Chapter 31




A BARGAIN


The day after Ann's return to the Cottage found her occupied in the composition of a letter to Brett Forrester, the number of torn, half-written sheets of paper which surrounded her testifying to the difficulty she was experiencing in the matter. The whole idea of appealing to Brett, of asking any service from him, was intensely repugnant to her and rendered the performance of her task doubly difficult, but at last, after several abortive attempts, it was accomplished. When completed, the letter read as simply and shortly as possible, merely saying that she was anxious to see him about a rather important matter and asking where it would be possible for them to meet. She had no idea where he was at the moment, but she had gathered from Tony that he had been in London as recently as a week ago, so she addressed her letter to his flat in town, posted it, and tried to possess her soul in patience until she should receive an answer. It might have eased matters somewhat if she could have shared her burden with Robin, but, as luck would have it, he had been obliged to leave home on the day following that of her own return. Eliot had unexpectedly commissioned him to inspect on his behalf a famous herd of cattle in which he happened to be interested, a matter which would take Robin up to Scotland and entail his absence from home for several days, and in the hurry of packing and departure there had been no chance of a cosy, confidential chat between brother and sister.

Two or three days passed, bringing no answer to her letter, and Ann began to be nervously agitated in mind as to whether it had reached its destination safely or not. She sought for reassurance by telling herself that, if Brett happened to be out of town, the letter was probably following him round and might not yet have caught up with him, but the knowledge that time was an important factor in the solving of Tony's difficulties, and the fear lest, in the interval, anything should occur to drive the boy once more to despair, kept her nerves on the stretch.

It was late in the afternoon of the fourth day that the response came to her letter--and in a form in which she least expected it. She had been out in the garden, gathering snowdrops, and was returning to the house, her hands filled with the white blossom of spring, when she lifted her eyes to find Brett Forrester standing directly in her path. Her heart gave a great terrified leap. She had pictured him as far enough away, and his appearance was utterly unexpected. Moreover, the very sight of him brought back a swift rush of painful memories, and involuntarily she recoiled a little. He regarded her quizzically.

"You don't seem exactly pleased to see me," he observed.

"I'm--I'm surprised, that's all," she said hastily. "I didn't--I wasn't expecting you." Transferring her harvest of snowdrops to one hand, she extended the other towards him.

"Not expecting me?" he returned, when they had shaken hands. "After the letter you wrote me?"

"I thought you would write first, suggesting where we could meet."

"I should have thought you would have known me better by this time," he commented dryly, as he turned and walked beside her up the path to the house. "I never waste time in preliminaries. You said you wanted to see me--so here I am."

Ann made no response--for the simple reason that she couldn't think of one to make. Brett always appeared t cut the ground from under one's feet, so to speak--certainly as regards the small change of social intercourse. Even behind his lightest remarks one seemed able to hear the threatening rumble of the volcano.

"What was it you wanted to see me about?" he continued.

"I'll tell you. Come in, will you?"

By this time they had reached the house and Ann led the way into the living-room. She was conscious of an acute feeling of trepidation and, by way of postponing the evil moment, paused to put her snowdrops in water in a bowl which she had left filled in readiness on the table.

"Are you staying at White Windows?" she asked, as she arranged the flowers with quick, nervous touches.

"I am not," replied Brett. "I gathered, during the last conversation I held with my revered aunt, that my welcome had worn a trifle thin--as you are doubtless aware," he concluded mockingly.

"Then--then where--how did you come here?"--in some astonishment.

"I came on the Sphinx. I am at present living on board, and at the moment she is anchored in Silverquay bay. Any other questions?"

Ann flushed hotly.

"I beg your pardon," she said with downcast eyes. "I didn't mean to be inquisitive, only naturally I--I rather wondered where you had sprung from. You did arrive somewhat suddenly, you know."

"I did," he acquiesced. "I was on my way to the south, of France and your letter was forwarded on to me at Southampton, where I'd put in en route. So we steamed for Silverquay at once. Now, perhaps, you'll gratify my curiosity as to what is the important matter you want to see me about. I can only think of one matter of any real importance," he added daringly, his blue eyes raking her face with the audacious, challenging glance which was so characteristic of the man.

Reluctantly Ann desisted from fidgeting with the bowl of snowdrops, and Brett nodded approval.

"Yes, I'm sure you've done your level best for them" he observed ironically.

She sat down, clasping her hands tightly together in her lap, while Brett remained standing on the hearthrug, looking down at her with quizzical amusement.

"I--I wanted to ask you--" she began, then halted abruptly and made a fresh start. "I wrote to you because--because--" Once again she came to a dead stop.

"Well?" he queried. "I'm afraid I haven't grasped it yet."

Ann pulled herself together and made another effort.

"It's about Tony," she said bluntly.

Brett's eyes narrowed, but he made no comment. He waited quietly for her to continue.

"He's told me--I've found out--that he owes you a large sum of money."

He nodded.

"He owes me money, certainly. Whether you'd define it as a large or small sum would be a matter of relative proportion, I should imagine."

"That's it!" exclaimed Ann eagerly. "That's just it. To him, twelve hundred is an enormous sum--a small fortune! To you--it isn't very much to you, Brett, is it?"

"I don't quite understand," he replied cautiously.

"You hold some bills of his--notes of hand, don't you call them?" she pursued. "And they're due to be paid now, aren't they?"

"That is so. Well, what then?"

"Why, it wouldn't make much difference to you--would it, Brett?"--appealingly--"if he didn't pay just yet--if you waited a little longer?"

"I'm afraid I don't see with what object," he returned coldly.

Ann caught her lip between her teeth. Oh, how difficult men were when it came to any question of money! How hard! Hardening all at once into cold and implacable strangers.

"Why--why--" she said entreatingly. "Tony hasn't got the money to pay you with just now, and if you'll only wait a little--give him a little time to pay--Oh, Brett, won't you do it?"

"Wait for my money, you mean?"

"Yes."

"Do you think"--sardonically--"that I'm any more likely to get it at the end of six months than I am at present? If Tony hasn't got twelve hundred now--is he proposing to earn it in the next six months?"

The bitter, gibing note in his voice roused her anger.

"You'd no business to lend it him!" she exclaimed hotly. "He's only young, and you were simply helping him, encouraging him to gamble, when you know as well as I do that gambling is absolutely in his blood. You'd no right to lend it him!"

"I like that"--coolly. "Brabazon plays the fool--or knave, rather"--with a sudden harshness in his voice--"borrowing money which he knows he can't repay, apparently--and it's my fault! Not having enough sins of my own, I suppose you think you can saddle me with Tony's, too. Many thanks." He bowed mockingly.

"You're the older man," persisted Ann. "You ought not to have made it possible--easy for him to play beyond his means. Brett, please--will you give him time to pay? As"--with an effort she swallowed her pride--"as an act of personal friendship to me?"

"You still haven't answered my question. Supposing I agree, supposing I do give him another six months, how is he going to get the money by then--unless that old curmudgeon of an uncle of his shells out for him?" Ann shook her head.

"He won't," she said. "I know that."

"Then how is the young fool going to find the money in the time? Tell me that."

"He will find it," said Ann quietly. "I can't--tell you how. But if you'll wait six months, I'll give you my personal guarantee that the money shall be paid."

Brett's eyes narrowed again in sudden concentration.

"Your personal guarantee?"

"Yes, mine. If you'll wait six months--or even three"--urgently. "Oh, Brett, you will wait?"

"'Even three,'" he repeated thoughtfully. Suddenly he threw up his head and laughed. "I see it--it's as clear as daylight! I believe"--smiling blandly--"you are proposing to marry Coventry next month. At least, I'm told that's the programme. And I suppose you count on paying off Tony's debt--with Coventry's money. Is that it? What a charming arrangement!"

Ann felt her colour rise till her whole face and neck seemed scorching with the hot rush of blood.

"Whatever the arrangement would be, you may be sure it would be a perfectly fair one," she said steadily. "Nor does it concern you so long as you get the money owing to you."

"On the contrary, it would concern me very much to be paid off with Coventry's money. I shouldn't like it a bit. He's got the woman I want--and he can keep his damn money!"

Sick as she felt under the insult of his manner, Ann forced herself into making yet another appeal.

"Brett, please be merciful! Put me outside the matter altogether. It isn't a question of you and me. It's Tony. And"--her voice breaking--"I want to save him."

"I think it's very much a question of you and me," he retorted. "You asked me just now to extend the time of payment 'as an act of personal friendship to you.'"

She was silent, Inwardly writhing under the lash of his tongue. She wondered if Tony would ever know or guess all that this interview had cost her.

"I know I did," she acknowledged at last in a low voice.

Brett appeared to meditate a moment. Suddenly he looked across at her with eyes that sparkled dangerously.

"I won't take Coventry's money," he said deliberately. "But I tell you what I will do--I'll let you liquidate the debt."

"I?" She glanced at him swiftly. "I? How can I?"

"It's quite simple. Come and have supper with me--alone--to-morrow night on board the Sphinx, and in return I'll give you back those notes I hold of Brabazon's--every one of them."

"Oh, I couldn't!" Ann drew away from him instinctively. "You know I couldn't do that, Brett."

He shrugged his shoulders.

"Very well, then, Tony must pay up--or go under," he answered nonchalantly.

"No, no!" She made a quick step forward. "Brett, it isn't fair--to ask me to do such a thing."

"Isn't it? It's asking very little, I think." His voice vibrated with a sudden note of passion. "You're going to marry Coventry. Very well. What am I asking? One little evening out of all your life--to call mine, to remember you by."

Ann was silent. Her thoughts were in a whirl. Here was a way by which she could save Tony--put things right for him. But at what a price! She shrank from the risk involved. If Eliot were to hear of it, to learn that she had had supper with Brett on board his yacht--alone, what would he think--suspect? His faith in her had not stood testing once before, when a pure accident had forced her into a false position. Would it stand now, if she did this thing? If, being Eliot's promised wife, she deliberately spent the evening on board the Sphinx with Brett? She knew it would not. The faith of very few men would remain proof against circumstances such as those--least of all, Eliot's. The grey, relentless shadow had suddenly swung forward, completely enveloping her path.

"No, Brett," she said at last. "I can't--do--that."

"Then, as I said, Tony must go under"--coolly.

She clenched her hands in an agony of indecision. Tony, whom Virginia had bequeathed to her--whom she had promised to shield from harm "if it was in any way possible"! She had thought that already she had paid to the utmost in the fulfilment of her trust by stooping to beg mercy at Brett's hands. But it seemed that the keeping of her promise to the dead woman was to cost still more--demanded the sacrifice of her own happiness, the faith and trust of the man who loved her. Piteously Ann reflected that could Virginia have known how matters stood she would never have exacted the fulfilment of any promise at such a fearful price. But Virginia could not know. And the promise held.

"Well?" queried Brett. He had been watching Ann's face closely while she fought her battle. "Well, will you come?"

She drew a long, shuddering breath.

"Yes. I'll come," she said.

Her voice sounded curiously weak and strange to her own ears--like that of some one else speaking. She wondered if she had really spoken audibly, and, in a sudden terror lest he shouldn't have heard her, she repeated the words with jerky emphasis.

"Yes. I'll come."

He made an abrupt movement towards her, but she shrank back out of his reach.

"You'll give me the notes if I come?" she asked rather Wildly. "You'll play fair, Brett?"

"Yes. I'll play fair."

"Then--then--will you go now, please?" She felt as though her strength were deserting her--as though she could bear no more.

He paused, regarding her irresolutely. Then he turned to the door.

"Very well, I'll go now. The dinghy will be waiting for you at the jetty to-morrow night at nine o'clock."

The door closed behind him and, left alone, Ann sank down on to the nearest chair, utterly overwhelmed by what had befallen her. An hour ago there had been not a cloud in her sky--the whole of life seemed stretching out before her filled with the promise of love and happiness. And now, with unbelievable suddenness, black and bitter storm-clouds had arisen and covered the entire heavens, till not even a flickering ray of light was visible. She remembered her strange, unconquerable fear of the yacht ... like a sleek cat watching at a mousehole.... Well, the cat had sprung now--leaped suddenly, striking into her very heart with its pitiless claws.

No tears came to her relief. She felt stunned--stunned, and remained limply in her chair, staring with dazed, unseeing eyes into space....

       *      *      *      *      *      *      *

She was still sitting in the same position, gazing blankly in front of her, when Maria threw open the door to admit Mrs. Hilyard.

"I just looked in--" Cara, beginning to speak almost as she entered, broke off abruptly as she caught sight of Ann's stricken face. She hurried to her side. The girl's mute immobility frightened her.

"Ann!" she cried quickly. "What's happened? What is the matter with you?"

Slowly Ann turned her head towards her, regarding her with lack-lustre eyes.

"Nothing," she said. "Or everything. I'm not quite sure which."

She began to laugh a trifle hysterically, and Cara laid her hands firmly on her shoulders.

"Don't do that," she said sharply, giving her a little shake. "Pull yourself together, Ann, and tell me what's gone wrong."

With an effort Ann caught back the sobbing laugh that struggled in her throat for utterance. Getting up, she crossed the room to the window and stood there silently for a few moments, with her back towards Cara. When she turned round again it was obvious she had regained her self-control.

"I'm all right, now," she declared, smiling more naturally.

"Then tell me what's wrong, and let's put our heads together to get it right," replied Cara practically.

"Oh, yes, I'll tell you. But there's nothing in the world will put things right, all the same."

Very briefly she recapitulated the facts of the case, while Cara listened with an expression of increasing gravity.

"You can't go," she said with decision, when Ann ceased speaking. "Whatever else you do, you mustn't spend the evening on board his yacht alone with Brett."

"And if I'm to save Tony, it's the only thing to be done," replied Ann quietly.

"Then you must leave Tony to get out of his difficulties by himself. Sir Philip would pay, I expect, if the matter were put up to him."

Ann shook her head.

"I'm quite sure he wouldn't," she said, "There's no question of that. He's reached the limit of his patience. He'd simply turn Tony out of the house--turn him adrift. And that means shipwreck. Tony might--might even do--what he tried to do the other night. Kill himself. He's desperate. Don't you see, everything's doubly bad for him now--when he's in love with Doreen. Unless he's pulled out of this hole somehow, it means smashing up his whole life."

"And if you pull him out of it the way you propose doing, it means smashing up yours," returned Cara succinctly. "You know what Eliot's like--how jealous and suspicious. And you know Brett's reputation!"

"I can manage Brett," insisted Ann.

Cara made a swift gesture.

"It isn't that! It's Eliot, and you know it. If he ever came to hear that you'd been to supper on the Sphinx with Brett, he'd never trust you again."

"He might. I'm hoping--"

"He wouldn't"--with conviction. "It would wreck everything. Ann, don't be such a fool--such a fool!" Cara spoke with desperate intensity. "For God's sake, give up this crazy plan!"

"I can't. I must go. I've promised."

Her brows drawn together, Cara reflected a few minutes in silence. She looked as though she were trying to work out a problem of some kind--balancing the pros and cons. At last:

"There's only one way out of it," she said slowly. "Let me go instead of you. I think--I think I could make Brett see reason, and persuade him to give those notes of hand to me instead of to you. At any rate, let me try."

"No good," said Ann, shaking her head. "He wouldn't give them to you. He wants his pound of flesh"--bitterly.

"Why don't you ask Eliot to give you the money?" demanded Cara suddenly.

A deep flush stained Ann's cheeks.

"I've not fallen so low that I'll ask the man I'm engaged to for money with which to pay another man's debts."

"You'd ask him if you were married"--defiantly.

"In certain circumstances--yes. But that's different. Oh, you must see it's different! Besides, Tony would accept money from me, even though my husband had given it to me. But he'd be too proud to take it from Eliot--or from any one else."

"Too proud! It seems to me Tony's precious little to be proud about!"

"The more reason why he should keep any pride he has remaining. Don't be hard on him, Cara. Remember he's young, and that the instinct to gamble is in his very blood. This has been a lesson to him--a frightful lesson. I know--if he once gets clear of this--he'll run straight for the future."

"Then you must let me go to the yacht," insisted Cara with finality.

"No" The reply came with a definiteness there was no mistaking. "I've given my word to Brett that I'd come,"

"You know what Eliot will think if he hears of it? He'll probably--almost certainly--distrust you utterly, and it will ruin both your lives."

"I must risk that," said Ann quietly. "Tony's got to be saved somehow, and it's up to me to do it. He was 'left' to me, you know. Virginia trusted me. And I can't let her down."

There was something curiously strong and steadfast in her face as she spoke--something against which Cara realised that it was futile to strive any further. Reluctantly she desisted, but it was with a heavy heart that she at last quitted the Cottage, leaving Ann firm in her resolve to save Tony, no matter at what cost.

Ann woke early next morning, feeling rather as though it were to be her last day on earth. She thought she could appreciate to some extent the sensations of a man condemned to be executed the following dawn. To-day she was tremendously alive, with happiness cupped betwixt her hands, while the future of rose and gold beckoned her onward. To-morrow, that whole future might be wrenched from her, leaving her like one dead, with nothing to live for, nothing to hope.

When Eliot paid his usual daily visit she went tremulously to meet him. This might be the last time he would ever look at her with the eyes of love--the last time they would ever talk together as lovers. For her, his kisses held all the poignant ecstasy and pain of kisses that may be the last on earth.

He had noticed the Sphinx, lying at anchor in the bay, on his way to the Cottage.

"I suppose that chap Forrester is going to favour Silverquay with another visit," he remarked, as he and Ann strolled in the garden together. "I don't care for him," he added. "When we are married, Ann, I'd rather you didn't see any more of him than you can help. From all I can hear he hasn't too savoury a reputation."

Ann's heart sank. If Eliot thought that--felt like that about Brett, then there could be no hope of forgiveness if he ever found out that she had been to supper with him on the yacht. And now, appearances would be even stronger against her. It would look as though she had gone there deliberately in defiance of Eliot's expressed wishes.

She became unwontedly quiet--so much so that Eliot's solicitude was awakened.

"What's the matter with you to-day?" he asked, looking down keenly into her face as he held her in his arms. "Are you depressed or worried about anything, sweetheart?"

She roused herself to a smile.

"Worried? Why, what have I to be worried about--now we're together again?"

His face cleared.

"I suppose you're just feeling a bit lonely without that 'best brother' of yours. Is that it?"

"Yes. That's it," she said, nodding emphatically. "I miss Robin. You--you won't have to send him away again, Eliot."

"I don't think I shall," he returned, smiling, "if it reduces you to such a wan-looking little person. You're quite pale, Ann mine."

At parting, she clung to him as though she could never let him go.

"Why, what's this, child?" he asked, genuinely perturbed. "Are you really nervous at being left in the Cottage alone--even with the doughty Maria for company? If you are, I'll ride over to White Windows and ask Lady Susan to put you up there until Robin comes back."

"Oh, no, no!" she exclaimed hastily. "I'm perfectly all right. I am, really, Eliot. I didn't sleep very well last night, that's all."

"Well, then, take a rest after lunch. I shan't be able to come over this afternoon--I have to go to Ferribridge. So"--pinching her cheek--"your slumbers will be undisturbed. And go to bed early to-night," he added authoritatively.

He went away, and later Ann made a pretence at eating lunch. The idea of "taking a rest" almost brought a smile to her pale lips. There was nothing further from her than sleep. Her brain felt on fire, and the time seemed to race along, each minute bringing nearer the dreaded ordeal of the evening.

At seven Maria brought in dinner, and once again Ann had to make a pretence at eating. Every mouthful felt as though it would choke her. Then, just as she was wondering how on earth she was to dispose of what still remained on her plate without incurring Maria's displeasure, there came a ring at the bell, and a minute later Maria herself reappeared, carrying a telegram on a salver.

"From Master Robin, maybe, sayin' when he'll be home again," she suggested conversationally, while Ann tore open the envelope and withdrew the flimsy sheet.

"Don't come to-night,--FORRESTER."

Ann looked up from the single line of writing and spoke mechanically.

"No, it's not from Robin," she said. And tearing the telegram across she tossed the pieces into the fire, where a swift tongue of flame shot up and consumed them.

She was conscious of an immense surge of relief. She could not imagine what had happened. Possibly Cara had seen Brett and interceded with him. Or perhaps it was merely that some unexpected happening had made the projected supper an impossibility for that particular night.

But whatever it was, it meant a reprieve. A reprieve! She could hold her happiness unharmed a little longer....




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