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A NEW ACQUAINTANCE
August had come in on a wave of such breathless heat that each day the weather-wise foretold a thunderstorm. But, although the heavy, sultry air and lowering skies seemed pregnant with impending tempest, with every evening would come a clearer atmosphere and all signs of thunder disappear until the following day, when the stifling heat closed down once more like an invisible pall.
The pleasantest spot in the vicinity of Oldstone Cottage was undoubtedly a certain corner of the garden where stood a venerable oak whose interlacing branches spread themselves into a cool green canopy, and here, in a hammock slung from one great limb of the tree to another, Ann had taken refuge. A book lay open on her knee, but, yielding to the languor induced by the oppressive heat, she had ceased to make even a pretence at reading and leaned back in the hammock, hands clasped behind her head, idly reviewing the happenings of the last few weeks.
The realisation that actually no more than a month had elapsed since her arrival at Silverquay amazed her. It seemed almost incredible, so swiftly and surely had the new life built itself up round her, with quick, deft touches--a friend here, an adopted custom there, new interests and occupations that had already become an accepted part of the day's routine.
Ann was the last person in the world to recognise how much of this was due to her own individual personality. That eager vitality of hers went half-way to meet life. She did not wait supinely for things to happen, but instinctively looked round to see what she could herself accomplish. As she had laughingly told Eliot Coventry, she was not in the least an idle person--and the newly-wired chicken-run and hen-coops already established in a corner of a field adjoining the Cottage garden testified to the veracity of the statement. It was a small thing, perhaps, but its prompt achievement was characteristic.
Equally characteristic were the new friendships she was forming. Where some people would find only neighbours, Ann's spontaneous, warm-hearted nature discovered friends. Brian Tempest already counted as one, and her acquaintance with Cara Hilyard, begun so unconventionally, was rapidly deepening into a pleasant intimacy.
She had discarded her original theory that some long-ago romance linked Eliot Coventry and Mrs. Hilyard together. Neither of them appeared to her to be in the least thrilled by the fact of the other's proximity in the neighbourhood, nor did either make any obvious effort to avoid or cultivate the other's society. If they chanced to meet they exchanged civilities as the merest acquaintances might do, and gradually Ann came to believe that their knowledge of each other was based on nothing more profound than a slight friendship of many years ago, which had more or less petered out with the passage of time.
Cara, for all her quick sympathy and eager friendship, was reticent as regards the past, and Ann's attitude towards her held an element of that loyal, enthusiastic devotion which an older woman not infrequently inspires in one considerably younger than herself--a devotion which accepts things as they are and has no wish to pry into the secrets of the past.
One circumstance of Cara's former life had come to Ann's knowledge unavoidably--the fact that her husband, Dene Hilyard, had ill-treated her. A most trifling accident had served to reveal it. She and Ann had been gathering roses together in the Priory garden, and, in straining up to reach a particularly lovely bloom that hung from the roof of the pergola, Cara's thin muslin sleeve had caught on a projecting nail which had ripped it apart from shoulder to elbow. As the torn sleeve fell hack it revealed a trickle of blood where the nail's sharp point had scored the skin, and above that, marring the whiteness of the upper arm, an ugly, discoloured scar. Cara made a hasty movement to conceal it, catching the gaping edges of the sleeve together with her hand. Then, realising that it was too late, she let them fall apart again and met Ann's horrified eyes with a long, inscrutable gaze.
"Yes, it's ugly, isn't it?" she said bitterly. "All my married life was--ugly."
"What do you mean?" Ann's voice shook. She felt as though she knew what was coming--the story of how Cara came by that dreadful scar--and fought against the knowledge with incredulous horror.
"Dene... my husband... he'd been reading a book which described how they branded a woman... and he tried..." She broke off, shivering violently.
"No--no!" Urgently the denial sprang from Ann's stricken lips, as though she sought by the sheer imperative violence of her disclaimer to make this horrible thing untrue.
Cara nodded her head slowly.
"It's quite true... he used to drink... he was half mad at times. That was one of them."
She had never again referred to the matter, nor to any other episode of her unhappy married life, but since that day Ann had always the consciousness of something unspeakably hideous which had lain in the background of Cara Hilyard's life, marring it utterly, and the intense sympathy it aroused within her had quickened the growth of the friendship between them.
One circumstance which had assisted greatly in the "settling down" process, as far as Ann was concerned, had been Lady Susan's unexpectedly early return from Paris. The end of the first fortnight of July had found her back at White Windows.
"The heat was intolerable, my dear!" she told Ann. "And the dust. Not even for the sake of a new rig-out could I endure it. I thought of cool little Silverquay with the nice clean sea washing its doorstep every morning--and I bolted. Madame Antoinette has probably been, wringing her hands over my half-completed garments ever since!"
She was immensely entertained when Ann acquainted her with the identity of the man who had come to her assistance on the night of the Venetian fête, and chuckled enjoyably.
"Poor man! He must be frightfully bored at finding you here--established on his very threshold, so to speak! Confirmed misogynists should never indulge in the rescuing stunt--it's so liable to involve them in unexpected consequences. How does he bear up under the discovery?"
"Not at all well," acknowledged Ann ruefully. "Sometimes I think he almost regrets he didn't let me drown comfortably in the lake while he had the chance!"
The wish she had expressed to Maria concerning her brother's then unknown employer--that she hoped he wouldn't make a habit of dropping in at the Cottage during the mornings--had certainly been very literally fulfilled. Rarely did Eliot Coventry put in an appearance at Oldstone Cottage at all, and if the exigencies of business matters took him there on any occasion when Robin chanced to be out, he usually contrived only to leave a note or message for him with Maria. More often than not, however, he would merely send word to him, asking him to come up and see him at Heronsmere. To Ann, puzzled and secretly somewhat piqued, it seemed as though he were studiously avoiding her. Once she mentioned the subject to Robin, introducing it casually into the conversation as though it were a matter of no moment--as is the way of women in regard to anything which touches them closely. Robin had dismissed it easily.
"Oh, you mustn't think anything of that," he assured her. "I told you--women don't enter much into Coventry's life. He's a bit of a recluse as far as your sex is concerned."
"He was quite friendly that first morning he came here," objected Ann.
It was that which puzzled her--the apparently causeless change in his attitude. It was true that upon, first recognising in his agent's sister the girl he had rescued from her difficulties on the night of the Fête des Narcisses he had appeared disconcerted and by no means pleased to renew the acquaintance. But afterwards he had thawed considerably, and had even suggested that they should be friends. And now he was behaving as though he had repented the suggestion and were determined to show her that he had. It was not that he was a snob. She was absolutely certain that the fact that the unknown heroine of the lake episode had proved to be merely the sister of his estate agent would not have the most fractional weight with Eliot Coventry. And as she sat swinging idly in the hammock, letting her thoughts stray back over her few brief meetings with him, she felt utterly baffled to interpret his behaviour.
Rather irritably she tried to dismiss the matter from her thoughts, but it persisted in occupying the foreground of her mind, and at last, in desperation, she picked up her discarded book and began to read. For a few moments she succeeded in concentrating her attention. Then gradually, as the sunlight, piercing through the branches overhead, flickered dazzlingly on the surface of the paper, the black and white of the printed page ran together in a blur of grey and her eyes closed drowsily. With an effort she forced them open, although lifting her eyelids seemed like raising leaden shutters.
"The rain was now coming down in torrents" was the first sentence which met her glance. She read the phrase over two or three times as though it were some abstruse statement in mathematics. Its incongruousness annoyed her. It was nonsense for any one to write like that. Why, it was so hot... so hot that... The book, falling from her hand, slipped over the side of the hammock and dropped almost soundlessly on to the thick turf below.
The next thing of which she was conscious was of waking suddenly to the sound of a crisp masculine voice remarking succinctly and on a note of intense astonishment:
"Well, I'm hanged!"
Ann stirred and rather unwillingly opened her eyes to find herself gazing straight up into other eyes so vividly blue as to be almost startling. They were looking down at her with a mixture of amusement and unmistakable admiration.
"I've been asleep," she said unnecessarily, still hardly thoroughly awake.
"You have," agreed the owner of the blue eyes. "And I very nearly took the usual privilege accorded to the prince who's told off to waken the sleeping beauty."
At that Arm woke up very completely. The speech savoured of impertinence, and she resented it accordingly, yet it had been so gaily uttered, with a sort of confiding audacity which appeared to take it for granted that she would not be offended, that she found it difficult to feel as righteously indignant as the occasion merited.
"Who are you?" she demanded, sitting up hastily and eyeing the intruder with extreme disfavour. He was hatless, and the sun glinted on dark red locks of the same warm, burnished hue as the skin of a horse-chestnut. The intensely blue eyes gleamed at her from under dominant, strongly-marked brows, and the beaky, high-bridged nose, long-lipped mouth, and stubborn chin all connoted the same arrogant virility.
"I'm Forrester--Brett Forrester, and very much at your service," he replied cheerfully.
So this was Lady Susan's "scapegrace nephew"! This gay, confident person who strode forcefully into your garden without so much as a "by-your-leave," and who conveyed the impression that he would stride forcefully into your life, equally without permission, if it so pleased him. Ann was aware of something extraordinarily vital about the man that attracted her in spite of her first instinctive feeling of aversion.
"And what are you doing in my garden?" she asked.
His blue eyes swept the girl's slim, supple figure as she lay in the hammock with a long, raking glance that missed nothing and then came back to her face.
"If I answered that question truthfully you'd pretend to be offended," he said.
"I shouldn't pretend--anything," she retorted. "Please tell me why you're here."
"Oh, that's quite a different proposition! I can answer that one. I'm here as the emissary of my respected Aunt Susan."
"Yes. We've just walked over from White Windows, and when we arrived and found you were out, and that the delightful old Devonshire party who opened the door to us could supply no recent data concerning your whereabouts, Aunt Susan collapsed into a comfortable chair and sent me to spy out the land."
Ann sprang up out of the hammock.
"How good of her to have walked over in all this heat!" she said, preparing to lead the way back to the house.
"It was my doing," he replied with an air of complacency, as they walked on together. "I only arrived yesterday and she talked so much about you that I was consumed with a quite pardonable anxiety to meet you."
"I hope you found it worth the three-mile walk," commented Ann dryly.
"Oh, quite," he returned with conviction. "I always like making new friends."
The cool assurance of the assertion annoyed her.
"We've hardly got to that stage yet," she observed distantly.
"No. But we shall do"--confidently. "Perhaps further than that, ultimately."
She threw him a quick glance and encountered his eyes fixed on her with a kind of gay bravado--like that of a small boy experimenting how far he dare go. It irritated her--this sanguine assumption of his that he was going to count for something in her life. She walked on more quickly.
"Aren't you rather a conceited person?" she asked mildly.
"I'd prefer to call it having decided ideas," he returned.
"Well, you must know you can't force your ideas on other people."
"Can't I?" He halted in the middle of the path and faced her. "Do you really think that?"
Ann avoided meeting his glance, but she felt it playing over her like lightning over a summer sky. It was as though he had flung down a challenge and dared her to pick it up. She temporised.
"Do I think--what? I've almost forgotten what we were talking about."
"No, you haven't," he returned bluntly. "You're merely evading the question--as every woman does when she's afraid to answer."
"I'm not afraid!" exclaimed Ann indignantly. "I certainly shouldn't be afraid of you," she added, emphasising the final pronoun pointedly.
"Shouldn't you?" He looked down at her with an odd intentness. "Do you know, I think I should rather like to make you--afraid of me."
In spite of herself Ann shrank a little inwardly. She was suddenly conscious of a sense of the man's force, of the dogged tenacity of purpose of which he might be capable. He had not been dowered with that conquering nose and those dare-devil, reckless eyes for nothing! She could imagine him riding rough-shod over anything and any one in order to attain his ends.
She contrived a laugh.
"I hope you won't attempt such a thing," she said, endeavouring to speak lightly. "If you do, I shall appeal to Lady Susan for protection."
"That wouldn't help you any," he assured her. "Aunt Susan would let you down quite shamelessly. She keeps a permanently soft spot in her heart for disreputable characters--like me."
When they reached the house they discovered Lady Susan located in the easiest chair she could find, placidly smoking a cigarette, her gold-knobbed ebony stick--inseparable companion of her walks abroad--propped up beside her. From outside the front door could be heard sundry scratchings and appealing whines, punctuated by an occasional hopeful bark, which emanated from the bunch of dogs without whom she was rarely to be seen in Silverquay. They went by the generic name of the Tribes of Israel--a gentle reference to their tendency to multiply, and they ran the whole gamut of canine rank, varying in degree from a pedigree prize-winner to a mongrel Irish terrier which Lady Susan had picked up in a half-starved condition in a London side-street and had promptly adopted. The last-named was probably her favourite, since, as Forrester had remarked, she had a perennially soft spot in her heart for disreputable characters.
"My dear," she said, as Ann stooped and kissed her, "I do hope and pray that your adorable Maria Coombe is at this moment concerning herself with the making of tea. Much as I love you, I shouldn't have toiled over here in this appalling heat but for this graceless nephew of mine, who would give me no peace till I did. So I chose the lesser evil."
Forrester seemed supremely unrepentant, but Ann noticed that when tea appeared he waited rather charmingly on Lady Susan, anticipating her wants even down to the particular brand of cigarette she preferred to smoke when, after swallowing three cups of scaldingly hot tea à la Russe, she pronounced her thirst satisfactorily assuaged. There was a certain half-humorous, half-tender indulgence in his manner towards her, and Ann could imagine that he would know very well how to spoil the woman he loved. But he would master her completely first. Of that she felt sure.
It appeared that he had descended upon White Windows unexpectedly. He had been cruising round the coast and, without troubling to apprise Lady Susan of his intention, had suddenly elected to pay her a visit, and his yacht, the Sphinx, was now lying at anchor in Silverquay Bay.
"And even now I don't know how long he proposes staying!" smiled his aunt.
"How long?" He smiled back at her. "The question is, how long will you put up with me? I don't think--now"--with a swift, audacious glance which Ann refused to meet--"that I can do better than throw myself on the hospitality of White Windows for the remainder of the summer."
"My dear boy"--Lady Susan beamed. "Will you really? I should love to have you; you know that. And, after all"--with a twinkle--"Silverquay has its amusements. We take tea with each other, and boat, and bathe--"
"I can do all those things," said Forrester modestly. He turned suddenly to Ann. "Can you swim?"
"I can keep up for about two strokes," she replied, smiling. "After that, overcome by my own prowess, I sink like a stone."
"Then I'll teach you," he said. "We'll begin to-morrow. What time and where do you generally bathe?"
Ann raised one or two feeble objections, but they were promptly overruled, and before she quite knew how it had happened she found herself committed to a promise that she would be at Berrier Cove the following morning, prepared to take a first lesson in the art of swimming.
"It's really a very sensible idea," approved Lady Susan. "If you'd actually tipped over into Lac Léman that night, you'd certainly have gone to the bottom if you'd had to depend on your own unaided efforts."
"What happened?" asked Forrester with interest, and Lady Susan embarked on a graphic account of Ann's adventure during the progress of the Venetian fête at Montricheux, and of the way in which Eliot Coventry had come to her rescue.
"Coventry? Is that the morose-looking individual who lives at Heronsmere?" inquired Brett.
Ann glanced up in some surprise.
"Oh, have you met him already?"
"We came across him with Brian Tempest on our way here," explained Lady Susan. "The two men are rather a study in contrasts," she added. "Brian is really a great dear. I always think it's so clever of him to have preserved his faith in human nature when he's condemned to live with that oil-and-vinegar sister of his. It may be very unchristian of me"--with a small schoolboy grin--"but I simply can't abide Caroline Tempest!"
Shortly afterwards she professed herself sufficiently rested to essay the return journey to White Windows.
"I shall certainly come down to the Cove to-morrow and watch you disporting yourselves in the briny," she said, as she kissed Ann good-bye. "Does Robin bathe with you?"
"When he has time. But Cara Hilyard is sure to be there. She swims like a fish."
"That's the lovely lady who lives at the Priory, isn't it? You'll have to meet her, Brett."
"If she is a Mrs. Dene Hilyard, I know her already," he answered. "I used to meet her with her husband in London sometimes--and a pretty brute he was! I nearly ran away with her just to get her out of his clutches," he added lightly.
"Well, she's out of them now, poor soul, for keeps," said Lady Susan.
Later, as they walked home together across the fields, accompanied by the now jubilant Tribes of Israel, she returned to the subject.
"If you'll promise not to discredit me by running away with her, Brett, we'll go over to see your friend at the Priory. I should have to call, in any case, before long."
"You needn't be afraid. There's not the remotest danger of my wanting to run off with her."
"She's rather a beautiful person," warned Lady Susan laughingly. "You'll probably lose your heart to her within half an hour."
"I've only done such a thing once in my life," he replied coolly. "I'm not likely to do it again."
"When was that, Brett?" she asked with some curiosity. She had never heard of his having any serious love-affair.
"To-day," he replied unexpectedly.
Lady Susan paused and surveyed him with unfeigned astonishment.
"Ann?" she cried. "Do you mean you've fallen in love with my little Ann--already?"
"I mean rather more than that," he said deliberately. "I mean that I'm going to marry your little Ann."
His aunt regarded him with a gleam of amusement.
"Ann Lovell is a young woman with a very decided mind of her own," she observed. "It's just conceivable she might refuse you."
Forrester returned her glance with eyes like blue steel.
"It wouldn't make a bit of difference if she did," he said laconically.
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