The Tidal Wave by Ethel M. Dell
Chapter II. The Passion-Flower
"Where's that Columbine?" said Mrs. Peck.
A gay trill like the call of a blackbird in the dawning answered her. Columbine, with a pink sun-bonnet over her black hair, was watering the flowers in the little conservatory that led out of the drawing-room. She had just come in from the garden, and a gorgeous red rose was pinned upon her breast. Mrs. Peck stood in the doorway and watched her.
The face above the red rose was so lovely that even her matter-of-fact soul had to pause to admire. It was a perpetual wonder to her and a perpetual fascination. The dark, unawakened eyes, the long, perfect brows, the deep, rich colouring, all combined to make such a picture as good Mrs. Peck realised to be superb.
Again the pure contralto trill came from the red lips, and then, with a sudden movement that had in it something of the grace of an alighting bird, Columbine turned, swinging her empty can.
"I've promised to take Mr. Knight to the Spear Point Caves by moonlight," she said. "He's doing a moonlight study, and he doesn't know the lie of the quicksand."
"Sakes alive!" said Mrs. Peck. "What made him ask you? There's Adam knows every inch of the shore better nor what you do."
"He didn't ask," said Columbine. "I offered. And I know the shore just as well as Adam does, Aunt Liza. Adam himself showed me the lie of the quicksand long ago. I know it like my own hand."
Mrs. Peck pursed her lips. "I doubt but what you'd better take Adam along too," she said. "I wouldn't feel easy about you. And there won't be any moonlight worth speaking of till after ten. It wouldn't do for you to be traipsing about alone even with Mr. Knight--nice young gentleman as he be--at that hour."
"Aunt Liza, I don't traipse!" Momentary indignation shone in the beautiful eyes and passed like a gleam of light. "Dear Aunt Liza," laughed Columbine, "aren't you funny?"
"Not a bit," maintained Mrs. Peck. "I'm just common-sensical, my dear. And it ain't right--it never were right in my young day--to go walking out alone with a man after bedtime."
"A man, Aunt Liza! Oh, but a man! An artist isn't a man--at least, not an ordinary man." There was a hint of earnestness in Columbine's tone, notwithstanding its lightness.
But Mrs. Peck remained firm. "It wouldn't make it right, not if he was an angel from heaven," she declared.
Columbine's gay laugh had in it that quality of youth that surmounts all obstacles. "He's much safer than an angel," she protested, "because he can't fly. Besides, the Spear Point Caves are all on this side of the Point. You could watch us all the time if you'd a mind to."
But Mrs. Peck did not laugh. "I'd rather you didn't go, my dear," she said. "So let that be the end of it, there's a good girl!"
"Oh, but I--" began Columbine, and broke off short. "Goodness, how you made me jump!" she said instead.
Rufus, his burly form completely blocking the doorway, was standing half in and half out of the garden, looking at her.
"Lawks!" said Mrs. Peck. "So you did me! Good evening, Rufus! Are you wanting Adam?"
"Not specially," said Rufus. He entered, with massive, lounging movements. "I suppose I can come in," he remarked.
"What a question!" ejaculated Mrs. Peck.
Columbine said nothing. She picked up her empty watering-can and swung it carelessly on one finger, hunting for invisible weeds in the geranium-pots the while.
Mrs. Peck was momentarily at a loss. She was not accustomed to entertaining Rufus in his father's absence.
"Have a glass of mulberry wine!" she suggested.
"Columbine, run and fetch it, dear! It's in the right-hand corner, third shelf, of the cupboard under the stairs. I'm sure you're very welcome," she added to Rufus, "but you must excuse me, for I've got to see to Mr. Knight's dinner."
"That's all right, Mother," said Rufus.
He always called her mother; it was a term of deference with him rather than affection. But Mrs. Peck liked him for it.
"Sit you down!" she said hospitably. "And mind you make yourself quite at home! Columbine will look after you. You'll be staying to supper, I hope?"
"Thanks!" said Rufus. "I don't know. Where's Adam?"
"He's chopping a bit of wood in the yard. He don't want any help. You'll see him presently. You stop and have a chat with Columbine!" said Mrs. Peck; and with a smile and nod she bustled stoutly away.
When Columbine returned with the mulberry wine and a glass on a tray the conservatory was empty. She set down her tray and paused.
There was a faintly mutinous curve about her soft lips, a gleam of dancing mischief in her eyes.
In a moment a step sounded on the path outside, and Rufus reappeared. He had been out to fill her watering-can, and he deposited it full at her feet.
"Don't put it there!" she said, with a touch of sharpness. "I don't want to tumble over it, do I? Thank you for filling it, but you needn't have troubled. I've done."
"Then it'll come in for tomorrow," said Rufus, setting the can deliberately in a corner.
Columbine turned to pour out a glass of Mrs. Peck's mulberry wine.
"Only one glass?" said Rufus.
She threw him a quizzing smile over her shoulder. "Well, you don't want two, do you?"
"No," said Rufus slowly. "But I don't drink--alone."
She gave a low, gurgling laugh. "You'll be saying you don't smoke alone next. If you want someone to keep you company, I'd better fetch Adam."
She turned round to him with the words, offering the glass on the tray. Her eyes were lowered, but the upward curl of the black lashes somehow conveyed the impression that she was peeping through them. The tilt of the red lips, with the pearly teeth just showing in a smile, was of so alluring an enchantment that the most level-headed of men could scarcely have failed to pause and admire.
Rufus paused so long that at last she lifted those glorious eyes of hers in semi-scornful interrogation.
"What's the matter?" she inquired. "Don't you want it?"
He made an odd gesture as of one at a loss to explain himself. "Won't you drink first?" he said, his voice very low.
"No, thank you," said Columbine briskly. "I don't like it."
"Then--I don't like it either," he said.
"Don't be silly!" she said. "Of course you do! I know you do! Take it, and don't be ridiculous!"
But Rufus turned away with solid resolution. "No, thanks," he said.
Columbine set down the tray again with a hint of exasperation. "You're just like a child," she said severely. "A great, overgrown boy, that's what you are!"
"All right," said Rufus, propping himself against the door-post.
"It's not all right. It's time you grew up." Columbine picked up the full glass, and, carrying it daintily, advanced upon him. "I suppose I shall have to make you take it like medicine," she remarked.
She stood against the door-post, facing him, upright, slender, exquisite as an opening flower.
"Drink, puppy, drink!" she said flippantly, and elevated the glass towards her guest's somewhat grim lips.
The sombre blue eyes came down to her with something of a flash. And in the same moment Rufus's great right hand disengaged itself from his pocket and grasped the slim wrist of the hand that held the wine.
"You drink--first!" said Rufus, and guided the glass with unmistakable resolution to the provocative red lips.
She jerked back her head to avoid it, but the doorpost against which she stood checked the backward movement. Before she could prevent it the wine was in her mouth.
She flung up her free hand and would have knocked the glass away, but Rufus could be prompt of action when he chose. He caught it from her and drained it almost in the same movement. Not a drop was spilt between them. He set down the glass on a shelf of the conservatory, and propped himself up once more with his hands in his pockets.
Columbine's face was burning red; her eyes literally blazed. Her whole body vibrated as if strung on wires. "How--dare you?" she said, and showed her white teeth with the words like an angry tigress.
He looked down at her, a faint smile in his blue eyes. "But I don't drink--alone," he said in such a tone of gentle explanation as he might have used to a child.
She stamped her foot. "I hate you!" she said. "I'll never forgive you!"
"A joke's a joke," said Rufus, still in the tone of a mild instructor.
"A joke!" Her wrath enwrapped her like a flame. "It was not a joke! It was a coarse--and hateful--trick!"
"All right," said Rufus, as one giving up a hopeless task.
"It's not all right!" flashed Columbine. "You're a bounder, an oaf, a brute! I--I'll never speak to you again, unless--you--you--apologise!"
He was still looking down with that vague hint of amusement in his eyes--the look of a man who watches the miniature fury of some tiny creature.
"I'll do anything you like," he said with slow indulgence. "I didn't know you'd turn nasty, or I wouldn't have done it."
"Nasty!" echoed Columbine. And then her wrath went suddenly into a superb gust of scorn. "Oh, you--you are beyond words!" she said. "You had better get along to the bar and drink there. You'll find your own kind there to drink with."
"I'd rather drink with you," said Rufus.
She uttered a laugh that was tremulous with anger. "You've done it for the first and last time, my man," she said.
With the words she turned like a darting, indignant bird, and left him.
Someone was entering the drawing-room from the hall with a careless, melodious whistle--a whistle that ended on a note of surprise as Columbine sped through the room. The whistler--a tall, bronzed young man in white flannels--stopped short to regard her.
His eyes were grey and wary under absolutely level brows. His hair was dark, with an inclination--sternly repressed--to waviness above the forehead. He made a decidedly pleasant picture, as even Adam could not have denied.
Columbine also checked herself at sight of him, but the red blood was throbbing at her temples. There was no hiding her agitation.
"You seem in a hurry," remarked Knight. "I hope there is nothing wrong."
His chin was modelled on firm lines, but there was a very distinct cleft in it that imparted to him the look of one who could smile at most things. His words were kindly, but they did not hold any very deep concern.
Columbine came to a stand, gripping the back of a chair to steady herself. "Oh, I--I have been--insulted!" she panted.
The straight brows went up a little; the man himself stiffened slightly. Without further words he moved across to the door into the conservatory and looked through it. He was in time to see Rufus's great, lounging figure sauntering away in the direction of the wood-yard.
Knight stood a moment or two and watched him, then quietly turned and rejoined the girl.
She was still leaning upon the chair, but she was gradually recovering her self-control. As he drew near she made a slight movement as if to resume her interrupted flight. But some other impulse intervened, and she remained where she was.
Knight came up and stood beside her. "What has he been doing to annoy you?" he asked.
She made a small, vehement gesture of disgust. "Oh, we won't talk of him. He is an oaf. I dare say he doesn't know any better, but he'll never have a chance of doing it again. I don't mix with the riff-raff."
"He's Adam's son, isn't he?" questioned Knight.
She nodded. "Yes, the great, hulking lubber! Adam's all right. I like Adam. But Rufus--well, Rufus is a bounder, and I'll never have anything more to say to him."
"I think you are quite right to hold your head up above these fisher fellows," remarked Knight, his grey eyes watching her with an appraising expression. "They are as much out of place near you as a bed of bindweed would be in the neighbourhood of a passion-flower." His glance took in her still panting bosom. "I think you are something of a passion-flower," he said, faintly smiling. "I wonder at any man daring to risk offending you."
Columbine stood up with the free movement of a disdainful princess. "Oh, he's just a lout," she said. "He doesn't know any better. It isn't as if you had done it."
"That would have been different, would it?" said Knight.
She smiled, but a sombre light still shone in her eyes. "Quite different," she said with simplicity. "You see, you're a gentleman. And--gentlemen--don't do unpleasant things like that."
He laughed a little. "You make me feel quite nervous. What a shocking thing it would be if I ever did anything to forfeit your good opinion."
"You couldn't," said Columbine.
"Couldn't!" He repeated the word with an odd inflection.
"It wouldn't be you," she explained with the utmost gravity, as one stating an irrefutable fact.
"Thank you," said Knight.
"Oh, it's not a compliment," she returned. "It's just the truth. There are some people--a few people--that one knows one can trust through and through. And you are one of them, that's all."
"Is that so?" said Knight. "You know, that's rather--a colossal thing--to say of any one."
"Then you are colossal," said Columbine, smiling more freely.
Knight turned aside, and picked up the sketch-book he had laid upon the table on entering. "Are you sure you are not rash?" he said, rather in the tone of one making a remark than asking a question.
"Fairly sure," said Columbine.
She followed him. Perhaps he had foreseen that she would. She stood by his side.
"May I see the latest?" she asked.
He opened the book and showed her a blank page. "That is the latest," he said.
She looked at him interrogatively.
"I am waiting for my--inspiration," he said.
"I hope you will find it soon," she said.
He answered her with steady conviction. "I shall find it tonight by moonlight at the Spear Point Rock."
Her face clouded a little. "I believe Adam is going to take you," she said.
"What?" said Knight. "You are never going to let me down?"
She smiled with a touch of irony. "It was the Spear Point you wanted," she reminded him.
"And you," said Knight, "to show the way."
Something in his tone arrested her. Her beautiful eyes sank suddenly to the blank page he held. "Adam can do that--as well as I can," she said.
"But you said you would," said Knight. His voice was low; he was looking full at her. He saw the rich colour rising in her cheeks. "What is it?" he said. "Won't they let you?"
She raised her head abruptly, proudly. "I please myself," she said. "No one has the ordering of me."
His grey eyes shone a little. "Then it pleases you--to let me down?" he questioned.
Her look flashed suddenly up to his. She saw his expression and laughed. "I didn't think you'd care," she said. "Adam knows the lie of the quicksand. That's all you really want."
"Oh, pardon me!" said Knight. "You are quite wrong, if you imagine that I am indifferent as to who goes with me. Inspiration won't burn in a cold place."
She dropped her lids, still looking at him. "Isn't Adam inspiring?" she asked.
"He couldn't furnish the particular sort of inspiration I am needing for my moonlight picture," said Knight.
He spoke deliberately, but his brows were slightly drawn, belying the coolness of his speech.
"What is the sort of inspiration you are wanting?" asked Columbine.
He smiled with a hint of provocation. "I'll tell you that when we get there."
Her answering smile was infinitely more provocative than his. "That will be very interesting," she said.
Knight closed his sketch-book. "I am glad to know," he said thoughtfully, "that you please yourself, Miss Columbine. In doing so, you have the happy knack of pleasing--others."
He made her a slight, courtly bow, and turned away.
He left her still standing at the table, looking after him with perplexity and gathering resolution in her eyes.