Her Hero by Ethel M. Dell
"And so I escaped. Her ladyship didn't like it, but it was worth a tussle."
Priscilla leaned back luxuriously in the housekeeper's room at Raffold Abbey, and laughed upon a deep note of satisfaction. She had discarded all things fashionable with her departure from London in the height of the season. The crumpled linen hat she wore was designed for comfort and not for elegance. Her gown of brown holland was simplicity itself. She sat carelessly with her arm round the neck of an immense mastiff who had followed her in.
"I've cut everything, Froggy," she declared, "including the terrible American cousin. In fact, it was almost more on his account than any other that I did it. For I can't and won't marry him, not even for the sake of the dear old Abbey! Are you very shocked, I wonder?"
Froggy the housekeeper--so named by young Lord Mortimer in his schoolboy days--looked up from her work and across at Priscilla, her brown, prominent eyes, to which she owed her sobriquet, shining lovingly behind her spectacles. Her real name was Mrs. Burrowes, but Priscilla could not remember a time when she had ever called her anything but Froggy. The old familiar name had become doubly dear to both of them now that Mortimer was dead.
"I should be very shocked, indeed, darling, if it were otherwise," was Froggy's answer.
And Priscilla breathed a long sigh of contentment. She knew that there was no need to explain herself to this, her oldest friend.
She laid her cheek comfortably against the great dog's ear.
"No, Romeo," she murmured. "Your missis isn't going to be thrown at any man's head if she knows it. But it's a difficult world, old boy; almost an impossible world, I sometimes think. Froggy, I know you can be sentimental when you try. What should you do if you fell in love with a total stranger without ever knowing his name? Should you have the fidelity to live in single blessedness all your life for the sake of your hero?"
Froggy looked a little startled at the question, lightly as it was put. She felt that it was scarcely a problem that could be settled offhand. And yet something in Priscilla's manner seemed to indicate that she wanted a prompt reply.
"It is a little difficult to say, dear," she said, after brief reflection. "I can understand that one might be strongly attracted towards a stranger, but I should think it scarcely possible that one could go so far as to fall in love."
Priscilla uttered a faint, rueful laugh.
"Perhaps you couldn't, Froggy," she admitted. "But you know there is such a thing as loving at first sight. Some people go so far as to say that all true love begins that way."
She rose quietly and went to her friend's side.
"Oh, Froggy, it's very difficult to be true to your inner self when you stand quite alone," she said, "and every one else is thinking what a fool you are!" The words had an unwonted ring of passion in them, and, having uttered them, she knelt down by Froggy's side, and hid her face against the ample shoulder. "And I sometimes think I'm a fool myself," she ended, in muffled accents.
Froggy's arms closed instantly and protectingly around her.
"My darling, who is it, then?" whispered her motherly voice.
Priscilla did not at once reply. It was a difficult confidence to make. At last, haltingly, words came:
"It was years ago--that summer we went to New York, Dad and I. He was from the South, so I heard afterwards. He stayed at the same hotel with us, one of those quiet, unobtrusive, big men--not big physically, but--you understand. I might not have noticed him--I don't know--but one day a man in the street threw down a flaming match just as I was coming out of the hotel. I had on a muslin dress, and it caught fire. Of course, it blazed in a moment, and I was terrified. Dad wasn't there. But the man was in the balcony just overhead, and he swung himself down, I never saw how, and caught me in his arms. He had nothing to put it out with. He simply threw me down and flung himself on the top, beating out the flames in all directions with his hands. I was dreadfully upset, of course, but I wasn't much hurt. He was--horribly. One of his hands was all charred.
"He carried me back into the hotel and told me not to be frightened. And he stayed with me till I felt better, because somehow I wanted him to. He was so strong, Froggy, and so kind. He had a voice like a woman's. I've thought since that he must have thought me very foolish and uncontrolled. But he seemed to understand just how I felt. And--do you know--I never saw him again! He went right away that very afternoon, and we never found out who he was. And I never thanked him even for saving my life. I don't think he wanted to be thanked.
"But I have never forgotten him. He was the sort of man you never could forget. I've never seen any one in the least like him. He was somehow so much greater than all the other men I know. Am I a fool, Froggy? I suppose I am. They say every woman will meet her mate if she waits long enough, but it can't be true. I suppose I might as well marry the Yankee heir, only I can't--I can't!"
The low voice ceased, and there fell a silence. Froggy's arms were folded very closely about the kneeling girl, but she had no words of comfort or counsel to offer. She was, in fact, out of her depth, though not for worlds would she have had Priscilla know it.
"You must just follow your own heart, dearest," she said at last. "And I think you will find happiness some day. God grant it!"
Priscilla lifted her head and kissed her. She knew quite well that she had led whither Froggy could not follow. But the knowledge did not hurt her.
She called Romeo, and went out into the summer sunshine, with a smile half tender and half humorous at the corners of her mouth. Poor Froggy!