In the small hours, which so many wish were smaller, the Colonel had awakened, with the affair of the handkerchief swelling visibly. His niece's husband was not a man that he had much liking for--a taciturn fellow, with possibly a bit of the brute in him, a man who rather rode people down; but, since Dolly and he were in charge of Olive, the notion that young Lennan was falling in love with her under their very noses was alarming to one naturally punctilious. It was not until he fell asleep again, and woke in full morning light, that the remedy occurred to him. She must be taken out of herself! Dolly and he had been slack; too interested in this queer place, this queer lot of people! They had neglected her, left her to. . . Boys and girls!--One ought always to remember. But it was not too late. She was old Lindsay's daughter; would not forget herself. Poor old Lindsay--fine fellow; bit too much, perhaps, of the--Huguenot in him! Queer, those throw-backs! Had noticed in horses, time and again--white hairs about the tail, carriage of the head--skip generations and then pop out. And Olive had something of his look--the same ivory skin, same colour of eyes and hair! Only she was not severe, like her father, not exactly! And once more there shot through the Colonel a vague dread, as of a trusteeship neglected. It disappeared, however, in his bath.
He was out before eight o'clock, a thin upright figure in hard straw hat and grey flannel clothes, walking with the indescribable loose poise of the soldier Englishman, with that air, different from the French, German, what not, because of shoulders ever asserting, through their drill, the right to put on mufti; with that perfectly quiet and modest air of knowing that, whatever might be said, there was only one way of wearing clothes and moving legs. And, as he walked, he smoothed his drooping grey moustache, considering how best to take his niece out of herself. He passed along by the Terrace, and stood for a moment looking down at the sea beyond the pigeon-shooting ground. Then he moved on round under the Casino into the gardens at the back. A beautiful spot! Wonderful care they had taken with the plants! It made him think a little of Tushawore, where his old friend the Rajah--precious old rascal!--had gardens to his palace rather like these. He paced again to the front. It was nice and quiet in the early mornings, with the sea down there, and nobody trying to get the better of anybody else. There were fellows never happy unless they were doing someone in the eye. He had known men who would ride at the devil himself, make it a point of honour to swindle a friend out of a few pounds! Odd place this 'Monte'--sort of a Garden of Eden gone wrong. And all the real, but quite inarticulate love of Nature, which had supported the Colonel through deserts and jungles, on transports at sea, and in mountain camps, awoke in the sweetness of these gardens. His dear mother! He had never forgotten the words with which she had shown him the sunset through the coppice down at old Withes Norton, when he was nine years old: "That is beauty, Jack! Do you feel it, darling?" He had not felt it at the time--not he; a thick-headed, scampering youngster. Even when he first went to India he had had no eye for a sunset. The rising generation were different. That young couple, for instance, under the pepper-tree, sitting there without a word, just looking at the trees. How long, he wondered, had they been sitting like that? And suddenly something in the Colonel leaped; his steel- coloured eyes took on their look of out-facing death. Choking down a cough, he faced about, back to where he had stood above the pigeon-shooting ground. . . . Olive and that young fellow! An assignation! At this time in the morning! The earth reeled. His brother's child--his favourite niece! The woman whom he most admired--the woman for whom his heart was softest. Leaning over the stone parapet, no longer seeing either the smooth green of the pigeon-shooting ground, or the smooth blue of the sea beyond, he was moved, distressed, bewildered beyond words. Before breakfast! That was the devil of it! Confession, as it were, of everything. Moreover, he had seen their hands touching on the seat. The blood rushed up to his face; he had seen, spied out, what was not intended for his eyes. Nice position--that! Dolly, too, last night, had seen. But that was different. Women might see things-- it was expected of them. But for a man--a--a gentleman! The fullness of his embarrassment gradually disclosed itself. His hands were tied. Could he even consult Dolly? He had a feeling of isolation, of utter solitude. Nobody--not anybody in the world-- could understand his secret and intense discomfort. To take up a position--the position he was bound to take up, as Olive's nearest relative and protector, and--what was it--chaperon, by the aid of knowledge come at in such a way, however unintentionally! Never in all his days in the regiment--and many delicate matters affecting honour had come his way--had he had a thing like this to deal with. Poor child! But he had no business to think of her like that. No, indeed! She had not behaved--as-- And there he paused, curiously unable to condemn her. Suppose they got up and came that way!
He took his hands off the stone parapet, and made for his hotel. His palms were white from the force of his grip. He said to himself as he went along: "I must consider the whole question calmly; I must think it out." This gave him relief. With young Lennan, at all events, he could be angry. But even there he found, to his dismay, no finality of judgment. And this absence of finality, so unwonted, distressed him horribly. There was something in the way the young man had been sitting there beside her--so quiet, so almost timid--that had touched him. This was bad, by Jove--very bad! The two of them, they made, somehow, a nice couple! Confound it! This would not do! The chaplain of the little English church, passing at this moment, called out, "Fine morning, Colonel Ercott." The Colonel saluted, and did not answer. The greeting at the moment seemed to him paltry. No morning could be fine that contained such a discovery. He entered the hotel, passed into the dining-room, and sat down. Nobody was there. They all had their breakfast upstairs, even Dolly. Olive alone was in the habit of supporting him while he ate an English breakfast. And suddenly he perceived that he was face to face already with this dreadful situation. To have breakfast without, as usual, waiting for her, seemed too pointed. She might be coming in at any minute now. To wait for her, and have it, without showing anything--how could he do that?
He was conscious of a faint rustling behind him. There she was, and nothing decided. In this moment of hopeless confusion the Colonel acted by pure instinct, rose, patted her cheek, and placed a chair.
"Well, my dear," he said; "hungry?"
She was looking very dainty, very soft. That creamy dress showed off her dark hair and eyes, which seemed somehow to be--flying off somewhere; yes--it was queer, but that was the only way to put it. He got no reassurance, no comfort, from the sight of her. And slowly he stripped the skin from the banana with which he always commenced breakfast. One might just as well be asked to shoot a tame dove or tear a pretty flower to pieces as be expected to take her to task, even if he could, in honour. And he sought refuge in the words:
"Been out?" Then could have bitten his tongue off. Suppose she answered: "No."
But she did not so answer. The colour came into her cheeks, indeed, but she nodded: "It's so lovely!"
How pretty she looked saying that! He had put himself out of court now--could never tell her what he had seen, after setting, as it were, that trap for her; and presently he asked:
"Got any plans to-day?"
She answered, without flinching in the least:
"Mark Lennan and I were going to take mules from Mentone up to Gorbio."
He was amazed at her steadiness--never, to his knowledge, having encountered a woman armoured at every point to preserve a love that flies against the world. How tell what was under her smile! And in confusion of feeling that amounted almost to pain he heard her say:
"Will you and Aunt Dolly come?"
Between sense of trusteeship and hatred of spoiling sport; between knowledge of the danger she was in and half-pitying admiration at the sight of her; between real disapproval of an illicit and underhand business (what else was it, after all?) and some dim perception that here was something he did not begin to be able to fathom--something that perhaps no one but those two themselves could deal with--between these various extremes he was lost indeed. And he stammered out:
"I must ask your aunt; she's--she's not very good on a mule."
Then, in an impulse of sheer affection, he said with startling suddenness: "My dear, I've often meant to ask, are you happy at home?"
There was something sinister about the way she repeated that, as if the word "home" were strange to her.
She drank her coffee and got up; and the Colonel felt afraid of her, standing there--afraid of what she was going to tell him. He grew very red. But, worse than all, she said absolutely nothing; only shrugged her shoulders with a little smile that went to his heart.
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