She spent a delicious half-hour thus, and it was with regret that she finally returned to the shallows and began to wade back to the point where Cinders, with her mackintosh, awaited her.
Just beyond this spot was a fair stretch of sand, and she was surprised as she drew nearer to the shore to hear voices and to see a group of men in the blue and red uniform of the garrison gathered upon what she had come to regard as her own particular playground. She peered at them for some seconds from beneath her hand, for the sun was in her eyes; and suddenly a queer little thrill, that was not quite fear and not solely excitement, ran through her. For all in a moment, ringing on the still air of early morning, there came to her ears the clash of steel meeting steel.
"Good gracious!" she said aloud. "It's a duel!"
A duel it undoubtedly was. She had a clear view of the whole scene, distant but distinct, could even see the flash of the swords, the rapid movements of the two combatants. It impressed her like a scene in a theatre. She did not wholly grasp the reality of it, though her heart was beating very fast.
Knee-deep, she stood in the sparkling water, outlined against the blue of sky and sea, watching. Several seconds passed, during which they seemed to be fighting with some ferocity. Then, obeying an impulse of which she was scarcely aware, she moved on through the swishing waves, drawing nearer at every step, hearing every instant more distinctly the ominous clashing of the swords.
When only ankle-deep, she paused again. Perhaps, after all, it was only a game—a fencing-match, a trial of skill! Of course, that must be it! Was it in the least likely to be anything more serious? And yet something within told her very decidedly that this was not so. A trial of skill it might be, but it was being conducted in grim earnest.
She said to herself that she would slip on her mackintosh and go. But an overwhelming desire to investigate a little further kept her dallying. She had an ardent longing to see the faces of the antagonists. Later she marvelled at her own temerity, but at the time this overmastering desire was the only thing she knew.
She came out of the sea, reached her faithful attendant Cinders, slipped on the mackintosh, and advanced nearer still to the little group of officers upon the beach, buttoning it mechanically as she went.
Ah, she could see them now! One faced her—a mean-visaged man, fierce, ferret-like, with glaring eyes and evil mouth. She hated him at sight, instinctively, without question.
He was thrusting savagely at his opponent, whose back was towards her—a slim, straight back familiar to her, so familiar that she recognized him beyond all doubting, no longer needing to see his face. And yet, involuntarily it seemed, she drew nearer.
He was fencing without impetuosity, yet with a precision that even to her untrained perception expressed a most deadly concentration. Lithe and active, supremely confident, he parried his enemy's attack, and the grace of the man, combined with a certain mastery that was also in a fashion familiar to her, attracted her irresistibly, held her spellbound. There was nothing brutal about him, no hint of ferocity, only a finished antagonism as flawless as his chivalry, a strength of self-suppression that made him superb.
No one noticed Chris's proximity. All were too deeply engrossed with the matter in hand. But suddenly Cinders, who loved law and order in all things pertaining to the human race, scented combat in the air. It was enough. Cinders would permit no brawling among his betters if he could by any means prevent it. With tail cocked and every hair bristling, he rushed into the fray, barking aggressively.
With a cry of dismay Chris rushed after him, and in that instant the man facing her raised his eyes involuntarily and shifted his position. The next instant he lunged frantically to recover himself, failed, and with a violent exclamation received his adversary's point in his shoulder.
It all happened in a flash, so rapidly that it was over before either Chris or Cinders had quite reached the scene. Bertrand whirled round fiercely, sword in hand, anger turning to consternation in his eyes as he realized the nature of the interruption.
Chris had a confused impression that the whole party were talking at once and blaming her, while they buzzed round the wounded man, who lay back in the arms of one of them and cursed volubly, whether Bertrand, Cinders, or herself she never knew.
She had the presence of mind to snatch up her belligerent favourite, who was snapping at the prostrate officer's legs; and then, for the first time in her life, an overwhelming shyness descended upon her as the full horror of her position presented itself.
"I couldn't help it, Bertie! Oh, Bertie, I'm so sorry!" she exclaimed, in an agony of contrition.
There was a very odd expression on Bertrand's face. She did not understand it in the least, but thought he must be furious since he was undoubtedly frowning. If this were the case, however, he displayed admirable self-restraint, for he banished the frown almost immediately.
"Mademoiselle has been bathing, yes?" he questioned briskly. "But it is a splendid morning for a swim. And le bon Cinders also! How he is droll, ce bon Cinders!"
He snapped his fingers airily under the droll one's nose, and flashed his sudden smile into her face of distress.
"Eh bien!" he said. "L'affaire est finie. Let us go."
He stuck his weapon into the sand and left it there. Then, without waiting to don his coat, he turned and walked away with her with his light, elastic swagger that speedily widened the distance between himself and his vanquished foe.
Chris walked beside him in silence, Cinders still tucked under her arm. She knew not what to say, having no faintest clue to his real attitude towards her at that moment. He had ignored her apology so jauntily that she could not venture to renew it.
She glanced at him after a little to ascertain whether smile or frown had supervened. But both were gone. He looked back at her gravely, though without reproof.
"Poor little one!" he said. "It frightened you, no?"
She drew a deep breath. "Oh, Bertie, what were you doing?"
"I was fighting," he said.
"But why? You might—you might have killed him! Perhaps you have!"
He stiffened slightly, and twisted one end of his small moustache. "I think not," he said, faint regret in his voice.
Chris thought not too, judging by the clamour of invective which the injured man had managed to pour forth. But for some reason she pressed the point.
"But—just imagine—if you had!"
He shrugged his shoulders with extreme deliberation.
"Alors, Mademoiselle Christine, there would have been one canaille the less in the world."
She was a little shocked at the cool rejoinder, yet could not somehow feel that her preux chevalier could be in the wrong.
"He might have killed you," she remarked after a moment, determined to survey the matter from every standpoint. "I am sure he meant to."
He shrugged his shoulders again and laughed. "That is quite possible. And you would have been sorry—a little—no?"
She raised her clear eyes to his. "You know I should have been heart-broken," she said, with the utmost simplicity.
"But really?" he said.
"But really," she repeated, breaking into a smile. "Now do promise me that you will never fight that horrid man again."
He spread out his hands. "How can I promise you such a thing! It is not the fashion in France to suffer insults in silence."
"Did he insult you, then?"
Again he stiffened. "He insulted me—yes. And I, I struck him. Apres cela—" again the expressive shrug, and no more.
"But how did he insult you?" persisted Chris. "Couldn't you have just turned your back, as one would in England?"
"No" Sternly he made reply. "I could not—turn my back."
"It's ever so much more dignified," she maintained.
The dark eyes flashed. "Pardon!" he said. "There are some insults upon which no man, English or French, can with honour turn the back."
That fired her curiosity. "It was something pretty bad, then? What was it, Bertie? Tell me!"
"I cannot tell you," he returned, quite courteously but with the utmost firmness.
She glanced at him again speculatively, then, with shrewdness: "When men fight duels," she said, "it's generally over either politics or—a woman. Was it—politics, Bertie?"
He stopped. "It was not politics, Christine," he said.
"Then—" She paused, expectant.
His face contracted slightly. "Yes, it was—a woman. But I say nothing more than that. We will speak of it—never again."
But this was very far from satisfying Chris. "Tell me at least about the woman," she urged. "Is it—is it the girl you are going to marry?"
But he stood silent, looking at her again with that expression in his eyes that had puzzled her before.
"Is it, Bertie?" she insisted.
"And if I tell you Yes?" he said at last.
She made a queer little gesture, the merest butterfly movement, and yet it had in it the faintest suggestion of hurt surprise.
"And you never told me about her," she said.
He leaned swiftly towards her. There was a sudden glow on his olive face that made him wonderfully handsome. "Mignonne!" he said eagerly, and then as swiftly checked himself. "Ah, no, I will not say it! You do not love the French."
"But I want to hear about your fiancee," she protested. "I can't think why you haven't told me."
He had straightened himself again, and there was something rather mournful in his look. "I have no fiancee, little one," he said.
"No?" Chris smiled all over her sunny face. She looked the merest child standing before him wrapped in the mackintosh that flapped about her bare ankles, the ruddy hair all loose about her back. "Then whatever made you pretend you had?" she said.
He smiled back, half against his will, with the eloquent shrug that generally served him where speech was awkward.
"And the woman you fought about?" she continued relentlessly.
"Mademoiselle Christine," he pleaded, "you ask of me the impossible. You do not know what you ask."
"Don't be silly," said Chris imperiously. The matter had somehow become of the first importance, and she had every intention of gaining her end. "It isn't fair not to tell me now, unless," with sudden doubt, "it's somebody whose acquaintance you are ashamed of."
He winced at that, and drew himself up so sharply that she thought for a moment that he was about to turn on his heel and walk away. Then very quietly he spoke.
"You will not understand, and yet you constrain me to speak. Mademoiselle, I am without shame in this matter. It is true that I fought in the cause of a woman, perhaps it would be more true if I said of a child—one who has given me no more than her camaraderie, her confidence, her friendship, so innocent and so amiable; but these things are very precious to me, and that is why I cannot lightly speak of them. You will not understand my words now, but perhaps some day it may be my privilege to teach you their signification."
He stopped. Chris was gazing at him in amazement, her young face deeply flushed.
"Do you mean me?" she asked at last. "You didn't—you couldn't—fight on my account!"
He made her a grave bow. "I have told you," he said, "because otherwise you would have thought ill of me. Now, with your permission, since there is no more to say upon the subject, I will return to my friends."
He would have left her with the words, but she put out an impulsive hand. "But, Bertie—"
He took the hand, looking straight into her eyes, all his formality vanished at a breath. "Ask me no more, little one," he said. "You have asked too much already. But you do not understand. Some day I will explain all. Run home to Mademoiselle la gouvernante now, and forget all this. To-morrow we will play again together on the shore, draw the pictures that you love, and weave anew our rope of sand."
He smiled as he said it, but the tenderness of his speech went deep into the girl's heart. She suffered him to take leave of her almost in silence. Those words of his had set vibrating in her some chord of womanhood that none had ever touched before. It was true that she did not understand, but she was nearer to understanding at that moment than she had ever been before.
Chris returned quite soberly to the little house on the plage. The morning's events had given her a good deal to think about. That any man should deem it worth his while to fight a duel for her sake was a novel idea that required a good deal of consideration. It was all very difficult to understand, and she wished that Bertrand had told her more. What could his adversary of the scowling brows have found to say about her, she wondered? She had never so much as seen the man before. How had he managed even to think anything unpleasant of her? Recalling Bertrand's fiery eyes, she reflected that it must have been something very objectionable indeed, and wondered how anyone could be so horrid.
These meditations lasted till she reached the garden gate, and here they were put to instant and unceremonious flight, for little Noel hailed her eagerly from the house with a cry of, "Hurry up, Chris! Hurry up! You're wanted!"
Chris hastened in, to be met by her young brother, who was evidently in a state of great excitement.
"Hurry up, I say!" he repeated. "My word, what a guy you look! We've just had a wire from Jack. He will be in Paris this evening, and we are to meet him there. We have got to catch the Paris express at Rennes, and the train leaves here in two hours."
This was news indeed. Chris found herself plunged forthwith into such a turmoil of preparation as drove all thought of the morning's events from her mind.
Her brothers were overjoyed at the prospect of immediate departure; Mademoiselle was scarcely less so; and Chris herself, infected by the general atmosphere of satisfaction, entered into the fun of the thing with a spirit fully equal to the occasion. The scramble to be ready was such that not one of the party stopped to breathe during those two hours. They bolted refreshments while they packed, talking at the tops of their voices, and thoroughly enjoying the unwonted excitement. Mademoiselle was more nearly genial than Chris had ever seen her. She did not even scold her for taking an early dip. At the time Chris was too busy to wonder at her forbearance; but she discovered the reason later, without the preliminary of wondering, when she came to know that it was Mademoiselle's urgent representations at headquarters regarding her own delinquencies that had impelled this sudden summons.
The thought of meeting her cousin added zest to the situation. Though ten years her senior, Jack Forest had long been the best chum she had—he was best chum to a good many people.
Only when by strenuous effort they had managed to catch the one and only train that could land them at Rennes in time for the Paris express, only when the cliffs and the dear blue shore where she had idled so many hours away were finally and completely left behind, did a sudden stab of realization pierce Chris, while the quick words that her playmate of the beach had uttered only that morning flashed torch-like through her brain.
Then and only then did she remember him, her preux chevalier, her faithful friend and comrade, whose name she had never heard, whom she had left without word or thought of farewell.
So crushing was her sense of loss, that for a few seconds she lost touch with her surroundings, and sat dazed, white-faced, stricken, not so much as asking herself what could be done. Then one of the boys shouted to her to come and look at something they were passing, and with an effort she jerked herself back to normal things.
Having recovered her balance, she managed to maintain a certain show of indifference during the hours that followed, but she looked back upon that journey to Paris later as one looks back upon a nightmare. It was her first acquaintance with suffering in any form.
Jack Forest, big, square, and reliable, was waiting for them at the terminus.
The two boys greeted him with much enthusiasm, but Chris suffered her own greeting to be of a less boisterous character. Dear as the sight of him was to her, it could not ease this new pain at her heart, and somehow she found it impossible to muster even a show of gaiety any longer.
"Tired?" queried Jack, with her hand in his.
And she answered, "Yes, dreadfully," with a feeling that if he asked anything further she would break down completely.
But Jack Forest was a young man of discretion. He smiled upon her and said something about cakes for tea, after which he transferred his attention to more pressing matters. Quite a strategist was Jack, though very few gave him credit for so being.
Later, he sat down beside his forlorn little cousin in the great buzzing vestibule of the hotel whither he had piloted the whole party, and gave her tea, while he plied the boys with questions. But he never noticed that she could not eat, or commented upon her evident weariness. Mademoiselle did both, but he did not hear.
Chris would have gladly escaped the ordeal of dining in the great salle-a-manger that night, but she could muster no excuse for so doing. At any other time it would have been an immense treat, and she dared not let Jack think that it was otherwise with her to-night.
So they dined at length and elaborately, to Mademoiselle's keen satisfaction, but she was aching all the while to slip away to bed and cry her heart out in the darkness. She could not shake free from the memory of the friend who would be waiting for her on the morrow, drawing his pictures in the sand for the playfellow who would never see them—who would never, in fact, be his playfellow again.
Returning to the vestibule after dinner to listen to the band was almost more than she could bear; but still she could not frame an excuse, and still Jack noticed nothing. He sent the boys to bed, but, as a matter of course, she remained with Mademoiselle.
They found a seat under some palms, and Jack ordered coffee. He got on very well with Mademoiselle as with the rest of the world, and there seemed small prospect of an early retirement. But at this juncture poor Chris began to get desperate. She had refused the coffee almost with vehemence, and was on the point of an almost tearful entreaty to be allowed to go to bed, when suddenly a quiet voice spoke close to her.
"Excuse me, Forest! I have been trying to catch your eye for the past ten minutes. May I have the pleasure of an introduction?"
Chris glanced quickly round at the first deliberate syllable, and saw a tall, grave-faced man of possibly thirty, standing at Jack's elbow.
Jack looked round too, and sprang impulsively to his feet. "You, Trevor! I thought you were on the other side of the world. My dear chap, why on earth didn't you speak before? You might have dined with us. Mademoiselle Gautier, may I present my friend, Mr. Mordaunt?"
Mademoiselle acknowledged the introduction stiffly. She had no liking for strange men.
But Chris looked at the new-comer with frank interest, forgetful for the moment of her trouble. His smooth, clean-cut face attracted her. His grey eyes were the most piercingly direct that she had ever encountered.
"My little cousin, Miss Wyndham," said Jack. "Chris, this is the greatest newspaper man of the age. Join us, Mordaunt, won't you? I wish you had come up sooner. Where were you hiding?"
Mordaunt smiled a little as he took a vacant chair by Chris's side. "I have been quite as conspicuous as usual during the whole evening," he said, "but you were too absorbed to notice me. Are you enjoying the music, Miss Wyndham, or only watching the crowd?"
Chris did not know quite what to answer, since she had been doing neither, but he passed on with the easy air of a man accustomed to fill in conversational gaps.
"I believe I saw you arrive this evening. Haven't you got a small dog with a turned-up nose? I thought so. Are you taking him for a holiday? How do you propose to get him home again?"
That opened her lips, and quite successfully diverted her thoughts. "He has had his holiday," she explained, "and we are taking him back. I don't know in the least how we shall do it. Jack will have to manage it somehow. Can you suggest anything? The authorities are so horribly strict about dogs, and I couldn't let him go into quarantine. He would break his heart long before he came out."
"A dog of character evidently!" The new acquaintance considered the matter gravely. "When are you crossing?" he asked.
"To-morrow," said Jack. "I'm sorry, Chris, but I came off in a hurry, as matters seemed urgent, and I have to be back by the end of the week."
"I wonder if you would care to entrust your dog to me," said Mordaunt. "I am fairly well known. I think I could be relied upon with safety to hoodwink the authorities."
He made the suggestion with a smile that warmed Chris's desolate heart. Not till long afterwards did she know that this man had crossed the Channel only that day, and that he proposed to re-cross it on the morrow because of the trouble in a child's eyes that had moved him to compassion.
They spent the next half-hour in an engrossing discussion as to the best means to be adopted for Cinders' safe transit, and when Chris went to bed at last she was so full of the scheme that she forgot after all to cry herself to sleep over the thought of her preux chevalier drawing his sand-pictures in solitude.
She dreamed instead that he and the Englishman with the level, grey eyes were fighting a duel that lasted interminably, neither giving ground, till suddenly Bertrand plunged his sword into the earth and abruptly walked away.
She tried to follow him, but could not, for something held her back. And so presently he passed out of her sight, and turning, she found that the Englishman had gone also, and she was alone.
Then she awoke, and knew it was a dream.
The angry yelling of a French mob rose outside the court—a low, ominous roar, pierced here and there with individual execrations, and the prisoner turned his head and listened. There was a suspicion of contempt on his face, drawn though it was. What did they care for justice? It was only the instinct to hunt the persecuted that urged them. Were he proved innocent ten times over, they would hardly be convinced or cease from their reviling.
But he knew that no proof of innocence would be forthcoming. He was hedged around too completely by adverse circumstances for that. Everything pointed to his guilt, and only he himself and one other knew him to be the victim of a deliberate plot devised to compass his destruction. He was too hopelessly enmeshed to extricate himself, and the other—the only man in the world who could establish his innocence—was the man who had set the snare.
Bertrand de Montville, gunner and genius, had faced this fact until he was in a measure used to it. There was to be no escape for him. He, who had dared to scale the heights of Olympus and had diced with the gods, was to be hurled into the mire to rise therefrom no more for ever. He had climbed so high; almost his feet had reached the summit. He had completed his invention, and it had surpassed even his most sanguine hopes of success. At four-and-twenty he had been acclaimed by his superiors as the greatest artillery engineer of his time. His genius had won him a footing that men more than twice his age, and far above him in military rank, might have envied. He had been honoured by the highest.
And then at the very zenith of his prosperity had come his downfall. His gun, the cherished invention that was to place the French artillery at the head of the list, the child of his brain, his own peculiar treasure, was discovered to have been purchased by another Government three months before he had offered it to his own.
None but himself—so it was believed, so it was ultimately to be proved to the satisfaction of impartial judges—had been in a position at that time to betray the secret, for none but himself had then possessed it. And a great storm of indignation went through the whole country over the revelation.
Passionately but uselessly he protested his innocence. There were a few, even among his judges, who secretly believed him; but the proof was incontestable. Inch by inch he had been forced down from the heights that he had so gallantly scaled, and now he was on the brink of the precipice, no longer fighting, only waiting with the unflinching courage of the French aristocrat to be hurled headlong into the abyss that yawned below.
The yelling of the crowd outside the court was only a detail of the bitter process that was gradually compassing his condemnation. He knew he was to be convicted. It was written in varying characters upon every face; pity, severity, disgust—he met them on every hand. And so on this the fifth and last day of his court-martial he confronted destiny—that destiny that he had once so gaily dared—with closed lips and eyes that revealed neither misery nor despair, only the indomitable pride of his race. Do what they would to him, they would never quench that while life remained. The worst indignity that man could inflict would provoke no outcry here. He had protested his innocence in vain, and he had no proof thereof to offer. It remained for him to face dishonour as an honourable man, steady and undismayed. Doubtless there were those who would deem his bearing brazen, but not his worst enemy should call him coward.
Across the court an Englishman, with keen grey eyes that took in every detail, sat and sketched him—sketched the proud, fearless pose of the man and the hard young face, with its faint, patrician smile. The sketch was little more than outline, a few bold strokes; but the people in England who saw it a couple of days later felt as if the artist had deliberately lifted a curtain and shown to them a man's wrung soul. And everyone who saw it said, "That man is innocent!"
Trevor Mordaunt said it himself many times that day before and after the making of the sketch. He knew, as well as did the prisoner himself, that there would be no acquittal. Almost from the commencement of the trial he had known it. But he knew also that two at least of the judges were disposed towards leniency, and upon this fact he based such slender hopes as he entertained on the prisoner's behalf. As a fellow-correspondent—a Frenchman—had remarked to him earlier in the trial, whatever the verdict, they would hardly martyrize the man lest at a later date further question as to his guilt should arise and all Europe be set bubbling anew upon that much-discussed topic—French justice.
Mordaunt was of the same opinion; but, as he watched the young officer throughout the whole of the day's proceedings, he came to the conclusion that the verdict was everything in this man's estimation and the sentence less than nothing. If he were condemned to be blown from his own gun, he would face the ordeal unshrinking, almost with indifference. Deprived of honour, what else was there in life?
So when the end came at last, and the inevitable verdict was pronounced, Mordaunt shut his note-book with a feeling that there was no more to be recorded.
As a matter of fact the sentence was not pronounced at the time, and only transpired two days later, when it was officially made public—expulsion from the army and incarceration in a French fortress for ten years.
"That, of course, will be commuted," said one who knew the probabilities of the case to Mordaunt when the sentence was made known. "They will release him au secret in a few years and banish him from the country on peril of arrest. They are bound to make an example of him, but they won't keep it up. The verdict was not unanimous. And, above all, they won't make a martyr of him now. The other affaire is too recent."
Mordaunt agreed as to the likelihood of this, but he did not find it particularly consolatory. He had seen the prisoner's face as he was guarded through the surging, hostile crowd; and he knew that for Bertrand de Montville the heavens had fallen.
An innocent man had been found guilty, and that was the end. He was beyond the reach of any lenient influence now that justice had failed him. They had pushed him over the edge of the precipice—this man who had dared to climb so high; and in the hissings and groanings of the crowd he heard the death-knell of his honour.
In silence he went down into the abyss. In silence he passed out of Trevor Mordaunt's life. Only as he went, for one strange second, as though drawn by some magnetic force, his eyes, dark and still, met those of the Englishman, with his level, unfaltering scrutiny. No word or outward sign passed between them. They were utter strangers; it was unlikely that they would ever meet again. Only for that one second something that was in the nature of a message went from one man's soul to the other's. For that instant they were in communion, subtle but curiously distinct.
And Bertrand de Montville went to his martyrdom with the knowledge that one man—an Englishman—believed in him, while Trevor Mordaunt was aware that he knew it, and was glad.
For he had studied human nature long enough to realize that even a stranger's faith may make a supreme difference in the hour of a man's most pressing need.
It was a sunny morning in the end of June, and Chris was doing her hair in curls, for she was expecting a visitor. It took a very long time to do, for there was so much of it; and she looked very worried over the process. She would have liked to have borrowed Aunt Philippa's maid, but this was a prohibited luxury except on very exceptional occasions. And Hilda—dear, gentle Cousin Hilda—was away in Devon with her fiance's people. So Chris had to wrestle with her difficulties in solitude.
It was the middle of her first season, and, with a few reservations, she was enjoying it immensely. The reservations were all directly or indirectly connected with Aunt Philippa, for whom Chris's feeling was that of an adventurous schoolboy for a somewhat severe headmaster. She was not exactly afraid of her, but she was instinctively wary in her presence. She knew quite well that Aunt Philippa had given her this season as her one and only chance in life, and had done it, moreover, more than half against her will, impelled thereto by the urgent representations of her son and daughter, who looked upon their merry little cousin as their joint protegee. She ought, doubtless, to have come out the previous year, but her aunt's ill-health had precluded this, and the whole summer had been spent in the country.
That excuse, however, would not serve Mrs. Forest this year. She had taken a house in town, and there was no other course open to her than to launch her brother's child into society, however sorely against her will. Her main anxiety had fortunately by that time ceased to exist. There was no likelihood of Chris, with her brilliant, vivacious ways, outshining her own daughter. For Hilda was engaged to Lord Percy Davenant, who plainly had eyes and thoughts for none other, and the marriage was to be one of the events of the season.
Chris was therefore accorded her chance upon the tacit understanding that she was to make the most of it, since Mrs. Forest still maintained her attitude of irresponsibility where her brother's children were concerned, although the said brother had drifted to Australia and died there, no one quite knew how, leaving next to nothing behind him.
His sons and Chris had been brought up upon their mother's fortune, a sum which had been set aside for their education by their father at her death, after which, beyond providing them with a home—the ramshackle inheritance that had come to him from his father—he had made little further provision for them. His eldest son, Rupert, was a subaltern in a line regiment. No one knew whether he lived on his pay or not, and no one inquired. The second son, who possessed undeniable brilliance, had earned a scholarship, and was studying medicine. And Noel, now aged sixteen, was still at school, distinguishing himself at sports and consistently neglecting all things that did not pertain thereto.
Undoubtedly they were a reckless and improvident family, as Mrs. Forest so often declared; but perhaps, all things considered, they had never had much opportunity of developing any other qualities, though it was certainly hard that she should be regarded as in any degree responsible for them. She and her brother had always been as far asunder as the poles in disposition, and neither had ever felt or so much as professed to feel the faintest affection for the other.
It vexed her that Jack and Hilda should take so lively an interest in Chris, who was bound to turn out badly. Had she not already shown herself to be incorrigibly flighty? But since it vexed her still more that anyone should regard her actions as blameworthy, she had yielded to their persuasions. And thus Chris had been given her chance.
She was thoroughly appreciating it. Everyone was being kind to her, and it was all extremely pleasant. She was looking forward keenly to the coming that morning of Trevor Mordaunt, who had been regarded as a privileged friend ever since he had smuggled Cinders back into England three years before, secreted in an immense pocket in the lining of a great motor-coat. Not that she had seen very much of him since that memorable occasion. In fact, until the present summer they had scarcely met again. He was a celebrated man in the literary world, and he travelled far and wide. He was also immensely wealthy. Men said of him that whatever he touched turned to gold. And fame, wealth, and a certain unobtrusive strength of personality had combined to make him popular wherever he went.
He was more often out of England than in it, and there were even some who suspected him of being an empire-builder, though their grounds for doing so were but slight.
It was, however, characteristic of Chris that she never forgot her friends, a characteristic which Trevor Mordaunt also possessed to a marked degree. Therefore it was not surprising that soon after her first appearance in London society he had claimed and had been readily accorded the privileges of old acquaintanceship.
Since that day they had met casually at several functions, and people were beginning to wonder a little at Mordaunt's unusual energy in a social sense, for it was several years since he had brought himself to tread the mill of a London season.
Chris always hailed his appearance with obvious pleasure, though she was very far from connecting it in any sense with herself. He was always kind to her, always ready to make things go smoothly for her, and she never knew an awkward moment in his society. There were plenty of people who spoke of him with awe, but Chris was not one of these. She never found him in the least formidable.
And so it was with ingenuous pleasure that she anticipated his advent that morning. They had met at a dance on the previous evening, and her card had been full before his arrival. It had not occurred to her to save a dance for him.
"I never thought you would come," she had told him in distress. "I wish I had known!"
And then he had looked at her quietly for a moment with those intent grey eyes of his that never seemed to miss anything, and had asked her if he might call on the following morning, since he was to see nothing of her that night.
She had responded with a pressing invitation to do so, and he had simply thanked her and departed.
And so when the morning came Chris was still struggling with her hair when he arrived, having breakfasted in bed and finally arisen at a scandalously late hour. But that she knew Aunt Philippa to be also in bed, she would scarcely have ventured upon such a proceeding. Aunt Philippa knew nothing of the expected visitor. As a matter of fact Chris, in her airy fashion, had quite forgotten to mention the matter. Mrs. Forest, being still uncertain as to Mordaunt's state of mind, had discreetly foreborne to put the girl on her guard. She had at the beginning of things carefully instilled into her that it was essential that she should miss no opportunity of making a wealthy marriage, and she hoped that Chris would have the sense to bear this in mind.
Had she known of Mordaunt's coming she would probably have drilled her carefully beforehand, but luckily Chris's negligence spared her this. And so on that sunny summer morning she was sublimely unconscious of what was before her, and entered Mordaunt's presence at length almost at a run. Chris at twenty was very little older than Chris at seventeen.
"I'm so sorry to have kept you waiting," was her greeting. "Really I couldn't help it. I just couldn't get up this morning. You know how one feels after going to bed at four. It was very nice of you to come so early. Have you had any breakfast?"
All this was poured out while her hand lay in his, her gay young face uplifted, half-merry, half-confiding.
Yes, Mordaunt had breakfasted. He told her so with a faint smile. "And please don't apologize for being late," he added. "It is I who am early. I came early on purpose. I wanted to see you alone."
"Oh?" said Chris.
She looked at him interrogatively and then quite suddenly she knew what he had come to say, and turned white to the lips. For the first time she was afraid of him.
"Oh, please," she gasped rather incoherently, "please—"
"Shall we sit down?" he said gently. "I am not going to do or say anything that need frighten you. If you were a little older you would realize that I am at your mercy, not you at mine."
She looked at him wide-eyed, imploring. "Please, Mr. Mordaunt, can't we—can't we wait a little? I am afraid, I am so afraid of—of making a mistake."
The faint smile was still upon his face, though it did not reach his eyes. He laid a reassuring hand upon her shoulder.
"My dear little Chris," he said, "I won't let you do that."
That comforted her a little, though she still looked doubtful. She suffered him to lead her to a sofa and sit beside her, but she avoided his eyes. The crisis had come upon her so suddenly, she knew not how to deal with it.
"Has no one ever proposed to you before?" he said.
"No," she whispered.
"Well, it's all right," he said kindly. "Don't think I am going to trade on your inexperience. If you want to say 'No' to me, say it, and I'll go. I shall come back again, of course. I shall keep on coming back till you say 'Yes' either to me or to some other man. But I hope it won't be another man, Chris. I want you so badly myself."
"Do you?" she said. "How—how funny!"
"Why funny?" he asked.
She glanced at him speculatively; her panic was beginning to subside. "You must be ever so much older than I am," she said.
"I am thirty-five," he said.
"And I'm not quite twenty-one." A sudden dimple appeared in the cheek nearest to him. "Fancy me getting married!" said Chris, with a chuckle. "I can't imagine it, can you?"
"You will soon get used to the idea," he said. "Anyhow, there is nothing in it to frighten you—that is, if you marry the right man."
She nodded thoughtfully, her brief mirth gone. "But, Mr. Mordaunt, how is one to know?"
He leaned towards her. "I believe I can teach you," he said, "if you will let me try."
She slipped a shy hand into his. "But you won't ask me to marry you for a long while yet, will you?" she said pleadingly.
"Not until you have quite made up your mind to be engaged to me," said Mordaunt.
She looked at him quickly. "No, not then either. Not—not till I say you may."
He laughed a little; but there was something very protecting, infinitely reassuring, in his grasp. "And if I accept that condition," he said—"it's a very despotic one, by the way—but if I accept it, may I consider that you are engaged to me?"
"Not if I tell you that I love you," he said, "that I want you more than anything else in life, that I would give the soul out of my body to make you happy?"
His voice was sunk very low. There was more of restraint than emotion in his utterance. He spoke as a man who knows himself to be upon holy ground.
And Chris was awed. The very quietness of the man made her tremble. She knew instinctively that here was something colossal, something that dominated her, albeit half against her will.
She closed her fingers very tightly upon his hand, but she said nothing.
He sat silent for several seconds, closely watching her, seeking to read her downcast eyes. But she would not raise them. Her heart was beating very quickly, and her breath came and went like the breath of a frightened bird.
At last very gently he moved, drew her to him, put his arm about her. "Are you afraid of me, Chris?"
She nestled to him with a little gesture that was curiously pathetic. With her face securely hidden against him, she whispered, "Yes."
"My darling, why?" he said very tenderly.
"I don't know why," murmured Chris.
"Surely not because I love you?" he said.
She nodded against his shoulder. "You ought not to love me like that. It's too much. I'm not good enough."
"My little girl," he said, "I am not worthy to hold your hand in mine."
His hand was on her hair, stroking, fondling, caressing. She nestled closer, without lifting her face.
"You don't know me in the least. I'm not a bit nice really. I get up to all sorts of pranks. I'm wild and flighty. Ask Aunt Philippa if you want to know."
"I know you better than Aunt Philippa, dear," he said.
"Oh no, you don't. You've only seen my good side. I'm always on my best behaviour with you."
"Another excellent reason for marrying me," said Mordaunt.
"Oh, but I shan't be always. That's just it. You—you will be quite shocked some day."
"I will take the risk," he said.
"I don't think you ought to," murmured Chris. "It doesn't seem quite fair."
His hand pressed her head very gently. "Meaning that you don't love me?" he said.
She made a vehement gesture of denial. "Of course not. I—I'd be a little beast if I didn't, specially after the way you helped me with Cinders long ago. I never forgot that—never! Only I do think—before you marry me—you ought to know how horrid I can be. It—it's buying a pig in a poke if you don't."
He laughed again at that in a fashion that emboldened Chris to raise her head.
"I am quite in earnest," she told him, in a tone that tried to be indignant. "You'll find me out presently. And when you do—"
She stopped with a gasp. His arms were about her, holding her as she sat. He looked straight down into the shining blue eyes. "When I do, Chris—" he said.
She met his look quite bravely. She was even smiling rather tremulously herself. "You will get a stick and beat me," she said. "I know. People who have eyes like steel never make allowances for those who haven't!"
She got no further, for quite suddenly Trevor Mordaunt dropped his self-restraint like an impeding cloak and caught her to his heart. For the fraction of a second her fear came back, she almost made as if she would resist him; and then in a moment it was gone, lost in a wonder that left no room for anything else. For he kissed her, once and once only, so passionately, so burningly, so possessively, that it seemed to Chris as if, without her own volition, even half against her will, she thereby became his own. He had dominated her, he had won her, almost before she had had time to realize that there was a stranger within her gates.
"Well, all I have to say is, 'Bravo, young un!'" Rupert Wyndham stretched out a careless arm and encircled his sister's waist therewith. She was perched on the arm of his chair, and she tweaked his ear airily in response to this encouragement.
"Oh, you're pleased, are you?" she said. "That's very nice of you."
"Pleased is a term that does not express my feelings in the least," he declared. "I am transported with delight. You are the last person I should have expected to retrieve the family fortunes, but you have done it right nobly. I'm told the fellow is as rich as Croesus. It's to be hoped that he is quite resigned to the fact that he is going to have plenty of relations when he marries. By the way, hasn't he any of his own?"
"None that count—only cousins and things. Such a mercy!" said Chris. "And oh, Rupert, isn't it a blessing now that we never managed to sell Old Park, or even to let it? We shall be able to live there ourselves and turn it into a perfect paradise."
"He wants to buy it, eh?" Rupert glanced up keenly.
Chris nodded. "It's only in the clouds at present. He said something about giving it to me when we marry. But of course," rather hastily, "we're not going to be married for ever so long. It would have to belong to him till then. He is going to talk to you about it presently. You wouldn't object, would you? You are entitled to your share now, he says, and Max will come into his directly. But Noel's will have to go into trust till he is of age."
"An excellent idea!" declared Rupert. "I'm damnably hard up, as your worthy fiance has probably divined. But why this notion of not getting married for ever so long? I don't quite follow the drift of that."
"Oh, don't be silly!" said Chris, colouring very deeply. "How could we possibly? Everyone would say I was marrying him for his money?"
"And that is not so?" questioned Rupert.
"Of course it isn't!" She spoke with a vehemence almost fiery. "I—I'm not such a pig as that!"
"No?" He leaned his head back upon the cushion and gazed up at her flushed face. "What are you marrying him for?" he asked.
Chris looked back at him with a hint of defiance in her blue eyes. "What do most people marry for?" she demanded.
He laughed carelessly. "Heaven knows! Generally because they're stupid asses. The men want housekeepers and the women want houses, and neither want to pay for such luxuries. Those are the two principal reasons, if you ask me."
Chris jumped off the arm of his chair with an abruptness that seemed to indicate some perturbation of spirit. She went to one of the long windows that looked across the quiet square.
"Those are not our reasons, anyhow," she said, after a moment, with her back to the cynic in the chair.
He turned his head at her words and smiled, a mischievous boyish smile that proclaimed their relationship on the instant.
"Ye gods!" he ejaculated. "Is it possible that you're in love with him?"
Chris was silent. She seemed to be watching something in the road below her with absorbing interest.
"You needn't trouble to keep your back turned," gibed the brotherly voice behind her. "I can see you are the colour of beetroot even at this distance. Curious, very! But I'm glad you are so becomingly modest. It's the first indication of the virtue that I have ever detected in you."
"You beast!" said Chris.
She whirled suddenly round, half-laughing, half-resentful, seized a book from a table near, and hurled it with accurate aim at her brother's head.
He flung up a dexterous hand and caught it just as the door opened to admit Mordaunt, who had been asked to dine to meet his future brother-in-law.
Rupert was on his feet in a moment. With the book pressed against his heart, he swept a low bow to the advancing stranger.
"You come in the nick of time," he observed, "to preserve me from my sister's fratricidal intentions. Perhaps you would like to arbitrate. The offence was that I accused her of being in love—with you, of course. She seems to think the assertion unwarrantable."
"Oh, Trevor, don't listen!" besought Chris. "He only goes on like that because he thinks it's clever. Do snub him as he deserves!"
"Pray do!" said Rupert. "Begin by asking him how old he is, and whether he knows his nine-times backwards yet. Also—"
"Also," broke in Mordaunt, with a smile, "if he can't find something more profitable to do than to tease his small sister." He extended a quiet hand. "I have been wanting to make your acquaintance for some time. In fact, I was contemplating running down to Sandacre for the purpose."
"Very good of you," said Rupert. He dropped his chaffing air and grasped the proffered hand with abrupt friendliness. There was something about this man that caught his fancy. "You would be very welcome at any time. It isn't much of a show down there, but if you don't mind that—"
"I shouldn't come for the sake of the show," said Mordaunt. "I'd sooner see a battalion at work than at play."
"Ah! Wouldn't I, too!" said Rupert, with sudden fire. "We hope to be ordered to India next year. That wouldn't be absolute stagnation, anyhow. I loathe home work."
Mordaunt looked at the straight young figure brimming with activity, and decided that the more work this boy had to do the better it would be for him morally and physically.
"Keeps you in training," he suggested.
"Oh, I don't know. One is apt to get unconscionably slack. It's a fool of a world. The work is all wrongly distributed; some fellows have to work like niggers and others that want to work never get a look in." Rupert broke off to laugh. "I'm a discontented beggar, I tell you frankly," he said. "But I don't expect any sympathy from you, because, being what you are, you wouldn't reasonably be expected to understand."
"My good fellow, I haven't always been prosperous," Mordaunt assured him. "I've had luck, I admit. It comes to most of us in some form if we are only sharp enough to recognize it. Perhaps it hasn't come your way yet."
"I'll be shot if it has!" said Rupert.
"But it will," Mordaunt maintained, "sooner or later."
"Oh, do you believe in luck?" broke in Chris eagerly. "Because there's the new moon coming up over the trees, and I've just seen it through glass. Don't look, Trevor, for goodness' sake! No, no, you shan't! Shut your eyes while I open the window. You shall see it from the balcony."
She sprang to the window, and Mordaunt followed with an indulgent smile.
Rupert scoffed openly. "Chris is mad on charms of every description. If she hears a dog howl in the night she thinks there is going to be an earthquake. You had better not encourage her, or there will be no end to it."
But Chris, with her fiance's hand fast in hers, was already at the window.
"If you don't believe in it, don't come!" she threw back over her shoulder. "Now, Trevor, you've got to turn your money, bow three times, and wish. Do wish for something really good to make up for my bad luck!"
Mordaunt complied deliberately with her instructions, her hand still in his.
"I have wished," he announced at length.
"Have you? What was it? Yes, you may tell me as I'm not doing any. Quick, before Rupert comes!"
Her eager face was close to his. He looked into the clear eyes and paused. "I don't think I will tell you," he said finally.
"Oh, how mean! And you would have missed the opportunity but for me!"
He laughed quietly. "So I should. Then I shall owe it to you if it comes true. I will let you know if it does."
"You are sure to forget," she protested.
"No. I am sure to remember."
She regarded him speculatively. "I don't like secrets," she said.
"Haven't you any of your own?" he asked.
"No. At least—" she suddenly coloured vividly under his eyes—"none that matter."
He sat down upon the balustrade of the balcony, bringing his eyes on a level with hers. "None that you wouldn't tell me," he suggested, still faintly smiling.
She recovered from her confusion with a quick laugh. "I shouldn't dream of telling you—some things," she said.
Her hand moved a little in his as though it wanted to be free, but he held it still. He bent towards her, his grey eyes no longer searching, only very soft and tender.
"You will when we are married, dear," he said.
But Chris shook her head with much decision. "Oh, no! I couldn't possibly. You would disapprove far too much. As Aunt Philippa says, you would be 'pained beyond expression.'"
But Mordaunt only drew her nearer. "You—child!" he said.
She yielded, half-protesting. "Yes, but I'm not quite a baby. I think you ought to remember that. Shall we go back? I know Rupert is sniggering behind the curtain."
"I'll break his head if he is," said Mordaunt; but he let her go, as she evidently desired, and prepared to follow her in.
They met Rupert sauntering out "to pay his respects," as he termed it, though, if there were any luck going, he supposed that his future brother-in-law had secured it all.
"Thought you didn't believe in luck," observed Mordaunt.
"I believe in bad luck," returned Rupert pessimistically. "I only know the other sort by hearsay."
"Isn't he absurd?" laughed Chris. "He always talks like that. And there are crowds of people worse off than he is."
"Query," remarked her brother, with a shrug of the shoulders; but an instant later, aware of Mordaunt's look, he changed the subject.
They were a small party at dinner, for there remained but Hilda Forest to complete the number. She had only that afternoon returned to town. Mrs. Forest was dining out, to Chris's unfeigned relief. For Chris was in high spirits that night, and only in her aunt's absence could she give them full vent.
But, if gay, she was also provokingly elusive. Mordaunt had never seen her so effervescent, so sublimely inconsequent, or so naively bewitching as she was throughout the meal. Rupert, reckless and debonnaire, encouraged her wild mood. As his youngest brother expressed it, he and Chris 'generally ran amok' when they got together. And Hilda, the sedate, rather pensive daughter of the house, was far too gentle to restrain them.
It was impossible to hold aloof from such light-hearted merry-making, and Mordaunt went with the tide. Perhaps instinct warned him that it was the surest way to overcome that barrier of shyness, unacknowledged but none the less existent, that kept him still a stranger to his little fiancee's confidence. Her dainty daring notwithstanding, he was aware of the fact that she was yet half afraid of him, though when he came to seek the cause of this he was utterly at a loss.
When he and Rupert were left alone together after dinner, they were already far advanced upon the road to intimacy. It was the result of his deliberate intention; for though a girl might keep him outside her inner sanctuary, it seldom happened in the world of men that Trevor Mordaunt could not obtain a free pass whithersoever he cared to go.
Rupert tossed aside his gaiety with characteristic suddenness almost as soon as the door had closed upon his sister and cousin.
"I suppose you want to get to business," he said abruptly. "I'm ready when you are."
Mordaunt moved into an easy-chair. "Yes, I want to make a suggestion," he said deliberately. "But it is not a matter that you and I can carry through single-handed. I want to talk about it, that's all."
Rupert, his elbows on the table, nodded and stared rather gloomily into his coffee-cup. "I suppose it'll take about a year to fix it up. Anything with a lawyer in it does."
Mordaunt watched him through his cigarette smoke for a few seconds in silence, until in fact with a slight movement of impatience Rupert turned.
"I'm no good at fencing," he said, rather irritably. "You want Kellerton Old Park, Chris tells me. Have you seen it?"
"Then"—he sat back with a laugh that sounded rather forced—"that ends it," he declared. "The place has gone to rack and ruin. You can't walk up the avenue for the thistles. They are shoulder high. And as for the house, it's not much more than a rubbish-heap. It would cost more than it's worth to make it habitable. We have been trying to get rid of the place ever since my father's death, but it's no manner of use. People get let in by the agent's description and go and see it, but they all come away shuddering. You'll do the same."
"I shall certainly go and see it," Mordaunt said. "Perhaps I shall persuade Chris to motor down with me some day. But in any case, if you are selling—I'm buying."
Rupert jumped up suddenly. "I won't take you seriously till you've seen it," he declared.
"Oh yes, you will," Mordaunt returned imperturbably. "Because, you see, I am serious. But we haven't come to business yet. I want to know what price you are asking for this ancestral dwelling of yours."
"We would take almost anything," Rupert said.
He had begun to fidget about the room with a restlessness that was feverish. Mordaunt remained in his easy-chair, calmly smoking, obviously awaiting the information for which he had asked.
"Almost anything," Rupert repeated, halting at the table to drink some coffee.
The hand that held the cup was not over-steady. Mordaunt's eyes rested upon it thoughtfully.
"I should like to know," he said, after a moment.
Rupert gulped his coffee and looked down at him. "Murchison said ten thousand when my father died," he said. "He would probably begin by saying ten now, but he would end by taking five."
"Murchison is your solicitor?"
"And trustee up to a year ago."
"I see." Mordaunt reached for his own coffee. "And you? You think ten thousand would be a fair price?"
Rupert broke again into his uneasy laugh. "I think it would be an infernal swindle," he said.
"I will talk it over with Mr. Murchison," Mordaunt said quietly. "I only wanted to be sure that you were quite willing to sell before doing so."
Rupert took a turn up the room. He looked thoroughly ill-at-ease. Coming back, he halted by the mantelpiece and began to drum a difficult tattoo upon the marble.
"I don't want you to be let in by Murchison," he said suddenly. "You will find him damnably plausible. If he thinks you really want the place he will squeeze you like a sponge."
"Thanks for the warning!" There was a note of amusement in Mordaunt's voice. He finished his coffee and rose. "You have done your best to handicap your man of business, but I think he will get his price in spite of it. You see, I really do want the place."
"Without seeing it!"
Rupert whizzed round on his heels, and faced him. "Sounds rather—eccentric," he suggested.
Mordaunt smiled in his quiet, detached way. "I can afford to be eccentric," he said. "And now look here, Wyndham. You said something just now about having to wait a year to fix things up. I don't see the necessity for that, situated as we are. Since you are willing that I should buy Kellerton Old Park, and since we are agreed upon the price, I see no reason to delay payment. I will write you a cheque for your share to-night."
"What?" said Rupert.
He stood up very straight, staring at the man before him as if he were an entirely novel specimen of the human race.
"Is it a joke?" he asked at length.
Mordaunt flicked the ash from his cigarette without looking at him. Perhaps he felt that he had studied him long enough.
"No," he said. "I don't see any point in jokes of that sort. Of course, I know it's not business, but the arrangement is entirely between ourselves. I don't see why even Murchison should be let into it. We can settle it later without taking him into our confidence."
"It's a loan, then?" said Rupert quickly.
"If you like to call it so."
"May as well call it by its name," the boy returned bluntly. "You're deuced generous, Mr. Mordaunt."
"I know what it is to be hard up," Mordaunt answered. "And since we are to be brothers we may as well behave as such, eh—Rupert?"
Rupert's hand came out and gripped his impulsively. For a second he seemed to be at a loss for words, then burst into headlong speech.
"Look here! I think I ought to tell you, before you take us in hand to that extent, that we're a family of rotters. We're not one of us sound. Oh, I'm not talking about Chris. She's a girl. But the rest of us are below par, slackers. Our father was the same. There's bad blood somewhere. You are bound to find it out sooner or later, so you may as well know it now."
Mordaunt's grey eyes looked his full in the face. "Is that intended as a warning not to expect too much?" he asked.
Rupert's eyelids twitched a little under that direct look. "Yes," he said briefly.
"And if I don't listen to warnings of that description?"
"You will probably get let down."
Rupert spoke recklessly, yet almost as if he could not help it. Undoubtedly there was something magnetic about Trevor Mordaunt at times, something that compelled. He was conscious of relief when the steady eyes ceased to scrutinize him.
"Not by you, I think," Mordaunt said, with his quiet smile. "You may be a rotter, my boy, but you are not one of the crooked sort."
"I've never robbed anyone, if that's what you mean." Rupert's laugh had in it a note of bitterness that was unconsciously pathetic. "But I'm up to the eyes in debt and pretty desperate. If I could have persuaded Murchison to raise money on the estate, I'd have done it long ago. That's why this offer of yours seemed too good to be true."
Mordaunt nodded. "I thought so. It's foul work floundering in that sort of quagmire. I wonder now if you will allow me to have a look into your affairs, or if you prefer to go to the devil your own way."
Rupert coloured and threw back his shoulders, but he did not take offence. The leisurely proposal held none. "I'm not over keen on going to the devil," he said. "But neither am I going to let you pay my debts, thanks all the same."
Mordaunt glanced at him and smiled. "I think you will cancel that 'but,'" he said, "in view of our future relationship."
Rupert hesitated, obviously wavering. "It's jolly decent of you," he said boyishly. "You make it confoundedly difficult to refuse."
"You are not going to refuse," said Mordaunt. "No one knows better than I do that it's ten times pleasanter to give than to receive. But that—between friends—is not a point worth considering."
"I should think you have a good many friends," said Rupert.
"I believe I have."
"Well,"—the boy spoke with a tinge of feeling beneath his banter—"you've added to the list to-night, and I wish you joy of your acquisition! But don't say I didn't warn you."
"No," said Mordaunt quietly. "I won't say that." He added a moment later, as he dropped the end of his cigarette into his coffee-cup, "I believe in my friends, Rupert."
"Till they let you down," suggested Rupert.
"They never do."
"Then allow me to say that you are one of the luckiest fellows I have ever met."
"And the best," Rupert added impulsively.
There was a moment's silence, then, "Shall we join the ladies?" suggested Trevor Mordaunt, in a tone that sounded rather bored.
"He's nice, isn't he?" said Chris.
She was seated on a hassock close to her cousin's knee, a favourite position of hers.
Hilda's fingers fondled the sunny hair. Her eyes looked thoughtful. "I am so glad for you, dear," she said.
"I knew you would be," chuckled Chris. "Aunt Philippa is delighted too. It's the first time I've ever known her pleased with me. It feels so funny. Ah! There is my sweet Cinders! I must just let him in."
She sprang up to admit her favourite, whose imperious scratch at the door testified to the fact that he was not accustomed to being kept waiting. There ensued a tender if somewhat pointless conversation between himself and his mistress before she returned to her seat and her confidences.
"Did you ever refuse to marry anybody, Hilda?" she wanted to know then.
"Three," said Hilda.
"Goodness!" Chris looked up with shining eyes of admiration. "How ever did you do it?"
"I wasn't in love with them," said Hilda simply.
"Oh! And you are in love with Percy?"
"Yes, dear." Again with the utmost simplicity the elder girl made answer.
"How nice!" said Chris. "But I can't think how you knew," she said, after a moment.
Hilda leaned forward to look into the clear eyes. A faint gleam of anxiety showed for a moment in her own. "But surely you know, Chris!" she said.
"I!" said Chris, with a gay shake of the head. "Oh, no, I don't. You know, I don't believe it's in me to fall in love in the ordinary way. I was quite angry with Rupert only this evening for jeering at me, as if I were. Oh, no, Hilda, I'm not in love like that."
"But, my dear—" Hilda looked down in grave perplexity, not unmixed with apprehension.
Chris leaned back against her quite unconcernedly, her hands clasped round her knees, and laughed like an elf. "Darling, don't look at me like that! It's too funny. Don't you know that it's only you staid, good people who ever fall in love properly? The rest of us only pretend. That's where the romance comes in."
"But, dear, Trevor Mordaunt is in love with you," Hilda reminded her gently.
"Oh yes," said Chris, "I know. That's why I had to accept him. I don't believe even you could have said No to him."
Hilda's face cleared a little. She pinched the soft cheek nearest to her. "After that, don't talk to me about not being in love!"
"Oh, but really I don't think I am," Chris assured her quite seriously. "I have only once in my life met anyone with whom I could possibly imagine myself falling in love. And he was not a bit like Trevor."
"What was he like?" asked Hilda. "A sort of fancy person? Or someone out of a book?"
"Oh no, he was quite real—the nicest man." A faraway look came into Chris's eyes; she suddenly spoke very softly as one in the presence of a vision. "I think—I am not sure—that he belonged to the old French noblesse. He was not tall, but beautifully made, just right in every way, and very handsome, with eyes that laughed—the sort of man one dreams of, but never meets."
"And yet he was real," Hilda said.
"Oh yes, he was real. But it was ages and ages ago. He may have changed by this time. He may even be dead—my preux chevalier." Chris came out of her dream with a shaky little laugh. "Ah, well, I've given up crying for him," she said. "Anyhow it was only a game. Let's talk of something else."
"It was the man at Valpre," said Hilda.
"Yes, it was the man at Valpre. I never told you about him, did I? I never told anyone. Somehow I couldn't. People made such a horrid fuss. But the very thought of him used to make me cry at one time. Wasn't it silly? But I missed him so. I couldn't help it. We won't talk about him any more. It makes me melancholy. Hilda, wouldn't it be a novel idea if your bridesmaids carried fans instead of Prayer Books? You could have the marriage service printed on them in gold with illuminated capitals. Would Aunt Philippa think it immoral, do you think?"
To anyone who did not know Chris this sudden change might have seemed bewildering; but Hilda was never taken unawares by her swift transitions. She did not even deem her flippant, as did her mother. For Chris was very dear to her. She knew and loved her in all her lightning moods. It was possible that even she did not wholly understand her, but she was nearer to doing so than any other in Chris's world just then.
When Chris danced across to the piano and began her favourite waltz to the accompaniment of muffled howls from Cinders, she knew that the hour for confidences was past. Nor had she any desire to prolong it, for it seemed better to her to leave the hero of Chris's girlhood in obscurity. She had not the smallest doubt that her young cousin invested him with all the glamour of a vivid imagination. He was fashioned of the substance of dreams, and she fancied that Chris herself was more than half aware of this.
But still her faint misgiving did not wholly die away. Though Trevor Mordaunt had secured for himself the girl of his choice, she could not suppress a grave doubt as to whether he had yet succeeded in winning her heart. He would ultimately win it; she felt convinced of that. He was a man who was bound sooner or later to rule supreme. And thus she strove to reassure herself; but still, in spite of her, the doubt remained. Chris was so young, so gay, so innocent. She could not bear to think of the troubles and perplexities of womanhood descending upon her. She was so essentially made for the joy of life.
She sat and watched her unperceived, the slim young figure in the shaded lamplight, the shining hair, the slender neck—all vivid, instinct with life; and she comprehended the witchery that had caught Mordaunt's heart. Of the man himself she knew but little. He was not expansive, and circumstances had not thrown them together. But what she knew of him she liked. She was aware that her brother valued his friendship very highly—a friendship begun on a South African battlefield; and though they had met but seldom since, the intimacy between them had remained unshaken.
Trevor Mordaunt was a man of many friends—friends in all ranks and of many nationalities. No one knew quite how he made them; no one ever saw his friendships in the making. But all over the world were men who hailed his coming with pleasure and saw him go with regret.
She supposed him capable of a vast sympathy, a wide understanding. It seemed the only explanation. But would he understand her little Chris? she wondered. Would he make full allowance for her dear caprices, her whimsical fancies, her butterfly temperament? Would he ever thread his way through these fairy defences to that hidden shrine where throbbed her woman's heart? And would he be the first to enter there? She hoped so; she prayed so.
"Hilda"—imperiously the gay voice broke through her reverie—"if Percy wants to know what sort of pendants to give the bridesmaids, be sure you say turquoise and pearl. It's most important."
She was still strumming her waltz, and did not hear Mordaunt enter behind her.
"I saw a most lovely thing to-day," she went on. "One of those heart-shaped things that are still hearts even if you turn them upside down."
"Is that an advantage?" asked Mordaunt.
She whizzed round on the music-stool. "Trevor! I wish you wouldn't make me jump. Of course it is an advantage if a thing never looks wrong way up. You will remember, won't you, Hilda? Turquoise and pearl."
"Are you going to be chief mourner?" asked Rupert.
"Don't be horrid! I'm going to be chief bridesmaid, if that's what you mean?"
"And turquoise and pearl is to be the order of the day?" queried Mordaunt.
"A white muslin frock and a blue sash, I suppose," supplemented Rupert. "Hair worn long and tied with a blue bow rather bigger than an ordinary-sized sunshade. No shoes and no stockings, but some pale blue sandals over white lace socks. Result—ravishing!"
Chris glanced round for a missile, found none, so decided to ignore him.
"Yes," she said to her fiance, "and we are going to carry bouquets of wheat and cornflowers."
"Sounds like the ingredients of a pudding," said Rupert.
Chris rose from the piano in disgust, and her brother instantly slipped into her place. "I say, Hilda," he called, "come and sing! There's no one to listen to you but me; but that's a detail. Trevor and Christina, pray consider yourselves excused."
"We don't want to be excused," said Chris mutinously "Do stop, Rupert! Cinders doesn't like it."
Rupert, however, was already crashing through Mendelssohn's Wedding March, and turned a deaf ear. She picked the discontented one up to comfort him, and as she did so Trevor moved up to her. He stood beside her for a few seconds, stroking the dog's soft head.
Chris looked hot and uncomfortable, as if Rupert's music pounded on her nerves; but yet she would not make a move. She stood hushing Cinders as if he had been an infant.
"Shall we go outside?" Mordaunt said at last.
She shook her head.
"Come!" he said gently.
She turned without a word, laid the dog tenderly in a chair, whispered to him, kissed him, and went to the open window.
They stepped out together, and the curtains met behind them.
The moon had passed out of sight behind the houses, but the sky was alight with stars. A faint breeze trembled through the trees in the quiet square garden, and the faint, wonderful essence of summer came from them. From a distance sounded the roar of countless wheels—the deep chorus of London's traffic.
They stood side by side in silence while behind them Rupert played the Wedding March to a triumphant end. Then quiet descended, and there came a long pause.
Chris broke it at last, moved, and shyly spoke. "Trevor!"
"What is it, dear?"
She drew slightly towards him, and at once he put a quiet arm about her. "I want to tell you something," she said.
"Something serious?" he questioned.
"I—I don't know." A faint note of distress sounded in her voice. She laid her cheek suddenly against his shoulder with a very confiding gesture. "I'm not quite happy," she said.
He held her closer. "Tell me, Chris!" he said very tenderly.
She uttered a little laugh that had a sob in it. "It's only that—that I can't help feeling that you're making rather a bad bargain. You know, the other day—when—when you proposed to me—I didn't have time to think. I've been thinking since."
"Yes?" he said.
"Yes. And now and then—only now and then—I feel rather bad. I—I like fair play, Trevor. It isn't right for me to take so much and give—so little." Her voice quivered perceptibly, and she ceased to speak. He pressed her closer to him, but he remained silent for several seconds.
At last, "Chris," he said, "will it comfort you to know that what you call a little is to me the greatest thing on earth?"
His voice was deep and very quiet, yet a tremor went through her at his words.
"That's just what frightens me," she said.
"It shouldn't frighten you," he said. "It need not."
"But it does," said Chris.
He was silent for another space, still holding her closely. In the room behind them they could hear the cousins talking; but they were alone together, shut off, as it were, from ordinary converse, alone under the stars.
"Suppose," said Mordaunt gently, "you leave off thinking for a bit, and take things as they come."
"Yes?" she said rather dubiously.
He bent down to her. "Chris, I will never ask more of you than you are able to give."
She moved at that in her quick, impulsive way, reached up and clasped his neck. "Oh, Trevor, I do love you!" she said, with a catch in her voice. "I do want you to have—the best!"
Her face was raised to his. For the first time she offered him her lips. They were nearer to understanding each other at that moment than they had ever been before.
But as he bent lower to kiss her the notes of the piano floated out to them again, this time in a soft melody, inexpressibly sweet, full of a subtle charm, the fairy gold of romance.
She kissed him indeed—and it was the first kiss she had ever given him; but he felt her stiffen in his hold even as she did it. And the next moment, almost with passion, she spoke—
"I wish Rupert wouldn't play that thing! He knows—he knows—that I can't bear it!"
"What is it?" Mordaunt asked in surprise.
She answered him with a laugh that did not ring quite true. "It is the 'Aubade a la Fiancee.' He is only playing it to torment us. Let us go in and stop him!"
She turned inwards with the words, disengaging herself from his arm as casually as she might have pushed aside a chair. Mordaunt followed her in silence. There were no further confidences between them that night.
It was pouring with rain, and the man with the flute at the corner shivered and pulled his rags more closely about him. He had not been lucky that day, or, indeed, for many days, as the haggard eyes that stared out of his white face testified.
He had spent the past three nights in the open, but to-night—to-night was cruelly wet. He questioned with himself what he should do.
In his pocket was that which might procure a night's lodging or a meagre supper; but it would not supply both. He had to decide between the two, unless he elected to go on playing till midnight in the drenching rain on the chance of augmenting his scanty store.
Though it was June, he was chilled to the bone. In the intervals between his flute-playing his teeth chattered. He looked horribly ill, but no one had noticed that. Men who wander about the streets with musical instruments seldom have a prosperous appearance. Passers-by may fling them a copper if they have one handy, but otherwise they do not even look at them. There are so many of these luckless ones, and each looks more wretched than the last. Most of them look degraded also, but, save for his rags, this man did not. There was a foreign air about him, but he did not look the type of foreigner that lives upon English charity. There was nothing hang-dog about him. He only looked exhausted and miserable.
At the suggestion of a policeman he abandoned his corner. After all, he was doing no good there. It was not worth a protest. He turned and trudged up a side-street, with head bent to the rain.
It was growing late, high time to seek some shelter for the night if that were his intention. But he pressed on aimlessly with dragging feet. Perhaps he had not yet decided whether to perish from cold or hunger, or perhaps he regarded the choice as of small importance. Possibly even, he had forgotten that there was a choice to be made.
The street he travelled was deserted, but he heard the buzz of a motor at a cross-road, and mechanically almost he moved towards it. He was not quite master of himself or his sensations. He may have vaguely remembered that there is sometimes money to be earned by opening the door of a taxi, but it was not with this definite end in view that he took his way. For, as he went, he put his flute once more to his lips, and poured a sudden, silvery melody—the "Aubade a la Fiancee"—that a young French officer had onced hummed so gaily among the rocks of Valpre—into the rain and the darkness.
It began firm and sweet as the notes of a thrush, exquisitely delicate, with the high ecstasy that only music can express. It swelled into a positive paen of rejoicing, eager, wonderful, almost unearthly in its purity. It ended in a confused jumble like the glittering fragments of a beautiful thing shattered to atoms at a blow. And there fell a silence broken only by the throbbing of the taxi, and the drip, drip, drip, of the rain.
The taxi came to a stand close to the lamp-post against which the flute-player leaned, but he made no move to open the door. The light flared on his ashen face, showing it curiously apathetic. His instrument dangled from one nerveless hand.
A man in evening dress stepped from the taxi. His look fell upon the wretched figure that huddled against the lamppost. For a single instant their eyes met. Then abruptly the new-comer wheeled to pay his fare.
"He's in for a wet night by the looks of him," observed the chauffeur facetiously.
"The gentleman is a friend of mine," curtly responded the man in evening dress.
And the taxi-cab driver, being quite at a loss, shot away into the darkness to hide his discomfiture.
The flute-player straightened himself with a manifest effort and turned away. If he had heard the words, he had not comprehended them. His wits seemed to be wandering that night, but he would not even seem to beg an alms.
But a hand on his shoulder detained him. "Monsieur de Montville!" a quiet voice said.
He jerked round, bringing his heels together with instinctive precision. Again, in the glare of the lamp-post their eyes met.
"I have not—the pleasure," he muttered stiffly.
"My name is Mordaunt," the other told him gravely. "You will remember me presently, though not probably by name. Come in out of the rain. It is impossible to talk here."
He spoke with a certain insistence. His hand held the Frenchman's arm. It was obvious that he would listen to no refusal. And the man in rags attempted none. He went with him meekly, as if bewildered into docility. His single flash of pride had died out like the final flicker of a match.
With the Englishman's hand supporting him, he stumbled up a flight of steps that led to the door of one of the houses in the quiet street, waited till the turning of a latch-key opened the door, and again numbly yielded to the steady insistence that drew him within.
He stood on a mat under a glaring electric lamp. The wet streamed down him in rivulets; he was drenched to the skin.
Mechanically he pulled the cap from his head and tried to still his chattering teeth. His lips were blue.
"This way," said the quiet voice. "Take my arm."
"But I am so damp, monsieur," he protested shakily. "It will make you damp also."
"What of it? I daresay I shall survive it if you do." Very kindly the voice made answer. He could not see the speaker plainly, for his brain was in a whirl. He even wondered in a dull fashion if it were all a dream, and if he would wake in a moment from his uneasy slumber to hear the rain splashing down the gutters and the voice of a constable in his ear bidding him move on.
He went up a flight of stairs, moving almost without his own volition, the Englishman's arm around him, urging him upwards.
They came to the threshold of a room of which Mordaunt switched on the light at entering, and in a moment more the tottering Frenchman found himself pressed down into a chair. He covered his face with his hands and sat motionless, trying to still the confusion in his brain. He was shivering violently from head to foot.
There followed a pause of some duration, during which he must have been alone; then again his unknown friend touched him, patted his shoulder, spoke.
"Here's a hot drink. You will feel better when you have had it. Afterwards you shall go to bed."
He raised his head and stared about him. Mordaunt, holding a cup of steaming milk that gave out a strong aroma of brandy, was stooping over him. There was another man in the room, evidently a servant, engaged in kindling a fire.
Slowly the vagabond's gaze focussed itself upon Mordaunt's face. He saw it clearly for the first time and gave a slight start of recognition.
"I have seen you before," he muttered, frowning uncertainly. "Where? Where?"
"Never mind now," returned the Englishman gently. "Drink this. You need it."
He lifted a shaking hand and dropped it again. All the strength seemed to have gone out of him.
"Monsieur will pardon my feebleness," he murmured almost inarticulately. "I am—a little—fatigued. It is nothing. It will pass."
"Drink!" Mordaunt said insistently.
He held the rim of the cup against the trembling lips, and perforce the Frenchman drank, at first slowly, then with avidity, till at last he clasped the cup in both his quivering hands and drained it.
His eyes sought Mordaunt's apologetically as he gave it back. The apathy had gone out of them. They looked out of his pinched face with brightening intelligence. His lips were no longer blue.
"Ah!" he said, with a deep breath. "But how it was good, monsieur!"
He glanced downwards, discovered himself to be sitting in a chintz-covered chair, and blundered hastily to his feet.
"Tenez!" he exclaimed almost incoherently. "But how I forget! See, I have—I have—"
He groped out before him suddenly, words failing him, and only Mordaunt's promptitude spared him a headlong fall.
"Bit light-headed, sir?" suggested the servant, glancing round with an inscrutable countenance.
"No, he'll be all right. Go and turn on the hot water," said Mordaunt.
To the Frenchman as the man departed he spoke as to an equal. "Monsieur de Montville, I am offering you the hospitality of a friend, and I hope you will accept it. In the morning if you are well enough we will talk things over. But to-night you are not fit for anything beyond a hot bath and bed."
The Frenchman nodded. Certainly his senses were returning to him. His eyes were growing brighter every instant. "It is true," he said. "I was ill. But your—so great—kindness has revived me. I will not, then, trespass upon you longer, except to render to you a thousand thanks. I am well now. I will go."
"No," Mordaunt said gently. "You will stay here till morning. You are not well. You are feverish. And the sooner you get to bed the better. Come! We are not strangers. Need we behave as if we were?"
Again de Montville looked at him doubtfully. "I wish that I could recall—" he said.
"You will presently," Mordaunt assured him. "In the meantime, it really doesn't matter, and it is not the time for explanations. I am very glad to have met you. You surely will not refuse to be my guest for a few hours."
He spoke with the utmost kindness, but also with inflexible determination. The Frenchman still looked dubious, but quite obviously he did not feel equal to a battle of wills with his resolute host. He uttered a sigh and said no more.
He firmly declined the assistance of Mordaunt's man, however, and it was Mordaunt himself who waited upon him, ignoring protest, till his shivering protege was safe in bed.
He seemed to resign himself to his fate then, being too exhausted to do otherwise. A heavy drowsiness came upon him, and he very soon fell into a doze.
Mordaunt sat in an adjoining room, opening and answering letters. His demeanour was quite serene. Save that he paused now and then and leaned back in his chair to listen, there was nothing about him to indicate that anything unusual had taken place.