There was a mysterious force about Nap that no one seemed able to resist. He, Hudson, had felt it a hundred times, had bowed to it in spite of himself. He called it black magic in his own dark heart, and because of it his hatred almost amounted to a mania. He regarded him with superstition, as a devilish being endowed with hellish powers that might at any moment be directed against his enemies. And he feared his influence over Lucas, even though with all his monstrous imaginings he recognised the fact of Lucas's ascendency. He had a morbid dread lest some day his master should be taken unawares, for in Nap's devotion he placed not a particle of faith. And mingled with his fears was a burning jealousy that kept hatred perpetually alive. There was not one of the duties that he performed for his master that Nap had not at one time or another performed, more swiftly, more satisfactorily, with that devilish deftness of his that even Capper had to admire and Hudson could never hope to achieve. And in his inner soul the man knew that the master he idolised preferred Nap's ministrations, Nap's sure and dexterous touch, to his.
And so on that day of riotous spring he waited with murder in his heart to see his enemy emerge from the closed room.
But he waited in vain. No hand touched the door against which he stood. Within the room he heard only vague movements, and now and then Capper's voice, sharp and distinct, giving a curt order. Two doctors and two nurses were there to do his bidding, to aid him in the working of his miracle; two doctors, two nurses, and Nap.
Gradually as the minutes passed the truth dawned upon the great half-breed waiting outside. Against Capper's wish, probably in defiance of it, Nap was remaining for the operation itself. Suspicion deepened swiftly to conviction, and a spasm of indignation akin to frenzy took possession of the man. Doubtless Capper had remonstrated without result, but he—he, Tawny Hudson—could compel. Fiercely he turned and pulled the handle of the door.
It resisted him. He had not heard the key turned upon him, yet undeniably the door was locked. Fury entered into him. Doubtless this also was the work of his enemy. He seized the handle, twisted, dragged, wrenched, till it broke in his hand and he was powerless.
No one within the room paid any attention to him. No one came to open; and this fact served to inflame him further. For a few lurid moments Tawny Hudson saw red. He gathered his huge bull-frame together and flung the whole weight of it against the resisting wood. He was powerless to force the lock, as the door opened towards him, but this fact did not discourage him. It scarcely entered into his reckoning. He was nothing at the moment but a savage beast beyond all reasoning and beyond control.
The panels resisted his violent onslaught, but he was undaunted. With scarcely a pause he drew off and prepared for another. But at the very instant that he was about to hurl himself the second time, a voice spoke on the other side of the door.
Tawny stood as if transfixed, his eyes starting, bestial foam upon his lips.
"Tawny!" said the voice again—the voice of his enemy, curt and imperious. "Go and find Mr. Bertie, and tell him he is wanted."
Through the closed door the magic reached the frenzied man. He remained motionless for a few seconds, but the order was not repeated. At the end of the interval the magic had done its work. He turned and slunk away.
A minute later Bertie, very pale and stern, presented himself at the closed door.
"What is it, Nap?"
Contemptuously clear came the answer. "Nothing here. Stay where you are, that's all, and keep that all-fired fool Hudson from spoiling his master's chances."
Bertie turned to look at the man who had come up behind him, and in turning saw the door-handle at his feet.
He pointed to it. "Your doing?"
Hudson shrank under the accusing blue eyes so like his master's. He began to whimper like a beaten dog.
Bertie picked up the knob. "Poor devil!" he muttered; and then aloud: "You ought to be ashamed of yourself. Do you call this a man's game?"
Tawny cringed in abject misery. He was completely subdued. With the smallest encouragement he would have grovelled at Bertie's feet.
Bertie came away from the door and sat down. His own anxiety was almost insupportable, but he cloaked it with determined resolution. "Sit down there!" he said, pointing to a distant chair. "And don't move until I give you leave."
Meekly the man obeyed him, sitting crouched, his head between his hands.
Bertie regarded him with a severity more assumed than actual. He had not the heart to send him away. He knew it would have been sheer cruelty.
A long time passed. Neither of the two watchers stirred. Tawny Hudson did not even seem to breathe. He sat like a human image of despair.
Noon came and passed. Somewhere in the distance church bells began to peal. Bertie started a little. He had forgotten it was Sunday. Dot would be just driving home from church. She would not come to Baronmead, he knew. It had been her original intention, but he had dissuaded her. He knew that she was very anxious, but he would not have her run the risk of a shock. If the operation failed, if Luke were to die, he would tell her himself. He knew that he could soften the blow as none other could.
It was nearly one when at last the closed door opened. Bertie was on his feet in an instant. Dr. Randal came quietly out, glanced round, stopped.
"It is over. We have taken him into the inner room, and he is recovering consciousness. No, don't go to him. His man mustn't go either. We want all these doors open, wide open, the windows too. But no one is to go near. He must have absolute quiet."
He propped open the door as he spoke. His face was very grave.
"Remember," he said, "that the banging of this door or any sudden sound may mean the end."
"Is he so bad then?" said Bertie, speaking with effort.
"He is very bad indeed," the doctor answered. "The operation has been a protracted one. If he lives, it will be a success. But there is great weakness of the heart's action. Any moment may be the last. Dr. Capper will not leave him at present. Your brother is there too." He paused a moment. "Your brother is a wonderful man," he said, with the air of a man bestowing praise against his will. "If you will be good enough to order some refreshment I will take it in. On no account is Mr. Errol's servant to go near."
Slowly the hours of a day that seemed endless dragged away. Bertie went home to his wife in the afternoon, taking Tawny Hudson, subdued and wretched, with him.
In the evening he returned, the man still following him like a pariah dog, to find the situation unaltered. Capper and Nap were still with Lucas, whose life hung by a thread.
Bertie decided to remain for the night, and at a late hour he saw Capper for a moment. The great man's face was drawn and haggard.
"He won't last through the night," he said. "Tell the ladies to be in readiness. I will send for them if there is time."
"No hope whatever?" said Bertie.
Capper shook his head. "I fear—none. He is just running down—sinking. I think you had better not come in, but stay within call."
He was gone again, and Bertie was left to give his message, and then to wait in anguish of spirit for the final call.
The night was still. Only the draught from the wide-flung doors and windows stirred through the quiet rooms. Mrs. Errol and Anne shared Bertie's vigil in the room that opened out of that in which Lucas Errol was making his last stand. Humbly, in a corner, huddled Tawny Hudson, rocking himself, but making no sound.
Within the room Capper sat at the foot of the bed, motionless, alert as a sentry. A nurse stood like a statue, holding back the bellying window-curtain. And on his knees beside the bed, the inert wrists gripped close in his sinewy fingers, was Nap.
The light of a shaded lamp shone upon his dusky face, showing the gleam of his watchful eyes, the crude lines of jaw and cheek-bone. He looked like a figure carved in bronze.
For hours he had knelt so in unceasing vigilance, gazing unblinking and tireless at the exhausted face upon the pillow. It might have been the face of a dead man upon which he gazed, but the pulses that fluttered in his hold told him otherwise. Lucas still held feebly, feebly, to his chain.
It was nearly an hour after midnight that a voice spoke in the utter silence.
"I'm here, old chap."
"Good-bye, dear fellow!" It was scarcely more than a whisper. It seemed to come from closed lips.
"Open your eyes," said Nap.
Slowly the heavy lids opened. The blue eyes met the deep, mysterious gaze focussed upon them.
Silent as a ghost Capper glided forward. The nurse left the window, and the curtain floated out into the room, fluttering like an imprisoned thing seeking to escape.
"Ah, but, Boney—" the tired voice said, as though in protest.
And Nap's voice, thrilled through and through with a tenderness that was more than human, made answer. "Just a little longer, dear old man! Only a little longer! See! I'm holding you up. Turn up the lamp, doctor. Take off the shade. He can't see me. There, old chap! Look at me now. Grip hold of me. You can't go yet. I'm with you. I'm holding you back."
Capper trickled something out of a spoon between the pale lips, and for a little there was silence.
But the blue eyes remained wide, fixed upon those other fiery eyes that held them by some mysterious magic from falling into sightlessness.
Three figures had come in through the open door, moving wraith-like, silently. The room seemed full of shadows.
After a while Lucas spoke again, and this time his lips moved perceptibly. "It's such a long way back, Boney,—no end of a trail—and all up hill."
The flare of the lamp was full upon Nap's face; it threw the harsh lines into strong relief, and it seemed to Anne, watching, that she looked upon the face of a man in extremity. His voice too—was that Nap's voice pleading so desperately?
"Don't be faint-hearted, old chap! I'll haul you up. It won't be so tough presently. You're through the worst already. Hold on, Luke, hold on!"
Again Capper poured something between the parted lips, and a quiver ran through the powerless body.
"Hold on!" Nap repeated. "You promised you would. You mustn't go yet, old boy. You can't be spared. I shall go to the devil without you."
"Not you, Boney!" Lucas's lips quivered into a smile. "That's all over," he said. "You're playing—the straight game—now."
"You must stay and see it through," said Nap. "I can't win out without you."
"Ah!" A long sigh came pantingly with the word. "That so, Boney? Guess I'm—a selfish brute—always was—always was."
A choked sob came through the stillness. Bertie suddenly covered his face. Mrs. Errol put her arm round him as one who comforted a child.
"Is that—someone—crying?" gasped Lucas.
"It's that ass Bertie," answered Nap, without stirring so much as an eyelid.
"Bertie? Poor old chap! Tell him he mustn't. Tell him—I'll hang on—a little longer—God willing; but only a little longer, Boney, only—a little—longer."
There was pleading in the voice, the pleading of a man unutterably tired and longing to be at rest.
Anne, standing apart, was cut to the heart with the pathos of it. But Nap did not seem to feel it. He knelt on, inflexible, determined, all his iron will, all his fiery vitality, concentrated upon holding a man in life. It was not all magnetism, it was not all strength of purpose, it was his whole being grappling, striving, compelling, till inch by inch he gained a desperate victory.
In the morning the fight was over. In the morning Lucas Errol had turned, reluctantly as it seemed to Anne, from the Gate of Death.
And while he lay sleeping quietly, the spring air, pure and life-giving, blowing across his face, the man who had brought him back rose up from his bedside, crept with a noiseless, swaying motion from the room, and sank senseless on the further side of the door.
THE KING'S DECREE
For three weeks after the operation Capper said nothing good or bad of his patient's condition, and during those weeks he scarcely went beyond the terrace. He moved about like a man absorbed, and it seemed to Anne whenever they met that he looked at her without seeing her.
Nap was even closer in his attendance, and Tawny Hudson found himself more than ever supplanted and ignored. For night and day he was at hand, sleeping when and how he could, always alert at the briefest notice, always ready with unfailing nerve and steady hand.
And Capper suffered him without the smallest remonstrance. He seemed to take it for granted that Nap's powers were illimitable.
"That young man will kill himself," Dr. Randal said once. "He is living at perpetual high pressure."
"Leave him alone," growled Capper. "He is the force that drives the engine. The wheels won't go round without him."
And this seemed true; for the wheels went round very, very slowly in those days. Lucas Errol came back to life, urged by a vitality not his own, and the Shadow of Death still lingered in his eyes.
He did not suffer very greatly, and he slept as he had not slept for years, but his progress was slow, sometimes imperceptible. The languor of intense weakness hung like a leaden weight upon him. The old brave cheeriness had given place to a certain curious wistfulness. He seemed too weary for effort, content at all times to sleep the hours away.
Yet when Capper demanded effort he yielded without protest. He did his best, and he smiled at each evidence of returning powers.
"I guess it's just an almighty success, doctor," he would say. "And you've given me sleep into the bargain. It's blessed to be able to sleep. I've a good many years of arrears to make up."
On the day that Capper and Nap set him on his feet for the first time, his weakness was such that he fainted; but he recovered and apologised, and would even have faced the ordeal again had Capper permitted it. On the following day he went through it without a tremor, and slept thereafter for hours, scarcely rousing himself for nourishment.
It was during that sleep that Nap left him, went out into the spring woods, and remained absent for some time. Lucas was still sleeping when he returned, and after a brief look at him he moved away into the adjoining room and prowled to and fro there waiting.
At the first sound of his brother's voice he was back by the bedside.
Lucas smiled a welcome. "I'm better," he said, and held up a weak hand.
It was the first time he had made the assertion. Nap took the hand and laid it gently down.
"You'll get well now," he said.
The heavy drowsiness was less apparent than usual on Lucas's face. "I don't know where I'd be without you, Boney," he said. "Do you know you're looking awfully ill?"
"Shucks!" said Nap.
But Lucas continued his criticism undeterred.
"You've spent too much of yourself on me, and I've been too damned selfish to notice. I'm going to wake up now, Boney. I'm going to play the game. You've been playing my hand as well as your own till now. I'm going to relieve you of that."
"Hear, hear!" said Nap.
"You'll go to bed in your own room to-night," said Lucas, "go to bed and to sleep. In the morning we'll have a talk."
But when the morning came, his energy had flagged a little. He had not slept as well as usual, and though he had no pain he seemed disinclined for physical effort.
"I want a holiday to-day," he said to Capper. "Just let in the sunshine and leave me to bask."
There had been a spell of cold and sunless weather, but that day the sun shone gloriously. The genial warmth of it came in through the open window and flooded the room with the very essence of spring.
"I'm going to take a day off and enjoy it," smiled Lucas. "You take a day off too, doctor. Make the mater go out in the car. I shall do wonders to-morrow after a good laze to-day."
Capper looked him over keenly, pulled his beard, cracked his fingers, and yielded. "Guess a rest won't do you any harm. There's no reason to hustle you any that I can see."
And Lucas spent the whole morning basking in the sunshine in almost unbroken silence. He did not sleep at all. His eyes, remote and thoughtful, were for the most part watching the specks that danced and floated in the rays of light that streamed across his bed.
Nap forebore to disturb him, but he remained within call. He knew with sure intuition that sooner or later Lucas would summon him. Almost he knew what he would say.
The call came at last, very quiet and deliberate. "Boney!"
Instantly Nap presented himself.
"Come here a minute, old chap. No, I'm not wanting anything—only a word in private. Say, Boney, is Anne still stopping here?"
He had seen her nearly every day since the operation, but he had been too drowsy to ask any questions. He had only smiled upon her, and sometimes for a little had held her hand.
"She is backwards and forwards," said Nap. "I believe she is spending to-night."
"Ah! Then, Boney, I want you to speak to her—to-night." He looked up at his brother with his old, kindly smile. "It's for my own sake, old chap," he said. "You know, I didn't sleep last night. I was thinking about her—about you both. And I want her to know everything to-night. I shall sleep the easier when she knows."
Nap stood silent. His face was set in hard lines.
"Will you tell her, Boney?"
"What am I to tell her?" said Nap,
"Tell her the truth, dear fellow, so that she understands it. Make her realise that the dearest wish of my life is her happiness—and yours." He reached up a hand to the motionless figure beside him. "Just this one thing, Boney," he pleaded gently. "Remember—I came back because of it. It will be my happiness too. I want to feel that all is well between you. God knows I want it more than anything else on earth."
Nap gripped the proffered hand and held it fast.
"But she won't have me, you know," he said, after a moment. "She only forgave me because of you."
"Shucks, dear fellow! I guess that wasn't the reason."
"I wish to heaven you'd let me off," Nap said, with sudden vehemence. "Let me shunt first instead of last. It's more than I can face—even for you."
"But I guess you'll face it all the same," said Lucas gently. "And when it's over, come—both of you—and tell me."
He closed his eyes and turned his face to the sunshine. "So long, old chap!" he said. "Don't stay indoors. I'm not wanting you. Think I'll get to sleep presently. Don't let them wake me if I do."
But Nap lingered, still holding his hand. "Luke!" he said.
There was a note of entreaty in his voice, but, for the second time in his life, Lucas turned a deaf ear. The smile was still on his lips, but his eyes remained closed.
"Go, dear fellow!" he said softly. "And God bless you!"
And Nap turned with a set face and went straight from the room.
THE STRAIGHT GAME
It was drawing towards evening on that same day when Anne, who had been spending the afternoon at the Dower House, walked back across the park. She went by way of the stream along which she and Nap had once skated hand in hand in the moonlight, and as she went she stooped now and then to gather the flowers that grew in the grass beside her path. But her face as she did it was grave and thoughtful. She did not seem to notice their fragrance.
As she neared the lake she moved more slowly, and reaching a rustic seat beneath a cedar that shadowed the entrance to the gardens she sat down, her grey eyes fixed upon the water that gurgled at her feet.
A brilliant green dragon-fly, darting meteor-like across her vision, came presently to disturb her reverie. With a slight start she awoke, and leaned forward with an odd eagerness to mark its progress. As it flashed away through the shadows a quick sigh came to her lips. It was so fair a thing, so swiftly gone.
She gathered up her flowers and rose. And in that moment she knew that she was not alone.
How she knew it she could not have said. No sound or shadow told her. No hand touched her. Yet she knew.
For a few seconds she stood motionless on the edge of the stream. Then without turning she spoke.
"Were you looking for me?"
"Yes," he said.
He came to her side. They were close—close to that spot where once he had so arrogantly claimed her friendship. To-day it seemed he had no word to utter.
For a space she waited, then, finding in his silence something that disquieted her, she spoke again.
"Is all well? Why are you not with Lucas?"
"All's well," he said, but he left her second question unanswered. He was gazing down intently into the clear water.
Seconds passed. She glanced at him once or twice, but he seemed unaware of her scrutiny. He made no movement to meet it. His dark face brooded over the stream, almost as if she were not there.
Her heart began to throb with thick, uneven strokes. What had he come to say to her? And why did he stand thus silent? There was something tragic about him, something almost terrible.
She waited beside him in wordless foreboding. Whatever was coming she felt powerless to avert. She could only brace herself to meet the inevitable.
In some fashion, though he never glanced her way, he must have been aware of her agitation, for when he spoke again there was some measure of reassurance in his voice, emotionless though it was.
"I shan't alarm you," he said. "I shan't even ask you to answer me, much less to treat me kindly. But you've got to hear me, that's all. I'm not telling you for my own sake, only because Luke has ordained that you must know. I daresay you thought it strange that I should have come back so soon. It probably made you wonder."
"It did," said Anne, in a low voice.
"I knew it would." A note of grim satisfaction sounded in the rejoinder. He jerked his head a little with a touch of the old arrogance. "Well, I am here to explain. I knew the odds were dead against me when I started—as they are to-day. All the same you are to understand that I came back when I did because I had just heard that you were free and I was mad enough to dream that in spite of everything I should one day persuade you to marry me."
He paused an instant, but he kept his eyes upon the water as if he were reading something in the crystal depths.
Anne still waited beside him, her hands clasped tightly upon her drooping flowers.
He continued very rapidly, as though he wished to have done. "That was my true reason for coming back. I don't know if I deceived you any on that point. I tried to. But anyway I didn't manage to deceive Lucas. He sees most things. He knows for instance that I—care for you"—almost angrily he flung the words—"and he thinks you ought to know it, in case"—his lips twisted into a queer smile—"you care for me. It's a preposterous idea anyway. I've told him so. But he won't be easy till I've given you the chance to trample on me. Guess he thinks I owe you that. Maybe I do. Well—you have your opportunity."
"Do you think I want—that?" Anne said, her voice very low.
His hands clenched. "I can't say," he said. "Most women would. But—if you want to know—I'd sooner be trampled. I've promised I'll play the straight game, and I'm playing it. I'm telling you the raw truth. I love you. I have it in me to make you know it. But—"
"But you love Lucas better" she said.
He nodded. "Just that. Also, Lucas is a good man. He will set your happiness first all his life. While I—while I"—he stooped a little, still staring downwards as if he watched something—"while I, Lady Carfax," he said, speaking very quietly, "might possibly succeed in making you happy, but it wouldn't be the same thing. You would have to live my life—not I yours. I am not like Lucas. I shouldn't be satisfied with—a little."
"And you think that is all I can offer him?" she said.
He made a sharp gesture of repudiation. "I have no theories on that subject. I believe you would satisfy him. I believe—ultimately—you would both find the happiness we are all hunting for."
"And you?" Anne said, her voice very low.
He straightened himself with a backward fling of the shoulders, but still he did not look at her. "I, Lady Carfax!" he said grimly. "I don't fit into the scheme of things anyway. I was just pitchforked into your life by an accident. It's for you to toss me out again."
Anne was silent. She stood with her face to the sinking sun. She seemed to be gathering her strength.
At last, "What will you do?" she asked in the same hushed voice. "Where will you go?"
He turned slowly towards her. "I really don't know. I haven't begun to think."
His eyes looked deeply into hers, but they held no passion, no emotion of any sort. They made her think with a sudden intolerable stab of pain of that night when he had put out the fire of his passion to receive her kiss. He had told her once that that kiss was the greatest thing that had ever happened to him. Did he remember it now, she wondered, as she met those brooding eyes, still and dark and lonely as they had been then, unfathomable as a mountain pool. She did not fear to meet them. Only a vast, surging pity filled her soul. She understood him so well—so well.
"Nap," she said tremulously, "what can I say to you? What can I do?"
He put out a quiet, unfaltering hand and took hers. "Don't be too good to me," he said. "Don't worry any on my account. If you do, maybe Luke will notice and misunderstand. He's so damnably shrewd." A brief smile crossed his face. "I'll tell you what to do, Lady Carfax, and when it's done you'll feel better. Come with me now to Lucas—it's his own idea—and tell him you've no use for me. Put it how you like. Women can always do these things. Make him know that he comes first with you still and always will. Tell him you know all the truth and it hasn't made you change your mind. Tell him you'd rather belong to a man you can trust. He'll believe you, Anne. We all do."
He spoke insistently. He had begun to draw her towards the path. But as they reached it, his hand fell from hers. He walked beside her, close beside her, but not by word or touch did he seek further to persuade her.
And Anne walked steadily forward as one in a dream. It was the only thing to do, since he had told her plainly that he desired it, since with both of them Luke must for ever come first. He had drawn them together, he had linked their hands, but he stood between them to do it, and neither of them would suffer him to go.
She supposed they would be friends again, she and Nap. She did not fear that he would ever again cross the boundary line. His love for his brother ran like a purifying current through his veins. It was the one streak of greatness in him. Its very selflessness made it stronger than his love for her. She knew with a certainty that nought could ever shake that he would be true to Lucas, that never again by word or sign would he betray that for which he had not scrupled to play her false.
And because she was a woman and understood him she forgave him this. For she knew that the greater loyalty had done for him that which she had failed to do. She knew that in uttermost self-sacrifice Nap Errol, the savage, the merciless, the treacherous, had found his soul.
So side by side in silence they went back to the house.
The evening was very still; passing in from the terrace they seemed to enter an enchanted palace wherein nothing stirred.
"He may be asleep," Nap said. "Shall I go first?"
She assented without speaking. Somehow the spell of silence seemed to hold her also.
Tawny Hudson was on guard as usual in the outer room. He looked up with resentful eyes as they entered, but he said nothing. The door into his master's room stood half open. Nap paused at it a moment to listen. He turned to Anne, and she fancied just for a second that there was a shade of anxiety on his face. But it was gone instantly, if indeed it had been there.
"Follow me in a minute," he said, "if I don't come back."
And with that he glided through the narrow space and passed from sight.
A minute later, absolute silence reigning, Anne softly pushed back the door and entered.
She found Nap crouched motionless with outflung arms across the foot of the bed.
And drawing nearer, she saw that Lucas Errol was lying asleep with his face to the sky, all the lines of pain smoothed utterly away, and on his lips that smile which some call the Stamp of Death, and others the shining reflection of the Resurrection Glory which the passing soul has left behind.
THE TRANSFORMING MAGIC
No clamour of mourning broke the spell of silence that lay upon Baronmead. Those who wept hid their grief behind closed doors. But those to whom Lucas was dearest shed the fewest tears. His mother went about with a calmness of aspect that never faltered. She and Anne were very close to each other in those days though but few words passed between them. A hush that was like a benediction brooded upon the silent house. They could not weep.
Once, standing in the hallowed stillness beside her dead, Mrs. Errol turned to Anne, saying softly: "The dear Lord knows best, dear. We wouldn't call him back. He wouldn't want to come."
And later she told her gently that she had known ever since the operation that the end was near.
"It was in his eyes," she said. "I know that look so well. Dr. Capper knew it too. And so, I'm sure, did the dear boy himself. That waiting, far-off look as if the soul were listening, didn't you see it, dear? I only wondered that he stayed so long."
Yes, Anne had seen it. She knew it now. Though he had smiled upon her, though he had held her hand, she knew that all human longing had died in Lucas Errol's soul on the night that he had gone down to the Gate of Death and Nap had drawn him back. He had slackened his hold upon things earthly that night, and though he had come back a little way, it had been as a spectator only that he lingered, no more as one who took an active part in the drama of mortal life. His role was played; she realised now that he must have known it, and that he had not wished it otherwise. He had not died with that kingly smile upon his lips if he had not been content to die. That was why grief seemed to her impossible. That was why the peace in which he lay, wrapped tenderly around her tired heart also and gave her rest.
Of Nap during those days of silence she saw nothing whatever. He had risen from his brother's death-bed with a face of stony aloofness, and had gone swiftly out, she knew not whither. Since that moment she had scarcely seen him. He spent his time out of the house, somewhere away in the woods she believed, out of reach of any human observation, not even returning at night. Once only in the early morning she saw him cross the stretch of lawn in front of the lake and enter by a side door. But her glimpse of him was of the briefest. She did not see his face.
Upon Bertie devolved all the duties of the head of the household, but his mother was ready at every turn to help him. She was more to him during those few days than she had ever been before. Capper also, remaining for the funeral, placed himself at his disposal and did much to lighten the burden.
Capper indeed helped everyone, and Anne always remembered with gratitude a few moments that she had alone with him on the evening before the funeral, when he laid a fatherly hand upon her shoulder to say: "My dear, I don't know if you're fretting any, but you've no cause to fret. I know now that it couldn't have been otherwise. If you'd been his wife you couldn't have kept him."
She thanked him with a look. She believed that Capper understood, and she was glad that it should be so. She fancied also that his opinion regarding Nap had undergone a change, but she hesitated to touch upon the subject, and the moment passed.
Up to the last minute she was doubtful as to whether Nap would attend his brother's funeral. She herself went because Mrs. Errol desired to go. She walked with Capper immediately behind Bertie and his mother. Neither of them seemed to expect Nap, or even to think of him. His movements were always sudden and generally unaccountable. But she knew that his absence would cause comment in the neighbourhood, and though she also knew that Nap would care nothing for that, she earnestly hoped that he would not give occasion for it.
Nevertheless the procession started without him, and she had almost ceased to hope when he suddenly appeared from nowhere as it seemed to her, and walked on her other side.
She heard Capper give a grunt, whether of approval or otherwise she did not know, but not a word was said. She glanced once at Nap, but his face was sphinx-like, utterly unresponsive. He stared straight ahead, with eyes that never varied, at the coffin that was being borne upon men's shoulders to its quiet resting-place in the village churchyard, and throughout the journey thither his expression remained unaltered.
At the gate Bertie suddenly turned and motioned him forward, and they entered the church together. Later, by the open grave, Anne saw that Bertie was leaning on Nap's shoulder, while his mother stood apart with her face to the sky; and she knew that the feud between them had been laid at last and for ever by the man who had ruled supreme in the hearts of all who knew him.
When all was over, Nap disappeared, and she saw no more of him till the evening when for the first time he came to the dinner-table. Capper was leaving early on the following day, and it was to this fact that Anne attributed his appearance.
Bertie dined at home, but he walked over later to take leave of Capper. They sat together in the hall, with the door wide open, for the night was as warm as summer.
Mrs. Errol had gone to her room immediately after dinner, but Anne remained at Capper's request.
"I shan't see much more of you," he said.
They talked but little however. Nap sat smoking in a corner and hardly opened his lips. Bertie came in late, looking worn and miserable.
"I wish you would tell me what to do with Tawny Hudson," he said. "I believe the fellow's crazy; and he's pining too. I don't believe he has eaten anything for days."
Since Lucas's death Tawny Hudson had attached himself to Bertie, following him to and fro like a lost dog, somewhat to Dot's dismay; for, deeply though she pitied the great half-breed, there was something about him that frightened her.
"I don't know what to do with him," Bertie said. "He's as gaunt as a wolf. He's hanging about somewhere outside now. Wish you'd take him along to America with you, Doctor."
"Call him in," said Capper, "and let me have a look at him."
Bertie went to the door and whistled.
There was no reply.
"Hudson!" he called. "Tawny! where are you?"
But there came no answer out of the shadows. The only voice which Tawny would obey was still.
Bertie came back baffled. "Confound the fellow! I know he's within hail."
"Leave the brute alone!" said Nap. "He isn't worth much anyway."
"But I can't let him die," said Bertie.
Nap looked contemptuous, and relapsed into silence.
"I'll take him back with me if you're wanting to be rid of him," said Capper. "Tell him so if you get the chance."
"Thanks!" said Bertie. "But I don't believe he'll budge. Nap will be crossing next week. P'r'aps I shall persuade him to go then." He looked across at Nap. "I know you don't like the fellow, but it wouldn't be for long."
"Probably not," said Nap, staring fixedly at the end of his cigar.
Something in his tone made Anne glance at him, but as usual his face told her nothing. She saw only that his eyes were drawn as if with long watching, and that the cynical lines about his mouth were more grimly pronounced than she had ever seen them before.
Not long after, Bertie got up to go. His farewell to Capper was spoken almost in a whisper, and Anne saw that his self-control was precarious. When he shook hands with her he was beyond speech. She was glad to see Nap rise and accompany him, with a friendly hand pushed through his arm.
For nearly half an hour longer she sat on with Capper; then at length she rose to go.
"I shall see you in the morning," she said, pausing.
"I am making an early start," said Capper.
She smiled. "I shall see you all the same. Good-night."
Capper kept her hand in his, his green eyes running over her with elusive intentness. "Wonder what you'll do," he said abruptly.
She met his look quite simply. "For the present," she said, "I must be with Mrs. Errol. Later on—next month—she will no doubt go to the Dower House, and I shall go back to the Manor."
"Don't mope!" he said.
She smiled again with a short sigh. "I shall be too busy for that."
"That so?" Capper drew his brows together. "Lady Carfax, at risk of offending you, I've something to say."
"You will not offend me," she answered. "And I think I know what it is."
"Very possibly you do, but I guess I'd better say it all the same. You may remember a talk we had at the commencement of our acquaintance, regarding Nap. I told you he was just a wild animal, untamable, untrustworthy. Well, you have proved me wrong. You have worked a miracle, and you have tamed him. Lucas himself told me about it the day before he died."
"Oh, no!" Anne said quickly and earnestly. "It was Lucas who worked the miracle, Doctor. The magic was his."
"Guess he wouldn't have done it single-handed," said Capper. "He'd been trying as long as I had known him, and he hadn't succeeded." He paused, looking at her with great kindness. Then: "My dear," he said, "you needn't be afraid to trust yourself to him. He will never let you down again."
Anne stood silent, but under his look a deep flush rose and overspread her face. She turned her eyes away.
Very gently Capper patted her shoulder. "You've made a man of him between you," he said. "Lucas has left the developing process to you."
"Ah!" she said wistfully, and that was all, for her eyes were suddenly full of tears.
She went to the door and stood there for several seconds. The voice of a nightingale thrilled through the silence. Was it only a year—only a year—since the veil had been rent from her eyes? Only a year since first her heart had throbbed to "the everlasting Wonder Song"? She felt as if eons had passed over her, as if the solitude of ages wrapped her round; and yet afar off, like dream music in her soul, she still heard its echoes pulsing across the desert. It held her like a charm.
Slowly her tears passed. There came again to her that curious sense of something drawing her, almost as of a voice that called. The garden lay still and mysterious in the moonlight. She caught its gleam upon a corner of the lake where it shone like a wedge of silver.
A few seconds she stood irresolute; then without word or backward glance she stepped down into the magic silence.
THE LAST ORDEAL
What impulse she obeyed she knew not; only she wanted to hear the nightingale, to drink in the fragrance, to feel the healing balm upon her heart. Her feet carried her noiselessly over the grass to that shining splendour of water, and turned along the path that led past the seat under the cedar where Nap had joined her on that evening that seemed already far away, and had told her that he loved her still. By this path he and Bertie would have gone to the Dower House; by this path he would probably return alone.
Her heart quickened a little as she passed into the deep shadow. She was not nervous as a rule, but there was something mysterious about the place, something vaguely disquieting. The gurgle of the stream that fed the lake sounded curiously remote.
She turned towards the rustic seat on which she had rested that day, and on the instant her pulses leapt to sudden alarm. There was a stealthy movement in front of her; a crouching object that looked monstrous in the gloom detached itself from the shadow and began to move away. For a moment she thought it was some animal; then there came to her the unmistakable though muffled tread of human feet, and swift as an arrow comprehension pierced her. The thing in front of her was Tawny Hudson.
But why was he skulking there? Why did he seek thus to avoid her? What was the man doing? The agitated questions raced through her brain at lightning speed, and after them came a horrible, a sickening suspicion.
Whence it arose she could not have said, but the memory of Nap's face only half an hour before, when Tawny Hudson had been under discussion, arose in her mind and confirmed it almost before she knew that it was there. She had often suspected the half-breed of harbouring a dislike for Nap. More often still she had noted Nap's complete and perfectly obvious contempt for him. He had tolerated him, no more, for Lucas's sake. Was it not highly probable that now that the restraining influence was gone the man's animosity had flamed to hatred? And if he were really crazy, as Bertie believed, to what lengths might he not carry it?
Fear stabbed her, fear that was anguish. At any moment now Nap might be returning, and if Tawny were indeed lying in wait for him—
She traversed the deep shadow cast by the cedar and looked forth into the park beyond. The man had disappeared. He must have doubled back among the trees of the shrubbery; and she knew he must be crouching somewhere in concealment not far away, for all sound of footsteps had ceased. Did he fancy she had not seen him, she wondered? Was he hoping that she would turn and go back by the way she had come, leaving him free to accomplish his purpose, whatever it might be?
And then her heart suddenly stood still, for away in the distance, walking with his light, swinging gait over the moonlit sward, she saw Nap.
In that moment her fear took definite and tangible form, and a horror of the thing that lurked in the shadows behind her seized her, goading her to action. She passed out into the quiet moonlight and moved to meet him.
Her impulse was to run, but she restrained it, dreading lest she might precipitate the disaster she feared. Hudson must not suspect her intention, must not know of the panic at her heart.
Nap did not see her at once. The background of trees obscured her. But as she drew away from them he caught sight of her, and instantly quickened his pace.
They met scarcely fifty yards from the cedar, and breathlessly Anne spoke. "Turn back with me a little way. I have something to say to you."
He wheeled at once, with no show of surprise. Though he must have seen her agitation he did not ask its cause.
They walked several paces before Anne spoke again. "You will think me very strange, but I have had a fright. I—I want you, Nap, to—to understand and not think me foolish or laugh at me."
"I couldn't do either if I tried," said Nap. "Who has been frightening you? Tawny Hudson?"
"Yes, Tawny Hudson." Anne was still breathless; she glanced nervously over her shoulder. "Shall we walk a little faster? He—he is lurking in those trees, and do you know I don't think he is safe? I think—I can't help thinking—that he is lying in wait for you to—to do you a mischief."
Nap stopped dead. "That so? Then I reckon I will go and deal with him at once."
"Oh, no!" she gasped. "No! Nap, are you mad?"
He gave her a queer look. "By no means, Lady Carfax, though I believe I should be if I went any farther with you. You stay here while I go and investigate."
He would have left her with the words, but on the instant desperation seized Anne. Her strained nerves would not bear this. She caught his arm, holding him fast.
"You must not! You shall not! Or if you do I am coming with you. You—you are not going alone."
"I am going alone," Nap said; but he stood still, facing her, watching her as he had watched her on that day long ago when he had lain helpless in her arms in the snow, the day that revelation had first come to her shrinking heart. "I am going alone," he repeated very deliberately. "And you will wait here till I come back."
She felt that he was putting forth his strength to compel her, and something within her warned her that he was stronger in that moment than she. She did not understand his ascendency over her, but she could not help being aware of it. Her agitated hold upon his arm began to slacken.
"Oh, don't go!" she entreated weakly. "Please don't go! I can't bear it. It—it's too much. Nap, if—if any harm comes to you, I—I think it will kill me."
There came a sudden gleam in his sombre eyes that seemed to stab her, but it was gone instantly, before he spoke in answer.
"Lady Carfax, you are not foolish—you are sublime! But—be wise as well." Very quietly he extricated his arm from her clinging hands and turned to go. "Don't watch me," he said. "Go on to the bridge and wait for me there."
He was gone. Blindly she obeyed him; blindly she moved towards the bridge that spanned the stream. She was trembling so much that she could hardly walk, but almost mechanically she urged herself on. No other course was open to her.
She reached the bridge, and leaned upon the handrail. She thought the beating of her heart would suffocate her. She strained her ears to listen, but she could hear nought else; and for a time she actually lacked the physical strength to turn and look.
At last, after the passage of many minutes, she summoned her sinking courage. Faint and dizzy still, she managed to raise her head. The moonlight danced in her eyes, but with immense effort she compelled herself to look back.
The next instant utter amazement seized and possessed her, dominating her fear. Nap was standing just beyond the outspreading boughs of the cedar, a straight relentless figure, with the arrogance of complete mastery in every line, while at his feet grovelled and whimpered the great half-breed, Tawny Hudson.
Nap was speaking. She could not hear what he said, but spell-bound she watched, while a curious sensation of awe tingled through her. The man was so superbly self-confident.
Suddenly she saw him stoop and take something from his prostrate enemy. A sharp doubt assailed her. She saw the wretched Tawny cringe lower and cover his face. She saw the moonlight glint upon the thing in Nap's hand.
He seemed to be considering it, for he turned it this way and that, making it flash and flash again. And then abruptly, with a swift turn of the wrist, he spun it high into the air. It made a shining curve, and fell with a splash into the stream. She saw the widening ripples from where she stood.
But she did not stay to watch them. Her attention was focussed upon the scene that was being enacted before her.
It was very nearly over. Tawny Hudson had lifted his head, and she saw submission the most abject on his upraised face. He seemed to be pleading for something, and after a moment, with the faintest shrug of the shoulders, Nap lifted one hand and made a curious gesture above him. The next instant he turned upon his heel and came towards her, while Tawny Hudson got up and slunk away into the shadows.
Anne awaited him, standing quite motionless. She knew now what had happened. He had grappled with the man's will just as once he had grappled with hers. And he had conquered. She expected him to approach her with the royal swagger of victory, and involuntarily she shrank, dreading to encounter him in that mood, painfully aware of her own weakness.
He came to her; he stood before her. "Anne," he said, "forgive me!"
She gazed at him in astonishment. "Forgive you!" she repeated. "But why?"
"I have no right to practise the black arts in your presence," he said, "though as a matter of fact there was no other way. I've frightened the poor devil out of his senses. Aren't you frightened too?"
"I don't understand," she answered rather piteously. "I am only thankful that you are not hurt."
"That's good of you," he said, and she heard no irony in his voice. He leaned his arms upon the rail beside her, and stared down in silence for several moments into the dark water. "If this had happened a week—less than a week—ago," he said at length, speaking very quietly, "I would have let the fellow knife me with the utmost pleasure. I should even have been grateful to him. And"—he turned very slightly towards her—"you would have had cause for gratitude too, for Luke would have been with you to-day."
She shrank a little at his words. "I don't understand," she said again.
He stood up and faced her with abrupt resolution. "I am going to make you understand," he said, "once and for all. It's a rather hideous recital, but you had better hear it. I will condense it as much as possible. I've been an evil brute all my life, but I guess you know that already. The first time I saw you I wanted to ruin you. I never meant to fall in love with you. I kicked against it—kicked hard. Good women always exasperated me. But I wanted a new sensation, and, by heaven, I got it!" He paused a moment, and she saw his grim features relax very slightly. "I was caught in my own net," he said. "I believe there is magic in you. You captured me anyway. I did homage to you—in spite of myself. After that night the relish went out of everything for me. I wanted only you."
Again he paused, but she said nothing. She was listening with her steadfast eyes upon him.
"But you kept me at a distance," he said, "and I couldn't help myself. That was the maddening part of it. Lucas knew even then—or suspected. But he didn't interfere. He saw you were taming me. And so you were—so you were. But that thrashing upset everything. It drove me mad. I was crazy for revenge. Lucas made me go away, but I couldn't stay. I was like a man possessed. My hatred for your husband had swamped my love for you. You have got to know it, Anne; I am like that. I wanted to wreak my vengeance on him through you, because I knew—by then—that I had somehow reached your heart. And so I came to you—I saw you—and then I couldn't do it. Your love—I suppose I may call it that?—barred the way. It was your safeguard. You trusted me, and for that I wanted to fall down and worship you. But you sent me away—I had to go. You made a man of me. I lived a clean life because of you. I was your slave. I believe I should have remained so if your husband had died then. But the knowledge that he was coming back to you was too much for me. I couldn't stand that. I broke free."
He stopped suddenly and brought his clenched fist down upon the rail as if physical pain were a relief to his soul.
"I needn't go into what happened then," he said. "You saw me at my worst, and—you conquered me. You drove me out of your stronghold, and you locked the door. I don't know even now how you did it. None but a good woman would have dared. Do you know, when I came to my senses and knew what I had done, knew that I'd insulted you, killed your trust—your love, made you despise me, I nearly shot myself? It was Dot who kept me from that. She guessed, I suppose. And I went away—I went right away into the Rockies—and fought my devils there. I came back saner than you have ever known me, to hear that you were free. Can you believe that I actually told myself that you were mine—mine for the winning? I stretched out my hands to you across half the world, and I felt as if wherever you were I had somehow managed to reach and touch you. It was exactly a year from the day I had first met you."
"Ah, I remember!" Anne said, her voice quick with pain; but she did not tell him what she remembered.
He went on rapidly, as if she had not spoken. "And then I came to you. And—I found—I found Luke—in possession. Well, that was the end of everything for me. I couldn't help knowing that it was the best thing that could possibly happen to either of you. And I—well, I was just out of it. I would have gone again that night, but Luke wouldn't have it. He suspected from the first, though I lied to him—I lied royally. But I couldn't keep it up. He was too many for me. He wouldn't let me drop out, but neither would I let him. I fought every inch. I wouldn't let him die. I held him night and day—night and day. I knew what it meant to you too, and I knew you would help me afterwards to drop out. My whole soul was in it, but even so, I couldn't hold on for ever. I had to slacken at last, and he—he slackened too. I knew it directly, felt him losing hold. That was two days before he died. And I pulled myself together and grabbed him again. I think he knew. He tried to wake up, said he'd get well, made me let go of him, made me explain things to you. And then—well, I guess he thought his part was done—so he just—let go."
Abruptly he turned from her and leaned again upon the rail, lodging his head on his hands. "That's all," he said. "But if Tawny had taken it into his fool brain to make an end of me a little sooner—as I meant him to—I know very well Luke would have hung on—somehow—for your sake. Oh, I wish to heaven he had!" he burst out fiercely. "I'm not fit to speak to you, not fit to touch your hand. You—you—I believe you'd be kind to me if I would let you. But I won't—I won't! I'm going away. It rests with me now to protect you somehow, and there is no other way."
He ceased to speak, and in the silence she watched his bent head, greatly wondering, deeply pitying. When he stood up again she knew that the tumult that tore his soul had been forced down out of sight.
"You see how it is with me, Anne," he said very sadly. "Tawny Hudson thinks I'm a devil, and I'm not sure—even now—that he isn't right. That's why I'm going away. I won't have you trust me, for I can't trust myself. And you have no one to protect you from me. So you won't blame me for going? You'll understand?"
His words went straight to her heart. She felt the quick tears rising, but she kept them back. She knew that he needed strength from her just then.
And so, after a moment, she commanded herself, and answered him.
"I think you are quite right to go, Nap. And—yes, I understand. Only—some day—some day—come back again!"
He leaned towards her. His face had flashed into sudden vitality at her words. He made a movement as if he would take her into his arms. And then abruptly, almost with violence, he withdrew himself, and gripped his hands together behind him.
Standing so, with the moonlight shining on his face, he showed her that which her heart ached to see. For though the dusky eyes were fixed and still, unveiled but unrevealing, though the high cheek-bones and lantern jaw were grim as beaten brass, she had a glimpse beyond of the seething, volcanic fires she dreaded, and she knew that he had spoken the truth. It was better for them both that he should go.
"I will come back to you, Anne," he said, speaking very steadily. "I will come back to you—if I find I can."
It was final, and she knew it. She held out her hand to him in silence, and he, stooping, pressed it dumbly against his lips.
Thereafter they walked back to the house together, and parted without a word.
OUT OF THE FURNACE
Capper looked round with a certain keenness that was not untouched with curiosity when Nap unexpectedly followed him to his room that night.
"Are you wanting anything?" he demanded, with his customary directness.
"Nothing much," Nap said. "You might give me a sleeping-draught if you're disposed to be charitable. I seem to have lost the knack of going to sleep. What I really came to say was that Hudson will go with you to-morrow if you will be good enough to put up with him. He won't give you any trouble. I would let him go with me next week if his wits would stand the strain of travelling in my company, but I don't think they will. I don't want to turn him into a gibbering maniac if I can help it."
"What have you been doing to him?" said Capper.
Nap smiled, faintly contemptous. "My dear doctor, I never do anything to anybody. If people choose to credit me with possessing unholy powers, you will allow that I am scarcely to be blamed if the temptation to trade now and then upon their fertile imaginations proves too much for me."
"I allow nothing," Capper said, "that is not strictly normal and wholesome."
"Then that places me on the black list at once," remarked Nap. "Good-night!"
"Stay a moment!" ordered Capper. "Let me look at you. If you will promise to behave like an ordinary human being for once, I'll give you that draught."
"I'll promise anything you like," said Nap, a shade of weariness in his voice. "I'm going up to town to-morrow, and I never sleep there so I reckon this is my last chance for some time to come."
"Are you trying to kill yourself?" asked Capper abruptly.
But Nap only threw up his head and laughed. "If that were my object I'd take a shorter cut than this. No, I guess I shan't die this way, Doctor. You seem to forget the fact that I'm as tough as leather, with the vitality of a serpent."
"The toughest of us won't go for ever," observed Capper. "You get to bed. I'll come to you directly."
When he joined him again, a few minutes later, Nap was lying on his back with arms flung wide, staring inscrutably at the ceiling. His mind seemed to be far away, but Capper's hand upon his pulse brought it back. He turned his head with the flicker of a smile.
"What's that for?"
"I happen to take an interest in you, my son," said Capper.
"Very good of you. But why?"
Capper was watching him keenly. "Because I have a notion that you are wanted."
Nap stirred restlessly, and was silent.
"How long are you going to be away?" Capper asked.
"I don't know."
Nap's hand jerked impatiently from the doctor's hold. "Possibly for ever."
Capper's long fingers began to crack. He looked speculative. "Say, Nap," he said suddenly, "we may not be exactly sympathetic, you and I, but I guess we've pulled together long enough to be fairly intimate. Anyway, I've conceived a sort of respect for you that I never expected to have. And if you'll take a word of advice from a friend who wishes you well, you won't regret it."
The thin lips began to smile. "Delighted to listen to your advice, Doctor. I suspect I'm not obliged to follow it."
"You will please yourself, no doubt," Capper rejoined drily. "But my advice is, don't stay away too long. Your place is here."
"You think so?" said Nap.
"I am quite sure," Capper said, with emphasis.
"And you think I shall please myself by going?"
"Who else?" said Capper almost sternly.
Nap did not instantly reply. He was lying back with his face in shadow. When he spoke at length it was with extreme deliberation. Capper divined that it was an effort to him to speak at all.
"You're a family friend," he said. "I guess you've a right to know. It isn't for my own sake I'm going at all. It's for—hers, and because of a promise I made to Luke. If I were to stop, I'd be a cur—and worse. She'd take me without counting the cost. She is a woman who never thinks of herself. I've got to think for her. I've sworn to play the straight game, and I'll play it. That's why I won't so much as look into her face again till I know that I can be to her what Luke would have been—what Bertie is to Dot—what every man who is a man ought to be to the woman he has made his wife."
He flung his arms up above his head and remained tense for several seconds. Then abruptly he relaxed.
"I'll be a friend to her," he said, "a friend that she can trust—or nothing!"
There came a very kindly look into Capper's green eyes, but he made no comment of any sort. He only turned aside to take up the glass he had set down on entering. And as he did so, he smiled as a man well pleased.
Once during the night he looked in upon Nap and found him sleeping, wrapt in a deep and silent slumber, motionless as death. He stood awhile watching the harsh face with its grim mouth and iron jaw, and slowly a certain pity dawned in his own. The man had suffered infernally before he had found his manhood. He had passed through raging fires that had left their mark upon him for the rest of his life.
"It's been an almighty big struggle, poor devil," said Capper, "but it's made a man of you."
He left early on the following day, accompanied by Tawny Hudson, whose docility was only out-matched by his very obvious desire to be gone.
True to her promise, Anne was down in time to take leave of Capper. They stood together for a moment on the steps before parting. Her hand in his, he looked straight into her quiet eyes.
"You're not grieving any, Lady Carfax?"
"No," she said.
"I guess you're right," said Maurice Capper gravely. "We make our little bids for happiness, but it helps one to remember that the issue lies with God."
She gave him a smile of understanding. "'He knows about it all—He knows—He knows,'" she quoted softly. And Capper went his way, taking with him the memory of a woman who still ploughed her endless furrow, but with a heart at peace.
THE PROMOTION OF THE QUEEN'S JESTER
"My!" said Mrs. Errol. "Isn't he just dear?"
There was a cooing note in her deep voice. She sat in the Dower House garden with her grandson bolt upright upon her knees, and all the birds of June singing around her.
"Isn't he dear, Anne?" she said.
Anne, who was dangling a bunch of charms for the baby's amusement, stooped and kissed the sunny curls.
"He's a lord of creation," she said. "And he knows it already. I never saw such an upright morsel in my life."
"Lucas was like that," said Mrs. Errol softly. "He was just the loveliest baby in the U.S.A. Everyone said so. Dot dearie, I'm sort of glad you called him Luke."
"So am I, mater dearest. And he's got Luke's eyes, hasn't he now? Bertie said so from the very beginning." Eagerly Dot leaned from her chair to turn her small son's head to meet his grandmother's scrutiny. "I'd rather he were like Luke than anyone else in the world," she said. "It isn't treason to Bertie to say so, for he wants it too. Where is Bertie, I wonder? He had to go to town, but he promised to be back early for his boy's first birthday-party. It's such an immense occasion, isn't it?"
Her round face dimpled in the way Bertie most loved. She rose and slipped a hand through Anne's arm.
"Let's go and look for him. I know he can't be long now. The son of the house likes having his granny to himself. He never cries with her."
They moved away together through the sunlit garden, Dot chattering gaily as her fashion was about nothing in particular while Anne walked beside her in sympathetic silence. Anne was never inattentive though there were some who deemed her unresponsive.
But as they neared the gate Dot's volubility quite suddenly died down. She plucked a white rose, to fill in the pause and fastened it in her friend's dress. Her fingers trembled unmistakably as she did it, and Anne looked at her inquiringly. "Is anything the matter?"
"No. Why?" said Dot, turning very red.
Anne smiled a little. "I feel as if a bird had left off singing," she said.
Dot laughed, still with hot cheeks. "What a pretty way of putting it! Bertie isn't nearly so complimentary. He calls me the magpie, which is really very unfair, for he talks much more than I do. Dear old Bertie!"
The dimples lingered, and Anne bent suddenly and kissed them. "Dear little Dot!" she said.
Instantly Dot's arms were very tightly round her. "Anne darling, I've got something to tell you—something you very possibly won't quite like. You won't be vexed any, will you?"
"Not any," smiled Anne.
"No, but it isn't a small thing. It—it's rather immense. But Bertie said I was to tell you, because you are not to be taken by surprise again. He doesn't think it fair, and of course he's right."
"What is it, dear?" said Anne. The smile had gone from her face, but her eyes were steadfast and very still—the eyes of a woman who had waited all her life.
"My dear," said Dot, holding her closely, "it's only that Bertie didn't go up to town on business. It was to meet someone, and—and that someone will be with him when he comes back. I promised Bertie to tell you, but you were so late getting here I was afraid I shouldn't have time. Oh, Anne dear, I do hope you don't mind."
Dot's face, a guilty scarlet, was hidden in Anne's shoulder. Anne's hand, very quiet and steady, came up and began to stroke the fluffy hair that blew against her neck. But she said nothing.
It was Dot who remorsefully broke the silence. "I feel such a beast, Anne, but really I had no hand in it this time. He wrote to Bertie yesterday from town. He hasn't been in England for over a year, and he wanted to know if he could come to us. Bertie went up this morning to see him and bring him back. I thought of coming round to you, but Bertie seemed to think I had better wait and tell you when you came. I hoped you would have come earlier, so that I would have had more time to tell you about it. Dear, do tell me it's all right."
"It is all right," Anne said, and with the words she smiled again though her face was pale. "It is quite all right, Dot dear. Don't be anxious."
Dot looked up with a start. "That's the motor coming now. Oh, Anne, I've only told you just in time!"
She was quivering with excitement. It seemed as if she were far the more agitated of the two. For Anne was calm to all outward appearance, quiet and stately and unafraid. Only the hand that grasped Dot's was cold—cold as ice. The motor was rapidly approaching. They stood by the gate and heard the buzzing of the engine, the rush of the wheels, and then the quick, gay blasts of the horn by which Bertie always announced his coming to his wife. A moment more and the car whizzed into the drive. There came a yell of welcome from Bertie at the wheel and the instant checking of the motor.
And the man beside Bertie leaned swiftly forward, bareheaded, and looked straight into Anne's white face.
She did not know how she met his look. It seemed to pierce her. But she was nerved for the ordeal, and she moved towards him with outstretched hand.
His fingers closed upon it as he stepped from the car, gripped and closely held it. But he spoke not a word to her; only to Dot, whom he kissed immediately afterwards, to her confusion and Bertie's amusement.
"I seem to have stumbled into a family gathering," he said later, when they gave him the place of honour between Mrs. Errol and his hostess.
"Being one of the family, I guess it's a happy accident," said Mrs. Errol.
He bowed to her elaborately. "Many thanks, alma mater! Considering the short time you have had for preparing a pretty speech of welcome it does you undoubted credit."
"Oh, my, Nap!" she said. "I'm past making pretty speeches at my age. I just say what I mean."
A gleam of surprise crossed his dark face. "That so, alma mater?" he said. "Then—considering all things—again thanks!" He turned from her to the baby sprawling on the rug at his feet, and lifted the youngster to his knee. "So this is the pride of the Errols now," he said.
The baby stared up at him with serious eyes, and very deliberately and intently Nap stared back.
"What is his name, Dot?" he asked at length.
"Lucas Napoleon," she said.
"Good heavens!" he ejaculated. "What an unholy combination! What in thunder possessed you to call him that?"
"Oh, it wasn't my doing," Dot hastened to explain, with her usual honesty, "though of course I was delighted with the idea. Bertie and I called him Lucas almost before he was born."
"Then who in wonder chose my name for him?" demanded Nap.
"See the Church Catechism!" suggested Bertie.
"Ah! Quite so." Nap turned upon him keenly. "Who were his god-parents?"
"My dear Nap, what does it matter?" broke in Dot. "Be quiet, Bertie! For goodness' sake make him put the child down and have some tea."
"Let me take him," Anne said.
She stooped to lift the boy, who held out his arms to her with a crow of pleasure. Nap looked up at her, and for an instant only their eyes met; but in that instant understanding dawned upon Nap's face, and with it a strangely tender smile that made it almost gentle.
Dot declared afterwards that the birthday-party had been all she could have desired. Everyone had been nice to everyone, and the baby hadn't been rude to his uncle, a calamity she had greatly feared. Also Nap was improved, hugely improved. Didn't Bertie think so? He seemed to have got so much more human. She couldn't realise there had ever been a time when she had actually disliked him.
"P'r'aps we're more human ourselves," suggested Bertie; a notion which hadn't occurred to Dot but which she admitted might have something in it.
Anyway, she was sure Nap had improved, and she longed to know if Anne thought so too.
Anne's thoughts upon that subject, however, were known to none, perhaps not even to herself. All she knew was an overwhelming desire for solitude, but when this was hers at last it was not in the consideration of this question that she spent it.
It was in kneeling by her open window with her face to the sky, and in her heart a rapture of gladness that all the birds of June could not utter.
She scarcely slept at all that night, yet when she rose some of the bloom of youth had come back to her, some of its summer splendour was shining in her eyes. Anne Carfax was more nearly a beautiful woman that day than she had ever been before.
Dimsdale looked at her benignly. Would her ladyship breakfast out-of-doors? She smiled and gave her assent, and while he was preparing she plucked a spray of rose acacia and pinned it at her throat.
"Dimsdale," she said, and her cheeks flushed to the soft tint of the blossom as she spoke, "Mr. Errol is coming over this morning. I expect him to luncheon."
"Mr. Errol, my lady?"
"Mr. Nap Errol," said Anne, still intent upon the acacia. "Show him into the garden when he comes. He is sure to find me somewhere."
Dimsdale's eyes opened very wide, but he managed his customary "Very good, my lady," as he continued his preparations. And so Anne breakfasted amid the tumult of rejoicing June, all the world laughing around her, all the world offering abundant thanksgiving because of the sunshine that flooded it.
When breakfast was over she sat with closed eyes, seeming to hear the very heart of creation throbbing in every sound, yet listening, listening intently for something more. For a long time she sat thus, absorbed in the great orchestra, waiting as it were to take her part in the mighty symphony that swept its perfect harmonies around her.
It was a very little thing at last that told her her turn had come, so small a thing, and yet it sent the blood tingling through every vein, racing and pulsing with headlong impetus like a locked stream suddenly set free. It was no more than the flight of a startled bird from the tree above her.
She opened her eyes, quivering from head to foot. Yesterday she had commanded herself. She had gone to him with outstretched hand and welcoming smile. To-day she sat quite still. She could not move.
He came to her, stooped over her, then knelt beside her; but he did not offer to touch her. The sunlight streamed down upon his upturned face. His eyes were deep and still and passionless.
"You expected me," he said.
She looked down at him. "I have been expecting you for a very long time," she said.
A flicker that was scarcely a smile crossed his face. "And yet I've come too soon," he said.
"Why do you say that?" She asked the question almost in spite of herself. But she had begun to grow calmer. His quietness reassured her.
"Because, my Queen," he said, "the role of jester at court is obsolete, at least so far as I am concerned, and I haven't managed to qualify for another."
"Do you want another?" she said.
He turned his eyes away from her. "I want—many things," he said.
She motioned him to the seat beside her. "Tell me what you have been doing all this time."
"I can't," he said.
But he rose and sat beside her as she desired.
"What under heaven have I been doing?" he said. "I don't know, I guess I've been something like Nebuchadnezzar when they turned him out to grass. I've been just—ruminating,"
"Is that all?" There was a curious note of relief in Anne's voice.
His old magnetic smile flashed across his face as he caught it. "That's all, Queen Anne. It's been monstrous dull. Do you know, I don't think Heaven intended me for a hermit."
Involuntarily almost she smiled in answer. Her heart was beating quite steadily again. She was no longer afraid.
"Nebuchadnezzar came to his own again," she observed.
"He did," said Nap.
He leaned back with his face to the sky. "Not yet," he said.
Anne was silent. He turned after a moment and looked at her. "And what have you been doing, 0 Queen?" he said.
Her hands were clasped in her lap. They suddenly gripped each other very fast.
"Won't you tell me?" said Nap.
He spoke very softly, but he made no movement towards her. He sat aloof and still. Yet he plainly desired an answer.
It came at last, spoken almost in a whisper. "I have been—waiting."
"Waiting—" he said.
She parted her hands suddenly, with a gesture that was passionate, and rose. "Yes, waiting," she said, "waiting, Nap, waiting! And oh, I'm so tired of it. I'm not like you. I have never wanted—many things; only one—only one!" Her voice broke. She turned sharply from him.
Nap had sprung to his feet. He stood close to her. But he held himself in check. He kept all emotion out of his face and voice.
"Do you think I don't know?" he said. "My dear Anne, I have always known. That's the damnable part of it. You've wanted truth instead of treachery, honour instead of shame, love instead of—"
She put out a quick hand. "Don't say it, Nap!"
He took her hand, drew it to his heart, and held it there. "And you say you don't want many things," he went on, in a tone half sad, half whimsical. "My dear, if I could give you one tenth of what you want—and ought to have—you'd be a lucky woman and I a thrice lucky man. But—we've got to face it—I can't. I thought I could train myself, fashion myself, into something worthy of your acceptance. I can't. I thought I could win back your trust, your friendship, last of all your love. But I can't even begin. You can send me away from you if you will, and I'll go for good and all. On the other hand, you can keep me, you can marry me—" He paused; and she fancied she felt his heart quicken. "You can marry me," he said again, "but you can't tame me. You'll find me an infernal trial to live with. I'm not a devil any longer. No, and I'm not a brute. But I am still a savage at heart, and there are some parts of me that won't tame. My love for you is a seething furnace, an intolerable craving. I can't contemplate you sanely. I want you unspeakably."
His hold had tightened. She could feel his heart throbbing now like a fierce thing caged. His eyes had begun to glow. The furnace door was opening. She could feel the heat rushing out, enveloping her. Soon it would begin to scorch her. And yet she knew no shrinking. Rather she drew nearer, as a shivering creature starved and frozen draws near to the hunter's fire.
He went on speaking rapidly, with rising passion. "My love for you is the one part of me that I haven't got under control, and it's such a mighty big part that the rest is hardly worthy of mention. It's great enough to make everything else contemptible. I've no use for lesser things. I want just you—only you—only you—for the rest of my life!"
He stopped suddenly, seemed on the verge of something further, then pulled himself together with a sharp gesture. The next moment, quite quietly, he relinquished her hand.
"I'm afraid that's all there is to me," he said. "Lucas would have given you understanding, friendship, chivalry, all that a good woman wants. I can only offer you—bondage."
He half turned with the words, standing as if it needed but a sign to dismiss him. But Anne made no sign. Over their heads a thrush had suddenly begun to pour out his soul to the June sunshine, and she stood spell-bound, listening.
At the end of several breathless moments she spoke and in her voice was a deep note that thrilled like music.
"There is a bondage," she said, "that is sweeter than any freedom. And, Nap, it is the one thing in this world that I want—that I need—that I pray for night and day."
"Anne!" he said. He turned back to her. He took the hands she gave him. "Anne," he said again, speaking rapidly, in a voice that shook, "I have tried to play a straight game with you. I have warned you. I am not the right sort. You know what I am. You know."
"Yes," Anne said, "I know." She raised her head and looked him straight in the eyes. "You are all the world to me, Nap," she said. "You are the man I love."
His arms caught her, crushed her fiercely to him, held her fast.
"Say it again!" he said, his fiery eyes flaming. "Say it! Say it!"
But Anne said nought. Only for a long, long second she gazed into his face; then in utter silence she turned her lips to his.
* * * * *
They spent the whole of the long June day together in the garden. Neither knew how the time went till evening came upon them all unawares—a golden evening of many fragrances.
They came at last along the green path under the lilac trees, and here by the rustic seat Nap stopped.
"I'll leave you here," he said.
She looked at him in surprise. "Won't you dine with me?"
"No," he said restlessly. "I won't come in. I should stifle under a roof to-night."
"But we will dine outside," she said.
He shook his head. "No, I'm going. Anne," he caught her hand to his lips, "I hate leaving you. How long must I be condemned to it?"
She touched his shoulder with her cheek. "Don't you know that I hate it too?" she said.
"Then—" He put his arm round her.
"Next week, Nap," she said.
"You mean it?"
"Yes. I mean it."
"You will marry me next week. What day?"
"Any day," she said, with her face against his shoulder.
"Any day, Anne? You mean that? You mean me to choose?"
She laughed softly. "I shall leave everything to you."
"Then I choose Sunday," Nap said, without an instant's consideration, "as early in the morning as possible. I shall go straight to the padre and arrange it right now."
"Very well," she said. "I'll try to be ready."
He threw up his head with the old arrogant gesture. "You must be ready," he said imperiously. "I shall come and fetch you myself."
She laughed again at that. "Indeed you will not. I shall go with Mrs. Errol."
He conceded this point, albeit grudgingly. "And afterwards?" he said.
"The afterwards shall be yours, dear," she answered.
"You mean that?"
"Of course I mean it."
"Then, Anne"—he bent his face suddenly, his lips moved against her forehead—"will you come with me to Bramhurst?"
"Bramhurst!" She started a little. The name to her was no more than a bitter memory among the many other bitter memories of her life.
"Will you?" he said.
"If you wish it," she answered gently.
"I do wish it."
"Then—so be it," she said.
He bent his head a little lower, kissed her twice passionately upon the lips, held her awhile as if he could not bear to let her go, then tore himself almost violently from her, and went away, swift and noiseless as a shadow over the grass.
THE POWER THAT CASTS OUT DEVILS
It was late on the evening of her wedding-day that Anne entered once more the drawing-room of the little inn at Bramhurst and stopped by the open window.
There was a scent of musk in the room behind her, and an odour infinitely more alluring of roses and honeysuckle in the garden in front. Beyond the garden the common lay in the rosy dusk of the afterglow under a deep blue sky. The clang of a distant cow-bell came dreamily through the silence.
She stood leaning against the door-post with her face to the night. It was a night of wonder, of marvellous, soul-stilling peace. Yet her brows were slightly drawn as she waited there. She seemed to be puzzling over something.
"Say it out loud," said Nap.
She did not start at the words though he had come up behind her without sound. She stretched out her hand without turning and drew his arm through hers.
"Why did we choose this place?" she said.
"You didn't choose it," said Nap.
"I chose it chiefly because I knew you hated it," he said, a queer vibration of recklessness in his voice.
"My dear Nap, am I to believe that?"
He looked at her through the falling dusk, and his hand closed tense and vital upon her arm. "It's the truth anyway," he said. "I knew you hated the place, that you only came to it for my sake. And I—I made you come because I wanted you to love it."
"For your sake, Nap?" she said softly.
"Yes, and for another reason." He paused a moment; speech seemed suddenly an effort to him. Then: "Anne," he said, "you forgave me, I know, long ago; but I want you here—on this spot—to tell me that what happened here is to you as if it had never been. I want it blotted out of your mind for ever. I want your trust—your trust!"
It was like a hunger-cry rising from the man's very soul. At sound of it she turned impulsively.
"Nap, never speak of this again! My dearest, we need not have come here for that. Yet I am glad now that we came. It will be holy ground to me as long as I live. As long as I live," she repeated very earnestly, "I shall remember that it was here that the door of paradise was opened to us at last, and that God meant us to enter in."
She lifted her eyes to his with a look half-shy, half-confident. "You believe in God," she said.
He did not answer at once. He was looking out beyond her for the first time, and the restless fire had gone out of his eyes. They were still and deep as a mountain pool.
"Nap," she said in a whisper.
Instantly his look came back to her. He took her face between his hands with a tenderness so new that it moved her inexplicably to tears.
"I believe in the Power that casts out devils," he said very gravely. "Luke taught me that much. I guess my wife will teach me the rest."