“Yes,” I returned, “she is rather pretty. But I don’t think she looks as if she had a cap to set at anybody.”
I rose to go, for I did not relish any further pursuit of the conversation in the same direction.
I rode home slowly, brooding on the lovely marvel, that out of such a rough ungracious stem as the Oldcastle family, should have sprung such a delicate, pale, winter-braved flower, as Ethelwyn. And I prayed that I might be honoured to rescue her from the ungenial soil and atmosphere to which the machinations of her mother threatened to confine her for the rest of a suffering life.
Satan cast out.
I was within a mile of the village, returning from my visit to the Misses Crowther, when my horse, which was walking slowly along the soft side of the road, lifted his head, and pricked up his ears at the sound, which he heard first, of approaching hoofs. The riders soon came in sight—Miss Oldcastle, Judy, and Captain Everard. Miss Oldcastle I had never seen on horseback before. Judy was on a little white pony she used to gallop about the fields near the Hall. The Captain was laughing and chatting gaily as they drew near, now to the one, now to the other. Being on my own side of the road I held straight on, not wishing to stop or to reveal the signs of a distress which had almost overwhelmed me. I felt as cold as death, or rather as if my whole being had been deprived of vitality by a sudden exhaustion around me of the ethereal element of life. I believe I did not alter my bearing, but remained with my head bent, for I had been thinking hard just before, till we were on the point of meeting, when I lifted my hat to Miss Oldcastle without drawing bridle, and went on. The Captain returned my salutation, and likewise rode on. I could just see, as they passed me, that Miss Oldcastle’s pale face was flushed even to scarlet, but she only bowed and kept alongside of her companion. I thought I had escaped conversation, and had gone about twenty yards farther, when I heard the clatter of Judy’s pony behind me, and up she came at full gallop.
“Why didn’t you stop to speak to us, Mr Walton?” she said. “I pulled up, but you never looked at me. We shall be cross all the rest of the day, because you cut us so. What have we done?”
“Nothing, Judy, that I know of,” I answered, trying to speak cheerfully. “But I do not know your companion, and I was not in the humour for an introduction.”
She looked hard at me with her keen gray eyes; and I felt as if the child was seeing through me.
“I don’t know what to make of it, Mr Walton. You’re very different somehow from what you used to be. There’s something wrong somewhere. But I suppose you would all tell me it’s none of my business. So I won’t ask questions. Only I wish I could do anything for you.”
I felt the child’s kindness, but could only say—