Lord Dawlish had gone for a moonlight walk that night because, like Claire, he wished to be alone to think. He had fallen with a pleasant ease and smoothness into the rather curious life lived at Elizabeth Boyd's bee-farm. A liking for picnics had lingered in him from boyhood, and existence at Flack's was one prolonged picnic. He found that he had a natural aptitude for the more muscular domestic duties, and his energy in this direction enchanted Nutty, who before his advent had had a monopoly of these tasks.
Nor was this the only aspect of the situation that pleased Nutty. When he had invited Bill to the farm he had had a vague hope that good might come of it, but he had never dreamed that things would turn out as well as they promised to do, or that such a warm and immediate friendship would spring up between his sister and the man who had diverted the family fortune into his own pocket. Bill and Elizabeth were getting on splendidly. They were together all the time--walking, golfing, attending to the numerous needs of the bees, or sitting on the porch. Nutty's imagination began to run away with him. He seemed to smell the scent of orange-blossoms, to hear the joyous pealing of church bells--in fact, with the difference that it was not his own wedding that he was anticipating, he had begun to take very much the same view of the future that was about to come to Dudley Pickering.
Elizabeth would have been startled and embarrassed if she could have read his thoughts, for they might have suggested to her that she was becoming a great deal fonder of Bill than the shortness of their acquaintance warranted. But though she did not fail to observe the strangeness of her brother's manner, she traced it to another source than the real one. Nutty had a habit of starting back and removing himself when, entering the porch, he perceived that Bill and his sister were already seated there. His own impression on such occasions was that he was behaving with consummate tact. Elizabeth supposed that he had had some sort of a spasm.
Lord Dawlish, if he had been able to diagnose correctly the almost paternal attitude which had become his host's normal manner these days, would have been equally embarrassed but less startled, for conscience had already suggested to him from time to time that he had been guilty of a feeling toward Elizabeth warmer than any feeling that should come to an engaged man. Lying in bed at the end of his first week at the farm, he reviewed the progress of his friendship with her, and was amazed at the rapidity with which it had grown.
He could not conceal it from himself--Elizabeth appealed to him. Being built on a large scale himself, he had always been attracted by small women. There was a smallness, a daintiness, a liveliness about Elizabeth that was almost irresistible. She was so capable, so cheerful in spite of the fact that she was having a hard time. And then their minds seemed to blend so remarkably. There were no odd corners to be smoothed away. Never in his life had he felt so supremely at his ease with one of the opposite sex. He loved Claire--he drove that fact home almost angrily to himself--but he was forced to admit that he had always been aware of something in the nature of a barrier between them. Claire was querulous at times, and always a little too apt to take offence. He had never been able to talk to her with that easy freedom that Elizabeth invited. Talking to Elizabeth was like talking to an attractive version of oneself. It was a thing to be done with perfect confidence, without any of that apprehension which Claire inspired lest the next remark might prove the spark to cause an explosion. But Claire was the girl he loved--there must be no mistake about that.
He came to the conclusion that the key to the situation was the fact that Elizabeth was American. He had read so much of the American girl, her unaffectedness, her genius for easy comradeship. Well, this must be what the writer fellows meant. He had happened upon one of those delightful friendships without any suspicion of sex in them of which the American girl had the monopoly. Yes, that must be it. It was a comforting explanation. It accounted for his feeling at a loose end whenever he was away from Elizabeth for as much as half an hour. It accounted for the fact that they understood each other so well. It accounted for everything so satisfactorily that he was able to get to sleep that night after all.
But next morning--for his conscience was one of those persistent consciences--he began to have doubts again. Nothing clings like a suspicion in the mind of a conscientious young man that he has been allowing his heart to stray from its proper anchorage.
Could it be that he was behaving badly toward Claire? The thought was unpleasant, but he could not get rid of it. He extracted Claire's photograph from his suit-case and gazed solemnly upon it.
At first he was shocked to find that it only succeeded in convincing him that Elizabeth was quite the most attractive girl he ever had met. The photographer had given Claire rather a severe look. He had told her to moisten the lips with the tip of the tongue and assume a pleasant smile, with the result that she seemed to glare. She had a rather markedly aggressive look, queenly perhaps, but not very comfortable.
But there is no species of self-hypnotism equal to that of a man who gazes persistently at a photograph with the preconceived idea that he is in love with the original of it. Little by little Bill found that the old feeling began to return. He persevered. By the end of a quarter of an hour he had almost succeeded in capturing anew that first fine careless rapture which, six months ago, had caused him to propose to Claire and walk on air when she accepted him.
He continued the treatment throughout the day, and by dinner-time had arranged everything with his conscience in the most satisfactory manner possible. He loved Claire with a passionate fervour; he liked Elizabeth very much indeed. He submitted this diagnosis to conscience, and conscience graciously approved and accepted it.
It was Sunday that day. That helped. There is nothing like Sunday in a foreign country for helping a man to sentimental thoughts of the girl he has left behind him elsewhere. And the fact that there was a full moon clinched it. Bill was enabled to go for an after-dinner stroll in a condition of almost painful loyalty to Claire.
From time to time, as he walked along the road, he took out the photograph and did some more gazing. The last occasion on which he did this was just as he emerged from the shadow of a large tree that stood by the roadside, and a gush of rich emotion rewarded him.
'Claire!' he murmured.
An exclamation at his elbow caused him to look up. There, leaning over a gate, the light of the moon falling on her beautiful face, stood Claire herself!Next