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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Knave Of Diamonds - Part 2 - Chapter 9. The Boon
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The Knave Of Diamonds - Part 2 - Chapter 9. The Boon Post by :MalcolmL Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :1801

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The Knave Of Diamonds - Part 2 - Chapter 9. The Boon

PART II CHAPTER IX. THE BOON

It was long before Anne slept that night, but yet though restless she was not wholly miserable. Neither was she perplexed. Her duty lay before her clearly defined, and she meant to fulfil it. Those few words with Lucas Errol had decided her beyond all hesitancy, so completely was she in sympathy with this strong friend of hers. Perhaps her wavering had only been the result of a moment's weakness, following upon sudden strain. But the strain had slackened, and the weakness was over. She knew that even Nap had not the power to move her now. With the memory of his firm hand-grip came the conviction that he would not seek to do so. Like herself he had been momentarily dismayed it might be, but he had taken his place among her friends, not even asking to be foremost, and remembering this, she resolutely expelled any lingering doubt of him. Had she not already proved that she had but to trust him to find him trustworthy? What tangible reason had he given her for withdrawing her trust even for a moment? She reproached herself for it, and determined that she would never doubt him again.

But yet sleep was long in coming to her. Once when it seemed near, the hooting of an owl near the open window drove it away; and once in the vague twilight before the dawn she started awake to hear the sharp thudding of a horse's hoofs galloping upon the turf not very far away. That last set her heart a-beating, she could not have said wherefore, save that it reminded her vaguely of a day in the hunting-field that had ended for her in disaster.

She slept at last and dreamed--a wild and fearful dream. She dreamed that she was on horseback, galloping, galloping, galloping, in headlong flight from someone, she knew not whom, but it was someone of whom she was unspeakably afraid. And ever behind her at break-neck speed, gaining upon her, merciless as fate, galloped her pursuer. It was terrible, it was agonising, yet, though in her heart she knew it to be a dream, she could not wake. And then, all suddenly, the race was over. Someone drew abreast of her. A sinewy hand gripped her bridle-rein. With a gasping cry she turned to face her captor, and saw--a Red Indian! His tigerish eyes gazed into hers. He was laughing with a fiendish exultation. The eagle feathers tossed above his swarthy face. It came nearer to her; it glared into her own. And suddenly recognition stabbed her like a sword. It was the face of Nap Errol....

He was on the stairs talking to Hudson, the valet, when she descended to breakfast, but he turned at once to greet her.

"I am sorry to say Lucas has had a bad night. He will keep his room to-day. How have you slept, Lady Carfax?"

She answered him conventionally. They went downstairs together.

Bertie was in the hall studying a newspaper. He came forward, scowling heavily, shook hands with Anne, and immediately addressed his brother.

"I've just come in from the stable. Have you been out all night? You've nearly ridden the mare to death."

Anne glanced at Nap instinctively. He was smiling. "Don't vex yourself, my good Bertie," he said. "The mare will be all right after a feed."

"Will she?" growled Bertie. "She is half dead from exhaustion anyway."

"Oh, skittles!" said Nap, turning to go.

The boy's indignation leaped to a blaze. "Skittles to you! I know what I'm saying. And if you're not ashamed of yourself, you damned well ought to be!"

Nap stopped. "What?" he drawled.

Bertie glared at him and subsided. The explosion had been somewhat more violent than he had intended.

Very quietly Nap stepped up to him. "Will you repeat that last remark of yours?"

Bertie was silent.

"Or do you prefer to withdraw it?"

Bertie maintained a dogged silence. He was fidgeting with the paper in a fashion that seemed to indicate embarrassment.

"Do you withdraw it?" Nap repeated, still quiet, still slightly drawling.

Bertie hunched his shoulders like a schoolboy. "Oh, get away, Nap!" he growled. "Yes--sorry I spoke. Now clear out and leave me alone!"

Anne was already at the further end of the hall, but Nap overtook her before she entered the breakfast room. He opened the door for her, and as she passed him she saw that he was still faintly smiling.

"Pardon the _contretemps_!" he said. "You may have noticed before that I am not particularly good at swallowing insults."

"I wonder if there was a cause for it," she said, looking at him steadily. "Remember, I know what your riding is like."

He raised his eyebrows for a moment, then laughed. The room they entered was empty.

"No one down yet!" he observed. "Take a seat by the window. What will you have?"

He attended to her wants and his own, and finally sat down facing her. He seemed to be in excellent spirits.

"Please don't look so severe!" he urged. "Just as I am going to ask a favour of you, too!"

She smiled a little but not very willingly. "I don't like cruel people," she said. "Cruelty is a thing I can never forget because I abhor it so."

"And are you never cruel?" said Nap.

"I hope not."

"I hope not, too," he rejoined, giving her a hard look. "But I sometimes have my doubts."

Anne looked out of the window in silence.

The sharp rapping of his knuckles on the table recalled her. She turned, slightly startled, and met his imperious eyes. He smiled at her.

"Queen Anne, I crave a boon."

Almost involuntarily she returned his smile. "So you said before."

"And you don't even ask what it is."

"I am not quite sure that I want to know, Nap," she said.

"You are not liking me this morning," he observed.

She made no answer.

"What is it?" he said. "Is it the mare?"

She hesitated. "Perhaps, in part."

"And the other part?" He leaned forward, looking at her keenly. "Are you afraid of me, Anne?" he said.

His voice was free from reproach, yet her heart smote her. She reminded herself of how he had once pleaded with her for her trust.

"I'm sorry I pressed the mare," he said, "but it was quite as much her fault as mine. Moreover, the cub exaggerated. I will fetch him in and make him own it if you like."

She stayed him with a gesture. "No, don't, please! I think Bertie was probably in the right."

"Do you, though?" Nap leaned back again, regarding her with supercilious attention. "It's rather--daring of you to say so."

"Do you really think I stand in awe of you?" she said.

"You are such a truly remarkable woman," he made answer, "that I scarcely know what to think. But since you are not afraid of me--apparently, perhaps I may venture to come to the point. Do you know I have been laying plans for a surprise picnic for you and--one other? It's such a gorgeous day. Don't refuse!"

The boyish note she liked to hear sounded suddenly in his voice. He discarded his cynicism and leaned towards her again, eager, persuasive.

"Don't refuse," he reiterated. "Look at the sunshine, listen to the birds, think of a whole day in the open! I'll take you to the loveliest place I know in this quaint little island, and I'll be your slave all day long. Oh, I promise you won't find me in the way. Now don't look prudish. Be a girl for once. Never mind the rest of creation. No one else will know anything about it. We leave Baronmead this morning in the motor, and who cares what time we reach the Manor? It can't matter to you or anyone. Say you'll come! Say it!"

"My dear Nap!" Anne looked at him dubiously, uncertain whether to take him seriously.

"Say it!" he repeated. "There is no earthly reason why you shouldn't. And I'll take such care of you. Why shouldn't you have a real good time for once? You never have had in all your life."

True, only too true! But it was not that fact that made her waver.

"Will you tell me what plans you have made for this picnic?" she asked at length.

He began to smile. "My plans, Lady Carfax, are entirely subject to your approval. About forty miles from here there is a place called Bramhurst--a place after your own heart--a paradise. With judicious driving we could be there by one or soon after--in time for luncheon."

"Yes?" she said, as he stopped.

"That's all," said Nap.

"But--afterwards?" she hazarded.

"My dear Lady Carfax, if it is to be a surprise picnic, where's the use of settling all the details beforehand?" Nap's tone was one of indulgent protest; he was eating and drinking rapidly, as if he had an appointment to keep. "My suggestion is that we then follow our inclinations--your inclinations." He smiled at her again. "I am your slave till sunset."

"Could we be back at the Manor by then?" she asked.

"Of course we could."

"Will you promise that we shall be?" She looked up at him seriously.

He was still smiling. "If you ordain it," he said.

"I must be back by dinner-time," she asserted.

"And you dine?"

"At eight."

He pushed back his chair and rose. "Very discreet of you! The sun sets at eight-ten. At what hour will you deign to be ready?"

"At eleven," said Anne.

He glanced at his watch. "I am afraid you can't see Lucas to say good-bye. Hudson has just given him morphia."

"Is he so bad then?" she asked quickly.

"No worse than he has been before. Bad pain all night. He always fights against taking the stuff. I persuaded him." He spoke shortly, as if the subject were distasteful to him. "No doubt he is easier by this time," he added. "Eleven o'clock then! I will go and get ready." But even then he paused, his hand on the back of her chair. "Can you keep a secret?" he asked lightly.

She glanced up at him. "A secret?"

"An it please you," he said, "let this be a secret between yourself and your humble slave!"

And with the words he turned with an air of finality and went away.

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