Chapter II
 

It was ten days later, on a foggy evening, in the end of the year, that Reginald Carey alighted at a small wayside station, and grimly prepared himself for a five-mile trudge through dark and muddy lanes to his destination.

The only conveyance in the station yard was a private motor car, and his first glance at this convinced him that it was not there to await him. He paused under the lamp outside to turn up his collar, and, as he did so, a man of gigantic breadth and stature, wearing goggles, came out of the station behind him and strode past. He glanced at Carey casually as he went by, looked again, then suddenly stopped and peered at him.

"Great Scotland!" he exclaimed abruptly. "I know you--or ought to. You're the little newspaper chap who saved my life at Magersfontein. Thought there was something familiar about you the moment I saw you. You remember me, eh?"

He turned back his goggles impetuously, and showed Carey his face.

Yes; Carey remembered him very well indeed, though he was not sure that the acquaintance was one he desired to improve. He took the proffered hand with a certain reserve.

"Yes; I remember you. I don't think I ever heard your name, but that's a detail. You came out of it all right, then?"

"Oh, yes; more or less. Nothing ever hurts me." The big man's laugh had in it a touch of bitterness. "Where are you bound for? Come along with me in the car; I'll take you where you want to go." He seized Carey by the shoulder, impelling him with boisterous cordiality towards the vehicle. "Jump in, my friend. My name is Coningsby--Major Coningsby, of Crooklands Manor--mad Coningsby I'm called about here, because I happen to ride straighter to hounds than most of 'em. A bit of a compliment, eh? But they're a shocking set of muffs in these parts. You don't live here?"

"No; I am down on a visit to my cousin, Lady Emberdale. She lives at Crooklands Mead. I've come down a day sooner than I was expected, and the train was two hours late. I'm Reginald Carey." He stopped before the step of the car. "It's very good of you, but I won't take you out of your way on such a beastly night. I can quite well walk."

"Nonsense, man! It's no distance, and it isn't out of the way. I've only just motored down to get an evening paper. You're just in time to dine with me. I'm all alone, and confoundedly glad to see you. I know Lady Emberdale well. Come, jump in!"

Thus urged, Carey yielded, not over-willingly, and took his seat in the car.

Directly they started, he knew the reason for his companion's pseudonym, for they whizzed out of the yard at a speed which must have disquieted the stoutest nerves.

It was the maddest ride he had ever experienced, and he wondered by what instinct Major Coningsby kept a straight course through the darkness. Their own lamps provided the only light there was, and when they presently turned sharply at right angles he gathered himself together instinctively in preparation for a smash.

But nothing happened. They tore on a little farther in darkness, travelling along a private road; and then the lights of a house pierced the gloom.

Coningsby brought his car to a standstill.

"Tumble out! The front door is straight ahead. My man will let you in and look after you. Excuse me a moment while I take the car round!"

He was gone with the words, leaving Carey to ascend a flight of steps to the hall door. It opened at once to admit him, and he found himself in a great hall dimly illumined by firelight. A servant helped him to divest himself of his overcoat, and silently led the way.

The room he entered was furnished as a library. He glanced round it as he stood on the hearth-rug, awaiting his host, and was chiefly struck by the general atmosphere of dreariness that pervaded it. Its sombre oak furniture seemed to absorb instead of reflecting the light. There was a large oil-painting above the fireplace, and after a few seconds he turned his head and saw it. It was the portrait of a woman.

Young, beautiful, queenly, the painted face looked down into his own, and the man's heart gave a sudden, curious throb that was half rapture and half pain. In a moment the room he had just entered, with all the circumstances that had taken him there, was blotted from his brain. He was standing once more on the rocking deck of a steamer, in a tempest of wind and rain and furious sea, facing the storm, exultant, with a woman's hand fast gripped in his.

"Are you looking at that picture?" said a voice. "It's my wife--dead now--lost--five years ago--at sea!"

Carey wheeled sharply at the jerky utterance. Coningsby was standing by his side. He was staring upwards at the portrait, a strange gleam darting in his eyes--a gleam not wholly sane.

"It doesn't do her justice," he went on in the same abrupt, headlong fashion. "But it's better than nothing. She was the only woman who ever satisfied me. Her loss damaged me badly. I've never been the same since. There've been others, of course, but she was always first--an easy first. I shall want her--I shall go on wanting her--till I'm in my grave." His voice was suddenly husky, as the voice of a man in pain. "It's like a fiery thirst," he said. "I try to quench it--Heaven knows I try! But it comes back--it comes back."

He swung round on his heel and went to the table. There followed the clink of glasses, but Carey did not turn. His eyes had left the picture, and were fixed, stern and unwinking, upon the fire that glowed at his feet.

Again he seemed to feel the clasp of a woman's hand, free and confiding, within his own. Again his heart stirred responsively in the quick warmth of a woman's perfect sympathy.

And he knew that into his keeping had been given the secret of that woman's existence. The five years' mystery was solved at last. He understood, and, understanding, he kept silent faith with her.