"What is it, Peggy? Something troubles you—something more than you will tell the others. Can you tell me? Can I help you, dear?"
It was the old Rob back again at the first hint of trouble, the old Rob, with no trace of the laboured pleasantness of the past weeks, but with eyes full of faithful friendship. Peggy gave a gasp of relief, and clutched his arm with an eager hand.
"Oh, Rob, yes! I'll tell you! It was a secret, but I must tell some one, I must have some one to consult." And then in hurried accents she confided to him her promise to Mrs Asplin, and the sad reason which made it so necessary to preserve her from alarm. "You see, Rob, it is very serious," she said in conclusion. "It may be a case of life and death, for the doctor said she couldn't bear any strain, and when I promised, knowing so well all that it meant, she will feel she has good reason for fear, if we do not return. All the night long, and both her girls here! Oh, Rob, think what it will be! I feel as if I could not bear it; is if I could run all the way home to comfort her. You always helped me, Rob; you used to find a way for me out of my old childish troubles—do help me now! Think of some way by which we can get back."
Rob looked at her fixedly, and his lips smiled, but his eyes were grave and steady.
"I'll try, Peggy," he said, "I'll do my best. There is nothing I would not do for Mrs Asplin and—you! Remember always, whatever happens, that nothing you could have done for me to-day would have made me so happy as asking my help in your trouble." He turned away as he spoke the last word, for the rest of the party were now approaching along the sands, bearing with them a branch of a tree, and the table-cloth which had been used for lunch. It had occurred to Arthur that if a flag could be erected at this particular spot, it might possibly catch the eyes of the fishermen, and attract them to call at the island on their way to the shore, and the idea had been enthusiastically welcomed by his friends. It is astonishing how speedily the charms of a situation are minimised when that situation becomes a necessity instead of a choice. Before the discovery of the missing boat, the island had seemed all that was charming and romantic; now it seemed suddenly to have become chilly and forsaken, a bank of sand in a waste of water; a prison-house rather than a pleasure-ground. Eunice began to shiver, Mrs Bryce felt certain that the grass was damp, and the professor was full of anxiety about his fiancee. One and all they were thankful for the occupation of erecting the flagstaff, and Arthur had no lack of assistants in his task. The hole was dug out to the proper depth with the assistance of such motley tools as the ferrules of sticks and parasols, and the stones which were scattered along the beach, while the cloth was sewed to the stick by the careful Esther, who never by any chance travelled about without a needle full of cotton in her pocket, in company with such other usefuls as sticking-plaster, hair-pins, and camphor pills. The camphor pills were brought forth now, and received a very different welcome from that which would have been afforded them an hour before. Even Peggy took her turn with the rest, and though the men drew the line at such an exhibition of weakness, they hinted that an additional cup of tea would be acceptable in its stead.
"We have done all we can, so now let us go back to our meal, and be as jolly as we can," said Arthur.
"We will brew a fresh lot of tea and drown our sorrows in the bowl; and if the viands give out, Mellicent can get us bread from the bread-trees and milk from the cocoanuts. Rob can climb up and bring one down, as he is accustomed to savage regions. Where is Rob, by the bye? He was here ten minutes ago."
"He walked over to the other end of the island. I'll go round and give him a call," Hector said; and in default of anything better to do his companions followed in a long, straggling line, but no sign of Rob did they find, only a little heap of clothing on the shore—a pair of boots, a coat, and waistcoat, and a sailor hat, which told their own tale plainly enough, even without the sight of the dark head which could presently be observed bobbing up and down between the waves. Rob had swum off to try to recover the boat, and was risking his life in the effort!—For a moment horror held his friends dumb, then the men broke into a chorus of denunciations.
"He'll never do it! He had no right to go off like that without consulting us—without saying a word to a soul! A foolhardy trick!"
"He knew we would not let him try it. He is a capital swimmer, but it's a stiff pull, and he can't catch her up, for she will drift with the tide further and further away."
"Will she? Are you sure? Does she seem to you any further off now than she was a quarter of an hour ago? I don't think she is. I can see her just as distinctly. Ah! I believe I understand it now. She has drifted on to a sandbank, and is not moving at all. Good old Rob! He knows what he is about. If he can only hold out, he'll get her sure enough."
"If—yes, but if he does not? If he gets cramped or exhausted, there is no one to help him. We should have to stand here helpless, and see him sink. It was mad—mad—he should not have risked it! I'll give him a piece of my mind when he gets back!" cried Arthur hotly, and then, "Good old Rob!" he added in another voice. "Good old Rob! Just like him to steal away without saying a word to a soul. Just like him to think of every one else before himself. Give him a cheer, boys! Give him a cheer to help him along."
And what a cheer that was that burst forth in response to his words! It rang over the sea, eloquent with all the hope, and fear, and longing that were beating in eight anxious hearts; once and yet again it sounded, with Peggy's high treble ringing out over all the rest. "Bravo, Rob! Bravo! Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!"
The dark head turned, a white arm waved in the air, and then Rob settled himself once more to his task, while his friends watched in tense anxiety. The professor drew Esther's hand through his arm and clasped it unashamed, and Arthur turned abruptly aside, putting his hands to his face.
"I can't watch him;" he cried brokenly. "I must go away. Come and talk to me till it is over—help me to bear it!" His eyes met Peggy's as he finished speaking, passed on with an unsatisfied expression, and fastened upon Eunice. "You!" his expression said as plainly as words could say it, "I mean you!" and Eunice followed without a word.
At another time the episode would have attracted universal attention, but the four remaining members of the party were so much engrossed with their own thoughts that hardly a glance was cast after the retreating couple. Mrs Bryce was eager to take Major Darcy aside, and ask his advice as a soldier and campaigner as to what steps could be taken to prepare for a possible night's vigil. "Hope for the best and prepare for the worst," was her motto; and she had already hit on a spot where, by pegging down the branches of trees, and fastening cloaks over the gaps, a very fair tent could be manufactured. She bore Hector away to survey it, and Peggy and Mellicent were left alone together, the latter staring with curious eyes in her companion's face. An hour ago Peggy had been the most agitated of the party, and had showed a terror inconsistent with her character, yet now, when there seemed an even greater need for anxiety, she was calm and quiet, a little white image of composure.
"Peggy," she whispered softly, "aren't you frightened? Do you think he will—get there, Peggy? Do you think he will be—safe?"
"I know he will be safe, Mellicent."
"But they say it is so dangerous! They say it is a risk. He might be drowned!"
"He will be safe, Mellicent. I am quite sure of it."
"But, oh, Peggy, how can you tell? How can you be sure?"
Peggy's eyes came round with a flash, and stared full in Mellicent's face.
"Because I love him, Mellicent! Because we belong to one another, Rob and I, and I cannot live without him. Because I have asked God to take care of him for me, and I know He will do it!"
Mellicent shrank back aghast. What a confession to have heard from Peggy's own lips! Peggy, the reserved and dignified; Peggy, who was so scrupulously reticent about her own feelings! She could hardly believe her ears. It seemed unnatural, alarming, almost shocking. Her eyes dropped to the ground, she shuffled uneasily to and fro, and crept quietly away.
CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN.
Peggy's faith was justified, for though the way was long, and the current often swept him aside, Rob struggled on gallantly until, after what seemed an interminable period of suspense, his friends saw him clamber into the boat as she lay on the sandbank. Then for some minutes there was no movement, and though it was to be expected that he would need a rest after his exertions, the faces on shore began to lengthen as time passed by, and brought no sign of an advance.
"I don't know how he is going to move her now that he is there! Rob is strong enough, but one man is little use in a boat of that size. How can he expect to row her back alone?"
"Against the tide, too! He would wear himself out, and make no progress. I expect he recognises that by this time, and will not attempt it. It would not help us much to see him carried away."
"He cannot be in a condition to do much pulling, poor fellow! He must be pretty well played out. I'm afraid after all it has been a waste of energy."
"Rob would not have gone if he had not had some plan in his head. He always thinks before he acts. He would never have risked his life to get to the boat if he had no means of moving her," said Peggy proudly; and even as she spoke a simultaneous exclamation of delight went up from the watchers, as the end of a sail flapped in the breeze. They were at too great a distance to distinguish the mast, but all had noticed its presence in the bottom of the boat as they rowed out to the island, and now realised in a flash its value under the circumstances. Rob would have no struggling with the oars, he would trust to the sail to carry him back, and so experienced a yachtsman might be trusted to make the most of the opportunity. Arthur tossed his cap into the air, and shouted aloud in pure gladness of heart. Though he had tried to make the best of the situation, he had been oppressed by dread, and each moment, as it passed, had seemed to bring with it some fresh possibility of disaster. The fishermen might not return from their regatta until the following day; the flymen might not be able to organise a search; the weather might change, and turn to rain or wind. The very thought of the consequences of a night spent on the island made him grind his teeth in despair, while Rob's hazardous expedition had appeared a veritable last straw. But now, in a moment, everything was changed; what before had seemed a hopeless, almost criminal attempt, had become practical certainty, as, borne by the friendly sail, the boat drew nearer and nearer to her goal. Rob's figure could now be plainly discerned, and presently even his face was distinguishable as he waved back acknowledgments of the cheers sent to him across the water. Half-a- dozen eager hands were waiting to help with the boat as she ran ashore, and there he stood, the water dripping from his clothes, his hair ruffled into a veritable mop of dark brown curls, his face beaming with pleasure and triumph.
"Got her at last!" he gasped. "Got her at last! Bundle in! Bundle in! We'll catch our train yet. I'll give you a hand with the hampers." He had no thought for his own drenched condition, but Arthur shook him affectionately by the shoulders and cried:
"You'll do nothing of the kind! We have still ten minutes to spare before we need start, and you'll just come apart with me and have a good rub down! You have done your share of the work. Let the others look after the hampers."
"And you shall have a cup of tea—a good hot cup the moment you are ready for it!" cried Mrs Bryce, nodding her cheery head in his direction. "You are a hero, Mr Darcy, and you shall write your name in my autograph volume as a reward for valour. This is the first adventure I've ever had, and I shall brag about it all the rest of my life."
"And so shall I!" affirmed Mellicent truthfully. "Only I wish I had swum out myself. It's stupid having an adventure when you are not the hero." But Peggy said only three short words: "Thank you, Rob!" and pressed his fingers in an eager grip.
Ten minutes later they had left the island, and Rob was pulling at the oars as vigorously as if he felt no fatigue from his previous exertions. Truth to tell, he did not, for the mind has a more powerful influence over the body than many of us suspect, and the last hour had revealed a secret which made it seem impossible ever again to feel tired or discouraged. Peggy loved him! The doubts of the past weeks had been but ugly dreams, and he was awake once more, and in the sunshine. Throughout the drive to the station and the railway journey home, he kept intentionally apart, not trusting himself to speak to her in the presence of strangers; but if he seemed neglectful, Arthur abundantly made up for his absence by hanging lovingly round his little sister, and waiting upon her with a persistency which seemed to betray some inner remorse. At last, as they were left together for a few minutes at the end of the corridor carriage, his discomfort forced itself into words, and he said uneasily:
"I feel as if I had neglected you, Peg, and thought too little of you in the midst of my excitement. If any one had told me that we should be in danger, and that my first thought would not be of you, I should have knocked him down for his pains, but—but you saw how it was, and you can't be more astonished than I am myself! I never thought I was that kind of fellow. Can you understand how a man could be so weak and fickle as to believe himself in love with one woman, and then suddenly discover—"
"I can understand that a man might believe that he had found his ideal in one place, and discover that he had made a mistake, and that in reality it was waiting for him somewhere else; and I call that open- minded and enlightened—not in the least weak or fickle!" cried Peggy in reply; whereat Arthur smiled at her with kindly eyes.
"You nice little dear!" he said. "How refreshing it is to hear one's conduct described in the right terms! You are a prejudiced judge, I fear, Peg, but I like your verdict. Don't leap to conclusions now in your usual impetuous fashion, and believe that everything is settled, because it isn't, and won't be for a long time to come. I will not pay her the poor compliment of seeming to regard her as a solace for the old disappointment. I will wait and work, and try to make myself more worthy of her, and then if she will allow me, I'll try to pay her back a little for all she has done for me. There's a good time coming, Peg! Yes, yes, I feel it! Some day I shall look back, and see that all the disappointments I have had to bear have worked together to bring you to the place where I should meet the greatest blessing of my life. So now, Peggikins, I have made my confession, and I don't know that I should have done it even to you, but that my conscience upbraided me for having treated you shabbily to-day."
"But bless your innocent heart, I knew it long ago. So did Mrs Asplin, so did mother. So did every one with a head on his shoulders. You can't go about staring at a person, and keeping your eyes glued on a person, and looking as if you could never take your eyes off a person without attracting some attention among intelligent onlookers, my love! Now, now at this very moment while you are talking to me you are twisting your head over your shoulder and trying to see what—"
But at this Arthur fled precipitately to the other end of the carriage, and Peggy laughed softly to herself, not without a sigh of relief at having escaped any reproaches on her own account. Her eye followed the dear, handsome fellow, and her heart swelled with thankfulness at the thought that his troubles seemed indeed to be drawing to an end and a brighter day dawning before him. There was little doubt what Eunice's answer would be when the right time came, while Mr Rollo's enthusiastic appreciation of Arthur seemed to promise that he also would be pleased to welcome him into his family.
"And he will help Arthur on, as he can do so well, and he will become famous and celebrated, as we always knew he would. I shall see him yet, my own brother, with every one crowding around and doing him honour!" she cried to herself in a little rapture of delight, for old dreams die hard, and she had not yet outgrown the regret for the scarlet coat, the plumed hat, the array of medals at the breast.
When the train stopped at the quiet station, a fly and two dog-carts were in waiting to convey the travellers to their homes, but the professor and Esther elected to walk, and then the unexpected happened, for, as Peggy was preparing to drive with the rest, Rob's big figure loomed suddenly beside her, and his voice said:
"We will walk, too, Peggy!" and Peggy turned without a word and walked away by his side. Her little face looked very white in the moonlight, and the meekness with which she had agreed to his command was so unusual that Rob looked down at her with an anxious scrutiny.
"You sha'n't walk all the way," he said, "only just as far as the vicarage, then you can take Mellicent's seat, but I wanted to have you to myself for a few minutes first. I want to speak to you."
"And I to you. Oh, Rob, I have not thanked you half enough, and yet I want to scold you too. When I asked you to help me, I never meant for a moment that you should risk your own life—"
"I know that, Peg; but it was not so great a risk as you think, for I am almost as much at home in the water as on land, and even if my strength had given out, I could have floated ashore with the tide. It was well worth risking, after what you told me."
"Ah, yes, you have saved Mrs Asplin a terrible experience. You may have saved her life—and think how much that means to every one who knows her! You couldn't have a better reward, Rob."
"I have pleased you, Peggy!" said Rob simply. He made no protestation, but Peggy understood all that the words implied, and her heart beat fast with happiness. They had taken the path across the fields, following the lead of the lovers, whose figures could be seen ahead like two dark shadows, flitting through the trees, and after these words of Rob's they walked in silence until the first stile was reached. Rob was over in one spring, for his long legs found no difficulty in leaping so low a barrier, but Peggy made three steps of it, and in the last of the three found her way blocked by a tall, black figure. Rob's hands clasped hers, Rob's eyes looked into her face, and Rob's voice cried with a tremor of nervousness in the deep tones:
"Is this my Peggy? Does she belong to me?"
"Yes, Rob, always! She always did; but you—you didn't trust her," replied Peggy, with a firmness which ended in a sob. "You took for granted—"
"Peggy, I didn't!" cried Rob earnestly. "Don't think so poorly of me. I know to what you refer—that afternoon in the library—and now I can explain all that has troubled you. I had a talk with Hector after you left, and we discovered that we both wanted the same thing. He thought he had the first claim, and that it was my duty to stand aside until he had had his chance, and I agreed that he was right. Not because he was the older! I would not have acknowledged such a plea in this matter, but because he had so much more to offer you. Compared to myself he is a rich man, and you would have been better off with him. I promised to stand aside and put no obstacle in his way, and having given a promise I tried to keep it unselfishly, and to show you that I cared for your happiness before my own by remaining friendly and pleasant."
Peggy's grimace of disfavour was an eloquent comment. "I hated your pleasantness!" she said tersely. "I hated your friendship! I wanted you to be furious, and rage, and storm, and demand an explanation. You made me very wretched with your 'pleasantness,' I can tell you that!"
"Not half so wretched as I made myself. I wouldn't live through the last month again for any inducement you could offer; but you are not altogether free from blame yourself, for you have no idea what a little poker of dignity you have been to me all the time. Only to-day, when you asked my help, my own little Peggy came back, and then in the train Hector gave me a hint of what had happened. Poor old fellow, it's rough on him, but I can't pity him as I ought, for I am so outrageously happy! Partners, Mariquita! We are going to be partners all our lives. It seems too good to be true! I shall have to give up all thought of journeys to unknown lands; but, thank goodness! work seems to open out more and more at home, and we will be as happy as sandboys in a little home near your parents, working together and helping one another as we can do so well."
"We will! We will! You shall supply the facts, and I will write them up. You do write such commonplace English, dear—not one bit picturesque! Wait until I have worked up your articles for you; you won't know them, they will be so altered!"
"I believe you there!" said Rob demurely; but Peggy was launched on the stream of eloquence, and oblivious of sarcasm.
"Oh, oh! It will be lovely!" she cried. "We will have the dearest little house, with a study for you, and a study for me, and a garden, and a pony cart, and a conservatory, and immaculate servants who do everything they should do, and never need looking after. And we will trot about together, and work and play, and do everything just exactly as we like, and have no one to order us about. Think of it! We shall be master and mistress—no one can interfere—no one can find fault. If I forget all about dinner some fine day, there won't be a soul who will have the right to blame me, or fly into a temper."
"Oh, won't there just! Don't make any mistake about that!" cried Rob. "If you forget your duties, you will have me to reckon with, and I am not too amiable when I'm hungry. It will be my business to help you to overcome your failings, just as it will be yours to help me with mine."
"You haven't got any," said Peggy quickly. "At least—I mean, yes, you have—lots—but I like them. They will keep mine company. No, seriously, Rob, I'll try to be good. I made up my mind to-day that if you came back safe, I would try with all my strength to be a better girl, and overcome my careless ways. And now I have more reason than before to persevere. I'll begin at once, and try so hard that by the time we are married I shall be quite a staid, responsible housewife."
"Humph!" said Rob in ungrateful fashion. "Don't try too hard. I don't want my Peggy altered out of recognition. There are thousands of staid, responsible housewives in existence, but Peggy Savilles are rare. I prefer her of the two."
"And yet you want to be rid of her! Poor, dear, little thing! If you get your way, she won't be in existence much longer. How can you make up your mind to be so cruel?"
"I shall love Peggy Darcy better," said Rob firmly, and at that Peggy gave a gulp and relapsed into silence. Peggy Darcy! The name brought with it a dozen thrilling reflections. Rosalind's sister, Hector's sister, daughter to Lady Darcy, and the dear, kind old lord, and, oh, most wonderful of all, Rob's wife! His partner for ever, in the truest sense of the word! The sound of that eloquent word had thrilled through Rob also, and silenced the word on his lips. His clasp tightened on Peggy's fingers, and they walked hand in hand through the fields together, in a blissful trance of happiness which has no need for speech.
When the vicarage gates were reached the carriage was already in sight; but Peggy hung back, and Rob called a passing direction to the coachman to stop on his way back after leaving Mellicent at the door. Neither he nor Peggy felt inclined to encounter even the oldest of friends in the first flush of their happiness, but they stood together watching the scene which greeted the return of the travellers, and rejoicing in the ease of mind which they had been instrumental in securing.
The door opened, and the light of the lamps streamed out into the darkness. They saw the figure of the Vicar standing upon the threshold, and that of his wife by his side: they saw Esther and Mellicent run up the steps, and the mother's arms stretched wide to receive them; then the door shut once more, and the light died out. The moonlight seemed cold and wan after that bright ray, but not so cold as it had been before, for some of the atmosphere of love and kindness for which that home was famous seemed to have escaped through the open door, and warmed the hearts of those who looked on.
"If we can make a home like that, Peg, we shall never be poor, however little money we may have to spend. We shall have found the greatest treasure the world can give," said Rob softly; and "Amen!" sighed Peggy Saville beneath her breath.