The Knight Errant by Ethel M. Dell
Chapter IV. A Council of War
They had tea in a secluded corner, well removed from all prying eyes. Gradually, as the minutes passed, the girl's manner became more assured.
When at length he leaned his elbows on the table and said, "Tell me all about it," she was ready.
She leaned towards him, and dropped her voice.
"You know Mr. Dinghra Singh? I'm sure you do. Every one does."
"Yes, I know him. They call him Nana Sahib at the clubs."
She shuddered again.
"I used to like him rather. He has a wicked sort of fascination, you know. But I loathe him now; I abhor him. And--I am terrified at him."
She stopped. Rivington said nothing. There was not much expression in his eyes. Without seeming to scan very closely, they rested on her face.
After a moment, in a whisper, she continued:
"He follows me about perpetually. I meet him everywhere. He looks at me with horrid eyes. I know, without seeing, the instant he comes into the room."
She paused. Rivington still said nothing.
"He is very rich, you know," she went on, with an effort. "He will be Rajah of Ferosha some day. And, of course, every one is very nice to him in consequence. I never was that. Don't think it! But I used to laugh at him. It's my way. Most men don't like it. No Englishmen do that I know of. But he--this man--is, somehow, different from every one else. And--can you believe it?--he is literally stalking me. He sends me presents--exquisite things, jewellery, that my mother won't let me return. I asked him not to once, and he laughed in my face. He has a horrible laugh. He is half-English, too. I believe that makes him worse. If he were an out-and-out native he wouldn't be quite so revolting. Of course, I see my mother's point of view. Naturally, she would like me to be a princess, and, as she says, I can't pick and choose. Which is true, you know," she put in quaintly, "for men don't like me as a rule; at least, not the marrying sort. I rather think I'm not the marrying sort myself. I've never been in love, never once. But I couldn't--I could not--marry Dinghra. But it's no good telling him so. The cooler I am to him the hotter he seems to get, till--till I'm beginning to wonder how I can possibly get away."
The note of distress sounded again in her voice. Very quietly, as though in answer to it, Rivington reached out a hand and laid it over hers.
But his eyes never varied as he said:
"Won't you finish?"
She bent her head.
"You'll think me foolish to be so easily scared," she said, a slight catch in her voice. "Most women manage to take care of themselves. I ought to be able to."
"Please go on," he said. "I don't think you foolish at all."
She continued, without raising her eyes:
"Things have been getting steadily worse. Last week at Lady Villar's ball I had to dance with him four times. I tried to refuse, but mother was there. She wouldn't hear of it. You know"--appealingly--"she is so experienced. She knows how to insist without seeming to, so that, unless one makes a scene, one has to yield. I thought each dance that he meant to propose, but I just managed to steer clear. I felt absolutely delirious the whole time. Most people thought I was enjoying it. Old Lady Phillips told me I was looking quite handsome." She laughed a little. "Well, after all, there seemed to be no escape, and I got desperate. It was like a dreadful nightmare. I went to the opera one night, and he came and sat close behind me and talked in whispers. When he wasn't talking I knew that he was watching me--gloating over me. It was horrible--horrible! Last night I wouldn't go out with the others. I simply couldn't face it. And--do you know--he came to me!" She began to breathe quickly, unevenly. The hands that lay in Rivington's quiet grasp moved with nervous restlessness. "There was no one in the house besides the servants," she said. "What could I do? He was admitted before I knew. Of course, I ought to have refused to see him, but he was very insistent, and I thought it a mistake to seem afraid. So I went to him--I went to him."
The words came with a rush. She began to tremble all over. She was almost sobbing.
Rivington's fingers closed very slowly, barely perceptibly, till his grip was warm and close. "Take your time," he said gently. "It's all right, you know--all right."
"Thank you," she whispered. "Well, I saw him. He was in a dangerous--a wild-beast mood. He told me I needn't try to run away any longer, for I was caught. He said--and I know it was true--that he had obtained my mother's full approval and consent. He swore that he wouldn't leave me until I promised to marry him. He was terrible, with a sort of suppressed violence that appalled me. I tried not to let him see how terrified I was. I kept quite quiet and temperate for a long time. I told him I could never, never marry him. And each time I said it, he smiled and showed his teeth. He was like a tiger. His eyes were fiendish. But he, too, kept quiet for ever so long. He tried persuasion, he tried flattery. Oh, it was loathsome--loathsome! And then quite suddenly he turned savage, and--and threatened me."
She glanced nervously into Rivington's face, but it told her nothing. He looked merely thoughtful.
She went on more quietly.
"That drove me desperate, and I exclaimed, hardly thinking, 'I wouldn't marry you if you were the only man in the world--which you are not!' 'Oh!' he said at once. 'There is another man, is there?' He didn't seem to have thought that possible. And I--I was simply clutching at straws--I told him 'Yes.' It was a lie, you know--the first deliberate lie I think I have ever told since I came to years of discretion. There isn't another man, or likely to be. That's just the trouble. If there were, my mother wouldn't be so angry with me for refusing this chance of marriage, brilliant though she thinks it. But I was quite desperate. Do you think it was very wrong of me?"
"No," said Rivington deliberately, "I don't. I lie myself--when necessary."
"He was furious," she said. "He swore that no other man should stand in his way. And then--I don't know how it was; perhaps I wasn't very convincing--he began to suspect that I had lied. That drove me into a corner. I didn't know what to say or do. And then, quite suddenly, in my extremity, I thought of you. I really don't know what made me. I didn't so much as know if you were in town. And in a flash I thought of sending that announcement to the paper. That would convince him if nothing else would, and it would mean at least a temporary respite. It was a mad thing to do, I know. But I thought you were elderly and level-headed and a confirmed bachelor and--and a sort of cousin as well----"
"To the tenth degree," murmured Rivington.
"So I told him," she hurried on, unheeding, "that we were engaged, and it was just going to be announced. When he heard that, he lost his head. I really think he was mad for the moment. He sprang straight at me like a wild beast, and I--I simply turned and fled. I'm pretty nimble, you know, when--when there are mad bulls about." Her quick smile flashed across her face and was gone. "That's all," she said. "I tore up to my room, and scribbled that paragraph straight away. I dared not wait for anything. And then I wrote to you. You had my letter with the paper this morning."
"Yes, I had them." Rivington spoke absently. She had a feeling that his eyes were fixed upon her without seeing her. "So that's all, is it?" he said slowly.
Again nervously her hands moved beneath his.
"I've been very headlong and idiotic," she said impulsively. "I've put you in an intolerable position. You must write at once and contradict it in the next issue."
"Do you mind not talking nonsense for a minute?" he said mildly. "I shall see my way directly."
She dropped into instant silence, sitting tense and mute, scarcely even breathing, while the pale blue eyes opposite remained steadily and unblinkingly fixed upon her face.
After a few moments he spoke.
"When does your mother return?"
"To-morrow morning." She hesitated for a second; then, "Of course she will be furious," she said. "You won't be able to argue with her. No one can."
Rivington's eyes looked faintly quizzical.
"I don't propose to try," he said. "She is, as I well know, an adept in the gentle art of snubbing. And I am no match for her there. She has, moreover, a rooted objection to poor relations, for which I can hardly blame her--a prejudice which, however, I am pleased to note that you do not share."
He smiled at her with the words, and she flashed him a quick, answering smile, though her lips were quivering.
"I am not a bit like my mother," she said. "I was always dad's girl--while he lived. It was he who called me Chirpy. No one else ever did--but you."
"A great piece of presumption on my part," said Rivington.
"No. I like you to. It makes you seem like an old friend, which is what I need just now, more than anything."
"Quite so," said Rivington. "That qualifies me to advise, I suppose. I hope you won't be shocked at what I am going to suggest."
She met his eyes with complete confidence. "I shall do it whatever it is," she said.
"Don't be rash," he rejoined. "It entails a sacrifice. But it is the only thing that occurs to me for the moment. I think if you are wise you will leave London to-night."
"Leave London!" she echoed, looking startled.
"Yes. Just drop out for a bit, cut everything, and give this business a chance to blow over. Leave a note behind for mamma when she arrives, and tell her why. She'll understand."
"But--but--how can I? Dinghra will only follow me, and I shall be more at his mercy than ever in the country."
"If he finds you," said Rivington.
"But mother would tell him directly where to look."
"If she knew herself," he returned drily.
"Oh!" She stared at him with eyes of grave doubt. "But," she said, after a moment, "I have no money. I can't live on nothing."
"I do," said Rivington. "You can do the same."
She shook her head instantly, though she smiled.
"Not on the same nothing, Mr. Rivington."
He took his hand abruptly from hers.
"Look here, Chirpy," he said; "don't be a snob!"
"I'm not," she protested.
"Yes, you are. It's atrocious to be put in my place by a chit like you. I won't put up with it." He frowned at her ferociously. "You weren't above asking my help, but if you are above taking it--I've done with you."
"Oh, not really!" she pleaded. "It was foolish of me, I admit, because you really are one of the family. Please don't scowl so. It doesn't suit your style of beauty in the least, and I am sure you wouldn't like to spoil a good impression."
But he continued to frown uncompromisingly, till she stretched out a conciliatory hand to him across the table.
"Don't be cross, Knight Errant! I know you are only pretending."
"Then don't do it again," he said, relaxing, and pinching her fingers somewhat heartlessly. "I'm horribly sensitive on some points. As I was saying, it won't hurt you very badly to live on nothing for a bit, even if you are a lady of extravagant tastes."
"Oh, but I can work," she said eagerly. "I can change my name, and go into a shop."
"Of course," he said, mildly sarcastic. "You will doubtless find your vocation sooner or later. But that is not the present point. Now, listen! In the county of Hampshire is a little place called Weatherbroom--quite a little place, just a hamlet and a post-office. Just out of the hamlet is a mill with a few acres of farm land attached. It's awfully picturesque--a regular artists' place. By the way, are you an artist?"
"Oh, no. I sketch a little, but----"
"That'll do. You are not an artist, but you sketch. Then you won't be quite stranded. It's very quiet, you know. There's no society. Only the miller and his wife, and now and then the landlord--an out-at-elbows loafer who drifts about town and, very occasionally, plays knight errant to ladies in distress. There isn't even a curate. Can you possibly endure it?"
She raised her head and laughed--a sweet, spontaneous laugh, inexpressibly gay.
"Oh, you are good--just good! It's the only word that describes you. I always felt you were. I didn't know you were a landed proprietor, though."
"In a very small way," he assured her.
"How nice!" she said eagerly. "Yes, I'll go. I shall love it. But"--her face falling--"what of you? Shall you stay in town?"
"And face the music," said the Poor Relation, with his most benign smile. "That is my intention. Don't pity me! I shall enjoy it."
"Is it possible?" Again she looked doubtful.
"Of course it's possible. I enjoy a good row now and then. It keeps me in condition. I'll come down and see you some day, and tell you all about it." He glanced at his watch. "I think we ought to be moving. We will discuss arrangements as we go. I must send a wire to Mrs. Perkiss, and tell her you will go down by the seven-thirty. I will see you into the train at this end, and they will meet you at the other with the cart. It's three miles from the railway."
As they passed out together, he added meditatively, "I think you'll like the old mill, Chirpy. It's thatched."
"I'm sure I shall," she answered earnestly.