Part Two
Chapter XIV. The Moonlit Garden
 

The chintzy bedroom under the sloping roof was very still and quiet. The moonlight, streaming in through the open casement, revealed the bed unoccupied, its top-sheet neatly folded back just as when June had made her final round of the house some hours earlier, leaving everything in order for the night.

Magda, crouched by the window, glanced back at it indifferently. She did not want to go to bed. If she went, she knew she would not sleep. She felt as though she would never sleep again.

She had no idea of the time. She might have been there half an hour or half eternity--she did not know which. The little sounds of movement in the different bedrooms had gradually died down into silence, until at least the profound tranquillity and peace of night enshrouded the whole house. Only for her there was neither tranquility nor peace.

She was alone now, face to face with the news which Davilof had brought her--the news of Michael's marriage. Throughout the rest of the day, after Davilof had gone, she had forced the matter into the background of her thoughts, and during supper she had kept up a light- hearted ripple of talk and laughter which had deceived even Gillian, convincing her that her apprehensions of the afternoon were unfounded.

Perhaps she was helped by the fact that Dan failed to put in an appearance at the supper-table. It was easier to scintillate successfully for the sole benefit of a couple of other women than under the eyes of a man who had just ordered you out of his life. But when at last she was alone in her own room, the sparkle was suddenly quenched. There was no longer any need to pretend.

Michael was married! Married! And the bitterness which she had been strenuously keeping at bay since the day, months ago now, when she had learned from Lady Arabella that he had deliberately left England without seeing her again swept over her in a black flood.

It had hurt her badly enough when he had gone away, but somewhere in the depths of her consciousness there had always lurked a little fugitive hope that he would come back--that she would be given another chance. Now she knew that he would never come back--that one isn't always given a second chance in this world.

And beneath the sick anguish of the realisation she was aware of a fierce resentment--a bitter, rebellious anger that any man could make her suffer as she was suffering now. It was unjust--a burden that had been forced upon her unfairly. She could not help her own character-- that was a heritage with which one comes into the world--and now she was being punished for simply having been herself!

An hour--two hours crept by. Hours of black, stark misery. The clock in the hall struck one--a single, bell-like stroke that reverberated through the silent house. It penetrated the numbed confusion of her mind, rousing her to a sudden recognition of the fact that she had been crouched so long in one position that her limbs were stiff and aching.

She drew herself up to her feet, stretching her cramped muscles. The night was warm and the room felt stiflingly hot. She looked longingly through the window to where the garden lay drenched in moonlight, with cool-looking alleyways of moon-washed paths threading the black gloom of overhanging trees, ebony-edged in the silver light.

She felt as though she could hardly breathe in the confined space of the room. Its low, sloping roof, which she had thought so quaintly attractive, seemed to press down on her like the lid of a box. She must get out--out into the black and silver night which beckoned to her through the open window. She could not stay in this room--this little room, alone with her thoughts.

She glanced down dubiously at the soft, chiffony negligee which she had slipped on in place of a frock. Her feet, too, were bare. She had stripped off her shoes and stockings first thing upon coming upstairs, for the sake of coolness. Certainly her attire was not quite suitable for out-of-doors. . . . But there would be no one to see her. Ashencombe folk did not take their walks abroad at that hour of the night. And she longed to feel the cool touch of the dewy grass against her feet.

Very quietly she opened her door and stole out into the passage. The house was strangely, wonderfully still. Only the ticking of the hall- clock broke the silence. So lightly that not a board creaked beneath her step, Magda flitted down the old stairway, and, crossing the hall, felt gingerly for the massive bolt which barred the heavy oaken door. She wondered if it would slide back quietly; she rather doubted it. She remembered often enough having heard it grate into its place as Storran went his nightly round, locking up the house. But, as her slender, seeking fingers came in contact with the knob, she realised that to-night by some oversight he had forgotten to shoot the bolt and, noiselessly lifting the iron latch, she opened the door and slipped out into the moonlit garden. Down the paths she went and across the lawns, the touch of the earth coming clean and cool to her bare feet. Now and again she paused to draw a long breath of the night air, fresh and sweet with the lingering scents of the day's blooming.

An arch of rambler roses led into the distant part of the garden towards which she was wending her way, its powdering of tiny blossoms gleaming like star clusters borrowed from the Milky Way. Magda stooped as she passed beneath it to avoid an overhanging branch. Then, as she straightened herself, lifting her head once more, she stood still, suddenly arrested. On a stone bench, barely twenty yards away, sat Dan Storran!

Against the pallid ghost-white of the bench his motionless figure showed black and sombre like some sable statue. His big shoulders were bowed, his hands hung loosely clasped between his knees, the white mask of his face, mercilessly revealed in the clear moonlight, was twisted into harsh lines of mental conflict. A certain grim triumph manifested itself in the set of his mouth and out-thrust jaw.

He did not see the slight figure standing just within the shade of the rose-twined arch, and Magda remained for a moment or two watching him in silence. The unbarred door was explained now. Storran had not come in at all that night. She guessed the struggle which had sent him forth to seek the utter solitude of the garden. Almost she thought she could divine the processes of thought which had closed his lips in that strange line of ironic triumph. He had told her to go--when every nerve of him ached to bid her stay. And he was glad that the strength in him had won.

A bitter smile flitted across her face. Men were all the same! They idolised a woman just because she was beautiful--for her lips and eyes and hair and the nameless charm that was in her--and set her up on an altar at which they could kneel becomingly. Then, when they found she was merely an ordinary human being like themselves, with her bundle of faults and failings, hereditary and acquired, the prig in them was appropriately shocked--and they went away!

An unhappy woman is very often a bitter one. And Magda had been slowly learning the meaning of unhappiness for the first time in her life--a life that had been hitherto roses and laurel all the way.

The devils that lie in wait for our weak moments prompted her then. The bitterness faded from her lips and they curved in a smile that subtly challenged the stern decision in Dan Storran's face. She hesitated an instant. Then, with feet that scarcely seemed to brush the grass, she glided forward, swaying, bending to some rhythmic measure, floating spirit-like across the lawn.

With a great cry Dan leaped to his feet and stared at her, transfixed. At the sound of his voice she paused, poised on one bare foot, leaning a little towards him with curving, outstretched arms. Then, before he could touch her, she drew away, step by step, and Dan Storran, standing there in tense, breathless silence, beheld what no one else had ever seen--the Wielitzska dancing in the moonlight as she alone could dance.

He knew nothing of art, nor of the supreme technique which went to make each supple movement a thing of sheer perfection, instinct with rhythm and significance. But he was a man, and a man in love, fighting the strongest instincts of his nature; and the bewildering beauty of her as she danced, the languorous, ethereal allure, delicately sensuous as the fragrance of a La France rose, sent the hot blood rioting through his veins. . . . She was going--slowly retreating from him. The primal man in him, the innate hunter who took his mate by capture, swept him headlong. With a bound he sprang past the dusky shrubbery that hedged the lawn and overtook her, catching her in his arms. She did not struggle. He felt her yield, and strained the soft, panting body closer to him. Beneath his hand he could feel the hurrying beat of her heart. Her breath, quickened by the exertion of the dance, came unevenly between her lips as she smiled at him.

"Do you still want me to go away, Dan Storran?"

There was a note of half-amused, half-triumphant mockery in her voice. The last bonds that held him snapped suddenly: "Yes!" he cried hoarsely. "Yes, I do. To go away with me!"

He crushed his mouth down on hers, draining the sweetness of her in burning kisses he had thwarted through all these weeks that they had been together, pouring out his love in disjointed, stumbling phrases which halted by very reason of the force of passion which evoked them.

Frightened by the tempest of emotion she had aroused she strained away from him. But she was powerless against his huge strength, helpless to resist him.

At length the fierce tensity of his grip relaxed, though his arms still clasped her.

"Tell me," he commanded triumphantly. "Tell me you love me. I want to hear it!" His voice vibrated and his eyes sought her face hungrily.

She summoned up all her forces to deny him--to deny him in such a manner that he should realise his mistake absolutely and at once. "But I don't! I don't love you! If you thought that, you misunderstood me."

His hands released their hold of her and fell heavily to his sides. "Misunderstood?" he muttered. The glad triumph went suddenly out of his voice. "Misunderstood?" he repeated dully.

"Yes. Misunderstood me altogether."

"I don't believe it!"

"But you must believe it," she insisted. "It's the truth!"

He stared at her.

"Then what have you meant all these weeks?"

"I've not meant anything."

"It's a lie!" he gave back savagely. "Unless"--he came closer to her-- "unless--is it that man, that damned foreigner, who was here to-day?"

"Antoine? No. Oh, Dan"--she forced an uncertain little laugh to her lips--"if you knew me better you'd know that I never do--'mean anything'!"

The bitter intonation in her voice--the gibe at her own poor ruins of love fallen about her--was lost on him. He was in total ignorance of her friendship with Quarrington. But the plain significance of her words came home to him clearly enough. He did not speak for a minute or two. Then: "You've been playing with me, then--fooling me?" he said heavily.

Magda remained silent. The heavy, laboured speech seemed to hold something minatory in it--the sullen lowering which precedes a tempest.

"Answer me!" he persisted. "Was that it?"

"I--I suppose it was," she faltered.

He drew still closer and instinctively she shrank away. A consciousness of repressed violence communicated itself to her. She half expected him to strike her.

"And you don't love me? You're quite sure?"

There was an ominous kind of patience in the persistent questioning. It was as though he were deliberately giving her every possible chance to clear herself. Her nerves frayed a little.

"Of course I'm sure--perfectly sure," she said with nervous asperity. "I wish you'd believe me, Dan!"

"I only wanted to make sure," he returned.

Something in the careful precision of his answer struck her with a swift sense of apprehension. She looked up at him and what she saw made her catch her breath convulsively. His face was ashen, the veins in his forehead standing out like weals, and his eyes gleamed like blue flame--mad eyes. His hands, hanging at his sides, twitched curiously.

"I'm sure now," he said. "Sure. . . . Do you know what you've done? You've smashed up my life. Smashed it. June and I were happy enough till you came. Now we'll never be happy again. I expect you've smashed other lives, too. But you won't do it any more. I'm the last. Women like you are better dead!"

His great arms swung out and gripped her.

"No, don't struggle. It wouldn't be any good, you know." He went on speaking very carefully and quietly, and while he spoke she felt his left arm tighten round her, binding her own arms down to her sides as might a thong, while his right hand slid up to the base of her throat. She writhed, twisting her body desperately in his grip. "Keep still. I've kissed you. And now I'm going to kill you. You'll be better dead."

There was implacable purpose in his strangely quiet, unhurried accents. Magda recognised it--recognised that death was very close to her. It would be useless to scream. Before help could come--if anyone heard her cries, which was unlikely--Dan would have accomplished what he meant to do.

In the last fraction of time these thoughts flashed through her mind. Her brain seemed to be working with abnormal clarity and speed. This was death, then--unavoidable, inevitable.

She felt Dan's hand creep upward, closing round her throat. Quite suddenly she ceased to struggle and lay still in his grasp. After all, she didn't know that she would much mind dying. Life was not so sweet. There would be pain, she supposed . . . a moment's agony. . . .

All at once, Storran's hands fell away from her passive, silent body and he stepped back. "I can't do it!" he muttered hoarsely. "I can't do it!"

For a moment the suddenness of her release left Magda swaying dizzily on her feet. Then her brain clearing, she looked across to where Dan Storran's big figure faced her. The nonchalance with which she usually met life, and with which a few moments earlier she had been prepared to face inevitable death, stood by her now. A faint, quizzical smile tilted her mouth.

"So you couldn't do it after all, Dan?" The familiar note of half- indifferent mockery sounded in her voice.

Storran stared at her. "By God! I don't believe you are a woman!" he exclaimed thickly.

She regarded him contemplatively, her hands lightly touching the red marks scored by his fingers on the whiteness of her throat.

"Do you know," she replied dispassionately, "I sometimes wonder if I am? I don't seem to have--feelings, like other women. It doesn't matter to me, really, a bit that I've--what was it you said?--smashed up your life. I don't know that it would have mattered much if you had strangled me." She paused, then stepped towards him. "Now you know the truth. Do you still want to kill me, Dan Storran! . . . Or may I go?"

He swung aside from her.

"Go!" he muttered sullenly. "Go to hell!"