"To your advantage!" Bertrand echoed the words sharply, as if in some fashion they hurt him; and then, "But no," he said with decision. "It has never been to your advantage to employ me. You have done it from the kindness of your heart, but it would have been better for you if you had entrusted your affairs to a man more capable. And for that reason I am going to ask you to find another secretary as soon as possible, one who will perform his duties faithfully and merit his pay."
"Is that the only reason?" Mordaunt asked unexpectedly.
There fell a sudden silence. Bertrand, with bent head, appeared to be closely examining the leather on which his fingers still drummed an uneasy tattoo. At last, "It is the only reason which I have to give you," he said, his voice very low.
"It is not a very sound one," Mordaunt remarked.
Again that quick shrug of the shoulders, and silence. Several moments passed. Then with an abrupt movement Bertrand rose, laid aside his cigarette, which had gone out, and seated himself at the writing-table.
A pile of letters lay upon it that had arrived by the evening post. He began to turn them over, and presently took up a paper-cutter and deftly slit them open one by one.
Mordaunt sat and smoked as one lost in thought. Finally, after a long silence, he looked up and spoke.
"Why this sudden hurry to dissolve partnership, Bertrand?" he asked, with his kindly smile. "Is it this Rodolphe affair that has unsettled you? Because surely it would be wiser to wait and see what is going to happen before you take any decided step of this sort."
"Ah! It is not that!" Bertrand spoke with a vehemence that sounded almost passionate. "It is nothing to me—this affair. It interests me—not that!" He snapped his fingers contemptuously. "No, no! The time for that is past. What is honour, or dishonour, to me now—me who have been down to the lowest abyss and who have learned the true value of what the world calls great? Once—I admit it—I was young; I suffered. Now I am old, and—I laugh!"
Yet there was a note that was more suggestive of heartbreak than of mirth in his voice. He applied himself feverishly to extracting a letter from an envelope, while Mordaunt sat and gravely watched him.
Suddenly, but very quietly, Mordaunt rose, strolled across, and took the fluttering paper out of his hands. "Bertrand!" he said.
The Frenchman looked up sharply, almost as if he would resent the action, but something in the steady eyes that met his own altered the course of his emotions. He leaned back in his chair with the gesture of a man confronting the inevitable.
Mordaunt sat down on the edge of the writing-table, face to face with him. "Tell me why you want to leave me," he said.
There was determination in his attitude, determination in the very coolness of his speech. It was quite obvious that he meant to have an answer.
Bertrand contemplated him with a faint, rueful smile. "But what shall I say?" he protested. "You English are so persistent. You will not be content with the simple truth. You demand always—something more."
"There you are mistaken," Mordaunt made grave reply. "It is the simple truth that I want—nothing more."
"Ciel!" Bertrand jumped in his chair as if he had been stabbed in the back. "You insult me!"
Mordaunt's hand came out to him instantly and reassuringly. "My dear fellow, I never insult anyone. It is not my way."
"But you do not believe me!" Bertrand protested. "And that is an insult—that."
"I believe you absolutely." Very quietly Mordaunt made answer. The hand he would not take was laid with great kindness on his shoulder. "I happen to know you too well to do otherwise. Why, man," he began to smile a little, "if all the world turned false, I should still believe in you."
"Tiens!" The word was almost a cry. Bertrand shook the friendly hand from his shoulder as if it had been some evil thing, and almost with the same movement pushed his chair back sharply out of reach. "You should not say these things to me!" he stammered forth incoherently. "I do not deserve them. I am not—I am not what you imagine. You do not know me. I do not know myself. I—I—" He broke off in agitation and sprang impetuously to his feet.
With a gesture half-hopeless, half-appealing, he turned and walked to the window, as if he could no longer bear to meet the level, grey eyes that watched him with so kindly a confidence.
There fell a silence in the room while Mordaunt, still sitting on the writing-table, deliberately finished his cigarette. That done, he spoke.
"Don't you think you had better tell me what is the matter?"
Bertrand jerked his shoulders convulsively; it was the only response he made.
Mordaunt waited a few moments more. Then, "Very well," he said, without change of tone or countenance. "We will dismiss the subject. If you really mean to leave me, I will accept your resignation in the morning, but not to-night. If—as I hope—you have thought better of it by then and decide to remain, nothing further need be said. Will that satisfy you?"
Bertrand wheeled abruptly, and stood facing him, the length of the room intervening. His mouth worked as if he were trying to speak, but he said nothing whatever.
Mordaunt turned without further words to the letter in his hand, and studied it in silence. After a pause Bertrand came slowly back to the writing-table. He had mastered his agitation, but he looked unutterably tired.
Mordaunt moved to one side at his approach. "Sit down!" he said, without raising his eyes.
Bertrand sat down, and began to turn his attention to sorting the letters he had opened. Mordaunt stood motionless, reading with bent brows.
Suddenly he spoke. "There is something here I can't understand."
Bertrand glanced up. "Can I assist?"
"I don't know. Read that!" Mordaunt laid the letter before him. "I can't account for it. I think it must be a mistake."
Bertrand took the letter and read it. It was an intimation from the bank that in consequence of the bearer cheque for five hundred pounds presented and cashed the week before, Mordaunt's account was overdrawn.
"What cheque can it be?" Mordaunt said. "Have you any idea?"
Bertrand shook his head. "But no! It is perhaps some charity—a gift that you have forgotten?"
"My good fellow, I may be careless, but I'm not so damned careless as that." Mordaunt pulled out a bunch of keys with the words. "Let me have a look at my cheque-book. You know where it is."
Yes, Bertrand knew. He was as cognizant of the whereabouts of Mordaunt's possessions as if they had been his own, and he had as free an access to them. Such was the confidence reposed in him.
He took the keys, selected the right one, stooped to fit it into the lock. And then suddenly something happened. A violent tremor went through him. He clutched at the table-edge, and the keys clattered to the ground.
"Hullo!" Mordaunt said.
Bertrand was staring downwards with eyes that saw not. At the sound of Mordaunt's voice he started, and began to grope on the floor for the keys as if stricken blind.
"There they are, man, by your feet." Mordaunt stooped and recovered them himself. "What's the matter? Aren't you well?"
Bertrand lifted a ghastly face. "I am quite well," he said. "But—but surely the bank would not cash a cheque so large without reference to you!"
Mordaunt looked at him a moment. "I have been in the habit of drawing large sums," he said. "But I usually write a note to the bank to accompany a cheque of this sort."
He turned to the drawer and unlocked it. His cheque-book lay in its accustomed place within. He took it out and commenced a careful examination of the counterfoils of cheques already drawn.
Bertrand sat quite motionless, with bowed head. He seemed to be numbly waiting for something.
Mordaunt was very deliberate in his search. He came to the end of the counterfoils only, but went quietly on through the sheaf of blank cheques that remained, gravely scrutinizing each.
Minutes passed. Bertrand was sunk in his chair as one bent beneath some overpowering weight, the pile of letters untouched before him.
Suddenly Mordaunt paused, became tense for an instant, then slowly relaxed. His eyes travelled from the open cheque-book to the man in the chair. He contemplated him silently.
After the lapse of several seconds, he laid the open book upon the table before him. "A cheque has been abstracted here," he said.
His voice was perfectly quiet. He made the statement as if there were nothing extraordinary in it, as if he felt assured that there must be some perfectly simple explanation to account for it, as if, in fact, he scarcely recognized the existence of any mystery.
But Bertrand uttered not a word. He was as one turned to stone. His eyes became fixed upon the cheque in front of him, but his stare was wide and vacant. He seemed to be thinking of something else.
There fell a dead silence in the room, a stillness in which the quiet ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece became maddeningly obtrusive. For seconds that dragged out interminably neither of the two men stirred. It was as if they were mutely listening to that eternal ticking, as one listens to the tramp of a watchman in the dead of night.
Then, at last, with a movement curiously impulsive, Trevor Mordaunt freed himself from the spell. He laid his hand once more upon his secretary's shoulder.
"Bertrand!" he said, and in his voice interrogation, incredulity, even entreaty, were oddly mingled. "You!"
The Frenchman shivered, and came out of his lethargy. He threw a single glance upwards, then suddenly bowed his head on his hands. But still he spoke no word.
Mordaunt's hand fell from him. He stood a moment, then turned and walked away. "So that was the reason!" he said.
He came to a stand a few feet away from the bent figure at the writing-table, took out his cigarette-case, and deliberately lighted a cigarette. His face as he did it was grimly composed, but there were lines in it that very few had ever seen there. His eyes were keen and cold as steel. They held neither anger nor contempt, only a tinge of humour inexpressibly bitter.
Finally, through a cloud of smoke, he spoke again. "Have you nothing to say?"
Bertrand stirred, but he did not lift his head. "Nothing," he muttered, almost inarticulately.
"Then"—very evenly came the words—"that ends the case. I have nothing to say, either. You can go as soon as you wish."
He spoke with the utmost distinctness. His head was tilted back, and his eyes, still with that icy glint of amusement in them, watched the smoke ascending from his cigarette.
There was a brief pause. Then Bertrand stumbled stiffly to his feet. He seemed to move with difficulty. He turned heavily towards the Englishman.
"Monsieur," he said with ceremony, "you have—I believe—the right to prosecute me."
Mordaunt did not even look at him. "I believe I have," he said.
"Alors—" the Frenchman paused.
"I shall not exercise it," Mordaunt said curtly.
"You are too generous," Bertrand answered.
He spoke without emotion, yet there was something in his tone—something remotely suggestive of irony—that brought Mordaunt's eyes down to him. He looked at him hard and straight.
But Bertrand did not meet the look. With a mournful gesture he turned away. "I shall never cease to regret," he said, "the unhappy fate that sent me into your life. I blame myself bitterly—bitterly. I should have drawn back at the commencement, but I had not the strength. Only monsieur, believe this"—his voice suddenly trembled—"it was never my intention to rob you. Moreover, that which I have taken—I will restore."
He spoke very earnestly, with a baffling touch of dignity that seemed in some fashion to place him out of reach of contempt.
Mordaunt heard him without impatience, and replied without scorn. "What you have taken can never be restored. The utmost you can do is to let me forget, as soon as possible, that I ever imagined you to be—what you are not."
The simplicity of the words effected in an instant that which neither taunt nor sneer could ever have accomplished. It pierced straight to Bertrand's heart. He turned back impulsively, with outstretched hands.
"But, my friend—my friend—" he cried brokenly.
Mordaunt checked him on the instant with a single imperious gesture of dismissal, so final that it could not be ignored.
The words died on Bertrand's lips. He wheeled sharply, as if at a word of command, and went to the door.
But as he opened it, Mordaunt spoke. "I will see you again in the morning."
"Is it necessary?" Bertrand said.
"I desire it." Mordaunt spoke with authority.
Bertrand turned and made him a brief, punctilious bow. "That is enough," he said, and left the room martially, his head in the air.
A DESPERATE REMEDY
The clock on the mantelpiece struck two, and Mordaunt rose from his chair to close the window. The night was very still and dark. He stood for a few moments breathing the moist air. From somewhere away in the distance there came the weird cry of an owl—the only sound in a waste of silence. He leaned his head against the window-sash with a sensation of physical sickness. His heart was heavy as lead.
It was no more than a whisper, but he heard it. He turned. "Chris!"
She stood before him, her white draperies caught together with one hand, her hair flowing in wide ripples all about her, her eyes anxiously raised to his.
"Trevor," she said, "what is the matter?"
There was a species of desperate courage in the low question. The fingers that grasped her wrapper were tightly clenched.
He closed the window. "Have you been lying awake for me?" he said. "I am sorry."
"Something is the matter," she said with conviction. "Won't you tell me what it is? I—I would rather know."
"I will tell you in the morning, dear," he said gently. "You must go back to bed. I am coming myself now."
But Chris stood still. "I want to know now, please, Trevor," she said. "I shall not sleep at all unless I know."
He put his arm about her, looking down at her with great tenderness. "Must I tell you now?" he said, a hint of weariness in his voice.
She did not resist his touch, but neither did she yield herself to him. She stood within the encircling arm, looking straight up at him with wide, resolute eyes.
"It is something to do with Bertie," she said, in the same tone of unquestioning conviction.
He raised his eyebrows. "What makes you think so?"
She frowned a little. "It doesn't matter, does it? Won't you tell me what has happened?"
He hesitated momentarily; then; "Yes, I will tell you," he said. "Bertrand is leaving to-morrow—for good."
He felt her stiffen against his arm, and for the first time he noticed her pallor and the unusual steadfastness of her eyes. He realized that she was putting strong restraint upon herself, and the fact made her strangely unfamiliar to him. He was accustomed to vivid speech and impetuous action. He scarcely knew her in this mood, although he recognized that he had seen it at least once before.
"Why?" Her lips scarcely moved as they asked the question. Her eyes never left his face.
He drew her to the writing-table on which his cheque-book still lay open at the place whence a cheque had been abstracted with its counterfoil.
"Sit down," he said, "and I will tell you."
She sat down in silence.
He knelt beside her as he had knelt on their wedding-night, and took her cold hands into his own.
"I think you know," he said quietly, "that I have always trusted Bertrand implicitly."
"You trust everyone," she said, with a small, aloof smile, as if she were trying to appear courteous while her thoughts were elsewhere.
"Yes, to my undoing," he told her grimly. "I trusted him to the utmost, and—and he has betrayed my trust."
She started at that, but instantly controlled herself. "In what way?" she asked him, her voice scarcely above a whisper.
He drew the cheque-book to him. "If you look at this cheque and the next," he said, "you will see that there is one missing. There has been a cheque taken out."
"Yes?" said Chris.
Her eyes rested for a moment upon the cheque-book, and returned to his face. They held a curious expression as of relief and doubt mingled.
"That is how he betrayed my trust," he told her quietly. "He used that cheque to forge my signature and withdraw a sum of money from my account which under ordinary circumstances I should probably never have missed. As he is aware, I keep a large account, and I am in the habit of drawing large cheques. As it chanced, the account was not quite so large as usual, and it did not quite cover the amount withdrawn. Consequently my attention was called to it, and I looked into the matter and discovered—this."
"Yes?" said Chris. "Yes?"
She was breathing very fast. It was evident that her agitation was getting beyond her control.
He clasped her hands closer, with a warm and comforting pressure. He knew—or he thought he knew—what this revelation would mean to her. Had not Bertrand been even more her friend, her trusted counsellor, than his own?
"That is all the story, dear," he said gently. "We have got to face it as bravely as we can. He will leave in the morning, so you need not see him again."
She made a quick, involuntary movement, and her hands slipped from his.
"Not see him again!" she repeated, staring at him with wide eyes. "Not see him again!"
"I think it would be wiser not," he said, very kindly. "It would only cause you unnecessary pain."
She uttered a sudden breathless little laugh. "Trevor—am I dreaming? Or—are you mad? You don't—actually—believe he did this thing?"
His face hardened a little. "He had the sense not to attempt to deny it. There was no question as to his guilt. He was the only person besides myself who had access to my cheque-book."
"But—" Chris said, and paused, as if to collect her thoughts. "How much was taken?" she asked after a moment.
"That," Mordaunt observed, "is the least important part of the whole miserable business."
"Still, tell me," she persisted.
"He took five hundred pounds."
"Trevor!" She gasped for breath, and turned so white that he thought for a moment she would faint.
He put his arm round her quickly. "Chris, we won't discuss it any further to-night. You must go back to bed. You will catch cold if you stay here any longer."
But for the first time in her life she resisted him. She drew away from him. She almost pushed him from her.
"Five hundred pounds!" she said, speaking through white lips. She was shivering violently from head to foot. "But—but—what should Bertie want with five hundred pounds?"
"I didn't inquire what he did with it." Mordaunt's answer came with implacable sternness. "I haven't the least curiosity on that point. It is enough for me that he took it."
"Oh, Trevor, how hard you are!" The words rushed out like the cry of a hurt creature, and suddenly Chris's hands were on his shoulders, and her face, pinched and desperate, looked closely into his. "You have so much—so much!" she wailed. "You don't know what temptation is!"
He rose to his feet instantly and lifted her to hers. She was sobbing terribly, but without tears. He held her to him, supporting her.
"Chris, Chris!" he said. "Don't, child, don't! I know what this means to you. It means a good deal to me too, more than you realize. But for Heaven's sake let us stand together over it. Let us be reasonable."
There was strong appeal in his voice; for in that moment, though he held her to his heart, he knew that the gulf between them had suddenly begun to widen. He saw the danger in a flash of intuition, but he was powerless to avert it. They viewed the matter from opposite standpoints. Did they not view all matters moral thus? She could condone what he could only condemn, and because of this she deemed him hard and feared him.
He bent his face to hers as he held her. His lips moved against her forehead. "Chris," he said softly, "don't cry, dear! Listen to me. I'm not going to punish him. He will have to go of course. As a matter of fact, he meant to do so in any case. But it will go no further than that. There will be no prosecution."
She turned her face up quickly, and he saw that her eyes were dry, though her breathing was spasmodic. "You couldn't prosecute an innocent man," she said. "And he is innocent. I know he is innocent. You say he didn't deny it. It was because he wouldn't stoop to deny it. He knew you would never believe him if he did."
The words came fast and passionate. She drew back from him to utter them, and for the first time he read a challenge in her desperate eyes.
He let her go out of his arms. He had tried to bridge the gulf, but the distance was too great. His tenderness only gave her courage to defy him.
With a stifled sigh he abandoned the conflict. "As I said before, there is no question of his guilt," he said, with quiet emphasis. "Far from denying it, he even announced his intention of restoring what he had taken. That, of course, is also out of the question. He will probably never be in a position to do so. But in any case it is beside the point. It is useless to discuss it further."
She broke in upon him almost fiercely. "Trevor, won't you believe me when I say that I know—I know—he is innocent?"
He looked at her. "How do you know it?"
She wrung her hands together. "Oh, I have no proof! Can't you believe me without proof?"
He was watching her intently. "I believe in your sincerity, of course," he said. "But I am afraid I don't share your conviction."
"But you must—you must!" she cried. "I know him better than you do. I know him to be incapable of the tiniest speck of dishonour. I swear that he is innocent! I swear it! I swear it!"
He put out a restraining hand. "Chris, don't say any more! You are only upsetting yourself to no purpose. Come, child, it is useless to go on—quite useless."
She flung out her arms with a gesture of utter despair. "You won't believe me?"
He turned to lock up his cheque-book. "I have answered that question already," he said, without impatience.
She drew near to him. Her blue eyes burned with a feverish light. Her face was haggard. "Trevor, what would you say if—if—I told you he were shielding someone—if I told you he were shielding—me?" Her voice sank upon the word.
He turned sharply round, so sharply that she shrank. But he made no movement towards her. He only looked full and piercingly into her face. At the end of ten seconds he spoke, so calmly that his voice sounded cold.
"I am afraid I shouldn't believe you."
His eyes fell away from her with the words. He dropped his keys into his pocket and switched off the light from his writing-table.
Chris was shivering again, shivering from head to foot. She could barely keep her teeth from chattering. He came to her and put his arm round her.
She glanced up at him nervously, but his quiet face told her nothing. Almost involuntarily she suffered him to lead her from the room.
WHEN LOVE DEMANDS A SACRIFICE
When Chris awoke, the morning sunshine was streaming in through the open windows, and she was alone. She came back to full remembrance slowly, as one toiling along a difficult road. Her brain felt very tired. She lay vaguely listening to the gay trill of a robin on the terrace below, dreading the moment when the dull ache at her heart should turn to active pain.
A cheery whistle on the gravel under her windows roused her at last. She took up her burden again with a great sigh.
"O God!" she whispered, as she turned her heavy head upon the pillow, "do let me die soon—do let me die soon!"
But there was no voice nor any that answered.
Wearily at length she raised herself. It was curious how ill she felt. She looked longingly back at her pillow.
At the same instant the gay whistle in the garden gave place to a cracked shout. "Hullo, Chris! Aren't you going to get up to-day? Do you know what time it is?"
She started, and looked at her watch. Ten o'clock! In amazement and consternation she sprang from the bed. Bertrand was to leave in the morning; so Trevor had told her. She must—she must—see him before he left! Doubtless Trevor had hoped that she would sleep on till the afternoon, and so miss him. How little he knew! How little he understood!
With a bound she reached the window, there a sudden dizziness attacked her. She clutched at the curtain with both hands. What if he had gone already? What if she were never to see him again?
Desperately she steadied herself. She must not give way thus. She looked out and saw Noel, walking along the edge of the balustrade that bounded the terrace. His arms were outstretched, and he balanced himself with extreme difficulty. It looked perilous, but she knew him well enough to feel no anxiety, notwithstanding the fact that there was a fall of twelve feet on one side of him.
After a few moments she commanded herself sufficiently to call down to him, "Noel, where is everybody?"
He looked up, lost his balance, and sprang down upon the terrace. "By Jove! Aren't you dressed yet? What are we coming to? Trevor is gone to ride round the estate, wouldn't have me for some reason. Bertrand is in his room with the door locked, says he is busy—all bally rot, of course. And Aunt Phil, thank the gods! is packing her trunk to leave by the five o'clock train. By the way, Trevor said I was to see you had some breakfast. What would you like? I'll bring it up to you myself in two shakes."
Chris felt an unexpected lump rise in her throat. Somehow the tenderness of her husband's love hurt her more than it comforted just then. She knew that he had absented himself and deputed Noel to wait upon her because he had divined that she would prefer it. His intuition frightened her also. Was he beginning to divine other things as well? Recalling his intent look of the night before, the wonder struck chill to her heart. Yes, she was thankful that he had gone; but it would be horribly hard to meet him again after she and Bertrand had said good-bye. Aunt Philippa's departure, eagerly though she had anticipated it, would make it harder. Very soon Noel also would be gone, and they would be alone together. How would she keep her secret then? How hide her soul from those grave, keen eyes that probed so deeply?
Ah! but he trusted her; he trusted her! Back to the old sheet-anchor flew her whirling thoughts. His faith in her was invincible, unassailable. It kept her safe. It sheltered her from every danger. It was her single safeguard in temptation; without it she would be lost.
She swallowed the lump in her throat, and leaned from the window to give her brother the instructions he awaited.
Turning back into the room, she found a note in her husband's handwriting lying on her table. She took it up.
"I do not forbid you to see Bertrand," it ran, "though I think you would be wiser not to do so. I have already taken leave of him. He refuses to be open with me, so there is no more to be said. It is by his own wish that he is leaving to-day. As I said to you last night, I shall take no legal steps against him, but that does not alter the fact that he is a criminal, and for that reason your friendship with him must cease. I am sorry, but it is inevitable. I think you will see it for yourself by and bye, but till then my prohibition must be enough. I cannot be disobeyed in this matter. Bear it in mind, dear, and believe that, even though I may seem hard, I am acting for your welfare, which is more to me than anything else on earth.
Her face was white and strained as she read the note through. She seemed to hear her husband's quiet voice in every sentence. Never till that moment had she fully realized the fact that he had the right thus to guide and restrain her actions. Never till that moment had she found her will in direct opposition to his. A sudden passion of rebellion swept upon her, possessed her. It was intolerable, impossible; she could not submit to the mandate.
To give up her friend—the dear knight of her girlhood's dreams—to see him never again, to close her heart to him, to shut out the very memory of him, to take up her life without him—no, never, never, never! Her throbbing heart cried out against it. It was not to be borne. A fury akin to hatred surged up within her. There was no man living who could make her do this thing.
Fiercely she tore the paper across and across, and flung the fragments from her. Never would she consent to this! She would defy him sooner!
Defy him! It was as if a voice spoke suddenly in her soul, asking a quiet question. Could she defy him and still hide her secret? Would not the steady eyes read her through and through the instant that her will resisted his? Would he not know in a moment? Was it not even possible that he had begun already to suspect?
Again she recalled his intent look of the night before, and her heart misgave her. Had she betrayed herself? Had he seen behind the veil? She shivered at the thought, and for a few moments she was overwhelmingly afraid. How would she ever meet those eyes again?
But when presently Noel presented himself she had recovered her self-command. She even compelled herself to eat some breakfast, while he balanced himself on the window-sill and made careless conversation. It was evident that he knew nothing of Bertrand's impending departure, and she was relieved that this was so. She could not have borne his curiosity or his comments.
"What are you going to do to-day?" she presently inquired.
"When you've had a decent meal, I'm going for a ride," he answered promptly. "Can't waste the whole day hanging about and Fiddle's spoiling for a gallop. You won't come, I suppose?"
She shook her head. "No. I couldn't, anyhow. I must stay with Aunt Philippa to-day. I've had quite a lot to eat. Don't wait."
He sprang to his feet at once. "You haven't done badly, have you, considering you've been lazing in bed instead of working up an appetite in the open air? I say, Chris, there's nothing the matter, is there?"
"Of course not," she returned briskly. "Why?"
"You're not looking exactly chirpy," he said, regarding her critically. "And Trevor was positively bearish this morning. He hasn't been bullying you, has he?"
"Of course not," she said again. "How absurd you are!"
He looked incredulous. "Don't you stick it!" he warned her. "If he tries it on, you come to me. I'll settle him."
She laughed and turned the subject. "Hadn't you better start? It's getting late."
"P'raps I had. Good-bye, then!" He bent unexpectedly and kissed her cheek. "We'll go for a picnic to-morrow," he said, "to celebrate Aunt Phil's departure. Keep your pecker up! She'll soon be gone."
He marched away, whistling, and Chris was alone.
She rose and finished her dressing with feverish haste. Now was her time.
Noel had said Bertrand was in his room. She must see him alone. But how should she let him know? If she went in search of him she might encounter Aunt Philippa and be detained. She went down to her husband's room, and rang the bell there.
Holmes answered it in some surprise, knowing his master to be out; but she gave him no time for speculation.
"Holmes," she said, "I believe Mr. Bertrand is somewhere in the house. I wish you would find him, and say I am waiting to speak to him on a matter of importance. I am going into the garden. He will find me under the yew-tree."
Holmes departed with his customary dispatch. There was something indefinable about his young mistress that made him wish his master were at hand. He made his way to Bertrand's room and knocked.
There was no immediate reply; then, "I am busy," said Bertrand from within.
"If you please, sir!" said Holmes.
There was a movement in the room at once, and the door opened. "Ah! It is the good Holmes!" said Bertrand. "I thought that it was Monsieur Noel. What is it, then? You bring me a message?"
He looked at the man with sleepless eyes that shone curiously bright. In the room behind him a portmanteau, half-filled, lay upon the floor.
For a single instant Holmes hesitated before delivering his message. Then he gave it punctiliously, word for word.
"I am obliged to you," said Bertrand courteously. "I shall go to Mrs. Mordaunt at once."
He crossed the threshold therewith, but paused a moment outside the room.
"Holmes," he said, "I go to London by the 11.50. Will you arrange for my luggage to be taken to the station?"
Holmes's well-ordered countenance expressed no surprise. "Very good, sir. And you yourself, sir?" he said.
"I shall walk," said Bertrand.
"You would like me to finish packing for you, sir?" suggested Holmes.
"Ah! That would be very good." Bertrand's voice expressed relief. He stepped back into the room to slip a sovereign into the man's hand.
But Holmes drew back. "Thank you, sir. I'd rather not, sir."
Bertrand's brows went up. "How? But we are friends, no?" he questioned.
"I don't know, sir," said Holmes, respectful but firm. "Anyhow, I'd rather not, sir."
"Eh bien!" The Frenchman shrugged his shoulders and turned. "Adieu, Holmes!" he said.
"Good-day, sir!" said Holmes.
He stood in the middle of the room till Bertrand had gone, then with an expressionless face he betook himself to the door of Aunt Philippa's room.
Here he knocked again, and, receiving Mrs. Forest's permission to enter, presented himself on the threshold. "I have come to say, madam, that Mrs. Mordaunt is in the garden under the old yew," he announced deferentially. "Will you be good enough to join her there?"
Aunt Philippa, in the midst of her own preparations for departure, received the news with considerable surprise. It was not Chris's custom to send her messages of any description. The summons fired her curiosity; but her dignity would not allow her to hasten overmuch to answer it.
"I will be with Mrs. Mordaunt in a few minutes," she said.
And Holmes departed, impassive still but with a mind uneasy. He wished with all his soul that the master had not chosen to absent himself that morning. Perhaps he was unreasonably nervous, but there seemed to be tragedy in the very air.
Bertrand, traversing the lawn bareheaded, was keenly aware of tragedy; but it did not delay his steps. He went down the shady path that led to Chris's retreat at a speed that left him breathless. He paused with his hand to his heart as he reached the yew-tree before plunging into the gloom beneath its great, drooping branches. He was living too fast, and he knew it, could almost feel his life running out like the sand in an hour-glass. But a great recklessness possessed him. If his strength could only be made to last for a couple of hours more, he did not care what happened to him, how soon the sand ran out.
He had suffered more during the past night than he had ever thought to suffer again. He had fought a desperate fight, and it had cost him nearly all his strength. He knew instinctively that he must make the most of what was left. Afterwards—afterwards—when the ordeal was over, he would sink down and rest, it mattered not where. If he lived long enough, he would keep his promise to Max Wyndham. If not,—well, he would not be needing human help. The gods had nearly done with him, and he was too weary to care. If he could only be faithful a little longer—a little longer! Nothing would matter afterwards, and the pain would be over then.
"Bertie, I am here!"
He started, and for a moment that which he had been fighting down all night showed in his eyes. He thrust it away out of sight. He answered her with his usual courteous confidence.
"Ah! You are there, Christine! You will pardon me for keeping you waiting. I came as soon as your message reached me."
He lifted one of the great yew-branches and stepped beneath as if entering a tent. It fell behind him, and in the green gloom they were face to face.
"Were you going without saying good-bye?" said Chris.
She stood before him, very pale and quiet. Her eyes did not meet his quite fully.
He spread out his hands. "I knew not if you would wish to see me."
"Don't you know me better than that?" she said. He did not answer her. Evidently she did not expect an answer, for she went on almost at once. "Bertie, why did you let Trevor think you had robbed him?"
He made a sharp gesture of protest, but remained silent.
She laid her hand on his arm. "Come and sit down, Bertie! And please answer me, because I want to know."
He went with her to the rustic seat against the tree-trunk. He was gripping his self-control with all his strength.
"Mr. Mordaunt must think what he will," he said at length, with an effort. "He can never judge me too severely."
"Why do you say that?" Chris asked the question quickly, nervously, as if she had to ask it, yet dreaded the answer.
"I think you know, Christine," he answered, his voice very low.
She shrank a little. "But that money, Bertie? You knew nothing of that?"
He was silent for a moment; then, "We will not speak of that," he said firmly. "I could not stay here in any case, so—it makes no difference."
"No difference that he should think you a thief!" exclaimed Chris.
He turned his eyes downwards, staring heavily at the ground between his feet. "I ask myself," he said, "if I am any better than a thief."
"Bertie!" There was quick distress in her voice this time. "But you have done nothing wrong," she declared vehemently, "nothing whatever!"
He shook his head in silence, not looking at her.
"And you are ill," she went on, passing the matter by as if not trusting herself. "What will you do? Where will you go?"
He sat up slowly and faced her. "I go to London," he said, "and I must start now. Do not be anxious for me, Christine. I have money enough. Mr. Mordaunt offered me more this morning. But I had no need of it, and I refused."
He spoke quite steadily. He was braced for the ordeal. He would be strong until the need for strength was past.
But with Chris it was otherwise. For her there was no prospect of relaxation. She was but at the beginning of her trial, and her whole soul shrank from the contemplation of what lay before her. The dear dreams of her childhood had flickered out like pictures on a screen. And she had awakened to find herself in a prison-house from which all her life long she could never hope to escape. Did some memory of the arms that had enfolded her so often and so tenderly come to her as she realized it? If so, it was only to stab her afresh with the bitter irony of Fate that had lavished upon her the love of a man who had filled her life with all that woman's heart could desire, and yet had failed to give her happiness.
And so, when Bertrand spoke of going, the newly awakened heart of her rose up in sudden, hot revolt. His departure was inevitable, and she knew it, but her endurance was not equal to the strain. She had deemed herself stronger than she was.
She threw out her hands with a passionate gesture. "Bertie! What shall I do without you? I can't go on by myself. I can't—I can't!"
It was like the cry of a child, but in it there throbbed all the deep longing of her womanhood. Ah! why had her eyes been opened? Surely she had been happier blind!
He took the outflung hands and held them. He looked into her eyes. "But, cherie," he said, "you have your husband."
"I know—I know!" Piteously the words came from her. "He is very good to me. But, Bertie, he—has never been—first. I know it now. I didn't know before, or I wouldn't have married him. I swear I would never have married him—if I had known!"
"Cherie, hush!" Almost sternly he checked her, though his eyes were unfailingly kind. "You must not say it, Christine. Words always make a bad thing worse. Think instead how great is his love for you. Remember—oh, remember that you are his wife! The sin was mine that you could ever forget it. But you have not forgotten it, mignonne! Tell me that you have not! Tell me that when you think of me it will be as a friend who gives you no regrets, the friend of your childhood, little Christine—the comrade with whom you played in the sunshine; no more than that—no more than that!"
Very earnestly he besought her, holding her hands lightly clasped between his own, ready at her slightest movement to let them go. But she made no effort to withdraw them. She only bent her head and wept as though her heart were breaking.
"Cherie, cherie!" he said, and that was all; for he had no words wherewith to comfort her. He had wrought the mischief, but the remedy did not lie with him.
His own lips quivered above her bowed head; he bit them desperately.
After a little she commanded herself sufficiently to speak through her tears. "Bertie, you once said—that there was no goodness without Love. Then why—why is Love—wrong?"
"Love is not wrong, cherie." Instant and reassuring came his answer. "Let us be true to Love, and we are true to God. For Love is God, and in every heart He is to be found; sometimes in much, sometimes in very, very little, but He is always there."
"I don't understand," said Chris. "If that were so—why mustn't we love each other? Why is it wrong?"
"It is not wrong." Again with absolute assurance Bertrand spoke. "So long as it is pure, it is also holy. There is no sin in Love. We shall love each other always, dear, always. With me it will be more—and ever more. Though I shall not be with you, though I shall not see your face or touch your hand, you will know that I am loving you still. It will be as an Altar Flame that burns for ever. But I will be faithful. My love shall never hurt you again. That is where I sinned. I was selfish enough to show you the earthly part of my love—the part that dies, just as our bodies die, setting our spirits free. For see, cherie, it is not the material part that endures. All things material must pass, but the spiritual lives on for ever. That is why Love is immortal. That is why Love can never die."
She listened to him in silence, scarcely comprehending at the moment words that later were to become the only light to guide her stumbling feet.
"Would you say that you love the dead no more because you see them not?" he questioned gently. "The sight—the touch—what is it? Only the earthly medium of Love; Love Itself is a higher thing, capable of the last sacrifice, greater than evil, stronger than death. Oh, believe me, Christine, Death is a very small thing compared with Love. If our love were of the spirit only, Death would be less than nothing; for it is only the body that can ever die."
"But why can't we be happy before we die?" whispered Chris. "Other people are."
He shook his head. "I doubt it, cherie. With death in the world there can be no perfection. All passes—all passes—except only the Love that is our Life."
He paused a moment, seeming to hesitate upon the verge of telling her something more; but in that instant she raised her head and he refrained.
"Ah, Christine," he said sadly, "I never thought that I should make you weep like this."
"Oh, it's not your fault, Bertie." She smiled at him, with quivering lips. "It's just life. But—dearest—I want you to know all the same—that I'm glad—I'm glad I love you so. And—whether it's right or wrong, I can't help it—I shall always love you—best of all."
His eyes shone at the words. A passionate answer sprang to his lips, but he stopped it unuttered. "We are not responsible for that which we cannot help," he said instead. "Only—my darling"—for the first time the English word of endearment passed his lips, spoken almost under his breath—"never permit the thought of me to come between you and your husband. Be faithful, Christine—be faithful!"
She made no answer of any sort; but her eyes were hopeless.
He waited a while, still holding her hands while tenderly he watched her. At last, "I must go, cherie," he whispered.
Her face quivered. Suddenly and impetuously as of old she spoke. "Bertie, once—long ago—you meant to marry me, didn't you?"
His own face contracted. "Do not let us torture ourselves in vain," he urged her gently.
"But it is true!" she persisted.
He hesitated an instant. "Yes, it is true," he said.
She leaned her head back, looking him straight in the eyes. There was a light in hers that he had never seen before. They gleamed like stars, seeing him only. "Bertie," she said, and her voice thrilled upon the words, "I was yours then, and I am yours now. I have always belonged to you, and you to me. Bertie, I—am coming with you."
His violent start testified to the utter unexpectedness of her announcement. Such a possibility had not, it was obvious, suggested itself to him. He turned white to the lips.
"Christine!" he stammered incredulously.
Feverishly she broke in upon his astonishment. "Oh, don't be shocked! It is absolutely the only way. I cannot stay here without you. Trevor will keep us apart. He will not let me even write to you. He says that our friendship must cease. And it cannot—it cannot! Bertie, don't you see? Don't you understand? Don't you—want me?"
A note of despair rang in her voice. Her hands suddenly gripped each other in agonized misgiving. But on the instant his gripped closer, holding them crushed against his breast in fierce reassurance. His eyes shone full into hers, and for one moment of fiery rapture which both were to remember all their lives their souls mingled, became fused in one, forgetful of all beside.
Out of the silence the man's voice came, low and passionate. "Le bon Dieu knows how I want you, my bird of Paradise! But yet—but yet—" Something seemed to choke his utterance. He gave a sudden gasp, and bowed his head forward upon her shoulder.
Her arms were round him in an instant. "What is it, dearest? You are ill!"
"No," he said. "No." But still he gasped for breath, and she fancied that he repressed a shudder.
He raised his head after a moment. "Pardon me, cherie. I am only—weak. Christine, all my life—all my life—I shall remember—how you were ready—to give up all—all—for me. But, mignonne, I cannot take such a sacrifice. I dare not. Go back to your husband, cherie. It is your duty. You are his, not mine. We will not stain our love thus. Christine"—his voice broke—"ma mignonne, I love you too well—too well—to do this thing. You shall not be ruined—for my sake."
"Oh, but, Bertie!" she pleaded. She was clinging to him now; her eyes implored him. "Think of me here without you! Never to see you again—never to have a single word from you any more! Bertie, I can't bear it—I can't bear it! It will be no sacrifice to me to come with you. I don't mind hardship. I'm used to poverty, But here—but here—"
Her voice broke also, she could say no more. His arms went round her, straining her to him. His face was close to hers. But his eyes were the eyes of a man in torture.
"I know—I know all," he whispered. "Yet—my darling—you must stay—and I must go. When Love demands a sacrifice—"
"I will sacrifice anything—everything—all I have!" she cried out wildly.
"We must sacrifice each other," he said. "That is the test of our love, cherie. That is the sacrifice that Love demands."
He spoke quite quietly, with the calmness of one who knew and faced the worst. The torture in his eyes had turned to dumb endurance. "Only thus," he said—"only thus can we be true to our love. We sacrifice the little for the much. Mignonne, believe me, it is worth it. You are mine, and I am yours. So be it, then. Let us be—faithful."
He spoke with the utmost tenderness; yet was she awed. Her sudden rebellion died. It was as though a quiet hand had been laid upon her heart, stilling her pain. For one moment she looked with him across the long, dark furrows of mortal life into the great Beyond, and knew that he had spoken the truth. Their love was worth the sacrifice.
"Oh, Bertie," she said, in a whisper, "you are right, dear, you are right."
His eyes flashed swift understanding into hers; yet for a moment his arms tightened about her, as if her submission made it harder for him to let her go.
She waited till they relaxed, and then she laid her hands upon his shoulders. "Bertie," she said very earnestly, "forget I ever asked it of you!"
He shook his head instantly, with a sudden, transforming smile that revealed in him the young, quick spirit that had caught hers so long ago. "Oh no—no!" he said. "It will be to me the most precious memory of my life. By it I shall always remember—the so great generosity—of your love."
The smile went out of his face. He leaned nearer to her. She read irresolution in his eyes, and a quiver that was half of hope and half of apprehension went through her. Was he going to fail, after all, in the moment of victory? If so—if so—
But he restrained himself. She saw him fight down the impulse that urged him inch by inch until he had it in subjection. Under her watching eyes he conquered. He showed her the Omnipotence of Love.
Quietly, with no exaggeration of reverence, he knelt before her. He took her hands into his own, turned them upwards, pressed his lips to each palm, let them go.
The silence between them was like a sacrament. She never knew how long it lasted. It was a farewell more final than any words.
At last, "God keep you, my Christine!" he said. "God bless you!"
He rose to his feet, but he did not look at her again.
She could not speak in answer; there was no need of speech. He knew her heart as he knew his own.
And so in silence, with bent head, he left her. And the sun went out of her sky.
THE WAY OF THE WYNDHAMS
When Mordaunt returned from his ride, it was close upon the luncheon-hour. He went straight upstairs to prepare for the meal.
Chris's room was empty. He wondered where she was, but Noel bounded in and enlightened him before he descended.
"She's doing the pretty to Aunt Philippa," he reported. "Only three more hours now! Hip, hip, hooray!"
His yell caused Mordaunt to fling the towel he was using at his head, a compliment which seemed to please him immensely. He draped it round his neck and proceeded to deliver himself of that which he had come to say.
"Look here, Trevor, you've been bullying Chris, haven't you? You needn't say you haven't, because I know you have."
"Did she tell you so?" Mordaunt sounded grim.
Noel turned to look at him. "No. She said you hadn't. But she always tells a cram when it suits her purpose. I knew you had all the same."
Mordaunt was silent.
"She's horribly down in the mouth," Noel proceeded. "She never used to be before she married you. It's a pretty beastly thing to have to say, but someone ought to say it, and if I don't no one else will."
"Go on," said Mordaunt. "Your sense of duty does you credit."
"Don't be a beast! It isn't duty at all. I'm simply pointing out the obvious. I should think you could see it for yourself, can't you?"
Mordaunt brushed his hair in silence.
"It's got to stop anyhow," Noel went on with determination. "She's not to be bullied. It's worse than shabby,—it—it's damned mean to—to treat her as if—as if—" He became suddenly agitated and lost the thread of his discourse.
Mordaunt had laid down his brushes to listen. His eyes were gravely attentive. They held no indignation. "Go on," he said again. "You are quite right to use strong language if you consider the occasion requires it."
But Noel's flow of language had failed him. He sprang suddenly at his brother-in-law, and caught him by the shoulders. "Oh, do stop it, old chap!" he urged, with husky vehemence. "We all of us rely on you. And if you fail us—can't you see we're done for?"
Mordaunt looked down at him with a faint smile. "Perhaps I had better tell you what has happened," he said. "The trouble at the present moment is that Bertrand has robbed me, and has left in consequence."
"Great Scotland!" ejaculated Noel. "How much did he take?"
"Five hundred pounds. That's a detail of small consequence." Mordaunt spoke with grim precision. "It has upset Chris—quite naturally. But even you can hardly hold me responsible for that."
"I should think not! I say, I'm sorry I spoke." Impetuously Noel hugged him to obliterate the effect of his words. "I'm a silly ass. You mustn't mind me. Do you know, I always thought he would somehow, though Chris was so keen on him."
"I was keen on him too," Mordaunt observed, without much humour.
"I'm awfully sorry, old chap. It's a bit of a facer for you. But, you know, you can't trust foreigners. It doesn't do. There was that chap at Valpre. He simply bewitched Chris. She never would hear a word against him, but I'm sure he was a bounder. I've often thought since that he probably manoeuvred that cave business. They're such a wily lot, these Frenchies."
"What cave business?" There was a hint of sharpness in Mordaunt's voice; his brows were drawn.
Noel looked surprised. "Why, the time they got hung up by the tide all night. Mean to say you never heard of it? Oh, my eye!" he broke off blankly. "Then I've let the cat out of the bag!"
"Don't distress yourself. It is of no importance." Mordaunt's tone was suddenly very deliberate. He turned away and began to put on his coat. "Are you ready for luncheon? I'm going down now."
Noel surveyed him doubtfully. "You won't let on I told you, will you?" he said uneasily. "Chris may have asked me to keep it dark."
"I don't suppose she did." Very quietly Mordaunt made reply. "She has more probably forgotten all about it. But I won't give you away in any case. You are ready? Then suppose we go!"
They descended together to find Aunt Philippa and Chris awaiting them in the hall. Chris scarcely looked at her husband. She was very pale.
He followed her to her end of the table to pour her out a glass of wine.
"Please don't!" she said nervously. "I don't like it. I can't drink it."
"I think you can," he answered. "Try!"
He went to his own place, and proceeded to engage Aunt Philippa in conversation. But Aunt Philippa was looking even more severe than usual, and responded so indifferently to his efforts that he presently suffered them to flag. There fell a dead silence. Then Noel struck in with furious zest, and Mordaunt turned to him with relief. But Chris scarcely opened her lips.
At the end of the meal he addressed her with quiet authority. "Chris, you must rest this afternoon. Your aunt will excuse you."
"Certainly," said Aunt Philippa stiffly.
Chris rose from the table in unbroken silence. She came slowly down the long room. Mordaunt got up to open the door, and followed her out.
"Don't worry about me, please!" Chris besought him as he closed the door behind them. "I shall be all right to-morrow."
He ignored the protest, and accompanied her upstairs. She glanced at him uneasily as they went. "I can't help being—unhappy just for to-day," she murmured. "You—you couldn't expect me—not to care?"
He did not speak till they reached her room. Then: "You saw Bertrand," he said, in a tone that was hardly a question.
"Yes." She began to tremble a little. "I am sorry," she said. "But—I had to." She stood before him, not meeting his eyes, waiting for him to speak. "I couldn't let him go—for good—without saying good-bye," she said, as he remained silent.
He took her gently by the shoulders. "Chris, look at me!"
She drew back, yet in a moment with a desperate effort she raised her eyes to his. He laid his hand upon her forehead, and looked at her long and searchingly.
She endured the look in quivering silence, but she turned so deathly pale under it that he thought she would faint. Quietly he let her go.
"You will lie down now?" he said.
"Yes," she answered, under her breath.
"Don't be in a hurry to get up," he said. "I will explain to your aunt that I do not wish you to be disturbed, and I shall see her off myself."
He went to the windows and drew the curtains. She watched him silently. As he turned back into the room, she spoke.
"Trevor, are you angry with me?"
He paused, as if the question were unexpected. "No," he said, after a moment.
Her eyes shone unnaturally bright in the twilight. "You understand that—that I couldn't obey your wishes about not seeing—Bertrand—before he left?"
"I did not forbid you to see him," he said.
"But—you are vexed because I did," she persisted.
He came quietly back to her. "I believe you did the only thing possible to you," he said, in a tone she could not fathom. "Therefore there is no more to be said. Won't you lie down?"
She complied without further words. He covered her with a rug, but she shivered under it as one with an ague. He brought a quilt, and laid that also over her.
She reached out then, and caught his hand. "Trevor, forgive me!"
He bent over her. "My dear, I am not angry with you."
"Ah, but—but—" She broke off helplessly; there was something about him that unnerved her. Suddenly and inexplicably the longing surged over her to be caught to his breast and held there safe from all the tumult, the misery, the vain regrets, that tortured her quivering soul. But she could not tell him so, could not bring herself to pour out all the truth. For the first time she saw how wide was the gulf that had opened between them—that gulf which he had tried in vain to span the night before—and her heart died within her. She knew that she was powerless, that now in the hour of her adversity, now when she felt her need of a protector and comforter as never before, she dared not confide in him, dared not throw herself upon his mercy, and trust to his generosity to understand and to forgive.
And so she could only hold his hand very tightly, too agitated to utter any plea, afraid to keep him, yet even more afraid to let him go, lest, apart from her, that dread gulf should widen into an abyss too terrible for contemplation.
He waited for a little beside her, to give her agitation time to subside. But it only increased till it became so painfully obvious that he could ignore it no longer.
"Is there something you want to tell me?" he asked her gently. "I am quite ready to listen to you. Only don't be so distressed. Really there is no need."
His tone was perfectly kind, but the caressing note she was wont to hear in it was absent. She shivered afresh, conscious of a chill. She could not answer him; her throat seemed incapable of producing sound.
A while longer, with absolute patience, he waited. Then; "I think you must let me go, dear," he said. "I am doing you more harm than good just now. By and bye, when you are calmer, we will have a talk."
And so by his very forbearance he committed the greatest mistake of his life. If he had stayed then, she might have been persuaded to tell him all that was in her heart. But—the bitter irony of it!—though she was possessed by a passionate longing to do so, in face of his quiet restraint she could not. In fear of the physical effect upon her, he held her back. And she was powerless to pass the barrier. Without his supporting tenderness, she could not lay bare to him the misery and the pain which in no other way could be relieved.
She loosened her hold upon his hand, and as he gently withdrew it she felt as if her last chance of peace were taken away. She turned her face into the pillow and lay still, and a moment later the soft closing of the door told her he had gone.
She listened to his quiet tread along the passage, and an overwhelming sense of desolation swept over her. He had left her alone to cope with her trouble, and the burden of it was greater than she could bear.
She did not know that he returned a little later and listened for many seconds at the door, fearing that she might be spending her solitude in tears. She never heard him there, or even then her tragedy might have been lifted from her. She was lying quite still, with clenched hands, staring dry-eyed into space; for she had no tears to shed.
And he, deeming her sleeping, went softly away again, to sit on the terrace and await Aunt Philippa, who had retired to make her final preparations.
A long time passed before she made her appearance, and he was beginning to wonder with some uneasiness if she had decided to postpone her departure after all, when at length she joined him, ready dressed for the journey. She sat down beside him, looking very handsome and dignified.
"I am glad of this opportunity of seeing you alone, my dear Trevor," she began, "as, after long deliberation, I have at last decided to take you into my confidence upon a matter that has been greatly troubling me."
Mordaunt laid aside the proof of an article with which he had been occupying himself, and replied with his customary courtesy, "I am always glad if I can be of use to you."
"Thank you," said Aunt Philippa.
She carried a bag upon her wrist, and she proceeded to open and search within it. Finally she extracted, a piece of folded notepaper, and handed it to him.
"Will you read that first?" she said. "It will make a difficult task easier."
Mordaunt took the paper, saw that it was a letter, and proceeded to read it under her watching eyes.
There followed a long, quiet pause before he said, "I presume that this is not addressed to you."
"There," said Aunt Philippa, "you are quite correct."
"Then—" He folded it sharply, and made as if he would hand it back to her, but altered his purpose and closed his fingers upon it instead. "Will you explain?" he said.
Aunt Philippa proceeded to do so in her most judicial manner. "That letter I found on the terrace yesterday morning and, believing it to be one of my own that had blown out of my window, I picked it up and later placed it in my letter-case. In the evening I took it out with the intention of answering my correspondent, but upon perusing it, I discovered it to be the communication which you hold in your hand. As you perceive, it was written from Sandacre Court about a week ago, and I now realize that it is not the first letter which the writer has sent to this house. You may remember a discussion arising one morning on the subject of a letter from Sandacre Court. That letter, I am now convinced, was written by the same hand, and these facts point to the very unpleasant conclusion that the man who wrote them—Guillaume Rodolphe—has been levying blackmail. He is apparently aware of a most unfortunate episode which occurred at Valpre in Chris's early girlhood—"
Mordaunt held up his hand abruptly; his face was set in iron lines. "I have already heard of the episode to which you refer," he said.
"Indeed!" said Aunt Philippa. "And may I ask how long you have been aware of it?"
He hesitated momentarily. "Is that material?"
"I think it is," she rejoined. "If Chris has brought herself even at the eleventh hour to be open with you, none will rejoice more sincerely than I. It has always been my principle that wives should have no secrets from their husbands. But, knowing her as I do, I question very much if this can be the case. I have remonstrated with her myself upon the subject, but she refused so stubbornly to listen to me that I cannot but feel that the time has come for me to take my own measures. I should not be doing my duty otherwise. Painful as it is to me, I feel it incumbent upon me to tell you the truth. Now, my dear Trevor, are you aware that there has to-day been a scene between your wife and your secretary which I can only describe as—a love passage? Has she confessed this to you? Because, if not, you must no longer remain in ignorance of the true state of affairs. Chris has deceived me throughout in the most flagrant manner. Had I known—as I now know—that the man who caused the Valpre scandal and your secretary, Bertrand de Montville, a criminal exile living upon your charity, were one and the same person, I would never have permitted you to marry my niece and expose her afresh to a temptation which she had already shown herself unable to resist."
Her last words were somewhat hurried, for Mordaunt had risen to his feet, and there was that in his eyes that warned her that if she paused for a single instant they would never be uttered at all. And Aunt Philippa never liked to leave a task unfinished. That which she undertook she invariably carried through undeviatingly, whatever the cost, and notwithstanding any adverse circumstances which might arise during its accomplishment.
She finished her sentence therefore, and then resigned herself to the martyrdom of being grossly misunderstood.
For that he utterly misread her motives was apparent from his very expression, even before he said with extreme deliberation: "Mrs. Forest, you will oblige me very greatly by not pursuing this subject any further. As I said to you before, Chris is in my keeping now, and it will be my first care to see that no harm comes to her. As to my secretary, he has left me for good, and I doubt if I ever see him again."
"I see," said Aunt Philippa. "You have quarrelled with him then?"
"I have." Sternly he made reply. He still held the note she had given him crumpled in his hand.
Aunt Philippa stiffened her neck severely. "And you left them alone to say good-bye! My dear Trevor, are you mad, or only criminally indifferent to your own interests?"
"I am neither," he said.
"And do you know what happened?"
"I do not wish to know."
She contemplated him for a moment in silence, then: "Your own servant has more common sense," she said.
"Do you mean Holmes?" He spoke with absolute composure, not as one vitally interested; but his eyes made her nervous, they were so still and intent.
"I do mean Holmes," she said. "He came to me in the course of the morning and informed me that his mistress was under the yew-tree and wanted me. I thought his message unusual at the time. When I went out to the yew-tree about ten minutes later, I understood the meaning of it. They were together there, in each other's arms. I did not interrupt them, for I felt it my duty to ascertain, if possible, how far the mischief had gone. But I was not successful. The interview came to an end almost at once. He knelt down upon the ground and kissed her hands, after which he got up and went away. I did not hear what he said to her, but it was certainly no word of farewell. Personally I am convinced that his leave-taking was not final. As for Chris herself, she seemed dazed, and I left her to recover."
Aunt Philippa paused. He had not interrupted her, but she did not feel his silence to be reassuring. She found it impossible to meet his look any longer, though she made a valiant effort to do so.
"I hope you will believe," she said, after a moment, "that nothing but a most urgent sense of duty has impelled me to tell you this."
He did not answer, and she began to flounder a little, finding his silence hard to fathom.
"I felt that you ought to be upon your guard. As I have told you before, not one of the Wyndhams is to be trusted. I think you have been too generous in this respect, and have laid yourself open to deception. However—now that I have warned you once more, you will perhaps be more careful in the future. I can only hope that my warning has come in time."
Again she paused, but still he remained silent, looking straight at her with a steely regard that never altered.
She mustered her forces at length to ask a direct question. "What do you propose to do with regard to that letter you hold in your hand?"
With a quiet movement he transferred it to his pocket. "I have not had time to consider the matter," he said.
She was momentarily surprised, and showed it. "I thought you would know what to do at once," she said. "It was, in fact, my reason for telling you of it. I felt that something ought to be done—and quickly."
"Something will be done," Mordaunt answered quietly. "You have placed the matter in my hands, and I shall deal with it. I think I need not ask you to refrain from mentioning it to anyone else?"
"You need not," said Aunt Philippa with dignity.
"Thank you. And that is all you wish to say to me?"
She met his steady eyes for an instant and at once looked away again. "All," she replied, "except that I think it was a great pity that you refused so persistently to profit by my former warning. It might have averted much trouble both for yourself and for Chris."
He made her a slight bow. "I fear I am not unique," he said, "in preferring to conduct my own affairs in my own way."
When Aunt Philippa took her departure that afternoon it was in a most unwonted state of doubt, not unmingled with apprehension. Despite his moderation, she had an uneasy feeling that her communication to Trevor Mordaunt had set in motion a devastating force which nothing could arrest or divert until it had spread destruction over all that lay in its path.
In answer to her husband's low knock, Chris turned from her dressing-table. She had switched on the electric light, and had taken down her hair, preparatory to dressing for dinner. It hung all about her in magnificent ripples of ruddy light and shade. Her face, in the midst of it, looked very small and tired. She was clad in a plain white wrapper, that fell away from her neck and arms, giving her a very childish appearance.
"Yes, I'm getting up," she said, with the flicker of a smile. "I couldn't sleep."
He entered and closed the door behind him in silence.
"Has Aunt Philippa gone?" she asked.
He responded briefly, "Three hours ago."
"Ah!" She stretched out her arms with the gesture of one freed from an irksome burden, but they fell again immediately, almost as if a fresh burden had taken its place.
She stood for a few seconds motionless, looking straight before her. Finally, with a hint of nervousness, she turned her eyes upon her husband; they shone intensely blue in the strong light.
"We shall soon be quite alone," she said.
His eyes did not answer hers. They looked remote and cold. "Come and sit down," he said.
He seated himself on the couch from which she had just risen. Chris caught up a slide from the dressing-table, and fastened back her hair with fingers that trembled inexplicably.
Then she went to him. "Trevor," she said, and there was pleading in her voice, "do you know, I don't want to talk about anything. I think one gets over some troubles best that way. Do you mind?"
He took her wrists very quietly, and drew her down beside him. "What were you trying to tell me this afternoon?" he said.
She shivered and turned her face away. "Nothing, really nothing. I was foolish and upset. Please let me forget it."
She would have withdrawn from his hold, but his hands tightened upon her. "Won't you reconsider the matter?" he asked. "It would be better for us both if you told me of your own accord."
"Trevor!" She turned to him swiftly, flashing into his face a look of such wild alarm that he was touched, in spite of himself.
"My dear," he said, "I have no wish to frighten you. But you must see for yourself that it is utterly impossible for us to go on like this. You are keeping something from me. I want you to tell me quite quietly and without prevarication what it is."
She turned white to the lips. "There is nothing, Trevor. Indeed, there is nothing," she said.
His face changed, grew stern, grew implacable. He bent towards her, still holding her firmly by the wrists. He looked closely into her eyes, and in his own was neither accusation nor condemnation, only a deep and awful questioning that seemed to probe her through and through.
"For Heaven's sake," he said, "don't lie to me!"
And Chris shrank, shrank from that dread scrutiny as she would have shrunk from naked steel. She did not attempt to speak another word.
For seconds that seemed to her agonized senses like hours, he held her so, waiting, waiting for she knew not what. Her heart thumped within her like the heart of a terrified creature fleeing for its life. She began to pant audibly through the silence. The strain was more than she could bear.
"Chris!" he said.
She started violently; every pulse leaped, every nerve jarred. But she did not lift her eyes to his; she could not.
"Don't tremble," he said, his voice very cold and even. "Just tell me the truth. Begin with what happened at Valpre."
Her white lips quivered. "What—how much—do you know?"
"I will tell you that," he said, "when you have answered me quite fully and unreservedly."
She cast an imploring look at him that did not reach his eyes. "But, Trevor, nothing happened," she told him piteously. "That is to say, nothing beyond—" She broke off short. "I was only a child. I didn't know," she ended, in a confused murmur.
"What didn't you know?" Stern and pitiless came the question. His hands were holding her wrists tightly locked. There was compulsion in their grasp.
She answered him because she could not help it, but her words were wild and incoherent. "I didn't know what it meant. I didn't see the harm of it. I was too young. It all happened before I realized. And even then—even then—I didn't understand—that it was serious—until—until— the duel. Trevor—Trevor, you are hurting me!"
His hold relaxed, but he did not set her free. "Was that duel fought on your account?" he asked.
"Yes," she whispered.
"In what way?"
She was silent.
"Answer me," he said.
She clenched her hands in sudden, strenuous rebellion. "I don't know. I never heard."
"Was it because you had compromised yourself with Bertrand de Montville?"
Very deliberately he asked the question, so deliberately that she could not evade it.
"It is not fair to—to put it like that," she said.
"I am waiting to hear your own version," he told her grimly.
"You have only heard Aunt Philippa's, so far?" she hazarded.
"I have heard nothing whatever about what happened at Valpre from your aunt," he answered. "But that is beside the point. Are you quite incapable of telling me the truth?"
She winced sharply. "Trevor! Why are you so cruel? I have done nothing wrong."
"Then look at me!" he said.
But she would not, for his eyes terrified her. Nor could she bring herself to speak of Valpre under their piercing scrutiny. Only close-locked in his arms could she have poured out the poor little secret that she had sacrificed so much to keep. Not the nature of the adventure itself, but the fact that she had given her love to the man who had shared it with her, held her silent. She could not spread her love before those pitiless eyes, and to disclose the one without the other had become impossible to her.
And so she remained silent, counting the seconds as she felt his forbearance ebb away.
When at last he moved and released her, she cowered almost as if she expected a blow. Yet when he spoke, though there was in his tone a subtle difference, his words came with absolute composure. She could almost have imagined that he was smiling.
"Since you refuse to be open with me," he said, "you compel me to draw my own conclusions. Now, with regard to this letter which you received a week ago from Captain Rodolphe—you have another letter from him somewhere in your possession?"
He took the missive from his pocket and opened it as if he would read it again. But the sight was too much for Chris. It tortured her beyond endurance, galvanizing her into sudden, unconsidered action. She snatched it from him and tore it passionately into fragments.
"You shall not!" she cried. "You shall not!"
With the words she sprang to her feet, and stood before him, goaded to frenzy, challenging his calm.
"Where did you find it?" she demanded.
"It was found on the terrace," he said.
She flung out a trembling hand. "Ah! Then I dropped it that night that my dress caught fire. I thought it was burnt. And you found it—you dared to read it!"
He did not attempt to explain his action. Perhaps he realized he was more likely to obtain the truth from her thus than by endless cross-questioning. "Yes, I have read it," he said.
She made a desperate gesture. "And because of this—because of this—you—you accuse me of—"
"I have accused you of nothing," he said sternly. "I have only asked you to tell me the truth. I hoped you would do so of your own free will, but since you will not—"
"Yes?" she cried back. "Since I will not—?"
"I shall find another means," he answered.
He rose abruptly. They stood face to face. There was no shrinking about Chris now. She was braced to defiance.
"Where is that other letter?" he said.
"I have destroyed it."
She uttered the words with quivering triumph, strung to a fever-pitch of excitement in which fear had no part.
His eyes went to her jewel-drawer.
"It is not there," she said. "The letter I hid there was the one you have just read."
She spoke rapidly, but she was no longer incoherent. Her words came without effort, and he knew that she was telling the truth as the victim in a torture-chamber might tell it, because she was goaded thereto and incapable at the moment of doing otherwise. He also knew that, notwithstanding this, she was scarcely aware of what she said. Out of the agony of her soul, because the pain was unbearable, she had yielded without knowing it.
"I only kept this letter," she said, "in case he ever asked for more. But it doesn't matter now—nothing will ever matter any more. You know the worst, and"—fiercely—"you are welcome to know it. I—I'm even glad! I've nothing left to be afraid of."
She drew in her breath hysterically. She was on the verge of dreadful laughter, but she caught it back, instinctively aware that she must keep her strength—this unwonted strength of desperation that had come to her—as long as possible.
He heard her without emotion. His face was grim and mask-like, frozen into hard, unyielding lines.
"It is certainly best that I should know it," he said. "But I have not yet heard all. How much did this Rodolphe charge for his silence?"
She had almost answered him before she remembered, and checked the words upon her lips. "No, I don't think I need tell you that," she said.
"That is better than telling me a lie," he rejoined. "As a matter of fact, there is no need, as you say, for you to tell me. I know what sum he asked for, and I know how he obtained it."
He spoke with steady conviction, his eyes unwaveringly upon her. For seconds now she had endured his look without flinching. As she had said, there was nothing left for her to fear. But at his words her face changed, and unmistakable apprehension took the place of despair.
"No, no!" she said quickly. "He did not obtain it in that way. At least—at least—Trevor, I swear to you that Bertrand knew nothing of that."
"You need not take that trouble," he said coldly.
She gripped her hands together. "You don't believe me—but it is the truth. Bertrand never knew that I had heard from Captain Rodolphe."
"You deceived him too, then?" Pitilessly he asked the question. He also had begun to feel that nothing could ever matter any more.
She wrung her hands in anguish. Her face was still raised to his, white and strained and desperate—the face of a woman who would never dissemble with him again. "Yes," she said, "I deceived him too."
"Then"—slowly he uttered the words—"it was you who forged my name upon that cheque? It actually was you whom he was shielding? And you tell me that he did not know what it was for?"
"He did not know," she said. She would not have given such an explanation of her own volition at that moment, but—since upon this point she could not tell him the truth—it was simpler to let it pass. What did it matter, after all? Let him think her a thief also if he would! She was past caring what he thought.
"And when do you expect to meet again?" Mordaunt asked, with great distinctness.
She flinched as if he had struck her. "Oh, haven't you tortured me enough?" she said.
His jaw hardened. He stepped suddenly to her and took her by the shoulders. His eyes appalled her. It was as if a devil looked out of them. She shrank away from him in sheer physical terror.
"Oh, you needn't be afraid," he said. "I shan't hurt you. Why should I? You are nothing to me. But—for the last time—let me hear you speak the truth. You love this man?"
The words, curt and cold, might have fallen from the lips of a stranger, so impersonal were they, so utterly devoid of any emotion.
Wide-eyed, she faced him, for she could not look away with his hands upon her, compelling her.
"You love this man?" he repeated, his speech still cold but incisive—a sharp weapon probing for the truth.
She caught her quivering nerves together, and valiantly answered him. "I do!" she said. "I do!" And as she spoke, the power within her surged upwards, defying constraint, dominating her with a mastery irresistible. She suddenly stripped her heart bare of all reserve and showed him the love that agonized there. "I have always loved him!" she said. "I shall love him till I die!"
It was a woman's confession, in which triumph and anguish were strangely mingled. In a calmer moment she would never have made it, but that moment was supreme, and she had no choice. Regardless of all consequences, she told the burning truth. She would have told it with his hands upon her throat.
In the silence that followed the avowal she even waited for violence. But she was unafraid. The greatness of the power that possessed her had lifted her above all fear. She trod the heights where fear is not. And all-unconsciously, in that moment she won a battle which she had deemed irrevocably lost.
Mordaunt's hands fell from her, setting her free. "In Heaven's name," he said, "why didn't you go with him?"
She did not understand his tone. It held neither anger nor contempt, and so quiet was it that she could still have fancied it almost indifferent. Yet, inexplicably, it cut her to the heart.
"I'll tell you the truth!" she said, a little wildly. "I—I would have gone with him. I offered—I begged—to go. But he—he sent me back."
"Why?" Again that deadly quietness of utterance, as though, indeed, a dead man spoke.
Her throat began to work spasmodically, though she had no desire to weep. She felt as if her heart were bleeding from a mortal wound.
With an effort that nearly choked her, she made reply.
"He said—it was—my duty."
"Your duty!" He repeated the word deliberately. Though the devil had gone out of his eyes, she could not meet them any longer. Not that she feared to do so; but the pain at her heart was intolerable, and it was his look, his voice, that made it so.
Almost as if he divined this, he turned quietly from her. He walked to the window and opened it wide, as if he felt suffocated. The wind was moaning desolately through the trees. There was the scent of coming rain in the air.
He spoke with his back to her, without apparent effort. "I release you from your duty," he said. "Go to him! Go to him—now!"
She gazed at him, dumbfounded, not breathing. But he remained motionless, his hands clenched, his face to the night.
"Go to him!" he repeated. "I shall set you free—at once. Go—and tell him so!"
Then, as still she neither moved nor spoke, he slowly turned and looked at her.
From head to foot she felt his eyes comprehend her, and from head to foot, under his look, she shuddered. She spoke no word; she was as one paralysed.
Very quietly he pulled the window to behind him, still with his eyes upon her. In that moment he was complete master of himself. He stood aloof, shrouded, as it were, in an icy calm. She had no clue to his thoughts. She only knew that by some means, inexplicable and irresistible, he bound her even as he set her free.
"You understand me?" he said, his voice cold, level, pitilessly distinct. "It is my last word upon the subject. You and I have done with each other. Go!"
It was literally his last word. As he uttered it, his eyes fell away from her. He crossed the room with even, unhurried tread, opened the intervening door that led into his own, passed through with no backward glance, and shut it steadily behind him.
As for Chris, she stood numbly gazing after him till only the panels of the door met her look. And then, her strength leaving her, without sound she sank downwards and lay crumpled, inanimate, broken, upon the floor.
Autumn on a Yorkshire moor.
Hilda Davenant leaned back and looked from her sketch to the moor with slight dissatisfaction in her calm eyes.
"What's the matter with it?" said Lord Percy.
He was lying in the faded heather beside her, sucking grass-stems with bovine enjoyment. He surveyed the faint pucker on his wife's forehead with lazy amusement.
She looked down at him. "It isn't nearly good enough."
He laughed comfortably. "Put it away! It'll do for my birthday. I shan't look at it from an artist's point of view."
She smiled a little. "Oh, any daub would do for you. You simply don't know what art is."
"Exactly," he rejoined tranquilly. "Any daub will do, provided your hand lays on the colours. But nothing less than that would satisfy me. Come! Isn't that a pretty speech? And you didn't angle for it either!" He caught her hand and rubbed it against his cheek. "You are civilizing me wonderfully," he declared. "I never knew how to make pretty speeches before I met you."
"Surely I never taught you that!" she protested. "I am never guilty of empty compliments myself."
"Nor I," smiled her husband. "I say what I think to you always. Now what do you say to coming for a stretch? There's an hour left before I need buzz down to the station and meet Jack. You will admit I have been very good and patient all this time. Pack up your painting things, and I'll trek back to the house with them."
"No. We will go together," Hilda said. "Why not?"
"I thought you would prefer to sit and admire the landscape," he said.
She smiled and made no response.
"A case in point!" laughed Lord Percy. "But here the compliment would not have been empty since you obviously prefer my company to the solitude of a Yorkshire moor."
She looked at him with the smile still in her eyes, but she did not put the compliment into words. Only, as she rose to leave the scene of her labours, she slipped her hand within his arm.
"I have been thinking a great deal of Chris lately," she said. "I wish she would write to me again."
"I thought your mother was there," said Lord Percy.
"She has been. I believe she left them yesterday. But then, she does not give me any detailed news of Chris. I have a feeling that I can't get rid of that the child is unhappy."
"She has no right to be," rejoined her husband. "She's married about the best fellow going."
"Who understands her about as thoroughly as you understand art."
"Oh, come!" he remonstrated. "Mordaunt is not quite such a fool as that! The little monkey ought to be happy enough—unless she tries to play fast and loose with him. Then, I grant you, there would be the devil to pay."
Hilda smiled. "I can't help feeling anxious about her. It has always been my fear that, when the glamour of first love is past, Trevor might misjudge her. She is so gay and bright that many people think her empty. I know my mother does for one."
"Your mother might," he conceded. "Trevor wouldn't—being a man of considerable insight. Tell you what, though, if you want to satisfy yourself on the score of Chris's happiness, we will get them to put us up for a night when we leave here for town three weeks hence. How will that suit you?"
"I should love it, of course," she said. "But wouldn't it be rather far out of our way?"
"I daresay the car won't mind," said Lord Percy.
They walked back to the house that a friend had lent for their three-months' honeymoon. It nestled in a hollow amongst trees, the long line of moors stretching above it. They were well out of the beaten track. Few tourists penetrated to their paradise. Near the house was a glade with a miniature waterfall that filled the place with music.
"That waterfall makes for laziness," Lord Percy was wont to declare, and many were the happy hours they had spent beside it.
They passed it by without lingering to-day, however, for both were feeling energetic. Briskly they crossed the little lawn before the house, and entered by a French window.
"Better secure some refreshments before we go on the tramp," suggested Lord Percy. "I've got a thirst already. Hullo! What on earth—"
He broke off in amazement. A slight figure had risen up suddenly from a settee in a dark corner; and a woman's face, wild-eyed and tragic, confronted them.
"Great Scott! Who is it?" said Lord Percy Davenant.
And "Chris!" exclaimed Hilda, at the same moment.
As for Chris, she stood a second, staring at them; then: "Trevor has turned me out, so I've come to you," she said her white lips moving stiffly. "I've nowhere else to go."
With the words she stumbled forward, feeling vaguely out before her as though she saw not. Hilda started towards her on the instant, caught her, folded warm arms about her, held her fast.
"My darling!" she said, and again, "My darling!"
But Chris heard not, nor saw, nor felt. She had reached the end of her strength, and black darkness had closed down upon her agony, blotting out all things. She sank senseless in her cousin's embrace....
It was long before they brought her back, so long that Hilda became frightened and dispatched her husband in the motor for a doctor, wholly forgetting her brother's expected visit in her anxiety.
Lord Percy ultimately returned with the local practitioner, whom he had dragged almost by force from the bedside of a patient ten miles away. He, too, had forgotten Jack, but remembered him as he set down the doctor, and whirled away again in a cloud of dust, leaving him to announce himself.
Chris had by that time recovered consciousness, in response to Hilda's strenuous efforts, but she had scarcely spoken a word. She lay on the sofa in the drawing-room, cold from head to foot, and shivering spasmodically at intervals. She drank the wine that Hilda brought her with shuddering docility; but it seemed to have no effect upon her. It was as if the blood had frozen at her very heart.