Audrey had been starting for a walk when detained by the interview recorded in the last chapter. She left it burning with indignation and passionate resentment. That this man could call himself a friend of Hughie, and conceive for one moment the possibility of his guilt! He pretended to be his intimate, and did not even know him. How she hated such Laodicean allies ! And that he should dare to try to involve her in his doubts and half concessions! It was infamous. It had needed all her sense of the confidence her father placed in him, and of the authority to act for him which he had delegated to him, to stop her from saying something so cuttingly rude that even he could not have consented to swallow the insult and remain on.
She did Mr Bickerdike, as we know, a sad injustice. The truth was, one suspects, that in all this business of his friend's exoneration the unhappy gentleman was flying in the face of his own conscience, and doing it for pure loyalty's sake. He could not quite bring himself to argue against appearances in the Justice's sense; but he hoped, and he tried to take a rosy view of his own hopes. It was not to be expected of him, or of his disposition, that he should feel or express that blind and incorrigible staunchness to an ideal natural in a devoted blood-relation; yet it should be counted to him that he was staunch too, and on behalf of a cause which in his heart he mistrusted. Perhaps his suspicions anent the Baron were conceived more in a desperate attempt to discover a way out for his friend, than in any spirit of strong belief in their justification. But Audrey was prejudiced against him, and the prejudices of young people are like their loves, unreasoning and devastating.
She was very miserable, poor girl-proud, friendless, solitary. Essentially companionable by nature, the social restrictions of her state, man-administered, had deprived her of all warm intimacies among her own sex. She was not allowed to know those she would have liked to know; the few selected for her acquaintance she detested. There was none to whom she could appeal for understanding or sympathy. Repellent to them all in her pride, was it likely they would spare her in her humiliation? The very thought made her hold her head high, and filled her heart with a hard defiance. Nobody cared, nobody beheved but herself and her father. Poor Hughie, to be so admired and courted in prosperity, so slandered and abandoned in adversity ! Never mind; the truth would be known presently, and then the humiliation would be theirs who had unwittingly betrayed their own abject natures.
She crossed the high road, and, entering the thickets beyond, proceeded in a direction almost due west. That way lay the least association with all the squalid events of the past few weeks, and she knew that if she pushed on over the boundaries of Wildshott, she would come presently to a place of quiet woods and streams and easeful solitudes. She wanted to avoid any possibility of contact with her fellow-creatures, and to be alone. It was a glowing September day, when everything, save her own unquiet heart, seemed resolved into an eternal serenity of peace and happiness never again to be broken. The coney had lain down with the fox and the stoat; the ageing bracken had renewed its youth in a sparkling vesture of diamond-mist; the birds were singing as if a dream-spring had surprised them in the very thought of hybernating. Presently, going among trees, Audrey came out on the lip of a little shelving dingle, at whose foot ran a full bountiful stream watering a wooded valley. And at once she paused, because the figure of a small sturdy boy was visible below her, busy about a spot where a tiny fall plunged frothing and merry-making into a pool which it tried to brim and could not. She paused, watching the figure; and suddenly, driven by some inexplicable impulse, she was going quickly down the slope to speak to it. It was a revulsion of feeling, a sob for a voice in the wilderness, a cry to give herself just one more chance before she flung away the world and took loneliness for her eternal doom.
The boy, hearing her coming, lifted his head, then rose to his feet. He had been engaged over a fly rod, which he held in his hand.
'Monrin', Miss,' he said, grinning and saluting.
' Are you fishing, Jacob ?'
' Me and the master, miss. He'll be back in a minute. He'n been whipping the stream up-ways'.
Her lip curled, ever so slightly. There might be better occupation than fishing for a man who cared.
'He's thinking,' said Jake.
'Thinking ! ' she echoed scornfully.
'Yes'm. He says to me, he says, " Jacob, fishing helps a man to think; and what d'you suppose I've been thinking about, Jacob? "'
' "Why, who it was as killed Annie Evans,"' he says. The boy looked up shyly. 'We knows anyhow as it weren't Master Hugo, Miss'.
'Do you? Did he say that, Jacob?' She spoke softly, with a wonderful new glow about her heart.
'Yes'm,' said the boy. 'He did that. You should ha' heard him yesterday giving Squire Redwood the he. We was hunting otter, Miss, and was on to his spraints, when Squire said something bad about Master Hugo as caught Sir Francis's ear. He went up to him, he did, and he told him he'd lay his good ash-spear across his shoulders unless he withdrew the expression'.
' Redwood ! That great powerful bully !' cried Miss Kennett.
'Yes'm. And Squire looked that frit, it might ha' been a boggle had sudden come to life and faced him. But he did what he was told, and saved his shoulders'.
'He did, he did?' She put her hands up to her throat a moment, as if to strangle the emotion that would not be suppressed, and in the act heard his footstep and turned.
He came with wonder and pleasure in his face.
'Audrey!' he exclaimed; 'what good luck has brought you here ?'
' I don't know, Frank,' she answered a little wildly: 'but it is good luck, and I thank it. Why do you, who hate hunting, hunt otters, sir?'
'Because they kill my fish,' he replied promptly.
'And so spoil your thinking, I suppose,' she said.
He seemed to understand in a moment, and his face flushed.
' Jake has been t-talking, has he ?' he said. ' Jake, I'm ashamed of you'.
'And did Redwood save his big shoulders?' she asked.
' Jake !' cried his master reproachfully.
She laughed and sobbed together.
' Frank, will you leave your things here, and come a little way with me, please ?'
' O, Audrey ! You know-not only a little way, if it could be'.
They walked together along the green bank of the stream, from sunlight into luminous shadow, and forth again, parting the branches sometimes, always with the water, like a merry child, running and talking beside them. Suddenly she stopped, and turned upon him.
'If it could be,' she said, repeating his words: 'that is to say, if I had not a murderer for a brother'.
He cried out: ' Good God ! What do you mean ? Hugh is not a murderer ! *
' You declare it--in spite of all, Frank ?'
'All what? I know him, and that's enough'.
'For me, for me, yes, and for you! O, Frank !--' she could not keep them back; they came irresistibly, and rolled down her cheeks- 'you don't know what you have done, what you have lifted from my heart! And I said you were not a man-like him. O, forgive me, Frank dear !'
' Hush !' he said. He took her arm and tucked it close and comfortable under his, and led her on. ' I am not, if it comes to that,' he said.
'You don't mean that unkindly? No, you never would, of course. But I can be glad to think it now-glad that you are not. He is not good, Frank. I should hate him for what he has done-I can say it to you now--if he were not suffering so dreadfully for what he has not done'.
' I know, Audrey. Poor fellow--for what he has not done. That is the point. How are we going to p-prove it? I have been pushing some private inquiries, for my part, about that mysterious figure seen or not seen by Henstridge on the hill. I can't get it out of my head that there really was such a figure, and that, if we could only t-trace it, we should hold the clue to the riddle'.
'Have you been doing that, Frank? And I thought you had forsaken us like the rest.'
'That was ungenerous of you, Audrey, dear. I should have come and told you, only I was delicate of starting you, perhaps, on a false scent, and thought it better to w-wait till I had something definite to offer'.
'Frank, did you read of the Inquest?'
'I was present at it-in the background.'
' O ! Do you remember the master of the poor man who was supposed then-;-'
' Le Sage ? I should think I do. His b-benevolent truthfulness was a thing to wonder over'.
'I think it is. He and I are great friends. He is away for the moment; but when he comes back, I wish you would let me introduce you to him.'
'Why, Audrey, I know him already. Have you forgotten Hanson's cottage and our talk about the poachers ? A r-remarkably shrewd old file I thought him'.
'So he is. I have such faith in him somehow. Somehow I feel* that all will come right when he returns. I do wish he would. It is all so dreadful waiting. Will you tell him about your theory, when he does?'
' Of course I will. Don't go yet, Audrey,' She had stopped.
'Yes, Frank, I am going. I feel that every moment taken from your fishing is robbing Hughie of a chance'.
'Audrey-after what you've said-poor Hugh- I'll not be thought a man at his expense-but-are you going to let me hope just a little again?'
'Are you serious, dear? His sister? Think'.
'A m-martyr's sister--the greater honour mine'.
She could not help a little laugh over the picture of Hugh a martyr.
' I love you, Frank,' she said, 'but not quite that way'.
'Well, I love you all ways,' he answered, 'so that any little defect in yours is provided for'.
' How good you are to me !' she sighed. ' If it's to be thought of, it must not be on any consideration till Hugh is cleared'.
' Agreed !' he cried joyously. 'Then we are as g-good as engaged already'.
' You dear !' she said, and jumped at him. ' I will kiss you once for that. No, put your hands down-handy-pandy-sugary-candy, and-there, sir! And now please to go back to your fishing'.
She smiled to him and hurried away, a fine pink on her cheek. After the rain, fine weather; after despair, reassurance. She was not alone; she had these two good staunch friends, Frank and httle Jacob, to stand by her. Her heart was singing with the birds, sparkling with the mist. When she reached home she found another comfort to greet her. Mr Bickerdike had already started for London. Then she did a queer, shame-faced thing, in a queer shame-faced way. She got out some old dog's-eared music, long forgotten childish exercises, and sat down to the piano to try if she could remember them. She played very softly in a young stumbling fashion, all stiff fingers and whispering hps. It did not come naturally to her, and she had long arrears of neglect to make good. But she persevered. If it was a question of qualifying herself for the intellectual life, she must not throw up the sponge at the first round. After a strenuous hour she had more or less mastered No. 1 Exercise for two hands in Czerny's first course, and had got so far on the road to Audley.