Her Hero by Ethel M. Dell
Raffold Abbey was huge and rambling, girt with many memories. They spent nearly two hours wandering through the house and the old, crumbling chapel.
"There is a crypt below," Priscilla said, "but we can't go down without a lantern. Another day, if you cared----"
"Of course I should, above all things," declared Carfax. "I was just going to ask when I might come again."
Their intimacy had progressed wonderfully during those hours of companionship. The total absence of conventionality had destroyed all strangeness between them. They were as children on a holiday, enjoying the present to the full, and wholly careless of the future.
Not till Carfax had at length taken his leave did Priscilla ask herself what had brought him there. Merely to view his friend's inheritance seemed a paltry reason. Perhaps he was a journalist, or a writer of guide-books. But she soon dismissed the matter, to ask herself a more personal question. Was it possible that he knew her? Had he found out her name after the New York episode, and come at last to seek her? She could not honestly believe this, though her heart leapt at the thought. That affair had taken place four long years before. Of course, he had forgotten it. It could have made no more than a passing impression upon him. Had it been otherwise, would he not have claimed her at once as an old acquaintance?
Yes, it was plain that her first conviction must be correct. He did not know her. The whole incident had passed completely from his memory, crowded out, no doubt, and that speedily, by more absorbing interests. She had flashed across his life, attaining to no more importance than a bird upon the wing. He had saved her life at a frightful risk, and then forgotten her very existence. She had always realised it must be so, but, strangely, she had never resented it. In spite of it, with a woman's queer, inexplicable faithfulness, she yet loved her hero, yet cherished closely, fondly, the memory that she doubted not had faded utterly from his mind.
She went to the village church with Froggy on the following day, though fully alive to the risk she ran of being pointed out to the ignorant as Lady Priscilla from the Abbey. She knew by some deep-hidden instinct that he would be there, and she was not disappointed. He came in late, and stood quite still just inside the little building, searching it up and down with keen, quiet eyes that never faltered in their progress till they lighted upon her. She fancied there was a faintly humorous expression about his mouth. His look did not dwell upon her. He stepped aside to a vacant chair close to the door, and Priscilla, in her great, square pew near the pulpit, saw him no more. When she left the church at the end of the service he had already disappeared.
Froggy went out to tea that afternoon with much solicitous regret, which Priscilla treated in a spirit of levity. She packed her tea-basket again as soon as she was alone, selecting her provisions with care. And soon after three, accompanied by Romeo, she started for the glen, not sauntering idly, but stepping briskly through the golden sunshine, as one with a purpose. She felt as if she were going to a trysting-place, though no word of a tryst had passed between them.
He was there before her, bareheaded and alert, quite obviously awaiting her. He did not express his pleasure in words as he took her hand in his. Only there was an indescribable look in his brown eyes that made her very glad that she had come. He had brought an enormous basket of strawberries, which he presented with that drawling ease of manner which she had come to regard as peculiarly his own, and they settled down to the afternoon's enjoyment in a harmony as complete as the summer peace about them.
No spoken confidences passed between them. Their intimacy was such as to make words seem superfluous. Both seemed to feel that the present was all-sufficing.
Only once did Priscilla challenge Carfax's memory. The impulse was irresistible at the moment, though she regretted it later. He was holding out to her the biggest strawberry he could find. It lay on a leaf on the palm of his hand, and as she took it she suddenly saw a long, terrible scar extending upwards from his wrist till his sleeve hid it from view.
"Why," she exclaimed, with a start; then, seeing his questioning look, "surely that's a burn?"
"It is," said Carfax.
He turned his hand over to hide it. His manner seemed to indicate that he did not wish to pursue the subject. But Priscilla, suddenly reckless, ignored the hint.
"But how did you do it?" she asked.
Carfax hesitated for a second, then:
"It was years ago," he said, rather unwillingly. "A lady's dress caught fire. It fell to me to put it out."
"How brave!" murmured Priscilla. Her eyes were shining. Had he looked up then he must have read her secret.
But he did not look up. For the first time he seemed to be labouring under some spell of embarrassment.
"It wasn't brave at all," he said, after a moment. "I could have done no less."
There was almost a vexed note in his voice. Yet she persisted.
"What was she like? Wasn't she very grateful?"
"I don't know at all. I don't suppose she enjoyed the situation any more than I did."
He plucked a tuft of moss and tossed it from him, as if therewith dismissing the subject. And Priscilla felt a little hurt, though not for worlds would she have suffered him to see it.
It fell to him to break the silence a few seconds later, and he did so without a hint of difficulty.
"When am I going to see the crypt?"
Priscilla laughed a little.
"Are you writing a book about the place?"
He laughed back at her quite openly.
"Not at present. When I do, it will be a romance, with you for heroine."
"Oh, no; not me!" she protested. "I am a mere nobody. Lady Priscilla ought to be your heroine."
He raised his eyebrows. She had begun to associate that look of his with protest rather than surprise.
"I have yet to be introduced to Lady Priscilla," he said. "And as she doesn't like men, I almost think I shall forego the pleasure and keep out of her way."
"Perhaps I have given you a wrong impression about her," Priscilla said, speaking with a slight effort. "It is only the idle, foppish men about town she has no use for."
"She is fastidious, apparently," he returned, lying down abruptly at her feet.
"Don't you like women to be fastidious?" Priscilla demanded boldly.
He lay quite motionless for several seconds, then turned in a leisurely fashion upon his side to survey her.
"You are fastidious?" he asked.
"Of course I am!" Priscilla's words came rather breathlessly. "Don't you think me so?"
Again he was silent for seconds. Then, in a baffling drawl, his answer came:
"If you will allow me to say so, I think you are just the sweetest woman I ever met."
Priscilla met his eyes for a single instant, and looked away. She was burning and throbbing from head to foot. She could find naught to say in answer; no word wherewith to turn his deliberate sentence into a jest. Perhaps in her secret heart she did not desire to do so, for a voice within her, a voice long stifled, cried out that she had met her mate. And, since surrender was inevitable, why should she seek to delay it?
But Carfax said no more. Possibly he thought he had said too much. At least, after a long, quiet pause, he looked away from her; and the spell that bound her passed.