Chapter IX
 

"Can I come in a moment, Reggie?"

Gwen's bright face peered round the door at him as he sat at the writing-table in his room, with his head upon his hand. He looked up at her.

"Yes, come in, child! What is it?"

She entered eagerly and went to him.

"Are you busy, dear old boy? It is horrid that you should be going away so soon. I only wanted just to tell you something that the dear old Admiral has just told me."

She sat down in her favourite position on the arm of his chair, her arm about his neck. Her eyes were shining. Carey looked up at her.

"Well?" he said. "Has he plucked up courage at last to ask for what he wants?"

"Yes; he actually has." There was a purr of content in Gwen's voice. "And it's quite all right, Reggie. Mummy has said 'yes,' as I knew she would, directly I told her about Major Coningsby finding his wife again. All she said to that was: 'Dear me! How annoying for poor Major Coningsby!' I thought it was horrid of her to say that, but I didn't say so, for I wanted it all to come quite casually. And after that I wrote to Charlie, and he told the Admiral. And he came straight over only this morning and asked her. He's been telling me all about it, and he's so awfully happy! He says he was a big fool not to ask her long ago in the summer. For what do you think she said, Reggie, when he told her that he'd been wanting to marry her for ever so long, but couldn't be quite sure how she felt about it? Why, she said, with that funny little laugh of hers--you know her way--'My dear Admiral, I was only waiting to be asked.' The dear old man nearly cried when he told me. And I kissed him. And he and Charlie are coming over to dine this evening. So we can all be happy together."

Gwen paused to breathe, and to give her cousin an ardent hug.

"You've been a perfect dear about it," she ended with enthusiasm. "It would never have happened but for you, and--and Mademoiselle Treves. Do you think she hated going back to that man very badly?"

"I think she did," said Carey.

He was looking, not at Gwen, but straight at the window in front of him. There were deep lines about his eyes, as if he had not slept of late.

"But she needn't have stayed," urged Gwen.

He did not answer. In his pocket there lay a slip of paper containing a few brief lines in a woman's hand.

"I have taken up my burden again, and, God helping me, I will carry it now to the end. You know what it means to me, but I shall always thank you in my heart, because in the hour of my utter weakness you were strong.--NAOMI CONINGSBY."

The splendid courage that underlay those few words had not hidden from the man the cost of her sacrifice. She had gone voluntarily back into the bandage that once had crushed her to the earth. And he--and he only--knew what it meant to her.

He was brought back to his surroundings by the pressure of Gwen's arm. He turned and found her looking closely into his face.

"Reggie," she said, with a touch of shyness, "are you--unhappy--about something?" He did not answer her at once, and she slipped suddenly down upon her knees by his side. "Forgive me, dear old boy! Do you know, I couldn't help guessing a little? You're not vexed?"

He laid a silencing hand upon her shoulder.

"I don't mind your knowing, dear," he said gently.

And he stooped, and kissed her forehead. She clung to him closely for a second. When she rose, her eyes were wet. But, obedient to his unspoken desire, she did not say another word.

When she was gone Carey roused himself from his preoccupation, and concentrated his thoughts upon his correspondence. He was leaving England in two days, and travelling to the East on a solitary shooting expedition. He did not review the prospect with much relish, but inaction had become intolerable to him, and he had an intense longing to get away. He had arranged to return to town that afternoon.

It was towards luncheon-time that he left his room, and, descending, came upon Lady Emberdale in the hall. She turned to meet him, a slight flush upon her face.

"No doubt Gwen has told you our piece of news?" she said.

He held out his hand.

"It is official, is it? I am very glad. I wish you joy with all my heart."

She accepted his congratulations with a gracious smile.

"I think everyone is pleased, including those absurd children. By the way, here is a note just come for you, brought by a groom from Crooklands Manor. I was going to bring it up to you, as he is waiting for an answer."

He took it up and opened it hastily, with a murmured excuse. When he looked up, Lady Emberdale saw at once that there was something wrong. She began to question him, but he held the note out to her with a quick gesture, and she took it from him.

"My husband met with an accident while motoring this morning," she read. "He has been brought home, terribly injured, and keeps asking for you. Can you come?

"N. CONINGSBY."

Glancing up, she saw Carey, pale and stern, waiting to speak.

"Send back word, 'Yes, at once,'" he said. "And perhaps you can spare me the car?"

He turned away without waiting for her reply, and went back to his room, crushing the note unconsciously in his hand.