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Chapter XXVII

ELAINE appeared at dinner looking bright and refreshed, but her smile gradually faded before the other's nonresponsive mood, and gave way to a look of concern. “What is it, Bill?” Fear clouded her face. “Is it Dad?”

He shook his head. “No. … It's all right. … I'll turn in soon if you don't mind.”

Elaine was not satisfied. She looked at him intently, and her voice was subdued and vibrant. “What is it, Bill? Can I help you?”

He avoided her eyes and forced a twisted smile. “No … I'll have to work it out myself. Don't worry!”

“Bill! What did the doctor say? I mean … how long?” He looked up startled at the sudden change in the girl facing him across the table. There was a calmness in her attitude that astounded him, a sense of forearmed knowledge, a spirit prepared to meet the inevitable with staunch, unyielding courage.

“It's impossible to say. It all depends, Elaine!”

Her face clouded. She abandoned the pretence of eating and sat forward, her elbows on the table supporting her chin in her palms. Then after a while she spoke in low, tense tones as though the words were being wrung from her lips. “Bill … how long are they going to let him go on suffering?”

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The man stared fixedly at her, but she avoided his eyes, looking straight ahead, with a trembling, hysterical note invading her rising voice. “Can't they do anything? It isn't fair … this terrible suffering … and waiting.” Suddenly she faced him, her fingers tightened on his arm. “Billmust we let it go on like this! Can't something be done to help him? Billplease!

He turned pale under the wildly beseeching eyes that held him inexorably, demanding an answer. Then he slipped a hand over hers and held it in a fierce grip while his eyes answered her plea.

Bill retired to bed but, tired as he was, sleep came only in troubled snatches that failed to withstand for long the turmoil of his thoughts. He smoked cigarette after cigarette. Finally he rose, haggard eyed and nervy, and made his way quietly to the bath where he stood under the shower with the water pelting down on him. But even with the temporary relief that afforded, sleep was impossible.

Elaine's beseeching tear-dimmed eyes haunted him. The responsibility had centred more and more on him till he felt he could not escape. The doctor's bloodshot orbs saying plainly what his lips refused to utter—Atherton's sunken, weary eyes imploring him for release … and now … Elaine.

Yet first he must hear more from the sick man's lips. He must get an answer to his question. He was suddenly seized with dread that Atherton might die without regaining consciousness. At the thought he rose and dressed, casting aside all idea of sleep until he could set his mind at rest. Before leaving the room

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he drew his tarpaulin-covered swag from a corner, and searched carefully through the contents of a gaudy, aboriginal dilly-bag till he found what he wanted—a gold signet ring with an exquisitely-cut heraldic seal. He slipped it into a pocket and stepped noiselessly on to the veranda.

The night air was soft and warm, and the only sounds that intruded on the velvet stillness were the cautious chirping of some nocturnal insect and the plaintive, dreary call of a mopoke from the oaks on the creek. Then the querulous yapping bark of a fox, far down in the open country, tore a ragged rent in the silence. Down at the kennels a dog growled a sleepy reply, his chain rattling as he scratched himself. Then quiet descended again.

Elaine was seated in a big arm-chair beside the shaded table lamp. A book lay open on her knees, but her eyes looked far into space and the road they travelled was long and rough and beset with many troubles. The brave mask she showed to the world was laid aside. She was alone with her thoughts, facing the eventualities of a grim, cheerless future, and steeling herself for the impending sorrow.

From the shadows beyond the door Bill watched with tenderness the troubled eyes, the quivering mouth. He yearned to step quietly in, draw the lonely girl to him, and bury his face in the rich, red gold of her hair. But he was numb, powerless. He could not tell Elaine the things he wanted to, did not dare show her what he struggled to keep from his eyes. Her own eyes told him all he wanted to know—more than that—and the

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knowledge that should have made him feel a god, beat him to his knees like a remorseless flail.

So far he could not be certain, but Atherton's confession had so strengthened the early suspicions he had brought to Camelot that his lips must remain sealed until the matter could be settled beyond all doubt. It was just another grim trick of fate, and one beside which past reverses, momentous as they had seemed, faded into insignificance.

He admitted to himself that his primary reason in coming to Camelot was to obtain such a confession from Atherton as he had voluntarily made last night, and although there still remained some definite points to be cleared up, the result was almost a certainty. But instead of satisfaction at his success he was conscious only of a dark foreboding and a heartfelt wish that he had never disinterred the dark memory of the past or allowed it to shape the thoughts and confidences that had led to the confession.

Just when he had overcome what appeared to be the final obstacle that lay between Elaine and himself and had laid aside the lifelong bogey of his legitimacy, a greater insuperable barrier had raised itself between them, and so far, only he was aware of it. For a moment, he felt tempted to leave things as they were—to withhold his evidence from the unsuspecting Atherton. Elaine herself would never dream, never guess at the secret.

But he knew it was useless, impossible to leave things as they were. So far, what had happened was hard enough to credit; what remained to be done was even more so—it was fantastic. The task he had set himself early in life was almost accomplished. The end of the

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quest was in sight. It was too late to turn back now however much he might desire it. He must go on.

He waited with bowed head, composing himself, then shuffled softly on the boards till he attracted her attention. She looked up with a fleeting glance of fear, a look that persisted even when he moved quietly across to her chair.

“I'm going on watch!” he whispered. “Go and get some sleep!”

She shook her head vehemently. “I'm all right! You need it more than I do!”

“I've had plenty,” he lied.

“You haven't! You had none last night and now you've been smoking cigarettes all this night. I heard you lighting matches!” She rose and stretched her cramped limbs. “Wait here, Bill, and I'll make a cup of tea!”

When she left he approached the bed and peered cautiously at the patient. The skin had recovered that fine transparency that had appeared so disquieting before, and Bill turned away with a gloomy face.

Elaine was equally serious when he joined her in the lamp-lit dining-room, but each kept his fears to himself. He succeeded in convincing her that he intended to stay up for the rest of the night, and she reluctantly consented to go. As she turned to leave, her tired eyes gave him a warm smile. “You'll call me if … if I'm wanted!” Then at his reassuring nod. “Lancelot … you're a darling!”

She stood quite still, her eyes on him, and there was that in their frank, soft depths that made his head whirl, his heart pound suffocatingly. He wrenched his

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eyes away, waited till she turned, and the sound of her slow, wondering footsteps died away before he raised his tense, drawn face.

Atherton began to show signs of returning consciousness, but when his eyes did open slowly, they were clouded and expressionless, and it was some time before he recognized Bill. He signed for a drink and Bill supported the thin shoulders and held the glass to the pallid lips, then laid him gently back. He lay with eyes closed for a long time, then Bill turned to find them fixed beckoningly on him, and moved closer. The voice, at first a thin whisper, gained strength as it continued, and the young man listened avidly.

“Something … I want to tell you. It sounds almost … melodramatic. You remember the mock wedding ceremony … I told you about? Captain Kirk … met him in Sydney. … He was Colonel Kirk then. Recognized me … in spite of my different name. Kirk told me it was real. … He was qualified. … It was regular ceremony … under Scottish law. So Elaine and I … legally married!”

Bill collapsed into his chair. Above the wild whirl of thoughts in his frenzied brain, one fact was dawning with an intensity that threatened to swamp everything else … to give life a new aspect … if it were not too late. Then the other side presented itself with staggering force. If the first marriage were legal, what of the other? Was he to gain his birthright at the expense of Elaine! He bent quickly forward as the lips moved again.

Atherton looked up with the ghost of a smile. “I don't mind death … but dying is a painful business!”

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After a pause, he continued. “Remember the gipsy's prophesies? Some of them came true! Murray commanded his battalion in the war. His son … one of his own officers … was killed in action! Part of mine came true … pride and … the long journey. But I only had a daughter. … The gipsy was wrong … no son. I wish I had … to fulfil the prophesy!”

A spasm of pain crossed his features. Bill fumbled franticially in his pockets. Something still remained—something that had to be done.

When the sunken eyes opened again and remained clear, he leaned earnestly forward and held the ring before them with the heraldic seal in front, and asked in low, clear tones, “Do you recognize this?”

The invalid looked puzzled, then stared anxiously from the ring to the face of the man bending over him. “Where did you get it?”

“Was it yours?”

The burning eyes searched his frantically. “Is there a name inside?”

Bill nodded, turned the ring to the light and read … “Lancelot Atherton …”

That's enough! Never mind the rest! It's my ring … the one I gave to Elaine … when we were married. Where did you get it?

“From my mother!” Bill hesitated as he met the fevered eyes. All his life he had rehearsed this moment. The scathing words he would use. … The hot surging satisfaction of revenge he had lived a hundred times. But now that the moment had arrived he had no use for heroics. Here was a man—a simple, straightforward gentleman—ignorant of any wrong he may have committed,

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yet eagerly anxious to atone for the consequence. A parent he could honour and be glad to acknowledge. There was no bitterness but a ring of quiet pride in his voice. “Her name was Elaine Muir! And mine …” he paused significantly, “… is Lancelot Atherton Muir!”

His hand covered the thin wasted one of the old man in a firm possessive grip, and he smiled tenderly into the sunken eyes where hopeless bewilderment battled and alternated with flashes of incredulity and joy.

The thin lips moved as in prayer. “Elaine! Elaine!” Then a troubling thought awoke him from the slow enveloping haze and Bill bent low to catch the whisper. … “Elaine … my daughter. Tell her!”

Bill shook his head slowly. He had thought that out already, made his decision, and a queer sad smile twisted his features. “We won't tell her! I'll take care of her … like a brother!”

Neither of the men engrossed in the momentous turn of events was conscious of the tense figure of the girl framed dimly in the shadows of the doorway, taking in the scene with wide incredulous eyes. Not even when Bill's grim distinct words reached her ears, each one sounding the knell of all her hopes, each one a blow from which she flinched and would have fallen but for the frantic fingers gripping the door frame, until she stumbled blindly away to the sanctuary of her room. It was all clear now—but the clarity was that of a searing lightning flash that had wrecked the smiling valley of her happiness and left an aching tortured waste.

The old man lay silent, his eyes tightly closed. Then they opened and searched the other's face with an

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intent, beseeching look. The whisper was broken—almost inaudible. “The gipsy … my son! I'll be … glad of it!

And the younger man looked down, struggling to control his surging emotion, and nodded slowly and reassuringly before the tired eyes closed.

Then he turned to the thin brown tube and the shining plated box on the dressing-table for the last time.