Chapter 19




ACCOUNT RENDERED


Dinner was over on board the Sphinx, and the whole party were gathered on deck for coffee. It had been a very perfect little dinner. Forrester was a confirmed diner-out in London, and no one knew better than he how to arrange a menu. Lady Susan played hostess charmingly, and under her benign influence the various unsympathetic elements included in the party had fused together more pleasantly than might have been anticipated.

Coventry had duly arrived, and although, as luck would have it, he found himself seated next to Mrs. Halyard, the fact that no one but the two people most intimately concerned were aware of any particular reason why they should not sit together enabled them to carry off the situation without visible effort. It had been a matter of more difficulty to merge Miss Caroline's personality into the prevailing atmosphere, but every one helped. They were all used to the fact that if they wanted to enjoy the rector's company they must be prepared to put up with his sister's, since the canons of a country neighbourhood forbade inviting the one without the other, and on this particular evening Forrester had chaffed her into such good humour that she became quite skittish, and contributed some truly surprising outbursts of frivolity to the general conversation.

"Rejuvenation while you wait," Robin had murmured to Cara, under cover of the buzz of talk.

Mrs. Hilyard had laughed that low, pretty laugh of hers which was always free from the least suspicion of "cattiness." "I defy any one to maintain a grown-up attitude when Brett decides that they shan't," she made answer.

Thanks to the arrangement of their respective seats at the table, Ann had been able to avoid holding any conversation with Eliot without provoking comment. She had dreaded meeting him again, feeling that it would be difficult to re-establish the merely friendly relations which had existed between them until one tense, glowing moment had swept aside convention and pretence and let each see deep into the other's heart.

But the meeting passed off more easily than she had dared to hope. They exchanged brief greetings on the quay, where Brett Forrester's guests had collected together and were waiting to board the yacht's dinghy, and during the short passage across the bay to where the Sphinx lay anchored she and Cara and Miss Caroline had sat chatting together in the stern of the boat, leaving the three men to talk amongst themselves. And now, as the whole party emerged on to the deck for coffee, Ann found herself safely wedged in between Brett and the rector, with Coventry, much to her relief, established at the other end of the semicircle of chairs.

It was a glorious evening. The moon--"according to, orders," as Brett had laughingly reminded her--hung like a great lambent globe in the sky, throwing a shimmering track of silver across the waters of the bay, and dappling the ripples of the sea beyond with shifting Jack-o'-Lantern gleams of light. The deck of the Sphinx shone with an almost dazzling whiteness, accentuated by the black patches of sharp shadow flung across it.

Ann sat quietly enjoying the peaceful beauty of it all, oblivious to the hum of conversation around her. For the time being she lost that sense of fear and dread of the yacht which had so curiously obsessed her yesterday. Now it seemed but a component part of the beautiful scene--to shoreward, a ragged string of cottage lights climbing the hill-side, speaking of hearth and home and of rest after the day's labour, and beyond, the still, calm moon and tranquil bay, and the yacht, with its whiteness and sharp-cut shadows, lying motionless like some legendary vessel carved in alabaster.

"What's your opinion, Ann?"

The question startled her, severing the dreaming thread of her thoughts. She roused herself with a smile.

"My opinion about what? I'm afraid I didn't hear what was being said."

"About pains and penalties," explained Cara,

"They sound unpleasant."

"They are--very," agreed Lady Susan with her jolly laugh. "The question under discussion is whether we all eventually have to pay up for our misdeeds--even in this world."

"I think we do--in some form or another," said Tempest quietly. "Only perhaps we don't always recognise the penalty, as a penalty, when it comes."

"Then it seems rather a waste, doesn't it?" suggested Brett idly.

The rector's quiet eyes rested on the speaker.

"I don't think so. If we recognised it as a punishment, we should probably resent it so much that it wouldn't do us any good--just as spanking doesn't really do a child any good but only rouses its naughty temper. Whereas when it comes unrecognised, even though it may be the outcome of our own mistaken actions, it educates and changes us--does, in fact, just what punishment is really designed to do, acts as a remedial force. I think God often works like that."

"Only, sometimes, the sinner isn't the only one who pays," threw in Coventry shortly.

"He's the only one who doesn't pay, generally speaking," answered Brett, with a grin. "He flourishes like a green bay tree instead. I never dream of paying for my sins," he added cheerfully.

Tempest smiled--that tolerant, good-humoured smile of his which always took the sting out of anything he might say.

"You're not at the end of life yet, Mr. Forrester," he observed quietly.

Brett laughed.

"Are you threatening me with an 'account rendered' of all my evil deeds--to he paid for in a sort of lump sum?"

"Even that might be preferable to having your punishment spread out all over your life," said Cara, with a faint note of weariness in her voice which passed unnoticed by all except Coventry, who threw her a quick, searching glance.

"Like thinly spread butter?" suggested Brett blithely.

"Cara didn't say anything about it being thinly spread," retorted Ann, laughing. "I should think yours might be rather thick."

Amid the general laughter and chaff which followed the original topic of conversation was lost sight of, and presently some one suggested a game of auction. Miss Caroline's blue bead eyes gleamed at the very sound of the word. She loved a game of bridge, but for parochial reasons adhered firmly to stakes of not more than a penny a hundred. Tempest had vainly argued with her that she might equally as well play for a more usual amount, such as sixpence or a shilling, and this without outraging the susceptibilities of the parish--that if she played for money at all the principle involved was precisely the same, but she either could not or would not comprehend. Bridge at a penny a hundred was apparently an innocent occupation--at anything higher, an awful example.

"Then we'll play for a penny a hundred," declared Lady Susan good-humouredly, when Miss Caroline had explained her scruples. "Who'll play? You will, Mr. Tempest? And you, Robin? That'll make one table. What about you others?"

"I don't play bridge," said Brett mendaciously, adding sotto voce to Lady Susan: "A least, I can't afford to play for a penny a hundred, beloved aunt." Then aloud: "Besides, Ann wants to see all over the boat, so I'm going to trot her round."

Ann laughed in spite of herself, never having expressed any such desire as was thus coolly attributed to her. But she submitted good-naturedly enough to being carried off by Brett on a tour of inspection, whilst Lady Susan and the rector, accompanied by Robin and Miss Caroline, went below to play bridge, leaving Mrs. Hilyard and Coventry alone together on deck.

A silence fell between them. Throughout the whole time which had elapsed since they had both come to live at Silverquay they had never before been actually alone. By tacit consent they had mutually avoided such a happening, and now, without any possibility of escape, it seemed to Cara that they were suddenly enfolded in a solitude which shut out the rest of the world entirely.

She twisted her fingers nervously together, vibrantly conscious of Coventry's tall, silent figure beside her, and her breath struggled a little in her throat at the memory of all that had once linked their lives together, of which there remained now only an abiding bitterness and contempt.

The silence seemed to close round her like a pall, suffocating her. She felt she could not endure it a minute longer.

"I hardly expected to see you here to-night," she said at last, the usual sweetness of her voice roughened by reason of the effort it cost her to speak at all.

"No. Dinner-parties aren't quite in my line," returned Eliot dryly. "But, having been fool enough to say I'd come, I keep my word."

He glanced towards her as he spoke, and she flushed faintly beneath his scrutiny. The latter part of the speech pricked her like an arrow sped from the past, though it was difficult to estimate from the man's impassive face whether or no he had actually intended to imply a deeper significance than the surface meaning which the words conveyed. Cara felt that she must know--at any cost she must know.

"Is that meant as a--protest?" she asked, assuming an air of playful indifference which she was very far from feeling. "Am I intended to take it as a rebuke?"

Perhaps the light detachment of her manner jangled some long-silent chord, roused an echo from the past, for his face darkened.

"You can take it so, if you wish," he said curtly.

She was silent. In that brief question and answer she had covertly appealed for mercy and had received judgment--the same judgment which had been pronounced against her years ago. She had never thought it possible that Eliot would learn to care for her again. She knew the man too well to believe that he would have any love left to give the woman who had despoiled him of all a man values--broken his faith, destroyed the ideals that had once been his. Moreover, she had seen clear down into his soul that day at Berrier Cove, when Ann had come within an ace of death, and she knew that on the ruins of the old love a new love was building.

But, deep within her, she had hoped that Eliot's savage bitterness towards her might have softened with the passage of time--that perhaps he had learned to tincture his contempt for her with a little understanding and compassion, allowing something in excuse for youth and for the long, grinding years of poverty which had ground the courage out of her and driven her into making that one ghastly mistake for which life had exacted such a heavy penalty. She knew now that she had hoped in vain. He was as merciless as he had been that day, ten years ago, when he had turned away and left her alone in an old Italian garden, with the happy sunlight and the scent of flowers mocking the half-realised despair at her heart.

"Then you haven't ever--forgiven me?" she said at last, haltingly.

He stared at her.

"Isn't that rather a curious question to ask? You killed everything in life that mattered--damned my chances of happiness once and for always.... No, I don't think I've forgiven you. I've endeavoured to forget you." He paused, then added with a brief, ironic laugh: "It was a queer joke for fate to play--bringing us both to the same neighbourhood."

"I didn't know," said Cara hastily. "You know that, don't you? I had no idea you lived here when I bought the Priory. Even when I heard--afterwards--that a Mr. Coventry owned Heronsmere, I never dreamed it could be you. You see, I was told he was very wealthy--"

"And the Coventry you knew was--poor!"

It was like the thrust of a rapier, and Cara winced under the concentrated scorn of the bitter speech.

"You are very merciless," she said, her voice shaken and uneven.

"Then leave it at that," he rejoined indifferently. "I've no particular grounds for being anything else. The past is dead--and it won't stand resurrection."

"Does the past ever die?" she demanded, a note of despair in her voice. "I think not."

He looked at her curiously--at the beautiful face, a trifle worn and shadowed, with its sad eyes and that strangely patient curve of mouth.

"What do you mean?" he asked sharply.

"One pays, Eliot."

He shrugged his shoulders.

"Oh, yes, one pays. But, in this particular instance, I thought it was I who paid and you who took delivery of the goods."

She sprang up.

"Then you were wrong!" she exclaimed in low, passionate tones that, in spite of himself, moved him strangely. "If you paid, I paid, too--every day of my life. Oh, I had my punishment"--with a little laugh that held more anguish than any tears. "Full measure, pressed down, running over."

He bent his sombre gaze on her.

"I don't think I understand," he said slowly.

"Don't you?" With a swift movement she thrust back the loose tulle sleeve which veiled her arm, uncovering the ugly, rust-coloured scar which marred its whiteness.

"That--that--?" He stammered off into a shocked silence, his eyes fastened on the scar, so unmistakably that of a burn.

"That is the symbol of my married life," she said with a curious enforced calm. She let her sleeve fall back into its place. "Did you never hear? Dene drank--it was no secret. He was quite mad at times."

"And he--ill-treated you?"

"When it amused him. He had a passion for cruelty. I never knew it till I married him. I found out afterwards he had been the same even as a child. He loved torturing things." She paused, then added with a simplicity that was infinitely pitiful: "So you see, I had my punishment."

"I was abroad. I never knew," said Eliot, as though in extenuation of something of which he inwardly accused himself. "I never knew," he repeated resentfully. "By God!"--with a sudden suppressed violence which was the more intense by reason of its enforced restraint--"if I'd known, I'd have freed the woman I once loved from degradation such as that!"

Used so unconsciously, without intent, the word "once" wounded her more cruelly than any of his deliberately harsh and bitter utterances had had power to do. It set her definitely outside his life, relegated her to a past that was dead and done with--made her realise more completely than anything else could have done that, as far as Eliot was concerned, she no longer counted in his scheme of existence.

"The woman I once loved"--Cara clenched her hands, and bit back the cry of pain which fought for utterance. For an instant she felt sick with pain--as though some one had turned a knife in a raw wound. Then, with an effort, she regained her self-control.

"Thank you," she said gently. "But no one could have helped me--least of all you, even had you been in England."

They fell silent for a while. Eliot stood staring out across the moon-flecked waters, and in the silver radiance which made the night almost as light as day Cara could see the harsh lines which the years had graved upon his, face, the grim closing of the lips, and the weariness that lay in his eyes. Half timidly she laid her hand on his arm.

"I wish I could give you back your happiness," she said unevenly.

He turned and looked at her, and now there was neither pity nor compassion in his gaze--only that hardness of granite with which she was all too familiar.

"Unfortunately, that's out of your power," he said coldly. "You only had power to wreck it."

He glanced down distastefully at the hand on his sleeve, and she withdrew it hastily. But, with a sudden strength of purpose, born of her infinite longing to repair the harm she had done, she persisted, daring his anger.

"There's Ann," she said simply.

She was surprised it hurt so little to put it into words--the fact that he loved another woman. But, since the day she had first realised that he cared for Ann, she had been schooling herself to a certain stoical resignation. She recognised that she had forfeited her own claim to love when she had married Dene Hilyard because he had more of this world's goods than the man to whom she had given her heart, and she felt no actual jealousy of Ann--only a wistful envy of the girl for whom the love of Eliot Coventry might yet create the heaven on earth which she herself had thrown away.

"There's Ann," she said.

For an instant Eliot's face seemed convulsed, twisted into a grim mask of agony.

"Yes," he said hoarsely. "There's Ann. And because of you, I can't believe in her."

It was like an accusation flung straight in her face. She shrank back as though he had struck her. So he cared for Ann--like that.... And because of what she had done, because of her sin of ten years ago, he would not trust her--would not trust any woman.

"You make my 'account rendered' a very heavy one," she said unsteadily. Then, on a note of increasing urgency: "Don't judge Ann--by me, Eliot. She's different ... the kind of woman God meant women to be. If you care for her, you won't make her pay--for what I did."

His expression altered slightly. A new look came into his eyes--of uncertainty, as though he were regarding things from some fresh angle. But he made no answer, and before Cara could speak again Robin's cheerful voice broke in upon them.

"We've just finished our rubber," he called, as he came towards them. "Will you folks come and take a hand?"

Then, as neither of them made any immediate response, he paused uncertainly and glanced in, an embarrassed way from one to the other, vaguely conscious that his appearance on the scene had been inopportune. Womanlike, Cara was the first to recover her self-possession.

"Yes, of course we'll come," she said quickly. "But I haven't played cards for so long that I'm sure whoever is unlucky enough to draw me for a partner will be thankful Miss Caroline has limited the stakes to a penny a hundred."

The ease with which she spoke sufficed to reassure Robin completely.

"You'll play, Coventry?" he said, as they all three turned and walked towards the companion-way.

"I'll cut in--and take my chance," answered Eliot.

Cara glanced at him swiftly. His mouth wore a grave little smile, as though the words bore for him a second and deeper meaning than the obvious one of their reply to Robin's question.




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