"I don't believe Ronnie can be well," she said. "He looks so nervous."
Baring grunted in a dissatisfied note, but said nothing.
Another two minutes, and the signal was given. There were ten horses in the race. It was a fair start, and the excitement in the watching crowd became at once intense.
Baring remained at Mrs. Latimer's side. She was on her feet, and scarcely breathing. The black horse stretched himself out like a greyhound, galloping splendidly over the shining green of the course. His rider, crouched low in the saddle, looked as if at any instant he might be hurled to the earth.
Baring watched him critically, his jaw set and grim. Obviously, the boy was not himself, and he fancied he knew the reason.
"If he pulls it off, it'll be the biggest fluke of his life," he muttered.
"Isn't it queer?" whispered Mrs. Latimer. "I never saw young Carteret ride like that before."
Baring was silent. He began to think he understood Hope's failure to put in an appearance.
Gradually the black Waler drew away from all but two others, who hotly contested the leadership. He was running superbly, though he apparently received but small encouragement from his rider.
As they drew round the curve at the further end of the course, he was galloping next to the rails. As they finally turned into the straight run home, he was leading.
But the horse next to him, urged by his rider, who was also his owner, made so strenuous an effort that it became obvious to all that he was gaining upon the Waler.
A great yell went up of "Carteret! Carteret! Wake up, Carteret! Don't give it away!" And the Waler's rider, as if startled by the cry, suddenly and convulsively slashed the animal's withers.
Through a great tumult of shouting the two horses dashed past the winning-post. It seemed a dead heat; but, immediately after, the news spread that Hyde's horse was the winner. The Waler had gained his victory by a neck.
Hyde was leading his horse round to the Rajah's stand. His jockey, looking white and exhausted, sat so loosely in the saddle that he seemed to sway with the animal's movements. He did not appear to hear the cheering around him.
Baring took up his stand near the weighing-tent, and, a few minutes later, Hyde and his jockey came up together. The boy's cap was dragged down over his eyes, and he looked neither to right nor left.
Hyde, perceiving Baring, pushed forward abruptly.
"I want a word with you," he said. "I've been trying to catch you for some days past. But first, what did you think of the race?" He coolly fastened on to Baring's elbow, and the latter had to pause. Hyde's companion passed swiftly on; and Hyde, seeing the look on Baring's face, began to laugh.
"It's all right; you needn't look so starched. The little beggar's been starving himself for the occasion, and overdone it. He'll pull round with a little feeding up. Tell me what you thought of the race! Splendid chap, that animal of mine, eh?"
He kept Baring talking for several minutes; and, when they finally parted, his opportunity had gone.
Baring went into the weighing-tent, but Ronnie was nowhere to be seen. And he wondered rather grimly as he walked away if Hyde had detained him purposely to give the boy a chance to escape.
THE ENEMY'S TERMS
It was nearly dark that evening when Hope stood again on the veranda of the Magician's, bungalow, and listened to the water running through the reeds. She thought it sounded louder than in the morning—- more insistent, less mirthful. She shivered a little as she stood there. She felt lonely; her uncle was away for a couple of days, and Ronnie was in his room. She was bracing herself to go and rouse him to dress for mess. Slowly, at last, she turned to go. But at the same instant a voice called to her from below, and she stopped short.
"Ah, don't run away!" it said. "I've come on purpose to see you—on a matter of importance."
Reluctantly Hope waited. She knew the voice well, and it made her quiver in every nerve with the instinct of flight. Yet she summoned all her resolution and stood still, while Hyde calmly mounted the veranda steps and approached her. He was in riding-dress, and he carried a crop, walking with all the swaggering insolence that she loathed.
"There's something I want to say to you," he said. "I can come in, I suppose? It won't take me long."
He took her permission for granted, and turned into the drawing-room. Hope followed him in silence. She could not pretend to this man that his presence was a pleasure to her. She hated him, and deep in her heart she feared him as she feared no one else in the world.
He looked at her with eyes of cynical criticism by the light of the shaded lamp. She felt that there was something worse than insolence about him that night—something of cruelty, of brutality even, from which she was powerless to escape.
"Come!" he said, as she did not speak. "Doesn't it occur to you that I have been a particularly good friend to you to-day?"
Hope faced him steadily. Twice before she had evaded this man, but she knew that to-night evasion was out of the question. She must confront him without panic, and alone.
"I think you must tell me what you mean," she said, her voice very low.
He shrugged his shoulders indifferently, and then laughed at her—his abominable, mocking laugh.
"I have noticed before," he said, "that when a woman finds herself in a tight corner, she invariably tries to divert attention by asking unnecessary questions. It's a harmless little stratagem that may serve her turn. But in this case, let me assure you, it is sheer waste of time. I hold you—and your brother, also—in the hollow of my hand. And you know it."
He spoke slowly, with a confidence from which there was no escape. His eyes still closely watched her face. And Hope felt again that wild terror, which only he had ever inspired in her, knocking at her heart.
She did not ask him a second time what he meant. He had made her realize the utter futility of prevarication. Instead, she forced herself to meet his look boldly, and grapple with him with all her desperate courage.
"My brother owed you a debt of honour," she said; "and it has been paid. What more do you want?"
A glitter of admiration shone for a moment through his cynicism. This was better than meek surrender. A woman who fought was worth conquering.
"You are not going to acknowledge, then," he said, "that you—you personally—are in any way indebted to me?"
"Certainly not!" The girl's eyes did not flinch before his. Save that she was trembling, he would scarcely have detected her fear. "You have done nothing for me," she said. "You only served your own purpose."
"Oh, indeed!" said Hyde softly. "So that is how you look at it, is it?"
He moved, and went close to her. Still she did not shrink. She was fighting desperately—desperately—a losing battle.
"Well," he said, after a moment, in which she withstood him silently with all her strength, "in one sense that is true. I did serve my own purpose. But have you, I wonder, any idea what that purpose of mine was?"
He waited, but she did not answer him. She was nearly at the end of her strength. Hyde did not offer to touch her. He only smiled a little at the rising panic in her white face.
"Do you know what I am going to do now?" he said. "I am going to mess—it's a guest night—and they will drink my health as the winner of the Ghantala Cup. And then I shall propose someone else's health. Can you guess whose?"
She shrank then, shrank perceptibly, painfully, as the victim must shrink, despite all his resolution, from the hot iron of the torturer.
Hyde stood for a second longer, watching her. Then he turned. There was fiendish triumph in his eyes.
"Good-bye!" he said.
She caught her breath sharply, spasmodically, as one who suppresses a cry of pain. And then, before he reached the window, she spoke:
He turned instantly, and came back to her.
"Come!" he said. "You are going to be reasonable after all."
"What is it that you want?" Her desperation sounded in her voice. She looked at him with eyes of wild appeal. Her defiance was all gone. The smile went out of Hyde's face, and suddenly she saw the primitive savage in possession. She had seen it before, but till that moment she had never realized quite what it was.
"What do I want?" he said. "I want you, and you know it. That fellow Baring is not the man for you. You are going to give him up. Do you hear? Or else—if you prefer it—he will give you up. I don't care which it is, but one or the other it shall be. Now do we understand one another?"
Hope stared at him, speechless, horror-stricken, helpless!
He came nearer to her, but she did not recoil, for as a serpent holds its prey, so he held her. She wanted to protest, to resist him fiercely, but she was mute. Even the power to flee was taken from her. She could only stand as if chained to the ground, stiff and paralyzed, awaiting his pleasure. No nightmare terror had ever so obsessed her. The agony of it was like a searing flame.
And Hyde, seeing her anguished helplessness, came nearer still with a sort of exultant deliberation, and put his arm about her as she stood.
"I thought I should win the trick," he said, with a laugh that seemed to turn her to ice. "Didn't I tell you weeks ago that I had—Hope?"
She did not attempt to answer or to resist. Her lips were quite bloodless. A surging darkness was about her, but yet she remained conscious—vividly horribly conscious—of the trap that had so suddenly closed upon her. Through it she saw his face close to her own, with that sneering, devilish smile about his mouth that she knew so well. And the eyes with their glittering savagery were mocking her—mocking her.
Another instant and his lips would have pressed her own. He held her fast, so fast that she felt almost suffocated. It was the most hideous moment of her life. And still she could neither move nor protest. It seemed as if, body and soul, she was his prisoner.
But suddenly, unexpectedly, he paused. His arms slackened and fell abruptly from her; so abruptly that she tottered, feeling vaguely for support. She saw his face change as he turned sharply away. And instinctively, notwithstanding the darkness that blinded her, she knew the cause. She put her hand over her eyes and strove to recover herself.
When Hope looked up, the silence had become unbearable. She saw Baring standing quite motionless near the window by which he had entered. He was not looking at her, and she felt suddenly, crushingly, that she had become less than nothing in his sight, not so much as a thing, to be ignored.
Hyde, quite calm and self-possessed, still stood close to her. But he had turned his back upon her to face the intruder. And she felt herself to be curiously apart from them both, almost like a spectator at a play.
It was Hyde who at last broke the silence when it had begun to torture her nerves beyond endurance.
"Perhaps this rencontre is not as unfortunate as it looks at first sight," he remarked complacently. "It will save me the trouble of seeking an interview with you to explain what you are now in a position to see for yourself. I believe a second choice is considered a woman's privilege. Miss Carteret, as you observe, has just availed herself of this. And I am afraid that in consequence you will have to abdicate in my favour."
Baring heard him out in complete silence. As Hyde ended, he moved quietly forward into the room. Hope felt him drawing nearer, but she could not face him. His very quietness was terrible to her, and she was desperately conscious that she had no weapon of defence.
She had not thought that he would so much as notice her, but she was wrong. He passed by Hyde without a glance, and reached her.
"What am I to understand?" he said.
She started violently at the sound of his voice. She knew that Hyde had turned towards her again, but she looked at neither of them. She was trembling so that she could scarcely stand. Her very lips felt cold, and she could not utter a word.
After a brief pause Baring spoke again: "Can't you answer me?"
There was no anger in his voice, but there was also no kindness. She knew that he was watching her with a piercing scrutiny, and she dared not raise her eyes. She shook her head at last, as he waited for her reply.
"Are you willing for me to take an explanation from Mr. Hyde?" he asked; and his tone rang suddenly hard. "Has he the right to explain?"
"Of course I have the right," said Hyde easily.
"Tell him so, Hope!"
Baring bent towards the girl.
"If he has the right," he said, his voice quiet but very insistent, "look me in the face—and tell me so!"
She made a convulsive effort and looked up at him.
"Yes," she said in a whisper. "He has the right."
Baring straightened himself abruptly, almost as if he had received a blow in the face.
He stood for a second silent. Then:
"Where is your brother?" he asked.
Hope hesitated, and at once Hyde answered for her.
"He isn't back yet. He stopped at the club."
"That," said Baring sternly, "is a lie."
He laid his hand suddenly upon Hope's shoulder.
"Surely you can tell me the truth at least!" he said.
Something in his tone pierced the wild panic at her heart. She looked up at him again, meeting the mastery of his eyes.
"He is in his room," she said. "Mr. Hyde didn't know."
Hyde laughed, and at the sound the hand on Hope's shoulder closed like a vice, till she bit her lip with the effort to endure the pain. Baring saw it, and instantly set her free.
"Go to your brother," he said, "and ask him to come and speak to me!"
The authority in his voice was not to be gainsaid. She threw an imploring look at Hyde, and went. She fled like a wild creature along the veranda to her brother's room, and tapped feverishly, frantically at the window. Then she paused listening intently for a reply. But she could hear nothing save the loud beating of her heart. It drummed in her ears like the hoofs of a galloping horse. Desperately she knocked again.
"Let me in!" she gasped. "Let me in!"
There came a blundering movement, and the door opened.
"Hullo!" said Ronnie, in a voice of sleepy irritation. "What's up?"
She stumbled into the dark room, breathless and sobbing.
"Oh, Ronnie!" she cried. "Oh, Ronnie; you must help me now!"
He fastened the door behind her, and as she sank down half-fainting in a chair, she heard him groping for matches on the dressing-table.
He struck one, and lighted a lamp. She saw that his hand was very shaky, but that he managed to control it. His face was pale, and there were deep shadows under his heavy eyes, but he was himself again, and a thrill of thankfulness ran through her. There was still a chance, still a chance!
Five minutes later, or it might have been less, the brother and sister stepped out on to the veranda to go to the drawing-room. They had to turn a corner of the bungalow to reach it, and the moment they did so Hope stopped dead. A man's voice, shouting curses, came from the open window; and, with it, the sound of struggling and the sound of blows—blows delivered with the precision and regularity of a machine—frightful, swinging blows that sounded like revolver shots.
"What is it?" gasped Hope in terror. "What is it?" But she knew very well what it was; and Ronnie knew, too.
"You stay here," he said. "I'll go and stop it."
"No, no!" she gasped back. "I am coming with you; I must." She slipped her cold hand into his, and they ran together towards the commotion.
Reaching the drawing-room window, Ronnie stopped, and put the trembling girl behind him. But he himself did not enter. He only stood still, with a cowed look on his face, and waited. In the middle of the room, Baring, his face set and terrible, stood gripping Hyde by the torn collar of his coat and thrashing him, deliberately, mercilessly, with his own riding-whip. How long the punishment had gone on the two at the window could only guess. But it was evident that Hyde was nearing exhaustion. His face was purple in patches, and the curses he tried to utter came maimed and broken and incoherent from his shaking lips. He had almost ceased to struggle in the unwavering grip that held him; he only moved convulsively at each succeeding blow.
"Oh, stop him!" implored Hope, behind her brother. "Stop him!" Then, as he did not move, she pushed wildly past him into the room.
Baring saw her, and instantly, almost as if he had been awaiting her, stayed his hand. He did not speak. He simply took Hyde by the shoulders and half-carried, half-propelled him to the window, through which he thrust him.
He returned empty-handed and closed the window. Ronnie had entered, and was standing by his sister, who had dropped upon her knees by the sofa and hidden her face in the cushions, sobbing with a pasionate abandonment that testified to nerves that had given way utterly at last beneath a strain too severe to be borne. Baring just glanced at her, then turned his attention to her brother.
"I have been doing your work for you," he remarked grimly. "Aren't you ashamed of yourself?" He put his hand upon Ronnie, and twisted him round to face the light, looking at him piercingly. "Aren't you ashamed of yourself?" he repeated.
Ronnie met his eyes irresolutely for a moment, then looked away towards Hope. She had become very still, but her face remained hidden. There was something tense about her attitude. After a moment Ronnie spoke, his voice very low.
"I suppose you had a reason for what you have just been doing?"
"Yes," Baring said sternly, "I had a reason. Do you mean me to understand that you didn't know that fellow to be a blackguard?"
Ronnie made no answer. He stood like a beaten dog.
"If you didn't know it," Baring continued, "I am sorry for your intelligence. If you did, you deserve the same treatment as he has just received."
Hope stirred at the words, stirred and moaned, as if she were in pain; and again momentarily Baring glanced at her. But his face showed no softening.
"I mean what I say," he said, turning inexorably to Ronnie. "I told you long ago that that man was not fit to associate with your sister. You must have known it for yourself; yet you continued to bring him to the house. What I have just done was in her defence. Mark that, for—as you know—I am not in the habit of acting hastily. But there are some offences that only a horsewhip can punish." He set the boy free with a contemptuous gesture, and crossed the room to Hope. "Now I have something to say to you," he said.
She started and quivered, but she did not raise her head. Very quietly he stooped and lifted her up. He saw that she was too upset for the moment to control herself, and he put her into a chair and waited beside her. After several seconds she slipped a trembling hand into his, and spoke.
"Monty," she said, "I have something to say to you first."
Her action surprised him. It touched him also, but he did not show it.
"I am listening," he said gravely.
She looked up at him and uttered a sharp sigh. Then, with an effort, she rose and faced him.
"You are very angry with me," she said. "You are going to—to—give me up."
His face hardened. He looked back at her with a sternness that sent the blood to her heart. He said nothing whatever. She went on with difficulty.
"But before you do," she said, "I want to tell you that—that—ever since you asked me to marry you I have loved you—with my whole heart; and I have never—in thought or deed—been other than true to my love. I can't tell you any more than that. It is no good to question me. I may have done things of which you would strongly disapprove, which you would even condemn, but my heart has always been true to you—always."
She stopped. Her lips were quivering painfully. She saw that her words had not moved him to confidence in her, and it seemed as if the whole world had suddenly turned dark and empty and cold—a place to wander in, but never to rest.
A long silence followed that supreme effort of hers. Baring's eyes—blue, merciless as steel—were fixed upon her in a gaze that pierced and hurt her. Yet he forced her to endure it. He held her in front of him ruthlessly, almost cruelly.
"So I am not to question you?" he said at last. "You object to that?"
She winced at his tone.
"Don't!" she said under her breath. "Don't hurt me more—more than you need!"
He was silent again, grimly, interminably silent, it seemed to her. And all the while she felt him doing battle with her, beating down her resistance, mastering her, compelling her.
"Hope!" he said at length.
She looked up at him. Her knees were shaking under her. Her heart was beginning to whisper that her strength was nearly spent; that she would not be able to resist much longer.
"Tell me," he said very quietly, "this one thing only! What is the hold that Hyde has over you?"
She shook her head.
"That is the one thing—"
"It is the one thing that I must know," he said sternly.
She was white to the lips.
"I can't answer you," she said.
"You must answer me!" He turned her quivering face up to his own. "Do you hear me, Hope?" he said. "I insist upon your answering me."
He still spoke quietly, but she was suddenly aware that he was putting forth his whole strength. It came upon her like a physical, crushing weight. It overwhelmed her. She hid her face with an anguished cry. He had conquered her.
In another moment she would have yielded. Her opposition was dead. But abruptly, unexpectedly, there came an interruption. Ronnie, very pale, and looking desperate, came between them.
"Look here, sir," he said, "you—you are going too far. I can't have my sister coerced in this fashion. If she prefers to keep this matter to herself, she must do so. You can't force her to speak."
Baring released Hope and turned upon him almost violently, but, seeing the unusual, if precarious, air of resolution with which Ronnie confronted him, he checked himself. He walked to the end of the room and back before he spoke. His features were set like a mask when he returned.
"You may be right," he said, "though I think it would have been better for everyone if you had not interfered. Hope, I am going. If you cannot bring yourself to tell me the whole truth without reservation, there can be nothing further between us. I fear that, after all, I spoke too soon. I can enter upon no compact that is not based upon absolute confidence."
He spoke coldly, decidedly, without a trace of feeling; and, having spoken, he went deliberately to the window. There he stood for a few seconds with his back turned upon the room; then, as the silence remained unbroken, he quietly lifted the catch and let himself out.
In the room he left not a word was spoken for many tragic minutes.
THE CURSE OF THE VALLEY
Hope had some difficulty in persuading Ronnie to attend mess that night, though, as a matter of fact, she was longing for solitude.
He went at last, and she was glad, for a great restlessness possessed her to which it was a relief to give way. She wandered about the veranda in the dark after his departure, trying to realize fully what had happened. It had all come upon her so suddenly. She had been forced to act throughout without a moment's pause for thought. Now that it was all over she wanted to collect herself and face the worst.
Her engagement was at an end. It was mainly that fact that she wished to grasp. But somehow she found it very difficult. She had grown into the habit of regarding herself as belonging exclusively and for all time to Montagu Baring.
"He has given me up! He has given me up!" she whispered to herself, as she paced to and fro along the crazy veranda. She recalled the look his face had worn, the sternness, the pitilessness of his eyes. She had always felt at the back of her heart that he had it in him to be hard, merciless. But she had not really thought that she would ever shrink beneath the weight of his anger. She had trusted blindly to his love to spare her. She had imagined herself to be so dear to him that she must be exempt. Others—it did not surprise her that others feared him. But she—his promised wife—what could she have to fear?
She paused at the end of the veranda, looking up. The night was full of stars, and it was very cold. At the bottom of the compound she heard the water running swiftly. It did not chuckle any more. It had become a miniature roar. It almost seemed to threaten her.
She remembered how she had listened to it in the morning, sitting in the sunshine, dreaming; and her heart suddenly contracted with a pain intolerable. Those golden dreams were over for ever. He had given her up.
Again her restlessness urged her. Cold as it was, she could not bring herself to go indoors. She descended into the compound, passed swiftly through it, and began to climb the rough ground of the hill that rose behind it above the native village.
The Magician's bungalow looked very ghostly in the starlight. Presently she paused, and stood motionless, gazing down at it. She remembered how, when she and her uncle had first come to it, the native servants had told them of the curse that had been laid upon it; of the evil spirits that had dwelt there; of voices that had cried in the night! Was it true, she wondered vaguely? Was it possible for a place to be cursed?
A faint breeze ran down the valley, stirring the trees to a furtive whispering. Again, subconsciously, she was aware of the cold, and moved to return. At the same moment there came a sound like the report of a cannon half a mile away, followed by a long roar that was unlike anything she had ever heard—a sound so appalling, so overwhelming, that for an instant, seized with a nameless terror, she stood as one turned to stone.
And then—before the impulse of flight to the bungalow had reached her brain—the whole terrible disaster burst upon her. Like a monster of destruction, that which had been a gurgling stream rose above its banks in a mighty, brown flood, surged like an inrushing sea over the moonlit compound, and swept down the valley, turning it into a whirling turmoil of water.
HOW THE TALE WAS TOLD
Ronnie Carteret was the subject of a good deal of chaff that night at mess. The Rajah was being entertained, and he was the only man who paid the young officer any compliments on the matter of his achievement on the racecourse. Everyone else openly declared that the horse, and not its rider, was the one to be congratulated.
"Never saw anything so ludicrous in my life," one critic said. "He looked like a rag doll in the saddle. How he managed to stick on passes me. Is it the latest from America, Ronnie? Leaves something to be desired, old chap! I should stick to the old style, if I were you."
Ronnie had no answer for the comments and advice showered upon him from all sides. He received them all in silence, sullenly ignoring derisive questions.
Hyde was not present, to the surprise of every one. All knew that he had been invited, and there was some speculation upon his non-appearance.
Baring was there, quiet and self-contained as usual. No one ever chaffed Baring. It was generally recognized that he did not provide good sport. When the toasts were over he left the table.
It was soon after his departure that a sound like a distant explosion was heard by those in the messroom, causing some discussion there.
"It's only some fool letting off fireworks," someone said; and as this seemed a reasonable explanation, no one troubled to enquire further. And so fully half an hour passed before the truth was known.
It was Baring who came in with the news, and none who saw it ever forgot his face as he threw open the messroom door. It was like the face of a man suddenly stricken with a mortal hurt.
"Heavens, man! What's the matter?" the colonel exclaimed, at sight of him. "You look as if—as if—"
Baring glanced round till his eyes fell upon Ronnie, and, when he spoke, he seemed to be addressing him alone.
"The dam has burst," he said, his words curt, distinct, unfaltering. "The whole of the lower valley is flooded. The Magician's bungalow has been swept away!"
"What?" gasped Ronnie. "What?"
He sprang to his feet, the awful look in Baring's eyes reflected in his own, and made a dash for the doorway in which Baring stood. He stumbled as he reached, it and the latter threw out a supporting arm.
"It's no use your going," he said, his voice hard and mechanical. "There's nothing to be done. I've been as near as it is possible to get. It's nothing but a raging torrent half a mile across."
He moved straight forward to a chair, and thrust the boy down into it. There was a terrible stiffness—almost a fixity—about him. He did not seem conscious of the men that crowded round him. It was not his habitual reserve that kept him from collapse at that moment; it was rather a stunned sense of expediency.
"There's nothing to be done," he repeated.
He looked down at Ronnie, who was clutching at the table with both hands, and making ineffectual efforts to speak.
"Give him some brandy, one of you!" he said.
Someone held a glass against the boy's chattering teeth. The colonel poured some spirit into another and gave it to Baring. He took it with a hand that seemed steady, but the next instant it slipped through his fingers and smashed on the floor. He turned sharply, not heeding it. Most of the men in the room were on their way out to view the catastrophe for themselves. He made as if to follow them; then, as if struck by a sudden thought, he paused.
Ronnie, deathly pale, and shaking all over, was fighting his way back to self-control. Baring moved back to him with less of stiffness and more of his usual strength of purpose.
"Do you care to come with me?" he said.
Ronnie looked up at him. Then, though he still shivered violently, he got up without speaking; and, in silence, they went away together.
THE NIGHT OF DESPAIR
Not till more than two hours later did Ronnie break his silence. He would have tramped the hills all night above the flooded valley, but Baring would not suffer it. He dragged him almost forcibly away from the scene of desolation, where the water still flowed strongly, carrying trees and all manner of wreckage on its course. And, though he was almost beside himself, the boy yielded at last. For Baring compelled obedience that night. He took Ronnie back to his own quarters, but on the threshold Ronnie drew back.
"I can't come in with you," he said.
Baring's hand was on his shoulder.
"You must," he answered quietly.
"I can't," Ronnie persisted, with an effort. "I can't! I'm a cur; I'm worse. You wouldn't ask me if you knew."
Baring paused, then, with a strange, unwonted gentleness, he took the boy's arm and led him in. "Never mind!" he said.
Ronnie went with him, but in Baring's room he faced him with the courage of despair.
"You'll have to know it," he said jerkily. "It was my doing that you—and she—parted as you did. She was going to tell you the truth. I prevented her—for my own sake—not hers. I—I came between you."
Baring's hand fell, but neither his face nor his tone varied as he made steady reply.
"I guessed it might be that—afterwards. I was on my way to tell her so when the dam went."
"That isn't all," Ronnie went on feverishly. "I'm worse than that, worse even than she knew. I engaged to ride Hyde's horse to—to discharge a debt I owed him. I told her it was a debt of honour. It wasn't. It was to cover theft. I swindled him once, and he found out. I hated riding his horse, but it would have meant open disgrace if I hadn't. She knew it was urgent. And then at the last moment I was thirsty; I overdid it. No; confound it, I'll tell you the truth! I went home drunk, too drunk to sit a horse. And so she—she sent me to bed, and went in my place. That's the thing she wouldn't tell you, the thing Hyde knew. She always hated the man—always. She only endured him for my sake." He broke off. Baring was looking at him as if he thought that he were raving. After a moment Ronnie realized this. "It's the truth," he said. "I've told you the truth. I never won the cup. I didn't know anything more about it till it was over and she told me. I don't wonder you find it hard to believe. But I swear it's the truth. Now let me go—and shoot myself!"
He flung round distractedly, but Baring stopped him. There was no longer any hardness about him, only compassionate kindness, as he made him sit down, and gravely shut the door. When he spoke, it was not to utter a word of reproach or blame.
"No, don't go, boy!" he said, in a tone that Ronnie never forgot. "We'll face this thing together. May God help us both!"
And Ronnie, yielding once more, leaned his head in his hands, and burst into anguished tears.
THE COMING OF HOPE
How they got through the dragging hours of that awful night neither of them afterwards quite knew. They spoke very little, and slept not at all. When morning came at last they were still sitting in silence as if they watched the dead, linked together as brothers by a bond that was sacred.
It was soon after sunrise that a message came for Ronnie from the colonel's bungalow next door to the effect that the commanding-officer wished to see him. He looked at Baring as he received it.
"I wish you'd come with me," he said.
Baring rose at once. He knew that the boy was depending very largely upon his support just then. The sunshine seemed to mock them as they went. It was a day of glorious Indian winter, than which there is nothing more exquisite on earth, save one of English spring. The colonel met them on his own veranda. He noted Ronnie's haggard face with a quick glance of pity.
"I sent for you, my lad," he said, "because I have just heard a piece of news that I thought I ought to pass on at once."
"News, sir?" Ronnie echoed the word sharply.
"Yes; news of your sister." The colonel gave him a keen look, then went on in a tone of reassuring kindness that both his listeners found maddeningly deliberate. "She was not, it seems, in the bungalow at the time the dam burst. She was out on the hillside, and so—My dear fellow, for Heaven's sake pull yourself together! Things are better than you think. She—" He did not finish, for Ronnie suddenly sprang past him with a loud cry. A girl's figure had appeared in the doorway of the colonel's drawing-room. Ronnie plunged in, and it was seen no more.
The colonel turned to Baring for sympathy, and found that the latter had abruptly, almost violently, turned his back. It surprised him considerably, for he had often declared his conviction that under no circumstances would this officer of his lose his iron composure. Baring's behaviour of the night before had seemed to corroborate this; in fact, he had even privately thought him somewhat cold-blooded.
But his present conduct seemed to indicate that even Baring was human, notwithstanding his strength; and in his heart the colonel liked him for it. After a moment he began to speak, considerately ignoring the other's attitude.
"She was providentially on the further hill when it happened, and she had great difficulty in getting round to us; lost her way several times, poor girl, and only panic-stricken natives to direct her. It's been a shocking disaster—the native village entirely swept away, though not many European lives lost, I am glad to say. But Hyde is among the missing. You knew Hyde?"
"I knew him—well." Baring's words seemed to come with an effort.
"Ah, well, poor fellow; he probably didn't know much about it. Terrible, a thing of this sort. It's impossible yet to estimate the damage, but the whole of the lower valley is devastated. The Magician's bungalow has entirely disappeared, I hear. A good thing the old man was away from home."
At this point, to Colonel Latimer's relief, Baring turned. He was paler than usual, but there was no other trace of emotion about him.
"If you will allow me," he said, "I should like to go and speak to her, too."
"Certainly," the colonel said heartily. "Certainly. Go at once! No doubt she is expecting you. Tell the youngster I want him out here!"
And Baring went.
* * * * *
If Hope did expect him, she certainly did not anticipate the manner of his coming. The man who entered the colonel's drawing-room was not the man who had striven with a mastery that was almost brutal to bring her into subjection only the day before. She could not have told wherein the difference lay, but she was keenly aware of its existence. And because of her knowledge she felt no misgiving, no shadow of fear. She did not so much as wait for him to come to her. Simply moved by the woman's instinct that cannot err, she went straight to him, and so into his arms, clinging to him with a little sobbing laugh, and not speaking at all, because there were no words that could express what she yet found it so sublimely easy to tell him. Baring did not speak either, but he had a different reason for his silence. He only held her closely to him, till presently, raising her face to his, she understood. And she laughed again, laughed through tears.
"Weren't you rather quick to give up—hope?" she whispered.
He did not answer her, but she found nothing discouraging in his silence. Rather, it seemed to inspire her. She slipped her arms round his neck. Her tears were nearly gone.
"Hope doesn't die so easily," she said softly. "And I'll tell you another thing that is ever so much harder to kill, that can never die at all, in fact; or, perhaps I needn't. Perhaps you can guess what it is?"
And again he did not answer her. He only bent, holding her fast pressed against his heart, and kissed her fiercely, passionately, even violently, upon the lips.
"My Hope!" he said. "My Hope!"
A PROMISE OF MARRIAGE
The band was playing very softly, very dreamily; it might have been a lullaby. The girl who stood on the balcony of the great London house, with the moonlight pouring full upon her, stooped, and nervously, fumblingly, picked up a spray of syringa that had fallen from among the flowers on her breast.
The man beside her, dark-faced and grave, put out a perfectly steady hand.
"May I have it?" he said.
She looked up at him with the start of a trapped animal. Her face was very pale. It was in striking contrast to the absolute composure of his. Very slowly and reluctantly she put the flower into his outstretched hand.
He took it, but he took her fingers also and kept them in his own.
"When will you marry me, Nina?" he asked.
She started again and made a frightened effort to free her hand.
He smiled faintly and frustrated it.
"When will you marry me?" he repeated.
She threw back her head with a gesture of defiance; but the courage in her eyes was that of desperation.
"If I marry you," she said, "it will be purely and only for your money."
He nodded. Not a muscle of his face moved.
"Of course," he said. "I know that."
"And you want me under those conditions?"
There was a quiver in the words that might have been either of scorn or incredulity.
"I want you under any conditions," he responded quietly. "Marry my money by all means if it attracts you! But you must take me with it."
The girl shrank.
"I can't!" she whispered suddenly.
He released her hand calmly, imperturbably.
"I will ask you again to-morrow," he said.
"No!" she said sharply.
He looked at her questioningly.
"No!" she repeated, with a piteous ring of uncertainty in her voice. "Mr. Wingarde, I say No!"
"But you don't mean it," he said, with steady conviction.
"I do mean it!" she gasped. "I tell you I do!"
She dropped suddenly into a low chair and covered her face with a moan.
The man did not move. He stared absently down into the empty street as if waiting for something. There was no hint of impatience about his strong figure. Simply, with absolute confidence, he waited.
Five minutes passed and he did not alter his position. The soft strains in the room behind them had swelled into music that was passionately exultant. It seemed to fill and overflow the silence between them. Then came a triumphant crash and it ended. From within sounded the gay buzz of laughing voices.
Slowly Wingarde turned and looked at the bent, hopeless figure of the girl in the chair. He still held indifferently between his fingers the spray of white blossom for which he had made request.
He did not speak. Yet, as if in obedience to an unuttered command, the girl lifted her head and looked up at him. Her eyes were full of misery and indecision. They wavered beneath his steady gaze. Slowly, still moving as if under compulsion, she rose and stood before him, white and slim as a flower. She was quivering from head to foot.
The man still waited. But after a moment he put out his hand silently.
She did not touch it, choosing rather to lean upon the balustrade of the balcony for support. Then at last she spoke, in a whisper that seemed to choke her.
"I will marry you," she said—"for your money."
"I thought you would," Wingarde said very quietly.
He stood looking down at her bent head and white shoulders. There were sparkles of light in her hair that shone as precious metal shines in ore. Her hands were both fast gripped upon the ironwork on which she leant.
He took a step forward and was close beside her, but he did not again offer her his hand.
"Will you answer my original question?" he said. "I asked—when?"
In the moonlight he could see her shivering, shivering violently. She shook her head; but he persisted.
His manner was supremely calm and unhurried.
"This week?" he said.
She shook her head again with more decision.
"Oh, no—no!" she said.
"Next?" he suggested.
"No!" she said again.
He was looking at her full and deliberately, but she would not look at him. She was quaking in every limb. There was a pause. Then Wingarde spoke again.
"Why not next week?" he asked. "Have you any particular reason?"
She glanced at him.
"It would be—so soon," she faltered.
"What difference does that make?" A very strange smile touched his grim lips. "Having made up your mind to do something disagreeable, do you find shirking till the last moment makes it any easier—any more palatable? Surely the sooner it's over—"
"It never will be over," she broke in passionately. "It is for all my life! Ah, what am I saying? Mr. Wingarde"—she turned towards him, her face quivering painfully—"be patient with me! I have given my promise."
The smile on his face deepened into something that closely resembled a sneer.
"How long do you want me to wait?" he said. "Fifty years?"
She drew back sharply. But almost instantly he went on speaking.
"I will yield a point," he said, "if it means so much to you. But, you know, the wedding-day will dawn eventually, however remote we make it. Will you say next month?"
The girl's eyes wore a hunted look, but she kept them raised with desperate resolution. She did not answer him, however. After a moment he repeated his question. His face had become stern. The lines about his mouth were grimly resolute.
"Will you say next month, Nina?" he said. "It shall be the last day of it if you wish. But—next month."
His tone was inexorable. He meant to win this point, and she knew it.
Her breath came quickly, unevenly; but in face of his mastery she made a great effort to control her agitation.
"Very well," she said, and she spoke more steadily than she had spoken at all during the interview. "I will marry you next month."
"Will you fix the day?" he asked.
She uttered a sudden, breathless laugh—the reckless laugh of the loser.
"Surely that cannot matter!" she said. "The first day or the last—as you say, what difference does it make?"
"You leave the choice tome?" he asked, without the smallest change of countenance.
"Certainly!" she said coldly.
"Then I choose the first," he rejoined.
And at the words she gave a great start as if already she repented the moment of recklessness.
The notes of a piano struck suddenly through the almost tragic silence that covered up the protest she had not dared to utter. A few quiet chords; and then a woman's voice began to sing. Slowly, with deep, hidden pathos, the words floated out into the night; and, involuntarily almost, the man and the girl stood still to listen:
Shadows and mist and night, Darkness around the way, Here a cloud and there a star, Afterwards, Day!
Sorrow and grief and tears, Eyes vainly raised above, Here a thorn and there a rose; Afterwards, Love!
The voice was glorious, the rendering sublime. The spell of the singer was felt in the utter silence that followed.
Wingarde's eyes never left his companion's face. But the girl had turned from him. She was listening, rapt and eager. She had forgotten his very presence at her side. As the last passionate note thrilled into silence she drew a long breath. Her eyes were full of tears.
Suddenly she came to earth—to the consciousness of his watching eyes—and her expression froze into contemptuous indifference. She turned her head and faced him, scorning the tears she could not hide.
In her look were bitter dislike, fierce resistance, outraged pride.
"Some people," she said, with a little, icy smile, "would prefer to say 'Afterwards, Death!' I am one of them."
Wingarde looked back at her with complete composure. He also seemed faintly contemptuous.
"You probably know as much of the one as of the other," he coolly responded.
[Footnote 1: I desire to acknowledge my indebtedness to the Author—I regret to say unknown to me—of the little poem which I have quoted in this story.]
A RING OF VALUE
"So Nina has made up her mind to retrieve the family fortunes," yawned Leo, the second son of the house. "Uncommonly generous of her. My only regret is that it didn't occur to her that it would be a useful thing to do some time back. Is the young man coming to discuss settlements to-night?"
"What a beast you are!" growled Burton, the eldest son.
"We're all beasts, if it comes to that," returned Leo complacently. "May as well say it as think it. She has simply sold herself to the highest bidder to get the poor old pater out of Queer Street. And we shall, I hope, get our share of the spoil. I understand that Wingarde is lavish with his worldly goods. He certainly ought to be. He's a millionaire of the first water. A thousand or so distributed among his wife's relations would mean no more to him than the throwing of the crusts to the sparrows." He stopped to laugh lazily. "And the wife's relations would flock in swarms to the feast," he added in a cynical drawl.
Burton growled again unintelligibly. He strongly resented the sacrifice, though he could not deny that there was dire need for it.
The family fortunes were at a very low ebb. His father's lands were mortgaged already beyond their worth, and he and his brother had been trained for nothing but a life of easy independence.
There were five more sons of the family, all at various stages of education—two at college, three at Eton. It behooved the only girl of the family to put her shoulder to the wheel if the machine were to be kept going on its uphill course. Lord Marchmont had speculated desperately and with disastrous results during the past five years. His wife was hopelessly extravagant. And, of late, visions of the bankruptcy court had nearly distracted the former.
It had filtered round among his daughter's admirers that money, not rank, would win the prize. But somehow no one had expected Hereford Wingarde, the financial giant, to step coolly forward and secure it for himself. He had been regarded as out of the running. Women did not like him. He was scarcely ever seen in Society. And it was freely rumoured that he hated women.
Nina Marchmont, moreover, had always treated him with marked coldness, as if to demonstrate the fact that his wealth held no attractions for her. On the rare occasions that they met she was always ready to turn aside with half-contemptuous dislike on her proud face, and amuse herself with the tamest of her worshippers rather than hold any intercourse with the fabulous monster of the money-markets.
Certainly there was a surprise in store for the world in which she moved. It was also certain that she meant to carry it through with rigid self-control.
Meeting her two brothers at lunch, she received the half-shamed congratulations of one and the sarcastic comments of the other without the smallest hint of discomfiture. She had come straight from an interview with her father whom she idolized, and his gruff: "Well, my dear, well; delighted that you have fallen in love with the right man," and the unmistakable air of relief that had accompanied the words, had warmed her heart.
She had been very anxious about her father of late. The occasional heart attacks to which he was subject had become much more frequent, and she knew that his many embarrassments and perplexities were weighing down his health. Well, that anxiety was at least lightened. She would be able to help in smoothing away his difficulties. Surely the man of millions would place her in a position to do so! He had almost undertaken to do so.
The glad thought nerved her to face the future she had chosen. She was even very faintly conscious of a mitigation of her antipathy for the man who had made himself her master. Besides, even though married to him, she surely need not see much of him. She knew that he spent the whole of his day in the City. She would still be free to spend hers as she listed.
And so, when she saw him that evening, when his momentous interview with her father was over, she was moved to graciousness for the first time. A passing glimpse of her father's face assured her that all had gone well, aye, more than well.
As for Wingarde, he waived the money question altogether when he found himself alone with his fiancee.
"Your father will tell you what provision I am prepared to make for you," he coldly said. "He is fully satisfied—on your behalf."
She felt the sting of the last words, and flushed furiously. But she found no word of indignation to utter, though in a moment her graciousness was a thing of the past.
"I have not deceived you," she said, speaking with an effort.
He gave her a keen look.
"I don't think you could," he rejoined quietly. "And I certainly shouldn't advise you to try."
And then to her utter surprise and consternation he took her shoulders between his hands.
"May I kiss you?" he asked.
There was not a shade of emotion to be detected in either face or voice as he made the request. Yet Nina drew back from him with a shudder that she scarcely attempted to disguise.
"No!" she said vehemently.
He set her free instantly, and she thought he smiled. But the look in his eyes frightened her. She felt the mastery that would not compel.
"One more thing," he said, calmly passing on. "It is usual for a girl in your position to wear an engagement ring. I should like you to wear this in my honour."
He held out to her on the palm of his hand a little, old-fashioned ring set with rubies and pearls. Nina glanced at him in momentary surprise. It was not in the least what she would have expected as the rich man's first gift. Involuntarily she hesitated. She felt that he had offered her something more than mere precious stones set in gold.
He waited for her to take the ring in absolute silence.
"Mr. Wingarde," she said nervously, "I—I am afraid it is something you value."
"It is," he said. "It belonged to my mother. In fact, it was her engagement ring. But why should you be afraid?"
For the first time there was a note of softness in his voice.
Nina's face was burning.
"I would rather have something you do not care about," she said in a low tone.
Instantly his face grew hard.
"Give me your hand!" he said shortly. "The left, please!"
She gave it, the flush dying swiftly from her cheeks. She could not control its trembling as he deliberately fitted the ring on to the third finger.
"Understand," he said, "that I wish this ring and no other to be the token of your engagement to me. If you object to it, I am sorry. But, after all, it will only be in keeping with the rest. I must go now as I have an appointment to keep. Your father has asked me to lunch on Sunday and I have accepted. I hope you will pay me the compliment of being at home."
The first of June fell on a Saturday that year, and a good many people remained in town for it in order to be present at the wedding of Lord Marchmont's only daughter to Hereford Wingarde, the millionaire.
Comments upon Nina's choice had even yet scarcely died out, and Archie Neville, her faithful friend and admirer, was still wondering why he and his very comfortable income had been passed over for this infernal bounder whom no one knew. He had proposed to Nina twice, and on each occasion her refusal had seemed to him to be tinged with regret. To use his own expression, he was "awfully cut up" by the direction affairs had taken. But, philosophically determined to make the best of it, he attended the wedding with a smiling face, and even had the audacity to kiss the bride—a privilege that had not been his since childhood.
Hereford Wingarde, standing by his wife's side, the recipient of congratulations from crowds of people who seemed to be her intimate friends, but whom he had never seen before, noted that salute of Archie Neville's with a very slight lift of his black brows. He noted also that Nina returned it, and that her hand lingered in that of the young man longer than in those of any of her other friends. It was a small circumstance, but it stuck in his memory.
A house had been lent them for the honeymoon by one of Nina's wealthy friends in the Lake District. They arrived there hard upon midnight, having dined on board the train.
A light meal awaited them, to which they immediately sat down.
"You are tired," Wingarde said, as the lamplight fell upon his bride's flushed face and bright eyes.
His own eyes were critical. She laughed and turned aside from them.
"I am not at all tired," she said. "I am only sorry the journey is over. I miss the noise."
He made no further comment. He had a disconcerting habit of dropping into sudden silences. It took possession of him now, and they finished their refreshment with scarcely a word.
Then Nina rose, holding her head very high. He embarrassed her, and she strongly resented being embarrassed.
Wingarde at once rose also. He looked more massive than usual, almost as if braced for a particular effort.
"Going already?" he said. "Good-night!"
"Good-night!" said Nina.
She glanced at him with momentary indecision. Then she held out her hand.
He took it and kept it.
"I think you will have to kiss me on our wedding night," he said.
She turned very white. The hunted look had returned to her eyes. She answered him with the rapidity of desperation.
"You can do as you like with me now," she said. "I am not able to prevent you."
"You mean you would rather not?" he said, without the smallest hint of anger or disappointment in his tone.
She started a little at the question. There was no escaping the searching of his eyes.
"Of course I would rather not," she said.
He released her quivering hand and walked quietly to the door.
"Good-night, Nina!" he said, as he opened it.
She stood for a moment before she realized that he had yielded to her wish. Then, as he waited, she made a sudden impulsive movement towards him.
Her fingers rested for an instant on his arm.
"Good-night—Hereford!" she said.
He looked down at her hand, not offering to touch it. His lips relaxed cynically.
"Don't overwhelm me!" he said.
And in a flash she had passed him with blazing eyes and a heart that was full of fierce anger. So this was his reception of her first overture! Her cheeks burnt as she vowed to herself that she would attempt no more.
She did not see her husband again that night.
When they met in the morning, he seemed to have forgotten that they had parted in a somewhat strained atmosphere. The only peculiarity about his greeting was that it did not seem to occur to him to shake hands.
"There is plenty to do if you're feeling energetic," he said. 'Driving, riding, mountaineering, boating; which shall it be?"
"Have you no preference?" she asked, as she faced him over the coffee-urn.
He smiled slightly.
"Yes, I have," he said. "But let me hear yours first!"
"Driving," she said at once. "And now yours?"
"Mine was none of these things," he answered. "I wonder what sort of conveyance they can provide us with? Also what manner of horse? Are you going to drive or am I? Mind, you are to state your preference."
"Very well," she answered. "Then I'll drive, please, I know this country a little. I stayed near here three years ago with the Nevilles. Archie and I used to fish."
"Did you ever catch anything?" Wingarde asked, with his quiet eyes on her face.
"Of course we did," she answered. "Salmon trout—beauties. Oh, and other things. I forget what they were called. We had great fun, I remember."
Her face flushed at the remembrance. Archie had been very romantic in those days, quite foolishly so. But somehow she had enjoyed it.
Wingarde said no more. He rose directly the meal was over. It was a perfect summer morning. The view from the windows was exquisite. Beyond the green stretches of the park rose peak after peak of sunlit mountains. There were a few cloud-shadows floating here and there. In one place, gleaming like a thread of silver, he could see a waterfall tumbling down a barren hillside.
Suddenly, through the summer silence, an octave of bells pealed joyously.
"Why, it's Sunday!" she exclaimed. "I had quite forgotten. We ought to go to church."
Wingarde turned round.
"What an inspiration!" he said dryly.
His tone offended her. She drew herself up.
"Are you coming?" she asked coldly.
He looked at her with the same cynical smile with which he had received her overture the night before.
"No," he said. "I won't bore you with my company this morning."
She shrugged her shoulders.
"As you please," she said, turning to the door.
He made no rejoinder. And as she passed out, she realized that he believed she had suggested going to church in order to escape an hour of his hated society. It was but a slight injustice and certainly not wholly unprovoked by her. But, curiously, she resented it very strongly. She almost felt as if he had insulted her.
She found him smoking in the garden when she returned from her solitary expedition, and she hoped savagely that he had found his own society as distasteful as she did; though on second thoughts this seemed scarcely possible.
She decided regretfully, yet with an inner sense of expediency, that she would spend the afternoon in his company. But her husband had other plans.
"You have had a hot walk," he said. "You had better rest this afternoon. I am going to do a little mountaineering; but I mean to be back by tea-time. Perhaps when it is cool you will come for a stroll, unless you have arranged to attend the evening service also."
He glanced at her and saw the indignant colour rise in her face. But she was too proud to protest.
"As you wish," she said coldly.
Conversation during lunch was distinctly laboured. Wingarde's silences were many and oppressive. It was an unspeakable relief to the girl when at length he took himself off. She told herself with a wry smile that he was getting on her nerves. She did not yet own that he frightened her.
The afternoon's rest did her good; and when he returned she was ready for him.
He looked at her, as she sat in the garden before the tea-table in her muslin dress and big straw hat, with a shade of approval in his eyes.
He threw himself down into a chair beside her without speaking.
"Have you been far?" she asked.
"To the top of the hill," he answered. "I had a splendid view of the sea."
"It must have been perfect," she said.
"You have been there?" he asked.
"Oh, yes," she answered, "long ago; with Archie."
Wingarde turned his head and looked at her attentively. She tried to appear unconscious of his scrutiny, and failed signally. Before she could control it, the blood had rushed to her face.
"And you found it worth doing?" he asked.
The question seemed to call for no reply, and she made none.
But yet again she felt as if he had insulted her.
She was still burning with silent resentment when they started on their walk. He strolled beside her, cool and unperturbed. If he guessed her mood, he made no sign.
"Where are you taking me?" he asked presently.
"It is the road to the wishing-gate," she replied icily. "There is a good view of the lake farther on."
He made no further enquiry, and they walked on in dead silence through exquisite scenery.
They reached the wishing-gate, and the girl stopped almost involuntarily.
"Is this the fateful spot?" said Wingarde, coming suddenly out of his reverie. "What is the usual thing to do? Cut our names on the gate-post? Rather a low-down game, I always think."
She uttered a sudden, breathless laugh. "My name is here already," she said, pointing with a finger that shook slightly at some minute characters cut into the second bar of the gate.
He bent and looked at the inscription—two names cut with infinite care, two minute hearts intertwined beneath.
Nina watched him with a scornful little smile on her lips.
"Artistic, isn't it?" she said.
He straightened himself abruptly, and their eyes met. There was a curious glint in his that she had never seen before. She put her hand sharply to her throat. Quite suddenly she knew that she was afraid of this monster to whom she had given herself—horribly, unreasonably afraid.
But he did not speak, and her scare began to subside.
"Now I'm going to wish," she said mounting the lowest bar of the gate.
He spoke then, abruptly, cynically.
"Really," he said, "what can you have to wish for now?"
She looked back at him defiantly. Her eyes were on a level with his. Because he had frightened her, she went the more recklessly. It would never answer to let him suspect this power of his.
"Something that I'm afraid you will never give me," she said, a bitter ring in her voice.
"What?" he asked sharply.
"Among other things, happiness," she said. "You can never give me that."
She saw him bite his lip, but he controlled himself to speak quietly.
"Surely you make a mistake," he said, "to wish for something which, since you are my wife, can never be yours!"
She laughed, still standing on the gate, and telling herself that she felt no fear.
"Very well," she said, "I will wish for a Deliverer first."
His naked fist banged down upon the gate-post, and she saw the blood start instantly and begin to flow. She knew in that moment that she had gone too far.
Her fear returned in an overwhelming flood. She stumbled off the gate and faced him, white to the lips.
A terrible pause followed, in which she knew herself to be fighting him with every inch of her strength. Then suddenly, without apparent reason, she gave in.
"I was joking," she said, in a low voice. "I spoke in jest."
He made her a curt bow, his face inflexibly stern.
"It is good of you to explain," he said. "With my limited knowledge of your character and motives, I am apt to make mistakes."
He turned from her abruptly with the words, and, shaking the blood from his hand, bound the wound with his handkerchief.
"Shall we go on?" he said then.
And Nina accompanied him, ashamed and afraid. She felt as if at the last moment she had asked for quarter; and, contemptuously, because she was a woman, he had given it.
A GREVIOUS WOUND
After that moment of madness by the wishing-gate Nina's wanton desire to provoke to wrath the monster to whom she was chained died a sudden and unnatural death. She was scrupulously careful of his feelings from that day forward, and he treated her with a freezing courtesy, a cynical consideration, that seemed to form a barrier behind which the actual man concealed himself and watched.
That he did watch her was a fact of which she was miserably conscious. She knew with the certain knowledge of intuition that he studied her continually. She was perpetually under the microscope of his criticism, and there were times when she told herself she could not bear it. He was too much for her; too pitiless a tyrant, too stern a master. Her life was becoming insupportable.
A fortnight of their honeymoon had passed away, when one morning Wingarde looked up with a frown from a letter.
"I have had a summons to town," he said abruptly.
Nina's heart leapt at the words, and her relief showed itself for one unmanageable second in her face.
He saw it, and she knew he saw it.
"I shall be sorry," he said, with cutting sarcasm, "to curtail your enjoyment here, but the necessity for my presence is imperative. I should like to catch the two-thirty this afternoon if you can be ready by then."
Nina's face was burning. She held herself very erect.
"I can be ready before then if you wish," she said stiffly.
He rose from the breakfast-table with a curt laugh. As he passed her he flicked her cheek with the envelope he held in his hand.
"You are a dutiful wife, my dear," he said.
She winced sharply, and bent her head over her own letters.
"I do my best," she said, after a moment.
"I am sure of it," he responded dryly.
He paused at the door as if he expected her to say more. More came, somewhat breathlessly, and not upon the same subject.
Nina glanced up with sudden resolution.
"Hereford," she said, "can you let me have some money?"
She spoke with the rapidity of nervousness. She saw his hand leave the door. His face remained quite unmoved.
"For yourself?" he asked.
Considering the amount of the settlement he had made upon her, the question was absurd. Nina smiled faintly.
"No," she said, "not for myself."
He took a cheque-book from his pocket and walked to a writing-table.
"How much do you want?" he asked.
She hesitated, and he looked round at her.
"I—I only want to borrow it," she said haltingly. "It is rather a big sum."
"How much?" he repeated.
"Five thousand pounds," she answered, in a low voice.
He continued to look at her for several seconds. Finally he turned and shut up his cheque-book with a snap.
"The money will be placed to your credit to-morrow," he said. "But though a financier, I am not a money-lender. Please understand that! And let your family understand it, too."
And, rising, he walked straight from the room.
No further reference was made to the matter on either side. Nina's pride or her courage shrank from any expression of gratitude.
In the afternoon with intense thankfulness she travelled southward. Never were London smoke and dust more welcome.
They went straight to Wingarde's great house in Crofton Square. Dinner was served immediately upon their arrival.
"I must ask you to excuse me," Wingarde said, directly dessert was placed upon the table. "I have to go out—on business. In case I don't see you again, good-night!"
He was on his feet as he spoke. In her surprise Nina started up also.
"At this hour!" she exclaimed. "Why, it is nearly eleven!"
"At this hour," he grimly responded, "you will be able to dispense with my society no doubt."
His tone silenced her. Yet, as he turned to go, she looked after him with mute questioning in her eyes. She had a feeling that he was keeping something from her, and—perhaps it was merely the natural result of womanly curiosity baffled—she was vaguely hurt that he did not see fit to tell her whither his business was taking him.
A few words would have sufficed; but he had not chosen to utter them, and her pride was sufficient to suppress any display of interest in his affairs. She would not court the snub that she felt convinced he would not hesitate to administer.
So he left her without explanation, and Nina went drearily to bed. On the following morning, however, the sun shone upon her, and she went downstairs in better spirits.
The first person she encountered was her husband. He was sauntering about the morning-room in his overcoat, a cup of strong tea in his hand.
He greeted her perfunctorily, as his fashion was.
"Oh, good-morning!" he said. "I have only just got back. I was detained unavoidably. I am going upstairs for an hour's rest, and then I shall be off to the City. I don't know if you would care to drive in with me. I shall use the car, but it will then be at your service for the rest of the day."
"Have you been working all night?" Nina asked incredulously.
"It was unavoidable," he said again, with a touch of impatience. "You had better have a second brew of tea, this is too strong for you."
He set down his cup and rang the bell.
Nina stood and looked at him. He certainly did not look like a man who had been up all night. Alert, active, tough as wire, he walked back to the table and gathered together his letters. A faint feeling of admiration stirred in her heart. His, strength appealed to her for the first time.
"I should like to drive into the City with you," she said, after a pause.
He gave her a sharp glance.
"I thought you would be wanting to go to the bank," he remarked coolly.
She flushed and turned her back upon him. It was an unprovoked assault, and she resented it fiercely.
When they met again an hour later she was on the defensive, ready to resist his keenest thrust, and, seeing it, he laughed cynically.
"Armed to the teeth?" he asked, with a careless glance at her slim figure and delicate face.
She did not answer him by so much as a look. He handed her into the car and took his seat beside her.
"Can you manage to dine out with some of your people to-night?" he asked. "I am afraid I shall not be home till late."
"You seem to have a great deal on your hands," she remarked coldly.
"Yes," said Wingarde.
It was quite obvious that he had no intention of taking her into his confidence, and Nina was stubbornly determined to betray no interest. Then and there she resolved that since he chose to give himself up entirely to the amassing of wealth, not hesitating to slight his wife in the process, she also would live her separate life wholly independent of his movements.
She pretended to herself that she would make the most of it. But deep in her heart she hated him for thus setting her aside. His action pierced straight through her pride to something that sheltered behind it, and inflicted a grevious wound.
A STRUGGLE FOR MASTERY
"Jove! Here's a crush!" laughed Archie Neville. "Delighted to meet you again, Mrs. Wingarde! How did you find the Lakes?"
His good-looking, boyish face was full of pleasure. He had not expected to meet her. Nina's welcoming smile was radiant.
"Oh, here you are, Archie!" she exclaimed, as they shook hands. "Someone said you were out of town, but I couldn't believe anything so tragic."
"Quite right," said Archie. "Never believe the worst till there is positively no alternative. I'm not out of town, and I'm not going to be. It's awfully nice to see you again, you know! I thought the sun had set for the rest of the season."
Nina uttered a gay little laugh.
"Oh, dear, no! We certainly intended to stay longer, but Hereford was summoned back on business, and I really wasn't sorry on the whole. I did rather regret missing all the fun."
"Hereford must be doing dark deeds then," he said, "of which he keeps the rest of the world in complete ignorance. The markets are dead flat just now—nothing doing whatever. It's enough to make you tear your hair."
"Really!" said Nina. "He gave me to understant that it was something urgent."
And then she became suddenly silent, meeting Archie's eyes, and aware of the surprise he was too much of a gentleman to express. With a cold feeling of dissatisfaction she turned from the subject.
"It's very nice to be back again among my friends," she said. "Can't you come and dine to-morrow and go to the theatre afterwards?"
Archie considered a moment, and she knew that when he answered he was cancelling other engagements.
"Thanks, I shall be delighted!" he said, "if I shan't be de trop."
There was a touch of mockery in Nina's smile.
"We shall probably be alone," she said. "My husband's business keeps him late in the City. We have been home a week, and he has only managed to dine with me once."
"Isn't he here to-night?" asked Archie.
She shook her head.
"What an infernal shame!" he exclaimed impulsively. "Oh, I beg your pardon! That was a slip."
But Nina laid her hand on his sleeve.
"You needn't apologize," she said, in a low voice. "One can't have everything. If you marry—an outsider—for his money, you have to pay the penalty."
Archie looked at her with further indiscretion upon the tip of his tongue. But he thought twice and kept it back.
"I say, you know," he said awkwardly, "I—I'm sorry."
"Thank you," she said gently. "Well, you will come to-morrow?"
"Of course," he said. "What theatre shall we go to? I'll bring the tickets with me."
The conversation drifted away into indifferent topics and presently they parted. Nina was almost gay of heart as she drove homeward that night. She had begun to feel her loneliness very keenly, and Archie's society promised to be of value.
Her husband was waiting for her when she returned. As she entered her own sitting-room, he started up abruptly from an arm-chair as if her entrance had suddenly roused him from sleep. She was considerably surprised to see him there, for he had never before intruded without her permission.
He glanced at the clock, but made no comment upon the lateness of the hour.
"I hope you have enjoyed yourself," he said somewhat formally.
The words were as unexpected as was his presence there. Nina stood for a moment, waiting for something further.
Then, as he did not speak, she shrugged her shoulders and threw back her cloak.
"It was a tremendous crush," she said indifferently. "No, I didn't enjoy it particularly. But it was something to do."
"I am sorry you are feeling bored," he said gravely.
Nina sat down in silence. She did not in the least understand what had brought him there.
"It is getting rather late," she remarked, after a pause. "I am just going to have a cup of tea and then go to bed."
A little tea-tray stood on the table at her elbow. A brass kettle was fizzing cheerily above a spirit stove.
"Do you want a cup?" she asked, with a careless glance upwards.
He had remained standing, looking down at her with an expression that puzzled her slightly. His eyes were heavy, as if they wanted sleep.
"Thank you," he said.
Nina threw off her wraps and sat up to brew the tea. The light from a rose-shaded lamp poured full upon her. She looked superb and she knew it. The knowledge deprived her for once of that secret sense of fear that so brooded at the back of her intercourse with this man. He stood in total silence behind her. She began to wonder what was coming.
Having made tea, she leant back again with her hands behind her head.
"I suppose we must give it two minutes to draw," she remarked, with a smothered yawn. "Isn't it frightfully hot to-night? I believe there is thunder about."
He made no response, and she turned her eyes slowly upon him. She knew he was watching her, but a curious sense of independence possessed her that night. He did not disconcert her.
Their eyes met. Hers were faintly insolent. His were inscrutable.
At last he spoke.
"I am sorry you have not enjoyed yourself," he said, speaking rather stiffly. "Will you—by way of a change—come out with me to-morrow night? I think I may anyhow promise you"—he paused slightly—"that you shall not be bored."
There was a short silence. Nina turned and moved the cups on the little tray. She did not, however, seem embarrassed.
"I happen to be engaged to-morrow evening," she said coldly at length.
"Is it important?" he asked. "Can't you cancel the engagement?"
She uttered a little, flippant laugh. She had not hoped for such an opportunity as this.
"I'm afraid I really can't," she said. "You should have asked me earlier."
"What are you going to do?"
There was a new note in his voice—a hint of mastery. She resented it instantly.
"That is my affair," she said calmly, beginning to pour out the tea.
He looked at her as if he scarcely believed his ears. He was silent for some seconds, and very quietly she turned to him and handed him a cup.
He took it from her and instantly set it aside.
"Be good enough to answer my question!" he said.
She heard the gathering sternness in his tone, and, tea-cup in hand, she laughed. A curious recklessness possessed her that night. She felt as if she had the strength to fling off the bands of tyranny. But her heart had begun to beat very fast. She realized that this was no mere skirmish.
"Why should I answer you?" she asked, helping herself to some more cream with a hand that was slightly unsteady in spite of her effort to control it. "I do not see the necessity."
"I think you do," he rejoined.
Nina said no more. She swallowed her tea, nibbled at a wafer with a species of deliberate trifling calculated to proclaim aloud her utter fearlessness, and at length rose to go.
In that moment her husband stepped forward and took her by the shoulders.
"Before you leave this room, please," he said quietly.
She drew back from him in a blaze of indignant rebellion.
"I will not!" she said. "Let me go instantly!"
His hold tightened. His face was more grim than she had ever seen it. His eyes seemed to beat hers down. Yet when he spoke he did not raise his voice.
"I have borne a good deal from you, Nina," he said. "But there is a limit to every man's endurance."
"You married me against my will," she panted. "Do you think I have not had anything to endure, too?"
"That accusation is false," he said. "You married me of your own accord. Without my money, you would have passed me by with scorn. You know it."
She began to tremble violently.
"Do you deny that?" he insisted pitilessly.
"At least you pressed me hard," she said.
"I did," he replied. "I saw you meant to sell yourself. And I did not mean you to go to any scoundrel."
"So you bought me for yourself?" she said, with a wild laugh.
"I did." Wingarde's voice trembled a little. "I paid your price," he said, "and I have taken very little for it. You have offered me still less. Now, Nina, understand! This is not going on for ever. I simply will not bear it. You are my wife, sworn to obey me—and obey me you shall."
He held her fast in front of him. She could feel the nervous strength of his hands. It thrilled her through and through. She felt like a trapped animal in his grasp. Her resistance began to waver.
"What are you going to do?" she asked.
"I am going to conquer you," he said grimly.
"You won't do it by violence," she returned quickly.
Her words seemed to pierce through a weak place in the iron armour in which he had clad himself. Abruptly he set her free.
The suddenness of his action so surprised her that she tottered a little. He made a swift move towards her; but in a second she had recovered herself, and he drew back. She saw that his face was very pale.
"Are you quite sure of that?" he asked.
She did not answer him. Shaking from head to foot, she stood facing him. But words would not come.
After a desperate moment the tension was relaxed. He turned on his heel.
"Well, I have warned you," he said, and strode heavily away.
The moment she ceased to hear his footsteps, Nina sank down into a chair and burst into tears.
AN OFFER OF HELP
On the following morning Nina did not descend the stairs till she had heard the car leave the house. The strain of the previous night's interview had told upon her. She felt that she had not the resolution to face such another.
The heat was intense. She remembered with regret that she had promised to attend a charitable bazaar in the City that afternoon. Somehow she could summon no relish either for that or the prospect of the theatre with Archie at night. She wondered whither her husband had proposed to take her, half wishing she had yielded a point to go.
She went to the bazaar, fully prepared to be bored. The first person she saw, however, was Archie, and at once the atmosphere seemed to lighten.
He attached himself to her without a moment's delay.
"I say," he said, "send your car back! I'll take you home. I've got my hansom here. It's much more exciting than a motor. We'll go and have tea somewhere presently."
Nina hesitated for barely a second, then did as he required.
Archie's eyes were frankly tender. But, after all, why not? They had known each other all their lives. She laughed at the momentary scruple as they strolled through the bazaar together.
Archie bought her an immense fan—"to keep off the flies," as he elegantly expressed it; and she made a few purchases herself as in duty bound, and conversed with several acquaintances.
Then, her companion becoming importunate for departure, she declined tea in the hall and went away with him.
Archie was enjoying himself hugely.
"Now, where would you like to go for tea?" he asked as they drove away.
"I don't care in the least," she said, "only I'm nearly dead. Let it be somewhere close at hand."
Archie promptly decided in favour of a tea-shop in St. Paul's Churchyard.
"I suppose you have read the morning papers?" he said, as they sat down. "I thought your husband had something up his sleeve."
"What do you mean?" queried Nina quickly. "No, I know nothing."
"Don't you really? Well, he has made a few thousands sit up, I can tell you. You've heard of the Crawley gold fields? Heaven knows where they are, but that doesn't matter—somewhere in Australia of course. No one knew anything about them till recently. Well, they were boomed tremendously a little while ago. Your husband was the prime mover. He went in for them largely. Everyone went for them. They held for a bit, then your husband began to sell as fast as he could. And then, of course, the shares went down to zero. People waited a bit, then sold—for what they could get. No one knew who did the buying till yesterday. My dear Nina, your husband has bought the lot. He has got the whole concern into his hands for next to nothing. The gold fields have turned up trumps. They stand three times as high as they ever did before. He was behind the scenes. He merely sold to create a slump. If he chose to sell again he could command almost any price he cared to ask. Well, one man's loss is another man's gain. But he's as rich as Croesus. They say there are a good many who would like to be at his throat."
Nina listened with disgust undisguised on her face.
"How I loathe money!" she said abruptly.
"Oh, I say!" protested Archie. "You're not such an extremist as that. Think of the host of good things that can't be done without it."
"What good things does he do?" she demanded contemptuously. "He simply lives to heap up wealth."
"You can't say for certain that he doesn't do a few decent things when no one's looking," suggested Archie, who liked to be fair, even to those for whom he felt no liking. "People—rich men like that—do, you know. Why, only last night I heard of a man—he's a West End physician—who runs a sort of private hospital somewhere in the back slums, and actually goes and practises there when his consulting hours are over. Pure philanthropy that, you know. And no one but the slummers any the wiser. They say he's simply adored among them. They go to him in all their troubles, physical or otherwise. That's only an instance. I don't say your husband does that sort of thing. But he may."
Nina uttered her bitter little laugh.
"You always were romantic, Archie," she said. "But I'm afraid I'm past the romantic age. Anyhow I'm an unbeliever."
Archie gave her a keen look.
"I say—" he said, and stopped.
"Well?" Nina looked back at him questioningly.
"I beg your pardon," he said, colouring boyishly. "You won't like what I was going to say. I think I won't say it."
"You needn't consider my feelings," she returned, "I assure you I am not used to it."
"Oh, well," he said. "I was going to say that you talk as if he were a beast to you. Is he?"
Nina raised her dark eyebrows and did not instantly reply. Archie looked away from her. He felt uncomfortably that he had gone too far.
Then slowly she made answer:
"No, he is not. I think he has begun to realize that the battle is not always to the strong."
Struck by something in her tone, Archie glanced at her again.
"Jove!" he suddenly said. "How you hate him!"
The words were out almost before he knew it. Nina's face changed instantly. But Archie's contrition was as swift.
"Oh, I say, forgive me!" he broke in, with a persuasive hand on her arm. "Do, if you can! I know it was unpardonable of me. I'm so awfully sorry. You see, I—"
She interrupted hastily.
"It doesn't matter—it doesn't matter. I understand. It was quite an excusable mistake. Please don't look so distressed! It hasn't hurt me much. I think it would have hurt me more if it had been literally true."
The sentences ran out rapidly. She was as agitated as he. They had the little recess to themselves, and their voices scarcely rose above a whisper.
"Then it wasn't true?" Archie said, with a look of relief.
Nina drew back. She was not prepared to go as far as that. All her life she had sought to be honest in her dealings.
"It hasn't come actually to that yet," she said under her breath. "But it may—it may."
Somehow it relieved the burden that pressed upon her to be able to speak thus openly to her life-long comrade. But Archie looked grieved, almost shocked.
"What will you do if it does?" he asked.
"I shall leave him," she said, her face growing hard. "I think he understands that."
There was a heavy silence between them. Then impulsively, with pure generosity, Archie spoke.
"Nina," he said, "if you should need—help—of any sort, you know—will you count on me?"
Nina hesitated for a moment.
"Please!" said Archie gently.
She bent her head.
"Thank you," she said. "I will."
Half-an-hour later they went out again into the blazing sunshine.
"What do you think of my hack?" Archie asked, as they drove away westwards. "I got him at Tattersall's the other day. I haven't driven him before to-day. He's a bit jumpy. But I like an animal that can jump, don't you know."
"I know you do," laughed Nina. "I believe that is purely why you haven't started a motor yet. They can do everything that is vicious and extraordinary except jump. But do you really like a horse to shy at everything he passes? Look at him now! He doesn't like that hand-cart with red paint."
"He's an artist," grinned Archie. "It offends his eye; and no wonder. Don't be alarmed, though! He won't do anything outrageous. My man knows how to manage him."
Nina leant back. She was not, as a rule, nervous, but, as Archie's new purchase was forced protesting past the object of his fright, she was conscious of a very decided feeling of uneasiness. The animal looked to her vicious as well as alarmed.
They got safely past the hand-cart, and a brief interval of tranquillity followed as they trotted briskly down Ludgate Hill.
"He won't have time to look at anything now," said Archie cheerfully.
The words had scarcely left his lips when the tire of a stationary car they were passing exploded with a report like a rifle shot. In a second Archie's animal leapt into the air, struck the ground with all four hoofs together—and bolted.
"My man's got him," said Archie. "Sit still! Nothing's going to happen."
He put his arm in front of Nina and gripped the farther side of the hansom.
But Nina had not the smallest intention of losing her head. During the first few moments her sensations were more of breathless interest than fear. Certainly she was very far from panic.
She saw the roadway before them clear as if by magic before their galloping advance. She heard shouts, warning cries, yells of excitement. She also heard, very close to her, Archie's voice, swearing so evenly and deliberately that she was possessed by an insane desire to laugh at him. Above everything else, she heard the furious, frantic rhythm of the flying hoofs before them. And yet somehow inexplicably she did not at first feel afraid.
They tore with a speed that seemed to increase momentarily straight down the thoroughfare that a few seconds before had seemed choked with traffic. They shaved by vans, omnibuses, hand-barrows. Houses and shops seemed to whirl past them, like a revolving nightmare—ever the same, yet somehow ever different. A train was thundering over the bridge as they galloped beneath it. The maddened horse heard and stretched himself to his utmost speed.
And then came tragedy—- the tragedy that Nina always felt that she had known from the beginning of that wild gallop must come.
As they raced on to Ludgate Circus she had a momentary glimpse of a boy on a bicycle traversing the street before them at right angles. Archie ceased suddenly to swear. The reins that till then had been taut sagged down abruptly. He made a clutch at them and failed to catch them. They slipped away sideways and dragged on the ground.
There came a shock, a piercing cry. Nina started forward for the first time, but Archie flung his arms round her, holding her fast. Then they were free of the obstacle and dashing on again.
"Let me see!" she gasped. "Let me see!"
They bumped against a curb and nearly overturned. Then one of their wheels caught another vehicle. The hansom was whizzed half round, but the pitiless hoofs still tore on and almost miraculously the worst was still averted.
Archie's hold was close and nearly suffocated her; but over his shoulder Nina still managed to look ahead.
And thus looking she saw the most wonderful, and the most terrifying, episode of the whole adventure.
She saw a man in faultless City attire leap suddenly from the footway to the road in front of them. For a breathless instant she saw him poised to spring, and in her heart there ran a sudden, choking sense of anguished recognition. She shut her eyes and cowered in Archie's arms. Deliverance was coming. She felt it in every nerve. But how? And by whom?
There came a jerk and a plunge, a furious, straining effort. The fierce galloping ceased, yet they made still for a few yards a halting, difficult progress.
Then they stopped altogether, and she felt the shock of hoofs upon the splashboard.
Another moment and that, too, ceased. They stood still, and Archie's arms relaxed.
Nina lifted her head and saw her husband hatless in the road, his face set and grim, his hands gripping the reins with a strength that evidently impressed upon the runaway the futility of opposition. In his eyes was a look that made her tremble.
AFTER THE ACCIDENT
"You had better go home in the car," Wingarde said. "It is waiting for me in Fenwick Street. Mr. Neville, perhaps you will be good enough to accompany my wife. Your animal is tame enough now. Your man will have no difficulty with it, if he is to be found."
"Ah! Exactly!" Archie said.
He looked round vaguely. Nina was leaning on his arm. His man was nowhere to be seen, having some minutes since abandoned a situation which he had discovered to be beyond his powers to deal with.
A crowd surrounded them, and a man at his elbow informed him that his driver had thrown down the reins and jumped off before they were clear of the railway bridge. Archie swallowed the comment upon this discreet behaviour, that rose to his lips.
A moment later Wingarde, who had seemed on the point of departure, pushed his way hastily-back to him.
"Never mind the hansom!" he said. "I believe your man has been hurt. I will see to it. Just take my wife out of this, will you? I want to see if that boy is alive or dead."
He had turned again with the words, forcing his way through the crowd. Nina pressed after him. She was as white as the dress she wore. There was no holding her back. Archie could only accompany her.
It was difficult to get through the gathering throng. When finally they succeeded in doing so, they found Wingarde stooping over the unconscious victim of the accident. He had satisfied himself that the boy lived, and was feeling rapidly for broken bones.
Becoming aware of Nina's presence, he looked up with a frown. Then, seeing her piteous face, he refrained from uttering the curt rebuke that had risen to his lips.
"I want you to go home," he said. "I will do all that is necessary here. Neville, take my wife home! The car is close at hand in Fenwick Street."
"He isn't dead?" faltered Nina shakily.
"No—certainly not." Wingarde's voice was confident.
He turned from her to speak to a policeman; and Nina yielded to Archie's hand on her arm. She was more upset than she had realized.
Neither of them spoke during the drive westwards. Archie scowled a good deal, but he gave no vent to his feelings.
Arrived in Crofton Square, he would have taken his leave of her. But Nina would not hear of this.
"Please stay till Hereford comes!" she entreated. "You will want to know what he has done. Besides, I want you."
Archie yielded to pressure. No word was spoken by either in praise or admiration of the man who had risked his life to save theirs. Somehow it was a difficult subject between them.
Nearly two hours later Wingarde arrived on foot. He reported Archie's man only slightly the worse for his adventure.
"It ought to have killed him," he said briefly. "But men of that sort never are killed. I told him to drive back to stables. The horse was as quiet as a lamb."
"And the boy?" Nina asked eagerly.
"Oh, the boy!" Wingarde said. "His case is more serious. He was taken to the Wade Home. I went with him. I happen to know Wade."
"That's the West End physician," said Archie. "He calls himself Wade, I know, when he wants to be incog."
"That's the man," said Wingarde. "But I am not acquainted with him as the West End physician. He is purely a City acquaintance. Oh, are you going, Neville? We shall see you again, I suppose?"
It was not cordially spoken. Archie coloured and glanced at Nina.
"You are coming to dinner, aren't you?" she said at once. "Please do! We shall be alone. And you promised, didn't you?"
Archie hesitated for a moment. Wingarde was looking at him piercingly.
"I hope you won't allow my presence to interfere with any plans you may have made for to-night's amusement," he remarked. "I shall be obliged to go out myself after dinner."