He broke off, still looking hard at Avery from under his drawn white brows as if daring her to dispute the matter.
But she said nothing, and after a moment he resumed more equably: “That’s all I have to say on the subject. I wish you to understand that for the boy’s sake—and for other considerations—I have withdrawn my opposition. You can marry him—as soon as you like.”
He sank down again on his elbow, and she saw a look of exhaustion on his face. His head drooped forward on his chest, and, watching him, she realized that he was an old, old man and very tired of life.
Suddenly he jerked his head up again and met her pitying eyes.
“I’m done, yes,” he said grimly, as if in response to her unspoken thought. “But I’ve paid my debts—all of ’em, including this last.” His voice began to fail, but he forced it on, speaking spasmodically, with increasing difficulty. “You sent my boy back to me—the other day—against his will. Now I—make you a present of him—in return. There’s good stuff in the lad,—nothing shabby about him. If you care for him at all—you ought to be able to hold him—make him happy. Anyway—anyway—you might try!”
The appeal in the last words, whispered though they were, was undisguised; and swiftly, impulsively, almost before she knew what she was doing, Avery responded to it.
“Oh, I will try!” she said very earnestly. “I will indeed!”
He looked at her fixedly for a moment with eyes of deep searching that she never forgot, and then his head dropped forward heavily.
“You—have—said it!” he said, and sank unconscious upon the ground.
“My good Mrs. Denys, it is quite fruitless for you to argue the matter. Nothing you can say can alter the fact that you took the children trespassing in the Rodding Park preserves against my most stringent commands, and this deplorable accident to the Squire is the direct outcome of the most flagrant insubordination. I have borne a good deal from you, but this I cannot overlook. You will therefore take a month’s notice from to-day, and as it is quite impossible for me to reconsider my decision in this respect it would be wasted effort on your part to lodge any appeal against it. As for the children, I shall deal with them in my own way.”
The Vicar’s thin lips closed upon the words with the severity of an irrevocable resolution. Avery heard him with a sense of wild rebellion at her heart to which she knew she must not give rein. She stood before him, a defenceless culprit brought up for punishment.
It was difficult to be dignified under such circumstances, but she did her best.
“I am extremely sorry that I took the children into the preserves,” she said. “But I accept the full responsibility for having done so. They were not greatly to blame in the matter.”