The Experiment by Ethel M. Dell

CHAPTER I

ON TRIAL

"I really don't know why I accepted him. But somehow it was done before I knew. He waltzes so divinely that it intoxicates me, and then I naturally cease to be responsible for my actions."

Doris Fielding leant back luxuriously, her hands clasped behind her head.

"I can't think what he wants to marry me for," she said reflectively. "I am quite sure I don't want to marry him."

"Then, my dear child, what possessed you to accept him?" remonstrated her friend, Vera Abingdon, from behind the tea-table.

"That's just what I don't know," said Doris, a little smile twitching the corner of her mouth. "However, it doesn't signify greatly. I don't mind being engaged for a little while if he is good, but I certainly shan't go on if I don't like it. It's in the nature of an experiment, you see; and it really is necessary, for there is absolutely no other way of testing the situation."

She glanced at her friend and burst into a gay peal of laughter. No one knew how utterly charming this girl could be till she laughed.

"Oh, don't look so shocked, please!" she begged. "I know I'm flippant, flighty, and foolish, but really I'm not a bit wicked. Ask Phil if I am. He has known me all my life."

"I do not need to ask him, Dot." Vera spoke with some gravity notwithstanding. "I have never for a moment thought you wicked. But I do sometimes think you are rather heartless."

Doris opened her blue eyes wide.

"Oh, why? I am sure I am not. It really isn't my fault that I have been engaged two or three times before. Directly I begin to get pleasantly intimate with any one he proposes, and how can I possibly know, unless I am on terms of intimacy, whether I should like to marry him or not? I am sure I don't want to be engaged to any one for any length of time. It's as bad as being cast up on a desert island with only one wretched man to speak to. As a matter of fact, what you call heartlessness is sheer broad-mindedness on my part. I admit that I do occasionally sail near the wind. It's fun, and I like it. But I never do any harm—any real harm I mean. I always put my helm over in time. And I must protect myself somehow against fortune-hunters."

Vera was silent. This high-spirited young cousin of her husband's was often a sore anxiety to her. She had had sole charge of the girl for the past three years and had found it no light responsibility.

"Cheer up, darling!" besought Doris. "There is not the smallest cause for a wrinkled brow. Perhaps the experiment will turn out a success this time. Who knows? And even if it doesn't, no one will be any the worse. I am sure Vivian Caryl will never break his heart for me."

But Vera Abingdon shook her head.

"I don't like you to be so wild, Dot. It makes people think lightly of you. And you know how angry Phil was last time."

Dot snapped her fingers airily and rose.

"Who cares for Phil? Besides, it really was not my fault last time, whatever any one may say. Are you going to ask my fiancé down to Rivermead for Easter? Because if so, I do beg you won't tell everybody we are engaged. It is quite an informal arrangement, and perhaps, considering all the circumstances, the less said about it the better."

She stopped and kissed Vera's grave face, laughed again as though she could not help it, and flitted like a butterfly from the room.


CHAPTER II

HIS INTENTIONS

"Where is Doris?" asked Phil Abingdon, looking round upon the guests assembled in his drawing-room at Rivermead. "We are all waiting for her."

"I think we had better go in without her," said his wife, with her nervous smile. "She arranged to motor down with Mrs. Lockyard and her party this afternoon. Possibly they have persuaded her to dine with them."

"She would never do that surely," said Phil, with an involuntary glance at Vivian Caryl who had just entered.

"If you are talking about my fiancé, I think it more than probable that she would," the latter remarked. "Mrs. Lockyard's place is just across the river, I understand? Shall I punt over and fetch Doris?"

"No, no!" broke in his hostess anxiously. "I am sure she wouldn't come if you did. Besides—"

"Oh, as to that," said Vivian Caryl, with a grim smile, "I think, with all deference to your opinion, that the odds would be in my favour. However, let us dine first, if you prefer it."

Mrs. Abingdon did prefer it, and said so hastily. She seemed to have a morbid dread of a rupture between Doris Fielding and her fiancé, a feeling with which Caryl quite obviously had no sympathy. There was nothing very remarkable about the man save this somewhat supercilious demeanour which had caused Vera to marvel many times at Doris's choice.

They went in to dinner without further discussion. Caryl sat on Vera's left, and amazed her by his utter unconcern regarding the absentee. He seemed to be in excellent spirits, and his dry humour provoked a good deal of merriment.

She led the way back to the drawing-room as soon as possible. There was a billiard-room beyond to which the members of her party speedily betook themselves, and here most of the men joined them soon after. Neither Caryl nor Abingdon was with them, and Vera counted the minutes of their absence with a sinking heart while her guests buzzed all unheeding around her.

It was close upon ten o'clock when she saw her husband's face for a moment in the doorway. He made a rapid sign to her, and with a murmured excuse she went to him, closing the door behind her.

Caryl was standing with him, calm as ever, though she fancied that his eyes were a little wider than usual and his bearing less supercilious.

Her husband, she saw at a glance, was both angry and agitated.

"She has gone off somewhere with that bounder Brandon," he said. "They got down to tea, and went off again in the motor afterwards, Mrs. Lockyard doesn't seem to know for certain where."

"Phil!" she exclaimed in consternation, and added with her eyes on Caryl, "What is to be done? What can be done?"

Caryl made quiet reply:

"There was some talk of Wynhampton. I am going there now on your husband's motor-bicycle. If I do not find her there——"

He paused, and on the instant a girl's high peal of laughter rang through the house. The drawing-room door was flung back, and Doris herself stood on the threshold.

"Goodness!" she cried. "What a solemn conclave! You can't think how funny you all look! Do tell me what it is all about!"

She stood before them, the motor-veil thrown back from her dainty face, her slight figure quivering with merriment.

Vera hastened to meet her with outstretched hands.

"Oh, my dear, you can't think how anxious we have been about you."

Doris took her by the shoulders and lightly kissed her.

"Silly! Why? You know I always come up smiling. Why, Phil, you are looking positively green! Have you been anxious, too? I am indeed honoured."

She swept him a curtsey, her face all dimples and laughter.

"We've had the jolliest time," she declared. "We motored to Wynhampton and saw the last of the races. After that, we dined at a dear little place with a duckpond at the bottom of the garden. And finally we returned—it ought to have been by moonlight, only there was no moon. Where is everyone? In the billiard-room? I want some milk and soda frightfully. Vivian, you might, like the good sort you are, go and get me some."

She bestowed a dazzling smile upon her fiancé and offered him one finger by way of salutation.

Abingdon, who had been waiting to get in a word, here exploded with some violence and told his young cousin in no measured terms what he thought of her conduct.

She listened with her head on one side, her eyes brimful of mischief, and finally with an airy gesture turned to Caryl.

"Don't you want to scold me, too? I am sure you do. You had better be quick or there will be nothing left to say."

Abingdon turned on his heel and walked away. He was thoroughly angry and made no attempt to hide it. His wife lingered a moment irresolute, then softly followed him. And as the door closed, Caryl looked very steadily into the girl's flushed face and spoke:

"All I have to say is this. Maurice Brandon is no fit escort for any woman who values her reputation. And I here and now forbid you most strictly, most emphatically, ever to go out with him alone again."

He paused. She was looking straight back at him with her chin in the air.

"Dear me!" she said. "Do you really? And who gave you the right to dictate to me?"

"You yourself," he answered quietly.

"Indeed! May I ask when?"

He stiffened a little, but his face did not alter.

"When you promised to be my wife," he said.

Her eyes blazed instant defiance.

"An engagement can be broken off!" she declared recklessly.

"By mutual consent," said Caryl drily.

"That is absurd," she rejoined. "You couldn't possibly hold me to it against my will."

"I am quite capable of doing so," he told her coolly, "if I think it worth my while."

"Worth your while!" she exclaimed, staring at him as if she doubted his sanity.

"Even so," he said. "When I have fully satisfied myself that a heartless little flirt like you can be transformed into a virtuous and amiable wife. It may prove a difficult process, I admit, and perhaps not altogether a pleasant one. But I shall not shirk it on that account."

He leant back against the mantelpiece with a gesture that plainly said that so far as he was concerned the matter was ended.

But it was not so with Doris. She stood before him for several seconds absolutely motionless, all the vivid colour gone from her face, her blue eyes blazing with speechless fury. At length, with a sudden, fierce movement, she tore the ring he had given her from her finger and held it out to him.

"Take it!" she said, her voice high-pitched and tremulous. "This is the end!"

He did not stir a muscle.

"Not yet, I think," he said.

She flashed a single glance at him in which pride and uncertainty were strangely mingled, then made a sudden swoop towards the fire. He read her intention in a second, and stooping swiftly caught her hand. The ring shot from her hold, gleamed in a shining curve in the firelight, and fell with a tinkle among the ashes of the fender.

Caryl did not utter a word, but his face was fixed and grim as, still tightly gripping the hand he had caught, he knelt and groped among the half-dead embers for the ring it had wantonly flung there. When he found it he rose.

"Before you do anything of that sort again," he said, "let me advise you to stop and think. It will do you no harm, and may save trouble."

He took her left hand, paused a moment, and then deliberately fitted the ring back upon her finger. She made no resistance, for she was instinctively aware that he would brook no morefrom her just then. She was in fact horribly scared, though his voice was still perfectly quiet and even. Something in his touch had set her heart beating, something electric, something terrifying. She dared not meet his eyes.

He dropped her hand almost contemptuously. There was nothing lover-like about him at that moment.

"And remember," he said, "that no experiment can ever prove a success unless it is given a fair trial. You will continue to be engaged to me until I set you free. Is that understood?"

She did not answer him. She was pulling at the loose ends of her veil with restless fingers, her face downcast and very pale.

"Doris!" he said.

She glanced up at him sharply.

"I am rather tired," she said, and her voice quivered a little. "Do you mind if I say good-night?"

"Answer me first," he said.

She shook her head.

"I forget what you asked me. It doesn't matter, does it? There's someone coming, and I don't want to be caught. Good-night!"

She whisked round with the words before he could realize her intention, and in a moment was at the door. She waved a hand to him airily as she disappeared. And Caryl was left to wonder if her somewhat precipitate departure could be regarded as a sign of defeat or merely a postponement of the struggle.


CHAPTER III

THE KNIGHT ERRANT

It was the afternoon of Easter Day, and a marvellous peace lay upon all things.

Maurice Brandon, a look of supreme boredom on his handsome face, had just sauntered down to the river bank. A belt of daffodils nodded to him from the shrubbery on the farther shore. He stood and stared at them absently while he idly smoked a cigarette.

Finally, after a long and quite unprofitable inspection, he turned aside to investigate a boathouse under the willows on Mrs. Lockyard's side of the stream. He found the door unlocked, and discovered within a somewhat dilapidated punt. This, after considerable exertion, he managed to drag forth and finally to run into the water. The craft seemed seaworthy, and he proceeded to forage for a punt-pole.

Fully equipped at length, he stepped on board and poled himself out from the shore. Arrived at the farther bank, he calmly disembarked and tied up under the willows. He paused a few seconds to light another cigarette, then turned from the river and sauntered up the path between the high box hedges.

The garden was deserted, and he pursued his way unmolested till he came within sight of the house. Here for the first time he stopped to take deliberate stock of his surroundings. Standing in the shelter of a giant rhododendron, he saw two figures emerge and walk along the narrow gravelled terrace before the house. As he watched, they reached the farther end and turned. He recognized them both. They were Caryl and his host Abingdon.

For a few moments they stood talking, then went away together round an angle of the house.

Scarcely had they disappeared before a girl's light figure appeared at an upstairs window. Doris's mischievous face peeped forth, wearing her gayest, most impudent grimace.

There was no one else in sight, and with instant decision Brandon stepped into full view, and without the faintest suggestion of concealment began to stroll up the winding path.

She heard his footsteps on the gravel, and turned her eyes upon him with a swift start of recognition.

He raised his hand in airy salute, and he heard her low murmur of laughter as she waved him a hasty sign to await her in the shrubbery from which he had just emerged.


"Did you actually come across the river?" said Doris. "Whatever made you do that?"

"I said I should come and fetch you, you know, if you didn't turn up," he said.

She laughed.

"Do you always keep your word?"

"To you—always," he assured her.

Her merry face coloured a little, but she met his eyes with absolute candour.

"And now that you have come what can we do? Are you going to take me on the river? It looks rather dangerous."

"It is dangerous," Brandon said coolly, "but I think I can get you over in safety if you will allow me to try. In any case, I won't let you drown."

"I shall be furious if anything happens," she told him—"if you splash me even. So beware!"

He pushed out from the bank with a laugh. It was evident that her threat did not greatly impress him.

As for Doris, she was evidently enjoying the adventure, and the risks that attended it only added to its charm. There was something about this man that fascinated her, a freedom and a daring to which her own reckless spirit could not fail to respond. He was the most interesting plaything she had had for a long time. She had no fear that he would ever make the mistake of taking her seriously.

They reached the opposite bank in safety, and he handed her ashore with considerable empressement.

"I have a confession to make," he said, as they walked up to the house.

"Oh, I know what it is," she returned carelessly. "Mrs. Lockyard did not expect me and has gone out."

He nodded.

"You are taking it awfully well. One would almost think you didn't mind."

She laughed.

"I never mind anything so long as I am not bored."

"Nor do I," said Brandon. "We seem to have a good deal in common. But what puzzles me—"

He broke off. They had reached the open French window that led into Mrs. Lockyard's drawing-room. He stood aside for her to enter.

"Well?" she said, as she passed him. "What is this weighty problem?"

He followed her in.

"What puzzles me," he said, "is how a girl with your natural independence and love of freedom can endure to remain unmarried."

She opened her eyes wide in astonishment.

"My good sir, you have expressed the exact reason in words which could not have been better chosen. Independence, love of freedom, and a very strong preference for going my own way."

He laughed a little.

"Yes, but you would have all these things a thousand times multiplied if you were married. Look at all the restraints and restrictions to which girls are subjected where married women simply please themselves. Why, you are absolutely hedged round with conventions. You can scarcely go for a ride with a man of your acquaintance in broad daylight without endangering your reputation. What would they say—your cousin and Mrs. Abingdon—if they knew that you were here with me now? They would hold up their hands in horror."

The girl's thoughts flashed suddenly to Caryl. How much freedom might she expect from him?

"It's all very well," she said, with a touch of petulance, "but easy-going husbands don't grow on every gooseberry-bush. I have never yet met the man who wouldn't want to arrange my life in every detail if I married him."

"Yes, you have," said Brandon.

He spoke with deliberate emphasis, and she knew that as he spoke he looked at her in a manner that there could be no mistaking. Her heart quickened a little, and she felt the colour rise in her face.

"Do you know that I am engaged to Vivian Caryl?" she said.

"Perfectly," he answered. "I also know that you have not the smallest intention of marrying him."

She frowned, but did not contradict him.

He continued with considerable assurance:

"He is not the man to make you happy, and I think you know it. My only wonder is that you didn't realize it earlier—before you became engaged to him."

"My engagement was only an experiment," she said quickly.

"And therefore easily broken," he rejoined. "Why don't you put a stop to it?"

She hesitated.

He bent towards her.

"Do you mean to say that he is cad enough to hold you against your will?"

Still she hesitated, half-afraid to speak openly.

He leant nearer; he took her hand.

"My dear child," he said, "don't for Heaven's sake give in to such tyranny as that, and be made miserable for the rest of your life. Oh, I grant you he is the sort of fellow who would make what is called a good husband, but not the sort of husband you want. He would keep you in order, shackle you at every turn. Marry him, and it will be good-bye to liberty—even such liberty as you have now—forever."

Her face had changed. She was very pale.

"I know all that," she said, speaking rapidly, with headlong impulse. "But, don't you see how difficult it is for me? They are all on his side, and he is so horribly strong. Oh, I was a fool I know to accept him. But we were waltzing and it came so suddenly. I never stopped to think. I wish I could get away now, but I can't."

"I can tell you of a way," said Brandon.

She glanced at him.

"Oh, yes, I know. But I can't be engaged to two people at once. I couldn't face it. I detest scenes."

"There need be no scene," he said. "You have only to come to me and give me the right to defend you. I ask for nothing better. Even Caryl would scarcely have the impertinence to dispute it. As my wife you will be absolutely secure from any interference."

She was gazing at him wide-eyed.

"Do you mean a runaway marriage?" she questioned slowly.

He drew nearer still, and possessed himself of her hands.

"Yes, just that," he said. "It would take a little courage, but you have plenty of that. And the rest I would see to. It wouldn't be so very difficult, you know. Mrs. Lockyard would help us, and you would be absolutely safe with me. I haven't much to offer you, I admit. I'm as poor as a church mouse. But at least you would find me"—he smiled into her startled eyes—"a very easy-going husband, I assure you."

"Oh, I don't know!" Doris said. "I don't know!"

Yet still she left her hands in his and still she listened to him. That airy reference of his to his poverty affected her favourably. He would scarcely have made it, she told herself, with an unconscious effort to silence unacknowledged misgivings, if her fortune had been the sole attraction.

"Look here," he said, breaking in upon these hasty meditations, "I don't want you to do anything in a hurry. Take a little while to think it over. Let me know to-morrow. I am not leaving till the evening. You shall do nothing, so far as I am concerned, against your will. I want you, now and always, to do exactly as you like. You believe that?"

"I quite believe you mean it at the present moment," she said with a decidedly doubtful smile.

"It will be so always," said Brandon, "whether you believe it or not."

And with considerable ceremony he raised her hands to his lips and deliberately kissed them. It seemed to Doris at that moment that even so headlong a scheme as this was not without its very material advantages. There were so many drawbacks to being betrothed.


CHAPTER IV

AT CLOSE QUARTERS

When Doris descended to breakfast on the following morning she found an animated party in the dining-room discussing the best means of spending the day. Abingdon himself and most of his guests were in favour of attending an aviation meeting at Wynhampton a few miles away.

Caryl was not present, but as she passed through the hall a little later, he came in at the front door.

"I was just coming to you," he remarked, pausing to flick the ash from his cigarette before closing the door. "I have been making arrangements for you to drive to Wynhampton with me."

Doris made a stiff movement that seemed almost mechanical. But the next moment she recovered her self-control. Why was she afraid of this man, she asked herself desperately? No man had ever managed to frighten her before.

"I think I should prefer to go in the motor," she said, and smiled with quivering lips. "Get Phil to drive with you. He likes the dog-cart better than I do."

"I have talked it over with him," Caryl responded gravely. "He agrees with me that this is the best arrangement."

There was to be no escape then. Once more the stronger will prevailed. Without another word she turned from him and went upstairs. She might have defied him, but she knew in her heart that he could compass his ends in spite of her. And she was afraid.

She had a moment of absolute panic as she mounted into the high cart. He handed her up, and his grasp, close and firm, seemed to her eloquent of that deadly resolution with which he mastered her.

For the first half-mile he said nothing whatever, being fully occupied with the animal he was driving—a skittish young mare impatient of restraint.

Doris on her side sat in unbroken silence, enduring the strain with a set face, dreading the moment when he should have leisure to speak.

He was evidently in no hurry to do so. Or was it possible that he found some difficulty in choosing his words?

At length he turned his head and spoke.

"I secured this interview," he said, "because there is an important point which I want to discuss with you."

"What is it?"

She nerved herself to meet his look, but her eyes fell before its steady mastery almost instantly.

"About our wedding," he said in his calm, deliberate voice. "I should like to have the day fixed."

Her heart gave a great thump of dismay.

"Do you really mean to hunt me down then and—and marry me against my will?" she said, almost panting out the words.

Caryl turned his eyes back to the mare.

"I mean to marry you—yes," he said. "I think you forget that you accepted me of your own accord."

"I was mad!" she broke in passionately.

"People in love are never wholly sane," he remarked cynically.

"I was never in love with you!" she cried. "Never, never!"

He raised his eyebrows.

"Nevertheless you will marry me," he said.

"Why?" she gasped back furiously. "Why should I marry you? You know I hate you, and you—you—surely you must hate me?"

"No," he said with extreme deliberation, "strange as it may seem, I don't."

Something in the words quelled her anger. Abruptly she abandoned the struggle and fell silent, her face averted.

"And so," he proceeded, "we may as well decide upon the wedding-day without further argument."

"And, if—if I refuse?" she murmured rather incoherently.

"You will not refuse," he said with a finality so absolute that her last hope went out like an extinguished candle.

She seized her courage with both hands and turned to him.

"You will give me a little while to think it over?"

"Why?" said Caryl.

"Because I—I can't possibly decide upon the spur of the moment," she said confusedly.

Was he going to refuse her even this small request? It almost seemed that he was.

"How long will it take you?" he asked. "Will you give me an answer to-night?"

Her heart leapt to a sudden hope called to life by his words.

"To-morrow!" she said quickly.

"I said to-night."

"Very well," she rejoined, yielding. "To-night, if you prefer it."

"Thanks. I do."

They were his last words on the subject. He seemed to think it ended there, and there was nothing more to be said.

As for Doris, she sat by his side, outwardly calm but inwardly shaken to the depths. To be thus firmly caught in the meshes of her own net was an experience so new and so terrifying that she was utterly at a loss as to how to cope with it. Yet there was a chance, one ray of hope to help her. There was Major Brandon, the man who had offered her freedom. He was to have his answer to-day. For the first time she began seriously to ponder what that answer should be.


CHAPTER V

THE WAY TO FREEDOM

So far as Doris was concerned the aviation meeting was not a success. There were some wonderful exhibitions of flying, but she was too preoccupied to pay more than a very superficial attention to what she saw.

They lunched at a great hotel overlooking the aviation ground. The place was crowded, and they experienced some difficulty in finding places. Eventually Doris found herself seated at a square table with Caryl and two others in the middle of the great room.

She was studying a menu as a pretext for avoiding conversation with her fiancé, when a man's voice murmured hurriedly in her ear:

"Will you allow me for a moment please? The lady who has just left this table thinks she must have dropped one of her gloves under it."

Doris pushed back her chair and would have risen, but the speaker was already on his knees and laid a hasty, restraining hand upon her. It found hers and, under cover of the table-cloth, pressed a screw of paper into her fingers.

The next instant he emerged, very red in the face, but triumphant, a lady's gauntlet glove in his hand.

"Awfully obliged!" he declared. "Sorry to have disturbed you. Thought I should find it here."

He smiled, bowed, and departed, leaving Doris amazed at his audacity. She had met this young man often at Mrs. Lockyard's house, where he was invariably referred to as "the little Fricker boy."

She threw a furtive glance at Caryl, but he had plainly noticed nothing. With an uneasy sense of shame she slipped the note into her glove.

She perused it on the earliest opportunity. It contained but one sentence:

"If you still wish for freedom, you can find it down by the river at any hour to-night."

There was no signature of any sort; none was needed, She hid the message away again, and for the rest of the afternoon she was almost feverishly gay to hide the turmoil of indecision at her heart.

She saw little of Caryl after luncheon, but he re-appeared again in time to drive her back in the dog-cart as they had come. She found him very quiet and preoccupied, on the return journey, but his presence no longer dismayed her. It was the consciousness that a way of escape was open to her that emboldened her.

They were nearing the end of the drive, when he at length laid aside his preoccupation and spoke:

"Have you made up your mind yet?"

That query of his was the turning point with her. Had he shown the smallest sign of relenting from his grim purpose, had he so much as couched his question in terms of kindness, he might have melted her even then; for she was impulsive ever and quick to respond to any warmth. But the coldness of his question, the unyielding mastery of his manner, impelled her to final rebellion. In the moment that intervened between his question and her reply her decision was made.

"You shall have my answer to-night," she said.

He turned from her without a word, and a little wonder quivered through her as to the meaning of his silence. She was glad when they reached Rivermead and she could take refuge in her own room.

Here once more she read Brandon's message; read it with a thumping heart, but no thought of drawing back. It was the only way out for her.

She dressed for dinner, and then made a few hasty preparations for her flight. She laid no elaborate plans for effecting it, for she anticipated no difficulty. The night would be dark, and she could rely upon her ingenuity for the rest. Failure was unthinkable.

When they rose from the table she waited for Vera and slipped a hand into her arm.

"Do make an excuse for me," she whispered. "I have had a dreadful day, and I can't stand any more. I am going upstairs."

"My dear!" murmured back Vera, by way of protest.

Nevertheless she made the excuse almost as soon as they entered the drawing-room, and Doris fled upstairs on winged feet. At the head she met Caryl about to descend; almost collided with him. He had evidently been up to his room to fetch something.

He stood aside for her at once.

"You are not retiring yet?" he asked.

She scarcely glanced at him. She would not give herself time to be disconcerted.

"I am coming down again," she said, and ran on.

Barely a quarter of an hour after the encounter with Caryl, dressed in a long dark motoring coat and closely veiled, she slipped down the back stairs that led to the servants' quarters, stood listening against a baize door that led into the front hall, then whisked it open and fled across to open the conservatory door, noiseless as a shadow.

The conservatory was in semi-darkness. She expected to see no one; looked for no one. A moment she paused by the door that led into the garden, and in that pause she heard a slight sound. It might have been anything. It probably was a creak from one of the wicker chairs that stood in a corner. Whatever its origin, it startled her to greater haste. She fumbled at the door and pulled it open.

A gust of wind and rain blew in upon her, but she was scarcely aware of it. In another moment she had softly closed the door again and was scudding across the terrace to the steps that led towards the river path.

As she reached it a light shone out in front of her, wavered, and was gone.

"This way to freedom, lady mine," said Brandon's voice close to her, and she heard in it the laugh he did not utter. "Mind you don't tumble in."

His hand touched her arm, closed upon it, drew her to his side. In another instant it encircled her, but she pushed him vehemently away.

"Let us go!" she said feverishly. "Let us go!"

"Come along then," he said gaily. "The boat is just here. You'll have to hold the lantern. Mind how you get on board."

As he pushed out from the bank, he told her something of his arrangements.

"There's a motor waiting—not the one Polly usually hires, but it's quite a decent little car. By the way, she has gone straight up to Town from Wynhampton; said we should do our eloping best alone. We shan't be quite alone, though, for Fricker is going to drive us. But he's a negligible quantity, eh? His only virtue is that he isn't afraid of driving in the dark."

"You will take me to Mrs. Lockyard?" said Doris quickly.

"Of course. She is at her flat, she and Mrs. Fricker. We shall be there soon after midnight, all being well. Confound this stream! It swirls like a mill-race."

He fell silent, and devoted all his attention to reaching the farther bank.

Doris sat with the lantern in her hands, striving desperately to control her nervous excitement. Her absence could not have been discovered yet, she was sure, but she was in a fever of anxiety notwithstanding. She would not feel safe until she was actually on the road.

The boat bumped at last against the bank, and she drew a breath of relief. The journey had seemed interminable.

Suddenly through the windy darkness there came to them the hoot of a motor-horn.

"That's all right," said Brandon cheerily. "That's Fricker, wanting to know if all's well."

He hurried her over the wet grass, skirted the house by a side-path that ran between dripping laurels, and brought her out finally into the little front garden.

A glare of acetylene lamps met them abruptly as they emerged, dazzling them for the moment. The buzz of a motor engine also greeted them, and a smell of petrol hung in the wet air.

As her eyes accustomed themselves to the brightness, Doris made out a small closed motor-car, with a masked chauffeur seated at the wheel.

"Good little Fricker!" said Brandon, slapping the chauffeur's shoulder as he passed. "So you've got your steam up! Straight ahead then, and as fast as you like. Don't get run in, that's all."

He handed Doris into the car, followed her, and slammed the door.

The next moment they passed swiftly out on to the road, and Doris knew that the die was cast. She stood finally committed to this, the wildest, most desperate venture of her life.


CHAPTER VI

A MASTER STROKE

"Here beginneth," laughed Brandon, sliding his arm around her as she sat tense in every nerve gazing at the rain-blurred window.

She did not heed him; it was almost as if she had not heard. Her hands were tightly clasped upon one another, and her face was turned from him. There was no lamp inside the car, the only illumination proceeding from those without, showing them the driver huddled over the wheel, but shedding little light into the interior.

He tightened his arm about her, laying his other hand upon her clasped ones.

"By Jove, little girl, you're cold!" he said.

She was—cold as ice. She parted her fingers stiffly to free them from his grasp.

"I—I'm quite comfortable," she assured him, without turning her head. "Please don't trouble about me."

But he was not to be thus discouraged.

"You can't be comfortable," he argued. "Why, you're shivering. Let me see what I can do to make things better."

He tried to draw her to him, but she resisted almost angrily.

"Oh, do leave me alone! I'm not uncomfortable. I'm only thinking."

"Well, don't be silly!" he urged. "It's no use thinking at this stage. The thing is done now, and well done. We shall be man and wife by this time to-morrow. We'll go to Paris, eh, and have no end of a spree."

"Perhaps," she said, not looking at him or yielding an inch to his persuasion.

It was plain that for some reason she desired to be left in peace, and after a brief struggle with himself, Brandon decided that he would be wise to let her have her way. He leant back and crossed his arms in silence.

The car sped along at a pace which he found highly satisfactory. He had absolute faith in Fricker's driving and knowledge of the roads.

They had been travelling for the greater part of an hour, when Doris at length relaxed from her tense attitude and lay back in her corner, nestling into it with a long shiver.

Brandon was instantly on the alert.

"I'm sure you are cold. Here's a rug here. Let me—"

"Oh, do please leave me alone!" she said, with a sob. "I'm so horribly tired."

Beseechingly almost she laid her hand upon his arm with the words.

The touch fired him. He considered that he had been patient long enough. Abruptly he caught her to him.

"Come, I say," he said, half-laughing, half in savage earnest, "I can't have you crying on what's almost our wedding trip!"

He certainly did not expect the absolutely furious resistance with which she met his action. She thrust him from her with the strength of frenzy.

"How dare you?" she cried passionately. "How dare you touch me, you—you hateful cad?"

For the moment, such was his astonishment, he suffered her to escape from his hold. Then, called into activity by her unreasoning fury, the devil in him leapt suddenly up and took possession. With a snarling laugh he gripped her by the arms, holding her by brutal force.

"You little wild cat!" he said in a voice that shook between anger and amusement. "So this is your gratitude, is it? I am to give all and receive nothing for my pains. Then let me make it quite clear to you here and now that that is not my intention. I will be kind to you, but you must be kind to me, too. The benefit is to be mutual."

It was premature. In his heart he knew it, but she had provoked him to it and there was no turning back now. He resented the provocation, that was all, and it made him the more brutally inclined towards her.

As for Doris, she fought and tore at his grasp like a mad creature; and when he mastered her, when, still laughing between his teeth, he forced her face upwards and kissed it fiercely and violently, she shrieked between his kisses, shrieked and shrieked again.

The sudden grinding of the brake recalled Brandon to his senses. The fool was actually stopping the car. He relinquished his hold upon the girl to dash his hand against the window in front.

"Drive on, curse you, drive on!" he shouted through the glass. "I'll let you know if we want to stop."

But the car stopped in spite of him. The chauffeur, shining from head to foot in his oil-skins, sprang to the ground. A moment and he was at the door, had wrenched it open, and was peering within.

"What are you gaping there for, you fool?" raved Brandon, his hand upon Doris, who was suddenly straining forward. "It's all right, I tell you. Go on."

"I am going on," the chauffeur responded calmly through his mask. "But I am not taking you any farther, Major Brandon. So tumble out at once, you dirty, thieving hound!"

The words, the tone, the attitude, flashed such a revelation upon Doris that she cried out in amazement, and then with a revulsion of feeling so great that it deprived her of all speech she threw herself forward and clung to the masked chauffeur in an agony of tears.

Brandon was staring at him with dropped jaw.

"Who the blazes are you?" he said.

"You know me, I think," the chauffeur responded quietly. He was pressing Doris back into her seat with absolute steadiness. "We have met before. I was present at your first wedding ten years ago, and—as a junior counsel—I helped to divorce you a few months after. My name is Vivian Caryl."

He freed a hand to push up his mask. His pale face with its heavy-lidded eyes stared, supremely contemptuous, into Brandon's suffused countenance. His composure was somehow disconcerting.

"Suppose you get out," he suggested. "I can talk to you then in a language you will understand."

"Curse you!" bawled Brandon. "Where's Fricker?"

Caryl shrugged his shoulders.

"You have seen him since I have. Are you going to get out? Ah, I thought you would."

He stood aside to allow him to do so, and then stepped back to shut the door. He did not utter a word to the girl cowering within, but that action of his was a mute command. She crouched in the dark and listened, but she did not dare to follow or to flee.


CHAPTER VII

THE MAN AT THE WHEEL

When Caryl came back to the motor his handkerchief was bound about the knuckles of his right hand, and his face wore a faint smile that had in it more of grimness than humour.

He paused at the open window and looked in on Doris without opening the door. The sound of the rain pattering heavily upon his shoulders filled in a silence that she found terrible. He spoke at length:

"You had better shut the window, the rain is coming in."

That was all, spoken in his customary drawl without a hint of anger or reproach. They cut her hard, those few words of his. It was as if he deemed her unworthy even of his contempt.

She raised her white face.

"What—are you going to do?" she managed to ask through her quivering lips.

"I am going to take you to the nearest town—to Bramfield to spend the rest of the night. It is getting late, you know—past midnight already."

"Bramfield!" she echoed with a start. "Then—then we have been going north all this time?"

"We have been going north," he said.

She glanced around. Her eyes were hunted.

"No," said Caryl. "I haven't killed him. He is sitting under the hedge about fifty yards up the road, thinking things over."

He opened the door then abruptly, and she held her breath and became still and tense with apprehension. But he only pulled up the window, closed the door again with a sharp click, and left her. When she dared to breathe again the car was in motion.

She took no interest in her surroundings. Her destination had become a matter of such secondary importance that she gave it no consideration whatever. What mattered, all that mattered, was that she was now in the hands and absolutely at the mercy of the man whom she feared as she feared no one else on earth, the man with whom in her mad coquetry she had dared to trifle.

The car was stopping. It came to a standstill almost imperceptibly, and Caryl stepped into the road. Tensely she watched him; but he did not so much as glance her way. He turned aside to a little gate in a high hedge of laurel, and passed within, leaving her alone in the night.

Soon she heard his deliberate footfalls returning. In a moment he had reached the door, his hand was upon it. She turned stiffly towards him as it opened.

He spoke at once in his calm, unmoved voice:

"A very old friend of mine lives here. She will put you up for the night and see to your comfort. Will you get out?"

Mutely she did so, feeling curiously weak and unstrung. He put his arm around her, and led her into the dim cottage garden.

They went up a tiled path to an open door from which the light of a single candle gleamed fitfully in the draught. She stumbled at the doorstep, but he held her up. He was almost carrying her.

As they entered, an old woman, bent and indescribably wrinkled, rose from her knees before a deep old-fashioned fireplace on the other side of the little kitchen, and came to meet them. She had evidently just coaxed a dying fire back to life.

"Ah, poor dear," she said at sight of the girl's exhausted face. "She looks more dead than alive. Bring her to the fire, Master Vivian. I'll soon have some hot milk for the poor lamb."

Caryl led her to an arm-chair that stood on one side of the blaze, and made her sit down. Then, stooping, he took one of her nerveless hands and held it closely in his own.

He did not speak to her, and she was relieved by his forbearance. As the warmth of his grasp gradually communicated itself to her numbed fingers, she felt her racing pulses grow steadier; but she was glad when he laid her hand down quietly in her lap and turned away.

He bent over her again in a few minutes with a cup of steaming milk. She took it from him, tasted it, and shuddered.

"There is brandy in it."

"Yes," said Caryl.

She turned her head away.

"I don't want it. I hate brandy."

He put his hand on her shoulder.

"You had better drink it all the same," he said.

She glanced at him, caught her breath sharply, then dumbly gave way. He kept his hand upon her while she drank, and only removed it to take the empty cup.

After that, standing gravely before her, he spoke again.

"I am going on into the town now with the motor, and I shall put up there. My old nurse will take care of you. I shall come back in the morning."


CHAPTER VIII

THE SURRENDER OF THE CITADEL

Old Mrs. Maynard, sweeping her brick floor with wide-open door through which the April sunlight streamed gloriously, nodded to herself a good many times over the doings of the night. A very discreet creature was Mrs. Maynard, faithful to the very heart of her, but she would not have been mortal had she not been intensely curious to know what were the circumstances that had led Vivian Caryl to bring to her door that shrinking, exhausted girl who still lay sleeping in the room above.

When Doris awoke in response to her deferential knock, only the reticence of the trained servant greeted her. The motherliness of the night before had completely vanished.

Doris was glad of it. She had to steel herself for the coming interview with Caryl; she had to face the result of her headlong actions with as firm a front as she could assume. She needed all her strength, and she could not have borne sympathy just then.

She thanked Mrs. Maynard for her attentions and saw her withdraw with relief. Then, having nibbled very half-heartedly at the breakfast provided, she arose with a great sigh, and began to prepare for whatever might lie before her.

Dressed at length, she sat down by the open window to wait—and wonder.

The click of the garden gate fell suddenly across her meditations, and she drew back sharply out of sight. He was entering.

She heard his leisurely footfall on the tiles and then his quiet voice below. Her heart began to thump with thick, uncertain beats. She was horribly afraid.

Yet when she heard the old woman ascending the stairs, she had the courage to go to the door and open it.

Mr. Caryl was in the parlour, she was told. He would be glad to see her at her convenience.

"I will go to him," she said, and forthwith descended to meet her fate.

He stood by the window when she entered, but wheeled round at once with his back to the light. She felt that this did not make much difference. She knew exactly how he was looking—cold, self-contained, implacable as granite. She had seldom seen him look otherwise. His face was a perpetual mask to her. It was this very inscrutability of his that had first waked in her the desire to see him among her retinue of slaves.

She went forward slowly, striving to attain at least a semblance of composure. At first it seemed that he would wait for her where he was; then unexpectedly he moved to meet her. He took her hand into his own, and she shrank a little involuntarily. His touch unnerved her.

"You have slept?" he asked. "You are better?"

Something in his tone made her glance upwards, catching her breath. But she decided instantly that she had been mistaken. He would not, he could not, mean to be kind at such a moment.

She made answer with an assumption of pride. She dared not let herself be natural just then.

"I am quite well. There was nothing wrong with me last night. I was only tired."

He suffered her hand to slip from his.

"I wonder what you think of doing," he said quietly. "Have you made any plans?"

The hot blood rushed to her face before she was aware of it. She turned it sharply aside.

"Am I to have a voice in the matter?" she said, her voice very low. "You did not think it worth while to consult me last night."

"You were scarcely in a fit state to be consulted," he answered gravely. "That is why I postponed the discussion. But I was then—as I am now—entirely at your disposal. I will take you back to your people at once if you wish it."

She made a quick, passionate gesture of protest, and moved away from him.

"Have you any alternative in your mind?" he asked.

She remained with her back to him.

"I shall go away," she said, a sudden note of recklessness in her voice. "I shall travel."

"Alone?" he questioned.

"Yes, alone." This time her voice rang defiance. She wheeled round quivering from head to foot. "But for you," she said, "but for your unwarrantable interference I should never have been placed in this hateful, this impossible, position. I should have been with my friends in London. It would have been my wedding-day."

The attack was plainly unexpected. Even Caryl was taken by surprise. But the next moment he was ready for her.

"Then by all means," he said, "let me take you to your friends in London. Doubtless your chivalrous lover has found his way thither long ere this."

She stamped like a little fury.

"Do you think I would marry him—now? Do you think I would marry any one after—after what happened last night? Oh, I hate you—I hate you all!"

Her voice broke. She covered her face, with tempestuous sobbing, and sank into a chair.

Caryl stood silent, biting his lip as if in irresolution. He did not try to comfort her.

After a while, her weeping still continuing, he leant across the table.

"Doris," he said, "leave off crying and listen to me. I know it is out of the question for you to marry that scoundrel whom I had the pleasure of thrashing last night. It always has been out of the question. That is one reason why I have been keeping such a hold upon you. Now that you admit the impossibility of it, I set you free. But you will be wise to think well before you accept your freedom from me. You are in an intolerable position, and I am quite powerless to help you unless you place yourself unreservedly in my hands and give me the right to protect you. It means a good deal, I know. It means, Doris, the sacrifice of your independence. But it also means a safe haven, peace, comfort, if not happiness. You may not love me. I never seriously thought that you did. But if you will give me your trust—I shall try to be satisfied with that."

Love! She had never heard the word on his lips before. It sent a curious thrill through her to hear it then. She had listened to him with her face hidden, though her tears had ceased. But as he ended, she slowly raised her head and looked at him.

"Are you asking me to marry you?" she said.

"I am," said Caryl.

She lowered her eyes from his, and began to trace a design on the table-cloth with one finger.

"I don't want to marry you," she said at length.

"I know," said Caryl.

She did not look up.

"No, you don't know. That's just it. You think you know everything. But you don't. For instance, you think you know why I ran away with Major Brandon. But you don't. You never will know—unless I tell you, probably not even then."

She broke off with an abrupt sigh, and leant back in her chair.

"One thing I do thank you for," she said irrelevantly. "And that is that you didn't take me back to Rivermead last night. Have they, I wonder, any idea where I am?"

"I left a message for your cousin before I left," Caryl said.

"Oh, then he knew—?"

"He knew that I had you under my protection," Caryl told her grimly. "I did not go into details. It was unnecessary. Only Flicker knew the details. I marked him down in the afternoon, after the incident at luncheon."

She opened her eyes.

"Then you guessed—?"

"I knew he did not find the missing glove under the table," said Caryl quietly. "I did not need any further evidence than that. I knew, moreover, that you had not devoted the whole of the previous afternoon to your correspondence. I was waiting for your cousin in the conservatory when you joined Brandon in the garden."

"And you—you were in the conservatory last night when I went through. I—I felt there was someone there."

"Yes," he answered. "I waited to see you go."

"Why didn't you stop me?"

For an instant her eyes challenged his.

He stood up, straightening himself slowly.

"It would not have answered my purpose," he told her steadily.

She stood up also, her face gone suddenly white.

"You chose this means of—of forcing me to marry you?"

"I chose this means—the only means to my hand—of opening your eyes," he said. "It has not perhaps been over successful. You are still blind to much that you ought to see. But you will understand these things better presently."

"Presently?" she faltered.

"When you are my wife," he said.

She flashed him a swift glance.

"I am to marry you then?"

He held out his hand to her across the table.

"Will you marry me, Doris?"

She hesitated for a single instant, her eyes downcast. Then suddenly, without speaking, she put her hand into his, glad that, notwithstanding the overwhelming strength of his position, he had allowed her the honours of war.


CHAPTER IX

THE WILLING CAPTIVE

"And so you were obliged to marry your bête noire after all! My dear, it has been the talk of the town. Come, sit down, and tell me all about it. I am burning to hear how it came about."

Doris's old friend, Mrs. Lockyard, paused to flick the ash from her cigarette, and to laugh slyly at the girl's face of discomfiture.

Doris also held a cigarette between her fingers, but she was only toying with it restlessly.

"There isn't much to tell," she said. "We were married by special licence. I was not obliged to marry him. I chose to do so."

Mrs. Lockyard laughed again, not very pleasantly.

"And left poor Maurice in the lurch. That was rather cruel of you after all his chivalrous efforts to deliver you from bondage. And he so hard up, too."

A flush of anger rose in the girl's face. She tilted her chin with the old proud gesture.

"I should not have married him in any case," she said. "He made that quite impossible by his own act. He—was not so chivalrous as I thought."

A gleam of malice shone for a moment in Mrs. Lockyard's eyes, and just a hint of it was perceptible in her voice as she made response.

"One has to make allowances sometimes. All men are not made after the pattern of your chosen lord and master. He, I grant you, is hard as granite and about as impassive. Still I mustn't depreciate your prize since it was of your own choosing. Let me wish you instead every happiness."

"He was not impassive that night," said Doris quickly, with a sharp inward sense of injustice.

"No?" questioned Mrs. Lockyard.

"No. At least—Major Brandon did not find him so." Doris's blue eyes took fire at the recollection. "He gave him his deserts," she said, with a certain exultation. "He thrashed him."

"Oh, my dear, he would have done that in any case. That was an old, old score paid off at last. Forgive me for depriving you of this small gratification. But that debt was contracted many years ago when you were scarcely out of your cradle. Your presence was a mere incident. You were the opportunity, not the cause."

"I don't know what you mean," said Doris, looking her straight in the face.

"No? Well, my dear, it isn't my business to enlighten you. If you really want to know, I must refer you to your husband. Surely that is Mrs. Fricker over there. You will not mind if she joins us?"

"I am going!" Doris announced abruptly—"I really only looked in to see if there were any letters."

She dropped her cigarette with determination and turned to the nearest door.

It was true that she had run into the club for her correspondence, but having met Mrs. Lockyard she had been almost compelled to linger, albeit unwillingly. Now from the depths of her soul she regretted the impulse that had borne her thither. She vowed to herself that she would not enter the club again so long as Mrs. Lockyard remained in town.

Three weeks had elapsed since her marriage; three weeks of shopping in Paris with Caryl somewhere in the background, looking on but never advising.

He had been very kind on the whole, she was fain to admit, but she was further from understanding him now than she had ever been. He had retired into his shell so completely that it seemed unlikely that he would ever again emerge, and she did not dare to make the first advance.

Her return to London had been one of the greatest ordeals she had ever faced, but she had endured it unflinchingly, and had found that London had already almost forgotten the eccentricity of her marriage. In the height of the season memories are short.

Caryl had taken a flat overlooking the river, and here they had settled down. He spent the greater part of his day at the Law Courts, and Doris found herself thrown a good deal upon her own resources. In happier days this had been her ideal, but for some reason it did not now content her.

Returning from her encounter with Mrs. Lockyard at the club, she told herself with sudden petulance that life in town had lost all charm for her.

Entering the dainty sitting-room that looked on to the river, she dropped into a chair by the window and stared out with her chin in her hands. The river was a blaze of gold. A line of long black barges was drifting down-stream in the wake of a noisy steam-tug. She watched them absently, sick at heart.

Gradually the shining water grew blurred and dim. Its beauty wholly passed her by, or if she saw it, it was only in vivid contrast to the darkness in her soul. For a little, wide-eyed, she resisted the impulse that tugged at her heart-strings; but at last in sheer weariness she gave in. What did it matter, a tear more or less? There was no one to know or care. And tears were sometimes a relief. She bowed her head upon the sill and wept.

"Why, Doris!" a quiet voice said.

She started, started violently, and sprang upright.

Caryl was standing slightly behind her, his hand on the back of her chair, but as she rose he came forward and stood beside her.

"What is it?" he said. "Why are you crying?"

"I'm not!" she declared vehemently. "I wasn't! You—you startled me—that's all."

She turned her back on him and hastily dabbed her eyes. She was furious with him for coming upon her thus.

He stood at the window, looking out upon the long, black barges in silence.

After a few seconds of desperate effort she controlled herself and turned round.

"I never heard you come in. I—must have been asleep."

He did not look at her, or attempt to refute the statement.

"I thought you were going to be out this afternoon," he said.

"So I was. So I have been. I went to the club to get my letters."

"Didn't you find any one there to talk to?" he asked.

"No one," she answered somewhat hastily; then, moved by some impulse she could not have explained, "That is, no one that counts. I saw Mrs. Lockyard."

"Doesn't she count?" asked Caryl, still with his eyes on the river.

"I hate the woman!" Doris declared passionately.

He turned slowly round.

"What has she been saying to you?"

"Nothing."

Again he made no comment on the obvious lie.

"Look here," he said. "Can't we go out somewhere to-night? There is a new play at the Regency. They say it's good. Shall we go?"

The suggestion was quite unexpected; she looked at him in surprise.

"I have promised Vera to dine there," she said.

"Ring her up and say you can't," said Caryl.

She hesitated.

"I must make some excuse if I do. What shall I say?"

"Say I want you," he said, and suddenly that rare smile of his for which she had wholly ceased to look flashed across his face, "and tell the truth for once."

She did not see him again till she entered the dining-room an hour later. He was waiting for her there, and as she came in he presented her with a spray of lilies.

Again in astonishment she looked up at him.

"Don't you like them?" he said.

"Of course I do. But—but—"

Her answer tailed off in confusion. Her lip quivered uncontrollably, and she turned quickly away.

Caryl was plainly unaware of anything unusual in her demeanour. He talked throughout dinner in his calm, effortless drawl, and gradually under its soothing influence she recovered herself.

She enjoyed the play that followed. It was a simple romance, well staged, and superbly acted. She breathed a sigh of regret when it was over.

Driving home again with Caryl, she thanked him impulsively for taking her.

"You weren't bored?" he asked.

"Of course not," she said.

She would have said more, but something restrained her. A sudden shyness descended upon her that lasted till they reached the flat.

She left Caryl at the outer door and turned into the room overlooking the river. The window was open as she had left it, and the air blew in sweetly upon her over the water. She had dropped her wrap from her shoulders, and she shivered a little as she stood, but a feeling of suspense kept her motionless.

Caryl had entered the room behind her. She wondered if he would pause at the table where a tray of refreshments was standing. He did not, and her nerves tingled and quivered as he passed it by.

He joined her at the window, and they stood together for several seconds looking out upon the great river with its myriad lights.

She had not the faintest idea as to what was passing in his mind, but her heart-beats quickened in his silence to such a tumult that at last she could bear it no longer. She turned back into the room.

He followed her instantly, and she fancied that he sighed.

"Won't you have anything before you go?" he said.

She shook her head.

"Good-night!" she said almost inaudibly.

For a moment—no longer—her hand lay in his. She did not look at him. There was something in his touch that thrilled through her like an electric current.

But his grave "Good-night!" had in it nothing startling, and by the time she reached her own room she had begun to ask herself what cause there had been for her agitation. She was sure he must have thought her very strange, very abrupt, even ungracious.

And at that her heart smote her, for he had been kinder that evening than ever before. The fragrance of the lilies at her breast reminded her how kind.

She bent her head to them, and suddenly, as though the flowers exhaled some potent charm, impulse—blind, domineering impulse—took possession of her.

She turned swiftly to the door, and in a moment her feet were bearing her, almost without her voluntary effort, back to the room she had left.

The door was unlatched. She pushed it open, entering impetuously. And she came upon Caryl suddenly—as he had come upon her that afternoon—sunk in a chair by the window, with his head in his hands.

He rose instantly at her entrance, rose and closed the window; then lowered the blind very quietly, very slowly, and finally turned round to her.

"What is it? You have forgotten something?"

Except that he was paler than usual, his face bore no trace of emotion. He looked at her with his heavy eyes gravely, with unfailing patience.

For an instant she stood irresolute, afraid; then again that urging impulse drove her forward. She moved close to him.

"I only came back to say—I only wanted to tell you—Vivian, I—I was horrid to you this afternoon. Forgive me!"

She stretched out her trembling hands to him, and he took them, held them fast, then sharply let them go.

"My dear," he said, "you were in trouble, and I intruded upon you. It was no case for forgiveness."

But she would not accept his indulgence.

"I was horrid," she protested, with a catch in her voice. "Why are you so patient with me? You never used to be."

He did not answer her. He seemed to regard the question as superfluous.

She drew a little nearer. Her fingers fastened quivering upon his coat.

"Don't be too kind to me, Vivian," she said, her voice trembling. "It—it isn't good for me."

He took her by the wrists and drew her hands away.

"You want to tell me something," he said. "What is it?"

She glanced upwards, meeting his look with sudden resolution.

"You asked me this afternoon why I was crying," she said. "And I—I lied to you. You asked me, too, what Mrs. Lockyard said to me. And I lied again. I will tell you now, if—if you will listen to me."

Caryl was still holding her wrists. There was a hint of sternness in his attitude.

"Well?" he said quietly. "What did she say?"

"She said"—Doris spoke with an effort—"she said, or rather she hinted, that there was an old grudge between you and Major Brandon, a matter with which I was in no way concerned, an affair of many years' standing. She said that was why you followed him up and—thrashed him that night. She implied that I didn't count at all. She made me wonder if—if—"—she was speaking almost inarticulately, with bent head—"if perhaps it was only to satisfy this ancient grudge that you married me."

Her words went into silence. She could not look him in the face. If he had not held her wrists so firmly she would have been tempted to turn and flee. As it was, she could only stand before him in quivering suspense.

He moved at length, moved suddenly and disconcertingly, freeing one hand to turn her face quietly upwards. She did not resist him, but she shrank as she met his eyes. She fancied she had never seen him look so grim.

"And that was why you were crying?" he asked, deliberately searching her reluctant eyes.

"That was—one reason," she acknowledged faintly.

"Then there was something more than that?"

"Yes." She laid her hand pleadingly on his arm, and he released her. "I will tell you," she said tremulously, keeping her face upturned to his. "At least, I will try. But it's very difficult because—"

She began to falter under his look.

"Because," he said slowly, "you have no confidence in me. That I can well understand. You married me more or less under compulsion, and when a wife is no more than a guest in her husband's house, confidence between them, of any description, is almost an impossibility."

He spoke without anger, but with a sadness that pierced her to the heart; and having so spoken he leant his arm upon the mantelpiece, turning slightly from her.

"I will tell you," he said, his voice very quiet and even, "exactly what Mrs. Lockyard was hinting at. Ten years ago I was engaged to a girl—like you in many ways—gay, impulsive, bewitching. I was young in those days, romantic, too. I worshipped her as a goddess. I was utterly blind to her failings. They simply didn't exist for me. She rewarded me by running away with Maurice Brandon. I knew he was a blackguard, but how much of a blackguard I did not realize till later. However, I didn't trust him even then, and I followed them and insisted that they should be married in my presence. Six months later I heard from her. He had treated her abominably, had finally deserted her, and she was trying to get a divorce. I did my best to help her, and eventually she obtained it." He paused a moment, then went on with bent head, "I never saw her after she gained her freedom. She went to her people, and very soon after—she died."

Again he paused, then slowly straightened himself.

"I never cared for any woman after that," he said, "until I met you. As for Brandon, he kept out of my way, and I had no object in seeking him. In fact, I took no interest in his doings till I found that you were in Mrs. Lockyard's set. That, I admit, was something of a shock. And then when I found that you liked the man—"

"Oh, don't!" she broke in. "Don't! I was mad ever to tolerate him. Let me forget it! Please let me forget it!"

She spoke passionately, and as if her emotion drew him he turned fully round to her.

"If you could have forgotten him sooner," he said, with a touch of sternness, "you would not find yourself tied now to a man you never loved."

The effect of his words was utterly unexpected. She started as one stricken, wounded in a vital place, and clasped her hands tightly against her breast, crushing the flowers that drooped there.

"It is a lie!" she cried wildly. "It is a lie!"

"What is a lie?"

He took a step towards her, for she was swaying as she stood; but she flung out her hands, keeping him from her.

Her face was working convulsively. She turned and moved unsteadily away from him, groping out before her as she went. So groping, she reached the door, and blindly sought the handle. But before she found it he spoke in a tone that had subtly altered:

"Doris!"

Her hands fell. She stood suddenly still, listening.

"Come here!" he said.

He crossed the room and reached her.

"Look at me!" he said.

She refused for a little, trembling all over. Then suddenly as he waited she threw back her head and met his eyes. She was sobbing like a child that has been hurt.

He bent towards her, looking closely, closely into her quivering face.

"So," he said, "it was a lie, was it? But, my own girl, how was I to know? Why on earth didn't you say so before?"

She broke into a laugh that had in it the sound of tears.

"How could I? You never asked. How could I?"

"Shall I ask you now?" he said.

She stretched up her arms and clasped his neck.

"No," she whispered back. "Take me—take everything—for granted. It's the only way, if you want to turn a heartless little flirt like me into—into a virtuous and amiable wife!"

And so, clinging to him, her lips met his in the first kiss that had ever passed between them.