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My lady Betty opened the bedroom door and sneezed violently:
"Aunt Bee," she gasped, "O!"
"Heavens, child, how you pounce on one!" cried Lady Belinda, starting and dropping her powder puff. "What is't?"
"Snuff—O Lord! Where? Who?"
"Your Colonel—Cleeve, aunt—O!"
"Colonel Cleeve? Here again? O Heavens!" cried Lady Belinda, flushing.
"He's been waiting below and sprinkling me with his dreadful snuff this half-hour and more, as you know very well, aunt!"
"Indeed miss, and how should I know?" cried Lady Belinda indignantly, stealing a glance at her reflection in the mirror.
"You saw him come a-marching up the drive of course, dear aunt. O he uses the dreadfullest snuff I vow—'tis like gunpowder—and scatters it broadcast! 'And pray how's your lady aunt?' says he, sprinkling it over the window-seat and me. 'O sir, in excellent health I thank you,' says I, 'twixt my sneezes. 'I trust she finds herself none the worse for her walk last night, the air grows chill toward sunset,' says he through a brown cloud. 'Indeed sir,' I choked feebly, 'aunt enjoys the evening air hugely.' 'Then,' says he, speaking like Jove in the cloud, 'I'm bold to hope that she perhaps—this afternoon——' 'I'll go and see,' I gasped, and staggered from the room strangling. 'Tis a dear, shy soul, aunt, for all his ogreish eyes and gruff voice."
"Betty!" exclaimed Belinda clasping her hands, "when I think of him downstairs and our poor, dear Charles abovestairs I could positively swoon——"
"Nay, aunt, the Colonel's presence here is Charles' safeguard surely, and the Colonel's a true soldier, a dear, gentle man 'spite all his bloodthirsty airs and ferocious eyes——"
"Do you think them so—so fierce, Betty?" questioned Lady Belinda wistfully.
"Go down and see for yourself, aunt."
Lady Belinda crossed to the door, but paused there, fumbled with the latch and then, all at once, sobbed, and next moment Betty had her close in her arms.
"Why, aunt!" she whispered. "My dear, what's your grief?"
"O Betty!" whispered Lady Belinda, trembling in those strong young arms, "O my dear I'm—so—old——"
Betty's eyes filled and stooping she kissed that humbly bowed head:
"Aunt Belinda," she murmured, "Love is never old, nor ever can be. If Love hath come to thee when least expected, Love shall make thee young. Thy years of waiting and unselfish service these have but made thee more worthy—would I were the same. There, let me dry these foolish tears, so. Now go, dear, go down and may'st thou find a joy worthy of thy life of devotion to thy Betty who loveth thee and ever will. I'll upstairs to Charles!"
"Now look'ee Bet," my Lord of Medhurst was saying five minutes later, "I'll not endure it another week—I'll not I say. To lie mewed up here, to creep out like a very thief—'tis beyond my endurance——"
"And mine too, Charles—almost," sighed Betty. "To have to live a hateful lie, to be forced to meet one I despise, to endure his looks, his words, his touches—O!"
"God forgive me, Bet—I'm a beast, a graceless, selfish beast!" cried his lordship, clasping her in his arms. "When I think of all you've done for me I could kick this damned carcass o' mine—forgive me! But ha!" his lordship chuckled boyishly, "Deuce take me Bet, but I avenged you to some extent last night. I sat on the wall, Bet, as coyly as you please and true to a minute along comes my gentleman and kisses my hand and I more demure and shy than e'er you were. 'Betty,' says he, low and eager, 'by heaven, you're more bewitching than ever to-night!' His very words, Bet, as I'm a sinner!" Here my lord chuckled again, laughed and finally fell to such an ecstasy of mirth that he must needs gag and half-choke himself with his handkerchief, while Betty laughed too and thereafter gnashed white teeth vindictively:
"What more?" she questioned, her eyes bright and malevolent.
"Why then, Bet, the fool falls to an amorous ecstasy—pleads for a taste o' my lips—damn him! and finally catches me by the foot and falls to kissing that and I bursting with laughter the while! So there he has me by the foot d'ye see and I nigh helpless with suppressed joy, but when I wished to get away he did but hold and kiss the fiercer. So Bet, I—full of prudish alarms as it were—bestowed on him—a kick!" Here his lordship found it necessary to gag himself again while Betty, leaning forward with hands clasped, watched him gleefully.
"You kicked him!" she repeated. "Hard?"
"Fairly so—enough to send his hat flying, and Bet, as luck would have it who should chance along at that precise moment but Major d'Arcy and——"
Uttering an inarticulate cry my lady sprang to her feet.
"Did he see—did he see?" she demanded breathlessly, "Charles—O Charles—did he see?"
"Begad, I fear he did—why Bet—Betty—good God—what is it?" For, covering her face, Betty had cowered away to the wall and leaned there.
"What will he think!" she murmured. "O what will he think of me?"
My lord stood speechless awhile, his delicate features twitching with emotion as he watched her bowed form.
"Betty dear," said he tenderly at last, "doth it matter to thee—so much?"
"Charles!" she cried, "O Charles!" and in that stricken cry and the agony of the face she lifted, he read her answer.
"Dearest," said he after awhile, clasping his arm about her, "here is no cause for grief. I'll go to him in—in these curst floppy things—he shall see for himself and I'll tell him all——"
"No!" said she rising and throwing up proud head. "I'll die first! We will go through with it to the end—nobody shall know until you are safe—none but you and I and Aunt Belinda. To speak now were to ruin all. So, my Charles, whatsoe'er befall you shall not speak—I forbid it!"
"Forgive me, Bess," he pleaded, "wilt forgive me for jeopardising thy—thy happiness so?"
"Aye to be sure, dear boy!" she answered, kissing him. "Only now I must go!"
"To him!" she sighed. "I must find out—just how and what he thinks of me."
"Gad's my life, Bet!" sighed his lordship ruefully as he followed her to the door, "I do think thou wert ever the braver of the two of us."
"Consequently Tom, dear lad," the Major was saying as he walked the rose-garden arm in arm with the Viscount, "feeling for thee as I do and because of the years that have but knit our affections the closer, I am bold to ask thee what hath moved thee to run so great a risk o' thy life—a life so young and promising."
"Why nunky," answered the Viscount, pressing the arm within his own affectionately, "in the first place I'll confess to a pronounced distaste for the fellow."
"His air of serene assurance displeases me."
"Quite so, Tom."
"His air of cold cynicism annoys me."
"In fine sir, not to particularise, Mr. Dalroyd, within and without and altogether, I find a trifle irksome."
"And so, Tom, for these trivialities, you picked a quarrel with a man who is a notorious and deadly duellist?
"I believe I objected to his method of dealing cards, among other things, sir."
"And now, Tom," said the Major, sitting down beside the sun-dial and crossing his legs, "may I suggest you tell me the real reason—your true motive?"
The Viscount began to pull at and arrange the rich lace of his steenkirk with gentle fingers.
"Gad save my poor perishing soul!" he sighed, "but you're a very persistent nunky!"
"Tom," said the Major softly, "you—you love my lady Betty, I think?"
The Viscount, sitting beside him, was silent a moment, still pulling gently at the lace of his cravat.
"And—and always shall, sir," he answered at last.
"This," said the Major, staring straight before him, "this brings me to a matter I have long wished to touch upon—and desired to tell thee, Tom. For I also thought—that she ... I ... we..."
"Love each other, sir," said the Viscount gently.
"You knew this, Tom?"
"Sir, I guessed it a few days since."
The Major bowed his head and was silent awhile.
"Pancras," said he at last, "'twas none of my seeking. I thought myself too old for love—beyond the age. But Love stole on me all unbeknown, Love gave me back my vanished youth, changed the world into a paradise wherein I, dreaming that she loved me, found a joy, a happiness so great no words may tell of it. And in this paradise I lived until—last night, and last night I found it but the very paradise o' fools, dear lad——"
"Last night!" exclaimed the Viscount, "last night sir?"
"I chanced to walk in the lane, Tom."
The Viscount clenched white hand and smote it on his knee:
"Damn him!" he cried, "he must ha' bewitched her in some infernal manner! That Betty should act so—'tis incredible! Yet 'twas none so dark! And I saw! 'Twas shameless—a vulgar country-wench would never——"
"Hush, Tom, hush!" cried the Major, flushing. "She's—after all she's so young, Tom, young and a little wilful—high-spirited—and—and—young, as 'twere——"
"Betty's no child, sir, and 'fore heaven——"
"'Tis strange I missed you, Tom," said the Major a little hastily.
"The lane makes a bend there sir, and when I saw I stopped——"
"So here's the true cause of your quarrel, Tom?"
"Nay, sir, I've known Betty from childhood, I've honoured and loved her but—'twas not so much on her account——"
"Then whose, Tom?"
"Why sir I—knew you loved her too——"
"God bless thee, lad!" said the Major and thereafter they sat awhile staring studiously away from each other.
"The vile dog hath bewitched her somehow!" explained the Viscount suddenly at last, "I've heard tell o' such cases ere now, sir."
"Heaven send he bewitch none other sweet soul!" said the Major fervently.
"He sha'n't—if I may stop him!" said the Viscount scowling.
"I don't think—no, I don't think he ever will, Tom!"
"Gad love us!" exclaimed the Viscount suddenly in altered tone. "Nunky—sir—look yonder! 'Tis Betty herself and she's seen us! O Lard, sir—she's coming!"
Glancing swiftly round, the Major sat with breath in check watching where my lady was descending the steps into the rose-garden, as fresh, as fair and sweet as the morning itself. With one accord they rose and, side by side, went to meet her.
"Heavens!" she cried as they came up. "How glum you look—and the sun so bright too! Ha' you no greeting for me?"
"Madam," said the Viscount with a prodigious bow, "I was but now relating how, last night, I saw you in a lane, seated upon a wall."
"Was I, Pan?"
"Indeed, my lady!" he answered, taking out his snuff-box.
"And did you see me, too?"
"Who else should see you?" questioned the Viscount staring.
"I thought 'twas only Major d'Arcy—thought to see."
"I saw you also, madam."
"Art sure, Pan?"
"O pasitive, madam!"
"And prithee—what saw you?"
"'Tis no matter——"
"What saw you, Pan—Tom?"
"I saw that Dalroyd fellow—brutalise your foot."
My lady's cheek grew rosy and her delicate nostrils expanded suddenly, but her voice was smooth and soft as ever.
"Will you swear it, Pan?"
"On oath!" he answered.
"Alack!" she sighed. "On what slender threads doth woman's reputation hang! And if I say I was not there?"
"Then, my lady, I am blind or, having eyes, see visions——"
"Was ever such a coil!" she sighed. "Dear Pan, hast ever been my second brother, so do I forgive thee and, thus forgiving, bid thee go, thinking on me as kindly as thou may'st and believing that thine eyes do verily see visions." So the Viscount bowed and went, somewhat stiff in the back and making great play with his snuff-box. "Dear Pan!" she murmured as she watched him go, "I might have loved him had I any love to spare. And now—you, John—will you rail at me, too?"
"No, my lady," he answered dully, "never again!"
"Yet your voice is cold and hard! Did you think to see me too?"
"Aye, I saw—I saw," he answered wearily.
"And if I say you saw me not?"
"Then, my lady, I will say I saw you not."
Now at this she came near, so near that he was conscious of all her warm and fragrant loveliness and thrilled to the contact of her hand upon the sleeve of the war-worn Ramillie coat.
"And—wilt believe, John?" she questioned softly. The Major stood silent and with head averted. "This dear old coat!" she murmured. "Dost remember how I sewed these buttons on?"
"Aye, I remember!" he groaned.
"And—wilt believe, my John?" she questioned, and drew nearer yet, until despite her soft and even tone, he could feel against him the swell and tumult of her bosom; yet he stood with head still averted and arms, that yearned to clasp her, rigid at his sides. "Wilt believe, John?"
"Betty," he answered, "ask me to believe the sun will rise no more and I'll believe, but not—not this!"
"Yet, dost love me—still?" she whispered.
"Aye, my lady—through life to death and beyond. The love I bear you is a love stronger than death and the agony of heartbreak and dead hopes. Though you take my heart and trample it in the dust that heart shall love thee still—though you profane the worship that I bear you still shall that worship endure—though you strip me of fame and honour and rob me of my dearest ideals still, ah still shall I love you until—until——" His voice broke and he bowed his head. "O Betty!" he cried. "In God's name show me—a little mercy—let me go!"
And turning he limped away and left her standing alone.
The Colonel's fierce eyes were transfigured with a radiant tenderness, his gruff voice was grown strangely soft and tender, his sinewy hand had sought and found at last those white and trembling fingers, while two soft eyes were looking up into his, eyes made young with love, and bright with happy tears.
Seeing all of which from without the casement, my lady Betty, choking back her own grief, smiled, sobbed and, stealing away, crept softly upstairs to her room, locked herself in and, lying face down upon her bed, wept tears more bitter than any she had ever known.
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