Chapter 22




WILD OATS


Lady Susan came briskly into the morning-room at White Windows, and the four privileged members of the Tribes of Israel who, being allowed the run of the house, were basking in front of a cheery fire, rose in a body and rushed towards her, jealously clamouring for attention. She patted them all round with a beautiful impartiality, cuffed the Great Dane for trampling on a minute Pekingese, settled a dispute between the truculent Irish terrier and an aristocratic Chow, and proceeded to greet her nephew.

"I've got an errand for you this morning, Brett," she remarked, as she poured out coffee.

Forrester, who was lifting the covers of the hot dishes on the sideboard, glanced round over his shoulder.

"At your service, most revered aunt. What particular job is it? Which will you have? Bacon and eggs, or fish?"

"Bacon. I want you to go over to Heronsmere, if you will, and bring back that pedigree pup Mr. Coventry promised me."

Brett surveyed the privileged classes on the hearth-rug with a ruminative eye.

"Are you proposing to add yet another to your collection of dogs?" he inquired with some amusement. "You must pay over quite a young fortune to the Government every year in the shape of dog-licenses."

Lady Susan smiled deprecatingly.

"Well, I really didn't intend to add to their number just at present," she admitted. "But I couldn't resist a pup by Mr. Coventry's pedigree fox-terrier. It's a first-class strain, and lie promised he'd pick me out a good puppy."

"Then hadn't you better wait till he comes hack to make the selection for you?"

"He is back."

Brett, who was in the middle of helping the bacon and eggs, paused abruptly, and a delicately poached egg promptly slid off the spoon he was holding and plopped back upon the dish, disseminating a generous spray of fat.

"Damn!" he ejaculated below his breath. "Who told you Coventry was back?" he went on in an expressionless voice.

Lady Susan chuckled and tried to restrain the Irish terrier's manifest intention of leaping on to her lap.

"My dear boy, haven't you learned yet that nothing takes place in a tiny village like Silverquay without everybody's knowing all about it--and a little more, too! The comings and goings of an important personage like the owner of Heronsmere certainly wouldn't be allowed to pass without comment." Here she quieted the Irishman's misplaced exuberance with a lump of sugar. "Through the comparatively direct channel of my maid, who had it from Mrs. Thorowgood, the laundress, who had it from the unsullied fount of Maria Coombe herself, I've even received the additional information that Mr. Coventry paid a long visit to Oldstone Cottage yesterday."

"He probably would," returned Brett. "After being away nearly three weeks he'd naturally want to see his agent."

"Only," remarked Lady Susan reflectively, "it appears that he must have gone to see his agent's sister. Robin was in Ferribridge yesterday. I met him just setting off there, and he said he'd got a long afternoon's work in front of him."

Brett preserved a brooding silence.

"I merely told you by way of giving you a friendly warning," observed his aunt, after a moment.

His blue eyes flashed up and met the mirthful dark ones scanning his sulky face amusedly.

"Thank you," he said grimly. "I'll see that your warning is not neglected."

"Now what in the world did he mean by that?" Lady Susan asked herself, and the question recurred to her again when, an hour or so later, he swung down the drive in the dog-cart at a reckless pace which sent a shiver through her as she watched him turn the corner almost on one wheel.

She was under no delusions respecting her nephew, as she had once admitted to Ann. But she was indulgently attached to him, and so genuinely devoted to Ann herself that she would have welcomed a match between the two. During the time they had lived together she had grown to love Ann almost as a daughter, and she felt that if she became her niece by marriage the girl would really "belong" to her, in a way. She had even come to a mental decision that if such a desirable consummation were ever reached she would settle a fairly large sum of money upon Ann on her wedding day. "For," as she shrewdly argued to herself, "Brett's already got more than is good for him, and every woman's better off for being independent of her husband for the price of hairpins."

She had seen comparatively little of Coventry and Ann together. Moreover, although she guessed that the former might be attracted to a limited extent, she did not regard him as a marrying man, nor had she the remotest notion of for how much he counted in Ann's life. Had she suspected this, she would most certainly have let things take their course, and the little warning hint which she had half banteringly dropped at breakfast, and which was destined to bear such bitter fruit, would never have been uttered.

Forrester covered the few miles that separated White Windows from Heronsmere at the same reckless pace at which he had started. He seemed oblivious of the animal between the shafts of the high dog-cart, directing it with the instinctive skill of a man to whom good horsemanship is second nature. His thoughts were turned inward. His eyes, curiously concentrated in expression, gleamed with that peculiar brilliance which was generally indicative with him of some very definite intensity of purpose. The groom who took charge of the foam-flecked horse when he reached Heronsmere glanced covertly at his arrogant face and opined to one of his fellows in the stables that "Mr. Forrester had precious little care for his horseflesh. Brought his horse here in a fair lather, he did."

Coventry, who was attending to a mass of correspondence when Brett was shown into his study, shook hands with the superficial friendliness that not infrequently masks a secret hostility between one man and another.

"Hope I'm not disturbing you?" queried Brett lightly.

Eliot shook his head.

"I've no particular love for my present task," he replied, with a gesture towards his littered desk. "I'm trying to overtake arrears of correspondence. Sit down and have a smoke." He tendered his case as he spoke.

"Price you've got to pay for three weeks' gallivanting, I suppose?" suggested Brett, helping himself to a cigarette and lighting up.

"I should hardly describe my recent absence from home as--gallivanting," returned Eliot, with a brief flash of reminiscence in his eyes.

"No? Well, you don't look as if it had agreed with you too well, whatever it was," commented the other candidly. "I should say you've dropped about half a stone in weight since I last saw you."

"Just as well--with the hunting season commencing," returned Eliot indifferently.

Brett nodded, and, changing the subject, proceeded to explain the object of his visit.

"The prospect of an addition to her kennels produces much the same effect on Aunt Susan as the promise of a new toy to a kiddie," he added. "She's almost dancing with impatience over it."

Coventry smiled.

"We won't keep her in suspense any longer, then," he replied. "You shall take the pup back with you. Come along to the stables and I'll show you the one I thought of sending her."

He rose as he spoke, tossing the stump of his cigarette into the fire, and Brett followed him out of the house and down to the stables where, in an empty horse-box, the litter of puppies at present resided. Cradled in clean, sweet-smelling straw, they were all bunched together round a big bowl of bread and milk--a heterogeneous mass of delicious fat roly-poly bodies and clumsy baby paws and tails that wagged unceasingly. At sight of the visitors, they deserted the now nearly empty bowl of food and galloped unsteadily towards them, squirming ecstatically over their feet and sampling the blacking on their boots with inquisitive pink tongues.

"This is the chap," said Coventry. And stooping, he singled out one of the pups and picked it up.

All the hardness went out of Brett's eyes as he took the little beast from him and fondled it, the puppy responding by thrusting against his face an affectionate moist black muzzle, still adorned with drops of milk from the recently concluded morning feed.

"He has all the points," remarked Eliot. "I think he's the pick of the litter."

"Undoubtedly," agreed Brett, casting a knowledgeable eye over the others. "Though they're a good lot, and you ought to find a winner or two amongst them."

"Like to see the horses?" asked Coventry, and Brett assenting very willingly, they made a tour of the stables.

"That's a nice little mare," remarked Forrester, pausing by the stall of a slim chestnut thoroughbred, who immediately thrust her head forward and nosed against his shoulder.

"Yes. And knows her job in the hunting field, too. I'm going to offer her to Miss Lovell for the season."

The puppy Brett was carrying in the crook of his arm uttered a plaintive squeak as the breath was abruptly jerked out of his fat little body by the sudden pressure of the arm in question.

"An offer that won't be rejected, I imagine," replied Brett. He accompanied his host out of the stables, and the two men turned towards the house. "Miss Lovell's quite a good horsewoman--and a very charming young person into the bargain."

"Very charming," agreed Coventry shortly. The idea of discussing Ann with any one, above all with Brett Forrester, was utterly distasteful to him.

"A somewhat flighty young monkey, though," pursued Brett pensively. "It's that touch of red in her hair that does it, I suppose." He laughed indulgently.

Coventry making no reply, he continued conversationally:

"You never inquired into her past history, I suppose, when you engaged her brother as your agent?"

Inwardly Coventry anathematised the promise he had given Ann to keep their engagement secret for the present. It sealed his lips against the innuendo contained in Forrester's speech.

"I certainly did not," he responded frigidly. "I was not engaging--her."

Brett appeared entirely unabashed.

"No. Or you might have found she couldn't show quite such a clean bill as her brother," he returned, smiling broadly.

By this time they had re-entered Coventry's study. Decanter and syphon, together with a couple of tumblers, had been placed on the table in readiness by a thoughtful servant. Eliot glanced at these preparations with concealed annoyance, but, compelled by the laws of hospitality, inquired curtly:

"Will you have a drink?"

Brett assented amicably and established himself in a chair by the fire, the puppy sprawling beatifically across his knees while he pulled its satin-smooth ears with caressing fingers.

"You can never trust red hair," he went on, accepting the drink Coventry had mixed for him. Then, catching the other's eye, he threw back his head and laughed with that impudent, friendly charm of his that discounted half his deviltries. "Oh, I can guess what you're thinking! And you're quite right. I ought to know--because I'm one of the red-headed tribe myself."

"It certainly passed through my mind," admitted Eliot.

"Well, you can't trust 'em. It's true. There's always a bit of the devil in them. And I happen to know that that demure little person down at your cottage has sown quite a sprinkling of wild oats."

"Wild oats in a woman are a very different thing from wild oats in a man," remarked Eliot, pouring himself out a whisky.

"Yes. But they're a deal more nearly related nowadays than they were before the war. Staying the night at a hotel with a man pal is sailing a trifle near the wind, don't you think? Anyway, it's carrying a flirtation rather far."

The syphon, beneath Eliot's sudden pressure, squirted out a torrent of soda. Brett's eyes scintillated as he watched the slight accident.

"You're implying a good deal, Forrester," said Eliot gravely, as he dried his coat with his handkerchief.

"Oh, I know what I'm talking about. I was there, you see, and caught the little limb of Satan red-handed, so to speak--though, of course, she doesn't know it." Then, as Eliot remained stonily silent, he proceeded loquaciously: "It was last June or thereabouts. I was stopping a night or two at the Hotel de Loup, up in the mountains above Montricheux--know it?"

"Yes, I know it," replied Coventry mechanically.

"There wasn't a soul in the place except me--out of the season, you know. And one beastly cold night, when I marched into the hotel after a confounded long tramp, who should I see but a man I knew saying good-night to an uncommonly pretty girl at the bottom of the stairs. I kept tactfully out of the way till the good-nights were over, as I thought at first he must have committed matrimony while I'd been abroad and that they were on their honeymoon. I never got the chance to ask him, as he bolted past me down one of the corridors before I had time to speak. So I took a squint at the hotel visitors' book and found they'd registered as 'G. Smith and sister'! That settled it. The chap's name wasn't Smith, and I happened to know he'd never had a sister--either by that name or any other! So I just chuckled quietly to myself and mentally congratulated him on his good taste--the girl was quite pretty enough to excuse a slight deviation from the strict and narrow path." He paused to light a fresh cigarette, his eyes, between narrowed lids, raking the other man's impenetrable face. Throughout the telling of the story Coventry had sat motionless, like a figure carved in stone. Only, as the recital proceeded, his eyes hardened slightly and his closed lips straightened into a stern, inflexible line. Having lit his cigarette, Forrester airily resumed the thread of his narrative.

"What follows is really rather interesting--the long arm of coincidence with a vengeance! My revered aunt brings me to Oldstone Cottage and sends me into the garden on a voyage of discovery to find Miss Lovell. And I find her asleep in the hammock--the identical young woman I'd seen up at the Dents de Loup with Tony Brabazon."

"Brabazon!" The name seemed jerked out of Coventry's lips without his own volition. A curious greyish pallor had overspread his face, and behind the hardness of his eyes smouldered a savage fire that seemed to wax and wane, struggling for release.

"Yes, Brabazon," replied Brett carelessly. "It seems he and old Sir Philip and Aunt Susan and Miss Lovell were all stopping at Montricheux. I'd no idea my aunt was staying there, or I'd have run down and looked her up. But we hardly ever correspond. My address is always such a doubtful quantity"--with a laugh. "You see, I'm liable to dash off to the ends of the earth at a moment's notice, if the spirit moves me." He rose, tucking the puppy under his arm. "Well, I must be getting back. Aunt Susan will be on tenterhooks till she sees this youngster."

Coventry accompanied him to the door and signalled to the groom who was walking Brett's horse slowly up and down.

"I shouldn't repeat that story to any one, if I were you, Forrester," he said, speaking with some effort, as they shook hands.

"Good Lord! Not I! What do you take me for?" laughed Brett easily. "I only thought it might amuse you, Lovell being your agent."

The groom brought the horse and trap to a standstill in front of the house door, and touched his hat.

"I've kept the horse moving about, sir, as he was a bit hot," he said, addressing Brett.

The latter nodded and tipped the man generously. Meanness, at least, was not included amongst his many faults.

"Quite right," he replied. "Got a basket handy for the pup?"

The man lifted down from the front of the dog-cart a basket he had put there in readiness, and the puppy, wailing pathetically, was deposited inside.

"Never mind, old man," observed Brett, bestowing a final reassuring pat on the small black and tan head. "It'll soon be over."

A minute later he was driving swiftly down the avenue, an odd expression of mingled triumph and amusement in his eyes.




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