And still she played on as one beneath a spell, while the memory of him forced the gates of her consciousness and took arrogant possession. She saw again the swarthy face with its fierce eyes, the haughty smile, which for her was ever tinged with tenderness. Surely—oh, surely he had loved her once! She recalled his fiery love-making, and thrilled again to the eager insistence of his voice, the mastery of his touch. And then she remembered what they said of him, that women were his slaves, his playthings, the toys he broke in wantonness and carelessly tossed aside. She remembered how once in his actual presence she had overheard words that had made her shrink, a wonder as to who was his latest conquest, the cynical remark: "Anyone for a change and no one for long is his motto." What was he doing now, she asked herself, and trembled. He had gone without word or message of any sort. Her last glimpse of him had been in that violet glare of lightning, inexpressibly terrible, with tigerish eyes that threatened her and snarling lips drawn back. Thus—thus had she seen him many a time since in the long night-watches when she had lain sleepless and restless, waiting for the dawn.
Some such vision came to her now, forcing itself upon her shrinking imagination. Vividly there rose before her his harsh face alert, cruel, cynical, and the sinewy hands that gripped and crushed. And suddenly a shuddering sense of nausea overcame her. She left the piano as one seeking refuge from a horror unutterable. Surely this man had never loved her—was incapable of love! And she had almost wished him back!
"There is someone in the entry, dear child," whispered Mrs. Errol. "Go and see—go and see!"
She went, moving as one stricken blind. But before she reached the door it opened and someone entered. She saw Capper as through a mist in which bodily weakness and anguished fear combined to overwhelm her. And then very steadily his arm encircled her, drew her tottering to a chair.
"It's all right," he said in his expressionless drawl. "The patient has regained consciousness, and is doing O.K. Are you ladies thinking of lunch? Because if so, I guess I'll join you. No, Mrs. Errol, you can't see him before to-night at the earliest. Lady Carfax, I have a message for you—the first words he spoke when he came to. He was hardly conscious when he uttered them, but I guess you'll be kind of interested to hear what they were. 'Tell Anne,' he said, 'I'm going to get well.'"
The intense deliberation with which he spoke gave her time to collect herself, but the words affected her oddly. After a moment she rose, went to Mrs. Errol, who had covered her face with both hands while he was speaking, and knelt beside her. Neither of them uttered a sound.
Capper strolled to the window, his hands deep in his pockets, and looked out upon the wind-swept gardens. He whistled very softly to himself, as a man well satisfied.
He did not turn his head till at the end of five minutes Anne came to his side. She was very pale but quite self-possessed.
"Mrs. Errol has gone to her room," she said. "She wished to be alone."
"Gone to have a good cry, eh?" said Capper. "Healthiest thing she could do. And what about you?"
She smiled with lips that faintly quivered. "I am quite all right, Doctor. And—I have ordered luncheon."
He turned fully round and looked her up and down with lightning swiftness. "You're a very remarkable woman, Lady Carfax," he said after a moment.
"I hope you may never be disappointed in me," she answered gravely.
"I hope so too," he said, "for there is a good deal dependent upon you."
"What do you mean?" She raised her clear eyes interrogatively.
But he baffled her, as he baffled everyone, with the very keenness of his own scrutiny. He began to crack all his fingers in turn.
"I mean," he said, "that even I can't work miracles by myself. I can do the elementary part. I can cut and saw and sew, but I can't heal. I can't give life. That's the woman's part. That's where I count on you. And I don't think you are going to fail me, Lady Carfax."
"I promise you I will do my utmost," she said very earnestly.
He nodded. "I believe you will. But even so, you can't do too much. It's a serious case, even more serious than I expected. I don't say this to alarm you, but I guess you had better know it. It'll be a tough, uphill fight, and he'll need a deal of pushing behind. It may entail more than you dream of—a big sacrifice perhaps; who knows? But you women don't shy at sacrifices. And, believe me, he's worth a sacrifice."
"He deserves the best," she said warmly.
"Yes, but you don't take me," said Capper.
He paused a moment, then suddenly laid a quiet hand on her shoulder. "I may be a wise man," he said, "and again I may be a meddling fool. You and the gods must decide between you. But I'm old enough to be your father anyway. So p'r'aps you'll bear with me. Lady Carfax, hasn't it struck you that a time will come—probably pretty soon—when he will begin to reach out for something that you—and you alone—can give?"
Anne's quick gesture of protest was his answer. She stood motionless, her eyes still raised, waiting for him to continue. But he felt her tremble under his hand. He knew that inwardly she was not so calm as she would have had him think.
He went on in his precise, emotionless fashion, as though he perceived nothing. "He won't ask for it—anyway till he feels he can make a fair return. He will never ask a sacrifice of you. He will break his heart sooner. The point is, Are you capable of offering the sacrifice unasked? For that is what it amounts to, now that the gods have cleared the way."
"Ah!" Anne said. "And—if—not?"
She spoke rather as if to gain time than because she desired an answer.
But he answered her nevertheless very quietly, without a shade of emotion, as if he were discussing some technical matter of no personal interest to him. Only as he answered he took his hand from her shoulder and thrust it back into his pocket.
"In that case he will die, having nothing left to live for. He probably won't suffer much, simply go out like a candle. He hasn't much vitality. He may die either way. There is no responsibility attached—only possibilities."
He turned with the words, and walked across the room with the air of a man who has said his say.
She uttered no word to stop him, nor did she move to follow. She stood alone with her face to the grey storm-clouds that drifted perpetually overhead. Somehow she did not for a moment doubt the truth of what Capper had just told her. She even felt sub-consciously that she had known it for some time. Neither did she ask herself what she was going to do. For deep in the heart of her she knew already. Deep in the heart of her she knew that when Lucas Errol began to reach out for something which she alone could give, it would not be in vain. He had given of his best to her, and she was ready to give of her best in return. If she could not give him passion, she could give him that which was infinitely greater—a deep, abiding love, a devotion born of complete sympathy. She could give him happiness, and in the giving she might find it for herself.
Over in the west the clouds were breaking, and a shaft of pale sunshine streamed upon the distant hills, turning the woods to living gold. Her eyes brightened a little as they caught the radiance. It seemed as if the door before which she had knelt so long in impotence were opening to her at last, as if one more opportunity were to be given her even yet after long and bitter failure of turning her corner of the desert into a garden of flowers and singing birds.
It was nearly a month after Lucas Errol's operation that Bertie and his bride came home from their honeymoon and began the congenial task of setting their house in order.
Dot was thoroughly in her element. The minutest details were to her matters of vital importance.
"We must make it comfy," she said to Bertie, and Bertie fully agreed.
He had relinquished his study of the law, and had resumed his secretarial duties, well aware that Lucas could ill spare him. He was in fact Lucas's right hand just then, and the burden that devolved upon him was no light one. But he bore it with a cheerful spirit, for Lucas was making progress. Despite his utter helplessness, despite the inevitable confinement to one room, despite the weariness and the irksomeness which day by day were his portion, Lucas was very gradually gaining ground. Already he suffered less severely and slept more naturally.
His last words to Capper at parting had been, "Come again in the spring and complete the cure. I shall be ready for you."
And Capper had smiled upon him with something approaching geniality and had answered, "You'll do it, and so shall I. So long then!"
But the months that intervened were the chief stumbling-block, and Capper knew it. He knew that his patient would have to face difficulties and drawbacks that might well dismay the bravest. He knew of the reaction that must surely come when the vitality was low, and progress became imperceptible, and the long imprisonment almost unendurable. He knew of the fever that would lurk in the quickening blood, of the torturing cramp that would draw the unused muscles, of the depression that was its mental counterpart, of the black despair that would hang like a paralysing weight upon soul and body, of the ennui, of the weariness of life, of the piteous weakness that nothing could alleviate.
He had to a certain extent warned Lucas what to expect; but the time for these things had not yet arrived. He was hardly yet past the first stage, and his courage was buoyed up by high hopes as yet undashed. He had faced worse things without blenching, and he had not begun to feel the monotony that Capper had dreaded as his worst enemy.
He took a keen interest in the doings of the young couple at the Dower House, and Dot's breezy presence was ever welcome.
As for Anne, she went to and fro between Baronmead and the Manor, of which her husband's will had left her sole mistress, no longer leading a hermit's life, no longer clinging to her solitude, grave and quiet, but not wholly unhappy. Those few words Capper had spoken on the day of Lucas's operation had made a marvellous difference to her outlook. They had made it possible for her to break down the prison-walls that surrounded her. They had given her strength to leave the past behind her, all vain regrets and cruel disillusionments, to put away despair and rise above depression. They had given her courage to go on.
Of Nap no word was ever spoken in her presence. He might have been dead, so completely had he dropped out of her life. In fact, he was scarcely ever mentioned by anyone, a fact which aroused in Dot a curiously keen indignation, but upon which a certain shyness kept her from commenting. She kept him faithfully in mind, praying for him as regularly as she prayed for old Squinny, who still lingered on with exasperating tenacity, and continued to enjoy such help, spiritual or otherwise, as he could extract from the parson's daughter.
That Bertie strongly disapproved of his brother she was aware, but she held no very high opinion of Bertie's judgment, though even he could scarcely have forbidden her to pray for the black sheep of the family. She had not been brought up to rely upon anyone's judgment but her own, and, deeply as she loved him, she could not help regarding her husband as headlong and inclined to prejudice. He was young, she reflected, and doubtless these small defects would disappear as he grew older. True, he was nearly four years her senior; but Dot did not regard years as in any degree a measure of age. It was all a question of development, she would say, and some people—women especially—developed much more quickly than others. She herself, for instance—At which stage of the argument Bertie invariably said or did something rude, and the rest of her logic became somewhat confused. He was a dear boy and she couldn't possibly be cross with him, but somehow he never seemed to realise when she was in earnest. Another of the deficiencies of youth!
Meanwhile she occupied herself in her new home with all the zest of the young housewife, returned calls with commendable punctuality, and settled down once more to the many parochial duties which had been her ever-increasing responsibility for almost as long as she could remember.
"You are not going to slave like this always," Bertie said to her one evening, when she came in late through a November drizzle to find him waiting for her.
"I must do what I've got to do," said Dot practically, suffering him to remove her wet coat.
"All very well," said Bertie, whose chin looked somewhat more square than usual. "But I'm not going to have my wife wearing herself out over what after all is not her business."
"My dear boy!" Dot laughed aloud, twining her arm in his. "I think you forget, don't you, that I was the rector's daughter before I was your wife? I must do these things. There is no one else to do them."
"Skittles!" said Bertie rudely.
"Yes, dear, but that's no argument. Let's go and have tea, and for goodness' sake don't frown at me like that. It's positively appalling. Put your chin in and be good."
She passed her hand over her husband's face and laughed up at him merrily. But Bertie remained grave.
"You're wet through and as cold as ice. Come to the fire and let's get off your boots."
She went with him into the drawing-room, where tea awaited them.
"I'm not wet through," she declared, "and I'm not going to let you take off my boots. You may, if you are very anxious, give me some tea."
Bertie pulled up a chair to the fire and put her into it; then turned aside and began to make the tea.
Dot lay back with her feet in the fender and watched him. She was looking very tired, and now that the smile had faded from her face this was the more apparent.
When he brought her her tea she reached up, caught his hand, and held it for a moment against her cheek.
"One's own fireside is so much nicer than anyone else's," she said. "We'll have a nice cosy talk presently. How is Luke to-day?"
"Not quite so flourishing. A brute of a dog howled in the night and woke him up. He didn't get his proper sleep afterwards."
"Poor old Luke! What a shame!"
"Yes, it made a difference. He has been having neuralgia down his spine nearly all day. I believe he's worrying too. I'm going back after dinner to see if I can do anything. I manage to read him to sleep sometimes, you know."
"Shall I come too?" said Dot.
"No." Bertie spoke with decision. "You had better go to bed yourself."
She made a face at him. "I shall do nothing of the sort. I shall sit up and do the Clothing Club accounts."
Bertie frowned abruptly. "Not to-night, Dot."
"Yes, to-night. They have got to be done, and I can think better at night."
"You are not to do them to-night," Bertie said, with determination. "I will do them myself if they must be done."
"My dear boy, you! You would never understand my book-keeping. Just imagine the muddle you would make! No, I must get through them myself, and since I must spend the time somehow till you come home, why shouldn't I do them to-night?"
"Because I forbid it," said Bertie unexpectedly.
He was standing on the rug, cup in hand. He looked straight down at her with the words, meeting her surprised eyes with most unwonted sternness.
Dot raised her eyebrows as high as they would go, kept them so for several seconds, then very deliberately lowered them and began to stir her tea.
"You understand me, don't you?" he said.
She shook her head. "Not in the least. I don't think I have ever met you before, have I?"
He set his cup upon the mantelpiece and went suddenly down on his knees by her side. "I haven't been taking proper care of you," he said. "But I'm going to begin right now. Do you know when you came in just now you gave me an absolute shock?"
She laughed faintly, her eyes fixed upon her cup "I didn't know I was looking such a fright."
"You can never look anything but sweet to me," he said. "But it's a fact you're not looking well. I'm sure you are doing too much."
"I'm not doing any more than usual," said Dot, still intent upon the drain of tea in her cup.
"Well, it's too much for you anyway, and I'm going to put a stop to it."
"Do you know how to read your fortune in tea leaves?" said Dot.
"No," said Bertie. With a very gentle hand he deprived her of this engrossing pastime. "I want you to attend to me for a minute," he said.
Dot snuggled against him with a very winning gesture. "I don't want to, Bertie, unless you can find something more interesting to talk about. Really, there is nothing wrong with me. Tell me about Luke. Why is he worrying?"
Bertie frowned. "He doesn't say so, but I believe he's bothered about Nap. Heaven knows why he should be. He was supposed to go to Arizona, but he didn't turn up there. As a matter of fact, if he never turned up again anywhere it would be about the best thing that could possibly happen."
"Oh, don't, Bertie!" Dot spoke sharply, almost involuntarily. There was a quick note of pain in her voice. "I don't like you to talk like that. It isn't nice of you to be glad he's gone, and—it's downright horrid to want him to stay away for ever."
"Good heavens!" said Bertie.
He was plainly amazed, and she resented his amazement, feeling that in some fashion it placed her in a false position from which she was powerless to extricate herself. The last thing she desired was to take up the cudgels on Nap's behalf, nevertheless she prepared herself to do so as in duty bound. For Nap was a friend, and Dot's loyalty to her friends was very stanch.
"I mean it," she said, sitting up and facing him. "I don't think it's right of you, and it certainly isn't kind. He doesn't deserve to be treated as an outcast. He isn't such a bad sort after all. There is a whole lot of good in him, whatever people may say. You at least ought to know him better. Anyhow, he is a friend of mine, and I won't hear him abused."
Bertie's face changed while she was speaking, grew stern, grew almost implacable.
"Look here," he said plainly, "if you want to know what Nap is, he's a damned blackguard, not fit for you to speak to. So, if you've no objection, we'll shunt him for good and all!"
It was Dot's turn to look amazed. She opened her eyes to their widest extent. "What has he done?"
"Never mind!" said Bertie.
"But I do mind!" Swiftly indignation swamped her surprise. "Why should I shunt him, as you call it, for no reason at all? I tell you frankly, Bertie, I simply won't!"
Her eyes were very bright as she ended. She sat bolt upright obviously girded for battle.
Bertie also looked on the verge of an explosion, but with a grim effort he restrained himself. "I have told you he is unworthy of your friendship," he said. "Let that be enough."
"That's not enough," said Dot. "I think otherwise."
He bit his lip. "Well, if you must have it—so did Lady Carfax till she found out her mistake."
"Lady Carfax!" Dot's face changed. "What about Lady Carfax?"
"She gave him her friendship," Bertie told her grimly, "and he rewarded her with about as foul a trick as any man could conceive. You heard the story of the motor breaking down that day in the summer when he took her for a ride? It was nothing but an infernal trick. He wanted to get her for himself, and it wasn't his fault that he failed. It was in consequence of that that Lucas sent him away."
"Oh!" said Dot. "He was in love with her then!"
"If you call it love," said Bertie. "He is always in love with someone."
Dot's eyes expressed enlightenment. She seemed to have forgotten their difference of opinion. "So that was why he was so cut up," she said. "Of course—of course! I was a donkey not to think of it. What a mercy Sir Giles is dead! Has anyone written to tell him?"
"No," said Bertie shortly.
"But why not? Surely he has a right to know? Lady Carfax herself might wish it."
"Lady Carfax would be thankful to forget his very existence," said Bertie, with conviction.
"My dear boy, how can you possibly tell? Are you one of those misguided male creatures who profess to understand women?"
"I know that Lady Carfax loathes the very thought of him," Bertie maintained. "She is not a woman to forgive and forget very easily. Moreover, as I told you before, no one knows where he is."
"I see," said Dot thoughtfully. "But surely he has a club somewhere?"
"Yes, he belongs to the Phoenix Club, New York, if they haven't kicked him out. But what of that? I'm not going to write to him. I don't want him back, Heaven knows." There was a fighting note in Bertie's voice. He spoke as if prepared to resist to the uttermost any sudden attack upon his resolution.
But Dot attempted none; she abandoned the argument quite suddenly, and nestled against his breast. "Darling, don't let's talk about it any more! It's a subject upon which we can't agree. And I'm sorry I've been so horrid to you. I know it isn't my fault that we haven't quarrelled. Forgive me, dear, and keep on loving me. You do love me, don't you, Bertie?"
"Sweetheart!" he whispered, holding her closely.
She uttered a little muffled laugh. "That's my own boy! And I'm going to be so good, you'll hardly know me. I won't go out in the rain, and I won't do the Clothing Club accounts, and I won't overwork. And—and—I won't be cross, even if I do look and feel hideous. I'm going to be a perfect saint, Bertie."
"Sweetheart!" he said again.
She turned her face up against his neck. "Shall I tell you why?" she said, clinging to him with hands that trembled. "It's because if I let myself get cross-grained and ugly now, p'r'aps someone else—some day—will be cross-grained and ugly too. And I should never forgive myself for that. I should always feel it was my fault. Fancy if it turned out a shrew like me, Bertie! Wouldn't—wouldn't it be dreadful?"
She was half-laughing, half-crying, as she whispered the words. Bertie's arms held her so closely that she almost gasped for breath.
"My precious girl!" he said. "My own precious wife! Is it so? You know, I wondered."
She turned her lips quickly to his. There were tears on her cheeks though she was laughing.
"How bright of you, Bertie! You—you always get there sooner or later, don't you? And you're not cross with me any more? You don't think me very unreasonable about Nap?"
"Oh, damn Nap!" said Bertie, for the second time, with fervour.
"Poor Nap!" said Dot gently.
That evening, when Bertie was at Baronmead, she scribbled a single sentence on a sheet of paper, thrust it into an envelope and directed it to the Phoenix Club, New York.
This done, she despatched a servant to the postoffice with it and sat down before the fire.
"I expect it was wrong of me," she said. "But somehow I can't help feeling he ought to know. Anyway"—Dot's English was becoming lightly powdered with Americanisms, which possessed a very decided charm on her lips—"anyway, it's done, and I won't think any more about it. It's the very last wrong thing I'll do for—ever so long." Her eyes grew soft as she uttered this praiseworthy resolution. She gazed down into the fire with a little smile, and gave herself up to dreams.
THE SLOUGH OF DESPOND
"O God, give me rest!"
Painfully the words came through quivering lips, the first they had uttered for hours. Lucas Errol lay, as he had lain for nearly three months, with his face to the ceiling, his body stretched straight and rigid, ever in the same position, utterly helpless and weary unto death.
Day after day he lay there, never stirring save when they made him bend his knees, an exercise upon which the doctor daily insisted, but which was agony to him. Night after night, sleepless, he waited the coming of the day. His general health varied but little, but his weakness was telling upon him. His endurance still held, but it was wearing thin. His old cheeriness was gone, though he summoned it back now and again with piteous, spasmodic effort. Hope and despair were fighting together in his soul, and at that time despair was uppermost. He had set out with a brave heart, but the goal was still far off, and he was beginning to falter. He had ceased to make any progress, and the sheer monotony of existence was wearing him out. The keen, shrewd eyes were dull and listless. At the opening of the door he did not even turn his head.
And yet it was Anne who entered, Anne with the flush of exercise on her sweet face, her hands full of Russian violets.
"See how busy I have been!" she said. "I am not disturbing you? You weren't asleep?"
"I never sleep," he answered, and he did not look at her or the violets; he kept his eyes upon the ceiling.
She came and sat beside him. "I gathered them all myself," she said. "Don't you want to smell them?"
He moved his lips without replying, and she leaned down, her eyes full of the utmost compassionate tenderness and held the violets to him. He raised a hand with evident effort and fumblingly took her wrist. He pressed the wet flowers against his face.
"It's a shame to bring them here, Lady Carfax," he said, letting her go. "Take them—wear them! I guess they'll be happier with you."
She smiled a little. "Should I have gathered all this quantity for myself? It has taken me nearly an hour."
"You should have told the gardener," he said. "You mustn't go tiring yourself out over me. I'm not worth it." He added, with that kindly courtesy of which adversity had never deprived him, "But I'm real grateful all the same. You mustn't think me unappreciative."
"I don't," she answered gently. "Wouldn't you like them in water?"
"Ah, yes," he said. "Put them near me. I shall smell them if I can't see them. Do you mind closing the window? I can't get warm to-day."
She moved to comply, passing across his line of vision. A moment she stood with the keen sweet air blowing in upon her, a tall, gracious figure in the full flower of comely womanhood, not beautiful, but possessing in every line of her that queenly, indescribable charm which is greater than beauty.
The man caught his breath as he watched her. His brows contracted.
Softly she closed the window and turned. She came back to her chair by his side, drew forward a little table, and began deftly to arrange her flowers.
Several seconds passed before Lucas broke the silence. "It does me good to watch you," he said. "You're always so serene."
She smiled at him across the violets. "You place serenity among the higher virtues?"
"I do," he said simply. "It's such a restful contrast to the strenuousness of life. You make me feel just by looking at you that everything's all right. You bring a peaceful atmosphere in with you, and"—his voice sank a little—"you take it away again when you go."
The smile went out of her grey eyes at his last words, but the steadfastness remained. "Then," she said gently, "I must come more often and stay longer."
But he instantly negatived that. "No—it wouldn't be good for you. It wouldn't be good for me either to get to lean on you too much. I should grow exacting."
She saw a gleam of his old smile as he spoke, but it was gone at once, lost among the countless lines that pain and weariness had drawn of late upon his face.
"I don't think that is very likely," Anne said. "I can't imagine it."
"Not yet perhaps. I haven't quite reached that stage. Maybe I shall be down and out before it comes. God grant it!"
The words were too deliberate to cause her any shock. They were, moreover, not wholly unexpected. There followed a short silence while she finished arranging her violets. Then very quietly she spoke:
"You say that because you are tired."
"I am more than tired," he answered. "I'm done. I'm beaten. I'm whipped off the field."
"You think you are not gaining ground?" she questioned.
"My dear Lady Carfax," he said quietly, "it's no use closing one's eyes to the obvious. I'm losing ground every day—every night."
"But you are not fighting," she said.
"No." He looked at her half-wistfully from under his heavy eyelids. "Do you think me quite despicable? I've done my best."
She was silent. Perhaps she was not fully prepared to cope with this open admission of failure.
"I've done my best," he said again. "But it's outlasted my strength. I'm like a man hanging on to the edge of a precipice. I know every instant that my grip is slackening, and I can't help it. I've got to drop."
"You haven't done your best yet," Anne said, her voice very low. "You've got to hold on to the very end. It may be help is nearer than you think."
"But if I don't want help?" he said. "If it would be more merciful to let me go?"
Again she was silent.
"You know," he said, "life hasn't many inducements. I've put up a fight for it because I gave my promise to Nap before he went. But it isn't good enough to keep on. I can't win through. The odds are too great."
"Do you think Nap would let you stop fighting?" she said.
He smiled again faintly. "I suppose—if he were here—I should subsist on his vitality for a little while. But the end would be the same. Even he can't work miracles."
"Don't you believe in miracles?" Anne said.
He looked at her interrogatively.
"Mr. Errol," she said, "I am going to remind you of something that I think you have forgotten. It was Dr. Capper who told me. It was when you were recovering consciousness after the operation. You sent me a message. 'Tell Anne,' you said, 'I am going to get well.'" She paused a moment, looking at him very steadily. "I don't know why exactly you sent that special message to me, but I have carried it in my heart ever since."
She had moved him at last. She saw a faint glow spread slowly over the tired face. The heavy eyes opened wide to meet her look.
"Did I say that?" he said. "Yes, I had forgotten."
He was silent for a little, gazing full at her with the eyes of one suddenly awakened.
She lowered her own, and bent her face to the violets. Though she had spoken so quietly it had not been without effort. She had not found it easy. Nor did she find his silence easy, implicitly though she trusted him.
Perhaps he understood, for when he spoke at length there was in his voice so reassuring a gentleness that on the instant her embarrassment passed.
"Anne," he said, "do you really want me to get well? Would such a miracle make much difference to you?"
"It would make all the difference in the world," she answered earnestly. "I want it more than anything else in life."
With the words she raised her eyes, found his fixed upon her with an expression so new, so tender, that her heart stirred within her as a flower that expands in sudden sunshine, and the next moment his hand lay between her own, and all doubt, all hesitation had fled.
"But, my dear," he said, "I always thought it was Nap. Surely it was Nap!"
She felt as if something had stabbed her. "No, never!" she said passionately. "Never! It might have been—once—before I knew him. But never since, never since!"
"That so?" said Lucas Errol, and was silent for a little. Then, "Anne"—and the soft drawl had in it a tremor that was almost a break—"I guess I do believe in miracles after all, dear. Anyway," he began to smile, "there are some things in life too mighty for explanation."
His face was turned towards her. There was something in the look it wore that seemed to her in some fashion superb. He was different from other men. That quiet kingliness of his was so natural to him, so sublimely free from arrogance. He was immeasurably greater than his fellows by reason of the very smallness of his self-esteem.
"Guess I must take up my burden again and step out," he said. "You won't catch me slacking any after this. And—if I don't win out, dear, you'll know that it just wasn't possible because God didn't will it so."
"Oh, but you will!" she said, clasping his hand more closely. "You will! God knows how badly I want you."
"His Will be done!" said Lucas Errol. "But I want you too, dearest. I want you too."
His fingers stirred in her hold. It was the merest movement, but she knew his meaning. She slipped to her knees by his side, leaned down and kissed him.
A VOICE THAT CALLED
Christmas came and went—the most peaceful Christmas that Anne had ever known. A wonderful peace had indeed begun to possess her. It was as if after long tossing she had come at last into quiet waters, and a contentment such as she had never known before was hers. Her health had improved in this calm, untroubled atmosphere. She slept without dreaming. She had put all regrets and fears out of her life.
Lucas filled all her thoughts. Had he allowed it, she would have devoted herself exclusively to him, but this he would not have. Very slowly, very painfully, he had struggled out of his Slough of Despond, and what that struggle had meant to him none but himself would ever know. And now that he had made it, and in a measure succeeded, he suffered scarcely less than before. His strength was undoubtedly greater, his spirits were more even; but these were the only visible signs of improvement. The long, sleepless nights with spells of racking pain continued. Perhaps they became less frequent as time went on, but they did not cease.
Anne always knew, though the same brave smile greeted her every day, when he had been through one of these ordeals. He was always so ready to tell her when the news was good, but when it was otherwise his lips were sealed upon the subject. He never uttered a desponding word in her presence.
But still, gradual, often halting though it was, he did make progress. He went forward more than he slipped back. And ever he carried in his eyes the light of a great hope. She knew that he did not despair, even in his own hidden soul.
And day by day her love and admiration for the man grew and spread, filling her life, renewing her youth, transforming her very existence. Day by day she sounded greater depths of a nature that made her feel infinitely small in comparison. Day by day she marvelled afresh at the greatness and the simplicity that went to the making of this man's soul.
No one, save Mrs. Errol, knew of what had passed between them. They scarcely referred to it even in private. There was no need, for the understanding between them was complete. By mutual consent they awaited the coming of Capper and the final miracle.
Slowly the dark, bitter days of January dragged away. The Hunt Ball had been postponed till the following month when the Town Hall, which had been building all the winter, should be complete. Anne, to her dismay, had been unanimously elected to perform the opening ceremony. Her position as Lady of the Manor made her prominent, and, no substitute being forthcoming, she had been obliged reluctantly to consent. Her deep mourning enabled her to avoid any succeeding social function, but, since she had broken her seclusion, she found it impossible to escape the ceremony itself.
She had never enjoyed social prominence, and she was thankful that at the Hunt Ball at least her presence could not be expected. She never thought of the last that she had attended without a shiver. It had been her birthday, and this fact brought it to mind the more persistently. This year she spent the day in the peaceful atmosphere of Baronmead, driving home at length, through the frosty starlight, in the Errols' car.
She strove as she went to put away from her the memory of that other ride of a year ago, when she had been borne swiftly through the darkness as though upon wings, when she had lain back exhausted in her corner and dreamed a strange, vivid dream, while Nap had sat upright beside her, alert, silent, inscrutable, plucking the gloves to tatters between his restless hands.
The vision would not be excluded, strive though she might. She leaned amongst the cushions and closed her eyes, trying to trick herself to drowsiness, but on the instant he was there beside her again, a ruthless, indomitable presence, which would not be ignored. She was glad when she came to her journey's end.
Entering the hall, she gathered up a few letters that lay there, and went straight to her room. With a feeling of unwonted fatigue she dropped into an easy-chair and sat for awhile inert. On her right hand she wore a ring that Lucas had given her only that day.
He had half-apologised for his offering. "If you think it premature, don't wear it!" he had said.
And she had slipped it on to her right hand and worn it ever since.
She recalled the kindling of his tired eyes at her action, and smiled sadly to herself. How little she had to give him after all! And yet he was content!
Sitting there, she raised her hand and looked closely at the gift. It was a complete circle of diamonds. She had never seen such a ring before. It must have cost a fortune. She wondered if she ought to wear it. Again memory began to crowd upon her, strive though she would.
"Do you like diamonds?" asked a casual voice.
Her hand fell into her lap. She sat as one watching a scene upon a stage, rapt and listening. She wanted to rise and move away, to break the magic spell that bound her, to flee—to flee—but she was powerless.
"No," said the voice. "You haven't a passion for anything at present. You will have soon."
There fell a silence in her soul, a brief darkness, then again words, no longer casual, but quick, burning, passionate.
"I am mad—I am mad for you, Anne! Goddess—queen—woman—you are mine—you are mine—you are mine!" And then, less fiery, less vehement, but infinitely more compelling: "Where is your love for me? I will swear that you loved me once!"
The voice ceased, was lost in the wild throbbing of her heart, and Anne's hands clenched unconsciously. In that moment there came to her the conviction, inexplicable but extraordinarily vivid, that across the world Nap Errol had called to her—and had called in vain.
Minutes passed. She sat as one in a trance. Her eyes were wide and fixed. Her face was grey.
She rose at last and stood looking down into the red depths of the fire. The coals sank together under her eyes, and a sudden flame flared fiercely for a moment and died. It was like the opening and the shutting of a furnace door. A long, long shiver went through her. She turned away....
Anne Carfax did not look in her glass again that day. For the third time in her life she was afraid to meet her own eyes.
And all night long her brain thrummed like a vibrating wire to a voice that sometimes pleaded but more often gibed. "Has the Queen no further use for her jester?"
THE UNINVITED GUEST
Spring came early that year, and the day fixed for the opening of the Baronford Town Hall was brilliantly fine and warm. Anne was staying at Baronmead for the event. The end of February was approaching. Lucas was decidedly better. His sleep was becoming less broken. He suffered considerably less; and he took a keen interest in all that passed.
On the morning before the ceremony he greeted Anne with an eagerness that almost amounted to impatience. "Come in! Come in! I've something to show you."
He was alone. She went to his side and kissed him.
His hands caught hers, and she marvelled at the strength of his grip. "Sweetheart," he said, "I've had a letter from Capper."
She felt the blood ebb suddenly from her face. She stood a moment in silence, then sat down and pressed his hand close against her heart.
"What does he say?" she asked.
He looked at her oddly for a few seconds. Then: "It's good news, dear," he said. "You mustn't let it scare you."
She began to smile, though her lips were trembling. "No, of course not. Tell me what he says."
He gave her the letter and she read. Capper wrote that he had received an excellent report from Dr. Randal of his patient's progress, that he expected to be in England in about a fortnight and would come down himself to ascertain if the time for the second operation had arrived. He wrote in a cheery strain, and at the end of the letter was a postscript: "Have you taken my advice yet with regard to la femme?"
"An ancient joke," explained Lucas with a smile. "He told me long ago that I should need a woman's help to pull me through. And"—his voice dropped—"I guess he was right."
The colour came back to her face. She pressed his hand without speaking.
"I shouldn't be here now but for you, Anne," he said, his blue eyes watching her. "I sometimes think it must have been a mortal strain upon you. Have you felt it so very badly, I wonder?"
She met his look with eyes grown misty. "Luke—my dearest—you have done far greater things for me. You have kept me from starvation. You have no idea what you are to me."
The words came brokenly. She checked a sudden sob and, rising, moved to the window.
Lucas lay silent, but his eyes watched her with a great tenderness.
When she came back to him she was smiling. "Have you ever begun to think of what you will do when you are well?" she said.
"I am thinking of it always," he answered. "I make wonderful pictures for myself sometimes. You are the central figure of them all."
She clasped his hand again in hers. "Lucas," she said, "will you take me away?"
"Yes, dear," he said.
"Far away from anywhere I have ever been before?" Her voice shook a little. "I want to begin life over again where everything is new."
A certain shrewdness gleamed in the steady eyes that watched her, but it was mingled with the utmost kindness.
"I guess I'd better show you my best picture right now," he said. "It's got a steam yacht in it, and a state cabin fit for a queen. And it goes rocking around the world, looking for the Happy Islands. I guess we shall find them some day, sweetheart—maybe sooner than we think."
"Ah, yes," she said. "We won't stop looking till we do. How soon shall we start, Luke?"
He answered her with a smile, but there was a thrill of deep feeling in his words. "Just as soon as I can stand on my feet like any other man, Anne, and hold the woman I love in my arms."
She bent her face suddenly, pressing her cheek to the hand she held. "I am ready for you when ever you will," she murmured.
"I know it," he said. "And God bless you for telling me so!"
He was full of kindness to her that day, and she thought him cheerier than he had been all the winter. When she bade him good-bye that afternoon he seemed in excellent spirits. Yet after she was gone he lay for a long while staring at the specks of dust that danced in a shaft of sunlight, with the air of a man seeking the solution of a problem that baffled him. And once very suddenly he sighed.
Anne went through the ordeal of publicity with less embarrassment than she had anticipated. Mrs. Errol was with her, and she was surrounded by friends. Even Major Shirley deigned to look upon her with a favourable eye. Bertie was hunting, but Dot was present to view the final achievement of her favourite scheme.
She seized the first opportunity to slip her arm through Anne's. "Do—do come home with me to tea," she whispered very urgently. "I want to show you some things I have been making. And make the dear mater come too, if someone else doesn't snap her up first."
But the dear mater was already snapped up, and Anne had some difficulty in avoiding a like fate.
Eventually, however, she succeeded in making her escape, and she and Dot drove back to the Dower House, congratulating themselves.
"I am lucky to get you all to myself," Dot said. "And do you know, dear Lady Carfax, you are looking simply lovely to-day?"
Anne smiled a little. She had discarded her widow's veil for the first time, and she felt like a woman emerging from a long imprisonment. People would call it premature, she knew. Doubtless they were already discussing her not too charitably. But after all, why should she consider them? The winter was past and over, and the gold of the coming spring was already dawning. Why should she mourn? Were not all regrets put away for ever?
"I wish you would call me Anne, Dot," she said.
"To be sure I will," said Dot, with shining eyes. "I never liked the name before I knew you. And now I love it."
There was something wonderfully genuine and childlike about Dot, a youthfulness that would probably cling to her all her life. Anne drew her on to speak of herself and her coming happiness, which she did with that cheery simplicity of hers that had first drawn Bertie to her.
"He makes a tremendous fuss," she said, displaying Bertie's favourite dimple at the thought. "I don't, you know. I somehow feel it's going to be all right. But it's rather nice being petted for months together. I haven't had a tantrum for ages. I'm afraid I'm getting spoilt."
At which piece of logic Anne could not repress a smile.
"He won't be home to tea," said Dot, when they finally turned in at the Dower House. "He stables his hunters at Baronmead, and he is sure to go in and see Luke. So we shall have it all to ourselves. I'm so glad, for I have been wanting your advice for days. I wonder if anyone has been. Hullo! Bertie's back after all!"
A glow of firelight met them from the little square hall as they entered, and a smell of cigarette smoke mingled with the scent from the burning logs.
Dot stood back for her guest to precede her, but Anne stood suddenly still.
"Hullo!" said Dot again.
A slim, straight figure was standing outlined against the firelight. Dot stared as she stepped forward.
"Why—Nap!" she said incredulously.
He made a swift, elastic movement to meet her, caught her hands, laughed, and kissed her.
"Why—Dot!" he said.
Dot continued to stare. "Good gracious!" she said.
And in the doorway Anne stood like a statue, the soft spring dusk behind her.
"My sister seems surprised," said Nap. "I hope I haven't come at an unlucky moment."
He did not even glance towards the silent figure in the doorway. It was as if he had not observed it.
"I am surprised," said Dot. "Hugely surprised. But I'm very glad to see you," she added. "When did you come?"
"I have been here about half an hour," he told her coolly. "I went to the Rectory first, where I learned for the first time of your marriage. You forgot to mention that detail when you wrote. Hence my brotherly salute, which you must have missed on your wedding-day!"
At this point Dot remembered her other guest, and turned with flushed cheeks. "Lady Carfax—Anne—you—you know my brother-in-law Nap?"
The pleading in her voice was unmistakable. She was evidently agitated, wholly at a loss how to manage a most difficult situation.
But Nap hastened to relieve her of the responsibility. He had dealt with difficult situations before. He went straight to Anne and stood before her.
"Are you going to know me, Lady Carfax?" he asked.
There was no arrogance in voice or bearing as he uttered the question. He looked as if he expected to be dismissed, as if he were ready at a word to turn and go. His eyes were lowered. His foot was already on the threshold.
But Anne stood speechless and rigid. For those few seconds she was as one stricken with paralysis. She knew that if she moved or tried to speak she would faint.
She wondered desperately how long it would be before he looked up, if perhaps he would go without looking at her, or if—ah, he was speaking again! His words reached her as from an immense distance. At the same instant his hands came to her out of a surging darkness that hid all things, grasping, sustaining, compelling. She yielded to them, scarcely knowing what she did.
"Lady Carfax has been overtiring herself," she heard him say. "Have you any brandy at hand?"
"Oh, dear Lady Carfax!" cried Dot in distress. "Make her sit down, Nap. Here is a cushion. Yes, I'll go and get some."
Guided by those steady hands, Anne sank into a chair, and there the constriction that bound her began to pass. She shivered from head to foot.
Nap stooped over her and chafed her icy hands. He did not look at her or speak. When Dot came back, he took the glass from her and held it very quietly to the quivering lips.
She drank, responsive to his unspoken insistence, and as she did so, for a single instant she met his eyes. They were darkly inscrutable and gave her no message of any sort. She might have been accepting help from a total stranger.
"No more, please!" she whispered, and he took the glass away.
The front door was still open. He drew it wider, and the evening air blew in across her face. Somewhere away in the darkness a thrush was warbling softly. Nap stood against the door and waited. Dot knelt beside her, holding her hand very tightly.
"I am better," Anne said at last. "Forgive me, dear child. I suppose it has been—too much for me."
"My dear, dear Anne!" said Dot impulsively. "Would you like to come into the drawing-room? There is tea there. But of course we will have it here if you prefer it."
"No," Anne said. "No. We will go to the drawing-room."
She prepared to rise, and instantly Nap stepped forward. But he did not offer to touch her. He only stood ready.
When he saw that she had so far recovered herself as to be able to move with Dot's assistance, he dropped back.
"I am going, Dot," he said. "You will do better without me. I will look in again later."
And before Dot could agree or protest he had stepped out into the deepening twilight and was gone.
THE HEART OF A SAVAGE
It had certainly been a successful afternoon. Mrs. Errol smiled to herself as she drove back to Baronmead. Everything had gone well. Dear Anne had looked lovely, and she for one was thankful that she had discarded her widow's weeds. Had not her husband been virtually dead to her for nearly a year? Besides—here Mrs. Errol's thoughts merged into a smile again—dear Anne was young, not much more than a girl in years. Doubtless she would marry again ere long.
At this point Mrs. Errol floated happily away upon a voyage of day-dreams that lasted till the car stopped. So engrossed was she that she did not move for a moment even then. Not until the door was opened from outside did she bestir herself. Then, still smiling, she prepared to descend.
But the next instant she checked herself with a violent start that nearly threw her backwards. The man at the step who stood waiting to assist her was no servant.
"My!" she gasped. "Is it you, Nap, or your ghost?"
"It's me," said Nap.
Very coolly he reached out a hand and helped her to descend. "We have arrived at the same moment," he said. "I've just walked across the park. How are you, alma mater?"
She did not answer him or make response of any sort to his greeting. She walked up the steps and into the house with leaden feet. The smile had died utterly from her face. She looked suddenly old.
He followed her with the utmost composure, and when she stopped proceeded to divest her of her furs with the deftness of movement habitual to him.
Abruptly she spoke, in her voice a ring of something that was almost ferocity. "What have you come back for anyway?"
He raised his eyebrows slightly without replying.
But Mrs. Errol was not to be so silenced. Her hands fastened with determination upon the front of his coat. "You face me, Napoleon Errol," she said. "And answer me honestly. What have you come back for? Weren't there enough women on the other side to keep you amused?"
He shrugged his shoulders. "Women in plenty—amusement none. Moreover, I didn't go to be amused. Where is Lucas?"
"Don't you go to Lucas till I've done with you," said Mrs. Errol. "You come right along to my room first."
"What for?" He stood motionless, suffering her restraining hands, the beginning of a smile about his lips.
"There's something I've got to tell you," she said.
"Lead the way then, alma mater!" he said. "I am very much at your service."
Mrs. Errol turned without further words, and he, with her sables flung across his shoulder, prepared to follow. She moved up the stairs as if she were very weary. The man behind her walked with the elasticity of a cat.
But there was no lack of resolution about her when in her own room she turned and faced him. There was rather something suggestive of a mother animal at bay.
"Nap," she said, and her deep voice quivered, "if there's any right feeling in you, if you are capable of a single spark of affection, of gratitude, you'll turn around right now and go back to the place you came from."
Nap deposited his burden on the back of a chair. His dark face was devoid of the faintest shadow of expression. "That so?" he drawled. "I thought you seemed mighty pleased to see me."
"Lock that door!" said Mrs. Errol. "Now come and sit here where you can see my face and know whether I am telling the truth."
He smiled at that. "I don't require ocular evidence, alma mater. I have always been able to read you with my eyes shut."
"I believe you have, Nap," she said, with a touch of wistfulness.
"It isn't your fault," he said, "that you weren't made subtle enough. You've done your best."
He came and sat down facing her as she desired. The strong electric light beat upon his face also, but it revealed nothing to her anxious eyes—nothing save that faint, cynical smile that masked so much.
She shook her head. She was clasping and unclasping her hands restlessly. "A very poor best, Nap," she said. "I know only too well how badly I've failed. It never seemed to matter till lately, and now I would give the eyes out of my head to have a little influence with you."
"That so?" he said again.
She made a desperate gesture. "Yes, you sit there and smile. It doesn't matter to you who suffers so long as you can grab what you want."
"How do you know what I want?" he said.
"I don't know," said Mrs. Errol. "I only surmise."
"And you think that wise? You are not afraid of tripping up in the dark?"
She stretched out her hands to him in sudden earnest entreaty. "Nap, tell me that it isn't Anne Carfax, and I'll bless you with my dying breath!"
But he looked at her without emotion. He took her hands after a moment, but it was the merest act of courtesy. He did not hold them.
"And if it were?" he said slowly, his hard eyes fixed on hers.
She choked back her agitation with the tears running down her face. "Then God help Lucas—and me too—for it will be his death-blow!"
"Lucas?" said Nap.
He did not speak as if vitally interested, yet she answered as if compelled.
"He loves her. He can't do without her. She has been his mainstay all through the winter. He would have died without her."
Nap passed over the information as though it were of no importance. "He is no better then?" he asked.
"Yes, he is better. But he has been real sick. No one knows what he has come through, and there is that other operation still to be faced. I'm scared to think of it. He hasn't the strength of a mouse. It's only the thought of Anne that makes him able to hold on. I can see it in his eyes day after day—the thought of winning out and making her his wife."
Again he passed the matter over. "When does Capper come again?"
"Very soon now. In two or three weeks. There was a letter from him to-day, Lucas was quite excited about it, but I fancy it upset dear Anne some. You see—she loves him too."
There fell a silence. Mrs. Errol wiped her eyes and strove to compose herself. Somehow he had made her aware of the futility of tears. She wondered what was passing in his mind as he sat there sphinx-like, staring straight before him. Had she managed to reach his heart, she wondered? Or was there perchance no heart behind that inscrutable mask to reach? Yet she had always believed that after his own savage fashion he had loved Lucas.
Suddenly he rose. "If you have quite done with me, alma mater, I'll go."
She looked up at him apprehensively. "What are you going to do?"
He smiled abruptly. "I am going to get a drink."
"And what then?" she asked feverishly. "Nap, oh, Nap, she is staying in the house. Won't you go without seeing her?"
"I have seen her already," drawled Nap.
"You have seen her?"
His smile became contemptuous. "What of it? Do you seriously suppose she is the only woman in the world I care to look at?"
"I don't know what to think," cried Mrs. Errol. "I only know that you hold Luke's fate between your hands."
He was already at the door. He turned and briefly bowed. "You flatter me, alma mater!" he said.
And with the smile still upon his lips he left her.
THE DIVINE SPARK
"Boney, old chap, you're the very man I want!" Such was Lucas Errol's greeting to the man who had shot like a thunderbolt into the peaceful atmosphere that surrounded him, to the general disturbance of all others who dwelt therein.
"I guess you must have known it," he said, the sinewy hand fast gripped in his. "You've come like an answer to prayer. Where have you been all this time? And why didn't you write? It's worried me some not hearing."
"Great Lucifer!" said Nap.
He sat down, leaving his hand in his brother's grasp. The cynicism had gone utterly from his face, but he did not answer either question.
"So you are winning out?" he said. "It's been a long trail, I'll wager."
"Oh, damnably long, Boney." Lucas uttered a weary sigh. "I was nearly down and out in the winter. But I'm better, you know. I'm better." He met the open criticism of Nap's eyes with a smile. "What's the verdict?" he asked.
"I'll tell you presently. You're not looking overfed anyway." Nap's fingers began to feel along his wrist. "Did Capper say he wanted a skeleton to work on?"
"Shucks, dear fellow! There's more than enough of me. Tell me about yourself. What have you been doing? I want to know."
"I?" Nap jerked back his head. "I've nothing to tell," he declared. "You know what I went to do. Well, I've done it, and that's all there is to it."
"I'm not quite clear as to what you went to do," Lucas answered. "You didn't turn up in Arizona. I was puzzled what to think."
"You never expected me to go to Arizona," said Nap with conviction. "You were shrewd enough for that."
"Thanks, Boney! P'r'aps I was. But I've been hoping all this while, nevertheless, that you might have the grit to keep the devil at arm's length."
Nap laughed, stretched his arms above his head, and made a vehement gesture as if flinging something from him—something that writhed and clung.
"Will it interest you to know that the devil has ceased to provide me with distractions?" he asked suddenly.
A certain eagerness came into the blue eyes. "That so, Boney?"
Nap leaned back and stared at the ceiling. "It's no virtue of mine," he said. "I found I wanted solitude, so I went to the Rockies and stayed there till I was tired. That's all."
Again the skeleton hand of the man on the bed sought and pressed his. "Old chap, I'm real glad," the tired voice drawled. "You've found yourself at last. I always felt you would—sooner or later."
Nap's lips twitched a little. "Don't be too sure of that. Anyway it doesn't follow that I shall sit at home and practise the domestic virtues. I've got to wander a bit first and find my own level."
"Not yet, dear fellow. I'm wanting you myself."
"You!" The thin lips began to smile. "That's real magnanimous of you. But—thanks all the same—I'm not taking any. You have the mater and Bertie and Anne Carfax to bolster you up. I guess I'm not essential."
"And I guess you can do more for me than any one of them," Lucas made quiet reply. "P'r'aps you'll think me a selfish brute to say so, but I need you badly. You're like a stimulating drug to me. You pick me up when I'm down. There is no one can help me in the same way."
"You wouldn't get Capper to say 'Amen' to that," remarked Nap.
"Capper is no oracle out of his own sphere. Besides," there was almost a note of pleading in Lucas's voice, "I know what I want better than he can tell me."
"True, very true!" Nap was smiling somewhat grimly. "And doubtless your wish is law. But it doesn't follow that you always desire what is best for yourself. Hadn't you better consult the queen before you admit the wasp to the hive?"
"You're too fond of talking in parables, my son," protested Lucas, frowning slightly. "My intelligence won't stretch to it."
"We'll try another," said Nap imperturbably. "Do you think Anne Carfax would thank you for asking me to pull in the same boat? Do you think she would second that request? Because, if so, I beg to differ."
He looked his brother full in the face as he said it, without the flicker of an eyelid. Lucas's frown deepened. He lay in silence.
After a moment Nap went on. "She may be ready to put up with it for your sake. There's nothing some women won't do for a man they care for, and I take it she has your welfare next her heart. But it's rather much to ask of her. You wouldn't want to run the risk of frightening her away."
Lucas was watching him gravely, his brows still drawn. "Boney," he said slowly at length, "I'd give a good deal to see into your soul."
Nap smiled with a faint return of cynicism. "Who's talking in parables now? Afraid I can't show you what I haven't got."
Lucas passed the rejoinder by. "What makes you conclude that I am more to her than—any other man?"
"Circumstances," said Nap.
"Finding her installed here as one of the family for one. Finding you pulling off the biggest deal of your life for another. And other signs—crowds of them—that I can't explain but that I can't fail to notice when I've got my nose to the trail. You needn't be shy about it. I'm just as pleased as you are."
But Lucas's face did not clear. There followed a very decided pause. Then, with an effort, very earnestly, he spoke.
"Nap, I don't believe you'll lie to me when I tell you that I'd rather die than be deceived. I know you cared for her once."
"I care for most women," said Nap indifferently. "What of that? It's the way I'm made, and I must say they don't most of 'em seem to mind."
"But, Boney—Anne Carfax?"
Nap threw up his head with a brief laugh. "Oh, I'm cured of that—quite cured. The paths of perpetual virtue are not for me. I prefer more rapid travelling and a surer goal."
He stood up, his arms stretched up above his head. "I make you a present of Anne Carfax," he said lightly. "Not that she is mine to give. But I wouldn't keep her if she were. We belong to different spheres."
"And yet—" Lucas said.
"My dear fellow, that's an old story." Impulsively Nap cut in, almost fierily. "Do you think the woman is living who could hold me after all this time? I tell you that fire is burnt out. Why rake over the dead ashes?"
"I am looking for the Divine Spark," Lucas answered quietly.
"And if you found it?" Nap's words came through smiling lips, and yet they sounded savage.
"If I found it," very steadily came the answer, "I would blow it to a flame, Boney, for your sake—and hers."
"For hers?" Something fierce showed in Nap's eyes. It was as if a goaded animal suddenly looked out of them.
Lucas must have seen it, for on the instant his manner changed.
"We won't go any further," he said. "Only, dear fellow, I can't part with you yet. Let that be understood. I want you."
"So be it!" said Nap. "I will stay and see you married."
And with the words he stooped and grasped his brother's hand for a moment.
"Go on and prosper, Luke," he said. "It's high time that you came into your own."
THE QUEEN'S PARDON
As soon as Anne entered Baronmead that evening she was aware of a difference. Bertie, with a thunderous countenance, came forward to meet her. She had not seen him wear that look in all the months of Nap's absence.
"The prodigal has returned," he told her briefly. "P'r'aps you know."
She did not pretend to misunderstand him. She had schooled herself to face the situation without shrinking.
"Yes, I know," she said. "I met him at your house an hour ago."
"At my house!" For a single instant Bertie looked downright murderous, and then the sight of Anne's pale face made him restrain himself.
"He didn't stay," she said rather wearily. "What of Luke? Has he seen him?"
"Can't understand Luke," muttered Bertie. "He's actually pleased. Say, Lady Carfax, would it help any if I were to stop and dine?"
"No," Anne said, smiling a little. "Go back to Dot, won't you? She is expecting you."
She saw that he was glad to follow her suggestion, and she was undoubtedly glad to see him go. He was plainly in an explosive mood.
Mrs. Errol came to her room while she was dressing. But Mrs. Errol had had ample time to compose herself. She showed no agitation, and spoke of Nap's unexpected arrival as if she were quite indifferent to his comings and goings; but she hovered about Anne with a protecting motherliness that did not need to express itself in words. When they went downstairs she held Anne's arm very closely.
But the ordeal that both were mutely dreading did not take place that night. Nap did not present himself at the dinner-table, and they dined alone in unspoken relief.
Anne went to Lucas as usual when the meal was over, but she thought he seemed tired and she did not remain with him long.
He kept her hand for a moment when she stooped to bid him good-night.
"Anne," he said gently, "I just want you to know, dear, that Nap will be all right. Don't be anxious any. There is no need."
He desired to reassure her, she saw; and she bent and kissed him. And then for a moment a queer gust of passion possessed her, shook her from head to foot.
"Oh, Luke," she whispered, "can't you send him away again?"
He looked up at her oddly, with eyes that seemed to see beyond her. And then, "Good-night, dear," he said, as if he had not heard.
She turned from him in silence. It was the first time she had ever appealed to Lucas Errol in vain.
She went to her room early that night. She told herself she must leave on the morrow. She was urged by a deep unrest. She could not remain under the same roof with this man who had once so cruelly tortured her. She could not. Lucas must understand this. He must never ask it of her, never—never!
She did not in the least understand the latter's attitude. The more she thought of it, the more it troubled her. She felt as if he had suddenly ceased to be on her side, had, as it were, shut off his sympathy and left her groping and alone. It was not like him to treat her thus. It hurt her subtly, wounding her as she had never expected to be wounded, shaking her faith in what she had ever believed to be immutable. And then she remembered the physical weakness with which he had wrestled so long, and a great pity flooded her heart. She would not let herself be hurt any longer. Was he not reserving his strength for her sake? And could she not, for his, face bravely this sudden obstacle that had arisen in her path? Moreover, had he not told her that all would be well? And he had said it as one who knew. Why, then, was she harbouring this wild dismay?
Why? Why? She asked the question, but she did not seek the answer. She dared not.
And yet in the morning she went down with a calm aspect, resolute and unafraid. Once more she was compelling herself to do simply that which lay nearest to her hand.
Nap came out of a room near the foot of the stairs as she descended. He scarcely looked at her, but quite obviously he had been awaiting her coming.
"May I have two words with you before you join the mater?" he asked.
With her whole soul she wanted to refuse. Yet without visible hesitation she yielded. She turned aside into the room he had just quitted.
He followed, and, closing the door, came forward to the table. It was littered with guns and cleaning apparatus. He had evidently been employing himself while he waited, and he at once took up an oily rag and resumed operations, his swarthy face bent over his task, his lips very firmly compressed.
Anne waited for a moment or two. His attitude puzzled her. She had become so accustomed to the fierce directness of his stare that its absence disconcerted her.
"What is it you wish to say to me?" she asked at length.
At the first sound of her voice he ceased to work, but still he did not raise his eyes.
"On my own account—nothing," he said, speaking very deliberately. "But as my sojourn here may be an offence to you, I think it advisable to explain at the outset that I am not a free agent. My brother has decreed it, and as you know"—a hint of irony crept into his voice—"his will is my law."
"I understand," said Anne gravely, but even as she spoke she was asking herself what possible motive had prompted this explanation.
He jerked up his head and she caught the glint of his fiery eyes for an instant. "You—care for Lucas, Lady Carfax?" he said.
Her heart gave a sudden throb that hurt her intolerably. For a moment she could not speak.
Then, "Yes," she said. "I love him."
Nap was pulling mechanically at the rag he held. It began to tear between his hands. She watched him ripping it to shreds.
Suddenly he seemed to realise what he was doing, and tossed it from him. He looked her straight in the eyes.
"Have you fixed the date for your coronation?" he asked.
Her eyes fell instantly. "Will you tell me what you mean?" she said.
"Is my meaning obscure?"
She compelled herself to answer him steadily. "If you mean our marriage, it will not take place for some time, possibly not this year."
"Why not?" said Nap. "Are you a slave to etiquette?"
The thing sounded preposterous on his lips. She faintly smiled. "The decision does not lie with me."
"Ah!" he said shrewdly. "The privilege of kings! You will still be a queen before you are thirty. And your first act will be to expel the court jester—if he waits to be expelled."
She saw his grim smile for an instant, and knew that he was playing his old fencing game with her, but at the same time she knew that there was no antagonism behind his point. How the knowledge came to her she could not have said, but she realised afterwards that it was at that moment that she began to perceive that the devil had gone out of Nap Errol. The conviction was slow in growing, but it was then that it first took root; it was then that her fear of the man began to die away.
She raised her eyes. "Why should I do that, Nap?"
He made her a deep bow. "Because I have been unfortunate enough to incur your displeasure."
There was a moment of silence, then, in obedience to that instinct to which in rare moments she yielded herself and which never played her false, Anne held out her hand to him. "I forgive you," she said.
He started. He evidently had not expected that from her. Perhaps he had not wanted it. Later she wondered. But he showed no awkwardness of indecision. Only once had she ever seen him at a loss, and of that once she would never voluntarily think again.
He took her hand upon his sleeve and bent over it. She thought he was going to kiss it, and a sharp dread went through her. But he only touched it for a single instant with his forehead.
"For Luke's sake?" he said, not looking at her.
"For your own," she made answer, almost as if she could not help herself.
"Because?" he questioned.
"Because I know you love him," she said. "Because I know that you will be loyal to him."
"Though I may be false to you?" he said.
She bent her head. "I am only a woman. I am afraid your experience of women has not taught you to respect them."
He picked up the gun again and fell to work upon it. "My experience of one woman at least," he said, "has taught me—something different, something I am not likely to forget."
It was the end of the interview. In silence Anne turned to go. He wheeled round and opened the door for her, but he did not look at her again, nor she at him. When the door closed between them she felt as if a great silence had fallen in her life.
On the day succeeding Nap's return Dot went to tea at Baronmead. She was a very constant visitor there. Lucas always enjoyed her bright presence and welcomed her with warmth. But Dot was not feeling very bright that day. She looked preoccupied, almost worried.
She found that Mrs. Errol and Anne had gone out, and, as her custom was when she found the house deserted, she went straight to her brother-in-law's room.
Tawny Hudson answered her knock at the outer door, and she was struck by the lowering look the great half-breed wore. His expression was positively villainous, and sharp as a pin-prick there darted through her the memory of her first visit to Baronmead, and the hatred of Nap Errol she had that day seen revealed in the man's eyes. She had never given the matter a thought since. To-day it awoke to life, stirring within her a vague apprehension.
"How is your master, Tawny?" she asked.
"He is not so well, madam," said Tawny Hudson, but he opened the door wide notwithstanding, inviting her to enter.
She went in. The room adjoined that in which Lucas lay, and Hudson was always there when not actually in attendance upon his master, except in his off hours, which were as few as Lucas would permit.
"May I see him?" said Dot. "Or would he rather not be disturbed?"
Hudson stepped to the closed door and listened, his great red head bent almost to the keyhole.
After a few moments he stood up and softly turned the handle. He made a brief sign to her and passed noiselessly into the room.
Dot remained where she was. She heard Lucas accost him at once, and caught the murmur of the man's low-spoken reply. And then in a moment Hudson came back to her.
"Will you go in, madam?" he said, in his careful English that always made her think of an animal that had been taught to speak.
She went in, treading lightly, relieved to leave the man's heavy scowling visage behind her.
"Come right in," said Lucas hospitably. "It's real good of you to come and see me like this."
She took his outstretched hand, looking at him anxiously. She saw that he had not slept for many hours. Though he smiled at her, there was a grey look about his lips that made her wonder if he were in pain.
"Sit down," he said gently. "It's nothing. Only another bad night. I can't expect to sleep soundly always."
"How disappointing!" Dot murmured.
"Not surprising though. I had an exciting day yesterday. You heard of Nap's return?"
"Yes." There was a very decided cloud upon Dot's face. "I saw him."
"Well?" said Lucas.
She turned to him impulsively. "Isn't it horrid when the thing you've been planning for and wanting ever so long happens and everyone else is cross?"
The blue eyes looked quizzical. "Very, I should say," said Lucas. "Would it be presumptuous to ask what has been happening and who is cross?"
Dot's answering smile held more of pathos than mirth. Her lips took a quivering, downward droop. "It's Nap," she said.
He raised his brows a little. "Nap seems the general pivot on which all grievances turn," he remarked.
Dot leaned her chin on her hand. "I do so hate making mistakes," she said.
"We all do it," said Lucas.
"Oh, you don't!" She turned and gravely regarded him. "You are always wise," she said, "never headlong."
"Which only demonstrates your ignorance and the kindness of your heart," said Lucas. "But go on, won't you? What has Nap been doing?"
"Oh, nothing. Nap is all right. It isn't Nap I mind." Again that doleful droop of the lips became apparent, together with a little quiver of the voice undeniably piteous. "It—it's Bertie," whispered Dot. "I—I—it's very ridiculous, isn't it? I'm a wee bit afraid of Bertie, do you know?"
"St. Christopher!" said Lucas, in astonishment.
"Yes. But you won't ever tell him, will you?" she pleaded anxiously. "If—if he knew or guessed—all my prestige would be gone. I shouldn't be able to manage him at all. He—he is rather difficult to manage sometimes, don't you think?"
Lucas was frowning slightly. "I guess I can manage him," he said.
"No doubt you could. I expect you always have. He respects you," said Dot, with unwitting wistfulness.
Lucas turned his head and looked at her very steadily. "Will you tell me something, Dot?" he said.
"Why are you afraid of Bertie?"
"Come!" he said. "Surely you're not afraid of me too!"
The banter in his voice was touched with a tenderness that went straight to Dot's young heart. She leaned down impetuously and held his hand.
"No," she said tremulously. "I'm not such a little idiot as that, Luke. I'm afraid of Bertie because I've done something he wouldn't like. It's a very little thing, Luke. It is, really. But—but it's bothered me off and on all the winter. And now that Nap is home, I feel much worse—as if—as if it had been really wrong. And—and"—she broke down suddenly—"I know I ought to tell him. But—I can't."
"Tell me," said Lucas gently.
"And you will tell him for me?"
"If you wish me to do so."
"I don't like it," sobbed Dot. "It's so despicable of me. I've wanted to tell him for ever so long. But he has been so good to me all this time, and—and somehow I couldn't face it. We haven't even squabbled for months now. It—it seemed such a pity to spoil everything when it really didn't make any difference to anyone if he knew or not."
"Don't cry," interposed Lucas. "It would hurt Bertie if he knew."
"Dear Bertie!" whispered Dot. "Isn't it horrid of me to be such a coward? I haven't done anything really wrong either. In fact at the time it seemed almost right."
"Almost!" said Lucas, faintly smiling.
She smiled also through her tears. "Why don't you call me a humbug? Well, listen! It was like this. One night in the beginning of the winter Bertie and I had a disagreement about Nap. It wasn't at all important. But I had to stick up for him, because I had chanced to see him just before he left in the summer—you remember—when he was very, very miserable?"
"I remember," said Lucas.
He spoke rather wearily, but his eyes never left her face. He was listening intently.
"And I was frightfully sorry for him," proceeded Dot, "though at the time I didn't know what was the matter. And I couldn't let Bertie say horrid things about him. So I fired up. And then Bertie told me"—she faltered a little—"about Nap caring for Lady Carfax. And that was where the trouble began. He didn't give him credit for really loving her, whereas I knew he did."
Strong conviction sounded in Dot's voice. The blue eyes that watched her opened a little.
"That so?" said Lucas.
"Oh, I was sure," she said. "I was sure. There are some things a woman can't help knowing. It was the key to what I knew before. I understood—at once."
"And then?" said Lucas.
"Then, of course, I remembered that Lady Carfax was free. And I asked Bertie if he knew. You see, I thought it possible that in her heart she might be caring for him too. I knew they had always been friends. And Sir Giles was such a brute to her. No woman could ever have loved him. I think most people couldn't help knowing that. And it seemed only fair that Nap should know that Sir Giles was dead. I told Bertie so. He didn't agree with me." Dot paused and vigorously dried her eyes. "I still don't think he was right," she said.
"P'r'aps not." Lucas spoke meditatively. "There's a good deal to be said for woman's intuition," he said.
"It seemed to me a matter of fair play," maintained Dot. "He didn't know where Nap was, only his club address. And he wouldn't write himself, so I just wrote a single line telling Nap that Sir Giles was dead, and sent it off that night. I didn't tell Bertie. It didn't seem to matter much then, and I knew it might be ages before Nap got it. But now that that line has brought him back, I feel as if he ought to know—particularly as Bertie is so angry with him for returning. And Anne too—Anne nearly fainted when she saw him. I felt as if I had landed everybody in a hopeless muddle." Again Dot wiped her eyes. "And I had so wanted him to come," she ended.
"Don't fret," said Lucas very kindly. "I wanted him too."
She looked at him eagerly. "You think as I do? You think he cares for Anne?"
"I guess so," he answered, "since your letter brought him back."
"And—and Anne? Do you think—do you really think—?"
"I guess so," he said again.
He lay silent for a while, his eyes drooping heavily, till she even began to wonder if he were falling asleep.
At length, "Dot," he said, "have I your permission to make what use I like of this?"
She gave a slight start. "You are going to tell Bertie?"
He looked at her. "My dear," he said, "I think Bertie had better know."
She nodded. "I know he ought. But he will be furious with me."
"Not if I talk to him," said Lucas, with his quiet smile.
"But it's so mean of me," she protested. "And I'm sure it's bad for you."
He reached out his hand to her. "No, it isn't bad for me, Dot. It's just the best thing possible. You've put me in the way of something great."
She squeezed his hand. "Do you really think you can make things go right?"
"Under God," said Lucas gravely.
A FRIENDLY UNDERSTANDING
Notwithstanding Lucas's assurance, Dot awaited her husband's coming in undisguised trepidation that night.
She had not seen Nap since that brief glimpse of him in the hall when Anne had so nearly swooned. She did not so much as know if Bertie had seen him at all. They had not met on the previous evening, but Bertie's aspect had been so thunderous ever since he had heard of his return that she had been on thorns lest he should present himself again at the Dower House. That he would come sooner or later she knew, but she hoped with all her heart that it might not be when Bertie was at home.
She was convinced, moreover, that Bertie was going to be very angry with her, and her heart sank the more she thought of it. Bertie's anger had become a hard thing to face since he had made her know the depths of his tenderness.
The night was chilly, and her suspense made her cold. She sat very close to the fire in the cosy curtained hall, shivering, and straining her ears to catch the sound of his feet on the gravel. She had worked herself into a state of anxiety that made her start at the faintest noise.
It was nearing the dinner-hour, and she was beginning to wonder if perhaps he were staying at Baronmead to dine, though he had never done so before without sending her word, when there came the sudden hoot of a motor and the rush of wheels upon the drive.
She sat up, every pulse beating. It must be one of the Baronmead motors. But Bertie always walked.
She heard the car stop at the door, and she rose to her feet, scarcely knowing what to expect. The next moment the door opened and she heard Bertie's voice.
"The car will be all right," he said. "It's a fine night. Go in, won't you? I expect Dot is waiting."
And with amazement Dot saw Nap enter the hall in front of her husband.
He came straight to her just as he had come on the previous day, and she had a moment of sheer panic lest he should have the effrontery to kiss her; but he spared her this, though the smile with which he greeted her told her that he was quite aware of her embarrassment and its cause.
"Bertie has taken upon himself to ask me to dine," he said, as he held her hand. "I hope that is quite agreeable to Mrs. Bertie?"
"Of course I am delighted," she said, but her eyes sought Bertie's somewhat anxiously notwithstanding.
She saw with relief that the cloud had gone from his face. He came forward, bent, and kissed her. His hand lay upon her shoulder for an instant with a quick, reassuring touch, and she knew that all was well.
"Heavens, child! How cold you are!" he said. "I'll bring you down a shawl, shall I? Come along, Nap. We are late."
They went upstairs together, and Dot waited below, listening to their voices in careless converse and wondering by what means Lucas had wrought so amazing a change.
She wondered still more during dinner, for Nap was plainly upon his best behaviour. He seemed determined that Bertie should be on easy terms with him, and he was in a great measure successful. Though reticent, Bertie was undoubtedly cordial.
At the appearance of dessert Nap rose. "I must be getting back to Lucas," he said.
"Oh, skittles! He won't be wanting you," Bertie protested. "Sit down again, man. You haven't been here an hour."
But Nap was not to be persuaded. "Many thanks, but I'm going all the same. I want to secure him a good night if possible. Good-bye, Mrs. Bertie!" He bent and kissed her hand. "I am going to be pretty busy for the next week or two, but I shall call on you when I have time."
He took a cigarette from Bertie's case, and went out without stopping to light it.
Bertie followed him into the hall. "Shall I come?" he asked.
"No," said Nap.
He found a paper spill on the mantelpiece and lighted it. As he held it to his cigarette he looked at Bertie with a smile.
"Remember that day I baited you? It must be about a year ago."
Bertie looked uncomfortable. "I remember," he said shortly.
Abruptly Nap thrust out his hand. "I've eaten your salt now," he said. "I'll never bait you again."
Bertie gave his hand. "Is that what you wanted to dine for?"
"Partly." Nap's fingers gripped and held. "Also I wanted to persuade you that we are fighting for the same thing, only maybe with different weapons. You'll bear it in mind, eh, friend Bertie?"
Bertie looked at him hard for an instant. "I will," he said impulsively.
"Good!" said Nap laconically. "It isn't going to be a walk over, but I guess we'll pull it off between us."
"Amen!" said Bertie fervently.
And Nap wrung his hand and departed. For the first time in their lives there was a friendly understanding between them. For the first time Bertie was aware of a human heart throbbing behind that impenetrable mask.
THE FINAL DEFEAT
It was growing late that night when Lucas opened his eyes after a prolonged and fruitless attempt to sleep, and found Nap standing at the foot of the bed watching him. A lamp was burning in the room, but it was turned very low. For a few seconds he lay wondering if the motionless figure he saw had been conjured there by some trick of the shadows. Then as he stirred he saw it move and at once he spoke.
"Hullo, dear fellow! You! I never heard you come in."
Nap stepped noiselessly to his side. "Don't talk!" he said. "Sleep!"
"I can't sleep. It's no use. I was only pretending." Lucas stifled a sigh of weariness. "Sit down," he said.
But Nap stood over him and laid steady hands upon his wrists. His hold was close and vital; it pressed upon the pulses as if to give them new life. "You can sleep if you try," he said.
Lucas shook his head with a smile. "I'm not a good subject, Boney. Thanks all the same!"
"Try!" Nap said insistently.
But the blue eyes remained wide. "No, old chap. It's too high a price to pay—even for sleep."
"What do you mean?" There was a fierce note in the query, low as it was; it was almost a challenge.
Lucas answered it very quietly. "I mean that I'm afraid of you, Boney."
"Skittles!" said Nap.
"Yes, it may seem so to you; but, you see, I know what you are trying to do."
"What am I trying to do?" demanded Nap.
Lucas paused for a moment; he was looking straight up into the harsh face above his own. Then, "I know you," he said. "I know that you'll get the whip hand of me if you can, and you'll clap blinkers on me and drive me according to your own judgment. I never had much faith in your judgment, Boney. And it is not my intention to be driven by you."
There was no resentment in the tired voice, only unflagging determination.
Nap's hold slowly relaxed. "You don't trust me then?"
"It's your methods I don't trust, dear fellow, not your motives. I'd trust them to perdition."
"But not my—honour?" Nap's lips twisted over the word.
Lucas hesitated. "I believe you would be faithful to your own code," he said at length.
"But you don't consider that to trick a man who trusted me would be against that code?"
Again Lucas hesitated, and in the silence Nap straightened himself and stood waiting, stern, implacable, hard as granite.
"Don't do violence to yourself," he said cynically.
On the instant Lucas spoke, in his voice a tremor that was almost passionate. "Boney—Boney, old chap, have I wronged you? God knows I've tried to be just. But are you straight? Are you honest? I'd give my soul to be able to trust you. Only—dear fellow, forgive me—I can't!"
Nap's hands clenched. "Why not?" he said.
"Because," very slowly and painfully Lucas made reply, "I know that you are trying to blind me. I know that you are sacrificing yourself—and another—in order to deceive me. You are doing it to save me pain, but—before God, Boney—you are torturing me in the doing far more than you realise. I'd sooner die ten times over than endure it. I can bear most things, but not this—not this!"
Silence followed the words, a silence that was vital with many emotions. Nap stood upright against the lamplight. He scarcely seemed to breathe, and yet in his very stillness there was almost a hint of violence. He did not attempt to utter a word.
Lucas also lay awhile without speaking, as if exhausted. Then at length he braced himself for further effort. "It seems to me there's only one way out, Boney," he said gently. "It's no manner of use your trying to deceive me any longer. I happen to know what brought you back, and I'm thankful to know it. After all, her happiness comes first with both of us, I guess. That's why I was so almighty pleased to see you in the first place. That's why it won't hurt me any to let her go to you."
Nap made a sharp movement and came out of his silence. "Luke, you're mad!"
"No, Boney, no! I'm saner than you are. When a fellow spends his life as I do, he has time to look all round things. He can't help knowing. And I'm not a skunk. It never was my intention to stand between her and happiness."
"Happiness!" Harshly Nap echoed the word; he almost laughed over it. "Don't you know that she only tolerates me for your sake? She wouldn't stay within a hundred miles of me if it weren't for you."
"Oh, shucks, Boney!" A faint smile touched the worn face on the pillow. "I know you hurt her infernally. But she will forgive you that—women do, you know—though I guess she would have forgiven you easier if she hadn't loved you."
"Man, you're wrong!" Fiercely Nap flung the words. "I tell you there is no love between us. I killed her love long ago. And as for myself—"
"Love doesn't die," broke in Lucas Errol quietly. "I know all about it, Boney. Guess I've always known. And if you tell me that your love for Anne Carfax is dead, I tell you that you lie!" Again he faintly smiled. "But I don't like insulting you, old chap. It's poor sport anyway. Besides, I'm wanting you. That's why—"
He stopped abruptly. A curious change had come over Nap, a change so unexpected, so foreign to the man's grim nature, that even he, who knew him as did none other, was momentarily taken by surprise. For suddenly, inexplicably, Nap's hardness had gone from him. It was like the crumbling of a rock that had withstood the clash of many tempests and yielded at last to the ripple of a summer tide.
With a sudden fierce movement he dropped down upon his knees beside the bed, flinging his arms wide over his brother's body in such an agony of despair as Lucas had never before witnessed.
"I wish I were dead!" he cried out passionately. "I wish to Heaven I had never lived!"
It was a cry wrung from the very depths of the soul, a revelation of suffering of which Lucas had scarcely believed him capable. It opened his eyes to much that he had before but vaguely suspected.
He laid a hand instantly and very tenderly upon the bowed head. "Shucks, Boney!" he remonstrated gently. "Just when you are wanted most!"
A great sob shook Nap. "Who wants me? I'm nothing but a blot on the face of creation, an outrage, an abomination—a curse!"
"You're just the biggest thing in that woman's life, dear fellow," answered the tired voice. "You hang on to that. It'll hold you up, as God always meant it should."
Nap made an inarticulate sound of dissent, but the quiet restraint of his brother's touch seemed to help him. He became still under it, as if some spell were upon him.
After a time Lucas went on in the weary drawl that yet held such an infinite amount of human kindness. "Did you think I'd cut you out, Boney? Mighty lot you seem to know of me! It's true that for a time I thought myself necessary to her. Maybe, for a time I was. She hadn't much to live for anyway. It's true that when you didn't turn up in Arizona I left off expecting you to be faithful to yourself or to her. And so it seemed best to take what she gave and to try to make her as happy as circumstances would allow. But I never imagined that I ruled supreme. I know too well that what a woman has given once she can never give again. I didn't expect it of her. I never asked it. She gave me what she could, and I—I did the same for her. But that bargain wouldn't satisfy either of us now. No—no! We'll play the game like men—like brothers. And you must do your part. Believe me, Boney, I desire nothing so earnestly as her happiness, and if when I come to die I have helped to make this one woman happy, then I shall not have lived in vain."
Nap turned his head sharply. "Don't talk of dying! You couldn't die! And do you seriously imagine for a single instant that I could ever give her happiness?"
"I imagine so, dear fellow, since she loves you."
"I tell you she wouldn't have me if I asked her."
"You don't know. Anyway, she must have the chance. If she doesn't take it, well, she isn't the woman I imagine her to be."
"She's a saint," Nap said, with vehemence. "And you, Luke,—you're another. You were made for each other. She would be ten million times happier with you. Why do you want her to marry a blackguard?"
A shadow touched Lucas Errol's face, but it was only for an instant; the next he smiled. "You are not a blackguard, Boney. I always said so. And the love of a good woman will be your salvation. No, you're wrong. I couldn't give her real happiness. There is only one man in the world can give her that. And I—am not that man." He paused; his eyelids had begun to droop, heavily. "Say, Nap, I believe I could sleep now," he said.
"Yes, yes, old chap, you shall." Nap raised himself abruptly, banishing his weakness in a breath; only a certain unwonted gentleness remained. "You shall," he said again. "Guess you won't be afraid now you have got your own way. But just one thing more. You'll be wanting all your strength for yourself for the next few weeks. Will you—for my sake if you like—put all this by till you are winning out on the other side? She would say the same, if she knew."
Lucas opened his eyes again, opened them wide, and fixed them steadily, searchingly, upon his brother's face.
"You'll play the straight game with me, Boney?" he questioned. "You won't try to back out?" Then, in a different tone, "No, don't, answer! Forgive me for asking! I know you."
"I guess you do," Nap said, with the ghost of a smile, "better even than I know myself. You know just how little I am to be trusted."
"I trust you, Boney, absolutely, implicitly, from the bottom of my soul."
The words left Lucas Errol's lips with something of the solemnity of an oath. He held out a quiet hand.
"Now let me sleep," he said.
Nap rose. He stood for a moment in silence, holding the friendly hand, as if he wished to speak, but could not. Then suddenly he bent.
"Good-night, dear chap!" he said in a whisper, and with the words he stooped and kissed the lined forehead of the man who trusted him....
Half an hour later the door of the adjoining room opened noiselessly and Tawny Hudson peered in.
One brother was sleeping, the quiet, refreshing sleep of a mind at rest. The other sat watching by his side with fixed inscrutable eyes.
The latter did not stir, though in some indefinable way he made Tawny Hudson know that he was aware of his presence, and did not desire his closer proximity. Obedient to the unspoken command, the man did not come beyond the threshold; but he stood there for many seconds, glowering with the eyes of a monstrous, malignant baboon.
When at length he retired he left the door ajar, and a very curious smile flickered across Nap's face.
But still he did not turn his head.
AT THE GATE OF DEATH
The second time that Tawny Hudson was driven from his master's side was on a day of splendid spring—English April at its best.
Till the very last moment he lingered, and it was Lucas himself with his final "Go, Tawny!" who sent him from the room. They would not even let him wait, as Nap was waiting, till the anaesthetic had done its work. Black hatred gripped the man's heart as he crept away. What was Nap anyway that he should be thus honoured? The cloud that had attended his coming had made a deep impression upon Hudson. He had watched the lines upon his master's face till he knew them by heart. He knew when anxiety kept the weary eyes from closing. He knew when the effort of the mind was more than the body could endure. Of Lucas's pleasure at his brother's return he raised no question, but that it would have been infinitely better for him had Nap remained away he was firmly convinced. And he knew with the sure intuition that unceasing vigilance had developed in him that Capper thought the same.
Capper resented as he did the intrusion of the black sheep of the family. But Capper was obviously powerless—even Capper, who so ruthlessly expelled him from his master's presence, had proved impotent when it came to removing Nap.