Chapter XXXIII. Time Flies.
 

Eighteen months passed away in England, and nothing more was heard of the two fugitives to Africa. Lady Emily's cup was very full indeed. On the self-same day she learned of her husband's death and her son's mysterious and unaccountable disappearance. From that moment forth, he was to her as if dead. After Granville left, no letter or news of him, direct or indirect, ever reached Tilgate. It was all most inexplicable. He had disappeared into space, and no man knew of him.

Cyril, too, had now almost given up hoping for news of Guy. Slowly the conviction forced itself deeper and still deeper upon his mind, in spite of Elma, that Guy was really Montague Nevitt's murderer. Else how account for Guy's sudden disappearance, and for the fact that he never even wrote home his whereabouts? Nay, Guy's letter itself left no doubt upon his mind. Cyril went through life now oppressed continually with the terrible burden of being a murderer's brother.

And indeed everybody else--except Elma Clifford--implicitly shared that opinion with him. Cyril was sure the unknown benefactor shared it too, for Guy's six thousand pounds were never paid in to his credit--as indeed how could they, since Colonel Kelmscott, who had promised to pay them, died before receiving the balance of the purchase money for the Dowlands estate? Cyril slank through the world, then, weighed down by his shame, for Guy and he were each other's doubles, and he always had a deep underlying conviction that, as Guy was in any particular, so also in the very fibre of his nature he himself was.

Everybody else, except Elma Clifford; but in spite of all, Elma still held out firm, in her intuitive way, in favour of Guy's innocence. She knew it, she said; and there the matter dropped. And she knew quite equally, in her own firm mind, that Gilbert Gildersleeve was the real murderer.

Gilbert Gildersleeve, meanwhile, had gone up a step or two higher in the social scale. He had been promoted to the bench on the first vacancy, as all the world had long expected; but, strange to say, he took it far more modestly than all the world had ever anticipated. Indeed, before he was made a judge, everybody said he'd be intolerable in the ermine. He was blustering and bullying enough, in all conscience, as a mere Queen's Counsel; but when he came to preside in a court of his own, his insolence would surpass even the wonted insolence of our autocratic British justices. In this, however, everybody was mistaken.

A curious change had of late come over Gilbert Gildersleeve. The big, bullying lawyer was growing nervous and diffident, where of old he had been coarse and self-assertive and blustering. He was beginning at times almost to doubt his own absolute omniscience and absolute wisdom. He was prepared half to admit that under certain circumstances a prisoner might possibly be in the right, and that all crimes alike did not necessarily deserve the hardest sentence the law of the land allowed him to allot them. Habitual criminals even began, after a while, to express a fervent hope, as assizes approached, they might be tried by old Gildersleeve: "Gilly," they said, "gave a cove a chance": he wasn't "one of these 'ere reg'lar 'anging judges, like Sir 'Enery Atkins."

During those eighteen months, too, Cyril tried, as far as he could, from a stern sense of duty, to see as little as possible of Elma Clifford. He loved Elma still--that goes without saying--more devotedly than ever; and Elma's profound belief that Cyril's brother couldn't possibly have committed so grave a crime touched his heart to the core by its womanly confidence. There's nothing a man likes so much as being trusted. But he had declared in the first flush of his horror and despair that he would never again ask Elma to marry him till the cloud that hung over Guy's character had been lifted and dissipated; and now that, month after month, no news came from Guy and all hope seemed to fade, lie felt it would be wrong of him even to see her or speak with her.

On that question however, Elma herself had a voice as well. Man proposes; woman decides. And though Elma for her part had quite equally made up her mind never to marry Cyril, with that nameless terror of expected madness hanging ever over her head, she felt, on the other hand, her very loyalty to Cyril and to Cyril's brother imperatively demanded that she should still see him often, and display marked friendship towards him as openly as possible. She wanted the world to see plainly for itself that so far as this matter of Guy's reputation was concerned, if Cyril, for his part, wanted to marry her, she, on her side, would be quite ready to marry Cyril.

So she insisted on meeting him whenever she could, and on writing to him openly from time to time very affectionate notes--those familiar notes we all know so well and prize so dearly--full of hopeless love and unabated confidence. Yes, good Mr. Stockbroker who do me the honour to read my simple tale, smile cynically if you will! You pretend to care nothing for these little sentimentalities; but you know very well in your own heart, you've a bundle of them at home, very brown and yellow, locked up in your escritoire; and you'd let New Zealand Fours sink to the bottom of the Indian Ocean, and Egyptian Unified go down to zero, before ever you'd part with a single faded page of them.

What can a man do, then, even under such painful circumstances, when a girl whom he loves with all his heart lets him clearly see she loves him in return quite as truly? Cyril would have been more than human if he hadn't answered those notes in an equally ardent and equally desponding strain. The burden of both their tales was always this--even if you would, I couldn't, because I love you too much to impose my own disgrace upon you.

But what Elma's mysterious trouble could be, Cyril was still unable even to hazard a guess. He only knew she had some reason of her own which seemed to her a sufficient bar to matrimony, and made her firmly determine never, in any case, to marry any one.

About twelve months after Guy's sudden disappearance, however, a new element entered into Elma's life. At first sight, it seemed to have but little to do with the secret of her soul. It was merely that the new purchaser of the Dowlands estate had built herself a pretty little Queen Anne house on the ground, and come to live in it.

Nevertheless, from the very first day they met, Elma took most kindly to this new Miss Ewes, the strange and eccentric musical composer. The mistress of Dowlands was a distant cousin of Mrs. Clifford's own; so the family naturally had to call upon her at once; and Elma somehow seemed always to get on from the outset in a remarkable way with her mother's relations. At first, to be sure, Elma could see Mrs. Clifford was rather afraid to leave her alone with the odd new-comer, whose habits and manners were as curious and weird as the sudden twists and turns of her own wayward music. But, after a time, a change came over Mrs. Clifford in this respect; and instead of trying to keep Elma and Miss Ewes apart, it was evident to Elma--who never missed any of the small by-play of life--that her mother rather desired to throw them closely together. Thus it came to pass that one morning, about a month after Miss Ewes's arrival in her new home, Elma had run in with a message from her mother, and found the distinguished composer, as was often the case at that time of day, sitting dreamily at her piano, trying over on the gamut strange, fanciful chords of her own peculiar witch-like character. The music waxed and waned in a familiar lilt.

"That's beautiful," Elma cried enthusiastically, as the composer looked up at her with an inquiring glance. "I never heard anything in my life before that went so straight through one, with its penetrating melody. Such a lovely gliding sound, you know! So soft and serpentine!" And even as she said it, a deep flush rose red in the centre of her cheek. She was sorry for the words before they were out of her mouth. They recalled all at once, in some mysterious way, that horrid, persistent nightmare of the hateful snake-dance. In a second, Miss Ewes caught the bright gleam in her eye, and the deep flush on her cheek that so hastily followed it. A meaning smile came over the elder woman's face all at once, not unpleasantly. She was a handsome woman for her age, but very dark and gipsy-like, after the fashion of the Eweses, with keen Italian eyes and a large smooth expanse of powerful forehead. Lightly she ran her hand over the keys with a masterly touch, and fixed her glance as she did so on Elma. There was a moment's pause. Miss Ewes eyed her closely. She was playing a tune that seemed oddly familiar to Elma's brain somehow--to her brain, not to her ears, for Elma felt certain, even while she recognised it most, she had never before heard it. It was a tune that waxed and waned and curled up and down sinuously, and twisted in and out and--ah yes, now she knew it--raised its sleek head, and darted out its forked tongue, and vibrated with swift tremors, and tightened and slackened, and coiled resistlessly at last in great folds all around her. Elma listened, with eager eyes half starting from her head, with clenched nails dug deep into the tremulous palms, as her heart throbbed fast and her nerves quivered fiercely. Oh, it was wrong of Miss Ewes to tempt her like this! It was wrong, so wrong of her! For Elma knew what it was at once--the song she had heard running vaguely through her head the night of the dance--the night she fell in love with Cyril Waring.

With a throbbing heart, Elma sat down on the sofa, and tried with all her might and main not to listen, She clasped her hands still tighter. She refused to be wrought up. She wouldn't give way to it. If she had followed her own impulse, to be sure, she would have risen on the spot and danced that mad dance once more with all the wild abandonment of an almeh or a Zingari. But she resisted with all her might. And she resisted successfully.

Miss Ewes, never faltering, kept her keen eye fixed hard on her with a searching glance, as she ran over the keys in ever fresh combinations.

Faster, wilder, and stranger the music rose; but Elma sat still, her breast heaving hard, and her breath panting, yet otherwise as still and motionless as a statue. She knew Miss Ewes could tell exactly how she felt. She knew she was trying her; she knew she was tempting her to get up and dance; and yet, she was not one bit afraid of this strange weird woman, as she'd been afraid that sad morning at home of her own mother.

The composer went on fiercely for some minutes more, leaning close over the keyboard, and throwing her very soul, as Elma could plainly see, into the tips of her fingers. Then, suddenly she rose, and came over, well pleased, to the sofa where Elma sat. With a motherly gesture, she took Elma's hand; she smoothed her dark hair; she bent down with a tender look, in those strange grey eyes, and printed a kiss unexpectedly on the poor girl's forehead.

"Elma," she said, leaning over her, "do you know what that was? That was the Naga Snake Dance. It gave you an almost irresistible longing to rise, and hold the snake in your own hands, and coil his great folds around you. I could see how you felt. But you were strong enough to resist. That was very well done. You resisted even the force of my music, didn't you?"

Elma, trembling all over, but bursting with joy that she could speak of it at last without restraint to somebody, answered, in a very low and tremulous voice, "Yes, Miss Ewes, I resisted it."

Miss Ewes leant back in her place, and gazed at her long, with a very affectionate and motherly air. "Then I'm sure I don't know," she said at last, breaking out in a voice full of confidence, "why on earth you shouldn't marry this young man you're in love with!"

Elma's heart beat still harder and higher than ever.

"What young man?" she murmured low--just to test the enchantress.

And Miss Ewes made answer, without one moment's hesitation, "Why, of course, Cyril Waring!"

For a minute or two then, there was a dead silence. After that, Miss Ewes looked up and spoke again. "Have you felt it often?" she asked, without one word of explanation.

"Twice before," Elma answered, not pretending to misunderstand. "Once I gave way. That was the very first time, you see, and I didn't know yet exactly what it meant. The second time I knew, and then I resisted it."

Somehow, before Miss Ewes, she hardly ever felt shy. She was so conscious Miss Ewes knew all about it without her telling her.

The elder woman looked at her with unfeigned admiration.

"That was brave of you," she said quietly. "I couldn't have done it myself! I should have had to give way to it. Then in you it's dying out. That's as clear as daylight. It won't go any farther. I knew it wouldn't, of course, when I saw you resisted even the Naga dance. And for you, that's excellent.... For myself I encourage it. It's that that makes my music what it is. It's that that inspires me. I composed that Naga dance I just played over to you, Elma. But not all out of my own head. I couldn't have invented it. It comes down in our blood, my dear, to you and me alike. We both inherit it from a common ancestress."

"Tell me all about it," Elma cried, nestling close to her new friend with a wild burst of relief. "I don't know why, but I'm not at all ashamed of it all before you, Miss Ewes--at least, not in the way I am before mother."

"You needn't be ashamed of it," Miss Ewes answered kindly. "You've nothing to be ashamed of. It'll never trouble you in your life again. It always dies out at last; they say in the sixth or seventh generation, and when it's dying out, it goes as it went with you, on the night you first fell in love with Cyril. If, after that, you resist, it never comes back again. Year after year, the impulse grows feebler and feebler. And if you can withstand the Naga dance, you can withstand anything. Come here and take my hand, dear. I'll tell you all about it."

Late at night Elma sat, tearful but happy, in her own room at home, writing a few short lines to Cyril Waring. This was all she said--

"There's no reason on my side now, dearest Cyril. It's all a mistake. I'll marry you whenever and wherever you will. There need be no reason on your side either. I love you, and can trust you. Yours ever,

"ELMA."

When Cyril Waring received that note next morning he kissed it reverently, and put it away in his desk among a bundle of others. But he said to himself sternly in his own soul for all that, "Never, while Guy still rests under that cloud! And how it's ever to be lifted from him is to me inconceivable."