“Ruth, dear!” she panted. “Oh, dear, dear! I am so glad you have come!”
“Why, what’s the matter?” The girl, scenting danger, faced it. She swung herself down from the saddle-crutch, picked up her skirt, and taking Madcap’s rein close beside the curb, walked slowly up to the verandah. “Have they been bullying you, dear?” she asked in a low quiet voice.
“They have come all this way to see us—Lady Caroline Vyell, and Miss Diana; yes, and Mrs. Captain Vyell—’Mrs. Harry,’ as Dicky calls her. They have ferreted us out, somehow—and the questions they have been asking! I think, dear—I really think—that in your place I should walk Madcap round to her stable and run indoors for a tidy-up before facing them. A minute or two to prepare yourself—I can easily make your excuses.”
“And a moment since you were calling me to come and deliver you!” answered Ruth, still advancing. “Present me, please.”
Little Miss Quiney, turning and running ahead, stammered some words to Lady Caroline, who paid no heed to them or to her but kept her eyeglass lifted and fixed upon Ruth. Miss Diana stood a pace behind her mother’s shoulder; Mrs. Harry, after a glance at the girl, turned and made pretence to busy herself with the coffee-table.
“So you are the young woman!” ejaculated Lady Caroline.
“Am I?” said Ruth quietly, and after a profound curtsy turned sideways to the mare. “A lump of sugar, Tatty, if you please. . . . I thank you, ma’am—” as Mrs. Harry, anticipating Miss Quiney, stepped forward with a piece held between the sugar-tongs. “And I think she even deserves a second, for clearing the yard gate.”
She fed the gentle creature and dismissed her. “Now trot around to your stall and ask one of the boys to unsaddle you!” She stood for ten seconds, may be, watching as the mare with a fling of the head trotted off obediently. Then she turned again and met Mrs. Harry’s eyes with a frank smile.
“It is the truth,” she said. “We cleared the gate. Come, please, and admire—”
Mrs. Harry, in spite of herself, stepped down from the verandah and followed. The others stood as they were, planted in stiff disapproval.
The girl led Mrs. Harry to the corner of the wood pile. “Admire!” she repeated, pointing with her riding-switch; and then, still keeping the gesture, she sank her voice and asked quickly, “Why are you here? You have a good face, not like the others. Tell me.”
“Lady Caroline—” stammered Mrs. Harry, taken at unawares. “She has a right, naturally, to concern herself—”
“Does he know?”
“Sir Oliver? No—I believe not. . . . You see, the Vyells are a great family, and ‘family’ to them is a tremendous affair—a religion almost. Whatever touches one touches all; especially when that one happens to be the head of his house.”
“Is that how Captain Vyell—how your husband—feels it?—No, please keep looking towards the gate. I mean no harm by these questions, and you will not mind answering them, I hope? It gives me just a little more chance of fair play.”