ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
The phase of embarrassment passed as quickly as it had arisen. Both the man and the woman were too well–bred to permit the shadows of the past to darken the present. Lady Hilbury, too, rose to the occasion, and they were soon chatting with the unrestrained freedom of old and close acquaintanceship.
Then Warden discovered that the lively impetuous girl who taught him the first sharp lesson in life’s disillusionment had developed into a beautiful, self–possessed, almost intellectual woman of the world. She was gowned with that unobtrusive excellence which betokens perfect taste and a well–lined purse. Certain little hints in her costume showed that the memory of her late husband did not press too heavily upon her. The fashionable modiste can lend periodicity to grief, and Mrs. Laing was passing through the heliotrope stage of widowhood.
Her exquisite complexion was certainly somewhat bewildering to the untrained glance of the mere male. Warden’s recollection, vivid enough now, painted a dark–skinned, high–colored girl of nineteen, with expressive features, a mop of black hair, and a pair of brilliant eyes that alternated between tints of deepest brown and purple.
The eyes remained, though their archness was subdued, but, for the rest, he saw a neck and forehead of marvelous whiteness, a face of repose, cheeks and ears of delicate pink, and a waved and plaited mass of hair of the hue known as Titian red. He found himself comparing her with Evelyn Dane, whose briar–rose coloring shone through clusters of delightful little freckles, and, somehow, the contrast was displeasing.
The conventional smile of small talk must have yielded to the strain, because Rosamund Laing noticed his changed expression.
“Dear me, what have I said now?” she asked. They were seated at table, at the end of a pleasant meal, and the talk had wandered from recent doings to a long–forgotten point to point steeple–chase won by Warden on a horse which Rosamund herself had nominated.
He recovered his wandering wits instantly.
“It is not anything that you have said, Mrs. Laing, but my own thoughts that are worrying me,” he said. “I have been trying to dodge the unpleasant knowledge that I must gather up my traps and fly to Waterloo. Lady Hilbury knows that I was en route to the Solent when I called – and – if I hesitated – which is unbelievable – she prevailed on me to stay by the overwhelming argument that you would appear forthwith.”
It was the simplest of compliments, but it sufficed. Rosamund imperilled her fine complexion by blushing again deeply.
“I was indulging in the vain hope that we might see you often, now that we are all in England,” she said.
“Captain Warden has still six months’ furlough at his disposal,” put in Lady Hilbury. “He is leaving town on business at the moment, but I shall take care he returns at the earliest date.”
He stood for a moment in a strong light when he was to say good–by.Mrs. Laing noticed the scar on his forehead.
“Have you had an accident?” she asked, with a note of caressing tenderness in her voice.
“Nothing to speak of. A slight knock on the head while swimming in the Solent – that is all.”
The door had scarce closed on him when Rosamund turned to her friend. She spoke slowly, but Lady Hilbury saw that the knuckles of a white hand holding the back of a chair reddened under the force of the grip.
“I dared not asked him,” came the steady words, “but – perhaps you can tell me – is he unmarried?”
“My dear, I think so.”
The younger woman let go the chair. Her hands flew to her face to hide the tears that started forth unchecked.
“Ah, dear Heaven,” she murmured, “if only I could be sure!”
That evening, while the incense of tobacco rose from the deck of the Nancy, Warden learned from Peter the history of the hours immediately succeeding his departure from Cowes.
It was unutterably annoying to hear that Figuero had seen him in Evelyn Dane’s company, and he deduced a Machiavellian plot from the visit subsequently paid by the Portuguese to the Sans Souci. The journey to Milford indirectly suggested by the Under Secretary’s inquiry anent the appearance of the yacht now became a fixed purpose from which nothing would divert him. It seemed to be impossible that Mr. Baumgartner could fail to recognize the girl’s description, since comparison with Rosamund Laing had shown him that Evelyn was by far the most beautiful creature in England! He was sure that her life would be made miserable by suspicion, if, indeed, she had not already received a curt notification that her services were not required.
Peter’s afternoon with the negroes was evidently Gargantuan in its chief occupation – the consumption of ardent spirits.
“I never did see any crowd ‘oo could shift liquor like them,” mused the skipper of the Nancy. “It was ‘Dash me one bottole, Peter,’ every five minutes if I’d run to it. I stood ‘em three, just in your interests, captain, an’ then I turned a pocket inside out, sayin’ ‘No more ‘oof, savvy?’ They savvied right enough. Out goes one chap they called Wanger – ”
“Do you mean to tell me that one of those three men was named M’Wanga?” broke in Warden, and in the darkness Peter could not see the blank amazement on his employer’s face.
“That’s it, sir – funny sort o’ click they gev’ in front of it. Sink me, but you do it a treat! Well, ‘is nibs comes back with two bottles, an’ we finished the lot afore I began to wonder if I was quite sartin which of my legs was the wooden one. But, bless yer ‘eart, there’s no ‘arm in them three niggers. I could live among ‘em twenty year an’ never ‘ave a wrong word wi’ one of em.
“Could you gather any inkling of their business from their talk?”
Peter tamped some half–burned tobacco into the bowl of his pipe with the head of a nail before replying.
“There was just one thing that struck me as a bit pecooliar, sir,” he said, after a meditative pause. “A joker ‘oo tole me ‘is name was Pana seems to be sort o’ friendly with a serving–maid in the Lord Nelson. She brought in the bottles I ordered, an’ each time Pana tried to catch ‘old of ‘er. The third time he grabbed her for fair, an’ sez: ‘You lib for Benin country w’en I king?’ At that one of ‘is pals jabbered some double Dutch, an’ they all looked ‘ard at me, but I was gazin’ into the bottom of a glass at the time an’ they thought I wasn’t listenin’. It never occurred to ‘em that I don’t swaller with me ears.”
“Were you present when Figuero returned?”
“Yes, sir, an’ a nasty cur he can be w’en he likes. He called ‘em all the different sorts o’ drunken swine he could think of, an’ tole me I was wuss, to go leadin’ pore ignorant blacks astray. My godfather! Five bottles of Ole Tom among three of ‘em, an’ me, ‘oo ‘ates the smell o’ gin, tryin’ to doctor my poison wi’ water! If you’ll believe me, sir, at supper–time I couldn’t bring myself to touch the nicest bit o’ steak that ever sizzled on the Nancy’s grid.”
“When did the Sans Souci sail?”
“Just before I sent you that telegram, sir. Chris saw the niggers an’ the Portygee off by train, an’ kem straight back to the dinghy. We pulled away to the cutter, an’ sighted the yacht steamin’ west, so I ‘bout ship an’ landed Chris near the post–orfis. The butcher ‘oo supplied their meat tole me this mornin’ that he was to send his bill to Plymouth.”
Warden, who was wont to take pride in his ability to be absolutely lazy when on a holiday, suddenly stood up.
“With this breeze we ought to make Plymouth by to–morrow morning?” he cried.
“Are you in earnest, guv’nor?” demanded the astonished Peter.
“Fully. Bring the cutter past the Needles, and as soon as St. Abb’s Head–light is a–beam you can turn in.”
Evans realized that his master meant what he said. Chris, who was in bed and sound asleep, awoke next morning to find the Nancy abreast of Star Point. They reached Plymouth in a failing wind about midday, but Warden’s impatient glance searched the magnificent harbor in vain for the trim outlines of the Sans Souci. As the cutter drew near the inner port both he and Peter knew that they had come on a wild–goose chase, no matter how assured the Cowes butcher might be of his account being paid.
It was a gloriously fine day, but Warden’s impatience brooked no interference with his plans. It even seemed to him that the elements had conspired with his personal ill luck to bring him into this land–locked estuary and bottle him up there for a week. Strive as best he might, he could not shake off the impression that he ought to be acting, and not dawdling about the south coast in this aimless fashion. He was quite certain that a dead calm had overtaken him, and, with this irritating because unfounded belief, came a curious suggestion of calamity in store for the Nancy if he tried to weather the Land’s End en route to Milford Haven.
“Go to Africa!” whispered some mysterious counselor in words that were audible to an unknown sense. “Go where you are wanted. Lady Hilbury told you that a great opportunity had presented itself. Seize it! Delay will be fatal!”
Peter, watching the young officer furtively as he trimmed the cutter to her anchorage, was much perturbed. Though a true sailorman, he seldom swore, for his religious connections were deep and sincere, but he did use anathemas now.
“I wish that d – d Turk’s Head ‘ad rotted in the sea afore ever it kem aboard this craft,” he muttered. “There’s bin nothin’ but fuss an’ worry every hour since that bonny lass set her eyes on it. Onless I’m vastly mistaken it’ll bust up the cruise, an’ here was Chris an’ me fixed up to the nines for the nex’ three months. It’s too bad, that it is” – and the rest of his remarks became unfit for publication.
It would be interesting to learn how far Peter would have fallen from grace if he were told that the calabash was even then reposing in a portmanteau, by the side of Warden’s bunk. Happily, he was spared the knowledge. It would come in good time, but was withheld for the present.
Warden, restless as a caged lion, did not, as was his habit, bring a folding–chair to the shady side of the mainsail and lose himself in the pages of a book. A purpose in life of some sort became almost an obsession. Fixing on the Sans Souci’s known objective at the extreme southwestern corner of Wales on the following Wednesday, he suddenly hit upon the idea of walking across Dartmoor and taking a steamer from Ilfracombe to Swansea. Once committed to a definite itinerary of that nature there would be no turning back. He counted on being able to accomplish the first stage of the journey easily in three days, which would bring him to Ilfracombe on the Tuesday. The only question that remained was the uncertainty of the steamship service, and a telegram to the shipping agents would determine that point in an hour or less.
So Peter brought him ashore in the dinghy, and the message was despatched, and Warden went for a stroll on the Hoe, of which pleasant promenade he had hardly traversed a hundred yards when he saw Evelyn Dane seated there, deeply absorbed in a magazine. A bound of his heart carried conviction to his incredulous brain. Though the girl’s face was bent and almost hidden by her hat, she offered precisely the same harmonious picture that had so won his admiration when she sat opposite to him in the dinghy on that memorable afternoon that now seemed so remote in the annals of his life.
A few steps nearer, and he could no longer refuse to believe his eyes. He recalled the exact patterns of a brooch, a marquise ring, an ornament in her hat. Seating himself, with a rapid movement, quite close to her, he said softly:
Evelyn turned with a startled cry. She was conscious that some one had elected to share her bench; at the first sound of Warden’s voice she was ready to spring up and walk away, without looking at him. Her bright face crimsoned with delight when she grasped the wonderful fact that he was actually at her side.
She closed the magazine with a bang, and held out her hand.
“This is indeed a surprise,” she cried. “How in the world did you know I was here?”
“I didn’t know,” he said, clasping her fingers firmly. “At least, that cannot be true. My ordinary eat–three–meals–a–day, keep–away–from–the–fire–and–you won’t–get–burned wits informed me that you were in far–off Oxfordshire, but some kindly monitor from within, unseen, unheard, yet most worthy of credence, led me here, to your side – may I say – to your very feet.”
Laughing and blushing, and vainly endeavoring to extricate her hand from his grasp – because truly she began to fear that he was drawing her towards him – her first uncontrolled action was to glance around and discover if any passers–by were gazing at them. Instantly she knew she had made a mistake, and the imprisoned hand was snatched away emphatically. If anything, this only added to her confusion, for it bore silent testimony to her knowledge of his loverlike attitude. But she gallantly essayed to retrieve lost ground.
“I was not an hour at home,” she explained volubly, “before Mrs. Baumgartner telegraphed and afterward wrote an entire change of arrangements. I am not going to Milford Haven. Miss Beryl Baumgartner came with some friends to a little place down the coast there, a place called Salcombe, I think, and the Sans Souci arrived there yesterday. They all come on to Plymouth this evening, and they wish me to be ready to go on board about nine o’clock, when we sail for Oban, only stopping twice on the way to coal.”
“Marvelous!” cried Warden. “You reel off amazing statements with the self–possession of a young lady reciting a Browning poem. No, I shall not explain what I mean – not yet, at any rate. The glorious fact prevails that you are free till nine.”
“Free!” she repeated, not that she was at a loss to understand him, but rather to gain time to collect her thoughts.
“Absurd, of course. I mean bound – absolutely bound to me for a superb vista of – let me see – lunch – long drive in country – tea – more driving – dinner. – Ah! let us not look beyond the dinner.”
“But – ”
“But me no buts. I shall butt myself violently against any male person who dares to lay prior claim to you, while, should the claimant be a lady, I shall butter her till she relents.”
“Still – ”
“I suppose I must listen,” he complained. “Well, what is the obstacle?”
She hesitated an instant. Then, abandoning pretense – for she, like Warden had lived through many hours of self–scrutiny since they parted at Portsmouth – she laughed unconcernedly.
“There is none that I know of,” she admitted. “I had never seen Plymouth, so I traveled here yesterday evening. My belongings are in the big hotel there. I am a mere excursionist, out for the day. And now that I have yielded all along the line, I demand my woman’s rights. My presence here is readily explained. What of yours?”
He hailed a passing carriage and directed the man to take them to the hotel.
“I don’t think I can really clear matters up to your satisfaction unless you permit me to call you Evelyn,” he said, daringly irrelevant.
Midsummer madness is infectious – under certain conditions.
“That is odd,” she cried, yet there was but feeble protest in her voice.
“To make things even you must call me Arthur.”
“How utterly absurd!”
“That is not my fault. The name was given me. I yelled defiance, but I had to have it, like the measles.”
“You know very well – ”
“’Pon my honor, Evelyn, the greatest of your many charms is your prompt sympathy. In those few words you have reconciled me to my lot.”
“I think Arthur is rather a nice name,” she sighed contentedly. After all, it was best to humor him, and he was the first man who had ever won her confidence.
“I ask for more than pity,” he said. “Nevertheless, if I would gain credence I must propound a plain tale. List, then, while I unfold marvels.”
He was a good talker, and he kept her amused and interested, at times somewhat thrilled, by the recital of his doings in London.
They were in a carriage speeding out into the lovely country westward of Plymouth when he told her the strange history of Domenico Garcia. She shivered a little at the gruesome memory of the “parchment” which she had examined so intently, but she did not interrupt, save for an occasional question, until he reached that part of his narrative which ended in the determination of the previous night to sail to Plymouth forthwith.
“It is all very strange and mysterious,” she said at last. “You were coming to Milford Haven, I gather?”
“And were it not for the impulse that brought me here you would now be on your way over Dartmoor?”
“That was my fixed intention.”
“Was it so very important that you should know all about the Sans Souci?”
“I would have said so to the Under Secretary.”
There was a pause. Warden deliberately passed the opening given by her words. In broad daylight, and whirling rapidly through a village, it behooved him to be circumspect. Between dinner and nine o’clock he would contrive other opportunities.
“Lady Hilbury must be very nice,” she went on, after a brief silence.
“You will like her immensely when you know her,” he could not help saying, at the same time thanking his stars that he had made no mention of Rosamund Laing.
There was a further pause. Evelyn fancied that her voice was well under control when she asked:
“Have you decided to carry out poor Domenico Garcia’s last request?”
“Before answering, will you tell me what you would do in my place?”
“I would go to Rabat, if it were in my power, and there were no undue risk in the undertaking. I don’t think I would be happy if I had not made the effort. Yet, Rabat is a long way from England. Would you be absent many weeks? Perhaps such a journey would spoil your leave. And then – things may happen in West Africa. You may be needed there.”
“Rabat is a half–way house to Oku, Evelyn,” he said. “I am going, of course, for two reasons. In the first instance, I want to set Garcia’s soul at rest about those masses which, it seems to me, can only be done by obeying the letter of his instructions. And, secondly, I mean to secure that ruby.”
This time she passed no comment.
He caught her arm and bent closer.
“If I bring it to you in Madeira you will not refuse to accept it?” he said.
“Now you are talking nonsense,” she replied, turning and looking at him bravely, with steadfast scrutiny.
“No. There would be a condition, of course. With the ruby you must take the giver.”
“Are you asking me to marry you?” she almost whispered.
“After knowing me a few idle hours of three days?”
“I was exactly the same mind the first time I met you. I see no valid reason why I should change a well–balanced opinion during the next thirty or forty years.”
He felt her arm trembling in his clasp, and a suspicious moisture glistened in her fine eyes.
“I think, somehow, I know you well enough to believe that you are in earnest,” she faltered. “But let us forget now that you have said those words. Come to me later – when your work is done – and if you care to repeat them – I shall – try to answer – as you would wish.”
And then, for a few hours, they lived in the Paradise that can be entered only by lovers.
Not that there were tender passages between them – squeezings, and pressings and the many phrases of silent languages that mean “I love you.” Neither was formed of the malleable clay that permits such sudden change of habit. Each dwelt rather in a dream–land – the man hoping it could be true that this all–pleasing woman could find it possible to surrender herself to him utterly – the woman becoming more alive each moment to the astounding consciousness that she loved and was beloved.
Their happiness seemed to be so fantastically complete that they made no plans for the future. They were wilfully blind to the shoals and cross currents that must inevitably affect the smooth progress of that life voyage they would make together. Rather, when they talked, did they seek to discover more of the past, of their common tastes, of their friends, of the “little histories” of youth. Thus did they weld the first slender links of sweet intimacy – those links that are stronger than fetters of steel in after years – and the hours flew on golden wings.
Once only did Warden hold Evelyn in his arms – in a farewell embrace ere she left him to join the yacht. And, when that ecstatic moment had passed, and the boat which held his new–found mate was vanishing into the gloom, he awoke to the knowledge that he had much to accomplish before he might ask her to be his bride.
But he thrust aside gray thought for that night of bliss. He almost sang aloud as he walked to the quay where Peter was waiting, after receiving a brief message earlier in the day. He was greeted cheerily.
“I’m main glad to see you again, sir,” said the skipper of the Nancy. “Somehows, I had a notion this mornin’ that we was goin’ to lose you for good an’ all.”
Then Warden remembered the inquiry he had sent to Ilfracombe, and the reply that was surely waiting for him at the post–office, and he laughed with a quiet joyousness that was good to hear.
ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî