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CHAPTER IV

It was what Mrs. Barnard, of Riding Wood Farm, called her lazy afternoon. Tired after her day's work, which began at five, she loved Saturday afternoon, which she devoted—from three o'clock till six—more or less to her week's mending. "More or less" because there was tea to get, and other little things invariably turned up to be done. Besides, those among Mrs. Barnard's friends who could take their freedom on Saturday afternoons, often dropped in for a gossip then, or to ask advice from the farmer's wife, a wise and large-hearted woman whose ruddy apple face beamed with kindness for all the world. "It's easy to be kind to folks, when you're happy yourself," she said; and Mrs. Barnard was happy. She loved her home and her work and her friends. She thought her silent, reserved husband, who had been a soldier, the best man living, and adored her one child, Margaret, known to those whom it concerned as Poppet.

While Mrs. Barnard mended the socks of Thomas, her husband and Poppet, her daughter, the little girl sat in a low chair beside her mother in what they called "the arbour," sewing doll's clothes. The arbour was a kind of rough, rustic pergola, which Tom Barnard had made the year of his marriage—the year in which, at the suggestion of his late Colonel, Sir Ian Hereward, Mr. Forestier had taken Barnard on as a farmer in the home farm of Riding Wood. That same year Tom and Rose, his wife, had planted grape-vines and honeysuckle and clematis to climb over the arbour, and all had flourished as if they were glad to encourage the young couple. Now, the happiness and the creepers were seven years old together; the creepers gave a deep green shade to the arbour, and the happiness gave sunshine to the whole farm.

Poppet was a year younger than the arbour, and it was her favourite seat, as well as her mother's. The farmhouse standing on a hill, and the embowered pergola leading out from the front door, those sitting on the sheltered rustic seats could see wagons stop or pass at the gate. They could also see any one coming up the path; and for a view they could look across a dip up to deep masses of forest. Over the tops of trees rose the crown of a stone tower, built by the late Mr. Forestier's father as a viewpoint. From the balcony of the tower, reached by a winding stairway which ran outside, several counties could be seen, and an ocean of waving blue, with a silver glitter on the horizon that meant the sea: a famous view; but Mrs. Barnard much preferred her own homelike outlook from the arbour. In the early days of her marriage, any one was allowed to go up into the tower; but tramps had taken advantage of its shelter, and Mr. Forestier had ordered it to be locked up. Only his widow, the Herewards, and the tenants of Riding Wood Farm had keys, so far as Rose knew. The Herewards because they were intimate friends as well as neighbours, and loved the view, and the Barnards because it was one of Tom's duties to look into the tower rooms now and then, and see that the place was kept in repair. Before Poppet was born, Rose used to go up with him by moonlight sometimes, and hand in hand they would look out over the blue and silver world, telling each other that they were the happiest couple in it, as romantically as if they had been poets, instead of farmers. But now, Mrs. Barnard, though just as happy and loving, took life a little more prosaically. That was why she preferred her own arbour and her own view, and never went to the tower by moonlight or any other light.

"Mummy, here comes Craigie," chirped Poppet, looking up from her doll's blouse, and down through the pergola toward the gate.

"Does she? But you mustn't say Craigie. You must say Miss Craigie, or Miss Kate," the child's mother corrected her, as she transferred a pile of socks and stockings from her lap to the seat, preparatory to greeting the visitor.

"Why?" Poppet wanted to know, looking up with large, grave, brown eyes like her father's. " Everybody at the Moat calls her Craigie—except Edward, the footman, who's in love with her."

"Dear me, dear me, what large ears little pitchers have, to be sure," mumbled Rose Barnard, pressing her pink lips together to keep from smiling. "It's quite different at the Moat. There Kate is a servant. Here she is a friend." And as by this time the subject of the conversation had come well into view, Mrs. Barnard jumped up, holding out her hand.

"This is nice, Kate," said she. "All the more welcome from being a surprise."

"I just had to come and see you," exclaimed the young woman whom Poppet must not call "Craigie." "I haven't got long to stop, though. I expect that her ladyship will be home by half-past four or so. She and Sir Ian are lunching over at the Wood, with Mrs. Forestier, and I'd have slipped away before if I could, but I got into a fuss with Edward."

"Poor Edward! I shouldn't wonder if it was more your fault than his, Kate," laughed Mrs. Barnard. "I expect he was jealous, thinking how you've been away in Paris, perhaps flirting with some smart couriers in the hotel."

"It's none of his business if I flirt or not," said Kate Craigie. "I never promised myself to him."

"That's what makes him so wild," remarked Rose. "He'd be quiet enough if you would." And she smiled at Kate, who was a handsome, well-made girl, with refined features, and the look which causes a young woman of her class to be called "very superior."

"That's partly it," Kate admitted. "But I can't make up my mind. Edward is awfully good looking, and I can't help liking him, but there s another thing I can't help, too. I can't help thinking it's silly to like him, and that he ain't the sort of match for me now. I could do a lot better, if I liked, and I tell him so frankly. Why, he'd never have dared to pop the question to Liane, and he wouldn't to me, if I'd come to the house as her ladyship's maid. He'd have felt the difference between us then just as he would with Liane, even if he'd happened to have fancied her, which of course he never did. It's just because I was parlour-maid when we first got to know each other that makes him feel himself on an equality."

"Well, there's something I can't help thinking," said Mrs. Barnard. "And that is that all such talk about equality, and this or that one being above or below, is nonsense with folk in our station of life. What does it matter if a girl's a parlour-maid or a lady's maid, or whether a man's a valet or a footman? They're servants, and just on the same level in the eyes of those that's above us all, just as I suppose the whole world's on a level to Royalties."

"I don't know about Royalties, but Edward's got to imagining that her ladyship's heard what he wants of me, and is putting me up to the idea that it ain't suitable to my position. That was what he was fussing about to-day. He thinks that she set me against him, while we were in Paris."

"As if her ladyship would!" exclaimed Rose in good-natured scorn.

Kate flushed. "Oh, I suppose you don't believe she takes the same interest in me as she did in Liane."

"If she hadn't liked you, and thought well of you, she wouldn't have taken you from parlour-maid and trained you to be her own maid, instead of getting another French woman after poor little Liane disappeared so mysteriously," Rose consoled her.

"She must have liked me, and I'm sure I do my best to please her," sighed Kate. "But I could scream, sometimes, the way she says 'Liane used to do this, or that.' Why if Edward's jealous of other men with me, I'm sure I suffer just as much as he does, or more. It's my nature to be jealous. I can't help it. I want to be all in all to any one I'm with. And I'm jealous of Liane. Sometimes I feel just mad with jealousy. I could stop doing her ladyship's hair, and box her ears, when she says in that quiet voice of hers, 'Craigie, you haven't Liane's touch.'"

"Good gracious, Kate, I hope you don't burst out like that to any one but me!" gasped Mrs. Barnard, horrified at this lèse majesté. "Any one would think you hated her ladyship, she who's so kind to every one."

"Sometimes I do hate her; sometimes I'd lie down and die for her, just according as she treats me," Kate persisted obstinately. "Her cold ways make me feel all on fire, often. Perhaps Edward feels like that about me. I hope he does. I like some one else to suffer. And he hates her ladyship, sure enough, because he's sure it's her fault I'm off with him, since she took me on as maid in Liane's place."

"Poor Liane!" murmured Mrs. Barnard. "I wonder if we'll ever know what's become of her."

"Her ladyship suspects," said Kate.

"Does she? The wise woman's curiosity overcame prudence for a moment.

"She thinks—I would ask you never to tell, only I know you never do tell things. She thinks that Mr. Barr had something to do with Liane's disappearance."

"My heavens, Mr. Barr! And he's in love with Miss Verney, as every one knows!"

"Men are strange. You can't tell what they'll do."

"Silly! Yes you can—Mr. Barr doesn't seem like that. What put such an idea in her ladyship's head?"

"I don't know what put it into her head, though they do say that Liane used to be seen walking down to the steward's house, after twilight, more than once before she cleared out, nine or ten weeks ago. Her ladyship may have heard that, or she may have heard more, for all I can tell. But what I do know is, that the idea is in her head, and very strong, too. I've known it for some time, and for the best of reasons; because I've heard her say so to Sir Ian. Oh, I don't eavesdrop. I'm not a Frenchwoman, and I have no sly tricks! But I happened to come in and catch a bit of what they were saying, in the midst of a tremendous talk. They shut up in an instant, and her ladyship never dreamed I'd heard. I never spoke of it to any one before, but I felt I'd got the clue to all that's been going on underneath the surface, up at the Moat, for weeks past."

"You mean——"

"I mean I'm sure her ladyship tried to persuade Sir Ian to discharge Mr. Ian Barr. She could never bear the sight of him, anyhow, and if she'd had her way, Sir Ian wouldn't have taken him on as steward."

"But that was what every one thought so noble of Sir Ian! The young fellow was his uncle's son, and if the old gentleman hadn't quarrelled with him, would probably have left him a lot of money."

"What was the story exactly? I know it only in a mixed-up way."

"Why, old Sir Ian, the uncle of the present one, was wild, and, many say, wicked as a young man. Any how, he was an avowed atheist—a dreadful thing. He lived abroad in his youth, and Friars' Moat was shut up. In Italy or somewhere he married an opera singer, they say, who was as bad as himself. So they separated; then he came back to his own country, and she was supposed to have died—killed in an earthquake, which destroyed some Italian towns. He was visiting a friend in Ireland at that time, and in his wild way fell in love with a wonderfully beautiful peasant girl. They were married, and he brought her to Friars' Moat, where the county refused to call—he was disliked, anyhow, for his lawlessness and his atheism and his awful temper. Soon he tired of his wife, and when little Ian was a baby it was discovered that his Italian wife was alive after all—a cruel thing for the poor Irish girl! She reproached her husband something dreadful, they say—for the baby's sake—and he was so furious that he refused to give her more money than an Irish peasant could live upon. Hoping that he'd do something for the child, the unhappy creature took a tiny cottage near by, and the wicked old man did have the decency to pay for the boy's schooling. When the little chap got old enough to hear the story, though, and of his father's meanness to the beautiful peasant mother, he wouldn't have another penny from him. And one day they met and there was an awful scene, for the boy inherited something of his father's wild temper. The story is that the old man struck him, for his 'impudence,' with a stick he carried; that the boy—only fourteen or so—wrenched it from him and threw it in his face. Of course that ended everything. Old Sir Ian disinherited the boy, to whom he meant to leave a few thousands. Young Ian wouldn't be called Hereward any more, as he had been. He took the name of Barr, which was in his mother's family, and in one way or another he supported not only himself, but her till the time when our Sir Ian came into everything, on his uncle's death—the first wife being really dead by that time, too. Our Sir Ian didn't know the truth till he got here, having been away from England so much. Then, when he found out, he wanted young Ian Barr to accept all the money, for, of course, it was out of his power to do anything about the estate. Young Ian wouldn't have a shilling! But when he got to know his cousin a little he was persuaded to take the stewardship. No doubt it was partly for his mother's sake, so she should have more luxuries; though she died soon after, it would have been foolish as well as ungracious to throw the job over then."

"So that's the story," exclaimed Kate. "It sounds all right for Mr. Barr, but isn't he an atheist too?"

"Oh, no, I don't think so. He isn't a church-goer, that's all. And he never got on with the vicar of Riding Wood, who couldn't understand or make allowances. Lady Hereward being so fond of the vicar, perhaps young Mr. Barr's attitude prejudiced her. And he has a very proud, independent way. I dare say she thought him ungrateful."

"I hear the servants say they never had a civil word for each other. And she hated him being named Ian—the son of a peasant girl!"

"Anyhow, Sir Ian didn't discharge him. He resigned the place of steward himself."

"Yes. But would he give up such a good berth and a pretty little home where he might have taken Miss Verney, if they'd married, unless there was a good reason? Perhaps Sir Ian advised him to resign."

"I don't believe he ever made love to Liane."

"I wonder? I shouldn't be surprised if they were secretly married, before he fell in love with Miss Verney, and now he regrets it too late."

"Nonsense! Tom and I always thought him a splendid young fellow. We've been so sorry for him, because of the burden he had to bear, through no fault of his own!"

"Liane was pretty, whatever she was," Kate grudgingly allowed. "Gentlemen used to turn and look after her. She knew that, and liked it. She was a vain piece, though her ladyship thought her so perfect."

To my mind, she couldn't compare with Miss Verney, no, not even if she d been in the same class of life," said Mrs. Barnard.

"Have you seen Miss Verney, lately?" asked Kate.

"Not for several weeks. She doesn't seem to walk this way any more, and she never drops in to ask about little Poppet here, as she used to do."

"She never goes anywhere, if she can help it, but just mopes about the house, or takes a short walk in the woods; and she has gone off in her looks! She's fallen away, you can't think; and she was slender enough as it was. She's lost colour too, and her colour was her greatest beauty. Richard, the second footman, used to stand and gape at her as if she was a Madonna, but even he said to Edward to-day that she'd changed."

"It's on account of poor Mr. Ian Barr, of course."

"Yes, that's what we all think. It can't be anything else. She is like another girl since he gave up his berth as steward, and went away, goodness knows where—unless she does. By the by, I came through the woods, and saw her there, up by the Tower. There was a novel in her hand, but she had an excited look, not as if she'd come to read, and I thought she had the air of being a bit put out at the sight of me. I couldn't help saying to myself, 'I wonder if she expects to meet somebody?'"

"You 'can't help' too many things, it seems to me, my dear," said Rose. "You can't help feeling this and that about poor Edward, who worships the ground you walk on——"

"Do you advise me to make it up with him, then?"

"Yes, indeed, if you love him. There's nothing that's worth much except love if you re thinking of taking a man. And if it's that you've come to ask me——"

"Yes, it was. Just to talk it over. Hark! What's that?"

"That shot? Oh, that's nothing. We often hear shots in the woods. Some rabbit——"

"There it goes again."

"Yes, they got the poor little chap that time, for sure."

"Funny-sounding shots, don't you think?" asked Kate.

"I expect it's just an effect. You do hear them sounding different, sometimes. The keepers are getting rid of the rabbits this year, as fast as they can. They're a terrible pest to Tom, on the farm."

"Well I must be going," Kate announced. "It takes me a while to get home, and one can't walk fast this weather."

"Do stop and have a cup of tea. I was going to make it," said Rose.

"I told Edward if I wasn't in to tea, he could just make up his mind that I'd made up my mind to think no more about him."

"Oh, in that case," laughed the farmer's wife, "I won't urge you to stop."

"Her ladyship might be wanting me, anyhow, after she gets in," said Kate.

Mrs. Barnard kissed the young woman good-bye, patting her shoulder, and telling her to mind and be a good girl, not to be jealous of poor Liane with Lady Hereward, or to make Edward jealous of her. The girl went away cheered by advice and sympathy, and still more by the chance to empty her heart of its grievances. Mrs. Barnard walked down to the gate with her departing visitor, and came back to find Poppet large-eyed and tearful.

"Why, Mummy's darling white mouse, what is the matter?" she wanted to know.

"Rabbits," sniffed the child, swallowing down a sob. "I don't like them to have to shoot the poor bunnies. And perhaps if Miss Verney's in the woods, they'll shoot her, too, by mistake."

"By mistake for a bunny? Not much danger, my pet. You love Miss Verney, don't you?"

"She's the nicest lady in the world," said Poppet.

"Nicer than Lady Hereward?"

"I don't love Lady Hereward."

"What—when she s so kind to you, and brings you such a nice new doll every Christmas?"

"I don't love her because she doesn't love me," said the child. "She doesn't really care about any one —except Sir Ian."

"What a strange white mouse it is!" exclaimed Rose, kissing the child's cheek. "What things it thinks about, that nobody else would dream of."

"'Tis so, though," Poppet insisted. "My lady doesn't love any one in the world except Sir Ian. She does things for other people because she wants to be kind, but she'd kill any one to please Sir Ian."

"My goodness, baby, don't say such dreadful things!" cried her mother. "You frighten me with your weird ideas sometimes—just like a little old woman."

"I see things you don't see, Mummy," said the child, "because it's such a few years since I came down from Heaven that I haven't got tired of noticing."

"There's another queer idea on top of all the rest," gasped Mrs. Barnard. "You'd better come in and watch me make the tea."