“Who’s this?” asked Miss Taylor.
“The Cresswells, I think; they usually ride to town about this time.” But already Miss Taylor had descried the brown and tawny sides of the speeding horses.
“Good gracious!” she thought. “The Cresswells!” And with it came a sudden desire not to meet them—just then. She glanced toward the swamp. The sun was sifting blood-red lances through the trees. A little wagon-road entered the wood and disappeared. Miss Taylor saw it.
“Let’s see the sunset in the swamp,” she said suddenly. On came the galloping horses. Bles looked up in surprise, then silently turned into the swamp. The horses flew by, their hoof-beats dying in the distance. A dark green silence lay about them lit by mighty crimson glories beyond. Miss Taylor leaned back and watched it dreamily till a sense of oppression grew on her. The sun was sinking fast.
“Where does this road come out?” she asked at last.
“It doesn’t come out.”
“Where does it go?”
“It goes to Elspeth’s.”
“Why, we must turn back immediately. I thought—” But Bles was already turning. They were approaching the main road again when there came a fluttering as of a great bird beating its wings amid the forest. Then a girl, lithe, dark brown, and tall, leaped lightly into the path with greetings on her lips for Bles. At the sight of the lady she drew suddenly back and stood motionless regarding Miss Taylor, searching her with wide black liquid eyes. Miss Taylor was a little startled.
“Good—good-evening,” she said, straightening herself.
The girl was still silent and the horse stopped. One tense moment pulsed through all the swamp. Then the girl, still motionless—still looking Miss Taylor through and through—said with slow deliberateness:
“I hates you.”
The teacher in Miss Taylor strove to rebuke this unconventional greeting but the woman in her spoke first and asked almost before she knew it—
Zora, child of the swamp, was a heathen hoyden of twelve wayward, untrained years. Slight, straight, strong, full-blooded, she had dreamed her life away in wilful wandering through her dark and sombre kingdom until she was one with it in all its moods; mischievous, secretive, brooding; full of great and awful visions, steeped body and soul in wood-lore. Her home was out of doors, the cabin of Elspeth her port of call for talking and eating. She had not known, she had scarcely seen, a child of her own age until Bles Alwyn had fled from her dancing in the night, and she had searched and found him sleeping in the misty morning light. It was to her a strange new thing to see a fellow of like years with herself, and she gripped him to her soul in wild interest and new curiosity. Yet this childish friendship was so new and incomprehensible a thing to her that she did not know how to express it. At first she pounced upon him in mirthful, almost impish glee, teasing and mocking and half scaring him, despite his fifteen years of young manhood.