Chapter II. Number Three
 

Adela Burton was laying the cloth for supper, and looking somewhat severe over the process. She was usually cheerful at that hour of the day, for it brought her husband back from his work and, thanks to Dot's ministrations, the evening was free from toil. It was seldom, indeed, that Adela bestirred herself to lay the cloth for any meal, for she maintained that it was better for a girl like Dot to have plenty to do at all times, and she herself preferred her needlework, at which she was an adept.

No one could have called her an idle woman, but she was eminently a selfish one. She followed her own bent, quite regardless of the desires and inclinations of anyone else. She was the hub of her world from her own point of view, and she was wholly incapable of recognizing any other. Most people realized this and, as is the way of humanity, took her at her own valuation, making allowances for her undoubted egotism. For she was comely and had a taking manner, never troubling herself unless her own personal convenience were threatened. She laughed a good deal, though her sense of humour was none of the finest, and she was far too practical to possess any imagination. In short, as she herself expressed it, she was sensible; and, being so, she had small sympathy with her sister-in-law's foolish sentimentalities, which she considered wholly out of place in the everyday life at the farm.

Not that Dot ever dreamed of confiding in her. She sheltered herself invariably behind a reserve so delicate as to be almost imperceptible to the elder woman's blunter susceptibilities. But she could not always hide the fineness of her inner feelings, and there were times when the two clashed in consequence. The occasions were rare, but Adela had come to know by experience that when they occurred, opposition on her part was of no avail. Dot was bound to have her way when her soul was stirred to battle for it, as on the day when she had refused to let Robin, the dog, be chained up when not on duty with the sheep. Adela had objected to his presence in the house, and Dot had firmly insisted upon it on the score that Robin had always been an inmate as the companion and protector of her lonely hours.

Adela had disputed the point with some energy, but she had been vanquished, and now, when Dot asserted herself, she seldom met with opposition from her sister-in-law. It was practically impossible that they should ever be fond of one another. They had nothing in common. Yet it was very seldom that Jack saw any signs of strain between them. They dwelt together without antagonism and without intimacy.

Nevertheless, Dot's announcement of her desire to go out into the world and hew a way for herself came as no surprise to him. He knew that she was restless and far from happy, knew that his marriage had unsettled her, albeit in a fashion he had not fathomed till their talk together. His young sister was very dear to him. She had been thrown upon his care years before when the death of their parents had left her dependent upon him. It had always been his wish to have her with him. His love for her was of a deep, almost maternal nature, and he hated the thought of parting with her. He had hoped that the companionship of Adela would have been a joy to her, and he was intensely disappointed that it had proved otherwise. His anxiety for her welfare had always been uppermost with him, and it hurt him somewhat when Adela laughed at his hopes and fears regarding the girl. It was the only point upon which his wife and he lacked sympathy.

Entering by way of the kitchen premises on that evening of his talk with Dot, he was surprised to find Adela fulfilling what had come to be regarded as Dot's duties. He looked around him questioningly as she emerged from the larder carrying a dish in one hand and a jug of milk in the other.

"Where's the little 'un?" he said.

It was his recognized pet name for Dot, but for some reason Adela had never approved of it. She frowned now at its utterance.

"Do you mean Dot? Oh, mooning about somewhere, I suppose. And leaving other people to do the work."

Jack promptly relieved her of her burden and set himself to help her with her task.

Adela was not ill-tempered as a rule. She smiled at him. "Good man, Jack! No one can say you're an idler, anyway. I've got rather a nice supper for you. I shouldn't wonder if Fletcher Hill turns up to share it. I hear he is on circuit at Trelevan."

"I heard it, too," said Jack. "He's practically sure to come."

"He's very persistent," said Adela. "Do you think he will ever win out?"

Jack nodded slowly. "I've never known him fail yet in anything he set his mind to--at least, only once. And that was a fluke."

"What sort of a fluke?" questioned Adela, who was frankly curious.

"When Buckskin Bill slipped through his fingers." Jack spoke thoughtfully. "That's the only time I ever knew him fail, and I'm not sure that it wasn't intentional then."

"Intentional!" Adela opened her eyes.

Jack smiled a little. "I don't say it was so. I only say it was possible. But never mind that! It's an old story, and the man got away, anyhow--disappeared, dropped out. Possibly he's dead. I hope he is. He did mischief enough in a short time."

"He set the whole district humming, didn't he?" said Adela. "They say all the women fell in love with him at sight. I wish I'd seen him."

Jack broke into a laugh. "You'd certainly have fallen a victim!"

She tossed her head. "I'm sure I shouldn't. I prefer respectable men. Shall we lay an extra plate in case Mr. Hill turns up?"

"No," said Jack. "Let him come unexpectedly!"

She gave him a shrewd look. "You think Dot will like that best?"

He nodded again. "Be careful! She's coming. Here's Robin!"

Robin came in, wagging his tail and smiling, and behind him came Dot. She moved slowly, as if dispirited. Jack's quick eyes instantly detected the fact that she had been shedding tears.

"You're too late, little 'un," he said, with kindly cheeriness. "The work is all done."

She looked from him to Adela. "I'm sorry I'm late," she said. "I'm afraid I forgot about supper."

"Oh, you're in love!" joked Adela. "You'll forget to come in at all one of these days."

The girl gave her a swift look, but said nothing, passing through with a weary step on her way to her own room.

Robin followed her closely, as one in her confidence; and Jack laid a quiet hand on his wife's arm.

"Don't laugh at her!" he said.

She stared at him. "Good gracious, Jack! What's the matter? I didn't mean anything."

"I know you didn't. But this thing is serious. If Fletcher Hill comes to-night, I believe she'll have him--that is, if she's let alone. But she won't if you twit her with it. It's touch and go."

Jack spoke with great earnestness. It was evident that the matter was one upon which he felt very strongly, and Adela shrugged a tolerant shoulder and yielded to his persuasion.

"I'll be as solemn as a judge," she promised. "The affair certainly has hung fire considerably. It would be a good thing to get it settled. But Fletcher Hill! Well, he wouldn't be my choice!"

"He's a fine man," asserted Jack.

"Oh, I've no doubt. But he's an animal with a nasty bite, or I am much mistaken. However, let Dot marry him by all means if she feels that way! It's certainly high time she married somebody."

She turned aside to put the teapot on the hob, humming inconsequently, and the subject dropped.

Jack went to his room to wash, and in a few minutes more they gathered round the supper-table with careless talk of the doings of the day.

It had always been Dot's favourite time, the supper-hour. In the old days before Jack's marriage she had looked forward to it throughout the day. The companionship of this beloved brother of hers had been the chief joy of her life.

But things were different now. It was her part to serve the meal, to clear the table, and to wash the dishes Jack and Adela were complete without her. Though they always welcomed her when the work was done, she knew that her society was wholly unessential, and she often prolonged her labours in the scullery that she might not intrude too soon upon them. She was no longer necessary to anyone--except to Robin the faithful, who followed her as her shadow. She had become Number Three, and she was lonely--she was lonely!