He smiled, but not as if greatly elated. "That is because we are pals," he said.
"Yes, I know. It's good to have a pal who understands." Chris spoke a little wistfully, but almost instantly dismissed the matter. "Why, I am forgetting! You haven't seen Cinders yet, and I told him you were coming. He is upstairs. Shall we go and find him?"
They went up together. Half-way up she slipped her hand into his, with a soft little laugh. "It's like old times, Bertie. Don't break the spell, preux chevalier. Let us pretend—just for to-night!"
They found Cinders imprisoned in a little sitting-room at the top of the house which Chris shared with her cousin. His greeting of Bertrand was effusive, even rapturous. Like his mistress, he never forgot a friend.
Afterwards they sat and talked of many things, chiefly connected with Valpre. There was so much to remember—Mademoiselle Gautier and her queer, conventual prejudices, Manon, the maid-of-all-work, and her funny stories of the shore.
"She quite believed in the spell," Chris said. "She almost frightened me with it."
"Without doubt there was a spell," said Bertrand gravely.
"You really think so? I never believed in it after that night."
"No?" he said. "And yet it was there."
Chris peered at him. "You talk as if it were something quite substantial," she said.
"It was substantial," he made answer, and then with a sudden smile into her wondering eyes: "As substantial, cherie, as my rope of sand that was to make my work endure like—like the Sphinx and Cleopatra's Needle and—and—" He broke off with his eloquent shrug, paused a moment, then—"and—our friendship, if you will," he ended.
"Ah, fancy your remembering that!" she said. "But I believe you remember everything."
"That is the spell," he said.
"Is it, Bertie? And do you remember the duel, and how you wouldn't tell me what it was all about? Tell me now!" she begged, as a child pleading for a story. "I always wanted to know."
But his face darkened instantly. "Not that, petite. He was bad. He was scelerat. We will not speak of him."
"But, Bertie, I'm grown-up now. I'm quite old enough to know," she urged, with a coaxing hand upon his arm.
He took the hand, turned it upwards, stroked the soft palm very reverently. "I pray that you will never be old enough, Chris," he said, and in the shaded lamplight she saw that his face had grown suddenly melancholy, almost haggard. "The knowledge of evil is a poisonous thing. Those who find it can never be young again."
His manner awed her a little. She did not pursue the point with her customary persistence. "Well, tell me what happened afterwards," she said. "He got well again?"
"And—you forgave each other?"
"Never!" Bertrand raised his head and shot out the word with emphasis.
"Never, Bertie?" Chris looked at him, slightly startled.
He looked back at her, faintly smiling, but with the melancholy still in his eyes. "Never," he repeated. "That shocks you, no?"
"Not really," she said loyally. "I'm sure he was horrid. He looked it. Then—you are enemies still?"
"Enemies?" He shrugged his shoulders. "No, I think he would not consider me as an enemy now."
"And yet you never forgave him?"
"No, never." Again his denial was emphatic. After a moment, seeing her bewilderment, he proceeded to explain. "If he had apologized, if he had retracted the insult, then it is possible that a reconciliation might have been effected between us."
"But he didn't?" said Chris. "Then what happened? Did he do nothing at all?"
"For a long time—nothing," said Bertrand.
"Then," very simply he made reply, "he ruined me."
"Bertie!" She gazed at him with tragedy dawning in her eyes. "He ruined you! He!"
"He supplied the evidence against me," Bertrand said. "But it was clever. He spread a net—so"—he flung out his hands with an explanatory gesture—"a net that I see not nor suspect, and then when I am entrapped he draw it close—close, and—I am a prisoner." He shut his teeth with a click, and for an instant smiled—the smile of the man who fights with his back against the wall.
But the tragedy had grown from shadow to reality in the turquoise blue eyes of the girl beside him. "Oh, Bertie," she said, with a break in her voice, "then it was all my fault—mine!"
He turned towards her swiftly. "No, no, no! Who has said that? It is not true!" he declared, with vehemence.
"You said it yourself—almost," she told him. "And it is true, for if you hadn't fought him it would never have happened. Oh, Bertie! I'm beginning to think it was a dreadful pity I ever went to Valpre!"
He caught her hands and held them. "You shall not say it!" he declared passionately. "You shall not think it! Mignonne, listen! Those days at Valpre are to me the most precious, the most sacred, the most dear of my life. They can never return, it is true. But the memory of them is mine for ever. Of that can no one deprive me. While I live I shall cherish them in my heart."
He cheeked himself abruptly; she was gazing at him with a sort of speculative wonder that had arrested the tragedy in her eyes. At his sudden pause she began to smile.
"Bertie, dear, forgive me, but I can't help thinking what a funny Englishman you would have made! So you really don't think it was my fault? I'm so glad. I should break my heart if it were."
He stooped, catching her hands up to his lips, whispering inarticulately.
She suffered him, half-laughing. "Silly Frenchman!" she said softly.
And at that he looked up and let her go. "You are right," he said, speaking rather thickly. "I am foolish. I am mad. And you—you have the patience of an angel to support me thus."
"Oh no," said Chris. "I'm not a bit like an angel. In fact, I'm rather wicked sometimes—not very, you know, Bertie, only rather. Now let me show you my presents. I brought them up here on purpose."
So gaily she diverted the conversation, mainly because she had caught a gleam of tears in her friend's eyes and was aware that they had not been far from her own. It would never do for them to sit crying together on her birthday night. Besides, it was too ridiculous, for what was there to cry about? Bertrand was in a better position now than he had been for years. And she—and she—well, it was her birthday, and surely that was reason enough for being glad.
It was Bertrand who at length gently drew her attention to the time. They had been talking for the best part of an hour.
"Will not the supper dances be nearly finished?" he suggested.
"Oh, goodness!" exclaimed Chris. "Yes, long ago. We must fly. Say good-bye to Cinders. You will come and see him again soon, won't you? Come just as often as you can."
At the door she paused a moment, slipped a warm hand into his, and for the first time shyly broke her silence upon the subject of her approaching marriage.
"I'm so glad you are coming to live with us when we are married," she said. "I shall never feel lonely with you there."
"You would not be lonely without me," he made quick response. "You will have always your husband."
She caught her breath, and then laughed. "To be sure. I hadn't thought of that. But Trevor is always busy, and he is going to write a book too." She looked at him with sudden mischief in her eyes. "Yes, I am very glad you are coming," she said again. "When he doesn't want you with him you can come and play with me. And when it's summer"—her eyes fairly danced—"we'll go for picnics, Bertie, lots of picnics. You'll like that, preux chevalier?"
He smiled back upon her; who could have helped it? But he stifled a sigh as he smiled. Would life be always a picnic to her, he asked himself? He could not imagine it otherwise, and yet he knew that even upon this child of mirth and innocence the reality of life must dawn some day. Would it be a gracious dawning of pearly tints and roselit radiance, gradually filling that eager young soul to the brim with the greater joys of life? Or would it be fiery and terrible, a blinding, relentless burst of light, from which she would shrink appalled, discerning the wrath of the gods before ever she had realized their bounty?
Could it be thus with her, his little comrade, his bird of Paradise, his darling? He thought not. He believed not. And yet deep in the heart of him he feared.
And because of that lurking fear he vowed silently over the little friendly hand that lay so confidingly in his that never while breath remained in his body would he leave her until he knew her happiness—the ultimate happiness of her womanhood—to be assured.
It seemed to him that it was for this alone that he had been introduced once more into her book of life. All his hopes and dreams had passed; he was an old man before his time; but this one thing, it seemed, was left to him. For a while longer his name would figure with hers across the page. Only when the page turned his part would be done. She would not need him then. She would be a woman; and—eh bien, it was only the child Chris who could ever be expected to need him now. When she ceased to be a child the need—if such, indeed, existed—would be for ever past; and he would be no more to her than a memory—the memory of one who had played with her a while in the happy land of her childhood and had shared with her the picnics of those summer days.
This was the sole remaining aspiration of Bertrand de Montville—the man who in the arrogance of his youth had diced with the gods, and had lost the cast.
"My dear, it is quite useless for you to attempt to justify your conduct, for it was simply inexcusable. No argument can possibly alter that fact. Everyone was waiting about for a considerable time in the supper-room, desirous of drinking your health, while you, it transpires, were hiding in a corner with this very questionable foreigner whom Trevor has been eccentric enough to befriend, but of whom I can discover practically nothing."
"But Trevor knows all about him, Aunt Philippa," pleaded Chris.
"That," said Aunt Philippa, "may or may not be the case. But so long as you are in my charge, I, and not Trevor, am the one to direct your choice of acquaintances, and I very strongly object to the inclusion of this Frenchman in the number. It is my desire, Chris, that you do not see him again during the rest of the time that you are under my roof. I intend to speak to Trevor upon the matter at the earliest opportunity. I consider that, in the face of what has occurred, he would be extremely ill-advised to retain this unknown foreigner in his employment, though I should imagine he has already arrived at that conclusion for himself. I could see that he was seriously displeased by your behaviour last night."
"Oh, was he?" said Chris blankly. "He didn't say so."
"He probably realized that it would be useless to express his displeasure at such a time. But let me warn you, Chris. He is not a man to stand any trifling. I have heard it from several quarters. Jack, as you are aware, knows him well, and he will tell you the same. You may try his patience too far, and that, I presume, is not your intention. Should it happen, I think that you would regret it all your life."
"But I haven't trifled! I don't trifle!" protested Chris, divided between distress and indignation.
Aunt Philippa smiled unpleasantly—she seldom displayed any other variety of smile. "That, my dear, is very much a matter of opinion. You had better go now to Hilda. She is waiting to see your bridesmaid's dress tried on."
Chris went, with a worried pucker between her brows. How curious it was that some people failed so completely to take a reasonable view of things! They made mountains out of molehills, and expected her to climb them—she, whose unwary feet were accustomed to trip so lightly along easy ways. And Trevor too—she caught her breath with a sharp shiver—was he really seriously displeased with her? He had given no hint of it when they had danced together, save that he had been somewhat grave and silent. But then, he was naturally so. She had not thought much of it; in fact, she had been thinking mainly of Bertie.
And here a sudden throb of dismay sent the blood to her heart. Aunt Philippa was going to speak to him upon this subject, was going to suggest unspeakable things, was going to talk over her conduct with him and make him furious in earnest. And then it would all come out about her having met Bertrand all those years ago. Trevor would mention that in the natural course of things, and then Aunt Philippa would tell him—would tell him—
"Chris, dear, what is the matter? You are as white as a ghost."
It was Hilda's voice gently recalling her. She came to herself with a start, and the hot blood rose to her cheeks with a rush.
"Are you very tired after yesterday?" her cousin asked. "I am afraid you got up too early."
"Oh, no!" said Chris. "I wasn't early at all. I didn't ride this morning. Jack has promised to come for me this evening instead."
She diverted Hilda's attention desperately. She could not make confidences in the presence of the dressmaker. Moreover, she was not sure that she wanted to talk even to Hilda about her pal from Valpre. It was true Hilda understood most things, but Aunt Philippa had somehow managed to inspire her with a sense of guilt. She knew she could not speak of Bertrand with ease to anyone now.
Besides, there was no time. The moment she was free she must manage somehow to communicate with Trevor. She must warn him of Aunt Philippa's intentions. She must explain to him.
She did not want him to know about that night in the Magic Cave. Everyone who heard of it was shocked, everyone except Max, and he made a speciality of never being shocked at anything. Why, it was even possible—here a new thought leaped up and struck her an unexpected blow—was it not more than possible that it was this self-same event that had given rise to the insult that had led to the duel? Of course that must be it! That was why Bertrand so persistently refused to enlighten her. How was it she had never before thought of it? It was the truth of course! How had she failed to see anything so glaringly apparent?
Yes, it was the truth. She had blundered upon it unawares, and now she surveyed it horror-stricken, remembering Bertrand's warning that the knowledge of evil was a poisonous thing. So must Eve have felt when first her eyes were opened to the wisdom of the gods.
She was free at last, and sped up to her room. The scribbled message that reached her fiance an hour later was only just legible, but it spoke more eloquently of the state of mind of the writer than she knew.
"Aunt Philippa says you are angry with me. Please don't be. Really there is nothing to be angry about, though she thinks there is, and she is going to try and persuade you to send Bertie away. Trevor, don't listen to her, will you? And, whatever you do, don't tell her about Valpre. I'm very bothered about it. Do be as kind as you always are to
"Your loving CHRIS."
Mordaunt's answering note reached her late in the afternoon just before she set forth for her ride in the Park with Jack.
"MY DEAR LITTLE CHRIS,—
"My love to your Aunt Philippa, and I am just off to Paris for the inside of a week. I shall be back for your cousin's wedding. Ask her to reserve her lecture till then. Our friend Bertrand sends his amities. I send nothing, for you have it all.
Chris kissed the note with a rush of tenderness—greater than she had ever managed to bestow upon the writer. That brief response to her appeal stirred her as she had never been stirred before. It was sweet of him to trust her so. She would never forget it, never, as long as she lived.
When Jack appeared to escort her, he noted her radiant face and shining eyes with approval.
"Why, you're looking almost pretty for once," he said. "What has happened to bring it about? It must be a recipe worth having."
"Don't be absurd!" she retorted, beaming upon him. "Who wants to be pretty?"
"It's better to be good certainly," he said. "I know you couldn't be both. But what's the joke? I think you might let me help laugh."
"There isn't a joke," she said. "And I'm not laughing. I've had a letter from Trevor, that's all. And he's going to Paris."
"Oh-ho!" said Jack.
"Now you're horrid!" she protested. "I don't want him to go in the least."
"Of course not," said Jack. "I've observed how remarkably depressed you were by the news."
"I shall be cross with you in a minute," said Chris.
"Heaven forbid!" said Jack. "When is he coming back?"
"In time for Hilda's wedding."
"And does he take the French secretary with him?"
"Oh, no, he can't go to France. I mean—I mean—"
Chris stopped in sudden confusion.
"I know what you mean," said Jack. "They would take too keen an interest in him over there. Isn't that it?"
"How did you know?" said Chris.
He laughed. "The proverbial little bird! I might add that a good many people know by this time."
"Oh, Jack, do they?" Chris looked at him in consternation. "He didn't want anyone to know."
"My dear child, in that case he should not have courted publicity as the guest of the evening last night."
"Jack! He wasn't the guest of the evening! How dare you say such things!"
Chris's rare displeasure actually was aroused now. Her slight figure stiffened, and she tapped her knee with her riding-switch. She never touched her animal with this weapon, whatever his idiosyncrasies, and certainly the horses she rode generally behaved with docility.
Jack surveyed her with amused eyes as they turned up under the trees. "All right," he said imperturbably. "He wasn't. My mistake, no doubt. But where on earth were you hiding during the supper extras? He was missing too. Curious, wasn't it?"
Chris came out of her temper with a winning gesture of appeal. "Jack dear, don't! I've heard such a lot about it from Aunt Philippa already. And why shouldn't I talk to my pals? You wouldn't like it if I didn't talk to you sometimes."
"Is he that sort of pal?" asked Jack.
She nodded. "Just that sort. And Trevor knows all about it and understands. I've just had a line from him to tell me so."
"Have you, though?" said Jack. "Then all I can say is Trevor is a brick—a very special kind of brick—and I hope you realize it."
"He's just the sweetest man in the world," said Chris with enthusiasm. "He is never horrid about things, and he never thinks what isn't."
"Lucky for you!" said Jack.
"Why?" She turned towards him sharply.
He began to smile. "Because, my dear, you have rather an unfortunate knack of making things appear—as they are not."
"I don't know what you mean," she protested. "It's very horrid of people to imagine things, and it certainly isn't my fault. Trevor understands that. He always understands."
"Let us hope he always will," said Jack.
"He would trust me even if he didn't," said Chris.
"At the same time," said Jack, "I shouldn't try his faith too far if I were you. If you ever overstepped it, I have a notion that it might be—well, somewhat unpleasant for you."
He spoke the words with a smile, but the silence with which they were received had in it something that was tragic. Chris was gazing straight before her as they rode. Her expression was curiously stony, as if, by some means, her customary animation had been suspended. Jack wondered a little. After a moment she spoke, without looking round. "Jack!"
"Your humble servant!" said Jack.
"I'm not laughing," she said. "I want you to tell me something. You know Trevor. You knew him years before I did. Have you ever seen him—really angry?"
"Great Jove! yes," said Jack.
"Many times?" There was a little quiver in her voice, but it did not sound exactly agitated.
"No, not many times. He isn't the sort of fellow to let himself go, you know," said Jack.
"No," she said. "But what is he like—when he is angry?"
Jack considered. "He's rather like a devil that's been packed in ice for a very long time. He doesn't expand, he contracts. He emits a species of condensed fury that has a disastrous effect upon the object thereof. He is about the last man in the world that I should choose to quarrel with."
"But why?" she said. "Would you be afraid of him?"
Jack considered this point too quite gravely and impartially. "I really don't know, Chris," he said at last. "I believe I should be."
"He can be terrible, then," she said, as if stating a conclusion rather than asking a question.
"More or less," Jack admitted. "But he is never unreasonable. I have never seen him angry without good cause."
"And then—I suppose he is merciless?"
"Quite," said Jack. "I saw him shoot a Kaffir once for knocking a wounded man on the head. It was no more than the brute deserved. I was lying wounded myself, and he took my revolver to do it with. But it was a nasty jolt for the Kaffir. He knew exactly what was going to happen to him and why, before it happened. Afterwards, when Trevor came back to me, he was smiling, so I suppose it did him good. He's a very deliberate chap. Some people call him cold-blooded. He never acts on impulse. And I've never known him make a mistake."
"I see." Chris swallowed once or twice as if she felt an obstruction in her throat. "I expect he would be like that with anyone," she said. "I mean if he had reason to be angry with anyone, he wouldn't spare them—whatever they were. I always felt he was like that."
"He's one of the best chaps in the world," said Jack warmly.
She assented, but not with the enthusiasm that had marked her earlier eulogy. She seemed, in fact, to have become a little distrait, and Jack, remarking the fact, suggested a canter.
They met several people whom they knew before they turned homewards, and it was not until they were leaving the Park that any further conversation was possible.
Then very suddenly Chris reined in and spoke. "Jack, before we go back, I want to ask you something."
"Well?" said Jack.
She made a pathetic little gesture towards him, and touched his knee with her riding-switch. Her blue eyes besought him very earnestly. "Jack, we—we are pals, aren't we? Or I couldn't possibly ask it of you. Jack, I—I've been foolish—and extravagant. And—" she became suddenly breathless—"I want twenty pounds—to pay some debts. Jack, could you—would you—"
"You monkey!" said Jack.
"I couldn't help it," she declared piteously. "I've spent a frightful lot of money lately. I don't know how it goes. It runs away like water. But I—want to get out of debt, Jack. If you will help me just this once, I'll pay you back when—when—when I'm married."
"Good heavens, child!" he said. "You shall have it twice over if you like. But why on earth didn't you tell me before? Don't you know it's very naughty to run up debts?"
She nodded. "Yes, I know. But I couldn't help it. There were things I wanted. And London is such an expensive place. You do understand, dear Jack, don't you?"
Jack thought he did. He was, moreover, too fond of his young cousin to treat her with severity. But he considered it his duty to deliver a brief lecture on the dangers of insolvency, to which Chris listened with becoming docility, thanking him with a quick, sweet smile when he had done.
Jack did not flatter himself that he had succeeded in making a very deep impression. He wondered a little what Trevor Mordaunt would have said under similar circumstances.
"I hope she will be straightforward with him," was his reflection. "But she is a Wyndham of the Wyndhams, and everyone knows that her father didn't suffer over-much from that complaint."
Which was true. Chris's father had been one of those baffling persons who are always in want of money and yet seem quite incapable of giving a clear account of their wants. His affairs had been in a perpetual muddle from the beginning of his career, and had probably ended so.
"Most unsatisfactory!" as Aunt Philippa invariably remarked, as a suitable conclusion to any discussion on the subject of her brother or any of his family. How she personally had managed to escape the general blight that rested upon them was a mystery that no one—not Aunt Philippa herself—had ever been able to solve.
Hilda Forest's wedding was one of the events of the season. All London went to it. Lord Percy Davenant, the bridegroom, was a man of many friends, and the bride's mother prided herself upon the width of her own social circle.
In the midst of the fuss and tumult the bride, very grave and serene, with shining eyes, went her appointed way. Everyone was loud in her praise. Her bearing was admirable. She was as one on whom a veil of happiness had fallen, and external things scarcely touched her.
She went through her part steadfastly and well, forgetful utterly of the watching crowds, conscious only of one being in all that critical multitude, holding only one thought in the silent sanctuary of her soul.
And Chris, the chief bridesmaid, walking alone behind her, watched and marvelled. She liked Lord Percy Davenant. He was big, good-natured, rollicking, and many a joke had they had together. But no faintest tinge of romance hung about him in her opinion. She could not with the utmost effort of the imagination see what there was in him to bring that light into Hilda's eyes.
It was odd, thought Chris, very odd. If it had been Trevor, now—She could quite easily have understood it if Hilda had fallen in love with him. And they would have been eminently well suited to one another, too. Yes, it was very strange, quite unaccountable! Here she remembered that Trevor was probably somewhere in the crowd behind her, and peeped over her shoulder surreptitiously to get a glimpse of him.
She was not successful, but she caught the eye of one of the bridesmaids immediately behind her, who leaned forward with a merry smile to whisper, "Your turn next!"
Chris turned back sharply. The words had a curious effect upon her; they gave her almost a sensation of shock. Her turn next to face this ordeal through which Hilda was passing with such supreme confidence! Would she feel as Hilda felt when she came to stand with Trevor before the altar? Would that thrill of deep sincerity be in her voice also as she repeated the vows irrevocable which were even now leaving Hilda's lips? Would her eyes meet his with the same pure gladness of love made perfect?
A sudden tremor went through her. She shivered from head to foot. The scent of the flowers she held—Hilda's flowers and her own—seemed to turn her sick. She felt overpowered—lost!
Desperately she clutched her wavering self-control. This ghastly, unspeakable doubt must not conquer her. No one must know it—no one must see!
But she was as one slipping down a steep incline, faster and faster every second. The beating of her heart rose up and deafened her. It was like someone beating a tattoo in the church. She could not hear another word of the service. And she was suffocating with the nauseous sweetness of the bridal flowers. Wildly she looked around her. Where was Trevor? He would help her. He would understand—he always understood. But she sought him in vain. There was only the long line of bridesmaids behind her and a sea of indistinct faces on each side.
She lifted her head and gasped. She felt as if she were being smothered in flowers. Their heavy perfume stifled her. She understood now why some people wouldn't have flowers at their funerals. She had always thought it odd before.
She was slipping more and more rapidly down that fatal slope. The sunlight that lay in a great bar of vivid colours across the church danced before her eyes. She no longer saw the bridal couple in front of her. They had faded quite away, and in their stead was a terrible abyss of flowers—bridal flowers that made her sick and faint.
She swayed as she stood. Who was that speaking? Certain solemn words had pierced her reeling brain. She heard them as if they came from another world—
"Those whom God hath joined together let no man put asunder."
Those words would be uttered over her next. Perhaps they were meant for her even now. Surely it was her own wedding and not Hilda's, after all! She was being married, and she wasn't ready! Oh, it was horrible—horrible! And where was Trevor, or Bertie, or someone—anyone— to hold her back from that dreadful, scented darkness?
Ah! An arm supporting her! A steady hand that took the flowers away! Trevor at last! She turned and clung to him weakly, crying like a frightened child. Her knees would not support her any longer, they doubled under her weight. But he lifted her without effort, almost as if she had been a child indeed, and carried her away.
He bore her to an open door that led out from the vestry, and there in the fresh air Chris revived. He set her on her feet, and made her lean against him. Jack hovered in the background, but he dismissed him.
"She is all right again. Go and tell your mother. It was an atmosphere to asphyxiate an ox."
Chris laughed very shakily. "I'm so sorry, Trevor. Did I make a scene?"
She would have withdrawn from his support, but he kept his arm about her. "No, dear. I chanced to be looking at you, and I saw you were going to faint. I am glad I was able to get you away in time."
"I couldn't help it," she said, not looking at him. "It was—it was—the flowers."
"I know," he said gently.
She leaned her head against him. It was throbbing painfully. "Oh, Trevor—it wasn't—only—the flowers," she whispered.
He put his hand over her aching temples. "Tell me presently, dear," he said.
She reached up and found the hand, drew it down over her face, and held it so for seconds, speaking no word. She touched it softly with her lips at last, and let it go.
"I'm well now," she said. "Take me back."
He looked at her searchingly. "You are sure?"
She smiled at him, though her eyes were still heavy. "Yes, I'll be quite good. I mustn't spoil Hilda's wedding by being silly, must I? You haven't brought Bertie, I suppose?"
He smiled a little. "He didn't get an invitation."
"Of course not. Trevor, you didn't think I was—flirting with him that night?"
"My dear child—no!"
"Because I never flirt," said Chris very earnestly. "It's a horrid thing to do. You'll never think that of me, will you? Or that I have ever trifled with you—or anyone?"
Trevor's eyes rested upon her with grave kindness. "My dear, why should I think these things of you?" he said.
She shook her head. "I don't know. Lots of people do. But you are different. I think you understand. You'll stay after it's over and have a talk, won't you?"
"Yes," he said.
She slipped her hand into his. "Now let's go back."
They went back. The ceremony was very nearly over. Chris took her place again, and followed the bride into the vestry afterwards.
Later, at the crowded reception, she was among the merriest, and very few noticed that she was paler than usual or that her eyes were deeply shadowed.
The wedded pair left early, and immediately afterwards the guests began to disperse. Mordaunt, who had been making himself generally useful, looked round for Chris as soon as a leisure moment arrived. But he looked in vain; she was not to be found.
He went through every room in search of her, but all to no purpose. For a while he lingered, waiting for her, talking to the few people who remained. But at length, as there was still no sign of her, he prepared to take his departure also, with the intention of presenting himself again later.
He was actually on the doorstep when Jack came striding after him. "I say, Chris wants you. I forgot to mention it. Make my apologies, for Heaven's sake! She must have been waiting an hour or more."
"What?" Mordaunt turned back sharply, frowning.
"Don't scowl, there's a dear chap," said Jack. "I'm awfully sorry. I had such a shoal of things to see to. She's upstairs, right at the top of the house, first door you come to. She said you were to go up and have tea with her and Cinders. Really, I'm horribly sorry."
"All right. So you ought to be," Mordaunt said, and left him to his regrets.
He was somewhat breathless when he arrived outside the door of Chris's little sanctum, but he did not pause on that account. He knocked with his hand already upon the handle, and almost immediately turned it.
"I can come in?" he asked.
A muffled bark from Cinders was the only answer—a warning bark, as though he would have the intruder tread softly.
Mordaunt trod softly in consequence, softly entered, softly closed the door.
He found his little fiancee crouched on the floor beside an ancient sofa, her arms resting upon it and her head sunk upon them. Cinders, very alert, bristling with importance, mounted guard on the sofa itself.
For Chris was asleep, curled up in her bridesmaid finery, a study in white and blue, with a single splash of vivid red-gold where the sunlight touched her hair.
Cinders growled below his breath as Mordaunt approached. He also wagged his tail, though without effusion. The visitor was welcome so far as he was concerned, but he must make no disturbance. A canny little beast was Cinders.
And so, noiselessly, Mordaunt drew near, and bent above the child upon the floor. He saw that she had been crying. Even in repose her face looked wan, and there was a soaked morsel of lace that had evidently been quite inadequate for the occasion crumpled up in one hand.
What was the trouble? he wondered, and wished with all his heart that Cinders could impart it. He had no doubt that Cinders knew.
It seemed almost cruel to awake her, but neither could he bring himself to leave her as she was. He looked to Cinders for inspiration. And Cinders, with a flash of intelligence that proved him more than beast, if less than human, lowered his queer little muzzle and licked his mistress's face.
That roused her. She stretched out her arms with a vague, sleepy murmur, smiled, opened her eyes.
"Oh, Trevor!" she said. "You!"
He stooped over her. "Chris, is anything the matter?"
She looked at him. "I don't know," she said slowly. "I forget."
"Poor child!" he said. "It's a shame to make you remember. But I'm afraid it is inevitable. Won't you lie on the sofa? You will find it more comfortable."
"No," said Chris. "I like the floor the best. You can sit on the sofa, if Cinders doesn't mind. Has everyone gone, downstairs? Hasn't it been a dreadful day?" She leaned her head against his knee with a sigh of weariness. "I do think getting married is a dreadful business," she said.
His hand was on her hair, the beautiful, burnished hair that Mademoiselle Gautier had deemed one of her most dangerous possessions. He did not try to see her face, and perhaps for that very reason Chris leaned against him with complete confidence.
"So you don't want to be married?" he said, after a moment.
"No, I don't!" she said, with vehemence. "I think marriage is dreadful—dreadful, when you come to look at it close." She moved her head under his hand; for an instant her face was raised. "Trevor, you don't mind my saying it, do you?"
"I want you to say exactly what is in your mind," he made grave reply.
"I knew you would." She nestled down again, and pulled his hand over her shoulder, holding it against her cheek. "I know I'm very unorthodox," she said. "Perhaps I'm wicked as well. I can't help it. I think marriage—except for good people like Hilda—is a mistake. It's so terribly cold-blooded and—and irrevocable."
She spoke the last words almost in a whisper. She was holding his hand very tightly.
He sat very still, and she wondered if he were shocked by her views, but she could not bring herself to ascertain. She went on quickly, with a touch of recklessness—
"It's only the good people like Hilda who can be quite sure they will never change their minds. In fact, I'm beginning to think that it's only the good people who never do. Trevor, what should you do if—if you were married to me, and then you—changed your mind?"
"I can't imagine the impossible, Chris," he said.
She moved restlessly. "Would it be quite impossible?"
"Even if you found out that I was—quite worthless?"
"That also is impossible," he said gravely.
She was silent for a space, then, "And what if I—changed mine?" she said, her voice very low.
"Have you changed your mind?" he asked.
She shrank at the question, quietly though it was uttered.
His hand closed very steadily upon hers. "Don't be afraid to tell me," he said. "I want the truth, you know, whatever it is."
"I know," she said, and suddenly she began to sob drearily, hopelessly, with her head against his knee.
He bent lower over her; he lifted her till he held her in his arms, pressed close against his heart.
"Yes, hold me!" she whispered, through her tears. "Hold me tight, Trevor! Don't let me go! I don't feel so—so frightened when you are holding me."
"Tell me what has frightened you," he said.
"I can't," she whispered back. "I'm just—foolish, that's all. And, Trevor, I can't—I can't—be married as Hilda was to-day. I can't face it—all the people and the grandeur and the flowers. You won't make me, Trevor?"
"My darling, no!" he said.
"It frightened me so," she said forlornly. "It seemed like being caught in a trap. One felt as if the guests and the flowers were meant to hide it all, but they didn't—they made it worse. I don't think Hilda felt like that, but then Hilda is so good, she wouldn't. Oh, Trevor dear, I wish—I wish we could go to Kellerton and live there without being married at all."
The words came muffled from his shoulder; she was clinging to him almost convulsively.
"But we can't, Chris," he said, his quiet voice coming through her agitation with a patience so immense that it seemed to dwarf even her distress. "At least, dear, you can go and live there if you wish, but I can't. Perhaps I am not indispensable."
"No, no!" she said quickly, as though the suggestion hurt her. "I want you."
"Then I am afraid you will have to marry me," he said. "We won't have a big wedding. It shall be as private as you like. I suppose you will want your brothers to be there."
"Why can't we run away together and get married all by ourselves?" suggested Chris. She raised her head and regarded him with sudden animation. "Wouldn't it be fun?" she said. "You could come for me in the motor, and we could fly off to some out-of-the-way village and be married before anyone knew anything about it. There would be no one to gloat over us and make silly jokes, no horrid show at all. Trevor," her face flashed into gaiety once more, "I'll go with you to-morrow!"
He smiled at her eagerness. "If I were to agree to that, you would run away in the night."
"Run away from you!" said Chris. She wound her arm swiftly about his neck. "As if I should!" she said reproachfully.
He looked at her, baffled in spite of his determination to understand. "You wouldn't want to do that, then?" he said.
She nestled to him with a gesture most winning. "Never, never, unless—"
"Unless—?" he repeated.
"Unless—for any reason—you were angry with me," she murmured, with her face hidden again.
He folded his arms more closely about her. "My little Chris, never be afraid of that," he said.
"Oh, but you might be," she protested.
"Never, Chris." He spoke gravely, with absolute conviction.
She turned her lips quickly to his. "Then let's run away together, shall we?"
He kissed her with great tenderness before he answered. "No, dear, no. It can't be done. What would your aunt say to it?"
"Surely if I don't mind that, you needn't!" she said.
But he shook his head. "I won't let you be pestered with preparations. We will keep it a secret from everyone outside. But I think we must let your Aunt Philippa into it. I think you owe her that."
"P'raps," admitted Chris, without enthusiasm. "But she is sure to want a big show, Trevor."
"Leave that to me," he said. "I promise you shall not have that. We will get it done early, and we will be at Kellerton for luncheon."
Her eyes shone. "How lovely! And the boys, too—and Bertie?"
He surveyed the eager face for a few seconds in silence. Then, "Chris," he said, "would it mean a very great sacrifice to you if I asked for the first fortnight with you alone?"
He was watching her closely, watching for the faintest suggestion of disappointment or hesitancy in the clear eyes, but he detected neither. Chris beamed upon him tranquilly.
"Why, I should love it! There's no end of things I want to show you. And we can make it all snug before Bertie and the boys come. But, of course"—she became suddenly serious—"I must have Cinders with me."
"Oh, we won't exclude Cinders," he said.
She laughed—the gay, sweet laugh he loved to hear. "That's settled, then. And you'll make Aunt Philippa promise not to tell, for of course that would spoil everything. Oh, and Trevor, you won't discuss Bertrand with her? Promise!"
He looked at her keenly for a moment, met only the coaxing confidence of her eyes, and decided to ask no question.
"My dear," he said, "as far as Bertrand is concerned, your Aunt Philippa and I have nothing to discuss."
"That's all right," said Chris, with relief. "Trevor, you've done me a lot of good. You are quite the most comforting man I know. I'm not frightened any more, and I'll never be such a little idiot again as long as I live."
She rose with the words, stood a moment with her hand on his shoulder, then stooped and shyly kissed his forehead.
"You always understand," she said. "And I love you for it. There!"
"I am glad, dear," he said gently.
But he did not look particularly elated notwithstanding. There had been moments in their recent conversation when, so far from understanding her, he had felt utterly and completely at a loss. He had not the heart to tell her so, for he knew that she was quite incapable of explaining herself; but the fact remained. And he wondered with a vague misgiving if he had yet succeeded—if, indeed, he ever would wholly succeed—in finding his way along the many intricate windings that led to her inmost heart.
It was certainly the quietest wedding of the season. People said that this was due to the bridegroom's well-known dislike of publicity; but, whatever the reason, the secret was well kept, and when Chris came out of the church on her husband's arm there was only Bertrand, standing uncovered by the carriage-door, to give her greeting.
She was smiling as she came, but it was rather a piteous smile. She had faced the ordeal with a desperate courage, but she had not found it easy. Only Trevor's steadfast strength had held her up. She had been conscious of his will acting upon hers throughout. With the utmost calmness he had quelled her agitation, had stilled the wild flutter of her nerves, had compelled her to a measure of composure. And now that it was over she felt that he was still in a fashion holding her back, controlling her, till she should have recovered her normal state of mind and be in a condition to control herself.
But the sight of Bertrand diverted her thoughts. Owing to her aunt's strenuous prohibition, she had not met him since the night of her birthday dance. She broke from Mordaunt to give him both her hands.
"Oh, Bertie," she cried, between tears and laughter, "it is good to see you again!"
He bent very low, so low that she only saw the top of his black head. "Permit me to offer my felicitations," he said, in a voice that was scarcely audible.
Her hands closed tightly for a second upon his. "You are pleased, Bertie?" she said, with a quickening of the breath.
He straightened himself instantly; he looked into her eyes. "But you are happy, yes?" he questioned.
"Of course," she told him hurriedly.
He smiled—the ready smile with which he had learned to mask his soul. "Alors, I am pleased," he said.
He helped her into the carriage, and turned, still smiling, to the man behind her. Yet he flinched ever so slightly from the grip of Mordaunt's hand. It was the merest gesture, scarcely perceptible; in a moment he had covered it with the quick courtesy of his race. But Mordaunt was aware of it, and for a single instant he wondered.
He took his place beside his bride, who tucked her hand inside his arm, with a little sob of sheer relief.
"Did I sound very squeaky, Trevor? I tried not to squeak."
He forgot Bertrand and everyone else but the trembling girl by his side. He laid a soothing hand on hers.
"My dear, you did splendidly. It wasn't so very terrifying, was it?"
"It was appalling," said Chris. "I kept saying to myself, 'Just a little longer and then that lovely new motor—my motor—and home.' You are going to give me my first lesson in driving to-day, aren't you? Say yes!"
He said "Yes," feeling that he was bestowing a reward for good behaviour.
She squeezed his arm. "And isn't it nice," she whispered, with shining eyes, "to feel that we are really going to stay there when we get there?"
He pressed the small, confiding hand. "You are glad, then, Chris?" he said.
"Oh, my dear, I should think I am!" she made answer. "I've been counting the days to the one when I shan't have to peck Aunt Philippa good-night. She never kisses properly and she won't let me. She says it's childish and unrestrained." She laid her cheek suddenly against his shoulder. "I've had no one to hug for ever so long—except Cinders," she said.
"Hasn't Cinders been enough?" he asked, with a hint of surprise.
She turned her face upwards quickly. "Trevor, you're not to laugh at me! It isn't fair."
He smiled a little. "I am not laughing, Chris, I assure you. I have always thought until this moment that Cinders was more precious to you than anyone else in the world."
"Oh, that's because you're a man," said Chris inconsequently. "Men always have absurd theories about women and the things they care for. As if we can't love heaps of people at the same time!"
"You can only love one person best," he pointed out.
"At a time," supplemented Chris, with a merry smile. "And you choose your person according to your mood. At least, I do. Oh, Trevor," with a sudden change of tone, "don't look! There's a hearse!"
She hid her face against him, and he felt a violent tremor go through her. He put his arm about her and held her close.
"My darling, what makes you so superstitious?"
"I'm not," she murmured shakily. "It isn't superstitious to believe in death, is it? It's a fact one can't get away from. And it frightens me—it frightens me! Think of it, Trevor! We only belong to each other till death us do part. Afterwards—who knows?—we may be in different worlds."
He pressed her closer, feeling her cling to him. "There is a greater thing than death, Chris," he said.
"I know! I know!" she whispered back. "But—I sometimes think—I'm not big enough for it. I sometimes wonder—if God gave me a heart at all."
"My little Chris!" he said. "My darling!"
She lifted a troubled face. The tears were in her eyes. "Don't you often think me silly and fickle?" she said. "And you'll find it more and more the more you see of me. You'll be disappointed in me—you'll be horribly disappointed—some day."
He looked down at her with great tenderness. "That day will never come, dear," he said. "If it did, I should blame myself much more than I blamed you. Come! You mustn't cry on our wedding-day. You're not really unhappy?"
"But I'm afraid," she said.
He dried her eyes and kissed her. "There is nothing to make you afraid," he said. "Haven't I sworn to love and cherish you?"
She nestled to him with a sigh. "It was very nice of you, Trevor," she said.
Her spirits revived during her motor-ride to Kellerton. The renovations there were in full swing. One portion of the house had been already made habitable for them. Mordaunt had had the entire management of this, but, as Chris gaily remarked, she would probably change everything round when she came upon the scene.
"I feel as if the holidays have just begun," she said to him as they sped over the dusty road. "And I'm going to work harder than I have ever worked in my life."
"If I let you," he said.
At which remark she made a face, and then, repenting patted his knee. "You will let me do what I like, I know. You always do."
"In moderation," said Trevor, with a smile.
She dismissed the matter as too trivial for discussion. "When are you going to let me drive?"
He gave her her first lesson then and there, an experience which delighted Chris so much that she refused to relinquish the wheel until they stopped at a country town for luncheon.
Here her whole attention was occupied in keeping Cinders from chasing the hotel cat, till Trevor caught and cuffed the miscreant, when her anxiety turned to indignation on her darling's behalf, and she snatched him away and kept him sheltered in her arms for the rest of their sojourn.
"I never punish Cinders," she said. "He's hardly ever naughty, and if he is he's always sorry afterwards."
Cinders, whose temper was ruffled, glared at Mordaunt and cursed him in an undertone throughout the meal, notwithstanding the choice morsels with which his young mistress sought to propitiate him.
"I do hope you haven't made him dislike you," she said, when at length they returned to the car. "He is rather tiresome with people he doesn't like."
"If he doesn't behave himself, we will send him to Bertrand to take care of," Mordaunt rejoined.
"Indeed we won't!" Chris declared, with warmth. "He has never been away from me day or night since I first had him."
At which declaration Mordaunt raised his eyebrows, and said no more.
He had always known Cinders for a dog of character, but not till that day had he credited him with the remarkable intuition by which he seemed to know—and resent—the fact that his mistress was no longer his exclusive property. It may have been that Chris herself imparted something of the new state of affairs to him by the very zeal of her guardianship. But undoubtedly, whatever its source, the knowledge had dawned in Cinders' brain and with it a fierce jealousy which he had never displayed in Mordaunt's presence before.
It was an afternoon of unclouded sunshine. Chris lay back in her seat, somewhat wearied but quite content, watching the cornfields with their red wealth of poppies, watching the long, white road before them, and now and then the unerring hands that held the wheel.
When at length they neared Kellerton she roused herself and became more animated. "It's been a lovely ride, Trevor. Let's go for one every day. Sometimes we might go down to the sea—it's only ten miles. But we will wait till Bertie comes for that. Ah, there is the lodge! How smart it looks! And they have actually taken the thistles out of the drive! I shouldn't have known it."
She sat up with eager delight in her eyes. The lodge-gates were open; they ran smoothly in without a pause and on up the long avenue to the old grey house.
Chris was enchanted. It was such a home-coming as she had never pictured.
"It's like a dream," she said. "I can't believe it's true. Everything looks so different. The garden was an absolute wilderness the last time we were here."
It had been turned into a paradise since then, and every second brought fresh discoveries to her ecstatic gaze.
"I didn't know it could be so lovely," she declared. "And you've done it all in a few weeks. Trevor, you're a magician!"
He smiled at her enthusiasm. "Oh, it isn't all my doing. I have only been down twice since the day you were here. I put it into capable hands, that's all. Nothing has been altered, only set to rights."
"It's lovely!" cried Chris.
Tired and thirsty though she was, she could hardly wait to have tea on the terrace before the house before she was off along the dear, familiar paths to her favourite nook under a great yew-tree whose branches swept the ground. A rustic seat surrounded the ancient trunk.
"This is my castle," said Chris. "This is where I hide when I don't want anyone to find me."
She stretched back a hand to her husband, and led him into her shadowy domain.
"The boys used to call it Hades," she said, in a hushed voice. "And I used to pretend I was Persephone. I did so wish Pluto would appear some day with his chariot and his black horses and take me underground. But," with a sigh, "he never did."
"Let us hope you have been reserved for a happier fate," Mordaunt said, with his arm about her.
She flashed him her quick smile. "You instead of Pluto! But I always thought he was rather fascinating, and I longed to see the underworld."
"I think the sunshine suits you best," he said.
"Oh yes, but just to see—just to know what it's like! I do so love exploring," insisted Chris.
He smiled and drew her out of her gloomy retreat. "Sometimes it's better not to know too much," he said.
"But one couldn't," she protested. "All knowledge is gain."
"Of a sort," he said. "But it is not always to be desired on that account."
A sudden memory went through Chris. She gave a sharp shudder. "Oh no!" she said. "One doesn't want to know horrid things! I forgot that."
He looked at her interrogatively, but she turned her face away. "Let's go back to the house. I wonder where Cinders is."
They returned to the house, and again Chris was lost in delight. A great deal yet remained to be done, but the completed portion was all that could be desired. They had chosen much of the furniture together, and she spent most of the evening in arranging it, with her husband's assistance, to her satisfaction.
But when at length the hour for dinner arrived he would not suffer her to do anything further.
"I believe you have done too much as it is," he said, "and after dinner I shall have something to show you."
She yielded readily enough. She certainly was tired. "I feel as if to-day had lasted for about six weeks," she said.
But her animation did not wane in spite of this, and she would even have returned to her labours after they had dined had Mordaunt permitted it. He was firm upon this point, however, and again without protest she yielded.
"You were going to show me something. What was it?"
"To be sure," he said. "I was going to show you how to write a cheque. Come over to the writing-table and see how it is done."
Chris went, looking mystified. "But I shall never write cheques, Trevor," she said.
"No? Why not?"
He drew up a chair for her and knelt down beside her.
"You are a woman of property now, Chris," he said, and laid a new cheque-book on the pad in front of her.
Chris gazed at it, wide-eyed. "But, Trevor, I haven't got any money at the bank, have I?"
"Plenty," he said, with a smile—"in fact, a very large sum indeed which will have to be invested in your name. That we will go into another day, but for present needs, if you are wanting money—"
"Yes?" said Chris eagerly.
He put a pen into her hand and opened the cheque-book.
She slipped her arm round his neck. "Trevor, I—I don't feel as if you ought. I—of course I—knew you would make me an allowance, but—but—you ought not to give me a lot of money all my own."
"My darling," he said gently, "don't forget that you are my wife, will you?"
She smiled a little shyly. "Do you know—I had forgotten—quite!"
He put his arm about her as she sat. "You must try to remember it, dear, because it's rather important. I know I might have made you an allowance, but I prefer that you should be independent. Only, Chris, I am going to ask a promise of you; and I want you to make it at the very beginning of our life together. That is why I have spoken on our wedding-night."
"Yes?" whispered Chris.
She had begun to tremble a little, and he pressed her to him reassuringly. "I want you to promise me that you will never run into debt, that if for any cause you find that you have not enough of your own you will come to me at once and tell me."
He spoke with grave kindness, watching her face the while. But Chris's eyes did not meet his own. She was rolling the pen he had given her up and down the blotting-pad with much absorption.
"Is it a promise, Chris?" he asked at length.
She threw him a nervous glance and nodded.
He laid his hand upon hers and held it still. "Chris, have you any debts now?"
She was silent.
"My dear," he said, "don't be afraid of me!"
There was that in his voice that moved her to the depths; she could not have said why. Impulsively, almost passionately, she went into his arms.
"I won't!" she said. "I won't! Trevor, I—I've been a little beast! That money you gave me on my birthday I didn't do—what you meant me to do with it. I just—spent it. I don't know how. And then—when you asked about it that night—I didn't dare to tell you, and I haven't dared since. I just let you think it was all right—when it wasn't. Oh, Trevor, don't be angry—don't be angry!"
"I am not angry," he said.
"Not really? But how you must despise me! It's just the way of the Wyndhams. We all do it. Trevor, why did you make me tell you?"
"My dear child," he said, "you must tell me these things. It is your only possibility of happiness, and mine also. Chris, never keep anything from me, for Heaven's sake! Don't you know that I trust you?"
"I don't deserve it!" sobbed Chris, clinging faster. "You don't know how bad I am!"
"Hush!" he said, with a restraining hand upon her head. "You have told me everything now?"
"Oh no, I haven't!" she whispered. "There are crowds of things I couldn't even begin to tell you. I have always warned you how it would be. I always said—"
Her agitation was increasing, and her words became inaudible. He saw that her nerves had given way under the long day's strain, and firmly, with infinite gentleness, he put a stop to further discussion of a subject that threatened to upset her seriously.
"Never mind," he said. "You will tell me by and bye, or if you don't I shall know it is all right. Chris, Chris, you mustn't get hysterical. You are worn out, dear, and it has upset your sense of proportion. Come, I am going to send you to bed. We will go into these money matters in the morning."
But Chris vehemently negatived this. "I don't want to—to spoil to-morrow. I—I shouldn't sleep for thinking of it. Oh, Trevor, let's settle it now. I'm going to be sensible—really. And—and—if you'll forgive me for all the bad things I've done up to to-day I—I will really try to tell you everything as it happens from now on. Will you, Trevor?"
She raised pleading, pathetic eyes, still wet with tears. He could feel her still quivering with the emotion she was striving to subdue. She was too near in that moment to resist—perhaps he would not have resisted her in any case; for he had it not in his heart to think ill of her.
"My darling," he said, "we will leave it at that. Only—in the future—trust me as I am trusting you."
He turned to the table and closed the cheque-book. "These debts are my affair. I will settle them. Just tell me what they are."
"Oh, but they are settled!" she told him. "I promised I would, you know."
"Then"—he looked at her—"someone lent you the money?"
Something in his tone made her shrink again. She hesitated.
"Chris!" he said.
Nervously she answered him. "Jack lent me forty pounds."
"Jack!" he said. "You weren't afraid to ask him, then?"
"Oh no!" she said quickly. "I'm not a bit afraid of Jack."
"Only of me, Chris!"
She gave herself back to him with a swift, shy movement. "It's the fear of vexing you," she said. "I don't mind vexing—other people. It's only you—only you. Trevor, say you understand!"
He did not answer her instantly, but the close holding of his arms drove all misgiving from her soul. He rose to his feet, raising her with him, pressing her to him faster and ever faster till her arms crept round his neck again, and she lay, a willing prisoner, against his heart.
And so holding her, at last he answered her tremulous appeal. "My darling, never be afraid of vexing me! Never be afraid that I shall not understand!"
She could not speak in answer. The wonder of his love for her had stricken her dumb; it had swept upon her like a wave, towering, immense, resistless, bearing her far beyond her depth.
She could only mutely lift her quivering lips; and he, moved to gentleness by her action, took her face between his hands with infinite tenderness, gazing down into her eyes with that in his own which cast out the last of her fear.
"My little Chris!" he said. "My wife!"
"I think quite the worst part of being married is having to pay calls," said Chris.
"You do not like it, no?" said Bertrand, with quick sympathy.
"No," she rejoined emphatically. "And I don't see any sense in it either. No one ever wants afternoon callers."
"But that depends upon the caller, does it not?" he said.
"Not in the least," said Chris. "There's a stodginess about afternoon calling that affects even the nicest people. It's the most tiresome institution there is."
"Then why do it?" he suggested, with a smile.
She shook her head severely.
"Don't be immoral, Bertie! You're trying to tempt me from my duty."
"Never!" he declared earnestly.
"Oh, but you are; and I am not sure that you are not neglecting your own as well. What brought you out at this hour?"
He spread out his hands. "Mr. Mordaunt has ordered me to take a rest to-day."
Chris looked up at him sharply. "Aren't you well, Bertie?"
"But it is nothing," he said. "I have told him. It happens to me often—often—that I do not sleep. I have explained all that. But what would you? He is obstinate—he will not listen."
Chris patted a hammock-chair beside her. "Sit down at once. I knew there was something the matter directly I saw you this morning. But you always look horribly tired. Do you never sleep properly?"
He dropped into the chair and stretched up his arms with a sigh. "It is only in the morning that I am tired," he said. "It is nothing—a weakness that passes. Or if it passes not—I go."
"Go!" repeated Chris, startled.
He turned his head towards her. "That surprises you, yes? But how can I remain if I cannot work?"
"Oh, but you haven't been here a fortnight," she said quickly. "I expect the change of air has upset you. And it has been so hot too."
He acquiesced languidly, as if not greatly interested. His dark eyes watched her gravely. Evidently his thoughts had wandered from himself.
Chris was not slow to perceive this. "What are you thinking of?" she demanded.
"I am thinking of you," he answered promptly.
"What of me?" The blue eyes met his quite openly. Chris was always frank to her pals.
"I was thinking," he said, in his soft, friendly voice, "how you were happy, and how I was glad."
She threw him a quick smile. "How nice of you, Bertie! And how beautifully French! But, you know, I shan't be happy if you talk of leaving us. It will spoil everything, and I shall be absolutely miserable."
"You were not miserable before I joined you, no?" he said, smiling back at her.
"Of course I wasn't. But that was quite different. I knew all the while that you were coming. I should have been if anything had happened to prevent you."
"Really?" he said thoughtfully.
"Yes, really!" Chris was emphatic. "And I am sure there is nothing much the matter with you, Bertie; now, is there?"
He scarcely responded. "It will pass," he said. "And so you have arranged to make visits this afternoon?"
"Yes. Isn't it a bother?" Chris's brow wrinkled. "Noel wanted me to go and fish with him, but Trevor says I must go and see Mrs. Pouncefort, so I suppose I must. I hoped he would come too, but he has got to stay and interview the architect about that subsidence in the north wing. I wish you would come instead."
He shook his head. "No—no! That is not possible. Where does this lady live?"
"Sandacre way, towards the sea. Oh, do you know Rupert is coming over on Sunday with some brother officers? I had a card from him this morning. He is very fond of Mrs. Pouncefort—they all are. I don't know quite why. I believe they spend half their time there. Mr. Pouncefort is a dear little man—no one could help liking him. He has a yacht, and they always have a crowd of people staying there at this time of the year."
"Alors," he said, "it will amuse you to go there, no?"
Chris smiled. "Oh, not particularly. I would much rather stay with you and Trevor. Besides, I've such a lot to do."
She did not look overwhelmed with work as she leaned back in her hammock-chair, but she evidently intended to be busy, for a basket and scissors stood beside her.
Bertrand was much too courteous to suggest that she was not making the most of her time. Or perhaps he did not want to be left in solitary contemplation of that fleeting August morning. He lay silent for a little, and presently requested permission to smoke a cigarette.
"Of course," she said at once. "Why don't you go and lie in the hammock? I will come and rock you to sleep."
He thanked her, smiling, but declined.
She watched him light his cigarette with eyes grown thoughtful. Suddenly: "Bertie," she said, "are you very unhappy nowadays?"
He made a jerky movement, and dropped the match, still burning. Hastily he bent to extinguish it, but Chris was before him, her hand upon his arm, restraining him.
"No, sit still! It's all right. Tell me, please, Bertie! I want to know."
He shrugged his shoulders up to his ears, still smiling, but in a fashion that she was at a loss to interpret.
"But what a question, petite! How can I answer it?"
"I should have thought—-between friends—-" she began.
"Ah, oui! We are friends, are we not?" A curious expression of relief took the place of his smile, and she felt as if for some reason he had been afraid. "And you ask me if I am unhappy," he said. "Mais vraiment—I know not what to say!"
"Then you are!" she said, quick pain in her voice.
He looked down at the little friendly hand that lay upon his arm, but he did not offer to touch it. His eyes remained downcast as he spoke. "I am more happy than I ever expected to be, Christine."
"You like your work?" she questioned. "Trevor is kind to you?"
"He is—much too kind," the Frenchman answered, with feeling.
"But still you are unhappy?" she said.
"It is—my own fault," he told her, still not looking at her.
She rubbed his sleeve sympathetically. "Bertie, don't you think—if you tried very hard—you might manage to forget all that old trouble?"
There was a note of pleading in her voice, and he made a quick gesture as he heard it, as if in some way it pierced him.
She went on speaking, as he made no attempt to do so. "You know, Bertie, you really are quite young still, and there are such a lot of nice things left. It's such a pity to keep on grieving. Don't you think so? It seems rather a waste of time. And I do—so—want you to be happy."
At the quiver in her voice he glanced up sharply, but he instantly lowered his eyes again. And still he said no word. He only drew his brows together and bit his cigarette to a pulp.
Her hand came softly down his arm and lay upon his.
"Bertie," she said, in a whisper, "you're not—vexed?"
His hand clenched at her touch, but on the instant he looked up at her with a smile. "Vexed!" he said. "With you! A thousand times—no!"
She smiled back, reassured. "Then will you—please—try to forget what you have lost? I know it won't be easy, but will you try? It's the only possible way to be happy. And if you are not happy—I shan't be either."
He took her hand at last with perfect steadiness into his own. "You know not what I have lost," he said. "But—if I try to forget—that will content you?"
She nodded. "Yes, Bertie."
He looked at her intently for a moment, then, "Eh Bien!" he said briskly. "I will try."
"Bon garcon!" she said, with a merry smile. "That is settled, then. Why, there is Trevor! Has he finished that article of his already? He looked quite absorbed when I passed his window half an hour ago." She waved to him as he approached. "Why don't you wear a hat, you mad Englishman? Don't you know the sun is broiling?"
He smiled and ignored the warning. Bertrand sprang from his chair as he reached them, but Mordaunt instantly pressed him down again.
"No, no, man! Sit still! I have only come out for a moment."
"But I am going," Bertrand protested. "I cannot sit and do nothing. There are those accounts that you have given me to do. They are not yet finished. Also—"
"Also, they are not going to be done to-day," Mordaunt said, shaking him gently by the shoulder. "Chris, I am going to hand this fellow over to you for the next few days. You can do what you like with him so long as you don't let him do any work. That I absolutely forbid. You understand me, Bertrand?"
"But I cannot—I cannot," Bertrand said restlessly. "You are already much too good to me. You overwhelm me with kindness, and I—I make no return at all. No, listen to me—"
"I'm not going to listen to you," Mordaunt said. "You are talking nonsense, my friend, arrant drivel—nothing less. Chris will tell you the same."
"Of course," said Chris. "Besides, there are crowds of things you can do for me. No, he shan't be overworked, I promise you, Trevor. But I'm going to try a new cure. Just for this afternoon he is going to lie in the hammock and smoke cigarettes. But after to-day"—she nodded gaily at the perturbed Frenchman—"after to-day, Bertie, nous verrons!"
He smiled in spite of himself, but he continued to look dissatisfied till Mordaunt carelessly turned the conversation.
"Where's that young beggar Noel?"
"Fishing in the Home Meadow," said Chris.
"I think so," she said. "Why?"
"Because he has taken one of my guns, and I believe he is potting rabbits."
Chris sat up with consternation in her eyes. "Trevor! I believe he is too! I heard someone shooting half an hour ago. And he has got Cinders with him! I know he will go and shoot him by mistake!"
"Or himself," said Mordaunt grimly.
"Oh, he won't do that," said Chris with confidence. "Nothing ever happens to Noel."
"Something will happen to him before long if he doesn't behave himself," observed Mordaunt. "My patience began to wear thin last night when I caught him asleep with a smouldering pipe on his pillow."
"Oh, but he always does what he likes in the holidays," pleaded Chris.
"Does he?" Mordaunt's voice was uncompromising.
She slipped a quick hand into his. "Trevor, you wouldn't spoil his fun?"
He looked down at her, faintly smiling. "My dear Chris, it depends upon the fun. I'm not going to have the place burnt down for his amusement."
"Oh no," she said. "But you won't be strict with him, will you? He will only do things on the sly if you are."
Mordaunt frowned abruptly. "If I catch him doing anything underhand—"
She broke in sharply in evident distress. "But we all do, Trevor! I—I've done it myself before now—often with Mademoiselle Gautier, and then with Aunt Philippa. One has to, you know. At least—at least—" His grey eyes suddenly made her feel cold, and she stopped as impulsively as she had begun.
There was a moment's silence, then quite gently he drew his hand away. "I think I will go and see what mischief the boy is up to."
She jumped up. "I'll come too."
He paused, and for a single instant his eyes met Bertrand's. At once the Frenchman spoke.
"But, Christine, have you not forgotten your roses? It is growing late, is it not? And you will be out this afternoon. Permit me to assist you with them."
He picked up the basket as he spoke. Chris stopped irresolute. Her husband was already moving away over the grass.
"Come!" said Bertrand persuasively.
Chris turned with a smile and took the basket. "All right, Bertie, let's go. It is getting late, as you say, and I must get the vases filled."
They went away together to the rose-garden, and here, after brief hesitation, Chris voiced her fears.
"I'm so afraid lest Trevor should ever get really angry with any of the boys. They won't stand it, you know. And he—I sometimes think he is just a little hard, don't you?"
Mordaunt's secretary pondered this proposition with drawn brows. "No," he said finally, "he is not hard, but he is very honourable."
Chris laughed aloud. "That sounds just like a French exercise, Bertie. I don't see what being honourable has to do with it, except that the people who preen themselves on being honourable are just the ones who can't make allowances for those who are not. You would think, wouldn't you, that being good would make people extra kind and forgiving? But it doesn't, you know. Look at Aunt Philippa!"
Bertrand's grimace was expressive. "And Aunt Philippa is good, yes?"
"Frightfully good," said Chris. "I don't suppose she ever told a story in her life."
His quick eyes sought hers. "And that—that is to be good?"
Chris paused an instant, her attention caught by the question. "Why, I suppose so," she said slowly. "Don't you call that goodness?"
He spread out his hands. "Me, I think it is the smallest kind of goodness. One does not lie, one does not steal; but what of that? One does not roll oneself in the mud. And that is a virtue, that?"
Chris became keenly interested. "Do go on, Bertie! I had no idea you thought such a lot. I don't myself—often."
He laughed, his sudden pleasant laugh that he uttered now so rarely. "But I am no philosopher," he said. "Simply I think—a little—sometimes. And to me—to be honourable is no more a virtue than to wash the hands. One cannot do otherwise and respect oneself."
"No?" said Chris, a little dubiously. "Then, Bertie, if honour is not goodness, what is?"
He shrugged his shoulders. "Goodness? Bah! There is no goodness without love."
"Oh!" Chris's eyes opened wide. "You think—that?"
He nodded with vehemence. "Si, cherie! I think—that; more, I know it. I know that 'Love is the fulfilling of the law.' One does not need to go further than that. It is enough, no?" His eyes looked straight into hers; they were shining with the light that only friendship can kindle.
She smiled back at him. "I should almost think it is, Bertie. It is enough for you anyhow, since you believe it."
"Ah, yes," he said very earnestly. "I believe it, Christine. I should not be here now—if I did not believe it."
She puckered her brows a little. "I don't quite know what you mean," she said.
He turned from her questioning eyes, pulling his hat down over his own. "No," he said. "But—you know enough, ma petite, you know enough."
"I sometimes think I don't know anything," she said restlessly.
He stretched out a hand to her, as one who guides a child. "Ah, Christine," he said sadly, "but it is better to know the little than the much."
"You all say that," said Chris. "I think it is rather a horrid world for some things, don't you?"
"But the world is that which we make it," said Bertrand.
ONE OF THE FAMILY
"But, my dear chap, what bally rot! Anyone would think I'd never smoked a pipe or handled a gun before, when I've done both for years."
Noel Wyndham's smile was the most engaging part of him; it had the knack of disarming the most wrathful. It had served him many a time in the hour of retribution, and he never scrupled to make use of it. It was quite his most valuable asset.
"Don't be waxy, old chap," he pleaded, slipping an affectionate hand inside his brother-in-law's unresponsive arm. "I've been having such a high old time. And I'm not a bloomin' kid. I know what I'm about."
"All very well," Mordaunt said. "I don't object to anything in reason. But you are too fond of taking French leave with other people's property. That gun, for instance—"
"Oh, that's all right," the boy assured him eagerly. "It kicks most infernally, but I soon got the trick of it after a bruise or two. I say, you haven't seen anything of that little devil Cinders? He's gone down a rabbit-hole. Won't Chris be in a stew?"
Mordaunt possessed himself of the gun without further argument. "Then you'd better set to work and find him. Chris is going out this afternoon."
"In the motor?" Noel's eyes shone. "I'll go, too. You needn't bother about Cinders. He always turns up sooner or later. Don't tell Chris, or she'll spend the rest of the day hunting for him."
"She will probably want to know," observed Mordaunt.
"I shall say I never had him," said Noel unconcernedly. "He won't come to any harm, but you can turn that secretary fellow of yours on to the job if you're feeling anxious. I say, Trevor, we shan't want the chauffeur. Tell them, will you?"
"You certainly won't go without him," Mordaunt rejoined. "And look here, Noel, you're not to tell lies. Understand?"
Noel looked up with a flicker of temper in his Irish eyes, "Oh, rats!" he said.
"Understand?" Mordaunt repeated. "It's the one thing I won't put up with, so make up your mind to that."
He spoke quite temperately, but with unswerving decision. His eyes looked hard into Noel's, and the boy's spark of resentment went out like an extinguished match.
"I say, I like you!" he said with enthusiasm. "You're a regular sport!"
"Thank you," Mordaunt returned gravely.
"And what about Chris?" Noel proceeded mischievously. "Isn't she allowed to tell lies, either?"
Mordaunt stiffened. "Chris knows better."
"Oh, does she?" Noel yelled derision. "My dear chap, you'll kill me! Why, she—she's about the worst of us. I never knew anyone lie quite like Chris when occasion arises."
He broke off. Mordaunt had shaken his arm free with an abruptness not far removed from violence.
"That's enough," he said sternly. "I don't advise you to say any more upon that subject."
"But I assure you it's the truth," Noel protested. "She can look you straight in the face and swear that black is white till you actually believe it. I assure you she can."
He spoke with such naive admiration of the achievement that Trevor Mordaunt, on the verge of anger, found himself checked suddenly by an irrepressible desire to laugh.
Noel saw and seized upon his advantage. "But I daresay she wouldn't to you. She gets everything she wants without. I must say you're jolly decent to all of us. I'm sorry I took your gun—didn't know it was one you particularly valued. I'd get one of my own only I'm so beastly hard up. I suppose you couldn't lend me a fiver now, could you?"
He tucked his hand back into Mordaunt's arm persuasively, and smiled his winning smile. "I'll pay you back—with interest—when I come of age. That'll be in five years. I wouldn't ask you if I couldn't. But I daresay Chris can let me have it if you would rather not."
"No!" Mordaunt said very decidedly. "There must be no borrowing from Chris. I will give you five pounds if you are wanting it, but not to buy a gun with, and only on the understanding that for the future you come to me—and never to Chris—if you chance to be in difficulties."
"Oh yes, I'll promise that," said Noel readily. "But I don't want you to make me a present, old chap. I shall pay up some day. You shall have an I O U."
"Many thanks! I don't want one." Mordaunt began to smile. "Just keep straight and tell the truth," he said. "That's all the return I want."
"Really?" Noel's smile became a grin. "That's awfully decent of you. As a matter of fact, I don't believe even Chris could manage to deceive you. You're so beastly shrewd. But we'll call it a bargain if you like. You won't catch me trying to jockey you after this."
"Very well," Mordaunt said. "Then, on the strength of that, I want to know if you have ever had any money from Chris before."
"Why, of course I have!" Noel seemed surprised by the question. He spoke with the utmost frankness.
Mordaunt's smile had departed. He did not look altogether pleased, but Noel was quite unimpressed.
"Oh, goodness knows!" he said lightly. "She has my I O U's."
"Which she must find very satisfying," remarked Mordaunt. "Now look here, boy! There must be no more of this. You will have to keep within your allowance in future."
"My dear chap, it's all jolly fine—I can't!" protested Noel. "Why, I only get about twopence-halfpenny a term. It isn't enough to pay a cat's expenses, besides being always up to the eyes in debt."
Mordaunt heaved a sigh of resignation. "I suppose I had better look into your affairs. Write down as clear a statement of your debts as you can, and let me have it."
"I say—really?" Noel looked up eagerly. "You're not in earnest?"
"Yes, I am. And afterwards—you are to keep within your means, or if you don't I must know the reason why."
Noel grinned with cheery impudence. "You'll swish me, I suppose, to improve my morals? Wish I had as many sovereigns as I've had swishings. They would keep me in clover for a year."
Mordaunt laughed rather grimly. "I don't waste my time licking hardened sinners like you. I've something better to do."
Noel echoed his laugh with keen enjoyment. "You're rather a beast, but I like you. Have you paid Rupert's debts, too? He is always on the verge of bankruptcy. Shouldn't wonder if Max is as well, but he keeps his affairs so dark. I expect he is in the hands of the money-lenders—I know Rupert was years ago."
"I don't think he is now," Mordaunt said.
"Don't you? What's the betting on that? He could no more keep out of their clutches than he could fly over the moon. I say"—he suddenly burst into a peal of boyish laughter—"it's the funniest thing on earth to see you shouldering the family burdens. How you will wish you hadn't! And that French beggar you've adopted, too, who is safe to rob you sooner or later! Why don't you start a home for waifs and strays at once? I'll help you run it. I'll do the accounts."
Mordaunt laughed, in spite of himself. "Very kind of you! But I think there are enough of you for the present."
"All highly satisfactory," grinned Noel. "What a pity you didn't marry Aunt Philippa, I say! She would have been much more useful to you than Chris. Never thought of that, I suppose?"
"Never!" said Mordaunt.
"Poor old Aunt Phil!" Noel chuckled afresh. "She would have been in her element if you had only given her the chance. She hates us all like poison. I suppose you know why?"
"Haven't an idea," Mordaunt spoke repressively, "unless your general behaviour has something to do with it."
"Oh, very likely it has," Noel conceded. "But the chief reason was that our father diddled her out of a lot of money. He was hard up, and she was rolling. So he—borrowed a little." He glanced at Mordaunt with a queer grimace. "Most unfortunately he didn't live to pay it back. I shouldn't tell anyone this, but I don't mind telling you, as you are one of the family."
"And who told you?" Mordaunt inquired.
"Me? I overheard it."
The question came sternly, but Noel was sublimely unabashed.
"The usual way. How does one generally overhear things? I hid behind a shutter once when Aunt Phil and Murdoch, our man of business, were having a talk. She pitched it pretty strong, I can tell you. I should have felt quite sorry for the old girl if I hadn't known that her husband had left her more than she could possibly know what to do with. As it was, I was rather glad than otherwise, for she's disgustingly mean over trifles. And people who can shell out and won't should be made to."
Mordaunt received this axiom in silence. As a matter of fact he was somewhat staggered by the information thus airily imparted. But he did not question the truth of it. He only wondered that he had never considered such a possibility before.
Another shout of merriment from the boy at his side made him look round. "Well? What's the joke?"
"You!" yelled the youngster, between his paroxysms. "I'm awfully sorry. You're such a good sort. But I can't help it. I say, Trevor—aren't you glad just—that you're one of the family?"
Mordaunt aimed a blow at him that he evaded with ease. "If you don't behave yourself I shall use the privilege in a fashion you won't care for," he said, "even if it is a waste of time."
At which threat Noel confidingly hooked his arm once more through that of his brother-in-law and begged him in a voice hoarse with laughter to stop rotting.
Chris and Noel set off in the motor that afternoon in excellent spirits to pay the projected call upon Mrs. Pouncefort.
They found the lady of the house at home, and spent an animated hour with her; for although she never appeared to welcome her visitors or to exert herself in any degree to entertain them, most of them seemed to find it difficult to get away.
When they departed at length they carried with them an invitation to a garden fete which had been arranged for the following week. It included the whole party, to Chris's great satisfaction.
"It will be the very thing for Bertie," she said. "It is just what he needs."
Noel, who entertained a sweeping prejudice against all foreigners, was inclined to dispute this, and a lively argument ensued in consequence, which lasted during the greater part of the run home.
Chris was at the wheel, being a fairly experienced driver by that time, though Mordaunt was very insistent that she should always have someone responsible by her side. On this occasion, however, Holmes, who was acting as chauffeur, had been imperiously relegated to the back seat by Noel, who intended to have his turn before the end of the ride. He had driven twice before under his brother-in-law's supervision, and he considered himself an expert.
As soon as they were through the lodge-gates, therefore, he began to clamour to change places with Chris. The worried Holmes protested in vain. Chris, though firmly refusing to sit behind, was quite willing to give her place at the wheel to her brother; and the change was speedily effected, remonstrance notwithstanding.
"We can't come to any harm on our own drive," was the careless consolation she threw to the perturbed man behind her, who then and there solemnly swore to his inner soul that whatever the outcome of the venture he would never again trust himself or the car to the tender mercies of the Wyndham family.
Finding himself thus ignored, he stood up and leaned over the boy's shoulder to give directions in the face of any sudden emergency that might arise, though Noel was obviously in no mood to pay any attention to them. As he remarked later, when recounting the adventure, he knew in his bones that there was going to be an accident; but the nature of it he could hardly be expected to foresee.
In fact, for a brief space all went well. The motor buzzed merrily along the drive, and it almost seemed as if the escapade would end without mishap, when, as they rounded the bend that led to the house, Noel unexpectedly put on speed. They shot forward at a great pace under the arching trees, and forthwith suddenly came disaster. Swift as a lightning flash it came—too swift for realization, almost too swift for sight. It was only a tiny, racing figure that darted for the fraction of a second in front of the car, and then—with a squeal half-choked—was lost in the rush of the wheels. It was only Cinders chasing a rabbit which he was destined never to catch.
Chris's shriek of agony rang as far as the house. In another moment she would have thrown herself headlong from the car, but Holmes was too quick for her. Not in vain had Holmes been through a three-years' war; not in vain did he hold himself responsible for the young wife of the master whom that war had taught him to love. Almost before she had sprung from her seat he had caught her, forcing her down again, holding her by grim strength from her mad purpose. She struggled with him fiercely, hysterically; but Holmes's grip never relaxed. She bore the marks of it upon her arms for weeks after.
And while he held her, baffling her utmost efforts to free herself, he was giving directions to Noel, whose nerve had departed completely with the shock of the catastrophe, giving them over and over again—steadily, insistently, and very distinctly, till they took effect at last, though only just in time.
They were dangerously near the house before, in response to the boy's frantic efforts, the car slackened and finally, under Holmes's reiterated directions, ran to a standstill.
Chris, in a perfect frenzy by that time, wrenched herself free and sprang down. Her husband, who had rushed from the house at her cry, was close to her as she reached the ground, but she sped away without so much as seeing him.
Back up the drive she tore, back to the shadowing trees, back to the piteous little blot in the shadow that was the only thing her world contained in that hour of anguish.
When they reached her she was sunk on the ground beside her favourite, crying his name, while he, whimpering, strove to drag his mangled body into her lap. She tried to lift him, but he yelped so terribly at her touch that she was forced to let him lie.
"Oh, Cinders, Cinders!" she cried, in an agony. "My little darling, what shall I do?"
Someone stooped over her; a quiet hand lay upon her shoulder. "Chris," it was her husband's voice, very grave and tender, "come away, dear. You can't do anything. The poor little chap is past our help."
She lifted a dazed face, staring uncomprehendingly.
"Come away," he repeated.
But when he tried to raise her she resisted him. "And leave him like this? No, never, never! Oh, Trevor, look—look! He is dying! Can't we do something—anything? Oh, he never cried like that before!"
"My dear, there is nothing that you can do." Very gently he made answer. "He can't possibly live. There is only one thing to be done, and that is to put him out of his pain as quickly as possible. But I can't do it with you here. So come away, dear! It's the kindest—in fact, it's the only—thing you can do."
"Are you going to—kill him?" gasped Chris in horror.
He nodded, with compressed lips. "There is no alternative. We can't let him suffer like this."
"Oh no, no, no!" Chris cried.
She would have thrown her arms about her darling, but he stopped her. He caught her wrists and held her back.
"Chris, you must not! When animals are hurt they will bite without knowing what they are doing. Chris, do you hear me? You must go."
But she would not. "Do you think I would leave him now—when he wants me most? And as if he would bite me—Cinders—Cinders—who never even growled at me!"
She bent over him again, beside herself with grief. Cinders, in the midst of his pain, tried gently to wag his tail. His brown eyes, faithful, appealing, full of love, gazed up at her. He had never seen his mistress in such trouble before, and the instinct to comfort her urged him even then, in the midst of his own. Again he made piteous efforts to crawl into her arms, but again he failed, and fell back, whimpering.
Chris covered her face. It was more than she could bear, and yet she could not—could not—leave him.
For a space that might have been minutes or only seconds she was left alone, tortured but impotent. A dreadful darkness had fallen upon her, a numbness in which Cinders, suffering and slowly dying, was the only reality.
Then again she became conscious of another presence. A quick hand touched her. A soft voice spoke.
"Ah, the poor Cinders! And he lives yet! Cherie, we will be kind to him, yes? We cannot make him live, but we will let him die quick—quick, so that he suffer no more. That is kind, that is merciful, n'est-ce-pas?"
She turned instinctively in answer to that voice. She held up her hands to the speaker like a child. "Oh, Bertie," she cried piteously, "is there nothing to be done? Nothing?"
"Only that, cherie," he made answer, very gently.
"Then"—she was sobbing terribly, but she suffered his hands to raise her—"don't let them—send me away, Bertie. I can't go—while he lives. It—it would hurt him more, if I went."
"No, no, cherie," he answered her reassuringly. "You will be brave, yes? See, I will hold your hand. We will go just across the road, but not beyond his sight. He will see you. He will know that you are near. There—there, cherie! Shut your eyes! It will be finished soon."
He put his arm around her, for she stumbled blindly. They went across the road as he had said, and halted under the trees on the farther side.
There followed a pause—an interval that was terrible—during which only the low crying of an animal in pain was audible.
Bertrand stood like a rock, still holding her. "But you will not look, cherie," he whispered to her softly. "It is deliverance—this death. Soon—soon he will not cry any more."
She pressed her face against his shoulder, wrapped in the close security of his arms, and waited, drawing each breath with difficulty, saying no word.
She did not know what was happening, and she dared not look. She could only wait in anguish for the whimpering that tore her heart to cease.
"Now, cherie!" whispered Bertrand at last, and she stiffened in his arms, preparing for she knew not what.
His hold tightened. For that instant he pressed her hard against his heart, so that she heard its quick beating.
The next there came a loud report—a sound that violently rent her stretched nerves, shattering them as glass is shattered by a stone. She drooped without sound like a broken flower, and the young Frenchman gathered her up, just as he had done on the occasion of their first meeting at Valpre, and bore her away.
GOOD-BYE TO CHILDHOOD
Out of the dreadful darkness Chris groped her halting way, saw light, and, shuddering, closed her eyes again. But at once a voice spoke to her, soothingly, tenderly, calling her back.