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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Knave Of Diamonds - Part 1 - Chapter 16. The Masquerade
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The Knave Of Diamonds - Part 1 - Chapter 16. The Masquerade Post by :MalcolmL Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :3269

Click below to download : The Knave Of Diamonds - Part 1 - Chapter 16. The Masquerade (Format : PDF)

The Knave Of Diamonds - Part 1 - Chapter 16. The Masquerade

PART I CHAPTER XVI. THE MASQUERADE

The brothers were standing together on the steps when Anne alighted from the car, and her first thought as she moved towards them was of their utter dissimilarity. They might have been men of different nationalities, so essentially unlike each other were they in every detail. And yet she felt for both that ready friendship that springs from warmest gratitude.

Nap kept her hand a moment in his grasp while he looked at her with that bold stare of his that she had never yet desired to avoid. On the occasion of her last visit to Baronmead they had not met. She wondered if he were about to upbraid her for neglecting her friends, but he said nothing whatever, leaving it to Lucas to inquire after her health while he stood by and watched her with those dusky, intent eyes of his that seemed to miss nothing.

"I am quite strong again, thank you," she said in answer to her host's kindly questioning. "And you, Mr. Errol?"

"I am getting strong too," he smiled. "I am almost equal to running alone; but doubtless you are past that stage. Slow and sure has been my motto for some years now."

"It is a very good one," said Anne, in that gentle voice of hers that was like the voice of a girl.

He heard the sympathy in it, and his eyes softened; but he passed the matter by.

"I hope you have come to stay. Has my mother managed to persuade you?"

"She will spend to-night anyway," said Mrs. Errol.

"And only to-night," said Anne, with quiet firmness. "You are all very kind, but--"

"We want you," interposed Lucas Errol.

She smiled, a quick smile that seemed reminiscent of happier days. "Yes, and thank you for it. But I must return in good time to-morrow. I told my husband that I would do so. He is spending the night in town, but he will be back to-morrow."

Nap's teeth were visible, hard clenched upon his lower lip as he listened, but still he said nothing. There was something peculiarly forcible, even sinister, in his silence. Not until Anne presently turned and directly addressed him did his attitude change.

"Will you take me to see the lake?" she said. "It looked so charming as we drove up."

He moved instantly to accompany her. They went out together into the hard brightness of the winter morning.

"It is so good to be here," Anne said a little wistfully. "It is like a day in paradise."

He laughed at that, not very pleasantly.

"It is indeed," she persisted, "except for one thing. Now tell me; in what have I offended?"

"You, Lady Carfax!" His brows met for an instant in a single, savage line.

"Is it only my fancy?" she said. "I have a feeling that all is not peace."

He stopped abruptly by the balustrade that bounded the terrace. "The queen can do no wrong," he said. "She can hurt, but she cannot offend."

"Then how have I hurt you, Nap?" she said.

The quiet dignity of the question demanded an answer, but it was slow in coming. He leaned his arms upon the balustrade, pulling restlessly at the ivy that clung there. Anne waited quite motionless beside him. She was not looking at the skaters; her eyes had gone beyond them.

Abruptly at length Nap straightened himself. "I am a fool to take you to task for snubbing me," he said. "But I am not accustomed to being snubbed. Let that be my excuse."

"Please tell me what you mean," said Anne.

He looked at her. "Do you tell me you do not know?"

"Yes," she said. Her clear eyes met his. "Why should I snub you? I thought you were a friend."

"A friend," he said, with emphasis. "I thought so too. But--"

"Yes?" she said gently.

"Isn't it customary with you to answer your friends when they write to you?" he asked.

Her expression changed. A look of sharp pain showed for an instant in her eyes. "My invariable custom, Nap," she said very steadily.

"Then--that letter of mine--" he paused.

"When did you write it?"

"On the evening of the day you came here last--the day I missed you."

"It did not reach me," she said, her voice very low.

He was watching her very intently. "I sent it by messenger," he said. "I was hunting that day. I sat down and wrote the moment I heard you had been. Tawny Hudson took it."

"It did not reach me," she repeated. She was very pale; her eyes had dropped from his.

"I was going to allow you a month to answer that letter," he went on, as though she had not spoken. "After that, our--friendship would have been at an end. The month will be up to-morrow."

Anne was silent.

"Lady Carfax," he said, "will you swear to me that you never received that letter?"

"No," she said.

"You will not?"

"I will not."

He made a sudden movement--such a movement as a man makes involuntarily at an unexpected dart of pain.

Anne raised her eyes very quietly. "Let us be quite honest," she said. "No oath is ever necessary between friends."

"You expect me to believe you?" he said, and his voice was shaken by some emotion he scarcely tried to hide.

She smiled very faintly. "You do believe me," she said.

He turned sharply from her. "Let us go down," he said.

They went down to the garden below the terrace, walking side by side, in silence. They stood at the edge of the lake together, and presently they talked--talked of a hundred things in which neither were greatly interested. A few people drifted up and were introduced. Then Bertie came running down, and their _tete-a-tete was finally at an end.

They were far away from one another during luncheon, and when the meal was over Nap disappeared. He never concerned himself greatly about his brother's guests.

At Bertie's persuasion Anne had brought skates, and she went down with him to the lake in the afternoon, where they skated together till sunset. She had a curious feeling that Nap was watching her the whole time, though he was nowhere to be seen; nor did he appear at tea in the great hall.

Later Mrs. Errol took possession of her, and they sat together in the former's sitting-room till it was time to dress for dinner. Anne had brought no fancy dress, but her hostess was eager to provide for her. She clothed her in a white domino and black velvet mask, and insisted upon her wearing a splendid diamond tiara in the shape of a heart in her soft hair.

When she finally descended the stairs in Mrs. Errol's company, a slim man dressed as a harlequin in black and silver, who was apparently waiting for her halfway down, bowed low and presented a glorious spray of crimson roses with the words: "For the queen who can do no wrong!"

"My, Nap! How you startled me!" ejaculated Mrs. Errol.

But Anne said nothing whatever. She only looked him straight in the eyes for an instant, and passed on with the roses in her hand.

During dinner she saw nothing of him. The great room was crowded with little tables, each laid for two, and she sat at the last of all with her host. Later she never remembered whether they talked or were silent. She only knew that somewhere the eyes that had watched her all the afternoon were watching her still, intent and tireless, biding their time. But silence in Lucas Errol's company was as easy as speech. Moreover, a string band played continuously throughout the meal, and the hubbub around them made speech unnecessary.

When they went out at last on to the terrace the whole garden was transformed into a paradise of glowing colours. The lake shone like a prism of glass, and over all the stars hung as if suspended very near the earth.

Lucas went down to the edge of the ice, leaning on his valet. Bertie, clad as a Roman soldier, was already vanishing in the distance with someone attired as a Swiss peasant girl. Mrs. Errol, sensibly wrapped in a large motoring coat, was maintaining a cheery conversation with the rector, who looked cold and hungry and smiled bluely at everything she said.

Anne stood by her host and watched the gay scene silently. "You ought to be skating," he said presently.

She shook her head. "Not yet. I like watching. It makes me think of when I was a girl."

"Not so very long ago, surely!" he said, with a smile.

"Seven years," she answered.

"My dear Lady Carfax!"

"Yes, seven years," she repeated, and though she also smiled there was a note of unspeakable dreariness in her voice. "I was married on my eighteenth birthday."

"My dear Lady Carfax," he said again. And with that silence fell once more between them, but in some magic fashion his sympathy imparted itself to her. She could feel it as one feels sudden sunshine on a cold day. It warmed her to the heart.

She moved at length, turning towards him, and at once he spoke, as if she had thereby set him at liberty to do so.

"Shall I tell you what I do when I find myself very badly up against anything?" he said.

"Yes, tell me." Instinctively she drew nearer to him. There was that about this man that attracted her irresistibly.

"It's a very simple remedy," he said, "simpler than praying. One can't always pray. I just open the windows wide, Lady Carfax. It's a help--even that."

"Ah!" she said quickly. "I think your windows must be always open."

"It seems a pity to shut them," he answered gently. "There is always a sparrow to feed, anyway."

She laughed rather sadly. "Yes, there are always sparrows."

"And sometimes bigger things," he said, "things one wouldn't miss for half creation."

"Or lose again for the other half," said the cool voice of a skater who had just glided up.

Anne started a little, but Lucas scarcely moved.

"Lady Carfax is waiting to go on the ice," he said.

"And I am waiting to take her," the new-comer said.

His slim, graceful figure in its black, tight-fitting garb sparkled at every turn. His eyes shone through his velvet mask like the eyes of an animal in the dark.

He glided nearer, but for some reason inexplicable to herself, Anne stepped back.

"I don't think I will," she said. "I am quite happy where I am."

"You will be happier with me," said the harlequin, with imperial confidence.

He waved his hand to Hudson standing a few paces away with her skates, took them from him, motioned her to the bank.

She stepped forward, not very willingly. Hudson, at another sign, spread a rug for her. She sat down, and the glittering harlequin kneeled upon the ice before her and fastened the blades to her feet.

It only took a couple of minutes; he was deft in all his ways. And then he was on his feet again, and with a royal gesture had helped her to hers.

Anne looked at him half dazzled. The shimmering figure seemed to be decked in diamonds.

"Are you ready?" he said.

She looked into the glowing eyes and felt as if some magic attraction were drawing her against her will.

"So long!" called Lucas from the bank. "Take care of her, Boney."

In another moment they were gliding into that prism of many lights and colours, and the harlequin, holding Anne's hands, laughed enigmatically as he sped her away.

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