The Obstacle Race
By Ethel M. Dell
I DEDICATE THIS BOOK TO MY DEAR "HALF-SISTER," MARY, WITH MY LOVE
"So run, that ye may obtain."—I Corinthians 9:24
Give me the ready brain and steadfast face To dare the hazard and to run the race, The high heart that no scathing word can stay O'erleaping obstacles that bar the way, The sportsman's soul that, failing at the end, Can smile upon the victory of a friend, And to my judges make this one protest,— A poor performance but—I did my best!
I.—BETTER THAN LONDON
V.—THE GREAT MAN
I.—THE WAND OF OFFICE
III.—A DRAWN BATTLE
IV.—A POINT OF HONOUR
V.—THE WAY TO HAPPINESS
VIII.—THE HONOURS OF WAR
I.—BIRDS OF A FEATHER
V.—THE DRIVING FORCE
VI.—THE SISTER OF MERCY
I.—THE FREE GIFT
VI.—COALS OF FIRE
VIII.—OUT OF THE NIGHT
IX.—THE FREE PARDON
X.—THE LAST FENCE
THE OBSTACLE RACE
BETTER THAN LONDON
A long, green wave ran up, gleaming like curved glass in the sunlight, and broke in a million sparkles against a shelf of shingle. Above the shingle rose the soft cliffs, clothed with scrubby grass and crowned with gorse.
"Columbus," said the stranger, "this is just the place for us."
Columbus wagged a cheery tail and expressed complete agreement. He was watching a small crab hurrying among the stones with a funny frown between his brows. He was not quite sure of the nature or capabilities of these creatures, and till he knew more he deemed it advisable to let them pass without interference. A canny Scot was Columbus, and it was very seldom indeed that anyone ever got the better of him. He was also a gentleman to the backbone, and no word his mistress uttered, however casual, ever passed unacknowledged by him. He always laughed when she laughed, however obscure the joke.
He smiled now, since she was obviously pleased, but without taking his sharp little eyes off the object of his interest. Suddenly the scuttling crab disappeared and he started up with a whine. In a moment he was scratching in the shingle in eager search, flinging showers of stones over his companion in the process.
She protested, seizing him by his wiry tail to make him desist. "Columbus! Don't! You're burying me alive! Do sit down and be sensible, or I'll never be wrecked on a desert island with you again!"
Columbus subsided, not very willingly, dropping with a grunt into the hole he had made. His mistress released him, and took out a gold cigarette case.
"I wonder what I shall do when I've finished these," she mused. "The simple life doesn't include luxuries of this sort. Only three left, Columbus! After that, your missis'll starve."
She lighted a cigarette with a faint pucker on her wide brow. Her eyes looked out over the empty, tumbling sea—grey eyes very level in their regard under black brows that were absolutely straight and inclined to be rather heavily accentuated.
"Yes, I wish I'd asked Muff for a few before I came away," was the outcome of her reflections. "By this time tomorrow I shan't have one left. Just think of that, my Christopher, and be thankful that you're just a dog to whom one rat tastes very like another!"
Columbus sneezed protestingly. Whatever his taste in rats, cigarette smoke did not appeal to him. His mistress's fondness for it was her only failing in his eyes.
She went on reflectively, her eyes upon the sky-line. "I shall have to take in washing to eke out a modest living in cigarettes and chocolates. I can't subsist on Mr. Rickett's Woodbines, that's quite certain. I wonder if there's a pawnshop anywhere near."
Her voice was low and peculiarly soft; she uttered her words with something of a drawl. Her hands were clasped about her knees, delicate hands that yet looked capable. The lips that held the cigarette were delicately moulded also, but they had considerable character.
"If I were Lady Joanna Farringmore, I suppose I should say something rather naughty in French, Columbus, to relieve my feelings. But you and I don't talk French, do we? And we have struck the worthy Lady Jo and all her crowd off our visiting-list for some time to come. I don't suppose any of them will miss us much, do you, old chap? They'll just go on round and round in the old eternal waltz and never realize that it leads to nowhere." She stretched out her arms suddenly towards the horizon; then turned and lay down by Columbus on the shingle. "Oh, I'm glad we've cut adrift, aren't you? Even without cigarettes, it's better than London."
Again Columbus signified his agreement by kissing her hair, in a rather gingerly fashion on account of the smoke; after which, as she seemed to have nothing further to say, he got up, shook himself, and trotted off to explore the crannies in the cliffs.
His mistress pillowed her dark head on her arm, and lay still, with the sea singing along the ridge of shingle below her. She finished her cigarette and seemed to doze. A brisk wind was blowing from the shore, but the beach itself was sheltered. The sunlight poured over her in a warm flood. It was a perfect day in May.
Suddenly a curious thing happened. A small stone from nowhere fell with a smart tap upon her uncovered head! She started, surprised into full consciousness, and looked around. The shore stretched empty behind her. There was no sign of life among the grass-grown cliffs, save where Columbus some little distance away was digging industriously at the root of a small bush. She searched the fringe of flaming gorse that overhung the top of the cliff immediately behind her, but quite in vain. Some sea gulls soared wailing overhead, but no other intruder appeared to disturb the solitude. She gave up the search and lay down again. Perhaps the wind had done it, though it did not seem very likely.
The tide was rising, and she would have to move soon in any case. She would enjoy another ten minutes of her delicious sun-bath ere she returned for the midday meal that Mrs. Rickett was preparing in the little thatched cottage next to the forge.
Again she stretched herself luxuriously. Yes, it was better than London; the soft splashing of waves was better than the laughter of a hundred voices, better than the roar of a thousand wheels, better than the voice of a million concerts ... Again reverie merged into drowsy absence of thought. How exquisite the sunshine was!...
It fell upon her dark cheek this time with a sharp sting and bounced off on to her hand—a round black stone dropped from nowhere but with strangely accurate aim. She sprang up abruptly. This was getting beyond a joke.
Columbus was still rooting beneath the distant bush. Most certainly he was not the offender. Some boy was hiding somewhere among the humps and clefts that constituted the rough surface of the cliff. She picked up her walking-stick with a certain tightening of the lips. She would teach that boy a lesson if she caught him unawares.
Grimly she set her face to the cliff and to the narrow, winding passage by which she had descended to the shore. Her dreams were wholly scattered! Her cheek still smarted from the blow. She left the sea without a backward glance. She sent forth a shrill whistle to Columbus as she began to climb the slippery path of stones. She was convinced that it was from this that her assailant had gathered his weapons.
With springing steps she mounted, looking sharply to right and left as she did so! And in a moment, turning inwards from the sea, she caught sight of a movement among some straggling bushes a few yards to one side of the path.
Without an instant's hesitation she swung herself up the steep incline, climbing with a rapidity that swiftly cut off the landward line of retreat. She would give her assailant a fright for his pains if nothing better.
And then just as she reached the level, very sharply she stopped. It was as if a hand had caught her back. For suddenly there rose up before her a figure so strange that for a moment she felt almost like a scared child. It sprang from the bushes and stood facing her like an animal at bay—a short creature neither man nor boy, misshapen, grotesquely humped, possessing long thin arms of almost baboon-like proportions. The head was sunken into the shoulders. It was flung back and the face upraised—and it was the face that made her pause, for it was the most pathetic sight she had ever looked upon. It was the face of a lad of two or three and twenty, but drawn in lines so painful, so hollowed, so piteous, that fear melted into compassion at the sight. The dark eyes that stared upwards had a frightened look mingled with a certain defiance. He stood barefooted on the edge of the cliff, clenching and unclenching his bony hands, with the air of a culprit awaiting sentence.
There was a decided pause before his victim spoke. She found some difficulty in grappling with the situation, but she had no intention of turning her back upon it. She felt it must be tackled with resolution.
After a moment she spoke, with as much sternness as she could muster, "Why did you throw those stones?"
He backed at the sound of her voice, and she had an instant of sickening fear, for there was a drop of twenty feet behind him on the shingle. But he must have seen her look, for he stopped himself on the brink, and stood there doggedly.
"Don't stand there!" she said quickly. "I'm not going to hurt you."
He lowered his head, and looked at her from under drawn brows. "Yes, you are," he said gruffly. "You're going to beat me with that stick."
The shrewdness of this surmise struck her as not without humour. She smiled, and, turning, flung the stick straight down to the path below. "Now!" she said.
He came forward, not very willingly, and stood within a couple of yards of her, still looking as if he expected some sort of chastisement.
She faced him, and the last of her fear departed. Though he was so terribly deformed that he looked like some dreadful beast reared on its hind legs there was that about the face, sullen though it was, that stirred her deepest feelings.
She did her best to conceal the fact, however. "Tell me why you threw those stones!" she said.
"Because I wanted to hit you," he returned with disconcerting promptitude.
She looked at him steadily. "How very unkind of you!" she said.
His eyes gleamed with a smouldering resentment. "No, it wasn't. I didn't want you there. Dicky is coming soon, and he likes it best when there is no one there."
She noticed that though there was scant courtesy in his speech, it was by no means the rough talk of the fisher-folk. It fired her curiosity. "And who is Dicky?" she said.
"Who are you?" he retorted rudely.
She smiled again. "You are not very polite, are you? But I don't mind telling you if you want to know. My name is Juliet Moore. Now tell me yours!"
He looked at her doubtfully. "Juliet is a name out of a book," he said.
She laughed, a low, soft laugh that woke an answering glimmer of amusement in his sullen face. "How clever of you to know that!" she said.
"No, I'm not clever." Tersely he contradicted her. "Old Swag at The Three Tuns says I'm the village idiot."
"What a horrid old man!" she exclaimed almost involuntarily.
He nodded his heavy head. "Yes, I knocked him down the other day, and kicked him for it. Dicky caned me afterwards,—I'm not supposed to go to The Three Tuns—but I was glad I'd done it all the same."
"Well, who is Dicky?" she asked again. Her interest was growing.
He glared at her with sudden suspicion. "What do you want to know for?"
"Because I think he must be rather a brave man," she said.
The suspicion vanished. His eyes shown. "Oh, Dicky isn't afraid of anything," he declared with pride. "He's my brother. He knows—heaps of things. He's a man."
"You are fond of him," said Juliet, with her friendly smile.
The boy's face lighted up. "He's the only person I love in the world," he said, "except Mrs. Rickett's baby."
"Mrs. Rickett's baby!" She checked a quick desire to laugh that caught her unawares. "You are fond of babies then?"
"No, I'm not. I like dogs. I don't like babies—except Mrs. Rickett's and he's such a jolly little cuss." He smiled over the words, and again she felt a deep compassion. Somehow his face seemed almost sadder when he smiled.
"I am staying with Mrs. Rickett," she said. "But I only came yesterday, and I haven't made the baby's acquaintance yet. I must get myself introduced. You haven't told me your name yet, you know. Mayn't I hear what it is? I've told you mine."
He looked at her with renewed suspicion. "Hasn't anybody told you about Me yet?" he said.
"No, of course not. Why, I don't know anybody except Mr. and Mrs. Rickett. And it's much more interesting to hear it from yourself."
"Is it?" He hesitated a little longer, but was finally disarmed by the kindness of her smile. "My name is Robin."
"Oh, that's a nice name," Juliet said. "And you live here? What do you do all day?"
"I don't know," he said vaguely. "I can mend fishing-nets, and I can help Dicky in the garden. And I look after Mrs. Rickett's baby sometimes when she's busy. What do you do?" suddenly resuming his attitude of suspicion.
She made a slight gesture of the hands. "Nothing at all worth doing, I am afraid," she said. "I can't mend nets. I don't garden. And I've never looked after a baby in my life."
He stared at her. "Where do you come from?" he asked curiously.
"From London." She met his curiosity with absolute candour. "And I'm tired of it. I'm very tired of it. So I've come here for a change. I'm going to like this much better."
"Better than London!" He gazed, incredulous.
"Oh, much better." Juliet spoke with absolute confidence. "Ah, here is Columbus! He likes it better too."
She turned to greet her companion who now came hastening up to view the new acquaintance.
He sniffed round Robin who bent awkwardly and laid a fondling hand upon him. "I like your dog," he said.
"That's right," said Juliet kindly. "We are both staying at the Ricketts', so when you come to see the baby, I hope you will come to see us too. I must go now, or I shall be late for lunch. Good-bye!"
The boy lifted himself again with a slow, ungainly movement, and raised a hand to his forehead in wholly unexpected salute.
She smiled and turned to depart, but he spoke again, arresting her.
She looked back. "Yes? What is it?"
He shuffled his bare feet in the grass in embarrassment and murmured something she could not hear.
"What is it?" she said again, encouragingly, as if she were addressing a shy child.
He lifted his dark eyes to hers in sudden appeal. "I say," he said, with obvious effort, "if—if you meet Dicky, you—you won't tell him about—about—"
She checked the struggling words with a very kindly gesture. "Oh, no, of course not! I'm not that sort of person. But the next time you want to get rid of me, just come and tell me so, and I'll go away at once."
The gentleness of her speech uttered in that soft slow voice of hers had a curious effect upon her hearer. To her surprise, his eyes filled with tears.
"I shan't want to get rid of you! You're kind! I like you!" he blurted forth.
"Oh, thank you very much!" said Juliet, feeling oddly moved herself. "In that case, we are friends. Good-bye! Come and see me soon!"
She smiled upon him, and departed, picking up her stick from the path and turning to wave to him as she continued the ascent.
From the top of the cliff she looked back, and saw that he was still standing—a squat, fantastic figure like a goblin out of a fairy-tale—outlined against the shining sea behind him, a blot upon the blue.
Again she waved to him and he lifted one of his long arms and saluted her again in answer—stood at the salute till she turned away.
"Poor boy!" she murmured compassionately. "Poor ruined child! Columbus, we must be kind to him."
And Columbus looked up with knowing little eyes and wagged a smiling tail. He had taken to the lad himself.
"Lor' bless you!" said Mrs. Rickett. "There's some folks as thinks young Robin is the plague of the neighbourhood, but there ain't no harm in the lad if he's let alone. It's when them little varmints of village boys, sets on to him and teases him as he ain't safe. But let him be, and he's as quiet as a lamb. O' course if they great hulking fools on the shore goes and takes him into The Three Tuns, you can't expect him to behave respectable. But as I always says, let him alone and there's no vice in him. Why, I've seen him go away into a corner and cry like a baby at a sharp word from his brother Dick. He sets such store by him."
"I noticed that," said Juliet. "In fact he told me that Dicky and your baby were the only two people in the world that he loved."
"Did he now? Well, did you ever?" Mrs. Rickett's weather-beaten countenance softened as it were in spite of itself. "He always did take to my Freddy, right from the very first. And Freddy's just the same. Soon as ever he catches sight of Robin, he's all in a fever like to get to him. Mr. Fielding from the Court, he were in here the other day and he see 'em together. 'Your baby's got funny taste, Mrs. Rickett,' he says and laughs. And I says to him, 'There's a many worse than poor young Robin, sir,' I says. 'And in our own village too.' You see, Mr. Fielding he's one of them gentlemen as likes to have the managing of other folks' affairs and he's always been on to Dick to have poor Robin put away. But Dick won't hear of it, and I don't blame him. For, as I say, there's no harm in the lad if he's treated proper, and he'd break his heart if they was to send him away. And he's that devoted to Dick too—well, there, it fair makes me cry sometimes to see him. He'll sit and wait for him by the hour together, like a dog he will."
"Was he born like that?" asked Juliet, as her informant paused for breath.
Mrs. Rickett pursed her lips. "Well, you see, miss, he were a twin, and he never did thrive from the very earliest. But he wasn't a hunchback, not like he is now, at first. The poor mother died when they was born, and p'raps it were a good thing, for she'd have grieved terrible if she could have seen what he were a-going to grow into. For she was a lady born and bred, married beneath her, you know. Nor she didn't have any such life of it either. He were a sea-captain—a funny, Frenchy-looking fellow with a frightful temper. He never come home for twelve years after Dick were born. She used to teach at the village school, and make her living that way. Very sweet in her ways she were. Everyone liked her. There's them as says Mr. Fielding was in love with her. He didn't marry, you know, till long after. She used to sing too, and such a pretty voice she'd got. I used to think she was like an angel when I was a child. And so she were. Whether she'd have married Mr. Fielding or not I don't know. There's some as thinks she would. They were very friendly together. And then, quite sudden-like, when everyone thought he'd been dead for years, her husband come home again. I'll never forget it if I lives to be a hundred. I was only a bit of a girl then. It's more'n twenty years ago, you know, miss. I were just tidying up a bit in the school-house after school were over, and she were looking at some copybooks, when suddenly he marched in at the door, and, 'Hullo, Olive!' he says. She got up, and she was as white as a sheet. She didn't say one word. And he just come up to her, and took hold of her and kissed her and kissed her. It was horrid to see him, fair turned me up," said Mrs. Rickett graphically. "And I'll never forget her face when he let her go. She looked as if she'd had her death blow. And so she had, miss. For she was never the same again. The man was a beast, as anyone could see, and he hadn't improved in them twelve years. He were a hard drinker, and he used to torment her to drink with him, used to knock young Dick about too, something cruel. Dick were only a lad of twelve, but he says to me once, 'I'll kill that man,' he says. 'I'll kill him.' Mr. Fielding he went abroad as soon as the husband turned up, and he didn't know what goings-on there were. There's some as says she made him go, and I shouldn't wonder but what there was something in it. For if ever any poor soul suffered martyrdom, it was that woman. I'll never forget the change in her, never as long as I live. She kept up for a long time, but she looked awful, and then at last when her time drew near she broke down and used to cry and cry when anyone spoke to her. O' course we all knew as she wouldn't get over it. Her spirit was quite broke, and when the babies came she hadn't a chance. It happened very quick at the last, and her husband weren't there. He were down at The Three Tuns, and when they went to fetch him he laughed in their faces and went on drinking. Oh, it was cruel." Mrs. Rickett wiped away some indignant tears. "Not as she wanted him—never even mentioned his name. She only asked for Dick, and he was with her just at the end. He was only a lad of thirteen, miss, but he was a man grown from that night on. She begged him to look after the babies, and he promised her he would. And then she just lay holding his hand till she died. He seemed dazed-like when they told him she were gone, and just went straight out without a word. No one ever saw young Dick break down after that. He's got a will like steel."
"And the horrible husband?" asked Juliet, now thoroughly interested in Mrs. Rickett's favourite tragedy.
"I were coming to him," said Mrs. Rickett, with obvious relish. "The husband stayed at The Three Tuns till closing time, then he went out roaring drunk, took the cliff-path by mistake, and went over the cliff in the dark. The tide was up, and he was drowned. And a great pity it didn't happen a little bit sooner, says I! The nasty coarse hulking brute! I'd have learned him a thing or two if he'd belonged to me." Again, vindictively, Mrs. Rickett wiped her eyes. "Believe me, miss, there's no martyrdom so bad as getting married to the wrong man. I've seen it once and again, and I knows."
"I quite agree with you," said Juliet. "But tell me some more! Who took the poor babies?"
"Oh, Mrs. Cross at the lodge took them. Mr. Fielding provided for 'em, and he helped young Dick along too. He's been very good to them always. He had young Jack trained, and now he's his chauffeur and making a very good living. The worst of Jack is, he ain't over steady, got too much of his father in him to please me. He's always after some girl—two or three at a time sometimes. No harm in the lad, I daresay. But he's wild, you know. Dick finds him rather a handful very often. Robin can't abide him, which perhaps isn't much to be wondered at, seeing as it was mostly Jack's fault that he is such a poor cripple. He was always sickly. It's often the way with twins, you know. All the strength goes to one. But he always had to do what Jack did as a little one, and Jack led him into all sorts of mischief, till one day when they were about ten they went off bird's-nesting along the cliffs High Shale Point way, and only Jack come back late at night to say his brother had gone over the cliff. Dick tore off with some of the chaps from the shore. It were dark and windy, and they all said it was no use, but Dick insisted upon going down the face of the cliff on a rope to find him. And find him at last he did on a ledge about a hundred feet down. He was so badly hurt that he thought he'd broke his back, and he didn't dare move him till morning, but just stayed there with him all night long. Oh, it was a dreadful business." A large tear splashed unchecked on to Mrs. Rickett's apron. "An ill-fated family, as you might say. They got 'em up in the morning o' course, but poor little Robin was very bad. He was on his back for nearly a year after, and then, when he began to get about again, them humps came and he grew crooked. Mr. Fielding were away at the time, hunting somewhere in the wilds of Africa, and when he came home he were shocked to see the lad. He had the very best doctors in the land to see him, but they all said there was nothing to be done. The spine had got twisted, or something of that nature, and he'd begun to have queer giddy fits too as made 'em say the brain were affected, which it really weren't, miss, for he's as sane as you or me, only simple you know, just a bit simple. They said, all of 'em, as how he'd never live to grow up. He'd get them abscies at the base of the skull, and they'd reach his brain and he'd go raving mad and die. And the squire—that's Mr. Fielding—was all for putting him away there and then. But Dick, he'd nursed him all through, and he wouldn't hear of it. 'The boy's mine,' he says, 'and I'm going to look after him.' Mr. Fielding was very cross with him, but that didn't make no difference. You see, Dick had got fond of him, and as for Robin, why, he just worshipped Dick. So there it was left, and Dick gave up all his prospects to keep the boy with him. He were reading for the law, you see, but he gave it all up and turned schoolmaster, so as he could live here and take care of young Robin."
"Turned schoolmaster!" Juliet repeated the words. "He's something of a scholar then!"
"Oh, no," said Mrs. Rickett. "It's only the village school, miss. Mr. Fielding got him the post. They're an unruly set of varmints here, but he keeps order among 'em. He's quite clever, as you might say, but no, he ain't a scholard. He goes in for games, you know, football and the like, tries to teach 'em to play like gentlemen, which he never will, for they're a low lot, them shore people, and that dirty! Well, he makes 'em bathe every day in the summer whether they likes it or whether they don't. Oh, he does his best to civilize 'em, and all them fisher chaps thinks a deal of him too. They've got a club in the village what Mr. Fielding built for 'em, and he goes along there and gives 'em musical evenings and jollies 'em generally. They'll do anything for him, bless you. But he tells 'em off pretty straight sometimes. They'll take it from him, you see, because they respects him."
"I thought the parson always did that sort of thing," said Juliet.
Mrs. Rickett uttered a brief, expressive snort. "He ain't much use—except for the church. He's old, you see, and he don't understand 'em. And he's scared at them chaps what works the lead mines over at High Shale. It's all in this parish, you know. And they are a horrid rough lot, a deal worse than the fisher-folk. But Dick he don't mind 'em. And he can do anything with 'em too, plays his banjo and sings and makes 'em laugh. The mines belong to the Farringmore family, you know—Lord Wilchester owns 'em. But he never comes near, and a' course the men gets discontented and difficult. And they're a nasty drinking lot too. Why, the manager—that's Mr. Ashcott—he's at his wit's end sometimes. But Dick—oh, Dick can always handle 'em, knows 'em inside and out, and their wives too. Yes, he's very clever is Dick. But he's thrown away in this place. It's a pity, you know. If it weren't for Robin, it's my belief that he'd be a great man. He's a born leader. But he's never had a chance, and it don't look like as if he ever will now, poor fellow!"
Mrs. Rickett ended mournfully and picked up Juliet's empty plate.
"How old is he?" asked Juliet.
"Oh, he's a lot past thirty now, getting too old to turn his hand to anything new. Mr. Fielding he's always on to him about it, but it don't make no difference. He'll never take up any other work while Robin lives. And Robin is stronger nor what he used to be, all thanks to Dick's care. He's just sacrificed everything to that boy, you know. It don't seem hardly right, do it?"
"I don't know," Juliet said slowly. "Some sacrifices are worth while."
Mrs. Rickett looked a little puzzled. There was something about this young lodger of hers that she could not quite fathom, but since she 'liked the looks of her' she did not regard this fact as a serious drawback.
"Well, there's some folks as thinks one way and some another," she conceded. "My husband always says as there's quite a lot of good in Robin if he's treated decent. He's often round here at the forge. That's how he come to get so fond of my Freddy. You ain't seen Freddy yet, miss. He's a bit shy like with strangers, but he soon gets over it."
"You must bring him in to see me," said Juliet.
Mrs. Rickett beamed. "I will, miss, I will. I'll bring him in with the pudding. P'raps if you was to give him a little bit he wouldn't be shy. He's very fond of gingerbread pudding."
"I wish I were!" sighed Juliet, as her landlady's portly form disappeared. "I shall certainly have to have a cigarette after it, and then there will only be one left! Oh, dear, why was I brought up among the flesh-pots?" She broke off with a sudden irresistible laugh, and rising went to the window. Someone was sauntering down the road on the other side of the high privet hedge. There came to her a whiff of cigarette-smoke wafted on the sea-breeze. She leaned forth, and at the gap by the gate caught a glimpse of a trim young man in blue serge wearing a white linen hat. She scarcely saw his face as he passed, but she had a fleeting vision of the cigarette.
"I wonder where you get them from," she murmured wistfully. "I believe I could get to like that brand, and they can't be as expensive as mine."
The door opened behind her, and she turned back smiling to greet the ginger pudding and Freddy.
The scent of the gorse in the evening dew was as incense offered to the stars. To Juliet, wandering forth in the twilight after supper with Columbus, the exquisite fragrance was almost intoxicating. It seemed to drug the senses. She went along the path at the top of the cliff as one in a dream.
The sea was like a dream-sea also, silver under the stars, barely rippling against the shingle, immensely and mysteriously calm. She went on and on, scarcely feeling the ground beneath her feet, moving through an atmosphere of pure magic, all her pulses thrilling to the wonder of the night.
Suddenly, from somewhere not far distant among the gorse bushes, there came a sound. She stopped, and it seemed to her that all the world stopped with her to hear the first soft trill of a nightingale through the tender dusk. It went into silence, but it left her heart throbbing strangely. Surely—surely there was magic all around her! That bird-voice in the silence thrilled her through and through. She stood spell-bound, waiting for the enchanted music to fill her soul. There followed a few liquid notes, and then there came a far-off, flute-like call, gradually swelling, gradually drawing nearer, so pure, so wild, so full of ecstasy, that she almost felt as if it were more than she could bear. It broke at last in a crystal shower of song, and she turned and looked out over the glittering sea and asked herself if it could be real. It was as if a spirit had called to her out of the summer night.
Then Columbus came careering along the path in fevered search of her, and quite suddenly, like the closing of a lid, the magic sounds vanished into a deep silence.
"Oh, Columbus!" his mistress murmured reproachfully. "You've stopped the music!"
Columbus responded by planting his paws against her, and giving her a vigorous push. There was decidedly more of common sense than poetry in his composition. The passion for exploring which had earned him his name was his main characteristic, and he wanted to get as far as possible before the time arrived to turn back.
She yielded to his persuasion, and walked on up the path with her face to the shimmering sea. For some reason she felt divinely happy, as if she had drunk of the wine of the gods. It had been so wonderful—that song of starlight and of Spring.
It was very warm, and she wore neither hat nor wrap. If she had come out in a bathing-dress, no one would have known, she reflected. But in this she was wrong, for presently, as she sauntered along, she became aware of a faint scent other than the wonderful cocoa-nut perfume of the gorse bushes—a scent that made her aware of the presence of another human being in that magic place.
She looked about for him with a faint smile on her lips, but the cliff-path ran empty before her, ascending in a series of fairly stiff climbs to the brow of High Shale Point. Columbus hurried along ahead of her as if he had made up his mind to reach the top at all costs. But Juliet had no intention of mounting to the summit of the frowning cliff that night. She had a vagrant desire to track that elusive scent, but even that, it seemed was not to be satisfied, and at length she stopped again and sent a summoning whistle after Columbus.
It was almost at the same moment that there came from behind her a sound that shattered all the fairy romance of the night at a blow. She turned sharply, and immediately, like a fiendish chorus, it came again spreading and echoing along the cliffs—the yelling of drunken laughter.
Several men were coming along the path that she had travelled. She saw them vaguely in the dimness a little way below her, and realized that her retreat in that direction was cut off. Swiftly she considered the position, for there was no time to be lost. To pursue the path would be to go farther and farther away from the village and civilization, but for the moment she saw no other course. On one hand the gorse bushes made a practically impenetrable rampart, and on the other the cliff overhung the shore which at that point was nearly two hundred feet below. From where she stood, no way of escape presented itself, and she turned in despair to follow the path a little farther. But as she did so, she heard another wild shout from behind her, and it flashed upon her with a stab of dismay that her light dress had betrayed her. She had been sighted by the intruders, and they were pursuing her. She heard the stamp and scuffle of running feet that were not too sure of their stability, and with the sound something very like panic entered into Juliet. Her heart jolted within her, and the impulse to flee like a hunted hare was for a second almost too urgent to be withstood. That she did withstand it was a matter for life-long thankfulness in her estimation. The temptation was great, but she did not spring from the stock that runs away. She pulled herself up sharply with burning cheeks, and deliberately turned and waited.
They came up the path, yelling like hounds on a scent, while she stood perfectly erect and motionless, facing them. There were five of them, hulking youths all inflamed by drink if not actually tipsy, and they came around her with shouts of idiotic laughter and incoherent joking, evidently taking her for a village girl.
She stood her ground with her back to the cliff-edge, not yielding an inch, contempt in every line. "Will you kindly go your way," she said, "and allow me to go mine?"
They responded with yells of derision, and one young man, emboldened by the jeers of his companions, came close to her and leered into her face of rigid disdain. "I'm damned if I won't have a kiss first!" he swore, and flung a rough arm about her.
Juliet moved then with the fierce suddenness of a wild thing trapped. She wrenched herself from him in furious disgust.
"You hound!" she began to say. But the word was never fully uttered, for as it sprang to her lips, it went into a desperate cry. The ground had given way beneath her feet, and she fell straight backwards over that awful edge. For the fraction of an instant she saw the stars in the deep blue sky above her, then, like the snap of a spring, they vanished into darkness...
It was a darkness that spread and spread like an endless sea, submerging all things. No light could penetrate it; only a few vague sounds and impressions somehow filtered through. And then—how it happened she had not the faintest notion—she was aware of someone lifting her out of the depth that had received her, and there came again to her nostrils that subtle aroma of cigarette-smoke that had mingled with the scent of the gorse. She came to herself gasping, but for some reason she dared not look up. That single glimpse of the wheeling universe seemed to have sealed her vision.
Then a voice spoke. "I say, do open your eyes, if you don't mind! You're really not dead. You've only had a tumble."
That voice awoke her quite effectually. The mixture of entreaty and common sense it contained strangely stirred her curiosity. She opened her eyes wide upon the speaker.
"Hullo!" she said faintly.
He was kneeling by her side, looking closely into her face, and the first thing that struck her was the extreme brightness of his eyes. They shone like black onyx.
He responded at once, his voice very low and rapid. "It's perfectly all right. You needn't be afraid. I was just in time to catch you. There's an easier way down close by, but you wouldn't see it in this light. Feeling better now? Like to sit up?"
She awoke to the fact that she was propped against his knee. She sat up, still gasping a little, but shrank as she realized the narrowness of the ledge upon which she was resting.
He thrust out a protecting arm in front of her. "It's all right. You're absolutely safe. Don't shiver like that! You couldn't go over if you tried. Don't look if it makes you giddy!"
She looked again into his face, and again was struck by the amazing keenness of his eyes.
"How did you get here?" she said.
"Oh, it's easy enough when you know the way. I was just coming to help you when you came over. You didn't hear me shout?"
"No. They were all making such a horrid noise." She suppressed a shudder. "Have they gone now?"
"Yes, the brutes! They scooted. I'm going after them directly."
"Oh, please don't!" she said hastily. "Not for the world! I don't want to be left alone here. I've had enough of it."
She tried to smile with the words, but it was rather a trembling attempt. He abandoned his intention at once.
"All right. It'll keep. Look here, shall I help you up? You'll feel better on the top."
"I think I had better stay here for a minute," Juliet said. "I—I'm afraid I shall make an idiot of myself if I don't."
"No, you won't. You'll be all right." He thrust an abrupt arm around her shoulders, gripping them hard to still her trembling. "Lean against me! I've got you quite safe."
She relaxed with a murmur of thanks. There was something intensely reassuring about that firm grip. She sat quite motionless for a space with closed eyes, gradually regaining her self-command.
In the end a snuffle and whine from above aroused her. She sat up with a start.
"Oh, Columbus! Don't let him fall over!"
Her companion laughed a little. "Let's get back to him then! Don't look down! Keep your face to the cliff! And remember I've got hold of you! You can't fall."
She struggled blindly to her feet, helped by his arm behind her; but, though she did not look down, she was seized immediately by an overwhelming giddiness that made her totter back against him.
"I'm dreadfully sorry," she said, almost in tears. "I can't help it. I'm an idiot."
He held her up with unfailing steadiness. "All right! All right!" he said. "Don't get frightened! Move along slowly with me! Keep your face to the cliff, and you'll come to some steps! That's the way! Yes, we've got to get round that jutting-out bit. It's perfectly safe. Keep your head! It's quite easy on the other side."
It might be perfectly safe for a practised climber, but Juliet's heart was in her mouth when she reached the projecting corner of cliff where the ledge narrowed to a bare eighteen inches and the rock bulged outwards as if to push off all trespassers.
She came to a standstill, clinging desperately to the unyielding stone. "I can't possibly do it," she said helplessly.
"Yes, you can. You've got to." Quick as lightning came the words. "Go on and don't be silly! Of course you can do it! A child could."
He loosened her clutching fingers with the words, and pushed her onwards. She went, driven by a force such as she had never encountered before.
She heard the soft wash of the sea far below her above the sickening thudding of her heart as she crept forward round that terrible bend. She heard with an acuteness that made her marvel the long sweet note of the nightingale swelling among the bushes above. She also heard a watch ticking with amazing loudness close to her ear, and was aware of a very firm hand that grasped her shoulder, impelling her forward. There was no resisting that steady pressure. She crept on step by step because she could not do otherwise; and when she had rounded that awful corner at last and would fain have stopped to rest after the ordeal, she found that she must needs go on, for he would not suffer any pause.
He had followed her so closely that his hold upon her had never varied. There seemed to her to be something electric in the very touch of his fingers. She was fully conscious of the fact that she moved by a strength outside her own.
"Go on!" he said. "Go on! There's Columbus waiting for you. Can you see the steps? They're close here. They're a bit rough, I'm afraid. I made them myself. But you'll manage them."
She came to the steps. The path had widened somewhat, and the dreadful sense of sheer depth below her was less insistent. Nevertheless, the way was far from easy, the steps being little more than deep notches in the cliff. It slanted inwards here however, and she set herself to achieve the ascent with more assurance.
Her guide came immediately behind her. She felt his hand touch her at every step she took. Just at the last, realizing the nearness of the summit and safety, she tried to hasten, and in a moment slipped. He grabbed her instantly, but she could not recover her footing though she made a frantic effort to do so. She sprawled against the cliff, clutching madly at some tufts of grass and weed above her, while the man behind her gripped and held her there.
"Don't struggle!" he said. "You're all right. You won't fall. Let go of that stuff and hang on to me!"
"I can't!" she said. "I can't!"
"Let go of that stuff and hang on to me!" he said again, and the words were short and sharp. "Left hand first! Put your arm round my neck, and then get round and hang on with the other! It's only a few feet more. I can manage it."
They were the most definite instructions she had ever received in her life, and the most difficult to obey. She hung, clinging with both hands, still vainly seeking a foothold, desperately afraid to relinquish her hold and trust herself unreservedly to his single-handed strength. But, as he waited, it came to her that it was the only thing to do. With a gasp she freed one hand at length and reaching back as he held her she thrust it over his shoulder.
"Now the other hand, please!" he said.
She did not know how she did it. It was like loosing her grip upon life itself. Yet after a few seconds of torturing irresolution she obeyed him, abandoning her last hold and hanging to him in palpitating apprehension.
He put forth his full strength then. She felt the strain of his muscles as he gathered her up with one arm. With the other hand, had she but known it, he was grasping only the naked rock. Yet he moved as if absolutely sure of himself. He drew a deep hard breath, and began to mount.
It was only a few feet to the top as he had said, but the climb seemed to her unending. She was conscious throughout that his endurance was being put to the utmost test, and only by the most complete passivity could she help him.
But he never faltered, and finally—just when she had begun to wonder if this awful nightmare of danger could ever cease—she found herself set down upon the dewy grass that covered the top of the cliff. The scent of the gorse bushes came again to her and the far sweet call of the nightingale. And she realized that the danger was past and she was back once more in the magic region of her summer dreams from which she had been so rudely flung. She saw again the shimmering, wonderful sea and the ever-brightening stars. One of them hung, a golden globe of light like a beacon on the dim horizon.
Then Columbus came pushing and nuzzling against her, full of tender enquiries and congratulations; and something that she did not fully understand made her turn and clasp him closely with a sudden rush of tears. The danger was over, all over. And never till this moment had she realized how amazingly sweet was life.
She covered her emotion with the most herculean efforts at gaiety. She laughed very shakily at the solicitude expressed by Columbus, and told him tremulously how absurd and ridiculous he was to make such a fuss about nothing.
After this, feeling a little better, she ventured a glance at her companion. He was on his feet and wiping his forehead—a man of medium height and no great breadth of shoulder, but evidently well knit and athletic. Becoming by some means aware of her attention, he put away his handkerchief and turned towards her. She saw his eyes gleam under black, mobile brows that seemed to denote a considerable sense of humour. The whole of his face held an astonishing amount of vitality, but the lips were straight and rather hard, so clean-cut as to be almost ascetic. He looked to her like a man who would suffer to the utmost, but never lose his self-control. And she thought she read a pride more than ordinary in the cast of his features—a man capable of practically anything save the asking or receiving of favours.
Then he spoke, and curiously all criticism vanished. "I had better introduce myself," he said. "I'm afraid I've been unpardonably rude. My name is Green."
Green! The word darted at her like an imp of mischief. The romantic dropped to the prosaic with a suddenness that provoked in her an almost irresistible desire to laugh.
She controlled it swiftly, but she was fully aware that she had not hidden it as she rose to her feet and offered her hand to her cavalier.
"How do you do, Mr. Green? My name is Moore—Miss Moore. Will you allow me to thank you for saving my life?"
Her voice throbbed a little; tears and laughter were almost equally near the surface at that moment. She was extremely disgusted with herself for her lack of composure.
Then again, as his hand grasped hers, she forgot to criticize. "I say, please don't!" he said. "I wouldn't have missed it for anything. It was jolly plucky of you to stand your ground with those hooligans from the mine."
"But I didn't stand my ground," she pointed out. "I went over. It was a most undignified proceeding, wasn't it?"
"No, it wasn't," he declared. "You did it awfully well. I wish I'd been nearer to you, but I couldn't possibly get up in time."
"Oh, I think you were more useful where you were," she said, "thank you all the same. I must have gone clean to the bottom otherwise. I thought I had."
She caught back an involuntary shudder, and in a moment the hand that held hers closed unceremoniously and drew her further from the edge of the cliff.
"You are sure you are none the worse, now?" he said. "Not giddy or anything?"
"No, not anything," she said.
But she was glad of his hold none the less, and he seemed to know it, for he kept her hand firmly clasped.
"You must let me see you back," he said. "Where are you staying?"
"At Mrs. Rickett's," she told him. "The village smithy, you know."
"I know," he said. "Down at Little Shale, you mean. You've come some way, haven't you?"
"It was such a lovely night," she said, "and Columbus wanted a walk. I got led on, I didn't know I was likely to meet anyone."
"It's the short cut to High Shale," he said. "There is always the chance of meeting these fellows along here. You'd be safer going the other way."
"But I like the furze bushes and the nightingale," she said regretfully, "and the exquisite wildness of it. It is not nearly so nice the other way."
He laughed. "No, but it's safer. Come this way as much as you like in the morning, but go the other way at night!"
He turned with the words, and began to lead her down the path. She went with him as one who responds instinctively to a power unquestioned. The magic of the night was closing about her again. She heard the voice of the nightingale thrilling through the silence.
"This is the most wonderful place I have ever seen," she said at last in a tone of awe.
"Is it?" he said.
His lack of enthusiasm surprised her. "Don't you think so too?" she said. "Doesn't it seem wonderful to you?"
He glanced out to sea for a moment. "You see I live here," he said. "Yes, it's quite a beautiful place. But it isn't always like this. It's primitive. It can be savage. You wouldn't like it always."
"I'm thinking of settling down here all the same," said Juliet.
He stopped short in the path. "Are you really?"
She nodded with a smile. "You seem surprised. Why shouldn't I? Isn't there room for one more?"
"Oh, plenty of room," he said, and walked on again as abruptly as he had paused.
The path became wider and more level, and he relinquished her hand. "You won't stay," he said with conviction.
"I wonder," said Juliet.
"Of course you won't!" A hint of vehemence crept into his speech. "When the nightingales have left off singing, and the wild roses are over, you'll go."
"You seem very sure of that," said Juliet.
"Yes, I am sure." He spoke uncompromisingly, almost contemptuously, she thought.
"You evidently don't stay here because you like it," she said.
"My work is here," he returned noncommittally. She wondered a little, but something held her back from pursuing the matter. She walked several paces in silence. Then, "I wish I could find work here," she said, in her slow deep voice. "It would do me a lot of good."
"Would it?" He turned towards her. "But that isn't what you came for—not to find work, I mean?"
"Well, no—not primarily." She made the admission almost guiltily. "But I think everyone ought to be able to earn a livelihood, don't you?"
"It's safer certainly," he said. "But it isn't everyone that is qualified for it."
"No?" Her voice was whimsical. "And you think I shall seek in vain for any suitable niche here?"
"It depends upon what your capabilities are," he said.
"My capabilities!" She laughed, a soft, low laugh. "Columbus! What are my capabilities!"
They had reached a railing and a gate across the path leading down to the village. Columbus, waiting to go through, wriggled in a manner that expressed his entire ignorance on the subject. Juliet leaned against the gate with her face to the western sky.
"My capabilities!" she mused. "Let me see! What can I do?" She looked at her companion with a smile. "I am afraid I shall have to refer you to Lady Joanna Farringmore. She can tell you—exactly."
He made a slight movement of surprise. "You know the Farringmore family?"
She raised her brows a little. "Yes. Do you?"
"By hearsay only. Lord Wilchester owns the High Shale Mines. I have never met any of them." He spoke without enthusiasm.
"And never want to?" she suggested. "I quite understand. I am very tired of them myself just now—most especially of Lady Joanna. But perhaps it is rather bad taste to say so, as I have been brought up as her companion from childhood."
"And now you have left her?" he said.
"Yes I have left her. I have disapproved of her for some time," Juliet spoke thoughtfully. "She is very unconventional, you know. And I—well, at heart I fancy I must be rather a prude. Anyhow, I disapproved, more and more strongly, and at last I came away."
"That was rather brave of you," he commented.
"Oh, it wasn't much of a sacrifice. I've got a little money—enough to keep me from starvation; but not enough to buy me cigarettes—at least not the kind I like." Juliet's smile was one of friendly confidence. "I think it's about my only real vice, and I've never been used to inferior ones. Do you mind telling me where you get yours?"
He smiled back at her as he felt for his cigarette-case. "You had better try one and make sure you like them before you get any."
"Oh, I know I should like them," she said, "thank you very much. No, don't give me one! I feel as if I've begged for it. But just tell me where you get them, and if they're not too expensive I'll buy some to try."
He held the open cigarette-case in front of her. "Won't you honour me by accepting one?" he said.
She hesitated, and then in a moment very charmingly she yielded. "Thank you—Mr. Green. I seem to have accepted a good deal from you to-night. Thank you very much."
He made her a slight bow. "It has been my privilege to serve you," he said. "I hope I may have further opportunities of being of use. I can get you these cigarettes at any time if you like them. But they are not obtainable locally."
"Not!" Her face fell. "How disappointing!"
"Not from my point of view," he said. "There's no difficulty about it. I can get them for you if you will allow me."
He struck a match for her, and kindled a cigarette for himself also.
Juliet inhaled a deep breath. "They are lovely," she said. "I knew I should like them when you went past Mrs. Rickett's smoking one."
He looked at her with amusement. "When was that?"
"When I was waiting for that dreadful ginger pudding at lunch—I mean dinner." She paused. "No, that's horrid of me. Please consider it unsaid!"
"Why shouldn't you say it if you think it?" he asked.
"Because it's unkind. Mrs. Rickett is the soul of goodness. And I am going to learn to like her ginger pudding—and her dumplings—and everything that is hers."
"How heroic of you! I wonder if you will succeed."
"Of course I shall succeed," Juliet spoke with confidence as she turned to pass through the gate. "I am going to cultivate a contented mind here. And when I go back to Lady Jo—if I ever do—I shall be proof against anything."
He reached forward to open the gate. "I think you will probably go back long before the contented mind has begun to sprout," he said.
She laughed as she walked on down the path. "But it has begun already. I haven't felt so cheerful for a long time."
"That isn't real contentment," he pointed out. "It's your spirit of adventure enjoying itself. Wait till you begin to be bored!"
"How extremely analytical!" she remarked. "I am not going to be bored. My spirit of adventure is not at all an enterprising one. I assure you I didn't enjoy that tumble over the cliff in the least. I am a very quiet person by nature." She began to laugh. "You must have noticed I wasn't very intrepid in the face of danger. I seem to remember your telling me not to be silly."
"I hoped you had forgiven and forgotten that," he said.
"Neither one nor the other," she answered, checking her mirth. "I think you would have been absolutely justified in using even stronger language under the circumstances. You wouldn't have saved me if you hadn't been—very firm."
"Very brutal, you mean. No, I ought to have managed better. I will next time." He spoke with a smile, but there was a hint of seriousness in his words.
"When will that be?" said Juliet.
"I don't know. But I can make the way down much easier. The steps are a simple matter, and I have often thought a charge of gunpowder would improve that bit where the rock hangs over. If I hadn't wanted to keep the place to myself I should have done it long ago. It certainly is dangerous now to anyone who doesn't know."
Juliet came to a sudden halt in the path. "Oh, you are an engineer!" she said. "I hope you will not spoil your favourite eyrie just because I may some day fall over into it again. The chance is a very remote one, I assure you. Now, please don't come any farther with me! It has only just dawned on me that your way probably lies in the direction of the mines. I shouldn't have let you come so far if I had realized it sooner."
He looked momentarily surprised. "But I do live in this direction," he said. "In any case, I hope you will allow me to see you safely back."
"But there is no need," she protested. "We are practically there. Do you really live this way?"
"Yes. Quite close to the worthy Mrs. Rickett too. I am not an engineer. I am the village schoolmaster."
He announced the fact with absolute directness. It was Juliet's turn to look surprised. She almost gasped.
"Yes, I. Why not?" He met her look of astonishment with a smile. "Have I given you a shock?"
She recovered herself with an answering smile. "No, of course not. I might have guessed. I wonder I didn't."
"But how could you guess?" he questioned. "Have I the manners of a pedagogue?"
"No," she said again. "No, of course not. Only—I have been hearing a good deal about you to-day; not in your capacity of schoolmaster, but as—Brother Dick."
"Ah!" he said sharply, and just for a moment she thought he was either embarrassed or annoyed, but whatever the feeling he covered it instantly. "You have talked to my brother Robin?"
"Yes," she said. "He is the only person I have talked to besides Mrs. Rickett. We met on the shore."
"I hope he behaved himself," he said. "You weren't afraid of him, I hope."
"No; poor lad! Why should I be?" Juliet spoke very gently, very pitifully. "I have a feeling that Robin and I are going to be friends," she said.
"You are very good," he said, in a low voice. "He hasn't many friends, poor chap. But he's very faithful to those he's got. Most people are so revolted by his appearance that they never get any farther. And he's shy too—very naturally. How did he come to speak to you?"
She hesitated. "It was I who spoke first," she said, in a moment.
"Really! What made you do that?"
She hesitated again.
He looked at her with sudden attention. "He did something that made you speak. What was it, please?"
His tone was peremptory, almost curt, Juliet hesitated no longer.
"Do you mind if I don't answer that question?" she said.
"He will tell me if you don't," he returned, with a certain hardness that made her wonder if he were angered by her refusal.
"That wouldn't be fair of you," she said gently, "when I specially don't want you to know."
"You don't want me to know?" he said.
"I should tell you myself if I did," she pointed out.
"I see." He reflected for a moment; then: "Will you promise to tell me if he ever does it again?" he said.
Juliet laughed with a feeling of almost inordinate relief. "Yes, certainly. I know he never will."
"Then that's the end of that," he said.
"Thank you," said Juliet.
They had reached the road that turned up to the village, and the light from a large lamp some distance up the hill shone down upon them.
"That is where Mr. Fielding lives," said Green, as they walked towards it. "Those are his lodge-gates. No doubt you have heard of him too. He is the great man of the place. He owns it, in fact."
"Yes, I have heard of him," said Juliet. "Is he a nice man?"
He made an almost imperceptible movement of the shoulders. "I am very much indebted to him," he said.
"I see," said Juliet.
They reached the cottage-gate that led to the blacksmith's humble abode, and a smell of rank tobacco, floating forth, announced the fact that he was smoking his pipe in the porch.
Juliet paused and held out her hand. "Good-bye!" she said.
His grasp was strong and very steady. "Good-bye," he said, "I hope you'll find what you're looking for."
He stooped to pat Columbus, then opened the gate for her.
Instantly there was a stir in the porch as of some large animal awaking. "That you, Mr. Green?" called a deep bass voice. "Come in! Come in!"
But Green remained outside. "Not to-night, thanks," he called back. "I've got some work to do. Good-night!"
The gate closed behind her, and Juliet walked up the path with Columbus trotting sedately by her side. She heard her escort's departing footsteps as she went, and wondered when they would meet again.
THE GREAT MAN
The church at Little Shale was very ancient and picturesque. It stood almost opposite to the lodge-gates of Shale Court, the abode of the great Mr. Fielding. Two cracked bells hung in its crumbling square tower, disturbing once a week the jackdaws that built in the ivy. Just once a week ever since the Dark Ages, was Juliet's reflection as she dutifully obeyed the somewhat querulous-sounding summons on the following day. She could not picture their ringing for any bridal festivity, though it seemed possible that they might sometimes toll for the dead.
Two incredibly old yew-trees mounted guard on each side of the gate and another of immense size overhung the porch. The path was lined by grave-stones that all looked as if they were tottering to a fall.
An old clergyman in a cassock that was brown with age hurried past her as she walked up the path. She thought he matched his surroundings as he disappeared at a trot round the corner of the church. Then from behind her came the hoot of a motor-horn, and she glanced back to see a closed car that glittered at every angle swoop through the open gates and swerve round to the churchyard. She wanted to stop and see its occupants alight, but decorum prompted her to pass on, and she entered the church, which smelt of the mould of centuries, and paused inside.
It was a plain little place with plastered walls, and green glass windows, and one large square pew under the pulpit. The other pews were modern and very bare, occupied sparsely by villagers who all had their faces turned over their shoulders and were craning to watch the door.
No one looked at her, however, and Juliet, after brief hesitation, sat down in a chair close to the porch. The entrance of the Court party was evidently something of an event, and she determined to get a good view.
Footsteps came up the path, and on the very verge of the porch a voice spoke—a woman's voice, unmodulated, arrogant.
"Oh, really, Edward! I don't see why your village schoolmaster should be asked to lunch every Sunday, however immaculate he may be. I object on principle."
The words were scarcely uttered before the notes of the organ swelled suddenly through the church. Juliet sent a quick look towards it, and saw the black cropped head of the man in question as he sat at the instrument. It occupied one side of the chancel and a crowd of village children congregated in the side pews immediately outside and under the eye of the organist. Juliet felt an indignant flush rise in her cheeks. She was certain that that remark had been audible all over the church, and she resented it with almost unreasonable vehemence.
Then with a sweep of feathers and laces the speaker entered, and Juliet raised her eyes to regard her. She saw a young woman, delicate-looking, with a pretty, insolent face and expensive clothes, walk past, and was aware for a moment of a haughty stare that seemed to question her right to be there. Then her own attention passed to the man who entered in her wake.
He was tall, middle-aged, handsome in a somewhat ordinary style, but Juliet thought his mouth wore the most unpleasant expression she had ever seen. It was drawn down at the corners in a sneering curve, and a decided frown knitted his brows. He walked with the suggestion of a swagger, as if ready to challenge any who should dispute his right to the place and everyone in it.
His wife entered the great square pew, but he strode on to the chancel, tapped the organist unceremoniously on the shoulder and spoke to him.
Juliet watched the result with a curiosity she could not restrain. The black head turned sharply. She caught a momentary glimpse of Green's energetic profile as he spoke briefly and emphatically and immediately returned to his instrument. The squire marched back to his pew still frowning, and the voluntary continued. He played with assurance but somewhat mechanically, and she presently realized that he was keeping a sharp eye on the schoolchildren at the same time. The service was a lengthy one and they needed supervision. They fidgeted and whispered unceasingly. A lady whom she took to be the Vicar's daughter sat near them, but it was quite obvious that she had no control over them. During the sermon, which was a very sleepy affair, Green left the organ and went and sat amongst them.
Then indeed a profound quiet reigned and Juliet became so drowsy that it took her utmost resolution to stay awake. Most of the congregation slept unrestrainedly. It was certainly a hot morning, and the service very dull.
When it was over at last, she stepped out under the yew-trees and wondered why she had not made her escape before. She was the first to leave the church, and wandering down the path through the hot, chequered sunlight she saw the shining car drawn up at the gate, and a young chauffeur waiting at the door. She glanced at him as she passed, and was surprised for a second to find him gazing at her with a curious intentness. He lowered his eyes the moment they met hers, and she passed on, wondering what there was about her to excite his interest.
Columbus was waiting with pathetic patience to be taken for a walk, and overpoweringly hot though it was she had not the heart to keep him any longer. But she could not face the full blaze of noon on the shore, and she turned back up the shady church lane with a vague memory of having seen a stile at the entrance of a wood somewhere along its winding length.
The church-goers had dispersed by that time, but at the gate of the schoolhouse which was a few yards above the church she saw a group of boys waiting clamorously, and just as she found her stile she saw Green come out dressed in flannels with a bath-towel round his neck. The boys swarmed all about him like a crowd of excited puppies, and Juliet turned into the wood with a smile. So he had refused the squire's invitation to luncheon! She was very glad of that.
The green glades of the wood received her; she wandered forward with a delightful sense of well-being. The thought of London came to her—the heat and the dust and the fumes of petrol—the chattering crowds under the parched trees—the kaleidoscopic glitter of fashion at its crudest and most amazing. She knew exactly what they were all doing at that precise moment. She visualized the shifting, restless feverish throng with a vividness that embraced every detail. And she turned her face up to the tree-tops and revelled in her solitude. Only last week she had been in that seething whirlpool, borne helplessly hither and thither like driftwood, caught here or flung there by any chance current. Only last week she had felt the sudden drawing of the vortex, sucking her down with appalling swiftness. Only last week! And to-day she was free. She had awakened to the danger almost at the eleventh hour, and she had escaped. Thank God she had escaped in time!
She suddenly wished that she had remembered to utter her thanksgiving during that very monotonous service instead of going to sleep. But somehow it seemed just as appropriate out here under the glorious beeches. She sat down on a mossy root and drank in the sweetness with a deep content. Columbus was busy trying to unearth a wood-louse that had eluded him in a tuft of grass. She watched him lazily.
He persevered for a long time, till in fact the tuft of grass was practically demolished, and then at last, failing in his quest, he relinquished the search, and with a deep sigh lay down by her side.
She laid a caressing hand upon him, and ruffled his grizzled hair. "I'd be lonely without you, Columbus," she said.
Columbus smiled at the compliment and snapped inconsequently at a fly. "I wish we had brought some lunch with us," remarked his mistress. "Then we needn't have gone back. Why didn't you think of it, Columbus?"
Columbus couldn't say really, but he wriggled his nose into the caressing hand and gave her to understand that lunch really didn't matter. Then very suddenly he extricated it again and uttered a growl that might have risen from the heart of a lion.
Juliet looked up. Someone was coming along the winding path through the wood. She grasped Columbus by the collar, for he had a disconcerting habit of barking round the legs of intruders if not wholly satisfied as to their respectability. The next moment a figure came in sight, and she recognized the squire.
He was walking quickly, impatiently, flicking to and fro with a stick as he came. The frown still drew his forehead, and she saw at a first glance that he was annoyed.
He did not see her at first, not in fact until he was close upon her. Then, as Columbus tactlessly repeated his growl, he started and his look fell upon her.
Juliet had had no intention of speaking, but his eyes held so direct a question that she found herself compelled to do so. "I hope we are not trespassing," she said.
He put his hand to his hat with a jerk. "You are not, madam," he said. "I am not so sure of the dog."
His voice was not unpleasant, but no smile accompanied his words. At close quarters she saw that he was older than she had at first believed him to be. He was well on in the fifties.
She drew Columbus nearer to her. "I won't let him hunt," she said.
"He will probably get shot if he does," remarked Mr. Fielding, and was gone without further ceremony.
Juliet put her arms around her favourite and kissed him between his pricked ears. "What a sweet man, Columbus!" she murmured. "I think we must cultivate him, don't you?"
She wondered why he was going back towards the church lane at that hour, for it was past one o'clock and time for her to be wending her own way back to the village. She gave him ample opportunity to clear the wood, however, before she moved. She was determined that she and Columbus would be more discreet next time.
Mrs. Rickett's midday meal was fixed for half-past-one. She was not looking forward to it with any great relish, for her prophetic soul warned her that it would not be of a very dainty order, but not for worlds would she have had the good woman know it. Besides, she had one cigarette left!
She got up when she judged it safe, and began to walk back. But, nearing the stile, the sound of voices made her pause. Two men were evidently standing there, and she realized with something like dismay that the way was blocked. She waited for a moment or two, then decided to put a bold face on it and pursue her course. Mrs. Rickett's dinner certainly would not improve by keeping.
She pressed on therefore, and as she drew nearer, she recognized the squire's voice, raised on a note of irritation.
"Oh, don't be a fool, my good fellow! I shouldn't ask you if I didn't really want you."
The answer came instantly, and though it sounded curt it had a ring of humour. "Thank you, sir. And I shouldn't refuse if I really wanted to come."
There was a second's silence; then the squire's voice again, loud and explosive: "Confound you then! Do the other thing!"
It was at this point that Juliet rounded a curve in the path and came within sight of the stile.
Green was standing facing her, and she saw his instant glance of recognition. Mr. Fielding had his back to her, and the younger man laid a hand upon his arm and drew him aside.
Fielding turned sharply. He looked her up and down with a resentful stare as she mounted the stile, and Juliet flushed in spite of the most determined composure.
Green came forward instantly and offered a hand to assist her. "Good morning, Miss Moore! Exploring in another direction to-day?" he said.
She took the proffered hand, feeling absurdly embarrassed by the squire's presence. Green was bareheaded, and his hair shone wet in the strong sunlight. His manner was absolutely easy and assured. She met his smiling look with an odd feeling of gratitude, as if he had ranged himself on her side against something formidable.
"I am afraid I haven't been very fortunate in my choice to-day either," she said somewhat ruefully, as she descended.
He laughed. "We all trespass in these woods. It's a time-honoured custom, isn't it, Mr. Fielding? The pheasants are quite used to it."
Juliet did not glance in the squire's direction. She felt that she had done all that was necessary in that quarter, and that any further overture would but meet with a churlish response.
But to her astonishment he took the initiative. "I am afraid I wasn't too hospitable just now," he said. "It's this fellow's fault. Dick, it's up to you to apologize on my behalf."
Juliet looked at him then in amazement, and saw that the dour visage was actually smiling at her—such a smile as transformed it completely.
"If Miss Moore will permit me," said Mr. Green, with a bow, "I will introduce you to her. You will then be en rapport and in a position to apologize for yourself."
"Pedagogue!" said the squire.
And Juliet laughed for the first time. "If anyone apologizes it should be me," she said.
"I!" murmured Green. "With more apologies!"
The squire turned on him. "Green, I'll punch your head for you directly, you unspeakable pedant! What should you take him for, Miss Moore? A very high priest or a very low comedian?"
Juliet felt her breath somewhat taken away by this sudden admission to intimacy. She looked at Green whose dark eyes laughed straight back at her, and found it impossible to stand upon ceremony.
"I really don't know," she said. "I haven't had time to place him yet. But it's a little difficult to be quite impartial as he saved my life last night."
"What?" said the squire. "That sounds romantic. What made him do that?"
"Allow me!" interposed Green, pulling the bath-towel from his neck, and rapidly winding it into a noose. "It happened yesterday evening. I was having a quiet smoke in a favourite corner of mine on a ledge about twenty feet down High Shale Cliff where it begins to get steep, when Miss Moore, attracted by the scent of my cigarette,—that's right, isn't it?"—he flung her an audacious challenge with uplifted brows—"when Miss Moore attracted as I say, by the alluring scent of my cigarette, fell over the edge and joined me. My gallantry consisted in detaining her there, after this somewhat abrupt introduction, that's all. Oh yes, and in bullying her afterwards to climb up again when she didn't want to. I was an awful brute last night, wasn't I? Really, I think it's uncommonly generous of you to have anything at all to say to me this morning, Miss Moore."
"So do I," said Mr. Fielding. "If it were possible to treat such a buffoon as you seriously, she wouldn't. I hope you are none the worse for the adventure, Miss Moore."
"No, really I am not," said Juliet. "And I am still feeling very grateful." She smiled at the squire. "Good-bye! I must be getting back to Mrs. Rickett's or the dumplings will be cold."
She whistled Columbus to her and departed, still wondering at the transformation which Green had wrought in the squire. It had not occurred to her that there could be anything really pleasant hidden behind that grim exterior. It was evident that the younger man knew how to hold his own. And again she was glad, quite unreasonably glad, that he had stuck to his refusal to lunch at the Court.
"May I come and see you?" said Robin.
Juliet, seated under an apple-tree in the tiny orchard that ran beside the road, looked up from her book and saw his thin face peering at her through the hedge. She smiled at him very kindly from under her flower-decked shelter.
"Of course!" she said. "Come in by all means!"
She expected him to go round to the gate, but he surprised her by going down on all fours and crawling through a gap in the privet. He looked like a monstrous baboon shuffling towards her. When through, he stood up again, a shaggy lock of hair falling across his forehead, and looked at her with eyes that seemed to burn in their deep hollows like distant lamps at night.
He stopped, several paces from her. "Sure you don't mind me?" he said.
"Quite sure," said Juliet, with quiet sincerity. "I am very pleased to see you. Wait while I fetch another chair!"
She would have risen with the words, but he stopped her with a gesture almost violent. "No—no—no!" He nearly shouted the words. "Don't get up! Don't go! I don't want a chair."
Juliet remained seated. "Just as you like," she said, smiling at him. "But I don't think the grass is dry enough to sit on."
He looked contemptuous. "It won't hurt me. I hate chairs. I'll do as I like."
But he still stood, glowering at her uncertainly near the hedge.
"Come along then!" said Juliet kindly. "Come and sit down near me! Why not?"
He came slowly, and let himself down with awkward, lumbering movements by her side. His face was darkly sullen. "I don't see any harm in it," he grumbled, "if you don't mind."
"Of course I don't mind!" she said. "I am pleased. As you see, I have no other visitors."
He lifted his heavy eyes to hers. "You'd pack me off fast enough if you had."
"No, I shouldn't. Don't be silly, Robin!" She smiled down upon him. "You are going to stay and have tea with me, aren't you?"
He smiled rather doubtfully in answer. "I'd like to. I don't know if I can though."
"Why shouldn't you?" she questioned.
He folded his long arms about his knees, and murmured something unintelligible.
Juliet looked at her watch. "Mrs. Rickett has promised to bring it in another quarter-of-an-hour, and we will ask her to bring out Freddy too, shall we? You'll like that."
The boy's face brightened a little. He did not speak for a moment or two; then he reached forth a claw-like hand and tentatively fingered her dress. "I don't want Freddy—when I've got you," he muttered.
"Oh, don't you? How kind!" said Juliet.
Again his dark eyes lifted. "It's you that's kind," he said. "I've never seen anyone like you before." His brow clouded again as he looked at her. "You're quite as much a lady as Mrs. Fielding," he said. "But you don't call me a 'hideous abortion'."
"I should think not!" Juliet moved impulsively and laid her hand upon his humped shoulder. "Don't listen to such things, Robin! Put them out of your head! They are not true."
He rested his chin upon her hand, looking up at her dumbly. Her heart stirred within her. The pathos of those eyes was more than she could meet unmoved. Their protest made her think of an animal in pain.
"It doesn't do to take things too seriously, Robin," she said gently. "There are people in the world who will say unkind things of anybody. It's just because they are thoughtless generally. It doesn't do to listen."
"No one ever said anything unkind about you," he said.
"Oh, didn't they?" Juliet smiled. "Do you know, Robin, I shouldn't wonder if there are plenty of them saying unkind things about me this very moment—that is, if they are thinking about me at all."
He glanced around him savagely. "Where? I'd like to hear 'em! I'd kill 'em!"
"No—no!" said Juliet, restraining him. "And it's no one here either. But you've got to realize that it doesn't really matter what people say. They'll always talk, you know. Everyone does. It's the way of the world, and we can't get away from it."
Robin looked unconvinced. "I'd kill anyone who said anything bad about you anyway," he said.
"I don't think you ought to talk like that," said Juliet, in her quiet way.
"Why not?" His eyes suddenly glowered again.
But she answered him with absolute calmness. "Because if you mean it, it's wrong—very wrong. And if you don't mean it, it's just foolish."
"Oh!" said Robin. He edged himself nearer to her. "I like you," he said. "Talk some more! I like your voice."
"What shall I talk about?" she asked.
"Tell me about London!" he said.
"Oh, London! My dear boy, you'd hate London. It's all noise and crowds and dust. The streets are crammed with cars and people and there is never any peace. It's like a great wheel that is never still."
"What do the people do?" he asked.
"They just tear about from morning till night, and very often from night till morning. Everyone is always trying to be first and to be a little smarter than anyone else. They think they enjoy it." Juliet drew a sudden hard breath. "But they really don't. It's such a whirl, such a strain, like always running at top speed in a race and never getting there. Yes, it's just that—a sort of obstacle race, and the obstacles always getting higher and higher and higher." She stopped and uttered a deep slow sigh. "Well, I've done with it, Robin. I'm not going to get over any more. I've dropped out. I'm going to grow old in comfort."
Robin was listening with deep interest. "Is that why you came here?" he said.
"Yes. I was tired out and rather scared. I got away just in time—only just in time."
Something in her voice, low though it was, made him draw nearer still, massively, protectively.
"Are you hiding from someone?" he said.
"Oh, not exactly." She patted his shoulder gently. "No one would take the trouble to come and look for me," she said. "They're all much too busy with their own affairs."
His eyes sought hers again. "You're not frightened then any more?"
She smiled at him. "No, not a bit. I've got over that, and I'm beginning to enjoy myself."
"Shall you stay here always?" he questioned.
"I don't know, Robin. I'm not going to look ahead. I'm just going to make the best of the present. Don't you think that's the best way?"
He made a wry face. "I suppose it is—if you don't know what's coming."
"But no one knows that," said Juliet.
He glanced at her. His fingers, clasped about his knees, tugged restlessly at each other. "I know what's going to happen to me," he said, after a moment. "I'm going to get into a row—with Dicky."
"Oh, is that it?" said Juliet. "I knew there was something the matter."
He nodded, and suddenly she saw his chin quiver. "I hate a row with Dicky," he said miserably.
Her heart went out to him, he looked so forlorn. "Why don't you go and tell him you're sorry?" she said gently.
"Not—sorry," articulated Robin, with a sniff.
The matter presented difficulties. Juliet tried to hedge. "What have you been doing?"
"Quarrelling," said Robin.
"What! With Dick?"
"No." Again he glanced at her, and wiped a hasty hand across his eyes. "Dick!" he repeated, as if in derision at her colossal ignorance.
"Well, but who then?" she questioned. "That is—of course don't tell me if you'd rather not!"
"Don't mind," said Robin. "I'll tell you anything. It was—Jack." He suddenly turned to her fully with blazing eyes. "I—hate—Jack!" he said very emphatically.
"Jack! But who is Jack? Oh, I remember!" Juliet abruptly recalled the young chauffeur at the churchyard gate. "He is your other brother, isn't he? I'd forgotten him."
"He's—a beast!" said Robin. "I hate him."
His look challenged reproof. Juliet wisely made none. "Isn't he kind to you?" she said.
"It wasn't that!" blurted out Robin. "It—it—was what he said—about—about—" He suddenly stopped, closed his lips and sat savagely biting them.
"About what?" asked Juliet, bewildered.
Robin sat mute.
"I should forget it if I were you," she said sensibly. "People often do and say things they don't mean. It doesn't pay to be too sensitive. Let's forget it, shall we?"
"I can't," said Robin. "Dicky's angry." He paused, then continued with an effort. "He said I wasn't to come here, said—said he'd punish me if I did. He called me back, and I wouldn't go. He—" He suddenly broke off, and crept close to her like a frightened dog—"he's coming now!" he whispered.
The catch of the gate had clicked, and Columbus who had accepted Robin without question, bustled forward to investigate.
He came back almost immediately, wearing a satisfied look, and as he settled down again by Juliet's side, Green appeared on the path that led to the apple-trees.
Robin pressed closer to Juliet. She could feel him trembling. Instinctively she laid her hand upon him as Green drew near.
"Have you come to see me or to look for Robin?" she said.
Green's look was enigmatical. It comprehended them both at a single glance. She wondered if he were really angry, but if so, he had himself under complete control.
"I have brought you a box of cigarettes to go on with, Miss Moore," he said, and produced his offering with a smile.
"How very kind of you!" said Juliet. She sat up with a quick flush of embarrassment. "How did you manage to get them so soon? You must have had them by you."
"I had," said Green. "But I can spare you these with pleasure. It's awful to be without a smoke, isn't it?"
Juliet smiled. "These will last me for ages. I am being very economical now. Please will you tell me how much they are?"
"Half-a-crown," he said.
"Oh, please!" she protested. "Let us be honest!"
"Exactly," he said. "It's all they cost me. I get them through a friend."
"But perhaps your friend wouldn't care for me to have them at that price," objected Juliet.
"Yes, he would. It's all right," Green dismissed the matter with an airiness that was curiously final. "Don't bother about paying me now, please! I'd rather have it later. Robin, get up!"
He addressed his young brother so suddenly and so peremptorily that Juliet was momentarily startled. Then very swiftly she intervened.
"Mr. Green, please, don't—be angry with Robin!"
His look flashed straight down to her. His eyes were still smiling, yet very strangely they compelled her own. He stooped unexpectedly after an instant's pause, lifted her hand with absolute gentleness away from the quivering Robin, and laid it in her lap.
"Get up, old chap!" he said. "And don't be an ass!"
There was no questioning the kindness of his voice. Robin lifted his head, stared a moment, then blundered to his feet. He stood awkwardly, as if unwilling to go but expecting to be dismissed.
"He is staying to tea with me," said Juliet.
"Oh, I think not," Green said. "Another time—if you are kind enough. Not to-day."
He spoke very decidedly. Robin, with his head hanging, turned away.
Green, with a brief gesture of farewell, turned to follow. But in that moment Juliet spoke in that full rich voice of hers that was all the more arresting because she did not raise it.
"Mr. Green, I want to speak to you."
He stopped at once. She thought she caught a glint of humour behind the courteous attention of his eyes.
"Forgive me for interfering!" she said. "But I must say it."
"Pray do!" said Green.
Yet she found some difficulty in continuing. It would have been easier if he had shown resentment, but quizzical tolerance was hard to meet.
She looked up at him doubtfully for a moment or two. Then, hesitatingly, she spoke. "Please—don't—punish Robin for coming here!"
She saw his brows go up in surprise. He was about to speak, but she went on with more than a touch of embarrassment. "Perhaps it sounds impertinent, but I believe I could help him in some ways,—if I had the chance. Anyhow, I should like to try. Please let him come and see me as often as he likes!"
"Really!" said Green, and stopped. The amusement had wholly gone out of his look. "I don't know what to say to you," he said in a moment. "You are so awfully kind."
"No, I'm not indeed." Juliet's smile was oddly wistful. "I assure you I am selfish to the core. But there's something about Robin that goes straight to my heart. I should like to be kind to him—for my own sake. So don't—please—try to keep him out of my way!"
She spoke very earnestly, her eyes under their straight brows, looking directly into his,—honest eyes that no man could doubt.
Green stood facing her, his look as kind as her own. "Do you know, Miss Moore," he said, "I think this is about the kindest thing that has ever come into my experience?"
She made a slight gesture of protest. "Oh, but don't let us talk in superlatives!" she said. "Fetch Robin back, and both of you stay to tea!"
He shook his head. "Not to-day. I am very sorry. But he doesn't deserve it. He has been getting a bit out of hand lately. I can't pass it over."
Juliet leaned forward in her chair. Her eyes were suddenly very bright. "This once, Mr. Green!" she said.
He stiffened a little. "No," he said.
Juliet's look went beyond him to the figure of Robin leaning disconsolately against a distant tree. She sat for several moments watching him, and Green still stood before her as if waiting to be dismissed.
"Poor boy!" she said softly at length, and turned again to the man in front of her. "Are you sure you understand him?"
"Yes," said Green.
"And you are not hard on him? You are never hard on him?"
"I have got to keep him in order," he said.
"Yes, yes, I know. A man would say that." Juliet's face was very pitiful. "Let him off sometimes!" she urged gently. "It won't do him any harm."
Green smiled abruptly. "A woman would say that," he commented.
She smiled in answer. "Yes, I think any woman would. Don't be hard on him, Mr. Green! He has been shedding tears over your wrath already."
"He came here in direct defiance of my orders," said Green.
"I know. He told me. Please never give him such orders again!"
"You are awfully kind," Green said again. "But really in this case, there was sufficient reason. Some people—most people—prefer him at a distance."
"I am not one of them," Juliet said.
"I see you are not. But I couldn't risk it. Besides, he was in a towering rage when he started. It isn't fair to inflict him on people—even on anyone as kind as yourself—in that state."
"I should never be afraid of him," Juliet said quietly. "I think I know—partly—what was the matter. Someone made a rather cruel remark about him, and someone else maliciously repeated it. Then he was angry—very angry—and lost his self-control, and I suppose more cruel things were said. And then he came here—he asked me—he actually asked me—if I was sure I didn't mind him!"
A deep light was shining in her eyes as she ended, and an answering gleam came into Green's as he met them.
"I know," he said, in a low voice. "It's infernally hard for him, poor chap! But it doesn't do to let him know we think so. As long as he lives, he's got to bear his burden."
"But it needn't be made heavier than it is," Juliet said. "No, it needn't. But it isn't everyone that sees it in that light. I'm glad you do anyway, and I'm grateful—on Robin's behalf. Good-bye!"
He lifted his hand again in a farewell salute, and turned away.
Juliet watched him go, watched keenly as he approached Robin, saw the boy's quick glance at him as he took him by the arm and led him to the gate. A few seconds later they passed her on the other side of the hedge evidently on their way to the shore, and she heard Robin's voice as they went by.
"I'm—sorry now, Dicky," he said.
She turned her head to catch his brother's answer, for it did not come immediately and she wondered a little at the delay.
Then, as they drew farther away, she heard Green say, "Why do you say that?"
"She told me to," said Robin.
She felt her colour rise and heard Green laugh. They were almost out of earshot before he said, "All right, boy! I'll let you off this time. Don't do it again!"
She leaned back in her chair, and re-opened her book. But she did not read for some time. Somehow she felt glad—quite unreasonably glad again—that Robin had been let off.
"Well, it ain't none of my business," said Mrs. Rickett, with a sniff. "Nor it ain't yours either. But did you ever know anyone as wore anything the likes of that before?"
She shook out for her husband's inspection a filmy garment that had the look of a baby's robe that had grown up, before spreading it on her kitchen table to iron.
"Ah!" said Rickett, ramming a finger into the bowl of his pipe. "What sort of a thing is that now?"
"What sort of a thing, man? Why, a night-dress—of course! What d'you think?" Mrs. Rickett chuckled at his ignorance. "And that flimsy—why I'm almost afraid to touch it. It's the quality, you see."
"Ah!" said the smith vaguely.
Mrs. Rickett tested the iron near her cheek. "And it's only the quality," she resumed, as she began to use it, "as wears such things as these. Why, I shouldn't wonder but what they came from Paris. They must have cost a mint of money."
"Ah!" said Rickett again.
"She's as nice-spoken a young lady as I've met," resumed his wife. "No pride about her, you know. She's just simple and friendly-like. Yet I'd like to see the man as'd take a liberty with her all the same."
Rickett pulled at his pipe with a grunt. When not at work, it was usually his role to sit and listen to his wife's chatter.
"She ain't been brought up in a convent," continued Mrs. Rickett. "That's plain to see. With all the gentle ways of her, she knows how to hold her own. Young Robin Green, he's gone just plumb moon-crazy over her, and it wouldn't surprise me"—Mrs. Rickett lowered her voice mysteriously—"but what some day Dick himself was to do the same."
"Ah!" said the smith.
"She's so taking, you know," said Mrs. Rickett, as if in extenuation of this outrageous surmise. "And there isn't anyone good enough for him about here. Of course there's the infant teacher—that Jarvis girl—she'd set her cap at him if she dared. But he wouldn't look at her. Young Jack's a deal more likely, if ever he does settle down—which I doubt. But Dick—he's different. He's—why if that ain't Mr. Fielding a-riding up the path! What ever do he want at this time of night? Go and see, George, do!"
George lumbered to his feet obediently. "Happen he's come to call on our young lady," he ventured, with a slow grin.
"Well, don't bring him in here!" commanded his wife. "Take him into the front room, while I put on a clean apron!" She hastened to shut the door upon her husband, then paused, listening intently, as Mr. Fielding's riding-whip rapped smartly on the door.
"Happen it is only the young lady he's after," she said to herself.
It was. In a moment, Mr. Fielding's voice, superior, slightly over bearing, made itself heard. "Good evening, Rickett! I think Miss Moore is lodging here. Is she in?"
"Good evening, sir!" said Rickett, and waited a moment for reflection. "She was in, but I can't say but what she may have gone out again with the dog."
"Well, find out, will you!" said Mr. Fielding. "Wait a minute! You'd better take my card."
Mrs. Rickett returned to her ironing. "What ever he be come for?" she murmured.
The squires' horse stamped on the tiled path. It was eight o'clock, and he wanted to get home to his supper. The squire growled at him inarticulately, and there fell a silence.