Read CHAPTER XV of The Rider in Khaki A Novel , free online book, by Nat Gould, on ReadCentral.com.

A SUDDEN PROPOSAL

War was declared against Germany on that fateful day in August; the blow had fallen at last, the nations of the earth were about to measure their millions, and England was unprepared. There was no doubt about the strength of feeling in Britain; every man was for war, with the exception of a few cranks and peacemongers, many of them little better than traitors to their country.

There was a call to arms; it echoed, reverberated, throughout the land; and never was such a voluntary response by any nation. There is little need to write about it; everybody knows how “Kitchener’s chaps” rolled up in thousands, to their everlasting honor. By their response they showed the spirit of the nation, roused at last to a sense of horrible danger. Throughout the land there were martial sounds the hum of camps, the tramp of men, the clang of horses’ hoofs, the rattle of war department wagons. Before people had time to rub their eyes and become wide awake, an army had landed in France, eager to help gallant little Belgium, and stop the rush of the enemy’s vast hordes.

The Sherwoods were mustered in Trent Park. A noble array they made, splendid men, well mounted and equipped, eager to get at the foe. Captain Alan Chesney was with them, his house the headquarters of the regiment. They had not to wait long; they were in luck’s way, one of the first cavalry regiments ordered to the front.

Alan, busy preparing for his departure, had barely a minute to spare, but he made time to call on a few friends, and Eve Berkeley was one of the last. He rode to The Forest in uniform, looking every inch a soldier. He stood in the room waiting for her, his fingers drummed impatiently on the mantelpiece; he wanted to be away, the fighting spirit of the soldier was roused again when he put on khaki. He longed for war and the front.

For some years he had been a peace soldier, spending money freely, having plenty of spare time, although he was never a laggard and loved the drill and discipline. Now it was different; they were off to the front, where the battle already raged furiously and danger threatened France, as in the former war and from the same source, with many times the strength.

Eve came in. She looked at her best. She knew he was coming and had been thinking of him. There was danger ahead for the man she loved; it was possible she might not see him again. She dare not think of that, it was terrible.

He turned round quickly and came to her, taking both her hands. Looking into her eyes he could not fail to see the light in them; it dazzled but did not blind; it opened his to what was hidden behind the electric flashes in hers. For a few moments there was silence. Then he said:

“I am come to say goodbye, Eve, my old playmate, my best friend.”

His voice was well under control, no tremor, but it vibrated and played on her heart-strings. She was agitated; she had been counting on this parting, thinking what might happen, re-changing many things.

“We leave to-morrow, or the next day. I go to London to-night. I cannot tell you our destination, but I can guess it.”

Still she did not speak, and he went on:

“We shall give a good account of ourselves, the Sherwoods. Many of us will not return, but something tells me I shall come through it all and live.”

“How I shall miss you!” she said. “It will be in fear and trembling I open the paper each morning and scan the lists. But you are doing right; no man can hang back at such a moment. You are glad to be in uniform again?”

“Indeed I am. I feel as though I had never been out of it,” he answered.

“You look splendid,” she said.

“This morning you are at your best,” he replied.

“You were coming to see me, I wanted you to carry away a good impression,” she said, smiling.

“I shall often think of you, Eve, and your many gracious actions. By Jove, you are a brick there’s nobody like you,” he said enthusiastically.

She was pleased and showed it.

“Have you forgotten our last conversation?” he asked. “It was perilously near the danger zone.”

“Why call it a danger zone?” she asked.

“Eve, you don’t mean it?” he asked.

“Mean what?”

“Oh, you know. By Jove, I’ll risk it, although I can’t imagine such good fortune falling to my lot.”

“What are you going to risk?” she asked, strangely agitated.

“Asking you to be my wife there it’s out must I go?” he said.

“Do you wish to go?” she asked archly.

“No; there.”

He almost lifted her off her feet as he took her to him and kissed her many times. She clung to him, her arms round his neck, her head resting on his breast; she seemed loath to let him go.

“Alan, oh Alan, it seems too good to be true! I thought you were never going to ask me. I am afraid I have schemed for this. Forgive me, I could not live without you,” she said, and again he stopped her mouth with kisses.

“I have always loved you, Eve. When you were a girl you were different from anybody else, the only girl for me. You have not answered my question?” he said.

“I will be your wife, Alan; it has been the dearest wish of my life. I am almost afraid to say how much I love you,” she said softly.

“Never be afraid of that; tell me, I want to carry it away with me.”

She told him, and his body flamed in response, his heart beat fast. It was the most thrilling moment of his life; she buried her blushing face on his shoulder and panted for very joy.

Alan recognized the depth of her love and wondered at it. She was his, part of him. He felt it, henceforth they would be one. When he was away she would be with him in the spirit. He was loath to part from her, but it had to be. Duty called and that came first. He waited a few minutes until they were calmer.

“Marry me before I leave,” he said impetuously.

“There is no time,” was the faint reply. “You go to-morrow.”

“I forgot; no, there is no time. It is not fair to ask you. Promise me if I come home for a day or two you will consent?”

“Readily, Alan. I am yours when you wish to take me,” she answered.

“Supposing we do not leave to-morrow, supposing it is a few more days, that there is time?” he said, his eyes very bright and eager.

“If there is time ” she hesitated.

“You will?”

“Yes.”

This was too much for him; he was overwhelmed at his happiness. He clasped her in his arms again and crushed her until it pained, but it was exquisite pain, she felt safe with those strong arms about her.

“I feel as though I never want to let you go again,” he said.

She laughed happily.

“If there is time, Alan, we can be quietly married,” she said.

“I shall try and make time. I must run no risks.”

“Risks of what?”

“Losing you.”

“That can never be now. You will not lose me. I may lose you,” and she shivered.

“I’m not going to be killed, wounded perhaps. What if I come home minus an arm, or a leg, or with a mutilated face? You might wish to cry off our compact. I can’t risk that, Eve; I want to make sure of you,” he said earnestly.

“And do you for a moment suppose that would make any difference?” she asked.

“No, I don’t, although I said as much. I have great faith in you.”

They talked over the future for a long time. When he rose to go, he said:

“Remember, if there is time we are to be married before I leave for France.”

“Yes; I hope there will be time,” she said quietly.

“You would make a charming widow,” he said jokingly.

“Don’t say such horrible things,” she replied.

“I won’t offend again. There’s too much in life to even hint at death,” he said.

“Let me know if I can see you in London before you go to-morrow?” she said.

“I will; I’ll send a special messenger.”

“To my town house. I shall be there. I will go up to-night in order to be ready.”

“You’re the best of women!” he said, kissing her.

He was gone. She sent for her maid and gave orders about traveling to London in the afternoon. How happy she was! Alan had asked her to be his wife at last! She had waited a long time; it seemed almost too good to be true. She wished she could be married before he went away; then she would be quite sure of him. Now he was gone she wondered if her spell over him would ever be in danger of breaking. She blamed herself for such thoughts, but they would intrude, causing little pangs of uneasiness and doubt that irritated her.

On the journey to London she was filled with hope and fears. Their marriage would settle everything, give her the right to look after Trent Park and all belonging to it, of which she was capable, and knew it. There would be much to do in his absence; he had asked her before and she consented, but there were difficulties.

There were several stoppages on the way; inquiries elicited the information that traffic was congested owing to the movements of troops. Already war made a difference; what would it be in the course of a year?

Alan called late at night. There was no chance of a marriage, he was to leave in the morning. He fretted and fumed at the delay, but Eve dispelled his gloom and he went cheerfully after an affectionate parting. After his departure she sat in a disconsolate mood in the large room, longing for company. She wondered if she ought to make their engagement known. He had said nothing about it; perhaps better not until she heard from him. There was the satisfaction of knowing he loved her, that she was to be his wife. Even this did not dispel the shadows; she tried to convince herself all would be well only partially succeeding.

As for Alan, in the rush and turmoil of departure he almost forgot the question of an immediate marriage. It could not take place yet, so why trouble about it? Eve was his and he was satisfied. On the whole he considered it perhaps as well they were not married. There was no telling what might happen to him and she would be in a better position if he succumbed to the chances of war. Not that he had any fears on that score; he looked forward to the coming struggle in a very optimistic mood.