Helena's Path/Chapter 11

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CHAPTER XI.

AN ARMISTICE.

Lord Lynborough walked down to the edge of the terrace; Lady Norah stood half hidden in the shrubbery.

"And that, I suppose, ought to end the matter?" he asked. "I ought at once to abandon all my pretensions and to give up my path?"

"I just thought you might like to know it," said Norah.

"Actually I believe I do like to know it—though what Roger would say to me about that I really can't imagine. You're mistaking my character, Lady Norah. I'm not the hero of this piece. There are several gentlemen from among whom you can choose one for that effective part. Lots of candidates for it! But I'm the villain. Consequently you must be prepared for my receiving your news with devilish glee."

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"The pair went out to smoke on the terrace."

"Well, you haven't seen it—and I have."

"Well put!" he allowed. "How did it happen?"

"Over something I said to her—something horrid."

"Well, then, why am I——?" Lynborough's hands expostulated eloquently.

"But you were the real reason, of course. She thinks you've turned us all against her; she says it's so mean to get her own friends to turn against her."

"Does she now?" asked Lord Lynborough with a thoughtful smile.

Norah too smiled faintly. "She says she's not angry with us—she's just sorry for us—because she understands——"

"What?"

"I mean she says she—she can imagine——" Norah's smile grew a little more pronounced. "I'm not sure she'd like me to repeat that," said Norah. "And of course she doesn't know I'm here at all—and you must never tell her."

"Of course it's all my fault. Still, as a matter of curiosity, what did you say to her?"

"I said that, if she had a good case, she ought to go to law; and, if she hadn't, she ought to stop making herself ridiculous and the rest of us uncomfortable."

"You spoke with the general assent of the company?"

"I said what I thought—yes, I think they all agreed—but she took it—well, in the way I've told you, you know."

Lady Norah had, in the course of conversation, insensibly advanced on to the terrace. She stood there now beside Lynborough.

"How do you think I'm taking it?" he asked. "Doesn't my fortitude wring applause from you?"

"Taking what?"

"Exactly the same thing from my friends. They tell me to go to law if I've got a case—and at any rate to stop persecuting a lady. And they've both given me warning."

"Mr. Stabb and Mr. Wilbraham? They're going away?"

"So it appears. Carry back those tidings. Won't they dry the Marchesa's tears?"

Norah looked at him with a smile. "Well, it is pretty clever of her, isn't it?" she said. "I didn't think she'd got along as quickly as that!" Norah's voice was full of an honest and undisguised admiration.

"It's a little unreasonable of her to cry under the circumstances. I'm not crying, Lady Norah."

"I expect you're rather disgusted, though, aren't you?" she suggested.

"I'm a little vexed at having to surrender—for the moment—a principle which I've held dear—at having to give my enemies an occasion for mockery. But I must bow to my friends' wishes. I can't lose them under such painful circumstances. No, I must yield, Lady Norah."

"You're going to give up the path?" she cried, not sure whether she were pleased or not with his determination.

"Dear me, no! I'm going to law about it."

Open dismay was betrayed in her exclamation: "Oh, but what will Mr. Stillford say to that?"

Lynborough laughed. Norah saw her mistake—but she made no attempt to remedy it. She took up another line of tactics. "It would all come right if only you knew one another! She's the most wonderful woman in the world, Lord Lynborough. And you——"

"Well, what of me?" he asked in deceitful gravity.

Norah parried, with a hasty little laugh; "Just ask Miss Gilletson that!"

Lynborough smiled for a moment, then took a turn along the terrace, and came back to her.

"You must tell her that you've seen me——"

"I couldn't do that!"

"You must—or here the matter ends, and I shall be forced to go to law—ugh! Tell her you've seen me, and that I'm open to reason——"

"Lord Lynborough! How can I tell her that?"

"That I'm open to reason, and that I propose an armistice. Not peace—not yet, anyhow—but an armistice. I undertake not to exercise my right over Beach Path for a week from to-day, and before the end of that week I will submit a proposal to the Marchesa."

Norah saw a gleam of hope. "Very well. I don't know what she'll say to me, but I'll tell her that. Thank you. You'll make it a—a pleasant proposal?"

"I haven't had time to consider the proposal yet. She must inform me to-morrow morning whether she accepts the armistice." He suddenly turned to the house, and shouted up to a window above his head, "Roger!"

The window was open. Roger Wilbraham put his head out.

"Come down," said Lynborough. "Here's somebody wants to see you."

"I never said I did, Lord Lynborough."

"Let him take you home. He wants cheering up."

"I like him very much. He won't really leave you, will he?"

"I want you to persuade him to stay during the armistice. I'm too proud to ask him for myself. I shall think very little of you, however, if he doesn't."

Roger appeared. Lynborough told him that Lady Norah required an escort back to Nab Grange; for obvious reasons he himself was obliged to relinquish the pleasure; Roger, he felt sure, would be charmed to take his place. Roger was somewhat puzzled by the turn of events, but delighted with his mission.

Lynborough saw them off, went into the library, sat down at his writing-table, and laid paper before him. But he sat idle for many minutes. Stabb came in, his arms full of books.

"I think I left some of my stuff here," he said, avoiding Lynborough's eye. "I'm just getting it together."

"Drop that lot too. You're not going to-morrow, Cromlech, there's an armistice."

Stabb put his books down on the table, and came up to him with outstretched hand. Lynborough leaned back, his hands clasped behind his head.

"Wait for a week," he said. "We may, Cromlech, arrive at an accommodation. Meanwhile, for that week, I do not use the path."

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"'I just thought you might like to know it,' said Norah."

"I've been feeling pretty badly, Ambrose."

"Yes, I don't think it's safe to expose you to the charms of beauty." He looked at his friend in good-natured mockery. "Return to your tombs in peace."

The next morning he received a communication from Nab Grange. It ran as follows:

"The Marchesa di San Servolo presents her compliments to Lord Lynborough. The Marchesa will be prepared to consider any proposal put forward by Lord Lynborough, and will place no hindrance in the way of Lord Lynborough's using the path across her property if it suits his convenience to do so in the meantime."

"No, no!" said Lynborough, as he took a sheet of paper.

"Lord Lynborough presents his compliments to her Excellency the Marchesa di San Servolo. Lord Lynborough will take an early opportunity of submitting his proposal to the Marchesa di San Servolo. He is obliged for the Marchesa di San Servolo's suggestion that he should in the meantime use Beach Path, but cannot consent to do so except in the exercise of his right. He will therefore not use Beach Path during the ensuing week."

"And now to pave the way for my proposal!" he thought. For the proposal, which had assumed a position so important in the relations between the Marchesa and himself, was to be of such a nature that a grave question arose how best the way should be paved for it.

The obvious course was to set his spies to work—he could command plenty of friendly help among the Nab Grange garrison—learn the Marchesa's probable movements, throw himself in her way, contrive an acquaintance, make himself as pleasant as he could, establish relations of amity, of cordiality, even of friendship and of intimacy. That might prepare the way, and incline her to accept the proposal—to take the jest—it was little more in hard reality—in the spirit in which he put it forward, and so to end her resistance.

That seemed the reasonable method—the plain and rational line of advance. Accordingly Lynborough disliked and distrusted it. He saw another way—more full of risk, more hazardous in its result, making an even greater demand on his confidence in himself, perhaps also on the qualities with which his imagination credited the Marchesa. But, on the other hand, this alternative was far richer in surprise, in dash—as it seemed to him, in gallantry and a touch of romance. It was far more mediæval, more picturesque, more in keeping with the actual proposal itself. For the actual proposal was one which, Lynborough flattered himself, might well have come from a powerful yet chivalrous baron of old days to a beautiful queen who claimed a suzerainty which not her power, but only her beauty, could command or enforce.

"It suits my humour, and I'll do it!" he said. "She shan't see me, and I won't see her. The first she shall hear from me shall be the proposal; the first time we meet shall be on the 24h—or never! A week from to-day—the 24th."

Now the twenty-fourth of June is, as all the world knows (or an almanac will inform the heathen), the Feast of St. John Baptist also called Midsummer Day.

So he disappeared from the view of Nab Grange and the inhabitants thereof. He never left his own grounds; even within them he shunned the public road; his beloved sea-bathing he abandoned. Nay, more, he strictly charged Roger Wilbraham, who often during this week of armistice went to play golf or tennis at the Grange, to say nothing of him; the same instructions were laid on Stabb in case on his excursions amidst the tombs, he should meet any member of the Marchesa's party. So far as the thing could be done, Lord Lynborough obliterated himself.

It was playing a high stake on a risky hand. Plainly it assumed an interest in himself on the part of the Marchesa—an interest so strong that absence and mystery (if perchance he achieved a flavour of that attraction!) would foster and nourish it more than presence and friendship could conduce to its increase. She might think nothing about him during the week! Impossible surely—with all that had gone before, and with his proposal to come at the end! But if it were so—why, so he was content. "In that case, she's a woman of no imagination, of no taste in the picturesque," he said.

For five days the Marchesa gave no sign, no clue to her feelings which the anxious watchers could detect. She did indeed suffer Colonel Wenman to depart all forlorn, most unsuccessful and uncomforted—save by the company of his brother-in-arms, Captain Irons; and he was not cheerful either, having failed notably in certain designs on Miss Dufaure which he had been pursuing, but whereunto more pressing matters have not allowed of attention being given. But Lord Lynborough she never mentioned—not to Miss Gilletson, nor even to Norah. She seemed to have regained her tranquillity; her wrath at least was over; she was very friendly to all the ladies; she was markedly cordial to Roger Wilbraham on his visits. But she asked him nothing of Lord Lynborough—and, if she ever looked from the window toward Scarsmoor Castle, none—not even her observant maid—saw her do it.

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"'I think I left some of my stuff here."

Yet Cupid was in the Grange—and very busy. There were signs, not to be misunderstood, that Violet had not for handsome Stillford the scorn she had bestowed on unfortunate Irons; and Roger, humbly and distantly worshipping the Marchesa, deeming her far as a queen beyond his reach, rested his eyes and solaced his spirit with the less awe-inspiring charms, the more accessible comradeship, of Norah Mountliffey. Norah, as her custom was, flirted hard, yet in her delicate fashion. Though she had not begun to ask herself about the end yet, she was well amused, and by no means insensible to Roger's attractions. Only she was preoccupied with Helena—and Lord Lynborough. Till that riddle was solved, she could not turn seriously to her own affairs.

On the night of the 22nd she walked with the Marchesa in the gardens of the Grange after dinner. Helena was very silent; yet to Norah the silence did not seem empty. Over against them, on its high hill, stood Scarsmoor Castle. Roger had dined with them, but had now gone back.

Suddenly—and boldly—Norah spoke. "Do you see those three lighted windows on the ground floor at the left end of the house? That's his library, Helena. He sits there in the evening. Oh, I do wonder what he's been doing all this week!"

"What does it matter?" asked the Marchesa coldly.

"What will he propose, do you think?"

"Mr. Stillford thinks he may offer to pay me some small rent—more or less nominal—for a perpetual right—and that, if he does, I'd better accept."

"That'll be rather a dull ending to it all."

"Mr. Stillford thinks it would be a favourable one for me."

"I don't believe he means to pay you money. It'll be something——" she paused a moment—"something prettier than that."

"What has prettiness to do with it, you child? With a right of way?"

"Prettiness has to do with you, though, Helena. You don't suppose he thinks only of that wretched path?"

The flush came on the Marchesa's cheek.

"He can hardly be said to have seen me," she protested.

"Then look your best when he does—for I'm sure he's dreamed of you."

"Why do you say that?"

Norah laughed. "Because he's a man who takes a lot of notice of pretty women—and he took so very little notice of me. That's why I think so, Helena."

The Marchesa made no comment on the reason given. But now—at last and undoubtedly—she looked across at the windows of Scarsmoor.

"We shall come to some business arrangement, I suppose—and then it'll all be over," she said.

All over? The trouble and the enmity—the defiance and the fight—the excitement and the fun? The duel would be stayed, the combatants and their seconds would go their various ways across the diverging tracks of this great dissevering world. All would be over!

"Then we shall have time to think of something else!" the Marchesa added.

Norah smiled discreetly. Was not that something of an admission?

In the library at Scarsmoor Lynborough was inditing the proposal which he intended to submit by his ambassadors on the morrow.