― 27 ―

Chapter IV Sir William is Late

MATILDA had seen a great deal of Sir William Heans during February. Several times among his many calls he found her alone, and then, suddenly, with no word of explanation, their genial tête-à-têtes had ended, and she seemed to become absorbed with Captain Shaxton in the hospitalities to the explorers, and such engagements. Heans, calling now and then, was compelled to take tea alone upon the terrace in the increasing cold.

Whether Sir William was aware of some cause for this is not clear, but his face in these days grew somewhat blue and thin, while a certain dark-eyed, scowling servant-maid—a convict—seemed to think his somewhat bowed attitude anything but calling for sympathy, eyeing his back with a dark hate as she brought him his tea.

Sir William thanked the woman with politeness.

One evening, on a lonely visit in April, Mrs. Shaxton hurried down from the drawing-room, and greeting him palely, said how sorry she had been to miss so many of his visits. She did not look at him intently, and Sir William hardly seemed to see her. She spoke excitedly, as if she were abstracted with her hurry or possibly at the aspect of his figure alone upon the seat. He was very proud, and spoke of the happiness of being made free of her garden, and the beauty of the ride up.

Now it was palpable that he had lost some indefinable something since she had last seen him. His face was thinner and paler, and, worst sign of all, his eyes, rather hollow, had a curious white glare of excitement, strain, or desperation in them. The woman must have noticed that he was in some way beshadowed and different—some way fallen in his pride—for, her face breaking suddenly into an almost foolish panic, she asked him if “all was well—and if his health was good.”

He said “All goes well enough, Mrs. Shaxton,” in a rapid tone, but stood as if he had not told all. She did not seem to know how to express her anxiety. Her hand was on the seat-back, and she moved her fingers to and fro a little, as hardly knowing what she did. She asked suddenly, in an earnest voice: “Oh, I hope some refreshment was brought out instantly; I shall—I shall hope to be at home more.”

  ― 28 ―

“Indeed — I hope I do not inconvenience the woman,” Heans brought to her rescue. “I feel that I am something of a nuisance——”

“My maid tells me you have been later coming—half-past four instead of three—I think. They were taken by surprise. It may have made them seem slow in attending upon you!”

Heans interrupted with a singular thickness of speech.

“I have been later getting here only on the last three occasions,” he said, with a sort of abruptness, and the blood died slowly out of his face until he was deadly white. He suddenly put round his hand and caught the seat-back, sitting into it with a jerk. His grey top-hat hung loosely from his lavender fingers, and he looked about him in a wild way like a man clutching at a point.

“I am sorry,” he said. “I feel a faintness for some reason.”

She remained where she was, but slid her hand a little nearer along the seat-back, her shawl trailing and trembling, her face in its heavy bonnet as white as that near her hand. She said at last, with fright in her voice: “Sir William Heans, what have you been doing?”

He raised his drawn face, and stared grimly into her eyes long that they had time to soften with tears.

“Why, what would I do?” he said, breathlessly.

She was standing there behind him, leaning away a little—he staring up white and sharp—when a man's voice rang metallically from the top of the terrace: “Ah, there she ia!” Both glared up towards it, and then smiled. Grey Heans rose up with a heavy ceremonious air.

Daunt, of the Police, immaculate in his grey coat and Wellingtons, had just emerged from the drawing-room, followed by two officers, one in naval uniform. They made at once for the side-steps leading to the lower terrace, and came bowing down. The sailors were brown-whiskered men in little naval caps, great stocks enwrapping choking collars, voluminous holland bags, tight single-breasted waistcoats and high-waisted ill-fitting frock-coats, very high of collar and very tight of sleeve. Daunt, very yellow in the face, ushered them energetically along. There was a wild look beneath his heartiness.

Matilda went across, met, and welcomed them. She seemed to know them, and bowed a little over some little complimentary jest. When she turned for Sir William, he came forward in his fine way, and was made known by name to the sailors, who were somewhat awed out of their jollity by his reserve and pale, grave air.

Mrs. Shaxton took a seat by a rustic table, and Daunt, with a long peculiar stare and stern nod at Heans (a form of greeting which seemed to surprise the officers), drew a chair near Matilda's, and began a string of rapid sentences. Heans was

  ― 29 ―
left talking with the sailors. This he did, swinging on his legs, and tending gradually to the light and witty. His eyeglass was up, and soon the three of them were grinning. Down in the vast valley the ships were drying sails, but he never once looked towards these or mentioned them.

“We met Captain Shaxton on the wharf,” said Daunt, with a sudden distinctness; “and I asked if we should find you at home. He said you would be leaving the Hall about five. You would be busy dressing, he thought, but Boyd and Cooke were both eager to see the view, and thought they might get you to keep them a dance! You know what sailors are!”

(How often does it happen in life that we have a Daunt fellow-secret-holder with us!)

In a moment Heans was out of it, and the sailors were “ ‘hanging’ the view, madame,” and protesting round his shoulders that they had made the ride solely for the honour of an engagement.

“Sir William Heans has forestalled us,” cried Boyd, with an outcry of pleasant laughter. “How many do you entreat, sir, for the gallantry of the assault?”

Sir William laughed steadily. Before he could speak, even if he had found anything to say, Matilda said rather wildly, “Sir William Heans does not dance.” Then, shaking her ringlets over a sudden laugh, she asked Cooke if he thought the ride worthily recompensed with two.

Both officers, wreathed in smiles, took off their tiny naval caps and made their gallant bows. Daunt, turning a little with them, bemoaned in a sort of rueful monotone that he must take his chance, as there was a late meeting at the Colonial Surgeon's.

“Mrs. Shaxton,” began Sir William Heans, laughingly (and both Matilda and Daunt looked slowly up at him), “has not even told me the name of the ball! Is it for to-night you are in such good fortune?”

“Hallo, sir!” cried Lieutenant Boyd, staring round. “It's His Excellency's birthday, sir! You must be a hermit!”

“Ah,” said Daunt, hissing suddenly in, “Sir William Heans is too much of a student: chained to his books—isn't that it?” But the ladies haven't chosen a convenient night for anybody but you idle sailors. Mrs. Shaxton, you should hear Montague and Leete on the subject. I heard Montague say, shrugging his Norman shoulders, ‘When Neptune's here, what woman considers poor Vulcan!’ ”

“Why Vulcan?” cried Boyd.

“Leete's Governor of the Cascades, and Montague is our eminent Colonial Secretary.”

“Forgers of chains,” said Matilda, “we may not consider you!”

“Fair too,” said Sir William. “Who should lionize poor

  ― 30 ―
storm-beaten Neptune if not the ladies! In a little while it's ‘Come aboard, sir,’ and gone all the beauty and gentleness of home life but a daguerreotype swinging on a hook—and yet,” looking for the first time at the ships, “which of us but is not deeply envious?”

“Oh, we're snug enough when the wind's favourable,” said Boyd, chuckling. “But you should come, sir.” Magruder (with a cock of his eye at Heans)—“old Magruder tells us all the supremest ton of Hobarton are gathering to do it honour.”

All the rest laughed politely, including Sir William.

“Should not even my grey hairs omit me?” said the latter. “I honour you fellows by envying you—rancorous envy, I can assure you!” He ended with a little brief, defensive bow.

“Sir William Heans has fallen in love with your ships,” said Matilda. “I remember his saying on the night you came in, ‘They have the fog of Old England in their sails.’ We were thinking how wonderful you were, and how you broadened life for all us humdrum people. Here we sit on these slopes with our fixed joys and troubles, and in you sail with your stern little ships, and lo, all is sublime and hazardous!”

Sir William did not move, but Daunt raised his eyes upon her slowly. The flushed officers were laughing with her, and beneath their deprecating badinage, Daunt's gaze passed from her to Heans. The latter was now looking towards the ships, but one hand which he had placed upon the seat-back was trembling. The police-officer's mouth seemed as if it were laughing with the rest, but no sound came from it.

“Ah,” he presently threw in, “you lucky gentlemen with your grand adventures! May I mention it—I got a bang from an ankle chain this morning.” (He touched his knee carefully). “The anklet was intended, but through a native sharpness I received the chain.”

“Mutineer or escapee?” asked Cooke.

“The savage seditionary with a brain he fancies quicker than yours! Nothing will do for him but proof. I am nothing if not a ‘frustrator of hopes,’ Mrs. Shaxton. For Heaven's sake find us something sublime in our humdrum bruises!”

“I have praise even for the stern frustrator of hopes,” said Matilda. “But some one has written or said: ‘The sailor into the unknown sea hurts no one with his heroism.’ ”

Heans alone did not turn his head.

“You stopped him?” cried the sailors again.

“Stopped him? Yes, I stopped him,” echoed Daunt, “there are many ways. See,” he said, springing upright in his chair, “I have a little invention of my own here, which, domestic article as it is, I have known stop an assaulting prisoner.”

Leaning forward, he produced a flint-steel: a little thing shaped like a horseshoe, which (he explained) you could conceal in your

  ― 31 ―
hand, or fix on your thumb or forefinger. At once, having closed his left fist, he fixed it as if it had been a ring on his third finger, and held both up that they might see how the “striker,” not blunt, as was usual, had been filed to a razor's edge.

“That is one way,” he said. “Here is another. Permit me to take your hand a moment, Sir William Heans.”

He rose and came forward, and, as Sir William, whose back was half turned to him, lifted his right hand, as much in instinctive amazement as consent, from the seat-back, took it powerfully in both of his and twisted the side of the palm up and over till, as the wrist resisted with a twinge, the hand and arm doubled in against the baronet's back, forcing him to bend a little over the seat in front of him. Sir William, pale with surprise amid the laughter (Matilda was laughing), tried to straighten himself, but met by a stubborn twinge, stooped again. In the instanat Dunt had dropped his hand.

“An old grapple,” said Daunt. “Now, sir,” he said, putting out his hand and turning his back on Heans, so palely smiling, “try it on me.”

Heans made just the breath of a movement towards him, then laughed and shook his head. A trifle haughtily he said something about being “too old for horse-play.” Boyd said, “I will,” and pushed forward, half-laughing, with the intention of seizing Daunt's hand, when the latter suddenly subsided into his chair, saying, “No, I know you sailors.” Boyd drew back from his dark, immaculate face a trifle crestfallen. He saw amazedly that it was stern.

“Ah, an experienced man!” he burst out, lamely. “You shouldn't have let him do it, Sir William Heans. By Heaven, he's a slippery gentleman!”

“Quite an entertainment!” said Sir William lightly, clutching the seat; “I am the misguided victim who lends his watch, with which the fellow does his tricks!” (He lifted his lavender glove and shook it laughingly). “My hand has come back to me not much the worse. Ha-ha, I leave my revenge with you, Lieutenant Boyd! Mrs. Shaxton, I hear the mare whinnying. Forgive me, I must get away. Gentlemen, your most humble, obedient servant.”

He advanced quickly towards Matilda, but she, as she rose to meet him, said, “Oh, I will come up to the house with you, Sir William Heans.” She made her excuses, quick and greyly, and led the way to the steps. Heans simpered his grey chimney-pot at this one and that. The officers waved their preposterous little caps. Daunt, who had risen, bent his brisk back with a kind of tragic courtesy. Slowly up the steps went Matilda and Sir William, saying little, pale and tense.

“Can't we make him change his mind,” said Boyd. “It's such a pity, a jolly fellow like that. I'll hail him again, Daunt. If he's so set on the old ships, he must come on board.”

  ― 32 ―

“You would hardly think it,” said Daunt, bluntly, “but that poor fellow is a prisoner.”

“A prisoner!” They edged nearer to Daunt, tugging their whiskers, very pale and aghast.

“Heavens, man!” cried Boyd. “Why did you do that beastly business with him?”

Daunt was looking after them, ill now and yellow.

“A kindly feeling—well——” (He hesitated in a half-bitter manner). “Don't ask me! This place seems to have a curse of looseness for men in his position.”

The two officers watched the two figures—now smiling a little—pass in through the French-windows; pallor on their whiskered faces.