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THE LADY FROM THE PRIORY
Bang! The noise of the explosion reverberated through the clear summer air, and Ann, returning home from the village by way of a short cut through the woods, smiled to herself as she heard it. She knew that sound--the staccato percussion of a burst tyre--only too well.
The main road ran parallel with the woods, and, impelled by a friendly curiosity to know if she could be of any help, she branched off at right angles and turned her steps in its direction. As she approached she could discern between the tree-trunks a car, slewed round half across the road, and the figure of a woman standing beside it and bending over one of the wheels. Her very attitude betokened a certain helplessness and inexperience, and, seeing that she was alone, Ann quickened her pace.
"Can I help you at all?" she volunteered, as she reached the roadside.
The woman straightened herself.
"Oh, if you would!" she exclaimed, with obvious relief. "My tyre's burst, and I'm ashamed to confess I haven't the faintest idea what to do."
Ann regarded her with interest. She was past her first girlhood, a woman of about thirty, and unusually beautiful. Even more beautiful now, perhaps, than she had been in earlier days, since, in taking the first freshness and bloom of youth, the years had given in exchange an arresting quality which is only born of suffering and experience--adding a deeper depth to her eyes, a certain strength of endurance to the exquisitely moulded mouth. Silky dark hair curved back beneath her close-fitting hat like a raven's wing, sheathing her small, fine head. There was the same silky darkness, too, of brow and lashes, and when she lifted her long-fringed lids they revealed a pair of sad and very lovely eyes, the colour of a purple pansy.
"It was foolish of me to come out alone," she pursued, as Ann proceeded in a business-like fashion to investigate the damage. "I've learned how to drive, but I know nothing at all about repairs, or tow to put on a new tyre or stepney or anything."
"Well, the first thing to do is to pull the car out of the middle of the road," returned Ann practically. "Then we'll have to jack her up."
A couple of labourers, passing at the moment, lent a hand in pulling the car to one side, and when this was accomplished Ann made a raid on the tool box.
"No, no," the owner of the car protested quickly. "I can't think of letting you do anything more. Even if you put things right," she added, smiling, "I shouldn't have the nerve to drive back. The car spun half round when the tyre burst, and nearly frightened me to death."
"In any case, I'm afraid there's nothing that I can do," replied Ann, emerging from her investigations. "You've come out without a jack on board!"
The other, detecting the amused gleam in her eyes, laughed rather ruefully.
"I dare say I've come out without anything I ought to have!" she admitted. "My chauffeur was sent for hurriedly to the death-bed of his wife's aunt or some one, and I just thought I'd come out for a spin this afternoon and explore the neighbourhood. I never prepared for accidents! I shall have to walk home, that's all."
"Have you far to go?"
"I live at the Priory. I've only recently arrived there--hence my thirst for exploration"--smiling.
"Then you must be Mrs. Hilyard." Ann felt she had known it all the time.
"Yes"--pleasantly. "I'm Mrs. Hilyard. Are you one of my new neighbours?"
"A very new one," confessed Ann. "I believe I arrived the same day that you did. I'm Ann Lovell."
Apparently the name Lovell conveyed nothing to Mrs. Hilyard. Probably she possessed no equivalent of Maria, who was almost as full of current news as the local daily paper.
"Well, I'm very grateful to you for coming to my help. My chauffeur gets back this evening, and I'll send him down for the car. It will be all right here till then."
She bowed very graciously, and was turning away when Ann impulsively detained her.
"Don't walk back," she said. "Let me drive you home in my cart. Our cottage is close by, and if you'd let us give you some tea first--"
"Now, that's what I call being really neighbourly!" declared Mrs. Hilyard. "I'd love the cup of tea. But I can't put you to the trouble of driving me back afterwards. There must be a limit to Good Samaritanism, you know!"
"It won't be the least trouble," Ann assured her. "Rather the reverse, in fact. My cob wasn't out yesterday, and it'll do him good to go out to-day. So, you see, you're providing an excellent reason for exercising him"--laughingly.
Mrs. Hilyard threw her a mischievous smile.
"Pure casuistry!" she affirmed. "But it's convinced me. I'll love to have tea with you, and afterwards you shall drive me home, and by the time I've given you as much trouble as possible, I hope we shall be really friends!"
It was only a matter of five minutes' walk from where they were standing to the Cottage, and Mrs. Hilyard exclaimed with delight at its pretty, old-fashioned aspect.
"What a delicious place!" she commented, as Ann established her in an easy chair. "I think I like it better than my Priory. You've some lovely bits of pewter up there"--nodding towards the tall old chimney-piece, where the tender moon-grey of ancient pewter mugs and dishes gleamed fitfully against the panelled wall.
"I'm afraid it isn't ours," acknowledged Ann regretfully. "Though I love every bit of it. My brother is agent for the Heronsmere estate, and we have this cottage furnished. Oh, here he is," she added, as Robin entered the room.
She introduced him to Mrs. Hilyard, who smilingly accounted for her impromptu visit.
"I feel that I'm imposing on Miss Lovell's good-nature in the most barefaced fashion," she said apologetically. "But I honestly couldn't resist the suggestion of a cup of tea."
"I'm very glad you couldn't," replied Robin simply. And something in the tone of his voice, taken in conjunction with the serious directness of his regard, made of the short sentence more than a mere empty expression of politeness.
"I met Brian Tempest and his sister just now," he went on, turning to Ann, "and asked them to come in to tea, so I expect they'll be here directly."
"Tempest? That's the rector here, isn't it?" asked Mrs. Hilyard, as Ann slipped out of the room to prepare Maria for the expected "company."
"You've not met him yet?"
"I've met no one. So far, I've done nothing but wrestle with packing-cases and the distribution of furniture"--smiling.
"It sounds pretty ghastly," averred Robin. "I say"--impulsively. "Couldn't I--couldn't we help you at all?"
Mrs. Hilyard laughed softly. Robin thought it was one of the most delightful sounds he had ever heard, fluent and sweet as the pipe of a blackbird.
"Apparently you and your sister go about doing kindnesses," she said, in a quick, touched way. "The very first thing she said to me was 'Can I help?' And now, almost your first utterance is another offer of help! Is every one in the neighbourhood like that? Because, if so, I think I must have come to an enchanted village--and"--firmly--"I shall decide to remain here for the rest of my life!"
"Well"--Robin looked embarrassed--"shifting furniture about isn't exactly a woman's job."
"I'm not actually shifting furniture myself--except a table or chair now and again, when no one else moves quickly enough to please me! But if you and Miss Lovell would come over one day soon and help me to decide about the disposition of my lares and penates, it would be the greatest help. One does so want some one to talk things over with, you know," she added.
To Robin's ears there was a forlorn note in that frank little acknowledgment, and he was conscious of a sudden, overpowering rush of sympathy. She was lonely--he was sure of it. In spite of all her charm and quick laughter, she was not a happy woman. Some shadow from the past lay in her eyes, and when she laughed the sparkle in them was like the momentary sunlit ripple which breaks the surface of a pool for a brief instant and then is lost again in its shadowed stillness.
Ann's return to the room, synchronising with the arrival of the rector and his sister, served to detach his thoughts from the subject of Mrs. Hilyard's eyes, and when the necessary introductions had been performed, and the new owner of the Priory was joining in the general conversation with apparent light-heartedness, Robin was tempted to wonder whether he had been correct in his surmise, after all.
But later on, during tea, the clouded expression reappeared on her face, as though something had all at once turned her thoughts inward. It was when Miss Caroline, thirsting for information as usual, suddenly pounced on her with a question.
"I suppose you haven't met Mr. Coventry yet?" she demanded.
For an instant Mrs. Hilyard looked startled. Then she shook her head.
"Mr. Coventry? No. Is he an important person in the neighbourhood?"
"He's my chief," volunteered Robin. "Heronsmere Belongs to him."
"I'm afraid I don't even know where Heronsmere is," submitted Mrs. Hilyard deprecatingly. "I'm quite ignorant about my neighbours, so far."
"Silverquay is part of the Heronsmere property," responded Miss Caroline. "But the house itself is not far from the Priory. The Coventrys have lived there for generations," she added proudly. "They're immensely wealthy."
With the last words an expression of something that looked like relief flitted across Mrs. Hilyard's face.
"How interesting!" she said, infusing just the right amount of cordiality into her voice. "And are there any children? I'm fond of kiddies."
"Children? Oh, no. Mr. Coventry isn't married. Nor was the last owner." Miss Caroline warmed to her subject. "It's funny there should be two bachelor owners in succession, isn't it? Rackham Coventry died unmarried, and both his younger brothers were killed--one at sea and the other in a railway accident. That's how it was the property came to Eliot Coventry, who's only a cousin."
Mrs. Hilyard suddenly went very white. Fortunately, Miss Caroline's attention happened to be concentrated at the moment upon stirring the sugar into her second cup of tea, and by the time this was satisfactorily accomplished, the pretty colour was stealing back into the cheeks that had paled so swiftly.
"I'd really no idea there were any other houses at all near mine," murmured Mrs. Hilyard, after the briefest of pauses. "I came across an advertisement of the Priory, dashed down to see it one day, and fell in love with it on the spot--partly because it seemed so far from everywhere."
"We value our privacy in Silverquay," said the rector, smiling. "Almost all the large houses are tucked snugly away out of sight--hidden by trees or rising ground."
"Did you come here to be quiet, then?" asked Miss Caroline, thrusting in her oar the instant her brother had finished speaking.
"Yes," answered Mrs. Hilyard simply.
Miss Caroline fixed her with a gimlet eye.
"How very surprising!" she remarked. "You don't look in the least like the sort of person who would choose to live in a quiet country village like Silverquay."
"Don't I?" Mrs. Hilyard smiled. But she did not volunteer any explanation of her choice.
Here Ann, recognising Miss Caroline's now familiar methods of cross-examination, came to the rescue and diverted the conversation into a less personal channel, and shortly afterwards the Tempests left in order to pay some parochial visits in the village, Ann shepherding them as far as the gateway.
Mrs. Hilyard exchanged a sympathetic smile with Robin. "The Miss Carolines of the world are rather trying, aren't they?" she observed mirthfully. "I think she has gone away fully convinced that there is something 'queer' about me--that I'm not quite respectable, probably!"
"Ridiculous!" growled Robin in tones of wrath. "She has only to look at you!"
"Thank you"--meekly. "I'm glad you think I look--respectable."
"You know I didn't mean that! I think you look--I think you look--" He floundered and broke off abruptly.
"Yes?" There was the tiniest rising inflection in her voice, demanding an answer.
Across the little room Robin's eyes laughed into hers.
"Perhaps I'll tell you some other time--when I know you better," he said.
At that moment Ann returned from speeding the Tempests on their way. Mrs. Hilyard rose.
"I must be going, too, I think," she said. "But I don't want you to trouble about driving me back, Miss Lovell. I'll walk."
"It's no trouble at all," Ann assured her. "Tell Billy to bring the cart round, will you, Robin?"
He nodded, and held out his hand to Mrs. Hilyard.
"Good-bye," he said. "I'd ask you to let me drive you back, but that I've made an appointment to see one of Mr. Coventry's tenants."
A few minutes later Dick Turpin, somewhat annoyed at being taken out of his stall just as feeding-time approached, was bearing Ann and her new acquaintance swiftly along the road towards the Priory.
Mrs. Hilyard was very silent during the first part of the drive. She appeared absorbed in her own thoughts, and from the expression of her face one might have hazarded a guess that she was inwardly debating some moot point. All at once she seemed to come to a decision.
"I think," she said in a quiet, clear voice, "that I must have met this Mr. Coventry who lives at Heronsmere. I knew an Eliot Coventry--once."
She did not look at Ann as she spoke, but gazed straight ahead as though the strip of bare, lonely road which stretched in front of them were of peculiarly vital interest.
"What--is he like?" she went on. Any one observing her at the moment would have gathered the impression that she was forcing herself to speak with composure--that it was not easy for her. But Ann, preoccupied with Dick Turpin's vagaries, was not looking at her.
"Oh, he's tall," she made answer. "And has grey eyes. There's a little white scar just under one of them."
The woman beside her drew a quick breath.
"Ah"--the sweet, trâinante voice was a fraction uneven. "Then it is the man I've met."
The ralli-cart swung round a corner into a narrow lane, and a quick exclamation broke from Ann as she recognised in the tall, striding figure approaching from the opposite direction the man of whom they had just been speaking. A beautiful thoroughbred collie bounded along beside him, looking up at his master every now and again with adoring eyes.
"Why, here is Mr. Coventry!" she exclaimed. "Shall I pull up?"
Without waiting for an answer she brought the cob to a standstill exactly as Eliot, catching sight of them, halted instinctively.
"Good afternoon," she called out gaily, as he lifted his hat. "We were just speaking of you. Here is an old acquaintance of yours."
Eliot's glance travelled swiftly from her face to that of her companion. His expression was quite impenetrable--mask-like in its impassivity. Mrs. Hilyard bent forward, holding out her hand.
"Have you forgotten me, Mr. Coventry?"
For an instant the man and woman looked deep into each other's eyes, as though to bridge the time which had passed since last they met--questioning what the intervening years had brought to each of them. But Eliot made no attempt to take the outheld hand. He did not appear to see it, and Mrs. Hilyard let it drop slowly down again on to her lap.
"Forgotten Cara Daintree?" he said lightly. "Is it likely I should?"
"Cara Hilyard, now." She corrected him a shade nervously.
"Oh, yes. Hilyard, isn't it? Of course."
His glance flashed over her face, searching and cold as a hawk's. She winced under it, but faced him gallantly, though a flush crept up under her clear skin.
"I hear we are near neighbours. I hope"--she forced herself to meet those hard, unflinching eyes--"I hope you will come and see me, Mr. Coventry."
He bowed stiffly.
"Thanks," was all he said. Then, laying his hand on the cob's shining flank, he deliberately addressed himself to Ann: "Is Dick Turpin still behaving himself properly?"
"He's a perfect cherub," she assured him warmly. "Any one could manage him--even when he has an attack of high spirits. He's got a mouth like velvet."
"There's something to be said for the driver's hands, possibly," suggested Coventry, with a smile. "Light hands make a light mouth. Still, I'm glad to know he suits you."
He whistled up his dog, who came racing to heel, then, with a grave bow which briefly included Mrs. Hilyard, lifted his hat and resumed his way along the lane.
Ann drove on, and ten minutes later pulled her horse up at the Priory doors. Mrs. Hilyard stepped lightly out of the trap. She moved beautifully, with a deer-like ease and grace.
"Now when will you and your brother come over to lunch?" she asked, as she shook hands. "He promised--for you both--to come and help me with advice about arranging my rooms. You must go on as you've begun--being neighbourly, you know," she added quaintly.
"But we shall be cut out now by an older friend," said Ann, when they had fixed a day for the lunch appointment.
"Oh, no"--quickly. "No man can take the place of a woman friend--and I hope you're going to be that?"
Ann smiled down into the lovely upraised face with frank comradeship.
"I hope so, too," she returned heartily. "Still, it's jolly for you finding an old friend like Mr. Coventry living next door, so to speak, isn't it?"
For a moment Mrs. Hilyard hesitated. Then:
"Very jolly," she replied, with a brief, enigmatic smile.
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