"Mr. Siward," she breathed, "I don't know what I am laughing at; do you? Is it at you? At myself? At my poor philosophy in shreds and tatters? Is it some infernal mirth that you seem to be able to kindle in me—for I never knew a man like you before?"
"You don't know what you were laughing at?" he repeated. "It was something about love—"
"No I don't know why I laughed! I—I don't wish to, Mr. Siward. I do not desire to laugh at anything you have made me say—anything you may infer—"
"I don't infer—"
"You do! You made me say something—about my being ignorant of deep, of violent emotion, when I had just informed you that I am thoroughly, thoroughly in love—"
"Did I make you say all that, Miss Landis?"
"You did. Then you laughed and made me laugh too. Then you—"
"What did I do then?" he asked, far too humbly.
"You—you infer that I am either not in love or incapable of it, or too ignorant of it to know what I'm talking about. That, Mr. Siward, is what you have done to me to-night."
"I ought to be anyway," he said.
It was unfortunate; an utterly inexcusable laughter seemed to bewitch them, hovering always close to his lips and hers.
"How can you laugh!" she said. "How dare you! I don't care for you nearly as violently as I did, Mr. Siward. A friendship between us would not be at all good for me. Things pass too swiftly—too intimately. There is too much mockery in you—" She ceased suddenly, watching the sombre alteration of his face; and, "Have I hurt you?" she asked penitently.
"Have I, Mr. Siward? I did not mean it." The attitude, the words, slackening to a trailing sweetness, and then the moment's silence, stirred him.
"I'm rather ignorant myself of violent emotion," he said. "I suspect normal people are. You know better than I do whether love is usually a sedative."
"Am I normal—after what I have confessed?" she asked. "Can't love be well-bred?"
"Perfectly I should say—only perhaps you are not an expert—"
"In self-analysis, for example."
There was a vague meaning in the gaze they exchanged.
"As for our friendship, we'll do the best we can for it, no matter what occurs," he added, thinking of Quarrier. And, thinking of him, glanced up to see him within ear-shot and moving straight toward them from the veranda above.
There was a short silence; a tentative civil word from Siward; then Miss Landis took command of something that had a grotesque resemblance to a situation. A few minutes later they returned slowly to the house, the girl walking serenely between Siward and her preoccupied affianced.
"If your shoes are as wet as my skirts and slippers you had better change, Mr. Siward," she said, pausing at the foot of the staircase.
So he took his conge, leaving her standing there with Quarrier, and mounted to his room.
In the corridor he passed Ferrall, who had finished his business correspondence and was returning to the card-room.
"Here's a letter that Grace wants you to see," he said. "Read it before you turn in, Stephen."
"All right; but I'll be down later," replied Siward passing on, the letter in his hand. Entering his room he kicked off his wet pumps and found dry ones. Then moved about, whistling a gay air from some recent vaudeville, busy with rough towels and silken foot-gear, until, reshod and dry, he was ready to descend once more.
The encounter, the suddenly informal acquaintance with this young girl had stirred him agreeably, leaving a slight exhilaration. Even her engagement to Quarrier added a tinge of malice to his interest. Besides he was young enough to feel the flattery of her concern for him—of her rebuke, of her imprudence, her generous emotional and childish philosophy.
Perhaps, as like recognises like, he recognised in her the instincts of the born drifter, momentarily at anchor—the temporary inertia of the opportunist, the latent capacity of an unformed character for all things and anything. Add to these her few years, her beauty, and the wholesome ignorance so confidently acknowledged, what man could remain unconcerned, uninterested in the development of such possibilities? Not Siward, amused by her sagacious and impulsive prudence, worldliness, and innocence in accepting Quarrier; and touched by her profitless, frank, and unworldly friendliness for himself.
Not that he objected to her marrying Quarrier; he rather admired her for being able to do it, considering the general scramble for Quarrier. But let that take care of itself; meanwhile, their sudden and capricious intimacy had aroused him from the morbid reaction consequent upon the cheap notoriety which he had brought upon himself. Let him sponge his slate clean and begin again a better record, flattered by the solicitude she had so prettily displayed.
Whistling under his breath the same gay, empty melody, he opened the top drawer of his dresser, dropped in his mother's letter, and locking the drawer, pocketed the key. He would have time enough to read the letter when he went to bed; he did not just now feel exactly like skimming through the fond, foolish sermon which he knew had been preached at him through his mother's favourite missionary, Grace Ferrall. What was the use of dragging in the sad old questions again—of repeating his assurances of good behaviour, of reiterating his promises of moderation and watchfulness, of explaining his own self-confidence? Better that the letter await his bed time—his prayers would be the sincerer the fresher the impression; for he was old-fashioned enough to say the prayers that an immature philosophy proved superfluous. For, he thought, if prayer is any use, it takes only a few minutes to be on the safe side.
So he went down-stairs leisurely, prepared to acquiesce in any suggestion from anybody, but rather hoping to saunter across Sylvia Landis' path before being committed.
She was standing beside the fire with Quarrier, one foot on the fender, apparently too preoccupied to notice him; so he strolled into the gun-room, which was blue with tobacco smoke and aromatic with the volatile odours from decanters.
There were a few women there, and the majority of the men. Lord Alderdene, Major Belwether, and Mortimer were at a table by themselves; stacks of ivory chips and five cards spread in the centre of the green explained the nature of their game; and Mortimer, raising his heavy inflamed eyes and seeing Siward unoccupied, said wheezily: "Cut out that 'widow,' and give Siward his stack! Anything above two pairs for a jack triples the ante. Come on, Siward, there's a decent chap!"
So he seated himself for a sacrifice to the blind goddess balanced upon her winged wheel; and the cards ran high—so high that stacks dwindled or toppled within the half-hour, and Mortimer grew redder and redder, and Major Belwether blander and blander, and Alderdene's face wore a continual nervous snicker, showing every white hound's tooth, and the ice in the tall glasses clinked ceaselessly.
It was late when Quarrier "sat in," with an expressionless acknowledgment of Siward's presence, and an emotionless raid upon his neighbour's resources with the first hand dealt, in which he participated without drawing a card.
And always Siward, eyes on his cards, seemed to see Quarrier before him, his overmanicured fingers caressing his silky beard, the symmetrical pompadour dark and thick as the winter fur on a rat, tufting his smooth blank forehead.
It was very late when Siward first began to be aware of his increasing deafness, the difficulty, too, that he had in making people hear, the annoying contempt in Quarrier's woman-like eyes. He felt that he was making a fool of himself, very noiselessly somehow—but with more racket than he expected when he miscalculated the distance between his hand and a decanter.
It was time for him to go—unless he chose to ask Quarrier for an explanation of that sneer which he found distasteful. But there was too much noise, too much laughter.
Besides he had a matter to attend to—the careful perusal of his mother's letter to Mrs. Ferrall.
Very white, he rose. After an indeterminate interval he found himself entering his room.
The letter was in the dresser; several things seemed to fall and break, but he got the letter, sank down on the bed's edge and strove to read,—set his teeth grimly, forcing his blurred eyes to a focus. But he could make nothing of it—nor of his toilet either, nor of Ferrall, who came in on his way to bed having noticed the electricity still in full glare over the open transom, and who straightened out matters for the stunned man lying face downward across the bed, his mother's letter crushed in his nerveless hand.
CHAPTER IV THE SEASON OPENS
Breakfast at Shotover, except for the luxurious sluggards to whom trays were sent, was served in the English fashion—any other method or compromise being impossible.
Ferrall, reasonable in most things, detested customs exotic, and usually had an Englishman or two about the house to tell them so, being unable to jeer in any language except his own. Which is partly why Alderdene and Voucher were there. And this British sideboard breakfast was a concession wrung from him through force of sheer necessity, although the custom had already become practically universal in American country houses where guests were entertained.
But at the British breakfast he drew the line. No army of servants, always in evidence, would he tolerate, either; no highly ornamented human bric-a-brac decorating halls and corners; no exotic pheasants hustled into covert and out again; no fusillade at the wretched, frightened, bewildered aliens dumped by the thousand into unfamiliar cover and driven toward the guns by improvised beaters.
"We walk up our game or we follow a brace of good dogs in this white man's country," he said with unnecessary emphasis whenever his bad taste and his wife's absence gave him an opportunity to express to the casual foreigner his personal opinions on field sport. "You'll load your own guns and you'll use your own legs if you shoot with me; and your dogs will do their own retrieving, too. And if anybody desires a Yankee's opinion on shooting driven birds from rocking-chairs or potting tame deer from grand-stands, they can have it right now!"
Usually nobody wanted his further opinion; and sometimes they got it and sometimes not, if his wife was within earshot. Otherwise Ferrall appeared to be a normal man, energetically devoted to his business, his pleasures, his friends, and comfortably in love with his wife. And if some considered his vigour in business to be lacking in mercy, that vigour was always exercised within the law. He never transgressed the rules of war, but his headlong energy sometimes landed him close to the dead line. He had already breakfasted, when the earliest risers entered the morning room to saunter about the sideboards and investigate the simmering contents of silver-covered dishes on the warmers.
The fragrance of coffee was pleasantly perceptible; men in conventional shooting attire roamed about the room, selected what they cared for, and carried it to the table. Mrs. Mortimer was there consuming peaches that matched her own complexion; Marion Page, always more congruous in field costume and belted jacket than in anything else, and always, like her own hunters, minutely groomed, was preparing a breakfast for her own consumption with the leisurely precision characteristic of her whether in the saddle, on the box, or grassing her brace of any covey that ever flushed.
Captain Voucher and Lord Alderdene discussed prospects between bites, attentive to the monosyllabic opinions of Miss Page. Her twin brothers, Gordon and Willis, shyly consuming oatmeal, listened respectfully and waited on their sister at the slightest lifting of her thinly arched eyebrows.
Into this company sauntered Siward, apparently no worse for wear. For as yet the Enemy had set upon him no proprietary insignia save a rather becoming pallor and faint bluish shadows under the eyes. He strolled about, exchanging amiable greetings, and presently selected a chilled grape fruit as his breakfast. Opposite him Mortimer, breakfasting upon his own dreadful bracer of an apple soaked in port, raised his heavy inflamed eyes with a significant leer at the iced grape fruit. For he was always ready to make room upon his own level for other men; but the wordless grin and the bloodshot welcome were calmly ignored, for as yet that freemasonry evoked no recognition from the pallid man opposite, whose hands were steady as though that morning's sun had wakened him from pleasant dreams.
"The most difficult shot in the world," Alderdene was explaining, "is an incoming pheasant, sailing on a slant before a gale."
"A woodcock in alders doing a jack-snipe twist is worse," grunted Mortimer, drenching another apple in port.
"Yes," said Miss Page tersely.
"Or a depraved ruffed cock-grouse in the short pines; isn't that the limit?" asked Mortimer of Siward.
But Siward only shrugged his comment and glanced out through the leaded casements into the brilliant September sunshine.
Outside he could see Major Belwether, pink skinned, snowy chop whiskers brushed rabbit fashion, very voluble with Sylvia Landis, who listened absently, head partly averted. Quarrier in tweeds and gaiters, his morning cigar delicately balanced in his gloved fingers, strolled near enough to be within ear-shot; and when Sylvia's inattention to Major Belwether's observations became marked to the verge of rudeness, he came forward and spoke. But whatever it was that he said appeared to change her passive inattention to quiet displeasure, for, as Siward rose from the table, he saw her turn on her heel and walk slowly toward a group of dogs presided over by some kennel men and gamekeepers.
She was talking to the head gamekeeper when he emerged from the house, but she saw him on the terrace and gave him a bright nod of greeting, so close to an invitation that he descended the stone steps and crossed the dew-wet lawn.
"I am asking Dawson to explain just exactly what a 'Shotover Drive' resembles," she said, turning to include Siward in an animated conference with the big, scraggy, head keeper. "You know, Mr. Siward, that it is a custom peculiar to Shotover House to open the season with what is called a Shotover Drive?"
"I heard Alderdene talking about it," he said, smilingly inspecting the girl's attire of khaki with its buttoned pockets, gun pads, and Cossack cartridge loops, and the tan knee-kilts hanging heavily pleated over gaiters and little thick-soled shoes. He had never cared very much to see women afield, for, in a rare case where there was no affectation, there was something else inborn that he found unpleasant—something lacking about a woman who could take life from frightened wild things, something shocking that a woman could look, unmoved, upon a twitching, blood-soiled heap of feathers at her feet.
Meanwhile Dawson, dog-whip at salute, stood knee deep among his restless setters, explaining the ceremony with which Mr. Ferrall ushered in the opening of each shooting season:
"It's our own idee, Miss Landis," he said proudly; "onc't a season Mr. Ferrall and his guests likes it for a mixed bag. 'Tis a sort of picnic, Miss; the guns is in pairs, sixty yards apart in line, an' the rules is, walk straight ahead, dogs to heel until first cover is reached; fire straight or to quarter, never blankin' nor wipin' no eyes; and ground game counts as feathers for the Shotover Cup."
"Oh! It's a skirmish line that walks straight ahead?" said Siward, nodding.
"Straight ahead, Sir. No stoppin', no turnin' for hedges, fences, water or rock. There is boats f'r deep water and fords marked and corduroy f'r to pass the Seven Dreens. Luncheon at one, Miss—an hour's rest—then straight on over hill, valley, rock, and river to the rondyvoo atop Osprey Ledge. You'll see the poles and the big nests, Sir. It's there they score for the cup, and there when the bag is counted, the traps are ready to carry you home again." ... And to Siward: "Will you draw for your lady, Sir? It is the custom."
"Are you my 'lady'?" he asked, turning to Sylvia.
"Do you want me?"
In the smiling lustre of her eyes the tiniest spark flashed out at him—a hint of defiance for somebody, perhaps for Major Belwether who had taken considerable pains to enlighten her as to Siward's condition the night before; perhaps also for Quarrier, who had naturally expected to act as her gun-bearer in emergencies. But the gaily veiled malice of the one had annoyed her, and the cold assumption of the other had irritated her, and she had, scarcely knowing why, turned her shoulder to both of these gentlemen with an indefinite idea of escaping a pressure, amounting almost to critical importunity.
"I'm probably a poor shot?" she said, looking smilingly, straight into Siward's eyes. "But if you'll take me—"
"I will with pleasure," he said; "Dawson, do we draw for position? Very well then"; and he drew a slip of paper from the box offered by the head keeper.
"Number seven!" said Sylvia, looking over his shoulder. "Come out to the starting line, Mr. Siward. All the positions are marked with golf-discs. What sort of ground have we ahead, Dawson?"
"Kind o' stiff, Miss," grinned the keeper. "Pity your gentleman ain't drawed the meadows an' Sachem Hill line. Will you choose your dog, Sir?"
"You have your dog, you know," observed Sylvia demurely. And Siward, glancing among the impatient setters, saw one white, heavily feathered dog, straining at his leash, and wagging frantically, brown eyes fixed on him.
The next moment Sagamore was free, devouring his master with caresses, the girl looking on in smiling silence; and presently, side by side, the man, the girl, and the dog were strolling off to the starting line where already people were gathering in groups, selecting dogs, fowling-pieces, comparing numbers, and discussing the merits of their respective lines of advance.
Ferrall, busily energetic, and in high spirits, greeted them gaily, pointing out the red disc bearing their number, seven, where it stood out distinctly above the distant scrub of the foreland.
"You two are certainly up against it!" he said, grinning. "There's only one rougher line, and you're in for thorns and water and a scramble across the back-bone of the divide!"
"Is it any good?" asked Siward.
"Good—if you've got the legs and Sylvia doesn't play baby—"
"I?" she said indignantly. "Kemp, you annoy me. And I will bet you now," she added, flushing, "that your old cup is ours."
"Wait," said Siward, laughing, "we may not shoot straight."
"You will! Kemp, I'll wager whatever you dare!"
"Gloves? Stockings?—against a cigarette case?" he suggested.
"Done," she said disdainfully, moving forward along the skirmish line with a nod and smile for the groups now disintegrating into couples, the Page boys with Eileen Shannon and Rena Bonnesdel, Marion Page followed by Alderdene, Mrs. Vendenning and Major Belwether and the Tassel girl convoyed by Leroy Mortimer. Farther along the line, taking post, she saw Quarrier and Miss Caithness, Captain Voucher with Mrs. Mortimer, and others too distant to recognise, moving across country with glitter and glint of sunlight on slanting gun barrels.
And now Ferrall was climbing into his saddle beside his pretty wife, who sat her horse like a boy, the white flag lifted high in the sunshine, watching the firing line until the last laggard was in position.
"All right, Grace!" said Ferrall briskly. Down went the white flag; the far-ranged line started into motion straight across country, dogs at heel.
From her saddle Mrs. Ferrall could see the advance, strung out far afield from the dark spots moving along the Fells boundary, to the two couples traversing the salt meadows to north. Crack! A distant report came faintly over the uplands against the wind.
"Voucher," observed Ferrall; "probably a snipe. Hark! he's struck them again, Grace."
Mrs. Ferrall, watching curiously, saw Siward's gun fly up as two big dark spots floated up from the marsh and went swinging over his head. Crack! Crack! Down sheered the black spots, tumbling earthward out of the sky.
"Duck," said Ferrall; "a double for Stephen. Lord Harry! how that man can shoot! Isn't it a pity that—"
He said no more; his pretty wife astride her thoroughbred sat silent, grey eyes fixed on the distant figures of Sylvia Landis and Siward, now shoulder deep in the reeds.
"Was it—very bad last night?" she asked in a low voice.
Ferrall shrugged. "He was not offensive; he walked steadily enough up-stairs. When I went into his room he lay on the bed as if he'd been struck by lightning. And yet—you see how he is this morning?"
"After a while," his wife said, "it is going to alter him some day—dreadfully—isn't it, Kemp?"
"You mean—like Mortimer?"
"Yes—only Leroy was always a pig."
As they turned their horses toward the high-road Mrs. Ferrall said: "Do you know why Sylvia isn't shooting with Howard?"
"No," replied her husband indifferently; "do you?"
"No." She looked out across the sunlit ocean, grave grey eyes brightening with suppressed mischief. "But I half suspect."
"Oh, all sorts of things, Kemp."
"What's one of 'em?" asked Ferrall, looking around at her; but his wife only laughed.
"You don't mean she's throwing her flies at Siward—now that you've hooked Quarrier for her! I thought she'd played him to the gaff—"
"Please don't be coarse, Kemp," said Mrs. Ferrall, sending her horse forward. Her husband spurred to her side, and without turning her head she continued: "Of course Sylvia won't be foolish. If they were only safely married; but Howard is such a pill—"
"What does Sylvia expect with Howard's millions? A man?"
Grace Ferrall drew bridle. "The curious thing is, Kemp, that she liked him."
"No, liked him. I saw how it was; she took his silences for intellectual meditation, his gallery, his library, his smatterings for expressions of a cultivated personality. Then she remembered how close she came to running off with that cashiered Englishman, and that scared her into clutching the substantial in the shape of Howard. ... Still, I wish I hadn't meddled."
"Oh, I told her to do it. We had talks until daylight. ... She may marry him—I don't know—but if you think any live woman could be contented with a muff like that!"
"Kemp, I'm not. She'd be mad not to marry him; but I don't know what I'd do to a man like that, if I were his wife. And you know what a terrific capacity for mischief there is in Sylvia. Some day she's going to love somebody. And it isn't likely to be Howard. And, oh, Kemp! I do grow so tired of that sort of thing. Do you suppose anybody will ever make decency a fashion?"
"You're doing your best," said Ferrall, laughing at his wife's pretty, boyish face turned back toward him over her shoulder; "you're presenting your cousin and his millions to a girl who can dress the part—"
"Don't, Kemp! I don't know why I meddled! ... I wish I hadn't—"
"I do. You can't let Howard alone! You're perfectly possessed to plague him when he's with you, and now you've arranged for another woman to keep it up for the rest of his lifetime. What does Sylvia want with a man who possesses the instincts and intellect of a coachman? She is asked everywhere, she has her own money. Why not let her alone? Or is it too late?"
"You mean let her make a fool of herself with Stephen Siward? That is where she is drifting."
"Do you think—"
"Yes, I do. She has a perfect genius for selecting the wrong man; and she's already sorry for this one. I'm sorry for Stephen, too; but it's safe for me to be."
"She might make something of him."
"You know perfectly well no woman ever did make anything of a doomed man. He'd kill her—I mean it, Kemp! He would literally kill her with grief. She isn't like Leila Mortimer; she isn't like most girls of her sort. You men think her a rather stunning, highly tempered, unreasonable young girl, with a reserve of sufficiently trained intelligence to marry the best our market offers—and close her eyes;—a thoroughbred with the caprices of one, but also with the grafted instinct for proper mating."
"Well, that's all right, isn't it?" asked Ferrall. "That's the way I size her up. Isn't it correct?"
"Yes, in a way. She has all the expensive training of the thoroughbred—and all the ignorance, too. She is cold-blooded because wholesome; a trifle sceptical because so absolutely unawakened. She never experienced a deep emotion. Impulses have intoxicated her once or twice—as when she asked my opinion about running off with Cavendish, and that boy and girl escapade with Rivington; nothing at all except high mettle, the innocent daring lurking in all thoroughbreds, and a great deal of very red blood racing through that superb young body. But," Ferrall reined in to listen, "but if ever a man awakens her—I don't care who he is—you'll see a girl you never knew, a brand-new creature emerge with the last rags and laces of conventionality dropping from her; a woman, Kemp, heiress to every generous impulse, every emotion, every vice, every virtue of all that brilliant race of hers."
"You seem to know," he said, amused and curious.
"I know. Major Belwether told me that he had thought of Howard as an anchor for her. It seemed a pity—Howard with all his cold, heavy negative inertia. ... I said I'd do it. I did. And now I don't know; I wish, almost wish I hadn't."
"What has changed your ideas?"
"I don't know. Howard is safer than Stephen Siward, already in the first clutches of his master-vice. Would you mate what she inherits from her mother and her mother's mother, with what is that poor boy's heritage from the Siwards?"
"After all," observed Ferrall dryly, "we're not in the angel-breeding business."
"We ought to be. Every decent person ought to be. If they were, inherited vice would be as rare in this country as smallpox!"
"People don't inherit smallpox, dear."
"Never mind! You know what I mean. In our stock farms and kennels, we weed out, destroy, exterminate hereditary weakness in everything. We pay the greatest attention to the production of all offspring except our own. Look at Stephen! How dared his parents bring him into the world? Look at Sylvia! And now, suppose they marry!"
"Dearest," said Ferrall, "my head is a whirl and my wits are spinning like five toy tops. Your theories are all right; but unless you and I are prepared to abandon several business enterprises and take to the lecture platform, I'm afraid people are going to be wicked enough to marry whom they like, and the human race will he run as usual with money the favourite, and love a case of 'also-ran.' ... By the way, how dared you marry me, knowing the sort of demon I am?"
The gathering frown on Mrs. Ferrall's brow faded; she raised her clear grey eyes and met her husband's gaze, gay, humourous, and with a hint of tenderness—enough to bring the colour into her pretty face.
"You know I'm right, Kemp."
"Always, dear. And now that we have the world off our hands for a few minutes, suppose we gallop?"
But she held her horse to a walk, riding forward, grave, thoughtful, preoccupied with a new problem, only part of which she had told her husband.
For that night she had been awakened in her bed to find standing beside her a white, wide-eyed figure, shivering, limbs a-chill beneath her clinging lace. She had taken the pallid visitor to her arms and warmed her and soothed her and whispered to her, murmuring the thousand little words and sounds, the breathing magic mothers use with children. And Sylvia lay there, chilled, nerveless, silent, ignorant why her sleeplessness had turned to restlessness, to loneliness, to an awakening perception of what she lacked and needed and began to desire. For that sad void, peopled at intervals through her brief years with a vague mother-phantom, had, in the new crisis of her career, become suddenly an empty desolation, frightening her with her own utter isolation. Fill it now she could not, now that she needed that ghost of child-comfort, that shadowy refuge, that sweet shape she had fashioned out of dreams to symbolise a mother she had never known.
Driven she knew not why, she had crept from her room in search of the still, warm, fragrant nest and the whispered reassurance and the caress she had never before endured. Yes, now she craved it, invited it, longed for safe arms around her, the hovering hand on her hair. Was this Sylvia?
And Grace Ferrall, clearing her sleepy eyes, amazed, incredulous of the cold, child-like hands upon her shoulders, caught her in her arms with a little laugh and sob and drew her to her breast, to soothe and caress and reassure, to make up to her all she could of what is every child's just heritage.
And for a long while Sylvia, lying there, told her nothing—because she did not know how—merely a word, a restless question half ashamed, barely enough to shadow forth the something stirring her toward an awakening in a new world, where with new eyes she might catch glimpses of those dim and splendidly misty visions that float through sunlit silences when a young girl dreams awake.
And at length, gravely, innocently, she spoke of her engagement, and the worldly possibilities before her; of the man she was to marry, and her new and unexpected sense of loneliness in his presence, now that she had seen him again after months.
She spoke, presently, of Siward—a fugitive question or two, offered indifferently at first, then with shy persistence and curiosity, knowing nothing of the senseless form flung face downward across the sheets in a room close by. And thereafter the murmured burden of the theme was Siward, until one, heavy eyed, turned from the white dawn silvering the windows, sighed, and fell asleep; and one lay silent, head half buried in its tangled gold, wide awake, thinking vague thoughts that had no ending, no beginning. And at last a rosy bar of light fell across the wall, and the warm shadows faded from corner and curtain; and, turning on the pillow, her face nestled in her hair, she fell asleep.
Nothing of this had Mrs. Ferrall told her husband.
For the first time in her life had Sylvia suffered the caresses most women invite or naturally lavish; for the first time had she attempted confidences, failing because she did not know how, but curiously contented with the older woman's arms around her.
There was a change in Sylvia, a great change stealing in upon her as she lay there, breathing like a child, flushed lips scarcely parted. Through the early slanting sunlight the elder woman, leaning on one arm, looked down at her, grey eyes very grave and tender—wise, sweet eyes that divined with their pure clairvoyance all that might happen or might fail to come to pass in this great change stealing over Sylvia.
Nothing of this could her husband understand had she words to convey it. There was nothing he need understand except that his wife, meaning well, had meddled and regretted.
And now, turning in her saddle with a pretty gesture of her shoulders:
"I meddle no more! Those who need me may come to me. Now laugh at my tardy wisdom, Kemp!"
"It's no laughing matter," he said, "if you're going to stand back and let this abandoned world spin itself madly to the bow-wows—"
"Don't be horrid. I repent. The mischief take Howard Quarrier!"
"Amen! Come on, Grace."
She gathered bridle. "Do you suppose Stephen Siward is going to make trouble?"
"How can he unless she helps him? Nonsense! All's well with Siward and Sylvia. Shall we gallop?"
All was very well with Siward and Sylvia. They had passed the rabbit-brier country scathless, with two black mallard, a jack-snipe, and a rabbit to the credit of their score, and were now advancing through that dimly lit enchanted land of tall grey alders where, in the sudden twilight of the leaves, woodcock after woodcock fluttered upward twittering, only to stop and drop, transformed at the vicious crack of Siward's gun to fluffy balls of feather whirling earthward from mid-air.
Sagamore came galloping back with a soft, unsoiled mass of chestnut and brown feathers in his mouth. Siward took the dead cock, passed it back to the keeper who followed them, patted the beautiful eager dog and signalled him forward once more.
"You should have fired that time," he said to Sylvia—"that is, if you care to kill anything."
"But I don't seem to be able to," she said. "It isn't a bit like shooting at clay targets. The twittering whirr takes me by surprise—it's all so charmingly sudden—and my heart seems to stop in one beat, and I look and look and then—whisk! the woodcock is gone, leaving me breathless—"
Her voice ceased; the white setter, cutting up his ground ahead, had stopped, rigid, one leg raised, jaws quivering and locking alternately.
"Isn't that a stunning picture!" said Siward in a low voice. "What a beauty he is—like a statue in white and blue-veined marble. You may talk, Miss Landis; woodcock don't flush at the sound of the human voice as grouse do."
"See his brown eyes roll back at us! He wonders why we don't do something!" whispered the girl. "Look, Mr. Siward! Now his head is moving—oh so gradually to the left!"
"The bird is moving on the ground," nodded Siward; "now the bird has stopped."
"I do wish I could see a woodcock on the ground," she breathed. "Do you think we might by any chance?"
Siward noiselessly sank to his knees and crouched, keen eyes minutely busy among the shadowy browns and greys of wet earth and withered leaf. And after a while, cautiously, he signalled the girl to kneel beside him, and stretched out one arm, forefinger extended.
"Sight straight along my arm," he said, "as though it were a rifle barrel."
Her soft cheek rested against his shoulder; a stray strand of shining hair brushing his face.
"Under that bunch of fern," he whispered; "just the colour of the dead leaves. Do you see? ... Don't you see that big woodcock squatted flat, bill pointed straight out and resting on the leaves?"
After a long while she saw, suddenly, and an exquisite little shock tightened her fingers on Siward's extended arm.
"Oh, the feathered miracle!" she whispered; "the wonder of its cleverness to hide like that! You look and look and stare, seeing it all the while and not knowing that you see it. Then in a flash it is there, motionless, a brown-shaped shadow among shadows. ... The dear little thing! ... Mr. Siward, do you think—are you going to—"
"No, I won't shoot it."
"Thank you. ... Might I sit here a moment to watch it?"
She seated herself soundlessly among the dead leaves; he sank into place beside her, laying his gun aside.
"Rather rough on the dog," he said with a grimace.
"I know. It is very good of you, Mr. Siward to do this for my pleasure. Oh—h! Do you see! Oh, the little beauty!"
The woodcock had risen, plumage puffed out, strutting with wings bowed and tail spread, facing the dog. The sudden pigmy defiance thrilled her. "Brave! Brave!" she exclaimed, enraptured; but at the sound of her voice the bird crouched like a flash, large dark liquid eyes shining, long bill pointed straight toward them.
"He'll fly the way his bill points," said Siward. "Watch!"
He rose; she sprang lightly to her feet; there came a whirring flutter, a twittering shower of sweet notes, soft wings beating almost in their very faces, a distant shadow against the sky, and the woodcock was gone.
Quieting the astounded dog, gun cradled in the hollow of his left arm, he turned to the girl beside him: "That sort of thing wins no cups," he said.
"It wins something else, Mr. Siward,—my very warm regard for you."
"There is no choice between that and the Shotover Cup," he admitted, considering her.
"I—do you mean it?"
"Of course I do, vigorously!"
"Then you are much nicer than I thought you. ... And after all, if the price of a cup is the life of that brave little bird, I had rather shoot clay pigeons. Now you will scorn me I suppose. Begin!"
"My ideal woman has never been a life-taker," he said coolly. "Once, when I was a boy, there was a girl—very lovely—my first sweetheart. I saw her at the traps once, just after she had killed her seventh pigeon straight, 'pulling it down' from overhead, you know—very clever—the little thing was breathing on the grass, and it made sounds—" He shrugged and walked on. "She killed her twenty-first bird straight; it was a handsome cup, too."
And after a silence, "So you didn't love her any more, Mr. Siward?"—mockingly sweet.
They laughed, and at the sound of laughter the tall-stemmed alders echoed with the rushing roar of a cock-grouse thundering skyward. Crack! Crack! Whirling over and over through a cloud of floating feathers, a heavy weight struck the springy earth. There lay the big mottled bird, splendid silky ruffs spread, dead eyes closing, a single tiny crimson bead twinkling like a ruby on the gaping beak.
"Dead!" said Siward to the dog who had dropped to shot; "Fetch!" And, signalling the boy behind, he relieved the dog of his burden and tossed the dead weight of ruffled plumage toward him. Then he broke his gun, and, as the empty shells flew rattling backward, slipped in fresh cartridges, locked the barrels, and walked forward, the flush of excitement still staining his sunburnt face.
"You deal death mercifully," said the girl in a low voice. "I wonder what your ci-devant sweetheart would think of you."
"A bungler had better stick to the traps," he assented, ignoring the badinage.
"I am wondering," she said thoughtfully, "what I think of men who kill."
He turned sharply, hesitated, shrugged. "Wild things' lives are brief at best—fox or flying-tick, wet nests or mink, owl, hawk, weasel or man. But the death man deals is the most merciful. Besides," he added, laughing, "ours is not a case of sweethearts."
"My argument is purely in the abstract, Mr. Siward. I am asking you whether the death men deal is more justifiable than a woman's gift of death?"
"Oh, well, life-taking, the giving of life—there can be only one answer to the mystery; and I don't know it," he replied smiling.
"Tell me then," he said, still amused.
They had passed swale after swale of silver birches waist deep in perfumed fern and brake; the big timber lay before them. She moved forward, light gun swung easily across her leather-padded shoulder; and on the wood's sunny edge she seated herself, straight young back against a giant pine, gun balanced across her flattened knees.
"You are feeling the pace a little," he said, coming up and standing in front of her.
"The pace? No, Mr. Siward."
"Are you a trifle—bored?" She considered him in silence, then leaned back luxuriously, rounded arms raised, wrists crossed to pillow her head.
"This is charmingly new to me," she said simply.
"What? Not the open?"
"No; I have camped and done the usual roughing it with only three guides apiece and the champagne inadequately chilled. I have endured that sort of hardship several times, Mr. Siward. ... What is that furry hunch up there in that tall thin tree?"
"A raccoon," he said presently. "Can you see the foxy head peeping so slyly down at us? Look at Sagamore nosing the air in that droll blind mole-like way. He knows there's something furry up aloft somewhere; and he knows it's none of his business."
They watched the motionless ball of fur in the crotch of a slim forest elm. Presently it uncurled, cautiously; a fluffy ringed tail unfolded; the rounded furry back humped up, and the animal, moving slowly into the tangent foliage of an enormous oak, vanished amid bronzing leafy depths.
In the silence the birds began to reappear. A jay screamed somewhere deep in the yellowing woods; black-capped chickadees dropped from twig to twig, cheeping inquiringly.
She sat listening, bright head pillowed in her arms, idly attentive to his low running comment on beast and bird and tree, on forest stillness and forest sounds, on life and the wild laws of life and death governing the great out-world 'twixt sky and earth. Sunlight and shadows moving, speech and silence, waxed and waned. A listless contentment lay warm upon her, weighting the heavy white lids. The blue of her eyes was very dark now—almost purple like the colour of the sea when the wind-flaws turn the blue to violet.
"Did you ever hear of the 'Lesser Children'?" she asked. "Listen then:
"'Multitudes, multitudes, under the moon they stirred! The weakerbrothers of our earthly breed; All came about my head and at my feet A thousand thousand sweet, With starry eyes not even raised to plead: Bewildered, driven, hiding, fluttering, mute! And I beheld and saw them one by one Pass, and become as nothing in the night.'
"Do you know what it means?
"'Winged mysteries of song that from the sky Once dashed long music down—'
"Do you understand?" she asked, smiling.
"'Who has not seen in the high gulf of light What, lower, was a bird!'"
She ceased, and, raising her eyes to his: "Do you know that plea for mercy on the lesser children who die all day to-day because the season opens for your pleasure, Mr. Siward?"
"Is it a woodland sermon?" he inquired, too politely.
"The poem? No; it is the case for the prosecution. The prisoner may defend himself if he can."
"The defence rests," he said. "The prisoner moves that he be discharged."
"Motion denied," she interrupted promptly.
Somewhere in the woodland world the crows were holding a noisy session, and she told him that was the jury debating the degree of his guilt.
"Because you're guilty of course," she continued. "I wonder what your sentence is to be?"
"I'll leave it to you," he suggested lazily.
"Suppose I sentenced you to slay no more?"
"Oh, I'd appeal—"
"No use; I am the tribunal of last resort."
"Then I throw myself upon the mercy of the court."
"You do well, Mr. Siward. This court is very merciful. ... How much do you care for bird murder? Very much? Is there anything you care for more? Yes? And could this court grant it to you in compensation?"
He said, deliberately, roused by the level challenge of her gaze: "The court is incompetent to compensate the prisoner or offer any compromise."
"Why, Mr. Siward?"
"Because the court herself is already compromised in her future engagements."
"But what has my—engagement to do with—"
"You offered compensation for depriving me of my shooting. There could be only one adequate compensation."
"And that?" she asked, coolly enough.
"Your continual companionship."
"But you have it, Mr. Siward—"
"I have it for a day. The season lasts three months you know."
"And you and I are to play a continuous vaudeville for three months? Is that your offer?"
"Then one day with me is not worth those many days of murder?" she asked in pretended astonishment.
"Ask yourself why those many days would be doubly empty," he said so seriously that the pointless game began to confuse her.
"Then"—she turned lightly from uncertain ground—"then perhaps we had better be about that matter of the cup you prize so highly. Are you ready, Mr. Siward? There is much to be killed yet—including time, you know."
But the hinted sweetness of the challenge had aroused him, and he made no motion to rise. Nor did she.
"I am not sure," he reflected, "just exactly what I should ask of you if you insist on taking away—" he turned and looked about him through the burnt gold foliage, "—if you took away all this out of my life."
"I shall not take it; because I have nothing in exchange to offer ... you say," she answered imprudently.
"I did not say so," he retorted.
"You did—reminding me that the court is already engaged for a continuous performance."
"Was it necessary to remind you?" he asked with deliberate malice.
She flushed up, vexed, silent, then looked directly at him with beautiful hostile eyes. "What do you mean, Mr. Siward? Are you taking our harmless, idle badinage as warrant for an intimacy unwarranted?"
"Have I offended?" he asked, so impassively that a flash of resentment brought her to her feet, angry and self-possessed.
"How far have we to go?" she asked quietly.
He rose to his feet, turned, hailing the keeper, repeating the question. And at the answer they both started forward, the dog ranging ahead through a dense growth of beech and chestnut, over a high brown ridge, then down, always down along a leafy ravine to the water's edge—a forest pond set in the gorgeous foliage of ripening maples.
"I don't see," said Sylvia impatiently, "how we are going to obey instructions and go straight ahead. There must be a stupid boat somewhere!"
But the game-laden keeper shook his head, pulled up his hip boots, and pointed out a line of alder poles set in the water to mark a crossing.
"Am I expected to wade?" asked the girl anxiously.
"This here," observed the keeper, "is one of the most sportin' courses on the estate. Last season I seen Miss Page go through it like a scared deer—the young lady, sir, that took last season's cup"—in explanation to Siward, who stood doubtfully at the water's edge, looking back at Sylvia.
Raising her dismayed eyes she encountered his; there was a little laugh between them. She stepped daintily across the stones to the water's edge, instinctively gathering her kilts in one hand.
"Miles and I could chair you over," suggested Siward.
"Is that fair—under the rules?"
"Oh, yes, Miss; as long as you go straight," said the keeper.
So they laid aside the guns and the guide's game-sack, and formed a chair with their hands, and, bearing the girl between them, they waded out along the driven alder stakes, knee-deep in brown water.
Before them herons rose into heavy flapping flight, broad wings glittering in the sun; a diver, distantly afloat among the lily pads, settled under the water to his eyes as a submarine settles till the conning-tower is awash.
Her arm, lightly resting around his neck, tightened a trifle as the water rose to his thighs; then the faint pressure relaxed as they thrashed shoreward through the shallows, ankle deep once more, and landed among the dry reeds on the farther bank.
Miles, the keeper, went back for the guns. Siward stamped about in the sun, shaking the drops from water-proof breeches and gaiters, only to be half drenched again when Sagamore shook himself vigorously.
"I suppose," said Sylvia, looking sideways at Siward, "your contempt for my sporting accomplishments has not decreased. I'm sorry; I don't like to walk in wet shoes ... even to gain your approval."
And, as the keeper came splashing across the shallows: "Miles, you may carry my gun. I shall not need it any longer—"
The upward roar of a bevey of grouse drowned her voice; poor Sagamore, pointing madly in the blackberry thicket all unperceived, cast a dismayed glance aloft where the sunlit air quivered under the winnowing rush of heavy wings. Siward flung up his gun, heading a big quartering bird; steadily the glittering barrels swept in the arc of fire, hesitated, wavered; then the possibility passed; the young fellow lowered the gun, slowly, gravely; stood a moment motionless with bent head until the rising colour in his face had faded.
And that was all, for a while. The astonished and disgusted keeper stared into the thicket; the dog lay quivering, impatient for signal. Sylvia's heart, which had seemed to stop with her voice, silenced in the gusty thunder of heavy wings, began beating too fast. For the ringing crack of a gun shot could have spoken no louder to her than the glittering silence of the suspended barrels; nor any promise of his voice sound as the startled stillness sounded now about her. For he had made something a trifle more than mere amends for his rudeness. He was overdoing everything—a little.
He stood on the thicket's edge, absently unloading the weapon, scarcely understanding what he had done and what he had not done.
A moment later a far hail sounded across the uplands, and against the sky figures moved distantly.
"Alderdene and Marion Page," said Siward. "I believe we lunch yonder, do we not, Miles?"
They climbed the hill in silence, arriving after a few minutes to find others already at luncheon—the Page boys, eager, enthusiastic, recounting adventure by flood and field; Rena Bonnesdel tired and frankly bored and decorated with more than her share of mud; Eileen Shannon, very pretty, very effective, having done more execution with her eyes than with the dainty fowling-piece beside her.
Marion Page nodded to Sylvia and Siward with a crisp, business-like question or two, then went over to inspect their bag, nodding approbation as Miles laid the game on the grass.
"Eight full brace," she commented. "We have five, and an odd cock-pheasant—from Black Fells, I suppose. The people to our left have been blazing away like Coney Island, but Rena's guide says the ferns are full of rabbits that way, and Major Belwether can't hit fur afoot. You," she added frankly to Siward, "ought to take the cup. The birches ahead of you are full of woodcock. If you don't, Howard Quarrier will. He's into a flight of jack-snipe I hear."
Siward's eyes had suddenly narrowed; then he laughed, patting Sagamore's cheeks. "I don't believe I shall shoot very steadily this afternoon," he said, turning toward the group at luncheon under the trees. "I wish Quarrier well—with the cup."
"Nonsense," said Marion Page curtly; "you are the cleanest shot I ever knew." And she raised her glass to him, frankly, and emptied it with the precision characteristic of her: "Your cup! With all my heart!"
"I also drink to your success, Mr. Siward," said Sylvia in a low voice, lifting her champagne glass in the sunlight. "To the Shotover Cup—if you wish it." And as other glasses sparkled aloft amid a gay tumult of voices wishing him success, Sylvia dropped her voice, attuning it to his ear alone: "Success for the cup, if you wish it—or, whatever you wish—success!" and she meant it very kindly.
His hand resting on his glass he sat, smiling silent acknowledgment to the noisy generous toasts; he turned and looked at Sylvia when her low voice caught his ear—looked at her very steadily, unsmiling.
Then to the others, brightening again, he said a word or two, wittily, with a gay compliment well placed and a phrase to end it in good taste. And, in the little gust of hand-clapping and laughter, he turned again to Sylvia, smilingly, saying under his breath: "As though winning the cup could compensate me now for losing it!"
She leaned involuntarily nearer: "You mean that you will not try for it?"
"That is not fair—to me!"
"Because—because I do not ask it of you."
"You need not, now that I know your wish."
"Mr. Siward, I—my wish—"
But she had no chance to finish; already Rena Bonnesdel was looking at them, and there was a hint of amused surprise in Eileen Shannon's mischievous eyes, averted instantly, with malicious ostentation.
Then Marion Page took possession of him so exclusively, so calmly, that something in her cool certainty vaguely irritated Sylvia, who had never liked her. Besides, the girl showed too plainly her indifference to other people; which other people seldom find amusing.
"Stephen," called out Alderdene, anxiously counting the web loops in his khaki vest, "what do you call fair shooting at these damnable ruffed grouse? You needn't be civil about it, you know."
"Five shells to a bird is good shooting," answered Siward. "Don't you think so, Miss Page?"
"You have a better score, Mr. Siward," said Marion Page with a hostile glance at Alderdene, who had not made good.
"That was chance—and this year's birds. I've taken ten shells to an old drummer in hard wood or short pines." He smiled to himself, adding: "A drove of six in the open got off scot free a little while ago. Miss Landis saw it."
That he was inclined to turn it all to banter relieved her at once. "It was pitiable," she nodded gravely to Marion; "his nerve left him when they made such a din in the briers."
Miss Page glanced at her indifferently.
"What I need is practice like the chasseurs of Tarascon," admitted Siward.
"I willingly offer my hat, monsieur," said Sylvia.
Marion Page, impatient to start, had turned her tailor-made back to the company, and was instructing his crestfallen lordship very plainly: "You fire too quickly, Blinky; two seconds is what you must count when a grouse flushes. You must say 'Mark! Right!' or 'Mark! Left! Bang!'"
"I might as well say 'Bang!' for all I've done to-day," he muttered, adjusting his shooting-goggles and snapping his eyes like fury. Then exploding into raucous laughter he moved off southward with Marion Page, who had exchanged a swift handshake with Siward; the twins followed, convoying Eileen and Rena, neither maiden excitedly enthusiastic. And so the luncheon party, lord and lady, twins and maidens, guides and dogs, trailed away across the ridge, distant silhouettes presently against the sky, then gone. And after a little while the far, dry, accentless report of smokeless powder announced that the opening of the season had been resumed and the Lesser Children were dying fast in the glory of a perfect day.
"Are you ready, Mr. Siward?" She stood waiting for him at the edge of the thicket; Miles resumed his game sack and her fowling-piece; the dog came up, looking him anxiously in the eyes.
So he walked forward beside her into the dappled light of the thicket.
Within a few minutes the dog stood twice; and twice the whirring twitter of woodcock startled her, echoed by the futile crack of his gun.
"Beg pardon, sir—"
"Yes, Miles," with a glint of humour.
"Overshot, sir,—excusin' the liberty, Mr. Siward. Both marked down forty yard to the left if you wish to start 'em again."
"No," he said indifferently, "I had my chance at them. They're exempt."
Then Sagamore, tail wildly whipping, came smack on the trail of an old stager of a cock-grouse—on, on over rock, log, wet gully, and dry ridge, twisting, doubling, circling, every wile, every trick employed and met, until the dog crawling noiselessly forward, trembled and froze, and Siward, far to left, wheeled at the muffled and almost noiseless rise. For an instant the slanting barrels wavered, grew motionless; but only a stray sunbeam glinting struck a flash of cold fire from the muzzle, only the feathery whirring whisper broke the silence of suspense. Then far away over sunny tree tops a big grouse sailed up, rocketing into the sky on slanted wings, breasting the height of green; dipped, glided downward with bowed wings stiffened, and was engulfed in the misty barriers of purpling woods.
"Vale!" said Siward aloud, "I salute you!"
He came strolling back across the crisp leaves, the dappled sunshine playing over his face like the flicker of a smile.
"Miles," he said, "my nerve is gone. Such things happen. I'm all in. Come over here, my friend, and look at the sun with me."
The discomfited keeper obeyed.
"Where ought that refulgent luminary to scintilate when I face Osprey Ledge?"
"The sun. How do I hold it?"
"On the p'int of your right shoulder, sir.—You ain't quittin', Mr. Siward, sir!" anxiously; "that Shotover Cup is easy yours, sir!" eagerly; "Wot's a miss on a old drummer, Mr. Siward? Wot's twice over-shootin' cock, sir, when a blind dropper can see you are the cleanest, fastest, hard-shootin' shot in the null county!"
But Siward shook his head with an absent glance at the dog, and motioned the astonished keeper forward.
"Line the easiest trail for us," he said; "I think we are already a trifle tired. Twigs will do in short cover; use a hatchet in the big timber. ... And go slow till we join you."
And when the unwilling and perplexed keeper had started, Siward, unlocking his gun, drew out the smooth yellow cartridges and pocketed them.
Sylvia looked up as the sharp metallic click of the locked breech rang out in the silence.
"Why do you do this, Mr. Siward?"
"I don't know; really I am honest; I don't know."
"It could not be because I—"
"No, of course not," he said, too seriously to reassure her.
"Mr. Siward," in quick displeasure.
"What you do for your amusements cannot concern me."
"Right as usual," he said so gaily that a reluctant smile trembled on her lips.
"Then why have you done this? It is unreasonable—if you don't feel as I do about killing things that are having a good time in the world."
He stood silent, absently looking at the fowling-piece cradled in his left arm. "Shall we sit here a moment and talk it over?" he suggested listlessly.
Her blue gaze swept him; his vague smile was indifferently bland.
"If you are determined not to shoot, we might as well start for Osprey Ledge," she suggested; "otherwise, what reason is there for our being here together, Mr. Siward?"
Awaiting his comment—perhaps expecting a counter-proposition—she leaned against the tree beside which he stood. And after a while, as his absent-minded preoccupation continued:
"Do you think the leaves are dry enough to sit on?"
He slipped off his shooting-coat and placed it at the base of the tree. She waited for a second, uncertain how to meet an attitude which seemed to take for granted matters which might, if discussed, give her at least the privilege of yielding. However, to discuss a triviality meant forcing emphasis where none was necessary. She seated herself; and, as he continued to remain standing, she stripped off her shooting-gloves and glanced up at him inquiringly: "Well, Mr. Siward, I am literally at your feet."
"Which redresses the balance a little," he said, finding a place near her.
"That is very nice of you. Can I always count on you for civil platitudes when I stir you out of your day-dreams?"
"You can always count on stirring me without effort."
"No, I can't. Nobody can. You are never to be counted on; you are too absent-minded. Like a veil you wrap yourself in a brown study, leaving everybody outside to consider the pointed flattery of your withdrawal. What happens to you when you are inside that magic veil? Do you change into anything interesting?"
He sat there, chin propped on his linked fingers, elbows on knees; and, though there was always the hint of a smile in his pleasant eyes, always the indefinable charm of breeding in voice and attitude, something now was lacking. And after a moment she concluded that it was his attention. Certainly his wits were wool-gathering again; his eyes, edged with the shadow of a smile, saw far beyond her, far beyond the sunlit shadows where they sat.
In his preoccupation she had found him negatively attractive. She glanced at him now from time to time, her eyes returning always to the beauty of the subdued light where all about them silver-stemmed birches clustered like slim shining pillars, crowned with their autumn canopy of crumpled gold.
"Enchantment!" she said under her breath. "Surely an enchanted sleeper lies here somewhere."
"You," he observed, "unawakened."
"Asleep? I?" She looked around at him. "You are the dreamer here. Your eyes are full of dreaming even now. What is your desire?"
He leaned on one arm, watching her; she had dropped her ungloved hand, searching among the newly fallen gold of the birch leaves drifted into heaps. On the third finger a jewel glittered; he saw it, conscious of its meaning—but his eyes followed the hand idly heaping up autumn gold, a white slim hand, smoothly fascinating. Then the little, restless hand swept near to his, almost touching it; and then instinctively he took it in his own, curiously, lifting it a little to consider its nearer loveliness. Perhaps it was the unexpectedness of it, perhaps it was sheer amazement that left her hand lying idly relaxed like a white petalled blossom in his. His bearing, too, was so blankly impersonal that for a moment the whole thing appeared inconsequent. Then, as her hand lay there, scarcely imprisoned, their eyes encountered,—and hers, intensely blue now, considered him without emotion, studied him impersonally without purpose, incuriously acquiescent, indifferently expectant.
After a little while the consciousness of the contact disconcerted her; she withdrew her fingers with an involuntary shiver.
"Is there no chance?" he asked.
Perplexed with her own emotion, the meaning of his low-voiced question at first escaped her; then, like its own echo, came ringing back in her ears, re-echoed again as he repeated it:
"Is there no chance for me, Miss Landis?"
The very revulsion of self-possession returning chilled her; then anger came, quick and hot; then pride. She deliberated, choosing her words coolly enough: "What chance do you mean, Mr. Siward?"
"A fighting chance. Can you give it to me?"
"A fighting chance? For what?"—very low, very dangerous.
Then, in spite of her, her senses became unsteady; a sudden ringing confusion seemed to deafen her, through which his voice, as if very far away, sounded again:
"Men who are worth a fighting chance ask for it sometimes—but take it always. I take it."
Her pallor faded under the flood of bright colour; the blue of her eyes darkened ominously to velvet.
"Mr. Siward," she said, very distinctly and slowly, "I am not—even—sorry—for you."
"Then my chance is desperate indeed," he retorted coolly.
"Chance! Do you imagine—" Her anger choked her.
"Are you not a little hard?" he said, paling under his tan. "I supposed women dismissed men more gently—even such a man as I am."
For a full minute she strove to comprehend.
"Such a man as you!" she repeated vaguely; "you mean—" a crimson wave dyed her skin to the temples and she leaned toward him in horror-stricken contrition; "I didn't mean that, Mr. Siward! I—I never thought of that! It had no weight, it was not in my thoughts. I meant only that you had assumed what is unwarranted—that you—your question humiliated me, knowing that I am engaged—knowing me so little—so—"
"Yes, I knew everything. Ask yourself why I risk everything to say this to you? There can be only one answer."
Then after a long silence: "Have I ever—" she began tremblingly—"ever by word or look—"
"Have I even—"
"No. I've simply discovered how I feel. That's what I was dreaming about when you asked me. I was afraid I might do this too soon; but I meant to do it anyway before it became too late."
"It was too late from the very moment we met, Mr. Siward." And, as he reddened painfully again, she added quickly: "I mean that I had already decided. Why will you take what I say so dreadfully different from the way I intend it? Listen to me. I—I believe I am not very experienced yet; I was a—astonished—quite stunned for a moment. Then it hurt me—and I said that I was not sorry for you ... I am sorry, now."
And, as he said nothing: "You were a little rough, a little sudden with me, Mr. Siward. Men have asked me that question—several times; but never so soon, so unreasonably soon—never without some preliminary of some sort, so that I could foresee, be more or less prepared. ... But you gave me no warning. I—if you had, I would have known how to be gentle. I—I wish to be now. I like you—enough to say this to you, enough to be seriously sorry; if I could bring myself to really believe this—feeling—"
Still he said nothing; he sat there listlessly studying the sun spots glowing, waxing, waning on the carpet of dead leaves at his feet.
"As for—what you have said," she added, a little smile curving the sensitive mouth, "it is impulsive, unconsidered, a trifle boyish, Mr. Siward. I pay myself the compliment of your sincerity; it is rather nice to be a girl who can awaken the romance in a man within a day or two's acquaintance. ... And that is all it is—a romantic impulse with a pretty girl. You see I am frank; I am really glad that you find me attractive. Tell me so, if you wish. We shall not misunderstand each other again. Shall we?"
He raised his head, considering her, forcing the smile to meet her own.
"We shall be better friends than ever," she asserted confidently.
"Yes, better than ever."
"Because what you have done means the nicest sort of friendship, you see. You can't escape its duties and responsibilities now, Mr. Siward. I shall expect you to spend the greater part of your life in devotedly doing things for me. Besides, I am now privileged to worry you with advice. Oh, you have invested me with all sorts of powers now!"
She sprang to her feet, flushed, smiling, a trifle excited.
"Is it all over, and are we the very ideals of friends?" she asked.
"The very ideals."
"You are nice!" she said impulsively, holding out both gloveless hands. He held them, she looking at him very sweetly, very confidently.
"Allons! Without malice?" she asked.
"And—you are content?" persuasively.
"Of course not," he said.
"Oh, but you must be."
"I must be," he repeated obediently.
"And you are! Say it!"
"But it does not make me unhappy not to be contented—"
"Say it, please; or—do you desire me to be unhappy?"
Her small, smooth hands lying between his, they stood confronting one another in the golden light. She might easily have brought the matter to an end; and why she did not, she knew no more than a kitten waking to consciousness under its first caress.
"Say it," she repeated, laughing uncertainly back into his smiling eyes of a boy.
"That you are contented."
"Mr. Siward, it is unkind, it is shameless—"
"I know it; I am that sort."
"Then I am sorry for you. Look at that!" turning her left hand in his so that the jewel on the third finger caught the light.
"I see it."
"That," she observed with composure, "is sheer obstinacy. ... Isn't it?"
"It is what I said it was: a hopeful discontent."
"How can it be?" impatiently now, for the long, unaccustomed contact was unnerving her—yet she made no motion to withdraw her hands. "How can you really care for me? Do you actually believe that—devotion—comes like that?"
"Exactly like that."
"So suddenly? It is impossible!" with a twist of her pretty shoulders.
"How did it come—to you?" he asked between his teeth.
Then her face grew scarlet and her eyes grew dark, and her hands contracted in his—tightened, twisted fingers entangled, until, with a little sob, she swayed toward him and he caught her. An instant, a minute—more, perhaps, she did not know—she half lay in his arms, her untaught lips cold against his. Lassitude, faint consciousness, then tiny shock on shock came the burning revulsion; and her voice came back, too, sounding strangely to her, a colourless, monotonous voice.
He had freed her; she remembered that somebody had asked him to—perhaps herself. That was well; she needed to breathe, to summon strength and common-sense, find out what had been done, what reasonless madness she had committed in the half-light of the silver-stemmed trees clustering in shameful witness on every hand.
Suddenly the hot humiliation of it overwhelmed her, and she covered her face with her hands, standing, almost swaying, as wave on wave of incredulous shame seemed to sweep her from knee to brow. That phase passed after a while; out of it she emerged, flushed, outwardly composed, into another phase, in full self-possession once more, able to understand what had happened without the disproportion of emotional exaggeration. After all, she had only been kissed. Besides she was a novice, which probably accounted, in a measure, for the unreasonable emotion coincident with a caress to which she was unaccustomed. Without looking up at him she found herself saying coolly enough to surprise herself: "I never supposed I was capable of that. It appears that I am. I haven't anything to say for myself ... except that I feel fearfully humiliated. ... Don't say anything now ... I do not blame you, truly I do not. It was contemptible of me—to do it—wearing this—" she stretched out her slender left hand, not looking at him; "it was contemptible!" ... She slowly raised her eyes, summoning all her courage to face him.
But he only saw in the pink confusion of her lovely face the dawning challenge of a coquette saluting her adversary in gay acknowledgment of his fleeting moment of success. And as his face fell, then hardened into brightness, instantly she divined how he rated her, and in a flash realized her weapons and her security, and that the control of the situation was hers, not in the control of this irresolute young man who stood so silently considering her. Strange that she should be ashamed of her own innocence, willing that he believe her accomplished in such arts, enchanted that he no longer perhaps suspected genuine emotion in the swift, confused sweetness of her first kiss. If only all that were truly hidden from him, if he dare not in his heart convict her of anything save perfection in a gay, imprudent role, what a weight lifted, what relief, what hot self-contempt cooled! What vengeance, too, she would take on him for the agony of her awakening—the dazed chagrin, the dread of his wise, amused eyes—eyes that she feared had often looked upon such scenes; eyes no doubt familiar with such unimportant details as the shamed demeanour of a novice.
"Why do you take it so seriously?" she said, laughing and studying him, certain now of herself in this new disguise.
"Do you take it lightly?" he asked, striving to smile.
"I? Ah, I must, you know. You don't expect to marry me ... do you, Mr. Siward?"
"I—" He choked up at that, grimly for a while.
Walking slowly forward together she fell into step frankly beside him, near him—too near. "Try to be sensible," she was saying gaily; "I like you so much—and it would be horrid to have you mope, you know. And besides, even if I cared for you, there are reasons, you know—reasons for any girl to marry the man I am going to marry. Does my cynicism shock you? What am I to do?" with a shrug. "Such marriages are reasonable, and far likelier to be agreeable than when fancy is the sole motive—certainly far more agreeable than an ill-considered yielding to abstract emotion with nothing concrete in view. ... So, you see, I could not marry you even if I—" her voice was inclined to tremble, but she controlled it. Would she never learn her role? "even if I loved you—"
Then her tongue stumbled and was silent; and they walked on, side by side, through the fading splendour of the year, exchanging no further speech.
Toward sunset their guide hailed them, standing high among the rocks, a silhouette against the sky. And beyond him they saw the poles crowned with the huge nests of the fish-hawks, marking the last rendezvous at Osprey Ledge.
She turned to him as they started up the last incline, thanking him in a sweet, natural voice for his care of her—quite innocently—until in the questioning, unconvinced gaze that met hers she found her own eyes softening and growing dim; and she looked away suddenly, lest he read her ere she had dared turn the first page in the book of self—ere she had studied, pried, probed among the pages of a new chapter whose familiar title, so long meaningless to her, had taken on a sudden troubling significance. And for the first time in her life she glanced uneasily at the new page in the book of self, numbered according to her years with the figures 23, and headed with the unconvincing chapter title, "Love."
CHAPTER V A WINNING LOSER
The week passed swiftly, day after day echoing with the steady fusillade from marsh to covert, from valley to ridge. Guns flashed at dawn and dusk along the flat tidal reaches haunted of black mallard and teal; the smokeless powder cracked through alder swamp and tangled windfall where the brown grouse burst away into noisy blundering flight; where the woodcock, wilder now, shrilled skyward like feathered rockets, and the big northern hares, not yet flecked with snowy patches of fur, loped off into swamps to the sad undoing of several of the younger setters.
There was a pheasant drive at Black Fells to which the Ferralls' guests were bidden by Beverly Plank—a curious scene, where ladies and gentlemen stood on a lawn, backed by an army of loaders and gun-bearers, while another improvised army of beaters drove some thousands of frightened, bewildered, homeless foreign pheasants at the guns. And the miserable aliens that escaped the guns were left to perish in the desolation of a coming winter which they were unfitted to withstand.
So the first week of the season sped gaily, ending on Saturday with a heavy flight of northern woodcock and an uproarious fusillade among the silver birches.
Once Ferrall loaded two motor cars with pioneers for a day beyond his own boundaries; and one day was spent ingloriously with the beagles; but otherwise the Shotover estate proved more than sufficient for good bags or target practice, as the skill of the sportsmen developed.
Lord Alderdene, good enough on snipe and cock, was driven almost frantic by the ruffed grouse; Voucher did better for a day or two, and then lost the knack; Marion Page attended to business in her cool and thorough style, and her average on the gun-room books was excellent, and was also adorned with clever pen-and-ink sketches by Siward.
Leroy Mortimer had given up shooting and established himself as a haunter of cushions in sunny corners. Tom O'Hara had gone back to Lenox; Mrs. Vendenning to Hot Springs. Beverly Plank, master of Black Fells, began to pervade the house after a tentative appearance; and he and Major Belwether pottered about the coverts, usually after luncheon—the latter doing little damage with his fowling-piece, and nobody knew how much with his gossiping tongue. Quarrier appeared in the field methodically, shot with judgment, taking no chances for a brilliant performance which might endanger his respectable average. As for the Page boys, they kept the river ducks stirring whenever Eileen Shannon and Rena Bonnesdel could be persuaded to share the canoes with them. Otherwise they haunted the vicinity of those bored maidens, suffering snubs sorrowfully, but persistently faithful. They were a great nuisance in the evening, especially as their sister did not permit them to lose more than ten dollars a day at cards.
Cards—that is Bridge and Preference—ruled as usual; and the latter game being faster suited Mortimer and Ferrall, but did not aid Siward toward recouping his Bridge losses.
Noticing this, late in the week, Major Belwether kindly suggested Klondyke for Siward's benefit, which proved more quickly disastrous to him than anything yet proposed; and he went back to Bridge, preferring rather to "carry" Agatha Caithness at intervals than crumble into bankruptcy under the sheer deadly hazard of Klondyke.
Two matters occupied him; since "cup day" he had never had another opportunity to see Sylvia Landis alone; that was the first matter. He had touched neither wine nor spirits nor malt since the night Ferrall had found him prone, sprawling in a stupor on his disordered bed. That was the second matter, and it occupied him, at times required all his attention, particularly when the physical desire for it set in, steadily, mercilessly, mounting inexorably like a tide. ... But, like the tide, it ebbed at last, particularly when a sleepless night had exhausted him.
He had gone back to his shooting again after a cool review of the ethics involved. It even amused him to think that the whimsical sermon delivered him by a girl who had cleverness enough to marry many millions, with Quarrier thrown in, could have so moved him to sentimentality. He had ceded the big cup of antique silver to Quarrier, too—a matter which troubled him little, however, as in the irritation of the reaction he had been shooting with the brilliancy of a demon; and the gun-room books were open to any doubting guests' inspection.
Time, therefore, was never heavy on his hands, save when the tide threatened—when at night he stirred and awoke, conscious of its crawling advance, aware of its steady mounting menace. Moments at table, when the aroma of wine made him catch his breath, moments in the gun-room redolent of spicy spirits; a maddening volatile fragrance clinging to the card-room, too! Yes, the long days were filled with such moments for him.
But afield the desire faded; and even during the day, indoors, he shrugged desire aside. It was night that he dreaded—the long hours, lying there tense, stark-eyed, sickened with desire.
As for Sylvia, she and Grace Ferrall had taken to motoring, driving away into the interior or taking long flights north and south along the coast. Sometimes they took Quarrier, sometimes, when Mrs. Ferrall drove, they took in ballast in the shape of a superfluous Page boy and a girl for him. Once Grace Ferrall asked Siward to join them; but no definite time being set, he was scarcely surprised to find them gone when he returned from a morning on the snipe meadows. And Sylvia, leagues away by that time, curled up in the tonneau beside Grace Ferrall, watched the dark pines flying past, cheeks pink, eyes like stars, while the rushing wind drove health into her and care out of her—cleansing, purifying, overwhelming winds flowing through and through her, till her very soul within her seemed shining through the beauty of her eyes. Besides, she had just confessed.
"He kissed you!" repeated Grace Ferrall incredulously.
"Yes—a number of times. He was silly enough to do it, and I let him."
"Did—did he say—"
"I don't know what he said; I was all nerves—confused—scared—a perfect stick in fact! ... I don't believe he'd care to try again."
Then Mrs. Ferrall deliberately settled down in her furs to extract from the girl beside her every essential detail; and the girl, frank at first, grew shy and silent—reticent enough to worry her friend into a silence which lasted a long while for a cheerful little matron of her sort.
Presently they spoke of other matters—matters interesting to pretty women with much to do in the coming winter between New York, Hot Springs, and Florida; surmises as to dinners, dances, and the newcomers in the younger sets, and the marriages to be arranged or disarranged, and the scandals humanity is heir to, and the attitude of the bishop toward divorce.
And the new pavillion to be built for Saint Berold's Hospital, and the various states of the various charities each was interested in, and the chances of something new at the opera, and the impossibility of saving Fifth Avenue from truck traffic, and the increasing importance of Washington as a social centre, and the bad manners of a foreign ambassador, and the better manners of another diplomat, and the lack of discrimination betrayed by our ambassador to a certain great Power in choosing people for presentation at court, and the latest unhappy British-American marriage, and the hopelessness of the French as decent husbands, and the recent accident to the Claymores' big yacht, and the tendency of well-born young men toward politics, and the anything but distinguished person of Lord Alderdene, which was, however, vastly superior to the demeanour and person of others of his rank recently imported, and the beauty of Miss Caithness, and the chance that Captain Voucher had if Leila Mortimer would let him alone, and the absurdity of the Page twins, and the furtive coarseness of Leroy Mortimer and his general badness, and the sadness of Leila Mortimer's lot when she had always been in love with other people,—and a little scandalous surmise concerning Tom O'Hara, and the new house on Seventy-ninth Street building for Mrs. Vendenning, and that charming widow's success at last year's horse show—and whether the fashion of the function was reviving, and whether Beverly Plank had completely broken into the social sets he had besieged so long, or whether a few of the hunting and shooting people merely permitted him to drive pheasants for them, and why Katharyn Tassel made eyes at him, having sufficient money of her own to die unwed, and—and—and then, at last, as the big motor car swung in a circle at Wenniston Cross-Roads, and poked its brass and lacquer muzzle toward Shotover, the talk swung back to Siward once more—having travelled half the world over to find him.
"He is the sweetest fellow with his mother," sighed Grace; "and that counts heavily with me. But there's trouble ahead for her—sorrow and trouble enough for them both, if he is a true Siward."
"Heredity again!" said Sylvia impatiently. "Isn't he man enough to win out? I'll bet you he settles down, marries, and—"
"Marries? Not he! How many girls do you suppose have believed that—were justified in believing he meant anything by his attractive manner and nice ways of telling you how much he liked you? He had a desperate affair with Mrs. Mortimer—innocent enough I fancy. He's had a dozen within three years; and in a week Rena Bonnesdel has come to making eyes at him, and Eileen gives him no end of chances which he doesn't see. As for Marion Page, the girl had been on the edge of loving him for years! You laugh? But you are wrong; she is in love with him now as much as she ever can be with anybody."
"Yes I do. Hadn't you suspected it?"
And as Sylvia had suspected it she remained silent.
"If any woman in this world could keep him to the mark, she could," continued Mrs. Ferrall. "He's a perfect fool not to see how she cares for him."
Sylvia said: "He is indeed."
"It would be a sensible match, if she cared to risk it, and if he would only ask her. But he won't."
"Perhaps," ventured Sylvia, "she'll ask him. She strikes me as that sort. I do not mean it unkindly—only Marion is so tailor-made and cigaretteful—"
Mrs. Ferrall looked up at her.
"Did he propose to you?"
"Yes—I think so."
"Then it's the first time for him. He finds women only too willing to play with him as a rule, and he doesn't have to be definite. I wonder what he meant by being so definite with you?"
"I suppose he meant marriage," said Sylvia serenely; yet there was the slightest ring in her voice; and it amused Mrs. Ferrall to try her a little further.
"Oh, you think he really intended to commit himself?"
"Why not?" retorted Sylvia, turning red. "Do you think he found me over-willing, as you say he finds others?"
"You were probably a new sensation for him," inferred Mrs. Ferrall musingly. "You mustn't take him seriously, child—a man with his record. Besides, he has the same facility with a girl that he has with everything else he tries; his pen—you know how infernally clever he is; and he can make good verse, and write witty jingles, and he can carry home with him any opera and play it decently, too, with the proper harmonies. Anything he finds amusing he is clever with—dogs, horses, pen, brush, music, women"—that was too malicious, for Sylvia had flushed up painfully, and Grace Ferrall dropped her gloved hand on the hand of the girl beside her: "Child, child," she said, "he is not that sort; no decent man ever is unless the girl is too."
Sylvia, sitting up very straight in her furs, said: "He found me anything but difficult—if that's what you mean."
"I don't. Please don't be vexed, dear. I plague everybody when I see an opening. There's really only one thing that worries me about it all."
"What is that?" asked Sylvia without interest.
"It's that you might be tempted to care a little for him, which, being useless, might be unwise."
"I am ... tempted."
"I don't know." She turned in a sudden nervous impatience foreign to her. "Howard Quarrier is too perfectly imperfect for me. I'm glad I've said it. The things he knows about and doesn't know have been a revelation in this last week with him. There is too much surface, too much exterior admirably fashioned. And inside is all clock-work. I've said it; I'm glad I have. He seemed different at Newport; he seemed nice at Lenox. The truth is, he's a horrid disappointment—and I'm bored to death at my brilliant prospects."
The low whizzing hum of the motor filled a silence that produced considerable effect upon Grace Ferrall. And, after mastering her wits, she said in a subdued voice:
"Of course it's my meddling."
"Of course it isn't. I asked your opinion, but I knew what I was going to do. Only, I did think him personally possible—which made the expediency, the mercenary view of it easier to contemplate."
She was becoming as frankly brutal as she knew how to be, which made the revolt the more ominous.
"You don't think you could endure him for an hour or two a day, Sylvia?"
"It is not that," said the girl almost sullenly.
"I'm afraid of myself—call it inherited mischief if you like! If I let a man do to me what Mr. Siward did when I was only engaged to Howard, what might I do—"
"You are not that sort!" said Mrs. Ferrall bluntly. "Don't be exotic, Sylvia."
"How do you know—if I don't know? Most girls are kissed; I—well I didn't expect to be. But I was! I tell you, Grace, I don't know what I am or shall be. I'm unsafe; I know that much."
"It's moral and honest to realize it," said Mrs. Ferrall suavely; "and in doing so you insure your own safety. Sylvia dear, I wish I hadn't meddled; I'm meddling some more I suppose when I say to you, don't give Howard his conge for the present. It is a horridly common thing to dwell upon, but Howard is too materially important to be cut adrift on the impulse of the moment."
"I know it."
"You are too clever not to. Consider the matter wisely, dispassionately, intelligently, dear; then if by April you simply can't stand it—talk the thing over with me again," she ended rather vaguely and wistfully; for it had been her heart's desire to wed Sylvia's beauty and Quarrier's fortune, and the suitability of the one for the other was apparent enough to make even sterner moralists wobbly in their creed. Quarrier, as a detail of modern human architecture, she supposed might fit in somewhere, and took that for granted in laying the corner stone for her fairy palace which Sylvia was to inhabit. And now!—oh, vexation!—the neglected but essentially constructive detail of human architecture had buckled, knocking the dream palace and its princess and its splendour about her ears.
"Things never happen in real life," she observed plaintively; "only romances have plots where things work out. But we people in real life, we just go on and on in a badly constructed, plotless sort of way with no villains, no interesting situations, no climaxes, no ensemble. No, we grow old and irritable and meaner and meaner; we lose our good looks and digestions, and we die in hopeless discord with the unity required in a dollar and a half novel by a master of modern fiction."
"But some among us amass fortunes," suggested Sylvia, laughing.
"But we don't live happy ever after. Nobody ever had enough money in real life."
"Some fall in love," observed Sylvia, musing.
"And they are not content, silly!"
"Why? Because nobody ever had enough love in real life," mocked Sylvia.
"You have said it, child. That is the malady of the world, and nobody knows it until some pretty ninny like you babbles the truth. And that is why we care for those immortals in romance, those fortunate lovers who, in fable, are given and give enough of love; those magic shapes in verse and tale whose hearts are satisfied when the mad author of their being inks his last period and goes to dinner."
Sylvia laughed awhile, then, chin on wrist, sat musing there, muffled in her furs.
"As for love, I think I should be moderate in the asking, in the giving. A little—to flavour routine—would be sufficient for me I fancy."
"You know so much about it," observed Mrs. Ferrall ironically.
"I am permitted to speculate, am I not?"
"Certainly. Only speculate in sound investments, dear."
"How can you make a sound investment in love? Isn't it always sheerest speculation?"
"Yes, that is why simple matrimony is usually a safer speculation than love."
"Yes, but—love isn't matrimony."
"Match that with its complementary platitude and you have the essence of modern fiction," observed Mrs. Ferrall. "Love is a subject talked to death, which explains the present shortage in the market I suppose. You're not in love and you don't miss it. Why cultivate an artificial taste for it? If it ever comes naturally, you'll be astonished at your capacity for it, and the constant deterioration in quantity and quality of the visible supply. Goodness! my epigrams make me yawn—or is it age and the ill humour of the aged when the porridge spills over on the family cat?"
"I am the cat, I suppose," asked Sylvia, laughing.
"Yes you are—and you go tearing away, back up, fur on end, leaving me by the fire with no porridge and only the aroma of the singeing fur to comfort me. ... Still there's one thing to comfort me."
"Kitty-cats come back, dear."
"Oh, I suppose so. ... Do you believe I could induce him to wear his hair any way except pompadour? ... and, dear, his beard is so dreadfully silky. Isn't there anything he could take for it?"
"Only a razor I'm afraid. Those long, thick, soft, eyelashes of his are ominous. Eyes of that sort ruin a man for my taste. He might just as reasonably wear my hat."
"But he can't follow the fashions in eyes," laughed Sylvia. "Oh, this is atrocious of us—it is simply horrible to sit here and say such things. I am cold-blooded enough as it is—material enough, mean, covetous, contemptible—"
"Dear!" said Grace Ferrall mildly, "you are not choosing a husband; you are choosing a career. To criticise his investments might be bad taste; to be able to extract what amusement you can out of Howard is a direct mercy from Heaven. Otherwise you'd go mad, you know."
"Grace! Do you wish me to marry him?"
"What is the alternative, dear?"
"Why, nothing—self-respect, dowdiness, and peace."
"Is that all?"
"All I can see."
"Not Stephen Siward?"
"To marry? No. To enjoy, yes. ... Grace, I have had such a good time with him; you don't know! He is such a boy—sometimes; and I—I believe that I am rather good for him. ... Not that I'd ever again let him do that sort of thing. ... Besides, his curiosity is quenched; I am the sort he supposed. Now he's found out he will be nice. ... It's been days since I've had a talk with him. He tried to, but I wouldn't. Besides, the major has said nasty things about him when Howard was present; nothing definite, only hints, smiling silences, innuendoes on the verge of matters rather unfit; and I had nothing definite to refute. I could not even appear to understand or notice—it was all done in such a horridly vague way. But it only made me like him; and no doubt that actress he took to the Patroons is better company than he finds in nine places out of ten among his own sort."
"Oh," said Grace Ferrall slowly, "if that is the way you feel, I don't see why you shouldn't play with Mr. Siward whenever you like."
"Nor I. I've been a perfect fool not to. ... Howard hates him."
"How do you know?"
"What a question! A woman knows such things. Then, you remember that caricature—so dreadfully like Howard? Howard has no sense of humour; he detests such things. It was the most dreadful thing that Mr. Siward could have done to him."
"Meddled again!" groaned Grace. "Doesn't Howard know that I did that?"
"Yes, but nothing I can say alters his conviction that the likeness was intended. You know it was a likeness! And if Mr. Siward had not told me that it was not intended, I should never have believed it to be an accident."
After a prolonged silence Sylvia said, overcarelessly: "I don't quite understand Howard. With me anger lasts but a moment, and then I'm open to overtures for peace ... I think Howard's anger lasts."
"It does," said Grace. "He was a muff as a boy—a prig with a prig's memory under all his shallow, showy surface. I'm frank with you; I never could take my cousin either respectfully or seriously, but I've known him to take his own anger so seriously that years after he has visited it upon those who had really wronged him. And he is equipped for retaliation if he chooses. That fortune of his reaches far. ... Not that I think him capable of using such a power to satisfy a mere personal dislike. Howard has principles, loads of them. But—the weapon is there."
"Is it true that Mr. Siward is interested in building electric roads?" asked Sylvia curiously.
"I don't know, child. Why?"
"Nothing. I wondered."
"Mr. Mortimer said so."
"Then I suppose he is. I'll ask Kemp if you like. Why? Isn't it all right to build them?"
"I suppose so. Howard is in it somehow. In fact Howard's company is behind Mr. Siward's, I believe."
Grace Ferrall turned and looked at the girl beside her, laughing outright.
"Oh, Howard doesn't do mysterious financial things to nice young men because they draw impudent pictures of him running after his dog—or for any other reason. That, dear, is one of those skilfully developed portions of an artistic plot; and plots exist only in romance. So do villains; and besides, my cousin isn't one. Besides that, if Howard is in that thing, no doubt Kemp and I are too. So your nice young man is in very safe company."
"You draw such silly inferences," said Sylvia coolly; but there was a good deal of colour in her cheeks; and she knew it and pulled her big motor veil across her face, fastening it under her chin. All of which amused Grace Ferrall infinitely until the subtler significance of the girl's mental processes struck her, sobering her own thoughts. Sylvia, too, had grown serious in her preoccupation; and the partie-a-deux terminated a few minutes later in a duet of silence over the tea-cups in the gun-room.
The weather had turned warm and misty; one of those sudden sea-coast changes had greyed the blue in the sky, spreading a fine haze over land and water, effacing the crisp sparkle of the sea, dulling the westering sun.
A few moments later Sylvia, glancing over her shoulder, noticed that a fine misty drizzle had clouded the casements. That meant that her usual evening stroll on the cliffs with Quarrier, before dressing for dinner, was off. And she drew a little breath of unconscious relief as Marion Page walked in, her light woollen shooting-jacket, her hat, shoes, and the barrels of the fowling-piece tucked under her left arm-pit, all glimmering frostily with powdered rain drops.