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A FORGOTTEN FAN
Meanwhile, in the next room, Peter and Nan, having completed their scheme of decoration with "smilax and things," were resting from their labours and smoking sociably together.
Nan cast a reflective eye upon the table.
"You don't think it looks too much like a shrubbery where you have to hunt for the cakes, do you?" she suggested.
"Certainly I don't," replied Peter promptly. "If there is some slight confusion occasioned by that trail of smilax round the pink sugar-icing cake it merely adds to its attractiveness. The charm of mystery, you know!"
"I believe if Maryon were here he would sweep it all on to the floor in disgust!" observed Nan suddenly. "He'd say we'd forfeited simplicity."
"Maryon Rooke, the artist, you mean?"
The warm colour rushed into Nan's face, and she glanced at Peter with startled--almost frightened--eyes. She could not conceive why the sudden recollection of Rooke should have sprung into her mind at this particular moment. With difficulty her lips framed the monosyllable "Yes."
Peter bent forward. They were sitting together on the wide window-seat, the sound of the traffic from below coming murmuringly to their ears like some muted diapason.
"Nan"--Peter spoke very quietly--"Nan--was he the man?"
She nodded voicelessly. Peter made a quick gesture as though to lay his hand over hers, then checked it abruptly.
"My dear," he said, "do you still care?"
"No, I don't think so," she answered uncertainly. "I--I'm not sure. Oh, Peter, how difficult life is!"
He assented briefly. He knew very well how difficult.
"I can't imagine why I thought of Maryon just now," went on Nan, a puzzled frown wrinkling her brows. "I never do, as a rule, when I'm with you."
She smiled rather wistfully and with a restless movement he sprang to his feet and began pacing the room. A little cry of dismay broke from her and she came quickly to his side, lifting a questioning face to his.
"Why, Peter--Peter--What have I said? You're not angry, are you?"
"Angry!" His voice roughened a bit. "If I could only tell you the truth!"
"Tell it me," she said simply.
For a moment he was silent. Then:
"Don't ask me, Nan. There are some things that can't be told."
As he spoke, his eyes, dark and passionate with some forcibly restrained emotion, met hers, and in an instant it seemed as though the thing he must not speak were spoken.
Nan flushed scarlet from brow to throat, her eyes widened, and the breath fluttered unevenly between her parted lips. She knew--she knew what Mallory had left unsaid.
She held out her hands to him with a sudden childish gesture of surrender, and involuntarily he gathered them into his own. At the same moment the door opened to admit the maid and he drew back quickly, while Nan's outstretched hands fell limply to her side.
"This wire's just come for you, miss," said the maid, and from her manner it was quite impossible to guess whether she had observed anything unusual or not. "I took it to Miss Craig by mistake."
Mechanically Nan extracted the thin sheet from its torn envelope. As her eyes absorbed the few lines of writing, her face whitened and she drew her breath in sharply.
The next instant, however, she recovered her poise, and crumpling the telegram into a ball she addressed the maid composedly.
"There's no answer," she said. Adding: "Has anyone arrived yet?"
"Mrs. Seymour is here, miss. And"--listening--"I think Lord St. John must have arrived."
Nan turned to Mallory.
"Then we'd better go, Peter. Come along."
Mallory, as he followed her into the sitting-room, realised that she had all at once retreated a thousand miles away from him. He wondered what the contents of the telegram could have been. The oblong red envelope seemed to have descended suddenly between them like a shutter.
Lord St. John, having only just arrived, was still standing as they entered the room, and Nan rushed into apologies as she shook hands with him and kissed Mrs. Seymour.
"Heaps of apologies for not being here when you arrived. I really haven't any excuse to offer except"--with a small gamin smile--"that I was otherwise occupied!"
"If the occupation was a matter of toilette, we'll excuse you," observed St. John, surveying her with the usual masculine approbation of a white frock defined with touches of black. "The time wasn't wasted."
Nan slipped her arm affectionately into his.
"Oh, why aren't you forty years younger and someone else's uncle? You'd be such a charming young man!" she exclaimed.
St. John smiled.
"I was, my dear--forty years ago." And he sighed.
During the next half hour the remainder of the guests came dropping in by twos and threes, and after a little desultory conversation everyone settled down to the serious business of bridge. Now and then those who were not playing ventured a subdued murmur of talk amongst themselves, but for the most part the silence of the room was only broken by voices declaring trumps in a rapidly ascending scale of values, and then, after a hectic interval, by the same voices calling out the score in varying degrees of satisfaction or otherwise.
Nan, as a rule, played a good game, but to-day her play was nervous and erratic, and Mallory, her partner of the moment, instinctively connected this with the agitation she had shown on receiving the wire. Ignorant of its contents, he awaited developments.
He had not very long to wait. Shortly afterwards the trill of the door-bell pealed through the flat, followed by a sound of footsteps in the hall, and, a minute later, Maryon Rooke came into the room. A brief stir succeeded his entrance, as Penelope and one or two other non-players exchanged greetings with him. Then he crossed over to where Nan was playing. She was acutely conscious of his tall, loose-limbed figure as he threaded his way carefully between the tables.
"Gambling as usual?" he queried, when he had shaken hands. "And winning--also as usual--I suppose?"
"On the contrary," she retorted. "I've just thrown away a perfectly good trick. Your arrival distracted my attention."
Oddly enough, she had complete control of her voice, although her play and the slight trembling of her fingers as she held her cards fan-wise were sufficient indication to Mallory of the deep waters that had been stirred beneath the surface.
"I'm sorry my return has proved so--inopportune," returned Rooke. As he spoke his eyes rested for a reflective moment upon Peter Mallory, then returned challengingly to Nan's face. The betraying colour flew up under her skin. She understood what he intended to convey as well as though he had clothed his thought in words.
"Having none, partner?"
Mallory's kindly, drawling voice recalled her to the game, and she made an effort to focus her attention on the cards. But it was quite useless. Her play grew wilder and more erratic with each hand that was dealt, until at last a good no-trump call, completely thrown away by her disastrous tactics, brought the rubber to an end.
"You're not in your usual form this afternoon, Nan," remarked one of her opponents as they all rose from the table. Other tables, too, were breaking up and some of the guests preparing to leave.
"No. I've played abominably," she acquiesced. "I'm sorry, partner"--turning to Peter. "It must be the weather. This heat's intolerable."
He put her apology aside with a quick gesture.
"There's thunder in the air, I think. You shouldn't have troubled to play if you didn't feel inclined."
Nan threw him a glance of gratitude--Peter never seemed to fail her either in big or little things. Then, having settled accounts with her opponents, she moved away to join the chattering knot of departing guests congregated round the doorway.
Mallory's eyes followed her thoughtfully. He had already surmised that Maryon Rooke was the sender of the telegram, and he could see how unmistakably his sudden reappearance had shaken her. He felt baffled. Did the man still hold her? Was all the striving of the last few months to prove useless? Those long hours of self-effacement when he had tried by every means in his power to restore Nan to a normal interest in life, to be the good comrade she needed at no matter what cost to himself, demanding nothing in return! For it had been a hard struggle to be constantly with the woman he loved and yet keep himself in hand. To Mallory, Rooke's return seemed grotesquely inopportune.
He was roused from his thoughts to the realisation that people were leaving. Everyone appeared to be talking at once and the air was full of the murmur of wins and losses and of sharp-edged criticism of "my partner's play." Maryon Rooke alone showed no signs of moving, but remained standing a little apart near the window, an unlit cigarette in his hand.
"Penelope, do come back to Green Street with me." Kitty's voice was beseeching. "My little milliner was to have had a couple of hats ready for me this afternoon, which means she will arrive with a perfect avalanche of boxes, each containing a dinkier hat than the last, and I shall fall a helpless victim."
Her husband grinned unkindly.
"Yes, do come along, Penny," he urged. "Then you can lay a restraining hand on Kitty when she's bought the first half dozen."
"There'll just be time before dinner, and the car shall bring you back again," entreated Kitty, and Penelope, knowing that the former would be but clay in the practised hands of her "little milliner," smiled acquiescence.
"Barry"--Kitty tapped her husband's arm--"go down and see if the car is there. Peter, can I drop you anywhere?"
In a couple of minutes the room was cleared, and Kitty, shepherding her flock before her, departed in a gale of good-byes, leaving Nan and Maryon Rooke together.
Each was silent. The girl's small head was thrown back, and in the poise of her slim young body there was a mingling of challenge and appealing self-defence. She looked like some trapped wild thing at bay.
Slowly Rooke crossed the room and came towards her, and as she met those odd, magnetic eyes of his--passionately expressive as only hazel eyes can be--she felt the old fascination stealing over her once more. Her heart sank. She had dreaded this, fought against it, and in her inmost soul believed that she had conquered it. Yet now his mere presence sent the blood racing through, her veins with a hurrying, leaping speed that frightened her.
"Nan!" As he spoke he bent and took her two hands gently into his. Then, as though the touch of her slight fingers roused some slumbering fire within him, his grasp tightened suddenly. He drew her nearer, his eyes holding hers, and her slim body swayed towards him, yielding to the eager clasp of his arms.
"Kiss me, Nan!" he said, the roughness of passion in his voice. "You never kissed me--never in all those beautiful months we were together. And now--now when there's only parting ahead of us--"
His eyes burned down on to her tilted face. She could hear his hurried breathing. His lips were almost touching hers.
. . . Then the door opened quickly and Peter Mallory stood upon the threshold.
Swiftly though they started apart, it was impossible that he should not have seen Rooke holding Nan close in his arms, his head bent above hers. Their attitude was unmistakable--it could have but one significance.
Mallory paused abruptly in the doorway. Then, in a voice entirely devoid of expression, he said quietly:
"Mrs. Seymour left her fan behind--I came back to fetch it." With a slight bow he picked up the forgotten fan and turned to go. "Good-bye once more."
The door closed behind him, and Nan stood very still, her arms hanging down at her sides. But Maryon could read the stricken expression in her eyes--the desperate appeal of them. They betrayed her.
"What's that man to you?" he demanded.
He caught her roughly by the shoulders.
"I don't believe it!" he exclaimed hotly. "He's the man you love. The very expression of your face gave it away."
"I've told you," she answered unemotionally. "Peter Mallory is nothing to me, never can be anything, except"--her voice quivered a little despite herself--"just a friend."
Maryon's eyes searched her face.
"Then kiss me!" He repeated his earlier demand, imperiously.
She drew back.
"Why should I kiss you?"
The quietly uttered question seemed to set him very far apart from her. In an instant he knew how much he had forfeited by his absence.
"Nan," he said, in his voice a curious charm of appeal, "do you know it's nearly a year since I saw you? And now--now I've only half an hour!"
"Only half an hour?" she repeated vaguely.
"Yes, I go back to Devonshire to-night. But I craved a glimpse of the 'Beloved' before I went."
The words brought Nan sharply back to herself. He was still the same incomprehensible, unsatisfactory lover as of old, and with the realisation a cold fury of scorn and resentment swept over her, blotting out what she had always counted as her love for him. It was as though a string, too tightly stretched, had suddenly snapped.
She answered him indifferently.
"To cheer you on your way, I suppose?"
"No. I shouldn't"--significantly--"call it cheering. I've been back in England a month, alone in the damned desolation of Dartmoor, fighting--fighting to keep away from you."
She looked at him with steady, scrutinising eyes.
"Why need you have kept away?" she asked incisively.
"At the bidding of the great god Circumstance. Oh, my dear, my dear"--speaking with passionate vehemence--"don't you know . . . don't you understand that if only I weren't a poor devil of a painter with my way to make in a world that can only be bought with gold--nothing should part us ever again? . . . But as it is--"
Nan listened to the outburst with down-bent head. She understood now--oh, yes, she understood perfectly. He loved her well enough in his own way--but Maryon's way meant that the love and happiness of the woman who married him would always be a matter of secondary importance. The bitterness of her resentment deepened within her, flooding her whole being.
"'If only!'" repeated Rooke. "It's the old story, Nan--the desire of the moth for the flame."
"The moth is a very blundering creature," said Nan quietly. "He makes mistakes sometimes--perhaps imagining a flame where there is none."
"No!" exclaimed Rooke violently. "I made no mistake! You loved me as much as I loved you. I know it! By God, do you think a man can't tell when the woman he loves, loves him?"
"Well, you must accept the only alternative then," she answered coolly. "Sometimes a flame flickers out--and dies."
It was as though she had cut him across the face with a whip. In a sudden madness he caught her in his arms, crushing her slender body against his, and kissed her savagely.
"There!" he cried, a note of fierce triumph ringing in his voice. "Whether your love is dead or no, I'll not go out of your life with nothing to call my own, and I've made your lips--mine."
Loosening his hold of her he stumbled from the room.
Nan remained just where he had left her. She stood quite motionless for several minutes, almost as though she were waiting for something. Then with a leap of her breath, half-sigh, half-exultation, the knowledge of what had happened to her crystallised into clear significance.
In one swift, overwhelming moment of illumination she realised that the frail blossom of love which had been tentatively budding in the garden of her heart was dead--withered, starved out of existence ere it had quite believed in its own reality.
Maryon Rooke no longer meant anything to her. She felt completely indifferent as to whether she ever saw him again or not. She was free! While he had been with her she had felt unsure, uncertain of herself. The interview had shaken her. Yet actually, after those first dazzled moments, the emotion she felt partook more of the dim, sad ache that the memory-haunted scent of a flower may bring than of any more vital sentiment. But now that he had gone, it came upon her with a shock of joyful surprise that she was free--beautifully, gloriously free!
The ecstasy only lasted for a moment. Then with a sudden childish movement she put her hand resentfully to her face where the roughness of his beard had grazed it. She wished he had not kissed her--it would be a disagreeable memory.
"I shall never forget now," she muttered. "I shall never be able to forget."
There was an odd note of fear in her voice.
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