MARK HANNAFORD had not meant to spy. It was quite by chance that he had come upon Nancy sitting with young Ward Lytton on the big boulder by the stepping-stones.
A passion of jealousy filled him at the sight, and, without a moment's thought to the blackguardly side of the proceeding, he dropped flat among the heather, and began to worm his way nearer the couple.
Their two heads were very close together, and Mark had to get pretty close before he could hear what they were saying.
"I shall put the light in the little window under the gable. You know, Ward. It's the one we can see from here, and I expect you will be able to see it quite plainly from Cowling's. Then you will know that dad is away, and that it will be quite safe for you to come."
So spoke Nancy, and her words filled Mark with such a fury as he had never known. He shook all over, and it was all that he could do to keep himself from springing up and denouncing the girl to her face.
"That will do splendidly." It was Ward who spoke. "Splendidly, Nancy. Of course, I shall see it. I shall watch for it every evening, as soon as it is dark, and the moment I see it I shall come, flying."
"I wouldn't fly too much, Ward," Nancy answered, with a laugh.. "Those stepping-stones take a bit of crossing, especially in the dark. You'd better walk cautious, and keep a good hold on the chain. A pretty figure you'll look if you come up all dripping wet."
She laughed again merrily, and Lytton joined. Mark Hannaford gritted his teeth as he listened. "I shall come as quick as I can, anyhow, Nancy," Lytton said. "And you're a perfect angel to have thought of such a splendid idea."
"Even angels have butter to churn," said Nancy, rising. "Good- bye, Ward."
"Good-bye, Nancy," Lytton answered, and stooping, took her hand, bowed over it, and kissed it.
"You'll spoil us all with your fine manners, Ward," said Nancy, with her delightful laugh; then went daintily across the stones, and up the bank opposite, towards her father's farm.
Ward Lytton watched her for a few moments, then took a cigarette from his silver case and lit it. "What a dear she is!" he said aloud, and, turning, tramped away up the opposite hill in the direction of Cowling's, where he was staying.
Mark Hannaford half-rose from his lair in the heather. It was in his mind to rush after this finicky townsman, who, with his pretty manners and smart clothes, had won away Nancy's affections, to seize him and beat the life half out of him.
Then he paused, and dropped silently back into his hiding- place. His ruddy face hardened, and a very ugly look came into his steady blue eyes.
"I can do better than that," he muttered. "Aye, I can do better than that."
Into his mind had sprung, full-fledged, an idea of vengeance so subtle, so complete, that he could see no flaw in it. He saw his way, at one stroke, to get rid of his rival for ever, and that without leaving any trace or throwing any suspicion upon himself or anybody else. He waited where he was until Ward Lytton passed out of sight over the hill, then rose, and with lips set tight tramped heavily homewards.
The day—it was late September—had been perfect. But as he walked home Mark noted long mare's tails lying across the sunset, and he smiled grimly. The elements themselves were on his side.
Next morning he woke to the patter of rain on the roof, and the roar of a sou'westerly gale sweeping across the wide stretches of the open moor. All that day, as he went about his tasks on the farm, the water streamed from his thick oilskin; but about four in the afternoon the dark clouds began to thin, and before sunset the rain was over and a pale yellow light irradiated the evening sky.
As soon as his early supper was finished, Mark hastily changed his clothes and walked over to Buckthorpe.
The door was opened by Della, Nancy's younger sister. She was seventeen, slim and dainty, and had only just put her hair up. "You, Mark!" she exclaimed. "But I'm so sorry, Nancy's not at home. She went to Taviton with father, and is not back yet. But I dare say she will be here quite soon. Come in and sit down."
"Gone to Taviton, is she?" answered Mark, forcing a smile. "Thank you, Della, I'll come in a bit. How's your mother to- night?"
"A little better, thank you, Mark. But she is still in her room. Would you like to see her?"
"I'll go up after a while," said Mark.
Della looked at him curiously. "What's the matter with you, Mark?" she asked, suddenly. "You look peaked this evening."
"I'm all right, thanks," Mark answered, again forcing himself to smile and so hide the passion of jealousy which raged within. He took a chair, and began to talk about the rain and the farm.
Della flitted about, laying supper for her father and sister. Her step was as light as a bird's, and her laugh as merry as its song. But Mark, burning with the fury that consumed him, had no eyes for her charm.
Presently he got up. "I'll go up and see your mother now," he said.
Della nodded. "You know your way. I'll call you when Nancy comes."
Mark went upstairs. He stepped very softly. Instead of entering Mrs. Spillers room he crept past it, and so into the little empty room under the gable at the east end of the house. He closed the door and struck a match.
A candle stood on the window-sill. "So 'twas there!" he muttered, with a smothered oath, and at once lit it. Then he stood back and waited for perhaps five minutes.
"I reckon he's seen it by now," he said, grimly, and, blowing it out, slipped softly away, and so into Mrs. Spiller's room.
She, poor woman, was recovering slowly from an attack of rheumatic fever. Mark found her dozing, so did not wait, but went down again.
"Your mother's asleep, Della," he said.
"And Nancy's not home yet," responded Della.
Mark paused, and stared out into the darkness. "You were, right after all, Della,'" he said. "I'm not myself tonight. My head aches. I think I won't wait for Nancy, but just go home and to bed."
"Oh, I'm so sorry," Della answered with quick sympathy. "And so will Nancy be. Will you come in to-morrow?"
"Aye, I'll come to-morrow," replied Mark. "Good-night, Della."
He took his hat and his long moorman's coat and went out.
The wind blew fresh; clouds raced across the night sky. Behind them the moon in its second quarter flashed and vanished as the wrack drove across her silver face. From the valley below came the hoarse roar of the Arrow swollen by the storm.
Mark walked a few paces along the track leading to his own place, then stopped short. He listened a moment, and, turning sharp to the right, hurried down towards the ford.
As he dropped down the hill the sound of the river grew louder. Presently he was within sight of the stream, and a flash of moonlight showed him the dark heads of the stones just visible above the broad swirl of the foam-flecked water.
It showed, too, the thin dark line of the chain which, fastened to stout wooden posts at either end of the stones, formed a guide and support for those who had to cross during the hours of darkness.
Mark glanced keenly up the hill side. But the path which wound ribbon-like up through the gorse and heather was empty.
Taking a small screwdriver from his pocket, he approached the near side post, and rapidly undid the screws which fastened the chain to the timber. He did not remove them entirely, but left them so that the least strain would draw them, and let the chain drop.
This done, he went back up the bank and vanished from sight in a little thicket of gorse close to the bank.
The minutes dragged by, each like an hour. The blood beat through Mark's brain like hammer strokes. His eyes were fixed intently on the path opposite, and at last—at long last—a fugitive gleam of moonlight showed a dark figure swinging down the hill.
It was he, Ward Lytton, and for a moment Mark's heart stood still. He shivered with a spasm of fierce joy. He made no mistake. His enemy was, indeed, delivered into his hands.
Lytton approached rapidly. Above the boom of the flood Mark could hear him whistling as he came. A dark cloud covered the moon, and he, river, stones, and all, were wiped from sight.
Mark rose to his feet. He peered out from the bushes. He was in the grip of such excitement as he had never dreamt of. His mouth was dry, and the blood drummed in his veins. But he had no compassion for the man who had stolen away Nancy's affections. There was no room in his heart for anything but the bitter hate which burnt there.
There was a sudden rattle of iron links; a cry of alarm rose high above the deeper note of the angry river.
The cloud swept past, the moon shone out brilliantly, throwing its clear light across the deep pool below the stones, and Mark Hannaford, springing out of his hiding-place, saw one dark dot in the centre of the swirling stream.
It was Ward Lytton's head.
"Help! Help!" came the cry again in piteous tones.
The light was so bright that Mark could see every feature of his rival's face. He could even see his eyes, wide open, fixed upon the bank, and his lips set tight in desperate effort.
He saw more. He saw that Lytton's head was stationary. The body seemed to be fixed there in midstream. Knowing the river as he did, it was only a moment before he realised what had happened. In falling, Lytton had still kept hold of the chain. He had been swept round in a wide semi-circle, and caught upon a rock which was hidden just below the surface.
There he remained, and there he would remain until the icy chill of the flood did its deadly work and Lytton's numbed hands released their clutch. Then he would be swept away—swept down into the roaring circle of the Spinning Pit, fifty yards below, where his body would be battered to irrecognisable pulp against the unyielding granite which rimmed it.
Motionless as the rock beside which he crouched, Mark watched the tragedy. A sense of horror slowly overcame the black fury within him. Then, all of a sudden, Nancy's face rose before him—Nancy, with her bright eyes filmed with tears, her cheeks pale and thin.
The vision was so real that he flung his hands up before his eyes. "I—I forgot, Nancy," he muttered. "I forgot that you wanted him."
In an instant he was on his feet; he dashed down the bank and went leaping across the stones. Some were quite hidden beneath the yellow flood, but he sprang from one to another without an instant's hesitation, and with the speed and certainty of a machine.
He reached the other side, seized hold of the chain, and dropped straight into the water. He was whirled off his feet in an instant, and the chill of the flood bit to his very bones. It took all his strength to cling to the chain; but, without thought of risk, he slid along it until he reached Lytton.
"Good for you, Hannaford!" gasped Lytton, between chattering teeth.
"Let yourself go," ordered Mark, "chain and all; I'll hold you."
"I c-can't. The chain's got fixed round this rock."
Mark got his feet against the rock and put out all his strength. It was no use. The chain was too firmly wedged. He flung an arm round Lytton.
"Let go!" he said in his ear. "I'll get you back."
Lytton obeyed. Instantly the flood had them, and they were swept down towards the roaring cauldron below. For any one not familiar with the river death was certain But Mark had fished it since he could walk. He knew every rock every turn and twist of the current. For a few yards he allowed the flood to take them, then as a tall rock loomed up, splitting the rushing stream, he made his effort, and struck out fiercely for the bank.
For a terrible ten seconds the issue hung in the balance, then Mark's muscles won; he reached the eddy, and the swirl flung them both into shallow water. Panting, almost exhausted, Mark dragged the other on to the shingle and dropped beside him.
NANCY and her father had just finished their supper when steps were heard outside—slow, dragging steps.
Nancy sprang to her feet, but before she could reach the door it burst open, and a dripping figure, carrying another, from which the water streamed, staggering into the kitchen.
Nancy screamed. "Oh, Mark, what has happened?"
Mark laid Ward Lytton on the horse-hair couch.
"Here he is," he said, grimly, "I've saved him for you."
"For me!" Nancy said, sharply. "For me, Mark? What do you mean?"
Before he could answer, Della, who had been standing stock still at the far end of the room, sprang forward. "Ward! Ward! Oh, my poor Ward!" she cried in a piteous voice, and, dropping on her knees by the couch, flung her arms around Lytton's unconscious form.
There was a moment of dead silence.
Mark broke it. "Oh, Heaven!" he muttered, "what have I done?" Turning, he staggered blindly out of the room.
One moment's hesitation, then Nancy flew after him. He was hardly through the door before he felt her soft cheek against his.
"My poor Mark!" she said, quietly. "Didn't you know it was Della?"