Chapter XIV. Battle Royal
 

She went to her own rooms to think and to decide; and what she first thought and then decided was sensible enough. She was thankful she had not been caught like Fatima in the forbidden room; not that she lacked the courage to meet the consequences of her acts, but it would have put her in the wrong and at a disadvantage at the first crash of battle. And a battle royal Rachel quite expected; nor had she the faintest intention of disguising what she had done; but it was her husband who was to be taken aback, for a change.

The Steels dined alone, as usual, or as much alone as a man and his wife with a butler and two footmen are permitted to be at their meals. Steel was at his best after these jaunts of his to Northborough and the club. He would come home with the latest news from that centre of the universe, the latest gossip which had gone the rounds on 'Change and at lunch, the newest stories of Mr. Venables and his friends, which were invariably reproduced for Rachel's benefit with that slight but unmistakable local accent of which these gentry were themselves all unconscious. Steel had a wicked wit, and Rachel as a rule a sufficiently appreciative smile, but this was to-night either lacking altogether or of an unconvincing character. Rachel could never pretend, and her first spontaneous remark was when her glass filled up with froth.

"Champagne!" said she, for they seldom drank it.

"It has been such a wretched day," explained Steel, "that I ordered it medicinally. I am afraid it must have been perishing here, as it was in the town. This is to restore your circulation."

"My circulation is all right," answered Rachel, too honest even to smile upon the man with whom she was going to war. "I felt cold all the morning, but I have been warm enough since the afternoon."

And that was very true, for excitement had made her blood run hot in every vein; nor had Rachel often been more handsome, or less lovely, than she was to-night, with her firm lip and her brooding eye.

"There was another reason for the champagne," resumed her husband, very frankly for him, when at last they had the drawing-room to themselves. "I am in disgrace with you, I believe, and I want to hear from you what I have done."

"It is what you have not done," returned Rachel, as she stood imperiously before the lighted fire; and her bosom rose and fell, white as the ornate mantelpiece of Carrara marble which gleamed behind her.

"And what, may I ask, is my latest sin of omission?"

Rachel rushed to the point with a passionate directness that did her no discredit.

"Why have you pretended all these months that you never were in Australia in your life? Why did you never tell me that you knew Alexander Minchin out there?"

And she held her breath against the worst that he could do, being well prepared for him to lose first his color and then the temper which he had never lost since she had known him; to fly into a fury, to curse her up hill and down dale--in a word, to behave as her first husband had done more than once, but this one never. What Rachel did not anticipate was a smile that cloaked not a single particle of surprise, and the little cocksure bow that accompanied the smile.

"So you have found it out," said Steel, and his smile only ended as he sipped his coffee; even then there was no end to it in his eyes.

"This afternoon," said Rachel, disconcerted but not undone.

"By poking your nose into places which you would not think of approaching in my presence?"

"By the merest accident in the world!"

And Rachel described the accident, truth flashing from her eyes; in an instant her husband's face changed, the smile went out, but it was no frown that came in its stead.

"I beg your pardon, Rachel," said he, earnestly. "I suppose," he added, "that a man may call his wife by her Christian name for once in a way? I did so, however, without thinking, and because I really do most humbly beg your pardon for an injustice which I have done you for some hours in my own mind. I came home between three and four, and I heard you were in my study. You were not, but that book was out; and then, of course, I knew where you were. My hand was on the knob, but I drew it back. I wondered if you would have the pluck to do the tackling! And I apologize again," Steel concluded, "for I knew you quite well enough to have also known that at least there was no question about your courage."

"Then," said Rachel, impulsively, after having made up her mind to ignore these compliments, "then I think you might at least be candid with me!"

"And am I not?" he cried. "Have I denied that the portrait you saw is indeed the portrait of Alexander Minchin? And yet how easy that would have been! It was taken long before you knew him; he must have altered considerably after that. Or I might have known him under another name. But no, I tell you honestly that your first husband was a very dear friend of mine, more years ago than I care to reckon. Did you hear me?" he added, with one of his sudden changes of tone and manner. "A very dear friend, I said, for that he undoubtedly was; but was I going to ask you to marry a very dear friend of the man who deteriorated so terribly, and who treated you so ill?"

Delivered in the most natural manner imaginable, with the quiet confidence of which this man was full, and followed by a smile of conscious yet not unkindly triumph, this argument, like most that fell from his lips upon her ears, was invested with a value out of all proportion to its real worth; and Steel clinched it with one of those homely saws which are not disdained by makers of speeches the wide world over.

"Could you really think," he added, with one of his rarest and most winning smiles, "that I should be such a fool as to invite you to step out of the frying-pan into the fire?"

Rachel felt for a moment that she would like to say it was exactly what she had done; but even in that moment she perceived that such a statement would have been very far from the truth. And her nature was large enough to refrain from the momentary gratification of a bitter repartee. But he was too clever for her; that she did feel, whatever else he might be; and her only chance was to return to the plain questions with which she had started, demanding answers as plain. Rachel led up to them, however, with one or two of which she already knew the answer, thus preparing for her spring in quite the Old Bailey manner, which she had mastered subconsciously at her trial, and which for once was to profit a prisoner at the bar.

"Yet you don't any longer deny that you have been to Australia?"

"It is useless. I lived there for years."

"And you admit that you knew Alexander quite well out there?"

"Most intimately, in the Riverina, some fifteen or twenty years ago; he was on my station as almost everything a gentleman could be, up to overseer; and by that time he was half a son to me, and half a younger brother."

"But no relation, as a matter of fact?"

"None whatever, but my very familiar friend, as I have already told you."

"Then why in the world," Rachel almost thundered, "could you not tell me so in the beginning?"

"That is a question I have already answered."

"Then I have another. Why so often and so systematically pretend that you never were in Australia at all?"

"That is a question which I implore you not to press!"

The two answers, so like each other in verbal form, were utterly dissimilar in the manner of their utterance. Suddenly, and for the first time in all her knowledge of him, his cynical aplomb had fallen from the man like a garment. One moment he was brazening past deceit with a smiling face; the next, he was in earnest, even he, and that mocking voice vibrated with deep feeling.

"I should have thought all the more of you for being an Australian," continued Rachel, vaguely touched at the change in him, "I who am proud of being one myself. What harm could it have done, my knowing that?"

"You are not the only one from whom I have hidden it," said Steel, still in a low and altered voice.

"Yet you brought home all those keepsakes of the bush?"

"But I thought better of them, and have never even unpacked them all, as you must have seen for yourself."

"Yet your mysterious visitor of the other day--"

"Another Australian, of course; indeed, another man who worked upon my own run."

"And he knows why you don't want it known over here?"

"He does," said Steel, with grim brevity.

Rachel moved forward and pressed his hand impulsively. To her surprise the pressure was returned. That instant their hands fell apart.

"I beg your pardon in my turn," she said. "I can only promise you that I will never again reopen that wound--whatever it may be--and I won't even try to guess. I undertook not to try to probe your past, and I will keep my undertaking in the main; but where it impinges upon my own past I simply cannot! You say you were my first husband's close friend," added Rachel, looking her second husband more squarely than ever in the eyes. "Was that what brought you to my trial for his murder?"

He returned her look.

"It was."

"Was that what made you wish to marry me yourself?"

No answer, but his assurance coming back, as he stood looking at her under beetling eyebrows, over black arms folded across a snowy shirt. It was the wrong moment for the old Adam's return, for Rachel had reached the point upon which she most passionately desired enlightenment.

"I want to know," she cried, "and I insist on knowing, what first put it into your head or your heart to marry me--all but convicted--"

Steel held up his hand, glancing in apprehension towards the door.

"I have told you so often," he said, "and your glass tells you whenever you look into it. I sat within a few feet of you for the inside of a week!"

"But that is not true," she told him quietly; "trust a woman to know, if it were."

In the white glare of the electric light he seemed for once to change color slightly.

"If you will not accept my word," he answered, "there is no more to be said."

And he switched off a bunch of the lights that had beaten too fiercely upon him; but it only looked as if he was about to end the interview.

"You have admitted so many untruths in the last half hour," pursued Rachel, in a thrilling voice, "that you ought not to be hurt if I suspect you of another. Come! Can you look me in the face and tell me that you married me for love? No, you turn away--because you cannot! Then will you, in God's name, tell me why you did marry me?"

And she followed him with clasped hands, her beautiful eyes filled with tears, her white throat quivering with sobs, until suddenly he turned upon her as though in self-defence.

"No, I will not!" he cried. "Since the answer I have given you, and the obvious answer, is not good enough for you, the best thing you can do is to find out for yourself."

A truculent look came into Rachel's eyes, as they rested upon the smooth face so unusually agitated beneath the smooth silvery hair.

"I will!" she answered through her teeth. "I shall take you at your word, and find out for myself I will!"

And she swept past him out of the room.

[Illustration: "I will!" she answered through her teeth--and she swept past him out of the room.]