Chapter XXIV
 

When Ashley, after pushing Davenant gently out into the hall, returned to Olivia, she was standing by the mantelpiece, where the five K'ang-hsi vases had been restored to their place in honor of the Marquise.

"Rum chap, isn't he?" Ashley observed. "So awfully queer and American. No Englishman would ever have taken a jaunt like that--after the old lady--on another chap's behalf. It wouldn't go down, you know."

Olivia, leaning on the mantelpiece, with face partially turned from him, made no reply.

He allowed some minutes to pass before saying: "When I asked him how he liked the Louisiana I wanted to know. I'm thinking of taking her on her next trip home."

She turned slightly, lifting her eyes. There was a wonderful light in them, and yet a light that seemed to shine from afar. "Wouldn't that be rather soon?"

"It would give me time for all I want. Now that I'm here I'd better take a look at New York and Washington, and perhaps get a glimpse of your South. I could do that in three weeks."

She seemed to have some difficulty in getting her mind to follow his words. "I don't think I understand you."

There was a smile on his lips as he said: "Don't you infer anything?"

"If I inferred anything, it would be that you think of going home--alone."

"Well, that's it."

She turned fully round. For a long minute they stood staring at each other. Time and experience seemed both to pass over them before she uttered the one word: "Why?"

"Isn't it pretty nearly--self-evident?"

She shook her head. "Not to me."

"I'm surprised at that. I thought you would have seen how well we'd played our game, and that it's--up."

"I don't see--not unless you're trying to tell me that you've--that your feelings have undergone a--"

He was still smiling rather mechanically, though he tugged nervously at the end of his horizontal mustache. "Wouldn't it be possible--now that everything has turned out so--so beautifully--wouldn't it be possible to let the rest go without--without superfluous explanations?"

"I'm ready to do everything you like; but I can't help being surprised."

"That must be because I've been more successful than I thought I was. I fancied that--when I saw how things were with you--you saw how they were with me--and that--"

"Saw how they were with you? Do you mean?--No, you can't mean!--it isn't--Drusilla?"

Since Drusilla would do as well as another, he still stood smiling. She clasped her hands. Her face was all aglow.

"Oh, I should be so glad! It's only within a few days that I've seen--how it was--with--"

He hastened to interrupt her, though he had no idea of what she was going to say. "Then so long as you do see--"

"Oh yes; I--I begin to see. I'm afraid I've been very stupid. You've been so kind--so noble--when all the while--"

"We won't discuss that, what? We won't discuss each other at all. Even if you go your way and I go mine, we shall still be--"

He didn't finish, because she dropped again to the sofa, burying her face in the cushions. It was the first time he had ever seen her give way to deep emotion. If he had not felt so strong to carry the thing through to the end, he would have been unnerved. As it was, he sat down beside her, bending over her bowed head. He made no attempt to touch her.

"I can't bear it," he could hear her panting. "I can't bear it."

"What is it that you can't bear? The pain?" She nodded without raising her head.

"Or the happiness?" he asked, gently. She nodded again.

"That is," he went on, "pain for me--and happiness about--about--the other chap."

She made the same mute sign of affirmation.

"Then, perhaps, that's just as it should be."

       *       *       *       *       *

When Ashley got out to the road Davenant was still standing by the gate, uncertain whether to turn back to the house or go away. Ashley continued to smile jauntily. If he was white about the temples and sallow in the cheeks there was no one to notice it.

"Miss Guion wants to see you," he announced to Davenant. "It's about that matter of her father. I dare say you'll pull it off. No, not just now," he added, as Davenant started to go up the driveway. "She--she's busy. Later will do. Say this afternoon. Come along with me. I've got something to tell you. I'm on my way to the Temples'."

Once more Ashley slipped his arm through Davenant's, but they walked on in silence. The silence continued till they were on the Embankment, when Ashley said: "On second thoughts, I sha'n't tell you what I was going to just now."

"That's all right," Davenant rejoined; and no more was said till they reached Rodney Temple's door.

"Good-by." Ashley offered his hand. "Good-by. You're a first-rate sort. You deserve everything you're--you're coming in for."

Davenant could only wring the proffered hand wonderingly and continue on his way.

Inside the house Ashley asked only for Drusilla. When she came to the drawing-room he refused to sit down. He explained his hurry, on the ground that he was on his way to Boston to take the earliest possible train for New York.

"Oh yes. That's it," he said, in answer to her dumb looks of inquiry. "It couldn't go on, you see. You must have known it--in spite of what you told me last night. You've been an out-and-out good pal. You've cheered me up more than a bit all the time I've been here. If it hadn't been for you--Oh yes, I'm hit; but not hit so hard that I can't still go on fighting--"

"Not in the Carral country, I hope."

"N-no. On second thoughts that would be only running away. I'm not going to run away. Wounds as bad as mine have healed with a bit of nursing, and--Well, good-by. Say good-by to your father and mother for me, will you?--especially to your governor. Rum old chap, but sound--sound as--as Shakespeare and the Bible. Good-by once more. Meet again some time."

It was at the door, to which she accompanied him, that he said: "By the way, when are you coming home?"

She called all her dignity to her aid in order to reply lightly: "Oh, I don't know. Not for ages and ages. Perhaps not at all. I may stay permanently over here. I don't know."

"Oh, I say--"

"In any case I'm here for the winter."

"Oh, but I say, by Jove! That's forever. You'll be back before spring?"

She weakened in spite of herself. "I couldn't possibly leave till after Christmas."

"Christmas! It's the end of November now. Well, that's not so bad. Expect to be in Southsea some time early in the new year. See you then."

He had gone down the steps when he turned again. Drusilla was still standing in the open doorway.

"It's awfully queer, but I feel as if--you'll laugh, I know--but I feel as if I'd been kept from the commission of a crime. Funny, isn't it? Well, I'll be off. See you in Southsea not later than the middle of January. Good-by again; and don't forget my message to your governor."