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Great Impersonation, The

CHAPTER XVII

It seemed to Dominey that he had never seen anything more pathetic than that eager glance, half of hope, half of apprehension, flashed upon him from the strange, tired eyes of the woman who was standing before the log fire in a little recess of the main hall. By her side stood a pleasant, friendly looking person in the uniform of a nurse; a yard or two behind, a maid carrying a jewel case. Rosamund, who had thrown back her veil, had been standing with her foot upon the fender. Her whole expression changed as Dominey came hastily towards her with outstretched hands.

"My dear child," he exclaimed, "welcome home!"

"Welcome?" she repeated, with a glad catch in her throat. "You mean it?"

With a self-control of which he gave no sign, he touched the lips which were raised so eagerly to his as tenderly and reverently as though this were some strange child committed to his care.

"Of course I mean it," he answered heartily. "But what possessed you to come without giving us notice? How was this, nurse?"

"Her ladyship has had no sleep for two nights," the latter replied. "She has been so much better that we dreaded the thought of a relapse, so Mrs. Coulson, our matron, thought it best to let her have her own way about coming. Instead of telegraphing to you, unfortunately, we telegraphed to Doctor Harrison, and I believe he is away."

"Is it very wrong of me?" Rosamund asked, clinging to Dominey's arm. "I had a sudden feeling that I must get back here. I wanted to see you again. Every one has been so sweet and kind at Falmouth, especially Nurse Alice here, but they weren't quite the same thing. You are not angry? These people who are staying here will not mind?"

"Of course not," he assured her cheerfully. "They will be your guests. To-morrow you must make friends with them all."

"There was a very beautiful woman," she said timidly, "with red hair, who passed by just now. She looked very angry. That was not because I have come?"

"Why should it be?" he answered. "You have a right here—a better right than any one."

She drew a long sigh of contentment.

"Oh, but this is wonderful!" she cried. "And you dear,—I shall call you Everard, mayn't I?—you look just as I hoped you might. Will you take me upstairs, please? Nurse, you can follow us."

She leaned heavily on his arm and even loitered on the way, but her steps grew lighter as they approached her own apartment. Finally, as they reached the corridor, she broke away from him and tripped on with the gaiety almost of a child to the door of her room. Then came a little cry of disappointment as she flung open the door. Several maids were there, busy with a refractory fire and removing the covers from the furniture, but the room was half full of smoke and entirely unprepared.

"Oh, how miserable!" she exclaimed. "Everard, what shall I do?"

He threw open the door of his own apartment. A bright fire was burning in the grate, the room was warm and comfortable. She threw herself with a little cry of delight into the huge Chesterfield drawn up to the edge of the hearthrug.

"I can stay here, Everard, can't I, until you come up to bed?" she pleaded. "And then you can sit and talk to me, and tell me who is here and all about the people. You have no idea how much better I am. All my music has come back to me, and they say that I play bridge ever so well. I shall love to help you entertain."

The maid was slowly unfastening her mistress's boots. Rosamund held up her foot for him to feel.

"See how cold I am!" she complained. "Please rub it. I am going to have some supper up here with nurse. Will one of you maids please go down and see about it? What a lot of nice new things you have, Everard!" she added, looking around. "And that picture of me from the drawing-room, on the table!" she cried, her eyes suddenly soft with joy. "You dear thing! What made you bring that up?"

"I wanted to have it here," he told her.

"I'm not so nice as that now," she sighed, a little wistfully.

"Do not believe it," he answered. "You have not changed in the least. You will be better-looking still when you have been here for a few months."

She looked at him almost shyly—tenderly, yet still with that gleam of aloofness in her eyes.

"I think," she murmured, "I shall be just what you want me to be. I think you could make me just what you want. Be very kind to me, please," she begged, stretching her arms out to him. "I suppose it is because I have been ill so long, but I feel so helpless, and I love your strength and I want you to take care of me. Your own hands are quite cold," she added anxiously. "You look pale, too. You're not ill, Everard?"

"I am very well," he assured her, struggling to keep his voice steady. "Forgive me now, won't you, if I hurry away. There are guests here—rather important guests. To-morrow you must come and see them all."

"And help you?"

"And help me."

Dominey made his escape and went reeling down the corridor. At the top of the great quadrangular landing he stopped and stood with half-closed eyes for several moments. From downstairs he could hear the sound of pleasantly raised voices, the music of a piano in the distance, the click of billiard balls. He waited until he had regained his self-possession. Then, as he was on the point of descending, he saw Seaman mounting the stairs. At a gesture he waited for him, waited until he came, and, taking him by the arm, led him to a great settee in a dark corner. Seaman had lost his usual blitheness. The good-humoured smile played no longer about his lips.

"Where is Lady Dominey?" he asked.

"In my room, waiting until her own is prepared."

Seaman's manner was unusually grave.

"My friend," he said, "you know very well that when we walk in the great paths of life I am unscrupulous. In those other hours, alas! I have a weakness,—I love women."

"Well?" Dominey muttered.

"I will admit," the other continued, "that you are placed in a delicate and trying position. Lady Dominey seems disposed to offer to you the affection which, notwithstanding their troubles together, she doubtless felt for her husband. I risk your anger, my friend, but I warn you to be very careful how you encourage her."

A light flashed in Dominey's eyes. For the moment angry words seemed to tremble upon his lips. Seaman's manner, however, was very gentle. He courted no offence.

"If you were to take advantage of your position with—with any other, I would shrug my shoulders and stand on one side, but this mad Englishman's wife, or rather his widow, has been mentally ill. She is still weak-minded, just as she is tender-hearted. I watched her as she passed through the hall with you just now. She turns to you for love as a flower to the sun after a long spell of cold, wet weather. Von Ragastein, you are a man of honour. You must find means to deal with this situation, however difficult it may become."

Dominey had recovered from his first wave of weakness. His companion's words excited no sentiment of anger. He was conscious even of regarding him with a greater feeling of kindness than ever before.

"My friend," he said, "you have shown me that you are conscious of one dilemma in which I find myself placed, and which I confess is exercising me to the utmost. Let me now advise you of another. The Princess Eiderstrom has brought me an autograph letter from the Kaiser, commanding me to marry her."

"The situation," Seaman declared grimly, "but for its serious side, would provide all the elements for a Palais Royal farce. For the present, however, you have duties below. I have said the words which were thumping against the walls of my heart."

Their descent was opportune. Some of the local guests were preparing to make their departure, and Dominey was in time to receive their adieux. They all left messages for Lady Dominey, spoke of a speedy visit to her, and expressed themselves as delighted to hear of her return and recovery. As the last car rolled away, Caroline took her host's arm and led him to a chimney seat by the huge log fire in the inner hall.

"My dear Everard," she said, "you really are a very terrible person."

"Exactly why?" he demanded.

"Your devotion to my sex," she continued, "is flattering but far too catholic. Your return to England appears to have done what we understood to be impossible—restored your wife's reason. A fiery-headed Hungarian Princess has pursued you down here, and has now gone to her room in a tantrum because you left her side for a few minutes to welcome your wife. And there remains our own sentimental little flirtation, a broken and, alas, a discarded thing! There is no doubt whatever, Everard, that you are a very bad lot."

"You are distressing me terribly," Dominey confessed, "but all the same, after a somewhat agitated evening I must admit that I find it pleasant to talk with some one who is not wielding the lightnings. May I have a whisky and soda?"

"Bring me one, too, please," Caroline begged. "I fear that it will seriously impair the note which I had intended to strike in our conversation, but I am thirsty. And a handful of those Turkish cigarettes, too. You can devote yourself to me with a perfectly clear conscience. Your most distinguished guest has found a task after his own heart. He has got Henry in a corner of the billiard-room and is trying to convince him of what I am sure the dear man really believes himself—that Germany's intentions towards England are of a particularly dove-like nature. Your Right Honourable guest has gone to bed, and Eddy Pelham is playing billiards with Mr. Mangan. Every one is happy. You can devote yourself to soothing my wounded vanity, to say nothing of my broken heart."

"Always gibing at me," Dominey grumbled.

"Not always," she answered quietly, raising her eyes for a moment. "There was a time, Everard, before that terrible tragedy—the last time you stayed at Dunratter—when I didn't gibe."

"When, on the contrary, you were sweetness itself," he reflected.

She sighed reminiscently.

"That was a wonderful month," she murmured. "I think it was then for the first time that I saw traces of something in you which I suppose accounts for your being what you are to-day."

"You think that I have changed, then?"

She looked him in the eyes.

"I sometimes find it difficult to believe," she admitted, "that you are the same man."

He turned away to reach for his whisky and soda.

"As a matter of curiosity," he asked, "why?"

"To begin with, then," she commented, "you have become almost a precisian in your speech. You used to be rather slangy at times."

"What else?"

"You used always to clip your final g's."

"Shocking habit," he murmured. "I cured myself of that by reading aloud in the bush. Go on, please?"

"You carry yourself so much more stiffly. Sometimes you have the air of being surprised that you are not in uniform."

"Trifles, all these things," he declared. "Now for something serious?"

"The serious things are pretty good," she admitted. "You used to drink whiskys and sodas at all hours of the day, and quite as much wine as was good for you at dinner time. Now, although you are a wonderful host, you scarcely take anything yourself."

"You should see me at the port," he told her, "when you ladies are well out of the way! Some more of the good, please?"

"All your best qualities seem to have come to the surface," she went on, "and I think that the way you have come back and faced it all is simply wonderful. Tell me, if that man's body should be discovered after all these years, would you be charged with manslaughter?"

He shook his head. "I do not think so, Caroline."

"Everard."

"Well?"

"Did you kill Roger Unthank?"

A portion of the burning log fell on to the hearth. Then there was silence. They heard the click of the billiard balls in the adjoining room. Dominey leaned forward and with a pair of small tongs replaced the burning wood upon the fire. Suddenly he felt his hands clasped by his companion's.

"Everard dear," she said, "I am so sorry. You came to me a little tired to-night, didn't you? I think that you needed sympathy, and here I am asking you once more that horrible question. Forget it, please. Talk to me like your old dear self. Tell me about Rosamund's return. Is she really recovered, do you think?"

"I saw her only for a few minutes," Dominey replied, "but she seemed to me absolutely better. I must say that the weekly reports I have received from the nursing home quite prepared me for a great improvement. She is very frail, and her eyes still have that restless look, but she talks quite coherently."

"What about that horrible woman?"

"I have pensioned Mrs. Unthank. To my surprise I hear that she is still living in the village."

"And your ghost?"

"Not a single howl all the time that Rosamund has been away."

"There is one thing more," Caroline began hesitatingly.

That one thing lacked forever the clothing of words. There came a curious, almost a dramatic interruption. Through the silence of the hall there pealed the summons of the great bell which hung over the front door. Dominey glanced at the clock in amazement.

"Midnight!" he exclaimed. "Who on earth can be coming here at this time of night!"

Instinctively they both rose to their feet. A manservant had turned the great key, drawn the bolts, and opened the door with difficulty. Little flakes of snow and a gust of icy wind swept into the hall, and following them the figure of a man, white from head to foot, his hair tossed with the wind, almost unrecognisable after his struggle.

"Why, Doctor Harrison!" Dominey cried, taking a quick step forward. "What brings you here at this time of night!"

The doctor leaned upon his stick for a moment. He was out of breath, and the melting snow was pouring from his clothes on to the oak floor. They relieved him of his coat and dragged him towards the fire.

"I must apologise for disturbing you at such an hour," he said, as he took the tumbler which Dominey pressed into his hand. "I have only just received Lady Dominey's telegram. I had to see you—at once."


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