HARTLEY DRUMMOND, standing in the shadow of the plantation, watched intently the beautiful, lithe, sinuous animal holding the dead rabbit in her hand. The fact that it was his rabbit and had been poached in the spinney did not prejudice Sir Hartley against the huntress. Rather was he filled with a certain admiration for the tall girl in the vivid scarlet blouse. From the far side of the hedge came a drift of wood smoke, and the crackle of burning sticks. A man's voice was muttering something, and a woman was answering him shrilly. Here were three gaudily painted caravans, and as many dingy tents, for a horde of travelling gipsies had stopped here, and Drummond's keepers were much annoyed about it.
The girl strode almost noiselessly across the bracken; her bare feet gleamed like ivory against the vivid green. Came to her a moment later a man in a cloth cap and a muffler about his throat. She tossed the rabbit to him with a contemptuous gesture, and made as if to turn away when he caught her by the shoulder. It was something in the way of a caress, a touch of affection which might mean love in the wild, but it seemed to act upon the girl as if someone had put a match to the dark masses of her hair. As the man's hand tightened upon her shoulder she turned her head and hit the brown fingers savagely.
"Don't touch me again," she panted. "I have told you about it before. Why can't you leave me alone? Why can't you all leave me alone, for the matter of that? Keep your kisses for Meg Stanley: she'll welcome them fast enough."
THE young man laughed inwardly. He was not in the least angered or moved by this spurt of flaming passion. He might have been no more than a dog on which another one had turned in scorn and contempt of amatory advances. Without another word he picked up the rabbit and disappeared in the direction of the camp. The girl sat down on a fallen tree and took a slim volume from her pocket. A cracked voice calling for one Miriam brought a snarl to her lips as she threw the book down and darted towards the spot where the tents were pitched. Drummond was conscious of an intense curiosity to see what manner of literature this beautiful vixen of the woods affected. He could hear Miriam being shrewdly scolded for some dereliction of duly; someone was scoffing at the girl and demanding to know whether she meant to pass the whole day poring over 'that muck.' Obviously the speaker was alluding to the book which lay face downwards on the fallen tree. Drummond took it up in his hand and glanced at the cover.
"Swinburne," he muttered. "Now what on earth——"
The girl was coming back again. He dropped the volume and discreetly vanished. Here was a problem startling as it was unexpected. Drummond was a sportsman and a country gentleman, but he was a wide reader and a philosopher as well.
And he knew the wild, and the strange creatures that dwelt therein in many parts of the world. He knew that some of the inhabitants of the jungle were gregarious, like the rabbits and the rats and coyotes and wild dogs of the Western prairies. He knew that they snarled and fought and made war on one another much the same as men do, and this strange instinct fascinated him.
But there were other creatures in the wild not gregarious. There were the hawks and the vultures, the leopards and the panthers, playing their lone hand or travelling in small parties much as the gipsies in yonder camp were doing. There were town rats and country rats, and to this latter clan the gipsies belonged. They could hibernate with the rest in the holes and burrows of the town till the spring came a-calling and the smell of the rising sap sent them aflame for the clear sky and the open road. They were a fairly wild, untamed lot, as Drummond knew, for he had had a fancy once out in Hungary to go camping with them. These people here spoke a different language but they were the same race, with the same swarthy, clear-cut features and dark hair and eyes. In the ordinary course Drummond would have given the girl Miriam no further thought, but a wandering Romany who makes clothes pegs and vicariously poaches rabbits in the intervals of reading Swinburne was a human document not to be lightly put aside.
The problem was still with Drummond as he sat in his library smoking his final cigar before turning in. He would like to have seen more of this girl; he would like to have questioned her as to where she had learned to read, and who had inspired her with the neurotic beauties of the poet. He would have been surprised to know that the girl was standing in the darkness not five yards away, looking through the window into the library with shining, covetous eyes. She was still there when Drummond pulled the window to and switched off the light.
It was some half an hour later when he came down again with an uneasy feeling that he had not properly fastened the window. He was thinking of the gipsies, probably. He made no noise in his slippered feet as he put his hand round the door and flicked on the light. And there, curled up in a big arm chair with a dark lantern in her hand, was the gipsy girl. She had a costly edition of Shelley in her hand. Her scarlet blouse made a vivid spot against the brown leather of the bookcases, her bare legs were still glistening with the dew, her little pink toes wriggled uneasily. She looked up from the tangle of her hair.
"It's a fair cop, mister," she said half defiantly. "But I'm doin' no 'arm; God's truth, I ain't."
"No, I suppose not," Drummond said. "But you'll admit that I have the right to ask you a few questions. I take it that this is not your first visit here."
He half expected her to lie, but those bold clear eyes had in them no sinister light of prevarication.
"Every night for the last week," she said. "I see you here one evening as I came around by the house. Been borrowing a few cabbages from the garden, I 'ad. Your blind was up, and I looked in. And when I see all them beautiful books——"
"So you are a book lover like myself, eh?"
"Love 'em," the girl said. Her eyes were sparkling now. "Anything in print almost. I dare say you wonder where I learnt it all. When I was 12 I had something the matter with my spine. For two years I was in one of them 'omes. And they learned me to read and write, and they give me pretty well every book I wanted. I've got scores of books in the caravan. When ever I'm near a town, and I've got a few coppers to spend I find a second-'and bookstall—but look 'ere, you ain't going to charge me, are you?"
"You wound my sense of hospitality," Drummond smiled. "My dear child, you are perfectly safe here. Do you know, your case is very interesting? Your present mode of life must be horrible to a clever girl with an artistic temperament. Now I have friends and influence; there are schools and institutions——"
"I couldn't do it," the girl cried, "indeed, I couldn't do it, mister. It's in the blood. I didn't know what that meant till I began to read; didn't know why I felt so restless and miserable in that hospital. And they were very good to me, ay, as good as gold. Might have been a princess. And all the time my 'eart was out 'ere in the sunshine. And when they brought me flowers I seemed to see the daffodils and blue-bells in the woods—oh, don't send me to school. A month in the stir I could stand all right. Only if you've got any pity, don't send me to school."
She spoke in a voice vibrant with passionate entreaty. She seemed to be regarding Drummond as the avenging instrument of the law devising some terrible punishment for venial sin. But he understood her—understood a great deal more dearly than she knew. For the wild was to him an open book, and he had heard its call many a time before to-night. There was a kindly feeling in his heart for the beautiful half-shy, half-savage girl in the red blouse.
"You can make your mind quite easy," he said. "You are not going to be punished. This little adventure shall be a secret between us, and if, during the rest of your stay here, you should happen to wander this way at night, and the window's not securely fastened——"
The girl smiled, showing two rows of teeth white as the kernel of a filbert. Then her face overcast like an April sky.
"It's too late," she sighed. "Must think myself lucky to have been here so many times already. We are moving along Ashdown way to-morrow. Always moving, we are."
Drummond was frankly sorry to hear it. There was something about this child-woman that fascinated him. It seemed a thousand pities that with her dark beauty and fine intelligence, to say nothing of her artistic dreams, she should be condemned to the inevitable end that awaits the female creatures in the wild. She would meet her mate some day and they would get up the smoke tents of Ishmael for themselves and wander and wander till the end came. He could see her beauty lined and scarred with the stress of the storm and the fret of existence. He could see her and the male wolf scouring the wild for the daily meal, see her bent under the weight of the child slung across her breast in the inevitable parti-coloured shawl. Her hair would be grey some time, she would grow foxy and cunning, sly and glib of tongue, a haunter of back doors and a preyer upon silly moon-faced domestics dreaming dreams founded on fiction as expounded by the "Housemaid's Companion."
"It seems a thousand pities," Drummond said. "I am not quite sure that my weak good nature is not depriving the world of a genius. You are very young yet, Miriam. Two or three years at school and you may be writing the poetry that you so passionately admire. You might become a novelist, another Borrow. Oh, with a mind like yours you might be anything."
"Oh, I know," the girl said simply. "I have lain awake and thought of it scores of times. I can sleep in the darkest wood, and, yet the town frightens me. All these stone walls and brick 'ouses give me the 'orrors. Seems to me sometimes that I'm not one girl, but two. I want to read and I want to write, but I want the open road most of all. No, it would never do, mister."
And Drummond could see that, too. He knew the utter folly of any attempt to cage this wild bird. It was as if one chained an eagle in an aviary and tried to tame him with bird-seed. The simile struck Drummond as humorous, and he smiled a little sadly.
"I am quite with you," he said. "If you ever do change your mind, be sure you write and let me know."
The girl rose to her feet and frankly accepted Drummond's outstretched hand.
"I must be going now," she said. "You have been so very good to me, mister, and I am very grateful. Maybe we shall meet again some day. I dare say we shall work this pitch again in a year or two. I should like to see all these books again before I die."
She looked round the well-filled shelves yearningly, with just a suggestion of mistiness in her eyes, much as if she were parting with some well-beloved friends.
"You are sure you won't change your mind?" Drummond asked. "You would prefer to go back to your relatives?"
"They are no relatives of mine," the girl said. "My own people are somewhere up in Scotland. When I came out of hospital I found these Stanleys, and I have been with them ever since. It's all the same, you know; it's all one clan."
"It seems a very great pity," Drummond murmured.
She turned to him with a certain fierce sorrow.
"It isn't because I will," she said, "but because I must. Ever read anything of Thomas Hardy? You have? Remember the first chapter of 'The Woodlanders'? Well, you've got it all there. And you know why I've got to go wandering and wandering, and—oh, I can't explain it. Mister Hardy would understand."
She turned away without another word and vanished into the night. In some vague way she seemed to leave a void behind her.
"Very strange," Drummond murmured as he went thoughtfully to bed. "I should like to follow that child's career, but, of course, we shall never meet again."
And that was where Drummond was wrong.
The hour was late and Drummond was lingering over a volume of Maeterlinck philosophy, but it seemed to him that he could hear a faint cry somewhere outside under the cover of the darkness. There was a suggestion as if steel had come in contact with steel, then that cry again, followed by a moan of despair. Drummond dropped his book and sat up rigidly. If might be possibly the poachers at work and that one of them had met with some accident. He pulled up the blind and opened the window, so that the electrics cut a broad swathe of light into the heart of the purple darkness. At the end of the blinding lane, as something lay huddled on the grass, Drummond could make out the glint of steel, the dull polish of lacquer work, and then it was borne in upon him that someone had been riding across the grass and had come utterly to grief with a bicycle. The rider had evidently come headlong over, down a flight of steps leading to the stone terrace. Drummond hurried forward and raised the prostrate figure in his arms. He saw a white face in a tangle of black hair, he saw the slim figure of the girl in her scarlet blouse. He lifted her in his arms and carried her into the house. With some trouble he coaxed a few drops of brandy down the girl's throat, then she shuddered violently and opened her eyes.
"It was my own fault," she whispered. "I came here without a lamp. I couldn't find a lamp anywhere, and if I had I daren't have used it, so I had to take my chance. If those two had found out what I was doing they would have murdered me."
"But what is all the trouble?" Drummond asked.
"You are," the girl gasped. "It is Red Stanley; he hadn't long come out of jail. He was tramping to find us, and spotted this place on the way. And he persuaded his brother George as it was all right, and they're coming here to-night to burgle the place. I only knew this about two hours ago. You see, we are on the other side of Ashdown Forest camping near a village, and in the shed of the vicarage Red Stanley found some of the young gentlemen's bicycles. Do you see the game now, mister?"
"It begins to dawn upon me," Drummond smiled.
"That's it. Borrow the bicycles and ride over here without lamps. Probably not meet a soul the whole way. Then take all they can lay their hands on and get back again. On a dry night like this it wouldn't take half an hour to clean those machines, and nobody would ever know as they'd been taken out of the shed. And that's what brings me here. And I've broke my collarbone."
Miriam's face was white and set with pain, but her dark eyes were keen and alert; she was quivering with expectation.
"They're coming," she whispered. "You can't hear them, but I can. I knew they wouldn't be far behind. Ring the bell, rouse all the servants in the house. They're coming."
But Drummond had no intention of meeting this trouble except single handed. He picked up the girl again carefully and tenderly and carried her into a small room on the other side of the hall.
"Now you lie here and don't worry," he commanded. "I am quite capable of dealing with these friends of yours. I suppose the gentleman called Red Stanley made the same discovery that you did—in other words, that I am somewhat careless in fastening the library window. I'll put the light out and wait for them. Meanwhile you will be perfectly safe here. You are a brave girl, Miriam."
He walked back to the library leisurely enough and turned off the lights. Then he sat down patiently to await the coming of the foe. Half an hour passed, then the catch of the window clicked, and there was a smell of strong humanity in the room. Drummond could hear a hoarse whisper or two, caught a tiny pin-point of flame flashed from a torch upon his cabinet of coins. He reached out his hand for the switch, and the room was flooded with light. Before the astonished burglars could recover from their surprise he had locked the library door and dropped the key in his pocket. Then he strode across and stood with his back to the open window. He held something in his hand, but the discomfited intruders had not noticed it as yet. From their point of view he was simply an unarmed man, and consequently an easy prey for these wolves from the wild. Drummond recognised Red Stanley at a glance—Miriam's description seemed to fit him like a glove. The ruddy hackles on his crest seemed to rise; he extended a hairy hand in Drummond's direction. Then, without a word, he charged.
It was all strangely familiar. Drummond had slain many animals of this type, but they had usually been quadrupeds of equal intelligence and cleaner and sweeter in every way than this red ruffian who Drummond would have shot down without hesitation or a grain of pity in his heart. But then the wild is limited so far as civilisation is concerned, and the law of the town is prejudiced, so that the shot that Drummond fired slipped through the right wrist of the sanguine Stanley, and he bent double, moaning with the pain of it. There was to be no more fight, the beast was cowed, and so was the other animal crouching against the wall and snarling strange oaths in the Romany vernacular.
"Sit dawn," Drummond said crisply. "There is nothing much the matter with you, Mr. Stanley. A cold water bandage and a week's rest will put that wrist right again. You see, I know all about it. You had better take those bicycles back to the place where you found them and fade out of the county of Sussex without delay. I have my own particular reasons why I don't want to ring up the police and give you in custody. Now be off, both of you. I don't think you will want to come here again."
He threw open the window and the two marauders slunk out into the congenial darkness. The whole episode had not occupied more than five minutes. With a grim smile Drummond closed the window and drew the blinds. He did not go immediately back to the room where Miriam was lying; on the contrary, he walked up the stairs and along a corridor till he came to a door on which he tapped gently. It was opened presently by a handsome, motherly looking woman, who even in her dressing gown looked the typical housekeeper to the life.
"And what mischief have you been up to now, Sir Hartley?" she asked. "I heard a noise just now, and was coming down——"
"My dear soul, do," Drummond said. "I have just captured one of the most beautiful specimens of natural fauna you ever saw. In other words, it's a girl—a dear little gipsy girl with a broken wing—I mean, a collarbone. I want you to make her comfortable whilst I telephone for the doctor. I'll tell you the story to-morrow. I think it will astonish even you."
Mrs. Deane frankly doubted it. She was too accustomed to her beloved master's eccentricities to be astonished at anything. The story left her absolutely unmoved. But one thing the motherly, kind-hearted soul was certain of. Miriam could not go back to the clan again, and it was Sir Hartley's obvious duty to make himself responsible for her future and see that she went to school.
To all this Miriam listened with revolt in her eyes and the red flag of rebellion flying in her cheeks. She could see the logic of the situation clearly enough. She could not go back to the clan; she would not be safe from their teeth and claws if they got on the trail of the truth. She wanted to go to school, and yet she dreaded the bare idea of it. She was like the dipsomaniac who shudders and sickens in the presence of the brandy bottle, knowing full well that he is too weak to resist. She could see down the long avenues of knowledge and power and the grip on the heart of hidden things, and she could see, on the other hand, that discipline and the prim restrictions which would be as prison bars. And with it all she was passionately, almost unreasonably, grateful to Drummond for what he had done. She fought it out in a conflict which would have staggered Drummond had he been able fully to grasp it. She came to him when in a dim, nebulous way she was conscious that mind had conquered body.
"I'll do it, mister," she said. For some strange reason she could not or would not call Drummond Sir Hartley. "I want to go, and yet I don't want to go. 'Tisn't that you are not right, because you are. And I'll go—for three years—in a town."
Drummond ought to have been satisfied, but he was by no means easy in his mind. He could not shake off the impression of coming disaster even when encouraging reports of his protege's progress came to hand. She was a little wild, of course, and restive under the iron hand of discipline, but nothing worse than this. So that gradually Drummond's uneasy suspicions were lulled to sleep, and he allowed himself to join a hunting party on a six months trip in the African continent. It was many months before letters reached him, and out of his first mass of mail he picked out an envelope addressed to him in Miriam's bold handwriting.
It was no frank communication from a child, though it sounded spontaneous enough. The words came red hot from the heart of a woman. And before Drummond had turned the last page he knew that his experiment had failed.
Miriam had left the school. She had gone away out into the world dressed in the tattered skirt and red blouse, gone with bare feet no longer hardened as of yore. She had gone to join the tribe in the restless wanderings.
"I've tried and tried," she wrote, "and I want you to believe this if you believe nothing else. Because I'm no longer a girl, mister. I don't believe I ever was one, judging from the standard of your class. They knew so much more than me, and yet they knew so little. They could play hockey and tennis and golf, and yet they were frightened to go to bed in the dark. Silly, quivering little cowards every one of them. And from the very first I always felt like a hawk in a cage of canaries.
"If it hadn't been for the books and the learning I should have left long, long ago. And now I'll tell you a secret. When they were all asleep I would let myself out of my bedroom window by a rope and wander out into the woods. On summer nights it was good to swim in the river and lay snares for the rabbits. And nobody found it out, no one suspected.
"In winter it was not so bad. There was the rain and the snow, and the knowledge that the Lees and the Stanleys and the Smiths were all herding in some slum waiting for the spring and the call of the woods. But when the almonds were in bloom and the wind came up from the south, it seemed to tear me as if something had wounded me, and I was slowly, slowly bleeding to death inside. And now it is April weather, and down in the spinneys where I used to poach your rabbits the daffodils are blooming. I can see them nodding to me as I sit here in this stuffy little bedroom, and they are weaving a chain round me and dragging me with them into the heart of the country.
"And I am going, mister, as sure as the sun will rise on the morrow. Whether all your kindness to me will make me a happier woman in the future, whether I shall repent of what I'm doing, I cannot say. But the wild is calling me, and I suppose my mate is waiting somewhere out in the woods for Miriam. And I am perhaps the most ungrateful woman who ever returned a kindness so ill. So pity and forgive me, and I will say no more."
It was some two and a half years later that Drummond, skirting along the woods in the early evening, paused for a moment by the spot where he had first encountered the gipsy girl who was still to him a warm and vivid memory. Nothing appeared to be changed; the fallen tree on which he discovered the volume of Swinburne still lay there. He could see her now in the scarlet blouse and the rabbit in her hand as she moved towards the encampment. And as he stood there she came again as she had done before, the same Miriam and yet strangely changed. She was older and more mature, a little slower of step, and yet with the free stride of the woods, and round her neck was slung a shawl, and within it a burden that moved and breathed, and then Drummond knew that Miriam had been right and that the thing that she had seen with dim, prophetic eyes had come to pass.
She saw him almost as soon as he had seen her; she came forward half shyly and half defiantly. As he held out his hand she bent over it, and Drummond could see that tears were in her eyes.
"Forgive me, mister," she said, yet half defiantly.
"There was nothing to forgive," Drummond answered. "The fault was entirely mine. It is always the same when puny man attempts to interfere with the laws of nature. So you found him after all?"
Miriam's cheeks flamed. She bent with a certain arrogant pride over the palpitating bundle in her arms.
"Yes, I found him," she said. "I always knew I should. He's over there on the other side of the hedge making baskets. We've been together now for eighteen months. He's my husband, and I'm proud of him."
"I'd like to see him," Drummond said.
"No, no," Miriam protested. "At least, not in that way. Michael knows nothing of my story—he would not understand it if he did. I am just to him the mate he needed, and I knew it the first time we met away up there in Sherwood Forest. He just put his arm round me and kissed me, and we went away to a good parson up there who knows something of our ways, and we were married. And I don't regret it, mister. I can't!"
"And all the literary yearnings?" Drummond asked. "What about them? You no longer hanker to be a female Borrow, eh?"
Miriam smiled. Once more she glanced down at the bundle in her arms. She smiled again and touched it very tenderly.
"All the poetry and all the romance lies here," she said. "And no words can express it. Now as long as I have this I am no longer restless and dissatisfied. But you are a man, and that is the thing that no man can understand."
A voice in the darkness called out the name of Miriam and a few words in a liquid tongue that Drummond could not follow. He could guess, though, who the speaker was.
"That is your husband calling you," he said. "On the whole, perhaps I had better not see you again."
"I think it would be just as well," said Miriam.
She turned away and walked towards the camp with the rabbit still swinging in her hand.