Chapter XXXI. The Barrister's Fee

Six months later, on a fine evening which came as the fitting close of a perfect May afternoon, Brereton got out of a London express at Norcaster and entered the little train which made its way by a branch line to the very heart of the hills. He had never been back to these northern regions since the tragedies of which he had been an unwilling witness, and when the little train came to a point in its winding career amongst the fell-sides and valleys from whence Highmarket could be seen, with the tree-crowned Shawl above it, he resolutely turned his face and looked in the opposite direction. He had no wish to see the town again; he would have been glad to cut that chapter out of his book of memories. Nevertheless, being so near to it, he could not avoid the recollections which came crowding on him because of his knowledge that Highmarket's old gables and red roofs were there, within a mile or two, had he cared to look at them in the glint of the westering sun. No--he would never willingly set foot in that town again!--there was nobody there now that he had any desire to see. Bent, when the worst was over, and the strange and sordid story had come to its end, had sold his business, quietly married Lettie and taken her away for a long residence abroad, before returning to settle down in London. Brereton had seen them for an hour or two as they passed through London on their way to Paris and Italy, and had been more than ever struck by young Mrs. Bent's philosophical acceptance of facts. Her father, in Lettie's opinion, had always been a deeply-wronged and much injured man, and it was his fate to have suffered by his life-long connexion with that very wicked person, Mallalieu: he had unfortunately paid the penalty at last--and there was no more to be said about it. It might be well, thought Brereton, that Bent's wife should be so calm and equable of temperament, for Bent, on his return to England, meant to go in for politics, and Lettie would doubtless make an ideal help-meet for a public man. She would face situations with a cool head and a well-balanced judgment--and so, in that respect, all was well. All the same, Brereton had a strong notion that neither Mr. nor Mrs. Bent would ever revisit Highmarket.

As for himself, his thoughts went beyond Highmarket--to the place amongst the hills which he had never seen. After Harborough's due acquittal Brereton, having discharged his task, had gone back to London. But ever since then he had kept up a regular correspondence with Avice, and he knew all the details of the new life which had opened up for her and her father with the coming of Mr. Wraythwaite of Wraye. Her letters were full of vivid descriptions of Wraye itself, and of the steward's house in which she and Harborough--now appointed steward and agent to his foster-brother's estate--had taken up their residence. She had a gift of description, and Brereton had gained a good notion of Wraye from her letters--an ancient and romantic place, set amongst the wild hills of the Border, lonely amidst the moors, and commanding wide views of river and sea. It was evidently the sort of place in which a lover of open spaces, such as he knew Avice to be, could live an ideal life. But Brereton had travelled down from London on purpose to ask her to leave it.

He had come at last on a sudden impulse, unknown to any one, and therefore unexpected. Leaving his bag at the little station in the valley at which he left the train just as the sun was setting behind the surrounding hills, he walked quickly up a winding road between groves of fir and pine towards the great grey house which he knew must be the place into which the man from Australia had so recently come under romantic circumstances. At the top of a low hill he paused and looked about him, recognizing the scenes from the descriptions which Avice had given him in her letters. There was Wraye itself--a big, old-world place, set amongst trees at the top of a long park-like expanse of falling ground; hills at the back, the sea in the far distance. The ruins of an ancient tower stood near the house; still nearer to Brereton, in an old-fashioned flower garden, formed by cutting out a plateau on the hillside, stood a smaller house which he knew--also from previous description--to be the steward's. He looked long at this before he went nearer to it, hoping to catch the flutter of a gown amongst the rose-trees already bright with bloom. And at last, passing through the rose-trees he went to the stone porch and knocked--and was half-afraid lest Avice herself should open the door to him. Instead, came; a strapping, redcheeked North-country lass who stared at this evident traveller from far-off parts before she found her tongue. No--Miss Avice wasn't in, she was down the garden, at the far end.

Brereton hastened down the garden; turned a corner; they met unexpectedly. Equally unexpected, too, was the manner of their meeting. For these two had been in love with each other from an early stage of their acquaintance, and it seemed only natural now that when at last they touched hands, hand should stay in hand. And when two young people hold each other's hands, especially on a Springtide evening, and under the most romantic circumstances and surroundings, lips are apt to say more than tongues--which is as much as to say that without further preface these two expressed all they had to say in their first kiss.

Nevertheless, Brereton found his tongue at last. For when he had taken a long and searching look at the girl and had found in her eyes what he sought, he turned and looked at wood, hill, sky, and sea.

"This is all as you described it" he said, with his arm round her, "and yet the first real thing I have to say to you now that I am here is--to ask you to leave it!"

She smiled at that and again put her hand in his.

"But--we shall come back to it now and then--together!" she said.