Without Prejudice by Ethel M. Dell
Chapter VIII. The Meeting
The two girls left the billiard-room, shepherded by Fletcher, almost before the tumult had subsided. It seemed to Dot that he was anxious about something and desirous to get them away. But Adela was full of excited comments and refused to be hurried, stopping outside to question Hill upon a dozen points regarding the game while he stood stiffly responding, waiting to say good-night.
Dot leaned upon the stair-rail, waiting for her, and eventually Fletcher drew Adela's attention to the fact.
Adela laughed. "Oh, that's just her way, my dear Fletcher. Some women were born to wait. Dot does it better than anyone I know."
It was at that moment that Warden came quietly up the passage from the billiard-room, moving with the lightness of well-knit muscles, and checked himself at sight of Fletcher.
"I should like a word with you--when you have time," he said.
Adela swooped upon him with effusion. "Mr. Warden! Your play is simply astounding. Allow me to congratulate you!"
"Please don't!" said Warden. "I played atrociously."
She laughed at him archly. "That's just your modesty. You're plainly a champion. Now, when are you going to let Mr. Hill show us that wonderful mine? We are dying to see it, aren't we, Dot?"
"The mine!" Warden turned sharply to Hill. "You're not going to take anyone over that--surely! Not in person--anyhow! What, sir?" He looked hard at Hill, who said nothing. "Then you must be mad!"
"He isn't obliged to go in person," smiled Adela. "I am sure you are big enough to take care of us single-handed. Dot and I are not in the least nervous. Will you take us alone if we promise not to tease the animals?"
Warden's eyes flashed a sudden glance upwards to the girl who still stood silently leaning upon the rail. It was almost like an appeal.
As if involuntarily she spoke. "What is the danger?"
Hill turned to her. "There is no danger," he said, curtly. "If you wish to go, I will take you to-morrow."
Warden made a brief gesture as of one who submits to the inevitable, and turned away.
Fletcher held out his hand to Adela with finality. "Good-night," he said.
"Are you really going to take us to-morrow?" she said.
"Yes," said Fletcher.
She beamed upon him. "What time shall we be ready?"
He did not refer to Dot. "At five o'clock," he said. "I shall be busy at the court all day. I will come and fetch you."
He shook hands with Dot, and his face softened. "Good-night," he said. "Go to bed quickly! You're very tired."
She gave him a fleeting smile, and turned to go. She was tired to the soul.
Adela caught her by the arm as they ascended the stairs. "You little quiet mouse, what's the matter? Aren't you enjoying the adventure?"
Dot's face was sombre. "I think I am too tired to enjoy anything to-night," she said.
"Tired! And no work to do! Why, what has come to you?" Adela surveyed her with laughing criticism.
"Let's go to bed!" said Dot. "I'll tell you when we get there."
Something in tone or words stirred Adela. She refrained from further bantering and gave her mind to speedy preparations for bed.
Then, as at last they were about to separate, she put a warm arm about the girl and held her close. "What is it? Aren't you happy?" she said.
A great sob went through Dot. Her trouble was more than she could bear. She clung to Adela with unaccustomed closeness.
"I've promised to marry Fletcher at the end of the week--instead of going back with you to the farm."
"I thought that was what he was after," said Adela. "But--don't you want to?"
"No," whispered Dot, trembling.
"Well, why don't you tell him so--tell him he's got to wait? Shall I tell him for you, you poor little thing?" Adela's voice was full of compassion.
But Dot was instant in her refusal. "No, oh, no! Don't tell him! I--I couldn't give him--any particular reason for waiting. I shall feel better--I'm sure I shall feel better--when it's over."
"I expect you will," said Adela. "But I don't like your being miserable. I say, Dot--" she clasped the quivering form closer, with a sudden rare flash of intuition--"there isn't--anyone else you like better, is there?"
But at that Dot started as if she had been stung, and drew herself swiftly away. "Oh, no!" she said, vehemently. "No--no--no!"
"Then I shouldn't worry," said Adela, sensibly. "It's nothing but nerves."
She kissed her and went to her own room, where she speedily slept. But Dot lay wide-eyed, unresting, while the hours crawled by, seeing only the vivid blue eyes that had looked into hers, and thrilled her--and thrilled her with their magic.
In the morning she arose early, urged by a fevered restlessness that drove her with relentless force. Dressing, she discovered the loss of a little heart-shaped brooch, Jack's gift, which she always wore.
Adela, still lying in bed, assured her that she had seen it in her dress the previous evening while at dinner. "It probably came out in that little conservatory place when Fletcher was embracing you," she said.
"Not very likely, I think," said Dot, flushing.
Nevertheless, since she valued it, she finished dressing in haste and departed to search for it.
There was no one about with the exception of a man who was cleaning up the billiard-room and assured her that her property was not there. So she passed on along the passage to the shabby little glass-house whither she and Fletcher had retreated on the previous evening.
She expected to find the place deserted, and was surprised by a whiff of tobacco-smoke as she entered. The next moment sharply she drew back; for a man's figure rose up from the seat under the billiard-room window on which she had rested the previous evening. His great frame seemed to fill the place. Dot turned to flee.
But on the instant he spoke, checking her. "Don't go for a moment! I know what you're looking for. It's that little heart of yours. I've got it here."
She paused almost in spite of herself. His voice was pitched very low. He spoke to her as if he were speaking to a frightened child. And he smiled at her with the words--a frank and kindly smile.
"You--you found it!" she stammered.
"Yes, I found it, Miss Burton." He lingered over the name half unconsciously, and a poignant stab of memory went through her. So had he uttered it on that day so long, so long ago! "I knew it was yours. I was trying to bring myself to give it to Mr. Hill."
"How did you know it was mine?" She almost whispered the words, yet she drew nearer to him, drawn irresistibly--drawn as a needle to the magnet.
He answered her also under his breath. "I--remembered."
She felt as if a wave of fire had swept over her. She swayed a little, throbbing from head to foot.
"I have rather a good memory," he said, as she found no words. "You're not--vexed with me on that account, I hope?"
An odd touch of wistfulness in his voice brought her eyes up to his face. She fought for speech and answered him.
"Of course not! Why should I? It--is a very long time ago, isn't it?"
"Centuries," said Warden, and smiled again upon her reassuringly. "But I never forgot you and your little farm and the old dog. Have you still got him?"
She nodded, her eyes lowered, a choked feeling as of tears in her throat.
"He'd remember me," said Warden, with confidence. "He was a friend. Do you know that was one of the most hairbreadth escapes of my life? If Fletcher Hill had caught me, he wouldn't have shown much mercy--any more than he would now," he added, with a half-laugh. "He's a terrific man for justice."
"Surely you're safe--now!" Dot said, quickly.
"If you don't give me away," said Warden.
"I!" She started, almost winced. "There's no danger of that," she said, in a low voice.
"Thank you," he said. "I've gone fairly straight ever since. It hasn't been a very paying game. I tried my luck in the West, but it was right out. So I thought I'd come back here, and that was the turning-point. They took me on at the Fortescue Mine. It's a fiendish place, but I rather like it. I'm sub-manager there at present--till Harley goes."
"Ah!" She looked up at him again. "He is a dangerous man. He hates you, doesn't he?"
"Quite possibly," said Warden, with a smile. "That mine is rather an abode of hate all round. But we'll clean it out one of these days, and make a decent place of it."
"I hope you will succeed," she said, very earnestly.
"Thank you," he said again.
He was looking at her speculatively, as if there were something about her that he found hard to understand. Her agitation had subsided, leaving her with a piteous, forlorn look--the look of the wayfarer who is almost too tired to go any farther.
There fell a brief silence between them, then with a little smile she spoke.
"Are you going to give me back my brooch?"
He put his hand in his pocket. "I was nearly keeping it for good and all," he said, as he brought it out.
She took it from him and pinned it in her dress without words. Then, shyly, she proffered her hand. "Thank you. Good-bye!"
He drew a short hard breath as he took it into his own. For a second or two he stood so, absolutely motionless, his great hand grasping hers. Then, very suddenly, he stooped to her, looking into her eyes.
"Good-bye, little new chum!" he said, softly. "It was--decent of you to treat me--without prejudice."
The words pierced her. A great tremor went through her. For an instant the pain was almost intolerable.
"Oh, spare me that!" she said, quickly and passionately, and drew her hand away.
The next moment she was running blindly through the passage, scarcely knowing which way she went, intent only upon escape.
A man at the foot of the stairs stood aside for her, and she fled past him without a glance. He turned and watched her with keen, alert eyes till she was out of sight. Then, without haste, he took his way in the direction whence she had come.
But he did not go beyond the threshold of the little dusty conservatory, for something he saw within made him draw swiftly back.
When Fletcher Hill went to the court that day, he was grimmer, colder, more unapproachable even than was his wont. He had to deal with one or two minor cases from the gold mine, and the treatment he meted out was of as severe an order as circumstances would permit.