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CHAPTER VII
FRIENDS

It was all I could do to resist the impulse to take the small trembling hands in my own, to touch the bowed head with its glory of shimmering ripples, to break into passionate words which must have alarmed her, and put an end to my chance of winning her, perhaps for ever.

But to a certain extent I was able to control myself.

"What can I say–what can I do?" I stammered. "If there was only some way in which it might be possible for me to help you."

"Ah, if–if!" she echoed, desolately. "Don't you think it strange that, though we scarcely know each other–though this is only our second meeting, and quite by chance, I turn to you with such a confession? I am ashamed now"–and she impetuously dashed her tears away with a toy of a handkerchief. "But the words spoke themselves before I could stop them. You see, I have no one to talk to–no one to advise me. I think I must be the loneliest girl in all this big preoccu -2pied world."

"I should have thought you would have more friends than you could keep within bounds," I said, hotly.

"Friends? Has anyone many friends? I have plenty of acquaintances, but I think no friends. Let us not talk of this any more, though, Mr. Stanton. I have forgotten myself."

"Forgive me–I can't obey you," I protested. "Just one word. As you said, this is only our second meeting, and I have no right to ask a favour of you, yet I am going to do it. I beg of you, as I never begged anything before, that you will forget how short a time we have known each other, and that you will take me for a friend–a friend in the truest and best sense of that good, much-abused word. I swear to you that you would find me loyal."

She looked up at me in the sweetest way, with eyes that glistened through a sheen of tears.

"I believe that I should find you so," she answered, falteringly. "And, oh, how I do need a friend–though you may think me disloyal to say that, when I have a home with those who–have meant to be kind to me." Her eyes had dropped, but now she raised them again and met mine earnestly. "Yes," she exclaimed–"yes, I will have you for a friend."

"Then won't you begin by making use of me at once?" I pleaded with an eagerness I could no longer disguise.

"I–am I not making use of you now? Ah, I know what you mean! You mean I am to tell you the things which I have let you see are troubling me? But much as I need help and advice, could I do that now, so soon? You must already think me a very strange girl–half mad perhaps. Well, I have had almost enough of late to drive me mad. Some time, in a few days maybe, when we know each other a little better, I—— But the man is stopping. We have come to the doctor's you spoke of, I suppose?"

I neither blessed the cabman nor the doctor at that moment. Still less did I do so afterwards, knowing that, if we had not been interrupted then, it might well have happened that the whole course of our two lives had been changed.

However, there was nothing to be done but ascertain if the eminent man was at home, and able to give his attention to a somewhat urgent case.

The poor girl, too, was evidently suffering, and in a highly nervous state, and it would have been cruel, now that the opportunity had presented itself, to keep her for a single instant from the restoratives doubtless at hand.

Dr. Byrnes was to be seen. I introduced Miss Cunningham to him, described the accident, and left him to do what he could for the injured ankle. Afterwards I had still the joy of driving to Park Lane with her in anticipation.

I was only called when Dr. Byrnes was ready to send his patient away.

"Do you know what was the first thing that this young lady did before I had time to begin my ministrations?" he jocularly enquired, and though the girl looked up at him with imploring eyes, he persisted. "Why, she fainted away, and if she had to do it, she couldn't have chosen a more proper occasion. There I was, with all the known remedies at hand, and I proceeded to use them, with the most satisfactory results, as you may see. I don't think you will have any further trouble in going home; and now that she has been well dosed and well bandaged, the best thing she can do is to eat a hearty luncheon."

Once again settled in the cab, we were but a few moments' drive from Sir Walter Tressidy's house in Park Lane, as I knew to my intense regret. With wily forethought, however, I suggested going somewhat out of our way to the establishment of a certain bicycle manufacturer and mender, who would send for Miss Cunningham's machine, and repair it before the accident it had met with could be conjectured by those not supposed to know.

Try as I would I could not induce her to continue the conversation which had been broken short. The brief interval that had passed since then had severed the threads of intense emotion which had for the moment united us, and she, evidently repenting her frankness, was visibly ill at ease. It was only at the door that her manner warmed a little towards me again.

"Yes, I believe I am quite all right," she said, in answer to a question. "I shall not even have a suspicion of a limp." She held out her hand to me, and did not try to draw it away, though I grasped it rather longer and more tightly than conventionality might have approved. "You will come–soon–to see Lady Tressidy and–me?" she asked, softly.

"I thought of calling to-morrow afternoon. May I?"

"I shall be glad–very glad. Never shall I forget your kindness to me to-day. Don't think me any more–odd–than you can help. Good-bye."

Before I could begin to tell her how impossible it would be to think any save the most reverent thoughts of her she was gone, and a cloud seemed suddenly to darken my sky.