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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Knave Of Diamonds - Part 2 - Chapter 1. The Jester's Return
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The Knave Of Diamonds - Part 2 - Chapter 1. The Jester's Return Post by :MalcolmL Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :2157

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The Knave Of Diamonds - Part 2 - Chapter 1. The Jester's Return

PART II CHAPTER I. THE JESTER'S RETURN

The gradual coming of spring that year was like a benediction after the prolonged rigour of the frost. The lengthening evenings were wrapped in pearly mystery, through which the soft rain fell in showers of blessing upon the waiting earth. To Anne, it was as though a great peace had descended upon all things, quelling all tumult. She had resolutely taken up her new burden, which was so infinitely easier than the old, and she found a strange happiness in the bearing of it. The management of her husband's estate kept her very fully occupied, so that she had no time for perplexing problems. She took each day as it came, and each day left her stronger.

Once only had she been to Baronmead since the masquerade on the ice. It was in fulfilment of her promise to Nap, but she had not seen him; and as the weeks slipped by she began to wonder at his prolonged silence. For no word of any sort reached her from him. He seemed to have forgotten her very existence. That he was well again she knew from Lucas, who often came over in the motor with his mother.

As his brother had predicted he had made a rapid recovery; but no sooner was he well than he was gone with a suddenness that surprised no one but Anne. She concluded that his family knew where he was to be found, but no news of his whereabouts reached her. Nap was the one subject upon which neither Mrs. Errol nor her elder son ever expanded, and for some nameless reason Anne shrank from asking any questions regarding him. She was convinced that he would return sooner or later. She was convinced that, whatever appearances might be, he had not relinquished the bond of friendship that linked them. She did not understand him. She believed him to be headlong and fiercely passionate, but beneath all there seemed to her to be a certain stability, a tenacity of purpose, that no circumstance, however tragic, could thwart. She knew, deep in the heart of her she knew, that he would come back.

She would not spend much thought upon him in those days. Something stood ever in the path of thought. Invariably she encountered it, and as invariably she turned aside, counting her new peace as too precious to hazard.

Meanwhile she went her quiet way, sometimes aided by Lucas, but more often settling her affairs alone, neither attempting nor desiring to look into the future.

The news of Sir Giles's illness spread rapidly through the neighbourhood, and people began to be very kind to her. She knew no one intimately. Her husband's churlishness had deprived her of almost all social intercourse, but never before had she realised how completely he was held responsible for her aloofness.

Privately, she would have preferred to maintain her seclusion, but it was not in her to be ungracious. She felt bound to accept the ready sympathy extended to her. It touched her, even though, had the choice been hers, she would have done without it. Lucas also urged her in his kindly fashion not to lead a hermit's existence. Mrs. Errol was insistent upon the point.

"Don't you do it, dear," was her exhortation. "There may not be much good to be got out of society, I'll admit. But it's one better than solitude. Don't you shut yourself up and fret. I reckon the Lord didn't herd us together for nothing, and it's His scheme of creation anyway."

And so Anne tried to be cordial; with the result that on a certain morning in early May there reached her a short friendly note from Mrs. Damer, wife of the M.F.H., begging her to dine with them quite informally on the following night.

"There will only be a few of us, all intimate friends," the note said. "Do come. I have been longing to ask you for such an age."

Anne's brows drew together a little over the note. She had always liked Mrs. Damer, but her taste for dinner-parties was a minus quantity. Yet she knew that the invitation had been sent in sheer kindness. Mrs. Damer was always kind to everyone, and it was not the fashion among her circle of friends to disappoint her.

Anne considered the matter, contemplated an excuse, finally rejected it, and wrote an acceptance.

She wore the dress of shimmering green in which she had appeared at the Hunt Ball. Vividly the memory of that night swept across her. She had not worn it since, and scarcely knew what impulse moved her to don it now. It well became her stately figure. Dimsdale, awaiting her departure at the hall-door, looked at her with the admiring reverence he might have bestowed upon a queen.

Again, during her drive through the dark, the memory of that winter night flashed back upon her. She recalled that smooth, noiseless journey in which she had seemed to be borne upon wings. She recalled her misery and her weariness, her dream and her awakening. Nap had been very good to her that night. He had won her confidence, her gratitude, her friendship. His reputation notwithstanding, she had trusted him fully, and she had not found him wanting. A faint sigh rose to her lips. She was beginning to miss this friend of hers.

But the next moment she had drawn back sharply and swiftly, as if she had encountered an angel with a flaming sword. This was the path down which she would not wander. Why should she wish to do so? There were so many other paths open to her now.

When she stepped at length from the carriage her face was serene and quiet as the soft spring night behind her.

Upstairs she encountered the doctor's wife patting her hair before a mirror. She turned at Anne's entrance.

"Why, Lady Carfax! This is indeed a pleasure. I am so glad to see you here."

There was genuine pleasure in her voice, and Anne remembered with a smile that Mrs. Randal liked her.

They chatted as she removed her wraps, and finally descended together, Mrs. Randal turning at the head of the stairs to whisper: "There's that horrid old gossip, Major Shirley. I know he will fall to my lot. He always does. How shall I direct the conversation into safe channels?"

Anne could only shake her head. She knew that Mrs. Randal was not celebrated for discretion.

Entering the drawing-room, they found Major Shirley with his wife and daughter, Ralph and Dot Waring, and the doctor, assembled with their host and hostess.

Mrs. Damer glanced at the clock after greeting them. "The Errols are late."

Anne chanced to be speaking to Dot at the moment, and the girl's magic change of countenance called her attention to the words. She wondered if her own face changed, and became uneasily aware of a sudden quickening of the heart. Quietly she passed on to speak to the Shirleys. The major looked her up and down briefly and offensively as his manner was, and she escaped from his vicinity as speedily as possible. His wife, a powdered, elderly lady, sought to detain her, but after a few moments Anne very gently detached herself, accepting the seat which young Ralph Waring eagerly offered her.

There followed a somewhat lengthy and by no means easy pause. Conversation was spasmodic. Everyone was listening for the arrival of the last guests, and when after some minutes there came the rush of wheels under the window and the loud hoot of a motor everyone jumped. Mrs. Damer, who had talked hard through the silences, made no comment but looked unutterably relieved.

Dot openly and eagerly watched the door, and Anne with a conscious effort suppressed an inclination to do likewise.

When it opened she looked up quite naturally, and surely no one suspected the wild leaping of her heart.

Nap entered--sleek, trim, complacent; followed by Bertie, whose brown face looked unmistakably sullen.

"Sorry we are late," drawled Nap, "Bertie will make our excuses."

But Bertie said nothing, and it was left to Mrs. Damer to step into the breach.

She did so quite gallantly, if somewhat clumsily. "I am very pleased to see you, Nap; but, you know, it was your brother whom we expected. I didn't so much as know that you were at home."

"Oh, quite so," smiled Nap. "Don't apologise--please!" He bent slightly over her hand. "So good of you not to mind the exchange. I know I am a poor substitute. But my brother is entertaining an old friend who has arrived unexpectedly, so I persuaded him to send me in his place. He charged me with all manner of excuses and apologies, which I have not delivered since I know them to be unnecessary."

Mrs. Damer found it impossible not to smile at his calm effrontery, even though she knew Major Shirley to be frowning behind her back.

"When did you return?" she asked. "Someone said you were in the States."

"I was," said Nap. "I returned half an hour ago; hence our late arrival, for which I humbly beg to apologise, and to entreat you not to blame Bertie, who, as you perceive, is still speechless with suspense."

"Oh, you Americans!" laughed Mrs. Damer. "You are never at a loss. Do let us go in to dinner. No, Nap! The doctor will take me. Will you take Miss Waring? But you won't be able to sit together. You have disarranged all my plans, so I shall treat you as of no importance."

"Miss Waring won't quarrel with either you or me on that account," commented Nap, as he offered his arm to the rector's daughter with ironical courtesy. "Come along, Miss Waring! Shut your eyes and bolt me. It will soon be over."

Dot was young enough to make a face at him, but the hard stare with which he countered it reduced her almost instantly to confusion. Whereupon he transferred his attention and looked at her no more.

But compensation was in store for her, for at the dinner-table she found herself placed between Bertie and the doctor, a pleasing situation in which she speedily recovered her spirits, since the doctor talked to his hostess, and Bertie's partner, Mrs. Shirley, strenuously occupied the attention of her host, who was seated on her other side.

Major Shirley fell as usual to Mrs. Randal, over which circumstance Anne, catching a tragic glance from the latter, failed somewhat conspicuously to repress a smile.

"Yes, it's mighty funny, isn't it?" said Nap, and with a sharp start she discovered that he was seated upon her right.

"I--didn't see you," she faltered.

"No?" he said coolly. "Well, it's all right. I was told to sit here--obviously decreed by the gods. You'll think me uncanny if I tell you that it was just this that I came for."

"You are uncanny," she said.

He made her a brief bow. It seemed to her that a mocking spirit gleamed in his eyes. She had never felt less confident of him, less at her ease with him, than at that moment. She felt as if in some subtle fashion, wholly beyond her comprehension, he were playing some deep-laid game, as if he were weaving some intricate web too secret and too intangible to be understood or grappled with. Upon one point only was she quite clear. He would suffer no reference to their last meeting. Whatever the effect of that terrible punishment upon him, he did not choose that she should see it. She had seen him in the utmost extremity of his humiliation, but she should never see the scars that were left.

This much of his attitude she could understand, and understanding could pardon that part which baffled her. But she could not feel at her ease.

"And so you are afraid," said Nap. "That's a new thing for you."

She glanced round the table. In the general hubbub of talk they were as isolated as though they were actually alone together.

"No," she said. "Why should I be afraid? But--I feel as if I am talking to--a stranger."

"Perhaps you are," said Nap.

He uttered a laugh she could not fathom, and then with a certain recklessness: "Permit me to present to your majesty," he said, "the Knave of Diamonds!"

There was that in his tone that hurt her vaguely, little as she understood it. She smiled with a hint of wistfulness.

"Surely I have met him before!" she said.

"Without knowing him," said Nap.

"No," she maintained. "I have known him for a long while now. I believe him to be my very good friend."

"What?" he said.

She glanced at him, half startled by the brief query; but instantly she looked away again with a curious, tingling sense of shock. For it was to her as though she had looked into the heart of a consuming fire.

"Aren't you rather behind the times?" he drawled. "That was--as you say--a long while ago."

The shock passed, leaving her strangely giddy, as one on the edge of inconceivable depth. She could say no word in answer. She was utterly and hopelessly at a loss.

With scarcely a pause Nap turned to Violet Shirley, who was seated on his right, and plunged without preliminary into a gay flirtation to which all the world was at liberty to listen if it could not approve. Ralph Waring, thus deprived of his rightful partner, solaced himself with Mrs. Randal, who was always easy to please; and the major on her other side relapsed into bearish gloom.

It was with unspeakable relief that Anne rose at length from that dinner-table. She had a deep longing to escape altogether, to go back to the quiet Manor, where at least all was peace. He had hurt her more subtly than she could have deemed possible. Had his friendship really meant so much to her? Or was it only her pride that suffered to think he valued hers so lightly? It seemed that he was fickle then, fickle as everyone declared him to be. And yet in her heart she did not for a moment believe it. That single glimpse she had had, past the gibing devil in his eyes, deep into the man himself, had told her something different.

He hated her then, he hated her as the cause of his downfall. This seemed the more likely. And yet--and yet--did she really believe this either?

"Dear Lady Carfax, do play to us!" urged her hostess. "It will be such a treat to hear you."

She rose half-mechanically and went to the piano, struck a few chords and began to play, still so deep in her maze of conjecture that she hardly knew what she had chosen.

Mrs. Randal came to sit near her. Mrs. Shirley edged close to Mrs. Damer and began to whisper. The two girls went softly into the conservatory.

Anne's fingers played on. Now and then Mrs. Randal spoke to her, thanked her or begged her to continue. But presently she moved away and Anne did not miss her. She was far too deeply engrossed in her own thoughts.

"Lady Carfax!"

She started, every nerve suddenly on the alert.

"Don't stop playing!" he said, and as it were involuntarily she continued to play.

"I am coming to see you to-morrow," he went on. "What time would you like me to call?"

She was silent. But the blood had risen in a great wave to her face and neck. She could feel it racing in every vein.

"Won't you answer me?" he said. "Won't you fix a time?"

There was that in his voice that made her long earnestly to see his face, but she could not. With a great effort she answered:

"I am generally at home in the afternoon."

"Then will you be out to the rest of the world?" he said.

She stilled the wild tumult of her heart with desperate resolution. "I think you must take your chance of that."

"I am not taking any chances," he said. "I will come at the fashionable hour if you prefer it. But--"

He left the sentence unfinished with a significance that was more imperious than a definite command.

Anne's fingers were trembling over the keys. Sudden uncertainty seized her. She forgot what she was playing, forgot all in the overwhelming desire to see his face. She muffled her confusion in a few soft chords and turned round.

He was gone.

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