Chapter IV
 

Nan's picnic on the lake was not concluded much before ten o'clock.

She ran home through the moonlight, bareheaded, whistling as carelessly as a boy. Night and day were the same thing to her in the place in which she had lived all her life. There was not one of the village folk whom she did not know, not one for whom the doings of the wild Everards did not provide food for discussion. For Nan undoubtedly was an Everard still, her grand wedding notwithstanding. No one ever dreamed of applying any other title to her than the familiar "Miss Nan" that she had borne from her babyhood. There was, in fact, a general feeling that the unknown husband of Miss Nan was scarcely worthy of the high honour that had been bestowed upon him. His desertion of her on the very day succeeding the wedding had been freely criticised, and in many quarters condemned out of hand. No one knew the exact circumstances of the case, but all were agreed in pronouncing Miss Nan's husband a defaulter.

That Miss Nan herself was very far from fretting over the situation was abundantly evident, but this fact did not in any way tend to justify the offender, of whom it was beginning to be opined round the bars of the village inns that he was "one o' them queer sort of cusses that it was best for women to steer clear of."

Naturally these interesting shreds of gossip never reached Nan's ears. She was, as she had ever been, supremely free from self-consciousness of any description, and it never occurred to her that the situation in which she was placed was sufficiently peculiar to cause comment. The Everards had ever been a law unto themselves, and it was inconceivable that anyone should attempt to apply to them the conventional rules by which other people chose to let their lives be governed. Of course they were different from the rest of the world. It had been an accepted fact as long as she could remember, and it certainly had never troubled her, nor was it ever likely to do so.

She was sublimely unconscious of all criticism as she ran down the village street that night, nodding carelessly to any that she met, and finally turned lightly in at her father's gates, walking with elastic tread under the great arching beech trees that blotted the moonlight from her path.

The front door stood hospitably open, and she entered to find her father stretched in his favourite chair, smoking.

He greeted her with his usual gruff indulgence.

"Hallo, you mad-cap! I was just wondering whether I would scour the country for you, or leave the door open and go to bed. I think it was going to be the last, though, to be sure, it would have served you right if I had locked you out. Had any dinner?"

"No, darling, supper--any amount of it." Nan dropped a kiss upon his bald head in passing. "I've been with Jerry," she said, "on the lake the whole day long. We watched the moon rise. It was so romantic."

The Colonel grunted.

"More rheumatic than romantic I should have thought. Better have a glass of grog."

Nan screwed up her bright face with a laugh.

"Heaven forbid, dad! And on a night like this. Oh, bother! Is that a letter for me?"

Colonel Everard was pointing to an envelope on the mantelpiece. She crossed the hall without eagerness, and picked it up.

"I've had one, too," said the Colonel, after a brief pause, speaking with a jerk as if the words insisted upon being uttered in spite of him.

"You!" Nan paused with one finger already inserted in the flap. "What for?"

Her father was staring steadily at the end of his cigar, or he might have seen a hint of panic in her dark eyes.

"You will see for yourself," he said, still in that uncomfortable, jerky style. "He seems to think--Well, I must say it sounds reasonable enough since he can't get back at present; but you will see for yourself."

A little tremor went through Nan as she opened the letter. With frowning brows she perused it.

It did not take long to read. The thick, upright writing was almost arrogantly distinct, recalling the writer with startling vividness.

He had written with his accustomed brevity, but there was much more than usual in his letter. He saw no prospect, so he told her, of being able to leave the country for some time to come. Affairs were unsettled, and likely to remain so. At the same time, there was no reason, now that her health was restored, that she should not join him, and he was writing to ask her father to take her out to him. He would meet them at Cape Town, and if the Colonel cared to do so he would be very pleased if he would spend a few months with them.

The plan was expressed concisely but with absolute kindness. Nevertheless there was about the letter a certain tone of mastery which gave Nan very clearly to understand that the writer thereof did not expect to be disappointed. It was emphatically the letter of a husband to his wife, not of a lover to his beloved.

She looked up from it with a very blank face.

"My dear dad!" she ejaculated. "What can he be thinking of?"

Colonel Everard smiled somewhat ruefully.

"You, apparently," he said, with an effort to speak lightly. "What shall we say to him--eh, Nan? You'll like to go on the spree with your old dad to take care of you."

"Spree!" exclaimed Nan. And again in a lower key, with a still finer disdain: "Spree! Well"--tearing the letter across impulsively, with the action of a passionate child--"you can go on the spree if you like, dad, but I'm going to stay at home. I'm not going to run after him to the ends of the earth if he is my husband. It wasn't in the bargain, and I won't do it!"

She stamped like a little fury, scattering fragments of the torn letter in all directions.

Her father attempted a feeble remonstrance, but she overrode him instantly.

"I won't listen to you, dad!" she declared fiercely. "I tell you I won't do it! The man isn't living who shall order me to do this or that as if I were his slave. You can write and tell him so if you like. When I married him, he gave me to understand that we should only be out there for a few months at most, and then we were to settle in England. You see what a different story he tells now. But I won't be treated in that way. I won't be inveigled out there, and made to wait on his royal pleasure. He chose to go without me. I wasn't important enough to keep him in England, and now it's my turn. He isn't important enough to drag me out there. No, be quiet, daddy! I tell you I won't go! I won't go, I swear it!"

"My dear child," protested the Colonel, making himself heard at length in her pause for breath. "No one wants you to go anywhere or do anything against your will. Piet Cradock isn't so unreasonable as that, if he is a Dutchman. Now don't distress yourself. There isn't the smallest necessity for that. I thought it just possible that you might like the idea as I was to be with you. But as you don't--well, there's an end of it. We will say no more."

Nan's arm was around his neck as he ended, her cheek against his forehead.

"Dear, dear daddy, don't think I'm cross with you. You're just the sweetest old darling in the world, and I'd go to Kamschatka with you gladly--in fact, anywhere--anywhere--except South Africa. Can't we go somewhere together, just you and I? Let's go to Jamaica. I'm sure I can afford it."

"No, no, no!" protested the Colonel. "Get away with you, you baggage! What are you thinking of? Miss the cubbing season? Not I. And not you either, if I know you. There! Run along to bed, and take my blessing with you. I'll send a line to Piet, if you like, and tell him you don't object to waiting for him a bit longer under your old father's roof. Come, be off with you! I'm going to lock up."

He hoisted himself out of his chair with the words, looked at her fondly for a moment, took her pretty face between his hands, and kissed her twice.

"She's the worst pickle of the lot," he declared softly.

He did not add that she was also his darling of them all, but this was a perfectly open secret between them, and had been such as long as Nan could remember. She laughed up at him with tender impudence in recognition of the fact.