The light dawned gradually in her eyes. She found herself gazing up into a face she knew, a lean, brown face, alert and keen, that watched her steadfastly.
With an effort she clasped her nerveless fingers upon the sustaining hand.
"Hold me!" she whispered weakly. "I'm falling!"
"Don't be afraid!" he made answer with infinite gentleness. "I have you safe."
Someone whom she saw but vaguely came behind him and whispered in a vigorous undertone. A large white hand, on which flashed many rings, rested upon his shoulder.
He moved slightly, took something into his free hand and held it to her lips. Submissively, in answer to an influence that seemed to fold her about and gently to compel, she drank.
Slowly the mist of dread cleared from her brain. Slowly she awoke to full consciousness, and found Nap Errol bending over her, her hand fast clasped in his.
"What happened?" she asked him faintly. "Where am I?"
"You are at Baronmead," he said. "You were thrown and we brought you here."
"Ah!" Her brows contracted a little. "Am I much hurt?" she asked.
"Nothing to worry about," Nap said with quiet confidence. "You will soon be all right again. I will leave you to get a good sleep, shall I? If you are wanting anything my mother will be here."
She looked at him doubtfully. Her hand still clung to his, half-mechanically it seemed.
"Mr. Errol," she faltered, "my husband—does he know?"
"Yes, he knows." Very softly Nap made answer, as though he were soothing a child. "Don't trouble about that. Don't trouble about anything. Just lie still and rest."
But the anxiety in her eyes was growing. "He isn't here?" she questioned.
"Then—then I think I ought to go to him. He will think it so strange. He will—he will—"
"Lady Carfax, listen!" Quietly but insistently he broke in upon her rising agitation. "Your husband knows all about you. He couldn't come to-night, but he is coming in the morning. Now won't you be content and try to sleep?"
"I can't sleep," she said, with a shudder. "I am afraid of falling."
"No, you're not. See! I am holding your hands. You can't fall. Look at me! Keep looking at me and you will see how safe you are!"
His voice had sunk almost to a whisper. His eyes dusky, compelling, yet strangely impersonal, held hers by some magic that was too utterly intangible to frighten her. With a sigh she yielded to the mastery she scarcely felt.
And as she floated away into a peace indescribable, unlike anything she had ever known before, she heard a woman's voice, hushed to a sibilant whisper, remark, "My, Nap! You're too smart to be human. I always said so."
When she opened her eyes again it was many hours later, and she was lying in the broad sunshine with the doctor, whom she knew, stooping over her.
"Ah, you are awake at last!" he said. "And I find a marvellous improvement. No, I shouldn't try to move at present. But I don't suppose you can for a moment. You have had a wonderful escape, my dear lady, a most wonderful escape. But for all that I shall keep you where you are for the next fortnight or so. A badly jarred spine is not a thing to play with."
"Is that all?" Anne asked.
He became cautious on the instant. "I don't say that is all. In any case we will run no risks. Let me congratulate you upon having fallen into such good hands."
He glanced over Anne's head at someone on the other side of the bed, and Anne turned slightly to see the person thus indicated. And so she had her first sight of the woman who ruled Lucas Errol's house.
She had heard of her more than once. People smiled, not unkindly, when they mentioned Mrs. Errol, a good sort, they said; but, like many another woman of inelegant exterior, how good a sort only her Maker knew. She was large in every way. It was the only word that described her; large-boned, large-featured, and so stout that she wheezed—a fact which in no way limited her activity. Her voice was as deep as a man's, and it went even deeper when she laughed.
But she was not laughing now. Her face was full of the most kindly concern. "Lord bless the child!" she said. "She don't know me yet. I'm Mrs. Errol, dear, Mrs. Lucas Blenheim Errol. And if there's anything you want—well, you've only got to mention it to me and it's as good as done."
She spoke with a strong American accent. A Yankee of the Yankees was Mrs. Errol, and she saw no reason to disguise the fact. She knew that people smiled at her, but it made no difference to her. She was content to let them smile. She even smiled at herself.
"You are very good," Anne murmured.
"Not a bit," said Mrs. Errol cheerfully. "I'm real pleased to have you, dear. And don't you think you're giving any trouble to anybody, for there isn't anything that pleases me so much as to have a girl to look after. It's the biggest treat the Lord could send."
Anne smiled a little, conscious of a glow at the heart that she had not known for many a day. She tried weakly to give her hand to her new friend, but the pain of moving was so intense that she uttered a quick gasp and abandoned the attempt.
But in an instant Mrs. Errol's fingers were wound closely about her own, the large face, wonderfully smooth, save for a few kindly wrinkles about the eyes, was bent to hers.
"There, dearie, there!" said the motherly voice, tender for all its gruffness. "You're stiff in every limb, and no wonder. It's just natural. Just you lie still and leave everything to me."
She was, in fact, determined to take the whole burden of nursing upon herself, and when the doctor had gone she began to show Anne how capable she was of fulfilling the responsibility she had thus undertaken. No trained nurse could have given her more dexterous attention.
"I've spent a great part of my life in sickrooms," she told Anne. "First my husband, and then poor Lucas, that's my eldest boy. But Lucas won't have me to wait on him now. He doesn't like his mother to see him in his bad hours, and they are mighty bad now and then. So my nursing talents would run to seed if it weren't for a casual patient like yourself."
It was so evident that she enjoyed her self-appointed task that Anne could only smile and thank her. She was helpless as an infant and could not have refused her hostess's ministrations even had she desired to do so. She suffered a good deal of pain also, and this kept her from taking much note of her surroundings during that first day at Baronmead.
She refrained from asking further about her husband for some time, avoiding all mention of him, but she was possessed by a nervous dread that increased steadily as the hours wore on. At last, as Mrs. Errol seemed equally determined to volunteer no information, she summoned her resolution and compelled herself to speak.
"My husband has not come yet?" she asked.
"No, dear." Mrs. Errol smiled upon her with much kindness, but her tone did not encourage further inquiries.
Anne lay silent for a little. It was a difficult matter to handle. "Did he send no message?" she asked at last, with knitted brows. "I thought—or did I dream it?—that your son said he was coming."
"To be sure he did," said Mrs. Errol. "You would like to speak to Nap about it, wouldn't you?"
Anne hesitated. Mrs. Errol was already on her way to the door. It was plain that here was a responsibility she was unprepared to shoulder. But Anne called her back.
"No, please!" she said, a slight flush on her face. "Don't call him in again! Really, it is of no consequence."
But in spite of this assertion her uneasiness regarding her husband grew rapidly from that moment—an uneasiness that she was powerless to control or hide. Could it be—was it possible?—that he meant to leave her thus abandoned to the pitying kindness of strangers? She could hardly believe it. And yet—and yet—he had done un-heard-of things before. There were times, times that had become more and more frequent of late, when she doubted his sanity. Those devilish moods of his, whither were they tending? Was he in the grip of one of them now? And if so—if so—what would happen to her? What could she do?
As the hours passed, the torture of suspense so worked upon her that she began to grow feverish. The afternoon was waning and still no word had come.
She tried to reassure herself again and again, but each failure added to her distress.
"You mustn't fret, child," said Mrs. Errol gently, when she brought her tea. "It's the worst thing possible. Come, come! What is it?"
Anne tried to tell her, but could not. The very utterance of her fears was more than she could accomplish in her present state. Words failed her.
Mrs. Errol said no more, but presently she went quietly away, leaving her alone in the firelight, chafing but impotent.
She was soon back again, however, and a muffled word on the threshold told Anne that she was not alone. She turned her head sharply on the pillow regardless of wrenched muscles, hoping against hope. But she looked in vain for her husband's tall figure, and a sigh that was almost a groan escaped her. It was Nap, slim, upright, and noiseless, who stepped from behind Mrs. Errol and came to her bedside.
He stooped a little and took her quivering hand, holding it in both his own so that his fingers pressed upon her pulse.
"The mater thought you would like to speak to me," he said.
She looked up at him with eyes of piteous entreaty. She was long past any thought of expediency so far as he was concerned. It seemed only natural in her trouble to turn to him for help. Had he not helped her before? Besides, she knew that he understood things that she could not utter.
"Oh, Nap," she said admitting him unconsciously in her extremity to an intimacy she would never have dreamed of according him in any less urgent circumstances, "I am greatly troubled about my husband. You said he would come to me, but—he hasn't come!"
"I know he hasn't," Nap said. He spoke quietly, but she was aware of a certain grimness in his speech. "I shouldn't worry if I were you. It won't help you any. Is there anyone else you would like sent for?"
"I have—no one else," she said, her voice quivering beyond her control. "How can I lie here and not worry?"
"Lord bless the child!" said Mrs. Errol vigorously. "What is there to worry about, anyway?"
But Nap was silent. His fingers were still closed firmly upon her wrist.
"Mrs. Errol is very good," Anne said earnestly. "You mustn't think me ungrateful or unappreciative. But I cannot go on like this. I cannot!"
"I am afraid you have no choice," Nap said.
She scarcely heard him. At least she paid no heed. "Will you tell me exactly what has passed? Has he definitely refused to come to me? Because, if so—"
"If so—" said Nap gently.
She summoned her wavering self-control. "If so—I must go back to him at once. I must indeed. You will manage it for me, will you not? Perhaps you will take me yourself in the motor."
"No," said Nap. He spoke briefly, even sternly. He was bending down over her, and she caught the gleam of the firelight in his eyes and thought that they shone red. "I would do a good deal for you, Lady Carfax," he said, "but I can't do that. You ask the impossible." He paused a moment and she felt his grasp slowly tighten upon her hand. "You want to know what passed, and perhaps it is better that you should know even if it distresses you. I sent a messenger in the motor to Sir Giles last night to tell him of your accident and to beg him to return here with him. He came back alone with no definite reply. He did not, in fact, see Sir Giles, though the message was delivered. I waited till noon today to see if he would come, and then as there was no sign of him I went myself in the motor to fetch him."
"Ah!" Anne's lips parted to utter the word. They were quivering uncontrollably.
"I saw him," Nap went on very quietly. "I practically forced an entrance. He was in his study alone. I fancy he was feeling sick, but I didn't stop to inquire. I told him you were wanting him. I was quite kind to him—for your sake." She fancied the grim lips smiled. "But I regret to say he didn't appreciate my kindness, and I soon saw that he was in no state to come to you even if he would. So—I left him and came away."
"Ah!" Again that faint exclamation that was like the half-uttered cry of a woman's heart. "He wasn't—wasn't rude to you, I hope?"
Nap's teeth showed for an instant. He made no reply.
"Mr. Errol," she said beseechingly, "please tell me everything! He did not—did not—"
"Kick me?" questioned Nap drily. "My dear lady, no man may kick Nap Errol and live. So I did not give him the opportunity."
She uttered a quick sob and turned her head upon the pillow. The tears were running down her face.
The hand that pressed her wrist began to rub it very gently. "That's the worst of telling the truth," Nap said softly. "It is sure to hurt someone."
"I am glad you told me," she whispered back, "though I don't know what to say to you—how to atone—"
"I will tell you then," he answered swiftly. "Stay quietly here and be as happy as you can till the doctor gives you leave to go back. You will have to do it in any case, but—if you feel you owe me anything, which of course you don't"—he smiled again, and his smile when free from cynicism held a wonderful charm—"do it willingly—please do it willingly!"
She could not answer him in words, but her fingers closed upon his. Instantly she felt his answering pressure. A moment later he laid her hand down very gently and left her.
THE STING OF A SCORPION
"Oh, dear, I wish it wasn't so muddy." Dot, emerging from old Squinny's cottage, stood a moment on the edge of the large puddle that was old Squinny's garden and gazed over the ploughed fields beyond towards the sinking sun. It was the last day in January, and the winter dusk was already creeping up in a curtain of damp mist that veiled everything it touched. She knew it would be dark long before she got home, and the prospect of sliding about in the muddy lanes did not attract her.
"You were an idiot not to bring a lantern," she told herself severely, as she skirted the edge of the puddle. "You might have known—but you never think!"
Here she reached the garden-gate and lifted it scientifically off its hinges and then back again when she had passed through. Old Squinny's gate had not opened in the ordinary way within the memory of man. It was stoutly bound to the gate-post by several twists of rusty chain.
A stretch of waste land lay beyond the cottage garden; then came the road and then the fields, brown and undulating in the ruddy western glow. For a second or two Dot considered the homeward path that lay across the fields. She had come by that earlier in the afternoon, and she knew exactly what it had to offer besides the advantage of cutting half a mile from a three-mile trudge. But her knowledge eventually decided her in favour of the road.
"Besides," as she optimistically remarked to herself, "someone might pass and give me a lift."
For Dot was not above being seen in a waggon or a tradesman's cart. She accepted as she was prone to give, promiscuously and with absolute freedom.
But it was no tradesman's cart that the gods had in store for her that day. Rather was it a chariot of their own that presently swooped as if upon wings swiftly and smoothly down upon the Sturdy wayfarer. Dot herself was scarcely aware of its approach before it had passed and come to a standstill barely half a dozen yards from her.
"Hullo!" cried a boyish voice. "This is luck! Jump in! I'll soon trundle you home."
It was Bertie leaning out from the wheel on which his hands rested. In the open seat behind him, propped by cushions, sat a man whom she knew instantly though she had never met him before. He looked at her as she came up to the car with blue eyes as frank and kind as Bertie's, though not so merry. It was not difficult to see that they were brothers.
"My brother Lucas," said Bertie, "the one you wanted to know."
He smiled as he said it for the sheer malicious pleasure of seeing her blush. And Dot's green-brown eyes shot him a glance of quick indignation.
But Lucas Errol stepped calmly into the breach. "This young brother of mine has a way of turning things topsy-turvy," he said in his easy drawl. "We just make allowances for him when we can, and kick him when we can't. It is I who have wanted to know you, Miss Waring—it is Miss Waring, I think?—for some time past. Won't you get in beside me and give me the pleasure of making your acquaintance?"
He pulled off his glove and offered her his hand.
Dot instantly took it, but when he would have helped her in she drew back. "I had better not, really. Look at my boots!"
"Jump in!" urged Bertie. "Who cares?"
He sprang suddenly down and seized her impulsively by the waist. In another second he would have bundled her in without ceremony, but quietly, with no change of countenance, his brother intervened.
"Bertie, behave yourself! Miss Waring, I beg you will do exactly as you like, but please believe that the state of your boots doesn't matter a cent. I should say the same with absolute honesty if I had to clean the car myself."
"I am quite sure I shouldn't in your place," said Dot as she climbed into the car.
Lucas smiled and fished out a spare rug. "Put it round your shoulders and fold it well over. You will find it cold when we begin to move. Are your feet quite warm? There is a foot-warmer here. Tuck her in well, Bertie. That's the way."
"You will never get out again," laughed Bertie, as he shut the door upon her. "Now, where are we going? To Baronmead?"
His merry eyes besought her for an instant; then, as she began to shake her head, "Can't you persuade her, Luke?" he said.
"I think so," Lucas answered. "Drive on slowly while I try. You know there is a friend of yours there, Miss Waring?"
"Lady Carfax?" said Dot quickly.
He bent his head. "I think she would like you to visit her. She has so few friends."
"I would love to, of course," Dot said impetuously. "But—you know, I've never visited her before, though I have often longed to. People don't call at the Manor. Not even Dad goes there. And in any case, I am hardly grown up enough to pay calls. Wouldn't she—are you sure she wouldn't think it very presumptuous of me to go and see her?"
"That is the last thing I should expect from her," Lucas answered, with quiet conviction.
"She is very proud," Dot began.
"She is very miserable," he said.
Dot's eyes softened. "Oh, poor Lady Carfax!" she said. "So you know that, too!"
"I have seen her only twice," he said. "Yes, I know it."
Dot's eyes widened. "Only twice! Why, surely it must be three weeks nearly since her accident."
"I believe it is. But it was serious, you know, and she has made a very slow recovery. The doctor has only just allowed her to be removed to another room."
"Poor Lady Carfax!" Dot said again. "Yes, I'll come. I know Dad wouldn't mind!"
So Bertie had his desire and turned the motor with a light heart towards Baronmead. He sang as he drove, sang at the top of his voice; for he was in a happy mood that evening.
And Dot was happy too, though a little nervous. She had often longed to go to Baronmead, and she was already thoroughly at her ease with the master thereof, who sat and conversed beside her in that rather monotonous, tired drawl of his. It was only the thought of Anne that made her nervous. Warmly as she admired her, she was ever so slightly afraid of the stately lady of the Manor, who made friends with so few and for all her queenly graciousness kept those she had at so discreet a distance. Of course everyone knew why. The reason was plain to all who had eyes to see. But that fact did not help any to overstep the barrier, nor did it keep the majority from being affronted. Dot was not of the latter, but she was ever shy in Anne's presence, though it was more the fear of hurting than of being hurt that made her so.
She enjoyed the brisk run to Baronmead with all her healthy soul. As they sped up the long drive they were joined by a galloping horseman, who shouted to Bertie to put on speed and flogged his animal furiously when the car drew ahead. He looked like a demon to Dot in the half-light—a black imp mounted on a black mare riding to perdition. She was glad to leave him behind.
But as they drew up before the great house that loomed gaunt and eerie in the gathering darkness the galloping hoofs drew near again, and before they were out of the car Nap was beside them.
He flung himself out of the saddle, with a curt, "Here, Bertie! Take the brute for me. Mind her teeth! She's in a vile temper."
"What a beast you are!" was Bertie's comment, as he went to the panting animal.
The valet, Hudson, was waiting to help his master out of the car, but Nap pushed him imperiously aside. His quick, lithe movements fascinated Dot. She stood and watched him as he dexterously assisted the heavy, misshapen figure of his brother to alight. He was wonderfully strong for so slight a man. He seemed compacted of muscle and energy, welded together with a certain fiery grace that made him in some fashion remarkable. He was utterly different from any other man she had ever seen.
"Will you go first, Miss Waring?" It was Lucas Errol's voice. He leaned on his brother's shoulder, waiting for her.
Nap glanced round at her. She saw his ironical smile for an instant. "Miss Waring prefers to wait for Bertie, perhaps," he remarked.
The words stung her, she scarcely knew why, and what had been a half-reluctant prejudice before turned to sudden hot antagonism in Dot's heart. She hated Nap Errol from that moment.
But Lucas laid a quiet hand on her arm, and her resentment died.
"I think Miss Waring was waiting for me," he said. "Will you let me lean on you, Miss Waring? Steps are always a difficulty to me."
"Of course," she said eagerly. "Do lean hard!"
It occurred to her afterwards that the valet's assistance would have been more effectual than hers, and at the top of the steps she glanced back at him. He was immediately behind them, laden with some things he had taken from the car. His eyes, as he ascended, were fixed upon Nap, and a curious little thrill of sympathy ran through Dot as she realised that she was not the only person who hated him.
As they passed into the great entrance-hall Bertie came springing up behind them. "I say, can't we have tea here before you go up to see Lady Carfax? It's the cosiest place in the whole house."
A huge fire burned on an open hearth, about which a deep lounge and several easy-chairs were arrayed.
"That will be O.K.," said Lucas. "Fix me up on the settee, Nap."
"You had better go and rest in your room," said Nap. "Bertie and Miss Waring are accustomed to entertaining each other."
Again Dot felt the sting—this time a tangible one—in his words. He was evidently in a stinging mood.
She drew back quickly. "I would rather go straight up to Lady Carfax if I may."
"Oh, I say, don't!" thrust in Bertie with a quick frown. "Lucas, you'll stay, won't you, and have tea with us here?"
"That is my intention," said Lucas, "if Miss Waring will give us the pleasure of her company."
And Dot, though she longed to escape, went forward with him into the glow of the firelight.
She hoped earnestly that Nap would depart, but for some reason Nap was minded to remain. He settled his brother on the cushions and then flung himself into a chair on the other side of the fire. Dot was aware without looking at him that he had her under observation; she felt the scrutiny she could not see, and knew it was malevolent.
Bertie evidently knew it too, for he was scowling savagely in a fashion quite unfamiliar to her. He placed a chair for her close to Lucas.
"I guess we must ask you to do the honours, Miss Waring," the latter said. "My mother must be with Lady Carfax."
"Here's an opportunity for Miss Waring to display her charms!" gibed Nap. "But doubtless Bertie has been initiated in the arts and wiles of tea-making long before this. It's a bewitching performance, eh, Bertie?"
Bertie growled something unintelligible and turned his back.
"Give him plenty of sugar, Miss Waring," recommended Nap. "He's remarkably guileless. With a little patience and subtlety on your part he'll soon come and feed out of your hand. After that, a little feminine persuasion is all that is required to entice the pretty bird into the cage. He's quite a fine specimen; such a lot of gold about him, too! It would be a pity to let him escape. There are not many of his sort, I assure you."
The drawling insolence of the words made Dot quiver all over. She knew by Bertie's rigidity of pose that he was furious too, but she did not dare to look at him. She tried to attend to some remark that Lucas made to her, but she only answered at random. She could not take in what he said.
Perhaps he saw her perturbation, for after a moment he turned from her to Nap and very deliberately engaged him in conversation, while Bertie, very pale but quite collected, sat down by her and began to talk also.
She did her best to second his efforts, but with Nap's eyes openly mocking her from the other side of the hearth, she found it impossible to divert her thoughts.
So they thought that of her, did they? They thought—that! She felt as if she had been publicly weighed in the balances and found wanting. She told herself passionately that she would never, as long as she lived, speak to Nap Errol again. Everyone said he was a bounder, and everyone was right.
"Come right in!" said Mrs. Errol. "Anne, my dear, here is little Miss Waring come to see you. I'm real pleased to meet you, child. I've watched you in church many a time when I ought to have been saying my prayers, and so has someone else I know."
Dot's cheeks were scarlet as she came forward to Anne's couch. She was still telling herself with fierce emphasis that never, never again would she voluntarily venture herself within the walls of Baronmead.
But when Anne stretched out a hand to her and smiled, all her perturbation vanished at a breath. She went impulsively forward and knelt down by her side. For some reason she did not feel her customary awe of the lady of the Manor. This sad-faced woman with the deeply shadowed eyes aroused within her something that was stronger, something that carried her completely out of herself.
"Oh, are you better?" she said. "I have been so sorry about you."
"It was good of you to come up to see me," Anne said gently. "Yes, Dot, I am better. I am allowed to walk again, and I am going home to-morrow."
"Not if I know it," said Mrs. Errol stoutly. "Or if you do, I go too, to take care of you."
Anne smiled at her without replying. "Sit down, Dot," she said, "and tell me all the news. I know you hear everything."
"But nothing has happened," said Dot. "Everybody is squabbling as usual about the Town Hall, why we want one, why there isn't one, and when we are going to have one. Really, there's nothing else."
"My dear," said Mrs. Errol, "everybody wants a sound spanking, and I should like to administer it. Every township ought to have a public building, and there's my son Lucas wanting nothing so much as to build one and they won't let him."
"I am afraid my husband is the main obstacle," said Anne.
"Then I guess we won't discuss it," said Mrs. Errol firmly. "Who's that scratching at the door?"
It was Bertie, as Anne knew on the instant by Dot's face. "Do ask him to come in," she said kindly.
Bertie came in as one not wholly sure of his welcome, and took up a position in the background. And there during the remainder of Dot's visit he stayed, scarcely speaking, and so sternly preoccupied that Dot's embarrassment returned upon her overwhelmingly, and she very soon rose to go.
He stepped forward then and followed her out. "I am going to motor you home," he said, as he escorted her down the stairs.
Dot nearly stopped short in consternation. "Oh, no, really! I'm going home alone. It's no distance, and I know my way perfectly."
"I'm coming with you," he said doggedly.
But the memory of those eyes that had mocked her across the hall still burned in the girl's heart. She faced him resolutely;
"You are not to, Bertie. I don't wish it."
"I can't help it," said Bertie. "I am coming."
At this point they arrived in the hall, and here she found Lucas Errol waiting to say good-bye to her.
She turned to him with desperate appeal. "Mr. Errol, please don't let Bertie see me home. I—I would so much rather go alone."
She was almost crying as she said it, and Lucas looked at Bertie with most unaccustomed sharpness.
"It's all right," the boy made answer. "We haven't quarrelled yet."
The last word sounded ominous, and with her hand in Lucas's quiet grasp, Dot shivered.
"But I'm sure we are going to," she said. "And I do so hate quarrelling. Do, please, let me run home alone. I'm not a bit afraid."
Lucas began to smile. "I think it's rather hard on Bertie," he said. "However—"
"I must go, Lucas," Bertie said quickly. "You don't understand. There is something I want to explain."
But Lucas leaned a hand upon his shoulder. "Let it keep, dear fellow. There is always tomorrow!"
"No, never, never, never!" whispered Dot to her turbulent heart.
Yet when a moment later Bertie came forward, and silently, without looking at her, held open the door, a wild regret surged fiercely through her, and for that second she almost wished that she had let him go with her.
And then again there came to her that hateful whisper—that taunting, intolerable sneer; and she fled without a backward glance.
Bertie closed the great door very quietly, and turned back into the hall.
"Where is Nap?"
"Come here, Bertie," Lucas said.
He went unwillingly. "Where is Nap?" he said again.
Lucas, supporting himself on one side with a crutch, stood by the fire and waited for him.
As Bertie drew near he took him gently by the shoulder. "May I know what you were going to say to Miss Waring just now?" he asked.
Bertie threw back his head. "I was going to ask her to overlook that cad's vile insinuations—and marry me."
"And that was the very thing she didn't want you to do," Lucas said.
"I can't help it." There was a stubborn note in Bertie's voice. "She shan't think I'm a blackguard like Nap."
"We will leave Nap out of it," Lucas said quietly.
"Why?" demanded Bertie hotly. "He was responsible. He insulted a guest under your roof. Are you going to put up with that? Because I'm not!"
"My dear fellow, it is I, not you, who must deal with that."
Bertie stamped furiously. "That's all very well, but—dash it, Lucas, you're always holding me back. And I can't knock under to you in this. I'm sorry, but I can't. I'm going to have it out with Nap. Whatever you may say, it is more my business than yours."
He would have flung round with the words, but his brother's hand was still upon him, restraining him.
He paused, chafing. "You must let me go. I shall hurt you if you don't."
"You will hurt me if I do, boy," Lucas made grave reply.
"I know, and I'm sorry. But I can't help it. There are times when a man—if he is a man—must act for himself. And I—" he broke off, still chafing, his hand seeking without violence to free him from that hold which could not have been so very powerful, though it resisted his efforts. "Luke," he said suddenly, and the anger was gone from his voice, "let me go, old chap. You must let me go. It isn't right—it isn't just to—to take advantage of being—what you are."
The quick falter in the words deprived them of any sting, yet on the instant Lucas's hand fell, setting him free.
"All right, Bertie! Go!" he said.
And Bertie went—three steps, and halted. Lucas remained motionless before the fire. He was not so much as looking at him.
Several seconds passed in silence. Then impulsively Bertie turned. His lips were quivering. He went straight back to the quiet figure on the hearth, lifted the free arm, and drew it boyishly round his neck.
"Old chap, forgive me!" he said.
"For what you haven't done?" Lucas asked, with a very kindly smile.
"For being an unconscionable brute!" Bertie said, with feeling. "I didn't mean, it, old man. I didn't mean it!"
"Oh, shucks, dear fellow! Don't be such a silly ass! It's demoralising for all concerned." Lucas Errol's hand pressed his shoulder admonishingly. "She's a nice little girl, Bertie. I've taken a kind of fancy to her myself."
Bertie looked up quickly. "Luke, you're a brick!"
Lucas shook his head. "But you mustn't ask her yet, lad. She's not ready for it. I'm not sure that you are ready for it yourself."
Bertie's face fell. "Why not? I'm in dead earnest. I want to marry her, just as soon as she will have me."
"Quite so," drawled Nap, from the depths of the lounge behind him. "And she, I doubt not, wants to marry you—even sooner, if possible."
He had come up in his noiseless fashion unobserved. Attired in evening dress, slim, sleek, well-groomed, he lay at full length and gazed up at the two brothers, a malicious glitter in his eyes. He held an unlighted cigarette between his fingers.
"Pray don't let me interrupt, Lucas," he said airily, ignoring Bertie's sharp exclamation, which was not of a pacific nature. "I always enjoy seeing you trying to teach the pride of the Errols not to make a fool of himself. It's a gigantic undertaking, isn't it? Let me know if you require any assistance."
He placed the cigarette between his lips and felt for some matches.
"I am going to turn my attention to you now," Lucas rejoined in his tired voice. "Bertie, old chap, go and dress, will you? You can come to my room afterwards."
"Bring me one of those spills first," said Nap.
Bertie stood rigid. He was white to the lips with the effort to control himself. Nap, outstretched, supple as a tiger, lay and watched him unwaveringly.
"Go, Bertie!" Lucas said very quietly.
He took a spill himself from the mantelpiece, and tried to hold it to the blaze. But he stooped with difficulty, and sharply Bertie reached forward and took it from him.
"I will," he said briefly, and lighting the spill, carried it to Nap, at ease on the sofa.
With a faint smile Nap awaited him. He did not offer to take the burning spill, and Bertie held it in sullen silence to the end of his cigarette. His hand was not very steady, and after a moment Nap took his wrist.
The cigarette glowed, and Nap looked up. "It's a pity you're too big to thrash, Bertie," he said coolly, and with a sudden movement doubled the flaming paper back upon the fingers that held it.
Bertie's yell was more of rage than pain. He struck furiously at his tormentor with his free hand, but Nap, by some trick of marvellous agility, evaded the blow. He leapt over the back of the settee with a laugh of devilish derision.
And, "Bertie, go!" said Lucas peremptorily.
Without a word Bertie checked himself as it were in mid career, stood a second as one gathering his strength, then turned in utter silence and marched away.
THE JESTER'S INFERNO
Between the two men who were left not a word passed for many minutes. Nap prowled to and fro with his head back and his own peculiarly insolent smile curving the corners of his mouth. There was a ruddy glare in his eyes, but they held no anger.
Lucas, still leaning on his crutch, stood with his back turned, his face to the fire. There was no anger about him either. He looked spent.
Abruptly Nap ceased his pacing and came up to him. "Come!" he said. "You have had enough of this. I will help you to your room."
Slowly Lucas lifted his heavy eyes. "Send Hudson to me," he said.
Nap looked at him sharply. Then, "Lean on me," he said. "I'll help you."
"No. Send Hudson." The words ended upon a stifled groan.
Nap turned swiftly and dragged forward the settee. "Lie down here for a minute, while I fetch him. Don't faint, man! You will be easier directly. You have been on your feet too long. There! Is that better?"
Lucas drew a long, shuddering breath and slowly suffered his limbs to relax. His face was ghastly though he forced himself to smile.
"Yes, I am better. Don't call Hudson for a minute. Nap!"
"Put your hand under my shoulders. Ah! That's a help. I always like your touch. Say, Boney," the words came gaspingly, the sunken eyes were heavy with pain, "you'll think me a mean brute. I am, dear fellow, I am; a coward, too, from the same point of view. But—ill or well, I've got to say it. You've been running amok to-day, and it's been altogether too lively to be just pleasant. You've got to pull up. I say it."
Nap's smile had utterly departed. It was some other impulse that twitched his lips as he made reply.
"Whatever you say is law."
"Thanks! I'm duly grateful. Do you mind wiping my forehead? I'm too lazy to move. Boney, old chap, he's a well-behaved youngster on the whole. What do you want to bait him for?"
"Because I'm a jealous devil," Nap said through his teeth.
"Oh, rats, dear fellow! We are not talking in parables. You're a bit of a savage, I know, but—"
"More than that," threw in Nap.
"No—no! You can hold yourself in if you try. And why jealous, anyway? We're all brothers. Say, Boney, I'm going to hurt you infernally. You hit the youngster below the belt. It was foul play."
"What can you expect?" muttered Nap.
"I expect—better things. If you must be a beast, be a clean beast. If you must hit out now and then, give him a chance to hit back. It's kind of shabby—the game you played today."
"Are you going to make me apologise?" asked Nap grimly.
"Shucks, no; He would think you were laughing at him. Clap him on the back and tell him not to be a fool. He'll understand that."
"And wish him luck with the parson's daughter?" said Nap, with a sneer.
"Why not, old chap?"
"You really mean to let him marry the first girl who runs after his dollars?"
"It isn't the dollars," said the millionaire gently. "And she isn't running after him either. She's running away."
"Same thing sometimes," said Nap.
"Oh, don't be cynical, Boney! It's so damned cheap! There! I've done swearing at you for the present. It's wonderful how you fellows bear with me. Find Hudson, will you? And then go and tell Lady Carfax that I am afraid I can't visit her this evening as I had hoped."
"Do you know she talks of leaving tomorrow?" said Nap.
"Yes, I know. Guess she is quite right to go."
"She's not fit for it," said Nap, in a fierce undertone. "It's madness. I told her so. But she wouldn't listen."
"She is the best judge," his brother said. "Anyway, she is in an intolerable position. We can't press her to prolong it. Besides—whatever he is—her husband has first right."
"Think so?" said Nap.
"It is so," Lucas asserted quietly, "whether you admit it or not."
Nap did not dispute the point, but his jaw looked exceedingly uncompromising as he departed to find the valet.
When a little later he asked for admission to Anne's presence, however, his bitter mood seemed to have modified. He entered with the air of one well assured of his welcome.
"Are you in a mood for chess tonight?" he asked.
"Now, you're not to plague her, Nap," put in Mrs. Errol. "She isn't going to spend her last evening amusing you."
"Oh, please," protested Anne. "It is your son who has had all the amusing to do."
Nap smiled. "There's for you, alma mater!" he remarked as he sat down.
"Lady Carfax is much too forbearing to say anything else," retorted Mrs. Errol.
"Lady Carfax always tells the truth," said Nap, beginning to set the chess-board, "which is the exact reason why all her swains adore her."
"Well," said Mrs. Errol very deliberately, though without venom, "I guess that's about the last quality I should expect you to appreciate."
"Strange to say, it is actually the first just now," said Nap. "Are you going, alma mater? Don't let me drive you away!"
He rose, nevertheless, to open the door for her; and Mrs. Errol went, somewhat with the air of one complying with an unspoken desire.
Nap came softly back and resumed his task. "P'r'aps you will be good enough to refrain from referring to me again as the august lady's son," he said. "She doesn't like it."
"Why not?" said Anne in astonishment.
He glanced up at her as if contemplating something. Then, "You see, the benign mother is not over and above proud of me," he drawled. "If it were Bertie now—well, I guess even you will admit that Bertie is the flower of the flock."
His manner mystified her, but it was not her way to seek to probe mysteries. She smiled as she said, "I have yet to discover that you are so very despicable."
"You have yet to discover—many things," said Nap enigmatically. "Will you be pleased to make the first move?"
She did so silently. They had played together several times before. He had formed a habit of visiting her every evening, and though her skill at the game was far from great, it had been a welcome diversion from the constant anxiety that pressed so heavily upon her. Nap was an expert player, yet he seemed to enjoy the poor game which was all she had to offer. Perhaps he liked to feel her at his mercy. She strongly suspected that he often deliberately prolonged the contest though he seldom allowed her to beat him.
To-night, however, he seemed to be in a restless mood, and she soon saw that he was bent upon a swift victory. He made his moves with a quick dexterity that baffled her completely, and but a very few minutes elapsed before he uttered his customary warning.
"You would do well to beware."
"Which means that I am beaten, I suppose," she said, with a smile of resignation.
"You can save yourself if you like," he said, with his eyes on the board, "if you consider it worth while."
"I don't think I do," she answered. "The end will be the same."
His eyes flashed up at her. "You surrender unconditionally?"
She continued to smile despite the sadness of her face. "Absolutely. I am so accustomed to defeat that I am getting callous."
"You seem to have great confidence in my chivalry," he said, looking full at her.
"I have—every confidence, Mr. Errol," she answered gravely. "I think that you and your brother are the most chivalrous men I know."
His laugh had a ring of harshness. "Believe me, I am not accustomed to being ranked with the saints," he said. "How shall I get away from your halo? I warn you, it's a most awful misfit. You'll find it out presently, and make me suffer for your mistake."
"You haven't a very high opinion of my sense of justice," Anne said, with just a tinge of reproach in her gentle voice.
"No," he said recklessly. "None whatever. You are sure to forget who fashioned the halo. Women always do."
Anne was silent.
He leaned suddenly towards her, careless of the chessmen that rolled in all directions. "I haven't been living up to the halo to-day," he said, and there was that in his voice that touched her to quick pity. "I've been snapping and biting like a wild beast all day long. I've been in hell myself, and I've made it hell wherever I went."
"Oh, but why?" Half involuntarily she held out her hand to him as one who would assist a friend in deep waters.
He took it, held it closely, bowed his forehead upon it, and so sat tensely silent.
"Something is wrong. I wish I could help you," she said at last.
He lifted his head, met her eyes of grave compassion, and abruptly set her free.
"You have done what you could for me," he said. "You've made me hate my inferno. But you can't pull me out. You have"—she saw his teeth for a second though scarcely in a smile—"other fish to fry."
"Whatever I am doing, I shall not forget my friends, Nap," she said, with great earnestness.
"No," he returned, "you won't forget them. I shouldn't wonder if you prayed for them even. I am sure you are one of the faithful." There was more of suppressed misery than irony in his voice. "But is that likely to help when you don't so much as know what to pray for?"
He got up and moved away from her with that noiseless footfall that was so like the stealthy padding of a beast.
Anne lay and silently watched him. Her uncertainty regarding him had long since passed away. Though she was far from understanding him, he had become an intimate friend, and she treated him as such. True, he was unlike any other man she had ever met, but that fact had ceased to embarrass her. She accepted him as he was.
He came back at length and sat down, smiling at her, though somewhat grimly.
"You will pardon your poor jester," he said, "if he fails to make a joke on your last night. He could make jokes—plenty of them, but not of the sort that would please you."
Anne said nothing. She would not, if she could help it, betray to any how much she was dreading the morrow. But she felt that he knew it in spite of her.
His next words revealed the fact. "You are going to purgatory," he said, "and I am going to perdition. Do you know, I sometimes wonder if we shouldn't do better to turn and fly in the face of the gods when they drive us too hard? Why do we give in when we've nothing to gain and all to lose?"
She met his look with her steadfast eyes. "Does duty count as nothing?" she said.
He made an impatient movement, and would have spoken, but she stopped him.
"Please don't rail at duty. I know your creed is pleasure, but the pursuit of pleasure does not, after all, bring happiness."
"Who wants pleasure?" demanded Nap fiercely. "That's only the anesthetic when things get unbearable. You use duty in the same way. But what we both want, what we both hanker for, starve for, is just life! Who cares if there is pain with it? I don't, nor do you. And yet we keep on stunting and stultifying ourselves with these old-fashioned remedies for a disease we only half understand, when we might have all the world and then some. Oh, we're fools—we're fools!" His voice rang wildly passionate. He flung out his arms as if he wrestled with something. "We've been cheated for centuries of our birthright, and we still put up with it, still bring our human sacrifices to an empty shrine!"
And there he broke off short, checked suddenly at the height of his outburst though she had made no second effort to stop him.
Her quiet eyes had not flinched from his. She had made no sign of shrinking. With the utmost patience she had listened to him. Yet by some means intangible the fiery stream of his rebellion was stayed.
There fell a brief silence. Then he rose. "I am afraid I am not fit for civilised society to-night," he said. "I will say good-bye." He held her hand for a moment. "You will let me see you sometimes?"
"I hope to come now and then to Baronmead," she answered quietly. "But you will not—please—come to the Manor again."
He looked down at her with eyes that had become inscrutable. "I shall not come against your will," he said.
"Thank you," she answered simply.
And so he left her.
A BIG THING
As the widowed rector's only daughter, Dot's occupations were many and various, and it was in consequence no difficult matter to be too deeply engrossed in these occupations to have any time to spare for intercourse with the rector's pupil.
Her brother had gone back to college, and there was therefore no excuse for the said pupil to linger when his studies were over, though he invented many that would not have borne a very close investigation.
But his ingenuity was all to no purpose. Dot could be ingenious too, and she evaded him so adroitly that at the end of a week he had abandoned his efforts.
He went about with a certain sternness in those days, but it was not the sternness of the vanquished, rather the dogged patience of the man who is quite sure of ultimate success. Dot, peeping from the kitchen window to see him ride away, marked this on more than one occasion and strengthened her defences in consequence. She had not the remotest intention of seeing Bertie alone again for many a month, if ever. His persistence had scared her badly on that night at Baronmead. She was horribly afraid of what he might feel impelled to say to her, almost terrified at the bare notion of an explanation, and the prospect of a possible apology was unthinkable. It was easier for her to sacrifice his good comradeship, though that of itself was no easy matter, and she could only thrust her sense of loss into the background of her thoughts by the most strenuous efforts.
She was sturdily determined to make him relinquish their former pleasant intimacy before they should meet again. She was growing up, she told herself severely, growing up fast; and intimacies of that sort were likely to be misconstrued.
She took the counsel of none upon this difficult matter. Her father was too vague a dreamer to guide her, or so much as to realise that she stood in need of guidance. And Dot had gone her own independent way all her life. Her healthy young mind was not accustomed to grapple with problems, but she did not despair on that account. She only resolutely set herself to cope with this one as best she might, erecting out of her multifarious duties a barrier calculated to dishearten the most hopeful knight.
But in thus constructing her defences there was one force with which she omitted to reckon and against which she in consequence made no preparation, a force which, nevertheless, was capable of shattering all her carefully-laid schemes at a touch.
As she emerged among the last of the congregation from the church on the Sunday morning following her visit to Baronmead, she found Lucas Errol leaning upon the open lych-gate.
He greeted her with that shrewd, kindly smile of his before which it was almost impossible to feel embarrassed or constrained. Yet she blushed vividly at meeting him, and would gladly have turned the other way had the opportunity offered. For there in the road below, doing something to the motor, was Bertie.
"It's a real pleasure to meet you again, Miss Waring," said Lucas, in his pleasant drawl. "I was just hoping you would come along. I met your father before the service, and he promised to show me his orchids."
"Oh!" said Dot, nervously avoiding a second glance in Bertie's direction. "Won't you come across to the Rectory then and wait for him there?"
"May I?" said Lucas.
He straightened himself with an effort and transferred his weight to his crutch. Dot shyly proffered her arm.
"Let me!" said Bertie.
He was already on the steps, but Lucas waved him down, and accepted the girl's help instead.
"We will go in the garden way," said Dot. "It's only just across the road."
He halted terribly in the descent, and glancing at him in some anxiety she saw that his lips were tightly closed. Overwhelming pity for the man overcame her awkwardness, and she spoke sharply over her shoulder.
"Bertie, come and take my place! You know what to do better than I do."
In an instant Bertie was beside her, had slipped his arm under his brother's shoulder, and taken his weight almost entirely off the crutch. His active young strength bore the great burden unfalteringly and with immense tenderness, and there ran through Dot, watching from above, a queer little indefinable thrill that made her heart beat suddenly faster. He certainly was a nice boy, as he himself had declared.
"That didn't hurt so badly, eh, old chap?" asked the cheery voice. "Come along, Dot. You can give him a hand now while I fetch the car round. There are no steps to the Rectory, so he will be all right."
His airy friendliness banished the last of Dot's confusion. With a keen sense of relief she obeyed him. Those few seconds of a common solicitude had bridged the gulf at least temporarily.
"This is real good of you," Lucas Errol said, as he took her arm again. "And it's a luxury I ought not to indulge in, for I can walk alone on the flat."
"Oh, it is horrid for you!" she said with vehemence. "How ever do you bear it?"
"We can all of us bear what we must," he said, smiling whimsically.
"But we don't all of us do it well," said Dot, as she opened the Rectory gate.
"I guess that's a good deal a matter of temperament," said the American. "A fellow like Nap, for instance, all hustle and quicksilver, might be expected to kick now and then. One makes allowances for a fellow like that."
"I believe you make allowances for everyone," said Dot, impetuously.
"Don't you?" he asked.
"No, I am afraid I don't."
There was a pause. The garden door was closed behind them. They stood alone.
Lucas Errol's eyes travelled over the stretch of lawn that lay between them and the house, dwelt for a few thoughtful seconds upon nothing in particular, and finally sought those of the girl at his side.
"One must be fair, Miss Waring," he said gently. "I can't imagine you being deliberately unfair to anyone."
She flushed again. There was something in his manner that she could not quite fathom, but it was something that she could not possibly resent.
"Not deliberately—of course," she said after a moment, as he waited for an answer.
"Of course not," he agreed, in his courteous, rather tired voice. "If, for instance, you were out with a friend and met a scorpion in a rage who stung you both, you'd want to take it out of the scorpion, wouldn't you, not the friend?"
She hesitated, seeing in a flash the trend of the conversation, and unwilling to commit herself too deeply.
He read her reluctance at a glance. "Please don't be afraid of me," he said, with that most winning smile of his. "I promise you on my honour that whatever you say shall not be used against you."
She smiled involuntarily. "I am not afraid of you, only—"
"Only—" he said.
"I think there are a good many scorpions about," she told him rather piteously. "I could name several, all venomous."
"I understand," said Lucas Errol. He passed his hand within her arm again and pressed it gently. "And so you are flinging away all your valuables to escape them?" he questioned. "Forgive me—is that wise?"
She did not answer.
He began to make his difficult progress towards the house.
Suddenly, without looking at her he spoke again. "I believe you're a woman of sense, Miss Waring, and you know as well as I do that there is a price to pay for everything. And the biggest things command the highest prices. If we haven't the means to pay for a big thing when it is offered us, we must just let it go. But if we have—well, I guess we'd be wise to sell out all the little things and secure it. Those same little things are so almighty small in comparison."
He ceased, but still Dot was silent. It was not the silence of embarrassment, however. He had spoken too kindly for that.
He did not look at her till they were close to the house, then for a few moments she was aware of his steady eyes searching for the answer she had withheld.
"Say, Miss Waring," he said, "you are not vexed any?"
She turned towards him instantly, her round face full of the most earnest friendliness. "I—I think you're a brick, Mr. Errol," she said.
He shook his head. "Nothing so useful, I am afraid, but I'm grateful to you all the same for thinking so. Ah! Here comes your father."
The rector was hastening after them across the grass. He joined them on the path before the house and urged his visitor to come in and rest. The orchids were in the conservatory. He believed he had one very rare specimen. If Mr. Errol would sit down in the drawing-room he would bring it for his inspection.
And so it came to pass that when Bertie entered he found his brother deep in a botanical discussion with the enthusiastic rector while Dot had disappeared. Bertie only paused to ascertain this fact before he turned round and went in quest of her.
He knew his way about the lower regions of the Rectory, and he began a systematic search forthwith. She was not, however, to be very readily found. He glanced into all the downstairs rooms without success. He was, in fact, on the point of regretfully abandoning his efforts on the supposition that she had retreated to her own room when her voice rang suddenly down the back stairs. She was calling agitatedly for help.
It was enough for Bertie. He tore up the stairs with lightning speed, boldly announcing his advent as he went.
He found her at the top of the house in an old cupboard used for storing fruit. She was mounted upon a crazy pair of steps that gave signs of imminent collapse, and to save herself from the catastrophe that this would involve she was clinging to the highest shelf with both hands.
"Be quick!" she cried to him. "Be quick! I'm slipping every second!"
The words were hardly uttered before the steps gave a sudden loud crack and fell from beneath her with a crash. But in the same instant Bertie sprang in and caught her firmly round the knees. He proceeded with much presence of mind to seat her on his shoulder.
"That's all right. I've got you," he said cheerily. "None the worse, eh? What are you trying to do? May as well finish before you come down."
Dot seemed for a moment inclined to resent the support thus jauntily given, but against her will her sense of humour prevailed.
She uttered a muffled laugh. "I'm getting apples for dessert."
"All in your Sunday clothes!" commented Bertie. "That comes of procrastination—the fatal British defect."
"I hate people who hustle," remarked Dot, hoping that her hot cheeks were not visible at that altitude.
"Meaning me?" said Bertie, settling himself for an argument.
"Oh, I suppose you can't help it," said Dot, filling her basket with feverish speed. "You Americans are all much too greedy to wait for anything. Am I very heavy?"
"Not in the least," said Bertie. "I like being sat on now and then. I admit the charge of greed but not of impatience. You misjudge me there."
At this point a large apple dropped suddenly upon his upturned face and, having struck him smartly between the eyes, fell with a thud to the ground.
Bertie said "Damn!" but luckily for Dot he did not budge an inch.
"I beg your pardon," he added a moment later.
"What for?" said Dot.
"For swearing," he replied. "I forgot you didn't like it."
"Oh!" said Dot; and after a pause, "Then I beg yours."
"Did you do it on purpose?" he asked curiously.
"I want to get down, please," said Dot.
He lowered her from his shoulder to his arms with perfect ease, set her on the ground, and held her fast.
"Dot," he said, his voice sunk almost to a whisper, "if you're going to be violent, I guess I shall be violent too."
"Let me go!" said Dot.
But still he held her. "Dot," he said again. "I won't hustle you any. I swear I won't hustle you. But—my dear, you'll marry me some day. Isn't that so?"
Dot was silent. She was straining against his arms, and yet he held her, not fiercely, not passionately, but with a mastery the greater for its very coolness.
"I'll wait for you," he said. "I'll wait three years. I shall be twenty-five then, and you'll be twenty-one. But you'll marry me then, Dot. You'll have to marry me then."
"Have to!" flashed Dot.
"Yes, have to," he repeated coolly. "You are mine."
"I'm not, Bertie!" she declared indignantly. "How—how dare you hold me against my will? And you're upsetting the apples too. Bertie, you—you're a horrid cad!"
"Yes, I know," said Bertie, an odd note of soothing in his voice. "That's what you English people always do when you're beaten. You hurl insults, and go on fighting. But it's nothing but a waste of energy, and only makes the whipping the more thorough."
"You hateful American!" gasped Dot. "As if—as if—we could be beaten!"
She had struggled vainly for some seconds and was breathless. She turned suddenly in his arms and placed her hands against his shoulders, forcing him from her. Bertie instantly changed his position, seized her wrists, drew them outward, drew them upward, drew them behind his neck.
"And yet you love me," he said. "You love yourself better, but—you love me."
His face was bent to hers, he looked closely into her eyes. And—perhaps it was something in his look that moved her—perhaps it was only the realisation of her own utter impotence—Dot suddenly hid her face upon his shoulder and began to cry.
His arms were about her in an instant. He held her against his heart.
"My dear, my dear, have I been a brute to you? I only wanted to make you understand. Say, Dot, don't cry, dear, don't cry!"
"I—I'm not!" sobbed Dot.
"Of course not," he agreed. "Anyone can see that. But still—darling—don't!"
Dot recovered herself with surprising rapidity. "Bertie, you—you're a great big donkey!" She confronted him with wet, accusing eyes. "What you said just now wasn't true, and if—if you're a gentleman you'll apologise."
"I'll let you kick me all the way downstairs if you like," said Bertie contritely. "I didn't mean to hurt you, honest. I didn't mean to make you—"
"You didn't!" broke in Dot. "But you didn't tell the truth. That's why I'm angry with you. You—told—a lie."
"I?" said Bertie.
He had taken his arms quite away from her now. He seemed in fact a little afraid of touching her. But Dot showed no disposition to beat a retreat. They faced each other in the old apple cupboard, as if it were the most appropriate place in the world for a conflict.
"Yes, you!" said Dot.
"What did I say?" asked Bertie, hastily casting back his thoughts.
She looked at him with eyes that seemed to grow more contemptuously bright every instant. "You said," she spoke with immense deliberation, "that I loved myself best."
"Well?" said Bertie.
"Well," she said, and took up her basket as one on the point of departure, "it wasn't true. There!"
"Dot!" His hand was on the basket too. He stopped her without touching her. "Dot!" he said again.
Dot's eyes began to soften, a dimple showed suddenly near the corner of her mouth. "You shouldn't tell lies, Bertie," she said.
And that was the last remark she made for several seconds, unless the smothered protests that rose against Bertie's lips could be described as such. They were certainly not emphatic enough to make any impression, and Bertie treated them with the indifference they deserved.
Driving home, he managed to steer with one hand while he thrust the other upon his brother's knee.
"Luke, old chap, I've gone dead against your wishes," he jerked out. "And—for the first time in my life—I'm not sorry. She'll have me."
"I thought she would," said Lucas. He grasped the boy's hand closely. "There are times when a man—if he is a man—must act for himself, eh, Bertie?"
Bertie laughed a little. "I don't believe it was against your wishes after all."
"Well, p'r'aps not." There was a very kindly smile in the sunken eyes. "I guess you're a little older than I thought you were, and anyway, she won't marry you for the dollars."
"She certainly won't," said Bertie warmly. "But she's horribly afraid of people saying so, since Nap—"
"Ah! Never mind Nap!"
"Well, it's made a difference," Bertie protested. "We are not going to marry for three years. And no one is to know we are engaged except you and her father."
"She doesn't mind me then?"
There was just a tinge of humour in the words, and Bertie looked at him sharply.
"What are you grinning at? No, of course she doesn't mind you. But what's the joke?"
"Look where you're going, dear fellow. It would be a real pity to break your neck at this stage."
Bertie turned his attention to his driving and was silent for a little.
Suddenly, "I have it!" he exclaimed. "You artful old fox! I believe you had first word after all. I wondered that she gave in so easily. What did you say to her?"
"That," said Lucas gently, "is a matter entirely between myself and one other."
Bertie broke into his gay boyish laugh and sounded the hooter for sheer lightness of heart.
"Oh, king, live for ever—and then some! You're just the finest fellow in the world!"
"Open to question, I am afraid," said the millionaire with his quiet smile. "And as to living for ever—well, I guess it's a cute idea in the main, but under present conditions it's a notion that makes me tired."
"Who said anything about present conditions?" demanded Bertie, almost angrily; and then in an altered voice: "Old man, I didn't mean that, and you know it. I only meant that you will always be wanted wherever you are. God doesn't turn out a good thing like you every day."
"Oh, shucks!" said Lucas Errol softly.
When Mrs. Errol remarked in her deep voice, that yet compassed the incomparable Yankee twang, that she guessed she wasn't afraid of any man that breathed, none of those who heard the bold assertion ventured to contradict her.
Lucas Errol was entertaining a large house-party, and the great hall was full of guests, most of whom had just returned from the day's sport. The hubbub of voices was considerable, but Mrs. Errol's remark was too weighty to be missed, and nearly everyone left off talking to hear its sequel.
Mrs. Errol, who was the soul of hospitality, but who, nevertheless, believed firmly in leaving people to amuse themselves in their own way, had only returned a few minutes before from paying a round of calls. She was wrapped in furs from head to foot, and her large, kindly face shone out of them like a November sun emerging from a mass of cloud.
There was a general scramble to wait upon her, and three cups of tea were offered her simultaneously, all of which she accepted with a nod of thanks and a gurgle of laughter.
"Put it down! I'll drink it presently. Where do you think I've just come from? And what do you think I've been doing? I'll wager my last dollar no one can guess."
"Done!" said Nap coolly, as he pulled forward a chair to the blaze. "You've been bearding the lion in his den, and not unsuccessfully, to judge by appearances. In other words, you've been to the Manor and have drunk tea with the lord thereof."
Mrs. Errol subsided into the chair and looked round upon her interested audience. "Well," she said, "you're right there, Nap Errol, but I shan't part with my last dollar to you, so don't you worry any about that. Yes, I've been to the Manor. I've had tea with Anne Carfax. And I've talked to the squire as straight as a mother. He was pretty mad at first, I can assure you, but I kept on hammering it into him till even he began to get tired. And after that I made my points. Oh, I was mighty kind on the whole. But I guess he isn't under any misapprehension as to what I think of him. And I'm going over to-morrow to fetch dear Anne over here to lunch."
With which cheerful announcement Mrs. Errol took up one of her cups of tea and drank it with a triumphant air.
"I told him," she resumed, "he'd better watch his reputation, for he was beginning to be regarded as the local Bluebeard. Oh, I was as frank as George Washington. And I told him also that there isn't a man inside the U.S.A. that would treat a black as he treats his wife. I think that surprised him some, for he began to stutter, and then of course I had the advantage. And I used it."
"It must have been real edifying for Lady Carfax," drawled Nap.
Mrs. Errol turned upon him. "I'm no bigger a fool than I look, Nap Errol. Lady Carfax didn't hear a word. We had it out in the park. I left the motor half way on purpose, and made his high mightiness walk down with me. He was pretty near speechless by the time I'd done with him, but he did just manage at parting to call me an impertinent old woman. And I called him—a gentleman!"
Mrs. Errol paused to swallow her second cup of tea.
"I was wheezing myself by that time," she concluded. "But I'd had my say, and I don't doubt that he is now giving the matter his full and careful attention, which after all is the utmost I can expect. It may not do dear Anne much good, but I guess it can't do her much harm anyway, and it was beer and skittles to me. Why, it's five weeks now since she left, and she's only been over once in all that time, and then I gather there was such a row that she didn't feel like facing another till she was quite strong again."
"An infernal shame!" declared Bertie hotly. "I'll drive you over myself to-morrow to fetch her. We'll get up some sports in her honour. I wonder if she likes tobogganing."
"I wonder if she will come," murmured Nap.
Mrs. Errol turned to her third cup. "She'll come," she said with finality; and no one raised any further question on that point. Mrs. Errol in certain moods was known to be invincible.
Though it was nearly the middle of March, the land was fast held in the grip of winter. There had been a heavy fall of snow, and a continuous frost succeeding it had turned Baronmead into an Alpine paradise. Tobogganing and skating filled the hours of each day; dancing made fly the hours of each night. Bertie had already conducted one ice gymkhana with marked success, and he was now contemplating a masquerade on the ornamental sheet of water that stretched before the house. Strings of fairy lights were being arranged under his directions, and Chinese lanterns bobbed in every bush.
He was deeply engrossed in these preparations, but he tore himself away to drive his mother to the Manor on the following morning. His alacrity to do this was explained when he told her that he wanted to drop into the Rectory and persuade the rector to bring Dot that night to see the fun, to which plan Mrs. Errol accorded her ready approval, and even undertook to help with the persuading, to Bertie's immense gratification. He and his mother never talked confidences, but they understood each other so thoroughly that words were superfluous.
So they departed both in excellent spirits, while Lucas leaning upon Nap's shoulder, went down to the lake to watch the skaters and to superintend Bertie's preparations for the evening's entertainment.
The voices of the tobogganists reached them from a steep bit of ground half-a-mile away, ringing clearly on the frosty air.
"The other side of that mound is tip-top for skiing," remarked Nap, "better than you would expect in this country. But no one here seems particularly keen on it. I was out early this morning and tried several places that were quite passable, but that mound was the best!"
"After dancing till three," commented Lucas. "What a restless fellow you are!"
Nap laughed a somewhat hard laugh. "One must do something. I never sleep after dawn. It's not my nature."
"You'll wear yourself to a shadow," smiled Lucas. "There's little enough of you as it is—nothing but fire and sinew!"
"Oh, rats, my dear fellow! I'm as tough as leather. There would need to be something very serious the matter for me to lie in bed after daylight. Just look at that woman doing eights! It's a sight to make you shudder."
"Whom do you mean? Mrs. Van Rhyl? I thought you were an admirer of hers."
Nap made a grimace. "Where is your native shrewdness? And I never admired her skating anyway. It's about on a par with Mrs. Damer's dancing. In the name of charity, don't ask that woman to come and help us dance again. I'm not equal to her. It's yoking an elephant to a zebra."
"I thought you liked Mrs. Damer," said Lucas.
Nap grimaced again. "She's all right in the hunting-field. Leave her in her own sphere and I can appreciate her."
"Do you think you are capable of appreciating any woman?" asked Lucas unexpectedly.
Nap threw him a single fiery glance that was like a sword-thrust. His slight figure stiffened to arrogance. But his answer, when it came, was peculiarly soft and deliberate—it was also absolutely and imperiously final.
"I guess so."
Lucas said no more, but he did not look wholly satisfied. There were times in his dealings with Nap when even his tolerance would carry him no further.
They spent a considerable time on the terrace in front of the house. It was a sheltered spot, and the sunshine that day was generous.
"This place is doing you good," Nap remarked presently. "You are considerably stronger than you were."
"I believe I am," Lucas answered. "I sleep better."
He had just seated himself on a stone bench that overlooked the lake. His eyes followed the darting figures of the skaters with a certain intentness.
Nap leaned upon the balustrade and watched him. "Why don't you see Capper again?" he asked suddenly.
The millionaire's gaze gradually lost its intentness and grew remote. "I am afraid he is on the wrong side of the Atlantic," he said.
"You can cable to him."
"Yes, I know." Slowly Lucas raised his eyes to his brother's face. "I can have him over to tell me what he told me before—that I haven't the recuperative strength essential to make his double operation a success."
"He may tell you something different this time." Nap spoke insistently, with the energy of one not accustomed to accept defeat.
Lucas was silent.
"Say, Lucas"—there was more than insistence in his tone this time; it held compulsion—"you aren't faint-hearted?"
The blue eyes began to smile. "I think not, Boney. But I've got to hang on for the present—till you and the boy are married. P'r'aps then—I'll take the risk."
Nap looked supercilious. "And if it is not my intention to marry?"
"You must marry, my dear fellow. You'll never be satisfied otherwise."
"You think marriage the hall-mark of respectability?" Nap sneered openly.
"I think," Lucas answered quietly, "that for you marriage is the only end. The love of a good woman would be your salvation. Yes, you may scoff. But—whether you admit it or not—it is the truth. And you know it."
But Nap had ceased already to scoff; the sneer had gone from his face. He had turned his head keenly as one who listens.
It was nearly a minute later that he spoke, and by that time the humming of an approaching motor was clearly audible.
Then, "It may be the truth," he said, in a tone as deliberate as his brother's, "and it may not. But—no good woman will ever marry me, Luke. And I shall never marry—anything else."
He stooped, offering his shoulder for support. "Another guest, I fancy. Shall we go?"
He added, as they stood a moment before turning, "And if you won't send for Capper—I shall."
The brothers were standing together on the steps when Anne alighted from the car, and her first thought as she moved towards them was of their utter dissimilarity. They might have been men of different nationalities, so essentially unlike each other were they in every detail. And yet she felt for both that ready friendship that springs from warmest gratitude.
Nap kept her hand a moment in his grasp while he looked at her with that bold stare of his that she had never yet desired to avoid. On the occasion of her last visit to Baronmead they had not met. She wondered if he were about to upbraid her for neglecting her friends, but he said nothing whatever, leaving it to Lucas to inquire after her health while he stood by and watched her with those dusky, intent eyes of his that seemed to miss nothing.
"I am quite strong again, thank you," she said in answer to her host's kindly questioning. "And you, Mr. Errol?"
"I am getting strong too," he smiled. "I am almost equal to running alone; but doubtless you are past that stage. Slow and sure has been my motto for some years now."
"It is a very good one," said Anne, in that gentle voice of hers that was like the voice of a girl.
He heard the sympathy in it, and his eyes softened; but he passed the matter by.
"I hope you have come to stay. Has my mother managed to persuade you?"
"She will spend to-night anyway," said Mrs. Errol.
"And only to-night," said Anne, with quiet firmness. "You are all very kind, but—"
"We want you," interposed Lucas Errol.
She smiled, a quick smile that seemed reminiscent of happier days. "Yes, and thank you for it. But I must return in good time to-morrow. I told my husband that I would do so. He is spending the night in town, but he will be back to-morrow."
Nap's teeth were visible, hard clenched upon his lower lip as he listened, but still he said nothing. There was something peculiarly forcible, even sinister, in his silence. Not until Anne presently turned and directly addressed him did his attitude change.
"Will you take me to see the lake?" she said. "It looked so charming as we drove up."
He moved instantly to accompany her. They went out together into the hard brightness of the winter morning.
"It is so good to be here," Anne said a little wistfully. "It is like a day in paradise."
He laughed at that, not very pleasantly.
"It is indeed," she persisted, "except for one thing. Now tell me; in what have I offended?"
"You, Lady Carfax!" His brows met for an instant in a single, savage line.
"Is it only my fancy?" she said. "I have a feeling that all is not peace."
He stopped abruptly by the balustrade that bounded the terrace. "The queen can do no wrong," he said. "She can hurt, but she cannot offend."
"Then how have I hurt you, Nap?" she said.
The quiet dignity of the question demanded an answer, but it was slow in coming. He leaned his arms upon the balustrade, pulling restlessly at the ivy that clung there. Anne waited quite motionless beside him. She was not looking at the skaters; her eyes had gone beyond them.
Abruptly at length Nap straightened himself. "I am a fool to take you to task for snubbing me," he said. "But I am not accustomed to being snubbed. Let that be my excuse."
"Please tell me what you mean," said Anne.
He looked at her. "Do you tell me you do not know?"
"Yes," she said. Her clear eyes met his. "Why should I snub you? I thought you were a friend."
"A friend," he said, with emphasis. "I thought so too. But—"
"Yes?" she said gently.
"Isn't it customary with you to answer your friends when they write to you?" he asked.
Her expression changed. A look of sharp pain showed for an instant in her eyes. "My invariable custom, Nap," she said very steadily.
"Then—that letter of mine—" he paused.
"When did you write it?"
"On the evening of the day you came here last—the day I missed you."
"It did not reach me," she said, her voice very low.
He was watching her very intently. "I sent it by messenger," he said. "I was hunting that day. I sat down and wrote the moment I heard you had been. Tawny Hudson took it."
"It did not reach me," she repeated. She was very pale; her eyes had dropped from his.
"I was going to allow you a month to answer that letter," he went on, as though she had not spoken. "After that, our—friendship would have been at an end. The month will be up to-morrow."
Anne was silent.
"Lady Carfax," he said, "will you swear to me that you never received that letter?"
"No," she said.
"You will not?"
"I will not."
He made a sudden movement—such a movement as a man makes involuntarily at an unexpected dart of pain.
Anne raised her eyes very quietly. "Let us be quite honest," she said. "No oath is ever necessary between friends."
"You expect me to believe you?" he said, and his voice was shaken by some emotion he scarcely tried to hide.
She smiled very faintly. "You do believe me," she said.
He turned sharply from her. "Let us go down," he said.
They went down to the garden below the terrace, walking side by side, in silence. They stood at the edge of the lake together, and presently they talked—talked of a hundred things in which neither were greatly interested. A few people drifted up and were introduced. Then Bertie came running down, and their tete-a-tete was finally at an end.
They were far away from one another during luncheon, and when the meal was over Nap disappeared. He never concerned himself greatly about his brother's guests.
At Bertie's persuasion Anne had brought skates, and she went down with him to the lake in the afternoon, where they skated together till sunset. She had a curious feeling that Nap was watching her the whole time, though he was nowhere to be seen; nor did he appear at tea in the great hall.
Later Mrs. Errol took possession of her, and they sat together in the former's sitting-room till it was time to dress for dinner. Anne had brought no fancy dress, but her hostess was eager to provide for her. She clothed her in a white domino and black velvet mask, and insisted upon her wearing a splendid diamond tiara in the shape of a heart in her soft hair.
When she finally descended the stairs in Mrs. Errol's company, a slim man dressed as a harlequin in black and silver, who was apparently waiting for her halfway down, bowed low and presented a glorious spray of crimson roses with the words: "For the queen who can do no wrong!"
"My, Nap! How you startled me!" ejaculated Mrs. Errol.
But Anne said nothing whatever. She only looked him straight in the eyes for an instant, and passed on with the roses in her hand.
During dinner she saw nothing of him. The great room was crowded with little tables, each laid for two, and she sat at the last of all with her host. Later she never remembered whether they talked or were silent. She only knew that somewhere the eyes that had watched her all the afternoon were watching her still, intent and tireless, biding their time. But silence in Lucas Errol's company was as easy as speech. Moreover, a string band played continuously throughout the meal, and the hubbub around them made speech unnecessary.
When they went out at last on to the terrace the whole garden was transformed into a paradise of glowing colours. The lake shone like a prism of glass, and over all the stars hung as if suspended very near the earth.
Lucas went down to the edge of the ice, leaning on his valet. Bertie, clad as a Roman soldier, was already vanishing in the distance with someone attired as a Swiss peasant girl. Mrs. Errol, sensibly wrapped in a large motoring coat, was maintaining a cheery conversation with the rector, who looked cold and hungry and smiled bluely at everything she said.
Anne stood by her host and watched the gay scene silently. "You ought to be skating," he said presently.
She shook her head. "Not yet. I like watching. It makes me think of when I was a girl."
"Not so very long ago, surely!" he said, with a smile.
"Seven years," she answered.
"My dear Lady Carfax!"
"Yes, seven years," she repeated, and though she also smiled there was a note of unspeakable dreariness in her voice. "I was married on my eighteenth birthday."
"My dear Lady Carfax," he said again. And with that silence fell once more between them, but in some magic fashion his sympathy imparted itself to her. She could feel it as one feels sudden sunshine on a cold day. It warmed her to the heart.
She moved at length, turning towards him, and at once he spoke, as if she had thereby set him at liberty to do so.
"Shall I tell you what I do when I find myself very badly up against anything?" he said.
"Yes, tell me." Instinctively she drew nearer to him. There was that about this man that attracted her irresistibly.
"It's a very simple remedy," he said, "simpler than praying. One can't always pray. I just open the windows wide, Lady Carfax. It's a help—even that."
"Ah!" she said quickly. "I think your windows must be always open."
"It seems a pity to shut them," he answered gently. "There is always a sparrow to feed, anyway."
She laughed rather sadly. "Yes, there are always sparrows."
"And sometimes bigger things," he said, "things one wouldn't miss for half creation."
"Or lose again for the other half," said the cool voice of a skater who had just glided up.
Anne started a little, but Lucas scarcely moved.
"Lady Carfax is waiting to go on the ice," he said.
"And I am waiting to take her," the new-comer said.
His slim, graceful figure in its black, tight-fitting garb sparkled at every turn. His eyes shone through his velvet mask like the eyes of an animal in the dark.
He glided nearer, but for some reason inexplicable to herself, Anne stepped back.
"I don't think I will," she said. "I am quite happy where I am."
"You will be happier with me," said the harlequin, with imperial confidence.
He waved his hand to Hudson standing a few paces away with her skates, took them from him, motioned her to the bank.
She stepped forward, not very willingly. Hudson, at another sign, spread a rug for her. She sat down, and the glittering harlequin kneeled upon the ice before her and fastened the blades to her feet.
It only took a couple of minutes; he was deft in all his ways. And then he was on his feet again, and with a royal gesture had helped her to hers.
Anne looked at him half dazzled. The shimmering figure seemed to be decked in diamonds.
"Are you ready?" he said.
She looked into the glowing eyes and felt as if some magic attraction were drawing her against her will.
"So long!" called Lucas from the bank. "Take care of her, Boney."
In another moment they were gliding into that prism of many lights and colours, and the harlequin, holding Anne's hands, laughed enigmatically as he sped her away.
THE SLAVE OF GOODNESS
It seemed to Anne presently that she had left the earth altogether, and was gliding upwards through starland without effort or conscious movement of any sort, simply as though lifted by the hands that held her own. Their vitality thrilled through her like a strong current of electricity. She felt that whichever way they turned, wherever they led her, she must be safe. And there was a quivering ecstasy in that dazzling, rapid rush that filled her veins like liquid fire.
"Do you know where you are?" he asked her once.
And she answered, in a species of breathless rapture, "I feel as if I were caught in a rainbow."
He laughed again at that, a soft, exultant laugh, and drew her more swiftly on.
They left the other masqueraders behind; they left the shimmering lake and its many lights; and at last in the starlight only they slackened speed.
Anne came out of her trance of delight to find that they were between the banks of the stream that fed the lake. The ground on each side of them shone white and hard in the frost-bound silence. The full moon was just rising over a long silver ridge of down. She stood with her face to its cold splendour, her hands still locked in that vital grip.
Slowly at last, compelled she knew not how, she turned to the man beside her. His eyes were blazing at her with a lurid fire, and suddenly that sensation that had troubled her once before in his presence—a sensation of sharp uneasiness—pricked through her confidence.
She stood quite still, conscious of a sudden quickening of her heart. But she did not shrink from that burning gaze. She met it with level eyes.
For seconds they stood so, facing one another. He seemed to be trying in some fashion to subjugate her, to beat her down; but she would not yield an inch. And it was he who finally broke the spell.
"Am I forgiven?"
"For what?" she said.
"For pretending to disbelieve you this morning."
"Was it pretence?" she asked.
"No, it wasn't!" he told her fiercely. "It was deadly earnest. I would have given all I had to be able to disbelieve you. Do you know that?"
"But why, Nap?"
"Why?" he said. "Because your goodness, your purity, are making a slave of me. If I could catch you—if I could catch you only once—cheating, as all other women cheat, I should be free. But you are irreproachable and incorruptible. I believe you are above temptation."
"Oh, you don't know me," she interposed quietly. "But even if I were all these things, why should it vex you?"
"Why?" he said. "Because you hold me back, you check me at every turn. You harness me to your chariot wheels, and I have to run in the path of virtue whether I will or not!"
He broke off with a laugh that had in it a note of savagery.
"Don't you even care to know what was in that letter that you never had?" he asked abruptly.
"Tell me!" she said.
"I told you that I was mad to have missed you that day. I begged you to let me have a line before you came again. I besought you to let me call upon you and to fix a day. I signed myself your humble and devoted slave, Napoleon Errol."
He ceased, still laughing queerly, with his lower lip between his teeth.
Anne stood silent for many seconds.
At last, "You must never come to see me," she said very decidedly.
"Not if I bring the mother as a chaperon?" he jested.
"Neither you nor your mother must ever come to see me again," she said firmly. "And—Nap—though I know that the writing of that letter meant nothing whatever to you, I am more sorry than I can say that you sent it."
He threw back his head arrogantly. "What?" he said. "Has the queen no further use for her jester? Am I not even to write to you then?"
"I think not," she said.
"And why?" he demanded imperiously.
"I think you know why," she said.
"Do I know why? Is it because you are afraid of your husband?"
"Afraid of me then?" There was almost a taunt in the words.
"No," she said again.
"Why, then?" He was looking full into her eyes. There was something peculiarly sinister about his masked face. She almost felt as if he were menacing her.
Nevertheless she made unfaltering reply. "For a reason that means much to me, though it may not appeal to you. Because my husband is not always sane, and I am afraid of what he might do to you if he were provoked any further."
"Great Lucifer!" said Nap. "Does he think I make love to you then?"
She did not answer him. "He is not always sane," she repeated.
"You are right," he said. "That reason does not appeal to me. Your husband's hallucinations are not worth considering. But I don't propose on that account to write any more letters for his edification. For the future—" He paused.
"For the future," Anne said, "there must be no correspondence between us at all. I know it seems unreasonable to you, but that cannot be helped. Mr. Errol, surely you are generous enough—chivalrous enough—to understand."
"No, I don't understand," Nap said. "I don't understand how you can, by the widest stretch of the imagination, believe it your duty to conform to the caprices of a maniac."
"How can I help it?" she said very sadly.
He was silent a moment. His hands were still gripping hers; she could feel her wedding-ring being forced into her flesh. "Like our mutual friend, Major Shirley," he said slowly, "I wonder why you stick to the man."
She turned her face away with a sound that was almost a moan.
"You never loved him," he said with conviction.
She was silent. Yet after a little, as he waited, she spoke as one compelled.
"I live with him because he gave me that for which I married him. He fulfilled his part of the bargain. I must fulfil mine. I was nothing but his bailiff's daughter, remember; a bailiff who had robbed him—for whose escape from penal servitude I paid the price."
"Great Heavens!" said Nap.
She turned to him quickly, with an impulsiveness that was almost girlish. "I have never told anyone else," she said. "I tell you because I know you are my friend and because I want you to understand. We will never—please—speak of it again."
"Wait!" Nap's voice rang stern. "Was it part of the bargain that he should insult you, trample on you, make you lead a dog's life without a single friend to make it bearable?"
She did not attempt to answer him. "Let us go back," she said.
He wheeled at once, still holding her hands.
They skated a few yards in silence. Then suddenly, almost under his breath, he spoke. "I am not going to give up my friendship with you. Let that be clearly understood."
"You are very good to me," she said simply.
"No. I am not. I am human, that's all. I don't think this state of affairs can last much longer."
She shuddered. Her husband's condition had been very much worse of late, but she did not tell him so.
They were skating rapidly back towards the head of the lake. In front of them sounded the swirling rush of skates and the laughter of many voices.
"I'm sorry I've been a beast to you," Nap said abruptly. "You mustn't mind me. It's just my way."
"Oh, I don't mind you, Nap," she answered gently.
"Thanks!" he said.
And with that he stooped suddenly and shot forward like a meteor, bearing her with him.
They flashed back into the gay throng of masqueraders, and mingled with the crowd as though they had never left it.
THE DESCENT FROM OLYMPUS
"Come and say good-bye to Lucas," said Bertie. "He is up and asking for you."
So, with an impetuous hand upon Anne's arm, he whisked her away on the following morning to his brother's room. She was dressed for departure, and waiting for the motor that was to take her home. Of Nap she had seen nothing. He had a way of absenting himself from meals whenever it suited him to do so. She wondered if he meant to let her go without farewell.
She found the master of the house lying on a couch sorting his correspondence. He pushed everything aside at her entrance.
"Come in, Lady Carfax! I am glad not to have missed you. A pity you have to leave so soon."
"I only wish I could stop longer," Anne said. He looked up at her, holding her hand, his shrewd blue eyes full of the most candid friendliness.
"You will come again, I hope, when you can," he said.
"Thank you," she answered gently.
He still held her hand. "And if at any time you need the help—or comfort—of friends," he said, "you won't forget where to look?"
"Thank you," she said again.
"Is Nap driving you?" he asked.
"No," said Bertie. "Nap's skiing."
"Then you, Bertie—"
"My dear fellow," said Bertie, "I'm fearfully sorry, but I can't. You understand, don't you, Lady Carfax? I would if I could, but—" his excuses trailed off unsatisfactorily.
He turned very red and furiously jabbed at the fire with his boot.
"Please don't think of it," said Anne. "I am so used to being alone. In fact, your mother wanted to come with me, but I dissuaded her."
"Then I conclude it is useless for me to offer myself as an escort?" said Lucas.
"Yes, quite useless," she smiled, "though I am grateful to you all the same. Good-bye, Mr. Errol!"
"Good-bye!" he said.
As Bertie closed the door behind her he took up a letter from the heap at his elbow; but his eyes remained fixed for several seconds.
At length: "Bertie," he said, without looking up, "are you due at the Rectory this morning?"
"This afternoon," said Bertie.
He also bent over the pile of correspondence and began to sort. He often did secretarial work for Lucas.
Lucas suffered him for some seconds longer. Then, "You don't generally behave like a boor, Bertie," he said.
"Oh, confound it!" exclaimed Bertie, with vehemence. "You don't suppose I enjoyed letting her think me a cad, do you?"
"I don't suppose she did," Lucas said thoughtfully.
"Well, you do anyway, which is worse."
Bertie slapped down the letters and walked to the fire.
Lucas returned without comment to the paper in his hand.
After a long pause Bertie wheeled. He came back to his brother's side and pulled up a chair. His brown face was set in stern lines.
"I don't see why I should put up with this," he said, "and I don't mean to. It was Nap's doing. I was going to drive her. He interfered—as usual."
"I thought you said Nap was skiing." Lucas spoke without raising his eyes. He also looked graver than usual.
"I did. He is. But he has got some game on, and he didn't want me looking on. Oh, I'm sick to death of Nap and all his ways! He's rotten to the core!"
"Gently, boy, gently! You go too far." Lucas looked up into the hot blue eyes, the severity all gone from his own. "It isn't what things look like that you have to consider. It is what they are. Nap, poor chap, is badly handicapped; but he has been putting up a big fight for himself lately, and he hasn't done so badly. Give the devil his due."
"What's he doing now?" demanded Bertie. "It's bad enough to have the whole community gossiping about his flirtations with women that don't count. But when it comes to a good woman—like Lady Carfax—oh, I tell you it makes me sick! He might leave her alone, at least. She's miserable enough without him to make matters worse."
"My dear boy, you needn't be afraid for Lady Carfax." Lucas Errol's voice held absolute conviction. "She wouldn't tolerate him for an instant if he attempted to flirt with her. Their intimacy is founded on something more solid than that. It's a genuine friendship or I have never seen one."
"Do you mean to say you don't know he is in love with her?" ejaculated Bertie.
"But he won't make love to her," Lucas answered quietly. "He is drawn by a good woman for the first time in his life, and no harm will come of it. She is one of those women who must run a straight course. There are a few such, born saints, 'of whom the world is not worthy.'" He checked himself with a sudden sigh. "Suppose we get to business, Bertie."
"It's all very fine," said Bertie, preparing to comply. "But if Nap ever falls foul of Sir Giles Carfax, he may find that he has bitten off more than he can chew. They say he is on the high road to the D.T.'s. Small wonder that Lady Carfax looks careworn!"