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CHAPTER XVII

Miss Ricardo kept her word.

When Mrs. Haynes heard the plan, she would have bustled out into the garden to search for Nora, but Terry asked if she might go and try to find her. Permission granted, and a hint given as to Miss Verney's favourite lurking place, the quest was soon ended. The girl sat in a little Virginia-creeper covered summer-house overhanging the brook, which formed a boundary for the garden. She had a book in her hand, but she was not reading it. Her lashes lay on her colourless cheeks, but she was not asleep, for as Terry's light step set the fine gravel tinkling she opened her eyes and gave a quick glance about, as if for a way of escape. But it was too late. She was caught, and made the best of it.

The other day—the dreadful day—at Friars' Moat, she had felt Miss Ricardo's charm, in the midst of the misery with which she had been half dazed. The stranger's face had seemed to her then like a star, shining clearly through torn black clouds; still, the girl would have escaped now, if she could. In a moment, however, the same sweet yet powerful influence routed her wild desire to go. Terry sat down on the wooden bench beside her, and came straight to the point.

"This country is dear and beautiful, and my cousin Norman Ricardo's wife is very kind to me," she said; "but I have gone through so much in the short time I've been here, that I want to change the current of my thoughts. I've made up my mind to go to France for a little while. Will you go with me?"

"To France!" exclaimed the girl, her face lighting up with a sudden glow of joy and surprise. "I? Do you mean it?"

"Yes," said Terry. "Would you care to?"

"Better than anything I thought could ever happen to me. Oh, it would be salvation!" replied Nora. "But why should you take me? You hardly know me at all, and——"

"No, but I should like to." Terry smiled at her, a rather sad but very charming smile. "I'm not in a mood when travelling by myself has attractions. Maud couldn't go with me, even if I wanted her. And to tell the truth, I don't. I'm fond of her, but I want you. I don't quite know how long I shall stop; whether I shall return after coming back for the inquest, nor exactly where I shall go; but there is one place I want to visit—a tiny place. I was there when I was a little girl, and loved it. I've always wanted to see it again, ever since, just as when one is interrupted in the middle of a delicious dream, one always wants to get back into it again. You know the feeling."

"Oh, yes, so well!" sighed Nora.

Then come and help me get back into my dream. The tiny place I'm talking about is St. Pierre de Chartreuse. It's in Dauphine. A kind of fairyland, it seems to me, as I remember it. And if you, too, have a dream-place in France, I'll take you to it."

Nora shook her head. "I've never been out of England. We were always too poor. But to go to France—now, even for a few days! It makes me feel almost alive again, just to think of it."

"Poor child!" said Terry kindly. The dull ache had not left her breast, but her heart was very warm for the girl. She remembered vividly how things could hurt at eighteen, and how life could seem at an end. Not only was she willing to help this young creature for Sir Ian's sake, but for Nora's own sake as well.

Then there is no place where you would like particularly to go?" she inquired.

The girl's face seemed suddenly to sharpen. "Why do you ask me that?" she wanted to know, almost suspiciously.

An idea jumped into Terry's mind, but she did not look at Miss Verney, though she knew the big turquoise eyes were fastened upon her. She played with a bangle on her wrist, and answered calmly that most people who had not travelled treasured some glittering spot on the map of their imagination. Paris, for instance——"

"I should hate to stay in Paris," said Nora, but added quickly, "unless, of course, you wanted to be there."

"I don't," said Terry. "I should hate to stay there as much as you would. Paris is a place to stop in only when you are gay and happy, and want to be amused. You and I both need just now to be near to nature, and away from the things we have been seeing and thinking about."

"Oh, yes, if anything could make me better, it would be that," breathed the girl. "But—" she looked at Terry strangely, as if she tried to read her soul. "I daren't go with you if—unless I'm sure——"

"Sure of what?"

"I hardly know how to say it."

"I think you may say almost anything to me."

"Almost anything! But this—why, it is only that, if I go away with you, I mustn't be expected to talk about Friars' Moat or—or——"

"You needn't," broke in Terry.

"And—that isn't all. If you are asking me to go with you, just because you were a friend of—hers, and because you want to please Sir Ian, then I mustn't go on false pretences."

"False pretences?" echoed Terry. "I don't understand."

"How could you? I mean that I—can't be taken for their sakes."

"I will take you for your own and mine," Terry answered.

"Then I will go, so thankfully, for as long or as short a time as you like. But no—one more thing. I'm not fit to be with you, because you are a kind of angel, and I—I am a very wicked girl. I think I must be the wickedest that ever lived in this world, and the unhappiest. Now you won't want to take me for my own sake, will you?"

"Yes, I will, just the same," said Terry, smiling the smile that made people love her. "How old are you, my poor little child?"

"Nineteen."

"Not twenty, yet already the wickedest and the unhappiest girl in the world! Well, I'm not afraid of you. I'll risk the wickedness, and try to make you a little happier."

"You don't believe me, Miss Ricardo."

"I believe you think yourself wicked."

"Would you think yourself wicked if you had sworn to a lie?"

Terry's pulses quickened a little. She could not help guessing at the girl's meaning, though she would rather not have guessed. She paused before answering, knowing that Nora's eyes were fixed upon her. It was a painful pause, though brief, for all the woman's early training and convictions warred against her sympathy and pity for a girl sacrificing truth to protect her lover. At last she said, laying her hand on Nora's hand: "I think it would depend a great deal upon circumstances. I hate lies. As a rule they're mean and cowardly, and debase one's moral nature even if they do no harm to anybody but oneself. Yet—there might be exceptions, perhaps. I'm not sure that I wouldn t lie, to save a friend. Indeed, I'm afraid I would do it. I'm afraid most women would."

"Oh, thank you for that!" Nora's voice broke, but she caught back a sob. To hear you say it, is like—like being lifted off the rack. Of course, I've put myself in your power now. But I trust you. I know I can.

"Yes, you can," said Terry. "I believe we shall do each other good, by being together. And Sir Ian——"

"You're not being so good to me, to please him? You said it wasn't just that, didn't you? Because if it were, I simply couldn't accept your kindness, I can't explain why."

The dull ache in Terry's breast was heavier and harder to bear for a moment, at this hint of Miss Verney's, for something seemed to whisper in Terry's ear: "You see: you were right. He does care for her, and she knows it." But the woman's higher nature fought against the jealous pain, and tried to ignore it. "What is it to me?" she asked herself angrily.

"Sir Ian has nothing to do with it, now," she said, and then began to speak of the journey; when they would start; where they would stop on the way to St. Pierre de Chartreuse; what sort of clothes they would need to take.

"And you must have a salary, you know," she told the girl, "because you will be my companion, and——"

"No—no!" cried Nora. "I don't want money from you!"

"But you must take it unless you wish me to be very uncomfortable," Terry insisted. "I wouldn't dream of engaging a companion unless I gave her at least three pounds a week. I love to be exacting, and I couldn't be, conscientiously, unless I paid."

They both laughed a little: and when it was settled that they should start for France together the very next day, Terry rose, saying she must go back to the house. Mrs. Ricardo would be ready to say good-bye to Mrs. Haynes by this time. She took the girl's hand and pressed it cordially: then, when she would have released it, Nora clung to her. Evidently there was something she desired, yet dreaded, to say.

"Are you afraid of me again, after all?" Miss Ricardo asked.

No. But there's a question I—Do you suppose the—the police will let me go out of England?"

"Why, of course they will," Terry assured her. "They would have no right to keep you, even if they wanted to."

"You're sure? You know—you must know—they didn't believe what I said at the inquest."

"Granting even that that were so, there's no suspicion against you which gives the police a right to detain you."

"I hoped not. But I haven't dared to ask anybody till now, or mention the subject at all, except to you. It's such a comfort to speak! Still—supposing they should have me watched—even in France. Would they do that?"

"I don't think so," said Terry. "You mean—on account of——"

"On account of Ian," Nora answered frankly. "My Ian. They want to find him, you know, as—as a witness, because they believe I lied, and perhaps bribed people who saw him, to say they might have been mistaken. That's why they adjourned the inquest again, I'm sure. They think I met him in the woods—that day, and that I'm trying to shield him."

"Possibly some people do think something of the sort," Terry admitted. She did not ask, or even wish to ask, whether the theory were justified or no.

Yes. And so it came into my head that they might hope to find him through me, if I were watched. They might fancy that—we'd try to meet."

"It seems very probable to me, that if they are anxious to find Mr. Barr, they are looking for him now, and wouldn't wait to try and get at him through you. They would know that you would be very careful—in case, I mean, that there were any reason why he didn't wish to be found."

"There might be reasons which weren't bad ones at all," said Nora, quickly. "Ian is not a coward. I won't let you believe that. He is the bravest and strongest man I ever knew. Look" (with nervous fingers she unfastened two or three buttons of her muslin blouse, and pulled out an open-faced locket, on a thin gold chain)—"that's his portrait. Don't you think he seems worthy of all the love and all the sacrifices a girl could make?"

She held out the locket, and Terry took it in her hand. She had thought a good deal about Ian Barr and his story, trying to call up a picture of the young man and now she looked at his photograph with great interest. Somehow she felt pleased to find that he was not unlike what she had imagined him to be.

He was evidently very dark, with black hair which would have been inclined to curl, had he not kept it cut very short. Black, clearly marked brows were drawn straight and low over the large dark eyes, which, even in the photograph, seemed passionate and full of fire like those of a Spaniard. The face was clean shaven; the nose fine and aquiline, not unlike Sir Ian Hereward's, the mouth and chin singularly firm. Ian Barr's Irish mother had had little to give a son except her beauty, and of that she had given much. There was no legacy from the Herewards in the dark, handsome face, except the shape of the nose and the firm set of the jaw.

Teresina Ricardo felt a new stirring of sympathy in her heart for the young man. Sometimes, in spite of herself, she had wished that Ian Barr's guilt could be proved, because in that case his cousin Ian Hereward would be exonerated, freed from the dreadful slavery of suspicion. It was a terrible wish, cruel, and selfish, too, in a way. Terry knew that, and hated it; yet again and again it had come, notwithstanding her interest in Nora Verney and her puzzled pity for the girl. But looking at Ian Barr's picture, in the gold locket warm from the warmth of Nora's bosom, Terry felt the cruel wish exorcised as if it had been a wicked bewitchment. Barr might be guilty; but a man with a face like that would kill only in a moment of blind passion. It was impossible to believe that he could commit a premeditated crime.

"Yes, you are right," she told Nora. "He is brave and strong."

"I love him," exclaimed the girl. "And there is nothing I wouldn't do to help him."