THE LIMPING HORSE.
Eve drew herself away with a cry of anger and alarm, and with sparkling eyes and flushed cheeks. At that moment her sister returned with Jane, and immediately Martin reassumed his hat with broad brim. Barbara did not notice the excitement of Eve; she had not observed the incident, because she entered a moment too late to do so, and no suspicion that the stranger would presume to take such a liberty crossed her mind.
Eve stood back behind the door, with hands on her bosom to control its furious beating, and with head depressed to conceal the heightened colour.
Barbara and the maid stooped over the unconscious man, and whilst Martin held a light, they dressed and bandaged his head.
Presently his eyes opened, a flicker of intelligence passed through them, they rested on Martin; a smile for a moment kindled the face, and the lips moved.
‘He wants to speak to you,’ said Barbara, noticing the direction of the eyes, and the expression that came into them.
‘What do you want, Jasper?’ asked Martin, putting his hand on that of the other.
The candlelight fell on the two hands, and Barbara noticed the contrast. That of Martin was delicate as the hand of a woman, narrow, with taper fingers, and white; that of Jasper was strong, darkened by exposure.
‘Will you be so good as to undress him,’ said Barbara, ‘and put him too bed? My sister will assist me in the kitchen. Jane, if you desire help, is at your service.’
‘Yes, go,’ said Martin, ‘but return speedily, as I cannot stay many minutes.’
Then the girls left the room.
‘I do not want you,’ he said roughly to the serving woman. ‘Take yourself off; when I need you I will call. No prying at the door.’ He went after her, thrust Jane forth and shut the door behind her. Then he returned to Jasper, removed his clothes, somewhat ungently, with hasty hands. When his waistcoat was off, Martin felt in the inner breast-pocket, and drew from it a pocket-book. He opened it, and transferred the contents to his own purse, then replaced the book and proceeded with the undressing.
When Jasper was divested of his clothes, and laid at his ease in the bed, his head propped on pillows, Martin went to the door and called the girls. He was greatly agitated, Barbara observed it. His lower lip trembled. Eve hung back in the kitchen, she could not return.
Martin said in eager tones, ‘I have done for him all I can, now I am in haste to be off.’
‘But,’ remonstrated Barbara, ‘he is your brother.’
‘My brother!’ laughed Martin. ‘He is no relation of mine. He is naught to me and I am naught to him.’
‘You called him your brother.’
‘That was tantamount to comrade. All sons of Adam are brothers, at least in misfortune. I do not even know the fellow’s name.’
‘Why,’ said Barbara, ‘this is very strange. You call him Jasper, and he named you Martin.’
‘Ah!’ said the man hesitatingly, ‘we are chance travellers, riding along the same road. He asked my name and I gave it him—my surname. I am a Mr. Martin—he mistook me; and in exchange he gave me his Christian name. That is how I knew it. If anyone asks about this event, you can say that Mr. Martin passed this way and halted awhile at your house, on his road to Tavistock.
‘You are going to Tavistock?’
‘Yes, that is my destination.’
‘In that case I will not seek to detain you. Call up Doctor Crooke and send him here.’
‘I will do so. You furnish me with an additional motive for haste to depart.’
‘Go,’ said Barbara. ‘God grant the poor man may not die.’
‘Die! pshaw! die!’ exclaimed Martin. ‘Men aren’t such brittle ware as that pretty sister of yours. A fall from a horse don’t kill a man. If it did, fox-hunting would not be such a popular sport. To-morrow, or the day after, Mr. Jasper What’s-his-name will be on his feet again. Hush! What do I hear?’
His cheek turned pale, but Barbara did not see it; he kept his face studiously away from the light.
‘Your horse which you hitched up outside neighed, that is all.’
‘That is a great deal. It would not neigh at nothing.’
He went out. Barbara told the maid to stay by the sick man, and went after Martin. She thought that in all probability the boy had arrived driving the gig.
Martin stood irresolute in the doorway. The horse that had borne the injured man had been brought into the courtyard, and hitched up at the hall door. Martin looked across the quadrangle. The moon was shining into it. A yellow glimmer came from the sick porter’s window over the great gate. The large gate was arched, a laden waggon might pass under it. It was unprovided with doors. Through it the moonlight could be seen on the paved ground in front of the old lodge.
A sound of horse-hoofs was audible approaching slowly, uncertainly, on the stony ground; but no wheels.
‘What can the boy have done with our gig?’ asked Barbara.
‘Will you be quiet?’ exclaimed Martin angrily.
‘I protest—you are trembling,’ she said.
‘May not a man shiver when he is cold?’ answered the man.
She saw him shrink back into the shadow of the entrance as something appeared in the moonlight outside the gatehouse, indistinctly seen, moving strangely.
Again the horse neighed.
They saw the figure come on haltingly out of the light into the blackness of the shadow of the gate, pass through, and emerge into the moonlight of the court.
Then both saw that the lame horse that had been deserted on the moor had followed, limping and slowly, as it was in pain, after the other horse. Barbara went at once to the poor beast, saying, ‘I will put you in a stall,’ but in another moment she returned with a bundle in her hand.
‘What have you there?’ asked Martin, who was mounting his horse, pointing with his whip to what she carried.
‘I found this strapped to the saddle.’
‘Give it to me.’
‘It does not belong to you. It belongs to the other—to Jasper.’
‘Let me look through the bundle; perhaps by that means we may discover his name.’
‘I will examine it when you are gone. I will not detain you; ride on for the doctor.’
‘I insist on having that bundle,’ said Martin. ‘Give it me, or I will strike you.’ He raised his whip.
‘Only a coward would strike a woman. I will not give you the bundle. It is not yours. As you said, this man Jasper is naught to you, nor you to him.’
‘I will have it,’ he said with a curse, and stooped from the saddle to wrench it from her hands. Barbara was too quick for him; she stepped back into the doorway and slammed the door upon him, and bolted it.
He uttered an ugly oath, then turned and rode through the courtyard. ‘After all,’ he said, ‘what does it matter? We were fools not to be rid of it before.’
As he passed out of the gatehouse, he saw Eve in the moonlight, approaching timidly.
‘You must give me back my ring!’ she pleaded; ‘you have no right to keep it.’
‘Must I, Beauty? Where is the compulsion?’
‘Indeed, indeed you must.’
‘Then I will—but not now; at some day in the future, when we meet again.’
‘O give it me now! It belonged to my mother, and she is dead.’
‘Come! What will you give me for it? Another kiss?’
Then from close by burst a peal of impish laughter, and the boy bounded out of the shadow of a yew tree into the moonlight.
‘Halloo, Martin! always hanging over a pretty face, detained by it when you should be galloping. I’ve upset the gig and broken it; give me my place again on the crupper.’
He ran, leaped, and in an instant was behind Martin. The horse bounded away, and Eve heard the clatter of the hoofs as it galloped up the lane to the moor.
Horse Cover Image courtesy of Sad horse by ilikeyourdad on DeviantArt