Read CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN - Under the beeches. of Blind Policy , free online book, by George Manville Fenn, on ReadCentral.com.

It was a lovely morning in the sylvan solitude by The Towers, and leaving Mrs James and Mrs Dennis Clareborough in the drawing-room, Marion took her sunshade and a book, to wander away across the lawn to the gate in the ring fence, and then along the path at the edge of the beech wood, ostensibly to find a seat in the shade of one of the great spreading trees, and have a calm, quiet read.

But ere she had gone a couple of hundred yards the fever in her blood and the throbbing of her temples told her that the idea of calm and rest was the merest farce.

She had hailed the departure of the gentlemen for Paris, as they had said, as a relief from the quiet, insidious siege laid to her by James Clareborough, who rarely spoke but on the most commonplace topics, and was always coldly polite; but there were moments when she met his eyes and read plainly enough that his intentions were unaltered, and that sooner of later he would again begin to make protestations of his love.

Her position seemed harder than she could bear.  His wife hated her with a bitter, jealous hatred, but she was too much crushed down and afraid of her fierce lord to show her dislike more openly, though there were times when she seemed ready to break out into open reproach.

“Oh, if I could only end it all!” thought Marion again and again.  “Will Rob never break with them?

“Never,” she said to herself, despairingly; “they would never let him go.  And yet surely the world is wide enough, and somewhere surely he might find peace.

“No, he would never settle down to another life.  It is fate.  There is neither peace nor happiness now for me.”

She had wandered on for quite a mile before, feeling hot and wearied, she seated herself on one of the great gnarled mossy buttresses of a beech and leaned her head upon her hand, thinking of him whom she could not keep out of her thoughts, but still only in despair.  Then her thoughts turned once more to James Clareborough, and, brave and firm as she was, a thrill of horror ran through her at the dread which oppressed her and set her heart throbbing wildly.

What if this Parisian journey was only a ruse and James Clareborough were back on purpose to try and gain a meeting with her while her brother was not by her side?

The thought was horrible, and it grew more intense, her cheeks flushing and then growing ghastly white from her emotion.

“What madness to come out here alone!” she thought.  “He would have been watching for me, and be ready to read it as an invitation.”

She looked round wildly, and started as a sharp tap was heard close at hand.

“Am I growing such a nervous, feeble coward,” she said, “that I am afraid of a rabbit?  What have I to fear from him?”

She laughed at her weak folly, and to prove to herself that she was no longer under the influence of dread she took her book and opened it at random, but did not read a word, for her musings began again.

“It is excusable,” she thought.  “All these years of dread of discovery, of some end coming to their plans, and for the sake of what?  A miserable gilded life of luxury that is hateful to me and makes me shiver when I look into his pleading eyes.  He loves me and would marry me to-morrow in his ignorance; and then what would he say when he knew the truth?  I cannot bear it; there must ­there shall be an end.  It is not life; it is one miserable nightmare of fear.”

She sprang to her feet, uttering a faint cry of horror, and turned to run.  For there was some truth in her suspicions; she had been followed.  There was a quick step behind, and she had run some little distance before, glancing back, she saw that it was not James Clareborough, but Chester, standing beneath the trees which had sheltered her, and now gazing after her with a look of anger and despair.

She stopped, and he came up to her side.

“Have I grown so hateful to your sight?” he said bitterly.

“No, no!” she cried, holding out her trembling hand, which he seized and pressed passionately to his lips.  “I thought it was James Clareborough.”

“Then he has dared to insult you again?” said Chester, angrily.

“No, no; indeed, no,” she cried.

“But you live in fear of him.  Oh, Marion, Marion, how long is this weary life to last?  Once more let me plead.  Would not a quiet life with my devotion be a happier one than this miserable luxury, where you are constantly persecuted by a scoundrel?”

“Oh, hush, hush!” she murmured.  “I have told you it can never be.”

“Yes, but these are words.  Your woman’s honour forbids you to stay.”

“Hush, for pity’s sake!  You torture me,” she cried.  “Must I explain, but you must see and know that I am tied down to it, that I cannot leave my brother ­that he would never let me go.”

“I cannot ­I will not believe but that all this is imaginary,” said Chester, firmly.  “Will you not trust me?  Will you not tell me what it all means, and let me, a man, be the judge?”

“No,” she said, mastering her emotion and speaking calmly now.  “Once more, I cannot, I will not explain.  Why have you come down here?”

He shrugged his shoulders.

“You know,” he said.  “Where should I be but near the woman who is my very life?”

“But it is madness ­it is misery and torture to me.”

“Poor wretch that I am,” he said bitterly.  “Still, I cannot help it.”

“But,” she cried imploringly, “your life would not be safe if they knew of your being here.”

“Indeed?  Well, what of it?  My presence is a torture to you.  I am a torture and misery to myself.  They would not dare to kill me.  I don’t know, though,” he said, with a mocking laugh, “by accident, perhaps.”

“Dr Chester,” cried Marion, appealingly, “does it please you to inflict this agony upon me?”

“No, no,” he said, snatching at her hand.  “I would give my life to save you pain.”

“Then go.  Leave me and forget me.  I am not the true, innocent woman you think.  I am not fit to be your wife.”

“What!” he cried, turning ghastly pale, while as she saw his agony her face grew convulsed and she half raised her hands to him pleadingly, but let them fall.

He saw the movement and snatched them to his breast.

“It is not true,” he cried proudly.  “Some false sentiment makes you say this.  I will not believe it of the woman I love.”

She did not resist until he tried to take her to his heart.  Then she shrank away.

“No,” she said.  “You must not touch me like that.  Once more, believe me, all this must end.  You must think of me no more ­you must go at once, and we must never meet again.”

“You have told me that before,” he said, “but I am not a free agent.  I was obliged to come.  I have been here these three days past, watching for an opportunity to speak to you; and when I do you once more cast me off ­you drive me away.  Well, I have borne it so long; I can go on bearing it till you relent, or ­I die,” he added softly.

She looked at him wildly for a moment, and his hopes rose, for the relenting seemed close at hand, but she was stern and cold again directly.

“And your betrothed wife,” she said.  “What of her?”

He was silent for a few moments, and then he made a deprecating sign with his hands.

“What do you know of her?” he said.

“Everything,” she replied.  “How basely and cruelly you have behaved to her.  Is this your honour as a man?”

He heard a deep sigh.

“I have only one thing to say in my defence,” he said slowly.  “I believed that I loved her; but then I had not seen you.  I was not under this spell.”

“It is no spell,” she said firmly.  “Go to her, and forget me.  I tell you that I am not worthy to be your wife, and that such a union is impossible for reasons which I dare not explain.  You hear me?”

“Yes,” he said sadly, “I hear you.”

“Then good-bye for ever.”

She turned from him, but a piteous moan escaped her lips, and the next moment he had clasped her to his heart.

“Marion, my own!” he whispered, as he pressed his lips to hers; “then you do love me!”

“Yes,” she said, as she clung to him, and for a moment or two returned his embrace.  “You know I love you and shall never love another, but go now, for Heaven’s sake!  I tell you it is impossible.  Good-bye ­ good-bye.”

She tore herself from his grasp and fled through the wood, not daring to turn her head to see if he followed, lest in her woman’s weakness she should give way and dare everything for his sake.