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Chapter XVII


WHEN Lennard entered the little drawing-room in the house in Westbourne Terrace, where Norah Castellan and her aunt were staying, he had decided to do something which, without his knowing it, probably made a very considerable difference in his own fortunes and those of two or three other people.

During his brief but exciting experiences on board the Ithuriel, he had formed a real friendship for both Erskine and Castellan, and he had come to the conclusion that Denis's sister and aunt would be very much safer in the remote seclusion of Whernside than in a city which might within the next few days share the fate of Portsmouth and Gosport. He was instantly confirmed in this resolution when Mrs O'Connor and her niece came into the room. Never had he seen a more perfect specimen of the Irishwoman, who is a lady by Nature's own patent of nobility, than Mrs O'Connor, and, with of course one exception, never had he seen such a beautiful girl as Norah Castellan.

He was friends with them in half an hour, and inside an hour he had accepted their invitation to dine and sleep at the house and help them to get ready for their unexpected journey to the North the next morning.

He went back to the Grand and got his portmanteau and Gladstone bag and returned to Westbourne Terrace in time for afternoon tea. Meanwhile, he had bought the early copies of all the evening papers and read up the condition of things in London, which, in the light of his experiences at Portsmouth, did not appear to him to be in any way promising. He gave Norah and her aunt a full, true and particular account of the assault on Portsmouth, the doings of the Ithuriel, the great Fleet action, and the brilliant ruse de guerre which Admiral Beresford had used to capture the First French Army Corps that had landed in England — and landed as prisoners.

The news in the afternoon papers, coupled with what he already knew of the tactics of the enemy, impressed Lennard so gravely that he succeeded in persuading Mrs O'Connor and Norah to leave London by the midnight sleeping-car train from St Pancras for Whernside, since no one knew at what time during the night John Castellan or his lieutenants might not order an indiscriminate bombardment of London from the air. He was also very anxious, for reasons of his own, to get back to his work at the observatory and make his preparations for the carrying out of an undertaking compared with which the war, terrible as it was and would be, could only be considered as the squabblings of children or lunatics.

His task was not one of aggression or conquest, but of salvation, and the enemy he was going to fight was an invader not of states or countries, but of a whole world, and unless the assault of this invader from the outer wilderness of Space were repelled, the result would not be merely the destruction of ships and fortresses, or the killing of a few hundreds or thousands of men on the battlefield; it would mean nothing less than a holocaust which would involve the whole human race, and the simultaneous annihilation of all that the genius of man had so laboriously accumulated during the slow, uncounted ages of his progress from the brute to the man.

They left the train at Settle at six o'clock the next morning, and were at once taken charge of by the stationmaster, who had had his instructions by telephone from the Parmenter mansion on the slopes of Great Whernside. He conducted them at once to the Midland Hotel, where they found a suite of apartments, luxuriously furnished, with fires blazing in the grates, and everything looking very cosy under the soft glow of the shaded electric lights. Baths were ready and breakfast would be on the table at seven. At eight, Mr Parmenter, who practically owned this suite of rooms, would drive over with Miss Parmenter in a couple of motor-cars and take the party to the house.

"Sure, then," said Mrs O'Connor, when the arrangements had been explained to her, "it must be very comfortable to have all the money to buy just what you want, and make everything as easy as all this, and it's yourself, Mr Lennard we have to thank for making us the guests of a millionaire, when neither Norah nor myself have so much as seen one. Is he a very great man, this Mr Parmenter? It seems to me to be something like going to dine with a duke."

"My dear Mrs O'Connor," laughed Lennard, "I can assure you that you will find this master of millions one of Nature's own gentlemen. Although he can make men rich or poor by a stroke of his pen, and, with a few others like him, wield such power as was never in the hands of kings, you wouldn't know him from a plain English country gentleman if it wasn't for his American accent, and there's not very much of that."

"And his daughter, Miss Auriole, what's she like?" said Norah. "A beauty, of course."

Lennard flushed somewhat suspiciously, and a keen glance of Norah's Irish eyes read the meaning of that flush in an instant.

"Miss Parmenter is considered to be very beautiful," he replied, "and I must confess that I share the general opinion."

"I thought so," said Norah, with a little nod that had a great deal of meaning in it. "Now, I suppose we'd better go and change, or we'll be late for breakfast. I certainly don't want the beautiful Miss Parmenter to see me in this state for the first time."

"My dear Miss Castellan, I can assure you that you have not the faintest reason to fear any comparison that might be made," laughed Lennard as he left the room and went to have his tub.

Punctually at eight a double "Toot-toot" sounded from the street in front of the main entrance to the hotel. Norah ran to the window and saw two splendidly-appointed Napier cars — although, of course, she didn't know a Napier from a Darracq. Something in female shape with peaked cap and goggles, gauntleted and covered from head to foot in a heavy fur coat, got out of the first car, and another shape, rather shorter but almost similarly clad, got out of the second. Five minutes later there was a knock at the door of the breakfast-room. It opened, and Norah saw what the cap and the goggles and the great fur coat had hidden. During the next few seconds, two of the most beautiful girls in the two hemispheres looked at each other, as only girls and women can look. Then Auriole put out both her hands and said, quite simply:

"You are Norah Castellan. I hope we shall be good friends. If we're not, I'm afraid it will be my fault."

Norah took her hands and said:

"I think it would more likely be mine, after what Mr Lennard has been telling us of yourself and your father."

At this moment Lennard saved the situation as far as he was concerned by making the other introductions, and Mrs O'Connor took the hand which wielded the terrible power of millions and experienced a curious sort of surprise at finding that it was just like other hands, and that the owner of it was bending over hers with one of those gestures of simple courtesy which are the infallible mark of the American gentleman. In a few minutes they were all as much at home together as though they had known each other for weeks. Then came the preparation of Norah and her aunt for the motor ride, and then the ride itself.

The sun had risen clearly, and there was a decided nip of frost in the keen Northern air. The roads were hard and clean, and the twenty-five-mile run over them, winding through the valleys and climbing the ridges with the heather-clad, rock-crowned hills on all sides, now sliding down a slope or shooting along a level, or taking a rise in what seemed a flying leap, was by far the most wonderful experience that Norah and her aunt had ever had.

Auriole drove the first car, and had Norah sitting beside her on the front seat. Her aunt and the mechanician were sitting in the tonneau behind. Mr Parmenter drove the second car with Lennard beside him. His tonneau was filled with luggage.

At the end of the eighteenth mile the cars, going at a quite illegal speed, jumped a ridge between two heather-clad moors, which in South Africa would have been called a nek, and dived down along a white road leading into a broad forest track, sunlit now, but bordered on either side by the twilight of towering pines and firs through which the sunlight filtered only in little flakes, which lay upon the last year's leaves and cones, somewhat as an electric light might have fallen on a monkish manuscript of the thirteenth century.

Then came two more miles on hard, well-kept roads, so perfectly graded that the upward slope was hardly perceptible.

"We're on our own ground now and I guess I'll let her out," said Miss Auriole. "Don't be frightened, Norah. These things look big and strong, but it's quite wonderful what they'll do when there's a bit of human sense running them. See that your goggles are right and twist your veil in a bit tighter, I'm going to give you a new sensation."

She waved her hand to her father in the car behind and put on the fourth speed lever, and said: "Hold tight now."

Norah nodded, for she could hardly breathe as it was.

Then the pines and firs on either side of the broad drive melted into a green-grey blur. The road under them was like a rapidly unwinding ribbon. The hilltops which showed above the trees rose up now to the right hand and now to the left, as the car swung round the curves. Every now and then Norah looked at the girl beside her, controlling the distance-devouring monster with one hand on a little wheel, her left foot on a pedal and her right hand ready to work the levers if necessary.

The two miles of the drive from the gates to the front door of Whernside House, a long, low-lying two-storeyed, granite-built house, which was about as good a combination of outward solidity and indoor comfort as you could find in the British Islands, was covered in two and a half minutes, and the car pulled up, as Norah thought, almost at full speed and stopped dead in front of the steps leading up from the broad road to the steps leading up to the terrace which ran along the whole southward front of Whernside House.

"I reckon, Miss Castellan—"

"If you say Miss Castellan, I shall get back to Settle by the first conveyance that I can hire."

"Now, that's just nice of you, Norah. What I was going to say, if I hadn't made that mistake was, that this would be about the first time that you had covered two miles along a road at fifty miles an hour, and that's what you've just done. Pretty quick, isn't it? Oh, there's Lord Westerham on the terrace! Come for lunch, I suppose. He's a very great man here, you know. Lord-Lieutenant of the West Riding of Yorkshire, fought through the Boer War, got made a Colonel by some miracle when he was only about twenty-eight, went to Lhassa, and now he's something like Commander-in-Chief of the Yeomanry and Volunteers round here — and without anything of that sort, he's just about the best sort of man you want to meet. Come along, I'll introduce you."

The two cars stopped at the steps leading up to the terrace, a man in khaki, with a stretch of a dozen ribbons across the left side of his tunic, came bareheaded down the steps and opened the side door of Auriole's motor-car. Auriole pushed her goggles up and held out her gauntleted hand, and said:

"What! Lord Westerham! Well now, this is nice of you. Come to lunch, of course. And how's the recruiting going on?"

Then without waiting for a reply, she went on: "Norah, dear, this is Lord Westerham, Lord-Lieutenant of this part of the County of York, Colonel commanding the West Riding Yeomanry and lots of other things that I don't understand."

Norah pushed her goggles up and tilted her hat back. Auriole saw a flash of recognition pass like lightning between their eyes. She noticed that Norah's cheeks were a little bit brighter than even the speed of the car could account for. She saw, too, that there was a flush under the tan of Lord Westerham's face, and to her these were signs of great comfort.

"I don't know how this particular miracle has been arranged," said Lord Westerham, as he gave his hand to Norah and took her out of the car, "but a re-introduction is, if you will allow me to say so, Miss Parmenter, rather superfluous. I have known Miss Castellan for quite two years, at least, I had the pleasure of meeting her in Connemara, and we have fished and shot and sailed together until we became almost friends."

Auriole's eyes, observant at all times, had been working hard during the last two or three minutes, and in those few minutes she had learned a great deal. Arthur Lennard, who also had his eyes wide open, had learnt in his own slow, masculine way about as much, and perhaps a little more. He and Lord Westerham had been school-fellows and college chums and good friends for years, but of late a shadow had come between them, and it's hardly necessary to say that it was the shadow of a woman. He knew perfectly well by this time that Lord Westerham was, in the opinion of Mr Parmenter, the husband-designate, one might say, of Auriole. Young as he was, he already had a distinguished record as a soldier and an administrator, but he was also heir to one of the oldest Marquisates in England with a very probable reversion to a dukedom.

This was what he had been thinking of that night in the observatory when he told Auriole of the fate that was approaching the world. No one knew better than he how brilliant a figure she would make in Society as the Marchioness of Westerham, granted always that the Anglo-Saxon would do now as he had ever done, fling the invader back upon his own shores or into the sea which he had crossed: but that swift flash of recognition seen as his car came up behind Auriole's, and the slight but most significant change which had come over the features of both of them as he handed her out of the car, had instantly banished the shadow and made him a happier man than he had been for a good many months past.

Still he was one of those hard-headed, practical men who rightly consider that the very worst enemy either to friendship between man and man, or love between man and woman, is an unexplained misunderstanding, and so in that moment he decided to "have it out" with his lordship on the first possible opportunity.

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