Remarkable as it may read, his first impression was of her gown—a gown such a_omen wear on those afternoons when they are free of social obligations, _own to walk in or to lounge in. The skirt, which barely reached to the top o_er low shoes, was of some blue stuff (stuff, because to a man's mind the wor_overs feminine dress- goods generally, liberally, and handily), overshot wit_ray. Above this she had put on a white golfing-sweater, a garment which a_hat time was just beginning to find vogue among women who loved the field_nd the road. Only men who own to stylish sisters appreciate these things, an_arburton possessed rather observant eyes. She held a bunch of freshly plucke_oppies in her hand. It was the second time that their glances had met an_eld. In the previous episode (on the day she had leaned out of the cab) her_ad been first to fall. Now it was his turn. He studied the tips of his shoes.
There were three causes why he lowered his eyes: First, she was mistress her_nd he was an applicant for employment; second, he loved her; third, he wa_ommitting the first bold dishonesty in his life. Once, it was on the very ti_f his tongue to confess everything, apologize, and take himself off. But hi_uriosity was of greater weight than his desire. He remained silent and waite_or her to speak.
"Celeste, you may leave us," said Miss Annesley.
Celeste courtesied, shot a killing glance at the tentative groom, and departe_he scene.
"You have driven horses for some length of time?" the girl began.
If only he might look as calmly and fearlessly at her! What a voice, now tha_e heard it in its normal tone! "Yes, Madam; I have ridden and drive_omething like ten years."
"In the West, mostly."
"You are English?"
"No, Madam." He wondered how much she had heard at the police-court tha_orning. "I am American born."
"Are you addicted to the use of intoxicants?"—mentally noting the clearness o_he whites of his eyes.
The barest flicker of a smile stirred his lips.
"No, Madam. I had not been drinking last night—that is, not in the sense th_fficers declared I had. It is true that I take a drink once in a while, whe_ have been riding or driving all day, or when I am cold. I have absolutely n_ppetite."
She brushed her cheeks with the poppies, and for a brief second the flower_hrew a most beautiful color over her face and neck.
"What was your object in climbing on the box of my carriage and running awa_ith it?"
Quick as a flash of light he conceived his answer. "Madam, it was a jes_etween me and some maids." He had almost said serving-maids, but the though_f Nancy checked this libel.
"Between you and some maids?"—faintly contemptuous. "Explain, for I believe a_xplanation is due me."
His gaze was forced to rove again. "Well, Madam, it is truly embarrassing. Tw_aids were to enter a carriage and I was to drive them away from the embassy, and once I had them in the carriage I thought it would be an admirable chanc_o play them a trick."
"Pray, since when have serving-maids beein allowed exit from the main hall o_he British embassy?"
Mr. Robert was positive that the shadow of a sarcastic smile rested for _oment on her lips. But it was instantly hidden under the poppies.
"That is something of which I have no intimate knowledge. A groom is no_upposed to turn his head when on the box unless spoken to. You will readil_nderstand that, Madam. I made a mistake in the number. Mine was seventy-one, and I answered number seventeen. I was confused."
"I dare say. Seventy-one," she mused, "It will be easy to verify this, to fin_ut whose carriage that was."
Mr. Robert recognized his mistake, but he saw no way to rectify it. She stoo_ilently gazing over his shoulder, into the fields beyond.
"Perhaps you can explain to me that remarkable episode at the carriage door? _hould be pleased to hear your explanation."
It hard come,—the very thing he had dreaded had come. He had hoped that sh_ould ignore it. "Madam, I can see that you have sent for me out of curiosit_nly. If I offered any disrespect to you last night, I pray you to forgive me.
For, on my word of honor, it was innocently done." He bowed, and even place_is hand on the knob of the door.
"Have a little patience. I prefer myself to forget that disagreeabl_ncident." The truth is, "on my word of honor," coming from a groom, sounde_trange in her ears; and she wanted to learn more about this fellow. "Mr.
Osborne, what were you before you became a groom?"
"I have not always been a groom, it is true, Madam. My past I prefer to leav_n obscurity. There is nothing in that past, however, of which I need b_shamed;"—and unconsciously his figure became more erect.
"Is your name Osborne?"
"No, Madam, it is not. For my family's sake, I have tried to forget my ow_ame." (I'll wager the rascal never felt a qualm in the region of hi_onscience.)
It was this truth which was not truth that won his battle.
"You were doubtless discharged last night?"
"I did not return to ascertain, Madam. I merely sent for my belongings."
"You have recommendations?"—presently.
"I have no recommendations whatever, Madam. If you employ me, it must be don_n your own responsibility and trust in human nature. I can only say, Madam, that I am honest, that I am willing, that I possess a thorough knowledge o_orse-flesh."
"It is very unusual," she said, searching him to the very heart with her dee_lue eyes. "For all I know you may be the greatest rascal, or you may be th_onestest man, in the world." His smile was so frank and engaging that she wa_orced to smile herself. But she thought of something, and frowned. "If yo_ave told me the truth, so much the better; for I can easily verify all yo_ave told me. I will give you a week's trial. After all,"—indifferently—"wha_ desire is a capable servant. You will have to put up with a good deal. Ther_re days when I am not at all amiable, and on those days I do not like to fin_ speck of rust on the metals or a blanket that has not been thoroughl_rushed. As for the animals, they must always shine like satin. This last i_nconditional. Besides all this, our force of servants is small. Do you kno_nything about serving?"
"Very little." What was coming now?
"The chef will coach you. I entertain some, and there will be times when yo_ill be called upon to wait on the table. Come with me and I will show you th_orses. We have only five, but my father takes great pride in them. They ar_ll thoroughbreds."
"Like their mistress," was Warburton's mental supplementary.
"Father hasn't ridden for years, however. The groom I discharged this mornin_as capable enough on the box, but he was worse than useless to me in m_orning rides. I ride from nine till eleven, even Sundays sometimes. Remai_ere till I return."
As she disappeared Warburton drew in an exceedingly long breath and release_t slowly. Heavens, what an ordeal! He drew the back of his hand across hi_orehead and found it moist. Not a word about the fine: he must broach it an_hank her. Ah, to ride with her every morning, to adjust her stirrup, to obe_very command to which she might give voice, to feel her small boot repuls_is palm as she mounted! Heaven could hold nothing greater than this. And ho_asily a woman may be imposed upon! Decidedly, Mr. Robert was violently i_ove.
When she returned there was a sunbonnet on her head, and she had pinned th_oppies on her breast. (Why? I couldn't tell you, unless when all is said an_one, be he king or valet, a man is always a man; and if perchance he i_lessed with good looks, a little more than a man. You will understand that i_his instance I am trying to view things through a woman's eyes.) With a no_he bade him precede her, and they went out toward the stables. She noted th_lat back, the square shoulders, the easy, graceful swing of the legs.
"Have you been a soldier?" she asked suddenly.
He wheeled. His astonishment could not be disguised quickly enough to escap_er vigilant eyes. Once more he had recourse to the truth.
"Yes, Madam. It was as a trooper that I learned horsemanship."
"I prefer not to say,"—quietly.
"I do not like mysteries,"—briefly.
"Madam, you have only to dismiss me, to permit me to thank you for paying m_ine and to reimburse you at the earliest opportunity."
She closed her lips tightly. No one but herself knew what had been on th_erge of passing across them.
"Let us proceed to the stables," was all she said. "If you prove yourself _apable horseman, that is all I desire."
The stable-boy slid back the door, and the two entered. Warburton glance_uickly about; all was neatness. There was light and ventilation, too, and th_ox-stalls were roomy. The girl stopped before a handsome bay mare, whic_hinnied when it saw her. She laid her cheek against the animal's nose an_alked that soft jargon so embarrassing to man and so intelligible to babie_nd pet animals. Lucky horse! he thought; but his face expressed nothing.
"This is Jane, my own horse, and there are few living things I love so well.
Remember this. She is a thoroughbred, a first-class hunter; and I have don_ore than five feet on her at home."
She moved on, Warburton following soberly and thoughtfully. There was a goo_eal to think of just now. The more he saw of this girl, the less h_nderstood her purpose in hiring him. She couldn't possibly know anythin_bout him, who or what he was. With his beard gone he defied her to recogniz_n him the man who had traveled across the Atlantic with her. A highbre_oman, such as she was, would scarcely harbor any kind feelings toward a ma_ho had acted as he was acting. If any man had kissed Nancy the way he ha_issed her, he would have broken every bone in his body or hired some one t_o it. And she had paid his fine at the police-station and had hired him o_robation! Truly he was in the woods, and there wasn't a sign of a blaze_rail. (It will be seen that my hero hadn't had much experience with women.
She knew nothing of him whatever. She was simply curious, and brave enough t_ttempt to have this curiosity gratified. Of course, I do not venture to sa_hat, had he been coarse in appearance, she would have had anything to do wit_im.)
"This is Dick, my father's horse,"—nodding toward a sorrel, large and wel_et-up. "He will be your mount. The animal in the next stall is Pirate."
Pirate was the handsomest black gelding Warburton had ever laid eyes on.
"What a beauty!" he exclaimed enthusiastically, forgetting that grooms shoul_e utterly without enthusiasm. He reached out his hand to pat the black nose, when a warning cry restrained him. Pirate's ears lay flat.
"Take care! He is a bad-tempered animal. No one rides him, and we keep hi_nly to exhibit at the shows. Only half a dozen men have ridden him with an_uccess. He won't take a curb in his mouth, and he always runs away. It take_ very strong man to hold him in. I really don't believe that he's vicious, only terribly mischievous, like a bullying boy."
"I should like to ride him."
The girl looked at her new groom in a manner which expressed fran_stonishment. Was he in earnest, or was it mere bravado? An idea came to her, a mischievous idea.
"If you can sit on Pirate's back for ten minutes, there will not be an_uestion of probation. I promise to engage you on the spot, recommendation o_o recommendation." Would he, back down?
"Where are the saddles, Madam?" he asked calmly, though his blood move_aster.
"On the pegs behind you,"—becoming interested. "Do you really intend to rid_im?"
"With your permission."
"I warn you that the risk you are running is great."
"I am not afraid of Pirate, Madam," in a tone which implied that he was no_fraid of any horse living. The spirit of antagonism rose up in him, tha_pirit of antagonism of the human against the animal, that eternal ambition o_he one to master the other. And besides, I'm not sure that James didn't wan_o show off before the girl— another very human trait in mankind. For my part, I wouldn't give yesterday's rose for a man who wouldn't show off once in _hile, when his best girl is around and looking on.
"On your head be it, then,"—a sudden nervousness seizing her. Yet she was a_ager to witness the encounter as he was to court it. "William!" she called.
The stable-boy entered, setting aside his broom. "This is James, the ne_room. Help him to saddle Pirate."
"Saddle Pirate, Miss Annesley!" cried the boy, his mouth open and his eye_ide.
"You see?" said the girl to Warburton.
"Take down that saddle with the hooded stirrups," said Warburton, briefly. H_ould ride Pirate now, even if Pirate had been sired in Beelzebub's stables.
He carefully inspected the saddle, the stirrup- straps and the girth. "Ver_ood, indeed. Buckles on saddles are always a hidden menace and a constan_anger. Now, bring out Pirate, William."
William brought out the horse, who snorted when he saw the saddle on the floo_nd the curb on Warburton's arm.
"There hasn't been anybody on his back for a year, sir; not since last winter.
He's likely to give you trouble," said the boy. "You can't put that curb o_im, sir; he won't stand for it a moment. Miss Annesley, hadn't you bette_tep outside? He may start to kicking. That heavy English snaffle is the bes_hing I know of. Try that, sir. And don't let him get his head down, or he'l_o you. Whoa!" as Pirate suddenly took it into his head to leave the bar_ithout any one's permission.
The girl sprang lightly into one of the empty stalls and waited. She wa_reatly excited, and the color in her cheeks was not borrowed from th_oppies. She saw the new groom take Pirate by the forelock, and, quicker tha_ords can tell, Mr. Pirate was angrily champing the cold bit. He reared.
Warburton caught him by the nose and the neck. Pirate came down, tremblin_ith rage.
"Here, boy; catch him here," cried Warburton. William knew his business, an_e grasped the bridle close under Pirate's jaws. "That's it. Now hold him."
Warburton picked up the saddle and threw it over Pirate's glossy back. Pirat_altzed from side to side, and shook his head wickedly. But the man that wa_o mount him knew all these signs. Swiftly he gathered up the end of th_elly-band strap and ran it through the iron ring. In and out he threaded it, drawing it tighter and tighter. He leaped into the saddle and adjusted th_tirrups, then dismounted.
"I'll take him now, William," said James, smiling.
"All right, sir," said William, glad enough to be relieved of all furthe_esponsibility.
James led Pirate into the small court and waited for Miss Annesley, wh_ppeared in the doorway presently.
"James, I regret that I urged you to ride him. You will be hurt," she said.
Her worry was plainly visible on her face.
James smiled his pleasantest and touched his hat.
"Very well, then; I have warned you. If he bolts, head him for a tree. That'_he only way to stop him."
James shortened the bridle-rein to the required length, took a firm grip o_irate's mane, and vaulted into the saddle. Pirate stood perfectly still. H_hook his head. James talked to him and patted his sleek neck, and touched hi_ently with his heel. Then things livened up a bit. Pirate waltzed, reared, plunged, and started to do the _pas seul_ on the flower-beds. Then h_mmediately changed his mind. He decided to re-enter the stables.
"Don't let him get his head down!" yelled William, nimbly jumping over a be_f poppies and taking his position beside his mistress.
"The gates, William! The gates!" cried the girl, excitedly. "Only one is open.
He will not be able to get through."
William scampered down the driveway and swung back the iron barrier. None to_oon! Like a black shadow, Pirate flashed by, his rider's new derby rolling i_he dust.
The girl stood in the doorway, her hands pressed against her heart. She was a_hite as the clouds that sailed overhead.