1. And When Love Speaks
She was certainly very pretty, and just then she looked prettier than usual, for the sharp run had brought a more vivid colour to the cheek, and an added sparkle to the eye. She was laughing, too--the rogue--as well she might, for had she not brought her right hand swiftly down upon his left ear when he had chased her, caught her, and deliberately and maliciously kissed her, and did he not now look red and foolish, and apparently repentant?
But let me start from the beginning, and tell you how it all came about.
Eleanor, the daughter of a neighbouring farmer, is as fresh and beautiful in the eyes of Philip Roche as the field flowers whose heads fall fading beneath his tread while he follows her through the long grass. He has watched her playing with the innocent school children--little more than a child herself--and then, with the calm assurance that to him is second nature, joins the merry throng unasked. The children greet him eagerly, after scrambling for a handful of silver from the stranger's pocket, for is it not the great, grand treat of all the year?
"Come and play wif us," lisps a little maiden of five summers, whom Philip tosses on his shoulder with good-natured ease. He has a way of winning the confidence of children.
"What is the game?"
"Kiss in the ring!" cries a small boyish voice at his elbow.
The stranger's eyes twinkle as he watches the lovely unknown Eleanor arranging a circle. Placing his tiny friend again on her feet, and taking her brother's grimy hand, Philip Roche joins the hilarious pastime.
Eleanor glances across the ring well-pleasedly, guessing that her dainty figure and deep-fringed eyes have attracted him thither. A moment later she trips lightly round the chain of children, her heart beating higher as her feet approach the man's tall figure. Shall she? Shall she? No time to consider, as the handkerchief falls from her hand upon Philip's shoulder.
Quick as lightning she flies away--faster--faster--through the buttercups, while he pursues, nearer--nearer--and then the strong arms arrest her career, and the inevitable kiss occurs.
Eleanor, her cheeks aflame, frees herself from his audacious caress, and half laughing, half indignant, walks hastily away. But after their unconventional introduction Philip is not easily to be foiled.
"You are offended," he cries penitently. "It was only the game; won't you forgive me, Miss----?"
"Grebby," raising her eyes and pausing. "Eleanor Grebby," she continues with a prim little air that is quite unnatural, then laughing spontaneously:
"You see, I was rather taken aback at first, Mr.----"
"Roche--Philip Roche, at your service."
"So now we know each other," holding out her hand.
He grasps it eagerly--such a warm slim hand!
"It was rather a nice introduction, wasn't it?"
Philip thinks how amazingly pretty Eleanor is, as she assents with deepening colour.
"There! I knew it would come!" she cries, with a thought for her new poppy-bedizened hat.
"What?" asks Philip, still feasting his eyes on the girl's fair physique, and unobservant of the gathering darkness overhead.
"Why, the rain, of course. We shall get wet."
"Only a summer shower."
"Yes, but as disastrous in its effects as any other downpour. I shall make for that barn in the next field; the children have all mysteriously vanished."
"I am dreadfully afraid of the wet," declares Philip, pretending to shiver. "May I accompany you?"
He is still retaining her hand as they run together towards the haven of "shelter.
"How nice of it to rain!" he gasps, applauding the accommodating skies. "Let me make you comfortable," heaping together a pile of hay for her to sit upon. "Now tell me all about yourself."
Eleanor sinks down on the soft couch, looking somewhat wistfully through the open door of the barn.
"I am easily explained. I live here always. My father is a farmer, and I feed the chickens, dust the house, and teach in the Sunday-school. Only fancy what an exciting life, Mr. Roche. Doesn't it take your breath away?"
At the thought of her own humdrum existence Eleanor laughs again with a return of that superabundant vitality which is hers by nature.
"Then once or perhaps twice a year I am invited to tea at the Vicarage, and I sit up straight in a high-backed chair and say 'Yes' and 'No' when I am spoken to, and answer prettily--like a schoolgirl. The vicar's wife would have a fit if I lounged like this," flinging herself back with an air of abandon on the hay. "Once she asked me to sing (I play the harmonium in church). My cousin Joe had brought me a comic song from town, and I couldn't help, for the life of me, getting up and giving her a verse."
"Of course it was wrong, and she looked frightfully shocked. I have certainly never been invited to tea since. Oh, how I should like to sing at concerts and halls--I mean the sort of places where you have an eyeglass, and walk round with a hat and stick!"
Her face beamed as she delivered this sentence--involuntarily the little hands clasped themselves together in excitement.
"Be thankful that such an ambition is ungratified," declares Philip, speaking seriously for the first time. "You do not know the fate that you are coveting. Best contented, child, to remain your own sweet self. Your country life is ideal compared with--that;"
Eleanor shakes her head.
"It doesn't seem like it," she declares.
"No, I dare say not. Duty is sometimes heroism in its noblest form."
"Then are all the people wicked that go to London, and sing, act, and enjoy themselves?"
"Indeed I trust not. We should have a pretty bad time of it if they were. Yet I don't know that you're far wrong. Few are guileless. But why talk of it? Time enough to warn you of the pitfalls when you are on your road to the great city."
"What is your life?" asks Eleanor curiously, drawing the long ends of hay through her teeth with a meditative smile.
"Scarcely less monotonous than yours, Miss Grebby"--an amused look in his eyes. "Instead of feeding chickens I feed my friends--lunches, dinners, midnight suppers--all of which pall terribly after a time. Instead of dusting my house I leave it to accumulate dust, while I wander abroad. A home is a dull place for one man."
"You have no wife or mother?"
"But you must have lots of money. Why, only think of all the silver you threw to the children this afternoon! I do not believe they had ever seen so many shillings and sixpences before."
"Money will not buy a mother or----" He was going to say "a wife," but checked himself. Philip Roche was an accurate man.
"Poor Mr. Roche, it must be very lonely," says Eleanor, with genuine sympathy in her tone.
He smiles enigmatically. It is strange to him to be pitied by the little farmer's daughter when so many have envied his happy-go-lucky existence ere now.
"The rain clouds are dispersing," he murmurs, as a stray ray of sunlight wanders through the barn door to mingle its glory with Eleanor's hair. How gold those tender silken threads appear under its burnishing hand!
"What a pity! It has been such a refreshing shower!"
"I feel quite young again," he declares, "young enough to play with the children for hours. What do you say to kiss in the ring again?"
He presses her hand gently.
She lifts her eyes to his with a slow shake of her head.
"There is the vicar's wife to be considered."
"Good gracious!" he laughs. "You don't mean I should have to kiss her?"
Eleanor's face dimples all over in delightful smiles.
"What an absurd idea!" she gasps gleefully. "I should just like to see you!"
"I don't think it has quite stopped," murmurs Philip, holding up his hands to the sky, and pretending the drops from the barn are rain themselves.
"How silly you are!" cries Eleanor, mockingly, gathering up her skirts and revealing a well-turned ankle. "But, oh, isn't the grass soaking?" as Philip takes her arm and guides her to a narrow path. "The children will ruin their boots, and all go home with colds. Look, they are tearing about like mad things. How they will sleep to-night!"
"I wonder what will become of them all in the years to follow, and why they have any existence whatsoever beneath the glimpses of the moon?"
"One will reap," replies Eleanor, wisely, "and another will sow. Some may slay oxen and wring the fowls' necks, and perhaps for all we know murder each other. It is a horrible thought, isn't it? They look so thoroughly innocent, these country children. Do you see that little boy crying because he was knocked down in the three-legged steeplechase. His life race is only just beginning. His father is in gaol for theft, his mother incurable in a Samaritan infirmary, yet he is only crying because he grazed his knee and did not win a packet of bull's-eyes."
Eleanor's voice is low and expressive as her deep sapphire eyes--fascinating the man by their changeful beauty--one moment light and dancing like the sunbeams in the branches, the next overflowing with pity for a pauper child.
The little ones gather round, clinging to her skirts. She is tender and kind to all, though her gaze rests chiefly on the tall, sunburnt stranger making himself popular with the youngsters in her class.
"Look, teacher," cries the same wee maiden who is responsible for Philip's first appearance in their games. "I won 'er, 'opping along o' Margery in the big race," holding aloft a doll with great staring glass eyes and brilliantly rouged cheeks. "Ain't she beautiful?"
"What will you name her?" asks the Sunday-school teacher sweetly.
"Don't know," sighs the child perplexedly.
"Eleanor," suggests Philip.
"We 'ad a little sister named Eleanor, but she 'adn't got enough blood in her, so she died."
"Then you must call your doll by another name," says Miss Grebby decidedly.
But the small girl shakes her head, and announces with precision:
"I'll call 'er Eleanor!" and marches away well satisfied, to re-open a half-closed wound in her mother's breast.
"I hit on an unfortunate suggestion," whispers Philip, while the ever energetic Miss Grebby initiates him into the mysteries of "Nuts in May," "Poor Mary sits a-weeping," and "I have a little dog."
The soft twilight gradually creeps over this summer world, and the great red sun sinks down in its sea of fire behind the trees.
The birds chirp a good-night song, till their piping is drowned by the hearty cheers of the happy children ringing out stirringly on the still damp air.
"And now--home!" sighs Eleanor, with a little grimace, as Philip bends down to fasten a spray of wild honeysuckle in her belt.
"May I see you back?" he asks eagerly, noting the bright smile that flits across her lips at the suggestion.
"Could you walk a mile?" questions Eleanor in mock astonishment. "I thought London people always drove. The vicar's wife had some friends from South Kensington who were positively lame if they went any distance on foot. They said our country roads were a disgrace--no asphalte, no hansom cabs."
"Come along," murmurs Philip, whose long strides are not easy to keep pace with. They walk more slowly when out of sight. Oh, the delightful dawdle back through the vague shadows of evening in sweetly scented lanes! How merrily she prattles with charming ingenuousness, while he watches her expressive features, a new strange thrill at his heart.
What if on this summer holiday, among the clover and the daisies, he has discovered the one spotless soul of his life--a fresh, unsophisticated creature of Nature's noblest and purest art!
At last they are in sight of the old farmhouse which Eleanor calls home. It is a picturesque spot, and Philip stops admiringly to take in the beauty of the rural scene.
"So you live there in that quiet abode?" he said thoughtfully.
"Yes. I am sorry to-day is over. It has not only been a holiday for the children, but half the village. The labourers are to have a dinner to-night and----"
She paused. The labourers and the children are so far from her mind at this moment.
"I shall see you again," he whispers.
"Where and when?" asks Eleanor, feigning surprise.
"To-morrow in this cornfield on our left. I shall walk past."
"Like Boaz, and Ruth will be gleaning," she replies coyly.
"What will Boaz do?" he murmurs.
Eleanor lowers her eyes, and interlaces her fingers.
"I know," she replies confidently.
In the dim light Philip fancies that Eleanor is weaving some strange witchcraft. He is drawn involuntarily nearer and snatching her hand detains it a moment in both his. She is more beautiful than ever now in the dim solitude of the deserted road. The simplicity of her daily routine in the country farmhouse appeals to this man of the world, who yearns for something different, something better in his aimless, empty life--aimless because he has no one to work for, empty because there is no one to love.
Eleanor's gentle presence in the gathering gloom quickens his imagination. A picture wonderful and hitherto undreamed rises like a sudden mirage before Philip's eyes.
He seems lost in contemplation.
"I have found her at last," he says, speaking his thoughts aloud.
"Who?" asks Eleanor under her breath.
"The Ideal Woman!" he replies.
The girl looks perplexed--she does not understand the phrase. New Women and rational costumes have not yet penetrated to the depths of Copthorne, so their counter-poising ideal is to her an unknown quantity.
Eleanor's ignorance of modernity constitutes a special charm in his eyes. How sweet a privilege to build up this uncultured soul, to mould her impressionable spirit! Philip is enamoured of the idea, he sees such vast possibilities stretching out before him. Eleanor differed so widely from the women of his set. Perhaps the weaker sex are made variously that the mind of desultory man, studious of change, and pleased with novelty, may be indulged.
"How long have we known each other?" he asks.
"About three hours," she answers promptly.
"How deep can one go below the surface in one hundred and eighty minutes?"
Eleanor seems bewildered; she is at a loss for words.
"Have I only been with you so short a time?" he says incredulously. "Can it be possible?"
"Does it seem long?" she asks looking down shyly. "Have I wearied you, Mr. Roche?"
His smile reassures her.
"It does not seem long, only full to the brim. To every second a fresh thought, an inch deeper into the unknown."
"I have never met anyone before," she declares frankly, "who spoke to me like that."
Then with a swift "Good night" Eleanor breaks away and vanishes among the shadows.
"A wife," says Philip to himself, "is something between a hindrance and a help. Is this the turn of the tide?"
A nightingale broke into song. "Yes!" it cried; "yes--yes--yes!"