Bill leaned his back against the gate that separated the grounds of the bee-farm from the high road and mused pleasantly. He was alone. Elizabeth was walking up the drive on her way to the house to tell the news to Nutty. James, the cat, who had come down from the roof of the outhouse, was sharpening his claws on a neighbouring tree. After the whirl of excitement that had been his portion for the past few hours, the peace of it all appealed strongly to Bill. It suited the mood of quiet happiness which was upon him.
Quietly happy, that was how he felt now that it was all over. The white heat of emotion had subsided to a gentle glow of contentment conducive to thought. He thought tenderly of Elizabeth. She had turned to wave her hand before going into the house, and he was still smiling fatuously. Wonderful girl! Lucky chap he was! Rum, the way they had come together! Talk about Fate, what?
He stooped to tickle James, who had finished stropping his claws and was now enjoying a friction massage against his leg, and began to brood on the inscrutable way of Fate.
Rum thing, Fate! Most extraordinary!
Suppose he had never gone down to Marvis Bay that time. He had wavered between half a dozen places; it was pure chance that he had chosen Marvis Bay. If he hadn't he would never have met old Nutcombe. Probably old Nutcombe had wavered between half a dozen places too. If they hadn't both happened to choose Marvis Bay they would never have met. And if they hadn't been the only visitors there they might never have got to know each other. And if old Nutcombe hadn't happened to slice his approach shots he would never have put him under an obligation. Queer old buster, old Nutcombe, leaving a fellow he hardly knew from Adam a cool million quid just because he cured him of slicing.
It was at this point in his meditations that it suddenly occurred to Bill that he had not yet given a thought to what was immeasurably the most important of any of the things that ought to be occupying his mind just now. What was he to do about this Lord Dawlish business?
Life at Brookport had so accustomed him to being plain Bill Chalmers that it had absolutely slipped his mind that he was really Lord Dawlish, the one man in the world whom Elizabeth looked on as an enemy. What on earth was he to do about that? Tell her? But if he told her, wouldn't she chuck him on the spot?
This was awful. The dreamy sense of well-being left him. He straightened himself to face this problem, ignoring the hint of James, who was weaving circles about his legs expectant of more tickling. A man cannot spend his time tickling cats when he has to concentrate on a dilemma of this kind.
Suppose he didn't tell her? How would that work out? Was a marriage legal if the cove who was being married went through it under a false name? He seemed to remember seeing a melodrama in his boyhood the plot of which turned on that very point. Yes, it began to come back to him. An unpleasant bargee with a black moustache had said,
'This woman is not your wife!' and caused the dickens of a lot of unpleasantness; but there in its usual slipshod way memory failed. Had subsequent events proved the bargee right or wrong? It was a question for a lawyer to decide. Jerry Nichols would know. Well, there was plenty of time, thank goodness, to send Jerry Nichols a cable, asking for his professional opinion, and to get the straight tip long before the wedding day arrived.
Laying this part of it aside for the moment, and assuming that the thing could be worked, what about the money? Like a chump, he had told Elizabeth on the first day of his visit that he hadn't any money except what he made out of his job as secretary of the club. He couldn't suddenly spring five million dollars on her and pretend that he had forgotten all about it till then.
Of course, he could invent an imaginary uncle or something, and massacre him during the honeymoon. Something in that. He pictured the thing in his mind. Breakfast: Elizabeth doling out the scrambled eggs. 'What's the matter, Bill? Why did you exclaim like that? Is there some bad news in the letter you are reading?'
'Oh, it's nothing--only my Uncle John's died and left me five million dollars.'
The scene worked out so well that his mind became a little above itself. It suggested developments of serpentine craftiness. Why not get Jerry Nichols to write him a letter about his Uncle John and the five millions? Jerry liked doing that sort of thing. He would do it like a shot, and chuck in a lot of legal words to make it sound right. It began to be clear to Bill that any move he took--except full confession, at which he jibbed--was going to involve Jerry Nichols as an ally; and this discovery had a soothing effect on him. It made him feel that the responsibility had been shifted. He couldn't do anything till he had consulted Jerry, so there was no use in worrying. And, being one of those rare persons who can cease worrying instantly when they have convinced themselves that it is useless, he dismissed the entire problem from his mind and returned to the more congenial occupation of thinking of Elizabeth.
It was a peculiar feature of his position that he found himself unable to think of Elizabeth without thinking of Claire. He tried to, but failed. Every virtue in Elizabeth seemed to call up the recollection of a corresponding defect in Claire It became almost mathematical. Elizabeth was so straight on the level they called it over here. Claire was a corkscrew among women. Elizabeth was sunny and cheerful. Querulousness was Claire's besetting sin. Elizabeth was such a pal. Claire had never been that. The effect that Claire had always had on him was to deepen the conviction, which never really left him, that he was a bit of an ass. Elizabeth, on the other hand, bucked him up and made him feel as if he really amounted to something.
How different they were! Their very voices--Elizabeth had a sort of quiet, soothing, pleasant voice, the kind of voice that somehow suggested that she thought a lot of a chap without her having to say it in so many words. Whereas Claire's voice--he had noticed it right from the beginning--Claire's voice--
While he was trying to make clear to himself just what it was about Claire's voice that he had not liked he was granted the opportunity of analysing by means of direct observation its failure to meet his vocal ideals, for at this moment it spoke behind him.
She was standing in the road, her head still covered with that white, filmy something which had commended itself to Mr Pickering's eyes. She was looking at him in a way that seemed somehow to strike a note of appeal. She conveyed an atmosphere of softness and repentance, a general suggestion of prodigal daughters revisiting old homesteads.
'We seem always to be meeting at gates, don't we?' she said, with a faint smile.
It was a deprecating smile, wistful.
'Bill!' she said again, and stopped. She laid her left hand lightly on the gate. Bill had a sort of impression that there was some meaning behind this action; that, if he were less of a chump than Nature had made him, he would at this point receive some sort of a revelation. But, being as Nature had made him, he did not get it.
He was one of those men to whom a girl's left hand is simply a girl's left hand, irrespective of whether it wears rings on its third finger or not.
This having become evident to Claire after a moment of silence, she withdrew her hand in rather a disappointed way and prepared to attack the situation from another angle.
'Bill, I've come to say something to you.'
Bill was looking at her curiously. He could not have believed that, even after what had happened, he could face her with such complete detachment; that she could so extraordinarily not matter. He felt no resentment toward her. It was simply that she had gone out of his life.
'Bill, I've been a fool.'
He made no reply to this for he could think of no reply that was sufficiently polite. 'Yes?' sounded as if he meant to say that that was just what he had expected. 'Really?' had a sarcastic ring. He fell back on facial expression, to imply that he was interested and that she might tell all.
Claire looked away down the road and began to speak in a low, quick voice:
'I've been a fool all along. I lost you through being a fool. When I saw you dancing with that girl in the restaurant I didn't stop to think. I was angry. I was jealous. I ought to have trusted you, but--Oh, well, I was a fool.'
'My dear girl, you had a perfect right--'
'I hadn't. I was an idiot. Bill, I've come to ask you if you can't forgive me.'
'I wish you wouldn't talk like that--there's nothing to forgive.'
The look which Claire gave him in answer to this was meek and affectionate, but inwardly she was wishing that she could bang his head against the gate. His slowness was maddening. Long before this he should have leaped into the road in order to fold her in his arms. Her voice shook with the effort she had to make to keep it from sharpness.
'I mean, is it too late? I mean, can you really forgive me? Oh, Bill'--she stopped herself by the fraction of a second from adding
'you idiot'--'can't we be the same again to each other? Can't we--pretend all this has never happened?'
Exasperating as Bill's wooden failure to play the scene in the spirit in which her imagination had conceived it was to Claire, several excuses may be offered for him: He had opened the evening with a shattering blow at his faith in woman. He had walked twenty miles at a rapid pace. He had heard shots and found a corpse, and carried the latter by the tail across country. Finally, he had had the stunning shock of discovering that Elizabeth Boyd loved him. He was not himself. He found a difficulty in concentrating. With the result that, in answer to this appeal from a beautiful girl whom he had once imagined that he loved, all he could find to say was: 'How do you mean?'
Claire, never an adept at patience, just succeeded in swallowing the remark that sprang into her mind. It was incredible to her that a man could exist who had so little intuition. She had not anticipated the necessity of being compelled to put the substance of her meaning in so many blunt words, but it seemed that only so could she make him understand.
'I mean, can't we be engaged again, Bill?'
Bill's overtaxed brain turned one convulsive hand-spring, and came to rest with a sense of having dislocated itself. This was too much. This was not right. No fellow at the end of a hard evening ought to have to grapple with this sort of thing. What on earth did she mean, springing questions like that on him? How could they be engaged? She was going to marry someone else, and so was he. Something of these thoughts he managed to put into words:
'But you're engaged to--'
'I've broken my engagement with Mr Pickering.'
'Great Scot! When?'
'To-night. I found out his true character. He is cruel and treacherous. Something happened--it may sound nothing to you, but it gave me an insight into what he really was. Polly Wetherby had a little monkey, and just because it bit Mr Pickering he shot it.'
'Yes. He wasn't the sort of man I should have expected to do a mean, cruel thing like that. It sickened me. I gave him back his ring then and there. Oh, what a relief it was! What a fool I was ever to have got engaged to such a man.'
Bill was puzzled. He was one of those simple men who take their fellows on trust, but who, if once that trust is shattered, can never recover it. Like most simple men, he was tenacious of ideas when he got them, and the belief that Claire was playing fast and loose was not lightly to be removed from his mind. He had found her out during his self-communion that night, and he could never believe her again. He had the feeling that there was something behind what she was saying. He could not put his finger on the clue, but that there was a clue he was certain.
'I only got engaged to him out of pique. I was angry with you, and--Well, that's how it happened.'
Still Bill could not believe. It was plausible. It sounded true. And yet some instinct told him that it was not true. And while he waited, perplexed, Claire made a false step.
The thing had been so close to the top of her mind ever since she had come to the knowledge of it that it had been hard for her to keep it down. Now she could keep it down no longer.
'How wonderful about old Mr Nutcombe, Bill!' she said.
A vast relief rolled over Bill. Despite his instinct, he had been wavering. But now he understood. He had found the clue.
'You got my letter, then?'
'Yes; it was forwarded on from the theatre. I got it to-night.'
Too late she realized what she had said and the construction that an intelligent man would put on it. Then she reflected that Bill was not an intelligent man. She shot a swift glance at him. To all appearances he had suspected nothing.
'It went all over the place,' she hurried on. 'The people at the Portsmouth theatre sent it to the London office, who sent it home, and mother mailed it on to me.'
There was a silence. Claire drew a step nearer.
'Bill!' she said softly.
Bill shut his eyes. The moment had come which he had dreaded. Not even the thought that she was crooked, that she had been playing with him, could make it any better. She was a woman and he was a man. That was all that mattered, and nothing could alter it.
'I'm sorry,' he said. 'It's impossible.'
Claire stared at him in amazement. She had not been prepared for this. He met her eyes, but every nerve in his body was protesting.
He set his teeth. It was just as bad as he had thought it would be.
'But, Bill, I've explained. I've told you how--'
Claire's eyes opened wide.
'I thought you loved me.' She came closer. She pulled at his sleeve. Her voice took on a note of soft raillery. 'Don't be absurd, Bill! You mustn't behave like a sulky schoolboy. It isn't like you, this. You surely don't want me to humble myself more than I have done.' She gave a little laugh. 'Why, Bill, I'm proposing to you! I know I've treated you badly, but I've explained why. You must be just enough to see that it wasn't altogether my fault. I'm only human. And if I made a mistake I've done all I can do to undo it. I--'
'Claire, listen: I'm engaged!'
She fell back. For the first time the sense of defeat came to her. She had anticipated many things. She had looked for difficulties. But she had not expected this. A feeling of cold fury surged over her at the way fate had tricked her. She had gambled recklessly on her power of fascination, and she had lost.
Mr Pickering, at that moment brooding in solitude in the smoking-room of Lady Wetherby's house, would have been relieved could he have known how wistfully she was thinking of him.
'Well!' She forced another laugh. 'How very--rapid of you! To whom?'
'To Elizabeth Boyd.'
'I'm afraid I'm very ignorant, but who is Elizabeth Boyd? The ornate lady you were dancing with at the restaurant?'
'She is old Ira Nutcombe's niece. The money ought to have been left to her. That was why I came over to America, to see if I could do anything for her.'
'And you're going to marry her? How very romantic--and convenient! What an excellent arrangement for her. Which of you suggested it?'
Bill drew in a deep breath. All this was, he supposed, unavoidable, but it was not pleasant.
Claire suddenly abandoned her pose of cool amusement. The fire behind it blazed through.
'You fool!' she cried passionately. 'Are you blind? Can't you see that this girl is simply after your money? A child could see it.'
Bill looked at her steadily.
'You're quite wrong. She doesn't know who I am.'
'Doesn't know who you are? What do you mean? She must know by this time that her uncle left his money to you.'
'But she doesn't know that I am Lord Dawlish. I came to America under another name. She knows me as Chalmers.'
Claire was silent for a moment.
'How did you get to know her?' she asked, more quietly.
'I met her brother by chance in New York.'
'Quite by chance. A man I knew in England lent me his rooms in New York. He happened to be a friend of Boyd's. Boyd came to call on him one night, and found me.'
'Odd! Had your mutual friend been away from New York long?'
'And in all that time Mr Boyd had not discovered that he had left. They must have been great friends! What happened then?'
'Boyd invited me down here.'
'They live in this house.'
'Is Miss Boyd the girl who keeps the bee-farm?'
Claire's eyes suddenly lit up. She began to speak in a louder voice:
'Bill, you're an infant, a perfect infant! Of course, she's after your money. Do you really imagine for one instant that this Elizabeth Boyd of yours and her brother don't know as well as I do that you are really Lord Dawlish? I always thought you had a trustful nature! You tell me the brother met you by chance. Chance! And invited you down here. I bet he did! He knew his business! And now you're going to marry the girl so that they will get the money after all! Splendid! Oh, Bill, you're a wonderful, wonderful creature! Your innocence is touching.'
She swung round.
'Good night,' she called over her shoulder.
He could hear her laughing as she went down the road.Next