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HOME > Classical Novels > The Shuttle50 > CHAPTER 48 THE MOMENT
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 In the unnatural1 unbearableness3 of her anguish4, she lost sight of objects as she passed them, she lost all memory of what she did. She did not know how long she had been out, or how far she had ridden. When the thought of time or distance vaguely6 flitted across her mind, it seemed that she had been riding for hours, and might have crossed one county and entered another. She had long left familiar places behind. Riding through and inclosed by the mist, she, herself, might have been a wandering ghost, lost in unknown places. Where was he now—where was he now?  
Afterwards she could not tell how or when it was that she found herself becoming conscious of the evidences that her horse had been ridden too long and hard, and that he was worn out with fatigue7. She did not know that she had ridden round and round over the marshes9, and had passed several times through the same lanes. Childe Harold, the sure of foot, actually stumbled, out of sheer weariness of limb. Perhaps it was this which brought her back to earth, and led her to look around her with eyes which saw material objects with comprehension. She had reached the lonely places, indeed and the evening was drawing on. She was at the edge of the marsh8, and the land about her was strange to her and desolate10. At the side of a steep lane, overgrown with grass, and seeming a mere11 cart-path, stood a deserted12-looking, black and white, timbered cottage, which was half a ruin. Close to it was a dripping spinney, its trees forming a darkling background to the tumble-down house, whose thatch13 was rotting into holes, and its walls sagging14 forward perilously15. The bit of garden about it was neglected and untidy, here and there windows were broken, and stuffed with pieces of ragged16 garments. Altogether a sinister17 and repellent place enough.
She looked at it with heavy eyes. (Where was he now—where was he now?—This repeating itself in the far chambers18 of her brain.) Her sight seemed dimmed, not only by the mist, but by a sinking faintness which possessed19 her. She did not remember how little food she had eaten during more than twenty-four hours. Her habit was heavy with moisture, and clung to her body; she was conscious of a hot tremor20 passing over her, and saw that her hands shook as they held the bridle21 on which they had lost their grip. She had never fainted in her life, and she was not going to faint now—women did not faint in these days—but she must reach the cottage and dismount, to rest under shelter for a short time. No smoke was rising from the chimney, but surely someone was living in the place, and could tell her where she was, and give her at least water for herself and her horse. Poor beast! how wickedly she must have been riding him, in her utter absorption in her thoughts. He was wet, not alone with rain, but with sweat. He snorted out hot, smoking breaths.
She spoke22 to him, and he moved forward at her command. He was trembling too. Not more than two hundred yards, and she turned him into the lane. But it was wet and slippery, and strewn with stones. His trembling and her uncertain hold on the bridle combined to produce disaster. He set his foot upon a stone which slid beneath it, he stumbled, and she could not help him to recover, so he fell, and only by Heaven's mercy not upon her, with his crushing, big-boned weight, and she was able to drag herself free of him before he began to kick, in his humiliated23 efforts to rise. But he could not rise, because he was hurt—and when she, herself, got up, she staggered, and caught at the broken gate, because in her wrenching24 leap for safety she had twisted her ankle, and for a moment was in cruel pain.
When she recovered from her shock sufficiently25 to be able to look at the cottage, she saw that it was more of a ruin than it had seemed, even at a short distance. Its door hung open on broken hinges, no smoke rose from the chimney, because there was no one within its walls to light a fire. It was quite empty. Everything about the place lay in dead and utter silence. In a normal mood she would have liked the mystery of the situation, and would have set about planning her way out of her difficulty. But now her mind made no effort, because normal interest in things had fallen away from her. She might be twenty miles from Stornham, but the possible fact did not, at the moment, seem to concern her. (Where is he now—where is he now?) Childe Harold was trying to rise, despite his hurt, and his evident determination touched her. He was too proud to lie in the mire26. She limped to him, and tried to steady him by his bridle. He was not badly injured, though plainly in pain.
“Poor boy, it was my fault,” she said to him as he at last struggled to his feet. “I did not know I was doing it. Poor boy!”
He turned a velvet27 dark eye upon her, and nosed her forgivingly with a warm velvet muzzle28, but it was plain that, for the time, he was done for. They both moved haltingly to the broken gate, and Betty fastened him to a thorn tree near it, where he stood on three feet, his fine head drooping29.
She pushed the gate open, and went into the house through the door which hung on its hinges. Once inside, she stood still and looked about her. If there was silence and desolateness30 outside, there was within the deserted place a stillness like the unresponse of death. It had been long since anyone had lived in the cottage, but tramps or gipsies had at times passed through it. Dead, blackened embers lay on the hearth31, a bundle of dried grass which had been slept on was piled in the corner, an empty nail keg and a wooden box had been drawn32 before the big chimney place for some wanderer to sit on when the black embers had been hot and red.
Betty gave one glance around her and sat down upon the box standing33 on the bare hearth, her head sinking forward, her hands falling clasped between her knees, her eyes on the brick floor.
“Where is he now?” broke from her in a loud whisper, whose sound was mechanical and hollow. “Where is he now?”
And she sat there without moving, while the grey mist from the marshes crept close about the door and through it and stole about her feet.
So she sat long—long—in a heavy, far-off dream.
Along the road a man was riding with a lowering, fretted34 face. He had come across country on horseback, because to travel by train meant wearisome stops and changes and endlessly slow journeying, annoying beyond endurance to those who have not patience to spare. His ride would have been pleasant enough but for the slow mist-like rain. Also he had taken a wrong turning, because he did not know the roads he travelled. The last signpost he had passed, however, had given him his cue again, and he began to feel something of security. Confound the rain! The best road was slippery with it, and the haze35 of it made a man's mind feel befogged and lowered his spirits horribly—discouraged him—would worry him into an ill humour even if he had reason to be in a good one. As for him, he had no reason for cheerfulness—he never had for the matter of that, and just now——! What was the matter with his horse? He was lifting his head and sniffing36 the damp air restlessly, as if he scented37 or saw something. Beasts often seemed to have a sort of second sight—horses particularly.
What ailed39 him that he should prick40 up his ears and snort after his sniffing the mist! Did he hear anything? Yes, he did, it seemed. He gave forth41 suddenly a loud shrill42 whinny, turning his head towards a rough lane they were approaching, and immediately from the vicinity of a deserted-looking cottage behind a hedge came a sharp but mournful-sounding neigh in answer.
“What horse is that?” said Nigel Anstruthers, drawing in at the entrance to the lane and looking down it. “There is a fine brute43 with a side-saddle on,” he added sharply. “He is waiting for someone. What is a woman doing there at this time? Is it a rendezvous44? A good place——”
He broke off short and rode forward. “I'm hanged if it is not Childe Harold,” he broke out, and he had no sooner assured himself of the fact than he threw himself from his saddle, tethered his horse and strode up the path to the broken-hinged door.
He stood on the threshold and stared. What a hole it was—what a hole! And there SHE sat—alone—eighteen or twenty miles from home—on a turned-up box near the black embers, her hands clasped loosely between her knees, her face rather awful, her eyes staring at the floor, as if she did not see it.
“Where is he now?” he heard her whisper to herself with soft weirdness45. “Where is he now?”
Sir Nigel stepped into the place and stood before her. He had smiled with a wry46 unpleasantness when he had heard her evidently unconscious words.
“My good girl,” he said, “I am sure I do not know where he is—but it is very evident that he ought to be here, since you have amiably47 put yourself to such trouble. It is fortunate for you perhaps that I am here before him. What does this mean?” the question breaking from him with savage48 authority.
He had dragged her back to earth. She sat upright and recognised him with a hideous49 sense of shock, but he did not give her time to speak. His instinct of male fury leaped within him.
“YOU!” he cried out. “It takes a woman like you to come and hide herself in a place of this sort, like a trolloping gipsy wench! It takes a New York millionairess or a Roman empress or one of Charles the Second's duchesses to plunge50 as deep as this. You, with your golden pedestal—you, with your ostentatious airs and graces—you, with your condescending51 to give a man a chance to repent52 his sins and turn over a new leaf! Damn it,” rising to a sort of frenzy53, “what are you doing waiting in a hole like this—in this weather—at this hour—you—you!”
The fool's flame leaped high enough to make him start forward, as if to seize her by the shoulder and shake her.
But she rose and stepped back to lean against the side of the chimney—to brace55 herself against it, so that she could stand in her lame54 foot's despite. Every drop of blood had been swept from her face, and her eyes looked immense. His coming was a good thing for her, though she did not know it. It brought her back from unearthly places. All her child hatred56 woke and blazed in her. Never had she hated a thing so, and it set her slow, cold blood running like something molten.
“Hold your tongue!” she said in a clear, awful young voice of warning. “And take care not to touch me. If you do—I have my whip here—I shall lash57 you across your mouth!”
He broke into ribald laughter. A certain sudden thought which had cut into him like a knife thrust into flesh drove him on.
“Do!” he cried. “I should like to carry your mark back to Stornham—and tell people why it was given. I know who you are here for. Only such fellows ask such things of women. But he was determined58 to be safe, if you hid in a ditch. You are here for Mount Dunstan—and he has failed you!”
But she only stood and stared at him, holding her whip behind her, knowing that at any moment he might snatch it from her hand. And she knew how poor a weapon it was. To strike out with it would only infuriate him and make him a wild beast. And it was becoming an agony to stand upon her foot. And even if it had not been so—if she had been strong enough to make a leap and dash past him, her horse stood outside disabled.
Nigel Anstruthers' eyes ran over her from head to foot, down the side of her mud-stained habit, while a curious light dawned in them.
“You have had a fall from your horse,” he exclaimed. “You are lame!” Then quickly, “That was why Childe Harold was trembling and standing on three feet! By Jove!”
Then he sat down on the nail keg and began to laugh. He laughed for a full minute, but she saw he did not take his eyes from her.
“You are in as unpleasant a situation as a young woman can well be,” he said, when he stopped. “You came to a dirty hole to be alone with a man who felt it safest not to keep his appointment. Your horse stumbled and disabled himself and you. You are twenty miles from home in a deserted cottage in a lane no one passes down even in good weather. You are frightened to death and you have given me even a better story to play with than your sister gave me. By Jove!”
His face was an unholy thing to look upon. The situation and her powerlessness were exciting him.
“No,” she answered, keeping her eyes on his, as she might have kept them on some wild animal's, “I am not frightened to death.”
His ugly dark flush rose.
“Well, if you are not,” he said, “don't tell me so. That kind of defiance59 is not your best line just now. You have been disdaining60 me from magnificent New York heights for some time. Do you think that I am not enjoying this?”
“I cannot imagine anyone else who would enjoy it so much.” And she knew the answer was daring, but would have made it if he had held a knife's point at her throat.
He got up, and walking to the door drew it back on its crazy hinges and managed to shut it close. There was a big wooden bolt inside and he forced it into its socket61.
“Presently I shall go and put the horses into the cowshed,” he said. “If I leave them standing outside they will attract attention. I do not intend to be disturbed by any gipsy tramp who wants shelter. I have never had you quite to myself before.”
He sat down again and nursed his knee gracefully62.
“And I have never seen you look as attractive,” biting his under lip in cynical63 enjoyment64. “To-day's adventure has roused your emotions and actually beautified you—which was not necessary. I daresay you have been furious and have cried. Your eyes do not look like mere eyes, but like splendid blue pools of tears. Perhaps I shall make you cry sometime, my dear Betty.”
“No, you will not.”
“Don't tempt65 me. Women always cry when men annoy them. They rage, but they cry as well.”
“I shall not.”
“It's true that most women would have begun to cry before this. That is what stimulates66 me. You will swagger to the end. You put the devil into me. Half an hour ago I was jogging along the road, languid and bored to extinction67. And now——” He laughed outright68 in actual exultation69. “By Jove!” he cried out. “Things like this don't happen to a man in these dull days! There's no such luck going about. We've gone back five hundred years, and we've taken New York with us.” His laugh shut off in the middle, and he got up to thrust his heavy, congested face close to hers. “Here you are, as safe as if you were in a feudal70 castle, and here is your ancient enemy given his chance—given his chance. Do you think, by the Lord, he is going to give it up? No. To quote your own words, 'you may place entire confidence in that.'”
Exaggerated as it all was, somehow the melodrama71 dropped away from it and left bare, simple, hideous fact for her to confront. The evil in him had risen rampant72 and made him lose his head. He might see his senseless folly73 to-morrow and know he must pay for it, but he would not see it to-day. The place was not a feudal castle, but what he said was insurmountable truth. A ruined cottage on the edge of miles of marsh land, a seldom-trodden road, and night upon them! A wind was rising on the marshes now, and making low, steady moan. Horrible things had happened to women before, one heard of them with shudders74 when they were recorded in the newspapers. Only two days ago she had remembered that sometimes there seemed blunderings in the great Scheme of things. Was all this real, or was she dreaming that she stood here at bay, her back against the chimney-wall, and this degenerate75 exulting76 over her, while Rosy77 was waiting for her at Stornham—and at this very hour her father was planning his journey across the Atlantic?
“Why did you not behave yourself?” demanded Nigel Anstruthers, shaking her by the shoulder. “Why did you not realise that I should get even with you one day, as sure as you were woman and I was man?”
She did not shrink back, though the pupils of her eyes dilated78. Was it the wildest thing in the world which happened to her—or was it not? Without warning—the sudden rush of a thought, immense and strange, swept over her body and soul and possessed her—so possessed her that it changed her pallor to white flame. It was actually Anstruthers who shrank back a shade because, for the moment, she looked so near unearthly.
“I am not afraid of you,” she said, in a clear, unshaken voice. “I am not afraid. Something is near me which will stand between us—something which DIED to-day.”
He almost gasped79 before the strangeness of it, but caught back his breath and recovered himself.
“Died to-day! That's recent enough,” he jeered80. “Let us hear about it. Who was it?”
“It was Mount Dunstan,” she flung at him. “The church-bells were tolling82 for him when I rode away. I could not stay to hear them. It killed me—I loved him. You were right when you said it. I loved him, though he never knew. I shall always love him—though he never knew. He knows now. Those who died cannot go away when THAT is holding them. They must stay. Because I loved him, he may be in this place. I call on him——” raising her clear voice. “I call on him to stand between us.”
He backed away from her, staring an evil, enraptured83 stare.
“What! There is that much temperament84 in you?” he said. “That was what I half-suspected when I saw you first. But you have hidden it well. Now it bursts forth in spite of you. Good Lord! What luck—what luck!”
He moved to the door and opened it.
“I am a very modern man, and I enjoy this to the utmost,” he said. “What I like best is the melodrama of it—in connection with Fifth Avenue. I am perfectly85 aware that you will not discuss this incident in the future. You are a clever enough young woman to know that it will be more to your interest than to mine that it shall be kept exceedingly quiet.”
The white fire had not died out of her and she stood straight.
“What I have called on will be near me, and will stand between us,” she said.
Old though it was, the door was massive and heavy to lift. To open it cost him some muscular effort.
“I am going to the horses now,” he explained before he dragged it back into its frame and shut her in. “It is safe enough to leave you here. You will stay where you are.”
He felt himself secure in leaving her because he believed she could not move, and because his arrogance86 made it impossible for him to count on strength and endurance greater than his own. Of endurance he knew nothing and in his keen and cynical exultance his devil made a fool of him.
As she heard him walk down the path to the gate, Betty stood amazed at his lack of comprehension of her.
“He thinks I will stay here. He absolutely thinks I will wait until he comes back,” she whispered to the emptiness of the bare room.
Before he had arrived she had loosened her boot, and now she stooped and touched her foot.
“If I were safe at home I should think I could not walk, but I can walk now—I can—I can—because I will bear the pain.”
In such cottages there is always a door opening outside from the little bricked kitchen, where the copper87 stands. She would reach that, and, passing through, would close it behind her. After that SOMETHING would tell her what to do—something would lead her.
She put her lame foot upon the floor, and rested some of her weight upon it—not all. A jagged pain shot up from it through her whole side it seemed, and, for an instant, she swayed and ground her teeth.
“That is because it is the first step,” she said. “But if I am to be killed, I will die in the open—I will die in the open.”
The second and third steps brought cold sweat out upon her, but she told herself that the fourth was not quite so unbearable2, and she stiffened88 her whole body, and muttered some words while she took a fifth and sixth which carried her into the tiny back kitchen.
“Father,” she said. “Father, think of me now—think of me! Rosy, love me—love me and pray that I may come home. You—you who have died, stand very near!”
If her father ever held her safe in his arms again—if she ever awoke from this nightmare, it would be a thing never to let one's mind hark back to again—to shut out of memory with iron doors.
The pain had shot up and down, and her forehead was wet by the time she had reached the small back door. Was it locked or bolted—was it? She put her hand gently upon the latch89 and lifted it without making any sound. Thank God Almighty90, it was neither bolted nor locked, the latch lifted, the door opened, and she slid through it into the shadow of the grey which was already almost the darkness of night. Thank God for that, too.
She flattened91 herself against the outside wall and listened. He was having difficulty in managing Childe Harold, who snorted and pulled back, offended and made rebellious92 by his savagely93 impatient hand. Good Childe Harold, good boy! She could see the massed outline of the trees of the spinney. If she could bear this long enough to get there—even if she crawled part of the way. Then it darted94 through her mind that he would guess that she would be sure to make for its cover, and that he would go there first to search.
“Father, think for me—you were so quick to think!” her brain cried out for her, as if she was speaking to one who could physically95 hear.
She almost feared she had spoken aloud, and the thought which flashed upon her like lightning seemed to be an answer given. He would be convinced that she would at once try to get away from the house. If she kept near it—somewhere—somewhere quite close, and let him search the spinney, she might get away to its cover after he gave up the search and came back. The jagged pain had settled in a sort of impossible anguish, and once or twice she felt sick. But she would die in the open—and she knew Rosalie was frightened by her absence, and was praying for her. Prayers counted and, yet, they had all prayed yesterday.
“If I were not very strong, I should faint,” she thought. “But I have been strong all my life. That great French doctor—I have forgotten his name—said that I had the physique to endure anything.”
She said these things that she might gain steadiness and convince herself that she was not merely living through a nightmare. Twice she moved her foot suddenly because she found herself in a momentary96 respite97 from pain, beginning to believe that the thing was a nightmare—that nothing mattered—because she would wake up presently—so she need not try to hide.
“But in a nightmare one has no pain. It is real and I must go somewhere,” she said, after the foot was moved. Where could she go? She had not looked at the place as she rode up. She had only half-consciously seen the spinney. Nigel was swearing at the horses. Having got Childe Harold into the shed, there seemed to be nothing to fasten his bridle to. And he had yet to bring his own horse in and secure him. She must get away somewhere before the delay was over.
How dark it was growing! Thank God for that again! What was the rather high, dark object she could trace in the dimness near the hedge? It was sharply pointed98, is if it were a narrow tent. Her heart began to beat like a drum as she recalled something. It was the shape of the sort of wigwam structure made of hop99 poles, after they were taken from the fields. If there was space between it and the hedge—even a narrow space—and she could crouch100 there? Nigel was furious because Childe Harold was backing,
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