THE LADY FROM BEYOND
The morning was sultry, brooding, steamy. Antonia was at her music, and from the room where Shelton tried to fix attention on a book he could hear her practising her scales with a cold fury that cast an added gloom upon his spirit. He did not see her until lunch, and then she again sat next the Connoisseur. Her cheeks were pale, but there was something feverish in her chatter to her neighbour; she still refused to look at Shelton. He felt very miserable. After lunch, when most of them had left the table, the rest fell to discussing country neighbours.
"Of course," said Mrs. Dennant, "there are the Foliots; but nobody calls on them."
"Ah!" said the Connoisseur, "the Foliots--the Foliots--the people--er--who--quite so!"
"It's really distressin'; she looks so sweet ridin' about. Many people with worse stories get called on," continued Mrs. Dennant, with that large frankness of intrusion upon doubtful subjects which may be made by certain people in a certain way, "but, after all, one couldn't ask them to meet anybody."
"No," the Connoisseur assented. "I used to know Foliot. Thousand pities. They say she was a very pretty woman."
"Oh, not pretty!" said Mrs. Dennant! "more interestin than pretty, I should say."
Shelton, who knew the lady slightly, noticed that they spoke of her as in the past. He did not look towards Antonia; for, though a little troubled at her presence while such a subject was discussed, he hated his conviction that her face, was as unruffled as though the Foliots had been a separate species. There was, in fact, a curiosity about her eyes, a faint impatience on her lips; she was rolling little crumbs of bread. Suddenly yawning, she muttered some remark, and rose. Shelton stopped her at the door.
"Where are you going?"
"For a walk."
"May n't I come?".
She shook her head.
"I 'm going to take Toddles."
Shelton held the door open, and went back to the table.
"Yes," the Connoisseur said, sipping at his sherry, "I 'm afraid it's all over with young Foliot."
"Such a pity!" murmured Mrs. Dennant, and her kindly face looked quite disturbed. "I've known him ever since he was a boy. Of course, I think he made a great mistake to bring her down here. Not even bein' able to get married makes it doubly awkward. Oh, I think he made a great mistake!"
"Ah!" said the Connoisseur, "but d' you suppose that makes much difference? Even if What 's--his-name gave her a divorce, I don't think, don't you know, that--"
"Oh, it does! So many people would be inclined to look over it in time. But as it is it's hopeless, quite. So very awkward for people, too, meetin' them about. The Telfords and the Butterwicks--by the way, they're comin' here to dine to-night--live near them, don't you know."
"Did you ever meet her before-er-before the flood?" the Connoisseur inquired; and his lips parting and unexpectedly revealing teeth gave him a shadowy resemblance to a goat.
"Yes; I did meet her once at the Branksomes'. I thought her quite a charmin' person."
"Poor fellow!" said the Connoisseur; "they tell me he was going to take the hounds."
"And there are his delightful coverts, too. Algie often used to shoot there, and now they say he just has his brother down to shoot with him. It's really quite too melancholy! Did you know him, Dick?"
"Foliot?" replied Shelton absently. "No; I never met him: I've seen her once or twice at Ascot."
Through the window he could see Antonia in her scarlet Tam-o'-shanter, swinging her stick, and he got up feigning unconcern. Just then Toddles came bounding up against his sister. They went off arm in arm. She had seen him at the window, yet she gave no friendly glance; Shelton felt more miserable than ever. He stepped out upon the drive. There was a lurid, gloomy canopy above; the elm-trees drooped their heavy blackish green, the wonted rustle of the aspen-tree was gone, even the rooks were silent. A store of force lay heavy on the heart of nature. He started pacing slowly up and down, his pride forbidding him to follow her, and presently sat down on an old stone seat that faced the road. He stayed a long time staring at the elms, asking himself what he had done and what he ought to do. And somehow he was frightened. A sense of loneliness was on him, so real, so painful, that he shivered in the sweltering heat. He was there, perhaps, an hour, alone, and saw nobody pass along the road. Then came the sound of horse's hoofs, and at the same time he heard a motor-car approaching from the opposite direction. The rider made appearance first, riding a grey horse with an Arab's high set head and tail. She was holding him with difficulty, for the whirr of the approaching car grew every moment louder. Shelton rose; the car flashed by. He saw the horse stagger in the gate-way, crushing its rider up against the gatepost.
He ran, but before he reached the gate the lady was on foot, holding the plunging horse's bridle.
"Are you hurt?" cried Shelton breathlessly, and he, too, grabbed the bridle. "Those beastly cars!"
"I don't know," she said. "Please don't; he won't let strangers touch him."
Shelton let go, and watched her coax the horse. She was rather tall, dressed in a grey habit, with a grey Russian cap upon her head, and he suddenly recognised the Mrs. Foliot whom they had been talking of at lunch.
"He 'll be quiet now," she said, "if you would n't mind holding him a minute."
She gave the reins to him, and leaned against the gate. She was very pale.
"I do hope he has n't hurt you," Shelton said. He was quite close to her, well able to see her face--a curious face with high cheek-bones and a flatfish moulding, enigmatic, yet strangely passionate for all its listless pallor. Her smiling, tightened lips were pallid; pallid, too, her grey and deep-set eyes with greenish tints; above all, pale the ashy mass of hair coiled under her grey cap.
"Th-thanks!" she said; "I shall be all right directly. I'm sorry to have made a fuss."
She bit her lips and smiled.
"I 'm sure you're hurt; do let me go for--" stammered Shelton. "I can easily get help."
"Help!" she said, with a stony little laugh; "oh, no, thanks!"
She left the gate, and crossed the road to where he held the horse. Shelton, to conceal embarrassment, looked at the horse's legs, and noticed that the grey was resting one of them. He ran his hand down.
"I 'm afraid," he said, "your horse has knocked his off knee; it's swelling."
She smiled again.
"Then we're both cripples."
"He'll be lame when he gets cold. Would n't you like to put him in the stable here? I 'm sure you ought to drive home."
"No, thanks; if I 'm able to ride him he can carry me. Give me a hand up."
Her voice sounded as though something had offended her. Rising from inspection of the horse's leg, Shelton saw Antonia and Toddles standing by. They had come through a wicketgate leading from the fields.
The latter ran up to him at once.
"We saw it," he whispered--"jolly smash-up. Can't I help?"
"Hold his bridle," answered Shelton, and he looked from one lady to the other.
There are moments when the expression of a face fixes itself with painful clearness; to Shelton this was such a moment. Those two faces close together, under their coverings of scarlet and of grey, showed a contrast almost cruelly vivid. Antonia was flushed, her eyes had grown deep blue; her look of startled doubt had passed and left a question in her face.
"Would you like to come in and wait? We could send you home, in the brougham," she said.
The lady called Mrs. Foliot stood, one arm across the crupper of her saddle, biting her lips and smiling still her enigmatic smile, and it was her face that stayed most vividly on Shelton's mind, its ashy hail, its pallor, and fixed, scornful eyes.
"Oh, no, thanks! You're very kind."
Out of Antonia's face the timid, doubting friendliness had fled, and was replaced by enmity. With a long, cold look at both of them she turned away. Mrs. Foliot gave a little laugh, and raised her foot for Shelton's help. He heard a hiss of pain as he swung her up, but when he looked at her she smiled.
"Anyway," he said impatiently, "let me come and see you don't break down."
She shook her head. "It 's only two miles. I'm not made of sugar."
"Then I shall simply have to follow."
She shrugged her shoulders, fixing her resolute eyes on him.
"Would that boy like to come?" she asked.
Toddles left the horse's head.
"By Jove!" he cried. "Would n't I just!"
"Then," she said, "I think that will be best. You 've been so kind."
She bowed, smiled inscrutably once more, touched the Arab with her whip, and started, Toddles trotting at her side.
Shelton was left with Antonia underneath the elms. A sudden puff of tepid air blew in their faces, like a warning message from the heavy, purple heat clouds; low rumbling thunder travelled slowly from afar.
"We're going to have a storm," he said.
Antonia nodded. She was pale now, and her face still wore its cold look of offence.
"I 've got a headache," she said, "I shall go in and lie down."
Shelton tried to speak, but something kept him silent--submission to what was coming, like the mute submission of the fields and birds to the menace of the storm.
He watched her go, and went back to his seat. And the silence seemed to grow; the flowers ceased to exude their fragrance, numbed by the weighty air. All the long house behind him seemed asleep, deserted. No noise came forth, no laughter, the echo of no music, the ringing of no bell; the heat had wrapped it round with drowsiness. And the silence added to the solitude within him. What an unlucky chance, that woman's accident! Designed by Providence to put Antonia further from him than before! Why was not the world composed of the immaculate alone? He started pacing up and down, tortured by a dreadful heartache.
"I must get rid of this," he thought. "I 'll go for a good tramp, and chance the storm."
Leaving the drive he ran on Toddles, returning in the highest spirits.
"I saw her home," he crowed. "I say, what a ripper, isn't she? She 'll be as lame as a tree to-morrow; so will the gee. Jolly hot!"
This meeting showed Shelton that he had been an hour on the stone seat; he had thought it some ten minutes, and the discovery alarmed him. It seemed to bring the import of his miserable fear right home to him. He started with a swinging stride, keeping his eyes fixed on the road, the perspiration streaming down his face.
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