MALDUKE SETS HIS TRAP.
Is it your moral of life?
Such a web simple and subtle,
Weave we on earth here in impotent strife,
Backward and forward each throwing his shuttle,
Death ending all with a knife!"—Browning.
As the two friends sat at breakfast, Tom related the incident that the sight of Gwyneth's face had recalled.
"Hearing that you were engaged with some meeting or other, and the doctor being over at O'Lochlan's, I strolled down to the Dowlings'. They had a score or two of these precious people in to their 'Monthly Social,' as they called it."
"It's very good of Dowling," said Frank. "He only half likes it all. He has certain old-fashioned notions about the movement."
"So I should think. He talked pretty straight to one or two last night. Mrs. Bowling and her pretty daughter," continued Tom, "gathered the women into the big kitchen, explaining some kind of new-fangled style of sewing. The men were with Bowling smoking on the verandah.
"One of them—named Malduke, I think—was treating the company to some wild rhodomontade of a lightly-flavoured socialistic order. Bowling set the fellow down properly. The man did not take it kindly, and I noted that one or two seemed to sympathize with him.
"Those confounded mosquitoes will always make for me," Tom continued. "As they were particularly aggressive, and I did not desire to be drawn into conversation, in which case I might have spoken my mind too freely, I withdrew to the other end of the verandah, and enjoyed my pipe behind some creepers with less molestation from human and insectile bores. The window of a little room off the parlour," continued Tom, "was open close to me."
"That is Eva Dowling's apartment," remarked Frank. "I must have dozed. I was aroused by the sense of some one moving beside me. Lo and behold! our socialistic friend was in the room examining a silver pocket-case. As he held it near a turned-down lamp beside the window, the light fell on two portraits, painted on ivory. One was that of an elderly lady, and the other, that very girl with the striking face, whom, in this place where everything is topsy-turvy, you set to milk cows and feed pigs."
"Gwyneth Elms!" said Frank. "But what on earth was the fellow doing in Eva's room?"
"Wait and you shall hear. The stupid fellow hurriedly kissed the portrait, whipped out his knife, quick as lightning removed the miniatures, and substituted two photographs. Closing the case he deposited it carefully on a shelf containing a lot of girls' books and nicknacks. In a moment he was out of the room.
"Now what did all that mean? Some devilment, I'll be bound, for there was a wicked expression on the scoundrel's face all the while.
"When I rejoined the motley company I was glad to find Travers amongst them. He expressed regret that he had to go to Gumford next day. Dowling said that he, too, ought to pay a visit to the Bank, but the old horse, Peter, was ailing.
"Travers offered to drive him. Dowling remarked, however, that he had another engagement, and suggested that his daughter could do his business, and it was arranged that Travers should give her a lift.
"'Deuced lucky fellow,' I whispered him afterwards."
"You were on the wrong scent there. He's head over ears in love with some one else."
"'Don't be a fool,' he replied, 'she's only a child. If it were some one else whom you do not know, then you might envy me my drive. I'll introduce you to-morrow. But I'm glad to oblige the Dowlings. Eva is a sensible piece of goods, too; does half the business in Gumford and on the farm. Her parents slave in the same way, yet are as refined as they are plucky.'"
Though frank affected to treat the incident lightly, it set him thinking.
"Come and have a sail on the lake," he suggested. "I am going to take a holiday on your account. We will ask Miss Maud to come too."
"Are you and she still carrying on?" asked Tom.
"None of your nonsense. Lord. We never did and never shall make love. We are devoted to——"
"Each other. Yes, I know all about it, old fellow. You still make believe. Happy innocents!"
Smiting his friend on the chest, and bidding him not make senseless suggestions, Frank with his companion jumped into a car, pressed a button, and were in an instant gliding swiftly towards the lake.
Gwyneth had promised to spend the morning at Mrs. Dowling's, and to read to the old lady the Laureate's latest poem. The girl's heart was ill attuned for social intercourse. As she walked across the fields, the fragrance of the fresh-mown grass had no charm for her.
Catching sight of Malduke at work in the field, she turned aside and, further on, sat for a moment on one of the benches, set at every few hundred yards beside the unfenced roadways. Scarce had she seated herself than she observed a high dog-cart, with tandem team, that she knew well, rattling along towards the spot where she sat. It was too late to move.
Could she believe her eyes? There sat Travers with the laughing, evidently delighted, Eva Dowling beside him. Since so often Gwyneth had scolded him for noticing her in public, the youth did not draw rein, but, smiling, doffed his hat, while Eva waved her hand towards the girl. A cloud of dust from the horses' feet circling at that moment into a little whirlwind, enveloped her. The girl's heart beat fast. Had the horrid sister instructed him to insult her? Was he subservient? Already interested in this child of the forest he had picked up.
"Excuse my intrusion, Miss Elms," said Malduke, appearing at this juncture with a hay-fork over his shoulder.
"I do not excuse it. Be careful." Then, almost savagely, "You remember what happened last time we met!"
"I have something very important to tell you," he urged, "something you ought to know. Gwyneth," he continued, with earnestness, "though you rebuff me, I cannot calmly see you scorned by another."
"What do you mean?" said she, her cheeks flushing.
"I mean this," Malduke answered hurriedly. "Travers Courtenay has long hesitated as to whether to give his affections to you or to Miss Dowling. His friends, as you may know, have brought pressure to bear. Last night he virtually settled matters with Miss Dowling and her parents. I was there; saw him kiss her in the garden; and, listen,"—for Gwyneth was hurrying away—"I saw her later in her own room—the window was open—imprinting a kiss on the silver case you once owned, which now contains his portrait and hers, side by side. I could not help seeing it."
"It is a lie," replied the girl, passionately. "You have concocted this story to make mischief. I know," she continued, "that Eva has not my silver case."
"No," was the reply; "she placed it—I could not avoid observing—on the top of a little book-case hanging on the wall."
"I do not believe one word you say." She stamped her foot petulantly on the ground.
"Were you blind just now?" the man hissed. "Even before the dust from his horses' feet smothered you. Can you not see he despises you—as a poor man's daughter? that they both enjoyed the fun?"
"That again is untrue. But I will not discuss it with you. I will listen no longer to your base suggestions." And Gwyneth hurried along the road towards Heatherside.
"You'll find your property on the little book-case," called he after her.
"The iron is entering into her soul now," he muttered, walking away. "Serve her right. She'll be glad to turn from her gilded lover to the arms of the simple champion of the People, humble though he be. After all," he soliloquized, tossing the hay almost jubilantly, "she might have a better chance of being a fine lady, mistress of all she surveys, with me for her husband, than as the wife of the great Travers. The ground on which he stands is mined."