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CHAPTER IX
TOO LATE!

"Too late!" the words that Karine had just spoken echoed in my ears like a knell of doom.

For a few tremendous seconds that seemed endless I stood paralysed by Lady Tressidy's announcement, unable to speak. Then I turned and looked at Karine. Her eyes seemed to have been waiting for mine, and for an instant I held them with my gaze, until they fell, and veiled the answer mine had asked, with long shadowy lashes.

Never, I thought, as my thirsty eyes drank in the beauty that was not for me, could there have been another woman so wholly lovely, so altogether desirable. I could have fallen on my knees before her, to touch the hem of her dainty gown with my lips, and cry out my love and longing for her. But instead I was called upon to say something civil, and therefore hypocritical, to the newly-engaged pair, and then, as soon as decency would permit my escape, to go out from her presence for ever, and face the black loneliness of my darkened life.

Only a few days had passed since first I had seen the beauty of her face, but already she dominated my every thought, and I knew that there was no hope of surcease from the aching pain of having lost her.

Had I been obliged to stand by and see her give herself to any other man than Carson Wildred, it seemed to me that the blow would have been more bearable. But with my almost unreasoning aversion for and distrust of him, the thought of a marriage between these two was like the sacrifice of fair virgins to the foul, blood-dripping jaws of the mythical Minotaur.

Slight as was our actual acquaintance, when measured by mere time, it appeared the maddest conceit on my part to believe for a moment that had I come earlier into her life I might have made a difference. But, mad as it was, I did so believe. Some voice within me, which would not be stilled or brook contradiction, cried aloud that I might have won her love, that she might have been mine, that only some devilish tangle of circumstances had circumvented the fate which originally had meant that we two should be all in all to one another.

It was perhaps the hardest task I had ever been forced to perform when after that ominous pause, which doubtless seemed far more prolonged to me than to the others, I held out my hand, as I was expected to do, taking Miss Cunningham's ice-cold fingers in mine, and wishing her happiness.

Then I was obliged to turn to Wildred, in whose eyes I saw, or fancied I saw, a malicious light of comprehension and triumphant defiance. But his hand I would not take.

"It is hardly necessary to congratulate you," I said haltingly. "You are one of the most fortunate men in the world."

"And the most undeserving?" It was he who added the words, as though he had read them in my own mind; and there was a slight, sarcastic rising inflection of the voice at the end of the sentence, as if he put it to me as a question.

Of course, I vouchsafed him no answer, unless he found it in my eyes, which have ever been telltales. But in that moment I would have laid down my life could I have wrenched from my memory that episode of his history, the secret of which it mercilessly withheld from me.

I have a dim recollection of saying something more or less conventional to Sir Walter and Lady Tressidy, and then, at last, I got away.

I had fancied that not to have her face before my eyes, that not to endure the pang of seeing them together, and to escape into the open air, would relieve the tension of my feelings. But it was not so. The moment the door had closed behind me the agony of the thought that I had seen her perhaps for the last time, and the poignancy of my regret that I had not been able to put to her one question which rang in my brain, became well-nigh unendurable.

I walked rapidly away from the house, telling myself that the best thing for me would be to leave England again at once. I had been a fool to fancy myself homesick, and to come back–to this. So far my life had been lived contentedly enough apart from the influence or love of women. What strange weakness of the soul had seized me that I should thus have yielded without a struggle to a single glance from a pair of violet eyes?

Yes, assuredly the sooner I got away the better. There had been nothing save a restless desire for home to bring me to my native land. There was less than nothing to keep me there.

Never to see her again–never again! I believed that my mind was made up, and yet I think I would have cut off my hand for the chance of one more moment with her–one more glimpse of her face to take away across the sea, even though she neither saw nor spoke to me.

I walked aimlessly in the darkness, knowing not and caring not where I went. I heard a clock strike eight, realising suddenly that I was far from my hotel, and that I had wearied myself uselessly.

I must write some letters that night, crying off two or three engagements that I had been foolish enough to make, and explaining that I had been suddenly and unexpectedly called away. As I had walked I had made up my mind whither I would go. India would be rather good at this time of year, I thought, and I had always promised myself, when I should find the leisure, to make certain explorations. There had also been an idea smouldering in my mind for a year or two that with my knowledge of the language, and a proper disguise, it might be possible for me to push my way into the jealously guarded Thibet. Now was the very moment for some such experiments as these.

I hailed a cab and drove back to the Savoy, from a distant and more or less (to me) unknown region of London. Try as I might to keep my thoughts from the one absorbing topic by dwelling upon the plans for the future, the effort was useless. Karine's face was before me, and again and again I heard her words, which might have meant so much or so little, "Many things in my life–even my friends sometimes–have come to me too late."

As I entered the hotel, my eyes dazzled by the sudden brilliant light, I could hardly for an instant believe that it was not an optical illusion when I saw in the flesh the face which had been haunting me.

But it was indeed she; there was no doubting that. People were coming into the Savoy for dinner, now so fashionable a way of passing the deadly dull London Sunday evening, and in a moment I had guessed that she and her party were of the number. I had even an impression of a sentence begun by Lady Tressidy that afternoon, which would doubtless have ended with the information that she and the others were dining at my hotel in the evening, had she not been interrupted, and so forgotten, as I had done.

There had been a dreary drizzle of rain outside, and I was conscious that my long wanderings through muddy streets had rendered me unpresentable. Still, my wish had been granted me. There stood Karine Cunningham, in white from head to foot; a long soft evening cloak, with shining silver threads straying over its snowy surface, hung loosely about her, for she had fastened it at the throat, and I could see a gleam of bare neck, hung with a rope of pearls, and the delicate folds of chiffon belted in with jewels at her girlish waist.

Her head was turned aside and slightly bent, a light from above streaming down on her uncovered hair, and transforming the copper into gold.

Sir Walter and Lady Tressidy were close by–not six feet away–and all were evidently waiting for someone–Carson Wildred, no doubt, I bitterly told myself.

None of the party had as yet seen me. Sir Walter and his wife were talking very earnestly together, and had perhaps moved a few steps from the young girl that their words might not be overheard by her.

I knew that, if I were wise, I would at once take myself off without announcing my presence, but a sudden impulse seized and overmastered me. It was a desperate one, doubtless, but none the less alluring and powerful because of that.