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Ex Libris

Published in The Queenslander, Brisbane, Australia, 4 August 1917

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2018
Version Date: 2018-11-14
Produced by Keith Emmett and Roy Glashan

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ELEANOR LOVELL was a little late in coming down to dinner on the first night of her arrival at the Croxford Bridge Hotel, and she stood a moment at the door of the long dining-room, looking to see where her mother was sitting.

Presently she caught sight of her at a table at the far end of the room, and to her surprise, saw that she was not alone. A tall young man was seated opposite, bending forward and talking to her.

He had his back to Eleanor, so that she could not see his face, but as she came nearer surprise changed to something of dismay. There was no mistaking those square shoulders and that sleek, back head. They could belong to nobody else but Scott Kenyon.

Kenyon rose quickly as Eleanor reached her place, and the smile with which he greeted her lit up his dark, handsome face with unmistakable pleasure. He was the sort of man whose admiration is the breath of life to most girls, but Eleanor Lovell, though by no means insensible to his good looks, had reasons of her own for wishing him anywhere but at Croxford.

"Great luck finding you here, Miss Eleanor!" Kenyon was saying, as he took her hand. "I saw Mrs. Lovell in the lounge and asked if I might share your table."

"I hope you don't mind," he added, in a lower, pleading tone.

"Mind—of course not. It is always nice to find an acquaintance in an hotel," replied Eleanor lightly, as she took off her coat.

"Which reminds me," she continued, "did mother tell you that we are expecting another old friend to-night? Mr. Nisbet is coming."

Kenyon showed no sign of surprise.

"Freddy Nisbet—why, he is here already! Didn't you know? Ah, there he is now"—nodding towards the door—"and May Austin with him."

Eleanor looked up quickly. A man of about 28, whose brown face contrasted oddly yet not unpleasantly with his very fair, closely-cropped hair, was just entering the room, and with him a slim and singularly pretty woman, apparently a year or two younger than he. She was in a black dress which set off to perfection her extraordinarily clear complexion and gentian blue eyes.

"Pretty, isn't she?" said Kenyon, appreciatively. "Do you know her at all, Miss Eleanor?"

"I have never met her," replied Eleanor, and not even Kenyon could have suspected that she was tortured at that moment by the keenest pang of jealousy which she had ever known.

"She is the widow of old Harvey Austin, the iron man," Kenyon told her. "He left her everything. Jove, Nisbet's in luck, isn't he?"

"She is very pretty," said Eleanor, helping herself to fish.

Nisbet steered his charge to a table at some distance from the Lovells and as soon as he had taken his place began looking around the room. The moment his eyes rested on Eleanor Lovell, they lit up, and half rising from his chair he waved a cheerful hand.

The response was chilling. Eleanor gave him the merest shadow of a bow, then turned away to Kenyon.

She did not see the surprised, hurt look that came into Nisbet's honest eyes, nor the quick contraction of his forehead, or notice how silent he suddenly became. Indeed, during the rest of the meal, she never gave him another look, but chatted and laughed gaily with Kenyon.

Kenyon was not slow to avail himself of her kindness. He made the very best use of his opportunities, and Kenyon, at his best, was a very fascinating personage. Also, he was really in love with Eleanor Lovell, although it is perhaps doubtful whether the twelve hundred a year which she would eventually inherit had not something to do with the devotion he displayed.

The Lovells left the dining-room before Nisbet and his companion. Kenyon followed them to the lounge and found a comfortable chair for Mrs. Lovell.

The lounge door was wide open, and outside the mellow moon lit up the lawn and turned to silver the waters of the Cross Brook which tumbled noisily among its boulders at the foot of the grass plot.

"Will you venture?" Kenyon said to Eleanor, nodding towards the door. "With a shawl, you should be quite warm."

She flung her shawl over her shoulders and came with him at once, and they walked together down the gravel path to the timbern bridge spanning the brook. Eleanor stopped in the middle of the bridge, and leaned over the rail, looking down into the clear water as it rushed from the sparkling moonlight into the dark shadow of the arch. Not a breath of air was moving, and the night, though but early May, was warm as June. On either side of the moorland valley the great tors bumped their turreted heads against the night sky. The silence was broken only by the musical tinkle of the drought-shrunken stream, and the weird cry of an unseen curlew wheeling high in the windless sky.

Kenyon's heart was beating more rapidly than usual. He felt that his chance had come. He fell silent, watching the charming profile of the girl by his side, and for once it was the woman, not the heiress, who filled his thoughts.

"Nell," he whispered, bending towards her. "Nell, I love you."

She started, and her face, as she turned towards him, was suddenly white and frightened.

"I love you," he repeatedly passionately. "For weeks I have been longing tell you, and to ask you to marry me. Don't say no, Nell."

"But—but I do not love you, Mr. Kenyon," Eleanor answered in a shaken tone, "I—I—"

"Let me teach you," begged Kenyon. "Give me a chance, Nell. That is all I ask."

His voice was thrillingly soft. He looked extraordinarily handsome as he stood there, his eyes pleading his cause even more eloquently than his words.

Eleanor had never felt his fascination so strongly. Nor could she doubt his sincerity. Yet she still retained a measure of self-control, and was seeking words in which to refuse him when some one moved on the lawn above, and Freddy Nisbet came suddenly into sight, the beautiful Mrs. Austin beside him.

She drew one quick breath and stiffened suddenly. A wild desire to be even at any price came over her.

Half turning, she faced Kenyon.

"Do you mean to say that you would marry a girl who has told you plainly that she does not love you?"

"I would marry you if you said you hated me," Kenyon answered, and there was real passion in his voice. "I tell you I will make you care for me."

"Very well, then, you can try," said Eleanor recklessly. "And now I am going in," she added in sudden haste.

Go in she did, and Scott Kenyon saw her no more that night.

But next Morning he claimed her, nor could she well refuse, and 10 o'clock found the two seated together on a great granite boulder near the river, in the glorious spring sunshine.

"May I tell your mother of our engagement?" Kenyon begged.

Eleanor did not answer, and watching her, Kenyon noticed that her eyes were fixed on a solitary figure that was coming down the far bank of the stream.

He bit his lips as he saw that it was Nisbet. Nisbet, rod in hand and creel on back, who tramped steadily towards the string of pools under Sin Tor.

He raised his eyes as he passed, and saw the two seated together. From his face no one would have dreamed how the sight hurt him.

He did not stop, but lifting his cap, passed on.

Something in Eleanor's eyes checked the flow of Kenyon's speech, and for some moments he sat silent. Then a vicious impulse got the better of him.

"He has left Mrs. Austin at home this morning," he observed, and saw Eleanor flinch ever so slightly. "I wonder if they are engaged yet," he added.

Eleanor did not speak, but her face grew a shade paler, and Kenyon noticed, not for the first time that morning, the dark shadows under her eyes, caused by a sleepless night.

A touch of compunction, foreign to his selfish nature, made him rise suddenly to his feet.

"Let's climb the hill," he said. "There is a fine view from the top of Sin Tor."

Tired as she was, Eleanor jumped at the suggestion. Any distraction was welcome to take her thoughts off the engagement into which she had so rashly entered. A minute later, they had scrambled through the wire fence which surrounded the Sin Tor covert and were breasting the steep slope.

It was rough going. The heather was knee deep, and mixed with long, coarse grass of last year's, growth, dry and harsh as wire. Great clumps of gorse, 6 feet high and more, blazed with golden bloom in which the bees murmured busily.

"Thick, isn't it?" said Kenyon.

"It is a regular tangle," Eleanor agreed. "How comes it to be so different from the rest of the moor?"

"It is fenced for a fox covert," Kenyon explained. "Fenced so that cattle and ponies can't graze it, and of course it is never burnt over like the rest of the moor. Chaps who know say the whole moor was like this in the old days before they ran stock all over it.

"Be careful where you step," he added warningly, as his feet sank in soft peat mire, hidden beneath a carpet of sphagnum moss. "There are springs all over the place."

"Stones, too," said Eleanor, turning aside to avoid a great grey bowlder that pushed its lichened head through the thick heather.

It was a long scramble before they reached the top, and Eleanor at least was glad enough to drop down on the huge slab of weather worn granite which crowned the summit.

"Something like a view, isn't it?" said Kenyon, standing beside her.

"Wonderful! But how grey it is over there to the east! It looks as though fog were working up."

"It is only smoke," explained Kenyon. "They are burning the heather. 'Swaling,' they call it."

Suddenly he realised that Eleanor was not listening. Her eyes were fixed on something hundreds of feet below, a mere dot by the river bank. It was Nisbet casting across one of the long pools at the foot of the tor, and for the second time that morning Kenyon silently cursed his unsuccessful rival. He himself might have her promise, but Nisbet had her heart. He stood scowling, silent, rage against Nisbet boiling within him.

Eleanor rose.

"Let us go down," she said, restlessly, and Kenyon, sore and angry, agreed.

The heavy gorse cut off the breeze. It was very hot as they worked their way down the steep hillside. Half way down, they came to a great rock which was oddly balanced on a flat slab half buried in the ground.

Eleanor stopped and looked at it.

"I wonder how that came there?" she asked wonderingly.

"It's a Rocking Stone," Kenyon told her, as he laid hold of one end and put his weight on it. The huge rock swayed slightly.

"Be careful!" cried Eleanor sharply. "Oh, be careful! It's going over."

Scores of hands had rocked that stone in the past, but now, whether through winter frost or the decay of ages, the platform had crumbled, and the great boulder had seen its last swing. With a loud crunch it heeled slowly over on its side.

So slowly that there was really plenty of time to get away quietly. But Kenyon badly startled, made a wild jump, and landed among a quantity of loose stones which lay around the central platform.

His feet slipped and he fell heavily.

Eleanor was beside him in a moment.

"You are hurt?" she said breathlessly.

Kenyon sat up. His handsome face was twisted with pain.

"My—my ankle!" he muttered. He sat quite still, clasping his left ankle with both hands. His face was so grey it frightened Eleanor.

"Let me take your boot off," she begged.

Kenyon was one of those people who do not bear pain well. And his ankle was hurting abominably.

"Thank you," he said hoarsely.

With deft fingers Eleanor unlaced the boot and slipped it off. But gently as she did it, Kenyon could not repress a groan. Drawing down his thick woollen stocking, she saw that the joint was already considerably puffed.

"It is a bad sprain," she said quietly. "It is out of the question for you to walk. I must go for help."

She rose to her feet, and it was at this moment that she first smelt the smoke.

Even then, she had no suspicion of the danger. She merely thought that the breeze was carrying the smoke of the distant swaling which they had seen from the top of the hill.

"I will go back to the hotel and get a couple of men, and a cart," she told him. "They will carry you out of the covert, and you can be driven the rest of the way." As she turned, a soft cloud of smoke came drifting across. Its reek was so pungent that it made her cough.

"The covert—the covert's afire!"

It was Kenyon's voice, sharp, with sudden alarm.

Eleanor turned back.

"Surely not!" she said. "As you told me yourself, this ground is never burnt over."

"But it's afire now," Kenyon answered. "Look at the smoke! And—and—listen! I can hear it crackling."

In spite of the heat, a chill of fear struck cold to Eleanor's heart. Kenyon was right. She, too, could hear the sound. Faint as yet, it was the unmistakable snapping crackle of burning gorse.

She sprang up on the platform of the fallen rocking stone. From this point of vantage the sound was clearer. The smoke, too, grew thicker each moment. The wind, a little south of east, was sweeping it round the southern shoulder of the tor.

Now Eleanor was really terrified. There had been no rain for days, and everything was dry as tinder. A child could see that there was no stopping the fire, and here was Kenyon, helpless as a log, utterly unable to escape.

Her heart was beating so that she could hardly breathe. She made a desperate effort to control herself and speak calmly.

"You are right," she said. "The gorse is afire. But the fire is still a long way off. I will run for help."

"No!" Kenyon's voice was more shaky far than hers. "No! Don't leave me. I can walk if you will help me."

He had actually struggled to his feet, and was standing balanced on one leg.

"Very well. I will try," she said bravely. "Lean on me. Don't be afraid. I am quite strong."

But Kenyon was a tall man, weighing nearly 12 stone, while Eleanor, though a fair height, was quite slender. Also, the ground was about as bad for walking as could well be imagined. The result was as might be expected. After hobbling a few yards, Kenyon dropped again, groaning with pain.

"I—I can't do it," he muttered. "I can't get any further."

"I know. We are only wasting time," said Eleanor quickly. "You must stay here. I will get help."

She began to run down the hill. She heard him call after her, but could not catch what he said. Mingled with her fright was a feeling of self-contempt that she had allowed herself to become engaged to a man so lacking in man's most essential attribute, courage.

The smoke was now blowing across in blinding clouds, and the crackle of the fast approaching fire grew ominously plainer. She coughed and choked as she ran, stumbling through the matted heather.

It seemed an interminable time before she caught sight of the wire fence bounding the lower edge of the covert, and by the time she had scrambled through it she was shaking all over, and her feet felt like lead. She glanced towards the hotel. It was a good half-mile away. A feeling of despair came over her. She could never get help in time.

Still she began to run again, drawing long sobbing breaths as she went.

"Nell! Nell!"

A figure broke through the eddying smoke, and Nisbet, rod in hand, suddenly appeared.

"Nell, what is it? What has happened?"

Eleanor forgot May Austin, forgot everything except that the man she loved was beside her.

"Oh, Freddy, Mr. Kenyon is in the covert, and he will be burnt."

"What's the matter with him? Why can't he come out?" demanded Nisbet.

"He fell down. He has sprained his ankle."

"The deuce he has! Where is he?"

"Close by the rocking stone."

"All right. I'll have him out. You wait here."

Before he had finished speaking he was off. Eleanor watched him hurl himself through the fence, saw him vanish in a drift of smoke, and dropped panting to the short turf.

The smoke grew thicker, the crackle of the flames, louder and more insistent. The breeze was strengthening rapidly. Eleanor struggled to her feet, and keeping close to the river bank, began hurrying back in a southerly direction. As she got out of the sweep of the smoke she stopped and stood gasping in horror- stricken amazement.

For the hillside above was one sea of billowing flame, which was rushing onwards at tremendous speed. As she watched, she saw a great thicket of gorge flash up like so much powder, and vanish in a hurricane of fire. A storm of sparks fell like rain, setting light to everything in their path.

"Freddy! Oh, Freddy!" she cried aloud. "Oh, he will be burned, he will be burned to death. And it is all my fault!"

A deep sob burst from her throat, and she began to run towards the thicket. What she was going to do she had no idea. Her one thought was that Freddy Nisbet was somewhere in that inferno of flame, and that she—she who loved him— had sent him to his doom.

She actually went through the fence again and began to force her way up hill. But soon such a scorching gust met her as crisped her hair and stung her skin. She was driven back.

By the time she again reached safety, she was quite exhausted, and dropping to the ground, lay sobbing in such agony of soul as she had never before known.

Faster and faster the flames ate up the covert. The crackle had turned to a roar. The smoke streamed out in a black cloud that blotted out the sunlight, but was lit below by the crimson glare of the fire. Nothing was spared. Even large mountain-ash bushes were consumed in a few moments. All that was left behind the long line of leaping flames was a blackened desolation with a few bare stumps and gray rocks rising starkly from the hillside.

She strained her eyes through the rushing eddies of smoke, but could see nothing living. In her soul she knew that nothing could live within the zone of that consuming blaze.

And it was her own fault, all her own fault. She had sent Freddie to his doom. To have perished in the flames, herself seemed a happier fate than to be forced to live on and know what she had done.

Such pain as she was suffering is eventually its own anodyne. At last she could endure no more, and slipped forward face downwards on the turf. She had never fainted in all her life, but now, if not actually unconscious, she was very near it.

"Nell! Nell!"

The voice seemed to come to her ears from a very long way off.

"Nell, darling!" A hand touched her shoulder, and struggling back out of the dim haze into which she had fallen, she looked up into an anxious face. Blackened, scorched, hair and eyebrows singed away, it was that of Freddy Nisbet.

She stared up in silence, scarcely believing her eyes, not daring to speak lest it might be only a dream, and he might suddenly vanish away.

"It's all right, Nell," he said reassuringly. "It's me, Freddy. I knew you'd be scared, but I couldn't help it. There wasn't time to get him out before."

She sat up suddenly.

"But—but I don't understand. The fire! Oh, Freddy, I thought you were dead."

"Not a bit of it," he answered, with a poor attempt at a laugh. "We're both singed a bit, but otherwise all right. You see, there wasn't time to get away before the fire was on us, so we had to roll over into a bog patch, and lie low till it had passed."

"Kenyon is perfectly safe," he added in a tone which was suddenly more formal. "I left him down by the river. If you feel up to it I will take you to him."

"No," cried Eleanor sharply. "No! I won't go. I never want to see him again."

Freddy stared in an amazement which gave his blackened face an almost comical expression.

"But—but," he stammered, "I thought—that is, he told me last night that you and he were engaged."

Eleanor opened her mouth as if to speak, then suddenly covered her face with her hands, and burst into tears.

Freddy's arm was round her in a moment.

"Nell!" he said softly. "Nell, tell me. Tell me, dearest. You and I are old pals. You need not be afraid."

She made a feeble effort to push him away.

"You must not," she said. "You must not. Think of Mrs. Austin."

"May Austin!" he repeated, and there was no mistaking the genuine amazement in his voice. "Nell, what on earth do you mean? You have got to tell me now."

"Are you not engaged to her?"

"Me engaged to May Austin! Good Lord, Nell, you didn't think that!"

"Of course I did. Is it not true?"

"It's a lie," returned Freddy bluntly. "May is engaged to Tony—my brother Tony. He turned up in his car just after breakfast, and she is driving with him now."

Eleanor stared at him with quivering lips.

"Was it Kenyon told you that?" demanded Freddy.

"I—I don't know that he actually said so," replied Eleanor faintly.

"But he made you think it," said Freddy, with a bitterness quite foreign to his usual genial nature.

"Is that how he tricked you into this engagement?" he added.

The hot blush which rose to Eleanor's face was his answer.

"I thought so. Well, Nell, a contract entered into under false pretences is void. You know that, don't you?"

"I—I think I do."

"It's a legal fact. Shall I tell him, or will you?"

"You, please," said Eleanor, with a ghost of a smile.

"You give me the right to do so?" asked Freddy, tightening his arm around her waist.

Her answer was smothered in the thick tweed of his Norfolk jacket.