Chapter VII. The Conqueror
 

They found Adela awaiting them in her corner, but chafing for a change.

"I want you to take us to the billiard-room," she said to Fletcher. "There's a great match on. I've heard a lot of men talking about it. And I adore watching billiards. I'm sure we shan't be in the way. I'll promise not to talk, and Dot is as quiet as a mouse."

Fletcher considered the point. "I believe it's a fairly respectable crowd," he said, looking at Dot. "But you're tired."

"Oh, no," she said at once. "I don't feel a bit sleepy. Let us go in by all means if you think no one will mind! I like watching billiards, too."

"It's a man called Warden," said Adela. "That's the new manager of the Fortescue Gold Mine, isn't it? They say he has the most marvelous luck. He is playing the old manager--Harley, and giving him fifty points. There's some pretty warm betting going on, I can tell you. Do let us go and have a look at them! They've got the girl from the bar to mark for them, so we shan't be the only women there."

She was evidently on fire for this new excitement, and Fletcher Hill, seeing that Dot meant what she said, led the way without further discussion. He paused outside the billiard-room door, which stood ajar; for a tense silence reigned. But it was broken in a moment by the sharp clash of the balls and a perfect howl of enthusiasm from the spectators.

"Oh, it's over!" exclaimed Adela. "What a pity! Never mind! Let's go in! Perhaps they'll play again."

The barmaid came flying out to fetch drinks as they entered. The atmosphere of the room was thick with smoke. A babel of voices filled it. Men who had been sitting round the walls were grouped about the table. In the midst of them stood the victor in his shirt-sleeves, conspicuous in the crowd by reason of his great height--a splendid figure of manhood with a careless freedom of bearing that was in its way superb.

He was turned away from the door at their entrance, and Dot saw only a massive head of straw-coloured hair above a neck that was burnt brick-red. Then, laughing at some joke, he wheeled round again to the table; and she saw his face....

It was the face of a Viking, deeply sunburnt, vividly alive. A fair moustache covered his upper lip, and below it the teeth gleamed, white and regular like the teeth of an animal in the wilderness. He had that indescribable look of morning-time, of youth at its best, which only springs in the wild. His eyes were intensely blue. They gazed straight across at her with startling directness.

And suddenly Dot's heart gave a great jerk, and stood still. It was not the first time that those eyes had looked into hers.

The moment passed. He bent himself over the table, poised for a stroke, which she saw him execute a second later with a delicacy that thrilled her strangely. Full well did she remember the deftness and the steadiness of those brown hands. Had they not held her up, sustained her, in the greatest crisis of her life?

Her heart throbbed on again with hard, uneven strokes. She was straining her ears for the sound of his voice--that voice that had once spoken to her quivering soul, pleading with her that she would at their next meeting treat him--without prejudice. The memory thrilled through her. This was the man for whose coming she had waited so long!

He had straightened himself again, and was coming round the table to follow up his stroke. Fletcher Hill spoke at her shoulder.

"Sit down!" he said. "There is room here."

There was a small space on the corner of the raised settee that ran along the side of the room. Dot and Adela sat down together. Hill stood beside them, looking over the faces of the men present, with keen eyes that missed nothing.

Dot sat palpitating, her hands clasped before her, seeing only the great figure that leaned over the table for another stroke. Would he look at her again? Would he remember her? Would he speak?

Fascinated, she watched him. He executed his stroke, again with that steady confidence, that self-detachment, that seemed to set him apart from all other men. He was standing close to her now, and the nearness of his presence thrilled her. She tingled from head to foot, as if under the power of an electric battery.

His late opponent stood facing her on the other side of the table, a grey-haired man with crafty eyes that seemed to look in all directions at the same time. She took an instinctive dislike to him. He wore a furtive air.

Warden stood up again, moving with that free swing of his as of one born to conquer. He turned deliberately and faced them.

"Good evening, Mr. Hill!" he said. "I'm standing drinks all round. I hope you will join us."

It was frankly spoken, and Hill's instant refusal sounded unnecessarily curt in Dot's ears.

"No, thanks. I am with ladies," he said. "I suppose the play is over?"

Warden glanced across the table. "Unless Harley wants his revenge," he said.

The grey-haired man uttered a laugh that was like the bark of a vicious dog. "I'll have that another day," he said. "It won't spoil by keeping. You are a player yourself, Mr. Hill. Why don't you take him on?"

"Oh, do!" burst forth Adela. "I should love to see a good game. You ask him to, Dot! He'll do it for you."

But Dot sat silent, her fingers straining against each other, her eyes fixed straight before her, seeing yet unseeing, as one beneath a spell.

There was a momentary pause. The room was full of the harsh babel of men's voices. The drinks were being distributed.

Suddenly a voice spoke out above the rest. "Here's to the new manager! Good luck to him! Bill Warden, here's to you! Success and plenty of it!"

Instantly the hubbub increased a hundredfold. Bill Warden swung round laughing to face the clamour, and the tension went out of Dot. She drooped forward with a weary gesture. As in a dream she heard the laughter and the shouting. It seemed to sweep around her in great billows of sound. But she was too tired to notice, too tired to care. He did not know her. She was sure of that now. He had forgotten. The memory that had affected her so poignantly had slipped like a dim cloud below his horizon. The glory had departed, and life was grey and cold.

"You are tired," said Fletcher's voice beside her. "Would you like to go?"

She looked up at him. His eyes were searching hers, and swiftly she realized that this discovery that she had made must be kept a secret. If Hill began to suspect, he would very quickly ferret out the truth, and the man would be ruined. She knew Hill's stern justice. He would act instantly and without mercy if he knew the truth.

She braced herself with a great effort to baffle him. "No, oh, no!" she said. "I am really not tired. Do play! I should love to see you play."

He looked sardonic. "Love to see me beaten!" he said.

She put out a quick hand. "Of course not! You will beat him easily. You are always on the top. Do try!"

He smiled a little, and turned from her. She saw him approach Warden and tap him on the shoulder.

Warden wheeled sharply, so sharply that the drink he held splashed over the edge of the glass. The excitement in the room was dying down. She watched the two men with an odd breathlessness, and in a moment she realized that everyone else present was watching them also.

Then they both turned towards her, and through a great singing that suddenly arose in her ears she heard Adela whisper excitedly, "My dear, he is actually going to introduce that amazing person to us!"

She sat up with a stiff movement, feeling cold, inanimate, strangely impotent, and in a moment he was standing before her with Fletcher, and she heard the latter introduce her as his "affianced wife."

Mutely she gave him her hand. It was Adela who filled in the gap, eager for entertainment, and the next moment Warden had turned to her, and was talking in his careless, leisurely fashion. The ordeal was past, her pulses quieted down again. Yet she realized that he had not addressed a single word to her, and the conviction came upon her that not thus would he have treated one who was a total stranger to him.

Because of Fletcher, who remained beside her, she forced herself to join in the conversation, seconding Adela's urgent request that the two men would play.

Warden laughed and looked at Fletcher. "Do you care to take me on, sir?" he said.

From the other side of the table, Harley uttered his barking laugh. "Now is your chance, Mr. Hill! Down him once and for all, and give us the pleasure of seeing how it's done!"

There was venom in the words. They were a revelation to Dot, the almost silent looker-on. It was as if a flashlight had given her a sudden glimpse of this man's soul, showing her bitter enmity--a black and cruel hatred--an implacable yearning for revenge. She felt as if she had looked down into the seething heart of a volcano.

Then she heard Hill's voice. "I am quite willing to play," he said.

A buzz of interest went through the room. The prospective match plainly excited Warden's many admirers. They drew together, and she heard some low-voiced betting begin.

But this was instantly checked by Fletcher. "I'm not doing it for a gamble," he said, curtly. "Please keep your money in your pockets, or the match is off!"

They looked at him with lowering glances, but they submitted. It was evident to Dot that they all stood in considerable awe of him--all save Warden, who chalked Hill's cue with supreme self-assurance, and then lighted a cigarette without the smallest hint of embarrassment.

The match began, and though the gambling had been checked a breathless interest prevailed. Fletcher Hill's play was not well known at Trelevan, but at the very outset it was evident to the most casual observer that he was a skilled player. He spoke scarcely at all, and his face was masklike in its composure, but Dot, watching, knew with that intuition which of late had begun to grow upon her that he was grimly set upon obtaining the victory. The knowledge thrilled her with a strange excitement. She knew that he was in a fashion desirous of proving himself in her eyes, that he had entered into the contest solely for her.

As for Warden, she believed he was playing entirely to please himself. He took an artistic interest in every stroke, but the ultimate issue of the game did not seem to enter into his calculation. He played like a sportsman, sometimes rashly, often brilliantly, but never selfishly. It was impossible to watch him with indifference. Even his failures were sensational. As Adela had said of him, he was amazing.

Hill's play was absolutely steady. It lacked the vitality of the younger man's, but it had about it a clockwork species of regularity that Dot found curiously pleasing to watch. She had not thought that her interest could be so deeply aroused; before the game was half through she was as deeply absorbed as anyone present.

It did not take her long to realize that public sympathy was entirely on Warden's side, and it was that fact more than any other that disposed her in Fletcher's favour. She saw that he had a hard fight before him, for Warden led almost from the beginning, though with all his brilliancy he never drew very far ahead. Fletcher kept a steady pace behind him, and she knew he would not be easily beaten.

Once he came and stood beside her after a very creditable break, and she slipped a shy hand into his for a few seconds. His fingers closed upon it in that slow, inevitable way of his, but he neither spoke nor looked at her, and she had a feeling that his attention never for an instant wandered from the job in hand. She admired him for his concentration, yet would she have been less than woman had she not felt slighted by it. He might have given her one look!

Adela was full of enthusiasm for his opponent, and that also caused her a vague sense of irritation. She was beginning to feel as if the evening would never come to an end.

The scoring was by no means slow, however, and the general interest increased almost to fever pitch as the finish came in sight. Hill's steady progress in the wake of his opponent seemed at length to disconcert the latter. He began to play wildly, to attempt impossible things. His supporters remonstrated without result. He seemed to have flung away his judgment.

Hill's score mounted till it reached and passed his. They were within twenty points of the end when Warden suddenly missed an easy stroke. A noisy groan broke from the onlookers, at which he shrugged his shoulders and laughed. But Hill turned upon him with a stern reproof.

"You're playing the fool, Warden," he said. "Pull up!"

He spoke with curt command, and the man he addressed looked at him for a second with raised brows, as if he would take offence. But in a moment he laughed again.

"You haven't beaten me yet, sir," he said.

"No," said Hill. "And I don't value--an easy victory."

There followed a tense silence while he resumed his play. Steadily his score mounted, and it seemed to Dot that there was hostility in the very atmosphere. She wondered what would happen if he scored the hundred before his opponent had another chance. She hoped he would not do so, and yet she did not want to see him beaten.

He did not, but he left off with only three points to make. Then Warden began to score. Stroke after stroke he executed with flawless accuracy and with scarcely a pause, moving to and fro about the table without lifting his eyes from the balls. His play was swift and unswerving, his score mounted rapidly.

Dot watched him spellbound, not breathing. Hill stood near her, also closely watching, with brows slightly drawn. Suddenly something impelled her to look beyond the man at the table, and in the shadow on the farther side of the room she again saw Harley's face, grey, withered-looking, with sunken eyes that glared forth wolfishly. He was glancing ceaselessly from Hill to Warden and from Warden to Hill, and the malice of his glance shocked her inexpressibly. She had never before seen murderous hate so stamped upon any countenance.

Instinctively she shrank from the sight, and in that moment Warden's eyes were lifted for a second from the table. Magnetically hers flashed to meet them. It was instantaneous, inevitable as the sudden flare of lightning across a dark sky.

He stooped again to play, but in that moment something had gone out of him. The stroke he attempted was an easy one; but he missed it hopelessly.

He straightened himself up with a sharp gesture and looked at Hill. "I am sorry," he said.

Hill said nothing whatever. Their scores were exactly even. With machine-like precision he took his turn, utterly ignoring the grumbling criticisms of his adversary's play that were being freely expressed around the room. With the utmost steadiness he made his stroke, scoring two points. Then there fell a tremendous silence. The choice of two strokes now lay before him. One was to pocket his adversary's ball; the other a long shot which required considerable skill. He chose the second without hesitation, hung a moment or two, made his stroke--and failed.

A howl of delight went up from the watchers, their hot partisanship of Warden amounting almost to open animosity against his opponent. In the midst of the noise Hill, perfectly calm, contemptuously indifferent, touched Warden again upon the shoulder, and spoke to him.

Warden said nothing in reply, but he went to his ball with a hint of savagery, bent, and almost without aiming sent it at terrific speed up the table. It struck first the red, then the white, pocketed the former, and whizzed therefrom into the opposite pocket.

A yell of delight went up. It was a brilliant stroke of which any player might have been proud. But Warden flung down his cue with a gesture of disgust.

"Damnation!" he said, and turned to put on his coat.