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SEEKING TO FORGET
"And this is my holiday!" exclaimed Maryon, standing back from his easel the better to view the effect of his work. "Nan, you've a lot to answer for."
Another fortnight had gone by, and the long hours passed is the music-room, which had been temporarily converted into a studio, were beginning to show fruit in the shape of a nearly completed portrait.
Nan slipped down from the makeshift "throne."
"May I come and look?"
Rooke moved aside.
"Yes, if you like. I've been working at the face to-day."
She regarded the picture for some time in silence, Rooke watching her intently the while.
"Well?" he said at last, interrogatively.
"Maryon"--she spoke slowly--"do I really look like--that?"
"Yes," he replied quietly. "When you let yourself go--when you take off the meaningless mask I complained of."
With that uncanny discernment of his--that faculty for painting people's souls, as Nan described it--he had sensed the passionate, wistful, unhappy spirit which looked out from her eyes, and the face on the canvas gave back a dumb appeal that was almost painfully arresting.
"You'd no right to do it," she exclaimed a little breathlessly.
"I painted what I saw."
She was silent, tremulously disturbed. He could see the quick rise and fall of her breast beneath the filmy white of her gown.
"Nan," he went on in low, tense tones. "Did you think I could be with you, day after day like this, and not--find out? Could I have painted your face, loving each line of it, and not learned the truth?" She stretched out her hand as though to check him, but he paid no heed. "The truth that Roger is nothing to you--never will be!"
"He's the man I'm going to marry," she said unevenly.
"And I'm only the man who loves you! . . . But because I failed once, putting love second, must I be punished eternally? I'm ready to put it first now--to lay all I have and all I've done on its altar."
"What--what do you mean?" she stammered.
He put his hands lightly on her shoulders and drew her nearer to him.
"Is it hard to guess, Nan? . . . I want you to leave this life you hate and come with me. Let me take you away--right away from it all--and, somewhere we'll find happiness together."
She stared at him with wide, horrified eyes.
"Oh, you're mad--you're mad!"
With a struggle she freed herself from his grasp and stood away from him.
"Listen," she said. "Listen to me and then you'll understand what you're asking. I'm not happy--that's true. But it's my own fault, not Roger's. I ought never to have given him my promise. There was someone else--"
"Mallory!" broke in Rooke.
"Yes--Peter. It's quite simple. We met too late. But I learned then what love means. Once I asked him--I begged him--to take me away with him. And he wouldn't. I'd have gone to the ends of the earth with him. I'd go to-morrow if he'd take me! But he won't. And he never will." She paused, panting a little. "And now," she went on, with a hard laugh, "I don't think you'll ask me again to go away with you!"
"Yes, I shall. Mallory may be able to live at such high altitudes that he can throw over his life's happiness--and yours, too--for a scruple. I can't--and I don't want to. I love you, and I'm selfish enough to be ready to take you any minute that you'll come."
Throwing one arm about her shoulders, he turned her face up to his.
"Don't you understand?" he went on hoarsely. "I'm flesh and blood man, and you're the woman I love."
The hazel eyes blazed with a curious light, like flame, and she shivered a little, fighting the man's personality--battling against that strange kinship of temperament by which he always drew her.
"I can wait," he said, quietly releasing her. "You can't go on long as you're living now; the tension's too high. And when you're through with it--come to me, Nan! I'd at least make you happier than Trenby ever will."
Without reply she moved towards the door and he stood aside, allowing her to pass out of the room in silence.
In the hall she encountered Roger, who had ridden over, accompanied by a trio of dogs, and the sight of his big, tweed-clad figure, so solidly suggestive of normal, everyday things, filled her with an unexpected sense of relief. He might not be the man she loved, but he was, at any rate, a sheet-anchor in the midst of the emotional storms that were blowing up around her.
To-day, however, his face wore a clouded, sullen expression when he greeted her.
"What have you been doing with yourself?" he asked, his eyes fastening suspiciously on her flushed cheeks.
She answered him with a poor attempt at her usual nonchalance.
"Oh, Maryon came over this morning, so I've been sitting to him."
"All day? I don't like it too well." The look of displeasure deepened on his face. "People will talk. You know what country folks are like."
Nan's eyes flashed.
"Let them talk! I'm not going to regulate my conduct according to the villagers' standard of propriety," she replied indignantly.
"It isn't merely the villagers," pursued Roger. "Isobel said, only yesterday, she thought it was rather indiscreet."
"Isobel!" interrupted Nan scornfully. "It would be better if she kept her thoughts for home consumption. The neighbourhood might conceivably comment on the number of times you and she go 'farming' together."
Roger looked quickly at her, a half-smile on his lips.
"Why, Nan!" he said, a note of surprise, almost of satisfaction, in his voice. "I believe you're growing jealous?"
She laughed contemptuously. She was intensely angry that he should have quoted Isobel's opinion to her, and she struck back as hard as she could.
"My dear Roger, surely by this time it must be clear to you that I'm not very likely to be afflicted by--jealousy!"
The shaft went home, and in an instant the dawning smile on his face was replaced by an expression of bitter resentment.
"No, I suppose not," he returned sullenly.
He stared down at her, and something in the indifferent pose of her slim figure made him realise afresh for how little--how pitifully little--he counted in this woman's life.
He gripped her shoulder in sudden anger.
"But I am jealous!"--vehemently. "Do you hear, Nan? Jealous of your reputation and your time--the time you give to Rooke."
She shrank away from him, and the movement seemed to rouse him to a white heat of fury. Instead of releasing her, he pulled her closer to him.
"Don't shrink like that!" he exclaimed savagely. "By God! Do you think I'll stand being treated as though I were a leper? You avoid me all you can--detest the sight of me, I suppose! But remember one thing--you're going to be my wife. Nothing can alter that, and you belong--to--me"--emphasising each word separately. "You mayn't give me your smiles--but I'm damned if you shall give them to any other man."
He thrust his face, distorted with anger, close to hers.
"Now do you understand?"
She struggled in his grasp like a frightened bird, her eyes dilating with terror. She knew, only too well, what this big primitive-souled man could be like when the devil in him was roused, and his white, furious face and blazing eyes filled her with panic.
"Roger! Let me go!" she cried, her voice quick with fear. "Let me go! You're hurting me!"
"Hurting you?" With an effort he mastered himself, slackening his grasp a little, but still holding her. "Hurting you? I wonder if you realise what a woman like you can do to a man? When I first met you I was just an ordinary decent man, and I loved and trusted you implicitly. But now, sometimes, I almost feel that I could kill you--to make sure of you!"
"But why should you distrust me? It's Isobel--Isobel Carson who's put these ideas into your head."
"Perhaps she's opened my eyes," he said grimly. "They've been shut too long."
"You've no right to distrust me--"
"Haven't I, Nan, haven't I?" He held her a little away from him and searched her face. "Answer me! Have I no right to doubt you?"
His big chest heaved under the soft fabric of his shirt as he stood looking down at her, waiting for her answer.
She would have given the world to be able to answer him with a simple "No." But her lips refused to shape the word. There was so much that lay between them, so much that was complicated and difficult to interpret.
Slowly her eyes fell before his.
"I utterly decline to answer such a question," she replied at last. "It's an insult."
His hands fell from her shoulders.
"I think I'm answered," he said curtly, and, turning on his heel, he strode away, leaving Nan shaken and dismayed.
As far as Maryon was concerned, he refrained from making any allusion to what had taken place that day in the music-room, and gradually the sense of shocked dismay with which his proposal had filled Nan at the time, grew blurred and faded, skilfully obliterated by his unfailing tact. But the remembrance of it lingered, tucked away in a corner of her mind, offering a terrible solution of her difficulties.
He still demanded from her a large part of each day, on the plea that much yet remained to be done to the portrait, while Roger, into whose ears Isobel continued to drop small poisoned hints, became correspondingly more difficult and moody. The tension of the situation was only relieved by the comings and goings of Sandy McBain and the enforced cheerfulness assumed by the members of the Mallow household.
Neither Penelope nor Kitty sensed the imminence of any real danger. But Sandy, in whose memory the recollection of the winter's happenings was still alive and vivid, felt disturbed and not a little anxious. Nan's moods were an open book to him, and just now they were not very pleasant reading.
"What about the concerto?" he asked her one day. "Aren't you going to do anything with it?"
"Do anything with it?" she repeated vaguely.
"Yes, of course. Get it published--push it! You didn't write it just for fun, I suppose?"
A faintly mocking smile upturned the corners of her mouth.
"I think Roger considers I wrote it expressly to annoy him," she submitted.
"Rot!" he replied succinctly. "Just because he's not a trained musician you appear to imagine he's devoid of ordinary appreciation."
"He is," she returned. "He hates my music. Yes, he does"--as Sandy seemed about to protest. "He hates it!"
"Look here, Nan"--he became suddenly serious--"you're not playing fair with Trenby. He's quite a good sort, but because he isn't a scatter-brained artist like yourself, you're giving him a rotten time."
From the days when they had first known each other Sandy had taken it upon himself at appropriate seasons to lecture Nan upon the error of her ways, and it never occurred to her, even now, to resent it. Instead, she answered him with unwonted meekness.
"I can't help it. Roger and I never see things in the same light, and--and oh, Sandy, you might try to understand!" she ended appealingly.
"I think I do," he returned. "But it isn't cricket, Nan. You can kick me out of the house if you like for saying it, but I don't think you ought to have Maryon Rooke around so much."
She flushed hotly.
"He's painting my portrait," she protested.
"Taking a jolly long time over it, too--and making love to you in the intervals, I suppose."
"Well, isn't he?" Sandy's green eyes met hers unflinchingly.
"Anyway, I'm not in love with him."
"I should hope not," he observed drily, "seeing that you're going to be Mrs. Trenby."
She gave an odd little laugh.
"That wouldn't make an insuperable barrier, would it? I don't suppose--love--notices whether we're married or single when it comes along."
Something in the quality of her voice filled him with a sudden sense of fear. Hitherto he had attributed the trouble between Nan and Roger entirely to the difference in their temperaments. Now, for the first time, a new light was flashed upon the matter. Her tone was so sharply bitter, like that of one chafing against some actual happening, that his mind leaped to the possibility that there might be some more tangible force arrayed against Roger's happiness. And if this were the case, if Nan's love were really given elsewhere, then, knowing her as he did, Sandy foresaw the likelihood of some rash and headlong ending to it all.
He was silent, pondering this aspect of the matter. She watched him curiously for a few moments, then, driven, by one of those strange impulses which sometimes fling down all the barriers of reserve, she broke into rapid speech.
"You needn't grudge me Maryon's friendship! I've lost everything in the world worth having--everything real, I mean. Sometimes I feel as though I can't bear it any longer! And Maryon interests me . . . he's a sort of mental relation. . . . When I'm with him I can forget even Peter for a little. . . ."
She broke off, pacing restlessly backwards and forwards, her hands interlocked, her face set in a white mask of tragedy. All at once she came to a standstill in front of Sandy and remained staring at him with an odd kind of surprise in her eyes.
"What on earth have I been talking about?" she exclaimed, passing her hand across her forehead and peering at him questioningly. "Sandy, have you been listening? You shouldn't listen to what other people are thinking. It's rude, you know." She laughed a little hysterically. "You must just forget it all, Sandy boy."
Sandy had been listening with a species of horror to the sudden outpouring. He felt as though he had overheard the crying of a soul which has reached the furthest limit of its endurance. In Nan's disjointed, broken sentences had been revealed the whole piteous truth, and in those two short words, "Even Peter!" lay the key to all he had found so difficult to understand. It was Peter Mallory she loved--not Roger, nor Maryon Rooke!
He had once met Mallory and had admired the man enormously. The meeting had occurred during the summer preceding that which had witnessed Nan's engagement to Roger. Peter had been paying a flying week-end visit to the Seymours, and Sandy had taken a boy's instinctive liking to the brilliant writer who never "swanked," as the lad put it, but who understood so well the bitter disappointment of which Duncan McBain's uncompromising attitude towards music had been the cause. And this was the man Nan loved and who loved her!
With instinctive tact, Sandy refrained from any comment on Nan's outburst. Instead, he pushed her gently into a chair, talking the while, so that she might have time to recover herself a little.
"I tell you what it is, Nan," he said with rough kindness. "You've overdone it a bit working at that concerto, and instead of giving yourself a holiday, you've been tiring yourself still more by sitting for your portrait. You may find Rooke mentally refreshing if you like, but posing for him hour after hour is a confounded strain, physically. Now, you take your good Uncle Sandy's advice and let the portrait slide for a bit. You might occupy yourself by making arrangements for the production of the concerto."
"I don't feel any interest in it," she said slowly. "It's funny, isn't it, Sandy? I was so keen about it when I was writing it. And now I think it's rotten."
"It isn't," said Sandy. "It's good stuff, Nan. Anyone would tell you so."
"Do you think so?" she replied, without enthusiasm.
He regarded her with an expression of anxiety.
"Oh, you mustn't drop the concerto," he protested. "That's always been your trick, Nan, to go so far and no further."
"It's a very good rule to follow--in some things," she replied enigmatically.
"Well, look here, will you hand the manuscript over to me and let me show it to someone?"
"No, I won't," she said with decision. "I hate the concerto now. It has--it has unpleasant associations. Let it rest in oblivion."
He shrugged his shoulders in despair.
"You're the most aggravating woman I know," he remarked irritably.
In an instant Nan was her own engaging self once more. It was instinctive with her to try and charm away an atmosphere of disapproval.
"Don't say that, Sandy," she replied, making a beseeching little moue. "You know it would be awfully boring if I always did just exactly what you were expecting me to do. It's better to be aggravating than--dull!"
Sandy smiled. Nan was always quite able to make her peace with him when she chose to.
"Well, no one can complain that you're dull," he acknowledged.
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