Chapter VIII
 

It was on a cold, dark evening two days later that Major Coningsby returned from the first run of the year, and tramped, mud-splashed and stiff from hard riding, into his gloomy house. A gust of rain blew swirling after him, and he turned, swearing, and shut the great door with a bang. It had not been a good day for sport. The ground had been sodden, and the scent had washed away. He had followed the hounds for miles to no purpose and had galloped home at last in sheer disgust. To add to his grievances he had called upon Lady Emberdale on his way back, and had not found her in. "Gone to tea with her precious Admiral, I suppose!" he had growled, as he rode away, which, as it chanced, was the case. The suspicion had not improved his mood, and he was very much out of humour when he finally reached his own domain. Striding into the library, he turned on the threshold to curse his servant for not having lighted the lamp, and the man hastened forward nervously to repair the omission. This accomplished, he as hastily retired, glancing furtively over his shoulder as he made his escape.

Coningsby tramped to the hearth, and stood there, beating his leg irritably with his riding-whip. There was a heavy frown on his face. He did not once raise his eyes to the picture above him. He was still thinking of Lady Emberdale and the Admiral. Finally, with a sudden idea of refreshing himself, he wheeled towards the table. The next instant, he stood and stared as if transfixed.

A woman dressed in black, and thickly veiled, was standing facing him under the lamp.

He gazed at her speechlessly for a second or two, then passed his hand across his eyes.

"Great heavens!" he said slowly, at last.

She made a quick movement of the hands that was like a gesture of shrinking.

"You don't know me?" she asked, in a voice so low as to be barely audible.

For a moment there flashed into his face the curious, listening look that is seen on the faces of the blind. Then violently he strode forward.

"I should know that voice in ten thousand!" he cried, his words sharp and quivering. "Take off your veil, woman! Show me your face!"

The hunger in his eyes was terrible to see. He looked like a dying man reaching out impotent hands for some priceless elixir of life.

"Your face!" he gasped again hoarsely, brokenly. "Show me your face!"

Mutely she obeyed him, removed hat and veil with fingers that never faltered, and turned her sad, calm face towards him. For seconds longer he stared at her, stared devouringly, fiercely, with the eyes of a madman. Then, suddenly, with a great cry, he stumbled forward, flinging himself upon his knees at the table, with his face hidden on his arms.

"Oh, I know you! I know you!" he sobbed. "You've tortured me like this before. You've made me think I had only to open my arms to you, and I should have you close against my heart. It's happened night after night, night after night! Naomi! Naomi! Naomi!"

His voice choked, and he became intensely still crouching there before her in an anguish too great for words.

For a long time she was motionless too, but at last, as he did not move, she came a step toward him, pity and repugnance struggling visibly for the mastery over her. Reluctantly she stooped and touched his shoulder.

"Geoffrey!" she said, "it is I, myself, this time."

He started at her touch but did not lift his head.

She waited, and presently he began to recover himself. At last he blundered heavily to his feet.

"It's true, is it?" he said, peering at her uncertainly. "You're here--in the flesh? You've been having just a ghastly sort of game with me all these years, have you? Hang it, I didn't deserve quite that! And so the little newspaper chap spoke the truth, after all."

He paused; then suddenly flung out his arms to her as he stood.

"Naomi!" he cried, "come to me, my girl! Don't be afraid. I swear I'll be good to you, and I'm a man that keeps his oath! Come to me, I say!"

But she held back from him, her face still white and calm.

"No, Geoffrey," she said very firmly, "I haven't come back to you for that. When I left you, I left you for good. And you know why. I never meant to see your face again. You had made my life with you impossible. I have only come to-day as--as a matter of principle, because I heard you were going to marry again."

The man's arms fell slowly.

"You were always rather great on principle," he said, in an odd tone.

He was not angry--that she saw. But the sudden dying away of the eagerness on his face made him look old and different. This was not the man whose hurricanes of violence had once overwhelmed her, whose unrestrained passions had finally driven her from him to take refuge in a lie.

"I should not have come," she said, speaking with less assurance, "if it had not been to prevent a wrong being done to another woman."

His expression did not change.

"I see," he said quietly. "Who sent you? Carey?"

She flushed uncontrollably at the question, though there was no offence in the tone in which it was uttered.

"Yes," she answered, after a moment.

Coningsby turned slowly and looked into the fire.

"And how did he persuade you?" he asked. "Did he tell you I was going blind?"

"No!" There was apprehension as well as surprise in her voice; and he jerked his head up as though listening to it.

"Ah, well!" he said. "It doesn't much matter. There is a remedy for all this world's evils. No doubt I shall take it sooner or later. So you're going again are you? I'm not to touch you; not to kiss your hand? You won't have me as husband, slave, or dog! Egad!" He laughed out harshly. "I used not to be so humble. If you were queen, I was king, and I made you know it. There! Go! You have done what you came to do, and more also. Go quickly, before I see your face again! I'm only mortal still, and there are some things that mortals can't endure--even strong men--even giants. So--good-bye!"

He stopped abruptly. He was gripping the high mantelpiece with both hands. Every bone of them stood out distinctly, and the veins shone purple in the lamplight. His head was bowed forward upon his chest. He was fighting fiercely with that demon of unfettered violence to which he had yielded such complete allegiance all his life.

Minutes passed. He dared not turn his head to look but he knew that she had not gone. He waited dumbly, still forcing back the evil impulse that tore at his heart. But the tension became at last intolerable, and slowly, still gripping himself with all his waning strength, he stood up and turned.

She was standing close to him. The repugnance had all gone out of her face. It held only the tenderness of a great compassion.

As he stared at her dumbfounded, she held out her hands to him.

"Geoffrey," she said, "if you wish it, I will come back to you."

He stared at her, still wide-eyed and mute, as though a spell were upon him.

"Won't you have me, Geoffrey?" she said, a faint quiver in her voice.

He seized her hands then, seized them, and drew her to him, bowing his head down upon her shoulder with a great sob.

"Naomi, Naomi," he whispered huskily, "I will be good to you, my darling--so help me, God!"

Her own eyes were full of tears. She yielded herself to him without a word.