Chapter III. The Minotaur
 

"Not stopping to supper even? Well, you must be a darned looney!"

Adam sat down astride his wood-block with the words, and looked up at his son with the aggressive expression of a Scotch terrier daring a Newfoundland.

Rufus, with his hands in his pockets, leaned against the woodshed. He made no reply of any sort to his father's brisk observation. Obviously it made not the faintest impression upon him.

After a moment or two he spoke, his pipe in the corner of his mouth. "If that chap bathes off the Spear Point rocks when the tide's at the spring he'll get into difficulties."

"Who says he does?" demanded Adam.

Rufus jerked his head. "I saw him--from my place--this afternoon. Tide was going down, or the current would have caught him. Better warn him."

"I did," responded Adam sharply. "Warned him long ago. Warned him of the quicksand, too."

Rufus grunted. "Then he's only himself to thank. Or maybe he doesn't know a spring tide from a neap."

"Oh, he's not such a fool as that," said Adam.

Rufus grunted once again, and relapsed into silence.

It was at this point that Mrs. Peck showed her portly person at the back door of The Ship.

"Why, Rufus," she said, "I thought you was in the front with Columbine."

Rufus stood up with the deference that he never omitted to pay to Adam's wife. "So I was," he said. "I came along here after to talk to Adam."

Mrs. Peck's round eyes gave him a searching look. "Did you have your mulberry wine?" she asked.

"Yes, Mother."

"You were mighty quick about it," commented Mrs. Peck.

"Yes, he's in a hurry," said Adam, with one of his birdlike glances. "Can't stop for anything, missus. Wants to get back to his supper."

"I never!" said Mrs. Peck. "You aren't in that hurry, Rufus, surely! Just as I was going to ask you to do something to oblige me, too!"

"What's that?" said Rufus.

Mrs. Peck descended into the yard with a hint of mystery. "Well, just this," she said confidentially. "That there Mr. Knight, he's a very nice young gentleman; but he's an artist, and you know, artists don't look at things like ordinary folk. He wants to get a moonlight picture of the Spear Point, and he's got our Columbine to say she'll take him there tonight. Well, now, I don't think it's right, and I told her so. But, of course, she come out as pat as anything with him being an artist and different-like from the rest. Still, I said as I'd rather she didn't, and Adam had better take him, because of the quicksand, you know. It wouldn't be hardly safe to let him go alone. He's a bit foolhardy too. But Adam's not so young as you, Rufus, and he was out before sunrise. So I thought as how maybe you'd step into the breach and take Mr. Knight along. Come, you won't refuse?"

She spoke the last words coaxingly, aware of a certain hardening of the young fisherman's rugged face.

Adam had got off his chopping-block, and was listening with pursed lips and something of the expression of a terrier at a rat-hole.

"Yes, you go, Rufus!" he said, as Mrs. Peck paused. "You show him round! I'd like him to know you."

"What for?" said Rufus.

Adam contorted one side of his face into something that was between a wink and a grin. "Do you good to go into society," he said. "That's all right, missus, he'll go. Better go and ask Mr. Knight what time he wants to start."

"Wait a bit!" commanded Rufus.

Mrs. Peck waited. She knew that her stepson was as slow of speech as his father was prompt, but she thought none the less of him for that. Rufus was solid, and she respected solid men.

"It comes to this," said Rufus, speaking ponderously. "I'll go if I'm wanted. But I'm not one for shoving myself in otherwise. Maybe the chap won't be so keen himself when he knows he can't have Columbine to go with him. Find that out first!"

Mrs. Peck looked at him with an approving smile. "Lor', Rufus! You've got some sense," she said. "But I wonder how Columbine will take it if I says anything to Mr. Knight behind her back."

Adam chuckled. "Columbine in a tantrum is one of the best sights I know," he remarked.

"Ah! She don't visit her tantrums on you," rejoined his wife. "You can afford to smile."

"And I does," said Adam.

Rufus turned away. There was no smile on his countenance. He said nothing, but there was that in his demeanour that clearly indicated that he personally was neither amused nor disconcerted by the tantrums of Columbine.

He followed Mrs. Peck indoors, and sat down in the kitchen to await developments. And Adam, whistling cheerfully, strolled to the bar.

Mrs. Peck had to dish up the visitor's dinner before she could tackle him upon the subject in hand. She trotted to and fro upon her task, too intent for further speech with Rufus, who sat in unbroken silence, gazing steadily before him with a Sphinx-like immobility that made of him an impressive figure.

The beefsteak was already in the dish, and Mrs. Peck was in the act of pouring the gravy over it when there sounded a light step on the stone of the passage and Columbine entered.

She had removed her sun-bonnet and donned a dainty little apron. The soft dark hair clustered tenderly about her temples.

"Oh, Aunt Liza," she said, "if I didn't go and forget that Sally was out tonight! I'm sorry I'm too late to help with the dinner. But I'll take it in."

She caught her breath at sight of the massive, silent figure seated against the wall, but instantly recovered her composure and passed it by with an upward tilt of the chin.

"You needn't trouble yourself to do that, my dear," rejoined Mrs. Peck, with a touch of tartness. "I'll wait on Mr. Knight myself. You can lay the supper in the parlour if you've a mind to be useful. There'll be four to lay for."

Columbine turned with something of a pounce. "No, there won't! There'll be three," she said. "If that--oaf--stays to supper, I go without!"

"Good gracious!" ejaculated Mrs. Peck.

Rufus came out of his silence. "That's all right. I'm not staying to supper," he said.

"But--lor' sakes!--what's the matter?" questioned Mrs. Peck. "Have you two been quarrelling?"

"No, we haven't!" flashed Columbine. "I wouldn't stoop. But I'm not going to sit down to supper with a man who hasn't learnt manners. I'd sooner go without--much."

Rufus remained absolutely unmoved. He made no attempt at self-justification, though Mrs. Peck was staring from one to the other in mystified interrogation.

Columbine turned swiftly and caught up a cover for the savoury dish that steamed on the table. "You'd better let me take this in before it gets cold," she said.

"No; put it on the rack!" commanded Mrs. Peck. "There's a drop of soup to go in first. And, Columbine, my dear, I don't think it's right of you to go losing your temper that way. Rufus is Adam's son, remember, and you can't refuse to sit at table with him."

"Leave her alone, Mother!" For the second time Rufus intervened. "I've offended her. My mistake. I'll know better next time."

His deep voice was wholly devoid of humour. It was, in fact, devoid of any species of emotion whatever. Yet, oddly enough, the anger died out of Columbine's face as she heard it. She turned to the tablecloth-press and began to unwind it in silence.

Mrs. Peck sniffed, and took up the soup-tureen.

As she waddled out of the kitchen Columbine withdrew the parlour tablecloth and turned round.

"If you're really sorry," she said, "I'll forgive you."

Rufus regarded her for several seconds in silence, a slow smile dawning in his eyes. "Thank you," he said finally.

"You are sorry then?" insisted Columbine.

He shook his great bull-head, the smile still in his eyes. "I wouldn't have missed it for anything," he said.

There was no perceptible familiarity in the remark, and Columbine, after brief consideration, decided to dismiss it without discussion. "Well, let it be a lesson to you, and don't you ever do such a thing again!" she said severely. "For I won't have you or any man lay hands on me--not even in fun."

"All right," said Rufus.

He thrust his hands deep into his pockets as if to remove all cause of offence, and was rewarded by a swift smile from Columbine. The storm had blown away.

"I'll lay for four after all," she said, as she whisked out of the room.

Rufus was still seated in solitary state in the kitchen when Mrs. Peck returned from the little coffee-room where she had been serving her guest.

She peered round with caution ere she came close to him and spoke.

"It's as you thought. He don't want to go with either you or Adam."

Rufus's face remained unchanged; it was slightly bovine of expression as he received the news. "We'll both get to bed in good time then," was his comment.

Mrs. Peck's smooth brow drew in momentary exasperation. She had expected something more dramatic than this.

"I'm glad you're so easily satisfied," she said. "But let me tell you--I'm not!"

She paused to see if this piece of information would take more effect than the first, but again Rufus proved a disappointment. Neither by word nor look did he express any sympathy.

Mrs. Peck continued, it being contrary to her nature to leave anything to the imagination of her hearers. "If he'd been content to go with one of you, I wouldn't have given it another thought. Goodness knows, I'm not of a suspicious turn. But the moment I mention the matter, he turns round with his sweetest smile and he says, 'Oh, don't you trouble, Mrs. Peck!' he says. 'I quite understand. Miss Columbine explained it all, and I quite see your point. It ought to have occurred to me sooner,' he says, smiling with them nice teeth of his, 'but, if you'll believe me, it didn't.' And then, when I suggested maybe he'd like you or Adam to go with him instead, it was, 'No, no, Mrs. Peck. I wouldn't ask it of 'em. I couldn't drag any man at the chariot-wheels of Art. If I did, she would see to it that the chariot was empty.' He most always talks like that," ended Mrs. Peck in an aggrieved tone. "He's that airy in his ways."

A sudden trill of laughter from the doorway caused her to straighten herself sharply and trot to the fireplace with a guilty air.

Columbine entered, light of foot, her eyes brimful of mirth. "You're caught, Aunt Liza! Yes, you're caught!" she commented ungenerously. "I know exactly what you were saying. Shall I tell you? No, p'raps I'd better not. I'll tell you what you looked like instead, shall I? You looked exactly like that funny old speckled hen in the yard who always clucks such a lot. And Rufus"--she threw him a merry glance from which all resentment had wholly departed--"Rufus looks--and is--just like a great red ox."

"Don't you be pert!" said Mrs. Peck, stooping stoutly over the fire. "Get a duster and dust them plates!"

Columbine laughed again with her chin in the air. She found a duster and occupied herself as desired.

Her eyes were upon her work. Plainly she was not looking at Rufus, not apparently thinking of him. But--very suddenly--without changing her attitude, she flashed him a swift glance. He was looking straight at her, and in his blue eyes was an intense, deep glow as of flaming spirit.

Columbine's look shot away from him with the rapidity of a swallow on the wing. The colour deepened in her cheeks.

"P'raps he's almost more like a prize bull," she said meditatively. "Perhaps he's a Minotaur, Aunt Liza. Do you think he is?"

"My dear, I don't know what you're talking about," said Mrs. Peck, with a touch of acidity.

Columbine laughed a little. "Do you know, Rufus?" she said.

She did not look at him with the question; there was a quivering dimple in her red cheek that came and went.

"I'd like to know," said Rufus with simplicity.

"Would you, really?" Columbine polished the last plate vigorously and set it down. "The Minotaur," she said, in the tone of a schoolmistress delivering a lecture, "was a monster, half-bull, half-man, who lived in a place like the Spear Point Caves, and devoured young men and maidens. You live nearer to the Caves than any one else, don't you, Rufus?"

Again she ventured a darting glance at him. His look was still upon her, but its fiery quality was less apparent. He met the challenge with his slow, indulgent smile.

"Yes, I live there. I don't devour anybody. I'm not--that sort of monster."

Columbine shook her head. "I'm not so sure of that," she said. "But I dare say you'd tame."

"P'raps you'd like to do it," suggested Rufus.

It was his first direct overture, and Columbine, who had angled for it, experienced a thrill of triumph. But she was swift to mask her satisfaction. She tossed her head, and turned: "Oh, I've no time to waste that way," she said. "You must do your own taming, Mr. Minotaur. When you're quite civilised, p'raps I'll talk to you."

She was gone with the words, carrying her plates with her.

"She's a deal too pert," observed Mrs. Peck to the saucepan she was stirring. "It's my belief now that that Mr. Knight's been putting ideas into her head. She's getting wild; that's what she is."

Knowing Rufus, she expected no response, and for several seconds none came.

Then to her surprise she heard his voice, deep and sonorous as the bell-buoy that was moored by the Spear Point Reef.

"Maybe she'd tame," he said.

And "Goodness gracious unto me!" said Mrs. Peck, as she lifted her saucepan off the fire.