Delilah of the Snows
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"That," remarked her companion drily, "is, after all, what a good many of us seem to think the Government is there for."
She might have said more, but a little, black-robed lady and a burly red-faced man with a merry twinkle in his eyes and a tinge of grey in his hair, appeared just then. The latter held himself well, and did not in the least look like a man who had borne much responsibility in pestilential Africa. As a matter of fact, Major Coulthurst, who was by no means brilliant either as administrator or soldier, took his cares lightly.
"And you fancy you will get the appointment?" asked Mrs. Esmond, looking up at him.
"I hope so," said Coulthurst. "I really think the people in office ought to do something for me. I contrived to save them a good deal of trouble with the French on the frontier. Still I don't know what to do with Grace if I get it, though I had thoughts of taking her out to Canada."
Mrs. Esmond appeared to reflect for a moment or two.
"Is there any reason why you shouldn't leave her here?" she said. "I think I took good care of her before."
They had almost reached the table where the others sat, and Coulthurst stopped with a shadow of perplexity in his sunburnt face. He was a widower with insufficient means, and had one or two somewhat pointed letters from importunate creditors in his pocket then. He had also been a friend of Mrs. Esmond's for more than twenty years, but, though by no means fastidious in some respects, there were points on which he possessed a certain delicacy of sentiment.
"I almost think there is. Grace, you see, is older now," he said.
Mrs. Esmond looked up, and, as it happened, Grace Coulthurst and Geoffrey Esmond came slowly towards them across the lawn just then. The young man's gaze was fixed upon the girl, but she was looking away from him, which increased the suggestiveness of his attitude and expression, for both of those who watched them could see his face. Grace was indeed distinctly pretty, and that afternoon the indefinite but unmistakable attribute which the woman who had defended her termed good style was especially noticeable. It was expressed in the poise of the little head, the erect carriage, and even the fashion in which the light draperies hung in flowing lines about the shapely figure. Then the black-robed lady turned, and looked at Coulthurst steadily.
"Yes," he said, though she had not spoken. "Her mother would have known what was right – and fitting, but since she was taken from me I feel it – a responsibility, to say the least."
"Could you not trust me?"
"In everything. That is, unless it was to your own disadvantage – or what would certainly be regarded so. You mean me to be frank, I think?"
"Of course! In any case, I am not sure that you are capable of concealing your sentiments."
"Then," said Coulthurst gravely, "I should like you to remember that Grace has nothing."
Mrs. Esmond smiled."And Geoffrey has a good deal? Still, we have it on excellent authority that the value of a good woman is above rubies."
Major Coulthurst was red-faced and burly, and usually abrupt in his movements; but his attitude became him as he made his companion a little grave inclination.
"Grace is very like her mother – I cannot say more than that."
Perhaps it was not very tactful; though he did not know what the gossips had whispered when he was a reckless subaltern long ago. In any case, he had married a woman with as few possessions as he himself had, and his life had been a hard one ever since. His companion, however, smiled somewhat curiously.
"I think she is in many ways like her father too; but that is scarcely the point," she said. "I have offered to take care of her for you."
"Well," said Coulthurst quietly, "when the time comes we will try to decide, and in the meanwhile I can only thank you."
Then they joined the others, and for awhile sat talking in the shade, until Geoffrey Esmond, who had taken his place beside them, looked up suddenly with a curious contraction of his face.
"I am almost afraid we are going to have some undesirable visitors," he said.
From beyond the trees that shut the lawn off from the village there rose the tooting of a cornet, which was followed by a cheer and a rattle of wheels. Then there was a murmur of harsh voices which broke portentously through the slumbrous quietness, and Esmond, rising abruptly, glanced at the major, who walked a little apart with him. Esmond looked worried.
"Yes," he said in answer to the major's questioning glance, "I fancy they are coming to pull my gates and fences down. Roberts, the groom, heard enough in Hoddam to suggest that they were plotting something of the kind, and I told him to have a horse saddled, though I didn't quite believe it myself. There are, however, evidently several wagonette-loads of them yonder."
"The question is," said Coulthurst sharply, "do you mean to let them in?"
The young man laughed. "I should almost have fancied it was unnecessary. Including the keepers, I can roll up six men. That makes eight with you and me, while Leslie, who is a magistrate, as you know, lives scarcely two miles away."
"Then you had better send for him. Eight men with the law behind them should be quite enough to hold off the rabble – that is, so long as no blow is struck; but you will excuse my mentioning that you will require to keep a firm hand on your temper."
"I'll try, though I have been told it isn't a very excellent one," said the younger man. "Now, if you will beguile the women into the house, I'll make arrangements."
Coulthurst was not a clever man, but he contrived to accomplish it; and it was some twenty minutes later when he and Esmond walked down a path beneath the beeches with four or five men behind them. The major carried a riding whip, and there was a curious little smile in his eyes, while the rest had sticks, though in accordance with his instructions they made no display of them. The wood was shadowy and very still, and there was no sound but that made by startled rabbits, until they came out into the sunlight, where a spiked railing crossed a narrow glade. There was a mossy path beyond it chequered with patches of cool shadow, and a group of dusty men were moving down it towards the padlocked gate. The foremost of them stopped when they saw the party from the Grange, and then after a whispered consultation came on again.
"Where are you going?" asked Esmond.
"Into the Dene," said one of the strangers.
"You have been to the lodge to ask permission?"
"No," said another hot and perspiring man, "we haven't. It isn't necessary."
"I'm afraid it is," said Esmond quietly. "In fact, there is a board to that effect a few yards back. No doubt you noticed it."
The man laughed. "We did. It isn't there now. We pulled it up."
Esmond flushed a trifle. "Then if you ever wish to get into the Dene I think you made a mistake," he said. "Still, as you can't get any farther to-day, you may as well go back. This gate is locked."
"That don't count," said somebody. "We'll have it off its hinges inside five minutes."
The lad swung round sharply towards the speaker, but Coulthurst laid a restraining hand upon his arm. "Steady!" he said, and raised his voice a trifle. "Now, look here, my men, you certainly can't come in, and you'll only get yourselves into trouble by trying. This is private property."
"Of course!" said one of the strangers. "Everything is. You've got the land, and you've got the water – one can't even bathe in the river now. It's not your fault you can't lay hands on the air and sunshine, too."
There was an approving murmur from his comrades, and Esmond shook off the major's grasp.
"That is rot!" he said. "Willow Dene belongs to me, and you are certainly not coming in. I don't feel inclined to explain my reasons for keeping you out of it, and it's quite probable you wouldn't understand them. Have you brought any responsible person to whom one could talk along with you?"
The languid insolence in his even tone had an effect which a flood of invective might have failed to produce; and once more there was a murmur from the crowd, while a man with a grim, dust-smeared face held up a bludgeon.
"We've brought these, and they're good enough," he said.
Then the men moved a little, and there were cries of "Let him have a chance!" as a young man pushed his way through them. He was plainly and neatly dressed and carried nothing in his hand.
"I'm sorry our Committee is not here to lay our views before you, Mr. Esmond, which was what we had intended; but if you will try to look at the thing sensibly it will save everybody trouble," he said.
"What has become of the worthy gentlemen? Weren't they capable of walking from the 'Griffin'?" asked Esmond drily. "It really isn't very far."
The young man did not appear to notice the jibe. "The fact is, we had a little dispute among ourselves," he said. "The views of the Committee didn't quite coincide with those of the rest, but since the Committee is not here I should like to point out that the Hoddam people have passed through the Dene without hindrance for at least twenty years, and as that gives them a legal right of way they mean to continue doing it. Now, if you will make no opposition we will promise that no damage whatever will be done to your property."
"Don't you worry about the concerned Committee," said a voice from the crowd. "It's got the sulks. Only two turned out. We're going by what Mr. Leger says."
Esmond glanced at the man in front of him, with a little sardonic smile. "I have only your assurance, and I'm afraid it would scarcely be wise to place more confidence in your friends than their leaders seem to have done. Their appearance is, unfortunately, against them."
There were cries of "Stop it, Leger; you're wasting time! Tell him to get out of the way! We're coming in!"
The young man raised his hand. "I believe they mean it, Mr. Esmond. Now, there are two sensible courses open to you. Unlock that gate and make no further opposition; or stand aside while we lift it off its hinges, and then proceed against us for trespassing. You will, if you are wise, make no attempt to prevent our getting in."
There was a moment's silence, and the little knot of men behind the gate and the crowd outside watched each other's faces. One or two were evidently uneasy, others a trifle grim, but there was a portentous murmur from the dusty rabble farther back in the shadow. Then young Esmond laughed in an unpleasant fashion as he drew the lash of his dog-whip suggestively through his hand.
"Whoever lays a hand upon this gate will take the consequences," he said.
Coulthurst touched his shoulder, and said something in his ear, but the young man moved away from him impatiently.
"Am I to be dictated to by this rabble? Let them come!" he said.
The major made a little gesture of resignation. "Well," he said, "if you are determined to make trouble I think you will get your wish."
Then the front of the crowd split up, and several men came out from it carrying between them what appeared to be the post to which the notice-board had been nailed. They came on at a ran, and, disregarding the major's warning, swung it like a battering ram. Next moment there was a crash. The gate rattled, but still held fast, while the lash of Esmond's dog-whip curled round one man's hand. He loosed his hold upon the post with a howl, his comrades recoiled, and there was an angry cry from the rear of the crowd, while a sod alighted squarely in the major's face. He wiped it quietly with his handkerchief, and then seizing Esmond by main force thrust him a few paces aside.
"Go home, my men, and you have my word that the affair shall go no further," he said. "It's your last chance. We'll have a magistrate and several policemen here in a very few minutes."
"Look out for yourself," said somebody. "We've nothing against you. Now, pick up your post, boys, and down with the thing!"
The men with the post came on again; there was a roar from the crowd, and a crash, as the gate swung open; then as a man with a stick sprang through the gap Esmond's dog-whip came down upon his face. Next moment somebody had hurled him backwards, and the crowd rolled through the opening.
"Back there! Look after your master, Jenkins!" the major's voice rang out, and a man dropped suddenly beneath his riding-crop.
Then nobody knew exactly what happened, but while the sticks rose and fell Ingleby and Esmond, who had evaded the burly keeper, found themselves face to face. Esmond, who was flushed and gasping, swung the dog-whip round his head, but before he struck, Leger sprang straight at him with empty hands. Then a stick that somebody swung came down, and Esmond fell just clear of the rest, with a gash on his forehead from which there spread a crimson smear. Leger staggered forward, and the major gripped his shoulder and flung him into the arms of a keeper.
"Hold him fast! That's the lad who did it," he said, and faced round on the crowd with hand swung up and voice ringing commandingly.
"You have already done as much as you will care to account for," he said. "Manslaughter is a somewhat serious thing."
The tumult ceased for a moment, and everybody saw Esmond lying very still upon the turf with the ominous smear of crimson on his blanched face. His eyes were half closed now, and they had an unpleasantly suggestive appearance. Then Ingleby stepped forward and turned to Coulthurst.
"Nobody will interfere with you while you take him away, but the man you have was not the one who struck him down," he said. "Give him up, and we'll go back quietly."
The Major smiled grimly. "I hope," he said, "to hand him to the police inside five minutes."
"Look here," said somebody, "it was all Mr. Esmond's own fault, and, so to speak, an accident. Go and get a doctor for him, and let us have our man."
There was a little hard glitter in Coulthurst's eyes. "He will find it difficult to persuade a jury of that. Stick to the lad, Jenkins, and pick Mr. Esmond up, two of you. Stand aside there, and it's possible that we will not proceed against any more of you."
Ingleby turned to the crowd. "You're not going to let them hand him to the police for a thing he didn't do?"
There was a rush and a scuffle, the major's riding-crop was torn from him, and groom and gardener and keeper were swept away, while Ingleby, laughing harshly, reeled into the shadow of the trees with his hand on Leger's shoulder.
"I think," he said, "there's nothing that need keep us here."
Then, while some of his companions pursued Esmond's retainers, and the rest stood still, uncertain what to do next, Ingleby started back through the woods towards Hoddam, dragging Leger, who seemed a trifle dazed.