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The phase of embarrassment passed as quickly as it had arisen. Both the man and the woman were too wellĖbred 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 lifeís disillusionment had developed into a beautiful, selfĖpossessed, almost intellectual woman of the world. She was gowned with that unobtrusive excellence which betokens perfect taste and a wellĖlined 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. Wardenís recollection, vivid enough now, painted a darkĖskinned, highĖcolored 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 briarĖrose 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.
ďDear me, what have I said now?Ē she asked. They were seated at table, at the end of a pleasant meal, and the talk had wandered from recent doings to a longĖforgotten point to point steepleĖchase won by Warden on a horse which Rosamund herself had nominated.
He recovered his wandering wits instantly.
ďIt is not anything that you have said, Mrs. Laing, but my own thoughts that are worrying me,Ē he said. ďI 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 Ė and Ė if I hesitated Ė which is unbelievable Ė she prevailed on me to stay by the overwhelming argument that you would appear forthwith.Ē
It was the simplest of compliments, but it sufficed. Rosamund imperilled her fine complexion by blushing again deeply.
ďI was indulging in the vain hope that we might see you often, now that we are all in England,Ē she said.
ďCaptain Warden has still six monthsí furlough at his disposal,Ē put in Lady Hilbury. ďHe is leaving town on business at the moment, but I shall take care he returns at the earliest date.Ē
He stood for a moment in a strong light when he was to say goodĖby.Mrs. Laing noticed the scar on his forehead.
ďHave you had an accident?Ē she asked, with a note of caressing tenderness in her voice.
ďNothing to speak of. A slight knock on the head while swimming in the Solent Ė that is all.Ē
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.
ďI dared not asked him,Ē came the steady words, ďbut Ė perhaps you can tell me Ė is he unmarried?Ē
ďMy dear, I think so.Ē
The younger woman let go the chair. Her hands flew to her face to hide the tears that started forth unchecked.
ďAh, dear Heaven,Ē she murmured, ďif only I could be sure!Ē
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 Daneís 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 Secretaryís 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 girlís 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.
Peterís afternoon with the negroes was evidently Gargantuan in its chief occupation Ė the consumption of ardent spirits.
ďI never did see any crowd Ďoo could shift liquor like them,Ē mused the skipper of the Nancy. ďIt was ĎDash me one bottole, Peter,í every five minutes if Iíd run to it. I stood Ďem three, just in your interests, captain, aní then I turned a pocket inside out, sayiní ĎNo more Ďoof, savvy?í They savvied right enough. Out goes one chap they called Wanger Ė Ē
ďDo you mean to tell me that one of those three men was named MíWanga?Ē broke in Warden, and in the darkness Peter could not see the blank amazement on his employerís face.
ďThatís it, sir Ė funny sort oí click they geví in front of it. Sink me, but you do it a treat! Well, Ďis nibs comes back with two bottles, aní 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 Ďeart, thereís no Ďarm in them three niggers. I could live among Ďem twenty year aní never Ďave a wrong word wií one of em.
ďCould you gather any inkling of their business from their talk?Ē
Peter tamped some halfĖburned tobacco into the bowl of his pipe with the head of a nail before replying.
ďThere was just one thing that struck me as a bit pecooliar, sir,Ē he said, after a meditative pause. ďA joker Ďoo tole me Ďis name was Pana seems to be sort oí friendly with a servingĖmaid in the Lord Nelson. She brought in the bottles I ordered, aní each time Pana tried to catch Ďold of Ďer. The third time he grabbed her for fair, aní sez: ĎYou lib for Benin country wíen I king?í At that one of Ďis pals jabbered some double Dutch, aní they all looked Ďard at me, but I was gaziní into the bottom of a glass at the time aní they thought I wasnít listeniní. It never occurred to Ďem that I donít swaller with me ears.Ē
ďWere you present when Figuero returned?Ē
ďYes, sir, aní a nasty cur he can be wíen he likes. He called Ďem all the different sorts oí drunken swine he could think of, aní tole me I was wuss, to go leadiní pore ignorant blacks astray. My godfather! Five bottles of Ole Tom among three of Ďem, aní me, Ďoo Ďates the smell oí gin, tryiní to doctor my poison wií water! If youíll believe me, sir, at supperĖtime I couldnít bring myself to touch the nicest bit oí steak that ever sizzled on the Nancyís grid.Ē
ďWhen did the Sans Souci sail?Ē
ďJust before I sent you that telegram, sir. Chris saw the niggers aní the Portygee off by train, aní kem straight back to the dinghy. We pulled away to the cutter, aní sighted the yacht steaminí west, so I Ďbout ship aní landed Chris near the postĖorfis. The butcher Ďoo supplied their meat tole me this morniní that he was to send his bill to Plymouth.Ē
Warden, who was wont to take pride in his ability to be absolutely lazy when on a holiday, suddenly stood up.
ďWith this breeze we ought to make Plymouth by toĖmorrow morning?Ē he cried.
ďAre you in earnest, guvínor?Ē demanded the astonished Peter.
ďFully. Bring the cutter past the Needles, and as soon as St. Abbís HeadĖlight is aĖbeam you can turn in.Ē
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 Wardenís 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 wildĖgoose chase, no matter how assured the Cowes butcher might be of his account being paid.
It was a gloriously fine day, but Wardenís 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 landĖlocked 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 Landís End en route to Milford Haven.
ďGo to Africa!Ē whispered some mysterious counselor in words that were audible to an unknown sense. ďGo where you are wanted. Lady Hilbury told you that a great opportunity had presented itself. Seize it! Delay will be fatal!Ē
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.
ďI wish that d Ė d Turkís Head Ďad rotted in the sea afore ever it kem aboard this craft,Ē he muttered. ďThereís bin nothiní but fuss aní worry every hour since that bonny lass set her eyes on it. Onless Iím vastly mistaken itíll bust up the cruise, aní here was Chris aní me fixed up to the nines for the nexí three months. Itís too bad, that it isĒ Ė 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 Wardenís 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 foldingĖchair 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 Souciís 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 girlís 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 Wardenís 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.
ďThis is indeed a surprise,Ē she cried. ďHow in the world did you know I was here?Ē
ďI didnít know,Ē he said, clasping her fingers firmly. ďAt least, that cannot be true. My ordinary eatĖthreeĖmealsĖaĖday, keepĖawayĖfromĖtheĖfireĖandĖyou wonítĖgetĖburned wits informed me that you were in farĖoff Oxfordshire, but some kindly monitor from within, unseen, unheard, yet most worthy of credence, led me here, to your side Ė may I say Ė to your very feet.Ē
Laughing and blushing, and vainly endeavoring to extricate her hand from his grasp Ė because truly she began to fear that he was drawing her towards him Ė her first uncontrolled action was to glance around and discover if any passersĖby 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.
ďI was not an hour at home,Ē she explained volubly, ďbefore 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 oíclock, when we sail for Oban, only stopping twice on the way to coal.Ē
ďMarvelous!Ē cried Warden. ďYou reel off amazing statements with the selfĖpossession of a young lady reciting a Browning poem. No, I shall not explain what I mean Ė not yet, at any rate. The glorious fact prevails that you are free till nine.Ē
ďFree!Ē she repeated, not that she was at a loss to understand him, but rather to gain time to collect her thoughts.
ďAbsurd, of course. I mean bound Ė absolutely bound to me for a superb vista of Ė let me see Ė lunch Ė long drive in country Ė tea Ė more driving Ė dinner.†Ė Ah! let us not look beyond the dinner.Ē
ďBut Ė Ē
ďBut 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.Ē
ďStill Ė Ē
ďI suppose I must listen,Ē he complained. ďWell, what is the obstacle?Ē
She hesitated an instant. Then, abandoning pretense Ė for she, like Warden had lived through many hours of selfĖscrutiny since they parted at Portsmouth Ė she laughed unconcernedly.
ďThere is none that I know of,Ē she admitted. ďI 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 womanís rights. My presence here is readily explained. What of yours?Ē
He hailed a passing carriage and directed the man to take them to the hotel.
ďI donít think I can really clear matters up to your satisfaction unless you permit me to call you Evelyn,Ē he said, daringly irrelevant.
Midsummer madness is infectious Ė under certain conditions.
ďThat is odd,Ē she cried, yet there was but feeble protest in her voice.
ďTo make things even you must call me Arthur.Ē
ďHow utterly absurd!Ē
ďThat is not my fault. The name was given me. I yelled defiance, but I had to have it, like the measles.Ē
ďYou know very well Ė Ē
ďíPon my honor, Evelyn, the greatest of your many charms is your prompt sympathy. In those few words you have reconciled me to my lot.Ē
ďI think Arthur is rather a nice name,Ē she sighed contentedly. After all, it was best to humor him, and he was the first man who had ever won her confidence.
ďI ask for more than pity,Ē he said. ďNevertheless, if I would gain credence I must propound a plain tale. List, then, while I unfold marvels.Ē
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 ďparchmentĒ 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.
ďIt is all very strange and mysterious,Ē she said at last. ďYou were coming to Milford Haven, I gather?Ē
ďAnd were it not for the impulse that brought me here you would now be on your way over Dartmoor?Ē
ďThat was my fixed intention.Ē
ďWas it so very important that you should know all about the Sans Souci?Ē
ďI would have said so to the Under Secretary.Ē
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 oíclock he would contrive other opportunities.
ďLady Hilbury must be very nice,Ē she went on, after a brief silence.
ďYou will like her immensely when you know her,Ē 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:
ďHave you decided to carry out poor Domenico Garciaís last request?Ē
ďBefore answering, will you tell me what you would do in my place?Ē
ďI would go to Rabat, if it were in my power, and there were no undue risk in the undertaking. I donít 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 Ė things may happen in West Africa. You may be needed there.Ē
ďRabat is a halfĖway house to Oku, Evelyn,Ē he said. ďI am going, of course, for two reasons. In the first instance, I want to set Garciaís 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.Ē
This time she passed no comment.
He caught her arm and bent closer.
ďIf I bring it to you in Madeira you will not refuse to accept it?Ē he said.
ďNow you are talking nonsense,Ē she replied, turning and looking at him bravely, with steadfast scrutiny.
ďNo. There would be a condition, of course. With the ruby you must take the giver.Ē
ďAre you asking me to marry you?Ē she almost whispered.
ďAfter knowing me a few idle hours of three days?Ē
ďI was exactly the same mind the first time I met you. I see no valid reason why I should change a wellĖbalanced opinion during the next thirty or forty years.Ē
He felt her arm trembling in his clasp, and a suspicious moisture glistened in her fine eyes.
ďI think, somehow, I know you well enough to believe that you are in earnest,Ē she faltered. ďBut let us forget now that you have said those words. Come to me later Ė when your work is done Ė and if you care to repeat them Ė I shall Ė try to answer Ė as you would wish.Ē
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 Ė squeezings, and pressings and the many phrases of silent languages that mean ďI love you.Ē Neither was formed of the malleable clay that permits such sudden change of habit. Each dwelt rather in a dreamĖland Ė the man hoping it could be true that this allĖpleasing woman could find it possible to surrender herself to him utterly Ė 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 ďlittle historiesĒ of youth. Thus did they weld the first slender links of sweet intimacy Ė those links that are stronger than fetters of steel in after years Ė and the hours flew on golden wings.
Once only did Warden hold Evelyn in his arms Ė 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 newĖfound 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.
ďIím main glad to see you again, sir,Ē said the skipper of the Nancy. ďSomehows, I had a notion this morniní that we was goiní to lose you for good aní all.Ē
Then Warden remembered the inquiry he had sent to Ilfracombe, and the reply that was surely waiting for him at the postĖoffice, and he laughed with a quiet joyousness that was good to hear.
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