The Woman of His Dream by Ethel M. Dell
The winter sunlight was streaming into Major Coningsby's gloomy library when Carey again stood within it. The Major was out riding, he had been told, but he was expected back ere long; and he had decided to wait for him.
And so he stood waiting before the portrait; and closely, critically, he studied it by the morning light.
It was the face which for five years now he had carried graven on his heart. She was the one woman to him--the woman of his dream. Throughout his wanderings he had cherished the memory of her--a secret and priceless possession to which he clung day and night, waking and sleeping. He had made no effort to find her during those years, but silently, almost in spite of himself, he had kept her in his heart, had called her to him in his dreams, yearning to her across the ever-widening gulf, hungering dumbly for the voice he had never heard.
He knew that he was no favourite with women. All his life his reserve had been a barrier that none had ever sought to pass till this woman--the woman who should have been his fate--had been drifted to him through life's stress and tumult and had laid her hand with perfect confidence in his. And now it was laid upon him to betray that confidence. He no longer had the right to keep her secret. He had protected her once, and it had been as a hidden, sacred bond invisibly linking them together. But it could do so no longer. The time had come to wrest that precious link apart.
Sharply he turned from the picture. The dark eyes tortured him. They seemed to be pleading with him, entreating him. There came a sudden clatter without, the tramp of heavy feet, the jingle of spurs. The door was flung noisily back, and Major Coningsby strode in.
"Hullo! Very good of you to look me up so soon. Sorry I wasn't in to receive you. Haven't you had a drink yet?"
He tossed his riding-whip down upon the table, and busied himself with the glasses.
Carey drew near; his face was stern.
"I have something to say to you," he said, "before we drink, if you have no objection."
His voice was quiet and very even, but Coningsby looked up with a quick frown.
"Confound you, Carey! What are you pulling a long face about this time of the morning? Better have a drink; it'll make you feel more sociable."
He spoke with sharp irritation. The hand that held the spirit-decanter was not over-steady. Carey watched him--coldly critical.
"That portrait over the mantelpiece," he said; "your wife, I think you told me?"
Coningsby swore a deep oath.
"I may have told you so. I don't often mention the subject. She is dead."
"I beg your pardon; I am forced to mention it." Carey's tone was deliberate, emotionless, hard. "That lady--the original of that portrait--is still alive, to the best of my belief. At least, she was not lost at sea on the occasion of the wreck of the Denver Castle five years ago."
"What?" said Coningsby. He turned suddenly white--white to the lips, and set down the decanter he was still holding as if he had been struck powerless. "What?" he said again, with starting eyes upon Carey's face.
"I think you understood me," Carey returned coldly. "I have told you because, upon consideration, it seemed to me you ought to know."
The thing was done and past recall, but deep in his heart there lurked a savage resentment against this man who had forced him to break his silence. He felt no sympathy with him; he only knew disgust.
Coningsby moved suddenly with a frantic oath, and gripped him by the shoulder. The blood was coming back to his face in livid patches; his eyes were terrible.
"Go on!" he said thickly. "Out with it! Tell me all you know!"
He towered over Carey. There was violence in his grip, but Carey did not seem to notice. He faced the giant with absolute composure.
"I can tell you no more," he said. "I knew she was saved, because I was saved with her. But she left Brittany while I was still too ill to move."
"You must know more than that!" shouted Coningsby, losing all control of himself, and shaking his informant furiously by the shoulder. "If she was saved, how did she come to be reported missing?"
For a single instant Carey hesitated; then, with steady eyes upon the bloated face above him, he made quiet reply:
"Her name was among the missing by her own contrivance. Doubtless she had her reasons."
Coningsby's face suddenly changed: his eyes shone red.
"You helped her!" he snarled, and lifted a clenched fist.
Carey's maimed hand came quietly into view, and closed upon the man's wrist.
"It is not my custom," he coldly said, "to refuse help to a woman."
"Confound you!" stormed Coningsby. "Where is she now? Where? Where?"
There fell a sudden pause. Carey's eyes were like steel; his grasp never slackened.
"If I knew," he said deliberately, at length, "I should not tell you! You are not fit for the society of any good woman."
The words fell keen as a whip-lash, and as pitiless. Coningsby glared into his face like a goaded bull; his look was murderous. And then by some chance his eyes fell upon the hand that gripped his wrist. He looked at it closely, attentively, for a few seconds, and finally set Carey free.
"You may thank that," he said more quietly, "for getting you out of the hottest corner you were ever in. I didn't notice it yesterday, though I remember now that you were wounded. So you parted with half your hand to drag me out of that hell, did you? It was a rank, bad investment on your part."
He flung away abruptly, and helped himself to some brandy. A considerable pause ensued before he spoke again.
"Egad!" he said then, with a harsh laugh, "it's a deuced ingenious lie, this of yours. I suppose you and that imp of mischief, Gwen, hatched it up between you? I saw she had got her thinking-cap on yesterday. I am not considered good enough for her lady mother. But, mark you, I'm going to have her for all that! It isn't good for man to live alone, and I have taken a fancy to Evelyn Emberdale."
"You don't believe me?" Carey asked.
Somehow, though he had been prepared for bluster and even violence, he had not expected incredulity.
Coningsby filled and emptied his glass a second time before he answered.
"No," he said then, with sudden savagery: "I don't believe you! You had better get out of my house at once, or--I warn you--I may break every bone in your blackguardly body yet!" He turned on Carey, leaping madness in his eyes.
But Carey stood like a rock. "You know the truth," he said quietly.
Coningsby broke into another wild laugh, and pointed up at the picture above his head.
"I shall know it," he declared, "when the sea gives up its dead. Till that day I am free to console myself in my own way, and no one shall stop me."
"You are not free," Carey said. Very steadily he faced the man, very distinctly he spoke. "And, however you console yourself, it will not be with my cousin Lady Emberdale."
Coningsby turned back to the table to fill his glass again. He spilt the spirit over the cloth as he did it.
"Man alive," he gibed, "do you think she will believe you if I don't?"
It was the weak point of his position, and Carey realised it. It was more than probable that Lady Emberdale would take Coningsby's view of the matter. If the man really attracted her it was almost a foregone conclusion. He knew Gwen's mother well--her inconsequent whims, her obstinacy.
Yet, even in face of this check, he stood his ground.
"I may find some means of proving what I have told you," he said, with unswerving resolution.
Coningsby drained his glass for the third time, and, with a menacing sweep of the hand, seized his riding-whip.
"I don't advise you to come here with your proofs," he snarled. "The only proof I would look at is the woman herself. Now, sir, I have warned you fairly. Are you going?"
His attitude was openly threatening, but Carey's eyes were piercingly upon him, and, in spite of himself, he paused. So for the passage of seconds they stood; then slowly Carey turned away.
"I am going," he said, "to find your wife."
He did not glance again at the picture as he passed from the room. He could not bring himself to meet the dark eyes that followed him.