The last words came muffled through her hands. Her head was bowed against the chimney-piece.
Jerry was nonplussed. He rose somewhat awkwardly, and drew near the bowed figure.
“But, my dear girl,” he said, laying a slightly hesitating hand upon her shoulder, “what the devil does it matter what he thinks? Surely you don’t—you can’t care—care the toss of a half-penny?”
But here she amazed him still further.
“I do, Jerry, I do!” she whispered vehemently. “He’s horrid—oh, he’s horrid. But I can’t help caring. I wanted him to think the very worst possible of me before I came. But now—but now—Then too, there’s you,” she ended irrelevantly. “What could they do to you, Jerry? Could they put you in prison?”
“Great Scott, no!” said Jerry. “You needn’t cry over me. I always manage to fall on my feet. And, anyhow, it isn’t a hanging matter. I say, cheer up, Nan, old girl! Don’t you think you’d better go to bed? No? Well, let me play you something cheerful, then. I’ve never seen you in the dumps before. And I don’t like it. I quite thought this would be one of our red-letter days. Look up, I say! I believe you’re crying.”
Nan was not crying, but such was the concern in his voice that she raised her head and smiled to reassure him.
“You’re very, very good to me, Jerry,” she said earnestly. “And oh, I do hope I haven’t got you into trouble!”
“Don’t you worry your head about me,” said Jerry cheerfully. “You’re tired out, you know. You really ought to go to bed. Let’s have something rousing, with a chorus, and then we’ll say good-night.”
He took up his banjo again, and dashed without preliminary into the gay strains of “The Girl I Left Behind Me.”
He sang with a gaiety that even Nan did not imagine to be feigned, and, lest lack of response should again damp his spirits, she forced herself to join in the refrain. Faster and faster went Jerry’s fingers, faster and faster ran the song, his voice and Nan’s mingling, till at last he broke off with a shout of laughter, and sprang to his feet.
“There! That’s the end of our soiree, and I’m not going to keep you up a minute longer. I wonder if we’re snowed up yet. We’ll have some fun to-morrow, if we are. I say, look at the time! Good-night! Good-night!”
He advanced towards her. She was standing facing him, with her back to the fire. But something—something in her eyes—arrested him, sending his own glancing backwards over his shoulder. She was looking, not at him, but beyond him.
The next instant, with a sharp oath, Jerry had wheeled in his tracks. He, too, stood facing the door, staring wide-eyed, dumbfounded.
There, at the head of the stairs, quite motionless, quite silent, facing them both, stood Piet Cradock.