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Rosa Mundi and Other Stories
by Ethel M. Dell
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Archie drew himself up. Wingarde's tone stung.

"You are very good," he said stiffly. "What do you say, Nina? Do you feel up to the theatre?"

Nina's colour also was very high. But her eyes looked softer than usual. She turned to her husband.

"Couldn't you come, too, for once, Hereford?" she asked. "We were thinking of the theatre. It—it would be nice if you came too."

The falter in the last sentence betrayed the fact that she was nervous.

Wingarde smiled faintly, contemptuously, as he made reply.

"Really, that's very kind of you," he said. "But I am compelled to plead a prior engagement. You will be home by midnight, I suppose?"

Archie made an abrupt movement. For a second he hovered on the verge of an indignant outburst. The man's manner, rather than his words, was insufferable. But in that second he met Wingarde's eyes, and something he saw there checked him. He pulled himself together and somewhat awkwardly took his leave.

Wingarde saw him off, with the scoffing smile upon his lips. When he returned to the drawing-room Nina was on her feet, waiting for him. She was still unusually pale, and her eyes were very bright. She wore a restless, startled look, as though her nerves were on the stretch.

Wingarde glanced at her.

"You had better go and lie down till dinner," he said.

Nina looked back at him. Her lips quivered a little, but when she spoke her voice was absolutely steady. She held her head resolutely high.

"I think Archie must have forgotten to thank you," she said, "for what you did. But I have not. Will you accept my gratitude?"

There was proud humility in her voice. But Wingarde only shrugged his shoulders with a sneer.

"Your gratitude would have been more genuine if you had been saved a widow instead of a wife," he said brutally.

She recoiled from him. Her eyes flashed furious indignation. She felt as if he had struck her in the face. She spoke instantly and vehemently. Her voice shook.

"That is a poison of your own mixing," she said. "You know it!"

"What! It isn't true?" he asked.

He drew suddenly close to her. His eyes gleamed also with the gleam of a smouldering fire. She saw that he was moved. She believed him to be angry. Trembling, yet scornful, she held her peace.

He gripped her wrists suddenly, bending his dark face close to hers.

"If it isn't true—" he said, and stopped.

She drew back from him with a startled movement. For an instant her eyes challenged his. Then abruptly their fierce resistance failed. She turned her face aside and burst into tears.

In a moment she was free. Her husband stood regarding her with a very curious look in his eyes. He watched her as she moved slowly away from him, fighting fiercely, desperately, to regain her self-control. He saw her sit down, leaving almost the length of the room between them, and lean her head upon her hand.

Then the man's arrested brutality suddenly reasserted itself, and he strode to the door.

"Pshaw!" he exclaimed as he went. "Don't I know that you pray for a deliverer every night of your life? And what deliverer would you have if not death—the surest of all—in your case positively the only one within the bounds of possibility?"

He was gone with the words, but she would not have attempted to answer them had he stayed. Her head was bowed almost to her knees, and she sat quite motionless, as if he had stabbed her to the heart.

Later she dined alone with Archie in her husband's unexplained absence, and later still, at the theatre, her face was as gay, her laugh as frequent, as any there.



IX

THE END OF A MYSTERY

On the following afternoon Nina went to the Wade Home to see the victim of the accident. She was received by the matron, a middle-aged, kindly woman, who was openly pleased with the concern her visitor exhibited.

"Oh, he's better," she said, "much better. But I'm afraid I can't let you see him now, as he is asleep. Dr. Wade examined him himself yesterday. And he was here again this morning. His opinion is that the spine has been only bruised. While unconsciousness lasted, it was, of course, difficult to tell. But the patient became conscious this morning, and Dr. Wade said he was very well pleased with him on the whole. He thinks we shall not have him very long. He's a bright little chap and thoroughly likes his quarters. His father is a dock labourer. Everyone knows the Wade Home, and all the patients consider themselves very lucky to be here. You see, the doctor is such a favourite wherever he goes."

"I have never met Dr. Wade," Nina said. "I suppose he is a great man?"

The matron's jolly face glowed with enthusiasm.

"He is indeed," she said—"a splendid man. You probably know him by another name. They say he is a leading physician in the West End. But we City people know him and love him by his assumed name only. Why, only lately he cut short his holiday on purpose to be near one of his patients who was dying. If you could manage to come to-morrow afternoon after four o'clock, no doubt you would see him. It is visiting-day, and he is always here on Sunday afternoons between three and six in case the visitors like to see him. I should be delighted to give you some tea. And you could then see the little boy."

"Thank you," Nina said. "I will."

That evening she chanced to meet Archie Neville at a friend's dinner-table and imparted to him her purpose.

"Jove!" he said. "Good idea! I'll come with you, shall I?"

"Please not in the hansom!" she said.

"Not a bit of it," returned Archie. "But you needn't be nervous. I've sacked that man. No matter! We'll go in a wheelbarrow if you think that'll be safer."

Nina laughed and agreed to accept his escort. Archie's society was a very welcome distraction just then.

To her husband she made no mention of her intention. She had established the custom of going her own way at all times. It did not even cross her mind to introduce the subject. He was treating her with that sarcastic courtesy of his which was so infinitely hard to bear. It hurt her horribly, and because of the pain she avoided him as much as she dared.

She did not know how he spent his time on Sundays. Except for his presence at luncheon she found she was left as completely to her own devices as on other days.

She had agreed to drive Archie to the Wade Home in her husband's landaulette.

Wingarde left the house before three and she was alone when Archie arrived.

The latter looked at her critically.

"What's the matter?" he asked.

"Nothing," she returned instantly. "Why?"

"You're looking off colour," he said.

Nina turned from him impatiently.

"There is nothing the matter with me," she said. "Shall we start?"

Archie said no more. But he glanced at her curiously from time to time. He wondered privately if her husband's society were driving her to that extreme which she had told him she might reach eventually.

Visitors were being admitted to the Wade Home when they arrived. They were directed to the ward where lay the boy in whom they were interested. Nina presented him with flowers and a book, and sat for some time talking with him. The little fellow was hugely flattered by her attentions, though too embarrassed to express his pleasure in words. Archie amused himself by making pennies appear and disappear in the palms of his hands for the benefit of a sad-faced urchin in the next bed who had no visitors.

In the midst of this the matron bustled in to beg Nina and her companion to take a cup of tea in her room.

"Dr. Wade is here and sure to come in," she said. "I should like you to meet him."

Nina accordingly took leave of her protege, and, followed by Archie, repaired to the matron's room.

The windows were thrown wide open, for the afternoon was hot. They sat down, feeling that tea was a welcome sight.

"I have a separate brew for Dr. Wade," said the matron cheerily. "He likes it so very strong. He almost always takes a cup. There! I hear him coming now."

There sounded a step in the passage and a man's quiet laugh. Nina started slightly.

A moment later a voice in the doorway said:

"Ah! Here you are, Mrs. Ritchie! I have just been prescribing a piece of sugar for this patient of ours. Her mother is waiting to take her away."

Nina was on her feet in an instant. All the blood seemed to rush to her heart. Its throbs felt thick and heavy. On the threshold her husband stood, looking full at her. In his arms was a little child.

"Dr. Wade!" smiled the matron. "You do spoil your patients, sir. There! Let me take her! Please come in! Your tea is just ready. I was just talking about you to Mrs. Wingarde, who came to see the boy who was knocked down by a hansom last week. Madam, this is Dr. Wade."

She went forward to lift the child out of Wingarde's arms. There followed a silence, a brief, hard-strung silence. Nina stood quite still. Her hands were unconsciously clasped together. She was white to the lips. But she kept her eyes raised to Wingarde's face. He seemed to be looking through her, and in his eyes was that look with which he had regarded her when he had saved her life and Archie's two days before.

He spoke almost before the matron had begun to notice anything unusual in the atmosphere.

"Ah!" he said, with a slight bow. "You know me under different circumstances—you and Mr. Neville. You did not expect to meet me here?"

Archie glanced at Nina and saw her agitation. He came coolly forward and placed himself in the breach.

"We certainly didn't," he said. "It's good sometimes to know that people are not all they seem. I congratulate you, er—Dr. Wade."

Wingarde turned his attention to his wife's companion. His face was very dark.

"Take the child to her mother, please, Mrs. Ritchie!" he said curtly, over his shoulder.

The matron departed discreetly, but at the door the child in her arms began to cry.

Wingarde turned swiftly, took the little one's face between his hands, spoke a soft word, and kissed it.

Then, as the matron moved away, he walked back into the room, closing the door behind him. All the tenderness with which he had comforted the wailing baby had vanished from his face.

"Mr. Neville," he said shortly, "my wife will return in the car with me. I will relieve you of your attendance upon her."

Archie turned crimson, but he managed to control himself—more for the sake of the girl who stood in total silence by his side than from any idea of expediency.

"Certainly," he said, "if Mrs. Wingarde also prefers that arrangement."

Nina glanced at him. He saw that her lip was quivering painfully. She did not attempt to speak.

Archie turned to go. But almost instantly Wingarde's voice arrested him.

"I can give you a seat in the car if you wish," he said. He spoke with less sternness, but his face had not altered.

Archie stopped. Again for Nina's sake he choked back his wrath and accepted the churlishly proffered amendment.

Wingarde drank his tea, strolling about the room. He did not again address his wife directly.

As for Nina, though she answered Archie when he spoke to her, it was with very obvious effort. She glanced from time to time at her husband as if in some uncertainty. Finally, when they took leave of the matron and went down to the car she seemed to hail the move with relief.

Throughout the drive westwards scarcely a word was spoken. At the end of the journey Archie turned deliberately and addressed Wingarde. His face was white and dogged.

"I should like a word with you in private," he said.

Wingarde looked at him for a moment as if he meant to refuse. Then abruptly he gave way.

"I am at your service," he said formally.

And Archie marched into the house in Nina's wake.

In the hall Wingarde touched his shoulder.

"Come into the smoking-room!" he said quietly.



X

TAKEN TO TASK

"I want to know what you mean," said Archie.

He stood up very straight, with the summer sunlight full in his face, and confronted Nina's husband without a hint of dismay in his bearing.

Wingarde looked at him with a very faint smile on his grim lips.

"You wish to take me to task?" he asked.

"I do," said Archie decidedly.

"For what in particular? The innocent deception practised upon an equally innocent public? Or for something more serious than that?"

There was an unmistakable ring of sternness behind Wingarde's deliberately scoffing tone.

Archie answered him instantly, with the quickness of a man who fights for his honour.

"For something more serious," he said. "It's nothing to me what fool trick you may choose to play for your own amusement. But I am not going to swallow an insult from you or any man. I want an explanation for that."

Wingarde stood with his back to the light and looked at him.

"In what way have I insulted you?" he said.

"You implied that I was not a suitable escort for your wife," Archie said, forcing himself to speak without vehemence.

Wingarde raised his eyebrows.

"I apologize if I was too emphatic," he said, after a moment. "But, considering the circumstances, I am forced to tell you that I do not consider you a suitable escort for my wife."

"What circumstances?" said Archie. He clenched his hands abruptly, and Wingarde saw it.

"Please understand," he said curtly, "that I will listen to you only so long as you keep your temper! I believe that you know what I mean—what circumstances I refer to. If you wish me to put them into plain language I will do so. But I don't think you will like it."

Archie pounced upon the words.

"You would probably put me to the trouble of calling you a liar if you did," he said, in a shaking voice. "I have no more intention than you have of mincing matters. As to listening to me, you shall do that in any case. I am going to tell you the truth, and I mean that you shall hear it."

He strode to the door as he spoke, and locked it, pocketing the key.

Wingarde did not stir to prevent him. He waited with a sneer on his lips while Archie returned and took up his stand facing him.

"You seem very sure of yourself," he said in a quiet tone.

"I am," Archie said doggedly. "Absolutely sure. You think I am in love with your wife, don't you?"

Wingarde frowned heavily.

"Are you going to throw dust in my eyes?" he asked contemptuously.

Archie locked his hands behind him.

"I am going to tell you the truth," he said again, and, though his voice still shook perceptibly there was dignity in his bearing. "Three years ago I was in love with her."

"Calf love?" suggested Wingarde carelessly.

"You may call it what you like," Archie rejoined. "That is to say, anything honourable. I was hard hit three years ago, and it lasted off and on till her marriage to you. But she never cared for me in the same way. That I know now. I proposed to her twice, and she refused me."

"You weren't made of money, you see," sneered Wingarde.

Archie's fingers gripped each other. He had never before longed so fiercely to hurl a blow in a man's face.

"If I had been," he said, "I am not sure that I should have made the running with you in the field. That brings me to what I have to say to you. I wondered for a long time how she brought herself to marry you. When you came back from your honeymoon I began to understand. She married you for your money; but if you had chosen, she would have married you for love."

He blurted out the words hastily, as though he could not trust himself to pause lest he should not say them.

Wingarde stood up suddenly to his full height. For once he was taken totally by surprise and showed it. He did not speak, however, and Archie blundered on:

"I am not your friend. I don't say this in any way for your sake. But—I am her's—- her friend, mind you. I don't say I haven't ever flirted with her. I have. But I have never said to her a single word that I should be ashamed to repeat to you—not one word. You've got to believe that whether you want to or not."

He paused momentarily. The frown had died away from Wingarde's face, but his eyes were stern. He waited silently for more. Archie proceeded with more steadiness, more self-assurance, less self-restraint.

"You've treated her abominably," he said, going straight to the point. "I don't care what you think of me for saying so. It's the truth. You've deceived her, neglected her, bullied her. Deny it if you can! Oh, no, this isn't what she has told me. It has been as plain as daylight. I couldn't have avoided knowing it. You made her your wife, Heaven knows why. You probably cared for her in your own brutal fashion. But you have never taken the trouble to make her care for you. You never go out with her. You never consider her in any way. You see her wretched, ill almost, under your eyes; and instead of putting it down to your own confounded churlishness, you turn round and insult me for behaving decently to her. There! I have done. You can kick me out of the house as soon as you like. But you won't find it so easy to forget what I've said. You know in your heart that it's the truth."

Archie ended his vigorous speech with the full expectation of being made to pay the penalty by means of a damaged skin.

Wingarde's face was uncompromising. It told nothing of his mood during the heavy silence that followed. It was, therefore, a considerable shock when he abruptly surrendered the citadel without striking a single blow.

"I am much obliged to you, Neville," he said very quietly. "And I beg to apologize for a most unworthy suspicion. Will you shake hands?"

Archie tumbled off his high horse with more speed than elegance. He thrust out his hand with an inarticulate murmur of assent. Perhaps after all the fellow had been no worse than an unmannerly bear. The next minute he was discussing politics with the monster he had dared to beard in his own den.

When Nina saw her husband again he treated her with a courtesy so scrupulous that she felt the miserable scourge of her uncertainty at work again. She would have given much to have possessed the key to his real feelings. With regard to his establishment of the Wade Home, he gave her the briefest explanation. He had been originally intended for a doctor, he said, had passed his medical examinations, and been qualified to practise. Then, at the last minute, a chance opening had presented itself, and he had gone into finance instead.

"After that," he somewhat sarcastically said, "I gave myself up to the all absorbing business of money-making. And doctoring became merely my fad, my amusement, my recreation—whatever you please to call it."

"I wish you had told me," Nina said, in a low voice.

At which remark he merely shrugged his shoulders, making no rejoinder.

She felt hurt by his manner and said no more. Only later there came to her the memory of the man she feared, standing in the doorway of the matron's room with a little child in his arms. Somehow that picture was very vividly impressed upon her mind.



XI

MONEY'S NOT EVERYTHING

"What! You are coming too?"

Nina stopped short on her way to the car and gazed at her husband in amazement.

He had returned early from the City, and she now met him dressed to attend a garden-party whither she herself was going.

He bent his head in answer to her surprised question.

"I shall give myself the pleasure of accompanying you," he said, with much formality.

She coloured and bit her lip. Swift as evil came the thought that he resented her intimacy with Archie and was determined to frustrate any attempt on their part to secure a tete-a-tete.

"You take great care of me," she said, with a bitter little smile.

Wingarde made no response; his face was quite inscrutable.

They scarcely spoke during the drive, and she kept her face averted. Only when he held out his hand to assist her to alight she met his eye for an instant and wondered vaguely at the look he gave her.

The party was a large one; the lawns were crowded. Nina took the first opportunity that offered to slip away from him, for she felt hopelessly ill at ease in his company. The sensation of being watched that had oppressed her during her brief honeymoon had reawakened.

Archie presently joined her.

"Did I see the hero of the Crawley gold field just now?" he asked. "Or was it hallucination?"

Nina looked at him with a very bored expression.

"Oh, yes, my husband is here," she said. "I suppose you had better not stay with me or he will come up and be rude to you."

Archie chuckled.

"Not he! We understand one another," he said lightly. "But, I say, what an impostor the fellow is! Everyone knows about Dr. Wade, but no one connects him in the smallest degree with Hereford Wingarde. It shouldn't be allowed to go on. You ought to tell the town-crier."

Nina tried to laugh, but it was a somewhat dismal effort.

"Come along!" said Archie cheerily. "There's my mother over there; she has been wondering where you were."

Nina went with him with a nervous wonder if Hereford were still watching her, but she saw nothing of him.

The afternoon wore away in music and gaiety. A great many of her acquaintances were present, and to Nina the time passed quickly.

She was sitting in a big marquee drinking the tea that Archie had brought her when she next saw her husband. By chance she discovered him talking with a man she did not know, not ten yards from her. The tent was fairly full, and the buzz of conversation was continuous.

Nina glanced at him from time to time with a curious sense of uneasiness, and an unaccountable desire to detach him from his acquaintance grew gradually upon her.

The latter was a heavy-browed man with queer, furtive eyes. As Nina stealthily watched them she saw that this man was restless and agitated. Her husband's face was turned from her, but his attitude was one of careless ease, into which his big limbs dropped when he was at leisure.

Later she never knew by what impulse she acted. It was as if a voice suddenly cried aloud in her heart that Wingarde was in deadly danger. She gave Archie her cup and rose.

"Just a moment!" she said hurriedly. "I see Hereford over there."

She moved swiftly in the direction of the two men. There was disaster in the air. She seemed to breathe it as she drew near. Her husband straightened himself before she reached him, and half turned with his contemptuous laugh. The next instant Nina saw his companion's hand whip something from behind him. She shrieked aloud and sprang forward like a terrified animal. The man's eyes maddened her more than the deadly little weapon that flashed into view in his right hand.

There followed prompt upon her cry the sharp explosion of a revolver-shot, and then the din of a panic-stricken crowd.

But Nina did not share the panic. She had flung herself in front of her husband, had flung her whole weight upon the upraised arm that had pointed the revolver and borne it downwards with all her strength. Those who saw her action compared it later with the furious attack of a tigress defending her young.

It was all over in a few brief seconds. Men crowded round and overpowered her adversary. Someone took the frenzied girl by the shoulders and forced her to relinquish her clutch.

She turned and looked straight into Wingarde's face, and at the sight her nerves gave way and she broke into hysterical sobbing, though she knew that he was safe.

He put his arm around her and led her from the stifling tent. People made way for them. Only their hostess and Archie Neville followed.

Outside on the lawn, away from the buzzing multitude, Nina began to recover herself. Archie brought a chair, and she dropped into it, but she held fast to Wingarde's arm, beseeching him over and over again not to leave her.

Wingarde stooped over her, supporting her; but he found nothing to say to her. He briefly ordered Archie to fetch some water, and made request to his hostess, almost equally brief, that their car might be called in readiness for departure. But his manner was wholly free from agitation.

"My wife will recover better at home," he said, and the lady of the house went away with a good deal of tact to give the order herself.

Left alone with him, Nina still clung to her husband; but she grew rapidly calmer in his quiet hold. After a moment he spoke to her.

"I wonder how you knew," he said.

Nina leant her head against him like an exhausted child.

"I saw it coming," she said. "It was in his eyes—mad hatred. I knew he was going to—to kill you if he could."

She did not want to meet his eyes, but he gently compelled her.

"And so you saved my life," he said in a quiet tone.

"I had to," she said faintly.

Archie here reappeared with a glass of water.

"The fellow is in a fit," he reported. "They are taking him away. Jove, Wingarde! You ought to be a dead man. If Nina hadn't spoilt that shot—"

Nina was shuddering, and he broke off.

"You'd better give up cornering gold fields," he said lightly. "It seems he was nearly ruined over your last coup. You may do that sort of thing once too often, don't you know. I shouldn't chance another throw."

Nina stood up shakily and looked at her husband.

"If you only would give it up!" she said, with trembling vehemence. "I—I hate money!"

Wingarde made no response; but Archie instantly took her up.

"You only hate money for what it can't buy," he said. "You probably expect too much from it. Don't blame money for that."

Nina uttered a tremulous laugh that sounded strangely passionate.

"You're quite right," she said. "Money's not everything. I have weighed it in the balance and found it wanting."

"Yes," Wingarde said in a peculiar tone. "And so have I."



XII

AFTERWARDS—LOVE

An overwhelming shyness possessed Nina that night. She dined alone with her husband, and found his silences even more oppressive than usual. Yet, when she rose from the table, an urgent desire to keep him within call impelled her to pause.

"Shall you be late to-night?" she asked him, stopping nervously before him, as he stood by the open door.

"I am not going out to-night," he responded gravely."

"Oh!" Nina hesitated still. She was trembling slightly. "Then—I shall see you again?" she said.

He bent his head.

"I shall be with you in ten minutes," he replied.

And she passed out quickly.

The night was still and hot. She went into her own little sitting-room and straight to the open window. Her heart was beating very fast as she stood and looked across the quiet square. The roar of London hummed busily from afar. She heard it as one hears the rushing of unseen water among the hills.

There was no one moving in the square. The trees in the garden looked dim and dreamlike against a red-gold sky.

Suddenly in the next house, from a room with an open window, there rose the sound of a woman's voice, tender as the night. It reached the girl who stood waiting in the silence. The melody was familiar to her, and she leant forward breathlessly to catch the words:

Shadows and mist and night, Darkness around the way; Here a cloud and there a star; Afterwards, Day!

There came a pause and the soft notes of a piano. Nina stood with clasped hands, waiting for the second verse. Her cheeks were wet.

It came, slow and exquisitely pure, as if an angel had drawn near to the turbulent earth with a message of healing:

Sorrow and grief and tears, Eyes vainly raised above; Here a thorn and there a rose; Afterwards, Love!

Nina turned from the open window. She was groping, for her eyes were full of tears. From the doorway a man moved quietly to meet her.

"Hereford!" she said in a broken whisper, and went straight into his arms.

He held her fast, so fast that she felt his heart beating against her bowed head. But it was many seconds before he spoke.

"Do you remember the wishing-gate, Nina?" he said, speaking softly. "And how you asked for a Deliverer?"

She stretched up her arms to clasp his neck without lifting her head. She was crying and could not answer him.

He put his hand upon her hair and she felt it tremble.

"Has the Deliverer come to you, dear?" he asked her very tenderly.

He felt for her face in the darkness, and turned it slowly upwards. She did not resist him though she knew well what was coming. Rather she yielded to his touch with a sudden, passionate willingness. And so their lips met in the first kiss that had ever passed between them.

Thus there came a Deliverer more potent than death into the heart of the girl who had married for money, and made its surrender sweet.



The Prey of the Dragon

I

"Ah! She's off!"

A deafening blast came from the great steamship's siren, and a long sigh went up from the crowd upon the quay. Someone raised a cheer that was quickly drowned in the noise of escaping steam. Very slowly, almost imperceptibly, the vessel began to move.

A black gap appeared, and widened between her and the wharf till it became a stretch of grey water veiled in the dank fog of a murky sea. The fog was everywhere, floating in wreaths upon the oily swell, blotting out all distant objects, making vague those that were near. Very soon the crowd on the shore was swallowed up and the great vessel was heading for the mouth, of the harbour and the wide loneliness beyond.

Sybil Denham hid her face in her hands for a moment and shivered. There was something terrible to her in the thought of those thousands of miles to be traversed alone. It cowed her. It appalled her.

Yet when she looked up again her eyes were brave. She stood committed now to this great step, and she was resolved to take it with a high courage. Whatever lay before her, she must face it now without shrinking. Yet it was horribly lonely. She turned from the deck-rail with nervous haste.

The next instant she caught her foot against a coil of rope and fell headlong, with a violence that almost stunned her. A moment she lay, then, gasping, began to raise herself.

But as she struggled to her knees strong hands lifted her, and a man's voice said gruffly:

"Are you hurt?"

She found herself in the grasp of a powerful giant with the physique of a prize-fighter and a dark face with lowering brows that seemed to wear an habitual scowl.

She was too staggered to speak; the fall had unnerved her. She put her hand vaguely behind her, feeling for the rail, looking up at him with piteous, quivering lips.

"You should look where you are going," he said, with scant sympathy. "Perhaps you will another time."

She found the rail, leaned upon it, then turned her back upon him suddenly and burst into tears which she was too shaken to restrain. She thought he would go away, hoped that he would; but he remained, standing in stolid silence till she managed in a measure to regain her self-control.

"Where did you hurt yourself?" he asked then.

She struggled with herself, and answered him. "I—I am not hurt."

"Then what are you crying for?"

The words sounded more like a rude retort than a question.

She found them unanswerable, and suddenly, while she still stood battling with her tears, something in the utterance touched her sense of humour. She gulped down a sob, and gave a little strangled laugh.

"I don't quite know," she said, drying her eyes. "Thank you for picking me up."

"I should have tumbled over you if I hadn't," he responded.

Again her sense of humour quivered, finally dispelling all desire to cry. She turned a little.

"I'm glad you didn't!" she said with fervour.

"So am I."

The curt rejoinder cut clean through her depression. She broke into a gay, spontaneous laugh.

But the next instant she checked herself and apologized.

"Forgive me! I'm very rude."

"What's the joke?" he asked.

She answered him in a voice that still quivered a little with suppressed merriment.

"There isn't a joke. I—I often laugh at nothing. It's a silly habit of mine."

His moody silence seemed to endorse this remark. She became silent also, and after a moment made a shy movement to depart.

He turned then and looked at her, looked full and straight into her small, sallow face, with its shadowy eyes and pointed features, as if he would register her likeness upon his memory.

She gave him a faint, friendly smile.

"I'm going below now," she said. "Good-bye!"

He raised his hat abruptly. His head was massive as a bull's.

"Mind how you go!" he said briefly.

And Sybil went, feeling like a child that has been rebuked.



II

"Do you always walk along with your eyes shut?" asked Brett Mercer.

Sybil gave a great start, and saw him lounging immediately in her path. The days that had elapsed since their first meeting had placed them upon a more or less intimate footing. He had assumed the right to speak to her from the outset—this giant who had picked her up like an infant and scolded her for crying.

It was a hot morning in the Indian Ocean. She had not slept during the night, and she was feeling weary and oppressed. But, with a woman's instinctive reserve, she forced a hasty smile. She would not have stopped to speak had he not risen and barred her progress.

"Sit here!" he said.

She looked up at him with refusal on her lips; but he forestalled her by laying an immense hand on her shoulder and pressing her down into the chair he had just vacated. This accomplished, he turned and hung over the rail in silence. It seemed to be the man's habit at all times to do rather than to speak.

Sybil sat passive, feeling rather helpless, dumbly watching the great lounging figure, and wondered how she should escape without hurting his feelings.

Suddenly, without turning his head, he spoke to her.

"I suppose if I ask what's the matter you'll tell me to go to the devil."

The remark, though characteristic, was totally unexpected. Sybil stared at him for a moment. Then, as once before, his rude address set her sense of humour a-quivering. Depressed, miserable though she was, she began to laugh.

He turned, and looked at her sideways.

"No doubt I am very funny," he observed dryly.

She checked herself with an effort.

"Oh, I know I'm horrid to laugh. But it's not that I am ungrateful. There is nothing really the matter. I—I'm feeling rather like a stray cat this morning, that's all."

The smile still lingered about her lips as she said it. Somehow, telling this taciturn individual of her trouble deprived it of much of its bitterness.

Mercer displayed no sympathy. He did not even continue to look at her. But she did not feel that his impassivity arose from lack of interest.

Suddenly:

"Is it true that you are going to be married as soon as you land?" he asked.

Sybil was sitting forward with her chin in her hands.

"Quite true," she said; adding, half to herself, "so far as I know."

"What do you mean by that?" He turned squarely and looked down at her.

She hesitated a little, but eventually she told him.

"I thought there would have been a letter for me from Robin at Aden, but there wasn't. It has worried me rather."

"Robin?" he said interrogatively.

"Robin Wentworth, the man I am going to marry," she explained. "He has a farm at Bowker Creek, near Rollandstown. But he will meet me at the docks. He has promised to do that. Still, I thought I should have heard from him again."

"But you will hear at Colombo," said Mercer.

She raised her eyes—- those soft, dark eyes that were her only beauty.

"I may," she said.

"And if you don't?"

She smiled faintly.

"I suppose I shall worry some more."

"Are you sure the fellow is worth it?" asked Mercer unexpectedly.

"We have been engaged for three years," she said, "though we have been separated."

He frowned.

"A man can alter a good deal in three years."

She did not attempt to dispute the point. It was one of the many doubts that tormented her in moments of depression.

"And what will you do if he doesn't turn up?" proceeded Mercer.

She gave a sharp shiver.

"Don't—don't frighten me!" she said.

Mercer was silent. He thrust one hand into his pocket, and absently jingled some coins. He began to whistle under his breath, and then, awaking to the fact, abruptly stopped himself.

"If I were in your place," he said at length, "I should get off at Colombo and sail home again on the next boat."

Sybil shook her head slowly but emphatically.

"I am quite sure you wouldn't. For one thing you would be too poor, and for another you would be too proud."

"Are you very poor?" he asked her point blank.

She nodded.

"And very proud."

"And your people?"

"Only my father is living, and I have quarrelled with him."

"Can't you make it up?"

"No," she said sharply and emphatically. "I could never return to my father. There is no room for me now that he has married again. I would sooner sell matches at a street corner than go back to what I have left."

"So that's it, is it?" said Mercer. He was looking at her very attentively with his brows drawn down. "You are not happy at home, so you are plunging into matrimony to get away from it all."

"We have been engaged for three years," she protested, flushing.

"You said that before," he remarked. "It seems to be your only argument, and a confoundedly shaky one at that."

She laughed rather unsteadily.

"You are not very encouraging."

"No," said Mercer.

He was still looking at her somewhat sternly. Involuntarily almost she avoided his eyes.

"Perhaps," she said, with a touch of wistfulness, "when you see my fiance you will change your mind."

He turned from her with obvious impatience.

"Perhaps you will change yours," he said.

And with that surly rejoinder of his the conversation ended. The next moment he moved abruptly away, leaving her in possession.

III

It was early morning when they came at last into port. When Sybil appeared on deck she found it crowded with excited men, and the hubbub was deafening. A multitude of small boats buzzed to and fro on the tumbling waters below them, and she expected every instant to see one swamped as the great ship floated majestically through the throng.

She had anticipated a crowd of people on the wharf to witness their arrival, but the knot of men gathered there scarcely numbered a score. She scanned them eagerly, but it took only a very few seconds to convince her that Robin Wentworth was not among them. And there had been no letter from him at Colombo.

"They don't allow many people on the wharf," said Mercer's voice behind her. "There will be more on the other side of the Customs house."

She looked up at him, bravely smiling, though her heart was throbbing almost to suffocation and she could not speak a word.

He passed on into the crowd and she lost sight of him.

There followed a delay of nearly half-an-hour, during which she stood where she was in the glaring sunshine, dumbly watching. The town, with its many buildings, its roar of traffic; the harbour, with its ships and its hooting sirens; the hot sky, the water that shone like molten brass; all were stamped upon her aching brain with nightmare distinctness. She felt as one caught in some pitiless machine that would crush her to atoms before she could escape.

The gangways were fixed at last, and there was a general movement. She went with the crowd, Mercer's last words still running through her brain with a reiteration that made them almost meaningless. On the other side of the Customs house! Of course, of course she would find Robin there, waiting for her!

She said it to herself over and over as she stepped ashore, and she began to picture their meeting. And then, suddenly, an awful doubt assailed her. She could not recall his features. His image would not rise before her. The memory of his face had passed completely from her mind. It had never done so before, and she was scared. But she strove to reassure herself with the thought that she must surely recognize him the moment her eyes beheld him. It was but a passing weakness this, born of her agitation. Of course, she would know him, and he would know her, too, mightily though she felt she had changed during those three years that they had not met.

She moved on as one in a dream, still with that nightmare of oppression at her heart. The crowd of hurrying strangers bewildered her. Her loneliness appalled her. She had an insane longing to rush back to her cabin and hide herself. But she pressed on, on into the Customs house, following her little pile of luggage that looked so ludicrously insignificant among all the rest.

The babel here was incessant. She felt as if her senses would leave her. Piteously, like a lost child, she searched every face within her scope of vision; but she searched in vain for the face of a friend.

Later, she found herself following an official out into an open space like a great courtyard, that was crammed with vehicles. He was wheeling her luggage on a trolley. Suddenly he faced round and asked her whither she wanted to go.

She looked at him helplessly. "I am expecting someone to meet me," she said.

He stared at her in some perplexity, and finally suggested that he should set down her luggage and leave her to wait where she was.

To this she agreed, and when he had gone she seated herself on her cabin trunk and faced the situation. She was utterly alone, with scarcely any money in her possession, and no knowledge whatever of the place in which she found herself. Robin would, of course, come sooner or later, but till he came she was helpless.

What should she do, she wondered desperately? What could she do? All about her, people were coming and going. She watched them dizzily. There was not one of them who seemed to be alone. The heat and glare was intense. The clatter of wheels sounded in her ears like the roar of great waters. She felt as if she were sinking down, down through endless turmoil into a void unspeakable.

How long she had sat there she could not have said. It seemed to her hours when someone came up to her with a firm and purposeful stride, and stooping, touched her shoulder. She looked up dazedly, and saw Brett Mercer.

He said something to her, but it was as if he spoke in an unknown language. She had not the faintest idea what he meant. His face swam before her eyes. She shook her head at him vaguely, with quivering lips.

He stooped lower. She felt his arm encircle her, felt him draw her to her feet. Again he seemed to be speaking, but his words eluded her. The roar of the great waters filled her brain. Like a lost child she turned and clung to the supporting arm.



IV

Later, it seemed to her that her senses must have deserted her for a time, for she never remembered what happened to her next. A multitude of impressions crowded upon her, but she knew nothing with distinctness till she woke to find herself lying in a room with green blinds half-drawn, with Mercer stooping over her, compelling her to drink a nauseating mixture in a wine-glass.

As soon as full consciousness returned to her she refused to take another drop.

"What is it? It—it's horrible."

"It's the best stuff you ever tasted," he told her bluntly. "You needn't get up. You are all right as you are."

But she sat up, nevertheless, and looked at him confusedly. "Where am I?" she said.

He seated himself on the corner of a table that creaked loudly beneath his weight. It seemed to her that he looked even more massive than usual—a bed-rock of strength. His eyes met hers with a certain mastery.

"You are in a private room in a private hotel," he said. "I brought you here."

"In a hotel!" She stared at him for a moment, stricken silent by the information; then quickly she rose to her feet. "Oh, but I—I can't stay!" she said. "I have no money."

"I know," said Mercer. He remained seated on the table edge, his hands in his pockets, his eyes unwaveringly upon her. "That's where I come in," he told her, with a touch of aggressiveness, as though he sighted difficulties ahead. "I have money—plenty of it. And you are to make use of it."

She stood motionless, gazing at him. His eyes never left her. She could not quite fathom his look, but it was undoubtedly stern.

"Mr. Mercer," she said at last, rather piteously, "I—indeed I am grateful to you, much more than grateful. But—I can't!"

"Rubbish!" said Mercer curtly. "If you weren't a girl, I should tell you not to be a fool!"

She was clasping and unclasping her hands. It was to be a battle of wills. His rough speech revealed this to her. And she was ill-equipped for the conflict. His dominant personality seemed to deprive her of even the desire to fight. She remembered, with a sudden, burning flush, that she had clung to him only a little while before in her extremity of loneliness. Doubtless he remembered it too.

Yet she braced herself for the struggle. He could not, after all, compel her to accept his generosity.

"I am sorry," she said; "I am very sorry. But, you know, there is another way in which you can help me."

"What is that?" said Mercer.

"If you could tell me of some respectable lodging," she said. "I have enough for one night if the charges are moderate. And even after that—if Robin doesn't come—I have one or two little things I might sell. He is sure to come soon."

"And if he doesn't?" said Mercer.

Her fingers gripped each other.

"I am sure he will," she said.

"And if he doesn't?" said Mercer again.

His persistence became suddenly intolerable. She turned on him with something like anger—the anger of desperation.

"Why will you persist in trying to frighten me? I know he will come. I know he will!"

"You don't know," said Mercer. "I am not frightening you. You were afraid before you ever spoke to me."

He spoke harshly, without pity, and still his eyes dwelt resolutely upon her. He seemed to be watching her narrowly.

She did not attempt to deny his last words. She passed them by.

"I shall write to Bowker Creek. He may have mistaken the date."

"He may," said Mercer, in a tone she did not understand. "But, in the meantime, why should you turn your back upon the only friend you have at hand? It seems to me that you are making a fuss over nothing. You have been brought up to it, I daresay; but it isn't the fashion here. We are taught to take things as they come, and make the best of 'em. That's what you have got to do. It'll come easier after a bit."

"It will never come easily to me to—to live on charity," she protested, rather incoherently.

"But you can pay me back," said Brett Mercer.

She shook her head.

"Not if—if Robin——"

"I tell you, you can!" he insisted stubbornly.

"How?" She turned suddenly and faced him. There was a hint of defiance, or, rather, daring, in her manner. She met his look with unswerving resolution. "If there is a good chance of my being able to do that," she said, "even if—even if Robin fails me, I will accept your help."

"You will be able to do it," said Mercer.

"How?" she asked again.

"I will tell you," he said, "when you are quite sure that Robin has failed you."

"Tell me now!" she pleaded. "If it is some work that you can find for me to do—and I will do anything in the world that I can—it would be such a help to me to know of it. Won't you tell me what you mean? Please do!"

"No," said Mercer. "It is only a chance, and you may refuse it. I can't say. You may feel it too much for you to attempt. If you do, you will have to endure the obligation. But you shall have the chance of paying me back if you really want it."

"And you won't tell me what it is?" she said.

"No." He got to his feet, and stood looking down at her. "I can't tell you now. I am not in a position to do so. I am going away for a few days. You will wait here till I come back?"

"Unless Robin comes," she said. "And then, of course, I would leave you a message."

He nodded.

"Otherwise you will stay here?"

"If you are sure you wish it," she said.

"I do. And I am going to leave you this." He laid a packet upon the table. "It is better for you to be independent, for the sake of appearances." His iron mouth twitched a little. "Now, good-bye! You won't be more miserable than you can help?"

She smiled up at him bravely.

"No; I won't be miserable. How long shall you be gone?"

"Possibly a week, possibly a little more."

"But you will come back?" she said quickly, almost beseechingly.

"I shall certainly come back," he said.

With the words his great hand closed firmly upon hers, and she had a curious, vagrant feeling of insecurity that she could not attempt to analyse. Then abruptly he let her go. An instant his eyes still held her, and then, before she could begin to thank him, he turned to the door and was gone.



V

For ten days, that seemed to her like as many years, Sybil Denham waited in the shelter into which she had been so relentlessly thrust for an answer to her letter to Bowker Creek, and during the whole of that time she lived apart, exchanging scarcely a word with any one. Every day, generally twice a day, she went down to the wharf; but, she could not bring herself to linger. The loneliness that perpetually dogged her footsteps was almost poignant there, and sometimes she came away with panic at her heart. Suppose Mercer also should forsake her! She had not the faintest idea what she would do if he did. And yet, whenever she contemplated his return, she was afraid. There was something about the man that she had never fathomed—something ungovernable, something brutal—from which instinctively she shrank.

On the evening of the tenth day she received her answer—a letter from Rollandstown by post. The handwriting she knew so well sprawled over the envelope which her trembling fingers could scarcely open. Relief was her first sensation, and after it came a nameless anxiety. Why had he written? How was it—how was it that he had not come to her?

Trembling all over, she unfolded the letter, and read:

"Dear Sybil,—I am infernally sorry to have brought you out for nothing, for I find that I cannot marry you after all. Things have gone wrong with me of late, and it would be downright folly for me to think of matrimony under existing circumstances. I am leaving this place almost at once, so there is no chance of hearing from you again. I hope you will get on all right. Anyhow, you are well rid of me.—Yours,

"ROBIN."

Beneath the signature, scribbled very faintly, were the words, "I'm sorry, old girl; I'm sorry."

She read the letter once, and once only; but every word stamped itself indelibly upon her memory, every word bit its way into her consciousness as though it had been scored upon her quivering flesh. Robin had failed her. That ghastly presentiment of hers had come true. She was alone—alone, and sinking in that awful whirlpool of desolation into which for so long she had felt herself being drawn. The great waters swirled around her, rising higher, ever higher. And she was alone.

Hours passed. She sat in a sort of trance of horror, Robin's letter spread out beneath her nerveless fingers. She did not ask herself what she should do. The blow had stunned all her faculties. She could only sit there face to face with despair, staring blind-eyed before her, motionless, cold as marble to the very heart of her. She fancied—she even numbly hoped—that she was going to die.

She never heard repeated knocking at her door, or remembered that it was locked, till a man's shoulder burst it open. Then, indeed, she turned stiffly and looked at the intruder.

"You!" she said.

She had forgotten Brett Mercer.

He came forward quickly, stooped and looked at her; then went down on his knee and thrust his arm about her.

She sat upright in his hold, not yielding an inch, not looking at him. Her eyes were glassy.

For a little he held her; then gently but insistently he drew her to him, pillowed her head against him, and began to rub her icy cheek.

"I've left you alone too long," he said.

She suffered him dumbly, scarcely knowing what she did. But presently the blood that seemed to have frozen in her veins began to circulate again, and the stiffness passed from her limbs. She stirred in his hold like a frightened bird.

"I'm sorry!" she faltered.

He let her draw away from him, but he kept his arm about her. She looked at him, and found him intently watching her. Her eyes fell, and rested upon the letter which lay crumpled under her hands.

"A dreadful thing has happened to me," she said. "Robin has written to say—to say—that he cannot marry me!"

"What is there dreadful in that?" said Mercer.

She did not look up, though his words startled her a little.

"It—has made me feel like—like a stray cat again," she said, with the ghost of a smile about her lips. "Of course, I know I'm foolish. There must be plenty of ways in which a woman can earn her living here. You yourself were thinking of something that I might do, weren't you?"

"I was," said Mercer. He laid his great hand upon hers, paused a moment, then deliberately drew her letter from beneath them and crushed it into a ball. "But I want you to tell me something before we go into that. The truth, mind! It must be the truth!"

"Yes?" she questioned, with her head bent.

"You must look at me," he said, "or I shan't believe you."

There was something Napoleonic about his words which placed them wholly beyond the sphere of offensiveness. Slowly she turned her head and looked him in the eyes.

He took his arm abruptly away from her.

"Heavens!" he said. "How miserable you look! Are you very miserable?"

"I'm not very happy," she said.

"But you always smile," he said, "even when you're crying. Ah, that's better! I scarcely knew you before. Now, tell me! Were you in love with the fellow?"

She shrank a little at the direct question. He put his hand on her shoulder. His touch was imperious.

"Just a straight answer!" he said. "Were you?"

She hesitated, longing yet fearing to lower her eyes.

"I—I don't quite know," she said at length. "I used to think so."

"You haven't thought so of late?" His eyes searched hers unsparingly, with stern insistence.

"I haven't been sure," she admitted.

He released her and rose.

"You won't regret him for long," he said. "In fact, you'll live to be glad that you didn't have him!"

She did not contradict him. He was too positive for that. She watched him cross the room with a certain arrogance, and close the half-open door. As he returned she stood up.

"Can we get to business now?" she said.

"Business?" said Mercer.

With a steadiness that she found somewhat difficult of accomplishment she made reply:

"You thought you could find me employment—some means by which I could pay you back."

"You still want to pay me back?" he said.

She glanced up half nervously.

"I know that I can never repay your kindness to me," she said. "So far as that goes, I am in your debt for always. But—the money part I must and will, somehow, return."

"Being the most important part?" he suggested, halting in front of her.

"I didn't mean to imply that," she answered. "I think you know which I put first. But I can only do what I can, and money is repayable."

"So is kindness," said Mercer.

Again shyly she glanced at him.

"I am afraid I don't quite understand."

He sat down once more upon the table edge to bring his eyes on a level with hers.

"There's nothing to be scared about," he said.

She smiled a little.

"Oh, no; I am not scared. I believe you think me even more foolish than I actually am."

"No, I don't," said Mercer. "If I did, I shouldn't say what I am going to say. As it is, you are not to answer till you have counted up to fifty. Is that a bargain?"

"Yes," she said, beginning to feel more curious than afraid.

"Here goes then," said Brett Mercer. "I want a wife, and I want you. Will you marry me? Now, shut your eyes and count!"

But Sybil disobeyed him. She opened her eyes wide, and stared at him in breathless amazement.

Mercer stared back with absolute composure.

"I'm in dead earnest," he told her. "Never made a joke in my life. Of course, you'll refuse me. I know that. But I shan't give you up if you do. If you don't marry me, you won't marry any one else, for I'll lick any other man off the ground. I come first with you now, and I mean to stay first."

He stopped, for amazement had given place to something else on her face. She looked at him queerly, as if irresolute for a few seconds; but she no longer shrank from meeting his eyes. And then quite suddenly she broke into her funny little laugh.

"Amusing, is it?" he said.

She turned sharply away, with one hand pressed to her mouth, obviously struggling with herself.

At last:

"Oh, I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't mean to laugh really—really. Only you—you're such a monster, and I'm such a shrimp! Please don't be vexed with me!"

She put out her hand to him, without turning.

He did not take it at once. When he did, he drew her round to face him. There was an odd restraint about the action, determined though it was.

"Well?" he said gruffly. "Which is it to be? Am I to go to the devil, or stay with you?"

She looked down at the great hand that held her. She was still half laughing, though her lips quivered.

"I couldn't possibly marry you yet," she said.

"No. To-morrow!" said Mercer.

She shook her head.

"Not even then."

"Listen!" he said. "If you won't marry me at once you will have to come with me without. For I am going up-country to see my farms, and I don't mean to leave you here."

"Can't I wait till you come back?" she said.

"What for?"

He leaned forward a little, trying to peer under her drooping lids. She was trembling slightly.

"I think you forget," she said, "that—that we hardly know each other."

"How are we to get any nearer if I'm up-country and you're here?" he said.

She looked at him unwillingly.

"You may change your mind when you have had time to think it over," she said, colouring deeply.

"I'll take the risk," said Mercer. "Besides"—she saw his grim smile for an instant—"I've been thinking of nothing else since I met you."

She started a little.

"I—I had no idea."

"No," he said; "I saw that. You needn't be afraid of me on that account. It ought to have the opposite effect."

"I am not afraid of you," she said, with a certain dignity. "But I, too, should have time for consideration."

"A woman doesn't need it," he asserted. "She can make up her mind at a moment's notice."

"And is often sorry for ever afterwards," she said smiling faintly.

He thrust out his jaw, as if challenging her.

"You think I shall make you sorry?"

"No," she answered. "But I want to be quite sure."

"Which is another reason for marrying me to-morrow," he said. "I'm not going to let you wait. It's only a whim. You weren't created to live alone, and there is no reason why you should. I am here, and you will have to take me."

"Whether I want to or not?" she said.

"Don't you want to?" he questioned.

She was silent.

He lifted the hand he held and looked at it. He spanned her wrist with his finger and thumb.

"That's reason enough for me," he abruptly said. "You are nothing but skin and bone. You've been starving yourself."

"I haven't," she protested. "I haven't, indeed."

"I don't believe you," he retorted rudely. "You weren't such a skeleton as this when I saw you last. Come, what's the good of fighting? You'll have to give in."

She smiled again faintly at the rough persuasion in his voice, but still she hesitated.

"I shan't eat you, you know," he proceeded, pressing his advantage. "I shan't do anything you won't like."

She glanced at him quickly.

"You mean that?"

His eyes looked straight back at her.

"Yes, I mean it."

"Can I trust you?" she said, almost in a whisper.

He rose to his full height, and stood before her. And in that moment an odd little thrill went through her. He was magnificent—the finest man she had ever seen. She caught her breath a little, feeling awed before the immensity of his strength. But, very curiously, she no longer felt afraid.

"You must ask yourself that question," he said bluntly. "You have my word."

And with a gasp she let herself go at last.

"I will take you on trust," she said.



VI

When Sybil at length travelled up-country with her husband the shearing season had already commenced. They went by easy stages, for the heat was great, and she was far from strong. She knew that Mercer was anxious to reach his property, and she would have journeyed more rapidly if he would have permitted it, but upon this point he was firm. At every turn he considered her, and she marvelled at the intuition with which he divined her unspoken wishes. Curt and rough though he was, his care surrounded her in a magic circle within which she dwelt at ease. With all his imperiousness she did not find him domineering, and this fact was a constant marvel to her, for she knew the mastery of his will. By some mysterious power he curbed himself, and day by day her confidence in him grew.

They accomplished the greater part of the journey by rail, and then when the railway ended came the long, long ride. They travelled for five days, spending each night at an inn at some township upon the road. Through dense stretches of forest, through great tracts of waste country, and again through miles of parched pasture-land they rode, and during the whole of that journey Mercer's care never relaxed. She never found him communicative. He would ride for hours without uttering a word, but yet she was subtly conscious of his close attention. She knew that she was never out of his thoughts.

At the inns at which they rested he always saw himself to her comfort, and the best room was always placed at her disposal. One thing impressed her at every halt. The innkeepers one and all stood in awe of him. Not one of them welcomed him, but not one of them failed to attend with alacrity to his wants. It puzzled her, for she herself had never found him really formidable.

On the last morning of their ride, when they set forth, she surprised a look of deep compassion in the eyes of the innkeeper's wife as she said good-bye, and it gave her something of a shock. Why was the woman sorry for her? Had she heard her story by any strange chance? Or was it for some other reason? It left an unpleasant impression upon her. She wished she had not seen it.

They rode that day almost exclusively through Mercer's property, which extended for many miles. He was the owner of several farms, two of which they passed without drawing rein. He was taking her to what he called the Home Farm, his native place, which he still made his headquarters, and from which he overlooked the whole of his great property.

The brief twilight had turned to darkness before they reached it. During the last half hour Mercer rode with his hand upon Sybil's bridle, and she was glad to have it there. She was not accustomed to riding in the dark. Moreover, she was very tired, and when at last they turned in through an open gateway to one side of which a solitary lantern had been fixed, she breathed a deep sigh of thankfulness.

She saw the outline of the house but vaguely, but in two windows lights were burning, and as they clattered up a door was thrown open, and a man stood silhouetted for a moment on the threshold.

"Hullo, Curtis! Here we are!" was Mercer's greeting. "Later than I intended, but it's a far cry from Wallarroo, and we had to take it easy."

"The best way," the other said.

He went forward and quietly helped Sybil to dismount. He did not speak to her as he did so, and she wondered a little at the reserve of his manner. But the next moment she forgot him at the sight of a hideous young negro who had suddenly appeared at the horses' heads.

"It's only Beelzebub," said the man at her side, in a tired voice, as if it were an effort to speak at all.

She realized that the explanation was intended to be reassuring, and laughed rather tremulously. Finding Mercer at her side she slipped her hand into his.

He gave it a terrific squeeze. "Come inside!" he said. "You are tired."

They went in, Curtis following.

In a room with a sanded floor that looked pleasantly homely to her English eyes a meal was spread. The place and everything it contained shone in the lamplight. She looked around her with a smile of pleasure, notwithstanding her weariness. And then her eyes fell upon Curtis, and found his fixed upon her.

He averted them instantly, but she had read their expression at a glance—surprise and compassion—and her heart gave a curious little throb of dismay.

She turned nevertheless without a pause to Mercer.

"Won't you introduce me to your friend?" she said.

"What?" said Mercer. "Oh, that's Curtis, my foreman. Curtis, this is my wife."

Curtis bowed stiffly, but Sybil held out her hand.

"How nice everything looks!" she said. "I am sure we have you to thank for it."

"Beelzebub and me," he said; and again she was struck by the utter lack of animation in his voice.

He was a man of about forty, lean and brown, with an unmistakable air of breeding about him that put her at her ease at once. His quiet manner was a supreme contrast to Mercer's roughness. She was quite sure that he was not colonial born.

He sat at table with them, and waited also, but he did not utter a word except now and again in answer to some brief query from Mercer. When the meal was over he cleared the table and disappeared.

She looked at Mercer in some surprise as the door closed upon him.

"He's a useful chap," Mercer said. "I'm sorry there isn't a woman in the house, but you'll find Beelzebub better than a dozen. And this fellow is always at hand for anything you may want in the evening."

"He is a gentleman," she said almost involuntarily.

Mercer looked at her.

"Do you object to having a gentleman to wait on you?" he asked curtly.

She did not quite understand his tone, but she was very far just then from understanding the man himself. His question demanded no answer, and she gave none.

After a moment she got up, and, conscious of an oppression in the atmosphere, took off her hat and pushed back the hair from her face. She knew that Mercer was watching her, felt his eyes upon her, and wished intensely that he would speak, but he did not utter a word. There seemed to her to be something stubborn in his silence, and it affected her strangely.

For a while she stood also silent, then suddenly with a little smile she looked across at him.

"Aren't you going to show me everything?" she said.

"Not to-night," he said. "I will show you your bedroom if you are too tired to stay up any longer."

She considered the matter for a few seconds, then quietly crossed the room to his side. She laid a hand that trembled slightly on his shoulder.

"You have been very good to me," she said.

He stiffened at her touch.

"You had better go to bed," he said gruffly, and made as if he would rise.

But she checked him with a dignity all her own.

"Wait, please; I want to speak to you."

"Not to thank me, I hope," he said.

"No, not to thank you." She paused an instant, and seemed to hesitate. "I—I really want to ask you something," she said at length.

He reached up and removed her hand from his shoulder.

"Well?" he questioned.

"Don't hold me at arms' length!" she pleaded gently. "It makes things so difficult."

"What is it you want to know?" he asked without relaxing.

She stood silent for a few seconds as if summoning all her courage. Then at length, her voice very low, she spoke.

"When you said that you wanted me for your wife, did you mean that you—loved me?"

He made an abrupt movement, and his fingers closed tightly upon her wrist. For a moment or more he sat in tense silence, then he got to his feet.

"Why do you want to know?" he demanded harshly.

She stood before him with bent head.

"Because," she said, and there was a piteous quiver in her voice, "I am lonely, and I have a very empty heart. And—and—if you love me it will not frighten me to know it. It will only—make me—glad."

He put his hand on her shoulder. "Do you know what you are saying?" he questioned.

"Yes," she said under her breath.

"Are you sure?" he persisted.

She raised her head impulsively, and, with a gesture most winning, most confident, she stretched up her arms to him.

"Yes," she said. "I mean it! I mean it! I want—to be loved!"

His arms were close about her as she ended, and she uttered the last words chokingly with her face against his breast. The effort had cost her all her strength, and she clung to him panting, almost fainting, while panic—wild, unreasoning panic—swept over her. What was this man to whom she had thus impulsively given herself—this man whom all men feared?

Nevertheless, she grew calmer at last, awaking to the fact that though his hold was tense and passionate, he still retained his self-control. She commanded herself, and turned her face upwards.

"Then you do love me?" she said tremulously.

His eyes shone into hers, red as the inner, intolerable glow of a furnace. He did not attempt to make reply in words. He seemed at that moment incapable of speech. He only bent and kissed her fiercely, burningly, even brutally, upon the lips. And so she had her answer.



VII

It was a curious establishment over which Sybil found herself called upon to preside. The native, Beelzebub, was her only domestic, and, as Mercer had predicted, she found him very willing if not always efficient. One thing she speedily discovered regarding him. He went in deadly fear of his master, and invariably crept about like a whipped cur in his presence.

"Why is it?" she said to Curtis once.

But Curtis only shrugged his shoulders in reply.

He was a continual puzzle to her, this man. There was no servility about him, but she had a feeling that he, too, was in some fashion under Mercer's heel. He made himself exceedingly useful to her in his silent, unobtrusive way; but he seldom spoke on his own initiative, and it was some time before she felt herself to be on terms of intimacy with him. He was an excellent cook; and he and Beelzebub between them made her duties remarkably light. In fact, she spent most of her time riding with her husband, who was fully occupied just then in overlooking the shearers' work. She also was keenly interested, but he never suffered her to go among the men. Once, when she had grown tired of waiting for him, and followed him into one of the sheds, he was actually angry with her—a new experience, which, if it did not seriously scare her, made her nervous in his presence for some time afterwards.

She had come to regard him as a man whose will was bound to be respected, a man who possessed the power of impressing his personality indelibly upon all with whom he came in contact. There were times when he touched and set vibrating the very pulse of her being, times when her heart quivered and expanded in the heat of his passion as a flower that opens to the sun. But there were also times when he filled her with a nameless dread, when the very foundations of her confidence were shaken, and she felt as a prisoner behind iron bars. She did not know him, that was her trouble. There were in him depths that she could not reach, could scarcely even realize. He was slow to reveal himself to her, and she had but the vaguest indications to guide her. She even felt sometimes that he deliberately kept back from her that which she felt to be almost the essential part of him. This she knew that time must remedy. Living his life, she was bound ultimately to know whereof he was made, and she tried to assure herself that when that knowledge came to her she would not be dismayed. And yet she had occasional glimpses of him that made her tremble.

One evening, after they had spent the entire day in the saddle, he went after supper to look at one of the horses that was suffering from a cracked hock. Curtis was busy in the kitchen, and Sybil betook herself to the step to wait for her husband. She often sat in the starlight while he smoked his pipe. She knew that he liked to have her there.

She was drowsy after her long exercise, and must have dozed with her head against the door-post, when suddenly she became conscious of a curious sound. It came from the direction of the stable which was on the other side of the house. But for the absolute stillness of the night she would not have heard it. She started upright in alarm, and listened intently.

It came again—a terrible wailing, unlike anything she had ever heard, ending in a staccato shriek that made her blood run cold.

She sprang up and turned into the house, almost running into Curtis, who had just appeared in the passage behind her.

"Oh, what is it?" she cried. "What is it? Something terrible is happening! Did you hear?"

She would have turned into the kitchen, that being the shortest route to the stable, but he stretched an arm in front of her.

"I shouldn't go if I were you," he said. "You can't do any good."

She stood and stared at him, a ghastly fear clutching her heart. "What—what do you mean?" she gasped.

"It's only Beelzebub," he said, "getting hammered for his sins."

She gripped her hands tightly over her breast. "You mean that—that my husband—?"

He nodded. "It won't go on much longer. I should go to bed if I were you."

He meant it kindly, but the words sounded to her most hideously callous. She turned from him, sobbing hysterically, and sprang for the open door.

The next moment she was running swiftly round the house to the stable. Turning the corner, she heard a sound like a pistol-shot. It was followed instantly by a scream so utterly inhuman that even then she almost wheeled and fled. But she mastered the impulse. She reached the stable-door, fumbled at the latch, finally burst inwards as it swung open.

A lantern hung on a nail immediately within. By its light she discovered her husband—a gigantic figure—towering over something she could not see, something that crouched, writhing and moaning, in a corner. He was armed with a horsewhip, and even as she entered she saw him raise it and bring it downwards with a horrible precision upon the thing at his feet. She heard again that awful shriek of anguish, and a sick shudder went through her. Unconsciously, a cry broke from her own lips, and, as Mercer's arm went up again, she flung herself forward and tried to catch it.

In her agitation she failed. The heavy end of the whip fell upon her outstretched arm, numbing; it to the shoulder. She heard Mercer utter a frightful oath, and with a gasp she fell.

VIII

When she came to herself she was lying on her bed. Someone—Curtis—was bathing her arm in warm water. He did not speak to her or raise his: eyes from his occupation. She thought he looked very grim.

"Where is—Brett?" she whispered.

Curtis did not answer her, but a moment later she looked beyond him and saw Mercer leaning upon the bed-rail. His eyes were fixed upon her and held her own. She sought to avoid them, but could not. And suddenly she knew that he was angry with her, not merely displeased, but furiously angry.

She made an effort to rise, but at that Curtis laid a restraining hand upon her, and spoke.

"Go away, Mercer!" he said. "Haven't you done harm enough for one night?"

The words amazed her. She had never thought that he would dare to use such a tone to her husband. She trembled for the result, for Mercer's face just then was terrible, but Curtis did not so much as glance in his direction.

Mercer's eyes remained mercilessly fixed upon her.

"Do you wish me to go?" he said.

"No," she murmured faintly.

Her arm was beginning to hurt her horribly, and she shuddered uncontrollably once or twice. But that unvarying scrutiny was harder to bear, and at last, in desperation, she made a quivering appeal.

"Come and help me!" she begged. "Come and lift me up!"

For an instant he did not stir, and she even thought he would refuse. Then, stiffly, he straightened himself and moved round to her side.

Stooping, he raised and supported her. But his expression did not alter; the murderous glare was still in his eyes. She turned her face into his breast and lay still.

After what seemed a very long interval Curtis spoke.

"That's all I can do for the present. I will dress it again in the morning, and it had better be in a sling. Mercer, I should like a word with you outside."

Sybil stirred sharply at the brief demand. Her nerves were on edge, and a quaking doubt shot through her as to what Mercer might do if Curtis presumed too far.

She laid an imploring hand on her husband's arm.

"Stay with me!" she begged him faintly.

He did not move or speak.

Curtis stood up.

"Presently, then!" he said, and she heard him move away.

At the door he paused, and she thought he made some rapid sign to Mercer. But the next moment she heard the door close softly, and knew that he had gone.

She lay quite still thereafter, her heart fluttering too much for speech. What would he say to her, she wondered; how would he break his silence? She had no weapon to oppose against his anger. She was as powerless before it as Beelzebub had been.

Suddenly he moved. He turned her head back upon his arm and looked straight down into her eyes. She did not shrink. She would not. But her heart died within her. She felt as if she were gazing into hell, watching a soul in torment.

"Well?" he said at last. "Are you satisfied?"

"Satisfied?" she faltered.

"As to the sort of monster you have married," he explained, with savage bitterness. "You've been putting out feelers ever since you came here. Did you think I didn't know? Well, you've found out a little more than you wanted, this time. Perhaps it will be a lesson to you. Perhaps"—sheer cruelty shone red in his eyes—"when you see what I've done to you, you will remember that I am not a man to play with, and that any one, man or woman, who interferes with me, must pay the price."

"I don't know what you mean," she answered with an effort. "What happened was an accident."

"Was it?" he said brutally. "Was it?"

Still she did not shrink from him.

"Yes," she said. "It was an accident."

"How do you know?" he asked.

She answered him instantly. She had not realized till then that she was fighting the flames for his soul. The knowledge came upon her suddenly, and it gave her strength.

"Because I know that you love me," she said. "Because—because—though you are cruel, and though you may be wicked—I love you, too."

She said it with absolute sincerity, but it was the hardest thing she had ever done in her life. To tell this man who was half animal and half fiend that he had not somehow touched the woman's heart in her seemed almost a desecration. She saw the flare of passion leap up in his eyes, and she was conscious for one sick moment of a feeling of downright repulsion. If she had only succeeded in turning his savagery into another channel she had spoken in vain; or, worse, she had made a mistake that could never be remedied.

Abruptly she felt her courage waver. She shrank at last.

"I want you to understand," she faltered; and again, "I want you to understand."

But she could get no further. She hid her face against him and began to sob.

There followed a silence, tense and terrible, which she dared not break.

Then she felt him bend lower, and suddenly his arms were under her. He lifted her like a little child and sat down, holding her. His hand pressed her head against his neck, fondling, soothing, consoling. And she knew, with an overwhelming thankfulness, that she had not offered herself in vain. She had drawn him out of his hell by the magic of her love.

IX

When morning came Mercer departed alone, and Curtis was left in charge. Sybil lay in her room half dressed, while the latter treated her injured arm.

"You ought not to be up at all," he remarked, as he uncovered it. "Have you had any sleep?"

"Not much," she was obliged to confess.

"Why didn't you stay in bed?"

"I don't want—my husband—to think me very bad," she said, flushing a little.

"Why not?" said Curtis. And then he glanced at her, saw the flush, and said no more.

She watched his bandaging with interest.

"You look so professional," she said.

He uttered a short laugh.

"Do I?"

"I mean," she said, unaccountably embarrassed, "that you do it so nicely."

"I have done a good deal of veterinary work," he said rather coldly. And then suddenly he seemed to change his mind. "I was a professional once," he said, without looking at her. "I made a mistake—a bad one—and it broke me. That's all."

"Oh," she said impulsively, "I am so sorry."

"Thank you," he said quietly.

Not till he was about to leave her did she manage to ask the question that had been uppermost in her mind since his entrance.

"Have you seen Beelzebub yet?"

He paused—somewhat unwillingly, she thought.

"Yes," he answered.

"Is he"—she hesitated—"is he very bad?"

"He isn't going to die, if that is what you mean," said Curtis.

She felt her heart contract.

"Please tell me!" she urged rather faintly. "I want to know."

With the air of a man submitting to the inevitable Curtis proceeded to inform her.

"He is lying in the loft over the stable, like a sick dog. He is rather badly mauled, and whimpers a good deal. I shall take him some soup across presently, but I don't suppose he'll touch it."

"Ok, dear!" she said. "What shall you do then?"

"Mercer will have to lend a hand if I can't manage him," Curtis answered. "But I shall do my best."

She suppressed a shudder.

"I hope you will be successful."

"So do I," said Curtis, departing.

When she saw him again she asked anxiously for news; but he had none of a cheering nature to give her. Beelzebub would not look at food.

"I knew he wouldn't," he said. "He has been like this before."

"Mr. Curtis!" she exclaimed.

He shrugged his shoulders.

"It's Mercer's way. He regards the boy as his own personal property, and so he is, more or less. He picked him up in the bush when he wasn't more than a few days old. The mother was dead. Mercer took him, and he was brought up among the farm men. He's a queer young animal, more like a dog than a human being. He needs hammering now and then. I kick him occasionally myself. But Mercer goes too far."

"What had he done?" questioned Sybil.

"Oh, it was some neglect of the horses. I don't know exactly what. Mercer isn't precisely patient, you know. And when the fellow gets thoroughly scared he's like a rabbit; he can't move. Mercer thinks him obstinate, and the rest follows as a natural consequence. I must ask you to excuse me. I have work to do."

"One moment!" Sybil laid a nervous hand on his arm. "Mr. Curtis, if—if you can't persuade the poor boy to take any food, how will my husband do so?"

"He won't," said Curtis. "He'll hold him down while I drench him, that's all."

"That must be very bad for him," she said.

"Of course it is. But we can't let him die, you know." He looked at her suddenly. "Don't you worry yourself, Mrs. Mercer," he said kindly. "He isn't quite the same as a white man, though it may offend your Western prejudices to hear me say so. Beelzebub will pull through all right. They are wonderfully tough, these chaps."

"I wonder if I could persuade him to take something," she said.

He shook his head.

"I don't suppose you could. In any case, you mustn't try. It is against orders."

"Whose orders?" she asked quickly.

"Your husband's," he answered. "His last words to me were that I was on no account to let you go near him."

"Oh, why?" she protested. "And I might be able to help."

"It isn't at all likely," he said. "And he's not a very pretty thing to look at."

"As if that matters!" she exclaimed.

"Well, it does matter, because I don't want to have you in hysterics, as much for my own sake as for yours." He smiled a little. "Also, if Mercer finds he has been disobeyed it will make him savage again, and perhaps I shall be the next victim."

"He would never touch you!" she exclaimed.

"He might. Why shouldn't he?"

"He never would!" she reiterated. "You are not afraid of him."

He looked contemptuous for a second; and then his expression changed.

"You are right," he said. "That is my chief safeguard; and, permit me to say, yours also. It may be worth remembering."

"You think him a coward!" she said.

He considered a little.

"No, not a coward," he said then. "There is nothing mean about him, so far as I can see. He suffers from too much raw material, that's all. They call him Brute Mercer in these parts. But perhaps you will be able to tame him some day."

"I!" she said, and turned away with a mournful little smile.

She might charm him once or even twice out of a savage mood, but the conviction was strong upon her that he would overwhelm her in the end.

X

For nearly an hour after Curtis had left her she sat still, thinking of Beelzebub. The afternoon sunlight lay blindingly upon all things. The heat of it hung laden in the air. But she could not sleep or even try to rest. Her arm throbbed and burned with a ceaseless pain, and ever the thought of Beelzebub, lying in the loft "like a sick dog," oppressed her like an evil dream.

The shadows had begun to lengthen a little when at last she rose. She could bear it no longer. Whatever the consequences, she could endure them more easily than this torture of inactivity. As for Curtis she believed him fully capable of taking care of himself.

She went to the kitchen and was relieved to find him absent. Searching, she presently found the bowl of soup Beelzebub had refused. She turned it into a saucepan and hung over the fire, scarcely conscious of the heat in her pressing desire to be of use.

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