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The Rocks of Valpre
by Ethel May Dell
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Reluctantly she responded, reluctantly she returned to full consciousness, and knew that she was lying fully dressed upon a couch in the drawing-room. But at sight of her husband's face bending above her she shuddered again—a painful, convulsive shudder that shook her from head to foot.

He laid a quiet hand on her head, but she shrank away. "Please, Trevor"—she faltered—"please, I want to be alone."

"Yes, dear," he made gentle reply. "Just drink this first, and I will leave you."

But she withdrew herself almost violently; she buried her face deep in the cushion. "I can't! I can't! Please don't ask me to. I am quite all right. I only want—to be alone."

She was shaking all over as one with an ague, and her words were hardly articulate. He waited a little for her trembling to pass, but it only increased till her whole body seemed to twitch uncontrollably. At last with the utmost quietness he stooped and deliberately raised her.

"Chris, my dear little girl, you mustn't let yourself go like this. I want you to take this stuff to steady you. Afterwards you will have a sleep and be better."

She did not absolutely resist him, but he felt her nervous contraction at his touch. The face she turned to his was ghastly in its pallor.

"I—I don't think I can, Trevor," she said, speaking very rapidly. "My throat won't swallow. It would only choke me. Please—please, if you don't mind—go away. I shall be all right if—if you will only go."

"I can't leave you like this," he said.

"Yes, yes, you can," she answered feverishly. "Oh, what does it matter? Trevor, I must be alone. I must! I must! Please go!"

Her agitation was growing with every second, and he saw that he must yield. He laid her back again without a word, smoothed the cushions, touched her hair, and softly departed.

She listened tensely for the closing of the door, relaxing instantly the moment she heard it. A great darkness descended upon her soul. She lay motionless, face downwards, too stunned for thought.

A long time passed. It was growing late. Over the quiet garden the summer dusk was falling. The swallows were swooping through it in their multitudes—the swallows that Cinders loved to chase. To-night no cheery, impudent bark pursued their flight. To-night all was still.

Did they miss him? she began to wonder dully. Did they ask each other where he had gone? And then, half-consciously, she began to listen for him, the scamper of the light feet, the gay jingle of his collar, till in a moment she almost fancied that she heard him scratching at the door.

She was half off the sofa before realization stabbed her, and she sank back numbly into her desolation.

Again a long time passed—an interval not to be measured by hours or minutes. The swallows ceased to circle and went to roost. It began to be dark. And still Chris lay alone, a huddled, motionless figure, prostrate, crushed, inanimate. Her hands and feet were like ice, but she did not know it. She was past caring for such trifles. All her abounding vitality seemed to be arrested, as if her very blood had ceased to circulate.

It was growing late when the door opened at last. A figure stood a moment upon the threshold, then entered, moving with a quick, light tread that might have been the tread of a woman. In the darkness it reached her, bent over her.

"Ah, pauvre petite!" said a soft voice, a voice so full of compassion that it thrilled straight to her silent heart and made it beat again. "All alone with your grief! You permit me to intrude myself, no?"

She turned and felt up towards him with an icy hand. "Bertie!" she said. "You—might have come before!"

He knelt swiftly down beside her, pressing the little trembling fingers against his neck to give them warmth. "But you are so cold!" he said. "You must not lie here any more."

"Why not?" she said dully. "I don't think it matters, does it?"

"But of course!" he made quick rejoinder. "When you suffer we suffer also. Also"—he paused an instant—"Mr. Mordaunt awaits you, petite. Will you not go to him?"

She shivered. "Need I, Bertie? I don't want to."

It was the cry of a child—a child in distress—plunged for the first time in the bitter waters of grief, turning instinctively to the friend of childhood for comfort. "I don't want anyone but you," she said piteously. "You understand. You loved him—and Trevor didn't."

"Oh, but, Christine—" Bertrand began.

"No, he didn't!" she maintained, with sudden vehemence. "I always knew he didn't. He put up with him for my sake; but he never loved him. He never noticed his pretty little ways. Once—once"—she began to sob—"it was on our wedding-day—he slapped him—for chasing a cat! My sweet wee Cinders!"

She broke down utterly upon the words, and there followed such a storm of tears that Bertrand was forced to abandon all attempts to reason with her, and could only kneel and whisper soft endearments in his own language, soothing her, comforting her, as though she were indeed the child she seemed.

But it was long before she even heard him, not until the paroxysm had spent itself and she lay passive and utterly exhausted, with her hands fast clasped in his.

"You are good to me," she murmured then, and in a moment, "Why, Bertie, you're crying too!"

"Ah, pardon me!" he whispered, under his breath. "But to see you in pain, my little one, my bird of Paradise—"

"No," she said, a strange note of conviction in her voice, "I shall never be that any more now that Cinders is gone. I shan't be young like that any more. I—I shall grow up now, Bertie. I daresay Trevor will like me the better for it. But you won't, dear. You will be sorry, I know. We've been playfellows always, haven't we, even though you grew up and I didn't? Well"—there came a sharp catch in her voice—"we shall both be grown-up now."

And then, all in a moment, as if some panic urged her, she started up, drawing his hands close. "But we'll be friends still, won't we, Bertie? You won't talk of going away any more, will you? Promise me! Promise me, Bertie!"

He hesitated. "It might be better that I should go," he said slowly. "It is possible that—"

She interrupted him almost hysterically. "Oh no, no, no! I want you here. I want you, Bertie, Don't you understand?"

"But yes," he said. "Only, petite—"

"You will promise, then?" she broke in, as though she had not heard the last words. "Bertie, I'm so miserable. You—you—wouldn't add to it all!"

"No, cherie, by Heaven, no!" he said, with vehemence.

"Then you'll stay, Bertie? You will stay?" Very earnestly she besought him. Her tears were dropping on his hands. "Say you will!"

For a moment longer he hesitated; he tried to resist her, he tried to take a sane and temperate view. But those tears were too much for him. They were the one torture he could not endure. With a sharp gesture he flung his hesitation from him. Yet even then he left himself a way of escape lest the temptation should be more than he could bear.

"I will stay," he made grave reply, "as long as it would make you happy to have me with you—that is"—he checked himself—"if Mr. Mordaunt desire it also."

"But of course he does," said Chris. "He likes you. And I—I can't do without you, Bertie—not now."

He heard the desolate note in her voice, and he did not contradict her. Had he not sworn that while she needed him he would be at hand?

"Eh bien," he said soothingly. "I stay."

That comforted her somewhat, and presently, at his persuasion, she sat up and dried her eyes. It was too dark for them to see each other, but she held his hand very tightly; and there was comfort also in that.

"Now you will come away from here," he said. "Mr. Mordaunt is very troubled about you. He would not come to you himself because he thought that you did not desire him. But that was not true, no?"

Again that hard shudder went through Chris. She was silent for a little, them "Oh, Bertie," she whispered, "I wish—I wish—it hadn't been he who—who—" she broke off—"you know what I mean. You—saw!"

Yes, he knew. It was what Mordaunt himself had suspected, and loyally he entered the breach on his friend's behalf.

"Cherie—pardon me—that is not a good wish—not worthy of you. That which he did was most merciful, most brave, and he did it himself because he would not trust another. I wish it had been my hand—not his. Then you would have understood."

"I almost wish it had been!" whispered Chris; and then, her words scarcely audible, "But—but do you think—he—knew?"

"Le pauvre Cinders?" Very softly Bertrand spoke the dog's name. "No, Christine. He did not know. His head was turned the other way. His eyes regarded only you. And Mr. Mordaunt was so quiet, so steady. He aim his revolver quite straight, and his hand tremble—no, not once. Oh, believe me, petite, it was better to end it so."

"Yes, I know, only—only"—convulsively her hands closed upon his—"Bertie—Bertie—dogs do go to heaven, don't they?"

"I believe it, Christine."

"You do really—not just because I want you to?"

He drew her gently to her feet. "Cherie, I believe it, because I know that all love is eternal, and death is only an incident in eternity. Where there is love there is no death. Nothing that loves can die. It is the Divine Spark that nothing can ever quench."

He spoke with absolute conviction, almost with exultation; and the words went straight to Chris's heart and stayed there.

"You do comfort me," she said.

"I only tell you the truth," he made answer, "as I see it. We do not yet know the power of Love. We only know that it is the greatest of all. It is le bon Dieu in the world. And we meet Him everywhere—even in the heart of a dog."

"I shall remember that," she said.

Her hand still clung to his as they groped their way across the room. At the door for a moment she stayed him.

"I shall never forget your goodness to me, Bertie, never—never!" she said, very earnestly.

"Ah, bah!" he answered quickly. "But we are—pals!"

And with that he opened the door, almost as if impatient, and made her pass before him into the hall.

The lamplight dazzled Chris, and she stood for a moment uncertain. Then, as her eyes became accustomed to the change, she discovered her husband, standing a few yards away, looking at her.

He did not speak, merely held out his hand to her; and she went to him with a vagrant feeling of reluctance.

He put his arm about her, looking gravely into her wan face; but she turned from his scrutiny and leaned her head against his shoulder with a piteous little murmur of protest.

"Do you mind if I go to bed, Trevor?" she said, after a moment. "I—I'm very tired, and I don't want any dinner."

"You must have something, dear," he made answer, "but have it in bed by all means. I will bring it up to you in half an hour."

She made a slight movement which might have meant dissent, but which remained unexplained. For a little she stood passive, leaning against him as though she lacked the energy to go, but at length she made a move. Glancing round, she saw that Bertrand had departed.

"Where is Noel?" she asked.

"In his room."

She looked up sharply, detecting a hint of grimness in his voice. "Trevor"—she halted a little—"are you—vexed with anybody?"

His face softened at her tone. "Never mind now, dear," he said. "You are worn out. Get to bed."

She put her hand to her head with a weary gesture. "But why—why is Noel in his room?"

"Because I sent him there."

"You!" She stared at him, fully roused from her lethargy. "Trevor! Why?"

"I will tell you tomorrow," he said, frowning slightly. "I can't have you upset any more tonight."

"But, Trevor—"

"Chris, dear, go to bed," he said firmly. "If I don't find you there in half an hour, I shall put you there myself."

"Oh no!" she broke in. "Please don't come up. I shall get on better alone. And I have to say goodnight to Noel first."

"I am sorry, dear," he said, "but you can't. Noel is in disgrace, and I would rather you did not see him to-night."

"In disgrace! Trevor—why?"

He put his arm deliberately round her again, and led her to the stairs.

"Tell me why," she said.

"I will tell you tomorrow," he repeated.

But she would not be satisfied. She turned upon the first stair, confronting him. "Tell me now, please, Trevor."

He raised his brows at her insistence.

"Yes," she said in answer, "but I want to know. You don't—you can't—blame him for—for—" she faltered and bit her lip desperately—"you know what," she ended under her breath.

"I do blame him," he answered quietly. "I forbade him strictly to attempt to drive without someone of experience beside him."

"Oh!" A sharp note of misgiving sounded in Chris's voice. "You said that to me too!" she said.

He looked at her very gravely. "I did."

"Then—then"—she stretched a hand to the bannisters—"you are angry with me too?"

"No, I am not angry with you," he said, and she was conscious of a subtle softening in his tone. "I am never angry with you, Chris," he said emphatically.

"And yet you are angry with Noel," she said.

"That is different."

"How—different?"

He took her hand into his. "Do you know he nearly killed you?"

She started a little. "Me?"

He nodded grimly. "Yes. If it had been only himself, it wouldn't have mattered. But you—you!"

His arms went out to her suddenly; he caught her to him, held her passionately close for a moment, then lifted her and began to carry her upstairs.

She lay against his breast in quivering silence. It seemed that Cinders did not matter either so long as she was safe; and though she knew beyond all question that he was not angry with her, she was none the less afraid.



CHAPTER V

THE LOOKER-ON

"I think that it should be remembered that he is young," said Bertrand, "also that he has been punished enough severely already."

He leaned back in an easy-chair with a cigarette which he had suffered to go out between his fingers, and watched Mordaunt pacing up and down.

Mordaunt made no pretence of smoking. He walked to and fro with his hands behind him, his brows drawn in thought, his mouth very grim.

"My good fellow, he will have forgotten all that by to-morrow," he said, with a faint, hard smile. "I know these Wyndhams."

"I also," said Bertrand quietly.

Mordaunt glanced at him. "Well?"

The Frenchman hesitated momentarily. "I think," he said, "that you will find them more easy to lead than to drive."

Mordaunt's frown deepened. "They are all so hopelessly lawless, so utterly unprincipled. As for lying, this boy at least thinks nothing of it."

"Ah, that is detestable, that!" Bertrand said. "But he would not lie to you unless you made him afraid, hein?"

"He lies whenever it suits his purpose," Mordaunt said. "He would have lied about the speed of the motor if I would have listened to him. But it is his disobedience I am dealing with now. If I don't give that boy the sound thrashing he deserves for defying my orders, he will never obey me again."

Bertrand's eyes, very bright and vigilant, opened a little. "But Christine!" he said.

"Yes, I know." Mordaunt came to a sudden halt. "Chris also must learn that when I say a thing I mean it," he said.

"Without doubt," the Frenchman conceded gravely. "But that is not all that you want. And surely it would be better to be a little lenient to her brother than to alienate her confidence from yourself."

He spoke impressively, so impressively that Mordaunt turned and looked at him with close attention. Several seconds passed before, very quietly, he spoke.

"What makes you say this to me, Bertrand?"

"Because you are my friend," Bertrand answered.

"And you think my wife is afraid of me?"

Bertrand's eyes met his with the utmost directness. "I think that she might very easily become afraid."

Mordaunt looked at him for several seconds longer, then deliberately pulled up a chair, and sat facing him.

"In Heaven's name, Bertrand, why?" he said.

Bertrand made a quick gesture, almost as if he would have checked the question, but when it was uttered he sat in silence.

"You can't tell me?" Mordaunt said at last.

He shrugged his shoulders. "If you desire it, I will tell you what I think."

"Tell me, then."

A faint flush rose in Bertrand's face. He contemplated the end of his cigarette as if he were studying something of interest. "I think, monsieur," he said at last, "that if you asked more of her, you would obtain more. She is afraid of you because she does not know you. You regard her as a child. You are never on a level with her. You are not enough her friend. Therefore you do not understand her. Therefore she does not know you. Therefore she is—afraid."

His eyes darted up to Mordaunt's grave face for an instant, and returned to the cigarette.

There followed a silence of some duration. At last very quietly Mordaunt rose, went to the mantelpiece, helped himself to a cigarette, and began to search for matches.

Bertrand sprang up to proffer one of his own. They stood close together while the flame kindled between them. After a moment their eyes met through a cloud of smoke. Bertrand's held a tinge of anxiety.

"I have displeased you, no?" he asked abruptly.

Mordaunt leaned a friendly hand upon his shoulder. "On the contrary, I am grateful to you. I believe there is something in what you say. I never gave you credit for so much perception."

Bertrand's face cleared. He began to smile—the smile of the rider who has just cleared a difficult obstacle.

"You have a proverb in England," he said, "concerning those who watch the game, that they see more than those who play. Shall we say that it is thus with me? You and Christine are my very good friends, and I know you both better than you know each other."

"I believe you do," Mordaunt said, smiling faintly himself. "Well, I suppose I must let the youngster off his thrashing for her sake. I wonder if he has gone to bed." He glanced at the clock. "It's time you went, anyhow. You are looking fagged to death. Go and sleep as long as you can."

He gripped the Frenchman's hand, looking at him with a kindly scrutiny which Bertrand refused to meet. He never encouraged any reference to his health.

"I am all right," he said with emphasis, but he returned the hand-grip with a warmth that left no doubt as to the cordiality of his feelings. He was ever too polished a gentleman to be discourteous.

Left alone, Mordaunt sat down at his writing-table to clear off some work which he had taken out of his secretary's hands earlier in the day. It was midnight before he finished, and even then he sat on for a long time deep in thought.

It was probably true, what Bertrand had said. Tenderly as he loved his young wife, he had not succeeded in winning her confidence. There was no friendship between them in the most intimate sense of the word, and so she feared him. His love was to her a consuming flame from which she shrank. Bitterly he admitted the fact, since there was no ignoring it. She was frightened at the very existence of his passion, restrain it how he would. She was his and yet not his. She eluded him, even when he held her in his arms.

His thoughts travelled backwards, recalling incident after incident, all pointing to the same thing. And yet he knew that he had been patient with her. He had held himself in check perpetually. And here again Bertrand's words recurred to him. If he had asked more, might he not have obtained more? Was it possible that he had failed to win her because he had not let her feel the compulsion of his love? Was it perchance his very restraint that frightened her? Had he indeed asked too little?

Again his thoughts went back and dwelt upon their wedding-night. He had kindled some answering flame within her then. She had not attempted to withhold herself. The memory of her shy surrender swept over him, setting the blood leaping in his veins anew. She had been his that night, and his throughout the brief fortnight that followed. They had been very intent upon the renovations, and no cloud had even shadowed their horizon. How was it she had slipped away from him since? Was it the advent of that tempestuous youngster that had caused the change? Undoubtedly Chris was less a Wyndham when alone with him. Or was there some other cause, arising possibly from some hidden fluctuation of mood, some restlessness of the spirit, of which he had had no warning? Her aunt's declaration that they were all lacking in stability recurred to him. Was it so with her? Was she fickle, was she changeable, his little Chris?

Her own words came back to him, uttered with tears upon her wedding-day: "Don't you often think me silly and fickle? You'll find it more and more, the more you see of me. You'll be horribly disappointed in me some day."

He rose abruptly. No, that day had not dawned yet. If she had slipped away from him, he, and he alone, was to blame. He had not won the friendship which alone brings trust, and he knew now that he could not hold her without it. As Bertrand had said, he had not been enough her friend. Even now she was probably crying herself ill in solitude over the loss of Cinders.

The thought quickened him to action. He turned out the light, and went swiftly from the room.

Upstairs, outside her door, he stopped to listen, but he heard no sound. She had cried herself to sleep, then, and he had not been there to comfort her. His heart smote him. Had she deemed him unsympathetic? She had seemed to wish to be alone, and for that reason he had left her as soon as he had satisfied himself that she had all she needed in a physical sense. She had not wanted him. She had shrunk from his touch. She had probably seen him go with relief. But—he asked himself the question with sudden misgiving—would it have been better if he had ignored her evident desire and stayed? He had feared exhaustion for her and had avoided any word or action that might have led to a renewal of her grief. Had he seemed to think too lightly of her sorrow? Had she been repelled by his very forbearance?

He passed on softly to his own room. The door that led from this into hers was ajar. He pushed it a little wider, and looked in.

It was lighted only by the moon, which threw a flood of radiance through the wide-flung windows. Every object in the room stood out in strong relief. Standing motionless in the doorway, Trevor Mordaunt sought and found his wife.

She was lying with her face to the moonlight, her hair streaming loose, the bedclothes pushed off her shoulders.

And there beside her, curled up in a big easy-chair, his black head lodged against her pillow, one hand clasped close in hers, lay Noel. Both had been crying, both were asleep.

For many seconds Mordaunt stood upon the threshold, gravely watching them, but he made no movement to draw nearer. At last noiselessly he withdrew, and closed the door.

The grimness had all gone from his face. He even smiled a little as he resigned himself to spending the night in his own room. The idea of disturbing the brother and sister never crossed his mind. It was enough for him that Chris had found comfort.



CHAPTER VI

A BARGAIN

"Luck!" said Rupert gloomily. "There never is any where I am concerned."

This in response to a question from his brother-in-law as to the general progress of his affairs. He sat in Mordaunt's writing-room, with one of Mordaunt's cigars between his lips, and a decidedly sullen expression on his good-looking face.

"I'm sick of everything," he declared. "I'm going to chuck the Army. It's never done anything for me. There's no chance of active service, and I loathe garrison work."

"The only question being, what else are you fit for?" said Mordaunt.

Rupert threw him a quick look. "I'll be your bailiff, if you like," he said. "I could do that."

Mordaunt raised his brows at the suggestion. "That is an idea that never occurred to me," he remarked.

"Why not? You want a bailiff, don't you?"

"A reliable one," said Mordaunt.

Rupert jumped in his chair as if he had been stung. "What the devil do you mean?"

"I mean"—Mordaunt regarded him steadily—"that I shouldn't care to trust my affairs to a man who can't look after his own."

Rupert's eyes flashed. "I am not to be trusted, then?"

Mordaunt continued to regard him, quite unmoved.

"You had better ask yourself that question, my dear fellow," he said. "You are better qualified to answer it than I am."

Rupert relaxed again, dropping back listlessly. "I suppose you are right. I certainly don't make a great success of things. I believe I should get on better with you than with anyone else. But if you feel like that about it, there is no more to be said."

"You really want to be taken seriously, do you?" Mordaunt said.

"Of course I do!" Rupert turned towards him again with the lightning change of mood characteristic of him. "You must forgive me for being a bit touchy, old chap. It's this infernal thundery weather. May I have another drink?" He helped himself without waiting for permission. "Of course I want to be taken seriously. It's a billet that would suit me down to the ground. I know the place, every inch of it, and, as you know, I'm fond of it. I would look after your interests as though they were my own."

Mordaunt smiled. "But do you look after your own?"

Rupert clinked some ice into his tumbler, and thoughtfully watched it float.

"You've been so jolly decent to me," he said at length, "that I haven't the face to bother you with my affairs again."

"I suppose that means you are in difficulties," his brother-in-law remarked.

He nodded without looking up. "I'm never out of 'em. It's not my fault. It's my beastly bad luck."

"Of course," said Mordaunt dryly.

Rupert bobbed the ice against his glass and spilt some whisky-and-water in so doing. He looked decidedly uncomfortable.

"I can't help it," he said. "I was born in Queer Street, and I've lived there all my life. You fellows who are simply rolling in wealth haven't the smallest notion what it means."

"What is the good of saying that?" Mordaunt sounded impatient for the first time. "You know as well as I do that if you had twenty thousand a year you would spend twice the amount."

Rupert glanced at him sideways. "Hullo!" he said softly. "Beginning to size us up, are you?"

"I'm beginning to think"—Mordaunt spoke with force—"that your sense of honour is as much a minus quantity as your wealth."

"Honour!" Rupert looked up in genuine astonishment.

"Yes, honour," Mordaunt repeated grimly. "Do you call it honourable to run up debts that you have no possibility of paying?"

Rupert turned crimson. "Look here! I'm not going to stay here to be insulted," he said hotly. "I haven't asked for your help, and I'm damned if I'd take it if you offered it—after that."

He was on his feet with the words, but Mordaunt remained seated. "You can do as you like," he said quietly. "If you choose to take offence, that is your affair. I helped you before because I knew you were hard up and I was sorry for you. But there is no occasion for you to be hard up now. And I am not sorry for you this time. I think you deserve to be kicked."

"You be damned!" said Rupert fiercely.

Mordaunt's brows went up. He looked full into the boy's heated face, and though he said no word Rupert turned slowly white under the look. In the dead silence that followed he stood as tense as though he expected a blow. Yet Mordaunt made no movement, spoke no word.

It was Rupert who broke the silence finally, broke it hurriedly, stammeringly, as though it had become unbearable. "All right, old chap. I didn't mean quite that. But you—you shouldn't badger me. I'm not used to it."

"Sit down," Mordaunt said.

He obeyed awkwardly, and to cover his discomfiture took up his glass to drink. But before it reached his lips Mordaunt spoke again.

"Rupert!"

He started a little, and again the liquid splashed over.

"Put that down!" Mordaunt said.

Again dumbly he obeyed.

Mordaunt leaned forward and drew the glass out of his reach. "It has never been my intention to badger you," he said. "But I reserve to myself the privilege of telling you the truth. That is the fourth drink I have seen you mix this afternoon."

"I'm perfectly sober," Rupert asserted quickly.

"Yes, I know. But you are not as cool as you might be." Very keenly Mordaunt's eyes surveyed him, but they were not without a hint of kindness notwithstanding. "I mustn't call you a young fool, I suppose," he said, "but really you are not overwise. Now, what about these affairs of yours? Shall we go into them now or after tea?"

Rupert shrugged his shoulders sullenly. "I don't know that I care to go into them at all."

The kindliness went out of Mordaunt's eyes and a certain steeliness took its place. "As you like," he said. "Only let it be clearly understood that I will have no borrowing from Chris. I have forbidden her to lend money to any one of you. If you want it, you must come direct to me."

Rupert shifted his position, and looked out of the window. Down in the garden Chris was dispensing tea to three of his brother-subalterns, assisted by Noel. Bertrand was seated by her side, alert and watchful, ready at a moment's notice to come to her aid. It was his customary attitude, and it had been so more than ever since the death of Cinders. There was a protecting brotherliness about him that Chris found infinitely comforting: He understood her so perfectly.

She had not wanted to emerge from her seclusion to entertain her brother's friends on that sunny Sunday afternoon, but he had gently persuaded her. A change had come over Chris during the past four days. The violence of her grief had spent itself on the night that she and Noel had mingled their tears over the loss of their favourite, and she had not alluded to it since. She accepted her husband's sympathy with gratitude, but she shrank so visibly from the smallest allusion to her trouble that he found no opportunity for expressing it. He would not intrude it upon her. It was not his way, and she made him aware that for this also she was grateful.

But it was plainly from Bertrand that she drew her chief comfort. His very presence seemed to soothe her. He was just the friend she needed to help her through her dark hour.

That she fretted secretly Mordaunt could not doubt, but she was so zealous to hide all traces of it from him that he never detected them. He only missed her gay wilfulness and the sunshine of her smile. She responded to his tenderness even more readily than usual, but she did not open her heart to him. There seemed to be a barrier intervening that she could not bring herself to pass.

In his own mind he set this fact down to a certain feminine unreasonableness, imagining that she could not forget his share in the tragedy that had affected her so deeply. He trusted to time to soften the painful impression, and meanwhile, with his habitual patience, he set himself to wait till the physical strain had passed and the very sweetness of her nature should bring her back to him. He knew that all Bertrand's influence would be exercised in this direction, and his faith in his young secretary's discretion was considerable. Their brief conversation on the night of the disaster had rooted it more firmly than ever. Bertrand was so essentially a man of honour that he trusted him in all things as he trusted himself. Their code was the same, and their friendship of the kind that endures for life. If there were one thing on earth before all others upon which Trevor Mordaunt would have staked his all, it was this Frenchman's loyalty to himself. He was as staunch as Chris's brothers were unstable. He believed him to be utterly incapable of so much as an underhand impulse. And he was content that Chris should have for friend this man who was so close a friend of his own, upon whose nobility of character he had come to rely as a power for good that could not fail to raise her ideals and deepen in her that sense of honour which was still scarcely more than an undeveloped instinct in her soul.

His eyes followed Rupert's to the open window. The sound of chaffing voices rose clearly on the summer air, mingled with the chink of tea-cups.

"Shall we go?" Mordaunt said.

Rupert looked round with a laugh. "Did you see that ass Murphy stand on his head to drink his tea? It's his pet accomplishment. Yes, all right; let's go."

He got up, glanced at the whisky-and-soda on the table, then impulsively linked his arm in that of his brother-in-law, all his sullenness gone like a storm-cloud.

"You're quite right, old fellow. I have had as much of that stuff as is good for me. Forgive me for being such a bear. I didn't mean it."

Mordaunt paused. He had never dealt with anyone quite so bewilderingly changeable before. "I wish I knew how to treat you," he said, after a moment.

"Oh, pitch into me! It's the only way." Rupert's smile flashed suddenly upon him. "I've been an ungrateful brute, and I'm ashamed of myself. Seriously, Trevor, I'm sorry. I sometimes think to myself it's downright disgusting the way we all sponge on you. It's deuced good of you to put up with it."

Mordaunt still regarded him with close attention. But there was no doubt in his mind as to the boy's sincerity: he only wondered how long this contrite mood would last.

"I am always willing to help you to the best of my ability," he said. "But I think you might play the game. I can't keep pouring water into a sieve."

"It's not to be expected," Rupert agreed. "And I hate asking you for more money. I'm an absolute cur to do it. But—" he broke off, and pulled his hand free—"for goodness' sake, man, if you can—just this once—"

Mordaunt crossed the room to his writing-table, unlocked a drawer, took out a cheque-book.

"How much?"

"I say, you are a good chap!" Rupert protested. "Can you make it a hundred?"

"Will that settle everything?" Mordaunt asked.

"Oh, well—practically everything."

Mordaunt wrote the cheque in silence. He handed it over his shoulder finally to the boy behind him.

"It's for a hundred and fifty. I hope that will see you through. And look here, Rupert, do for Heaven's sake pull up and keep within bounds. I am quite willing to help you to a reasonable extent, but you must do your part, too. You are living at an insane rate. Do you keep an account of your expenditure?"

"Of course I don't!" Rupert seemed astonished at the question. "What on earth would be the good of that? It wouldn't reduce my expenses."

Mordaunt laid his cheque-book back in the drawer. "And you think you would make a good bailiff?" he said.

"Oh, that's different. Of course, you must have accounts for the management of an estate. You would have no cause to complain of me there. Are you going to think it over, I say?"

Mordaunt turned in his chair. "You really wish me to do so?"

"Rather!" Rupert spoke with enthusiasm. "If you knew how deadly sick I am of the life I live now!" he added, with strong disgust. "It's beastly hard work, too, in a sense, and nothing to show for it."

"I should work you hard myself," Mordaunt observed.

"I shouldn't mind that. I'd work like a horse here. It's what I've always wanted to do."

"And kick like a horse, too, if I ventured to find fault," said Mordaunt, smiling a little.

"No, I shouldn't. I'd take it like a lamb. Come, man, I've apologized."

There was a note of reproach in Rupert's voice. Mordaunt left his writing-table and faced him squarely.

"I'll make a bargain with you," he said. "If you can manage to keep straight between now and Christmas, and you are of the same mind then, I will take you on. Is it done?"

Rupert thrust out a hand with a beaming countenance. "Done, old fellow! And a thousand thanks! I'll do my part somehow if it kills me. Hullo, I say! There's Chris calling! Hadn't we better go?"

He was plainly desirous to end the interview, and Mordaunt did not seek to prolong it. "Come along, then!" he said. And they went out together arm-in-arm to join the group upon the lawn.

Two hours later, just before Rupert and his friends started upon their return journey, Bertrand happened to enter Mordaunt's writing-room, and was surprised to find the eldest Wyndham standing by the table with a glass of whisky-and-soda to his lips.

The surprise was mutual, and on Rupert's side so violent that he dropped the glass, which shivered upon the floor. He uttered a fierce exclamation as he recognized the intruder.

Bertrand was profuse in his apologies. "But I had no idea that there was anyone here! A thousand pardons, Mr. Wyndham! It was unfortunate—but very unfortunate. I am come only for Mr. Mordaunt's keys, which he left here by accident. I will ring for Holmes. He will remove this debris. And you will have another drink, yes?"

"I can't wait," Rupert said, almost inarticulately.

He remained standing at the table trying to compose himself, but he was white to the lips.

Bertrand regarded him with quick concern. "Ah, but how I have alarmed you!" he said. "My shoes are of canvas, and they make no sound. Will you, then, sit down for a moment, while I pour out another glass of whisky?"

He drew forward a chair with much solicitude, and took up a fresh glass. But Rupert swung away, turning his back upon him.

Prom the front of the house came the hoot of the waiting motor. Plainly his comrades were waxing impatient.

"But you will drink before you go?" urged the courteous Frenchman. "I am desolated to have deprived you—"

Rupert turned his face for an instant over his shoulder. It was no longer white, but crimson and convulsed with anger. His hands were clenched.

"Oh, go to the devil!" he cried violently, and with the words stamped furiously from the room.

Bertrand was left staring after him, petrified with amazement—too astounded to be angry.

At the end of a lengthy pause he turned and pocketed Mordaunt's keys, and rang the bell for Holmes to clear up the mess on the floor.

"Mais ces anglais!" he murmured to himself, with a whimsical shrug of the shoulders. "Comme ils sont droles!"



CHAPTER VII

THE ENEMY

Mrs. Pouncefort's garden-party was an annual affair of some importance to which everyone, from the County downwards, was bidden, and from which very few absented themselves.

The Pouncefort entertainments were generally upon a lavish scale, were also largely attended by the military element of Sandacre society, and were invariably described in the local journals as "very smart affairs."

Had Chris been in her normal spirits she would have hailed the occasion with delight. She knew a good many people in the neighbourhood, and she was sure to meet all her friends there. It was, moreover, for this that she had successfully angled for an invitation for Bertrand. But when the day came she would have given a good deal for a legitimate excuse for remaining at home. The weather was hot, and she felt weary and disinclined for gaiety.

She said no word of her reluctance, however, for Bertrand had accepted his inclusion in the invitation with docility, and since she had decided that a little social change would be good for him, she would not draw back herself lest he should be tempted to do likewise.

Bertrand was her chief thought just then. She knew that her husband was dissatisfied with regard to his health, and undoubtedly he looked far from well, though he himself invariably declared that it was only the heat, and persistently refused to see a doctor. Not even Chris could shake this resolution of his, and he was so distressed when Mordaunt would not let him work that to keep him quiet Mordaunt was obliged to let him do a little. He made it as little as he could, however, and Bertrand spent a good deal of his time in the garden with Chris in consequence.

It certainly cheered her to have him, and for that reason he was the less inclined to rebel against the edict that sent him there. They had begun to read French together, Chris having developed a sudden keenness for the language which he was delighted to encourage. That the original idea had been devised for his pleasure he shrewdly suspected, but the carrying out of it contributed undoubtedly to her own. It occupied her thoughts and energies, and that was what she needed just then.

He knew perfectly well that she was as disinclined for social amusements as he was himself, but the same motive that prompted her urged him also. Each went with reluctance, but without protest.

Noel, who had achieved the most saintlike behaviour during the past week, went also. He made an ingratiating attempt at the last moment to persuade Mordaunt to let him drive. But Mordaunt was as adamant upon that point. He had issued a decree that Noel should drive no more during the summer holidays, and he meant to keep to it.

The prohibition did not extend to Chris, but she had shuddered at the bare mention of the motor ever since the accident, and he knew that she had not the faintest desire left to enlarge her experience in driving.

She was the last to leave the house on that sultry August afternoon, and Mordaunt saw at once that the ordeal of entering the car was a severe one. She even turned so white at the sight of it that he feared a breakdown.

"Come and sit with me," he said kindly.

She looked at him with a quick shake of the head. "No, I'll sit behind with Bertie if I may. Noel can sit with you."

Noel, who was already in the back seat, climbed over like a monkey, and Bertrand handed her in.

She sat very rigid until they were out of the avenue, and Bertrand was silent also. But as they turned into the road he began to talk, gently and persuasively, upon indifferent things, resolutely passing by her silence until with a wan little smile she managed to respond.

Long before they reached Sandacre she had quite recovered her self-command, and the flash of the sea upon the horizon brought from her a quick exclamation of pleasure.

"Ah, yes, it is beautiful, that!" he agreed with enthusiasm. "And there is the sand there, yes?"

She nodded. "I used to think we'd go and picnic there. But I don't think I want to now."

"Next year," suggested Mordaunt, without turning his head.

"Perhaps," she said, a little dubiously.

Bertrand said nothing. He was looking out to the wide horizon with a far look in his eyes, almost as though he saw beyond that sparkling sky-line, even beyond the sea itself.

The strains of the military band from Sandacre reached them as they turned in at the wide-flung gates. Chris's eyes kindled almost in spite of her. She loved all things military.

As for Bertrand, he sat bolt upright, with his head back, like a horse scenting battle. Glancing at him, Chris wondered at his attitude, till suddenly she recognized the strains of the Marseillaise.

She squeezed his hand in sympathy as he helped her to alight, and he looked at her with his quick smile of understanding. He was ever swift to catch her meaning.

They crossed a lawn that was crowded with people to a great cedar-tree, beneath which their hostess was receiving her guests. A large woman with a lazy smile was Mrs. Pouncefort, and wonderful dark eyes that were seldom wholly revealed—a woman who took no pains to please and yet whose charm was undeniable. Her monarchy was absolute and her courtiers many, but other women looked at her askance, half-conscious of a veiled antagonism. They were a little afraid of her also, though not one could have said why, since no bitter word was ever heard to pass her lips.

She greeted Chris with a cold, limp hand. "So nice of you to come. I hope you won't be bored. Ah, Mr. Mordaunt, how is Kellerton Old Park by this time? I hardly recognized it the day I called. Rupert tells me you have worked wonders inside as well as out."

"May I introduce our friend Monsieur Bertrand?" said Chris.

Bertrand brought his heels together and bowed low over the limp hand transferred to his. Mrs. Pouncefort smiled.

"There is a fellow-countryman of yours here. Where has he gone? Ah, there you are! Captain Rodolphe, let me introduce you to Mrs. Mordaunt and her French friend Monsieur Bertrand."

She extended one finger to Noel while making the introduction, and at once turned her attention elsewhere.

Chris found herself face to face with a heavy-browed man with an overbearing demeanour and a mouth and chin that sneered perpetually behind a waxed moustache and imperial. She stared at him for an instant with a bewildered feeling of having seen him somewhere before. Then, as she returned his bow, a stab of recognition pierced her, and she remembered where.

It flashed into her mind like a picture thrown upon a screen—that scene upon the sands of Valpre long, long ago, two men fighting with swords that gleamed in the sunlight, a child drawing near with wondering eyes to behold the conflict, and an unruly black terrier scampering to end it!

"I am delighted to make your acquaintance," declared Captain Rodolphe, "and that of your friend—M. Bertrand?"

He uttered the name interrogatively. Bertrand bowed very slightly, very stiffly, and was instantly erect again. "That is my name," he said, as he looked the other straight in the eyes.

Captain Rodolphe was smiling. "I think we have not met before? It is always a pleasure to meet a fellow-countryman in a strange land. That is well understood, is it not, Mrs. Mordaunt?"

His smooth speech brought her back to a situation that was not without serious difficulties, difficulties which he for one was apparently determined to ignore. Had he recognized her, she wondered? It seemed probable that he had not. But then there was nothing in his manner to indicate that he had recognized Bertrand either; yet of that there could be no doubt.

She heard her husband speaking to an acquaintance behind her, and instinctively she began to move away from him. She did not feel equal to effecting an introduction. She murmured something conventional about the gardens, and Captain Rodolphe at once accompanied her.

Bertrand walked in silence on her other side till, with an obvious effort, Chris included him in the conversation, when he responded instantly, with that ready ease of manner which had first drawn her to rely upon him. But though he showed himself quite willing, as ever, to help her, he did not once on his own initiative address the man who had been introduced for his benefit; and Chris, aware of an atmosphere that was highly charged with electricity, notwithstanding its apparent calm, began to cast about for a means of escape therefrom.

To rid herself of Captain Rodolphe was her first idea, but this was easier of thought than accomplishment. He was chatting serenely, in perfect English, and seemed to have taken upon himself the congenial task of entertaining her for some time to come. He also did not directly address her companion, unless she brought them into contact, and her efforts in this direction very speedily flagged. She could not expect two men, however courteous, to forget all in a moment the bitter enmity of years merely to oblige her. They were quite ready to ignore it in her presence, but the consciousness of it was more than Chris could endure with equanimity. It disconcerted her at every turn. She felt as if she trod the edge of a volcano, and her nerves, which had been so severely strained for the past week, could not face this fresh ordeal.

She turned at last in desperation, almost appealingly, to Bertrand. She knew he would understand. Had he ever failed her in this respect or in any other?

"Do you mind going to see if I have dropped my handkerchief in the car?" she asked him, with a nervous smile.

His smile answered hers. Yes, he understood. "I shall go with pleasure," he said, and with a quick bow was gone.

Chris breathed a little sigh of relief, and moved on with her escort into the rose-garden.

He seemed scarcely aware of Bertrand's departure. He was plainly engrossed in the pleasant pastime of conversing with her. Chris began to give him more of her attention. No, she certainly did not like the man. His sneer and his self-assurance disturbed her. He made her uncomfortably conscious of her own youth and inexperience. She almost felt as if he were playing with her.

He talked at some length upon roses, a subject upon which he seemed to be well informed, listened tolerantly to any remarks she made, and finally conducted her to a long shrubbery that led back to the lawn.

As they entered this, he lightly wound up the thread of his discourse and broke it off. "I have been wondering for long," he said, "where it was that I had seen you before. Now I remember."

She turned a startled face towards him. He was smiling with extreme complacence, but there was to her something sinister, something even threatening, about the bushy brows that shadowed his gleaming eyes. He put her in mind of a carrion-crow searching for treasures on a heap of refuse.

The impulse to deny all knowledge of him seized her—a blind impulse, blindly followed. "I think you must be mistaken," she said.

"How?" he ejaculated. "You do not remember Valpre—and what happened there?"

She saw her mistake on the instant, and hastened to cover it. "Valpre!" she said, frowning a little. "Yes, I remember Valpre, though it is years since I was there. But you—did I meet you at Valpre, Captain Rodolphe?"

He bowed with a gallantry that seemed to her exaggerated. "Only once, madame, but that once was enough to stamp you ineffaceably upon my memory. It was, in fact, a memorable occasion. And I forget—never!" Again with empressement he bowed. "And still you do not remember me?" he said.

There was a mocking glint in his eyes. It was as though with a smile he weighed her resistance, displaying it to herself as a quantity wholly negligible.

"I think you begin to remember now," he suggested.

And quite suddenly Chris saw what he had with subtlety set about teaching her, that to attempt to fence with him was useless.

"Yes, I remember," she said, and there was a hint of most unwonted malice in her capitulation. "Didn't I see you wounded in a duel?"

He smiled, and she saw his teeth. "If my memory be correct it was to madame herself that I owed that wound."

She felt the quick blood rush to her face. He had spoken with double entendre, but she did not perceive it until too late. She only remembered suddenly and overwhelmingly that the duel had been fought on her account, because of some evil word which this man had spoken of her in Bertrand's hearing. She could well believe it of him—the sneering laugh, the light allusion, the hateful insinuation underlying it. She was beginning to look upon the evil of the world with comprehending eyes—she, Chris, the gay of heart, the happy bird of Bertrand's paradise whom no evil had ever touched. And though she shrank from it as one dreading pollution, she dared not turn her back.

He went on with more daring mockery, still with lips that smiled. "Ah! I see you remember. That duel was an affair of interest to you, hein? You were—the woman in the case."

He leered at her intolerably, twisting his moustache.

But that was more than Chris could endure. He had taken her by surprise indeed, but he should not see her routed thus easily. She lifted her dainty head and confronted him with pride.

"Whatever the cause of the duel," she said very distinctly, "it was no concern of mine, and it was by the merest accident that I witnessed it. But in any case it is not a matter of sufficient importance to discuss now. Shall we go on?"

She put the question abruptly, with a little inward tremor, for the path was narrow and he had come to a stand immediately in front of her. He made a slight movement as if deprecating the obligation to detain her. His eyes were suddenly very evil and so intent that she could not avoid them. Yet still he smiled as though the situation amused him.

"But you joke!" he protested, with a snap of the fingers. "I did not suggest that it could be a matter of importance. It was all a bagatelle, a fairy-tale, that should not have had so serious an end. And your husband—he has heard the fairy-tale also? Or was it not of sufficient importance to recount to him?"

She would have turned from him at that, even though it had meant ignominious flight, but his eyes held her, and she dared not. She could only stand motionless, feeling her very heart grow cold.

Softly, jeeringly, he went on, still toying with the moustache that did not hide his smiling lips. "You have not told him yet? Ah! but it would amuse him. That night you passed with the fairies, a siren among the sirens, has he never heard of that? But you should tell him that! Or was it perhaps only a joke a deux, and not a trois? I have heard that the English husband can be strict, and you have found it so to your cost, hein?"

Her eyes blazed at the insult. For the first time in her life Chris was so possessed by fury as to be actually sublime. She drew herself to her full height. She met his mockery fearlessly, and, with a royal disregard of consequences, she trod it underfoot.

"Captain Rodolphe, be good enough to let me pass!"

He stood aside instantly. He was even momentarily abashed. He had not expected his game to end thus. She had seemed such an easy prey, this English girl. Her discomfiture had been almost too obvious. He certainly had not deemed her capable of this display of spirit.

Yet in a moment, even as, erect and disdainful, she passed him by, he was smiling again, a secret, subtle smile which she felt rather than saw. Emerging into the hot sunshine that beat upon the crowded lawn, she knew herself to be cold from head to foot.



CHAPTER VIII

THE THIN END

"Good-bye!" said Mrs. Pouncefort. "So glad you came. I hope you haven't been bored."

"Bored to extinction," murmured Noel. "Hi, Trevor! Let me drive, like a good chap. Do!"

"Certainly not," said Mordaunt, with decision. "You are going to sit behind. We shall meet the wind now, and Chris must come in front; it is more sheltered."

Chris submitted to this arrangement in silence. She was looking very tired. Her husband regarded her keenly as he tucked her in, but he said nothing.

"What do you think of Mrs. Pouncefort's latest?" grinned Noel, as they spun along the high-road. "I never met such a facetious brute in my life. How did you like him, Bertrand?"

"Who?" said Bertrand somewhat curtly.

"What did they call him—Rodolphe, wasn't it? That French chap with the beastly little beard."

"I did not like him," said Bertrand, with precision.

"That's all right," said Noel approvingly. "But he's reigning favourite with Mrs. Pouncefort, anyone can see with half an eye. Rum, isn't it? And little Pouncefort puts up with it like a lamb. But they say he's just as bad. Daresay he is, though he's quite a decent little beggar to talk to. I can't stand Mrs. Pouncefort at any price, while as for that Frenchman"—he made a hideous grimace—"I'm glad you are not all alike, Bertrand!"

Bertrand responded to the compliment without elation. He seemed preoccupied, and Noel, finding him uninteresting, turned his cheerful attention elsewhere.

Letters awaited them upon their return. Chris took up hers with scarcely a glance, and went up to her room.

Her husband, following a little later, found her sitting on a couch by the window, perusing them. She glanced up at his entrance.

"I have a letter from Aunt Philippa. She thinks we must be quite settled by this time, and she wants to spend a day or two here next week, before she goes to Scotland."

"I suppose we can put up with her for a day or two," said Mordaunt.

Her smile was slightly strained as she returned to the letter. "I suppose we shall have to."

He came and stood beside her, looking down at her bent head. The burnished hair shone warmly golden in the evening sunlight. He laid a quiet hand upon it. She started at his touch, and then sat very still.

"I have heard from Hilda too," she said, after a moment. "They are staying at Graysdale. Percy fishes all day and she sketches, when they are not motoring. It was very sweet of her to write by return."

A tear fell suddenly upon the open page. She covered it hastily with her hand. Her husband's pressed her head very tenderly.

"Chris," he said gently, "I wonder if you would like to go away for a little?"

She glanced up quickly, eagerly, with wet lashes. "Oh, Trevor!" she breathed.

He sat down beside her on the couch. "We will go to-morrow if you like," he said.

She slipped her hand into his. "I should love it!"

"Would you?" he said. "I have been thinking of it for some days, but I wasn't sure you would care for the idea."

"But your work?" she said. "Those articles you wanted to finish? And that political book of yours? And the alterations in the north wing, will they be able to get on with those with you away?"

"The literary work must stand over for a week or two," he said. "I shall leave Bertrand in charge of the rest."

"Bertrand!" She opened her blue eyes wide. "But—but he would be away, wouldn't he?" Then quickly: "He would go with us, of course? You didn't mean to leave him behind?"

He raised his brows ever so slightly. "I meant just us two, dear," he said. "Wouldn't you care for that?"

"Oh!" said Chris blankly. "But, Trevor, we couldn't possibly leave him. He isn't well. I—I shouldn't be happy about him. Besides—besides—" Her words faltered under his straight look; she made a little appealing gesture towards him. "Please understand," she said.

He took both her hands into his. "My dear, I do understand," he said, with the utmost kindness. "But I think he can be trusted to take care of himself for a little while. If you have any doubts upon the subject, ask him."

She shook her head. "No, it wouldn't do. I—I'd really rather not go away if it means—that. Besides, there is Noel. And next week there will be Aunt Philippa. I think we had better give up the idea, Trevor; I do really, anyhow for the present." She leaned nearer to him; her eyes looked pleadingly into his. "Say you don't mind," she begged him, a little tremulously.

"I am only thinking of you, dear," he answered.

She smiled with lips that quivered. "Well, don't think of me—at least, not too much. I only want you just to be kind to me, that's all. I—I shall be myself presently. You're very good to be so patient."

Her lips were lifted to his. He bent and kissed her. But as he went gravely away she had a feeling that she had disappointed him, and her heart grew a little heavier in consequence.

The sound of the piano in the drawing-room brought her down earlier than usual for dinner, and she found Bertrand playing softly to himself in the twilight. He had a delicate touch, and she always loved to hear him.

She had with difficulty trained him not to spring up at her entrance, but to-day he turned sharply round.

"Christine, what did that scelerat say to you?"

The abruptness of his speech did not disconcert her. She was never ill at ease with Bertrand, however sudden his mood. She came to the piano, and stood facing him in the dusk.

"He recognized me," she said.

"Ah!" Bertrand's exclamation was deep in his throat, like the growl of an angry dog. "And he said—?"

Chris hesitated.

Instantly his manner changed. He stretched out a quick hand. "Pardon my impatience! You will tell me what he said?"

Yet still she hesitated. His impetuosity had warned her to go warily if she would not have him embroiling himself in another quarrel for her sake.

"It doesn't matter much, does it?" she said, rather wearily. "I wasn't with him very long—no longer than I could help. He was objectionable, of course, but that sort of man couldn't be anything else, could he?"

"Tell me what he said," insisted Bertrand inexorably.

But still she hedged, trying to temper his wrath. "He didn't tell me anything new. I have known—for some time now—why you fought that duel."

"Ah! You know that? But how?"

She smiled wanly. "You forget I'm growing up, Bertie."

He winced at that suddenly and sharply, but he made no verbal protest. Only in the silence that followed there was something passionate, something which she never remembered to have encountered before in her dealings with him.

At the end of a long pause he spoke, with obvious constraint. "And you will not tell me what he said?"

"Is it worth while?" said Chris. "I daresay we shall never see him again."

"He insulted you, no?" said Bertrand.

She yielded, half-involuntarily, to his persistence. "He made some—rather horrid—insinuations. He spoke of the duel and of what happened at Valpre. And he asked—he asked if—Trevor knew."

A fierce oath burst headlong from Bertrand, the first she had ever heard him utter. He apologized for it instantly, almost in the same breath, but she was startled by the violence of it none the less, so startled that she decided then and there that, if she would keep the peace between him and his enemy, she must confide in him no further.

"But that was really all," she hastened to assure him. "I left him then, and—and I think we had better forget it, Bertie. Promise me you will."

He took the persuasive hand she laid upon his arm, but for several seconds he did not speak. It seemed as if he could not trust himself to do so.

At last, "Christine," he said, "I think that your husband ought to know."

She started at the words, almost snatching her hand from him. "Bertie! What do you mean? Know of what?"

He answered her with great steadiness; his eyes met hers unwaveringly. "Of that which happened at Valpre," he said.

She gazed at him in growing consternation. "Bertie, how—are you mad?—how could I tell him that?"

"With your permission, I will tell him," he said resolutely.

But she cried out at that, almost as if he had hurt her: "Oh no, no, never! Why should he know now? Don't you see how impossible it is? If I had ever meant to tell him, it ought to have been long ago."

"Yes," said Bertrand.

The quietness of his tone only agitated her still further. His evident determination terrified her. In that moment all her fear of her husband rose to towering proportions, a monster she dared not even contemplate. She clasped Bertrand's arm between her hands in wild, unreasoning supplication.

"Oh, you must not—you shall not! Bertie, you won't, will you? Promise me you won't—promise me! He wouldn't understand. He would want to know why I had never told him before. He would—he would—"

"Ah! but I would explain," Bertrand protested gently.

"But you couldn't! He would ask questions—questions I couldn't possibly answer. If he didn't say them he would look them. And his eyes are so terribly keen. They frighten me. They see—everything."

"But, cherie," he reasoned, "they could not see what is not there. You have nothing to hide from him. You have no shame. Why, then, have you fear?"

"I don't know," gasped Chris. "Only I know that he would never understand. He would think—he would think—"

"He would think that we have been—pals—for as long as we have known each other," said Bertrand soothingly. "He knows it already. It is true, is it not?"

But Chris's eyes had been opened too suddenly and tragically. Her sense of proportion was still undeveloped. "Yes, but he would never see it. You could never explain to him so that he would understand. He would think I had been deceiving him. He would think—Bertie, he would think"—her eyes dilated, and she drew in her breath sharply—"that—that you and I ought not to be friends any longer. Oh, don't tell him—please don't tell him. Indeed I am right. He trusts you, and—and he trusts me. But he wouldn't trust either of us any longer if he knew."

"Christine! Christine!"

"It is true," she asserted feverishly. "You don't know him as I do. Oh no, he has never been hard to me. But he could be hard. And he wouldn't forgive me—if he thought I had been hiding anything. Bertie, Bertie, you won't do it? Say you won't do it!"

"I do nothing without your consent," Bertrand answered quietly. "But I think that it is a mistake. I think—"

"Oh, thank you!" she broke in earnestly. "I know I can rely upon you to keep your word. I can, can't I?"

He smiled at a question which he would have borne from no other. "Until death, Christine," he said.

Her hands fell away from his arm. She was shaking all over. "I know I'm foolish," she said. "I can't help it. I was made so. And when Trevor begins to ask questions—" She broke off nervously. "What is that?"

A leisurely footfall sounded in the hall, a quiet hand pressed the electric switch by the door, and the room was flooded with light.

"Oh, don't!" Chris cried out sharply. "Don't!"

She put her hands over her face as if dazzled, and so stood quivering.

"What is it?" Mordaunt asked. "Did I startle you?"

He came to her. He drew her hands gently down. But she almost cowered before him, and he let her go.

"I think that she is tired," Bertrand said, his voice very low.

"Is that all?" Mordaunt asked, looking at him.

The Frenchman shrugged his shoulders, and made no reply. But Chris turned at the question, turned and confronted her husband with wide, scared eyes.

"Yes, I am tired," she said, speaking jerkily, breathlessly. "But—but I was startled too. I—I thought I heard Cinders—barking."

It was the first time she had ever deliberately lied to him, and her eyes met his full as she did it in desperate self-defence.

He looked at her very steadily for the space of several seconds after she had spoken, and in the silence Bertrand's hands clenched hard.

Quietly at length Mordaunt turned round to him. "Don't let me interrupt you," he said. "You were playing, weren't you? Chris and I are good listeners."

He took his wife's cold hand, and drew her to the sofa; and Bertrand, seeing there was nothing else to be done, turned back to the piano and resumed his playing.

Not another word was spoken by any of them until Noel came upon the scene, and airily dispelled the silence before he was aware of it.



CHAPTER IX

THE ENEMY MOVES

"And you mean to say that this French secretary of Trevor's actually lives in the house?" said Aunt Philippa.

"But of course he does," said Chris, opening her eyes wide.

"And is Trevor never away?" demanded Aunt Philippa.

"He hasn't been, but he talks of spending a night in town next week."

"And you will go with him?"

"No, I don't think so. It's too hot."

"Then I presume M. Bertrand will?"

Chris flushed a little. "I don't suppose so. He is feeling the heat too." She stretched up her hands above her head. "How I wish it would rain!"

Aunt Philippa continued her knitting severely in silence. They were sitting on the terrace awaiting the luncheon-hour. Across the garden came Noel's shrill whistle, and instinctively, before she remembered her aunt's presence, Chris answered it. The boy appeared at the farther end of the long lawn, and came racing towards them.

"Just seen the postman, Chris. Here's a letter for you—such a horrible fist, Sandacre post-mark, and sealed. Wonder who it's from?"

He leaned against her chair to recover his breath and regarded the envelope he held with frank interest.

Chris stretched up her hand for it. "I expect it's from Mrs. Pouncefort."

"Mrs. Pouncefort doesn't write like that!" protested Noel. "No woman could."

"May I have it?" said Chris.

He put it into her hand, but he still leaned against her chair. "Be quick and open it, I say! It looks important."

"I don't suppose it is," said Chris; but she opened it notwithstanding with some curiosity.

Aunt Philippa had arrived only the night before, but she was already very tired of her society, and any diversion was welcome.

"You don't mind?" she murmured to her aunt.

Her eyes were already upon the first page as she spoke. She frowned over the unfamiliar handwriting.

Noel studied it also over her shoulder. "What on earth—" he began.

She looked up suddenly, and crumpled the paper in her hand. "Noel, go away! How dare you!"

He stared at her in amazement. A sharp word from Chris was most unusual. Aunt Philippa looked up also.

"My dear girl, it isn't private, is it?" said Noel.

Chris was scarlet. She seemed to breathe with difficulty. "Of course it's private! All my letters are private!"

"But it comes from the Pounceforts," objected Noel. "I saw 'Sandacre Court' at the top of the page."

Chris sprang to her feet impetuously with blazing eyes. "And what if it does? You had no right to look over me. It was a hateful thing to do. What if it does come from Mrs. Pouncefort? Is it mine any the less for that?"

"Oh, don't get huffy!" remonstrated Noel. "Look at you! Anyone would think you had got the palsy. But you needn't pretend it's from Mrs. Pouncefort, because I know better."

"It—it is from Mrs. Pouncefort!" declared Chris.

"Which is a lie," rejoined Noel, with the utmost calmness. "I know you, my dear girl, I know you. You've told 'em before."

"Noel!" Aunt Philippa interposed her voice with extreme dignity. "You forget yourself. If you cannot speak with ordinary courtesy, be good enough to leave us."

Noel heeded the remonstrance no more than if it had been the buzzing of a fly. Chris's spark of temper had kindled his.

"Oh, you can swear it's the truth till all's blue," he declared, raising his voice recklessly. "But that doesn't make it so. In fact, it only makes the contrary all the more likely. Besides, you know you do lie, Chris, so you needn't deny it."

"Noel!"

It was not Aunt Philippa's voice this time, and it had in it so firm a note of authority that instinctively Noel turned.

Mordaunt, just returned from a ride, was standing in his shirt-sleeves at an open window above them. All the colour went out of Chris's face at sight of him, but he did not look at her.

"Come up here," he said to Noel. "I want to speak to you."

"Not coming," said Noel promptly.

"Come up here," Mordaunt repeated.

"What for?" Noel looked up at him, hands in pockets. "You'll be late for lunch if you don't buck up," he remarked, with a smile of cheery impudence.

His brother-in-law's face did not reflect his smile. It was grimly determined. "Come up here," he said again.

"Do go, Noel," Chris murmured uneasily.

"I won't," said Noel doggedly. "I'm not going to be pitched into for nothing. It was you who told the lie, not me."

"Oh, don't be absurd!" exclaimed Chris, in a fever of impatience. "Surely you're not afraid of him!"

"Anyone can see you are," retorted Noel. "I'll bet you daren't go yourself!"

She turned from him sharply without another word, and entered the house.

She met her husband on the threshold of his room, and pushed him impulsively back, her hands against his breast.

"Trevor, please don't be angry with him. He—we often go on like that. There is nothing to be angry about—indeed."

He took her hands and held them. She was panting a little; he waited while she recovered herself. Then, "Chris," he said very gently, "don't you think it is time you left off being afraid of me?"

"But when you are angry—" murmured Chris.

"You have never seen me angry yet."

"You are not angry with Noel?" she asked quickly.

He smiled a little. "My dear child, Noel is no more capable of making me angry than that fly on the ceiling. But I am not going to have him behaving badly for all that."

"But he didn't," she urged, in distress. "It was all my fault. Trevor—Trevor, please don't say any more! He was quite right. I—I didn't tell the truth."

She made the confession in a broken whisper, with her face hidden against him. But a moment later she had sprung away in haste, for there came the clatter of careless feet upon the stairs, and Noel dashed suddenly upon the scene.

"Oh, I say, do stop jawing and come down," he said as he presented himself. "Poor Aunt Phil is ravenous for her lunch. What do you want me for, Trevor?"

But Mordaunt turned his back abruptly. "I don't want you now," he said. "You can go."

"Dash it!" Noel said. "What a rotter you are!" He flung himself full length upon the window-seat with elaborate nonchalance. "Run along, Chris," he said. "We're going to talk politics. Shut the door after you. That's right. Now, my good brother-in-law, what can I do for you?"

He sat up to slay a wasp on the window-pane, flicked the corpse in Mordaunt's direction with airy adroitness, and lay down again.

"Are you in a wax over anything?" he inquired, with a yawn.

Mordaunt turned quietly round. "Get up!" he said.

Noel laughed up at him engagingly. "You can't kick me so easily lying down, can you? But what do you want to kick me for? I'm quite harmless."

"I am not going to kick you," Mordaunt said. "It is not my way."

"All right, then. Why didn't you say so before?" Noel sat up and regarded him with interest. "Well?" he said at the end of an expectant pause. "Let's have it, man, and have done!"

"I have nothing to give you," Mordaunt returned. "I told you you could go."

Something in the tone rather than the words caught Noel's attention. He bounced suddenly from his lounging attitude to Mordaunt's side, and thrust an affectionate arm about his shoulders.

"What's the matter, old chap? You look as if you had found sixpence and lost half a crown."

"Perhaps I have," Mordaunt returned grimly.

He did not repulse the friendly overture; that also was not his way. But neither did he respond to it. He stood passive, looking out over the park with unobservant eyes.

"Cheer up, I say," urged Noel. "You're such a rattling good chap, you know. I'm getting awfully fond of you."

"Much obliged," said Mordaunt; but he did not seem highly gratified. In fact, his thoughts were plainly elsewhere.

Noel, however, would not be satisfied with this. "What are you grizzling about?" he said. "Tell a fellow!"

Mordaunt's eyes came down to him. "I wish you Wyndhams had a little sense of honour," he said.

"Oh, is that it?" said Noel. "Well, we are not top-heavy in that respect, I own. But, after all, it's not worth worrying about. We get on very nicely without it. And we wouldn't any of us sell a friend."

"I'm glad to know you draw the line somewhere," Mordaunt observed.

"Oh, rather! I wouldn't chouse you for the world. Chris wouldn't either. But we're both shy of you, you know, because you're so beastly moral." He gave his brother-in-law a warm hug to soften the effect of his words. "You may as well tell me what you wanted to say to me just now," he remarked.

"I was going to request you to behave like a gentleman," Mordaunt returned. "But as you don't seem to know what that means—" He paused, looking straight into the Irish eyes that met his with such sublime assurance. "Do you know what it means, Noel?" he asked.

Noel grinned. "You can take me in hand and teach me if it isn't too much trouble. I suppose you didn't like me to tell Chris she was lying about that letter. But she was, you know. There's no getting away from that fact, even if she is your wife."

"I'm not trying to get away from facts," Mordaunt said. "But I do object—strongly—to discourtesy. You may be her brother, but that doesn't entitle you to insult her. Plainly, I won't have it from you or anyone."

"I didn't insult her," declared Noel. "I only said I knew she was telling a cram. She knew it too."

"I know what you said," Mordaunt returned with brevity. "And you are not to say it again. Also, I must ask you to bear in mind that when I say a thing I mean it—invariably. I've had more than enough disobedience from you lately."

"Oh, I say," said Noel, winking gaily, "you don't want much, do you?"

Mordaunt relaxed a little. He put his hand on the boy's shoulder for a moment. "You can be quite a good chap if you try," he said.

Noel responded like a dog to a caress. "The mischief is to keep it up," he said. "But we won't quarrel anyhow. I'll make every allowance for you, old boy, for you're in a beastly unhealthy position; and you'll have to do the same—savvy? But for all that, that letter was no more written by Mrs. Pouncefort than by the man in the moon."

"That letter," Mordaunt said very deliberately, "is neither your affair nor mine."

Could he have seen Chris at that moment he might have changed his mind upon that point, but her young brother's careless chatter kept him from seeking her; nor would he very readily have found her had he done so.

For Chris was securely locked in a little room at the top of the house that had been her childhood's bedroom, and here with blanched face and hands that shook she was reading and reading again the letter that had given rise to so much discussion.

The handwriting was cramped and erratic, wholly unfamiliar, barely decipherable; but she had mastered the contents with tragic dexterity. Her understanding had leaped to the words.

* * * * *

"MY DEAR MRS. MORDAUNT," so went the letter, "You have probably forgotten my existence by this time, and it is with the utmost humility that I venture to recall it to your memory. For myself, it will always be a lasting pleasure to have met you again, and the fact that I share with you a secret of other days cannot but prove a bond between us. That secret I am prepared to guard faithfully, since—apparently—it is of value, if you on your part are ready to purchase my discretion with that of which all have need, but of which I temporarily am unhappily deficient. Briefly, madame, for the sum of five hundred pounds I will undertake that the episode of Valpre shall be consigned to oblivion so far as I am concerned. Otherwise, the strict husband may hear more than you have considered it convenient to tell him.

"Yours, with many compliments, GUILLAUME RODOLPHE."



CHAPTER X

A WARNING VOICE

Five hundred pounds! Five hundred pounds! It represented her year's income to Chris.

All night long she lay wide-eyed and still, facing her problem with a quaking heart. It was like a suffocating weight upon her, crushing her down. Five hundred pounds! And the need thereof so urgent that it must be dealt with at once! But how to obtain it? How? How?

All through the dark hours she lay revolving the matter, questioning this way and that, bound hand and foot, yet not daring to contemplate the only sane means at her disposal of obtaining freedom. To tell her husband the simple truth, to throw herself unreservedly upon his generosity, to beg his forgiveness and his help—these were the things she could not do. As a matter of fact the truth had been so magnified by her fevered fancy that it had begun to appear monstrous even in her own eyes. Those far-off happenings at Valpre had become a dream with a nightmare ending. Not even Aunt Philippa could have distorted them to a more exaggerated semblance of evil. And to go to her husband now with such a story was utterly beyond Chris's powers of accomplishment. She lacked the courage to speak with simplicity and candour, and she was painfully aware that to give a halting account of the matter would be infinitely more dangerous than to keep silence. Already her husband's faith in her veracity had been shaken. Was it likely that he would accept unquestioning her assurance that this matter, which she had rigorously suppressed for so long and which she only imparted to him now under compulsion, was in reality one of trivial importance? Would he believe her? Had she ever fostered his belief in her? Could he in reason do so even if he desired?

Moreover, there was another obstacle. There was Bertrand. Though he had offered to speak for her, though he had desired to explain all, and though she knew that Trevor's faith in him was absolute, yet the presence of Bertrand in itself made candour impossible. Why this should be she did not know. It was a problem which she had not attempted to solve. But the fact remained. She dreaded unspeakably the possibility of having to describe the intimacy that had existed between herself and Bertrand in the old, free, Valpre days. She dreaded the keen searching of the grey eyes that, if they sought long enough, were bound to find her soul, and not only to find, but to enter it, to penetrate to its most hidden corner, and to draw out into the full light of day one of her most sacred possessions. She felt that she could not bear this probing. The very thought of it was horrible to her, and in connection with it the steady scrutiny of her husband's eyes became almost a thing abhorrent. Vaguely she knew, without realizing, that she cherished deep in that inmost shrine something which he must never see, something that it would be agony to show him, something that even now gnawed secretly at her quivering heart. She always shrank from his direct look, though she would not have him know it. The calm, level gaze frightened her, she knew not why. Perhaps the secret of all her fear of him lay hidden in this problem that she dared not face.

No, she could not endure a full revelation of the truth. Bertrand had declared that Mordaunt could not discover what was non-existent, but it was not this that Chris feared. It was something infinitely more terrible, a floating suspicion that might harden into actual fact at any moment.

And so her whole being was concentrated upon avoiding the catastrophe that instinct warned her to be impending. Everything hung upon the keeping of that secret which once had seemed to her so small a thing. It had grown to mighty proportions of late. She did not ask herself wherefore; but once in the night she smiled a piteous little smile at the recollection of Manon, the maid-of-all-work, and her story of the spell that bound all who entered the Magic Cave. She remembered how she had laughed over it; but Bertrand had not laughed. He had been quite grave; she remembered that also. He had even spoken as if he believed in it. For a little her thoughts dwelt upon that night, on the quick confidences he had poured out, on her own consternation over the nature of his enterprise, on the words he had uttered then to comfort her. She had never given them much thought before. To-night, lying by her husband's side, they returned to her, and for the first time she pondered them seriously. He had dismissed ambition and success, even the strife of nations, at a breath. He had been able to do so even then, when he was nearing the summit of his aspirations. "What are they?" he had said. "Only a procession that marches under the windows, only a dream in the midst of a great Reality."

What had he meant by that? she asked herself, and searched her memory for more. It came with a curious vividness, a winged message, straight and sure as an arrow. "We look out above them," he had said, "you and I"—suddenly she heard the very thrill of his voice, and it pierced her through and through—"to the great heaven and the sun; and we know that that is life—the Spark Eternal that nothing can ever quench." Chris did not ask herself the meaning of that. She hid it away in her heart, quickly, quickly, lest seeing she should also understand.

It was very early in the morning when she slipped out of bed, and crept to the open window to watch the stars fade into the dawning. She would have liked to pray, but no prayer occurred to her. And so she knelt quite passive, gazing forth over the dim garden, too tired to think any longer, yet too miserable to sleep. She did not know that her husband's eyes gravely watched her throughout her vigil, and when presently she lay down again she still believed him to be sleeping.

In the morning inspiration came to Chris. She believed Rupert to be out of debt, thanks to Trevor's generosity. She would get him to raise the money for her. She knew he must have ways and means of so doing which were quite beyond her reach. At least, it seemed her only resource, and she would try it.

"Are you quite well, Chris?" her husband asked her when he rose at an early hour, as was his custom.

"Quite," said Chris. "Why?"

She looked at him nervously with heavy-lidded eyes.

He bent to kiss her before leaving the room. "Don't get up yet," he said kindly. "Stay in bed and have a sleep."

"But I—I have slept," she stammered.

He put the hair gently back from her forehead. "I know all about it," he said.

She started away from him in sheer panic. "About what?" she gasped, in a whisper; then, seeing his brows go up, "Oh, Trevor, I—I'm sorry. No, I haven't slept very well. But—"

"I thought not," he interposed quietly. "Well, sleep now, dear."

He turned to go, but impulsively she caught his hand, held it a moment, then suddenly put it to her lips. But she would not look at him, would not even raise her eyes again; and he, after the briefest pause, withdrew his hand, touched her cheek with it lightly, and so left her.

When they met again at the breakfast-table she was discussing with Aunt Philippa the best means of spending the day. Bertrand was not present. He usually took chocolate at that hour in Mordaunt's room, where he could continue his secretarial work uninterrupted. Noel was not yet down.

Chris turned at once to address her husband. "I have had a line from Max. He is coming down for a few days I think he hasn't been well—overworking, he says."

"I can scarcely believe," said Aunt Philippa, with her acid smile, "that a Wyndham could ever suffer from that complaint."

"They don't over-rest, anyhow," said Mordaunt, with a glance at his wife's tired face. "I shall be very pleased to see him, Chris. Write and tell him so."

"I don't think I need write," she said. "He will be here this afternoon. Shall I ask Rupert to come over and dine, so that we can all be together—that is, if Aunt Philippa doesn't mind?"

"Pray do not consider me," said Aunt Philippa.

"Do exactly as you like," said Mordaunt quietly. "Rupert is always welcome so far as I am concerned."

Chris rose from the table as he sat down. "I will send him a note at once if I may, or I shall miss the post."

"Have you had any breakfast?" he asked, detaining her as she passed his chair.

"None at all," said Aunt Philippa.

"Oh, Aunt Philippa, I have, indeed!" protested Chris, colouring vividly. "Besides, I'm not hungry."

"Besides!" echoed Mordaunt, faintly smiling. "Drink a cup of hot milk before you go."

She made a wry face. "I can't. I hate it. Please don't keep me!"

"Then do as you are told," he said. "I thought I ordered you to stay in bed."

"Oh, don't be absurd!" said Chris; but she went back to her place and poured out the milk as he desired.

"Now drink it," he said, with his eyes upon her.

She obeyed him without further protest, finally setting the cup down with a sigh of relief.

Mordaunt rose to open the door. "You are not to do anything energetic to-day," he said.

She threw him a smile, half-shy, half-wistful, and departed without replying.

He turned back into the room and sat down. "I am not quite satisfied about Chris," he said.

"Neither am I," said Aunt Philippa, with unexpected severity.

He looked at her with awakened attention. "No?" he said courteously.

"No." Very decidedly came Aunt Philippa's reply. "I intended to speak to you upon the subject, my dear Trevor, and I am glad that an early opportunity for so doing has presented itself."

"You think she looks ill?" Mordaunt asked.

"Not at all," said Aunt Philippa. "The intense heat we have had lately is quite sufficient to account for her jaded looks. She has probably also been fretting unreasonably over the death of her dog. I believe that animal was the only thing in the world she ever really cared for."

Mordaunt rested his chin on his hand, and looked at her thoughtfully. "Indeed!" he said.

Neither his voice nor his face expressed anything whatever beyond a decorous gravity. Aunt Philippa began to feel slightly exasperated.

"She will get over that," she said, with a confidence that held more of contempt than tolerance. "None of the Wyndhams are fundamentally capable of taking anything seriously for long. You must have discovered their instability for yourself by this time."

"Not with respect to Chris." Was there a hint of sternness underlying the placidity of the rejoinder? There might have been, but Aunt Philippa was too intent upon the matter she had taken in hand to notice it.

"Oh, well," she said, "you haven't been married six weeks yet, have you? You will see what I mean sooner or later. But you may take it from me that all of them—Chris included—are without an atom of solidity in their composition. I warn you, Trevor, very seriously; they are not to be depended upon."

Mordaunt heard her without changing his position. His eyes looked straight at her from under lids that never stirred. "Is that what you have to say to me?" he asked, after a moment.

"It leads to what I have to say," returned Aunt Philippa with dignity.

She was quite in her element now, and enjoying herself far too thoroughly to be lightly disconcerted.

"Pray finish!" he said.

That gave her momentary pause. "I am speaking solely for your welfare," she told him.

"I do not question it," he returned.

Yet even she was aware that his stillness was not all the outcome of courteous attention. There was about it a restraint which made itself felt, as it were, in spite of him, a dominance which she set down to his forceful personality.

"The subject upon which I chiefly desire to speak a word of warning," she said, "is the presence in the house—the constant presence—of your young French secretary."

"Yes?" said Mordaunt.

He betrayed no surprise, but the word fell curtly, as if he found himself face to face with an unpleasant task and desired to be through with it as quickly as possible.

Aunt Philippa proceeded with just a hint of caution. "My dear Trevor, surely you are aware of the danger!"

"What danger?"

A difficult question, which Aunt Philippa answered with diplomacy. "Chris was always something of a flirt."

"Indeed!" said Mordaunt again.

His manner was so non-committal that Aunt Philippa began to lose her patience. "I should have thought that fact was patent to everyone."

"Never to me," said Chris's husband very deliberately.

Aunt Philippa smiled. "Then you are remarkably blind, my dear Trevor. Flightiness has been her chief characteristic all her life. If you have not yet found that out, I fear she must be deceitful as well."

"I am not discussing my wife's character," Mordaunt made answer very steadily.

"You prefer to shut your eyes to the obvious," said Aunt Philippa, beginning to be aware of something formidable in her path but not quite grasping its magnitude.

"I prefer my own estimate of her to that of anyone else," he made quiet reply.

Aunt Philippa made a slight gesture of uneasiness. The steady gaze was becoming a hard thing to meet. Had the man been less phlegmatic, she could almost have imagined him to be in a white heat of anger. He was so unnaturally quiet, his whole being concentrated, as it were, in a composure that she could not but feel to be ominous.

It was with an effort that the woman who sat facing him resumed her self-appointed task. "That I can well understand," she said. "But even so, I think you should bear in mind that Chris is young—and frail. You are not justified in exposing her to temptation."

"As how?"

Aunt Philippa hesitated for the first time in actual perturbation.

Mordaunt waited immovably.

"I think," she said at length, "that you would be very ill-advised if you went to town and left her here—thrown entirely upon her own resources."

"May I ask if you are still referring to my secretary?" he said.

She bent her head. "I have never approved of her being upon such intimate terms with him. She treats him as if—as if—"

"As if he were her brother," said Mordaunt quietly. "I do the same. I have many friends, but he is the one man in the world who possesses my entire confidence. For that reason I foster their friendship, for I know it to be a good thing. For that reason, if I were dying, I would confidently leave her in his care."

"My dear Trevor, the man has bewitched you!" protested Aunt Philippa.

His eyes fell away from her at last, and she was conscious of distinct relief, mingled with a most unwonted tinge of humiliation.

"I am obliged to you," he said formally, "for taking the trouble to warn me. But you need never do so again. Believe me, I am not blind; and Chris is safe in my care."

He rose with the words, and went to the sideboard for his breakfast. Here he remained for some time with his back turned, but when he finally came back to the table there was no trace of even suppressed agitation about him.

He sat down and began to eat with a perfectly normal demeanour. The silence, however, remained unbroken until Noel burst tempestuously into the room. No silence ever outlasted his appearance.

He flung his arms round his brother-in-law and embraced him warmly, with a friendly, "Hullo, you greedy beggar! Hope you haven't gobbled up everything! I'm confoundedly hungry. Morning, Aunt Philippa! I suppose you fed long ago? It's a disgusting habit, isn't it? But one we can't dispense with at present. Where's Chris?"

"Chris," said Aunt Philippa icily, "has already breakfasted, and so have I."

She moved towards the door as she spoke. Noel sprang with alacrity to open it, and bowed to the floor behind her retreating form.

"She looks like a dying duck in a thunderstorm," he observed, as he returned to the table. "What have you been doing to her? Has there been a thunderstorm?"

Mordaunt met his inquiring eyes without a smile. "Noel," he said, "if you can't be courteous to your aunt and your sister, I won't have you at the table at all—or in the house for that matter."

Noel uttered a long whistle. "I thought I smelt the reek of battle in the air! What's up? Anything exciting?"

"Do you understand me?" Mordaunt said, sticking to his point.

Noel broke into smiles. "Oh, perfectly, my dear chap! You're as simple as the Book of Common Prayer. But it would be a pity to kick me out of the house, you know. You'd miss me—horribly."

Mordaunt leaned back in his chair. "Then I'll give you a sound caning instead."

Noel nodded vigorous approval. "Much more suitable. I like you better every day. So does Chris. I believe she'll be in love with you before long."

"Really?" said Mordaunt.

"Yes, really." Noel was munching complacently between his words. "I never thought you'd do it. The odds were dead against you. She only married you to get away from Aunt Philippa. Of course you know that?"

"Really?" Mordaunt said again. He was not apparently paying much attention to the boy's chatter.

"Yes, really," Noel reiterated, with a grin. "It's solid, simple, sordid fact. The only chap she ever seriously cared about was a little beast of a Frenchman she chummed up with years ago at Valpre. I never met the beggar myself, but I'm sure he was a beast. But I'll bet she'd have married him if she'd had the chance. They were as thick as thieves."

At this point Mordaunt opened the morning paper with a bored expression, and straightway immersed himself in its contents.

Noel turned his attention to his breakfast, which he dispatched with astonishing rapidity, finally remarking, as he rose: "But you never can tell what a woman will do when it comes to the point—unless she's a suffragette, in which case she may be safely relied on to make a howling donkey of herself for all time."



CHAPTER XI

A BROKEN REED

"But, my good girl, five hundred pounds!" Rupert looked down at his sister with an expression half-humorous, half-dismayed. "What do you think I'm made of?" he inquired.

She stood before him, nervously clasping and unclasping her hands. "I must have it! I must have it!" she said piteously. "I thought you might be able to raise it on something."

"But not on nothing," said Rupert.

"I would pay it back," she urged. "I could begin to pay back almost at once."

"Why on earth don't you ask Trevor for it?" he said. "He's the proper person to go to."

"Oh, I know," she answered. "And so I would for anything else, but not for this—not for this! He would ask questions, questions I couldn't possibly answer. And—oh, I couldn't—I couldn't!"

"What have you been up to?" said Rupert curiously.

"Nothing—nothing whatever. I've done nothing wrong." Chris almost wrung her hands in her agitation. "But I can't tell you or anyone what I want it for. Oh, Rupert, you will help me! I know you will!"

"Steady!" said Rupert. "Don't get hysterical, my child. That won't serve anybody's turn. I suppose you've been extravagant, and daren't own up. Trevor is a bit of a Tartar, I own. But five hundred pounds! It's utterly beyond my reach."

"Couldn't you borrow it from someone?" pleaded Chris. "Rupert, it's only for a time. I'll pay back a little every month. And you have so many friends."

Rupert made a grimace. "All of whom know me far too well to lend me money. No, that cock won't fight. I've a hundred debts of my own waiting to be settled. Trevor wasn't disposed to be over-generous the last time I approached him. At least, he was generous, but he wasn't particularly encouraging. He's such a rum beggar, and I have my own reasons for not wanting to go to him again at present."

"Of course you couldn't go to him for this," said Chris. "But—Rupert, if you could only help me in this matter, I would do all I could for you. I would give you every farthing I could spare, indeed—indeed. I might even ask him for a little later on—not yet, of course, but by and bye, if I saw an opportunity. Oh, you don't know what it means to me—how much depends upon it."

"Why don't you tell me?" Rupert asked.

"Because I can't—I daren't!" Chris laid imploring hands upon his shoulders; her eyes besought him. "Dear Rupert, it isn't that I don't trust you. Don't think that! But it wouldn't do any good if you knew, and I simply can't talk about it. I've shown how much I trust you by asking you to help me out of my trouble. There is no one else in the world that I could ask—not even Max. He would make me tell him everything. But you won't, dear; I know you won't, will you?"

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