He clasped her two hands between his own. “Can’t you even think of it?” he urged, under his breath. “You know—you said—you’d have married me if—if—poor old Max hadn’t come first. I wouldn’t cut him out for worlds; but that’s happened already, hasn’t it? Surely there’s no one else?”
But Olga made no answer. Only the despair in her eyes deepened to a dumb agony.
“Darling,” he whispered, gathering her hands up and holding them against his face, “I’d be awfully good to you. And I want you—I do want you. Won’t you even consider it?”
A great shiver went through Olga.
“Won’t you have my love?” he said.
But still for a little she was silent. It seemed that no words would come.
Then, as he pressed his lips to the hands he had taken, something seemed suddenly to break loose within her. With a great sob she leaned her head upon his shoulder. “Noel! Noel! I—can’t!”
His arms clasped her in a moment; he held her close. “Dearest, what is it? Why can’t you?”
She answered him with her face hidden and in a voice so low that he barely caught the words. “I am—not free!”
“Not free!” Sharply he repeated the phrase. Suspicion, keen-edged as a rapier, ran swiftly through him. His arms tightened. “Olga, tell me what you mean! Who is it? Not—not that devil Hunt-Goring!”
She did not answer him, save by her silence and the convulsive shudder that went through her at his words. But that in itself was answer enough, and over her head Noel swore a deep and terrible oath.
Only a few yards away the lilting waltz-music was quickening to a finish. In a few moments more their privacy would be invaded by the giddy dancers.
“Listen!” said Noel, and his voice fell short and stern. “He shan’t have you! That I swear! It’s monstrous—it’s unthinkable! Why, he’s old enough to be your father. And he’s got the opium-habit. Max told me so. Olga, I say, haven’t you the strength of mind to refuse him? If the brute pesters you, why don’t you tell Nick?”
Slowly Olga raised herself, quitting his support. “I’ve promised not to tell anyone,” she said dully. “You mustn’t know either.”
“But, my dear girl, something must be done,” he objected. “You can’t let him ride over you roughshod. You don’t mean—you can’t mean—to let him marry you?”
“I can’t help it,” she said.
“Can’t help it!” He stared at her. “He really has some hold over you then? What is it?”
She was silent. The last crashing chords of the first waltz were being played. Noel got to his feet. His boyish face was set in grim lines.
“Do you want me to go and kill him?” he said.
“No!” She sprang up also, quickened to sudden fear by his words. “You’re not to go near him,” she said, “Noel, promise me you won’t! Oh, if you only knew—how much harder—your interference makes things! Don’t you see—I’ve given him my word to consult no one!” She was panting uncontrollably; her hands were fast closed upon his arm. “I refused him once before,” she told him feverishly, “and he—he punished me—cruelly. I can’t—I daren’t—refuse him again!”