Chapter XXII

Lord Verschoyle makes the Plunge

Violetta’s outburst of emotion did not last long. The fresh air and the bright sun restored her nerves to their usual tone. Before she passed through the lodge gate of Normanhurst, she felt a sense of elation, of triumph creep over her.

The cause was not far to seek. She had now a definite reason for hating Westoby. Her instincts had not deceived her. The man was a mercenary cad. She could not feel sufficiently glad that she had got even with him​—​that she was not under the slightest obligation. As for his base insinuations, she brushed them aside as she would some noisome insect.

She returned home by train. There was no direct railway route and the journey entailed some two miles on foot. But excellent walker as she was, this was of no consequence.

Still, what with this and the strain on her nerves which she had gone through, she found the ascent to the Owl’s Nest somewhat fatiguing, and at the bend half way up she paused to rest and take breath. While she was standing, her hand to her side, she heard the scrunching of the loose gravel path ahead of her and suddenly someone came round the corner with a long swinging stride. It was Lord Verschoyle.

She saw at once that his expression was unusually sombre. It instantly changed, however, when his glance rested upon her and he quickened his pace.

“This is real luck,” he exclaimed gaily. “They told me at your place that you were out and that it was uncertain when you’d be back. I was plunged in desolation. But now——”

He held out his hand and retained hers, while his keen grey eyes went rapidly over her face.

“You look horribly fagged,” said he bluntly. “What have you been doing?”

“This rough hilly road is always very trying, especially when one is tired.”

Without a word he drew her hand inside his arm and they walked slowly up the ascent. In truth she was glad of his support, as much because of his strong cheery presence as because of his physical help.

Presently he broke the silence.

“You see, I’ve kept my word. I’ve called upon you. You didn’t think I would.”

“I’ve never thought about it.”

“No? How disappointing​—​to me, I mean.”

And really a shadow seemed to flit across his face.

“I’m sorry. But now that you’re here, you’re very welcome.”

There was sincerity in her tone. The contrast between Lord Verschoyle’s frank, hearty manner, and the dry, saturnine air of Dan Westoby was very refreshing.

“I believe you mean that,” he rejoined, with emphasis.

They reached the gate and he held it open while she passed in.

“You have a charming little place here,” said he, “an ideal retreat. I took the liberty of walking round the garden. It’s tended, I can see, by someone who loves flowers.”

“I believe everyone in my small household does.”

“Yes, but I can trace the master mind. Yours, I’ll swear.”

“Oh, I daresay I’ve something to do with it. But you must see the inside of the house.”

The sound of the clock striking the hour came through the open French windows.

“Four o’clock. Is it too early to offer you a cup of tea?”

“I shall be delighted to accept your hospitality at any hour of the day, but more especially now, as I can see that tea is the one thing you want.”

“You’re really an ‘understanding’ man,” she said, smilingly. “You’ll excuse me while I look up my right hand woman. Do please smoke meanwhile. I shan’t be long.”

They had entered the pleasant low-ceilinged room through the French windows. She hastened away, leaving him to amuse himself as best he might.

Lord Verschoyle was evidently not in the mood to be amused. He was puzzled and not a little worried. A certain restlessness had come over him. He walked about the room twisting his moustache and muttering words chiefly of an ejaculatory character.

“Shall I? I wonder​—​damned if I can make up my mind,” was one of the most complete sentences which escaped his lips.

Then he glanced at the mirror, straightened himself, and did what he ought to have done at first​—​took advantage of Violetta’s permission and lit a cigarette.

Meanwhile, Violetta was somewhat perturbed by Lord Verschoyle’s visit. She had had him in her mind a good deal and was fearful lest he should think she had not done the correct thing in keeping him in the dark about the trial spin. But really, she was quite innocent. If anybody was to blame it was Peter Gumley.

When she appeared, followed by Mrs. Stubbles bearing a tray loaded with dainties, she looked brighter and fresher, and Lord Verschoyle’s eyes glinted with pleasure. To his military mind she was the ideal woman​—​neat, trim, composed yet easy in manner and with a certain alertness of intellect which forbade the idea than she could ever be taken unawares. With all this there was evidence of a desire to please, a most admirable feminine virtue.

The tea was served in the old-fashioned way, and Mrs. Stubbles discreetly left them to themselves, sitting opposite to each other. Despite her unruffled demeanour, Violetta was conscious of a feeling of embarrassment. She was very anxious to clear away any possible misunderstanding, but she did not quite see her way to approach the subject. While she was cudgelling her brains, Lord Verschoyle suddenly said:

“Do you know, Miss Vaughan, you’re a most wonderful woman.”

Violetta opened her eyes wide at this.

“In what way?” she asked.

“In the way you can keep a secret.”

“That isn’t wonderful at all. What really is wonderful is the delusion men are under in fancying that women cannot keep their lips closed when they choose. But what’s the secret I’ve kept?”

“Before I answer that question, I want to know whether we’re friends or enemies.”

Just a tinge of seriousness had crept into his lordship’s voice.

“Friends, of course. Why shouldn’t we be?”

“Quite so. I can’t imagine you otherwise. But there’s no getting away from the fact that you’re up against me over the Derby.”

“Then Mr. Gumley has told you,” she cried, with heightened colour. “I’m glad of that. He had no business to keep you in the dark when your horse was tried against mine. I was very angry about it.”

“You weren’t to blame. Peter let me have the whole story of your amazing power over horses​—​and, may I add, over​—​ahem!​—​men also​—​and I again say you’re a most wonderful woman.”

“Never mind about that, Lord Verschoyle. Do let us straighten out this business at once. I guess Peter has told you that if Belphegor runs at the Derby as he ran that night at Holberry Down he’s bound to win​—​barring accidents, of course. Quicksand hasn’t a chance. Belphegor’s only rival is Killarney, and——”

“And Tom Allworth will be up, which he wasn’t the other night at Peter’s,” put in Verschoyle.

“I’m not afraid of Allworth even. Belphegor’s the finest horse I ever saw in my life, and he’ll be ridden by the only jockey who understands him. He’s never been fairly tried as he will be at the Derby.”

“Good. Now we know where we are, don’t we? Suppose we both throw our cards on the table. I stand to win £1,000 on Killarney. If he doesn’t pull it off I drop £5,000 or £6,000.”

“You ought to hedge. Back Belphegor.”

“Not good enough. The odds this morning are dashed close. Killarney 5 to 2, Belphegor 3 to 1. Had a wire from Tattersalls an hour ago. But——”

His lordship’s eyes twinkled.

“I backed him the first thing in the morning after the trial at 10 to 1. Peter came over the same night, and we had a long jaw.”

“Good old Peter,” cried Violetta, clapping her hands. “Now that was really awfully decent of the old boy. I think I rowed him a bit for not letting you know. But tell me​—​if Belphegor wins, are you safe?”

“Quite safe.”

“Oh, I am glad.”

Violetta’s increased colour had never left her. Her eyes fairly blazed with excitement. The pleasure she felt had revealed a fascinating dimple in her left cheek. She looked supremely alluring.

At least, that was Lord Verschoyle’s opinion.

“And what about you,” said he, “if Killarney wins?”

“Oh, I can pay what I shall owe on Belphegor.”

“You haven’t then backed my horse?”

“No. You’ll forgive me, won’t you? I made quite a pile through his victory at Newmarket.”

Lord Verschoyle sat silent; his brows wrinkling the while.

“By gad, Miss Vaughan,” he suddenly burst out, “if you’re not as puzzling as you are wonderful. But that’s like a woman​—​I mean one who’s interesting.”

“Is that intended for a compliment?”

“I don’t know what it’s intended for. It’s the truth, anyhow. But why the deuce didn’t you back Killarney? Belphegor wasn’t in your mind, was he? Anyhow, he hadn’t been run against Killarney at that time.”

“I fancy I’m full of superstition. I wanted you to win the Two Thousand with Killarney and so I backed him for you.”

For me?” he interposed, in a bewildered tone.

“Yes. You don’t in the least understand, but that’s of no consequence.”

How could he understand? What did he know about her occult power of acting as a mascotte?

“Then you don’t care about my carrying off the Blue Riband at Epsom?” said he.

“Well, I’m in a difficulty. You see there’s Belphegor. I should like him to win.”

It was not necessary to explain to Lord Verschoyle that a victory of Belphegor carried with it two things​—​the undoing of Dan Westoby and the re-instatement of Norman at Normanhurst​—​that is, if Norman cared to avail himself of the chance. She stood to win a big sum with Belphegor, and she was quite prepared to lend Norman a substantial amount. But the great thing, from her point of view, was that in running Belphegor she was acting for Norman and not for herself. She was not prepared to argue the matter by the light of common sense. What had common sense to do with the occult?

The tea was over. They had sauntered to the window and were looking across the garden. The season was well advanced, and iris, lily and early roses were in bloom. The air, thanks to the elevated position of the Owl’s Nest, was delightfully sweet and fresh and invigorating. The sense of isolation had its charm.

“Seems to me, Miss Vaughan, that I’m better off than you. I shall win whichever way the Derby goes.”

“It’s what I would wish.”

He cast a glance at her face. It was slightly averted and her profile alone presented itself. How firm, how regular, it was cut, he thought. It reminded him of a cameo.

“Do you know,” said he, abruptly, “that I’m greatly indebted to you? But for your coaxing me into putting up Tom Allworth for the Two Thousand I should have lost heavily. No other jockey could have snatched victory at the post as he did. That boy’s riding of Quicksand was a marvel.”

“He rides Belphegor for the Derby,” rejoined Violetta, quickly.

“I congratulate you. Well, if Belphegor wins it’ll be your work anyhow.” Then, after a pause, and a fidgeting twist of his moustache, he went on:

“Look here, Miss Vaughan, I want to ask you a question​—​will you marry me?”

Violetta stared blankly at him. Surely he could not be in earnest.

“In token of your gratitude?” she said with a little mocking smile.

“By Jove, no. Don’t treat the thing as a joke. I never in my life was more serious. I suppose I didn’t make my proposal in the proper way. But what is the proper way? If it is to surround one’s declaration with a lot of soppy sentimentality, well, then I can’t do it. But I don’t believe you’d care for that kind of thing.”

“Oh, I should hate it.”

The mocking smile had fled. There was nothing of the coy maiden in her frank, clear eyes. She spoke as she felt and he knew it.

“Exactly what I should expect,” he whispered joyously. “I won’t say that if I were eighteen instead of thirty-eight I shouldn’t have burst into some sort of love rot​—​compared your eyes to stars​—​they’re much brighter, by the way​—​and so on. As it is, I again ask, will you marry me?”

She did not answer at once.

“It wants thinking over​—​for you as well as for me,” said she softly.

“I grant you. I don’t suggest one of the get-married-quick war weddings. The time’s gone by for that madness. I don’t ask you to decide offhand.”

“You know nothing about me, and if I marry you or anyone you ought to know.”

“I don’t see that. I take you as you are. I don’t believe, and I never did believe, in the stupid theory that women were born to tempt and deceive. My best friends have always been women.”

“So, then, you have a past,” said she, the ghost of her mocking smile flitting across her face.

“Nothing to be ashamed of, anyhow. But you won’t want to know my past any more than I want to know yours​—​if you have what’s called a past.”

“Well, I have, and I’d rather it came to you from the lips of my enemies than from mine.”

“That’s plucky of you. But surely you haven’t enemies?”

“Every woman who tries to go her own way is bound to have. When she defies conventionality she’s either ridiculed or condemned. I have two enemies​—​you saw how they recognised me at Newmarket​—​George Godfree and Dan Westoby.”

Those two bounders?” cried his lordship, hotly. “Yes, I saw the fellows, and I longed to kick one of them​—​that unprincipled ruffian and blackleg, Godfree. I’ve never spoken to Westoby, and I’ve had no dealings with him, but I believe his reputation’s none of the best.”

“I’ve no doubt you’re right. Anyway, I refer you to these two for my character. What the one doesn’t know the other will supply.”

“Talk to those blackguards about you? I’m damned​—​I beg your pardon​—​if I do. George Godfree’s one of the biggest liars and scoundrels going. I knew him years ago. He was in my regiment and was cashiered for cheating at cards. He married a woman of no class. Christine Devenport she called herself​—​I’ll go bail her real name was Sally Spriggins or something equally low down. I hear that the precious couple are exploiting themselves in the West end picking up flats. They work in couples or single-handed, according to circumstances. Few people know they’re man and wife. They’re careful not to let that out. She has half a dozen aliases, but her pet name’s Mrs. Willoughby-Smythe​—​a widow from Chicago. I apologise to you for plunging you into Godfree’s sordid vicious world.”

“It has its interesting side,” rejoined Violetta, thoughtfully. “You’ve told me more about Mr. Godfree than I knew. How long has he been married?”

“Ten years at least. The lady’s no chicken, though she fakes herself up to look like one. But for heaven’s sake don’t let us talk any more of this miserable subject. Do get back to what’s worrying me and has been for days and days past. Are you going to think over my question?”

“Most certainly if you’ll promise to do so too. Many things may happen that may cause you to change your mind.”

“I can’t imagine anything​—​unless you’re going to marry somebody else.”

“Well, I’m not,” said she, with more emphasis than she intended.

“I breathe again. Shall we leave it at that, Violetta? I warn you it’s going to be Violetta with me whatever comes to pass. You don’t mind?”

“No, I’ve been Violetta so long that Miss Vaughan sounds quite strange and hatefully formal.”

It was clear his lordship was satisfied with the way his proposal was shaping. He held her hand with a gentle, tender, pressure; he looked at her with longing eyes. Then he abruptly said good-bye and walked rapidly away as though he must have kissed her had he stayed.

At the gate he turned and lifted his hat with a sweeping bow that expressed confidence. Violetta waved her hand and smiled.

But the smile fled as she went into the house. She had so much to ponder over.