Chapter V
 

The letter from Piet Cradock was not again referred to by either Nan or her father. The latter answered it in his own way after the lapse of a few weeks. He was of a peaceable, easy-going nature himself, and he did not anticipate any trouble with Nan's husband. After all, the child's reluctance to leave her home was perfectly natural. He, for his part, had never fully understood the attraction which his son-in-law had exercised upon her. He had been glad enough to have his favourite daughter provided for, but the actual parting with her had been a serious trouble to him, the most serious he had known for years, and he had been very far from desiring to quarrel with the Fate that had restored her to him.

He was comfortably convinced that Piet would understand all this. Moreover, the fellow was clearly very busy. All his energies seemed to be fully occupied. He would have but little time to spare for his wife, even if he had her at his side. No, on the whole, the Colonel was of opinion that Nan's decision was a wise one, and it seemed to him that, upon reflection, his son-in-law could scarcely fail to agree with him.

Something of this he expressed in his letter when he eventually roused himself to reply to Piet's invitation, and therewith he dismissed all further thought upon the subject from his mind. His darling had pleased herself all her life, and naturally she would continue to do so.

His letter went into silence, but there was nothing surprising in this fact. Piet was, of course, too busy to have any leisure for private affairs. The whole matter slid into the past with the utmost ease. No doubt he would come home some day, but very possibly not for years, and the Colonel was quite content with this vague prospect.

As for Nan, she flicked the matter from her with the utmost nonchalance. Since her father had undertaken to explain things, she did not even trouble herself to write an answer to her husband's letter. That letter had, in fact, very deeply wounded her pride. It had been a command, and Nan was not accustomed to such treatment. Never, in all her unruly life, had she yielded obedience to any. No discipline had ever tamed her. She had been free, free as air, and she had not the vaguest intention of submitting herself to the authority of anyone. The bare idea was unthinkably repugnant to her, foreign to her whole nature.

So, with a fierce disgust, she cast from her all memory of that brief message that had come to her from the man who called himself her husband, who had actually dared to treat her as one having the right to control her actions. She could be a thousand times more arrogant than he when occasion served, and she had not the faintest intention of allowing herself to be fettered by any man's tyranny.

Swiftly the days of that splendid summer flew by. She scarcely knew how she spent them, but she was always in the open air, and almost invariably with Jerry. She missed him considerably when he returned to Oxford, but the hunting season was at hand, and soon engrossed all her thoughts. Old Squire Grimshaw was the master, and Nan and her father followed his hounds three days in every week. People had long since come to acquiesce in the absence of Nan's husband. Many of them had almost forgotten that the girl was married, since Nan herself so persistently ignored the fact. Gossip upon the subject had died down for lack of nourishment. And Nan pursued her reckless way untrammelled as of yore.

The week before Christmas saw Jerry once more at the Hall. He was as ardent a follower of the hounds as was Nan, and many were the breakneck gallops in which they indulged before a spell of frost put an end to this giddy pastime. Christmas came and went, leaving the lake frozen to a thickness of several inches, leaving Nan and the ever-faithful Jerry cutting figures of extraordinary elaboration on the ice.

The Hunt Ball had been fixed to take place on the sixth of January, and, in preparation for this event, Nan and some of her sisters were busily engaged beforehand in decking the Town Hall of the neighbourhood with evergreens and bunting. Jerry's assistance in this matter was, of course, invaluable, and when the important day arrived, he and Nan spent the whole afternoon in sliding about the floor to improve the surface.

So absorbing was this occupation that the passage of time was quite unnoticed by either of them till Nan at length discovered to her dismay that she had missed the train by which she had meant to return.

To walk back meant a trudge of five miles. To drive was out of the question, for all the carriages in the place had been requisitioned.

"What in the world shall I do?" she cried. "If I walk back, I shall never have time to dress. Oh, why haven't I got a motor?"

Jerry slapped his leg with a yell of triumph.

"My dear girl, you have! The very thing! I'll be your motor and chauffeur rolled into one. My bicycle is here. Come along, and I'll take you home on the step."

The idea was worthy of them both. Nan fell in with it with a gay chuckle. It was not the first time that she had indulged in this species of gymnastics with Jerry's co-operation, though, to be sure, some years had elapsed since the last occasion on which she had performed the feat.

She had not, however, forgotten her ancient prowess, and Jerry was delighted with his passenger. Poised on one foot, and holding firmly to his shoulders, Nan sailed down the High Street in the full glare of the lamps. It was not a dignified mode of progression, but it was very far from being ungraceful.

She wore a little white fur cap on her dark hair, and her pretty face laughed beneath it like the face of a merry child. The danger of her position was a consideration that never occurred to her. She was in her wildest mood, and enjoying herself to the utmost.

The warning hoot of a motor behind her dismayed her not at all.

"Hurry up, Jerry! Don't let them pass!" she urged.

And Jerry put his whole heart into his pedalling and bore her at the top of his speed.

It was an exciting race, but ending, as such races are bound to end, in the triumph of the motor. The great machine overtook them steadily, surely. For three seconds they were abreast, and Nan hammered her cavalier on the back with her muff in a fever of impatience. Then the motor glided ahead, leaving only the fumes of its petrol to exasperate the already heated Nan.

"Beasts!" she ejaculated tersely, while Jerry became so limp with laughter, that he nearly ceased pedalling altogether.

No further adventure befell them during the five-mile journey. The roads were in excellent condition, and the moon was high and frostily bright.

"It's been lovely," Nan declared, as they turned in at her father's gates. "And you're a brick, Jerry!"

"How many waltzes shall I get for it?" was Jerry's prompt rejoinder.

The girl's gay laugh rang silvery through the frosty air. Jerry had been asking the question at intervals all the afternoon.

"I'll give you all the extras," she laughed as she sprang lightly to the ground.

Jerry did not even dismount. His time also was limited.

"Yes?" he called over his shoulder, as he wheeled round and began to ride away. "And?"

"And as many more as I can spare," cried Nan, and with a wave of her hand turned to enter the house.

The laugh was still on her lips as she mounted the steps. The hall-door stood open, and her father's voice hailed her from within.

"Hallo, Nan, you scapegrace! What mad-cap trick will you be up to next, I wonder?"

There was a decided note of uneasiness behind the banter of his tone which her quick ear instantly detected. She looked up sharply and in a second, as if at a touch of magic, the laughter all died out of her face.

A man was standing in the glow of the lamp-light slightly behind her father, a man of medium height and immense breadth, with a clean-shaven, heavy-browed face, and sombre eyes that watched her silently.