The Friend Who Stood By by Ethel M. Dell
"And you will come back, Jim? Promise! Promise!"
"Of course, darling--of course! There! Don't cry! Can't you see it's a chance in a thousand? I've never had such a chance before."
The sound of a woman's low sobbing was audible in the silence that followed; and a man who was leaning on the sea-wall above, started and peered downwards.
He could dimly discern two figures standing in the shadow of a great breakwater below him. More than that he could not distinguish, for it was a dark night; but he knew that the man's arms were about the girl, and that her face was hidden against him.
Realising himself to be an intruder, he stood up and began to walk away.
He had not gone a dozen yards before the sound of flying feet caught his attention, and he turned his head. A woman's light figure was running behind him along the deserted parade. He waited for her under a gas-lamp.
She overtook him and fled past him without a pause. He caught a glimpse of a pale face and fair hair in wild disorder.
Then she was gone again into the night, running swiftly. The darkness closed about her, and hid her from view.
The man on the parade paused for several seconds, then walked back to his original resting-place by the sea-wall.
The band on the pier was playing a jaunty selection from a comic opera. It came in gusts of gaiety. The wash of the sea, as it crept up the beach, was very mysterious and remote.
Below, on the piled shingle, a man stood alone, staring out over the darkness, motionless and absorbed.
The watcher above him struck a match at length and kindled a cigarette. His face was lit up during the operation. It was the face of a man who had seen a good deal of the world and had not found the experience particularly refreshing. Yet, as he looked down upon the silent figure below him, there was more of compassion than cynicism in his eyes. There was a glint of humour also, like the shrewd half-melancholy humour of a monkey that possesses the wisdom of all the ages, and can impart none of it.
Suddenly there was a movement on the shingle. The lonely figure had turned and flung itself face downwards among the tumbling stones. The abandonment of the action was very young, and perhaps it was that very fact that made it so indescribably pathetic. To Lester Cheveril, leaning on the sea-wall, it appealed as strongly as the crying of a child. He glanced over his shoulder. The place was deserted. Then he deliberately dropped his cigarette-case over the wall and exclaimed: "Confound it!"
The prone figure on the shingle rolled over and sat up.
"Hullo!" said Cheveril.
There was a distinct pause before a voice replied: "Hullo! What's the matter?"
"I've dropped my cigarette-case," said Cheveril. "Beastly careless of me!"
Again there was a pause. Then the man below him stumbled to his feet.
"I've got a match," he said. "I'll see if I can find it."
"Don't trouble," said Cheveril politely. "The steps are close by."
He walked away at an easy pace and descended to the beach. The flicker of a match guided him to the searcher. As he drew near, the light went out, and the young man turned to meet him.
"Here it is," he said gruffly.
"Many thanks!" said Cheveril. "It's so confoundedly dark to-night. I scarcely expected to see it again."
The other muttered an acknowledgment, and stood prepared to depart.
Cheveril, however, paused in a conversational attitude. He had not risked his property for nothing.
"A pretty little place, this," he said. "I suppose you are a visitor here like myself?"
"I'm leaving to-morrow," was the somewhat grudging rejoinder.
"I only came this afternoon," said Cheveril. "Is there anything to see here?"
"There's the sea and the lighthouse," his companion told him curtly--"nothing else."
Cheveril smiled faintly to himself in the darkness.
"Try one of these cigarettes," he said sociably. "I don't enjoy smoking alone."
He was aware, as his unknown friend accepted the offer, that he would have infinitely preferred to refuse.
"Been here long?" he asked him, as they plunged through the shingle towards the sand.
"I've lived here nearly all my life," was the reply. And, after a moment, as if the confidence would not be repressed: "I'm leaving now--for good."
"Ah!" said Cheveril sympathetically. "It's pretty beastly when you come to turn out. I've done it, and I know."
"It's infernal," said the other gloomily, and relapsed into silence.
"Going abroad?" Cheveril ventured presently.
"Yes. Going to the other side of the world." Surliness had given place to depression in the boy's voice. Sympathy, albeit from an unknown quarter, moved him to confidence. "But it isn't that I mind," he said, a moment later. "I should be ready enough to clear out if it weren't for--some one else!"
"A woman, I suppose?" Cheveril said.
He was aware that his companion glanced at him sharply through the gloom, and knew that he was momentarily suspected of eavesdropping.
Then, with impulsive candour, the answer came:
"Yes; the girl I'm engaged to. She has got to stay behind and marry--some one else."
Cheveril's teeth closed silently upon his lower lip. This, also, was one of the things he knew.
"You can't trust her, then?" he said, after a pause.
"Oh, she cares for me--of course!" the boy answered. "But there isn't a chance for us. They are all dead against me, and the other fellow will be on the spot. He hasn't asked her yet, but he means to. And her people will simply force her to accept him when he does. Of course they will! He is Cheveril, the millionaire. You must have heard of him. Every one has."
"I know him well," said Cheveril.
"So do I--by sight," the boy plunged on recklessly--"an undersized little animal with a squint."
"I didn't know he squinted," Cheveril remarked into the darkness. "But, anyhow, they can't make her marry against her will."
"Can't they?" returned the other fiercely. "I don't know what you call it, then. They can make her life so positively unbearable that she will have to give in, if it is only to get away from them. It's perfectly fiendish; but they will do it. I know they will do it. She hasn't a single friend to stand by her."
"Except you," said Cheveril.
They had nearly reached the water. The rush and splash of the waves held something solemn in their harmonies, like the chords of a splendid symphony. Cheveril heard the quick, indignant voice at his side like a cry of unrest breaking through.
"What can I do?" it said. "I have never had a chance till now. I have just had a berth in India offered to me; but I can't possibly hope to support a wife for two years at least. And meanwhile--meanwhile----"
It stopped there; and a long wave broke with a roar, and rushed up in gleaming foam almost to their feet. The younger man stepped back; but Cheveril remained motionless, his face to the swirling water.
Quite suddenly at length he turned, as a man whose mind is made up, and began to walk back to the dimly lighted parade. He marched straight up the shingle, as if with a definite purpose in view, and mounted the rickety iron ladder to the pavement.
His companion followed, too absorbed by his trouble to feel any curiosity regarding the stranger to whom he had poured it out.
Under a flaring gas-lamp, Cheveril stood still.
"Do you mind telling me your name?" he said abruptly.
That roused the boy slightly. "My name is Willowby," he answered--"James Willowby."
He looked at Cheveril with a dawning wonder, and the latter uttered a short, grim laugh. The light streamed full upon his face.
"You know me well, don't you," he said, "by sight?"
Young Willowby gave a great start and turned crimson. He offered neither apology nor excuse.
"I like you for that," Cheveril said, after a moment. "Can you bring yourself to shake hands?"
There was unmistakable friendliness in his tone, and Willowby responded to it promptly. He was a sportsman at heart, however he might rail at circumstance.
As their hands met, he looked up with a queer, mirthless smile.
"I hope you are going to be good to her," he said.
"I am going to be good to you both," said Lester Cheveril quietly.
In the silence that followed his words, the band on the pier became audible on a sudden gust of wind. It was gaily jigging out the tune of "The Girl I Left Behind Me."
* * * * *
"What a secluded corner, Miss Harford! May I join you?"
Evelyn Harford looked up with a start of dismay. He was the last person in the world with whom she desired a tete-a-tete; but he was dining at her father's house, and she could not well refuse. Reluctantly she laid aside the paper on her knee.
"I thought you were playing bridge," she said, in a chilly tone.
"I cried off," said Cheveril.
He stood looking down at her with shrewd, kindly eyes. But the girl was too intent upon making her escape to notice his expression.
"Won't you go to the billiard-room?" she said. "They are playing pool."
He shook his head.
"I came here expressly to talk to you," he said.
"Oh!" said Evelyn.
She leaned back in her chair, and tried to appear at her ease; but her heart was thumping tumultuously. The man was going to propose, she knew--she knew; and she was not ready for him. She felt that she would break down ignominiously if he pressed his suit just then.
Cheveril, however, seemed in no hurry. He sat down facing her, and there followed a pause, during which she felt that he was studying her attentively.
Growing desperate at length, she looked him in the face, and spoke.
"I am not a very lively companion to-night, Mr. Cheveril," she said. "That is why I came away from the rest."
There was more of appeal in her voice than she intended; and, realising it, she coloured deeply, and looked away again. He was just the sort of man to avail himself of a moment's weakness, she told herself, with rising agitation. Those shrewd eyes of his missed nothing.
But Cheveril gave no sign of having observed her distress. He maintained his silence for some seconds longer. Then, somewhat abruptly, he broke it.
"I didn't follow you in order to be amused, Miss Harford," he said. "The fact is, I have a confession to make to you, and a favour to ask. And I want you to be good enough to hear me out before you try to answer. May I count on this?"
The dry query did more to quiet her perturbation than any solicitude. She was quite convinced that he meant to propose to her, but his absence of ardour was an immense relief. If he would only be businesslike and not sentimental, she felt that she could bear it.
"Yes, I will listen," she said, facing him with more self-possession than she had been able to muster till that moment. "But I shall want a fair hearing, too--afterwards."
A faint smile flickered across Cheveril's face.
"I shall want to listen to you," he said. "The confession is this: Last night I went down to the parade to smoke. It was very dark. I don't know exactly what attracted me. I came upon two people saying good-bye on the beach. One of them--a woman--was crying."
He paused momentarily. The girl's face had frozen into set lines of composure. It looked like a marble mask. Her eyes met his with an assumption of indifference that scarcely veiled the desperate defiance behind.
"When does the confession begin?" she asked him, with a faint laugh that sounded tragic in spite of her.
He leaned forward, scrutinising her with a wisdom that seemed to pierce every barrier of conventionality and search her very soul.
"It begins now," he said. "She came up on to the parade immediately after, and I waited under a lamp to get a glimpse of her. I saw her face, Miss Harford. I knew her instantly." The girl's eyes flickered a little, and she bit her lip. She was about to speak, but he stopped her with sudden authority. "No, don't answer!" he said. "Hear me out. I waited till she was gone, and then I joined the young fellow on the beach. He was in the mood for a sympathetic listener, and I drew him out. He told me practically everything--how he himself was going to India and had to leave the girl behind, how her people disapproved of him, and how she was being worked upon by means little short of persecution to induce her to marry an outsider on the wrong side of forty, with nothing to recommend him but the size of his banking account. He added that she had not a single friend to stand by and make things easier for her. It was that, Miss Harford, that decided me to take this step. I can't see a woman driven against her will; anything in the world sooner than that. And here comes my request. You want a friend to help you. Let me be that friend. There is a way out of this difficulty if you will but take it. Since I got you into it, it is only fair that I should be the one to help you out. This is not a proposal of marriage, though it may sound like one."
He ended with a smile that was perfectly friendly and kind.
The rigid look had completely passed from the girl's face. She was listening with a curious blend of eagerness and reluctance. Her cheeks were burning; her eyes like stars.
"I am so thankful to hear you say that," she said, drawing a deep breath.
"Shall I go on?" said Cheveril.
She hesitated; and very quietly he held out his hand to her.
"In the capacity of a friend," he said gravely.
And Evelyn Harford put her hand into his with the confidence of a child. It was strange to feel her prejudice against this man evaporate at a touch. It made her oddly unsure of herself. He was the last person in the world to whom she would have voluntarily turned for help.
"Don't be startled by what I am going to say," Cheveril said. "It may strike you as an eccentric suggestion, but there is nothing in it to alarm you. Young Willowby tells me that it will take him two years to make a home for you, and meanwhile your life is to be made a martyrdom on my account. Will you put your freedom in my hands for that two years? In other words, will you consider yourself engaged to me for just so long as his absence lasts? It will save you endless trouble and discomfort, and harm no one. When Willowby comes back, I shall hand you over to him, and your happiness will be secured. Think it over, and don't be scared. You will find me quite easy to manage. In any case, I am a friend you can trust, remember, even though I have got the face of a baboon."
So, with absolute quietness, he made his proposal; and Evelyn, amazed and incredulous, heard him out in silence. At his last words she gave a quick laugh that sounded almost hysterical.
"Oh, don't," she said--"don't! You make me feel so ashamed."
Cheveril's face was suddenly quizzical.
"There is nothing to be ashamed of," he said. "I take all the responsibility, and it would give me very great pleasure to help you."
"But I couldn't do such a thing!" she protested. "I couldn't!"
"Listen!" said Cheveril. "I am off for a yachting trip in the Pacific in a week, and I give you my word of honour not to return for nine months, at least. Will that make it easier for you?"
"I am not thinking of myself," she told him, with vehemence. "Of course, it would make everything right for me, so long as Jim knew. But I must think of you, too. I must----"
"You needn't," Cheveril said gently; "you needn't. I have asked to be allowed to stand by you, to have the great privilege of calling myself your friend in need. I am romantic enough to like to see a love affair go the right way. It is for my pleasure, if you care to regard it from that point of view." He paused, and into his eyes there came a queer, watchful expression--the look of a man who hazards much, yet holds himself in check. Then he smiled at her with baffling humour.
"Don't refuse me my opportunity, Miss Harford," he said. "I know I am eccentric, but I assure you I can be a staunch friend to those I like."
Evelyn had risen, and as he ended he also got to his feet. He knew that she was studying him with all her woman's keenness of perception. But the game was in his hands, and he realised it. He was no longer afraid of the issue.
"You offer me this out of friendship?" she said at last.
He watched her fingers nervously playing with a bracelet on her wrist.
"Exactly," he said.
Her eyes met his resolutely.
"Mr. Cheveril," she said (and though she spoke quietly, it was with an effort), "I want you, please, to answer just one question. You have been shown all the cards; but there must--there shall be--fair play, in spite of it."
Her voice rang a little. The bracelet suddenly slipped from her hand and fell to the floor. Cheveril stooped and picked it up. He held it as he made reply.
"Yes," he said, "I like fair play, too."
"Then you will tell me the truth?" she said, holding out her hand for her property. "I want to know if--if you were really going to ask me to marry you before this happened?"
He looked at her with raised eyebrows. Then he took the extended hand.
"Of course I was!" he said simply. She drew back a little, but Cheveril showed no discomfiture. "You see, I'm getting on in life," he said, in a patriarchal tone. "No doubt it was rank presumption on my part to imagine myself in any way suited to you; but I thought it would be nice to have a young wife to look after me. And you know the proverb about 'an old man's darling.' I believe I rather counted on that."
Again he looked quizzical; but the girl was not satisfied.
"That's ridiculous!" she said. "You talk as if you were fifty years older than you are. It may be funny, but it isn't strictly honest."
"I know what you mean," he said. "But really I'm not being funny. And I am telling you the simple truth when I say that all sentimental nonsense was knocked out of me long ago, when the girl I cared for ran away with a good-looking beast in the Army. Also, I am quite honest when I assure you that I would rather be your trusted friend and accomplice than your rejected suitor. By Jove, I seem to be asking a good deal of you!"
"No, don't laugh," she said quickly, almost as if something in his careless speech had pained her. "We must look at the matter from every stand-point before--before we take any action. Suppose you really did want to marry some one? Suppose you fell in love again? What then?"
"What then?" said Cheveril. And, though he was obligingly serious, she felt that somehow, somewhere, he was tricking her. "I should have to ask you to release me in that event. But I don't think it's very likely that will happen. I'm not so impressionable as I was."
She looked at him doubtfully. Obviously he was not in love with her, yet she was uneasy. She had a curious sense of loss, of disappointment, which even Jim's departure had not created in her.
"I don't feel that I am doing right," she said finally.
"I am quite unscrupulous," said Cheveril lightly. "Moreover, there is no harm to any one in the transaction. Your life is your own. No one else has the right to order it for you. It seems to me that in this matter you need to consider yourself alone."
"And you," she said, in a troubled tone.
He surprised her an instant later by thrusting a friendly hand through her arm.
"Come!" he said, smiling down at her. "Let us go and announce the good news!"
And so she yielded to him, and went.
* * * * *
The news of Evelyn Harford's engagement to Lester Cheveril was no great surprise to any one. It leaked out through private sources, it being understood that no public announcement was to be made till the marriage should be imminent. And as Cheveril had departed in his yacht to the Pacific very shortly after his proposal, there seemed small likelihood of the union taking place that year.
Meanwhile, her long battle over, Evelyn prepared herself to enjoy her hard-earned peace. Her father no longer poured hurricanes of wrath upon her for her obduracy. Her mother's bitter reproaches had wholly ceased. The home atmosphere had become suddenly calm and sunny. The eldest daughter of the house had done her obvious duty, and the family was no longer shaken and upset by internal tumult.
But the peace was only on the surface so far as Evelyn was concerned. Privately, she was less at peace than she had ever been, and that not on her own account or on Jim Willowby's. Every letter she received from the man who had taken her part against himself stirred afresh in her a keen self-reproach and sense of shame. He wrote to her from every port he touched, brief, friendly epistles that she might have shown to all the world, but which she locked away secretly, and read only in solitude. Her letters to him were even briefer, and she never guessed how Cheveril cherished those scanty favours.
So through all that summer they kept up the farce. In the autumn Evelyn went to pay a round of visits at various country-houses, and it was while staying from home that a letter from Jim Willowby reached her.
He wrote in apparently excellent spirits. He had had an extraordinary piece of luck, he said, and had been offered a very good post in Burmah. If she would consent to go out to him, they could be married at once.
That letter Evelyn read during a solitary ramble over a wide Yorkshire moor, and when she looked up from the boy's signature her expression was hunted, even tragic.
Jim had carefully considered ways and means. The thing she had longed for was within her grasp. All she had ever asked for herself was flung to her without stint.
But--what had happened to her? she wondered vaguely--she realised it all fully, completely, yet with no thrill of gladness. Something subtly potent seemed wound about her heart, holding her back; something that was stronger far than the thought of Jim was calling to her, crying aloud across the barren deserts of her soul. And in that moment she knew that her marriage with Jim had become a final impossibility, and that it was imperative upon her to write at once and tell him so.
She walked miles that day, and returned at length utterly wearied in body and mind. She was facing the hardest problem of her life.
Not till after midnight was her letter to Jim finished, and even then she could not rest. Had she utterly ruined the boy's life? she wondered, as she sealed and directed her crude, piteous appeal for freedom.
When the morning light came grey through her window she was still poring above a blank sheet of notepaper.
This eventually carried but one sentence, addressed to the friend who had stood by her in trouble; and later in the day she sent it by cable to the other side of the world. The message ran: "Please cancel engagement.--Evelyn." His answering cable was brought to her at the dinner-table. Two words only--"Delighted.--Lester."
Out of a mist of floating uncertainty she saw her host bend towards her.
"All well, I trust?" he said kindly.
And she made a desperate effort to control her weakness and reply naturally.
"Oh, quite, quite," she said. "It is exactly what I expected." Nevertheless, she was trembling from head to foot, as if she had been dealt a stunning blow.
Had she altogether expected so prompt and obliging a reply?
* * * * *
Some weeks later, on an afternoon of bleak, early spring, Evelyn wandered alone on the shore where she had bidden Jim Willowby farewell. It was raining, and the sea was grey and desolate. The tide was coming in with a fierce roaring that seemed to fill the whole world.
She had a letter from Jim in her hand--his answer to her appeal for freedom; and she had sought the solitude of the shore in which to read it.
She took shelter from the howling sea-wind behind a great boulder of rock. She dreaded his reproaches unspeakably. For the past six weeks she had lived in dread of that moment. Her fingers were shaking as she opened the envelope that bore his boyish scrawl.
An enclosure fell out before she had withdrawn his letter. She caught it up hastily before the wind could take possession. It was an unmounted photograph--actually the portrait of a girl.
Evelyn stared at the roguish, laughing face with a great amazement. Then, with a haste that baffled its own ends, she sought his letter.
It began with astounding jauntiness:
Evelyn looked up from the letter with a deep breath of relief. It was so amazingly satisfactory. She almost forgot the emptiness of her own life for the moment in her rejoicing over Jim's happiness.
There was a little puddle of sea-water at her feet; and she climbed up to a comfortable perch on her sheltering rock and turned her face to the sea. Somehow, it did not seem so desolate as it had seemed five minutes before. This particular seat was a favourite haunt of hers in the summer. She loved to watch the tide come foaming up, and to feel the salt spray in her face.
Five minutes later, a great wave came hurling at the rock on which she sat, and, breaking in a torrent of foam, deluged her from head to foot.
She started up in swift alarm. The tide was coming in fast--much faster than she had anticipated. The shore curved inwards in a deep bay just there, and the cliffs rose sheer and unscalable from it to a considerable height.
Evelyn seldom went down to the shore in the winter, and she was not familiar with its dangers. The sea had seemed far enough out for safety when she had rounded the point nearest to the town, barely half an hour before. It was with almost incredulous horror that she saw that the waves were already breaking at the foot of the cliffs she had skirted.
She turned with a sudden, awful fear at her heart to look towards the farther point. It was a full mile away, and she saw instantly that she could not possibly reach it in time. The waves were already foaming white among the scattered boulders at its base.
Again a great wave broke behind her with a sound like the booming of a gun; and she realised that she would be surrounded in less than thirty seconds if she remained where she was. She slipped and slid down the side of the rock with the speed of terror, and plunged recklessly into a foot of water at the bottom. Before another wave broke she was dashing and stumbling among the rocks like a frenzied creature seeking safety from the remorseless, devouring monster that roared behind her.
The next five minutes of her life held for her an agony more terrible than anything she had ever known. Sea, sky, wind, and sudden pelting rain seemed leagued against her in a monstrous array against which she battled vainly with her puny woman's strength. The horror of it was like a leaden, paralysing weight. She fought and struggled because instinct compelled her; but at her heart was the awful knowledge that the sea had claimed her and she could not possibly escape.
She made for the farther point of the bay, though she knew she could not reach it in time. The loose shingle crumbled about her feet; the seaweed trapped her everywhere. She fell a dozen times in that awful race, and each time she rose in agony and tore on. The tumult all about her was like the laughter of fiends. She felt as if hell had opened its mouth, and she, poor soul, was its easy prey.
There came a moment at last when she tripped and fell headlong, and could not rise again. That moment was the culmination of her anguish. Neither soul nor body could endure more. Darkness--a howling, unholy darkness--came down upon her in a thick cloud from which there was no escape. She made a futile, convulsive effort to pray, and lost consciousness in the act.
* * * * *
Out of the darkness at length she came.
The tumult was still audible, but it was farther away, less overwhelming. She opened her eyes in a strange, unnatural twilight, and stared vaguely upwards.
At the same instant she became aware of some one at her side, bending over her--a man whose face, revealed to her in the dim light, sent a throb of wonder through her heart.
"You!" she said, speaking with a great effort. "Is it really you?"
He was rubbing one of her hands between his own. He paused to answer.
"Yes; it's really me," he said. And she fancied his voice quivered a little. "They told me I might perhaps find you on the shore. Are you better?"
She tried to sit up, and he helped her, keeping his arm about her shoulders. She found herself lying on a ledge of rock high up in the slanting wall of a deep and narrow cave. She knew the place well, and had always avoided it with instinctive aversion. It was horribly eerie. The rocky walls were wet with the ooze and slime of the ages. There was a trickle of spring-water along the ridged floor.
Evelyn closed her eyes dizzily. The marvel of the man's presence was still upon her, but the horror of death haunted her also. She would rather have been drowned outside on the howling shore than here.
"The sea comes in at high tide," she murmured shakily.
Lester Cheveril, crouching beside her, made undaunted reply.
"Yes, I know. But it won't touch us. Don't be afraid!"
The assurance with which he spoke struck her very forcibly; but something held her back from questioning the grounds of his confidence.
"How did you get here?" she asked him instead.
"I saw you from the corner of the bay," he said. "It was before you left your rock. I climbed round the point over the boulders. I thought at the time that there must be some way up the cliff. Then I saw you start running, and I knew you were cut off. I yelled to you, but I couldn't make you hear. So I had to give chase."
His arm tightened a little about her.
"I am sorry you were scared," he said. "Are you feeling better now?"
She could not understand him. He spoke with such entire absence of anxiety. In spite of herself her own fears began to subside.
"Yes, I am better," she said. "But--tell me more. Why didn't you go back when you saw what had happened?"
"I couldn't," he said simply. "Besides, even if they launched the lifeboat, the chances were dead against their reaching you. I thought of a rope, too. But that seemed equally risky. It was a choice of odds. I chose what looked the easiest."
"And carried me here?" she said.
The light, shining weirdly in upon his face, showed her that he was smiling.
"I couldn't stop to consult you," he said. "I saw this hole, and I made for it. I climbed up with you across my shoulder."
"You are wonderfully strong," she said, in a tone of surprise.
He laughed openly.
"Notwithstanding my size," he said. "Yes; I'm fairly muscular, thank Heaven."
Evelyn's mind was still working round the problem of deliverance.
"We shall have to stay here for hours," she said, "even if--if----"
He interrupted her with grave authority.
"There is no 'if,' Miss Harford," he said. "We may have to spend some hours here; but it will be in safety."
"I don't see how you can tell," she ventured to remark, beginning to look around her with greater composure notwithstanding.
"Providence doesn't play practical jokes of that sort," said Cheveril quietly. "Do you know I have come from the other end of the earth to see you?"
She felt the burning colour rush up to her temples, yet she made a determined effort to look him in the face. His eyes, keen and kindly, were searching hers, and she found she could not meet them.
"I--I don't know what brought you," she said, in a very low voice.
She felt the arm that supported her grow rigid, and guessed that he was putting force upon himself as he made reply.
"Let me explain," he said. "You sent me a cablegram which said, 'Please cancel engagement.' Naturally that had but one meaning for me--you and Jim Willowby had got the better of your difficulties, and were going to be married. In the capacity of friend, I received the news with rejoicing. So I cabled back 'Delighted.' Soon after that came a letter from Jim to tell me you had thrown him over. Now, why?"
She answered him with her head bent:
"I found that I didn't care for him quite in that way."
Cheveril did not speak for several seconds. Then, abruptly, he said:
"There is another fellow in the business."
She made a slight gesture of appeal, and remained silent.
He leaned forward slowly at length, and laid his hand upon both of hers.
"Evelyn," he said very gently, "will you tell me his name?"
She shook her head instantly. Her lips were quivering, and she bit them desperately.
He waited, but no word came. Outside, the roaring of the sea was terrible and insistent. The great sound sent a shudder through the girl. She shrank closer to the cold stone.
He pulled off his coat and wrapped it round her. Then, as if she had been a child, he drew her gently into his arms, and held her so.
"Tell me--now," he said softly.
But she hid her face dumbly. No words would come.
It seemed a long while before he spoke again.
"That cable of yours was a fraud," he said then. "I was not--I am not--prepared to release you from your engagement except under the original condition."
"I think you must," she said faintly.
He sought for her cold hands and thrust them against his neck. And again there was a long silence, while outside the sea raged fiercely, and far below them in the distance a white streak of foam ran bubbling over the rocky floor.
Soon the streak had become a stream of dancing, storm-tossed water. Evelyn watched it with wide, fascinated eyes. But she made no sign of fear. She felt as if he had, somehow, laid a quieting hand upon her soul.
Higher the water rose, and higher. The cave was filled with dreadful sound. It was almost dark, for dusk had fallen. She felt that but for the man's presence she would have been wild with fear. But his absolute confidence wove a spell about her that no terror could penetrate. The close holding of his arms was infinitely comforting to her. She knew with complete certainty that he was not afraid.
"It's very dark," she whispered to him once; and he pressed her head down upon his breast and told her not to look. Through the tumult she heard the strong, quiet beating of his heart, and was ashamed of her own mortal fear.
It seemed to her that hours passed while she crouched there, listening, as the water rose and rose. She caught the gleam of it now and then, and once her face was wet with spray. She clung closer and closer to her companion, but she kept down her panic. She felt that he expected it of her, and she would have died there in the dark, sooner than have disappointed him.
At last, after an eternity of quiet waiting, he spoke.
"The tide has turned," he said. And his tone carried conviction with it.
She raised her head to look.
A dim, silvery light shone mysteriously in revealing the black walls above them, the tossing water below. It had been within a foot of their resting-place, but it had dropped fully six inches.
Evelyn felt a great throb of relief pass through her. Only then did she fully realise how great her fear had been.
"Is that the moon?" she asked wonderingly.
"Yes," said Cheveril. He spoke in a low voice, even with reverence, she thought. "We shall be out of this in an hour. It will light us home."
"How--wonderful!" she said, half involuntarily.
Cheveril said no more; but the silence that fell between them was the silence of that intimacy which only those who have stood together before the great threshold of death can know. Many minutes passed before Evelyn spoke again, and then her words came slowly, with hesitation.
"You knew?" she said. "You knew that we were safe?"
"Yes," he answered quietly; "I knew. God doesn't give with one hand and take away with the other. Have you never noticed that?"
"I don't know," she answered with a sharp sigh. "He has never given me anything very valuable."
"Quite sure?" said Cheveril, and she caught the old quizzical note in his voice.
She did not reply. She was trying to understand him in the darkness, and she found it a difficult matter.
There followed a long, long silence. The roar of the breaking seas had become remote and vague.
But the moonlight was growing brighter. The dark cave was no longer a place of horror.
"Shall we go?" Evelyn suggested at last.
He peered downwards.
"I think we might," he said. "No doubt your people will be very anxious about you."
They climbed down with difficulty, till they finally stood together on the wet stones.
And there Cheveril reached out a hand and detained the girl beside him.
"That other fellow?" he said, in his quiet, half-humorous voice. "You didn't tell me his name."
"Oh, please!" she said tremulously.
He took her hands gently into his, and stood facing her. The moonlight was full in his eyes. They shone with a strange intensity.
"Do you remember," he said, "how I once said to you that I was romantic enough to like to see a love affair go the right way?"
She did not answer him. She was trembling in his hold.
He waited for a few seconds; then spoke, still kindly, but with a force that in a measure compelled her:
"That is why I want you to tell me his name."
She turned her face aside.
"I--I can't!" she said piteously.
"Then I hold you to your engagement," said Lester Cheveril, with quiet determination.
Her hands leapt in his. She threw him a quick uncertain glance.
"You can't mean that!" she said.
"I do mean it," he rejoined resolutely.
"But--but--" she faltered. "You don't really want to marry me? You can't!"
He looked grimly at her for a moment. Then abruptly he broke into a laugh that rang and echoed exultantly in the deep shadows behind them.
"I want it more than anything else on earth," he said. "Does that satisfy you?"
His face was close to hers, but she felt no desire to escape. That laugh of his was still ringing like sweetest music through her soul.
He took her shoulders between his hands, searching her face closely.
"And now," he said--"now tell me his name!"
Yet a moment longer she withstood him. Then she yielded, and went into his arms, laughing also--a broken, tearful laugh.
"His name is--Lester Cheveril," she whispered. "But I--I can't think how you guessed."
He answered her as he turned her face upwards to meet his own.
"The friend who stands by sees many things," he said wisely. "And Love is not always blind."
"But you--you weren't in love," she protested. "Not when----"
He interrupted her instantly and convincingly.
"I have always loved you," he said.
And she believed him, because her own heart told her that he had spoken the truth.