The poor girl was in sad perplexity. Before was an ugly rush of water and a leap beyond her strength; behind, three drunken men, their mouths full of endearment and scurrility. She looked despairingly to the level white road for the Perseus who should deliver her.
And to her joy the deliverer was not wanting. In the thick of the idiot shouting of the trio there came the clink-clank of a horse’s feet and a young man came over the bridge. He saw the picture at a glance and its meaning; and it took him short time to be on his feet and then over the broken stone wall to the waterside. Suddenly to the girl’s delight there appeared at the back of the roughs the inquiring, sunburnt face of Lewis.
The men turned and stared with hanging jaws. “Now, what the dickens is this?” he cried, and catching two of their necks he pulled their heads together and then flung them apart.
The three seemed sobered by the apparition. “And what the h-ll is your business?” they cried conjointly; and one, a dark-browed fellow, doubled his fists and advanced.
Lewis stood regarding them with a smiling face and very bright, cross eyes. “Are you by way of insulting this lady? If you weren’t drunk, I’d teach you manners. Get out of this in case I forget myself.”
For answer the foremost of the men hit out. A glance convinced Lewis that there was enough sobriety to make a fight of it. “Miss Wishart . . . Alice,” he cried, “come back and go down to the road and see to my horse, please. I’ll be down in a second.”
The girl obeyed, and so it fell out that there was no witness to that burn-side encounter. It was a complex fight and it lasted for more than a second. Two of the men had the grace to feel ashamed of themselves half-way through, and retired from the contest with shaky limbs and aching faces. The third had to be assisted to his feet in the end by his antagonist. It was not a good fight, for the three were pasty-faced, overgrown young men, in no training and stupid with liquor. But they pressed hard on Lewis for a little, till he was compelled in self-defence to treat them as fair opponents.
He came down the road in a quarter of an hour with a huge rent in his coat-sleeve and a small cut on his forehead. He was warm and breathless, still righteously indignant at the event, and half-ashamed of so degrading an encounter. He found the girl standing statue-like, holding the bridle-rein, and looking into the distance with vacant eyes.
“Are you going back to Glenavelin, Miss Wishart?” he asked. “I think I had better go with you if you will allow me.”
Alice mutely assented and walked beside him while he led his horse. He could think of nothing to say. The whole world lay between them now, and there was no single word which either could speak without showing some trace of the tragic separation.
It was the girl who first broke the silence.