That feeling at the back of her mind had grown to a definite sensation that she could not longer ignore or trample into insignificance. She was horribly afraid of that silent man with his gloomy, inscrutable eyes. His look frightened, almost terrified her. She felt like a trapped creature that lies quaking in the grass, listening to the coming footsteps of its captor.
In a vague way Jerry was aware of her inquietude, and when they rose at length to leave their secluded corner, he turned and spoke with a certain blunt chivalry that did him credit.
“I say, Nan, if things get unbearable, you’ll promise to let me know? I’ll do anything to help you, you know—anything under the sun.”
And Nan squeezed his arm tightly in acknowledgment, though she made no verbal answer.
Amid a crowd of departing dancers they came face to face with Piet. He was standing in an attitude of immense patience near the door. Very quietly he addressed her.
“Colonel Everard and your sisters have gone. The motor is waiting to take you when you are ready.”
She started back sharply. Her nerves were on edge, and the news was a shock. Her hand was still on Jerry’s arm. Impulsively she turned to him.
“I haven’t had nearly enough yet,” she declared. “Come along, Jerry! Let’s dance to the bitter end!”
Jerry took her at her word on the instant, and began to thread the way back to the ballroom. But before they reached it a quiet hand fastened upon his shoulder, detaining him.
“Pardon me,” said Piet Cradock, “but my wife has had more than enough already, and I am going to take her home!”
Jerry stopped, struck silent for the moment by sheer astonishment.
Without further words Piet proceeded to transfer Nan’s hand from the boy’s arm to his own. He did it with absolute gentleness, but with a resolution that admitted of no resistance—at least Nan attempted none.
But the action infuriated Jerry, and in the flurry of the moment he completely lost his head.
“What the devil do you mean?” he demanded loudly.
An abrupt silence fell upon the buzzing throng about them. Through it, with unfaltering composure, fell Piet Cradock’s reply.
“I mean exactly what I have said. If you have any objection to raise, I am ready to deal with it, either now or later—as you shall choose.”
The words were hardly uttered when Nan did an extraordinary thing. She lifted a perfectly colourless face with a ghastly smile upon it, and held out her free hand to Jerry.
“All right, Jerry,” she said. “I think I’ll go after all. I am rather tired. Good-night, dear boy! Pleasant dreams! Now, Piet”—she turned that quivering smile upon her husband, and it was the bravest thing she had ever done—“don’t keep me waiting. Go and get your coat, and be quick about it; or I shall certainly be ready first.”