The Silver Thaw
The Silver Thaw
By R. E. Vernede
A silver thaw had set in. The icy rain fell so suddenly and so quickly that Masson felt his car skid on what had been a dry—almost a dusty—high-road before he was well aware of the cause. Two minutes later the imperative necessity of pulling up became apparent, and he came to a stop at the end of a hundred yards' slide.
"If it had been downhill," he thought to himself, "the depreciation on this particular four and a half horse-power de Dion would have been considerable. I suppose I'm in luck."
The luck, on second thoughts, was of a very dubious kind. A mist, following on the break of the frost, had already obscured the beauty of the night; the roadway seemed absolutely deserted, and the nearest approach to a village was, as Masson guessed, some five miles off. His lamps, shining upon what might have been a frozen canal between two high hedges, showed that he could as well have been twenty miles from a village for all chance he had of getting there either on foot or on wheels. Pulling out his watch, he found the time to be ten o'clock. He had been about half an hour on the road. Calculating that he had done some twelve miles, and that there were fifty separating the place he had dined at from the place he had intended to reach, he was still thirty-eight miles from the latter.
"No London for me to-night," he said, turning up his coat-collar. "This thaw may turn to rain and it may not. The point is, what am I to do if it doesn't?" He stood up in the car to prospect.
An answer came in lights that glowed yellow through the mist, from some house evidently that stood a little off the road to the left. They had been hidden until that moment by the hedge, and seemed all the nearer now for their suddenness. They meant shelter from that icy drip, possibly a bed for the night. There was no resisting the prospect. Masson climbed gingerly down, commended the car to Providence, and made for a white gate in the hedge that seemed to indicate the entrance to the drive. His fingers were so numbed that he could scarcely unlatch it.
Any one who has tried the business of walking in what is called—romantically enough—a silver thaw will know that romance is the last thing that occupies the mind of a person so engaged. The constant striving to remain perpendicular, the grovelling with unseizable earth forced upon a man who has sat down upon it with an unexpectedness that is outside all experience, the doubts as to whether any material progress can be made except on all fours, combine to keep the attention fixed upon practical things. Add the darkness of a clouded winter sky, a gathering mist, and a path—if it could be called a path—at once barely visible and totally unknown, and it will be clear that a man encountering these difficulties will be justified in wishing romance to the deuce. Masson wished it further before he had done with it that night.
The only warning that he had before he was plunged into it, willy-nilly, was the sound of a whistle, as of some one expressing surprise, from the high-road he had left. He imagined that it proceeded from some yokel who had come upon the deserted de Dion, and he sincerely hoped that the yokel would not have the time or inclination to overhaul its machinery. For a moment, indeed, with some of the yearning instinct of the motorist for his car, he thought of returning to it and warning the yokel off. The very act of trying to come to a decision, however, made his heels go from under him, and when he had got them under control again the decision was formed. It was to reach the house—or congeal.
Another five minutes' skidding and he reached it. The back of it apparently, for there was no door. The result of a polite hail was that a window was opened from overhead, and a voice—a girl's voice—said:
"Is it you?" She said it in a whisper, only just audible.
"Who?" returned Masson, a little surprised.
It was not, perhaps, an intelligent question, but it did not seem to justify what followed. The window was shut with a little shriek, and a pair—or two pairs—of sturdy arms closed about Masson's body. It did not require so much force as was used to bring him to the ground, his antagonist or antagonists on top of him. He explained as much with some warmth as he lay there, but only had the satisfaction of hearing one of the men say to the other—there were two, it seemed: "You tak' un by the lags, Mr. Board, and ef 'e tries kicken', Ah'll gi'e un a jog in the belly."
"Right y'are, Jenkins.… Now, sir, gently, if you please."
The last words were addressed to Masson, and he guessed, from the tone of reluctant respect, that the speaker was some house-servant. Probably the butler.
"All right," he said. "Only, if you're going to carry me, for Heaven's sake be careful. If you drop me, it's murder, mind. You'll be hanged for it."
"No fear, sir," said Mr. Board genially. "We won't hurt you, never fear. What the squire'll do is another matter, sir, as I dessay you guess. Ready, Jenkins?"
"Ah," said Jenkins, and moved forward with Masson's head. Mr. Board followed with his legs. In this manner, and with an unpleasant feeling that one or other of them would certainly slip, Masson made his untriumphal procession into the house.
He was dumped, brutally by Jenkins, respectfully by Mr. Board, on the Turkey-carpet of what—so far as he could see for the sudden glare of lights—was the large and armoured hall of a manor-house.
He lay for a moment on the Turkey-carpet with closed eyes. When he looked up there was a tall and irascible old gentleman standing over him with a heavy riding-whip.
"Stand him on his feet, Jenkins, and you stand by the door. Board, and see that he don't make a rush. Now, sir"—the old gentleman addressed himself to Masson with a most threatening countenance—"you're going to elope with my daughter—eh, what?"
Masson stared. "Going to elope with your daughter? Might I ask—can you explain to me what the meaning of this assault on me by your servants—I presume they're your servants—means?"
"You might," said the old gentleman caustically. "They had their orders, sir, from me, to bring you in neck and crop, sir—neck and crop, by gad! You didn't expect that when you came sneaking round here after my daughter—eh, what?" He thrashed the air significantly. Any excuse to offer before——"
Masson backed away a little towards a light but solid chair that stood near. It might serve as a weapon if this old madman attacked.
Mr. Board—a middle-aged man, unmistakably the butler—put his back against the hall door and stood rubbing his hands. Jenkins, a gaitered person, choked a guffaw. It seemed to Masson that, with three able-bodied persons opposed to him, he had better try the discreet before the valorous part.
"It seems to me," he said, raising his voice a little, "that the excuse should be offered to me. I can only imagine you're labouring under some delusion——"
"Ha!" said the old gentleman.
"Which I am quite willing to help to clear, so far as I am concerned. I haven't the least idea what you mean by accusing me of sneaking round after your daughter. I have never set eyes on your daughter. I don't know who she is or who you are. I came here off the high-road—perhaps I ought to say I'm motoring to London—because the roads are so slippery I couldn't get on. Seeing your lights, I thought I could get some assistance here."
"That's why you went round to the back of the house, eh?"
"My dear sir," said Masson impatiently, "are you aware that it's a pitch-dark night, that the back and the front of your house are equally strange to me, that the mistake I made in going to the back instead of the front is the kind of mistake any stranger trying to get here would make?"
He spoke with a good deal of indignation, by no means soothed to hear Jenkins snigger: "He, he! that's a good un. Et was all along of a mistake. He, he!" and the squire's reply, snorted insultingly:
"Look here, my young man, I knew you were a rogue. I didn't know you were a cur too. Likely story, ain't it? Motoring, eh? Never seen my daughter. What? Never seen John Clifton o' the King's Arms neither, I dare say? Well, I have. John Clifton knows me, and he knows I've got him in my pocket. So when you went and ordered a horse and trap for ten o'clock to-night, mentioning—hang your impudence—that you might be wanting it for a young lady you were going to elope with, John Clifton, he came round to me. 'He'll be waiting about ten-thirty to-night, under missy's window. That's the arrangement, squire.' John Clifton told me that. 'Ten-thirty,' said he, and, by gad, ten-thirty it is."
"I've never heard of John Clifton in my life," said Masson soothingly.
"Stick to your lie," snorted the squire.
"Stick to your mulish idiocy," returned Masson, equally enraged; "only, if you want to avoid making a drivelling fool of yourself, send for your daughter. I imagine she'll be able to inform you that you've made a mistake, so far as I'm concerned."
Whether the squire, thus braved, would have proceeded at once to carry out the intention his hands, twitching at the whip, suggested, Masson hardly knew. At that moment an elderly lady opened a door at the far end of the hall and entered.
"Oh, Reginald!" she cried.
"What is it?" asked the squire, turning at her.
"Is this the young man?"
"Is this the——" the squire choked. "No, it isn't. This is the young man who swears he isn't the young man. That's who this young man is. Wants me to call Judith down to verify him. I'll be——"
"Merely in justice to the young lady," said Masson scornfully, as the squire stopped for breath.
"Perhaps——" said the elderly lady, in a deprecating voice. "Possibly, Reginald, it would be fairer. You have never seen the young man before, have you? Judith——"
"Judith's a minx!" said the squire furiously.
"But she has never told a lie," said the elderly lady.
"Call her!" The squire rumbled the order, and the elderly lady fled.
"Judith, my dear, Judith!" Masson could hear her twittering to her charge as he leaned on the back of the chair which was to have served him for a weapon in case the squire had proceeded to extremities. He supposed the matter was now as good as ended, and could afford a smile at the disappointed expression of Jenkins, who was evidently the squire's principal backer in the scheme of force majeure. Mr. Board, indeed, had allowed a sigh, as of relief, to escape him at the new turn of affairs, and was for leaving his post at the door.
"Didn't I tell you to stay there?" said the squire sharply; and, observing Masson's smile, "Don't you imagine, my fine fellow, that you've escaped your thrashing yet. Ha!"
The last word was an acknowledgment of his daughter's arrival under the wing of the elderly lady. Masson looked at the girl with interest. She was tall and slender—a pretty girl. There was, Masson judged, some grounds for the squire's suspicions, for she was dressed for out of doors, in hat and furs, and seemed pale and upset. She avoided Masson's eyes.
"You wanted me, father," she said.
"No, I didn't; confound it!" said the squire rudely. "It was your aunt wanted you. This rogue"—he indicated Masson with his riding-whip—"wants to save his skin; says he isn't your man. Ha! What do you say?"
Masson waited in all serenity for her reply. She seemed to hesitate and gulp for words. It was excusable, Masson thought. The old curmudgeon had frightened the wits half out of her.
"What do you say?" roared the squire, again.
She twisted her hands together, took a step forward, and, in a trembling voice, addressing Masson:
"Oh, Dick!" she said fondly.
Masson became aware that the dropping of a pin might have been audible but for Mr. Board's respectful sigh of dismay at the door. For a second he doubted his full possession of his senses.
"What did you say?" he stammered.
"Oh, Dick! Why, why did you come? I wish——" she burst into gentle sobs.
Masson looked about him wildly. He felt a mere fool.
"My name is Henry," he explained—"Henry Masson."
Just so," said the squire grimly. "Martha, take Judith upstairs. Send her to bed. Quickly now; no talking. Now, sir" (to Masson as the door closed upon the two ladies), "are you going to take your thrashing standing up or lying down?" He had recovered his self-possession, and it was Masson who felt his leaving him. Only for a moment, however. Then, "Standing up," he said, and gave Jenkins, as that individual advanced to collar him, a kick that brought him to the ground. He seized the momentary advantage to dodge the squire's whip and to give a swing of the chair into Mr. Board's bread-basket. Mr. Board fell back—unfortunately, against the hall door, which was against Masson's chance of escaping. It is probable that the next five minutes offered as good an exhibition of rough-and-tumble fighting as the hall of the manor-house had ever been privileged to witness. Only superior agility enabled Masson to keep his end up, for, though Mr. Board's attack was reluctant, it was not devoid of cunning, and both the squire and Jenkins were bulls for fierceness. Indeed, Masson, panting hard, was having his chair wrenched from him by the latter, while he dodged the squire's attempts to clinch, when he felt the other door, through which the ladies had vanished, scrape his back. It gave him an idea, and he acted on it. Letting Jenkins have the chair at full grip, which sent him staggering backwards, Masson butted the squire, turned the handle, and was through. He hung on to the handle desperately, feeling for a key. There was none. The opposition forces had got their hold, and were forcing the door open.
It was at this crisis that the elderly lady again made her appearance. She came bustling into Masson's back, crying aloud, "She's gone! She's gone with the other young man! Oh, dear" (as she perceived Masson), "what is happening? Where is my brother?"
"In there," said Masson, and let go.
"Reginald!" she cried, as the squire came bouncing through. "Stop! It's not this young man. It's another young man; and Judith's gone. She got out of her bedroom window, and they're driving off now!"
"What?" cried the squire.
"Perhaps," said Masson politely, "you will now believe what I said."
He might as well have addressed the walls for all the attention he received. The squire had no sooner grasped the new situation than he was foaming for the front door, giving directions at the top of his voice.
"Put in the mare, Jenkins. Saddle Black Beauty. Tell the boy to ride for the police. Drat and confound this——"
Masson gathered that the squire's broken sentences signified that he had stepped out into the ice-paved night, with the inevitable results. However, he must have picked himself up, for his halloaing grew fainter.
"But how it will all end, Heaven only knows," said the elderly lady to Masson, in a despairing way.
"I'm afraid you're right," said Masson. "Good evening, madam."
The hall door was open, his late antagonists had disappeared, but since there was no knowing when they would return, or in what frame of mind, it was not wise to lose an opportunity. Stepping out into the darkness, Masson found that the silver thaw had turned to rain, and that the path, though slippery in parts, was safety itself to what it had been. He followed the winding drive until he came to the white gate and the road beyond. There, unnoticed, it seemed, and untouched, stood his car by the side of the road. He started it and moved on at a moderate pace. A couple of minutes later he neared two figures going at a plodding canter in the light of his lamps. The one that led was tall and large. "The squire," thought Masson, and hooted vigorously.
"A hundred pounds if you'll give me a lift," cried the squire. "I want to catch up a horse and trap—just ahead. Won't take you three minutes. A hundred pounds! Come!"
"For mercy's sake, sir, do!" said the other—Mr. Board, it was clear. Neither of the two seemed to know whom they were addressing; or else they had forgotten the events of the evening, which hardly seemed possible.
"I'm afraid—very sorry—but I can't stop," said Masson politely. He bore them no grudge, on the whole; but, having witnessed the squire in the fulness of his raging, he felt no desire to cumber himself with him any more. It would be conniving at manslaughter. "Quite impossible," he repeated, as he whizzed by them.
He put on speed, turned a bend of the highway a minute and a half later, and pulled up just in time to avoid not mere connivance, but actual committal of manslaughter. For there, in the very centre of the road, was the horse and trap which the others were so anxious to come up with. Only it was no longer a horse and trap united, but a horse and a trap quite separate entities—of which, moreover, the trap lay on one side, minus a wheel and with broken shafts.
So much Masson's lights showed him as he came to a stop just in time. A little shriek that arose at the same moment from the bank at the side of the road revealed more.
"Oh, Dick, is it—father?"
"No," said Mr. Masson. With every wish to be neutral in this family affair, he could not resist giving so much consolation. A young man, who had, it seemed, been divided between soothing the author of the little shriek and holding on to the frightened horse—not altogether a simple division of labour—came forward at this. "Excuse me, sir," he said to Masson: "I don't know who you are, but——"
"Oh, Dick, it's the other young man—Mr.—Mr. Henry." The squire's daughter spoke from the bank.
"Henry Masson," said that gentleman; "not Dick! I should have been obliged," he continued, with a good deal of urbanity, "if you could have mentioned that fact half an hour ago." He bore the squire's daughter no grudge, on the whole, but he felt that he was entitled to that small piece of irony at least. It was not altogether amusing to be "the other young man."
The young man—the real Dick—had apparently received only a partial account of the evening's proceedings.
"I'm afraid I don't understand," he said frankly. "I know something went wrong up at the house—Judy was telling me just as our horse came down—confound that ice thaw! The squire mistook you for me, didn't he?"
"Well," said Masson, "the squire couldn't very well help making the mistake when——" A fierce bellowing not far in the rear interrupted him. "That is the squire, I suppose," he went on. "I passed him a couple of minutes ago. He seemed anxious to come up with you."
"Good heavens!" said the young man. "Look here, sir. I don't know if you know the state of affairs. This lady and I wish to get married. You see what's happened? Cart smashed. If you could give us a lift——"
He spoke very pleasantly and yet earnestly. Masson bore no grudge against him. As he hesitated, the squire's daughter came from the hedge bank, where she had been sitting, into the light of his lamps.
"You will forgive me, won't you?" she said winningly. "It was my only chance of getting away. I was frantic." She looked very piteous and pretty in the light of the lamps. "You will, won't you?" she repeated.
"Certainly," said Masson; "there's nothing to forgive. Pray get in. I ought to think myself lucky to have been the young man, if it was only for ten minutes."
"Come, Dick—quick!" cried the squire's daughter.
The young man let the horse go and climbed into the car.
"Just in time, I think," he said, as Masson backed a little and slipped the car past the fallen trap to a loud chorus of "Stop, you rogue!"
"Good night, squire!" they all cried, as they went ahead through the thin, falling rain.
Later on, when Masson accepted an invitation to be best man at the wedding of Mr. Richard Castle with Miss Judith Trelawney, he realised that he bad not come so badly out of that silver thaw. He felt magnanimous, in fact.