A FIGHT FOR LIFE

Before a month had passed I began to feel quite settled at the cottage.
My duties, though many, lay within my capacity, and were such as I
found pleasure in undertaking. It was impossible for me not to see
that Sir Francis Devereux had taken a great and, to others, an
unaccountable fancy to me; and occasionally he made such demands upon
my time that I found it hard to get through my work. But I never
grudged him an hour that I could honestly spare, for every day the
prejudice which I had felt against him grew less, and I began to
heartily like and pity him. Perhaps this change in my feelings towards
him arose chiefly from the fact that he was obviously an unhappy man.
The sorrow which was embittering my father’s life and clouding mine had
laid its hand with almost equal bitterness upon him. And was it not
natural? For more than twenty years he had never looked upon the face
or heard of the son whom he had loved better than any one else in the
world. The heir of Devereux, for all he knew, might have sunk to the
lowest depths of vice and degradation, and yet for all that, he must
bear the title and, if he chose, take up his abode in the home where
his ancestors had lived with honour for many centuries, and at the very
best there was a deep blot which nothing could ever efface. The
descendant of a long race of mighty soldiers had been publicly
pronounced a coward; and yet some day or other, by the inevitable law
of nature, he would become the representative of his family. To the
stern old soldier I knew well that the thought was agony, and I longed
to reassure and comfort him, as I most certainly could have done. But
the time was not yet come.

Naturally I saw a good deal of Maud Devereux and Lady Olive, much more
of the latter than the former, for she appeared to have taken a violent
fancy for Marian, and was often at the cottage. Conceit was never
amongst my failings, but of course I could not help noticing that the
times she chose for coming were those on which I was most likely to be
at home, and generally when I returned from my day’s work I found
Marian and her gossiping over the fire, or if I was early, indulging in
afternoon tea. She seemed determined to flirt with me, and I, willing
to be amused, let her have her own way. We were both perfectly aware
that the other was not in earnest, and we both–I particularly–took
care not to lapse into the sentimental stage. On the whole we managed
to amuse one another very well.

With Maud Devereux I made but little progress–in fact I feared
sometimes that she even disliked me. She was always the same–cold,
unbending, and apparently proud. It seemed impossible to win even a
smile from her, and the more friendly Lady Olive and I became the more
she seemed to stand aloof. Once or twice, when I had found myself
riding by her side, or alone with her for a minute, I had fancied that
her manner was changing a little. But before I could be sure of it,
Lady Olive would bear down upon us and challenge me to a race, or make
some mocking speech.

Why should it matter to me? I could not tell; yet always at such times
I knew that I wished Lady Olive a little further away. Cold and
disdainful though she was, a minute with her was more to me than hours
with Lady Olive. And yet she was the daughter of the man whom I hated
more than any living thing, and on whom I had sworn to be revenged
should I fail in the great object of my life.

One evening, when, tired and dusty and stiff, after many hours’ riding,
I walked into Marian’s little drawing-room to beg for a cup of tea
before changing my things, I had a great surprise. Instead of Lady
Olive, Maud Devereux was leaning back in an easy chair opposite my
sister. Maud, with the proud wearied look gone from her cold blue
eyes, and actually laughing a soft, pleasant laugh at one of my
sister’s queer speeches. I stepped forward eagerly, and there was
actually a shade of something very like embarrassment in her face as
she leaned forward and held out her hand.

“You are surprised to see me, Mr. Arbuthnot,” she said; “I wanted
Olive, and thought this the most likely place to find her.”

“We haven’t seen her to-day, have we, Hugh?” Marian remarked.

I assented silently, and spoke of something else. I did not want to
talk about Lady Olive just then.

For more than half-an-hour we sat there sipping our tea, and chatting
about the new schools which Sir Francis was building in the village,
the weather, and the close approach of cub-hunting. I could scarcely
believe that it was indeed Maud Devereux who sat there in my easy
chair, looking so thoroughly at home and talking so pleasantly. As a
rule, the only words I had been able to win from her were cold
monosyllables, and the only looks half-impatient, half-contemptuous
ones.

At last she rose to go, and I walked with her to the gate. It was
almost dusk, and I felt that under the circumstances I might offer to
walk up to the house with her. But I felt absolutely timid about
proposing what with Lady Olive would have been a matter of course.

I did propose it, however, and was not a little disappointed at the
passive indifference with which my escort was accepted. But what I
should have resented from Lady Olive I accepted humbly from her.

Side by side we walked through the park, and I could think of nothing
to say to her, nothing that I dared say. With Lady Olive there would
have been a thousand light nothings to bandy backwards and forwards,
but what man living would have dared to speak them to Maud Devereux?
Not I, at any rate.

Once she spoke; carelessly as though for the sake of speaking.

“What spell holds Mr. Arbuthnot silent so long? A penny for your
thoughts!” and I answered thoughtlessly.

“They are worth more, Miss Devereux, for they are of you. I was
thinking that this was the first time I had walked alone with you.”

“I am not Lady Olive,” she said, coldly. “Be so good, Mr. Arbuthnot,
as to reserve such speech for her.”

She quickened her pace a little, and I could have bitten my tongue out
for my folly. But she was not angry for long, for at the gate which
led from the park into the ground she paused.

Devereux Court, with its lofty battlements and huge stacks of chimneys,
towered above us–every window a burnished sheet of red fire, for the
setting sun was lingering around it, and bathing it with its last
parting rays as though loth to go.

“What a grand old place it is!” I said, half to myself; “I shall be
sorry to leave it.”

She turned round quickly, and there was actually a shade of interest in
her tone.

“You are not thinking of going away, are you, Mr. Arbuthnot? I thought
you got on so well with my uncle.”

“Ay, too well,” I answered bitterly, for I was thinking of my father
and hers. “There is a great work which lies before me, Miss Devereux,
and I fear that I shall do little towards it down here. Life is too
pleasant altogether–dangerously pleasant.”

“And yet you work hard, my uncle says,” she observed; “too hard, he
says, sometimes. You look tired to-night.”

I might well, for I had ridden over thirty miles without a rest; but I
would have ridden another thirty to have won another such glance from
her sweet blue eyes.

“A moment’s pleasure is worth a day’s work,” I said, recklessly, “and I
have had nearly an hour’s.”

She opened the gate and passed through at once with a gesture of
contempt.

“If you cannot remember, Mr. Arbuthnot, that I am not Lady Olive, and
that such speeches only appear ridiculous to me, I think you had better
go home,” she said, coldly.

I looked down–tall though I was, it was not far to stoop–into her
slightly flushed face, and through the dusky twilight I could see her
eyes sparkling with a gleam of indignation. She was right to say that
I had better go home–nay, I had better never have started. What had
come over me that I should find my heart throbbing with pleasure to be
alone with the daughter of the man whom I hated? It was treachery to
my father, and, as the thought of him wandering about in his weary
exile rushed into my mind, a sudden shame laid hold of me. I drew
myself up, and strode along in silence, speaking never another word
until we reached the gate leading on to the lawn. Then I opened it,
and raising my cap with a half-mechanical gesture, stood aside to let
her pass.

“Good-evening, Mr. Arbuthnot.”

“Good-evening, Miss Devereux.”

It might have been merely a fancy, but it seemed to me that she
lingered for a second, as though expecting me to say something else.
And though I was gazing fixedly over her head, I knew well that her
eyes were raised to mine. But I stood silent and frowning, waiting
only for her to pass on, and so she went without another word.

I watched her, fair and stately, walking with swift, graceful steps
along the gravel path. Then I turned my back upon the spot where she
had vanished, and, leaning against the low iron gate, let my face fall
upon my folded arms.

Of all the mental tortures which a man can undergo, what is there worse
than the agony of self-reproach? To be condemned by another’s judgment
may seem to us comparatively a light thing–but to be condemned by our
own, what escape or chance of escape can there be from that! And it
seemed to me as though I were arraigned before the tribunal of my own
conscience. As clearly as though indeed he stood there, I saw before
me the bowed form, and unhappy face of my poor father, looking
steadfastly at me out of his sad blue eyes, with the story of his weary
suffering life written with deep lines into his furrowed face. And
then I saw myself standing at the window of my rooms in Exeter, with an
oath ringing from my lips, and a passionate purpose stirring my heart,
and last of all I saw myself only a few minutes ago walking by her side
with stirred pulses and bounding heart–by her side, whose father,
curse him! was the man above all others whom I should hate–for was it
not his lying word which had driven Herbert Devereux from his home, and
blasted a life more precious to me than my own! At that moment a
passionate longing came upon me to stand face to face with him, the man
whom we had met in the moonlight on Exmoor, and tear the truth from his
lying throat.

“Mr. Arbuthnot!”

I started violently and turned round pale and agitated with the rage
which was burning within me. Maud Devereux stood before me–Maud, with
the pride gone out from her exquisite face, and the warming light of a
kindly sympathy shining out of her glorious eyes.

“I startled you, Mr. Arbuthnot?”

“I must confess that you did, Miss Devereux. I thought that I was
alone.”

I had drawn myself up to my full height, and was looking steadily at
her, determined that neither by word nor look, would I yield to the
charm of her altered manner. It was I now who was proud and cold; she
who was eager and a little nervous.

“I had a message to deliver to you, and I forgot it,” she said,
hurriedly. “I was to ask you to dine with us to-night.”

“Does Sir Francis particularly wish it?” I asked. “Because, if not, as
I have had a long day, and am rather tired—-”

She interrupted me, speaking with a sudden hauteur, and with all the
coldness of her former manner.

“I don’t know that he particularly wishes it, but he has brought Lord
Annerley home with him to talk over the Oadby Common matter, so you had
better come.”

Lord Annerley was the eldest son of a neighbouring landowner between
whom and myself, as the agent of Sir Francis Devereux, there had arisen
a friendly dispute as to the right of way over a certain common, and I
knew at once that I must not miss the opportunity of meeting him.

“Very good, Miss Devereux,” I answered, “I will go home and change my
things at once.”

“Without speaking to me?”

I turned abruptly round. Lady Olive had come softly over the smooth
turf, and was looking up into my face with a mischievous smile.

“How cross you both look!” she exclaimed; “have you been quarrelling?”

“Quarrelling! Scarcely,” I answered, laughing lightly. “Miss Devereux
and I have no subject in common which we should be likely to discuss,
far less to quarrel about. Wherever did you get such beautiful
chrysanthemums, Lady Olive?”

She buried her piquant little face in the mass of white and bronze
blooms, and then divided them.

“From the south garden. Aren’t they lovely! See, Mr. Arbuthnot, I
want you to take half of them to your sister if you don’t mind. I
don’t think you have any cut yet, and the colours of these are so
exquisite. Which do you like the better, Maud, the white or the
bronze?”

“The white, of course,” she answered, scarcely looking at them. “I
don’t care for the other colour at all.”

“And I prefer it,” Lady Olive went on, filling my outstretched hands.
“Mr. Arbuthnot, did I gather correctly from what you were saying when I
came up that you dine with us to-night?”

“I am to have that happiness, Lady Olive,” I answered; “and, if I don’t
hurry off now, I’m afraid I shall be late.”

“Then don’t stop another moment,” she laughed. “But, Mr. Arbuthnot—-”

I halted resignedly and turned round.

“Well?”

“Oh, nothing, only Maud and I expect you to show us this evening whose
taste you choose to follow.”

“In what respect?” I asked.

“Why, chrysanthemums, of course! Maud has chosen white, I have chosen
bronze. We shall both look out eagerly to see whose colours you wear
in your buttonhole to-night, If you wear a white one, I sha’n’t speak
to you all the evening. Mind, I warn you.”

“What nonsense you talk, Olive!” said Maud, carelessly, but with a
slight flush rising into her cheeks. “As if it could make the
slightest possible difference to me which colour Mr. Arbuthnot prefers
in chrysanthemums!”

There was a distinct vein of contempt in her concluding sentence, and
Lady Olive, noticing it, looked at us both in surprise.

“It is my positive conviction,” she declared, with mock seriousness,
“that, notwithstanding Mr. Arbuthnot’s high-flown repudiation, you two
have been quarrelling.”

Maud Devereux turned impatiently away, with a scornful shrug of her
shoulders, and walked slowly towards the house. Lady Olive started to
follow her, but at the gate she paused.

“Mr. Arbuthnot, come here, I want to speak to you.”

I retraced my steps, of course, and stood by her side.

“Well?”

She stood on tiptoe and whispered–quite an unnecessary proceeding, for
Maud was a dozen yards away.

“Mr. Arbuthnot, what have you and Maud been quarrelling about?”

I turned round so abruptly that our heads knocked together and my
moustache brushed her cheek.

“Mr. Arbuthnot!”

“It wasn’t my fault,” I assured her, truthfully.

“Sure!”

She was looking up at me with a half-coquettish, altogether inviting
smile.

“Quite. Shall I show you how it happened?” I asked, stooping down till
my face was very close to hers.

“What colour chrysanthemum are you going to wear this evening, Mr.
Arbuthnot?” she asked, rather irrelevantly.

“Can you ask? Bronze, of course.”

“Well, then–yes–I think you may show me–just so that it sha’n’t
happen again, you know,” she added, with laughing eyes.

And so I showed her, just as a matter of precaution, and received for
my reward a not very hard box on the ears, and a saucy, mock-angry
backward glance as she broke away from, me and hurried after Maud.
Then I strode across the park, angry with myself, yet fiercely
exultant, for I knew that Maud had been lingering in the shrubbery
alone, and had seen us. She would know now, if she did not before,
that the grief which she must have read in my face when she had
returned so unexpectedly was none of her causing, else had I never let
my lips rest for a second on Lady Olive’s cheek.

In less than an hour I was back at Devereux Court. The gong was
booming through the hall as I reached the drawing-room, and the little
party had already risen to their feet. Maud’s hand was resting on the
coat-sleeve of a man scarcely as tall as herself, with a fair,
insipid-looking face and weak eyes–whom I knew at once must be Lord
Annerley. Sir Francis, who was suffering from a bad attack of gout,
was leaning half on his stick, half on Lady Olive’s bare, white
shoulder; but, at my entrance, he withdrew his hand, and she stepped
back, rubbing her arm with a comical air of relief.

“Just in time, Arbuthnot! Come and give me your arm, there’s a good
fellow. Annerley, this is Mr. Arbuthnot, my agent.”

Lord Annerley returned my greeting with a slightly patronising air, and
then we walked across the hall to the dining-room, Sir Francis leaning
heavily on my shoulder.

Maud had noticed me only by the merest inclination of her stately head,
and during dinner-time she never addressed a single observation to me,
her attention seeming wholly absorbed by her companion. Lady Olive,
although at first she rattled on in her usual style, seemed always
watching for an opportunity to join in their conversation, and when at
last she found it seemed almost to forget my existence. They talked of
people whom I did not know, and subjects in which I had no interest,
but I was well content to be left alone. I was in no mood for talking,
and to answer Sir Francis’s few inquiries was quite enough for me.

We were about half-way through dinner when suddenly Sir Francis held up
his finger and cried “Hush!”

Every one stopped talking, and I who had also heard the sound sprung to
my feet. It came again in a second or two, three sharp reports from
the direction of the park.

“Poachers, by G–d!” exclaimed Sir Francis, angrily, “and in the home
spinneys, too! The cheeky rascals!”

I was half-way across the room before he had finished speaking.

“Take care of yourself, my boy,” he called out earnestly. “You’ll find
my revolver in the top drawer of my cabinet in the library. See that
it’s loaded. By Jove, I wish my foot was right! Annerley, I don’t
know whether you care about a row as much as I did when I was a
youngster; but if you do, pray go with Arbuthnot. My niece will excuse
you.”

Lord Annerley did not seem to find that keen prospect of pleasure in
the affray, which was doubtless proceeding, that Sir Francis would
certainly have done, for as I hurried from the room I heard him mutter
something about his boots being rather thin. An irresistible impulse
made me glance for a moment into Maud’s face whilst he was elaborately
excusing himself, and I was satisfied. A slight but distinctly
contemptuous expression had stolen into it.

I was scarcely a moment in the library, for the revolver was in its
place and loaded. As I hurried down the hall, Sir Francis hobbled out
of the drawing-room.

“Arbuthnot,” he called out anxiously after me, “I’ve just remembered
Atkins and Crooks are both away to-night; I gave ’em a holiday; so old
Heggs and his son must be alone in the home spinneys. Those damned
rascals must have known of it. I’ll send the men after you, but run,
or you’ll be too late!”

There was no need to tell me to run. Holding my revolver clenched in
my right hand, I dashed across the gardens toward the park, leaping
over the flower-beds, and using my left hand to vault over locked gates
and fences. I had scarcely reached the park when I heard the almost
simultaneous report of three or four guns, and immediately afterwards,
the moon shining in a cloudless sky showed me the figure of a man leap
from one of the dark belts of plantation at the head of the slope, and
make for the open country. My first impulse was to strike off to the
right hand and intercept him; but before I had gone half-a-dozen yards
out of my way, I changed my intention, for from the interior of the
plantation came a hoarse, despairing cry for help, followed by another
gunshot.

I was a good runner, and I strained every nerve to reach the spinneys.
But when at last, panting but eager, I dashed up the slope, and leaped
over the low stone wall, a fear came upon me that I was too late.

At first it was too dark to see anything, for the moon’s light could
not penetrate through the thickly-growing black fir-trees. But close
in front of me I could hear the sound of muttered curses and the
trampling of feet upon the dried leaves and snapping twigs. A dozen
hasty strides forward, and I burst through the bushes into a small
clearing, and found myself in the thick of the struggle.

On the ground, only a few feet from me, lay Heggs, groaning heavily,
with his leg doubled up under him. Close by his son was struggling
desperately with two powerfully-built, villainous-looking men, and on
the ground were stretched the forms of two others, one, an
under-keeper, writhing about in pain, and the other, whose face was
unknown to me, lying quite still, and evidently insensible. Two other
men were hastily filling a bag with their spoil, one holding it open,
and the other collecting the birds from a broken net on the ground and
throwing them in.

The sound of my rapid approach naturally changed the situation. The
two men struggling with young Heggs relapsed their grasp for a moment
to look round, and with a great effort he wrenched himself free, and
stood back panting. The others who were filling the bag started up as
though to run, but seeing I was alone hesitated, and one of them
snatching up a gun commenced hastily to load. But his companion, who
appeared to be the leader, yelled to him with an oath to put it down.

“Put your barker down, you fool!” he shouted. “We shall have the whole
blooming lot down here if we got using them any more. It’s only one of
the fine birds from the Court! We’ll soon settle him.”

One of the men who had been filling the bag sprang up, and, holding his
gun by the barrel, rushed at me. Suddenly he stopped and cowered back,
for he looked full into the dark muzzle of my revolver. I would have
spared him, but the odds were too desperate. There was a sharp report,
and the arm which held his weapon sunk helplessly to his side. He
staggered back with a howl of pain, and then, turning away, bounded
into the thicket.

“You are at my mercy,” I cried to the others. “Stay where you are, or
I shall fire.”

An oath was the only answer, and then two of the men rushed at me,
whilst another, turning away to escape, was seized by young Heggs, who
had been leaning, panting, against a tree. The desperate struggle
which followed I could never describe in detail. One of my assailants
I should certainly have shot through the heart, _but that in the sudden
shock of recognising him_ my hand swerved and the bullet only grazed
his cheek. Backwards and forwards, amongst the bushes and on the
ground, we struggled and fought. But for my Devonshire training in
boxing and wrestling, I must have been overpowered at once, for the men
who had attacked me were fighting like wild beasts for their
liberty–biting, kicking, and dealing out sledge-hammer blows, any one
of which had it struck me would have sent me down like a log. Heggs
could render me no assistance, for, wearied with his long struggle, he
was overmatched himself, and in desperate straits. Suddenly there came
the sound of voices, and feet clambering over the low stone wall. With
a giant effort the taller of the two men with whom I had been
struggling flung me backwards amongst the bushes, and bounded away,
leaping the wall and scudding away across the park. But in my fall I
never relaxed my grasp upon the other man, and together we rolled over
and over in a fierce embrace, his teeth almost meeting in my hand,
which held him firmly by the throat.

It was all over, for help had come. Nearly dozen of the servants and
stablemen from the Court poured into the enclosure, some taking up the
pursuit, some making preparations to carry Heggs and the other wounded
man up to the house, some tying together the hands, and zealously
guarding my prisoner, and all plying me with eager questions. My
recollection of all that directly followed is obscure. I remember
staggering across the park up to the Court, and meeting Sir Francis,
anxious yet thankful, in the courtyard. Then faint and giddy, the
blood pouring from a wound in my head down my shirt-front, and my
clothes torn and soiled, I sank down upon a couch in the hall, whilst
Sir Francis, with his own hand, strove to force some brandy down my
throat. A deadly, sickening unconsciousness was creeping over me;
there was a singing in my cars, and a buzzing in my head. But although
every one and everything around me seemed to my reeling senses confused
and chaotic, one person I saw as vividly as my eyes could show her to
me. First standing in the open doorway, then close to my side. I saw
her with white, pitying face, and an agony of terror in her dimmed blue
eyes, gazing at my shirt-front soaked with blood, and asking eagerly,
with quivering lips, where I was hurt. And my last effort was to force
a ghastly smile and to utter reassuring words, which died away
half-uttered and altogether incomprehensible upon my lips. Then black
darkness surged in upon me, blotting her out from my sight, and I
swooned.