Chapter 32




ON BOARD THE "SPHINX"


Brett glanced over the supper-table, laid for two, with an experienced eye. The lights, shining down upon dainty silver and crystal, added a more lustrous sheen to the crimson petals, like fringed velvet, of a bowl of exquisite deep-red carnations, and flickered gaily on the bright neck of a gold-foiled bottle which twinkled in the midst of the cool greyness of a pail of ice.

Satisfied with his inspection, Brett gave a little nod of approval. His manservant, Achille Dupont, who accompanied him wherever he went, had all a Frenchman's quick grasp of a situation, he reflected. Moreover, the man possessed the invaluable faculty of getting on well with the members of the yacht's company, so that his coming on board with his master and waiting on him exclusively failed to create any resentment. In addition to this, he was dowered with the golden gift of discretion. Achille never suffered from a misplaced curiosity concerning his master's doings. He accepted them blandly, and although Brett supposed there would be a certain amount of gossip on board the yacht concerning this night's doings, he felt serenely sure that Achille himself would preserve a strict reticence concerning anything that he might chance to observe or overhear in the performance of his duty of serving the supper.

The clock had struck nine some few minutes ago, and Brett pictured the dinghy slipping over the smooth water with Ann, hooded and cloaked, sitting in the stern. He could almost visualise her young, tense-lipped face with its courageous eyes gazing ahead into the darkness. She would have need of all her courage before the evening was over. That he admitted. But he comforted himself with the reflection, that, whatever happened, she had brought it on herself. She had refused to marry him, while he was fully determined that she should be his wife. In a way, he felt distinctly resentful that her obstinacy had driven him into employing such methods as he proposed to use to-night.

The door opened, and to the accompaniment of a respectful murmur of "Mademoiselle est arrivée" from Achille, a woman's figure, shrouded in furs and with a scarf twisted round her head, slipped past the Frenchman, and stood poised just inside the threshold as though uncertain whether to stay or go. Achille retired and closed the door noiselessly behind him, thus deciding the matter.

"Ann!" cried Brett triumphantly. "I wondered--I half doubted whether you would come, after all! Let me help you," he added quickly, as the woman threw back the fur wrap she was wearing, and with a deft movement, untwisted the scarf from her hair.

"It's not Ann," said a cool feminine voice, and with a swift turn of her wrist the visitor drew the swathing scarf aside and revealed the small dark head and pansy-purple eyes of the lady from the Priory.

Brett fell back a pace, his face wearing an expression of such blank amazement that for a moment Cara could hardly refrain from laughing out loud. But he recovered himself with surprising quickness, and looked her up and down with characteristic coolness.

"I don't think I remember inviting you for to-night," he said slowly.

"No," she replied. "I've come instead of Ann. Brett, you had no right to ask her here."

His eyes flashed wickedly, but he preserved his coolness.

"That, I think, is my business," he responded.

"It's not." A note of deep feeling came into her voice. "It's the business of every one who cares for Ann to protect her from her own rash unselfishness. Just to please yourself, you asked her to come here, without a thought as to how it would affect her reputation--how people might talk. And you used those bills of Tony's as a lever."

"Really, your perspicacity does you credit," he returned ironically. "I saw no other way of getting her here, so, as you truthfully remark, I used those bits of paper as a lever."

"Well"--quickly. "I've come for those bits of paper, as you call them."

Brett shook his head regretfully.

"I never made any bargain to give them to--you, even though you have condescended to honour the Sphinx with your presence to-night," he said.

Cara approached the table.

"No. I didn't expect them in return for that," she replied. "I'm proposing to give you the usual return for notes of hand--payment of the amount owing."

To make this proposal had been her intention when she had first suggested to Ann that she should take her place as Forrester's guest. She had not dared to offer the necessary money as an outright loan, realising that the girl would have refused it on Tony's behalf peremptorily, so she had inwardly resolved to redeem the bills Brett held without consulting her.

She opened a small, ivory-mounted wrist-bag she carried, and withdrew a bundle of crisp Bank of England notes.

"I think the sum owing is twelve hundred," she said composedly. "There's the money. Will you count it, please, and let me have the bills Tony has given you."

Brett stood quietly looking down at the small heap of notes, but he made no effort to pick them up.

"I'd forgotten you were a wealthy woman," he remarked contemplatively.

Cara laughed rather bitterly.

"Heaven knows I've not found my wealth of much value to me before," she said. "But I shall think more of it in the future if it can get a friend out of trouble. Come, take the money, Brett, and give me the bills," she added, with a touch of impatience.

He picked up one of the notes and fingered it thoughtfully, then replaced it on the pile once more.

"I'm sorry," he said mildly. "But it isn't you who owe me this money. It's Brabazon. So I can't accept repayment from you."

Cara glanced at him swiftly. Her lips felt suddenly dry.

"What do you mean?" she asked nervously.

"Just what I say. Brabazon is my debtor--you haven't authority to act for him, by any chance, have you?"

"Authority? No. But I'm willing--I'm only too glad to be able to do this for him."

Brett pushed the bundle of notes across the table towards her.

"I'm sorry," he repeated pensively. "It's very good of you, of course. But I couldn't possibly take your money. I happen to be the holder of the bills, and I only give them back to Brabazon for the amount owing--or to Ann on the terms I suggested. Otherwise"--a sudden flame leapt up in his eyes--"I keep them."

Cara stood as though turned to stone. The whole thing became perfectly clear to her on the instant. It had not been just a carelessly selfish proposal--that bargain he had made with Ann--but a deliberately thought-out scheme. Slowly she replaced the useless notes in the little silken bag which had held them.

"Ah! I see you understand," he observed, watching her with some amusement.

She looked at him with a desperate demand in her eyes.

"Brett, what did you mean to do? What was your plan--if Ann had come?" she asked in a low, shaken voice.

He laughed.

"Can't you guess? Really, Cara, I think I complimented you on your perspicacity too soon! It seems to be--halting a little, shall we say?--now."

"You didn't ask her here just for the pleasure it would give you--there was something else--"

"It was partly for that. I at least made sure of a few hours alone with her!" A note of passion roughened his voice for a moment. Then he forced it back and his blue eyes laughed at her again, audaciously. "But it was partly for the displeasure which I thought it might give to some one else."

"Eliot!"

"Even so. He's not got precisely what you'd call an equable temperament, has he?"

"And you knew"--slowly--"that if he discovered Ann had been here--"

"Exactly"--with a mocking bow. "You've guessed it. 'The marriage arranged'--would not take place."

Cara stared at him in frank horror.

"Then it was a trap!" she exclaimed, and beneath the utter scorn and contempt which rang in her voice any other man would have winced. But it affected Brett not one jot.

"Yes. And would have succeeded admirably, but for your interference. Tell me, how did you persuade Ann not to come? It isn't like her to back out of a bargain."

"No, it isn't," agreed Cara warmly. "Ann would always keep her word--even if the keeping of it half killed her."

"Then how?"

There was a suspicion of veiled triumph in her smile.

"It was quite simple," she said. "I sent her a wire, saying, 'Don't come to-night'--and signed it 'Forrester.'"

Brett burst out laughing.

"My felicitations! That was quite a stroke after my own heart! But still, you'll agree, it was rather a liberty to take with my name, wasn't it?"

"A liberty? Perhaps. But you were trying to ruin Ann's name--and her happiness. Won't you change your mind, Brett, and sell me those notes of hand?" she added, with a sudden entreaty.

"I hate refusing you," he smiled back.

She realised the futility of pleading with him further, and drew her furs round her shoulders preparatory to leaving him.

"Then I'll go back. I'm sorry I've failed. But thank God I at least prevented Ann from coming here herself."

She moved towards the door, but Brett was before her, and planted himself with his back against it.

"Let me pass, Brett," she said quietly, though her heart beat a shade faster in her breast.

"Again I'm sorry to refuse you," he returned mockingly.

"You can't--keep me here!"

"Can't I? If you interfere with other people's love affairs, you must be prepared to take the consequences. In this ease the consequence is supper with me."

Cara hesitated. She could not struggle with him, and in his present mood she thought it quite possible he might oppose with actual physical force any attempt on her part to leave the yacht. If he did, of course, she would be perfectly helpless. Forcing herself to a composure she was far from feeling, she turned away from the door he was guarding with a slight shrug of her shoulders.

"I've no wish to have supper with you," she said.

"No? Yet, after all, it's you who've despoiled me of my rightful guest," he returned, with bland mockery in eyes and voice. "It's certainly up to you to provide a substitute. Perhaps"--banteringly--"we might even discuss the question of those notes of hand again--later on! A man's obstinacy sometimes melts as the evening advances, you know."

A faint hope stirred in Cara's heart. Perhaps, if she yielded to his wishes now, without further argument, she might be able, later on, to induce him to reconsider his decision--to persuade him to be merciful. He seemed to read her thoughts with an uncanny insight.

"You'll stay?" he said.

She nodded, and he helped off the heavy fur wrap she was wearing. Then he pressed the bell-push and, when Achille appeared, gave a curt order for supper to be served. As the Frenchman departed his quick eyes flickered a moment over Cara's beautiful face and milk-white shoulders. Decidedly, he reflected, his master had good taste.

The supper, as might have been expected, was a very perfectly chosen repast, and as the meal progressed Cara was fain to acknowledge that Brett knew how to act the part of host most charmingly. On her side she played up pluckily, hoping that by falling in with his humour she might yet win the odd trick of the game.

It was not until they had reached the coffee and cigarette stage that he reverted to the avowed object of her visit to the yacht.

"It was really rather a sporting attempt on your part," he remarked, "even though foredoomed to failure. Will you tell me"--curiously--"what induced you to do it?"

"I'm very fond of Ann," returned Cara evasively.

He shook his head.

"I don't think that can have been all. You were running"--he regarded her through narrowed lids--"a pretty big risk, and you're woman of the world enough to know it. You are quite at my mercy, you see. A woman doesn't run that kind of risk--for another woman." He leaned across the little table, his compelling blue eyes concentrated on her face. "Do tell me why you did it?"

For a moment she was silent. Then, lifting her eyes to meet his, she said simply:

"I did it because once--years ago--I robbed Eliot Coventry of his happiness. I wanted to give it back to him."

"And you were prepared to risk your reputation over the job?"--swiftly.

"Yes," she answered quietly. "I was prepared."

"Then you must have felt quite convinced he was in danger of losing his happiness--to me?"--with lightning triumph.

"Not to you--through you," she corrected quietly.

"Ann would have promised to marry me to-night."

"I'm sure she would not. But it was almost inevitable that Eliot would misunderstand--distrust her, if he learned that she had been here with you--this evening."

Brett nodded composedly.

"Yes. And I don't think the only explanation she could have offered would have helped her much--that it was done for the sake of Tony Brabazon! It was a big thing for any woman to do for a man--unless she cared for him! And"--he uttered a light laugh--"I fancy Coventry's jealousy of Brabazon would have wakened up again quite quickly in the circumstances. Oh!"--with an impatient gesture--"it was a lovely scheme--absolutely watertight, if only you hadn't meddled!"

He looked across at her with an expression that held a droll mixture of anger and mortification, not unlike the expression, of a child who, having banged a new toy too ecstatically upon the floor, sees it suddenly drop to pieces.

"Not altogether watertight," observed Cara calmly. "There was a chance--quite a good chance, too--that Eliot might not have heard a single word about the matter--might never have known that Ann had been here."

"Bah!"--arrogantly. "I don't leave things like that--to chance. I wasn't taking any chances. I arranged that Coventry should know all right."

Cara started.

"What do you mean?" she demanded.

"What do I mean?" He smiled derisively. "Why, that old chap who lives at the lodge at Heronsmere, old chap with a face like a gargoyle--Brady, what's his name?"

"Bradley," supplied Cara.

"Yes, that's it. Bradley. A cunning old rascal, if ever there was one--he'd sell his immortal soul for the price of a drink. I told him"--watching her keenly while he spoke--"that his master would probably like to know that a certain young lady in whom he was interested would be found on board the Sphinx this evening if he wanted to see her."

"You told him that?" gasped Cara, stricken with dismay.

"Certainly I did"--triumphantly. "And I gave him a five-pound note to jog his memory. I don't think he'll omit to hand on the information as desired. I should say"--glancing at the clock--"that we might expect Coventry along at any moment now."

Cara half rose from the table. Her face was very white, her eyes dilated with horror.

"Perhaps--perhaps he won't come--won't believe it," she stammered faintly, with a desperate hope that she might be speaking the truth.

Brett smiled unpleasantly.

"I think he'll believe it all right. I gave Bradley very clear instructions. But, in any case," he added easily, "I'd prepared for the possible contingency that the old fool might bungle matters."

"How?" Her voice was almost inaudible.

"Why, then, I should simply have steamed away with my honoured guest on board. After a day or two's trip at sea, I think there'd be no question Ann would accept me as her husband. The position would be an even more awkward one than her predicament at the Dents de Loup. Her presence on the yacht could hardly be explained away as an--accident"--significantly. "But I preferred my first plan--it entailed less publicity"--with a short laugh.

Cara sprang up, her eyes blazing. In the torrent of scorn and anger which swept over her at his duplicity--at the nonchalant recital of it all--the embarrassment of her own situation was temporarily lost sight of.

"Brett, I think you must be absolutely devoid of any sense of right or wrong! I never heard of anything more utterly fiendish and heartless in the whole of my life. Have you no conscience, no decent feeling, that you could plot and plan to ruin a woman's happiness as you would have ruined Ann's? Oh! It's unbelievable! I think you must be a devil incarnate!"

He rose too, his eyes smouldering dangerously. The veneer of polished mockery had dropped from him suddenly.

"I'm not. I'm a man in love," he said thickly. "I wanted her--God, how I wanted her! And, but for you, I'd have succeeded. You've robbed me--robbed me of my mate!..." His lips drew back over his teeth in a kind of snarl. "I think you deserve to be punished," he went on slowly and significantly. "What's to prevent my putting out to sea--now--this minute--and taking you with me?"

"Brett--" She shrank back, suddenly terrified. His eyes were blazing with a reckless fury--mad eyes. She made a dart for the door, but before she could reach it he had caught her by the arm, his strong fingers crushing deep into her white flesh.

"Well, why not?" he jeered savagely. "You came here in Ann's place of your own free will! Supposing you take her place--altogether--"

A tap sounded on the door. Brett's hand fell away from her arm, and she stood quiveringly waiting for what might come. After a discreet pause Achille entered, advancing with soft, cat-like tread.

"For mademoiselle," he said, tendering a note to Cara on a salver.

As she took the note she vaguely noticed that it bore no superscription. With trembling fingers she tore it open.

"I hear you are on the Sphinx. I'm quite sure you must have a good reason for being there, if you are there of your own free will. But in case you are not, and need help, I wanted you to know I've come on board and will take you home whenever you wish,--E."

Cara glanced across at Brett, who was watching her curiously. She slipped the note, intended for Ann, into the bosom of her gown and turned to Achille.

"Tell Mr. Coventry Miss Lovell is not on board the Sphinx," she said quietly.

"Coventry!" broke violently from Brett. "Where is he, Achille?"

"He come in a boat from the shore, monsieur. Just now. He wait only an answer to zis lettaire." The man bowed and retired, leaving Brett and Cara staring at each other.

"You would not have come between Eliot and Ann, after all," she said proudly. "Your trick would have misfired. He trusts her--absolutely."

She had hardly finished speaking when the sound of a scuffle came from the companion-way, accompanied by a stream of voluble French. Then: "Get out of my way!" came in good, robust English, and an instant later Eliot's big frame appeared in the doorway.

"I want an explanation, Forrester--" he began sternly. Then fell silent, while his senses quietly absorbed the whole scene before him--the man and woman in evening dress, the flower-decked table with its half-emptied coffee-cups and evidences of a recent gay little supper, the mingled scent of cigarette smoke and carnations. Last of all, his glance, cold and contemptuous, swept over Cara's white face.

He gave a short laugh.

"Bradley misled me," he observed coolly. "There's no one here in whom I'm interested." For a moment his eyes--accusing, utterly scornful--met and held Cara's. Then he looked across at Brett. "I understood you were alone, Forrester. I regret my intrusion." With a curt bow he was gone.

As the door closed behind him Cara sank down mutely into her chair. She gazed wearily in front of her. There was no need to ask herself what Eliot thought. It had been written plainly in his eyes.

Presently she turned her head and looked across at Brett.

"Well?" she said tonelessly. "I hope you're satisfied. I don't think you need bother any more about--punishing me."

The savage anger had died out of his face. He was regarding her with an odd look of surprise. There had been no mistaking the anguish of her expression as she had grasped Eliot's swift and cruel interpretation of the scene. She had looked like a woman on the rack.

"So ... Coventry was the man ... before you married that bounder, Dene." Brett spoke very quietly, like a man communing with himself, fitting together the pieces of a puzzle.

She nodded.

"Yes," was all she said.

He sat down on the opposite side of the table and leaned forward, still with that half-surprised curiosity on his face.

"Then why didn't you clear yourself just now? You could have done. Why on earth didn't you explain?"

A twisted little smile tilted her mouth.

"Because--because I wanted to keep Ann out of it. Don't you see--he thinks Bradley made a mistake. He need never know--now--that Ann even thought of coming. I've ... made sure ... of his happiness. I took it away once. Now I've given it back."

Brett got up abruptly. That twisted little smile hiding a supreme agony touched him as no woman's grief had ever touched him yet.... The low, toneless confession with its quiet immolation of self.... He put his hand into his pocket, and, drawing out a packet of loose papers, banded together with elastic, flung them down on to the table.

"Oh, hang!" he said gruffly. "There are the bills Brabazon gave me. By God, you've earned them!"

Cara stretched her hand out slowly and touched the packet with hesitating fingers.

"Do you mean this, Brett?"

"Certainly I mean it."

She stared at him almost incredulously.

"I believe you're--sorry," she said slowly.

But in that she miscalculated. Brett would be an unrepentant sinner to the end of his days. He laughed and shook his head.

"Not in the way you mean. Frankly and honestly--Oh, yes"--catching the faint quizzical gleam in her eyes--"I can be both when I want to. The Devil quoting Scripture, you know! Frankly, then, I'm merely sorry that my plan miscarried. It was a splendid plan! Its only fault was that it didn't succeed.... But I know when I'm beaten. And you've beaten me."

A few minutes later they stood together on the deck, waiting for the dinghy to come alongside.

"Good-night, Brett," she said, holding out her hand.

He lifted it to his lips with audacious grace.

"It will be a bad night--thanks to you!" he returned with a last flash of mocking humour.




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