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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Knave Of Diamonds - Part 2 - Chapter 11. The Return To Earth
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The Knave Of Diamonds - Part 2 - Chapter 11. The Return To Earth Post by :MalcolmL Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :1259

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The Knave Of Diamonds - Part 2 - Chapter 11. The Return To Earth

PART II CHAPTER XI. THE RETURN TO EARTH

It was nearly two before they reached Bramhurst and drew up before the one ancient inn the place possessed. Upstairs, in a lattice-windowed room with sloping floor and bulging ceiling, a room that was full of the scent of honeysuckle, Anne washed away the dust of the road. Turning to the mirror on the dressing-table when this was over, she stood a moment wide-eyed, startled. Through her mind there swept again the memory of a day that seemed very far away--a day begun in sunshine and ended in storm, a day when she had looked into the eyes of a white-faced woman in the glass and had shrunk away in fear. It was a very different vision that now met her gaze, and yet she had a feeling that there was something in it that remained unaltered. Was it in the eyes that shone from a face so radiant that it might have been the face of a girl?

She could not have said. Only after that one brief glimpse she looked no more.

Descending, she found Nap waiting for her in the oak-beamed coffee-room. He made her sit facing the open window, looking forth upon hill and forest and shallow winding river.

The stout old English waiter who attended to their wants very speedily withdrew.

"He thinks we are on our wedding-trip," said Nap.

She glanced at him sharply.

"Yes, I let him have it so," he returned. "I never destroy a pretty illusion if I can help it."

"What time do we start back?" said Anne, aware of burning cheeks, which he was studying with undisguised amusement.

"Would you like some ice?" he suggested.

She laughed, with something of an effort. "Don't be ridiculous, Nap!"

"I am sure you have never done anything so improper in all your life before," he went on. "What must it feel like? P'r'aps you would have preferred me to explain the situation to him in detail? I will have him in and do it now--if you really think it worth while. I shouldn't myself, but then I seldom suffer from truthfulness in its most acute form. It's a tiresome disease, isn't it? One might almost call it dashed inconvenient on an occasion such as this. There is only one remedy that I can suggest, and that is to pretend it's true."

"I am not good at pretending," Anne answered gravely.

He laughed. "Very true, O Queen! Horribly true! But I am, you know, a positive genius in that respect. So I'm going to pretend I'm an Englishman--of the worthy, thick-headed, bulldog breed. (I am sure you admire it; you wouldn't be an Englishwoman if you didn't). And you are my devoted and adorable wife. You needn't look shocked. It's all for the sake of that chap's morals. Do you think I can do it?"

"I don't want you to do it, Nap," she said earnestly.

He dropped the subject instantly. "Your wish is law. There is only one other person in this world who can command my implicit obedience in this fashion. So I hope you appreciate your power."

"And that other is Lucas?" said Anne.

He nodded. "Luke the irresistible! Did you ever try to resist him?"

She shook her head with a smile.

"Take my advice then," he said. "Never do! He could whip creation with his hands tied behind him. Oh, I know you all think him mild-tempered and easy-going, more like a woman than a man. But you wait till you're hard up against him. Then you'll know what I mean when I tell you he's colossal." There was a queer ring of passion in his voice as he ended. It sounded to Anne like the half-stifled cry of a wounded animal.

Because of it she repressed the impulse to ask him what he meant. Nevertheless, after a moment, as if impelled by some hidden force, he continued.

"There was a time when I thought of him much as you do. And then one day there came a reckoning--an almighty big reckoning." He leaned back in his chair and stared upwards, while the grim lines of his mouth tightened. "It was down in Arizona. We fought a duel that lasted a day and a night. He was a worse cripple in those days than he is now, but he won out--he won out." Again came the cynical drawl, covering his actual feelings as with an impenetrable veil. "I've had a kind of respect for him ever since," he said. "One does, you know."

"One would," said Anne, and again refrained from asking questions.

She was thinking of the complete confidence with which Lucas had spoken of his ascendency over this man.

Finishing luncheon they went out over the common that stretched from the very door, down the hill-side of short, sun-baked grass, passing between masses of scorched broom, whose bursting pods crackled perpetually in the sunshine, till they came to the green shade of forest trees and the gleam of a running stream.

The whirr of grasshoppers filled the air and the humming of insects innumerable. Away in the distance sounded the metal clang of a cow-bell. It was the only definite sound that broke the stillness. The heat was intense. A dull, copper haze had risen and partially obscured the sun.

Anne stopped on the edge of the stream. Wonderful dragon-flies such as she had never seen before, peacock, orange and palest green, darted to and fro above the brown water. Nap leaned against a tree close to her and smoked a cigarette.

She spoke at last without turning. "Am I in fairyland, I wonder?"

"Or the Garden of Eden," suggested Nap.

She laughed a little, and stooping tried to reach a forget-me-not that grew on the edge of the water.

"Beware of the serpent!" he warned. "Anyway, don't tumble in!"

She stretched back a hand to him. "Don't let me go!"

His hand closed instantly and firmly upon her wrist. In a moment she drew back with the flower in her hand, to find his cigarette smouldering on a tuft of moss. He set his foot upon it without explanation and lighted another.

"Ought we not to be starting back?" she asked.

"It won't be so hot in half-an-hour," he said.

"But how long will it take?"

"It can be done in under three hours. If we start at half-past-four you should be home well before sunset."

He smiled with the words, and Anne suffered herself to be persuaded. Certainly the shade of the beech trees was infinitely preferable to the glare of the dusty roads, and the slumberous atmosphere made her feel undeniably languorous.

She sat down therefore on the roots of a tree, still watching the dragon-flies flitting above the water.

Nap stripped off his coat and made it into a cushion. "Lean back on this. Yes, really. I'm thankful for the excuse to go without it. How is that? Comfortable?"

She thanked him with a smile. "I mustn't go to sleep."

"Why not?" said Nap. "There is nothing to disturb you. I'm going back to the inn to order tea before we start."

He was off with the words with that free, agile gait of his that always made her think of some wild creature of the woods.

She leaned back with a sense of complete well-being and closed her eyes....

When she opened them again it was with a guilty feeling of having been asleep at a critical juncture. With a start she sat up and looked around her. The sun-rays were still slanting through the wood, but dully, as though they shone through a sheet of smoked glass. The stillness was intense.

A sharp sense of nervousness pricked her. There seemed to be something ominous in the atmosphere; or was it only in her own heart that it existed? And where was Nap? Surely he had been gone for a very long time!

She rose stiffly and picked up his coat. At the same instant a shrill whistle sounded through the wood, and in a moment she saw him coming swiftly towards her.

Quietly she moved to meet him.

He began to speak before he reached her. "I was afraid you would be tired of waiting and wander about till you got frightened and lost yourself. Do you ever have hysterics?"

"Never," said Anne firmly.

He took his coat and began to wriggle into it, surveying her meantime with a smile half-speculative, half-rueful.

"Well, that's a weight off my mind, anyway," he remarked at length. "For I have a staggering piece of news for you which I hardly dare to impart. Oh, it's no good looking at your watch. It's hopelessly late, nearly six o'clock, and in any case I can't get you home to-night. There's no petrol."

"Nap!" Anne's voice was a curious compound of consternation and relief. Somehow--doubtless it was the effect of thunder in the atmosphere--she had expected something in the nature of tragedy.

Nap put on his most contrite air. "Do be a brick and take it nicely!" he pleaded. "I know I was an all-fired fool not to see to it for myself. But I was called away, and so I had to leave it to those dunderheads at the garage. I only made the discovery when I left you a couple of hours ago. There was just enough left to take me to Rodding, so I pelted off at once to some motorworks I knew of there, only to find the place was empty. It's a hole of a town. There was some game on, and I couldn't get a conveyance anywhere. So I just put up the motor and came back across country on foot. I don't see what else I could have done, do you?"

Anne did not for the moment, but she was considering the situation too rapidly to answer him.

"My only consolation," he went on, "is that you have got a change of raiment, which is more than I have. Oh, yes, I had the sense to think of that contingency. Your bag is at the inn here, waiting for you."

"You had better have taken me back with you to Rodding," Anne said.

"Yes, I know. But I expected to be back in half an hour if all went well. It's easy to be wise after the event, isn't it? I've thought of that myself since." Nap picked up a twig and bit it viciously. "Anyway, there is some tea waiting for us. Shall we go back?"

Anne turned beside him. "Then what do you propose to do?"

He glanced at her. "Nothing before morning, I'm afraid. There is no vehicle to be had here. I will send someone down to Rodding in the morning for a conveyance. We can take the train from there to Staps, where I can get some petrol. We ought by that means to reach home sometime in the afternoon. It is the only feasible plan, I am afraid; unless you can suggest a better."

He looked at her keenly, still biting at the twig between his teeth.

Anne walked for several seconds in silence. At last, "Would it be quite impossible to walk to Rodding now?" she asked.

"Not at all," said Nap. "It is about eight miles through the woods. We should be benighted, of course. Also I fancy there is a storm coming up. But if you wish to make the attempt--"

"I was only wondering," she said quietly, "if we could get an evening train to Staps. That, I know, is on the main line. You could put up there, and I could take the night train to town."

"Oh, quite so," said Nap. "Shall we have tea before we start?"

They had emerged from the wood and were beginning to climb the hill. The veiled sunlight gave an unreal effect to the landscape. The broom bushes looked ghostly.

Anne gave an uneasy glance around. "I believe you are right about the storm," she said.

"I generally am right," observed Nap.

They walked on. "I shouldn't like to be benighted in the woods," she said presently.

His scoffing smile showed for an instant. "Alone with me too! Most improper!"

"I was thinking we might miss the way," Anne returned with dignity. "I wonder--shall we risk it?"

She turned to him as if consulting him, but Nap's face was to the sky. "That is for you to decide," he said. "We might do it. The storm won't break at present."

"It will be violent when it does," she said.

He nodded. "It will."

She quickened her steps instinctively, and he lengthened his stride. The smile had ceased to twitch his lips.

"Have you decided?" he asked her suddenly, and his voice sounded almost stern.

They were nearing the top of the hill. She paused, panting a little. "Yes. I will spend the night here."

He gave her a glance of approval. "You are a wise woman."

"I hope so," said Anne. "I must telegraph at once to Dimsdale and tell him not to expect me."

Nap's glance fell away from her. He said nothing whatever.

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