ACROSS the broad flower-strewn land and fields of waving corn, never altering his course or swerving from the high hedges, through which he plunged, a man was steadily running for his life.
The sweat from his forehead and the blood from his thorn-scratched cheeks had trickled onto his collar and shirt. His clothes were white with dust and torn in many places. A slight froth was upon his indrawn lips, his breath was coming in sobs and the gray pallor of utter fatigue had whitened his face even to the likeness of death.
He was clearly upon the point of exhaustion. Once or twice he reeled, but recovered himself without falling. Once he threw up his arms and earth and sky and the tall hedges swam together before his fainting sight, and the film of unconsciousness had well nigh set its darkening seal upon his eyes.
He was running steadily toward the sea, as he had run for 20 miles or more, meeting never a soul all the way, save a few village folk, who had looked up at him in blank amazement, who never thought of making any attempt to stop him.
An hour ago the sun had set. The soft twilight began to cool the freshening air. The man was hatless, but he raised one hand and thrust the heavy hair back from his forehead with a little choking cry. It was only a momentary weakness. The breath of fresh air seemed to revive him wonderfully.
Was it his fancy or was there really a salt odor about the fluttering wind? The very thought nerved him.
It could be no more than a mile or two now. Yonder, marked with a little cairn of unhewn stones, was the beacon hill, against whose base the gray Atlantic dashed its long, thundering rollers.
Then he girded himself up for one supreme effort. The way was longer and harder than he had dreamed of—he was running a close race with death. But first he turned finding himself upon a level stretch of grass, and looked with scared white face and haunted eyes over his left shoulder.
There was not a soul in sight, no sign of any human being stirring, nor any habitation. If it was pursuit he feared, he might at least take heart, for before him stretched the highway of the unknown, and behind him was no living person.
He stumbled against a piece of loose rock and nearly fell. Recovering himself, he ran steadily on and looked no more behind.
Soon his lips parted, and he gave a long gurgling cry. Through a gap in the hills yonder was a little vista of blue-gray sea, bordered far away on the horizon by a long trail of black smoke from a passing steamer. He was nearing his goal in earnest now. If only he could hold out a little longer he was safe.
Once more he glanced over his shoulder. This time his heart sank like lead, and the blood in his veins ran cold. Striding along in the shadow of the tall hedge which bordered the great cornfield across which he had come, was a man on horseback.
WELL, it was, after all, only one more danger to be faced, one more difficulty to be met and conquered. He measured with his eye the distance which lay between the man and the sea, and, with a shrug of his shoulders, he accepted the inevitable.
He sank down on the mossy turf and, taking a handkerchief from his pocket, wiped his face and forehead, and moistened his lips with the contents of a small silver flask. Then he drew a cigar from his pocket and striking a match with firm fingers, began to smoke.
Meanwhile his pursuer, finding himself observed, struck out into the open and galloped his pony up the hill. In a few minutes the two men were at close quarters.
The newcomer was a young man, tall, fair and sunburnt. He was carefully dressed in a tweed riding suit, and he wore a red rose in his buttonhole. He rode fearlessly up the hillsides, with stern set face and an angry gleam in his dark eyes.
"You will consider yourself my prisoner," he cried. "I am a magistrate for the county, and my men are following. You can either return with me to meet them, or remain here until they come."
The man, who had not risen or moved from his seat, knocked the ash from his cigar.
"I am exceedingly obliged to you, Mr Maxwell," he said. "I think that as I have arrived so far as this at considerable personal inconvenience, I will remain where I am—at any rate, for the present."
The newcomer looked up in surprise at hearing himself addressed by name. He gazed with some curiosity at the man who lay stretched out at his feet, the personification of repose, his head resting upon his hand, the cigar between his shapely fingers giving out a faint, fragrant odor.
This was not at all the sort of person he had been imagining to himself. There was nothing whatever of the criminal in his face or manner.
"You know my name," he remarked, "but you are a stranger to the neighborhood and to me, I am sure."
The other smiled thoughtfully.
"Yes, I know your name," he replied. "You are called Philip Ruscombe Maxwell of Maxwell Court, in the county of Devon."
"You are quite correct," Mr. Maxwell admitted shortly, "but, after all, that has nothing to do with the present affair. I must warn you again that you are my prisoner, and in your own interest I should advise you to be silent."
The man knocked the ash quietly from his cigar; and raised himself into a sitting posture. Notwithstanding his sang-froid, however, he kept a careful watch upon the open country, across which Mr. Maxwell had come. As yet there were no signs of any further pursuit.
"Mr. Maxwell," he said, "I have a word or two to say to you! You are a man of modern ideas. You are a man of senses. I believe that you are capable of taking a broad view of the difficult question.
"If you saw an adder in your path, you would set your foot upon its neck and crush it, not only for your own sake, but for the sake of your fellows. It is true that I killed Vincent Lee. It was a fair fight, but I lay no stress on that. I made him stand up to me, but his poor fingers shook so that he could scarcely grasp the pistol that I had forced into his hand.
"I killed him. I admit it. I had come some distance for that sole purpose. I don't repent it. I should do exactly the same again. His death was a charge upon me."
"He was your enemy, then?"
"Not mine," the man continued, "more the enemy of every decent human being upon the earth. He was one of a cursed class! He was what his kind would call a man of the world—a man of pleasure. He was what I should prefer to call a vampire, sucking his pleasure from the lifeblood of honest and pure men and women.
"I make no secret of this—it was for a woman's sake I killed him, a woman whose life he had wrecked. I killed him as you would an adder, for the harm which he had done, and the harm which he yet might do, had he lived.
"Of course, it was a risk. I placed my own life in peril, it is in peril now! Yet so far as you are concerned, I have no fear! You will let me go!"
The twilight stillness was suddenly broken; from below the cliffs, breaking away again seaward with many rolling echoes came the booming of a gun.
The man rose to his feet.
But Maxwell stood still in the path. He was in some degree moved, but he saw still that white, dead face upturned to the skies, and the horror of it had taken deep root in his heart.
"He may have been a worse fellow than he seemed," Maxwell said, "but none of us are without fault. Bad though he may have been, you cannot compare the life of a human being with the life of a reptile. I am sorry for you, sir, whoever you may be, but I must do my duty. I cannot help you or suffer you to escape!"
The man shrugged his shoulders.
"The hopelessly bad in humanity," he said, "do more harm upon the earth than any reptile. Their removal is not only justifiable, it is a solemn duty.
"But I have no time to argue with you. Vincent Lee was a blackguard. The catalog of his crimes is a long and dreary record. He has been false to all his friends—false to every single person who trusted him. His presence under your roof last night was in itself a crowning piece of blackguardism!"
"You are mistaken," Maxwell answered. "I scarcely knew him. He was an artist, staying in the village, and I was decently civil to him."
"I am not mistaken," the man continued. "He was a blackguard to have thrown himself in your way, to have accepted your hospitality; he called himself Vincent Lee. His real name was Maurice Dubois."
MR. MAXWELL of Maxwell Court was a strong man, and a man of nerve. His face was tanned with the hot suns of India and the winds of Cornwall, but at the mention of that name he grew suddenly pale to the lips, and the hand which grasped his riding whip trembled.
"And I let him go," he muttered. "He was in my power, and I let him go."
"I admit," the other continued, "that to a certain extent I usurped your place. The hand which forced a pistol into his trembling fingers and sent a bullet through his cowardly, fluttering heart should have been yours. Yet I had an account of my own to settle with him. You can do your share now. You can lend me your horse and let me go free. Come! It is justice which I have dealt out. I am no murderer. Let me go!"
"What was your quarrel with him?"
"My quarrel was your quarrel—or rather hers!"
A dull spot of color burned in Maxwell's cheeks. His eyes were very bright.
"Her quarrel," he repeated. "Her quarrel! Speak out man! We have no time for riddles. Whose?"
"I have no wife."
His companion shrugged his shoulders.
"On the contrary," he said, "one of the best and sweetest women God ever made bears your name, and is—your wife."
"It is a lie," Maxwell answered fiercely. "The woman whom I married is my wife no longer! She is dead."
The other man shook his head.
"The woman," he said, "who was unfortunate enough to marry such a thick-headed, obstinate mule as you is alive! Further, she is foolish enough to care for you still, notwithstanding your hateful and abominable mistrust of her, and your idiotic pride. Maxwell, a few minutes are all that I can spare in this country. There is somebody moving down there in the cornfield yonder—I shall want your horse to get away as it is. Listen!
"Your wife is living in Allsbad! Save for myself, she is alone and friendless. She permits me to call myself her friend, and I am proud of it Now I have brought you a message from her! She has sent for you! She bids you go to her!"
Maxwell's heel was ground into the turf and his eyes were flashing.
"Never!" he cried, passionately.
There was a moment's silence. The man whose life was in danger was gazing steadily at a moving speck in the open country. Was it his fancy, or were those men yonder, by that distant flush of yellow gorse? One, two, three, four of them he counted.
Yes, they were men, either soldiers or policemen, for the light was flashing upon their metal headgear. He must delay no longer. There was no more time to lose. He turned sharply to Maxwell.
"You are a fool," he cried. "As regards the past—as regards Maurice Dubois. I have sworn to her that I will speak no word to you. I am not her defender—God knows she needs none. Such women as she need no champions. I will not break my promise to her, but I say this to you as from man to man.
"If she were my wife, though the proofs against her were as black as night, and the whole silly world were cackling with stories about her guilt, I would believe nothing except from her own lips."
"There was never any possible doubt," Maxwell began.
"Doubt!" the word quivering with scorn, seemed almost to bite the air. "Never mind. I have finished, thank God. I have said to you more than she would have had me say. You have your chance. Will you come to her?"
The man's face was suddenly bright.
"You are the greatest fool that ever set foot on God's earth," he said. "But it is yourself who must pay the price for your own folly. Now listen to me! I have spoken fairly to you—I have almost stooped to plead her cause, who is as far above you as one of God's angels.
"I love your wife! She does not know it and I dare not tell her. It was for love of her that I killed Maurice Dubois, for love of her that I have told things to you.
"Now, here's a warning for you. I'm going back to her a new man! She's the woman I love, and I want her!
"I have given you her message. Pray for her forgiveness now and you may gain it. She carries your likeness next to her heart. I have seen her look out toward the hills at dusk, and I have heard her murmur your name! She loves you!
"Today she is yours, you have your chance. Take it, or never dare to complain if the time comes when you find you have lost her forever."
And then there was another brief, tense silence between the two men. Maxwell was without doubt shaken. He thought of those gloomy years of bitter loneliness, of his aching heart, his wounded pride.
But suddenly there was a change. Maxwell drew himself up—his face became dark and stern.
"I have nothing to say to you or to her," he declared coldly. "You had better go! You can take my horse. My people are close upon you."
The man sprang into the saddle. The red sun flashed in his face, all alight with joy.
"You poor fool," he cried. "Farewell!"
Then he rode down the hill at a thundering gallop and Maxwell stood watching him, half inclined even now to call him back.
A little puff of white smoke shot up from the inlet below; there was the sound of splashing oars and muffled orders. The man would get away safely enough. Already he must have reached the beach. To Maxwell, as he stood there, lost in thought, the air seemed full of the echoes of those last scornful words—"Fool, fool, fool!"
MAXWELL rode slowly home across the moor, his bridle loose, his head bent.
He had held a murderer in his grasp, and he had let him go free. Not only that, but the murder had been one committed almost under his own roof, the victim his own guest.
It was true that the man was an impostor and a scoundrel, that his presence there had itself amounted to an insult—yet these things, by the side of death, seemed to lose so much of their significance.
The man, in a sense, had deserved his fate. There had been ugly stories about him, he had coldly pursued the path of his own pleasure with undeviating and unscrupulous selfishness. But after all, was there any crime in the whole world which deserved death, the sudden extinction of all sensation, death so swift that repentance could be but dreamed of?
He could picture to himself that little scene in the corner of the park. Dubois dragged almost from his bed to meet with ashen face, the cold sneers of the avenger, to face his agony in a grey twilight peopled with the ghosts of his abandoned victims.
Despite his own knowledge of the man's baseness, his sympathy for him, touched with horror though it was, was deep and sincere. For death after all was an awful and unrealizable thing.
A few hours ago he had been playing billiards with the man; they had spoken of the morning's fishing—he realized with a certain sense of responsibility that Dubois had been his guest, had gone out from his own roof to his death. After all he had done a wrong thing to let the murderer escape.
He turned in his saddle and looked seaward. The yacht was standing now well out to sea, already its long trail of black smoke blackened the horizon.
After all it was only a chance that he might escape. Every port would be closed against him. He would find it very hard indeed to land in any civilized country. Nowadays the arm of the detective reached from hemisphere to hemisphere—the man would scarcely find a hiding place where the telegraph wires had failed to flash out the news of the crime.
Life henceforth must be a thing of jeopardy for him, and with that thought came the memory of those parting words of his. He had run the risk for the love of—her.
Maxwell's eyes were suddenly blinded with tears. She had fooled him, too, then—for the man was honest; there was no doubt about that. He believed in her. "Would to God!" Maxwell sobbed, as he bent lower still over his horse's head, "would to God he could!"
For he loved her still. He would always love her. There was no escape, no hope! Through life he must carry this burden—the burden of his love for a woman who had deceived him.
AT the door his servants pressed him for the news. Maxwell shook his head.
"The man has escaped me," he said shortly. "He reached the coast, and got away on a steamer." There was a little murmur of disappointment, which, curiously enough, irritated Maxwell. He went straight to his room.
"Have any telegrams come—anything been heard from any of Mr. Lee's friends?" he asked the servant.
A telegram was brought him—it was from the bankers, whose address had been found in the dead man's pocket book. Maxwell tore open the envelope, and read it slowly.
"DEEPLY SHOCKED TO HEAR OF MR. LEE'S DEATH. WE KNOW NOTHING OF HIS FAMILY OR FRIENDS. WIRE WHEN FUNERAL."
Maxwell changed his clothes, and ate a lonely dinner. It seemed that the dead man's half-jocose, half-cynical account of himself had been a true one. He was alone in the world. He had neither wife nor child to be notified at the sudden and awful catastrophe. And she—well, she was far away, enough now, at any rate. He thought of her for a moment almost tenderly. The thing had unnerved him.
Later on in the evening he entered the gun-room, where the body of Vincent Lee had been carried. He was about to perform the task from which he shrank with a distaste for which he despised himself.
The papers found in the pocket book and on the person of the dead man were there together on the table by his side. He turned up the lamp and drew them over toward him.
After all, it was a lighter task than he had feared. There were a good many invitations, mostly hailing from Bohemia, a few bills, and several letters from women. These he felt justified in destroying, with a brief note of their addresses.
But there was one over which he lingered. It was signed Maud, and at the sight of the name his heart gave a sudden throb. He read it through eagerly. The handwriting might be hers—at any rate, there was a similarity!
He laid it down and looked once more into the still, cold face of the dead man. Death was terrible enough—but such death as this, the sudden arresting of a life of selfish vice, too sudden for repentance—it was a very awful thing.
His own anger towards the man was gone. Death had wiped it out, and with it had come a renewal of that terrible heartache, the miserable desire to look once more into the face of the woman who was still his wife, still the only woman he had ever loved.
Was this letter hers, he wondered fearfully. Word by word, he read it through, rightly interpreting its story of sorrow—a very grim story, indeed, it was, read by the side of that dead man.
Had he answered it? Scarcely likely. It was not the sort of letter that such a man would answer.
Glancing over to where his head appeared above the coverlet, Maxwell felt a sudden impulse of savage hatred towards the man who could never more make any amends for the hearts he had broken, and the lives whose happiness he had sapped away.
For five years he had lived and suffered in miserable isolation—strange that tonight more poignant and bitter than ever should come again that flood of bitter memories which had many a time wrung his heart.
He looked once more at the letter in his hand. At least he would soon know. Some one must tell her of this awful thing—he would go himself. It would be only ordinary humanity. And if it should, indeed, be his Beatrice, well, who could tell?
Maxwell was a proud man, and the separation from his wife had been the one great blow of his life. For the first time the thought of reconciliation assumed a definite place in his consideration.
She must have been terribly tempted, she must have bitterly repented. Who was he, after all, so immaculate as to stand aside for ever from a woman who had sinned, if, indeed, she were repentant.
Once more he glanced through the letter which still remained between his closed fingers. Yes, there was regret there—there was surely enough unhappiness. He would find this woman out, and if it should be Maud—well, his heart warmed at the thought of ministering once more to her wants, of relieving her at any rate from all anxiety.
Almost she seemed to glide into the room, as he sat there gazing with blank eyes into the fire; he saw her again, pale, sweet and graceful, with her deep, serious eyes and delicate mouth; he heard the music of her voice and the soft swish of her gown as she crossed the room toward him with outstretched arms and a world of yearning tenderness in her mobile face.
Bah! what a fool he was! He crushed the letter up in his fingers and rose to his feet. Such memories as these were maddening, unworthy. He would have no more of them!
But one resolve he had made, and he would keep it! He would seek this woman out, and afterward—well, he would at least know where Maud was.
MAXWELL, for an unemotional man, found himself curiously disturbed as he walked along Bloomsbury Street a week later, toward the address of the letter which he had found upon the dead man a week ago.
He was in a part of London of which he knew nothing. The secrets of those tall, gloomy rows of closely-built houses were hidden from him. He only knew that in one of them dwelt the woman who had written this letter, the woman who had been living in close association with Maurice Dubois, and whose handwriting had brought to him that sudden rush of old memories.
He had not written to her—he had undertaken this journey at the first possible moment. If he had written, there was the risk that he might have learnt nothing.
Afterward he wondered at the eagerness which he undoubtedly felt to visit this woman. Was it destiny, he wondered, which had provided that the events of this day should change the whole tenor of his life?
He had not arrived in London until 2 o'clock and it was barely 3 when he reached his destination.
The door was opened after a few minutes' delay by an ill-dressed untidy-looking servant, who answered his inquiry glibly enough. Yes, the lady was in! He could come upstairs. She was sure to be disengaged.
He followed her up the stairs on to a stuffy little landing and into a room which bore many signs of feminine occupation, such as Maxwell not accustomed to see displayed.
After that first swift glance around, he knew that the likeness of this woman's handwriting to his wife's was an accident. She had never been, could never become the inhabitant of such a room as this. Even as he was telling himself this, an inner door opened and a woman came in. She was a complete stranger to him.
She was dressed not too tidily in a loose gown, and her copper golden hair which to a man more versed in such matters would inevitably have suggested peroxide, was coiled up in fluffy disorder at the back of her head.
She was good looking in rather a showy way, but her face had the pastiness which comes from the habitual use of cosmetics, and her eyebrows were obviously darkened.
"You are Mrs. Montrose, I believe?" he said. "My name is Maxwell. I am sorry to say that I have been called to bring you some rather bad news."
She looked at him anxiously.
"Well, what is it?" she said. "I don't know you, do I? Are you from Mme. Melisse? Because, if so, it is no use bothering me. I haven't got—"
He stopped her.
"No; I live in Cornwall," he said, "and I found a letter from you on a man who met with an accident near my house."
"What? Vincent Lee?" she exclaimed.
"Yes! I am sorry to tell you that the accident was a very serious one—in fact, he is dead."
She flopped into an easy chair, and looked at him for a moment in a dazed sort of way. He was much relieved to find that she did not scream or show any signs of fainting.
"Dead!" she repeated. "Him dead! O my! Good gracious!"
"He was shot," Mr. Maxwell explained.
"Who shot him?" she asked quickly.
"The man escaped," he answered. "We do not know who he was."
She extracted from her pocket a small handkerchief reeking with scent, and dabbed her eyes with it.
"Poor Vincent!" she murmured. "Poor old chap."
"I gathered," Maxwell continued, "from the letter which I found in his possession, and which it became my unhappy duty to examine, that you and he were upon somewhat intimate terms. I thought it best therefore to bring you the news myself. I am sorry to be the bearer of it."
She looked at him with a grim smile upon her lips.
"You needn't be," she said.
"I—I don't quite understand," Maxwell said, puzzled.
"Didn't I speak plainly?" she asked. "Well, is this plain enough? It isn't bad news at all, and I'm glad he's dead. I'm glad some one had the pluck to shoot him. I sometimes wonder that I didn't do it myself! I have felt like it many a time."
Maxwell was shocked.
"O, you perhaps don't know him," she went on. "I did. He was one of the wickedest men that ever breathed. He did evil for the love of it. I knew him years ago—when things were different. I sometimes think that he only kept on with me for the pleasure of taunting me with my misery—for the pleasure of seeing me suffer. O, he was a bad man."
She was crying now, but it was for herself—not for him. Maxwell remained silent. He was heartily sorry that he had come. He was too horrified to say anything.
"He came to see me," she went on, "now and then, because he knew that I hated him. It amused him. If I had cared for him he would never have come to me. It was his way. I am glad that he is dead. He will do no more harm. God knows how he will answer for all he has done already."
She sprang up from her easy chair and walked up and down the room with clenched fingers.
"You don't understand, perhaps. You look like a good man. There are some in the world, thank God. I am not good—and it was his fault. You don't understand the side of life to which I belong. It is the underneath side. It is splendid to think that there are some men who loathe it. You look strong and manly and good. Have you a wife?"
"I had," he said, softly. "I have lost her."
"What did you say your name was?' she asked him suddenly.
"Maxwell—Philip Maxwell," he answered.
Her face lit up with a strange excitement. She looked around at the closed door. Then she came close up to him.
"Did you kill him," she whispered.
He started a little at the abruptness of the question.
"I? No. Why do you ask that?"
"He was your enemy.''
"I did not know it until after he was dead, or he would never have set foot over my threshold." he answered. "He called himself Vincent Lee."
She was obviously disappointed.
"I hoped that it was you," she said, with a sigh. "You look as though you were brave enough, and no man had a better right."
"How do you know that?" he asked.
"I am going to tell you," she said. "It was kind of you to come here, and you are going to be rewarded. Wait here for a moment."
Maxwell was puzzled. She disappeared into the inner room. In five minutes she came back with a little packet of letters in her hand.
"You said that you had lost your wife, Mr. Maxwell. You did not mean that she was dead, did you?"
He looked away, and his voice was scarcely natural.
"I had to ask you! Don't mind! Read those letters."
One by one Maxwell read them, and piece by piece the evil plot of the dead man, against the woman who had despised him, became revealed.
Then he gave a sharp little cry. He had reached the last letter, and it bore a date which he remembered too well.
You say that you have compromised me, that my husband is already estranged, and you dare to offer me your love as a refuge. You are a scoundrel, Maurice Dubois, and I have no other feeling for you than one of intense loathing.
What you say may be true. You may have succeeded in ruining me, but we have met for the last time, thank God!
My husband will be home tomorrow; I shall go to him, and I shall tell him everything. If he will not believe me—well, I can live! But he will!
The rest was torn off, but it was sufficient! The letter fluttered from Maxwell's fingers. She had come to him, and he had declined to listen to her! She had written letters to him, and he had declined to read them. He had been a harsh, short-sighted fool—the victim of an evil plot And she—his wife was guiltless! O, what folly! What idiocy!
He looked up and became conscious of the woman who sat watching him.
"Where did you get those letters?" he asked.
"It was five years ago," she said. "I found them in his rooms and hid them. I hated him, and I knew from his anger when he discovered their loss that they were very important.
"He had every carpet up, every drawer ransacked, every corner turned out. But I held them safely. If they were as precious to him as all that, I knew they must be part and parcel of one of his villainous schemes.
"When he was gone I read them. I understand now that they are a record of one of his failures. You believed your wife guilty, Mr. Maxwell?"
"I did," he groaned. "I was a poor, miserable fool!"
"Well, you had better set to work and try to find her. She will forgive you! Women always forgive, and she must be a very good woman."
He looked up at her with a sudden sense of gratitude.
"How can I ever repay you?" he cried warmly. "I loved my wife, and have never been happy for an hour since we parted. You nave given me something to live for just at the time when I was most unhappy. Cannot I help you somehow? Is there nothing I can do for you?"
"Nothing," she answered. "Go away and find your wife! Do not delay a moment!"
He lingered at the door! His alacrity after all seemed a little brutal.
"You must think me," he said, "very ungrateful."
"I do not," she answered earnestly, "but indeed there is no way that you could help me, and I would rather you went away."
He wrote his address upon a card and gave it to her.
"Will you keep this?" he said. "Some day you may need a friend, and you have only to send to me."
"Some day," she answered, "I may be starving. It is very possible! If it comes to that I will write and ask you for money. Good-bye. I hope that you will find her."
And that was the prayer on Maxwell's lips when he left England a few hours later.
"WOMEN," her friend was saying, "forgive too easily. A man is always sure of them. It is a great mistake."
"Do you think so?" Maud Maxwell answered softly.
"I am sure of it. Give me another cigarette, please. I wish the echoes from those wretched guns would not toll amongst the hills so. I can stand the noise, but I don't like it second-hand. What a crash."
The girls both stood up and looked across the valley to the hill beyond. Little puffs of white smoke had suddenly shot out from a dozen places around its base, and the roar of answering guns from beneath shook the still morning air, and sent it vibrating about them.
The two girls drew close together. This was war in earnest then. The elder one looked across at the tent a few yards away.
"There will be work for us before long," she said. "You will not be nervous, Maud?"
Her companion smiled sadly.
"There is no fear of that," she said. "This is not nearly so terrible as the accident ward in a great hospital. I have seen some dreadful sights there—and then war is different. Out here men are fighting for a great cause—they go into battle knowing their risk. It is the suddenness of an accident which is so awful. No, I shall be ready for work when it comes."
"There will be nothing to do for some time, at any rate," her friend remarked. "Let us forget that we are waiting for dying men, and talk about the living."
"I would rather talk about anything else," Maud said sadly. "Men do not interest me."
"Yet you wear," her companion remarked, with a sidelong glance at the white, slim fingers clasped now around her knee, "a wedding ring."
Maud smiled bitterly.
"Every night," she said, "for five years I have meant to take it off, but when the time comes I lack the courage. It is foolish to keep it on, for my husband and I are parted for ever. Yet—it remains there, you see. I begin to think now that it will stay there as long as I live."
"Poor little woman," her friend said smiling. "However, you are wise in your generation. Take my advice, Maud, and never part with it."
The two girls both started round at the thunder of horses' hoofs close behind them. A single rider was galloping up the steep hillside. As he reached the summit he leaped from his horse, which was covered with foam and quite exhausted, and stepped eagerly forward to the edge of the precipice.
Down below in the valley were dark masses of men steadily moving toward one another, from the hills around the plain came little puffs of white smoke and flashes of fire. It was a picturesque panorama, an admirably chosen battlefield from a sightseer's point of view.
But the newcomer was evidently no ordinary spectator. He whipped out a note-book from his jacket and began to sketch. He had not even glanced toward the two women.
"He is a newspaper correspondent," the elder woman whispered. "How interesting. Let us go and peep. He is too absorbed to notice us."
Maud did not answer. She was standing with her eyes fixed upon the man, whose tall, slim figure was silhouetted so distinctly against the background of empty air. Her lips moved, but she did not speak. Her companion, glancing carelessly around, was amazed at her expression.
"Why, Maud, are you ill?" she cried. "You look as though you had seen a ghost."
There was a dead silence for several moments. The women were looking at one another. The man, who had not glanced at either of them, was sketching as though his very life depended upon the swift completion of his work. Then Maud's white lips moved in a half whisper.
"I have seen a ghost," she said. "Come with me into the tent."
The two women moved away. As they passed the man he spoke to them without even glancing up.
"Have you such a thing as a glass of water?" he asked. "I have ridden hard for the last six hours in the sun, and I've nothing but neat brandy in my flask."
"We have plenty of water," Maud answered mechanically. "I will send you a glass out."
His pencil stopped suddenly and he looked quickly round.
The two women were just disappearing into the tent, both of them clad in the quiet, gray uniform of the Red Cross sisters, and wearing long aprons. There was nothing to distinguish the one from the other.
The man drew a long breath and picked up the pencil which had slipped from his fingers.
"It must have been fancy, of course," he said to himself, "and yet—yet, there was something in that voice."
He sighed wistfully, and recommenced his work. Below, the roar of artillery had grown in volume, and was mingled now with the sharp rattling of rifle volleys and the far-off shouting of the attacking army.
"Here is your water. Shall I set it down on this piece of rock?"
Note-book and pencil, too, fell from his nerveless fingers. He turned swiftly round, and caught the grey figure by the arm. She did not protest, but she looked up at him proudly. A sob shook him for a moment.
"Maud!" he cried. "Thank God! At last I have found you, then."
She echoed his words bitterly.
"At last! Has the search been so long a one, then? Have you spent so many years in looking for me?"
He shook his head slowly.
"Only six months, Maud," he said, "six weary, disappointing months. I searched for you in London and Claybrook and Paris. If you were really trying to conceal your whereabouts you succeeded very well indeed."
"May I ask," she inquired steadily, "why you have been searching for me?"
He came a step nearer—he held out his hands and took hers! She did not resist, nor did she make any movement of yield.
"To ask for forgiveness. To take back all the hard and brutal words I have spoken to you. To beg you, Maud, my dear, dear wife, to come back to me. I have been very lonely."
Her own cheeks were flushed now with emotion and her eyes were wet.
"You—you believe in me now, then?"
"Implicitly! I have had proof! I was deceived by a villain! Everything has been made clear to me!"
"Before you—began to look for me?"
"How did you, then, discover the truth?"
"Maurice Dubois is dead," he said solemnly. "Did you know that?"
"I—had heard it."
"He came," Maxwell said, "to an awful end. As you know he was a stranger to me, and I had entertained him unawares—he was passing under a false name. After his—death it became necessary for me to go through his papers. It was then I found the clue!"
"So you did not start your search for me until afterwards?"
"I am bitterly ashamed of myself," he said slowly. "I have ruined years of my life, years of your life! If you will forgive me, Maud, I will do my best to make you forget it."
"Forget it!" She laughed heartily. "Could life be long enough for that? No, Philip. I cannot forget."
"At least," he cried, "you will come back to me."
"No! I have lived through these years of agony—I have lived down my suffering. I have found a way in which I can do a little good in the world. I dare not trust myself to you again!"
He stood before her—a proud man all his days, humbled and ashamed.
"I have loved you always," he pleaded.
"Loved me! Loved me!" she exclaimed with bitter scorn. "Well, you may have done so after your way, but it was a very little love and a very little way. Your own pride and your own jealousy were stronger things than this love of yours!"
He looked up at her suddenly. His face was white with anxious fear.
"There is—someone else!" he faltered. "Some one else whom you care for! For God's sake, Maud, tell me that it is not that!"
She looked at him curiously, as though trying to measure the anguish so plainly written in his drawn face.
"You really care like that," she said. "Well, if there is—can you wonder at it?"
"It is the man," he cried bitterly. "The man who killed Maurice Dubois, the man whom I helped to escape from Dunkery Beacon. He spoke to me of you."
"Tell me what he said."
He had a wild impulse to ride down the hillside and plunge himself into the fight. Somewhere there might be a bullet for him—and death, just then, would have been a very welcome thing.
And the woman watched him trembling. She had come very near to the limit of her strength.
"He is a brave man," she said, "and he has been very good to me—and believed. It is good for a woman to have a man believe in her."
"Where is he?" Maxwell asked with a sudden fierceness.
She pointed below with shaking finger.
"He is down there—fighting," she said, "as a volunteer. They have given him a regiment."
"He shall have all the fighting he wants," he muttered. "Goodbye, Maud. I don't blame you. It was my own wretched folly. God bless you."
He sprang on to his horse, and a sudden roar filled the air. The little sob, which somehow stuck in his throat, and her cry, were drowned in the rattle of the artillery.
"Philip, come back I—I want you. Philip, dear."
HE was already far out of hearing, urging his horse down the perilous descent, his white set face fixed upon the distant battlefield.
High above, on the hill-top, a woman leaned toward him, with outstretched arms, and tear-stained face, calling to him passionately, idly measuring her voice against the rolling thunder of the guns. But there was no good genius to whisper in his ear, and bid him look behind.
Her eyes still followed him—he was riding straight towards a rolling cloud of white smoke drifting across the valley. Now he had reached it—there was another great roar of artillery. He had disappeared.
BY nightfall the battle was over, and the hills were covered with the remnants of the defeated army. The little ambulance tent was filled to overflowing. Maud and her fellow nurses had no rest since sundown.
Tired and faint, she staggered at last from the tent out into the open air, and away in the east, morning was breaking. She stood on the edge of the mountain and gazed downwards on to the plain. It was strewn now with the bodies of dead men, with dismantled guns and burning fragments of shells and debris of all sorts.
Yonder she could see the exact spot where he had disappeared. She watched it wistfully—but for her work she would have scrambled down the rough path and made her way there.
A shower of rolling stones below and the struggling of a horse making the ascent disturbed her. She looked over the mountain edge, and her heart stood suddenly still.
Out of the gray twilight a man was riding slowly upwards, with a burden stretched across the pommel of his saddle. She knew him at once—it was Maxwell. His face was as white as death, save where a great splash of blood has stained his cheek, and his lips were moving slowly as though he were talking to himself.
He saw her and reined in his horse. Then he tenderly lifted the body of the man which he had been carrying up, and held it out to her, speaking in strange, unreal tones.
"Take him," he said. "It is—my atonement! I brought him out of the Turkish lines. There were two of us against a hundred. Take care of him."
She laid the body tenderly upon the ground. Then she started back with a shriek of horror! She had seen dead men before, but never such a sight as this. His body was riddled with wounds, and his face almost unrecognisable. He must have been dead for many hours.
"Is—he badly hurt?" Maxwell asked thickly. Then with a sudden groan he fell forward on to his horse's neck, and before she could help him he had lost his stirrups and sank on to the ground.
"I did my best," he murmured, "but they were thick around us, and they fought like devils! I did my—best!—Maud—dear!"
ON very staid occasions, Maxwell sometimes wore by the side of his Indian cross, a small crescent-shaped medal, set with a brilliant diamond; and one night in the smoking room a privileged guest asked him a question.
"Maxwell," he said, "do you mind telling me where you got that curious little decoration of yours?"
Maxwell laughed and lit another cigar.
"Ask Lady Maxwell," he said.
"Exactly what I have done an hour ago," he answered. "She referred me to you as to its history, but she rather whetted my curiosity by saying that she would not part with it for all the Maxwell diamonds."
"It was given to me," he said, "by a Turkish general for attempting to save the life of an Englishman in the Greek war. As I was fighting his own men I have always looked upon it as a specially generous impulse. My wife and I are both very proud of it."
"It is," the guest remarked, "a very interesting relic. Some day I should like to hear the whole history."
"Some day," Maxwell answered with a laugh, "we may tell it to you."