There are men who, however well-off--either in money or love--must gamble. Their affections may be deeply rooted, but they cannot repulse fate when it tantalizes them with a risk.
Summerhay, who loved Gyp, was not tired of her either physically or mentally, and even felt sure he would never tire, had yet dallied for months with this risk which yesterday had come to a head. And now, taking his seat in the train to return to her, he felt unquiet; and since he resented disquietude, he tried defiantly to think of other things, but he was very unsuccessful. Looking back, it was difficult for him to tell when the snapping of his defences had begun. A preference shown by one accustomed to exact preference is so insidious. The girl, his cousin, was herself a gambler. He did not respect her as he respected Gyp; she did not touch him as Gyp touched him, was not--no, not half--so deeply attractive; but she had--confound her! the power of turning his head at moments, a queer burning, skin-deep fascination, and, above all, that most dangerous quality in a woman--the lure of an imperious vitality. In love with life, she made him feel that he was letting things slip by. And since to drink deep of life was his nature, too--what chance had he of escape? Far-off cousinhood is a dangerous relationship. Its familiarity is not great enough to breed contempt, but sufficient to remove those outer defences to intimacy, the conquest of which, in other circumstances, demands the conscious effort which warns people whither they are going.
Summerhay had not realized the extent of the danger, but he had known that it existed, especially since Scotland. It would be interesting--as the historians say--to speculate on what he would have done, if he could have foretold what would happen. But he had certainly not foretold the crisis of yesterday evening. He had received a telegram from her at lunch-time, suggesting the fulfilment of a jesting promise, made in Scotland, that she should have tea with him and see his chambers--a small and harmless matter. Only, why had he dismissed his clerk so early? That is the worst of gamblers--they will put a polish on the risks they run. He had not reckoned, perhaps, that she would look so pretty, lying back in his big Oxford chair, with furs thrown open so that her white throat showed, her hair gleaming, a smile coming and going on her lips; her white hand, with polished nails, holding that cigarette; her brown eyes, so unlike Gyp's, fixed on him; her slim foot with high instep thrust forward in transparent stocking. Not reckoned that, when he bent to take her cup, she would put out her hands, draw his head down, press her lips to his, and say: "Now you know!" His head had gone round, still went round, thinking of it! That was all. A little matter--except that, in an hour, he would be meeting the eyes of one he loved much more. And yet--the poison was in his blood; a kiss so cut short--by what--what counter impulse?--leaving him gazing at her without a sound, inhaling that scent of hers--something like a pine wood's scent, only sweeter, while she gathered up her gloves, fastened her furs, as if it had been he, not she, who had snatched that kiss. But her hand had pressed his arm against her as they went down the stairs. And getting into her cab at the Temple Station, she had looked back at him with a little half-mocking smile of challenge and comradeship and promise. The link would be hard to break--even if he wanted to. And yet nothing would come of it! Heavens, no! He had never thought! Marriage! Impossible! Anything else--even more impossible! When he got back to his chambers, he had found in the box the letter, which her telegram had repeated, readdressed by Gyp from the Red House. And a faint uneasiness at its having gone down there passed through him. He spent a restless evening at the club, playing cards and losing; sat up late in his chambers over a case; had a hard morning's work, and only now that he was nearing Gyp, realized how utterly he had lost the straightforward simplicity of things.
When he reached the house and found that she had gone out riding alone, his uneasiness increased. Why had she not waited as usual for him to ride with her? And he paced up and down the garden, where the wind was melancholy in the boughs of the walnut-tree that had lost all its leaves. Little Gyp was out for her walk, and only poor old Ossy kept him company. Had she not expected him by the usual train? He would go and try to find out. He changed and went to the stables. Old Pettance was sitting on a corn-bin, examining an aged Ruff's Guide, which contained records of his long-past glory, scored under by a pencil: "June Stakes: Agility. E. Pettance 3rd." "Tidport Selling H'Cap: Dorothea, E. Pettance, o." "Salisbury Cup: Also ran Plum Pudding, E. Pettance," with other triumphs. He got up, saying:
"Good-afternoon, sir; windy afternoon, sir. The mistress 'as been gone out over two hours, sir. She wouldn't take me with 'er."
"Hurry up, then, and saddle Hotspur."
"Yes, sir; very good, sir."
Over two hours! He went up on to the downs, by the way they generally came home, and for an hour he rode, keeping a sharp lookout for any sign of her. No use; and he turned home, hot and uneasy. On the hall table were her riding-whip and gloves. His heart cleared, and he ran upstairs. She was doing her hair and turned her head sharply as he entered. Hurrying across the room he had the absurd feeling that she was standing at bay. She drew back, bent her face away from him, and said:
"No! Don't pretend! Anything's better than pretence!"
He had never seen her look or speak like that--her face so hard, her eyes so stabbing! And he recoiled dumbfounded.
"What's the matter, Gyp?"
"Nothing. Only--don't pretend!" And, turning to the glass, she went on twisting and coiling up her hair.
She looked lovely, flushed from her ride in the wind, and he had a longing to seize her in his arms. But her face stopped him. With fear and a sort of anger, he said:
"You might explain, I think."
An evil little smile crossed her face.
"You can do that. I am in the dark."
"I don't in the least understand what you mean."
"Don't you?" There was something deadly in her utter disregard of him, while her fingers moved swiftly about her dark, shining hair-- something so appallingly sudden in this hostility that Summerhay felt a peculiar sensation in his head, as if he must knock it against something. He sat down on the side of the bed. Was it that letter? But how? It had not been opened. He said:
"What on earth has happened, Gyp, since I went up yesterday? Speak out, and don't keep me like this!"
She turned and looked at him.
"Don't pretend that you're upset because you can't kiss me! Don't be false, Bryan! You know it's been pretence for months."
Summerhay's voice grew high.
"I think you've gone mad. I don't know what you mean."
"Oh, yes, you do. Did you get a letter yesterday marked 'Immediate'?"
Ah! So it was that! To meet the definite, he hardened, and said stubbornly:
"Yes; from Diana Leyton. Do you object?"
"No; only, how do you think it got back to you from here so quickly?"
He said dully:
"I don't know. By post, I suppose."
"No; I put it in your letter-box myself--at half-past five."
Summerhay's mind was trained to quickness, and the full significance of those words came home to him at once. He stared at her fixedly.
"I suppose you saw us, then."
He got up, made a helpless movement, and said:
"Oh, Gyp, don't! Don't be so hard! I swear by--"
Gyp gave a little laugh, turned her back, and went on coiling at her hair. And again that horrid feeling that he must knock his head against something rose in Summerhay. He said helplessly:
"I only gave her tea. Why not? She's my cousin. It's nothing! Why should you think the worst of me? She asked to see my chambers. Why not? I couldn't refuse."
"Your empty chambers? Don't, Bryan--it's pitiful! I can't bear to hear you."
At that lash of the whip, Summerhay turned and said:
"It pleases you to think the worst, then?"
Gyp stopped the movement of her fingers and looked round at him.
"I've always told you you were perfectly free. Do you think I haven't felt it going on for months? There comes a moment when pride revolts--that's all. Don't lie to me, please!"
"I am not in the habit of lying." But still he did not go. That awful feeling of encirclement, of a net round him, through which he could not break--a net which he dimly perceived even in his resentment to have been spun by himself, by that cursed intimacy, kept from her all to no purpose--beset him more closely every minute. Could he not make her see the truth, that it was only her he really loved? And he said:
"Gyp, I swear to you there's nothing but one kiss, and that was not--"
A shudder went through her from head to foot; she cried out:
"Oh, please go away!"
He went up to her, put his hands on her shoulders, and said:
"It's only you I really love. I swear it! Why don't you believe me? You must believe me. You can't be so wicked as not to. It's foolish--foolish! Think of our life--think of our love--think of all--" Her face was frozen; he loosened his grasp of her, and muttered: "Oh, your pride is awful!"
"Yes, it's all I've got. Lucky for you I have it. You can go to her when you like."
"Go to her! It's absurd--I couldn't-- If you wish, I'll never see her again."
She turned away to the glass.
"Oh, don't! What is the use?"
Nothing is harder for one whom life has always spoiled than to find his best and deepest feelings disbelieved in. At that moment, Summerhay meant absolutely what he said. The girl was nothing to him! If she was pursuing him, how could he help it? And he could not make Gyp believe it! How awful! How truly terrible! How unjust and unreasonable of her! And why? What had he done that she should be so unbelieving--should think him such a shallow scoundrel? Could he help the girl's kissing him? Help her being fond of him? Help having a man's nature? Unreasonable, unjust, ungenerous! And giving her a furious look, he went out.
He went down to his study, flung himself on the sofa and turned his face to the wall. Devilish! But he had not been there five minutes before his anger seemed childish and evaporated into the chill of deadly and insistent fear. He was perceiving himself up against much more than a mere incident, up against her nature--its pride and scepticism--yes--and the very depth and singleness of her love. While she wanted nothing but him, he wanted and took so much else. He perceived this but dimly, as part of that feeling that he could not break through, of the irritable longing to put his head down and butt his way out, no matter what the obstacles. What was coming? How long was this state of things to last? He got up and began to pace the room, his hands clasped behind him, his head thrown back; and every now and then he shook that head, trying to free it from this feeling of being held in chancery. And then Diana! He had said he would not see her again. But was that possible? After that kiss--after that last look back at him! How? What could he say--do? How break so suddenly? Then, at memory of Gyp's face, he shivered. Ah, how wretched it all was! There must be some way out--some way! Surely some way out! For when first, in the wood of life, fatality halts, turns her dim dark form among the trees, shows her pale cheek and those black eyes of hers, shows with awful swiftness her strange reality--men would be fools indeed who admitted that they saw her!
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