The persistent chirping of a sparrow made it almost harder to bear. Lady Brooke finally rose abruptly from the table, her black brows drawn close together, and swept to the window to scare the intruder away.
“I really have not the smallest idea what your objections can be,” she observed, pausing with her back to the room.
“A little exercise of your imagination might be of some assistance to you,” returned her husband dryly, not troubling to raise his eyes from his paper.
He was leaning back in a chair in an attitude of unstudied ease. It was characteristic of Sir Roland Brooke to make himself physically comfortable at least, whatever his mental atmosphere. He seldom raised his voice, and never swore. Yet there was about him a certain amount of force that made itself felt more by his silence than his speech.
His young wife, though she shrugged her shoulders and looked contemptuous, did not venture upon open defiance.
“I am to decline the invitation, then?” she asked presently, without turning.
“Certainly!” Sir Roland again made leisurely reply as he scanned the page before him.
“And give as an excuse that you are too staunch a Tory to approve of such an innovation as the waltz?”
“You may give any excuse that you consider suitable,” he returned with unruffled composure.
“I know of none,” she answered, with a quick vehemence that trembled on the edge of rebellion.
Sir Roland turned very slowly in his chair and regarded the delicate outline of his wife’s figure against the window-frame.
“Then, my dear,” he said very deliberately, “let me recommend you once more to have recourse to your ever romantic imagination!”
She quivered, and clenched her hands, as if goaded beyond endurance. “You do not treat me fairly,” she murmured under her breath.
Sir Roland continued to look at her with the air of a naturalist examining an interesting specimen of his cult. He said nothing till, driven by his scrutiny, she turned and faced him.
“What is your complaint?” he asked then.
She hesitated for an instant. There was doubt–even a hint of fear–upon her beautiful face. Then, with a certain recklessness, she spoke:
“I have been accustomed to freedom of action all my life. I never dreamed, when I married you, that I should be called upon to sacrifice this.”
Her voice quivered. She would not meet his eyes. Sir Roland sat and passively regarded her. His face expressed no more than a detached and waning interest.
“I am sorry,” he said finally, “that the romance of your marriage has ceased to attract you. But I was not aware that its hold upon you was ever very strong.”
Lady Brooke made a quick movement, and broke into a light laugh.
“It certainly did not fall upon very fruitful ground,” she said. “It is scarcely surprising that it did not flourish.”
Sir Roland made no response. The interest had faded entirely from his face. He looked supremely bored.
Lady Brooke moved towards the door.
“It seems to be your pleasure to thwart me at every turn,” she said. “A labourer’s wife has more variety in her existence than I.”
“Infinitely more,” said Sir Roland, returning to his paper. “A labourer’s wife, my dear, has an occasional beating to chasten her spirit, and she is considerably the better for it.”
His wife stood still, very erect and queenly.
“Not only the better, but the happier,” she said very bitterly. “Even a dog would rather be beaten than kicked to one side.”
Sir Roland lowered his paper again with startling suddenness.
“Is that your point of view?” he said. “Then I fear I have been neglecting my duty most outrageously. However, it is an omission easily remedied. Let me hear no more of this masquerade, Lady Brooke! You have my orders, and if you transgress them you will be punished in a fashion scarcely to your liking. Is that clearly understood?”
He looked straight up at her with cold, smiling eyes that yet seemed to convey a steely warning.
She shivered very slightly as she encountered them. “You make a mockery of everything,” she said, her voice very low.
Sir Roland uttered a quiet laugh.
“I am nevertheless a man of my word, Naomi,” he said. “If you wish to test me, you have your opportunity.”
He immersed himself finally in his paper as he ended, and she, with a smile of proud contempt, turned and passed from the room.
She had married him out of pique, it was true, but life with him had never seemed intolerable until he had shown her that he knew it.
She took her invitation with her, and in her own room sat down to read it once again. It was from a near neighbour, Lady Blythebury, an acquaintance with whom she was more intimate than was Sir Roland. Lady Blythebury was a very lively person indeed. She had been on the stage in her young days, and she had decidedly advanced ideas on the subject of social entertainment. As a hostess, she was notorious for her originality and energy, and though some of the county families disapproved of her, she always knew how to secure as many guests as she desired. Lady Brooke had known her previous to her own marriage, and she clung to this friendship, notwithstanding Sir Roland’s very obvious lack of sympathy.
He knew Lord Blythebury in the hunting-field. Their properties adjoined, and it was inevitable that certain courtesies should be exchanged. But he refused so steadily to fall a captive to Lady Blythebury’s bow and spear, that he very speedily aroused her aversion. He soon realised that her influence over his wife was very far from benevolent towards himself, but, save that he persisted in declining all social invitations to Blythebury, he made no attempt to counteract the evil. In fact, it was not his custom to coerce her. He denied her very little, though with regard to that little he was as adamant.
But to Naomi his non-interference was many a time more galling than his interdiction. It was but seldom that she attempted to oppose him, and, save that Lady Blythebury’s masquerade had been discussed between them for weeks, she would not have greatly cared for his refusal to attend it. When Sir Roland asserted himself, it was her habit to yield without argument.
But now, for the first time, she asked herself if he were not presuming upon her wifely submission. He would think more of her if she resisted him, whispered her hurt pride, recalling the courteous indifference which it was his custom to mete out to her. But dared she do this thing?
She took up the invitation again and read it. It was to be a fancy-dress ball, and all were to wear masks. The waltz which she had learned to dance from Lady Blythebury herself and which was only just coming into vogue in England, was to be one of the greatest features of the evening. There would be no foolish formality, Lady Blythebury had assured her. The masks would preclude that. Altogether the whole entertainment promised to be of so entrancing a nature that she had permitted herself to look forward to it with considerable pleasure. But she might have guessed that Sir Roland would refuse to go, she reflected, as she sat in her dainty room with the invitation before her. Did he ever attend any function that was not so stiff and dull that she invariably pined to depart from the moment of arrival?
Again she read the invitation, recalling Lady Blythebury’s gay words when last they had talked the matter over.
“If only Una could come without the lion for once!” she had said.
And she herself had almost echoed the wish. Sir Roland always spoilt everything.
Well!–She took up her pen. She supposed she must refuse. A moment it hovered above the paper. Then, very slowly, it descended and began to write.
The chatter of many voices and the rhythm of dancing feet, the strains of a string-band in the distance, and, piercing all, the clear, high notes of a flute, filled the spring night with wonderful sound. Lady Blythebury had turned her husband’s house into a fairy palace of delight. She stood in the doorway of the ballroom, her florid face beaming above her Elizabethan ruffles, looking in upon the gay and ever-shifting scene which she had called into being.
“I feel as if I had stepped into an Arabian Night,” she laughed to one of her guests, who stood beside her. He was dressed as a court jester, and carried a wand which he flourished dramatically. He wore a close-fitting black mask.
“There is certainly magic abroad,” he declared, in a rich, Irish brogue that Lady Blythebury smiled to hear. For she also was Irish to the backbone.
“You know something of the art yourself, Captain Sullivan?” she asked.
She knew the man for a friend of her husband’s. He was more or less disreputable, she believed, but he was none the less welcome on that account. It was just such men as he who knew how to make things a success. She relied upon the disreputable more than she would have admitted.
“Egad, I’m no novice in most things!” declared the court jester, waving his wand bombastically. “But it’s the magic of a pretty woman that I’m after at the present moment. These masks, Lady Blythebury, are uncommon inconvenient. It’s yourself that knows better than to wear one. Sure, beauty should never go veiled.”
Lady Blythebury laughed indulgently. Though she knew it for what it was, the fellow’s blarney was good to hear.
“Ah, go and dance!” she said. “I’ve heard all that before. It never means anything. Go and dance with the little lady over there in the pink domino! I give you my word that she is pretty. Her name is Una, but she is minus the lion on this occasion. I shall tell you no more than that.”
“Egad! It’s more than enough!” said the court jester, as he bowed and moved away.
The lady indicated stood alone in the curtained embrasure of a bay-window. She was watching the dancers with an absorbed air, and did not notice his approach.
He drew near, walking with a free swagger in time to the haunting waltz-music. Reaching her, he stopped and executed a sweeping bow, his hand upon his heart.
“May I have the pleasure–“
She looked up with a start. Her eyes shone through her mask with a momentary irresolution as she bent in response to his bow.
With scarcely a pause he offered her his arm.
“You dance the waltz?”
She hesitated for a second; then, with an affirmatory murmur, accepted the proffered arm. The bold stare with which he met her look had in it something of compulsion.
He led her instantly away from her retreat, and in a moment his hand was upon her waist. He guided her into the gay stream of dancers without a word.
They began to waltz–a dream–waltz in which she seemed to float without effort, without conscious volition. Instinctively she responded to his touch, keenly, vibrantly aware of the arm that supported her, of the dark, free eyes that persistently sought her own.
“Faith!” he suddenly said in his soft, Irish voice. “To find Una without the lion is a piece of good fortune I had scarcely prayed for. And what was the persuasion that you used at all to keep the monster in his den?”
She glanced up, half-startled by his speech. What did this man know about her?
“If you mean my husband,” she said at last, “I did not persuade him. He never wished or intended to come.”
Her companion laughed as one well pleased.
“Very generous of him!” he commented, in a tone that sent the blood to her cheeks.
He guided her dexterously among the dancers. The girl’s breath came quickly, unevenly, but her feet never faltered.
“If I were the lion,” said her partner daringly, “by the powers, I’d play the part! I wouldn’t be a tame beast, egad! If Una went out to a fancy ball, my faith, I would go too!”
Lady Brooke uttered a little, excited laugh. The words caught her interest.
“And suppose Una went without your leave?” she said.
The Irishman looked at her with a humorous twist at one corner of his mouth.
“I’m thinking that I’d still go too,” he said.
“But if you didn’t know?” She asked the question with a curious vehemence. Her instinct told her that, however he might profess to trifle, here at least was a man.
“That wouldn’t happen,” he said, with conviction, “if I were the lion.”
The music was quickening to the finale, and she felt the strong arm grow tense about her.
“Come!” he said. “We will go into the garden.”
She went with him because it seemed that she must, but deep in her heart there lurked a certain misgiving. There was an almost arrogant air of power about this man. She wondered what Sir Roland would say if he knew, and comforted herself almost immediately with the reflection that he never could know. He had gone to Scotland, and she did not expect him back for several weeks.
So she turned aside with this stranger, and passed out upon his arm into the dusk of the soft spring night.
“You know these gardens well?” he questioned.
She came out of her meditations.
“Not really well. Lady Blythebury and I are friends, but we do not visit very often.”
“And that but secretly,” he laughed, “when the lion is absent?” She did not answer him, and he continued after a moment: “‘Pon my life, the very mention of him seems to cast a cloud. Let us draw a magic circle, and exclude him!” He waved his wand. “You knew that I was a magician?”
There was a hint of something more than banter in his voice. They had reached the end of the terrace, and were slowly descending the steps. But at his last words, Lady Brooke stood suddenly still.
“I only believe in one sort of magic,” she said, “and that is beyond the reach of all but fools.”
Her voice quivered with an almost passionate disdain. She was suddenly aware of an intense burning misery that seemed to gnaw into her very soul. Why had she come out with this buffoon, she wondered? Why had she come to the masquerade at all? She was utterly out of sympathy with its festive gaiety. A great and overmastering desire for solitude descended upon her. She turned almost angrily to go.
But in the same instant the jester’s hand caught her own.
“Even so, lady,” he said. “But the magic of fools has led to paradise before now.”
She laughed out bitterly:
“A fool’s paradise!”
“Is ever green,” he said whimsically. “Faith, it’s no place at all for cynics. Shall we go hand in hand to find it then–in case you miss the way?”
She laughed again at the quaint adroitness of his speech. But her lips were curiously unsteady, and she found the darkness very comforting. There was no moon, and the sky was veiled. She suffered the strong clasp of his fingers about her own without protest. What did it matter–for just one night?
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“Wait till we get there!” murmured her companion. “We are just within the magic circle. Una has escaped from the lion.”
She felt turf beneath her feet, and once or twice the brushing of twigs against her hand. She began to have a faint suspicion as to whither he was leading her. But she would not ask a second time. She had yielded to his guidance, and though her heart fluttered strangely she would not seem to doubt. The dread of Sir Roland’s displeasure had receded to the back of her mind. Surely there was indeed magic abroad that night! It seemed diffused in the very air she breathed. In silence they moved along the dim grass path. From far away there came to them fitfully the sound of music, remote and wonderful, like straying echoes of paradise. A soft wind stirred above them, lingering secretly among opening leaves. There was a scent of violets almost intoxicatingly sweet.
The silence seemed magnetic. It held them like a spell. Through it, vague and intangible as the night at first, but gradually taking definite shape, strange thoughts began to rise in the girl’s heart.
She had consented to this adventure from sheer lack of purpose. But whither was it leading her? She was a married woman, with her shackles heavy upon her. Yet she walked that night with a stranger, as one who owned her freedom. The silence between them was intimate and wonderful, the silence which only kindred spirits can ever know. It possessed her magically, making her past life seem dim and shadowy, and the present only real.
And yet she knew that she was not free. She trespassed on forbidden ground. She tasted the forbidden fruit, and found it tragically sweet.
Suddenly and softly he spoke:
“Does the magic begin to work?”
She started and tried to stop. Surely it were wiser to go back while she had the will! But he drew her forward still. The mist overhead was faintly silver. The moon was rising.
“We will go to the heart of the tangle,” he said. “There is nothing to fear. The lion himself could not frighten you here.”
Again she yielded to him. There was a suspicion of raillery in his voice that strangely reassured her. The grasp of his hand was very close.
“We are in the maze,” she said at last, breaking her silence. “Are you sure of the way?”
He answered her instantly with complete self-assurance.
“Like the heart of a woman, it’s hard, that it is, to find. But I think I have the key. And if not, by the saints, I’m near enough now to break through.”
The words thrilled her inexplicably. Truly the magic was swift and potent. A few more steps, and she was aware of a widening of the hedge. They were emerging into the centre of the maze.
“Ah,” said the jester, “I thought I should win through!”
He led her forward into the shadow of a great tree. The mist was passing very slowly from the sky. By the silvery light that filtered down from the hidden moon Naomi made out the strong outline of his shoulders as he stood before her, and the vague darkness of his mask.
She put up her free hand and removed her own. The breeze had died down. The atmosphere was hushed and airless.
“Do you know the way back?” she asked him, in a voice that sounded unnatural even to herself.
“Do you want to go back, then?” he queried keenly.
There was something in his tone–a subtle something that she had not detected before. She began to tremble. For the first time, actual fear took hold of her.
“You must know the way back!” she exclaimed. “This is folly! They will be wondering where we are.”
“Faith, Lady Una! It is the fool’s paradise,” he told her coolly. “They will not wonder. They know too well that there is no way back.”
His manner terrified her. Its very quietness seemed a menace. Desperately she tore herself from his hold, and turned to escape. But it was as though she fled in a nightmare. Whichever way she turned she met only the impenetrable ramparts of the hedge that surrounded her. She could find neither entrance nor exit. It was as though the way by which she had come had been closed behind her.
But the brightness above was growing. She whispered to herself that she would soon be able to see, that she could not be a prisoner for long.
Suddenly she heard her captor close to her, and, turning in terror, she found him erect and dominating against the hedge. With a tremendous effort she controlled her rising panic to plead with him.
“Indeed, I must go back!” she said, her voice unsteady, but very urgent. “I have already stayed too long. You cannot wish to keep me here against my will?”
She saw him shrug his shoulders slightly.
“There is no way back,” he said, “or, if there is, I do not know it.”
There was no dismay in his voice, but neither was there exultation. He simply stated the fact with absolute composure. Her heart gave a wild throb of misgiving. Was the man wholly sane?
Again she caught wildly at her failing courage, and drew herself up to her full height. Perhaps she might awe him, even yet.
“Sir,” she said, “I am Sir Roland Brooke’s wife. And I–“
“Egad!” he broke in banteringly, “that was yesterday. You are free to-day. I have brought you out of bondage. We have found paradise together, and, my pretty Lady Una, there is no way back.”
“But there is, there is!” she cried desperately. “And I must find it! I tell you I am Sir Roland Brooke’s wife. I belong to him. No one can keep me from him!”
It was as though she beat upon an iron door.
“There is no way out of the magic circle,” said the jester inexorably.
A white shaft of light illumined the mist above them, revealing the girl’s pale face, making sinister the man’s masked one. He seemed to be smiling. He bent towards her.
“You seem amazingly fond of your chains,” he said softly. “And yet, from what I have heard, Sir Roland is no gentle tyrant. How is it, pretty one? What makes you cling to your bondage so?”
“He is my husband!” she said, through white lips.
“Faith, that is no answer,” he declared. “Own, now, that you hate him, that you loathe his presence and shudder at his touch! I told you I was a magician, Lady Una; but you wouldn’t believe me at all.”
She confronted him with a sudden fury that marvellously reinforced her failing courage.
“You lie, sir!” she cried, stamping passionately upon the soft earth. “I do none of these things. I have never hated him. I have never shrunk from his touch. We have not understood each other, perhaps, but that is a different matter, and no concern of yours.”
“He has not made you happy,” said the jester persistently. “You will never go back to him now that you are free!”
“I will go back to him!” she cried stormily. “How dare you say such a thing to me? How dare you?”
He came nearer to her.
“Listen!” he said. “It is deliverance that I am offering you. I ask nothing at all in return, simply to make you happy, and to teach you the blessed magic which now you scorn. Faith! It’s the greatest game in the world, Lady Una; and it only takes two players, dear, only two players!”
There was a subtle, caressing quality in his voice. His masked face was bending close to hers. She felt trapped and helpless, but she forced herself to stand her ground.
“You insult me!” she said, her voice quivering, but striving to be calm.
“Never a bit!” he declared. “Since I am the truest friend you have!”
She drew away from him with a gesture of repulsion.
“You insult me!” she said again. “I have my husband, and I need no other.”
He laughed sneeringly, the insinuating banter all gone from his manner.
“You know he is nothing to you,” he said. “He neglects you. He bullies you. You married him because you wanted to be a married woman. Be honest, now! You never loved him. You do not know what love is!”
“It is false!” she cried. “I will not listen to you. Let me go!”
He took a sudden step forward.
“You refuse deliverance?” he questioned harshly.
She did not retreat this time, but faced him proudly.
“Listen!” he said again, and his voice was stern. “Sir Roland Brooke has returned home. He knows that you have disobeyed him. He knows that you are here with me. You will not dare to face him. You have gone too far to return.”
She gasped hysterically, and tottered for an instant, but recovered herself.
“I will–I will go back!” she said.
“He will beat you like a labourer’s wife,” warned the jester. “He may do worse.”
She was swaying as she stood.
“He will do–as he sees fit,” she said.
He stooped a little lower.
“I would make you happy, Lady Una,” he whispered. “I would protect you–shelter you–love you!”
She flung out her hands with a wild and desperate gesture. The magnetism of his presence had become horrible to her.
“I am going to him–now,” she said.
Behind him she saw, in the brightening moonlight, the opening which she had vainly sought a few minutes before. She sprang for it, darting past him like a frightened bird seeking refuge, and in another moment she was lost in the green labyrinths.
The moonlight had become clear and strong, casting black shadows all about her. Twice, in her frantic efforts to escape, she ran back into the centre of the maze. The jester had gone, but she imagined him lurking behind every corner, and she impotently recalled his words: “There is no way out of the magic circle.”
At last, panting and exhausted, she knew that she was unwinding the puzzle. Often as its intricacies baffled her, she kept her head, rectifying each mistake and pressing on, till the wider curve told her that she was very near the entrance. She came upon it finally quite suddenly, and found herself, to her astonishment, close to the terrace steps.
She mounted them with trembling limbs, and paused a moment to summon her composure. Then, outwardly calm, she traversed the terrace and entered the house.
Lady Blythebury was dancing, and she felt she could not wait. She scribbled a few hasty words of farewell, and gave them to a servant as she entered her carriage. Hers was the first departure, and no one noted it.
She sank back at length, thankfully, in the darkness, and closed her eyes. Whatever lay before her, she had escaped from the nightmare horror of the shadowy garden.
But as the brief drive neared its end, her anxiety revived. Had Sir Roland indeed returned and discovered her absence? Was it possible?
Her face was white and haggard as she entered the hall at last. Her eyes were hunted.
The servant who opened to her looked at her oddly for a moment.
“What is it?” she said nervously.
“Sir Roland has returned, my lady,” he said. “He arrived two hours ago, and went straight to his room, saying he would not disturb your ladyship.”
She turned away in silence, and mounted the stairs. Did he know? Had he guessed? Was it that that had brought him back?
She entered her room, and dismissed the maid she found awaiting her.
Swiftly she threw off the pink domino, and began to loosen her hair with stiff, fumbling fingers, then shook it about her shoulders, and sank quivering upon a couch. She could not go to bed. The terror that possessed her was too intense, too overmastering.
Ah! What was that? Every pulse in her body leaped and stood still at sound of a low knock at the door. Who could it be? gasped her fainting heart. Not Sir Roland, surely! He never came to her room now.
Softly the door opened. It was Sir Roland and none other–Sir Roland wearing an old velvet smoking–jacket, composed as ever, his grey eyes very level and inscrutable.
He paused for a single instant upon the threshold, then came noiselessly in and closed the door.
Naomi sat motionless and speechless. She lacked the strength to rise. Her hands were pressed upon her heart. She thought its beating would suffocate her.
He came quietly across the room to her, not seeming to notice her agitation.
“I should not have disturbed you at this hour if I had not been sure that you were awake,” he said.
Reaching her, he bent and touched her white cheek.
“Why, child, how cold you are!” he said.
She started violently back, and then, as a sudden memory assailed her, she caught his hand and held it for an instant.
“It is nothing,” she said with an effort. “You–you startled me.”
“You are nervous tonight,” said Sir Roland.
She shrank under his look.
“You see, I did not expect you,” she murmured.
“Evidently not.” Sir Roland stood gravely considering her. “I came back,” he said, after a moment, “because it occurred to me that you might be lonely after all, in spite of your assurance to the contrary. I did not ask you to accompany me, Naomi. I did not think you would care to do so. But I regretted it later, and I have come back to remedy the omission. Will you come with me to Scotland?”
His tone was quiet and somewhat formal, but there was in it a kindliness that sent the blood pulsing through her veins in a wave of relief even greater than her astonishment at his words. He did not know, then. That was her one all-possessing thought. He could not know, or he had not spoken to her thus.
She sat slowly forward, drawing her hair about her shoulders like a cloak. She felt for the moment an overpowering weakness, and she could not look up.
“I will come, of course,” she said at last, her voice very low, “if you wish it.”
Sir Roland did not respond at once. Then, as his silence was beginning to disquiet her again, he laid a steady hand upon the shadowing hair.
“My dear,” he said gently, “have you no wishes upon the subject?”
Again she started at his touch, and again, as if to rectify the start, drew ever so slightly nearer to him. It was many, many days since she had heard that tone from him.
“My wishes are yours,” she told him faintly.
His hand was caressing her softly, very softly. Again he was silent for a while, and into her heart there began to creep a new feeling that made her gradually forget the immensity of her relief. She sat motionless, save that her head drooped a little lower, ever a little lower.
“Naomi,” he said, at last, “I have been thinking a good deal lately. We seem to have been wandering round and round in a circle. I have been wondering if we could not by any means find a way out?”
She made a sharp, involuntary movement. What was this that he was saying to her?
“I don’t quite understand,” she murmured.
His hand pressed a little upon her, and she knew that he was bending down.
“You are not happy,” he said, with grave conviction.
She could not contradict him.
“It is my own fault,” she managed to say, without lifting her head.
“I do not think so,” he returned, “at least, not entirely. I know that there have frequently been times when you have regretted your marriage. For that you were not to blame.” He paused an instant. “Naomi,” he said, a new note in his voice, “I think I am right in believing that, notwithstanding this regret, you do not in your heart wish to leave me?”
She quivered, and hid her face in silence.
He waited a few seconds, and finally went on as if she had answered in the affirmative.
“That being so, I have a foundation on which to build. I would not ask of you anything which you feel unable to grant. But there is only one way for us to get out of the circle that I can see. Will you take it with me, Naomi? Shall we go away together, and leave this miserable estrangement behind us?”
His voice was low and tender. Yet she felt instinctively that he had not found it easy to expose his most sacred reserve thus. She moved convulsively, trying to answer him, trying for several unworthy moments to accept in silence the shelter his generosity had offered her. But her efforts failed, for she had not been moulded for deception; and this new weapon of his had cut her to the heart. Heavy, shaking sobs overcame her.
“Hush!” he said. “Hush! I never dreamed you felt it so.”
“Ah, you don’t know me!” she whispered. “I–I am not what you think me. I have disobeyed you, deceived you, cheated you!” Humbled to the earth, she made piteous, halting confession before her tyrant. “I was at the masquerade tonight. I waltzed–and afterwards went into the maze–in the dark–with a stranger–who made love to me. I never–meant you–to know.”
Silence succeeded her words, and, as she waited for him to rise and spurn her, she wondered how she had ever brought herself to utter them. But she would not have recalled them even then. He moved at last, but not as she had anticipated. He gathered the tumbled hair back from her face, and, bending over her, he spoke. Even in her agony of apprehension she noted the curious huskiness of his voice.
“And yet you told me,” he said. “Why?”
She could not answer him, nor could she raise her face. He was not angry, she knew now; but yet she felt that she could not meet his eyes.
There was a short silence, then he spoke again, close to her ear:
“You need not have told me, Naomi.”
The words amazed her. With a great start of bewilderment she lifted her head and looked at him. He put his hands upon her shoulders. She thought she saw a smile hovering about his lips, but it was of a species she had never seen there before.
“Because,” he explained gently, “I knew.”
She stared at him in wonder, scarcely breathing, the tears all gone from her eyes.
“You–knew!” she said slowly, at last.
“Yes, I knew,” he said. He looked deep into her eyes for seconds, and then she felt him drawing her irresistibly to him. She yielded herself as driftwood yields to a racing flood, no longer caring for the interpretation of the riddle, scarcely remembering its existence; heard him laugh above her head–a brief, exultant laugh–as he clasped her. And then came his lips upon her own….
“You see, dear,” he said later, a quiver that was not all laughter in his voice, “it is not so remarkably wonderful, after all, that I should know all about it, when you come to consider that I was there–there with you in the magic circle all the time.”
“You were there!” she echoed, turning in his arms. “But how was it I never knew? Why did I not see you?”
“Faith, sweetheart, I think you did!” said Sir Roland. Then, at her quick cry of amazed understanding: “I wanted to teach you a lesson, but, sure, I’m thinking it’s myself that learned one, after all.” And, as she clung to him, still hardly believing: “We have found our paradise together, my Lady Una,” he whispered softly. “And, love, there is no way back.”