Chapter VII
 

"You know me," she said.

"Yes; I know you. And I know your secret, too."

The words sounded stern. He was putting strong restraint upon himself.

She faced him without flinching, her look as steady as his own. And yet again it was to Carey as though he stood in the presence of a queen. She did not say a word.

"Will you believe me," he said slowly, "when I tell you that I would give all I have not to know it?"

She raised her beautiful brows for a moment, but still she said nothing.

He let her hand go. "I was on the point of searching to the world's end for you," he said. "But since I have found you here of all places, I am bound to take advantage of it. Forgive me, if you can!"

He saw a gleam of apprehension in her eyes.

"What is it you want to say to me?" she asked.

He passed the question by.

"You know me, I suppose?"

She bent her head.

"I fancied it was you from the first. When I saw your hand at supper, I knew."

"And you tried to avoid me?"

"When you have something to conceal, it is wise to avoid anyone connected with it."

She answered him very quietly, but he knew instinctively that she was fighting him with her whole strength. It was almost more than he could bear.

"Believe me," he said, "I am not a man to wantonly betray a woman's secret. I have kept yours faithfully for years. But when within the last few days I came to know who you were, and that your husband, Major Coningsby, was contemplating making a second marriage, I was in honour bound to speak."

"You told him?" She raised her eyes for a single instant, and he read in them a reproach unutterable.

His heart smote him. What had she endured, this woman, before taking that final step to cut herself off from the man whose name she had borne? But he would not yield an inch. He was goaded by pitiless necessity.

"I told him," he answered. "But I had no means of proving what I said. And he refused to believe me."

"And now?" she almost whispered.

He heard the note of tragedy in the words, and he braced himself to meet her most desperate resistance.

"Before I go further," he said, "let me tell you this! Slight though you may consider our acquaintance to be, I have always felt--I have always known--that you are a good woman."

She made a quick gesture of protest.

"Would a good woman have left the man who saved her life lying ill in a strange land while she escaped with her miserable freedom?"

He answered her without hesitation, as he had long ago answered himself.

"No doubt the need was great."

She turned away from him and sat down, bowing her head upon her hand.

"It was," she said, her voice very low. "I was nearly mad with trouble. You had pity then--without knowing. Have you--no pity--now?"

The appeal went out into silence. Carey neither spoke nor moved. His face was like a stone mask--the face of a strong man in torture.

After a pause of seconds she spoke again, her face hidden from him.

"The first Mrs. Coningsby is dead," she said. "Let it be so! Nothing will ever bring her back. Geoffrey Coningsby is free to marry--whom he will."

The words were scarcely more than a whisper, but they reached and pierced him to the heart. He drew a step nearer to her, and spoke with sudden vehemence.

"I would help you, Heaven knows, if I could! But you will see--you must see presently--that I have no choice. There is only one thing to be done, and it has fallen to me to see it through, though it would be easier for me to die!"

He broke off. There was strangled passion in his voice. Abruptly he turned his back upon her, and began to pace up and down. Again there fell a long pause. The music and the tramp of dancing feet below rose up in his ears like a shout of mockery. He was fighting the hardest battle of his life, fighting single-handed and grievously wounded for a victory that would cripple him for the rest of his days.

Suddenly he stood still and looked at her, though she had not moved, unless her head with its silvery hair were bowed a little lower than before. For a single instant he hesitated, then strode impulsively to her, and knelt down by her side.

"God help us both!" he said hoarsely.

His hands were on her shoulders. He drew her to him, taking the bowed head upon his breast. And so, silently, he held her. When she looked up at last, he knew that the bitter triumph was his. Her face was deathly, but her eyes were steadfast. She drew herself very gently out of his hold.

"I do not think," she said, "that there is anyone else in the world who could have done for me what you have done tonight." She paused a moment looking straight into his eyes, then laid her hands in his without a quiver. "Years ago," she said, "you saved my life. Tonight--you have saved something infinitely more precious than that. And I--I am grateful to you. I will do--whatever you think right."

It was a free surrender, but it wrung his heart to accept it. Even in that moment of tragedy there was to him something of that sublime courage with which she had faced the tumult of a stormy sea with him five years before. And very poignantly it came home to him that he was there to destroy and not to deliver. Like a wave of evil, it rushed upon him, overwhelming him.

He could not trust himself to speak. The wild words that ran in his brain were such as he could not utter. And so he only bent his head once more over the hands that lay so trustingly in his, and with great reverence he kissed them.