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Myra Duquesne came under an arch of roses to the wooden seat where Robert Cairn awaited her. In her plain white linen frock, with the sun in her hair and her eyes looking unnaturally large, owing to the pallor of her beautiful face, she seemed to the man who rose to greet her an ethereal creature, but lightly linked to the flesh and blood world.
An impulse, which had possessed him often enough before, but which hitherto he had suppressed, suddenly possessed him anew, set his heart beating, and filled his veins with fire. As a soft blush spread over the girl's pale cheeks, and, with a sort of timidity, she held out her hand, he leapt to his feet, threw his arms around her, and kissed her; kissed her eyes, her hair, her lips!
There was a moment of frightened hesitancy ... and then she had resigned herself to this sort of savage tenderness which was better in its very brutality than any caress she had ever known, which thrilled her with a glorious joy such as, she realised now, she had dreamt of and lacked, and wanted; which was a harbourage to which she came, blushing, confused--but glad, conquered, and happy in the thrall of that exquisite slavery.
"Myra," he whispered, "Myra! have I frightened you? Will you forgive me?--"
She nodded her head quickly and nestled upon his shoulder.
"I could wait no longer," he murmured in her ear. "Words seemed unnecessary; I just wanted you; you are everything in the world; and,"--he concluded simply--"I took you."
She whispered his name, very softly. What a serenity there is in such a moment, what a glow of secure happiness, of immunity from the pains and sorrows of the world!
Robert Cairn, his arms about this girl, who, from his early boyhood, had been his ideal of womanhood, of love, and of all that love meant, forgot those things which had shaken his life and brought him to the threshold of death, forgot those evidences of illness which marred the once glorious beauty of the girl, forgot the black menace of the future, forgot the wizard enemy whose hand was stretched over that house and that garden--and was merely happy.
But this paroxysm of gladness--which Eliphas LÚvi, last of the Adepts, has so marvellously analysed in one of his works--is of short duration, as are all joys. It is needless to recount, here, the broken sentences (punctuated with those first kisses which sweeten the memory of old age) that now passed for conversation, and which lovers have believed to be conversation since the world began. As dusk creeps over a glorious landscape, so the shadow of Antony Ferrara crept over the happiness of these two.
Gradually that shadow fell between them and the sun; the grim thing which loomed big in the lives of them both, refused any longer to be ignored. Robert Cairn, his arm about the girl's waist, broached the hated subject.
"When did you last see--Ferrara?"
Myra looked up suddenly.
"Over a week--nearly a fortnight, ago--"
Cairn noted that the girl spoke of Ferrara with an odd sort of restraint for which he was at a loss to account. Myra had always regarded her guardian's adopted son in the light of a brother; therefore her present attitude was all the more singular.
"You did not expect him to return to England so soon?" he asked.
"I had no idea that he was in England," said Myra, "until he walked in here one day. I was glad to see him--then."
"And should you not be glad to see him now?" inquired Cairn eagerly.
Myra, her head lowered, deliberately pressed out a crease in her white skirt.
"One day, last week," she replied slowly, "he--came here, and--acted strangely--"
"In what way?" jerked Cairn.
"He pointed out to me that actually we--he and I--were in no way related."
"You know how I have always liked Antony? I have always thought of him as my brother."
Again she hesitated, and a troubled expression crept over her pale face. Cairn raised his arm and clasped it about her shoulders.
"Tell me all about it," he whispered reassuringly.
"Well," continued Myra in evident confusion, "his behaviour became--embarrassing; and suddenly--he asked me if I could ever love him, not as a brother, but--"
"I understand!" said Cairn grimly. "And you replied?"
"For some time I could not reply at all: I was so surprised, and so--horrified. I cannot explain how I felt about it, but it seemed horrible--it seemed horrible!--"
"But of course, you told him?"
"I told him that I could never be fond of him in any different way--that I could never think of it. And although I endeavoured to avoid hurting his feelings, he--took it very badly. He said, in such a queer, choking voice, that he was going away--"
"Yes; and--he made a strange request."
"What was it?"
"In the circumstances--you see--I felt sorry for him--I did not like to refuse him; it was only a trifling thing. He asked for a lock of my hair!"
"A lock of your hair! And you--"
"I told you that I did not like to refuse--and I let him snip off a tiny piece, with a pair of pocket scissors which he had. Are you angry?"
"Of course not! You--were almost brought up together. You--?"
"Then--" she paused--"he seemed to change. Suddenly, I found myself afraid--dreadfully afraid--"
"Not of Antony, exactly. But what is the good of my trying to explain! A most awful dread seized me. His face was no longer the face that I have always known; something--"
Her voice trembled, and she seemed disposed to leave the sentence unfinished; then:
"Something evil--sinister, had come into it."
"And since then," said Cairn, "you have not seen him?"
"He has not been here since then--no."
Cairn, his hands resting upon the girl's shoulders, leant back in the seat, and looked into her troubled eyes with a kind of sad scrutiny.
"You have not been fretting about him?"
Myra shook her head.
"Yet you look as though something were troubling you. This house"--he indicated the low-lying garden with a certain irritation--"is not healthily situated. This place lies in a valley; look at the rank grass--and there are mosquitoes everywhere. You do not look well, Myra."
The girl smiled--a little wistful smile.
"But I was so tired of Scotland," she said. "You do not know how I looked forward to London again. I must admit, though, that I was in better health there; I was quite ashamed of my dairy-maid appearance."
"You have nothing to amuse you here," said Cairn tenderly; "no company, for Mr. Saunderson only lives for his orchids."
"They are very fascinating," said Myra dreamily, "I, too, have felt their glamour. I am the only member of the household whom he allows amongst his orchids--"
"Perhaps you spend too much time there," interrupted Cairn; "that superheated, artificial atmosphere--"
Myra shook her head playfully, patting his arm.
"There is nothing in the world the matter with me," she said, almost in her old bright manner--"now that you are back--"
"I do not approve of orchids," jerked Cairn doggedly. "They are parodies of what a flower should be. Place an Odontoglossum beside a rose, and what a distorted unholy thing it looks!"
"Unholy?" laughed Myra.
"Unholy,--yes!--they are products of feverish swamps and deathly jungles. I hate orchids. The atmosphere of an orchid-house cannot possibly be clean and healthy. One might as well spend one's time in a bacteriological laboratory!"
Myra shook her head with affected seriousness.
"You must not let Mr. Saunderson hear you," she said. "His orchids are his children. Their very mystery enthrals him--and really it is most fascinating. To look at one of those shapeless bulbs, and to speculate upon what kind of bloom it will produce, is almost as thrilling as reading a sensational novel! He has one growing now--it will bloom some time this week--about which he is frantically excited."
"Where did he get it?" asked Cairn without interest.
"He bought it from a man who had almost certainly stolen it! There were six bulbs in the parcel; only two have lived and one of these is much more advanced than the other; it is so high--"
She held out her hand, indicating a height of some three feet from the ground.
"It has not flowered yet?"
"No. But the buds--huge, smooth, egg-shaped things--seem on the point of bursting at any moment. We call it the 'Mystery,' and it is my special care. Mr. Saunderson has shown me how to attend to its simple needs, and if it proves to be a new species--which is almost certain--he is going to exhibit it, and name it after me! Shall you be proud of having an orchid named after--"
"After my wife?" Cairn concluded, seizing her hands. "I could never be more proud of you than I am already...."
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