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CHAPTER IX IN WHICH WE BAG A BRACE
The weekly paper-chase upon skis took place upon the third day after Luton Delayne's visit to the Palace Hotel, and was not wanting in the customary excitements.

Youths, garbed in heavy sweaters and the monstrous boots which are necessary to a delightful accomplishment, hailed each other uproariously from their bedroom windows about the hour of nine o'clock and declared emphatically that the outlook was "rotten." Young ladies of ages varying from eighteen to two-and-fifty, hobbled about the precincts crying for John, the porter, to "come and strap them on." The cooks in the kitchen, not less busy, carved sandwiches with amazing dexterity and packed mysterious lengths of sausage as though they were well hidden from the human eye. Few thought of anything but the weather, and all the talk turned upon that well-worn topic.

The morning had broken with some promise, but the mists were heavy, and now the whole of the great valley of the Simplon was filled by cloud.

Standing upon the plateau before the Palace Hotel, a stranger might have imagined himself upon the brink of an inland sea, whose feathery waves rolled noiselessly to his feet. Nothing could be seen of the panorama below, not a vineyard, nor a cottage; and while the Weisshorn reared itself majestically from the white fog, the lesser peaks were wreathed about as by trailing pillars of smoke.

In one hour or in two, said the experts, this sea of mist would drift up and envelop the heights. It might also be relied upon to obscure the fleeting forms of "the hares," and to play subtle tricks with the panting hounds—a prospect which was full of terror to the majority, but of great interest: (1) to a certain Bob Otway, who had persuaded Nellie Rider to be his partner in the promise of the day; and (2) to his friend, Dick Fenton, who had promised to fly with her sister Marjory, if not to the ends of the earth, at least to the chalet where lunch would be found at one o'clock precisely.

Fenton, as will be gathered from the foregoing, had been chosen for a hare, sharing the honour with Keith Rivers and that engaging performer, Miss Marjory Rider. Allowed five minutes' grace, these three, who wore fine scarlet sashes, set out at nine o'clock precisely, and quickly disappeared in the direction of the Park Hotel. Immediately they were gone, the concourse of indifferents, tempered by a few such experts as Bob Otway, lined up before the porch of the hotel, and prepared to carry itself with what grace it could. The light of it, conversationally considered, was Miss Bess Bethune, who, moving like a sprite amidst the company, assured each and all that something dreadful was about to happen at the Palace, and that the night would bear witness. When she had thus breakfasted upon horrors, she sought out Dr. Orange, and attached herself firmly to him, until she discovered that he preferred the seclusion of the skating rink, where he might hold out the tails of his threes to the delight of the elect. Bess hated him in the instant of that avowal; and, oh! the malignity of Fate, she was left to enjoy the society of Sir Gordon Snagg, who insisted upon treating her as a child, despite her thirteen years.

Perhaps Bess would have captured Bob Otway, but for the expert tactics of his vis-à-vis, Nellie Rider. Three seasons had Miss Nellie (and her sister) pirouetted vainly at Andana, and she was determined that the fourth should pay for all. The gossip of chosen friends, feeding upon the inflated estimates of rumour, declared that Master Bob had just come into a fortune of fifteen hundred a year—a tale, by the way, told also of his friend, Dick Fenton—and this sum being clearly in her mind and sweet romance, as it were, jangling the silver bells upon the neck of that good horse, Matrimony, she attached herself to Bob with the tenacious grip of an octopus (the words were Bess's), and so led him instanter to the heights, as to the place of execution duly appointed.

To be sure, they cared little for the paper-chase. Both were experts, and the delight of climbing could not be marred by any thought of direction or rendezvous. Sufficient to know that they were mounting far above the mists, winning their way steadily to the entrancing slopes and the golden fields of unbroken sunshine. When, at last, Bob discovered that they were lost, he added the intimation that it was a good thing too!

"We should have old Gordon Snagg on our backs if we'd stayed down there," he said. "I know the old bounder well—he always stops to tell you some yarn about his brother, the brewer, and falls down in the middle of it. He got me yesterday. That nut, Major Boodle, was with him and the lady, of course. Lady Coral-Smith's a pretty good weight when she's round your neck, but I'd sooner see her round the major's. Did you hear her trying to tell something about the 'little widow' this morning? Beastly shame, I call it—the little thing's all alone, and worth about two hundred of the rest of them. Now don't you think so yourself, Nellie?"

He had not called her Nellie before, and she remarked the circumstance, and pronounced it to be of good omen. Fearing no possible rival in the "little widow," Nellie could afford to be generous.

"She is very pretty, and very nice," she said. "I am sorry for her, because she has lost her husband—at least I should be, if I knew what kind of a husband he was. It's all guess-work with widows; you never quite know whether to be sorry or glad."

Bob laughed loudly.

"They're saying in the hotel that she hasn't lost him. Bess Bethune hints that he wouldn't be lost. That's a new sort of game, I suppose: trying to lose a husband and counting points against yourself when he turns up! Do you think you would like to play it when you are married?"

She was horribly shocked. The word "husband" was sacrosanct, and such trifling seemed to her next door to a sacrilege.

"Oh, do let's talk of something sensible," she exclaimed petulantly. "Wherever there is a pretty woman, there will people tell untruths about her. What is it to us? We don't care, do we?"

Bob shook his head; he liked to pose as a man of the world.

"I think we ought to stand by her," he said. "Suppose you had been in the case, Nellie; wouldn't you expect me to stand by you?"

"Of course I should—but you wouldn't do it; you would begin to talk about widows instead. I'm quite sorry I came with you—"

He looked up appealingly.

"But we're having such a jolly time together. You don't mean to say you would sooner have been with old Gordon Snagg?"

"I would sooner be with somebody who talked about sensible things, so there! Are you going to stand here all day looking down at nothing? I didn't come out for that; I came to ski. Perhaps you would like to go back to the paper-chase?"

Bob hastened to say that he hoped the paper-chase might be swallowed up by an avalanche before he overtook it. Having insisted upon the point, he seized her hand without so much as a by-your-leave or any other unnecessary absurdity, and began to run down the slope with her. Here was something to live for; they were as two who had conquered the world and returned its proud heights upon wings of azure.

Down, down, the skis hissing in the splendid snow, the keen air bringing hot blood to their cheeks, the speed surpassing dreams of flight—so toward the woods which would hide them again, and permit them to forget that towns and hamlets, to say nothing of the inhabitants thereof, existed. Both were gasping for breath as they sailed down the last of the steeps and swung to the left at the bottom. Both were too sensible of the obvious fitness of things to utter one complaint when Miss Nellie tripped and fell right into Master Bob's arms upon the very verge of the wood. Is not the left an unlucky turn to make at any time? But who believes in luck when a pretty girl tumbles headlong into his arms and refuses to budge an inch?

"I say, Nellie, I wish you'd do that every day. Now, don't get angry—you know you rather like it."

She sat up and tried to push him from her.

"Whatever do you mean, Bob? It was your fault; you pushed me down."

"Of course I did. Let's lie here a month, just as we are—only I should like your arms a little closer round my neck. Never mind about your skis—I'll take them off."

He was as good as his word, unbuckling the straps and regretted that the monstrous boots forbade him to admire her pretty ankles. When he had removed his own impedimenta, he coolly put his arms about her waist, and lifted her from the deep snow.

"Let's sit down a bit and talk over things," he said. "There's a grand view from here, Nellie—I could see Brigue, if it wasn't for the cloud."

"Do you want to see Brigue, Bob?"

"Do I want to see Brigue?—when I can look at you! I say, Nellie, how silky your hair is—and I do believe your lips are cold. Well, that ought to warm them anyway! Shall I do it again? I will if you like!"

She shook her head; but her colour was high, and her heart beat fast.

"Why do you treat me like this, Bob?"

"Because I love you, Nellie."

"Do you mean it—every word of it?"

"I'll swear a thousand oaths if you like."

"And you'll never love anyone else?"

She put both her hands upon his shoulders, and looked straight into his eyes.

Bob admitted in confidence to his friend Dick, whom he met presently, that it was the look which did it.

"I'll never love anybody else, if I live to two hundred, Nellie. You'll just be my little girl, and when we're married—"

He paused abruptly, wondering what he had said. Nellie, however, sealed the compact instantly. She gave him a smacking kiss on his lips, and held him so tightly that he could not utter a single word.

"I'll have to tell mother, Bob—I'll have to tell her when we get back. I'm sure she'll be kind about it. I know she likes you. Wasn't it lucky we came up here to-day? Wouldn't it have been dreadful to have gone with all those people? Oh, why didn't we bring our lunch—I'm sure I ought to have thought of it. Now, I suppose, we'll have to go down."
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