Chapter 33




THE VISION FULFILLED


Ann opened her next morning's mail with nervously eager fingers. A couple of tradesmen's bills, an advertisement for somebody's infallible cure-all, and a letter from Robin saying that he would reach home the following day--that was all. Not a line from Brett. Nothing in explanation of his last evening's telegram.

There is a wise old saw which asserts that "no news is good news," but Ann could extract no comfort from it. Such hackneyed sayings did not take into consideration people of Brett Forrester's temperament, she reflected bitterly. Something had occurred to prevent the carrying out of his plans for last night, but not for one moment did she imagine that he would allow anything to divert him permanently from his intention of compelling her to buy Tony's freedom on the terms he had already fixed. That fact must still be faced, and the absence of any word from Brett this morning increased illimitably the sense of strain under which she was labouring. Last evening she had keyed herself up to the required pitch for the ordeal which awaited her. And now the whole agony and terror would have to be gone through again!

She wandered restlessly from the house to the garden and then back again, her nerves ragged-edged with suspense. If she could only know what had occurred last night to prompt that wire, what Brett now proposed, what further troubles there were in store, she felt she could have borne it better. She was never afraid to face definite difficulties. It was this terrible inaction and uncertainty which she found so unendurable.

The minutes crawled by on leaden feet. When she returned from feeding her poultry she was absolutely aghast to hear the church clock only striking ten! It seemed to her that a whole eternity of time had elapsed since the moment when the delivery of the morning post, destitute of news from Brett, had plunged her into this dreadful agony of uncertainty.

Suddenly she heard the gate click. She had been unconsciously listening for that sound with an intensity of which she was unaware--expecting, hoping, almost praying for tidings of some kind. Surely, if he did not come himself, Brett would at least send her a message of some sort!

When at last the click and rattle of the wooden gate, as it swung to, smote on her ears, she felt powerless to go and meet whoever it might be whose coming the sound heralded. A curious numbness pervaded all her limbs, and she leaned against the table, almost holding her breath, while the measured tread of Maria's sturdy feet resounded along the passage leading from the kitchen to the front of the house.

Ann heard the opening of the cottage door, followed by the soft murmur of women's voices instead of by the high treble of the telegraph boy which she had expected. Then the swish of a skirt, the lifting of a latch, and Cara came quickly into the room.

The tension of Ann's nerves relaxed, giving place to a spiritless acceptance of the inevitable. There was no message from Brett, after all! It was only Cara--Cara who had come to ask the success or failure of her last night's interview with him. The irony of it!

Ann began to speak at once, anticipating the first question which she knew the other would be sure to put. It would be better to get it over at once.

"I didn't go to the yacht," she said baldly. "Brett wired me not to come."

Cara nodded.

"I know. But I went," she answered quietly.

"You?" Ann stared at her. "You went--to the yacht!" she repeated in tones of stupefaction.

"Yes. And I got what I wanted. These are the bills which Tony gave to Brett--and there's a note for you, as well," she added with a fugitive smile.

She slid the whole packet on to the table, and Ann picked up one of the stamped oblong slips of paper and examined it with a curious sense of detachment.

"'Bill or note.'" She read aloud the words which crowned and footed the Government stamp. Then she laid the bill back on the top of the others.

"But I don't understand," she said. "How did--you--get these!"

"Sit down, and I'll tell you," replied Cara.

Ann sat down obediently, feeling as though she were living and moving in a dream. Once she glanced almost apprehensively towards the small heap of bills on the table. Yes, they were still there. Those narrow strips of paper which spelt for Tony a fresh chance in life and for herself release from any future domination of Brett Forrester's. Not yet could she realise the full wonder and joy of it--all the splendour of life and love which their mere presence there gave back to her. For the moment she was only conscious of an extraordinary calm--like the quiescence which succeeds relief from physical agony, when the senses, dulled by suffering, are for a short space contented with the mere absence of actual pain.

At first she fixed her eyes almost unseeingly on Cara, as the latter began to recount the events of the previous evening, but swiftly a look of attention dawned in them. The realities of life were coming back to her, and by the time Cara had finished her story--beginning with the sending of the telegram in Brett's name and ending with the final surrender of the notes of hand--she had grasped the significance of what had happened.

"And you did this--risked so much--for me?" she said, trembling a little. "Oh, Cara!"

Cara was silent a moment. Then she leaned forward.

"Not only for you, Ann," she said gently, "Do you remember my telling you that a woman once--jilted Eliot Coventry?"

Ann's startled eyes met the grave, sorrowful ones of the woman who bent towards her. But she averted them quickly. Something--some fine, instinctive understanding forbade that she should look at her just then.

"Yes" she answered, hardly above her breath.

Cara hesitated. Then she spoke, unevenly, and with a slight, difficult pause now and again between her words.

"I was that woman. I--robbed him of his belief in things--of his chance of happiness. I didn't realise all I was doing at the time. But afterwards--I knew.... Ever since then, I've wanted to give it back to him--all that I robbed him of. I made his life bitter--and I wanted to make it sweet again. To give him back his happiness.... Last night, I paid my debt."

Ann had been listening with bent head. Now she lifted it, and her eyes held a terrible questioning. Behind the questioning lay terror--the terror of one who sees a heaven regained suddenly barred away.

"Then he ... you...." She could not even formulate the aching demand of her whole soul and body. But Cara understood. Love had taught her all there was to know of love.

"Eliot's love for me died ten years ago," she said simply.

"And yours?" asked Ann painfully. "Not yours. Or you wouldn't--you couldn't--have done this--for him."

For an instant Cara closed her eyes. Then she spoke, with white lips, but with a quiet, steadfast decision that carried absolute conviction.

"I know what you are thinking," she said. "But you are wrong--quite wrong. There is nothing left between Eliot Coventry and me--nothing--except remembrance. And for the sake of that remembrance--for the sake of what was, though it has been, dead these many years--I have done what I have done."

The question died out of Ann's eyes--answered once and for ever, and Cara stifled a sigh of relief as she watched the faint colour steal back into the girl's cheeks.

"I don't know how I could have thought you still cared," said Ann presently. "It was silly of me--when you are going to marry Robin."

"Yes. Robin and I are going to start a new life together. He knows--what happened--years ago. And he understands. I hope"--forcing herself to speak more lightly--"I hope he won't be too shocked at my flight to the yacht last night to marry me after all!"

Ann laughed.

"I don't think you need be afraid," she answered affectionately. "But Eliot!" She paused in consternation, then went on quickly: "What did he think when he found you there, Cara? Do you know what he thought?"

Cara's expression hardened a little.

"Yes, I know," she said shortly.

"And I can guess," returned Ann. She sprang up from her chair with all her old characteristic impetuosity. "And he's not going to think--that--a moment longer. I suppose"--her voice seemed to glow and the eyes she bent on Cara were wonderfully tender--"I suppose you wouldn't explain because you wanted to keep me out of it?" Then, as Cara nodded assent: "I thought so! Well, I'm not going to be kept out of it. I'm going straight across to Heronsmere--now, at once--to tell Eliot the whole truth."

She swept Cara's protest royally aside, and within a few minutes Cara herself was on her way home and Billy Brewster flinging the harness on the pony's back at unprecedented speed.

But Dick Turpin was spared the necessity of making the whirlwind rush to Heronsmere which loomed ahead of him, by the opportune appearance of Eliot himself at the Cottage gate.

Ann drew him quickly into the house.

"I was just coming over to see you," she told him swiftly. "It's--it's about last night."

His face darkened.

"About last night?" he repeated. "What about it?"

"You found--Cara--on board Brett's yacht."

"I did--and drew my own conclusions."

"Well, they were wrong ones," said Ann. Then, seeing that he looked quite unconvinced, she went on quickly lest her courage should fail her. "If it had not been for Cara, you would have found me there--"

"You? Then it's true--true you actually intended going there? Bradley was right?"

"Yes, he told you just what he had been ordered to tell you. Brett believed I was coming--he was expecting me. I promised to go because he held some bills of Tony's--Tony had borrowed from him far more than he could pay. And Brett bargained with me that he would give them up if I would go to supper with him on the Sphinx." The whole story came tumbling out in quick, vivid sentences. In a few moments Eliot was in possession of all the facts which lay behind his discovery of Cara on the yacht.

"So Cara had taken your place." There was a strange new gentleness in his voice as he spoke of the woman who had first broken and then built up his life again.

"Yes. I was afraid--afraid that if you knew I had been there, you would believe--what you believed once before."

A stifled ejaculation broke from him.

"You thought that?" he said, his voice suddenly roughened by pain. "Oh, my dear, do you think I haven't learned my lesson--yet?"

She looked at him doubtfully.

"How could I know? Oh, Eliot"--with tragic poignancy--"how could I know?"

For a moment the man and woman stood looking at each other in silence, separated once more by the grey shadow which had fallen again between them--the shadow of an old distrust. All at once Eliot's pain-wrung face relaxed.

"Didn't you get my note?" he asked eagerly. "Didn't Cara give it you?"

"Your--note?" For an instant Ann was puzzled. Then she remembered. Cara had said there was a note for her. At the time she had assumed it was a note from Brett, and in listening to the history of all that had taken place upon the yacht she had never given it another thought. She turned to the sheaf of bills still lying on the table. Yes, it was there, hidden beneath the bill which she had picked up to examine, afterwards replacing it on the top of the pile.

She unfolded the note and read it in silence, and, as she read, the grey shadow which had dimmed even the radiance of love itself unfurled its wings and fled away.

There could never be any more questioning or doubt. She knew now that Eliot's faith in her was perfected. He had written this--these words of utter trust--in circumstances which might have shaken the belief of almost any man. And his faith had remained steadfast. Love, which casteth out fear, had cast out this last fear of all.

"Eliot"--Ann's voice broke a little--"you've given me the one thing I still needed--the absolute certainty of your faith in me."

"I believe in you as I believe in God," he answered simply.

He drew her into his arms.

"And you, beloved--do you know what you have done for me? You have closed the gates of memory, shown me the way into the 'happy garden'--given me beauty for ashes."

A silence fell between them. But it was the silence of complete and perfect understanding. Together they would go forth into the future, unafraid.


THE END.

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