The Second Fiddle by Ethel M. Dell
A low whistle floated through the slumbrous silence and died softly away among the sand-dunes.
The man who sat in the little wooden summer-house that faced the sea raised his head from his hand and stared outwards. The signal had scarcely penetrated to his inner consciousness, but it had vaguely disturbed his train of thought. His eyes were dull and emotionless as he stared across the blue, smiling water to the long, straight line of the horizon. They were heavy also as if he had not slept for weeks, and there were deep lines about his clean-shaven mouth.
Before him on the rough, wooden table lay a letter--a letter that he knew by heart, yet carried always with him. The writing upon it was firm and regular, but unmistakably a woman's. It began: "Dear Hugh," and it ended: "Yours very sincerely," and it had been written to tell him that because he was crippled for life the writer could no longer entertain the idea of sharing hers with him.
There had been a ring enclosed with the letter, but this he had not kept. He had dropped it into the heart of a blazing fire on the day that he had first been able to move without assistance. He had not done it in anger. Simply the consciousness of possessing it had been a pain intolerable to him. So he had destroyed it; but the letter he had kept through all the dreary months that had followed that awful time. It was all that was left to him of one whom he had loved passionately, blindly, foolishly, and who had ceased to love him on the day, now nearly a year ago, when his friends had ceased to call him by the nickname of Hercules, that had been his from his boyhood.
And this was her wedding-day--a day of entrancing sunshine, of magic breezes, of perfect June.
He was picturing her to himself as he sat there, just as he had pictured her often--ah, often--in the old days.
From his place near the altar he watched her coming towards him up the great, white-decked church. Her eyes were shining with unclouded happiness. Behind her bridal veil he caught a glimpse of the exquisite beauty that chained his heart. Straight towards him the vision moved, and he--he braced himself to meet it.
A sharp pang of physical pain suddenly wrung his nerves, and in a moment the vision had passed from his eyes. He groaned and once more covered his face. Yes, it was her wedding-day. She was there before the altar in all the splendour of her youth and her loveliness. But he was alone with his suffering, his broken life, and the long, long, empty years stretching away before him.
He awoke to the soft splashing of the summer tide, out beyond the sand-dunes, and he heard again the clear, low whistle which before had disturbed his dream.
He remained motionless, and a dim, detached wonder crossed his mind. He had thought himself quite alone.
Again the whistle sounded. It seemed to come from immediately below him. Slowly and painfully he raised himself.
The next instant an enormous Newfoundland dog rushed panting into his retreat and proceeded to search every inch of the place with violent haste. The man on the bench sat still and watched him, but when the animal with a sudden, clumsy movement knocked his crutches on to the floor and out of his reach, he uttered an exclamation of annoyance.
The dog gave him a startled glance and continued his headlong investigation. He was very wet, and he left a trail of sea water wherever he went. Finally he bounded out as hurriedly as he had entered, and Hugh Durant was left a prisoner, the nearest of his crutches a full yard away.
He sat and stared at them with a heavy frown. His helplessness always oppressed him far more than the pain he had to endure. He cursed the dog under his breath.
"Oh, I am sorry!" a voice said suddenly some seconds later. "Let me get them for you!"
Durant looked round sharply. A brown-faced girl in a short, cotton dress stood in the doorway. Her head was bare and covered with short, black, curly hair that shone wet in the sunshine. Her eyes were very blue. For some reason she looked rather ashamed of herself.
She moved forward barefooted and picked up Durant's crutches.
"I'm sorry, sir," she said again. "I didn't know there was any one here till I heard Caesar knock something down."
She dusted the tops of the crutches with her sleeve and propped them against the table.
"Thanks!" said Durant curtly. He was not feeling sociable--he could not feel sociable--on that day of all days in his life's record.
Yet, as if attracted by something, the girl lingered.
"It's lovely down on the shore," she said half shyly.
"No doubt," said Durant, and again his tone was curt to churlishness.
Then abruptly he felt that he had been unnecessarily surly, and wondered if he was getting querulous.
"Been bathing?" he asked, with a brief glance at her wet hair.
She gave him a quick, friendly smile.
"Yes, sir," she said; and added: "Caesar and I."
"Fond of the sea, eh?" said Durant.
The soft eyes shone, and the man, who had been a sailor, told himself that they were deep-sea eyes.
"I love it," the girl said very earnestly.
Her intensity surprised him a little. He had not expected it in one who, to judge by her dress, must be a child of the humble fisher-folk. His interest began to awaken.
"You live near here?" he questioned.
She pointed a brown hand towards the sand-dunes.
"On the shore, sir," she said. "We hear the waves all night."
"So do I," said Durant, and his voice was suddenly sharp with a pain he could not try to silence. "All night and all day."
She did not seem to notice his tone.
"You live in the cottage on the cliff?" she asked.
"I came last week," he said. "I hadn't seen the sea for nearly a year. I wanted to be alone. And--so I am."
"All alone?" she queried quickly.
He nodded again.
"With my servant," he said. He repeated with a certain doggedness: "I wanted to be alone."
There was a pause. The girl was standing in the doorway. Her dog was basking in the sunshine not a yard away. She looked at the cripple with thoughtful eyes.
"I live alone, too," she said. "That is--Caesar and I."
That successfully aroused Durant's curiosity.
"You!" he said incredulously.
She put up her hand with a quick movement and pushed the short curls back from her forehead.
"I am used to it," she said, with an odd womanly dignity. "I have been practically alone all my life."
Durant looked at her closely. She spoke in a very low voice, but there were rich notes in it that caught his attention.
"Isn't that very unusual for a girl of your age?" he said.
She smiled again without answering. A blue sunbonnet dangled on her arm. In the silence that followed she put it on. The great dog arose at the action, stretched himself, and went to her side. She laid her hand on his head.
"We play hide-and-seek, Caesar and I," she said, "among the dunes."
Durant took his crutches and stumbled with difficulty to his feet. The lower part of his body was terribly crippled and weak. Only the broad shoulders of the man testified to the splendid strength that had once been his, and could never be his again as long as he lived. He saw the girl turn her head aside as he moved. The sunbonnet completely hid her face. A sharp spasm of pain set his own like a stone mask.
Suddenly she looked round.
"Will you--will you come and see me some day?" she asked him shyly.
Her tone was rather of request than invitation, and Durant was curiously touched. He had a feeling that she awaited his reply with eagerness.
He smiled for the first time.
"With pleasure," he said courteously, "if the path is easy and the distance not too great for my powers."
"It is quite close," she said readily, "hardly a stone's throw from here--a little wooden cottage--the first you come to."
"And you live quite alone?" Durant said.
"I like it best," she assured him.
"Will you tell me your name?" he asked.
"My name is Molly," she answered quietly.
"Nothing else?" said Durant with a puzzled frown.
"Nothing else, sir," she said, with her air of womanly dignity.
He made no outward comment, but inwardly he wondered. Was this odd little, dark-haired creature some nameless waif of the sea brought up on the charity of the fisher-folk, he asked himself.
She stood aside for him to pass, drawing Caesar out of his way. He stopped a moment to pat the dog's head. And so standing, leaning upon his crutches, he suddenly and keenly looked into the olive-tinted face that the sunbonnet shadowed.
"Sorry for me, eh?" he said, and he uttered a laugh that was short and very bitter.
She bent down over the dog.
"Yes, I am sorry," she said, almost under her breath.
Bending lower, she picked up something that lay on the ground between them.
"You dropped this," she said.
He took it from her with a grim hardening of the mouth. It was the letter he had received from his fiancee a year ago. But his eyes never left the face of the girl before him.
"I wonder--" he said abruptly, and stopped.
There was a pause. The girl waited, her hand nervously caressing the Newfoundland's curls. She did not raise her eyes, but the lids fluttered strangely.
"I wonder," Durant said, and his voice was suddenly kind, "if I might ask you to do something for me."
She gave him a swift glance.
"Please do!" she murmured.
"This letter," he said, and he held it out to her.
"I should like it torn up--very small."
She took the envelope and hesitated. Durant was watching her. There was unmistakable mastery in his eyes.
"Go on!" he said briefly.
And with a quick, startled movement, she obeyed. The letter fluttered around them both in tiny fragments. Hugh Durant looked on with a hard, impassive face, as he might have looked on at an execution.
The girl's hands were shaking. She glanced at him once or twice uncertainly.
When the work of destruction was accomplished she made him a nervous curtsey and turned to go.
Durant's face softened a second time into a smile.
"Thank you--Molly," he said, and he put his hand to his hat though she was not looking at him.
And afterwards he stood among the fragments of his letter and watched till both the girl and the dog were out of sight.
Twenty-four hours later Hugh Durant stood on the sandy shore and tapped with his crutch on the large, flat stone that was set for a step on the threshold of the little, wooden cottage behind the sand dunes.
He had reached the place with much difficulty, persevering with a doggedness characteristic of him; and there were great drops on his forehead though the afternoon was cloudy and cool.
A quick step sounded in answer to his summons, and in a moment his hostess appeared at the open door.
"Why didn't you come straight in?" she said hospitably.
She was dressed in lilac print. Her sleeves were turned up to the elbows, and she wore a big apron with a bib. He noticed that her feet were no longer bare.
He took off his hat as he answered.
"Perhaps I might have been tempted to do so," he said, "if I had felt equal to mounting the step without assistance."
"Oh!" She pulled down her sleeves hastily. "Will you let me help you?" she suggested shyly.
Durant's eyes were slightly drawn with pain. Nevertheless they were very friendly as he made reply.
"Do you think you can?" he said.
She took his hat from him with an anxious smile, and then the crutch that he held towards her.
"Tell me exactly what to do!" she said in her sweet, low voice. "I am very strong."
"If I may put my arm on your shoulder," Durant said, "I think it can be managed. But say at once if it is too much for you!"
Her face was deeply flushed as she bent from the step to give him the help he needed.
"Bear harder!" she said, as he leant his weight upon her. "Bear much harder!"
There was an odd little quiver in her voice, but, slight as she was, she supported him with sturdy strength.
The door opened straight into the tiny cottage parlour. A large wicker chair, well cushioned, stood in readiness. As Durant lowered himself into it, he saw that the girl's eyes were brimming with tears.
"I've hurt you!" he exclaimed.
"No, no!" she said, and turned quickly away. "You didn't bear nearly hard enough."
He laughed a little, though his teeth were clenched.
"You're a very strong woman, Molly," he said.
"Oh, I am," she answered instantly. "Now shall you be all right while I go to fetch tea?"
"Of course," he said. "Pray don't make a stranger of me!"
She disappeared into the room at the back of the cottage, and he was left alone. The great dog came in with stately stride and lay down at his feet.
Durant sat and looked about him. There was little to attract the eye in the simple furnishing of the tiny room. There was a small bookcase in one corner, but it was covered by a red curtain. Two old-fashioned Dutch figures stood on the mantelpiece on each side of a cheap little clock that seemed to tick at him almost resentfully. The walls were tinted green and bore no pictures or decoration of any sort. There was a plain white tablecloth on the table, and in the middle stood a handleless jug filled with pink and white wild roses, freshly gathered. There was no carpet. The floor was strewn with beach sand.
All these details Durant took in with keen interest. Nothing could have exceeded the simplicity of this dwelling by the sea. There had obviously been no attempt at artistic arrangement. Cleanliness and a neatness almost severe were its only characteristics.
"I hope you like toasted scones, sir," said Molly's voice in the doorway.
He looked round to see her come forward with the tea-tray.
"Nothing better," he said lightly, "particularly if you have made them yourself."
She set down her tray and smiled at him. Her short, curling hair gave her an almost elfish look.
"I've been so busy getting ready," she said childishly. "I've never had a gentleman to tea before."
"That is a very great honour for me," said Durant.
Molly looked delighted.
"I think the honour is mine," she said in her shy voice. "I am just going to fetch the wooden chair out of the kitchen."
She departed hastily as if embarrassed, and Durant smiled to himself. It was wonderful how the oppression had been lifted from his spirit since his meeting with this lonely dweller on the shore.
When Molly reappeared, he saw that she had assumed a dignity worthy of the occasion. She sat down behind the brown teapot with a serious face. He waited for her to lead the conversation, and the result was complete silence for some seconds.
Then she said suddenly:
"Have you been sitting in the summer-house again?"
"No," said Durant.
"I am glad of that," said Molly.
"Why?" he asked.
"Isn't it rather a lonely place?" she said.
He smiled faintly.
"You know I came here to be lonely, Molly," he said.
"Yes; you told me," said Molly, and he fancied that he heard her sigh.
"Are you never lonely?" he asked in a kindly tone.
"Often," she said. "Often."
She was pouring the tea as she spoke. Her head was slightly bent.
"And so you took pity on me?" said Durant.
She shook her head suddenly and vigorously.
"It wasn't that, sir," she said in a very low voice. "I--I wanted--someone--to speak to."
"I see," said Durant gently. He added after a moment: "Do you know, I am glad I chanced to be that someone."
She smiled at him over the teapot.
"You weren't pleased--at first," she said. "You were angry. I heard you saying--"
"What?" said Durant.
He looked across at her and laughed naturally, spontaneously, for the first time.
Molly had forgotten to be either embarrassed or dignified.
"I don't know what it was," she said; "I only know what it sounded like."
"And that made you want to speak to me?" said Durant.
The brown face opposite to him looked impish. Yet it seemed to him that there was sadness in her eyes.
"It didn't frighten me away," she said.
"It would need to be a very timid person to be frightened at me now," said Hugh Durant quietly.
She opened her eyes wide, and looked as if she were about to protest. Then, changing her mind, she remained silent.
"Yes," he said. "Please say it!"
She shook her head without speaking.
But he persisted. Something in her silence aroused his curiosity.
"Am I really formidable, Molly?" he asked.
She rose to take his empty cup, and paused for a moment at his side, looking down at him.
"I don't think you realise how strong you are," she said enigmatically.
He laughed rather drearily.
"I am gauging my weakness just at present," he said.
And then, glancing up, he saw quick pain in her eyes, and abruptly turned the conversation.
Later, when he took his leave, he stood on her step and looked out to the long, grey line of sea with a faint, dissatisfied frown on his face.
"You're not afraid--living here?" he asked her at the last moment.
"What is there to fear?" said Molly. "I have Caesar, and there are other cottages not far away."
"Yes, I know," he said. "But at night--when it's dark--"
A sudden glory shone in the girl's pure eyes.
"Oh, no, sir," she said. "I am not afraid."
And he departed, hobbling with difficulty up the long, sandy slope.
At the top he paused and looked out over the grey, unquiet sea. The dissatisfaction on his face had given place to perplexity and a faint, dawning wonder that was like the birth of Hope.
* * *
During the long summer days that followed, that strange friendship, begun at the moment when Hugh Durant's life had touched its lowest point of suffering and misery, ripened into a curiously close intimacy.
The girl was his only visitor--the only friend who penetrated behind the barrier of loneliness that he had erected for himself. He had sought the place sick at heart and utterly weary of life, desiring only to be left alone. And yet, oddly enough, he did not resent the intrusion of this outsider, who had openly told him that she was sorry.
She visited him occasionally at his hermitage, but more frequently she would seek him out in his summer-house and take possession of him there with a winning enchantment that he made no effort to resist. Sometimes she brought him tea there; sometimes she persuaded him to return with her to her cottage on the shore.
The embarrassment had wholly passed from her manner. She was eager and ingenuous as a child. And yet there was something in her--a depth of feeling, a concentration half-revealed--that made him aware of her womanhood. She was never confidential with him, but yet he felt her confidence in every word she uttered.
And the life that had ebbed so low turned in the man's veins and began to flow with a steady, rising surge of which he was only vaguely conscious.
Molly had become his keenest interest. He had ceased to think with actual pain of the woman who had loved his strength, but had shrunk in horror from his weakness. His bitterness had seemed to disperse with the fragments of her torn letter. It was only a memory to him now--scarcely even that.
"This place has done me a lot of good," he said to Molly one day. "I have written to my friend Gregory Mountfort to come and see me. He is my doctor."
She looked up at him quickly. She was sitting on her doorstep and the August sunlight was on her hair. There were wonderful glints of gold among the dark curls.
"Shall you go away, then?" she asked.
"I may--soon," he said.
She was silent, bending over some work that she had taken up. The man looked down at the bowed head. The old look of perplexity, of wonder, was in his eyes.
"What shall you do?" he said abruptly.
She made a startled movement, but did not raise her eyes.
"I shall just--go on," she said, in a voice that was hardly audible.
"Not here," he said. "You will be lonely."
There was an unusual note of mastery in his voice. She glanced up, and met his eyes resolutely for a moment.
"I am used to loneliness," she said slowly.
"But you don't prefer it?" he said.
She bent her head again.
"Yes, I prefer it," she said.
There followed a pause. Then abruptly Durant asked a question.
"Are you still sorry for me?" he said.
"No," said Molly.
He bent slightly towards her. Movement had become much easier to him of late.
"Molly," he said very gently, "that is the kindest thing you have ever said."
She laughed in a queer, shaky note over her work.
He bent nearer.
"You have done a tremendous lot for me," he said, speaking very softly. "I wonder if I dare ask of you--one thing more?"
She did not answer. He put his hand on her shoulder.
"Molly," he said, "will you marry me?"
"No," said Molly under her breath.
"Ah!" he said. "Forgive me for asking!"
She looked up at him then with that in her eyes which he could not understand.
"Mr. Durant," she said, steadily, "I thank you very much, and it isn't--that. But I can only be your friend."
"Never anything more, Molly?" he said, and he smiled at her, very gently, very kindly, but without tenderness.
"No, sir," Molly said in the same steady tone. "Never anything more."
* * *
"Well," said Gregory Mountfort on the following day, "this place has done wonders for you, Hugh. You're a different man."
"I believe I am," said Hugh.
He spoke with his eyes upon a bouquet of poppies and corn that had been left at his door without any message early that morning. It was eloquent to him of a friendship that did not mean to be lightly extinguished, but his heart was heavy notwithstanding. He had begun to desire something greater than friendship.
"Physically," said Mountfort, "you are stronger than I ever expected to see you again. You don't suffer much pain now, do you?"
"No, not much," said Durant.
He turned to stare out of his open window at the sunlit sea. His eyes were full of weariness.
"Look here," the doctor said. "You're not an invalid any longer. I should leave this place if I were you. Go abroad! Go round the world! Don't stagnate any longer! It isn't worthy of you."
Hugh Durant shook his head.
"It's no good trying to float a stranded hulk, dear fellow," he said. "Don't attempt it! I am better off where I am."
"You ought to get married," his friend returned brusquely. "You weren't created for the lonely life."
"I shall never marry," Durant said quietly.
And Mountfort was disappointed. He wondered if he were still vexing his soul over the irrevocable.
He had motored down from town, and in the afternoon he carried his patient off for a thirty-mile spin. They went through the depths of the country, through tiny villages hidden among the hills, through long stretches of pine woods, over heather-covered uplands. But though it did him good, Durant was conscious of keenest pleasure when, returning, they ran into view of the sea. He felt that the shore and the sand-dunes were his own peculiar heritage.
Mountfort steered for the village scattered over the top of the cliff. Durant had persuaded him to remain for the night, and he had to send a telegram. They puffed up a steep, winding hill to the post-office, and the doctor got out.
"Back in thirty seconds," he said, as he walked away.
Hugh was in no hurry. It was a wonderfully calm evening. The sea looked like a sheet of silver, motionless, silent, immense. The tide was very low. The sand-dunes looked mere hummocks from that great height. Myriads of martens were circling about the edge of the cliff, which was protected by a crazy wooden railing. He sat and watched them without much interest. He was thinking chiefly of that one cottage on the shore a hundred feet below, which he knew so well.
He wondered if Molly had been to the summer-house to look for him; and then, chancing to glance up, he caught sight of her coming towards him from the roadside. At the same instant something jerked in the motor, and it began to move. It was facing up the hill, and the angle was a steep one. Very slowly at first the wheels revolved, and the car moved straight backwards as if pushed by an unseen hand.
Hugh realised the danger in a moment. The road curved sharply not a dozen yards behind him, and at that curve was the sheer precipice of the cliff. He was powerless to apply the brakes, and he could not even throw himself out. The sudden consciousness of this ran through him piercing as a sword-blade.
In every pulse of his being he felt the intense, the paralysing horror of violent death. For the first awful moment he could not even call for help. The sensation of falling headlong backwards gripped his throat and choked his utterance.
He made a wild, ineffectual movement with his hands. And then he heard a loud cry. A woman's figure flashed towards him. She seemed to swoop as the martens swooped along the face of the cliff. The car was running smoothly towards that awful edge. He felt that it was very near--horribly near; but he could not turn to look.
Even as the thought darted through his brain he saw Molly, wide-eyed, frenzied, clinging to the side of the car. She was in the act of springing on to it, and that knowledge loosened his tongue.
He yelled to her hoarsely to keep away. He even tried to thrust her hands off the woodwork. But she withstood him fiercely, with a strength that agonised and overcame. In a second she was on the step, where she swayed perilously, then fell forward on her hands and knees at his feet.
The car continued to run back. There came a sudden jerk, a crash of rending wood, a frightful pause. The railing had splintered. They were on the brink. Hugh bent and tried to take her in his arms.
He was strung to meet that awful plunge; he was face to face with death; but--was it by some miracle?--the car was stayed. There, on the very edge of destruction, with not an inch to spare, it stood suddenly motionless, as if checked by some mysterious, unseen force.
As complete understanding returned to him, Hugh saw that the woman at his feet had thrown herself upon the foot brake and was holding it pressed down with both her rigid hands.
* * *
"Yes; but who taught her where to look for the brake?" said Mountfort two hours later.
The excitement was over, but the subject fascinated Mountfort. The girl had sprung away and disappeared down one of the cliff paths directly Hugh had been extricated from danger. Mountfort was curious about her, but Hugh was uncommunicative. He had no answer ready to Mountfort's question. He scarcely seemed to hear it.
Barely a minute after its utterance he reached for his crutches and got upon his feet.
"I am going down to the shore," he said. "I shan't sleep otherwise. You'll excuse me, old fellow?"
Mountfort looked at him and nodded. He was very intimate with Hugh.
"Don't mind me!" he said.
And Hugh went out alone in the summer dusk.
The night was almost ghostly in its stillness. He went down the winding path that he knew so well without a halt. Far away the light of a steamer travelled over the quiet water. The sea murmured drowsily as the tide rose. It was not quite dark.
Outside her cottage-door he stopped and tapped upon the stone. The door stood open, and as he waited he heard a clear, low whistle behind him on the dunes. She was coming towards him, the great dog Caesar bounding by her side. As she drew near he noticed again how slight she was, and marvelled at her strength.
She reached him in silence. The light was very dim. He put out his hand to her, but somehow he could not utter a word.
"I knew it must be you," she said. "I--I was waiting for you."
She put her hand into his; but still the man stood mute. No words would come to him.
She looked at him uncertainly, almost nervously. Then--
"What is it?" she asked, under her breath.
He spoke at last but not to utter the words she expected.
"I haven't come to say, 'Thank you,' Molly," he said. "I have come to ask why."
"Oh!" said Molly.
She was startled, confused, almost scared, by the mastery that underlay the gentleness of his tone. He kept her hand in his, standing there, facing her in the dimness; and, cripple as he was, she knew him for a strong man.
"I have come to ask," he said--"and I mean to know--why yesterday you refused to marry me."
She made a quick movement. His words astounded her. She felt inclined to run away. But he kept her prisoner.
"Don't be afraid of me, Molly!" he said half sadly. "You had a reason. What was it."
She bit her lip. Her eyes were full of sudden tears.
"Tell me!" he said.
And she answered, as if he compelled her:
"It was because--because you don't love me," she said with difficulty.
She felt his hand tighten upon hers.
"Ah!" he said. "And that was--the only reason?"
Molly was trembling.
"It was the only reason that mattered," she said in a choked voice.
He leant towards her in the dusk.
"Molly," he said. "Molly, I worship you!"
She heard the deep quiver in his voice, and it thrilled her from head to foot. She began to sob, and he drew her towards him.
"Wait!" she said, "Oh, wait! Come inside, and I'll tell you!"
He went in with her, leaning on her shoulder.
"Sit down!" whispered Molly. "I'm going to tell you something."
"Don't cry!" he said gently. "It may be something I know already."
"Oh, no, it isn't!" she said with conviction.
She stood before him in the twilight, her hands clasped tightly together.
"Do you remember a girl called Mary Fielding?" she said, with a piteous effort to control her voice. "She used to be the friend of--of--your fiancee, Lady Maud Belville, long ago, before you had your accident."
He nodded gravely.
"I remember her," he said.
"I don't suppose you ever noticed her much," the girl continued shakily. "She was uninteresting, and always in the background."
"I should know her anywhere," said Durant with confidence.
"No, no," she protested. "I'm sure you wouldn't. You--you never gave her a second thought, though she--was foolish enough--idiotic enough--to--to care whether you did or not."
"Was she?" he said softly. "Was she? And was that why she came to live among the sand-dunes and cut off her hair and wore print dresses--and--and made life taste sweet to me again?"
"Ah! You know now!" she said, with a sound that was like laughter through tears.
He held out his arms to her.
"My darling," he said. "I knew on the first day I saw you here."
She knelt down beside him with a quick, impulsive movement.
"You--knew!" she gasped incredulously.
He smiled at her with great tenderness.
"I knew," he said, "and I wondered--how I wondered--what you had come for!"
"I only came to be a friend," she broke in hastily, "to--to try to help you through your bad time."
"I guessed it must be that," he said softly over her bowed head, "when you said 'No' to me yesterday."
"But you didn't tell me you cared," protested Molly.
"No," he said. "I was so horribly afraid that you might take me out of pity, Molly."
"And I--I wasn't going to be second fiddle!" said Molly waywardly.
She resisted him a little as he turned her face upwards, but he had his way. There was a quiver of laughter in his voice when he spoke again.
"You could never be that," he said. "You were made to lead the orchestra. Still, tell me why you did it, darling! Make me understand!"
And Molly yielded at length with her arms about his neck.
"I loved you!" she said passionately. "I loved you!"