The focusing cloth clung to her head like a cowl as she raised it and bowed. There must have been nervousness on both sides, for the moment, but it did not prevent Lord Manister from taking off his hat with a sweep and swiftness that amounted almost to a flourish, nor Christina from noticing this and his clothes. He was so admirably attired in summer gray that she took pleasure in reflecting that she was herself unusually shabby, her idea being that contact with the incorrect was rather good for him. Correctness of any kind, it is to be feared, was ridiculously wrong in her eyes. Otherwise she might have been different herself.
“I knew it was you!” Lord Manister declared, having shaken her hand.
“How could you know?” said Christina, smiling. “You must be very clever.”
“I wish I was. No; I met your brother running like anything with some wooden things under his arm. He wouldn’t see me, but I saw him. I was going to pull up, but he wouldn’t see me.”
Miss Luttrell explained that her brother had gone back for plates, which they had both very stupidly forgotten; she added that she was sure he could not have recognized Lord Manister.
“Plates!” said this nobleman. “Ah, they’re important, I know.”
“Well, they’re your cartridges; you can’t shoot anything without them.”
Lord Manister gave a louder laugh than the remark merited; then he studied his boots among the daisies. Christina smiled as she watched him, until he looked up briskly, and nearly caught her.
“I say, Miss Luttrell, I should like immensely to be on in this scene, if you would let me! I mean to say I should like to see the thing taken. Perhaps you could do with the trap and my mare on the bridge; she’s something special, I assure you. And I have been thinking — if you think so too — that my man might go back for your brother and give him a lift. It must be monstrous hot walking. It’s a monstrous hot day, you know.”
This was not only an exaggeration, but a puff of smoke revealing hidden fires within the young man’s head. Christina fanned the fire until it tinged his cheek by willfully hesitating before giving him a gracious answer. For when she spoke it was to say, with a smile at his anxiety, “Really, you are very considerate, Lord Manister, and I am sure Herbert will be grateful.” They walked to the bridge, and stood upon it the next minute, watching the dogcart swing out of sight where the road bent.
“Your brother is very likely halfway back by this time,” remarked Lord Manister, who would have been very sorry to believe what he was saying. “I dare say my man will pick him up directly; if so, they’ll be back in a minute.”
“I hope they will,” said Christina —“the light is so excellent just now,” she was in a hurry to add.
“Ah, the light in Australia was better for this sort of thing.”
“As a rule, yes; but it would surely be difficult to beat this morning anywhere; the great thing is, over here, that you are so free from glare.”
“Then you like England?”
“Well, I must say I like this corner of England; I haven’t seen much else, you know.”
“Good! I am glad you like this corner; you know it’s ours,” said the young fellow simply. Then he paused. “How strange to meet you here, though!” he added, as if he could not help it, nor the slight stress that laid itself upon the personal pronoun.
“It should rather strike me as strange to meet you,” Miss Luttrell replied pointedly; “for I am sure I told you that my sister and her husband had taken Essingham Rectory for August. You may have forgotten the occasion. It was in London.”
“Dear me, no, I’m not likely to forget it. To be sure you told me — at Lady Almeric’s.”
“Then perhaps you remember saying that you knew of Essingham?”
It was not, perhaps, because this was very dryly said that Lord Manister smiled. Nor was the smile one of his best, which were charming; it was visibly the expression of his nervousness, not his mirth.
“Yes, I am sorry to say I do remember that,” he confessed with an awkwardness and humility which made Christina tingle in a sudden appreciation of his position in the world. “It was very foolish of me, Miss Luttrell.”
“I wonder what made you?” remarked Christina reflectively, but in a friendlier tone.
“Ah! don’t wonder,” he said impatiently. His eyes fell upon her for one moment, then wandered down the road, as he added strangely: “You do and say so many foolish things without a decent why or wherefore. They’re the things for which you never forgive yourself! They’re the things for which you never hope to be forgiven!”
The girl did not look at him, but her glance chased his down the road to the bend where the dogcart had vanished and would reappear. She, however, was the next to speak, for something had occurred to her that she very much desired to explain.
“You see, I didn’t know you lived here. I had never heard of Mundham when we met in town; if I had I shouldn’t have known it was yours. I never dreamt that I should meet you here. You understand, Lord Manister?”
“My dear Miss Luttrell,” cried Manister earnestly, “anybody could see that!”
So Christina lost nothing by her little exhibition of anxiety to impress this point upon him; for his reply was a triumphant flourish of the opinion she desired him to hold, to show her that he had it already; and his anxiety in the matter was even more apparent than her own.
“Thank you, Lord Manister,” said Christina, looking him full in the face. Then her glance dropped to his hand; and his fingers were entangled in his watch-chain; and in the knowledge that the greater awkwardness was on his side she raised her eyes confidently, and met the dogged stare of a young Briton about to make a clean breast of his misdeeds.
“Do you want to know why I didn’t mention our having taken this place — that time in town?”
“That depends on whether you want to tell me.”
“I must tell you. It was because I feared — I mean to say, it crossed my mind — that perhaps you mightn’t care to come here if you knew.”
He paused and watched her. She was looking down, with her chin half buried in the focusing cloth, which had slipped from her head and fallen round her shoulders. The coolness of her face against the black velvet exasperated him, and the more so because he felt himself flushing as he added, “I see I was a fool to fear that.”
“It was certainly unnecessary, Lord Manister,” said the girl calmly, and not without a note of amusement in her voice.
“So you don’t mind meeting one!”
“Lord Manister, I am delighted. Why should I mind?”
“You know I behaved like a brute.”
“You did, I’m afraid.” He winced. “You went away without saying good-by to your friends.”
“I went away without saying good-by to you.”
“No!” he cried sharply. “You and I were more than friends.”
Christina drummed the ground with one foot. Her glance passed over Lord Manister’s shoulder. He knew that it waited for the dogcart at the bend of the road.
“We were more than friends,” he repeated desperately.
“I don’t think we ever were.”
“But you thought so once!”
The girl’s lip curled, but her eyes still waited in the road.
“I wonder what you yourself thought once, Lord Manister?” she said quietly. “Whatever it was, it didn’t last long; but I forgive that freely. Do you know why? Why, because it was exactly the same with me.”
“Do you forgive me for getting you talked about?” exclaimed Lord Manister.
“Yes — because it is the only thing I have to forgive,” returned Christina after a moment’s hesitation. “The rest was nonsense; and I wish you wouldn’t rake it up in this dreadfully serious way.”
We know what Christina might mean by nonsense. Lord Manister was not the first of her friends whom she had offended by her abuse of the word. “It was not nonsense!” he cried. “It was something either better or worse. I give you my word that I honestly meant it to be something better. But my people sent for me. What could I do?”
His voice and eyes were pitiable; but Christina showed him no pity.
“What, indeed!” she said ironically. “I myself never blamed you for going. I was quite sure that you were the passive party, though others said differently. All I have to forgive is what you made other people say; but the whole affair is a matter of ancient history — and do you think we need talk about it any more, Lord Manister?”
“It is not all I have to forgive myself,” he answered bitterly, disregarding her question. “If only you would hate me, I could hate myself less; but I deserve your contempt. Yet, if you knew what has been in my heart all this time, you would pity one. You have haunted me! I have been good for nothing ever since I came back to England. My people will tell you so, when you get to know them. My mother would tell you in a minute. She has never heard your name . . . but she knows there was someone . . . she knows there is someone still!”
Christina had colored at last; but, as she colored, the trot of a horse came gratefully to her attentive ears.
“You must think no more about it,” she whispered; and her flush deepened.
“You wipe it all out?” he cried eagerly.
“Of course I do.”
Her eyes met the dogcart at the bend. Herbert was in it.
“And we start afresh?”
He thought he was to get no answer. She was gazing anxiously at Herbert as the trap approached; as it drew up on the bridge she murmured, “I think we had better let well alone,” without looking at Lord Manister. “Herbert, you remember Lord Manister?” she cried aloud in the same breath.
Herbert’s look was not reassuring. He was, in fact, disgusted with all present but the groom, and most of all with himself, for being where he was. Nor was he the young man to trouble to hide his feelings, and he showed them now in so black a look that Christina, who knew him, was filled with apprehension. Thanks to Lord Manister’s tact, that look did not last. Manister, who had his own impression of young Luttrell’s character, and had not to be shrewd to guess the other’s attitude toward himself, brought his most graceful manner to bear on the situation. With Tiny Luttrell, during the bad quarter of an hour which he had deserved and now endured, his best manner had not been at his command; but it returned to him with the return of the dogcart, and in time to do him a service. He had hardly shaken hands with Herbert when he asked him as an Australian, and therefore a judge, his opinion of the mare.
The touch would have been too heavy for an older man; but Herbert was barely twenty, and it flattered him to the marrow. Christina was relieved to hear his knowing but laudatory comments on the mare’s points. She knew that, despite her brother’s aggressive independence, he was susceptible enough to marked civility. This, indeed, he never expected, and he was ever ready to return, with interest, some fancied slight; but Christina had never known him rude to anyone going out of his way to be polite to him, as Lord Manister was doing this morning. She divined that politeness from a nobleman was not less gratifying to Herbert because he happened to have maligned the nobleman with much industry. Herbert’s modest desire was to be treated as an equal by all men, and he was now being treated as an equal by a lord. This was all he required to make him reasonably civil, even to Lord Manister. When Manister asked him, almost deferentially, whether the mare could be taken in the photograph, he offered his lordship a place in it too, the offer being declined, but not without many thanks.
“I’m going to help take it,” Manister laughed. “Mind you don’t move, Luttrell. I’m going to help your sister. Hadn’t you better come too, and leave my man alone in his glory?”
Herbert replied that he would take off the cap or do anything they liked. So the three went down into the meadow, and some infamous negatives resulted later. At the time care seemed to be taken by the photographers, while Lord Manister stood at a little distance, laughing a good deal. He was pressed to stand in the foreground, but not by Christina, and he steadily refused. The conciliation of his enemy seemed assured without that, though he did think of something else to make it doubly sure.
“By the way, Luttrell,” he said as the camera was being packed away, “you’re a cricketer to a certainty — you’re an Australian.”
“I’m very fond of it,” the Australian replied, “but I haven’t played over here; I’ve never had the slant.”
“Well, we play a bit; come over and practice with us.”
Herbert thanked him, declaring that he should like nothing better.
“Lord Manister is a great cricketer,” Christina observed.
“Come over and practice,” repeated his lordship cordially. “The ground isn’t at all bad, considering it was only made last winter, and there’s a professor to bowl to you. We have some matches coming on presently. Perhaps we might find a place for you.”
This was the one thing Lord Manister said which came within measurable distance of offending the touchy Herbert. A minute later they had parted company.
“They might find a place for me,” Herbert repeated as he and Tiny turned toward the village, while Lord Manister drove off in the opposite direction, with another slightly ornamental sweep of his hat. “Might they, indeed! I wouldn’t take it. My troubles about their matches! But I could enjoy a practice.”
“He said he would send over for you next time they do practice.”
Those had been Lord Manister’s last words.
“He did. He is improved. He’s a sportsman, after all. It was decent of him to send back the trap for me. But I didn’t want to get in-I was jolly scotty with myself for getting in. I say, Tiny!”
He had her by the arm.
“I don’t ask any questions. I don’t want to know a single thing. I hope he went down on his knees for his sins; I hope you gave him fits! But look here, Tiny: I won’t say a word about this inside if you’d rather I didn’t.”
“I’d rather you did,” Tiny said at once. “There’s nothing to hide. But — you can be a dear, good boy when you like, Herbs!”
“Can I? Then you can be offended if you like — but he’s on the job now if he never was in his life before!”
“I won’t say I hope he isn’t,” Tiny whispered.
So she was not offended.
Last updated Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 21:16