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On The Firing Line by Anna Chapin Ray and Hamilton Brock Fuller

Part 5 out of 5

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your house so often, Miss Dent."

Ethel's fingers shut upon the sticks of her fan.

"Yes," she assented. "Captain Frazer was one of our best friends."

All at once, the face of the young captain grew grave.

"I remember now," he said quite slowly. "But his loss was a sorrow
to us all. His place can never be entirely filled."

There came a momentary pause. Then, as the captain's broad shoulders
vanished in the heart of the crowd, Weldon turned and looked Ethel
squarely between the eyes.

"Believe me, Miss Dent," he said simply; "this is none of my doing."

She made no pretence of misunderstanding him. Instead of that, her
quiet voice was full of bitterness, as she gave brief answer,--
"Quite obviously, Mr. Weldon."

"Thank you for doing me that justice," he said, after an instant
when their meeting eyes flashed like meeting blades of steel.
"Stuart had no notion that he was making a mess of things."

She faced him a little proudly.

"I am unable to see what mess he can have made, Mr. Weldon. It is
always a pleasure to meet an old acquaintance."

Few things could have hurt him more than the icy conventionality of
her words. All the gentler side of his nature was crying out for
mercy; but he smothered its cries and faced her bravely, praying the
while for some one to come to them and end the scene. The Ethel Dent
he had known in the old days had been a woman of flesh and blood;
this was a statue of marble, polished and beautiful, but cold
withal. He could only seek to meet her with equal coldness, then
make his escape to nurse his wounds unseen. Nevertheless, in spite
of his resolutions to the contrary, a sudden heat crept into his
answering words,

"But I thought you had annulled the acquaintance."

She looked up at him in mute surprise. Then, mustering her pride,
she forced herself to smile.

"I?" she answered lightly. "Oh, no, I am only too proud to count a
V. C. among my friends."

He waited until the last word had dropped from her lips, waited
until the silence had dropped over the last word. Then he faced her
yet once again. This time, there was determination in his eyes,
determination and a great, indomitable love.

"Ethel," he said imperiously; "for God's sake, stop fencing with me,
and have it out. Remember it is now, or never."

The color mounted swiftly across her face, then faded, and even to
her own ears her laugh failed to ring true.

"I am sorry; but I fear it is impossible. Here comes Colonel
Andersen for his dance."

Weldon faced about.

"Colonel Andersen, Miss Dent is longing for an ice," he said, with a
sudden masterful quietness. "May I take a convalescent's privilege
and ask you to bring it to her?" Then he turned back to Ethel.
"Come," he bade her.

"Where?" she protested; but she yielded to his stronger will and
followed him across the floor towards a deserted corner of the room.

"Anywhere, where we can talk for a moment," he answered her, with
the same dominant quietness. Then, while they halted beside an open
window, he bent forward and laid his hand upon hers, as it rested
upon the sill. "Ethel," he added; "I am going home, next week. I may
never see South Africa again. Before I go--"

Quietly she withdrew her hand. "Before you go, you will come to say
good by to my mother, I hope," she said, with a steadiness which
gave no hint of the tears behind her lowered lids.

Impatiently he brushed her words aside.

"That is for you to say. First of all, I must know one thing."

Her nerve was failing fast; but she still held to her resolve that
he should gain no hint of her weakness. She drew back a step, as if
his vehemence terrified her, yet she dared not raise her eyes to
his. It was all she could do to hold her voice in subjection.

"And what is that?" she asked.

He waited for an instant, before he answered her question. Her next
words might contain all, or nothing. His lips shut to a narrow line;
then he straightened his shoulders.

"Ethel," he said rapidly; "I have been in a good many fights; I've
found that it hurts more to be mangled than it does to be killed.
Speak out, then, and end this thing once for all. Was it final, what
you said to the Captain, that day?"

She bit her lip; but her voice would not come, and she could only
give a little, dreary nod. Weldon watched her steadily for a moment;
then he turned to go away.

For another moment, Ethel stared after him, heedless now of the
drops that were sliding down her cheeks. Then, of a sudden, she
found her voice. "Wait!" she said, as she stepped forward with a
swift gesture which was wholly imploring, wholly feminine. "It may
have been final; but finality is not always truth."

He halted at her words.

"And you mean?"

"I mean," she answered him; "I mean that then, and now, and always,
I loved one man, and he--" she caught her breath; then she lifted
her head proudly; "was you. The rest was all a mistake; but I did
what I thought was best."

Weldon bowed his head.

"No matter now," he answered.

Then, taking her hand, he led her back to the open window where they
stood together long, while, in the room beyond, an anxious colonel
threaded his way to and fro in the crowd, impatiently hunting the
partner in whose memory he had ceased to exist.

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