But then happened an event which none but Alec could in the least have expected; and he, since his return from Africa, had been so taken up with his love for Lucy, that the possibility of it had slipped his memory.
Fergus Macinnery, the man whom three years before he had dismissed ignominiously from his service, found a way to pay off an old score.
Of the people most nearly concerned in the matter, it was Lady Kelsey who had first news of it. The morning papers were brought into her boudoir with her breakfast, and as she poured out her coffee, she ran her eyes lazily down the paragraphs of the Morning Post in which are announced the comings and goings of society. Then she turned to the Daily Mail. Her attention was suddenly arrested. Staring at her, in the most prominent part of the page, was a column of printed matter headed: The Death of Mr. George Allerton. It was a letter, a column long, signed by Fergus Macinnery. Lady Kelsey read it with amazement and dismay. At first she could not follow it, and she read it again; now its sense was clear to her, and she was overcome with horror. In set words, mincing no terms, it accused Alec MacKenzie of sending George Allerton to his death in order to save himself. The words treachery and cowardice were used boldly. The dates were given, and the testimony of natives was adduced.
The letter adverted with scathing sarcasm to the rewards and congratulations which had fallen to MacKenzie as a result of his labours; and ended with a challenge to him to bring an action for criminal libel against the writer. At first the whole thing seemed monstrous to Lady Kelsey, it was shameful, shameful; but in a moment she found there was a leading article on the subject, and then she did not know what to believe. It referred to the letter in no measured terms: the writer observed that prima facie the case was very strong and called upon Alec to reply without delay. Big words were used, and there was much talk of a national scandal. An instant refutation was demanded. Lady Kelsey did not know what on earth to do, and her thoughts flew to the dance, the success of which would certainly be imperilled by these revelations. She must have help at once. This business, if it concerned the world in general, certainly concerned Lucy more than anyone. Ringing for her maid, she told her to get Dick Lomas on the telephone and ask him to come at once. While she was waiting, she heard Lucy come downstairs and knew that she meant to wish her good-morning. She hid the paper hurriedly.
When Lucy came in and kissed her, she said:
'What is the news this morning?'
'I don't think there is any,' said Lady Kelsey, uneasily. 'Only the Post has come; we shall really have to change our newsagent.'
She waited with beating heart for Lucy to pursue the subject, but naturally enough the younger woman did not trouble herself. She talked to her aunt of the preparations for the party that evening, and then, saying that she had much to do, left her. She had no sooner gone than Lady Kelsey's maid came back to say that Lomas was out of town and not expected back till the evening. Distractedly Lady Kelsey sent messages to her nephew and to Mrs. Crowley. She still looked upon Bobbie as Lucy's future husband, and the little American was Lucy's greatest friend. They were both found. Boulger had gone down as usual to the city, but in consideration of Lady Kelsey's urgent request, set out at once to see her.
He had changed little during the last four years, and had still a boyish look on his round, honest face. To Mrs. Crowley he seemed always an embodiment of British philistinism; and if she liked him for his devotion to Lucy, she laughed at him for his stolidity. When he arrived, Mrs. Crowley was already with Lady Kelsey. She had known nothing of the terrible letter, and Lady Kelsey, thinking that perhaps it had escaped him too, went up to him with the Daily Mail in her hand.
'Have you seen the paper, Bobbie?' she asked excitedly. 'What on earth are we to do?'
'What does Lucy say?' he asked.
'Oh, I've not let her see it. I told a horrid fib and said the newsagent had forgotten to leave it.'
'But she must know,' he answered gravely.
'Not to-day,' protested Lady Kelsey. 'Oh, it's too dreadful that this should happen to-day of all days. Why couldn't they wait till to-morrow? After all Lucy's troubles it seemed as if a little happiness was coming back into her life, and now this dreadful thing happens.'
'What are you going to do?' asked Bobbie.
'What can I do?' said Lady Kelsey desperately. 'I can't put the dance off. I wish I had the courage to write and ask Mr. MacKenzie not to come.'
Bobbie made a slight gesture of impatience. It irritated him that his aunt should harp continually on the subject of this wretched dance. But for all that he tried to reassure her.
'I don't think you need be afraid of MacKenzie. He'll never venture to show his face.'
'You don't mean to say you think there's any truth in the letter?' exclaimed Mrs. Crowley.
He turned and faced her.
'I've never read anything more convincing in my life.'
Mrs. Crowley looked at him, and he returned her glance steadily.
Of those three it was only Lady Kelsey who did not know that Lucy was deeply in love with Alec MacKenzie.
'Perhaps you're inclined to be unjust to him,' said Mrs. Crowley.
'We shall see if he has any answer to make,' he answered coldly. 'The evening papers are sure to get something out of him. The city is ringing with the story, and he must say something at once.'
'It's quite impossible that there should be anything in it,' said Mrs. Crowley. 'We all know the circumstances under which George went out with him. It's inconceivable that he should have sacrificed him as callously as this man's letter makes out.'
'We shall see.'
'You never liked him, Bobbie,' said Lady Kelsey.
'I didn't,' he answered briefly.
'I wish I'd never thought of giving this horrid dance,' she moaned.
Presently, however, they succeeded in calming Lady Kelsey. Though both thought it unwise, they deferred to her wish that everything should be hidden from Lucy till the morrow. Dick Lomas was arriving from Paris that evening, and it would be possible then to take his advice. When at last Mrs. Crowley left the elder woman to her own devices, her thoughts went to Alec. She wondered where he was, and if he already knew that his name was more prominently than ever before the public.
* * *
MacKenzie was travelling down from Lancashire. He was not a man who habitually read papers, and it was in fact only by chance that he saw a copy of the Daily Mail. A fellow traveller had with him a number of papers, and offered one of them to Alec. He took it out of mere politeness. His thoughts were otherwise occupied, and he scanned it carelessly. Suddenly he saw the heading which had attracted Lady Kelsey's attention. He read the letter, and he read the leading article. No one who watched him could have guessed that what he read concerned him so nearly. His face remained impassive. Then, letting the paper fall to the ground, he began to think. Presently he turned to the amiable stranger who had given him the paper, and asked him if he had seen the letter.
'Awful thing, isn't it?' the man said.
Alec fixed upon him his dark, firm eyes. The man seemed an average sort of person, not without intelligence.
'What do you think of it?'
'Pity,' he said. 'I thought MacKenzie was a great man. I don't know what he can do now but shoot himself.'
'Do you think there's any truth in it?'
'The letter's perfectly damning.'
Alec did not answer. In order to break off the conversation he got up and walked into the corridor. He lit a cigar and watched the green fields that fled past them. For two hours he stood motionless. At last he took his seat again, with a shrug of the shoulders, and a scornful smile on his lips.
The stranger was asleep, with his head thrown back and his mouth slightly open. Alec wondered whether his opinion of the affair would be that of the majority. He thought Alec should shoot himself?
'I can see myself doing it,' Alec muttered.
A few hours later Lady Kelsey's dance was in full swing, and to all appearances it was a great success. Many people were there, and everyone seemed to enjoy himself. On the surface, at all events, there was nothing to show that anything had occurred to disturb the evening's pleasure, and for most of the party the letter in the Daily Mail was no more than a welcome topic of conversation.
Presently Canon Spratte went into the smoking-room. He had on his arm, as was his amiable habit, the prettiest girl at the dance, Grace Vizard, a niece of that Lady Vizard who was a pattern of all the proprieties and a devout member of the Church of Rome. He found that Mrs. Crowley and Robert Boulger were already sitting there, and he greeted them courteously.
'I really must have a cigarette,' he said, going up to the table on which were all the necessary things for refreshment.
'If you press me dreadfully I'll have one, too,' said Mrs. Crowley, with a flash of her beautiful teeth.
'Don't press her,' said Bobbie. 'She's had six already, and in a moment she'll be seriously unwell.'
'Well, I'll forego the pressing, but not the cigarette.'
Canon Spratte gallantly handed her the box, and gave her a light.
'It's against all my principles, you know,' he smiled.
'What is the use of principles except to give one an agreeable sensation of wickedness when one doesn't act up to them?'
The words were hardly out of her mouth when Dick and Lady Kelsey appeared.
'Dear Mrs. Crowley, you're as epigrammatic as a dramatist,' he exclaimed. 'Do you say such things from choice or necessity?'
He had arrived late, and this was the first time she had seen him since they had all gone their ways before Whitsun. He mixed himself a whisky and soda.
'After all, is there anything you know so thoroughly insufferable as a ball?' he said, reflectively, as he sipped it with great content.
'Nothing, if you ask me pointblank,' said Lady Kelsey, smiling with relief because he took so flippantly the news she had lately poured into his ear. 'But it's excessively rude of you to say so.'
'I don't mind yours, Lady Kelsey, because I can smoke as much as I please, and keep away from the sex which is technically known as fair.'
Mrs. Crowley felt the remark was directed to her.
'I'm sure you think us a vastly overrated institution, Mr. Lomas,' she murmured.
'I venture to think the world was not created merely to give women an opportunity to wear Paris frocks.'
'I'm rather pleased to hear you say that.'
'Why?' asked Dick, on his guard.
'We're all so dreadfully tired of being goddesses. For centuries foolish men have set us up on a pedestal and vowed they were unworthy to touch the hem of our garments. And it is so dull.'
'What a clever woman you are, Mrs. Crowley. You always say what you don't mean.'
'You're really very rude.'
'Now that impropriety is out of fashion, rudeness is the only short cut to a reputation for wit.'
Canon Spratte did not like Dick. He thought he talked too much. It was fortunately easy to change the conversation.
'Unlike Mr. Lomas, I thoroughly enjoy a dance,' he said, turning to Lady Kelsey. 'My tastes are ingenuous, and I can only hope you've enjoyed your evening as much as your guests.'
'I?' cried Lady Kelsey. 'I've been suffering agonies.' They all knew to what she referred, and the remark gave Boulger an opportunity to speak to Dick Lomas.
'I suppose you saw the Mail this morning?' he asked.
'I never read the papers except in August,' answered Dick drily.
'When there's nothing in them?' asked Mrs. Crowley.
'Pardon me, I am an eager student of the sea-serpent and of the giant gooseberry.'
'I should like to kick that man,' said Bobbie, indignantly.
'My dear chap, Alec is a hardy Scot and bigger than you; I really shouldn't advise you to try.'
'Of course you've heard all about this business?' said Canon Spratte.
'I've only just arrived from Paris. I knew nothing of it till Lady Kelsey told me.'
'What do you think?'
'I don't think at all; I know there's not a word of truth in it. Since Alec arrived at Mombassa, he's been acclaimed by everyone, private and public, who had any right to an opinion. Of course it couldn't last. There was bound to be a reaction.'
'Do you know anything of this man Macinnery?' asked Boulger.
'It so happens that I do. Alec found him half starving at Mombassa, and took him solely out of charity. But he was a worthless rascal and had to be sent back.'
'He seems to me to give ample proof for every word he says,' retorted Bobbie.
Dick shrugged his shoulders scornfully.
'As I've already explained to Lady Kelsey, whenever an explorer comes home there's someone to tell nasty stories about him. People forget that kid gloves are not much use in a tropical forest, and they grow very indignant when they hear that a man has used a little brute force to make himself respected.'
'All that's beside the point,' said Boulger, impatiently. 'MacKenzie sent poor George into a confounded trap to save his own dirty skin.'
'Poor Lucy!' moaned Lady Kelsey. 'First her father died....'
'You're not going to count that as an overwhelming misfortune?' Dick interrupted. 'We were unanimous in describing that gentleman's demise as an uncommon happy release.'
'I was engaged to dine with him this evening,' said Bobbie, pursuing his own bitter reflections. 'I wired to say I had a headache and couldn't come.'
'What will he think if he sees you here?' cried Lady Kelsey.
'He can think what he likes.'
Canon Spratte felt that it was needful now to put in the decisive word which he always expected from himself. He rubbed his hands blandly.
'In this matter I must say I agree entirely with our friend Bobbie. I read the letter with the utmost care, and I could see no loophole of escape. Until Mr. MacKenzie gives a definite answer I can hardly help looking upon him as nothing less than a murderer. In these things I feel that one should have the courage of one's opinions. I saw him in Piccadilly this evening, and I cut him dead. Nothing will induce me to shake hands with a man on whom rests so serious an accusation.'
'I hope to goodness he doesn't come,' said Lady Kelsey.
Canon Spratte looked at his watch and gave her a reassuring smile.
'I think you may feel quite safe. It's really growing very late.'
'You say that Lucy doesn't know anything about this?' asked Dick.
'No,' said Lady Kelsey. 'I wanted to give her this evening's enjoyment unalloyed.'
Dick shrugged his shoulders again. He did not understand how Lady Kelsey expected no suggestion to reach Lucy of a matter which seemed a common topic of conversation. The pause which followed Lady Kelsey's words was not broken when Lucy herself appeared. She was accompanied by a spruce young man, to whom she turned with a smile.
'I thought we should find your partner here.'
He went to Grace Vizard, and claiming her for the dance that was about to begin, took her away. Lucy went up to Lady Kelsey and leaned over the chair in which she sat.
'Are you growing very tired, my aunt?' she asked kindly.
'I can rest myself till supper time. I don't think anyone else will come now.'
'Have you forgotten Mr. MacKenzie?'
Lady Kelsey looked up quickly, but did not reply. Lucy put her hand gently on her aunt's shoulder.
'My dear, it was charming of you to hide the paper from me this morning. But it wasn't very wise.'
'Did you see that letter?' cried Lady Kelsey. 'I so wanted you not to till to-morrow.'
'Mr. MacKenzie very rightly thought I should know at once what was said about him and my brother. He sent me the paper himself this evening.'
'Did he write to you?' asked Dick.
'No, he merely scribbled on a card: I think you should read this.'
No one answered. Lucy turned and faced them; her cheeks were pale, but she was very calm. She looked gravely at Robert Boulger, waiting for him to say what she knew was in his mind, so that she might express at once her utter disbelief in the charges that were brought against Alec. But he did not speak, and she was obliged to utter her defiant words without provocation.
'He thought it unnecessary to assure me that he hadn't betrayed the trust I put in him.'
'Do you mean to say the letter left any doubt in your mind?' said Boulger.
'Why on earth should I believe the unsupported words of a subordinate who was dismissed for misbehaviour?'
'For my part, I can only say that I never read anything more convincing in my life.'
'I could hardly believe him guilty of such a crime if he confessed it with his own lips.'
Bobbie shrugged his shoulders. It was only with difficulty that he held back the cruel words that were on his lips. But as if Lucy read his thoughts, her cheeks flushed.
'I think it's infamous that you should all be ready to believe the worst,' she said hotly, in a low voice that trembled with indignant anger. 'You're all of you so petty, so mean, that you welcome the chance of spattering with mud a man who is so infinitely above you. You've not given him a chance to defend himself.'
Bobbie turned very pale. Lucy had never spoken to him in such a way before, and wrath flamed up in his heart, wrath mixed with hopeless love. He paused for a moment to command himself.
'You don't know apparently that interviewers went to him from the evening papers, and he refused to speak.'
'He has never consented to be interviewed. Why should you expect him now to break his rule?'
Bobbie was about to answer, when a sudden look of dismay on Lady Kelsey's face stopped him. He turned round and saw MacKenzie standing at the door. He came forward with a smile, holding out his hand, and addressed himself to Lady Kelsey.
'I thought I should find you here,' he said.
He was perfectly collected. He glanced around the room with a smile of quiet amusement. A certain embarrassment seized the little party, and Lady Kelsey, at she shook hands with him, was at a loss for words.
'How do you do?' she faltered. 'We've just been talking of you.'
The twinkle in his eyes caused her to lose the remainder of her self-possession, and she turned scarlet.
'It's so late, we were afraid you wouldn't come. I should have been dreadfully disappointed.'
'It's very kind of you to say so. I've been at the Travellers, reading various appreciations of my character.'
A hurried look of alarm crossed Lady Kelsey's good-tempered face.
'Oh, I heard there was something about you in the papers,' she answered.
'There's a good deal. I really had no idea the world was so interested in me.'
'It's charming of you to come here to-night,' the good lady smiled, beginning to feel more at ease. 'I'm sure you hate dances.'
'Oh, no, they interest me enormously. I remember, an African king once gave a dance in my honour. Four thousand warriors in war-paint. I assure you it was a most impressive sight.'
'My dear fellow,' Dick chuckled, 'if paint is the attraction, you really need not go much further than Mayfair.'
The scene amused him. He was deeply interested in Alec's attitude, for he knew him well enough to be convinced that his discreet gaiety was entirely assumed. It was impossible to tell by it what course he meant to adopt; and at the same time there was about him a greater unapproachableness, which warned all and sundry that it would be wiser to attempt no advance. But for his own part he did not care; he meant to have a word with Alec at the first opportunity.
Alec's quiet eyes now rested on Robert Boulger.
'Ah, there's my little friend Bobbikins. I thought you had a headache?'
Lady Kelsey remembered her nephew's broken engagement and interposed quickly.
'I'm afraid Bobbie is dreadfully dissipated. He's not looking at all well.'
'You shouldn't keep such late hours,' said Alec, good-humouredly. 'At your age one needs one's beauty sleep.'
'It's very kind of you to take an interest in me,' said Boulger, flushing with annoyance. 'My headache has passed off.'
'I'm very glad. What do you use—phenacetin?'
'It went away of its own accord after dinner,' returned Bobbie frigidly, conscious that he was being laughed at, but unable to extricate himself.
'So you resolved to give the girls a treat by coming to Lady Kelsey's dance? How nice of you not to disappoint them!'
Alec turned to Lucy, and they looked into one another's eyes.
'I sent you a paper this evening,' he said gravely.
'It was very good of you.'
There was a silence. All who were present felt that the moment was impressive, and it needed Canon Spratte's determination to allow none but himself to monopolise attention, to bring to an end a situation which might have proved awkward. He came forward and offered his arm to Lucy.
'I think this is my dance. May I take you in?'
He was trying to repeat the direct cut which he had given Alec earlier in the day. Alec looked at him.
'I saw you in Piccadilly this evening. You were dashing about like a young gazelle.'
'I didn't see you,' said the Canon, frigidly.
'I observed that you were deeply engrossed in the shop windows as I passed. How are you?'
He held out his hand. For a moment the Canon hesitated to take it, but Alec's gaze compelled him.
'How do you do?' he said.
He felt, rather than heard, Dick's chuckle, and reddening, offered his arm to Lucy.
'Won't you come, Mr. MacKenzie?' said Lady Kelsey, making the best of her difficulty.
'If you don't mind, I'll stay and smoke a cigarette with Dick Lomas. You know, I'm not a dancing man.'
It seemed that Alec was giving Dick the opportunity he sought, and as soon as they found themselves alone, the sprightly little man attacked him.
'I suppose you know we were all beseeching Providence you'd have the grace to stay away to-night?' he said.
'I confess that I suspected it,' smiled Alec. 'I shouldn't have come, only I wanted to see Miss Allerton.'
'This fellow Macinnery proposes to make things rather uncomfortable, I imagine.'
'I made a mistake, didn't I?' said Alec, with a thin smile. 'I should have dropped him in the river when I had no further use for him.'
'What are you going to do?'
Dick stared at him.
'Do you mean to say you're going to sit still and let them throw mud at you?'
'If they want to.'
'But look here, Alec, what the deuce is the meaning of the whole thing?'
Alec looked at him quietly.
'If I had intended to take the world in general into my confidence, I wouldn't have refused to see the interviewers who came to me this evening.'
'We've known one another for twenty years, Alec,' said Dick.
'Then you may be quite sure that if I refuse to discuss this matter with you, it must be for excellent reasons.'
Dick sprang up excitedly.
'But, good God! you must explain. You can't let a charge like this rest on you. After all, it's not Tom, Dick, or Harry that's concerned; it's Lucy's brother. You must speak.'
'I've never yet discovered that I must do anything that I don't choose,' answered Alec.
Dick flung himself into a chair. He knew that when Alec spoke in that fashion no power on earth could move him. The whole thing was entirely unexpected, and he was at a loss for words. He had not read the letter which was causing all the bother, and knew only what Lady Kelsey had told him. He had some hope that on a close examination various things would appear which must explain Alec's attitude; but at present it was incomprehensible.
'Has it occurred to you that Lucy is very much in love with you, Alec?' he said at last.
Alec did not answer. He made no movement.
'What will you do if this loses you her love?'
'I have counted the cost,' said Alec, coldly.
He got up from his chair, and Dick saw that he did not wish to continue the discussion. There was a moment of silence, and then Lucy came in.
'I've given my partner away to a wall-flower,' she said, with a faint smile. 'I felt I must have a few words alone with you.'
'I will make myself scarce,' said Dick.
They waited till he was gone. Then Lucy turned feverishly to Alec.
'Oh, I'm so glad you've come. I wanted so much to see you.'
'I'm afraid people have been telling you horrible things about me.'
'They wanted to hide it from me.'
'It never occurred to me that people could say such shameful things,' he said gravely.
It tormented him a little because it had been so easy to care nothing for the world's adulation, and it was so hard to care as little for its censure. He felt very bitter.
He took Lucy's hand and made her sit on the sofa by his side.
'There's something I must tell you at once.'
She looked at him without answering.
'I've made up my mind to give no answer to the charges that are brought against me.'
Lucy looked up quickly, and their eyes met.
'I give you my word of honour that I've done nothing which I regret. I swear to you that what I did was right with regard to George, and if it were all to come again I would do exactly as I did before.'
She did not answer for a long time.
'I never doubted you for a single moment,' she said at last.
'That is all I care about.' He looked down, and there was a certain shyness in his voice when he spoke again. 'To-day is the first time I've wanted to be assured that I was trusted; and yet I'm ashamed to want it.'
'Don't be too hard upon yourself,' she said gently. 'You're so afraid of letting your tenderness appear.'
He seemed to give earnest thought to what she said. Lucy had never seen him more grave.
'The only way to be strong is never to surrender to one's weakness. Strength is merely a habit. I want you to be strong, too. I want you never to doubt me whatever you hear said.'
'I gave my brother into your hands, and I said that if he died a brave man's death, I could ask for no more. You told me that such a death was his.'
'I thought of you always, and everything I did was for your sake. Every single act of mine during these four years in Africa has been done because I loved you.'
It was the first time since his return that he had spoken of love. Lucy bent her head still lower.
'Do you remember, I asked you a question before I went away? You refused to marry me then, but you told me that if I asked again when I came back, the answer might be different.'
'The hope bore me up in every difficulty and in every danger. And when I came back I dared not ask you at once; I was so afraid that you would refuse once more. And I didn't wish you to think yourself bound by a vague promise. But each day I loved you more passionately.'
'I knew, and I was very grateful for your love.'
'Yesterday I could have offered you a certain name. I only cared for the honours they gave me so that I might put them at your feet. But what can I offer you now?'
'You must love me always, Alec, for now I have only you.'
'Are you sure that you will never believe that I am guilty of this crime?'
'Why can you say nothing in self-defence?'
'That I can't tell you either.'
There was a silence between them. At last Alec spoke again.
'But perhaps it will be easier for you to believe in me than for others, because you know that I loved you, and I can't have done the odious thing of which that man accuses me.'
'I will never believe it. I do not know what your reasons are for keeping all this to yourself, but I trust you, and I know that they are good. If you cannot speak, it is because greater interests hold you back. I love you, Alec, with all my heart, and if you wish me to be your wife I shall be proud and honoured.'
He took her in his arms, and as he kissed her, she wept tears of happiness. She did not want to think. She wanted merely to surrender herself to his strength.
Lady Kelsey's devout hope that her party would finish without unpleasantness was singularly frustrated. Robert Boulger was irritated beyond endurance by the things Lucy had said to him; and Lucy besides, as if to drive him to distraction, had committed a peculiar indiscretion. In her determination to show the world in general, represented then by the two hundred people who were enjoying Lady Kelsey's hospitality, that she, the person most interested, did not for an instant believe what was said about Alec, Lucy had insisted on dancing with him. Alec thought it unwise thus to outrage conventional opinion, but he could not withstand her fiery spirit. Dick and Mrs. Crowley were partners at the time, and the disapproval which Lucy saw in their eyes, made her more vehement in her defiance. She had caught Bobbie's glance, too, and she flung back her head a little as she saw his livid anger.
Little by little Lady Kelsey's guests bade her farewell, and at three o'clock few were left. Lucy had asked Alec to remain till the end, and he and Dick had taken refuge in the smoking-room. Presently Boulger came in with two men, named Mallins and Carbery, whom Alec knew slightly. He glanced at Alec, and went up to the table on which were cigarettes and various things to drink. His companions had no idea that he was bent upon an explanation and had asked them of set purpose to come into that room.
'May we smoke here, Bobbie?' asked one of them, a little embarrassed at seeing Alec, but anxious to carry things off pleasantly.
'Certainly. Dick insisted that this room should be particularly reserved for that purpose.'
'Lady Kelsey is the most admirable of all hostesses,' said Dick lightly.
He took out his case and offered a cigarette to Alec. Alec took it.
'Give me a match, Bobbikins, there's a good boy,' he said carelessly.
Boulger, with his back turned to Alec, took no notice of the request. He poured himself out some whisky, and raising the glass, deliberately examined how much there was in it. Alec smiled faintly.
'Bobbie, throw me over the matches,' he repeated.
At that moment Lady Kelsey's butler came into the room with a salver, upon which he put the dirty glasses. Bobbie, his back still turned, looked up at the servant.
'Mr. MacKenzie is asking for something.'
'You might give me a match, will you?' said Alec.
The butler put the matches on his salver and took them over to Alec, who lit his cigarette.
No one spoke till the butler left the room. Alec occupied himself idly in making smoke rings, and he watched them rise into the air. When they were alone he turned slowly to Boulger.
'I perceive that during my absence you have not added good manners to your other accomplishments,' he said.
Boulger wheeled round and faced him.
'If you want things you can ask servants for them.'
'Don't be foolish,' smiled Alec, good-humouredly.
Alec's contemptuous manner robbed Boulger of his remaining self-control. He strode angrily to Alec.
'If you talk to me like that I'll knock you down.'
Alec was lying stretched out on the sofa, and did not stir. He seemed completely unconcerned.
'You could hardly do that when I'm already lying on my back,' he murmured.
Boulger clenched his fists. He gasped in the fury of his anger.
'Look here, MacKenzie, I'm not going to let you play the fool with me. I want to know what answer you have to make to Macinnery's accusation.'
'Might I suggest that only Miss Allerton has the least right to receive answers to her questions? And she hasn't questioned me.'
'I've given up trying to understand her attitude. If I were she, it would make me sick with horror to look at you. But after all I have the right to know something. George Allerton was my cousin.'
Alec rose slowly from the sofa. He faced Boulger with an indifference which was peculiarly irritating.
'That is a fact upon which he did not vastly pride himself.'
'Since this morning you've rested under a perfectly direct charge of causing his death in a dastardly manner. And you've said nothing in self-defence.'
'You've been given an opportunity of explaining yourself, and you haven't taken it.'
'What are you going to do?'
Alec had already been asked that question by Dick, and he returned the same answer.
Bobbie looked at him for an instant. Then he shrugged his shoulders.
'In that case I can draw only one conclusion. There appears to be no means of bringing you to justice, but at least I can tell you what an indescribable blackguard I think you.'
'All is over between us,' smiled Alec, faintly amused at the young man's violence. 'And shall I return your letters and your photographs?'
'I assure you that I'm not joking,' answered Bobbie grimly.
'I have observed that you joke with difficulty. It's singular that though I'm Scotch and you are English, I should be able to see how ridiculous you are, while you're quite blind to your own absurdity.'
'Come, Alec, remember he's only a boy,' remonstrated Dick, who till now had been unable to interpose.
Boulger turned upon him angrily.
'I'm perfectly able to look after myself, Dick, and I'll thank you not to interfere.' He looked again at Alec: 'If Lucy's so indifferent to her brother's death that she's willing to keep up with you, that's her own affair.'
Dick interrupted once more.
'For heaven's sake don't make a scene, Bobbie. How can you make such a fool of yourself?'
'Leave me alone, confound you!'
'Do you think this is quite the best place for an altercation?' asked Alec quietly. 'Wouldn't you gain more notoriety if you attacked me in my club or at Church Parade on Sunday?'
'It's mere shameless impudence that you should come here to-night,' cried Bobbie, his voice hoarse with passion. 'You're using these wretched women as a shield, because you know that as long as Lucy sticks to you, there are people who won't believe the story.'
'I came for the same reason as yourself, dear boy. Because I was invited.'
'You acknowledge that you have no defence.'
'Pardon me, I acknowledge nothing and deny nothing.'
'That won't do for me,' said Boulger. 'I want the truth, and I'm going to get it. I've got a right to know.'
'Don't make such an ass of yourself,' cried Alec, shortly.
'By God, I'll make you answer.'
He went up to Alec furiously, as if he meant to seize him by the throat, but Alec, with a twist of the arm, hurled him backwards.
'I could break your back, you silly boy,' he cried, in a voice low with anger.
With a cry of rage Bobbie was about to spring at Alec when Dick got in his way.
'For God's sake, let us have no scenes here. And you'll only get the worst of it, Bobbie. Alec could just crumple you up.' He turned to the two men who stood behind, startled by the unexpectedness of the quarrel. 'Take him away, Mallins, there's a good chap.'
'Let me alone, you fool!' cried Bobbie.
'Come along, old man,' said Mallins, recovering himself.
When his two friends had got Bobbie out of the room, Dick heaved a great sigh of relief.
'Poor Lady Kelsey!' he laughed, beginning to see the humour of the situation. 'To-morrow half London will be saying that you and Bobbie had a stand-up fight in her drawing-room.'
Alec looked at him angrily. He was not a man of easy temper, and the effort he had put upon himself was beginning to tell.
'You really needn't have gone out of your way to infuriate the boy,' said Dick.
Alec wheeled round wrathfully.
'The damned cubs,' he said. 'I should like to break their silly necks.'
'You have an amiable character, Alec,' retorted Dick.
Alec began to walk up and down excitedly. Dick had never seen him before in such a state.
'The position is growing confoundedly awkward,' he said drily.
Then Alec burst out.
'They lick my boots till I loathe them, and then they turn against me like a pack of curs. Oh, I despise them, these silly boys who stay at home wallowing in their ease, while men work—work and conquer. Thank God, I've done with them now. They think one can fight one's way through Africa as easily as walk down Piccadilly. They think one goes through hardship and danger, illness and starvation, to be the lion of a dinner-party in Mayfair.'
'I think you're unfair to them,' answered Dick. 'Can't you see the other side of the picture? You're accused of a particularly low act of treachery. Your friends were hoping that you'd be able to prove at once that it was an abominable lie, and for some reason which no one can make out, you refuse even to notice it.'
'My whole life is proof that it's a lie.'
'Don't you think you'd better change your mind and make a statement that can be sent to the papers?'
'No, damn you!'
Dick's good nature was imperturbable, and he was not in the least annoyed by Alec's vivacity.
'My dear chap, do calm down,' he laughed.
Alec started at the sound of his mocking. He seemed again to become aware of himself. It was interesting to observe the quite visible effort he made to regain his self-control. In a moment he had mastered his excitement, and he turned to Dick with studied nonchalance.
'Do you think I look wildly excited?' he asked blandly.
'If you will permit me to say so, I think butter would have no difficulty in melting in your mouth,' he replied.
'I never felt cooler in my life.'
'Lucky man, with the thermometer at a hundred and two!'
Alec laughed and put his arm through Dick's.
'Perhaps we had better go home,' he said.
'Your common sense is no less remarkable than your personal appearance,' answered Dick gravely.
They had already bidden their hostess good-night, and getting their things, they set out to walk their different ways. When Dick got home he did not go to bed. He sat in an armchair, considering the events of the evening, and trying to find some way out of the complexity of his thoughts. He was surprised when the morning sun sent a bright ray of light into his room.
* * *
But Lady Kelsey was not yet at the end of her troubles. Bobbie, having got rid of his friends, went to her and asked if she would not come downstairs and drink a cup of soup. The poor lady, quite exhausted, thought him very considerate. One or two persons, with their coats on, were still in the room, waiting for their womenkind; and in the hall there was a little group of belated guests huddled around the door, while cabs and carriages were being brought up for them. There was about everyone the lassitude which follows the gaiety of a dance. The waiters behind the tables were heavy-eyed. Lucy was bidding good-bye to one or two more intimate friends.
Lady Kelsey drank the hot soup with relief.
'My poor legs are dropping,' she said. 'I'm sure I'm far too tired to go to sleep.'
'I want to talk to Lucy before I go,' said Bobbie, abruptly.
'To-night?' she asked in dismay.
'Yes, I want you to send her a message that you wish to see her in your boudoir.'
'Why, what on earth's the matter?'
'She can't go on in this way. It's perfectly monstrous. Something must be done immediately.'
Lady Kelsey understood what he was driving at. She knew how great was his love, and she, too, had seen his anger when Lucy danced with Alec MacKenzie. But the whole affair perplexed her utterly. She put down her cup.
'Can't you wait till to-morrow?' she asked nervously.
'I feel it ought to be settled at once.'
'I think you're dreadfully foolish. You know how Lucy resents any interference with her actions.'
'I shall bear her resentment with fortitude,' he said, with great bitterness.
Lady Kelsey looked at him helplessly.
'What do you want me to do?' she asked.
'I want you to be present at our interview.'
He turned to a servant and told him to ask Miss Allerton from Lady Kelsey if she would kindly come to the boudoir. He gave his arm to Lady Kelsey, and they went upstairs. In a moment Lucy appeared.
'Did you send for me, my aunt? I'm told you want to speak to me here.'
'I asked Aunt Alice to beg you to come here,' said Boulger. 'I was afraid you wouldn't if I asked you.'
Lucy looked at him with raised eyebrows and answered lightly.
'What nonsense! I'm always delighted to enjoy your society.'
'I wanted to speak to you about something, and I thought Aunt Alice should be present.'
Lucy gave him a quick glance. He met it coolly.
'Is it so important that it can't wait till to-morrow?'
'I venture to think it's very important. And by now everybody has gone.'
'I'm all attention,' she smiled.
Boulger hesitated for a moment, then braced himself for the ordeal.
'I've told you often, Lucy, that I've been desperately in love with you for more years than I can remember,' he said, flushing with nervousness.
'Surely you've not snatched me from my last chance of a cup of soup in order to make me a proposal of marriage?'
'I'm perfectly serious, Lucy.'
'I assure you it doesn't suit you at all,' she smiled.
'The other day I asked you again to marry me, just before Alec MacKenzie came back.'
A softer light came into Lucy's eyes, and the bantering tones fell away from her voice.
'It was very charming of you,' she said gravely. 'You mustn't think that because I laugh at you a little, I'm not very grateful for your affection.'
'You know how long he's cared for you, Lucy,' said Lady Kelsey.
Lucy went up to him and very tenderly placed her hand on his arm.
'I'm immensely touched by your great devotion, Bobbie, and I know that I've done nothing to deserve it. I'm very sorry that I can't give you anything in return. One's not mistress of one's love. I can only hope—with all my heart—that you'll fall in love with some girl who cares for you. You don't know how much I want you to be happy.'
Boulger drew back coldly. He would not allow himself to be touched, though the sweetness of her voice tore his heart-strings.
'Just now it's not my happiness that's concerned,' he said. 'When Alec MacKenzie came back I thought I saw why nothing that I could do, had the power to change the utter indifference with which you looked at me.'
He paused a moment and coughed uneasily.
'I don't know why you think it necessary to say all this,' said Lucy, in a low voice.
'I tried to resign myself. You've always worshipped strength, and I understood that you must think Alec MacKenzie very wonderful. I had little enough to offer you when I compared myself with him. I hoped against hope that you weren't in love with him.'
'Except for that letter in this morning's paper I should never have dared to say anything to you again. But that changes everything.'
He paused once more. Though he tried to seem so calm, his heart was beating furiously. He really loved Lucy with all his soul, and he was doing what seemed to him a plain duty.
'I ask you again if you'll be my wife.'
'I don't understand what you mean,' she said slowly.
'You can't marry Alec MacKenzie now.'
Lucy flung back her head. She grew very pale.
'You have no right to talk to me like this,' she said. 'You really presume too much upon my good nature.'
'I think I have some right. I'm the only man who's related to you at all, and I love you.'
They saw that Lady Kelsey wanted to speak, and Lucy turned round to her.
'I think you should listen to him, Lucy. I'm growing old, and soon you'll be quite alone in the world.'
The simple kindness of her words calmed the passions of the other two, and brought down the conversation to a gentler level.
'I'll try my best to make you a good husband, Lucy,' said Bobbie, very earnestly. 'I don't ask you to care for me; I only want to serve you.'
'I can only repeat that I'm very grateful to you. But I can't marry you, and I shall never marry you.'
Boulger's face grew darker, and he was silent.
'Are you going to continue to know Alec MacKenzie?' he asked at length.
'You have no right to ask me such a question.'
'If you'll take the advice of any unprejudiced person about that letter, you'll find that he'll say the same as I. There can be no shadow of a doubt that the man is guilty of a monstrous crime.'
'I don't care what the evidence is,' said Lucy. 'I know he can't have done a shameful thing.'
'But, good God, have you forgotten that it's your own brother whom he killed!' he cried hotly. 'The whole country is up in arms against him, and you are quite indifferent.'
'Oh, Bobbie, how can you say that?' she wailed, suddenly moved to the very depths of her being. 'How can you be so cruel?'
He went up to her, and they stood face to face. He spoke very quickly, flinging the words at her with indignant anger.
'If you cared for George at all, you must wish to punish the man who caused his death. At least you can't continue to be his'—he stopped as he saw the agony in her eyes, and changed his words—'his greatest friend. It was your doing that George went to Africa at all. The least thing you can do is to take some interest in his death.'
She put up her hands to her eyes, as though to drive away the sight of hateful things.
'Oh, why do you torment me?' she cried pitifully. 'I tell you he isn't guilty.'
'He's refused to answer anyone. I tried to get something out of him, but I couldn't, and I lost my temper. He might give you the truth if you asked him pointblank.'
'I couldn't do that.'
'It's very strange that he should insist on this silence,' said Lady Kelsey. 'One would have thought if he had nothing to be ashamed of, he'd have nothing to hide.'
'Do you believe that story, too?' asked Lucy.
'I don't know what to believe. It's so extraordinary. Dick says he knows nothing about it. If the man's innocent, why on earth doesn't he speak?'
'He knows I trust him,' said Lucy. 'He knows I'm proud to trust him. Do you think I would cause him the great pain of asking him questions?'
'Are you afraid he couldn't answer them?' asked Boulger.
'No, no, no.'
'Well, just try. After all you owe as much as that to the memory of George. Try.'
'But don't you see that if he won't say anything, it's because there are good reasons,' she cried distractedly. 'How do I know what interests are concerned in the matter, beside which the death of George is insignificant....'
'Do you look upon it so lightly as that?'
She turned away, bursting into tears. She was like a hunted beast. There seemed no escape from the taunting questions.
'I must show my faith in him,' she sobbed.
'I think you're a little nervous to go into the matter too closely.'
'I believe in him implicitly. I believe in him with all the strength I've got.'
'Then surely it can make no difference if you ask him. There can be no reason for him not to trust you.'
'Oh, why don't you leave me alone?' she wailed.
'I do think it's very unreasonable, Lucy,' said Lady Kelsey. 'He knows you're his friend. He can surely count on your discretion.'
'If he refused to answer me it would mean nothing. You don't know him as I do. He's a man of extraordinary character. If he has made up his mind that for certain reasons which we don't know, he must preserve an entire silence, nothing whatever will move him. Why should he answer? I believe in him absolutely. I think he's the greatest and most honourable man I've ever known. I should feel happy and grateful to be allowed to wait on him.'
'Lucy, what do you mean?' cried Lady Kelsey.
But now Lucy had cast off all reserve. She did not mind what she said.
'I mean that I care more for his little finger than for the whole world. I love him with all my heart. And that's why he can't be guilty of this horrible thing, because I've loved him for years, and he's known it. And he loves me, and he's loved me always.'
She sank exhausted into a chair, gasping for breath. Boulger looked at her for a moment, and he turned sick with anguish. What he had only suspected before, he knew now from her own lips; and it was harder than ever to bear. Now everything seemed ended.
'Are you going to marry him?' he asked.
'In spite of everything?'
'In spite of everything,' she answered defiantly.
Bobbie choked down the groan of despairing rage that forced its way to his throat. He watched her for a moment.
'Good God,' he said at last, 'what is there in the man that he should have made you forget love and honour and common decency!'
Lucy made no reply. But she buried her face in her hands and wept. She rocked to and fro with the violence of her tears.
Without another word Bobbie turned round and left them. Lady Kelsey heard the door slam as he went out into the silent street.
Next day Alec was called up to Lancashire.
When he went out in the morning, he saw on the placards of the evening papers that there had been a colliery explosion, but, his mind absorbed in other things, he paid no attention to it; and it was with a shock that, on opening a telegram which waited for him at his club, he found that the accident had occurred in his own mine. Thirty miners were entombed, and it was feared that they could not be saved. Immediately all thought of his own concerns fled from him, and sending for a time-table, he looked out a train. He found one that he could just catch. He took a couple of telegram forms in the cab with him, and on one scribbled instructions to his servant to follow him at once with clothes; the other he wrote to Lucy.
He just caught the train and in the afternoon found himself at the mouth of the pit. There was a little crowd around it of weeping women. All efforts to save the wretched men appeared to be useless. Many had been injured, and the manager's house had been converted into a hospital. Alec found everyone stunned by the disaster, and the attempts at rescue had been carried on feebly. He set himself to work at once. He put heart into the despairing women. He brought up everyone who could be of the least use and inspired them with his own resourceful courage. The day was drawing to a close, but no time could be lost; and all night they toiled. Alec, in his shirt sleeves, laboured as heartily as the strongest miner; he seemed to want neither rest nor food. With clenched teeth, silently, he fought a battle with death, and the prize was thirty living men. In the morning he refreshed himself with a bath, paid a hurried visit to the injured, and returned to the pit mouth.
He had no time to think of other things. He did not know that on this very morning another letter appeared in the Daily Mail, filling in the details of the case against him, adding one damning piece of evidence to another; he did not know that the papers, amazed and indignant at his silence, now were unanimous in their condemnation. It was made a party matter, and the radical organs used the scandal as a stick to beat the dying donkey which was then in power. A question was put down to be asked in the House.
Alec waged his good fight and neither knew nor cared that the bubble of his glory was pricked. Still the miners lived in the tomb, and forty-eight hours passed. Hope was failing in the stout hearts of those who laboured by his side, but Alec urged them to greater endeavours. And now nothing was needed but a dogged perseverance. His tremendous strength stood him in good stead, and he was able to work twenty hours on end. He did not spare himself. And he seemed able to call prodigies of endurance out of those who helped him; with that example it seemed easier to endure. And still they toiled unrestingly. But their hope was growing faint. Behind that wall thirty men were lying, hopeless, starving; and some perhaps were dead already. And it was terrible to think of the horrors that assailed them, the horror of rising water, the horror of darkness, and the gnawing pangs of hunger. Among them was a boy of fourteen. Alec had spoken to him by chance on one of the days he had recently spent there, and had been amused by his cheeky brightness. He was a blue-eyed lad with a laughing mouth. It was pitiful to think that all that joy of life should have been crushed by a blind, stupid disaster. His father had been killed, and his body, charred and disfigured, lay in the mortuary. The boy was imprisoned with his brother, a man older than himself, married, and the father of children. With angry vehemence Alec set to again. He would not be beaten.
At last they heard sounds, faint and muffled, but unmistakable. At all events some of them were still alive. The rescuers increased their efforts. Now it was only a question of hours. They were so near that it renewed their strength; all fatigue fell from them; it needed but a little courage.
With a groan of relief which tried hard to be a cheer, the last barrier was broken, and the prisoners were saved. They were brought out one by one, haggard, with sunken eyes that blinked feebly in the sun-light; their faces were pale with the shadow of death, and they could not stand on their feet. The bright-eyed boy was carried out in Alec's strong arms, and he tried to make a jest of it; but the smile on his lips was changed into a sob, and hiding his face in Alec's breast, he cried from utter weakness. They carried out his brother, and he was dead. His wife was waiting for him at the pit's mouth, with her children by her side.
This commonplace incident, briefly referred to in the corner of a morning paper, made his own affairs strangely unimportant to Alec. Face to face with the bitter tragedy of women left husbandless, of orphaned children, and the grim horror of men cut off in the prime of their manhood, the agitation which his own conduct was causing fell out of view. He was harassed and anxious. Much business had to be done which would allow of no delay. It was necessary to make every effort to get the mine once more into working order; it was necessary to provide for those who had lost the breadwinner. Alec found himself assailed on all sides with matters of urgent importance, and he had not a moment to devote to his own affairs. When at length it was possible for him to consider himself at all, he felt that the accident had raised him out of the narrow pettiness which threatened to submerge his soul; he was at close quarters with malignant fate, and he had waged a desperate battle with the cruel blindness of chance. He could only feel an utter scorn for the people who bespattered him with base charges. For, after all, his conscience was free.
When he wrote to Lucy, it never struck him that it was needful to refer to the events that had preceded his departure from London, and his letter was full of the strenuous agony of the past days. He told her how they had fought hand to hand with death and had snatched the prey from his grasp. In a second letter he told her what steps he was taking to repair the damage that had been caused, and what he was doing for those who were in immediate need. He would have given much to be able to write down the feelings of passionate devotion with which Lucy filled him, but with the peculiar shyness which was natural to him, he could not bring himself to it. Of the accusation with which, the world was ringing, he said never a word.
* * *
Lucy read his letters over and over again. She could not understand them, and they seemed strangely indifferent. At that distance from the scene of the disaster she could not realise its absorbing anxiety, and she was bitterly disappointed at Alec's absence. She wanted his presence so badly, and she had to bear alone, on her own shoulders, the full weight of her trouble. When Macinnery's second letter appeared, Lady Kelsey gave it to her without a word. It was awful. The whole thing was preposterous, but it hung together in a way that was maddening, and there was an air of truth about it which terrified her. And why should Alec insist on this impenetrable silence? She had offered herself the suggestion that political exigencies with regard to the states whose spheres of influence bordered upon the territory which Alec had conquered, demanded the strictest reserve; but this explanation soon appeared fantastic. She read all that was said in the papers and found that opinion was dead against Alec. Now that it was become a party matter, his own side defended him; but in a half-hearted way, which showed how poor the case was. And since all that could be urged in his favour, Lucy had already repeated to herself a thousand times, what was said against him seemed infinitely more conclusive than what was said for him. And then her conscience smote her. Those cruel words of Bobbie's came back to her, and she was overwhelmed with self-reproach when she considered that it was her own brother of whom was all this to-do. She must be utterly heartless or utterly depraved. And then with a despairing energy she cried out that she believed in Alec; he was incapable of a treacherous act.
At last she could bear it no longer, and she wired to him: For God's sake come quickly.
She felt that she could not endure another day of this misery. She waited for him, given over to the wildest fears; she was ashamed and humiliated. She counted the hours which must pass before he could arrive; surely he would not delay. All her self-possession had vanished, and she was like a child longing for the protecting arms that should enfold it
* * *
At last he came. Lucy was waiting in the same room in which she had sat on their first meeting after his return to England. She sprang up, pale and eager, and flung herself passionately into his arms.
'Thank God, you've come,' she said. 'I thought the hours would never end.'
He did not know what so vehemently disturbed her, but he kissed her tenderly, and on a sudden she felt strangely comforted. There was an extraordinary honesty about him which strengthened and consoled her. For a while she could not speak, but clung to him, sobbing.
'What is it?' he asked at length. 'Why did you send for me?'
'I want your lore. I want your love so badly.'
It was inconceivable, the exquisite tenderness with which he caressed her. No one would have thought that dour man capable of such gentleness.
'I felt I must see you,' she sobbed. 'You don't know what tortures I've endured.'
He kissed her hair and her white, pained forehead.
'Why did you go away? You knew I wanted you.'
'I'm very sorry.'
'I've been horribly wretched. I didn't know I could suffer so much.'
'Come and sit down and tell me all about it.'
He led her to the sofa and made her sit beside him. His arms were around her, and she nestled close to him. For a moment she remained silent, enjoying the feeling of great relief after the long days of agony. She smiled lightly through her tears.
'The moment I'm with you I feel so confident and happy.'
'Only when you're with me?'
He asked the question caressingly, in a low passionate voice that she had never heard from his lips before. She did not answer, but clung more closely to him. Smiling, he repeated the question.
'Only when you're with me, darling?'
'I've told Bobbie and my aunt that we're going to be married. They made me suffer so dreadfully. I had to tell them. I couldn't keep it back, they said such horrible things about you.'
He did not answer for a moment.
'It's very natural.'
'It's nothing to you,' she cried desperately. ' But to me.... Oh, you don't know what agony I had to endure.'
'I'm glad you told them.'
'Bobby said I must be heartless and cruel. And it's true: George is nothing to me now when I think of you. My heart is so filled with my love for you that I haven't room for anything else.'
'I hope my love will make up for all that you have lost. I want you to be happy.'
She withdrew from his arms and leaned back, against the corner of the sofa. It was absolutely necessary to say what was gnawing at her heart-strings, but she felt ashamed and could not look at him.
'That wasn't the only reason I told them. I'm such a coward. I thought I was much braver.'
Lucy felt on a sudden sick at heart. She began to tremble a little, and it was only by great strength of will that she forced herself to go on. She was horribly frightened. Her mouth was dry, and when at last the words came, her voice sounded unnatural.
'I wanted to burn my ships behind me. I wanted to reassure myself.'
This time it was Alec who did not answer, for he understood now what was on her mind. His heart sank, since he saw already that he must lose her. But he had faced that possibility long ago in the heavy forests of Africa, and he had made up his mind that Lucy could do without love better than without self-respect.
He made a movement to get up, but quickly Lucy put out her hand. And then suddenly a fire seized him, and a vehement determination not to give way till the end.
'I don't understand you,' he said quietly.
'Forgive me, dear,' she said.
She held his hand in hers, and she spoke quickly.
'You don't know how terrible it is. I stand so dreadfully alone. Everyone is so bitter against you, and not a soul has a good word to say for you. It's all so extraordinary and so inexplicable. It seems as if I am the only person who isn't convinced that you caused poor George's death. Oh, how callous and utterly heartless people must think me!'
'Does it matter very much what people think?' he said gravely.
'I'm so ashamed of myself. I try to put the thoughts out of my head, but I can't. I simply can't. I've tried to be brave. I've refused to discuss the possibility of there being anything in those horrible charges. I wanted to talk to Dick—I knew he was fond of you—but I didn't dare. It seemed treacherous to you, and I wouldn't let anyone see that it meant anything to me. The first letter wasn't so bad, but the second—oh, it looks so dreadfully true.'
Alec gave her a rapid glance. This was the first he had heard of another communication to the paper. During the frenzied anxiety of those days at the colliery, he had had time to attend to nothing but the pressing work of rescue. But he made no reply.
'I've read it over and over again, and I can't understand. When Bobbie says it's conclusive, I tell him it means nothing—but—don't you see what I mean? The uncertainty is more than I can bear.'
She stopped suddenly, and now she looked at him. There was a pitiful appeal in her eyes.
'At the first moment I felt so absolutely sure of you.'
'And now you don't?' he asked quietly.
She cast down her eyes once more, and a sob caught her breath.
'I trust you just as much as ever. I know it's impossible that you should have done a shameful deed. But there it stands in black and white, and you have nothing to say in answer.'
'I know it's very difficult. That's why I asked you to believe in me.'
'I do, Alec,' she cried vehemently. 'With all my soul. But have mercy on me. I'm not as strong as I thought. It's easy for you to stand alone. You're iron. You're a mountain of granite. But I'm a weak woman, pitifully weak.'
He shook his head.
'Oh, no, you're not like other women.'
'It was easy to be brave where my father was concerned, or George, but now it's so different. Love has changed me. I haven't the courage any more to withstand the opinion of all my fellows.'
Alec got up and walked once or twice across the room. He seemed to be thinking deeply. Lucy fancied that he must hear the beating of her heart. He stopped in front of her. Her heart was wrung by the great pain that was in his voice.
'Don't you remember that only a few days ago I told you that I'd done nothing which I wouldn't do again? I gave you my word of honour that I could reproach myself for nothing.'
'Oh, I know,' she cried. 'I'm so utterly ashamed of myself. But I can't bear the doubt.'
'Doubt. You've said the word at last.'
'I tell myself that I don't believe a word of these horrible charges. I repeat to myself: I'm certain, I'm certain that he's innocent.'
She gathered strength in the desperation of her love, and now at the crucial moment she had all the courage she needed.
'And yet at the bottom of my heart there's the doubt. And I can't crush it.'
She waited for him to answer, but he did not speak.
'I wanted to kill that bitter pain of suspicion. I thought if I stood up before them and cried out that my trust in you was so great, I was willing to marry you notwithstanding everything—I should at last have peace in my heart.'
Alec went to the window and looked out. The westering sun slanted across the street. Carriages and motors were waiting at the door of the house opposite, and a little crowd of footmen clustered about the steps. They were giving a party, and through the open windows Alec could see a throng of women. The sky was very blue. He turned back to Lucy.
'Will you show me the second letter of which you speak?'
'Haven't you seen it?' she asked in astonishment.
'I was so busy, I had no time to look at the papers. I suppose no one thought it his business to draw my attention to it.'
Lucy went into the second drawing-room, divided from that in which they sat by an archway, and brought him the copy of the Daily Mail for which he asked. She gave it, and he took it silently. He sat down and with attention read the letter through. He observed with bitter scorn the thoroughness with which Macinnery had set out the case against him. In this letter he filled up the gaps which had been left in the first, adding here and there details which gave a greater coherency to the whole; and his evidence had an air of truth, since he quoted the very words of porters and askari who had been on the expedition. It was wonderful what power had that small admixture of falsehood joined with what was admittedly true, to change the whole aspect of the case. Alec was obliged to confess that Lucy had good grounds for her suspicion. There was a specious look about the story, which would have made him credit it himself if some other man had been concerned. The facts were given with sufficient exactness, and the untruth lay only in the motives that were ascribed to him; but who could tell what another's motives were? Alec put the paper on the table, and leaning back, his face resting in his hand, thought deeply. He saw again that scene in his tent when the wind was howling outside and the rain falling, falling; he recalled George's white face, the madness that came over him when he fired at Alec, the humility of his submission. The earth covered the boy, his crime, and his weakness. It was not easy to save one's self at a dead man's expense. And he knew that George's strength and courage had meant more than her life to Lucy. How could he cause her the bitter pain? How could he tell her that her brother died because he was a coward and a rogue? How could he tell her the pitiful story of the boy's failure to redeem the good name that was so dear to her? And what proof could he offer of anything he said? Walker had been killed on the same night as George, poor Walker with his cheerfulness in difficulties and his buoyant spirits: his death too must be laid to the charge of George Allerton; Adamson had died of fever. Those two alone had any inkling of the truth; they could have told a story that would at least have thrown grave doubts upon Macinnery's. But Alec set his teeth; he did not want their testimony. Finally there was the promise. He had given his solemn oath, and the place and the moment made it seem more binding, that he would utter no word that should lead Lucy to suspect even for an instant that her brother had been untrue to the trust she had laid upon him. Alec was a man of scrupulous truthfulness, not from deliberately moral motives but from mere taste, and he could not have broken his promise for the great discomfort it would have caused him. But it was the least of the motives which influenced him. Even if George had exacted nothing, he would have kept silence. And then, at the bottom of his heart, was a fierce pride. He was conscious of the honesty of his motives, and he expected that Lucy should share his consciousness. She must believe what he said to her because he said it. He could not suffer the humiliation of defending himself, and he felt that her love could not be very great if she could really doubt him. And because he was very proud perhaps he was unjust. He did not know that he was putting upon her a trial which he should have asked no one to bear.
He stood up and faced Lucy.
'What is it precisely you want me to do?' he asked.
'I want you to have mercy on me because I love you. Don't tell the world if you choose not to. But tell me the truth. I know you're incapable of lying. If I only have it from your own lips I shall believe. I want to be certain, certain.'
'Don't you realise that I would never have asked you to marry me if my conscience hadn't been quite clear?' he said slowly. 'Don't you see that the reasons I have for holding my tongue must be overwhelming, or I wouldn't stand by calmly while my good name was torn from me shred by shred?'
'But I'm going to be your wife, and I love you, and I know you love me.'
'I implore you not to insist, Lucy. Let us remember only that the past is gone and that we love one another. It is impossible for me to tell you anything.'
'Oh, but you must now,' she implored. 'If anything has happened, if any part of the story is true, you must give me a chance of judging for myself.'
'I'm very sorry. I can't.'
'But you'll kill my love for you.'
She sprang to her feet and pressed both hands to her heart.
'The doubt that lurked at the bottom of my soul, now fills me. How can you let me suffer such maddening torture?'
An expression of anguish passed across his calm eyes. He made a gesture of despair.
'I thought you trusted me.'
'I'll be satisfied if you'll only tell me one thing.' She put her hands to her head with a rapid, aimless movement that showed the extremity of her agitation. 'Oh, what has love done with me?' she cried desperately. 'I was so proud of my brother and so utterly devoted to him. But I loved you so much that there wasn't any room in my heart for the past. I forgot all my unhappiness and all my loss. And even now they seem so little to me beside your love that it's you I think of first. I want to know that I can love you freely. I'll be satisfied if you'll only tell me that when you sent George out that night, you didn't know he'd be killed.'
Alec looked at her steadily. And once more he saw himself in the African tent amid the rain and the boisterous wind. At the time he sought to persuade himself that George had a chance of escape. He told him with his own lips that if he showed perfect self-confidence at the moment of danger he might save himself alive; but at the bottom of his heart he knew, he had known all along, that it was indeed death he was sending him to, for George had not the last virtue of a scoundrel, courage.
'Only say that, Alec,' she repeated. 'Say that's not true, and I'll believe you.'
There was a silence. Lucy's heart beat against her breast like a caged bird. She waited in horrible suspense.
'But it is true,' he said, very quietly.
Lucy did not answer. She stared at him with terrified eyes. Her brain reeled, and she feared that she was going to faint. She had to put forth all her strength to drive back the enveloping night that seemed to crowd upon her.
'It is true,' he repeated.
She gave a gasp of pain.
'I don't understand. Oh, my dearest, don't treat me as a child. Have mercy on me. You must be serious now. Ifs a matter of life and death to both of us.'
'I'm perfectly serious.'
A frightful coldness appeared to seize her, and the tips of her fingers were strangely numbed.
'You knew that you were sending George into a death-trap? You knew that he could not escape alive?'
'Except by a miracle.'
'And you don't believe in miracles?'
Alec made no answer. She looked at him with increasing horror. Her eyes were staring wildly. She repeated the question.
'And you don't believe in miracles?'
She was seized with all manner of conflicting emotions. They seemed to wage a tumultuous battle in the depths of her heart. She was filled with horror and dismay, bitter anger, remorse for her callous indifference to George's death; and at the same time she felt an overwhelming love for Alec. And how could she love him now?
'Oh, it can't be true,' she cried. 'It's infamous. Oh, Alec, Alec, Alec... O God, what shall I do.'
Alec held himself upright. He set his teeth, and his heavy jaw seemed squarer than ever. There was a great sternness in his voice.
'I tell you that whatever I did was inevitable.'
Lucy flushed at the sound of his voice, and anger and sudden hatred took the place of all other feelings.
'Then if that's true, the rest must be true. Why don't you acknowledge as well that you sacrificed my brother's life in order to save your own?'
But the mood passed quickly, and in a moment she was seized with dismay.
'Oh, it's awful. I can't realise it.' She turned to him with a desperate appeal. 'Haven't you anything to say at all? You know how much I loved my brother. You know how much it meant to me that he should live to wipe out all memory of my father's crime. All the future was centred upon him. You can't have sacrificed him callously.'
Alec hesitated for an instant.
'I think I might tell you this,' he said. 'We were entrapped by the Arabs, and our only chance of escape entailed the death of one of us.'
'So you chose my brother because you loved me.'
Alec looked at her. There was an extraordinary sadness in his eyes, but she did not see it. He answered very gravely.
'You see, the fault was his. He had committed a grave error. It was not unjust that he should suffer for the catastrophe that he had brought about.'
'At those times one doesn't think of justice. He was so young, so frank and honest. Wouldn't it have been nobler to give your life for his?'
'Oh, my dear,' he answered, with all the gentleness that was in him, 'you don't know how easy it is to give one's life, how much more difficult it is to be just than generous. How little you know me! Do you think I should have hesitated if the difficulty had been one that my death could solve? It was necessary that I should live. I had my work to do. I was bound by solemn treaties to the surrounding tribes. Even if that had been all, it would have been cowardly for me to die.'
'It is easy to find excuses for not acting like a brave man.' She flung the words at him with indignant scorn.
'I was indispensable,' he answered. 'The whites I took with me I chose as instruments, not as leaders. If I had died the expedition would have broken in pieces. It was my influence that held together such of the native tribes as remained faithful to us. I had given my word that I would not desert them till I had exterminated the slave-raiders. Two days after my death my force would have melted away, and the whites would have been helpless. Not one of them would have escaped. And then the country would have been given up, defenceless, to those cursed Arabs. Fire and sword would have come instead of the peace I promised; and the whole country would have been rendered desolate. I tell you that it was my duty to live till I had carried out my work.'
Lucy drew herself up a little. She looked at him firmly, and said very quietly and steadily:
'You coward! You coward!'
'I knew at the time that what I did might cost me your love, and though you won't believe this, I did it for your sake.'
'I wish I had a whip in my hand that I might slash you across the face.'
For a moment he did not say anything. She was quivering with indignation and with contempt.
'You see, it has cost me your love,' he said. 'I suppose it was inevitable.'
'I am ashamed that I ever loved you.'
He turned round and walked slowly to the door. He held his head erect, and there was no sign of emotion on his face. But as soon as he was gone Lucy could keep her self-control no longer. She sank into a chair, and hiding her face, began to sob as though her poor tortured heart would break.
Alec went back to Lancashire next day. Much was still required before the colliery could be put once more in proper order, and he was overwhelmed with work. Lucy was not so fortunate. She had nothing to do but to turn over in her mind the conversation they had had. She passed one sleepless night after another. She felt ill and wretched. She told Lady Kelsey that her engagement with MacKenzie was broken off, but gave no reason; and Lady Kelsey, seeing her white, tortured face, had not the heart to question her. The good lady knew that her niece was desperately unhappy, but she did not know how to help her. Lucy never sought for the sympathy of others and chose rather to bear her troubles alone. The season was drawing to a close, and Lady Kelsey suggested that they should advance by a week or two the date of their departure for the country; but Lucy would do nothing to run away from her suffering.
'I don't know why you should alter your plans,' she said quietly.
Lady Kelsey looked at her compassionately, but did not insist. She felt somehow that Lucy was of different clay from herself, and for all her exquisite gentleness, her equanimity and pleasant temper, she had never been able to get entirely at close quarters with her. She would have given much to see Lucy give way openly to her grief; and her arms would have been open to receive her, if her niece had only flung herself simply into them. But Lucy's spirit was broken. With the extreme reserve that was part of her nature, she put all her strength into the effort to behave in the world with decency; and dreading any attempt at commiseration, she forced herself to be no less cheerful than usual. The strain was hardly tolerable. She had set all her hopes of happiness upon Alec, and he had failed her. She thought more of her brother and her father than she had done of late, and she mourned for them both as though the loss she had sustained were quite recent. It seemed to her that the only thing now was to prevent herself from thinking of Alec, and with angry determination she changed her thoughts as soon as he came into them.
Presently something else occurred to her. She felt that she owed some reparation to Bobbie: he had seen the truth at once, and because he had pointed it out to her, as surely it was his duty to do, she had answered him with bitter words. He had shown himself extraordinarily kind, and she had been harsh and cruel. Perhaps he knew that she was no longer engaged to marry Alec MacKenzie, and he must guess the reason; but since the night of the dance he had not been near them. She looked upon what Alec had told her as addressed to her only, and she could not repeat it to all and sundry. When acquaintances had referred to the affair, her manner had shown them quickly that she did not intend to discuss it. But Robert Boulger was different. It seemed necessary, in consideration of all that had passed, that he should be told the little she knew; and then she thought also, seized on a sudden with a desire for self-sacrifice, that it was her duty perhaps to reward him for his long devotion. She might at least try to make him a good wife; and she could explain exactly how she felt towards him. There would be no deceit. Her life had no value now, and if it really meant so much to him to marry her, it was right that she should consent. And there was another thing: it would put an irrevocable barrier between herself and Alec.
Lady Kelsey was accustomed to ask a few people to luncheon every Tuesday, and Lucy suggested that they should invite Bobbie on one of these occasions. Lady Kelsey was much pleased, for she was fond of her nephew, and it had pained her that she had not seen him. She had sent a line to tell him that Lucy was no longer engaged, but he had not answered. Lucy wrote the invitation herself.
My Dear Bobbie:
Aunt Alice will be very glad if you can lunch with us on Tuesday at two. We are asking Dick, Julia Crowley, and Canon Spratte. If you can come, and I hope you will, it would be very kind of you to arrive a good deal earlier than the others; I want to talk to you about something.
Yours affectionately, Lucy.
He answered at once.
My Dear Lucy:
I will come with pleasure. I hope half-past one will suit you.
Your affectionate cousin, Robert Boulger.
'Why haven't you been to see us?' she said, holding his hand, when at the appointed time he appeared.
'I thought you didn't much want to see me.'
'I'm afraid I was very cruel and unkind to you last time you were here,' she said.
'It doesn't matter at all,' he said gently.
'I think I should tell you that I did as you suggested to me. I asked Alec MacKenzie pointblank, and he confessed that he was guilty of George's death.'
'I'm very sorry,' said Bobbie.
'Why?' she asked, looking up at him with tear-laden eyes.
'Because I know that you were very much in love with him,' he answered.
Lucy flushed. But she had much more to say.
'I was very unjust to you on the night of that dance. You were right to speak to me as you did, and I was very foolish. I regret what I said, and I beg you to forgive me.'
'There's nothing to forgive, Lucy,' he said warmly. 'What does it matter what you said? You know I love you.'
'I don't know what I've done to deserve such love,' she said. 'You make me dreadfully ashamed of myself.'
He took her hand, and she did not attempt to withdraw it.
'Won't you change your mind, Lucy?' he said earnestly.
'Oh, my dear, I don't love you. I wish I did. But I don't and I'm afraid I never can.'
'Won't you marry me all the same?'
'Do you care for me so much as that?' she cried painfully.
'Perhaps you will learn to love me in time.'
'Don't be so humble; you make me still more ashamed. Bobbie, I should like to make you happy if I thought I could. It seems very wonderful to me that you should want to have me. But I must be honest with you. I know that if I pretend I'm willing to marry you merely for your sake I'm deceiving myself. I want to marry you because I'm afraid. I want to crush my love for Alec. I want to make it impossible for me ever to weaken in my resolve. You see, I'm horrid and calculating, and it's very little I can offer you.'
'I don't care why you're marrying me,' he said. 'I want you so badly.'
'Oh, no, don't take me like that. Let me say first that if you really think me worth having, I will do my duty gladly. And if I have no love to give, I have a great deal of affection and a great deal of gratitude. I want you to be happy.'
He went down on his knees and kissed her hands passionately.
'I'm so thankful,' he murmured. 'I'm so thankful.'
Lucy bent down and gently kissed his hair. Two tears rolled heavily down her cheeks.
* * *
Five minutes later Lady Kelsey came in. She was delighted to see that her nephew and her niece were apparently once more on friendly terms; but she had no time to find out what had happened, for Canon Spratte was immediately announced. Lady Kelsey had heard that he was to be offered a vacant bishopric, and she mourned over his disappearance from London. He was a spiritual mentor who exactly suited her, handsome, urbane, attentive notwithstanding her mature age, and well-connected. He was just the man to be a bishop. Then Mrs. Crowley appeared. They waited a little, and presently Dick was announced. He sauntered in jauntily, unaware that he had kept the others waiting a full quarter of an hour; and the party was complete.
No gathering could be tedious when Canon Spratte was present, and the conversation proceeded merrily. Mrs. Crowley looked ravishing in a summer frock, and since she addressed herself exclusively to the handsome parson it was no wonder that he was in a good humour. She laughed appreciatively at his facile jests and gave him provoking glances of her bright eyes. He did not attempt to conceal from her that he thought American women the most delightful creatures in the world, and she made no secret of her opinion that ecclesiastical dignitaries were often fascinating. They paid one another outrageous compliments. It never struck the good man that these charms and graces were displayed only for the purpose of vexing a gentleman of forty, who was eating his luncheon irritably on the other side of her. She managed to avoid talking to Dick Lomas afterwards, but when she bade Lady Kelsey farewell, he rose also.
'Shall I drive you home?' he asked.
'I'm not going home, but if you like to drive me to Victoria Street, you may. I have an appointment there at four.'
They went out, stepped into a cab, and quite coolly Dick told the driver to go to Hammersmith. He sat himself down by her side, with a smile of self-satisfaction.
'What on earth are you doing?' she cried.
'I want to have a talk to you.'
'I'm sure that's charming of you,' she answered, 'but I shall miss my appointment.'
'That's a matter of complete indifference to me.'
'Don't bother about my feelings, will you?' she replied, satirically.
'I have no intention of doing so,' he smiled.
Mrs. Crowley was obliged to laugh at the neatness with which he had entrapped her. Or had he fallen into the trap which she had set for him? She really did not quite know.
'If your object in thus abducting me was to talk, hadn't you better do so?' she asked. 'I hope you will endeavour to be not only amusing but instructive.'
'I wanted to point out to you that it is not civil pointedly to ignore a man who is sitting next to you at luncheon.'
'Did I do that? I'm so sorry. But I know you're greedy, and I thought you'd be absorbed in the lobster mayonnaise.'
'I'm beginning to think I dislike you rather than otherwise,' he murmured reflectively.
'Ah, I suppose that is why you haven't been in to see me for so long.'
'May I venture to remind you that I've called upon you three times during the last week.'
'I've been out so much lately,' she answered, with a little wave of her hand.
'Nonsense. Once I heard you playing scales in the drawing-room, and once I positively saw you peeping at me through the curtains.'
'Why didn't you make a face at me?' she asked.
'You're not going to trouble to deny it?'
'It's perfectly true.'
Dick could not help giving a little laugh. He didn't quite know whether he wanted to kiss Julia Crowley or to shake her.
'And may I ask why you've treated me in this abominable fashion?' he asked blandly.
She looked at him sideways from beneath her long eyelashes. Dick was a man who appreciated the artifices of civilisation in the fair sex, and he was pleased with her pretty hat and with the flounces of her muslin frock.
'Because I chose,' she smiled.
He shrugged his shoulders and put on an air of resignation.
'Of course if you're going to make yourself systematically disagreeable unless I marry you, I suppose I must bow to the inevitable.'
'I don't know if you have the least idea what you're talking about,' she answered, raising her eyebrows. 'I'm sure I haven't.'
'I was merely asking you in a rather well-turned phrase to name the day. The lamb shall be ready for the slaughter.'
'Is that a proposal of marriage?' she asked gaily.
'If not it must be its twin brother,' he returned.
'I'm so glad you've told me, because if I'd met it in the street I should never have recognised it, and I should simply have cut it dead.'
'You show as little inclination to answer a question as a cabinet minister in the House of Commons.'
'Couldn't you infuse a little romance into it? You see, I'm American, and I have a certain taste for sentiment in affairs of the heart.'
'I should be charmed, only you must remember that I have no experience in these matters.'
'That is visible to the naked eye,' she retorted. 'But I would suggest that it is only decent to go down on your bended knees.'
'That sounds a perilous feat to perform in a hansom cab, and it would certainly attract an amount of attention from passing bus-drivers which would be embarrassing.'
'You could never convince me of the sincerity of your passion unless you did something of the kind,' she replied.
'I assure you that it is quite out of fashion. Lovers now-a-days are much too middle-aged, and their joints are creaky. Besides it ruins the trousers.'
'I admit your last reason is overwhelming. No nice woman should ask a man to make his trousers baggy at the knees.'
'How could she love him if they were!' exclaimed Dick.
'But at all events there can be no excuse for your not saying that you know you are utterly unworthy of me.'
'Wild horses wouldn't induce me to make a statement which is so remote from the truth,' he replied coolly. 'I did it with my little hatchet.'
'And of course you must threaten to commit suicide if I don't consent. That is only decent.'
'Women are such sticklers for routine,' he sighed. 'They have no originality. They have a passion for commonplace, and in moments of emotion they fly with unerring instinct into the flamboyance of melodrama.'
'I like to hear you use long words. It makes me feel so grown up.'
'By the way, how old are you?' he asked suddenly.
'Twenty-nine,' she answered promptly.
'Nonsense. There is no such age.'
'Pardon me,' she protested gravely. 'Upper parlour maids are always twenty-nine. But I deplore your tendency to digress.'
'Am I digressing? I'm so sorry. What were we talking about?'
Julia giggled. She did not know where the cab was going, and she certainly did not care. She was thoroughly enjoying herself.
'You were taking advantage of my vast experience in such matters to learn how a man proposes to an eligible widow of great personal attractions.'
'Your advice can't be very valuable, since you always refused the others.'
'I didn't indeed,' she replied promptly. 'I made a point of accepting them all.'
'That at all events is encouraging.'
'Of course you may do it in your own way if you choose. But I must have a proposal in due form.'
'My intelligence may be limited, but it seems to me that only four words are needed.' He counted them out deliberately on his fingers. 'Will—you—marry—me?'