But Anne broke in upon him almost fiercely. "Oh, don't you know me better than that?" she said. "Nap, I am not the sort of woman to throw off the yoke like that. It is true that I never loved him, and I do not think that I shall ever live with him again. But still—I married him, and while he lives I shall never be free—never, never!"
"Yet you are mine," he said.
She sought to free her hand, but he kept it. "Look at me!" he said. "Do you remember that day in March—the day you saw me whipped like a dog?"
Involuntarily she raised her eyes to his. "Oh, don't!" she whispered, shuddering. "Don't!"
But he persisted. "You felt that thrashing far more than I did, though it made a murderer of me. You were furious for my sake. Did you never ask yourself why?" Then in a lower voice, bending towards her, "Do you think I didn't know the moment I saw your face above mine? Do you think I didn't feel the love in your arms, holding me up? Do you think it isn't in your eyes—even now?"
"Oh, hush!" she said again piteously. "Nap, you are hurting me. I cannot bear it. Even if it were so, love—true love—is a sacred thing—not to be turned into sin."
"Sin!" he said. "What is sin? Is it sin to fulfil the very purpose for which you were created?"
But at that she winced so sharply that he knew he had gone too far. It was characteristic of the man that he made no attempt to recover lost ground.
"I'm a wicked pagan no doubt," he said, with a touch of recklessness. "Everyone will tell you so. I fancy I've told you so myself more than once. Yet you needn't shrink as if I were unclean. I have done nothing that you would hate me for since I have known you."
He paused and seemed to listen, then very quietly released her hand. A curious expression flickered across his face as he did so, and a little chill went through her. It was like the closing of the furnace door.
"I am going," he said. "But I shall come back—I shall come back." His smile, sudden and magnetic, gleamed for an instant and was gone.
"Do you remember the missing heart?" he said "There are some things that I never forget."
And so, without farewell, he turned and left her, moving swiftly and easily over the grass. She heard the jingle of his spurs, but no sound of any footfall as he went.
THE FATAL STREAK
Anne looked up with a start. She had been sitting with closed eyes under the lilac tree.
Dimsdale, discreet and deferential as ever, stood before her.
"Mr. Lucas Errol is here," he told her, "with another gentleman. I knew your ladyship would wish to be at home to him."
"Oh, certainly," she answered, rising. "I am always at home to Mr. Lucas Errol. Please tell him I am coming immediately."
But she did not instantly follow Dimsdale. She stood instead quite motionless, with her face to the sky, breathing deeply.
When she turned at length she had recovered all her customary serenity. With the quiet dignity peculiar to her, she passed up the garden path, leaving the thrush still singing, singing, singing, behind her.
She found her visitors in the drawing-room, which she entered by the open window. Lucas greeted her with his quiet smile and introduced Capper—"a very great friend of mine, and incidentally the finest doctor in the U.S.A."
She shook hands with the great man, feeling the small green eyes running over her, and conscious that she blushed under their scrutiny. She wondered why, with a vague feeling of resentment. She also wondered what had moved Lucas to bring him.
As she sat at the tea-table and dispensed hospitality to her guests it was Lucas who kept the conversation going. She thought he seemed in wonderful spirits despite the heavy droop of his eyelids.
Capper sat in almost unbroken silence, studying his hostess so perpetually that Anne's nerves began to creak at last under the strain.
Quite suddenly at length he set down his cup. "Lady Carfax," he said abruptly, "I'm told you have a herb garden, and I'm just mad on herbs. Will you take me to see it while Lucas enjoys a much-needed and well-earned rest?"
Anne glanced up in surprise. They were almost the first words he had spoken. Capper was already upon his feet. He stood impatiently cracking his fingers one by one.
She rose. "Of course I will do so with pleasure if Mr. Errol doesn't mind."
"Certainly not, Lady Carfax," smiled Lucas. "I am extremely comfortable. Pray give him what he wants. It is the only way to pacify him."
Anne smiled and turned to the window. They went out together into the golden spring evening.
The herb garden was some distance from the house. Capper strode along in silence, with bent brows. More than ever Anne wondered what had brought him. She did not try to make conversation for him, realising by instinct that such effort would be vain as well as unwelcome. She merely walked quietly beside him, directing their steps whither he had desired to go.
They were out of sight of the house before he spoke. "Say, madam, I'm told you know the Errol family off by heart without needing to look 'em up."
She glanced at him in surprise. "Of course I know them. Yes, I know them all."
"Well?" he demanded.
"Oh, quite well." Almost involuntarily she began to explain the intimacy. "I was taken to their house after a hunting accident, and I was an invalid there for several weeks."
"That so?" Again piercingly the American's eyes scanned her. "You're real friendly then? With which in particular?"
She hesitated momentarily. Then, "I am very fond of Mrs. Errol," she said, speaking very quietly. "But Nap was my first friend, and afterwards Lucas—"
There was such withering contempt in the exclamation that she had perforce to remark it.
"Nap is evidently no favourite with you," she said.
He raised his brows till they nearly met his hair. "Nap, my dear lady," he drily observed, "is doubtless all right in his own sphere. It isn't mine, and it isn't yours. I came over to this country at his request and in his company, and a queerer devil it has never been my lot to encounter. But what can you expect? I've never yet seen him in a blanket and moccasins, but I imagine that he'd be considerably preferable that way. I guess he's just a fish out of water on this side of civilisation."
"What can you mean?" Anne said.
For the second time that afternoon she felt as if the ground beneath her had begun to tremble. She looked up at him with troubled eyes. Surely the whole world was rocking!
"I mean what I say, madam," he told her curtly. "It's a habit of mine. There is a powerful streak of red in Nap Errol's blood, or I am much mistaken."
"Ah!" Anne said, and that was all. In a flash she understood him. She felt as if he had performed some ruthless operation upon her, and she was too exhausted to say more. Unconsciously her hand pressed her heart. It was beating strangely, spasmodically; sometimes it did not beat at all. For she knew beyond all doubting that what he said was true.
"I don't say the fellow is an out-and-out savage," Capper was saying. "P'r'aps he'd be more tolerable if he were. But the fatal streak is there. Never noticed it? I thought you women noticed everything. Oh, I can tell you he's made things hum on our side more times than I've troubled to count. Talk of the devil in New York and you very soon find the conversation drifting round to Nap Errol. Now and then he has a lapse into sheer savagery, and then there is no controlling him. It's just as the fit takes him. He's never to be trusted. It's an ineradicable taint."
She shivered at the words, but still she did not speak.
Capper went unconcernedly on. "I fancy Lucas once thought he was going to make a gentleman of him. A gentleman, ye gods! Teach a tiger to sit up and beg! He has a most amazing patience, but I guess even he realises by now that the beast is untamable. Mrs. Errol saw it long ago. There's a fine woman for you—A.1., gilt-edged, quality of the best. You know Mrs. Errol, you say?"
"Yes, I know her." Anne heard the words, but was not conscious of uttering them.
Capper gave her a single straight look. "You wouldn't think, would you," said he, "that that woman carries a broken heart about with her? But I assure you that's so. Nap Errol was the tragedy of her life."
That quickened her to interest. She was conscious of a gradual sinking downwards of her dismay till it came to rest somewhere deep in her inmost soul, leaving the surface free for other impressions.
"He came out of nowhere," Capper went on. "She never tried to account for him. He was her husband's son. She made him hers. But he's been a tiger's cub all his life, a hurricane, a firebrand. He and Bertie are usually at daggers drawn and Lucas spends his time keeping the peace; which is about as wearing an occupation for a sick man as I can imagine. I want to put a stop to it, Lady Carfax. I speak as one family friend to another. Lucas seems to like you. I believe you could make him see reason if you took the trouble. Women are proverbially ingenious."
Anne's faint smile showed for a moment. They had entered the herb garden and were passing slowly down the central path. It was a small enclosure surrounded by clipped yew hedges and intersected by green walks. The evening sunlight slanting down upon her, had turned her brown hair to ruddiest gold. There was no agitation about her now. The grey eyes were gravely thoughtful.
She bent presently to pluck a sprig of rosemary. "Will you tell me," she said, "what it is that you want to do?"
Capper shot her a keen side-glance. "I want to cure him," he said. "I want to make a whole man of him."
"Could you?" she asked.
"I could." Abruptly Capper stopped. His yellow face was curiously aglow. "I say I could," he asserted almost fiercely, "if I could choose my conditions. If I could banish that pestilent brother of his, if I could rouse him to something like energy, if I could turn his will in one direction only, I could do it. Given his whole-hearted co-operation, I could do it. Without it, I am powerless. He would simply die of inanition."
"It would mean an operation then? A very serious one?" Anne had paused upon the green path. Her eyes sought Capper's.
He answered her with curt directness. "My dear lady, it would mean not one, but two. I won't trouble you with technical details which you wouldn't understand. Put briefly, it would mean in the first place a pulling down and in the second a building up. Both operations would be a serious tax upon his strength, but I am satisfied that he has the strength for both. Six months would elapse between the two, and during that time he would be flat on his back. If he could hold on for those six months he would come through all right. Of that I am convinced. But those six months are my stumbling-block. Freedom from all anxiety is essential. He wants a stanch friend continually beside him to keep him cheery and at peace. That fellow Nap is the principle obstacle. He stirs up hell and tommy wherever he goes, and he's never absent for long. Lucas himself admits that his brothers are a care to him. Oh, it's all an infernal tangle. I sometimes think family ties are the very deuce."
Capper tugged at his beard with restless fingers and ground his heel into the turf.
"If you consider Nap an obstacle—why don't you speak to him?" Anne asked in her quiet voice.
Capper shrugged his shoulders. "He hates me—and small wonder! I've told him the brutal truth too often."
Anne passed the matter by. "And Lucas does not wish to undergo the operation?"
"That's just the infernal part of it!" burst forth Capper. "He would undergo it to-morrow if he didn't consider himself indispensable to these young whelps. But that isn't all. Lady Carfax, he wants help. He wants someone strong to stand by. I believe you could do it—if you would. You are the sort of woman that men turn to in trouble. I've been watching you. I know."
Again very faintly Anne smiled, with more of patience than amusement. "Dr. Capper, has Lucas been telling you about me?"
Capper thrust out a hand. "Yes."
"You know how I am situated?" she questioned.
"I do." There was no sympathy in Capper's voice or face; only in the grasp of his hand.
"And you think I could be of use to him?"
"I don't think," said Capper. "I know." He released her hand as abruptly as he had taken it. His long fingers began to curve and crack mechanically. "I'll tell you something," he said. "Don't know why I should, but I will. I love Lucas Errol as if he were my son."
"Ah!" Anne said gently. "I think we all love him in our different ways."
"That so?" said the American keenly. "Then I shall leave the matter in your charge, Lady Carfax. I can see you're a capable woman. I'm coming back in September to perform that operation. You will have a willing patient ready for me—by willing I mean something gayer than resigned—and my bugbear, Nap—that most lurid specimen of civilised devilry—hunting scalps on the other side of the Atlantic."
"Oh, I don't know!" Anne said quickly. "I don't know!"
She spoke breathlessly, as one suddenly plunged into a strong current. Her face was bent over the sprig of rosemary which she was threading in her dress. Her fingers were trembling.
Capper watched her silently.
"Let me!" he said at last.
He took the sprig from her with a hand that was perfectly steady, held it a moment, seemed to hesitate, finally withdrew it and planted it in his own buttonhole.
"I guess I'll keep it myself," he said, "with your permission, in memory of a good woman."
Anne commanded herself and looked up. "Keep it, by all means," she said. "But do not expect too much from me. No woman is always good. The best of us fail sometimes."
"But you will do your best when the time comes?" he said, in a tone that was a curious blend of demand and entreaty.
She met his eyes quite fully. "Yes," she said, "I will do my best."
"Then I'm not afraid," said Capper. "We shall pull him through between us. It will be a miracle, of course, but"—a sudden smile flashed across his face, transforming him completely—"miracles happen, Lady Carfax."
Slowly Anne drew aside the curtain and looked forth into the night, a magic night, soft and wonderful, infinitely peaceful. A full moon shone high in the sky with an immense arc of light around it, many-rayed, faintly prismatic. There was the scent of coming rain in the air, but no clouds were visible. The stars were dim and remote, almost quenched in that flood of moonlight.
Across the quiet garden came the song of a nightingale in one of the shrubberies, now soft and far like the notes of a fairy flute, now close at hand and filling the whole world with music. Anne stood, a silent listener, on the edge of the magic circle.
She had just risen from the piano, where for the past hour or more she had been striving to forget the fever that burned within. Now at last she had relinquished the piteous, vain attempt, and utterly wearied she stood drinking in the spring sweetness.
It was drawing towards midnight, and all but herself had retired. She knew she ought to bolt the window and go to rest also; only she knew, too, that no rest awaited her. The silver peace into which she gazed was like balm to her tired spirit, but yet she could only stand, as it were, upon the edge.
A great longing was upon her, a voiceless, indescribable desire, that made within her so deep a restlessness that no outside influence seemed able to touch it. She leaned her head against the window-frame, conscious of suffering but scarcely aware of thought.
With no effort of hers the events of that afternoon passed before her. She heard again the ardent voice of the friend who had become the lover. He had loved her from the first, it seemed, and she had not known it. Could it be that she had loved him also, all unknowing?
There came again to her the memory of those fierce, compelling eyes, the dogged mastery with which he had fought her resolution, the sudden magic softening of the harsh face when he smiled. There came again the passionate thrilling of his voice; again her hands tingled in that close grip; again she thought she felt the beating of the savage heart.
She raised her arms above her head with the gesture of one who wards off something immense, but they fell almost immediately. She was so tired—so tired. She had fought so hard and so long. Oh, why was there no peace for her? What had she done to be thus tortured? Why had love come to her at all? In all her barren life she had never asked for love.
And now that it had come it was only to be ruthlessly dashed against the stones. What had she to do with love—love, moreover, for a man who could offer her but the fiery passion of a savage, a man from whom her every instinct shrank, who mocked at holy things and overthrew all barriers of convention with a cynicism that silenced all protest. What—ah, what indeed!—had she to do with love?
She had lived a pure life. She had put out the fires of youth long ago, with no hesitating hand. She had dwelt in the desert, and made of it her home. Was it her fault that those fires had been kindled afresh? Was she to blame because the desert had suddenly blossomed? Could she be held responsible for these things, she who had walked in blindness till the transforming miracle had touched her also and opened her eyes?
She shivered a little. Oh, for a helping hand! Oh, for a deliverer from this maze of misery!
She saw again the quiet garden lying sleeping before her in the moonlight, and felt as if God must be very far away. She was very terribly alone that night.
The impulse came to her to pass out into the dewy stillness, and she obeyed it, scarcely knowing what she did. Over the silver grass, ghost-like, she moved. It was as if a voice had called her. On to the lilac trees with their burden of fragrant blossoms, where the thrush had raised his song of rapture, where she had faced that first fiery ordeal of love.
She reached the bench where she had sat that afternoon. There was not a leaf that stirred. The nightingale's song sounded away in the distance. The midnight peace lay like a shroud upon all things. But suddenly fear stabbed her, piercing every nerve to quivering activity. She knew—how, she could not have said—that she was no longer alone.
She stood quite still, but the beating of her heart rose quick and insistent in her ears, like the beat of a drum. Swift came the conviction that it was no inner impulse that had brought her hither. She had obeyed a voice that called.
For many seconds she stood motionless, not breathing, not daring to turn her head. Then, as her strength partially returned, she took two steps forward to the seat under the lilac tree, and, her hand upon the back of it, she spoke.
He came, gliding like a shadow behind her. Slowly she turned and faced him.
He was still in riding-dress. She heard again the faint jingle of his spurs. Yet the moonlight shone strangely down upon him, revealing in him something foreign, something incongruous, that she marvelled that she had never before noticed. The fierce, dusky face with its glittering eyes and savage mouth was oddly unfamiliar to her, though she knew it all by heart. In imagination she clothed him with the blanket and moccasins of Capper's uncouth speech; and she was afraid.
She did not know how to break the silence. The heart within her was leaping like a wild thing in captivity.
"Why are you here?" she said at last, and she knew that her voice shook.
He answered her instantly, with a certain doggedness. "I want to know what Capper has been saying to you."
She started almost guiltily. Her nerves were on edge that night.
"You may as well tell me," he said coolly. "Sooner or later I am bound to know."
With an effort she quieted her agitation. "Then it must be later," she said. "I cannot stay to talk with you now."
"Why not?" he said.
Desperately she faced him, for her heart still quaked within her. The shock of Capper's revelation was still upon her. He had come to her too soon. "Nap," she said, "I ask you to leave me, and I mean it. Please go!"
But he only drew nearer to her, and she saw that his face was stern. He thrust it forward, and regarded her closely.
"So," he said slowly, "he has told you all about me, has he?"
She bent her head. It was useless to attempt to evade the matter now.
"I am mightily obliged to him," said Nap. "I wanted you to know."
Anne was silent.
After a moment he went on. "I meant to have told you myself. I even began to tell you once, but somehow you put me off. It was that night at Baronmead—you remember?—the night you wanted to help me."
Well she remembered that night—the man's scarcely veiled despair, his bitter railing against the ironies of life. So this had been the meaning of it all. A thrill of pity went through her.
"Yes," he said. "I knew you'd be sorry for me. I guess pity is about the cheapest commodity on the market. But—you'll hardly believe it—I don't want your pity. After all, a man is himself, and it can't be of much importance where he springs from—anyway, to the woman who loves him."
He spoke recklessly, and yet she seemed to detect a vein of entreaty in his words. She steeled her heart against it, but it affected her none the less.
"Nap," she said firmly, "there must be no more talk of love between us. I told you this afternoon that I would not listen, and I will not. Do you understand me? It must end here and now. I am in earnest."
"You don't say!" said Nap.
He was standing close to her, and again fear stabbed her—fear that was almost abhorrence. There was something about him that was horribly suggestive of a menacing animal.
"I am in earnest," she said again. But she could not meet his eyes any longer. She dared not let him read her soul just then.
"I am in earnest too," said Nap. "But you needn't be afraid of me on that account. I may be a savage, but I'm not despicable. If I take more than you are prepared to offer it's only because I know it to be my own." He bent towards her, trying to see her face. "My own, Anne!" he said again very softly. "My own!"
But at his movement she drew back sharply, with a gesture of such instinctive, such involuntary recoil, that in an instant she knew that she had betrayed that which she had sought to hide.
He stiffened as if at a blow, and she saw his hands clench. In the silence that followed she stood waiting for the storm to burst, waiting for his savagery to tear asunder all restraining bonds and leap forth in devilish fury. But—by what means she knew not—he held it back.
"So," he said at last, his voice very low, "the Queen has no further use for her jester!"
Her heart smote her. What had she done? She felt as if she had cruelly wounded a friend. But because he demanded of her more than friendship, she dared not attempt to allay the hurt. She stood silent.
"Can't you find another role for me?" he said. "You will find it difficult to exclude me altogether from the cast."
Something in his tone pierced her, compelled her. She glanced up swiftly, met his eyes, and was suddenly caught, as it were, in fiery chains, so that she could not look away. And there before her the gates of hell opened, and she saw a man's soul in torment. She saw the flames mount higher and higher, scorching and shrivelling and destroying, till at last she could bear the sight no longer. She covered her face with her hands and blotted it out.
"Oh, Nap," she moaned, "if you love me—if you love me—"
"If I love you—" he said.
He put his hand on her shoulder and she trembled from head to foot.
"Prove your love!" she whispered, her face still hidden.
He stood awhile motionless, still with his hand upon her. But at last it fell away.
"You doubt my love then?" he said, and his voice sounded strange to her, almost cold. "You think my love is unworthy of you? You have—lost faith in me?"
She was silent.
"Is it so?" he persisted. "Tell me the truth. I may as well know it. You think—because I am not what Capper would, term a thoroughbred—that I am incapable of love. Isn't that so?"
But still she did not answer him. Only, being free, she turned to the garden-seat and sank down upon it, her arms stretched along the back, her head bowed low.
He began to pace up and down like a caged animal, pausing each time he passed her, and each time moving on again as if invisibly urged. At last very suddenly he stopped with his back to her, and stood like a statue in the moonlight.
She did not look at him. She was too near the end of her strength. Her heart was beating very slowly, like a run-down watch. She felt like an old, old woman, utterly tired of life. And she was cold—cold from head to foot.
Minutes passed. Somewhere away in the night an owl hooted, and Nap turned his head sharply, as one accustomed to take note of every sound. A while longer he stood, seeming to listen, every limb alert and tense, then swiftly he wheeled and gazed full at the drooping woman's figure on the bench.
Slowly his attitude changed. Something that was bestial went out of it; something that was human took its place. Quietly at length he crossed the moonlit space that intervened between them, reached her, knelt beside her.
"Anne," he said, and all her life she remembered the deep melancholy of his voice, "I am a savage—a brute—a devil. But I swear that I have it in me to love you—as you deserve to be loved. Won't you have patience with me? Won't you give me a chance—the only chance I've ever had—of getting above myself, of learning what love can be? Won't you trust me with your friendship once more? Believe me, I'm not all brute."
She thrilled like a dead thing waked to life. Her dread of the man passed away like an evil dream, such was the magic he had for her. She slipped one of her cold hands down to him.
He caught it, bowed his head upon it, pressed it against his eyes, then lifted his face and looked up at her.
"It is not the end then? You haven't given me up in disgust?"
And she answered him in the only way possible to her. "I will be your friend still, only—only let there never again be any talk of love between us. That alone will end our friendship. Can I trust you? Nap, can I?"
He jerked back his head at the question, and showed her his face in the full moonlight. And she saw that his eyes were still and passionless, unfathomable as a mountain pool.
"If you can bring yourself—if you will stoop—to kiss me," he said, "I think you will know."
She started at the words, but she knew instantly that she had nought to fear. His voice was as steady as his eyes. He asked this thing of her as a sign of her forgiveness, of her friendship, of her trust; and every generous impulse urged her to grant it. She knew that if she refused he would get up and go away, cut to the heart. She seemed to feel him pleading with her, earnestly beseeching her, reasoning against prejudice, against the shackles of conventionality, against reason itself. And through it all her love for the man throbbed at the very heart of her, overriding all doubt.
She leaned towards him; she laid her hands upon his shoulders.
"In token of my trust!" she said, and bent to kiss his forehead.
But he gave her his lips instead—the thin, cynical lips that were wont to smile so bitterly. There was no bitterness about them now. They were only grave to sternness. And so, after a moment, she kissed him as he wished, and he kissed her in return.
Afterwards, he rose in unbroken silence, and went away.
THE BURIAL OF A HATCHET
During the weeks that followed, something of her former tranquillity came back to Anne. It was evident that Nap was determined to show himself worthy of her trust, for never by word or look did he make the slightest reference to what had passed between them. He came and went after his customary sudden fashion. He never informed any one of his movements, nor did even Lucas know when he might be expected at Baronmead. But his absences were never of long duration, and Anne met him fairly frequently.
She herself was more at leisure now than she had been for years, for Lucas had found an agent for her and the sole care of her husband's estate no longer lay upon her. She spent much of her time with Mrs. Errol. Her happiest hours were those she spent with Lucas and his mother in the great music-room at Baronmead. It was here also that she learned to know of that hidden, vital quantity, elusive as flame, that was Nap Errol's soul. For here he would often join them, and the music he drew from his violin, weirdly passionate, with a pathos no words could ever utter, was to Anne the very expression of the man's complex being. There were times when she could hardly hear that wild music of his without tears. It was like the crying of something that was lost.
Often, after having accompanied him for a long time, she would take her hands from the piano and sit silent with a strange and bitter sense of impotence, as if he were leading whither she could not follow. And Nap would play on and on in the quiet room, as though he played for her alone, with the sure hand of a master upon the quivering strings of her woman's heart.
But he never spoke to her of love. His eyes conveyed no message at any time. His straight gaze was impenetrable. He never even touched her hand unless she offered it to him. And gradually her confidence in him grew stronger. The instinct that bade her beware of him ceased to disquiet her. She found herself able to meet him without misgiving, believing that he had conquered himself for her sake, believing that he bowed to the inevitable and was willing to content himself with her friendship.
Undoubtedly a change had passed over him. Lucas was aware of it also, felt it in his very touch, marked it a hundred times in the gentleness of his speech and action. He attributed it to the influence of a good woman. It seemed that Nap had found his soul at last.
Bertie alone marked it with uneasiness, but Bertie was no impartial critic. He had distrusted Nap, not without reason, from his boyhood. But matters of a more personal nature were occupying his attention at that time, and he did not bestow much of it upon home affairs. For some reason he had begun to study in earnest, and was reading diligently for the English Bar.
Perhaps Mrs. Errol could have pierced the veil of civilisation in which Nap had wrapped himself had she desired to do so, but she was the last person in the world to attempt such an invasion. There never had been the faintest streak of sympathy between them. Neither was there any tangible antagonism, for each by mutual consent avoided all debatable ground. But there existed very curiously a certain understanding each of the other which induced respect if it did not inspire confidence. Without deliberately avoiding each other they yet never deliberately came in contact, and, though perfectly friendly in their relations, neither ever offered to cross the subtle dividing line that stretched between them. They were content to be acquaintances merely.
Anne often marvelled in private at Mrs. Errol's attitude towards her adopted son, but the subject was never mentioned between them. Often she would recall Capper's words and wonder if they had expressed the literal truth. She wondered, too, what Capper would say to his ally when he returned at the end of the summer and found the charge he had laid upon her unfulfilled. But, after all, Capper was scarcely more than a stranger, and it seemed to her, upon mature reflection, that he had been inclined to exaggerate the whole matter. She did not believe that Lucas's welfare depended upon Nap's absence. Indeed, there were times when it actually seemed to her that he relied upon Nap for support that none other could give. Moreover, he was growing daily stronger, and this of itself seemed proof sufficient that Nap was at least no hindrance to his progress. She knew also that Nap was using his utmost influence to persuade him to undergo the operation when Capper should return in September; but she had no opportunity for furthering his efforts, for Lucas never referred to the matter in her hearing. If he had yet made his decision he imparted it to none. He seemed to her to be like a soldier awaiting orders to move, with that steadfast patience which had become his second nature. She knew that he would never act upon impulse, and she admired him for it.
Dot, who heard all from Bertie, wondered how he could ever hesitate. But Dot was young and possessed of an abundant energy which knew no flagging. Her vigorous young life was full of schemes, and she knew not what it was to stand and wait. She was keenly engaged just then in company with Mrs. Damer, Mrs. Randal, and a few more, in organising an entertainment in support of the Town Hall and Reading Club, to which Lucas Errol had promised his liberal support. It was no secret that he had offered to supply the whole of the necessary funds, but, as Dot remarked, it was not to be a charity and Baronford was not so poor-spirited as to be entirely dependent upon American generosity. So Lucas was invited to give his substantial help after Baronford had helped itself, which Dot was fully determined it should do to the utmost of its capacity.
Many schemes were in consequence discussed and rejected before the Town Hall Committee finally decided in favour of amateur theatricals.
Here again Lucas Errol's assistance was cordially invited, since no place suitable for such an entertainment existed in Baronford. It was naively intimated to him by Dot that he might provide the theatre and the scenery, so that the profits might be quite unencumbered.
Lucas forthwith purchased an enormous marquee (the cost of which far exceeded any possible profits from the projected entertainment), which he had erected upon his own ground under Dot's superintendence, and thenceforth preparations went gaily forward; not, however, without many a hitch, which Lucas generally managed directly or indirectly to smooth away.
It was Lucas who pressed Nap into the service as stage-manager, a post which had been unanimously urged upon himself, but for which he declared himself to be morally and physically unfit. It was Lucas who persuaded Anne to accept a minor role though fully aware that she would have infinitely preferred that of onlooker. He had taken her under his protection on that night in March, and he had never relinquished the responsibility then assumed. With a smile, as was his wont with all, he asserted his authority, and with a smile, in common with all who knew him, she yielded even against her own strong inclination.
Nap laughed when he heard of it, despite the fact that he had himself yielded to the same power.
"You seem to find Luke irresistible," he said.
"I do," she admitted simply. "He is somehow too magnificent to refuse. Surely you have felt the same?"
"I?" said Nap. "Oh, I always do what I am told. He rules me with a rod of iron."
Glancing at him, she had a momentary glimpse of a curious, wistful expression on his face that made her vaguely sorry.
Instinctively she went on speaking as if she had not seen it. "I think with Bertie that he is a born king among men. He is better than good. He is great. One feels it even in trifles. He has such an immense patience."
"Colossal," said Nap, and smiled a twisted smile. "That is why he is everybody's own and particular pal. He takes the trouble to find out what's inside. One wonders what on earth he finds to interest him. There's so mighty little in human nature that's worthy of study."
"I don't agree with you," Anne said in her quiet, direct way.
He laughed again and turned the subject. He was always quick to divine her wishes, and to defer to them. Their intercourse never led them through difficult places, a fact which Anne was conscious that she owed to his consideration rather than to her own skill.
She was glad for more than one reason that Lucas had not pressed a very onerous part upon her. She had a suspicion, very soon confirmed, that Nap as stage-manager would prove no indulgent task-master. He certainly would not spare himself, nor would he spare anyone else.
Disputes were rife when he first assumed command, and she wondered much if he would succeed in establishing order, for he possessed none of his brother's winning charm of manner and but a very limited popularity. But Nap showed himself from the outset fully equal to his undertaking. He grappled with one difficulty after another with a lightning alertness, a prompt decision, which soon earned for him the respect of his unruly subordinates. He never quarrelled, neither did he consider the feelings of any. A cynical comment was the utmost he ever permitted himself in the way of retaliation, but he held his own unerringly, evolving order from confusion with a masterly disregard of opposition that carried all before it.
Dot, who was not without a very decided prejudice in favour of her own way, literally gasped in astonishment at his methods. She would have liked to defy him openly a dozen times in a day, but Nap simply would not be defied. He looked over her head with disconcerting arrogance, and Dot found herself defeated and impotent. Dot had been selected for an important part, and it was not very long before she came bitterly to regret the fact. He did not bully her, but he gave her no peace. Over and over again he sent her back to the same place; and over and over again he found some fresh fault, till there came at length a day when Dot, weary and exasperated, subsided suddenly in the midst of rehearsal into indignant tears.
Nap merely raised his eyebrows and turned his attention elsewhere, while Anne drew the sobbing girl away, and tried to soothe her back to composure in privacy.
But it was some time before Dot would be comforted. Her grievance against Nap was very deeply rooted, and it needed but this additional provocation to break its bounds. It was not long before, clinging very tightly to Anne, the whole story came out; how she and Bertie loved each other "better than best," how no one was to know of it and they scarcely dared to exchange a glance in public in consequence, how there could never, never be any engagement, all because that horrid, horrid Nap had dared to hint that she was pursuing Bertie for his money.
"I hate him!" sobbed Dot. "I do hate him! He's cruel and malicious and vindictive. I know he means to prevent our ever being happy together. And—and I know Bertie's afraid of him—and so am I!"
To all of which Anne listened with grave sympathy and such words of comfort as seemed most likely to induce in Dot a calmer and more reasonable state of mind.
But Dot was not to be reassured quickly. It was very seldom that her equanimity was disturbed, only in fact when her deepest feelings were concerned, and this made her breakdown the more complete. She apologised tearfully for her foolishness at rehearsal, which she set down to bodily fatigue. She had been to see poor Squinny that morning, and she thought he really was dying at last. He had cried so, and she hadn't known how to comfort him, and then when she had got home there had been no time for luncheon, so she had just changed and come away without it. And oh,—this with her arms tightly about Anne's neck—she did wish she had a mother to help her. Poor Dad was very sweet, but he didn't understand a bit.
Anne sat with her for the greater part of an hour, comforting her with a grave tenderness that Dot found infinitely soothing. It might have been half a lifetime instead of a brief seven years that stretched between them. For Anne had been a woman long before her time, and Dot for all her self-reliance was still but a child.
She grew calm at last, and presently reverted to the theatricals. Did Lady Carfax think she might withdraw? Nap made her so nervous. She was sure she could never be successful under his management.
Anne strongly advised her not to think of such a thing. In consideration of the fact that Dot had been the moving spirit of the whole scheme such a proceeding would be little short of disastrous. No doubt a substitute could be found, but it would mean an open breach with Nap. Bertie would quarrel with him in consequence, and Lucas would be grievously disappointed.
"We mustn't hurt Lucas," Anne urged. "He has so much to bear already. And—and he has been so much happier about Nap lately."
"Does Nap worry him too, then?" asked Dot, quickly. "Isn't he hateful? He upsets everybody."
"No—no!" Anne said. "Nap would do anything for Lucas. It is his one solid virtue."
It was at this point that the door opened with a noiseless swing, and Nap himself entered. He advanced with the assured air of one whose welcome is secure.
"Give the devil his due, Lady Carfax!" he drawled. "He has one other anyway."
Even Anne was for the moment disconcerted by the abruptness of his entrance. Dot sprang to her feet with burning cheeks. It was her evident intention to escape, but he intercepted her.
"My business is with you," he said, "not with Lady Carfax. Do you mind waiting a minute?"
Dot waited, striving for dignity. Nap was looking at her narrowly.
In the pause that ensued, Anne rose and passed her arm reassuringly through Dot's.
Nap glanced at her. "That's rather shabby of you," he declared. "I was just going to ask for your support myself."
She smiled at him faintly. "I think you can manage without it. Dot will not refuse her forgiveness if you ask for it properly."
"Won't she?" said Nap, still keenly watching the girl's half-averted face. "I should if I were Dot. You see our feud is of very long standing. We always cut each other when we meet in the street—very pointedly so that no one could possibly imagine for a moment that we were strangers. We don't like doing it in the least, but we are both so infernally proud that there is no alternative. And so we have got to keep it up all our days, long after the primary reason for it all has sunk into oblivion. By the way, I have forgotten already what the primary reason was."
"I—haven't," said Dot, in a very low voice. Her lower lip was quivering. She bit it desperately.
"No?" said Nap.
"No!" Dot turned her flushed face suddenly upon him. "You never meant me to forget," she said, in a voice that shook beyond control.
"It must have been something very venomous," he said.
"It was!" she answered, fighting with, herself. "You—you know it was!"
"It's not worth crying about anyway," said Nap. "My sting may be poisonous, but it has never yet proved fatal. Tell me where the mischief is, and p'r'aps I can remove it."
He was smiling as he made the suggestion, smiling without malice, and, though Dot could not bring herself to smile in return, she was none the less mollified.
"What was it?" he persisted, pressing his advantage. "Something beastly I said or looked or did? I often do, you know. It's just my way. Do you know what it was, Lady Carfax?"
She nodded. "And I think you do too," she said.
"I don't," he asserted, "on my honour."
Dot looked incredulous. "Don't you remember that day in February," she said, "the first day I ever came here—the day you accused me of—of running after Bertie for—his money?"
"Great Christopher!" said Nap. "You don't say you took me seriously?"
"Of course I did," she said, on the verge of tears. "You—you were serious too."
"Ye gods!" said Nap. "And I've been wondering why on earth you and Bertie couldn't make up your minds! So I've been the obstacle, have I? And that's why you have been hating me so badly all this time—as if I were the arch-fiend himself! By Jove!" He swung round on his heel. "We'll put this right at once. Where's Bertie?"
"Oh, no!" Dot said nervously. "No! Don't call him! He'll see I've been crying. Nap—please!"
She disengaged herself from Anne, and sprang after him, seizing him impetuously by the arm.
"I mean—Mr. Errol!" she substituted in confusion.
He clapped his hand upon hers and wheeled. "You can call me anything under the sun that occurs to you as suitable," he said. "You may kick me also if you like—which is a privilege I don't accord to everybody. You won't believe me, I daresay. Few people do. But I'm sorry I was a beast to you that day. I don't deal in excuses, but when I tell you that I was rather badly up against something, p'r'aps you'll be magnanimous enough to forgive me. Will you?"
He looked her straight in the face with the words. There was little of humility about him notwithstanding them, but there was something of melancholy that touched her warm heart.
"Of course I will!" she said impulsively. "Let's be friends, shall we?"
He gripped her hand till she felt the bones crack. "Suppose we go and get some tea," he said. "Are you coming, Lady Carfax?"
"I'm not fit to be seen," objected Dot, hanging back.
He drew her on, her hand still fast in his. "Don't be shy, my dear girl! You look all right. Will you lead the way, Lady Carfax? In the hall, you know."
Very reluctantly Dot submitted. She had not the faintest inkling of his intentions or her docility would have vanished on the instant. As it was, fortified by Anne's presence, she yielded to his insistence.
The hall was full of people to whom Mrs. Errol was dispensing tea, assisted by Bertie, who had emerged from his den for the purpose. Bertie's studies did not permit him to take any part in the theatricals. Possibly Nap's position at the head of affairs had assisted his resolution in this respect.
He was sitting on the arm of Lucas's chair, hastily gulping some tea in an interval snatched from his ministrations, when Anne entered, closely followed by Dot and his brother. Some instinct moved him to turn and look, for in the general buzz of talk and laughter around him he could have heard nothing of their approach. He looked, then stared, finally stood up and set down his cup abruptly.
As Nap came towards him, still holding Dot by the hand, he turned white to the lips and moved forward.
A sudden silence fell as they met. They were the centre of the crowd, the centre of observation, the centre of an unseen whirlpool of emotions that threatened to be overwhelming.
And then with a smile Nap put an end to a tension of expectancy that had become painful.
"Hullo, Bertie!" he said, and smote him on the shoulder with a vigorous hand. "I've just been hearing about your engagement, my dear fellow. Congratulations! May you and Dot have the best of everything all your lives!"
Poor Dot would have fled had that been possible, but she was hedged in too closely for that. Moreover, Nap had transferred her hand to Bertie's, and the boy's warm grasp renewed her fainting courage. She knew he was as amazed as she was herself at Nap's sudden move, and she determined that she would stand by him at whatever cost.
And after all, the difficult moment passed very quickly. People crowded round them with kindly words, shook hands with them, chaffed them both, and seemed to be genuinely pleased with the turn of events. Mrs. Errol came forward in her hearty way and kissed them; and in the end Dot found herself in Bertie's vacated place on the arm of Lucas's chair, with his steady hand holding hers, and his quiet, sincere voice telling her that he was "real glad that the thing was fixed up at last."
Later Bertie took her home in the motor, and explained the situation to the rector, who was mildly bewildered but raised no definite objection to the announcement of the engagement. He was something of a philosopher, and Bertie had always been a favourite of his. Nap in fact was the only member of the Errol family for whom he did not entertain the most sincere esteem; but, as Dot remarked that night, Nap was a puzzle to everybody. It seemed highly probable after all that he carried a kind heart behind his cynical exterior. She was sure that Lady Carfax thought so, since she invariably treated him as an intimate friend.
The rector admitted that she might be right, but after Dot had gone to bed he leaned his elbow on his writing-table and sat long in thought.
"I wonder," he murmured to himself presently, "I wonder if Lady Carfax knows what she is doing. She really is too young, poor girl, to be so much alone."
A QUESTION OF TRUST
The theatricals were arranged to take place on an evening in the beginning of July, and for that one night Mrs. Errol persuaded Anne to sleep at Baronmead. She would not consent to leave the Manor for longer, for she still superintended much of the management of the estate and overlooked the agent's work. She had begun to wonder if all her days would be spent thus, for the reports which reached her regularly of her husband's state of health were seldom of a hopeful nature. In fact they varied very little, and a brain specialist had given it as his opinion that, though it was impossible to speak with certainty, Sir Giles might remain in his present condition of insanity for years, even possibly for as long as he lived. He was the last of his family, and the title would die with him. And Anne wondered—often she wondered—if it were to be her lot to live out the rest of her life alone.
She did not mind solitude, nor was she altogether unhappy, but she was too young not to feel now and then the deep stirrings of her youth. And she had lived so little in all her twenty-five years of life. Yet with that habit of self-control which had grown up with her, and which made many think her cold, she would not suffer her thoughts to dwell upon past or future. Her world was very small, and, as she had once told Nap, she contented herself with "the work that was nearest". If it did not greatly warm her heart, it kept her from brooding over trouble.
On the morning of the day fixed for the theatricals he came over in the motor to fetch her. It was a glorious day of summer, and Anne was in the garden. He joined her there, and they walked for awhile in the green solitudes, talking of the coming entertainment.
They came in their wanderings to the seat under the lilac trees. She wondered afterwards if he had purposely directed their steps thither. They had not been together there since that night when the lilac had been in bloom, that night of perfect spring, the night when their compact had been made and sealed. Did he think of it, she wondered as they passed. If so, he made no sign, but talked on in casual strain as if she were no more than the most casual of friends. Very faithfully he had kept his part of the compact, so faithfully that when they were past she was conscious of a sense of chill mingling with her relief. He had stifled his passion for her, it seemed, and perhaps it was only by comparison that his friendship felt so cold and measured.
She was glad when they reached Baronmead at length. It was like going into sudden sunshine to enter Lucas's presence and feel the warmth of his welcome about her heart. She stayed long talking with him. Here was a friend indeed, a friend to trust, a friend to confide in, a friend to love. He might be "everybody's own and particular pal," as Nap had said, but she knew intuitively that this friend of hers kept a corner for her that was exclusively her own, a safe refuge in which she had found shelter for the first time on that night that seemed so long ago when he had held her in his arms and comforted her as though he had been a woman, and which she knew had been open to her ever since.
There was a final rehearsal in the afternoon which went remarkably smoothly. Anne's part was not a lengthy one, and as soon as it was over she went back to the house in search of Mrs. Errol. She had left directions for her letters to be sent after her, and she found two or three awaiting her in the hall. She picked them up, and passed into the music-room.
Here she found Lucas reading some correspondence of his own.
He looked up with a smile. "Oh, Lady Carfax! I was just thinking of you. I have a letter here from my friend Capper. You remember Dr. Capper?"
"Very well indeed," she said, stifling a sudden pang at the name.
He lay motionless in his chair, studying her with those shrewd blue eyes that she never desired to avoid. "I believe Capper took you more or less into his confidence," he said. "It's a risky thing for a doctor to do, but he is a student of human nature as well as human anatomy. He generally knows what he is about. Won't you sit down?"
She took the seat near him that he indicated. Somehow the mention of Capper had made her cold. She was conscious of a shrinking that was almost physical from the thought of ever seeing him again.
"Capper wants to have the shaping of my destiny," Lucas went on meditatively. "In other words, he wants to pull me to pieces and make a new man of me. Sometimes I am strongly tempted to let him try. At other times," he was looking at her fully, "I hesitate."
She put her shrinking from her and faced him. "Will you tell me why?"
"Because," he said slowly, "I have a fear that I might be absent when wanted."
"But you are always wanted," she said quickly.
He smiled. "Thank you, Lady Carfax. But that was not my meaning. I think you understand me. I think Capper must have told you. I am speaking with regard to—my brother Nap."
He spoke the last words very deliberately. He was still looking at her kindly but very intently. She felt the blood rush to her heart. For the first time her eyes fell before his.
He went on speaking at once, as if to reassure her, to give her time. "You've been a stanch friend to him, I know, and you've done a big thing for him. You've tamed him, shaped him, made a man of him. I felt your influence upon him before I ever met you. I sensed your courage, your steadfastness, your goodness. But you are only a woman, eh, Lady Carfax? And Rome wasn't built in a day. There may come a time when the savage gets the upper hand of him again. And then, if I were not by to hold him in, he might gallop to his own or someone else's destruction. That is what I have to think of before I decide."
"But—can you always hold him?" Anne said.
"Always, Lady Carfax." Very quietly, with absolute confidence, came the reply. "You may put your last dollar on that, and you won't lose it. We settled that many years ago, once and for all. But I've been asking myself lately if I need be so anxious, if possibly Rome may be nearer completion than I imagine. Is it so? Is it so? I sometimes think you know him better than I do myself."
"I!" Anne said.
"You, Lady Carfax."
With an effort she looked up. His eyes were no longer closely studying her. He seemed to be looking beyond.
"If you can trust him," he said quietly, "I know that I can. The question is—Can you?"
He waited very quietly for her answer, still not looking at her. But it was long in coming.
At last. "I do not feel that I know him as I once did," she said, her voice very low, "nor is my influence over him what it was. But I think, if you trust him, he will not disappoint you."
The kindly eyes rested upon her again for a moment, but he made no comment upon the form in which she had couched her reply.
He merely, after the briefest pause, smiled and thanked her.
A SUDDEN BLOW
Anne found herself the first to enter the drawing room that night before dinner. It was still early, barely half-past seven. The theatricals were to begin at nine.
She had her unopened letters with her, and she sat down to peruse them by an open window. The evening sun poured full upon her in fiery splendour. She leaned her head against the woodwork, a little wearied.
She opened the first letter mechanically. Her thoughts were wandering. Without much interest she withdrew it from the envelope, saw it to be unimportant, and returned it after the briefest inspection. The next was of the same order, and received a similar treatment. The third and last she held for several seconds in her hand, and finally opened with obvious reluctance. It was from a doctor in the asylum in which her husband had been placed. Slowly her eyes travelled along the page.
When she turned it at length her hands were shaking, shaking so much that the paper rattled and quivered like a living thing. The writing ended on the further page, but before her eyes reached the signature the letter had fallen from her grasp. Anne, the calm, the self-contained, the stately, sat huddled in her chair—a trembling, stricken woman, with her hands pressed tightly over her eyes, as if to shut out some dread vision.
In the silence that followed someone entered the room with a light, cat-like tread, and approached the window against which she sat. But so overwhelmed was she for the moment that she was unaware of any presence till Nap's voice spoke to her, and she started to find him close to her, within reach of her hand.
She lifted her white face then, while mechanically she groped for the letter. It had fallen to the ground. He picked it up.
"What is it?" he said, and she thought his voice sounded harsh. "You have had bad news?"
She held out her hand for the letter. "No, it is good. I—am a little tired, that's all."
"That is not all," he said, and she heard the dogged note in his voice that she had come to know as the signal of indomitable resolution. He sat down on the window seat close to her, still keeping the letter in his hand.
She made a little hopeless gesture and sat silent, striving for composure. She knew that during the seconds that followed, his eyes never stirred from her face. It was his old trick of making her feel the compulsion of his will. Often before she had resisted it. To-night she was taken at a disadvantage. He had caught her unarmed. She was powerless.
She turned her head at last and spoke. "You may read that letter," she said.
The thin lips smiled contemptuously for an instant. "I have read it already," he said.
She started slightly, meeting his eyes. "You have read it?"
"In your face," he told her coolly. "It contains news of the man you call your husband. It is to say he is better—and—coming—home."
He spoke the last words as though he were actually reading them one by one in her tragic eyes.
"It is an experiment," she whispered. "He wishes it himself, it seems, and they think the change might prove beneficial. He is decidedly better—marvellously so. And he has expressed the desire to see me. Of course"—she faltered a little—"I should not be—alone with him. There would be an attendant. But—but you mustn't think I am afraid. It wasn't that. Only—only—I did not expect it. It has come rather suddenly. I am not so easily upset as a rule."
She spoke hurriedly, almost as though she were pleading with him to understand and to pardon her weakness.
But her words quivered into silence. Nap said nothing whatever. He sat motionless, the letter still in his hand, his eyes unswervingly fixed upon her,
That sphinx-like stare became unbearable at last. She gathered her strength and rose.
"You came upon me at an unlucky moment," she said. "Please forget it."
He still stared at her stonily without moving or speaking. Something that was almost fear gripped her. The very stillness of the man was in a fashion intimidating.
She stood before him, erect, and at least outwardly calm. "May I have my letter?" she said.
The words were a distinct command, and after a very decided pause he responded to it. He rose with a quick, lithe movement, and handed her the letter with a brief bow.
An instant later, while she still waited for him to speak, he turned on his heel and left her.
Very soon after, Mrs. Errol came in, and then one after another those who were staying in the house for the entertainment. But Anne had commanded herself by that time. No one noticed anything unusual in her demeanour.
Nap was absent from the dinner—table. Someone said that he was superintending some slight alteration on the stage. It was so ordinary an occurrence for him to fail to appear at a meal that no one was surprised. Only Anne covered a deep uneasiness beneath her resolute serenity of manner. She could not forget that basilisk stare. It haunted her almost to the exclusion of everything else. She had no thought to spare for the letter regarding her husband. She could only think of Nap. What had that stare concealed? She felt that if she could have got past those baffling, challenging eyes she would have seen something terrible.
Yet when she met him again she wondered if after all she had disquieted herself for nought. He was standing at the stage-entrance to the marquee, discussing some matter with one of the curtain-pullers when she arrived. He stood aside for her to pass, and she went by quickly, avoiding his eyes.
She kept out of his way studiously till her turn came, then perforce she had to meet him again, for he was stationed close to the opening on to the stage through which she had to pass. For the moment there was no one else at hand, and she felt her heart beat thick and fast as she waited beside him for her cue.
He did not speak to her, did not, she fancied, even look at her; but after a few dumb seconds his hand came out to hers and held it in a close, sinewy grip. Her own was nerveless, cold as ice. She could not have withdrawn it had she wished. But she did not wish. That action of his had a strange effect upon her, subtly calming her reawakened doubts. She felt that he meant to reassure her, and she suffered herself to be reassured.
Later, she marvelled at the ingenuity that had so successfully blinded her, marvelled at herself for having been so blinded, marvelled most of all at the self-restraint that could so shackle and smother the fierce passion that ran like liquid fire in every vein as to make her fancy that it had ceased to be.
When her turn came at length she collected herself and left him with a smile.
She went through her part very creditably, but she was unspeakably thankful when it was over.
"You are tired, Lady Carfax," Lucas murmured, when at length she found her way to the seat beside him that he had been reserving for her.
"A little," she admitted.
And then suddenly the impulse to tell him the primary cause of her trouble came upon her irresistibly. She leaned towards him and spoke under cover of the orchestra.
"Mr. Errol, I have had news of—my husband. He wants to come home. No, he is not well yet, but decidedly better, well enough to be at liberty in the charge of an attendant. And so—and so—"
The whispered words failed. She became silent, waiting for the steady sympathy for which she knew she would never wait in vain.
But he did not speak at once. It almost seemed as if he were at a loss. It almost seemed as if he realised too fully for speech that leaden weight of despair which had for a space so terribly overwhelmed her.
And then at last his voice came to her, slow and gentle, yet with a vital note in it that was like a bugle-call to her tired spirit. "Stick to it, Lady Carfax! You'll win out. You're through the worst already."
Desperately, as one half-ashamed, she answered him. "I wish with all my heart I could think so. But—I am still asking myself if—if there is no way of escape."
He turned his head in the dim light and looked at her, and shame stabbed her deeper still. Yet she would not recall the words. It was better that he should know, better that he should not deem her any greater or worthier than she was.
Then, "Thank you for telling me," he said very simply. "But you'll win out all the same. I have always known that you were on the winning side."
The words touched her in a fashion not wholly accountable. Her eyes filled with sudden tears.
"What makes you have such faith in me?" she said.
The light was too dim for her so see his face, but she knew that he was smiling as he made reply.
"That's just one of the things I can't explain," he said. "But I think God made you for a spar for drowning men to cling to."
She smiled with him in spite of the tears. "May the spar never fail you!" she said.
"I am not afraid," he answered very steadily.
It was long before Anne slept that night, but yet though restless she was not wholly miserable. Neither was she perplexed. Her duty lay before her clearly defined, and she meant to fulfil it. Those few words with Lucas Errol had decided her beyond all hesitancy, so completely was she in sympathy with this strong friend of hers. Perhaps her wavering had only been the result of a moment's weakness, following upon sudden strain. But the strain had slackened, and the weakness was over. She knew that even Nap had not the power to move her now. With the memory of his firm hand-grip came the conviction that he would not seek to do so. Like herself he had been momentarily dismayed it might be, but he had taken his place among her friends, not even asking to be foremost, and remembering this, she resolutely expelled any lingering doubt of him. Had she not already proved that she had but to trust him to find him trustworthy? What tangible reason had he given her for withdrawing her trust even for a moment? She reproached herself for it, and determined that she would never doubt him again.
But yet sleep was long in coming to her. Once when it seemed near, the hooting of an owl near the open window drove it away; and once in the vague twilight before the dawn she started awake to hear the sharp thudding of a horse's hoofs galloping upon the turf not very far away. That last set her heart a-beating, she could not have said wherefore, save that it reminded her vaguely of a day in the hunting-field that had ended for her in disaster.
She slept at last and dreamed—a wild and fearful dream. She dreamed that she was on horseback, galloping, galloping, galloping, in headlong flight from someone, she knew not whom, but it was someone of whom she was unspeakably afraid. And ever behind her at break-neck speed, gaining upon her, merciless as fate, galloped her pursuer. It was terrible, it was agonising, yet, though in her heart she knew it to be a dream, she could not wake. And then, all suddenly, the race was over. Someone drew abreast of her. A sinewy hand gripped her bridle-rein. With a gasping cry she turned to face her captor, and saw—a Red Indian! His tigerish eyes gazed into hers. He was laughing with a fiendish exultation. The eagle feathers tossed above his swarthy face. It came nearer to her; it glared into her own. And suddenly recognition stabbed her like a sword. It was the face of Nap Errol....
He was on the stairs talking to Hudson, the valet, when she descended to breakfast, but he turned at once to greet her.
"I am sorry to say Lucas has had a bad night. He will keep his room to-day. How have you slept, Lady Carfax?"
She answered him conventionally. They went downstairs together.
Bertie was in the hall studying a newspaper. He came forward, scowling heavily, shook hands with Anne, and immediately addressed his brother.
"I've just come in from the stable. Have you been out all night? You've nearly ridden the mare to death."
Anne glanced at Nap instinctively. He was smiling. "Don't vex yourself, my good Bertie," he said. "The mare will be all right after a feed."
"Will she?" growled Bertie. "She is half dead from exhaustion anyway."
"Oh, skittles!" said Nap, turning to go.
The boy's indignation leaped to a blaze. "Skittles to you! I know what I'm saying. And if you're not ashamed of yourself, you damned well ought to be!"
Nap stopped. "What?" he drawled.
Bertie glared at him and subsided. The explosion had been somewhat more violent than he had intended.
Very quietly Nap stepped up to him. "Will you repeat that last remark of yours?"
Bertie was silent.
"Or do you prefer to withdraw it?"
Bertie maintained a dogged silence. He was fidgeting with the paper in a fashion that seemed to indicate embarrassment.
"Do you withdraw it?" Nap repeated, still quiet, still slightly drawling.
Bertie hunched his shoulders like a schoolboy. "Oh, get away, Nap!" he growled. "Yes—sorry I spoke. Now clear out and leave me alone!"
Anne was already at the further end of the hall, but Nap overtook her before she entered the breakfast room. He opened the door for her, and as she passed him she saw that he was still faintly smiling.
"Pardon the contretemps!" he said. "You may have noticed before that I am not particularly good at swallowing insults."
"I wonder if there was a cause for it," she said, looking at him steadily. "Remember, I know what your riding is like."
He raised his eyebrows for a moment, then laughed. The room they entered was empty.
"No one down yet!" he observed. "Take a seat by the window. What will you have?"
He attended to her wants and his own, and finally sat down facing her. He seemed to be in excellent spirits.
"Please don't look so severe!" he urged. "Just as I am going to ask a favour of you, too!"
She smiled a little but not very willingly. "I don't like cruel people," she said. "Cruelty is a thing I can never forget because I abhor it so."
"And are you never cruel?" said Nap.
"I hope not."
"I hope not, too," he rejoined, giving her a hard look. "But I sometimes have my doubts."
Anne looked out of the window in silence.
The sharp rapping of his knuckles on the table recalled her. She turned, slightly startled, and met his imperious eyes. He smiled at her.
"Queen Anne, I crave a boon."
Almost involuntarily she returned his smile. "So you said before."
"And you don't even ask what it is."
"I am not quite sure that I want to know, Nap," she said.
"You are not liking me this morning," he observed.
She made no answer.
"What is it?" he said. "Is it the mare?"
She hesitated. "Perhaps, in part."
"And the other part?" He leaned forward, looking at her keenly. "Are you afraid of me, Anne?" he said.
His voice was free from reproach, yet her heart smote her. She reminded herself of how he had once pleaded with her for her trust.
"I'm sorry I pressed the mare," he said, "but it was quite as much her fault as mine. Moreover, the cub exaggerated. I will fetch him in and make him own it if you like."
She stayed him with a gesture. "No, don't, please! I think Bertie was probably in the right."
"Do you, though?" Nap leaned back again, regarding her with supercilious attention. "It's rather—daring of you to say so."
"Do you really think I stand in awe of you?" she said.
"You are such a truly remarkable woman," he made answer, "that I scarcely know what to think. But since you are not afraid of me—apparently, perhaps I may venture to come to the point. Do you know I have been laying plans for a surprise picnic for you and—one other? It's such a gorgeous day. Don't refuse!"
The boyish note she liked to hear sounded suddenly in his voice. He discarded his cynicism and leaned towards her again, eager, persuasive.
"Don't refuse," he reiterated. "Look at the sunshine, listen to the birds, think of a whole day in the open! I'll take you to the loveliest place I know in this quaint little island, and I'll be your slave all day long. Oh, I promise you won't find me in the way. Now don't look prudish. Be a girl for once. Never mind the rest of creation. No one else will know anything about it. We leave Baronmead this morning in the motor, and who cares what time we reach the Manor? It can't matter to you or anyone. Say you'll come! Say it!"
"My dear Nap!" Anne looked at him dubiously, uncertain whether to take him seriously.
"Say it!" he repeated. "There is no earthly reason why you shouldn't. And I'll take such care of you. Why shouldn't you have a real good time for once? You never have had in all your life."
True, only too true! But it was not that fact that made her waver.
"Will you tell me what plans you have made for this picnic?" she asked at length.
He began to smile. "My plans, Lady Carfax, are entirely subject to your approval. About forty miles from here there is a place called Bramhurst—a place after your own heart—a paradise. With judicious driving we could be there by one or soon after—in time for luncheon."
"Yes?" she said, as he stopped.
"That's all," said Nap.
"But—afterwards?" she hazarded.
"My dear Lady Carfax, if it is to be a surprise picnic, where's the use of settling all the details beforehand?" Nap's tone was one of indulgent protest; he was eating and drinking rapidly, as if he had an appointment to keep. "My suggestion is that we then follow our inclinations—your inclinations." He smiled at her again. "I am your slave till sunset."
"Could we be back at the Manor by then?" she asked.
"Of course we could."
"Will you promise that we shall be?" She looked up at him seriously.
He was still smiling. "If you ordain it," he said.
"I must be back by dinner-time," she asserted.
"And you dine?"
He pushed back his chair and rose. "Very discreet of you! The sun sets at eight-ten. At what hour will you deign to be ready?"
"At eleven," said Anne.
He glanced at his watch. "I am afraid you can't see Lucas to say good-bye. Hudson has just given him morphia."
"Is he so bad then?" she asked quickly.
"No worse than he has been before. Bad pain all night. He always fights against taking the stuff. I persuaded him." He spoke shortly, as if the subject were distasteful to him. "No doubt he is easier by this time," he added. "Eleven o'clock then! I will go and get ready." But even then he paused, his hand on the back of her chair. "Can you keep a secret?" he asked lightly.
She glanced up at him. "A secret?"
"An it please you," he said, "let this be a secret between yourself and your humble slave!"
And with the words he turned with an air of finality and went away.
A DAY IN PARADISE
It was a day in the very heart of the summer, a day of cloudless skies and wonderful, magic breezes, a day for the dreaming—and perchance for the fulfilment—of dreams. Swift and noiseless as the swoop of a monster bird the motor glided on its way; now rushing, now slackening, but never halting. Sometimes it seemed to Anne that she sat motionless while the world raced by her. She had often seen herself thus. And then with a thrill of the pulses came the exultation of rapid movement, banishing the illusion, while the very heart of her rejoiced in the knowledge thereof. For this one day—for this one day—she had left the desert behind her. She had yielded half against her judgment, but she knew no regret. On the morrow she would be back in the waste places where, during all her womanhood, she had wandered. But for this one day the roses bloomed for her and she drank deep of their fragrance. It had come to her so unexpectedly, so dazzlingly, this brief and splendid hour. She marvelled at herself that she had hesitated even for a moment to accept it.
Perhaps memories of another day came now and again to her as she leaned back on the cushions and opened her soul to the sunshine, memories of a day of sparkling winter which had begun in much the same genial atmosphere and had ended in most hideous disaster. But if they came she put them resolutely from her. There was no time to waste upon past or future. For this one day she would drink the wine of the gods; she would live.
Nap drove in almost unbroken silence. He was wearing a mask, and she had no clue to his thoughts; but she scarcely speculated about him. She did not want to talk. She only desired to give herself up to the pure pleasure of rapid movement. She had complete faith in his driving. If daring, he was never reckless, with her beside him.
The meadows were full of hay, and the scent of it lay like a spell upon the senses. The whirr of the mowing machine filled the air with a lazy droning. It was like a lullaby. And ever they sped on, through towns and villages and hamlets, through woods and lanes and open country, sure and swift and noiseless save for the cheery humming of the motor, which sang softly to itself like a spinning top.
They went through country of which Anne had no knowledge, but Nap seemed fully acquainted with it; for he never paused to ask the way, never raised his eyes to the finger-posts that marked the cross-roads. She marvelled at his confidence, but asked no questions. It was not a day for questions.
Only when they emerged at last upon a wide moor, where the early heather grew in tufts of deepest rose, she cried to him suddenly to stop.
"I must get some of it. It is the first I have seen. Look! How exquisite!"
He drew up at the side of the long white road that zigzagged over the moor, and they went together into the springy heath, wading in it after the waxen flowers.
And here Anne sat down in the blazing sunshine and lifted her clear eyes to his. "I won't thank you, because we are friends," she said. "But this is the best day I have ever had."
He pushed up his goggles and sat down beside her. "So you are not sorry you came?" he said.
"I could not be sorry to-day," she answered. "How long have you known this perfect place?"
He lay back in the heather with his arms flung wide. "I came here first one day in the spring, a day in May. The place was a blaze of gorse and broom—as if it were on fire. It suited me—for I was on fire too."
In the silence that succeeded his words he turned and leisurely scrutinised her. She was snapping a stalk of heather with minute care. A deep flush rose and spread over her face under his eyes.
"Why don't you look at me?" he said.
Very slowly her eyes came down to him. He was smiling in a secret fashion, not as if he expected her to smile in return. The sunlight beat down upon his upturned face. He blinked at her lazily and stretched every limb in succession, like a cat.
"Let me know when you begin to feel bored," he said. "I am quite ready to amuse you."
"I thought it was only the bores who were ever bored," she said.
He opened his eyes a little. "Did I say that or did you?"
She returned to her heather-pulling. "I believe you said it originally."
"I remember," he returned composedly. "It was on the night you bestowed upon me the office of court-jester, the night you dreamed I was the Knave of Diamonds, the night that—"
She interrupted very gently but very resolutely; "The night that we became friends, Nap."
"A good many things happened that night," he remarked, pulling off his cap and pitching it from him.
"Is that wise?" she said. "The sun is rather strong."
He sat up, ignoring the warning. "Anne," he said, "have you ever dreamed about me since that night?"
She was silent, all her attention concentrated upon her bunch of heather. His eyes left her face and began to study her hands.
After a moment he pulled a bit of string out of his pocket and without a word proceeded to wind it round the stalks she held. As he knotted it he spoke.
"So that is why you were afraid of me to-day. I knew there was something. I winded it the moment we met. Whenever I hold your hand in mine I can see into your soul. What was it, Anne? The Knave of Diamonds on a black mare—riding to perdition?"
He laughed at her softly as though she had been a child. He was still watching her hands. Suddenly he laid his own upon them and looked into her face.
"Or was it just a savage?" he asked her quietly.
Against her will, in spite of the blaze of sunshine, she shivered.
"Yes," he said. "But isn't it better to face him than to run away? Haven't you always found it so? You kissed him once, Anne. Do you remember? It was the greatest thing that ever happened to him."
He spoke with a gentleness that amazed her. His eyes held hers, but without compulsion. He was lulling her fear of him to rest, as he alone knew how.
She answered him with quivering lips. "I have wondered since if I did wrong."
"Then don't wonder," he said. "For I was nearer to the God you worship at that moment than I had ever been before. I never believed in Him till then, but that night I wrestled with Him—and got beaten." He dropped suddenly into his most cynical drawl, so that she wondered if, after all, he were mocking her. "It kind of made an impression on me. I thought it might interest you to know. Have you had enough of this yet? Shall we move on?"
She rose in silence. She was very far from certain, and yet she fancied there had been a ring of sincerity in his words.
As they reached the car she laid her hand for an instant on his arm. "If it did that for you, Nap," she said, "I do not regret it."
He smiled in his faint, cynical fashion. "I believe you'll turn me out a good man some day," he said. "And I wonder if you will like me any when it's done."
"I only want you to be your better self," she answered gently.
"Which is a myth," he returned, as he handed her in, "which exists only in your most gracious imagination."
And with that he pulled the mask over his face once more and turned to the wheel.
THE RETURN TO EARTH
It was nearly two before they reached Bramhurst and drew up before the one ancient inn the place possessed. Upstairs, in a lattice-windowed room with sloping floor and bulging ceiling, a room that was full of the scent of honeysuckle, Anne washed away the dust of the road. Turning to the mirror on the dressing-table when this was over, she stood a moment wide-eyed, startled. Through her mind there swept again the memory of a day that seemed very far away—a day begun in sunshine and ended in storm, a day when she had looked into the eyes of a white-faced woman in the glass and had shrunk away in fear. It was a very different vision that now met her gaze, and yet she had a feeling that there was something in it that remained unaltered. Was it in the eyes that shone from a face so radiant that it might have been the face of a girl?
She could not have said. Only after that one brief glimpse she looked no more.
Descending, she found Nap waiting for her in the oak-beamed coffee-room. He made her sit facing the open window, looking forth upon hill and forest and shallow winding river.
The stout old English waiter who attended to their wants very speedily withdrew.
"He thinks we are on our wedding-trip," said Nap.
She glanced at him sharply.
"Yes, I let him have it so," he returned. "I never destroy a pretty illusion if I can help it."
"What time do we start back?" said Anne, aware of burning cheeks, which he was studying with undisguised amusement.
"Would you like some ice?" he suggested.
She laughed, with something of an effort. "Don't be ridiculous, Nap!"
"I am sure you have never done anything so improper in all your life before," he went on. "What must it feel like? P'r'aps you would have preferred me to explain the situation to him in detail? I will have him in and do it now—if you really think it worth while. I shouldn't myself, but then I seldom suffer from truthfulness in its most acute form. It's a tiresome disease, isn't it? One might almost call it dashed inconvenient on an occasion such as this. There is only one remedy that I can suggest, and that is to pretend it's true."
"I am not good at pretending," Anne answered gravely.
He laughed. "Very true, O Queen! Horribly true! But I am, you know, a positive genius in that respect. So I'm going to pretend I'm an Englishman—of the worthy, thick-headed, bulldog breed. (I am sure you admire it; you wouldn't be an Englishwoman if you didn't). And you are my devoted and adorable wife. You needn't look shocked. It's all for the sake of that chap's morals. Do you think I can do it?"
"I don't want you to do it, Nap," she said earnestly.
He dropped the subject instantly. "Your wish is law. There is only one other person in this world who can command my implicit obedience in this fashion. So I hope you appreciate your power."
"And that other is Lucas?" said Anne.
He nodded. "Luke the irresistible! Did you ever try to resist him?"
She shook her head with a smile.
"Take my advice then," he said. "Never do! He could whip creation with his hands tied behind him. Oh, I know you all think him mild-tempered and easy-going, more like a woman than a man. But you wait till you're hard up against him. Then you'll know what I mean when I tell you he's colossal." There was a queer ring of passion in his voice as he ended. It sounded to Anne like the half-stifled cry of a wounded animal.
Because of it she repressed the impulse to ask him what he meant. Nevertheless, after a moment, as if impelled by some hidden force, he continued.
"There was a time when I thought of him much as you do. And then one day there came a reckoning—an almighty big reckoning." He leaned back in his chair and stared upwards, while the grim lines of his mouth tightened. "It was down in Arizona. We fought a duel that lasted a day and a night. He was a worse cripple in those days than he is now, but he won out—he won out." Again came the cynical drawl, covering his actual feelings as with an impenetrable veil. "I've had a kind of respect for him ever since," he said. "One does, you know."
"One would," said Anne, and again refrained from asking questions.
She was thinking of the complete confidence with which Lucas had spoken of his ascendency over this man.
Finishing luncheon they went out over the common that stretched from the very door, down the hill-side of short, sun-baked grass, passing between masses of scorched broom, whose bursting pods crackled perpetually in the sunshine, till they came to the green shade of forest trees and the gleam of a running stream.
The whirr of grasshoppers filled the air and the humming of insects innumerable. Away in the distance sounded the metal clang of a cow-bell. It was the only definite sound that broke the stillness. The heat was intense. A dull, copper haze had risen and partially obscured the sun.
Anne stopped on the edge of the stream. Wonderful dragon-flies such as she had never seen before, peacock, orange and palest green, darted to and fro above the brown water. Nap leaned against a tree close to her and smoked a cigarette.
She spoke at last without turning. "Am I in fairyland, I wonder?"
"Or the Garden of Eden," suggested Nap.
She laughed a little, and stooping tried to reach a forget-me-not that grew on the edge of the water.
"Beware of the serpent!" he warned. "Anyway, don't tumble in!"
She stretched back a hand to him. "Don't let me go!"
His hand closed instantly and firmly upon her wrist. In a moment she drew back with the flower in her hand, to find his cigarette smouldering on a tuft of moss. He set his foot upon it without explanation and lighted another.
"Ought we not to be starting back?" she asked.
"It won't be so hot in half-an-hour," he said.
"But how long will it take?"
"It can be done in under three hours. If we start at half-past-four you should be home well before sunset."
He smiled with the words, and Anne suffered herself to be persuaded. Certainly the shade of the beech trees was infinitely preferable to the glare of the dusty roads, and the slumberous atmosphere made her feel undeniably languorous.
She sat down therefore on the roots of a tree, still watching the dragon-flies flitting above the water.
Nap stripped off his coat and made it into a cushion. "Lean back on this. Yes, really. I'm thankful for the excuse to go without it. How is that? Comfortable?"
She thanked him with a smile. "I mustn't go to sleep."
"Why not?" said Nap. "There is nothing to disturb you. I'm going back to the inn to order tea before we start."
He was off with the words with that free, agile gait of his that always made her think of some wild creature of the woods.
She leaned back with a sense of complete well-being and closed her eyes....
When she opened them again it was with a guilty feeling of having been asleep at a critical juncture. With a start she sat up and looked around her. The sun-rays were still slanting through the wood, but dully, as though they shone through a sheet of smoked glass. The stillness was intense.
A sharp sense of nervousness pricked her. There seemed to be something ominous in the atmosphere; or was it only in her own heart that it existed? And where was Nap? Surely he had been gone for a very long time!
She rose stiffly and picked up his coat. At the same instant a shrill whistle sounded through the wood, and in a moment she saw him coming swiftly towards her.
Quietly she moved to meet him.
He began to speak before he reached her. "I was afraid you would be tired of waiting and wander about till you got frightened and lost yourself. Do you ever have hysterics?"