"Get her to bed," were the doctor's orders, and he himself carried Chris up to Hilda's room.
She was perfectly passive in their hands, but quite incapable of the smallest effort, and so painfully apathetic that Hilda grew more and more uneasy. She had never imagined that her gay, light-hearted Chris could be thus. It wrung her heart to see her. She was like a dainty flower crushed into the dust of the highway.
"Nervous prostration consequent upon severe mental strain," was the doctor's verdict later. "You will have to take great care of her, and keep her absolutely quiet, or I can't be answerable for the consequences. She is in a very critical state, and"—he paused a moment—"I think her husband ought to be with her."
"Ah!" Hilda said, and no more.
He passed the matter over. "Don't let her talk at all if you can prevent it, and reassure her in every way possible. I will send a composing draught, or she will be in a high fever before the morning."
"You fear for the brain?" Hilda hazarded.
"I fear—many things," he answered uncompromisingly.
He took his departure just as Lord Percy and his guest arrived, and Hilda paused upon the step to greet her brother.
He sprang from the car before it came to a standstill, and she saw on the instant that he was in a towering fury. Jack Forest, the kindly, the easy-going, the careless, was actually white with anger.
He scarcely stopped to greet her. "Where is Chris?" he demanded.
"She is in bed," Hilda answered, seeing he had heard the whole story. "No," as he turned inwards, "you can't see her. Indeed you mustn't, Jack. The doctor says—"
"Damn the doctor!" said Jack. "I'm going to see her, in bed or not. Where is she?"
He was half-way upstairs with the words, and Hilda's protest fell upon empty air. She could only follow and look on.
Jack opened the first door he came to, and found himself in Chris's presence. He strode straight across the room, as one who had a perfect right, stooped over her as she lay, and gathered her up into his arms.
"My little sweetheart!" he said, and kissed her fiercely over and over again.
That woke her from her lethargy, as no more tender ministrations could have done. She wound her arms about his neck, and clung to him like a lost child.
"Oh, Jack!" she said. "Oh, Jack!" and burst into an agony of tears.
Hilda closed the door softly, and went away. Jack's treatment seemed the best, after all.
When she saw him again he was quite calm, but there was about him a grimness of purpose with which she was not familiar. He drew her aside.
"Look here! I can't sleep on this. I'm going to see Trevor—at once. If I don't bring him to reason, I shall probably shoot him; but I haven't told her that. All she wants is to be left in peace, and peace she shall have, whatever the cost."
"But, my dear boy, quarrelling with Trevor on her behalf won't make for peace," Hilda ventured to point out.
He acknowledged the truth of this with a brief nod. "All the same, I'm damned if I'll stand by and see him wreck her life. Let me know how she goes on. Send a wire to the club to-morrow. No, don't! I'll wire to you first, and let you know where I am. I'm going straight back to the station now. With any luck I ought to catch the afternoon express. Where's Percy?"
"You must have something to eat," urged Hilda. "You've had nothing whatever."
He frowned impatiently. "Oh, rats! I can feed on board. I shan't starve."
But she knew, with sure intuition, that the moment he was out of her presence all thought of refreshment would leave his mind.
She saw him go, and then returned to Chris.
She found her sitting up in bed, rocking herself to and fro, and crying, crying, crying, the tears of utter despair. But this distress, despite its violence, was better—Hilda knew it instinctively—than her former cold inertia. She gathered her to her breast, and held her close pressed till her anguish had somewhat spent itself.
By degrees and haltingly the story of Chris's tragedy was unfolded.
"I've told Jack everything," she said at last. "And now I've told you, but we won't ever talk about it any more. Jack is going to see Trevor, and—and try to make him understand. I didn't want him to, but he would do it. But he has promised me that Trevor shan't follow me here. Do you think he will be able to prevent him? Do you? Do you?"
She shuddered afresh uncontrollably at the bare thought, and Hilda had some difficulty in calming her.
"Dearest, I am sure he will never come to you against your will," she said, with conviction. "I am sure you needn't be afraid. But oh, Chris, my darling, he is your husband. Always remember that!"
"I know! I know!" Feverishly Chris made answer, and Hilda knew that she must not pursue this subject. "But I can never see him again, never—never—never! I think it would kill me. Besides—besides—" She broke off inarticulately, and Hilda did not press her to finish.
She found that she must not speak much of Bertrand either, though she did venture to ask why the Valpre escapade had ever been kept from Trevor in the first place.
"I really can't quite explain," Chris answered wearily. "When it dawned on me that vile things had been said and actually a duel fought because of it I felt as if I would rather die than let him know. Besides, at the back of my mind, I think I somehow always knew—though I did not realize—that—Bertie—came first with me, and I—I was terrified lest Trevor should suspect it. Of course it doesn't matter now," she ended. "He knows it all, and—as he says—we have done with each other." She uttered a long, quivering sigh, and turned her face into the pillow.
"My darling, so long as you both live, that can never be," Hilda said very earnestly. "Whatever mistakes you have made, you are still his and he is yours. Nothing can alter that."
"He doesn't think so," said Chris. "In fact, he—he told me to go to Bertie, so that—so that"—she shivered again—"he could set me free."
"Oh, Chris, he did—that?"
"Yes, I think he meant it for my sake as much as for his own. But I couldn't do it. You see, I don't know where Bertie has gone for one thing. And then—I know Bertie would have thought it wrong. You see"—the tears were running down her face again—"we love each other so much, and—and love like ours is holy. He said so."
"I wonder how he learned that," Hilda said. "It is not a creed that most men hold."
"But Bertie is not like most men." Very softly came Chris's answer, and through her tears her eyes shone with the light that is kindled by nothing earthly. "Bertie has come through a great deal of suffering," she said. "It has taught him to know the good from the bad. And—he said I shouldn't be ruined for his sake. As if I cared for that!" she ended, smiling wanly.
"Thank God he did for you!" Hilda said.
"Oh, do you think it matters?" said Chris.
A MIDNIGHT VISITOR
It was a dark, wet night. The rain streamed from the gutters and pattered desolately on the pavement below. It had rained for hours.
Trevor Mordaunt sat alone, with a pipe between his teeth, his windows flung wide to the empty street, and listened to the downpour. He had arrived in town that afternoon to make a few necessary arrangements before leaving England. These arrangements completed, there was nothing left to do but to await the next morning for departure.
It was not easy, that waiting. He faced it with grim fortitude, realizing the futility of going to bed. It was possible that he might presently doze in his chair, but ordinary sleep was out of the question, and he would not trouble himself to court it. Tossing all night sleepless on his pillow was a refinement of torture that he did not feel called upon to bear.
He had spent the previous night tramping the country-side, but he could not tramp in London, and though he was not aware of fatigue, he knew the necessity for bodily rest existed, and he compelled himself to take it.
So he sat motionless, listening to the rain, while the hours crawled by.
The roar of London traffic rose from afar, for the night was still. Now and then a taxi whirred through the sloppy street, but there were few wayfarers. Once a boy passed whistling, and the man at the window above stiffened a little, as if in some fashion the careless melody stirred him, but as the whistler turned the corner he relaxed again with his head back, and resumed his attitude of waiting.
It was nearly midnight when a taxi hummed up to the flaring lamp-post before the house, and stopped to discharge its occupant. Mordaunt heard the vehicle, but his eyes were closed and he did not trouble to open them. He had laid aside his pipe, and actually seemed to be on the verge of dozing at last. The window-curtain screened him from the view of any in the street, and it did not occur to him that the new arrival could be in any way connected with himself.
It was, therefore, with a hint of surprise that he turned his head at the opening of the door.
"Mr. Wyndham to see you, sir," said Holmes. "Says it's very particular, sir."
"Who? Oh, all right. Show him in." A bored note sounded in Mordaunt's voice. "And you needn't sit up, Holmes. I'll let him out," he added.
"Very good, sir," said Holmes, without enthusiasm. He never liked to retire before his master.
Mordaunt rose with a faint touch of impatience. He expected to see Max, and wondered that the news of his arrival in town had reached him so quickly. But it was Rupert who entered, and turned to satisfy himself that the door was shut before he advanced to greet his brother-in-law.
Mordaunt stood by the window and watched the precaution with a certain grim curiosity. He fancied he could guess the reason of this midnight visitation, but as the boy came towards him and halted in the full light he saw that he was mistaken. There was no indignant questioning visible on Rupert's face. It looked only grey and haggard and desperate.
"Look here," he said, speaking jerkily, as if it were only by a series of tense efforts that he spoke at all. "I've come to tell you something. I don't know how you'll take it. And I may as well admit—that I'm horribly afraid. Do you mind if I have a drink—just to help me through?"
Mordaunt closed the window, and came quietly forward. Just for a moment he fancied that Rupert had already fortified himself in the manner indicated for the ordeal of meeting him, and then again he realized that he was mistaken. The eyes that looked into his were perfectly sane, but they held an almost childlike appeal that made his heart contract suddenly. He bit his lip savagely. Why on earth couldn't the fellow have left him alone for this one night at least?
He forced himself to be temperate, but there was no warmth in his tone as he said, "I've no objection to your having a drink if you want it. I suppose you've got into a scrape again, and want me to help you out?"
"No, it's not that—at least, not in the sense you mean."
Hurriedly Rupert made answer. He looked for a moment at the glasses on the table, but he did not attempt to help himself. Suddenly he shivered.
"Ye gods! What an infernal night! I had to walk ever so far before I found a taxi. I came up by the evening train—couldn't get off duty sooner. I thought you would be off to Dover before I got here. And I—and I—" He broke off blankly and became silent, as if he had forgotten what he had meant to say.
Mordaunt leaned over the table, and mixed a drink with the utmost steadiness. "Sit down," he said. "And now drink this, and pull yourself together. There's nothing to be in a funk about, so take your time."
He spoke with authority, but his manner had the aloofness of one not greatly interested in the matter in hand. He resented the boy's intrusion, that was all.
Rupert accepted his hospitality in silence. This obvious lack of interest increased his difficulties tenfold.
Mordaunt went back to his chair by the window, and relighted his pipe. He knew he was being cold-blooded, but he felt absolutely incapable of kindling any warmth. There seemed to be no warmth left in him.
Rupert gulped down his drink, and buried his face in his hands. He felt that the thing he had come to do was beyond his power to accomplish. He could not make his confession to a stone image. And yet he could not go, leaving it unmade.
In the long pause that followed it almost seemed as if Mordaunt had forgotten his presence in the room. The minutes ticked away, and he made no sign.
At last, desperately, Rupert lifted his head. "Trevor!"
Mordaunt looked at him. Then, struck possibly by the misery of the boy's attitude, he laid down his pipe and turned towards him.
"Well, what is it?"
Vehemently Rupert made answer. "For pity's sake, don't freeze me up like this, man! I—I—oh, can't you give me a lead?" he broke off desperately.
"You see, I don't know in the least what you have come to say," Mordaunt pointed out. "If it has anything to do with—recent events"—he spoke with great distinctness—"I can only advise you to leave it alone, since no remonstrance from you will make the smallest difference."
"But it hasn't," groaned Rupert. "At least, of course, it's in connection with that. But I've come to try and tell you the truth—something you don't know and never will know if I don't tell you. And—Heaven help me!—I'm such a cur—I don't know how to get through with it."
That reached Mordaunt, stirring him to activity almost against his will. He found himself unable to look on unmoved at his young brother-in-law's distress. He left his chair and moved back to the table.
"I don't know what you've got to be afraid of," he said, with a touch of kindliness in his tone that deprived it of its remoteness. "I'm not feeling particularly formidable. What have you been doing?"
Rupert groaned again and covered his face. "You'll be furious enough directly. But it's not that exactly that I mind. It's—it's the disgusting shabbiness of it. We Wyndhams are such a rotten lot, we don't see that part of the business till afterwards."
"Hadn't you better come to the point?" suggested Mordaunt. "We can talk about that later."
"No, we can't," said Rupert, with conviction. "You'll either throw me out of the window or kick me downstairs directly you know the truth."
"I'm not in the habit of doing these things," Mordaunt remarked, with the ghost of a smile.
"But this is an exceptional case." Rupert straightened himself abruptly, and turned in his chair, meeting the quiet eyes. "Damn it, I'll tell you!" he said, springing to his feet with sudden resolution. "Trevor, I—I'm an infernal blackguard! I forged that cheque!"
"You!" Sternly Mordaunt uttered the word. He moved a step forward and looked Rupert closely in the face. "Are you telling me the truth?" he said.
"I am." Rupert faced him squarely, though his eyelids quivered a little. "I'm not likely to lie to you in this matter. I've nothing to gain and all to lose. And I shouldn't have told you—anyway now—if Noel hadn't come over this morning with the news that you had kicked out your secretary for the offence I had committed. Even I couldn't stick that, so I've come to own up—and take the consequences."
He braced himself, almost as if he expected a blow. But Mordaunt remained motionless, studying him keenly, and for many seconds he did not utter a word.
At last, "Bertrand knew of this," he said, in a tone that held more of conviction than interrogation.
"No, he didn't. He knew nothing, or, if he did, it was sheer guess-work. I never suspected that he knew." Rupert's hands were clenched. He was face to face with the hardest task he had ever undertaken.
"He knew, for all that." Mordaunt's brows contracted; he seemed to be following out a difficult problem.
Finally, to Rupert's relief, he turned aside. "Go on," he said. "I'll hear the whole of it now. What did you do with the money?"
Rupert's teeth closed upon his lower lip. "That's the only question I can't answer."
"Why not?" The question was curt, and held no compromise.
"Private reasons," Rupert muttered.
"Family reasons would be more accurate," Mordaunt rejoined, in the same curt tone. "You gave it to—Chris."
The momentary hesitation before the name did not soften its utterance. It came with a precision almost brutal.
Rupert made a slight movement, and stood silent.
"You are not going to deny it?" Mordaunt observed, glancing at him.
He turned his face away. "What's the good?"
"Just so. You had better tell me the whole truth. It will save trouble."
"But I don't see that there is anything more to tell." Rupert spoke with an effort. "I stole the cheque in the first place—that Sunday afternoon—you remember? I was a bit top-heavy at the time. That's no excuse," he threw in. "I daresay I should have done it in any case. But—well, you know the state of mind I was in that day. You had just been beastly generous, too. And that reminds me; you left your keys behind, do you remember? I came in for another drink and saw them. The temptation came then, and I never stopped to think till the thing was done. Bertrand nearly caught me in the act. He didn't suspect anything at the time, but he may have remembered afterwards."
"Probably," said Mordaunt. "You weren't frank with me that day, then? There were debts you didn't mention."
Rupert nodded. "You were a bit high-handed with me. That choked me off. Still, though in an evil moment I took the cheque out of your book, I loathed myself for it afterwards. I hadn't the strength of mind to destroy it, or the courage to send it back. But"—he turned back again and met Mordaunt's eyes—"I wasn't going to use it, though I was cur enough to keep it, and to like to feel it was there in case of emergency. I didn't mean to use it—on my oath, I didn't. I don't expect you to believe me, but it's true."
"I believe you," Mordaunt said quietly. "And—the emergency arose?"
Rupert nodded again. "Chris came to me—in great distress. Couldn't tell me what she wanted it for. You weren't to know, neither was Bertrand. She couldn't use her own without your finding out. And so—as it seemed urgent—in fact, desperate—and as it was for her—" He broke off. "No, I won't shelter myself in that way. I did it on my own. She didn't know. No one knew. If Bertrand suspected, he must have thought I took it for my own purposes. Heaven knows what she wanted it for, but she was most emphatic that it shouldn't get round to him."
"And you tell me she did not know how you obtained the money? Are you certain of that?" Mordaunt's tone was deliberate; he spoke as one who meant to have the truth.
"Why, man, of course I am! What do you take her for? Chris—my sister—your wife—"
"Stop!" The word was brief, and very final. "We need not go into that. She may not have known at the time, but she suspected afterwards. In fact, she knew."
"Is that what you quarrelled about?" Eagerly Rupert broke in. "Noel tried to get it out of her, but she wouldn't tell him. You'll find out where she's gone, and set it right? She can't be very far away."
"That," Mordaunt said, in a tone from which the faintest hint of feeling was excluded, "is beside the point. We will not discuss it."
"But—" Rupert began.
"We will not discuss it." Mordaunt repeated the words in the same utterly emotionless voice, and Rupert found it impossible to continue. "In fact, there seems to be nothing further to discuss of any sort. Can I put you up for the night?"
Rupert stared at him.
"Well?" Mordaunt's brows went up a little.
"Are you in earnest?" the boy burst out awkwardly. "I mean—I mean—don't you want to—to—give me a sound kicking?"
"Not in the least." A steely glint shone for a moment in the grey eyes. "I don't think that sort of treatment does much good, as a rule. And I have not the smallest desire to administer it. If you think you deserve it, I should imagine that is punishment enough."
Rupert swung round sharply on his heel. "All right. I'm going. If you want me, you know where to find me. I shan't run away. And I shan't try to back out. What I've said I shall stick to—if it means perdition."
"And what about the Regiment?" Quietly Mordaunt's voice arrested him before he reached the door. "Or doesn't the Regiment count?"
Rupert stopped dead, but he did not turn. "The Regiment"—he said—"the Regiment"—he choked suddenly—"they'll be damned well rid of me," he ended, somewhat incoherently.
"Come back!" Mordaunt said.
He made an irresolute movement, but did not comply.
"Rupert!" There was authority in the quiet voice.
Unwillingly Rupert turned. He came back unsteadily, with features that had begun to twitch.
Mordaunt moved to meet him. The coldness had gone out of his eyes. He took Rupert's arm, and brought him back to the table.
"I think you had better let me put you up," he said. "You can sleep in my room; I'm not wanting it for to-night. There, sit down. You mustn't be a fool, you know. You are played out, and want a rest."
"I—I'm all right," Rupert said.
He made as if he would withdraw his arm, but changed his intention, and stood tense, battling with himself.
"Oh, man!" he burst out at last, hoarsely, "you—you don't know what a—what a—cur I feel! I—I—I—" Words failed him abruptly; he flung round and sank down again at the table with his head on his arms, too humbled to remember his manhood any longer.
"My dear fellow, don't!" Mordaunt said. He put his hand on the boy's heaving shoulders and kept it there. "There's no sense in letting yourself go. The thing is done, and there is no more to be said, since neither you nor I can undo it. Come, boy! Pull yourself together. I am going to forget it, and you can do the same. I think you had better go to bed now. We shall have time for a talk in the morning. What?" He stooped to catch a half-audible sentence.
"You'll never forget it," gasped Rupert.
"Yes, I shall—if you will let me. It rests with you. I never wish to speak or think of it again. I have plenty of other things to think about, and so have you. That's settled, then. I am going to see if I can find you something to eat."
He stood up. His face had softened to kindness. He patted Rupert's shoulder before he turned away.
"Buck up, old chap!" he said gently, and went with quiet tread from the room.
A FRUITLESS ERRAND
"Hullo, Jack!" Noel sprang to meet his cousin with the bound of a young panther. "Where on earth have you come from? My good chap, you're positively drenched! You've never walked up from the station!"
"And missed the way twice," said Jack grimly. He shook Noel off without ceremony. "Where is Trevor? I have come to see him."
"Oh, he's cleared out; went to town this afternoon, says he's going to Paris to-morrow. There's been no end of a shine, you know. Chris bolted last night. Heaven only knows where she's gone. I think she might have told me first."
"I can tell you," said Jack. "She is with Hilda at Graysdale. I have just come from there. Trevor is in town, you say?"
Noel nodded. "Bertrand's gone too, you know. That was the beginning of it. Trevor kicked him out for robbing him. Beastly little thief! I told Trevor he would long ago. I say, you are not going again!"
Jack, still standing on the mat, was consulting his watch. "If there is another up train to-night I must catch it. There's a motor here, isn't there? Send round word that it is wanted."
"But there isn't a train!" Noel protested. "I know the last one goes at nine-fifty, and it's past ten now. Have you all gone raving mad? I always thought you, anyhow, had a little sense."
Jack uttered a grim laugh. "Well, find a time-table. I must go by the first train in the morning, whatever the hour. I've got to see Trevor before he leaves England."
"You won't get any sense out of him," Noel remarked. "I told him he was a beastly cad myself before he went, and he didn't even punch my head. Oh, I say, Jack, this place is pretty ghastly with no one in it. I can't stick it much longer."
"Just get me a drink," Jack said, "and we will discuss your affairs at length."
Noel departed with his customary expedition. He returned with drinks for two, which he proceeded to mix with a lavish hand.
"I'm not going to let you have that," Jack observed. "You have dined, and I haven't. Get me some food like a good chap, and then we will have a talk."
Noel submitted meekly. He was fond of Jack. Returning with sufficient to satisfy his cousin's immediate needs, he seated himself on the table while he ate, and embarked upon a more detailed account of the happenings of the past two days.
"I only saw Chris for a few minutes," he said in conclusion. "She looked pretty desperate, and seemed horribly scared. But she wouldn't tell me why. I knew there was something up, of course. Trevor had told me she was upset about Bertrand. But I had no idea she was going to cut and run. I don't know if Trevor had, but I couldn't get anything out of him. It's my belief the silly ass was jealous."
"I didn't know what to do," Noel ended. "So I thought I'd stick on here till someone turned up."
"You ought to be going back to school," Jack remarked.
Noel leaned carelessly down upon his elbow and looked him straight in the eyes. "I'm not going," he said.
"I've other things to think about. I'm going to Graysdale. Can you lend me a couple of quid for the journey? I'll pay you back when I come of age."
Jack surveyed him with one brow uplifted. "Suppose I can't?"
"I shall tramp, that's all." Noel made unconcerned response. He was accustomed to fend for himself, and the prospect of such an adventure was rather alluring than otherwise.
Jack smiled a little. He liked the boy's independence. "What do you want to go to Graysdale for?" he asked.
"To look after Chris, of course."
"Hilda can do that."
"Not in the same way. You needn't try to put me off. I'm going." Noel got off the table with his hands in his pockets and broke into a whistle.
Jack went on with his meal in silence.
Finally Noel came round and stood beside him. "That's understood, is it?" he said. "One of us ought to be with her, and as you and Rupert are chasing after Trevor, and Max is in town, it looks like my job. Anyhow, I'm going to take it on."
"All right," Jack said. "Go and prosper. I'm not sure that you will be wanted. But that's a detail. I daresay Chris may like to have you."
Noel grinned boyishly. "You're a white man, Jack! I'm jolly glad you turned up. Between ourselves, I don't mind telling you that I've been in a fairly stiff paste all day. It's a beastly feeling, isn't it? I'd have looked after her better if I'd known."
"You're a white man too," said Jack kindly. "Mind you behave like one."
They parted for the night soon after, to meet again very early in the morning, and finally separate upon their various errands.
Noel departed upon his in obviously high spirits; but he maintained his air of responsibility notwithstanding, and Jack took leave of him with a smile of approval.
He himself telegraphed to Hilda as soon as he arrived in town, and acquainted her with the fact of the boy's advent. He directed her to send her answering message to him at Mordaunt's rooms, and then proceeded thither with the firm determination to see the owner thereof without further delay.
Holmes admitted him, and imparted the information that his master was at breakfast with the eldest Mr. Wyndham, who had arrived overnight.
Jack's jaw hardened at the news. He had not expected to find Rupert accepting his brother-in-law's hospitality. He shrugged his shoulders over the volatility of the Wyndhams, and announced curtly that he desired to see Mr. Mordaunt in private.
"Will you come into the smoking-room, sir?" asked Holmes.
"Certainly. But tell him I can't wait," said Jack.
He marched into the smoking-room therewith, and Holmes softly closed the door upon him. The window by which Mordaunt had sat all night long was open, and the sounds of the street below came cheerily in. Jack crossed over and quietly shut it.
Turning from this, his eyes fell upon a photograph on the mantelpiece. He went up to it and took it between his hands. Gaily the pictured face laughed up at him—Chris in her happiest, wildest mood, with Cinders clasped in her arms; Chris, the child of the sunny eyes that no shadow had ever darkened!
Something rose suddenly in Jack's throat. He gulped hard, and put the portrait back. Was it indeed Chris—the broken-hearted woman he had held in his arms but yesterday? Then was the Chris of the old days gone for ever.
Someone entered the room behind him and he wheeled round.
"Good morning," said Mordaunt.
He offered his hand, but Jack ignored it and his greeting alike.
He stood for a couple of seconds in silence, looking at him, while Mordaunt waited with absolute composure. Then, "I daresay you are wondering what I have come for," he said. "Or perhaps you can guess."
"Why should I?" Mordaunt said.
Jack frowned abruptly. He had met this impenetrable mood before. But he would not be baffled by it. It was no moment for subtleties. He went straight to the point.
"I have come to tell you that Chris is at Graysdale with Hilda," he said.
Mordaunt's brows went up. He said nothing.
But Jack was insistent. "Did you know that?"
"I did not." Very deliberately came Mordaunt's answer; it held no emotion of any sort. The subject might have been one of utter indifference to him.
"Then where did you think she was?"
There was an undernote of ferocity in Jack's question, almost a hint of menace; but Mordaunt seemed unaware of it.
"Forgive me for saying so, Jack," he said. "But that is more my affair than yours. I have nothing whatever to discuss with you, nor do I hold myself answerable to you in any way for my actions."
"But I do," Jack said curtly. "I have always held myself responsible for Chris's welfare. And I do so still."
Mordaunt listened unmoved. "You can hardly expect me to acknowledge your authority," he said, "since my responsibility in that respect is greater than yours."
"I have no desire to dictate to you," Jack answered quickly. "But I do claim the right to speak my mind on this matter. Remember, it was I who first brought you into her life."
Mordaunt shrugged his shoulders slightly. "As to that, I am fatalist enough to believe that we should have met in any case. But isn't that beside the point? I have declined to discuss the matter with anyone, and I am not going to make an exception of you."
"You must," Jack said. He threw back his shoulders as if bracing himself for a physical conflict. He was plainly in earnest.
Mordaunt turned to the table and sat down. "You are wasting your time," he said. "Argument is quite useless. I have already decided upon my plan of action, and quarrelling with you is no part of it."
"What is your plan of action?" Jack demanded.
Mordaunt took out his cigarette-case. "I shall start for Paris in a couple of hours. Meantime"—he glanced up—"I suppose you won't smoke? Have you had any breakfast?"
"Then you mean to desert her?" Jack said.
Mordaunt's face remained immovable. He began to smoke in dead silence.
Jack's teeth clenched. "I am going to have an answer," he said.
"Very well." Coldly the words fell; there was something merciless in their very utterance. "Then I will answer you; but it is my last word upon the subject. My wife followed her own choice in leaving me, and it is my intention to abide by her decision. If you call that desertion—"
"I do," Jack broke in passionately. "It is desertion, nothing less. She left you—oh, I know all about it—she left you because you literally scared her away. You terrified her into going; there was nothing else for her to do. She had done nothing wrong. But you—you dared to suspect her of Heaven knows what. You dared to think that Chris—my Chris—was capable of playing you false, you who were the only man on earth I thought good enough for her. And do you know what you have done? You have broken her heart!" He took the portrait from the mantelpiece and thrust it in front of the man at the table. "That," he said, and suddenly his voice was quivering, "that was the child you married. I gave her into your care willingly, though, God knows, I worshipped her. No, you didn't cut me out. I was never in the running. I never so much as made love to her. I always knew she was not for me. When she accepted you, I thought it was the best thing that could possibly happen. I felt she would be safe with you. You were the one fellow I would have chosen to guard her. And she needed guarding. She was as innocent and as inexperienced as a baby. She didn't know the world and its beastly ways. I thought you were to be trusted to keep her out of the mud; I could have sworn you were. But you withdrew your protection just when she needed it most. You practically turned her out, cut her adrift. She might have gone straight to the bad for all you cared. And now, like the damned blackguard that you are, you are going to clear out and leave her to break her heart!"
Fiercely the words rushed out. Jack, the placid, the kindly, the careless, was for the moment electrified by a tornado of feeling that swept him far beyond the bounds of his customary easy bonhomie. He towered over the man in the chair as if at the first movement he would fell him to the ground.
But Mordaunt remained quite motionless. He had removed his cigarette, and sat looking straight up at him with steely eyes that never changed. When Jack ceased to speak, there fell a silence that was in a sense more fraught with conflict than any war of words.
Through it at length came Mordaunt's voice, measured and distinct and cold. "It is not particularly wise of you to take that tone, but that is your affair. I have already warned you that you are wasting your time. Your championship is quite superfluous, and will do no good to anyone. I think you will see this for yourself when you have taken time to think it over. Wouldn't it be as well to do so before you go any further—for your own sake, not for mine?"
"I am not thinking of myself at the present moment," Jack responded sternly, "or of you. I'm thinking of Chris—and Chris only. Man, do you want to kill her? For you're going the right way to do it."
The cigarette between Mordaunt's fingers slowly doubled and crumpled into shapelessness, but the steely eyes never altered. They barred the way inflexibly to the man's inmost soul. He uttered neither question nor answer.
But Jack was not to be silenced. "I tell you, she is ill," he said. "I saw her myself yesterday. She was simply broken down. I never saw such a change in anyone. I couldn't have credited it. Hilda is horribly anxious about her. She is going to wire to me here as to her condition."
"Why here?" Very calmly came the question.
Jack explained. Almost in spite of himself his own heat had died down, cooled by that icy deliberation. "I went to Kellerton yesterday in search of you, found only Noel there, but had to spend the night as it was late. I came on by the first train, and wired to Hilda to send her message here in case you may be wanted. It ought to come through in about an hour."
"And you propose to wait for it?"
"Yes, I do." Jack paused an instant; then, "You must wait too," he said doggedly. "She isn't very likely to want you, and I've sworn you shan't frighten her any more; but you shan't abandon her either while there is the faintest chance that she may want you."
"There is not the faintest." Mordaunt glanced down at the thing that had once been a cigarette which he still held between his fingers, contemplated it for a moment, then rose and went to the mantelpiece for an ash-tray. "You have taken a good deal upon yourself, Jack," he said. "But I have borne with you because I know that your position is a difficult one. You say you know everything. That may be so, and again it may not. In either case, our points of view do not coincide. I will wait until that telegram comes; but it is not my intention to go to my wife—whatever it may contain."
Jack bit his lip savagely. "In short, you don't care what happens to her!" he said. "You want to be rid of her—one way or another. And you don't care how!"
He spoke recklessly, uttering the thought that had come uppermost in his mind without an instant's consideration. Perhaps instinctively he sought to rouse the devil that till then had been held in such rigid control. But the effect of his words was such as he had scarcely looked for.
Mordaunt turned with the movement of a goaded creature and gripped him by the shoulder. "You believe that?" he said.
They stood face to face. Mordaunt was as white as death. His eyes in that moment were terrible. But it seemed to Jack that they expressed more of anguish than of anger, and he felt as if he had seen a soul in torment. He averted his own instinctively. It was a sight upon which he could not look.
"Do you believe it?" Mordaunt said, his voice very low.
"No!" Impulsively Jack made answer. That instant's revelation had quenched his own fire very effectually. "Forgive me!" he said. "I—didn't understand."
The hand on his shoulder relaxed slowly. There fell a silence. Then, "All right, Jack," Mordaunt said very quietly.
And Jack knew that he had dropped the veil again that shrouded his soul's agony.
"You will wait here for that telegram?" Mordaunt asked, after a moment.
"Will you come into the other room? Rupert is with me."
"No. I'll wait here, thanks."
"Very well. I shall see you again." Mordaunt crossed to the door, then paused, and after a moment came slowly back to the table.
He stood before it in silence, looking down upon the portrait that Jack had laid there as one looks upon the face of the dead.
His face showed no sign of softening, yet Jack made a last effort to move him. "You're not going to let her fret her heart out for you? You'll go back to her if she is wanting you? Damn it, Trevor! You can't know what she is suffering! And after all—she is your wife!"
Mordaunt's mouth hardened. He made no response.
"Surely you don't—you can't—think evil of her?" Jack said.
Mordaunt raised his eyes slowly. "You have said enough," he said, with quiet emphasis. "As for this portrait, take it if you value it. I never cared for it myself."
"Never cared for it!" Jack ejaculated.
"No. It never conveyed very much to me. I did not regard her in that light."
"Then you never knew her," Jack said with conviction.
"Possibly not." Mordaunt turned away once more. "Most of us are blind," he said, "until our eyes are opened. I am going to send you in some breakfast if you are sure you prefer to stay here."
He went out quietly, leaving Jack marvelling at his own docility. The last thing he would have expected of himself was that at the end of the interview he also would be accepting the hospitality of the man he had come almost prepared to shoot. The turn of events forced him into a species of unwilling admiration. There was no denying the fact that, mismanage his own private affairs as he might, this was a born leader of men.
Mordaunt himself brought him his sister's telegram some time later.
He remained in the room while Jack opened it, but he betrayed no impatience to hear its contents. As for Jack, he stood for several seconds with the message in his hand before he looked up.
"I suppose you will have to see it," he said then reluctantly.
"That is as you like."
But though the words were emotionless, Mordaunt's eyes searched his face, and in answer to them Jack held out the paper.
"I am sorry," he said.
"In no danger. Keep Trevor away," was the message it contained.
"As I thought," Mordaunt observed, and handed it back without further comment.
"She will be wanting you presently," Jack said uneasily, "You know how women change."
And Mordaunt smiled, a grim, set smile. "Yes, I know," he answered.
THE DESIRE OF HIS HEART
The night was very hot, even hotter than the day had been. Only the whirring electric fan kept the air moving. It might have been midsummer instead of the end of September.
Bertrand de Montville, seated in an easy-chair and propped by cushions, raised his head from time to time and gasped for breath. He held a newspaper in his hand, for sleep was out of the question. He had been suffering severely during the day, but the pain had passed and only weariness remained. His face was yet drawn with the memory of it, and his eyes were heavily shadowed. But the inherent pluck of the man was still apparent. His pride of bearing had not waned.
He was reading with close attention a report upon the chief event of the hour—the trial of Guillaume Rodolphe at Valpre. It had been in progress for four days, and was likely to last for several more. The report he read was from the pen of Trevor Mordaunt, an account clear and direct as the man himself. So far the evidence had seemed to turn in Bertrand's favour, and, his protestations notwithstanding, it was impossible not to feel a quickening of the pulses as he realized this fact. Would they ever send for him? He asked himself. Would they ever desire to do justice to the man they had degraded?
It was evident that the writer of the account before him thought so. However Mordaunt's opinion of the man himself had altered, his conviction on the subject of his innocence of that primary crime had plainly remained unshaken. He had not allowed himself to be biased by subsequent events.
"And that is strange—that!" the Frenchman murmured, with his eyes upon the article. "Perhaps la petite Christine has convinced him. But no—that is not probable."
He broke off as the door opened, and a quick smile of welcome flashed across his face. He stretched out both hands to the new-comer.
"All right. Sit still," said Max.
He sauntered across the room, his coat hanging open and displaying evening dress, and gave his hand into Bertrand's eager clasp. It was a very cool hand, and strong with a vitality that seemed capable of imparting itself.
He looked down at Bertrand with a queer glint of tenderness in his eyes. "I shouldn't have come up at this hour," he said, "but I guessed you would be awake. How goes it, old chap? Pretty bad, eh?"
"No, I am better," Bertrand said. "I am glad that you came up."
Max drew up a chair, and sat down beside his protege. For nearly three weeks now Bertrand had been with him. A post-card written from a squalid back-street lodging had been his first intimation that the Frenchman was in London, and within two hours of receiving it Max had removed him to the private nursing-home in which he himself was at that time domiciled. For, notwithstanding his youth, Max Wyndham was a privileged person, and owned as his greatest friend one of the most distinguished physicians in London.
His natural brilliance had brought him in the first place to the great man's notice; and though he was but a medical student, his foot was already firmly planted upon the ladder of success. There was little doubt that one day—and that probably not many years distant—Max Wyndham would be a great man too. Even as it was, his grip upon all things that concerned the profession he had chosen was so prodigious that his patron would upon occasion consult with him as an equal, detecting in him that flare of genius which in itself is of more value than years of accumulated knowledge. He had the gift of magnetism to an extraordinary degree, and he coupled with it an unerring instinct upon which he was not afraid to rely. Equipped thus, he was bound to come to the front, though whether the Wyndham blood in him would suffer him to stay there was a proposition that time alone could solve.
His effect upon Bertrand was little short of magical. Sitting there beside him with the wasted wrist between his fingers, and his green eyes gazing at nothing in particular, there was little about him to indicate a remarkable personality. Yet the drawn look passed wholly away from the sick man's face, and he leaned back among his pillows with a restfulness that he had been very far from feeling a few seconds earlier.
"So you are reading all about the Rodolphe affaire," Max said presently.
"It is Mr. Mordaunt's own report," Bertrand explained. "It interests me—that. I feel as if I heard him speak."
Max grunted. He had asked no question as to the circumstances that had led to Bertrand's departure, and Bertrand had volunteered no information. It had been a closed subject between them by mutual consent. But to-night for some reason Max approached it, warily, as one not sure of his ground.
"When do you hope to see him again?"
A slight flush rose in Bertrand's face. "Never—it is probable," he said sadly.
"Ah! Then you had a disagreement?"
Bertrand looked at him questioningly.
Max smiled a little. "No, it isn't vulgar curiosity. Fact is, I came across my cousin Jack Forest to-day. You remember Jack Forest? I've been dining with him at his club. We hadn't met for ages, and naturally we had a good deal to say to one another."
He paused, gently relinquishing his hold upon Bertrand's wrist, and got up to pour something out of a bottle on the mantelpiece into a medicine-glass.
"Drink this, old chap," he said, "or I shall tire you out before I've done."
"You have something to say to me?" Bertrand said quickly.
Max nodded. "I have. Drink first, and then I will tell you. That's the way. You needn't be in a hurry. You were going to tell me about that disagreement, weren't you? At least, I think you were. You have been rash enough to trust me before."
"But naturally," Bertrand said. He handed the glass back with a courteous gesture of thanks. "And I have not had cause to regret it. I will tell you why I disagreed with Mr. Mordaunt if you desire to know. It was because he found that he had been robbed, and that I"—he spread out his hands—"was the robber."
Max stared. "Found that you had robbed him! You!"
Bertrand nodded several times, but said no more.
"I don't believe it," Max said with conviction.
Bertrand smiled rather ruefully. "No? But yet the evidence was against me. And me, I did not contradict the evidence."
"I see. You were shielding someone. Who was it? Rupert?"
At Bertrand's quick start Max also smiled with grim humour. "You see, I know my own people rather well. I'm glad it wasn't Chris, anyway. Then she had nothing at all to do with your quarrel with Trevor?"
"Nothing," Bertrand said—"nothing." He paused a moment, then added, with something of an effort, "But I had decided that I would go before that. Mr. Mordaunt did not know why."
"Because of Chris?" There was a touch of sharpness in Max's voice.
Bertrand bent his head. "You were right that night. A man cannot hope to hide his heart for ever from the woman whom he loves."
"You told her, then?"
"It arrived without telling," Bertrand answered with simplicity.
"That means she cares for you?" Max said shrewdly.
Bertrand looked up. "Mais c'est passe," he said, his voice very low. "You have guessed the truth, but you only know it. Her husband—"
"My dear fellow, that's just the mischief. He knows it too," Max said.
"He!" Bertrand started upright.
Instantly Max's hand was upon him, checking him. "Keep still, Bertrand! You can't afford to waste your strength. Yes, Trevor knows. He knew on the very day you left. He found out that that blackguard Rodolphe had been blackmailing her. He had a scene with Chris, and she left him."
"Rodolphe! Le canaille! Est-ce possible? Alors, she is not—not with him—at Valpre—as I thought?" gasped Bertrand.
"No. She has not been near him since. I knew nothing of this till to-day. She hardly ever writes. I thought—as you did—that she had gone to France with Trevor. Instead of that, Jack tells me, she has been with his sister in Yorkshire all this time. She has been ill, is so still, I believe. They are coming to town to-morrow, to Percy Davenant's flat. Jack is very worried about it. He saw Trevor before he left England, but couldn't get him to listen to reason. He seems to have made up his mind to have no more to do with her, while she is fretting herself to a skeleton over it, but daren't make the first move towards a reconciliation. It probably wouldn't do any good if she did. He is as hard as iron. And if his mind is once made up—" Max left the sentence unfinished, and continued: "I think I shall go to Valpre and see what I can do. This has gone on long enough, and we can't have Chris making herself ill. I should think even he would see the force of that. This trial business will be over in a few days, and if I don't catch him he may go wandering, Heaven knows where. But it won't do. He must come back to her. I shall tell him so."
But at that Bertrand laid a nervous hand upon his arm. "My friend," he said, "you will not persuade him."
Max looked at him, and was confronted by eyes of gleaming resolution. "I believe I shall," he said. "I can persuade most people."
"You will not persuade him," Bertrand repeated. "That scelerat has poisoned his mind. Moreover, you do not even know what passed between us."
"I don't need to know," Max said curtly.
Bertrand began to smile. "And you think you can plead your sister's cause without knowing, hein? No, no! the affair is too much advanced. There is only one man who can help the little Christine now. He would not listen to you, mon cher, if you went. But—to me, he will listen, even though he believes me to be a thief; for he is very just. I know that I can make him understand. And for that I shall go to him to-morrow. As you say, we cannot let la petite fret."
He spoke quite quietly, but his eyes were shining with a fire that had not lit them for many a day.
"My dear chap, you can't go. You're not fit for it." Max spoke with quick decision. "I won't let you go, so there's an end of it."
But Bertrand laughed. "So? But I am more fit than you think, mon ami. Also it is my affair, this, and none but I can accomplish it. See, I start in the morning, and by this hour to-morrow I shall be with him."
"Folly! Madness!" Max said.
But indomitable resolution still shone in the Frenchman's eyes. "Listen to me, Max," he said. "If I spend my last breath thus, why not? I have not the least desire to cling to life. And is that madness? I love la petite more than all. And is that folly? Why should I not give the strength that is still in me to accomplish the desire of my heart? Is mortal life so precious to those who have nothing for which to live?"
"Rot!" Max said fiercely. "You have plenty to live for. When this scoundrel Rodolphe is disposed of they will be reinstating you. You've got to live to have your honour vindicated. Does that mean nothing to you?"
Bertrand shrugged his shoulders. "It would interest me exactly as the procession under the windows interests those who watch. The procession passes, and the street is empty again. What is that to me?" He snapped his fingers carelessly. But the animation of his face had transformed it completely, giving him a look of youth with which Max was wholly unfamiliar. "See!" he said. "Le bon Dieu has given me this thing to do, and He will give me the strength to do it. That is His way, mon ami. He does not command us to make bricks without straw."
Max grunted. "Whatever you do, you will have to pay for," he observed dryly. "And how are you going to get to Valpre without being arrested?"
"But I will disguise myself. That should be easy." Bertrand laughed again, and suddenly stretched out his arms and rose. "I am well," he declared. "I have been given the strength, and I will use it. Have no fear, Max. It will not fail me."
"I shall go too, then," Max said abruptly. "Sit down, man, and be rational. You don't suppose I shall let you tear all over France in your present condition by yourself, do you? If you excite yourself in this fashion, you will be having that infernal pain again. Sit down, I tell you!"
Bertrand sat down, but as if he moved on wires. "No," he said with confidence, "I shall not suffer any more to-night. You say that you will go with me? But indeed it is not necessary. And you have your work to do. I would not have you leave it on my account."
"I am coming," Max said, with finality, "And look here, Bertrand, I shall be in command of this expedition, and we are not going to travel at break-neck speed. You will not reach Valpre till the day after to-morrow. That is understood, is it?"
Bertrand hesitated and looked dubious.
"Come, man, it's for your own good. You don't want to die before you get there." Max's tone was severely practical.
"Ah no! Not that! I must not fail, Max. I must not fail." Bertrand spoke with great earnestness. He laid an impressive hand on his companion's arm. For a moment his face betrayed emotion. "I cannot—I will not—die before her happiness is assured. It is that for which I now live, for which I am ready to give my life. Max—mon ami—you will not let me die before—my work—is done!"
He spoke pantingly, as though speech had become an effort. The strain was beginning to tell upon him. But his eyes pleaded for him with a dumb intensity hard to meet.
Max took his wrist once more into his steady grasp. "If you will do as I tell you," he said, "I will see that you don't. Is that a bargain?"
A faint smile shone in the dark eyes at the peremptoriness of his speech. "But how you are despotic—you English!" protested the soft voice.
"Do you agree to that?" insisted Max.
"Mais oui. I submit myself—always—to you English. How can one—do other?"
"Then don't talk any more," said Max, with authority. "There's no time for drivel, so save your breath. You will want it when you get to Valpre."
"Ah, Valpre!" whispered Bertrand very softly as one utters a beloved name; and again more softly, "Valpre!"
A long wave broke with a splash and spread up the sand in a broad band of silver foam. The tide was at its lowest, and the black rocks of Valpre stood up stark and grotesque in the evening light. The Gothic archway of the Magic Cave yawned mysteriously in the face of the cliff, and over it, with shrill wailings, flew countless seagulls, flashing their wings in the sunset.
The man who walked alone along the shore was too deeply engrossed in thought to take much note of his surroundings, although more than once he turned his eyes towards the darkness of the cave. A belt of rocks stretched between, covered with slimy, green seaweed. It was evident that he had no intention of crossing this to explore the mysteries beyond. Just out of reach of the sea he moved, his hands behind him and his head bent.
All through the day he had been pent in a stuffy courtroom, closely following the evidence that, like a net of strong weaving, was gradually closing around the prisoner Guillaume Rodolphe. All France was seething over the trial. All Europe watched with vivid interest.
Another man's name had begun to be uttered on all sides, in court and out of it, coupled continuously with the name of the man who was standing his trial. Bertrand de Montville, where was he? All France would soon be waiting to do him justice, to pay him high honour, to compensate him for the indignities he had wrongfully suffered. He would have to face another court-martial, it was true; but the outcome of that would be a foregone conclusion, and his acquittal would raise him to a pinnacle of popularity to which he had surely never aspired, even in the days when ambition had been the ruling passion of his life.
Undoubtedly he would be the hero of the hour, if he could be found. But where was he? Everyone was asking the question. None knew the answer. Some said he was in England, awaiting the turn of events, abiding his opportunity; others that he was already in France, lying hidden in Paris, or even risking arrest at Valpre itself. The police were uniformly reticent upon the subject, but it was generally believed that there would be small difficulty in finding him when the moment arrived. Some went so far as to assert that he had actually been arrested, and was being kept a close prisoner by the authorities, who were plainly in fear of serious rioting. Whatever the truth of the matter, the fact remained that the tide of public opinion had set very strongly in his favour, and was likely to wax to a tumultuous enthusiasm exceedingly difficult to cope with when the object thereof should present himself.
With all of this Trevor Mordaunt was well acquainted; but he, on his part, was firmly convinced that Bertrand would keep away until he himself had left France. To come to Valpre now would be to court a meeting with him, and this, he was convinced, Bertrand would do his utmost to avoid. The break between them had been quite final. Moreover, he probably believed that Chris was at Valpre also, and he had apparently determined not to see her again. But here an evil thought forced its way. Might they not, quite possibly, be in communication with one another? It had presented itself many times before, that thought, and he had sought to put it from him. But to-night it would not be denied. It conquered and possessed him. Was it at all likely that the parting between them had been final?
Only that afternoon evidence had been given of the episode that had led to the duel on the Valpre sands more than four years before. He had listened with a set face to the account of the insult and the subsequent challenge, and though no name had been mentioned, he had known and faced the fact that the woman in the case had been his wife. Even then, Bertrand had regarded her as his peculiar charge, as under his exclusive protection. And she—had she not told him with burning unrestraint that she had always loved this man, would love him till she died?
With the gesture of one who relinquishes his hold upon something he has discovered to be valueless, Trevor Mordaunt turned in his tracks and began to walk back over the long stretch of sand. He looked no longer in the direction of the Magic Cave, but rather quickened his steps as though he desired to leave it far behind. But there was no escaping that all-mastering suspicion. It went with him, closely locked with his own spirit, and he could not shake it off.
Back to his hotel he walked, with no glance at sea or shining sunset, and went straight to his own room. There was a private sitting-room adjoining, which he was wont to share with some of his fellow-journalists. They used it as a club writing-room when the proceedings of the court-martial were over for the day. He had his notes in his pocket; his report was not yet written. He remembered that he must catch the midnight mail, and decided that he would not stop to dress. That day's sitting had been longer than usual, and his walk along the shore had made him late.
He passed straight through his bedroom, therefore, and into the sitting-room that overlooked the sea. A small, round-backed man, with a shag of black hair upon his face, was sitting by the window. There were three other men in the room, all writing busily. All, save the man by the window, glanced up at Mordaunt's entrance and nodded to him. They were all English, with the exception of the stranger, who was obviously French.
Mordaunt looked at him questioningly, but no one volunteered an explanation. He had evidently been sitting there for some time. His gaze was fixed upon the darkening sea. It was plain that he had no desire to court attention.
Quietly Mordaunt crossed the room to him. He was crouched like a monkey, his chin on his hand, and made no movement at his approach.
Mordaunt reached him, and bent a little. "Est-ce que vous attendez quelqu'un, monsieur?"
Dark eyes flashed up at him, and sharply Mordaunt straightened himself.
"I await Mr. Mordaunt," a soft voice said.
There was an instant's pause before, "That is my name," Mordaunt said very quietly.
"Eh bien, monsieur! May I speak with you—in private?"
The stranger rose shufflingly. He had the look of an old man.
"Come this way," Mordaunt said.
He re-crossed the room, his visitor hobbling in his wake. No one spoke, but all surveyed the latter curiously, and as the door of Mordaunt's bedroom closed upon him there was an interchange of glances and a raising of brows.
But nothing passed behind the closed door that would have enlightened any of them. For Mordaunt scarcely waited to be alone with the man before he said, "I must ask you to wait some time longer if you wish to speak to me. I am not at liberty at present."
"If I may wait here—" the stranger suggested meekly.
"Yes. You can do that. Have you dined?"
"But no, monsieur."
Mordaunt rang the bell. His face was quite immovable. He stood and waited in silence for an answer to his summons.
Holmes came at length. He betrayed no surprise at sight of the stranger in the room, but stood stiffly at attention, as though prepared to remove him at his master's bidding.
"Holmes," Mordaunt said very distinctly, "this—gentleman has private business with me, and he will wait in this room until I am able to attend to him. Will you get him some dinner, and see that no one but yourself comes into the room while he is here?"
"Very good, sir," said Holmes.
He looked his charge over with something of the air of a sentry taking stock of a prisoner, and turned about.
"See that he has all that he wants," Mordaunt added.
"Very good, sir," Holmes said again, and withdrew.
Mordaunt turned at once towards the other door. "I may be a couple of hours," he said, and passed through gravely into his sitting-room.
The trio assembled there glanced up again at his entrance with professional curiosity, but Mordaunt's face was quite inscrutable. Without speaking, he went to the table, took out his notebook, and began to write. The evidence had that evening been completed, and the trial adjourned for two days. It was his intention to write a short resume of the whole, and this he proceeded to do with characteristic clearness of outline. His pen moved rapidly, with unwavering decision, and for upwards of an hour he was immersed in his task, to the exclusion of all other considerations.
The three other men in the room completed their own reports, and went out one by one. The hotel was full of journalists from all parts, and the dinner-hour was always a crowded time. It was considered advisable by the English coterie to secure the meal as early as possible, but to-night Mordaunt neglected this precaution. He did not look up when the others left, or stir from his place until the article upon which he was engaged was finished.
He threw down his pen at last, and leaned back to run his eye over what he had written. It was a very brief inspection, and he made no corrections.
Finally he shook the loose sheets together, added two or three sketches from his notebook, thrust them into a directed envelope, and went to the door.
Holmes came to him at once along the passage.
"Get this sealed and dispatched without delay," Mordaunt said. "The gentleman is still waiting, I suppose?"
"Still waiting, sir," said Holmes.
"He has dined?"
"If you can call it dining, sir."
"Very well. You can go, Holmes."
But Holmes lingered a moment. "Won't you dine yourself, sir?"
"Later on. I am engaged just now. All right. Don't wait."
Holmes shook his head disapprovingly without further words, and turned to obey.
Mordaunt closed the door and turned the key, then walked slowly across the room to the window by which the Frenchman had sat that afternoon, and opened it wide. The night was very dark, and through it the sea moaned desolately. The wind was rising with the tide and blew in salt and cold, infinitely refreshing after the stuffy heat of the day. He leaned his head for a while against the window-frame. There was intense weariness in his attitude.
He uttered a great sigh at last and stood up, paused a moment, as though to pull himself together, then, with his customary precision of movement, he turned from the open window and walked across to the door that led into the next room. His face was somewhat paler than usual, but perfectly composed.
Without hesitation he opened the door and spoke. "Now, Bertrand!"
MAN TO MAN
There was a quick movement in answer to the summons, and in a moment the visitor presented himself. He had taken the false hair from his face, and his gait was no longer halting. He looked up at Mordaunt with sharp anxiety as he came through.
"No one else has recognized me?" he asked.
"I believe not."
He drew a quick breath of relief. "Bien! It has been an affair tres difficile. I have feared detection mille fois. Yet I did not expect you to recognize me so soon."
"You see, I happen to know you rather well," Mordaunt said.
The Frenchman spread out his hands protestingly. The excitement of the adventure had flushed his face and kindled his eyes. He looked younger and more ardent than Mordaunt had ever seen him. The weariness that had so grown upon him during his exile had fallen from him like a cloak. "But you do not know me at all!" he said.
Mordaunt passed over the remark as if he had not heard it. "What have you come for?" he asked.
"To see you, monsieur." The reply was as direct as the question. A momentary challenge shone in Bertrand's eyes as he made it.
But Mordaunt remained coldly unimpressed. "It was not a very wise move on your part," he remarked. "You will be arrested if you are discovered. The authorities are not ready for you yet. They are quite capable of suppressing you for good and all if it suits their purpose."
"I know it. But that is of no importance after to-night." Bertrand stood and faced him squarely. "After to-night," he said, "they may do what they will. I shall have accomplished that which I came to do."
"And that?" said Mordaunt. He looked back into the eager eyes with the aloofness of a stranger. His manner was too impersonal to express either enmity or contempt.
The keenness began to die out of Bertrand's face, and a certain dignity took its place. "That," he made answer, "is to tell you the truth in such a fashion that, although you think that I am a thief, you will believe it."
"I do not think that you are in a position to tell me anything that I do not know already," Mordaunt answered quietly. "By the way, it may interest you to hear that the affair of the cheque has been cleared up. I wronged you there, but I do not think that I was responsible for the wrong."
"I was responsible," Bertrand said, his voice very low. "I deceived you. And for that you will not pardon me, no?"
But the level grey eyes looked through and beyond him. "That," Mordaunt said, "is a matter of small importance now. Deceptions of that kind are never excusable in my opinion; but as I do not expect you to share my point of view, it seems scarcely worth while to discuss it."
Bertrand bowed stiffly. "It is not of that that I desire to speak. Of myself you will think—what you will. I have merited—and I will endure—your displeasure. But of la petite"—he paused—"of Christine"—he faltered a little, and finally amended—"of madame votre femme, you will think only that which is good. For that is her nature, that. And for me," his voice throbbed with sudden passion, "I would rather bear any insult than that you should think otherwise of her. For she is pure and innocent as a child. Do you not see that I would sooner die than harm her? And it has always, always been so. You believe me, no?"
Mordaunt's face was as stone. "I shouldn't go on if I were you," he said. "You have nothing whatever to gain. As I have told you, I know already all that you can tell me upon this subject, and what I think of it is my affair alone. It is a pity that you took the trouble to come here. If you take my advice, you will leave me on the earliest opportunity."
"But you are mistaken. You do not know all." Impulsively Bertrand threw back the words. "You cannot refuse to listen to me," he said. "I appeal to your honour, to your sense of justice. If you knew all, as you say, you would not leave her thus. If you believed her to be blameless—as she is—you would not abandon her in her hour of trouble. I tell you, monsieur"—his breath quickened suddenly and he caught his hand to his side—"if you know the truth, you are committing a crime for which no penalty is enough severe."
He broke off, panting, and turned towards the open window.
Mordaunt said nothing whatever. His face was set like a mask. The only sign of feeling he gave was in the slow clenching of one hand.
After a few moments Bertrand wheeled round. "See!" he said. "I have followed you here to tell you the truth face to face, as I shall tell it—bientot—to the good God. You shall bind me by any oath that you will, though it should be enough for you that I have nothing at all to gain, as you have said. I shall hide nothing from you. I shall extenuate nothing. I shall tell you only the truth, man to man, as my heart knows it. For her sake, you will listen, yes?"
His voice slipped into sudden pleading. He stretched out his hands persuasively to the impassive Englishman, who still seemed to be looking through him rather than at him. He waited for an answer, but none came.
"Eh bien!" he said, with a quick sigh of disappointment. "Then I shall speak in spite of you. I begin with our meeting four years ago among the rocks of Valpre. It was an accident by which we met. I was working to complete my invention, and for the greater privacy I had taken it to the old cave of the contrabandists upon the shore—a place haunted by the spirits of the dead—so that I was safe from interruption. Or so I thought, till one afternoon she came to me like a goddess from the sea. She had cut her foot among the stones, and I bound it for her and carried her back to Valpre. She was only a child then, with eyes clear as the sunshine. She trusted herself to me as if I had been her brother. That is easy to comprehend, is it not?"
Again he paused for an answer, but Mordaunt said no word; his lips were firmly closed.
With a characteristic lift of the shoulders Bertrand continued. "Apres cela we met again and then again. La petite was lonely, and I, I played with her. I drew for her the pictures in the sand. We became—pals." He smiled with a touch of wistfulness over the word that his English friend had taught him. "We shared our secrets. Once—she was bathing"—his voice softened imperceptibly—"and I took her into my boat and rowed her back. It was then that I knew first that I loved her. Yet we remained comrades. I spoke to her no word of love. She was too young, and I had nothing to offer. I said to myself that I would win her when I had won my reputation, and in the meantime I would be patient. It was not very difficult, for she did not understand. And then one day we went to explore my cavern—she called it the Magic Cave, of which she was the princess and I her preux chevalier. We were as children in those days," he put in half-apologetically, "and it was her fete. Bien, we started. Le petit Cinders went with us, and almost before we had entered he ran away. We followed him, for Christine was very anxious. I had never been beyond the second cavern myself, and we had only one lantern. We came to a place where the passage divided, and here we agreed that she should wait while I went forward. I took the lantern. We could hear him yelp in the distance, and she feared that he was hurt. So I left her alone, and presently, hearing him, as I thought, in front of me, I ran, and stumbled and fell. The lantern was broken and I was stunned. It was long before I recovered, and then it was with great difficulty that I returned. I found her awaiting me still, and Cinders with her. It was dark and horrible, but she was too brave to run away. I heard her singing, and so I found her. But by that time the sea had reached the mouth of the cave, and there was no retreat. We had no choice. We were prisoners for the night. It might have happened to anyone, monsieur. It might have happened to you. You blame me—not yet?"
Again the note of pleading was in his voice, but Mordaunt maintained his silence. Only his eyes were no longer sphinx-like. They were fixed intently upon the Frenchman's face.
Bertrand went on as though he had been answered. "I kept watch all through the night, while she slept like an infant in my arms. You would have done the same. In the morning when the tide permitted, we laughed over the adventure and returned to Valpre. She went to her governess and I to the fortress. By then everybody in Valpre knew what had happened. They had believed that we were drowned, and when we reappeared all were astonished. Later they began to whisper, and that evening the villain Rodolphe, being intoxicated, proposed in my presence an infamous toast. I struck him in the mouth and knocked him down. He challenged me to a duel, and we fought early in the morning down on the sand. But that day the gods were not on my side. Christine and Cinders were gone to the sea to bathe, and, as they returned, they found us fighting. Le bon Cinders, he precipitate himself between us. La petite rush to stop him—too late. Rodolphe is startled; he plunge, and my sword pierce his arm. C'etait la un moment tres difficile. La petite try to explain, to apologize, and me—I lead her away. Apres cela she go back to England, and I see her not again. But Rodolphe, he forgive me—never. That, monsieur—and only that—is the true story of that which happened at Valpre. The little Christine left—as she arrived—a pure and innocent child."
He stopped. Mordaunt's eyes were still studying him closely. He met them with absolute freedom.
"I will finish," he said, "and you shall then judge for yourself. As you know, I had scarcely attained my ambition when I was ruined. It was then that you first saw me. You believed me innocent, and later, when Destiny threw me in your path, you befriended me. I have no need to tell you what your friendship was to me. No words can express it or my desolation now that I have lost it. I fear that I was never worthy of your—so great—confidence." His voice shook a little, and he paused to steady it. "It was my intention—always—to be worthy. The fault lay in that I did not realize my weakness. I ought to have left you when I knew that la petite was become your fiancee."
For the first time Mordaunt broke his silence. "Why not have told me the truth?"
Bertrand raised his shoulders. "I did not feel myself at liberty to tell you. Afterwards, I found that her eyes had been opened, and she was afraid for you to know. It did not seem an affair of great importance, and I let it pass. We were pals again. She gave me her confidence, and I would sooner have died," he spoke passionately, "than have betrayed it. I thought that I could hide my heart from her, and that only myself would suffer. And this I can say with truth: by no word, no look, no action, of mine were her eyes opened. I was always le bon frere to her, neither less nor more, until the awakening came. I was always faithful to you, monsieur. I never forgot that she belonged to you—that she was—the wife of—my friend."
Something seemed to rise in his throat, and he stopped sharply. A moment later very slowly he sat down.
"You permit me?" he said. "I am—a little—tired. As you know, I began to see at last that I could not remain with you. I resolved to go. But the death of Cinders prevented me. She was in trouble, and she desired me to stay. I should have grieved her if I had refused. I was wrong, I admit it. I should have gone then. I should have left her to you. I do not defend myself. I only beg you to believe that I did not see the danger, that if I had seen it I would not have remained for a single moment more. Then came the day at Sandacre, the encounter with Rodolphe. I knew that evening that something had passed between them; what it was she would not tell me. I tried to persuade her then to let me tell you the whole truth. But she was terrified—la pauvre petite. She thought that you would be angry with her. She feared that you would ask questions that she could not answer. She had kept the secret so long that she dared not reveal it."
"In short," Mordaunt said, "she was afraid that I should suspect her of caring for you."
His words were too quiet to sound brutal, but they were wholly without mercy. Bertrand's hands gripped the arms of his chair, and he winced visibly.
Yet he answered with absolute candour. "Yes, monsieur. I believe she was. I believe that it was the beginning of all this trouble. But had I known that Rodolphe would use his knowledge to extort money from her, I would not have yielded—no, not one inch—to her importunity. I did not know it. Christine was afraid of me also. I had fought one duel for her; perhaps she dreaded another. And so the mischief was done."
"And who told you that she had been blackmailed?" Mordaunt demanded curtly.
Bertrand made answer without hesitation. "I heard that two days ago from Max."
"Her brother, Max Wyndham."
"And who told him?"
Bertrand's black brows went up. "I believe it was his cousin Captain Forest."
"Ah! So he sent you, did he? I might have known he would." For the first time Mordaunt spoke with bitterness.
"Monsieur, no one sent me." There was dignity in Bertrand's rejoinder, a dignity that compelled belief. "I came as soon as I knew what had happened. I came to redress a great wrong. I came to restore to you that which is your own property—of which, in truth, you have never been deprived. With your permission, I will finish. On the night of the fireworks, the night you were in London, I—betrayed myself. I cannot tell you how it happened. I know only that my love became suddenly a flame that I could not hide. She had been in danger, and me—I lost my self-control. The veil was withdrawn, I could hide my love no more. I showed her my heart just as it was, and—she showed me hers."
Bertrand rose with none of his customary impetuosity and stood in front of Mordaunt, meeting the steady eyes with equal steadiness.
"I tell you the truth," he said. "We understand each other, and we love each other. But you—you are even now more to her than I have ever been. She has need of you as she has never had of me. You are the reality in her life. I"—he spread out his hands—"I am the romance."
He paused as if to gather his strength, then went rapidly on. But his face was grey. He looked like a man who had travelled fast and far. "Monsieur," he said very earnestly, "believe me, I do not stand between you. I love her—I love you both—too much for that. My one desire, my one prayer, is for her happiness—and yours. Do not, I beseech you, make me an obstacle. You are her protector. Do not leave her unprotected!"
Again for an instant he paused, seeming to strive after self-control. Then suddenly he relinquished the attempt. He flung his dignity from him; he threw himself on his knees at the impassive Englishman's feet. "Mr. Mordaunt," he cried out brokenly, "I have told you the truth. As a dying man, I swear to you—by God—that I have hidden nothing. Monsieur—monsieur—go back to her—make her happy—before I die!"
His voice dropped. He sank forward, murmuring incoherently.
Mordaunt stooped sharply over him. "Bertrand, for Heaven's sake—" he began, and broke off short; for the face that still tried to look into his was so convulsed with agony that he knew him to be for the moment beyond the reach of words.
He lifted the huddled Frenchman to a chair with great gentleness; but the paroxysm did not pass. It was terrible to witness. It seemed to rack him from head to foot, and through it he still strove to plead, though his speech was no more than broken sound, inexpressibly painful to hear, impossible to understand.
Mordaunt bent over him at last, all his hardness merged into pity. "My dear fellow, don't!" he said. "Give yourself time. Haven't you anything with you that will relieve this pain?"
Bertrand could not answer him. He made a feeble gesture with his right hand; his left was clenched and rigid.
Mordaunt began to feel in his pockets; his touch was as gentle as a woman's. But his search was unavailing. He only found an empty bottle. Bertrand had evidently taken the remedy it had contained earlier in the evening.
He turned to get some brandy, but Bertrand clutched at his sleeve and detained him. "Max is here," he gasped. "Find Max! He—knows!"
His hand fell away, and Mordaunt went to the door. Holmes had returned to his post in the passage. He came forward as the door opened.
"Mr. Max Wyndham is somewhere here," Mordaunt said. "Go and find him, and bring him back with you—at once."
Holmes nodded comprehension and went.
Mordaunt turned back into the room. Bertrand had slipped to the floor again, and was lying face downwards. His breathing was anguished, but he made no other sound.
Mordaunt poured out some brandy and went to him. He knelt down by his side and tried to administer it. But Bertrand could not drink. He could only gasp. Yet after a moment his hand came out gropingly and touched the man beside him.
Mordaunt took it and held it.
"You—believe me?" Bertrand jerked out.
"I believe you," Mordaunt answered very gravely.
Painfully the question came. It went into silence. But the hand that had taken Bertrand's closed slowly and very firmly.
"Et la petite—la petite—" faltered Bertrand.
The silence endured for seconds. It seemed as if no answer would come. And through it the man's anguished breathing came and went with a dreadful pumping sound as of some broken machinery.
At last, slowly, as though he weighed each word before he uttered it, Mordaunt spoke.
"You may trust her to me," he said.
And the hand in his stirred and gripped in gratitude, Bertrand de Montville had not spent himself in vain.
"Roses!" said Chris. "How nice!"
She held the white blossoms that Jack had sent her against her face, and smiled.
It was a very pathetic smile, a wan ghost of gaiety, possessing more of bravery than mirth. She lay on a couch by the window, looking out under the sun-blinds at the dusty green of the park. Though October had begun, the summer was not yet over, and the heat was considerable. It seemed oppressive after the fresh air of the moors, and Hilda watched her cousin's languor with some anxiety. For her face had scarcely more colour than the flowers she held.
"Is the paper here?" asked Chris.
She also was closely following the progress of the Valpre trial. Though she never discussed it, Hilda was aware that it was the only thing in life in which she took any interest just then.
She gave her the paper containing the last account that Mordaunt had written, and for nearly an hour Chris was absorbed in it. At last, with a sigh, she laid it down, and drew the roses to her again.
"It's very dear of Jack to send them. Hilda, don't you want to go out? You mustn't stay in always for me."
"I want you to come out too, dear," Hilda said.
"I? Oh, please, dear, I'd rather not." Chris spoke quickly, almost beseechingly. She laid a very thin hand upon Hilda's. "You don't mind?" she said persuasively.
Hilda took the little hand and stroked it. "Chris darling," she said, "do you know what is the matter with you?"
The quick blood rushed up over the pale face, spread to the temples, and then faded utterly away. "Yes," whispered Chris.
Hilda leaned down, and very tenderly kissed her. "I felt sure you did. And that's why you will make an effort to get strong, isn't it, dear? It isn't as if it were just for your own sake any more. You will try, my own Chris?"
But Chris turned her face away with quivering lips. "I think—and I hope—that I shall die," she said.
"Chris, my darling—"
"Yes," Chris insisted. "If it shocks you I can't help it. I don't want to live, and I don't want my child to live, either. Life is too hard. If—if I had had any choice in the matter, I would never have been born. And so if I die before the baby comes, it is the best thing that could possibly happen for either of us. And I think—I think"—she hesitated momentarily before a name she had not uttered for weeks—"Trevor would say the same."
"My dear child, I am quite sure he wouldn't!" Hilda spoke with most unaccustomed vigour. "I am quite sure that if he knew of this, he would be with you to-day."
"Oh no, indeed!" Chris said. She spoke quite quietly, with absolute conviction. "You don't know him, Hilda. You only judge him from outside. If he knew—well, yes, he might possibly think it his duty to be near me. But not because he cared. You see—he doesn't. His love is quite dead. And"—she began to shiver—"I don't like dead things; they frighten me. So you won't let anyone tell him; promise me!"
"But, my dear, he would love the child—his child," urged Hilda softly.
"Oh, that would be worse!" Chris turned sharply from her. "If he loved the child—and—and—hated the mother!"
"Chris! Chris! You are torturing yourself with morbid ideas! Such a thing would be impossible."
"Not with him," said Chris, shuddering. "He is not like Percy, you know. You think him gentle and kind, but he is quite different, really. He is as hard—and as cold—as iron. Ah, here is Noel!" She broke off with obvious relief. "Come in, dear old boy. I've been wondering where you were."
Noel came in. He usually haunted Chris's room during the day. The Davenants had done their utmost to persuade him to go to school, but Noel had taken the conduct of his affairs into his own hands, and firmly refused.
"I shan't go while Chris is ill," he declared flatly. "We'll see what she's like at the mid-term."
Jack's authority was invoked in vain, for Jack was on the youngster's side.
"I've squared him," said Noel, with satisfaction. "Of course, I'm sorry to be a burden to you, Hilda, but I'll pay up when I come of age."
Which promise invariably silenced Hilda's protests, and made Lord Percy chuckle.
Aunt Philippa was still absent upon her autumn round of visits, a circumstance for which Noel was openly and devoutly thankful. Not that her influence was by any means paramount with him, but her presence might of itself have been sufficient to drive him away. The only person who could really manage him was his brother-in-law, but as he had apparently forgotten Noel's very existence, it seemed unlikely that his authority would be brought to bear upon him. Meanwhile, Noel swaggered in and out of his sister's presence, penniless but content, and Chris plainly liked to have him.
On the present occasion he interrupted their conversation without apology, pushed Chris's feet to one side, and seated himself on the end of the sofa.
"Do you mind if I smoke?" he said to Hilda.
"Yes, I do," said Hilda.
"All right, then. You'd better go." He pulled a clay pipe out of his pocket, and an envelope that contained tobacco. "I know Chris doesn't mind," he said, with a twinkling glance in her direction. "Also, my cousin, someone wants you in the next room."
"Who is it?" said Hilda.
"Don't ask me," said Noel.
She hesitated momentarily. "Well, I suppose I must go. But mind, Noel, you are not to smoke in here."
"Say please!" said Noel imperturbably.
"Please!" said Hilda obediently.
He rose and accompanied her to the door. "Madam, your wishes shall be respected."
He opened the door with a flourish, bowed her out, closed it, and softly turned the key.
Then he wheeled round to his sister with gleaming eyes. "That's done the trick, I bet. Trevor has just turned up with Jack. But you needn't be afraid. I shan't let him in."
"What!" said Chris.
She started up, uttering the word like a cry.
Noel left the door swiftly, and came to her. "It's all right, old girl. Don't you worry yourself. We'll hold the fort, never fear. He shan't come in here, unless you say the word."
Chris's hands clutched him with feverish strength. Her face was deathly. "Oh, Noel!" she breathed. "Oh, Noel!"
He hugged her reassuringly. "It's all right, I tell you. Don't get in a blue funk for nothing. He's not coming in here to bully you."
But Chris only clung faster to him, not breathing. The sudden shock had sent all the blood to her heart. She felt choked and powerless.
"There! Lie down again," said Noel. "I'm here. I'll take care of you. I knew he would turn up again; it's what I've been waiting for. But I swear he shan't come near you against your will. That's enough, isn't it? You know you are safe with me."
She could not answer him, but she crouched back upon the sofa in response to his persuasion. She was shaking from head to foot.
Noel sat solidly down beside her. "Don't be frightened," he said. "We're going to have some fun."
"What—what can he have come for?" whispered Chris.
"Goodness knows! But he isn't going to get it, anyway. Good old Hilda! She went like a bird, didn't she? I call this rather amusing."
Noel began to whistle under his breath, obviously enjoying the situation to the utmost.
But Chris restrained him. "I want to listen," she murmured piteously.
He became silent at once, and several seconds crawled away, accompanied by no sound save the interminable buzzing of a fly on the window-pane.
Noel arose at length and with a single swoop of the hand captured and killed it. Then he went back to Chris.
"I say, don't look so scared! No one is going to hurt you."
The words were hardly uttered before Hilda's light step sounded outside, and her hand tried the door.
Chris started violently, and cowered among her cushions. Noel chuckled softly.
"Chris dear, what is the matter? Let me in!" Anxiety and persuasion were mingled in Hilda's voice.
Noel's chuckle became audible. "She isn't going to. She doesn't want anyone but me. Do you, Chris?"
Chris made no reply. She was staring at the door with starting eyes.
Noel went leisurely across and set his back against it. His eyes still gleamed roguishly, but his mouth had ceased to smile.
"I say, Hilda," he said, over his shoulder, "if you want to do Chris a good turn, tell that beastly cad behind you to go. I shan't let him in, anyhow, not if he stays till doomsday. So he may as well clear out at once."
"My dear Noel, how can you be so absurd?" Hilda's placid tones held real annoyance for once.
But the cause of it was quite unimpressed.
"Your dear Noel is acting up to his lights," he returned, "and he has no intention of doing anything else, absurd or otherwise. Chris is nearly scared out of her wits, so you had better take my advice sharp."
This last information took instant effect upon Hilda. She turned her attention to Chris forthwith.
"My dear, do let me in! There is nothing whatever to frighten you. I promise you shall not be frightened. Chris, tell that absurd boy to open the door—please, dearest!"
"I—can't!" gasped Chris.
"She isn't going to," said Noel. "You run along, Hilda. And you can tell Trevor with my love that if he'll clear out now I'll meet him at any time and place he likes to mention and have a damned old row."
"Very good of you!" Another voice spoke on the other side of the door, and Noel jumped in spite of himself. "But at the present moment you don't count. Is Chris there? I want to speak to her."
The leisurely tones came, measured and distinct, through the closed door, and Chris covered her face and shivered. "Oh, you'll have to let him in!" she said. "Only—don't go away! Don't leave me alone with him!"
"Chris!" Mordaunt's voice, calm and unhurried, addressed her directly. "Jack is here with me. Will you let us in?"
Chris lifted a haggard face. "Open the door, Noel!" she said.
"Why?" demanded Noel, with sudden ferocity. "We are not going to knock under to him. Why should we?"
"It's no use," she said. "We can't help it. Besides—besides—" She broke off with something like a sob, and rose from the sofa.
Noel looked at her under drawn brows. "You really mean it?"
"Yes." She pushed the hair from her forehead, and made a great effort to still her agitation. "I do mean it, Noel. I—wish it."
"All right." The boy whizzed round and turned the key.
He met Mordaunt face to face on the threshold with clenched hands, his face dark with passion. "If you hurt her—I'll kill you!" he said.
Had Mordaunt laughed at him, he would probably have attempted to carry out his threat then and there, for his mood was tempestuous. But the quiet eyes that met his blazing ones held no derision. They went beyond him instantly, seeking the girlish figure that leaned against the sofa-head for support; but a hand grasped his shoulder at the same moment and turned him back into the room.
"I shan't quarrel with you on that account," Mordaunt said. "You can stay if you like, and satisfy yourself."
Jack entered behind him, and went straight to Chris. He took her quivering hands into his, and held them fast.
"That boy deserves to be horsewhipped for startling you like this," he said.
She smiled at him wanly, but not as if she heard his words. "You will stay with me, Jack?" she said beseechingly.