Chapter 15




ANCIENT HISTORY


Ann opened her eyes and stared incuriously up into a blank, indeterminate expanse of white. It was quite without interest--conveyed no meaning to her whatever. Moreover, her eyelids felt inexplicably heavy, as though they were weighted. So she let them fall again, and the placid, reposeful sense of nothingness which had been momentarily interrupted enveloped her once more. She was conscious of no particular sensation of any kind, neither painful nor pleasurable, but merely of an immense peace and tranquillity.

Presently a faint feeling of curiosity concerning that odd expanse of white overhead filtered into her consciousness, gradually increasing in strength until it became a definite irritation, like the prolonged light scratching of a finger-nail up a surface of silk. She opened her eyes again reluctantly. It was still there, immediately above her--a formless stretch of dull white. She wondered whether it extended indefinitely, and her eyes travelled slowly along until they were arrested by a narrow line of demarcation. Here the expanse of white ceased abruptly, at right angles to a misty blue surface in the centre of which glimmered a square of light. Ann's mind seemed to struggle up from some profound depth where it had lain quiescent and feebly and disjointedly signalled the words: "Ceiling ... wall ... window...." And finally, with an immense effort, "Room."

After that the cogs of her mental machinery began to move in a more normal manner, though still slowly and confusedly. She recaptured the memory of a blurred murmur of voices and of some fiery liquid being poured down, her throat which stung and smarted abominably as it went down. Later had followed a pleasant dreamy consciousness of warmth which had brought with it realisation of the fact that previously she had been feeling terribly cold. Then voices again--notably Maria's this time: "She'll do now, Mrs. Hilyard, mum. 'Tis only warmth she wants."

Why did she want warmth? When it was summer. She was sure it was summer. She remembered seeing the sun overhead--hanging in the middle of the sky just like one of those solid-looking gold halos which the Old Masters used to paint round the head of a saint. At least ... had it been in the sky ... lately? To-day? And then, accompanied by a rush of blind terror, came recollection--of an overcast sky and grey, plunging sea, and of a wild, futile, suffocating struggle against some awful force that had tossed her hither and thither as a child might toss a ball, and had finally surged right over her, blotting out everything.

A little moan of horror escaped her, and immediately Robin's dear familiar voice answered reassuringly:

"You're quite safe, old thing--tucked up in bed. So don't worry."

He was bending over her, and she made an instinctive effort to sit up. The movement sent a stab of agony through her whole body, and she gasped out convulsively:

"It hurts!"

In a moment his arm was round her shoulders, and he had laid her gently back against her pillows.

"Yes. I expect you're pretty well bruised from head to foot," he said in a tone of commiseration.

Ann regarded him uncertainly.

"I feel so queer. What's happened to me? Where--where am I?" she asked.

Robin had the wisdom to answer her quite simply and naturally, telling her in a few words just what had occurred, and, her mind once set at rest, she lay back quietly and very soon dropped off into a sleep of sheer exhaustion. Afterwards followed a timeless period marked by the comings and goings of Maria with hot-water bottles and steaming cups of milk or broth, alternating with intervals of profound slumber. Through it all, waking or sleeping, ran a thread of wearisome pain--limbs so stiff and flesh so bruised that it seemed to Ann as though the wontedly comfortable mattress on which she lay had been stuffed with lumps of coal.

One break occurred in the ordered sequence of sleep and nourishment. This happened when Tony quitted Silverquay to rejoin his uncle. The day following Ann's enforced retirement to bed, a brusque letter had come from the old man, in which he concealed a genuine longing to have his nephew with him again beneath an irritable suggestion that he was probably outstaying his welcome at the Cottage. Robin laughingly reassured Tony upon the latter point, but at the same time he agreed that the young man's return to Lorne might be advisable, since it was obvious Sir Philip was feeling his loneliness considerably more than the proud old autocrat was willing to confess.

So Tony had tiptoed up to Ann's room, when she had roused herself sufficiently to wish him good-bye and bestow upon him a parting injunction "to be good." After which she dropped back once more into the lethargy of weakness, painfully conscious of the fact that relief was only to be found in lying torpidly still and silent.

But all things come to an end in time--though the disagreeable ones seem to take much longer over it than the nice ones--and at the end of a few days Ann was able to sit up in bed without groaning and take an intelligent interest in the fact that her room was lavishly adorned with roses.

"Where did all the flowers come from?" she demanded of Maria.

"Why, 'tis Mr. Forrester what sends they, miss," came the answer, uttered with much satisfaction. Brett had a "way" with him against which even downright Maria Coombe was not proof. "He've a-called here to inquire every day since you was took bad. Very attentive and gentlemanlike, I call't."

"Very," agreed Ann with becoming gravity. "And who else--hasn't any one else"--correcting herself quickly--"been to inquire?".

"'Deed they have! 'Twas 'Can't I see Miss Lovell to-day, Maria?' with first one and then t'other of them. But I told them all the same"--with grim triumph. "'Not till I gives the word,' I told them."

"Who has called, then?" asked Ann curiously.

"Her ladyship up to White Windows, she came, and Mrs. Hilyard, and the rector and that there long-faced sister of his--all of 'em have been, miss. And the squire--he've sent his groom down to ask how you were going on."

"The squire?"

"Mr. Coventry, I'm meaning--he as pulled you out of the water. You ought to be main grateful to him, Miss Ann, for sure."

A faint colour stole up into Ann's white cheeks.

"Oh, I am. You had better send back a message by the groom to that effect," she said curtly.

Maria surveyed her with frank disapproval.

"You should take shame to yourself, speaking that way, miss," she admonished severely. "But I expect you'm hungry-like, that's what 'tis. And I've a beautiful young chicken roasting for your lunch. You'll feel different when you've got a bit of something solid inside you."

The roast chicken, combined with a glass of champagne, certainly contributed towards producing a more cheerful outlook on life, and when, later on in the afternoon, Mrs. Hilyard called, armed with some books for the invalid, and was graciously permitted by Maria to come upstairs, Ann welcomed her with unfeigned delight.

"Well, it's quite nice to see you alive," smiled Cara as they kissed each other. "I really thought you were going to drown before my very eyes the other day."

"Instead of which I've turned up again like a bad penny!"

"Thanks to Mr. Coventry. If he hadn't chanced to be taking a constitutional in the direction of Berrier Cove that morning, I don't know what would have happened."

Ann was not looking at her. Instead, her gaze was directed towards the open window as though the view which offered were of surpassing interest.

"I wondered how it was he came to be on the spot just in the nick of time," she said negligently.

"That was how," nodded Cara. "He'd been for a walk along the shore, and luckily came home by way of the Cove."

"I suppose I shall have to thank him," remarked Ann gloomily.

Cara looked a trifle mystified. Then she smiled.

"It would be--just polite," she submitted.

Ann frowned.

"I always seem to be thanking him!" she complained, and, in response to the other's glance of inquiry, recounted the various occasions on which Coventry had rendered her a service.

"Not a bad record of knight-errantry for a confirmed woman-hater, is it?" she added with a rueful touch of humour.

"He wasn't always a woman-hater," answered Cara slowly. Her pansy-dark eyes held a curious dreaming look.

"I'd forgotten. Of course, you'd met him before you came here. Did you know him pretty well?"

"It was so many years ago," deprecated Cara, with a little wave of her hand which seemed to set her former friendship with Eliot away in the back ages. "But I knew a good deal about him--we knew his people when I was a girl in my teens--and I can understand why--how he became such a misanthrope."

Ann made no answer. Somehow she felt she could not put any direct questions about this man whose changing, oddly contradictory moods had baffled her so completely and--although she would not have acknowledged it--had caught and held her imagination with equal completeness. Perhaps she was hardly actually aware how much the queer, abrupt owner of Heronsmere occupied her thoughts. Mrs. Hilyard, however, continued speaking without waiting to be questioned.

"Eliot Coventry has had just the sort of experience to make him cynical," she went on in her pretty, dragging voice. "Particularly as regards women. His mother was a perfectly beautiful woman, with the temper of a fiend. She lived simply and solely for her own enjoyment, and never cared tuppence about either Eliot or his sister."

"Oh, has he a sister?" The question sprang from Ann's lips without her own volition.

"Yes. She was a very pretty girl, too, I remember."

Ann's thoughts flew back to the day of the Fête des Narcisses, recalling the pretty woman whom she had observed driving with Eliot in the prize car. Probably, since he so disliked women in general, his companion on that occasion had been merely his sister! She felt oddly pleased and contented at this solution of a matter which had nagged her curiosity more than a little at the time.

"Mrs. Coventry--the mother--was utterly selfish, and insisted upon her own way in everything." Cara was pursuing her recollections in a quiet, retrospective fashion which gave Ann the impression that they had no very deep or poignant interest for her. "If she didn't get it--well, there were fireworks!"--smiling. "Once, I remember, Eliot crossed her wishes over something and she flew into a perfect frenzy of temper. There was a small Italian dagger lying on a table near, and she snatched it up and flung it straight at him. It struck him just below one of his eyes; that's how he came by that scar on his cheekbone. She might have blinded him," she added, and for a moment there was a faint tremor in her voice.

"What a brute she must have been!" exclaimed Ann in horror.

"Yes," agreed Cara. "He was unlucky in his mother." After a pause she went on: "And he was unlucky in the woman he loved. He wasn't at all well-off in those days, and she threw him over--broke off the engagement and married a very wealthy man instead."

Ann felt her heart contract.

"I suppose that's what makes him so bitter, then," she said in a low voice. "Probably--he still cares for her."

"No." Cara shook her head. "Eliot Coventry isn't the sort of man to go on caring for a woman who'd proved herself unworthy. I think--I think he'd just wipe her clean out of his life."

"It would be what she deserved," asserted Ann rather fiercely.

"Yes, I suppose it would. But one can feel a little Sorry for her. She spoilt her own life, too."

"Did you know her, then?"

"Yes, I knew her. I think the only excuse to be made for her is that she was very young when it all happened."

"I'm young," said Ann grimly, "but I hope I wouldn't be as mean as that."

"You?" Cara's eyes rested with a wistful kind of tenderness on the flushed face against the pillows. "But, my dear, there's a world of difference between you and the girl Eliot Coventry was in love with."

She got up and, moving across to the window, stood looking out. Below, the pleasant, happy-go-lucky garden rambled desultorily away to the corner where stood the ancient oak supporting Ann's hammock--a garden of odd, unexpected nooks and lawns, with borders of old English flowers, without definite form and looking as if it had grown of its own sweet will into its present comeliness. But the garden conjured up before Cara's mental vision was a very different one--a stately, formal garden entered through an arch of jessamine, with a fountain playing in its centre, tinkling coolly into a marble basin, and a high-backed, carved stone bench set beneath the shade of scented trees. Above all pulsated the deep, sapphire blue of an Italian sky.

The pictured garden faded and Cara turned slowly back into the room. Her eyes looked sad.

"Poor Eliot!" she said. "It's all ancient history now. But one wishes it was possible to give him back his happiness."

When she had gone, Ann lay thinking over the story she had just heard. So it was all true, then--the tale that Eliot had been jilted years ago! It threw a vivid flash of illumination on the many complexities she had come up against in his character. The two women who should mean most in a man's life had both failed him. He bore on his body a scar which surely he must never see reflected in the mirror without recalling the travesty of motherhood that was all he had ever known. And scored into his soul, hidden beneath a bitter reticence and unforgiving cynicism, lay the still deeper scar of that hurt which the woman who was to have been his wife had dealt him.

Ann's annoyance with him because he hadn't troubled to call personally to ascertain how she was melted away in a rush of pitying comprehension. She was conscious of an intense anger against that unknown woman who had so marred his life. She hoped she was being made to pay for it, suffer for it in some way!

And then, all at once, came the realisation that if she had remained faithful, Eliot would probably have been married years ago ... she herself would never have met him.... A burning flush mounted to her very temples, and she hid her face in her hands, trying to shut out the swift, unbidden thought which had wakened within her a strange tumult of emotion. When at last she uncovered her face, her eyes held the wondering, startled look of a young fawn.

She was very young and whole-hearted, utterly innocent of that great miracle which transforms the world, as yet unrecognising of the voice of love--the Voice which, once heard, can never again be muted and forgotten. And now something stirred within her--something new and disturbing and a little frightening.

It was as though she had heard some distant call which she but half understood and, only partly understanding, feared.




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