KITTY DAVENTRY turned away with a flush of annoyance on her pretty face. There were more reasons than one for her anger, perhaps the chief of them being the knowledge that the man who was looking so steadfastly at her was merely a gamekeeper. It was true that he was a very gentlemanly gamekeeper. His manners were excellent, and his English left nothing to be desired. In addition to all this, the man was well set-up and distinguished looking, though, according to the strict letter of the law, he might not have have been called handsome."
It so happened that this was not the first time that Kitty Daventry had met Philip Lancaster. On two previous occasions he had warned her that she was trespassing in the woods, and that her ill-timed rambles were having a demoralising effect on the young pheasants. Kitty had replied haughtily enough that hitherto she had moved in her own sweet way through all the woods and pastures for ten miles around, and no one had ventured to say her nay. Lancaster had listened politely enough. He had even ventured to insinuate that Miss Daventry was getting a little too old for such childish escapades as these, and that, so far as he could gather, she had not benefited much by three years at a sohool in Germany. Perhaps the girl was not altogether to blame, seeing that her home life was so monotonous a one? She lived quite alone with an old uncle who was a scholar and a recluse, and so long as Kitty did not worry him with any of her troubles, Mr Daventry was quite content to leave the girl alone. As to the rest, he knew and cared nothing about his neighbours and their gossip; indeed, Kitty was wont to declare that her uncle would have been unable to tell the names of his own servants."
But here was quite an exceptional occasion. For the last four or five days it had rained incessantly, so that Kitty was only too glad of a chance to get out of the house, to mount her bicycle and skim away from home over the muddy roads. She had been warned once or twice on the way not to go too far afield, for the River Scour was coming down in flood, and the Scour at that time of year had an awkward habit of cutting off pedestrians from their base and leaving them stranded in out-of-the-way holes and corners. It was a treacherous, quick-rising river, and Kitty knew very well, but she was desperate now with the weariness and monotony of life, and she had come a great deal further away from home than she had intended."
And now the rain was coming down again in real royal earnest. A great ragged bank of clouds streamed up from the west. The landscape was fairly blotted out by the driving deluge, and Kitty, stood, disconsolately under a tree, a little uncertain as to what to do next, and quite hazy as to how she was to get home. It was, of course, in accordance with the eternal fitness of things that Philip Lancaster should put in an appearance at that moment. He paused and doffed his cap, much as if Kitty and himself had been on a perfect equality. He looked almost as pleased, too."
"What are you doing here?" he demanded."
"Waiting for the rain to go over," Kitty said haughtily. "I had a side-slip and nearly wrenched the front tyre from my machine.""
"But surely you must know how late it is," Lancaster replied. "It is long past five. Still, that is hardly the point. What I should like to know is how you propose to get back.""
Kitty froze the speaker with a glance."
"Does that really concern you?" she asked frigidly."
"Well, of course it does," Lancaster went on in the same cool, contemptuous manner. "So far as I know there is only one way back to Langdon Hall, and that is by way of the road over the great Scour Bridge. It may be news to you, of course, but I have just heard that the road is three feet under water.""
Kitty gave a little gasp of dismay. She had forgotten her dignity for the moment, nor did she doubt that Lancaster was speaking anything but the truth. She knew how quickly the river rose when it came down in flood, and now it had been raining for the last five days. Besides, she had had more than one warning before she had left home. Of course, it was very dreadful to find herself in a position where it became necessary to ask favours of Philip Lancaster. But so far as she could see there was no help for it. The rain was coming down in a steady, straight desolation, and already the faint spring light was beginning to fade. A little longer and a change of clothing would become absolutely necessary."
"What are you going to do?" Lancaster asked mercilessly."
"I—I don't know," Kitty faltered. "I am getting horribly wet and cold, and there is practically nobody in the neighbourhood whom I know. If you could suggest any way—"
The last remark was made almost meekly. The was the faint suggestion of a smile about the corners of Lancaster's mouth. If Kitty saw it she was diiscretely silent on the point. Besides, she was very wet and very cold, and, like most women at that hour, she was longing for a cup of tea. She made little or no protest when Lancaster took the matter in his own hands."
"There is only one thing for it," he said. "You will have to come along with me to my cottage. Now, what is the good of shaking your head in that silly way? Do you propose to spend the night under this tree? Oh, I know I am all alone yonder. I know it is very shocking and all that kind of thing. But for once in a way you will have to make the best of it. I do entirely for myself, but I am not quite so slipshod that I can't give you a good cup of tea and some bread and butter, to say nothing of a little honey of my own growing. A little later on I will go with you as far as the Hall, where, I am sure, the housekeeper, who is a great friend of mine, will put you up for the night. I don't think I can say any more than that. And now come along, let's have no more nonsense about it." "
Lancaster caught up Kitty's bicycle, and to her own intense astonishment she found herself following obediently behind, like an amiable lamb led to the slaughter. She found herself presently, too, making herself entirely agreeable to this handsome young gamekeeper, and if the truth must be known, thoroughly enjoyed her adventure. She was warm and comfortable by this time, for a bright wood fire crackled on the old pleasant hearth. She insisted upon making the tea and bread and butter, and before the meal was finished it seemed to her that she had known Philip Lancaster all her life. Who was he? Who could he be? she asked herself. Surely, he must be something out of the common, for no gamekeeper of Kitty's acquaintance ever talked like that. She was quite certain that not another one had such a collection of books or a finer edition of the early Latin poets in the original. Lancaster flushed and turned the conversation as Kitty pointed to these. "
"One half the world doesn't know how the other half lives," he laughed. "Besides, if you are destined to be poor and unfortunate, how much better it is to live in the country where you can have good food and pure air at a nominal cost. Now if you were in my position what would you rather do? Would you prefer to be a struggling clerk at a pound a week, or would you be a gamekeeper at the same money with a cottage thrown in to the bargain and two suits of clothes a year? But I am letting my tongue run too fast. I am forgetting that you are Miss Daventry, and I am merely a keeper. See the clouds are breaking now. Don't you think we had better run across to the Hall while we have the chance?""
Kitty responded somewhat frigidly that perhaps the speaker was right. All the same, she was still puzzled and bewildered. She wondered why the old housekeeper at the Hall received Lancaster with such deference and respect, and why, in the name of goodness, should she address him as Mr Philip. Kitty was not without her fair share of curiosity, and before she slept that night she had made up her mind to solve the mystery. Neither was Mrs Hartley in the least reticent in gratifying the seeker after knowledge. "
"Lord bless you, miss, I thought everybody knew. I don't suppose there is another young man in the world that is fit to compare with Master Philip." "
"Yes, but who ie he?" Kitty persisted."
"Who is he?" Mrs Hartley echoed. "There, I forgot you have been away to school for so long. Don't you know that the late Sir James Lancaster was one of the greatest spendthrifts who ever lived? When he died he left the estates in a terrible mess, and when the heir came into possession, which was nearly ten years ago, when you were quite a little girl, he made a vow to pay off every penny before ever he slept under this roof. He let the house for a term of years, and he let the shooting to another party; in fact, every farthing he oould save towards paying off those mortgages he scraped together. Why, he even went so far as to become his own gamekeeper. The people who took the shooting were Londoners, who asked no questions, and cared nothing so long as they had plenty of sport. Little did they know that the handsome young keeper who took care of their game so well was Sir Philip Lancaster, the owner of the Hall. Ah, well, it is all right now, and Sir Philip is going to reap the reward of all his care and economy. The place has come back into his hands now, and it is all going to be done up in the autumn. I don't suppose there are a score of people outside the parish who know what I am telling you now. When you come here later on you will find the Hall quite a different place.""
Kitty's face turned to a delicate pink as she listened. She was thinking of a good many rude speeches she had made to Sir Philip Lancaster from time to time in the faint hope that he had forgotten them. For a long time after she had been carefully tucked away in one of the principal guest-chambers she lay tossing about sleeplessly, wondering how she was going to make her peace with Sir Philip, and how he must have laughed at her every time they met. "
"Can you ever forgive me?" she whispered as she and her host stood together in the sunshine after breakfast. "I am so glad you came over to see how I was getting on. Of course, I had no idea of the truth till Mrs Hartley told me last night, and I-I don't think I have ever been so ashamed of myself in my life before." "
"There is no occasion," Lancaster smiled. "Truth to say, I have enjoyed our two or three interviews, and I hope a little later on, when things are settled down here, that you will induce your uncle to come over here and call. I do not want to forget that you were the first of my county neighbours with whom I have made acquaintance. Now let us shake hands upon and forget all about our past differences." "
There were something like tears in Kitty's eyes as she held out her hand. How could she have taken this man for anything but a gentleman, she wondered? Then the absurd side of the situation came uppermost and she laughed heartily."
"It was funny, wasn't it?" she whispered. And to think that I might have known nothing about it if I had not met you yesterday.""
"Oh, I think you would," Lancaster said meaningly. I should have found some way to let you know. And now, we are going to be good friends, are we not? I see your answer in your eyes."