The old paralysing fear was knocking at her heart. She dreaded each instant to see the devil leap out upon his face. But as the seconds passed she realised that he was still his own master. He had flung down the gauntlet, but he would go no further, unless she took it up. And this she could not do. She knew that she was no match for him.
He was watching her narrowly, she knew, and after a few palpitating moments she nerved herself to meet his look. She felt as if it scorched her, but she would not shrink. Not for a moment must he fancy that those monstrous words of his had pierced her quivering heart. Whatever happened later, when this stunned sense of shock had left her, she must not seem to take them seriously now, with his watching eyes upon her.
And so at last she lifted her head and faced him with a little quivering laugh, brave enough in itself, but how piteous she never guessed.
“I don’t think you are quite so clever as you used to be, Nick,” she told him, “though I admit,”—her lips trembled—“that you are very amusing sometimes. Blake once told me that you had the eyes of a snake-charmer. Is it true, I wonder? Anyhow, they don’t charm me.”
She stopped rather breathlessly, half-frightened by his stillness. Would he understand that it was not her intention to defy him—that she was only refusing the conflict?
For a few moments her heart beat tumultuously, and then came a great throb of relief. Yes, he understood. She had nought to fear.
He put his hand sharply over his eyes, turning from her. “I have never tried to charm you,” he said, in a voice that sounded curiously choked and unfamiliar. “I have only—loved you.”
In the silence that followed, he began to walk away from her, moving noiselessly over the sand.
Mutely she watched him, but she dared not call him back. And very soon she was quite alone.
THE PENALTY FOR SENTIMENT
It did not take Dr. Jim long to discover that some trouble or at the least some perplexity was weighing upon his young guest’s mind. He also shrewdly remarked that it dated from the commencement of her visit at his house. No one else noticed it, but this was not surprising. There was always plenty to occupy the attention in the Ratcliffe household, and only Dr. Jim managed to keep a sharp eye upon every member thereof. Moreover, by a casual observer, there was little or nothing that was unusual to be detected in Muriel’s manner. Quiet she certainly was, but she was by no means listless. Her laugh did not always ring quite true, that was all. And her eyes drooped a little wearily from time to time. There were other symptoms, very slight, wholly imperceptible to any but a trained eye, yet not one of which escaped Dr. Jim.
He made no comment, but throughout that first week of her stay he watched her unperceived, biding his time. During several motor rides on which she accompanied him he maintained this attitude while she sat all unsuspecting by his side. She had never detected any subtlety in this staunch friend of hers, and, unlike Daisy, she felt no fear of him. His blunt sincerity had never managed to wound her.