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To Daisy that drive in the motor-car was like an exquisite dream. Her frivolous, shallow soul was awed by the vast white waste gleaming mysteriously in the moonlight as the car sped like a bird along the silent roads. There was not a cloud in a sky that shone like tempered steel; and amidst the frosty glitter of innumerable stars the hard moon looked down on an enchanted world. With Giles' hand on the steering gear and Daisy beside him wrapped in a buffalo rug, the machine flew over the pearly whiteness with the skimming swiftness of the magic horse. For the first time in her life Daisy felt what flying was like, and was content to be silent.
Giles was well pleased that the Great Mother should still her restless tongue for the moment. He was doing his duty and the will of his dead father, but his heart ached when he thought of the woman who should be by his side. Oh that they two could undertake this magical journey together, silent and alone in a silent and lonely world. He made no inquiries for Anne, and Daisy said nothing. Only when the car was humming along the homeward road to land them at the church did she open her mouth. The awe had worn off, and she babbled as of old in the very face of this white splendor.
"Anne's going away," she said abruptly.
For the life of him Giles could not help starting, but he managed to control his voice and speak carelessly. "Ah, and how is that?" he asked, busy with the wheel.
"She is going to-morrow. I suppose she is tired of the dull life here."
"I expect she is," replied Ware curtly.
"Are you sorry?"
Giles felt that she was pushing home the point and that it behooved him to be extra careful. "Yes, I am sorry," he said frankly. "Miss Denham is a most interesting woman."
"Does that mean----"
"It means nothing personal, Daisy," he broke in hastily; then to change the subject, "I hope you have enjoyed the ride."
"It is heavenly, Giles. How good of you to take me!"
"My dear, I would do much more for you. When we are married we must tour through England in this way."
"You and I together. How delightful! That is if you will not get tired of me."
"I am not likely to get tired of such a charming little woman."
Then he proceeded to pay her compliments, while his soul sickened at the avidity with which she swallowed them. He asked himself if it would not be better to put an end to this impossible state of things by telling her he was in love with Anne. But when he glanced at the little fragile figure beside him, and noted the delicacy and ethereal look in her face, he felt that it would be brutal to destroy her dream of happiness at the eleventh hour. Of himself he tried to think not at all. So far as he could see there was no happiness for him. He would have to go through life doing his duty. And Anne--he put the thought of her from him with a shudder.
"What is the matter, Giles? Are you cold?" asked Daisy.
"No; I expect a white hare is loping over my grave."
"Ugh! Don't talk of graves," said Daisy, with a nervous expression.
"Not a cheerful subject, I confess," said Giles, smiling, "and here we are in the very thick of them," he added, as the motor slowed down before the lych-gate.
Daisy looked at the innumerable tombstones which thrust themselves up through the snow and shivered. "It's horrible, I think. Fancy being buried there!"
"A beautiful spot in summer. Do you remember what Keats said about one being half in love with death to be buried in so sweet a place?"
"Giles," she cried half hysterically, "don't talk like that. I may be dead and buried before you know that a tragedy has occurred. The cards say that I am to die young."
"Why, Daisy, what is the matter?"
She made no reply. A memory of the anonymous letter and its threat came home vividly to her as she stepped inside the churchyard. Who knew but what within a few days she might be borne through that self-same gate in her coffin? However, she had promised to say nothing about the letter, and fearful lest she should let slip some remark to arouse the suspicions of Giles, she flew up the path.
Already the village folk were thronging to the midnight service. The bells were ringing with a musical chime, and the painted windows of the church glittered with rainbow hues. The organist was playing some Christmas carol, and the waves of sound rolled out solemnly on the still air. With salutation and curtsey the villagers passed by the young squire. He waited to hand over his car to his servant, who came up at the moment, breathless with haste. "Shall I wait for you, sir?"
"No, take the car to the inn, and make yourself comfortable. In an hour you can return."
Nothing loth to get indoors and out of the bitter cold, the man drove the machine, humming like a top, down the road. The sky was now clouding over, and a wind was getting up. As Giles walked into the church he thought there was every promise of a storm, and wondered that it should labor up so rapidly considering the previous calm of the night. However, he did not think further on the matter, but when within looked around for Daisy. She was at the lower end of the church staring not at the altar now glittering with candles, but at the figure of a woman some distance away who was kneeling with her face hidden in her hands. With a thrill Giles recognized Anne, and fearful lest Daisy should be jealous did he remain in her vicinity, he made his way up to his own pew, which was in the lady chapel near the altar. Here he took his seat and strove to forget both the woman he loved and the woman he did not love. But it was difficult for him to render his mind a blank on this subject.
The organ had been silent for some time, but it now recommenced its low-breathed music. Then the choir came slowly up the aisle singing lustily a Christmas hymn. The vicar, severe and ascetic, followed, his eyes bent on the ground. When the service commenced Giles tried to pay attention, but found it almost impossible to prevent his thoughts wandering towards the two women. He tried to see them, but pillars intervened, and he could not catch a glimpse of either. But his gaze fell on the tall figure of a man who was standing at the lower end of the church near the door. He was evidently a stranger, for his eyes wandered inquisitively round the church. In a heavy great-coat and with a white scarf round his throat, he was well protected against the cold. Giles noted his thin face, his short red beard, and his large black eyes. His age was probably something over fifty, and he looked ill, worried, and worn. Wondering who he was and what brought him to such an out-of-the-way place as Rickwell at such a time, Giles settled himself comfortably in his seat to hear the sermon.
The vicar was not a particularly original preacher. He discoursed platitudes about the coming year and the duties it entailed on his congregation. Owing to the length of the sermon and the lateness of the hour, the people yawned and turned uneasily in their seats. But no one ventured to leave the church, although the sermon lasted close on an hour. It seemed as though the preacher would never leave off insisting on the same things over and over again. He repeated himself twice and thrice, and interspersed his common-place English with the lordly roll of biblical texts. But for his position, Giles would have gone away. It was long over the hour, and he knew that his servant would be waiting in the cold. When he stood up for the concluding hymn he craned his head round a pillar to see Daisy. She had vanished, and he thought that like himself she had grown weary of the sermon, but more fortunate than he, she had been able to slip away. Anne's place he could not see and did not know whether she was absent or present.
Giles wondered for one delicious moment if he could see her before she left the church. Daisy, evidently wearied by the sermon, had gone home, there was no one to spy upon him, and he might be able to have Anne all to himself for a time. He could then ask her why she was going, and perhaps force her to confess that she loved him. But even as he thought his conscience rebuked him for his treachery to Daisy. He fortified himself with good resolutions, and resolved not to leave his seat until the congregation had dispersed. Thus he would not be tempted by the sight of Anne.
The benediction was given, the choir retired with a last musical "Amen," and the worshippers departed. But Giles remained in his seat, kneeling and with his face hidden. He was praying for a strength he sorely needed to enable him to forget Anne and to remain faithful to the woman whom his father had selected to be his wife. Not until the music of the organ ceased and the verger came to extinguish the altar candles did Giles venture to go. But by this time he thought Anne would surely be well on her homeward way. He would return to his own place as fast as his motor could take him, and thus would avoid temptation. At the present moment he could not trust to his emotions.
Outside the expected storm had come on, and snow was falling thickly from a black sky. The light at the lych-gate twinkled feebly, and Giles groped his way down the almost obliterated pathway quite alone, for every one else had departed. He reached the gate quite expecting to find his motor, but to his surprise it was not there. Not a soul was in sight, and the snow was falling like meal.
Giles fancied that his servant had dropped asleep in the inn or had forgotten the appointed hour. In his heart he could not blame the man, for the weather was arctic in its severity. However, he determined to wend his way to the inn and reprove him for his negligence. Stepping out of the gate he began to walk against the driving snow with bent head, when he ran into the arms of a man who was running hard. In the light of the lamp over the gate he recognized him as Trim, his servant.
"Beg pardon, sir, I could not get here any sooner. The car----" The man stopped and stared round in amazement. "Why, sir, where's the machine?" he asked, with astonishment.
"In your charge, I suppose," replied Ware angrily. "Why were you not here at the time I appointed?"
"I was, begging your pardon, sir," said Trim hotly; "but the lady told me you had gone to see Miss Kent back to The Elms and that you wanted to see me. I left the car here in charge of the lady and ran all the way to The Elms; but they tell me there that Miss Daisy hasn't arrived and that nothing has been seen of you, sir."
Ware listened to this explanation with surprise. "I sent no such message," he said; "and this lady, who was she?"
"Why, Miss Denham, sir. She said she would look after the car till I came back, and knowing as she was a friend of yours, sir, I thought it was all right." Trim stared all round him. "She's taken the car away, I see, sir."
The matter puzzled Giles. He could not understand why Anne should have behaved in such a manner, and still less could he understand why the car should have disappeared. He knew well that she could drive a motor, for he had taught her himself; but that she should thus take possession of his property and get rid of his man in so sly a way perplexed and annoyed him. He and Trim stood amidst the falling snow, staring at one another, almost too surprised to speak.
Suddenly they heard a loud cry of fear, and a moment afterward an urchin--one of the choir lads--came tearing down the path as though pursued by a legion of fiends. Giles caught him by the collar as he ran panting and white-faced past him.
"What's the matter?" he asked harshly. "Why did you cry out like that? Where are you going?"
"To mother. Oh, let me go!" wailed the lad. "I see her lying on the grave. I'm frightened. Mother! mother!"
"Saw who lying on the grave?"
"I don't know. A lady. Her face is down in the snow, and she is bleeding. I dropped the lantern mother gave me and scudded, sir. Do let me go! I never did it!"
"Did what?" Giles in his nervous agitation shook the boy.
"Killed her! I didn't! She's lying on Mr. Kent's grave, and I don't know who she is."
He gave another cry for his mother and tried to get away, but Giles, followed by Trim, led him up the path. "Take me to the grave," he said in a low voice.
"I won't!" yelped the lad, and tearing his jacket in his eagerness to escape, he scampered past Trim and out of the gate like a frightened hare. Giles stopped for a moment to wipe his perspiring forehead and pass his tongue over his dry lips, then he made a sign to Trim to follow, and walked rapidly in the direction of Mr. Kent's grave. He dreaded what he should find there, and his heart beat like a sledge-hammer.
The grave was at the back of the church, and the choir boy had evidently passed it when trying to take a short cut to his mother's cottage over the hedge. The snow was falling so thickly and the night was so dark that Giles wondered how the lad could have seen any one on the grave. Then he remembered that the lad had spoken of a lantern. During a lull in the wind he lighted a match, and by the blue glare he saw the lantern almost at his feet, where the boy had dropped it in his precipitate flight. Hastily picking this up, he lighted the candle with shaking fingers and closed the glass. A moment later, and he was striding towards the grave with the lantern casting a large circle of light before him.
In the ring of that pale illumination he saw the tall tombstone, and beneath it the figure of a woman lying face downward on the snow. Trim gave an exclamation of astonishment, but Giles set his mouth and suppressed all signs of emotion. He wondered if the figure was that of Anne or of Daisy, and whether the woman, whomsoever she was, was dead or alive. Suddenly he started back with horror. From a wound under the left shoulder-blade a crimson stream had welled forth, and the snow was stained with a brilliant red. The staring eyes of the groom looked over his shoulder as he turned the body face upwards. Then Giles uttered a cry. Here was Daisy Kent lying dead--murdered--on her father's grave!
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