The morning had been misty, verging on frost, but the sun came out while Val was jogging towards the Roehampton Gate, whence he would canter on to the usual tryst. His spirits were rising rapidly. There had been nothing so very terrible in the morning's proceedings beyond the general disgrace of violated privacy. 'If we were engaged!' he thought, 'what happens wouldn't matter.' He felt, indeed, like human society, which kicks and clamours at the results of matrimony, and hastens to get married. And he galloped over the winter-dried grass of Richmond Park, fearing to be late. But again he was alone at the trysting spot, and this second defection on the part of Holly upset him dreadfully. He could not go back without seeing her to-day! Emerging from the Park, he proceeded towards Robin Hill. He could not make up his mind for whom to ask. Suppose her father were back, or her sister or brother were in! He decided to gamble, and ask for them all first, so that if he were in luck and they were not there, it would be quite natural in the end to ask for Holly; while if any of them were in--an 'excuse for a ride' must be his saving grace.
"Only Miss Holly is in, sir."
"Oh! thanks. Might I take my horse round to the stables? And would you say--her cousin, Mr. Val Dartie."
When he returned she was in the hall, very flushed and shy. She led him to the far end, and they sat down on a wide window-seat.
"I've been awfully anxious," said Val in a low voice. "What's the matter?"
"Jolly knows about our riding."
"Is he in?"
"No; but I expect he will be soon."
"Then!" cried Val, and diving forward, he seized her hand. She tried to withdraw it, failed, gave up the attempt, and looked at him wistfully.
"First of all," he said, "I want to tell you something about my family. My Dad, you know, isn't altogether--I mean, he's left my mother and they're trying to divorce him; so they've ordered him to come back, you see. You'll see that in the paper to-morrow."
Her eyes deepened in colour and fearful interest; her hand squeezed his. But the gambler in Val was roused now, and he hurried on:
"Of course there's nothing very much at present, but there will be, I expect, before it's over; divorce suits are beastly, you know. I wanted to tell you, because--because--you ought to know--if--" and he began to stammer, gazing at her troubled eyes, "if--if you're going to be a darling and love me, Holly. I love you--ever so; and I want to be engaged." He had done it in a manner so inadequate that he could have punched his own head; and dropping on his knees, he tried to get nearer to that soft, troubled face. "You do love me--don't you? If you don't I...." There was a moment of silence and suspense, so awful that he could hear the sound of a mowing- machine far out on the lawn pretending there was grass to cut. Then she swayed forward; her free hand touched his hair, and he gasped: "Oh, Holly!"
Her answer was very soft: "Oh, Val!"
He had dreamed of this moment, but always in an imperative mood, as the masterful young lover, and now he felt humble, touched, trembly. He was afraid to stir off his knees lest he should break the spell; lest, if he did, she should shrink and deny her own surrender--so tremulous was she in his grasp, with her eyelids closed and his lips nearing them. Her eyes opened, seemed to swim a little; he pressed his lips to hers. Suddenly he sprang up; there had been footsteps, a sort of startled grunt. He looked round. No one! But the long curtains which barred off the outer hall were quivering.
"My God! Who was that?"
Holly too was on her feet.
"Jolly, I expect," she whispered.
Val clenched fists and resolution.
"All right!" he said, "I don't care a bit now we're engaged," and striding towards the curtains, he drew them aside. There at the fireplace in the hall stood Jolly, with his back elaborately turned. Val went forward. Jolly faced round on him.
"I beg your pardon for hearing," he said.
With the best intentions in the world, Val could not help admiring him at that moment; his face was clear, his voice quiet, he looked somehow distinguished, as if acting up to principle.
"Well!" Val said abruptly, "it's nothing to you."
"Oh!" said Jolly; "you come this way," and he crossed the hall. Val followed. At the study door he felt a touch on his arm; Holly's voice said:
"I'm coming too."
"No," said Jolly.
"Yes," said Holly.
Jolly opened the door, and they all three went in. Once in the little room, they stood in a sort of triangle on three corners of the worn Turkey carpet; awkwardly upright, not looking at each other, quite incapable of seeing any humour in the situation.
Val broke the silence.
"Holly and I are engaged.",
Jolly stepped back and leaned against the lintel of the window.
"This is our house," he said; "I'm not going to insult you in it. But my father's away. I'm in charge of my sister. You've taken advantage of me.
"I didn't mean to," said Val hotly.
"I think you did," said Jolly. "If you hadn't meant to, you'd have spoken to me, or waited for my father to come back."
"There were reasons," said Val.
"About my family--I've just told her. I wanted her to know before things happen."
Jolly suddenly became less distinguished.
"You're kids," he said, "and you know you are.
"I am not a kid," said Val.
"You are--you're not twenty."
"Well, what are you?"
"I am twenty," said Jolly.
"Only just; anyway, I'm as good a man as you."
Jolly's face crimsoned, then clouded. Some struggle was evidently taking place in him; and Val and Holly stared at him, so clearly was that struggle marked; they could even hear him breathing. Then his face cleared up and became oddly resolute.
"We'll see that," he said. "I dare you to do what I'm going to do."
Jolly smiled. "Yes," he said, "dare you; and I know very well you won't."
A stab of misgiving shot through Val; this was riding very blind.
"I haven't forgotten that you're a fire-eater," said Jolly slowly, "and I think that's about all you are; or that you called me a pro-Boer."
Val heard a gasp above the sound of his own hard breathing, and saw Holly's face poked a little forward, very pale, with big eyes.
"Yes," went on Jolly with a sort of smile, "we shall soon see. I'm going to join the Imperial Yeomanry, and I dare you to do the same, Mr. Val Dartie."
Val's head jerked on its stem. It was like a blow between the eyes, so utterly unthought of, so extreme and ugly in the midst of his dreaming; and he looked at Holly with eyes grown suddenly, touchingly haggard.
"Sit down!" said Jolly. "Take your time! Think it over well." And he himself sat down on the arm of his grandfather's chair.
Val did not sit down; he stood with hands thrust deep into his breeches' pockets-hands clenched and quivering. The full awfulness of this decision one way or the other knocked at his mind with double knocks as of an angry postman. If he did not take that 'dare' he was disgraced in Holly's eyes, and in the eyes of that young enemy, her brute of a brother. Yet if he took it, ah! then all would vanish--her face, her eyes, her hair, her kisses just begun!
"Take your time," said Jolly again; "I don't want to be unfair."
And they both looked at Holly. She had recoiled against the bookshelves reaching to the ceiling; her dark head leaned against Gibbon's Roman Empire, her eyes in a sort of soft grey agony were fixed on Val. And he, who had not much gift of insight, had suddenly a gleam of vision. She would be proud of her brother-- that enemy! She would be ashamed of him! His hands came out of his pockets as if lifted by a spring.
"All right!" he said. "Done!"
Holly's face--oh! it was queer! He saw her flush, start forward. He had done the right thing--her face was shining with wistful admiration. Jolly stood up and made a little bow as who should say: 'You've passed.'
"To-morrow, then," he said, "we'll go together."
Recovering from the impetus which had carried him to that decision, Val looked at him maliciously from under his lashes. 'All right,' he thought, 'one to you. I shall have to join--but I'll get back on you somehow.' And he said with dignity: "I shall be ready."
"We'll meet at the main Recruiting Office, then," said Jolly, "at twelve o'clock." And, opening the window, he went out on to the terrace, conforming to the creed which had made him retire when he surprised them in the hall.
The confusion in the mind of Val thus left alone with her for whom he had paid this sudden price was extreme. The mood of 'showing- off' was still, however, uppermost. One must do the wretched thing with an air.
"We shall get plenty of riding and shooting, anyway," he said; "that's one comfort." And it gave him a sort of grim pleasure to hear the sigh which seemed to come from the bottom of her heart.
"Oh! the war'll soon be over," he said; "perhaps we shan't even have to go out. I don't care, except for you." He would be out of the way of that beastly divorce. It was an ill-wind! He felt her warm hand slip into his. Jolly thought he had stopped their loving each other, did he? He held her tightly round the waist, looking at her softly through his lashes, smiling to cheer her up, promising to come down and see her soon, feeling somehow six inches taller and much more in command of her than he had ever dared feel before. Many times he kissed her before he mounted and rode back to town. So, swiftly, on the least provocation, does the possessive instinct flourish and grow.
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