Chapter VI
 

Mademoiselle Treves kept her word, and wherever the fun was at its height she was invariably the centre of it. The shy children crowded about her. She seemed to possess a special charm for them.

Gwen was delighted, and was obviously enjoying herself to the utmost. In the absence of her bete noire whom she had courageously omitted to invite, she rejoiced to see that her mother was being unusually gracious to her beloved Admiral, who was as merry as a schoolboy in consequence.

She was shrewdly aware, however, that the welcome change was but temporary. Incomprehensible though it was to Gwen, she knew that Major Coningsby's power over her gay and frivolous young mother was absolute. He ruled her with a rod of iron, and Lady Emberdale actually enjoyed his tyranny. The rough court he paid her served to turn her head completely, and she never attempted to resist his influence.

It was all very distasteful to Gwen, who hated the man with the whole force of her nature. She was thankful to feel that Carey was enlisted on her side. She looked upon him as a tower of strength, and, forebodings notwithstanding, she was able to throw herself heart and soul into the evening's festivities, and to beam delightedly upon her cousin as she walked behind him with Charlie to the supper room.

Carey was escorting the French governess. He found a comfortable corner for her in the thronged room at a table laid for two.

"I am bearing in mind your promise to stand by till twelve o'clock," he said. "It's the only thing that keeps me going, for I have a powerful longing to remove my mask in defiance of orders. It feels like a porous plaster. I shall only hold out till midnight with your gallant assistance."

He stooped with the words to pick up her fan which she had dropped. He was obliged to use his left hand, and he knew that she gave a quick start at sight of it. But she spoke instantly and he admired her ready self-control.

"It was rather a rash promise, I am afraid."

Her voice sounded half shy and wholly sweet, and again he was caught by that elusive quality about her that had puzzled him before. It was stronger than ever, so strong that he felt for a moment on the verge of discovery. But yet again it baffled him, making him all the more determined to pursue it to its source.

"You're not going to cry off?" he said, with a smile.

He saw her flush behind her mask.

"Only with your permission," she answered.

He heard the note of pleading in her voice, but he would not notice it.

"Oh, I can't let you off!" he said lightly. "Gwen would never forgive me. Besides, I don't want to."

She said no more, probably realising that he meant to have his way. They talked upon indifferent topics in the midst of the general buzz of merriment till, supper over, they separated.

"I shall come for that midnight dance," were Carey's last words, as he bowed and left her.

And during the hour that intervened he kept a sharp eye upon her, lest her evident reluctance to remain should prove too much for her integrity. He was half amused at his own tenacity in the matter. Not for years had a chance acquaintance so excited his curiosity.

A few minutes before midnight he was standing before her. The last dance of the evening had just begun. Gwen had decreed that everyone should stop upon the stroke of twelve, while every mask was removed, after which the dance was to be continued to the finish.

"Shall we go upstairs?" suggested Carey.

To his surprise he felt that the hand she laid upon his arm was trembling.

"By all means," she answered. "Let us get away from the crowd!"

It was an unexpected request, but he showed no surprise. He piloted her to a secluded spot in the upper regions, and they sat down on a lounge at the end of a corridor.

A queer sense of uneasiness had begun to oppress Carey, as strong as it was inexplicable. He made a resolute effort to ignore it. The music downstairs was sinking away. He took out his watch.

"The dramatic moment approaches," he remarked, after a pause. "Are you ready?"

She did not speak.

"I'll tell you why I want to see you unmask," he said, speaking very quietly. "It is because there is something about you that reminds me of someone I know, but the resemblance is so subtle that it has eluded me all the evening."

"You do not know me," she said. And he felt that she spoke with an effort.

"I am not so sure," he answered. "But in any case--"

He paused. The music had ceased altogether, and an expectant silence prevailed. He looked at her intently as he waited, till aware that she shrank from his scrutiny.

A long deep note boomed through the house, echoing weirdly through the intense silence. Carey put up his hand without speaking, and stripped off his mask. He crumpled it into a ball as the second note struck, and looked at her. She had not moved. He waited silently.

At the sixth note she made a sudden, almost passionate gesture and rose. Carey remained motionless, watching her. Swiftly she turned, and began to walk away from him. He leaned forward. His eyes were fixed upon her.

Three more strokes! She stopped abruptly, turning back as if he had spoken. Moving slowly, and still masked, she came back to him. He met her under a lamp. His face was very pale, but his eyes were steady and piercingly keen. He took her hand, bending over it till his lips touched her glove.

"I know you now," he said, his voice very low.

Three more strokes, and silence.

A ripple of laughter suddenly ran through the house, a gay voice called for three cheers, and as though a spell had been lifted the merriment burst out afresh in tune to the lilting dance-music.

Carey straightened himself slowly, still holding the slender hand in his. Her mask had gone at last, and he stood face to face with the woman of his dream--the woman whose hard-won security he had only that morning pledged himself to shatter.