'I shouldn't bank on it, sonny. Come along, kiddo! You're done. Be good, and own it. We can't wait much longer.'
'You'll have to try.'
Buck's voice broke in on the discussion, quite unintelligible except that it was obviously wrathful.
'Oh well!' I heard Sam say resignedly, and then there was silence again below.
I resumed my watch over the trap-door, encouraged. This parleying, I thought, was an admission of failure on the part of the besiegers. I did not credit Sam with a real concern for my welfare—thereby doing him an injustice. I can see now that he spoke perfectly sincerely. The position, though I was unaware of it, really was hopeless, for the reason that, like most positions, it had a flank as well as a front. In estimating the possibilities of attack, I had figured assaults as coming only from below. I had omitted from my calculations the fact that the loft had a roof.
It was a scraping on the tiles above my head that first brought the new danger-point to my notice. There followed the sound of heavy hammering, and with it came a sickening realization of the truth of what Sam had said. We were beaten.
I was too paralysed by the unexpectedness of the attack to form any plan; and, indeed, I do not think that there was anything that I could have done. I was unarmed and helpless. I stood there, waiting for the inevitable.
Affairs moved swiftly. Plaster rained down on to the wooden floor. I was vaguely aware that the Nugget was speaking, but I did not listen to him.
A gap appeared in the roof and widened. I could hear the heavy breathing of the man as he wrenched at the tiles.
And then the climax arrived, with anticlimax following so swiftly upon it that the two were almost simultaneous. I saw the worker on the roof cautiously poise himself in the opening, hunched up like some strange ape. The next moment he had sprung.
As his feet touched the floor there came a rending, splintering crash; the air was filled with a choking dust, and he was gone. The old worn out boards had shaken under my tread. They had given way in complete ruin beneath this sharp onslaught. The rays of the lamp, which had filtered in like pencils of light through crevices, now shone in a great lake in the centre of the floor.
In the stable below all was confusion. Everybody was speaking at once. The hero of the late disaster was groaning horribly, for which he certainly had good reason: I did not know the extent of his injuries, but a man does not do that sort of thing with impunity. The next of the strange happenings of the night now occurred.
I had not been giving the Nugget a great deal of my attention for some time, other and more urgent matters occupying me.
His action at this juncture, consequently, came as a complete and crushing surprise.
I was edging my way cautiously towards the jagged hole in the centre of the floor, in the hope of seeing something of what was going on below, when from close beside me his voice screamed. 'It's me, Ogden Ford. I'm coming!' and, without further warning, he ran to the hole, swung himself over, and dropped.
Manna falling from the skies in the wilderness never received a more whole-hearted welcome. Howls and cheers and ear-splitting whoops filled the air. The babel of talk broke out again. Some exuberant person found expression of his joy in emptying his pistol at the ceiling, to my acute discomfort, the spot he had selected as a target chancing to be within a foot of where I stood. Then they moved off in a body, still cheering. The fight was over.
I do not know how long it was before I spoke. It may have been some minutes. I was dazed with the swiftness with which the final stages of the drama had been played out. If I had given him more of my attention, I might have divined that Ogden had been waiting his opportunity to make some such move; but, as it was, the possibility had not even occurred to me, and I was stunned.
In the distance I heard the automobile moving off down the drive. The sound roused me.
'Well, we may as well go,' I said dully. I lit the candle and held it up. Audrey was standing against the wall, her face white and set.
I raised the trap-door and followed her down the ladder.
The rain had ceased, and the stars were shining. After the closeness of the loft, the clean wet air was delicious. For a moment we stopped, held by the peace and stillness of the night.
Then, quite suddenly, she broke down.
It was the unexpectedness of it that first threw me off my balance. In all the time I had known her, I had never before seen Audrey in tears. Always, in the past, she had borne the blows of fate with a stoical indifference which had alternately attracted and repelled me, according as my mood led me to think it courage or insensibility. In the old days, it had done much, this trait of hers, to rear a barrier between us. It had made her seem aloof and unapproachable. Subconsciously, I suppose, it had offended my egoism that she should be able to support herself in times of trouble, and not feel it necessary to lean on me.
And now the barrier had fallen. The old independence, the almost aggressive self-reliance, had vanished. A new Audrey had revealed herself.
She was sobbing helplessly, standing quite still, her arms hanging and her eyes staring blankly before her. There was something in her attitude so hopeless, so beaten, that the pathos of it seemed to cut me like a knife.
The stars glittered in the little pools among the worn flagstones. The night was very still. Only the steady drip of water from the trees broke the silence.
A great wave of tenderness seemed to sweep from my mind everything in the world but her. Everything broke abruptly that had been checking me, stifling me, holding me gagged and bound since the night when our lives had come together again after those five long years. I forgot Cynthia, my promise, everything.
She was in my arms, clinging to me, murmuring my name. The darkness was about us like a cloud.
And then she had slipped from me, and was gone.
In my recollections of that strange night there are wide gaps. Trivial incidents come back to me with extraordinary vividness; while there are hours of which I can remember nothing. What I did or where I went I cannot recall. It seems to me, looking back, that I walked without a pause till morning; yet, when day came, I was still in the school grounds. Perhaps I walked, as a wounded animal runs, in circles. I lost, I know, all count of time. I became aware of the dawn as something that had happened suddenly, as if light had succeeded darkness in a flash. It had been night; I looked about me, and it was day—a steely, cheerless day, like a December evening. And I found that I was very cold, very tired, and very miserable.
My mind was like the morning, grey and overcast. Conscience may be expelled, but, like Nature, it will return. Mine, which I had cast from me, had crept back with the daylight. I had had my hour of freedom, and it was now for me to pay for it.
I paid in full. My thoughts tore me. I could see no way out. Through the night the fever and exhilaration of that mad moment had sustained me, but now the morning had come, when dreams must yield to facts, and I had to face the future.
I sat on the stump of a tree, and buried my face in my hands. I must have fallen asleep, for, when I raised my eyes again, the day was brighter. Its cheerlessness had gone. The sky was blue, and birds were singing.
It must have been about half an hour later that the first beginnings of a plan of action came to me. I could not trust myself to reason out my position clearly and honestly in this place where Audrey's spell was over everything. The part of me that was struggling to be loyal to Cynthia was overwhelmed here. London called to me. I could think there, face my position quietly, and make up my mind.
I turned to walk to the station. I could not guess even remotely what time it was. The sun was shining through the trees, but in the road outside the grounds there were no signs of workers beginning the day.
It was half past five when I reached the station. A sleepy porter informed me that there would be a train to London, a slow train, at six.
* * * * *
I remained in London two days, and on the third went down to Sanstead to see Audrey for the last time. I had made my decision.
I found her on the drive, close by the gate. She turned at my footstep on the gravel; and, as I saw her, I knew that the fight which I had thought over was only beginning.
I was shocked at her appearance. Her face was very pale, and there were tired lines about her eyes.
I could not speak. Something choked me. Once again, as on that night in the stable-yard, the world and all that was in it seemed infinitely remote.
It was she who broke the silence.
'Well, Peter,' she said listlessly.
We walked up the drive together.
'Have you been to London?'
'Yes. I came down this morning.' I paused. 'I went there to think,' I said.
'I have been thinking, too.'
I stopped, and began to hollow out a groove in the wet gravel with my heel. Words were not coming readily.
Suddenly she found speech. She spoke quickly, but her voice was dull and lifeless.
'Let us forget what has happened, Peter. We were neither of us ourselves. I was tired and frightened and disappointed. You were sorry for me just at the moment, and your nerves were strained, like mine. It was all nothing. Let us forget it.'
I shook my head.
'No,' I said. 'It was not that. I can't let you even pretend you think that was all. I love you. I always have loved you, though I did not know how much till you had gone away. After a time, I thought I had got over it. But when I met you again down here, I knew that I had not, and never should. I came back to say good-bye, but I shall always love you. It is my punishment for being the sort of man I was five years ago.'
'And mine for being the sort of woman I was five years ago.' She laughed bitterly. 'Woman! I was just a little fool, a sulky child. My punishment is going to be worse than yours, Peter. You will not be always thinking that you had the happiness of two lives in your hands, and threw it away because you had not the sense to hold it.'
'It is just that that I shall always be thinking. What happened five years ago was my fault, Audrey, and nobody's but mine. I don't think that, even when the loss of you hurt most, I ever blamed you for going away. You had made me see myself as I was, and I knew that you had done the right thing. I was selfish, patronizing—I was insufferable. It was I who threw away our happiness. You put it in a sentence that first day here, when you said that I had been kind—sometimes—when I happened to think of it. That summed me up. You have nothing to reproach yourself for. I think we have not had the best of luck; but all the blame is mine.'
A flush came into her pale face.
'I remember saying that. I said it because I was afraid of myself. I was shaken by meeting you again. I thought you must be hating me—you had every reason to hate me, and you spoke as if you did—and I did not want to show you what you were to me. It wasn't true, Peter. Five years ago I may have thought it, but not now. I have grown to understand the realities by this time. I have been through too much to have any false ideas left. I have had some chance to compare men, and I realize that they are not all kind, Peter, even sometimes, when they happen to think of it.'
'Audrey,' I said—I had never found myself able to ask the question before—'was—was—he—was Sheridan kind to you?'
She did not speak for a moment, and I thought she was resenting the question.
'No!' she said abruptly.
She shot out the monosyllable with a force that startled and silenced me. There was a whole history of unhappiness in the word.
'No,' she said again, after a pause, more gently this time. I understood. She was speaking of a dead man.
'I can't talk about him,' she went on hurriedly. 'I expect most of it was my fault. I was unhappy because he was not you, and he saw that I was unhappy and hated me for it. We had nothing in common. It was just a piece of sheer madness, our marriage. He swept me off my feet. I never had a great deal of sense, and I lost it all then. I was far happier when he had left me.'
'He deserted me almost directly we reached America.' She laughed. 'I told you I had grown to understand the realities. I began then.'
I was horrified. For the first time I realized vividly all that she had gone through. When she had spoken to me before of her struggles that evening over the study fire, I had supposed that they had begun only after her husband's death, and that her life with him had in some measure trained her for the fight. That she should have been pitched into the arena, a mere child, with no experience of life, appalled me. And, as she spoke, there came to me the knowledge that now I could never do what I had come to do. I could not give her up. She needed me. I tried not to think of Cynthia.
I took her hand.
'Audrey,' I said, 'I came here to say good-bye. I can't. I want you. Nothing matters except you. I won't give you up.'
'It's too late,' she said, with a little catch in her voice. 'You are engaged to Mrs Ford.'
'I am engaged, but not to Mrs Ford. I am engaged to someone you have never met—Cynthia Drassilis.'
She pulled her hand away quickly, wide-eyed, and for some moments was silent.
'Do you love her?' she asked at last.
'Does she love you?'
Cynthia's letter rose before my eyes, that letter that could have had no meaning, but one.
'I am afraid she does,' I said.
She looked at me steadily. Her face was very pale.
'You must marry her, Peter.'
I shook my head.
'You must. She believes in you.'
'I can't. I want you. And you need me. Can you deny that you need me?'
She said it quite simply, without emotion. I moved towards her, thrilling, but she stepped back.
'She needs you too,' she said.
A dull despair was creeping over me. I was weighed down by a premonition of failure. I had fought my conscience, my sense of duty and honour, and crushed them. She was raising them up against me once more. My self-control broke down.
'Audrey,' I cried, 'for God's sake can't you see what you're doing? We have been given a second chance. Our happiness is in your hands again, and you are throwing it away. Why should we make ourselves wretched for the whole of our lives? What does anything else matter except that we love each other? Why should we let anything stand in our way? I won't give you up.'
She did not answer. Her eyes were fixed on the ground. Hope began to revive in me, telling me that I had persuaded her. But when she looked up it was with the same steady gaze, and my heart sank again.
'Peter,' she said, 'I want to tell you something. It will make you understand, I think. I haven't been honest, Peter. I have not fought fairly. All these weeks, ever since we met, I have been trying to steal you. It's the only word. I have tried every little miserable trick I could think of to steal you from the girl you had promised to marry. And she wasn't here to fight for herself. I didn't think of her. I was wrapped up in my own selfishness. And then, after that night, when you had gone away, I thought it all out. I had a sort of awakening. I saw the part I had been playing. Even then I tried to persuade myself that I had done something rather fine. I thought, you see, at that time that you were infatuated with Mrs Ford—and I know Mrs Ford. If she is capable of loving any man, she loves Mr Ford, though they are divorced. I knew she would only make you unhappy. I told myself I was saving you. Then you told me it was not Mrs Ford, but this girl. That altered everything. Don't you see that I can't let you give her up now? You would despise me. I shouldn't feel clean. I should feel as if I had stabbed her in the back.'
I forced a laugh. It rang hollow against the barrier that separated us. In my heart I knew that this barrier was not to be laughed away.
'Can't you see, Peter? You must see.'
'I certainly don't. I think you're overstrained, and that you have let your imagination run away with you. I—'
She interrupted me.
'Do you remember that evening in the study?' she asked abruptly. 'We had been talking. I had been telling you how I had lived during those five years.'
'Every word I spoke was spoken with an object—calculated.... Yes, even the pauses. I tried to make them tell, too. I knew you, you see, Peter. I knew you through and through, because I loved you, and I knew the effect those tales would have on you. Oh, they were all true. I was honest as far as that goes. But they had the mean motive at the back of them. I was playing on your feelings. I knew how kind you were, how you would pity me. I set myself to create an image which would stay in your mind and kill the memory of the other girl; the image of a poor, ill-treated little creature who should work through to your heart by way of your compassion. I knew you, Peter, I knew you. And then I did a meaner thing still. I pretended to stumble in the dark. I meant you to catch me and hold me, and you did. And ...'
Her voice broke off.
'I'm glad I have told you,' she said. 'It makes it a little better. You understand now how I feel, don't you?'
She held out her hand.
'I am not going to give you up,' I said doggedly.
'Good-bye,' she said again. Her voice was a whisper.
I took her hand and began to draw her towards me.
'It is not good-bye. There is no one else in the world but you, and I am not going to give you up.'
'Peter!' she struggled feebly. 'Oh, let me go.'
I drew her nearer.
'I won't let you go,' I said.
But, as I spoke, there came the sound of automobile wheels on the gravel. A large red car was coming up the drive. I dropped Audrey's hand, and she stepped back and was lost in the shrubbery. The car slowed down and stopped beside me. There were two women in the tonneau. One, who was dark and handsome, I did not know. The other was Mrs Drassilis.
I was given no leisure for wondering how Cynthia's mother came to be in the grounds of Sanstead House, for her companion, almost before the car had stopped, jumped out and clutched me by the arm, at the same time uttering this cryptic speech: 'Whatever he offers I'll double!'
She fixed me, as she spoke, with a commanding eye. She was a woman, I gathered in that instant, born to command. There seemed, at any rate, no doubt in her mind that she could command me. If I had been a black beetle she could not have looked at me with a more scornful superiority. Her eyes were very large and of a rich, fiery brown colour, and it was these that gave me my first suspicion of her identity. As to the meaning of her words, however, I had no clue.
'Bear that in mind,' she went on. 'I'll double it if it's a million dollars.'
'I'm afraid I don't understand,' I said, finding speech.
She clicked her tongue impatiently.
'There's no need to be so cautious and mysterious. This lady is a friend of mine. She knows all about it. I asked her to come. I'm Mrs Elmer Ford. I came here directly I got your letter. I think you're the lowest sort of scoundrel that ever managed to keep out of gaol, but that needn't make any difference just now. We're here to talk business, Mr Fisher, so we may as well begin.'
I was getting tired of being taken for Smooth Sam.
'I am not Smooth Sam Fisher.'
I turned to the automobile. 'Will you identify me, Mrs Drassilis?'
She was regarding me with wide-open eyes.
'What on earth are you doing down here? I have been trying everywhere to find you, but nobody—'
Mrs Ford interrupted her. She gave me the impression of being a woman who wanted a good deal of the conversation, and who did not care how she got it. In a conversational sense she thugged Mrs Drassilis at this point, or rather she swept over her like some tidal wave, blotting her out.
'Oh,' she said fixing her brown eyes, less scornful now but still imperious, on mine. 'I must apologize. I have made a mistake. I took you for a low villain of the name of Sam Fisher. I hope you will forgive me. I was to have met him at this exact spot just about this time, by appointment, so, seeing you here, I mistook you for him.'
'If I might have a word with you alone?' I said.
Mrs Ford had a short way with people. In matters concerning her own wishes, she took their acquiescence for granted.
'Drive on up to the house, Jarvis,' she said, and Mrs Drassilis was whirled away round the curve of the drive before she knew what had happened to her.
'My name is Burns,' I said.
'Now I understand,' she said. 'I know who you are now.' She paused, and I was expecting her to fawn upon me for my gallant service in her cause, when she resumed in quite a different strain.
'I can't think what you can have been about, Mr Burns, not to have been able to do what Cynthia asked you. Surely in all these weeks and months.... And then, after all, to have let this Fisher scoundrel steal him away from under your nose...!'
She gave me a fleeting glance of unfathomable scorn. And when I thought of all the sufferings I had gone through that term owing to her repulsive son and, indirectly, for her sake, I felt that the time had come to speak out.
'May I describe the way in which I allowed your son to be stolen away from under my nose?' I said. And in well-chosen words, I sketched the outline of what had happened. I did not omit to lay stress on the fact that the Nugget's departure with the enemy was entirely voluntary.
She heard me out in silence.
'That was too bad of Oggie,' she said tolerantly, when I had ceased dramatically on the climax of my tale.
As a comment it seemed to me inadequate.
'Oggie was always high-spirited,' she went on. 'No doubt you have noticed that?'
'He could be led, but never driven. With the best intentions, no doubt, you refused to allow him to leave the stables that night and return to the house, and he resented the check and took the matter into his own hands.' She broke off and looked at her watch. 'Have you a watch? What time is it? Only that? I thought it must be later. I arrived too soon. I got a letter from this man Fisher, naming this spot and this hour for a meeting, when we could discuss terms. He said that he had written to Mr Ford, appointing the same time.' She frowned. 'I have no doubt he will come,' she said coldly.
'Perhaps this is his car,' I said.
A second automobile was whirring up the drive. There was a shout as it came within sight of us, and the chauffeur put on the brake. A man sprang from the tonneau. He jerked a word to the chauffeur, and the car went on up the drive.
He was a massively built man of middle age, with powerful shoulders, and a face—when he had removed his motor-goggles very like any one of half a dozen of those Roman emperors whose features have come down to us on coins and statues, square-jawed, clean-shaven, and aggressive. Like his late wife (who was now standing, drawn up to her full height, staring haughtily at him) he had the air of one born to command. I should imagine that the married life of these two must have been something more of a battle even than most married lives. The clashing of those wills must have smacked of a collision between the immovable mass and the irresistible force.
He met Mrs Ford's stare with one equally militant, then turned to me.
'I'll give you double what she has offered you,' he said. He paused, and eyed me with loathing. 'You damned scoundrel,' he added.
Custom ought to have rendered me immune to irritation, but it had not. I spoke my mind.
'One of these days, Mr Ford,' I said, 'I am going to publish a directory of the names and addresses of the people who have mistaken me for Smooth Sam Fisher. I am not Sam Fisher. Can you grasp that? My name is Peter Burns, and for the past term I have been a master at this school. And I may say that, judging from what I know of the little brute, any one who kidnapped your son as long as two days ago will be so anxious by now to get rid of him that he will probably want to pay you for taking him back.'
My words almost had the effect of bringing this divorced couple together again. They made common cause against me. It was probably the first time in years that they had formed even a temporary alliance.
'How dare you talk like that!' said Mrs Ford. 'Oggie is a sweet boy in every respect.'
'You're perfectly right, Nesta,' said Mr Ford. 'He may want intelligent handling, but he's a mighty fine boy. I shall make inquiries, and if this man has been ill-treating Ogden, I shall complain to Mr Abney. Where the devil is this man Fisher?' he broke off abruptly.
'On the spot,' said an affable voice. The bushes behind me parted, and Smooth Sam stepped out on to the gravel.
I had recognized him by his voice. I certainly should not have done so by his appearance. He had taken the precaution of 'making up' for this important meeting. A white wig of indescribable respectability peeped out beneath his black hat. His eyes twinkled from under two penthouses of white eyebrows. A white moustache covered his mouth. He was venerable to a degree.
He nodded to me, and bared his white head gallantly to Mrs Ford.
'No worse for our little outing, Mr Burns, I am glad to see. Mrs Ford, I must apologize for my apparent unpunctuality, but I was not really behind time. I have been waiting in the bushes. I thought it just possible that you might have brought unwelcome members of the police force with you, and I have been scouting, as it were, before making my advance. I see, however, that all is well, and we can come at once to business. May I say, before we begin, that I overheard your recent conversation, and that I entirely disagree with Mr Burns. Master Ford is a charming boy. Already I feel like an elder brother to him. I am loath to part with him.'
'How much?' snapped Mr Ford. 'You've got me. How much do you want?'
'I'll give you double what he offers,' cried Mrs Ford.
Sam held up his hand, his old pontifical manner intensified by the white wig.
'May I speak? Thank you. This is a little embarrassing. When I asked you both to meet me here, it was not for the purpose of holding an auction. I had a straight-forward business proposition to make to you. It will necessitate a certain amount of plain and somewhat personal speaking. May I proceed? Thank you. I will be as brief as possible.'
His eloquence appeared to have had a soothing effect on the two Fords. They remained silent.
'You must understand,' said Sam, 'that I am speaking as an expert. I have been in the kidnapping business many years, and I know what I am talking about. And I tell you that the moment you two got your divorce, you said good-bye to all peace and quiet. Bless you'—Sam's manner became fatherly—'I've seen it a hundred times. Couple get divorced, and, if there's a child, what happens? They start in playing battledore-and-shuttlecock with him. Wife sneaks him from husband. Husband sneaks him back from wife. After a while along comes a gentleman in my line of business, a professional at the game, and he puts one across on both the amateurs. He takes advantage of the confusion, slips in, and gets away with the kid. That's what has happened here, and I'm going to show you the way to stop it another time. Now I'll make you a proposition. What you want to do'—I have never heard anything so soothing, so suggestive of the old family friend healing an unfortunate breach, as Sam's voice at this juncture—'what you want to do is to get together again right quick. Never mind the past. Let bygones be bygones. Kiss and be friends.'
A snort from Mr Ford checked him for a moment, but he resumed.
'I guess there were faults on both sides. Get together and talk it over. And when you've agreed to call the fight off and start fair again, that's where I come in. Mr Burns here will tell you, if you ask him, that I'm anxious to quit this business and marry and settle down. Well, see here. What you want to do is to give me a salary—we can talk figures later on—to stay by you and watch over the kid. Don't snort—I'm talking plain sense. You'd a sight better have me with you than against you. Set a thief to catch a thief. What I don't know about the fine points of the game isn't worth knowing. I'll guarantee, if you put me in charge, to see that nobody comes within a hundred miles of the kid unless he has an order-to-view. You'll find I earn every penny of that salary ... Mr Burns and I will now take a turn up the drive while you think it over.'
He linked his arm in mine and drew me away. As we turned the corner of the drive I caught a glimpse over my shoulder of the Little Nugget's parents. They were standing where we had left them, as if Sam's eloquence had rooted them to the spot.
'Well, well, well, young man,' said Sam, eyeing me affectionately, 'it's pleasant to meet you again, under happier conditions than last time. You certainly have all the luck, sonny, or you would have been badly hurt that night. I was getting scared how the thing would end. Buck's a plain roughneck, and his gang are as bad as he is, and they had got mighty sore at you, mighty sore. If they had grabbed you, there's no knowing what might not have happened. However, all's well that ends well, and this little game has surely had the happy ending. I shall get that job, sonny. Old man Ford isn't a fool, and it won't take him long, when he gets to thinking it over, to see that I'm right. He'll hire me.'
'Aren't you rather reckoning without your partner?' I said. 'Where does Buck MacGinnis come in on the deal?'
Sam patted my shoulder paternally.
'He doesn't, sonny, he doesn't. It was a shame to do it—it was like taking candy from a kid—but business is business, and I was reluctantly compelled to double-cross poor old Buck. I sneaked the Nugget away from him next day. It's not worth talking about; it was too easy. Buck's all right in a rough-and-tumble, but when it comes to brains he gets left, and so he'll go on through life, poor fellow. I hate to think of it.'
He sighed. Buck's misfortunes seemed to move him deeply.
'I shouldn't be surprised if he gave up the profession after this. He has had enough to discourage him. I told you about what happened to him that night, didn't I? No? I thought I did. Why, Buck was the guy who did the Steve Brodie through the roof; and, when we picked him up, we found he'd broken his leg again! Isn't that enough to jar a man? I guess he'll retire from the business after that. He isn't intended for it.'
We were approaching the two automobiles now, and, looking back, I saw Mr and Mrs Ford walking up the drive. Sam followed my gaze, and I heard him chuckle.
'It's all right,' he said. 'They've fixed it up. Something in the way they're walking tells me they've fixed it up.'
Mrs Drassilis was still sitting in the red automobile, looking piqued but resigned. Mrs Ford addressed her.
'I shall have to leave you, Mrs Drassilis,' she said. 'Tell Jarvis to drive you wherever you want to go. I am going with my husband to see my boy Oggie.'
She stretched out a hand towards the millionaire. He caught it in his, and they stood there, smiling foolishly at each other, while Sam, almost purring, brooded over them like a stout fairy queen. The two chauffeurs looked on woodenly.
Mr Ford released his wife's hand and turned to Sam.
'I've been considering your proposition. There's a string tied to it.'
'Oh no, sir, I assure you!'
'There is. What guarantee have I that you won't double-cross me?'
Sam smiled, relieved.
'You forget that I told you I was about to be married, sir. My wife won't let me!'
Mr Ford waved his hand towards the automobile.
'Jump in,' he said briefly, 'and tell him where to drive to. You're engaged!'
'No manners!' said Mrs Drassilis. 'None whatever. I always said so.'
She spoke bitterly. She was following the automobile with an offended eye as it moved down the drive.
The car rounded the corner. Sam turned and waved a farewell. Mr and Mrs Ford, seated close together in the tonneau, did not even look round.
Mrs Drassilis sniffed disgustedly.
'She's a friend of Cynthia's. Cynthia asked me to come down here with her to see you. I came, to oblige her. And now, without a word of apology, she leaves me stranded. She has no manners whatever.'
I offered no defence of the absent one. The verdict more or less squared with my own opinion.
'Is Cynthia back in England?' I asked, to change the subject.
'The yacht got back yesterday. Peter, I have something of the utmost importance to speak to you about.' She glanced at Jarvis the chauffeur, leaning back in his seat with the air, peculiar to chauffeurs in repose, of being stuffed. 'Walk down the drive with me.'
I helped her out of the car, and we set off in silence. There was a suppressed excitement in my companion's manner which interested me, and something furtive which brought back all my old dislike of her. I could not imagine what she could have to say to me that had brought her all these miles.
'How do you come to be down here?' she said. 'When Cynthia told me you were here, I could hardly believe her. Why are you a master at this school? I cannot understand it!'
'What did you want to see me about?' I asked.
She hesitated. It was always an effort for her to be direct. Now, apparently, the effort was too great. The next moment she had rambled off on some tortuous bypath of her own, which, though it presumably led in the end to her destination, was evidently a long way round.
'I have known you for so many years now, Peter, and I don't know of anybody whose character I admire more. You are so generous—quixotic in fact. You are one of the few really unselfish men I have ever met. You are always thinking of other people. Whatever it cost you, I know you would not hesitate to give up anything if you felt that it was for someone else's happiness. I do admire you so for it. One meets so few young men nowadays who consider anybody except themselves.'
She paused, either for breath or for fresh ideas, and I took advantage of the lull in the rain of bouquets to repeat my question.
'What did you want to see me about?' I asked patiently.
'About Cynthia. She asked me to see you.'
'You got a letter from her.'
'Last night, when she came home, she told me about it, and showed me your answer. It was a beautiful letter, Peter. I'm sure I cried when I read it. And Cynthia did, I feel certain. Of course, to a girl of her character that letter was final. She is so loyal, dear child.'
'I don't understand.'
As Sam would have said, she seemed to be speaking; words appeared to be fluttering from her; but her meaning was beyond me.
'Once she has given her promise, I am sure nothing would induce her to break it, whatever her private feelings. She is so loyal. She has such character.'
'Would you mind being a little clearer?' I said sharply. 'I really don't understand what it is you are trying to tell me. What do you mean about loyalty and character? I don't understand.'
She was not to be hustled from her bypath. She had chosen her route, and she meant to travel by it, ignoring short-cuts.
'To Cynthia, as I say, it was final. She simply could not see that the matter was not irrevocably settled. I thought it so fine of her. But I am her mother, and it was my duty not to give in and accept the situation as inevitable while there was anything I could do for her happiness. I knew your chivalrous, unselfish nature, Peter. I could speak to you as Cynthia could not. I could appeal to your generosity in a way impossible, of course, for her. I could put the whole facts of the case clearly before you.'
I snatched at the words.
'I wish you would. What are they?'
She rambled off again.
'She has such a rigid sense of duty. There is no arguing with her. I told her that, if you knew, you would not dream of standing in her way. You are so generous, such a true friend, that your only thought would be for her. If her happiness depended on your releasing her from her promise, you would not think of yourself. So in the end I took matters into my own hands and came to see you. I am truly sorry for you, dear Peter, but to me Cynthia's happiness, of course, must come before everything. You do understand, don't you?'
Gradually, as she was speaking, I had begun to grasp hesitatingly at her meaning, hesitatingly, because the first hint of it had stirred me to such a whirl of hope that I feared to risk the shock of finding that, after all, I had been mistaken. If I were right—and surely she could mean nothing else—I was free, free with honour. But I could not live on hints. I must hear this thing in words.
'Has—has Cynthia—' I stopped, to steady my voice. 'Has Cynthia found—' I stopped again. I was finding it absurdly difficult to frame my sentence. 'Is there someone else?' I concluded with a rush.
Mrs Drassilis patted my arm sympathetically.
'Be brave, Peter!'
The trees, the drive, the turf, the sky, the birds, the house, the automobile, and Jarvis, the stuffed chauffeur, leaped together for an instant in one whirling, dancing mass of which I was the centre. And then, out of the chaos, as it separated itself once more into its component parts, I heard my voice saying, 'Tell me.'
The world was itself again, and I was listening quietly and with a mild interest which, try as I would, I could not make any stronger. I had exhausted my emotion on the essential fact: the details were an anticlimax.
'I liked him directly I saw him,' said Mrs Drassilis. 'And, of course, as he was such a friend of yours, we naturally—'
'A friend of mine?'
'I am speaking of Lord Mountry.'
'Mountry? What about him?' Light flooded in on my numbed brain. 'You don't mean—Is it Lord Mountry?'
My manner must have misled her. She stammered in her eagerness to dispel what she took to be my misapprehension.
'Don't think that he acted in anything but the most honourable manner. Nothing could be farther from the truth. He knew nothing of Cynthia's engagement to you. She told him when he asked her to marry him, and he—as a matter of fact, it was he who insisted on dear Cynthia writing that letter to you.'
She stopped, apparently staggered by this excursion into honesty.
'In fact, he dictated it.'
'Unfortunately, it was quite the wrong sort of letter. It was the very opposite of clear. It can have given you no inkling of the real state of affairs.'
'It certainly did not.'
'He would not allow her to alter it in any way. He is very obstinate at times, like so many shy men. And when your answer came, you see, things were worse than before.'
'I suppose so.'
'I could see last night how unhappy they both were. And when Cynthia suggested it, I agreed at once to come to you and tell you everything.'
She looked at me anxiously. From her point of view, this was the climax, the supreme moment. She hesitated. I seemed to see her marshalling her forces, the telling sentences, the persuasive adjectives; rallying them together for the grand assault.
But through the trees I caught a glimpse of Audrey, walking on the lawn; and the assault was never made.
'I will write to Cynthia tonight,' I said, 'wishing her happiness.'
'Oh, Peter!' said Mrs Drassilis.
'Don't mention it,' said I.
Doubts appeared to mar her perfect contentment.
'You are sure you can convince her?'
'And—er—Lord Mountry. He is so determined not to do anything— er—what he would call unsportsmanlike.'
'Perhaps I had better tell her I am going to marry some one else,' I suggested.
'I think that would be an excellent idea,' she said, brightening visibly. 'How clever of you to have thought of it.'
She permitted herself a truism.
'After all, dear Peter, there are plenty of nice girls in the world. You have only to look for them.'
'You're perfectly right,' I said. 'I'll start at once.'
A gleam of white caught my eye through the trees by the lawn. I moved towards it.