Chapter 18




A BATTLE OF WILLS


One man sows and another reaps, and sometimes the harvest is a curiously unexpected one for the reaper. Coventry had sown harshness and distrust, and Brett reaped a harvest of kindness and favour in the quarter where he least anticipated it.

Ann, exasperated by his cool impertinence at their last meeting, had merely vouchsafed him the briefest of greetings when they had met at the rectory party, and had consistently avoided him for the remainder of the afternoon. But when, with his usual debonair assurance, he presented himself at Oldstone Cottage the following day, she received him with unwonted graciousness and appeared to have entirely forgotten that he had given her any just cause for offence.

Yesterday she had felt crushed by the magnitude of the blow which had fallen on her, and in her treatment of Forrester she had almost mechanically adopted the detached and chilly attitude prompted by her annoyance with him. But to-day reaction had set in, and, like many another of her sex, she sought to exorcise the pain which one man had inflicted by flirting recklessly with another. It is a method which has its risks, more especially if the second man happens to be dangerously in love, but a woman hurt as Ann had been hurt does not stop to count risks, but only seeks blindly for something--anything--that may serve to distract her thoughts and keep at bay memories of which the smart and sting is too intolerable to be borne.

Forrester was quick to perceive her altered attitude towards him and to take advantage of it, although, with a diplomacy foreign to his usual tactics and perhaps based on Lady Susan's warning counsels, he kept himself well in hand. Vaguely recognising behind the alteration in Ann's manner some impulse of which he could not fathom the source, he merely accepted the fact of the change and set himself to amuse and entertain her--to hold her interest without frightening her.

During the next few days he was with her almost constantly. One day he rowed her over to a distant promontory, when they picnicked together on the brow of the cliffs, afterwards exploring the woods which crowned them. Another time they motored into Ferribridge, where Ann, long denied the sight of a shop window, revelled in the opportunity to spend her pennies and shopped riotously. Yet another time, on the day preceding that fixed for the dinner-party on board the Sphinx, they rode together on the downs--Ann mounted on Dick Turpin, Brett on a bad-tempered, unruly mare which Lady Susan had bred and which the grooms at White Windows were terrified to back.

Forrester's horsemanship was superb. He had hands of steel and velvet, and fear was an unknown quantity to him. Ann watched the ensuing tussle between man and beast with unequivocal admiration. The mare, a big raking bay, with black points and a white blaze, sulkily obeyed her rider's curbing hands upon the bridle whilst they rode through the lanes, but when they emerged upon the wide, swelling sweep of the downs, she evidently decided that the moment had come to assert her independence.

She commenced operations by going straight up in the air--so straight that for an instant Ann thought she must surely topple backwards, and wondered with a little breathless thrill of admiration how Brett contrived to keep his seat at all at such an angle. Possibly the mare wondered also, for, coming down once more on all four feet to find the hated incumbrance still astride her back, she reared again, immediately. Ann had a vision of two black hoofs pawing the air indignantly, then, swift as a flash of light, Brett had flung himself forward on the mare's neck and brought his crop down on her head between the pointed ears. She came down to earth with a bang, plunged violently, then, giving an evil twist to her whole body, started bucking with all the wicked energy that was in her.

Brett had a magnificent seat, but twice she nearly had him out of the saddle, and it is certain that if he had not been blest with almost inexhaustible staying power, combined with a pliant strength of muscle, he would have come off second best in the contest of wills, for the mare seemed tireless, and looked as though she could go on bucking--and enjoying the process, too--till the crack of doom. Finding, however, that she could not rid herself of Forrester by the same methods which had proved easily successful with the stable lads at White Windows, she uttered a squeal of rage, laid back her ears, and bolted hell-for-leather across the downs.

This proved altogether too much for Dick Turpin's composure. He was seized with a spirited desire to go and do likewise, and for a moment or two Ann had her hands full. Gradually, however, she steadied his first wild rush to a gallop, then to a canter, and finally, as he eased into a trot, she dared to direct her attention elsewhere and look round to discover what had become of Brett.

She caught her breath with a gasp of dismay. Far ahead she could see the bay mare streaking across the downs, with Brett still square in the saddle, headed straight for the edge of the cliffs. From the way she tore along Ann knew she must be practically out of hand, and, if Brett were unable to turn her, the next few minutes would see horse and rider leap into space, to fall headlong down on to the rocks two hundred feet below.

Instinctively she urged her cob in pursuit, though subconsciously aware of the utter futility of it--of her absolute helplessness to avert disaster. Sick with horror, she could see the mare rocketing wildly towards the brink of the cliff. Almost she thought she could hear the thunderous beat of the maddened hoofs racing the beat of her own heart as it thudded in her ears, feel the wind of that reckless rush towards destruction. Nearer ... nearer to the cliff's edge.... Ann's whole body stiffened convulsively in anticipation of the inevitable catastrophe.

Then, just when it seemed as though the end were come, the mare gave a shrill scream of terror and swerved violently in her stride, with a suddenness that sent her staggering to her knees. She slithered along the turf, then, scrambling to her feet, stood stock still, her head thrust forward, snorting with fright.

What followed was so surprising that Ann, about to urge her pony onward, pulled up in astonishment. In some miraculous way Brett had retained his seat in the saddle, and instead of dismounting, as she expected him to do, he lifted his arm and brought his crop hard down on the mare's quarters, so that she leaped forward, and the next moment he was sending her along as fast as she could gallop, while his arm rose and fell like a flail, thrashing her unmercifully. They fled past Ann at racing speed, and she watched, dumb with amazement, while Brett steered a huge semicircular course on the downs, keeping the animal he rode at full stretch the whole time. When at last they came back and pulled up, the mare's breath was sobbing in her throat, while Brett himself, hatless and deadly pale beneath his crop of ruddy hair, was almost reeling in the saddle.

Rather stiffly he dismounted and, slipping the reins loosely over his arm, walked towards Ann, the mare following him meekly, like a beaten child. He looked fagged out, but his blue eyes still gleamed with their old indomitable fire.

"Brett! How could you?" exclaimed Ann breathlessly, as they approached.

"How could I--what?"

"Gallop the mare like that, just after she'd run away? She might have bolted with you again."

He threw back his head and laughed.

"Not likely! She'll never try those tricks with me again. Will you, old lady?"--and he rubbed the black velvet muzzle at his side with a kindly hand. To Ann's astonishment, the mare, dripping with the sweat of sheer exhaustion, her coat striped with the hiding Brett had given her, pushed her head forward, nuzzling his sleeve.

"She bolted the first time for her own amusement," he continued. "The second gallop was for mine"--grimly. "Don't you see, she'd have bolted again whenever the fit took her if I hadn't punished her. The only cure was to make her gallop till she was dead beat. She knows which of us is master now. And she doesn't bear me any grudge, either. Do you, old thing?" And he patted the mare's streaming neck.

"I wonder she doesn't," said Ann. "Wasn't it--rather brutal of you?"

"Not a bit. Merely necessary. And neither people nor animals bear a grudge when once they are mastered, fair and square." His eyes, with a gay, dare-devil challenge in them, flashed up and met hers. "You'll find that out some day," he added.

"I hope not," replied Ann stiffly. Then, remembering how near death he had been, she softened. "Anyway, I'm thankful you're alive. I don't know how you managed to pull the mare round as you did."

"I pull her round? My dear girl, if it had rested with me, we should both be lying in smithereens at the present moment, on the rocks below. She realised the drop just in the nick of time, and wheeled before we got to it."

"What do you mean--she realised it? How could she?"

For a moment Brett's eyes held a curious gravity.

"I can't tell you," he said at last, simply. "Only I know horses have a kind of instinct which very often warns them of danger. I've seen a similar thing happen once before, in the hunting field. A man was riding straight for a high bank that looked just like an ordinary on and off jump. You couldn't see what lay beyond it, and on the further side there was a forty-foot drop into a quarry. His horse had its forefeet actually on the bank--and then it must have sensed the danger, for it swung right round, just as the mare did to-day."

As he finished speaking, he gathered up the reins and remounted.

"We'd better be jogging homeward, I think," he said. "The mare's too hot to stand about. I don't want her to catch cold."

They rode slowly over the springy turf, the bay mare beaten but not cowed, responding docilely to every touch of Brett's hands on the bridle. She had learned her lesson, recognised the man who rode her as her master.

Ann was very quiet, her thoughts preoccupied with the happenings of the afternoon. In some sort, they shed a fresh light on the character of the man beside her. It was impossible not to admire his cool composure in the face of danger, and his unexpected kindliness to the mare, once he had asserted his supremacy over her, and her responsiveness to his caress, had astonished Ann considerably. She had thought Brett purely brutal when she had watched him force the frightened, flagging horse anew into a gallop, but no man could be all brute to whom an animal would turn with such mute confidence as the mare had shown when the struggle between them was over.

Behind Brett's careless courage, Ann recognised an insistent force and dominance that frightened her. If he could be so invincibly determined to subdue the will of a horse, how would it fare with any woman whom he had made up his mind to conquer? Would his persistency at last beat down her opposition? Or, if the woman's will were strong enough to resist him, would the fight between them go on--endlessly? Somehow she could not imagine Forrester laying down his weapons to admit defeat.

They were now approaching the big headland flanking Silverquay harbour, and, as the waters of the bay came into view, Ann's eyes went instinctively to the Sphinx, where she rode at anchor, specklessly clean and shining in the brilliant sunlight. She had often admired the yacht, with her long, graceful lines that promised speed, and on occasion, when she had steamed out of the bay, Ann missed her from her accustomed anchorage--feeling rather as though a bit of the landscape had vanished, leaving a gap. But now, for the first time, she was conscious of a disagreeable impression at the sight of the yacht gleaming there in the sun. It seemed as though it were there on guard, watching ... waiting ... motionless and silent, like a sleek cat watching at the mouth of a mousehole. Interminably patient. She glanced at Forrester, riding quietly at her side, and recalled his battle with the bay mare. He and the yacht--his yacht. Both so quiet, and both with such an infinite latent capacity for swift, directed action.

She shivered a little, and was aware of an inward sensation of relief when the horses at last pulled up at the gate of the Cottage and Billy Brewster flew out from the stables to take charge of the pony. The sight of the boy's rubicund, commonplace face gave her a feeling of reassurance, seeming to restore the normal, everyday atmosphere which the uncomfortable train of thought evoked by the Sphinx had momentarily dissipated.

"Well, I suppose I shan't see you to-morrow--until the evening?" Brett, standing by her side, the mare's bridle over his arm, was regarding her with an oddly mocking expression in his eyes. She almost felt as though he had been reading her thoughts. "I shall be going backwards and forwards to the yacht, to see that everything is shipshape for my party to-morrow night."

"Don't forget to hang up a full moon in the sky, by way of decoration," suggested Ann, trying to speak lightly.

"The matter shall receive attention," he replied gravely. "Aunt Susan and I shall go aboard early, of course, but the dinghy will be waiting for you all at the jetty at half-past seven." He shook hands, sprang into the saddle, and a minute later his horse's hoofs clattered away into the distance.

Ann turned and walked slowly up the path into the house. She wondered whether--now--Eliot Coventry would be at the dinner on board the yacht. She had not seen him since the day of the rectory garden-party, and she could think no other than that he had deliberately kept out of her way.




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