Magda whirled round from the window.
“Michael!” she exclaimed joyfully. “I was just wondering if you would be able to get over this evening. I suppose you came while you could!”—laughing. “I shouldn’t be in the least surprised if you were snowed up here. Shall you mind—dreadfully—if you are?”
But Michael made no response to the tenderly mocking question, nor did her smile draw from him any answering smile. She looked at him waveringly. He had been in the room quite long enough to take her in his arms and kiss her. And he hadn’t done it.
“Michael——” She faltered a little. “How queer you are! Have you—brought bad news?” A sudden dread rushed through her. “It’s not—Marraine?”
“No, no.” He spoke hastily, answering the startled apprehension in her eyes. “It’s not that.”
Her mind, alertly prescient, divined significance in the mere wording of the phrase.
“Then there is—something?”
“Yes, there is something.”
His voice sounded forced, and Magda waited with a strange feeling of tension for him to continue.
“I want to ask you a question,” he went on in the same carefully measured accents. “Did you ever stay at a place called Stockleigh—Stockleigh Farm at Ashencombe?”
Stockleigh! At the sound of the word it seemed to Magda as though a hand closed suddenly round her heart, squeezing it so tightly that she could not breathe.
“I—yes, I stayed there,” she managed to say at last.
“Ah-h!” It was no more than a suddenly checked breath. “When were you there?” The question came swiftly, like the thrust of a sword. With it, it seemed to Magda that she could feel the first almost imperceptible pull of the “ropes of steel.”
“I was there—the summer before last,” she said slowly.
Michael made no answer. Only in the silence that followed she saw his face change. Something that had been hope—a fighting hope—died out of his eyes and his jaw seemed to set itself with a curious inflexibility.
She waited for him to speak—waited with a keyed-up intensity of longing that was almost physically painful. At last, unable to bear the continued silence, she spoke again. Her voice cracked a little.
“Why—why do you ask, Michael?”
He looked at her and a sudden cynical amusement gleamed in his eyes—an amusement so bitterly unmirthful that there seemed something almost brutal about it. Her hand went up to her face as though to screen out the sight of it.
“You can’t guess, I suppose?” he said with dry, harsh irony. Then, after a moment: “Why did you never tell me you were there? You never spoke of it. . . . Wasn’t it curious you should never speak of it?”
She made a step towards him. She could not endure this torturing suspense another instant. It was racking her. She must know what Stockleigh signified to him.