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fragrance of the lilaos, the feverish visions of the night dissolved as before an enchanter's wand. In a fit of sheer ecstasy West had to fling himself on the grass, as if nothing but physical contact could enable him to drink deep enough of the beauty lavished all round him. Lying there he heard a bush rustle, and turning over lazily, found himself confronted by Mrs Heathcote. He bounded to his feet, and they gazed shyly at
"Your head is better?" he remarked, with a sedate twinkle in his eye.
She nodded brightly. "The morning," she replied, "has made a headache impossible. But how early you are!"
"I am sorry," he answered, gravely, "to have disturbed your walk. Early rising is one of those vices which I acquired in the East, and I am not yet civilised or young enough to have learned to drop it."
"After that speech," she said, avoiding his quizzing eyes, "you can only pay the penalty of accompanying me." Accordingly they rambled off together. West observed that she had discarded her black frock for one of clinging grey, which harmonised to perfection with the fresh tones of her complexion, so piquant a contrast to the sallow brunettes of Paris, and a sprig of lilac thrust with artful carelessness into her bosom supplied the subtle relief in colour for which the eye craved.
Their conversation rapidly became confidential. "Do know," she remarked, thoughtfully, in answer to one of his sardonic aphorisms, "I am going to say something rude-but will you tell me why a hero must also be a cynic?"
"A cynic! Pray explain."
His voice rang with a reproachful note.
"Well, you are a cynic; that is to say, you value human motives very low."
"On the contrary," he replied, quickly, "I have a high opinion of my fellow men. Generally speaking, they are at bottom a good deal better than they appear."
"And your fellow women?” she slipped in, with a mischievous tilt of her parasol. Captain West's face bronzed. "I cannot speak of women," he said, quickly, "I know so little of them."
Mrs Heathcote stopped to confront him. "Is that quite can
did?" she asked, boldly. "I should say that you knew a great deal about them-or fancied that you did."
"Oh, the latter of course," he said, laughing. "Fancied' is the right word. What man can—" "There is the cynic," she put in, smiling up at him.
"But really, Mrs Heathcote, you must admit that
"I admit nothing of the sort. You say you take men as you find them. Why not be equally generous with women? Why insinuate motives when they don't appear?"
Well, to be candid, because I am convinced that women are so different from men. All my experience—
"Which you admit is small,” she interrupted. Then she flushed. "I am bothering you. It is very extraordinary of me to talk like this; but you will understand, I hope- She supplied the remainder of the sentence by an eloquent glance.
West was prevented from replying suitably, for at this moment Mrs Heathcote tripped on a branch which had caught in the
bottom of her skirt. She turned aside to wrestle with the offending obstacle.
"I am afraid," she said, with excusable petulance, "I must go back. Walking is impossible with a loop in one's petticoat like that." She looked down comically at the edge of her dress. "I know what you are burning to say," she added, with a provoking side glance, "only another proof of the inferiority of the sex." She shook the delicate pink ruche impatiently.
"Cannot I assist you?" he asked, mischievously.
She glanced reprovingly at him. "To get yet another proof of feminine vanity-vanity, as usual, on a silken foundation."
West was searching in his pocket. "Old campaigners," he remarked, "can do most things. Let me relieve you of your silken inferiority." He had whipped out a pair of scissors.
"Ah!" she exclaimed, with a gay nod, " man, cynical man, can of course provide what woman needs." She stooped down to hold up to him with dainty gravity the pale pink frilling of her silk petticoat. West applied his scissors, and their hands met on the guilty frippery.
He had hardly begun to cut when he felt her start back with a sudden paroxysm of horror. "Good God!" he heard her gasp in a choking whisper which was almost a moan. He dropped the scissors like one shot, and turned to her. Her face was blanched into a death-like pallor, and she had almost fallen back against the nearest tree.
"What is the matter?" he asked, with the brusqueness of genuine fear. She recovered herself with an effort and looked at him, a strangely excited light in her
eyes. "That. ring!" she panted out, pointing to his left hand. "In heaven's name, where did you get that ring?"
West drew the ring off-a plain signet-ring with a small figure cut on its worn face. "You know it?" he queried, half to himself.
She took it with burning fingers and examined it. The pallor on her face deepened; he could see the pitiful heaving of her bosom.
"Know it!" she repeated with a bitter laugh. "Know it! It was my husband's. In God's name, where did you find it?"
"Your husband's?" he muttered, confusedly. They stared at each other in desperate silence. "It is a strange story," West at last stammered out, "a very strange story." Then slowly, "But I believe I am near the solution now. When you feel better I will tell you all I know; it is not much."
"I am quite calm now," she replied, bravely. And indeed he could not help admiring the magnificence of her self-mastery. Save for the pallor on her cheeks, she was as composed as she had been a brief quarter of an hour before.
"I am sorry to have alarmed you," she said, with the ghost of a smile on her still quivering lips, "but some day you will understand. Women," she added, "after all, I suppose, are different from men. But before we talk, suppose we finish off my skirt."
In that prosaic operation they found the necessary sedative for shattered nerves. Five minutes later, when they emerged on to the Terrace, they were apparently only an ordinary man and woman.
"I am quite ready," she said in a low voice, as she sank into a "But you must promise to conceal nothing-nothing." "I promise," he replied, "and
will be brief. I warn you, though, it is not a pleasant story." He shifted uneasily on the seat, and then began. "Some six years ago I was in command of the police on our South African frontier." ("South Africa!" she murmured.) "One afternoon I had ridden over to the inn in the town-we call them towns, you know-which was my headquarters, and there I came across two strangers. New-comers are always interesting, especially to a police-officer, and I can remember them distinctly-I have good reason to. One was a man of about thirty, a loafer if ever there was one, with that sort of face one would not trust round
plications. When I reached the farm there was not a soul in it, man, woman, or beast. But in the sitting-room I found "—his voice deepened as the memory surged over him-"that loafer, face downwards, in a pool of his own blood. An assegai had gone through his back and had ended his miserable life. No one knew anything about him, and so we buried him in the farm-steading. I made discreet inquiries, but no evidence as to his identity was forthcoming. The only clue was the ring. I found it on his finger. How he came to have it I can't say: I only know that the last time I had seen it, it had been on the other man's hand. I kept the
"And the other?" she broke in, ring, and told no one. The misereagerly.
"The other was rather youngera gentleman, but" he paused nervously.
"You promised to tell the truth," she said, reproachfully.
"Well, he looked as if-as if-pardon the expression-he had not been altogether wise in his life. I liked his face, but it was a weak face, and I pitied him for being found in such company as that other rascal was. I noticed particularly two things. He had a slight mole high up on his left cheek
She buried her face in her hands. "My husband," she said, with a sob.
"And he was wearing that ring. They rode away together shortly afterwards, and I never saw him again. How, then, did I get the ring? Strangely enough. Some six months later I had news that a farm in my district had been raided, and it was my duty to collar the raiders. These things, you know, don't get into the English papers, and it is well they don't. They would cause com
able creature had ended miserably; that assegai had sent him and his story together into death. I kept the ring, hoping that some day I might meet its real owner, but from that hour to this it has remained with me. I can only suppose that the real owner died or was murdered-who can say?"
Mrs Heathcote still sat with her face in her hands. "Thank you," she whispered, "thank you."
West was awed. A terrible consciousness of human helplessness in the iron grip of fate had numbed his mind. Presently he was able to add, "I ought perhaps to tell you that I did find something else. In one of the cupboards there was a coat, and in one of its pockets I came across this scrap.' He fumbled for his pocket-book and produced the tiny relic of yellow notepaper. "Perhaps I was wrong," he went on, "but of that discovery also I told no one. It confirmed my worst suspicions, for the coat no more than the ring belonged to the dead
man. But what was the use of publishing it? And so I kept it with the ring, and can now restore it to the writer."
She had looked up bewildered when he had begun to speak, and she took the soiled morsel mechanically from him. As her eye lighted on it her parched lips moved in pathetic silence. It was the last letter that I wrote to him," was her brief comment, uttered in the hard voice which sounds most cruelly in a woman. Her eyes told more than her words; they were eloquent of long years of cankering pain and unceasing remorse.
West rose. Delicacy bade him leave her alone with her memories. "I shall make a fool of myself if I stay here," was his uppermost thought. He was slipping away, when she held out a hand.
"Thank you," she said, simply. "Some day you will be glad you kept that that terrible story to yourself. Do not ask me to explain at present, and do not tell my brother yet: he is not so strong as I am, though I am a woman.'
A mad desire to stay and offer her some comfort swept over West. He half turned back. She was sitting with her face still in her hands, and the morning sun played saucily on her hair and neck; but when he saw her fling herself on the seat in a blinding passion of tears, for the first time in his life he fled from a position in which it would have been braver to have stayed. "Well, I am jiggered !" was all he could say, when safe in his own room. "I have known some queer things in my day, but this beats all." He shook his fist at his face in the glass. "Own up, you fool, you are a damned ass! I don't know which was worst, in the wood or on that seat
'pon my word, I might be a beastly young sub! I'm hanged if I wouldn't rather face Maxims or those cursed Boers thanWhat is there in the woman?" he wound up, beginning to pace up and down. "It is high time, Everard West, you were going."
Needless to say, having made up his mind to go, he did precisely the opposite. A week later saw him still at St Germain, getting more and more enmeshed each day. The spring was kind. There followed a series of flawless days; and what happy days they were in that inexhaustible Forest!-days in which they explored haunt after haunt of undreamed of beauty-days of al-fresco picnics, of childish gossip over old, unhappy, far-off things-the forgotten glories of Francis I., Henry II., and Diane de Poitiers, of "Notre Henri Quatre," of Anne of Austria and the pompous youth of the "Grand Monarque," of exiled Stuarts learning too late what charity meant: or maybe they lived breathlessly through fights with Afghans and Zulus, through perils in snow-bound mountainpasses, in waterless deserts, or the monotonous veldt, until these peaceful glades were alive with the ghosts of desperate men, and resounded with the unholy sob of shells and the pitiless crack of Martinis.
They had arranged to journey on together to Versailles, but it was not until the evening of their departure that Mrs Heathcote broke silence on the topic which had brought them together. West and she had strolled out after dinner on to the moonlit Terrace to bid it farewell. But after a few commonplace remarks on the magic panorama slumbering before her, Mrs Heathcote sat down on the seat, and by a quiet move
ment of her skirt invited her companion to do likewise.
"I may not get another chance," she began, calmly; "but I owe you shall I call it a confession? I have been making up my mind as to how much I should tell you, and have now decided to tell you all." She stopped as if to gain strength, and West struck in hurriedly
"I don't think you owe me any explanation. Had we not better forget the ring and its story?"
"So I have thought," she replied; "but no; on the whole, you had better hear. I owe it to myself if not to you."
West nodded. "You are the best judge," he remarked, almost to his cigar.
"Let me begin from the beginning, then," she said. "I was born and brought up in a country rectory in an old-fashioned way. My knowledge of life was absolutely nil at best it came from sheepish flirtations with a callow curate every girl, you will say, I suppose, can flirt by the light of nature; at its worst, from the gossip of a few girls as wise as myself. I married my husband when I was a child of eighteen, who knew as much about marriage as any uneducated child of eighteen can." She stopped to draw her cloak about her with an expressive shiver. The next sentences came with a pathetic rush. "My husband was a mere boy, with much more money than was good for him or for me. Unlike myself, he had been educated on modern methods. We plunged into the whirl of society, and for a time I was as happy as any girl could be who discovers what wealth and social status can give her. Then came disillusionment. It must come, I suppose, to us all; it came to me when I was but a
young wife. No doubt, if I had been brought up differently, I might have accepted my awakening with equanimity. Any way, I didn't.
My husband was rich, and he was weak. Worst of all, he was as clay in the hands of every woman who chose to exercise her power; and women, God knows!-some women- can be
merciless as well as vicious. We drifted apart; it was my faultI didn't think so then, but I think so now-for I was too angry to put out a hand to save him. He knew he was-was not what he ought to have been. He loved me after his fashion-that I also believe now, but I didn't believe it thenand-and then he took to drinking. It is the old, old story; there were quarrels, and the breach grew wider. Our differences came to a head.
We were both young and hot-tempered, and I had been trained to look on the life he was leading as worse than death. We parted-I returned to my father, and he, after a few solitary months in London, went to the Cape." Her eyes had filled with tears, and she had crumpled up glove into a tight ball-these were the only signs of what the recital was costing her.
"Before he left," she continued, "he came down to the Rectoryand I let him go. I was mad, drunk with indignation if you will, and I spurned him from my presence. He went; and the rest you know."
Her voice had choked. "That ring," she added, drawing it softly from her finger, "had been a present from myself. I had given it him in those happy days of my courtship and girlhood, when love had first come into my life." The wistful cadences of her voice seemed to haunt the air with the balm of moonlight summer nights and lovers' vows.