She was not by any means the first pretty girl Stafford had seen—he had a very large acquaintance in London, and one or two women whose beauty had been blazoned by the world were more than friendly with the popular Stafford Orme—but he thought as he went up the hill, which seemed to have no end, that he had never seen a more beautiful face than this girl’s; certainly he had never seen one which had impressed him more deeply. Perhaps it was the character of the loveliness which haunted him so persistently: it was so unlike the conventional drawing-room type with which he was so familiar.
As he thought of her it seemed to him that she was like a wild and graceful deer—one of the deer which he had seen coming down to a mountain stream to drink on his father’s Scotch moor; hers was a wild, almost savage loveliness—and yet not savage, for there had been the refinement, the dignity of high race in the exquisite grey eyes, the curve of the finely cut lips. Her manner, also, prevented him from forgetting her.
He had never met with anything like it, she had been as calm and self-possessed as a woman of forty; and yet her attitude as she leant forward in the saddle, her directness of speech, all her movements, had the abandon of an unconscious child; indeed, the absence of self-consciousness, her absolute freedom from anything like shyness, combined with a dignity, a touch of hauteur and pride, struck him as extraordinary, almost weird.
Stafford was not one of your susceptible young men; in fact, there was a touch of coldness, of indifference to the other sex which often troubled his women-friends; and he was rather surprised at himself for the interest which the girl had aroused in him. He wondered if he should meet her again, and was conscious of a strong, almost a very strong, desire to do so which, he admitted to himself, was strange: for he did not at that moment remember any girl whom, at his first meeting with her, he had hankered to see again.
He got to the top of the hill at last and began to drop down; there was nothing but a wandering sheep-path here and there, and the mountain was by no means as easy to descend as the classic Avernus; so that when he got to the bottom and came in sight of the little inn nestling in a crook of the valley he was both tired and hungry. Howard, beautiful in evening-dress, came sauntering to the door with his long white hands in his pocket and a plaintive reproach on his Vandyke face.
“I was just about to send off the search party, my dear Stafford,” he said. “Is it possible that you have just come down that hill? Good heavens! What follies are committed in thy name, O Sport! And of course there are no fish—there never are! The water is always too thin or too thick, the sky too bright or too dull, the wind too high or too low. Excuses are the badge of all the angling tribe.”
Stafford took his basket from his shoulder and made a pretence of slinging it at Howard’s head; then tossed it to the landlord, who stood by, smiling obsequiously.