Her Hero by Ethel M. Dell
“My dear child, it’s absurd to be romantic over such a serious matter as marriage–the greatest mistake, I assure you. Nothing could be more suitable than an alliance with this very eligible young man. He plainly thinks so himself. If you are so unreasonable as to throw away this magnificent chance, I shall really feel inclined to give you up in despair.”
“And so I escaped. Her ladyship didn’t like it, but it was worth a tussle.”
“I think we will go for a picnic, Romeo,” said Priscilla.
Raffold Abbey was huge and rambling, girt with many memories. They spent nearly two hours wandering through the house and the old, crumbling chapel.
That evening Priscilla found a letter from her stepmother awaiting her–a briefly worded, urgent summons.
Priscilla’s reply to her stepmother’s summons, written several days later, was a highly unsatisfactory epistle indeed, in the opinion of its recipient. She found it quite impossible to tear herself away from the country while the fine weather lasted, she wrote. She was enjoying herself immensely, and did not feel that she could ever endure the whole of a London season in one dose again.
Priscilla never quite realised afterwards how it was that the whole of that long summer day slipped by and her confession remained still unspoken. She did make one or two attempts to lead round to the subject, but each seemed to be foredoomed to failure, and at last she abandoned the idea–for that day, at least. It seemed, after all, but a paltry thing in face of her great happiness.
Priscilla left a hastily scribbled note for Carfax in Froggy’s keeping. In it she explained that she was obliged to go to town, but that she would meet him there any day before noon at any place that he would appoint. Froggy was to be the medium of his communication also.
“I wonder why Priscilla has put on that severely plain attire? It makes her look almost ugly,” sighed Lady Raffold. “And how dreadfully pale she is to-night! Really, I have never seen her look more unattractive.”
“Funny, wasn’t it, sweetheart?”
A musical soiree was to follow that interminable dinner, and for a time Priscilla was occupied in helping Lady Raffold to receive the after-dinner guests. She longed to escape before the contingent from the dining-room arrived upstairs, but she soon realised the impossibility of this. Her stepmother seemed to want her at every turn, and when at length she found herself free, young Lord Harfield appeared at her elbow.
The soft, drawling accents fell with a gentle sigh through the perfumed silence of the speaker’s boudoir. She was an elderly woman, beautiful, with that delicate, china-like beauty that never fades from youth to age. Not even Lady Raffold’s enemies had ever disputed the fact of her beauty, not even her stepdaughter, firmly though she despised her.
Priscilla leaned back luxuriously in the housekeeper’s room at Raffold Abbey, and laughed upon a deep note of satisfaction. She had discarded all things fashionable with her departure from London in the height of the season. The crumpled linen hat she wore was designed for comfort and not for elegance. Her gown of brown holland was simplicity itself. She sat carelessly with her arm round the neck of an immense mastiff who had followed her in.
It was a Saturday afternoon, warm and slumbrous, and Saturday was the day on which Raffold Abbey was open to the public when the family were away. Priscilla’s presence was, as it were, unofficial, but though she was quite content to have it so, she was determined to escape from sight and hearing of the hot and dusty crowd that thronged the place on a fine day from three o’clock till six.
“There is a crypt below,” Priscilla said, “but we can’t go down without a lantern. Another day, if you cared—-“
“Your cousin has not arrived, after all,” it said. “Your father and I are greatly disappointed. Would it not be as well for you to return to town? You can scarcely, I fear, afford to waste your time in this fashion. Young Lord Harfield was asking for you most solicitously only yesterday. Such a charming man, I have always thought!”
It was not a well-thought-out letter, being written in a haste that made itself obvious between the lines. Carfax had hired a motor-car, and was waiting for her. They went miles that day, and when they stopped at last they were in a country that she scarcely knew–a country of barren downs and great sunlit spaces, lonely, immense.
They sped homeward at length in the light of a cloudless sunset, smoothly and swiftly as if they swooped through air.
She made no mention of Carfax to her father. He had hurt her far too deeply for any confidence to be possible. Moreover, it seemed to her that she had no right to speak until Carfax himself gave her leave.
She turned with her most dazzling smile to receive the American Ambassador, and no one could have guessed that under her smile was real anger, because her stepdaughter was gracing the occasion in a robe of sombre black.
The soft voice reached her through a buzz of other louder voices. Priscilla moved slightly, but she did not turn her head.
It was intolerable. She turned upon him without pity.
She sat behind the tea-table, this stepdaughter, dark and inscrutable, a grave, unresponsive listener. Her grey eyes never varied as Lady Raffold’s protest came lispingly through the quiet room. She might have been turning over some altogether irrelevant problem at the back of her mind. It was this girl’s way to hide herself behind a shield of apparent preoccupation when anything jarred upon her.
“I’ve cut everything, Froggy,” she declared, “including the terrible American cousin. In fact, it was almost more on his account than any other that I did it. For I can’t and won’t marry him, not even for the sake of the dear old Abbey! Are you very shocked, I wonder?”
Half a mile or more from the Abbey, a brown stream ran gurgling through a miniature glen, to join the river below the park gates. This stream had been Priscilla’s great delight for longer than she could remember. As children, she and her brother Mortimer had spent hours upon its mossy banks, and since those days she had dreamed many dreams, aye, and shed many tears, within sound of its rushing waters. She loved the place. It was her haven of solitude. No one ever disturbed her there.
“Of course I should, above all things,” declared Carfax. “I was just going to ask when I might come again.”
“That–chicken!” said Priscilla, and tossed her letter aside.
“This is the place,” said Carfax quietly, as he helped her to alight.
“I will take you to the edge of the park,” Carfax said; and when they reached it he took her in his arms, holding her fast, as if he could not bear to let her go.
She did not see her stepmother till the following day. The greeting between them was of the coolest, though Lady Raffold, being triumphant, sought to infuse a little sentiment into hers.
All the guests had arrived with the exception of Ralph Cochrane, the heir-apparent, as Priscilla styled him, and Lady Raffold chatted with one eye on the door. It was too bad of the young man to be late.
“You will have to explain,” she said. “I don’t understand anything yet.”
“Oh, please,” she said, “I’ve dropped my fan in the dining-room or on the stairs. Would you be so kind—-“
“I need scarcely tell you what it would mean to your father,” went on the soft voice. “Ever since poor Mortimer’s death it has fretted him terribly to think that the estates must pass out of the direct line. Indeed, he hardly feels that the present heir belongs to the family at all. The American branch has always seemed so remote. But now that the young man is actually coming over to see his inheritance, it does seem such a Heaven-sent chance for you. You know, dear, it’s your sixth season. You really ought to think seriously of getting settled. I am sure it would be a great weight off my mind to see you suitably married. And this young Cochrane is sure to take a reasonable view of the matter. Americans are so admirably practical. And, of course, if your father could leave all his money to the estates, as this marriage would enable him to do, it would be a very excellent arrangement for all concerned.”
Froggy the housekeeper–so named by young Lord Mortimer in his schoolboy days–looked up from her work and across at Priscilla, her brown, prominent eyes, to which she owed her sobriquet, shining lovingly behind her spectacles. Her real name was Mrs. Burrowes, but Priscilla could not remember a time when she had ever called her anything but Froggy. The old familiar name had become doubly dear to both of them now that Mortimer was dead.
The walk across the park made them both hot, and it was a relief to sit down on her favourite tree-root above the stream and yield herself to the luxury of summer idleness. A robin was chirping far overhead, and from the grass at her feet there came the whir of a grasshopper. Otherwise, save for the music of the stream, all was still. An exquisite, filmy drowsiness crept over her, and she slept.
Their intimacy had progressed wonderfully during those hours of companionship. The total absence of conventionality had destroyed all strangeness between them. They were as children on a holiday, enjoying the present to the full, and wholly careless of the future.
Later, she went up to the top of the Abbey, and out on to a part of the roof that had been battlemented, to dream her dream again under the stars and to view her paradise yet more closely from before the opening gates.
Priscilla walked a few paces and stood still. She knew exactly why he had chosen it. Her heart was beating wildly. It seemed to dominate all her other faculties. She felt it to be almost more than she could bear.
They parted at last almost in silence, but with the tacit understanding that they would meet in the glen on the following day.
“I am really worn out, Priscilla,” she said. “It is my turn now to have a little rest. I am going to leave all the hard work to you. It will be such a relief.”
She was just giving him up in despair, and preparing to proceed to the dining-room without him, when his name was announced. Lord Raffold went forward to meet him. Priscilla, sitting on a lounge with Lord Harfield’s mother, caught the sound of a soft, leisurely voice apologising; and something tightened suddenly at her heart, and held its beating. It was a voice she knew.
“Nor I,” came the quiet retort. “It’s the woman’s privilege to explain first, isn’t it?”
He departed, not suspecting her of treachery; and she slipped forthwith into a tiny conservatory behind the piano. It was her only refuge. She could but hope that no one had seen her retire thither. Her need for solitude just then was intense. She felt herself physically incapable of facing the crowd in the music-room any longer. The first crashing chords of the piano covered her retreat. She shut herself softly in, and sank into the only chair the little place contained.
The girl at the tea-table made a slight–a very slight–movement that scarcely amounted to a gesture of impatience. The gentle drone of her stepmother’s voice was becoming monotonous. But she said nothing whatever, and her expression did not change.
“I should be very shocked, indeed, darling, if it were otherwise,” was Froggy’s answer.
A deep growl from her bodyguard roused her nearly an hour later, and she awoke with a start.
Not till Carfax had at length taken his leave did Priscilla ask herself what had brought him there. Merely to view his friend’s inheritance seemed a paltry reason. Perhaps he was a journalist, or a writer of guide-books. But she soon dismissed the matter, to ask herself a more personal question. Was it possible that he knew her? Had he found out her name after the New York episode, and come at last to seek her? She could not honestly believe this, though her heart leapt at the thought. That affair had taken place four long years before. Of course, he had forgotten it. It could have made no more than a passing impression upon him. Had it been otherwise, would he not have claimed her at once as an old acquaintance?
It was very late when she returned lightfooted to Froggy’s sitting-room, and, kneeling by her friend’s side, interposed her dark head between the kind, bulging eyes and the open Bible that lay upon the table.
Those moments of unacknowledged waiting were terrible to her. She knew she had taken an irrevocable step, and her free instinct clamoured loudly against it. It amounted almost to a panic within her.
Priscilla walked home through the lengthening shadows with a sense of wonderment and unreality at her heart. He had asked for no pledge, yet she knew that the bond between them was such as might stretch to the world’s end and never break. They belonged to each other irrevocably now, whatever might intervene.
Three days later, however, she relinquished this attitude. Priscilla was summoned to her room, where she was breakfasting, and found her in great excitement.
As through a mist, she looked across the great room, with its many lights, its buzz of careless voices. And suddenly, it seemed to her, she was back in the little village church at Raffold, furtively watching a stranger who stood in the entrance, and searched with level scrutiny quite deliberately and frankly till he found her.
Against her will, the blood rose in her face. She threw him a quick glance.
Her mind was a chaos of conflicting emotions. Anger, disappointment, and an almost insane exultation fought together for the mastery. She longed to be rational, to think the matter out quietly and impartially, and decide how to treat it. But her most determined efforts were vain. The music disturbed her. She felt as if the chords were hammering upon her brain. Yet when it suddenly ceased, the unexpected silence was almost harder to bear.
A faintly fretful note crept into Lady Raffold’s tone when she spoke again.
And Priscilla breathed a long sigh of contentment. She knew that there was no need to explain herself to this, her oldest friend.
Romeo was sitting very upright, watching something on the farther side of the stream. He growled again as Priscilla sat up.
Yes, it was plain that her first conviction must be correct. He did not know her. The whole incident had passed completely from his memory, crowded out, no doubt, and that speedily, by more absorbing interests. She had flashed across his life, attaining to no more importance than a bird upon the wing. He had saved her life at a frightful risk, and then forgotten her very existence. She had always realised it must be so, but, strangely, she had never resented it. In spite of it, with a woman’s queer, inexplicable faithfulness, she yet loved her hero, yet cherished closely, fondly, the memory that she doubted not had faded utterly from his mind.
“Froggy,” she whispered softly, “I’m so happy, dear–so happy!”
There came a quiet step on the turf behind her. She did not turn, but the suspense became suddenly unendurable. With a convulsive movement, she made as if she would go on. At the same instant an arm encircled her, checked her, held her closely.
She reached the Abbey, walking as in a maze of happiness, with no thought for material things.
“My dear child, he has arrived. He has actually arrived, and is staying at the Ritz. He must come and dine with us to-morrow night. It will be quite an informal affair–only thirty–so it can easily be managed. He must take you in, Priscilla; and, oh, my dear, do remember that it is the great opportunity of your life, and it mustn’t be thrown away, whatever happens! Your father has set his heart upon it.”
Their eyes met, and her heart thrilled responsively as an instrument thrills to the hand of a skilled player.
“I can’t possibly explain anything here,” she said.
In the buzz of applause that ensued, the door behind her opened, and a man entered.
“You’re so unreasonable, Priscilla. I really haven’t a notion what you actually want. You might have been a duchess by this time, as all the world knows, if you had only been reasonable. How is it–why is it–that you are so hard to please?”
She laid her cheek comfortably against the great dog’s ear.
She looked across in the same direction, and laid a hasty hand upon his collar.
She went to the village church with Froggy on the following day, though fully alive to the risk she ran of being pointed out to the ignorant as Lady Priscilla from the Abbey. She knew by some deep-hidden instinct that he would be there, and she was not disappointed. He came in late, and stood quite still just inside the little building, searching it up and down with keen, quiet eyes that never faltered in their progress till they lighted upon her. She fancied there was a faintly humorous expression about his mouth. His look did not dwell upon her. He stepped aside to a vacant chair close to the door, and Priscilla, in her great, square pew near the pulpit, saw him no more. When she left the church at the end of the service he had already disappeared.
And so kneeling, she told Froggy in short, halting sentences of the sudden splendour that had glorified her life.
“So, sweetheart!” said Julian Carfax, his voice soothing, womanly, but possessing withal a note of vitality, of purpose, that she had never heard in it before.
Romeo came to greet her with effusion, and an air of having something to tell her. She fondled him, and went on with him into the house. They entered by a conservatory, and so through the shrouded drawing-room into the great hall.
“Are you talking about Mr. Cochrane?” asked Priscilla.
Almost involuntarily she rose. There was some mistake. She knew there must be some mistake. She felt that in some fashion it rested with her to explain and to justify his presence there.
He met her look with steady eyes.
She heard the click of the key in the lock, and turned sharply to protest. But the words died on her lips, for there was that in his brown, resolute face that silenced her. She became suddenly breathless and quivering before him, as she had been that day on the down when he had taken her into his arms.
Lady Priscilla raised her eyelids momentarily.
“No, Romeo,” she murmured. “Your missis isn’t going to be thrown at any man’s head if she knows it. But it’s a difficult world, old boy; almost an impossible world, I sometimes think. Froggy, I know you can be sentimental when you try. What should you do if you fell in love with a total stranger without ever knowing his name? Should you have the fidelity to live in single blessedness all your life for the sake of your hero?”
What she saw surprised her considerably. A man was lying face downwards on the brink of the stream, fishing about in the water, with one arm bared to the shoulder. He must have heard Romeo’s warning growl, but he paid not the slightest attention to it. Priscilla watched him with keen interest. She could not see his face.
Froggy went out to tea that afternoon with much solicitous regret, which Priscilla treated in a spirit of levity. She packed her tea-basket again as soon as she was alone, selecting her provisions with care. And soon after three, accompanied by Romeo, she started for the glen, not sauntering idly, but stepping briskly through the golden sunshine, as one with a purpose. She felt as if she were going to a trysting-place, though no word of a tryst had passed between them.
Froggy was greatly astonished, and even startled. She was also anxious, and showed it. But Priscilla hastened to smooth this away.
She suffered his hold with a faint but desperate cry.
The girl’s eyes were dazzled by the sudden gloom she found there. She expected to meet no one, and so it was with a violent start that she saw a man’s figure detach itself from the shadows and come towards her.
“To be sure. Who else? Now don’t put on that far-away look, pray! You know what is, after all, your simple duty, and I trust you mean to do it. You can’t be going to disappoint your father in this matter. And you really must marry soon Priscilla. It is getting serious. In fact, it worries me perpetually. By the way, here is a letter for you from Raffold. It must have got among mine by mistake. Mrs. Burrowes’s handwriting, I imagine.”
But in that instant his eyes left her, and the magnetism that compelled her died swiftly down. She saw him shake hands with Lady Raffold, and bow to the Ambassador.
“Let me tell you the story of a fraud,” he said; and proceeded without further preliminary. “There was once a man–a second son, without prospects and without fame–who had the good fortune to do a service to a woman. He went away immediately afterwards lest he should make a fool of himself, for she was miles above his head, anyway. But he never forgot her. The mischief was done, so far as he was concerned.”
He withdrew the key, and dropped it into her lap.
“I don’t think you would understand, Charlotte, if I were to tell you,” she said, in a voice of such deep music that it seemed incapable of bitterness.
Froggy looked a little startled at the question, lightly as it was put. She felt that it was scarcely a problem that could be settled offhand. And yet something in Priscilla’s manner seemed to indicate that she wanted a prompt reply.
Suddenly he clutched at something in the clear water, and immediately straightened himself, withdrawing his arm. Then, quite calmly, he looked across at her, and spoke in a peculiar, soft drawl like a woman’s.
He was there before her, bareheaded and alert, quite obviously awaiting her. He did not express his pleasure in words as he took her hand in his. Only there was an indescribable look in his brown eyes that made her very glad that she had come. He had brought an enormous basket of strawberries, which he presented with that drawling ease of manner which she had come to regard as peculiarly his own, and they settled down to the afternoon’s enjoyment in a harmony as complete as the summer peace about them.
“Yes, I know it’s sudden. But sometimes, you know, love is like that. Don’t be anxious, Froggy. I am much more cautious–but what a ridiculous word!–than you think. He doesn’t know who I am yet. I pretended to him that I was a relation of yours. And he isn’t to know at present. You will keep that in mind, won’t you? And in a day or two I shall bring him in here to tea, and you will be able to judge of him for yourself. No, dear, no; of course he hasn’t spoken. It is much too soon. You forget that though I have known him so long, he has only known me for two days. Oh, Froggy, isn’t it wonderful to think of–that he should have come at last like this? It is almost as if–as if my love had drawn him.”
“You don’t know me,” she said, with a gasping effort. “You don’t–” The words failed. He was pressing her to him ever more closely, and she felt his fingers gently fumbling at her veil. With a sudden passionate movement she put up both hands, and threw it back.
“Who is it?” she asked sharply; and then in astonishment: “Why, Dad!”
She was right. It was directed by Froggy, but Priscilla paled suddenly as she took it, realising that it contained an answer to her own urgent note.
Then came her stepmother’s quick, beckoning glance, and she moved forward in response to it. She was quivering from head to foot, bewildered, in some subtle fashion afraid.
He broke off, and raised his champagne to his lips as if he drank to a memory.
“Open if you will,” he said, in the quiet voice, half tender, half humorous, that she had come to know so well. “I am closely followed by the infant with the scowl.”
“Some ridiculous sentimentality, no doubt,” said Lady Raffold.
“It is a little difficult to say, dear,” she said, after brief reflection. “I can understand that one might be strongly attracted towards a stranger, but I should think it scarcely possible that one could go so far as to fall in love.”
“You’ll forgive me for disturbing you, I know,” he said, “when I tell you that all my worldly goods were at the bottom of this ditch.”
No spoken confidences passed between them. Their intimacy was such as to make words seem superfluous. Both seemed to feel that the present was all-sufficing.
“There!” she said, with a sound, half laugh, half sob, and turned herself wholly to him.
Her father’s voice answered her, but not with the gruff kindliness to which she was accustomed. It came to her grim and stern, and she knew instinctively that he hated the errand that had brought him.
Alone in her own room she opened it. The message was even briefer than hers had been: “Sweetheart,–At 11 A.M., on Thursday, under the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral.–I am thine, J. C.”
“My dear, your cousin. He will take you in. Ralph, this is Priscilla.”
Priscilla was listening, but her eyes were downcast. She wore the old, absent look that her stepmother always deprecated. The soft drawl at her side continued, every syllable distinct and measured.
Priscilla sat silent in her chair. What could she say to him?
“I am sure you would call it so.”
Priscilla uttered a faint, rueful laugh.
He displayed his recovered property as if to verify his words–a brown leather pocketbook with a silver clasp. Priscilla gazed from it to its owner in startled silence. Her heart was beating almost to suffocation. She knew this man.
Only once did Priscilla challenge Carfax’s memory. The impulse was irresistible at the moment, though she regretted it later. He was holding out to her the biggest strawberry he could find. It lay on a leaf on the palm of his hand, and as she took it she suddenly saw a long, terrible scar extending upwards from his wrist till his sleeve hid it from view.
The next instant, as his lips pressed hers, all the anguish of doubt that had come upon her was gone like an evil spirit from her soul. She knew only that they stood alone together in a vast space that was filled to the brim with the noonday sunshine. All her heart was flooded with rejoicing. The gates had opened wide for her, and she had entered in.
“I have come down to fetch you,” he said. “I do not approve of your being here alone. It is unusual and quite unnecessary. You are quite well?”
Priscilla stood for long seconds with the note in her hand. It had reached her too late. The appointment had been for the day before. She turned to the envelope, and saw that it must have been lying among her stepmother’s correspondence for two days. Doubtless he had waited for her at the trysting-place, and waited in vain.
It was sublimely informal. Lady Raffold had rehearsed that introduction several times. It was half the battle that the young man should feel himself one of the family from the outset.
“Years passed, and things changed. The man had belonged to a cadet branch of an aristocratic British family. But one heir after another died, till only he was left to inherit. The woman belonged to the older branch of the family, but, being a woman, she was passed over. A time came when he was invited by the head of the house to go and see his inheritance. He would have gone at once and gladly, but for a hint at the end of the letter to the effect that, if he would do his part, what the French shamelessly call a mariage de convenance might be arranged between his cousin and himself–an arrangement advantageous to them both from a certain point of view. He didn’t set up for a paragon of morality. Perhaps even, had things been a little different, he might have been willing. As it was, he didn’t like the notion, and he jibbed.” He paused. “But for all that,” he said, his voice yet quieter and more deliberate, “he wanted the woman, if he could make her care for him. That was his difficulty. He had a feeling all along that the thing must be an even greater offence to her than it was to him. He worried it all through, and at last he worked out a scheme for them both. He called himself by an old school alias, and came to her as a stranger—-
“Well?” he said, after a moment. “The end of the story–is it written yet?”
A faint flush rose in the girl’s dark face. She looked at her stepmother no longer, but began very quietly and steadily to make the tea.
“Perhaps you couldn’t, Froggy,” she admitted. “But you know there is such a thing as loving at first sight. Some people go so far as to say that all true love begins that way.”
The water babbled on between them, singing a little tinkling song all its own. But the girl neither saw nor heard aught of her surroundings. She was back in the heat and whirl of a crowded New York thoroughfare, back in the fierce grip of this man’s arms, hearing his quiet voice above her head, bidding her not to be frightened.
“Why,” she exclaimed, with a start; then, seeing his questioning look, “surely that’s a burn?”
“Yes, I am well,” Priscilla said. “But why should you object to my being here?”
Only one thing remained to be done, and that was to telegraph to Froggy for Carfax’s address. But Froggy’s answer, when it came, was only another disappointment:
Priscilla grabbed at her self-control, and managed to bow. But the next instant his hand, strong, warm, reassuring, grasped hers.
“You’re not eating anything, sweetheart. Wouldn’t it be as well, just for decency’s sake? There’s a comic ending to this story, so you mustn’t be sad. Who’s that boy scowling at me on the other side of the table? What’s the matter with the child?”
She shook her head dumbly. Curiously, the throbbing anger had left her heart at the mere sound of his voice.
Lady Raffold waited a few seconds for her confidence, but she waited in vain. Lady Priscilla had retired completely behind her shield, and it was quite obvious that she had no intention of exposing herself any further to stray shots.
She rose quietly and went to her friend’s side.
Gradually the vision passed. The wild tumult at her heart died down. She became aware that he was waiting for her to speak, and she did so as one in a dream.
“It is,” said Carfax.
She stood still, facing him. She knew who had inspired this interference, and from the bottom of her soul she resented it. Her father did not answer. Thinking it over calmly later, she knew that he was ashamed.
“Address not known. Did you not receive letter I forwarded?”
“Curious, isn’t it?” the quiet voice asked. “We can’t be strangers, you and I.”
“Never mind,” murmured Priscilla hastily. “He doesn’t mean anything. Please go on.”
He waited for about three seconds, then knelt quietly down beside her.
Her stepmother was exasperated, but she found it difficult to say anything more upon the subject in face of this impenetrability. She could only solace herself with the reflection that the American cousin, who had become heir to the earldom and estates of Raffold, would almost certainly take a more common-sense view of the matter, and, if that were so, a little pressure from the girl’s father, whom she idolised, would probably be sufficient to settle it according to her desires.
“Oh, Froggy, it’s very difficult to be true to your inner self when you stand quite alone,” she said, “and every one else is thinking what a fool you are!” The words had an unwonted ring of passion in them, and, having uttered them, she knelt down by Froggy’s side, and hid her face against the ample shoulder. “And I sometimes think I’m a fool myself,” she ended, in muffled accents.
“I am glad you got it back,” she said.
He turned his hand over to hide it. His manner seemed to indicate that he did not wish to pursue the subject. But Priscilla, suddenly reckless, ignored the hint.
“Be ready to start from here in half an hour,” he said. “We shall catch the nine-thirty.”
Reluctantly Priscilla realised that there was nothing for it but patience. Carfax would almost certainly write again through Froggy.
The grip of his fingers was close and intimate. It was as if he appealed for her support.
He began to laugh at her with gentle ridicule.
“Say,” he drawled, “I kind of like Raffold Abbey, sweetheart. Wouldn’t it be nice to spend our honeymoon there? Do you think they would let us?” He laid his hand upon both of hers. “Wouldn’t it be good?” he said softly. “I should think there would be room for two, eh, sweetheart?”
It was so plainly Priscilla’s duty to marry the young man. The whole thing seemed to be planned and cut out by Providence. And it was but natural that Ralph Cochrane should see it in the same light. For it was understood that he was not rich, and it would be greatly to his interest to marry Earl Raffold’s only surviving child.
Froggy’s arms closed instantly and protectingly around her.
His brown, clean-shaven face smiled at her, but there was no hint of recognition in his eyes. He had totally forgotten her, of course, as she had always told herself he would. Did not men always forget? And yet–and yet–was he not still her hero–the man for whose sake all other men were less than naught to her?
“But how did you do it?” she asked.
Priscilla made no further protest. Her father had never addressed that tone to her before, and it cut her to the heart.
That he had not her address she knew, for Froggy was under a solemn vow to reveal nothing, but she would not believe that he would regard her failure to keep tryst as a deliberate effort to snub him, though the fear that he might do so haunted and grew upon her all through the day.
With an effort she forced herself to respond:
“Impatient for the third act? Well, the scheme worked all right. But it so chanced that the woman decided to be subtle, too. She knew him for an old friend the instant she saw him. But he pretended to have forgotten that old affair in New York. He didn’t want her to feel in any way under an obligation. So he played the humble stranger, and she–sweetheart–she played the simple, country maiden, and she did it to perfection. I think, you know, that she was a little afraid her name and title would frighten him away.”
With an effort she sought to withstand him before he wholly dominated her.
So Lady Raffold reasoned to herself as Priscilla poured out the tea in serious silence, and she gradually soothed her own annoyance by the process.
“My darling, who is it, then?” whispered her motherly voice.
Again Romeo growled deeply, and she tightened her hold upon him. The stranger, however, appeared quite unimpressed. He stood up and contemplated the stream that divided them with a measuring eye.
Carfax hesitated for a second, then:
“Very well,” she said; and turned to go.
She went to a theatre that night, and later to a dance, but neither entertainment served to lift the deadening weight from her spirits. She was miserable, and the four hours she subsequently spent in bed brought her no relief.
“Of course not. It must be quite five years since our first meeting.”
“And so he humoured her?” said Priscilla, a slight quiver in her deep voice.
“And every one will call it a mariage de convenance!”
“Come,” she said at length, breaking a long silence, “I should think Ralph Cochrane will be in England in ten days at the latest. We must not be too formal with him as he is a relation. Shall we ask him to luncheon on the Sunday after next?”
Priscilla did not at once reply. It was a difficult confidence to make. At last, haltingly, words came:
“Have I your permission to come across?” he asked her finally, in his soft Southern drawl.
“It was years ago,” he said, rather unwillingly. “A lady’s dress caught fire. It fell to me to put it out.”
Her deep voice held no anger, and only Romeo, pressed close against her, knew that the hand that had just caressed him was clenched and quivering.
She rose at last in sheer desperation, and went for an early ride in the Park. She met a few acquaintances, but she shook them off. She wanted to be alone.
He looked at her oddly, quizzically, as he offered his arm.
“They humoured each other, sweetheart. That was where it began to be funny. Now I am going to get you to tell me the rest of the story.”
“Let them!” he answered, with suppressed indifference. “I reckon we shall have the laugh. But it isn’t so unusual, you know. Americans always fall in love at first sight.”
Priscilla did not at once reply. When at length she looked up, it was with the air of one coming out of a reverie.
“It was years ago–that summer we went to New York, Dad and I. He was from the South, so I heard afterwards. He stayed at the same hotel with us, one of those quiet, unobtrusive, big men–not big physically, but–you understand. I might not have noticed him–I don’t know–but one day a man in the street threw down a flaming match just as I was coming out of the hotel. I had on a muslin dress, and it caught fire. Of course, it blazed in a moment, and I was terrified. Dad wasn’t there. But the man was in the balcony just overhead, and he swung himself down, I never saw how, and caught me in his arms. He had nothing to put it out with. He simply threw me down and flung himself on the top, beating out the flames in all directions with his hands. I was dreadfully upset, of course, but I wasn’t much hurt. He was–horribly. One of his hands was all charred.
She laughed a little nervously. He was not without audacity, notwithstanding his quiet manner.
“How brave!” murmured Priscilla. Her eyes were shining. Had he looked up then he must have read her secret.
When she was returning, however, her youthful admirer, Lord Harfield, attached himself to her, refusing to be discouraged.
“Why, yes,” he drawled, as they began to move towards the door. “Should auld acquaintance be forgot? It is exactly five years ago to-day.”
She turned towards him again, her face very pale.
He was unanswerable. He was sublime. She marvelled that she could have ever even attempted to resist him.
“Oh, yes, if you like, Charlotte,” she said, in her deep, quiet voice. “No doubt he will amuse you. I know you always enjoy Americans.”
“He carried me back into the hotel and told me not to be frightened. And he stayed with me till I felt better, because somehow I wanted him to. He was so strong, Froggy, and so kind. He had a voice like a woman’s. I’ve thought since that he must have thought me very foolish and uncontrolled. But he seemed to understand just how I felt. And–do you know–I never saw him again! He went right away that very afternoon, and we never found out who he was. And I never thanked him even for saving my life. I don’t think he wanted to be thanked.
“You can cross if you like,” she said. “But it’s all private property.”
But he did not look up. For the first time he seemed to be labouring under some spell of embarrassment.
“I met your cousin at the Club yesterday,” he told her.
“Yes; it’s very funny, no doubt–funny for the man, I mean; for the woman, I am not so sure. How does she know that he really cared for her from the beginning; that he was always quite honest in his motive? How can she possibly know this?”
With a sudden, tremulous laugh, she caught his hand to her, holding it fast.
“And you, my dear?” said Lady Raffold, with just a hint of sharpness in her tone.
“But I have never forgotten him. He was the sort of man you never could forget. I’ve never seen any one in the least like him. He was somehow so much greater than all the other men I know. Am I a fool, Froggy? I suppose I am. They say every woman will meet her mate if she waits long enough, but it can’t be true. I suppose I might as well marry the Yankee heir, only I can’t–I can’t!”
He paused, looking at her intently.
“It wasn’t brave at all,” he said, after a moment. “I could have done no less.”
“What is he like?” Priscilla asked, without much interest.
Again for a moment their eyes met. There was no hint of dismay in the man’s brown face.
“Not Americans only!” she said. And swiftly, passionately, she bent and pressed her lips to the red, seared scar upon her hero’s wrist.
“I?” Again her stepdaughter paused a little, as if collecting her thoughts. “I shall not be here,” she said finally. “I have decided to go down to Raffold for midsummer week, and I don’t suppose I shall hurry back. It won’t matter, will it? I often think that you entertain best alone. And I am so tired of London heat and dust.”
The low voice ceased, and there fell a silence. Froggy’s arms were folded very closely about the kneeling girl, but she had no words of comfort or counsel to offer. She was, in fact, out of her depth, though not for worlds would she have had Priscilla know it.
“It belongs to Earl Raffold, I have been told?”
There was almost a vexed note in his voice. Yet she persisted.
“Oh, haven’t you seen him yet? A very queer fish, with a twang you could cut with a knife. Don’t think you’ll like him,” said Lord Harfield, who was jealous of every man who so much as bowed to Priscilla.
“She does know it, sweetheart,” he answered, with confidence. “I can’t tell you how. Probably she couldn’t, either. He was going to explain everything, you know, under the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. But for some reason it didn’t come off. He spent three solid hours waiting for her, but she didn’t come. She had found him out, perhaps? And was angry?”
There was an unconscious note of wistfulness in the beautiful voice, but its dominant virtue was determination.
“You must just follow your own heart, dearest,” she said at last. “And I think you will find happiness some day. God grant it!”
She bent her head, and her answer leapt out with an ease that astonished her. She felt it to be an inspiration.
“What was she like? Wasn’t she very grateful?”
Priscilla smiled faintly.
“Perhaps,” said Priscilla, her voice very low.
Lady Raffold realised at once to her unspeakable indignation that protest was useless.
Priscilla lifted her head and kissed her. She knew quite well that she had led whither Froggy could not follow. But the knowledge did not hurt her.
“It does. But the family are in town for the season. I am staying with the housekeeper. She is allowed to have her friends when the family are away.”
“I don’t know at all. I don’t suppose she enjoyed the situation any more than I did.”
“I don’t think so, either,” she said. “You are coming to dine with us to-night, aren’t you? He will be there too.”
Again he raised his glass to his lips.
“Really, Priscilla,” was all she found to say, “I am amazed–yes, amazed–at your total lack of consideration.”
She called Romeo, and went out into the summer sunshine, with a smile half tender and half humorous at the corners of her mouth. Poor Froggy!
It was rather breathlessly spoken, but he did not seem to notice.
He plucked a tuft of moss and tossed it from him, as if therewith dismissing the subject. And Priscilla felt a little hurt, though not for worlds would she have suffered him to see it.
“Will he? I say, what a bore for you! Yes, I’m coming. I’ll do my best to help you,” the boy assured her eagerly.
“We will have the end of the story presently,” he said; and deliberately turned to his left-hand neighbour.
But Priscilla was quite unimpressed.
“I see,” he said. “Then one more or less can’t make much difference.”
It fell to him to break the silence a few seconds later, and he did so without a hint of difficulty.
And again Priscilla smiled. She was quite sure that she would be bored, whatever happened, though she was too kind-hearted to say so.
“You won’t have time to miss me,” she said. “I don’t think any one will, except, perhaps, Dad; and he always knows where to find me.”
With the words he took a single stride forward and bounded into the air. He landed lightly almost at her feet, and Romeo sprang up with an outraged snarl. It choked in his throat almost instantly, however, for the stranger laid a restraining hand upon him, and spoke with soothing self-assurance.
“When am I going to see the crypt?”
“Your father will certainly not leave town before the end of the season,” said Lady Raffold, raising her voice slightly.
“It’s an evil brute that kills a friend, eh, old fellow? You couldn’t do it if you tried.”
Priscilla laughed a little.
“Poor dear Dad!” murmured Priscilla.
Romeo’s countenance changed magically. He turned his hostility into an ardent welcome, and the girl at his side laughed again rather tremulously.
“Are you writing a book about the place?”
“It’s a good thing you weren’t afraid. I couldn’t have held him.”
He laughed back at her quite openly.
“I saw that,” said the Southerner, speaking softly, his face on a level with the great head he was caressing. “But I knew it would be all right. You see, I–kind of like dogs.”
“Not at present. When I do, it will be a romance, with you for heroine.”
He turned to her after a moment, a faintly quizzical expression about his eyes.
“Oh, no; not me!” she protested. “I am a mere nobody. Lady Priscilla ought to be your heroine.”
“I won’t intrude upon you,” he said. “I can go and trespass elsewhere, you know.”
He raised his eyebrows. She had begun to associate that look of his with protest rather than surprise.
Priscilla was not as a rule reckless. A long training in her stepmother’s school had made her cautious and far-seeing in all things social. She knew exactly the risk that lay in unconventionality. But, then, had she not fled from town to lead a free life? Why should she submit to the old, galling chain here in this golden world where its restraint was not known? Her whole being rose up in revolt at the bare idea, and suddenly, passionately, she decided to break free. Even the flowers had their day of riotous, splendid life. She would have hers, wherever its enjoyment might lead her, whatever it might cost!
“I have yet to be introduced to Lady Priscilla,” he said. “And as she doesn’t like men, I almost think I shall forego the pleasure and keep out of her way.”
And so she answered him with a lack of reserve at which her London friends would have marvelled.
“Perhaps I have given you a wrong impression about her,” Priscilla said, speaking with a slight effort. “It is only the idle, foppish men about town she has no use for.”
“You don’t intrude at all. If you have come to see the Abbey, I should advise you to wait till after six o’clock.”
“She is fastidious, apparently,” he returned, lying down abruptly at her feet.
“When it will be closed to the public?” he questioned, still looking quizzical.
“Don’t you like women to be fastidious?” Priscilla demanded boldly.
She looked up at him, for the first time deliberately meeting his eyes. Yes it was plain that he did not know her; but on the whole she was glad, it made things easier. She had been so foolish and hysterical upon that far-off day when he had saved her life.
He lay quite motionless for several seconds, then turned in a leisurely fashion upon his side to survey her.
“I will take you over it myself, if you care to accept my guidance,” she said, “after the crowd have gone.”
“You are fastidious?” he asked.
He glanced at his watch.
“Of course I am!” Priscilla’s words came rather breathlessly. “Don’t you think me so?”
“And you are prepared to tolerate my society till six?” he said. “That is very generous of you.”
Again he was silent for seconds. Then, in a baffling drawl, his answer came:
She smiled, with a touch of wistfulness.
“If you will allow me to say so, I think you are just the sweetest woman I ever met.”
“Perhaps I don’t find my own very inspiring.”
Priscilla met his eyes for a single instant, and looked away. She was burning and throbbing from head to foot. She could find naught to say in answer; no word wherewith to turn his deliberate sentence into a jest. Perhaps in her secret heart she did not desire to do so, for a voice within her, a voice long stifled, cried out that she had met her mate. And, since surrender was inevitable, why should she seek to delay it?
He raised his eyebrows, but made no comment.
But Carfax said no more. Possibly he thought he had said too much. At least, after a long, quiet pause, he looked away from her; and the spell that bound her passed.
“Perhaps I had better tell you my name,” he said, after a pause. “I am in a fashion connected with this place–a sort of friend of the family, if it isn’t presumption to put it that way. My name is Julian Carfax, and Ralph Cochrane, the next-of-kin, is a pal of mine, a very great pal. He was coming over to England. Perhaps you heard. But he’s a very shy fellow, and almost at the last moment he decided not to face it at present. I was coming over, so I undertook to explain. I spoke to Lady Raffold in town over the telephone, and told her. She seemed to be rather affronted, for some reason. Possibly it was my fault. I’m not much of a diplomatist, anyway.”
He seated himself on a mossy stone below her with this reflection, and began to cast pebbles into the brown water.
Priscilla watched him gravely. What he had told her interested her considerably, but she had no intention of giving herself away by betraying it.
There was a decided pause before she made up her mind how to pursue the subject.
“I had no idea that an American could be shy,” she said then.
Carfax turned with his pleasant smile.
“No? We’re a pushing race, I suppose. But I think Cochrane had some excuse for his timidity this time.”
“Yes?” said Priscilla.
He began to laugh quietly.
“You see, it turned out that he was expected to marry the old maid of the family–Lady Priscilla. Naturally he kicked at that.”
Priscilla bent sharply over Romeo, and began to examine one of his huge paws. Her face was a vivid scarlet.
“It wasn’t surprising, was it?” said Carfax, tossing another pebble into the stream. “It was more than enough, in my opinion, to make any fellow feel shy.”
Priscilla did not answer. The colour was slow to fade from her face.
“I wonder if you have ever seen the lady?” Carfax pursued. “She was out of town when I was there.”
“Yes; I have seen her.”
Priscilla spoke with her head bent.
“You have? What is she like?”
He glanced round with an expression of amused interest. Priscilla looked up deliberately.
“She is quite old and ugly. But I don’t think Mr. Ralph Cochrane need be afraid. She doesn’t like men. I am rather sorry for her myself.”
“Sorry for her? Why?”
Carfax became serious.
“I think she is rather lonely,” the girl said, in a low voice.
“You know her well?”
“Can any one say that they really know any one? No. But I think that she feels very deeply, and that her life has always been more or less of a failure. At least, that is the sort of feeling I have about her.”
Again, but more gradually, the colour rose in her face. She took up her basket, and began to unpack it.
Carfax turned fully round.
“You go in for character-study,” he said.
“A little,” she owned. “I can’t help it. Now let me give you some tea. I have enough for two.”
“I shall be delighted,” he said courteously. “Let me help you to unpack.”
Priscilla could never recall afterwards how they spent the golden hours till six o’clock. She was as one in a dream, to which she clung closely, passionately, fearing to awake. For in her dream she was standing on the threshold of her paradise, waiting for the opening of the gates.