But the day was dawning, the star fading, and the message hard to read. Why had she refused to marry Chesyl? he asked himself. The man was lukewarm in speech and action; but that surely was but the way of the world to which he belonged. No excess of emotion was ever encouraged there. Doubtless behind that amiable mask there beat the same devouring longing that throbbed in his own racing pulses. Surely Doris knew this! Surely she understood her own kind!
He recalled those words of hers that he had overheard, the slow utterance of them as of some pronouncement of doom. “If I can’t have corn, I won’t have husks. I will die of starvation sooner.”
He had caught the pain in those words. Had Hugh Chesyl failed to do so? If so, Hugh Chesyl was a fool. He had never thought very highly of him, though he supposed him to be clever after his own indolent fashion.
Chesyl was the old squire’s nephew and heir—a highly suitable parti for any girl. Yet Doris had refused him, not wholly without ignominy. A gentleman, too! Jeff’s mouth twisted. The thought came to him, and ripened to steady conviction, that had Chesyl taken the trouble to woo, he must in time have won. The girl was miserable enough to admit the fact of her misery, and he offered her marriage with him as a friendly means of escape. On other ground he could have won her. On this ground he was probably the least likely man to win. She asked for corn, and he offered husks. What wonder that she preferred starvation!
His hands were still clenched as he turned from the window. Oh, to have been in Hugh Chesyl’s place! She would have had no complaint then to make as to the quality of his offering. He would never have suffered her to go hungry. And yet the feeling that Hugh Chesyl loved her lingered still in his soul. Ah, what a fool! What a fool!
* * * * *
It was nearly three hours later that Jim Dawlish the miller answered Jeff Ironside’s gruff morning greeting with an eager, “Have you heard the news, sir?”
Dawlish was of a cheery, expansive disposition, and not much of the village gossip ever escaped him or remained with him.
“What news?” demanded Jeff.
“Why, about the old Colonel up at the Place, to be sure,” said Dawlish, advancing his floury person towards the doorway in which stood the master’s square, strong figure.
“Colonel Elliot?” queried Jeff sharply. “What about him?”
Dawlish wagged a knowing head. “Ah, you may well ask that, sir. He died—early this morning—quite unexpected. Had a fit or some’at. They say it’s an open question whether there’ll be enough money to bury him. He has creditors all over the county.”
“Good heavens!” said Jeff. He drew back swiftly into the open air as if he found the atmosphere of the mill oppressive. “Are you quite sure it’s true?” he questioned. “How did you hear?”