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The news of Mrs. Hilyard's visit to the Cottage soon spread abroad, and the following day, when she was allowed downstairs for the first time, Ann held quite a small reception.
Lady Susan, escorted by Forrester and the ubiquitous Tribes of Israel, was the first to arrive. Afterwards came the rector and Miss Caroline, and even Mrs. Carberry, a somewhat consequential dame whose husband was Master of the Heronsfoot Foxhounds, and who had hitherto held rather aloof from anything approaching intimacy and merely paid a stately first call on the Cottage people, unbent sufficiently to take tea informally with the invalid.
She did not, however, bring her daughter, a girl of Ann's own age, with her. A shrewd, rather calculating woman, she had fully recognised the possible attraction that might lie in Robin's steady, grey-green eyes. And since her plans for her daughter's future most certainly did not include marriage with any one so unimportant--and probably hard up--as a young estate agent, she judged it wiser to run no risks. She extracted from Ann a full, true, and particular account of her bathing adventure, and the information that it had been the owner of Heronsmere who had come to the rescue did not appear to afford her much pleasure.
"He's not here this afternoon?" She glanced quickly round the party of friends who had gathered in the pretty, low-ceiled room. "But I suppose he has called already to make sure that you're safe and sound?" There was a kind of acrid sweetness in her tones.
"Oh, no," replied Ann, sensing the woman's latent antagonism. "Why should he?"
"Why, indeed?" Mrs. Carberry laughed dryly. "After all, he can't really feel very grateful to you for procuring him a soaking, can he? A man does so hate to be made a fool of."
"I really don't know what he felt," retorted Ann sweetly, but with heightened colour. "You see, I was unconscious."
"Just as well for you, perhaps." Again that unpleasant little dry laugh. "One feels so draggled, doesn't one, with one's hair all lank and wet?"
Miss Caroline's maidenly mind seemed chiefly oppressed with the immodesty of being rescued from drowning by a member of the other sex.
"How unfortunate it was that Mrs. Hilyard couldn't reach you!" she said, when she got Ann to herself for a few moments. "You must have felt very uncomfortable."
"Uncomfortable?" Ann's clear eyes met Miss Caroline's blue bead ones inquiringly.
"Dreadfully uncomfortable, I should think"--with sympathy. "You--you had nothing on, I suppose"--lowering her voice impressively--"but your bathing-gown?"
"Nothing at all," answered Ann, maintaining her gravity with difficulty. "One hasn't usually, you know--to go into the water."
"But you had to be carried out of the water, hadn't you? You must have found it most embarrassing! Most embarrassing!"
"I don't think I did," said Ann.
"Not?"--chidingly. "Oh, Miss Lovell, I can't believe that! Any nice-minded girl--I'm sure, if it had been me I should have fainted out of pure shame at finding myself in a man's arms--without a peignoir!"
"Well, that was just it, you see. I had fainted. So"--the corners of her mouth trembling in spite of herself--"I wasn't able to put on my peignoir."
"I see." Miss Caroline looked slightly relieved. "Then you didn't really know any more about it than one does when having a tooth out under gas? What a good thing! Dear me! What a good thing! And I'm sure Mr. Coventry will try to forget all about it. Any gentleman would. Really, such a--a contretemps makes one feel one ought almost to be fully clothed for bathing, doesn't it?"
She hopped up like a hungry little bird that has just been fed and flitted across the room to talk to Mrs. Carberry, and Ann wondered dryly if she were confiding in the M.F.H.'s wife particulars of the kind of costume she deemed suitable to the occasion when drowning.
Brett Forrester took her vacated seat at Ann's side.
"I'm really very much obliged to Coventry," he remarked, by way of opening the conversation.
"Are you?" she replied innocently. "What for?"
"Why, for saving you for me, of course. I couldn't possibly have got there in time myself. And I don't like losing my belongings"--placidly.
She stared at him.
"If you're referring to me," she said aloofly, "I'm not your 'belongings.'"
His bright blue eyes flashed over her, and for a moment his face seemed to wake up as he responded swiftly:
"But you will be--some day. So"--with a resumption of his former placidity--"as I said, I'm very much obliged to Coventry for saving you for me."
"Brett, don't be so ridiculous! It isn't even funny to make jokes like that," she answered with some impatience.
He remained quite unperturbed.
"I didn't intend to be funny. And I'm not joking. I'm perfectly serious."
"Then you were never more mistaken in your life."
"Mistaken?"--with childlike inquiry.
"In what you said just now."
Forrester's eyes danced wickedly.
"I say such a lot of things," he complained. "If you can specify which particular thing, now?"
"You know which I mean, perfectly well," protested Ann indignantly. "That I--that you--what you said just now about 'belonging'!" She brought it out with a rush.
"I meant it."
They were alone in the room. The others, conducted by Robin, had all trooped out to inspect what Lady Susan gaily insisted upon referring to as the "Cottage Poultry Farm," and distantly through the open window came the fluttered cackling of the White Leghorns and Rhode Island Reds, resentful of this unaccountable intrusion of strangers into their domain.
Brett laid his hand suddenly on Ann's arm and thrust his face near hers.
"I meant it," he repeated, and his voice roughened oddly. "I've meant it ever since the day I found you fast asleep in the hammock."
She drew back a little. The nearness of his arrogant, suddenly passionate face to hers filled her with a sense of panic. His eyes were like blue fire, scorching her.
"Don't! Don't be absurd, Brett," she said hastily. "Why--why"--seeking for some good reason to set against his abruptly declared determination--"you hardly know me! Only just on the surface, that is."
"I know all I need to, thank you. I know you're the woman I want to marry. No"--checking with a gesture the impulsive negative with which she was about to respond--"you needn't bother about refusing me. I'm not asking you to marry me--not at this moment."
Ann took a fresh hold of herself.
"That's just as well," she said, trying to match his coolness with her own. "As I told you--you don't really know anything about me. I may"--forcing a smile--"have a perfectly horrid character, for all you can tell."
"You may," he replied indifferently. "It wouldn't worry me in the least if you had." Then, with a strange intensity, he went on: "I shouldn't let anything that had happened in the past stand between me and the woman I wanted--if I wanted her badly enough."
"I think you're talking very funnily," she observed. "I don't understand you at all."
"Don't you?" Once more that swift, searching glance of the brilliant blue eyes. "In plain English, then, it wouldn't matter in the slightest to me what the woman I loved had done in the past. She may have sown her little crop of wild oats if she likes. The past is hers. The future would be mine. And I'd take care of that"--grimly.
"This is all very interesting, of course," said Ann repressively. "But I don't see how it affects me."
"Do you really mean that?" He rapped out the question sharply--so sharply that she almost jumped.
"Certainly, I mean it," she replied with a slight accession of hauteur that sat rather charmingly upon her. She rose quickly, as a sound of voices heralded the return of the rest of the party. "And I'd prefer you not to talk to me any more--like that," she added.
Forrester's eyes followed her as she moved back into the room and began chatting pleasantly with her returning guests. There was a look of amusement in them mingled with a certain unqualified admiration.
"Game little devil!" he muttered to himself.
Soon afterwards the M.F.H.'s wife rose to go, and, graciously offering the Tempests a lift home in her car, swept them away with her. When they had taken their departure Lady Susan declared that Ann was looking tired and that it was high time she and Brett started on their homeward tramp.
"You'll be feeling quite yourself again by next week, my dear," she said. "Just in time for Brett's party on the Sphinx," she added, smiling.
A faint look of hesitation crossed Ann's face. Brett saw it instantly.
"You promised to come," he said swiftly, almost as though he dared her to retract her acceptance.
Ann forced herself to meet his glance. She was conscious of an inward qualm of fear and wished to heaven that she had never accepted the invitation to dine on board his yacht. But she was determined not to show the white feather and faced him coolly. After all, in these enlightened days a man couldn't very well carry you off by force and compel you to marry him! Though she reluctantly conceded that if any man in the world were likely to attempt such a thing it would be some primitive, lawless male of the type of Brett Forrester.
"Certainly I promised," she told him. "And I've every intention of keeping my promise."
Lady Susan glanced quickly from one to the other of them and her dark brows puckered up humorously.
"What have you been doing to her, Brett?" she demanded, as she and her nephew trudged homeward side by side. "Have you quarrelled?"
"Quarrelled? Certainly not. I've only"--smiling reminiscently--"been giving her a peep into the future. It will be less of a shock when it comes," he added matter-of-factly.
If he had wished to establish himself in Ann's thoughts he had certainly succeeded. Odd snatches of his conversation kept recurring to her mind--his coolly possessive: "I don't like losing my belongings," followed by that equally significant: "The future would be mine." It was outrageous! Apparently Brett Forrester had never got beyond the primitive idea of the cave-man who captured his chosen mate by force of his good right arm and club, and subsequently kept her in order by an elaboration of the same simple methods.
No question of other people's rights and privileges ever seemed to enter his head. Splendidly unmoral, he had gone through life driving straight ahead for whatever he wanted, without a back thought as to whether it might be right or wrong. That aspect of the matter simply did not enter into his calculations. And because there was still a great deal of the "little boy" in him--that "little boy" who never seems to grow up in some men--women had always found excuses and forgiveness for him, and probably always would.
Even Ann could not feel as offended at his audacity as she would like to have done. There was something disarming in the very fact that he never seemed to expect you to feel offended. And though, on that first afternoon she had been allowed downstairs, he had shaken her nerve somewhat, she was inclined to attribute this to the circumstance that she was still physically a little weak--not quite her usual buoyant self. The impression of sheer dynamic force which he had left with her was very vivid, and might have lingered with her longer, troubling her peace of mind, but for an unexpected happening which served to direct her thoughts into another channel.
It was one afternoon a day or two later, and Ann, was sitting in a sunny corner of the garden, idly dipping into the books which Cara had lent her. The previous day the weather had been cloudy and rather cool, and Maria, the martinet, had sternly vetoed Ann's modest suggestion that she was now sufficiently recovered to go outdoors again.
"My dear life! And take your death of cold 'pon top of bein' near drowned?" Maria had demanded witheringly. "I wish the Almighty had weighed you in a bit more common sense when He set about making you, Miss Ann--and no disrespect intended to Him!"
She flounced away indignantly. But on this balmy summer's afternoon not even the kindly old despot of the Cottage could find any objections to such a mild form of dissipation, and accordingly Ann was basking contentedly in the hot sun, thankful at last to be released from the devoted but somewhat exacting ministrations of Maria.
She felt deliciously lazy--too lazy even to concentrate on any of the novels which Cara had brought her. She had no particular craving at the moment either to be thrilled by adventures or harrowed by the partings of lovers. But a slim volume of verse held her attention intermittently. It was more suited to her idle humour, she reflected. You could read one of the brief lyrics and let the book slide down on to your knee and enjoy the quivering blue and gold, and soft, murmurous, chirruping sounds of the summer's day, while your mind played round the idea embodied in the poem.
She turned the pages idly, skimming desultorily through the verses till she came to a brief two-verse lyric which caught and held her interest. It was a very simple little song, but it appealed to the shining optimism and belief which was a fundamental part of her own nature--to that brave, sturdy confidence which had brought her, still buoyant and unspoiled and sweet, through the vicissitudes of a girlhood that might very easily have cradled an embittered woman.
"Beyond the hill there's a garden, Fashioned of sweetest flowers, Calling to you with its voice of gold, Telling you all that your heart may hold, Beyond the hill there's a garden fair-- My garden of happy hours.
"Dream-flowers grow in that garden, Blossom of sun and showers, There, withered hopes may bloom anew, Dreams long forgotten shall all come true, Beyond the hill there's a garden fair-- My garden of happy hours!"
[Footnote: This song, "Dream-Flowers," has been set to music by Margaret Pedler. Published by Edward Schuberth & Co., 11 East 22nd Street, New York.]
Ann's thoughts turned towards Eliot Coventry, the man who had told her he was "old enough to have lost all his illusions." Need one ever be as old as that, she wondered rather wistfully? Surely for each one of us there should be a garden where our dream-flowers grow--dream-flowers which one day we shall pluck and find they have become beautiful realities.
She was reading the verses through for the second time when a shadow seemed to move betwixt her and the sun, darkening the page. She glanced up quickly to find Coventry himself standing beside her.
"I hope I haven't startled you," he said. "Maria told me you were in the garden and left me to find my own way here. I think"--smiling--"some cakes were in imminent danger of burning if she took her eye off them, so to speak."
Ann shook hands and hospitably indicated a garden chair.
"Won't you sit down?" she said, though a trifle nervously. "Or are you in a hurry?" It had startled her to find the man of whom she had at that moment been thinking close beside her.
"I'm in no hurry," he said, sitting down. "I came to inquire how you were getting on."
A spark lit itself in her eyes.
"I wonder you didn't send your groom instead," she flashed out quickly. "It would have saved you the trouble."
Coventry was silent a moment, while a slow flush rose under his sun-tanned skin.
"I think perhaps I deserved that," he admitted at last. His glance met and held hers. "Will you at any rate try to believe I had a good reason for doing what I did?"
"But--then why have you come now? What's happened to the 'good reason'?"
"I've scrapped it," he said tersely. Then, almost as though he were arguing the matter out with himself, he added: "A man can take risks if he likes--if the game's worth the candle."
"And--is this particular game--worth the candle?"
A sudden smile broke up the gravity of those deep, unhappy eyes of his.
"I can't answer that question--yet."
Ann was silent. The sense of constraint left her and an odd feeling of contentment took its place. He was no longer cold and distant and aloof--in the mood to dispatch a groom with a message of inquiry! The friend in him was uppermost.
"I think yon deserve a thorough good scolding," he went on presently. "What possessed you to attempt bathing in a rough sea like that? Seriously"--speaking more earnestly. "It was a most foolhardy thing to do."
Ann's eyes, goldenly clear in the sunlight, met his frankly.
"I think I went--partly because I was told not to," she acknowledged, smiling.
His lips twitched in spite of himself.
"Good heavens! What a woman's reason!"
"I suppose it was. But I never dreamed the waves could be as strong as they were. I felt absolutely helpless to stand up against them, and the ground seemed to be slipping away under my feet all the time, dragging me with it--oh, it was horrible!"--with a shiver of recollection. "And I have to thank you--again--for coming to the rescue!" she resumed more lightly after a moment. "I think I must really be destined to end my days in Davy Jones's locker--and you keep frustrating the designs of fate!"
"Well, don't trouble to go out of your way to give me another opportunity," he advised dryly.
"I won't," she promised. "Especially as it must go against all your principles to have to take so much trouble over a woman."
He made no answer, and, fearing she had unwittingly wounded him in some way, she hastened to change the conversation. She had instinctively come to know that beneath his brusque exterior he concealed a curious sensitiveness, and, remembering all that Cara had told her of the man's history she regretted her insouciant speech as soon as it was spoken.
"Are you going to the dinner-party on board the Sphinx?" she asked, grasping hurriedly at the first topic that presented itself.
A quick ejaculation escaped him.
"I'd clean forgotten all about it," he replied. "No, I didn't intend going. I must send along a refusal, I suppose."
"Why?" He looked at her rather blankly. The monosyllabic question, uttered so naturally, seemed to take him aback. "Why? Oh"--with a shrug--"these social gatherings don't appeal to me. I prefer my own company."
"It's very bad for you," observed Ann.
"What is? My own company?"
He was silent a moment. Then he asked abruptly:
"Will you be there--on the yacht, I mean?"
She bent her head, conscious of the sudden flush that came and went quickly in her face.
"Yes. Robin and I are going."
"In that case"--there was an infinitesimal pause and, although she would not look up, she was sensitively aware of the intentness of his gaze--"in that case, I shall change my mind and go, too."
"You'll meet plenty of friends there," replied Ann. "Lady Susan, of course, and the Tempests, and Mrs. Hilyard."
"Acquaintances only," he returned shortly.
"Well, at least you'll admit that Mrs. Hilyard is an 'auld acquaintance'," she said, laughing. "And she's so pretty! I do love people who are nice to look at, don't you?"
"Yes." Just the bare monosyllable, rather grudgingly uttered--nothing more.
"Don't you think she's very beautiful?" asked Ann in some astonishment at the lack of enthusiasm in his tones.
"Yes. But, after all, that's only the outside of the cup and platter. It's the soul inside the shell that matters."
"Well, I should think Cara has a beautiful soul, too," replied Ann loyally.
"Probably you know her better than I do," he said indifferently. Then, as though to change the subject: "What book have you been reading?" He picked it up from her lap, where it lay face downward, open at the lyric which had been occupying her thoughts when he joined her. "Oh, verse?"
"I felt too lazy to begin a novel," she explained.
His eyes travelled down the brief lines of the little song she had been reading, his face hardening as he read.
"Charmingly optimistic," he observed ironically, as he closed the book. "I'm afraid, however, that the 'garden of happy hours' is a purely imaginary one for most of us."
"Of course it's bound to be--if you don't believe in it. You've got to have dream-flowers first, or naturally they can't materialise."
"I suppose all of us have had our dream-flowers at one time or another," he replied quietly. "And then the frost has come along and scotched them. But I forgot!"--with a short laugh. "You're one of the people who believe that if you think and believe them hard enough, your dreams will come true, aren't you? I remember your flinging that bit of philosophy in my face the first time we met--at the Kursaal."
"Yes," she acquiesced. "But if you haven't any, they can't come true, can they?"
"I don't imagine that what we hope or think makes any perceptible difference," he said shortly.
"That's because you're a cynic! I think it makes all the difference. Robin and I are a concrete example of it. We've always wanted to live together--we hung on to the thought in our minds all the time circumstances kept us apart. And now, you see, here we are--doing precisely what we wanted to do."
"I see that you're a very good advocate," he replied smiling. And then Robin came out of the house and joined them and the conversation drifted away on to more general lines.
It was late in the afternoon before Coventry finally proposed taking his way homeward--so late that Robin suggested he might as well make it still later and stay to dinner with them. Rather to Ann's surprise he consented, and, in spite of his assertion, earlier on, that he "preferred his own company," he seemed thoroughly to enjoy the little home-like dīner ą trois. There was something about the cosy room and the gay, good-humoured chaff and laughter of brother and sister which conveyed a sense of welcome--partaking of that truest kind of hospitality which creates no special atmosphere of ceremony for a guest but encompasses him with a frank, informal friendliness.
Perhaps, as Maria moved briskly in and out, changing the plates and dishes, and not forbearing to smile benignly upon her young master and mistress if she chanced to catch the eye of one or other of them, some swift perception of the pleasant, simple homeliness of it all woke Eliot to comparisons, for just as he was leaving he said with characteristic abruptness:
"Thank you both immensely. To-night's been a great contrast to my usual evenings in that great empty barrack of a dining-room at Heronsmere."
Unconsciously he spoke out of a great loneliness, and Ann's heart ached for this supremely hurt and bitter soul which sought security from further hurt behind the iron barriers of a self-imposed reserve and solitude.
Presently the sweet summer dusk, fragrant of herb and flower, enfolded them as they stood together at the Cottage gate. A sudden silence had fallen between them. Ann tried to break it, utter some commonplace, but no words would come. At length he held out his hand, and, as hers slid within it, he spoke with a curiously tender gravity.
"Good-bye," he said. "Don't let the cynics spoil the world for you. I hope you'll find your happy garden--whoever doesn't."
"I hope every one will, some day," she answered rather low. Somehow her voice didn't seem very manageable. "Even cynics."
"I'm afraid I've missed the way there." Still holding her hand in his, he stared down at her with an odd, tense expression in his eyes. "Ann, do you think I shall ever find it again?"
His voice vibrated to some unlooked-for emotion, and Ann, hearing and dimly sensing the demand it held, was suddenly afraid, shrinking back into the reserves of her young, unconquered womanhood. She tried to withdraw her hand from his clasp.
Then, from somewhere above her bent head, she heard a low laugh, half tender, half amused.
"You shall tell me to-morrow, little Ann," he said.
She felt his lips against her palm, and a minute later she was standing alone by the gate with the sound of Eliot's receding steps coming faintly to her ears through the scented dusk.
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