Some moments elapsed before Barbara recovered her surprise, then she spoke a word of encouragement to Eve, who was in an ecstasy of terror, and tried to disengage herself from her arms, and master the frightened horse sufficiently to allow her to descend. A thorn tree tortured by the winds stood solitary at a little distance, at a mound which indicated the presence of a former embankment. Barbara brought the cob and gig to it, there descended, and fastened the horse to the tree. Then she helped her sister out of the vehicle.
‘Do not be alarmed, Eve. There is nothing here supernatural to dismay you, only a pair of farmers who have been drinking, and one has tumbled off his horse. We must see that he has not broken his neck.’ But Eve clung to her in frantic terror, and would not allow her to disengage herself. In the meantime, by the sickle moon, now sailing clear of the clouds, they could see that the first rider had reined in his horse and turned.
‘Jasper!’ he called, ‘what is the matter?’
No answer came. He rode back to the spot where the second horse had fallen, and dismounted.
‘What has happened?’ screamed the boy. ‘I must get down also.’
The man who had dismounted pointed to the white stone and said, ‘Hold the horse and stay there till you are wanted. I must see what cursed mischance has befallen Jasper.’
Eve was somewhat reassured at the sound of human voices, and she allowed Barbara to release herself, and advance into the road.
‘Who are you?’ asked the horseman.
‘Only a girl. Can I help? Is the man hurt?’
‘Hurt, of course. He hasn’t fallen into a feather bed, or—by good luck—into a furze brake.’
The horse that had fallen struggled to rise.
‘Out of the way,’ said the man, ‘I must see that the brute does not trample on him.’ He helped the horse to his feet; the animal was much shaken and trembled.
‘Hold the bridle, girl.’ Barbara obeyed. Then the man went to his fallen comrade and spoke to him, but received no answer. He raised his arms, and tried if any bones were broken, then he put his hand to the heart. ‘Give the boy the bridle, and come here, you girl. Help me to loosen his neck-cloth. Is there water near?’
‘None; we are at the highest point of the moor.’
‘Damn it! There is water everywhere in over-abundance in this country, except where it is wanted.’
‘He is alive,’ said Barbara, kneeling and raising the head of the prostrate, insensible man. ‘He is stunned, but he breathes.’
‘Jasper!’ shouted the man who was unhurt, ‘for God’s sake, wake up. You know I can’t remain here all night.’
‘This is desperate. I must press forward. Fatalities always occur when most inconvenient. I was born to ill-luck. No help, no refuge near.’
‘I am by as help; my home not far distant,’ said Barbara, ‘for a refuge.’
‘O yes—_you_! What sort of help is that? Your house! I can’t diverge five miles out of my road for that.’
‘We live not half an hour from this point.’
‘O yes—half an hour multiplied by ten. You women don’t know how to calculate distances, or give a decent direction.’
‘The blood is flowing from his head,’ said Barbara: ‘it is cut. He has fallen on a stone.’
‘What the devil is to be done? I cannot stay.’
‘Sir,’ said Barbara, ‘of course you stay by your comrade. Do you think to leave him half dead at night to the custody of two girls, strangers, on a moor?’
‘You don’t understand,’ answered the man; ‘I cannot and I will not stay.’ He put his hand to his head. ‘How far to your home?’
‘I have told you, half-an-hour.’
‘Honour bright—no more?’
‘I said, half-an-hour.’
‘Good God, Watt! always a fool?’ He turned sharply towards the lad who was seated on the stone. The boy had unslung a violin from his back, taken it from its case, had placed it under his chin, and drawn the bow across the strings.
‘Have done, Watt! Let go the horses, have you? What a fate it is for a man to be cumbered with helpless, useless companions.’
‘Jasper’s horse is lame,’ answered the boy, ‘so I have tied the two together, the sound and the cripple, and neither can get away.’
‘Like me with Jasper. Damnation—but I must go! I dare not stay.’
The boy swung his bow in the moonlight, and above the raging of the wind rang out the squeal of the instrument. Eve looked at him, scared. He seemed some goblin perched on the stone, trying with his magic fiddle to work a spell on all who heard its tones. The boy satisfied himself that his violin was in order, and then put it once more in its case, and cast it over his back.
‘How is Jasper?’ he shouted; but the man gave him no answer.
‘Half-an-hour! Half an eternity to me,’ growled the man. ‘However, one is doomed to sacrifice self for others. I will take him to your house and leave him there. Who live at your house? Are there many men there?’
‘There is only old Christopher Davy at the lodge, but he is ill with rheumatics. My father is away.’ Barbara regretted having said this the moment the words escaped her.
The stranger looked about him uneasily, then up at the moon. ‘I can’t spare more than half-an-hour.’
Then Barbara said undauntedly, ‘No man, under any circumstances, can desert a fellow in distress, leaving him, perhaps, to die. You must lift him into our gig, and we will convey him to Morwell. Then go your way if you will. My sister and I will take charge of him, and do our best for him till you can return.’
‘Return!’ muttered the man scornfully. ‘Christian cast his burden before the cross. He didn’t return to pick it up again.’
Barbara waxed wroth.
‘If the accident had happened to you, would your friend have excused himself and deserted you?’
‘Oh!’ exclaimed the man carelessly, ‘of course _he_ would not.’
‘Yet you are eager to leave him.’
‘You do not understand. The cases are widely different.’ He went to the horses. ‘Halloo!’ he exclaimed as he now noticed Eve. ‘Another girl springing out of the turf! Am I among pixies? Turn your face more to the light. On my oath, and I am a judge, you are a beauty!’ Then he tried the horse that had fallen; it halted. ‘The brute is fit for dogs’ meat only,’ he said. ‘Let the fox-hounds eat him. Is that your gig? We can never lift my brother——’
‘Is he your brother?’
‘We can never pull him up into that conveyance. No, we must get him astride my horse; you hold him on one side, I on the other, and so we shall get on. Come here, Watt, and lend a hand; you help also, Beauty, and see what you can do.’
With difficulty the insensible man was raised into the saddle. He seemed to gather some slight consciousness when mounted, for he muttered something about pushing on.
‘You go round on the further side of the horse,’ said the man imperiously to Barbara. ‘You seem strong in the arm, possibly stronger than I am. Beauty! lead the horse.’
‘The boy can do that,’ said Barbara.
‘He don’t know the way,’ answered the man. ‘Let him come on with your old rattletrap. Upon my word, if Beauty were to throw a bridle over my head, I would be content to follow her through the world.’
Thus they went on; the violence, of the gale had somewhat abated, but it produced a roar among the heather and gorse of the moor like that of the sea. Eve, as commanded, went before, holding the bridle. Her movements were easy, her form was graceful. She tripped lightly along with elastic step, unlike the firm tread of her sister. But then Eve was only leading, and Barbara was sustaining.
For some distance no one spoke. It was not easy to speak so as to be heard, without raising the voice; and now the way led towards the oaks and beeches and pines about Morwell, and the roar among the branches was fiercer, louder than that among the bushes of furze.
Presently the man cried imperiously ‘Halt!’ and stepping forward caught the bit and roughly arrested the horse. ‘I am certain we are followed.’
‘What if we are?’ asked Barbara.
‘What if we are!’ echoed the man. ‘Why, everything to me.’ He put his hands against the injured man; Barbara was sure he meant to thrust him out of the saddle, leap into it himself, and make off. She said, ‘We are followed by the boy with our gig.’
Then he laughed. ‘Ah! I forgot that. When a man has money about him and no firearms, he is nervous in such a blast-blown desert as this, where girls who may be decoys pop out of every furze bush.’
‘Lead on, Eve,’ said Barbara, affronted at his insolence. She was unable to resist the impulse to say, across the horse, ‘You are not ashamed to let two girls see that you are a coward.’
The man struck his arm across the crupper of the horse, caught her bonnet-string and tore it away.
‘I will beat your brains out against the saddle if you insult me.’
‘A coward is always cruel,’ answered Barbara; as she said this she stood off, lest he should strike again, but he took no notice of her last words, perhaps had not caught them. She said no more, deeming it unwise to provoke such a man.
Presently, turning his head, he asked, ‘Did you call that girl—Eve?’
‘Yes; she is my sister.’
‘That is odd,’ remarked the man. ‘Eve! Eve!’
‘Did you call me?’ asked the young girl who was leading.
‘I was repeating your name, sweet as your face.’
‘Go on, Eve,’ said Barbara.
The path descended, and became rough with stones.
‘He is moving,’ said Barbara. ‘He said something.’
‘Martin!’ spoke the injured man.
‘I am at your side, Jasper.’
‘I am hurt—where am I?’
‘I cannot tell you; heaven knows. In some God-forgotten waste.’
‘Do not leave me!’
‘You promise me?’
‘With all my heart.’
‘I must trust you, Martin,—trust you.’
Then he said no more, and sank back into half-consciousness.
‘How much farther?’ asked the man who walked. ‘I call this a cursed long half-hour. To women time is nought; but every moment to me is of consequence. I must push on.’
‘You have just promised not to desert your friend, your brother.’
‘It pacified him, and sent him to sleep again.’
‘It was a promise.’
‘You promise a child the moon when it cries, but it never gets it. How much farther?’
‘We are at Morwell.’
They issued from the lane, and were before the old gatehouse of Morwell; a light shone through the window over the entrance door.
‘Old Davy is up there, ill. He cannot come down. The gate is open; we will go in,’ said Barbara.
‘I am glad we are here,’ said the man called Martin; ‘now we must bestir ourselves.’
Thoughtlessly he struck the horse with his whip, and the beast started, nearly precipitating the rider to the ground. The man on it groaned. The injured man was lifted down.
‘Eve!’ said Barbara, ‘run in and tell Jane to come out, and see that a bed be got ready at once, in the lower room.’
Presently out came a buxom womanservant, and with her assistance the man was taken off the horse and carried indoors.
A bedroom was on the ground-floor opening out of the hall. Into this Eve led the way with a light, and the patient was laid on a bed hastily made ready for his reception. His coat was removed, and Barbara examined the head.
‘Here is a gash to the bone,’ she said, ‘and much blood is flowing from it. Jane, come with me, and we will get what is necessary.’
Martin was left alone in the room with Eve and the man called Jasper. Martin moved, so that the light fell over her; and he stood contemplating her with wonder and admiration. She was marvellously beautiful, slender, not tall, and perfectly proportioned. Her hair was of the richest auburn, full of gloss and warmth. She had the exquisite complexion that so often accompanies hair of this colour. Her eyes were large and blue. The pure oval face was set on a delicate neck, round which hung a kerchief, which she now untied and cast aside.
‘How lovely you are!’ said Martin. A rich blush overspread her cheek and throat, and tinged her little ears. Her eyes fell. His look was bold.
Then, almost unconscious of what he was doing, as an act of homage, Martin removed his slouched hat, and for the first time Eve saw what he was like, when she timidly raised her eyes. With surprise she saw a young face. The man with the imperious manner was not much above twenty, and was remarkably handsome. He had dark hair, a pale skin, very large, soft dark eyes, velvety, enclosed within dark lashes. His nose was regular, the nostrils delicately arched and chiselled. His lip was fringed with a young moustache. There was a remarkable refinement and tenderness in the face. Eve could hardly withdraw her wondering eyes from him. Such a face she had never seen, never even dreamed of as possible. Here was a type of masculine beauty that transcended all her imaginings. She had met very few young men, and those she did meet were
somewhat uncouth, addicted to the stable and the kennel, and redolent of both, more at home following the hounds or shooting than associating with ladies. There was so much of innocent admiration in the gaze of simple Eve that Martin was flattered, and smiled.
‘Beauty!’ he said, ‘who would have dreamed to have stumbled on the likes of you on the moor? Nay, rather let me bless my stars that I have been vouchsafed the privilege of meeting and speaking with a real fairy. It is said that you must never encounter a fairy without taking of her a reminiscence, to be a charm through life.’
Suddenly he put his hand to her throat. She had a delicate blue riband about it, disclosed when she cast aside her kerchief. He put his finger between the riband and her throat, and pulled.
‘You are strangling me!’ exclaimed Eve, shrinking away, alarmed at his boldness.
‘I care not,’ he replied, ‘this I will have.’
He wrenched at and broke the riband, and then drew it from her neck. As he did so a gold ring fell on the floor. He stooped, picked it up, and put it on his little finger.
‘Look,’ said he with a laugh, ‘my hand is so small, my fingers so slim—I can wear this ring.’
‘Give it me back! Let me have it! You must not take it!’ Eve was greatly agitated and alarmed. ‘I may not part with it. It was my mother’s.’
Then, with the same daring insolence with which he had taken the ring, he caught the girl to him, and kissed her.