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CHAPTER X
"IF HE HAD COMMITTED A CRIME"

Karine stood, as I said, perhaps a couple of yards distant from her friends, and their backs, at the present moment, were more than half turned to her. It would be just possible for me to speak to her, without being observed by them, if I were both extraordinarily cautious and lucky. At any moment Wildred, who had perhaps gone to rectify some vexatious mistake about a table, might return. If I meant to take the step at all there was no time to be lost in doing so.

Without giving myself a second for further reflection, and with the blood surging to my temples, I found myself, with a few strides, beside her. Mud-stained boots and trousers were forgotten. I would waste no time in apologising for my appearance.

What she must have thought of my pale and eager face, suddenly bent over her, I do not know. I felt that a great crisis in my life, perhaps in hers as well, had arrived, and my eyes must have shown something of that which stirred so passionately in mind and heart, for she started with a look almost of fear as she saw and recognised me.

She uttered no exclamation, however. If she had, Sir Walter and Lady Tressidy would have heard and looked round, and my one chance, so desperately snatched from Fate, would have been gone like a bubble that bursts ere it has fairly expanded.

Without one spoken word I made her see that she must come with me, and the quick realisation of my power over her, as she laid her hand upon my arm unhesitatingly, thrilled me to the very core of my being.

Most women would have refused to come, or at least questioned my sudden appearance and intention, but not so with her. She knew that I had something to say to her which must be said, and it was her will to hear it.

She had been pale as a statue of marble, as she stood leaning listlessly against the wall in her white dress, but as she moved away with me life and colour came back to her face. I led her down the hall to a small public drawing-room, and not once did she hesitate or look back, unconventional as was the adventure in which she was engaged.

Luckily, the place was empty, save for two elderly French women, who gossiped and gabbled with their heads close together on a sofa in a corner.

"What is it–oh, what is it?" questioned Karine. "Quick! there will only be a moment, I know, for they will see that I have gone, and will soon find me here."

Without any preface I came straight to the asking of the bald, crude question which was in my mind to ask.

"For the sake of–our friendship, Miss Cunningham, forgive me, and tell me whether you love Carson Wildred?"

She started and quivered almost as though I had struck her a blow, and her large, frightened eyes studied mine for a long second without answering. Then she said, simply, "No, my friend, I do not–love him."

"Yet you have promised to marry him?"

"Yes."

"And you mean to carry out that promise?"

"Yes, unless——"

"Unless what?"

"Something–happens to prevent me."

"If you do not love him something shall prevent. Let me help you. For heaven's sake, let me! Only give me an idea how it can best be done–I ask no more. I will teach you what such a–friendship as mine can have the power to do."

I hoped to give her courage by the passion and force of my words, but, strangely enough, the bright eagerness died out of her face as I spoke. In some way I had missed saying the thing which might have comforted her. If I had only known–if I had only known!

"You are very kind," she said, gently and sadly. "I am not looking forward to any great degree of happiness in my life, but I daresay, after all, I shall get on as well as most women. I don't think anything will happen to prevent–what we were speaking of."

"Why, is it to come so soon, then?" I questioned, impetuously.

"In six weeks. It was all arranged to-day"–with a soft little sigh at the end of her sentence.

"Tell me this: Are you in any way being forced into the marriage?"

"Not by people–exactly. Only by circumstances. I–I can't tell you any more, though, believe me, I am grateful for all you mean, and all you would do for friendship's sake." There seemed a faint ring of stifled bitterness in the last three words, though wherefore it should come I knew not. If she had resented the warmth of my "friendship" after our brief acquaintance, what would she feel, I dimly wondered, should I forget myself, and be coward and fool enough to tell her of my mad love on the very day of her betrothal to another man?

With all my strength I held my tongue under control, and heaven knows it was no easy victory, with those sweet eyes looking into mine!

"Tell me what could prevent it?" I persisted imploringly. "If you found that he was unworthy, would that——"

She half smiled, though without any mirthfulness. "There are so many degrees of unworthiness, aren't there? And I am not near enough to perfection to believe myself a judge."

"If he had committed a crime?" I went desperately on. And the words on my own lips made me start as though with a sudden revelation. I seemed to have assured myself of a fact which had actually taken place, rather than uttered a mere suggestion. The conviction grew within me that if Carson Wildred had not successfully altered his face and each characteristic of his personality, I should at once be able not only to remember, but to prove that my haunting half-recollection was intimately connected with some criminal deed done by him.

"Ah, then! But it is wrong to wish that he should have been guilty of any wickedness. I think, Mr. Stanton, that as I have promised to be his wife we must talk no more of this–you and I. I have always had a horror of disloyalty."

"I know," I said, "that I have done an unheard-of thing in thus stealing you away from your friends to ask you questions which only the most intimate friends could claim the right to ask, but——"

"Oh," she cried, impulsively. "Somehow you and I have bridged over years. You are good to me–don't think I will misunderstand. I shall always remember you, and–what you would have done for me."

"What I shall try yet to do, in spite of all," I amended. "I meant to leave England soon, but now–I shall stay."

"Yes–stay," she faintly echoed; "though you must leave me now. I–I would rather anything than that you were with me when they come to me. I will make them some excuse for having separated myself from them. Only go now–please go."

As she spoke, outside in the hall we heard voices and footsteps coming nearer.