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   Chapter 5 LEAP YEAR

White Fire By John Oxenham Characters: 15272

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Kenneth Blair received Miss Arnot's note as he sat at breakfast in the pleasant room of the quiet little hotel overlooking the Embankment, where he was staying in company with Mr. and Mrs. MacTavish. He was to them as one come back from the dead, and they grudged every minute he was out of their sight.

The incidents of the previous night had been rather wearing on them all, and they were later than usual that morning, and, at that, dallying over an enjoyment that would soon be of the memory only.

The rare colour filled his pale face as he read the two lines of Miss Arnot's note, and he read them several times, as though frequent perusal might provoke interpretation.

"DEAR MR. BLAIR,-

"I have an urgent wish to speak with you. Will you do me the favour of calling here at 3 p.m. to-day?

"Yours sincerely,

"JEAN ARNOT."

"I wonder what she wants?" he said meditatively, and handed the note to the old people. "I don't think I want to see anybody."

"I think you must comply with her request, my boy," said Mr. MacTavish. "She has more than ordinary claims upon your consideration, you know."

Blair nodded, and winced involuntarily. It went a good deal deeper than the old man knew, and after last night he did not feel quite himself again yet. He had a morbid dread of hero-worship, and though the outward man was healed and shaping well again, the inner man still felt woefully sore and bruised and humbled.

"She was there last night; she sat about three rows from the front," said Mrs. MacTavish. "I wish you could have seen her face while you were speaking, Kenneth. It was like the face of an angel."

Kenneth had seen it, and nothing but it, and the thought of it made it none the easier for him to comply with her request.

He said quietly: "Well, I'll think about it, and see how I happen to be situated for three o'clock. I have to see Mr. Campbell at eleven in Moorgate Street. If he has any appointments for me, I might be unable to go, in which case I'll send Miss Arnot a wire."

But Mr. Campbell knew how short his time was, and so occupied as little of it as possible; and three o'clock found him at Miss Arnot's dainty little house in Knightsbridge, overlooking the Park.

He had hesitated-as an intelligent moth might flutter warily just outside the heat radius of a candle-flame-strongly tempted, desirous, but doubtful.

For she had occupied much, very much, of his thoughts-too much, he had angrily said to himself at times-since ever he learned the part she had had in the making of him. And quite apart from that, she was so very charming in herself. It could hardly be in the power of any man, he thought, to be much in her company and not have longings for still closer acquaintance and companionship-and such things were not for him. His way lay among the shadows of the outer night, and it must of necessity be, outwardly at all events, a somewhat lonely way. Companions he would doubtless have, and the best of all high company. But home, wife, child-these were not for him. In his mind's eye he saw the white beaches, and towering cliffs, and black bosky gorges of the Dark Islands, and the thunder of the surf was in his ear. And in his heart he said bravely, "My home, my wife, my children!"

But his thoughts were never far from her, and now that, in spite of himself, he was to meet her face to face, they gathered head and had their way in spite of him.

He had often wondered why she had not married. She was still young, of course; but, after all, twenty-five was not so very young for an unmarried lady of such unusual possessions of mind, body, and estate.

She possessed, he could well believe, an independent spirit. Had she not, even at thirteen, told him that one of her aspirations was to do as she liked?

He had recognised her instantly, and with a start, the previous night. That was before the drama became exciting. And he had wondered then if she had changed her name since last he saw her, or whether "Jean Arnot was still good enough for her."

And what could she possibly want to say to him?

Possibly-quite likely-in the excitement of the evening's proceedings she had felt an impulse to do something more for the mission cause than she had done hitherto.

That was it, no doubt. Well, they could do with Miss Arnot's assistance. Funds were never too ample for the work that cried aloud to be done.

He was evidently expected. The maid led him along the hall, through green baize doors, down a passage, into the library, a beautiful and cosy room such as he had imagined wealthy people might possibly possess, if, in addition to all their other possessions, they possessed a love of books. It overlooked the garden and the Park, and was as bright and secluded a little holy of holies as the most devoted worshipper of the sacred flame might desire. The Island Mission houses were-not exactly geographically perhaps, but in every other attribute and particular-the absolute antipodes and antithesis of this charming little sanctum. The walls were lined with bookcases full of richly bound books, the table was strewn with books and magazines, among which, and queening it over them all, stood a great night-blue bowl of white lilac, filling the room with the perfume of the spring. There was a cheerful little fire of mixed peat and logs on a flat hearth, with brass dogs and chains. A sudden whiff of the peat, as he passed the hearth, carried him in an instant back into his boyhood.

He glanced at the bountiful shelves, with the hungry look of the student whose pocket had never at any time been able to keep pace with his appetite. For knowledge of books is good, and possession of books is good, but knowledge and possession combined are still much better.

He was standing looking out into the garden whence the lilac had come, when Miss Arnot came quietly in.

He turned and bowed. He had made up his mind to hold himself tightly, but her welcoming hand drew forth his own, and carried his first line of defence in a walk-over.

"It was good of you to come," she said impulsively, "and I thank you. I know your time is very short, and you must have much to do."

"Yes, there is much to do," he said very quietly. "But I am grateful to you for, at all events, affording me another opportunity of thanking you in person--" But she stopped him with a peremptory little hand.

How beautiful she was, with her wistful face and commanding little ways! There was even more than usual of strenuous inquiry in those shining eyes of hers.

"You are going back on the first of May?"

Her speech was more rapid than usual. He saw that she was excited. Probably the remembrance of last night's meeting still held her, he thought.

"Yes, on the first of May. And then--I hardly think it likely I shall ever return to England."

"But why?" she jerked, in her old, quick, want-to-know way.

"Well-you see-I really feel as if I had no right to be here at all. By rights I ought to be lying under a cairn on the beach of Dark Island."

"Oh, but that is simply morbid, and the result of your long illness. You will not feel that way long."

"I hope not. The work is crying to be done. Perhaps, after all, I shall be able to help it more above ground than below."

"Of course you will. Don't you find it dreadfully lonely out there, with none but black people about you?"

"They are very fine people, some of them. And the loneliness only nails one the tighter to the work. Besides there are--"

"Has it never struck you that you might possibly help it quite as much by remaining here as by going out agai

n?"

Oh, Jean! Jean!

"Never," he said, with a slight flush. "My work lies there, and I hope to give my life to it, and to give it up for it if need be, as my dear old friend gave his."

"But there are others who could do the work just as well, are there not?"

"Many, I hope. I hope many will."

"And, if I understand aright, Missionary Societies are always short of funds, and the work is hindered, or at all events progresses more slowly, in consequence."

"I have my own views as to that," he said quietly.

"Won't you tell me what they are? I am greatly interested."

"They are not shared by many of my friends, and I do not obtrude them. I believe that the work is God's work, and when He sees fit to provide larger ways and means, larger ways and means will be forthcoming. If we had all the money we wanted, we might lose our heads, and go ahead too fast-scamp the work perhaps, and prove but jerry-builders in the end. One cannot forget that it has taken Christianity eighteen hundred years to arrive at its present position, and that for long periods it lay almost dormant; whereas, if the Founder had deemed it best to accomplish the work at one stroke, He could have done it."

"Yes," she said thoughtfully. "I don't think I ever looked at it in that light before. And you are quite determined to go back?"

"Quite determined-only too grateful for the chance."

"And nothing would keep you here?"

"Nothing that I can imagine-except absolute incapacity for the work."

"You would not stop even if"-and she bent forward, with hands tightly clasped to prevent them jumping visibly before him, and eyes that shone like stars. God! how beautiful she was!-"if I begged you to do so?"

He jumped up hastily.

"If you--? If you begged me to-what?"

And her bright eyes, fixed intently on his lean face, caught the sudden fierce clench of the teeth inside, which threw the cheek-bones into bolder prominence. She noted it-she could almost hear the grinding of his teeth; and the game was in her hands. She had the advantage of understanding what the game was, while he was completely in the dark.

He stood gazing down at her for a moment, and then said more quietly-

"I'm afraid I don't quite understand. Perhaps my illness has dulled my brain somewhat."

"No, it hasn't, Mr. Blair. I was asking you in cold blood if you would not stay in England and marry me, and use my money from here for the furtherance of the cause out there."

He stared at her still with all his great heart in his eyes-all of it that was not jumping in his throat like a baby rabbit.

He gazed down at her for another moment, then bent suddenly before her and took her hand and kissed it, and said huskily and in jerks-between the rabbit-kicks-

"You will think no ill of me-if I go-at once. I dare not stop--"

But she had gripped his hand and held it tight, and stood holding him, and her face shone and her eyes.

"Then-will you take me with you, Kenneth?"

"Take you with me?" Her rings cut into her next fingers under the fierceness of his sudden grip, and she could have sung aloud, for the grip came right from his heart and told his tale to her. "Do you mean it-Jean?"

"Surely."

And yet he had a doubt. You must bear with him. You see, he had been half inside the gates of death, and-well, the proceeding was distinctly out of the common run of things.

"Is it myself-or the work?" he asked almost fiercely. For the thought had flashed across him-and not unnaturally-that this was but one more result of the excitement of the meeting last night. She had been shaken out of her usual discretion and decorum, had probably lain awake all night, and--

But her eyes were steady as stars, and as bright, as she said-

"Both! But yourself first. I liked you the first time we met. I loved you the second. I have never ceased to think about you. Your going away left a blank in my life. After last night I love and trust you more than ever, if that be possible. Last night my way was made clear to me."

"Now, glory be to God!" he cried, and kissed the wistful lips that looked as if they had been waiting long for just that seal to the compact. And then he sat down suddenly and covered his face with his hands, as though what was in him was not even for her eyes.

She sank down on to a footstool beside his chair, and noticed how white his hand was compared with the great, strong brown hand which had held hers that day in the Greenock church.

He was himself again in a moment-or suppose we say he came back from where he had been-and his face was full of the old radiant glow as he raised it to look at her.

"It is real, isn't it?" he asked in a light-hearted, boyish way.

"I'm real," she said, smiling back at him. "You seem not quite yourself."

"Did you ever try to imagine what it would feel like to have every single desire of your heart suddenly granted to you all in a lump?"

"I don't think I ever did. It sounds as if it might be too much for one."

"It is-almost. And you wonder if it is real and true, or only a vain imagining. Jean, is it true that you care for me?"

"No-love you, Ken,-dearly-every inch of you."

"And that you are going to marry me?"

"If you ask me properly."

"Jean, will you marry me and come out with me and share my work?"

"I will!"

He gazed at her steadfastly, and said softly-

"Thank God! it is true!"

He enjoyed that full sunshine of felicity for close on five minutes, and then said more soberly-

"Do you quite understand, dear, all that you are giving up? Life out there--"

"It is enough for me at present to realise what I have gained. Can you not understand, dear, that to a woman the time comes when the heart's love of one man is more to her than all the rest of the whole wide world? Life touched its highest with me when you made my fingers bleed a few minutes ago."

"I made your--" and he snatched her hands and saw the tiny wounds. "Oh, forgive me! I did not know--" and he kissed them tenderly.

"Sweet wounds!" she said. "They told me more than all you have forgotten to tell me-all that I was aching to know."

"And you really care for me like that, Jean? For me! Is it possible? I wonder why?"

"Perhaps God had something to do with it. It is so very good that it must be from Him."

"Yes," he said emphatically.

"And now-when are you going to tell me that you care a little for me, and are not just taking me because I threw myself at your head and you could not help yourself?"

"Oh, Jean! Jean! you knew-though how I cannot tell. You have been shrined in my heart since that second time we met, but I knew it was hopeless--"

"Clever boy! And you hardly knew me then."

"I knew your eyes the moment I looked into them, and they have never left me since."

"Such common brown eyes! But you didn't know what lay behind them?"

"The most beautiful eyes in the world."

And by degrees they settled into quiet talk of the future.

He still feared she did not fully understand all she was giving up, and conscientiously endeavoured to make it clear to her.

She listened to please him, and because it was sweet to hear him, for all his thought in the matter was for her and her well-being.

So she let him go on; and when he had exhausted all his arguments, she said quietly-

"It is all nothing and less than nothing, dearest, compared with the rest. Where you go I go. Your work shall be my work, and your people my people, and nothing but death shall part us."

And with a heart that seemed like to burst for very fulness of joy in her, he said, "Amen!"

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