“Thanks! Drive on, coachman,” said the man; and he drew in his head with a grim smile, and something like a sneer on his thick lips that made Stafford’s eyes flash.
Stafford and Ida remained, unconscious of the rain, looking after the carriage for a moment or two.
The sneer on the man’s heavy yet acutely sharp face, still incensed Stafford. He had the usual desire of the strong man—to dash after the rapidly disappearing vehicle, lug the fellow out and ask him what he was sneering at.
Ida was the first to speak.
“What a strange-looking man,” she said.
Stafford started slightly, awaking to the fact that it was still pouring.
“I—I beg your pardon. I’m keeping you out in the rain.”
He put Adonis, not at all unwillingly, to a trot, and they gained the rough cattle-shed, and he would have lifted the girl down, but she was too quick for him, and slipped gracefully and easily from the saddle.
Stafford, leading the horse, followed her into the shed. Bess sat on the extreme end of her haunches shivering and blinking, and all too plainly cursing the British climate; but Donald threw himself down outside as if he regarded the deluge as a cheap shower-bath.
Stafford looked at Ida anxiously.
“You are fearfully wet,” he said. “I think I could wipe off the worst of it, if you’ll let me.”
He took out his pocket handkerchief as he spoke and wiped the rain from her straight, beautifully moulded shoulders. She drew back a little and opened her lips to protest at first, but with a slight shrug she resigned herself, her eyes downcast, a faint colour in her face.
“I must be quite dry now,” she said at last.
“I’m afraid not,” said Stafford. “I wish I had something bigger—a towel.”
She laughed, the sweet girlish laugh which seemed to him the most musical sound he had ever heard.
“A towel? Fancying carrying a towel to wipe oneself with when it rained! It is evident you don’t know our country. There are weeks sometimes in which it never ceases to rain. And you must be wet through yourself,” she added, glancing at him.
He was on his knees at the moment carefully wiping the old habit skirt with his saturated handkerchief as if the former were something precious; and her woman’s eye noted his short crisp hair, the shapely head and the straight broad back.
“I’m afraid that’s all I can do!” he said, regretfully, as he rose and looked at her gravely. “Do you mean to say that you habitually ride out in such weather as this?”
“Why, yes!” she replied, lightly. “Why not? I am too substantial to melt, and I never catch cold. Besides, I have to go out in all weathers to see to the cattle and the sheep.”
He leant against one of the posts which supported the shed, and gazed at her with more intense interest than any other woman had ever aroused in him.