“Why, Gipsy girl!” he said slowly, “you are a woman—you have grown up all suddenly.”
“Yes, I am—I am a woman!” She laughed, but the laughter ended in a sob. She bent her head, and Johnny, strangely puzzled, slipped his arm about her and drew her a little closer to him.
He had thought her a child; but she was a woman, and he had seen in her eyes that which set his dull wits wondering.
“He has come back”
It was exactly a week since his departure that Hugh returned to Starden, and found Mrs. Bonner a little surprised, but by no means unready.
“You said as you’d send me a message, sir,” she said.
“I did, and I haven’t done it—I’ll take the consequences.” But there were no consequences to take. She prepared him an ample meal at the shortest notice, and was willing enough to stop and talk to him while he ate it.
“Anything new, anything fresh?”
“No strangers about Starden?”
Had Slotman been? That was what Hugh wanted to know. Presently he asked the question direct.
“You don’t happen to have seen that man I described to you some time back, a stout man with a lean face, overdressed, thick red lips, small eyes?”
“Law bless us! yes. I see him two days ago, drove past he did in a car—a shabby-looking car it was, but he didn’t stop. He just stared at the cottage as he drove past, and I got an idea he smiled, only I ain’t sure. I am sure of one thing, however; he did stare terribul hard at this cottage!”
“You are sure it is the man?”
Mrs. Bonner described Mr. Slotman’s appearance vividly, and Mr. Slotman, had he been there, might not have been pleased to hear of the impression he had made on the good woman.
“A man,” she concluded, “as I wouldn’t trust, not a hinch!”
“It’s the man!” Hugh thought. “And he’s come back, as I thought he would. Funny he should look at the cottage! Good Lord! I wonder if he has spies about here?”
“Anyone else been? I suppose no one came here to ask about me, for instance, Mrs. Bonner?”
“No one, sir, not a soul, no—stay a moment. The day you left that there nosey Parker of a gel Alice Betts came. I couldn’t make out whatever she came for. Me, I don’t ’old with them Bettses, anyhow she came. It was her brother that brought you that letter from Miss Joan Meredyth the day you went, sir, and she said something about ’earing as I’d lost my lodger.”
“I see. And who is Alice Betts?”
“Her—she be a maid at Starden Hall.”
“I see,” Hugh repeated. “I see! Mrs. Bonner,” he said, “will you do something for me?”
“Anything, of course!”
“Will you take a letter for me to Miss Joan Meredyth?”
Would she not? Mrs. Bonner caught her breath. Then there was something between these two, even though Miss Joan Meredyth was engaged to marry Mr. John Everard of Buddesby!