NELL, OF SHORNE MILLS
Or, One Heart's Burden
by CHARLES GARVICE
Author of "Better Than Life," "A Life's Mistake," "Once in a Life," "'Twas Love's Fault," etc.
A. L. Burt Company Publishers :: :: :: New York 1898
NELL, OF SHORNE MILLS
"Dick, how many are twenty-seven and eight?"
The girl looked up, with narrow eyes and puckered brow, from the butcher's book, which she was laboriously "checking," at the boy who leaned back on the window seat picking out a tune on a banjo.
"Thirty-nine," he replied lazily but promptly, without ceasing to peck, peck at the strings.
She nodded her thanks, and traveled slowly up the column, counting with the end of her pencil and jotting down the result with a perplexed face.
They were brother and sister, Nell and Dick Lorton, and they made an extremely pretty picture in the sunny room. The boy was fair with the fairness of the pure Saxon; the girl was dark—dark hair with the sheen of silk in it, dark, straight brows that looked all the darker for the clear gray of the eyes which shone like stars beneath them. But the eyes were almost violet at this moment with the intensity of her mental effort, and presently, as she raised them, they flashed with a mixture of irritation and sweet indignation.
"Dick, if you don't put that banjo down I'll come over and make you. It's bad enough at most times; but the 'Old Folks at Home' on one string, while I'm trying to check this wretched book, is intolerable, and not to be endured. Put it down, Dick, or I'll come over and smash both of you!"
He struck a chord, an exasperating chord, and then resumed the more exasperating peck, peck.
"'Twas ever thus," he said, addressing the ceiling with sad reproach. "Women are born ungrateful, and continue so. Here am I, wasting this delightful afternoon in attempting to soothe a sister's savage breast by sweet strains of heavenly music, and she——"
With a laugh, she sprang from her seat and went for him. There was a short and fierce struggle, during which the banjo was whirled hither and thither; then he got her down on the floor, sat upon her, and deliberately resumed pecking out the "Old Folks at Home."
"Let me get up, Dick! Let me get up this instant!" she cried indignantly and breathlessly. "The man's waiting for the book. Dick, do you hear? I'll pinch you—I'll crumple your collar! I'll burn that beast of a banjo directly you've gone out. Dick, I'm sure you're hurting me seriously. Di-ck! I've got a pain! Oh, you wait until you've gone out! I'll light the fire with that thing! Get up!"
Without a change of countenance, as if he were deaf to her entreaties and threats, he tuned up the banjo, and played a breakdown.
"Comfortable, Nell? That's right. Always strive for contentment, whatever your lot may be. At present your lot is to provide me with a nice, springy seat, and it will so continue to be until you promise—on your honor, mind—that you will not lay a destructive hand on this sweetest of instruments."
"Oh, let me get up, Dick!"
"Until I receive that promise, and an abject apology, it is a case of j'y suis, j'y reste, my child," he responded blandly.
She panted and struggled for a moment or two, then she gasped:
"On your word of honor?"
"Yes, yes! Dick, you are breaking my ribs or something."
"Corset, perhaps," he suggested. "And the apology? A verbal one will suffice on this occasion, accompanied by the sum of one shilling for the purchase of cigarettes."
"I shan't! You never said a word about a shilling!"
"I did not—I hadn't time; but I shall now have time to make it two."
The door opened, and a servant with a moon-shaped face and prominent eyes looked in. She did not seem at all surprised at the state of affairs—did not even smile.
"The butcher's man says shall he wait any longer, miss?"
"Yes, tell him to wait, Molly," said the boy. "Miss Nell is tired, and is lying down for a little while; resting, you know."
"I—I promise! I apologize! You—you shall have the shilling!" gasped the girl, half angrily, half haughtily.
He rose in a leisurely fashion, got back to his window seat, and held out his long, shapely hand.
She shook herself, put up one hand to her hair, and took a shilling from her pocket with the other.
"Tiresome boy!" she exclaimed. "If I live to be a hundred, I shall never know why boys were invented."
"There are lots of other things, simpler things, that you will never know, though you live to be a Methuselah, my dear Nell," he said; "one of them being that twenty-seven and eight do not make thirty-nine."
"Thirty-nine? Why, of course not; thirty-five!" she retorted. "That's where I was wrong. Dick, you are a beast. There's the book, Molly, and there's the money——Oh, give me back that shilling, Dick; I want it! I've only just got enough. Give it me back at once; you shall have it again, I swear—I mean, I promise."
"Simple child!" he murmured sweetly. "So young, so simple! She really thinks I shall give it to her! Such innocence is indeed touching! Excuse these tears. It will soon pass!"
He mopped his eyes with his handkerchief, as if overcome by emotion, and the exasperated Nell looked at him as if she meant another fight; but she resisted the temptation, and, with a shrug of her shoulders, pushed the book and money toward the patient and unmoved Molly.
"There you are, Molly, all but the shilling. Tell him to add that to the next account."
"Yes, miss. And the missis' chocklut; it's just the time?"
Nell glanced at the clock.
"So it is! There'll be a row. It's all your fault, Dick. Why don't you go for a sail, or shrimping, or something? A boy's always a nuisance in the house. I'll come at once, Molly. There!" she exclaimed, as a woman's thin voice was heard calling in a languid and injured tone:
"''Twas the voice of the sluggard——'" Dick began to quote; but Nell, with a hissed "Hush! she'll hear you!" ran out, struggling with her laughter. Five minutes later, she went up the stairs with a salver on which were a dainty chocolate service and a plate of thin bread and butter, and entering the best bedroom of the cottage, carried the salver to a faded-looking woman who, in a short dressing jacket of dingy pink, sat up in the bed.
She was Mrs. Lorton, the stepmother of the boy and girl. She had been pretty once, and had not forgotten the fact—it is on the cards that she thought herself pretty still, though the weak face was thin and hollow, the once bright eyes dim and querulous, the lips drawn into a dissatisfied curve.
"Here is your chocolate, mamma," said the girl. She hated the word "mamma"; but from the first moment of her introduction to Mrs. Lorton, she had declined to call her by the sacred name of "mother." "I'm afraid I'm late."
"It is ten minutes past the time," said Mrs. Lorton; "but I do not complain. I never complain, Eleanor. A Wolfer should at least know how to suffer in silence. I hope it is hot—really hot; yesterday it was cold—quite cold, and it caused me that acute indigestion which, I trust, Eleanor, it will never be your lot to experience."
"I'm sorry, mamma; but yesterday morning you were asleep when I brought it in, and I did not like to wake you."
"Not asleep, Eleanor," said Mrs. Lorton, with an air of long-suffering patience—"no, alas! not asleep. My eyes were closed, I have no doubt; but I was merely thinking. I heard you come in——Surely that is not all the cream! I have few fancies, Heaven knows; but I have always been accustomed to half cream and half chocolate, and an invalid suffers acutely from these deprivations, slight and trifling though they may appear to one in your robust, I had almost said savage state of health."
"Isn't there as much as usual? I will go and see if there is some more," said the girl, deftly arranging the tray. "See, it is quite hot this morning."
"But it will be cold before you return, doubtless," sighed Mrs. Lorton, with saintly resignation. "And, Eleanor, may I venture to ask you not to renew the terrible noise with which you have been filling the house for the last half hour. You know how I dislike crushing the exuberance of your animal spirits; but such a perfectly barbaric noise tortures my poor overstrained nerves."
"Yes, mamma. We'll—I'll be quiet."
"Thank you. It is a great deal to ask. I am aware that you think me exacting. This butter is anything but fresh."
"It was made this morning."
"Please, oh, please do not contradict me, Eleanor! If there is one characteristic more plainly developed in me than another it is my unerring taste. This butter is not fresh. But do not mind. I am not complaining. Do not think that. I merely passed the remark. And if you are really going to get me my usual quantity of cream, will you do so now? Cold chocolate two mornings in succession would try my digestion sadly."
The girl left the room quickly, and as she passed the dining-room door she looked in to say hurriedly:
"Dry up, Dick. Mamma's been complaining of the noise."
"'Eleanor, I never complain,'" he murmured; but he put down the banjo, rose and stretched himself, and left the room, pretending to slip as he passed Nell in the passage, and flattening her against the wall.
She gave him a noiseless push and went for the remainder of the cream.
Mrs. Lorton received it with a sigh and a patient "I thank you, Eleanor;" and while she sipped the chocolate, and snipped at the bread and butter—she ate the latter as if it were a peculiarly distasteful medicine in the solid—the girl tidied the room. It was the only really well-furnished room in the cottage; Nell's little chamber in the roof was as plain as Marguerite's in "Faust," and Dick's was Spartan in its Character; but a Wolfer—Mrs. Lorton was a distant, a very distant connection by a remote marriage of the noble family of that name—cannot live without a certain amount of luxury, and, as there was not enough to go round, Mrs. Lorton got it all. So, though Nell's little bed was devoid of curtains, her furniture of the "six-guinea suite" type and her carpet a square of Kidderminster, her stepmother's bed was amply draped, possessed its silk eider-down and lace-edged pillows; there was an Axminster on the floor, an elaborate dressing table furnished with a toilet set, and—the fashionable lady's indispensable—a cheval glass.
"I think I will get up in half an hour, if you will be good enough to send Molly up to me," said Mrs. Lorton, sinking onto her pillow as if exhausted by her struggle with the chocolate.
"Yes, mamma," assented the girl. "What will you have for lunch?"
"Lunch!" sighed Mrs. Lorton, with an assumption of weary indifference. "It is really of no consequence, Eleanor. I eat so little, especially in the middle of the day. Perhaps if you could get me a sweetbread I might manage a few morsels. But do not trouble. You know how much I dislike causing trouble. A sweetbread nicely browned—on a small, a very small piece of toast; quite dry, please, Eleanor."
"Yes, mamma, I know," said Eleanor; but she looked out of the window rather doubtfully. Sweetbreads were not easily obtained at the only butcher's shop in the village; and, when they were, they were dear; but she had just paid the long-running bill, and——
"I'll go up to Smart's and see about it," she said. "Is there anything you want in the village, mamma?"
Mrs. Lorton sighed again; she rarely spoke without a sigh.
"If you really want the walk and are going, Eleanor, you might ask Mrs. Porter if she has got that toilet vinegar for me. She promised to get it down from London quite a week ago. It is really too ridiculous! But what can one expect in this hole, and living among a set of barbarians? I know that I shall never grow accustomed to this life of savagery; my memory of the past is too acute, alas! But I must stifle it; I must remember that the great trial of my life has been sent for my good, and I will never complain. Not one word of discontent shall ever pass my lips. My dear Eleanor, you surely are not going to be so mad as to open that window! And my neuralgia only just quiet!"
"I beg your pardon, mamma. The room seemed so hot, and I forgot. I've closed it again; see! Let me draw the eider-down up; that's it. I won't forget the toilet vinegar."
"I thank you, Eleanor; and you might get this week's Fashion Gazette. It is the only paper I care for; but it is not unnatural that I should like to see it occasionally. One may be cut off from all one's friends and relations, may be completely out of the world of rank and refinement, but one likes now and then to read of the class to which one belongs, but from which one is, alas! forever separated."
"I'll get the Fashion Gazette if Mrs. Porter has it, mamma. I won't be long, and Molly will hear you if you want her before the time."
Mrs. Lorton sighed deeply in acknowledgment, and Nell left the room.
She had been bright and girlish enough while romping with her brother, but the scene with her stepmother had left its impression on her face; the dark-gray eyes were rather sad and weary; there was a slight droop at the corners of the sweetly curved lips; but the change lent an indescribable charm to the girlish face. Looking at it, as it was then, no man but would have longed to draw the slim, graceful figure toward him, to close the wistful eyes with a kiss, to caress the soft hair with a comforting hand. There was a subtle fascination in the very droop of the lips which would have haunted an artist or a poet, and driven the ordinary man wild with love.
Mrs. Lorton had called Shorne Mills a "hole," but as a matter of fact, the village stood almost upon the brow of the hill down which ran the very steep road to the tiny harbor and fishing place which nestled under the red Devon cliffs; and barbaric as the place might be, it was beautiful beyond words. No spot in this loveliest of all counties was more lovely; and as yet it was, so to speak, undiscovered. With the exception of the vicarage there was no other house, worthy the name, in the coombe; all the rest were fishermen's cots. The nearest inn and shops were on the fringe of the moor behind and beyond the Lorton's cottage; the nearest house of any consequence was that of the local squire, three miles away. The market town of Shallop was eight miles distant, and the only public communication with it was the carrier's cart, which went to and fro twice weekly. In short, Shorne Mills was out of the world, and will remain so until the Railway Fiend flaps his coal-black wings over it and drops, with red-hot feet, upon it to sear its beauty and destroy its solitude. It had got its name from a flour and timber mill which had once flourished halfway down the coombe or valley; but the wheels were now silent, the mills were falling to pieces, and the silver stream served no more prosaic purpose than supplying the fishing folk with crystal water which was pure as the stars it reflected. This stream, as it ran beside the road or meandered through the sloping meadows, made soft music, day and night, all through the summer, but swelled itself into a torrent in the winter, and roared as it swept over the smooth bowlders to its bridegroom, the sea; sometimes it was the only sound in the valley, save always the murmur of the ocean, and the shrill weird cry of the curlew as it flew from the sea marge to the wooded heights above.
Nell loved the place with a great and exceeding love, with all the love of a girl to whom beauty is a continual feast. She knew every inch of it; for she had lived in the cottage on the hill since she was a child of seven, and she was now nearly twenty-one. She knew every soul in the fishing village, and, indeed, for miles around, and not seldom she was spoken of as "Miss Nell, of Shorne Mills;" and the simple folk were as proud of the title as was Nell herself. They were both fond and proud of her. In any cottage and at any time her presence was a welcome one, and every woman and child, when in trouble, flew to her for help and comfort even before they climbed to the vicarage—that refuge of the poor and sorrowing in all country places.
As she swung to the little gate behind her this morning, she paused and looked round at the familiar scene; and its beauty, its grandeur, and its solitude struck her strangely, as if she were looking at it for the first time.
"One could be so happy if mamma—and if Dick could find something to do!" she thought; and at the thought her eyes grew sadder and the sweet lips drooped still more at the corner; but as she went up the hill, the fine rare air, the brilliant sunshine acted like an anodyne, and the eyes grew brighter, the lips relaxed, so that Smart's—the butcher's—face broadened into a smile of sympathy as he touched his forehead with a huge and greasy finger.
"Sweetbreads! No, no, miss; I've promised the cook up at the Hall——There, bless your heart, Miss Nell, don't 'ee look so disappointed. I'll send 'em—yes, in half an hour at most. Dang me if it was the top brick off the chimney I reckon you'd get 'ee, for there ain't no refusin' 'ee anything!"
Nell thanked him with a smile and a grateful beam from her gray eyes, and then, still lighter-hearted, went on to Mrs. Porter's. By great good luck not only had the toilet vinegar arrived from London, but a copy of the Fashion Gazette; and with these in her hand Nell went homeward. But at the bend of the road near the cottage she paused. Mrs. Lorton would not want the vinegar or the paper for another hour. Would there be time to run down to the jetty and look at the sea? She slipped the paper and the bottle in the hedge, and went lightly down the road. It was so steep that strangers went cautiously and leaned on their sticks, but Nell nearly ran and seemed scarcely to touch the ground; for she had toddled down that road as a child, and knew every stone in it; knew where to leave it for the narrow little path which provided a short cut, and where to turn aside for the marvelous view of the tiny harbor that looked like a child's toy on the edge of the opal sea.
Women and children came out of the cottages as she went swiftly past, and she exchanged greetings with them; but she was in too great a hurry to stop, and one child followed after her with bitter complaint.
She stood for a moment or two talking to some of the men mending their nets on the jetty, called down to Dick, who was lying—he was always reclining on something—basking in the stern of his anchored boat; then she went, more slowly, up the hill again.
As she neared the cottage, a sound rose from the house and mingled with the music of the stream. It was the yelp of staghounds. She stopped and listened, and wondered whether the stag would run down the hill, as it sometimes did; then she went on. Presently she heard another sound—the tap, tap of a horse's hoofs. Her quick ear distinguished it as different from the slow pacing of the horses which drew the village carts, and she looked up the road curiously. It was not the doctor's horse; she knew the stamp, stamp of his old gray cob. This was a lighter, more nervous tread.
Within twenty paces of the cottage she saw the horse and horseman. The former was a beautiful creature, almost thoroughbred, as she knew; for every woman in the district was a horsewoman by instinct and association. The latter was a gentleman in a well-made riding suit of cords. He was riding slowly, his whip striking against his leg absently, his head bent.
That he was not one of the local gentry Nell saw at the first glance. In that first glance also she noted a certain indescribable grace, an air of elegance, which, as a rule, was certainly lacking in the local gentry. She could not see his face, but there was something strange, distinguished in his attitude and the way he carried himself; and, almost unconsciously, her pace slackened.
Strangers in Shorne Mills were rare. Nell, being a woman, was curious. As she slowly reached the gate, the man came almost alongside. And at that moment a rabbit scuttled across the road, right under the horse's nose. With the nervousness of the thoroughbred, it shied. The man had it in hand in an instant, and touched it with his left spur to keep it away from the girl. The horse sprang sideways, set its near foot on a stone, and fell, and the next instant the man was lying at Nell's feet.
For a moment Nell was too startled to do anything but cry out; then, as the man did not move, she knelt beside him, and still calling for Molly, almost unconsciously raised his head. He had fallen on his side, but had turned over in the instant before losing consciousness; and as Nell lifted his head she felt something wet trickle over her hand, and knew that it was blood.
She was very much frightened—with the exception of Dick's boyish falls and cuts, it was the first accident at which she had "assisted"—and she had never longed for any one as she longed for Molly. But neither Molly nor any one else came, and Nell, in a helpless, dazed kind of fashion, wiped the blood from the wound.
Then suddenly she thought of water, and setting his head down as gently as she could, she ran to the stream, saturated her handkerchief, and, returning, took his head on her lap again, and bathed his forehead.
While she was doing this she recovered her presence of mind sufficiently to look at him with something like the desire to know what he was like; and, with all a woman's quickness of perception, saw that he was extremely good-looking; that he was rather dark than fair; that though he was young—twenty-nine, thirty, flashed through her mind—the hair on his temples was faintly flecked with gray.
But something more than the masculine beauty of the face struck her, struck her vaguely, and that was the air of distinction which she had noticed in his bearing as he came down the road, and an expression of weariness in the faint lines about the mouth and eyes.
She was aware, without knowing why, that he was extremely well dressed; she saw that the ungloved hand was long and thin—the hand of a well-bred man—and that everything about him indicated wealth and the gentleman.
All these observations required but a second or two—a man would only have got at them after an hour—and, almost before they were made, he opened his eyes with the usual dazed and puzzled expression which an individual wears when he has been knocked out of time and is coming back to consciousness.
As his eyes opened, Nell noticed that they were dark—darker than they should have been to match his hair—and that they were anything but commonplace ones. He looked up at her for an instant or two, then muttered something under his breath—Nell was almost certain that he swore—and aloud, in the toneless voice of the newly conscious, said:
"I came off, didn't I?"
"Yes," said Nell.
She neither blushed nor looked shy. Indeed, she was too frightened, too absorbed by her desire for his recovery to remember herself, or the fact that this strange man's head was lying on her knee.
"I must have been unconscious," he said, almost to himself. "Yes, I've struck my head."
Then he got to his feet and stood looking at her; and his face was, if anything, whiter than it had been.
"I'm very sorry. Permit me to apologize, for I must have frightened you awfully. And"—he looked at her dress, upon which was a large wet patch where his head had rested—"and I've spoiled your dress. In short, I've made a miserable nuisance of myself."
Nell passed his apology by.
"Are you hurt?" she asked anxiously.
"No; I think not," he replied. "I can't think how I managed to come off; I don't usually make such an ass of myself."
He went for his hat, but as he stooped to pick it up he staggered, and Nell ran to him and caught his arm.
"You are hurt!" she said. "I—I was afraid so!"
"I'm giddy, that's all, I think," he said; but his lips closed tightly after his speech, and they twitched at the corners. "I expect my horse is more damaged than I am," he added, and he walked, very slowly, to where the animal stood looking from side to side with a startled air.
"Yes; knees cut. Poor old chap! It was my fault—my fau——"
He stopped, and put his hand to his head as if he were confused.
Nell went and stood close by him, with a vague kind of idea that he was going to fall and that she might help him, support him.
"You are in pain?" she asked, her brow wrinkled with her anxiety, her eyes darkened with her womanly sympathy and pity.
"Yes," he admitted frankly. "I've knocked my head, and"—he touched his arm—"and, yes, I'm afraid I've broken my arm."
"Oh!"—cried Nell, startled and aghast—"oh! you must come into the house at once—at once."
He glanced at the cottage.
"Yes," said Nell. "Oh, come, please. You may faint again——"
"Oh, no, I shan't."
"But you may—you may! Take my arm; lean on me——"
He took her arm, but did not lean on her, and he smiled down at her.
"I don't look it, but I weigh nearly twelve stone, and I should bear you down," he said.
"I'm stronger than I look," said Nell. "Please come!"
"I'll put the bridle over the gate first," he said.
"No, no; I will do it. Lean against the gate while I go."
He rested one hand on the gate. She got the horse—he came as quietly as his master had done—and hitched the bridle on the post; then she drew the man's arm within hers, and led him into the house and into the drawing-room.
"Sit down," she said; "lean back. I won't be a moment. Oh, where is Molly? But perhaps I'd better not leave you."
"I'm all right. I assure you that I've no intention of fainting again," he said; and there was something like a touch of irritation in his tone.
Nell rang the bell and stood looking down at him anxiously. There was not a sign of self-consciousness or embarrassment in her face or manner. She was still thinking only of him.
"I'm ashamed of myself for giving you so much trouble," he said.
"It is no trouble. Why should you be ashamed? Oh, Molly! don't cry out or scream—it is all right! Be quiet now, Molly! This gentleman has been thrown from his horse, and——Oh, bring me some brandy; and, Molly, don't tell—don't frighten mamma."
Molly, with her mouth still wide open, ran out of the room, and Nell's eyes returned to the man.
He sat gazing at the carpet for a while, his brow knit with a frown, as if he found the whole affair a hideous bore, his injured arm across his knee. There was no deprecating smile of the nervous man; he made no more apologies, and it seemed to Nell that he had quite forgotten her, and was only desirous of getting rid of her and the situation generally. But he looked up as Molly came fluttering in with the brandy; and as he took the glass from Nell's hand—for the first time it shook a little—he said:
"Thanks—thanks very much. I'm all right now, and I'll hasten to take myself off."
He rose as he spoke, then his hand went out to the sofa as if in search of support, and with an articulate though audible "Damn!" he sank down again.
"I'm afraid I'll have to wait for a few minutes," he said, in a tone of annoyance. "I can't think what's the matter with me, but I feel as giddy and stupid as an owl. I'll be all right presently. Is the inn near here?"
"No," said Nell; "the inn is a long way from here; too far——"
He did not let her finish, but rather impatiently cut in with:
"Oh, but there must be some place where I can go——"
"You must not think of moving yet," she said. "I don't know much—I have not seen many accidents—but I am sure that you have hurt yourself; and you say that you have broken your arm?"
"I'm afraid so, confound it! I beg your pardon. I'll get to the inn—I have not broken my leg, and can walk well enough—and see a doctor."
Mrs. Lorton's step was heard in the passage, and the voice of that lady was heard before she appeared in the doorway, demanding, in an injured tone:
"Eleanor, what does this mean? Why do you want brandy, and at this time of the day? Are you ill? I have always told you that some day you would suffer from this continual rushing about——"
Then she stopped and stared at the two, and her hand went up to her hair with the gesture of the weakly vain woman.
"Who is it, Nell? What does it mean?" she demanded.
The man rose and bowed, and his appearance, his self-possession and well-bred bow impressed Mrs. Lorton at once.
"I beg your pardon," she said, in her sweetest and most ingratiating manner, with a suggestion of the simper which used to be fashionable when she was a girl. "There has been an accident, I see. Are you very much hurt? Eleanor, pray do not stand like a thing of stock or stone; pray, do not be so useless and incapable."
Nell blushed and looked round helplessly.
"Please sit down," went on Mrs. Lorton. "Eleanor, let me beg of you to collect your senses. Get that cushion—sit down. Let me place this at your back. Do you feel faint? My smelling salts, Eleanor!"
The man's lips tightened, and the frown darkened the whole of his face. Nell knew that he was swearing under his breath and wishing Mrs. Lorton and herself at the bottom of the sea.
"No, no!" he said, evidently struggling with his irritation and his impatience of the whole scene. "I'm not at all faint. I've fallen from my horse, and I think I've smashed my arm, that's all."
"All!" echoed Mrs. Lorton, in accents of profound sympathy and anxiety. "Oh, dear, dear! Nell, we must send for the doctor. Will you not put your feet up on the sofa? It is such a relief to lie at full length."
He rose with a look of determination in his dark eyes.
"Thank you very much, madame, but I cannot consent to give you any further trouble. I am quite capable of walking to anywhere, and I will——" He broke off with an exclamation and sank down again. "I must be worse than I thought," he said suddenly, "and I must ask you to put up with me for a little while—half an hour."
Mrs Lorton crossed the room with the air of an empress, or a St. Teresa on the verge of a great mission, and rang the bell.
"I cannot permit you to leave this house until you have recovered—quite recovered," she said, in a stately fashion. "Molly, get the spare room ready for this gentleman. Eleanor, you might assist, I think! I will see that the sheets are properly aired—nothing is more important in such a case—and we will send for the doctor while you are retiring."
Molly plunged out, followed by Nell, and Mrs. Lorton seated herself opposite the injured man, and, folding her hands, gazed at him as if she were solely accountable for his welfare.
"I'm very much obliged to you, madame," he said, at last, and by no means amiably. "May I ask to whom I am indebted for so much—kindness?"
"My name is Lorton," said the dear lady, as if she had picked him up and brought him in and given him brandy; "but I am a Wolfer."
He looked at her as if he thought she were mad, and Mrs. Lorton hastened to explain.
"I am a near relative of Lord Wolfer."
"Oh, yes, yes; I beg your pardon," he said, with a touch of relief. "I didn't understand for a moment."
"Perhaps you know Lord Wolfer?" she asked sweetly.
He shook his head.
"I've heard of him."
"Of course," she assented blandly. "He is sufficiently well known, not to say famous. And your name—if I may ask?"
He frowned, and was silent for an instant.
"Vernon," he said reluctantly, "Drake Vernon."
"Indeed! The name seems familiar to me. Of the Northumberland Vernons, I suppose?"
"No," he replied, rather shortly.
"No? There are some Vernons in Warwickshire, I remember," she suggested.
He shook his head.
"I'm not connected with any of the Vernons," he said with a grim courtesy.
Mrs. Lorton looked rather disappointed, but only for a moment; for, foolish as she was, she knew a gentleman when she saw one, and this Mr. Vernon, though not one of the Vernons, was evidently a gentleman and a man of position. She smiled at him graciously.
"Sometimes one scarcely knows with whom one is connected," she said. "If you will excuse me, I will go and see if your room is prepared. We have only one servant—now," she sighed plaintively, "and my daughter is young and thoughtless."
"She is not the latter, at any rate," he said, but coldly enough. "Your daughter displayed extraordinary presence of mind——"
"My stepdaughter, I ought to explain," broke in Mrs. Lorton, who could not endure the praise of any other than herself. "My late husband—I am a widow, Mr. Vernon—left me his two children as a trust, a sacred trust, which I hope I have discharged to the best of my ability. I will rejoin you presently."
He rose and bowed, and then leaned back and closed his eyes, and swore gently but thoroughly.
Mrs. Lorton returned in a few minutes with Molly.
"If you will come now? We have sent for the doctor."
"Thank you, thank you!" he said, and he went upstairs with them; but he would not permit them to assist him to take off his coat, and sat on the edge of the bed waiting with a kind of impatient patience for the doctor.
By sheer good luck it was just about the time old Doctor Spence made his daily appearance in Shorne Mills, and Nell, running up to the crossway, caught him as he was ambling along on his old gray cob.
"Eh? what is it, my dear? That monkey of a brother got into mischief again?" he said, laying his hand on her shoulder. "What? Stranger? Broke his arm? Come, come; you're frightened and upset. No need, no need! What's a broken arm! If it had been his neck, now!"
"I'm not frightened, and I'm not upset!" said Nell indignantly, but with a smile. "I'm out of breath with running."
"And out of color, too, Nell. No need to run back, my dear. I'll hurry up and see what's wrong."
He spoke to the cob, who understood every word and touch of his master, and jolted down the steep road, and Nell followed slowly. She was rather pale, as he had noticed, but she was not frightened. In all her uneventful life nothing so exciting, so disturbing had happened as this accident. It was difficult to realize it, to realize that a great strong man had been cast helpless at her feet, that she had had his head on her lap; she looked down at the patch on her dress and shuddered. Was she glad or sorry that she had chanced to be near when he fell? As she asked herself the question her conscience smote her. What a question to arise in her mind! Of course she should be glad, very glad, to have been able to help him. Then the man's face rose before her, and appealed to her by its whiteness, by the weary, wistful lines about the lips and eyes.
"I wonder who he is?" she asked herself, conscious that she had never seen any one like him, that he was in some way different to any one of the men she had hitherto met.
As she walked slowly, thoughtfully down the road, a strange feeling came upon her; it was as if she had touched, if only with the finger tips, the fringe of the great unknown world.
The doctor, breaking away from the lengthy recountal of Mrs. Lorton, went upstairs to the spare room, where still sat Mr. Drake Vernon on the edge of the bed, very white, but very self-contained.
"How do you do, doctor?" he said quietly. "I've come a cropper and knocked my head and broken some of my bones. If you'll be so good——"
"Take off your coat. My good sir, why didn't you let them help you to undress?" broke in the old man, with the curtness of the country doctor, who, as a rule, is no respecter of persons.
"I've given these good people trouble enough already," was the reply. "Thanks; no, you don't hurt me—not more than can be helped. And I'm not going to faint. Thanks, thanks."
He got undressed and into bed, and the doctor "went over" him. As he got to the injured arm, Mr. Vernon drew his signet ring from his finger and slipped it in his pocket.
"Rather nasty knock on the head; broken arm—compound fracture, unfortunately."
"Oh! just patch me up so that I can get away at once, will you?"
The old man shook his head.
"Sorry, Mr. Vernon; but that is rather too large an order. Frankly, you have knocked yourself about rather more seriously than you think. The head——And you are not a particularly 'good patient,' I'm afraid. Been living rather—rapidly, eh?"
"I've been living all the time," was the grim assent.
"I thought so. And you pay the usual penalty. Nature is inexorable, and never lets a man off with the option of a fine. If one of my fishermen had injured himself as you have done, I could let him do what he pleased; but you will have to remain here, in this room—or, at any rate, in this house—for some little time."
"Impossible!" said Vernon. "I am a stranger to these people. I can't trespass on their good nature; I've been nuisance enough already——"
"Oh, nonsense," retorted the doctor calmly. "We are not savages in these parts. They'd enjoy nursing and taking care of you. The good lady of the house is just dying for some little excitement like this. It's a quiet place; you couldn't be in a better; and whether you could or couldn't doesn't matter, for you've got to stay here for the present, unless you want brain fever and the principal part in a funeral."
Drake Vernon set his lips tight, then shrugged his shoulders, and in silence watched the doctor's preparations for setting the arm.
It is a painful operation, but during its accomplishment the patient gave no sign, either facial or vocal, of the agony endured. The doctor softly patted the splintered arm and looked at him keenly.
"Been in the service, Mr. Vernon?" he said.
Vernon glanced at him sharply.
"How did you know that?" he demanded reluctantly.
"By the way you held your arm," replied the doctor. "Was in the service myself, when a young army doctor. Oh, don't be afraid; I am not going to ask questions; and—and, like my tribe, I am as discreet as an owl. Now, I'll just give you a sleeping draft, and will look in in the evening, to see if it has taken effect; and to-morrow, if you haven't brain fever, you will be on the road to recovery. I'm candid, because I want you to understand that if you worry yourself——"
"Make the draft a strong one; I'm accustomed to narcotics," interrupted Vernon quietly.
"Opium, or chloral, or what?"
"Chloral," was the reply.
"Oh, yes. Wait a moment. I was hunting with the Devon and Somerset to-day. I know scarcely any one—not one of the people, I may say; but—well, I don't want a fuss. Perhaps you won't mind keeping my accident, and my presence here to yourself?"
"Certainly," said the doctor. "There is no friend—relative—you would like sent for?"
"Good Lord, no!" responded Mr. Vernon. "I shall have to get away in a day or two."
"Will you?" grunted the old doctor to himself, as he went down the stairs.
The day passed slowly. The little house was filled with an air of suppressed excitement, which was kept going by Mrs. Lorton, who, whenever Nell or Molly moved, appeared from unexpected places, attired in a tea gown, and hissed a rebuking and warning "Hush!" which penetrated to the remotest corner of the house, and would certainly have disturbed the patient but for the double dose of sulphonal which the doctor; had administered.
About the time she expected Dick to return, Nell went down the road to meet him, fearing that he might enter singing or whistling; and when she saw him lounging up the hill, with a string of fish in his hand, she ran to him, and, catching his arm, began to tell her story in a whisper, as if the injured Mr. Vernon were within hearing.
Dick stared, and emitted a low whistle.
"'Pon my word, you've been a-going of it, Nell! Sounds like a play: 'The Mysterious Stranger and the Village Maiden.' Scene one. Enter the stranger: 'My horse is weary; no human habitation nigh. Where to find a resting place for my tired steed and my aching head! Ah! what is this? A simple child of Nature. I will seek direction at her hands.' Horse takes fright; mysterious stranger is thrown. Maiden falls on her knees: 'Ah, Heaven! 'tis he! 'tis he!'"
Nell laughed, but her face crimsoned.
"Dick, don't be an idiot, if you can help it. I know it is difficult——"
"Spare your blushes, my child," he retorted blandly. "The Mysterious S. will turn out to be a commercial traveler with a wife and seven children. But, Nell, what does mamma say?"
"She likes it," said Nell, with a smile. "She is happier and more interested than I have ever seen her."
Dick struck an attitude and his forehead.
"Can it be—oh, can it be that the romance will end another way? Are we going to lose our dear mamma? Grateful stranger—love at first sight——"
"Dick, you are the worst kind of imbecile! He is years younger than mamma—young enough to be her son. Now, Dick, dry up, and don't make a noise. He is really ill. I know it by the way the old doctor smiles. He always smiles and grins when the case is serious. You'll be quiet, Dick, dear?"
"This tender solicitude for the sufferer touches me deeply," he whimpered, mopping his eyes. "Oh, yes, I'll be quiet, Nell. Much as I love excitement, I'm not anxious for a funeral, and a bereaved and heartbroken sister. Shall I take my boots off before entering the abode of sickness, or shall I walk in on my head?"
The day passed. Dick, driven almost mad by the enforced quietude, and the incessant "Hushes!" of Mrs. Lorton, betook himself to his tool shed to mend his fishing rod—and cut his fingers—and then to bed. Molly went to the sick room in the capacity of nurse, and Mrs. Lorton, after desiring everybody that she should be called if "a change took place," retired to the rest earned by pleasurable excitement; and Nell stole past the spare-room door to her nest under the roof.
As she undressed slowly, she paused now and again to listen. All was quiet; the injured man was still sleeping. She went to the open window and looked out seaward. Something was stirring within her, something that was like the faint motion of the air before a storm. Is it possible that we have some premonition of the first change in our lives; the change which is to alter the course of every feeling, every action? She knew too little of life or the world to ask herself the question; but she was conscious of a sensation of unrest, of disquietude. She could not free herself from the haunting presence of the handsome face, of the dark and weary, wistful eyes. The few sentences he had spoken kept repeating themselves in her ear, striking on her brain with soft persistence. The very name filled her thoughts. "Drake Vernon, Drake Vernon!"
At last, with an impatient movement, with a blush of shame for the way in which her mind was dwelling on him, she left the window and fell on her knees at the narrow bed to say her prayers.
But his personality intruded even on her devotions, and, half unconsciously, she added to her simple formula a supplication for his recovery.
Then she got into bed and fell asleep. But in a very little while she started awake, seeing the horse shy and fall, feeling the man's head upon her lap. She sat up and listened. His room was beneath hers—the cottage was built in the usual thin and unsubstantial fashion—and every sound from the room below rose to hers. She heard him moan; once, twice; then his voice, thick and husky, called for water.
She listened. The faint cry rose again and again. She could not endure it, and she got out of bed, put on her dressing gown, and slipped down the stairs. She could hear the voice more plainly now, and the cry was still, "Water! water!"
She opened the door, and, pausing a moment, her face crimson, stole toward the bed. Molly was in her chair, with her head lolling over the back, as if it were a guillotine, her huge mouth wide open, fast asleep.
Nell stood and looked down at the unconscious man. The dark-brown hair was tangled, the white face drawn with pain, the lips dry with fever, one hand, clenched, opening and shutting spasmodically, on the counterpane.
That divine pity which only a woman can feel filled and overran her heart. She poured some water into a glass and set it to his lips. He could not drink lying down, and, with difficulty, she raised his head on her bosom. He drank long and greedily; then, as she slowly—dare one write "reluctantly"?—lowered his head to the pillow, he muttered:
"Thanks, thanks, Luce! That was good!"
It was a strange name—the name of a woman, of course. Nell wondered whether it was his sister—or sweetheart? Perhaps it was his wife?
She waited for some minutes; then she woke Molly, and returned to her own room.
Drake Vernon was unconscious for some days, and Nell often stole in and stood beside the bed; sometimes she changed the ice bandages, or gave him something to drink. He wandered and talked a great deal, but it was incoherent talk, in which the names of the persons he whispered or shouted were indistinguishable. On the fourth day he recovered consciousness, but was terribly weak, and the doctor would not permit Mrs. Lorton to enter the room.
He put his objection very cleverly.
"I have to think of you, my dear madame," he said. "I don't want two patients on my hands in the same house. Talk him back into delirium!" he added to himself.
All these days Mrs. Lorton continued to "hush," Nell went about with a grave air of suspense, and Dick—it is not given to this historian to describe the state of mind into which incessant repression drove that youth.
On the sixth day, bored to death, and somewhat curious, he strolled into the sick room. Drake Vernon, propped up by pillows, was partaking of beef tea with every sign of distaste.
"How are you getting on, sir?" asked Dick.
The sick man looked at the boy, and nodded with a faint smile.
"I'm better, thanks; nearly well, I devoutly trust."
"That's all right," commented Dick cheerfully. "Thought I'd just look in. Shan't upset you, or disturb you, shall I, sir?"
"Not in the very least," was the reply. "I'm very glad to see you. Won't you sit down? Not there, but some place where I can see you."
Dick sat on the end of the bed and leaned against the rail, with his hands in his pockets.
"I ought to introduce myself, I suppose. I'm what is called in the novels 'the son of the house'; I'm Nell's brother, you know."
Mr. Vernon nodded.
"So I see, by the likeness."
"Rather rough on Nell, that, isn't it? I'll tell her," said Dick, with a spark of mischief in his eye. "Why, she's as black as a coal, and I'm fair."
"You are alike, all the same," said the invalid, rather indifferently.
"My name is Dick—Dick, as a rule; Richard, when my stepmother is more than usually riled with me."
"Permit me to call you by the shorter name," said Mr. Vernon. "I'm afraid I've been a terrible nuisance, and must continue to be for some days. The doctor tells me that I can't venture to move yet."
"That's all right," responded Dick cheerfully. "We shall be glad to see you about again, of course; but don't worry yourself on our account, sir. To tell you the truth, we rather enjoy—that is, some of us"—he corrected—"having 'an accident case' in the house. Mamma, for instance, hasn't been so happy for a long while."
"Mrs. Lorton must be extremely good-natured and charitable," commented Mr. Vernon.
Dick looked rather doubtful.
"Er—ye-s. You see, it's a little change and excitement, and we don't get much of that commodity in Shorne Mills. So we're rather grateful to you than otherwise for pitching yourself at our front gate. If you could have managed to break both arms and a leg, I verily believe that mamma would have wept tears of joy."
"I'm afraid I can't say I'm sorry I did not gratify her to that extent," said Mr. Vernon, with a grim smile; but it was a smile, and his dark eyes were scanning the boy's handsome face with something approaching interest. "Mrs. Lorton is your stepmother? Did I hear her say so, or did I dream it?"
"It's no dream; it's real enough," said Dick, with intense gravity. "My father"—he seated himself more comfortably—"was Lorton & Lorton, the Patent Coffee Roaster, you know—perhaps you've heard of it?"
Mr. Vernon shook his head.
"Ah, well! a great many other people must have done so; for the roaster made a pile of money, and my father was a rich man. Molly, you can take that beef tea downstairs and give it to Snaps. He won't eat it, because he's a most intelligent dog. Thought I'd get her out of the room, sir. Molly's a good girl, but she's got ears and a tongue."
"So have I," said Drake Vernon, with a faint smile.
"Oh, I don't mind you. It's only right that you should know something about the people in whose house you are staying."
Drake Vernon frowned slightly, for there was the other side of the medal: surely, it was only right that the people in whose house he was staying should know something about himself.
"Father made a lot of money over a roaster; then my mother died. I was quite a kid when it happened; but Nell just remembers her. Then father married again; and, being rich, I suppose, wanted a fashionable wife. So he married mamma. I dare say that she's told you she's a Wolfer?"
Mr. Vernon nodded.
"There's not much in it," said Dick, with charming candor. "We've never set eyes on any of her swell connections, and I don't think she's ever heard from them since the smash."
"What smash?" asked Mr. Vernon, with only faint interest.
"Didn't I tell you? Left the part of Hamlet out of the play! Why, father added a patent coffeepot to the roaster, and lost all his money—or nearly all. Then he died. And we came here, and——There you are, sir; that's the story; and the moral is, 'Let well alone'; or 'Be content with your roaster, and touch not the pot.' Sounds like the title of a teetotal tract, doesn't it?"
"And you are at school, I suppose? No, you are too old for that."
"Thanks. I was trying not to feel offended," said Dick. "Nothing hurts a boy of my age like telling him he isn't a man. No; I've left school, and I'm supposed to be educated; but it's the thinnest kind of supposition. I don't fancy they teach you much at most schools. They didn't teach me anything at mine except cricket and football."
"Oxford, Cambridge?" suggested the invalid, leaning on his elbow, and looking at the boy absently.
"Wouldn't run to it," said Dick. "Mamma said I must begin the world—sounds as if it were a loaf of bread or an orange. I should have 'begun it' long ago if it were. The difficulty seems to be where to begin. I'm supposed to have a taste for engineering—once made a steam engine out of an empty meat tin. It didn't work very well, and it blew up and burst the kitchen window; but that's a detail. So I'm waiting, like Mr. Micawber, for 'something to turn up' in the engineering line. I take in the engineering paper, and answer all the advertisements; but nothing comes of it. Quite comfortable? Shall I shake up the pillow, sir? I know how to do it, for I've seen Nell do 'em for mamma."
"No; thanks, very much. I'm quite comfortable. If you really are desirous of taking any trouble, you might get me a sheet of note paper and an envelope."
"To say nothing of a pen, some ink, and blotting paper," said Dick, rising leisurely.
He brought them and set them on the bed, and Mr. Drake Vernon wrote a letter.
"I'm sending for some clothes," he explained. "May I trouble you to post it? Any time will do."
"Post doesn't go out till five," said Dick. "And we've only one post in and out a day. This is the last place Providence thought of, and I don't think it would have mattered much if it had been forgotten altogether."
"It's pretty enough, too, what I saw of it," said Mr. Vernon.
"Oh, it's pretty enough," assented Dick casually; "but it's precious dull."
"What do you find to do?" asked the sick man, with an attempt at interest.
"Oh, I ride—when I can borrow a horse—and boat and fish—and fish and boat."
At that moment a girl's voice, singing in a soft and subdued tone, rose from below the window.
Mr. Drake Vernon listened for a moment or two, then he asked:
"Who is that?"
"That's Nell, caterwauling."
"Your sister has a good voice," remarked Mr. Vernon.
"Oh, yes; Nell sings very well," assented Dick, with a brother's indifferent patronage.
"And what does your sister find to do?" asked Mr. Vernon.
"Oh, she does ditto to me," said Dick. "Fish, boat—boat, fish; but since you've been here, of course——"
He stopped awkwardly.
"Yes, I understand. I must have been a terrible bore to you—to you all," said Mr. Drake Vernon, gravely and regretfully. "I'm very sorry."
"No man can say more; and there's no need for you to say as much, sir," remarked Dick philosophically. "As I said, you have been a boon and a blessing to the women—and I don't mind, now you're getting better and can stand a little noise."
Mr. Vernon smiled.
"My dear fellow, you can make all the row you like," he said earnestly. "I'm very much obliged to you for looking in—come in when you care to."
"Thanks," said Dick. "Oh! about the horse. I've had him turned out. I don't think he's hurt much; only the hair cut; and he'll be all right again presently."
"I'm glad to hear it. I needn't say that directly he's well enough, you can——Will you give me that letter again?" he broke off, as if something had occurred to him.
Dick complied, and Drake Vernon opened it, added a line or two, and placed it in a fresh envelope.
"There was a message I had to give you, but I've forgotten it," said Dick, as he took the letter again. "Oh, ah, yes! It was from my sister. She asked me to ask you if you'd care to have some books. She didn't quite know whether you ought to read yet?"
"I should. Please thank your sister," said Vernon.
"Anything you fancy? Don't suppose you'll find Nell's books very lively. She's rather strong on poetry and the 'Heir of Redclyffe' kind of literature. I'll bring you some of my own with them. Mamma, being a Wolfer, goes in for the Fashion Gazette and the Court Circular, which won't be much in your line, I expect."
"Not in the least," Mr. Vernon admitted.
"So long, then, till I come back. Sure there's nothing else I can do for you, sir?"
He went downstairs—availing himself of the invalid's permission to make a noise by whistling "Tommy Atkins"—and Nell looked in at the French window, as he swept a row of books from the shelf of the sideboard.
"Dick, what an awful noise!" she said reproachfully, and in the subdued voice which had become natural with all of them.
"Shut up, Nell; the 'silent period' has now passed. The interesting invalid has lifted the ban, which was crushing one of us, at least. He thanks you for your offer of literature, and he has recovered sufficiently to write a note."
As he spoke he chucked the letter on the table, and Nell took it up and absently read the address.
"Mr. Sparling, 101 St. James' Place," she read aloud.
"Rather a swell address, isn't it?" he asked. "Interesting invalid looks rather a swell himself, too. I did him an injustice; there's nothing of the commercial traveler about him, thank goodness! And he's decidedly good-looking, too. But isn't he white and shaky! I wonder who and what he is? Now I come to think of it, he was about as communicative as an oyster, and left me to do all the palaver. You'll be glad to hear that he admired your voice, and that he inquired how you passed your time; also, that he was shocked when I told him that you whiled the dragging hours away by dancing the cancan, and playing pitch and toss with a devoted brother."
Nell laughed, and blushed faintly.
"What books are you taking, Dick? Let me see."
"No, you don't! I know the kind of thing you'd send—'The Lessons of Sickness; or, Blessings in Disguise,' and the 'Pilgrim's Progress.'"
"Don't be an ass, Dick!"
"I'm taking some of my own. Nell, you can post this letter. Yes, I'll—I'll trust you with it. You'll be a good girl, and not open it, or drop it on the way," he adjured her, as he climbed upstairs with the books.
"Here you are, sir. Hope you'll like the selection; there's any amount of poetry and goody-goody of Nell's; but I fancy you'll catch onto some of mine. Try 'Hawkshead, the Sioux Chief,' to begin with. It's a stunner, especially if you skip all the descriptions of scenery. As if anybody wanted scenery in a story!"
"Thanks," said Mr. Vernon gravely. "I've no doubt I shall enjoy it." But he took up one of Nell's books and absently looked at her name written on the flyleaf—"Eleanor Lorton." The first name struck him as stiff and ill-suited to the slim and graceful girl whose face he only dimly remembered; "Nell" was better.
He took up one of the books and read a page or two; but the simple story could not hold him, and he dropped the volume, and, leaning his head on his sound arm, stared listlessly at the old-fashioned wall paper. But he did not see the pattern; the panorama of his own life's story was passing before him, and it was not at all a pleasing panorama. A life of pleasure, of absolute uselessness, of unthinking selfishness. What a dreary pilgrimage it seemed to him, as he lay in the little bedroom, with the scent of Nell's flowers floating up to him from the garden beneath, with the sound of the sea, flinging itself against the cliffs, burring like a giant bumble bee in his ears. If any one had asked him whether his life had been worth living, he would have answered with a decided negative; and yet he was young, the gods had been exceeding good to him in many ways, almost every way, and there was no great sorrow to cast its shadow over him.
"Pity I didn't break my neck," he muttered. "No one would have cared—unless it were Luce, and perhaps even she, now——"
He broke off the reverie with a short laugh that was more bitter than a sigh, and turned his face to the wall.
Doctor Spence, when he paid his visit later in the day, found him thus, and eyed him curiously.
"Arm's getting on all right, Mr. Vernon," he said; "but the rest of you isn't improving. I think you'd better get up to-morrow and go downstairs. I'd keep you here, of course; but lying in bed isn't a bracing operation, especially when you think; and you think, don't you?"
"When I can't help it," replied Vernon, rather grimly. "I'm glad you have given me permission to get up; though I dare say I should have got up without it."
"I dare say," commented the old doctor. "Always have your own way, as a rule, don't you?"
"Always," assented the patient listlessly.
"Ye-s; it's a bad thing for most men; a very bad thing for you, I should say. By the way, if you should go downstairs, you must keep quiet——"
"Good heavens, you don't suppose I intend to dance or sing!" broke in Vernon, with a smile, of irritation.
"No; I mean that you must sit still and avoid any exertion. You'll find that you are not capable of much in the way of dancing or singing," he added, with a short laugh. "Try and amuse yourself, and don't—worry."
"Thanks," said Mr. Vernon.
Then, after a pause, he added:
"I must seem an ill-conditioned beast, I'm afraid, doctor; but the fact is—well, I have been worried lately, and this ridiculous accident hasn't tended to soothe me."
The doctor nodded.
"Life's too short for worry," he said, with the wisdom of age.
"No, you're right; nothing matters!" assented Mr. Vernon. "Well, I'm glad I can get up to-morrow. I'll clear out of here as soon as possible."
"I shouldn't hurry," remarked Doctor Spence. "They're glad enough to have you."
Vernon nodded impatiently.
"So they say—the boy's been in here this morning—but that's nonsense, of course."
On his way down the steep village street the doctor met Nell coming up, with her quick, bright step, and he stopped the gray cob to speak to her.
"Well, Miss Nell," he said, with a smile twinkling in his keen eyes as they scanned the beautiful face with the dark tendrils of hair blown across her brow, beneath her old sailor hat, the clear gray eyes shining like crystal, the red lips parted slightly with the climb. "Just left your interesting patient. He'll come down to-morrow. Don't let him fag himself; and, see here, Nell, try and amuse him."
The gray eyes opened still wider, then grew thoughtful and doubtful, and the doctor laughed.
"Rather difficult, eh?" he said, reading her thoughts. "Well, I should say it was somewhat of a large order. But you can play draughts or cat's-cradle with him, or read, or play the piano. That's the kind of thing he wants. There's something on his mind, and that's worse than having a splint on his arm, believe me, Nell."
"I thought—that is, I fancied—he looked as if he were in trouble," she said musingly. "Poor man!"
"Oh, I don't know that he wants your pity," remarked the doctor dryly. "As a rule, when a man's got something on his mind, he has put it there himself."
"That does not make it any the better to have," said Nell absently.
"True, Queen Solomon!" he returned banteringly. "There's not much on your mind, I should imagine?"
Nell laughed, and her frank eyes laughed, too, as she met the quizzical, admiring gaze of the sharp old eyes.
"What should there be, Doctor Spence?" she responded.
"What, indeed?" he said. "May it be many a day before the black ox treads on your foot, my dear!"
With a nod, he sent the cob on again, and Nell continued her climb.
Something on his mind! She wondered what it was. Had some one he cared for died? But if that were so, he would be in mourning. Perhaps he had lost his money, as her father had done? Well, anyway, she was sorry for him.
It need scarcely be said that Mrs. Lorton did not permit the interesting stranger to move from bed to sitting room without a fuss. The most elaborate preparations were made by Molly, under her mistress' supervision. The sofa was wheeled to the window, a blanket was warmed and placed over the sofa, so that the patient might be infolded in it; a glass of brandy and water was placed on a small table, in case he should feel faint, and a couple of huge walking sticks were ready for the support of the patient—as if he had broken his leg as well as his arm.
"No, remember, please, Eleanor, that there must be no noise; absolute quiet, Doctor Spence insisted on. He was most emphatic about the 'absolute.' Pull down that blind, Molly; nothing is so trying to an invalid as a glare of sunlight—and close the window first. There must be no draft, for a chill in such a case as this might prove fatal. Fatal! I wonder whether it would be better to light a fire?"
"It is very hot, mamma," ventured Nell, who had viewed the closing of the window with dismay.
"It may seem hot to you, who are in robust, not to say vulgar, health; but to one in Mr. Vernon's condition——"
At this moment he was heard coming down the stairs. He walked firmly though slowly, and it was evident to Nell that he was trying to look as little like an invalid as possible. He had dressed himself with the assistance of Dick, who walked behind with a pillow—which he made as if to throw at Nell, who passed quickly through the hall as they descended—and, though he looked pale and wan, Mr. Drake Vernon held himself erect, like a soldier, and began to make light of his accident, and succeeded in concealing any sign of the irritation which he felt when Mrs. Lorton fluttered forward with the two sticks and the blanket.
"Thank you—thank you very much; but I don't need them. Put it on? No, I think I'd better not. I'm quite warm." He looked round the carefully closed room—Dick's complaining "phew!" was almost audible behind him. "No, I won't have any brandy, thanks."
"Are you sure, quite sure, you do not feel faint? I know what it is to rise from a sick bed for the first time, Mr. Vernon, and I can enter into your feelings perfectly."
"Not at all—not at all; I mean that I'm not at all faint," he said hastily; "and I'm quite strong, quite."
"Let me see you comfortably range," said Mrs. Lorton, who was persuaded that she had hit upon a French word for "arranged." "Then I will get you some beef tea. I have made it with my own hands."
"It's to be hoped not!" said Dick devoutly, as she fluttered out. "Molly's beef tea is bad enough; but mamma's——What shall I do with the pillow?"
"Well, you might swallow it, my dear boy," said Mr. Vernon, with a short laugh. "Anything but put it under me. Good heavens! Any one would think I was dying of consumption! But it is really very kind."
"All right; I'll take it upstairs again," said Dick cheerfully. But he met Nell in the passage. There was the sound of a thud, a clear, low voice expostulating, and a girl's footstep on the stairs, as Nell, smoothing her hair, carried up the pillow.
When she came down Mrs. Lorton met her.
"Get some salt, Eleanor, and take it in to Mr. Vernon. And please say, if he should ask for me, that I'm making him some calf's-foot jelly."
Nell took in the salt. Mr. Vernon rose from the sofa on which he had seated himself, and bowed with a half-impatient, half-regretful air.
"I'm too ashamed for words," he said. "Why did you trouble? The beef tea is all right."
"It's no trouble," said Nell. "Are you comfortable?"
"Quite—quite," he replied; but for the life of him he could not help glancing at the window.
Nell suppressed a smile.
"Isn't it rather hot?" she said.
"Now you mention it, I—I think it is, rather," he assented. "I'll open the window."
"No, no," said Nell. "I'll do it; you'll hurt your arm."
She opened the window.
"If—if there was a chair," he said hesitatingly. "I'm not used to a sofa—and—I'm afraid you'll think me very ungrateful! Let me get the chair. Thanks, thanks!" as she swiftly pulled the sofa out of the way and put an easy-chair in its place.
"You see, it will be a change to sit up," he said apologetically.
Nell nodded. She quite understood his dislike of the part of interesting invalid.
"And there's really nothing the matter with me, don't you know," he said earnestly; "nothing but this arm, which doesn't exactly lame me. Won't you sit down?"
Nell hesitated a moment, then took a chair at the other side of the window.
"You've a splendid view here," he remarked, staring steadily out of the window, for he felt rather than saw that the girl was a little shy—not shy, but, rather, that she scarcely knew what to say.
"Oh, yes," she assented, in a voice in which there was certainly no shyness. "There is a good view from all the windows; we are so high. Won't you have your beef tea?"
"Certainly. I'd forgotten it. Don't get up. I'll——"
But Nell had got up before he could rise. As she brought the tray to him he glanced up at her. He had been staring at the bedroom wall paper for some days, and perhaps the contrast offered by Nell's fresh, young loveliness made it seem all the fresher and more striking. There was something in the curve of the lips, in the expression of the gray eyes, a "sweet sadness," as the poet puts it, which impressed him.
"It's very good to be down again," he said. She had not gone back to her chair, but leaned in the angle of the bay window, and looked down at the village below. "I seem to have been in bed for ages."
"I know. I remember feeling like that when I got up after the measles, years ago."
"Not many years ago," he suggested, with a faint smile.
"It seems a long time ago to me," said Nell. "I remember that for weeks and months after I got well I hated the sight and smell of beef tea and arrowroot. And Doctor Spence—your doctor, you know—gave me a glass of ale one day, and stood over me while I drank it. He can be very firm when he likes, not to say obstinate."
Mr. Vernon listened to the musical voice, and looked at the slim, girlish figure and spirituelle face absently; and when there fell a silence he showed no disposition to break it. It was difficult to find anything to talk about with so young and inexperienced a girl, and it was almost with an air of relief that he turned as Mrs. Lorton entered.
"And how do you feel now?" she asked, with bated breath. "Weak and faint, I'm afraid. I know how exhausting one feels the first time of getting down. Eleanor, I do hope you have not been tiring Mr. Vernon by talking too much."
Mr. Vernon struggled with a frown.
"Miss Lorton has scarcely said two words," he said. "I assure you, my dear madame, that there is absolutely nothing the matter with me, and that—that I could stand a steam phonograph."
"I am so glad!" simpered Mrs. Lorton. "I have brought this week's Society News. I thought it might amuse you if I read some of the paragraphs—Eleanor, I think you might read them. Don't you think indolence is one of the greatest sins of the day, Mr. Vernon?" she broke off to inquire.
Vernon smiled grimly, and glanced at Nell, who colored under the amused expression in his eyes.
"I dare say it is," he said. "Speaking for myself, I can honestly say that I never do anything unless I am compelled."
Nell laughed, her short, soft laugh; but Mrs. Lorton was not at all discomfited.
"That is all very well for a man, though I am sure you do yourself an injustice, Mr. Vernon; but for a young girl! I think you will find something interesting on the third page, under the heading of 'Doings of the Elite,' Eleanor."
Nell took the paper—the journal she especially detested, and Dick never failed to mock at—and glanced at Mr. Vernon; but he looked straight before him, down at the jetty below; and, not shyly, but, with a kind of resignation, she began:
"'Lord and Lady Bullnoze have gone on a visit to the Countess of Crowntires. Her ladyship is staying at the family seat, Cromerspokes, which is famous for its old oak and stained glass. It is not generally known that Lady Crowntires inherited this princely estate from her aunt, the Duchess of Bogshire.'"
"A most beautiful place," commented Mrs. Lorton. "I've seen a photograph of it—a private photograph."
Nell looked appealingly and despairingly at Mr. Vernon, but his face was perfectly impassive; and, smothering a sigh, she went on:
"'Lord Pygskin will hunt the Clodford hounds next season. His lordship has been staying at Blenheim for some weeks, recovering from an attack of the gout. It is said that his engagement with the charming and popular Miss Bung has been broken off.'"
"Dear me! How sad!" murmured Mrs. Lorton. "I am always so sorry to hear of these broken engagements of the aristocracy. Miss Bung—I think it said last week—is the daughter of the great brewer. Poor girl! it will be a blow for her!"
Not a smile crossed the impassive face; Nell thought that perhaps he was not listening, but she went on mechanically:
"'The marriage of the Earl of Angleford has caused quite a flutter of excitement among the elite. His lordship, as our readers are aware, is somewhat advanced in years, and had always been regarded as a confirmed bachelor——'"
At this point Nell became aware that the dark eyes had turned from the window to her face, and she paused and looked up. There was a faint dash of color on Mr. Vernon's cheeks, and a tightening of the lips. It seemed to Nell, judging by his expression, that he had suddenly become impatient of the twaddle, and she instantly dropped the paper on her lap. But Mrs. Lorton was enjoying herself too much to permit of such an interruption.
"Why do you stop, Eleanor?" she inquired. "It is most interesting. Pray, go on."
Nell again glanced at Mr. Vernon, but his gaze had returned to the window, and he shrugged his shoulders slightly, as if he were indifferent, as if he could bear it.
——"'A confirmed bachelor,'" resumed Nell, "'and his sudden and unexpected marriage must have been a surprise, and a very unpleasant surprise to his family; especially to his nephew, Lord Selbie, who is the heir presumptive to the title and estates. We say "presumptive," because in the event of the earl being blessed with a son and heir of his own, Lord Selbie will, of course, not inherit the title or the vast lands and moneys of the powerful and ancient family.'"
"How disappointed he must be!" said Mrs. Lorton, sympathetically. "Really, such a marriage should not be permitted. What do you think, Mr. Vernon?"
Mr. Vernon started slightly, and looked at the weak and foolish face as if he scarcely saw it.
"Why not!" he said, rather curtly. "It's a free country, and a man may marry whom he pleases."
"Yes, certainly; that is, an ordinary man—one of the middle class; but not, certainly not, a nobleman of Lord Angleford's rank and position. How old did it say he is, Eleanor?"
"It doesn't say, mamma," replied Nell.
"Ah, well, I know he is quite old; for I remember reading a paragraph about him a few weeks ago. They were describing the ancestral home of the Anglefords—Anglemere, it is called; one of the historic houses, like Blenheim and Chatsworth, you know. And this poor Lord Selbie, the nephew, will lose the title and everything. Dear me! how interesting! Is there anything more about him?'
"Oh, yes; a great deal more," said Nell despairfully.
"Then pray continue—that is, if Mr. Vernon is not tired; though, speaking from experience, there is nothing so soothing as being read to."
Mr. Vernon did not look as if he found the impertinent paragraphs in the Society News particularly soothing, but he said:
"I'm not at all tired. It's very interesting, as you say. Please go on, Miss Lorton."
Nell looked at him doubtfully, for there was a kind of sarcasm in his voice. But she took up the parable.
"'Lord Selbie is, in consequence of this marriage of his uncle, the object of profound and general sympathy; for, as the readers must be aware, he is a persona grata in society——' What is a persona grata?" Nell broke off to inquire.
"Lord knows!" replied Mr. Vernon grimly. "I don't suppose the bounder who wrote these things does."
Mrs. Lorton simpered.
"It's Italian, and it means that he is very popular, a general favorite."
"Then why don't they say so?" asked Nell, in a patiently disgusted fashion. "'Is a persona grata in society. He is strikingly handsome——'"
Mr. Vernon's lips curved with something between a grin and a sneer.
—"'And of the most charming manners.'"
"Who writes this kind of rot?" he muttered.
"'Since his first appearance in the circles of the London elite, Lord Selbie has been the cynosure of all eyes. To quote Hamlet again, he may truthfully be described as the "glass of fashion and the mould of form." His lordship is also a good all-round sportsman. He spent two or three years traveling in the Rockies and in Africa, and his exploits with the big game in both countries are well known. Like most young men of his class, Lord Selbie was rather wild at Oxford, and displayed a certain amount of diablerie in London during his quite early manhood. He is a splendid whip, and his four-in-hand was eclipsed by none other in the club. Lord Selbie is also an admirable horseman, and has won several cups in regimental races.'
"That is the end of that paragraph," said Nell, stifling a yawn, and glancing longingly through the window at the sea dancing in the sunlight. "Do you want any more?"
"Is there any?" asked Mr. Vernon grimly. "If so, we'd better have it, perhaps."
"Certainly," said Mrs. Lorton. "If there is anything I dislike more than another, it is incomplete information. Go on Eleanor."
Nell sighed and took up the precious paper again.
"'As is well known'—they always say that, because it flatters the readers, I suppose," she went on parenthetically—"'Lord Selbie is a "Lord" in consequence of his father, Mr. Herbert Selbie, the famous diplomatist, having been created a viscount; but, though he bears this title, we fancy Lord Selbie cannot be well off. The kind of life he has led since his advent in society must have strained his resources to the utmost, and we should not be far wrong if we described him as a poor man. This marriage of his uncle, the Earl of Angleford, must, therefore, be a serious blow to him, and may cause his complete retirement from the circles of ton in which he has shone so brilliantly. Lord Selbie, as we stated last week, is engaged to the daughter of Lord Turfleigh.'"
Nell dropped the paper and struggled with a portentous yawn.
"Thank you very much, Miss Lorton," said Mr. Vernon politely, with a half smile on his impassive face. "It is, as Mrs. Lorton says, very interesting."
Nell stared at him; then, seeing the irony in his eyes and on his lips, smiled.
"I thought for the moment that you meant it," she said quietly.
Mrs. Lorton heard, and sniffed at her.
"My dear Eleanor, what do you mean?" she inquired stiffly. "Of course, Mr. Vernon is interested. Why should he say so if he were not? I'm afraid, Eleanor, that you are of opinion that nothing but fiction has any claim on our attention, and that anything real and true is of no account. I may be old-fashioned and singular, but I find that these small details of the lives of our aristocracy are full of interest, not to say edifying. What do you think, Mr. Vernon?"
He had been gazing absently out of the window, but he pulled himself together, and came up to the scratch with a jerk.
"Certainly, certainly," he said.
Mrs. Lorton smiled triumphantly.
"You see, Eleanor, Mr. Vernon quite agrees with me. I must go and see if Molly has put the jelly in the window to cool. Meanwhile, Mr. Vernon may like you to continue reading to him."
Mr. Vernon rose to open the door for her—Nell noticed the act of courtesy—then sank down again.
"You don't want any more?" she said, looking at the paper on her knee.
"No, thanks," he said.
She tossed it onto a chair at the other end of the room.
"It is the most awful nonsense," she said, with a girlish frankness. "Why did you tell mamma that it was interesting?"
He met the direct gaze of the clear gray eyes, and smiled.
"Well—as it happened—it was," he said.
The clear gray eyes opened wider.
"What! All this gossip about the Earl of Angleford, and his nephew, Lord Selbie?"
He looked down, then raised his eyes, narrowed into slits, and fixed them above her head.
"I fancy it's true—in the main," he said, half apologetically.
"Well, and if it is," she retorted impatiently, "of what interest can it be to us? We don't know the Earl of Angleford, and don't care a button that he is married, and that his nephew is—what do you say?—disinherited."
"N-o," he admitted.
"Very well, then," she said triumphantly. "It is like reading the doings of people living in the moon."
"The moon is a long ways off," he ventured.
"Not farther from us than the world in which these earls and lords have their being," she retorted. "It all seems so—so impertinent to me, when I am reading it. Of what interest can the lives of these people be to us, to me, Nell Lorton? I never heard of Lord Angleford, and Lord—what is it?—Lord Selbie, before; did you?"
He glanced at her, then looked fixedly through the window.
"I've heard of them—yes," he said reluctantly.
"Ah, well, you are better informed than I am," said Nell, laughing softly. "There's Dick; he's calling me. Do you mind being left? He will make an awful row if I don't go out."
"Certainly not. Go by all means!" he said. "And thank you for—all the trouble you have taken."
Nell nodded and hurried out, and Mr. Vernon leaned back and bit at his mustache thoughtfully, not to say irritably.
"I feel like a bounder," he muttered. "Why the blazes didn't I give my right name? I wonder what they'd say—how that girl would look—if I told them that I was the Lord Selbie this rag was cackling about? Shall I tell them? No. It would be awkward now. I shall be gone in a day or two, and they needn't know."
The following morning, the carrier's cart stopped at the cottage, and Dick, having helped the carrier to bring in a big portmanteau, burst into the sitting room with:
"Your togs have arrived, Mr. Vernon; and the carrier says that there are a couple of horses at the station. They're directed 'Drake Vernon, Esquire,' so they must be for you!"
"That's all right," he said. "They were doing nothing in—where they were, and I thought I'd have them sent down here. I suppose I must get some one to exercise them?"
Dick's eyes sparkled and his mouth stretched in an expressive grin.
"Not much difficulty about that," he said. "For instance, I don't mind obliging you—as a favor."
Mr. Vernon smiled.
"I thought perhaps you might be so good," he said; and he added casually: "Anybody here who could be trusted to bring them from the station?"
"I know a most trustworthy person; his name is Richard Lorton, and he will go for 'em in a brace of jiffs," said Dick.
Mr. Vernon flicked a five-pound note across the table.
"There may be some carriage. By the way, one of them is a lady's nag, and I fancy they may have sent a sidesaddle."
Dick nodded and repeated the grin.
"I can get them put up at Sandy's," he said. "Sandy used to keep some stables going for post horses before the coach ran to Hartland, you know. I've got your horse there. Oh, they'll be all right. You trust to me."
"I do," said Mr. Vernon. "One moment," as Dick was rushing out to put on his well-worn riding suit. "I don't think I'd say anything about—the sidesaddle to Miss Lorton—yet."
Once again Dick nodded—a nod so full of comprehension as to be almost supernal.
Mr. Vernon went upstairs, and, with Molly's assistance, unpacked the huge portmanteau, and, when she had got out of the room, examined the contents. Strangely enough, the linen was all new and unmarked. Only on the silver fittings of the dressing case were a monogram—in which the initial "S" was decipherable—and a coronet.
"Sparling's an idiot!" Vernon muttered. "Why didn't he buy a new case? I shall have to keep this locked."
When he came down again, having changed into a blue serge suit, Nell was in the drawing-room, arranging some flowers, and she looked up with a smile of recognition at his altered appearance.
"Your box has arrived, I see," she said, with the frankness of—well, Shorne Mills. "You must be glad. And where has Dick dashed off to? He nearly knocked me down in his hurry."
"To Shallop," he said. "I had a couple of horses sent down."
"But you couldn't ride, with your arm in a sling; and you've a horse here already."
"Don't suppose it's fit to ride yet," he said, "and I'm not going to carry a sling forever. Besides, they were eating their heads off—where they were."
He said nothing about the sidesaddle.
"I see. Well, I'm sorry Dick's gone this morning, for I wanted him to come out in the boat. It's a good day for mackerel." She looked wistfully at the sea shining below them. "Of course I could go by myself, but I promised Mr. Gadsby that I wouldn't."
"Who's Mr. Gadsby?"
"The vicar. I got caught in a squall off the Head one day, and—I really wasn't in the least danger—but they were all waiting for me at the jetty, and they made a fuss—and so I had to promise that I wouldn't go out alone. And old Brownie's out with his nets—he goes with me sometimes. It's a nuisance."
He stood by the window silently for a moment, then he glanced at her wistful face, and said:
"I should be a poor substitute, in my present condition, for old Brownie, or old anybody else; but if you'll allow me to go with you, I shall be very grateful. I can manage the tiller, at any rate."
Nell's face lit up; she wanted to go very badly; it was a "real" mackerel day, and, like the days of other fishing, not to be missed.
"Will you? That's awfully kind of you! Not that I want any help; it isn't that, for I can manage the Annie Laurie in half a gale; but there's a feeling that, because I'm only a girl, I'm not to be trusted alone."
"I quite understand," he said. "I'll promise not to interfere, if you'll let me come."
"And it may do you good—it's sure to!" she said eagerly. "There's the loveliest of breezes—you must have some wind for mackerel—and——Can you go at once?"
"This very minute. I'm all ready," he said.
"All right," she exclaimed, just as Dick might have done. "I'll be ready before you can say Jack Robinson!"
She ran out of the room and was down again in a very few minutes. Vernon glanced at her as they left the cottage and descended the steep road. She had put on a short skirt of rough serge, with a jersey, which accentuated every flowing line of her girlish, graceful figure, and the dark hair rippled under a red tam-o'-shanter. He was familiar enough with the yachting costumes of fashion, but he thought that he had never seen anything so workmanlike and becoming as this get-up which Nell had donned so quickly and carelessly. As they walked down the steps which led to the jetty, Nell exchanging greetings at every step, an old fisherman, crippled with rheumatism, limped beside them, and helped to bring the boat to the jetty steps.
Nell eyed the Annie Laurie lovingly, but said apologetically:
"She's a very good boat. Old, of course. She is a herring boat, and though she isn't fascinatingly beautiful, she can sail. Dick—helped by Brownie—decked her over, and Dick picked up a new set of sails last year from a man who was selling off his gear. Have you put in the bait and the lines, Willy?"
"Aye, aye, Miss Nell; I'm thinkin' you'll be gettin' some mackerel if the wind holds. Let me help 'ee wi' the sail."
"No, no," said Nell, "I can manage. Oh, please don't you trouble!" she added to Vernon. "If you'll give me the sheet—that's the rope by your hand."
Vernon nodded, and suppressed a smile.
"She'll go a bit tauter still, I think," he said, as Nell hoisted the mainsail.
She looked at him.
"You understand?" she said, with a little surprise.
Vernon thought of his crack yacht, but answered casually:
"I've done some yachting—yes."
"Yachting!" said Nell. "This isn't yachting. You must feel a kind of contempt for our poor old tub."
"Not at all; she's a good boat, I can see," he said.
Nell took up the oars, but she had to pull only a few strokes, for the wind soon filled the sail, and the Annie Laurie, as if piqued by the things that had been said of her, sprang forward before the wind.
Nell shipped the oars, looked up at the sail, and glanced at Vernon, who had taken his seat in the stern, and got hold of the tiller with an accustomed air.
"Make for the Head," she said. "I'll get the lines ready."
There was silence for a minute or two while she baited the lines and paid them out, and Vernon watched her with a kind of absent-minded interest.
She was quite intent on her work, and he felt that, so far as she was concerned, he might have been old Brownie, or the rheumatic Willy, or her brother Dick; and something in her girlish indifference to his presence and personality impressed him; for Drake, Viscount Selbie, was not accustomed to be passed over as a nonentity by the women in whose company he chanced to be.
"That ought to fetch them," she said, eying the baited line with an air of satisfaction. "You might keep her to the wind a little more, Mr. Vernon; she can carry all we've got, and more."
"Aye, aye!" he responded, in sailor fashion. "You only did her bare justice, Miss Lorton," he added. "She's a good boat."
Nell looked round at him with a gratified smile.
"She's a dear old thing, really," she said; "and she behaves like an angel in a gale. Many's the time Dick and I have sailed her when half the other boats were afraid to leave the harbor."
"Wasn't that rather dangerous, a tempting of Providence?" he said, rather gravely, at the thought of the peril incurred by these two thoughtless children—for what else were they?
"Oh, I don't know," she replied carelessly. "We know every inch of the coast and every current, and if it should ever come on too stiff, we should make for the open. It would have to be a bad sea to sink the Annie Laurie; and if we came to grief——Well, we can die but once, you know; and, after all, there are meaner ways of slipping off the mortal coil than doing it in a hurricane off Windy Head. There's the first fish! If Brownie were here, we should 'wet it'; but I haven't any whisky to offer you."
Her low but clear laugh rang musical over the billowing water, and she nodded at her companion as if he were one of the fishing men or Dick.
Vernon leaned back and gazed in turn at the sea and the sky and the slim, girlish form and beautiful face, and half unconsciously his mind concentrated itself upon her.
She was not the first young girl he had known, but she was quite unlike any young girl he had hitherto met. He could recall none so free and frank and utterly unselfconscious.
Most young girls with whom he had become acquainted had bored him by their insipidity or disgusted him by their precocity; but from this one there emanated a kind of charm which rested while it attracted him. It was pleasant to lean back and look at and listen to her; to watch the soft tendrils of dark hair stirred by the wind, to see the frank smile light up the gray eyes and curve the sweet red lips; to listen to the musical voice, the low brief laugh, which was so distinct from the ordinary girl's giggle or forced and affected gayety.
The fish were biting, and soon a pile of silver lay wet and glittering in the bottom of the boat.
"Haven't you got enough?" asked Vernon, with your sportsman's dislike of "pot hunting."
"For ourselves? Oh, yes; but some of the old people of the Mills like mackerel," replied Nell, "and they'll be waiting on the jetty for the Annie Laurie's return. Are you getting tired?" she asked, for the first time directing her attention to him. "I quite forgot you were an invalid."
"Go on forgetting it, please," he said. "In fact, the invalid business is played out. I'm far too hungry to keep up the character."
"So am I."
She raised herself on her elbow and looked toward the shore.
"If you'll take her to that cove just opposite us, we'll have some lunch. You can eat fish, I hope? It was awfully stupid of me not to remember——"
"I can eat anything," he said quickly. "I was just going to propose that we should cast lots, in cannibalistic fashion, to decide who should lunch on the other."
She laughed, and pulled in her line.
"That's a beauty for the last. Do you know how to cook mackerel?"
"No; but I can learn."
"Very well, then; you'll find a spirit lamp and stove in that locker under the tiller. Yes, that's it. And there ought to be some bread and butter, and some coffee. Milk, as we don't carry a cow, we shall have to do without. We shall be in smooth water presently, and then we can lunch."
He sailed the boat into a sheltered cove, and, rather awkwardly, with his one hand, extracted the cooking utensils from the locker. Nell lowered the sail, dropped the anchor, and came aft.
"I'm afraid I shall have to cook," she said. "Dick generally does it, but you've only one hand. There's one fish;" as she cut it open skillfully. "How many can you eat?"
"Two—three dozen," he said gravely.
She laughed, and placed three of the silver mackerel in the frying pan.
"Now don't, please, don't say that you haven't a match!" she said, half aghast with dread.
He took his silver match box from his pocket, and was on the point of handing it to her. Then he remembered the coronet engraved on it, and holding it against his side, managed to strike a light and ignite the spirit.
"Of course, you have to pretend that you don't mind the smell of cooking fish; but it really isn't so bad when one is hungry," she said, as the pan began to hiss and the fish to brown.
"There's salt and pepper somewhere," she remarked. "You put them on while the fish is cooking; it is half the battle, as Dick says. They're in the back of the locker, I think. If you'll move just a little——"
He screwed himself into as small a compass as possible, and she dived into the locker and got out a couple of tin boxes.
"And here's the bread—rather stale, I'm afraid—and some biscuits. The coffee's in that tin, and the water in this jar. Do you know how to make coffee?"
"Rather!" he said, with mock indignation. "I've made coffee under various circumstances and in various climes; in the galley of a Porto Rico coaster; in an American ravine, waiting for the game; on a Highland moor, when the stags had got scent and the last chance of sport in the day was gone like a beautiful dream; in an artist's attic in Florence, where the tobacco smoke was too thick to cut with anything less than a hatchet; and after a skirmish with the dervishes, when a cup of coffee seemed almost as precious as the life one had just managed to save by the skin of one's teeth; but I never made it under more pleasant circumstances than these."
He looked up and round him as he spoke, with a brighter expression on his face than she had as yet seen, and Nell regarded him with a sudden interest.
"How much you have traveled!" she said—"that mackerel wants turning; raise the pan so that the butter can run under the fish; that's it—and how much you must have seen! Italy, Egypt, Porto Rico—where is that? Oh, I remember! How delightful to have seen so much! You must be a very fortunate individual!"
She leaned her chin in her brown, shapely hands, and looked at him curiously, and with a frank envy in her gray eyes.
His face clouded for a moment.
"Count no man fortunate until he is dead!" he said, adapting the aphorism. "Believe me that I'd change places with you at this moment, and throw in all my experiences."
She laughed incredulously.
"With me? Oh, you can't mean it. It is very flattering, of course; but it's absurd. Why"—she paused and sighed—"I've never been anywhere, or seen anything. I've never been to London even, since I was quite a little girl, and——Change places with me!" She laughed again, just a little sadly. "Yes, it does sound absurd. For one thing, you wouldn't like to be poor; and we are poor, you know."
"Poor and content is rich enough," he remarked sententiously. Then he laughed. "I'm as good as a copy book with moral headings this morning."