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Georgie stood beyond the mason's litter, his firm legs planted in the wet grass, his holland pinafore less brown than his knees. A sailor hat, with the brim turned down, threw the roguish face into shadow; but the flush of successful flight was not extinguished; and the great eyes fixed on Carlton were nowise abashed. Shyness had never been a feature of Georgie's character.
"Hallo!" said he.
Carlton stood like his own walls.
So this was the child.
A new instinct was awake in the man's breast; he had never an instant's doubt.
And it struck him dumb.
"I say," said Georgie, "are you angry?"
But he showed no anxiety on the point, merely beaming while the grown man fought for words.
And now he was fighting for the power of speech—fighting hot eyes and twitching lips for his own manhood—and for the little impudent face that would fill with fear if he lost. But he won.
"Of course I'm not angry; but"—for he must know for certain—"what's your name?"
"That's not all."
Carlton filled his lungs.
"And who sent you here, Georgie?"
"Then how have you come?"
"By my own self, course."
"What! all the way from the Flint House? That's where you live, isn't it?"
Carlton put the second question with sudden misgiving. The name was not unique in that country; he might be mistaken after all. And already—in these few moments—he could not bear the idea of being thus mistaken in this sturdy, friendly, independent boy.
"Yes, that's where," said Georgie, nodding.
"Then what can have brought him here!"
"Well, you see," said Georgie, confidentially, "my lady taked me for a walk——"
"And I wunned away."
"But who do you mean by your lady?"
"My lady," said Georgie, turning dense.
"Your governess?" guessed Carlton.
"Oh, my governess, my governess!" cried Georgie, roaring with laughter because the word was new to him, but made a splendid expletive: "oh, my governess, gwacious me!"
"Well, whoever it is," muttered Carlton, "she oughtn't to have lost you; and you stay with me until she finds you."
"That's good," said Georgie, with conviction. "I liker stay wif you."
Carlton caught the child up suddenly, and swung him shoulder-high. What a laugh he had! And what a firm boy, so heavy and straight and strong! Carlton sat down in his barrow, taking the little fellow on his knee, yet holding him at arm's length for self-control.
"How can you like being with a person you've never seen before?" asked Carlton, tremulous again, for all his strength.
"'Cos I heard you makin' somekin," said Georgie, who was looking about him. "What are you makin', I say?"
It was here that, without any particular provocation, Robert Carlton's resolution suddenly failed him, so that he hugged and kissed the child, in a sudden access of uncontrollable emotion. This, however, was as suddenly suppressed. Georgie had wriggled from his knee; but instead of running away (as the other feared for one breathless moment), he continued looking about him as before, bored a little, but nothing more.
"What are you buildin', I say?" he now inquired.
"What's a church?"
Carlton came straight to his feet.
"Do you never go to one?" he asked; but his tone was nearly all remorse.
"No, I never."
"Then have you never heard of God?"
And now the tone was his most determined one.
"Yes," said Georgie, subdued but not frightened.
"You are sure that you have been told about God?"
"Who has taught you?"
"My lady and granny—not grand-daddy."
"You say your prayers to Him?"
"Yes, I always."
Carlton stood with heaving chest. He was spared something at last; his cup was not to overflow after all. And, as he stood, the grass whispered, and the rain came down.
Again Georgie was caught up, to be set down next instant in the shed; but this time he was really offended.
"I don't want to come in," he whimpered. "I want to build wif your bwicks. They're much, much bigger'n mine!"
"But it's raining, don't you see? It would never do for Georgie to get wet."
"Oh, I wish I would play wif your bwicks!"
"Why, Georgie, you couldn't lift them; you're not strong enough."
"But I are, I tell you. I really are!"
"Here's one, then," said Carlton, who kept his misfits in the shed. "You try."
Georgie did try. He rolled the stone over, though it was no small one; lift it he could not.
"You see, it was heavier than you thought."
"'Cos never mind," coaxed Georgie, in another formula of his own; "you carry it for me!"
"But it's raining, and we should both be wet through."
"'Cos never mind!"
"But I do mind; and, what's more, everybody else would mind as well."
"Then what shall we do?" cried Georgie, from his depths.
Carlton had no idea. But the boy was weary, and must be amused; that was the first necessity; and he who had never laid himself out to conciliate men must strain every nerve to please this little child. His eyes flew round the shed. And there upon the shelf stood his gargoyles deep in dust.
"Oh, what a funny old man!" cried Georgie. "Oh, ho, ho!"
But Carlton, in his ignorance of children, had over-estimated a strong child's strength; the stone head slipped through the tiny hands, narrowly missing the tiny toes; and when Georgie stooped and rolled it over, it was seen that a terrible accident had really occurred.
"Oh, oh, oh!" cried an alarming little voice, "Oh, he's broken his nose, he's broken it to bits; oh, oh!"
Carlton made a dive for the other gargoyle; but this was a peculiarly sinister face; and Georgie's tears only ran the faster.
"Oh, I don't like that one. It's a ho'ble face. I don't like it."
Carlton cast the thing from him, and at the same moment became and looked inspired.
"Shall I make you a new face, Georgie? A better one than either of the others?"
"Yes, do, I say! A new face! A new face!"
And shouts of delight came from the tear-stained one: such was the sound that Gwynneth heard in the lane.
A very inspiration it proved. All unpractised in their earliest accomplishment, the hard-worked hands had never been so deft before; nor ever stone softer or chisel sharper than the first of each that could be found. They were trembling, those tanned and twisted fingers, but that only seemed to impart a nervous vigour to their touch. When the thing had taken rough shape, and a deep curve or two suggested a whole head of hair; when eyes and nose had come from the same sure delving, and the mouth almost at a touch; then the mouth of Georgie, long open in mere fascination, recovered its primary function, and yelled approval in surprising terms.
"Oh, my Jove, my Jove!" he roared. "What a lovely, lovely, lovely face! Oh, my Jove, I must show it to my lady!"
Carlton looked upon a baby face on fire with rapture; and for once no dissimilar light shone upon his own.
"Will you—give me a kiss for it, Georgie?"
Without a word the little arms flew round a weatherbeaten neck that bent to meet them, and the glowing cheeks buried themselves, voluntarily, in the beard that had only hurt before; and not one kiss, but countless kisses, were Georgie's thanks for the lump of sandstone that had grown into a face before his eyes. And such was the scene whereon Gwynneth Gleed arrived.
At first she drew back, hesitating in the rain, because neither of them saw her, and she could not, could not understand! But her hesitation was short-lived, or, rather, it had to be conquered and it was. So with flaming cheeks—because they would not see her—and dark hair limp from the rain—eyes sparkling, lips parted, teeth peeping—came Gwynneth to the shed at last.
And the child ran to her, while the man's eyes followed him hungrily, climbing no higher than Georgie's height.
"Oh, look what a lovely, lovely face the workman made me; do look, I say! Is it wery kind of him to make me such a lovely thing?"
Gwynneth had been dragged to where the new head stood mounted upon a misfit; and Carlton had been obliged to rise. But his eyes had not risen from the child.
"Is it kind of him, I tell you?" persisted Georgie.
"Very kind," said Gwynneth, "indeed."
And civility compelled Carlton to look up at last.
"It was only to pass the time," he said. "I was obliged to bring him in out of the rain."
"It was so good of you," murmured Gwynneth. "But it was not good of Georgie to run away as soon as my back was turned!"
Georgie paid no heed to this reproach; he was busy playing with the uncouth head.
"Oh, don't say that," said Carlton, quickly; "I don't get so many visitors! Are you the little chap's governess?" he added, yet more quickly, to undo the visible effects of his words.
"No, I'm—from the hall, you know."
He could not but start at this. But now he was guarding his tongue. And, as he reflected, there came back to him the vague memory of a face in church, followed by the sharper picture of a very young girl at the piano in a pleasant room—the last that he had ever been in.
Gwynneth had recalled the same scene, and could see him as he had been, while she gazed upon him as he was.
"I remember," he said, gravely. "So you take an interest in this little chap, Miss Gleed?"
"Rather more than that," replied Gwynneth, taken out of herself in an instant, and declaring her innocence by her sudden and unconscious enthusiasm. "I love him dearly," she said from her heart: and together their eyes returned to the round sailor hat, the brown pinafore and the browner legs which were all that was now to be seen of Georgie the engrossed.
"He is indeed a dear little fellow," said Carlton, smothering his sighs.
"And so affectionate!" added Gwynneth, thinking of the strange pair together as she had found them.
"Marvellously independent, too, for his age."
"He is not quite four. You would think him older."
"Indeed I would . . . And so you are his 'lady'!"
"So he insists on calling me."
"You seem to be very much to him," said Robert Carlton, jealously enough at heart, as he looked for once into the fine, kind, enthusiastic eyes of Gwynneth; but they fell embarrassed, and his own were quick enough to wander back to the boy.
"I have been more or less alone since last autumn," said Gwynneth. "Georgie has been as much to me as I can possibly have been to him."
"But he lives at the Flint House, does he not? I—I gathered he was a grandchild of the Musks."
"So he is."
"Are they bringing him up?"
"Oh, yes—kindly. But——"
"Are they fond of him?"
"Touchingly so; but, of course, they are two old people."
"And so you stepped in to lighten and brighten a little child's life!"
Gwynneth blushed unseen; for all this time he was looking at Georgie and not at her.
"You mustn't put it like that," she said, "for it isn't the case. It was quite a selfish pleasure. I was all alone. And it began by his being dreadfully ill."
"Yes, and I was able to nurse him a little. And after that we couldn't do without each other. But now we shall have to try."
He had looked at her with the last quick question, and was looking still, a new anxiety in his eyes.
"Do you mean that you are going away?" he said; and his tone did not conceal his disappointment.
"I am sorry to say I am," replied Gwynneth, feeling all she said.
"But not for long!"
Her eyes fell at last before the frank trouble in his; and he ended the pause with a sigh. "I am very sorry," he said. "I was hoping that you would often bring him here to see me." Nor was any compliment taken or intended in a speech which rang with the primitive sincerity of one who had spoken very little for a very long time.
Gwynneth took the short step that brought her to the opening of the shed. She had suddenly discovered that the rain had never ceased pattering on the corrugated roof, and was wondering when the shower would stop. She wished it was fair, for more reasons than one. It was high time she took Georgie away; and she did not know what Musk would say when he heard where they had been. She only knew his opinion of parsons generally, and of all that they professed, though she had once heard him allow that they were not all as bad as this one. Besides, even Gwynneth felt natural qualms in the society of an outcast whom no one else went near, quite apart from the popular conviction that he had burnt his own church to the ground. That she had never believed. And now, when she found him all but at his work; when she saw him at close quarters, aged and bent, with tattered clothes and battered hands, yet handsome as ever, and now picturesque; and when she looked upon the gigantic work that had aged him, the finished wall here, the deliberate preparations there; then that old calumny was blown to final shreds for Gwynneth. He might have done worse, as she had sometimes heard said, but he had not done that. And the woman went to work within her: was there nothing she could do for him? Was there no little luxury she could get and send him? His clothes were torn—if only she could mend them! Alas! that she was going abroad next day.
Another moment and she was glad: how could she do anything, a young girl, when all the rest of the world held aloof? Anything that she did, or tried to do, would inevitably, if not rightly and properly, be misconstrued. Yet, after this, it would be too painful to live so near and to go on doing nothing. She had felt that long ago; and the memory of their last encounter reoccupied her thoughts. No, she could do no more now than she had been able to do then. Therefore she was glad to be going away. And all this passed through her mind in the mere minute that elapsed before the rain stopped as suddenly as it had begun.
Yet in that minute Robert Carlton had got Georgie back upon his knee, and Gwynneth caught him trying to extract a promise from the child; in another he had risen, a duskier bronze than before, and was telling her honestly what the promise was to have been.
"I wanted him to come again to see me finish that head, but not to tell his grandparents where he was going, or they would not let him. You see, I am ashamed of it already! Make allowances for one who has not spoken to either woman or child for very nearly four years."
Gwynneth was deeply moved.
"Allowances," she could but repeat; "allowances!"
"Allow'nces, allow'nces!" chimed Georgie, to whom a new word was necessarily humorous.
Carlton picked him up, and kissed him lightly for the last time. To Gwynneth he only bowed. And she was longing to take his hand.
"Good-bye, Miss Gleed; a good journey and a happy time to you."
Gwynneth had to say something, since she could do nothing, to show her sympathy. "I think it's all wonderful—wonderful!" was all she did say, with a little wave towards the sandstone walls. And yet her small speech haunted her for weeks, seeming in turns so many things that she had never meant it to be.
Georgie also waved with energy. "Good-bye, good-bye, I'll see you in the mornin'!" was his irresponsible farewell.
And so they disappeared together, as the sun shone again through the trees with the emerald tips, now dripping diamonds too; but to Robert Carlton that little scene of his endless labours, the shed, the strewed stones, the barrow, the rising walls, the blossoming chestnuts, the jewelled elms, had never looked so drab and desolate before.
Yet, long after it was really dark, the lonely man still hovered about the spot, now standing where the child had stood with his brown pinafore and his browner legs; now sitting empty-kneed in the empty barrow; now handling the rough stone head that he had hewn in a few minutes for little Georgie.
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