The Times' Red Cross Story Book/The Forbidden Woman
The Forbidden Woman
Royal Army Medical Corps
Hilary Blake went down through the tangled shrubs of the garden that was half a wilderness, and a strange, white awe was on his face.
Twice he paused, turned, and looked back. She was still there on the terrace, set high against the sunset—a strange, wet sunset, in which streaks of opalescent blue showed dimly through a vaporous glow of scarlet and gold. Queer, slate-coloured clouds sailed low down across the sky. The far woods were the colour of amethyst. But Judith of the terrace was outlined against a clear breadth of gold. She was watching him, and he could imagine the provoking set of her head, and that enigmatic smile of hers that made men wonder.
She had been strangely kind to him that evening, and the fire of her beauty was in his blood.
How was it that she had been a young widow these five years, and that no man had won her a second time? She was proud, with a vague, elusive pride, a pride that baffled and kept men at a distance. And yet it had seemed to him that there was a great sadness behind those eyes, a dread of something, a loneliness that waxed impatient. Sudden silences would fall on her. He had found her looking at him in a queer and tragic way, as though she saw some shadow of fate falling between them.
A spray of syringa brushed across his face as he walked on down the tangled path. It was wet and fragrant, and, with sudden exultation, he crushed it against his mouth. The smell of it was of June and of her.
He went on, head in air, marvelling at all the tangle of chances that had brought this great thing to him. A year ago he had been Captain Blake, of the 7th Foot, leading redcoats by the Canadian lakes. He remembered that letter coming to him, that letter that told him how two deaths had made him Blake of Brackenhurst Manor. There had been that wild dinner in that block-house by the lakes, when all the fine fellows had drunk to Blake of Brackenhurst, and Red Eagle and his "braves" had gone mad with fire-water and set the store-house alight by shooting into the thatch. He had not seen Brackenhurst since he was a boy. He had come to it a little elated, and he had discovered her.
"Good evening, Captain Blake."
Hilary had just let the wicket-gate clash behind him. He turned sharply. An old yew threw a deep shade here, shutting off the sunset, and, leaning against the fence under it, Hilary saw a big man in a long green coat, buff riding-breeches and top boots. He wore a black, unpowdered wig under his three-cornered hat, and this dark wig set off the sallow and impassive breadth of a face that showed to the world a laconic arrogance. He had a little book of fishing flies in his hands, and as he played with it casually his eyes looked at Hilary Blake with an ironical insolence that was but half veiled.
Blake hardly knew the man, save by sight and reputation. He was Sir Royce Severn, of Moor Hall, a man with a mystery round him and more duels to his credit than his neighbours cared to mention. In fact, there was a sort of dread of him dominating the neighbourhood. He lived practically alone at Moor Hall, up yonder against the northern sky, a grim, secretive sort of creature who rode, and shot, and fished alone.
"Good evening to you," and Blake's eyes added, "What may you be doing outside Judith Strange's garden fence?"
The man seemed to have been waiting for that challenging look in the other's eyes. He gave a queer and almost noiseless laugh, and put his fly-book away in his pocket. A heavy hunting-crop hung on the fence. Sir Royce Severn tucked it with a certain cynical ostentation under his arm.
"I think we are strangers, Captain Blake."
"I think we are, sir."
"My way is your way for a mile or so. Do you take the path through the park?"
He moved on, and the man in green set himself beside him. The sunset was on their faces, and up yonder Judith of the Terrace still stood outlined against a glow of gold.
Blake saw his companion look steadily towards her, and there was something in that look that made his blood simmer.
Mrs. Judith stays out late on so damp an evening."
"And what is it to you if she does, my friend," said Blake's eyes.
The man in green laughed, that quiet, threatening laugh of his.
"You come here very often, Captain Blake."
"I beg your pardon, sir."
"I said, you come here very often. You are new to these parts; I know them better than you do."
A cold anger began to stir in Hilary Blake.
"My business is my own. Sir Royce Severn. Pray leave it at that." The other answered him sharply.
"I deny that, Captain Blake; I deny that flatly. It is my business to tell you that Judith Strange is a dangerous woman."
The path had reached a spot where great oaks were gathered together, casting a half gloom over the grass. Under their canopies the stormy sky showed yellow and red.
Blake stopped dead and faced the man in green.
"I think, sir, you are a little mad—or very insolent."
"I am neither the one nor the other."
"You will leave a certain name untouched in my presence."
He saw two like points of light shine out in the other's eyes.
"That is the language that all of them have used, Captain Blake. Your good cousin talked like that, sir, though what right he had to mouth such heroics only his own silly conceit could tell. I have heard a great deal of such talk"—he shrugged and laughed—"it never moved me one iota."
Blake stared at him.
"Moved you, sir! What cause was there for you to be moved—one way or the other? Save that if you spoke lightly of a lady it was right that some man should smite you on the mouth."
That no man has ever done."
"I speak of Judith Strange as I please."
"I think not, sir."
"Captain Blake, you have never seen me handle a sword or mark my man with a pistol."
He drew himself up, squaring his shoulders; and his arrogant face was a threat, a face that loomed big and white and fanatical under the gloom of the trees.
Blake's eyes grew dangerous.
"Come out into the open, sir. What is at the bottom of all this boasting?"
Sir Royce Severn bowed to him.
"Captain Blake, let me suggest to you that you go no more to Judith Strange's house."
"Let me suggest, sir, that you mind your own business."
"Judith Strange is my business."
The younger man took a step forward, and his left arm went up. Severn's hunting-crop whirled suddenly, and struck Blake's fist so that one of the knucklebones cracked. The pain of it made Blake stride to and fro, biting his lips.
"You cannot hurt me, my friend. I never met a cock yet who could face me in the pit. Judith Strange, Captain Blake, is to be my wife, and I have a sort of jealousy in me that is dangerous to calves. I say what I please about the woman I mean to marry."
Blake's face had gone dead white, but not with physical pain.
"I don't take you, sir."
"Oh, come, sir, come. You appear to know very little about women. Judith Strange would flirt on her wedding morning. But I, Captain Blake, want no youngsters playing round the woman I mean to marry. If moths come to my candle, pff, I snuff them out. Only twice, sir, have men dared to fight with me. They did not need a second dose."
He tucked his hunting-crop under his arm, took off his hat ironically, and left Blake standing.
For the moment Hilary Blake's anger had died out of him. He saw Sir Royce Severn disappear among the trees, and felt himself a fool for having ridden the high horse. The man had had the laugh of him. It was all natural, and logical enough.
Sir Royce Severn could be accused of neither madness nor insolence if he resented another man paying court to the woman who was to be his wife.
But Judith! And that wet sunset, and the walk upon the terrace, that leave-taking, the brushing of the syringa across his mouth! A flare of pain rushed through him. He thought of the exultation of an hour ago, of the wonder of joy that had been in his heart.
Had she been playing with him, fooling him? What was he to believe?
He was lost in the chaos of his own emotions, of love, anger, scorn, hate, shame, and savage regret. He would go back and hear the truth from her own lips. But no, the laughter of a coquette would be too bitter for him to bear. Great God! was she that heartless thing? Why should he believe this man's word against her, throw over all that was sacred because of Severn's confident sneers?
Hilary turned, and began to walk back along the path, staring at the ground in front of him, forgetting his bruised hand. The splendour was dying in the west, and a blue twilight flowing into the valleys; the hills looked black and cold.
She had come on him suddenly out of the twilight, and the red brocade dress that she was wearing seemed to catch the last rays of the sunset, and to glow amid the gloom. She was breathing fast as though she had been running, and he could see the rising and falling of her breast.
Hilary had stopped dead, his head held high.
But that haughty poise of his was no more than hoar frost on a sunny morning.
She came close to him till he saw the shine in her eyes, the proud rage of her white throat, and the way that glowing red brocade swayed up and down below a smother of white lace. Even the lover in him had guessed her capable of great passion, but now that he saw the full flare thereof he stood silent and astonished.
"That brute was waiting for you. I had looked for it. That is why I stayed upon the terrace. I knew that it must happen some day soon."
"Sir Royce Severn?"
Her passion did not give him time to speak.
"So, Hilary Blake, he has frozen or frightened you—after his fashion! You hold your head high and look at me with haughty eyes! Must I defend myself, I, who have never justified myself to any man? By Heaven, why should I stoop to defend myself before any man? Why? Even before you!"
Her whole figure seemed to glow in the twilight like metal at red heat, but her face was a stark white, her eyes challenged him.
He drew his breath in deeply, for this tempest of passion played upon the half-smothered fire in him like the wind.
"Judith, what have I said yet?"
"Ah, say it; let us have it spoken. Then I, too, will speak."
He looked at her, and a sudden generous shame smote him.
"No, by Heaven!"
She beat her hands together. "Yes, by Heaven! But I can guess what Severn said: that I am to be his wife, that I have played with men——"
His silence answered her.
"He lied. Do you hear, he lied. My God, how I hate that man!"
She stood very still a moment, but it was the stillness of a wrath that found nothing strong enough to carry it to self-expression.
"Listen. For five years—ever since my husband died—this man has persecuted me. 'Judith, marry me,' he has asked, month by month, but I know that I hated him from the first, and I did not hide my hate. But he is a devil, that man; he seemed to thrive on the 'Nays' I gave him, and he came and quarrelled month by month, by way of making love. I forbade him the house. He laughed, and said: 'Be sure that I shall not let you marry another man. I shall scare them away, or kill them if they refuse to be scared.' And he was as good as his word. Men sought me; I did not seek them, nor did I love any of those who came to me to make love. What did it matter? Each man dropped away in turn, and came no more. Three were cowards; two fought Royce Severn and were wounded; he swore that he would kill them the next time, and they took him at his word. Love was not worth the risk! Then he would waylay me somewhere, and be smooth, and courteous, and sneering. 'Judith,' he would say, 'no man will put me out of his path. You will marry me—or remain a widow.' And when I threatened to go away—marry, to spite him—he threatened in return. 'My dear, I shall follow you. And if you trick me, by marrying, you will be a widow again within a month.'"
Strange as the tale sounded, Blake knew that it was the truth, and a fierce exultation woke in him. If she had not cared, would she have told him this?
"The man is mad!"
"Mad, yes, but most accursedly logical in his madness. The Severns have been like that. Sometimes I feel that I shall take his life, or that he will take mine."
Blake took a step towards her.
"Judith, am I no more than the other men, the cowards, and the two who would not dare the uttermost?"
"I shall not answer you."
"By Heaven, you must! Why, even if you have no love for me, shall I slink away and not fight for the right to be near you! There is a devil in me that can match the devil in Royce Severn."
She gave a queer, inarticulate cry, and the fire died out of her eyes.
"No, no; that is why I followed you to-night. Hilary, I knew that you were not like those others."
"You knew that! Then——"
"No, no; listen. I have a feeling in me sometimes that I am a woman who is fatal to men—fatal to those who love me. A month ago I might not have cared, but now I care too much. Hilary, promise never to see me again."
He gave a grim yet exultant laugh.
"That is impossible. Judith, I will break this fate of yours."
He drew closer, but she put him back with her hands.
"No, no; have I not told you that this man is a devil? No one in these parts would dare to cross him. He can shoot as no mortal man should shoot, and they say that the best French swordsmen could not touch him. It is death."
He drew himself up, and his eyes smiled suddenly.
"If it be death, well, what of that! My love is greater than Severn's love. I, too, can use foil or pistol, and a cavalry sabre is like neither of these. I shall fight this man."
She stood white and mute a moment, her hands hanging limply. Then suddenly her hands were upon his shoulders, her passionate face looking into his.
"Hilary, oh, my dear! No, no; I cannot bear it. Go away, leave me. I shall have your blood upon my hands, and then I think I shall go mad."
He caught her and held her.
Judith, I cannot leave you. So I must kill Severn."
"Dear, the man is mortal. I say, I shall kill him."
"Yet, if you kill him——"
He lifted her face to his.
"Well, I might have to go over the water for a while. But I should come back."
He felt all the woman in her stirring in his arms.
"Hilary, I should be with you then, not here. Oh, if it were possible!"
"Dear, is this the truth?"
"The uttermost truth, the very heart of my heart."
He looked at her, very dearly, and then kissed her upon the mouth.
"So be it. Go back, my beloved. I have work to do."
He had to free himself, almost by force, for her dread returned.
"No, no; I shall never see you again."
"I swear that you shall. Dear heart, let me go."
He put her hands aside very gently.
"Judith, go home and wait. By morning I may have news for you."
In half an hour Blake was on the edge of the moor, walking as though for a wager. A mere cart track led over the moor to Moor Hall, and on either side of it were stretched masses of whin and heather. A moon was just rising, and all the countryside was spread below, the distant cliffs drawing a black outline about the glimmer of the sea. But Blake was watching the cart track in front of him.
He had cut an oak sapling with his clasp-knife in one of the park plantations so that he should have something to match against Royce Severn's hunting-crop.
Blake had guessed that he might catch his man on the homeward road, and catch him he did, just where the track turned eastwards over the ridge of the moor. Fifty paces ahead of him Blake saw a black figure rise against the sky-line, almost between him and the rising moon.
"Sir Royce Severn."
The black figure paused, and waited there against the steel-grey sky.
The moonlight showed him Hilary Blake.
"Ah, Captain Blake, come to apologise so soon!"
"No, sir, only to tell you that you are a liar."
He could not see Severn's face, for he had his back turned towards the moon.
"So you do not believe me, Captain Blake?"
"No, I do not, sir; or I should not have turned so far out of my way to call you a liar and a coward."
Both men felt that it had come, that they were like dogs doomed to be at each other's throats, but Severn strolled forward with a casual air, flicking his hunting-crop to and fro as though he were beating time to a piece of music. And that arrogant self-confidence of his fooled him. He had to do with an athlete that night, a man who had matched himself to run and leap against Indians, and not with some heavy squireling or town gallant out of condition with drink and cards. For Blake took a standing leap at Severn, covered ten foot of ground at the spring, and got such a blow home as sent the big man sprawling.
Blake was on him, and had wrenched the hunting-crop away. He broke it across his knee, and threw the pieces into a furze bush.
"If you want a broken fist, sir, I have an oak sapling that will wipe out that blow you gave me two hours ago."
But Severn was up, in far too wild a rage for sticks or fisticuffs.
"Fool, I should have warned you with a sword-prick through the arm, but now, by the woman I mean to marry, I will kill you."
"Leave it at that!"
"Choose your weapons. I'll meet you with whatever you please."
Blake smiled over set teeth.
"I claim cavalry sabres. I have two. You shall have your choice."
Severn snarled at him.
"You prefer being slashed to pricked, eh? Very good. One second each will serve. At six to-morrow morning."
"When you please."
Severn became suddenly and splendidly polite.
"Captain Blake, it will be a pleasure. What do you say to that little field at the back of the fir plantation on the main road down yonder? You know it?"
"At six, then. I have a friend at my house who will act for me. I shall be happy to choose one of your sabres. I wish you a very good night."
His politeness had thinned to an ironical and sneering playfulness, but Blake had been born with a stiff back. Yet he saw how Royce Severn had trodden on the courage of those other men, and half cowed them before they had crossed swords.
"It is a pretty thing, a cavalry sabre, sir. May you, too, pass a good night. I shall go home and get some sleep."
And so they parted.
Hilary Blake turned back for Brackenhurst, and in half an hour found himself standing in the brick porch of Colonel Maundrell's house at the end of Brackenhurst village. The colonel's old soldier-servant answered his knock.
"Is your master in, Thomas?"
"Sure, sir; he is in."
"And alone, sir."
Colonel Maundrell was sitting at the open window of his library that looked towards the sea.
Two candles in silver candlesticks stood on the oak table, and their pale light seemed to mingle with the moonlight that streamed in at the window. The old soldier with the hawk's beak of a nose and the iron-grey head had been sitting there thinking.
Directly the door had closed and the sound of Thomas's footsteps could be heard departing, Blake told his business.
"Colonel, I want you to second me. I fight Royce Severn at six to-morrow morning."
The old soldier sat forward in his chair. Then, after a moment's silence, "Curse Royce Severn."
He rose, and drawing himself to his full height, looked searchingly at Blake from under his straight grey eyebrows.
"What has made you quarrel with Royce Severn?"
"A love affair, sir."
Maundrell pulled out his tortoise-shell snuff-box and took snuff vigorously.
"So you want to marry Judith Strange. I know how Severn has persecuted her. It is a pity someone has not shot the beast; I have thought of doing it myself. But do you know what you are doing, Blake?"
"I am going to marry Judith Strange."
"Yes, yes; all very well that. But this man Severn can shoot and fence like the devil himself. He is the coolest and most deadly beast when there is fighting afoot. Who has the choice of weapons?"
"I have, sir; I have chosen cavalry sabres."
The colonel threw up his right hand with a stiff gesture of delight.
"Sabres? excellent! Severn's love is the foil. There are some men, Blake, who can never take kindly to sabre play, just as some men would rather be slashed than pinked through the liver. Sabres: excellent!"
He walked up and down, limping slightly, from an old wound that he had got at Fontenoy.
"Where do we meet, lad?"
"In the little meadow behind the fir plantation above Gaymer's farm."
"At six. I take the sabres. Severn has his choice. A friend is to second him."
"I know that friend of his. A little brown beast of a French fencing-master. Sabres: excellent! Look you, lad, speed is the great thing against a man like Severn. Go at it, like a cavalry charge. I have known good swordsmen knocked over by mere slashing boys in a cavalry charge. It is no use playing the cunning game with Royce Severn."
"Thank you, sir. I am out to kill him in the first thirty seconds. I know something about sabres."
The colonel came and tapped him on the shoulder,
"Blake, you had better sleep here. Go up and get those sabres now it is dark."
"That is an idea, sir. I want to pack a valise, and get all the money I have in the house. I will ride my black horse down here and stable him for the night."
"Lad, you don't contemplate dying! That's the spirit."
"If I have to go, sir, I'll not leave Severn alive behind me. Judith shall be free."
It was a cloudless June morning when Hilary Blake and Colonel Maundrell got on their horses and took the lane that led round the back of the village past the mill.
Blake's Canadian campaigning had hardened him, and he had slept for three hours. He carried a leather valise strapped to his saddle. The colonel had the sabres wrapped in a black cloth under his arm. Mists still hung about the valleys, and they could not see the sea.
They passed Gaymer's farm and came to the fir plantation. It was black, and still, and secret, and gloom hung within the crowded trunks like a curtain.
A rough gate opened through a ragged hedge. They dismounted, and leading their horses, disappeared into the wood.
Judith Strange had not slept, for a man had come riding late up the drive between the old oaks, and had left a letter with the major domo, and galloped away again as though fearful of being called back. The letter had been sealed with red wax, and Judith had broken the seal and read the letter by candle-light in the long parlour.
- "Judith,—I love you. I fight Severn to-morrow morning, and you shall be free. Do not try to come between us, for you will fail.
She had turned the letter over in her hands, and her gaze had rested on the red wax of the seal she had broken. The colour of blood! She had been seized by a foreboding of evil, by the thought that this thing was prophetic, that to-morrow the man who loved her might be dead.
She fought against this dread in her own heart, but she did not sleep. Her servants were a-bed; the candles had burnt out in the long parlour, and the full moon shone over the sea.
Judith had stepped through the open window on to the terrace, and she walked to and fro there in the moonlight, feeling that she was helpless to hinder the workings of her own fate.
Then she rebelled, thrust her forebodings aside, and refused to believe in her own fears.
She returned to the house, found a little hand-lamp burning in the panelled hall, and taking it went up the broad stairs to her room at the end of the long gallery. There was a valise under the bed. She pulled it out, and began to fill it with clothes, and to collect her jewellery and store it away in a rose-wood case bound with brass. Nor did she forget the guineas she kept in the secret drawer of her bureau.
Then she dressed herself as for a journey, with a kind of tenderness towards herself and towards her love, putting on one of her red brocades and a black beaver hat with black feather. She looked long at herself in her glass, touching her black hair with her fingers, on which she had thrust the most precious of her rings. Emeralds and rubies glittered in the lamplight, and her eyes were almost as feverish as the precious stones.
She sat down in a chair by one of the windows and waited. Hours passed; the dawn showed in the east; the lamp had burnt all its oil, and had flickered out. The silence was utter. An anguish of restlessness returned.
A clock struck five. She rose, passed out of the room, down the dim stairs, and through the long parlour on to the terrace. The freshness of the dawn was there, and the birds were awake in the thickets. She began to walk up and down, up and down over the stone flags, with the heavy mists lying in the valleys below, and the sea hidden by a great grey pall.
The boom of a gun came from the sea. It was some fog-bound ship firing a signal.
The clock in the turret struck six. A gardener appeared upon the terrace, saw Judith walking there, stared, and slunk away. She was conscious of a strange oppression at the heart, a sudden spasmodic quickening of her suspense. She could walk no longer, but sat down on the dew-wet parapet and waited.
Suddenly the mist lifted. The great trees in the park seemed to shake themselves free of their white shrouds. The vapour drifted away like smoke; the grass slopes and hollows showed a glittering greyish green.
Judith stood up, her eyes dark and big in a pale face, for far away, over yonder, something moved amid the trees. She pressed her hands over her bosom and waited. And then she saw a galloping horse, and a man bending forward in the saddle, a little figure, distant in the morning light.
Which was it? She strained her eyes, but could not satisfy her suspense. Twice had Royce Severn ridden to her in just such a fashion, to make mocking love to her and to tell her that he had left a rival cowed and beaten.
Suddenly her heart leapt in her. The man had galloped near; he had seen the figure on the terrace; he waved his hat.
She gave a strange cry, ran to the terrace steps and down them to the path that led through the wilderness.
They met where a climbing rose trailed in the branches of a half-dead almond tree. Blake had left his horse at the wicket-gate.
She saw the grim radiance of his face.
"I have killed Royce Severn."
She swayed forward, and he had her in his arms.
"Oh, my beloved, you are as white as death."
"Dear, I have suffered."
He kissed her.
"Judith, you are free. But this man's blood——"
She clung to him.
"Let us go away, let us go away together. Yes, I have money, and my jewels, and my valise packed. I will order the coach. They cannot harm you, Hilary, for killing him, and yet——"
He looked in her eyes and understood.
"Dear, we will leave the thought of it behind us. Come, there is no time to lose. We can make Rye town before noon."
They went up the terrace steps hand in hand.