Ethel M. Dell.

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little - "I think I always shall be tired for the rest of my life."

"Skittles!" he returned bluntly. "That isn't what's the matter with
you. Go out into the open air. Go out into the north-east wind and
sweep the snow away. Shall I tell you what is wrong with you? You're
stiff from inaction. It's a species of cramp, my dear, and there's
only one remedy for it. Are you going to take it of your own accord,
or must I come round with a physic spoon and make you?"

She laughed a little, though the deep pathos of her shadowed eyes
never varied. Daisy's merry voice rose from the lower regions gaily
chaffing her cousin.

"Goodness, Blake! I shouldn't have known you. You're as gaunt as
a camel. Haven't you got over your picnic at Fort Wara yet? You're
almost as scanty a bag of bones as Nick was six months ago."

Blake's answer was inaudible. Dr. Ratcliffe did not listen for it.
He had seen the swift look of horror that the brief allusion had sent
into the girl's sad face, and he understood it though he made no sign.

"Very well," he said, turning towards the nursery. "Then I take you
in hand from this day forward. And if I don't find you in the
hockey-field on Saturday, I shall come myself and fetch you."

There was nothing even vaguely suggestive of Nick about him, but
Muriel knew as surely as if Nick had said it that he would keep his
word.




CHAPTER XVIII

THE EXPLANATION


"Now," said Daisy briskly, "you two will just have to entertain each
other for a little while, for I am going up to sit with my son while
_ayah_ is off duty."

"Mayn't we come too?" suggested her cousin, as he rose to open the
door.

She stood a moment and contemplated him with shining eyes. "You
are too magnificent altogether for this doll's house of ours," she
declared. "I am sure this humble roof has never before sheltered such
a lion as Captain Blake Grange, V.C."

"Only an ass in a lion's skin, my dear Daisy," said Grange modestly.

She laughed. "An excellent simile, my worthy cousin. I wish I had
thought of it myself."

She went lightly away with this thrust, and Grange, after a brief
pause, turned slowly back into the room.

Muriel was seated in a low chair before the fire. She was working at
some tiny woollen socks, knitting swiftly in dead silence.

He moved to the hearthrug, and stood there, obviously ill at ease. A
certain shyness was in his nature, and Muriel's nervousness reacted
upon him. He did not know how to break the silence.

At length, with an effort, he spoke. "You heard about Nick Ratcliffe's
wound, I expect, Miss Roscoe?"

Muriel's hands leapt suddenly and fell into her lap. "Nick Ratcliffe!
When was he wounded? No, I have heard nothing."

He looked down at her with an uneasy suspicion that he had lighted
upon an unfortunate subject.

"I thought you would have heard," he said. "Didn't Daisy know? He
came back to us from Simla - got himself attached to the punitive
expedition. I was on the sick list myself, so did not see him, but
they say he fought like a dancing dervish, and did a lot of damage
too. Every one thought he would have the V.C., but there was a rumour
that he refused it."

"And - he was wounded, you say?" Muriel's voice sounded curiously
strained. Her knitting lay jumbled together in her lap. Her dark face
was lifted, and it seemed to Grange, unskilled observer though he was,
that he had never seen deeper tragedy in any woman's eyes.

Somewhat reluctantly he made reply. "He had his arm injured by a
sword-thrust at the very end of the campaign. He made light of it for
ever so long till things began to look serious. Then he had to give
in, and had a pretty sharp time of it, I believe. He's better again
now, though, so his brother told me this evening. I never heard any
details. I daresay he's all right again." He stooped to pick up a
completed sock that had fallen. "He's the sort of chap who always
comes out on top," he ended consolingly.

Muriel stiffened a little as she sat. She had a curious longing to
hear more, and an equally curious reluctance to ask for it.

"I never heard anything about it - naturally," she remarked.

Grange, having fitted the sock on to two fingers, was examining it
with a contemplative air. It struck her abruptly that he was trying to
say something. She waited silently, not without apprehension. She had
no idea as to how much he knew of what had passed between herself and
Nick.

"I say, Miss Roscoe," he blurted out suddenly, "do you hate talking
about these things - very badly, I mean?"

She looked up at him, and was surprised to see emotion on his face. It
had an odd effect upon her, placing her unaccountably at her ease with
him, banishing all her stiffness in a moment. She remembered with a
quick warmth at her heart how she had always liked this man in those
far-off days of her father's protection, how she had always found
something reassuring in his gentle courtesy.

"No," she said, after a moment, speaking with absolute sincerity. "I
can't bear to with - most people; but I don't think I mind with you."

She saw his pleasant smile for an instant. He laid the sock down upon
her knee, and in doing so touched and lightly pressed her hand.

"Thank you," he said simply. "I know I'm not good at expressing
myself, but please believe that I wouldn't hurt you for the world.
Miss Roscoe, I have brought some things with me I think you will like
to have - things that belonged to your father. Sir Reginald Bassett
entrusted them to me - left them, in fact, in my charge, as he found
them. I was coming home, and I asked leave to bring them to you.
Perhaps you would like me to fetch them?"

She was on her feet as he asked the question, on her face such a look
of eagerness as it had not worn for many weary months.

"Oh, please - if you would!" she said, her words falling fast and
breathless. "It has been - such a grief to me - that I had nothing of
his to - to treasure."

He turned at once to the door. The desolation that those words of hers
revealed to him went straight to his man's heart. Poor little girl!
Had the parting been so infernally hard as even now to bring that look
to her eyes? Was her father's memory the only interest she had left
in her sad young life? And all the evening, save for that first brief
moment of their meeting, he had been thinking her cold, impassive,
even cynical.

With a deep pity in his soul he departed on his errand.

Returning with the soft tread which was his peculiarity, he surprised
her with her face in her hands in an attitude of such abandonment that
he drew back hesitating. But, suddenly aware of him, she sprang up
swiftly, with no sign of tears upon her face.

"Oh, come in, come in!" she said impatiently. "Why do you stand
there?"

She ran forward to meet him with hands hungrily outstretched, and
he put into them those trifles which were to her so infinitely
precious - a cigarette-case, a silver match-box, a pen-knife, a little
old prayer-book very worn at the edges, with all the gilt faded from
its leaves. She gathered them to her breast closely, passionately.
All but the prayer-book had been her gifts to the father she had
worshipped. With a wrung heart she called to mind the occasion upon
which each had been offered, his smile of kindly appreciation, the
old-world courtliness of his thanks. With loving hands she laid them
down one by one, lingering over each, seeing them through a blur of
tears. She was no longer conscious of Grange, as reverently, even
diffidently, she opened last of all the little shabby prayer-book that
her father had been wont to take with him on all his marches. She knew
that he had cherished it as her mother's gift.

It opened upon a scrap of white heather which marked the Service for
the Burial of the Dead. Her tears fell upon the faded sprig, and she
brushed her hand swiftly across her eyes, looking more closely as
certain words underlined caught her attention. Other words had been
written by her father's hand very minutely in the margin.

The passage underlined was ... "not to be sorry as men without hope,
for them that sleep ..." and in a moment she guessed that her father
had made that mark on the day of her mother's death. It was like a
message to her, the echo of a cry.

The words in the margin were so small that she had to carry them to
the light to read them. And then they flashed out at her as if
sprung suddenly to light on the white paper. There, in the beloved
handwriting, sure and indelible, she read it, and across the desert
of her heart, voiceless but insistent, there swept the hunger-cry of a
man's soul: OMNIA VINCIT AMOR.

It pulsed through her like an electric current, seeming to overwhelm
every other sensation, shutting her off as it were from the home-world
to which she had fled, how fruitlessly, for healing. Once more
skeleton fingers held hers, shifting to and fro, to and fro, slowly,
ceaselessly, flashing the deep rays that shone from ruby hearts hither
and thither. Once more - But she would not bear it! She was free! She
was free! She flung out the hand that once had worn those rubies, and,
resisting wildly, broke away from the spell that the words her father
had written had woven afresh for her.

It might be true that Love conquered all things - he had believed
it - but ah, what had this uncanny force to do with Love? Love was a
pure, a holy thing, the bond imperishable - the Eternal Flame at which
all the little torches of the world are lighted.

Moreover, there was no fear in Love, and she - she was sick with fear
whenever she encountered that haunting phantom of memory.

With a start she awoke to the fact that she was not alone. Blake
Grange had taken her out-flung hand, and was speaking to her softly,
soothingly.

"Don't grieve so awfully, Miss Roscoe," he urged, a slight break in
his own voice. "You're not left friendless. I know how it is. I've
felt like it myself. But it gets better afterwards."

Muriel suffered him with a dawning sense of comfort. It surprised her
to see tears in his eyes. She wondered vaguely if they were for her.

"Yes," she said, after a pause. "It does get better, I know, in a way.
Or at least one gets used to an empty heart. One gets to leave off
listening for what one will never, never hear any more."

"Never is a dreary word," said Grange.

She bent her head silently, and again his heart overflowed with pity
for her. He looked down at the hand that lay so passively in his.

"I hope you will always think of me as a friend," he said.

She looked up at him a quick gleam of gratitude in her eyes. "Thank
you," she said. "Yes, always."

He still held her hand. "You know," he said, blundering awkwardly, "I
always blamed myself that - that I wasn't the one to be with you when
you escaped from Wara. I might have been. But I - I wasn't prepared to
pay the possible price."

She was still looking at him with those aloof, tragic eyes of
hers. "I don't quite understand," she said, "I never did
understand - exactly - why Nick was chosen to protect me. I always
wished it had been you."

"It ought to have been," Grange said, with feeling. "It should have
been. I blame myself. But Nick is a better fighter than I. He keeps
his head. Moreover, he's a savage in some respects. I wasn't savage
enough."

He smiled with a hint of apology.

Muriel repressed a shudder at his words. "I don't understand," she
said again.

He hesitated. "It's a difficult thing to explain to you," he said
reluctantly. "You see, the fellow who took charge of you had to be
prepared for - well - anything. You know what devils those tribesmen
are. There was to be no chance of your falling into their hands. It
didn't mean just fighting for you, you understand. We would all have
done that to the last drop of our blood. But - your father - was forced
to ask of us - something more. And only Ratcliffe would undertake it.
He's a queer chap. I used to think him a rotter till I saw him fight,
and then I had to change my mind. That was, I believe, the main reason
why General Roscoe selected him as your protector. He knew he could
trust the fellow's nerve. The rest of us were like women compared to
Nick."

He paused. Muriel's eyes had not flinched from his. She heard his
explanation as one not vitally concerned.

"Have I made myself intelligible?" he asked, as she did not speak.

"Do you mean I was to be shot if things went wrong?" she returned, in
her deep, quiet voice.

He nodded. "It must have been that. Your father saw it in that light,
and so did we. Of course you are bound to see it too. But we stuck at
it - Marshall and I. There was only Nick left, and he volunteered."

"Only Nick left!" she repeated slowly. "Nick would stick at nothing,
Captain Grange."

"I honestly don't think he would," said Grange. "Still, you know, he's
awfully plucky. He would have gone any length to save you first."

She drew back with a sudden shrinking of her whole body. "Oh, I know,
I know!" she said. "I sometimes think there is a devil in Nick."

She turned aside, bending once more over her father's things, putting
them together with unsteady fingers. So this was the answer to the
riddle - the secret of his choice for her! She understood it all now.

After a short pause, she spoke again more calmly. "Did Nick ever speak
to you about me?"

"Never," said Grange.

"Then please, Captain Grange" - she stood up again and faced
him - "never speak to me again about him. I - want to forget him."

Very young and slight she looked standing there, and again he felt his
heart stir within him with an urgent pity. Vague rumours he had heard
of those few weeks at Simla during which her name and Nick Ratcliffe's
had been coupled together, but he had never definitely known what
had taken place. Had Nick been good to her, he wondered for the first
time? How was it that the bare mention of him was unendurable to
her? What had he done that she should shudder with horror when she
remembered him, and should seek thus with loathing to thrust him out
of her life?

Involuntarily the man's hands clenched and his blood quickened. Had
the General's trust been misplaced? Was Nick a blackguard?

Finding her eyes still upon him, he made her a slight bow that was
wholly free from gallantry.

"I will remember your wish, Miss Roscoe," he said. "I am sorry I
mentioned a painful subject to you, though I am glad for you to know
the truth. You are not vexed with me, I hope?"

Her eyes shone with sincere friendliness. "I am not vexed," she
answered. "Only - let me forget - that's all."

And in those few words she voiced the desire of her soul. It was her
one longing, her one prayer - to forget. And it was the one thing of
all others denied to her.

In the silence that followed, she was conscious of his warm and kindly
sympathy, and she was grateful for it, though something restrained her
from telling him so.

Daisy, coming lightly in upon them, put an end to their tête-à-tête.
She entered softly, her face alight and tender, and laid her two hands
upon Grange's great shoulders as he sat before the fire.

"Come upstairs, Blake," she whispered, "and see my baby boy. He's
sleeping so sweetly. I want you to see him first while he's good."

He raised his face to her smiling, his hands on hers. "I am sure to
admire anything that belongs to you, Daisy," he said.

"You're a dear old pal," responded Daisy lightly. "Come along."

When they were gone Muriel spied Will Musgrave's letter lying on
the ground by Grange's chair as it had evidently fallen from Daisy's
dress. She went over and picked it up. It was still unopened.

With an odd little frown she set it up prominently upon the
mantelpiece.

"Does Love conquer after all?" she murmured to herself, and there was
a faint twist of cynicism about her lips as she asked the question.
There seemed to be so many forms of Love.




CHAPTER XIX

A HERO WORSHIPPER


"Well played! Oh, well played! Miss Roscoe, you're a brick."

The merry voice of the doctor's little daughter Olga, aged fourteen,
shrilled across the hockey-ground, keen with enthusiasm. She was
speeding across the field like a hare to congratulate her latest
recruit.

"I'm so pleased!" she cried, bursting through the miscellaneous crowd
of boys and girls that surrounded Muriel. "I wanted you to shoot that
goal."

She herself had been acting as goal-keeper at her own end of the
field, a position of limited opportunities which she had firmly
refused to assign to the new-comer. A child of unusual character was
Olga Ratcliffe, impulsive but shrewd, with quick, pale eyes which
never seemed to take more than a brief glance at anything, yet which
very little ever escaped. At first sight Muriel had experienced a
certain feeling of aversion to her, so marked was the likeness this
child bore to the man whom she desired so passionately to shut out of
her very memory. But a nearer intimacy had weakened her antipathy
till very soon it had altogether disappeared. Olga had a swift and
fascinating fashion of endearing herself to all who caught her fancy
and, somewhat curiously, Muriel was one of the favoured number. What
there was to attract a child of her quick temperament in the grave,
silent girl in mourning who held aloof so coldly from the rest of the
world was never apparent. But that a strong attraction existed for her
was speedily evident, and Muriel, who was quite destitute of any
near relations of her own, soon found that a free admittance to the
doctor's home circle was accorded her on all sides, whenever she chose
to avail herself of it.

But though Daisy was an immense favourite and often ran into the
Ratcliffes' house, which was not more than a few hundred yards away
from her own little abode, Muriel went but seldom. The doctor's wife,
though always kind, was too busy to seek her out. And so it had been
left to the doctor himself to drag her at length from her seclusion,
and he had done it with a determination that would take no refusal.
She did not know him very intimately, had never asked his advice,
or held any confidential talk with him. At the outset she had been
horribly afraid lest he should have heard of her engagement to Nick,
but, since he never referred to her life in India or to Nick as in any
fashion connected with herself, this fear had gradually subsided. She
was able to tell herself thankfully that Nick was dropping away from
her into the past, and to hope with some conviction that the great
gulf that separated them would never be bridged.

Yet, notwithstanding this, she had a fugitive wish to know how her
late comrade in adversity was faring. Captain Grange's news regarding
him had aroused in her a vague uneasiness, which would not be quieted.

She wondered if by any means she could extract any information from
Olga, and this she presently essayed to do, when play was over for the
day and Olga had taken her upstairs to prepare for tea.

Olga was the easiest person in the world to deal with upon such a
subject. She expanded at the very mention of Nick's name.

"Oh, do you know him? Isn't he a darling? I have a photograph of him
somewhere. I must try and find it. He is in fancy dress and standing
on his head - such a beauty. Weren't you awfully fond of him? He has
been ill, you know. Dad was very waxy because he wouldn't come home.
He might have had sick leave, but he wouldn't take it. However, he may
have to come yet, Dad says, if something happens. He didn't say what.
It was something to do with his wound. Dad wants him to leave the Army
and settle down on his estate. He owns a big place about twelve miles
away that an old great-aunt of his left him. Dad thinks a landowner
ought to live at home if he can afford to. And of course Nick might go
into Parliament too. He's so clever, and rich as well. But he won't do
it. So it's no good talking."

Olga jumped off the dressing-table, and wound her arm impulsively
through Muriel's. "Miss Roscoe," she said coaxingly, "I do like you
most awfully. May I call you by your Christian name?"

"Why, do!" Muriel said. "I should like it best."

"Oh, that's all right," said Olga, well pleased. "I knew you weren't
stuck-up really. I hate stuck-up people, don't you? I'm awfully
pleased that you like Nick. I simply love him - better almost than any
one else. He writes to me sometimes, pages and pages. I never show
them to any one, and he doesn't show mine either. You see, we're pals.
But I can show you his photograph - the one I told you about. It's just
like him - his grin and all. Come up after tea, and I'll find it."

And with her arm entwined in Muriel's she drew her, still talking
eagerly, from the room.




CHAPTER XX

NEWS FROM THE EAST


"I have been wondering," Grange said in his shy, rather diffident way,
"if you would care to do any riding while I am here."

"I?" Muriel looked up in some surprise.

They were walking back from church together by a muddy field-path, and
since neither had much to say at any time, they had accomplished more
than half the distance in silence.

"I know you do ride," Grange explained, "and it's just the sort of
country for a good gallop now and then. Daisy isn't allowed to, but I
thought perhaps you - "

"Oh, I should like to, of course," Muriel said. "I haven't done any
riding since I left Simla. I didn't care to alone."

"Ah! Lady Bassett rides, doesn't she? She is an accomplished
horsewoman, I believe?"

"I don't know," Muriel's reply was noticeably curt. "I never rode with
her."

Grange at once dropped the subject, and they became silent again.
Muriel walked with her eyes fixed straight before her. But she did not
see the brown earth underfoot or the bare trees that swayed overhead
in the racing winter wind. She was back again in the heart of the
Simla pines, hearing horses' feet that stamped below her window in the
dawning, and a gay, cracked voice that sang.

Her companion's voice recalled her. "I suppose Daisy will stay here
for the summer."

"I suppose so," she answered.

Grange went on with some hesitation. "The little chap doesn't look as
if he would ever stand the Indian climate. What will happen? Will she
ever consent to leave him with the Ratcliffes?"

"I am quite certain she won't," Muriel answered, with unfaltering
conviction. "She simply lives for him."

"I thought so," Grange said rather sadly. "It would go hard with her
if - if - "

Muriel's dark eyes flashed swift entreaty. "Oh, don't say it! Don't
think it! I believe it would kill her."

"She is stronger, though?" he questioned almost sharply.

"Yes, yes, much stronger. Only - not strong enough for that. Captain
Grange, it simply couldn't happen."

They had reached a gate at the end of the field. Grange stopped before
it, and spoke with sudden, deep feeling.

"If it does happen, Muriel," he said, using her Christian name quite
unconsciously, "we shall have to stand by her, you and I. You won't
leave her, will you? You would be of more use to her than I. Oh,
it's - it's damnable to see a woman in trouble and not be able to
comfort her."

He brought his ungloved hand down upon the gate-post with a violence
that drew blood; then, seeing her face of amazement, thrust it hastily
behind him.

"I'm a fool," he said, with his shy, semi-apologetic smile. "Don't
mind me, Miss Roscoe. You know, I - I'm awfully fond of Daisy, always
was. My people were her people, and when they died we were the only
two left, as it were. Of course she was married by that time, and
there are some other relations somewhere. But we've always hung
together, she and I. You can understand it, can't you?"

Muriel fancied she could, but his vehemence startled her none the
less. She had not deemed him capable of such intensity.

"I suppose you feel almost as if she were your sister," she remarked,
groping half-unconsciously for an explanation.

Grange was holding the gate open for her. He did not instantly reply.

Then, "I don't exactly know what that feels like," he said, with an
odd shame-facedness. "But in so far as that we have been playfellows
and chums all our lives, I suppose you might describe it in that way."

And Muriel, though she wondered a little at the laborious honesty of
his reply, was satisfied that she understood.

She was drifting into a very pleasant friendship with Blake Grange.
He seemed to rely upon her in an indefinable fashion that made their
intercourse of necessity one of intimacy. Moreover, Daisy's habits
were still more or less those of an invalid, and this fact helped very
materially to throw them together.

To Muriel, emerging slowly from the long winter of her sorrow, the



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