Chapter XVIII. The Lady Charlotte
 

The night of the pinto's sale was a night momentous to Gwen, for then it was that the Lady Charlotte's interest in her began. Momentous, too, to the Lady Charlotte, for it was that night that brought The Pilot into her life.

I had turned back to the fire around which the men had fallen into groups prepared to have an hour's solid delight, for the scene was full of wild and picturesque beauty to me, when The Duke came and touched me on the shoulder.

"Lady Charlotte would like to see you."

"And why, pray?"

"She wants to hear about this affair of Bill's."

We went through the kitchen into the large dining-room, at one end of which was a stone chimney and fireplace. Lady Charlotte had declared that she did not much care what kind of a house the Hon. Fred would build for her, but that she must have a fireplace.

She was very beautiful--tall, slight and graceful in every line. There was a reserve and a grand air in her bearing that put people in awe of her. This awe I shared; but as I entered the room she welcomed me with such kindly grace that I felt quite at ease in a moment.

"Come and sit by me," she said, drawing an armchair into the circle about the fire. "I want you to tell us all about a great many things."

"You see what you're in for, Connor," said her husband. "It is a serious business when my lady takes one in hand."

"As he knows to his cost," she said, smiling and shaking her head at her husband.

"So I can testify," put in The Duke.

"Ah! I can't do anything with you," she replied, turning to him.

"Your most abject slave," he replied with a profound bow.

"If you only were," smiling at him--a little sadly, I thought--"I'd keep you out of all sorts of mischief."

"Quite true, Duke," said her husband, "just look at me."

The Duke gazed at him a moment or two. "Wonderful!" he murmured, "what a deliverance!"

"Nonsense!" broke in Lady Charlotte. "You are turning my mind away from my purpose."

"Is it possible, do you think?" said The Duke to her husband.

"Not in the very least," he replied, "if my experience goes for anything."

But Lady Charlotte turned her back upon them and said to me:

"Now, tell me first about Bill's encounter with that funny little Scotchman."

Then I told her the story of Bill's bluff in my best style, imitating, as I have some small skill in doing, the manner and speech of the various actors in the scene. She was greatly amused and interested.

"And Bill has really got his share ready," she cried. "It is very clever of him."

"Yes," I replied, "but Bill is only the very humble instrument, the moving spirit is behind."

"Oh, yes, you mean the little girl that owns the pony," she said. "That's another thing you must tell me about."

"The Duke knows more than I," I replied, shifting the burden to him; "my acquaintance is only of yesterday; his is lifelong."

"Why have you never told me of her?" she demanded, turning to the Duke.

"Haven't I told you of the little Meredith girl? Surely I have," said The Duke, hesitatingly.

"Now, you know quite well you have not, and that means you are deeply interested. Oh, I know you well," she said, severely.

"He is the most secretive man," she went on to me, "shamefully and ungratefully reserved."

The Duke smiled; then said, lazily: "Why, she's just a child. Why should you be interested in her? No one was," he added sadly, "till misfortune distinguished her."

Her eyes grew soft, and her gay manner changed, and she said to The Duke gently: "Tell me of her now."

It was evidently an effort, but he began his story of Gwen from the time he saw her first, years ago, playing in and out of her father's rambling shack, shy and wild as a young fox. As he went on with his tale, his voice dropped into a low, musical tone, and he seemed as if dreaming aloud. Unconsciously he put into the tale much of himself, revealing how great an influence the little child had had upon him, and how empty of love his life had been in this lonely land. Lady Charlotte listened with face intent upon him, and even her bluff husband was conscious that something more than usual was happening. He had never heard The Duke break through his proud reserve before.

But when The Duke told the story of Gwen's awful fall, which he did with great graphic power, a little red spot burned upon the Lady Charlotte's pale cheek, and, as The Duke finished his tale with the words, "It was her last ride," she covered her face with her hands and cried:

"Oh, Duke, it is horrible to think of! But what splendid courage!"

"Great stuff! eh, Duke?" cried the Hon. Fred, kicking a burning log vigorously.

But The Duke made no reply.

"How is she now, Duke?" said Lady Charlotte. The Duke looked up as from a dream. "Bright as the morning," he said. Then, in reply to Lady Charlotte's look of wonder, he added:

"The Pilot did it. Connor will tell you. I don't understand it."

"Nor do I, either. But I can tell you only what I saw and heard," I answered.

"Tell me," said Lady Charlotte very gently.

Then I told her how, one by one, we had failed to help her, and how The Pilot had ridden up that morning through the canyon, and how he had brought the first light and peace to her by his marvellous pictures of the flowers and ferns and trees and all the wonderful mysteries of that wonderful canyon.

"But that wasn't all," said the Duke quickly, as I stopped.

"No," I said slowly, "that was not all by a long way; but the rest I don't understand. That's The Pilot's secret."

"Tell me what he did," said Lady Charlotte, softly, once more. "I want to know."

"I don't think I can," I replied. "He simply read out of the Scriptures to her and talked."

Lady Charlotte looked disappointed.

"Is that all?" she said.

"It is quite enough for Gwen," said The Duke confidently, "for there she lies, often suffering, always longing for the hills and the free air, but with her face radiant as the flowers of the beloved canyon."

"I must see her," said Lady Charlotte, "and that wonderful Pilot."

"You'll be disappointed in him," said The Duke.

"Oh, I've see him and heard him, but I don't know him," she replied. "There must be something in him that one does not see at first."

"So I have discovered," said The Duke, and with that the subject was dropped, but not before the Lady Charlotte made me promise to take her to Gwen, The Duke being strangely unwilling to do this for her.

"You'll be disappointed," he said. "She is only a simple little child."

But Lady Charlotte thought differently, and, having made up her mind upon the matter, there was nothing for it, as her husband said, but "for all hands to surrender and the sooner the better."

And so the Lady Charlotte had her way, which, as it turned out, was much the wisest and best.