Helena's Path/Chapter 7
Deprived of their leader's inspiration, the other two representatives of Scarsmoor did not brave the Passage Perilous to the sea that morning. Lynborough was well content to forego further aggression for the moment. His words declared his satisfaction—
"I have driven a wedge—another wedge—into the Marchesa's phalanx. Yes, I think I may say a second wedge. Disaffection has made its entry into Nab Grange, Cromlech. The process of isolation has begun. Perhaps after lunch we will resume operations."
But fortune was to give him an opportunity even before lunch. It appeared that Stabb had sniffed out the existence of two old brasses in Fillby Church; he was determined to inspect them at the earliest possible moment. Lynborough courteously offered to accompany him, and they set out together about eleven o'clock.
No incident marked their way. Lynborough rang up the parish clerk at his house, presented Stabb to that important functionary, and bespoke for him every consideration. Then he leaned against the outside of the churchyard wall, peacefully smoking a cigarette.
On the opposite side of the village street stood the Lynborough Arms. The inn was kept by a very superior man, who had retired to this comparative leisure after some years of service as butler with Lynborough's father. This excellent person, perceiving Lynborough, crossed the road and invited him to partake of a glass of ale in memory of old days. Readily acquiescing, Lynborough crossed the road, sat down with the landlord on a bench by the porch, and began to discuss local affairs over the beer.
"I suppose you haven't kept up your cricket since you've been in foreign parts, my lord?" asked Dawson, the landlord, after some conversation which need not occupy this narrative. "We're playing a team from Easthorpe to-morrow, and we're very short."
"Haven't played for nearly fifteen years, Dawson. But I tell you what—I daresay my friend Mr. Wilbraham will play. Mr. Stabb's no use."
"Every one helps," said Dawson. "We've got two of the gentlemen from the Grange—Mr. Stillford, a good bat, and Captain Irons, who can bowl a bit—or so John Goodenough tells me."
Lynborough's eyes had grown alert. "Well, I used to bowl a bit, too. If you're really hard up for a man, Dawson—really at a loss, you know—I'll play. It'll be better than going into the field short, won't it?"
Dawson was profuse in his thanks. Lynborough listened patiently.
"I tell you what I should like to do, Dawson," he said. "I should like to stand the lunch."
It was the turn of Dawson's eyes to grow alert. They did. Dawson supplied the lunch. The club's finances were slender, and its ideas correspondingly modest. But if Lord Lynborough "stood" the lunch——!
"And to do it really well," added that nobleman. "A sort of little feast to celebrate my home-coming. The two teams—and perhaps a dozen places for friends—ladies, the Vicar, and so on, eh, Dawson? Do you see the idea?"
Dawson saw the idea much more clearly than he saw most ideas. Almost corporeally he beheld the groaning board.
"On such an occasion, Dawson, we shouldn't quarrel about figures."
"Your lordship's always most liberal," Dawson acknowledged in tones which showed some trace of emotion.
"Put the matter in hand at once. But look here, I don't want it talked about. Just tell the secretary of the club—that's enough. Keep the tent empty till the moment comes. Then display your triumph! It'll be a pleasant little surprise for everybody, won't it?"
Dawson thought it would; at any rate it was one for him.
At this instant an elderly lady of demure appearance was observed, to walk up to the lych-gate and enter the churchyard. Lynborough inquired of his companion who she was.
"That's Miss Gilletson from the Grange, my lord—the Marchesa's companion."
"Is it?" said Lynborough softly. "Oh, is it indeed?" He rose from his seat. "Good-bye, Dawson. Mind—a dead secret, and a rattling good lunch!"
"I'll attend to it, my lord," Dawson assured him with the utmost cheerfulness. Never had Dawson invested a glass of beer to better profit!
Lynborough threw away his cigar and entered the sacred precincts. His brain was very busy. "Another wedge!" he was saying to himself. "Another wedge!"
The lady had gone into the church. Lynborough went in too. He came first on Stabb—on his hands and knees, examining one of the old brasses and making copious notes in a pocket-book.
"Have you seen a lady come in, Cromlech?" asked Lord Lynborough.
"No, I haven't," said Cromlech, now producing a yard measure and proceeding to ascertain the dimensions of the brass.
"You wouldn't, if it were Venus herself," replied Lynborough pleasantly. "Well, I must look for her on my own account."
He found her in the neighbourhood of his family monuments which, with his family pew, crowded the little chancel of the church. She was not employed in devotions, but was arranging some flowers in a vase—doubtless a pious offering. Somewhat at a loss how to open the conversation, Lynborough dropped his hat—or rather gave it a dexterous jerk, so that it fell at the lady's feet. Miss Gilletson started violently, and Lord Lynborough humbly apologized. Thence he glided into conversation, first about the flowers, then about the tombs. On the latter subject he was exceedingly interesting and informing.
"Dear, dear! Married the Duke of Dexminster's daughter, did he?" said Miss Gilletson, considerably thrilled. "She's not buried here, is she?"
"No, she's not," said Lynborough, suppressing the fact that the lady had run away after six months of married life. "And my own father's not buried here, either; he chose my mother's family place in Devonshire. I thought it rather a pity."
"Your own father?" Miss Gilletson gasped.
"Oh, I forgot you didn't know me," he said, laughing. "I'm Lord Lynborough, you know. That's how I come to be so well up in all this. And I tell you what—I should like to show you some of our Scarsmoor roses on your way home."
"Oh, but if you're Lord Lynborough, I—I really couldn't——"
"Who's to know anything about it, unless you choose, Miss Gilletson?" he asked with his ingratiating smile and his merry twinkle. "There's nothing so pleasant as a secret shared with a lady!"
It was a long time since a handsome man had shared a secret with Miss Gilletson. Who knows, indeed, whether such a thing had ever happened? Or whether Miss Gilletson had once just dreamed that some day it might—and had gone on dreaming for long, long days, till even the dream had slowly and sadly faded away? For sometimes it does happen like that. Lynborough meant nothing—but no possible effort (supposing he made it) could enable him to look as if he meant nothing. One thing at least he did mean—to make himself very pleasant to Miss Gilletson.
"'Mind—a dead secret, and a rattling good lunch!'"
Interested knave! It is impossible to avoid that reflection. Yet let ladies in their turn ask themselves if they are over-scrupulous in their treatment of one man when their affections are set upon another.
He showed Miss Gilletson all the family tombs. He escorted her from the church. Under renewed vows of secrecy he induced her to enter Scarsmoor. Once in the gardens, the good lady was lost. They had no such roses at Nab Grange! Lynborough insisted on sending an enormous bouquet to the Vicar's wife in Miss Gilletson's name—and Miss Gilletson grew merry as she pictured the mystification of the Vicar's wife. For Miss Gilletson herself he superintended the selection of a nosegay of the choicest blooms; they laughed again together when she hid them in a large bag she carried—destined for the tea and tobacco which represented her little charities. Then—after pausing for one private word in his gardener's ear, which caused a boy to be sent off post-haste to the stables—he led her to the road, and in vain implored her to honour his house by setting foot in it. There the fear of the Marchesa or (it is pleasanter to think) some revival of the sense of youth, bred by Lynborough's deferential courtliness, prevailed. They came together through his lodge gates; and Miss Gilletson's face suddenly fell.
"That wretched gate!" she cried. "It's locked—and I haven't got the key."
"No more have I, I'm sorry to say," said Lynborough. He, on his part, had forgotten nothing.
"It's nearly two miles round by the road—and so hot and dusty!—Really Helena does cut off her nose to spite her face!" Though, in truth, it appeared rather to be Miss Gilletson's nose the Marchesa had cut off.
A commiserating gravity sat on Lord Lynborough's attentive countenance.
"If I were younger, I'd climb that wall," declared Miss Gilletson. "As it is—well, but for your lovely flowers, I'd better have gone the other way after all."
"I don't want you to feel that," said he, almost tenderly.
"I must walk!"
"Oh no, you needn't," said Lynborough.
As he spoke, there issued from the gates behind them a luxurious victoria, drawn by two admirable horses. It came to a stand by Lynborough, the coachman touching his hat, the footman leaping to the ground.
"Just take Miss Gilletson to the Grange, Williams. Stop a little way short of the house. She wants to walk through the garden."
"Very good, my lord."
"Put up the hood, Charles. The sun's very hot for Miss Gilletson."
"Yes, my lord."
"Nobody'll see you if you get out a hundred yards from the door—and it's really better than tramping the road on a day like this. Of course, if Beach Path were open—!" He shrugged his shoulders ever so slightly.
Fear of the Marchesa struggled in Miss Gilletson's heart with the horror of the hot and tiring walk—with the seduction of the shady, softly rolling, speedy carriage.
"If I met Helena!" she whispered; and the whisper was an admission of reciprocal confidence.
"It's the chance of that against the certainty of the tramp!"
"She didn't come down to breakfast this morning——"
"Ah, didn't she?" Lynborough made a note for his Intelligence Department.
"Perhaps she isn't up yet! I—I think I'll take the risk."
Lynborough assisted her into the carriage.
"I hope we shall meet again," he said, with no small empressement.
"I'm afraid not," answered Miss Gilletson dolefully. "You see, Helena——"
"Yes, yes; but ladies have their moods. Anyhow you won't think too hardly of me, will you? I'm not altogether an ogre."
There was a pretty faint blush on Miss Gilletson's cheek as she gave him her hand. "An ogre! No, dear Lord Lynborough," she murmured.
"A wedge!" said Lynborough, as he watched her drive away.
He was triumphant with what he had achieved—he was full of hope for what he had planned. If he reckoned right, the loyalty of the ladies at Nab Grange to the mistress thereof was tottering, if it had not fallen. His relations with the men awaited the result of the cricket match. Yet neither his triumph nor his hope could in the nature of the case exist without an intermixture of remorse. He hurt—or tried to hurt—what he would please—and hoped to please. His mood was mixed, and his smile not altogether mirthful as he stood looking at the fast-receding carriage.
Then suddenly, for the first time, he saw his enemy. Distantly—afar off! Yet without a doubt it was she. As he turned and cast his eyes over the forbidden path—the path whose seclusion he had violated, bold in his right—a white figure came to the sunk fence and stood there, looking not toward where he stood, but up to his castle on the hill. Lynborough edged near to the barricaded gate—a new padlock and new chevaux-de-frise of prickly branches guarded it. The latter, high as his head, screened him completely; he peered through the interstices in absolute security.
The white figure stood on the little bridge which led over the sunk fence into the meadow. He could see neither feature nor colour; only the slender shape caught and chained his eye. Tall she was, and slender, as his mocking forecast had prophesied. More than that he could not see.
Well, he did see one more thing. This beautiful shape, after a few minutes of what must be presumed to be meditation, raised its arm and shook its fist with decision at Scarsmoor Castle; then it turned and walked straight back to the Grange.
There was no sort of possibility of mistaking the nature or the meaning of the gesture.
It had the result of stifling Lynborough's softer mood, of reviving his pugnacity. "She must do more than that, if she's to win!" said he.