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LADY ANGELA APPROVES
It was the only breath of fresh air which I had allowed myself all the morning, though the dazzling sunlight and the soft west wind had tempted me all the time. And now, as ill luck would have it, I had walked straight into the presence of the one person in the world whom I wished most earnestly to avoid. She was standing on the edge of the cliff, her hands behind her, gazing seawards, and though I stopped short at the sight of her, and for a moment entertained wild thoughts of flight, it was not possible for me to carry them out. A dry twig snapped beneath my feet, and, turning quickly round, she had seen me. She came forward at once, and for some reason or other I knew that she was glad. She smiled upon me almost gaily.
"So this sunshine has even tempted you out, Sir Hermit," she exclaimed. "Is it not good to feel the Spring coming?"
"Delightful," I answered.
She looked at me curiously.
"How pale you are!" she said. "You are working too hard, Mr. Ducaine."
"I came down from London by the mail last night," I said. "I saw Colonel Ray--had dinner with him, in fact."
She nodded, but asked me no questions.
"I think," she said abruptly, "that they are all coming down here in a few days. I heard from my father this morning."
"I have been very unfortunate, Lady Angela," I said. "Your father is displeased with me. I think that but for Colonel Ray I should have been dismissed yesterday."
"Is it about--the Prince of Malors?" she asked in a low tone.
"Partly. I was forced to tell what I knew." She hesitated for a moment, then she turned impulsively toward me.
"You were right to tell them, Mr. Ducaine," she said. "I have hated myself ever since the other night when I seemed to side against you. There are things going on about us which I cannot fathom, and sometimes I have fears, terrible fears. But your course at least is a clear one. Don't let yourself be turned aside by any one. My father has prejudices which might lead him into grievous errors. Trust Colonel Ray--no one else. Yours is a dangerous position, but it is a splendid one. It means a career and independence. If there should come a time even--"
She broke off abruptly in her speech. I could see that she was agitated, and I thought that I knew the cause.
"Lady Angela," I said slowly, "would it not be possible for you and Colonel Ray to persuade Lord Blenavon to go abroad?"
She swayed for a moment as though she would have fallen, and her eyes looked at me full of fear.
"You think--that it would be better?"
"It would break my father's heart," she murmured, "if ever he could be brought to believe it."
"The more reason why Lord Blenavon should go," I said. "He is set between dangerous influences here. Lady Angela, can you tell me where your brother was last night?"
"How should I?" she answered slowly. "He tells me nothing."
"He was not at home?"
"He dined at home. I think that he went out afterwards."
"And if he returned at all," I said, "I think you will find that it was after three o'clock."
She came a little nearer to me, although indeed we were in a spot where there was no danger of being overheard.'
"What do you know about it?"
"Am I not right?" I asked.
"He did not return at all," she answered. "He is not home yet."
I had believed from the first that Blenavon was one of my two assailants. Now I was sure of it.
"When he does come back," I remarked grimly, "you may find him more or less damaged."
"Mr. Ducaine," she said, "you must explain yourself."
I saw no reason why I should not do so. I told her the story of my early morning adventure. She listened with quivering lips.
"You were not hurt, then?" she asked eagerly.
"I was not hurt," I assured her. "I was fortunate."
"Tell me what measures you are taking," she begged.
"What can I do?" I asked. "It was pitch dark, and I could identify no one. I am writing Colonel Ray. That is all."
"That hateful woman," she murmured. "Mr. Ducaine, I believe that if Blenavon is really concerned in this, it is entirely through her influence."
"Very likely," I answered. "I have heard strange things about her. She is a dangerous woman."
We were both silent for a moment. Then Lady Angela, whose eyes were fixed seawards, suddenly turned to me.
"Oh," she cried, "I am weary of all these bothers and problems and anxieties. Let us put them away for one hour of this glorious morning. Dare you play truant for a little while and walk on the sands?"
"I think so," I answered readily, "if you will wait while I go and put Grooton in charge."
"I will be scrambling down," she declared. "It is not a difficult operation."
I joined her a few minutes later, and we set our faces toward the point of the bay. Over our heads the seagulls were lazily drifting and wheeling, the quiet sea stole almost noiselessly up the firm yellow sands. Farther over the marshes the larks were singing. Inland, men like tiny specks in the distance were working upon their farms. We walked for a while in silence, and I found myself watching my companion. Her head was thrown slightly back, she walked with all the delightful grace of youth and strength, yet there was a cloud which still lingered upon her face.
"These," I said abruptly "should be the happiest days of your life, Lady Angela. After all, is it worth while to spoil them by worrying about other people's doings?"
"Other people's doings?" she murmured.
I shrugged my shoulders.
"Selfishness, you know, is the permitted vice of the young--and of lovers."
"Blenavon can scarcely rank amongst the other people with me," she said. "He is my only brother."
"Colonel Ray is to be your husband," I reminded her, "which is far more important."
She turned upon me with flaming cheeks.
"You do not understand what you are talking about, Mr. Ducaine," she said, stiffly. "Colonel Ray and I are not lovers. You have no right to assume anything of the sort."
"If you are not lovers," I said, "what right have you to marry?"
She seemed a little staggered, as indeed she might be by my boldness.
"You are very mediaeval," she remarked.
"The mediaeval sometimes survives. It is as true now as then that loveless marriages are a curse and a sin," I answered. "It is the one thing which remains now as it was in the beginning."
She looked at me furtively, almost timidly.
"I should like to know why you are speaking to me like this," she said. "I do not want to seem unkind, but do you think that the length of our acquaintance warrants it?"
"I do not know how long I have known you," I answered. "I do not remember the time when I did not know you. You are one of those people to whom I must say the things which come into my mind. I think that if you do not love Colonel Ray you have no right to marry him."
She looked me in the face. Her cheeks were flushed with walking, and the wind had blown her hair into becoming confusion.
"Mr. Ducaine," she said, "do you consider that Colonel Ray is your friend?"
"He has been very good to me," I answered.
"There is something between you two. What is it?"
"It is not my secret," I told her.
"There is a secret, then," she murmured. "I knew it. Is this why you do not wish me to marry him?"
"I have not said that I do not wish you to marry him," I reminded her.
"Not in words. You had no need to put it into words."
"You are very young," I said, "to marry any one for any other reason save the only true one. Some day there might be some one else."
She watched the flight of a seagull for a few moments--watched it till its wings shone like burnished silver as it lit upon the sun-gilded sea.
"I do not think so," she said, dreamily. "I have never fancied myself caring very much for any one. It is not easy, you know, for some of us."
"And for some," I murmured, "it is too easy."
She looked at me curiously, but she had no suspicion as to the meaning of my words.
"I want you to tell me something," she said, in a few minutes. "Have you any other reason beyond this for objecting to my marriage with Colonel Ray?"
"If I have," I answered slowly, "I cannot tell it you. It is his secret, not mine."
"You are mysterious!" she remarked.
"If I am," I objected, "you must remember that you are asking me strange questions."
"Colonel Ray is too honest," she said, thoughtfully, "to keep anything from me which I ought to know."
I changed the conversation. After all I was a fool to have blundered into it. We talked of other and lighter things. I exerted myself to shake off the depression against which I had been struggling all the morning. By degrees I think we both forgot some part of our troubles. We walked home across the sandhills, climbing gradually higher and higher, until we reached the cliffs. On all sides of us the coming change in the seasons seemed to be vigorously asserting itself. The plovers were crying over the freshly-turned ploughed fields, a whole world of wild birds and insects seemed to have imparted a sense of movement and life to what only a few days ago had been a land of desolation, a country silent and winterbound. Colour was asserting itself in all manner of places--in the green of the sprouting grass, the shimmer of the sun upon the sea-stained sands, in the silvery blue of the Braster creeks. Lady Angela drew a long breath of content as we paused for a moment at the summit of the cliffs.
"And you wonder," she murmured, "that I left London for this!"
"Yes, I still wonder," I answered. "The beauties of this place are for the lonely--I mean the lonely in disposition. For you life in the busy places should just be opening all her fascinations. It is only when one is disappointed in the more human life that one comes back to Nature."
"Perhaps then," she said, a little vaguely, "I too must be suffering from disappointments. I have never realized--"
We had taken the last turn. My cottage was in sight. To my surprise a man was standing there as though waiting. He turned round as we approached. His face was very pale, and the back of his head was bandaged. He carried his arm, too, in a sling. It was Colonel Mostyn Ray!
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