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CHAPTER III.
The door of the little house was standing open when they drew up at the gate. It was a door at the side round the corner from the veranda, but with a porch which seemed to continue it. It was full of light from within, against which Lucy’s figure stood dark. She was so much afraid to keep the gentlemen waiting that she had come out there to be ready, and was speaking her last words with her friend in the porch. Their voices sounded soft, almost musical, through the dusk and the fresh air; though, indeed, it was chiefly Lucy who was speaking. The men did not hear what she said, they even smiled a little, at least Bertram did, at the habit of the women who had always so much to say to each other about nothing; and who,{42} though they had perhaps met before more than once that day, had still matter to murmur about down to the very last moment by the opening of the door. It went on indeed for two or three minutes while they stood there, notwithstanding that Lucy had cried, “Oh, there they are! I must go,” at the first appearance of the tall shadows on the road. She was pleading with her friend to come up to the hall next day, which was the reason of the delay.

“Oh, Nelly, do come—to-morrow is an off day—they are not going to shoot. And I so want you to see Raaf; oh, I know he is not much to see—that’s him, the tallest one. He has a huge beard. You’ll perhaps think he’s not very intellectual or that sort of thing; but he’s our Raaf—he’s mother’s Raaf—and you’re so fond of mother. And if I brought him to see you he would be shy and gauche. Do come, do come, to-morrow, Nelly; mother is so anxious you should come in good time.”

Then the gentlemen, though they did not hear this, were aware of a new voice breaking{43} in—a small, sweet treble, a child’s voice—crying, “Me too, me too!”

“Yes, you too, Tiny; we always want you. Won’t you come when Tiny wishes it, Nelly? You always give in to Tiny.”

“Me come now,” shouted Tiny, “see gemplemans; me come now.”

Then there was a little scuffle and laughing commotion at the open door; the little voice loud, then others hushing it, and suddenly there came flying down the bank something white, a little fluttering line of whiteness upon the dark. The child flew with childish delight making its escape, while there was first a startled cry from the doorway, and then Lucy followed in pursuit. But the little thing, shouting and laughing, with the rush of infantile velocity, short-lived but swift, got to the bottom of the bank in a rush, and would have tripped herself up in her speed upon the fastening of the gate had not Bertram, coming a step forward, quickly caught her in his arms. There was not much light to see the child by—the little face like a flower; the waving hair and shining eyes.{44} The little thing was full of laughter and delight in her small escapade. “Me see gemplemans, me see gemplemans,” she said. Bertram lifted her up, holding her small waist firm in his two hands.

And then there came a change over Tiny. She became silent all at once, though without shrinking from the dark face up to which she was lifted. She did not twist in his grasp as children do, or struggle to be put down. She became quite still, drew a long breath, and fixed her eyes upon him, her little lips apart, her face intent. It was only the effect of a shyness which from time to time crept over Tiny, who was not usually shy; but it impressed the man very much who held her, himself quite silent for a moment, which seemed long to both, though it was scarcely appreciable in time, until Lucy reached the group, and with a cry of “Oh, Tiny, you naughty little girl!” restored man and child to the commonplace. Then the little girl wriggled down out of the stranger’s grasp, and stole her hand into the more familiar one{45} of Lucy. She kept her eyes, however, fixed upon her first captor.

“Oh, Tiny,” cried Lucy, “what will the gentleman think of you—such a bold little girl—to run away from mamma, and get your death of cold, and give that kind gentleman the trouble of catching you. Oh, Tiny, Tiny!”

“Me go back to mummie now,” Tiny said, turning her back upon them. It was unusual for this little thing, whom everybody petted, to be so subdued.

“You have both beards,” cried Lucy, calling over her shoulder to her brother and his friend, as she led the child back. “She is frightened of you; but they are not bad gemplemans, Tiny, they are nice gemplemans. Oh, nurse, here she is, safe and sound.”

“Me not frightened,” Tiny said, and she turned round in the grip of the nurse, who had now seized upon her, and kissed her little hand. “Dood-night, gemplemans,” Tiny cried. The little voice came shrill and clear through the night air, tinkling in the{46} smallness of the sound, yet gracious as a princess; and the small incident was over. It was nothing at all; the simplest little incident in the world. And then Lucy took up her little strain, breathless with her rush, laughing and explaining.

“Tiny dearly loves a little escapade; she is the liveliest little thing! She has no other children to play with, and she is not afraid of anybody. She is always with her mother, you know, and hears us talk of everything.”

“Very bad training for a child,” said Ralph, “to hear all your scandal and gossip over your tea.”

“Oh, Ralph, how common, how old fashioned you are!” cried Lucy, indignantly. “Do you think Mrs. Nugent talks scandal over her tea? or I—? I have been trying to make her promise to come up to lunch to-morrow, and then you shall see—that is, if she comes; for she was not at all sure whether she would come. She is not fond of strangers. She never will come to us when we have people—that is, not chance people—unless she knows them beforehand.{47} Oh, you, of course, my brother, that’s a different thing. I am sure I beg your pardon, Mr. Bertram, for making you wait, and for seeming to imply—and then Tiny rushing at you in that way.”

“Tiny made a very sweet little episode in our walk,” said Bertram. “Please don’t apologize. I am fond of children, and the little thing gave me a look; children are strange creatures, they’re only half of this world, I think. She looked—as if somehow she and I had met before.”

“Have you, Mr. Bertram? did you perhaps know—her mother?” cried Lucy, in great surprise.

“It is very unlikely; I knew some Nugents once, but they were old people without any children, at least—No, I’ve been too long in the waste places of the earth ever to have rubbed shoulders with this baby; besides,” he said, with a laugh, “if there was any recognition, it was she who recognized me.”

“You are talking greater nonsense than I was doing, Bertram,” said Ralph. “We’re{48} both out of sorts, I should think. These damp English nights take all the starch out of one. Come, let’s get home. You shan’t bring us out again after sunset, Lucy, I promise you that.”

“Oh, sunset is not a bad time here,” cried Lucy; “it’s a beautiful time; it is only in your warm countries that it is bad. Besides, it’s long after sunset; it’s almost night and no moon for an hour yet. That’s the chief thing I like going to town for, that it is never dark like this at night. I love the lamps—don’t you, Mr. Bertram?—there is such company in them; even the cottage windows are nice, and that ‘Red Lion’—one wishes that a public-house was not such a very bad thing, for it looks so ruddy and so warm. I don’t wonder the men like it; I should myself, if—Oh, take care! there is a very wet corner there, just before you come to our gates. Why, there is some one coming out. Why—it’s Reginald, Raaf!”

They were met, in the act of opening the gate, by Mr. Wradisley’s slim, unmistakable figure. He had an equally slim umbrella,{49} beautifully rolled up, in his hand, and walked as if the damp country road were covered with velvet.

“Oh, you are coming back,” he said; “it’s a fine night for a walk, don’t you think so?—well, not after Africa, perhaps; but we are used in England to like these soft, grey skies and the feeling of—well, of dew and coolness in the air.”

“I call it damp and mud,” said Ralph, with an explosion of a laugh which seemed somehow to be an explosion manqué, as if the damp had got into that too.

“Ah,” said his brother, reflectively. “Well it is rather a brutal way of judging, but perhaps you are right. I am going to take a giro round the common. We shall meet at dinner.” And then he took off his hat to Lucy, and with a nod to Bertram went on. There was an involuntary pause among the three to watch him walking along the damp road—in which they had themselves encountered occasional puddles—as if a carpet had been spread underneath his dainty feet.{50}

“Is this Rege’s way?” said Ralph. “It’s an odd thing for him surely—going out to walk now. He never would wet his feet any more than a cat. What is he doing out at night in the dark, a damp night, bad for his throat. Does my mother know?”

“Oh,” said Lucy, with a curious confusion; “why shouldn’t he go now, if he likes! It isn’t cold, it’s not so very damp, and Reginald’s an Englishman, and isn’t afraid of a bit of damp or a wet road. You are so hard to please. You are finding fault with everybody, Raaf.”

“Am I?” he said. “Perhaps I am. I’ve grown a brute, being so much away.”

“Oh, Raaf, I didn’t mean that. Reginald has—his own ways. Don’t you know, we never ask what he means, mother and I. He always means just what’s the right thing, don’t you know. It is a very nice time to—to take a giro; look how the sky’s beginning to break there out of the clouds. I always like an evening walk; so did mother when she was strong enough. And then Reginald has such a feeling for art. He always says{51} the village is so pretty with the lights in the windows, and the sweep of the fresh air on the common—and—and all that.”

“Just so, Lucy,” said Ralph.

She gave him a little anxious look, but she could not see the expression of his face in the darkness, any more than he could see what a wistful and wondering look was in her eyes. Bertram, looking on, formed his own conclusions, which were as little right as a stranger’s conclusions upon a drama of family life suddenly brought before his eyes generally are. He thought that this correct and immaculate Mr. Wradisley had tastes known to his family, or at least to the ladies of his family, which were not so spotless as he appeared to be; or that there was something going on at this particular moment which contradicted the law of propriety and good order which was his nature. Was it a village amour? Was it some secret hanging over the house? There was a little agitation, he thought, in Lucy, and surprise in the brother, who was a stranger to all the ways of his own family, and evidently had a half-hostile feeling{52} toward his elder. But the conversation became more easy as they went along, emerging from under the shadow of the trees and crossing the openings of the park. The great house came in sight as they went on, a solid mass amid all its surrounding of shrubbery and flower gardens, with the distance stretching clear on one side, and lights in many windows. It looked a centre of life and substantial, steadfast security, as if it might last out all the changes of fortune, and could never be affected by those vicissitudes which pull down one and set up another. Bertram could fancy that it had stood like a rock while many tempests swept the country. The individual might come and go, but this habitation was that of the race. And it was absurd to think that the little surprise of meeting its master on his way into the village late on an October evening, could have anything to do with the happiness of the family or its security. Bertram said to himself that his nerves were a little shaken to-night, he could not tell how. It was perhaps because of something visionary in this way of walking about{53} an unknown place in the dark, and hearing of so many people like shadows moving in a world undiscovered. The old doctor, for example, whose image was so clear before his companion, that he could almost think he saw him, so clear that even to himself, a stranger, that old man had almost appeared; but more than anything else because of the child who, caught in her most sportive mood, had suddenly grown quiet in his arms, and given him that look, with eyes unknown, which he too could have sworn he knew. There were strange things in his own life that gave him cause to think. Was it not this that made him conscious of mystery and some disturbing influence in the family which he did not know, but which had received him as if he had been an absent brother too?

To see Mrs. Wradisley was, however, to send any thought of mystery or family trouble out of any one’s mind. The lamps were lit in the drawing-room when they all went in, a little dazzled by the illumination, from the soft dark of the night. She was sitting where they had left her, in the warmth{54} of the home atmosphere, so softly lighted, so quietly bright. Her white knitting lay on her knee. She had the evening paper in her hand, which had just come in; for it was one of the advantages of Wradisbury that, though so completely in the country, they were near enough to town to have an evening post. Mrs. Wradisley liked her evening paper. It was, it is true, not a late edition, perhaps in point of fact not much later than the Times of the morning—but she preferred it. It was her little private pleasure in the evening, when Lucy was perhaps out, or occupied with her friends, and Mr. Wradisley in his library. She nodded at them over her paper, with a smile, as they came in.

“I hope it is a fine night, and that you have had a pleasant walk, Mr. Bertram,” she said.

“And is she coming, Lucy?”

“I could not get her to promise, mother,” Lucy said.

“Oh, well, we must not press her. If she were not a little willful perhaps we should not like her so much,” said Mrs. Wradisley, returning to her journal. And how warm it{55} was! but not too warm. How light it was! but not too bright.

“Come and sit here, Raaf. I like to see you and make sure that you are there; but you need not talk to me unless you wish to,” the mother said. She was not exacting. There was nothing wrong in the house, no anxiety nor alarm; nothing but family tranquility and peace.
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