She smiled, her pale face close to his. “I love to see you—always,” she said. “Come just any time!”
“Shall I?” said Piers.
He was looking straight into the tired, blue eyes, and his own were soft with a tenderness that must have charmed any child to utter confidence. She lifted her lips to his. “As often as ever you can,” she murmured.
He kissed her. “I will. Good-night, my Queen!”
“Good-night,” she answered softly, “dear Sir Galahad!”
Avery had a glimpse of Piers’ face as he went away, and she wondered momentarily at the look it wore.
It was the day before Christmas Eve, and Avery had been shopping.
She and Mrs. Lorimer were preparing a Christmas Tree for the children, a secret to which only Jeanie had been admitted. The tree itself was already procured and hidden away in a corner of the fruit cupboard—to which special sanctum Mrs. Lorimer and Avery alone had access. But the numerous gifts and ornaments which they had been manufacturing for weeks were safely stored in a corner of Avery’s own room. It was to complete this store that Avery had been down into Rodding that afternoon, and she was returning laden and somewhat wearied.
The red light of a cloudy winter sunset lay behind her. Ahead of her, now veiled, now splendidly revealed, there hung a marvellous, glimmering star. A little weight of sadness was dragging at her heart, but she would not give it place or so much as acknowledge its presence. She hummed a carol as she went, stepping lightly through the muddy fields.
The frost had given place to an unseasonable warmth, and there had been some heavy rain earlier in the day. It was threatening to rain again. In fact, as she mounted her second stile, the first drops of what promised to be a sharp shower began to fall. She cast a hasty glance around for shelter, and spied some twenty yards away against the hedge a hut which had probably been erected for the use of some shepherd. Swiftly she made for it, reaching it just as the shower became a downpour.
There was neither door nor window to the place, but an ancient shutter which had evidently done duty for the former was lodged against the wall immediately inside.
She had to stoop to enter, and but for the pelting rain she might have hesitated to do so; for the darkness within was complete. But once in, she turned her face back to the dying light of the sunset and saw that the rain would not last.
At the same moment she heard a curious sound behind her, a panting, coughing sound as of some creature in distress, and something stirred in the furthest corner. Sharply she turned, and out of the darkness two wild green eyes glared up at her.
Avery’s heart gave a great jerk. Instinctively she drew back. Her first impulse was to turn and flee, but something—something which at the moment she could not define—prompted her to remain. The frantic terror of those eyes appealed to that in her which was greater than her own personal fear.