curtain, listened. Her heart beat so loudly as to almost deafen her, but she heard a slight noise outside, and something fell with a soft tap against the window sill. It was the top of the ladder falling into its place.
Burden had switched off some of the electric lights in the corridor—was, indeed, prepared to switch the remainder if any one happened to come up—and she could just see a face through the window. The sight of it almost made her scream, for the face was partially covered by a crape mask, through which the eyes gleamed fiercely.
Burden clapped her hand to her mouth to stifle the cry of terror, and, absolutely incapable of remaining on the spot, fled to her own room and locked herself in.
Ted raised the window noiselessly and stepped into the corridor. He had a plan of the house, drawn from Burden's description, and he made straight for the countess' room. The Parson stood at the bottom of the ladder on guard. And each man carried a revolver loaded in all six barrels.
A few minutes before the burglar had so neatly effected his entrance, the men left the smoking room for the drawing-room—all excepting Lord Turfleigh, who had taken a soda and brandy with his cigar, and deemed it prudent to indulge in a little nap before joining the ladies.
Drake was a little less excited than he had been, but he was still resolved to ask Luce to be his wife, and he meant to take her into the conservatory, or one of the rooms where they could be alone for a few minutes. But when he entered the drawing-room she was playing. He went up to the piano, and, bending over it as if to look at the music, whispered:
"Will you go into the conservatory presently?"
She nodded, and without raising her eyes, but with a sudden flush. Drake went across the room to where Lady Angleford and Lady Wolfer were seated, talking, and the first word he heard was Nell's name.
"Of course it is the same," Lady Wolfer was saying eagerly. "Her brother was at the engineers, Bardsley & Bardsley! And Nell has been near us all this time, and in this house, and I didn't know it! If I had, I would have gone to her at once. She's the dearest and sweetest girl in all the world, and I owe her——" She stopped and sighed, but not sadly. "She left us quite suddenly to go to her stepmother, who was a cousin of my husband's; and I have only seen her once since. They—she and her brother—were living in one of these large mansions—a dreadfully crowded and noisy place; but, though they were poor, she seemed quite happy and contented. I begged her to come and live with me, but she would not leave her brother—though for that matter we should have been delighted to have him also, especially if he is anything like her. Oh, yes, the dearest girl! And you don't know how much I owe her! Some day I may be tempted to tell you." She sighed again, and was silent for a moment, as she recalled the scene in her bedroom on the night of the dinner party, the night before Nell had left Wolfer House so suddenly. "I must go and see her to-morrow morning. They say she is engaged to the young man, the violinist."
Lady Angleford nodded.
"Yes; and if she was engaged to him when you last saw her, that would account for her happiness, notwithstanding her poverty. She is an extremely pretty girl. I remember her quite well. I saw her at your dinner party, you know. I hope she is going to marry a man worthy of her. I'll go with you to see her to-morrow, if you'll let me."
Drake stood listening, his hands clasped behind his back, his face set sternly. Every word they said caused him a pang of pain; and as he listened, his mind went back to the happy weeks when Nell was engaged to a man who certainly was not worthy of her.
Lady Angleford looked up at him.
"We were talking of Miss Lorton and her brother, Drake," she said. "She's a kind of connection of Lady Wolfer's, and lived with them for a time. I wish you would see the brother and see if he really is too young to be the resident engineer. It would be so nice to have some one whom one knows."
"I will see," he said, so grimly that Lady Wolfer glanced up at him with some surprise; and, as he moved away, Lady Angleford looked after him and sighed.
"How changed he is!" she said, in a low voice.
"In what way?" asked Lady Wolfer.
The countess was silent for a moment or two.
"He seems as if he were unhappy about something," she said; "as if something were worrying him. I only saw him twice before he came into the title, and though he was by no means 'loud' or effusive, he was bright and cheerful; but now——I noticed the change the moment he came into the Hall on his return. It seems so strange. He had cause for anxiety then, for there was a chance of his losing Angleford; but now one would think he possessed all that a man could desire."
"The vanity of human wishes, my dear!" said Lady Wolfer. "Something may have happened while he was abroad," she suggested in a low voice.
"You mean a love affair? I don't think so."
The countess glanced toward the piano. She felt sure that Drake was about to renew his engagement with Lady Luce, and she deemed him the last man in the world to marry for the sake of "convenience."
Drake moved about the room restlessly, waiting for Luce to rise from the piano; but she was playing a long piece—an interminable one, as it seemed to him. Presently he felt for his pocket handkerchief, and, not finding it, remembered leaving it on the dressing table where Sparling had placed it. He went into the hall to send a servant for it; but there was not one in sight, and he went quickly up the stairs and entered his dressing room. He noticed that most of the electric lights were down, and, disliking the gloom, went toward the row of switches. They were fixed to the wall almost opposite Lady Angleford's dressing room, and as his hand went up to them, he heard a slight sound in the room.
It was a peculiar sound, like the soft bang which is made by the closing of a safe door. For a moment Drake paid no heed to it; then suddenly its significance struck upon him. Lady Angleford was in the drawing-room. Who could be at the safe?
He stepped outside the door, and waited for a second or two, then he opened the door softly, and saw a man rising from his knees in front of the safe. The man turned at the moment and stood with the case of diamonds in his hand—two other cases bulged from his side pockets—his eyes gleaming through his mask.
Now, in fiction the hero who is placed in this position always cries aloud for help, and instantly springs at the burglar; but in real life the element of surprise has to be taken into account; and Drake was too amazed at the moment to fling himself upon the thief. Besides, it is your weak and timid man who immediately cries for help. Drake was neither weak nor timid, and it would not occur to him to shriek for assistance. So the two men stood motionless as statues, and glanced at each other while you could count twenty. Then the burglar whipped a revolver from his pocket and presented it.
"Stand out of my way!" he said gruffly, and disguising his voice, for he knew how easily a voice can become a means of identification. "Better stand out of my way, or, by God! I'll fire!"
Drake laughed, the short laugh of a strong man ridiculing the proposal that he shall probably stand aside and permit a thief to pass with his booty.
"Put down that thing," he said. "You know you can't fire; too much noise. Put it down—and the cases. No? Very well!"
He sprang aside with one movement, and with the next went for the man.
Ted was really a skillful craftsman, and had taken the precaution to fasten a string across the room, from the bed to the grate.
Drake's foot caught in it, and he went sprawling on his face.
Ted sprang over him, and gained the corridor. With a dexterity beyond all praise, he switched off the remaining lights and then pushed up the window and dropped, rather than climbed, down the ladder.
Drake was on his feet in a moment and out in the corridor in the next. He had heard the window pushed up, and knew the point at which the man had made his escape.
Even then he did not give the alarm, and he did not turn up the lights, for he could see into the night better without them. He leaned out of the window and peered into darkness, and distinguished two forms gliding toward the shrubbery.
It was a long drop, but he intended taking it. He swung one leg over the sill as some one came up the stairs.
It was Sparling.
"Why are all the lights out?" he exclaimed. "Who's there?" for there was light enough from the hall for him to see Drake dimly.
"All right; it's I," said Drake quietly. "Turn up the lights. There are burglars. Don't shout; you'll frighten the ladies. Get the bicycle lamp from my room—quick!"
Sparling tore into the room, and came dashing out with the lamp, and, with trembling hands, lit it.
"Drop it down to me when I call," said Drake. "I'll risk its going out. Then get some of the men and search the grounds. And—mind!—no frightening the ladies!"
Then he lowered himself, dropped, and called up. He caught the lamp, which was still alight, and covering the glass with his hand, ran in the direction the men had taken; and as he ran he buttoned his dress coat over the big patch of white made by his wide shirt front.
He had stalked big game often enough to be aware that his only chance of tracking the thieves lay in his following them quietly and unseen, and he ran on tiptoe, and keeping as much as possible among the shrubs as he went, his ears and eyes strained attentively, he endeavored to put himself in their place.
"Yes," he muttered, "they'll make for the road, where there'll be a trap waiting for them—or bicycles; but which part of the road?"
The park fence was high, but easily climbable by an experienced burglar, and they might make for it at any point; presumably the nearest.
By this time he was cool enough, but extremely angry; and he blamed himself for falling so easily into the string trap. What he ought to have done——At this point in his futile reflections he stopped and listened, not for the first time, and he fancied he heard a rustling among the trees in front of him. He ran on as softly as possible, and presently saw a figure—one only—going swiftly in the direction of the lodge.
Drake understood in a moment; one man had gone to bring the vehicle near the gates, and this other man was waiting for it.
Up to this instant Drake had given no thought to the fact that he was pursuing two men, desperate, and, no doubt, armed, while he had no kind of weapon upon him. But now he smiled with a grim satisfaction as he saw that he had only one man to deal with.
Their separation was a point in his favor.
Steadily he followed on the man's track, and in a moment or two he saw the glimmer of the light from the lodge window; and as he saw it, he heard the roll of wheels approaching the gates.
The burglar, unacquainted with the topography of the road, was breaking his way through the undergrowth; and Drake, seeing that there was a chance of cutting him off by striking into one of the paths, turned into it.
He had to run for all he was worth now, and as he sped along he was reminded of his old college days, when he sprinted for the mile race—and won it. He reached a corner where the narrow path joined the wider one leading to the gate, and here he stopped, listening intently, and still covering the light of the lamp with his hand. Suddenly he heard footsteps near the lodge, and with a thrill of excitement more keen than any other chase had given him, he ran toward them.
As he did so, he caught sight of a woman's dress, and a faint cry of alarm and surprise arose. Was there a woman in the business?
Before he could answer the mental question he saw a figure—the figure he had been pursuing—dash from the woods on the right and make for the path he had just left. Drake swung round sharply and tore after him. The man looked over his shoulder, swore threateningly, and snatched something from his pocket. In drawing the revolver, however, he dropped something, and Drake saw, with immense satisfaction, that it was the diamond case.
"Give in, my man!" he said.
Ted laughed, caught up the case, and rushed on in the direction of the gate. But at that moment the tall figure of Falconer ran from the lodge.
Falconer stood for a moment, then he took in the situation, and dashing to the gate, flung it close. Ted heard the clang of the gate, and ran back toward Drake, with revolver raised.
Death stared Drake in the face; but it is at such moments that men of his temperament are coolest. He sprang aside as he had done in Lady Angleford's room. The revolver "pinged," there was a flash of light, but the bullet sped past him, and Drake flung himself upon his man.
Ted was as slippery as an eel, and striking Drake across the head with the revolver, he ran into the woods, with Drake after him; but the man knew there was no escape for him in that direction, and after a moment or two he turned and faced Drake again.
"Keep off, you fool, or I'll shoot you!" he growled hoarsely.
"Give in," said Drake again. "The game's up!"
Ted laughed shortly, and aimed the revolver again; but as his finger pressed the trigger, a cry rose from behind him, his arm was struck aside, and once more the bullet whizzed past its mark, and Drake was saved.
He saw the figure of a woman struggling with the burglar, saw the man raise his hand to strike her from him, saw her fall to the ground, and knew, by some instinct, that it was Nell.
In that instant the capture of the man was of no moment to him. With a cry, he flung himself on his knees beside her.
"Nell, Nell!" he panted. "Is it you?"
She remained quite motionless under his words, his touch, and he raised her head and tried to see her face.
The lamp he had dropped some moments before.
Suddenly a great shudder ran through her. She sighed, and opened her eyes.
"Drake!" she murmured; "Drake! Is he——"
He thought she referred to the man.
"Never mind him," he said eagerly. "Are you hurt? Tell me?"
She put her hand to her head, and struggled to her feet, swaying to and fro as if only half conscious, then her hands went out to him, and she uttered a cry of terror and anxiety.
"He—he shot you!" she gasped.
"No, no!" he responded quickly. "There is no harm done, if the brute has not hurt you."
She shook her head and leaned against the tree, trembling and panting.
"I was in the garden. I—heard you and the man running, and—and—I—ran across the path——"
"In time to save my life," he said gravely. "But I'd rather have died than you should come to harm."
As he spoke, he heard the noise of a struggle behind him. He had absolutely ceased to care what became of the man whom he had been pursuing so relentlessly for a few minutes before; but the noise, the hoarse cries, which now broke upon them had recalled him to a sense of the situation.
"They are struggling at the gate—I must leave you," he said hurriedly. And he ran down the path.
As he approached the gate, he saw Falconer and the burglar struggling together. Falconer was losing ground every moment, and as Drake was nearly upon them, Ted got his opponent under him; but Falconer still clung to him, and Ted could not get free from him. As he shot a glance at Drake he ground his teeth.
"Let me go, you fool!" he hissed. "Let me——"
He got one arm free, the glimmer of steel flashed in the dim light as he struck downward, and Falconer with a sharp groan loosed his hold.
Ted was clear of him in an instant and sprang for the gate; but as he opened it Drake was upon him. Ted was spent with his struggle with Falconer; he had dropped his revolver; Drake had seized the arm which held the knife—seized it in a grip like that of a vise.
"Parson! Quick!" cried Ted. The dogcart drove up to the gate, and the Parson was about to spring to the aid of his mate, when another figure came running up. It was Dick.
"Why, what on earth's the matter?" he cried.
At the sound of his voice, the Parson, counting his foes with a quick eye, leaped into the cart and drove away at a gallop. Ted cursed at the sound of the retreating cart and struck out wildly, but Drake had pinned him against the gate.
"Knock that knife out of his hand!" he said sharply, and Dick did so. In another moment the burglar was on his back in the road with Drake's knee on his chest.
"That will do!" he panted. "I give in! It's a fair cap! But if that white-livered hound had stood by me, I'd have beaten the lot of you! As it is, I've given as good as I've got, I fancy!" and he nodded tauntingly as he glanced to where Dick knelt beside Falconer.