Chapter VI. The Knight Errant's Strategy
 

It was summer in Weatherbroom--the glareless, perfect summer of the country, of trees in their first verdure, of seas of bracken all in freshest green, of shining golden gorse, of babbling, clear brown streams, of birds that sang and chattered all day long.

And in the midst of this paradise Ernestine Cardwell dwelt secure. There was literally not a soul to speak to besides the miller and his wife, but this absence of human companionship had not begun to pall upon her. She was completely and serenely happy.

She spent the greater part of her days wandering about the woods and commons with a book tucked under her arm which she seldom opened. Now and then she tried to sketch, but usually abandoned the attempt in a fit of impatience. How could she hope to reproduce, even faintly, the loveliness around her? It seemed presumption almost to try, and she revelled in idleness instead. The singing of the birds had somehow got into her heart. She could listen to that music for hours together.

Or else she would wander along the mill-stream with the roar of the racing water behind her, and gather great handfuls of the wild flowers that fringed its banks. These were usually her evening strolls, and she loved none better.

Once, exploring around the mill, she entered a barn, and found there an old caravan that once had been gaily painted and now stood in all the shabbiness of departed glory. She had the curiosity to investigate its interior, and found there a miniature bedroom neatly furnished.

"That's Mr. Rivington's," the miller's wife told her. "He will often run down to fish in the summer, and then he likes it pulled out into the bit of wood yonder by the water, and spends the night there. It's a funny fancy, I often think."

"I should love it," said Ernestine.

She wrote to Rivington that night, her second letter since her arrival, and told him of her discovery. She added, "When are you coming down again? There are plenty of trout in the stream." And she posted the letter herself at the little thatched post-office, with a small, strictly private smile. Oh, no, she wasn't bored, of course! But it would be rather fun if he came.

On the evening of the following day, she was returning from her customary stroll along the stream, when she spied a water-lily, yellow and splendid, floating, as is the invariable custom of these flowers, just out of reach from the bank. She made several attempts to secure it, each failure only serving to increase her determination. Finally, the evening being still and warm, and her desire for the pretty thing not to be denied, she slipped off shoes and stockings and slid cautiously into the stream. It bubbled deliciously round her ankles, sending exquisite cold thrills through and through her. She secured her prize, and gave herself up unreservedly to the enjoyment thereof.

An unmistakable whiff of tobacco-smoke awoke her from her dream of delight. She turned swiftly, the lily in one hand, her skirt clutched in the other.

"Don't be alarmed," said a quiet, casual voice. "It's only me."

"Only you!" she echoed, blushing crimson. "I wasn't expecting anyone just now."

"Oh, but I don't count," he said. He was standing on the bank above her, looking down upon her with eyes so kindly that she found it impossible to be vexed with him, or even embarrassed after that first moment.

She reached up her hand to him.

"I'm coming out."

He took the small wrist, and helped her ashore. She looked up at him and laughed.

"I'm glad you've come," she said simply.

"Thank you," he returned, equally simply. "How are you getting on?"

"Oh, beautifully! I'm as happy as the day is long."

She began to rub her bare feet in the grass.

"Have my handkerchief," he suggested.

She accepted it with a smile, and sat down.

"Tell me about everything," she said.

Rivington sat down also, and took a long, luxurious pull at the briar pipe.

"Things were quite lively for a day or two after you left," he said. "But they have settled down again. Still, I don't advise you to go back again at present."

"Oh, I'm not going," she said. "I am much happier here. I saw a squirrel this morning. I wanted to kiss it dreadfully, but," with a sigh, "it didn't understand."

"The squirrel's loss," observed Rivington.

She crumpled his handkerchief into a ball, and tossed it at him.

"Of course. But as it will never know what it has missed, it doesn't so much matter. Are you going to live in the caravan? I'll bring you your supper if you are."

"That's awfully good of you," he said.

"Oh, no, it isn't. I want to. I shall bring my own as well and eat it on the step."

"Better and better!" said Rivington.

She laughed her own peculiarly light-hearted laugh.

"I've a good mind to turn you out and sleep there myself. I'm longing to know what it feels like."

"You can if you want to," he said.

She shook her head.

"I daren't, by myself."

"I'll have my kennel underneath," he suggested.

But she shook her head again, though she still laughed.

"No, I mustn't. What would Mrs. Perkiss say? She has a very high opinion of me at present."

"Who hasn't?" said Rivington.

She raised her eyes suddenly and gave him a straight, serious look.

"Are you trying to be complimentary, Knight Errant? Because--don't!"

Rivington blew a cloud of smoke into the air.

"Shouldn't dream of it," he said imperturbably. "I am fully aware that poor relations mustn't presume on their privileges."

She coloured a little, and gave her whole attention to fastening her shoe-lace.

"I didn't mean that," she said, after a moment. "Only--don't think I care for that sort of thing, for, candidly, I don't."

"You needn't be afraid," he answered gravely. "I shall never say anything to you that I don't mean."

She glanced up again with her quick smile.

"Is it a bargain?" she said.

He held out his hand to her.

"All right, Chirpy, a bargain," he said.

And they sealed it with a warm grip of mutual appreciation.

"Now tell me what everybody has been saying about me," she said, getting to her feet.

He smiled as he leisurely arose.

"To begin with," he said, "I've seen mamma."

She looked up at him sharply.

"Go on! Wasn't she furious?"

"My dear child, that is but a mild term. She was cold as the nether mill-stone. I am afraid there isn't much chance for us if we persist in our folly."

"Don't be absurd! Tell me everything. Has that announcement been contradicted?"

"Once," said Rivington. "But it has been inserted three times since then."

"Oh, but you didn't----"

"Yes, but I did. It was necessary. I think everyone is now convinced of our engagement, including Lady Florence."

Ernestine laughed a little, in spite of herself.

"I can't think what the end of it will be," she said, with a touch of uneasiness.

"Wait till we get there," said Rivington.

She threw him a glance, half merry and half shy.

"Did you tell mother where I was?"

"On the contrary," said Rivington, "I implored her to tell me."

She drew a sharp breath.

"That was very ingenious of you."

"So I thought," he rejoined modestly.

"And what did she say?"

"She said with scarcely a pause that she had sent you out of town to give you time to come to your senses, and it was quite futile for me to question her, as she had not the faintest intention of revealing your whereabouts."

Ernestine breathed again.

"I said in the note I left behind for her that she wasn't to worry about me. I had gone into the country to get away from my troubles."

"That was ingenious, too," he commented. "I think, if you ask me, that we have come out of the affair rather well."

"We have all been remarkably subtle," she said, with a sigh. "But I don't like subtlety, you know. It's very horrid, and it frightens me rather."

"What are you afraid of?" he said.

"I don't know. I think I am afraid of going too far and not being able to get back."

"Do you want to get back?" he asked.

"No, no, of course not. At least, not yet," she assured him.

"Then, my dear," he said, "I think, if you will allow me to say so, that you are disquieting yourself in vain."

He spoke very kindly, with a gentleness that was infinitely reassuring.

With an impulsive movement of complete confidence, she slipped her hand through his arm.

"Thank you, Knight Errant," she said. "I wanted that."

She did not ask him anything about Dinghra, and he wondered a little at her forbearance.