AT LOVE'S COST
By CHARLES GARVICE
AT LOVE'S COST
"Until this moment I have never fully realised how great an ass a man can be. When I think that this morning I scurried through what might have been a decent breakfast, left my comfortable diggings, and was cooped up in a train for seven hours, that I am now driving in a pelting rain through, so far as I can see for the mist, what appears to be a howling wilderness, I ask myself if I am still in possession of my senses. I ask myself why I should commit such lurid folly. Last night I was sitting over the fire with a book—for it was cold, though not so cold as this," the speaker shivered and dragged the collar of his overcoat still higher—"at peace with all the world, with Omar purring placidly by my side, and my soul wrapped in that serenity which belongs to a man who has long since rid himself of that inconvenient appendage—a conscience, and has hit upon the right brand of cigarettes, and now—"
He paused to sigh, to groan indeed, and shifted himself uneasily in the well-padded seat of the luxurious mail-phaeton.
"When Williams brought me your note, vilely written—were you sober, Stafford?—blandly asking me to join you in this mad business, I smiled to myself as I pitched the note on the fire. Omar smiled too, the very cigarette smiled. I said to myself I would see you blowed first; that nothing would induce me to join you, that I'd read about the lakes too much and too often to venture upon them in the early part of June; in fact, had no desire to see the lakes at any time or under any conditions. I told Omar that I would see you in the lowest pit of Tophet before I would go with you to—whatever the name of this place is. And yet, here I am."
The speaker paused in his complaint to empty a pool water from his mackintosh, and succeeded—in turning it over his own leg.
He groaned again, and continued.
"And yet, here I am. My dear Stafford, I do not wish to upbraid you; I am simply making to myself a confession of weakness which would be pitiable in a stray dog, but which in a man of my years, with my experience of the world and reputation for common sense, is simply criminal. I do not wish to reproach you; I am quite aware that no reproach, not even the spectacle of my present misery would touch your callous and, permit me to frankly add, your abominably selfish nature; but I do want to ask quite calmly and without any display of temper: what the blazes you wanted to come this way round, and why you wanted me with you?"
The speaker, a slightly built man, just beyond the vague line of "young," glanced up with his dark, somewhat sombre and yet softly cynical eyes at the face of his companion who was driving. This companion was unmistakably young, and there was not a trace of cynicism in his grey-blue eyes which looked out upon the rain and mist with pleasant cheerfulness. He was neither particularly fair nor dark; but there was a touch of brighter colour than usual in his short, crisp hair; and no woman had yet found fault with the moustache or the lips beneath. And yet, though Stafford Orme's face was rather too handsome than otherwise, the signs of weakness which one sees in so many good-looking faces did not mar it; indeed, there was a hint of strength, not to say sternness, in the well-cut lips, a glint of power and masterfulness in the grey eyes and the brows above them which impressed one at first sight; though when one came to know him the impression was soon lost, effaced by the charm for which Stafford was famous, and which was perpetually recruiting his army of friends.
No doubt it is easy to be charming when the gods have made you good to look upon, and have filled your pockets with gold into the bargain. Life was a pageant of pleasure to Stafford Orme: no wonder he sang and smiled upon the way and had no lack of companions.
Even this man beside him, Edmund Howard, whose name was a by-word for cynicism, who had never, until he had met Stafford Orme, gone an inch out of his self-contained way to please or benefit a fellow-man, was the slave of the young fellow's imperious will, and though he made burlesque complaint of his bondage, did not in his heart rebel against it.
Stafford laughed shortly as he looked at the rain-swept hills round which the two good horses were taking the well-appointed phaeton.
"Oh, I knew you would come," he said. "It was just this way. You know the governor wrote and asked me to come down to this new place of his at Bryndermere—"
"Pardon me, Stafford; you forget that I have been down South—where I wish to Heaven I had remained!—and that I only returned yesterday afternoon, and that I know nothing of these sudden alarums and excursions of your esteemed parent."
"Ah, no; so you don't!" assented Stafford; "thought I'd told you: shall have to tell you now; I'll cut it as short as possible." He paused for a moment and gently drew the lash of the whip over the wet backs of the two horses who were listening intently to the voice of their beloved master. "Well, three days ago I got a letter from my father; it was a long one; I think it's the first long letter I ever received from him. He informed me that for some time past he has been building a little place on the east side of Bryndermere Lake, that he thought it would be ready by the ninth of this month; and would I go down—or is it up?—there and meet him, as he was coming to England and would go straight there from Liverpool. Of course there was not time for me to reply, and equally, of course, I prepared to obey. I meant going straight down to Bryndermere; and I should have done so, but two days ago I received a telegram telling me that the place would not be ready, and that he would not be there until the eleventh, and asking me to fill up the interval by sending down some horses and carriages. It occurred to me, with one of those brilliant flashes of genius which you have so often remarked in me, my dear Howard, that I would drive down, at any rate, part of the way; so I sent some of the traps direct and got this turn-out as far as Preston with me. With another of those remarkable flashes of genius, it also occurred to me that I should be devilish lonely with only Pottinger here," he jerked his head towards the groom, who sat in damp and stolid silence behind. "And so I wrote and asked you to come. Kind of me, wasn't it?"
"Most infernally kind," said Howard, with a sigh of a ton weight. "Had you any idea that your father was building this little place? By the way, I can't imagine Sir Stephen building anything that could be described as 'little'.
"You are right," assented Stafford, with a nod. "I heard coming down that it was a perfect palace of a place, a kind of palace of art and—and that sort of thing. You know the governor's style?" His brows were slightly knit for just a second, then he threw, as it were, the frown off, with a smile. "No, I knew nothing about it; I knew as little about it as I do of the governor himself and his affairs."
"When you come to think of it, Howard, isn't it strange that father and son should know so little of each other? I have not seen the governor for I forget how many years. He has been out of England for the last fourteen or fifteen, with the exception of a few flying visits; and on the occasion of those visits I was either at school on the Continent or tramping about with a gun or a rod, and so we never met. I've a kind of uneasy suspicion that my revered parent had no particular desire to renew his acquaintance with his dutiful offspring; anyway, if he had, he would have arranged a meeting. Seems rather peculiar; for in every other respect his conduct as a parent has been above reproach."
"Those are scarcely the terms by which I should designate a liberality which can only be described as criminally lavish, and an indifference to your moral progress which might more properly belong to an unregenerate Turk than to an English baronet. Considering the opportunities of evil afforded you by the possession of a practically unlimited allowance, and a brazen cheek which can only be described as colossal, the fact that you have not long since gone headlong to the devil fills me with perpetual and ever-freshening wonder."
Stafford yawned and shrugged his shoulders with cheerful acquiescence.
"Should have gone a mucker ever so many times, old man, if it hadn't been for you," he said; "but you've always been at hand just at the critical moment to point out to me that I was playing the giddy goat and going to smash. That's why I like to have you with me as a kind of guide, monitor, and friend, you know."
Howard groaned and attempted to get rid of another miniature pool of water, and succeeded—as before.
"I know," he assented. "My virtue has been its own reward—and punishment. If I had allowed you to go your way to the proverbial dogs, after whose society gilded youths like yourself appear to be always hankering, I should not be sitting here with cold water running down my back and surrounded by Nature in her gloomiest and dampest aspects. Only once have I deviated from the life of consistent selfishness at which every sensible man should aim, and see how I am punished! I do not wish to be unduly inquisitive, but I should like to know where the blazes we are going, and why we do not make for a decent hotel—if there is such a thing in these desolate wilds."
Stafford handed him the reins so that he himself might get out his cigar-case, and with some little difficulty, and assisted by Pottinger's soaked hat, the two gentlemen got their cigars alight.
"There isn't a decent hotel for miles," explained Stafford. "There is only a small inn at a little place called Carysford. I looked it out on the map. I thought we'd drive there today, put up for the night to give the horses a rest, and go on to this place of my governor's the next day. It's on the opposite side of the lake."
He jerked his whip to the right.
"Which side, what lake?" asked Howard, hopelessly. "I see nothing of the lake, nothing but mist and sodden hills. No wonder the word 'poet' instinctively arouses one's animosity. When I think of the number of well-meaning and inspired idiots who have written reams of poetry about this place, I feel at this present moment as if I could cheerfully rend even a Wordsworth, a Southey, or a Coleridge; and I look back with remorse upon the hours, the throbs of admiration, I have expended upon what I once deemed their inspired pages. If I remember rightly, most of the lake poets went off their heads; when I gaze around me I must admit that I am not surprised."
Stafford laughed absently; he was quite accustomed to Howard's cynical vein.
"They're all right enough," he said. "That is, I suppose they are, for I never read any of 'em since I left school. Oh, yes, they're right enough about the beauty of the place; you should see it on a fine day."
"Has anyone seen it on a fine day?" inquired Howard, with the innocent air of one simply seeking information. "I asked a countryman in the train if it always rained here, and he replied, 'No; it sometimes snows.'"
"That's a chestnut," remarked Stafford, with a laugh. "But it's all nonsense about its always being wet here; they tell me it's fine for weeks together; that you can never tell any instant whether it's going to clear up or not; that the weather will change like a woman—Good heavens, look at that!"
He nodded to the east as he spoke.
Unnoticed by them, the sky had been clearing gradually, the mists sweeping, dissolving, away; a breath of wind now wafted them, like a veil thrown aside, from hill and valley and lake, and a scene of unparalleled beauty lay revealed beneath them. The great lake shone like a sapphire; meadows of emerald, woods of darker green, hills of purple and grey, silver and gold, rose from the bosom and the edge of the great liquid jewel; the hills towering tier on tier into the heavens of azure blue swept by clouds like drifting snow.
The two men gazed in silence; even Pottinger, to whom his 'osses generally represented all that was beautiful in nature, gaped with wide-open mouth.
"How's that for lofty, you unbeliever?" demanded Stafford. "Ever seen anything like that before?"
Howard had been considerably startled, but, of course, he concealed his amazed admiration behind a mask of cynicism.
"Rather a crib from Val Prinsep, isn't it, with a suggestion of a Drury Lane pantomime about it? Good heavens! And there's the Fairy Palace all complete," he added, as, the mists still rising, was discovered on the slope of the other side a long and extremely ornate building, the pure whiteness of which was reflected in the marvellous blue and opal of the lake. "Can that be Sir Stephen's 'little place'?"
"I'm afraid it is," said Stafford. "It looks like the governor," he added, with a touch of gravity.
"Well, it's very big, or, rather, long; and it's very white, but one's bound to admit that it doesn't spoil the landscape," said Howard; "in fact, standing there amidst the dark-green trees, with its pinnacles and terraces, it's rather an ornament than otherwise. I suppose there are flowers on those velvety lawns; and the interior, I'll wager my life, matches the exterior. Fortunate youth to possess a Croesus for a father:"
"Yes; I suppose the governor must be tremendously oafish," said Stafford.
"The man who can build such a palace as that, and have the cool cheek to call it 'a little place,' must in common decency be a multi-millionaire."
Stafford nodded and smoked thoughtfully for a minute as Pottinger left the horses' heads and climbed into his seat behind, and the mail-phaeton moved along the road, which began to dip down at this point.
"I know so little about my father," he said again.
"And yet the world knows so much," remarked Howard, throwing open his waterproof and basking in the sun which shone as warmly and unreservedly as if it had never heard of such a thing as rain. "One can't take up the paper without seeing some mention of Sir Stephen Orme's great name. One day he is in Paris negotiating a state loan; another you read he is annexing, appropriating, or whatever you call it, a vast tract in Africa or Asia; on the third you are informed with all solemnity that he has become director of a new bank, insurance company, or one of those vast concerns in which only Rothschilds and Barings can disport themselves. Now and again you are informed that Sir Stephen Orme has been requested to stand for an important constituency, but that he was compelled to decline because of the pressure of his numerous affairs. There may be a more famous and important individual in the world than your father, my dear Stafford, but I can't call him to mind at this moment."
"Chaff away," said Stafford, good-humouredly. "At any rate, he has been a jolly liberal father to me. Did I tell you that just before he came home be placed a largish sum at his bank for me; I mean over and above my allowance?"
"You didn't tell me, but I'm not at all surprised," responded Howard. "A truly wonderful father, and a model to all other parents. Would that I possessed such a one. You don't remember your mother, Stafford?"
The young fellow's handsome face softened for an instant; and his voice was low and grave as he replied:
"No—and yet sometimes I fancy that I do; though, seeing that she died when I was quite a kid, it must be only fancy. I wish she'd lived," his voice became still lower; "I wish I had a brother, or a sister, especially a sister—By George! that's a fine stream! Did you see that fish jump, Howard?"
"No, I was too much occupied in jumping myself. I thought by your exclamation that something had happened to the carriage or the horses, and that we were on the verge of a smash-up. Let it jump if it amuses it."
"So it may—if I don't catch it," said Stafford, pulling up the horses near the bank of the stream.
"Do you mean to tell me that you are going to fish?" demanded Howard, with a groan. "My dear Stafford, I know that being that abominable thing—a sportsman—you are consequently mad; but you might have the decency to curb your insanity out of consideration for the wretched man who has the misfortune to be your companion, and who plainly sees that this period of sunshine is a gilded fraud, and that presently it will rain again like cats and dogs."
Stafford laughed. He had got down and dragged out a rod and a fishing-basket.
"Sorry, old chap," he said, "but no fisherman could lose such a chance as this, even to save his best friend from rheumatic fever. I thought we should come across a stream or two, and I put on these togs accordingly." He wore a Norfolk suit of that wonderful Harris tweed which, strange to say, keeps out the rain, the heat, and the cold; and flies were stuck in his cap of the same material. "But, look here, there's no need for me to keep you; Pottinger will drive you to this place, Carysford, where we stay the night—I've engaged rooms—and you can have a warm bath and get into the dress-clothes after which you are hankering. When I've caught a fish or two I'll come on after you. Don't argue, now!"
"My dear Stafford, I haven't the least intention of doing so; I'm simply dying for a bath, a change, and a huge fire; and when you arrive you'll find me sitting over the latter humbly thanking God that I'm not a sportsman."
Stafford nodded, with his eyes on the stream.
"I should give the nags some gruel, Pottinger, and put an extra coat on them: it'll be cold to-night. Ta, ta, Howard! Tell 'em to get a nice dinner; I'll be there in time for 'em to cook the fish; but don't wait if I should be late—say half past seven."
"I promise you I won't," retorted Howard, fervently. "And I am one of those men who never break a promise—unless it's inconvenient."
The phaeton drove on, Stafford went down to the stream, put up his rod, chose a fly as carefully as if the fate of a kingdom depended on it, and began to fish.
There is this great advantage in the art of fly-fishing: that while you are engaged in it you can think of nothing else: it is as absorbing as love or scarlet fever. Stafford worked his fly steadily and systematically, with a light and long "cast" which had made him famous with the brethren of the craft, and presently he landed a glittering trout, which, though only a pound in weight, was valued by Stafford at many a pound in gold. The fish began to rise freely, and he was so engrossed in the sport that he did not notice that Howard's prophecy had come true, that the mist had swept over the landscape again, and that it was raining, if not exactly cats and dogs, yet hard enough to make even the opposite bank a blur in his vision.
But Stafford was utterly indifferent to rain and mist while the trout were rising, and his basket was half full before he looked around him. It is wonderful, when you are fishing, how great a distance you can walk without noticing it. He had followed the winding course of the stream until it had left the road far behind and struck into a valley, the wildness, the remoteness of which was almost awe-inspiring; and he stood still for a moment and looked up at the sky into which the tall, sharp peaks of the hills lost themselves. The stream, broken by huge boulders, rumbled with a soft roar which was the only sound that broke the stillness. It was the silence, a profound stillness, which makes one feel as if one has wandered into an unknown world newly made and as yet untouched by the foot of man, unsullied by his presence.
Stafford could not have quoted a verse of poetry to save his life; it wasn't in his line; he could ride straight, was a first-rate shot, waltzed like an angel, and so far his dictionary did not contain the word "fear;" but he knew nothing of poetry or art, and only liked some kinds of music, amongst which, it is to be feared, "Soldiers of the Queen," and the now much-abused chorus from "Faust," ranked high in his estimation. He was just simply a healthy young Englishman, clean-limbed and clean-minded, with a tremendous appetite for pleasure, a magnificent frame, and a heart as light and buoyant as a cork; therefore, though an artist or a poet would have been thrilled to the marrow by the wild grandeur of the secluded valley and the grimly towering hills, and would have longed to put them on canvas or into verse, Stafford only felt suddenly grave, and as if it were playing it low down to throw an artificial fly, even of the best make, in such a spot.
But in a moment or two the sportsman's instinct woke in him; a fish stirred in a pool under a boulder, and pulling himself together he threw a fly over the rise. As he did so, the brooding silence was broken by the deep musical bark of a collie, followed by the sharp yap, yap of a fox-terrier. The sudden sound almost startled Stafford; at any rate, caused him to miss his fish; he looked up with a little frown of annoyance, and saw on the break of the opposite hill some of the mountain sheep which had stared at him with haughty curiosity running down towards the green bottom of the valley followed by the two dogs.
A moment afterwards a horse and rider were silhouetted on the extreme top of the high hill. The horse was large whereby the rider looked small; and for a moment the pair were motionless, reminding Stafford of a bronze statue. The hill was fearfully steep, even the dogs ran with a certain amount of caution, and Stafford wondered whether the rider—he couldn't see if it was man or boy—would venture down the almost precipitous slope. While he was wondering, the small figure on the horse sent up a cry that rang like the note of a bell and echoed in sweet shrillness down the hill and along the valley. The collie stopped as if shot, and the fox-terrier looked round, prepared to go back to the rider. It looked for a moment as if the rider were going down the other side of the hill again; then suddenly, as if he detected something wrong in the valley below, he turned the horse and came down the hill-side at a pace which made Stafford, hard and fearless rider as he was, open his eyes.
It seemed to him impossible that the horse could avoid a false step or a slip, and such a false step he knew would send steed and rider hurtling down to something that could be very little short of instant death. He forgot all about the big trout in the pool, and stood with his fly drifting aimlessly in the water, watching with something like breathless interest this, the most daring piece of horsemanship he had ever witnessed; and he had ridden side by side with the best steeplechaser of the day, and had watched a crack Hungarian cavalry corps at its manoeuvres; which last is about the top notch of the horse-riding business.
But the big horse did not falter for a moment; down it came at a hard gallop, and Stafford's admiration was swallowed up in amazement when he saw that the rider was a young girl, that she was riding with about half an ounce on the reins, and that, apparently, she was as much at ease and unconscious of danger as if she were trotting on a tame hack in Rotten Row.
As she came nearer, admiration romped in ahead of amazement, for the girl was a young one—she looked like the average school-girl—and had one of the most beautiful faces Stafford had ever seen. She was dark, but the cheek that was swept by the long lashes was colourless with that exquisite and healthy pallor which one sees in the women of Northern Spain. Her hair was black but soft and silky, and the wind blew it in soft tendrils, now across her brow and now in dazzling strands about the soft felt hat which sat in graceful negligence upon the small and stately head. She wore a habit stained by use and weather, and so short that it was little better than a skirt, and left her almost as absolute a freedom as that enjoyed by the opposite sex. Her hands were covered by well-worn gauntlets, and she held a stout and workman-like crop with a long huntsman's thong.
A poet would instantly have thought that it was a vision of the Spirit of the Mountains; Stafford only thought it was the most lovely piece of girlhood he had ever looked at. She did not see him for a moment, all her attention being engrossed by the sheep which were now wandering up the valley; then suddenly, as if she felt his presence rather than saw it, her dark eyes flashed round upon him and she pulled up the big horse on its haunches with a suddenness which ought to have sent her from the saddle like a stone from a catapult; but she sat back as firm as a rock and gazed at him steadily, with a calmness which fascinated Stafford and kept him staring back at her as if he were the veriest plough-boy.
And to put it frankly, it was something like fascination. She had come upon him so suddenly, her feat of horsemanship had been so audacious, her beauty was so marvellous that Stafford, perhaps for the first time in his life, found himself unable to utter a word in the presence of one of the opposite sex. It was only for a moment or two, of course, that he lost his presence of mind; then he pulled himself together and raised his cap. She gave him the very slightest of bows. It was the faintest indication only of response to his salute; her eyes rested on his face with a strange, ungirlish calm, then wandered to the last trout which lay on the bank.
Stafford felt that something had to be said, but for the life of him, for the first time in his experience, he couldn't hit upon the thing to say. "Good-afternoon" seemed to him too banal, commonplace; and he could think of nothing else for a moment. However, it came at last.
"Will you be so good as to tell me if I am far from Carysford?" he asked.
"Four miles and three-quarters by the road, three miles over the hill," she replied, slowly, as calmly as she had looked at him, and in a voice low and sweet, and with a ring, a tone, in it which in some indefinable way harmonised with her appearance. It was quite unlike the conventional girl's voice; there rang in it the freedom of the lonely valley, the towering hills, the freedom and unconventionality of the girl's own figure and face and wind-tossed hair; and in it was a note of dignity, of independence, and of a pride which was too proud for defiance. In its way the voice was as remarkable as the beauty of the face, the soft fire of the dark eyes.
"I had no idea it was so far," said Stafford; "I must have wandered away from the place. I started fishing on the road down below, and haven't noticed the distance. Will you tell me the name of this place?"
"Herondale," she replied.
"Thank you," said Stafford. "It's a grand valley and a splendid stream." She leant forward with her elbow on the saddle and her chin in the small gauntletted hand, looked up the valley absently and then back at him, with a frank speculation in her eyes which was too frank and calm to be flattering, and was, indeed, somewhat embarrassing.
"I suppose she takes me for a tourist, or a cheap tripper," thought Stafford, with an uncomfortable kind of amusement; uncomfortable, because he knew that this girl who was acting as shepherd in an old weather-stained habit and a battered hat, was a lady.
She broke the silence again.
"Have you caught many fish?" she asked.
Up to now they had been separated by the stream; Stafford seized the opportunity, waded across in a fairly shallow place, and, opening the lid of his basket, showed her the contents.
"Yes, you have done fairly well," she said; "but the trout run larger higher up the valley. By the way," her brows came together slightly, though the very faintest of smiles for an instant curved the delicately cut lips, "do you know that you are poaching?"
This would have been a staggerer coming from a mere keeper, but from this exquisitely beautiful, this calm statue of a girl, it was simply devastating. Stafford stared at her.
"Doesn't this river belong to Sir Joseph Avory?" he asked.
"No," she replied, uncompromisingly. "Sir Joseph Avory's river is called the Lesset water, and runs on the other side of that hill."
She raised her hunting-crop and pointed with an exquisite movement, as graceful as that of a Diana, to the hill behind her.
"I am very sorry," said Stafford. "I thought this was his river. I met him in London and got permission from him. Do you know to whom this water belongs?"
"To Mr. Heron, of Herondale," she replied.
"I beg Mr. Heron's pardon," said Stafford. "Of course I'll put up my rod at once; and I will take the first opportunity of apologising for my crime; for poaching is a crime, isn't it?"
"Yes," she assented, laconically.
"Can you tell me where he lives—where his house is?"
She raised her whip again and pointed to an opening on the left of the valley, an opening lined on either side by a wild growth of magnificent firs.
"It is up there. You cannot see it from here," she said. As she spoke, she took her chin from her hand and sat upright, gathered up her reins, and, with another of the faint inclinations of her head, by way of adieu, rode on up the valley.
Stafford stood with his cap in his hand looking after her for a moment, in a brown study; and, still watching the back of the slight figure that sat the big horse with the grace of an Indian maiden, he began to take down his rod, and, having packed it in his case and fastened his basket, he followed her along the broken bank of the stream. Presently, when she had gone some little distance, he heard the dogs start barking again, the crack of her whip rang like a pistol-shot, and her bell-like voice echoed amongst the hills, joined with the troubled baaing of the sheep. Stafford stopped and watched her: there was evidently something wrong; for the dogs had become excited, the sheep were running wildly; but the girl's exquisite voice was as clear and calm as ever, and the big horse cantered over the broken ground, taking a big boulder now and again with lilting jump, as if he were going by his own volition and was well up in all the points of the game. After a time the dogs got the sheep into a heap, and the young girl rode round them; but something still seemed to be wrong, for she got down, and, leaving the horse quite free, made her way into the flock.
At that moment Stafford saw a sheep and a lamb break from the mob and make for the stream; the sheep jumped to a boulder with the agility of a goat, the lamb attempted to follow, but missed the boulder and fell into the stream. The water was wild here and the pools deep; and as the lamb was swept down toward Stafford he saw that it was struggling in an ineffectual way, and that it looked like a case of drowning.
Of course he went for it at once, and wading in made a grab at it; he got hold of it easily enough, but the lamb—a good sized one—struggled, and in the effort to retain his hold Stafford's feet slipped and he went headfirst into a deep pool. He was submerged for a second only, and when he came up he had the satisfaction of feeling that he had still got the lamb; and gripping the struggling thing tightly in his arms, he made for the opposite bank. And looking up, saw the girl standing waiting for him, her face alive, alight, dancing with delight and amusement! The laughter shone in her eyes like dazzling sunlight and quivered on the firm but delicate lips. But it was only for a moment; before Stafford had fully taken it in and had responded to it with one of his own short laughs, her face was grave and calm again. "Thank you." she said, with a gravity matching her face, and very much as one is thanked for passing the salt. "It would have drowned if you had not been there. It is lame and couldn't swim. I saw, from the top of the hill, that it was lame, and I was afraid something would happen to it."
As she spoke, she took the lamb, which was bleating like mad, laid it on the ground and holding it still, firmly but gently, with her knee, examined it with all the confidence and coolness of a vet.
"You'll make yourself most frightfully wet," said Stafford.
She glanced up at him with only faint surprise.
"You are a Londoner," she said, "or you would know that here, in these parts, we are so often more wet than dry that it makes no matter. Yes, I thought so; there was a thorn in its foot. May I trouble you to hold him a minute?"
Stafford held the lamb, which was tolerably quiet now; and she slowly took off her gauntlets, produced a little leather wallet from the saddle—the horse coming at her call as if he were a dog—took out a serviceable pair of tweezers, and, with professional neatness, extracted an extremely ugly thorn. Stafford stood and watched her; the collie and the fox-terrier upright on their haunches watching her also; the collie gave an approving bark as, with a pat she liberated the lamb, which went bleating on its way to join its distracted mother, the fox-terrier leapt round her with yaps of excited admiration; and there was admiration in Stafford's eyes also. The whole thing had been done with a calm, almost savage grace and self-possession, and she seemed to be absolutely unconscious of his presence, and only remembered it when the lamb and its mother had joined the flock.
"Thank you again," she said. "It was very kind of you. I am afraid you are wet."
As Stafford had gone completely under the water, this was a fact he could not deny, but he said with a laugh:
"Though I am a Londoner, in a sense, I don't mind a wetting—in a good cause; and I shall be dry, or as good as dry, before I get to the inn. You must have eyes like a hawk to have seen, from the top of the hill, that that lamb was lame," he added, rather with the desire to keep her than to express his admiration for her sight.
"I have good eyes," she said, indifferently. "One has to have. But I saw that the lamb was lame from the way it kept beside its mother and the fuss she made over it: and I knew, too, by Donald's bark, that something was wrong. I am sorry you are wet. Will you—" She glanced towards the opening in the hills, paused, and for the first time seemed slightly embarrassed; Stafford fancied that a faint touch of colour came to the clear pallor of the lovely young face. She did not finish the sentence, but with another "Thank you," and "I should not have liked to have lost the lamb," went towards her horse.
Stafford advanced to put her in the saddle; but, with a little shake of the head and a "Don't trouble," she sprang into her place and rode off.
Stafford looked after her, as he had done before; then he said, "Well, I'm d——-d!"
He felt for his pouch, filled his pipe and lit it, and in doing so his eyes fell upon the little wallet from which she had taken her tweezers. He picked it up and quickly shouted to her; but the dogs were barking with furious delight, she was cracking her whip, and she had ridden too far for her to hear him through the noise. It would have been sheer folly to have run after her; so, with a shrug of his shoulders, Stafford put the little wallet in his pocket, waded the stream and, after a moment or two of consideration, made for the inn by the nearest way, to wit, across the hill.
The girl rode along the strip of level moorland beside the river until she came to a narrow and not particularly well—kept road which led through the opening of the hills towards which she had motioned her whip. Once or twice a smile crossed her face, and once she laughed as she thought of the comical picture which the young man had made as he struggled to dry land with the wet lamb in his arms; and the smile and her laugh made her face seem strangely girlish, because it was usually so calm, so gravely self-reliant. Some girls would have been quick to detect the romantic side of the incident, and would have dwelt with a certain sense of satisfaction upon the fact that the young man was tall and handsome and distinguished looking. But this girl had scarcely noticed it; at any rate, it had not affected her in any way. She had too much to do; there was too much upon her well-formed and graceful shoulders to permit her to indulge in romance: Diana herself was not more free from sentiment than this young girl who rode her horse just like a Mexican, who was vet enough to perform a surgical operation on a lamb, and who knew how many bushels of wheat should run to an acre, and the best dressing for permanent pastures. It did occur to her that she might, at any rate after he had rescued the lamb, have given him permission to go on fishing; but she was not very sorry for having failed to do so, for after all, he had been poaching, and, as she had said, poaching was in her eyes a crime.
She went down the road at a swift trot, and presently it was blocked by a pair of wrought-iron gates, so exquisite in their antique conscientiousness that many a mushroom peer would have given almost their weight in gold to place them at the beginning of his newly made park; but no one came to open them, they were closed by a heavily padlocked chain, and the lodge beside them was empty and dilapidated; and the girl rode beside the lichen-covered wall in which they stood until she came to an opening leading to an old arch which faced a broad and spacious court-yard. As she rode beneath the arch a number of dogs yelped a welcome from kennels or behind stable half-doors, and a bent old man, dressed like something between a stableman and a butler, came forward, touching his forehead, to take her horse. She slipped from the saddle, patted the horse, and murmured a word or two of endearment; but her bright eyes flashed round the court-yard with a glance of responsibility.
"Have you brought the colt in, Jason?" she asked.
Jason touched his forehead again.
"Yes, Miss Ida. It took me three-quarters of an hour; it won't come to me like it does to you. It's in a loose stall."
"Saddle it to-morrow morning," she said, "and I will come and try it. The brindle cow has got into the corn, and the fence wants mending down by the pool; you must get William to help you, and do it at once. He has taken the steers to market, I suppose? I didn't see them in the three acre. Oh, and, Jason, I found someone fishing in the dale; you must get a notice board and put it up where the road runs near the river; the tourists' time is coming on, and though they don't often come this side of the lake, some of them may, and we can't afford to have the river poached. And, Jason, look to Ruppert's off-hind shoe; I think it's loose; and—" She stopped with a short laugh. "But that's enough for one time, isn't it? Oh, Jason, if I were only a man, how much better it would be!"
"Yes, miss," assented Jason, simply, with another touch of his forehead.
She sighed and laughed again, and gathering up her habit—she hadn't to raise it much—she went through an open door-way into a wild, but pretty garden, and so to the back of one of the most picturesque houses in this land of the picturesque. It was built of grey stone which age had coloured with a tender and an appreciative hand; a rich growth of ivy and clematis clung lovingly over a greater portion of it so that the mullioned windows were framed by the dark leaves and the purple flower. The house was long and rambling and had once been flourishing and important, but it was now eloquent of decay and pathetic with the signs of "better times" that had vanished long ago. A flight of worn steps led to a broad glass door, and opening the latter, the girl passed under a curved wooden gallery into a broad hall. It was dimly lit by an oriel window of stained glass, over which the ivy and clematis had been allowed to fall; there was that faint odour which emanates from old wood and leather and damask; the furniture was antique and of the neutral tint which comes from age; the weapons and the ornaments of brass, the gilding of the great pictures, were all dim and lack-lustre for want of the cleaning and polishing which require many servants. In the huge fire-place some big logs were burning, and Donald and Bess threw themselves down before it with a sigh of satisfaction. The girl looked round her, just as she had looked round the stable-yard; then, tossing her soft hat and whip on the old oak table, she went to one of the large heavy doors, and knocking, said in her clear voice:
"Father, are you there?"
Inside the room an old man sat at a table. It was littered with books, some of them open as if he had been consulting them; but before him lay an open deed, and at his elbow were several others lying on an open deed-box. He was thin and as faded-looking and as worn with age as the house and the room, lined with dusty volumes and yellow, surface-cracked maps and pictures. He wore a long dressing-gown which was huddled round him as if he were cold, though a fire of logs almost as large as the one in the hall was burning in the open fire-place.
At the sound of the knock he raised his head, an expression, which was a mixture of fear and senile cunning came into his lined and pallid face, his dull eyes peered from under their lids with a flash of sudden alertness, and with one motion of his long hands he hurriedly folded the deed before him, crammed it, with the others, into the box, locked it with a hurried and trembling hand, and placed it in a cupboard, which he also locked; then he drew one of the large books into the place were the deed had been, and with a cautious glance round the room, shuffled to the door, and opened it.
As the girl entered, one would have noticed the resemblance between her and the old man, and have seen that they were father and daughter; for Godfrey Heron had been one of the handsomest men of his time, and though she had got her dark eyes and the firm, delicate lips from her mother, the clear oval of her face and its expression of aristocratic pride had come from the Herons.
"Are you here still, father?" she said. "It is nearly dinner-time, and you are not dressed. You promised me that you would go out: how wicked of you not to have done so!"
He shuffled back to the table and made a great business of closing the book.
"I've been busy—reading, Ida," he said. "I did not know it was so late. You have been out, I see; I hope you have enjoyed your ride. Have you met anyone?"
"No," she replied; then she smiled, as she added: "Only a poacher."
The old man raised his head, a faint flush came on his face and his eyes flashed with haughty resentment.
"A poacher! What are the keepers about! Ah, I forgot; there are no keepers now; any vagrant is free to trespass and poach on Herondale!"
"I'm sorry, father!" she said, laying her hand on his arm soothingly. "It was not an ordinary poacher, only a gentleman who had mistaken the Heron water for the Avory's. Come now, father, you have barely time to dress."
"Yes, yes, I will come in a moment—a moment," he said.
But after she had left the room, he still lingered, and when at last he got to the door, he closed it and went back to the cupboard and tried it, to see if it were locked, muttering, suspiciously:
"Did she hear me? She might have heard the rustle of the parchment, the turn of the lock. Sometimes I think she suspects—But, no, no, she's a child still, and she'd say something, speak out. No, no; it's all right. Yes, yes, I'm coming, Ida!" he said aloud, as the girl called to him on her way up the stairs.
As Stafford climbed the hill steadily, he wondered who the girl was. It did not occur to him that she might be the daughter of the Mr. Heron to whom the stream belonged and from whose family name the whole dale had taken its own; for, though she had looked and spoken like a lady, the habit, the gauntlets, the soft felt hat were old and weather-stained: and her familiarity with the proper treatment of a sheep in difficulty indicated rather the farmer's daughter than that of the squire.
She was not by any means the first pretty girl Stafford had seen—he had a very large acquaintance in London, and one or two women whose beauty had been blazoned by the world were more than friendly with the popular Stafford Orme—but he thought as he went up the hill, which seemed to have no end, that he had never seen a more beautiful face than this girl's; certainly he had never seen one which had impressed him more deeply. Perhaps it was the character of the loveliness which haunted him so persistently: it was so unlike the conventional drawing-room type with which he was so familiar.
As he thought of her it seemed to him that she was like a wild and graceful deer—one of the deer which he had seen coming down to a mountain stream to drink on his father's Scotch moor; hers was a wild, almost savage loveliness—and yet not savage, for there had been the refinement, the dignity of high race in the exquisite grey eyes, the curve of the finely cut lips. Her manner, also, prevented him from forgetting her.
He had never met with anything like it, she had been as calm and self-possessed as a woman of forty; and yet her attitude as she leant forward in the saddle, her directness of speech, all her movements, had the abandon of an unconscious child; indeed, the absence of self-consciousness, her absolute freedom from anything like shyness, combined with a dignity, a touch of hauteur and pride, struck him as extraordinary, almost weird.
Stafford was not one of your susceptible young men; in fact, there was a touch of coldness, of indifference to the other sex which often troubled his women-friends; and he was rather surprised at himself for the interest which the girl had aroused in him. He wondered if he should meet her again, and was conscious of a strong, almost a very strong, desire to do so which, he admitted to himself, was strange: for he did not at that moment remember any girl whom, at his first meeting with her, he had hankered to see again.
He got to the top of the hill at last and began to drop down; there was nothing but a wandering sheep-path here and there, and the mountain was by no means as easy to descend as the classic Avernus; so that when he got to the bottom and came in sight of the little inn nestling in a crook of the valley he was both tired and hungry. Howard, beautiful in evening-dress, came sauntering to the door with his long white hands in his pocket and a plaintive reproach on his Vandyke face.
"I was just about to send off the search party, my dear Stafford," he said. "Is it possible that you have just come down that hill? Good heavens! What follies are committed in thy name, O Sport! And of course there are no fish—there never are! The water is always too thin or too thick, the sky too bright or too dull, the wind too high or too low. Excuses are the badge of all the angling tribe."
Stafford took his basket from his shoulder and made a pretence of slinging it at Howard's head; then tossed it to the landlord, who stood by, smiling obsequiously.
"Cook some of 'em as soon as you can," he said; then he followed the neat and also smiling chamber-maid up to his room, where, for all his pretended indolence and cynicism, Howard had caused his friend's things to be laid out in readiness for him. Stafford dressed slowly, smoking a cigarette during the operation, and still thinking of the strange "farmer's daughter." And then he went down and joined Howard in the room he had ordered.
Lake hotels may lack the splendour to which we are all growing accustomed, and of which, alas! we are also growing rather wearied, but they are most of them extremely comfortable and cosy; and The Woodman at Carysford was no exception to the rule. Stafford looked round the low-pitched room, with its old-fashioned furniture, its white dinner-cloth gleaming softly in the sunset and the fire-light, and sighed with a nod of satisfaction.
"This is something like, eh, old man?" he said; and even Howard deigned to nod approvingly.
"Yes," he said. "If anything could compensate one for the miseries of travel, especially that awful drive, this should do so. I confess I had looked forward to a crowning discomfort in the shape of a cold and draughty and smelly room, fried chops or a gory leg of mutton and a heel of the cheese made by Noah in the Ark. I fancy that we are going to have a decent dinner; and I trust I may not be disappointed, for it is about the only thing that will save my life. Are you dry yet? You looked as if you had been walking through a river instead of beside it."
"That's just what I have been doing," said Stafford, with a laugh. "I've had an adventure—"
"I know," interrupted Howard, with a sigh. "You are going to tell me how you hooked a trout six foot in length, how it dragged you a mile and a half up the river, how you got it up to the bank, and how, just as you were landing it, it broke away and was lost. Every man who has been fishing has that adventure."
Stafford laughed with his usual appreciation of his friend's amusing cynicism; but he did not correct him; for at that moment, the neat maid-servant brought in the trout, which proved to be piping hot and of a golden-brown; and the two men commenced a dinner which, as compared with the famous, or infamous one, of the London restaurant, was Olympian. The landlord himself brought in a bottle of claret, which actually was sound, and another of port, in a wicker cradle, which even Howard deigned to approve of; and the two men, after they had lingered over their dinner, got into easy-chairs beside the fire and smoked their cigars with that sweet contentment which only tobacco can produce, and only then when it follows a really good meal.
"Do you know how long you are going to stay in your father's little place?" Howard asked, after a long and dreary silence.
Stafford shrugged his shoulders slightly.
"'Pon my word, I don't know," he answered. "I'm like the school-boy: 'I don't know nothink.' I suppose I shall stay as long as the governor does; and, come to that, I suppose he doesn't know how long that will be. I've got to regard him as a kind of stormy petrel; here to-day and gone to-morrow, always on the wing, and never resting anywhere for any time. I'm never surprised when I hear that, though his last letter was dated Africa, he has flown back to Europe or has run over to Australia."
"Y-es," said Howard, musingly, "there is an atmosphere of mystery and romance about your esteemed parent, Sir Stephen Orme, which smacks of the Arabian Nights, my dear Stafford. Man of the world as I am, I must confess that I regard him with a kind of wondering awe; and that I follow his erratic movements very much as one would follow the celestial progress of a particularly splendacious comet. He never ceases to be an object of wonderment to me; and I love to read of his gigantic projects, his vast wealth, his brilliant successes; and I tell you frankly that I am looking forward to seeing him with a mixture of fear and curiosity. Do not be surprised, if, at my introduction, I fall on my hands and knees in Oriental abasement. I have admired him so much and so long at a distance that he has assumed in my eyes an almost regal, not to say imperial, importance." "I hope you will like him," said Stafford, with a touch of that simplicity which all his friends liked.
"If he resembles his son, I am sure to do so," said Howard. "Indeed, in any case I am pretty sure to do so. For how often have I read of his wonderful charm of manner, his winning smile and brilliant conversational powers? When do we get to this fairy palace?"
"I suppose if we get there before dinner, it will be time enough," replied Stafford. "By the way, I'd better ask how far it is. Don't ring. I want to go up for some more cigars."
He went up to his room, and in getting them from his bag, saw the little instrument case which he had thrown into his bag when he was changing. Back came the vision of the strange girl with the beautiful face.
He slipped the wallet in his pocket, and when he reached the hall he turned to the open door of the little room which served as the landlord's office, or bar-room.
The landlord was enjoying a cigar and a glass of whiskey and water, and he opened the door still wider and gave a respectful smile of welcome.
"You have a very comfortable hotel here, Mr. Groves," said Stafford, by way of opening the conversation. "We have had a capital dinner, and have enjoyed it tremendously; was that '72 port you gave us?"
"Yes, sir," replied Mr. Groves, much gratified. For you go straight to a landlord's heart when you guess a good vintage and appreciate it. "I am glad you like it, sir; there's more of it at your service. Will you take a seat, sir, and may I offer you a glass of whiskey? It is as good as the port, if I may say so."
Stafford accepted, and presented his cigar case. He asked the distance to the new house on the other side of the lake, and having been informed, spoke of the fishing.
"You did very well to-day, sir." said Mr. Groves. "You were fishing in the Heron water, I suppose?"
This was what Stafford wanted.
"Yes," he said. "I was poaching. I mistook it for the Lesset water. I must go over and apologise to Mr. Heron. By the way, I was told I was poaching by a young lady who rode down to the stream while I was fishing. I had some little conversation with her, but I did not learn her name. She was a young lady with dark hair, rode a big horse, and had a couple of dogs with her—a collie and a fox-terrier." The landlord had nodded assentingly at each item of the description.
"That must have been Miss Ida—Miss Heron, the squire's daughter, sir," he said.
Stafford's brows went up.
"No wonder she stared at me," he said, almost to himself. "But are you sure? The young lady I saw was not dressed, well—like a squire's daughter, and she was looking after some sheep like—like a farmer's girl."
The landlord nodded again.
"That was Miss Ida, right enough, sir," he said, with a touch of respect, and something like pride in his tone. "Indeed, it couldn't be anyone else. No doubt Miss Ida had come down to look after the sheep in the valley; and there's no farmer's daughter in the vale that could do it better, or half so well, as she. There isn't a girl in the county, or, for that matter, a man, either, who can ride like Miss Ida, or knows more about the points of a horse or a dog—yes, and you may say a cow—than the squire's daughter. And as to her being poorly dressed—well, there's a reason for that, sir. The family's poor—very poor."
"Yet the dale seems to be called after them?" Stafford remarked.
"It is, sir!" assented the landlord. "At one time they owned more land than any other of the big families here; miles and miles of it, with some of the best farms. But that was before my time, though I've heard my father tell of it; there's not very much left now beyond the dale and the home meadows." He sighed as he spoke and looked sadly at the costly cigar which he was smoking. The feudal spirit still exists in the hearts of the men who were born in these remote dales and towering hills, and the landlord of the little inn was as proud of the antiquity of the Heron family, and as sorry for its broken fortune as any villein of the middle ages could have been for the misfortunes of his feudal baron.
"Heron Hall used to be a fine place at one time, sir. I can remember my father describing what it was in his and his father's days; how there used to be scores of servants, and as many as fifty horses in the stables; with the great place filled with guests summer and winter, spring and autumn. The Squire Heron of that time never rode behind less than four horses, and once, when he was high sheriff, he rode to meet the judges with six. It was open house to every poor man in the place, and no wanderer was ever turned from the door. The squire of my father's time was the county member, and the day he was elected there were two hogsheads of port and two of brandy broached on the lawn in front of the terrace; and for a week afterwards there was scarcely a sober man in the town for miles round. He was master of the hounds, and the hunt breakfasts and the hunt balls were more splendid than anything else of that kind in the kingdom; in fact, people used to come from all parts of the kingdom to attend them. Yes, the Herons made Herondale famous, as you may say, sir."
He paused and shook his head, and Stafford remained silent: he was too wise to break in upon the narrative. The landlord sighed and looked lovingly at his cigar, then went on:
"They offered that squire—Miss Ida's grandfather—a peerage; the Herons had often been offered a baronetcy; but they'd always refused, and the squire declined the peerage. He said that no man could wish to be higher than Heron, of Herondale; that better men than he had been contented with it, and he was quite satisfied with the rank which had satisfied his forefathers. When he died, the followers at the funeral made a procession a mile and a quarter long."
"How did the family lose its money, drop its greatness?" Stafford asked.
The landlord screwed up his eyes thoughtfully.
"Well, it's hard to tell, sir," he replied. "Of course there was always a tremendous drain going on; for it was not only down here that the squire spent the money freely; but it was just the same or worse when he was in London; he had a big house there, and entertained as splendidly, perhaps more so, than he did at the Hall. In those days, too, sir, there was as much gaming and betting as there is now, perhaps more—though I'm told that great folks are more given nowadays to gambling on the Stock Exchange than at cards or race-horses; begging your pardon, sir!"
"I'm afraid you're right," assented Stafford, with his short laugh. "I prefer the old way myself."
"Just so, sir," said the landlord, with an approving nod. "Well, what with the money going here and there and everywhere, they found when the present squire's father died that there was very little left; and worse than all, that some of the land was sold, and what remained was heavily mortgaged. It's what often happens to old families, sir, more's the pity!"
"Yes," said Stafford. "And is the present squire like his father?"
"No, sir, not a bit," replied the landlord, with a thoughtful and somewhat puzzled frown. "Quite the reverse. His father was free and easy with everybody, and had a pleasant word and shake of the hand for everyone he met; but the present squire was always shy and quiet as a boy; kind of reserved and stand-offish, if you know what I mean, sir. When he came into the property, he became more reserved than ever, avoided all his father's old friends and shut himself up at the Hall and kept himself to himself. He was a college gentleman and fond of books, and he spent all his time alone in his library like a—a hermit. He went abroad for a time, to Italy, they thought, and he came back with a wife; but she didn't make things more lively, for she died soon after Miss Ida was born. Miss Ida was the only child. She was sent away for some time to be taken care of by one of the relatives, and she's only been back for a couple of years."
"Poor girl," said Stafford, involuntarily.
"Well, yes, you may say that, sir," said the landlord, but doubtfully, "though it don't seem as if Miss Ida was in need of much pity; she is so bright and—and high-spirited, as you may say; though it's a wonder she can be so, seeing the life she leads, alone in that great place with her father, who never goes beyond the garden, and who shuts himself up with his books all day. Yes, it's a wonder, when you come to think of it, that she can smile and laugh and be as cheerful as she is. I often hear her singing when she's riding through the dale or along the road here. Miss Ida's wonderfully liked by all the people, sir; in fact, you might say that they worship her."
"I can understand it," said Stafford, almost to himself.
"It must have been great change to her," continued the landlord, "coming down here from London to such a wild, out-of-the-way place; many young ladies would have lost heart and pined and fretted; but she's a true Heron, is Miss Ida, and she faced the thing fairly and buckled to, as you may say. She took the whole thing on her shoulders, and though she couldn't coax the squire out of his shell, she takes care of him and runs the whole place as if she were a man. Yes, sir, though she's only a girl, as you saw yourself, she manages the house and the farm as if she were a woman of forty. It's wonderful how she's picked it up. I honestly believe there isn't a man in the place as knows more about horses, as I said, than she does; but that's in the blood, sir, and she can ride—well, you saw for yourself."
"And has she no society, no amusements; doesn't she go out, have friends, I mean?"
The landlord shook his head.
"No, sir; she just lives there with the squire, and they see no one, receive no visits and pay none. You see, sir, the Herons are proud; they're got cause to be, and I've heard it told that the squire is too proud to let the old family friends see the poverty of the house, and that he hates the new people who bought land and built houses in the place—I'm sure I beg your pardon, sir—I was forgetting for the moment that your father, Sir Stephen, had just built that beautiful place the other side of the lake."
"That's all right, Mr. Groves," he said. "I can quite understand Mr. Heron thinking it confounded cheek of a stranger to come here and stick up a great white place which no one can fail to see five miles off. I suppose you think if I were to present myself at the Hall, I should get a very cold reception, eh?"
"I'm afraid you wouldn't get any reception at all, sir," replied Groves, with respectful candour. "I am afraid neither Mr. Heron nor Miss Ida would see you. The old butler would just say: 'Not at home,' as he says to the county people when they try and call there, especially if they knew who you were, sir. If I remember rightly, the part of the land Sir Stephen bought belonged to the Herons."
"I see," said Stafford. "It strikes me it is rather a sad story, Mr. Groves; it's a case of the children paying for the sins of their fathers."
"That's it, sir," assented the landlord. "It takes ages to build up a house and a family like the Herons; but one man can knock it down, so to speak. It's hard lines for Miss Ida, who is as well-born as any of the titled people in the county, and far better than most. They say that she's been wonderful well educated, too; though, of course, she hasn't seen anything of the world, having come straight from some small place in foreign parts to be shut up in the dale. And it's quite out of the world here, sir, especially in the winter when the snow lies so thick that we're almost imprisoned. But wet or fine, hot or cold, Miss Ida can always be seen riding or driving or walking; she's a regular Westmoreland lass for that; no weather frights her."
At this juncture Howard sauntered out of the sitting-room, and he and Stafford went to the open door and looked out on the exquisite view which was now bathed in the soft light of a newly risen moon.
"It still has a smack of Drury Lane, hasn't it?" said Howard. "Strange that whenever we see anything beautiful in the way of a landscape we at once compare it with a stage 'set.' The fact of it is, my dear Stafford, we have become absolutely artificial; we pretend to admire Nature, but we are thinking of a theatre all the time; we throw up our eyes ecstatically when we hear a nightingale, but we much prefer a comic singer at the Tivoli. We talk sentiment, at feast, some of us, but we have ceased to feel it; we don't really know what it means. I believe some of the minor poets still write about what they call Love, but in my private opinion the thing itself has become instinct. Who knows anything about it? Take yourself, for instance; you've never been in love, you've everything that you can desire, you're clad in purple and fine linen, you fare sumptuously every day, you flirt six days in the week, and rest not on the seventh—but love! You don't know what it means; and if you do, you're far too wise in your generation to go in for such an uncomfortable emotion."
Stafford smiled rather absently; he was scarcely listening; he was so accustomed to Howard's cynical diatribes that more often than not they made no more impression on him than water on a duck's back. Besides, he was thinking of Ida Heron, the girl whose strange history he had just been listening to.
There was silence for a minute or two, and while they stood leaning against the door-way two men came out of another door in the inn and stood talking. They were commercial travellers, and they were enjoying their pipes—of extremely strong tobacco—after a hard day's work. Presently one of them said:
"Seen that place of Sir Stephen Orme's on the hill? Splendacious, isn't it? Must have cost a small fortune. I wonder what the old man's game is."
The other man shook his head, and laughed.
"Of course he's up to some game. He wouldn't lay out all that money for nothing, millionaire as he is. He's always got something up his sleeve. Perhaps he's going to entertain some big swell he wants to get into his net, or some of the foreign princes he's hand-in-glove with. You never know what Sir Stephen Orme's up to. Perhaps he's going to stand for the county; if so, he's bound to get in. He always succeeds, or, if he don't, you don't hear of his failures. He's the sort of man Disraeli used to write about in his novels. One of the chaps who'd go through fire and water to get their ends; yes, and blood too, if it's necessary. There's been some queer stories told about him; they say he sticks at nothing. Look at that last Turkish concession."
The speaker and his companion sauntered down the road. Stafford and Howard had heard every word; but Stafford looked straight before him, and made no sign, and Howard yawned as if he had not heard a syllable.
"Do you raise any objection to my going to my little bed, Stafford?" he asked. "I suppose, having done nothing more than clamber about a river, get wet through, and tramp a dozen miles over hills, you do not feel tired."
"No," said Stafford, "I don't feel like turning in just yet. Good-night, old man."
When Howard had gone Stafford exchanged his dress-coat for a shooting-jacket, and with the little wallet in his pocket and his pipe in his mouth, he strode up the road. As he said, he did not feel tired—it was difficult for Stafford, with his athletic frame and perfect muscular system, to get tired under any circumstances—the night was one of the loveliest he had ever seen, and it seemed wicked to waste it by going to bed, so he walked on, all unconsciously going in the direction of Heron Hall. The remarks about his father which had fallen from the bagman, stuck to him for a time like a burr: it isn't pleasant to hear your father described as a kind of charlatan and trickster, and Stafford would have liked to have collared the man and knocked an apology out of him; but there are certain disadvantages attached to the position of gentlemen, and one of them is that you have to pretend to be deaf to speeches that were not intended for your ears; so Stafford could not bash the bagman for having spoken disrespectfully of the great Sir Stephen Orme.
But presently, almost suddenly, Stafford came in sight of the magnificent iron gates, and he forgot his father and the talkative commercial traveller, and his interest in the girl of the dale flashed back upon him with full force. He saw that the gates were chained and locked, and, with a natural curiosity, he followed the road beside the wall. It stopped almost abruptly and gave place to a low railing which divided the lawn in front of the house from the park beyond; and the long irregular facade of the old building was suddenly revealed.
Stafford looked at it with admiration mingled with pity. In the light of the story the landlord had told him he realised the full pathos of its antique grandeur. It was not a ruin by any means: but it was grim with the air of neglect, of desolation, of solitude. In two only, of the many windows, was there any light; there was no sound of life about the vast place; and the moonlight showed up with cruel distinctness the ravages made in stone-work and wood-work by the clawlike hand of Time. A capital of one of the pillars of the still handsome portico had crumbled, several of the pillars were broken and askew; the great door was blistered and cracked by the sun; evidently no paint had touched the place for years. The stone balustrade of the broad terrace had several gaps in it, and the coping and the pillars were lying where they had fallen; the steps of the terrace had grass growing in the interstices of the stones; one of the lions which had flanked the steps had disappeared, and the remaining one was short of a front leg. The grass on the lawn was long and unkempt, the flower beds weedy and straggly, and the flowers themselves growing wild and untrained.
But for the smoke which ascended from two or three of the many chimneys the place might well have seemed deserted and uninhabited, and Stafford with this feeling upon him stood and gazed at the place unrestrainedly. It was difficult for him to realise that only a few hours ago he had left London, that only last night he had dined at his club and gone to the big Merrivale dance; it was as if he were standing in some scene of the middle ages; he would not have been greatly surprised if the grass-grown terrace had suddenly become crowded by old-world forms in patches and powder, hoops and ruffles.
"Good Lord, what would some of the people I know give to belong to—to own this place!" he said to himself. "To think of that girl living alone here with her father!"
He was turning away when he heard a slight sound, the great door opened slowly, and "that girl" came out on to the terrace. She stood for a moment on the great marble door sill, then she crossed the terrace, and leaning on the balustrade, looked dreamily at the moonlit view which lay before her. She could not see Stafford's tall figure, which was concealed by the shadow of one of the trees; and she thought herself alone, as usual. Her solitude did not sadden her, she was accustomed to it; and presently, as if moved by the exquisite beauty of the night, her lips parted and she half sang, half hummed the jewel song from "Faust." She had looked beautiful enough in her old riding-habit and hat, but she seemed a vision of loveliness as she stood in the moonlight with the old house for a background. There was something bewitchingly virginal in the rapt and dreamy face with its dark eyes and long lashes, in the soft, delicately cut lips, the pure ivory pallor; at the same time something equally bewitching in the modernness of her dress, which was of soft cream cashmere, made rather long and in accord with the present fashion; she had placed a rose in the bosom of her dress and it stood out redly, richly from the soft cream. Her hair was no longer rough and touzled by the wind, but brushed in rippling smoothness and coiled in dainty neatness in the nape of her graceful neck. No wonder Stafford caught his breath, held it, as it were, as he gazed at the exquisite picture, which formed so striking a contrast to her surroundings.
She leant her chin on her hand and looked before her as she sung softly; and at that moment her thoughts strayed from the question of what she should do to keep the cows from the lawn, to the young man who had rescued her lamb for her. She did not think of him with anything like interest or curiosity, but she was recalling the ludicrous picture he made as he struggled to the bank with the lamb in his arms, and a faint smile crossed her face. At this moment Donald and Bess strolled out to join her. They would much have preferred to have remained roasting themselves in front of the Hall fire, but, ridiculous as it was for their mistress to leave the warm house for the comparatively cold terrace, they felt themselves in duty bound to join her. Perhaps they might catch sight of a rabbit to repay them for their exertions. Donald walked with stately steps toward his mistress, and Bess was following, with a shiver of reluctance and a backward glance towards the fire-light which shone through the open door, when suddenly she sniffed the presence of a stranger, and, with a sharp yap, hurled herself down the broad steps and towards the spot where Stafford still stood. Donald, with a loud bay, followed with his long stride, and Ida, startled from her reverie, followed as far as the top of the steps, and waited.
"I might have expected the faithful watch-dog," said Stafford to himself. "Now, what on earth am I to do? I suppose they'll spring on me—the collie, at any rate. It's no use running; I've got to stop and face it. What a confounded nuisance! nuisance! But it serves me right. I've no business to be loafing about the place."
As the dogs came up, he put on that air of conciliation which we all know, and murmuring "Good dog! All right, old chap!" tried to pacify Donald and Bess. But they were not accustomed to intruders, especially at that time of night, and they were legitimately furious. Dancing round him, and displaying dazzling teeth threateningly, they drew nearer and nearer, and they would certainly have sprung upon him; but the girl came, not running, but quickly, down the steps and straight across the dewy grass towards them, calling to the dogs as she came in her clear, low voice, which had not a trace of fear in it. Their loud barking changed to sullen growls as she approached; and, motioning them to be still, she stopped and gazed at Stafford, who stepped out into the moonlight.
She said not a word, but, as she recognised him, a faint colour came into the ivory pallor of her cheek and an expression of surprise in the dark, fearless eyes.
Stafford raised his cap.
"I am very sorry!" he said. "I am afraid you must think me a great nuisance; this is the second time I have been guilty of trespass."
She was silent for a moment, not with shyness, but as if she were noticing the change in his dress, and wondering how he came to be in evening-clothes, and where he had come from. The expression was one of simple girlish curiosity, which softened in a delicious way the general pride and hauteur of her face.
"You are not trespassing," she said, and the voice sounded very sweet and musical after the din of the dogs. "There is public right of way along this road."
"I am immensely relieved," said Stafford. "It looks so unfrequented, that I was afraid it was private, and that I had made another blunder; all the same, I am very sorry that I should have disturbed you and made the dogs kick up such a row. I would have gone on or gone back if I had known you were coming out; but the place looked so quiet—"
"It does not matter," she said; "they bark at the slightest noise, and we are used to it. The place is so quiet because only my father and I live here, and there are only a few servants, and the place is so big."
All this was said not repiningly, but softly and a little dreamily. By this time Donald and Bess had recovered their tempers, and after a close inspection of the intruder had come to the conclusion that he was of the right sort, and Donald was sitting close on his launches beside Stafford, and thrusting his nose against Stafford's hand invitingly. The girl's beauty seemed to Stafford almost bewildering, and yet softly and sweetly a part of the beauty of the night; he was conscious of a fear, that was actually a dread, that she would bow, call the dogs and leave him; so, before she could do so, he made haste to say:
"Now I am here, will you allow me to apologise for my trespass of this afternoon?"
She inclined her head slightly.
"It does not matter," she said; "you were very kind in helping me with the lamb; and I ought to have told you that my father would be very glad if you would fish in the Heron; you will find some better trout higher up the valley."
"Thank you very much," said Stafford.
Calling the dogs, she turned away; then, fortunately, Stafford remembered the case of instruments.
"Oh, I beg your pardon!" he said; "I forgot this wallet. I found it by the stream after you had gone."
"Oh, my wallet!" she cried. "I am so glad you have found it. I don't know what I should have done if you had not; I should have had to send to Preston or to London; and, besides, it was a present from the old veterinary surgeon; he left it to me. There were some beautiful instruments in it."
Still smiling, she opened it, as if to show him. Stafford drew near, so near as to become conscious of the perfume of the rose in her bosom, of the still fainter but more exquisite perfume of her hair. He bent over the case in silence, and while they were looking a cloud sailed across the moon.
The sudden disappearance of the light roused her, as it were, to a sense of his presence.
"Thank you for bringing it to me," she said; "it was very good of you."
"Oh, I hadn't to bring it far," said Stafford. "I am staying at The Woodman Inn, at Carysford."
"Oh," she said; "you are a tourist—you are fishing?"
Stafford could not bring himself to say that he was the son of the man who had built the great white house, which, no doubt, her father and she resented.
"You have a very beautiful place here," he said, after a pause.
She turned and looked at the house in the dim light, with a touch of pride in her dreamy eyes.
"Yes," she said, as if it were useless to deny the fact.
"It is very old, and I ma very fond—"
She stopped suddenly, her lips apart, her eyes fixed on the farther end of the terrace; for while she had been speaking a figure, only just perceptible in the semi-darkness, had moved slowly across the end of the terrace, paused for a moment at the head of the flight of steps, and then slowly descended.
Stafford also saw it, and glancing at her he saw that she was startled, if not frightened. She scarcely seemed to breathe, and she turned her large, dark eyes upon him questioningly, somewhat appealingly.
"What is that?" she said, in a whisper, more to herself than to him.
"Someone—a man has gone down the steps from the house," he said. "Don't you know who it is?"
"No," she replied in as low a voice. "It is not Jason—there is no one else—who can it be? I will go and see."
She moved towards the terrace, and Stafford said:
"I will come with you; you will let me?"
She did not refuse; indeed, she appeared to have forgotten his presence: together they crossed the lawn and reached the corner of the house near which the figure had disappeared. It struck Stafford as strange that the dogs did not bark. In profound silence they went in the direction the figure had taken, and Stafford presently saw a ruined building, which had evidently been a chapel. As they approached it the figure came out of it and towards them. As it passed them, so close that they instinctively drew back, Stafford saw that it was an old man in a dressing-gown; his head was bare, his hair touched the collar of the gown. His eyes were wide open, and gazing straight in front of him.
Stafford was about to step forward and arrest his progress, when suddenly the girl's hand seized his and gripped it.
"Hush!" she whispered, with subdued terror. "It is my father. He—yes, he is asleep! Oh, see, he is asleep! He will fall—hurt himself—"
She, in her turn, was about to spring forward, but Stafford caught her arm.
"No, no, you must not!" he said, in a hurried whisper. "I think it would be dangerous. I think he is all right if you let him alone. He is walking in his sleep. Don't speak—don't cry out."
"No, no," she breathed. "But it is dreadful."
Instinctively, unconsciously, she drew closer to Stafford, almost clung to him, watching her father over her shoulder until the figure, with its ghastly, mechanical movement and vacant stare, had passed into the house; then, with a long breath, and with her hands clasping her throat, as if she were stifling, she broke from Stafford and sprang quickly and noiselessly up the steps and disappeared also. Wondering whether he was awake or dreaming, Stafford waited for over an hour to see if she would appear again; and he was turning away at last, when her figure appeared in the open door-way, like that of a wraith. She waved her hand to him, then disappeared, and the door closed.
Still asking himself if he were not in a land of dreams, but tingling with the touch of her small hand, with the haunting perfume of the soft black hair, Stafford gained the road and walked towards the inn.
Ida had followed her father across the terrace, across the hall, lit weirdly by the glow of the sinking fire and the pale moonlight, up the broad stairs, along the corridor to the open door of his room. He had walked slowly but steadily with his usual gait, and his head bent slightly; though his eyes were wide open, he seemed to see nothing, yet he did not stumble or even hesitate. Ida followed behind him with absolute noiselessness. They were both ghostlike in their movements, and the dogs stood and watched them intently, ears erect, and with that gravity in their eyes which dogs wear when they are puzzled.
The old man closed his door softly, still without any hesitation, and Ida, grasping the broad rail of the staircase, waited breathlessly. She heard him moving about, as leisurely and precisely as before; then all was still. She stole to the door and opened it; the light was streaming into the room and fell athwart the bed in which he was lying, his eyes closed, his face calm and peaceful; she went on tiptoe to the bed and bent over him, and found that he was in a deep, profound sleep. With a long breath of relief, she left him, and sat on the stairs and waited; for it was just possible that he might rise again and resume the dreadful walk—that motion of death in life.
She waited for an hour, so absorbed in her anxiety that she did not remember the man she had left outside. After another quarter of an hour she went to her father's room, and found that he was still sleeping. Then she remembered Stafford, remembered him with a start of discomfort and embarrassment. Was he waiting there still? She went down-stairs, and from the open door-way she saw dimly his figure under the trees. There was something in the attitude of the erect figure that reminded her of a soldier on guard, a sentinel standing faithful at his post; and when she had waved her hand in dismissal she did not quite close the door, but watched him through the narrow opening as he paced slowly down the road, looking back at the house now and again as if to see if she wanted him.
Then she closed the door, signed to the dogs to be down before the fire, and went up to her room, after pausing beside her father's door and listening to his regular breathing. Her room was a large one—nearly all the rooms in the place were large; and as she undressed herself slowly she looked round it with a novel sense of loneliness. The tall shadows of her graceful yet girlish figure were cast grotesquely on the wall by the candles beside her glass. She had never felt lonely before, though her life ever since she had arrived at the Hall might be called one almost of solitude.
She had been so absorbed in the duties which had so suddenly fallen upon her young shoulders that there had been no time in which to feel the want of companionship. There had always been something to think of, something to do; her father demanded so much attention; the house, the land, the farm—she had to look after them all; there had not been time to think even of herself; and it had never occurred to her that she was leading a life so different to that led by most girls. But to-night the silence of the great house, large enough to hold fifty people, but sheltering only five persons—her father and herself and the three servants—weighed upon her.
That sense of loneliness had come upon her suddenly as she had watched the young man's retreating figure. She could not help thinking of him even when her mind was oppressed with anxiety on her father's account. In a vague way she remembered how kind this stranger had been; how quietly, and with what an air of protection, he had stood by her and restrained her from crying out and alarming her father. As vaguely, she remembered that in the moment of her terror she had clung to him, had forgotten under the great strain that he was a stranger—and a man. Even now she did not know his name, knew nothing of him except that he was staying at The Woodman Inn.
Kind and considerate as he had been she thought of him with something like resentment; it was as if he had stepped into her life, had intruded upon its quiet uneventfulness. He had no right to be there, no right, to have seen her father in that terrible condition, that death in life. And she had behaved like a frightened servant-maid; had not only clung to him—had she clung to him, or was it only fancy?—but had left him without a word of thanks, had allowed him to wait there, and then had waved her hand to him just as she had seen Jessie, the maid, wave her hand to her "young man" after they had parted, and she was going into the house.
She bit her lip softly and a faint flush rose to the clear pallor of the lovely, girlish face reflected in the glass. Yes, she had behaved just like a servant-maid, she who in her heart of hearts knew that she prided herself upon her dignity and the good manners which should belong to a Heron of Herondale. It was characteristic of her that while she thought of his conduct and what she considered her bad behaviour, she gave no thought to the fact that the stranger who had so "intruded" was singularly handsome and possessed of that strange quality which at once impresses women. Most girls would have remembered the fact, but Ida was different to the general run of her sex. She had been brought up in an out-of-the-way place in which the modern novel, the fashionable pastime of flirtation, were not known; and her secluded life in the lonely dale had deepened that sense of aloofness from the world, that indifference to the sentiment which lurks in most girls' bosoms. This tall, handsome man who had stepped into her life and shared the secret of her father's strange affliction, weakness, was nothing more to her than one of the other tourists whom she sometimes chanced to see on her lonely rides and walks.
When she had undressed she went again to her father's door and listened to his deep and regular breathing; then, at last, she went to bed; but the sense of loneliness was so intense that she lay awake for hours thinking of that bent figure walking in its sleep from the shadows of the ruined chapel. For the future she would have to watch her father closely, would perhaps have to lock the door of his room. Why had he gone to the chapel? So far as she knew he was not in the habit of going there; indeed, she did not remember having seen him go there in his waking moments. She knew nothing of somnambulism; but she imagined that he had gone in that direction by mere chance, that if he had happened to find any impediment in his way he might as easily have gone in another direction.
She fell asleep at last and slept an hour beyond her usual time, and so deeply that Jessie had filled the cold bath without waking her beloved young mistress. Ida dressed quickly, all the incidents of the preceding night rushing through her mind, and hurried to her father's room; the door was open, the room empty, and, with a sudden fear, she ran down the stairs and found him in his usual seat in the library. She drew a long breath and went and kissed him, wishing him good-morning as casually as she could.
"You are up early this morning, father," she said, trying to keep her tone free from any anxiety.
He glanced at the clock calmly.
"No, you are later," he said.
His eyes met hers with their usual expression of absentminded serenity.
"I—I was a little tired and overslept myself," she said. "Are—are you quite well this morning, father?"
"Yes, quite well. Why not?" he replied, with slight surprise.
She drew a breath of relief: it was quite evident that he knew nothing of that weird walk, and that it had not affected him injuriously.
"Nothing," she said, forcing a smile.
As she spoke, Jason, in his in-door livery, which, in some strange way, looked as if it had shrunken with the figure which had worn, it so long, came to the door, and in his husky voice said that breakfast was ready; and Ida, taking her father's arm, led him into the dining-room in which all their meals were served.
As she went to her place she glanced through the window, from which she could see the steps at the corner of the terrace and a small part of the ruined chapel, and she shuddered.
When she had poured out her father's coffee, she took it round to him and let her hand rest on his shoulder lovingly; but Jason had brought in the post-bag and Mr. Heron was unlocking it and taking out the few letters and papers, and seemed unconscious of the little anxious caress.
"Are there any for me, father?" she asked, lingering beside him, and she stretched out her hand to turn the envelopes on their right side; but he stopped her quickly and swept them together, covering them with his long hand—the shapely Heron hand.
"No, no," he said, almost sharply; "they are all for me; they are business letters, booksellers' catalogues, sale catalogues—nothing of importance."
She went back to her place and he waited until she had done so before he began to open the letters. He merely glanced at some of them, but presently he came to one which, after a sharp, quick look at her, he read attentively; then he returned it to its envelope and, with a secretive movement, slipped it into the pocket of his dressing-gown. "Yes, nothing but catalogues and bills; you'd better take them, Ida; the bills, at any rate."
And he threw them across to her.
When she had first come home to be mistress of the Hall the bills had overwhelmed her; they had been so many and the money to meet them had been so inadequate; but she had soon learnt how to "finance" them, and come to know which account must be paid at once, and which might be allowed to stand over.
She took them now and glanced at them, and the old man watched her covertly, with a curious expression on his face.
"I'm sure I don't know how you will pay them," he said, as if she alone were responsible.
"I can't pay all of them at once," she replied, cheerfully. "But I can some, and the rest must wait. I can send four—perhaps five—of the steers to the monthly market, and then there are the sheep—Oh, father, I did not tell; you about the gentleman I saw fishing in the dale—"
She stopped, for she saw that he was not listening. He had opened a local paper and was reading it intently, and presently he looked up with an eager flush on his face and a sudden lightening of the dull eyes.
"Have you seen this—this house—they call it a palace—which that man has built on the lake side?" he asked, his thin voice quavering with resentment.