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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesCharles Rex - Part 2 - Chapter 11. The Butterfly
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Charles Rex - Part 2 - Chapter 11. The Butterfly Post by :zamrony Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :1431

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Charles Rex - Part 2 - Chapter 11. The Butterfly

PART II CHAPTER XI. THE BUTTERFLY

The perfect rose of a June sunset was slanting through the fir-woods of Burchester Park, making the red trunks glow. At the end of a long grass ride the new moon dipped to the west, a silver boat uptilted in a green transparent sea. A very great stillness lay upon all things--the eventide quiet of a summer day.

The dull thudding of a horse's hoofs along the ride scarcely seemed to break that magic silence. A frightened rabbit scurrying to cover made no sound at all. Somewhere a long way off a cuckoo was calling, tenderly, persistently. Somewhere near at hand a blackbird was warbling to his mate. But it all went into the enchanted silence, blending with the hush of the coming night. The man who rode the horse was conscious only of the peace of his surroundings. He doffed his cap to the moon in mock reverence, and carried it in his hand.

He came to the end of the ride and checked his animal on the brow of a steep descent. The park lay below him wrapped in mystery. On another slope a full mile away stood the Castle, ancient battlemented, starkly splendid, one westward-facing window burning as with fire. He sat motionless for a space, gazing across at it, his face a curious mask of conjecture and regret.

Finally, with great suddenness, he lifted his hand and smote his horse sharply on the flank. In a moment he was being precipitated at a headlong gallop down the hill. He went like the wind, and the enchanted wood was left behind.

Riding up the further slope to the Castle a few minutes later, he was hailed from behind and reined in to look back. A long-legged figure detached itself from a clump of trees that shadowed the bailiff's house and came racing in pursuit.

"Hi! Charlie! Don't be in such a deuce of a hurry! I'm going your way."

Saltash waited, not too patiently. "My good chap, you're dressed and I'm not! I shall be late for my guests."

"What's it matter?" scoffed Bunny breathlessly, reaching his side. "Maud and Jake don't count, and Toby is only a kid. I don't suppose she's ever been out to dine before."

"She's old enough to begin," remarked Saltash, pushing on at a walk.

"Well, she is beginning," said Bunny, with a grin as he strode beside him. "You haven't seen her for some weeks, have you? You'll see a difference, and so will her father."

"How?" said Saltash briefly.

Bunny's grin became more pronounced. "Oh, it's chiefly clothes. Maud is rather clever in that line, you know. I haven't seen a great deal of her lately. She's generally scampering round on horseback with Jake. But once or twice--with Maud--I've seen her look quite demure. She's really getting almost good-looking," he added dispassionately.

Saltash flung a swift look downwards. "Don't you approve?"

Bunny shrugged his shoulders. "I don't see enough of her to care either way. She's still a kid, you know,--quite a kid."

Saltash dropped the subject abruptly. "You're liking your job all right?"

"Rather!" Bunny made instant and enthusiastic reply. "It's just the sort of thing I was made for. Old Bishop's a brick. We're getting quite fond of one another."

"Sort of life you enjoy?" questioned Saltash.

"Oh, rather! I've always thought I'd like to manage a big estate. Wish I'd got one of my own."

"All right. I'll adopt you," laughed Saltash. "You shall be the son of my old age."

"Oh, don't be an ass!" protested Bunny. "Why on earth don't you get married?"

Saltash's brows twisted wryly. "Afraid I've lived too long, _mon cher_. If I had married your sister in the long ago, things might have been vastly different. As it is, I see no prospect of changing my state. Think it matters?"

"Well, it's rather a shame to let a good name die out," maintained Bunny. "And of course it's rot to talk like that about Maud. You can't pretend to have stayed in love with her all these years. There must have been heaps of others since then."

"No, I'm not pretending," said Saltash. "As you say, there have been--heaps of others." He made an odd gesture towards the western sky behind him. "There are always--heaps of stars, Bunny; but there's never more than one moon."

"Rot!" said Bunny.

"It is, isn't it?" said Saltash, and laughed with brief derision. "Well, I must get on. You can do the receiving if I'm late. Tell them I've been in town and only got back at mid-day! You needn't bother about Larpent. I'll see to him."

He flicked his horse's neck and was off with the words.

Bunny, striding after, watched him ride swiftly up the slope till the fir-trees of the avenue hid him from view.

"Queer fish!" he murmured to himself. "Very queer fish!"

He entered the Castle a little later by the great stone hall and found it lighted from end to end as if in preparation for a reception. He had known the place for years, but it always struck him afresh with its magnificence. It looked like a palace of kings. There were some beautiful pieces of statuary both in marble and bronze, and upon each of these a shaded light shone.

At the end of the hall a wide oak staircase that branched mid-way led to an oak gallery that ran round three sides of the hall, and where it divided a high door stood open, showing a lighted room beyond. Bunny left his coat with the silent-stepping butler and went straight up the shallow stairs.

He entered the stately apartment at the top expecting to find it empty. It was the drawing-room--a vast and lofty chamber with satin-covered walls, superbly furnished with old French furniture in royal blue velvet and gilt. There was a further room beyond, but Bunny did not pursue his way thither, for a man in evening-dress turned suddenly from one of the great southward-facing windows and moved to meet him.

He was a gaunt man with a trim beard and the eyes of the sea-farer, and he walked with a slight roll as if accustomed to pitching decks.

"Sir Bernard Brian?" he said.

Bunny held out his hand. "You're Captain Larpent, of course. I wonder we've never met before. I've heard of you often enough. Sorry you had such bad luck with _The Night Moth."

"Oh, damnable luck!" said the sailor gloomily.

"Still you came out of it alive," said Bunny consolingly. "And your daughter too. Things might have been worse."

Larpent grunted. "Think so?"

"She does anyway," said Bunny, with a grin.

Larpent grunted again. "Shipboard is not the place for a girl," he remarked.

"Toby seems more at home on horseback than anywhere else," said Bunny.

Larpent gave him a keen look. "Oh, she still goes by that name, does she?" he said.

"What do you call her?" said Bunny.

Larpent snapped his fingers curtly.

"Does she come for that?" asked Bunny.

"Usually," said Larpent.

"Then she's more docile than I thought she was," commented Bunny.

Larpent said nothing. He propped himself against the high mantelpiece and stared morosely out before him to the pine-clad slopes of the park.

"How you must hate being ashore!" said Bunny.

"Why do you say that?" Larpent scarcely removed his moody gaze.

"You look as if you did." There was a hint of chaff in Bunny's voice. He surveyed the gaunt man with humorous interest, seated on one of the gilt chairs with his hands clasped round his knee. "I suppose Saltash will buy another yacht, won't he?"

Larpent's eyes came definitely down to him, grimly contemptuous. "Do you also suppose that would be the same thing?" he said.

Bunny flushed a little, but he accepted the rebuff with a good grace. "I don't know, sir. You see, I've never been the captain of a yacht."

Larpent's hard visage relaxed a little. He resumed his contemplation of the distant pine-woods in silence.

Bunny got up whistling and began to stroll about the room. He was never still for long. He was not very familiar with the state reception-rooms of Burchester Castle and he found plenty to interest him.

Several minutes passed, and he had almost forgotten the silent man who leaned against the fire-place, when suddenly Larpent came out of his melancholy reverie and spoke.

"How long has the child been with these Boltons?"

Bunny paused at the further end of the room. "Let's see! It must be some time now--practically ever since the wreck. It must be about six weeks. Yes; she came just before I left to take on this job--the week of the Graydown Meetings." Bunny's eyes kindled at the memory. "We had some sport the day she came, I remember; quite a little flutter. In fact we soared so high that I thought we were going to create a sensation, and then"--Bunny whistled dramatically--"down we came with a rush, and I was broke!" He began to laugh. "It's rather a shame to tell you, isn't it? But you won't give me away? We've never done it since."

"I shan't give anyone away," said Larpent grimly.

"Good! You're a sport, I can see."

The genuine appreciation in Bunny's voice brought an icy glimmer of amusement to the elder man's eyes, but he made no verbal comment.

Again a silence fell, and Bunny came strolling back, a smile on his handsome boyish face.

"Fine place this," he remarked presently. "It's a pity Saltash is here so little. He only comes about three times a year, and then only for a couple of nights at a time. There's heaps of game in the woods and no one to shoot it."

"He probably knows his own business best," remarked Larpent.

"Oh, probably. But the place is wasted on him for all that." Bunny spoke with a frown. "Why on earth he doesn't marry and settle down I can't think. Can't you persuade him to?"

"No," said Larpent quite definitely.

Bunny glanced at him. "I don't know why not. I know he's considered to have gone the pace a bit, but after all he's no worse than a hundred others. Why the devil shouldn't he marry?"

Larpent shrugged his shoulders. "Don't ask me!" he said.

"Well, he ought to," maintained Bunny. "If you have any influence with him, you ought to persuade him to."

"I haven't," said Larpent.

Bunny flung away impatiently. "It's a confounded shame--a gorgeous family place like this and no one but servants to live in it!"

"It is, isn't it?" gibed Saltash, unexpectedly entering from the further door. "Large enough for fifty wives, eh, Bunny? Well, as I said before, you get married and I'll adopt you. It'll save me a lot of trouble. You're so keen on recommending the marriage medicine to other people. Try it yourself, and see how you like it!"

He walked straight down the long room with the words, passing both Larpent and Bunny on his way, pausing by neither. "I like to hear you two discussing my case," he jested. "You, Bunny, who have never had the great disease, and Larpent who has never got over it!"

He approached the open door that led out upon the great staircase, the jest still on his lips and the laughter in his eyes. He reached it and stretched out both hands with a fine gesture of greeting.

"Welcome to my poor hovel!" he said. "Madam, I kneel at your feet."

A clear high laugh answered him from below, and both of his companions turned sharply at the sound.

A figure in white, girlish, fresh as the morning, sprang suddenly into view. Her eager face had the delicate flush of a wild rose. The hair clustered about her temples in tender ringlets of gold. Her eyes, blue and shining, gave her the look of a child just awakened from happy sleep--a child that expects to be lifted up and kissed.

"By--Jove!" murmured Bunny under his breath, staring openly. "By--Jove!"

And these words failed him. He had never been so astounded in his life. This girl--this funny little Toby with the sharp features and pointed chin, the girl-urchin with whom he had chaffed and played--was actually a beauty, and till that amazing moment he had not realized the fact.

As he went forward to greet her, he saw that Larpent was staring also, and he chuckled inwardly at the sight. Decidedly it must be a worse shock for Larpent than it was for himself, he reflected. For at least he had seen her in the chrysalis stage, though most certainly he had never expected this wonderful butterfly to emerge.

Maud, of course, was the witch who had worked the marvellous transformation, Maud with her tender mother-wisdom that divined so much. He looked at her now, and wondered as he met her smile if she fully realized what she had done.

Across the wonder came Saltash's quizzing voice--"_Mais, Nonette, Nonette_, you are a vision for the gods!"

And a curious hot pang that was like a physical stab went through Bunny. How dared Charlie use that caressing tone to her--as though she were a mere ordinary woman to be trifled with and cajoled? He had never disapproved of Saltash before, but for that moment he almost hated him. She was too young, too sweet, too--different--to be treated thus.

And then he was standing close to her, and Saltash, laughing, pushed him forward. "Do you know this fellow, _ma chere_?"

The wide blue eyes came up to his with a pleased smile of comradeship. "Why, it's Bunny!" the clear voice said. "I'm so glad you're here too--in this ogre's castle."

Her hand gave his a little confiding squeeze, and Bunny's fingers gripped in answer. He realized suddenly that she was nervous, and all the ready chivalry of his nature rose up to protect her. For a moment or two he kept her hand close in his own.

Then Saltash airily took it from him. "Come!" he said lightly. "Here is someone else you ought to know!"

He wheeled her round with the words. She came face to face with Larpent. There was an instant of dead silence, then Toby uttered a little quivering laugh.

"Hullo--Captain!" she said

"Hullo!" said Larpent, paused a moment, then abruptly took her by the chin, and, stooping, touched the wide brow with his lips. "All right?" he asked gruffly.

Toby gave a little gasp; she seemed to be trembling. But in a second she laughed again, with more assurance. "Yes, all right, captain," she said. "I--I--I'm glad to see you again. You all right too?"

Bunny, looking on, made the abrupt discovery that Larpent also was embarrassed. It was Saltash who answered for him, covering the moment's awkwardness with the innate ease of manner which never seemed to desert him.

"Of course he's all right. Don't you worry about him! We're going to buy him another boat as soon as the insurance Company have done talking. Maud, this is my captain, the finest yachtsman you've ever met and my very good friend."

He threw his merry, dare-devil glance at Larpent as he made the introduction, and turned immediately to Jake.

"You two ought to get on all right. He disapproves of me almost as strongly as you do, and--like you--he endures me, he knows not wherefore!"

Jake's red-brown eyes held a smile that made his rugged face look kindly as he made reply. "Maybe we both have the sense to spot a winner when we see one, my lord."

Saltash's brows went up derisively. "And maybe you'll both lose good money on the gamble before you've done."

"I think not," said Jake, in his steady drawl. "I've known many a worse starter than you get home on the straight."

Saltash laughed aloud, and Toby turned with flushed cheeks and lifted eyes, alight and ardent, to her hero's face.

Saltash's glance flashed round to her, the monkeyish grin still about his mouth, and from her to Bunny who stood behind. He did not speak for a moment. Then: "No; you've never known a worse starter, Jake," he said; "and if I do get home on the straight it will be thanks to you."

Very curiously from that moment Bunny found his brief resentment dead.

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