The Knight Errant by Ethel M. Dell

I

THE APPEAL

The Poor Relation hoisted one leg over the arm of his chair, and gazed contemplatively at the ceiling.

"Now, I wonder whom I ought to scrag for this," he mused aloud.

A crumpled newspaper lay under his hand, a certain paragraph uppermost that was strongly scored with red ink. He had read it twice already and after a thoughtful pause he proceeded to read it again.

"A marriage has been arranged and will shortly take place between Cecil Mordaunt Rivington and Ernestine, fourth daughter of Lady Florence Cardwell."

"Why Ernestine, I wonder?" murmured the Poor Relation. "Thought she was still in short frocks. Used to be rather a jolly little kid. Wonder what she thinks of the arrangement?"

A faint smile cocked one corner of his mouth—a very plain mouth which he wore no moustache to hide.

"And Lady Florence! Ye gods! Wonder what she thinks!"

The smile developed into a snigger, and vanished at a breath.

"But it's really infernally awkward," he declared. "Ought one to go and apologise for what one hasn't done? Really, I don't know if I dare!"

Again, as one searching for inspiration, he read the brief paragraph.

"It looks to me, Cecil Mordaunt, as if you are in for a very warm time," he remarked at the end of this final inspection. "Such a time as you haven't had since you left Rugby. If you take my advice you'll sit tight like a sensible chap and leave this business to engineer itself. No good ever came of meddling."

With which practical reflection he rose to fill and light a briar pipe, his inseparable companion, before grappling with his morning correspondence.

This lay in a neat pile at his elbow, and after a ruminative pause devoted to the briar pipe, he applied himself deliberately to its consideration.

The first two he examined and tossed aside with a bored expression. The third seemed to excite his interest. It was directed in a nervous, irregular hand that had tried too hard to be firm, and had spluttered the ink in consequence. The envelope was of a pearly grey tint. The Poor Relation sniffed at it, and turned up his nose.

Nevertheless, he opened the missive with a promptitude that testified to a certain amount of curiosity.

"Dear Knight Errant," he read, in the same desperate handwriting. "Do you remember once years ago coming to the rescue of a lady in distress who was chased by a bull? The lady has never forgotten it. Will you do the same again for the same lady to-day, and earn her undying gratitude? If so, will you confirm the statement in the Morning Post as often and as convincingly as you can till further notice? I wonder if you will? I do wonder. I couldn't ask you if you were anything but poor and a sort of relation as well.—Yours, in extremis,

"Ernestine Cardwell.

"P.S.—Of course, don't do it if you would really rather not."

"Thank you, Ernestine!" said the Poor Relation. "That last sentence of yours might be described as the saving clause. I would very much rather not, if the truth be told; which it probably never will be. As you have shrewdly foreseen, the subtlety of your 'in extremis' draws me in spite of myself. I have seen you in extremis before, and I must admit the spectacle made something of an impression."

He read the letter again with characteristic deliberation, lay back awhile with pale blue eyes fixed unswervingly upon the ceiling, and finally rose and betook himself to his writing-table.

"Dear Lady in Distress," he wrote. "I am pleased to note that even poor relations have their uses. As your third cousin removed to the sixth or seventh degree, I shall be most happy to serve you. Pray regard me as unreservedly at your disposal. Awaiting your further commands.—Your devoted

"Knight Errant."

This letter he directed to Miss Ernestine Cardwell and despatched by special messenger. Then, with a serene countenance, he glanced through his remaining correspondence, stretched himself, yawned, looked out of the window, and finally sauntered forth to his club.

II

CONGRATULATIONS

"Ye gods! I should think Lady Florence is feelin' pretty furious. The fellow hasn't a penny, and isn't even an honourable. I thought all her daughters were to be princesses or duchesses or ranees or somethin' imposin'."

Archie Fielding, gossip-in-chief of the Junior Sherwood Club, beat a rousing tattoo on the table, and began to whistle Mendelssohn's "Wedding March."

"Wonder if he will want me to be best man," he proceeded. "It'll be the seventh time this season. Think I shall make a small charge for my services for the future. Not to poor old Cecil, though. He's always hard-up. I wonder what they'll live on. I'll bet Miss Ernestine hasn't been brought up on cheese and smoked herrings."

"Which is Ernestine?" asked another member, generally known at the club as "that ass Bray." "The little one, isn't it; the one that laughs?"

"The cheeky one—yes," said Archie. "I saw her ridin' in the Park with Dinghra the other day. Awful brute, Dinghra, if he is a rajah's son."

"Shocking bounder!" said Bray. "But rich—a quality that covers a multitude of sins."

"Especially in Lady Florence's estimation," remarked Archie. "She's had designs on him ever since Easter. Ernestine is a nice little thing, you know, but somehow she hangs fire. A trifle over-independent, I suppose, and she has a sharp tongue, too—tells the truth a bit too often, don't you know. I don't get on with that sort of girl myself. But I'll swear Dinghra is head over ears, the brute. I'd give twenty pounds to punch his evil mouth."

"Yes, he's pretty foul, certainly. But apparently she isn't for him. I'm surprised that Cecil has taken the trouble to compete. He's kept mighty quiet about it. I've met him hardly anywhere this season."

"Oh, he's a lazy animal! But he always does things on the quiet; it is his nature to. He's the sort of chap that thinks for about twenty years, and then goes straight and does the one and only thing that no one else would dream of doin'. I rather fancy, for all his humdrum ways, he would be a difficult man to thwart. I'd give a good deal to know how he got over Lady Florence, though. He has precious little to recommend him as a son-in-law."

At this point some one kicked him violently, and he looked up to see the subject of his harangue sauntering up the room.

"Are you talking about me?" he inquired, as he came. "Don't let me interrupt, I beg. I know I'm an edifying topic, eh, Archibald?"

"Oh, don't ask me to praise you to your face," said Archie, quite unperturbed. "How are you, old chap? We are all gapin' with amazement over this mornin's news. Is it really true? Are we to congratulate?"

"Are you referring to my engagement?" asked the Poor Relation, pausing in the middle of the group. "Yes, of course it's true. Do you mean to say you were such a pack of dunderheads you didn't see it coming?"

"There wasn't anything to see," protested Archie. "You've been lyin' low, you howlin' hypocrite! I always said you were a dark horse."

The Poor Relation smiled upon him tolerantly.

"Can't you call me anything else interesting? It seems to have hurt your feelings rather, not being in the know. I can't understand your not smelling a rat. Where are your wits, man?"

He tapped Archie's head smartly with his knuckles, and passed on, the smile still wrinkling his pale eyes and the forehead above them from which the hair was steadily receding towards the top of his skull.

Certainly the gods had not been kind to him in the matter of personal beauty, but a certain charm he possessed, notwithstanding, which procured for him a well-grounded popularity.

"You'll let me wish you luck, anyway, Rivington," one man said.

"Rather!" echoed Archie. "I hope you'll ask me to your weddin'."

"All of you," said the Poor Relation generously. "It's going to be a mountainous affair, and Archie shall officiate as best man."

"When is it to take place?" some one asked.

"Oh, very soon—very soon indeed; actual date not yet fixed. St. George's, Hanover Square, of course; and afterwards at Lady Florence Cardwell's charming mansion in Park Lane. It'll be a thrilling performance altogether." The Poor Relation beamed impartially upon his well-wishers. He seemed to be hugely enjoying himself.

"And whither will the happy pair betake themselves after the reception?" questioned Archie.

"That, my dear fellow, is not yet quite decided."

"I expect you'll go for a motor tour," said Bray.

But Rivington at once shook his head.

"Nothing of that sort. Couldn't afford it. No, we shall do something cheaper and more original than that. I've got an old caravan somewhere; that might do. Rather a bright idea, eh, Archie?"

"Depends on the bride," said Archie, looking decidedly dubious.

"Eh? Think so? We shall have to talk it over." The Poor Relation subsided into a chair, and stretched himself with a sigh. "There are such a lot of little things to be considered when you begin to get married," he murmured, as he pulled out his pipe.

"Some one wanting you on the telephone, sir," announced one of the club attendants at his elbow, a few minutes later.

"Eh? Who is it? Tell 'em I can't be bothered. No, don't. I'm coming."

Laboriously he hoisted himself out of his chair, regretfully he knocked the glowing tobacco out of his pipe, heavy-footed he betook him to the telephone.

"Hullo!"

"Oh!" said a woman's voice. "Is that you?"

"Yes. Who do you want?"

"Mr. Rivington—Cecil Mordaunt Rivington." The syllables came with great distinctness. They seemed to have an anxious ring.

"Yes, I'm here," said the owner of the name. "Who are you?"

"I'm Ernestine. Can you hear me?"

"First-rate! What can I do for you?"

There was a pause, then:

"I had your letter," said the voice, "and I'm tremendously grateful to you. I was afraid you might be vexed."

"Not a bit of it," said Rivington genially. "Anything to oblige."

"Thanks so much! It was great cheek, I know, but I've had such a horrid fright. I couldn't think of any other way out, and you were the only possible person that occurred to me. You were very kind to me once, a long time ago. It's awfully decent of you not to mind."

"Please don't!" said Rivington. "That sort of thing always upsets me. Look here, can't we meet somewhere and talk things over? It would simplify matters enormously."

"Yes, it would. That is what I want to arrange. Could you manage some time this afternoon? Please say you can!"

"Of course I can," said Rivington promptly. "What place?"

"I don't know. It must be somewhere right away where no one will know us."

"How would the city do? That's nice and private."

A faint laugh came to his ear. "Yes; but where?"

Rivington briefly considered.

"St. Paul's Cathedral, under the dome, three o'clock. Will that do?"

"Yes, I'll be there. You won't fail?"

"Not if I live," said Rivington. "Anything else?"

"No; only a million thanks! I'll explain everything when we meet."

"All right. Good-bye!"

As he hung up the receiver, a heavy frown drove the kindliness out of his face.

"What have they been doing to the child?" he said. "It's a pretty desperate step for a girl to take. At least it might be, it would be, if I were any one else."

Suddenly the smile came back and drew afresh the kindly, humorous lines about his eyes.

"She seems to remember me rather well," he murmured. "She certainly was a jolly little kid."

III

THE LADY IN DISTRESS

The afternoon sunlight streamed golden through the cathedral as Cecil Rivington passed into its immense silence. He moved with quiet and leisurely tread; it was not his way to hurry. The great clock was just booming the hour.

There were not many people about. A few stray footsteps wandered through the stillness, a few vague whispers floated to and fro. But the peace of the place lay like a spell, a dream atmosphere in which every sound was hushed.

Rivington passed down the nave till he reached the central space under the great dome. There he paused, and gazed straight upwards into the giddy height above him.

As he stood thus calmly contemplative, a light step sounded on the pavement close to him, and a low voice spoke.

"Oh, here you are! It's good of you to be so punctual."

He lowered his eyes slowly as if he were afraid of giving them a shock, and focussed them upon the speaker.

"I am never late," he remarked. "And I am never early."

Then he smiled kindly and held out his hand.

"Hullo, Chirpy!" he said. "It is Chirpy, isn't it?"

"Yes, it is Chirpy. But I never expected you to remember that."

"I remember most things," said Rivington.

His pale eyes dwelt contemplatively on the girl before him. She was very slim and young, and plainly very nervous. There was no beauty about Ernestine Cardwell, only a certain wild grace peculiarly charming, and a quick wit that some people found too shrewd. When she laughed she was a child. Her laugh was irresistible, and there was magic in her smile, a baffling, elusive magic too transient to be defined. Very sudden and very fleeting was her smile. Rivington saw it for an instant only as she met his look.

"Do you know," she said, colouring deeply. "I thought you were much older than you are."

"I am fifty," said Rivington.

But she shook her head.

"It is very good of you to say so."

"Not at all," smiled Rivington. "You, I fancy, must be about twenty-one. How long since the bull episode?"

"Oh, do you remember that, too?" She uttered a faint laugh.

"Vividly," said Rivington. "I have a lively memory of the fleetness of your retreat and the violence of your embrace when the danger was over."

She laughed again.

"It was years and years ago—quite six, I should think."

"Quite, I should say," agreed Rivington. "But we have met since then, surely?"

"Oh yes, casually. But we are not in the same set, are we? Some one once told me you were very Bohemian."

"Who was it? I should like to shoot him!" said Rivington.

At which she laughed again, and then threw a guilty glance around.

"I don't think this is a very good place for a talk."

"Not if you want to do much laughing," said Rivington. "Come along to the tea-shop round the corner. No one will disturb us there."

They turned side by side, and began to walk back. The girl moved quickly as though not wholly at her ease. She glanced at her companion once or twice, but it was not till they finally emerged at the head of the steps that she spoke.

"I am wondering more and more how I ever had the impertinence to do it."

"There's no great risk in asking a poor relation to do anything," said Rivington consolingly.

"Ah, but I did it without asking." There was an unmistakable note of distress in her quick rejoinder. "I was at my wits' end. I didn't know what on earth to do. And it came to me suddenly like an inspiration. But I wish I hadn't now, with all my heart."

Rivington turned his mild eyes upon her.

"My dear child, don't be silly!" he said. "I am delighted to be of use for a change. I don't do much worth the doing, being more or less of a loafer. It is good for me to exercise my ingenuity now and then. It only gets rusty lying by."

She put out her hand impulsively and squeezed his.

"You're awfully nice to me," she said. "It's only a temporary expedient, of course. I couldn't ask you first—there wasn't time. But I'll set you free as soon as I possibly can. Have people been talking much?"

"Rather! They are enjoying it immensely. I have had to go ahead like steam. I've even engaged a best man."

She threw him a startled look.

"Oh, but——"

"No, don't be alarmed," he said reassuringly. "It's best to take the bull by the horns, believe me. The more fuss you make at the outset, the quicker it will be over. People will be taking us for granted in a week."

"You think so?" she said doubtfully. "I can't think what mother will say. I don't dare think."

"Is your mother away, then?"

"Yes, in Paris for a few days. I couldn't have done it if she had been at home. I don't know quite what I should have done." She broke off with a sudden shudder. "I've had a horrid fright," she said again.

"Come and have some tea," suggested Rivington practically.

IV

A COUNCIL OF WAR

They had tea in a secluded corner, well removed from all prying eyes. Gradually, as the minutes passed, the girl's manner became more assured.

When at length he leaned his elbows on the table and said, "Tell me all about it," she was ready.

She leaned towards him, and dropped her voice.

"You know Mr. Dinghra Singh? I'm sure you do. Every one does."

"Yes, I know him. They call him Nana Sahib at the clubs."

She shuddered again.

"I used to like him rather. He has a wicked sort of fascination, you know. But I loathe him now; I abhor him. And—I am terrified at him."

She stopped. Rivington said nothing. There was not much expression in his eyes. Without seeming to scan very closely, they rested on her face.

After a moment, in a whisper, she continued:

"He follows me about perpetually. I meet him everywhere. He looks at me with horrid eyes. I know, without seeing, the instant he comes into the room."

She paused. Rivington still said nothing.

"He is very rich, you know," she went on, with an effort. "He will be Rajah of Ferosha some day. And, of course, every one is very nice to him in consequence. I never was that. Don't think it! But I used to laugh at him. It's my way. Most men don't like it. No Englishmen do that I know of. But he—this man—is, somehow, different from every one else. And—can you believe it?—he is literally stalking me. He sends me presents—exquisite things, jewellery, that my mother won't let me return. I asked him not to once, and he laughed in my face. He has a horrible laugh. He is half-English, too. I believe that makes him worse. If he were an out-and-out native he wouldn't be quite so revolting. Of course, I see my mother's point of view. Naturally, she would like me to be a princess, and, as she says, I can't pick and choose. Which is true, you know," she put in quaintly, "for men don't like me as a rule; at least, not the marrying sort. I rather think I'm not the marrying sort myself. I've never been in love, never once. But I couldn't—I could not—marry Dinghra. But it's no good telling him so. The cooler I am to him the hotter he seems to get, till—till I'm beginning to wonder how I can possibly get away."

The note of distress sounded again in her voice. Very quietly, as though in answer to it, Rivington reached out a hand and laid it over hers.

But his eyes never varied as he said:

"Won't you finish?"

She bent her head.

"You'll think me foolish to be so easily scared," she said, a slight catch in her voice. "Most women manage to take care of themselves. I ought to be able to."

"Please go on," he said. "I don't think you foolish at all."

She continued, without raising her eyes:

"Things have been getting steadily worse. Last week at Lady Villar's ball I had to dance with him four times. I tried to refuse, but mother was there. She wouldn't hear of it. You know"—appealingly—"she is so experienced. She knows how to insist without seeming to, so that, unless one makes a scene, one has to yield. I thought each dance that he meant to propose, but I just managed to steer clear. I felt absolutely delirious the whole time. Most people thought I was enjoying it. Old Lady Phillips told me I was looking quite handsome." She laughed a little. "Well, after all, there seemed to be no escape, and I got desperate. It was like a dreadful nightmare. I went to the opera one night, and he came and sat close behind me and talked in whispers. When he wasn't talking I knew that he was watching me—gloating over me. It was horrible—horrible! Last night I wouldn't go out with the others. I simply couldn't face it. And—do you know—he came to me!" She began to breathe quickly, unevenly. The hands that lay in Rivington's quiet grasp moved with nervous restlessness. "There was no one in the house besides the servants," she said. "What could I do? He was admitted before I knew. Of course, I ought to have refused to see him, but he was very insistent, and I thought it a mistake to seem afraid. So I went to him—I went to him."

The words came with a rush. She began to tremble all over. She was almost sobbing.

Rivington's fingers closed very slowly, barely perceptibly, till his grip was warm and close. "Take your time," he said gently. "It's all right, you know—all right."

"Thank you," she whispered. "Well, I saw him. He was in a dangerous—a wild-beast mood. He told me I needn't try to run away any longer, for I was caught. He said—and I know it was true—that he had obtained my mother's full approval and consent. He swore that he wouldn't leave me until I promised to marry him. He was terrible, with a sort of suppressed violence that appalled me. I tried not to let him see how terrified I was. I kept quite quiet and temperate for a long time. I told him I could never, never marry him. And each time I said it, he smiled and showed his teeth. He was like a tiger. His eyes were fiendish. But he, too, kept quiet for ever so long. He tried persuasion, he tried flattery. Oh, it was loathsome—loathsome! And then quite suddenly he turned savage, and—and threatened me."

She glanced nervously into Rivington's face, but it told her nothing. He looked merely thoughtful.

She went on more quietly.

"That drove me desperate, and I exclaimed, hardly thinking, 'I wouldn't marry you if you were the only man in the world—which you are not!' 'Oh!' he said at once. 'There is another man, is there?' He didn't seem to have thought that possible. And I—I was simply clutching at straws—I told him 'Yes.' It was a lie, you know—the first deliberate lie I think I have ever told since I came to years of discretion. There isn't another man, or likely to be. That's just the trouble. If there were, my mother wouldn't be so angry with me for refusing this chance of marriage, brilliant though she thinks it. But I was quite desperate. Do you think it was very wrong of me?"

"No," said Rivington deliberately, "I don't. I lie myself—when necessary."

"He was furious," she said. "He swore that no other man should stand in his way. And then—I don't know how it was; perhaps I wasn't very convincing—he began to suspect that I had lied. That drove me into a corner. I didn't know what to say or do. And then, quite suddenly, in my extremity, I thought of you. I really don't know what made me. I didn't so much as know if you were in town. And in a flash I thought of sending that announcement to the paper. That would convince him if nothing else would, and it would mean at least a temporary respite. It was a mad thing to do, I know. But I thought you were elderly and level-headed and a confirmed bachelor and—and a sort of cousin as well——"

"To the tenth degree," murmured Rivington.

"So I told him," she hurried on, unheeding, "that we were engaged, and it was just going to be announced. When he heard that, he lost his head. I really think he was mad for the moment. He sprang straight at me like a wild beast, and I—I simply turned and fled. I'm pretty nimble, you know, when—when there are mad bulls about." Her quick smile flashed across her face and was gone. "That's all," she said. "I tore up to my room, and scribbled that paragraph straight away. I dared not wait for anything. And then I wrote to you. You had my letter with the paper this morning."

"Yes, I had them." Rivington spoke absently. She had a feeling that his eyes were fixed upon her without seeing her. "So that's all, is it?" he said slowly.

Again nervously her hands moved beneath his.

"I've been very headlong and idiotic," she said impulsively. "I've put you in an intolerable position. You must write at once and contradict it in the next issue."

"Do you mind not talking nonsense for a minute?" he said mildly. "I shall see my way directly."

She dropped into instant silence, sitting tense and mute, scarcely even breathing, while the pale blue eyes opposite remained steadily and unblinkingly fixed upon her face.

After a few moments he spoke.

"When does your mother return?"

"To-morrow morning." She hesitated for a second; then, "Of course she will be furious," she said. "You won't be able to argue with her. No one can."

Rivington's eyes looked faintly quizzical.

"I don't propose to try," he said. "She is, as I well know, an adept in the gentle art of snubbing. And I am no match for her there. She has, moreover, a rooted objection to poor relations, for which I can hardly blame her—a prejudice which, however, I am pleased to note that you do not share."

He smiled at her with the words, and she flashed him a quick, answering smile, though her lips were quivering.

"I am not a bit like my mother," she said. "I was always dad's girl—while he lived. It was he who called me Chirpy. No one else ever did—but you."

"A great piece of presumption on my part," said Rivington.

"No. I like you to. It makes you seem like an old friend, which is what I need just now, more than anything."

"Quite so," said Rivington. "That qualifies me to advise, I suppose. I hope you won't be shocked at what I am going to suggest."

She met his eyes with complete confidence. "I shall do it whatever it is," she said.

"Don't be rash," he rejoined. "It entails a sacrifice. But it is the only thing that occurs to me for the moment. I think if you are wise you will leave London to-night."

"Leave London!" she echoed, looking startled.

"Yes. Just drop out for a bit, cut everything, and give this business a chance to blow over. Leave a note behind for mamma when she arrives, and tell her why. She'll understand."

"But—but—how can I? Dinghra will only follow me, and I shall be more at his mercy than ever in the country."

"If he finds you," said Rivington.

"But mother would tell him directly where to look."

"If she knew herself," he returned drily.

"Oh!" She stared at him with eyes of grave doubt. "But," she said, after a moment, "I have no money. I can't live on nothing."

"I do," said Rivington. "You can do the same."

She shook her head instantly, though she smiled.

"Not on the same nothing, Mr. Rivington."

He took his hand abruptly from hers.

"Look here, Chirpy," he said; "don't be a snob!"

"I'm not," she protested.

"Yes, you are. It's atrocious to be put in my place by a chit like you. I won't put up with it." He frowned at her ferociously. "You weren't above asking my help, but if you are above taking it—I've done with you."

"Oh, not really!" she pleaded. "It was foolish of me, I admit, because you really are one of the family. Please don't scowl so. It doesn't suit your style of beauty in the least, and I am sure you wouldn't like to spoil a good impression."

But he continued to frown uncompromisingly, till she stretched out a conciliatory hand to him across the table.

"Don't be cross, Knight Errant! I know you are only pretending."

"Then don't do it again," he said, relaxing, and pinching her fingers somewhat heartlessly. "I'm horribly sensitive on some points. As I was saying, it won't hurt you very badly to live on nothing for a bit, even if you are a lady of extravagant tastes."

"Oh, but I can work," she said eagerly. "I can change my name, and go into a shop."

"Of course," he said, mildly sarcastic. "You will doubtless find your vocation sooner or later. But that is not the present point. Now, listen! In the county of Hampshire is a little place called Weatherbroom—quite a little place, just a hamlet and a post-office. Just out of the hamlet is a mill with a few acres of farm land attached. It's awfully picturesque—a regular artists' place. By the way, are you an artist?"

"Oh, no. I sketch a little, but——"

"That'll do. You are not an artist, but you sketch. Then you won't be quite stranded. It's very quiet, you know. There's no society. Only the miller and his wife, and now and then the landlord—an out-at-elbows loafer who drifts about town and, very occasionally, plays knight errant to ladies in distress. There isn't even a curate. Can you possibly endure it?"

She raised her head and laughed—a sweet, spontaneous laugh, inexpressibly gay.

"Oh, you are good—just good! It's the only word that describes you. I always felt you were. I didn't know you were a landed proprietor, though."

"In a very small way," he assured her.

"How nice!" she said eagerly. "Yes, I'll go. I shall love it. But"—her face falling—"what of you? Shall you stay in town?"

"And face the music," said the Poor Relation, with his most benign smile. "That is my intention. Don't pity me! I shall enjoy it."

"Is it possible?" Again she looked doubtful.

"Of course it's possible. I enjoy a good row now and then. It keeps me in condition. I'll come down and see you some day, and tell you all about it." He glanced at his watch. "I think we ought to be moving. We will discuss arrangements as we go. I must send a wire to Mrs. Perkiss, and tell her you will go down by the seven-thirty. I will see you into the train at this end, and they will meet you at the other with the cart. It's three miles from the railway."

As they passed out together, he added meditatively, "I think you'll like the old mill, Chirpy. It's thatched."

"I'm sure I shall," she answered earnestly.

V

THE KNIGHT ERRANT TAKES THE FIELD

Rivington returned to his rooms that night, after dining at a restaurant, with a pleasing sense of having accomplished something that had been well worth the doing. He chuckled to himself a little as he walked. It was a decidedly humorous situation.

He was met at the top of the stairs by his servant, a sharp-faced lad of fifteen whom he had picked out of the dock of a police-court some months before, and who was devoted to him in consequence.

"There's a gentleman waitin' for you sir; wouldn't take 'No' for an answer; been 'ere best part of an hour. Name of Sin, sir. Looks like a foreigner."

"Eh?" The blue eyes widened for a moment, then smiled approbation. "Very appropriate," murmured Rivington. "All right, Tommy; I know the gentleman."

He was still smiling as he entered his room.

A slim, dark man turned swiftly from its farther end to meet him. He had obviously been prowling up and down.

"Mr. Rivington?" he said interrogatively.

Rivington bowed.

"Mr. Dinghra Singh?" he returned.

"Have you seen me before?"

"At a distance—several times."

"Ah!" The Indian drew himself up with a certain arrogance, but his narrow black moustache did not hide the fact that his lips were twitching with excitement. His dark eyes shone like the eyes of a beast, green and ominous. "But we have never spoken. I thought not. Now, Mr. Rivington, will you permit me to come at once to business?"

He spoke without a trace of foreign accent. He stood in the middle of the room, facing Rivington, in a commanding attitude.

Rivington took a seat on the edge of the table. He was still faintly smiling.

"Go ahead, sir," he said. "Won't you sit down?"

But Dinghra preferred to stand.

"I am presuming that you are the Mr. Cecil Mordaunt Rivington whose engagement to Miss Ernestine Cardwell was announced in this morning's paper," he said, speaking quickly but very distinctly.

"The same," said Rivington. He added with a shrug of the shoulders, "A somewhat high-sounding name for such a humble citizen as myself, but it was not of my own choosing."

Dinghra ignored the remark. He was very plainly in no mood for trivialities.

"And the engagement really exists?" he questioned.

The Englishman's brows went up.

"Of course it exists."

"Ah!" It was like a snarl. The white teeth gleamed for a moment. "I had no idea," Dinghra said, still with the same feverish rapidity, "that I had a rival."

"Are we rivals?" said Rivington, amiably regretful. "It's the first I have heard of it."

"You must have known!" The green glare suddenly began to flicker with a ruddy tinge as of flame. "Every one knew that I was after her."

"Oh yes, I knew that," said Rivington. "But—pardon me if I fail to see that that fact constitutes any rivalry between us. We were engaged long before she met you. We have been engaged for years."

"For years!" Dinghra took a sudden step forward. He looked as if he were about to spring at the Englishman's throat.

But Rivington remained quite unmoved, all unsuspecting, lounging on the edge of the table.

"Yes, for years," he repeated. "But we have kept it to ourselves till now. Even Lady Florence had no notion of it. There was nothing to be gained by talking. It was a case of—" He dug his hands into his trousers pockets and pulled them inside out with an eloquent gesture. "So, of course, there was nothing for it but to wait."

"Then why have you published the engagement now?" demanded Dinghra.

Rivington smiled.

"Because we are tired of waiting," he said.

"You are in a position to marry, then? You are—"

"I am as poor as a church mouse, if you want to know," said Rivington.

"And you will marry on nothing?"

"I dare say we sha'n't starve," said Rivington optimistically.

"Ah!" Again that beast-like snarl. There was no green glare left in the watching eyes—only red, leaping flame. "And—you like poverty?" asked the Indian in the tone of one seeking information.

"I detest it," said Rivington, with unusual energy.

Dinghra drew a step nearer, noiselessly, like a cat. His lips began to smile. He could not have been aware of the tigerish ferocity of his eyes.

"I should like to make a bargain with you, Mr. Rivington," he said.

Rivington, his hands in his pockets, looked him over with a cool appraising eye. He said nothing at all.

"This girl," said Dinghra, his voice suddenly very soft and persuasive, "she is worth a good deal to you—doubtless?"

"Doubtless," said Rivington.

"She is worth—what?"

Rivington stared uncomprehendingly.

With a slight, contemptuous gesture the Indian proceeded to explain.

"She is worth a good deal to me too—more than you would think. Her mother also desires a marriage between us. I am asking you, Mr. Rivington, to give her up, and to—name your price."

"The devil you are!" said Rivington; but he said it without violence. He still sat motionless, his hands in his pockets, surveying his visitor.

"I am rich," Dinghra said, still in those purring accents. "I am prepared to make you a wealthy man for the rest of your life. You will be able to marry, if you desire to do so, and live in ease and luxury. Come, Mr. Rivington, what do you say to it? You detest poverty. Now is your chance, then. You need never be poor again."

"You're uncommonly generous," said Rivington. "But is the lady to have no say in the matter? Or has she already spoken?"

Dinghra looked supremely contemptuous.

"The matter is entirely between you and me," he said.

"Oh!" Rivington became reflective.

The Indian crossed his arms and waited.

"Well," Rivington said at length, "I will name my price, since you desire it, but I warn you it's a fairly stiff one. You won't like it."

"Speak!" said Dinghra eagerly. His eyes literally blazed at the Englishman's imperturbable face.

Slowly Rivington took his hands from his pockets. Slowly he rose. For a moment he seemed to tower almost threateningly over the lesser man, then carelessly he suffered his limbs to relax.

"The price," he said, "is that you come to me every day for a fortnight for as sound a licking as I am in a condition to administer. I will release Miss Ernestine Cardwell for that, and that alone." He paused. "And I think at the end of my treatment that you will stand a considerably better chance of winning her favour than you do at present," he added, faintly smiling.

An awful silence followed his words. Dinghra stood as though transfixed for the space of twenty seconds. Then, without word or warning of any sort, with a single spring inexpressibly bestial, he leapt at Rivington's throat.

But Rivington was ready for him. With incredible swiftness he stooped and caught his assailant as he sprang. There followed a brief and furious struggle, and then the Indian found himself slowly but irresistibly forced backwards across the Englishman's knee. He had a vision of pale blue eyes that were too grimly ironical to be angry, and the next moment he was sitting on the floor, two muscular hands holding him down.

"Not to-night," said the leisurely voice above him. "To-morrow, if you like, we will begin the cure. Go home now and think it over."

And with that he was free. But he sat for a second too infuriated to speak or move. Then, like lightning, he was on his feet.

They stood face to face for an interval that was too pregnant with fierce mental strife to be timed by seconds. Then, with clenched hands, in utter silence, Dinghra turned away. He went softly, with a gliding, beast-like motion to the door, paused an instant, looked back with the gleaming eyes of a devil—and was gone.

The Poor Relation threw himself into a chair and laughed very softly, his lower lip gripped fast between his teeth.

VI

THE KNIGHT ERRANT'S STRATEGY

It was summer in Weatherbroom—the glareless, perfect summer of the country, of trees in their first verdure, of seas of bracken all in freshest green, of shining golden gorse, of babbling, clear brown streams, of birds that sang and chattered all day long.

And in the midst of this paradise Ernestine Cardwell dwelt secure. There was literally not a soul to speak to besides the miller and his wife, but this absence of human companionship had not begun to pall upon her. She was completely and serenely happy.

She spent the greater part of her days wandering about the woods and commons with a book tucked under her arm which she seldom opened. Now and then she tried to sketch, but usually abandoned the attempt in a fit of impatience. How could she hope to reproduce, even faintly, the loveliness around her? It seemed presumption almost to try, and she revelled in idleness instead. The singing of the birds had somehow got into her heart. She could listen to that music for hours together.

Or else she would wander along the mill-stream with the roar of the racing water behind her, and gather great handfuls of the wild flowers that fringed its banks. These were usually her evening strolls, and she loved none better.

Once, exploring around the mill, she entered a barn, and found there an old caravan that once had been gaily painted and now stood in all the shabbiness of departed glory. She had the curiosity to investigate its interior, and found there a miniature bedroom neatly furnished.

"That's Mr. Rivington's," the miller's wife told her. "He will often run down to fish in the summer, and then he likes it pulled out into the bit of wood yonder by the water, and spends the night there. It's a funny fancy, I often think."

"I should love it," said Ernestine.

She wrote to Rivington that night, her second letter since her arrival, and told him of her discovery. She added, "When are you coming down again? There are plenty of trout in the stream." And she posted the letter herself at the little thatched post-office, with a small, strictly private smile. Oh, no, she wasn't bored, of course! But it would be rather fun if he came.

On the evening of the following day, she was returning from her customary stroll along the stream, when she spied a water-lily, yellow and splendid, floating, as is the invariable custom of these flowers, just out of reach from the bank. She made several attempts to secure it, each failure only serving to increase her determination. Finally, the evening being still and warm, and her desire for the pretty thing not to be denied, she slipped off shoes and stockings and slid cautiously into the stream. It bubbled deliciously round her ankles, sending exquisite cold thrills through and through her. She secured her prize, and gave herself up unreservedly to the enjoyment thereof.

An unmistakable whiff of tobacco-smoke awoke her from her dream of delight. She turned swiftly, the lily in one hand, her skirt clutched in the other.

"Don't be alarmed," said a quiet, casual voice. "It's only me."

"Only you!" she echoed, blushing crimson. "I wasn't expecting anyone just now."

"Oh, but I don't count," he said. He was standing on the bank above her, looking down upon her with eyes so kindly that she found it impossible to be vexed with him, or even embarrassed after that first moment.

She reached up her hand to him.

"I'm coming out."

He took the small wrist, and helped her ashore. She looked up at him and laughed.

"I'm glad you've come," she said simply.

"Thank you," he returned, equally simply. "How are you getting on?"

"Oh, beautifully! I'm as happy as the day is long."

She began to rub her bare feet in the grass.

"Have my handkerchief," he suggested.

She accepted it with a smile, and sat down.

"Tell me about everything," she said.

Rivington sat down also, and took a long, luxurious pull at the briar pipe.

"Things were quite lively for a day or two after you left," he said. "But they have settled down again. Still, I don't advise you to go back again at present."

"Oh, I'm not going," she said. "I am much happier here. I saw a squirrel this morning. I wanted to kiss it dreadfully, but," with a sigh, "it didn't understand."

"The squirrel's loss," observed Rivington.

She crumpled his handkerchief into a ball, and tossed it at him.

"Of course. But as it will never know what it has missed, it doesn't so much matter. Are you going to live in the caravan? I'll bring you your supper if you are."

"That's awfully good of you," he said.

"Oh, no, it isn't. I want to. I shall bring my own as well and eat it on the step."

"Better and better!" said Rivington.

She laughed her own peculiarly light-hearted laugh.

"I've a good mind to turn you out and sleep there myself. I'm longing to know what it feels like."

"You can if you want to," he said.

She shook her head.

"I daren't, by myself."

"I'll have my kennel underneath," he suggested.

But she shook her head again, though she still laughed.

"No, I mustn't. What would Mrs. Perkiss say? She has a very high opinion of me at present."

"Who hasn't?" said Rivington.

She raised her eyes suddenly and gave him a straight, serious look.

"Are you trying to be complimentary, Knight Errant? Because—don't!"

Rivington blew a cloud of smoke into the air.

"Shouldn't dream of it," he said imperturbably. "I am fully aware that poor relations mustn't presume on their privileges."

She coloured a little, and gave her whole attention to fastening her shoe-lace.

"I didn't mean that," she said, after a moment. "Only—don't think I care for that sort of thing, for, candidly, I don't."

"You needn't be afraid," he answered gravely. "I shall never say anything to you that I don't mean."

She glanced up again with her quick smile.

"Is it a bargain?" she said.

He held out his hand to her.

"All right, Chirpy, a bargain," he said.

And they sealed it with a warm grip of mutual appreciation.

"Now tell me what everybody has been saying about me," she said, getting to her feet.

He smiled as he leisurely arose.

"To begin with," he said, "I've seen mamma."

She looked up at him sharply.

"Go on! Wasn't she furious?"

"My dear child, that is but a mild term. She was cold as the nether mill-stone. I am afraid there isn't much chance for us if we persist in our folly."

"Don't be absurd! Tell me everything. Has that announcement been contradicted?"

"Once," said Rivington. "But it has been inserted three times since then."

"Oh, but you didn't——"

"Yes, but I did. It was necessary. I think everyone is now convinced of our engagement, including Lady Florence."

Ernestine laughed a little, in spite of herself.

"I can't think what the end of it will be," she said, with a touch of uneasiness.

"Wait till we get there," said Rivington.

She threw him a glance, half merry and half shy.

"Did you tell mother where I was?"

"On the contrary," said Rivington, "I implored her to tell me."

She drew a sharp breath.

"That was very ingenious of you."

"So I thought," he rejoined modestly.

"And what did she say?"

"She said with scarcely a pause that she had sent you out of town to give you time to come to your senses, and it was quite futile for me to question her, as she had not the faintest intention of revealing your whereabouts."

Ernestine breathed again.

"I said in the note I left behind for her that she wasn't to worry about me. I had gone into the country to get away from my troubles."

"That was ingenious, too," he commented. "I think, if you ask me, that we have come out of the affair rather well."

"We have all been remarkably subtle," she said, with a sigh. "But I don't like subtlety, you know. It's very horrid, and it frightens me rather."

"What are you afraid of?" he said.

"I don't know. I think I am afraid of going too far and not being able to get back."

"Do you want to get back?" he asked.

"No, no, of course not. At least, not yet," she assured him.

"Then, my dear," he said, "I think, if you will allow me to say so, that you are disquieting yourself in vain."

He spoke very kindly, with a gentleness that was infinitely reassuring.

With an impulsive movement of complete confidence, she slipped her hand through his arm.

"Thank you, Knight Errant," she said. "I wanted that."

She did not ask him anything about Dinghra, and he wondered a little at her forbearance.

VII

HIS INSPIRATION

The days of Rivington's sojourn slipped by with exceeding smoothness. They did a little fishing and a good deal of quiet lazing, a little exploring, and even one or two long, all-day rambles.

And then one day, to Ernestine's amazement, Rivington took her sketching-block from her and began to sketch. He worked rapidly and quite silently for about an hour, smoking furiously the while, and finally laid before her the completed sketch.

She stared at it in astonishment.

"I had no idea you were a genius. Why, it's lovely!"

He smiled a little.

"I did it for a living once, before my father died and left me enough to buy me bread and cheese. I became a loafer then, and I've been one ever since."

"But what a pity!" she exclaimed.

His smile broadened.

"It is, isn't it? But where's the sense of working when you've nothing to work for? No, it isn't the work of a genius. It's the work of a man who might do something good if he had the incentive for it, but not otherwise."

"What a pity!" she said again. "Why don't you take to it again?"

"I might," he said, "if I found it worth while."

He tapped the ashes from his pipe and settled himself at full length.

"Surely it is worth while!" she protested. "Why, you might make quite a lot of money."

Rivington stuck the empty pipe between his teeth and pulled at it absently.

"I'm not particularly keen on money," he said.

"But it's such a waste," she argued. "Oh, I wish I had your talent. I would never let it lie idle."

"It isn't my fault," he said; "I am waiting for an inspiration."

"What do you mean by an inspiration?"

He turned lazily upon his side and looked at her.

"Let us say, for instance, if some nice little woman ever cared to marry me," he said.

There fell a sudden silence. Ernestine was studying his sketch with her head on one side. At length, "You will never marry," she said, in a tone of conviction.

"Probably not," agreed Rivington.

He lay still for a few seconds, then sat up slowly and removed his pipe to peer over her shoulder.

"It isn't bad," he said critically.

She flashed him a sudden smile.

"Do take it up again!" she pleaded. "It's really wicked of you to go and bury a talent like that."

He shook his head.

"I can't sketch just to please myself. It isn't in me."

"Do it to please me, then," she said impulsively.

He smiled into her eyes.

"Would it please you, Chirpy?"

Her eyes met his with absolute candour.

"Immensely," she said. "Immensely! You know it would."

He held out his hand for the sketch.

"All right, then. You shall be my inspiration."

She laughed lightly.

"Till that nice little woman turns up."

"Exactly," said Rivington.

He continued to hold out his hand, but she withheld the sketch.

"I'm going to keep it, if you don't mind."

"What for?" he said.

"Because I like it. I want it. Why shouldn't I?"

"I will do you something better worth having than that," he said.

"Something I shouldn't like half so well," she returned. "No, I'm going to keep this, in memory of a perfect afternoon and some of the happiest days of my life."

Rivington gave in, still smiling.

"I'm going back to town to-morrow," he said.

"Oh, are you?" Actual dismay sounded in her voice. "Why?"

"I'm afraid I must," he said. "I'm sorry. Shall you be lonely?"

"Oh, no," she rejoined briskly. "Of course not. I wasn't lonely before you came." She added rather wistfully, "It was good of you to stay so long; I hope you haven't been very bored?"

"Not a bit," said Rivington. "I've only been afraid of boring you."

She laughed a little. A certain constraint seemed to have fallen upon her.

"How horribly polite we are getting!" she said.

He laid his hand for an instant on her shoulder.

"I shall come again, Chirpy," he said.

She nodded carelessly, not looking at him.

"Yes, mind you do. I dare say I shan't be having any other visitors at present."

But though her manner was perfectly friendly, Rivington was conscious of that unwonted constraint during the rest of his visit. He even fancied on the morrow that she bade him farewell with relief.

VIII

THE MEETING IN THE MARKET-PLACE

Two days later, Ernestine drove with the miller's wife to market at Rington, five miles distant. She had never seen a country market, and her interest was keen. They started after an early breakfast on an exquisite summer morning. And Ernestine carried with her a letter which she had that day received from Rivington.

"Dear Chirpy," it ran, "I hasten to write and tell you that now I am back in town again I am most hideously bored. I am, however, negotiating for a studio, which fact ought to earn for me your valued approval. If, for any reason, my presence should seem desirable to you, write or wire, and I shall come immediately.—Your devoted

"Knight Errant."

Ernestine squeezed this letter a good many times on the way to Rington. She had certainly been feeling somewhat forlorn since his departure. But, this fact notwithstanding, she had no intention of writing or wiring to him at present. Still, it was nice to know he would come.

They reached the old country town, and found it crammed with market folk. The whole place hummed with people. Ernestine's first view of the market-place filled her with amazement. The lowing of cattle, the bleating of sheep, and the yelling of men combined to make such a confusion of sound that she felt bewildered, even awestruck.

Mrs. Perkiss went straight to the oldest inn in the place and put up the cart. She was there to buy, not to sell.

Ernestine kept with her for the first hour, then, growing weary of the hubbub, wandered away from the market to explore the old town. She sat for a while in the churchyard, and there, to enliven her solitude, re-read that letter of Rivington's. Was he really taking up art again to please her? He had been very energetic. She wondered, smiling, how long his energy would last.

Thus engaged the time passed quickly, and she presently awoke from a deep reverie to find that the hour Mrs. Perkiss had appointed for lunch at the inn was approaching. She rose, and began to make her way thither.

The street was crowded, and her progress was slow. A motor was threading its way through the throng at a snail's pace. The persistence of its horn attracted her attention. As it neared her she glanced at its occupant.

The next moment she was shrinking back into a doorway, white to the lips. The man in the car was Dinghra.

Across the crowded pavement his eyes sought hers, and the wicked triumph in them turned her cold. He made no sign of recognition, and she seemed as though petrified till the motor had slowly passed.

Then a great weakness came over her, and for a few seconds all consciousness of her surroundings went from her. She remembered only those evil eyes and the gloating satisfaction with which they had rested upon her.

"Ain't you well, miss?" said a voice.

With a start she found a burly young farmer beside her. He looked down at her with kindly concern.

"You take my arm," he said. "Which way do you want to go?"

With an effort she told him, and the next moment he was leading her rapidly through the crowd.

They reached the inn, and he put her into the bar parlour and went out, bellowing for Mrs. Perkiss, whom he knew.

When he finally emerged, after finding the miller's wife, a slim, dark man was waiting on the further side of the road. The farmer took no note of him, but the watcher saw the farmer, and with swift, cat-like tread he followed him.

IX

IN FEAR OF THE ENEMY

All the way home the memory of those eyes haunted Ernestine. All the way home her ears were straining to catch the hoot of a motor-horn and the rush of wheels behind them.

But no motor overtook them. Nothing happened to disturb the smiling peace of that summer afternoon.

Back in her little room under the thatch she flung herself face downwards on the bed, and lay tense. What should she do? What should she do? He had seen her. He was on her track. Sooner or later he would run her to earth. And she—what could she do?

For a long while she lay there, too horror-stricken to move, while over and over again there passed through her aching brain the memory of those eyes. Did he guess that she had come there to hide from him? Had he been hunting her for long?

She moved at length, sat up stiffly, and felt something crackle inside her dress. With a little start she realised what it was, and drew forth Rivington's letter.

A great sigh broke from her as she opened and read it once again.

A little later she ran swiftly downstairs with a folded paper in her hand. Out into the blinding sunshine, bareheaded, she ran, never pausing till she turned into the lily-decked garden of the post-office.

She was trembling all over as she handed in her message, but as it ticked away a sensation of immense relief stole over her. She went out again feeling almost calm.

But that night her terrors came back upon her in ghastly array. She could not sleep, and lay listening to every sound. Finally she fell into an uneasy doze, from which she started to hear the dog in the yard barking furiously. She lay shivering for a while, then crept to her window and looked out. The dense shadow of a pine wood across the road blotted out the starlight, and all was very dark. It was impossible to discern anything. She stood listening intently in the darkness.

The dog subsided into a growling monotone, and through the stillness she fancied she caught a faint sound, as if some animal were prowling softly under the trees. She listened with a thumping heart. Nearer it seemed to come, and nearer, and then she heard it no more. A sudden gust stirred the pine tops, and a sudden, overmastering panic filled her soul.

With the violence of frenzy she slammed and bolted her window, and made a wild spring back to the bed. She burrowed down under the blankets, and lay there huddled, not daring to stir for a long, long time.

With the first glimmer of day came relief, but she did not sleep. The night's terror had left her nerves too shaken for repose. Yet as the sun rose and the farmyard sounds began, as she heard the mill-wheel creak and turn and the rush and roar of the water below, common sense came to her aid, and she was able to tell herself that her night alarm might have been due to nothing more than her own startled imagination.

On the breakfast table she found a card awaiting her, which she seized, and read with deepening colour.

"Expect me by the afternoon train. I shall walk from the station.—K.E."

A feeling of gladness, so intense that it was almost rapture, made her blood flow faster. He was coming in answer to her desperate summons. He would be with her that very day. She was sure that he would tell her what to do.

She read the card several times in the course of the morning, and came to the conclusion that it would be only nice of her to walk to meet him. The path lay through beech woods. She had gone part of the way with him only three days before. Only three days! It seemed like months. She looked forward to meeting him again as though he had been an old friend.

She started soon after the early dinner. The afternoon was hot and sultry. She was glad to turn from the road into the shade and stillness of the woods. The sun-rays slanting downwards through the mazy, golden aisles made her think of the afternoon on which she had waited for him under the dome of St. Paul's.

The heat as she proceeded became intense. The humming of many insects filled the air with a persistent drone. It was summer at its height.

A heavy languor began to possess her. She remembered that she had not slept all the previous night. She also recalled the panic that had kept her awake, and smiled faintly to herself. She did not feel afraid now that Rivington was coming. She even began to think she had been rather foolish, and wondered if he would think so too.

She began to go more slowly. Her feet felt heavier at every step. A few yards ahead a golden-brown stream ran babbling through the wood. It was close to the path. She would sit down beside it and rest till he arrived.

She reached the stream, sank down upon a bed of moss, then found the heat intolerable, and began impulsively to loosen her shoes. What if he did discover her a second time barefooted? He had not minded before; neither had she. And no one else would come that way. He had even lent her his handkerchief to dry her feet. Perhaps he would again.

Once more a strictly private little smile twitched the corners of her mouth. She slipped off her stockings and plunged her tired feet into the cool, running water.

Leaning back against a tree-trunk she closed her eyes. An exquisite sense of well-being stole over her. He would not be here yet. What did it matter if she dozed? The bubbling of the water lulled her. She rested her feet upon a sunny brown stone. She turned her cheek upon her arm.

And in her sleep she heard the thudding of a horse's hoofs, and dreamed that her knight errant was close at hand.

X

THE TIGER'S PREY

With a start she opened her eyes. Some one was drawing near. It must be later than she had thought.

Again she heard the tramp of a horse's feet, and hastily peered round the trunk of her tree. Surely he had not come on horseback! It must be a stranger. She cast a hasty glance towards her shoes, and gathered her feet under her.

A few yards away she caught sight of a horse's clean limbs moving in the checkered sunlight. Its rider—her heart gave a sudden, sickening throb and stood still. He was riding like a king, with his insolent dark face turned to the sun. She stared at him for one wild moment, then shrank against her tree. It was possible, it was possible even then, that he might pass her by without turning his eyes in her direction.

Nearer he came, and nearer yet. The path wound immediately behind the beech tree that sheltered her. He was close to her now. He had reached her. She cowered down in breathless terror in the moss, motionless as a stone. On went the horse's feet, on without a pause, slow and regular as the beat of a drum. He went by her at a walking pace. Surely he had not seen her!

She did not dare to lift her head, but it seemed to her that the sound of the thudding hoofs died very quickly away. For seconds that seemed like hours she crouched there in the afternoon stillness. Then at last—at last—she ventured to raise herself—to turn and look.

And in that moment she knew the agony that pierces every nerve with a physical anguish in the face of sudden horror. For there, close to her, was Dinghra, on foot, not six paces away, and drawing softly nearer. There was a faint smile on his face. His eyes were fixed and devilish.

With a gasp she sprang up, and the next moment was running wildly away, away, down the forest path, heedless of the rough ground, of the stones and roots that tore her bare feet, running like a mad creature, with sobbing breath, and limbs that staggered, compel them though she might.

She did not run far. Her flight ended as suddenly as it had begun in a violent, headlong fall. A long streamer of bramble had tripped her unaccustomed feet. She was conscious for an instant of the horrible pain of it as she was flung forward on her hands.

And then came the touch that she dreaded, the sinewy hands lifting her, the sinister face looking into hers.

"You should never run away from destiny," said Dinghra softly. "Destiny can always catch you up."

She gasped and shuddered. She was shaking all over, too crushed, too shattered, for speech.

He set her on her feet.

"We will go back," he said, keeping his arm about her. "You have had a pleasant sleep? I am sorry you awoke so soon."

But she stood still, her wild eyes searching the forest depths.

"Oh, let me go!" she cried out suddenly. "Oh, do let me go!"

His arm tightened, but still he smiled.

"Never again. I have had some trouble to find you, but you are mine now for ever—or at least"—and the snarl of the beast was in his voice—"for as long as I want you."

She resisted him, striving to escape that ever-tightening arm.

"No!" she cried in an agony. "No! No! No!"

His hold became a vice-like grip. Without a word he forced her back with him along the way she had come. She limped as she went, and he noted it with a terrible smile.

"It would have been better if you hadn't run away," he said.

"Oh, do let me go!" she begged again through her white lips. "Why do you persecute me like this? I have never done you any harm."

"Except laugh at me," he answered. "But you will never do that again, at least."

And then, finding her weight upon him, he stopped and lifted her in his arms.

She covered her face with her hands, and he laughed above her head.

"It is a dangerous amusement," he said, "to laugh at Dinghra. There are not many who dare. There is not one who goes unpunished."

He bore her back to her resting-place. He set her on her feet and drew her hands away, holding her firmly by the wrists.

"Now tell me," he said "it is the last time I shall ever ask you—will you marry me?"

"Never!" she cried.

"Be careful!" he broke in warningly. "That is not your answer. Look at me! Look into my eyes! Do you think you are wise in giving me such an answer as that?"

But she would not meet his eyes. She dared not.

"Listen!" he said. "Your mother has given you to me. She will never speak to you again, except as my promised wife. I have sworn to her that I will make you accept me. No power on earth can take you from me. Ernestine, listen! You are the only woman who ever resisted me, and for that I am going to make you what I have never desired to make any woman before,—my wife—not my servant; my queen—not my slave. I can give you everything under the sun. You will be a princess. You will have wealth, jewels such as you have never dreamed of, palaces, servants, honour—"

"And you!" she cried hysterically. "You!"

"Yes, and me," he said. "But you will have me in one form or another whatever your choice. You won't get away from me. You may refuse to marry me, but——"

"I do!" she burst out wildly. "I do!"

"But—" he said again, very deliberately.

And then, compelled by she knew not what, she lifted her eyes to his. And all her life she shrank and shuddered at the dread memory of what she saw.

For seconds he did not utter a single word. For seconds his eyes held hers, arresting, piercing, devouring. She could not escape them. She was forced to meet them, albeit with fear and loathing unutterable.

"You see!" he said at last, as though concluding an argument. "You are mine! I can do with you exactly as I will—exactly as I will!" He repeated the words almost in a whisper.

But at that she cried out, and began to struggle, like a bird beating its wings against the bars of a cage.

His hold became cruel in an instant. He forced her hands behind her, holding her imprisoned in his arms. He tilted her head back. His eyes shone down into hers like the eyes of a tiger that clutches its prey. He quelled her resistance by sheer brutality.

"I have warned you!" he said; and she knew instinctively that he would have no mercy.

"How can I marry you?" she gasped in desperation. "I am engaged to—another man!"

She saw his face change. Instantly she knew that she had made a mistake. The ferocity in his eyes turned to devilish malice.

"You will marry me yet!" he said.

"But you will come to hate me some day!" she cried, clutching at straws. "As—as I hate you to-day!"

His look appalled her, his lips were close to hers.

"If I do," he said, with a fiendish smile, "I shall find a remedy. But so long as you hate me, I shall not grow tired of you!"

And with that he suddenly and savagely pressed his lips to hers.

XI

THE TIGER'S PUNISHMENT

That single kiss was to Ernestine the climax and zenith of horror. It seemed to sear and blister her very soul with an anguish of repulsion that would scar her memory for all time. She retained her consciousness, but she never knew by what lightning stroke she was set free. She was too dazed, too blinded, by her horror to realise. But suddenly the cruel grip that had her helpless was gone. A vague confusion swam before her eyes. Her knees doubled under her. She sank down in a huddled heap, and lay quivering.

There came to her the sound of struggling, the sound of cursing, the sound of blows. But, sick and spent, she heeded none of these things, till a certain monotony of sound began to drum itself into her senses. She came to full understanding to see Dinghra, in the grip of an Englishman, being hideously thrashed with his own horsewhip. He was quite powerless in that grip, but he would fight to the end, and it seemed that the end was not far off. The punishment must have been going on for many seconds. For his face was quite livid and streaked with blood, his hands groped blindly, beating the air, he staggered at each blow.

The whip fell flail-like, with absolute precision and regularity. It spared no part of him. His coat was nearly torn off. In one place, on the shoulder, the white shirt was exposed, and this also was streaked with blood.

Ernestine crouched under the tree and watched. But very soon a new fear sprang up within her, a fear that made her collect all her strength for action. It was something in that awful, livid face that prompted her.

She struggled stiffly to her feet, later she wondered how, and drew near to the two men. The whirling whip continued to descend, but she had no fear of that. She came quite close till she was almost under the upraised arm. She laid trembling hands upon a grey tweed coat.

"Let him go!" she said very urgently. "Let him go—while he can!"

Rivington looked down into her white face. He was white himself—white to the lips.

"I haven't done with him yet," he said, and he spoke between his teeth.

"I know," she said. "I know. But he has had enough. You mustn't kill him."

She was strangely calm, and her calmness took effect. Later, she wondered at that also.

Rivington jerked the exhausted man upright.

"Go back!" he said to Ernestine. "Go back! I won't kill him!"

She took him at his word, and went back. She heard Rivington speak briefly and sternly, and Dinghra mumbled something in reply. She heard the shuffling of feet, and knew that Rivington was helping him to walk.

For a little while she watched the two figures, the one supporting the other, as they moved slowly away. Dinghra's head was sunk upon his breast. He slunk along like a beaten dog. Then the trunk of a tree hid them from her sight.

When that happened, Ernestine suffered herself to collapse upon the moss, with her head upon her arms.

Lying thus, she presently heard once more the tread of a horse's feet, and counted each footfall mechanically. They grew fainter and fainter, till at last the forest silence swallowed them, and a great solitude seemed to wrap her round.

Minutes passed. She did not stir. Her strength had gone utterly from her. Finally there came the sound of a quiet footfall.

Close to her it came, and stopped.

"Why, Chirpy!" a quiet voice said.

She tried to move, but could not. She was as one paralysed. She could not so much as utter a word.

He knelt down beside her and raised her to a sitting posture, so that she leaned against him. Holding her so, he gently rubbed her cheek.

"Poor little Chirpy!" he said. "It's all right!"

At sound of the pity and the tenderness of his voice, something seemed to break within her, the awful constriction passed. She hid her face upon his arm, and burst into a wild agony of weeping.

He laid his hand upon her head, and kept it there for a while; then as her sobbing grew more and more violent, he bent over her.

"Don't cry so, child, for Heaven's sake!" he said earnestly. "It's all right, dear; all right. You are perfectly safe!"

"I shall never—feel safe—again!" she gasped, between her sobs.

"Yes, yes, you will," he assured her. "You will have me to take care of you. I shall not leave you again."

"But the nights!" she cried wildly. "The nights!"

"Hush!" he said. "Hush! There is nothing to cry about. I will take care of you at night, too."

She began to grow a little calmer. The assurance of his manner soothed her. But for a long time she crouched there shivering, with her face hidden, while he knelt beside her and stroked her hair.

At last he moved as though to rise, but on the instant she clutched at him with both hands.

"Don't go! Don't leave me! You said you wouldn't!"

"I am not going to, Chirpy," he said. "Don't be afraid!"

But she was afraid, and continued to cling to him very tightly, though she would not raise her face.

"Come!" he said gently, at length. "You're better. Wouldn't you like to bathe your feet?"

"You will stay with me?" she whispered.

"I am going to help you down to the stream," he said.

"Don't—don't carry me!" she faltered.

"Of course not! You can walk on this moss if I hold you up."

But she was very reluctant to move.

"I—I don't want you to look at me," she said, at last, with a great sob. "I feel such a fright."

"Don't be a goose, Chirpy!" he said.

That braced her a little. She dried her tears. She even suffered him to raise her to her feet, but she kept her head bent, avoiding his eyes.

"Look where you are going," said Rivington practically. "Here is my arm. You mustn't mind me, you know. Lean hard!"

She accepted his assistance in silence. She was crying still, though she strove to conceal the fact. But as she sank down once more on the brink of the stream, the sobs broke out afresh, and would not be suppressed.

"I was so happy!" she whispered. "I didn't want him here—to spoil my paradise."

Rivington said nothing. She did not even know if he heard; and if he were aware of her tears he gave no sign. He was gently bathing her torn feet with his hands.

XII

THE KNIGHT ERRANT PLAYS THE GAME

She began to command herself at last, and to be inexpressibly ashamed of her weakness. She sat in silence, accepting his ministrations, till Rivington proceeded to tear his handkerchief into strips for bandaging purposes; then she put out a protesting hand.

"You—you shouldn't!" she said rather tremulously.

He looked at her with his kindly smile.

"It's all right, Chirpy. I've got another."

She tried to laugh. It was a valiant effort.

"I know I'm a horrid nuisance to you. It's nice of you to pretend you don't mind."

"I never pretend," said Rivington, with a touch of grimness. "Do you think you will be able to get your stocking over that?"

"I think so."

"Try!" he said.

She tried and succeeded.

"That's better," said Rivington. "Now for the shoes. I can put them on."

"I don't like you to," she murmured.

"Knights errant always do that," he assured her. "It's part of the game. Come! That's splendid! How does it feel?"

"I think I can bear it," she said, under her breath.

He drew it instantly off again.

"No, you can't. Or, at least, you are not going to. Look here, Chirpy, my dear, I think you must let me carry you, anyhow to the caravan. It isn't far, and I can fetch you some slippers from the mill from there. What? You don't mind, do you? An old friend like me, and a poor relation into the bargain?" The blue eyes smiled at her quizzically, and very persuasively.

But her white face crimsoned, and she turned it aside.

"I don't want you to," she said piteously.

"No, but you'll put up with it!" he urged. "It's too small a thing to argue about, and you have too much sense to refuse."

He rose with the words. She looked up at him with quivering lips.

"You wouldn't do it—if I refused?" she faltered.

The smile went out of his eyes.

"I shall never do anything against your will," he said. "But I don't know how you will get back if I don't."

She pondered this for a moment, then, impulsively as a child, stretched up her arms to him.

"All right, Knight Errant. You may," she said.

And he bent and lifted her without further words.

They scarcely spoke during that journey. Only once, towards the end of it, Ernestine asked him if he were tired, and he scouted the idea with a laugh.

When they reached the caravan, and he set her down upon the step, she thanked him meekly.

"We will have tea," said Rivington, and proceeded to forage for the necessaries for this meal in a locker inside the caravan.

He brought out a spirit-lamp and boiled some water. The actual making of the tea he relegated to Ernestine.

"A woman does it better than a man," he said.

And while she was thus occupied, he produced cups and saucers, and a tin of biscuits, and laid the cloth. Finally, he seated himself on the grass below her, and began with evident enjoyment to partake with her of the meal thus provided.

When it was over, he washed up, she drying the cups and saucers, and striving with somewhat doubtful success to appear normal and unconstrained.

"Do you mind if I smoke?" he asked, at the end of this.

"Of course not," she answered, and he brought out the briar pipe forthwith.

She watched him fill and light it, her chin upon her hand. She was still very pale, and the fear had not gone wholly from her eyes.

"Now I'm going to talk to you," Rivington announced.

"Yes?" she said rather faintly.

He lay back with his arms under his head, and stared up through the beech boughs to the cloudless evening sky.

"I want you first of all to remember," he said, "that what I said a little while ago I meant—and shall mean for all time. I will never do anything, Chirpy, against your will."

He spoke deliberately. He was puffing the smoke upward in long spirals.

"That is quite understood, is it?" he asked, as she did not speak.

"I think so," said Ernestine slowly.

"I want you to be quite sure," he said. "Otherwise, what I am going to say may startle you."

"Don't frighten me!" she begged, in a whisper.

"My dear child, I sha'n't frighten you," he rejoined. "You may frighten yourself. That is what I am trying to guard against."

Her laugh had a piteous quiver in it.

"You think me very young and foolish, don't you?" she said.

He sat up and looked at her.

"I think," he said, "that you stand in very serious need of someone to look after you."

She made a slight, impatient movement.

"Why go over old ground? If you really have any definite suggestion to make, why not make it?"

Rivington clasped his hands about his knees. He continued to look at her speculatively, his pipe between his teeth.

"Look here, Chirpy," he said, after a moment, "I can't help thinking that you would be better off and a good deal happier if you married."

"If I—married!" Her eyes flashed startled interrogation at him. "If I—married!" she repeated almost fiercely. "I would rather die!"

"I didn't suggest that you should marry Dinghra," he pointed out mildly. "He is not the only man in the world."

The hot colour rushed up over her face.

"He is the only one that ever wanted me," she said, in a muffled tone.

"Quite sure of that?" said Rivington.

She did not answer him. She was playing nervously with a straw that she had pulled from the floor of the caravan. Her eyes were downcast.

"What about me?" said Rivington. "Think you could put up with me as a husband?"

She shook her head in silence.

"Why not?" he said gently.

Again she shook her head.

He knelt up suddenly beside her, discarding his pipe, and laid his hand on hers.

"Tell me why not," he said.

A little tremor went through her at his touch. She did not raise her eyes.

"It wouldn't do," she said, her voice very low.

"You don't like me?" he questioned.

"Yes; I like you. It isn't that."

"Then—what is it, Chirpy? I believe you are afraid of me," he said half quizzically.

"I'm not!" she declared, with vehemence. "I'm not such a donkey! No, Knight Errant, I'm only afraid for you."

"I don't quite grasp your meaning," he said.

With an effort she explained.

"You see, you don't know me very well—not nearly so well as I know you."

"I know you well enough to be fond of you, Chirpy," he said.

"That is just because you don't know me," she said, her voice quivering a little. "You wouldn't like me for long, Knight Errant. Men never do."

"More fools they," said the knight errant, with somewhat unusual emphasis. "It's their loss, anyway."

She laughed a little.

"It's very nice of you to say so, but it doesn't alter the fact. Besides—" She paused.

"Besides—" said Rivington.

She looked at him suddenly.

"What about that nice little woman who may turn up some day?"

The humorous corner of Rivington's mouth went up.

"I think she has, Chirpy," he said. "To tell you the honest truth, I've been thinking so for some time."

"You really want to marry me?" Ernestine looked him straight in the eyes. "It isn't—only—a chivalrous impulse?"

He met her look quite steadily.

"No," he said quietly; "it isn't—only—that."

Her eyes fell away from his.

"I haven't any money, you know," she said.

"Never mind about the money," he answered cheerily. "I have a little, enough to keep us from starvation. I can make more. It will do me good to work. It's settled, then? You'll have me?"

"If—if you are sure—" she faltered. Then impulsively, "Oh, it's hateful to feel that I've thrown myself at your head!"

His hand closed upon hers with a restraining pressure.

"You mustn't say those things to me, Chirpy," he said quietly; "they hurt me. Now let me tell you my plans. Do you know what I did when I got back to town the other day? I went and bought a special marriage licence. You see, I wanted to marry you even then, and I hoped that before very long I should persuade you to have me. As soon as I got your telegram, I went off and purchased a wedding-ring. I hope it will fit. But, anyhow, it will serve our present purpose. Will you drive with me into Rington to-morrow and marry me there?"

She was listening to him in wide-eyed amazement.

"So soon?" she said.

"I thought it would save any further trouble," he answered. "But it is for you to decide."

"And—and what should we do afterwards?" she asked, stooping to pick up her straw that had fallen to the ground.

"That, again, would be for you to decide," he answered. "I would take you straight back to your mother if you wished."

She gave a muffled laugh.

"Of course I shouldn't want you to do that."

"Or," proceeded Rivington, "I would hire an animal to draw the caravan, and we would go for a holiday in the forest. Would it bore you?"

"I don't think so," she said, without looking at him. "I—I could sketch, you know, and you could paint."

"To be sure," he said. "Shall we do that, then?"

She began to split the straw with minute care.

"You think there is no danger of—Dinghra?" she said, after a moment.

Rivington smiled grimly, and got to his feet. "Not the smallest," he said.

"He might come back," she persisted. "What if—what if he tried to murder you?"

Rivington was coaxing his pipe back to life. He accomplished his object before he replied. Then:

"You need not have the faintest fear of that," he said. "Dinghra has had the advantage of a public-school education. He has doubtless been thrashed before."

"He is vindictive," she objected.

"He may be, but he is shrewd enough to know when the game is up. Frankly, Chirpy, I don't think the prospect of pestering you, or even of punishing me, will induce him to take the field again after we are married. No"—he smiled down at her—"I think I have cooled his ardour too effectually for that."

She shuddered.

"I shall never forget it."

He patted her shoulder reassuringly.

"I think you will, Chirpy. Or at least you will place it in the same category as the bull incident. You will forget the fright, and remember only with kindness the Knight Errant who had the good fortune to pull you through."

She reached up and squeezed his hand, still without looking at him.

"I shall always do that," she said softly.

"Then that's settled," said Rivington in a tone of quiet satisfaction.

XIII

THE KNIGHT ERRANT VICTORIOUS

"On the 21st of June, quite privately, at the Parish Church, Rington, Hampshire, by the Vicar of the Parish, Cecil Mordaunt Rivington to Ernestine, fourth daughter of Lady Florence Cardwell."

Cecil Mordaunt Rivington, with his pipe occupying one corner of his mouth, and the other cocked at a distinctly humorous angle, sat on the step of the caravan on the evening of the day succeeding that of his marriage, and read the announcement thereof in the paper which he had just fetched from the post-office.

There was considerable complacence in his attitude. A cheerful fire of sticks burned near, over which a tripod supported a black pot.

The sunset light filtered golden through the forest. It was growing late.

Suddenly he turned and called over his shoulder. "I say, Chirpy!"

Ernestine's voice answered from the further end of the caravan that was shut off from the rest by curtains.

"I'm just coming. What is it? Is the pot all right?"

"Splendid. Be quick! I've something to show you."

The curtains parted, and Ernestine came daintily forth.

Rivington barely glanced at her. He was too intent upon the paper in his hand. She stopped behind him, and bent to read the paragraph he pointed out.

After a pause, he turned to view its effect, and on the instant his eyebrows went up in amazement.

"Hullo!" he said.

She was dressed like a gipsy in every detail, even to the scarlet kerchief on her head. She drew back a little, colouring under his scrutiny.

"I hope you approve," she said.

"By Jove, you look ripping!" said Rivington. "How in the world did you do it?"

"I made Mrs. Perkiss help me. We managed it between us. It was just a fancy of mine to fill the idle hours. I didn't think I should ever have the courage to wear it."

He reached up his hand to her as he sat.

"My dear, you make a charming gipsy," he said. "You will have to sit for me."

She laughed, touched his hand with a hint of shyness, and stepped down beside him.

"How is the supper getting on? Have you looked at it?"

He laid aside his paper to prepare for the meal. To her evident relief he made no further comment at the moment upon her appearance. But when supper was over and he was smoking his evening pipe, his eyes dwelt upon her continually as she flitted to and fro, having declined his assistance, and set everything in order after the meal.

The sun had disappeared, and a deep dusk was falling upon the forest. Ernestine moved, elf-like, in the light of the sinking fire. She took no notice of the man who watched her, being plainly too busy to heed his attention.

But her duties were over at last, and she turned from the ruddy firelight and moved, half reluctantly it seemed, towards him. She reached him, and stood before him.

"I've done now," she said. "You can rake out the fire. Good-night!"

He took the little hand in his.

"Are you tired, Chirpy?"

"No, I don't think so." She sounded slightly doubtful.

"Won't you stay with me for a little?" he said. She stood silent. "I was horribly lonely after you went to bed last night," he urged gently.

She uttered a funny little sigh.

"I'm sure you must have been horribly uncomfortable too," she said. "Did you lie awake?"

"No, I wasn't uncomfortable. I've slept in the open heaps of times before. I was just—lonely."

She laid her hand lightly on his shoulder as she stood beside him.

"It was rather awesome," she admitted.

"I believe you were lonely too," he said.

She laughed a little, and said nothing.

He took his pipe from his mouth and laid it tenderly upon the ground.

"Shall I tell you something, Chirpy?"

Her hand began to rub up and down uneasily on his shoulder.

"Well?" she said under her breath.

He looked up at her in the falling darkness.

"I feel exactly as you felt over that squirrel," he said. "Do you remember? You wanted to kiss it, but the little fool didn't understand."

A slight quiver went through Ernestine. Again rather breathlessly, she laughed.

"Some little fools don't," she said.

He moved and very gently slipped his arm about her. "I didn't mean to put it quite like that," he said. "You will pardon my clumsiness, won't you?"

She did not resist his arm, but neither did she yield to it. Her hand still fidgeted upon his shoulder.

"I wish you wouldn't be so horribly nice to me," she said suddenly.

"My dear Chirpy!"

"Yes," she said with vehemence. "Why don't you take what you want? I—I should respect you then."

"But I want you to love me," he answered quietly.

She drew a quick breath, and became suddenly quite rigid, intensely still.

His arm grew a little closer about her.

"Don't you know I am in love with you, Chirpy?" he asked her very softly. "Am I such a dunderhead that I haven't made that plain?"

"Are you?" she said, a sharp catch in her voice. "Are you?" Abruptly she stooped to him. "Knight Errant," she said, and the words fell swift and passionate, "would you have really wanted to marry me—anyway?"

His face was upturned to hers. He could feel her breathing, sharp and short, upon his lips.

"My dear," he said, "I have wanted to marry you ever since that afternoon you met me in St. Paul's."

He would have risen with the words, but she made a quick movement downwards to prevent him, and suddenly she was on her knees before him with her arms about his neck.

"Oh, I'm so glad you told me," she whispered tremulously. "I'm so glad."

He gathered her closely to him. His lips were against her forehead.

"It makes all the difference, dear, does it?"

"Yes," she whispered back, clinging faster. "Just all the difference in the world, because—because it was that afternoon—I began—to want—you too."

And there in the darkness, with the dim forest all about them, she turned her lips to meet her husband's first kiss.