Her Hero by Ethel M. Dell
"I think we will go for a picnic, Romeo," said Priscilla.
It was a Saturday afternoon, warm and slumbrous, and Saturday was the day on which Raffold Abbey was open to the public when the family were away. Priscilla's presence was, as it were, unofficial, but though she was quite content to have it so, she was determined to escape from sight and hearing of the hot and dusty crowd that thronged the place on a fine day from three o'clock till six.
Half a mile or more from the Abbey, a brown stream ran gurgling through a miniature glen, to join the river below the park gates. This stream had been Priscilla's great delight for longer than she could remember. As children, she and her brother Mortimer had spent hours upon its mossy banks, and since those days she had dreamed many dreams, aye, and shed many tears, within sound of its rushing waters. She loved the place. It was her haven of solitude. No one ever disturbed her there.
The walk across the park made them both hot, and it was a relief to sit down on her favourite tree-root above the stream and yield herself to the luxury of summer idleness. A robin was chirping far overhead, and from the grass at her feet there came the whir of a grasshopper. Otherwise, save for the music of the stream, all was still. An exquisite, filmy drowsiness crept over her, and she slept.
A deep growl from her bodyguard roused her nearly an hour later, and she awoke with a start.
Romeo was sitting very upright, watching something on the farther side of the stream. He growled again as Priscilla sat up.
She looked across in the same direction, and laid a hasty hand upon his collar.
What she saw surprised her considerably. A man was lying face downwards on the brink of the stream, fishing about in the water, with one arm bared to the shoulder. He must have heard Romeo's warning growl, but he paid not the slightest attention to it. Priscilla watched him with keen interest. She could not see his face.
Suddenly he clutched at something in the clear water, and immediately straightened himself, withdrawing his arm. Then, quite calmly, he looked across at her, and spoke in a peculiar, soft drawl like a woman's.
"You'll forgive me for disturbing you, I know," he said, "when I tell you that all my worldly goods were at the bottom of this ditch."
He displayed his recovered property as if to verify his words--a brown leather pocketbook with a silver clasp. Priscilla gazed from it to its owner in startled silence. Her heart was beating almost to suffocation. She knew this man.
The water babbled on between them, singing a little tinkling song all its own. But the girl neither saw nor heard aught of her surroundings. She was back in the heat and whirl of a crowded New York thoroughfare, back in the fierce grip of this man's arms, hearing his quiet voice above her head, bidding her not to be frightened.
Gradually the vision passed. The wild tumult at her heart died down. She became aware that he was waiting for her to speak, and she did so as one in a dream.
"I am glad you got it back," she said.
His brown, clean-shaven face smiled at her, but there was no hint of recognition in his eyes. He had totally forgotten her, of course, as she had always told herself he would. Did not men always forget? And yet--and yet--was he not still her hero--the man for whose sake all other men were less than naught to her?
Again Romeo growled deeply, and she tightened her hold upon him. The stranger, however, appeared quite unimpressed. He stood up and contemplated the stream that divided them with a measuring eye.
"Have I your permission to come across?" he asked her finally, in his soft Southern drawl.
She laughed a little nervously. He was not without audacity, notwithstanding his quiet manner.
"You can cross if you like," she said. "But it's all private property."
He paused, looking at her intently.
"It belongs to Earl Raffold, I have been told?"
She bent her head, and her answer leapt out with an ease that astonished her. She felt it to be an inspiration.
"It does. But the family are in town for the season. I am staying with the housekeeper. She is allowed to have her friends when the family are away."
It was rather breathlessly spoken, but he did not seem to notice.
"I see," he said. "Then one more or less can't make much difference."
With the words he took a single stride forward and bounded into the air. He landed lightly almost at her feet, and Romeo sprang up with an outraged snarl. It choked in his throat almost instantly, however, for the stranger laid a restraining hand upon him, and spoke with soothing self-assurance.
"It's an evil brute that kills a friend, eh, old fellow? You couldn't do it if you tried."
Romeo's countenance changed magically. He turned his hostility into an ardent welcome, and the girl at his side laughed again rather tremulously.
"It's a good thing you weren't afraid. I couldn't have held him."
"I saw that," said the Southerner, speaking softly, his face on a level with the great head he was caressing. "But I knew it would be all right. You see, I--kind of like dogs."
He turned to her after a moment, a faintly quizzical expression about his eyes.
"I won't intrude upon you," he said. "I can go and trespass elsewhere, you know."
Priscilla was not as a rule reckless. A long training in her stepmother's school had made her cautious and far-seeing in all things social. She knew exactly the risk that lay in unconventionality. But, then, had she not fled from town to lead a free life? Why should she submit to the old, galling chain here in this golden world where its restraint was not known? Her whole being rose up in revolt at the bare idea, and suddenly, passionately, she decided to break free. Even the flowers had their day of riotous, splendid life. She would have hers, wherever its enjoyment might lead her, whatever it might cost!
And so she answered him with a lack of reserve at which her London friends would have marvelled.
"You don't intrude at all. If you have come to see the Abbey, I should advise you to wait till after six o'clock."
"When it will be closed to the public?" he questioned, still looking quizzical.
She looked up at him, for the first time deliberately meeting his eyes. Yes it was plain that he did not know her; but on the whole she was glad, it made things easier. She had been so foolish and hysterical upon that far-off day when he had saved her life.
"I will take you over it myself, if you care to accept my guidance," she said, "after the crowd have gone."
He glanced at his watch.
"And you are prepared to tolerate my society till six?" he said. "That is very generous of you."
She smiled, with a touch of wistfulness.
"Perhaps I don't find my own very inspiring."
He raised his eyebrows, but made no comment.
"Perhaps I had better tell you my name," he said, after a pause. "I am in a fashion connected with this place--a sort of friend of the family, if it isn't presumption to put it that way. My name is Julian Carfax, and Ralph Cochrane, the next-of-kin, is a pal of mine, a very great pal. He was coming over to England. Perhaps you heard. But he's a very shy fellow, and almost at the last moment he decided not to face it at present. I was coming over, so I undertook to explain. I spoke to Lady Raffold in town over the telephone, and told her. She seemed to be rather affronted, for some reason. Possibly it was my fault. I'm not much of a diplomatist, anyway."
He seated himself on a mossy stone below her with this reflection, and began to cast pebbles into the brown water.
Priscilla watched him gravely. What he had told her interested her considerably, but she had no intention of giving herself away by betraying it.
There was a decided pause before she made up her mind how to pursue the subject.
"I had no idea that an American could be shy," she said then.
Carfax turned with his pleasant smile.
"No? We're a pushing race, I suppose. But I think Cochrane had some excuse for his timidity this time."
"Yes?" said Priscilla.
He began to laugh quietly.
"You see, it turned out that he was expected to marry the old maid of the family--Lady Priscilla. Naturally he kicked at that."
Priscilla bent sharply over Romeo, and began to examine one of his huge paws. Her face was a vivid scarlet.
"It wasn't surprising, was it?" said Carfax, tossing another pebble into the stream. "It was more than enough, in my opinion, to make any fellow feel shy."
Priscilla did not answer. The colour was slow to fade from her face.
"I wonder if you have ever seen the lady?" Carfax pursued. "She was out of town when I was there."
"Yes; I have seen her."
Priscilla spoke with her head bent.
"You have? What is she like?"
He glanced round with an expression of amused interest. Priscilla looked up deliberately.
"She is quite old and ugly. But I don't think Mr. Ralph Cochrane need be afraid. She doesn't like men. I am rather sorry for her myself."
"Sorry for her? Why?"
Carfax became serious.
"I think she is rather lonely," the girl said, in a low voice.
"You know her well?"
"Can any one say that they really know any one? No. But I think that she feels very deeply, and that her life has always been more or less of a failure. At least, that is the sort of feeling I have about her."
Again, but more gradually, the colour rose in her face. She took up her basket, and began to unpack it.
Carfax turned fully round.
"You go in for character-study," he said.
"A little," she owned. "I can't help it. Now let me give you some tea. I have enough for two."
"I shall be delighted," he said courteously. "Let me help you to unpack."
Priscilla could never recall afterwards how they spent the golden hours till six o'clock. She was as one in a dream, to which she clung closely, passionately, fearing to awake. For in her dream she was standing on the threshold of her paradise, waiting for the opening of the gates.