It was impossible not to be moved by her earnest pleading. Rupert slipped an arm around her. "You needn't be afraid of me," he said.
"I know I needn't," she answered, laying her cheek against him with a quick gesture of confidence. "And I am of everyone else—even of Bertie. It's absurd, isn't it? Fancy being afraid of Bertie!" She smiled through tears.
"He doesn't know, then?" said Rupert.
"Bertie? No, no, of course not! I wouldn't have him know for the world. He would go and do—something desperate." Chris's startled eyes testified to her dread of this contingency. "No, I haven't dared to tell anyone, except you. If you can't help me, there's no one left. I—I shall run away and drown myself."
"Oh, nonsense!" said Rupert. "There's a way out of every difficulty if one has the wit to find it. Keep cool, my dear girl! If you let yourself go, you will give your own show away."
"I know! I know!" gasped Chris. "But what can I do? It would kill me if Trevor knew!"
Rupert's arm tightened protectingly about her. At least they stood by each other, these Wyndhams. "Then Trevor mustn't know," he rejoined. "I'll manage it somehow if it's humanly possible. You must let me think it over. And in the meantime, for goodness' sake, keep cool. If Trevor were to see you now, he would know there was something up directly."
As a matter of fact, he himself had never seen his sister so agitated before. She was like a terrified bird in a trap. What on earth had she been doing? he wondered. What made her go in such abject fear of her husband that the very mention of his name was enough to send every vestige of colour from her face?
He grasped her trembling fingers reassuringly. "There! Leave it to me," he said. "I'll find a way out, never fear. I've been in a good many tight corners in my time, but I've always wriggled out somehow. I suppose you want the money soon?"
"At once," said Chris.
He made a grimace, as of one swallowing a nauseous draught. "All right, you shall have it. Now, don't worry any more. It's going to be all right." He patted her shoulder kindly. "Only, for Heaven's sake, don't do it again!"
She shivered, and turned away to hide her quivering lips. "If—if you can get me the money this once," she said, "I—I'll never ask you again, and I'll give you every farthing—every farthing—"
"My dear child, I don't want your farthings," responded Rupert cheerily. "If you can make it fifty pounds now, I shall be quite grateful. But I'll get you yours first, never mind how. Now, hadn't we better go back to the rest? Aunt Philippa will be wondering what we are conspiring about. By the way, when does she depart?"
"Soon, I hope," said Chris fervently.
He grinned. "Had enough of her, eh? So, I should imagine, has Trevor. He is keener on giving advice than taking it, if I know anything about him."
"She wouldn't dare to give Trevor advice," protested Chris.
"Ho! wouldn't she?" He laughed derisively, as they turned to leave the little room in the roof that was her refuge, but paused at the door to slip his arm through hers. "You're not to worry, young 'un," he said, with a patronage that did not veil concern. "Do you know you're looking downright ill?"
She smiled up at him wistfully. "Things have been pretty horrid lately. But I won't worry any more if—if you tell me I needn't."
"You needn't," he said, and impulsively he stooped and kissed her. He had always had a protecting tenderness for his little sister.
They descended to the drawing-room to find Aunt Philippa writing letters in solitary state. The rest of the company, with the exception of Mordaunt, who was at work in his own room, were in the billiard-room just beyond, and Chris and Rupert repaired thither, relieved to make their escape so easily.
They found Bertrand, who was an expert player, making a long break. He was playing against Max, whose opinion of him was obviously rising with this display of skill.
He was engaged upon a most difficult stroke when Chris entered, and she stopped behind him lest she should disturb his aim. But he turned round at once to her, leaving the balls untouched.
"Mais non!" he declared lightly. "I cannot play with my back to my hostess. It is an affair tres difficile, and I must have everything in my favour."
"Oh, don't let me spoil your luck!" she said.
She came and stood at the end of the table to watch him.
"That would not be possible," he protested, as he applied himself again to the ball.
He achieved the stroke with that finish and dexterity that marked all he did.
"Oh, I say!" said Noel disgustedly. "You haven't a look-in, Max. He plays like a machine."
"You like not to be beaten by a Frenchman, no?" laughed Bertrand. "Il faut que les anglais soient toujours, toujours les premiers, hein?" He stopped suddenly, for Chris had made the faintest movement, as if his words had touched some chord of memory. He flashed her a swift look, and the smile died out of his face. He moved round the table, and again stooped to his stroke. "But what is success after all," he said, "and what is failure?"
"You ought to know," Max observed dryly, as again he made his point.
The Frenchman straightened himself. There was something of kinship between these two, a tacit sympathy that had taken root on the night of Chris's birthday, an understanding that called for no explanation.
"Yes," he said, with a quick nod, "I know them both. They are worth just—that." He snapped his fingers in the air. "They pass like"—he hesitated a moment, then ended with deliberation—"like pictures in the sand."
"The same remark applies to most things," said Rupert.
Bertrand glanced at him. "To all but one, monsieur," he said, in a queer tone that was almost tinged with irony.
Again he bent himself to a stroke with a quick, light grace, as though he regarded success as a foregone conclusion.
"Look at that!" said Noel in dejection, as the ball cannoned triumphantly down the table. "The gods are all on his side."
The stroke was a brilliant one, but Bertrand did not immediately straighten himself as before. He remained leaning across the table, as if he watched the effect of his skill.
There was a brief pause before very carefully he laid his cue upon the cloth and began to raise himself, slowly, with infinite caution, using both hands.
"No," he said, speaking jerkily, in a rapid undertone, as if to himself. "The gods—are no more—on my side."
A sharp gasp escaped him. He stood up, and they saw the sweat running down his forehead. "Will you—excuse me for a moment?" he said. "I have—forgotten quelque chose."
He turned towards Chris with punctilious courtesy, clicked his heels together, bowed, and walked stiffly from the room.
A MAN OF HONOUR
An amazed silence followed his exit; then, in a quick whisper, Chris spoke.
"He isn't well. I'm sure he isn't well. Did you see—his face—when he stood up?"
She turned with the words as if she would go after him, but Max checked her sharply. "No, you stay here. I'm going."
She paused irresolute. "Let me come too."
"Don't be silly," said Max. He frowned at her scared face for a moment, then smiled abruptly. "Don't be silly!" he said again. He passed down the room with what seemed to her maddening deliberation, opened the door, and went quietly out.
Aunt Philippa was still busy with her correspondence in the drawing-room. She glanced up as he went through. "Can you tell me what time the evening post goes out? I have just asked M. Bertrand, but he did not see fit to answer me."
"Then he couldn't have heard you," said Max. "The post goes out at nine-thirty."
"Ah! Then perhaps you would wait a moment while I direct this envelope, and you can then give it to a servant with orders to take it to the post-office at once."
Max drew his red brows together and waited.
The scratching of Aunt Philippa's pen filled in the pause. She directed her envelope, blotted it with care, stamped it with precision, finally handed it to her nephew with the request, "Please remember that it is important."
Max received it with reverence. "I shall treat it with the utmost veneration," he said. He knew that his aunt had a strong dislike for him, and he fostered it with much enjoyment upon every possible occasion.
He slipped the letter into his pocket as he left the room and promptly dismissed it from his mind.
He turned aside into the dining-room, rummaged for brandy and found it, and went with noiseless speed upstairs.
The door of Bertrand's room was unlatched, and he pushed it open without ceremony. Blank darkness met him on the threshold, but a sound within told him the room was tenanted. He switched on the light without delay, entered, and shut the door.
He found Bertrand seated huddled on the edge of his bed, gasping horribly for breath. He did not apparently hear Max enter. His close-cropped head was bowed upon his arms. His hands were opening and closing convulsively. He rocked to and fro almost with violence, but no sound beyond his spasmodic breathing escaped him.
Max set down the brandy and took him by the shoulders. "Look here," he said, "lie down. I'll help you."
Bertrand started a little at his touch, and Max had a glimpse of his tortured face as he glanced up. "Fermez la porte!" he said, in a choked whisper.
The door was already shut. Max wheeled and turned the key. "Now!" he said.
He stooped over the Frenchman, and with the utmost care lifted him back on to the pillows, unfastened his collar, then turned to fling the windows as wide as they would go. The night air, fragrant with rain, blew in, rustling the curtains. Bertrand turned his face towards it instinctively. His lips were blue; they worked painfully, as if, between his gasping, he were still trying to speak.
"Keep still!" Max said.
He mixed some brandy and water, and returning, slipped his arm under the pillow. "Don't exert yourself," he said. "I'll do it all."
Very steadily he held the glass for Bertrand to drink. He could take but very little at a time, so agonized was his struggle for breath. Max waited through each pause, closely watching the drawn face, never missing his opportunity. And gradually that little took effect. The anguish died out of Bertrand's eyes, and he lay still.
Max slipped his arm from beneath the pillow and stood up. "Don't move," he said. "You're getting better."
"You—will stay—with me?" whispered Bertrand.
He drew up a chair, and sat down, took the Frenchman's wrist between his fingers, and so remained for a long time.
Bertrand lay with closed eyes, his breathing still short and occasionally difficult, but no longer agonized.
There came the sound of flying feet along the corridor, and an impatient hand hammered on the door.
"Hullo, Bertrand! Are you all right? Chris wants to know," shouted a boyish voice.
Bertrand started violently, and a quiver of pain went through him. He fixed his eyes imploringly on Max, who instantly rose to the occasion.
"Of course he's all right. You clear out! We're busy."
"What are you doing?" Keen curiosity sounded in Noel's voice.
"Never mind! We don't want you," came the brotherly rejoinder.
"But I say—"
"Clear out!" ordered Max. "Go and tell Chris that Bertrand is writing a letter to catch the post; which reminds me," he added grimly, "you can also tell Holmes to come and fetch it in a quarter of an hour. Don't forget now. It's important."
He pulled the letter entrusted to his keeping from his pocket and tossed it on to the table.
Noel departed, and with an effort Bertrand spoke.
"But that was not the truth."
"Near enough," responded the second Wyndham complacently. "That is, if you don't want everyone to know."
Bertrand's brows contracted. "No—no! I would not that your sister should know, or Mr. Mordaunt."
"They will have to sooner or later," observed Max.
"Then—let it be later," murmured Bertrand.
Again there fell a silence, during which he seemed to be collecting his strength, for when he spoke again it was with more firmness.
"All right, you can call me Max. I'm listening," said Max.
Bertrand faintly smiled. That touch of good-fellowship pleased him. Young as he was, this boy somehow made him feel that he understood many things.
"Then, Max," he said, "I think that you know already that which I am going to say to you. However, it is better to say it. It is not possible that I shall live very long."
He paused, but Max said nothing. He sat, still holding Bertrand's wrist, his gaze upon the opposite wall.
"You knew it, no?" Bertrand questioned.
"I suspected it," Max said. He turned slightly and looked at the man upon the bed. "This isn't your first attack," he said.
Bertrand shuddered irrepressibly. "Nor my second," he said.
"I can give you something to ease the pain," Max said. "But if you're wise you will consult a doctor."
Again a faint smile flickered over Bertrand's face. "I am not enough wise," he said, "to desire to prolong my life under these conditions."
"I should say the same myself," observed Max somewhat curtly.
He offered no further advice, but sat on, waiting apparently for further developments.
After a little Bertrand proceeded. "I have known now for some time that this malady was incurable. I think that I would not have it otherwise, for I am very tired. I am old too—much older than even you can comprehend. I have undergone the suffering of a lifetime, and I am too tired to suffer much more. But—look you, Max—I do not want to make suffer those my friends whom I shall leave behind. That is why I pray that the end may come quick—quick. And, till then—I will bear my pain alone."
"And if you can't?" said Max. "If it gets too much for you?"
"The good God will give me strength," the Frenchman said steadfastly.
Max shrugged his shoulders. "It's your affair, not mine. But I don't see why you shouldn't tell Trevor. He will be hurt by and bye if you don't."
But Bertrand instantly negatived the suggestion. "He is already much—much too good to me. I cannot—I will not—be further indebted to him. My services are almost nominal now. Also"—he paused—"if I tell him, I cannot remain here longer, and—I have made a promise that for the present I will remain."
Max's shrewd eyes took another quick look at him. "For Chris's benefit, I suppose?" he said, and though his tone was a question, it scarcely sounded as if he expected an answer.
Bertrand's eyes met his for an instant in a single lightning glance of interrogation. They fell again immediately, and there followed a considerable pause before he made reply: "I do not abandon my friends when they are troubled and they have need of me."
"Does Chris need you?" Max asked ruthlessly.
Again that swift glance shooting upwards; again a lengthy pause. Then, "Vous avez la vue percante," Bertrand remarked in a low tone.
"I can't help seeing things," Max returned. "I suppose it's my speciality. I knew you were in love with her from the first moment I saw you."
Bertrand made a slight movement, as if the crude statement hurt him; but he answered quite quietly, "You have divined a secret which is known to none other. I confide it to your honourable keeping."
The corners of Max's mouth went down. He looked as if he were on the verge of making some ironical rejoinder, but he restrained it, merely asking, "Are you sure that no one else knows it?"
"You mean—?" The words came sharply this time; Bertrand's eyes searched his face with keen anxiety.
"Chris herself," Max said.
"La petite Christine! Ma foi, no! She has never known!" Bertrand's reply was instant and held unshaken conviction.
"You seem very sure of that," Max observed.
"I am sure. Also"—a queer little smile of tenderness touched Bertrand's drawn face—"she never will know now."
"Meaning you will never tell her?" Max said.
"Me, I will die first!" Bertrand answered simply.
Max grunted. "Women have an awkward knack of finding things out without being told," he observed.
"She will never discover this while I live," Bertrand answered. "I am her friend—the friend of her childhood—nothing more than that."
"But if she did find out?" Max said.
"She will not."
"But—suppose it for a moment—if she did?" He stuck to his point doggedly, plainly determined to get an answer.
"In that case I should depart at once," Bertrand answered.
"Yes, and where would you go to?"
Bertrand was silent.
"You would go back to London and starve?" Max persisted.
"Perhaps." Bertrand spoke as though the matter were one of indifference to him. "It would not be for long," he said rather dreamily.
"Oh, rot!" Max's rejoinder was intentionally vehement. "Look here," he said, as Bertrand looked at him in surprise, "you can't go on like that. It's too damned foolish. If, for any reason, you do leave this place, you must have some plan of action. You can't let yourself drift."
"No?" Bertrand still looked surprised.
"No," Max returned vigorously. "Now listen to me, Bertrand. If I am to keep quiet about this illness of yours, you have got to make me a promise."
Bertrand raised his brows interrogatively.
"Just this," Max said, "that if you find yourself at a loose end, you will come to me."
Bertrand looked quizzical. "A loose end?" he questioned.
"You know what it means all right," Max returned sternly. "Is it a promise?"
"That I come to you if I need a friend?" amended Bertrand. "But—why should I do that?"
"Because I am a friend if you like," said Max bluntly.
Bertrand's hand closed hard upon his. "I have—no words," he said, in a voice from which all banter had departed.
Max gripped the hand. "Then it's a promise?"
"You have no choice," Max reminded him. "And if you will come to me I can find a way to help you. It wouldn't even be difficult. And you would have skilled nursing and attention. Come, it's either that or Trevor will have to be told. He'll see that you don't go back to starve in the streets."
"I will not have Mr. Mordaunt told," Bertrand said quickly and firmly.
"Then you will give me this promise," Max returned immovably.
With a gesture of helplessness the Frenchman yielded. "Eh bien, I promise."
"Good!" said Max. He laid Bertrand's hand down and rose.
Yet a moment he stood above him, looking downwards. "You keep your promises, eh?" he asked abruptly.
Bertrand flushed. "I am a man of honour," he said proudly.
"Yes, I know you are." Max touched his shoulder with a boyish, propitiatory movement. "I beg your pardon, old chap. I'd be one myself if I could."
"But you—but you—" Bertrand protested in confusion.
"I am a Wyndham," said Max, with a bitter smile. "It doesn't run in our family, that. But I'll play the game with you, man, just because you're straight."
He patted Bertrand's shoulder lightly, and turned away. There were not many who knew Max Wyndham intimately, and of those not one who would have credited the fact that the innate honour of a French castaway had somehow made him feel ashamed.
"A thousand thanks, chere Madame, for the generous favour which you have bestowed upon me! I shall make it my business to see that no rumour of your droll secret of Valpre ever reach the ear of the strict husband, lest he should imagine that among the rocks of that paradise there lies entombed something more precious to him than the gay romance of your youth.
"To this undertaking I subscribe my signature, with many compliments to the good secretary; and to you, chere Madame, my ever constant devotion.
"Toujours a vous, GUILLAUME RODOLPHE.
"P.S.—It is with profound regret that I find myself unable to visit you, but my duty recalls me to my regiment in Paris."
A faint sigh escaped Chris, the first breath she had drawn for many seconds. She stood by her dressing-table in the full glare of the electric light, dressed in white, her wonderful hair shining like burnished copper. She was to give her first dinner-party that night. It was not to be a very large affair, yet it was something of an ordeal in her estimation. She would probably have faced it more easily away from Aunt Philippa's critical eyes. But this was a condition not obtainable. Aunt Philippa had decided to remain some little time longer at Kellerton Old Park in consequence of an engagement having fallen through, a state of affairs that Noel regarded with a disgust too forcible to be expressed in words, and which had driven Max away within three days of his arrival.
Upon Chris had devolved the main burden of her aunt's society, and a heavy burden she had begun to find it. Aunt Philippa had apparently determined to spend her time in transforming her young niece into a practical housewife—a gigantic task which she tackled with praiseworthy zeal. She had already instituted several reforms in the household, and her thrifty mind contemplated several more. Chris's attitude, which had at first been one of indifference, had gradually developed into one of passive resistance. She was, as a matter of fact, too preoccupied just then to turn her attention to active opposition; but she did not pretend to enjoy the tutelage thus ruthlessly pressed upon her. She had been compelled to relinquish her readings with Bertrand, of whom she now saw very little; for, though rigidly courteous at all times, he consistently avoided Aunt Philippa whenever possible. She on her part treated him with disdainful sufferance, much as she had treated Cinders in the old days. She resented his presence, but endured it perforce.
Under these circumstances it was not surprising that there should occur moments of occasional friction between her niece and herself, especially since, under the most favourable conditions, they had never yet managed to discover a single point in common.
This constant jarring in the background of the ceaseless anxiety that consumed her night and day had worn Chris's nerves to a very thin edge, and now that relief had come at last in the form of the letter she held in her hand she was almost too spent to feel it. The tension had endured for so long that it seemed impossible that it could have relaxed all in a moment. She had received a roll of banknotes from her brother two days before, but that had in a fashion but added to her fever of unrest. Now that she knew them to be safe in the pocket of the blackguard for whom they were intended, now surely was the time for peace to return.
But had it? Standing there, still reading and re-reading those gibing words, she asked herself dully if ever peace could return to her—the thoughtless, happy peace of her childhood that she had valued so lightly—the careless security of a mind at rest. Had it gone from her for ever? Was that also buried among the rocks at Valpre? She wondered—she wondered!
There came a low knock at the door between her room and her husband's. She started violently. He had been in town for a few hours. She had not expected him back for another quarter of an hour at least.
"Oh no," she called out quickly, "you can't come in!"
Yet she stood as she was under the glaring light, the letter still clutched stiffly in her hand, her eyes still staring widely at the irregular, un-English writing. The letters seemed to writhe and squirm into life before her distorted vision, to wriggle like a procession of monstrous insects across the page. Were they insects or were they reptiles? She asked herself the question dazedly.
"Chris!" Her husband's voice came to her softly through the closed door. "Let me come in for a moment. I have something to show you."
"Wait!" she called back desperately. "Wait!"
Yet it was as if iron chains were loaded upon her. She could speak, but she could not move. Were they reptiles she was watching so intently? Or stay! Were they crabs? They were certainly rather like the funny little crabs that she and Cinders used to hunt for in the shallow pools of Valpre. She gave a little laugh. Surely it was the sort of thing that might have happened to Alice in Wonderland!
And then quite suddenly her brain flashed back to understanding, to vivid, appalling consciousness; and she knew that her husband was waiting to enter, while she held in her hand the one thing which she would have sacrificed her life sooner than let him see. The awfulness of the realization spurred her back to action. Her limbs were free again, though horribly—so horribly—unsteady. The letter seemed to burn her fingers. She dropped it into the small drawer in which she kept her trinkets, turned the key with feverish haste, and, withdrawing it, thrust it down inside her dress. The cold steel sent a shiver to her very heart, but it stilled the wild fever of her fear. When she turned from the dressing-table she had nerved herself; she was calm.
She crossed the room to the door at which Trevor stood waiting, and quietly opened it.
"How impatient you are!" she said, with a smile.
For a woman who held her fate at bay it was admirably done; but for Chris—little Chris of the sunny eyes and eager, impetuous actions—it was so overwhelming a failure that Mordaunt, standing on the threshold, made no movement to enter, but stood, and looked and looked, as though he had never seen her before.
She met the look as a duellist meets his opponent's blade, instantly but warily, summoning all the craft of her newly awakened womanhood to her aid. She was not conscious of agitation. Her heart felt as if it were turned to stone; it did not seem to be beating at all.
"Well," she said, as he did not speak, "have you got through your business in town?"
He did not answer her, but came straight forward into the room, took her by the shoulders, and drew her round so that she faced the light. "What have you been doing?" he said.
She faced him unshrinking, undismayed. The Chris of a few hours before would have drawn back in open fear from the piercing scrutiny of those grey eyes, but this Chris was different. This Chris was a woman with pale lips that smiled a baffling smile and eyes that barred the way to her soul, a woman who had found in her womanhood a weapon of defence that no man could thrust aside.
"I haven't been doing anything," she said indifferently, "except run round after Aunt Philippa—oh yes, and write up to town for some things I wanted. Aunt Philippa is really going to leave us to-day week. I can't think what we shall do without her, can you? Now tell me about your doings."
She lifted her face suddenly for his kiss, ignoring the fact that he was still holding her as if for inquisition.
He drew her sharply into his arms and held her fast. "You are very cold, sweetheart," he said.
She flushed a little at his action, though the lips he kissed were like ice. "I am tired," she said.
She expected him to set her free, but he did not. He held her closer still. Not till afterwards did she realize that it was the first time he had ever held her thus and she had not quivered like a frightened bird against his breast. She was scarcely thinking of him now. She was as one who stands before a scorching fire too rapt in reverie to feel the heat.
Yet after a little he did succeed in infusing a certain degree of warmth into her. Her arms went round his neck, though hardly of her own volition, and her lips returned his kiss. But there was no spirit in her. She leaned against him as if spent.
"Are you quite well, dear?" he asked her tenderly.
"Oh, quite! I am always well." She uttered a little tremulous laugh and raised her head from his shoulder. "Trevor," she said, "I am afraid you will think me very extravagant, but, do you know, I haven't any money to go on with. I had a notice from the bank to-day to say my account was overdrawn."
Again it was not the Chris he knew who uttered the words. It was a woman of the world to whom his passing displeasure had become a matter almost of indifference.
"Chris," he said abruptly, "what is the matter with you, child? Are you bewitched?"
That roused her. She suddenly realized that she was on dangerous ground, that to blind him she must recall the child who had vanished so inexplicably. And so for the first time she deliberately set herself to deceive this man who till now had ever impelled her to a certain measure of honesty. She did it with a sick heart—but she did it.
She laid her hands on the front of his coat, grasping it nervously, lifting pleading eyes to his.
"No, I'm not bewitched. I'm only pretending not to be frightened. Trevor, don't be vexed. I'm very sorry about it. Really I couldn't help it."
"It's all right, dear," he said at once, and his hands closed instantly and reassuringly upon hers. He smiled into her eyes. "It's very naughty, of course, but I'm glad you have told me. How much do you want?"
She hesitated momentarily. "I—I'm afraid rather a lot, Trevor."
"How much?" he repeated; and then, as she still hesitated, his hold tightened and his face grew grave. He looked straight down into her eyes. "Chris," he said, "you haven't forgotten, have you, that it is against my wish that you should let your brothers have money?"
She met the look unflinching. "No, Trevor."
He released her without further question. "Then you need not be afraid to tell me how much."
She made a little grimace. The part was getting easier to play. She was beginning to feel almost natural. But the other woman—the woman of the world who surely had never been Chris Wyndham—was still there in the background watching the farce and smiling cynically. Chris was beginning to be afraid of this new personality of hers. It was infinitely more formidable than her husband had ever been.
"How much, dear?" Mordaunt asked quietly.
She started slightly. "Thirty pounds," she said.
"Your account is overdrawn to that amount?"
"Yes." She glanced at him nervously. "I am very sorry," she said again.
He remained grave, but perfectly kind. "I will pay in fifty pounds to-morrow," he said. "That will take you to the end of the month."
"Oh, thank you, Trevor!" She threw him a quick smile of gratitude. "I will pay you back as soon as ever I can."
"No, it isn't a loan," he said.
"Oh, don't give it me!" Impulsively she broke in upon his words. It was growing strangely easy, this part she had to play. Or had she indeed been bewitched for those few dreadful seconds? Was she in reality herself again, the quick-hearted Chris he knew, and that other woman but a phantom born of the horrible strain she had undergone? She told herself that this was the true explanation, even while in her heart she knew otherwise.
"Don't give it me," she said again. "I would really rather you didn't."
"Why?" he asked.
She put out her hand to him with a little movement of entreaty. "I can't explain. But—I would like to pay it back if you don't mind."
He smiled at her persistence. "No, I don't mind, if you particularly wish it. Now come into my room for a moment. I want to show you something."
She went with him, her hand in his, not willingly but because she could not do otherwise.
He led her to the table, and pointed out a box upon it. "That is for you, Chris."
"For me!" She looked at him as if startled. "What is it, Trevor?"
"Open it and see," he said.
She hesitated. She seemed almost afraid. "I hope it isn't anything very—very—"
"Open it and see," he repeated.
She obeyed him with hands that had begun to tremble, took out an object wrapped in tissue-paper, unfolded the coverings, and disclosed a jewel-case.
Then again she hesitated, standing as one in doubt. "Trevor, I—I—"
"Open it, dear," he said gently.
And mutely she obeyed.
Diamonds flashed before her dazzled eyes, a myriad sparkling colours shot spinning through her brain. She stood gazing, gazing, as one beneath a spell. For the passage of many seconds there was no sound in the room.
Then with a sudden movement she closed the case. It shut with a sharp snap, and she raised a haggard face.
"Trevor, it's lovely—lovely! But I can't take it—anyhow, not yet—not till I have paid you back."
"My dear little wife, what nonsense!" he said.
"No, no, it isn't! I am in earnest." Her voice quivered; she held out the case to him beseechingly. "I can't take it—yet," she said. "I thank you with all my heart. But I can't—I can't!"
Her words ended upon a sudden sob; she laid the case down again among its wrappings, and stood before him silent, with bent head. It was not easy to refuse this gift of his, but for some reason to accept it was a monstrous impossibility. He would not understand, of course, but yet—whatever he thought—she could not take it.
A long pause followed her last words. She shed no tears, but another sob was struggling for utterance. She put her hand to her throat to strangle it there.
And then at last Mordaunt spoke. "Chris, have you been doing something that you are afraid to tell me of?"
She was silent. Silence was her only refuge now.
He put his arm round her. "Because," he said very tenderly, "you needn't be afraid, dear, Heaven knows."
That pierced her unbearably. Woman though she was, she almost cried out under the pain of it.
She drew herself away from him. "Don't! please don't!" she said rather breathlessly. "You—you must take things for granted sometimes. I can't always be explaining my feelings. They won't stand it."
She tried to laugh, but could not. Again desperately she pressed her hand to her throat. How would he take it? She wondered. Would he regard it as a mere childish whim? Or would he see that he was dealing with a woman, and a desperate woman at that?
She scarcely knew what she expected of him, but most assuredly she did not anticipate his next move.
Quite quietly he picked up the jewel-case, and re-entered her room.
"It may as well go among your other treasures," he said. "You needn't wear it—unless you wish—until you have paid me back."
His tone was perfectly ordinary. She wondered what was in his mind, how he regarded her behaviour, why he treated her thus; not guessing that he had set himself resolutely, with infinite patience, to show her how small was her cause for fear.
He laid his hand upon the drawer that contained her trinkets, tried it, turned round to her, faintly smiling.
"May I have the key?"
She had followed him in silence, and now she stood still, The key! The key! It seemed to be searing her flesh, burning through to her very heart. She suddenly felt as if all the Fates were arrayed against her. Why—why—why had she chosen that drawer to guard her secret? Yet how could she have foreseen this? A mist swam before her eyes. Her new-found composure tottered.
"I—have lost it," she murmured.
"Lost it!" he echoed.
"I mean—I mean—" She was stammering now in open confusion—"I must have laid it down somewhere. I—I shall find it again, no doubt."
He turned fully round and looked at her. She clasped her hands to still her quivering nerves. This fresh ordeal was proving too much for her.
"I can't help it," she said, with white lips. "I often mislay things. I am careless, I know. But I always find them again sooner or later. I will have a look for it while you are dressing."
Her words ran on almost meaninglessly. She was speaking for the sake of speaking, because silence would have been too terrible to be borne, because if she had ceased to speak she must have screamed. Even as it was, the fact that her husband said nothing whatever was driving her almost to distraction.
Suddenly she realized that he was waiting for her to stop, that her words were making no impression, that he was not so much as listening to them, his attention being focussed upon her and her alone.
She broke off in desperation. She met his steady eyes. "Don't you—don't you believe me, Trevor?"
He did not instantly reply. For one dreadful moment she thought that he was going to answer in the negative. And then very deliberately he declined her direct challenge.
"I think," he said quietly, "that you don't know what you are saying."
And with that he went slowly back to his own room, taking the jewel-case with him. The door closed softly and she was left alone.
For many seconds thereafter Chris made no movement of any sort. It was as if she were afraid to stir. Her eyes were wide, gazing straight before her, as though fascinated by some scene of terror.
She moved at last stiffly, went to the window, drew a long, deep breath. She asked herself no questions of any sort. There was no need. For the first time in her life she was face to face with her own soul, beyond all possibility of self-deception.
The child Chris was gone for ever, the woman Chris remained, a woman with a tragic secret that must never be revealed. She knew now why she had fought so desperately to keep that episode of Valpre from her husband's knowledge. She only marvelled that the reason had never come home to her before. She knew now why she had always shrunk inwardly from the searching of his eyes. She had always dreaded that he might see too much, even that same secret of which she herself must have been vaguely conscious for years.
It was all clear to her now, so clear that she could never shut her eyes to it again. All her life long she must carry it in her heart, and no one must ever know. Sleeping and waking, she must keep it safely hidden. She must go on living a lie all her life, all her life.
She flung out her arms with a sudden gesture of fierce rebellion. Oh, why had she married? Why? Why? Why? Had she not always known in her heart that she was making a terrible, an irrevocable, mistake? How was it she had been so blind? Why had there been no one to warn her of the snare into which she was walking? Why had no hand held her back?
Trevor himself—but no, Trevor did not so much as know that she had left her childhood behind her yet. He was still wondering what childish peccadillo was troubling her, keeping her from accepting his gift. At least, he was very far from suspecting her actual reason; nor must he ever suspect.
Never, as long as they lived, must he know that she had refused the first thing of value that he had offered her since their wedding because in an instant of overwhelming revelation she had just recognized the fact that she loved—had loved for years—another man.
Two days before that on which Aunt Philippa had decided to take her departure Mordaunt went again to town. Noel, whose holidays were drawing to a close, accompanied him to the station in a state of high jubilation, albeit Holmes was in charge of the motor and there was not the faintest chance of his being allowed to take the wheel.
"I hope you're going to behave yourself," were Mordaunt's last words.
And the youngster's cheery grin and impudent "You bet, old chap!" ought to have warned him not to hope for behaviour too exemplary.
Noel, in fact, had been anticipating his brother-in-law's departure with considerable eagerness. Though he liked him thoroughly, he was an undoubted check upon his enjoyment. He kept him within bounds after a fashion which had at first amused but had of late begun somewhat to pall upon him; and Noel was only awaiting a suitable opportunity to kick over the traces and gallop free. On this occasion Mordaunt had decided to spend the night in town, so circumstances were propitious.
As for Mordaunt, he had dismissed Noel from his mind almost before the train was out of the station. But for her aunt's presence, he would have persuaded Chris to go with him, even though he knew that she had not the smallest wish to do so. He was growing very anxious with regard to her, and he was firmly determined that she should have a change of scene as soon as Noel's holidays and Aunt Philippa's protracted stay came to an end. It was not that she seemed ill, but she was very far from being herself, and there were times when he even fancied that she simulated gaiety for the deliberate purpose of deceiving him. He knew, too, that her sleep was often broken and troubled, but he never commented upon this; she was so plainly averse to any criticism from him or anyone. A shrewd suspicion had begun to take root in Mordaunt's mind to account for this unwonted reticence; and because of it he treated her with the utmost patience and consideration, asking no question, giving no sign that he so much as noticed the change in her. He invariably turned from any subject she seemed to find distasteful. If she seemed unusually nervous or unreasonable, he passed it over, bearing with her with a tenderness that sometimes moved her in secret to passionate tears the while she asked herself what she had ever done that he should love her so.
For if she had ever doubted the quality of his love, she could not do so now. It surrounded her whichever way she turned, asking nothing of her, never intruding upon her, content simply to shelter her. And though the very fact of it hurt her, it comforted her subtly as well, lulling her fear of him, giving her a certain measure of confidence.
Of Bertrand, in those days, she saw less and less. In the first shock of realization she had instinctively avoided him, possessed by a haunting dread that he might guess her secret. But upon this point she was very soon reassured. The consistent and unwavering friendliness of his attitude quieted her misgivings, and nerved her to treat him, if with less intimacy, at least without visible awkwardness. Whether he noticed her avoidance or not she did not know, but he certainly seemed to be withdrawing himself more and more out of her life. His work with her husband apparently occupied all his thoughts, and then there was Aunt Philippa also to keep him at a distance. How it would be when her aunt departed Chris had no notion, but she was looking forward to that event with an eagerness almost feverish. All her natural sweetness notwithstanding, there were occasions upon which she actively disliked this domineering relative of hers. Aunt Philippa, on her part, who had never taken so much trouble with her niece before, openly marvelled at her intractability, which even the fact that Chris was one of those headstrong Wyndhams did not, in her opinion, wholly justify. No open rupture had occurred, but a very decided animosity had begun to smoulder between them, which a very little provocation might at any moment fan into open hostility.
Chris was leaning against a pillar of the porch when her brother returned. There was very decided dejection in her attitude.
"Cheer up!" Noel exhorted her, as he sprang from the car. "I've got a ripping plan."
He came and twined his arm in hers, and Chris smiled with a hint of wistfulness. She felt as if she had left Noel and his boyish pleasures very far behind of late.
"What do you want to do?" she said.
"Come into the gun-room and I'll tell you." Noel was all eagerness. "Coast clear?" he questioned. "Where's Aunt Phil?"
"Waiting for me to go and help her find fault with the gardeners." Chris was still smiling a little, but there was not much humour in her voice.
"Oh, rats! Don't go!" said Noel. "Come along into the gun-room, and help me make some fireworks. It will be much more fun."
A spark of the old ardour kindled in Chris's eyes. "Oh, are you going to make fireworks?" she said. "Have you got the ingredients?"
He nodded. "Nearly all. Come and see. What we haven't got we must manufacture. I know where there are plenty of cartridges."
Chris yielded to the eager pulling of his arm. "I suppose Trevor wouldn't mind for once," she said. She had grown unaccountably scrupulous in this respect.
But Noel jeered at the notion. "Who cares? It'll be all over long before he comes home to-morrow. We will have a regular jollification to-night. You and I will run the show, and Aunt Phil and Bertrand can look on and admire. I say, Chris, I've got a ripping receipt for Catherine wheels—not the big ones, those little things you hold and buzz round. You know!"
His enthusiasm was infectious. It drew her almost in spite of herself. Besides, it meant a temporary respite from the continual burden that weighed her down, and brief though it must be, she could not bring herself to refuse it. She went with him, therefore, with the feeling of one who has signed a truce with the enemy, and in a couple of minutes they were securely closeted in the gun-room, with the door locked against all intruders, and all thoughts of Aunt Philippa and any other troublous problems as resolutely excluded from their minds.
The hours of the morning literally flew. Luncheon-time found them absorbed in a most critical process.
"Bust lunch!" said Noel. "We can't possibly leave this now."
But Chris's sense of duty proved too strong for her inclination at this juncture, and she sallied forth from their retreat to rescue Bertrand from a tete-a-tete meal with her aunt.
There was a sparkle of merriment in her eyes when she entered the dining-room. The engrossing work of the morning had done her good. She was fully five minutes late, and Bertrand, who had presented himself sharp on the hour with military punctuality, was waiting by the window.
He came swiftly to meet her. She had not seen him before that day.
"You are looking well this morning," he said, in his quick, friendly way. "You have been busy, yes?"
His soft eyes interrogated her, as for an instant he held her hand. Never once had she found those eyes impossible to meet. They held the fidelity of unswerving friendship.
"Oh yes," she said, "busy in a fashion—a very childish fashion, Bertie. Noel and I are making fireworks!"
"Fireworks!" he echoed.
"Yes, we are going to have a grand display tonight. Will you come and look on?"
He smiled. "But yes," he said. "I think that I will come and take care of you."
She nodded. "Do! But they are not dangerous, not very. Where is Aunt Philippa?"
He spread out his hands whimsically. "She has not given me her confidence."
Chris laughed. Actually she was feeling almost lighthearted. Till that moment she had had a morbid dread of being alone with him, and now behold her dread vanishing in mirth! Surely she had been very foolish, like a child frightened at shadows!
"I wonder where she is," she said. "I am afraid I have been playing truant this morning. I shall have to apologize, though it was all Noel's fault. Do see if you can find Mrs. Forest," she added to a servant just entering. "Ask her if she is ready for luncheon."
"Mrs. Forest is out in the motor, and has not yet returned," was the information this elicited.
"How odd!" said Chris. "What had we better do?"
Bertrand shrugged his shoulders, still looking quizzical. "We must not lunch without her, bien sur. Let us go into the garden."
They went into the garden, and walked for a space in the September sunshine.
They talked at first upon commonplace topics, and Chris was wholly at her ease. But presently Bertrand turned the conversation with an abrupt question.
"Christine, tell me, you have never seen that scoundrel Rodolphe again?"
She started a little, and was conscious that she changed colour, but she answered him instantly. "No, never. But—why do you ask?"
Very gravely he made reply. "I have feared lately that there was something that troubled you. I was wrong, yes?"
He looked at her anxiously.
She did not answer him, she could not.
"Eh bien," he said gently, after a moment. "It was not that. You have heard that he has been recalled to France—that there is a rumour that there have been revelations that may lead to a court-martial?"
"No!" said Chris in amazement. "Do you mean—"
He bent his head. "It is possible."
"That you may be vindicated?" she questioned eagerly. "Oh, Bertie!"
"It is possible," he repeated. "Yet I will not permit myself to hope. It is no more than a rumour. It is also possible that it may not even touch the old affaire, since he made no appearance at my trial."
"But if it did!" said Chris.
He gave her an odd look. "If it did, Christine?" he questioned.
"You would go back with flying colours," she said. "You would be reinstated surely!"
He shook his head. "I do not think it."
"You mean you wouldn't go?" she asked.
He turned his face up to the sun with a peculiar gesture. "Who can say?" he said, with closed eyes. "Me, I think that the good God has other plans for me. I may be justified—I do not know. But I shall wear the uniform of the French Army—never again."
He spoke perfectly calmly, with absolute conviction; but there was that in his face that startled her, something she had never seen before.
She put out a hesitating hand, and touched his sleeve. "Bertie!"
Instantly he looked at her, saw the scared expression in her eyes, and, smiling, pressed her hand.
"Mais, Christine, these things—what are they? Ambition, success, honour—loss, failure, shame; they seem so great in this little life of mortality. But, after all, they are no more than the tools with which the good God shapes us to His destiny. He uses them, and when His work is done He throws them aside. We leave them behind us; we pass on to that which is greater." He paused a moment, and his eyes kindled as though he were on the verge of something further; then suddenly they went beyond her, and he relinquished her hand. "Madame has returned," he said. "Let us go!"
Looking up, Chris saw Aunt Philippa upon the terrace above them.
The expression on her relative's face was one of severe and undisguised disapproval, as her gaze rested upon the two in the garden. Chris, as she moved to meet her, felt a sudden flame of indignation at her heart. How dared Aunt Philippa look at them so?
"We have been waiting for you," she said, speaking in some haste to conceal her resentment. "Has anything happened?"
Aunt Philippa replied in the measured accents habitual to her. "Nothing has happened. I have been to Sandacre Court, at Mrs. Pouncefort's invitation, to see the gardens. I waited for you, Chris, for nearly an hour this morning, but you did not see fit either to come to me or to send any word of explanation to account for your absence. Therefore I started late. Hence my late return."
Chris coloured. "I am sorry, Aunt Philippa. Noel wanted me. I am afraid I forgot you were waiting."
"It seems to me," said Aunt Philippa, with cutting emphasis, "that you are apt to forget every obligation when in Mr. Bertrand's society."
Furious indignation rang in Chris's voice. In a second—in less—it would have been open war, but swift as an arrow Bertrand intervened.
"Ah! but pardon me," he said, in his soft voice. "I am not responsible for Mrs. Mordaunt's negligence. She has been occupied with her affairs, and I with mine. Had she been in my society"—he smiled with a flash of the teeth—"she would not have forgotten her duties so easily. I am an excellent monitor, madame. Acquit me, I beg, of being accessory to the crime, and accept my sympathies the most sincere."
Aunt Philippa ignored them in icy silence, but he had accomplished his end. The evil moment was averted. Whatever Chris might have to endure later, at least she would be spared the added mortification of his presence during the infliction. Airily he turned the subject. He could overlook a snub more adroitly than Aunt Philippa could administer one.
They went into the house, and during the meal that followed Bertrand made himself gracefully agreeable to both ladies. So delicate were his attentions that Chris found herself more than once on the verge of hysterical laughter.
But when he left them at length, with many apologies, to resume his interrupted labours, her sense of humour ceased to vibrate. Never before had she desired her husband's presence as she desired it then.
Her hope that Aunt Philippa might retire to her room to rest was a very slender one, and destined almost from the outset to disappointment. Aunt Philippa was on the war trail, and she would not rest until she had tracked down her quarry.
She began at once to speak of her morning's visit to Mrs. Pouncefort, whom she knew as a London hostess. Personally, she disapproved of her, but she could not afford to pass her over, since her status in society was by no means inconsiderable, being, in fact, almost capable of rivalling her own.
"I should have remained to luncheon," she said, "but for the fact that you were here quite unchaperoned. Had you accompanied me, as I had hoped you would, I should not have had to hasten back in the heat."
"But I wasn't invited," said Chris, "and I know every inch of those gardens. I knew them long ago, before the Pounceforts came."
"The invitation," said Aunt Philippa, not to be diverted from her purpose, "was quite casual. You could quite well have accompanied me. In fact, I think Mrs. Pouncefort was surprised not to see you. However, we need not discuss that further. Doubtless you had your own reasons for desiring to remain at home, and I shall not ask you what those reasons were. What I do ask, and what I think I have a right to know, is whether you have had the proper feeling to tell your husband that the Captain Rodolphe you met at Pouncefort Court a little while ago is the man with whom you were so deplorably intimate at Valpre in your girlhood, or whether you have had the audacity to pretend that he was a total stranger to you."
Chris almost gasped at this unexpected attack, but its directness compelled an instant reply without pausing to consider the position.
"I was never intimate with Captain Rodolphe," she said quickly. "I never spoke to him before the other day."
And there she stopped suddenly short, arrested by the look of open incredulity with which her aunt received her hasty statement.
There was a moment's silence. Then, "Really!" said Aunt Philippa. "He gave Mrs. Pouncefort to understand otherwise."
Chris felt the blood rush to her face. This was intolerable. "What did he give Mrs. Pouncefort to understand?" she demanded.
"Merely that you were old friends," said Aunt Philippa, with the calm superiority of one not to be shaken in her belief.
"Then he lied!" said Chris fiercely.
Aunt Philippa said "Indeed!" with raised eyebrows.
Chris's hands clenched unconsciously. "He lied!" she repeated. "We are not friends! We never could be! I—I hate the man!"
"Then you know him well enough for that?" said Aunt Philippa.
Chris sprang to her feet with hot cheeks and blazing eyes. "Aunt Philippa, you have no right—you and Mrs. Pouncefort—to—to talk me over and discuss my acquaintances!"
"My dear child," said Aunt Philippa, "all that passed between us was a remark made by Mrs. Pouncefort to the effect that one of her guests, Captain Rodolphe—an old friend of yours whom she believed you had originally met at Valpre—had just returned to Paris. What led to the remark I do not remember. But naturally the name recalled certain regrettable circumstances to my mind, and I felt it my duty to ask if you had been quite candid with Trevor upon the subject. I am sincerely grieved to know that my suspicion in this respect was but too well founded."
"He was not the man I knew at Valpre" burst forth Chris, with passionate vehemence. "You may believe it or not; it is the truth!"
"Then, my dear," said Aunt Philippa, with the calmness of unalterable conviction, "there must have been two men who enjoyed that privilege."
Chris broke into a wild laugh—a laugh that had been struggling for utterance for the past hour.
"Two! Why, there were a dozen at least, some soldiers, some fishermen! Ask Trevor! He can tell you all about them—if he thinks it worth while!"
"And yet you have not mentioned Captain Rodolphe to him?" said Aunt Philippa. Her eyes were fixed unsparingly upon the girl's face, and she saw the colour dying away as swiftly as it had risen. "That is strange," she remarked, with emphasis.
"It is not strange!" flashed back Chris. The laugh had gone from her lips, leaving them white, but she faced her adversary unflinchingly. It was open war now—a fierce and bitter struggle for the mastery, for which she knew herself to be ill-equipped, but in which she must fight to the last. She knew that Aunt Philippa had always regarded her with cold dislike, and it dawned upon her in that moment that now—now that her position was assured, now that she was rich and popular and the wife of a man who was universally honoured in that great world of society in which her aunt had always striven for a leading place—the dislike had turned to a cruel jealousy that demanded her downfall. And she was horribly at her mercy; deep in her heart she knew that also, but she would not own it, even to herself. Aunt Philippa had not yet unmasked the truth. Until she succeeded in doing so, all was not lost.
"It is not strange," she repeated, and this time she spoke quietly, summoning all her strength to the unequal contest. "Captain Rodolphe was not of sufficient importance to mention to Trevor. Besides—"
"Although you hate him so bitterly!" Aunt Philippa reminded her.
Chris pressed on, ignoring the thrust. "Besides, Trevor does not need, does not so much as wish to be told of every little incident that ever happened in my life. He prefers to trust me."
"And have you never abused his confidence?" asked Aunt Philippa.
It was inevitable. She flinched ever so slightly, but she covered it with instant defiance. "What do you mean, Aunt Philippa?"
Aunt Philippa made no direct reply. She knew the value of insinuation in such a battle as this. "Ask yourself that question," she said impressively.
It might have provided a way of escape, at least temporarily, but Chris was too far goaded to see it. "Tell me what you mean," she said.
Aunt Philippa's thin lips smiled ironically. "My dear, are you really so blind, or is deceit the very air you breathe? Can you look me in the face and assure me that nothing has ever passed between you and your husband's secretary of which you would not wish him to know?"
That went home, straight to her quivering heart. For a moment the pain of it held her dumb. Then, with a gasp, she turned from the pitiless eyes that watched her.
"Oh, how dare you, Aunt Philippa! How dare you!" she cried in impotence.
"I trust that I am not afraid to do my duty," said Aunt Philippa, very gravely.
But Chris had already turned, completely routed, and fled from the scene of her defeat; nor did she pause until she had reached her haven at the top of the house, where, like a wounded bird, she crouched down in solitude and so remained for a long, long time.
Not till the afternoon was far advanced did any measure of comfort come to her stricken soul, and then at last she remembered that, after all, she was comparatively safe. Her husband's trust was still hers, implicit and unwavering, and she knew that he would not so much as notice a single hint from Aunt Philippa, however adroitly offered. That was her one and only safeguard, and as she realized it the bitterness of her heart gave place to a sudden burst of anguished shame. What had she ever done to deserve the generous, unquestioning trust he thus reposed in her? Nothing—less than nothing!
When Chris emerged from her seclusion, she found that her aunt had decided to suspend hostilities, and to treat her with the majestic condescension of the conqueror. It was something of a relief, for Chris was not fashioned upon fighting lines, and long-sustained animosity was beyond her. She was thankful for Noel's plans for the evening's entertainment as a topic of conversation, even though Aunt Philippa openly disapproved of the enterprise. She had begun feverishly to count the hours to her aunt's departure. She would not feel really safe, reassure herself how she might, until she was finally gone.
It was not until after dinner that Noel emerged from his lair in the gun-room and announced everything to be in readiness. He called Chris out on to the terrace to assist him, and Aunt Philippa and Bertrand were left—an ill-assorted couple—to watch and admire the result of his efforts. Aunt Philippa invariably maintained a demeanour of haughty reserve if she found herself alone with her host's French secretary, an attitude in which he as invariably acquiesced with an impenetrable silence which she resented without knowing why. He was always courteous, but he never tried to be agreeable to her, and this also Aunt Philippa resented, though she would have mercilessly snubbed any efforts in that direction had he exerted himself to make them.
The night was dark and still, an ideal night for fireworks. Noel began with the failures which he had not the heart to waste. He was keeping the choicest of his collection till the last. Consequently there were a good many crackling explosions on the ground with nothing but a few sparks to compensate for the noise, and Aunt Philippa very speedily tired of the din.
"This is childish as well as dangerous," she said. "I shall go to the library. There will at least be peace and quietness there."
"Without doubt," said Bertrand.
He accompanied her thither with a polite regard for her comfort for which he received no gratitude, and then returned to smoke his cigarette in comfort by the open French window that overlooked the terrace.
A ruddy glare lit up the scene as he took up his stand. The failures were apparently exhausted, and Noel had begun upon the masterpieces. Chris's quick laugh came to him, as he stood there watching. Yet he frowned a little to himself as he heard it, missing the gay, spontaneous, childish ring that he had been wont to hear. What had come to her of late? Was it true that she had told him on the night of Cinders' death? Was she indeed grown-up? If so—he changed his position slightly, trying to catch a glimpse of her in the fitful glare of one of Noel's Roman candles—had the time come for him to go? He had always faced the fact that she would not need him when her childhood was left behind. And certainly of late she had not seemed to need him. She had even—he fancied—avoided him at times. He wondered wherefore. Could it have been at her aunt's instigation? Surely not. She was too staunch for that.
There remained another possibility, and, after a little, reluctantly, with clenched teeth, he faced it. Had she by some means discovered that which he had so studiously hidden from her all this time? He cast his mind back. Had he ever inadvertently betrayed himself? He knew he had not. Never since her marriage had he given the faintest sign; no, not even on that fateful afternoon when she had clung to him in anguish of soul and he had held her fast pressed against his heart. He had been strictly honourable, resolutely loyal, all through. He had always held himself in check. He had never forgotten, never relaxed his vigilance, never once been other than faithful, even in thought, to the friend who trusted him. Yet—Max's words recurred to him, piercing him as with a stab of physical pain—without doubt women had a genius incroyable for discovering secrets. And if Chris were indeed a woman—was it not possible—
Again her laugh broke in upon his thoughts, and he turned swiftly in the direction whence it came. She was standing not more than a dozen yards from him, a red whirl of fire all about her, in her hand a whizzing, spitting-aureole of flame. The light flared upwards on her face and gleaming hair. She looked like some fire-goddess, exulting over the radiant element she had created. And, like a sword-thrust to his heart, there went through him the memory of her standing poised like a bird on the prow of a boat. Just so had she stood then; just so, goddess-like, had she exulted in the morning sunshine and the sparkling water; just so had her bare arms shone on the day that first he had consciously worshipped her, on the day that she had told him of her desire to find out all the secrets that there were. Ah! how much had she found out since then—his bird of Paradise with the restless, ever-fluttering wings? How much? How much?
A sudden cry banished his speculations—a cry uttered by her voice, sharp with dismay. "Oh, Noel! My sleeve!"
Before the words were past her lips Bertrand had leaped forth to the rescue. He traversed the distance between them as a meteor hurling through space. But even so, ere he reached her, the filmy lace that hung down from her elbow had blazed into flame. She had dropped the firework, and it lay hissing on the ground like a glittering snake. He sprang over it and caught her in his arms.
She cried out again as he crushed her to him, cried out, and tried to push him from her; but he held her fast, gripping the flaming material with his naked hands, rending it, and gripping afresh. Something white which neither noticed fluttered upon the ground between them. It must have actually passed through that frantic grip. It lay unheeded, while Bertrand beat out the last spark and ripped the last charred rag away from the soft arm.
"You are hurt, no?" he queried rather breathlessly.
"You, Bertie! What of you?" she cried hysterically, clinging to him. "Your hands—let me see them!"
"By Jove, that was a near thing!" ejaculated Noel, who had followed close upon Bertrand's heels. "I thought you were done for that time, Chris. How on earth did you manage it? You must have been jolly careless."
Chris did not attempt to answer. Now that the emergency had passed, she was hanging upon Bertrand almost in a state of collapse.
"Let us go in," the latter said gently.
"Yes, run along," said Noel, who had a wholesome dread of hysterics. "Don't be silly, Chris; there's no harm done. But if it hadn't been for this chap here you'd have been in flames in another second. I congratulate you, Bertrand, on your presence of mind. Not hurt yourself, I suppose?"
"I am not hurt," the Frenchman answered; but his words sounded as if speech were an effort to him, almost as if he spoke them through clenched teeth.
Chris straightened herself swiftly. "Yes, let us go in," she said.
She leaned upon Bertrand no longer, but she still held his arm. As they entered the drawing-room alone together, she turned and looked at him.
"Ah! I knew you were hurt," she said quickly. "Sit down, Bertie. Here is a chair."
He sank down blindly, his face like death; he had begun to gasp for breath. His hand groped desperately towards an inner pocket, but fell powerless before reaching it.
"Let me!" whispered Chris.
She bent over him, and slipped her own trembling hand inside his coat. Her fingers touched something hard, and she drew out a small bottle.
"Is it this?" she said.
His lips moved in the affirmative. She removed the stopper and shook out some capsules.
"Deux!" whispered Bertrand.
She put them into his mouth and waited. Great drops had started on his forehead, and now began to roll slowly down his drawn face. She took his handkerchief after a little to wipe them away, but almost immediately he reached up with a quivering smile and took it from her.
"I am better," he said, and though his voice was husky he had it under control. "You will pardon me for giving you this trouble. It was only—a passing weakness."
He mopped his forehead, and leaned slowly forward, moving with caution.
"But you are ill! You are in pain!" Chris exclaimed.
"No," he said. "No, I have no pain. I am better. I am quite well."
Again he looked up at her, smiling. "But how I have alarmed you!" he said regretfully. "And your arm, petite? It is not burnt—not at all?"
He took her hand gently, and put back the tattered sleeve to satisfy himself on this point.
Chris said nothing. Her lips had begun to tremble. But she winced a little when he touched a place inside her arm where the flame had scorched her.
He glanced up sharply. "Ah! that hurts you, that?"
"No," she said, "no. It is nothing." And then, with sudden passion: "Bertie, what does a little scorch like that matter when you—when you—" She broke off, fighting with herself, and pointed a shaking finger at his wrist.
It had been blistered by the flame, and his shirt-cuff was charred; but the injury was slight, remarkably so in consideration of the utter recklessness he had displayed.
He snapped his fingers with easy indifference. "Ah, bah! It is a bagatelle, that. In one week it will be gone. And now—why, cherie—"
He stopped abruptly. She had dropped upon her knees beside him, her hands upon his shoulders, her face, tragic in its pain, upturned to his.
"Bertie, why do you try to hide things from me? Do you think I am quite blind? You are ill. I know you are ill. What is it, dear? Won't you tell me?"
He made a quick gesture as if he would check either her words or her touch, and then suddenly he stiffened. For in that instant there ran between them once again, vital, electric, unquenchable, that Flame that had kindled long ago on a morning of perfect summer, that Flame which once kindled burns on for ever.
It happened all in a moment, so swiftly that they were caught unawares in the spell of it, so overwhelmingly that neither for the space of several throbbing seconds possessed the volition to draw back. And in the deep silence the man's eyes held the woman's irresistibly, yet by no conscious effort, while each entered the other's soul and gazed upon the one supreme secret which each had mutely sheltered there.
It was to the man that full realization first came—a realization more overwhelming than anything that had gone before, striking him with a stunning force that shattered every other emotion like a bursting shell spreading destruction.
He came out of that trance-like stillness with a gesture of horror, as if freeing himself from some evil thing that had wound itself about him unawares.
Her hands fell away from his shoulders instantly. She was white to the lips. She even for one incredible moment—the only moment in her life—shrank from him. But that impulse vanished as swiftly as it came, vanished in a rush of passionate understanding. For with a groan Bertrand sank forward and bowed his head in his hands.
"Mon Dieu!" he said. "What have I done?"
She responded as it were instinctively, not pausing to choose her words, speaking in a quick, vehement whisper, because his distress was more than she could bear.
"It is none of your doing, Bertie. You are not to say it—not to think it even. It happened long, long ago. You know it did. It happened—it happened—that day at Valpre—the day you—took me into your boat."
He groaned again, his head dropping lower. She knew that also! Then was she woman indeed!
There followed a silence during which Chris remained kneeling beside him, but she was no longer agitated. She was strangely calm. A new strength seemed to have been given her to cope with this pressing need. When at last she moved, it was to lay a hand that was quite steady upon his knee.
"Bertie," she said, "listen! You have done nothing wrong. You have nothing to reproach yourself with. It wasn't your fault that I took so long to grow up." A piteous little smile touched her lips, and was gone. "You have been very good to me," she said. "I won't have you blame yourself. No woman ever had a truer friend."
He laid his hand upon hers, but he kept his eyes covered. She could only see the painful twitching of his mouth under the slight moustache.
"Ah, Christine," he said at last, with an effort, "I have tried—I have tried—to be faithful."
"And you have never been anything else," she said very earnestly. "You were my preux chevalier from the very beginning, and you have done more for me than you will ever know. Bertie, Bertie"—her voice thrilled suddenly—"though it's all so hopeless, do you think it isn't easier for me now that I know? Do you think I would have it otherwise if I could?"
His hand closed tightly upon hers with a quick, restraining pressure. He could not answer her.
For some seconds he did not speak at all. At length, "Then—you trust me still, Christine?" he said, his voice very low.
Her reply was instant and unfaltering. "I shall trust you as long as I live."
He was silent again for a space. Then suddenly he uncovered his face and looked at her. Again their eyes met, with the perfect intimacy of a perfect understanding.
"Eh bien," Bertrand said, speaking slowly and heavily, as one labouring under an immense burden, "I will be worthy of your confidence. You are right, little comrade. We have travelled too far together—you and I—to fear to strike upon the rocks now."
He paused a moment, then quietly rose, drawing her to her feet. So for a while he stood, her hands clasped in his, seeming still upon the verge of speech, but finding no words. His eyes smiled sadly upon her, as the eyes of a friend saying good-bye. At last he stooped, and reverently as though he sealed an oath thereby, he pressed his lips upon the hands he held.
An instant later he straightened himself, and in unbroken silence turned and left her.
It was one of the simplest tragedies ever played on the world's stage. They had found each other—too late, and there was nothing more to be said.
THE TURN OF THE TIDE
It was evening when Mordaunt returned on the following day. He was met at the station by Noel. Holmes was in charge of the motor, and greeted his master with obvious relief. The care of the youngest Wyndham was plainly a responsibility he did not care to shoulder for long.
"All well?" Mordaunt asked, as he emerged from the station with his young brother-in-law hooked effusively on his arm.
"All well, sir," said Holmes, with the air of a sentry relaxing after long and arduous duty.
"Flourishing," said Noel, "though it's the greatest wonder you haven't come back to find Chris a heap of ashes. She would have been if Bertrand hadn't—at great personal risk—put her out."
"What has happened?" demanded Mordaunt sharply.
"All's well, sir," said Holmes reassuringly.
"Fireworks!" explained Noel. "My word, I made some beauties! I wish you could have seen 'em. I got singed a bit myself. But, then, that's only what one would expect playing with fire, eh, Trevor?" He rubbed his cheek ingratiatingly against Mordaunt's shoulder. "You needn't be anxious. Chris was really none the worse. But the Frenchman had a bad attack of blue funk when the danger was over, and nearly fainted. He's feeling ashamed of himself apparently, for I haven't seen him since. By the way, Aunt Phil and Chris had a mill yesterday, and the old lady is suffering from a very stiff neck in consequence. I asked Chris what she did to it, but she wouldn't tell me. Thank the gods, she goes to-morrow! You'll let me drive her to the station, won't you? I should like to go to heaven in Aunt Phil's company. She would be sure to get into the smartest set at once."
He rattled on in the same cheery strain without intermission throughout the return journey, having imparted enough to make Mordaunt thoroughly uneasy, notwithstanding Holmes's assurance.
The first person he met upon entering the house was Aunt Philippa. She accorded him a glacial reception, and explained that Chris had retired to bed with a severe headache.
"It's come on very suddenly," remarked Noel, with frank incredulity. "Where's Bertrand? Has he got a headache too?"
Aunt Philippa had no information to offer with regard to the French secretary! She merely observed that she had given orders for dinner to be served in a quarter of an hour, and therewith swept away to the drawing-room.
Mordaunt shook off his young brother-in-law without ceremony, and went straight up to his wife's room.
His low knock elicited no reply, and he opened the door softly and entered.
The room was in semi-darkness, but Chris's voice accosted him instantly.
"Is that you, Trevor? I'm here, lying down. I had rather a headache, or I would have come to meet you."
Her words were rapid and sounded feverish, as though she were braced for some ordeal. She was lying with her back to the curtained windows and her face in shadow.
Mordaunt went forward with light tread to the bed. "Poor child!" he said gently.
He stooped and kissed her, and found that she was trembling. Quietly he took her hand into his, and began to feel her pulse.
She made a nervous movement to frustrate him, but he gently insisted and she became passive.
"There is nothing serious the matter," she said uneasily. "I—I didn't sleep very well last night, that's all. I thought you wouldn't mind if I didn't come to meet you."
Mordaunt, with the tell-tale, fluttering pulse under his fingers, made gentle reply. "Of course not, dear. I think you are quite right to take care of yourself. Is your head very bad?"
"No, not now. I think I'm just tired. I shall be all right after a night's rest."
Again she tried to slip her hand out of his grasp, and after a moment he let it go.
"Please don't worry about me," she said. "You won't, will you?"
"Not if there is really no reason for it," he said.
She stirred restlessly. "There isn't—indeed. Aunt Philippa will tell you that. I was letting off fireworks with Noel only last night."
"And set fire to yourself," said Mordaunt.
She started a little. "Who told you that?"
"Oh! Well, nothing happened, thanks to—to Bertie. He put it out for me."
"I think there had better not be any more fireworks unless I am there," Mordaunt said. "I don't like to think of my wife running risks of that sort."
"Very well, Trevor," she said meekly.
"Where did the fireworks come from?" he pursued.
"We made them—Noel and I. We used some of your cartridges for gunpowder. He got saltpetre and one or two other things from the chemist. They were quite a success," said Chris, with a touch of her old light gaiety.
"And you are paying for it to-day," he said. "It will be a good thing when Noel goes back to school."
"Oh no," she answered quickly. "It wasn't the fireworks. I often have wakeful nights."
It was the first time she had ever alluded to the fact. He wondered if she would summon the courage to tell him something further. He earnestly hoped she would; but he hoped in vain. Chris said no more.
He paused for a full minute to give her time, but, save that she became tensely still, she made no sign. Very quietly he let the matter pass. He would not force her confidence, but he realized at that moment more clearly than ever before that she had only really belonged to him during the brief fortnight that they had been alone together. The two months of their married life had but served to teach him this somewhat bitter lesson, and he determined then and there to win her back as he had won her at the outset, to make her his once more and to keep her so for ever.
"I am going to take you away, Chris," he said. "You are wanting a change. Noel's holidays will be over next week. We will start then."
"Where shall we go?" said Chris, and he detected the relief with which she hailed the change of subject.
"We will go to Valpre," he said, with quiet decision.
"Valpre!" The word leaped out as if of its own volition. Chris suddenly sprang upright from her pillows, and gazed at him wide-eyed. In the dim light he could not see her face distinctly, but there was something almost suggestive of fear in her attitude. "Why Valpre?" she said, in a queer, breathless undertone as if she could not control her voice.
He looked down at her in surprise. "You would like to go to Valpre again, wouldn't you?"
She gasped. "I—I really don't know. But what made you choose it? You have never been there."
"No," he said. "You will be able to introduce me to all your old haunts."
She gasped again. "You chose it because of that?"
He put a steadying hand upon her shoulder. "Chris, what makes you so nervous, child? No, I didn't choose it because of that. As a matter of fact, I didn't choose it at all. I am due there on business in three weeks' time, but I thought we might put in a fortnight together there beforehand. Wouldn't you like that?"
She shivered under his hand, and made no reply. She only said, "What business?"
He hesitated a moment, then deliberately sat down upon the bed and drew her close to him. "You remember that blackguard Frenchman Rodolphe who was staying with the Pounceforts two or three weeks ago?"
"Yes," whispered Chris.
"He is to be court-martialled at Valpre, and I have accepted an offer to go as correspondent to the Morning Despatch and report upon his trial. As you know, I represented them at Bertrand's affaire, and this is a sequel to that. In fact, Bertrand himself is very nearly concerned in it. Certain transactions have recently come to light tending to show that the crime of which he was accused was not only committed by this same Rodolphe, but that he also deliberately manufactured evidence to shield himself at the expense of Bertrand, the author of the betrayed invention, against whom it seems he had a personal grudge. By the way, he managed skilfully to keep in the background at Bertrand's trial. I fancy he was away on some special mission at the time, and he did not appear. I never saw him before that day at Sandacre Court, and I did not so much as know then that he and Bertrand were acquainted. Did you know that?"
She started at the question, but answered it more naturally than she had before spoken. "Yes. I knew that Bertie had belonged to the same regiment. They did not speak to each other that afternoon. You see, I was there."
"Ah! And you never met him in the old Valpre days?"
Again she answered without apparent agitation; but her hands were fast gripped together in the gloom. "I may have seen him. I never spoke to him. Bertie was the only one I ever knew."
"Ah!" Mordaunt said again. He was plainly thinking of Bertrand's affairs. "Well, he is to stand his trial now, and I couldn't resist the chance of being present at it. He was recalled to Paris a week ago, and summarily arrested; but as popular feeling is running very high, the trial is to be held at Valpre, which is a fairly important military station. That means that the court-martial will take place probably in the fortress in which the crime was committed—a pleasing consummation of justice."
"And—Bertie will be vindicated?" breathed Chris.
"If Rodolphe is convicted," Mordaunt answered, "Bertrand will be in a position to return to France and demand a second trial, the outcome of which would be practically a foregone conclusion, and at which I hope I shall be present."
Chris drew a sharp breath. "Then—then he will go to Valpre too?"
"Not yet. He would be arrested and imprisoned if he did, and might possibly ruin his cause as well. No, he will have to play a waiting game for the present. I think myself it is the turn of the tide, but things may yet go against him. There is no knowing. He is better off where he is till we can see which way the matter will go. He doesn't want to spend the rest of his life in a fortress."
Chris shuddered uncontrollably at the bare thought. "Oh no—no! Trevor, you won't let him run any risk of that?"
"I shall certainly counsel prudence," Mordaunt answered. "If he runs any risks, it will be with his eyes open."
He paused a moment, then turned her face tenderly up to his own, and kissed it. "And you don't like the Valpre plan?" he said, with great gentleness.
"We can go elsewhere if you prefer it," he said. "The court-martial will probably only take a few days. We can stay somewhere near while it is in progress. But I must have you with me wherever it is."
He spoke the last words with his arms closely enfolding her. She turned with sudden impulse and clasped him round the neck.
"Oh, Trevor," she murmured brokenly, "you are good to me—you are good!"
"My darling," he whispered back, "your happiness is mine—always."
She made a choked sound of dissent. "I'm horribly selfish," she said, with a sob.
"No, dear, no. I understand. I ought to have thought of it before."
She knew that he was thinking of Cinders, and that a return to the old haunts could but serve to reopen a wound that was scarcely closed. She was thankful that he interpreted her reluctance thus, even while she marvelled to herself as she realized how far she had travelled since the bitter day on which she had parted with her favourite. Looking back, she saw now clearly what that tragedy had meant to her. It had been indeed the commencement of a new stage in her life's journey. It was on that day that she had finally stepped forth from the summer fields of her childhood, and she knew that she would wander in them no more for ever.
The thought went through her with a dart of pain. They had been very green, those fields, and the great thoroughfare which now she trod seemed cruelly hard to her unaccustomed feet.
A sharp sigh escaped her as she gently withdrew herself from her husband's arms. "Shall we talk about it to-morrow?" she said.
"MINE OWN FAMILIAR FRIEND"
Sitting in his writing-room with Bertrand that night Mordaunt imparted the news that concerned him so nearly.
The young Frenchman listened in almost unbroken silence, betraying neither surprise nor even a very great measure of interest. He sat and smoked, with eyes downcast, sometimes fidgeting a little with the fingers of one hand on the arm of his chair, but otherwise displaying no sign of agitation.
Only at the end of the narration did he glance up, and that was but momentarily, when Mordaunt said, "It transpires that this Rodolphe had an old score to pay off. You were enemies?"
Bertrand removed his cigarette to reply, "That is true."
"You once fought a duel with him?" Mordaunt proceeded.
Bertrand's eyelids quivered, but he did not raise them. He merely answered, "Yes."
"That fact will probably figure in the evidence," Mordaunt said. "The cause of the duel is at present unknown."
"It is—immaterial," Bertrand said, in a very low voice. He paused a moment, then said, "And you, you will be at the trial to report?"
"Yes. I am going. Chris will go with me."
"Ah!" The exclamation seemed involuntary. Bertrand's hand suddenly clenched hard upon the chair-arm. "You will take her—to Valpre?" he questioned.
"Probably not to the place itself," Mordaunt made answer. "I think she is not very anxious to go there. It has associations that she would rather not renew. We shall stay somewhere within easy reach of Valpre. Perhaps you can tell me of a suitable resting-place not too far away. You know that part of the world."
"I know it well," Bertrand said, and fell silent, as though pondering the matter. At the end of a lengthy pause he spoke, abruptly, with just a tinge of nervousness. "But why do you take her if she does not desire to go?"
Mordaunt raised his brows a little.
"You will pardon me," Bertrand added quickly, "but it occurs to me that possibly she may prefer to remain at home. And if that were the case you would not, I hope, consider my presence here as an obstacle, for"—again he flashed a swift look across—"it is not my intention to remain."
"What are your intentions?" Mordaunt asked.
Bertrand shrugged his shoulders. "I do not know yet. Circumstances will decide. But it is certain that I can trespass no more upon your kindness. I have already accepted too much from you—more than I can ever hope to repay. Moreover"—he paused—"I do not wish to inconvenience you, and since I cannot accompany you to France—" he paused again, and finally decided to say no more.
"Chris will go with me in any case," said Mordaunt quietly. "We have already arranged that. You would cause no inconvenience to anyone by staying here. In fact, it would be to my advantage."