Chapter III. Fletcher Hill
 

There came a sound of hoofs thudding over the pastures. Robin lifted his eyebrows and cocked his ears with a growl.

Dot barely glanced up from the saucepan she was cleaning; her lips tightened a little, that was all.

The hoofs drew rapidly nearer, dropping from a canter to a quick trot that ended in a clattering walk on the stones of the yard. Through the open window Dot heard the heavy thud of a man's feet as he jumped to the ground.

Then came Jack's voice upraised in greeting. "Hallo, Fletcher! Come in, man! Come in! Delighted to see you."

The voice that spoke in answer was short and clipped. Somehow it had an official sound. "Hallo, Jack! Good evening, Mrs. Burton! What! Alone?"

Jack laughed. "Dot's in the kitchen. Hi! little 'un! Bring some drinks!"

Robin was on his feet, uttering low, jerky barks. Dot put aside her saucepan and began to wash her hands. She did not hasten to obey Jack's call, but when she turned to collect glasses on a tray she was trembling and her breath came quickly, as if from violent exercise.

Nevertheless she did not hesitate, but went straight through to the little parlour, carrying her tray with the jingling glasses upon it.

Fletcher Hill was facing her as she entered, a tall man, tough and muscular, with black hair that was tinged with grey, and a long stubborn jaw that gave him an indomitable look. His lips were thin and very firm, with a sardonic twist that imparted a faintly supercilious expression. His eyes were dark, deep-set, and shrewd. He was a magistrate of some repute in the district, a position which he had attained by sheer unswerving hard work in the police force, in which for years he had been known as "Bloodhound Hill." A man of rigid ideas and stern justice, he had forced his way to the front, respected by all, but genuinely liked by only a very few.

Jack Burton had regarded him as a friend for years, but even Jack could not claim a very close intimacy with him. He merely understood the man's silences better than most. His words were very rarely of a confidential order.

He was emphatically not a man to attract any girl very readily, and Dot's attitude towards him had always been of a strictly impersonal nature. In fact, Jack himself did not know whether she really liked him or not. Yet had he set his heart upon seeing her safely married to him. There was no other man of his acquaintance to whom he would willingly have entrusted her. For Dot was very precious in his eyes. But to his mind Fletcher Hill was worthy of her, and he believed that she would be as safe in his care as in his own.

That Fletcher Hill had long cherished the silent ambition of winning her was a fact well known to him. Only once had they ever spoken on the subject, and then the words had been few and briefly uttered. But to Jack, who had taken the initiative in the matter, they had been more than sufficient to testify to the man's earnestness of purpose. From that day he had been heart and soul on Fletcher's side.

He wished he could have given him a hint that evening as he looked up to see the girl standing in the doorway; for Dot was so cold, so aloof in her welcome. He did not see what Hill saw at the first glance--that she was quivering from head to foot with nervous agitation.

She set down her tray and gave her hand to the visitor. "Doesn't Rupert want a drink?" she said.

Rupert was his horse, and his most dearly prized possession. Hill's rare smile showed for a moment at the question.

"Let him cool down a bit first," he said. "I am afraid I've ridden him rather hard."

She gave him a fleeting glance. "You have come from Trelevan?"

"Yes. I got there this afternoon. We left Wallacetown early this morning."

"Rode all the way?" questioned Jack.

"Yes, every inch. I wanted to see the Fortescue Gold Mine."

"Ah! There's a rough crowd there," said Jack. "They say all the uncaught criminals find their way to the Fortescue Gold Mine."

"Yes," said Hill.

"Is it true?" asked Adela, curiously.

"I am not in a position to say, madam." Hill's voice sounded sardonic.

"That means he doesn't know," explained Jack. "Look here, man! If you've ridden all the way from Wallacetown to-day you can't go back to Trelevan to-night. Your animal must be absolutely used up--if you are not."

"Oh, I think not. We are both tougher than that." Hill turned towards him. "Don't mix it too strong, Jack! I hardly ever touch it except under your roof."

"I am indeed honoured," laughed Jack. "But if you're going to spend the night you'll be able to sleep it off before you face your orderly in the morning."

"Do stay!" said Adela, hastening to follow up her husband's suggestion. "We should all like it. I hope you will."

Hill bowed towards her with stiff ceremony. "You are very kind, madam. But I don't like to give trouble, and I am expected back."

"By whom?" questioned Jack. "No one that counts, I'll swear. Your orderly won't break his heart if you take a night out. He'll probably do the same himself. And no one else will know. We'll let you leave as early as you like in the morning, but not before. Come, that's settled, isn't it? Go and get Rupert a shake-down, little 'un, and give him a decent feed with plenty of corn in it! No, let her, man; let her! She likes doing it, eh, Dot girl?"

"Yes, I like it," Dot said, and hurriedly disappeared before Hill could intervene.

Jack turned to his wife. "Now, missis! Go and make ready upstairs! It's only a little room, Fletcher, but it's snug. That's the way," as his wife followed Dot's example. "Now--quick, man! I want a word with you."

"Obviously," said the magistrate, dryly. "You needn't say it, thanks all the same. I'll leave that drink till--afterwards."

He straightened his tall figure with an instinctive bracing of the shoulders, and turned to the door.

Jack watched him go with a smile that was not untinged with anxiety, and lifted his glass as the door closed.

"You've got the cards, old feller," he said. "May you play 'em well!"

Fletcher Hill stepped forth into the moonlit night and stood still. It had been a swift maneuvre on Jack's part, and it might have disconcerted a younger man and driven him into ill-considered action. But it was not this man's nature to act upon impulse. His caution was well known. It had been his safeguard in many a difficulty. It stood him in good stead now.

So for a space he remained, looking out over the widespread grasslands, his grim face oddly softened and made human. He was no longer an official, but a man, with feelings rendered all the keener for the habitual restraint with which he masked them.

He moved forward at length through the magic moonlight, guided by the sound of trampling hoofs in the building where Jack's horse was stabled. He reached the doorway, treading softly, and looked in.

Dot was in a stall with his mount Rupert--a powerful grey, beside which she looked even lighter and daintier than usual. The animal was nibbling carelessly at her arm while she filled the manger with hay. She was talking to him softly, and did not perceive Hill's presence. Robin, who sat waiting near the entrance, merely pricked his ears at his approach.

Some minutes passed. Fletcher stood like a sentinel against the doorpost. He might have been part of it for his immobility. The girl within continued to talk to the horse while she provided for his comfort, low words unintelligible to the silent watcher, till, as she finished her task, she suddenly threw her arms about the animal's neck and leaned her head against it.

"Oh, Rupert," she said, and there was a throb of passion in her words, "I wish--I wish you and I could go right away into the wilderness together and never--never come back!"

Rupert turned his head and actually licked her hair. He was a horse of understanding.

She uttered a little sobbing laugh and tenderly kissed his nose. "You're a dear, sympathetic boy! Who taught you to be, I wonder? Not your master, I'm sure! He's nothing but a steel machine all through!"

And then she turned to leave the stable and came upon Fletcher Hill, mutely awaiting her.