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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesCharles Rex - Part 3 - Chapter 14. The Last Card
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Charles Rex - Part 3 - Chapter 14. The Last Card Post by :neiltown Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :2550

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Charles Rex - Part 3 - Chapter 14. The Last Card

PART III CHAPTER XIV. THE LAST CARD

Saltash dined alone that night. He was in a restless mood and preoccupied, scarcely noticing what was put before him, pushing away the wine untasted. In the end he rose from the table almost with a gesture of disgust.

"I'm going to smoke on the ramparts," he said to the decorous butler who waited upon him. "If anyone should call to see me, let them wait in the music-room!"

"Very good, my lord! And where would you like to take coffee?" enquired the man sedately.

Saltash laughed. "Not on the ramparts--emphatically. I'll have mercy on you to that extent. Put it on the spirit-lamp in the music-room, and leave it! You needn't sit up, any of you. I'll put out the lights."

"Very good, my lord."

The man withdrew, and Saltash chose a cigar. An odd grimace drew his features as he lighted it. He had the look of a man who surveys his last card and knows himself a loser. Though he went out of the room and up the great staircase to the music-room with his head up and complete indifference in his carriage, his eyelids were slightly drawn. He did not look as if he had enjoyed the game.

A single red lamp lighted the music-room, and the long apartment looked dim and ghostly. He stood for a moment as he entered it and looked round, then with a scarcely perceptible lift of the shoulders he passed straight through to the curtain that hung before the door leading to the turret. The darkness of the place gaped before him, and he turned back with a muttered word and recrossed the room. There were Persian rugs upon the floor, and his feet made no sound. He went to the mantel-piece and, feeling along it, found a small electric torch. The light of it flared before him as he returned. The door yielded to his touch and swung shut behind him. He passed into vault-like silence.

The stone steps gave back the sound of his tread as he mounted, with eerie, wandering echoes. The grey walls glimmered with a ghostly desolation around him. Halfway up, he stopped to flick the ash from his cigar, and laughed aloud. But the echoes of his laughter sounded like voices crying in the darkness. He went on more swiftly, like a phantom imprisoned and seeking escape. The echoes met him and fell away behind him. The loneliness was like a curse. The very air felt dead.

He reached the top of the turret at last, and the heavy door that gave upon the ramparts. With a sound that was almost a gasp, he pushed it open, and passed out into the open air.

A full moon was shining, and his acres lay below him--a wonderful picture in black and silver. He came to the first gap in the battlements, mounted the parapet, and stood there with a hand resting on each side.

The wash of the sea came murmurously through the September silence. His restless eyes flashed hither and thither over the quiet scene, taking in every detail, lingering nowhere. The pine trees stirred in the distance below him, seeming to whisper together, and an owl hooted with a weird persistence down by the lake. It was like the calling of a human voice--almost like a cry of distress. Then it ceased, and the trees were still again.

The spell of the silence fell like the falling of a curtain. The loneliness crept about his heart.

He took the cigar from his mouth and spoke, ironically, grimly.

"There is your kingdom, Charles Rex!" he said.

He turned with the words and leaped down upon the narrow walk between the battlements. The owl began to call again, but the desolation remained. He paced forward with his hands behind him, his head bent. No one could see him here. The garment of mockery could be flung aside. He was like a prisoner tramping the stone walls from which he could never escape.

He paused once to toss away his cigar, but he did not look out again over the fair prospect of his lands. He was looking at other things, seeing the vast emptiness of a life that had never been worth while stretching behind and before him. Like a solitary traveller pausing in the heart of the desert, he stood to view the barrenness around him.

He had travelled far, had pursued many a quest with ardour; but the ardour had all gone out of him now. Only the empty solitude remained. He had lived a life of fevered variety, he had drunk deep of many waters; but he had never been satisfied. And now it seemed to him that all he had ever looked upon, all he had ever achieved, was mirage. Nothing of all that he had ever striven for was left. The fruit had turned to ashes in his mouth, and no spring remained whereat to quench his thirst.

Perhaps few men have ever realized the utter waste of wickedness as Charles Rex realized it that night. He met it whichever way he turned. To gratify the moment's whim had ever been his easy habit. If a generous impulse had moved him, he had gratified that also. But it had never been his way to sacrifice himself--until a certain night when a child had come to him, wide-eyed and palpitating like a driven bird, and had sought shelter and protection at his hands.

That, very curiously, had been the beginning of a new era in his life. It had appealed to him as nothing had ever appealed before. He had never tasted--or even desired--the Dead Sea fruit again. Something had entered his being on that night which he had never been able to cast out, and all other things had been dwarfed to insignificance.

He faced the fact as he paced his castle walls. The relish had gone out of his life. He was gathering what he had sown, and the harvest was barren indeed.

Time passed; he walked unheeding. If he spent the whole night on the ramparts, there was no one to know or care. It was better than tossing sleepless under a roof. He felt as if a roof would suffocate him. But sheer physical weariness began to oppress even his elastic frame at last. He awoke to the fact that he was dead tired.

He sat down in an embrasure between the battlements, and drifted into the numb state between waking and sleeping in which visions are born. For a space nothing happened, then quite suddenly, rising as it were out of a void, a presence entered his consciousness, reached and touched his spirit. Intangibly, but quite unmistakably, he was aware of the summons, of a voice that spoke within his soul.

He lifted his head and looked about him. Emptiness, stark emptiness, was all he saw. Yet, in a moment, as though a hand had beckoned, he arose. Without a backward glance he traversed the distance that lay between him and the turret-door. He went through it into utter darkness, and in utter darkness began the descent.

A shaft of moonlight smote through a slit in the stone wall as he rounded the corner of the stair. It lay like a shining sword across his path, and for a second he paused. Then he passed over it, sure-footed and confident, and plunged again into darkness. When he reached the end of the descent, he was breathing heavily, and his eyes were alight with a strange fire. He pulled upon the door and put aside the thick curtain with the swift movements of a man who can brook no delay. He passed into the long, dim room beyond with its single red lamp burning at the far end. He prepared to pass on to the door that led out upon the gallery and so to the grand staircase. But before he had gone half-a-dozen paces he stopped. It was no sound that arrested, no visible circumstance of any sort. Yet, as if at a word of command, he halted. His quick look swept around the room like the gleam of a rapier, and suddenly he swung upon his heel, facing that still, red light.

Seconds passed before he moved again. Then swiftly and silently he walked up the room. Close to the lamp was a deep settee on which the spots of a leopard skin showed in weird relief. At one end of the settee, against the leopard skin, something gold was shining. Saltash's look was fixed upon it as he drew near.

He reached the settee treading noiselessly. He stood beside it, looking down. And over his dark face with its weary lines and cynical mouth, its melancholy and its bitterness, there came a light such as neither man nor woman had ever seen upon it before. For there before him, curled up like a tired puppy, her tumbled, golden hair lying in ringlets over the leopard skin, was Toby, asleep in the dim, red lamplight.

For minutes he stood and gazed upon her before she awoke. For minutes that strange glory came and went over his watching face. He did not stir, did not seem even to breathe. But the fact of his presence must have pierced her consciousness at last, for in the end quite quietly, supremely naturally, the blue eyes opened and fixed upon him.

"Hullo!" said Toby sleepily. "Time to get up?"

And then, in a moment, she had sprung upright on the couch, swift dismay on her face.

"I--I thought we were on the yacht! I--I--I never meant to go to sleep here! I came to speak to you, sir. I wanted to see you."

He put a restraining hand upon her thin young shoulder, and his touch vibrated as with some unknown force controlled.

"All right, Nonette!" he said, and his voice had the same quality; it was reassuring but oddly unsteady. "Sorry I kept you waiting."

She looked at him. Her face was quivering. "I've had--a hell of a time," she said pathetically. "Been here hours--thought you'd never come. Your man--your man said I wasn't to disturb you."

"Damn the fool!" said Saltash.

She broke into a breathless laugh. "That's--that's just what I said. But I thought--I thought perhaps--you'd rather--rather I waited." She shivered suddenly. "I don't like this place. Can you take me somewhere else?"

He bent lower, put his hand under her elbow and helped her to her feet. She came up from the couch with a spring, and stood before him, half-daring and half-shy.

Saltash kept his hold upon her arm, and turned her towards the wall beside the tall mantel-piece. She went with him readily enough, watching, eager-eyed, as he stretched his free hand up to the oak panelling.

"Now I'm going to find out all your secrets!" she said boyishly.

"Not quite all," said Saltash.

There came the click of a spring and the panel slid to one side, leaving a long, narrow opening before them. Toby glanced up at him and, with a small, nestling movement, slipped within the circle of his arm. It tightened upon her in an instant, and she laughed again, a quivering, exultant laugh.

"I'm glad you've come," she said.

They paused on the edge of darkness, but there was no hesitation about Toby. She was all athrill with expectancy. Then in a flash the room before them was illuminated, and they entered.

It was a strange chamber, panelled, built in the shape of a cone. A glass dome formed its roof, and there was no window besides. The lights were cunningly concealed behind a weirdly coloured fresco of Oriental figures. But one lamp alone on a small table burned with a still red glow. This lamp was supported on the stuffed skin of a hooded cobra.

Toby's eyes were instantly drawn towards it. They shone with excitement. Again she glanced up at the man beside her.

"What a wonderful place!"

"Better than the music-room?" suggested Saltash.

"Oh, yes, far better." Her shining eyes sought his. "It might be your cabin on the yacht."

He stretched a hand behind him and again the spring clicked. Then he drew her forward. They trod on tiger skins. Everywhere were tiger skins, on the floor and on a deep low settee by the table which was the only other furniture the room possessed. Toby was clinging to the arm that held her, clinging very closely. There was unspoken entreaty in her hold. For there was something about Saltash at the moment, something unfamiliar and unfathomable that frightened her. His careless drollery, his two-edged ironies, were nought to her; but his silence was a barrier unknown that she could not pass. She could only cling voicelessly to the support he had not denied her.

He brought her to the settee and stood still. His face was strangely grim.

"Well--Toby?" he said.

She twisted in his hold and faced him, but she kept his arm wound close about her, her hand tight gripped on his. "Are you--angry with me for coming?" she asked him quiveringly. "I--had to come."

He looked down into her eyes. "_Bien, petite! Then you need--a friend," he said.

Her answering look was piteous. "I need--you," she said.

One of the old gay smiles flashed across his face. He seemed to challenge her to lightness. The grimness went out of his eyes like a shadow.

"And so you have come, _ma mignonette_, at the dead of night--at the risk of your reputation--and mine--"

Toby made an excruciating grimace, and broke impulsively in upon him. "It wasn't the dead of night when I started. I've been waiting hours--hours. But it doesn't matter. I've found you--at last. And you can't send me away now--like you did before--because--because--well, I've no one to go to. You might have done it if you'd come down earlier. But you can't do it--now." Her voice thrilled on a high note of triumph. "You've got to keep me--now. I've come--to stay."

"What?" said Saltash. He bent towards her, looking closely into her face. "Got to keep you, have I? What's that mean? Has Bunny been a brute to you? I could have sworn I'd made him understand."

She laughed in answer. "Bunny! I didn't wait to see him!"

"What?" Saltash said again.

She reached up a quick, nervous hand and laid it against his breast. Her eyes, wide and steadfast, never flinched from his. "I've come--to stay," she repeated. And then, after a moment, "It's all right. I left a note behind for Bunny. I told him I wasn't going back."

He caught her hand tightly into his. His hold was drawing her, and she yielded herself to it still with that quivering laughter that was somehow more eloquent than words, more piteous than tears.

Saltash spoke, below his breath. "What am I going to do with you?" he said.

Her arms reached up to him suddenly. Perhaps it was that for which she had waited. "You're going--to keep me--this time," she told him tremulously. "Oh, why did you ever send me away--when I belonged to you--and to no one else? You meant to give me my chance? What chance have I of anything but hell and damnation away from you? No, listen! Let me speak! Hear me first!" She uttered the words with passionate insistence. "I'm not asking anything of you--only to be with you. I'll be to you whatever you choose me to be--always--always. I will be your valet, your slave, your--plaything. I will be--the dust under your feet. But I must be with you. You understand me. No one else does. No one else ever can."

"Are you sure you understand yourself?" Saltash said.

His arms had closed about her. He was holding her in a vital clasp. But his restless look did not dwell upon her. It seemed rather to be seeking something beyond.

Toby's hands met and gripped each other behind his neck. She clung to him with an almost frenzied closeness.

"You can't send me away!" she told him brokenly. "If you do, I shall die. And I'm asking such a little--such a very little."

"You don't know what you're asking, child," he said, and though he held her fast pressed to him his voice had the sombre ring of a man who battles with misgiving. "You have never known. That's the hell of it."

"I do know!" she flung back almost fiercely. "I know--all I need to know--of most things. I know--very well--" her breath came quickly, but still her eyes remained upraised--"what would have happened--what was bound to happen--if the yacht had never gone down. I wasn't afraid then. I'm not now. You're the only man on this earth that I'd say it to. I hate men--most men! But to you--to you--" a sudden sob caught her voice, she paused to steady it--"to you I just want to be whatever you're needing most in life. And when I can't be that to you any longer--I'll just drop out--as I promised--and you--you shall never know a thing about it. That I swear."

His look came swiftly to her. The blue eyes were swimming in tears. He made a sudden gesture as of capitulation, and the strain went out of his look. His arms tightened like springs about her. He spoke lightly, jestingly.

"_Bien! Shall I tell what you shall be to me, _mignonne_?" he said, and smiled down at her with his royal air of confidence.

She trembled a little and was silent, realizing that he had suddenly leapt to a decision, fearing desperately what that decision might be. His old baffling mask of banter had wholly replaced the sombreness, but she was aware of a force behind it that gripped her irresistibly. She could not speak in answer.

"I will tell you," he said, and his dark, face laughed into hers with a merriment half-mischievous, half-kindly. "I am treading the path of virtue, _mignonne_, and uncommon lonely I'm finding it. You shall relieve the monotony. We will be virtuous together--for a while. You shall be--my wife!"

He stooped with the words and ere she knew it his lips were on her own. But his kiss, though tender, was as baffling as his smile. It was not the kiss of a lover.

She gasped and shrank away. "Your--wife! You--you--you're joking! How could I--I--be your wife?"

"You and none other!" he declared gaily. "Egad, it's the very thing for us! Why did I never think of it before? I will order the state-coach at once. We will go to town--elope and be married before the world begins to buzz. What are you frightened at, sweetheart? Why this alarm? Wouldn't you rather be my wife than--the dust beneath my feet?"

"I--I don't know," faltered Toby, and hid her face from the dancing raillery in his eyes.

His hold was close and sheltering, but he laughed at her without mercy. "Does the prospect make you giddy? You will soon get over that. You will take the world by storm, _mignonne_. You will be the talk of the town."

"Oh, no!" breathed Toby. "No, I couldn't!"

"What?" he jested. "You are going to refuse my suit?"

She turned and clung to him with a passionate, even fierce intensity, but she did not lift her face again to his. Her voice came muffled against his breast. "I could never refuse you--anything."

"_Eh, bien! Then all is well!" he declared. "My bride will hold her own wherever she goes, save with her husband. And to him she will yield her wifely submission at all times. Do you know what they will say--all of them--when they hear that Charles Rex is married at last?"

"What?" whispered Toby apprehensively.

He bent his head, still laughing. "Shall I tell you? Can't you guess?"

"No. Tell me!" she said.

He touched the soft ringlets of her hair with his lips. "They will say, 'God help his wife!' _mignonne_. And I--I shall answer 'Amen'."

She lifted her face suddenly and defiantly, her eyes afire. "Do you know what I shall say if they do?" she said.

"What?" said Saltash, his own eyes gleaming oddly.

"I shall tell them," said Toby tensely, "to--to--to go to blazes!"

He grimaced his appreciation. "Then they will begin to pity the husband, _cherie_."

She held up her lips to his, childishly, lovingly. "I will be good," she said. "I will be good. I will never say such things again."

He kissed the trembling lips again, lightly, caressingly. "Oh, don't be too good!" he said. "I couldn't live up to it. You shall say what you like--do what you like. And--you shall be my queen!"

She caught back another sob. Her clinging arms tightened. "And you will be--what you have always been," she said--"my king--my king--my king!"

In the silence that followed the passionate words, Charles Rex very gently loosened the clinging arms, and set her free.

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PART III CHAPTER X. THE MYSTERYIt was late that evening that Bunny strolled forth alone to smoke a reminiscent pipe along his favourite glade of larches in Burchester Park. He went slowly through the summer dusk, his hands behind him, his eyes fixed ahead. He had had his way with Toby. She had promised to marry him as soon as old Bishop's retirement left the house in the hollow at his disposal. But somehow, though he had gained his end, he was not conscious of elation. Sheila Melrose's words had disturbed him no less than Toby's own peculiar interpretation of them.
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