By a Mere Accident
BY A MERE ACCIDENT.
By E. NESBIT.
HER fresh, fair face glowed like a pink rose between the dark lustre of her sables, and the frame of soft hair which repeated, with the softness of an echo, the sables' colouring of mingled brown and black. The white, wintry sunshine struck through the window of the railway carriage and made jewels of her blue, Irish eyes. Railway rug and Gladstone, muff and handbag were grouped about her. On the blue cushion at her side lay a sheaf of papers and reviews freshly reaped from the bookstall. On her green cloth lap lay a great bunch of violets.
"They will be companions," said the man who stood at the carriage door. "Don't let them talk too much, or they will bore you."
"Could violets possibly bore one?"
"These might, if they did their duty and spoke of me."
She laughed, but she did not look at him.
"Your boxes are all right, and your bicycle's in the van at the back, and here is your ticket. You are sure you prefer solitude? Your aunt will regret having allowed me to see you off, and your mother will tell me that I ought to have secured for you the travelling companionship of at least one tabby."
"I prefer the violets."
Here the guard locked the carriage door, the man stood leaning his arms on the window, and passengers passing along the crowded platform scowled at the possessive set of his shoulders.
A jar, a whistle, a flag waved, and the train began to shudder and to move. The man kissed the smoothly gloved hand that lay on the window and drew back. As he did so, another man came up the platform running with great strides, caught at the handle of the door, shook it, and as it resisted, leaped on the step of the carriage, amid the shouts of porters, and was borne out of the station clinging to the carriage door.
"The door's locked," she said from within.
The man on the step thrust a bag through the window on to the seat and felt in his pocket. Then he moved a couple of feet past the carriage door, unlocked it with a railway key, stepped into the carriage, and closed the door after him.
"That was a near thing!" he said. And now for the first time the fellow-travellers looked in each other's face.
His mouth grew stern. The pink faded from her face, and a greenish pallor crept up to the blue eyes.
"You!" she said.
He looked at her critically—raised his hat without speaking, and busied himself with the straps of his bag. From this he took a book, and in it read sedulously, never raising his eyes.
She watched him by stolen glances, met always by the defence of his drooped lids. The lids were broad and white, and she knew well what manner of eyes they covered. Eyes mocking, disdainful, yet capable of a rare tenderness—beside which the consistent kindness, the open worship of other eyes seemed hardly worth the having. A handsome man for the rest—big and broad-shouldered, and with the masterful air beloved of dogs and servants and women.
Grown bolder, she watched him now no more by fleet, snatched instants, but steadily, as the train rattled and swung in its gathering speed. She looked at the firm hands that held the book. A year ago those hands had held hers; she trembled at the memory of their touch. She looked at his lips—firm, smooth, pale lips, set in a thin line. A year ago those lips——
It was at this moment that he raised his eyes and looked at her. A hot blush covered her face and ears and neck. He looked at her for one brief instant—a faint amusement in his half-closed eyes—and resumed his reading.
"Oh, don't read!" she said desperately. "The train doesn't stop for hours. Surely you won't keep three hours' silence with an old acquaintance just because——"
He laid down the book at once.
"I beg your pardon," he said courteously. "You were so well provided with travelling companions that I feared to force the conversation of another on you."
His glance rested on her papers for an instant, and—for a longer instant—on the violets.
She laid the flowers on the cushion beside her.
"I am going to be married on Monday," she said abruptly.
"Christmas Day," he said smiling. "A thousand congratulations. A curious day, though, to have chosen."
"He chose it," she said, "and I could not——"
"He chose it? He makes the most of his privileges. And so you are to be Mrs.——?"
"I am to be Lady Leamington," she said.
"You are going to marry him?" The scorn in his voice stung her like a whip.
She raised her head proudly.
"I consider myself extremely fortunate," she said, and took up the Nineteenth Century.
And now it was he who watched her, with a gaze so fixed that she felt it in every nerve. Suddenly he shrugged his shoulders and moved to the seat opposite hers. She drew back her skirt, as if from contamination. Then he spoke.
"Of all the virtues, I have always supposed reticence to be the most admirable, as it is the rarest. I have striven to practise it. Therefore, when you broke off our engagement, I did not seek to justify myself. Pride may have been for something in my silence also—I scorn to deny it. I own that my pride suffered when I found that you could throw me away at the first word from a stranger."
She made a movement to speak, but he went on: "It was foolish, I admit; but, you see, I thought you loved me. You must make allowance for the other delusions that followed on that. The point is that I was not going to defend myself, since you—who ought to have defended me—if you had loved me, I mean, of course—set yourself as my accuser. But that's all over, thank God! I can now feel a sincere, if slight, interest in your welfare—as an old friend; and I think I ought to tell you the unpleasant truth about Lord Leamington, your fortunate bridegroom."
"I wish you wouldn't talk like a book," she said. "If you want to abuse my future husband, do it in plain English."
"I will," he said. "He told you that he found a girl in my rooms at midnight, and that her arms were round my neck. You asked me if this were true. I admitted it. You asked for no explanation, and I gave none."
"No explanation," she began angrily, "could have——"
"No—I know; but now it is different. I can't let an old friend marry that man in ignorance of the facts. He had arranged to call for me at twelve; I had an article to finish, and we were going on to the Somersets' ball. At about a quarter to twelve, I opened the door to a knock. It was not Leamington, but this girl. I knew her very slightly. She had lost her last train to Putney, or Peckham, or somewhere—would I help her? It was like a scene in a play, don't you know. I was Discretion absolute—left the door open—gave her wine and biscuits, and proposed to charter a homeward cab for her. Then came Leamington's step on the stair, and at that, as at a signal, she flung her arms round my neck. I should feel like a hairdresser's apprentice in telling you this, but I know now why it was done. It was Leamington's last cast for you; and he threw the double six, confound him!"
She looked at him with shining eyes.
"Is this true?" she said. "Why didn't you tell me before?"
"You never asked me."
"It is only your word against his——"
"After a few years of married life, you will be better able to judge of their relative values," he said, leaning back in his corner.
She lifted the violets to her face—the cool freshness of them was like a child's kiss.
"Charles," she said softly, and threw the violets out at the open window.
He smiled. "So he did give you the violets? And you believe my word, and not his."
"Charles," she said again, and reached out a timid hand towards him.
His face grew stiff and set.
"You understand my motives?" he said coldly. "I could not see any old friend married to a liar and a blackguard without a word of warning."
"I was only—I wanted to shake hands with my old friend—to show that he forgives me." She hardly knew what she was saying.
He touched her hand for a moment and let it drop.
"There is nothing to forgive," he said. "I had almost forgotten the circumstance till your face reminded me of it."
"You are cruel," she said, "and not even polite. Why haven't you punished him?"
"I punched his head," he said coolly. "One does not go further on such slight quarrels."
"You are positively insulting," she said.
"I think I meant to be. I beg your pardon. You should be flattered. Correctly analysed, my rudeness should show you that my vanity still suffers at the touch of a careless hand."
She looked appealingly at him and presently spoke—
"Charles, couldn't you forgive me? Don't you love me at all now?"
He smiled kindly at her. "My dear lady, all is forgiven—and forgotten!"
She turned her head to the window, so that he should not see her eyes. With a shriek and a rumble the train passed into a tunnel. The roar of it rang in her ears, and the tears ran down her face on to the sables. Two shrieks from the engine—the train quivered and shook with the sudden stress of the brakes. Then came another shriek, a crash—and—the biggest accident of the year, as the Northern express ran full into the rear lights of the slow local.
The first-class carriage where pride and love had fought lay battered and overturned on the up-fine. The deafening noise of steam, the clamour of voices, the wailing of children, the cries of women, rang out in the arch of the tunnel. But in the first-class carriage there was silence, and darkness, for with the shock all the lights had gone out.
Presently in the darkness a match spurted. He raised himself on one elbow and tried to drag his other arm from under the wood that imprisoned it. The arm was tightly wedged, and he felt that it was broken. He lit another match, his teeth set in agony, and looked round for her. She was lying quite near him, yet not within reach, all twisted up, a heap of dark cloth and furs. Her eyes were closed, and there was blood on the ghastly white of her face.
"My darling! my darling!" he cried, and with that he tore at his imprisoned arm to free it—that he might get to her—fought and tore till from sheer pain he went out of life.
When the sufferers were one by one drawn out of the wreck, he and she were among the last to be released. He regained his consciousness in the anguish of that release.
They bound up his arm and her head, and, clinging to each other, they tottered out of the tunnel by the light of the torches and climbed into the relief train. It was crowded with pale, bandaged faces and limbs swathed in white.
"I shall get out at the first station," he said, and his voice was coldly polite. "By the way, I didn't quite understand. Does your wedding take place on Christmas morning?"
She leaned a little against his uninjured shoulder, and so closely was the carriage packed that he could not draw away.
"If you wish it," she said.
"I beg your pardon?" he questioned courteously.
"Oh, hush!" she whispered. "You cannot go on pretending any more now. When you thought I was dead, you called me your darling. Do you remember?"
"You are mistaken," he said, but she answered with eyes that laughed at him from under the white bandage.
"Don't scowl at me. I am not a bit afraid of you. Nothing matters now I know that you love me. You will see—I shall have everything my own way. Dear, put the naughty, black dog up the chimney; I have no pride now—I am going to be your darling——"
Under the sables, her hand, in its torn, grimy glove slipped into his. He clasped it and: "You have exorcised the devil," he said softly, and her fingers clung to his.
"Say it again—now you know that I am not dead."
So he whispered in her ear in that crowded carriage the most banal of love's banalities: "My darling!" and then for a time they spoke no more.
It was at the first stopping-place that he said: "I had better come home with you and explain to your people the immutable nature of our intentions."
"Yes," she said.
"And you must telegraph to Lord Leamington. Writing won't do—a wire the moment the offices are open."
"And—my darling—Christmas Day is a very good day to be married on——"
"Yes, my darling!"