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The Hunt Ball Mystery
by Magnay, William
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"Yes, that will do," Gifford answered curtly when he had read the few lines.

Henshaw rose with a rather mocking smile. "I congratulate you on your—luck, Mr. Gifford," he said with a studied emphasis, and so left the room.



CHAPTER XXVII

GIFFORD'S REWARD

With the precious declaration in his pocket Gifford lost no time in going to Wynford Place. His light heart must have been reflected in his face, for Edith Morriston's anxious look brightened as she joined him in the drawing-room. All the same it seemed as though she almost feared to ask the result, and he was the first to speak.

"I bring you good news, Miss Morriston. You have nothing more to fear from Gervase Henshaw."

"Ah!" She caught her breath, and for a moment seemed unable to respond. "Tell me," she said at length, almost breathlessly.

"I have had a long and, as you may imagine, not very pleasant interview with the fellow," he answered quietly; "and am happy to say I won all along the line."

"You won? You mean—?"

He had taken the declaration from his pocket-book and for answer handed it to her. With a manifest effort to control her feelings she read it eagerly. Then her voice trembled as she spoke.

"Mr. Gifford, what can I say? I wish I knew how to thank you."

"Please don't try," he replied lightly. "If you only knew the pleasure it has given me to get the better of this fellow you would hardly consider thanks necessary. Would you care to hear a short account of what happened?" he added tactfully, with the intention, seeing how painful the revulsion was, of giving her time to recover from her agitation.

"Please; do tell me." She spoke mechanically, still hardly able to trust her voice above a whisper.

They sat down and he related the salient points of his interview with Henshaw. "It was lucky that I happened to have something of a hold over him," he concluded with a laugh; "Mr. Gervase Henshaw is not wanting in determination, and it took a long time to persuade him that he could not possibly win the game he was playing; but he stood to lose more heavily than he could afford. The conclusion, however, was at last borne in upon him that the position he had taken up was untenable, and that paper is the result."

"That paper," she said in a low voice, "means life to me instead of a living death; it means more than I can tell you, more than even you can understand."

He had risen, but before he could speak she had come to him and impulsively taken his hand. "Mr. Gifford," she said, "tell me how I can repay you."

Her eyes met his; they were full of gratitude and something more. But he resisted the temptation to answer her question in the way it was plain to him he was invited to do.

"It is reward enough for me to have served you," he responded steadily. "Seeing that chance gave me the power, I could do no less."

"You would have risked your life for mine," she persisted, her eyes still on him.

"Hardly that," he returned, with an effort to force a smile. "But had it been necessary, I should have been quite content to do so."

"And you will not tell me how I can show my gratitude?"

"I did not do it for reward," he murmured, scarcely able to restrain himself.

"I am sure of that," she assented. "But you once hinted, or at any rate led me to believe, that I could repay you."

There could be no pretence of ignoring her meaning now. Still he felt that chivalry forbade his acceptance.

"I was wrong," he replied with an effort, "and most unfair if I suggested a bargain."

"Have you repented the suggestion?" she asked almost quizzingly and with a curious absence of her characteristic pride.

"Only in a sense," he answered. "I hope I am too honourable to take an unfair advantage."

She laughed now; joyously, it seemed. "If your scruples are so strong there will be nothing for it but for me to throw away mine and offer myself to you."

"Edith," he exclaimed in a flash of rapture, then, checked the passionate impulse to take her in his arms. "You must not; not now, not now. It is not fair to yourself. At the moment of your release from this horrible danger you cannot be master of yourself. You must not mistake gratitude for love."

Edith drew back with a touch of resentful pride.

"If you think I don't know my own mind—" she began.

"Does any one know his own mind at such a crisis as you have just passed through?" he said, a little wistfully. "Edith," he went on as he took her unresisting hand, "you must not be offended with me. Think. The whole object of what I have done for you has been to set you free, as free as though you had woke up to find the episode of these Henshaws had been no more than a horrible dream. You must be free, you must realize and enjoy your freedom. You are now relieved from the crushing weight you have borne so long; the release must be untouched by the shadow of a bargain expressed or implied. That is the only way in which a man of honour can regard the position."

"Very well," she returned simply, "I understand. I am sorry for my mistake."

Her manner shook his resolution. "I can't think you understand," he replied forcibly. "I only ask, in fairness to yourself, for time. Don't think that I am not desperately in love with you. You must have seen it, ever since our first confidential talk, that night at the Stograve dance. And my love has gone on increasing every day till—oh, you don't know how cruelly hard it is to resist taking you at your word. But I can't, I simply can't snatch at an unfair advantage, however great the temptation. I must give you time, time to know your own heart when the nightmare shall have passed away. I propose to return to town as soon as this man Henshaw has cleared out of the neighbourhood. Will you let us be as we are for a month, Edith, and if then you are of the same mind, send me a line and I will come to you by the first train. Is not that only fair?"

She gave a little sigh of contentment. "Very well," she said, "if that will satisfy you."

He took her hand. "It will seem a horribly long time to wait; but I feel it is right. Today is the 16th; on this day month I shall hear from you?"

"Yes, on the 16th," she answered.

"And so," he said, "you are free, unless you call me back to you."

"That is understood," she said with a smile.

He might have kissed her lips, her look into his eyes was almost an invitation, but, having steeled himself to be scrupulously fair, he refrained and contented himself with kissing her hand.

On reaching the hotel he heard with satisfaction that Henshaw had gone off by the late afternoon train and had suggested the unlikelihood of his returning. "So I suppose he is content to let the mystery remain a mystery," the landlord remarked. And the Coroner's jury subsequently had perforce to come to the same conclusion.

On the 16th of the following month, Hugh Gifford's impatience and anxiety were set at rest, as the morning's post brought the expected letter from Wynford.

"Dick and I are expecting you here tomorrow, unless you have changed your mind—I have not. The 3.15 train shall be met if you do not wire to the contrary."

When Gifford jumped out of the 3.15 Edith was on the platform. As they shook hands he read in her eyes an unwonted happiness and knew for certain that all was well.

"I had something to do in the town and thought I might as well come on to the station," Edith said with a lurking smile.

"I am glad you have not added even a half-hour to this long month," he replied as they took their seats in the carriage.

"It has been long," she murmured.

"Long enough to set our doubts at rest."

"I never had any," she replied quietly. He drew her to him and kissed her.

THE END

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