Part 4 out of 7
flung out with clenched hands in an attitude of the most utter, the
most anguished despair. He made no sound of any sort; only, as Nick
watched, his bowed shoulders heaved once convulsively.
It was only for a moment that Nick stood hesitating. The next, obeying
an impulse that he never stopped to question, he moved straight
forward to Will's side; and then saw--what he had not at first seen--a
piece of paper crumpled and gripped in one of his hands.
He bent over him and spoke rapidly, but without agitation. "Hullo, old
boy! What is it! Bad news, eh?"
Will started and groaned, then sharply turned his face upwards. It was
haggard and drawn and ghastly, but even then its boyishness remained.
He spoke at once, replying to Nick in short, staccato tones. "I've
had a message--just come through. It's the kiddie--our little chap--he
Nick heard the news in silence. After a moment he stooped forward and
took the paper out of Will's hand, thrusting it away without a glance
into his own pocket. Then he took him by the arm and hoisted him up.
"Come inside!" he said briefly.
Will went with him blindly, too stricken to direct his own movements.
And so he presently found himself crouching forward in a chair staring
at Nick's steady hand mixing whiskey and water in a glass at his
elbow. As Nick held it towards him he burst into sudden, wild speech.
"I've lost her!" he exclaimed harshly. "I've lost her! It was only the
kiddie that bound us together. She never cared a half-penny about
me. I always knew I should never hold her unless we had a child. And
"Easy!" said Nick. "Easy! Just drink this like a good chap. There's no
sense in letting yourself go."
Will drank submissively, and covered his face. "Oh, man," he whispered
brokenly, "you don't know what it is to be despised by the one being
in the world you worship."
Nick said nothing. His lips twitched a little, that was all.
But when several miserable seconds had dragged away and Will had
not moved, he bent suddenly down and put his arm round the huddled
shoulders. "Keep a stiff upper lip, old chap," he urged gently. "Don't
knock under. She'll be coming to you for comfort presently."
"Not she!" groaned Will. "I shall never get near her again. She'll
never come back to me. I know. I know."
"Don't be a fool!" said Nick still gently. "You don't know. Of course
she will come back to you. If you stick to her, she'll stick to you."
Will made a choked sound of dissent. Nevertheless, after a moment he
raised his quivering face, and gripped hard the hand that pressed his
shoulder. "Thanks, dear fellow! You're awfully good. Forgive me for
making an ass of myself. I--I was awfully fond of the little nipper
too. Poor Daisy! She'll be frightfully cut up." He broke off, biting
"Do you know," he said presently in a strained whisper, "I've wanted
her sometimes--so horribly, that--that I've even been fool enough to
pray about it."
He glanced up as he made this confidence, half expecting to read
ridicule on the alert face above him, but the expression it wore
surprised him. It was almost a fighting look, and wholly free from
Nick seated himself on the edge of the table, and smote him on the
shoulder. "My dear chap," he said, with a sudden burst of energy,
"you're only at the beginning of things. It isn't just praying now and
then that does it. You've got to keep up the steam, never slack for an
instant, whatever happens. The harder going it is, the more likely
you are to win through if you stick to it. But directly you slack,
you lose ground. If you've only got the grit to go on praying, praying
hard, even against your own convictions, you'll get it sooner or
later. You are bound to get it. They say God doesn't always grant
prayer because the thing you want may not do you any good. That's
gammon--futile gammon. If you want it hard enough, and keep on
clamouring for it, it becomes the very thing of all others you
need--the great essential. And you'll get it for that very reason.
It's sheer pluck that counts, nothing else--the pluck to go on
fighting when you know perfectly well you're beaten, the pluck to hang
on and worry, worry, worry, till you get your heart's desire."
He sprang up with a wide-flung gesture. "I'm doing it myself," he
said, and his voice rang with a certain grim elation. "I'm doing it
myself. And God knows I sha'n't give Him any peace till I'm satisfied.
I may be small, but if I were no bigger than a mosquito, I'd keep on
He walked to the end of the room, stood for a second, and came slowly
Will was looking at him oddly, almost as if he had never seen him
"Do you know," he said, smiling faintly, "I always thought you were a
"Most people do," said Nick. "I believe it's my physiognomy that's
at fault. What can any one expect from a fellow with a face like an
Egyptian mummy? Why, I've been mistaken for the devil himself before
now." He spoke with a semi-whimsical ruefulness, and, having spoken,
he went to the window and stood there with his face to the darkness.
"Hear that jackal, Will?" he suddenly said. "The brute is hungry. You
bet, he won't go empty away."
"Jackals never do," said Will, with his weary sigh.
Nick turned round. "It shows what faithless fools we are," he said.
In the silence that followed, there came again to them, clear through
the stillness, and haunting in its persistence, the crying of the
beast that sought its meat from God.
A SCENTED LETTER
There is no exhaustion more complete or more compelling than the
exhaustion of grief, and it is the most restless temperaments that
usually suffer from it the most keenly. It is those who have watched
constantly, tirelessly, selflessly, for weeks or even months, for whom
the final breakdown is the most utter and the most heartrending.
To Daisy, lying silent in her darkened room, the sudden ending of the
prolonged strain, the cessation of the anxiety that had become a part
of her very being, was more intolerable than the sense of desolation
itself. It lay upon her like a physical, crushing weight, this absence
of care, numbing all her faculties. She felt that the worst had
happened to her, the ultimate blow had fallen, and she cared for
In those first days of her grief she saw none but Muriel and the
doctor. Jim Ratcliffe was more uneasy about her than he would
admit. He knew as no one else knew what the strain had been upon the
over-sensitive nerves, and how terribly the shock had wrenched them.
He also knew that her heart was still in a very unsatisfactory state,
and for many hours he dreaded collapse.
He was inclined to be uneasy upon Muriel's account as well, at first,
but she took him completely by surprise. Without a question, without a
word, simply as a matter of course, she assumed the position of
nurse and constant companion to her friend. Her resolution and steady
self-control astonished him, but he soon saw that these were qualities
upon which he could firmly rely. She had put her own weakness behind
her, and in face of Daisy's utter need she had found strength.
He suffered her to have her way, seeing how close was the bond of
sympathy between them, and realising that the very fact of supporting
Daisy would be her own support.
"You are as steady-going as a professional," he told her once.
To which she answered with her sad smile, "I served my probation in
the school of sorrow last year. I am only able to help her because I
know what it is to sit in ashes."
He patted her shoulder and called her a good girl. He was growing very
fond of her, and in his blunt, unflattering way he let her know it.
Certain it was that in those terrible days following her bereavement,
Daisy clung to her as she had never before clung to any one, scarcely
speaking to her, but mutely leaning upon her steadfast strength.
Muriel saw but little of Blake though he was never far away. He
wandered miserably about the house and garden, smoking endless
cigarettes, and invariably asking her with a piteous, dog-like
wistfulness whenever they met if there were nothing that he could do.
There never was anything, but she had not the heart to tell him
so, and she used to invent errands for him to make him happier. She
herself did not go beyond the garden for many days.
One evening, about three weeks after her baby's death, Daisy heard his
step on the gravel below her window and roused herself a little.
"Who is taking care of Blake?" she asked.
Muriel glanced down from where she sat at the great listless figure
nearing the house. "I think he is taking care of himself," she said.
"All alone?" said Daisy.
Daisy uttered a sudden hard sigh. "You mustn't spend all your time
with me any longer," she said. "I have been very selfish. I forgot. Go
down to him, Muriel."
Muriel looked up, struck by something incomprehensible in her
tone. "You know I like to be with you," she said. "And of course he
But Daisy would not be satisfied. "That may be. But--but--I want you
to go to him. He is lonely, poor boy. I can hear it in his step. I
Wondering at her persistence, and somewhat reluctant, Muriel rose
to comply. As she was about to pass her, with a swift movement Daisy
caught her hand and drew her down.
"I want you--so--to be happy, dearest," she whispered, a quick note of
passion in her voice. "It's better for you--it's better for you--to
be together. I'm not going to monopolise you any longer. I will try
to come down to-morrow, if Jim will let me. It's hockey day, isn't it?
You must go and play as usual, you and he."
She was quivering with agitation as she pressed her lips to the girl's
cheek. Muriel would have embraced her, but she pushed her softly away.
"Go--go, dear," she insisted. "I wish it."
And Muriel went, seeing that she would not otherwise be pacified.
She found Blake depressed indeed, but genuinely pleased to see her,
and she walked in the garden with him in the soft spring twilight till
the dinner hour.
Just as they were about to go in, the postman appeared with foreign
letters for them both, which proved to be from Sir Reginald and Lady
The former had written briefly but very kindly to Grange, signifying
his consent to his engagement to his ward, and congratulating him upon
having won her. To Muriel he sent a fatherly message, telling her of
his pleasure at hearing of her happiness, and adding that he hoped she
would return to them in the following autumn to enable him to give her
Grange put his arm round his young _fiancee_ as he read this passage
aloud, but she only stood motionless within it, not yielding to his
touch. It even seemed to him that she stiffened slightly. He looked at
her questioningly and saw that she was very pale.
"What is it?" he asked gently. "Will that be too soon for you?"
She met his eyes frankly, but with unmistakable distress. "I--I didn't
think it would be quite so soon, Blake," she faltered. "I don't want
to be married at present. Can't we go on as we are for a little? Shall
Blake's face wore a puzzled look, but it was wholly free from
resentment. He answered her immediately and reassuringly.
"Of course not, dear. It shall be just when you like. Why should you
She gave him a smile of relief and gratitude, and he stooped and
kissed her forehead with a soothing tenderness that he might have
bestowed upon a child.
It was with some reluctance that she opened Lady Bassett's letter
in his presence, but she felt that she owed him this small mark of
There was a strong aroma of attar of roses as she drew it from the
envelope, and she glanced at Grange with an expression of disgust.
"What is the matter?" he asked. "Nothing wrong, I hope?"
"It's only the scent," she explained, concealing a faint sense of
He smiled. "Don't you like it? I thought all women did."
"My dear Blake!" she said, and shuddered.
The next minute she threw a sharp look over her shoulder, suddenly
assailed by an uncanny feeling that Nick was standing grimacing at
her elbow. She saw his features so clearly for the moment with his
own peculiarly hideous grimace upon them that she scarcely persuaded
herself that her fancy had tricked her. But there was nothing but the
twilight of the garden all around her, and Blake's huge bulk by her
side, and she promptly dismissed the illusion, not without a sense of
With a gesture of impatience she unfolded Lady Bassett's letter. It
commenced "Dearest Muriel," and proceeded at once in terms of flowing
elegance to felicitate her upon her engagement to Blake Grange.
"In according our consent," wrote Lady Bassett, "Sir Reginald and I
have not the smallest scruple or hesitation. Only, dearest, for Blake
Grange's sake as well as for your own, make quite sure _this time_
that your mind is fully made up, and your choice final."
When Muriel read this passage a deep note of resentment crept into her
voice, and she lifted a flushed face.
"It may be very wicked," she said deliberately, "but I hate Lady
Grange looked astonished, even mildly shocked. But Muriel returned to
the letter before he could reply.
It went on to express regret that the writer could not herself
return to England for the summer to assist her in the purchase of her
trousseau and to chaperon her back to India in the autumn; but her
sister, Mrs. Langdale, who lived in London, would she was sure, be
delighted to undertake the part of adviser in the first case, and in
the second she would doubtless be able to find among her many friends
who would be travelling East for the winter, one who would take charge
of her. No reference was made to Daisy till the end of the letter,
when the formal hope was expressed that Mrs. Musgrave's health had
benefited by the change.
"She dares to disapprove of Daisy for some reason," Muriel said,
closing the letter with the rapidity of exasperation.
Grange did not ask why. He was engrossed in brushing a speck of mud
from his sleeve, and she was not sure that he even heard her remark.
"You--I suppose you are not going to bother about a trousseau yet
then?" he asked rather awkwardly.
She shook her head with vehemence. "No, no, of course not. Why should
I hurry? Besides, I am in mourning."
"Exactly as you like," said Grange gently. "My leave will be up in
September, as you know, but I am not bound to stay in the Army. I will
send in my papers if you wish it."
Muriel looked at him in amazement. "Send in your papers! Why no,
Blake! I wouldn't have you do it for the world. I never dreamed of
such a thing."
He smiled good-humouredly. "Well, of course, I should be sorry to
give up polo, but there are plenty of other things I could take to.
Personally, I like a quiet existence."
Was there just a shade of scorn in Muriel's glance as it fell away
from him? It would have been impossible for any bystander to say with
certainty, but there was without doubt a touch of constraint in her
voice as she made reply.
"Yes. You are quite the most placid person I know. But please don't
think of leaving the Army for my sake. I am a soldier's daughter
remember. And--I like soldiers."
Her lip quivered as she turned to enter the house. Her heart at that
moment was mourning over a soldier's unknown grave. But Grange did not
know it, did not even see that she was moved.
His eyes were raised to an upper window at which a dim figure stood
looking out into the shadows. And he was thinking of other things.
THE ETERNAL FLAME
Daisy maintained her resolution on the following day, and though she
did not speak again of going downstairs, she insisted that Muriel
should return to the hockey-field and resume her place in Olga's team.
It was the last match of the season, and she would not hear of her
"You and Blake are both to go," she said. "I won't have either of you
staying at home for me."
But Blake, when Muriel conveyed this message to him, moodily shook his
head. "I'm not going. I don't want to. You must, of course. It will do
you good. But I couldn't play if I went. I've strained my wrist."
"Oh, have you?" Muriel said, with concern. "What a nuisance! How did
you manage it?"
He reddened, and looked slightly ashamed. "I vaulted the gate into the
meadow this morning. Idiotic thing to do. But I shall be all right.
Never mind about me. I shall smoke in the garden. I may go for a
Thus pressed on all sides, though decidedly against her own
inclination, Muriel went. The day was showery with brilliant
intervals. Grange saw her off at the field-gate.
"Plenty of mud," he remarked.
"Yes, I shall be a spectacle when I come back. Good-bye! Take care of
yourself." Muriel's hand rested for an instant on his arm, and then
she was gone--a slim, short-skirted figure walking swiftly over the
He stood leaning on the gate watching her till a clump of trees
intervened between them, then lazily he straightened himself and began
to stroll back up the garden. He was not smoking. His face wore a
heavy, almost a sullen, look. He scarcely raised his eyes from the
ground as he walked.
Nearing the house the sudden sound of a window being raised made
him look up, and in an instant, swift as a passing cloud-shadow, his
moodiness was gone. Daisy was leaning on her window-sill, looking down
Though she had not spoken to him for weeks, she gave him no greeting.
Her voice even sounded a trifle sharp.
"What are you loafing there for?" she demanded. "Why didn't you go
with Muriel to the hockey?"
He hesitated for a single instant. Then--for he never lied to
Daisy--quite honestly he made reply. "I didn't want to."
Her pale face frowned down at him, though the eyes had a soft light
that was like a mother's indulgence for her wayward child.
"How absurd you are! How can you be so lazy? I won't have it, Blake.
Do you hear?"
He moved forward a few steps till he was immediately below her, and
there stood with uplifted face. "What do you want me to do?"
"Do!" echoed Daisy. "Why, anything--anything rather than nothing.
There's the garden-roller over there by the tool-shed. Go and get it,
and roll the lawn."
He went off obediently without another word, and presently the clatter
of the roller testified to his submissive fulfilment of her command.
He did not look up again. Simply, with his coat off and shirt-sleeves
turned above his elbows, he tackled his arduous task, labouring up and
down in the soft spring rain, patient and tireless as an ox.
He had accomplished about half his job when again Daisy's voice broke
imperiously in upon him.
"Blake! Blake! Come in! You'll get wet to the skin."
He stopped at once, straightening his great frame with a sigh of
relief. Daisy was standing at the drawing-room window.
He pulled on his coat and went to join her.
She came to meet him with sharp reproach. "Why are you so foolish?
I believe you would have gone on rolling if there had been an
earthquake. You must be wet through and through." She ran her little
thin hand over him. "Yes, I knew you were. You must go and change."
But Grange's fingers closed with quiet intention upon her wrist. He
was looking down at her with the faithful adoration of a dumb animal.
"Not yet," he said gently. "Let me see you while I can."
She made a quick movement as if his grasp hurt her, and in an instant
she was free.
"Yes, but let us be sensible," she said. "Don't let us talk about hard
things. I'm very tired, you know, Blake. You must make it easy for
There was a piteous note of appeal in her voice. She sat down with
her back to the light. He could see that her hands were trembling, but
because of her appeal he would not seem to see it.
"Don't you think a change would be good for you?" he suggested.
"I don't know," she answered. "Jim says so. He wants me to go to
Brethaven. It's only ten miles away, and he would motor over and look
after me. But I don't think it much matters. I'm not particularly fond
of the sea. And Muriel assures me she doesn't mind."
"Isn't it at Brethaven that Nick Ratcliffe owns a place?" asked
"Yes. Redlands is the name. I went there once with Will. It's a
beautiful place on the cliff--quite thrown away on Nick, though,
unless he marries, which he never will now."
Grange looked uncomfortable. "It's not my fault," he remarked bluntly.
"No, I know," said Daisy, with a faint echo of her old light laugh.
"Nothing ever was, or could be, your fault, dear old Blake. You're
just unlucky sometimes, aren't you? That's all."
Blake frowned a little. "I play a straight game--generally," he said.
"Yes, dear, but you almost always drive into a bunker," Daisy
insisted. "It's not your fault, as we said before. It's just your
She never flattered Blake. It was perhaps the secret of her charm for
him. To other women he was something of a paladin; to Daisy he was no
more than a man--a man moreover of many weaknesses, each one of which
she knew, each one of which was in a fashion dear to her.
"We will have some tea, shall we?" she said, as he sat silently
digesting her criticism. "I must try and write to Will presently. I
haven't written to him since--since--" She broke off short and began
again. "I got Muriel to write for me once. But he keeps writing by
every mail. I wish he wouldn't."
Grange got up and walked softly to the window. "When do you think of
going back?" he asked.
"I don't know." There was a keen note of irritation in the reply.
Daisy leaned suddenly forward, her fingers locked together. "You
might as well ask me when I think of dying," she said, with abrupt and
Grange remained stationary, not looking at her. "Is it as indefinite
as that?" he asked presently.
"Yes, quite." She spoke recklessly, even defiantly. "Where would be
the use of my going to a place I couldn't possibly live in for more
than four months in the year? Besides--besides--" But again, as if
checked by some potent inner influence, she broke off short. Her
white face quivered suddenly, and she turned it aside. Her hands were
convulsively clenched upon each other.
Her cousin did not move. He seemed to be unaware of her agitation.
Simply with much patience he waited for her end of the sentence.
It came at last in a voice half-strangled. She was making almost
frantic efforts to control herself. "Besides, I couldn't stand
it--yet. I am not strong enough. And he--he wouldn't understand, poor
boy. I think--I honestly think--I am better away from him for the
Blake made no further inquiries. From Daisy's point of view, he seemed
to be standing motionless, but in reality he was quite unconsciously,
though very deliberately, pulling the tassel of the blind-cord to
The clouds had passed, and the sun blazed down full upon him, throwing
his splendid outline into high relief. Every detail of his massive
frame was strongly revealed. There was about him a species of careless
magnificence, wholly apart from arrogance, unfettered, superb.
To Daisy, familiar as she was with every line of him, the sudden
revelation of the sunlight acted like a charm. She had been hiding her
eyes for many days from all light, veiling them in the darkness of her
grief, and the splendour of the man fairly dazzled her. It rushed
upon her, swift, overmastering as a tidal wave, and before it even the
memory of her sorrow grew dim.
Blake, turning at last, met her eyes fixed full upon him with that in
their expression which no man could ignore. She had not expected him
to turn. The movement disconcerted her. With a sharp jerk She averted
her face, seeking to cover that momentary slip, to persuade him
even then, if it were possible, into the belief that he had not seen
But it was too late. That unguarded look of hers had betrayed her,
rending asunder in an instant the veil with which for years she had
successfully baffled him.
In a second he was on his knees beside her, his arms about her,
holding her with a close and passionate insistence.
"Daisy!" he whispered huskily. And again, "Daisy!"
And Daisy turned with a sudden deep sob and hid her face upon his
THE EAGLE CAGED
In spite of Olga's ecstatic welcome, Muriel took her place on the
hockey-field that afternoon with a heavy heart. Her long attendance
upon Daisy had depressed her. But gradually, as the play proceeded,
she began to forget herself and her troubles. The spring air
exhilarated her, and when they returned to the field after a sharp
shower her spirits had risen. She became even childishly gay in the
course of a hotly-contested battle, and the sadness gradually died
out of her eyes. She had grown less shy, less restrained, than of old.
Youth and health, and a dawning, unconscious beauty had sprung to life
upon her face. She was no longer the frightened, bereft child of Simla
days. She no longer hid a monstrous fear in her heart. She had put it
all away from her wisely, resolutely, as a tale that is told.
The wild wind had blown the hair all loose about her face by the time
the last goal was won. Hatless, flushed, and laughing, she drew back
from the fray, Olga, elated by victory, clinging to her arm. It was a
moment of keen triumph, for the fight had been hard, and she enjoyed
it to the full as she stood there with her face to the sudden,
scudding rain. The glow of exercise had braced every muscle. Every
pulse was beating with warm, vigorous life.
She laughed aloud in sheer exultation, a low, merry laugh, and turned
with Olga to march in triumphant procession from the field.
In that instant from a gate a few yards away that led into the road
there sounded the short, imperious note of a motor-horn, repeated many
times in a succession of sharp blasts. Every one stood to view the
intruder with startled curiosity for perhaps five seconds. Then there
came a sudden squeal of rapture from Olga, and in a moment she had
torn her arm free and was gone, darting like a swallow over the turf.
Muriel stood looking after her, but she was as one turned to stone.
She was no longer aware of the children grouped around her. She no
longer saw the fleeting sunshine, or felt the drift of rain in her
face. Something immense and suffocating had closed about her heart.
Her racing pulses had ceased to beat.
A figure familiar to her--a man's figure, unimposing in height,
unremarkable in build, but straight, straight as his own
sword-blade--had bounded from the car and scaled the intervening gate
with monkey-like agility.
He met the child's wild rush with one arm extended; the other--Muriel
frowned sharply, peering with eyes half closed, then uttered a queer
choked sound that had the semblance of a laugh--in place of the other
arm there was an empty sleeve.
Through the rush of the wind she heard his voice.
"Hullo, kiddie, hullo! Hope I don't intrude. I've come over on purpose
to pay my respects."
Olga's answer did not reach her. She was hanging round her hero's
neck, and her head was down upon Nick's shoulder. It seemed to Muriel
that she was crying, but if so, she received scant sympathy from the
object of her solicitude. His cracked, gay laugh rang out across the
"What? Why, yesterday, to be sure. Spent the night in town. No, I know
I didn't. Never meant to. Wanted to steal a march on you all. Why not?
I say, is that--Muriel?"
For the first time he seemed to perceive her, and instantly with a
dexterous movement he had disengaged himself from Olga's clinging arms
and was briskly approaching her. Two of the doctor's boys sprang to
greet him, but he waved them airily aside.
"All right, you chaps, in a minute! Where's Dr. Jim? Go and tell him
And then in a couple of seconds more they were face to face.
Muriel stared at him speechlessly. She felt cold from head to foot.
She had known that he was coming. She had been steeling herself for
weeks to meet him in an armour of conventional reserve. But all her
efforts had come to this. Swift, swift as the wind over wheat, his
coming swept across her new-born confidence. It wavered and bent its
"Does your Excellency deign to remember the least and humblest of her
servants?" queried Nick, with a deep salaam.
The laugh in his tone brought her sharply back to the demand of
circumstance. Before the watching crowd of children, she forced her
white lips to smile in answer, and in a moment she had recovered her
self-possession. She remembered with a quick sense of relief that this
man's power over her belonged to the past alone--to the tale that was
The hand she held out to him was almost steady. "Yes, I remember you,
Nick," she said, with chilly courtesy. "I am sorry you have been ill.
Are you better?"
He made a queer grimace at her words, and for the second that her hand
lay in his, she knew that he looked at her closely, piercingly.
"Thanks--awfully," he said. "As you may have noticed, there is a
little less of me than there used to be. I hope you think it's an
She felt as if he had flung back her conventional sympathy in her
face, and she stiffened instinctively. "I am sorry to see it," she
Nick laughed enigmatically. "I thought you would be. Well, Olga, my
child, what do you mean by growing up like this in my absence? You
used to be just the right size for a kid, and now you are taller than
"I'm not, Nick," the child declared with warmth. "And I never will be,
She slid her arm again round his neck. Her eyes were full of tears.
Nick turned swiftly and bestowed a kiss upon the face which, though
the face of a child, was so remarkably like his own.
"Aren't you going to introduce me to your friends?" he said.
"There's no need," said Olga, hugging him closer. "They all know
Captain Ratcliffe of Wara. Why haven't you got the V.C., Nick, like
"Didn't qualify for it," returned Nick. "You see, I only distinguished
myself by running away. Hullo! It's raining. Just run and tell the
chauffeur to drive round to the house. You can go with him. And take
your friends too. It'll carry you all. I'm going the garden way with
Muriel realised the impossibility of frustrating this plan, though the
last thing in the world that she desired was to be alone with him.
But the distance to the house was not great. As the children scampered
away to the waiting motor-car she moved briskly to leave the field.
Nick walked beside her with his free, elastic swagger. In a few
moments he reached out and took her hockey-stick from her.
"Jove!" he said. "It did me good to see you shoot that goal."
"I had no idea you were watching," she returned stiffly.
He grinned. "No, I saw that. Fun, wasn't it? Like to know what I said
She made no answer, and his grin became a laugh. "I'm sure you would,
so I'll tell you. I said, 'Prayer Number One is granted,' and I ticked
it off the list, and duly acknowledged the same."
Muriel was plainly mystified. He was in the mood that most baffled
her. "I don't know what you mean," she said at last.
Nick swung the hockey-stick idly. His yellow face, for all its
wrinkles, looked peculiarly complacent.
"Let me explain," he said coolly; "I wanted to see you young again,
and--my want has been satisfied, that's all."
Muriel looked sharply away from him, the vivid colour rushing all over
her face. She remembered--and the memory seemed to stab her--a day
long, long ago when she had lain in this man's arms in the extremity
of helpless suffering, and had heard him praying above her head,
brokenly, passionately, for something far different--something from
which she had come to shrink with a nameless, overmastering dread.
She quickened her pace in the silence that followed. The rain was
coming down sharply. Reaching the door that led into the doctor's
walled garden, she stretched out her hand with impetuous haste to push
Instantly, with disconcerting suddenness, Nick dropped the
hockey-stick and swooped upon it like a bird of prey.
"Who gave you that?" he demanded.
He had spied a hoop of diamonds upon her third finger. She could
not see his eyes under the flickering lids, but he held her wrist
forcibly, and it seemed to her that there was a note of savagery in
Her heart beat fast for a few seconds, so fast that she could not find
her voice. Then, almost under her breath, "Blake gave it to me," she
said. "Blake Grange."
"Yes?" said Nick. "Yes?"
Suddenly he looked straight at her, and his eyes were alight, fierce,
glowing. But she felt a curious sense of scared relief, as if he were
behind bars,--an eagle caged, of which she need have no fear.
"We are engaged to be married," she said quietly.
There fell a momentary silence, and a voice cried out in her soul that
she had stabbed him through the bars.
Then in a second Nick dropped her hands and stooped to pick up the
hockey-stick. His face as he stood up again flashed back to its old,
"What ho!" he said lightly. "Then I'm in time to dance at the wedding.
Pray accept my heartiest congratulations!"
Muriel murmured her thanks with her face averted. She was no longer
afraid merely, but strangely, inexplicably ashamed.
THE LION'S SKIN
The news of Nick's return spread like wildfire through the doctor's
house, and the whole establishment assembled to greet him. Jim himself
came striding out into the rain to shake his hand and escort him in.
His "Hullo, you scapegrace!" had in it little of sentiment, but there
was nothing wanting in his welcome in the opinion of the recipient
Nick's rejoinder of "Hullo, you old buffer!" was equally free from any
gloss of eloquence, but he hooked his hand in the doctor's arm as he
made it, and kept it there.
Jim gave him one straight, keen look that took in every detail, but he
made no verbal comment of any sort. His heavy brows drew together for
an instant, that was all.
It was an exceedingly clamorous home-coming. The children, having
arrived in the motor, swarmed all about the returned hero, who was
more than equal to the occasion, and obviously enjoyed his boisterous
reception to the uttermost. There never had been any shyness about
Muriel, standing watching in the background with a queer,
unaccountable pain at her heart, assured herself that the news of
her engagement had meant nothing to him whatever. He had managed
to deceive her as usual. She realised it with burning cheeks, and
ardently wished that she had borne herself more proudly. Well, she was
not wanted here. Even Olga, her faithful and loving admirer, had eyes
only for Nick just then. As for Dr. Jim, he had not even noticed her.
Quietly she stole away from the merry, chattering group. The hall-door
stood open, and she saw that it was raining heavily; but she did not
hesitate. With a haste that was urged from within by something that
was passionate, she ran out hatless into the storm.
The cracked, careless laugh she knew so well pursued her as she went,
and once she fancied that some one called her by name. But she did
not slacken speed to listen. She only dashed on a little faster than
Drenched and breathless, she reached home at length, to be met upon
the threshold by Blake. In her exhaustion she almost fell into his
"Hullo!" he said, steadying her. "You shouldn't run like that. I never
dreamed you would come back in this, or I would have come across with
an umbrella to fetch you."
She sank into a chair in the hall, speechless and gasping, her hair
hanging about her neck in wildest disorder.
Blake stood beside her. He was wearing his worried, moody look.
"You shouldn't," he said again. "It's horribly bad for you."
"Ah, I'm better," she gasped back. "I had to run--all the way--because
of the rain."
"But why didn't you wait?" said Blake. "What were they thinking of to
let you come in this down-pour?"
"They couldn't help it." Muriel raised herself with a great sobbing
sigh. "It was nobody's fault but my own. I wanted to get away. Oh,
Blake, do you know--Nick is here?"
Blake started. "What? Already? Do you mean he is actually in the
She nodded. "He came up in a motor while we were playing. I suppose he
is staying at Redlands, but I don't know. And--and--Blake, he has
lost his left arm. It makes him look so queer." She gave a sudden,
uncontrollable shudder. The old dumb horror looked out of her eyes.
"I thought I shouldn't mind," she said, under her breath. "Perhaps--if
you had been there--it would have been different. As it was--as it
was--" She broke off, rising impetuously to her feet, and laying
trembling hands upon his arms. "Oh, Blake," she whispered, like a
scared child. "I feel so helpless. But you promised--you promised--you
would never let me go."
Yes, he had promised her that. He had sworn it, and, sick at heart,
he remembered that in her eyes at least he was a man of honour. It
had been in his mind to tell her the simple truth, just so far as he
himself was concerned, and thereafter to place himself at her
disposal to act exactly as she should desire. But suddenly this was an
impossibility to him. He realised it with desperate self-loathing.
She trusted him. She looked to him for protection. She leaned upon
his strength. She needed him. He could not--it almost seemed as if in
common chivalry he could not--reveal to her the contemptible weakness
which lay like a withering blight upon his whole nature. To own
himself the slave of a married woman, and that woman her closest
friend, would be to throw her utterly upon her own resources at a
time when she most needed the support and guidance of a helping
hand. Moreover, the episode was over; so at least both he and Daisy
resolutely persuaded themselves. There had been a lapse--a vain and
futile lapse--into the long-cherished idyll of their romance. It
must never recur. It never should recur. It must be covered over
and forgotten as speedily as might be. They had come to their senses
again. They were ready, not only to thrust away the evil that had
dominated them, but to ignore it utterly as though it had never been.
So, rapidly, the man reasoned with himself with the girl's hands
clasping his arm in earnest entreaty, and her eyes of innocence raised
His answer when it came was slow and soft and womanly, but, in her
ears at least, there was nothing wanting in it. She never dreamed that
he was reviling himself for a blackguard even as he uttered it.
"My dear little girl, there is nothing whatever for you to be afraid
of. You're a bit overstrung, aren't you? The man isn't living who
could take you from me."
He patted her shoulder very kindly, soothing her with a patient,
almost fatherly tenderness, and gradually her panic of fear passed.
She leaned against him with a comforting sense of security.
"I can't think how it is I'm so foolish," she told him. "You are good
to me, Blake. I feel so safe when I am with you."
His heart smote him, yet he bent and kissed her. "You're not quite
strong yet, dear," he said. "It takes a long time to get over all that
you had to bear last year."
"Yes," she agreed with a sigh. "And do you know I thought I was
so much stronger than I am? I actually thought that I shouldn't
mind--much--when he came. And yet I did mind--horribly. I--I--told him
about our engagement, Blake."
"Yes, dear," said Blake.
"Yes, I told him. And he laughed and offered his congratulations.
I don't think he cared," said Muriel, again with that curious,
inexplicable sensation of pain at her heart.
"Why should he?" said Blake.
She looked at him with momentary irresolution. "You know, Blake, I
never told you. But I was--I was--engaged to him for about a fortnight
that dreadful time at Simla."
To her relief she marked no change in Blake's courteously attentive
"You need not have told me that, dear," he said quietly.
"No, I know," she answered, pressing his arm. "It wouldn't make any
difference to you. You are too great. And it was always a little bit
against my will. But the breaking with him was terrible--terrible. He
was so angry. I almost thought he would have killed me."
"My dear," Blake said, "you shouldn't dwell on these things. They are
"I know, I know," she answered. "But they are just the very hardest of
all things to forget. You must help me, Blake. Will you?"
"I will help you," he answered steadily.
And the resolution with which he spoke was an unspeakable comfort to
her. Once more there darted across her mind the wonder at her father's
choice for her. How was it--how was it--that he had passed over this
man and chosen Nick?
Blake's own explanation of the mystery seemed to her suddenly weak and
inadequate. She simply could not bring herself to believe that in a
supreme moment he could be found wanting. It was unthinkable that the
giant frame and mighty sinews could belong to a personality that was
lacking in a corresponding greatness.
So she clung to her illusion, finding comfort therein, wholly blind to
those failings in her protector which to the woman who had loved him
from her earliest girlhood were as obvious and well-nigh as precious
as his virtues.
OLD FRIENDS MEET
"I must be getting back," said Nick.
He was sprawling at ease on the sofa in Jim's study, blinking
comfortably at the ceiling, as he made this remark.
Jim himself had just entered the room. He drew up a chair to Nick's
"You will be doing nothing of the sort to-night," he returned, with
a certain grimness. "The motor has gone back to Redlands for your
things. I saw to that an hour ago."
"The deuce you did!" said Nick. He turned slightly to send a shifting
glance over his brother. "That was very officious of you, Jimmy," he
"Very likely," conceded the doctor. "I have to be officious
occasionally. And if you think that I mean to let you out of my sight
in your present state of health, you make a big mistake. No, lie
still, I tell you! You're like a monkey on wires. Lie still! Do you
hear me, Nick?"
Nick's feet were already on the ground, but he did not rise. He sat
motionless, as if weighing some matter in his mind.
"I can't stay with you, Jimmy," he said at last. "I'll spend to-night
of course with all the pleasure in the world. But I'm going back to
Redlands to-morrow. I have a fancy for sleeping in my own crib just
now. Come over and see me as often as you feel inclined, the oftener
the better. And if you care to bring your science to bear upon all
that is left of this infernally troublesome member of mine, I shall be
charmed to let you. You may vivisect me to your heart's content. But
don't ask me to be an in-patient, for it can't be done. There are
Jim frowned at him. "Do you know what will happen if you don't take
care of yourself?" he said brusquely. "You'll die."
Nick burst into a laugh, and lay back on the cushions. "I was driven
out of India by that threat," he said. "It's getting a bit stale.
You needn't be afraid. I'm not going to die at present. I'll take
reasonable precautions to prevent it. But I won't stay here, that's
flat. I tell you, man, I can't."
He glanced again at Jim, and, finding the latter closely watching him,
abruptly shut his eyes.
"I'm going to open Redlands," he said, "and I will have Olga to come
and keep house for me. It'll be good practice for her. I'll take her
back with me to-morrow, if you have no objection."
"Fine mischief you'll get up to, the pair of you," grumbled Jim.
"Very likely," said Nick cheerily. "But we shan't come to any harm,
either of us. To begin with, I shall make her wait on me, hand and
foot. She'll like that, and so shall I."
"Yes, you'll spoil her thoroughly." said Jim. "And I shall have the
pleasure of breaking her in afterwards."
Nick laughed again. "What an old tyrant you are! But you needn't be
afraid of that. I'll make her do as she's told. I'm particularly good
at that. Ask Muriel Roscoe."
Jim's frown deepened. "You know of that girl's engagement to Grange, I
Nick did not trouble to open his eyes. "Oh, rather! She took care that
I should. I gave her my blessing."
"Well, I don't like it," said Jim plainly.
"What's the matter with him?" questioned Nick.
"Nothing that I know of. But she isn't in love with him."
Nick's eyelids parted a little, showing a glint between. "You funny
old ass!" he murmured affectionately.
Jim leaned forward and looked at him hard.
"Quite so," said Nick in answer, closing his eyes again. "But you
don't by any chance imagine she's in love with me, do you? You know
how a woman looks at a worm she has chopped in half by mistake? That's
how Muriel Roscoe looked at me to-day when she expressed her regret
for my mishap."
"She wouldn't do that for nothing," observed Jim, with a hint of
"She wouldn't," Nick conceded placidly.
"Then why the devil did you ever give her reason?" Jim spoke with
unusual warmth. Muriel was a favourite of his.
But he obtained scant satisfaction notwithstanding.
"Ask the devil," said Nick flippantly. "I never was good at
It was a tacit refusal to discuss the matter, and as such Jim accepted
He turned from the subject with a grunt of discontent. "Well, if I am
to undertake your case, you had better let me look at you. But we'll
have a clean understanding first, mind, that you obey my orders. I
won't be responsible otherwise."
Nick opened his eyes with a chuckle. "I'll do anything under the sun
to please you, Jimmy," he said generously. "When did you ever find me
hard to manage?"
"You've given me plenty of trouble at one time and another," Jim said
"And shall again before I die," laughed Nick, as he submitted to his
brother's professional handling. "There's plenty of kick left in me.
By the way, tell me what you think about Daisy. I must call on her
to-morrow before I leave."
This intention, however, was not fulfilled, for Daisy herself came
early to the doctor's house to visit him. Far from well though she
was, she made the effort as a matter of course. Nick was too near a
friend to neglect. Blake did not accompany her. He was riding with
She found Nick stretched out in luxurious idleness on a couch in
the sunshine. He made a movement to spring to meet her, but checked
himself with a laugh.
"This is awfully good of you, Daisy. I was coming to see you later,
but I'm nailed to this confounded sofa for the next two hours, having
solemnly sworn to Jim that nothing short of battle, murder or sudden
death should induce me to move. I'm afraid I can't reasonably describe
your coming as any of these, so I must remain a fixture. It's Jimmy's
He reached out his hand to Daisy, who took it in both her own. "My
poor dear Nick!" she said, and stooping impulsively kissed him on the
"Bless you!" said Nick. "I'm ten times better for that. Sit down here,
won't you? Pull up close. I've got a lot to say."
Of sympathy for her recent bereavement, however, he said no word
whatever. He only held her hand.
"There's poor old Will," he said: "I spent the night with him on my
way down. He's beastly homesick--sent all sorts of messages to you.
You'll be going out in the winter?"
"It depends," said Daisy.
"He's breaking his heart for you, like a silly ass," said Nick. "How
long has Muriel been engaged to Grange?"
Daisy started at the sudden question.
"It's all right," Nick assured her. "I'm not a bit savage. It'll be a
little experience for her. When did it begin?"
Daisy hesitated. "Some weeks ago now."
Nick nodded. "Exactly. As soon as she heard I was coming. Funny of
her. And what of Grange? Is he smitten?"
Daisy flushed painfully, and tried to laugh. "Don't be so
cold-blooded, Nick. Of course he--he's fond of her."
"Oh, he--he's fond of her, is he?" said Nick. He looked at her
suddenly, and laughed with clenched teeth. "I'm infernally rude, I
know. But why put it in that way? Should you say I was 'fond' of her?"
Daisy met his darting, elusive glance with a distinct effort. "I
shouldn't say you were fond of any one, Nick. The term doesn't
apply where you are concerned. There never were two men more totally
different than you and Blake. But he isn't despicable for all that.
He's a child compared to you, but he's a good child. He would never do
wrong unless some one tempted him."
"That's so with a good many of us," remarked Nick, sneering faintly.
"Let us hope that when the account comes to be totted up, allowance
will be made."
Daisy's hand upon his banished the sneer. "Be fair, Nick," she urged.
"We are not all made with wills of iron. I know you are bitter because
you think he isn't good enough for her. But would you think any man
good enough? Don't think I wanted this. I was on your side. But I--I
was busy at the time with--other things. And I didn't see it coming."
Nick's face softened. He said nothing.
She bent towards him. "I would have given anything to have stopped it
when I knew. But it was too late. Will you forgive me, Nick?"
He patted her hand lightly. "Of course, of course. Don't fret on my
"But I do," she whispered vehemently. "I do. I know--how horribly--it
Nick's fingers closed suddenly upon hers. His eyes went beyond her.
"Mrs. Musgrave," he said, "I am gifted with a superhuman intelligence,
remember. I know some cards by their backs."
Daisy withdrew her hand swiftly. His tone had been one of warning.
She threw him a look of sharp uneasiness. She did not ask him what he
"Tell me some more about Will," she said. "I was thinking of writing
to him to-day."
And Nick forthwith plunged into a graphic account of the man who was
slaving night and day in the burning Plains of the East for the woman
of his heart.
AN OFFER OF FRIENDSHIP
It was with unspeakable relief that Muriel learned of Nick's
departure. That he had elected to take Olga with him surprised her
considerably and caused her some regret. Grange had discovered some
urgent business that demanded his presence in town, and she missed the
child in consequence more than she would otherwise have done.
Daisy was growing stronger, and was beginning to contemplate a change,
moved at last by Jim Ratcliffe's persistent urging. There was a
cottage at Brethaven which, he declared, would suit her exactly.
Muriel raised no objection to the plan. She knew it would be for
Daisy's benefit, but her heart sank whenever she thought of it. She
was glad when early in June Blake came back to them for a few days
before starting on a round of visits.
He approved of the Brethaven plan warmly, and he and Muriel rode over
one morning to the little seaside village to make arrangements. Muriel
said no more to him upon the subject of Nick. On this one point
she had come to know that it was vain to look for sympathy. He had
promised to help her indeed, but he simply did not understand
her nervous shrinking from the man. Moreover, Nick had made it so
abundantly evident that he had no intention of thrusting himself upon
her that there could be no ground for fear on that score. Besides, was
not her engagement her safeguard?
As for Blake, her silence upon the matter made him hope that she was
getting over her almost childish panic. With all the goodwill in the
world, he could not see that his presence as watch-dog was required.
Yet, as they turned from the cottage on the shore with their errand
accomplished, he did say after some hesitation, "Of course, if for
any reason you should want me when I am away, you must let me know. I
would come at once."
She thanked him with a heightened colour, and he had a feeling that
his allusion had been unwelcome. They rode up from the beach in
Turning a sharp corner towards the village where they proposed to
lunch, they came suddenly upon a motor stationary by the roadside.
A whoop of cheery recognition greeted them before either of them
realised that it was occupied, and they discovered Nick seated on the
step, working with his one hand at the foot-brake. Olga was with him,
endeavouring to assist.
Nick's face grinned welcome impartially to the newcomers. "Hullo! This
is luck. Delighted to see you. Grange, my boy, here's a little job
exactly suited to your Herculean strength. Climb down like a good
fellow, and lend a hand."
Grange glanced at Muriel, and with a slight shrug handed her his
bridle. "I'm not much good at this sort of thing," he remarked, as he
"Never thought you were for a moment," responded Nick. "But I suppose
you can do as you're told at a pinch. This filthy thing has got
jammed. It's too tough a job for a single-handed pigmy like me." He
glanced quizzically up at Muriel with the last remark, but she quickly
averted her eyes, bending to speak to Olga at the same instant.
Olga was living in the seventh heaven just then, and her radiant face
proclaimed it. "I'm learning to drive," she told Muriel. "It's the
greatest fun. You would just love it. I know you would." She stood
fondling the horses and chattering while the two men wrestled with the
motor's internal arrangements, and Muriel longed desperately to give
her animal the rein and flee away from the mocking sprite that gibed
at her from Nick's eyes. Whence came it, this feeling of insecurity,
this perpetual sense of fighting against the inevitable? She had
fancied that Blake's presence would be her safeguard, but now she
bitterly realised that it made no difference to her. He stood as it
were outside the ropes, and was powerless to intervene.
Suddenly she saw them stand up. The business was done. They stood for
a second side by side--Blake gigantic, well-proportioned, splendidly
strong; Nick, meagre, maimed, almost shrunken, it seemed. But in that
second she knew with unerring conviction that the greater fighter of
the two was the man against whom she had pitted her quivering woman's
strength. She knew at a single glance that for all his bodily weakness
Nick possessed the power to dominate even so mighty a giant as Blake.
What she had said to herself many a time before, she said again. He
was abnormal, superhuman even; more--where he chose to exert himself,
he was irresistible.
The realisation went through her, sharp and piercing, horribly
distinct. She had sought shelter like a frightened rabbit in the
densest cover she could find, but, crouching low, she heard the rush
of the remorseless wings above her. She knew that at any moment he
could rend her refuge to pieces and hold her at his mercy.
Abruptly he left Blake and came to her side. "I want you and Grange to
come to Redlands for luncheon," he said. "Olga is hostess there. Don't
"Oh, do come!" urged Olga, dancing eagerly upon one leg. "You've never
been to Redlands, have you? It's such a lovely place. Say you'll come,
Muriel scarcely heard her. She was looking down into Nick's face,
seeking, seeking for the hundredth time, to read that baffling mask.
"Don't refuse," he said again. "You'll get nothing but underdone chops
at the inn here, and I can't imagine that to be a weakness of yours."
She gave up her fruitless search. "I will come," she said.
"It's exactly as you like, you know, Muriel," Grange put in awkwardly.
She understood the precise meaning of Nick's laugh. She even for a
moment wanted to laugh herself. "Thank you. I should like to," she
Nick nodded and turned aside. "Olga, stop capering," he ordered, "and
drive me home."
Olga obeyed him promptly, with the gaiety of a squirrel. As Nick
seated himself by her side, Muriel saw her turn impulsively and rub
her cheek against his shoulder. It gave her a queer little tingling
shock to see the child's perfect confidence in him. But then--but
then--Olga had never looked on horror, had never seen the devil leap
out in naked fury upon her hero's face.
They waited to let the car go first, Olga proudly grasping the wheel;
then, trotting briskly, followed in its wake.
Muriel had an uneasy feeling that Blake wanted to apologise, and she
determined that he should not have the opportunity. Each time that
he gave any sign of wishing to draw nearer to her, she touched her
horse's flank. Something in the nature of a revelation had come to
her during that brief halt by the roadside. For the first time she
had caught a glimpse, plain and unvarnished, of the actual man that
inhabited the giant's frame, and it had given her an odd, disturbing
suspicion that the strength upon which she leaned was in simple fact
scarcely equal to her own.
The way to Redlands lay through leafy woodlands through which here
and there the summer sea gleamed blue. Turning in at the open gates,
Muriel uttered an exclamation of delight. She seemed to have suddenly
entered fairyland. The house, long, low, rambling, roofed with thatch,
stood at the end of a winding drive that was bordered on both sides
by a blaze of rhododendron flowers. Down below her on the left was a
miniature glen from which arose the tinkle of running water. On her
right the trees grew thickly, completely shutting out the road.
"Oh, Blake!" she exclaimed. "What a perfect paradise!"
"Like it?" said Nick; and with a start she saw him coolly step out
from a shadowy path behind them and close the great iron gate.
Impulsively she pulled up and slipped to the ground. "Take my horse,
Blake," she said. "I must run down to that stream."
He obeyed her, not very willingly, and Nick with a chuckle turned and
plunged after her down the narrow path. "Go straight ahead!" he called
back. "Olga is waiting for you at the house."
He came up with Muriel on the edge of the fairy stream. Her face was
flushed and her eyes nervous, but she met him bravely. She had known
in her heart that he would follow. As he stopped beside her, she
turned with a little desperate laugh and held out her hand.
"Is it peace?" she said rather breathlessly.
She felt his fingers, tense as wire, close about her own. "Seems like
it," he said. "What are you afraid of? Me?"
She could not meet his look. But the necessity for some species of
understanding pressed upon her. She wanted unspeakably to conciliate
"I want to be friends with you, Nick," she said, "if you will let me."
"What for?" said Nick sharply.
She was silent. She could not tell him that her sure defence had
crumbled at a touch. Somehow she was convinced that he knew it
"You never wanted such a thing before," he said. "You certainly
weren't hankering after it the last time we met."
Her cheeks burned at the memory. Again she felt ashamed. With a great
effort she forced herself to speak with a certain frankness.
"I am afraid," she said--"I have thought since--that I was rather
heartless that day. The fact was, I was taken by surprise. But I am
sorry now, Nick. I am very sorry."
Her tone was unconsciously piteous. Surely he must see that if they
were to meet often, as inevitably they must, some sort of agreement
between them was imperative. She must feel stable ground beneath her
feet. Their intercourse could not be one perpetual passage of arms.
Flesh and blood could never endure it.
But Nick did not apparently view the matter in the same light. "Pray
don't be sorry," he airily begged her. "I quite understood. I never
take offence where none is intended, and not always where it is. So
dismiss the matter from your mind with all speed. There is not the
smallest occasion for regret."
He meant to elude her, she saw, and she turned from him without
another word. There was to be no understanding then, no friendly
feeling, no peace of mind. She had trusted to his generosity, and it
was quite clear that he had no intention of being generous.
As they walked by a mossy pathway towards the house, they talked upon
indifferent things. But the girl's heart was very bitter within
her. She would have given almost anything to have flung back his
hospitality in his grinning, triumphant face, and have departed with
her outraged pride to the farthest corner of the earth.
THE EAGLE HOVERS
Luncheon in the low, old-fashioned dining-room at Redlands with its
windows facing the open sea, with Olga beaming at the head of the
table, would have been a peaceful and pleasant meal, had Muriel's
state of mind allowed her to enjoy it. But Nick's treatment of her
overture had completely banished all enjoyment for her. She forced
herself to eat and to appear unconcerned, but she was quivering
inwardly with a burning sense of resentment. She was firmly determined
that she would never be alone with him again. He had managed by those
few scoffing words of his to arouse in her all the bitterness of which
she was capable. If she had feared him before, she hated him now with
the whole force of her nature.
He seemed to be blissfully unconscious of her hostility and played the
part of host with complete ease of manner. Long before the meal was
over, Grange had put aside his sullenness, and they were conversing
together as comrades.
Nick had plenty to say. He spoke quite openly of his illness, and
declared himself to have completely recovered from it. "Even Jim has
ceased his gruesome threats," he said cheerily. "There will be no more
lopping of branches this season. Just as well, for I chance to have
developed an affection for what is left."
"You're going back to the Regiment, I suppose?" Blake questioned.
"No, he isn't," thrust in Olga, and was instantly frowned upon by
"Speak when you're spoken to, little girl! That's a question you are
not qualified to answer. I'm on half-pay at present, and I haven't
made up my mind."
"I should quit in your place," Grange remarked, with his eyes on the
"No doubt you would," Nick responded dryly. "And what should you
The question was unexpected, but she had herself in hand, and answered
it instantly. "I certainly shouldn't advise you to quit."
He raised his eyebrows. "Might one ask why?"
She was quite ready for him, inspired by an overmastering longing
to hurt him if that were possible. "Because if you gave up your
profession, you would be nothing but a vacuum. If the chance to
destroy life were put out of your reach, you would simply cease to
She spoke rapidly, her voice pitched very low. She was trembling all
over, and her hands were clenched under the table to hide it.
The laugh with which Nick received her words jarred intolerably upon
her. She heard nothing in it but deliberate cruelty.
"Great Lucifer!" he said. "You have got me under the microscope with
a vengeance. But you can't see through me, you know. I have a reverse
side. Hadn't you better turn me over and look at that? There may be
sorcery and witchcraft there as well."
There might be. She could well have imagined it. But these were lesser
things in which she had no concern. She turned his thrust aside with
"I am not sufficiently interested," she said. "The little I know is
"Well hit!" chuckled Nick. "I retire from the fray, discomfited. Olga
_mia_, I wish you would find the cigars. You know where they are."
Olga sprang to do his bidding. Having handed the box to Grange she
came to Nick and stood beside him while she cut and lighted a cigar
He put his arm round her for a moment, and she stooped a flushed face
and kissed the top of his head.
"Run along," said Nick. "Take Muriel into the garden. She hasn't seen
Muriel rose. "We mustn't be late in starting back," she remarked to
But Olga lingered to whisper vehemently in Nick's ear.
He laughed and shook his head. "Go, child, go! You don't know anything
about it. And Muriel is waiting. You should never keep a guest
Olga went reluctantly. They passed out into the clear June sunshine
together and down towards the shady shrubberies beyond the lawns.
"Can Nick play tennis?" Muriel asked, as they crossed a marked-out
"Yes, he can do anything," the child said proudly. "He was on
horseback this morning, and he managed splendidly. We generally
play tennis in the evening. He almost always wins. His services are
terrific. I can't think how he does it. He calls it juggling. I try to
manage with only one hand sometimes--just to keep him company--but I
always make a mess of things. There's no one in the world as clever as
Muriel felt inclined to agree with her, though in her opinion this
distinguishing quality was not an altogether admirable one. She
infinitely preferred people with fewer brains. She would not, however,
say this to Olga, and they paced on together under the trees in
silence. Suddenly a warm hand slid within her arm, and Olga's grey
eyes, very loving and wistful, looked up into hers.
"Muriel darling," she whispered softly, "don't you--don't you--like
Nick after all?"
The colour rushed over Muriel's face in a vivid flood.
"Like him! Like him!" she stammered. "Why do you ask?"
"Because, dear--don't be vexed, I love you frightfully--you did hurt
him so at lunch," explained Olga, pressing very close to her.
"Hurt him! Hurt him!" Again Muriel repeated her words, then,
recovering sharply, broke into a sudden laugh. "My dear child, I
couldn't possibly do such a thing if I tried."
"But you did, you did!" persisted Olga, a faint note of indignation in
her voice. "You don't know Nick. He feels--tremendously. Of course
you might not see it, for it doesn't often show. But I know--I always
know--when he is hurt, by the way he laughs. And he was hurt to-day."
She stuck firmly to her point, notwithstanding Muriel's equally
persistent attitude of incredulity, till even Muriel was conscious at
last in her inner soul of a faint wonder, a dim and wholly negligible
sense of regret. Not that she would under any circumstances have
recalled that thrust of hers. She felt it had been dealt in fair
fight; but even in fair fight there come sometimes moments of regret,
when one feels that the enemy's hand has been intentionally slack. She
knew well that, had he chosen, Nick might have thrust back, instantly
and disconcertingly, as his manner was. But he had refrained, merely
covering up his wound--if wound there had been--with the laugh that
had so wrung Olga's loving heart. His ways were strange. She would
never understand him. But she would like to have known how deep that
thrust had gone.
Could she have overheard the conversation between Nick and his
remaining guest that followed her departure, she might have received
enlightenment on this point, but Nick took very good care to ensure
that that conversation should be overheard by none.
As soon as Grange had finished his coffee, he proposed a move to the
library, and led the way thither, leaving his own drink untouched
The library was a large and comfortable apartment completely shut
away from the rest of the house, and singularly ill-adapted for
eavesdroppers. The windows looked upon a wide stretch of lawn upon
which even a bird could scarcely have lingered unnoticed. The light
that filtered in through green sun-blinds was cool and restful. An
untidy writing-table and a sofa strewn with cushions in disorderly
attitudes testified to the fact that Nick had appropriated this room
for his own particular den. There was also a sun-bonnet tossed upon a
chair which seemed to indicate that Olga at least did not regard his
privacy as inviolable. The ancient brown volumes stacked upon shelves
that ranged almost from floor to ceiling were comfortably undisturbed.
It was plainly a sanctum in which ease and not learning ruled supreme.
Nick established his visitor in an easy-chair and hunted for an
ash-tray. Grange watched him uncomfortably.
"I'm awfully sorry about your arm, Ratcliffe," he said at length. "A
filthy bit of bad luck that."
"Damnable," said Nick.
"I've been meaning to look you up for a long time," Grange proceeded,
"but somehow it hasn't come off."
Nick laughed rather dryly. He was perfectly well aware that Grange had
been steadily avoiding him ever since his return. "Very good of you,"
he said, subsiding upon the sofa and pulling the cushions about him.
"I've been saving up my congratulations for you all these weeks. I
might have written, of course, but I had a notion that the spoken word
would be more forcible."
Grange stirred uneasily, neither understanding nor greatly relishing
Nick's tone. He wished vehemently that he would leave the subject
Nick, however, had no such intention. A faint fiendish smile was
twitching the corners of his lips. He did not even glance in Blake's
direction. There was no need.
"Well, I wish you joy," he said lightly.
"Thank you," returned Grange, without elation and with very little
gratitude. In some occult fashion, Nick was making it horribly awkward
for him. He longed to change the subject, but could find nothing to
say--possibly because Nick quite obviously had not yet done with it.
"Going to get married before you sail?" he asked abruptly.
"I don't think so." Very reluctantly Grange made reply.
"Why not?" said Nick.
"Muriel doesn't want to be married till she is out of mourning,"
"Why doesn't she go out of mourning then?"
Grange didn't know, hadn't even thought of it.
"Perhaps she will elect to wear mourning all her life," suggested
Nick. "Have you thought of that?"
There was a distinct gibe in this, and Grange at once retreated to a
less exposed position. "I am quite willing to wait for her," he said.
"And she knows it."
"You're deuced easily pleased then," rejoined Nick. "And let me tell
you--for I'm sure you don't know--there's not a single woman under the
sun who appreciates that sort of patience."
Grange ignored the information with a decidedly sullen air. He did
not regard Nick as particularly well qualified to give him advice upon
such a subject.
After a moment Nick saw his attitude, and laughed aloud. "Yes, say it,
man! It's quite true in a sense, and I shouldn't contradict you if it
weren't. But has it never occurred to you that I was under a terrific
disadvantage from the very beginning? Do you remember that I undertook
the job that you shirked? Or do you possibly present the matter to
yourself--and others--in some more attractive form?"
He turned upon his elbow with the question and regarded Grange with an
odd expectancy. But Grange smoked in silence, not raising his eyes.
Suddenly Nick spoke in a different tone, a tone that was tense without
vibrating. "It doesn't matter how you put it. The truth remains.
You didn't love her then. If you had loved her, you must have been
ready--as I was ready--to make the final sacrifice. But you were not
ready. You hung back. You let me take the place which only a man who
cared enough to protect her to the uttermost could have taken. You
let me do this thing, and I did it. I brought her through untouched. I
kept her--night and day I kept her--from harm of any sort. And she has
been my first care ever since. You won't believe this, I daresay, but
it's true. And--mark this well--I will only let her go to the man who
will make her happy. Once I meant to be that man. You don't suppose,
do you, that I brought her safe through hell just for the pleasure of
seeing her marry another fellow? But it's all the same now what I did
it for. I've been knocked out of the running." His eyelids suddenly
quivered as if at a blow. "It doesn't matter to you how. It wasn't
because she fancied any one else. She hadn't begun to think of you
in those days. I let her go, never mind why. I let her go, but she is
still in my keeping, and will be till she is the actual property of
another man--yes, and after that too. I saved her, remember. I won the
right of guardianship over her. So be careful what you do. Marry her
if you love her. But if you don't, leave her alone. She shall be no
man's second best. That I swear."
He ceased abruptly. His yellow face was full of passion. His hand was
clenched upon the sofa-cushion. The whole body of the man seemed to
thrill and quiver with electric force.
And then in a moment it all passed. As at the touching of a spring his
muscles relaxed. The naked passion was veiled again--the old mask of
He stretched out his hand to the man who had sat in silence and
listened to that one fierce outburst of a force which till then had
"I speak as a fool," he said lightly. "Nothing new for me, you'll say.
But just for my satisfaction--because she hates me so--put your hand
in mine and swear you will seek her happiness before everything else
in the world. I shall never trouble you again after this fashion. I
Blake sat for several seconds without speaking. Then, as if impelled
thereto, he leaned slowly forward and laid his hand in Nick's. He
seemed to have something to say, but it did not come.
"I swear," Blake said at length.
His voice was low, and he did not attempt to look Nick in the face,
but he obviously meant what he said.
And Nick seemed to be satisfied. In less than five seconds, he had
tossed the matter carelessly aside as one having no further concern in
it. But the memory of that interview was as a searing flame to Blake's
soul for long after.
For he knew that the man from whom Muriel had sought his protection
was more worthy of her than he, and his heart cried bitter shame upon
him for that knowledge.
It was with considerable difficulty that he responded to Nick's airy
nothings during the half-hour that followed, and the unusual alacrity
with which he seized upon his host's suggestion that he might care
to see the garden, testified to his relief at being released from the
obligation of doing so.
They went out together on to the wide lawn and sauntered down to a
summer-house on the edge of the cliff, overlooking the whole mighty
expanse of sea. It lay dreaming in the sunlight, with hardly a ripple
upon the long white beach below. And here they came upon Muriel and
Olga, sitting side by side on the grass.
Olga had just finished pulling a daisy to pieces. She tossed it away
at Nick's approach, and sprang to meet him.
"It's very disappointing," she declared. "It's the fourth time I've
done it, and it always comes the same. I've been making the daisies
tell Muriel's fortune, and it always comes to 'He would if he could,
but he can't.' You try this time, Nick."
"All right. You hold the daisy," said Nick.
Muriel looked up with a slightly heightened colour. "I think we ought
to be going," she remarked.
"We have just ordered the horses for four o'clock," Grange said
She glanced at the watch on her wrist--half-past three. Nick, seated
cross-legged on the grass in front of her, had already, with Olga's
able assistance, begun his game.
Swiftly the tiny petals fell from his fingers. He was very intent,
and in spite of herself Muriel became intent too, held by a most
unaccountable fascination. So handicapped was he that he could not
even pull a flower to pieces without assistance. And yet--
Suddenly he looked across at her. "He loves her!" he announced.
"Oh, Nick!" exclaimed Olga reproachfully. "You cheated! You pulled off
"He usually does cheat," Muriel observed, plucking a flower of grass
and regarding it with absorption.
"So do you," retorted Nick unexpectedly.
"I!" She looked at him in amazement. "What do you mean?"
"I sha'n't tell you," he returned, "because you know, or you would
know if you took the trouble to find out. Grange, I wish you would
give me a light. Hullo, Olga, there's a hawk! See him? Straight above
All turned to look at the dark shape of the bird hovering in mid-air.
Seconds passed. Suddenly there was a flashing, downward swoop, and the
sky was empty.
Olga exclaimed, and Nick sent up a wild whoop of applause. Muriel gave
a great start and glanced at him. For a single instant his look met
hers; then with a sick shudder, she turned aside.
"You are cold," said Grange.
Yes, she was cold. It was as if an icy hand had closed upon her heart.
As from an immense distance, she heard Olga's voice of protest.
"Oh, Nick, how can you cheer?"
And his careless reply. "My good child, don't grudge the poor creature
his dinner. Even a bird of prey must live. Come along! We'll go in to
tea. Muriel is cold."
They went in, and again his easy hospitality overcame all
When at length the visitors rode away, they left him grinning a cheery
farewell from his doorstep. He seemed to be in the highest spirits.
They were more than half-way home when Muriel turned impetuously to
her companion, breaking a long silence.
"Blake," she said, "I am ready to marry you as soon as you like."
THE FACE IN THE STORM
Muriel saw very little of her _fiance_ during the weeks that followed
their visit to Redlands. There was not indeed room for him at the
cottage at Brethaven which she and Daisy had taken for the summer
months. He had, moreover, several visits to pay, and his leave would
be up in September.
Muriel herself, having once made her decision, had plenty to occupy
her. They had agreed to adhere to Sir Reginald Bassett's plan for
them, and to be married in India some time before Christmas. But she
did not want to go to Lady Bassett's sister before she left England,
and she was glad when Daisy declared that she herself would go to town
with her in the autumn.
A change had come over Daisy of late, a change which Muriel keenly
felt, but which she was powerless to define. It seemed to date from
the arrival of Nick though she did not definitely connect it with him.
There was nothing palpable in it, nothing even remotely suggestive
of a breach between them; only, subconsciously as it were, Muriel had
become aware that their silence, which till then had been the silence
of sympathy, had subtly changed till it had become the silence of a
deep though unacknowledged reserve. It was wholly intangible, this
change. No outsider would have guessed of its existence. But to the
younger girl it was always vaguely present. She knew that somewhere
between herself and her friend there was a locked door. Her own
reserve never permitted her to attempt to open it. With a species of
pride that was largely composed of shyness, she held aloof. But she
was never quite unconscious of the opposing barrier. She felt that the
old sweet intimacy, that had so lightened the burden of her solitude,
Meanwhile, Daisy was growing stronger, and day by day more active. She
never referred to her baby, and very seldom to her husband. When his
letters arrived she invariably put them away with scarcely a glance.
Muriel sometimes wondered if she even read them. It was pitifully
plain to her that Will Musgrave's place in his wife's heart was very,
very narrow. It had dwindled perceptibly since the baby's death.
On the subject of Will's letters, Nick could have enlightened her, for
he always appeared at the cottage on mail-day for news. But Muriel,
having discovered this habit, as regularly absented herself, with the
result that they seldom met. He never made any effort to see her. On
one occasion when she came unexpectedly upon him and Olga, shrimping
along the shore, she was surprised that he did not second the child's
eager proposal that she should join them. He actually seemed too keen
upon the job in hand to pay her much attention.
And gradually she began to perceive that this was the attitude towards
her that he had decided to assume. What it veiled she knew not, nor
did she inquire. It was enough for her that hostilities had ceased.
Nick apparently was bestowing his energies elsewhere.
Midsummer passed, and a July of unusual heat drew on. Dr. Jim and his
wife and boys had departed to Switzerland. Nick and Olga had elected
to remain at Redlands. They were out all day long in the motor or
dogcart, on horseback or on foot. Life was one perpetual picnic to
Olga just then, and she was not looking forward to the close of the
summer holidays when, so her father had decreed, she was to return to
her home and the ordinary routine. Nick's plans were still unsettled
though he spoke now and then of a prospective return to India. He must
in any case return thither, so he once told her, whether he decided
to remain or not. It was not a pleasant topic to Olga, and she always
sought to avoid any allusion to it. After the fashion of children, she
lived in the present, and enjoyed it to the full: bathing with
Muriel every morning, and spending the remainder of the day in Nick's
society. The friendship between these two was based upon complete
understanding. They had been comrades as long as Olga could remember.
Given Nick, it was very seldom that she desired any one besides.
Muriel had ceased to marvel over this strange fact. She had come to
realise that Nick was, and always must be, an enigma to her. In
the middle of July, when the heat was so intense as to be almost
intolerable, Daisy received a pressing invitation to visit an old
friend, and to go yachting on the Broads. She refused it at first
point-blank; but Muriel, hearing of the matter before the letter was
sent, interfered, and practically insisted upon a change of decision.
"It is the very thing for you," she declared. "Brethaven has done
its best for you. But you want a dose of more bracing air to make you
quite strong again. It's absurd of you to dream of throwing away such
an opportunity. I simply won't let you do it."
"But how can I possibly leave you all alone?" Daisy protested. "If the
Ratcliffes were at home, I might think of it, but--"
"That settles it," Muriel announced with determination. "I never heard
such nonsense in my life. What do you think could possibly happen
to me here? You know perfectly well that a couple of weeks of my own
society would do me no harm whatever."
So insistent was she, that finally she gained her point, and Daisy,
albeit somewhat reluctantly, departed for Norfolk, leaving her to her
The heat was so great in those first days of solitude that Muriel was
not particularly energetic. Apart from her early swim with Olga, and
an undeniably languid stroll in the evening, she scarcely left the
precincts of the cottage: No visitors came to her. There were none but
fisher-folk in the little village. And so her sole company consisted
of Daisy's _ayah_ and the elderly English cook.
But she did not suffer from loneliness. She had books and work in
plenty, and it was even something of a relief, though she never owned
it, to be apart from Daisy for a little. They never disagreed, but
always at the back of her mind there lay the consciousness of a gulf
She was at first somewhat anxious lest Nick should feel called upon
to entertain her, and should invite her to accompany him and Olga upon
some of their expeditions. But he did not apparently think of it, and
she was always very emphatic in assuring Olga that she was enjoying
her quiet time.
She and Nick had not met for some weeks, and she began to think it
more than probable that they would not do so during Daisy's absence.
Under ordinary circumstances this expectation of hers would doubtless
have been realised, for Nick had plainly every intention of keeping
out of her way; but the day of emergency usually dawns upon a world of
The brooding heat culminated at last in an evening of furious storm,
and Muriel speedily left the dinner-table to watch the magnificent
spectacle of vivid and almost continuous lightning over the sea.
It was a wonder that always drew her. She did not feel the nervous
oppression that torments so many women, or if she felt it she rose
above it. The splendour of the rising storm lifted her out of herself.
She had no thought for anything else.
For more than half an hour she stood by the little sitting-room
window, gazing out upon the storm-tossed water. It had not begun to
rain, but the sound of it was in the air, and the earth was waiting
expectantly. There seemed to be a feeling of expectation everywhere.
She was vaguely restless under it, curiously impatient for the climax.
It came at last, so suddenly, so blindingly, that she reeled back
against the curtain in sheer, physical recoil. The whole sky seemed to
burst into flame, and the crash of thunder was so instantaneous that
she felt as if a shell had exploded at her feet. Trembling, she hid
her face. The world seemed to rock all around her. For the first time
she was conscious of fear.
Then as the thunder died into a distant roar, the heavens opened as if
at a word of command, and in one marvellous, glittering sheet the rain
She lifted her head to gaze upon this new wonder that the incessant
lightning revealed. The noise was like the sharp rattle of musketry,
and it almost drowned the heavier artillery overhead. The window was
blurred and streaming, but the brilliance outside was such that every
detail in the little garden was clear to her notwithstanding. And
though she still trembled, she nerved herself to look forth.
An instant later she sprang backwards with a wild cry of terror.
A face--a wrinkled face that she knew--was there close against the
window-pane, and had looked into her own.
THE LIFTING OF THE MASK
Out of a curious numbness that had almost been a swoon there came to
her the consciousness of a hand that rapped and rapped and rapped
upon the pane. She had fled away to the farther end of the room in her
panic. She had turned the lamp low at the beginning of the storm, and
now it burned so dimly that it scarcely gave out any light at all.
Beyond the window, the lightning flashed with an awful luridness
upon the rushing hail. Beyond the window, looking in upon her, and
knocking, knocking, knocking, stood the figure of her dread.
She came to herself slowly, with a quaking heart. It was more horrible
to her than anything she had known since the days of her flight
from the beleaguered fort; but she knew that she must fight down her
horror, she knew as certainly as if a physical force compelled her
that she would have to go to the window, would have to open to the man
who waited there.
Slowly she brought her quivering body into subjection, while every
nerve twitched and clamoured to escape. Slowly she dragged herself
back to the vision that had struck her with that paralysis of terror.
Resisting feebly, invisibly compelled, she went.
He ceased to knock, and, his face against the pane, he spoke
imperatively. What he said, she could not hear in that tumult of
mighty sound. Only she felt his insistence, answered to it, was
mastered by it.
White-faced, with horror clutching at her heart, she undid the catch.
His one hand, strong, instinct with energy, helped her to raise the
sash. In a moment he was in the room, bare-headed, drenched from head
She fell back before him, but he scarcely looked at her. He shut
the window sharply, then strode to the lamp, and turned it up.
Then, abruptly he wheeled and spoke in a voice half-kindly,
half-contemptuous. "Muriel, you're a little idiot!"