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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesCharles Rex - Part 4 - Chapter 1. The Winning Post
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Charles Rex - Part 4 - Chapter 1. The Winning Post Post by :neiltown Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :1049

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Charles Rex - Part 4 - Chapter 1. The Winning Post


"I never thought it would be like this," said Toby.

She spoke aloud, though she was alone. She stood at an immense window on the first floor of a busy Paris hotel and stared down into the teeming courtyard below. Her fair face wore a whimsical expression that was half of amusement and half of discontent. She looked absurdly young, almost childish; but her blue eyes were unmistakably wistful.

Below her seethed a crowd of vehicles of every description and the babel that came up to her was as the roar of a great torrent. It seemed to sweep away all coherent thought, for she smiled as she gazed downwards and her look held interest in the busy scene even though the hint of melancholy lingered. There was certainly plenty to occupy her, and it was not in her nature to be bored.

But yet at the opening of a door in the room behind her, she turned very swiftly, and in a moment her face was alight with ardent welcome.

"Ah! Here you are!" she said.

He came forward in his quick, springy fashion, his odd eyes laughing their gay, unstable greeting into hers. He took the hands she held out to him, and bending, lightly kissed them.

"Have you been bored? _Mais non! I have not been so long gone. Why are you not still resting, _cherie_, as I told you?"

She looked at him, and still--though her eyes laughed their gladness--the wistfulness remained. "I am--quite rested, _monseigneur_. And the tiredness--quite gone. And now you are going to take me to see the sights of Paris?"

"Those of them you don't know?" suggested Saltash.

She nodded. "I don't know very many. I never went very far. I was afraid."

He twisted his hand through her arm, and his fingers closed upon her wrist. "You are not afraid--with me?" he questioned.

Her eyes answered him before her voice. "Never, _monseigneur_."

"Why do you call me that?" said Saltash.

She coloured at the abrupt question. "It suits you."

He made his monkeyish grimace, and suddenly dropped his eyes to the blue-veined wrist in his grasp. "Are you happy, _mignonne_?" he asked her, still obviously in jesting mood.

Toby's eyes dropped also. She mutely nodded.

"The truth, Nonette?" His look flashed over her; his tone was imperious.

She nodded again. "I always tell you--the truth."

He began to laugh. "_Mais vraiment_! I had not thought that likely. Then you do not want to leave me--yet?"

"Leave you!" Her eyes came up to his in wide amazement. "I!"

"We have been married three days," he reminded her, with comically working brows. "And I--have I not already begun to leave you--to neglect you?"

"I--I--I never expected--anything else," stammered Toby, suddenly averting her face.

He patted her cheek with careless kindliness. "How wise of you, my dear! How wise! Then you are not yet--sufficiently _ennuyee to desire to leave me?"

"Why--why do you ask?" questioned Toby.

There was a species of malicious humour about him that made her uneasy. Saltash in a mischievous mood was not always easy to restrain. He did not immediately reply to her question, and she turned with a hint of panic and tightly clasped his arm.

"It is--you who are--_ennuye_!" she said, with piteous eyes upraised.

He flicked her cheek with his thumb, his odd eyes gleaming. "Not so, _Miladi Saltash! For me--the game is just begun. But--should you desire to leave me--the opportunity is yours. A knight has arrived to the rescue--a very puissant knight!"

"A knight!" gasped Toby, trembling. "Ah! Tell me what you mean!"

His look was openly mocking. "A knight in gaiters!" he told her lightly. "A knight who bears--or should bear--a horsewhip in place of a sword--that is, if I know him aright!"

"Jake!" she gasped incredulously.

He laughed afresh. "Even so! Jake! Most worthy--and most obtrusive! What shall we do with him, lady mine? Slay him--or give him a feed and send him home?"

She stared at him, aghast. "You--you--you are joking!" she stammered.

"I always joke when I am most serious," Saltash assured her.

"Oh, don't!" She clung closer to his arm. "What shall we do? He--he can't do anything, can he? We--we--we really are married, aren't we?"

Saltash's most appalling grimace fled like a hunted goblin across his face. "Married? Heavens, child! What more do you want? Haven't you seen it--actually seen it--in our greatest London daily? And can a London daily lie? You may have dreamed the wedding, but that paragraph--that paragraph--it takes a genius of the first literary degree to dream a paragraph, though it may only need quite an ordinary fool to write it! Why, what is the matter? What is it? Did you see something? Not a mouse? Not a beetle? I prithee, not a beetle!"

For Toby had suddenly hidden her face against his shoulder and there was actual panic in the clinging of her arms. He laid a hand upon her head, and patted it lightly, admonishingly.

She did not speak for a second or two, only gulped with desperate effort at self-restraint. Then, at length, in a muffled voice, "Don't let him take me away!" she besought him shakily. "You--you--you've promised to keep me--now."

"But, of course I'm keeping you," said Saltash. "It's what I did it for. It's the very essence of the game. Cheer up, Nonette! I'm not parting with any of my goods, worldly or otherwise, this journey."

"You are sure?" whispered Toby. "Sure?"

"Sure of what?" He bent swiftly, and for a second, only a second, his lips touched her hair.

"Sure you--don't--want to?" came in a gasp from Toby, as she burrowed a little deeper.

"Oh, that!" Saltash stood up again, and his face was sardonic, for the moment almost grim. "Yes, quite sure of that, my dear. Moreover,--it will amuse me to meet the virtuous Jake on his own ground for once. A new sensation, Nonette! Will you help me to face him? Or do you prefer the more early-Victorian _role of the lady who retires till the combat is over and then emerges to reward the winner?"

She lifted her head at that, and uttered a scoffing little laugh, withdrawing herself abruptly from his support. Her pointed chin went up with a hint of defiance. All signs of agitation were gone. "I'll stay and help you," she said.

He made her an elaborate bow. "Then we will ring up the curtain. I congratulate you, madam, upon your spirit. I trust the interview will not try your fortitude too far. Remember, should your feminine ears be shocked by anything that may pass between us, it is up to you to retire at any moment."

Toby's blue eyes caught sudden fire. She broke into an unexpected chuckle. "I do not think I am likely to retire for that reason, _monseigneur_," she said. "Where is he? How did you know he was coming?"

"Because he is already here," said Saltash. "I passed him at the office, making enquiries. He had his back to me, but there is no mistaking that bull-neck of his. Ah!" He turned his head sharply. "I hear a step outside! Sit down, _mignonne_! Sit down and be dignified!"

But Toby's idea of dignity was to sit on the corner of the table and swing one leg. If any apprehension lingered in her mind, she concealed it most successfully. She looked like an alert and mischievous boy.

There came a knock at the door, and for a moment her eyes sought Saltash. He grinned back derisively, and pulled out his cigarette-case. "_Entrez!_" he called.

The door opened with a flourish. A waiter entered with a card.

Saltash barely looked at him. His eyes flashed beyond to the open doorway. "You can come in," he remarked affably. "We've been expecting you for some time."

Jake entered. His square frame seemed to fill the space between the door-posts. He was empty-handed, but there was purpose--grim purpose--in every line of him.

Saltash dismissed the waiter with a jerk of the eyebrows. He was utterly unabashed, amazingly self-assured. He met Jake's stern eyes with cheery effrontery.

"Quite like old times!" he commented. "The only difference being, my good Jake, that on this occasion I have reached the winning-post first."

Jake's look went beyond him to the slight figure by the table. Toby was on her feet. Her face was flushed, but her eyes were wide and defiant. He regarded her steadily for several seconds before, very deliberately, he transferred his attention to Saltash, who nonchalantly awaited his turn, tapping the cigarette on the lid of his case with supreme indifference.

Jake spoke, his voice soft as a woman's, yet strangely dominating. "I should like two minutes alone with you--if you can spare them."

Saltash was smiling. His glance shot towards Toby, and came back to Jake with a certain royal arrogance that held its own without effort. "In other words, you wish--Lady Saltash--to leave us?" he questioned easily.

"I'm not going," said Toby quickly, with nervous decision.

Her hands were tightly clasped in front of her. She stood as one strung to the utmost limit of resistance.

Jake did not again look at her. His eyes were upon Saltash, and they never wavered. "Alone with you," he repeated, with grim insistence.

Saltash regarded him curiously. His mouth twitched mockingly as he put the cigarette between his lips. He held out the case to Jake in mute invitation.

Jake's look remained fixed. He ignored the action, and the case snapped shut in Saltash's hand with a sharp sound that seemed to denote a momentary exasperation. But Saltash's face still retained the monkey-like expression of calculated mischief habitual to it.

"Bunny with you?" he enquired casually, producing a match-box.

"No." Very quietly came Jake's answer. "I have come to see you--alone."

Saltash lighted his cigarette, and blew a careless cloud of smoke. "Are you proposing to shoot me?" he asked, after a pause.

"No," said Jake grimly. "Shooting's too good for you--men like you."

Saltash laughed, and blew another cloud of smoke. "That may be why I have survived so long," he remarked. "I don't see the horsewhip either. Jake, my friend, you are not rising to the occasion with becoming enthusiasm. Any good offering you a drink to stimulate your energies?"

"None whatever," said Jake, still very quietly. "I don't go--till I have what I came for--that's all. Neither do you!"

"I--see!" said Saltash.

An odd little gleam that was almost furtive shone for a second in his eyes and was gone. He turned and crossed the room to Toby.

"My dear," he said, "I think this business will be more quickly settled if you leave us."

She looked at him piteously. He took her lightly by the arm, and led her to a door leading to an adjoining room. "By the time you have smoked one cigarette," he said, "I shall be with you again."

She turned with an impulsive attempt to cling to him. "You'll--keep me?" she said, through trembling lips.

He made a royal gesture that frustrated her with perfect courtesy. "Are you not my wife?" he said.

He opened the door for her, and she had no choice but to go through. She went swiftly, without another glance, and Saltash closed the door behind her.

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PART IV CHAPTER II. THE VILLAIN SCORES"Now, sir!" said Saltash, and turned. His tone was brief; the smile had gone from his face. He came to Jake with a certain haughtiness, and stood before him. Jake squared his shoulders. "So--you've married her!" he said. "I have." There was a note of challenge in the curt rejoinder. Saltash's brows were drawn. "I should like to see--proof of that," Jake said, after a moment. "The devil you would!" Again the hot gleam shone in the odd eyes. Saltash stood for a second in the attitude of a man on the verge of violence.

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PART III CHAPTER XIV. THE LAST CARDSaltash 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