Chapter V. Richard Pricks His Fingers
 

Hoofbeats on the driveway outside the window! Beside the window stood the desk at which Richard was accustomed to work at Judge Gray's dictation. And at the desk on this most alluring of all alluring Indian-summer days in middle November sat a young man with every drop of blood in his vigorous body shouting to him to drop his work and rush out, demanding: "Take me with you!"

For there, walking their horses along the driveway from the distant stables, were three figures on horseback. There was one with sunny hair--Ruth--her brown habit the colour of the pretty mare she rode; one with russet-gaitered legs astride of the little Arabian pony called Sheik--Ted; one, all in dark, beautifully tailored green, with a soft gray hat pulled over masses of dusky hair, her face--Richard could see her face now as the horses drew nearer--all gay and eager for the ride--Roberta.

Judge Gray, his glance following his companion's, looked out also. He rose and came and stood behind Richard at the window and tapped upon the pane, waving his hand as the riders looked up. Instantly all three faces lighted with happy recognition and acknowledgment. Ruth waved and nodded. Ted pulled off his cap and swung it. Roberta gave a quick military salute, her gray-gauntleted hand at her hat brim.

Richard smiled with the Judge at the charming sight, and sighed with the next breath. What a fool he had been to tie himself down to this desk when other people were riding into the country! Yet--if he hadn't been tied to that desk he would neither have known nor cared who rode out from the old Gray stables, or where they went.

The Judge caught the slight escaping breath and smiled again as the riders passed out of sight. "It makes you wish for the open country, doesn't it?" said he. "I don't blame you. I should have gone with the young folks myself if I had been ten years younger. It is a fine day, isn't it? I've been so absorbed I hadn't observed. Suppose we stop work at three and let ourselves out into God's outdoors? Not a bad idea, eh?"

"Not bad," agreed Richard with a leap of spirits, "if it pleases you, sir. I'm ready to work till the usual time if you prefer."

"Well spoken. But I don't prefer. I shall enjoy a stroll down the avenue myself in this sunshine. What sunshine--for November!"

It was barely three when the Judge released his assistant, two hours after the riding party had left. As he opened the front door and ran to his waiting car, Richard was wondering how many miles away they were and in what direction they had gone. He wanted nothing so much as to meet them somewhere on the road--better yet, to overtake and come upon them unawares.

A powerful car driven by a determined and quick-witted young man may scour considerable country while three horses, trotting in company, are covering but a few short miles. Richard was sure of one thing: whichever road appealed to the young Grays as most picturesque and secluded on this wonderful Indian-summer afternoon would be their choice. Not the main highways of travel, but some enticing by-way. Where would that be? He decided on a certain course, with a curious feeling that he could follow wherever Roberta led, by the invisible trail of her radiant personality. He would see! Mile after mile--he took them swiftly, speeding out past the West Wood marshes with assurance of the fact that this was certainly one of the favourite ways.

Twelve miles out he came to a fork in the road. Which trail? One led up a steep hill, the other down into the river valley, soft-veiled in the late sunshine. Which trail? He could seem to see Roberta choosing the hill and putting her horse up it, while Ruth called out that the valley road was better. With a sense of exhilaration he sent the car up the hill, remembering that from the top was a broad view sure to be worth while on a day like this. Besides, up here he might be able to see far ahead and discern the party somewhere in the distance.

Just over the brow he came upon them where they had camped by the roadside. It was a road quite off the line of travel and they were a hundred feet back among a clump of pine trees, their horses tied to the fence-rail. A bonfire sent up a pungent smoke half veiling the figures. But the car had come roaring up the hill, and they were all looking his way. Two of the horses had plunged a little at the sudden noise, and Ted ran forward. Richard stopped his engine, triumphant, his pulses quickening with a bound.

"Oh, hullo!" cried Ted in joyful excitement. "Where'd you come from, Mr. Kendrick? Isn't this luck!"

"This is certainly luck," responded Richard, doffing his hat as the figures by the fire moved his way, the one in brown coming quickly, the one in green rather more slowly. "Your uncle released me at three and I rushed for the open. What a day!"

"Isn't it wonderful?" Ruth came up to the brown mare, which was eying the big car with some resentment. She patted the velvet nose as she spoke. "Don't you mind, Bess," she reproached the mare. "It's nothing but a puffing, noisy car. It's not half so nice as you."

She smiled up at Richard and he smiled back. "I rather think you're right," he admitted. "I used to think myself there was nothing like a good horse. I'd like to exchange the car for one just now; I'm sure of that."

"It wouldn't buy any one of ours." Roberta, coming up, glanced from the big machine to the trio of interested animals, all of which were keeping watchful eyes on the intruder. "Nonsense, Colonel,--stand still!"

"I don't want to buy one of yours; I want one of my own, to ride back with you--if you'd let me."

"Anyhow, you can stop and have a bite with us," said Ted, with a sudden thought. "Can't he, Rob?"

Roberta smiled. "If he is as hungry as he looks."

"Do I look hungry?"

"Starving. So do we, no doubt. Come and have some sandwiches."

"We're going to toast them," explained Ruth, walking back to the fire with Richard when he had leaped with alacrity over the fence, his hat left behind, his brown head shining in the sun, his face happier than any of his fellow-clubmen had seen it in a year, as they would have been quick to notice if any of them had come upon him now. "We have ginger ale, too; do you like ginger ale?"

"Immensely!" Richard eyed the preparations with interest. "How do you toast your sandwiches?"

"On forks of wood; Ted's going to cut them."

"Please let me." And the guest fell to work. He found a keen enjoyment in preparing these implements, and afterward in the process of toasting, which was done every-one-for-himself, with varying degrees of success. The sandwiches were filled with a rich cheese mixture, and the result of toasting them was a toothsome morsel most gratifying to the hungry palate.

"One more?" urged Ruth, offering Richard the nearly empty box which had contained a good supply.

"Thank you--no; I've had seven," he refused, laughing. "Nothing ever tasted quite so good. And I'm an interloper."

"Here's to the interloper!" Ruth raised her glass and drank the last of her ginger ale. "We always provide for one. Usually it's a small boy."

"More often a pair of them. And always there are Bess, Colonel, and Sheik." Roberta rose to her feet, the last three sandwiches in hand, and walked away to the horses tied to the fence-rail.

Richard's eyes followed her. In the austere lines of her riding-habit he could see more clearly than he had yet done what a superb young image of health and energy she was.

"Rob adores horses," Ruth remarked, looking after her sister also. "You ought to see her ride cross-country. My Bess can't jump, but her Colonel can. I don't believe there's anything in sight Rob and Colonel couldn't jump. But I can never get used to seeing her; I have to shut my eyes when Colonel rises, and I don't open them till I hear him land. But he's never fallen with her, and she says he never will."

"He won't."

"Why not? Any horse might, you know, if he slipped on wet ground or something."

"He never will with her on his back. He's more likely to jump so high he'll never come down."

Ruth laughed. "Look at Colonel rub his nose against her, now he's had the sandwich. Don't you wish you had a picture of them?"

"Indeed I do!" The tone was fervent. Then a thought struck him and he jumped to his feet. "By all luck, I believe there's a little camera in the car. If there is we'll have it."

He ran to the fence, took a flying leap over, and fell to searching. In a moment he produced something which he waved at Ruth. She and Ted went to meet him as he returned. Roberta, busy with the horses, had not seen.

"There are only two exposures left on the film, but they'll do, if she'll be good. Will she mind if I snap her, or must I ask her permission?"

"I think you'd better ask it," counselled Ruth doubtfully. "If it were one of us she wouldn't mind--"

"I see." He set the little instrument with a skilled touch and rapidly, then walked toward Roberta and the horses. He aimed it with care, then he called: "You won't mind if I take a picture of the horses, will you?"

Roberta turned quickly, her hand on Colonel's snuggling nose. "Not at all," she answered, and took a quick step to one side. But before she had taken it the sharp-eyed little lens of the camera had caught her, her attitude at the instant one of action, the expression of her face that of vivacious response. She flew out of range and before she could speak the camera clicked again, this time the lens so obviously pointed at the animals, and not at herself, that the intent of the operator could not be called in question.

She looked at him with indignant suspicion, but his glance in return was innocent, though his eyes sparkled.

"They'll make the prettiest kind of a picture, won't they?" he observed, sliding the small black box back into its case. "I wish I had another film; I'd take a lot of pictures about this place. I mean always to be loaded, but November isn't usually the time for photographs, and I'd forgotten all about it."

"If you find you have a picture of me on one of those shots I can trust you not to keep it?"

"I may have caught you on that first shot. I'll bring it to you to see. If your hat is tilted too much or you don't like your own expression--"

"I shall not like it, whatever it is. You stole it. That wasn't fair--and when you had just been treated to sandwiches and ginger ale!"

He looked into her brilliant face and could not tell what he saw there. He opened the camera box again and took out the instrument. He removed the roll of films carefully from its position, sealed it, and held it out to her. His manner was the perfection of courtesy.

"There are other pictures on the roll, I suppose?" she said doubtfully, without accepting it.

"Certainly. I forget what they are. But it doesn't matter."

"Of course it matters. Have them developed--and give me back my own."

"If I develop them I shall be obliged to see yours--if you are on it. If I once see it I may not have the force of character to give it back. Your only safe course is to take it now."

Ted burst into the affair with a derisive shout. "Oh, Rob! What a silly to care about that little bit of a picture! Let him have it. It was only the horses he wanted anyway!"

The two pairs of eyes met. His were full of deference, yet compelling. Hers brimmed with restrained laughter. With a gesture she waved back the roll and walked away toward the fire.

"Thank you," said he behind her. "I'll try to prove myself worthy of the trust."

"Rufus! Dare you to run down the hill to that big tree with me!" Ted, no longer interested in this tame conclusion of what had promised to be an exciting encounter, challenged his sister. Ruth accepted, and the pair were off down a long, inviting slope none too smooth, with a stiff stubble, but not the less attractive for that.

Richard and Roberta were left standing at the top of the hill near the place where the fire was smouldering into dulness. Before them stretched the valley, brown and yellow and dark green in the November sunlight, with a gray-blue river winding its still length along. In the far distance a blue-and-purple haze enveloped the hills; above all stretched a sky upon whose fairness wisps of clouds were beginning to show here and there, while in the south the outlines of a rising bank of gray gave warning that those who gazed might look their fill to-day--to-morrow there would be neither sunlight nor purple haze. The two looked in silence for a minute, not at the boy and girl shouting below, but at the beauty in the peaceful landscape.

"An Indian-summer day," said Roberta gravely, as if her mood had changed with the moment, "is like the last look at something one is not sure one shall ever see again."

At the words Richard's gaze shifted from the hill to the face of the girl beside him. The sunshine was full upon the rich bloom of her cheek, upon the exquisite line of her dark eyebrow. What was the beauty of an Indian-summer landscape compared with the beauty of budding summer in that face? But he answered her in the same quiet way in which she had spoken: "Yes, it's hard to have faith that winter can sweep over all this and not blot it out forever. But it won't."

"No, it won't. And after all I like the storms. I should like to stand just here, some day when Nature was simply raging, and watch. I wish I could build a stout little cabin right on this spot and come up here and spend the worst night of the winter in it. I'd love it."

"I believe you would. But not alone? You'd want company?"

"I don't think I'd even mind being alone--if I had a good fire for company--and a dog. I should be glad of a dog," she owned.

"But not one good comrade, one who liked the same sort of thing?"

"So few people really do. It would have to be somebody who wouldn't talk when I wanted to listen to the wind, or wouldn't mind my not talking--and yet who wouldn't mind my talking either, if I took a sudden notion." She began to laugh at her own fancy, with the low, rich note which delighted his ear afresh every time he heard it. "Comrades who are tolerant of one's every mood are not common, are they? Mr. Kendrick, what do you suppose those dots of bright scarlet are, halfway down the hill? They must be rose haws, mustn't they? Nothing else could have that colour in November."

"I don't know what 'rose haws' are. Do you want them--whatever they are? I'll go and get them for you."

"I'll go, too, to see if they're worth picking. They're thorny things; you won't like them, but I do."

"You think I don't like thorny things?" he asked her as they went down the hillside, up which Ted and Ruth were now struggling. It was steep and he held out his hand to her, but she ignored it and went on with sure, light feet.

"No, I think you like them soft and rounded."

"And you prefer them prickly?"

"Prickly enough to be interesting."

They reached the scraggly rosebush, bare except for the bright red haws, their smooth hard surfaces shining in the sun. Richard got out his knife, and by dint of scratching his hands in a dozen places, succeeded in gathering quite a cluster. Then he went to work at getting rid of the thorns.

"You may like things prickly, but you'll be willing to spare a few of these," he observed.

He succeeded in time in pruning the cluster into subordination, bound them with a tough bit of dried weed which he found at his feet, and held out the bunch. "Will you do me the honour of wearing them?"

She thrust the smooth stems into the breast of her riding-coat, where they gave the last picturesque touch to her attire. "Thank you," she acknowledged somewhat tardily. "I can do no less after seeing you scarify yourself in my service. You might have put on your gloves."

"I might--and suffered your scarifying mirth, which would have been much worse. 'He jests at scars that never felt a wound,' but he who jests at them after he has felt them is the hero. Observe that I still jest." He put his lips to a bleeding tear on his wrist as he spoke. "My only regret is that the rose haws were not where they are now when I photographed the horses. Only, mine is not a colour camera. I must get one and have it with me when I drive, in case of emergencies like this one."

A whimsical expression touching his lips, he gazed off over the landscape as he spoke, and she glanced at his profile. She was obliged to admit to herself that she had seldom noted one of better lines. Curiously enough, to her observation there did not lack a suggestion of ruggedness about his face, in spite of the soft and easy life she understood him to have led.

Ted and Ruth now came panting up to them, and the four climbed together to the hilltop.

Roberta turned and scanned the sun. Immediately she decreed that it was time to be off, reminding her protesting young brother that the November dusk falls early and that it would be dark before they were at home.

Richard put both sisters into their saddles with the ease of an old horseman. "I've often regretted selling a certain black beauty named Desperado," he remarked as he did so, "but never more than at this minute. My motor there strikes me as disgustingly overadequate to-day. I can't keep you company by any speed adjustment in my control, and if I could your steeds wouldn't stand it. I'll let you start down before me and stay here for a bit. It's too pleasant a place to leave. And even then I shall be at home before you--worse luck!"

"We're sorry, too," said Ruth, and Ted agreed, vociferously. As for Roberta, she let her eyes meet his for a moment in a way so rare with her, whose heavy lashes were forever interfering with any man's direct gaze, that Richard made the most of his opportunity. He saw clearly at last that those eyes were of the deepest sea blue, darkened almost to black by the shadowing lashes. If by some hard chance he should never see them again he knew he could not forget them.

With beat of impatient hoofs upon the hard road the three were off, their chorusing farewells coming back to him over their shoulders. When they were out of sight he went back to the place on the hilltop where he had stood beside Roberta, and thought it all over. In that way only could he make shift to prolong the happiness of the hour.

The happiness of the hour! What had there been about it to make it the happiest hour he could recall? Such a simple, outdoor encounter! He had spent many an hour which had lingered in his memory--hours in places made enchanting to the eye by every device of cunning, in the society of women chosen for their beauty, their wit, their power to allure, to fascinate, to intoxicate. He had had his senses appealed to by every form of attraction a clever woman can fabricate, herself a miracle of art in dress, in smile, in speech. He had gone from more than one door with his head swimming, the vivid recollection of the hour just past a drug more potent than the wine that had touched his lips.

His head was not swimming now, thank heaven, though his pulses were unquestionably alive. It was the exhilaration of healthy, powerful attraction, of which his every capacity for judgment approved. He had not been drugged by the enchantment which is like wine--he had been stimulated by the charm which is like the feel of the fresh wind upon the brow. Here was a girl who did not need the background of artificiality, one who could stand the sunlight on her clear cheek--and the sunlight on her soul--he knew that, without knowing how he knew. It was written in her sweet, strong, spirited face, and it was there for men to read. No man so blind but he can read a face like that.

The darkness had almost fallen when he forced himself to leave the spot. But--reward for going while yet a trace of dusky light remained--he had not reached the bottom of the hill road, up which his car had roared an hour before, when he saw something fallen there which made him pull the motor up upon its throbbing cylinders. He jumped out and ran to rescue what had fallen. It was the bunch of rose haws he had so carefully denuded of thorns, and which she had worn upon her breast for at least a short time before she lost it. She had not thrown it away intentionally, he was sure of that. If she had she would not have flung it contemptuously into the middle of the road for him to see.

He put it into the pocket of his coat, where it made a queer bulge, but he could not risk losing it by trusting it to the seat beside him. Until he had won something that had been longer hers, it was a treasure not to be lost.

Four miles toward town he passed the riding party and exchanged a fire of gay salutations with them. When he had left them behind he could not reach home too soon. He hurried to his rooms, hunted out a receptacle of silver and crystal and filled it with water, placed the bunch of rose haws in it and set the whole on his reading-table, under the electric drop-light, where it made a spot of brilliant colour.

He had an invitation for the evening; he had cared little to accept it when it had been given him; he was sorry now that he had not refused it. As the hour drew near, his distaste grew upon him, but there was no way in which he could withdraw without giving disappointment and even offence. He went forth, therefore, with reluctance, to join precisely such a party as he had many times made one of with pleasure and elation. To-night, however, he found the greatest difficulty in concealing his boredom, and he more than once caught himself upon the verge of actual discourtesy, because of his tendency to become absent-minded and let the merry-making flow by him without taking part in it.

Altogether, it was with a strong sense of relief and freedom that he at last escaped from what had seemed to him an interminable period of captivity to the uncongenial moods and manners of other people. He opened the door of his rooms with a sense of having returned to a place where he could be himself--his new self--that strange new self who singularly failed to enjoy the companionship of those who had once seemed the most satisfying of comrades.

The first thing upon which his eager glance fell was the bunch of scarlet rose haws under the softly illumining radiance of the drop-light. His eyes lighted, his lips broke into a smile--the lips which had found it, all evening, so hard to smile with anything resembling spontaneity.

Hat in hand, he addressed his treasure: "I've come back to stay with you!" he said.