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There followed for me another three days of unremitting work. Then midway through one morning I threw my pen from me with a great sense of relief. They might come or send for me when they chose. I had finished. My eyes were hot and my brain weary. Instinctively I threw open my front door, and it seemed to me that the sun and the wind and the birds were calling.
So I walked northwards down on the beach, across the grass-sprinkled sandhills and the mud-bottomed marshes. I walked with my cap stuffed in my pocket, my head bared to the freshening wind, and all the way I met no living creature. As I walked, my thoughts, which had been concentrated for these last few days upon my work, went back to that terrible half-hour at Braster Grange. I thought of Ray. I realized now that for days past I had been striving not to think of him. The man's sheer brutality appalled me. I believed in him now wholly, I believed at least in his honesty, his vigorous and trenchant loyalty. But the ways of the man were surely brutal to torture even vermin caught in the trap, and that woman, adventuress though she might be, had flinched before him in agony, as though her very nerves were being hacked out of her body. And Blenavon, too! Surely he might have remembered that he was her brother. He might have helped him to retain just a portion of his self-respect. Was he as severe on every measure of wrong-doing? I fancied to myself the meeting on that lonely road between the poor white-faced creature who had looked in upon my window, and this strong merciless man. Warmed with exercise as I was, I shivered. Ray reminded me of those grim figures of the Old Testament. An eye for an eye, a life for a life, were precepts with him indeed. He was as inexorable as Fate itself. I feared him, and I knew why. I feared him when I thought of Angela, almost over-sensitive, so delicate a flower to be held in his strong, merciless grasp. I walked faster and faster, for thoughts were crowding in upon me. Such a tangled web, such bitter sweetness as they held for me. These were the thoughts which in those days it was the struggle of my life to keep from coming to fruition. I knew very well that, if once I gave way to them, flight alone could save me. For the love of her was in my nerves, in every beat of my pulse, a wild and beautiful dream, against which I was fighting always a hopeless battle.
Far away, coming towards me along the sands, I saw her. I stopped short. For a moment my heart was hot with joy, then I looked wildly around, thinking of flight. It was not possible. Already she had seen me. She waved her hand and increased her pace, walking with the swift effortless grace of her beautiful young limbs, her head thrown back, a welcoming smile already parting her lips. I set my teeth and prepared myself for the meeting. Afterwards would come the pain, but for the present the joy of seeing her, of being with her, was everything! I hastened forward.
"I could not stay indoors," she said, as she turned by my side, "although I have an old aunt and some very uninteresting visitors to entertain. Besides, I have news! My father is coming down to-day, and I think some of the others. We have just had a telegram."
"I am glad," I answered. "I have just finished my work, and I want some more."
"You are insatiable," she declared, smiling. "You have written for three days, days and nights too, I believe, and you look like a ghost. You ought to take a rest now. You ought to want one, at any rate."
Then the smile faded from her lips, and the anxiety of a sudden thought possessed her.
"I have not heard a word from Colonel Ray," she said. "It terrifies me to think that he may have told my father about Blenavon."
"You must insist upon it that he does not," I declared. "Your brother has left England, has he not?"
"He is at Ostend."
"Then Colonel Ray will keep his word," I assured her. "Besides, you have written to him, have you not?"
"I have written," she answered. "Still, I am afraid. He will do what he thinks right, whatever it may be."
"He will respect your wishes," I said.
She smiled a little bitterly.
"He is not an easy person to influence," she murmured. "I doubt whether my wishes, even my prayers, would weigh with him a particle against his own judgment. And he is severe--very severe."
I said nothing, and we walked for some time in silence.
"Next week," she said abruptly, "I must go back to London."
It was too sudden! I could not keep back the little exclamation of despair. She walked for some time with her head turned away from me, as though something on the dark clear horizon across the waters had fascinated her, but I caught a glimpse of her face, and I knew that my secret had escaped me. Whether I was glad or sorry I could not tell. My thoughts were all in hopeless confusions. When she spoke, there was a certain reserve in her tone. I knew that things would never again be exactly the same between us. Yet she was not angry! I hugged that thought to myself. She was startled and serious, but she was not angry.
"One season is very much like another," she said, "but it is not possible to absent oneself altogether. Then afterwards there is Cowes and Homburg, and I always have a plan for at least three weeks in Scotland. I believe we shall close Rowchester altogether."
"The Duke?" I asked.
"He never spends the summer here," she answered. "We are generally together after July, so perhaps," she added, "you may have to endure more of my company than you think."
She looked at me with a faint, provoking smile. How dare she? I was master of myself now, and I answered her coldly.
"I shall be very sorry to leave here," I said. "I hope if my work lasts so long that I shall be able to go on with it at the 'Brand.'"
She made no answer to that, but in a moment or two she turned and looked at me thoughtfully.
"You are rather a surprising person," she remarked, "in many ways. And you certainly have strange tastes."
"Is it a strange taste to love this place?" I asked.
"Of course not. But, on time other hand, it is strange that you should be content to remain here indefinitely. Solitude is all very well at times, but at your age I think that the vigorous life of a great city should have many attractions for you. Life here, after all, must become something of an abstraction."
"It contents me," I declared shortly.
"Then I am not sure that you are in an altogether healthy frame of mind," she answered, coolly. "Have you no ambitions?"
"Such as I have," I muttered, "are hopeless. They were built on sand--and they have fallen."
"Then reconstruct them," she said. "You are far too young to speak with such a note of finality."
"Some day," I answered, "I suppose I shall. At present I am content to live on, amongst the fragments. One needs only imagination. The things one dreams about are always more beautiful and perhaps more satisfying than the things one does."
Again our eyes met, and I fancied that this time she was looking a little frightened. At any rate she knew. I was sure of that.
"What an ineffective sort of proceeding!" she murmured.
A creek separated us for a few minutes. When we came together again I asked her a question.
"There is something, Lady Angela," I said, "which, if you would forgive the impertinence of it, I should very much like to ask you."
She moved her head slowly, as though giving a tacit consent. But I do not think that she was quite prepared for what I asked her.
"When are you going to marry Colonel Ray?"
She looked at me quickly, almost furtively, and I saw that her cheeks were flushed. There was a look in her eyes, too, which I could not fathom.
"The date is not decided yet," she said. "You know there is some talk of trouble in Egypt, and if so he might have to leave at a moment's notice."
"It will not be, at any rate, before the autumn, then?" I persisted.
I drew a little breath of relief. I was reckless whether she heard it or not. Suddenly she paused.
"Who is that?" she asked.
I recognized him at once--a small grey figure, standing on the top of a sandhill a little way off, and regarding us steadily. It was the Duke.
"Your father!" I said.
We quickened our pace. If Lady Angela was in any way discomposed she showed no signs of it. She waved her hand, and the Duke solemnly removed his hat.
"I am so glad that he has come down before the others," she said. "I am longing to have a talk with him. And I don't believe he knows anything about Blenavon. No, he's far too cheerful."
She went straight up to him and passed her arm through his. He greeted me stiffly, but not unkindly.
"I am so glad that you have come," she said. "If I had not heard I should have telegraphed to you. I've seen it in all the papers."
"You approve?" I heard him ask quietly.
"Approve is not the word," she declared eagerly. "It is magnificent."
"I wonder," he asked, "if you realize what it means?"
"It simply doesn't matter," she answered, with a delightful smile. "I can make my own dresses, if you like. Annette is a shocking nuisance to me."
"I am afraid," he remarked, with an odd little smile, "that Blenavon will scarcely regard the matter in the same light."
"Bother Blenavon!" she answered lightly. "I suppose you know that he's gone off abroad somewhere?"
"I had a hurried line from him with information to that effect," the Duke answered. "I think that it would have been more respectful if he had called to see me on his way through London."
I heard her sigh of relief.
"Now, tell me," she begged, "where shall we begin? Cowes, Homburg, town house, or Annette? I'm ready."
The Duke looked at her for a moment as I had never seen him look at any living person.
"You must not exaggerate to yourself the importance of this affair, Angela," he said. "I do not think we need interfere for the present with any existing arrangements."
She took his arm, and they walked on ahead to the clearing in front of my. cottage, talking earnestly together. I had no clue to the meaning of those first few sentences which had passed between them. And needless to say, I now lingered far enough behind to be out of earshot. When they reached the turn in the path they halted and waited for me.
"I am anxious for a few minutes' conversation inside with you, Ducaine," the Duke said. "Angela, you had better perhaps not wait for me."
She nodded her farewell, a brief imperious little gesture, it seemed to me, with very little of kindliness in it. Then the Duke followed me into my sitting-room. I waited anxiously to hear what he had to say.
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