Part Two
Chapter XII. The Latest News
 

Magda hardly knew what impulse had bidden her save Dan Storran from himself--check the hot utterance to which he had so nearly given voice and which to a certain extent she had herself provoked. Driven by the bitterness of spirit which Michael's treatment of her had engendered, she knew that she had flirted outrageously with Dan ever since she had come to Stockleigh. She had bestowed no thought on June--pretty, helpless June, watching with distressed, bewildered eyes while Dan unaccountably changed towards her, his moods alternating from sullen unresponsiveness to a kind of forced and contrite tenderness which she had found almost more difficult to meet and understand.

It was indeed something altogether apart from any sympathy for June which had prompted Magda to leave Storran before he uttered words that he might regret, but which no power on earth could ever recall. Still beneath the resentment and wounded pride which Michael's going had caused her flickered the spark of an ideal utterly at variance with the whole tenor of the teaching of poor Diane's last embittered days-- the ideal of womanhood which had been Michael's. And the impulse which had bade her leave Storran so abruptly was born of the one-time resolution she had made to become the sort of woman Michael would wish his wife to be.

She felt oddly perturbed when at last she reached the seclusion of her chintzy bedroom underneath the sloping roof. A vague sense of shame assailed her. The game, as between herself and Dan, was hardly a fair one, after all, and she could well picture the cold contempt in Michael's eyes had he been looking on at it.

Though he had no right to disapprove of her now! He had forfeited that right--if he had ever had it--when he went away without a word of farewell--without giving her even the chance to appeal against the judgment which, by his very going, he had silently pronounced against her.

For months, now, she had been a prey to a conflicting jumble of emotions--the pain and hurt pride which Michael's departure had occasioned her, the craving for anything that might serve to distract her thoughts and keep them from straying back to those few vibrant meetings with him, and deep down within her an aching, restless wonder as to whether she would ever see him again.

With an effort she dismissed the fresh tangle of thought provoked by the morning's brief scene with Dan Storran, and, dressing quickly, went downstairs to the mid-day dinner which was the order of things at Stockleigh.

At first the solid repast, with its plentitude of good farmhouse fare partaken of during the hottest hour of the day, had somewhat appalled Magda. But now she had grown quite accustomed to the appearance of a roast joint or of a smoking, home-cured ham, attended by a variety of country vegetables and followed by fruit tart and clotted cream.

Although she herself, as befitted a woman whose "figure was her fortune" according to Lady Arabella, partook extremely sparingly of this hospitable meal, it somehow pleased her to see big Dan Storran come in from his work in the fields and do full justice to the substantial fare. To Magda, ultra-modern and over-civilised as she was, there was something refreshing in the simple and primitive usages of Stockleigh Farm and its master--this man who toiled, and satisfied his hunger, and rested from toil, just as his fathers had done before him, literally fulfilling the law: In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.

And perhaps if Magda had never crossed his path Dan Storran might have gone his way contentedly, toiling from sun-up to sun-down till all his days were finished.

Even although she had crossed it, she might still have left him pretty much as she found him--unawakened to the deeps of his own nature--if she had remained in her present ambiguous mood, half-remorseful, half indifferent. But it was precisely at this particular juncture that it pleased Fate to give a fresh twist to her swiftly turning wheel.

Storran did not come in until dinner was half over, and when finally he appeared he was somewhat taciturn and avoided meeting Magda's eyes. June got up from the table and went dutifully into the kitchen to fetch the joint of meat and vegetables which she had been keeping hot for him there. Abruptly Dan followed her.

"Sorry I'm late, June," he said awkwardly. "Here, give the tray to me; I'll carry it in."

June paused in the middle of the kitchen, flushing right up to the soft tendrils of hair that curled about her forehead. It was weeks since Dan had offered to relieve her of any of her housewifely tasks, although at one time he had been wont to hurry home, if he could manage to do so, on purpose to help her. Dozens of times they had laid the table together, punctuating the process with jokes and gay little bursts of laughter and an odd kiss or two thrown in to sweeten the work. But not lately--not since the visitors from London had come to Stockleigh Farm.

So June blushed and looked at her husband with eyes that were suddenly sweet and questioning. She knew, though she had not told him yet, that there was a reason now why he should try to save her when his greater strength could do so, and for a moment she wondered shyly if he had guessed.

"Why, Dan, Dan----" she stammered.

His face darkened. Her obvious surprise irritated him, pricking his conscience.

"It's not very complimentary of you to look so taken aback when I offer to carry something for you," he said. "Anyone might think I never did wait on my wife."

The blood drained away from June's face as suddenly as it had rushed there.

"Well, you don't often, do you?" she returned shortly.

They re-entered the sitting-room together and Magda glanced up, smiling approval. She, too, was feeling somewhat conscience-stricken, and to see Dan helping his wife in this everyday, intimate sort of fashion seemed to minimise the significance of that little incident which had occurred by the river's edge.

"What a nice, polite husband!" she commented gaily. "Mr. Storran, you really out to come up to London and give classes--'Manners for Men,' you know. Very few of them wait on their wives these days."

June upset the salt and busied herself spooning it up again from the cloth. There was no answering smile on her face. She was not quite clear why Dan had followed her out into the kitchen so unexpectedly, but she sensed that it was not the old, quick impulse to wait upon her which had actuated him.

Had she but known it, it was the same instinct, more primitively manifested, which induces a man whose conscience is not altogether clear respecting his loyalty towards his wife to bring her home an unexpected gift of jewellery.

The disturbing memory of a lithe, scarlet-sheathed figure had been with Dan all morning as he went about his work, and he was sullenly ashamed of the riot which the vision occasioned within him and of his own utter helplessness to master it. It--it was damnable! So he accompanied his wife to the kitchen and offered to carry in the joint.

Following upon this incident the atmosphere seemed to become all at once constrained and difficult. June sat very silent, her eyes holding that expression of pain and bewilderment which was growing habitual to them, while Storran hurried through his meal in the shortest possible time. As soon as he had finished he pushed back his chair abruptly and, with a muttered apology, quitted the room and went out again on to the farm. June rose and began clearing the table mechanically.

"Can't I help you?" Gillian paused as she was about to follow Magda out of the room. "You look so tired to-day."

June's lip quivered sensitively. She was in the state of nerves when a little unexpected sympathy is the most upsetting thing imaginable.

"Oh, I can't let you!" she answered hastily. "No--really!"--as Gillian calmly took the tray she was carrying out of her hands.

"Supposing you go and lie down for a little while," suggested Gillian practically. "And leave the washing-up to Coppertop and me!"

The tears suddenly brimmed up into the wide-open blue eyes.

"Oh, I couldn't!"

"Wouldn't you like a little rest?" urged Gillian persuasively. "I believe you'd be asleep in two minutes!"

"I believe I should," acknowledged June faintly. "I--I haven't been sleeping very well lately."

A little shudder ran through her as she recalled those long hours each night when she lay at Dan's side, staring wide-eyed into the darkness and wondering dully what it was that had come between herself and her husband--come just at the time when, with his unborn child beneath her heart, they two should have been drawn together in to the most wonderful and blessed comradeship and understanding. Only Dan didn't know this--didn't know that before the snowdrops lifted their white heads again from the green carpet of spring there would be a little son--June was sure it would be a son, to grow up tall and strong like Dan himself!--born of the love which had once been so sweet and untroubled by any creeping doubts.

"I assure you"--Gillian broke in on the miserable thoughts that were chasing each other through June's tired brain--"I assure you, Coppertop and I are very competent people. We won't break a single dish!"

"But you've never been used to that kind of thing--washing-up!" protested June, glancing significantly at Gillian's white hands and soft, pretty frock of hyacinth muslin.

"Haven't I?" Gillian laughed gaily. "I haven't always been as well off as I am not, and I expect I know quite as much about doing 'chores' as you! Come now!" She waited expectantly.

"Dan would be awfully angry if he knew--it's my duty, you see," objected June, visibly weakening.

"If he knew! But what a husband doesn't know his heart doesn't grieve over," replied Gillian sagely. "There, that's settled. Come along upstairs and let me tuck you up in your bed, and leave the rest to Coppertop and me."

And June, with her heart suddenly warmed and comforted in the way in which an unexpected kindness does warm and comfort, went very willingly and, tired out in body and mind, fell asleep in ten minutes.

Meanwhile Magda had established herself in the hammock slung from the boughs of one of the great elms which shaded the garden. She had brought a book with her, since her thoughts were none too pleasant company just at the moment, and was speedily absorbed in its contents.

It was very soothing and tranquil out there in the noonday heat. The gnats hovered in the sunlight, dancing and whirling in little transient clusters; now and again a ladybird flickered by or a swallow swooped so near that his darting shadow fell across her book; while all about her sounded the pleasant hum of a summer's day--the soft susurration of the pleasant hum of a thousand insect voices blending into an indefinite, murmurous vibration of the air.

Occasionally the whir of a motor-car sweeping along the adjacent road broke harshly across the peaceful quiet. Magda glanced up with some annoyance as the first one sped by, dragging her back to an unwilling sense of civilisation. Then she bent her head resolutely above her book and declined to be distracted any further, finally losing herself completely in the story she was reading.

So it came about that when a long, low, dust-powdered car curved in between the granite gateposts of Stockleigh Farm and came abruptly to a standstill, she remained entirely oblivious of its advent. Nor did she see the tall, slender-limbed man who had been driving, and whose questing hazel eyes had descried her almost immediately, slip from his seat behind the steering-wheel and come across the grass towards her.

"Antoine!"

The book fell from her hand and she sat up suddenly in the hammock.

"What on earth are you doing here?" she demanded. There was no welcome in her tone.

For a moment Davilof remained watching her, the sunshine, slanting between the leaves of the trees, throwing queer little flickering lights into the hazel eyes and glinting on his golden-brown hair and beard.

"What are you doing here?" she repeated.

"I came--to see you," he said simply.

There was something disarming in the very simplicity of his reply. It seemed to imply an almost child-like wonder that she should ask--that there could possibly be any other reason for his presence.

But it failed to propitiate Magda in the slightest degree. She felt intensely annoyed that anyone from the outside world--from her world of London--should have intruded upon her seclusion at Ashencombe, nor could she imagine how Davilof had discovered her retreat.

"How did you learn I was here?" she asked.

"From Melrose."

Magda's eyes darkened sombrely.

"Do you mean you bribed him?" she asked quickly. "Oh, but surely not!" --in dismayed tones. "Melrose would go to the stake sooner than accept a bribe!"

Davilof's mouth twisted in a rueful smile.

"I'm sure he would! I tried him, but he wouldn't look at a bribe of any sort. So I had to resort to strategy. It was one evening, when he was taking your letters to post, and I waited for him at the pillar- box. I came up very quietly behind him and just nipped one of the letters, readdressed to you, out of his hand. I read the address and then posted the letter for him. It was very simple."

He recounted the incident with a little swaggering air of bravado, boyishly delighted at the success of his small ruse. Vexed as she was Magda could hardly refrain from smiling; the whole thing was so eminently un-English--so exactly like Davilof!

"Well, now that you have seen me, will you please go away again?" she said coolly, reopening her book as though to end the conversation.

He regarded her with unqualified reproach.

"Won't you even ask me to tea?" he said plaintively.

"Certainly not," Magda was beginning. But precisely as she spoke June Storran, looking more herself again after her short sleep, came towards them from the house.

Her face brightened as she caught sight of Davilof. Even to June's inexperienced eyes it was quite obvious that he admired the woman with whom he was talking. The very way he looked at her told her that. Presumably he was one of her London friends who had motored to Devonshire to see her. No man--within the limited scope of June's knowledge of men--did that deliciously absurd, extravagant kind of thing unless he was tremendously in love. Nor would any nice woman let a man take such a journey on her behalf unless she reciprocated his feelings. Of this June--whose notions were old-fashioned--felt assured. So her spirits rose accordingly. Since, if these two were on the verge of becoming engaged, the mere fact would clear away the indefinable shadows which seemed to have been menacing her own happiness from the time Miss Vallincourt had come to Stockleigh.

"Tea is just ready," she announced, approaching. "Will you come in? And perhaps your friend will have tea with us?" she added shyly.

Davilof was presented and June repeated her invitation. He shot a glance of triumph at Magda.

"I shall be delighted, madame," he said, giving June one of his quaint little foreign bows. "But--the sun is shining so gloriously--might we not have it out here?"

June looked round her doubtfully. As is often the case with people born and bred in the country, it never occurred to the Storrans to have the family meals out-of-doors, and June felt considerable misgiving as to whether Dan would appreciate the innovation.

"Ah, please, madame!" pleaded Davilof persuasively. "Let us have it here--under this tree. Why, the tree grows here expressly for the purpose!"

Davilof had all the charm of his nationality, and June capitulated, retreating to make the necessary arrangements.

"I don't fancy Dan Storran will at all approve of the alteration from his usual customs which you've engineered," observed Magda when they were again alone.

"Dan Storran?" Davilof's glance flashed over her face, searching, questioning.

"The owner of the place. He's been teaching me to ride," she added inconsequently.

"Who is he?"--with swift jealousy. "The little fair-haired lady's brother?"

"No, her husband. I said Mrs. Storran."

Davilof's interest waned suddenly.

"Did you?"--indifferently. "I didn't notice. She's a pretty little person."

Magda agreed absently. A fresh difficulty had occurred to her; Davilof might chance to give away to the Storrans the secret of her identity.

"Oh, by the way," she said hurriedly. "They don't know me here as Magda Wielitzska. I'm plain Miss Vallincourt to them--enjoying the privileges of being a nobody! You'll be sure to remember, won't you?" He nodded, and she pursued more lightly: "And now, as you insist on having your tea here, you might begin to earn it by telling me the latest London gossip. We hear nothing at all down here. We don't even get a London newspaper.

"I don't think there is much news. There never is at this time of the year. Everybody's out of town."

He vouchsafed one or two items concerning mutual friends--an engagement here, a forthcoming divorce there. So-and-so was in Italy and Mrs. Somebody Else was said to have eloped with a well-known actor-manager to America--all the odds and ends of gossip that runs like wildfire over the social prairie.

"Oh, by the way," he went on, "your artist friend--"

"Which artist friend?" Magda interrupted almost rudely. She was moved by a perfectly irrational impulse to stop him, to delay what he had to say.

"Why, Quarrington--Michael Quarrington. It seems he has married a Spanish woman--a rather lovely person who had been sitting to him for one of his pictures. That's the latest bit of news."

For an instant it seemed to Magda as though the whole world stood still--gripped in a strange, soundless stillness like the catastrophic pause which for an infinitesimal space of time succeeds a bad accident. Then she heard herself saying:

"Really? Where did you hear that?"

"Oh, there've been several rumours of a beautiful Spaniard whom he has been using as a model. The Arlingtons were travelling in Spain and saw her. Mrs. A. said she was a glorious creature--a dancer. And the other day I saw in one of the papers--the Weekly Gossip I think it was-- that he'd married her."

The carelessly spoken words drove at Magda with the force of utter certainty. It was true, then--quite true! The fact that the Spaniard had been a dancer gave an irrefutable reality to the tale; Michael so worshipped every form of dancing.

"Never give your heart to any man." Her mother's last cynical warning beat in Magda's brain with a dull iteration that almost maddened her. She put her hand up to her throat, feeling as if she were choking.

Then, dimly, as though from a great way off, she heard Antoine's voice again:

"I'm glad Quarrington's married. He was the man who saved you in the fog--you remember?--and I've always been afraid you might get to care for him."

Magda was conscious of one thing and one thing only--that somewhere, deep down inside her, everything had turned to ice. She knew she would never feel anything again--much. . . . She thought death must come like that sometimes--just one thrust of incredible, immeasurable agony, and then a dull, numbed sense of finality.

". . . afraid you might get to care for him." The meaning of Antoine's last words slowly penetrated her mind. She gave a hard little laugh.

"Why should I? Does one 'get to care' for a man just because he does the only obvious thing there is to do in an emergency?"

She was surprised to hear how perfectly natural her voice sounded. It was quite steady. Reassured, she went on, shrugging her shoulders:

"Besides--do I ever care?"

Antoine, sitting on the grass at her feet, suddenly raised himself a little and put his hand over hers as they lay very still and folded on her lap.

"You shall care--some time," he said in a low, tense voice. "I swear it!"