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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesCharles Rex - Part 3 - Chapter 9. The Warning
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Charles Rex - Part 3 - Chapter 9. The Warning Post by :neiltown Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :2642

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Charles Rex - Part 3 - Chapter 9. The Warning

PART III CHAPTER IX. THE WARNING

It seemed to Maud that in the days that followed her engagement Toby developed with the swiftness of an opening flower. There was no talk of her leaving them. She fitted into the establishment as though she had always been a part of it, and she took upon herself responsibilities which Maud would never have laid upon her.

Watching her anxiously, it seemed to her that Toby was becoming more settled, more at rest, than she had ever been before. The look of fear was dormant in her eyes now, and her sudden flares of anger had wholly ceased. She made no attempt to probe below the surface, realizing the inadvisability of such a course, realizing that the first days of an engagement are seldom days of expansion, being full of emotions too varied for analysis. That Toby should turn to her or to Jake if she needed a confident she did not for a moment doubt, but unless the need arose she resolved to leave the girl undisturbed. She had, moreover, great faith in Bunny's powers. As Jake had said, Bunny was sound, and she knew him well enough to be convinced that he would find a means of calming any misgivings that might exist in Toby's mind.

It appeared as if he had already done so in fact, for Toby was never nervous in his presence. She greeted him with pleasure and went with him gladly whenever he came to seek her. They met every day, usually in the evening when Bunny was free, and the children gone to bed. Maud would watch them wander out together into the summer solitudes, Chops walking sedately behind, and would smile to herself very tenderly at the sight. She believed that Toby was winning to happiness and she prayed with all her soul that it might last.

Saltash came no more during these summer days. He had departed in his abrupt way for his first pleasure cruise in _The Blue Moon_, taking no friend, save the ever-present Larpent, to relieve the monotony. No one knew whither they were bound, or if the voyage were to be long or short. He dropped out of his circle as a monkey drops from a tree, and beyond a passing wonder at his movements no one questioned either motive or intention. Probably he had neither in any appreciable degree. It was only the caprice of the moment that ever moved him. So his friends said. He evidently found his new toy attractive, and he would not return until he wearied of it.

Meantime, the summer crowds came and went at Fairharbour. The Anchor Hotel was crowded with visitors, and Sheila and her father began to talk of departure for Scotland.

Jake had gone to an important race-meeting in the North, and it seemed that Bunny's suggestion to show them the stud had been forgotten. But on an afternoon in late August, after a hotly-contested polo match, as he stood with a fizzling drink in his hand, talking to Sheila, she abruptly reminded him of it.

"It's quite a fortnight since you promised to show me the horses," she said.

He started. "Is it? I'm awfully sorry. I hadn't forgotten, but somehow I've had a lot to think about lately. You must come and have tea with Maud. When will you come?"

Sheila laughed a little. "Hadn't you better ask Maud first?"

"Good gracious, no!" said Bunny. "That'll be all right. She and Toby are always at home just now, and of course she will be pleased to see you any time. When can you come?"

"Well, we are leaving the day after to-morrow," Sheila said.

"To-morrow then!" said Bunny promptly.

"Your sister may not want us at such short notice," she said, hesitating.

"Oh, rats!" said Bunny, with a grin. "Of course she will! Have you seen the Castle yet?"

"Yes. We lunched there with Lord Saltash before he left. It's a horribly grim place. I didn't like it much."

"It's a magnificent place!" said Bunny stoutly. "It's completely thrown away on Charlie of course, but I love every stone of it."

"What a pity it doesn't belong to you!" commented Sheila. "I wonder where you will live when you are married."

Bunny flushed a little. "We're not marrying at present, but I'm hoping to stick to my job when we do."

"Oh, are you? Does Miss Larpent like that idea?" Faint surprise sounded in Sheila's tone.

"I don't know why she shouldn't," said Bunny, quick to detect it. "She's keen on the country, keen on riding and so on. She'd hate to live in town."

"Would she?" said Sheila, with a hint of incredulity.

Bunny turned on her. "Why do you say that? She's very young, hardly more than a kid. She doesn't care for people and towns. Why should she?"

He put the question almost indignantly, and Sheila smiled at him pacifically. "I don't know in the least why she should. I only had a sort of idea that she might. She is very pretty, isn't she? And pretty girls don't generally care to be buried before they have had their fling--not always then."

"Oh, you think she doesn't get any fun!" said Bunny, still somewhat resentful.

"No--no, of course I don't! You know best what she likes. I only wonder that Maud didn't think of giving her just one season in town. It would be rather good for her, don't you think?"

"I don't know," said Bunny rather shortly. "Maud isn't keen on town. I think she's better where she is."

Sheila laughed. "You're afraid she'd slip through your fingers if she saw too much of the world?"

"No, I'm not!" declared Bunny, frowning. "I hadn't thought about it. But I'd hate her to get old and sophisticated. Her great charm is in being--just what she is."

"Oh, she has plenty of charm," Sheila admitted, and her own brows drew a little in thought. "I wish I could remember who it is she reminds me of. That is the worst of having such a large circle."

"She isn't like anyone I've ever met," declared Bunny, and gulped down his drink abruptly. "Well, I must be going. You'll come up to-morrow then, you and the General. I shall be there, and I'll tell Maud you're coming."

"You are sure we had better come?" Sheila said, as she gave him her hand.

He gripped it. "Of course! Maud will be delighted. I'm sorry you weren't asked before. About three then--if that suits you! Good-bye!"

He smiled his pleasant, boyish smile, and departed.

But as he raced back from Fairharbour in his little two-seater car to meet his young _fiancee on the downs, the memory of Sheila's word came back to him and he frowned again. It was true that they were not thinking of marriage for the next few months, and their plans were still somewhat vague, but the idea of waiting while Toby had her fling for a whole season in town revolted him. He could not have said definitely wherefore, save that he wanted to keep her just as she was in his eyes--fresh and young and innocent. He was angry with Sheila for having suggested it, and he wanted to thrust the matter from his mind.

Yet when he found himself alone with Toby, walking along the brow of the furze-strewn down, he attacked the subject with characteristic directness.

"Sheila Melrose thinks you ought to have a season in town before we get married. Would you like to do that?"

Toby looked up at him with her clear eyes wide with surprise. "What the--blazes has it to do with Sheila Melrose?" she said.

He laughed briefly. "Nothing, of course. Less than nothing. It's just a point of view. She thinks you're too pretty to be buried before you've had your fling--rot of that sort."

"My--fling!" said Toby, and with a sudden gesture that was almost of shrinking drew his arm more closely round her shoulders. "I should loathe it and you know it," she said with simplicity.

He held her to him. "Of course you would. I should myself. I hate the smart set. But, you know, you are--awfully pretty; I don't want to do anything unfair."

"Rats!" said Toby.

He bent his face to hers. "Are you beginning to care for me--just a little--by any chance?"

She laughed and flushed, twining her fingers in his without replying.

Bunny pursued his point. "You'd sooner marry me out of hand than go hunting London for someone more to your liking? Would you?"

"Oh, much," said Toby. "But, you see, I hate London."

"And you don't hate me?" persisted Bunny, his dark eyes very persuasive.

She dropped her own before them, and was silent.

"Say it, sweetheart!" he urged.

She shook her head. "Let's talk about something else!" she said.

"All right," said Bunny boldly. "Let's talk of getting married! It's high time we began."

"Oh, I didn't mean that!" said Toby quickly.

He laughed at her softly. "Of course you didn't! But you were thinking about it all the same. Do you know old Bishop is going to clear out and go and live in Fairharbour? I shall be left alone then. It's rather beastly living alone, you know, darling."

"You haven't tried it yet," said Toby.

"No. But I know what it'll feel like. I shall hate it." Bunny spoke with gloomy conviction.

Toby suddenly laughed. "No one to grouse to! It would be rather dull certainly. Why didn't you fall in love with Sheila Melrose?"

"Sheila Melrose! Why on earth should I?" Bunny spoke with some sharpness.

Toby lifted mischievous eyes. "She's pretty and graceful and accomplished. She'd make a charming Lady Brian, and she has an estate of her own for you to manage. It--it would be--a highly suitable arrangement for you both."

"Don't talk rot!" broke in Bunny with sudden heat.

His hold tightened upon her, and she made a quick, instinctive movement as though to free herself. "I'm not! You know I'm not! You know--quite well--that if--if--if it hadn't been for me--because you chanced to meet me first--you certainly would have--have fallen in love with her!"

Toby spoke breathlessly, stammering a little as her habit was when agitated. Her face was averted, and she was trying very, very hard to resist the closer drawing of his arms.

But there were times when Bunny would not endure resistance, and this was one of them. He simply ignored it, till abruptly she yielded to his mastery. And then in a moment he was tender again.

"Why did you say that?" he said, bending low to look into her downcast face. "Tell me why you said it! Are you--jealous--by any chance?"

"Oh, no!" declared Toby with vehemence. "No--no--no!"

"Then why?" he persisted. Then with sudden intuition: "You don't like her, do you?"

Toby's face was burning. "It--it's she that doesn't like me," she said.

"Oh, that's a mistake," said Bunny, decidedly. "Everyone likes you."

She shook her head. "She doesn't. She thinks I'm bad form, and I daresay she's right. She also thinks--" she lifted her face suddenly, challenging him--"she also thinks that I set out to catch you--and succeeded."

"She doesn't!" declared Bunny. "That's rot--damn' rot! You are not to say it. She's a very nice girl and ready to be friendly with you if you'll let her."

Toby made a rude face. "I knew you were getting fond of her! She's pretty and stylish and--and much more in your line than I am. Why don't you go and ask her to marry you? She wouldn't say No."

She flung the words with a little quivering laugh. She was trembling in his hold.

Bunny's eyes had flashed to sudden anger. He had taken her by the shoulders almost as if he would shake her.

"Toby, be quiet!" he commanded. "Do you hear? You're going too far! What do you mean by talking in this strain? What has she done to you?"

"Nothing!" gasped back Toby, backing away from him in a vain effort to escape. "She hardly knows me even. It's just instinct with her and she can't help it. But she likes you well enough not to want you to marry me. You don't suppose--you don't suppose--" the words came breathlessly, jerkily--"you--you really don't suppose, do you, that--that she made that suggestion about a season in town for my sake?"

"What other reason could she have had?" demanded Bunny sternly.

Toby was laughing, but her laughter had a desperate sound. "How green you are! Must I really tell you that?"

"Yes. Go on! Tell me!" His voice was hard. Hard also was the grip of his hands. He knew that in the moment he released her she would turn and flee like a fleeing hare.

There was fear in the blue eyes that looked up to his, but they held a glare of defiance as well. Her small white teeth showed clenched between her laughing lips.

"Go on! Tell me!" he reiterated. "You shan't go--I swear--until you tell me."

"Think I'm--think I'm afraid of you?" challenged Toby, with boyish bravado.

"I think you'll answer me," he said, and abruptly his tone fell level, dead level. He looked her straight in the eyes without anger, without mercy. "And you'll answer me now, too. What other reason could Miss Melrose have for making that suggestion if it was not intended for your benefit? Now answer me!"

His face was pale, but he was master of himself. Perhaps he had learned from Jake that fundamental lesson that those who would control others must first control themselves. He still held her before him, but there was no violence in his hold. Neither was there any tenderness. It was rather of a judicial nature.

And oddly at that moment a sudden gleam of appreciation shot up in Toby's eyes. She stood up very straight and faced him unflinching.

"I don't mind answering you," she said. "Why should I? Someone will tell you sooner or later if I don't. She said that because she knew--and she wanted you to know--that I am not the sort of girl that men want to--marry."

She was quite white as she spoke the words, but she maintained her tense erectness. Her eyes never stirred from his.

Bunny stood motionless, staring at her. He looked as if he had been struck a blinding blow.

"What--on earth--do you mean?" he asked slowly at last.

The tension went out of Toby. She broke into her funny little laugh. "Oh, I won't tell you any more! I won't! She thinks I'm too attractive, that's all. I can't imagine why; can you? You never found me so, did you, Bunny?"

The old provocative sweetness flashed back into her face. She went within the circle of his arms with a quick nestling movement as of a small animal that takes refuge after strenuous flight. She was still panting a little as she leaned against him.

And Bunny relaxed, conscious of a vast relief that outweighed every other consideration. "You--monkey!" he said, folding her close. "You're playing with me! How dare you torment me like this? You shall pay for it to the last least farthing. I will never have any mercy on you again."

He kissed her with all the renewed extravagance of love momentarily denied, and the colour flooded back into Toby's face as the dread receded from her heart. She gave him more that day than she had ever given him before, and in the rapture of possession he forgot the ordeal that she had made him face.

Only later did he remember it--her strange reticence, her odd stumbling words of warning, her curious attitude of self-defence. And he felt as if--in spite of his utmost resolution--she had somehow succeeded in baffling him after all.

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