HotFreeBooks.com
Innocent - Her Fancy and His Fact
by Marie Corelli
1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

INNOCENT

Her Fancy and His Fact

By MARIE CORELLI

Author of "God's Good Man," "The Treasure of Heaven," Etc.



BOOK ONE: HER FANCY



INNOCENT

BOOK ONE

CHAPTER I

The old by-road went rambling down into a dell of deep green shadow. It was a reprobate of a road,—a vagrant of the land,— having long ago wandered out of straight and even courses and taken to meandering aimlessly into many ruts and furrows under arching trees, which in wet weather poured their weight of dripping rain upon it and made it little more than a mud pool. Between straggling bushes of elder and hazel, blackberry and thorn, it made its solitary shambling way, so sunken into itself with long disuse that neither to the right nor to the left of it could anything be seen of the surrounding country. Hidden behind the intervening foliage on either hand were rich pastures and ploughed fields, but with these the old road had nothing in common. There were many things better suited to its nature, such as the melodious notes of the birds which made their homes year after year amid its bordering thickets, or the gathering together in springtime of thousands of primroses, whose pale, small, elfin faces peeped out from every mossy corner,—or the scent of secret violets in the grass, filling the air with the delicate sweetness of a breathing made warm by the April sun. Or when the thrill of summer drew the wild roses running quickly from the earth skyward, twining their stems together in fantastic arches and tufts of deep pink and flush-white blossom, and the briony wreaths with their small bright green stars swung pendent from over-shadowing boughs like garlands for a sylvan festival. Or the thousands of tiny unassuming herbs which grew up with the growing speargrass, bringing with them pungent odours from the soil as from some deep- laid storehouse of precious spices. These choice delights were the old by-road's peculiar possession, and through a wild maze of beauty and fragrance it strayed on with a careless awkwardness, getting more and more involved in tangles of green,—till at last, recoiling abruptly as it were upon its own steps, it stopped short at the entrance to a cleared space in front of a farmyard. With this the old by-road had evidently no sort of business whatever, and ended altogether, as it were, with a rough shock of surprise at finding itself in such open quarters. No arching trees or twining brambles were here,—it was a wide, clean brick-paved place chiefly possessed by a goodly company of promising fowls, and a huge cart-horse. The horse was tied to his manger in an open shed, and munched and munched with all the steadiness and goodwill of the sailor's wife who offended Macbeth's first witch. Beyond the farmyard was the farmhouse itself,—a long, low, timbered building with a broad tiled roof supported by huge oaken rafters and crowned with many gables,—a building proudly declaring itself as of the days of Elizabeth's yeomen, and bearing about it the honourable marks of age and long stress of weather. No such farmhouses are built nowadays, for life has become with us less than a temporary thing,—a coin to be spent rapidly as soon as gained, too valueless for any interest upon it to be sought or desired. In olden times it was apparently not considered such cheap currency. Men built their homes to last not only for their own lifetime, but for the lifetime of their children and their children's children; and the idea that their children's children might possibly fail to appreciate the strenuousness and worth of their labours never entered their simple brains.

The farmyard was terminated at its other end by a broad stone archway, which showed as in a semi-circular frame the glint of scarlet geraniums in the distance, and in the shadow cast by this embrasure was the small unobtrusive figure of a girl. She stood idly watching the hens pecking at their food and driving away their offspring from every chance of sharing bit or sup with them,—and as she noted the greedy triumph of the strong over the weak, the great over the small, her brows drew together in a slight frown of something like scorn. Yet hers was not a face that naturally expressed any of the unkind or harsh emotions. It was soft and delicately featured, and its rose-white tints were illumined by grave, deeply-set grey eyes that were full of wistful and questioning pathos. In stature she was below the middle height and slight of build, so that she seemed a mere child at first sight, with nothing particularly attractive about her except, perhaps, her hands. These were daintily shaped and characteristic of inbred refinement, and as they hung listlessly at her sides looked scarcely less white than the white cotton frock she wore. She turned presently with a movement of impatience away from the sight of the fussy and quarrelsome fowls, and looking up at the quaint gables of the farmhouse uttered a low, caressing call. A white dove flew down to her instantly, followed by another and yet another. She smiled and extended her arms, and a whole flock of the birds came fluttering about her in a whirl of wings, perching on her shoulders and alighting at her feet. One that seemed to enjoy a position of special favouritism, flew straight against her breast,—she caught it and held it there. It remained with her quite contentedly, while she stroked its velvety neck.

"Poor Cupid!" she murmured. "You love me, don't you? Oh yes, ever so much! Only you can't tell me so! I'm glad! You wouldn't be half so sweet if you could!"

She kissed the bird's soft head, and still stroking it scattered all the others around her by a slight gesture, and went, followed by a snowy cloud of them, through the archway into the garden beyond. Here there were flower-beds formally cut and arranged in the old-fashioned Dutch manner, full of sweet-smelling old- fashioned things, such as stocks and lupins, verbena and mignonette,—there were box-borders and clumps of saxifrage, fuchsias, and geraniums,—and roses that grew in every possible way that roses have ever grown, or can ever grow. The farmhouse fronted fully on this garden, and a magnificent "Glory" rose covered it from its deep black oaken porch to its highest gable, wreathing it with hundreds of pale golden balls of perfume. A real "old" rose it was, without any doubt of its own intrinsic worth and sweetness,—a rose before which the most highly trained hybrids might hang their heads for shame or wither away with envy, for the air around it was wholly perfumed with its honey-scented nectar, distilled from peaceful years upon years of sunbeams and stainless dew. The girl, still carrying her pet dove, walked slowly along the narrow gravelled paths that encircled the flower- beds and box-borders, till, reaching a low green door at the further end of the garden, she opened it and passed through into a newly mown field, where several lads and men were about busily employed in raking together the last swaths of a full crop of hay and adding them to the last waggon which stood in the centre of the ground, horseless, and piled to an almost toppling height. One young fellow, with a crimson silk tie knotted about his open shirt-collar, stood on top of the lofty fragrant load, fork in hand, tossing the additional heaps together as they were thrown up to him. The afternoon sun blazed burningly down on his uncovered head and bare brown arms, and as he shook and turned the hay with untiring energy, his movements were full of the easy grace and picturesqueness which are often the unconscious endowment of those whose labour keeps them daily in the fresh air. Occasional bursts of laughter and scraps of rough song came from the others at work, and there was only one absolutely quiet figure among them, that of an old man sitting on an upturned barrel which had been but recently emptied of its home-brewed beer, meditatively smoking a long clay pipe. He wore a smock frock and straw hat, and under the brim of the straw hat, which was well pulled down over his forehead, his filmy eyes gleamed with an alert watchfulness. He seemed to be counting every morsel of hay that was being added to the load and pricing it in his mind, but there was no actual expression of either pleasure or interest on his features. As the girl entered the field, and her gown made a gleam of white on the grass, he turned his head and looked at her, puffing hard at his pipe and watching her approach only a little less narrowly than he watched the piling up of the hay. When she drew sufficiently near him he spoke.

"Coming to ride home on last load?"

She hesitated.

"I don't know. I'm not sure," she answered.

"It'll please Robin if you do," he said.

A little smile trembled on her lips. She bent her head over the dove she held against her bosom.

"Why should I please Robin?" she asked.

His dull eyes sparkled with a gleam of anger.

"Please Robin, please ME," he said, sharply—"Please yourself, please nobody."

"I do my best to please YOU, Dad!" she said, gently, yet with emphasis.

He was silent, sucking at his pipe-stem. Just then a whistle struck the air like the near note of a thrush. It came from the man on top of the haywaggon. He had paused in his labour, and his face was turned towards the old man and the girl. It was a handsome face, lighted by a smile which seemed to have caught a reflex of the sun.

"All ready, Uncle!" he shouted—"Ready and waiting!"

The old man drew his pipe from his mouth.

"There you are!" he said, addressing the girl in a softer tone,— "He's wanting you."

She moved away at once. As she went, the men who were raking in the last sweepings of the hay stood aside for her to pass. One of them put a ladder against the wheel of the waggon.

"Going up, miss?" he asked, with a cheerful grin.

She smiled a response, but said nothing.

The young fellow on top of the load looked down. His blue eyes sparkled merrily as he saw her.

"Are you coming?" he called.

She glanced up.

"If you like," she answered.

"If I like!" he echoed, half-mockingly, half-tenderly; "You know I like! Why, you've got that wretched bird with you!"

"He's not a wretched bird," she said,—"He's a darling!"

"Well, you can't climb up here hugging him like that! Let him go, —and then I'll help you."

For all answer she ascended the ladder lightly without assistance, still holding the dove, and in another minute was seated beside him.

"There!" she said, as she settled herself comfortably down in the soft, sweet-smelling hay. "Now you've got your wish, and I hope Dad is happy."

"Did he tell you to come, or did you come of your own accord?" asked the young man, with a touch of curiosity.

"He told me, of course," she answered; "I should never have come of my own accord."

He bit his lip vexedly. Turning away from her he called to the haymakers:

"That'll do, boys! Fetch Roger, and haul in!"

The sun was nearing the western horizon and a deep apricot glow warmed the mown field and the undulating foliage in the far distance. The men began to scatter here and there, putting aside their long wooden rakes, and two of them went off to bring Roger, the cart-horse, from his shed.

"Uncle Hugo!"

The old man, who still sat impassively on the beer-barrel, looked up.

"Ay! What is it?"

"Are you coming along with us?"

Uncle Hugo shook his head despondently.

"Why not? It's the last load this year!"

"Ay!" He lifted his straw hat and waved it in a kind of farewell salute towards the waggon, repeating mechanically: "The last load! The very last!"

Then there came a cessation of movement everywhere for the moment. It was a kind of breathing pause in Nature's everlasting chorus,— a sudden rest, as it seemed, in the very spaces of the air. The young man threw himself down on the hay-load so that he faced the girl, who sat quiet, caressing the dove she held. He was undeniably good-looking, with an open nobility of feature which is uncommon enough among well-born and carefully-nurtured specimens of the human race, and is perhaps still more rarely to be found among those whose lot in life is one of continuous hard manual labour. Just now he looked singularly attractive, the more so, perhaps, because he was unconscious of it. He stretched out one hand towards the girl and touched the hem of her white frock.

"Are you feeling kind?"

Her eyes lightened with a gleam of merriment.

"I am always kind."

"Not to me! Not as kind as you are to that bird."

"Oh, poor Cupid! You're jealous of him!"

He moved a little nearer to her.

"Perhaps I am!" And he spoke in a lower tone. "Perhaps I am, Innocent! I grudge him the privilege of lying there on your dear little white breast! I am envious when you kiss him! I want you to kiss ME!"

His voice was tremulous,—he turned up his face audaciously.

She looked at him with a smile.

"I will if you like!" she said. "I should think no more of kissing you than of kissing Cupid!"

He drew back with a gesture of annoyance.

"I wouldn't be kissed at all that way," he said, hotly.

"Why not?"

"Because it's not the right way. A bird is not a man!"

She laughed merrily.

"Nor a man a bird, though he may have a bird's name!" she said. "Oh, Robin, how clever you are!"

He leaned closer.

"Let Cupid go!" he pleaded,—"I want to ride home on the last load with you alone."

Another little peal of laughter escaped her.

"I declare you think Cupid an actual person!" she said. "If he'll go, he shall. But I think he'll stay."

She loosened her hold of the dove, which, released, gravely hopped up to her shoulder and sat there pruning its wing. She glanced round at it.

"I told you so!" she said,—"He's a fixture."

"I don't mind him so much up there," said Robin, and he ventured to take one of her hands in his own,—"but he always has so much of you; he nestles under your chin and is caressed by your sweet lips,—he has all, and I have,—nothing!"

"You have one hand," said Innocent, with demure gravity.

"But no heart with it!" he said, wistfully. "Innocent, can you never love me?"

She was silent, looking at him critically,—then she gave a little sigh.

"I'm afraid not! But I have often thought about it."

"You have?"—and his eyes grew very tender.

"Oh yes, often! You see, it isn't your fault at all. You are— well!"—here she surveyed him with a whimsical air of admiration, —"you are quite a beautiful man! You have a splendid figure and a good face, and kind eyes and well-shaped feet and hands,—and I like the look of you just now with that open collar and that gleam of sunlight in your curly hair—and your throat is almost white, except for a touch of sunburn, which is RATHER becoming!— especially with that crimson silk tie! I suppose you put that tie on for effect, didn't you?"

He flushed, and laughed lightly.

"Naturally! To please YOU!"

"Really? How thoughtful of you! Well, you are charming,—and I shouldn't mind kissing you at all. But it wouldn't be for love."

"Wouldn't it? What would it be for, then?"

Her face lightened up with the illumination of an inward mirth and mischief.

"Only because you look pretty!" she answered.

He threw aside her hand with an angry gesture of impatience.

"You want to make a fool of me!" he said, petulantly.

"I'm sure I don't! You are just lovely, and I tell you so. That is not making a fool of you!"

"Yes, it is! A man is never lovely. A woman may be."

"Well, I'm not," said Innocent, placidly. "That's why I admire the loveliness of others."

"You are lovely to me," he declared, passionately.

She smiled. There was a touch of compassion in the smile.

"Poor Robin!" she said.

At that moment the hidden goddess in her soul arose and asserted her claim to beauty. A rare indefinable charm of exquisite tenderness and fascination seemed to environ her small and delicate personality with an atmosphere of resistless attraction. The man beside her felt it, and his heart beat quickly with a thrilling hope of conquest.

"So you pity me!" he said,—"Pity is akin to love."

"But kinsfolk seldom agree," she replied. "I only pity you because you are foolish. No one but a very foolish fellow would think ME lovely."

He raised himself a little and peered over the edge of the hay- load to see if there was any sign of the men returning with Roger, but there was no one in the field now except the venerable personage he called Uncle Hugo, who was still smoking away his thoughts, as it were, in a dream of tobacco. And he once more caught the hand he had just let go and covered it with kisses.

"There!" he said, lifting his head and showing an eager face lit by amorous eyes. "Now you know how lovely you are to me! I should like to kiss your mouth like that,—for you have the sweetest mouth in the world! And you have the prettiest hair,—not raw gold which I hate,—but soft brown, with delicious little sunbeams lost in it,—and such a lot of it! I've seen it all down, remember! And your eyes would draw the heart out of any man and send him anywhere,—yes, Innocent!—anywhere,—to Heaven or to Hell!"

She coloured a little.

"That's beautiful talk!" she said,—"It's like poetry, but it isn't true!"

"It is true!" he said, with fond insistence. "And I'll MAKE you love me!"

"Ah, no!" A look of the coldest scorn suddenly passed over her features—"that's not possible. You could never MAKE me do anything! And—it's rude of you to speak in such a way. Please let go my hand!"

He dropped it instantly, and sprang erect.

"All right! I'll leave you to yourself,—and Cupid!" Here he laughed rather bitterly. "What made you give that bird such a name?"

"I found it in a book," she answered,—"It's a name that was given to the god of Love when he was a little boy."

"I know that! Please don't teach me my A.B.C.," said Robin, half- sulkily.

She leaned back laughing, and singing softly:

"Love was once a little boy, Heigh-ho, Heigh-ho! Then 'twas sweet with him to toy, Heigh-ho, Heigh-ho!"

Her eyes sparkled in the sun,—a tress of her hair, ruffled by the hay, escaped and flew like a little web of sunbeams against her cheek. He looked at her moodily.

"You might go on with the song," he said,—"'Love is now a little man—'"

"'And a very naughty one!'" she hummed, with a mischievous upward glance.

Despite his inward vexation, he smiled.

"Say what you like, Cupid is a ridiculous name for a dove," he said.

"It rhymes to stupid," she replied, demurely,—"And the rhyme expresses the nature of the bird and—the god!"

"Pooh! You think that clever!"

"I don't! I never said a clever thing in my life. I shouldn't know how. Everything clever has been written over and over again by people in books."

"Hang books!" he exclaimed. "It's always books with you! I wish we had never found that old chest of musty volumes in the panelled room."

"Do you? Then you are sillier than I thought you were. The books taught me all I know,—about love!"

"About love! You don't know what love means!" he declared, trampling the hay he stood upon with impatience. "You read and read, and you get the queerest ideas into your head, and all the time the world goes on in ways that are quite different from what YOU are thinking about,—and lovers walk through the fields and lanes everywhere near us every year, and you never appear to see them or to envy them—"

"Envy them!" The girl opened her eyes wide. "Envy them! Oh, Cupid, hear! Envy them! Why should I envy them? Who could envy Mr. and Mrs. Pettigrew?"

"What nonsense you talk!" he exclaimed,—"Mr. and Mrs. Pettigrew are married folk, not lovers!"

"But they were lovers once," she said,—"and only three years ago. I remember them, walking through the lanes and fields as you say, with arms round each other,—and Mrs. Pettigrew's hands were always dreadfully red, and Mr. Pettigrew's fingers were always dirty,—and they married very quickly,—and now they've got two dreadful babies that scream all day and all night, and Mrs. Pettigrew's hair is never tidy and Pettigrew himself—well, you know what he does!—"

"Gets drunk every night," interrupted Robin, crossly,—"I know! And I suppose you think I'm another Pettigrew?"

"Oh dear, no!" And she laughed with the heartiest merriment. "You never could, you never would be a Pettigrew! But it all comes to the same thing—love ends in marriage, doesn't it?"

"It ought to," said Robin, sententiously.

"And marriage ends—in Pettigrews!"

"Innocent!"

"Don't say 'Innocent' in that reproachful way! It makes me feel quite guilty! Now,—if you talk of names,—THERE'S a name to give a poor girl,—Innocent! Nobody ever heard of such a name—"

"You're wrong. There were thirteen Popes named Innocent between the years 402 and 1724," said Robin, promptly,—"and one of them, Innocent the Eleventh, is a character in Browning's 'Ring and the Book.'"

"Dear me!" And her eyes flashed provocatively. "You astound me with your wisdom, Robin! But all the same, I don't believe any girl ever had such a name as Innocent, in spite of thirteen Popes. And perhaps the Thirteen had other names?"

"They had other baptismal names," he explained, with a learned air. "For instance, Pope Innocent the Third was Cardinal Lothario before he became Pope, and he wrote a book called 'De Contemptu Mundi sive de Miseria Humanae Conditionis!'"

She looked at him as he uttered the sonorous sounding Latin, with a comically respectful air of attention, and then laughed like a child,—laughed till the tears came into her eyes.

"Oh Robin, Robin!" she cried—"You are simply delicious! The most enchanting boy! That crimson tie and that Latin! No wonder the village girls adore you! 'De,'—what is it? 'Contemptu Mundi,' and Misery Human Conditions! Poor Pope! He never sat on top of a hay- load in his life I'm sure! But you see his name was Lothario,—not Innocent."

"His baptismal name was Lothario," said Robin, severely.

She was suddenly silent.

"Well! I suppose I was baptised?" she queried, after a pause.

"I suppose so."

"I wonder if I have any other name? I must ask Dad."

Robin looked at her curiously;—then his thoughts were diverted by the sight of a squat stout woman in a brown spotted print gown and white sunbonnet, who just then trotted briskly into the hay-field, calling at the top of her voice:

"Mister Jocelyn! Mister Jocelyn! You're wanted!"

"There's Priscilla calling Uncle in," he said, and making a hollow of his hands he shouted:

"Hullo, Priscilla! What is it?"

The sunbonnet gave an upward jerk in his direction and the wearer shrilled out:

"Doctor's come! Wantin' yer Uncle!"

The old man, who had been so long quietly seated on the upturned barrel, now rose stiffly, and knocking out the ashes of his pipe turned towards the farmhouse. But before he went he raised his straw hat again and stood for a moment bareheaded in the roseate glory of the sinking sun. Innocent sprang upright on the load of hay, and standing almost at the very edge of it, shaded her eyes with one hand from the strong light, and looked at him.

"Dad!" she called—"Dad, shall I come?"

He turned his head towards her.

"No, lass, no! Stay where you are, with Robin."

He walked slowly, and with evident feebleness, across the length of the field which divided him from the farmhouse garden, and opening the green gate leading thereto, disappeared. The sun- bonneted individual called Priscilla walked or rather waddled towards the hay-waggon, and setting her arms akimbo on her broad hips, looked up with a grin at the young people on top.

"Well! Ye're a fine couple up there! What are ye a-doin' of?"

"Never mind what we're doing," said Robin, impatiently. "I say, Priscilla, do you think Uncle Hugo is really ill?"

Priscilla's face, which was the colour of an ancient nutmeg, and almost as deeply marked with contrasting lines of brown and yellow, showed no emotion.

"He ain't hisself," she said, bluntly.

"No," said Innocent, seriously,—"I'm sure he isn't." Priscilla jerked her sunbonnet a little further back, showing some tags of dusty grey hair.

"He ain't been hisself for this past year," she went on—"Mr. Slowton, bein' only a kind of village physic-bottle, don't know much, an' yer uncle ain't bin satisfied. Now there's another doctor from London staying up 'ere for 'is own poor 'elth, and yer Uncle said he'd like to 'ave 'is opinion,—so Mr. Slowton, bein' obligin' though ignorant, 'as got 'im in to see yer Uncle, and there they both is, in the best parlour, with special wine an' seedies on the table."

"Oh, it'll be all right!" said Robin, cheerfully,—"Uncle Hugo is getting old, of course, and he's a bit fanciful."

Priscilla sniffed the air.

"Mebbe—and mebbe not! What are you two waitin' for now?"

"For the men to come back with Roger. Then we'll haul home."

"You'll 'ave to wait a bit longer, I'm thinkin'," said Priscilla— "They's all drinkin' beer in the yard now an' tappin' another barrel to drink at when the waggon comes in. There's no animals on earth as ever thirsty as men! Well, good luck t'ye! I must go, or there'll be a smell of burnin' supper-cakes."

She settled her sunbonnet anew and trotted away,—looking rather like a large spotted mushroom mysteriously set in motion and rolling, rather than walking, off the field.

When she was gone, Innocent sat down again upon the hay, this time without Cupid. He had flown off to join his mates on the farmhouse gables.

"Dad is really not well," she said, thoughtfully; "I feel anxious about him. If he were to die,—" At the mere thought her eyes filled with tears. "He must die some day," answered Robin, gently,—"and he's old,—nigh on eighty."

"Oh, I don't want to remember that," she murmured. "It's the cruellest part of life—that people should grow old, and die, and pass away from us. What should I do without Dad? I should be all alone, with no one in the world to care what becomes of me."

"I care!" he said, softly.

"Yes, you care—just now"—she answered, with a sigh; "and it's very kind of you. I wish I could care—in the way you want me to— but—"

"Will you try?" he pleaded.

"I do try—really I do try hard," she said, with quite a piteous earnestness,—"but I can't feel what isn't HERE,"—and she pressed both hands on her breast—"I care more for Roger the horse, and Cupid the dove, than I do for you! It's quite awful of me—but there it is! I love—I simply adore"—and she threw out her arms with an embracing gesture—"all the trees and plants and birds!— and everything about the farm and the farmhouse itself—it's just the sweetest home in the world! There's not a brick or a stone in it that I would not want to kiss if I had to leave it—but I never felt that way for you! And yet I like you very, very much, Robin! —I wish I could see you married to some nice girl, only I don't know one really nice enough."

"Nor do I!" he answered, with a laugh, "except yourself! But never mind, dear!—we won't talk of it any more, just now at any rate. I'm a patient sort of chap. I can wait!"

"How long?" she queried, with a wondering glance.

"All my life!" he answered, simply.

A silence fell between them. Some inward touch of embarrassment troubled the girl, for the colour came and went flatteringly in her soft cheeks and her eyes drooped under his fervent gaze. The glowing light of the sky deepened, and the sun began to sink in a mist of bright orange, which was reflected over all the visible landscape with a warm and vivid glory. That strange sense of beauty and mystery which thrills the air with the approach of evening, made all the simple pastoral scene a dream of incommunicable loveliness,—and the two youthful figures, throned on their high dais of golden-green hay, might have passed for the rustic Adam and Eve of some newly created Eden. They were both very quiet,—with the tense quietness of hearts that are too full for speech. A joy in the present was shadowed with a dim unconscious fear of the future in both their thoughts,—though neither of them would have expressed their feelings in this regard one to the other. A thrush warbled in a hedge close by, and the doves on the farmhouse gables spread their white wings to the late sunlight, cooing amorously. And again the man spoke, with a gentle firmness:

"All my life I shall love you, Innocent! Whatever happens, remember that! All my life!"



CHAPTER II

The swinging open of a great gate at the further end of the field disturbed the momentary silence which followed his words. The returning haymakers appeared on the scene, leading Roger at their head, and Innocent jumped up eagerly, glad of the interruption.

"Here comes old Roger!" she cried,—"bless his heart! Now, Robin, you must try to look very stately! Are you going to ride home standing or sitting?"

He was visibly annoyed at her light indifference.

"Unless I may sit beside you with my arm round your waist, in the Pettigrew fashion, I'd rather stand!" he retorted. "You said Pettigrew's hands were always dirty—so are mine. I'd better keep my distance from you. One can't make hay and remain altogether as clean as a new pin!"

She gave an impatient gesture.

"You always take things up in the wrong way," she said—"I never thought you a bit like Pettigrew! Your hands are not really dirty!"

"They are!" he answered, obstinately. "Besides, you don't want my arm round your waist, do you?"

"Certainly not!" she replied, quickly.

"Then I'll stand," he said;—"You shall be enthroned like a queen and I'll be your bodyguard. Here, wait a minute!"

He piled up the hay in the middle of the load till it made a high cushion where, in obedience to his gesture, Innocent seated herself. The men leading the horse were now close about the waggon, and one of them, grinning sheepishly at the girl, offered her a daintily-made wreath of wild roses, from which all the thorns had been carefully removed.

"Looks prutty, don't it?" he said.

She accepted it with a smile.

"Is it for me? Oh, Larry, how nice of you! Am I to wear it?"

"If ye loike!" This with another grin.

She set it on her uncovered head and became at once a model for a Romney; the wild roses with their delicate pink and white against her brown hair suited the hues of her complexion and the tender grey of her eyes;—and when, thus adorned, she looked up at her companion, he was fain to turn away quickly lest his admiration should be too plainly made manifest before profane witnesses.

Roger, meanwhile, was being harnessed to the waggon. He was a handsome creature of his kind, and he knew it. As he turned his bright soft glance from side to side with a conscious pride in himself and his surroundings, he seemed to be perfectly aware that the knots of bright red ribbon tied in his long and heavy mane meant some sort of festival. When all was done the haymakers gathered round.

"Good luck to the last load, Mr. Clifford!" they shouted.

"Good luck to you all!" answered Robin, cheerily.

"Good luck t'ye, Miss!" and they raised their sun-browned faces to the girl as she looked down upon them. "As fine a crop and as fair a load next year!"

"Good luck to you!" she responded—then suddenly bending a little forward she said almost breathlessly: "Please wish luck to Dad! He's not well—and he isn't here! Oh, please don't forget him!"

They all stared at her for a moment, as if startled or surprised, then they all joined in a stentorian shout.

"That's right, Miss! Good luck to the master! Many good years of life to him, and better crops every year!"

She drew back, smiling her thanks, but there were tears in her eyes. And then they all started in a pretty procession—the men leading Roger, who paced along the meadow with equine dignity, shaking his ribbons now and again as if he were fully conscious of carrying something more valuable than mere hay,—and above them all smiled the girl's young face, framed in its soft brown hair and crowned with the wild roses, while at her side stood the very type of a model Englishman, with all the promise of splendid life and vigour in the build of his form, the set of his shoulders and the poise of his handsome head. It was a picture of youth and beauty and lovely nature set against the warm evening tint of the sky,—one of those pictures which, though drawn for the moment only on the minds of those who see it, is yet never forgotten.

Arriving presently at a vast enclosure, in which already two loads of hay were being stacked, they were hailed with a cheery shout by several other labourers at work, and very soon a strong smell of beer began to mingle with the odour of the hay and the dewy scent of the elder flowers and sweet briar in the hedges close by.

"Have a drop, Mr. Clifford!" said one tall, powerful-looking man who seemed to be a leader among the others, holding out a pewter tankard full and frothing over.

Robin Clifford smiled and put his lips to it.

"Just to your health, Landon!" he said—"I'm not a drinking man."

"Haymaking's thirsty work," commented the other. "Will Miss Jocelyn do us the honour?"

The girl made a wry little face.

"I don't like beer, Mr. Landon," she said—"It's horrid stuff, even when it's home-brewed! I help to make it, you see!"

She laughed gaily—they all laughed with her, and then there was a little altercation which ended in her putting her lips to the tankard just offered to Robin and sipping the merest fleck of its foam. Landon watched her,—and as she returned the cup, put his own mouth to the place hers had touched and drank the whole draught off greedily. Robin did not see his action, but the girl did, and a deep blush of offence suffused her cheeks. She rose, a little nervously.

"I'll go in now," she said—"Dad must be alone by this time."

"All right!" And Robin jumped lightly from the top of the load to the ground and put the ladder up for her to descend. She came down daintily, turning her back to him so that the hem of her neat white skirt fell like a little snowflake over each rung of the ladder, veiling not only her slim ankles but the very heels of her shoes. When she was nearly at the bottom, he caught her up and set her lightly on the ground.

"There you are!" he said, with a laugh—"When you get into the house you can tell Uncle that you are a Rose Queen, a Hay Queen, and Queen of everything and everyone on Briar Farm, including your very humble servant, Robin Clifford!"

"And your humblest of slaves, Ned Landon!" added Landon, with a quick glance, doffing his cap. "Mr. Clifford mustn't expect to have it all his own way!"

"What the devil are you talking about?" demanded Robin, turning upon him with a sudden fierceness.

Innocent gave him an appealing look.

"Don't!—Oh, don't quarrel!" she whispered,—and with a parting nod to the whole party of workers she hurried away.

With her disappearance came a brief pause among the men. Then Robin, turning away from Landon, proceeded to give various orders. He was a person in authority, and as everyone knew, was likely to be the owner of the farm when his uncle was dead. Landon went close up to him.

"Mr. Clifford," he said, somewhat thickly, "you heard what I said just now? You mustn't expect to have it all your own way! There's other men after the girl as well as you!"

Clifford glanced him up and down.

"Yourself, I suppose?" he retorted.

"And why not?" sneered Landon.

"Only because there are two sides to every question," said Clifford, carelessly, with a laugh. "And no decision can be arrived at till both are heard!"

He climbed up among the other men and set to work, stacking steadily, and singing in a fine soft baritone the old fifteenth- century song:

"Yonder comes a courteous knight, Lustily raking over the hay, He was well aware of a bonny lass, As she came wandering over the way. Then she sang Downe a downe, hey downe derry!

"Jove you speed, fair ladye, he said, Among the leaves that be so greene, If I were a king and wore a crown, Full soon faire Ladye shouldst thou be queene. Then she sang Downe a downe, hey downe derry!"

Landon looked up at him with a dark smile.

"Those laugh best who laugh last!" he muttered, "And a whistling throstle has had its neck wrung before now!"

Meanwhile Innocent had entered the farmhouse. Passing through the hall, which,—unaltered since the days of its original building,— was vaulted high and heavily timbered, she went first into the kitchen to see Priscilla, who, assisted by a couple of strong rosy-cheeked girls, did all the housework and cooking of the farm. She found that personage rolling out pastry and talking volubly as she rolled:

"Ah! YOU'LL never come to much good, Jenny Spinner," she cried. "What with a muck of dirty dishes in one corner and a muddle of ragged clouts in another, you're the very model of a wife for a farm hand! Can't sew a gown for yerself neither, but bound to send it into town to be made for ye, and couldn't put a button on a pair of breeches for fear of 'urtin' yer delicate fingers! Well! God 'elp ye when the man comes as ye're lookin' for! He'll be a fool anyhow, for all men are that,—but he'll be twice a fool if he takes you for a life-satchel on his shoulders!"

Jenny Spinner endured this tirade patiently, and went on with the washing-up in which she was engaged, only turning her head to look at Innocent as she appeared suddenly in the kitchen doorway, with her hair slightly dishevelled and the wreath of wild roses crowning her brows.

"Priscilla, where's Dad?" she asked.

"Lord save us, lovey! You gave me a real scare coming in like that with them roses on yer head like a pixie out of the woods! The master? He's just where the doctors left 'im, sittin' in his easy- chair and looking out o' window."

"Was it—was it all right, do you think?" asked the girl, hesitatingly.

"Now, lovey, don't ask me about doctors, 'cos I don't know nothin' and wants to know nothin', for they be close-tongued folk who never sez what they thinks lest they get their blessed selves into hot water. And whether it's all right or all wrong, I couldn't tell ye, for the two o' them went out together, and Mr. Slowton sez 'Good-arternoon, Miss Friday!' quite perlite like, and the other gentleman he lifts 'is 'at quite civil, so I should say 'twas all wrong. For if you mark me, lovey, men's allus extra perlite when they thinks there's goin' to be trouble, hopin' they'll get somethin' for theirselves out of it."

Innocent hardly waited to hear her last words.

"I'm going to Dad," she said, quickly, and disappeared.

Priscilla Friday stopped for a minute in the rolling-cut of her pastry. Some great stress of thought appeared to be working behind her wrinkled brow, for she shook her head, pursed her lips and rolled up her eyes a great many times. Then she gave a short sigh and went on with her work.

The farmhouse was a rambling old place, full of quaint corners, arches and odd little steps up and down leading to cupboards, mysterious recesses and devious winding ways which turned into dark narrow passages, branching right and left through the whole breadth of the house. It was along one of these that Innocent ran swiftly on leaving the kitchen, till she reached a closed door, where pausing, she listened a moment-then, hearing no sound, opened it and went softly in. The room she entered was filled with soft shadows of the gradually falling dusk, yet partially lit by a golden flame of the after-glow which shone through the open latticed window from the western sky. Close to the waning light sat the master of the farm, still clad in his smock frock, with his straw hat on the table beside him and his stick leaning against the arm of his chair. He was very quiet,—so quiet, that a late beam of the sun, touching the rough silver white of his hair, seemed almost obtrusive, as suggesting an interruption to the moveless peace of his attitude. Innocent stopped short, with a tremor of nervous fear.

"Dad!" she said, softly.

He turned towards her.

"Ay, lass! What is it?"

She did not answer, but came up and knelt down beside him, taking one of his brown wrinkled hands in her own and caressing it. The silence between them was unbroken for quite two or three minutes; then he said:

"Last load in all safe?"

"Yes, Dad!"

"Not a drop of rain to wet it, and no hard words to toughen it, eh?"

"No, Dad."

She gave the answer a little hesitatingly. She was thinking of Ned Landon. He caught the slight falter in her voice and looked at her suspiciously.

"Been quarrelling with Robin?"

"Dear Dad, no! We're the best of friends."

He loosened his hand from her clasp and patted her head with it.

"That's right! That's as it should be! Be friends with Robin, child! Be friends!—be lovers!"

She was silent. The after-glow warmed the tints of her hair to russet-gold and turned to a deeper pink the petals of the roses in the wreath she wore. He touched the blossoms and spoke with great gentleness.

"Did Robin crown thee?"

She looked up, smiling.

"No, it's Larry's wreath."

"Larry! Ay, poor Larry! A good lad—but he can eat for two and only work for one. 'Tis the way of men nowadays!"

Another pause ensued, and the western gold of the sky began to fade into misty grey.

"Dad," said the girl then, in a low tone—"Do tell me—what did the London doctor say?"

He lifted his head quickly, and his old eyes for a moment flashed as though suddenly illumined by a flame from within.

"Say! What should he say, lass, but that I am old and must expect to die? It's natural enough—only I haven't thought about it. It's just that—I haven't thought about it!"

"Why should you think about it?" she asked, with quick tenderness —"You will not die yet—not for many years. You are not so very old. And you are strong."

He patted her head again.

"Poor little wilding!" he said—"If you had your way I should live for ever, no doubt! But an' you were wise with modern wisdom, you would say I had already lived too long!"

For answer, she drew down his hand and kissed it.

"I do not want any modern wisdom," she said—"I am your little girl and I love you!"

A shadow flitted across his face and he moved uneasily. She looked up at him.

"You will not tell me?"

"Tell you what?"

"All that the London doctor said."

He was silent for a minute's space—then he answered.

"Yes, I will tell you, but not now. To-night after supper will be time enough. And then—"

"Yes—then?" she repeated, anxiously.

"Then you shall know—you will have to know—" Here he broke off abruptly. "Innocent!"

"Yes, Dad?"

"How old are you now?"

"Eighteen."

"Ay, so you are!" And he looked at her searchingly. "Quite a woman! Time flies! You're old enough to learn—"

"I have always tried to learn," she said—"and I like studying things out of books—"

"Ay! But there are worse things in life than ever were written in books," he answered, wearily—"things that people hide away and are ashamed to speak of! Ay, poor wilding! Things that I've tried to keep from you as long as possible—but—time presses, and, I shall have to speak—"

She looked at him earnestly. Her face paled and her eyes grew dark and wondering.

"Have I done anything wrong?" she asked.

"You? No! Not you! You are not to blame, child! But you've heard the law set out in church on Sundays that 'The sins of the fathers shall be visited on the children even unto the third and fourth generation.' You've heard that?"

"Yes, Dad!"

"Ay!—and who dare say the fourth generation are to blame! Yet, though they are guiltless, they suffer most! No just God ever made such a law, though they say 'tis God speaking. I say 'tis the devil!"

His voice grew harsh and loud, and finding his stick near his chair, he took hold of it and struck it against the ground to emphasise his words.

"I say 'tis the devil!"

The girl rose from her kneeling attitude and put her arms gently round his shoulders.

"There, Dad!" she said soothingly,—"Don't worry! Church and church things seem to rub you up all the wrong way! Don't think about them! Supper will be ready in a little while and after supper we'll have a long talk. And then you'll tell me what the doctor said."

His angry excitement subsided suddenly and his head sank on his breast.

"Ay! After supper. Then—then I'll tell you what the doctor said."

His speech faltered. He turned and looked out on the garden, full of luxuriant blossom, the colours of which were gradually merging into indistinguishable masses under the darkening grey of the dusk.

She moved softly about the room, setting things straight, and lighting two candles in a pair of tall brass candlesticks which stood one on either side of a carved oak press. The room thus illumined showed itself to be a roughly-timbered apartment in the style of the earliest Tudor times, and all the furniture in it was of the same period. The thick gate-legged table—the curious chairs, picturesque, but uncomfortable—the two old dower chests— the quaint three-legged stools and upright settles, were a collection that would have been precious to the art dealer and curio hunter, as would the massive eight-day clock with its grotesquely painted face, delineating not only the hours and days but the lunar months, and possessing a sonorous chime which just now struck eight with a boom as deep as that of a cathedral bell. The sound appeared to startle the old farmer with a kind of shock, for he rose from his chair and grasped his stick, looking about him as though for the moment uncertain of his bearings.

"How fast the hours go by!" he muttered, dreamily. "When we're young they don't count—but when we're old we know that every hour brings us nearer to the end-the end, the end of all! Another night closing in—and the last load cleared from the field—Innocent!"

The name broke from his lips like a cry of suffering, and she ran to him trembling.

"Dad, dear, what is it?"

He caught her outstretched hands and held them close.

"Nothing—nothing!" he answered, drawing his breath quick and hard—"Nothing, lass! No pain—no—not that! I'm only frightened! Frightened!—think of it!—me frightened who never knew fear! And I—I wouldn't tell it to anyone but you—I'm afraid of what's coming—of what's bound to come! 'Twould always have come, I know —but I never thought about it—it never seemed real! It never seemed real—"

Here the door opened, admitting a flood of cheerful light from the outside passage, and Robin Clifford entered.

"Hullo, Uncle! Supper's ready!"

The old man's face changed instantly. Its worn and scared expression smoothed into a smile, and, loosening his hold of Innocent, he straightened himself and stood erect.

"All right, my lad! You've worked pretty late!"

"Yes, and we've not done yet. But we shall finish stacking tomorrow," answered Clifford—"Just now we're all tired and hungry."

"Don't say you're thirsty!" said the old farmer, his smile broadening. "How many barrels have been tapped to-day?"

"Oh, well! You'd better ask Landon,"—and Clifford's light laugh had a touch of scorn in it,—"he's the man for the beer! I hardly ever touch it—Innocent knows that."

"More work's done on water after all," said Jocelyn. "The horses that draw for us and the cattle that make food for us prove that. But we think we're a bit higher than the beasts, and some of us get drunk to prove it! That's one of our strange ways as men! Come along, lad! And you, child,"—here he turned to Innocent—"run and tell Priscilla we're waiting in the Great Hall."

He seemed to have suddenly lost all feebleness, and walked with a firm step into what he called the Great Hall, which was distinguished by this name from the lesser or entrance hall of the house. It was a nobly proportioned, very lofty apartment, richly timbered, the roof being supported by huge arched beams curiously and intricately carved. Long narrow boards on stout old trestles occupied the centre, and these were spread with cloths of coarse but spotlessly clean linen and furnished with antique plates, tankards and other vessels of pewter which would have sold for a far larger sum in the market than solid silver. A tall carved chair was set at the head of the largest table, and in this Farmer Jocelyn seated himself. The men now began to come in from the fields in their work-a-day clothes, escorted by Ned Landon, their only attempt at a toilet having been a wash and brush up in the outhouses; and soon the hall presented a scene of lively bustle and activity. Priscilla, entering it from the kitchen with her two assistants, brought in three huge smoking joints on enormous pewter dishes,—then followed other good things of all sorts,— vegetables, puddings, pasties, cakes and fruit, which Innocent helped to set out all along the boards in tempting array. It was a generous supper fit for a "Harvest Home"—yet it was only Farmer Jocelyn's ordinary way of celebrating the end of the haymaking,— the real harvest home was another and bigger festival yet to come. Robin Clifford began to carve a sirloin of beef,—Ned Landon, who was nearly opposite him, actively apportioned slices of roast pork, the delicacy most favoured by the majority, and when all the knives and forks were going and voices began to be loud and tongues discursive, Innocent slipped into a chair by Farmer Jocelyn and sat between him and Priscilla. For not only the farm hands but all the servants on the place were at table, this haymaking supper being the annual order of the household. The girl's small delicate head, with its coronal of wild roses, looked strange and incongruous among the rough specimens of manhood about her, and sometimes as the laughter became boisterous, or some bucolic witticism caught her ear, a faint flush coloured the paleness of her cheeks and a little nervous tremor ran through her frame. She drew as closely as she could to the old farmer, who sat rigidly upright and quiet, eating nothing but a morsel of bread with a bowl of hot salted milk Priscilla had put before him. Beer was served freely, and was passed from man to man in leather "blackjacks" such as were commonly used in olden times, but which are now considered mere curiosities. They were, however, ordinary wear at Briar Farm, and had been so since very early days. The Great Hall was lighted by tall windows reaching almost to the roof and traversed with shafts of solid stonework; the one immediately opposite Farmer Jocelyn's chair showed the very last parting glow of the sunset like a dull red gleam on a dark sea. For the rest, thick home-made candles of a torch shape fixed into iron sconces round the walls illumined the room, and burned with unsteady flare, giving rise to curious lights and shadows as though ghostly figures were passing to and fro, ruffling the air with their unseen presences. Priscilla Priday, her wizened yellow face just now reddened to the tint of a winter apple by her recent exertions in the kitchen, was not so much engaged in eating her supper as in watching her master. Her beady brown eyes roved from him to the slight delicate girl beside him with inquisitive alertness. She felt and saw that the old man's thoughts were far away, and that something of an unusual nature was troubling his mind. Priscilla was an odd-looking creature but faithful;—her attachments were strong, and her dislikes only a shade more violent,—and just now she entertained very uncomplimentary sentiments towards "them doctors" who had, as she surmised, put her master out of sorts with himself, and caused anxiety to the "darling child," as she invariably called Innocent when recommending her to the guidance of the Almighty in her daily and nightly prayers. Meanwhile the noise at the supper table grew louder and more incessant, and sundry deep potations of home-brewed ale began to do their work. One man, seated near Ned Landon, was holding forth in very slow thick accents on the subject of education:

"Be eddicated!" he said, articulating his words with difficulty,— "That's what I says, boys! Be eddicated! Then everything's right for us! We can kick all the rich out into the mud and take their goods and enjoy 'em for ourselves. Eddication does it! Makes us all we wants to be,—members o' Parli'ment and what not! I've only one boy,—but he'll be eddicated as his father never was—"

"And learn to despise his father!" said Robin, suddenly, his clear voice ringing out above the other's husky loquacity. "You're right! That's the best way to train a boy in the way he should go!"

There was a brief silence. Then came a fresh murmur of voices and Ned Landon's voice rose above them.

"I don't agree with you, Mr. Clifford," he said—"There's no reason why a well-educated lad should despise his father."

"But he often does," said Robin—"reason or no reason."

"Well, you're educated yourself," retorted Landon, with a touch of envy,—"You won a scholarship at your grammar school, and you've been to a University."

"What's that done for me?" demanded Robin, carelessly,—"Where has it put me? Just nowhere, but exactly where I might have stood all the time. I didn't learn farming at Oxford!"

"But you didn't learn to despise your father either, did you, sir?" queried one of the farm hands, respectfully.

"My father's dead," answered Robin, curtly,—"and I honour his memory."

"So your own argument goes to the wall!" said Landon. "Education has not made you think less of him."

"In my case, no," said Robin,—"but in dozens of other cases it works out differently. Besides, you've got to decide what education IS. The man who knows how to plough a field rightly is as usefully educated as the man who knows how to read a book, in my opinion."

"Education," interposed a strong voice, "is first to learn one's place in the world and then know how to keep it!"

All eyes turned towards the head of the table. It was Farmer Jocelyn who spoke, and he went on speaking:

"What's called education nowadays," he said, "is a mere smattering and does no good. The children are taught, especially in small villages like ours, by men and women who often know less than the children themselves. What do you make of Danvers, for example, boys?"

A roar of laughter went round the table.

"Danvers!" exclaimed a huge red-faced fellow at the other end of the board,—"Why he talks yer 'ead off about what he's picked up here and there like, and when I asked him to tell me where my son is as went to Mexico, blowed if he didn't say it was a town somewheres near New York!"

Another roar went round the table. Farmer Jocelyn smiled and held up his hand to enjoin silence.

"Mr. Danvers is a teacher selected by the Government," he then observed, with mock gravity. "And if he teaches us that Mexico is a town near New York, we poor ignorant farm-folk are bound to believe him!"

They all laughed again, and he continued:

"I'm old enough, boys, to have seen many changes, and I tell you, all things considered, that the worst change is the education business, so far as the strength and the health of the country goes. That, and machine work. When I was a youngster, nearly every field-hand knew how to mow,—now we've trouble enough to find an extra man who can use a scythe. And you may put a machine on the grass as much as you like, you'll never get the quality that you'll get with a well-curved blade and a man's arm and hand wielding it. Longer work maybe, and risk of rain—but, taking the odds for and against, men are better than machines. Forty years we've scythed the grass on Briar Farm, and haven't we had the finest crops of hay in the county?"

A chorus of gruff voices answered him:

"Ay, Mister Jocelyn!"

"That's right!"

"I never 'member more'n two wet seasons and then we got last load in 'tween showers," observed one man, thoughtfully.

"There ain't never been nothin' wrong with Briar Farm hay crops anyway—all the buyers knows that for thirty mile round," said another.

"And the wheat and the corn and the barley and the oats the same," struck in the old farmer again—"all the seed sown by hand and the harvest reaped by hand, and every man and boy in the village or near it has found work enough to keep him in his native place, spring, summer, autumn and winter, isn't that so?"

"Ay, ay!"

"Never a day out o' work!"

"Talk of unemployed trouble," went on Jocelyn, "if the old ways were kept up and work done in the old fashion, there'd be plenty for all England's men to do, and to feed fair and hearty! But the idea nowadays is to rush everything just to get finished with it, and then to play cards or football, and get drunk till the legs don't know whether it's land or water they're standing on! It's the wrong way about, boys! It's the wrong way about! You may hurry and scurry along as fast as you please, but you miss most good things by the way; and there's only one end to your racing—the grave! There's no such haste to drop into THAT, boys! It'll wait! It's always waiting! And the quicker you go the quicker you'll get to it! Take time while you're young! That time for me is past!"

He lifted his head and looked round upon them all. There was a strange wild look in his old eyes,—and a sudden sense of awe fell on the rest of the company. Farmer Jocelyn seemed all at once removed from them to a height of dignity above his ordinary bearing. Innocent's rose-crowned head drooped, and tears sprang involuntarily to her eyes. She tried to hide them, not so well, however, but that Priscilla Priday saw them.

"Now, lovey child!" she whispered,—"Don't take on! It's only the doctors that's made him low like and feelin' blue, and he ain't takin' sup or morsel, but we'll make him have a bite in his own room afterwards. Don't you swell your pretty eyes and make 'em red, for that won't suit me nor Mr. Robin neither, come, come!— that it won't!"

Innocent put one of her little hands furtively under the board and pressed Priscilla's rough knuckles tenderly, but she said nothing. The silence was broken by one of the oldest men present, who rose, tankard in hand.

"The time for good farming is never past!" he said, in a hearty voice—"And no one will ever beat Farmer Jocelyn at that! Full cups, boys! And the master's health! Long life to him!"

The response was immediate, every man rising to his feet. None of them were particularly unsteady except Ned Landon, who nearly fell over the table as he got up, though he managed to straighten himself in time.

"Farmer Jocelyn!"

"To Briar Farm and the master!"

"Health and good luck!"

These salutations were roared loudly round the table, and then the whole company gave vent to a hearty 'Hip-hip-hurrah!' that roused echoes from the vaulted roof and made its flaring lights tremble.

"One more!" shouted Landon, suddenly, turning his flushed face from side to side upon those immediately near him—"Miss Jocelyn!"

There followed a deafening volley of cheering,—tankards clinked together and shone in the flickering light and every eye looked towards the girl, who, colouring deeply, shrank from the tumult around her like a leaf shivering in a storm-wind. Robin glanced at her with a half-jealous, half-anxious look, but her face was turned away from him. He lifted his tankard and, bowing towards her, drank the contents. When the toast was fully pledged, Farmer Jocelyn got up, amid much clapping of hands, stamping of feet and thumping on the boards. He waited till quiet was restored, and then, speaking in strong resonant accents, said:

"Boys, I thank you! You're all boys to me, young and old, for you've worked on the farm so long that I seem to know your faces as well as I know the shape of the land and the trees on the ridges. You've wished me health and long life—and I take it that your wishes are honest—but I've had a long life already and mustn't expect much more of it. However, the farm will go on just the same whether I'm here or elsewhere,—and no man that works well on it will be turned away from it,—that I can promise you! And the advice I've always given to you I give to you again,— stick to the land and the work of the land! There's nothing finer in the world than the fresh air and the scent of the good brown earth that gives you the reward of your labour, always providing it is labour and not 'scamp' service. When I'm gone you'll perhaps remember what I say,—and think it not so badly said either. I thank you for your good wishes and"—here he hesitated—"my little girl here thanks you too. Next time you make the hay—if I'm not with you—I ask you to be as merry as you are to-night and to drink to my memory! For whenever one master of Briar Farm has gone there's always been another in his place!—and there always will be!" He paused,—then lifting a full tankard which had been put beside him, he drank a few drops of its contents—"God bless you all! May you long have the will to work and the health to enjoy the fruits of honest labour!"

There was another outburst of noisy cheering, followed by a new kind of clamour,

"A song!"

"A song!"

"Who'll begin?"

"Where's Steevy?"

"Little Steevy!"

"Steevy! Wheer be ye got to?" roared one old fellow with very white hair and a very red face—"ye're not so small as ye can hide in yer mother's thimble!"

A young giant of a man stood up in response to this adjuration, blushing and smiling bashfully.

"Here I be!"

"Sing away, lad, sing away!"

"Wet yer pipe, and whistle!"

"Tune up, my blackbird!"

Steevy, thus adjured, straightened himself to his full stature of over six feet and drank off a cupful of ale. Then he began in a remarkably fine and mellow tenor:

"Would you choose a wife For a happy life, Leave the town and the country take; Where Susan and Doll, And Jenny and Moll, Follow Harry and John, While harvest goes on, And merrily, merrily rake!"

"The lass give me here, As brown as my beer, That knows how to govern a farm; That can milk a cow, Or farrow a sow, Make butter and cheese, And gather green peas, And guard the poultry from harm."

"This, this is the girl, Worth rubies and pearl, The wife that a home will make! We farmers need No quality breed, But a woman that's won While harvest goes on, And we merrily, merrily rake!"

[Footnote: Old Song 1740.]

A dozen or more stentorian voices joined in the refrain:

"A woman that's won While harvest goes on, And we merrily, merrily rake."

"Bravo!"

"Good for you, Steevy!"

"First-class!"

"Here's to you, my lad!"

The shouting, laughter and applause continued for many minutes, then came more singing of songs from various rivals to the tuneful Steevy. And presently all joined together in a boisterous chorus which ran thus:

"A glass is good and a lass is good, And a pipe is good in cold weather, The world is good and the people are good, And we're all good fellows together!"

In the middle of this performance Farmer Jocelyn rose from his place and left the hall, Innocent accompanying him. Once he looked back on the gay scene presented to him—the disordered supper- table, the easy lounging attitudes of the well-fed men, the flare of the lights which cast a ruddy glow on old and young faces and sparkled over the burnished pewter,—then with a strange yearning pain in his eyes he turned slowly away, leaning on the arm of the girl beside him, and went,—leaving the merry-makers to themselves.



CHAPTER III

Returning to the room where he had sat alone before supper, he sank heavily into the armchair he had previously occupied. The window was still open, and the scent of roses stole in with every breath of air,—a few stars sparkled in the sky, and a faint line of silver in the east showed where the moon would shortly rise. He looked out in dreamy silence, and for some minutes seemed too much absorbed in thought to notice the presence of Innocent, who had seated herself at a small table near him, on which she had set a lit candle, and was quietly sewing. She had forgotten that she still wore the wreath of wild roses,—the fragile flowers were drooping and dying in her hair, and as she bent over her work and the candlelight illumined her delicate profile, there was something almost sculptural in the shape of the leaves as they encircled her brow, making her look like a young Greek nymph or goddess brought to life out of the poetic dreams of the elder world. She was troubled and anxious, but she tried not to let this seem apparent. She knew from her life's experience of his ways and whims that it was best to wait till the old man chose to speak, rather than urge him into talk before he was ready or willing. She glanced up from her sewing now and again and saw that he looked very pale and worn, and she felt that he suffered. Her tender young heart ached with longing to comfort him, yet she knew not what she should say. So she sat quiet, as full of loving thoughts as a Madonna lily may be full of the dew of Heaven, yet mute as the angelic blossom itself. Presently he moved restlessly, and turning in his chair looked at her intently. The fixity of his gaze drew her like a magnet from her work and she put down her sewing.

"Do you want anything, Dad?"

He rose, and began to fumble with the buttons of his smock.

"Ay—just help me to get this off. The working day is over,—the working clothes can go!"

She was at his side instantly and with her light deft fingers soon disembarrassed him of the homely garment. When it was taken off a noticeable transformation was effected in his appearance. Clad in plain dark homespun, which was fashioned into a suit somewhat resembling the doublet and hose of olden times, his tall thin figure had a distinctly aristocratic look and bearing which was lacking when clothed in the labourer's garb. Old as he was, there were traces of intellect and even beauty in his features,—his head, on which the thin white hair shone like spun silver, was proudly set on his shoulders in that unmistakable line which indicates the power and the will to command; and as he unconsciously drew himself upright he looked more like some old hero of a hundred battles than a farmer whose chief pride was the excellence of his crops and the prosperity of his farm managed by hand work only. For despite the jeers of his neighbours, who were never tired of remonstrating with him for not "going with the times," Jocelyn had one fixed rule of farming, and this was that no modern machinery should be used on his lands. He was the best employer of labour for many and many a mile round, and the most generous as well as the most exact paymaster, and though people asserted that there was no reasonable explanation for it, nevertheless it annually happened that the hand-sown, hand-reaped crops of Briar Farm were finer and richer in grain and quality, and of much better value than the machine-sown, machine-reaped crops of any other farm in the county or for that matter in the three counties adjoining. He stood now for a minute or two watching Innocent as she looked carefully over his smock frock to see if there were any buttons missing or anything to be done requiring the services of her quick needle and thread,—then as she folded it and put it aside on a chair he said with a thrill of compassion in his voice:

"Poor little child, thou hast eaten no supper! I saw thee playing with the bread and touching no morsel. Art not well?"

She looked up at him and tried to smile, but tears came into her eyes despite her efforts to keep them back.

"Dear Dad, I am only anxious," she murmured, tremulously. "You, too, have had nothing. Shall I fetch you a glass of the old wine? It will do you good."

He still bent his brows thoughtfully upon her.

"Presently—presently—not now," he answered. "Come and sit by me at the window and I'll tell you—I'll tell you what you must know. But see you, child, if you are going to cry or fret, you will be no help to me and I'll just hold my peace!"

She drew a quick breath, and her face paled.

"I will not cry," she said,—"I will not fret. I promise you, Dad!"

She came close up to him as she spoke. He took her gently in his arms and kissed her.

"That's a brave girl!" And holding her by the hand he drew her towards the open window—"Look out there! See how the stars shine! Always the same, no matter what happens to us poor folk down here,—they twinkle as merrily over our graves as over our gardens,—and yet if we're to believe what we're taught nowadays, they're all worlds more or less like our own, full of living creatures that suffer and die like ourselves. It's a queer plan of the Almighty, to keep on making wonderful and beautiful things just to destroy them! There seems no sense in it!"

He sat down again in his chair, and she, obeying his gesture, brought a low stool to his feet and settled herself upon it, leaning against his knee. Her face was upturned to his and the flickering light of the tall candles quivering over it showed the wistful tender watchfulness of its expression—a look which seemed to trouble him, for he avoided her eyes.

"You want to know what the London doctor said," he began. "Well, child, you'll not be any the better for knowing, but it's as I thought. I've got my death-warrant. Slowton was not sure about me,—but this man, ill as he is himself, has had too much experience to make mistakes. There's no cure for me. I may last out another twelve months—perhaps not so long—certainly not longer."

He saw her cheeks grow white with the ashy whiteness of a sudden shock. Her eyes dilated with pain and fear, and a quick sigh escaped her, then she set her lips hard.

"I don't believe it," she said, adding with stronger emphasis—"I WON'T believe it!"

He patted the small hand that rested on his knee.

"You won't? Poor little girl, you must believe it!—and more than that, you must be prepared for it. Even a year's none too much for all that has to be done,—'twill almost take me that time to look the thing square in the face and give up the farm for good."—Here he paused with a kind of horror at his own words—"Give up the farm!—My God! And for ever! How strange it seems!"

The tumult in her mind found sudden speech.

"Dad, dear! Dad! It isn't true! Don't think it! Don't mind what the doctor says. He's wrong—I'm sure he's wrong! You'll live for many and many a happy year yet—oh yes, Dad, you will! I'm sure of it! You won't die, darling Dad! Why should you?"

She broke off with a half-smothered sob.

"Why should I?" he said, with a perplexed frown; "Ah!—that's more than I can tell you! There's neither rhyme nor reason in it that I can see. But it's the rule of life that it should end in death. For some the end is swift—for some it's slow—some know when it's coming—some don't,—the last are the happiest. I've been told, you see,—and it's no use my fighting against the fact,—a year at the most, perhaps less, is the longest term I have of Briar Farm. Your eyes are wet—you promised you wouldn't cry."

She furtively dashed away the drops that were shining on her lashes. Then she forced a faint quivering smile.

"I'm not crying, Dad," she said. "There's nothing to cry for," and she fondled his hand in her own—"The doctors are wrong. You're only a little weak and run down—you'll be all right with rest and care—and—and you shan't die! You shan't die! I won't let you."

He drew a long breath and passed his hand across his forehead as though he were puzzled or in pain.

"That's foolish talk," he said, with some harshness; "You've got trouble to meet, and you must meet it. I'm bound to show you trouble—but I can show you a way out of it as well."

He paused a moment,—a light wind outside the lattice swayed a branch of roses to and fro, shaking out their perfume as from a swung censer.

"The first thing I must tell you," he went on, "is about yourself. It's time you should know who you are."

She looked up at him startled.

"Who I am?" she repeated,—then as she saw the stern expression on his face a sudden sense of fear ran through her nerves like the chill of an icy wind and she waited dumbly for his next word. He gripped her hand hard in his own.

"Now hear me out, child!" he said—"Let me speak on without interruption, or I shall never get through the tale. Perhaps I ought to have told you before, but I've put it off and put it off, thinking 'twould be time enough when you and Robin were wed. You and Robin—you and Robin!—your marriage bells have rung through my brain many and many a night for the past two years and never a bit nearer are you to the end of your wooing, such fanciful children as you both are! And you're so long about it and I've so short a time before me that I've made up my mind it's best to let you have all the truth about yourself before anything happens to me. All the truth about yourself—as far as I know it."

He paused again. She was perfectly silent. She trembled a little— wondering what she was going to hear. It must be something dreadful, she thought,—something for which she was unprepared,— something that might, perhaps, like a sudden change in the currents of the air, create darkness where there had been sunshine, storm instead of calm. His grip on her hand was strong enough to hurt her, but she was not conscious of it. She only wished he would tell her the worst at once and quickly. The worst,—for she instinctively felt there was no best.

"It was eighteen years ago this very haymaking time," he went on, with a dreamy retrospective air as though he were talking to himself,—"The last load had been taken in. Supper was over. The men had gone home,—Priscilla was clearing the great hall, when there came on a sudden storm—just a flash of lightning—I can see it now, striking a blue fork across the windows—a clap of thunder—and then a regular downpour of rain. Heavy rain, too,— buckets-full—for it washed the yard out and almost swamped the garden. I didn't think much about it,—the hay was hauled in dry, and that was all my concern. I stood under a shed in the yard and watched the rain falling in straight sheets out of a sky black as pitch—I could scarcely see my own hand if I stretched it out before me, the night was so dark. All at once I heard the quick gallop of a horse's hoofs some way off,—then the sound seemed to die away,—but presently I heard the hoofs coming at a slow steady pace down our muddy old by-road—no one can gallop THAT, in any weather. And almost before I knew how it came there, the horse was standing at the farmyard gate, with a man in the saddle carrying a bundle in front of him. He was the handsomest fellow I ever saw, and when he dismounted and came towards me, and took off his cap in the pouring rain and smiled at me, I was fairly taken with his looks. I thought he must be something of a king or other great personage by his very manner. 'Will you do me a kindness?' he said, as gently as you please. 'This is a farm, I believe. I want to leave my little child here in safe keeping for a night. She is such a baby,—I cannot carry her any further through this storm.' And he put aside the wrappings of the bundle he carried and showed me a small pale infant asleep. 'She's motherless,' he added, 'and I'm taking her to my relatives. But I have to ride some distance from here on very urgent business, and if you will look after her for to-night I'll call for her to-morrow. Poor little innocent! She's hungry and fretful. I haven't anything to give her and the storm looks like continuing. Will you let her stay with you?' 'Certainly!' said I, without thinking a bit further about it. 'Leave her here by all means. We'll see she gets all she wants.' He gave me the child at once and said in a very soft voice: 'You are most generous!—"verily I have not found so great a faith, no not in Israel!" You're sure you don't mind?' 'Not at all!' I answered him,—'You'll come back for her to-morrow, of course.' He smiled and said—'Oh yes, of course! To-morrow! I'm really very much obliged to you!' Then he seemed to think for a moment and put his hand in his pocket, but I stopped him—'No, sir,' I said, 'excuse me, but I don't want any pay for giving a babe a night's shelter.' He looked at me very straight with his big clear hazel eyes, and then shook hands with me. 'You're an honest fellow,' he said,—and he stooped and kissed the child he had put into my arms. 'I'm extremely sorry to trouble you, but the storm is too much for this helpless little creature.' 'You yourself are wet through,' I interrupted. 'That doesn't matter,' he answered,—'for me nothing matters. Thank you a thousand times! Good-night!' The rain was coming down faster than ever and I stepped back into the shed, covering the child up so that the drifting wet should not beat upon it. He came after me and kissed it again, saying 'Good- night, poor little innocent, good-night!' three or four times. Then he went off quickly and sprang into his saddle and in the blur of rain I saw horse and man turn away. He waved his hand once and his handsome pale face gleamed upon me like that of a ghost in the storm. 'Till to-morrow!' he called, and was gone. I took the child into the house and called Priscilla. She was always a rough one as you know, even in her younger days, and she at once laid her tongue to with a will and as far as she dared called me a fool for my pains. And so I was, for when I came to think of it the man was a stranger to me, and I had never asked him his name. It was just his handsome face and the way he had with him that had thrown me off my guard as it were; so I stood and looked silly enough, I suppose, while Priscilla fussed about with the baby, for it had wakened and was crying. Well!"—and Jocelyn heaved a short sigh— "That's about all! We never saw the man again, and the child was never claimed; but every six months I received a couple of bank- notes in an envelope bearing a different postmark each time, with the words: 'For Innocent' written inside—"

She uttered a quick, almost terrified exclamation, and drew her hand away from his.

"Every six months for a steady twelve years on end," he went on,— "then the money suddenly stopped. Now you understand, don't you? YOU were the babe that was left with me that stormy night; and you've been with me ever since. But you're not MY child. I don't know whose child you are!"

He stopped, looking at her.

She had risen from her seat beside him and was standing up. She was trembling violently, and her face seemed changed from the round and mobile softness of youth to the worn pallor and thinness of age. Her eyes were luminous with a hard and feverish brilliancy.

"You—you don't know whose child I am!" she repeated,—"I am not yours—and you don't know—you don't know who I belong to! Oh, it hurts me!—it hurts me, Dad! I can't realise it! I thought you were my own dear father!—and I loved you!—oh, how much I loved you!—yet you have deceived me all along!"

"I haven't deceived you," he answered, impatiently. "I've done all for the best—I meant to tell you when you married Robin—"

A flush of indignation flew over her cheeks.

"Marry Robin!" she exclaimed—"How could I marry Robin? I'm nothing! I'm nobody! I have not even a name!"

She covered her face with her hands and an uncontrollable sob broke from her.

"Not even a name!" she murmured—"Not even a name!"

With a sudden impulsive movement she knelt down in front of him like a child about to say its prayers.

"Oh, help me, Dad!" she said, piteously—"Comfort me! Say something—anything! I feel so lost—so astray! All my life seems gone!—I can't realise it! Yes, I know! You have been very kind,— all kindness, just as if I had been your own little girl. Oh, why did you tell me I was your own?—I was so proud to be your daughter—and now—it's so hard—so hard! Only a few moments ago I was a happy girl with a loving father as I thought—now I know I'm only a poor nameless creature,—deserted by my parents and left on your hands. Oh, Dad dear! I've given you years of trouble!—I hope I've been good to you! It's not my fault that I am what I am!"

He laid his wrinkled hand on her bowed head.

"Dear child, of course it's not your fault! That's what I've said all along. You're innocent, like your name,—and you've been a blessing to me all your days,—the farm has been brighter for your living on it,—so you've no cause to worry me or yourself about what's past long ago and can't be helped. No one knows your story but Priscilla,—no one need ever know."

She sprang up from her kneeling attitude.

"Priscilla!" she echoed—"She knew, and she never said a word!"

"If she had, she'd have got the sack," answered Jocelyn, bluntly. "You were brought up always as MY child."

He broke off, startled by the tragic intensity of her look.

"I want to know how that was," she said, slowly. "You told me my mother died when I was born."

He avoided her eyes.

"Well, that was true, or so I suppose," he said. "The man who brought you said you were motherless. But I—I have never married."

"Then how could you tell Robin—and everyone else about here that I was your daughter?"

He grew suddenly angry.

"Child, don't stare at me like that!" he exclaimed, with all an old man's petulance. "It doesn't matter what I said—I had to let the neighbours think you were mine—"

A light flashed in upon her, and she gave vent to a shuddering cry.

"Dad! Oh, Dad!"

Gripping both arms of his chair he raised himself into an upright posture.

"What now?" he demanded, almost fiercely—"What trouble are you going to make of it?"

"Oh, if it were only trouble," she exclaimed, forlornly. "It's far worse! You've branded me with shame! Oh, I understand now! I understand at last why the girls about here never make friends with me! I understand why Robin seems to pity me so much! Oh, how shall I ever look people in the face again!"

His fuzzy brows met in a heavy frown.

"Little fool!" he said, roughly,—"What shame are you talking of? I see no shame in laying claim to a child of my own, even though the claim has no reality. Look at the thing squarely! Here comes a strange man with a baby and leaves it on my hands. You know what a scandalous, gossiping little place this is,—and it was better to say at once the baby was mine than leave it to the neighbours to say the same thing and that I wouldn't acknowledge it. Not a soul about here would have believed the true story if I had told it to them. I've done everything for the best—I know I have. And there'll never be a word said if you marry Robin."

Her face had grown very white. She put up her hand to her head and her fingers touched the faded wreath of wild roses. She drew it off and let it drop to the ground.

"I shall never marry Robin!" she said, with quiet firmness—"And I will not be considered your illegitimate child any longer. It's cruel of you to have made me live on a lie!—yes, cruel!—though you've been so kind in other things. You don't know who my parents were—you've no right to think they were not honest!"

He stared at her amazed. For the first time in eighteen years he began to see the folly of what he had thought his own special wisdom. This girl, with her pale sad face and steadfast eyes, confronted him with the calm reproachful air of an accusing angel.

"What right have you?" she went on. "The man who brought me to you,—poor wretched me!—if he was my father, may have been good and true. He said I was motherless; and he, or someone else, sent you money for me till I was twelve. That did not look as if I was forgotten. Now you say the money has stopped—well!—my father may be dead." Her lips quivered and a few tears rolled down her cheeks. "But there is nothing in all this that should make you think me basely born,—nothing that should have persuaded you to put shame upon me!"

He was taken aback for a minute by her words and attitude—then he burst out angrily:

"It's the old story, I see! Do a good action and it turns out a curse! Basely born! Of course you are basely born, if that's the way you put it! What man alive would leave his own lawful child at a strange farm off the high-road and never claim it again? You're a fool, I tell you! This man who brought you to me was by his look and bearing some fine gentleman or other who had just the one idea in his head—to get rid of an encumbrance. And so he got rid of you—"

"Don't go over the whole thing again!" she interrupted, with weary patience-"-I was an encumbrance to him—I've been an encumbrance to you. I'm sorry! But in no case had you the right to set a stigma on me which perhaps does not exist. That was wrong!"

She paused a moment, then went on slowly:

"I've been a burden on you for six years now,—it's six years, you say, since the money stopped. I wish I could do something in return for what I've cost you all those six years,—I've tried to be useful."

The pathos in her voice touched him to the quick.

"Innocent!" he exclaimed, and held out his arms.

She looked at him with a very pitiful smile and shook her head.

"No! I can't do that! Not just yet! You see, it's all so unexpected—things have changed altogether in a moment. I can't feel quite the same—my heart seems so sore and cold."

He leaned back in his chair again.

"Ah, well, it is as I thought!" he said, irritably. "You're more concerned about yourself than about me. A few minutes ago you only cared to know what the doctors thought of my illness, but now it's nothing to you that I shall be dead in a year. Your mind is set on your own trouble, or what you choose to consider a trouble."

She heard him like one in a dream. It seemed very strange to her that he should have dealt her a blow and yet reproach her for feeling the force of it.

"I am sorry!" she said, patiently. "But this is the first time I have known real trouble—you forget that!—and you must forgive me if I am stupid about it. And if the doctors really believe you are to die in a year I wish I could take your place, Dad!—I would rather be dead than live shamed. And there's nothing left for me now,—not even a name—"

Here she paused and seemed to reflect.

"Why am I called Innocent?"

"Why? Because that's the name that was written on every slip of paper that came with each six months' money," he answered, testily. "That's the only reason I know."

"Was I baptised by that name?" she asked.

He moved uneasily.

"You were never baptised."

"Never baptised!" She echoed the words despairingly,—and then was silent for a minute's space. "Could you not have done that much for me?" she asked, plaintively, at last—"Would it have been impossible?"

He was vaguely ashamed. Her eyes, pure as a young child's, were fixed upon him in appealing sorrow. He began to feel that he had done her a grievous wrong, though he had never entirely realised it till now. He answered her with some hesitation and an effort at excuse.

"Not impossible—no,—maybe I could have baptised you myself if I had thought about it. 'Tis but a sprinkle of water and 'In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.' But somehow I never worried my head—for as long as you were a baby I looked for the man who brought you day after day, and in my own mind left all that sort of business for him to attend to—and when he didn't come and you grew older, it fairly slipped my remembrance altogether. I'm not fond of the Church or its ways,—and you've done as well without baptism as with it, surely. Innocent is a good name for you, and fits your case. For you're innocent of the faults of your parents whatever they were, and you're innocent of my blunders. You're free to make your own life pleasant if you'll only put a bright face on it and make the best of an awkward business."

1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8     Next Part
Home - Random Browse