His heart had begun to pump with painful hammering strokes. Not much of a fight this! Rather a grim struggle for life against a power he could not break. He braced himself again to burst that deadly grip. In his ears there arose a great surging. He felt his own eyes begin to start. By Heaven! Was he going to be squeezed to death ignominiously on the strength of that single blow? He gathered himself together for one mighty effort—the utmost of which he was capable—to force those iron arms asunder.
For about six seconds they stood the strain, holding him like a vice; then very suddenly they parted—so suddenly that Noel almost staggered as he drew his first great gasp of relief. Hunt-Goring reeled—almost fell—back against the wall of the bungalow. The sweat was streaming down his forehead. His face was livid. His eyes, sinister and awful, were turned up like the eyes of a dead man. He was chewing at his cigarette with a ceaseless working of the jaws indescribably horrible to watch.
Noel realized on the instant that the struggle was over, with small satisfaction to either side. He stood breathing deeply, all the mad blood in him racing at fever speed through his veins, burning to follow up the attack but conscious that he could not do so. For the man who leaned there facing him was old—a bitter fact which neither had realized until that moment—too old to fight, too old to thrash.
Noel swung round and turned his back upon him, utterly disgusted with the situation. He picked up his riding-whip with a savage gesture and stared at it with fierce regret. It was a serviceable weapon. He could have done good work with it—on a younger man.
Hunt-Goring made a sudden movement, and he wheeled back. The livid look had gone from the man’s face. He stood upright, and spat the cigarette from his lips. His eyes had drooped again, showing only a malicious glint between the lids. Yet there was something about him even then that made Noel aware that he was very near the end of his strength.
He was on the verge of speaking when there came the sudden rush of Peggy’s eager feet, and she darted out upon the verandah, and raced to Noel with a squeal of delight.
Noel caught her in his arms. He had never been more pleased to see her. He did not look at Hunt-Goring again, and the words on Hunt-Goring’s lips remained unspoken.
“Let’s go! Let’s go!” cried Peggy.
And Noel turned as if the atmosphere had suddenly become poisonous, and bore her swiftly away.
A few seconds later, Daisy, running out to see the start, came upon Hunt-Goring upright and motionless upon the verandah, and was somewhat surprised by the rigidity of his attitude. He relaxed almost at once, however, and sat down in his usual corner.
“I had no idea Noel was here,” she said. “Has he been waiting long?”
“Not long,” said Hunt-Goring. “I have been entertaining him.”