The landlady returned with a silver candlestick in either hand, and candles of real wax. She had never seen the like, and led the way upstairs speculating on their cost. The bedrooms proved to be clean, though bare and more than a little stuffy—their windows having been kept shut for some days against the gale. The Collector commanded them to be opened. The landlady faintly protested. “The wind would gutter the candles—and such wax too!” She was told to obey, and she obeyed.
In the boy’s room knelt a girl—a chambermaid—unstrapping his small valise. She had a rush-light on the floor beside her, and did not look up as the landlady thrust open the lattice and left the room with the Collector, the boy remaining behind. His candle stood upon a chest of drawers by the window; and, as the others went out, a draught of wind caught the dimity curtain, blew it against the flame, and in an instant ignited it.
The girl looked up swiftly at the sudden light above her, and as swiftly—before the child could cry out—was on her feet. She caught the fire between her two hands and beat it out, making no noise and scarcely flinching, though her flesh was certainly being scorched.
“That was lucky,” she said, looking across at him with a smile.
“Ruth!—Ruth!” called the landlady’s voice, up the corridor. “Here, a moment!”
She dropped the charred curtain and hurried to answer the call.
“Ruth! Where’s the bootjack? His Honour will take off his riding-boots.”
“Bootjack, ma’am?” interrupted the Collector, leaning back in a chair and extending a shapely leg with instep and ankle whereon the riding-boot fitted like a glove. “I don’t maul my leather with bootjacks. Send Manasseh upstairs to me; ask him with my compliments what the devil he means by clattering saucepans when he should be attending to his master. . . . Eh, what’s this?”
“She can do it, your Honour,” said the landlady, catching Ruth by the shoulder and motioning her to kneel and draw off the boot. (It is likely she shirked carrying the message.)
“Oh, very well—if only she won’t twist my foot. . . . Take care of the spur, child.”
The girl knelt, and with her blistered hand took hold of the boot-heel below the spur. It cost her exquisite pain, but she did not wince; and her head being bent, no one perceived the tears in her eyes.
She had scarcely drawn off the second boot, when Manasseh appeared in the doorway carrying a silver tray with glasses and biscuits; a glass of red wine for his master, a more innocent cordial for the young gentleman, and both glasses filmed over with the chill of crushed ice.
The girl was withdrawing when the Collector, carelessly feeling in his pocket, drew out a coin and put it into her hand. Her fingers closed on it sharply, almost with a snatch. In truth, the touch of metal was so intolerable to the burnt flesh that, but for clutching it so, she must have dropped the coin. Still with bowed head she passed quietly from the room.