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The Girl on the Mountain by Warwick Deeping

 

It was hot on the steep mule-path that zigzagged up the southern slope of Monte Verde to the sanctuary of Santa Maria in Montorio, and David Flemming, with all his artist's gear upon his back, paused every hundred yards or so to catch the sea breeze, and to look back upon Villadoro, that pleasant, frivolous, and rather artificial little town lying white at the edge of its blue bay. There was shade here and there where the grey, stone-paved path ran under old ilexes and stone pines. The olive terraces were purpled with violets. Ever and again the white pinnacles of Santa Maria glimmered above the rocks and trees.

David Flemming broke the climb to drink a glass of vermouth at the little green-shuttered osteria lying half-way up the mountain. He sat under a pergola covered with roses and vines, and his lean and rather humorous face was sad. For even the pleasant comedies of life were tinged with pathos, and Flemming's laughter was often tempted to end in tears. He had discovered the utter loneliness of life, the loneliness that overtakes a man when death has snatched from him the other half of his soul. It was more than a year since his wife had died. The first anguish had passed, but the loneliness remained. They had been comrades; life had been an intimate interweaving of the sensitive threads of two personalities. Then fate had torn the fabric of life asunder, and left Flemming's career all loose and ravelled. Moving on again, he reached at last the broad walk between huge ilexes that led to the soaring steps and the white façade of Santa Maria. But Flemming did not stop at the sanctuary; he crossed the forecourt, passed round under an arch, and struck a path that climbed to the top of Monte Verde, three hundred feet nearer the clouds.

The path was steep, mere flat rocks and stones piled together, and it ran through a pine wood where the wind made a plaintive murmuring. And more than once, as he climbed through sunlight and shadow, Flemming fancied that he heard the sound of someone singing. It was just a voice that came and went, uttering a few wayward notes, like the deep throat notes of a bird.

Then the sanctuary bells started jangling just as Flemming saw the blue summit sky through the trees. There would be all the glory of the view up yonder, the snow peaks, the turquoise sea, the wooded headlands, the rocky valley black with shadows. Moreover, lunch and a bottle of wine were not to be scoffed at after such a scramble.

The summit came suddenly, a smooth cap of turf with a big flat stone perched in the centre like some primitive altar. All around the sky seemed to hang like a blue tent, but that grey stone on the top of Monte Verde was coloured red, as though someone had lit a sacrificial fire.

Flemming stopped dead. Here was the unexpected on the top of a mountain, a woman kneeling by the great stone, her body flung forward over it, her head hidden in her arms. She was wearing some loose sort of red jacket, and her skirt was of white linen, short, and showing bare ankles. A mass of black hair was stirred by the wind, but she herself was absolutely motionless, save for the slight fluttering of her white skirt.

Flemming was posed. He took her to be a peasant girl who had climbed to the top of Monte Verde to cry her heart out over some love affair. Her back was towards him, and the choice seemed to be his, the choice of leaving her in possession, and losing the crown of the morning's climb.

But chance saved him that. The girl raised herself, turned, saw him, and started to her feet. And Flemming, if he had been surprised at finding her there on the top of Monte Verde, was doubly astonished when he saw her face.

For she was the child of another hemisphere, an islander, dark skinned, with a mass of dusky hair, large eyes, and a splendid throat. And Flemming, in his astonishment, was conscious of two things—that he had surprised her in some tragic moment, and that her eyes were empty of tears.

He was conscious of having blundered, conscious of a kind of resentfulness in her expression, and with an Englishman's habit of blurting out things in his own language, he tried to put her and himself at ease.

"I'm sorry. I didn't know anyone would be on the top of Monte Verde."

He realised instantly that the chances were against her knowing English, and that a man of more poise would have strolled to the edge of the plateau and admired the view.

"Monte Verde does not belong to me. The mountains should be free to us all, should they not?"

She answered him in English; spoke it, indeed, as though it were her natural tongue. And she smiled slightly, perhaps at his most obvious astonishment.

"No doubt you have come from Villadoro, and you have come to paint."

Again Flemming was shocked by the discovery that it was the girl who was smoothing away the embarrassment of the moment and putting him at his ease. Her voice sounded very deep and rich, and though she was quite young there was a maturity about her that hinted at the woman of the world. Flemming, a "sensitive" himself, was aware of the palpable breed in her, a frank and gracious ease of manner that could keep its dignity in the face of such a coincidence. He awoke to the fact that here was something amazing and unique, a mere child who could carry off all the bizarrerie of her clothes, of her loose, black hair and her bare ankles, and remain convincing, natural, absolutely herself.

"It is a long climb from Villadoro," he said, "and I wanted to try and make a rather unique sketch."

By way of settling the situation, he began to unload himself, to pull out the legs of his collapsible easel, and to prepare ostentatiously for work. The way lay open for the girl to smile at him and retreat. But she did nothing of the kind. She sat herself down on the flat stone and watched him with perfect composure.

"Is it not funny, I met an English girl up here one day, two of us on the top of the mountain, and we did not speak? Two intelligent creatures with tongues! And yet—I like the English."

He glanced at her and was struck by the soft charm of her manner. She seemed to have put some sad thing behind her; her face had cleared, and for the first time he realised her beauty. There was nothing negroid about her. Her skin had a dusky pallor; her face was refined in spite of its breadth; her eyes were a clear blue and heavily lashed. But it was the physical perfection of her that appealed to the artist in him, the splendid throat, the modelling of the forearm and ankle, the generous grace of her very feminine figure. And she seemed quite unconscious of it all, a kind of dusky island queen, with all the subtle charm of a fine culture added to the simple insouciance of her southern nature.

She was amazing. The loose hair, the bare ankles, the red and white of her clothes seemed inevitable. Somehow he could not imagine her in a Paris frock, and yet he had an idea that she wore such creations.

"I think we are two very sensible people," he said suddenly.

He was recovering his poise, his sympathetic sense of humour.

Her eyes brightened to his.

"Well—perhaps. And I am glad you came. I wanted some distraction."

He saw a tremor as of pain pass over her face, but it cleared instantly.

"Oh, the sun—the sun—and the sea! I was born on an island, a surf child."

"Is it rude to be curious?"

"Why should it be? Isn't life worth living as long as one remains inquisitive? I was born at Hawaii."

He nodded. His little easel was set up, and he had rolled a round stone forward from the edge of the plateau to serve as a seat.

"I say, I am going to be very forward. But there is only one really inevitable thing for me to do."

"And that?"

"Paint you—there—on that rock. May I?"

She gave a charming lift of the head.

"Why not? And may I talk? It is such a silent world sometimes. I chatter to the mountains, but they cannot answer me back."

So Flemming painted her, while the bells of Santa Maria in Montorio began their midday chiming. It was a merry sanctuary, and the bells seemed to dance in the mountain air, riotously, and with gay abandonment. The Lady of the Mountain was no joyless prude, and seemed to love laughter rather than melancholy.

The chiming came to an end with one long, deep-tongued boom of the big bell.

"And I have kept still through it all. Now, listen; it is noon."

She held up her hand, and through the silence they heard all the mountain and valley bells striking, like so many distant voices. Each white campanile for miles around took up the cry, and the echoes seemed to tremble in the deep valleys between the mountains.

Not only did Flemming paint her portrait, but he discovered her name and where she lived. She had been christened Eulalie, and the name had been changed to Lalia by her Hawaiian playmates. She lived at Acqua Dolce, a rather famous little villa in the river valley below, and Flemming remembered that Acqua Dolce was let to one Fenton Bale. He noticed that she was wearing a plain gold ring, and the obvious inference was that she was Bale's wife.

He seized a chance thought that suggested itself.

"I have wanted to paint in the gardens of Acqua Dolce. I am wondering if I can get leave."

She was silent a moment and her face became overclouded.

"My husband is not fond of strangers. I will ask him."

"But I am not going to thrust myself in——"

"I will ask him. Where are you staying?"

"At the Hotel Regina, Villadoro—David Flemming."

She smiled at him rather wistfully, and in a short while he was alone on the summit of Monte Verde.

David Flemming went and sat on the big stone where he had seen her prostrate, her head in her arms. That there was some great sorrow in her life he felt convinced. Her courage had set it aside for the moment, and she had faced him as though life hid no tragedy, no sinister shadows that darkened the sun.

Why had she come to such a lonely place? And how strange the whole business seemed—a Hawaiian girl on the summit of an Italian mountain!

If the great stone could have spoken it might have startled Flemming with strange words, the words of a woman in anguish, who had fled to some solitary place where passions might cool themselves.

"O God, I shall kill him. Help me, or I shall kill him!"

While Flemming ate his lunch and looked at the snow peaks and the sea, Lalia Bale raced down the mule-path, her string-soled shoes giving her a grip of the stones. She moved like a wild thing, agile, graceful, and with all the suppleness of an island child taught to swim through the surf. It was an hour after noon when she reached the bridge across the stream in the valley, and found herself at the iron gates of Acqua Dolce. An avenue of cypresses led up towards the villa hidden in its gardens which were full of the sound of running water.

"Hallo! Where the devil have you been?"

A man was leaning over the balustrade at the top of a terrace where clipped box trees grew in huge stone jars. He was a thin, yellow-faced man, with sunken cheeks and dull eyes. The muscles showed in his throat, and there was something about him that suggested a predaceous and hungry bird. His face was not the face of a healthy man; it was unwholesome, irritable, violent, with shadows under his eyes, and a kind of loose and cynical cruelty hanging about the mouth.

The girl answered him very quietly, though his voice had sent a shiver of anger through her, that discordant voice like the harsh cry of a bird.

"I have been up Monte Verde."

"Damn it—what rot! I've been waiting an hour for lunch——"

"You need not have waited."

She knew that he had done it to gain a grievance against her. That was Fenton Bale's way. He would spite himself in order to scold at her—and worse.

She climbed the steps leading to the terrace, and his panama hat moved along above the balustrade. Her pallor had increased. She was holding herself in, clenching her hands till the nails hurt her palms.

That jeering profile of his waited at the top of the steps.

"Come on!"

His eyes flared.

"You've been out again in that get-up. Why don't you dress like a Christian? You might be doing a cinema show."

She knew the man was ill, that he had drugged himself into evil decrepitude. And once she had thought she had loved him, in those Hawaiian days when he could swim and sail a boat.

"Don't, Fenton. I am so tired of it all."

"Tired!"

He laughed.

"Tired! And what have I spent on you? Paris, London, Vienna—damn it, and you cannot dress to please me. Here, I'll settle it——"

He snatched at the sleeve of her loose red jacket, and his thin fingers pinched the flesh of her arm. She twisted away, but she did not cry out, though her lips went white. The sleeve gave at the seam, and he continued to drag at it, laughing like a malicious child.

"I'll settle the thing."

The whole sleeve came away in his hand, leaving her full white arm showing, with the marks of his fingers upon it. For a moment there was a kind of madness in her eyes, but she mastered herself and turned towards the house.

"You will be rough with me once too often, Fenton," she said. "I am not one of your soft Englishwomen—my blood is hotter than theirs."

Three days later David Flemming went down from the Regina Hotel to a dance at a little casino that was built on a headland that jutted into the bay. The night was superb, warm, and ablaze with stars, and the sea made no more than a moist murmur among the rocks. The casino gardens were brightly lit; the string band was playing in the rotunda; the cosmopolitan crowd had scattered itself round the little tables in the alcoves; only a few couples were dancing.

A gay little German widow was chattering in the vestibule. She nodded and smiled at David Flemming, for he was a favourite of hers.

"Ach, Mr. Flemming, I have a quarrel with you. You did not dance with me last week."

"Why, Baroness, then it was I who was the loser."

"So you have a smooth tongue, you wicked prevaricator. I was here—you not ask me."

She shrugged her plump shoulders and looked up at him provokingly, but found that Flemming was staring over her head with a surprised and innocent intentness that could not be quarrelled with. For, seated at one of the little tables in one of the recesses leading from the ball-room were Lalia Bale and her husband. The girl was wearing a brilliant wine-coloured gown and a string of pearls in her hair. She was no longer the child of the mountain, but a woman of the world, a Parisian creature, cosmopolitan and yet unique.

The German lady turned her smile upon someone else, and Flemming went to leave his hat and coat in the cloakroom. And here a tall man, bald, clean-shaven, with ironical blue eyes, was stuffing a white scarf into an overcoat pocket.

"Hallo, Flemming!"

"You here, as usual, Locker?"

"Part of my business. I prescribe dancing for some of my patients, and I have to be here to see that they take it. Have you seen the sensation of the evening?"

"No."

"Come along, I'll show you."

He took Flemming by the arm, and so piloted him that one of the doorways leading from the vestibule served as a picture frame to Lalia and the man seated at the table.

"There's a problem for you, Flemming! What do you make of it?"

Flemming's eyes were studying the man. Fenton Bale was lounging in his chair, his dress shirt bulging forward, his yellow face lined and haggard, his right hand twirling a liqueur glass by the stem. He seemed to be sneering at life, a malicious decadent, whose restless eyes saw little that was good, but very much that was evil.

"Who is the man, Locker?"

"Fenton Bale, and that bit of milk and charcoal is his wife."

Flemming's mouth hardened.

"Yes, I have met her, but I have not met the man. What is he?"

Locker was pulling on a pair of white gloves.

"A polyglot gentleman, a cosmopolitan—a bit of American, a bit of English and a bit of French mixed up into a very nasty mess, my dear Flemming. Plenty of money, a liver, and a devilish temper. Excuse me, there's the Marchesa; I must go and pay my respects."

Flemming was left alone in the doorway, where he was partly screened by a palm. Lalia Bale had not seen him, so he felt no guilt in remaining there for a while to watch her and the man who was her husband.

Lalia looked splendid, but it was a mute and haughty splendour that scornfully suffered some ordeal. She did not speak to Bale, did not look at him; her eyes seemed to be gazing at something a long way off; she was there, and she was not there. The soul of the woman had withdrawn itself to some inaccessible proud height where no one could follow.

Flemming was puzzled, but in a little while he understood. That Hawaiian girl was the dominant figure in the room; a glowing thing with an ice-cold face, a woman who drew men and rebuffed them when they sought her. Her beauty was like no other kind of beauty that Flemming had ever seen. She was the sex spirit idealised, mysterious, strangely pure.

The casino etiquette was easy; introductions were not demanded, and Flemming saw several men go up to the girl, bow, and ask her to dance. And each time she refused, and each time a yellow gleam of mocking self-satisfaction seemed to light up Fenton Bale's face. He had brought his wife there to show her off, like some rare gem that he flashed in the eyes of other men, boastfully, and with an ironical sneer. He had forbidden her to dance. She should sit there—and be his.

David Flemming understood, and the man in him was angered. Bale's gloating sense of possession was so patent, so offensive, that no one could have watched him without appreciating the truth. And Flemming felt a sudden disgust at the sight of this wreck of a man flashing this child's beauty in the eyes of the world, like some Jew dog mocking the Gentiles with the yellow leer of his own wealth.

There was more than anger in Flemming's mood. He was touched, stirred to an imaginative pity, able to feel the supreme humiliation that was being laid upon the woman.

Then their eyes met across the length of the long room. Lalia's face seemed to float for a moment in a tremulous haze of hesitation. Then she smiled. It was as though she asked to be rescued.

The band had struck up a waltz. Couples floated out and began to circle the room. Flemming made his way round, and found himself bowing to Lalia Bale.

"Will you dance with me?"

Her eyes flashed a rebellious "yes." As they glided away to the music Flemming caught a glimpse of Fenton Bale's face, and for the moment he was sorry that he had tempted Lalia to rebel. She would be made to suffer for it; Fenton Bale would see to that.

But there were other things besides the music to carry him away—to make him forget that shrivelled, yellow-cheeked man by the window. For the girl had risen to him with a rush of recklessness; her warm blood was afire, her supple body thrilling to the sinuous moan of the violins. Her eyes looked into his; her throat seemed full of laughter and joy; if he was to match her physical exultation he would have no leisure to brood over the vicious jealousy of a sick and decadent man. Flemming was a fine dancer, but he had never danced with such a partner as this. She moved like a rhapsody, and Flemming's blood took fire. He was young again. He was the movement to her music, though some wild devil piped the tune.

They did not speak. There was an exultation in the flowing of their steps, and mere words would have marred the rhythm. People stopped to watch them, though it was doubtful whether they were conscious of anything but the music and their two selves. Then it became a danse à deux, the red and the black figure holding the room.

It was over. The leader of the band stood up, bowing in answer to a burst of applause. People began to talk; waiters came hurrying to take orders; the rooms and galleries were full of the shifting colours of the feminine crowd.

"That was splendid."

Her arm was resting in his and her eyes shone. He was about to lead her back to that table in the window recess.

"How hot it is in here!"

He changed his mind of a sudden, though there was more than a mere sensuous drift in the impulse that prompted him.

"It would be cooler in the gardens."

"Yes, let's go out. I don't want to dance again."

They passed through the crowded vestibule and down the steps into the garden. Men and women watched them, and then smiled at each other. A waiter came hurrying, a little round-eyed man with a worried, deprecating smile.

"Monsieur, monsieur, please! Ze gen'leman wish me to say——"

Flemming turned sharply.

"What is it?"

"Ze gen'leman wish me to say he go home, sir, and will madame put on her cloak."

Flemming glanced at Lalia. She looked pale and uncompromising.

"I shall not go yet. Tell Signor Bale that I will come later, plus tard, you understand?"

"Yes, madame."

She withdrew her arm from Flemming's, and there was the light of revolt in her eyes.

"Let him wait for me. I will please myself—for once."

Flemming was sobered. The waltz tune had changed to a sadder and more sinister movement. The glare of the casino had given place to the shadows of pines, cypresses, ilexes, and palms. Winding paths disappeared into the shadows. Here and there a light flickered, and they could hear the soft wash of the sea.

She put her head back, and seemed to draw in deep breaths, as though the night air cooled some inward flame within her. Her white throat showed. To Flemming there was something tragic in the poise of her head.

"Let's go down to the sea."

She swept on, and he followed; the path was narrow, so that they could not walk abreast.

"I am afraid the blame is mine."

She answered him quickly over her shoulder.

"What blame? Did you not see—you must have seen."

"You mean——"

"Oh, I must talk—I must talk, and somehow I feel that I know you—that I have known you for years. What fools we humans are—what cowards! But I saw by your eyes that you understood. How gross and hateful life can be made!"

She turned suddenly and faced him under the overspreading canopy of a pine.

"I can talk to you—I must talk to you. And you are not afraid of me? I am not like those women in there—who feed on a man's folly."

He answered her impulsively.

"I know that. We are children, you and I; we can understand each other."

She turned and walked on.

"The other day—on Monte Verde—what did you think?"

"That you were suffering."

He saw her put her hand to her throat.

"Oh, my God! is a woman to have no pride? Is she to be bullied, exposed like a tame beast—shown off before other men, to be made the creature of a man's evil whims? I was just a child when he married me. I did not know then. And he is clever; he has taken care to keep me at his mercy. Men are like that, but one might bear it from some men."

Flemming was mute for a moment. This passionate outburst of hers, so poignantly sincere, so vital, smote him like a wave of the sea. Its salt strength smothered him, lifted him away from the familiar rock of a man's habitual outlook upon life. He had a feeling of breathlessness, of being seized on and possessed by a rush of emotion that no amount of cool and selfish reasoning could withstand.

The path broadened out, and ended in a rough terrace built up on the rocks where the Italians bathed in spring and summer. The sea was very calm, with just a soft heaving that fringed each black rock with a little circle of foam. Across the bay the lights of the old town glittered in a clustering fringe that spread and thinned and died away upon the mountains. A couple of sailing boats were gliding in towards the harbour, mere grey ghosts upon the water.

Lalia and Flemming were quite alone. They stood and leant upon the parapet and watched each heave of the sea pouring a gush of foam into each little pothole and crevasse in the rocks below.

"How calm it is here! It makes me think of Hawaii."

He was silent awhile.

"Why not go back?"

By the way she glanced at him he knew that he had said a foolish thing.

"That is what makes life so difficult; one cannot go back. I should not be happy there; I have learnt too much, seen too much. I should seem a stranger to them, and they would seem strange to me. Besides, there are the Americans; I do not love them. What is more, I have no money."

She laughed suddenly and rested her chin on her hands.

"Do you know, I never have more than a franc in my purse. No, my friend, I am not going to ask you for money."

He answered hotly.

"It never crossed my mind."

"I believe you. He keeps me without money, so that I am tied to him by a golden rope. Oh, but it is hateful, talking like this; it sounds mean, horribly mean. Let's be just ourselves. Tell me about yourself. I feel—somehow—that you have suffered, that you are not a beast of prey—like other men."

He betrayed a gleam of humour.

"I don't know that I am so interested in myself."

"No? But I may be. Shall I read your character? I am rather good at reading people."

"Try."

"Let me feel one of your hands."

He gave her his left hand, and she ran the tips of her fingers over it, touching it lightly here and there.

"Sensitive, rather diffident, reserved—and a little obstinate."

"Oh, come!"

"An artist; I know that, and yet you are not an egoist. Not good at business; inclined to be too generous. That's strange; I feel you have lost someone who was very dear to you."

He answered her quietly.

"I lost my wife. Oh, about a year ago or more. I haven't been quite alive since then. Marriages are happy sometimes, you know."

And then she showed him another aspect of herself, a phase that proved that she was not a devourer, that she could give—as well as take.

"Won't you tell me about her?"

"I don't know. I have never talked about her to anybody."

"Perhaps it hurts too much?"

"It is not that. There are parts of one's life into which one never takes a third person."

She stretched out a hand and touched his arm.

"Oh, but I never asked for that. I would never desire to pry into the sacred things that belonged to another woman. But now I know why your voice sounds lonely. It struck me that way up on Monte Verde; it was like the voice of someone who was always remembering in the middle of saying something—that there was no one to listen, no one—I mean—who mattered. The one who mattered was no longer there."

He looked over the sea.

"That's true, utterly true. In the middle of doing things even now—painting a picture, for instance—I suddenly realise she is not here, and life seems to break in the middle. Things do not seem worth while. I was ambitious. Yes, I suppose we were everything to each other."

"I can picture her. May I try?"

"Yes."

"She was rather fragile, pale, with large eyes and dark hair. But she had plenty of spirit, plenty of fun. She did not talk very much, but she was full of cleverness, understanding. She was one of those fragile, graceful women who make a man feel very protective, very tender. And yet she had an immense courage, more courage than you have. She helped you."

He turned to her in astonishment.

"How do you know all that?"

"How? It is what you make me feel, that is all I can say. Perhaps your loneliness paints a thought picture, for you were very lonely."

"Lonely? Good God! no one knows how awful that loneliness can be till they have been through it. I didn't want to go on living."

"But you did go on living."

"Somehow. I was very near ending it once or twice."

She sighed.

"Oh, I know. But perhaps it is worse to have to go on living with the dead body of the past in the same house with one. I think I know what loneliness means—a loneliness that has even no dreams left to it."

Flemming looked at her, and as he watched her pale face a strange thing happened to him. For suddenly his dead wife seemed to rise before him and to enter into the body of this island girl. The two women seemed to become mysteriously mingled. All the old poignant tenderness awoke in him and reached out towards the living as well as towards the dead.

"You and I seem to have drunk of the same cup. I am going to be your friend, Lalia. You can say things to me that you would say to your own self."

She remained motionless, brooding.

"Would she mind—if she knew?"

"I think not. She was always generous. And somehow I feel her—the eternal woman—in you."

Again she sighed.

"I cannot help hating him. And sometimes he drives me mad, for I am not like your passive white women; I have fire in my blood, and there are times when I feel that I shall do some desperate thing."

"You mean——"

"Kill myself—or kill him."

She uttered the words with the quietness of one who knew that she was uttering the truth. And Flemming looked at her with a sense of helplessness, feeling that he had been drawn into some inevitable and tragic current that was life itself, remorseless yet pathetic.

He turned and leant slightly towards her, resting his right arm along the wall.

"I should be a prig and a fool if I doubted that. But is he worth it?"

She shrugged her shoulders.

"Oh, he is a devil, an ingenious, tormenting devil. Whisky—and drugs. I try to think of him as he was, to realise that the thing that lives is a kind of caricature of the thing that is dead. And yet there is a horrible likeness in the caricature. He was always cruel, a little unscrupulous, but, then, it seemed a natural audacity, a masterfulness that appealed to a mere girl. I misread it all then; now I am wiser."

Suddenly they heard a harsh voice calling, the voice of a man who had lost all self-restraint.

"Lalia! Are you there? Where the devil are you?"

They looked at each other meaningly.

"I had better go. It maddens him to be kept waiting."

"I've been responsible. I am coming with you. I want you to introduce me."

"He will be rude to you."

"Let him be rude. What does it matter?"

She called to her husband.

"Is that you, Fenton? Where are you?"

"Up here, of course. Hurry along."

They found him at the top of the path that led down the cliff to the terrace above the bathing place. A solitary lamp burnt here, and a few iron chairs were ranged in a half-circle under a stone pine, and Fenton Bale was sitting on one of these iron chairs, the lamplight making his face look all shadowy and haggard.

He started up jerkily, unsteadily.

"Where the devil have you been? Didn't you get that message?"

"Yes, I got it, Fenton, but I meant to stay on a little longer. I want to introduce you to Mr. Flemming."

"Oh! And who the——"

He glared at Flemming, and for an instant these two men stood face to face, eyeing each other, measuring each other. Then Flemming held out a hand.

"Glad to meet you, sir. I must confess that I am the sinner. I'm an artist, and you have to make allowances for artists. We're infernal fools, of course."

He was easy, debonair, but that facile politeness of his was a grip laid on the throat of Bale's evil temper. He was determined that the fellow should behave himself, and not fall to snarling like a spoilt dog.

"You've kept me waiting, anyway. I'm an invalid, a sick man, sir."

"I'm sorry. Your wife and I have met before, and the casino was so confoundedly hot that we strolled down here. Are you driving back?"

"We shouldn't be walking, should we?"

"Hardly. Shall I get hold of a carriage for you?"

"Much obliged; the porter fellow's paid for that."

Flemming laughed, but there was an edge to his laughter.

"Your husband won't let me be officious, Mrs. Bale. Shall I lead the way? I know all these winding paths."

"Oh, there's my cloak. I left it in the cloak-room."

"Give me your number and I'll get it for you."

Flemming found them waiting at the entrance gates when he walked across the garden with Lalia's black velvet cloak over his arm. A powerful electric light hung from the iron arch over the gates, throwing a pale glare that made the foliage of the palms and the grass look a hard, metallic green. There were other people waiting, and there appeared to be a shortage of carriages, for Fenton Bale was kicking up a row with the concierge and not gaining in dignity thereby.

"Didn't I tell you to reserve me a carriage? Well, and why the blazes isn't there a carriage here? You won't get the ghost of a tip out of me."

The concierge was a big Frenchman who spoke English, and who had no intention of being bullied.

"Monsieur must wait his turn. The carriage is coming."

"Look here, my man, I don't want any impertinence. I ordered a carriage to be here at eleven; other people have got their carriages."

"That is so, monsieur." And the concierge's tone suggested that the other people had better manners, and that Mr. Bale might wait till midnight so far as he was concerned.

Flemming was helping Lalia with her cloak. His hands touched hers. She looked at him over her shoulder.

"Oh, I am used to this. Try if you can get us away."

Bale had pounced on a carriage that had driven up and was attempting to annex it, but a bearded Austrian with two ladies refused to be hustled out of his rights. He was very polite, but very determined. It was his private carriage; he managed to make Fenton Bale appreciate the fact.

People were smiling. Lalia drew aside under one of the palms and stood there haughtily. Flemming tackled the concierge, and dropped a two-lire piece into the man's hand.

He spoke to him in French and tapped his forehead suggestively.

"Monsieur is a little—— You understand. I apologise for him; you were quite in the right."

The concierge smiled.

"I am ready to oblige monsieur. He shall have the third carriage."

Flemming turned, and discovered that Bale had rejoined his wife and was making a further exhibition of himself by scolding at her.

"It's all your damned fault. What did you want to go gallivanting off for? You know it knocks me up to be out late."

Flemming felt very much tempted to take Bale by the scruff of the neck and shake him. The fellow seemed to have no self-control, no sense of the fitness of things. He let himself be carried away by any animal impulse. The whole thing was absurd; but, like many absurd things, it was tragic.

"All right, sir, a carriage is coming."

He caught a flash of Lalia's eyes, a flash of gratitude and of appeal, and he went and stood, by her, looking at Fenton Bale with mesmeric intentness. He would stare the little cad into behaving himself, and his attitude succeeded.

In another moment he was handing Lalia into a carriage, though Bale had made a move to get in first.

"Good-night."

She had pressed his hand, and her eyes looked for a moment into his.

"Good-night."

"Acqua Dolce, cocchiere."

The carriage moved away, and Flemming stood under one of the palms, watching it. The band was still playing in the casino, Chaminade's "Autumn," and the music seemed to entangle itself with the emotions of the moment. How would that little beast behave now that he had her alone with him? And Flemming found that he had no delusions as to Fenton Bale's most probable attitude towards his wife.

What a monstrous thing it was that she should be made the victim of a decadent sot's vile humours! He was angry, generously angry, and mingled with his anger was a compassion that was not content to stand and philosophise. The vehemence and the drive of life had come back to David Flemming. The spirit of his dead wife seemed to have spoken to him by the mouth of Lalia Bale.

The carriage was rattling along the road that skirted the bay. There was the moist swish of the sea upon the shingle. From the windows of a tall house came the sound of laughter and the shrilling of a mandoline. The ilexes that lined the road met overhead and made a black tunnel.

Lalia was leaning back in her corner. Bale had begun before they had driven thirty yards, and she had let him snarl at her and given him not a word in return. He could rave like an hysterical woman, fling the most monstrous taunts at her, show all that malignant unreason that drives the most patient of mortals to despair.

"A nice fool you made of me. I suppose you think I'm a yellow dog, done for, a blasted corpse in trousers. Damn it, I'm not dead yet. I'm not going to die for a long time. You keep away from the men."

She did not answer, and her silence exasperated him.

"Who's this artist chap, anyway? Short of money, is he? You haven't given him those pearls, have you, to raise money on? Don't you try that game; I'm not going to be boobied into passing out the shekels for some other chap to pocket. Where are those pearls?"

She twisted the rope out of her hair and tossed them to him.

"Take them. But be very careful, Fenton, or some day you may discover that I have taken you at your word."

"Ah, would you? Yes, get yourself into the gutter, my dear. You know where those sort of adventures end."

"Fenton, do you know the kind of woman I am? No, I think not."

"Women—they're all alike; toss a man over when they've dragged all the fun out of him."

"Silence!"

She leant towards him and spoke so fiercely that he crumpled in his corner.

"Fenton, I shall kill you—some day; yes, kill you, if you talk to me like this."

David Flemming had not seen Lalia Bale for days, though he had climbed Monte Verde and wandered along the valley paths on the steep hillsides above the river. The image of her did not fade; it was no day's fancy, no momentary infatuation. On the contrary, it grew more distinct and compelling; he began to feel very lonely, and in his loneliness his thoughts turned to her.

Vineyards and olive groves surrounded Acqua Dolce, and grey stone walls shut in the villa grounds. The road ran along the eastern boundary, and there were paths that went up through the terraces where the olives grew. And Flemming began to haunt these paths, innocently enough. He would take his sketch-book with him and make studies of olives and cypresses and the river running in its rocky bed below. Only once did he see Lalia or have speech with her. Things were going badly; Bale had developed a new mania; he would hardly let her out of his sight.

Flemming was cutting down close to the wall one morning when he heard someone hailing him. It was a sneering and ironical voice, and had the same effect on Flemming as the sound of a file grating upon steel.

"Hallo! Mr. Gamboge. You seem to find a dashed lot of material round here."

Flemming glanced up and saw Bale looking down at him under the shade of a loquat tree.

"Good morning, sir."

Bale mimicked him.

"Good morning, sir. I'm not so damned polite as you are, sir. In fact, I see a dashed sight too much of you, sir."

Flemming smiled.

"Is that so?" he said.

"That is so, Mr. Gamboge. And my wife isn't on view—see. And if you try climbing over my wall you may get a jolly lot more than you bargain for."

It was not the face of a sane man that looked down at Flemming from under the shade of the loquat tree. It was all lined and yellow, with a cunning leer in the eyes, the face of a malicious faun.

Bale's insolence was ridiculous and vulgar, and Flemming was inclined to ignore it.

"You seem to have got some sort of prejudiced idea into your head."

Bale grinned at him.

"Look here, Mr. Juan; I'll show you what I carry in my pocket."

He dangled a nickel-plated revolver over the wall, and pointed it half-playfully at Flemming.

"I used to be a dead shot, old sport."

Flemming looked at him steadily.

"If you go walking about with toys like that you'll get yourself into trouble, Mr. Fenton Bale. I should lock it up if I were you."

"Not me. You haven't lived out West, in Mexico, and in some of those dirty republics. You dress with your pistol; it's part of the costume—see?"

He waved his hat.

"Good-bye, Gamboge. You keep on the right side of my wall, old fellow."

Flemming left him and walked on, but his face was a little grim. Bale's antics struck him as serious.

"The man's mad. He ought to be watched. Good God! he might take it into his brain to shoot her!"

Flemming took one of the mule-paths back to Villadoro, and on reaching the town he went straight to a little white villa that stood amid palms and camellias and mimosa on the hillside just above the Regina Hotel. Here James Locker and his wife lived for eight months of the year, two very popular healers, without whom the English who wintered at Villadoro would have to pour out their woes in German or Italian.

Dr. Locker was at home, rolling a supply of cigarettes as he sat in the loggia that overlooked the sea.

"Hallo, Leonardo! Stay to lunch? Glad to see you. Sit down."

"I have got a problem for you, Locker."

"Oh, good heavens! What is it, the disappearance of Mona Lisa?"

"I'll tell you."

Locker was no fool, though he sauntered through life rather like a pierrot. He listened seriously enough, rolling his cigarettes, and glancing now and again at Flemming with a kind of affectionate irony.

"You have got to look into this, Locker. No; I'm not a sentimental fool. You know something of Bale."

"Quite enough. He tried to choke me once in one of his riots. The man's a degenerate beast. I told him that he would drink and drug himself into Bedlam."

"Well, what are you going to do?"

Locker got up.

"Call Grace in," he said dryly. "It's a case for consultation. You didn't know that Grace ran the practice, did you, Leonardo?"

"I have a great admiration for your wife, Locker."

"She deserves it, my friend. Try rolling a few cigarettes while I go and explain things. I think she is writing letters in that room of hers under the tiles."

Grace Locker was an exceptional woman, a woman whose appearance made strangers imagine that she spent all her time and energy elaborating new dresses, putting a superfine polish upon her nails, and massaging that smooth and handsome face of hers in a triumphant revolt against wrinkles. She contrived to be immensely busy without ever appearing in a hurry. Her very charm owed much to its suggestion of leisureliness. She was amazingly efficient, that was the secret of it all. She contrived to be both the busiest and the best-dressed woman in Villadoro, simply because she knew what to do—and did it—while other women were talking.

"What a sensible man you are, David. Of course, you were thinking of me when you came to appeal to Jim."

She sat down in a basket chair, looking, fresh and delightfully young for a woman of forty. She was a fair woman, but she could still wear white in the morning without it making her look faded.

Flemming smiled at her.

"Of course, I had you in my thoughts. But I'm serious, Grace."

"Don't be a prig and assume that I'm frivolous because I don't moan. Jim has told me. I have been interested in that girl all the winter. She's one of the most fascinating things I have ever seen."

"And David wants to rescue her."

Flemming stared between the stone pillars of the loggia at the blue of the sea.

"Anyone would think, Locker, that you just trifled through life, and that you couldn't be in earnest about anything. I happen to know you. Grace couldn't have married a fool. I want you to go up to Acqua Dolce——"

"But I'm not going, David."

"But—look here——"

"I'm leaving it to Grace."

Flemming turned eagerly to Grace Locker.

"Will you go?"

"Of course. I've been thinking things over. The girl wants rescuing, bringing out among people; it is enough to make her morbid, being shut up with a man like Bale. He may be only a whimsical curmudgeon. People have cut him; a little human flattery might work wonders with the man. I'll try it; I'll just be charming to him, and get him to let the girl come and help with that fête of ours at the Villa Scala. That can serve as an excuse, and I can see what's to be made of Mr. Fenton Bale."

Flemming looked grateful but troubled.

"I suppose it's safe—for you——"

Locker laughed shrewdly.

"Grace would be safe anywhere. You need not picture Bale threatening her with a revolver. I'd trust her to manage a case of homicidal mania."

"If you think it's all right—

"Of course, it's all right. Grace has struck an idea. Let her try her cunning on Mr. Fenton Bale."

So Grace Locker drove up the winding valley round to Acqua Dolce and called on the Bales.

She found herself in a long salon paved with marble, its windows opening upon a loggia all overgrown with vines and bougainvillea and Banksia roses. A little Italian garden lay below the loggia, with two fountains throwing plumes of water into the sunlight. The salon was full of fine old furniture; it was plain that Fenton Bale had money.

And then Lalia came in, dressed in a simple white dress with a red rose and a scarf of the same colour. She looked depressed and tired, for even her superb physique could not carry her through such a life as she was leading without betraying signs of strain.

The two women looked at each other interestedly. They were such utter contrasts—Grace Locker with her slim, fair elegance; Lalia with her rich and dusky comeliness and her sad eyes. They were attracted to each other, and Grace Locker knew how to make the most of such a tendency.

"What a lovely place you have here! Of course, you know its history. I have often felt that I should like to live here—in a house of actual romance."

"I suppose they were happy——"

"I have always heard so. I know an old padre who knew them, and he said they were like a pair of children, even when they had grown grey. I have come to ask you if you will do something for me."

"Oh!"

"We are getting up a fête for the Italian hospital; it is going to be held in the grounds of the Villa Scala. I am wondering if you would help me."

Lalia hesitated.

"I should love to, but——"

"Put the 'buts' on one side."

She seemed to force herself to speak.

"Mrs. Locker, my husband is an invalid—with queer whims and prejudices——"

"Well, let me ask him."

"You might try. I should love to help."

"I am quite ready to be importunate."

Her opportunity was on the threshold, for Fenton Bale came in, looking shrunken and yellow, a sloven who had not been shaved. He glanced sulkily at Mrs. Locker, and gave her a curt nod when Lalia introduced him.

Bale was not a promising subject, but Grace Locker attacked him with all her delightful guile. Very few men could withstand her, but Bale had become something less than a man, and this refined and clever woman seemed to irritate him, even while she was being charming. The brute in him refused to be fascinated, and in asserting its independence contrived to be insolent.

"I suppose it's a question of money, isn't it? All right. I'll give you a subscription—if that's what you want."

"It's your wife I want, Mr. Bale."

He grinned maliciously.

"Then you won't get her, ma'am. The fact is, my wife doesn't know how to behave, so I keep her at home, except when I go out myself."

Grace Locker flushed slightly. She glanced at Lalia, and felt humiliated for the girl's sake.

"I don't agree with you, Mr. Bale. In fact——"

He interrupted her rudely.

"What's that matter, anyhow? My wife's not going to swank round at your show, but I'll give you a hundred francs and leave it at that. I don't want to be in with the Villadoro crowd."

It was Lalia who rose with a meaning look at Grace Locker.

"You see," her eyes said, "he will only insult us both. He is quite impossible."

Grace rose also. She looked steadily at Fenton Bale, but she was too wise, too much herself, to squabble with such a man. He was what he had made himself, a shrunk and bedrugged thing, a rotten apple ready to drop from the tree.

"I cannot take money that is given in such a spirit."

He laughed, showing his teeth.

"Oh, all right. Then I save a hundred francs."

She shook hands with Lalia, gave her a compassionate smile, and walked back to the carriage.

But she was angry. Grace Locker was not the woman to be pleased at being balked by a little blackguard, even though he might not be responsible for his actions.

She had reached the flight of steps leading down to the iron gates when she heard someone behind her.

"Mrs. Locker!"

Grace turned and saw Lalia in her white dress, the sunlight striking through the olives and making a patterning of shadow all about her.

"I wanted to say I'm sorry. I couldn't help him being rude to you."

Grace's eyes lit up.

"My dear, of course I understand that. And really—I'm very angry with that husband of yours. I like you."

Lalia's lips quivered, and she seemed to be struggling to hide her emotion.

"And I like you—too. Somehow—you made me feel good directly I saw you."

"Well, see more of me; I should welcome it. Why let your husband tyrannise?"

Lalia shrugged her shoulders.

"He is not reasonable; it is impossible to argue with him. And if I anger him—I know that I shall be afraid—not of him, but of myself. I have to set my teeth and keep my patience. Good-bye, I must go now."

She turned abruptly and made her way back towards the house, leaving Grace Locker full of a new compassion.

"The little beast! Why doesn't he poison himself or shoot himself, and have done with it?"

But she was in a serious mood when she described her experiences to her husband.

"David Flemming is right," she confessed. "I am half afraid of something tragic happening at Acqua Dolce."

The same evening David Flemming heard the result of the attempt to rescue Lalia. He was sitting in the loggia of the Lockers' villa, with the lights of Villadoro strung across the bay, and Grace Locker a dim figure in white lying back in a cane chair beside him. Locker had been called out to see a patient at one of the hotels, an athletic lady who had broken her ankle on the steep path to Monte Cavallo.

Close to Flemming a big camellia growing in a stone vase was starred with white flowers that looked like snowy rosettes on a cloak of black velvet. The night was supremely still. They could hear the band playing in the casino gardens.

"What can one do in such a case, my friend? You cannot rush up, take the little wretch by the scruff of the neck and threaten to shake the life out of him if he doesn't mend his ways. Besides, I don't think Fenton Bale is capable of changing. He is just one of those wretched, fateful little figures that go bobbing through life, exasperating everybody and causing endless trouble. It's sordid and tragic and utterly puzzling."

Flemming was leaning forward, his hands clasped between his knees.

"Would one keep a leopardess and some miserable and depraved ape in the same cage? And yet we humans persist in such inhumanity."

"You cannot reason on those lines, David. We are not mere animals. There are some things that have to be borne, and sometimes we are the better for bearing them."

"The old moral, that because a thing is nasty it helps to build up character. Let's get down to the tragic facts. Do you think that girl can go on living with that little blackguard and not revolt? She is not English; she is prouder, cleaner than most Englishwomen."

"What do you mean, David?"

"Oh—well, she may kill him. That's what I mean."

Grace Locker raised herself in her chair.

"Then you, too, have felt that?"

"I have."

"And what can one do? I don't want to persuade you, my friend, into thrusting yourself into a tragedy."

"Do you know that she reminds me of Norah?"

"What—this girl?"

"Yes. There is the same impulsiveness, the same naïveté, the same psychical colour. Strange, isn't it? Something has been reawakened in me. It was as though Norah were alive and married to that little beast."

Grace Locker looked at him in the dusk.

"David, don't be mad. You may make things worse."

He answered her with quiet passion:

"No, I am not that selfish sort of scoundrel. But I am not going to stand aside and do nothing. Surely I can be a friend to her, a comrade."

"Oh, be very careful. Where do such friendships end—in many cases? No; I'm not an opportunist and a cynic, but people get hurt when trying to be heroic. And yet——"

"Well?"

"You must follow your own calling. The fact is, I like you, David; you are my very good friend; I'm quite a motherly person. Why not let things drift a little, and wait in patience?"

"Because," and his voice was solemn, "I am afraid of what might happen—while I waited."

When Flemming left the Lockers' villa he did not turn straight towards his hotel, but took the road that crossed to the old Roman bridge and led beside the river towards Acqua Dolce. He felt irresistibly drawn towards the white house among the palms and cypresses, with its garden full of the noise of running water and olive trees softening the grey walled terraces. Compassion possessed him, and something deeper than compassion. He was re-dreaming the dreams of fifteen years ago.

The villa gates were locked, but he climbed one of the rough walls and went wandering about the garden with its dusky alleyways and its turf walks between rose hedges and trellised vines. There was a light in one of the upper windows, but Flemming dared not go too near the house, though his imagination set that light in Lalia's room and made him think of her as wakeful and very lonely. He greeted her in his heart, this child of the south nurtured in London, Rome, Paris, and Vienna.

If Flemming gained anything by that midnight ramble—he gained a certain decision, and the sulky stare of the porter who had to let him into the hotel. Nor did the morning put an end to the night's mood. He took his artist's baggage under his arm and started for the woods on the hill slope above Acqua Dolce.

So steep was the hillside that Flemming was able to see down into the villa garden; in fact, it was set out like a toy stage below him, with its terraces and statues, its groves of cypresses, its rose walks and stone fish ponds, its little Grecian theatre partly hidden by the encircling mystery of the towering trees. Acqua Dolce had been a house of romance. Love had planned all those quaint and formal terraces, those fountains and pools, those secret paths through green glooms, that little classic theatre open to the blue heaven. Flemming found himself thinking of the woman who had danced in that theatre, that wonderful woman who had set half Italy afire.

And then he saw Lalia, a little white figure moving along one of the terraces where orange trees grew in stone pots. He saw her pause and bend over one of the pools, and then disappear up a stone stairway under a smother of roses. For a while he lost sight of that thread of white, but suddenly she appeared within the grey curve of the Grecian theatre. He could see her above and between the cypresses, a figure that moved to no rhythmic music, but a figure that went hither and thither restlessly, pausing now and again to lean against the balustrade and look up at Monte Verde and the woods upon the hills.

Flemming stood up and willed her to see him. And presently she turned and stared fixedly in his direction. He had chosen a place where he was screened from the windows of the villa.

For fully half a minute the distant figure did not move.

He waved his arm. She waved back. Then she appeared to be pointing towards the top of the cypresses, and Flemming guessed what he wished to guess.

They met at the low stone wall that shut off the garden from the woods above. A row of cypresses threw a mass of shadow here, their sharp spires motionless against the blue of the sky.

"I wondered whether I should see you again."

She was wearing a red camellia in her white dress, and the flower was the colour of blood.

"Well, I had to come."

Her eyes met his with perfect frankness. There was no guile in her attitude towards him, none of the self-conscious cunning of the feminine intriguer.

"You can trust me, Lalia. I should not be here—but for that."

She smiled at him.

"Trust you! Of course I trust you. I am quick in such things. Do you think I should have let you paint me that day on Monte Verde if I had not known instantly what sort of man you were? Should I have danced with you that night? Should we have talked—as we talked—down there by the sea?"

"Do you know—I began to live again—that night? We seemed to come together out of our two lonely lives. I want to know how things are with you."

A swift change came over her face. She rested her arms on the top of the wall and stared up at the pinewoods.

"I feel that I can talk to you as I might talk to myself."

"Talking helps us. You saw Grace Lockyer yesterday?"

"You sent her? I guessed it."

"I thought she might get you out into the life down yonder. She is a sort of queen in Villadoro."

Lalia rested her chin on her wrists.

"It was good of you, David. But, then—he is mad, and yet most horribly sane. It is like living with a cunning and malicious devil, to whom nothing is too petty or too monstrous. He is asleep—now. I am trying to be patient."

"I know."

"You must have no will of your own. Every maddening freak of his has to be humoured. It would be funny if it weren't horrible. One moment he is in an absurd rage about nothing, the next he is trying to be affectionate. Oh, my God; it is that which is so difficult to bear!"

She hid her face suddenly in her arms, as though ashamed and utterly humiliated. It was a mute anguish, poignant, silent, motionless. Her woman's pride, all the intimate delicacies of life were in voiceless revolt.

And Flemming was stirred to the deeps. This was no melodrama, no piece of play-acting, no pretty tale dreamed in a dreamer's brain. The figure in the white dress was terribly real, terribly appealing. He wanted to touch her, to feel his hand smoothing that dark brown hair of hers, to raise her head and make her look into his eyes.

"Lalia, I have got to help you—somehow."

She lifted her head.

"No one can help me. I have taken a fate and I must live it through. And yet you do help me."

She stretched out a hand and he held it fast.

"You can talk to me; tell me everything. I understand. I don't ask for anything. I'll just come here, and you shall talk. It is something to have a listener."

"But I don't know whether I shall let you come here. It will be utter selfishness on my part."

"Then I am guilty of selfishness."

"Yes, but you don't realise——"

It was Flemming who saw Bale's grinning face appear from behind one of the cypresses, and by an effort he restrained himself and did not let go of Lalia's hand.

"What the devil are you two playing at—anyhow?"

Lalia went white as her dress. She glanced over her shoulder and tried to withdraw her hand. But there was a touch of the divine madness in David Flemming, a spirit that rebelled at the thought of compromise or of shrinking from a crisis in which the enemy was so contemptible. He found himself refusing to feel embarrassed or to confess that Fenton Bale had any right to mouth at him.

"If you want to know the truth, sir, I came here with the express purpose of seeing your wife. She did not know that I was coming."

Fenton Bale flourished his arms.

"I like your infernal insolence."

Flemming put Lalia's hand away and, leaning over the wall, looked steadily at Fenton Bale.

"You happen to have a very charming wife, Mr. Bale. Other men realise it—if you do not. And supposing I were to tell you that I had just asked her to leave you—and that she had refused."

Bale stared at him, like a dog who has made up his mind to bite an intruder and is astonished by the intruder attacking instead of waiting to be attacked. His yellow face looked flat, inept and puzzled.

"Well, this is the funniest darned situation I ever fell into—anyway!"

He glanced rancorously at Lalia.

"Let's have no more of this fooling. I'm not the sort of child to stand it—see? I've lived in rough countries——"

Lalia turned to Flemming:

"Please leave it to me."

Her eyes appealed to him, willed him to go. The whole situation seemed so impossible, for there were no hidden generosities in Fenton Bale that could be aroused by rivalry. He was not sane; he was not even human in any reasonable sense, and Lalia knew him better than David Flemming did.

Bale's hand went into the side pocket of his coat; he was grinning.

"I've got something here that can talk, old sport."

Flemming seemed to hesitate, but a glance from Lalia warned him against meddling.

"Oh, run away, Mr. Flemming, or my husband will be taking all this seriously. What an innocent you are, Fenton, not to see that Mr. Flemming has been ragging you!"

She laughed quite merrily, and caught Bale by the arm.

"Good-bye. Next time please come in by the gate."

Bale had begun to mutter something, but that shrunken, bedrugged body of his was incapable of much physical independence. This girl from the south could have lifted him in her arms and carried him off like a child. She pushed him through the cypresses, laughing, and calling back to Flemming:

"Good-bye. It really was wrong of you to try and hold my hand."

Flemming did not move, but stood leaning against the wall and staring at the row of cypresses through which those two had disappeared. He had more than a suspicion that he had blundered on to the edge of a tragedy, and that the steel-bright thing that lay in Bale's pocket might have spoken with irresponsible violence. He had seen a momentary panic in Lalia's eyes. He realised that he had been at the mercy of a morpho-maniac's savage whim.

But Lalia! It was monstrous that she should have to live on the edge of a possible fatality. The man was irresponsible. He might shoot her, shoot himself. He was like so much dynamite, with a candle burning close by.

For a moment he felt tempted to climb the wall and follow them, but saner thoughts prevailed. She knew Bale, she knew how to handle him. He had only made things more difficult for her by trying to thrust a chivalrous sympathy into her life. And so he climbed back into the woods to get a view of the villa garden. No one was to be seen there save a man in bright blue trousers hoeing one of the lower terraces where olives grew.

All that evening Fenton Bale sat brooding in the loggia like a little yellow god staring at nothing with sullen and expressionless eyes. His face was a mere wrinkled mask. He neither moved not spoke nor took notice of anything. Coffee, liqueurs, his Russian cigarettes were left untouched on the ebony and mother of pearl table beside him. He just stared and stared like a corpse propped in a chair.

Lalia had brought a book and a reading-lamp out into the loggia, but he had repulsed her sullenly when she had suggested that she should read to him.

"Put that dashed light out. I don't want to hear that sort of twaddle."

And so they sat on together while the darkness fell, and the green leaves of the vines on the trellises turned black. Stars glittered above the mountains. They could hear the river in the valley rushing over its rocky bed.

To Lalia this silence became charged with a feeling of fatality. She could not escape from a strange sense of impending dread. The man in the chair had become a vague blur, but his grey face was like the dim face of a ghost. There was something frightening in his immobility, in his utter silence. She wondered what was passing in his mind, whether this mood was the last sinister phase of his soul's madness.

They had not spoken of the affair of the morning. She had just laughed it aside, and her laughter seemed to have dominated him, though she had caught him watching her with a kind of sinister and secret interest.

She yawned and stretched out her arms.

"You are not gay company, Fenton."

He did not answer her for a moment.

"Not like your artist friend."

"Why worry about that? Am I never to speak to a living creature?"

"Go to bed," he said laconically.

And she left him there sunk in his chair,

Lalia's room communicated with her husband's, but she locked both doors that night. She was brushing her hair when she heard him come upstairs, and she remained motionless, expecting him to speak to her. But he passed her door without pausing and went to his room, and for a long while she heard him moving restlessly to and fro. Roberts, his English servant, had been fastening the shutters and locking the doors downstairs. Bale was still moving about his room when she got into bed, but presently his restlessness seemed to come to an end. The sense of tension relaxed, and she fell asleep.

This sleep of hers was not to last through the night, and she awoke from it suddenly with a sense of clamour in her brain. Someone had been calling, calling, and the voice had tangled itself up in the bizarrerie of a restless dream.

She sat up, chilled, vaguely disturbed. For the moment the house seemed silent; a full moon was shining; there was no wind to rattle the shutters. And then she understood.

A sudden outcry came from her husband's room, and the voice was like the voice of a frightened child terrified by some dream. It was shrill, querulous and insistent, suggestive of panic.

Lalia slipped out of bed, put on a dressing-jacket, lit a candle, and went out into the passage. The childish outcry continued. She tried the door and found it unlocked.

"Fenton, what is it?"

"I'm dying—I'm dying."

She closed the door, set the candle on a table and sat down on the edge of the bed. For the first few seconds she was confused and not a little frightened, for he was breathing jerkily and tossing his arms to and fro, his jacket wide open, the muscles showing in his throat. She laid a hand over his heart; it was beating rapidly, but not like the heart of a dying man.

Her intuition helped her to sum up the situation. The man was hysterical—something had thrown him into a panic.

"What has frightened you, Fenton?"

He bleated the same cry.

"I'm dying."

"No, no, lie still; you have had nightmare."

He gave her one queer, half-cunning, half-agonized look, and then burst into tears. His hands came clutching at her; he dragged himself round in the bed and tried to snuggle his face into her bosom.

"I was choking; I woke up choking. I was dying—and no one cares. Why don't you send for a doctor? You don't care—you'll be glad——"

He clung to her, convulsed, pitiable, like a scared child. And the first spasm of repulsion quivered out of her throat; she held him in her arms—this little wreck of a man who sobbed and complained.

"There—there, I'm here; I'll stay with you. You're frightened, that's all. I'll stay here with you."

"It was awful. I couldn't breathe. You won't leave me—you won't run away——"

"No, no."

"I've been a beast sometimes. I'm so cold, I'm shivering."

She made him lie down.

"There—get warm. I'll sit here—and hold your hand. You'll feel better soon."

Hers was no affectation of compassion. She had no love for the man, but his terror, the very misery of his cowardice, even his pitiable selfishness, called to the woman in her. Some primitive instinct answered his child's wail. She laid a hand on his forehead.

"You've been dreaming. Doesn't that feel cool and soft? I'll sit here with you and you must go to sleep. Try and go to sleep. I'll frighten the bad dreams away."

Her presence seemed to soothe him, and presently he fell asleep, clutching her hand tightly so that she could not move without awaking him. She decided not to leave him, but to sit the night out beside him, and her compassion carried her through.

That vigil brought her new thoughts and a new inspiration as she listened to her husband's breathing, and to the rushing of the river over the rocks below. She had a vision of a further effort, of a further struggle to bear with this man. Life had meant a renunciation of all that youth desires. She would still strive to play her part, to humour him, to save him from his meaner self.

So the dawn came; yellow light slanted through the shutters; a mule team went up the road with a jingling of bells. The sanctuary on Monte Verde sent out a morning chime.

When Fenton Bale awoke he found himself holding Lalia's hand. For a moment he did not remember the scene he had made in the night. He blinked at her as though bemused and puzzled.

"So you slept after all, Fenton? I kept the dreams away."

"Slept! Did I call you up?"

"I have been sitting here for about five hours."

"Good Lord!"

She saw by his eyes that he remembered.

"I've been thinking, Fenton; thinking hard."

"What, all the night?"

"Part of it."

She freed her hand and went and opened one of the shutters. The morning sun poured in, and the white walls of the villa seemed washed by a sea of green.

"It is a wonderful morning, Fenton. The olives are all blue and there is not a cloud in the sky."

He lay there apathetically and did not answer her.

"Just the morning to start on a holiday. Why shouldn't we start on a holiday?"

"What sort of a holiday do you think I'm fit for? I don't want to go gallivanting about."

She sat on the window-ledge and the sunlight played in her hair.

"I don't mean an actual holiday, Fenton. Why shouldn't we make a new beginning—start a new bit of life? It's possible."

He pulled himself up in bed.

"What d'you mean?"

"We haven't been very happy—have we, Fenton? I'm ready to let bygones be bygones and to start afresh. Let us try."

"So I'm to blame, am I?"

"I never spoke of blame. Everybody has something to forgive. My quarrel is with that thing—over there."

She pointed to a little rosewood cabinet that stood on the top of a chest of drawers. Bale's eyes followed the pointing of her hand. He grunted.

"Can't do without it—now."

She went and stood facing him.

"Don't you realise that you have got to choose—to choose between me—and the stuff in that cabinet? Make a fight for it. I'll help; I'll do all that I can."

"It's no use," he said sullenly; "you can't fight against a thing that has become a food."

But she would not let him surrender, and she set out to make a last effort to save her husband from the curse of the crave he had created. Perhaps the man's better self shone out momentarily through the fog of opium; perhaps her pleading proved even more powerful than a potent drug. At all events she won him over, though he joined her sullenly like a man who misdoubted his own strength.

"All right. Chuck it away. The key's in my purse—there—on the table."

She found the key and unlocked the rosewood cabinet. In it were rows of little bottles, a pile of chip boxes, and a couple of hypodermic syringes in gilt cases. She gathered all the plunder in a fold of her night-dress, and stood looking compassionately at her husband.

"Promise me that is all, Fenton."

"Yes; that's the lot."

"I will make it up to you. I am going to throw these into the river."

In half an hour she was standing on a rocky bank above one of the deep pools in the valley. The stream foamed into it from above, but where the rush had spent itself the pool was wonderfully clear and the colour of green glass. She had brought a little bright-coloured leather bag with her, and she stood on an outjutting rock and tossed bottles and syringes into the water. She was very solemn over it, and her eyes looked sad; perhaps she doubted the permanence of her triumph.

Climbing back to the road and rounding the corner where the terrace wall jutted out, she walked straight into David Flemming. He was standing in the shade of an overhanging pine and looking up towards the house whose red roof showed through the foliage.

"You are out early."

She noticed at once how serious his eyes were.

"I was worried; I admit it."

"Yes, but I have news for you. I must not stay more than two minutes. He is waiting for me, and he is just like a child this morning."

She told him all that she had to tell, but Flemming's eyes did not brighten to hers. He, too, misdoubted the value of this victory.

"He has let you throw all his drugs away?"

"Yes. I mean to stand by him and help him to fight through."

He looked at her gravely, compassionately, for there was an air of sadness and resignation about her, as though she were none too sanguine, but had made up her mind to go through with it to the end.

"It's splendid of you."

"Oh, no, it's nothing of the kind. Perhaps it's despair. Good-bye. I must go. I'll—I'll write to you sometimes."

"I shall be down at Villadoro. Send for me—if——"

She gave him one look and hurried on as though she could not trust herself to say more.

"Good-bye. I shan't forget you."


Dr. Locker, driving along the sea-front of his smart carrozza, sighted a man leaning over the parapet and watching the waves playing over the rocks below. Locker ordered the driver to stop and, jumping out, crossed the footpath and leant over the parapet close to Flemming, but the artist was so absorbed in some thoughts of his own that he did not glance at the man at his side.

Locker looked at him shrewdly.

"Hallo! Leonardo."

Flemming turned sharply.

"Hallo! I didn't realise who it was. In a way you are opportune."

"Thanks. Get in and drive; I have to go to San Pietro."

They went bowling along the dusty road overhung by pines and ilexes and mimosa trees, with villa gardens on one side and the blue of the sea on the other. For a while they chatted about the Villa Scala bazaar, the tennis tournament in the casino gardens, and the expected visit of the English Mediterranean fleet. But this was mere dust so far as David Flemming was concerned, though he was shy with the shyness of a man who is fiercely in earnest.

"I say, Locker, I want to ask you something."

"Well, ask away."

"When a man who has the drug craving has the drug suddenly taken away from him, what happens?"

"Sometimes he collapses, even dies."

"Yes?"

"Or goes off his head and does something violent."

"That's what I thought. I may as well tell you the truth, Locker. Mrs. Bale has persuaded her husband to let her throw all the stuff away, and I tell you—I'm worried."

Locker was in a cynical mood.

"I shouldn't worry. He has another hoard hidden away somewhere. That is always the way. They are very cunning—the poor devils."

"Then you think he only made a pretence——"

"I'd swear to it. The only way to make sure that such a man as Bale does not get his particular drug is to shut him up in a nursing-home with people he can't bribe round him. I expect there is morphia hidden in every corner of that house."

"You may be right."

"My dear man, I have had to deal with a good many drug-maniacs in my time."

Flemming might be outreasoned, but he was not reassured. A peculiar restlessness took possession of him that day; it was as though telepathic suggestion were at work, beating a mysterious warning into his brain. Towards evening it grew more imperious, more suggestive. He dined as usual at his hotel, took his coffee under a palm in the garden; chatted to a couple of American women, and then broke away. Something was driving him up towards Acqua Dolce, something born of a restless imagination, or of a mysterious sympathy that no mechanical theory could explain.

It was a rare night; a full moon was shining, and the road lay white between dark walls and gardens. The mountains were sharp ridged and black against a sky of steel. The river running in the valley made a noise like thunder.

It took Flemming half an hour to reach Acqua Dolce. The white walls of the house gleamed between the palms, cypresses, and ilexes; the iron gates were closed.

On the opposite side of the road rose a grass bank topped by a few old olive trees, whose delicate foliage caught the moonlight and made a lacework of silver and jet. Flemming climbed the bank, and sat down on a gnarled root of one of the trees. He could see the upper windows of the villa; the shutters were not closed, and the moonlight played upon the glass. Here and there a stone figure on the balustrades of the terrace walks shone white amid the gloom of shrubs and trees. The river thundered below, but no wind stirred the leaves of the olives.

Was it a mere superstitious whim that had brought him here—a mysterious voice speaking in the air? He wondered. Nothing could have seemed more peaceful than this Italian valley, sleeping in the moonlight. It suggested no possible tragedy. And the sound of the bells ringing in the campaniles on the hills shivered through it with a thrill of mystery and of awe.

Flemming's eyes fixed themselves suddenly on a path that came winding down through the garden from one of the upper terraces. He thought he had seen something move there, gliding along the curves that were sometimes in the shadow, sometimes in the moonlight.

He sat at gaze, his face sharpening. The path ended in a formal walk along the terrace at the top of the boundary wall. A figure appeared there—a figure in a white dress, with hair black as the shadows under the trees. It was Lalia.

She threw a hurried glance up and down the road below, but she did not notice the man sitting under the olive tree, for he kept quite still, and his dark clothes merged into the outlines of the tree trunks. Flemming saw her climb the low wall, and let herself down by her hands. There was a drop of some five feet, but She landed lightly in the road below.

Flemming did not move. A kind of intuitive and tragic curiosity possessed him. What was she about to do?

Lalia did not hesitate. Some very definite purpose seemed to possess her, for she started up the road with quick, silent steps. She had come out barefooted—that was why her feet made no sound.

As she disappeared round the curve of the road Flemming sprang down the bank and followed her. He had realised with sudden vividness what this escapade of hers might mean.

Lalia had heard him. He had a glimpse of her looking back as he came in view, her face white in the moonlight. He shouted to reassure her.

"It's Flemming. I want to speak to you."

But she gave a strange cry, turned, and started running up the road away from him.

Flemming went in pursuit. He had been something of an athlete as a youngster, but he found himself being left behind by this child of the Pacific. Never had he seen a girl run as she ran—beautifully, like a wild thing, lissome and very strong. Her short, loose skirt did not hinder her, and her bare feet seemed to give her grip and speed.

He hailed her once more:

"Lalia—stop!"

But she paid no heed, and he saved his breath to make a race of it, a race that hinted as some tragic goal. He began to gain on her a little along one of the straight grey stretches of the mountain road.

Suddenly he saw her swerve to one side and take a path that led downwards through a plantation of olives. Flemming knew that path, and whither it led. Someone had built a rough stone belvedere at the top of a precipice that overhung the river, where a magnificent view could be had right down the valley, with Villadoro lying white on the edge of the sea.

He had been running like a man; now he ran as a desperate lover. It was to be a battle of wills, and of bodies. He was racing her for her life.

The path ran about two hundred yards before it reached the plateau overhanging the river, and Flemming was some thirty yards behind the figure in the white dress. Yet Lalia looked like beating him in that death race, for her bare feet seemed to give her a better grip.

"Thank God!"

She had stumbled and fallen forward, and the cry burst from him impulsively. But she was up again before he could reach her.

"Go back—go back!"

"Lalia—give in!"

She dashed on, with Flemming after her. He gained, and caught her at the bottom of the short flight of rough steps that led down to the platform.

"Lalia!"

She struggled with him, and her strength almost overmatched his.

"Let me go, David—let me go!"

"No—no!"

He had his arms around her and she tried to break his grip, her hair clouding in his face.

"Let me go—do let me go!"

"I cannot!"

She panted:

"I cannot bear it! I must kill myself before he drives me to madness."

"You shall not kill yourself; neither shall he drive you mad."

"David—I shall kill him."

"No. Give in to me, dear. I am stronger than death."

The despair seemed to go out of her quite suddenly. She surrendered, and he felt her limp in his arms. He had to hold her. Her arms went round his neck; her head lay on his shoulder.

"Oh—my dear—what shall I do?"

She broke down, and all her passionate soul seemed to dissolve in anguish. He held her close and smoothed her hair. He was touching a woman and a child.

"Tell me——"

She shivered.

"Oh, I was wrong. A devil seemed to seize him when he had lost his drugs. I cannot tell you, David. I cannot go on living with him. He fell asleep, and I seized my chance."

Flemming was deeply moved.

"Lalia, you and I are strangers to each other, and yet somehow you have given me back the will to live. Sit down here with me, and let us see what we can make out of this tangle."

He led her to the belvedere overlooking the valley. They could see Villadoro shining white in the moonlight and the river flashing and foaming in the valley below. Fleming kept hold of her hand, and held it so firmly that she smiled at him with her wet eyes.

"I shan't throw myself over, David. That mood has gone."

He did not let her hand go, nor did she try to withdraw it.

"We must face things, Lalia. You cannot go on living this life."

"But what am I to do?"

He was silent for some while, thinking.

"Listen to me. I happen to be fairly well off, so far as money goes. I am going to ask you to let me give you what you need. I'm not making a bargain; I'm not asking for anything in return. You must go away and live your own life, and I can help you to begin it."

She looked at him with shining eyes.

"But I can't take your money."

"Why not?"

"Because it is yours."

"Oh, nonsense!" he broke out passionately. "Of course you can take it. I'm not making any cad's bargain with you. What is money for but to be used, and I have more than I know what to do with. I might send it to a charity, or write a cheque for some relative I don't care twopence about. Lalia, you'll take it?"

"No."

"Yes. Because I shall know that you don't trust me if you refuse."

She covered her eyes with her hand.

"Oh, what problems! But to escape! Yes, I'll take it, David. I'll go to Vienna. I had friends there. I'm not afraid to work. I can speak four languages, and I could teach. But how shall I go?"

He thought a moment.

"Go back to-night; bear one more night there. Then to-morrow morning come down to Villadoro; I will meet you in the Casino gardens at eleven. I can manage things; you shall have enough to carry you along for the moment. Go to Genoa, buy a trunk and some clothes, and then go on to Milan and Vienna. Write to me from there, and I will arrange to have more money sent to you. Is not that very simple?"

She sighed.

"It sounds so simple. I will go back to-night and think it over. I promise to meet you in the morning and tell you what I have decided."

She rose, hesitated, and then looked straight into his eyes as he stood beside her.

"You have willed me to live, David. You have been very good to me. And there is nothing that I can do in return."

"But there is, Lalia. Go on living, and so helping me to live. A month ago I did not care whether I lived or died; in fact, I think I would rather have had death. But I do care now."

She laid a hand on his shoulder.

"And I care, too. Do you doubt it? Something sang in my heart that night when we danced together. But there, we must just be comrades, and I must be going back."

They wandered slowly through the olive groves, where the moonlight sifted through and made delicate patterns on the ground. Silence had fallen upon them—a silence that was intimate and mysterious. Now and again they looked into each other's eyes and smiled.

The road lay white and empty before them, with a black shadow falling across it here and there where a pine or a cypress intercepted the moonlight. They reached the wall where Lalia had let herself drop from the terrace below.

"The gates are locked."

"Then I must help you up."

An old fig tree hung down in one place. Flemming took Lalia in his arms and lifted her up till she could get a grip of the tree. He made a stirrup with his hands for one of her bare feet. She drew herself up, stood for a moment on his shoulder, and then scrambled to the top of the wall.

Flemming was looking at one of his hands.

"I say, you have cut your foot."

"Have I? It can't be very much. I did not feel it. I must creep in now. Good night."

She leant over to him, her hair hanging down.

"I trust you, David."

"Till to-morrow," he answered her.

She disappeared, and he stood there at the foot of the wall, listening, determined to stay there till he was sure that she had succeeded in getting back into the house. If Bale had fallen into a drugged sleep, well and good; but if the little beast——

He threw his head back sharply like a man challenged, for a cry came from the direction of the villa. He heard a man shouting angrily, and with a shrill and almost screaming self-abandonment. Another voice answered him—also a man's voice—scared and appealing.

Flemming made a leap for the fig tree, pulled himself up, and was over the wall like a man scaling a redoubt. He took the first path that showed in the moonlight; it led him uphill and towards the villa, and that was all he desired. And suddenly he found himself in the main way from the iron gates to the house, with a broad flight of steps going up under the shade of cypresses and firs.

A revolver-shot rang out, the sound echoing across the valley.

"Good God! he's shot her!"

Flemming ran on, and as he reached the flight of steps a man came blundering down them. It was Roberts, Bale's English valet, unnerved and in a panic.

He swerved to one side when he saw Flemming, and threw up his hands dramatically.

"Help! Help!"

"What has happened, man? Are you hurt?"

He stared into the valet's white face.

"No, sir. I was running for assistance, sir. He's up there with a revolver, and she's with him. He shot at me."

"Come along, then! Come on!"

Flemming raced up the steps, and the valet followed him, flustered and out of breath, but ready to follow when there was another man in front.

"Be careful, sir. He's clean mad."

"All right."

Flemming had reached the last steps leading to the main terrace in front of the villa. He came to a sudden halt, stood staring, and then turned to the valet and signalled to him to hold back, for Flemming had seen enough in that one glance to realise that any meddling would mean death for the woman whom he loved.

On the terrace Lalia and her husband were facing each other in the moonlight, the woman absolutely motionless, the man wagging a revolver up and down as though he were wagging a monster forefinger. Then Fenton Bale began to shuffle round in a circle, and as he moved Lalia turned also, but more slowly, so that her eyes never left his face. Flemming had crouched down so that he could just see over the top step. He knew that if he made a dash for Bale the fellow would fire at Lalia.

It was a dumb show that Flemming watched—a play of mutes in the moonlight—and yet he could size up the tragic horror of the thing, and realise how disastrously it might end. Fenton Bale had nothing to say. He just grinned, and went shuffling round and round with that revolver of his, possessed by all the cunning ferocity of his madness, determined to kill, yet gloating over the prospect, and holding his hand for a while. And Lalia kept pace with him while he circled round her, so that he had to meet her eyes and look into her white face.

It had become a battle of wills, silent and problematical. When Bale's back was towards him Flemming could see Lalia's face. There seemed to be no fear upon it, but a kind of intense and youthful vitality that challenged Bale's idiot spite and dared it to act. She held her head high and her throat showed, and as she moved she looked like a statue turning on a pedestal.

Flemming was in a savage dilemma. He longed to jump up, make a dash for Bale, and risk the consequences so far as he himself was concerned, but he had an uncanny feeling that the madman's first shot would be fired at Lalia.

The valet came crawling up behind him and started to whisper. Flemming silenced him with a jab of the foot.

For Fenton Bale had stopped his shuffling round in a circle, and was standing staring at his wife as though the clock of madness in his brain had struck the hour.

Their profiles were turned towards Flemming. He heard Lalia speaking.

"Put that thing away, Fenton. It does not frighten me."

He gave a sort of chuckle.

"I can see a little hole in your head, and there will be a bigger hole at the back to match it. Gosh! I can shoot; I could shoot the moon."

She went three steps towards him.

"I dare you to shoot me, Fenton. I am not afraid of you."

The devil of madness in him mocked her.

"You wait. I'll make a pretty white angel of you. Don't you hear the bells ringing?"

He stooped and leered at her, the revolver pointed.

"There's nobody here but you and me, no one at all. Isn't it quiet? We are going away together; I shan't stay behind you, my dear; I'll lie down and hold your hand. Then, bang, and I shall be with you again. I wonder whether it will be cold."

She faced him as though he were some wild beast that had to be magnetised.

"No, you are going to bed, Fenton, and you are going to give me——"

Flemming sprang up with a fierce cry, for he saw Bale poked his hand forward and a jet of flame start from the black muzzle. Lalia went swaying back, but Flemming's first business was with Bale. He made a wild dash across the terrace, and Bale, catching sight of him, stood faltering with an idiot indecision, the hand that held the revolver swaying like a bough in a wind. Then, with a gesture of impatience, he thrust the muzzle into his own face and fired.

Flemming saw Bale fall forward and crumple up in a heap, the revolver striking the stones. But when he looked towards Lalia; she was still erect, a white figure in the moonlight.

"Lalia——"

He went towards her as though he expected to see her totter and fall.

She stretched out her hands to him.

"Oh, dear God! I'm not touched. It went by me."

Flemming and the man Roberts carried Fenton Bale into the house and laid him on a sofa in one of the ground floor rooms. He was dead, with a bullet in his brain.

A couple of scared Italian servants were whispering on the stairs. Flemming spoke to them, told them that "il signor" had shot himself, that he would go down to Villadoro for a doctor, and that the best thing they could do was to go back to bed.

Flemming found Lalia sitting on a stone seat at the edge of the terrace. She turned a dazed white face to him, and her eyes had a shadowy and lost look. The place seemed strangely still, with the mountains clear and sharp under the full moon, the hillsides brilliantly lit or lost in deep shadows. Not a leaf stirred. The trees and shrubs might have been obelisks cut out of black marble.

Flemming went and stood beside her.

"He is dead."

She echoed the last words as though her brain had been numbed by the shock.

"Dead! But how strange."

"I don't want you to stay here, Lalia."

"Not stay here? Where shall I go?"

He realised how the tragedy had shocked her, that she was dazed, that she had no power for the moment either to choose or to will.

"I am going to take you back to Villadoro. I have friends there, Mrs. Locker; you remember her. She will be very kind."

Lalia rose like a child, holding out a hand to him.

"Yes, take me away from here, David. I will do just what you wish."

"I'll tell your husband's man."

He returned to the house and found Roberts waiting in the vestibule.

"I'm taking Mrs. Bale to Dr. Locker's. She ought not to stay here."

"Yes, sir."

"I shall ask Dr. Locker to come up to see the body. You will stay here, of course?"

Flemming and Lalia did not remember that the iron gates were locked till Roberts came running after them with the key. He had been somewhat officious and familiar as Fenton Bale's servant, but he had taken Flemming's measure and stepped into his proper place.

"Leave the gates unlocked and wait up for Dr. Locker."

"Yes, sir."

Flemming was never likely to forget that walk down to Villadoro in the moonlight, for Lalia took his hand like a child, and seemed to give her fate into his keeping. And all that is admirable in a man's love realised itself in Flemming's heart that night. Had his dead wife come back from the grave to walk with them, he could have looked in her eyes, and spoken: "Dear, you will not condemn me because of this child. She will give me much that I lost when you were taken from me."

The lights of Villadoro began to glimmer in the valley.

Flemming felt Lalia's hand stir in his.

"They will not be cross with you for bringing me?"

"You don't know Grace Locker as I do. Put such thoughts out of your head, dear."

She drew closer to him.

"I should feel so lost without you, David. My soul seems to have dried up. I can't think of things."

"Keep hold of my hand," he said simply, "and leave life to me."

Lights were still burning in the Lockers' villa when Flemming and Lalia came up through the garden to the stone loggia running along the front of the house. A chair had been left in the loggia, and Flemming made Lalia sit down there.

"Wait. I'll go and tell them."

He found Grace writing letters, and her husband rolling cigarettes. They just looked at him, and waited after the first words, for his face had news graven upon it.

"Fenton Bale has shot himself. He tried to shoot his wife first, but missed her. I wonder if you will go up to Acqua Dolce, Locker?"

Locker jumped up.

"Of course. Is he badly hurt?"

"He's dead."

"Good God!"

"I came really to see Grace. I've brought Lalia Bale down here. I'm wondering whether you could take her in?"

Grace Locker left her bureau.

"David, you are a man of sense. Of course. Where is she?"

"I left her sitting in the loggia. The shock has dazed her. She was worrying about being a bother to you."

Grace glanced at her husband.

"We can dispense with you, Jim. You had better run up to Acqua Dolce. I'll go to her, David."

Flemming's eyes thanked her.

"You see, I knew who to come to. She will want you, Grace. I'll walk up with your man."

"Yes. I shall be glad to have both of you out of the way."

She hurried out into the loggia where Lalia's white figure showed in the gloom.

"You poor dear, come in at once; come up to my room."

"David said that you would be kind to me."

"That shows that he is a very sensible man."

In half an hour Grace Locker had Lalia in bed, and had given her a dose of veronal to make her sleep.

Flemming was out early next day buying flowers at the little stall under the church wall in the market square. Grace Locker was taking her café au lait in the loggia when he arrived. She noticed his flowers and smiled brightly.

"Jim wants to see you. He's in the study. I'll take those flowers for you."

Locker had news for Flemming.

"That's a fine girl, Leonardo. She has sent us on a mission, though I fail to see why she should want to be generous to that beggar's reputation."

"What do you mean?"

"She wants to hide the fact that he tried to shoot her. If that valet has not been gossiping, and if we get in before the good Italian officials——"

"That's generous of her, Locker. Come along, we'll get hold of Roberts and persuade him to forget a few details. Bale shot himself; that's enough for anybody."

They started for Acqua Dolce together, and found that the police had not yet put in an appearance, and that the man Roberts was to be persuaded to forget that Fenton Bale had attempted murder.

"I've been with him five years, gentlemen, and he was generous to me—in his way. The drugs did it. God knows I've pitied his wife and I've pitied him. Well, he was mad, clean mad. It's good of her to want to cover it up."

Meanwhile, Lalia lay abed in a little room whose window overlooked the sea, that blue sea upon whose edge little white towns glistened. And between the blue of the sea and the blue of the sky the soft purple of the distant Appennines hung like a mysterious cloud.

But Lalia lay in a kind of daze, with eyes half closed, and her breathing hardly perceptible. The reaction had come upon her, and she felt weary with the weariness of one whose heart has been heavy for many a long month.

Her eyes looked at the flowers in the vase on a table beside her. Grace Locker had put them there, and Lalia knew that Flemming had brought them. She smiled, but there was a questioning wistfulness in the smile, for this lethargy of her brought with it a mood of doubt and of sensitive self-abasement. No doubt he pitied her, but then, she would not let him sacrifice himself. And a sudden fear of love itself seized her. She felt herself a child of tragedy. Supposing she brought unhappiness into his life?

Grace Locker came in and found her lying there mute, and still, and sorrowful.

"I wonder if you will see someone?"

There was a start of fear in Lalia's eyes.

"Who is it?"

"Why, the sender of those flowers."

She turned her face away.

"No—no, not yet. I'm—I'm thinking. I'm afraid of myself. It may mean so much to me—and to him."

Three weeks later David Flemming arrived at the little town of Felice, and, hiring a carriage outside the station, ordered the man to drive to the Villa Merula.

But Mrs. Locker was not at the Villa Merula when Flemming pulled the iron bell-handle. Yet a neat, black-eyed Italian maid seemed to have expected him.

"The ladies have gone to the Capo, sir."

Flemming's Italian was fairly serviceable. He asked to be directed to the Capo.

"Follow the road, sir, and take the first path on the left. It will take you to the Capo. You cannot miss your way."

In the midst of a thicket of wild rosemary he met Grace Locker, and her kind eyes lit up under the shade of her white parasol.

"I was coming back to the villa. I thought my letter would bring you."

She gave him her hand.

"What a friend you have been. How is she?"

"I left her there at the end of the Capo, under a big fir. Oh, she is happier, I think. There were days when she thought that she never ought to see you again—for your sake, not hers."

"I think I am a judge of that. May we come back to lunch?"

"Better still. I will make up a picnic basket for two, and send it out to you."

"No, you must join us."

"Very well. But I shall not hurry back."

She smiled as she left him to go upon his way.

The path ran under the wall of a garden that was smothered with passion flower, roses, and climbing geranium. The whole headland smelt with rosemary, and thyme, and the resinous pines. And in a short while Flemming came to a place where the path ended in a little plateau of grass screened by rocks, and shaded by two or three old pines.

Lalia was sitting there with her back against one of the trees, her hands locked about her knees.

"So I have found you."

She started round, her hands dropping from her knees.

"David!"

"And what a tyrant you have been to me. I had begun to wonder whether I should have to rebel."

He threw himself down beside her on the grass, and for the moment her eyes seemed afraid to meet his. She was breathing deeply, her fine throat quivering with emotion.

"It was Grace who persuaded me. She said she knew you so well, and that——"

He reached out and took one of her hands.

"Grace is splendid, but I can speak for myself. I want to forget everything but these pines, that bit of blue sea and sky, the foam down yonder, and you."

She turned and looked at him with grave and appealing eyes.

"David, do you mean——"

"I want you to want me. Why, dear heart, you can give me back life. I see colour, and joy, and sunlight again. You can teach me to work. You don't know what a hell of loneliness I have been through."

"I know. But am I the mate for you? Some of your good English think me half a savage."

"Oh, good God! let them think what they please. Am I asking for a little colourless, bloodless girl with no ideas beyond what is supposed to be nice and pretty? I want someone to share life with me, someone who is just a little wild and adventurous, and impulsive. What do most of the English know about you island people, you who are natural aristocrats? Look at the blue sea, and the mountains, and smell these pines, and tell me that we are not born comrades. Lalia, I love you, love you, and nothing is going to stop me loving you."

She looked at him with head thrown back, eyes half closed. And suddenly her eyes seemed to open and to fill with tawny light.

"I can't help it, David. You will have to take me. I'm a wild girl, in spite of Paris and Vienna."

"I want the surf child, the girl with the red flowers in her hair."

 
 
 

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