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The Red Derelict, Page 2

Bertram Mitford



  "How did you do it?" he asked, panting violently after his recentexertion and shock. "How?"

  "I saw the cartridges fall out of your pocket while you fought thebrute," she answered. "That suggested it. I put one in the rifle andaimed just behind the shoulder, as I had read of people doing whenshooting things of that sort. Thank Heaven it was the right aim. Doyou know, I felt it would be--knew it somehow."

  She spoke quickly, excitedly, her breast heaving, and the colourmantling in her cheeks, as she turned her large eyes upon his face.

  "It was splendid--splendid," he repeated, rising, though somewhatstiffly, for he was very bruised and shaken.

  "I don't know about that," she answered with a laugh. "I expect the oldSquire will be of a different opinion. Why I--I mean you and I betweenus--have killed one of his African animals. And they say he's no endproud of them."

  "Yes, and you have saved my life."

  "Have I? I rather think the boot's on the wrong foot," she answered."Where would I have been with that beast chevying me if you hadn't comeon the scene. But--oh, Mr Wagram, are you much hurt? I wasforgetting."

  "No, I am not hurt, beyond a bit of a shaking-up. And you?"

  "Same here. I suppose the excitement and unexpectedness of the tosssaved me. I was in an awful funk, though--er--I mean I was awfullyscared. You see it was all so unexpected. I didn't know these thingsever attacked people."

  "They are apt to be dangerous in a half-tame condition, but ours areshut up in a separate part of the park. I have yet to find out how thisone got loose."

  "What would I have done if you hadn't come up?" she repeated. "I shouldcertainly have been killed."

  Wagram thought that such would very likely have been the case, but heanswered:

  "I think you might have been considerably injured. You see, when yougot to the gate over there, you would have had to slow down and jumpoff."

  "Rather. And--oh, my poor bike! It's past praying for, utterly."

  "Well, it's past mending, that's certain. But--er--of course, you mustallow us to make good the loss. As a matter of hard law you need haveno scruple about this. It was destroyed on our property by an animalbelonging to us, and on a public road."

  "A public road!" she echoed. "Then I was not trespassing?"

  "No. This is a right-of-way, though I don't mind admitting that we haveoften wished it wasn't," he added with a smile.

  Inwardly he was puzzling as to who this girl could be. She was aware ofhis own identity, for she had addressed him by name; but he wasabsolutely convinced he had never seen her before. She was a handsomegirl, too, very handsome. She had a clear, brunette skin, through whichthe colour would mantle as she grew animated, fine eyes of a lighthazel, and an exceedingly attractive smile. In build she was squareshouldered and of full outline, and though not exactly tall was of agood height for a woman. She was plainly dressed, but well, in a lightblouse and grey bicycle skirt, and her manner was natural andunaffected. Yet with all these attractions Wagram decided that she wasjust not quite in the same social scale. Who could she be?

  "Oh, but, Mr Wagram, I'm sure you must be hurt," she broke in, as herose from dusting down her bicycle skirt--she had sustained wonderfullylittle damage, even outwardly, from her fall. "Why, what is this?"catching sight of his ripped waistcoat. "Blood, too! Good heavens!Did it strike you with its horns? Oh, you must get it seen to at once.I have read somewhere that the wound from an animal's horn isfrightfully dangerous."

  "Well, it wasn't the horn this time, it was the hoof. But I assure youthe thing is a mere scratch; I daresay it might have been worse but forthe waistcoat. As it is, it's nothing."

  "Really? Seriously, mind?"

  "Seriously. But if you always turn your reading to such practicalaccount as you did just now, it'll be good for other people all alongthe line. It was even better than plucky, for it showed a quickness andreadiness of resource rare among women, and by no means so widelydistributed among men as we like to imagine."

  "How good of you to say so," she answered, colouring up with pleasure."But--oh, what a pity to have had to kill such a curious animal. Willthe old Squire be very angry, do you think, Mr Wagram?"

  "He will be sorry; but you must credit him with a higher estimate of thesanctity of human life for anger to enter his mind in this connection.I am sure he will feel only too thankful that a most disastrous accidenthas been averted."

  "Oh, I am relieved. Poor thing," she broke off, standing over the deadgnu with a little shudder at the pool of blood which had trickled fromthe small hole made by the bullet. "It is very ugly, though."

  "Yes; it's a sort of combination of goat and buffalo, and horse anddonkey, to all outward appearance. Ah, here's someone at last," as twomen approached. "Here, Perrin," to the foremost, "how on earth did thisfellow break out of the west park? Are the palings broken downanywhere?"

  "Not as I knows on, sir," replied the man, who was an under keeper. "Iwas round there myself this morning, and 'twas all right then. Reckonhe must ha' jumped. Them things do jump terrible high at times. Be youhurt, sir?" with a look at the other's torn clothing.

  "No; only a scratch. But this young lady might have been killed. You'dbetter go to the village at once and let Bowles know there's abutchering job here for him, and the sooner he sets about it the better,or the light won't last. Oh, and on the way tell Hood to go over nowand make sure there are no gaps or weak places in the palings, or weshall have more of the things getting out I should never have believedone would have taken that leap."

  "Very good, sir," replied the keeper, turning away to carry out hisorders.

  The girl, meanwhile, was watching Wagram with a whole-souled buthalf-furtive admiration, not undashed with a little awe. The fact ofher rescue by this man in a moment of ghastly peril, and at considerablerisk to himself, appealed to her less than did the cool, matter-of-factway in which he stood there issuing his orders, as though nolife-and-death struggle between himself and a powerful and infuriatedanimal had just taken place. Moreover, there was something in the wayin which he gave his orders--as it were, the way of one to whom suchdirection was bound as by right to belong--that impressed her, and thatvividly. Perhaps, too, the unconscious refinement of the man--a naturalrefinement characterising not only his appearance, but his manner, thetone of his voice, his every word--came especially home to her, possiblyby virtue of contrast. Anyhow, it was there, and she hardly had time todisguise the growing admiration in her eyes as he turned to her again.

  "Will you walk on with me to the Court and have a rest and some tea? Wecan send you home in the brougham."

  For a moment she hesitated. The invitation was wholly alluring, but toherself a perfectly unaccountable resolve came over her to decline it.It is just possible that the one word "send" had turned the scale. Hadhe offered to accompany her home she would probably have accepted withan alacrity needing some disguise.

  "Oh no, thanks; I could not think of intruding upon you like that," sheanswered. "I live just outside Bassingham, and a mere three-mile walkis nothing on a lovely evening like this."

  "Are you sure you are doing what you would prefer?" he urged.

  "Quite. Oh, Mr Wagram, how can I thank you enough? Why, but for you Ishould be in as many pieces as my poor bicycle."

  "And but for you, possibly, so should I," he laughed.

  "Yes; only you would not have been there at all but for me, so that I amstill all on the debtor's side," she rejoined, flashing up at him a verywinning smile.

  "Will you favour me with your address--here," holding out a pocket-bookopen at a blank leaf. "And--er--you seem to have the advantage of me asto name."

  "Have I? Why, so I have," (writing). Then handing it back he read:

  "Delia Calmour, Siege House, Bassingham."

  "Oh, you live in Bassingham, then?" he said, in a tone which seemed toher to express surprise at never having seen he
r before.

  "Yes; but I have been away for two years," she answered in impliedexplanation which was certainly not accidental. "I have only just comehome."

  She hoped he would question her further; but he did not.

  "Good-bye, Mr Wagram," putting forth her hand with a bright smile. "Ishall return by the main road. It's much shorter--besides, I've hadenough adventure for one afternoon."

  "Well, if you won't reconsider my suggestion."

  "Thanks, no; I had really better get back."

  "And," he supplemented, "again let me remind you that the utter wreck ofyour bicycle is our affair. Oh, and by the way--er--in case you are putout by the want of it even for a day or two in this splendid weather,Warren, in Bassingham, keeps very good machines on hire--you understand,our affair of course. I will send him in word the first thing in themorning."

  "Now, Mr Wagram, you are really too good," she protested with realwarmth. "I don't know whether I ought even to think of taking you atyour word."

  "Ought? But of course you must. It's a matter, as I said before, ofhard, dry law, and damage. Good-bye."

  They had reached the gate by this time, and closing it behind her,Wagram raised his hat and turned back to where lay the dead gnu. Then,as the men he had sent for had arrived, and he had given directions asto the careful preserving of the head, he moved homeward.

  The air seemed positively to thrill with the gush of bird-song as thelast rays of dazzling gold swept over the vivid greenery, ere the finalset of sun. Passing the chapel, a Gothic gem, set in an embowering offoliage, Wagram espied the family chaplain seated in front of hisrose-grown cottage, reading.

  "Evening, Father," he called out.

  The priest jumped up and came to the gate. He was a man about Wagram'sown age, or a shade older, a cultured man, and possessed of a fund ofstrong practical common sense, together with a keen sense of humour.The two were great friends.

  "Come in, come in, and help a lonely man through a lonely half hour, oras many half-hours as you can spare; though I suppose it's getting toonear your dinner time for that."

  "Why don't you stroll up with me and join us?" said Wagram, subsidinginto a cane chair.

  "Thanks, but I can't to-night, and that for more reasons than one. Now,what'll you be taking?"

  "Nothing, thanks, just now," answered Wagram, filling his pipe. "I'vegot a mighty unpleasant job sticking out if ever there was one. Wentout to knock over a rabbit or two, and knocked over one of the bluewildebeeste instead. How's that?"

  The priest gave a whistle.

  "I wouldn't like to be the man to break the news to the old Squire," hesaid, "unless the man happened to be yourself. Did you kill it?"

  "Dead as a herring, or rather, the girl did."

  "The girl did! What girl?"

  "Why, the one the brute was chevying. Of course I had to get between,don't you see?"

  "I don't. You omitted the trifling detail that the said brute waschevying anybody. Now, begin at the beginning."

  Wagram laughed. This sort of banter was frequent between the two. Thepriest reached down for the half-smoked pipe he had let fall, relit it,and listened as Wagram gave him the narrative, concise to baldness.

  "Who was the girl?" he said, when Wagram had done.

  "That's just the point. First of all, do you know any people inBassingham named Calmour?"

  "M'yes. That is to say, I know _of_ them."

  "What do they consist of?"

  "One parent--male. I believe three daughters. Sons unlimited."

  "What sort of people are they?"

  "Ask the old Squire."

  "That's good enough answer," laughed Wagram. "You're not going to givethem a bad character, so you won't give them any. All right. I'll goand ask him now, and, by Jove," looking at his watch, "it's time I did.Good-night."

  Father Gayle returned from the wicket, thinking.

  "So that was the girl!" he said to himself. "The eldest, from thedescription. I hope she won't make trouble."

  For, as it happened, he had heard rather more about Delia Calmour andher powers of attractiveness than Wagram had; moreover, he knew thatmen, even those above the average, were very human. Wagram, in hisopinion, was very much above the average, yet he did not want to foreseeany entanglement or complication that could not but be disastrous--absolutely and irrevocably disastrous.