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THE VISITORS' BOOK
It was quite true. They were caught like rats in a trap, and Ann's heart sank. She had lived long enough to know that there are always a certain number of censorious people sufficiently ungenerous and narrow-minded to make mischief out of any awkward happening, no matter how innocently it may have occurred.
"Can't you think of any way out, Tony?" she said at last. "I--I don't seem to know what to do." She looked round her vaguely, feeling confused and unnerved by the awkwardness of their predicament.
"There's not a châlet within reach, or I'd go off there for the night," answered Tony, adding with a twinkle in his eyes: "And although I might, of course, sleep outside, if you preferred--on the top of the Roche d'Or, for instance!--I'm afraid it wouldn't help matters much, as my frozen corpse would require about as much explaining away as the fact that we've stayed the night here."
He had never felt less like joking, but he was rewarded by seeing a faint smile relax the strained expression on her face.
"Don't worry, Ann," he pursued, tucking a friendly arm into hers. "No one need ever know. But I could kick myself for landing you into this mess. It's all my fault. If I hadn't gone fooling about at the top of that ravine and come to grief we should be buzzing comfortably homeward in the train."
"You did it for me," cried Ann quickly. Now that the first shock of realisation was over she was recovering her usual cheery outlook on things. "You mustn't blame yourself. It's no one's fault. It's just--"
"The cussedness of things," vouchsafed Tony, as she paused.
"Yes, Just that. Well"--she gave her shoulders a slight shrug as though she were shaking off a burden--"we may as well make the best of things. At least we shall see the sunset up here. It's supposed to be rather wonderful, isn't it?"
"I believe the sunrise is the special thing to see. You'll have to get up early to-morrow, ma'am." He paused a moment, then went on with frank admiration: "Ann, you're a real little sport! There isn't one girl in twenty would have taken this business as well as you have. They'd have been demanding my head on a charger."
"It wouldn't be any use making a fuss about a pure accident," she returned philosophically. "Let's just enjoy it--the sunset and the moonrise and everything else. Oh! I do hope they'll give us a decent dinner! You did us out of our tea by tumbling over the precipice--don't make a habit of it, please, Tony!--and I'm simply starving."
"I'll go and order some grub--and book rooms." He paused uncertainly. "By the way, I'll have to enter our names in the hotel register, I suppose?"
"Our names?" Ann flushed nervously. "Oh, you can't--I mean--"
"Don't worry," he said soothingly. "I shan't enter us under our own names, of course. What do you say to Smith--nice, inoffensive sort of name, don't you think? 'G. Smith and sister'--I think that'll meet the necessities of the case."
Ann giggled suddenly.
"It's all rather funny if it wasn't so--so--"
"Improper," supplied Tony obligingly.
"Call it unconventional," she supplemented. "It sounds better. And now do go and order some food for 'G. Smith and sister.' Sister is literally starving."
Half an hour later they were light-heartedly demolishing an excellent dinner, and the manager of the Hotel de Loup was congratulating himself upon the acquisition of two unexpected guests during the slack season. Afterwards they made another pilgrimage up to the Roche d'Or to watch the sunset.
When they had reached the top, Ann stood quietly at Tony's side, not speaking. The wonderful beauty of the scene enthralled her, and words would have seemed almost a profanation, breaking across the deep, stirless silence which wrapped them round. Away to their right the golden disc of the sun was sinking royally westward, bathing the mountains in a flood of lambent light, and piercing the darkening blue of the sky with quivering shafts of scarlet and orange and saffron. Across the snow-fields shimmered a translucent rosy glow, so that they seemed no longer bleak and desolate, but lay spread like an unfurled banner of glory betwixt the great peaks which sentinelled them round. Presently the sun dipped below the rim of the horizon, and the splendour faded swiftly. It was as if some one had suddenly closed the doors of an opened heaven, shutting away the brief vision of its radiance.
In the faint, chill light of the risen moon, Ann turned to go, still in silence. She felt awed by the beauty of it all. For the time being she had forgotten the untoward circumstances which had brought her here, forgotten even Tony, except that she was vaguely conscious he was beside her, another human being, sharing with her the deep, eternal quiet of the mountains and the flaming glory of the setting sun. Then his arm slipped through hers, as they began the steep descent, and at the boyish, friendly touch of it, she came back to earth.
"Oh, Tony, I'm almost glad we missed the last train," she said softly, "It's been so wonderful."
"Yes, it's been wonderful," he assented, and there was a queer, excited note in his voice. "It's been wonderful to be up here with you--right away from the rest of the world."
Instinctively she drew a little away from him.
"I wish you wouldn't," she said hastily.
"Wouldn't what?" He linked his arm in hers more firmly. "Help you down this hill? You might trip if I didn't. It's a very rough track"--blandly.
Inwardly Ann admitted to a feeling of helplessness. Tony eluded reproof with a skill that was altogether baffling. Now, as usual, having said what he wanted to say, he retreated behind a fence of raillery.
"You know quite well I didn't mean that," she said indignantly.
"What did you mean, then? That I'm not to make love to you?"
"It isn't fair of you," she urged. "Not now--here."
"No, I suppose it isn't," he acknowledged equably. "But I'm going to do it, all the same. Probably I'll never get you to myself again--alone on the top of the world. But I'll promise you one thing"--his voice deepened to a sudden gravity. "This is going to be the last time I make love to you. If you say 'no' to me now, I shall accept it, and it will be 'no' for always."
Ann's heart beat a little more quickly.
"Tony--" she began protestingly.
"No. Hear me out. I know what's the matter. You don't trust me. You're afraid, if you marry me, that I'll let you down--as my father let my mother down. But I won't! I swear it." He stood still and, slipping his arm from under hers, took both her hands in his and held them tightly. "If you'll marry me, Ann, I promise you that I'll give up gambling--every form of it--from this day forth."
"You couldn't!" she broke in hastily.
"I could do anything--for you," he answered simply. "Because I love you."
There was something very touching in the boyish declaration. Ann looked up and saw his face in the moonlight, white and rather stern. It made her think of the face of some young knight of bygone days taking a sacred vow before he set forth to seek and find the Holy Grail.
He bent down to her.
"Ann, darling," he said gently. "I love you so much. Won't you marry me?"
She felt her heart contract. He had asked her many times before--sometimes half jestingly, sometimes with a sudden imperious passion that would fain have swept everything before it. But this was different. There was a gravity, an earnestness in his speech which she could not lightly brush aside. Alone here, under the wide sky, with only God's open spaces round them, it seemed to her as though his question and her answer to it must partake of the same solemnness as vows exchanged within the hallowed walls of a sanctuary.
She wished intensely that she could give him the answer he desired. And, beyond that, she felt the urge of Virginia's trust in her. Here was her chance. At a word from her he was willing to renounce the one thing for which he craved--the thing that had wrecked his father's life, and which might some day wreck his own. Ought she to say that word--promise to marry him, even though she had no love to give him? Her mind seemed to be going round and round in a maze of uncertainty and doubt.
And then suddenly the remembrance of what Lady Susan had said rushed over her: "A woman may throw her whole life's happiness into the scales, and still fail to turn the balance. Without love--the love that can forgive seventy times seven, and then not be tired--she'll certainly fail."
The words steadied her. "Without love--" and she had no love to give Tony. Not the love that a woman should bring to the man she will call husband. Out of the turmoil of her mind this one thought emerged clear and irrefutable. And in that moment, for good or ill, her decision was taken.
"Tony." She spoke very gently, sore at heart for the pain she knew she must inflict. "I must say no, dear. If I loved you, I'd say yes very gladly. But I don't love you--not like that."
"And you won't marry me?"
"No, I can't marry you."
"Then that's finished." He spoke brusquely. "I shan't ask you again, so you needn't worry. Come along, we'll get back to the hotel. If we're going to watch the sunrise to-morrow, we'd better turn in early. And this air makes one confoundedly sleepy. I believe I could sleep the clock round."
His abrupt return to the commonplace left her feeling confused and disconcerted. It almost seemed as though she must have dreamed the brief conversation which had just taken place. It was incredible that a man could ask you to marry him, promise to forswear a deadly vice that was born in his blood, and then--almost in the same breath, as it were--casually vouchsafe the information that he "could sleep the clock round"!
He had linked his arm in hers again, and was piloting her skilfully down the uneven pathway. She stole a glance at his face. But she could learn nothing whatever from his expression. Apparently he was solely concerned with the matter of conducting her back to the hotel in safety.
They parted in the hall at the foot of the stairs.
"I hope you'll sleep all right," said Tony, smiling down at her. "I'm afraid you'll find it a bit of a picnic, though, without any of the 'comforts of home'!"
He had hardly finished speaking when the hotel door swung open, and a man came striding in from outside. As he paused on the threshold to pull off the heavy coat he was wearing, he shot a casual glance in the direction of the two people standing together by the staircase. Then, his gaze concentrating suddenly, he stared at Tony with an odd intentness.
"Good-night, Tony." Ann's voice travelled softly to his ears, and at the sound of it the man transferred his gaze from Tony's face to hers. He himself remained standing unobserved in the curtained shadow of the entry, and, when Ann had gone upstairs, Tony passed him on the way to his own room on the ground floor without noticing his presence.
The man's glance followed him speculatively. Strolling across to the bureau, he opened the visitors' book, flicking over the leaves till he came to the current page. He ran his fingers down the list of names, pausing abruptly at the last inscription: "G. Smith and sister." Followed the illuminating word, "London."
With a brief, ironical smile he closed the book. Then he, too, took his way to bed, and presently the Hotel de Loup was wrapped in the profound stillness of night.
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