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MAY MANNERING'S LOVE IDYLL
MAY MANNERING was standing a little back from a bend in the road leading from the village to the Hall. She was evidently waiting for some one, and the petulant tapping of her foot suggested that the some one was not punctual.
The girl was weary of these secret meetings at twilight. They were well enough in the days of preliminary courtship, but now Harry Warren and she were definitely engaged, she naturally wished to exhibit him at her chariot wheels. It was true he had enjoined her to keep their engagement secret, giving more or less specious reasons for his wish. And May obeyed him, in so far that she imparted the news to her girl friends under a strict pledge of silence. It was, in fact, a secret which most of the village maids in turn had promised not to tell.
Possible objections from Lord Arncliffe had hitherto provided Warren with an excuse. But the death of the old peer in no way altered matters. Indeed, in the few hurried interviews that had taken place between them, Warren had insisted on the necessity for concealment more strongly than ever. The girl was shrewd enough to realize that her lover, if his intentions were good, would only be too proud to proclaim her as his promised wife, but she allowed herself to be tricked — knowing she was tricked — by lame plea and shuffling evasion, after the manner of woman yesterday, to-day, and to-morrow.
She looked at her watch, first with a brief glance at the face, and then, lingeringly, at the back, the all too assertive gold case being blatant with turquoise forget-me-nots. It was a gift from Harry, and May who belonged to a class to which charms and tokens are an essential part of true love; the breaking of a sixpence an infallible method of ensuring constancy; which regard any ring as incomplete unless there be "Mizpah" upon it — May, then, looked on those forget-me-nots as among the beautiful things of the world.
Half an hour late! Twice he had failed her in the last week, and not another minute would she wait. And so, of course, she waited on, vowing to herself, as she had vowed before, that she would endure such treatment no longer.
From the direction of the Hall there came a faint thudding of horse's hoofs. He was coming at last! The expression of mortification and anger left her face, giving place to the pout of the offended maiden who is not unwilling to be coaxed and petted into good temper again. She went forward a little, sauntering with coquettishly downcast eyes. The hoof-beats sounded nearer, until, with a jerk, the horse was pulled up almost at her feet.
"Why, Miss May," said the voice of Wilson the groom, "I almost ran over you!"
"Is that you, Wilson? I was just taking a stroll, and I suppose my wits were wool-gathering, for I never heard you coming. By the way, you did not come to tell me the news as you promised you would."
"I came twice, miss," protested Wilson, "but you were out both times. Anyway, there isn't much news. I suppose you heard all about the inquest, and Lord Arncliffe's nephew turning up from America?"
"Oh, yes, I did hear about that."
"And of course," continued Wilson, "you heard how old Mr. Aingier was nearly murdered?"
"Yes, that is the sort of thing everybody hears. But how are affairs going generally? I suppose that stuck-up Miss Holt is putting on fine airs, now she has come into such heaps of money."
"Well, miss," answered Wilson, "people are saying some very queer things about her, and that detective chap from London watches her like a cat watching a mouse. Still, I must say the young lady is civil enough to all of us, though she doesn't seem quite so thick with Mr. Warren lately."
"Thick with Mr. Warren!" exclaimed May, shrilly. "What are you talking about?"
"Bless you, miss," said Wilson, dismounting, so that he might speak more confidentially, "any one with half an eye can see that the agent is sweet on her. It's my belief they were secretly engaged, for she used to be like honey to him, with her 'Please, Harry,' and 'Thank you, Harry.' I daresay, now she's got all this brass, she thinks she can look a bit higher. It's an easy matter to become 'my lady' or 'your grace' when you can put your hand on nigh a million."
Miss Mannering tossed her head. "Look higher, indeed!" retorted-she, scornfully, trying to keep the quiver of rage from her voice. "I don't think Mr. Warren would look at her, with her pale face and mincing airs, for all her money."
"Don't you believe it, miss," said Wilson. "Any one at the Hall can tell you he has been hanging after her for a long time. I don't say it wasn't because he felt pretty sure she would get a bit of a legacy from the old man. Nobody," with a sentimental leer, "could prefer Miss Holt to you. But he's a bad egg, is Mr. Harry, and it has made my blood boil many a time to think of the way he has been deceiving you."
All May Mannering's doubts came back to her, intensified a hundred-fold as she listened to Wilson. Warren's desire for secrecy, his continual excuses, pointed unerringly to wilful deceit. Nevertheless, she clung to the hope that he might be able to explain matters.
"I cannot allow you to speak of Mr. Warren in that way," she protested loftily. "You must know that he and I are engaged to be married, though it has not been made public."
"Yes, miss, I do know it, and very sorry I am. Why, if you were to ask Mary Brown or Betsy Spence at this moment, they'd tell you they were engaged to him too. And I should not be surprised if Polly Renwick believed the same story. I know his game — 'must keep it a secret,' says he. And so the silly lasses look down on the honest chaps who would make them good husbands, because they think the agent, with his fine clothes and his mixing with the gentry, is going to make ladies of them — d—n him!"
May began to sob, not softly, as she had always read a young lady should do when faced with proofs of her lover's perfidy, but with the primeval vigor of the country maid. She was, indeed, a little higher in the social scale of the village than the rivals Wilson had suggested, having spent a few years with an aunt in one of the big cities, and so acquired some knowledge of the piano and a few similar affectations of the higher life. But she knew in her heart that Harry Warren was immeasurably above her in station. And, if he were capable of playing fast and loose with other girls in the village, it might well be that he was only amusing himself with her.
"Don't cry, Miss May. Don't cry on account of a brute like that!" pleaded Wilson. "If you'd only let a poor fellow like me care for you, there should never a tear come into those pretty eyes again!"
May peeped through her fingers at him in blank amazement. Marry a groom, after she had flaunted her conquest of the agent in the faces of her girl friends! She had grown to regard herself as somebody quite superior, occupying a niche in the village Pantheon only just inferior to that of the daughters of the vicar, or the doctor. Yet, in sober reality, Wilson was not so much beneath her, and had there been no Harry Warren he might have proved acceptable enough, for he was stalwart of limb, and not without good looks. May had all the innate coquetry of the village belle. She was not disposed to resent admiration so patently honest, even though the admirer might be an inferior. Therefore, there was rather timidity than rebuke in the movement with which she drew away from him.
"You, Wilson?" she exclaimed.
"Yes, miss, me; but don't call me 'Wilson.' Call me 'Bob,' won't you?"
"Well, then, Bob," murmured Miss Mannering, with a bewildering if tearful smile. Her fury at Harry Warren's perfidy did not prevent her from being willing to do a little heart-breaking on her own account.
"Yes, me!" repeated Wilson, earnestly. "I know I am only a groom and no match for you; but I've got a bit of money laid by, and it mightn't be long before I could give you as many silks and satins as Mr. Harry Warren. Old Bill Higgs, the bookmaker at Alnwick, could tell a tale or two if he chose, and Master Harry may find himself in 'Queer Street' before long."
Wilson had drawn nearer to the girl, and now he held her right hand clasped tightly in his own. May did not resent this. She pretended to herself that she was sorry for the poor fellow, when, as a matter of fact, she felt no emotion save gratified vanity. And so she let him pour forth his impassioned story, standing with shyly averted head the while.
It was at this interesting stage of affairs that a scornful laugh caused them to fly apart guiltily.
Harry Warren, walking on the grass-grown path, had come upon them unheard; and it was he who had given that contemptuous guffaw as he passed them, without pausing in his stride.
"Sorry to have interrupted such a pretty little scene," he flung back over his shoulder.
May pushed Wilson from her with an angry gesture. "Go!" she cried impatiently, "go away, or I shall never speak to you again — yes, yes, I will see you to-morrow, but go now!" And without giving him time to reply she began to run after Harry's rapidly disappearing figure.
"Harry," she cried, "oh, Harry! Do stop! Harry!"
Warren laughed again. But he did not moderate his pace. May was fully aware that according to all the canons which govern these matters she ought to sink fainting by the roadside, and recover consciousness to find Harry bending over her in a frenzy of alarm, frantically beseeching her to forgive him; but she had doubts as to the efficacy of this method in real life, and preferred, therefore, to depend on her running powers.
"Oh, Harry!" she said, catching him at last, and clasping his arm between her two hands. "How can you be so unkind?"
"Unkind?" retorted Harry, sneeringly. "I think it was kindness itself not to interrupt you. When a gentleman comes to meet a girl, and finds her whiling away the time by spooning with a groom, he naturally concludes his presence is not required."
"Spooning!" repeated May, reproachfully. "How can you say such a thing to me, Harry?
There was a quiver in her voice that foreshadowed tears, but Warren seemed hardly amenable to that form of persuasion.
"If you think you can fool me by turning on the water-works," he said with brutal frankness, "you are very much mistaken. I am not blind. Why, the fellow had hold of your hand!"
"I know," said May, with hurt dignity, "but it was only just the moment you came up, and the man's manner seemed so strange that I was frightened. I really do believe he had been drinking."
"Wilson is a teetotaler," said Warren, curtly. May's comment was a somewhat unfortunate allusion from his standpoint.
"Well, then, the poor fellow must be wrong in his head. Why," with a little laugh, as if at the irresistible humor of recollection, "he asked me to marry him!"
"Well," shortly, "why don't you?"
"If you are joking," she said stiffly, "I think it very bad taste. A groom! Besides, he knows very well that I am engaged to you."
"Were," he corrected.
The girl's healthy red cheeks whitened and she stopped. "Harry," she said tremulously, and now there was no art in the quiver of her voice, "what does all this mean? You insisted upon our engagement being kept a secret, and you have made the most paltry excuses. Now you talk of our engagement being at an end. But I will not allow you to make the impertinence of that man Wilson the excuse. Why don't you tell the truth, and say you are hankering after Miss Holt?"
Warren was not entirely sorry that May herself had broached the subject. He imagined it would serve to smooth the way for him.
"Look here, May," he said, with a sudden access of sentiment not wholly assumed, "there is not a girl in all the world I think fit to wipe your shoes. And, as long as I live, I shall never love any other woman. But I am in the very deuce of a hole, and there is nothing excepting a marriage with Edith Holt that will get me out of it. Of course, dear, it need not make any real difference to us —"
May Mannering started as though a snake had bitten her.
"Thank you, Mr. Warren, for your good opinion of me," she almost screamed. "I am not the sort of person to run after other people's husbands, and when you are married to your heiress, you won't be troubled by me. But, before that time comes, there are some letters for Miss Holt to see which I think will interest her. I won't be thrown aside like an old glove for nothing."
Warren grew livid with fury. "By gad, if you do —" he began hoarsely.
"Well, and what if I do, Mr. Warren?" mocked the girl. She was on the verge of hysterics and ready to defy him utterly.
Warren saw he had made a mistake. He changed his tactics. "Forgive me," he said, dropping his voice to what he meant to sound like a tender whisper. "I'm so worried that I don't know half I am saying. But there, little girl, don't think I could ever give you up under any circumstances. If I cannot marry you, I can at least put a bullet through my head and end it all."
"Well, that would be less cowardly than marrying Miss Holt, just for the sake of her money," retorted May, softening a little, nevertheless, at the horrid picture of her lover stretched stark with a bullet in his brain. "But why need you marry Miss Holt, even if you are in difficulties? I am sure," with a languishing look, "I would be willing to share a crust with you."
Warren's ideas on diet inclined toward the stalled ox rather than the dinner of herbs, and he received this last suggestion without any marked enthusiasm. "You don't understand, dear," he said. "It is not that I have any idea of actually marrying Miss Holt. But, if it could be announced that I was engaged to her, I might secure time to find some way out of my troubles, and then it would be easy enough to break the whole thing off. You surely don't think I would give up my little rosebud for all the Edith Holts in the world?"
The little rosebud did not seem to be entirely convinced, though she was half ready to be befooled again. "I don't care what reports you spread, provided they are really necessary to get you out of your difficulties. But mark my words, Harry, if you don't act honorably by me, you will live to repent it."
Despite repeated rebuffs, Warren even yet regarded marriage with Edith as a matter which required only a little skilful engineering for its accomplishment. The various village beauties had succumbed so easily to his fascinations, he could not realize the possibility that he should prove anything but irresistible to Edith. He was incapable of appreciating the refinement of a well-bred woman, and he attributed Edith's coldness partly to maiden timidity, but in the main to pique on account of his various flirtations; for they had been good friends in the past, and he failed to realize how utterly he had disgusted her of late. So he gave May Mannering's arm a reassuring squeeze, telling himself the while that let him once come to an understanding with the heiress, all his rustic flames, May included, might go hang.
"Oh, Harry, dear," whispered the girl, coaxingly, "why don't you give up that horrid betting? I am sure it is the cause of all your troubles."
"What do you mean?" he demanded imperatively. His tone was so harsh that May drew back in alarm. She had introduced another specter, and a more affrighting one than liquor.
"Why," she faltered, "Wilson said that Higgs the bookmaker —"
Warren turned upon her with a burst of uncontrollable fury. He could be brave with a woman, and had regained much of his wonted truculence since Aingier's recovery became assured.
"So you have been discussing me with your friend the groom, have you?" he shouted, "plotting to ruin me —" He poured forth a volley of abuse. His intent was now so clear that the girl shrank away aghast, with her hands to her ears.
"Oh, Harry!" she gasped, "oh, Harry!"
"Now listen to me, my fine lady," he went on, his, voice taking a feminine note of sheer passion. "I have told you that unless I make up to Edith Holt I am ruined, and —"
The girl laid her hand over his mouth and dragged him quickly into the shadows. Not far away, on the side of the road, the red glow of a cigar shone out from the dusk, wavering with each onward movement of the smoker.
Warren stepped back still farther into the shrubbery. He gripped his companion's arm to enjoin silence, silently reviling the sudden passion which had betrayed him into the indiscretion of raising his voice.
They waited, and the glow of the cigar grew gradually brighter and brighter, until it passed them and disappeared. Warren breathed a sigh of relief. It must have been a long way off, after all, judging by the time it took to reach them. He could not be certain as to who had passed. The figure was too slight for that of Lester, but it might have been Lord Arncliffe's American nephew — the latter, most likely, judging by the aroma the cigar left behind it. Anyway, the man was evidently too distant to distinguish the words, and, thus reassured, Warren softened his tone toward the trembling girl. Presently, with a few honeyed falsehoods, he bade her farewell.
What he foolishly believed to be more important business demanded his attention. Edith had offered a reward of five hundred pounds for the discovery of Aingier's assailant, and Leigh the poacher, as a natural sequence, had respectfully requested the loan of a few pounds. Warren knew well enough that he was being blackmailed, that he might be sacrificed at any moment. But there was always the hope of staving things off until he raised a sufficient sum to tempt Leigh's cupidity. Once in possession of the books which alone could convict him, he was safe.
Meanwhile, the American, for Warren was right in his final surmise as to the identity of the person who came unheard and so inopportunely, walked on with the calmness of one engaged in the peaceful contemplation of nature.
But Warren was mistaken in supposing Bradshaw to be too far away to overhear his conversation. When a man shouts in a rage, it naturally excites attention, and when Bradshaw heard some one exclaim that "nothing save a marriage with Edith Holt can save me from ruin," he began to take an interest in the proceedings.
He recognized Warren's voice instantly. The words were startling enough to one who was bound up in the strange events at Arncliffe. It was no part of his mission to let the agent know that he had betrayed himself. And so, when the sudden hush of the strenuous tones showed that his approach had been detected, the American promptly marked time in military fashion, making it appear that he had been far more distant than he was in reality.
"So," he mused, "that surly skunk Warren is likely to be ruined if he doesn't marry Miss Holt? Well, as I don't think he will marry Miss Holt, I will bet dollars to cents he is ruined all right."