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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Knave Of Diamonds - Part 2 - Chapter 8. A Sudden Blow
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The Knave Of Diamonds - Part 2 - Chapter 8. A Sudden Blow Post by :MalcolmL Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :1993

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The Knave Of Diamonds - Part 2 - Chapter 8. A Sudden Blow

PART II CHAPTER VIII. A SUDDEN BLOW

Anne found herself the first to enter the drawing room that night before dinner. It was still early, barely half-past seven. The theatricals were to begin at nine.

She had her unopened letters with her, and she sat down to peruse them by an open window. The evening sun poured full upon her in fiery splendour. She leaned her head against the woodwork, a little wearied.

She opened the first letter mechanically. Her thoughts were wandering. Without much interest she withdrew it from the envelope, saw it to be unimportant, and returned it after the briefest inspection. The next was of the same order, and received a similar treatment. The third and last she held for several seconds in her hand, and finally opened with obvious reluctance. It was from a doctor in the asylum in which her husband had been placed. Slowly her eyes travelled along the page.

When she turned it at length her hands were shaking, shaking so much that the paper rattled and quivered like a living thing. The writing ended on the further page, but before her eyes reached the signature the letter had fallen from her grasp. Anne, the calm, the self-contained, the stately, sat huddled in her chair--a trembling, stricken woman, with her hands pressed tightly over her eyes, as if to shut out some dread vision.

In the silence that followed someone entered the room with a light, cat-like tread, and approached the window against which she sat. But so overwhelmed was she for the moment that she was unaware of any presence till Nap's voice spoke to her, and she started to find him close to her, within reach of her hand.

She lifted her white face then, while mechanically she groped for the letter. It had fallen to the ground. He picked it up.

"What is it?" he said, and she thought his voice sounded harsh. "You have had bad news?"

She held out her hand for the letter. "No, it is good. I--am a little tired, that's all."

"That is not all," he said, and she heard the dogged note in his voice that she had come to know as the signal of indomitable resolution. He sat down on the window seat close to her, still keeping the letter in his hand.

She made a little hopeless gesture and sat silent, striving for composure. She knew that during the seconds that followed, his eyes never stirred from her face. It was his old trick of making her feel the compulsion of his will. Often before she had resisted it. To-night she was taken at a disadvantage. He had caught her unarmed. She was powerless.

She turned her head at last and spoke. "You may read that letter," she said.

The thin lips smiled contemptuously for an instant. "I have read it already," he said.

She started slightly, meeting his eyes. "You have read it?"

"In your face," he told her coolly. "It contains news of the man you call your husband. It is to say he is better--and--coming--home."

He spoke the last words as though he were actually reading them one by one in her tragic eyes.

"It is an experiment," she whispered. "He wishes it himself, it seems, and they think the change might prove beneficial. He is decidedly better--marvellously so. And he has expressed the desire to see me. Of course"--she faltered a little--"I should not be--alone with him. There would be an attendant. But--but you mustn't think I am afraid. It wasn't that. Only--only--I did not expect it. It has come rather suddenly. I am not so easily upset as a rule."

She spoke hurriedly, almost as though she were pleading with him to understand and to pardon her weakness.

But her words quivered into silence. Nap said nothing whatever. He sat motionless, the letter still in his hand, his eyes unswervingly fixed upon her,

That sphinx-like stare became unbearable at last. She gathered her strength and rose.

"You came upon me at an unlucky moment," she said. "Please forget it."

He still stared at her stonily without moving or speaking. Something that was almost fear gripped her. The very stillness of the man was in a fashion intimidating.

She stood before him, erect, and at least outwardly calm. "May I have my letter?" she said.

The words were a distinct command, and after a very decided pause he responded to it. He rose with a quick, lithe movement, and handed her the letter with a brief bow.

An instant later, while she still waited for him to speak, he turned on his heel and left her.

Very soon after, Mrs. Errol came in, and then one after another those who were staying in the house for the entertainment. But Anne had commanded herself by that time. No one noticed anything unusual in her demeanour.

Nap was absent from the dinner--table. Someone said that he was superintending some slight alteration on the stage. It was so ordinary an occurrence for him to fail to appear at a meal that no one was surprised. Only Anne covered a deep uneasiness beneath her resolute serenity of manner. She could not forget that basilisk stare. It haunted her almost to the exclusion of everything else. She had no thought to spare for the letter regarding her husband. She could only think of Nap. What had that stare concealed? She felt that if she could have got past those baffling, challenging eyes she would have seen something terrible.

Yet when she met him again she wondered if after all she had disquieted herself for nought. He was standing at the stage-entrance to the marquee, discussing some matter with one of the curtain-pullers when she arrived. He stood aside for her to pass, and she went by quickly, avoiding his eyes.

She kept out of his way studiously till her turn came, then perforce she had to meet him again, for he was stationed close to the opening on to the stage through which she had to pass. For the moment there was no one else at hand, and she felt her heart beat thick and fast as she waited beside him for her cue.

He did not speak to her, did not, she fancied, even look at her; but after a few dumb seconds his hand came out to hers and held it in a close, sinewy grip. Her own was nerveless, cold as ice. She could not have withdrawn it had she wished. But she did not wish. That action of his had a strange effect upon her, subtly calming her reawakened doubts. She felt that he meant to reassure her, and she suffered herself to be reassured.

Later, she marvelled at the ingenuity that had so successfully blinded her, marvelled at herself for having been so blinded, marvelled most of all at the self-restraint that could so shackle and smother the fierce passion that ran like liquid fire in every vein as to make her fancy that it had ceased to be.

When her turn came at length she collected herself and left him with a smile.

She went through her part very creditably, but she was unspeakably thankful when it was over.

"You are tired, Lady Carfax," Lucas murmured, when at length she found her way to the seat beside him that he had been reserving for her.

"A little," she admitted.

And then suddenly the impulse to tell him the primary cause of her trouble came upon her irresistibly. She leaned towards him and spoke under cover of the orchestra.

"Mr. Errol, I have had news of--my husband. He wants to come home. No, he is not well yet, but decidedly better, well enough to be at liberty in the charge of an attendant. And so--and so--"

The whispered words failed. She became silent, waiting for the steady sympathy for which she knew she would never wait in vain.

But he did not speak at once. It almost seemed as if he were at a loss. It almost seemed as if he realised too fully for speech that leaden weight of despair which had for a space so terribly overwhelmed her.

And then at last his voice came to her, slow and gentle, yet with a vital note in it that was like a bugle-call to her tired spirit. "Stick to it, Lady Carfax! You'll win out. You're through the worst already."

Desperately, as one half-ashamed, she answered him. "I wish with all my heart I could think so. But--I am still asking myself if--if there is no way of escape."

He turned his head in the dim light and looked at her, and shame stabbed her deeper still. Yet she would not recall the words. It was better that he should know, better that he should not deem her any greater or worthier than she was.

Then, "Thank you for telling me," he said very simply. "But you'll win out all the same. I have always known that you were on the winning side."

The words touched her in a fashion not wholly accountable. Her eyes filled with sudden tears.

"What makes you have such faith in me?" she said.

The light was too dim for her so see his face, but she knew that he was smiling as he made reply.

"That's just one of the things I can't explain," he said. "But I think God made you for a spar for drowning men to cling to."

She smiled with him in spite of the tears. "May the spar never fail you!" she said.

"I am not afraid," he answered very steadily.

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