Thus, despite the bad beginning at Merriton Towers the weeks that followe_ere filled with happiness for Merriton. His acquaintance with 'Toinett_lourished and that charming young woman grew to mean more and more to the ma_ho had led such a lonely life.
And so one day wove itself into another with the joy of sunlight over bot_heir lives. He took to going regularly to Withersby Hall, and became a_xpected guest, dropping in at all hours to wile away an hour or two in
'Toinette's company, or else to have a quiet game of billiards with Brellier,
or a cigar in company with both of them, in the garden, while the sun wa_till up. He never mentioned the flames to them again. But he neve_nvestigated them either. He had promised 'Toinette that, though he ofte_atched them from his bedroom window, at night, watched them and wondered, an_hought a good deal about Borkins and how he had lied to him about his uncle'_isappearance upon that first night. Between Borkins and himself there grew u_ spirit of distrust which he regretted yet did nothing to counteract. In fac_t is to be feared that he did his best at times to irritate the staid old ma_ho had been in the family so long. Borkins _did_ amuse him, and he couldn'_elp leading him on. Borkins, noting this attitude, drew himself into himsel_nd his face became mask-like in its impassivity.
But if Borkins became a stone image whenever Merriton was about, hi_ffusiveness was over-powering at such times as Mr. Brellier paid a visit t_he Towers. He followed both Brellier and his niece wherever they went like _hadow. Jokingly one day, Merriton had made the remark: "Borkins might be you_actotum rather than mine, Mr. Brellier; indeed I've no doubt he would be, i_he traditions of the house had not so long lain in his hands." He wa_ewarded for this remark by a sudden tightening of Brellier's lips, and the_y an equally sudden smile. They were very good friends these days—Brellie_nd Merriton, and got on very excellently together.
And then, as the days wore themselves away and turned into months, Merrito_oke up to the fact that he could wait no longer before putting his luck t_he test so far as 'Toinette was concerned. He had already confided his secre_o Brellier, who laughed and patted him on the back and told him that he ha_nown of it a long time and wished him luck. It wasn't long after this he wa_elling Brellier the good news that 'Toinette had accepted, and the two o_hem came to tell him of their happiness.
"So?" Mr. Brellier said quietly. "Well, I am very, very glad. You have take_our time, _mes enfants_ , in settling this greatest of all questions, bu_erhaps you have been wise… . I am very happy for you, my 'Toinette, for _eel that your future is in the keeping of a good and true man. There are al_oo few in the world, believe me!…
"'Toinette, a friend awaits you in the drawing-room. Someone, I fear me, wh_ill be none too pleased to hear this news, but that's as may be. Dacre Wynn_s there, 'Toinette."
At the name a chill came over Merriton.
_Dacre Wynne!_ And here! Impossible, and yet the name was too uncommon for i_o be a different person from the man who always seemed somehow to turn u_herever he, Merriton, might chance to be. Sort of a fateful affinity. Goo_riends and all that, but somehow the things he always wanted, Dacre Wynne ha_nvariably come by just beforehand. There was much more than friendly rivalr_n their acquaintanceship. And once, as mere youngsters of seventeen an_ighteen, there had been a girl, _his_ girl, until Dacre came and took he_ith that masterful way of his. There was something brutally over-powerin_bout Dacre, hard as granite, forceful, magnetic. To Nigel's young, clean,
wholesome mind, little given to morbid imaginings as it was, it had almos_eemed as if their two spirits were in some stifling stranglehold together,
wrapt about and intertwined by a hand operating by means of some unknow_edium. And now to find him here in his hour of happiness. Was this close,
uncomfortable companionship of the spirit to be forced on him again? If Wynn_ere present he felt he would be powerless to avoid it.
"Do you know Dacre Wynne?" he asked, his voice betraying an emotion that wa_lmost fear.
'Toinette Brellier glanced at her uncle, hesitated, and then murmured:
"Yes—I—do. I didn't know you did, Nigel. He never spoke of you. I—he—you se_e wants me, too, Nigel, and I am almost afraid to tell him—about us. But I—_ave to see him. Shall I tell him?"
"Of course. Poor chap, I am sorry for him. Yes, I know him, 'Toinette. But _annot say we are friends. You see, I—Oh, well, it doesn't matter."
But how much Dacre Wynne was to matter to him, and to 'Toinette, and to th_ublic, and to far away Scotland Yard, and to the man of mystery, Hamilto_leek, not they—nor any one else—could possibly tell.
They went into the long, cool drawing room together, and came upon Dacr_ynne, clad in riding things, and looking, just as Nigel remembered he alway_ooked, very bronzed and big and handsome in a heavy way. His back was towar_hem and his eyes were upon a photo of 'Toinette that stood on a carve_ecrétaire. He wheeled at the sound of their footsteps and came forward, hi_ace lighting with pleasure, his hand outstretched. Then he saw Merrito_ehind 'Toinette's tiny figure, and for a moment some of the pleasure went ou_f his eyes.
"Hello," he said. "However did you get to this part of the world? You alway_urn up like a bad penny… . What a time you've been 'Toinette!"
Merriton greeted him pleasantly, and 'Toinette's radiant eyes smiled up int_is bronzed face.
"Have I?" she said, with a little embarrassed laugh. "Well, I have been ou_iding—with Nigel."
"Oh, Nigel lives round here, does he?" said Wynne, with a sarcastic laugh.
"Like it, old man?"
"Oh, I like it well enough," retorted Merriton. "At any rate I'll be oblige_o get used to it. I've said good-bye to India for keeps, Wynne. I'm settle_ere for good."
Wynne swung upon his heel at the tone of Merriton's voice, and his eye_arrowed. He stood almost a head taller than Nigel—who was by no mean_hort—and was big and broad and heavy-chested. Merriton always felt at _isadvantage.
"So? You are going to settle down to it altogether, then?" said Wynne, with a_dd note in his deep, booming voice. 'Toinette sent a quick, rather scare_ook into her lover's face. He smiled back as though to reassure her.
"Yes," he said, a trifle defiantly. "You see, Wynne, I've come into a plac_ear here. I'm—I'm hoping to get married soon. 'Toinette and I, you know.
She's done me the honour to promise to be my wife. Congratulate me, won'_ou?"
It was like a blow full in the face to the other man. For a moment all th_olour drained out of his bronzed cheeks and he went as white as death.
"I—I—certainly congratulate you, with all my heart," he said, speaking in _trange, husky voice. "Believe me, you're a luckier chap, Merriton, than yo_now. Quite the luckiest chap in the world."
He took out his handkerchief suddenly and blew his nose, and then wiped hi_orehead, which, Merriton noted, was damp with perspiration. Then he felt i_is pockets and produced a cigarette.
"I may smoke, 'Toinette? Thanks. I've had a long ride, and a hard one… . An_o you two are going to get married, are you?"
'Toinette's face, too, was rather pale. She smiled nervously, an_nstinctively her hand crept out and touched Merriton's sleeve. She could fee_im stiffen suddenly, and saw how proudly he threw back his head.
"Yes," said 'Toinette. "We're going to be married, Dacre. And I am—oh, s_appy! I know you cannot help being pleased—with that. And uncle, too. H_eems delighted."
Wynne measured her with his eyes for a moment. Then he looked quickly away.
"Well, Merriton, you've got your own back for little Rosie Deverill, haven'_ou? Remember how heart-broken you were at sixteen, when she turned her rathe_ayward affections to me? Now—the tables have turned. Well, I wish you luck.
Think I'll be getting along. I've a good deal of work to do this evening, an_'ll be shipping for Cairo, I hope, next week. That's what I came to see yo_bout 'Toinette, but I'm afraid I am a little—late."
"Cairo, Mr. Wynne?" Brellier had entered the room and his voice held a note o_urprise. "We shall miss you—"
"Oh, you'll get on all right without me, my friend," returned Wynne with _rim smile, and a look that included all three of them in its mock amusement.
"I'm not quite so much wanted as I thought. Well, Nigel, I suppose you'll b_iving a dinner, the proper 'stag' party, before you become a Benedict. Sorr_ can't be here to join in the revels."
He put out his hand, Nigel took it, and wrung it with a heartiness an_riendship that he had never before felt; but after all he had conquered! I_as he Antoinette was going to marry. His heart was brimming over with pit_or the man.
"Look here," he said. "Come and dine with me at the Towers before you go,
Wynne, old man. We'll have a real bachelor party as you say. All the othe_haps and you, just to give you a sort of send off. What about Tuesday? _on't have you say no."
For a moment a look of friendship came into Wynne's eyes. He gazed int_erriton's, and then returned the hand-grasp frankly. It was almost as thoug_e understood this mute apology of Nigel's, and took it at its proper value.
"Thanks, old boy. Very decent of you, I'm sure. Yes, I'd like to have a pee_t the other chaps before I sail. Just for old times' sake. I've nothin_pecial doing Tuesday that I can't put off. And so—I'll come. So long."
"Good-bye," said Merriton, rather relieved at Wynne's attitude—and yet, i_pite of himself, distrusting it.
"Good-bye, 'Toinette… . It's really good-bye _this_ time. And I wish you al_he happiness you deserve."
He looked into her eyes a moment, and then with a sudden sigh turned quickl_way and went out of the room. Brellier strode after him and wrung his han_hile the two that were left clung to each other in silence. It was as thoug_n unseen, sinister presence had suddenly gone from the room. The tension wa_ifted, and they could breathe naturally again.