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Chapter XI 


HOW ONE PLAYS THE HERO AT THIRTY

Had we only been able to see a day into the future, we might have spared ourselves this agonising, for all our doubts and fears were suddenly dispersed in an entirely unexpected manner. Happily these interior problems are not infrequently resolved by quite exterior forces.

We were sitting the following afternoon in one of those broad bay windows such as one finds still in some old country inns, just thinking about starting once more on our way, when suddenly Nicolete, who had been gazing out idly into the road, gave a little cry. I followed her glance. A carriage with arms on its panels had stopped at the inn, and as a smart footman opened the door, a fine grey-headed military-looking man stepped out and strode hurriedly up the inn steps.

"Aucassin," gasped Nicolete, "it is my father!"

It was too true. The old man's keen eye had caught sight of Nicolete at the window also, and in another moment we were all three face to face. I must do the Major- General the justice of saying that he made as little of a "scene" of it as possible.

"Now, my girl," he said, "I have come to put an end to this nonsense. Have you a petticoat with you? Well, go upstairs and get it on. I will wait for you here . . . On you, sir, I shall waste no words. From what I have heard, you are as moonstruck as my daughter."

"Of course," I stammered, "I cannot expect you to understand the situation, though I think, if you would allow me, I could in a very few words make it somewhat clearer,--make you realise that, after all, it has been a very innocent and childish escapade, in which there has been no harm and a great deal of pleasure--"

But the Major-General cut me short.

"I should prefer," he said, "not to discuss the matter. I may say that I realise that my daughter has been safe in your hands, however foolish,"--for this I thanked him with a bow,--"but I must add that your eccentric acquaintance must end here--"

I said him neither yea nor nay; and while we stood in armed and embarrassed silence, Nicolete appeared with white face at the door, clothed in her emergency petticoat. Alas! it was for no such emergency as this that it had been destined that merry night when she had packed it in her knapsack. With a stern bow her father turned from me to join her; but she suddenly slipped past him, threw her arms round me, and kissed me one long passionate kiss.

"Aucassin, be true," she cried, "I will never forget you,--no one shall come between us; "and then bursting into tears, she buried her face in her hands and followed her father from the room.

In another moment she had been driven away, and I sat as one stupefied in the inn window. But a few short minutes ago she had been sitting merrily prattling by my side, and now I was once more as lonely as if we had never met. Presently I became conscious in my reverie of a little crumpled piece of paper on the floor. I picked it up. It was a little note pencilled in her bedroom at the last moment. "Aucassin," it ran, just like her last passionate words, "be true. I will never forget you. Stay here till I write to you, and oh, write to me soon!-- Your broken-hearted Nicolete."

As I read, I saw her lovely young face, radiant with love and sorrow as I had last seen it, and pressing the precious little letter to my lips, I said fervently, "Yes, Nicolete, I will be true."

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