Johnny Everard, blind as most men are, did not notice how quiet and reserved Ellice had grown of late, how seldom she spoke to him, how when he spoke to her she only answered him in brief monosyllables, and how never came a smile now to her red lips, and certainly never a smile into her great dark eyes.
He did not see what Connie saw—the heaviness about those eyes, the suggestion of tears during the night, when she came down silently to her breakfast. She had changed, and yet he did not see it, and if he had seen it might never guess at the cause.
And Connie too, always kindly and gentle, always sweet and unselfish; during these days the girl’s unselfishness was something to wonder at.
She had always loved Ellice; she had understood the child as none other had. And now there seemed to be a bond between them that drew them closer.
Three years ago Johnny had bought a bicycle for Ellice. She had been going daily then to Miss Richmond’s school at Great Langbourne, three miles away, and he had bought the bicycle that she might ride to school and back again. Since she had left school the bicycle had remained untouched and rusted in one of the outhouses, but now Ellice had got the machine out and cleaned it and put new tyres on it.
Deep down in her mind was a plan, as yet not wholly formed, a desperate venture that one day she might embark on, and the old bicycle was part of that plan, for she would need it to carry out the plan. She had not decided yet, not even if she would ever carry it out, but she might.
Day after day saw her on the road; more often than not her way lay towards Starden village. She would ride the six and a half miles to Starden, wait there for a time, and then ride back. She never called at Starden Hall. Helen knew nothing of these trips.
Connie watched the girl with misgivings and doubts, and Ellice knew that the elder girl was watching her.
“Connie, I want to speak to you,” she said quietly one morning.
Ellice slipped her small brown hand into Connie’s.
“I—I know that you are worrying, dear, that you are anxious—and for me.”
Connie nodded, tears came into her eyes.
“I want you to understand, Connie, that I—I promise you I will do nothing—nothing, I will never do anything unless I come to you first and tell you. I promise you that I will do nothing—nothing that I should not do, nothing mad and foolish and wrong, unless I come to you first and tell you just what I am going to do.”
“Thank you, dear, for telling me this. It lifts a great weight and a great anxiety from my heart. Thank you, dear—oh, Ellice darling, I thought once that it would be a fine thing for him, but now—now I could wish it otherwise!”
Another moment and the girl was in her arms, clasping her passionately, and kissing her passionately and gratefully.