Part Two
Chapter XXXI. Against Time
 

Gillian, dashing headlong into Victoria Station, encountered Storran sauntering leisurely out of it, a newspaper under his arm.

"Where are you off to?" he demanded, stopping abruptly. "You look as if you were in a hurry."

"I am. Don't stop me. I'm catching the boat-train."

Storran pulled out his watch as he turned and fell into step beside her.

"Then you've got a good half-hour to spare. No hurry," he returned placidly.

Gillian glanced at the watch on her wrist.

"Are you sure?" she asked doubtfully. "If so, my watch must be altogether wrong!"

"Unbeliever! Come and look at the clock. And, incidentally, give me that suit-case."

She yielded up the case obediently and, having verified the time, proceeded towards the platform at a more reasonable gait.

Storran, his long legs leisurely keeping pace with her shorter ones, smiled down at her.

"And now, for the second time of asking, where are you off to?"

"I'm going to France--to fetch Michael."

He gave a quick exclamation--whether of surprise or disapproval she was not quite sure.

"You haven't heard from him, then?"

"No. And unless something happens quick, it will be too late."

"But if he were at his studio he would surely have answered Lady Arabella's letter."

"Yes, I suppose so," replied Gillian absently, her eyes following the queue of passengers passing through the gate on the platform. By mutual consent they had come to a standstill outside it.

"Then if he isn't there, what's the use of your rushing over to Paris?" protested Storran. "It's absurd--an absolute wild-goose chase. You can't go!"

Gillian's brown eyes came back to his face.

"But I'm going," she said calmly.

He frowned.

"If Michael's not at his studio he may be--anywhere!"

She nodded.

"I know. If so, I shall follow--anywhere."

Storran looked down at her and read the quiet determination in her face.

"Then let me come too," he said. "Sort of courier, you know. I'd just be at hand in case of a tangle."

"Oh, no! I couldn't let you. There's not the least need. Good heavens, I'm not a baby!"

There was a curious softness in Dan's blue eyes as they rested on her.

"No. I think you're--a very good friend," he said. "But I don't see why you should have the monopoly! Let me show I know how to be a good pal, too, if I want to."

"No--no." Gillian still protested, but her tone betrayed signs of weakening.

"We'll be as conventional as you like," urged Dan, twinkling. "I'd stop at different hotels."

"Well, but--"

"Say 'yes'!" he insisted.

Gillian smiled.

"You obstinate person! Yes, then!"

"Thank you. Then I'll go along and buy a ticket."

He turned and went towards the booking-office, while Gillian, inwardly much relieved, awaited his return. She could not but acknowledge that in the "wild-goose chase" upon which she was embarking it would be an enormous comfort to have Storran at hand in case of an emergency. As to the proprieties--well, Gillian was far too honest and independent a soul to worry about them in the circumstances. Her friend's happiness was at stake. And whether people chose to talk because she and Dan Storran travelled to Paris together--or to Timbuctoo, for the matter of that, if Michael had chanced to depart thither--troubled her not at all.

When Storran rejoined her a much more practical consideration presented itself to her mind.

"But, my dear man, you can't fly with me to Paris without even a tooth-brush! I'd forgotten you'd no luggage!"

Her face fell as she spoke. But Storran dismissed the matter with a smile.

"Oh, I can buy clean collars and shirts as I go along," he replied, entirely unruffled. "The dickens was to get on to the train at all! They assured me there wasn't a seat. However, I make a point of never believing official statements--on principle."

And as a consequence of such well-directed incredulity, Storran accompanied Gillian to Dover and thence to Calais.

They had a good crossing--sun up and blue sky. Looking back, afterwards, it always seemed to Gillian as though the short time it occupied had been a merciful breathing space--a tranquil interval, specially vouchsafed, in which she was able to brace herself for the coming race against time. Just so long as they were on board, nothing she could do was of any importance whatever, either to help or hinder the fulfilment of her errand. She could not quicken the speed of the boat by a single throb of its engine. So, like a sensible woman, she sat on deck with Dan and enjoyed herself amazingly.

Afterwards, in quick succession, came the stir and bustle of landing and the journey to Paris. They arrived too late to make any inquiries that night, but ten o'clock the following morning found them outside the building where Michael had his apartment.

"Oh, Dan!"--Gillian was seized with sudden panic. "Supposing he is here, after all, and has deliberately not answered Lady Arabella's letter?"

"I shouldn't suppose anything so foolish. Michael may be many kinds of a fool--artists very often are, I believe. It's part of the temperament. But whatever he proposed to do regarding Magda, there's no reason in the world to suppose he wouldn't answer Lady Arabella's letter."

"No--no. Perhaps not," agreed Gillian hurriedly. But it was in rather a shaky voice that she asked to see Mr. Quarrington when finally they found themselves confronted by the concierge.

"Monsieur Quarrington?" Hands, shoulders, and eyebrows all seemed to gesticulate at once as madame la concierge made answer. "But he has been gone from here two--no, three months. Perhaps madame did not know?"

"No," said Gillian. "I didn't know. But I thought he might possibly be away, because I--I have had no answer to a letter I wrote him."

"What misfortune!"

The concierge regarded Gillian with a pair of shrewd, gimlet eyes while a stream of inquiry and comment issued from her lips. Madame was the sister of monsieur, perhaps? Truly, they resembled each other! One could see at a glance. No, not a sister? Ah, a friend, then? And there had been no answer to a letter! But monsieur had left an address. Oh, yes. And all letters were forwarded. She herself saw to that.

At last Gillian managed to stem the torrent of garrulity and interposed a question concerning the telegram she had sent.

A telegram! Now that was another affair altogether. Yes, the concierge remembered the telegram. She had opened it to see if it were of life or death importance, in which case she would have, of course, telegraphed its contents to monsieur at his present address.

Gillian was nearly crying with impatience as the woman's voluble tongue ran on complacently.

"Then you did send it on?" she managed to interpolate at last.

The letter--yes. Not, of course, the telegram. That would have been a needless expense seeing that monsieur would already have had the letter, since all the letters were sent on. All! She, Madame Ribot, could vouch for that.

At the end of half an hour Gillian succeeded in extracting Michael's address from amid the plethora of words and, bidding the voluble concierge bon jour, she and Storran beat a masterly retreat.

It appeared that Michael had been commissioned to paint the portrait of some Italian society beauty and had gone to Rome. Gillian screwed up her small face resolutely.

"I shall go to Rome!" she announced succinctly. There was a definite defiance in her tone, and Storran concealed a smile.

"Of course you will," he replied composedly. "Just as well I came with you, isn't it?" he added with great cheerfulness.

Her expression relaxed.

"You really are rather a nice person, Dan," she allowed graciously. "I was horribly afraid you'd suggest wiring Michael again, or something silly like that. I'm not going to trust to anything of that kind."

Accordingly, the only wire despatched was one to Lady Arabella, informing her as to their movements, and a few hours later found Dan and Gillian rushing across Europe as fast as the thunderous whirl of the express could take them. They travelled day and night, and it was a very weary Gillian who at last opened her eyes to the golden sunshine of Italy.

At the hotel whither Madame Ribot had directed them, fresh disappointment awaited them. The manager--when he found that the two dusty and somewhat dishevelled-looking travellers who presented themselves at the inquiry bureau were actually friends of Signor Quarrington, the famous English artist who had stayed at his hotel-- was desolated, but the signor had departed a month ago! Had he the address? But assuredly. He would write it down for the signora.

"He's in Normandy!" exclaimed Gillian in tones of bitter disappointment. "At--what's the name of the place?--Armanches. Oh, Dan! We've got to go right back to Paris again and then on to the coast."

Her face was full of anxiety. This would mean at least a delay of several days before they could possibly see Michael, and meanwhile it was a moot question as to how much longer Lady Arabella could restrain Magda from taking definite steps with regard to joining the sisterhood.

Storran nodded.

"Yes," he said quietly. "But all the same, you'll not start back till to-morrow--"

"Oh, but I must!" interrupted Gillian. "We can't afford to waste a moment."

He glanced down at her and shook his head. Her face was white and drawn, and there were deep violet shadows underneath her eyes. Suspense and her anxious impatience had told upon her, and she had slept but little on the journey. And now, with the addition of this last, totally unexpected disappointment, she looked as though she could not stand much more.

"We can afford to waste a single day better than we can afford the three or four which it would cost us if you collapsed en route," said Storran.

"I shan't collapse," she protested with white lips.

"So much the better. But all the same, you'll stay here till to-morrow and get a good night's rest."

"I shouldn't sleep," she urged. "Let's go right on, Dan. Let's go----"

But the sentence was never finished. Quite suddenly she swayed, stretching out her hands with a blind, groping movement. Dan was just in time to catch her in his arms as she toppled over in a dead faint.

It was a week later when, in the early morning, a rather wan and white-faced Gillian sprang up from her seat as the train ran into Bayeux.

"Thank goodness we're here at last!" she exclaimed.

Storran put out his hand to steady her as the train jolted to a standstill.

"Yes, we're here at last," he said. "Now to find a vehicle of some description to take us out to Armanches."

As he had suggested it would, Gillian's collapse had delayed them some time. Probably she had caught a slight chill while travelling, and that, together with the fatigue from which she was suffering, combined to keep her in bed at the hotel in Rome for a couple of days.

When the slight feverishness had abated, she slept the greater part of the time, her weary body exacting the price for all those wakeful hours she had passed on the train. But it was not until four days had elapsed that Dan would agree to a resumption of the journey. Even then, consent was only wrung from him by the fear that she would fret herself ill over any further delay. He did not consider her by any means fit to travel. But Gillian was game to the core, and they had reached Bayeux without further contretemps.

"The thing that puzzles me," she said as they started on the long drive from Bayeux to Armanches, "is why Michael didn't send his Normandy address to Madame Ribot. We should have been saved all that long journey to Rome if he had."

"Perhaps he intended to, and forgot," suggested Dan. "Artists are proverbially absent-minded."

But Gillian shook her head with a dissatisfied air. Michael was not of the absent-minded type.

Armanches was a tiny place on the Normandy coast, in reality not much more than a fishing village, but its possession of a beautiful plage --smooth, fine, golden sands--brought many visitors to the old- fashioned hostelry it boasted.

The landlady, a smiling, rosy-cheeked woman, with a chubby little brown-faced son hiding shy embarrassment behind her ample skirts, greeted the travellers hospitably. But when they mentioned Quarrington's name a look of sympathetic concern overspread her comely face.

Yes, he was there. And of course madame could not know, but he had been ill, seriously ill with la grippe--taken ill the very day he had arrived, nearly a month ago. He had a nurse. Oh, yes! One had come from Bayeux. But this influenza! It was a veritable scourge. One was here to-day and gone to-morrow. However, Michael Quarrington was recovering, the saints be praised! Monsieur and madame wished to see him? The good woman looked doubtful. She would inquire. What name? Grey? But there was a telegram awaiting madame!

Gillian's face blanched as the landlady bustled away in search of the wire. Had Magda already---- Oh, but that was impossible! Lady Arabella was in charge at that end, and Gillian had a great belief in Lady Arabella's capacity to deal with any crisis that might arise. Nevertheless, they had wired her the Normandy address from Rome, in case of necessity. The next moment Gillian had torn open the telegram and she and Dan were reading it together.

 "Magda insists we return to London on Wednesday. She has completed
  preliminary arrangements to join sisterhood and goes there
  Thursday. Impossible to dissuade her.--ARABELLA WINTER."

Gillian's mouth set itself in a straight line of determination as her eyes raced along the score or so of pregnant words. She was silent a moment. Then she met Storran's questioning glance.

"We can just do it," she said sternly. "To-day is Wednesday. By crossing to Southampton to-night, we can make London to-morrow."

Without waiting for his reply she entered the inn and ran quickly up the stairs which the landlady had already ascended.

"But, madame, I am not sure that monsieur will receive anyone," protested the astonished woman, turning round as Gillian caught up with her.

"I must see him," asserted Gillian quietly.

Perhaps something in the tense young face touched a sympathetic chord in the Frenchwoman's honest heart. She scented romance, and when she emerged from the invalid's bedroom her face was wreathed in smiles.

"It is all arranged. Will madame please to enter?"

A moment later Gillian found herself standing in front of a tall, gaunt figure of a man, whose coat hung loosely from his shoulders and whose face was worn and haggard with something more than la grippe alone.

"Oh, Michael!"

A little, stricken cry broke from her lips. What men and women make each other suffer! She realised it as she met the stark, bitter misery of the grey eyes that burned at her out of the thin face and remembered the look on Magda's own face when she had last seen her.

She went straight to the point without a word of greeting or of explanation. There was no time for explanations, except the only one that mattered.

"Michael, why didn't you answer Lady Arabella's letter?"

He stared at her. Then he passed his hand wearily across his forehead.

"Letter? I don't remember any letter."

"She wrote to you about a month ago. I know the letter was forwarded on to Rome. It must have followed you here."

"A month ago?" he repeated.

Then a light broke over his face. He turned and crossed the room to where a small pile of letters lay on a table, dusty and forgotten.

"Perhaps it's here," he said. "I was taken ill directly I arrived. I never even sent this address to the concierge at Paris. I believe I was off my head part of the time--'flue plays the deuce with you. But I remember now. The nurse told me there were some letters which had come while I was ill. I--didn't bother about them."

While he spoke he was turning over the envelopes, one by one, in a desultory fashion.

"Yes. This is Lady Arabella's writing." He paused and looked across at Gillian.

"Will you read it, please?" she said. "And--oh, you ought to sit down! You don't look very strong yet."

He smiled a little.

"I'm not quite such a crock as I look. But won't you sit down yourself while I read this letter? Is it of importance?"

"Oh! Please read it!" exclaimed Gillian with sudden nervous impatience.

It seemed to her an eternity while he read the letter. But at last he looked up from its perusal.

"Well?" she asked under her breath.

Very deliberately he refolded the sheet of notepaper and slipped it back into its envelope.

"It would have made no difference if I had received it earlier," he said composedly.

"No difference"

"None. Because, you see, this letter--asking me to go back to Magda-- is written under a misapprehension.

"How? What do you mean?"

"I mean--that Magda has--no further use for me."

Gillian leaned forward.

"You're wrong," she said tersely--"quite wrong."

"No." He shook his head. "I'm not blaming her. Looking back, I'm not even very much surprised. But still, the fact remains, she has no further use for me."

"Will you tell me what makes you think that?" With an effort Gillian forced herself to speak quietly and composedly.

He was silent a moment, staring out of the window at the gay blue sea beyond, sparkling in the morning sunlight. All at once he swung round on her, his face wrung with a sudden agony.

"I know," he said in a roughened voice. "I know, because I wrote to her--six months ago. I was hard, I know, brutally hard to her that last day at Friars' Holm. But--God! I paid for it afterwards! And I wrote to her--bared my very soul to her. . . . Wrote so that if she had ever cared she must at least have answered me."

He stopped abruptly, his face working.

"And she didn't answer?"

A wry smile twisted his lips.

"I got my own letter back," he said quietly. "After all, that was an answer--a conclusive one."

Gillian was thinking rapidly. Six months ago! A momentary flash of recollection came to her. So Lady Arabella, that wise old citizen of the world, had been quite right after all! She had given Michael six months to find out his imperative need of Magda. And he had found it. Only--something had gone wrong.

"Magda never had that letter," she said quietly at last.

She was gradually beginning to piece together the separate parts of the puzzle. All letters that came for Magda had been forwarded on to the sisterhood, and had she herself readdressed this of Michael's she would have recognised the handwriting. But probably she had been away from home, or had chanced to be out at post time, in which case Melrose, or old Virginie, would have readdressed the envelope and dropped it in the pillar box at the corner of the road.

Then--as was the case with any correspondence addressed to one of the Sisters of Penitence--the letter would be read by the Mother Superior and passed on to its destined recipient if she thought good. If not----

Gillian had learned a great deal about Catherine Vallincourt by now, both from Lady Arabella and from Magda herself, who, before leaving the community, had discovered the identity of its head. And she could visualise the stern, fanatical woman, obsessed by her idea of disciplining Magda and of counteracting the effects of her brother's marriage with Diane Wielitzska, opening the letter and, after perusal, calmly sealing it up in its envelope again and returning it to the sender.

"Magda never had that letter, Michael," she repeated. "Listen!" And then, without preamble, but with every word vibrant with pity for the whole tragedy, she poured out the story of Magda's passionate repentance and atonement, of her impetuous adoption of her father's remorseless theory, mistaken though it might be, that pain is the remedy for sin, and of the utter, hopeless despair which had overwhelmed her now that she believed it had all proved unavailing.

"She has come to believe that you don't want her--never could want her, Michael--because she has failed so much."

There was more than one reproach mingled with the story, but Michael made no protest. It was only when she had finished that Gillian could read in his tortured eyes all that her narrative had cost him.

"Yes," he said at last. "It's true. I wanted the impossible. I was looking for a goddess--not a woman. . . . But now I want--just a woman, Gillian."

"Then, if you want her, you must save her from herself. You've just twenty-four hours to do it in. To-morrow she's still Magda. The next day she'll be Sister Somebody. And you'll have lost her."

Half an hour later, when Michael's nurse returned, she found her patient packing a suit-case with the assistance of a pretty, brown- haired girl whose eyes shone with the unmistakable brightness of recent tears.

"But you're not fit to travel!" she protested in horrified dismay. "You mustn't think of it, Mr. Quarrington."

But Michael only laughed at her, defying her good-humouredly.

"If the man you loved were waiting for you in England, nurse, you know you'd go--and you wouldn't care a hang whether you were fit to travel or not!"

The nurse smiled in spite of herself.

"No," she admitted. "I suppose I shouldn't."

As the Havre-Southampton boat steamed through the moonlit night, Dan and Gillian were pacing the deck together.

"I'm so glad Michael is going back to Magda without knowing--about June," said Gillian, coming to a standstill beside the deck-rail. "Going back just because his love is too big for anything else to matter now."

"Haven't you told him?"--Storran's voice held surprise.

"No. I decided not to. I should like Magda to tell him that herself."

They were both silent for a little while. Gillian bent over the rail, looking down at the phosphorescent water breaking away from the steamer's bow. Suddenly a big hand covered hers.

"I think I'm--lonely," said Storran.

"Gillian," he went on, his voice deepening. "Gillian . . . dear. We're two rather lonely people. We shall be lonelier still when Michael and Magda are married. Couldn't we be lonely--in company?"

Gillian's hand moved a little beneath his, then stayed still.

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

"Yes," went on the strong, tender voice. "I'm asking you to marry me, Gillian, I'd never expect too much of you. We both know all that's in the past of each of us. But we might help each other to be less lonely --good comrades together, Gillian."

And suddenly Gillian realised how good it would be to rest once more in the shelter of a man's affection and good comradeship--to have someone to laugh with or to be sorry with. There's a tender magic in the word "together." And she, too, had something to give in return-- sympathy, and understanding, and a warm friendship. . . . She would not be going to him empty-handed.

"Is it yes, Gillian?"

She bent her head.

"Yes, Dan."