The Way of an Eagle
Ethel M. Dell
Part 2 out of 7
agonised tears to intervene.
He quieted her with a steady insistence that gained its end, though
she crouched against him sobbing for some time after. As the sun rose
higher her fever increased, but she remained conscious and suffering
intensely, all through the heat of the day. Then, as the evening drew
on, she slipped into a heavy stupor.
It was the opportunity Nick had awaited for hours, and he seized it.
Laying her back in the deep shadow of a boulder, he went swiftly down
into the valley. The last light was passing as he strode through the
village, a gaunt, silent figure in a hillman's dress, a native dagger
in his girdle. Save that he had pulled the _chuddah_ well over his
face, he attempted no concealment.
He glided by a ring of old men seated about a fire, moving like a
shadow through the glare. They turned to view him, but he had already
passed with the tread of a wolf, and the mud wall of one of the
cottages hid him from sight.
Into this hut he dived as though some instinct guided him. He paid no
heed to a woman on a string-bedstead with a baby at her breast, who
chattered shrilly at his entrance. Preparations for a meal were
in progress, and he scarcely paused before he lighted upon what he
sought. A small earthen pitcher stood on the mud floor. He swooped
upon it, caught it up, splashing milk in all directions, clapped his
hand yellow and claw-like upon the mouth, and was gone.
There arose a certain hue and cry behind him, but he was swiftly
beyond detection, a fleeing shadow up the hillside. And the baffled
villagers, returning, found comfort in the reflection that he was
doubtless a holy man and that his brief visit would surely entail a
By the time they arrived at this conclusion, Nick was kneeling by the
girl's side, supporting her while she drank. The nourishment revived
her. She came to herself, and thanked him.
"You will have some too," said she anxiously.
And Nick drank also with a laugh and a joke to cloak his eagerness.
That draught of milk was more to him at that moment than the choicest
wine of the gods.
He sat down beside her again when he had thus refreshed himself. He
thought that she was drowsy, and was surprised when presently she laid
a trembling hand upon his arm.
He bent over her quickly. "What is it? Anything I can do?"
She did not shrink from him any longer. He could but dimly see her
face in the strong shadow cast by the moonlight behind the trees.
"I want just to tell you, Nick," she said faintly, "that you will have
to go on without me when the moon sets. You needn't mind about leaving
me any more. I shall be dead before the morning comes. I'm not afraid.
I think I'm rather glad. I am so very, very tired."
Her weak voice failed.
Nick was stooping low over her. He did not speak at once. He only took
the nerveless hand that lay upon his arm and carried it to his lips,
breathing for many seconds upon the cold fingers.
When at length he spoke, his tone was infinitely gentle, but it
possessed, notwithstanding, a certain quality of arresting force.
"My dear," he said, "you belong to me now, you know. You have been
given into my charge, and I am not going to part with you."
She did not resist him or attempt to withdraw her hand, but her
silence was scarcely the silence of acquiescence. When she spoke again
after a long pause, there was a piteous break in her voice.
"Why don't you let me die? I want to die. Why do you hold me back?"
"Why?" said Nick swiftly. "Do you really want me to tell you why?"
But there he checked himself with a sharp, indrawn breath. The next
instant he laid her hand gently down.
"You will know some day, Muriel," he said. "But for the present you
will have to take my reason on trust. I assure you it is a very good
The restraint of his words was marked by a curious vehemence, but this
she was too ill at the time to heed. She turned her face away almost
"Why should I live?" she moaned. "There is no one wants me now."
"That will never be true while I live," Nick answered steadily, and
his tone was the tone of a man who registers a vow.
But again she did not heed him. She had suffered too acutely and
too recently to be comforted by promises. Moreover, she did not want
consolation. She wanted only to shut her eyes and die. In her weakness
she had not fancied that he could deny her this.
And so when presently he roused her by lifting her to resume the
journey, she shed piteous tears upon his shoulder, imploring him to
leave her where she was. He would not listen to her. He knew that it
was highly dangerous to rest so close to habitation, and he would not
risk another day in such precarious shelter.
So for hours he carried her with a strength almost superhuman, forcing
his physical powers into subjection to his will. Though limping badly,
he covered several miles of wild and broken country, deserted for the
most part, almost incredibly lonely, till towards sunrise he found a
resting-place in a hollow high up the side of a mountain, overlooking
a winding, desolate pass.
Muriel was either sleeping or sunk in the stupor of exhaustion. There
was some brandy left in his flask, and he made her take a little. But
it scarcely roused her, and she was too weak to notice that he did not
touch any himself.
All through the scorching day that followed, she dozed and woke in
feverish unrest, sometimes rambling incoherently till he brought her
gravely back, sometimes crying weakly, sometimes making feeble efforts
All through the long, burning hours he never stirred away from her. He
sat close to her, often holding her in his arms, for she seemed less
restless so; and perpetually he gazed out with terrible, bloodshot
eyes over the savage mountains, through the long, irregular line of
pass, watching eagle-like, tireless and intent, for the deliverance
which, if it came at all, must come that way. His face was yellow and
sunken, lined in a thousand wrinkles like the face of a monkey; but
his eyes remained marvellously bright. They looked as if they had not
slept for years, as if they would never sleep again. He was at the end
of his resources and he knew it, but he would watch to the very end.
He would die watching.
As the sun sank in a splendour that transfigured the eternally white
mountain-crest to a mighty shimmer of rose and gold, he turned at last
and looked down at the white face pillowed upon his arm. The eyes were
closed. The ineffable peace of Death seemed to dwell upon the quiet
features. She had lain so for a long time, and he had fancied her
He caught his breath, feeling for his flask, and for the first time
his hands shook uncontrollably. But as the raw spirit touched her
lips, he saw her eyelids quiver, and a great gasp of relief went
through him. As she opened her eyes he stayed his hand. It seemed
cruel to bring her back. But the suffering and the half instinctive
look of horror passed from her eyes like a shadow, as they rested upon
him. There was even the very faint flicker of a smile about them.
She turned her face slightly towards him with the gesture of a child
nestling against his breast. Yet though she lay thus in his arms, he
felt keenly, bitterly, that she was very far away from him.
He hung over her, still holding himself in with desperate strength,
not daring to speak lest he should disturb the holy peace that seemed
to be drawing all about her.
The sunset glory deepened. For a few seconds the crags above them
glittered golden as the peaks of Paradise. And in the wonderful
silence Muriel spoke.
"Do you see them?" she said.
He saw that her eyes were turned upon the shining mountains. There was
a strange light on her face.
"See what, darling?" he asked her softly.
Her eyes came back to him for a moment. They had a thoughtful,
"How strange!" she said slowly. "I thought it was--an eagle."
The detachment of her tone cut him to the heart. And suddenly the pain
of it was more than he could bear.
"It is I--Nick," he told her, with urgent emphasis. "Surely you know
But her eyes had passed beyond him again. "Nick?" she questioned to
herself. "Nick? But this--this was an eagle."
She was drawing away from him, and he could not hold her, could not
even hope to follow her whither she went. A great sob broke from him,
and in a moment, like the rush of an overwhelming flood from behind
gates long closed, the anguish of the man burst its bonds.
"Muriel!" he cried passionately. "Muriel! Stay with me, look at
me, love me! There is nothing in the mountains to draw you. It is
here--here beside you, touching you, holding you. O God," he prayed
brokenly, "she doesn't understand me. Let her understand,--open her
eyes,--make her see!"
His agony reached her, touched her, for a moment held her. She turned
her eyes back to his tortured face.
"But, Nick," she said softly, "I can see."
He bent lower. "Yes?" he said, in a choked voice. "Yes?"
She regarded him with a faint wonder. Her eyes were growing heavy, as
the eyes of a tired child. She raised one hand and pointed vaguely.
"Over there," she said wearily. "Can't you see them? Then perhaps it
was a dream, or even--perhaps--a vision. Don't you remember how
it went? 'And behold--the mountain--was full--of horses--and
chariots--of--fire!' God sent them, you know."
The tired voice ceased. Her head sank lower upon Nick's breast. She
gave a little quivering sigh, and seemed to sleep.
And Nick turned his tortured eyes upon the pass below him, and stared
Was he dreaming also? Or was it perchance a vision--the trick of his
fevered fancy? There, at his feet, not fifty yards from where he sat,
he beheld men, horses, guns, winding along in a narrow, unbroken line
as far as he could see.
A great surging filled his ears, and through it he heard himself shout
once, twice, and yet a third time to the phantom army below.
The surging swelled in his brain to a terrific tumult--a confusion
indescribable. And then something seemed to crack inside his head.
The dark peaks swayed giddily against the darkening sky, and toppled
inwards without sound.
The last thing he knew was the call of a bugle, tense and shrill as
the buzz of a mosquito close to his ear. And he laughed aloud to think
how so small a thing had managed to deceive him.
The jingling notes of a piano playing an air from a comic opera
floated cheerily forth into the magic silence of the Simla pines, and
abruptly, almost spasmodically, a cracked voice began to sing. It was
a sentimental ditty treated jocosely, and its frivolity rippled out
into the mid-day silence with something of the effect of a monkey's
chatter. The _khitmutgar_ on the verandah would have looked
scandalised or at best contemptuous had it not been his role to
express nothing but the dignified humility of the native servant.
He was waiting for his mistress to come out of the nursery where her
voice could be heard talking imperiously to her baby's _ayah_. He had
already waited some minutes, and he would probably have waited much
longer, for his patience was inexhaustible, had it not been for that
sudden irresponsible and wholly tuneless burst of song. But the
second line was scarcely ended before she came hurriedly forth, nearly
running into his stately person in her haste.
"Oh, dear, Sammy!" she exclaimed with some annoyance. "Why didn't you
tell me Captain Ratcliffe was here?"
She hastened past him along the verandah with the words, not troubling
about his explanation, and entered the room whence the music proceeded
at a run.
"My dear Nick," she cried impulsively, "I had no idea!"
The music ceased in a jangle of wrong notes, and Nick sprang to his
feet, his yellow face wearing a grin of irrepressible gaiety.
"So I gathered, O elect lady," he rejoined, seizing her outstretched
hands and kissing first one and then the other. "And I took the first
method that presented itself of making myself known. So they beguiled
you to Simla, after all?"
"Yes, I had to come for my baby's sake. They thought at first it would
have to be home and no compromise. I'm longing to show him to you,
Nick. Only six months, and such a pet already! But tell me about
yourself. I am sure you have come off the sick list too soon. You
look as if you had come straight from a lengthy stay with the
"_Tu quoque!_" laughed Nick. "And with far less excuse. Only you
manage to look charming notwithstanding, which is beyond me. Do you
know, Mrs. Musgrave, you don't do justice to the compromise? I should
be furious with you if I were Will."
Mrs. Musgrave frowned at him. She was a very pretty woman, possessing
a dainty and not wholly unconscious charm. "Tell me about yourself,
Nick," she commanded. "And don't be ridiculous. You can't possibly
judge impartially on that head, as you haven't the smallest idea as to
how ill I have been. I am having a rest cure now, you must know, and I
don't go anywhere; or I should have come to see you in hospital."
"Good thing you didn't take the trouble," said Nick. "I've been
sleeping for the last three weeks, and I am only just awake."
Mrs. Musgrave looked at him with a very friendly smile. "Poor Nick!"
she said. "And Wara was relieved after all."
He jerked up his shoulders. "After a fashion. Grange was the only
white man left, and he hadn't touched food for three days. If Muriel
Roscoe had stayed, she would have been dead before Bassett got
anywhere near them. There are times when the very fact of suffering
actively keeps people alive. It was that with her."
He spoke briefly, almost harshly, and immediately turned from the
subject. "I suppose you were very anxious about your cousin?"
"Poor Blake Grange? Of course I was. But I was anxious--horribly
anxious--about you all." There was a quiver of deep feeling in Mrs.
"Thank you," said Nick. He reached out a skeleton finger and laid it
on her arm. "I thought you would be feeling soft-hearted, so I have
come to ask you a favour. Not that I shouldn't have come in any case,
but it seemed a suitable moment to choose."
Mrs. Musgrave laughed a little. "Have you ever found me anything but
kind?" she questioned.
"Never," said Nick. "You're the best pal I ever had, which is the
exact reason for my coming here to-day. Mrs. Musgrave, I want you to
be awfully good to Muriel Roscoe. She needs some one to help her along
Mrs. Musgrave opened her eyes wide, but she said nothing at once, for
Nick had sprung to his feet and was restlessly pacing the room.
"Come back, Nick," she said at last. "Tell me a little about her. We
have never met, you know. And why do you ask this of me when she is in
Lady Bassett's care?"
"Lady Bassett!" said Nick. He made a hideous grimace, and said no
Mrs. Musgrave laughed. "How eloquent! Do you hate her, too, then? I
thought all men worshipped at that shrine."
Nick came back and sat down. "I nearly killed her once," he said.
"What a pity you didn't quite!" ejaculated Mrs. Musgrave.
Nick grinned. "Sits the wind in that quarter? I wonder why."
"Oh, I hate her by instinct," declared Mrs. Musgrave recklessly,
"though her scented notes to me always begin, 'Dearest Daisy'! She
always disapproved of me openly till baby came. But she has found
another niche for me now. I am not supposed to be so fascinating as I
was. She prefers unattractive women."
"Gracious heaven!" interjected Nick.
"Yes, you may laugh. I do myself." Daisy Musgrave spoke almost
fiercely notwithstanding. "She's years older than I am anyhow, and I
shall score some day if I don't now. Have you ever watched her dance?
There's a sort of snaky, coiling movement runs up her whole body.
Goodness!" breaking off abruptly. "I'm getting venomous myself. I had
better stop before I frighten you away."
"Oh, don't mind me!" laughed Nick. "No one knows better than I
that she is made to twist all ways. She hates me as a cobra hates a
"Really?" Daisy Musgrave was keenly interested. "But why?"
He shook his head. "You had better ask Lady Bassett. It may be
because I had the misfortune to set fire to her once. It is true I
extinguished her afterwards, but I don't think she enjoyed it. It was
a humiliating process. Besides, it spoilt her dress."
"But she is always so gracious to you," protested Daisy.
"Honey-sweet. That's exactly how I know her cobra feelings. And that
brings me round to Muriel Roscoe again, and the favour I have to ask."
Daisy shot him a sudden shrewd glance. "Do you want to marry her?" she
asked him point blank.
Nick's colourless eyebrows went up till they nearly met his colourless
hair. "Dearest Daisy," he said, "you are a genius. I mean to do that
Daisy got up and softly closed the window. "Surely she is very young,"
she said. "Is she in love with you?"
She did not turn at the sound of his laugh. She had almost expected
it. For she knew Nick Ratcliffe as very few knew him. The bond of
sympathy between them was very strong.
"Can you imagine any girl falling in love with me?" he asked.
"Of course I can. You are not so unique as that. There isn't a man in
the universe that some woman couldn't be fool enough to love."
"Many thanks!" said Nick. "Then--I may count upon your support, may
I? I know Lady Bassett will put a spoke in my wheel if she can. But I
have Sir Reginald's consent. He is Muriel's guardian, you know. Also,
I had her father's approval in the first place. It has got to be soon,
you see, Daisy. The present state of affairs is unbearable. She will
be miserable with Lady Bassett."
Daisy still stood with her back to him. She was fidgeting with the
blind-cord, her pretty face very serious.
"I am not sure," she said slowly, "that it lies in my power to help
you. Of course I am willing to do my best, because, as you say, we are
pals. But, Nick, she is very young. And if--if she really doesn't love
you, you mustn't ask me to persuade her."
Nick sprang up impulsively. "Oh, but you don't understand," he said
quickly. "She would be happy enough with me. I would see to that. I--I
would be awfully good to her, Daisy."
She turned swiftly at the unwonted quiver in his voice. "My dear
Nick," she said earnestly, "I am sure of it. You could make any woman
who loved you happy. But no one--no one--knows the misery that may
result from a marriage without love on both sides--except those who
have made one."
There was something almost passionate in her utterance. But she turned
if off quickly with a smile and a friendly hand upon his arm.
"Come," she said lightly. "I want to show you my boy. I left him
almost in tears. But he always smiles when he sees his mother."
"Who doesn't?" said Nick gallantly, following her lead.
THE SCHOOL OF SORROW
The aromatic scent of the Simla pines literally encircled and pervaded
the Bassetts' bungalow, penetrating to every corner. Lady Bassett was
wont to pronounce it "distractingly sweet," when her visitors drew
her attention to the fact. Hers was among the daintiest as well as the
best situated bungalows in Simla, and she was pleasantly aware of
a certain envy on the part of her many acquaintances, which added
a decided relish to the flavour of her own appreciation. But
notwithstanding this, she was hardly ever to be found at home except
by appointment. Her social engagements were so numerous that, as she
often pathetically remarked, she scarcely ever enjoyed the luxury of
solitude. As a hostess she was indefatigable, and being an excellent
bridge-player as well as a superb dancer, it was not surprising that
she occupied a fairly prominent position in her own select circle.
In appearance she was a woman of about five-and-thirty--though the
malicious added a full dozen years more to her credit--with fair hair,
a peculiarly soft voice, and a smile that was slightly twisted. She
was always exquisitely dressed, always cool, always gentle, never
hasty in word or deed. If she ever had reason to rebuke or snub, it
was invariably done with the utmost composure, but with deadly effect
upon the offender. Lady Bassett was generally acknowledged to be
unanswerable at such times by all but the very few who did not fear
There were not many who really felt at ease with her, and Muriel
Roscoe was emphatically not one of the number. Her father had
nominated Sir Reginald her guardian, and Sir Reginald, aware of this
fact, had sent her at once to his wife at Simla. The girl had been too
ill at the time to take any interest in her destination or ultimate
disposal. It was true that she had never liked Lady Bassett, that she
had ever felt shy and constrained in her presence, and that, had she
been consulted, she would probably have asked to be sent to England.
But Sir Reginald had been too absorbed in the task before him to spend
much thought on his dead comrade's child at that juncture, and he
had followed the simplest course that presented itself, allowing Nick
Ratcliffe to retain the privilege which General Roscoe himself had
bestowed. Thus Muriel had come at last into Lady Bassett's care, and
she was only just awaking to the fact that it was by no means the
guardianship she would have chosen for herself had she been in a
position to choose. As the elasticity of her youth gradually asserted
itself, and the life began to flow again in her veins, the power to
suffer returned to her, and in the anguish of her awakening faculties
she knew how utterly she was alone. It was in one sense a relief that
Lady Bassett, being caught in the full swing of the Simla season, was
unable to spare much of her society for the suddenly bereaved girl who
had been thrust upon her. But there were times during that period of
dragging convalescence when any presence would have been welcome.
She was no longer acutely ill, but a low fever hung about her, a
species of physical inertia against which she had no strength to
struggle. And often she wondered to herself with a dreary amazement,
why she still lived, why she had survived the horrors of that flight
through the mountains, why she had been thus, as it were, cast up upon
a desert rock when all that had made life good in her eyes had been
ruthlessly swept away. At such times there would come upon her a
loneliness almost unthinkable, a shrinking more terrible than the fear
of death, and the future would loom before her black as night, a blank
and awful desert which she felt she could never dare to travel.
Sometimes in her dreams there would come to her other visions--visions
of the gay world that throbbed so close to her, the world she had
entered with her father so short a time before. She would hear again
the hubbub of laughing voices, the music, the tramp of dancing feet.
And she would start from her sleep to find only a great emptiness, a
listening silence, an unspeakable desolation.
If she ever thought of Nick in those days, it was as a phantom that
belonged to the nightmare that lay behind her. He had no part in her
present, and the future she could not bring herself to contemplate. No
one even mentioned his name to her till one day Lady Bassett entered
her room before starting for a garden-party at Vice-Regal Lodge, a
faint flush on her cheeks, and her blue eyes brighter than usual.
"I have just received a note from Captain Ratcliffe, dear Muriel,"
she said. "I have already mentioned to him that you are too unwell to
think of receiving any one at present, but he announces his intention
of paying you a visit notwithstanding. Perhaps you would like to write
him a note yourself, and corroborate what I have said."
"Captain Ratcliffe!" Muriel echoed blankly, as though the name
conveyed nothing to her; and then with a great start as the blood
rushed to her white cheeks, "Oh, you mean Nick. I--I had almost
forgotten his other name. Does he want to see me? Is he in Simla
She turned her hot face away with a touch of petulance from the
peculiar look with which Lady Bassett was regarding her. What did she
mean by looking at her so, she wondered irritably?
There followed a pause, and Lady Bassett began to fasten her
"Of course, dear," she said gently, at length, "there is not the
smallest necessity for you to see him. Indeed, if my advice were
asked, I should recommend you not to do so; for after such a
terrible experience as yours, one cannot be too circumspect. It is so
perilously easy for rumours to get about. I will readily transmit a
message for you if you desire it, though I think on the whole it would
be more satisfactory if you were to write him a line yourself to say
that you cannot receive him."
"Why?" demanded Muriel, with sudden unexpected energy. She turned back
again, and looked at Lady Bassett with a quick gleam that was almost a
challenge in her eyes. "Why should I not see him? After all, I suppose
I ought to thank him. Besides--besides--why should I not?"
She could not have said what moved her to this unwonted
self-assertion. Had Lady Bassett required her to see Nick she would
probably have refused to do so, and listlessly dismissed the matter
from her mind. But there was that in Lady Bassett's manner which
roused her antagonism almost instinctively. But vaguely understanding,
she yet resented the soft-spoken words. Moreover, a certain
perversity, born of her weakness, urged her. What right had Lady
Bassett to deny her to any one?
"When is he coming?" she asked. "I will see him when he comes."
Lady Bassett yielded the point at once with the faintest possible
shrug. "As you wish, dear child, of course; but I do beg of you to be
prudent. He speaks of coming this afternoon. But would you not like
him to postpone his visit till I can be with you?"
"No, I don't think so," Muriel said, with absolute simplicity.
"Ah, well!" Lady Bassett spoke in the tone of one repudiating all
responsibility. She bent over the girl with a slightly wry smile, and
kissed her forehead. "Good-bye, dearest! I shouldn't encourage him to
stay long, if I were you. And I think you would be wise to call him
Captain Ratcliffe now that you are living a civilised life once more."
Muriel turned her face aside with a species of bored patience that
could scarcely be termed tolerance. She did not understand these
veiled warnings, and she cared too little for Lady Bassett and her
opinions to trouble herself about them. She had never liked her,
though she knew that her father had conscientiously tried to do so for
the sake of his friend, Sir Reginald.
As Lady Bassett went away she rubbed the place on her forehead which
her cold lips had touched. "If she only knew how I hate being kissed!"
she murmured to herself.
And then with an effort she rose and moved wearily across the room to
ring the bell. Since by some unaccountable impulse she had decided to
see Nick, it might be advisable, she reflected, to give her own orders
regarding his visit.
Having done so, she lay down again. But she did not sleep. Sleep was
an elusive spirit in those days. It sometimes seemed to her that she
was too worn out mentally and physically ever to rest naturally again.
Nearly an hour passed away while she lay almost unconsciously
listening. And then suddenly, with a sense of having experienced it
all long before, there came to her the sound of careless footsteps and
of a voice that hummed.
It went through her heart like a sword-thrust as she called to mind
that last night at Fort Wara when she had clung to her father for the
last time, and had heard him bid her good-bye--till they should meet
With a choked sensation she rose, and stood steadying herself by the
back of the sofa. Could she go through this interview? Could she bear
it? Her heart was beating in heavy, sickening throbs. For an instant
she almost thought of escaping and sending word that she was not equal
to seeing any one, as Lady Bassett had already intimated. But even as
the impulse flashed through her brain, she realised that it was
too late. The shadow of the native servant had already darkened the
window, and she knew that Nick was just behind him on the verandah.
With a great, sobbing gasp, she turned herself to meet him.
THE EAGLE SWOOPS
He came in as lightly and unceremoniously as though they had parted
but the day before, a smile of greeting upon his humorous, yellow
face, words of careless good-fellowship upon his lips.
He took her hand for an instant, and she felt rather than saw that
he gave her a single, scrutinising glance from under eyelids that
"I see you are better," he said, "so I won't put you to the trouble
of saying so. I suppose dear Lady Bassett has gone to the Vice-Regal
garden-party. But it's all right. I told her I was coming. Did you
have to persuade her very hard to let you see me?"
Muriel stiffened a little at this inquiry. Her agitation was rapidly
subsiding. It left her vaguely chilled, even disappointed. She had
forgotten how cheerily inconsequent Nick could be.
"I didn't persuade her at all," she said coldly. "I simply told her
that I should see you in order--"
"Yes?" queried Nick, looking delighted. "In order--"
To her annoyance she felt herself flushing. With a gesture of
weariness she dismissed the sentence and sat down. She had meant to
make him a brief and gracious speech of gratitude for his past care of
her, but somehow it stuck in her throat. Besides, it was quite obvious
that he did not expect it.
He came and sat down beside her on the sofa. "Let's talk things over,"
he said. "You are out of the doctor's hands, I'm told."
Muriel was leaning back against the cushions. She did not raise her
heavy eyes to answer. "Oh, yes, ever so long ago. I'm quite well, only
rather tired still."
She frowned slightly as she gave this explanation. Though his face
was not turned in her direction, she had a feeling that he was still
closely observant of her.
He nodded to himself twice while he listened and then suddenly he
reached out and laid his hand upon both of hers as they rested in her
lap. "I'm awfully pleased to hear you are quite well," he said, in
a voice that seemed to crack on a note of laughter. "It makes my
business all the easier. I've come to ask you, dear, how soon you can
possibly make it convenient to marry me. To-day? To-morrow? Next week?
I don't of course want to hurry you unduly, but there doesn't seem to
be anything to wait for. And--personally--I abhor waiting. Don't you?"
He turned towards her with the last words. He had spoken very gently,
but there seemed to be an element of humour in all that he said.
Muriel's eyes were wide open by the time he ended. She was staring
at him in blank astonishment. The flush on her face had deepened to
"Marry you?" she gasped at length, stammering in her confusion. "I?
Why--why--whatever made you dream of such a thing?"
"I'll tell you," said Nick instantly, and quite undismayed. "I dreamed
that a certain friend of mine was lonely and heart-sick and sad. And
she wanted--horribly--some one to come and take care of her, to cheer
her up, to lift her over the bad places, to give her things which, if
they couldn't compensate for all she had lost, would be anyhow a bit
of a comfort to her. And then I remembered how she belonged to me, how
she had been given to me by her own father to cherish and care for.
And so I plucked up courage to intrude upon her while she was still
wallowing in her Slough of Despair. And I didn't pester her with
preliminaries. We're past that stage, you and I, Muriel. I simply came
to her because it seemed absurd to wait any longer. And I just asked
her humble-like to fix a day when we would get up very early, and
bribe the padre and sweet Lady Bassett to do likewise, and have a
short--very short--service all to ourselves at church, and when it was
over we would just say good-bye to all kind friends and depart. Won't
you give the matter your serious consideration? Believe me, it is
He still held her hand closely in his while he poured out his rapid
explanation, and his eyebrows worked up and down so swiftly that
Muriel was fascinated by them. His eyes baffled her completely. They
were like a glancing flame. She listened to his proposal with more
of bewilderment than consternation. It took her breath away without
exactly frightening her. The steady grasp of his hand and the
exceedingly practical tones of his voice kept her from unreasoning
panic; but she was too greatly astounded to respond very promptly.
"Tell me what you think about it," he said gently.
But she was utterly at a loss to describe her feelings. She shook her
head and was silent.
After a little he went on, still quickly, but with less impetuosity.
"It isn't just a sudden fancy of mine--this. Don't think it. There's
nothing capricious about me. Your father knew about it. And because he
knew, he put you in my care. It was his sole reason for trusting you
to me. I had his full approval."
He paused, for her fingers had closed suddenly within his own. She
was looking at him no longer. Her memory had flashed back to that last
terrible night of her father's life. Again she heard him telling her
of the one man to whom he had entrusted her, who would make it his
sole business to save her, who would protect her life with his own,
heard his speculative question as to whether she knew whom he meant,
recalled her own quick reply, and his answer--and his answer.
With a sudden sense of suffocation, she freed her hand and rose. Once
more her old aversion to this man swept over her in a nauseating wave.
Once more there rose before her eyes the dread vision which for many,
many nights had haunted her persistently, depriving her of all
rest, all peace of mind--the vision of a man in his death-struggle,
fighting, agonising, under those merciless fingers.
It was more than she could bear. She covered her eyes, striving to
shut out the sight that tortured her weary brain. "Oh, I don't know if
I can!" she almost wailed. "I don't know if I can!"
Nick did not move. And yet it seemed to her in those moments of
reawakened horror as if by some magnetic force he still held her fast.
She strove against it with all her frenzied strength, but it eluded
her, baffled her--conquered her.
When he spoke at length, she turned and listened, lacking the
motive-power to resist.
"There is nothing to frighten you anyhow," he said, and the tone in
which he said it was infinitely comforting, infinitely reassuring. "I
only want to take care of you; for you're a lonely little soul, not
old enough, or wise enough to look after yourself. And I'll be awfully
good to you, Muriel, if you'll have me."
Something in those last words--a hint of pleading, of coaxing
even--found its way to her heart, as it were, against her will.
Moreover, what he said was true. She was lonely: miserably,
unspeakably lonely. All her world was in ashes around her, and there
were times when its desolation positively appalled her.
But still she stood irresolute. Could she, dared she, take this step?
What if that phantom of horror pursued her relentlessly to the day of
her death? Would she not come in time to shrink with positive loathing
from this man whose offer of help she now felt so strangely tempted in
her utter friendlessness to accept?
It was impossible to answer these tormenting questions satisfactorily.
But there was nothing--so she told herself--to be gained by waiting.
She had no one to advise her, no one really to mind what happened to
her, with the single exception of this friend of hers, who only
wanted to take care of her. And after all, since misery was to be her
portion, what did it matter? Why should she refuse to listen to him?
Had he not shown her already that he could be kind?
A sudden warmth of gratitude towards him stirred in her heart--a tiny
flame springing up among the ashes of her youth. Her horror sank away
like an evil dream.
She turned round with a certain deliberation that had grown upon her
of late, and went back to Nick still seated on the sofa.
"I don't care much what I do now," she said wearily. "I will marry
you, if you wish it, if--if you are quite sure you will never wish you
"Well done!" said Nick, with instant approval. "That's settled then,
for I was quite sure of that ages ago."
He smiled at her quizzically, his face a mask of banter. Of what his
actual feelings were at that moment she had not the faintest idea.
With a piteous little smile in answer she laid her hand upon his knee.
"You will have to be very patient with me," she said tremulously. "For
remember--I have come to the end of everything, and you are the only
friend I have left."
He took her hand into his own again, with a grasp that was warm and
comforting. "My dear," he said very kindly, "I shall always remember
that you once told me so."
THE FIRST FLIGHT
Muriel lay awake for hours that night, going over and over that
interview with Nick till her tired brain reeled. She was not exactly
frightened by this new element that had come into her life. The very
fact of having something definite to look forward to was a relief
after dwelling for so long in the sunless void of non-expectancy. But
she was by no means sure that she welcomed so violent a disturbance at
the actual heart of her darkened existence. She could not, moreover,
wholly forget her fear of the man who had saved her by main force from
the fate she would fain have shared with her father. His patience--his
almost womanly gentleness--notwithstanding, she could not forget
the demon of violence and bloodshed that she knew to be hidden away
somewhere behind that smiling, yellow mask.
She marvelled at herself for her tame surrender, but she felt it to
be irrevocable nevertheless. So broken was she by adversity, that she
lacked the energy to resist him or even to desire to do so. She tried
to comfort herself with the thought that she was carrying out her
father's wishes for her; but this did not take her very far. She could
not help the doubt arising as to whether he had ever really gauged
Nick's exceedingly elusive character.
Tired out, at last she slept, and dreamed that an eagle had caught her
and was bearing her swiftly, swiftly, through wide spaces to his eyrie
in the mountains.
It was a long, breathless flight fraught with excitement and a
nameless exultation that pierced her like pain. She awoke from it
with a cry that was more of disappointment than relief, and started up
gasping to hear horses' hoofs dancing in the compound below her window
to the sound of a cracked, hilarious voice.
She almost laughed as she realised what it was, and in a moment all
her misgivings of the night vanished like wraiths of the darkness.
He had extracted a promise from her to ride with him at dawn, and he
meant to keep her to it. She got up and pulled aside the blind.
A wild view-halloa greeted her, and she dropped it again sharply;
but not before she had seen Nick prancing about the drive on a giddy,
long-limbed Waler, and making frantic signs to her to join him.
Another horse with a side-saddle was waiting, held by a grinning
little _saice_. The sun was already rising rapidly behind the
mountains. She began to race through her toilet at a speed that showed
her to have caught some of the fever of her cavalier's impatience.
She wondered what Lady Bassett thought of the disturbance (Lady
Bassett never rose early), and nearly laughed aloud.
Hastening out at length she found Nick dismounted and waiting for her
by the verandah-steps. He sprang up to meet her with an eager whoop of
"Hope you enjoyed my serenade. Come along! There's no time to waste.
Jakko turned red some minutes ago. Were you asleep?"
Muriel admitted the fact.
"And dreaming of me," he rattled on, "as was sweet and proper?"
She did not answer, and he laughed like a boy, rudely but not
"Didn't I know it? Jump up! We're going to have a glorious gallop.
I've brought some slabs of chocolate to keep you from starvation.
Ready? Heave ho! My dear girl, you're disgracefully light still. Why
don't you eat more?"
"You're as thin as a herring yourself," Muriel retorted, with a most
unwonted flash of spirit.
He lifted his grinning face to her as she settled herself in the
saddle, and then uncovering swiftly he bent and kissed the black cloth
of her habit, humbly, reverently, as became a slave.
It sent a queer thrill through her, that kiss of his. She felt that
it was in some fashion a revelation; but she was still too blinded by
groping in dark places to understand its message. As they trotted side
by side out of the compound, she knew her face was burning, and turned
it aside that he might not see.
It was a wonderful morning. There was intoxication in the scent of the
pines. The whole atmosphere seemed bewitched. They gave their horses
the rein and raced with the wind through an enchanted world. It was
the wildest, most alluring ride that she had ever known, and when Nick
called a halt at last she protested with a flushed face and sparkling
Nevertheless, it was good to sit and watch the rapid transformation
that the sun-god was weaving all about them. She saw the spurs of
Jakko fade from pink to purest amber, and then in the passage of a
few seconds gleam silver in the flood of glory that topped the highest
crests. And her heart fluttered oddly at the sight, while again she
thought of the eagle of her dream, cleaving the wide spaces, and
bearing her also.
She glanced round for Nick, but he had wheeled his horse and was
staring out towards the plains. She wondered what was passing in his
mind, for he sat like a statue, his face turned from her. And suddenly
the dread loneliness of the mountains gripped her as with a chilly
hand. It seemed as if they two were alone together in all the world.
She walked over to him. "I'm cold, Nick," she said, breaking in upon
his silence almost apologetically. "Shall we go?"
He stretched out a hand to her without turning his head, without
speaking. But she would not put her own within it, for she was afraid.
After a long pause he gave a sudden sharp sigh, and pulled his horse
round. "Eh? Cold? We'll fly down to Annandale. There's plenty of
time before us. By the way, I want to introduce you to a friend of
mine--Daisy Musgrave. Ever heard of her? She and Blake Grange are
first cousins. You'll like Daisy. We are great chums, she and I."
Muriel had heard of her from Captain Grange. She had also once upon a
time met Daisy's husband.
"I liked him, rather," she said. "But I thought he must be very
"So he is," said Nick. "A mere infant. He's in the Civil Service, and
works like an ox. Mrs. Musgrave is very delicate. She and the baby
were packed off up here in a hurry. I believe she has a weak heart.
She may have to go home to recruit even now. She doesn't go out at all
herself, but she hopes I will take you to see her. Will you come?"
Muriel hesitated for a moment. "Nick," she said, "are you
"Of course," said Nick, instantly. "Why not?"
She could not tell him, only she was vaguely dismayed.
"I told Lady Bassett yesterday evening," he went on. "Didn't she say
anything to you?"
"Oh, yes. She kissed me and said she was very pleased." Muriel's
cheeks burned at the recollection.
"How nice of her!" commented Nick. He shot her a sidelong glance.
"Dear Lady Bassett always says and does the right thing at the right
moment. It's her speciality. That's why we are all so fond of her."
Muriel made no response, though keenly aware of the subtlety of this
speech. So Nick disliked her hostess also. She wondered why.
"You see," he proceeded presently, "it is as well to be quite open
about it as we are going to be married so soon. Of course every one
realises that it is to be a strictly private affair. You needn't be
afraid of any demonstration."
It was not that that had induced her feeling of dismay, but she could
not tell him so.
"And Mrs. Musgrave knows?" she questioned.
"I told her first," said Nick. "But you mustn't mind her. She won't
commit the fashionable blunder of congratulating you."
Muriel laughed nervously. She longed to say something careless and
change the subject, but she was feeling stiff and unnatural, and words
Nick brought his horse up close to hers.
"There's one thing I want to say to you, Muriel, before we go down,"
"Oh, what?" She turned a scared face towards him.
"Nothing to alarm you," said Nick, frowning at her quizzically. "I
wanted to say it some minutes ago only I was shy. Look here, dear." He
held out to her a twist of tissue-paper on the palm of his hand. "It's
a ring I want you to wear for me. There's a message inside it. Read it
when you are alone."
Muriel looked at the tiny packet without taking it. She had turned
very white. "Oh, Nick," she faltered at last, "are you--are you--quite
"Quite sure of what?" questioned Nick. "Your mind? Or my own?"
"Don't!" she begged tremulously. "I can't laugh over this."
"Laugh!" said Nick sharply. And then swiftly his whole manner changed.
"Yes, it's all right, dear," he said, smiling at her. "Take it, won't
you? I am--quite--sure."
She took it obediently, but her reluctance was still very manifest.
Nick, however, did not appear to notice this.
"Don't look at it now," he said. "Wait till I'm not there. Put it away
somewhere for the present, and let's have another gallop."
She glanced at him as she slipped his gift into her pocket. "Won't you
let me thank you, Nick?" she asked shyly.
"Wait till you've seen it," he returned. "You may not think it worth
it. Ready? One! Two! Three!"
In the scamper that followed, the blood surged back to her face, and
her spirits rose again; but in her secret heart there yet remained a
nameless dread that she was as powerless to define as to expel.
Lady Bassett was still invisible when Muriel returned to the bungalow
though breakfast was waiting for them on the verandah. She passed
quickly through to her room and commenced hasty preparations for a
bath. It had been a good ride, and she realised that, though tired,
she was also very hungry.
She slipped Nick's gift out of the pocket of her riding-habit, but she
would not stop to open it then. That should come presently, when
she had the whole garden to herself, and all the leisure of the long
summer morning before her. She felt that in a sense she owed him that.
But a note that caught her eye lying on the table she paused to open
and hastily peruse. The writing was unfamiliar to her--a dashing,
impetuous scrawl that excited her curiosity.
"Dear Miss Roscoe," it ran,--"Don't think me an unmitigated bore if
you can help it. I am wondering if you would have the real kindness
to waive ceremony and pay me a visit this afternoon. I shall be quite
alone, unless my baby can be considered in the light of a social
inducement. I know that Nick contemplates bringing you to see me, and
so he shall, if you prefer it. But personally I consider that he would
be decidedly _de trop_. I feel that we shall soon know each other so
well that a formal introduction seems superfluous. Let me know your
opinion by word of mouth, or if not, I shall understand. Nick, being
of the inferior species, could hardly be expected to do so, though I
admit that he is more generously equipped in the matter of intellect
than most.--Your friend to be,
Muriel laid down the letter with a little smile. Its spontaneous
friendliness was like a warm hand clasping hers. Yes, she would go,
she decided, as she splashed refreshingly in her bath, and that not
for Nick's sake. She knew instinctively that she was going to discover
a close sympathy with this woman who, though an utter stranger to her,
yet knew how to draw her as a sister. And Muriel's longing for such
human fellowship had already driven her to extremes.
She had the note in her hand when she finally joined Lady Bassett upon
Lady Bassett, though ever-gracious, was seldom at her best in the
morning. She greeted the girl with a faint, wry smile, and proffered
her nearest cheek to be kissed.
"Quite an early bird, dear child!" was her comment. "I should imagine
Captain Ratcliffe's visitation awakened the whole neighbourhood. I
think you must not go out again with him before sunrise. I should not
have advised it this morning if you had consulted me."
Muriel flushed at the softly-conveyed reproof. "It is not the first
time," she said, in her deep voice that was always deepest when
indignation moved her. "We have seen the sun rise together and the
moon rise too, before to-day."
Lady Bassett sighed gently. "I am sure, dearest," she said, "that you
do not mean to be uncouth or unmannerly, far less--that most odious
of all propensities in a young girl--forward. But though my authority
over you were to be regarded as so slight as to be quite negligible, I
should still feel it my duty to remonstrate when I saw you committing
a breach of the conventions which might be grievously misconstrued. I
trust, dear Muriel, that you will bear my protest in mind and regulate
your actions by it in the future. Will you take coffee?"
Muriel had seated herself at the other side of the table, and was
regarding her with wide, dark eyes that were neither angry nor
ashamed, only quite involuntarily disdainful.
After a distinct pause she decided to let the matter drop, reflecting
that Lady Bassett's subtleties were never worth pursuing.
"I am going to see a friend of Nick's this afternoon," she said
presently. "I expect you know her--Mrs. Musgrave."
Lady Bassett's forehead puckered a little. It could hardly be called a
frown. "Have you ever met Mrs. Musgrave?" she asked.
"No, never. But she is Nick's friend, and of course I know her cousin,
Captain Grange, quite well."
Lady Bassett made no comment upon this. "Of course, dear," she said,
"you are old enough to please yourself, but it is not usual, you
know, to plunge into social pleasures after so recent a bereavement as
The sudden silence that followed this gentle reminder had in it
something that was passionate. Muriel's face turned vividly crimson,
and then gradually whitened to a startling pallor.
"It is the last thing I should wish to do," she said, in a stifled
Lady Bassett continued, softly suggestive. "I say nothing of your
marriage, dear child. For that, I am aware, is practically a matter
of necessity. But I do think that under the circumstances you can
scarcely be too careful in what you do. Society is not charitably
inclined towards those who even involuntarily transgress its rules.
And you most emphatically are not in a position to do so wilfully."
She paused, for Muriel had risen unexpectedly to her feet. Her eyes
were blazing in her white face.
"Why should you call my marriage a matter of necessity?" she demanded.
"Sir Reginald told me that my father had provided for me."
"Of course, of course, dear." Lady Bassett uttered a faint, artificial
laugh. "It is not a question of means at all. But, there, since you
are so childishly unsophisticated, I need not open your eyes. It is
enough for you to know that there is a sufficiently urgent reason for
your marriage, and the sooner it can take place, the better. But in
the meantime, let me counsel you to be as prudent as possible in all
that you do. I assure you, dear, it is very necessary."
Muriel received this little homily in silence. She did not in the
least understand to what these veiled allusions referred, and
she decided impatiently that they were unworthy of her serious
consideration. It was ridiculous to let herself be angry with Lady
Bassett. As if it mattered in the least what she said or thought! She
determined to pay her projected visit notwithstanding, and quietly
said so, as she turned at length from the table.
Lady Bassett raised no further remonstrance beyond a faint, eloquent
lift of the shoulders. And Muriel went away into the shady compound,
her step firmer and her dark head decidedly higher than usual. She
felt for Nick's gift as she went, with a little secret sensation of
pleasure. After all, why had she been afraid? All girls wore rings
when they became engaged to be married.
Reaching her favourite corner, she drew it forth from its
hiding-place, a quiver of excitement running through her.
She was sitting in the hammock under the pines as she unwrapped it.
The hot sunshine, glinting through the dark boughs overhead, flashed
upon precious stones and dazzled her as the wisp of tissue-paper fell
from her hand.
And in a moment she was looking at an old marquise ring of rubies in
a setting of finely-wrought gold. Her heart gave a throb of sheer
delight at the beauty of the thing. She slipped it impetuously on to
her finger, and held it up to the sunlight.
The rubies shone with a deep lustre--red, red as heart's blood, ardent
as flame. She gazed and gazed with sparkling, fascinated eyes.
Suddenly his words flashed into her mind. A message inside it! She had
been so caught by the splendour of the stones that she had not looked
inside. She drew the ring from her finger, and examined it closely,
with burning cheeks.
Yes, there was the message--three words engraved in minute,
old-fashioned characters inside the gold band. They were so tiny that
it took her a long time to puzzle them out. With difficulty at length
she deciphered the quaint letters, but even then it was some time
before she grasped the meaning that they spelt.
It flashed upon her finally, as though a voice had spoken into her
ear. The words were: OMNIA VINCIT AMOR. And the ring in her hand
was no longer the outward visible sign of her compact. It was a
love-token, given to her by a man who had spoken no word of love.
THE VOICE OF A FRIEND
"So you didn't bring Nick after all. That was nice of you," said Daisy
Musgrave, with a little, whimsical smile. "I wanted to have you all to
myself. The nicest of men can be horribly in the way sometimes."
She smiled upon her visitor whom she had placed in the easiest chair
and in the pleasantest corner of her drawing-room. Her pretty face was
aglow with friendliness. No words of welcome were needed.
Muriel was already feeling happier than she had felt for many, many
weary weeks. It had been an effort to come, but she was glad that she
had made it.
"It was kind of you to ask me," she said, "though of course I know
that you did it for Nick's sake."
"You are quite wrong," Daisy answered instantly. "He told me about
you, I admit. But after that, I wanted you for your own. And now I
have got you, Muriel, I am not going to stand on ceremony the least
bit in the world. And you mustn't either; but I can see you won't.
Your eyes are telling me things already. I don't get on with stiff
people somehow. Lady Bassett calls me effusive. And I think myself
there must have been something meteoric about my birth star. Doubtless
that is why I agree so well with Nick. He's meteoric, too." She
slipped cosily down upon a stool by Muriel's side. "He's a nice boy,
isn't he?" she said sympathetically. "And is that his ring? Ah, let
me look at it! I think I have seen it before. No, don't take it off!
But Muriel had already drawn it from her finger. "It's beautiful," she
said warmly. "Do you know anything about it? It looks as if it had a
"It has," said Daisy. "I remember now. He showed it to me once when I
was staying at his brother's house in England. I know the Ratcliffes
well. My husband used to live with them as a boy. It came from the old
maiden aunt who left him all his money. She gave it to him before she
died, I believe, and told him to keep it for the woman he was sure to
love some day. Nick was an immense favourite of hers."
"But the ring?" urged Muriel.
Daisy was frowning over the inscription within it, but she was fully
aware of the soft colour that had flooded the girl's face at her
"OMNIA VINCIT AMOR," she read slowly. "That is it, isn't it? Ah, yes,
and the history of it. It's rather sad. Do you mind?"
"I am used to sad things," Muriel reminded her, with her face turned
away toward the mountains.
Daisy pressed her hand gently. "It is a French ring," she said. "It
belonged to an aristocrat who was murdered in the Reign of Terror.
He sent it by his servant to the girl he loved from the steps of the
guillotine. I don't know their names. Nick didn't tell me that. But
she was English."
Muriel had turned quickly back. Her interest was aroused. "Yes," she
said eagerly, as Daisy paused. "And she?"
"She!" Daisy's voice had a sudden hard ring in it. "She remained
faithful to him for just six months. And then she married an
Englishman. It was said that she did it against her will. Still she
did it. Luckily for her, perhaps, she died within the year--when her
child was born."
Daisy rose abruptly and moved across the room. "That was more than a
hundred years ago," she said, "and women are as great fools still. If
they can't marry the man they love--they'll marry--anything."
Muriel was silent. She felt as if she had caught sight of something
that she had not been intended to see.
But in a moment Daisy came back, and, kneeling beside her, slipped the
ring on to her finger again. "Yet love conquers all the same, dear,"
she said, passing her arm about the girl. "And yours is going to be
a happy love story. The ring came finally into the possession of the
lady's grandson, and it was he who gave it to Nick's aunt--the maiden
aunt. It was her engagement ring. She never wore any other, and she
only gave it to Nick when her fingers were too rheumatic to wear it
any longer. Her lover, poor boy, was killed in the Crimea. There!
Forgive me if I have made you sad. Death is not really sad, you
know, where there is love. People talk of it as if it conquered love,
whereas it is in fact all the other way round. Love conquers death."
Muriel hid her face suddenly on Daisy's shoulder. "Oh, are you quite
sure?" she whispered.
"I am quite sure, darling." The reply was instant and full of
conviction. "It doesn't need a good woman to be quite sure of that.
Over and over again it has been the only solid thing I have had to
hold by. I've clung to it blindly in outer darkness, God only knows
Her arms tightened about Muriel, and she fell silent. For minutes the
room was absolutely quiet. Then Muriel raised her head.
"Thank you," she whispered. "Thank you so much."
Her eyes were full of tears as her lips met Daisy's, but she brushed
them swiftly away before they fell.
Daisy was smiling at her. "Come," she said, "I want to show you my
baby. He is just the wee-est bit fractious, as he is cutting a tooth.
The doctor says he will be all right, but he still threatens to send
us both to England."
"And you don't want to go?" questioned Muriel.
Daisy shook her head. "I want to see my cousin Blake," she said
lightly, "when he comes marching home again. Did you hear the rumour
that he is to have the V.C.? They ought to give it to Nick, too, if he
"Oh, I shouldn't think so. Nick didn't do anything. At least," Muriel
stumbled a little, "nothing to be proud of."
Daisy laughed and caught her face between her hands. "Except save his
girl from destruction," she said. "Doesn't that count? Oh, Muriel, I
know exactly what made him want you. No, you needn't be afraid. I'm
not going to tell you. Wild horses sha'n't drag it from me. But he's
the luckiest man in India, and I think he knows it. What lovely hair
you have! I'll come round early on your wedding-day and do it for
you. And what will you wear? It mustn't be a black wedding whatever
etiquette may decree. You look too pathetic in black, and it's a
barbarous custom anyway. I have warned my husband fairly that if he
goes into mourning for me, I'll never speak to him hereafter again.
He is coming up to see us next week, and to discuss our fate with the
doctor. Have you ever met Will?"
"Once," said Muriel. "It was at a dance at Poonah early last summer."
"Ah! When I was at Mahableshwar. He is a good dancer, isn't he? He
does most things well, I think."
Daisy smiled tolerantly as she indicated the photograph of a boy
upon the mantelpiece. "He isn't sixteen," she said; "he is nearly
twenty-eight. Now come and see his son and the light of my eyes." She
linked her arm in Muriel's, and, still smiling, led her from the room.
THE POISON OF ADDERS
The week that followed that first visit of hers was a gradual renewal
of life to Muriel. She had come through the darkest part of her
trouble, and, thick though the shadows might still lie about her, she
had at last begun to see light ahead. She went again and yet again to
see Daisy, and each visit added to her tranquillity of mind. Daisy was
wonderfully brisk for an invalid, and her baby was an endless source
of interest. Even Lady Bassett could not cavil when her charge spoke
of going to nursery tea at Mrs. Musgrave's. She made no attempt to
check the ripening friendship, though Muriel was subtly aware that she
did not approve of it.
She also went every morning for a headlong gallop with Nick who, in
fact, would take no refusal in the matter. He came not at all to the
house except for these early visits, and she had a good many hours
to herself. But her health was steadily improving, and her loneliness
oppressed her less than formerly. She spent long mornings lying in the
hammock under the pines with only an occasional monkey far above her
to keep her company. It was her favourite haunt, and she grew to look
upon it as exclusively her own. There was a tiny rustic summer-house
near it, which no one ever occupied, so far as she knew. Moreover,
the hammock had been decorously slung behind it, so that even though
a visitor might conceivably penetrate as far as the arbour, it was
extremely unlikely that the hammock would come into the range of
Even Lady Bassett had never sought her here, her time being generally
quite fully occupied with her countless social engagements. Muriel
often wondered that that garden on the mountainside in which she
revelled seemed to hold so slight an attraction for its owner. But
then of course Lady Bassett was so much in demand that she had little
leisure to admire the beauties that surrounded her.
Growing daily stronger, Muriel's half-childish panic regarding her
approaching marriage as steadily diminished. She enjoyed her rides
with Nick, becoming daily more and more at her ease with him. They
seldom touched upon intimate matters. She wore his ring, and once
she shyly thanked him for it. But he made no further reference to the
words engraved within it, and she was relieved by his forbearance.
Nick, on his part, was visiting Daisy Musgrave every day, and
sedulously imbibing her woman's wisdom. He had immense faith in her
insight and her intuition, and when she entreated him to move
slowly and without impatience he took a sterner grip of himself and
resolutely set himself to cultivate the virtue she urged upon him.
"You mustn't do anything in a hurry," Daisy assured him, "either
before your marriage or after. She has had a very bad shock, and she
is only just getting over it. You will throw everything back if you
try to precipitate matters. She is asleep, you know, Nick, and it is
for you to waken her, but gradually--oh, very gradually--or she will
start up in the old nightmare terror again. If she doesn't love you
yet, she is very near it. But you will only win her by waiting for
her. Never do anything sudden. Always remember what a child she is,
though she has outgrown her years. And children, you know, though they
will trust those they love to the uttermost, are easily frightened."
Nick knew that she was right. He knew also that he was steadily
gaining ground, and that knowledge helped him more than all Daisy's
counsels. He was within sight, so he felt, of the great consummation
of all his desires, and he was drawing daily nearer.
Their wedding-day was little more than a week away. He had already
made full preparation for it. It was to be as quiet a ceremony as it
was possible to arrange. Daisy Musgrave had promised to be there, and
he expected her husband also. Lady Bassett, whose presence he realised
with a grimace to be indispensable, would complete the wedding-party.
He had arranged to leave Simla directly the service was over, and to
go into Nepal. It would not be his first visit to that most wonderful
country, and it held many things that he desired to show her. He
expected much from that wedding journey, from the close companionship,
the intimacy that must result. He would teach her first beyond all
doubting that she had nothing to fear, and then--then at last, as
the reward of infinite patience, he would win her love. His blood
quickened whenever he thought of it. Alone with her once more among
the mountains, in perfect security, surrounded by the glory of the
eternal snows, so he would win her. They would come back closely
united, equipped to face the whole world hand-in-hand, so joined
together that no shadow of evil could ever come between them any more.
For they would be irrevocably made one. Thus ran the current of
his splendid dream, and for this he curbed himself, mastered his
eagerness, controlled his passion.
On the day that Daisy's husband arrived, he considerately absented
himself from their bungalow, knowing how the boy loved to have his
wife to himself. He had in consequence the whole afternoon at
his disposal, and he contemplated paying a surprise visit to his
betrothed. He had ridden with her that morning, and he did not doubt
that she was to be found somewhere in Lady Bassett's compound. So in
fact she was, and had he carried out his first intention, he would
have explored behind the summer-house and found her in her retreat.
But he did not after all pay his projected visit. A very small matter
frustrated his plans--a matter of no earthly importance, but which he
always looked upon afterwards as a piece of the devil's own handiwork.
He remembered some neglected correspondence, and decided to clear it
off. She would not be expecting him, possibly she might not welcome
his intrusion. And so, in consequence of that rigid self-restraint
that he was practising, he suffered this latter reflection to sway
him in the direction of his unanswered letters, and sat down to his
writing-table with a strong sense of virtue, utterly unsuspicious of
the evil which even at that moment was drawing near imperceptibly but
surely to the girl he loved.
She was lying in her hammock with an unread book on her knees. It
was a slumberous afternoon, making for drowsiness. The mountains were
wrapped in a vague haze, and the whole world was very still. Very far
overhead, the pines occasionally whispered to one another, but below
there was no movement, save when a lizard scuttled swiftly over the
pine-needles, and once when an enquiring monkey-face peered at her
round the red bole of a pine.
It was all very restful, and Muriel was undeniably sleepy. She had
ridden farther than usual with Nick that morning, and it did not take
much to tire her. Lady Bassett had gone to a polo-match, she knew, and
she luxuriated in undisturbed solitude. It lay all about her like
a spell of enchantment. With her cheek pillowed on her hand she
presently floated into serene slumber. It was like drifting down a
tidal river into a summer sea....
Her awakening was abrupt, almost startling. She felt as if some
one had touched her, though she realised In a moment that this was
impossible; for she was still alone. No one was in sight. Only from
the arbour a few feet away there came the sound of voices, and the
tinkle of tea-cups.
Visitors evidently! Lady Bassett had returned and brought back a
couple of guests with her. She frowned impatiently over the discovery,
realising that she was a prisoner unless she elected to show herself.
For her corner behind the summer-house was bounded by the wall of the
compound, and there was no retreat save by the path that led to the
bungalow, and this wound in front of the arbour itself.
It was very annoying, but there was no help for it. She knew very
few people in Simla, and neither of the voices that mingled with Lady
Bassett's was familiar to her. It did not take her long to decide that
she had no desire for a closer acquaintance with their owners. One
was a man's voice, sonorous and weighty, that sounded as if it were
accustomed to propound mighty problems from the pulpit. The other was
a woman's, high-pitched as the wail of a cat on a windy night, that
caused the listening girl to nestle back on her pillow with the
instant resolution to remain where she was until the intruders saw fit
to depart, even if by so doing she had to forego her tea.
She opened her book with an unwarrantable feeling of resentment. Of
course Lady Bassett could not know she was there, and of course she
was at liberty to go whither she would in her own garden. But no one
likes to have their cherished privacy invaded even in ignorance.
And Lady Bassett might surely have concluded that she would be out
somewhere under the pines.
Well, they probably would not stay for long, and she was in no hurry.
With a faint sigh of lingering annoyance she began to read.
But the piercing, feline voice soon pounded flail-like into her
consciousness, scattering her thoughts with ruthless insistence.
"Of course," it asserted, "it was the only thing he could possibly do.
No man with any decent feeling could have done otherwise. But it was a
little hard on him. Surely you agree with me there?"
Lady Bassett's voice, soft and precise, made answer. "Indeed I think
he has behaved most generously in the matter. As you say, it would
have been but a gentleman's duty to make an offer of marriage,
considering all the circumstances. But he went further than that. He
actually insisted upon the arrangement. I suppose he felt bound to
do so as the poor child's father had placed her in his charge. She
is quite unformed still, and is very far from realising her grave
position. Indeed, I scarcely expected her to accept him without the
urgent reason for the match being explained to her; for it is quite
obvious that she does not care for him in that way. Poor child, she is
scarcely old enough to know the true meaning of love. It is very sad
for them both."
A gentle sigh closed the sentence. Muriel's book had slid down upon
a cushion of pine-needles. She had raised herself in the hammock, and
was staring at the rustic woodwork of the summer-house as though she
saw a serpent twining there.
There followed a brief silence. Then came the man's voice, deliberate
"I am sure it must have caused you much anxiety, dear Lady Bassett.
With my knowledge of Nicholas Ratcliffe I confess that I should have
felt very grave misgivings as to whether he were endowed with the
chivalry to fulfil the obligation he had incurred. My esteem for him
has increased fourfold since I heard of his intention to shoulder his
responsibilities thus courageously. I had not deemed him capable of
such a sacrifice. I sincerely trust that he will be given strength to
carry it through worthily."
"I shall not feel really easy till they are married," confessed Lady
"Ah!" The sonorous voice broke in again with friendly reproof.
"But--pardon me--does not that indicate a certain lack of faith, Lady
Bassett? Since the young man has been led to see that the poor girl
has been so sadly compromised, surely we may trust that he will be
enabled to carry out his engagement. I consider it doubly praiseworthy
that he has taken this action on his own initiative. I may tell you in
confidence that I was seriously debating with myself as to whether it
were not my duty to approach him on the subject. But the news of his
engagement relieved me of all responsibility. It is no doubt something
of a sacrifice to a man of his stamp. We can only trust that he will
be duly rewarded."
Here the shrill, feline voice suddenly made itself heard, tripping in
upon the deeper tones without ceremony.
"Oh, but poor Nick! I can't picture him married and done for. He has
always been so gay. Why, look at him with Daisy Musgrave! I know for
a fact that he goes there every day at least, and she refusing to
receive any one else. I call it quite scandalous."
"My dear! My dear!" It was Lady Bassett's turn to reprove. "Not quite
every day surely!"
"I do assure you that isn't the smallest exaggeration," protested
her informant. "I had it from Mrs. Gybbon-Smythe who never misstates
anything. It was she who first told me of this engagement, and she
considered that Nick was positively throwing himself away. A mere
chivalrous fad she called it, and declared that it would simply ruin
his prospects. For it is well known that married officers are almost
invariably passed over by the powers that be. And he is regarded as so
promising too. Really I am almost inclined to agree with her. Just a
little more tea, dear, if I may. Your tea is always so delicious, and
doubly so out here under the pines."
The soft jingling of tea-cups ensued, and through it presently came
Lady Bassett's gentle tones. They sounded as if she were smiling.
"Well, all I can say is, I was unspeakably relieved when I heard that
Captain Ratcliffe had decided to treat the matter as a point of honour
and marry dear Muriel. She is a sweet girl and I am devoted to her,
which made it doubly hard for me. For I should scarcely have dared to
venture, after what has happened, to ask any of my friends to receive
her. Naturally, she shrinks from speaking of that terrible time, but
I understand that she spent no less than three nights alone in
the mountains with him. And that fact in itself would be more than
sufficient to blight any girl's career from a social standpoint. I
often think that the rules of our modern etiquette are very rigid,
though I know well that we cannot afford to disregard them." Again
came that soft, regretful sigh; and then in an apologetic tone, "_You_
will say, I know, that for the good of the community this must be so,
but you are great enough to make allowances for a woman's weakness.
And I must confess that I cannot but feel the pity of it in such a
case as this."
"Indeed, Lady Bassett, I think your feminine weakness does you
credit," was the kind response this elicited. "We must all of us
sympathise most deeply with the poor little wanderer, who, I am well
assured, could not be in better hands than she is at the present
moment. Your protecting care must, I am convinced, atone to her in a
very great measure for all that she has been called upon to undergo."
"So sweet of you to say so!" murmured Lady Bassett. "Words cannot
express my reluctance to explain to her the actual state of affairs,
or my relief that I have been able to avoid doing so with a clear
conscience. Ah! Your cup is empty! Will you let me refill it? No? But
you are not thinking of leaving me yet, surely?"
"Ah, but indeed we must. We are dining with the Boltons to-night, and
going afterwards to the Parkers' dance. You will be there of course?
How delightful! Then we shall soon meet again."
The penetrating voice was accompanied by the sounds of a general move,
and there ensued the usual interchange of compliments at departure,
Lady Bassett protesting that it had been so sweet of her friends to
visit her, and the friends assuring her of the immense pleasure it had
given them to do so. All the things that are never said by people who
are truly intimate with each other were said several times over as
the little party moved away. Their voices receded into the distance,
though they continued for a while to prick through the silence that
fell like a velvet curtain behind them.
Finally they ceased altogether. The summer-house was empty, and an
enterprising monkey slipped down the trunk of a tree and peered in.
But he was a nervous beast, and he had a feeling that the place was
not so wholly devoid of human presence as it seemed. He approached
cautiously, gibbering a little to himself. It looked safe enough, and
there was some dainty confectionery within. But, uneasy instinct still
urging him, he deemed it advisable to peer round the corner of the
summer-house before he yielded to the promptings of a rapacious
The next instant his worst fears were realised, and he was scudding up
the nearest tree in a panic.
There, on the ground, face downwards on the pine-needles, lay a human
form. True, it was only a woman lying there. But her silence and her
stillness were eloquent of tragedy even to his monkey-intelligence.
From a safe height he sat and reviled her till he was tired for having
spoilt his sport. Finally, as she made no movement, he forgot
his grievance, and tripped airily away in quest of more thrilling
But the woman remained prone upon the ground for a long, long time.
Nick's fit of virtue evaporated with his third letter, and he got
up, feeling that he had spent an unprofitable afternoon. He also
discovered that he was thirsty, and while quenching his thirst he
debated with himself whether he would after all stroll round to the
Musgraves. He and Will were old school-fellows, and the friendship
between them was of the sort that wears forever. He was moreover
dissatisfied with regard to Daisy's appearance, and he wanted to know
the doctor's verdict.
He had just decided to chance his welcome and go, when a note was
brought to him which proved to be from Will himself.
"DEAR OLD NICK," it ran,--"I have been wanting to shake your
hand ever since I heard of your gallant return from the jaws
of death. Well done, old chap, if it isn't a stale sentiment!
"Will you come and dine with us? Do thy diligence, for though
we are neither of us the best of company, we both want you.
The doctor has ordered Daisy and the youngster home. They are
to leave before the _chota-bursat_. Damn the _chota-bursat_,
and the whole beastly show!--Yours ever,
Nick considered this outburst with a sympathetic frown, and at once
despatched an answer in the affirmative. He had almost expected the
news. It had been quite plain to him that Daisy was not making any
progress towards the recovery of her strength. Her quick temperament
would not allow her to be listless, but he had not been deceived. And
he was glad that Will had come up at length to see for himself.
It was horribly unlucky for them both, he reflected, for he knew
that Will could not accompany his wife to England. And the thought
presently flashed across him,--How would it go with him if he ever had
to part with Muriel in that way? Having once possessed her, could
he ever bear to let her go again? Would he not rather relinquish his
profession for her sake, dear though it was to him? He had made her
his own by sheer dogged effort. He had planned for her, fought for
her, suffered for her,--almost he had died for her. Now that she was
his at last, he knew that he could never let her go.
He turned impetuously to a calendar on his writing-table, and ticked
off another day. There were only six left before his wedding-day. He
counted them with almost savage exultation. Finally he tossed down the
pencil with a sudden, quivering laugh, and stood up with wide-flung
arms. She was his--his--his! No power or force of circumstance could
ever come between them now. He would trample every obstacle underfoot.
But there were no obstacles left. He had overcome them all. He had won
her fairly; and the reward of patience was very near.
For the first time he slackened the bonds of his self-restraint;
and instantly the fire of his passion leapt up, free and fierce,
overflowing its confines in a wide-spread, molten stream that carried
all before it.
When later he departed to keep his engagement, he was as a man
treading upon air. Not a dozen yards from the gate one of Lady
Bassett's servants met him and presented a note. He guessed it was
from Muriel, and the blood rose in a hot wave to his head and pounded
at his temples as he opened it. It was the first she had ever written
"I must see you at once,--M."
That was all. He dismissed the waiting native, and returned to his
room. There he wrote a note to Will Musgrave warning him that he had
Then he suddenly straightened himself and stood tense. Something had
happened. He was sure of it. That urgent summons rang in his brain
like a cry for help. Some demand was about to be made upon him, a
demand which he might find himself ill-equipped to meet. He was not
lacking in courage. He could meet adversity without a quiver. But for
once he was not sure of himself. He was not prepared to resist any
sudden strain that night.
Several minutes passed before he moved. Then, glancing down, he
saw her message fast gripped in his hand. With a swift, passionate
movement he carried the paper to his lips. And he remembered suddenly
how he had once held her hand there and breathed upon the little cold
fingers to give them life. He had commanded himself then. Was he any
the less his own master now? And was he fool enough to destroy all in
a moment that trust of hers which he had built up so laboriously? He
felt as if a fiend had ensnared him, and with a fierce effort he broke
free. Surely he was torturing himself in vain. She had only sent for
him to explain that she could not ride with him in the morning, or
some other matter equally trifling. He would go to her at once since
she had desired it, and set her mind at rest on whatever subject
happened to be troubling it.
And so with steady tread he left the house once more. She had called
him for the first time. He would not keep her waiting.
The drawing-room was empty when he entered it, the windows standing
flung wide to the night. Strains of dance music were wafted in from
somewhere lower down the hill, and he guessed that Lady Bassett would
be from home. The pine-trees of the compound stood black and silent.
There seemed to be a hush of expectancy in the air.
He stood with his back to the room and his face to the mountains. The
moon was still below the horizon, but stars blazed everywhere with a
marvellous brightness. It was a night for dreams, and he thought with
a quickening heart of the nights that were coming when they two would
be alone once more among the hills, no longer starved and fleeing
for their lives, but wandering happily together in an enchanted world
where the past was all forgotten, and the future gleamed like the
peaks of Paradise.
At sound of a quiet footfall, he turned back into the room. Muriel had
entered and was closing the door behind her. At first sight he fancied
that she was ill, so terribly did her deep mourning and heavy hair
emphasise her pallor. But as she moved forward he reassured himself.
It was growing late. Doubtless she was tired.
He went impetuously to meet her, and in a moment he had her hands
in his; but they lay in his grasp cold and limp, with no responding
pressure. Her great eyes, as they looked at him, were emotionless
and distant, remote as the lights of a village seen at night across a
far-reaching plain. She gave him no word or smile of welcome.
A sudden dark suspicion flashed through his brain, and he drew her
swiftly to the light, looking at her closely, searchingly.
"What have you been doing?" he said.
She fathomed his suspicion, and faintly smiled. "Nothing--nothing
whatever. I have never touched opium since the night you--"
He cut in sharply, as if the reminiscence hurt him. "I beg your
pardon. Well, what is it then? There's something wrong."
She did not contradict him. Merely with a slight gesture of weariness,
she freed herself and sat down.
Nick remained on his feet, looking down at her, waiting grimly for
It did not come very readily. Seconds had passed into minutes before
she spoke, and then her words did not bear directly upon the matter in
"I hope it was quite convenient to you to come to-night. I was a
little afraid you would have an engagement."
He remembered the urgency of her summons and decided that she spoke
thus conventionally to gain time. On another occasion he might
have humoured such a whim, but to-night it goaded him almost beyond
endurance. Surely they had passed that stage, he and she.
With an effort he controlled himself, but it sounded in his voice as
he made reply.
"My engagement to you stands before any other. What is it you want to
say to me?"
Her expression changed slightly at his words, and a shade of
apprehension flitted across her face. She threw him a swift upward
glance, half-scared, half-questioning. Unconsciously her hands locked
"I want you not to be vexed, Nick," she said, in a low voice.
He made an abrupt movement. "My dear girl, don't be silly. What's the
trouble? Let me hear it and have done."
His tone was reassuring. She looked up at him with more confidence.
"Yes, I am silly," she acknowledged. "I'm perfectly idiotic to fancy
for a moment that it can make any difference to you. Nick, I have been
thinking things over seriously, and--and--I find that I can't marry
you after all. I hope you won't mind, though of course--" she uttered
a little laugh that was piteously insincere--"I know you will feel
bound to say you do. But--anyhow--you needn't say it to me, because I
understand. I thought it was only fair to let you know at once."
"Thank you," said Nick, and there was that in his voice which was like
the sudden snapping of a tense spring.
She saw his hands clench with the words, and an overwhelming sense
of danger swept over her. Instinctively she started to her feet. If a
tiger had leapt in upon her through the window she could not have been
Nick took a single stride towards her, and she stopped as if struck
powerless. His face was the face she had once seen bent over a man in
his death-agony, convulsed with passion, savage, merciless,--the face
of a devil.
She shrank away from him in nameless terror, gasping and
panic-stricken. "Nick," she whispered, "are you--mad?"
He answered her jerkily in a strangled voice that was like the snarl
of a beast. "Yes--I am mad. If you try to run away from me now--I
won't answer for myself."
She gazed at him with widening eyes. "But, but--" she faltered--"I--I
don't understand. Oh, Nick, you frighten me!"
It was the cry of a child, lost, bewildered, piteous. Had she
withstood him, had she sought to escape, the demon in him would have
burst the last restraining bond, and have shattered in one moment of
unshackled violence all the chivalrous patience which during the last
few weeks he had spent his whole strength to achieve.
But that cry of desolation pierced straight through his madness,
cutting deeper than reproach or protest, wounding him to the heart.
With a sound that was half-sob, half-groan, he turned his back upon
her and covered his face.
For a space of seconds he stood so, not moving, seeming not even to
breathe. And Muriel, steadying herself by the mantelpiece, watched him
with a panting heart.
Then abruptly, moving with a quick, light tread that made no sound, he
crossed the room to one of the wide-flung windows and stopped there.
From across the quiet garden there came the strains of "The Blue
Danube," fitful, alluring, plaintive--that waltz to which countless
lovers have danced and wooed and whispered through the years. Muriel
longed intensely to shut it out, to stop her ears, to make some noise
to drown it. Her nerves were all on edge, and she felt as if its
persistent sweetness would drive her mad.
Surely Nick felt the same; but if he did, he made no sign. He stood
without movement with his face to the night, gripping the woodwork of
the window with both hands, every bone of them standing out in sharp,
She watched him, fascinated, for a long time, but he did not stir from
his tense position. He seemed to have utterly forgotten her presence
in the room behind him. And still that maddening waltz kept on and on
and on till she felt sick and dazed with listening to it. It seemed as
if for the rest of her life she would never again be free from those
The soft shutting of the window made her start and quiver. Nick had
moved at last, and her heart began to throb thick and fast as he
turned. She tried to read his face, but she could not even see
it. There was a swimming mist before her eyes, and her limbs felt
powerless, heavy as lead.
In every nerve, she felt him drawing near, and in an agony of
helplessness she awaited him, all the surging horror of that night
when he had drugged her rushing back upon her with tenfold force.
Again she saw him as she had seen him then, monstrous, silent,
terrible, a man of superhuman strength, whose mastery appalled
her. Again in desperate fear she shrank from him, seeking wildly,
fruitlessly, for a way of escape.
And then came the consciousness of his arm about her, supporting her;
and the voice that had quieted her wildest delirium was speaking in
"The goblins are all gone, dear," she heard him say. "Don't be
He led her gently to a sofa and made her sit down, bending over her
and softly rubbing her cold cheek.
"Tell me when you're better," he said, "and we'll talk this thing out.
But don't be frightened anyway. It's all right."
The tenderness of voice and touch, the sudden cessation of all
tension, the swift putting to flight of her fear, all combined to
produce in her a sense of relief so immense that the last shred of her
self-control went from her utterly. She laid her head down upon the
cushions and burst into a storm of tears.
Nick's hand continued to stroke and soothe, but he said no more while
her paroxysm of weeping lasted. He who was usually so ready of speech,
so quick to console, found for once no words wherewith to comfort her.
Only when her distress had somewhat spent itself, he bent a little
lower and dried her tears with his own handkerchief, his lips
twitching as he did it, his eyes flickering so rapidly that it was
impossible to read their expression.
"There!" he said at last. "There's nothing to cry about. Finish what
you were saying when I interrupted you. I think you were in the middle
of throwing me over, weren't you? At least, you had got through that
part of it, and were just going to tell me why."
His tone was reassuringly flippant.
Looking up at him, she saw the old kindly, quizzical look on his face.
He met her eyes, nodding shrewdly.
"Let's have it," he said, "straight from the shoulder. You're tired of
She drew back from him, but with no gesture of shrinking. "I'm tired
of everything--everything," she said, a little passionate quiver in
her voice. "I wish--I wish with all my heart, you had left me to die."
"Is that the grievance?" said Nick. He sat down on the head of the
sofa, and drove his fist into the cushion. "If I could explain things
to you, I would. But you're such a chicken, aren't you, dear, and
about as easily scared? Since when have you harboured this grudge
The gentle banter of his tone did not deceive her into imagining that
she could trifle with him, nor was she addicted to trifling. She
made answer with a certain warmth of indignation that seemed to have
kindled on its own initiative and wholly without her volition.
"I haven't, I don't. I'm not so absurd. It isn't that at all."
"You're not tired of me?" queried Nick.
"If I were to die to-morrow for instance--and there's no telling, you
know, Muriel,--you'd be a little sorry?"
Again, though scarcely aware of it, she resented the question. "Why do
you ask me that? Of course I should be sorry."
"Of course," acquiesced Nick. "But all the king's horses and all the
king's men wouldn't bring me back again. That's the worst of being
mortal. You can't dance at your own funeral."
"What do you mean?" There was a note of exasperation in Muriel's
voice. She saw that he had an object in view, but his method of
attaining it was too tortuous for her straightforward understanding.
He explained himself with much patience. His mood had so completely
changed that she could barely recall to mind the vision that had so
appalled her but a few minutes before.
"What I mean is that it's infernal to think that some one may be
shedding precious tears on your grave and you not there to see.
I've often wondered if one could get a ticket of leave for such an
occasion." He smiled down at her with baffling directness. "I should
value those tears unspeakably," he said.
Muriel made a slight movement of impatience. The discussion seemed to
her inconsequent and unprofitable.
Nick began to enumerate his points. "You're not tired of me--though
I see I'm boring you hideously; put up with it a little longer, I've
nearly finished--and you'd shed quite a respectable number of tears
if I were to die young. Yes, I am young though as ugly as Satan. I
believe you think I'm some sort of connection, don't you? Is that why
you don't want to marry me?"
He put the question with startling suddenness, and Muriel glanced up
quickly, but was instantly reassured. He was no more formidable at
that moment than a grinning schoolboy. Still she did not feel wholly
at her ease with him. She had a curious suspicion that he was in some
fashion testing her.
"No," she answered, after a moment. "It is nothing of that sort."
"Quite sure there is a reason?" he asked quizzically.
Her white cheeks flushed. "Yes, of course. But--I would rather not
tell you what it is."
"Quite so," said Nick. "I suppose that also is 'only fair'?"
Her colour deepened. He made her feel unaccountably ashamed. "I will
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