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    Chapter 39

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    Chapter 39
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    The Lover

    "Please, sir, there's a lady to see you."

    Cleaver spoke in hushed tones, and, by the air of awestricken wonder, Jim gathered somebody unusual had called.

    "Who is the lady?" he asked, and knew before the man replied.

    "Lady Joan."

    Jim jumped up from his chair.

    "Why didn't you ask her in?" he said.

    "She wouldn't come in, sir. She is on the lawn: she asked if she could speak to you."

    He hurried out into the garden. Joan was standing at the river bank, her hands behind her, looking down into the water, and, hearing the swish of his shoes on the grass, she turned.

    "I wanted to see you," she said. "Shall we cross the river? I am on my way to the house, and you might take me as far as the coverts."

    They walked in silence until they were beyond the inquisitive eyes of Cleaver.

    "I left you rather abruptly on No Man's Hill," she said. "I think that it is due to you that I should finish my story."

    And then she told him, in almost identical words, the story she had told her father and he listened, dumfounded.

    "I am so sick of it all and I've had to make this confession twice; once to my father, because--well it was due to him, and once to you because----"

    She did not finish her sentence nor did he press her.

    "The marriage can be annulled, of course," he said.

    She nodded.

    "Father said that, and I suppose it seems very simple to you. But to me it means going into court and having this ghastly business thrashed out point by point." She shivered. "I don't think I shall ever do it," she said. "I'm a coward; did you know that?"

    "I have never had that estimate of you," he laughed. "No, Joan. I don't believe that! One isn't a coward because one shirks the ugliness of life. You're going away, aren't you?"

    She nodded.

    "I don't want to make the trip, but I think it will be good for father. The winter climate here doesn't suit him and it will be a change for us both. I thought there was a catch in it somewhere," she half smiled, "but really Mr. Hamon is going to America. He is with father now, taking his farewells."

    "And that is one of the reasons why I have the privilege of seeing you?" he chuckled, but she protested vigorously.

    "No, I should have come anyway. I had to tell you about--about the marriage. And do you know, James, I have a feeling that Hamon knows."

    "How could he?"

    "He was at the house one night when Mr. Farringdon was unusually violent. It was the night Mrs. Cornford lost her letter, which you got back for her. And she said that Farringdon had been talking about the church in the wood at Ascot all the time. A man of Hamon's shrewdness would jump at the truth."

    "Does it matter?" asked Jim quietly after a pause, "whether he knows or not? How is Farringdon, by the way?"

    She shrugged her shoulders.

    "He is better. It is wicked of me not to be thankful, but, Jim, I can't be--I shall have to call you Jim, I suppose. I saw him to-day; he was walking in the plantation at the back of the cottage."

    "Is he so far recovered as that?" asked Jim in surprise, "but would he recognise you?"

    She nodded.

    "I have a feeling that he did," she said. "Yes, he has recovered. The doctor told Mrs. Cornford that these cases get better with surprising rapidity. I didn't know he was in the wood. I was on my way to the cottage to ask after him, and suddenly we came face to face and he looked at me very oddly as I passed. What makes me think he knows is that Mrs. Cornford told me he had been asking who was Lady Joan and what rank was her father. And then he asked how far it was to Ascot."

    Her voice trembled and she bit her lip to recover her self-possession.

    "He may be guessing," she said after a while, "but even that may make it more difficult for me. What am I to do, Jim? What am I to do?"

    He had to hold himself in, or he would have taken her into his arms. He loved her; he had not realised how intensely until that moment. To Jim Morlake she was the beginning and end of existence and all its desirability. He would have changed the plan of his life, and abandoned the quest that had occupied ten years of his life, to save her from one heart-ache.

    Looking up, she dropped her eyes again, as though she read in his face something of the burning fire that was consuming him. He laid his hand on her shoulders and his touch was a caress. Slowly they paced toward the wood, and instinctively she leaned more and more upon him, until his arm was about her and her cheek brushed the home-spun of his sleeve.

    Ralph Hamon had said good-bye to the Earl of Creith and was searching the grounds for the girl when he saw the two and stopped dead. Even at that distance, there was no mistaking the athletic figure and the clean-moulded face of Jim Morlake. Still more impossible was it to misunderstand the relationship of these two.

    They disappeared into the straggling plantation and he stood for some time biting his nails, his heart hot with impotent rage. There was something between them, after all! He had pooh-poohed the suggestion when Lydia had made it, but here was a demonstration beyond all doubt. He broke into a run down the grassy slope toward the strip of wood, not knowing what he would do, or what he would say when he saw them. All he wanted was to meet them face to face and release upon them the fury which burnt within him.

    Blundering across the grass-land, he reached the wood breathless. He stopped to listen, heard footsteps and went toward the sound. Moving forward stealthily from tree to tree, he saw the walker and stopped. It was Farringdon, the man he had seen at Mrs. Cornford's cottage!

    His appearance took Hamon by surprise. He thought the walker was bedridden. The man came nearer and Hamon took cover and watched. Farringdon was a wild-looking figure with his week's growth of beard, his pale face and his untidy dress. He was talking to himself as he slouched along, and Hamon strained his ears, without being able to distinguish what he was saying. The man passed and, coming from his hiding place, the watcher followed at a distance, guessing that the course he was taking would intercept the lovers.

    To Jim those were the most precious moments of his life. The burden of life had slipped from him; all other causes and ambitions were lost in his new-found happiness. In silence they walked into the wood, oblivious to all the world that lay outside their hearts. Presently she stopped and sat down on a fallen tree trunk.

    "Where are we going?" she asked, and he knew that she did not refer to their immediate destination.

    "We're going to happiness, sooner or later," he said, as he sat by her side and drew her to him. "We will disentangle all the knots, big and little, and straighten out all the paths, however crooked and uneven they may be."

    She smiled and lifted her lips to his. And then, in that moment of pure ecstasy, Jim heard a low, chuckling laugh, and gently putting her away from him, turned.

    "A forest idyll! That's a fine sight for a husband--to see his wife in another man's arms!"

    Farringdon stood tensely before them, his arms folded, his dark eyes glistening feverishly. The girl sprang up with a cry of distress and clutched at Jim Morlake's arm.

    "He knows!" she whispered in terror.

    The man's keen ears heard the words.

    "He knows...!" he mocked. "You bet he knows! So you're my Joan, are you? If I hadn't been a lazy brute I'd have found that out years ago."

    He took off his hat with a sweep.

    "Glad to met you, Mrs. Farringdon!" he said. "It is a long time since you and I were joined together in the holy bonds of matrimony. So you're my Joan! Well, I've dreamt about you for all these years, but I never dreamt anything so pretty. Do you know this...." he pointed at her with a shaking finger. "There was a girl I could have married, and would have married if it hadn't been for that cursed folly! You've been a stumbling block in my road, a handicap that nothing but booze could overcome!"

    He took a step toward her and suddenly, gripping her, jerked her toward him.

    "You're coming home," he said, and laughed.

    In another instant he was thrust backward and, stumbling, fell. Jim stooped to pick him to his feet, but he struck the hand aside, and, with a scream of rage, sprang at the tall man.

    "You dog!" he howled. But he was a child in the hands that held him.

    "You're ill, Farringdon," said Jim gently. "I'm sorry if I hurt you."

    "Let me go! Let me go!" screamed Ferdie Farringdon. "She is my wife. I'm going to tell the village ... she is my wife! You're coming with me, Joan Carston--do you hear! You're my wife till death do us part. And you can't divorce me without bringing him into it."

    He wrenched himself from Jim's grip and staggered back. He was breathing painfully, his face, distorted with rage, was demoniacal.

    "I've got something to live for now--you! You came to see me, didn't you? And he came too ... you're coming again, Joan--alone!"

    And then he spun round and, running like a person demented, flew down the woodland path and was lost to view. Jim turned to the girl. She was trying to smile at him.

    "Oh, Jim!"

    It hurt him to feel the quivering, trembling agony of her soul as he held her.

    "I'm all right now," she said after a while. "You'll have to see me home part of the way, Jim. What am I to do? Thank God we're going away on Saturday!"

    He nodded.

    "And I was regretting it!" he said. "The man has been at the bottle again, or else he's gone mad."

    "Do you think he will come to the house?" she asked fearfully, and then, with a surprising effort, she put him at arm's length and smiled through her unshed tears. "I told you I was a coward and I am. Matrimony doesn't suit me. Jim, I'm beginning to sympathise with wives who murder their husbands. That is a terrible thing to say, isn't it? But I am! He won't come up to the Hall--I don't care if he does," she said, with something of her old spirit. "Father knows. Who could have told him--Mr. Farringdon, I mean?"

    "He guessed," said Jim decisively, "and why he hadn't guessed before, I don't know. Probably it was the accident which brought him to Creith, and the opportunity he had of seeing you and hearing your name, which made the discovery possible."

    Conversation was difficult; they were each too full of their own thoughts to find speech anything but an effort. But when they came in sight of Creith House, the girl asked unexpectedly "Jim, what were you before you were a burglar?"

    "Eh?" he replied, startled. "Before I was a burglar? Oh, I was a respectable member of society."

    "But what were you? Were you in the Army?"

    He shook his head.

    "In any public service?"

    "What makes you ask that?" he demanded, looking at her in amazement.

    "I don't know--I guessed."

    "I was in the diplomatic service for a while--which doesn't mean that I was an ambassador or a consul. I was a sort of hanger-on to embassies and ministries...."

    "In Morocco?" she asked when he did not go on.

    "In Morocco and Turkey and other Asiatic countries. I gave it up because--well, because I had sufficient money and because I found a new avenue to adventure."

    She nodded.

    "I thought it was something like that," she said. "You mustn't go any further. Will you write to me?"

    He hesitated and, quick to notice such things, she said:

    "Poor man! You don't know where to write! Daddy is having all his correspondence addressed to the English Club at Cadiz--will you remember that? Good-bye!"

    She held out both her hands and he took them.

    "I don't think you'd better kiss me again. I want to keep as near to normality as I can--I've got to face the lynx-eyed Mr. Hamon."

    The lynx-eyed Mr. Hamon was watching the parting from a distance, and he ground his teeth as her companion, disregarding her wishes, put his arm about her and kissed her.
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