- CHAPTER XXI A MORNING CALL
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A MORNING CALL
WHEN the inmates of the villa awoke next morning they found that Mrs. Myers had already departed.
She had risen very early, called for her pony, none the worse it would seem for its " runaway," and had bidden the housemaid--the only indoor servant then up--to say to her hostess that she, Mrs. Myers, had forgotten, before retiring, to say that she must return early on account of important business which might involve a hasty journey, adding a profusion of thanks and regrets, "She was sorry," the maid added, "to go away so early, and would give herself the opportunity to thank them in person at another time."
Aunt Cassandra was honestly chagrined at this abrupt leavetaking, but Hope was evidently relieved. As for the sheriff, his comments were few, and of an extenuating nature. The lady naturally would be anxious to return the pony, which belonged to Thurton's livery; and Thurton was apt to charge the price of a good horse for the overnight use of one. Mrs. Myers might not possess the purse of a | | 235 Fortunatus. He said little more than this, and sought no opportunity to speak aside with Hope. He seemed preoccupied, and made no reference to his work of the previous night, although she knew that his light had burned until far into the small hours, and it was only when, his horse being ready at the door, he turned to bid them adieu, that he said, as he took Hope's hand: "I have taken the liberty of carrying away with me two or three small articles--a letter, some pictures, and the like, which I may be able to make useful. They will be restored to you, of course, and soon. Another thing, I have left, upon the open top of your brother's desk, Miss Chetwynde, a number of letters and an old diary, which I particularly wish you would read, both of you, I mean," turning to Aunt Cass. "After you have read them--in a few days possibly--I shall wish to talk again, with you, and more fully with you both. Miss Cassandra," and he turns toward the spinster, releasing Hope's hand in the act, while that young woman steps across the morning-room to reply to some word from the old gardener, for the girl is invariably kind to her domestics, never failing to hear with patience whatever they may wish to say to her, and never treating them to those little touches of haughtiness, to which her immediate family are sometimes treated.
While she is thus engaged, the sheriff bends his tall head and grizzled locks, to look in the spinster's upturned face.
"I hope you will give those papers your close attention," he says impressively. "I have much faith in your sound sense, Miss Chetwynde, and" | | 236 --glancing across his shoulder toward Hope--"I must find or make an opportunity to advise with you before I see Miss Hope Chetwynde again."
As he mounts his horse, and waves them a last adieu, the little spinster looks after him, noting the well set and shapely head, the strong profile, best feature of a rugged face, and the erect carriage of the broad shoulders, although the man is, as she well knows, quite sixty years of age; a clear brained, keen-witted man.
"What can it be concerning Felix Chetwynde that he must consult, with her, about before it comes to the attention of Hope?" she asks herself.
As for the sheriff, he rides away with his thoughts upon the packet he carries in his inner pocket, a packet containing a picture of a young girl, with short, curly hair, and a dark, piquant face. A second picture, of the sort favoured in small towns, in the days of old, and called "tintypes," this being the faded and tattered presentment of two young men, dressed alike in cowboy costume, and not unlike in face. Besides these there are a number of letters and slips of paper, written over in the sheriff's own hand, and being, doubtless, copied extracts from letters or other documents.
"It's a queer state of affairs!" he mutters to his only confidant, his faithful steed, and then he shakes his head. "I wonder if either of the women suspect--I wonder if that keen-eyed, straight from the shoulder, little woman has never felt 'a prickling of the thumbs.' Women have all kinds of intentions, old chap, hey?" and having turned his | | 237 thoughts upon the "little woman," he seemed to find the subject interesting from a purely personal point of view.
"She's worth just exactly twenty-five of your 'sweet young girls,'" he declared. "Don't shake your old head, you stupid! You haven't had a good look at her; and she's every whit as young to look at as when she first came down to Lee for the summer with her tall and high-headed niece, but a slip of a girl, and--oh pshaw, you old gander, don't shake your head off--and that strong, firm, good mouth, and those clear, deep grey eyes would make any woman pretty. More than folks can say of your beauty, you old jay, you!" which was quite unjust to the clean-limbed, stately animal, who had grown to seem to his master half human.
But while the "little woman's" regard for Sheriff Thomas Cook was considerable, he was not the prime object of her thoughts, as she let them work on, while waiting for Hope to signify her readiness to unburden herself.
Something was troubling her mind, and she had not yet found her way to a decision regarding it. She had made a discovery, not serious or shocking in itself, but taken in connection with other persons and things, it might prove of moment, and she was not yet certain whether to confide it to Hope, or whether to keep silence until she saw the sheriff once more. And this is the discovery.
The villa is built for summer uses, and there is a broad veranda all round it below, and a lesser one, divided by projecting gables, above, on the chamber floor. Aunt Cass occupies the room upon the front | | 238 balcony at the north-east corner, and the strange guest has been assigned to that upon the opposite or south-east corer, with the balcony crossing both rooms at the front.
Aunt Cass, who professes to live upon "fresh air," usually walks for a short time before retiring upon this front balcony; and being used to traverse its full length, she steps out, shortly after the guest's door has been heard to close behind the maid who has proffered her services, and been thanked and sent away. The spinster has exchanged her gown for a soft neglige, and her little boots for noiseless, heeless slippers; and, busy with her own thoughts, she paces to and fro, looking out over the water, and forgets for the moment her neighbour behind the long French windows at the balcony's further end; and so presently she has crossed the line of light shining out from between loosely drawn curtains, and coming silently opposite the second window stops, for the moment, transfixed. For here the curtain is but half drawn; the mirror is directly opposite, and standing before it is Mrs. Myers--Mrs. Myers, who has never ridden a bicycle, and who has no liking for the sport--and she stands before the large mirror, which reflects her whole trim figure, clad in a bicycle costume! high-laced boots, short black skirt, natty jacket.
The next instant the eye of the spinster takes in the fact that the bodice is the same worn during the day and evening, jaunty lapels, white vest, and all; that the short skirt is of the same black stuff, perfect in fit, and that, on a chair beside the mirror, lies the discarded black skirt, with all its fulness, length, and | | 239 sweep, while the looker-on can see that the little round hat or toque is divested of its soft floating veil, and lies upon the dressing-case close by.
A moment the trim little figure stands thus before the mirror, then she turns away, her lips moving, a strange mocking look, half smile, half sneer, upon her face, and begins her preparations for the night; while silently, and wondering much, Aunt Cass abandons her fresh-air promenade and returns to her own room.
All night her sleep is fitful and broken. But when the next day has passed Aunt Cass has not yet opened her lips, on the subject of the bicycle suit.
All that day she meditates, hoping that some turn of fortune may bring the sheriff to the villa, but he does not come; and so, on the morning of the second day, she adopts artful measures, for not all of Hope's confidences have served to loosen her tongue regarding this one small matter.
"Do you want the ponies this morning, Hope?" she asks, as they sit at breakfast.
"No, auntie, I feel as if a long day of quiet, without the sight of any face but yours would be a boon. If you want the ponies, take them, do. I sha'n't in the least mind being alone--in case you are beguiled into remaining for luncheon." For Hope imagines that this is one of her aunt's frequent journeys of cheer and comfort to Redlands that is taking her from home.
But it is not to Redlands that the little spinster drives the sleek ponies. Instead, after more than an hour of brisk scampering, for the ponies show their disapprobation in many ways, she draws them | | 240 up before a cottage which stands at the junction of two country roadways, half hidden among trees.
It is the home of a Mrs. Rice--a woman widowed by an accident upon the lake--and the temporary residence, also, of Mrs. Myers.
But Mrs. Myers is not visible; and, after some effort, a little black-eyed woman appears, with grey hair blown rough by the lake breezes, looking as affable and confiding as a child of tender years.
It is surprising, too, how much this small person talks, and yet how little information Aunt Cass bears away. Going ruefully homeward she reduces it, in her direct way, to this.
Mrs. Myers has been looking for a certain letter "for a whole week, very anxiously." It concerned a sick friend. Yesterday morning the letter came. The sick friend was about to pass through the city en route for the Hot Springs, and Mrs. Myers has rushed off to the city to meet her. "She will stay as, long as her friend remains in the city, so she said," Mrs. Rice had told her.
In the little cottage entry Aunt Cass sees an old and shabby bicycle, and asks who is the rider.
"That," replies Mrs. Rice, "is my nephew's wheel. He is spending his vacation with me, and he rides in mud and in rain--just like a boy!"
As she drives away from the door Aunt Cass has a vision of a slim and shabby lad flitting from the barn toward the woods at the back, and whistling "Annie Rooney" with fervour and brilliancy.
The spinster rides away dissatisfied, and finds herself wondering if guile may not lurk beneath the locks of the widow Rice, and if she would be likely to accept--a bribe. But she does not turn back.
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