Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Lonely Stronghold

Mrs. Baillie Reynolds

  Produced by Al Haines.











  I The Palatine BankII Olwen At HomeIII "What is a Pele Exactly?"IV Her First OfferV Traveller's JoyVI Commencing AcquaintanceVII The Dark TowerVIII The First DayIX Indian MagicX A Queer HouseholdXI Miss Lily MartinXII A Confidence: and Some SpyingXIII Ninian's DefenceXIV A Fresh StartXV A Cold WalkXVI A Little FrictionXVII Balmayne's WarningXVIII VisitorsXIX A DiscoveryXX The PhiltreXXI By the LoughsideXXII The Mile-CastleXXIII What the Dawn BroughtXXIV The Final Warning




  The sleet drove spitefully against the dirty windows of the stuffy roombehind the Palatine Bank in the High Street of Bramforth.

  The air was close, without being warm; a smell of tea and toasted breadlingered upon it. The clock struck, and the girls who sat upon theirhigh stools, cramped over columns of figures, straightened their backswith long sighs of relief.

  "Snakes! What weather!" muttered Miss Hand as she pushed back her stooluntil it almost overbalanced in her efforts to gaze at the Decembernight without.

  "With my usual luck, came without a gamp this morning," grumbled MissTurner, collecting loose sheets with a dexterity born of long practice.

  "And you've got a mile to walk when you get off the tram," exclaimedMiss Donkin sympathetically.

  Mrs. Barnes, who presided, seated not at a desk but at a central table,wiped her pen, looking across the zoom with knitted brows.

  "It has struck, Miss Innes," said she.

  The click of the typewriter went on nevertheless, and the operatorreplied without desisting from her work. "Let me get to the foot of thispage, please."

  There began the rustle and murmur of the girls leaving their places, inwhat was described by the bank managers as "The ladies' room." MabelHirst, a pretty girl with dark eyes, ran to the fire and held herchilblained hands to its warmth. "Oh, my goody," said she, "when willold Storky start in on that 'chauffage centrale' which he is alwaysgassing about?"

  "At the coming of the coquecigrues, I should think," said the voice ofMiss Innes, who now ceased her clicking, rose from her chair, and raisedher arms above her head, breathing a long "A-ah!" of relief.

  "Not that I think it would be much improvement," she went on. "Itprobably wouldn't work. Nothing _does_ work in this old town; and aslong as we have the fire there is at least one place where you can goand thaw now and then."

  An electric bell rang twice.

  "Hallo, Barney, old Storky wants you," said Mabel Hirst. "Beg him toaccept my compliments, and ask if he ever gives compensation forchilblains."

  "Tell him it's my birthday to-morrow!"

  "Say you think my work during this past quarter merits a rise!"

  "Suggest he gives us a Christmas treat--stalls for the panto!"

  The chorus was practically simultaneous, and Mrs. Barnes put her handsover her ears. "I'm far more likely to ask permission to increase thefines for talking," was her parting shaft, as she vanished in obedienceto the summons.

  "You look a bit fagged, Innes," remarked Mabel Hirst, as the typistapproached the fire, and knelt down so that the flames shone upon hersmall, intense face.

  "Oh, it's not fag so much as disgust," she replied, in a voice ofindividual quality. "I don't think I can stick this any longer. Ididn't take a secretarial training in order to type out rows of figuresall day long. I am bored, dears--bored stiff! All my powers arewasting their sweetness on the desert air--or rather the town lack ofair! The desert would be all right. I shouldn't a scrap mind blushingunseen if I had plenty of space to blush in! Ouf! I feel as if Ishould choke!"

  She stared at the fire with firmly folded lips, every line of herslender person seeming to breathe the resentment she felt.

  "It's pretty bad," agreed Miss Turner, who was lacing up her hoots."Suppose nobody's got a raincloak they'll be saint enough to lend?"

  "Yes," replied Miss Innes, "you shall have mine. I brought a gamp, andI haven't far to walk. But look here--mind you bring it back."

  "Course I will. To-morrow without fail, moddum. Oh, this sleet! Itreally is something chronic."

  The dressing-room opened out of the office, but in the absence of Barneythe connecting door stood wide, against all rules, and the girls went inand out, warming their boots before putting them on, commenting on thefrozen water-pipes and kindred grievances, after the manned of theirkind all the world over.

  In the midst of it, the superintendent returned.

  "Hallo! What did the old bird want? Give you the sack, or tell you tobestow it on any of us?"

  "I'm sure it was about a Christmas tree for the young ladies, inrecognition of the fine work they have put in----"

  "Nat quite that, but the next best thing," replied Barney, in a cheerfultone. "In view of the coming heavy work in the New Year, you and I areto have an extra day for Christmas--the 24th to the 28th! What d'youthink of that?"

  There was a whoop of joy, and the babel of voices broke out anew.

  "If only he would give us the day before instead of after," sighed onemalcontent "If we had Christmas Eve now----"

  "My dear, you know that's impossible at a bank. Take your extra day andgive thanks for it. It's more than the men are getting," was therejoinder of Mrs. Barnes.

  "Three whole days!" echoed Blanche Turner. "I shall have forgotten youall by the time we reassemble. Think of that! Shan't know you bysight!"

  "I can easily believe that! Having spent your holiday entirely at the'movies,' your sight will have given out," jeered Miss Donkin. "Thenyou'll lose your job, my girl."

  "I shall go to Leeds, to my aunt!"

  "And I to Driffield."

  "And I home."

  The chatter waxed louder and louder, as gradually girl after girl gotready. Then they began to depart, drifting out by twos and threesthrough a side door into an alley giving upon the High Street.

  Miss Innes was last. She stood alone before the little looking-glassfitting her hat dexterously upon her gleaming hair, her eyesmechanically assisting at the process, but really far away with her busythoughts. She had not anticipated such a violent downpour as greetedher when she emerged into the street; and as she crossed, to await atram, she half regretted her loan of her cloak to Miss Turner. She waslucky enough to get a place in the first car that passed. Ten minutes'journey brought her to the residential suburb of the ugly town, and asshe descended into the road the rain poured down upon her with suchvehemence that she took shelter under a tree for a minute, in order toget her breath and decide what to do

  Struck by a happy idea, she turned into a road close by, and made herway to a detached house, standing inside a wall with two carriage gates.In the comparative shelter of the porch she halted and rang the bell.

  The middle-aged servant who admitted her said with a smile that Mrs.Holroyd and Miss Gracie were in the dining-room.

  Miss Innes wiped the rain from her face, placed her dripping umbrella inthe stand, and opened the door of a hot, over-furnished, but comfortableroom, in which a stout, rather shapeless lady and a good-humoured girlwho would be a duplicate of her mother in twenty years' time, sat at ahuge dining-table strewn with paper, string and parcels.

  "Olwen!" cried Gracie, jumping up with a pleased cry of greeting.

  "Why, how do you do? We're downright pleased to see you. I was sayingto Gracie, it was only yesterday, that Ollie never takes advantage ofour invitation to drop in upon us any night on her way back from thebank. So here we are as usual! Busy with the Christmas packing! Butit's almost done now, and as I say to Gracie, when it's done, it's donefor a year, that's one good thing."

  Olwen kissed the jolly lady. "I feel a regular beggar," said she. "Ihave come in now for the sordid reason that I want to borrow something.And you pay the penalty for being the kindest people I know."

  "My dear! Anything we can lend you!--"

  Olwen explained that her raincoat had been borrowed, and that the stormwas so severe that she feared to reach the Vicarage wet through withoutone. "If Gracie will lend me hers I can leave it as I go down to-morrowmorning," said she.

  "Well, of course! But now you're here, won't you stay the evening?Pa'll be in, and Ben, for supper before so very long, and we'll clear upthis mess in no time. Now do, child! Think how pleased Ben'll be tofind you here!"

  "You are always so kind, but I can't, really. To begin with, I alwaysfeel so soiled in my office frock. Gracie will know what I mean! And,to go on with, this evening is my only time for any little Christmaswork that I have in hand. To-morrow night we shall almost certainly beworking overtime, as they are giving us girls an extra day off, and soyou see I simply must get back."

  "An extra day's holiday! Well, that is a bit of luck, any way. Now sitdown while Gracie gets you a bit of cake and a glass of port, for youlook perished. And tell me how the dear vicar is."

  "Thanks. Grandfather is wonderfully well."

  "That's right, that's right! I daresay he finds Mr. Witherly a greathelp in the parish--so active and energetic! Dear, dear, what a goodthing he bore up so well at the time of your dear grandmother's death.I said to Gracie, I remember, 'My dear, this will mean the break-up ofour vicar.' But, after all, it was not. He bore it nobly, like theChristian he is."

  "Aunt Maud and Aunt Ada take care he shall feel it as little aspossible," replied Olwen. "You see, grand-mamma had been ailing so longbefore her death."

  "Yes, that's true enough," sighed Mrs. Holroyd. "It's a trial, Ollie,as you will find when you get into years, to be taken off your feet, sothat you hinder the ones you have always been used to help. I must sayI am thankful I can still get about."

  "Get about indeed! Walk me off my legs!" put in Gracie dryly.

  It was good to hear her mother's fat, contented laugh.

  "Oh, well, it's your merry heart goes all the day," said she, "and lookwhat a happy woman I've always been, with your father ready to cut offhis head and serve it up in a dish if he'd 'a' thought I wanted it; andsuch good children as I've had; my girls so well married, my boys sowell started, and now me left with Ben, my eldest, and Gracie, myyoungest, and the grandchildren now and then! Now, it was differentwith your poor grandma! One trouble after another! Your poor dearmother's unlucky marriage and sad death! Your Uncle Charles'smisfortune, your Uncle Horace's sad end! Oh, she had her troubles,poor, dear lady, and no doubt she was glad to be at rest at last!"

  Olwen listened with an indulgent smile on her expressive face. Oncelong ago she had determined to count the "poors," the "dears" and"I-said-to-Gracies" in Mrs. Holroyd's talk; but had soon abandoned theenterprise as hopeless. "Did you know that Aunt Ethel and her wholefamily are coming for Christmas?" she asked.

  "No, my dear, is that so? ... Well, of course, not but what there isplenty of room in that great Vicarage for all ... but let me see, howmany children are there? Five, it must be!"

  "Five and a nurse," said Olwen, smiling.

  "Well, but dearie, that is a great expense for the vicar."

  "It is Uncle George who bears it, not grandfather. They bring two oftheir own maids to help ours, and I think everybody enjoys it. Frankand Marjorie are getting quite grown up now."

  "Well, I call that a very nice arrangement, a good old-fashioned way tokeep Christmas. Most sensible! I daresay your Aunt Ethel knew the vicarwould be feeling his loneliness this year, didn't she now?" Mrs.Holroyd expatiated for long on the subject. She was still talking whenthe front door was heard, and Gracie, with a sly glance at Olwen, said:

  "There's Ben, I do believe."

  Olwen had been so comfortable in the easy chair drawn up to the greatfire that she had stayed longer than she intended. Ben Holroyd was thereason why she did not oftener avail herself of his mother's unaffectedkindness. The Holroyds were not aristocratic. In fact, when Mrs.Holroyd said "packing up," her accent came perilously near to the"paacking oop" of the lower orders in Bramforth. They were genuine andhospitable, and the girl's life was starved; not so starved, however,that she was as yet ready to take Ben as a way out.

  He now entered the room, a short, stocky man of five-and-thirty, evennow redder in the face than was strictly becoming, and probably to growmore so as years went on. He had a ragged dark moustache and uneasyeyes, which seemed always apologising. The good-humoured simplicitywhich made one pardon his mother's lack of breeding was wholly absent inhim. He had fixed his heart upon Olwen Innes, who was a very poor matchfrom a pecuniary point of view, but whom he knew to be above himsocially.

  Gracie and Olwen had together received their education at the BramforthHigh School for Girls, wherein Olwen had always been the show pupil andGracie at the bottom of her class. Day by day the two had gone andreturned together, with their satchels and lunch packets, and theresubsisted between them a real friendship. Had it not been for poor Ben,the friendship would have been closer, as Gracie more than suspected.

  His face, as he came in, showed his delight. He sat down by Olwen, andat his mother's instigation earnestly sought to make her reconsider herdecision and stay the evening. She was resolute in her refusal, andMrs. Holroyd, her heart sore for her boy's disappointment, bethought herof the bit of information incautiously let drop before he came in.

  "Never mind, Bennie, we'll do better," said she cheerfully. "Ollie saysthe bank is giving her an extra day's holiday. Now, why can't you andshe and Gracie find somebody to make a fourth, and take the train toLeeds day after Boxing Day? Lunch there, and go to a mattinnay, motherstanding treat. Eh? How's that?"

  Ben and Gracie thought this a brilliant suggestion. Olwen did not seehow to decline it. A matinee at Leeds, where an excellent company wasthen performing, was a treat she seldom obtained. Mrs. Holroyd, proudof her success, ordered Ben to the telephone forthwith to engage seats.After a little more talk, Olwen took her departure, but, as she hadforeboded, Ben thought it necessary to escort her home. She resisted asfirmly as was possible without rudeness, but was obliged at last to givein.

  Warmly wrapped in Gracie's raincoat, she found herself out in the storm,her hand linked to Ben's sturdy arm, while he held one umbrella over thetwo of them.

  "Mind the mud, Miss Olwen. The Council ought to have mended this roadlast summer, as I told my father."

  "Yes, indeed, what is the use of a father in such an exalted position ifhe can't get the road mended outside is own house?" laughed Olwen,hoping to keep this prosaic subject. Inwardly her thoughts ran somewhatthus:

  ... Would it be possible? Would even this be better than her presentlife? ... Always had s
he been surrounded by the hosts of thePhilistines, she who was born, she was very certain, upon the sea-coastof Bohemia! ... It was merely existence, not life, in the shabbyVicarage, with the two parochial aunts, the weary old grandfather andthe periodical inrushes of the Whitefield clan! Her Aunt Ethel hadmarried George Whitefield, a man of no more exalted origin than BenHolroyd. A mill-owner, but a very wealthy one. The Holroyds were onlycomfortable----

  Could it be that she was so utterly contemptible that she was loath toswallow poor Ben merely because the pill was insufficiently gilded? ...Well, it did make a difference. Aunt Ethel lived in a palace. She hadhot-houses and motorcars, her boy had been to the University. Marriagewith Ben would mean a semi-detached villa in a suburb of Bramforth.Dear Mrs. Holroyd would present, and consequently would expect tochoose, the Brussels carpet and rep curtains, and to lay the bestquality cork lino plentifully over halls and passage ways....

  "You can't think how pleased I am that the bank has given you an extraday," Ben was saying when she began to listen. "It doesn't seem rightto me for the likes of you to be working there. Why, Flora Donkin, thebutcher's daughter, is in your room, isn't she?"

  "Certainly she is, and a very good sort. So neat, I love copying outher figures."

  "But it's not the place for you," repeated Ben more fervently. "Youought to have a home of your own, and someone to take care of you allthe time."

  The moment for the inevitable cold water had arrived, and she was forcedto throw it. A declaration at this moment would be more than she couldbear. "Dear me, how Early Victorian you are!" she laughed. "We girlsof the twentieth century don't want people to look after us. We want tolive our own lives, don't you know?"

  He was silent, swallowing down mortification. He had got quite nearthat time! Then: "Gracie doesn't want to do that kind of thing," hemuttered sulkily.

  "Gracie's vocation is very plain. She has a mother who can't do withouther. I have no home ties. I can go where I like and do what I like."

  "And what you like is the baank?"

  She laughed "Oh, the bank's all right!" she told him lightly. Not forworlds would she have divulged to him her deep dissatisfaction withthings as they were. She could not tell him that she had secretly sentan advertisement to the papers only a day or two previously--anadvertisement to which she was at the moment feverishly awaitingreplies. Aloud, she went on: "Gracie and I are great friends, but weare not a bit alike, you know. She is the fine domestic type of woman,but that is just what I'm not. My father, as you know, was the reverseof domestic. I take after him."

  Ben felt very uncomfortable. Madoc Innes, Olwen's father, was what Benwould have described as a "bad hat." He felt any allusion to thisdiscreditable parent to be in the nature of an indelicacy. He knew thatOlwen was capricious and perverse, but he held the steadfast belief ofmany a good man, that she would after marriage turn automatically intojust the woman he would have her be.

  Something in her made special appeal to him, and had always done so,even in the days when she wore short skirts and long black stockings,and her remarkable hair had streamed in the wind, all shaded from duncolour to old gold. The thought of her scapegrace father was the onepoint upon which he was uncertain. Olwen had accomplished herintention. They reached the Vicarage with no further attempt atlove-making on his part.