Small wonder indeed! Yet as Anne sped along through the sunshine on that winter day she found leisure from her cares to enjoy the swift journey in the great luxurious car. The burden she carried perpetually weighed less heavily upon her than usual. The genial atmosphere of Baronmead had warmed her heart. The few words that Lucas had spoken with her hand in his still echoed through her memory. Yes, she knew where to look for friends; no carping critics, but genuine, kindly friends who knew and sympathised.
She thought of Nap with regret and a tinge of anxiety. She was sure he had not intended to let her go without farewell, but she hoped earnestly that he would not pursue her to the Manor to tell her so.
And then she remembered his letter; that letter that her husband must have intercepted, recalling his storm of unreasonable fury on the occasion of her last return from Baronmead. He had doubtless read that letter and been inflamed by it. Hating her himself, he yet was fiercely jealous of her friends—these new friends of hers who had lavished upon her every kindness in her time of need, to whom she must always feel warmly grateful, however churlishly he might ignore the obligation.
He had raised no definite objection to this present visit of hers. Mrs. Errol had, in her own inimitable fashion, silenced him, but she had known that she had gone against his wish. And it was in consequence of this knowledge that she was returning so early, though she did not expect him back till night. He should have no rational cause for complaint against her. For such causes as his fevered brain created she could not hold herself responsible.
It was hard to lead such a life without becoming morbid, but Anne was fashioned upon generous lines. She strove ever to maintain the calm level of reason wherewith to temper the baleful influence of her husband's caprice. She never argued with him; argument was worse than futile. But steadfastly and incessantly she sought by her moderation to balance the difficulties with which she was continually confronted. And to a certain extent she succeeded. Open struggles were very rare. Sir Giles knew that there was a limit to her submission, and he seldom, if ever now, attempted to force her beyond that limit.
But she knew that a visit from Nap would place her in an intolerable position, and with all her heart she hoped that her caution of the previous day had taken effect. Though utterly reckless on his own account, she fancied that she had made an impression upon him, and that he would not act wholly without consideration for her. In bestowing her friendship upon him she had therewith reposed a confidence which his invariable compliance with her wishes had seemed to warrant. She did not think that her trust would ever prove to have been misplaced. But she was sorry, unquestionably she was sorry, to have left without bidding him farewell. It might be long ere they would meet again.
And with the thought yet in her mind she looked out of the window in front of her, and saw his slim, supple figure, clad in a white sweater, shoot swiftly down a snow-draped slope ahead of her, like a meteor flashing earthwards out of the blue.
His arms were extended; his movements had a lithe grace that was irresistibly fascinating to the eye. Slight though he was, he might have been a young god descending on a shaft of sunshine from Olympus. But the thought that darted all unbidden through Anne's mind was of something far different. She banished it on the instant with startled precipitancy; but it left a scar behind that burned like the sudden searing of a hot iron. "I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven."
The car was stopping. The figure on skis was waiting motionless by the roadside. It ran smoothly up to him and stopped.
"Dramatic, wasn't it?" smiled Nap. "Did you think you were going to escape without another word?"
"I had almost begun to think so," she admitted, smiling also.
He stooped to take off the skis, then stepped to the door. He leaned towards her. There was no faintest sign of cynicism in his face that day. He was in the mood of good comradeship in which she liked him best.
"Walk across to the park with me," he said. "It is scarcely a mile by the downs. The man can go on to the Manor with your things and wait here for me on his way back."
Anne considered for a moment, but only for a moment. It might make her late for the luncheon hour, but she was convinced that her husband would not return before the evening. And the world was very enchanting that winter day. The very ground was scattered with diamonds!
"Yes, I will come," she said.
He handed her out, and picked up his discarded skis. His dark face smiled with a certain triumph. The grim lines about his mouth were less apparent than usual. He moved with the elastic swing of well-knit limbs.
And Anne, walking beside him, found it not difficult to thrust her cares a little farther into the sombre background of her mind. The sun shone and the sky was blue, and the ground was strewn with glittering diamonds. She went over the hill with him, feeling that she had snatched one more hour in paradise.
By what magic he cajoled her into trying her skill upon skis Anne never afterwards remembered. It seemed to her later that the exhilarating atmosphere of that cloudless winter day must in some magic fashion have revived in her the youth which had been crushed out of existence so long ago. A strange, irresponsible happiness possessed her, so new, so subtly sweet, that the heavy burden she had borne for so long seemed almost to have shrunk into insignificance. It permeated her whole being like an overpowering essence, so that she forgot the seven dreary years that separated her from her girlhood, forgot the bondage to which she was returning, the constant, ever-increasing anxiety that wrought so mercilessly upon her; and remembered only the splendour of the sunshine that sparkled on the snow, and the ecstasy of the keen clear air she breathed. It was like an enchanting dream to her, a dream through which she lived with all the greater zest because it so soon must pass.
All the pent energies of her vanished youth were in the dream. She could not—for that once she could not—deny them vent.
And Nap, strung to a species of fierce gaiety that she had never seen in him before, urged her perpetually on. He would not let her pause to think, but yet he considered her at every turn. He scoffed like a boy at her efforts to ski, but he held her up strongly while he scoffed, taking care of her with that adroitness that marked everything he did. And while they thus dallied the time passed swiftly, more swiftly than either realised. The sun began to draw to the south-west. The diamonds ceased to sparkle save here and there obliquely. The haze of a winter afternoon settled upon the downs.
Suddenly Anne noticed these things, suddenly the weight of care which had so wonderfully been lifted from her returned, suddenly the shining garment of her youth slipped from her, and left her like Cinderella when the spell of her enchantment was broken.
"Nap!" she exclaimed. "I must go! I must have been dreaming to forget the time!"
"Time!" laughed Nap. "What is time?"
"It is something that I have to remember," she said. "Why, it must be nearly two o'clock!"
Nap glanced at the sun and made no comment. Anne felt for and consulted her watch. It was already three.
She looked up in amazement and dismay. "I must go at once!"
"Don't!" said Nap. "I am sure your watch is wrong."
"I must go at once," she repeated firmly. "It is long past the luncheon hour. I had no idea we had been here so long. You must go too. Your chauffeur will think you are never coming."
The skis were still on her feet. Nap looked at her speculatively.
"This is rather an abrupt end," he said. "Won't you have one more go? A few minutes more or less can't make any difference now."
"They may make all the difference," Anne said. "Really, I ought not."
They stood on a gentle slope that led downwards to the path she must take.
"Just ski down into the valley from here then," urged Nap. "It's quicker than walking. I won't hold you this time. You won't fall."
The suggestion was reasonable, and the fascination of the sport had taken firm hold of her. Anne smiled and yielded. She set her feet together and let herself go.
Almost at the same instant a sound that was like the bellow of an infuriated bull reached her from above.
She tried to turn, but the skis were already slipping over the snow. To preserve her balance she was forced to go, and for seconds that seemed like hours she slid down the hillside, her heart thumping in her throat; her nerves straining and twitching to check that maddening progress. For she knew that sound. She had heard it before, had shrunk secretly many a time before its coarse brutality. It was the yell of a man in headlong, furious wrath, an animal yell, unreasoning, hideously bestial; and she feared, feared horribly, what that yell might portend.
She reached the valley, and managed to swerve round without falling. But for an instant she could not, she dared not, raise her eyes. Clear on the frosty air came sounds that made her blood turn cold. She felt as if her heart would suffocate her. A brief blindness blotted out all things.
Then with an agonised effort she forced back her weakness, she forced herself to look. Yes, the thing she had feared so horribly was being enacted like a ghastly nightmare above her.
There on the slope was her husband, a gigantic figure outlined against the snow. He had not stopped to parley. Those mad fits of passion always deprived him, at the outset, of the few reasoning powers that yet remained to him. Without question or explanation of any kind he had flung himself upon the man he deemed his enemy, and Anne now beheld him, gripping him by the neck as a terrier grips a rat, and flogging him with the loaded crop he always carried to the hunt.
Nap was writhing to and fro like an eel, striving, she saw, to overthrow his adversary. But the gigantic strength of madness was too great for his lithe activity. By sheer weight he was borne down.
With an anguished cry Anne started to intervene. But two steps with the skis flung her headlong upon the snow, and while she grovelled there, struggling vainly to rise, she heard the awful blows above her like pistol-shots through the stillness. Once she heard a curse, and once a demonical laugh, and once, thrilling her through and through, spurring her to wilder efforts, a dreadful sound that was like the cry of a stricken animal.
She gained her feet at last, and again started on her upward way. Nap had been forced to his knees, but he was still fighting fiercely, as a rat will fight to the last. She cried to him wildly that she was coming, was coming, made three paces, only to trip and fall again.
Then she knew that, so handicapped, she could never reach them, and with shaking, fumbling fingers she set herself to unfasten the straps that bound the skis. It took her a long, long time—all the longer for her fevered haste. And still that awful, flail-like sound went on and on, though all sound of voices had wholly ceased.
Free at last, she stumbled to her feet, and tore madly up the hill. She saw as she went that Nap was not struggling any longer. He was hanging like a wet rag from the merciless grip that upheld him, and though his limp body seemed to shudder at every crashing blow, he made no voluntary movement of any sort.
As she drew near, her husband suddenly swung round as though aware of her, and dropped him. He fell in a huddled heap upon the snow, and lay, twisted, motionless as a dead thing.
Sir Giles, his eyes suffused and terrible, turned upon his wife.
"There lies your gallant lover!" he snarled at her. "I think I've cured him of his fancy for you."
Her eyes met his. For a single instant, hatred, unveiled, passionate, shone out at him like sudden, darting lightning. For a single instant she dared him with the courage born of hatred. It was a challenge so distinct and personal, so fierce, that he, satiated for the moment with revenge, drew back instinctively before it, as an animal shrinks from the flame.
She uttered not a word. She did not after that one scorching glance deign to do battle with him. Without a gesture she dismissed him, kneeling beside his vanquished foe as though he were already gone.
And—perhaps it was the utter intrepidity of her bearing that deprived him of the power to carry his brutality any further just then—perhaps the ferocity that he had never before encountered in those grey eyes cowed him somewhat in spite of the madness that still sang in his veins—whatever the motive power it was too potent to resist—Sir Giles turned and tramped heavily away.
Anne did not watch him go. It was nothing to her at the moment whether he went or stayed. She knelt beside the huddled, unconscious figure and tried to straighten the crumpled limbs. The sweater had been literally torn from his back, and the shirt beneath it was in blood-stained tatters. His face was covered with blood. Sir Giles had not been particular as to where the whip had fallen. Great purple welts crossed and re-crossed each other on the livid features. The bleeding lips were drawn back in a devilish grimace. He looked as though he had been terribly mauled by some animal.
Anne gripped a handful of snow, hardly knowing what she did, and tried to stanch the blood that ran from an open cut on his temple. She was not trembling any longer. The emergency had steadied her. But the agony of those moments was worse than any she had ever known.
Minutes passed. She was beginning to despair. An icy dread was at her heart. He lay so lifeless, so terribly inert. She had attempted to lift him, but the dead weight was too much for her. She could only rest his head against her, and wipe away the blood that trickled persistently from that dreadful, sneering mouth. Would he ever speak again, she asked herself? Were the fiery eyes fast shut for ever? Was he dead—he whose vitality had always held her like a charm? Had her friendship done this for him, that friendship he had valued so highly?
She stooped lower over him. The anguish of the thought was more than she could bear.
"O God," she prayed suddenly and passionately, "don't let him die! Don't let him die!"
And in that moment Nap's eyes opened wide and fixed themselves upon her.
He did not attempt to move or speak, but the snarling look went wholly out of his face. The thin lips met and closed over the battered mouth. He lay regarding her intently, as if he were examining some curious thing he had never seen before.
And before that gaze Anne's eyes wavered and sank. She felt she could never meet his look again.
"Are you better?" she whispered. "Can I—will you let me—help you?"
"No," he said. "Just—leave me!" He spoke quite quietly, but the very sound of his voice sent a perfect storm of emotion through her.
"I can't!" she said almost fiercely. "I won't! Let me help you! Let me do what I can!"
He stirred a little, and his brow contracted, but he never took his eyes from her face.
"Don't be—upset," he said with an effort. "I'm not going—to die!"
"Tell me what to do," she urged piteously. "Can I lift you a little higher?"
"For Heaven's sake—no!" he said, and swallowed a shudder. "My collar-bone's broken."
He was silent for a space, but still his dusky eyes watched her perpetually.
At last, "Let me hold your hand," he said.
She put it into his, and he held it tightly. The blood was running down his face again, and she wiped it softly away.
"Thank you," he said.
Those two words, spoken almost under his breath, had a curious effect upon her. She felt as if something had suddenly entered and pierced her heart. Before she knew it, a sharp sob escaped her, and then all in a moment she broke down.
"Oh, Nap, Nap," she sobbed, "I wish I had died before this could happen!"
She felt his hand tighten as she crouched there beside him in her anguish, and presently she knew that he had somehow managed to raise himself to a sitting posture.
Through her agony his voice came to her. It was pitched very low, yet she heard it.
"Don't cry—for pity's sake! I shall get over it. I shall live—to get back—my own."
Torn by emotion as she was, something in the last words, spoken in that curious undertone, struck her with a subtle force. With a desperate effort she controlled herself. She knew that he was still watching her with that strange intensity that she could not bring herself to meet. His right hand still held hers with quivering tenacity; the other trailed uselessly on the snow.
"Let me help you," she urged again.
He was silent; she feared he was going to refuse. And then she saw that his head had begun to droop forward, and realised that he was on the verge of another collapse. Instinctively she slipped her arm about his shoulders, supporting him. He was shuddering all over. She drew his head to rest against her.
A long time passed thus, she kneeling motionless, holding him, while he panted against her breast, struggling with dogged persistence to master the weakness that threatened to overpower him. It was terrible to see him so, he the arrogant, the fierce, the overbearing, thus humbled to the earth before her. She felt the agony of his crushed pride, and yearned with an intensity that was passionate to alleviate it. But there seemed nothing for her to do. She could only kneel and look on in bitter impotence while he fought his battle.
In the end he lifted his face. "It's the collarbone that hurts so infernally. Could you push something under my left arm to hold it up? Your muff would do. Mind my wrist—that's broken too. Ah!" She heard the breath whistle sharply between his lips as with the utmost care she complied with these instructions, but almost instantly he went on: "Don't be afraid of touching me—unless I'm too monstrous to touch. But I don't believe I can walk."
"I will help you," she said. "I am very strong."
"You are—wonderful," he said.
And the words comforted her subtly though she did not know exactly what he meant by them.
Thereafter they scarcely spoke at all. By slow degrees he recovered his self-command, though she knew with only too keen a perception how intolerable was the pain that racked his whole body. With her assistance and with strenuous effort he managed at last to get upon his feet, but he was immediately assailed afresh by deadly faintness, and for minutes he could stand only by means of her arms upholding him.
Later, with his one available arm across her shoulders, he essayed to walk, but it was so ghastly an ordeal that he could accomplish only a few steps at a time.
Anne did not falter now. She was past that stage. All her nerves were strung to meet his pressing need. Again and again as he hung upon her, half-fainting, she stopped to support him more adequately till he had fought down his exhaustion and was ready to struggle on again. She remained steadfast and resolute throughout the long-drawn-out agony of that walk over the snow.
"Great Heaven!" he muttered once. "That you should do this—for me!"
And she answered him quickly and passionately, as though indeed there were something within that spoke for her, "I would do anything for you, Nap."
It was drawing near to sunset when at last the end of the journey came in sight. Anne perceived the car waiting in the distance close to the spot where Nap had descended upon her that morning.
She breathed a sigh of thankfulness. "I scarcely thought he would have waited for you so long," she said.
"He daren't do otherwise," said Nap, and she caught a faint echo of arrogance in the words.
And then of his own free will he paused and faced her. "You are coming with me," he said.
She shook her head. "No, Nap."
His eyes blazed redly. His disfigured face was suddenly devilish. "You are mad if you go back," he said.
But she shook her head again. "No, I know what I am doing. And I am going back now. But I will come to Baronmead in the morning."
He looked at her. "Are you—tired of life?" he asked abruptly.
She smiled—a piteous smile. "Very, very tired!" she said. "But you needn't be afraid of that. He will not touch me. He will not even see me to-night." Then, as he still looked combative, "Oh, please, leave this matter to my judgment! I know exactly what I am doing. Believe me, I am in no danger."
He gave in, seeing that she was not to be moved from her purpose.
They went a few yards farther; then, "In Heaven's name—come early to Baronmead," he said jerkily. "I shall have no peace till you come."
"I will," she promised.
The chauffeur came to meet them with clumsy solicitude as they neared the car, but Nap kept him at a distance.
"Don't touch me! I've had a bad fall skiing. It's torn me to ribbons. Just open the door. Lady Carfax will do the rest!" And as the man turned to obey, "Not a very likely story, but it will serve our turn."
"Thank you," she said very earnestly.
He did not look at her again. She had a feeling that he kept his eyes from her by a deliberate effort of the will.
Silently she helped him into the car, saw him sink back with her muff still supporting his injured arm, whispered a low "Good-bye!" and turned to the waiting chauffeur.
"Drive him quickly home," she said. "And then go for a doctor."
Not till the car was out of sight did she realise that her knees were shaking and refusing to support her. She tottered to a gate by the roadside, and there, clinging weakly with her head bowed upon her arms, she remained for a very long time.
It was growing dusk when Anne at length came to the Manor. She was utterly weary and faint from lack of food. The servant who admitted her looked at her strangely, as if half afraid.
"Please have tea taken to my sitting-room," she said quietly, as she passed him.
And with that she went straight to her room. Standing before a mirror to remove her hat, she caught sight of something that seemed to stab her heart. The cream cloth coat she wore was all spattered with blood.
She stood rigid, not breathing, staring into the white face above it—the white face of a woman she hardly knew, with compressed lips and wild, tragic eyes. What was it those eyes held? Was it hatred? Was it madness? Was it—?
She broke away horror-stricken, and stripped the coat from her with hands like ice. Again through her mind, with feverish insistence, ran those words that had startled her earlier in the day. She found herself repeating them deliriously, under her breath: "I beheld Satan—as lightning—fall from heaven!"
Why did they haunt her so? What was it in the utterance that frightened her? What meaning did they hold for her? What hidden terror lay behind it? What had happened to her? What nightmare horror was this clawing at her heart, lacerating, devouring, destroying? It was something she had never felt before, something too terrible to face, too overwhelming to ignore.
Was she going mad, she asked herself? And like a dreadful answer to a riddle inscrutable her white lips whispered those haunting unforgettable words: "I beheld Satan—as lightning—fall from heaven."
Mechanically she bathed her face and hands and passed into her sitting-room, where her tea awaited her. A bright fire crackled there, and her favourite chair was drawn up to it. The kettle hissed merrily on a spirit-lamp.
Entering, she found, somewhat to her surprise, old Dimsdale waiting to serve her.
"Thank you," she said. "I can help myself."
"If your ladyship will allow me," he said deferentially.
She sat down, conscious of a physical weakness she could not control. And the old butler, quiet and courteous and very grave, proceeded to make the tea and wait upon her in silence.
Anne lay back in her chair with her eyes upon the fire, and accepted his ministrations without further speech. There was a very thorough understanding between herself and Dimsdale, an understanding established and maintained without words.
The tea revived her, and after a little she turned her head and looked up at him.
Dimsdale coughed. "It was about Sir Giles that I wanted to speak to your ladyship."
"Well?" she said again.
"Sir Giles, my lady, is not himself—not at all himself," Dimsdale told her cautiously. "I was wondering just before you came in if I didn't ought to send for the doctor."
"Why, Dimsdale?" Anne looked straight up into the old man's troubled face, but her eyes had a strangely aloof expression, as though the matter scarcely touched her.
Dimsdale shook his head. "It's not the same as usual, my lady. I've never seen him like this before. There's something—I don't rightly know what—about him that fair scares me. If your ladyship will only let me send for the doctor—"
He paused. Anne's eyes had gone back to the fire. She seemed to be considering.
"I don't think the doctor would be at home," she said at last. "Wait till the morning, Dimsdale—unless he is really ill."
"My lady, it's not that," said Dimsdale. "There's nothing ails his body. But—but—" he faltered a little, and finally, "It's his mind," he said, "if I may make so bold as to say it. I don't believe as he's safe. I'm afraid he'll be doing a mischief to—someone."
His pause was not lost upon Anne. Again she raised her eyes and steadily regarded him.
"To whom, Dimsdale?" she asked.
"My lady—" the old man murmured unwillingly.
"To me?" she questioned in a quiet, unmoved voice. "Why are you afraid of that?"
"Tell me," she said. But again her eyes had sunk to the fire. She seemed as one not vitally interested, as one whose thoughts were elsewhere.
Reluctantly Dimsdale made answer: "He's been cutting your ladyship's portrait into strips and burning 'em in the study fire. It was dreadful to see him, so intent like and quiet. I saw him put his hand right into the flame once, and he didn't seem to know. And he came in in one of his black moods with his hunting-crop broken right in two. Carrying the pieces he was, and glaring like as if all the world was against him. I was afraid there would be trouble when he came home to lunch and found your ladyship not there."
He stopped, arrested by a sudden movement from Anne. She had leaned forward and covered her face with her hands. The tension of her attitude was such that Dimsdale became strongly aware that his presence was an intrusion. Yet, the matter being urgent, he stood his ground.
He waited silently, and presently Anne lifted her head. "I think you must leave the matter till the morning, Dimsdale," she said. "It could do no good to have the doctor at this hour. Besides, I doubt if he could come. And Sir Giles will be himself again after a night's rest."
"I'm very much afraid not, my lady," said Dimsdale lugubriously. "He's drinking brandy—neat brandy—all the while. I've never seen him drink like that before. It fair scares me, and that's the truth."
"You are not afraid on your own account?" Anne asked.
"Oh, no, my lady. He wouldn't interfere with me. It's your ladyship—"
"Ah, well," she said, quietly interrupting, "you need not be afraid for me either. I shall not go downstairs again to-night. He will not be expecting me."
"Very good, my lady."
Dimsdale looked somewhat relieved but not wholly satisfied. He lingered as if he longed yet did not dare to say more.
As for Anne, she sat quite motionless gazing into the fire, her hands clasped very tightly before her. She seemed to have dismissed the subject under discussion and the faithful Dimsdale simultaneously from her mind.
After a few seconds the old butler realised this, and without further ado he removed the tea-things and went quietly away.
Anne did not notice his departure. She was too deep in thought. Her brain was steadier now, and she found it possible to think. For the first time she was asking herself if she would be justified in bringing her long martyrdom to an end. She had fulfilled her part of the bargain, patiently, conscientiously, unflaggingly, throughout those seven bitter years. She had married her husband without loving him, and he had never sought to win her love. He had married her for the sake of conquering her, attracted by the very coldness with which she had tried in her girlhood to repel him. She had caught his fancy in those far-off days. Her queenliness, her grace, had captivated him. And later, with the sheer hunter's instinct, he had pursued her, and had eventually discovered a means of entrapping her. He had named his conditions and she had named hers. In the end he had dispatched the father to Canada and made the daughter his wife.
But his fancy for her had scarcely outlasted his capture. He had taken pleasure for a while in humiliating her, counting it sport if he succeeded in arousing her rare indignation. But soon even this had ceased to amuse him. He had developed into that most odious of all bullies, the domestic tyrant, and had therewith sunk back into those habits of intemperance which his marriage had scarcely interrupted. He was many years her senior. He treated her as a slave, and if now and then an uncomfortable sensation of inferiority assailed him, he took his revenge upon her in evil, glowering tempers that rendered him more of a beast than a man.
But yet she had borne with him. By neither word nor action had she ever voluntarily widened the breach between them: His growing dislike had not had any visible effect upon her. She had done her duty faithfully through all, had borne his harshness and his insults in silence, with a patience too majestic, too colossal, for his understanding.
And now for the first time she asked herself, Did he want to be rid of her? Had he invented this monstrous grievance to drive her from him? Were the days of her bondage indeed drawing at last to an end? Had she borne with him long enough? Was she free—was she free to go?
Her heart quickened at the bare thought. How gladly would she set herself to make a living when once this burden had been lifted from her!
But she would not relinquish it without his sanction. She would be faithful to the last, true to that bargain she had struck with him so long ago. Yet surely he could not refuse it. She was convinced that he hated her.
Again she felt that strange new life thrilling in her veins. Again she felt herself almost young. To be free! To be free! To choose her own friends without fear; to live her own life in peace; to know no further tumults or petty tyrannies—to be free!
The prospect dazzled her. She lifted her face and gasped for breath.
Then, hearing a sound at her door, she turned.
A white-faced servant stood on the threshold. "If you please, my lady, your coat is in a dreadful state. I was afraid there must have been an accident."
Anne stared at the woman for a few seconds with the dazed eyes of one suddenly awakened.
"Yes," she said slowly at length. "There was—an accident. Mr. Nap Errol was—hurt while skiing."
The woman looked at her with frank curiosity, but there was that about her mistress at the moment that did not encourage inquiry or comment.
She stood for a little silent; then, "What had I better do with the coat, my lady?" she asked diffidently.
Anne made an abrupt gesture. The dazed look in her eyes had given place to horror. "Take it away!" she said sharply. "Do what you like with it! I never want to see it again."
"Very good, my lady."
The woman withdrew, and Anne covered her face with her hands once more, and shuddered from head to foot.
AT THE MERCY OF A DEMON
Some time later Anne seated herself at her writing-table.
The idea of writing to her husband had come to her as an inspiration; not because she shirked an interview—she knew that to be inevitable—but because she realised that the first step taken thus would make the final decision easier for them both.
She did not find it hard to put her thoughts into words. Her mind was very clear upon the matter in hand. She knew exactly what she desired to say. Only upon the subject of her friendship with Nap she could not bring herself to touch. A day earlier she could have spoken of it, even in the face of his hateful suspicion, without restraint. But to-night she could not. It was as if a spell of silence had been laid upon her, a spell which she dared not attempt to break. She dared not even think of Nap just then.
It was not a very long letter that she wrote, sitting there in the silence of her room, and it did not take her long to write. But when it was finished, closed and directed, she sat on with her chin upon her hand, thinking. It seemed scarcely conceivable that he would refuse to let her go.
She could not imagine herself to be in any sense necessary to him. She had helped him with the estate in many ways, but she had done nothing that a trustworthy agent could not do, save, perhaps, in the matter of caring for the poorer tenants. They would miss her, she told herself, but no one else. It was very long since she had entertained any guests at the Manor. Sir Giles had offended almost everyone who could ever have claimed the privilege of intimacy with him. And people wondered openly that his wife still lived with him. Well, they would not wonder much longer.
And when her life was at her own disposal what would she do with it?
There were many things she might do; as secretary, as companion, as music-teacher, as cook. She knew she need not be at a loss. And again the prospect of freedom from a yoke that galled her intolerably made her heart leap.
A slight sound in the passage brought her out of her reverie. She glanced up. It was probably Dimsdale. She would give him the note to deliver to his master in the morning. She crossed to the door and opened it.
The next instant, in amazement, she drew back. On the threshold, face to face with her, stood her husband!
He did not give her time to speak, but pushed straight forward into the room as if in haste. His face was white and purple in patches. His eyes were narrowed and furtive. There was something unspeakably evil in the way they avoided hers. He carried his right hand behind him.
He began to speak at once in quick, staccato tones, with which she was utterly unfamiliar.
"So you think you are going to escape me, do you? But you won't! No, not for all the Errols in the world!"
She did not answer him. There was something so utterly unusual in this abrupt visitation that she knew not how to cope with it. But he scarcely waited for an answer. He swung the door behind him with a bang.
"Do you remember," he said, his staccato tone merging into one of rising violence, "a promise I made to you the first time I caught that scoundrel making love to you? I swore that if it happened again I'd thrash him. Well, I'm a man who keeps his promises. I've kept that one. And now it's your turn. I thought at first I'd kill you. But I fancy this will hurt you more."
His hand shot suddenly out from behind him, and there followed the whistle of a thong—the thick, leathern thong with which he kept his dogs in order.
It struck her as she stood before him, struck and curled about her shoulders with a searching, scalding agony that turned her sick, wringing from her a cry that would never have been uttered had she been prepared.
But before he could strike again she was ready to cope with his madness. On the instant she sprang, not from him, but to him, clasping his arms with both of hers.
"Giles!" she said, and her voice rang clear and commanding. "You are not yourself. You don't know what you are doing. Look at me! Do you hear? Look at me!"
That was his vulnerable point, and instinctively she knew it. He was afraid—as a wild animal is afraid—of the compulsion of her eyes. But he fought with her savagely, furiously, refusing to face her, struggling with inarticulate oaths to break away from her clinging arms.
And Anne was powerless against him, powerless as Nap had been earlier in the day, to make any impression against his frenzied strength. She was impotent as a child in that awful grip, and in a very few seconds she knew it.
He had already wrung his arm free and raised it to strike a second blow, while she shut her eyes in anguished expectation, still clinging blindly to his coat, when the door burst open with a crash and Dimsdale tore into the room.
Anne heard his coming, but she could not turn. She was waiting with every nerve stretched and quivering for the thong to fall. And when it did not, when Dimsdale, with a strength abnormal for his years, flung himself at the upraised arm and bore it downwards, she was conscious not of relief, but only of a sudden snapping of that awful tension that was like a rending asunder of her very being. She relaxed her hold and tottered back against the wall.
"He will kill you!" she heard herself saying to Dimsdale. "He will kill you!"
But Dimsdale clung like a limpet. Through the surging uproar of her reeling senses Anne heard his voice.
"Sir Giles! Sir Giles! This won't do, sir. You've got a bit beyond yourself. Come along with me, Sir Giles. You are not well. You ought to be in bed. Now, now, Sir Giles! Give it up! Come! Here's West to help you undress."
But Sir Giles fought to be free, cursing hideously, writhing this way and that with Dimsdale hanging to him; and at sight of the footman hastening to the old man's assistance he put forth a strength so terrific that he swung him completely off the ground.
"He's too much for me!" shouted Dimsdale. "My lady, go—go, for the love of heaven! Quick, West! Quick! Trip him! It's the only way! Ah!"
They went down in a fearful, struggling heap. Sir Giles underneath, but making so violent a fight that the whole room seemed to shake.
And Anne stood and looked upon the whole ghastly spectacle as one turned to stone.
So standing, propped against the wall, she saw the young under-footman come swiftly in, and had a glimpse of his horrified face as he leapt forward to join the swaying, heaving mass of figures upon the floor. His coming seemed to make a difference. Sir Giles's struggles became less gigantic, became spasmodic, convulsive, futile, finally ceased altogether. He lay like a dead man, save that his features twitched horribly as if evil spirits were at work upon him.
The whole conflict had occupied but a few minutes, but to the rigid watcher it had been an eternity of fearful tumult. Yet the hard-breathing silence that followed was almost more terrible still.
Out of it arose old Dimsdale, wiping his forehead with a shaking hand.
"He didn't hurt your ladyship?" he questioned anxiously.
But she could not take her eyes from the motionless figure upon the floor or answer him.
He drew nearer. "My lady," he said, "come away from here!"
But Anne never stirred.
He laid a very humble hand upon her arm. "Let me take you downstairs," he urged gently. "There's a friend there waiting for your ladyship—a friend as will understand."
"A—friend?" She turned her head stiffly, her eyes still striving to remain fixed upon that mighty, inert form.
"Yes, my lady. He only came a few minutes back. He is waiting in the drawing-room. It was Sir Giles he asked to see, said it was very particular. It was West here took the message to Sir Giles, and I think it was that as made him come up here so mad like. I came after him as soon as I heard. But the gentleman is still waiting, my lady. Will you see him and—explain?"
"Who is the gentleman?" Anne heard the question, but not as if she herself had uttered it. The voice that spoke seemed to come from an immense distance.
And from equally far seemed to come Dimsdale's answer, though it reached and pierced her understanding in an instant.
"It's Mr. Errol, my lady,—the crippled one. Mr. Lucas, I think his name is."
Anne turned then as sharply as though a voice had called her.
"Lucas Errol! Is he here? Ah, take me to him! Take me to him!"
And the old butler led her thankfully from the scene.
THE CITY OF REFUGE
The moment Lucas Errol's hand closed upon hers it was to Anne as if an immense and suffocating weight had been lifted from her, and with it all her remaining strength crumbled away as if her burden alone had sustained her.
She looked at him, meeting the kind, searching eyes without effort, trying piteously to speak, but her white lips only moved soundlessly, her throat seemed paralysed.
"Her ladyship has had a shock, sir," explained Dimsdale.
"Won't you sit down?" said Lucas gently. In a moment she found herself sitting on a sofa with this stanch friend of hers beside her, holding her hand. A few words passed between him and Dimsdale, which she scarcely heard and was too weak to comprehend, and then they were alone together, she and Lucas in a silence she felt powerless to break.
"You mustn't mind me, Lady Carfax," he said. "I know what you have come through. I understand."
Dimly she heard the words, but she could not respond to them. She was shivering, shivering with a violence that she was utterly unable to repress.
He did not speak again till Dimsdale came back with a tray, then again he exchanged a few murmured sentences with the old butler, who presently said, "Very good, sir," and went softly away.
Then Lucas turned again to Anne. "Drink this," he said. "It will revive you."
She groped for the glass he held towards her, but trembled so much that she could not take it.
"Let me," he said, and put it himself to her lips.
She drank slowly, shuddering, her teeth chattering against the glass.
"Lay your head down upon the cushion," he said then, "and shut your eyes. You will be better soon."
"You—you won't go?" she managed to whisper.
"Why, no," he said. "It's for your sake I've come. I guess I'm a fixture for so long as you want me."
She breathed a sigh of relief and lay back.
A long time passed. Anne lay motionless with closed eyes, too crushed for thought. And Lucas Errol watched beside her, grave and patient and still.
Suddenly there came a sound, piercing the silence, a sound that made Anne start upright in wild terror.
"What is it? What is it?"
Instantly and reassuringly Lucas's hand clasped hers. "Don't be afraid!" he said. "They are moving him to another room, that's all."
She sank back, shuddering, her face hidden. The sound continued, seeming to come nearer—the sound of a man's voice shrieking horribly for help, in piercing accents of terror that might have come from a torture-chamber. Suddenly the yells became articulate, resolved into words: "Anne! Anne! Anne!" in terrible crescendo.
She sprang up with a sharp cry.
But on the instant the man beside her spoke. "Anne, you are not to go."
She paused irresolute. "I must! I must! He is calling me!"
"You are not to go," he reiterated, and for the first time she heard the dominant note in his voice. "Come here, child! Come close to me! It will soon be over."
Her irresolution passed like a cloud. She looked down, saw his blue eyes shining straight up at her, kind still, but compelling. And she dropped upon her knees beside him and hid her face upon his shoulder, with the cry of, "Help me! Help me! I can't bear it!"
He folded his arms about her as though he had been a woman, and held her fast.
Long after the awful sounds had died away Anne knelt there, sobbing, utterly unstrung, all her pride laid low, herself no more than a broken, agonised woman. But gradually, from sheer exhaustion, her sobs became less anguished, till at length they ceased. A strange peace, wholly unaccountable, fell gently upon her torn spirit. But even then it was long before she moved. She felt an overwhelming reluctance to withdraw herself from the shelter of those quiet arms.
"What must you think of me?" she whispered at last, her face still hidden.
"My dear," he said, "I understand."
He did not offer to release her, but as she moved she found herself free, she found herself able to look into his face.
"I shall never forget your goodness to me," she said very earnestly.
He smiled a little, after a fashion she did not wholly comprehend. "My dear Lady Carfax! You underrate friendship when you say a thing like that. Sit down, won't you? And let me tell you what brought me here."
"Nap told you—" she hazarded.
"Yes, Nap told me. And I decided I had better come at once. I wasn't in when he got back, or I should have been here sooner. I saw there had been a gross misunderstanding, and I hoped I should be able to get your husband to take a reasonable view."
"Ah!" she said, with a shiver. "I—I'm thankful you didn't meet."
"I am sorry," Lucas said quietly. And though he said no more, she knew that he was thinking of her.
"How is Nap?" she ventured hesitatingly.
"Nap," he said with deliberation, "will be himself again in a very few weeks. You need have no anxiety for him."
Again she did not wholly understand his tone. She glanced at him nervously, half afraid that he was keeping something from her.
"You really mean that?"
His eyes met hers, very level and direct. "He is badly battered, of course. But—he is not quite like other men. He has no nerves to speak of in a physical sense. He will make a quick recovery. Broken bones mean very little to a man of his calibre."
She heard him with relief mingled with a faint wonder at his confidence on this point.
"The doctor has seen him?" she asked.
"Yes; and I have sent my man in the motor to ask him to come on here."
She shivered again irrepressibly. "Giles hates Dr. Randal."
"I do not think that will make any difference," Lucas said gently.
Thereafter they sat together almost in silence, till the buzzing of the motor told of the doctor's arrival. Then with the aid of a stick Lucas began to drag himself laboriously to his feet. Anne rose to help him.
He took her arm, looking at her shrewdly.
"Lady Carfax, will you let me speak to him alone?"
"If you wish it," she said.
"I do wish it." His eyes passed hers suddenly and rested upon the lace at her neck. In one place it was torn, and the soft flesh was revealed; revealed also was a long red stripe, swollen and turning. In an instant his glance fell, but she saw his brows contract as if at a sharp twinge of pain. "I do wish it," he said again very gently. "P'r'aps you will wait for me here."
And with that he relinquished her arm, and made his halting, difficult way across the room to the door.
Anne sat down before the fire to wait. She had, to a large extent, recovered her self-control, but a deadly weariness was upon her which she found it impossible to shake off. She kept it at bay for a time while she listened for any sound. But no sound came, and at length exhausted nature prevailed.
When Lucas came back she was sunk in her chair asleep.
He took up his stand near her while he waited for the doctor, and again that deep furrow showed between his brows. But the eyes that watched her were soft and tender as a woman's. There was something almost maternal in their regard, a compassion so deep as to be utterly unconscious of itself. When the doctor's step sounded at length outside he shuffled away without disturbing her.
It was hours later when Anne awoke and sat up with a confused sense of something wrong. She was still in her easy-chair before the fire, which burned brightly as ever, while on the other side of the hearth, propped upright upon cushions and watching her with those steady blue eyes, whose kindness never varied, was Lucas Errol.
He spoke to her at once, very softly and gently, as if she had been a child.
"I'm real pleased you've had a sleep. You needed it. Don't look so startled. It's all right—a little late, but that's nothing. Dimsdale and I agreed that it would be a pity to disturb you. So we let you sleep on. And he brought in a tray of refreshments to fortify you when you awoke. He's a thoughtful old chap, Lady Carfax. You're lucky to have such a servant."
But Anne scarcely heard him. She was staring at the clock in amazement. It was half-past three! Just twelve hours since—She repressed a violent shudder.
"Don't be shocked any!" besought Lucas in his easy drawl. "I'm often awake at this hour. I guessed you wouldn't sleep if we woke you to go to your room, and I didn't quite like the thought of being down here out of reach. You are not vexed with me, I hope?"
"No," she said. "I am not vexed."
But she looked at him very strangely, as if that were not all she desired to say.
"Dimsdale has been in and out," he said, "keeping the fire going. He and one of the others are watching upstairs. But all is quiet there. Sir Giles has been asleep ever since the doctor left."
Anne got up slowly. "You look very uncomfortable," she said.
He smiled up at her. "My dear Lady Carfax, I am all right. The advantage of this position is that one can rise at a moment's notice."
As if to demonstrate the truth of this he rose, but not without considerable effort.
"Ah, please don't!" she said, putting out a quick, restraining hand. "It hurts me to see you suffer on my account. It was too kind of you—much too kind—to stay with me like this. You will never know how much you have helped me, and I thank you for it with all my heart. Now please sit down again, and let me wait upon you for a change. Have you had anything to eat or drink?"
He sat down again, looking quizzical. "I have been waiting for my hostess to join me," he said.
"Do you ever think of yourself at all?" she asked, turning aside to the tray that Dimsdale's consideration had provided.
"A great deal more often than you imagine," smiled Lucas. "Must you really do the waiting? It's very bad for me, you know."
He joked with her gently through the light repast that followed. And though she scarcely responded, she let him see her gratitude.
Finally, he laid aside all pretence of humour and spoke to her very quietly and gravely of her husband. The doctor thought it advisable to remove him from the Manor with as little delay as possible. He would consult her about it in the morning. His brain was without doubt very seriously affected, and it might take some months to recover. It was essential that he should be taken away from familiar surroundings and people whom he knew.
Anne listened with a whitening face. She asked no questions. Lucas supplied every detail with the precision that characterised most of his utterances. Finally he spoke of her position, advised her strongly to employ an agent for the estate, and promised his help in this or any other matter in which she might care to avail herself of it.
He seemed to take it for granted that she would remain at the head of affairs, and it gradually dawned upon Anne that she could not well do otherwise. Her presence for a time at least seemed indispensable. The responsibility had become hers and she could not at that stage shake it off. Her dream of freedom was over. Of what the future might hold for her she could not even begin to think. But the present was very clearly defined. It remained only for her to "do the work that was nearest" as bravely as she might.
When Lucas ended she leaned forward and gave him her hand. "I wonder what I should have done without you," she said. "I believe I should have gone mad too."
"No, no, Lady Carfax!"
She smiled faintly; the tears were standing in her eyes. "Yes, I know. You don't like to be thanked. But you have been like a mother to me in my trouble, and—I shall always remember it."
The blue eyes began to twinkle humorously. The hand that held hers closed with a very friendly pressure.
"Well," drawled the kindly American voice, "I'll be shot if that isn't the kindest thing that anyone ever said to me. And I believe you meant it too."
"Yes, I meant it," Anne said.
And though she smiled also there was genuine feeling in her words.
THE JESTER'S RETURN
The gradual coming of spring that year was like a benediction after the prolonged rigour of the frost. The lengthening evenings were wrapped in pearly mystery, through which the soft rain fell in showers of blessing upon the waiting earth. To Anne, it was as though a great peace had descended upon all things, quelling all tumult. She had resolutely taken up her new burden, which was so infinitely easier than the old, and she found a strange happiness in the bearing of it. The management of her husband's estate kept her very fully occupied, so that she had no time for perplexing problems. She took each day as it came, and each day left her stronger.
Once only had she been to Baronmead since the masquerade on the ice. It was in fulfilment of her promise to Nap, but she had not seen him; and as the weeks slipped by she began to wonder at his prolonged silence. For no word of any sort reached her from him. He seemed to have forgotten her very existence. That he was well again she knew from Lucas, who often came over in the motor with his mother.
As his brother had predicted he had made a rapid recovery; but no sooner was he well than he was gone with a suddenness that surprised no one but Anne. She concluded that his family knew where he was to be found, but no news of his whereabouts reached her. Nap was the one subject upon which neither Mrs. Errol nor her elder son ever expanded, and for some nameless reason Anne shrank from asking any questions regarding him. She was convinced that he would return sooner or later. She was convinced that, whatever appearances might be, he had not relinquished the bond of friendship that linked them. She did not understand him. She believed him to be headlong and fiercely passionate, but beneath all there seemed to her to be a certain stability, a tenacity of purpose, that no circumstance, however tragic, could thwart. She knew, deep in the heart of her she knew, that he would come back.
She would not spend much thought upon him in those days. Something stood ever in the path of thought. Invariably she encountered it, and as invariably she turned aside, counting her new peace as too precious to hazard.
Meanwhile she went her quiet way, sometimes aided by Lucas, but more often settling her affairs alone, neither attempting nor desiring to look into the future.
The news of Sir Giles's illness spread rapidly through the neighbourhood, and people began to be very kind to her. She knew no one intimately. Her husband's churlishness had deprived her of almost all social intercourse, but never before had she realised how completely he was held responsible for her aloofness.
Privately, she would have preferred to maintain her seclusion, but it was not in her to be ungracious. She felt bound to accept the ready sympathy extended to her. It touched her, even though, had the choice been hers, she would have done without it. Lucas also urged her in his kindly fashion not to lead a hermit's existence. Mrs. Errol was insistent upon the point.
"Don't you do it, dear," was her exhortation. "There may not be much good to be got out of society, I'll admit. But it's one better than solitude. Don't you shut yourself up and fret. I reckon the Lord didn't herd us together for nothing, and it's His scheme of creation anyway."
And so Anne tried to be cordial; with the result that on a certain morning in early May there reached her a short friendly note from Mrs. Damer, wife of the M.F.H., begging her to dine with them quite informally on the following night.
"There will only be a few of us, all intimate friends," the note said. "Do come. I have been longing to ask you for such an age."
Anne's brows drew together a little over the note. She had always liked Mrs. Damer, but her taste for dinner-parties was a minus quantity. Yet she knew that the invitation had been sent in sheer kindness. Mrs. Damer was always kind to everyone, and it was not the fashion among her circle of friends to disappoint her.
Anne considered the matter, contemplated an excuse, finally rejected it, and wrote an acceptance.
She wore the dress of shimmering green in which she had appeared at the Hunt Ball. Vividly the memory of that night swept across her. She had not worn it since, and scarcely knew what impulse moved her to don it now. It well became her stately figure. Dimsdale, awaiting her departure at the hall-door, looked at her with the admiring reverence he might have bestowed upon a queen.
Again, during her drive through the dark, the memory of that winter night flashed back upon her. She recalled that smooth, noiseless journey in which she had seemed to be borne upon wings. She recalled her misery and her weariness, her dream and her awakening. Nap had been very good to her that night. He had won her confidence, her gratitude, her friendship. His reputation notwithstanding, she had trusted him fully, and she had not found him wanting. A faint sigh rose to her lips. She was beginning to miss this friend of hers.
But the next moment she had drawn back sharply and swiftly, as if she had encountered an angel with a flaming sword. This was the path down which she would not wander. Why should she wish to do so? There were so many other paths open to her now.
When she stepped at length from the carriage her face was serene and quiet as the soft spring night behind her.
Upstairs she encountered the doctor's wife patting her hair before a mirror. She turned at Anne's entrance.
"Why, Lady Carfax! This is indeed a pleasure. I am so glad to see you here."
There was genuine pleasure in her voice, and Anne remembered with a smile that Mrs. Randal liked her.
They chatted as she removed her wraps, and finally descended together, Mrs. Randal turning at the head of the stairs to whisper: "There's that horrid old gossip, Major Shirley. I know he will fall to my lot. He always does. How shall I direct the conversation into safe channels?"
Anne could only shake her head. She knew that Mrs. Randal was not celebrated for discretion.
Entering the drawing-room, they found Major Shirley with his wife and daughter, Ralph and Dot Waring, and the doctor, assembled with their host and hostess.
Mrs. Damer glanced at the clock after greeting them. "The Errols are late."
Anne chanced to be speaking to Dot at the moment, and the girl's magic change of countenance called her attention to the words. She wondered if her own face changed, and became uneasily aware of a sudden quickening of the heart. Quietly she passed on to speak to the Shirleys. The major looked her up and down briefly and offensively as his manner was, and she escaped from his vicinity as speedily as possible. His wife, a powdered, elderly lady, sought to detain her, but after a few moments Anne very gently detached herself, accepting the seat which young Ralph Waring eagerly offered her.
There followed a somewhat lengthy and by no means easy pause. Conversation was spasmodic. Everyone was listening for the arrival of the last guests, and when after some minutes there came the rush of wheels under the window and the loud hoot of a motor everyone jumped. Mrs. Damer, who had talked hard through the silences, made no comment but looked unutterably relieved.
Dot openly and eagerly watched the door, and Anne with a conscious effort suppressed an inclination to do likewise.
When it opened she looked up quite naturally, and surely no one suspected the wild leaping of her heart.
Nap entered—sleek, trim, complacent; followed by Bertie, whose brown face looked unmistakably sullen.
"Sorry we are late," drawled Nap, "Bertie will make our excuses."
But Bertie said nothing, and it was left to Mrs. Damer to step into the breach.
She did so quite gallantly, if somewhat clumsily. "I am very pleased to see you, Nap; but, you know, it was your brother whom we expected. I didn't so much as know that you were at home."
"Oh, quite so," smiled Nap. "Don't apologise—please!" He bent slightly over her hand. "So good of you not to mind the exchange. I know I am a poor substitute. But my brother is entertaining an old friend who has arrived unexpectedly, so I persuaded him to send me in his place. He charged me with all manner of excuses and apologies, which I have not delivered since I know them to be unnecessary."
Mrs. Damer found it impossible not to smile at his calm effrontery, even though she knew Major Shirley to be frowning behind her back.
"When did you return?" she asked. "Someone said you were in the States."
"I was," said Nap. "I returned half an hour ago; hence our late arrival, for which I humbly beg to apologise, and to entreat you not to blame Bertie, who, as you perceive, is still speechless with suspense."
"Oh, you Americans!" laughed Mrs. Damer. "You are never at a loss. Do let us go in to dinner. No, Nap! The doctor will take me. Will you take Miss Waring? But you won't be able to sit together. You have disarranged all my plans, so I shall treat you as of no importance."
"Miss Waring won't quarrel with either you or me on that account," commented Nap, as he offered his arm to the rector's daughter with ironical courtesy. "Come along, Miss Waring! Shut your eyes and bolt me. It will soon be over."
Dot was young enough to make a face at him, but the hard stare with which he countered it reduced her almost instantly to confusion. Whereupon he transferred his attention and looked at her no more.
But compensation was in store for her, for at the dinner-table she found herself placed between Bertie and the doctor, a pleasing situation in which she speedily recovered her spirits, since the doctor talked to his hostess, and Bertie's partner, Mrs. Shirley, strenuously occupied the attention of her host, who was seated on her other side.
Major Shirley fell as usual to Mrs. Randal, over which circumstance Anne, catching a tragic glance from the latter, failed somewhat conspicuously to repress a smile.
"Yes, it's mighty funny, isn't it?" said Nap, and with a sharp start she discovered that he was seated upon her right.
"I—didn't see you," she faltered.
"No?" he said coolly. "Well, it's all right. I was told to sit here—obviously decreed by the gods. You'll think me uncanny if I tell you that it was just this that I came for."
"You are uncanny," she said.
He made her a brief bow. It seemed to her that a mocking spirit gleamed in his eyes. She had never felt less confident of him, less at her ease with him, than at that moment. She felt as if in some subtle fashion, wholly beyond her comprehension, he were playing some deep-laid game, as if he were weaving some intricate web too secret and too intangible to be understood or grappled with. Upon one point only was she quite clear. He would suffer no reference to their last meeting. Whatever the effect of that terrible punishment upon him, he did not choose that she should see it. She had seen him in the utmost extremity of his humiliation, but she should never see the scars that were left.
This much of his attitude she could understand, and understanding could pardon that part which baffled her. But she could not feel at her ease.
"And so you are afraid," said Nap. "That's a new thing for you."
She glanced round the table. In the general hubbub of talk they were as isolated as though they were actually alone together.
"No," she said. "Why should I be afraid? But—I feel as if I am talking to—a stranger."
"Perhaps you are," said Nap.
He uttered a laugh she could not fathom, and then with a certain recklessness: "Permit me to present to your majesty," he said, "the Knave of Diamonds!"
There was that in his tone that hurt her vaguely, little as she understood it. She smiled with a hint of wistfulness.
"Surely I have met him before!" she said.
"Without knowing him," said Nap.
"No," she maintained. "I have known him for a long while now. I believe him to be my very good friend."
"What?" he said.
She glanced at him, half startled by the brief query; but instantly she looked away again with a curious, tingling sense of shock. For it was to her as though she had looked into the heart of a consuming fire.
"Aren't you rather behind the times?" he drawled. "That was—as you say—a long while ago."
The shock passed, leaving her strangely giddy, as one on the edge of inconceivable depth. She could say no word in answer. She was utterly and hopelessly at a loss.
With scarcely a pause Nap turned to Violet Shirley, who was seated on his right, and plunged without preliminary into a gay flirtation to which all the world was at liberty to listen if it could not approve. Ralph Waring, thus deprived of his rightful partner, solaced himself with Mrs. Randal, who was always easy to please; and the major on her other side relapsed into bearish gloom.
It was with unspeakable relief that Anne rose at length from that dinner-table. She had a deep longing to escape altogether, to go back to the quiet Manor, where at least all was peace. He had hurt her more subtly than she could have deemed possible. Had his friendship really meant so much to her? Or was it only her pride that suffered to think he valued hers so lightly? It seemed that he was fickle then, fickle as everyone declared him to be. And yet in her heart she did not for a moment believe it. That single glimpse she had had, past the gibing devil in his eyes, deep into the man himself, had told her something different.
He hated her then, he hated her as the cause of his downfall. This seemed the more likely. And yet—and yet—did she really believe this either?
"Dear Lady Carfax, do play to us!" urged her hostess. "It will be such a treat to hear you."
She rose half-mechanically and went to the piano, struck a few chords and began to play, still so deep in her maze of conjecture that she hardly knew what she had chosen.
Mrs. Randal came to sit near her. Mrs. Shirley edged close to Mrs. Damer and began to whisper. The two girls went softly into the conservatory.
Anne's fingers played on. Now and then Mrs. Randal spoke to her, thanked her or begged her to continue. But presently she moved away and Anne did not miss her. She was far too deeply engrossed in her own thoughts.
She started, every nerve suddenly on the alert.
"Don't stop playing!" he said, and as it were involuntarily she continued to play.
"I am coming to see you to-morrow," he went on. "What time would you like me to call?"
She was silent. But the blood had risen in a great wave to her face and neck. She could feel it racing in every vein.
"Won't you answer me?" he said. "Won't you fix a time?"
There was that in his voice that made her long earnestly to see his face, but she could not. With a great effort she answered:
"I am generally at home in the afternoon."
"Then will you be out to the rest of the world?" he said.
She stilled the wild tumult of her heart with desperate resolution. "I think you must take your chance of that."
"I am not taking any chances," he said. "I will come at the fashionable hour if you prefer it. But—"
He left the sentence unfinished with a significance that was more imperious than a definite command.
Anne's fingers were trembling over the keys. Sudden uncertainty seized her. She forgot what she was playing, forgot all in the overwhelming desire to see his face. She muffled her confusion in a few soft chords and turned round.
He was gone.
THE KERNEL OF THE DIFFICULTY
"I want to know!" said Capper, with extreme deliberation.
He was the best-known surgeon in the United States, and he looked like nothing so much as a seedy Evangelical parson. Hair, face, beard, all bore the same distinguishing qualities, were long and thin and yellow. He sat coiled like a much-knotted piece of string, and he seemed to possess the power of moving any joint in his body independently of the rest. He cracked his fingers persistently when he talked after a fashion that would have been intolerable in anyone but Capper. His hands were always in some ungainly attitude, and yet they were wonderful hands, strong and sensitive, the colour of ivory. His eyes were small and green, sharp as the eyes of a lizard. They seemed to take in everything and divulge nothing.
"What do you want to know?" said Lucas.
He was lying in bed with the spring sunshine full upon him. His eyes were drawn a little. He had just undergone a lengthy examination at the hands of the great doctor.
"Many things," said Capper, somewhat snappishly. "Chief among them, why your tomfool brother—you call him your brother, I suppose?—brought me over here on a fool's errand."
"He is my brother," said Lucas quietly. "And why a fool's errand? Is there something about my case you don't like?"
"There is nothing whatever," said Capper, with an exasperated tug at his pointed beard. "I could make a sound man of you. It wouldn't be easy. But I could do it—given one thing, which I shan't get. Is the sun bothering you?"
He suddenly left his chair, bent over and with infinite gentleness raised his patient to an easier posture and drew forward the curtain.
"I guess I won't talk to you now," he said. "I've given you as much as you can stand and then some already. How's that? Is it comfort?"
"Absolute," Lucas said with a smile. "Don't go, doctor. I am quite able to talk. I suppose matters haven't altered very materially since you saw me last?"
"I don't see why you should suppose that," said Capper. "As a matter of fact things have altered—altered considerably. Say, you don't have those fainting attacks any more?"
"No. I've learnt not to faint." There was a boyishly pathetic note about the words though the lips that uttered them still smiled.
Capper nodded comprehendingly. "But the pain is just as infernal, eh? Only you've the grit to stand against it. Remember the last time I overhauled you? You fainted twice. That's how I knew you would never face it. But I've hurt you worse to-day, and I'm damned if I know how you managed to come up smiling."
"Then why do you surmise that you have been brought here on a fool's errand?" Lucas asked.
"I don't surmise," said Capper. "I never surmise. I know." He began to crack his fingers impatiently, and presently fell to whistling below his breath. "No," he said suddenly, "you've got the physical strength and you've got the spunk to lick creation, but what you haven't got is zeal. You're gallant enough, Heaven knows, but you are not keen. You are passive, you are lethargic. And you ought to be in a fever!"
His fingers dropped abruptly upon Lucas's wrist, and tightened upon it. "That brother of yours that you're so fond of, now if it were he, I could pull him out of the very jaws of hell. He'd catch and hold. But you—you are too near the other place to care. Say, you don't care, do you, not a single red cent? It's all one to you—under Providence—whether you live or die. And if I operated on you to-morrow you'd die—not at once, but sooner or later—from sheer lack of enthusiasm. That's my difficulty. It's too long a business. You would never keep it up."
Lucas did not immediately reply. He lay in the stillness habitual to him, gazing with heavy eyes at the motes that danced in the sunshine.
"I guess I'm too old, doctor," he said at last. "But you are wrong in one sense. I do care. I don't want to die at present."
"Private reasons?" demanded Capper keenly.
"Not particularly. You see, I am the head of the family. I hold myself responsible. My brothers want looking after, more or less."
"Brothers!" sniffed Capper, with supreme contempt. "That consideration wouldn't keep you out of heaven. It's only another reason for holding back."
"Exactly," Lucas said quietly. "I don't know what Nap will say to me. He will call me a shirker. But on the whole, doctor, I think I must hold back a little longer."
"He'd better let me hear him!" growled Capper. "I wish to heaven you were married. That's the kernel of the difficulty. You want a wife. You'd be keen enough then. I shouldn't be afraid of your letting go when I wasn't looking."
"Ah!" Lucas said, faintly smiling. "But what of the wife?"
"She'd be in her element," maintained Capper stoutly. "She'd be to you what the mainspring is to a watch, and glory in it. Haven't you seen such women? I have, scores of 'em, ready made for the purpose. No, you will only go through my treatment with a woman to hold you up. It's a process that needs the utmost vitality, the utmost courage, and—something great to live for—a motive power behind to push you on. There's only one motive power that I can think of strong enough to keep you moving. And that is most unfortunately absent. Find the woman, I tell you, find the woman! And—under Providence—I'll do the rest!"
He dropped back in his chair, cracking his fingers fiercely, his keen eyes narrowly observant of every shade of expression on his patient's face.
Lucas was still smiling, but his eyes had grown absent. He looked unutterably tired.
"Yes," he said slowly at length. "I am afraid you have asked the impossible of me now. But, notwithstanding that, if I could see my way to it, I would place myself in your hands without reservation—and take my chance. There are times now and then—now and then—" his words quickened a little, "when a man would almost give the very soul out of his body to be at peace—to be at peace; times when it's downright agony to watch a fly buzzing up and down the pane and know he hasn't even the strength for that—when every muscle is in torture, and every movement means hell—" He broke off; his lips usually so steady had begun to twitch. "I'm a fool, Capper," he murmured apologetically. "Make allowances for a sick man!"
"Look here!" said Capper. "This is a big decision for you to make off-hand. You can take three months anyway to think it over. You are getting stronger, you know. By then you'll be stronger still. You won't be well. Nothing but surgical measures can ever make you well. And you'll go on suffering that infernal pain. But three months one way or another won't make much difference. I am due in London in September for the Schultz Medical Conference. I'll run over then and see if you've made up your mind."
"Will you, doctor? That's real kind of you." Lucas's eyes brightened. He stretched out a hand which Capper grasped and laid gently down. "And if you undertake the job—"
"If you are fit to go through it," Capper broke in, "I'll do it right away before I leave. You'll spend the winter on your back. And in the spring I'll come again and finish the business. That second operation is a more delicate affair than the first, but I don't consider it more dangerous. By this time next year, or soon after, you'll be walking like an ordinary human being. I'll have you as lissom as an Indian."
He cracked his fingers one after the other in quick succession and rose. A moment he stood looking down at the smooth face that had flushed unwontedly at his words; then bending, he lightly tapped his patient's chest. "Meanwhile, my friend," he said, "you keep a stiff upper lip, and cherchez la femme—cherchez la femme toujours! You'll be a sound man some day and she won't mind waiting if she's the right sort."
"Ah!" Lucas said. "You will have to forego that condition, doctor. I am no ladies' man. Shall I tell you what a woman said to me the other day?"
"That I was like a mother to her." Again without much mirth he smiled. His lips were steady enough now.
"I should like to meet that woman," said Capper.
The doctor's hand sought his beard. "P'r'aps she'd tell me I was like a father. Who knows?"
Lucas looked at him curiously. "Are you fond of women?"
"I adore them," said Capper without enthusiasm. He never satisfied curiosity.
Lucas's eyes fell away baffled. "I'll take you to see her this afternoon if you can spare the time," he said.
"Oh, I can spend the afternoon philandering so long as I catch the night train to Liverpool," Capper answered promptly. "Meanwhile you must get a rest while I go and take a dose of air and sunshine in the yard."
His straight, gaunt figure passed to the door, opened it, and disappeared with a directness wholly at variance with his lack of repose when seated.
As for Lucas, he lay quite still for a long while, steadily watching the motes that danced and swam giddily in the sunshine.
Nearly half an hour went by before he stirred at all. And then a heavy sigh burst suddenly from him, shaking his whole body, sending a flicker of pain across his drooping eyelids.
"Cherchez la femme!" he said to himself. And again with a quivering smile, "Cherchez la femme! God knows she isn't far to seek. But—my dear—my dear!"
THE FIRST ORDEAL
All the birds in the Manor garden were singing on that afternoon in May. The fruit trees were in bloom. The air was full of the indescribable fragrance of bursting flowers. There was no single note of sadness in all the splendid day. But the woman who paced slowly to and fro under the opening lilacs because she could not rest knew nothing of its sweetness.
The precious peace of the past few weeks had been snatched from her. She was face to face once more with the problem that had confronted her for a few horror-stricken minutes on that awful evening in March. Then she had thrust it from her. Since she had resolutely turned her back upon it. But to-day it was with her, and there was no escaping it. It glared at her whichever way she turned, a monster of destruction waiting to devour. And she was afraid, horribly, unspeakably afraid, with a fear that was neither physical nor cowardly, yet which set her very soul a-trembling.
Restlessly she wandered up and down, up and down. It was a day for dreams, but she was terribly and tragically awake.
When Nap Errol came to her at length with his quick, light tread that was wary and noiseless as a cat's, she knew of his coming long before he reached her, was vividly, painfully aware of him before she turned to look. Yesterday she had longed to look him in the face, but to-day she felt she dared not.
Slim and active he moved across the grass, and there came to her ears a slight jingle of spurs. He had ridden then. A sudden memory of the man's free insolence in the saddle swept over her, his domination, his imperial arrogance. Turning to meet him, she knew that she was quivering from head to foot.
He came straight up to her, halted before her. "Have you no welcome for me?" he said.
By sheer physical effort she compelled herself to face him, to meet the fierce, challenging scrutiny which she knew awaited her. She held out her hand to him. "I am always glad to see you, Nap," she said.
He took her hand in a sinewy, compelling grip. "Although you prefer good men," he said.
The ground on which she stood seemed to be shaking, yet she forced herself to smile, ignoring his words.
"Let us go and sit down," she said.
Close by was a seat under a great lilac tree in full purple bloom. She moved to it and sat down, but Nap remained upon his feet, watching her still.
The air was laden with perfume—the wonderful indescribable essences of spring. Away in the distance, faintly heard, arose the bleating of lambs. Near at hand, throned among the purple flowers above their heads, a thrush was pouring out the rapture that thrilled his tiny life. The whole world pulsed to the one great melody—the universal, wordless song. Only the man and the woman were silent as intruders in a sacred place.
Anne moved at last. She looked up very steadily, and spoke. "It seems like holy ground," she said.
Her voice was hushed, yet it had in it a note of pleading. Her eyes besought him.
And in answer Nap leaned down with a sudden, tigerish movement and laid his hand on hers. "What have I to do with holiness?" he said. "Anne, come down from that high pedestal of yours! I'm tired of worshipping a goddess. I want a woman—a woman! I shall worship you none the less because I hold you in my arms."
It was done. The spell was broken. Those quick, passionate words had swept away her last hope of escape. She was forced to meet him face to face, to meet him and to do battle.
For a long second she sat quite still, almost as if stunned. Then sharply she turned her face aside, as one turns from the unbearable heat and radiance when the door of a blast-furnace is suddenly opened.
"Oh, Nap," she said, and there was a sound of heart-break in her words, "What a pity! What a pity!"
"Why?" he demanded fiercely. "I have the right to speak—to claim my own. Are you going to deny it—you who always speak the truth?"
"You have no right," she answered, still with her face averted. "No man has ever the faintest right to say to another man's wife what you have just said to me."
"And you think I will give you up," he said, "for that?"
She did not at once reply. Only after a moment she freed her hands from his hold, and the action seemed to give her strength. She spoke, her voice very clear and resolute. "I am not going to say anything unkind to you. You have already borne too much for my sake. But—you must know that this is the end of everything. It is the dividing of the ways—where we must say good-bye."
"Is it?" he said. He looked down at her with his brief, thin-lipped smile. "Then—if that's so—look at me—look at me, Anne, and tell me that you don't love me!"
She made an almost convulsive gesture of protest and sat silent.
For a little he waited. Then, "That being so," he said very deliberately, "there is no power on earth—I swear—I swear—that shall ultimately come between us!"
"Oh, hush!" she said. "Hush!" She turned towards him, her face white and agitated. "I will not listen to you, Nap. I cannot listen to you! You must go."
She stretched a hand towards him appealingly, and he caught it, crushing it against his breast. For a moment he seemed about to kneel, and then he altered his purpose and drew her to her feet. Again she was aware of that subtle, mysterious force within him, battling with her, seeking to dominate, to conquer, to overwhelm her. Again there came to her that sense of depth, depth unutterable, appalling. She seemed to totter on the very edge of the pit of destruction.
Very quietly at length his voice came to her. It held just a touch of ridicule. "What! Still doing sacrifice to the great god Convention? My dear girl, but you are preposterous! Do you seriously believe that I will suffer that drunken maniac to come between us—now?"
He flung his head back with the words. His fiery eyes seemed to scorch her. And overhead the rapturous bird-voice pealed forth a perfect paean of victory.
But Anne stood rigid, unresponsive as an image of stone. "He is my husband," she said.
She felt his hand tighten upon hers, till the pressure was almost more than she could endure. "You never felt a spark of love for him!" he said. "You married him—curse him!—against your will!"
"Nevertheless, I married him," she said.
He showed his teeth for a moment, and was silent. Then imperiously he swept up his forces for the charge. "These things are provided for in the States," he said. "If you won't come to me without the sanction of the law, I will wait while you get it. I will wait till you are free—till I can make you my lawful wife. That's a fair offer anyway." He began to smile. "See what a slave you have made of me!" he said. "I've never offered any woman marriage before."