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CHAPTER XIX
"NOT AT HOME"

I had a long, dreary drive after leaving the train, though in other circumstances I might have been charmed with the loveliness of one of England's fairest counties. As it was I merely chafed at the endless hill, up which the horse slowly plodded, half inclined to think that after all I should have done better to trust to my own feet or come on a bicycle from town.

The curtain of twilight was falling by the time my fly entered the long avenue that led to the house. Here and there lights shone out from the windows, and as the vehicle drew up before the door I caught a glimpse of something which set my heart throbbing.

It was only a ruddy gleam of firelight on a golden head, which shone for an instant in the warm light like burnished copper; only a rosy glow on a girl's white dress, a shimmer seen between the parted folds of dark, rich window drapings.

For a second, no more, the vision was granted me. A tall, slender form rose from its kneeling position before the fire, and in so moving passed beyond my line of sight. But my pulses leaped, and I rejoiced in the good fortune which had brought me at an hour when Karine was not absent.

I stepped quickly from the cab and would have given much for the right of a greater intimacy–a right to go to the window and knock, begging the girl I loved to let me in, to grant me the heaven of ten minutes alone with her, before the necessities of convention called upon me to ask for Lady Tressidy.

I imagined what it would be to have this right; I pictured myself tapping at the panes of the long French window, I saw the dainty girlish form coming toward me, the start of surprise, the flush which I might read as I would, the raising of the latch, and the two warm little hands held out to me in welcome.

But it was all a dream, vanishing as quickly as the rainbow colours in a bubble, and leaving only the darkness of the dull winter twilight behind. Such privileges were for a happier man than I: I was at best only her "friend." Never could I hope, whether success or failure crowned the effort I was impatient to begin–for more than that.

Instead I walked soberly up to the door and knocked, telling the cabman that he might wait–and wishing that he might have to wait for long.

Presently in answer to my summons a footman appeared (a fellow I remembered to have seen at the town house when I had called), and it struck me that, as I enquired if Lady Tressidy was at home, he eyed me more piercingly than a well-trained servant usually eyes a guest.

"I am sorry, sir," he answered with a slight hesitation, "that her ladyship is out at present. What name shall I say when she returns?"

"Mr. Stanton," I unsuspectingly replied, though it did dimly occur to me that the man might have left me to give him my card. It seemed almost too good to be true that Lady Tressidy should be away from home, for now I felt practically certain that I should have the unexpected joy of seeing Karine alone, speaking to her far more unrestrainedly than I could do in the presence of her hostess, and explaining in a way satisfactory to us both, my intended absence.

"I am sorry," I hypocritically remarked, "not to see Lady Tressidy; but I have come some distance, and perhaps Miss Cunningham would spare me a few minutes."

"I–I am afraid, sir"–still stammering uncomfortably–"that Miss Cunningham is away with her ladyship."

I was astonished at this piece of information, for I was absolutely sure that it was Karine whose shining halo of hair and white gown I had seen in that rosy space between the window curtains. Of course the footman might honestly believe that she was not at home; but I did not mean lightly to abandon the chance of a few words with her.

"I think you are mistaken about that," I boldly said. "Please be good enough at any rate to enquire."

The fellow's face reddened, contrasting unpleasantly with his powder, but he persisted in his story.

"I am quite sure I am right, sir," he went on more firmly. "Miss Cunningham is with my lady."

My impulse was to slip a couple of sovereigns into his palm, and insist that he should ascertain if Miss Cunningham were not after all at home, for I was beginning to be suspicious of a plot to thwart me. If such an one existed I could not think that Karine had been a party to it, for though of course she could not care to see me, in at all the same way in which I yearned for a sight of her sweet face, I believed that she would not wish me to be sent away from the house humiliated. My hand was moving toward my pocket, when suddenly I reconsidered. If I took such strong measures to secure a tête-à-tête with Karine, it might appear that we were in collusion, and trouble thus be made for her with Lady Tressidy and Sir Walter. I could not risk causing her uneasiness, especially as I was going far away; and with a pang I saw that I was in a trap.

There might be one way out, however, and I took it.

"I will wait," I announced, "until the ladies return. Or possibly Sir Walter——"

"Sir Walter won't be here for a day or two," promptly responded the man.

So thoroughly miserable did he look, though his manner gained confidence, that I thought he must still be new to a service which must foster a certain amount of conventional deceit.

"As for the ladies, sir, unfortunately they are not expected back this evening until–until the last train–too late, as you can understand, sir, to receive any visitors, as at all events they can't reach the house until after eleven."

I bit my lip with futile indignation against Lady Tressidy, and against Fate–never against Karine. It was evident that the footman had received the most stringent orders as to what he must do in case of so undesirable an emergency as a visit from Mr. Noel Stanton. He had probably been asked if he was certain of being able to recognise me again, had answered that he believed he would be so, but on suddenly being called upon to face the responsibility, had made his little bid for ascertaining my name as early as possible in the game, by way of rendering assurance doubly sure.

Of course the dutiful servant was not really to blame for following out his instructions to the letter, yet I felt that I hated his smug face and plastered head, and would have liked to frighten him with menaces and strange foreign oaths.

I dared not give him the note which I had written, meaning if necessary to slip it into Karine's own hand unseen, for it might easily be that, despite any bribe I offered, it would never reach the dear eyes for which it was intended.

"I will write a line on my card, then, to be handed to the ladies, whom I regret not having seen," I said with what dignity I had at my command. And stepping past him into the hall, despite a visible gleam of consternation in his eye, I deliberately took out a pencil and card-case, slowly scribbling a few words.

My hope was that if Karine was really in the drawing-room she would come forth, and the Gordian knot of the dilemma would be cut.

But having mentioned my imminent departure from England on private and urgent business, and added that, though I had been anxious to see Lady Tressidy and Miss Cunningham for the sake of bidding good-bye, it would be, more strictly speaking, only au revoir, as I intended returning within the next four weeks, I could think of nothing more to say. And still the drawing-room door, near which I was standing, was not opened.

I should have been glad to underscore the last six words, but did not venture to do so for obvious reasons, and could only hope that Karine might see them or hear them read, and partly understand.

I conspicuously placed a sovereign on the card as I gave it to the footman, remarking quietly that I would wish the latter to be delivered in the presence of both ladies if possible. Then I seemed to have come to the end of my resources, until a desperate idea seized me.

Had I not been virtually certain that Karine was to be kept from seeing me, without her own consent to such an arrangement, naturally I would have accepted my congé with a good grace, and gone away, a wiser as well as a sadder man; but as it was, and considering the importance for her future as well as my own, of a hasty explanation between us, I was ready to snatch at almost any expedient, not prejudicial to her, of obtaining a word with Karine Cunningham.

I turned from the door and got into the cab, which the footman politely opened for me as if only too glad to speed the parting guest. The direction, "to the station," was given, the gravel crunched under the wheels and horse's hoofs, the door at which I had been received so inhospitably shut me out of paradise, and no doubt the servant triumphantly watched me drive off. Half-way down the avenue, however, I thrust my stick from the window of the rattle-trap vehicle and stopped the coachman.

"I have forgotten something," I curtly said. "You needn't go back; wait here, and I'll return again in a few moments."

The fly was standing just out of sight from the house, and rapidly leaving it behind me I strode over the frozen grass of the lawn, taking a shorter cut than the avenue would have been.

In considerably less than five minutes I had once more arrived in front of the window through which I was as positive as ever I had seen Karine. Only a short time ago I had dreamed of doing such a thing as this as a delicious impossibility, only belonging to a world of romance which I could never enter. But here I was actually bent on the accomplishment of the deed.

The falling darkness had protected me, I felt confident, from being seen by anybody in the house as I crossed the lawn, and I approached with boldness, which only left me as I reached the window.

The curtain hung apart as before, and I could see the fireplace with the lights and shadows travelling fantastically along the polished floor and wall. The white irradiated figure was no longer visible, but undiscouraged by this fact I gently tapped, trusting that Karine might be in another part of the room to which my eyes could not reach.

If she were there my knock would startle her perhaps, and she would draw near in curiosity to see what had made the slight suspicious noise; then I could make my presence known, leaving apologies till later, and afterward–well, afterward the rest must depend upon her.

But I knocked once, twice, thrice, each time a little louder, a little more insistently than before, and there was no response, no sound, no movement. After all I was thwarted, and had but one comfort in the midst of gloom–I had not been easily repulsed, I had done what I could, and need not feel, when I was far away, that I had let myself be outwitted, outgeneralled, without an effort to resist.

Fate had decided that I must go to America without a word, without a look into Karine Cunningham's eyes; and drearily returning to my waiting cab I commenced once more the tedious drive to the station.

Never had I felt more utterly disheartened; for, after all, I could not be quite sure that Karine had not acquiesced in the order to exclude me from the house. It seemed that she must have heard my voice in the hall, that if she had chosen she might easily have contrived some means of seeing me while I was briskly taxing my ingenuity to reach her. I guessed at Wildred's powerful influence in the affair, and was ready to fancy others; but, as I was to learn long afterward, I brought forward every reason for Karine's mysterious inertness save the right one.