“Dinner bein’ announced, the ’ostess will dismiss all care, or at least appear to do so: and, ‘avin’ marshalled ’er guests in order of precedence (see page 67 supra) will take the arm of the gentleman favoured to conduct ’er. Some light and playful remark will ’ere be not out of place, such as—”
“Well, I’m d—d, if you’ll excuse me,” ejaculated Miss Sally.
Late that night, in his smoking-room at Meriton, Sir Miles Chandon knocked out the ashes of his pipe against the bars of the grate, rose, stretched himself, and looked about him. Matters had left a bedroom candle ready to hand on a side-table, as his custom was. But Sir Miles took up the lamp instead.
Lamp in hand, he went up the great staircase, and along the unlit fifty yards of corridor to the room where his son lay. In all the great house he could hear no sound, scarcely even the tread of his own foot on the thick carpeting.
He opened the door almost noiselessly and stood by the bed, holding the lamp high.
But noiselessly though Sir Miles had come, the boy was awake. Nor was it in his nature, being awake, to feign sleep. He looked up, blinking a little, but with no fear in his gentle eyes.
His father had not counted on this. He felt an absurd bashfulness tying his tongue. At length he struggled to say—
“’Thought I’d make sure you were comfortable. That’s all.”
“Oh, yes—thank you. Comfortable and—and—only just thinking a bit.”
“We’ll have a long talk to-morrow. That girl—she’s a good sort, eh?”
“Tilda? . . . Why, of course, she did it all. She’s the best in the world!”
The time is seven years later—seven years and a half, rather; the season, spring; the hour, eight in the morning; and the place, a corner of Culvercoombe, where Miss Sally’s terraced garden slopes to meet the wild woodland through an old orchard billowy overhead with pink and white blossom and sheeted underfoot with blue-bells. At the foot of the orchard, and on the very edge of the woodland, lies a small enclosure, where from the head of the slope you catch sight, between the apple trees, of a number of white stones glimmering; but your eyes rest rather on the figure of a girl who has just left the enclosure, and is mounting the slope with a spade on her shoulder.
You watch her, yourself invisible, while she approaches. You might gaze until she has passed, and yet not recognise her for Tilda. She wears a coat and skirt of grey homespun, fashioned for country wear yet faultless in cut, the skirt short enough to reveal a pair of trim ankles cased in shooting-gaiters. Beneath her grey shooting-cap, also of homespun, her hair falls in two broad bands over the brows, and is gathered up at the back of the head in a plain Grecian knot. By the brows, if you had remarked them in days gone by, when neither you nor she gave a second thought to her looks, you might know her again; or perhaps by the poise of the chin, and a touch of decision in the eyes. In all else the child has vanished, and given place to this good-looking girl, with a spring in her gait and a glow on her cheek that tell of clean country nurture.