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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Knave Of Diamonds - Part 1 - Chapter 13. The Jester's Inferno
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The Knave Of Diamonds - Part 1 - Chapter 13. The Jester's Inferno Post by :MalcolmL Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :2175

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The Knave Of Diamonds - Part 1 - Chapter 13. The Jester's Inferno

PART I CHAPTER XIII. THE JESTER'S INFERNO

Between the two men who were left not a word passed for many minutes. Nap prowled to and fro with his head back and his own peculiarly insolent smile curving the corners of his mouth. There was a ruddy glare in his eyes, but they held no anger.

Lucas, still leaning on his crutch, stood with his back turned, his face to the fire. There was no anger about him either. He looked spent.

Abruptly Nap ceased his pacing and came up to him. "Come!" he said. "You have had enough of this. I will help you to your room."

Slowly Lucas lifted his heavy eyes. "Send Hudson to me," he said.

Nap looked at him sharply. Then, "Lean on me," he said. "I'll help you."

"No. Send Hudson." The words ended upon a stifled groan.

Nap turned swiftly and dragged forward the settee. "Lie down here for a minute, while I fetch him. Don't faint, man! You will be easier directly. You have been on your feet too long. There! Is that better?"

Lucas drew a long, shuddering breath and slowly suffered his limbs to relax. His face was ghastly though he forced himself to smile.

"Yes, I am better. Don't call Hudson for a minute. Nap!"

Nap bent.

"Put your hand under my shoulders. Ah! That's a help. I always like your touch. Say, Boney," the words came gaspingly, the sunken eyes were heavy with pain, "you'll think me a mean brute. I am, dear fellow, I am; a coward, too, from the same point of view. But--ill or well, I've got to say it. You've been running amok to-day, and it's been altogether too lively to be just pleasant. You've got to pull up. I say it."

Nap's smile had utterly departed. It was some other impulse that twitched his lips as he made reply.

"Whatever you say is law."

"Thanks! I'm duly grateful. Do you mind wiping my forehead? I'm too lazy to move. Boney, old chap, he's a well-behaved youngster on the whole. What do you want to bait him for?"

"Because I'm a jealous devil," Nap said through his teeth.

"Oh, rats, dear fellow! We are not talking in parables. You're a bit of a savage, I know, but--"

"More than that," threw in Nap.

"No--no! You can hold yourself in if you try. And why jealous, anyway? We're all brothers. Say, Boney, I'm going to hurt you infernally. You hit the youngster below the belt. It was foul play."

"What can you expect?" muttered Nap.

"I expect--better things. If you must be a beast, be a clean beast. If you must hit out now and then, give him a chance to hit back. It's kind of shabby--the game you played today."

"Are you going to make me apologise?" asked Nap grimly.

"Shucks, no; He would think you were laughing at him. Clap him on the back and tell him not to be a fool. He'll understand that."

"And wish him luck with the parson's daughter?" said Nap, with a sneer.

"Why not, old chap?"

"You really mean to let him marry the first girl who runs after his dollars?"

"It isn't the dollars," said the millionaire gently. "And she isn't running after him either. She's running away."

"Same thing sometimes," said Nap.

"Oh, don't be cynical, Boney! It's so damned cheap! There! I've done swearing at you for the present. It's wonderful how you fellows bear with me. Find Hudson, will you? And then go and tell Lady Carfax that I am afraid I can't visit her this evening as I had hoped."

"Do you know she talks of leaving tomorrow?" said Nap.

"Yes, I know. Guess she is quite right to go."

"She's not fit for it," said Nap, in a fierce undertone. "It's madness. I told her so. But she wouldn't listen."

"She is the best judge," his brother said. "Anyway, she is in an intolerable position. We can't press her to prolong it. Besides--whatever he is--her husband has first right."

"Think so?" said Nap.

"It is so," Lucas asserted quietly, "whether you admit it or not."

Nap did not dispute the point, but his jaw looked exceedingly uncompromising as he departed to find the valet.

When a little later he asked for admission to Anne's presence, however, his bitter mood seemed to have modified. He entered with the air of one well assured of his welcome.

"Are you in a mood for chess tonight?" he asked.

"Now, you're not to plague her, Nap," put in Mrs. Errol. "She isn't going to spend her last evening amusing you."

"Oh, please," protested Anne. "It is your son who has had all the amusing to do."

Nap smiled. "There's for you, alma mater!" he remarked as he sat down.

"Lady Carfax is much too forbearing to say anything else," retorted Mrs. Errol.

"Lady Carfax always tells the truth," said Nap, beginning to set the chess-board, "which is the exact reason why all her swains adore her."

"Well," said Mrs. Errol very deliberately, though without venom, "I guess that's about the last quality I should expect you to appreciate."

"Strange to say, it is actually the first just now," said Nap. "Are you going, alma mater? Don't let me drive you away!"

He rose, nevertheless, to open the door for her; and Mrs. Errol went, somewhat with the air of one complying with an unspoken desire.

Nap came softly back and resumed his task. "P'r'aps you will be good enough to refrain from referring to me again as the august lady's son," he said. "She doesn't like it."

"Why not?" said Anne in astonishment.

He glanced up at her as if contemplating something. Then, "You see, the benign mother is not over and above proud of me," he drawled. "If it were Bertie now--well, I guess even you will admit that Bertie is the flower of the flock."

His manner mystified her, but it was not her way to seek to probe mysteries. She smiled as she said, "I have yet to discover that you are so very despicable."

"You have yet to discover--many things," said Nap enigmatically. "Will you be pleased to make the first move?"

She did so silently. They had played together several times before. He had formed a habit of visiting her every evening, and though her skill at the game was far from great, it had been a welcome diversion from the constant anxiety that pressed so heavily upon her. Nap was an expert player, yet he seemed to enjoy the poor game which was all she had to offer. Perhaps he liked to feel her at his mercy. She strongly suspected that he often deliberately prolonged the contest though he seldom allowed her to beat him.

To-night, however, he seemed to be in a restless mood, and she soon saw that he was bent upon a swift victory. He made his moves with a quick dexterity that baffled her completely, and but a very few minutes elapsed before he uttered his customary warning.

"You would do well to beware."

"Which means that I am beaten, I suppose," she said, with a smile of resignation.

"You can save yourself if you like," he said, with his eyes on the board, "if you consider it worth while."

"I don't think I do," she answered. "The end will be the same."

His eyes flashed up at her. "You surrender unconditionally?"

She continued to smile despite the sadness of her face. "Absolutely. I am so accustomed to defeat that I am getting callous."

"You seem to have great confidence in my chivalry," he said, looking full at her.

"I have--every confidence, Mr. Errol," she answered gravely. "I think that you and your brother are the most chivalrous men I know."

His laugh had a ring of harshness. "Believe me, I am not accustomed to being ranked with the saints," he said. "How shall I get away from your halo? I warn you, it's a most awful misfit. You'll find it out presently, and make me suffer for your mistake."

"You haven't a very high opinion of my sense of justice," Anne said, with just a tinge of reproach in her gentle voice.

"No," he said recklessly. "None whatever. You are sure to forget who fashioned the halo. Women always do."

Anne was silent.

He leaned suddenly towards her, careless of the chessmen that rolled in all directions. "I haven't been living up to the halo to-day," he said, and there was that in his voice that touched her to quick pity. "I've been snapping and biting like a wild beast all day long. I've been in hell myself, and I've made it hell wherever I went."

"Oh, but why?" Half involuntarily she held out her hand to him as one who would assist a friend in deep waters.

He took it, held it closely, bowed his forehead upon it, and so sat tensely silent.

"Something is wrong. I wish I could help you," she said at last.

He lifted his head, met her eyes of grave compassion, and abruptly set her free.

"You have done what you could for me," he said. "You've made me hate my inferno. But you can't pull me out. You have"--she saw his teeth for a second though scarcely in a smile--"other fish to fry."

"Whatever I am doing, I shall not forget my friends, Nap," she said, with great earnestness.

"No," he returned, "you won't forget them. I shouldn't wonder if you prayed for them even. I am sure you are one of the faithful." There was more of suppressed misery than irony in his voice. "But is that likely to help when you don't so much as know what to pray for?"

He got up and moved away from her with that noiseless footfall that was so like the stealthy padding of a beast.

Anne lay and silently watched him. Her uncertainty regarding him had long since passed away. Though she was far from understanding him, he had become an intimate friend, and she treated him as such. True, he was unlike any other man she had ever met, but that fact had ceased to embarrass her. She accepted him as he was.

He came back at length and sat down, smiling at her, though somewhat grimly.

"You will pardon your poor jester," he said, "if he fails to make a joke on your last night. He could make jokes--plenty of them, but not of the sort that would please you."

Anne said nothing. She would not, if she could help it, betray to any how much she was dreading the morrow. But she felt that he knew it in spite of her.

His next words revealed the fact. "You are going to purgatory," he said, "and I am going to perdition. Do you know, I sometimes wonder if we shouldn't do better to turn and fly in the face of the gods when they drive us too hard? Why do we give in when we've nothing to gain and all to lose?"

She met his look with her steadfast eyes. "Does duty count as nothing?" she said.

He made an impatient movement, and would have spoken, but she stopped him.

"Please don't rail at duty. I know your creed is pleasure, but the pursuit of pleasure does not, after all, bring happiness."

"Who wants pleasure?" demanded Nap fiercely. "That's only the anesthetic when things get unbearable. You use duty in the same way. But what we both want, what we both hanker for, starve for, is just life! Who cares if there is pain with it? I don't, nor do you. And yet we keep on stunting and stultifying ourselves with these old-fashioned remedies for a disease we only half understand, when we might have all the world and then some. Oh, we're fools--we're fools!" His voice rang wildly passionate. He flung out his arms as if he wrestled with something. "We've been cheated for centuries of our birthright, and we still put up with it, still bring our human sacrifices to an empty shrine!"

And there he broke off short, checked suddenly at the height of his outburst though she had made no second effort to stop him.

Her quiet eyes had not flinched from his. She had made no sign of shrinking. With the utmost patience she had listened to him. Yet by some means intangible the fiery stream of his rebellion was stayed.

There fell a brief silence. Then he rose. "I am afraid I am not fit for civilised society to-night," he said. "I will say good-bye." He held her hand for a moment. "You will let me see you sometimes?"

"I hope to come now and then to Baronmead," she answered quietly. "But you will not--please--come to the Manor again."

He looked down at her with eyes that had become inscrutable. "I shall not come against your will," he said.

"Thank you," she answered simply.

And so he left her.

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