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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesCharles Rex - Part 2 - Chapter 3. Bunny
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Charles Rex - Part 2 - Chapter 3. Bunny Post by :zamrony Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :1025

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Charles Rex - Part 2 - Chapter 3. Bunny

PART II CHAPTER III. BUNNY

When Saltash arrived that evening he found Bunny and Jake sauntering together in the sunset glow along the gravelled terrace in front of the house. He shot towards them in his car with that characteristic suddenness of his, swerving and coming to a stand before the porch with the confident ease of an alighting bird. And here, seated in the porch and screened by white clematis, he found Maud.

She rose to greet him, her eyes alight with pleasure. "Oh, Charlie," she said, "I have wanted to shake hands with you ever since I heard of your escape."

He bent and kissed the hand she gave him. "Gracious as ever!" he commented lightly. "Had you begun to wear mourning for me, I wonder? It was a very cold bath, I assure you. We didn't enjoy it, any of us."

"I am sure you didn't." Her eyes still dwelt upon the dark face with its half-mocking smile with a species of maternal tenderness. "And you lost your yacht too! That was desperately unlucky."

He made a comic grimace. "I am past the age for crying over spilt milk, Maud of the Roses." He uttered his old name for her with daring assurance. "I have had worse losses than that in my time."

"And still you smile," she said.

He bowed. "A smile can conceal so much." He turned to his host as he came up behind him. "Well, Jake, I've taken you at your word, you see, and intruded into your virtuous household. How are Eileen and Molly and Betty and--last but not least--the son and heir?"

Maud laughed softly. "Well done, Charlie! How clever of you to remember them all!"

"Oh yes, I am quite clever," said Saltash, as again his hand met Jake's. "Too clever sometimes. I needn't ask if all goes well with you, Jake. Your prosperity is obvious, but don't wax fat on it. Bunny now--he's as lean as a giraffe. Can't you do something to him? He looks as if he'd melt into thin air at a touch."

"Oh, don't be an ass!" protested Bunny. "I'm as strong as a horse anyway. Jake, tell him not to be an ass!"

"No good, I'm afraid," said Jake, with his sudden smile. "Come inside, my lord! The children are all flourishing, but in bed at the present moment. The baby--"

"Oh, I must see the baby!" declared Saltash, turning back to Maud.

She laid a hand on his arm. "I will take you to see him after dinner."

"Will you?" He smiled into her eyes. "I shall like that. But I shall probably want to shoot Jake when I come down again. Think it's safe?"

She smiled back at him with confidence. "Yes, I think so. Anyhow, I'm not afraid."

"Come and feed!" said Jake.

They sat down in the pretty oak-panelled dining-room with its windows opening upon the terrace and the long dim line of down. Saltash talked freely of Valrosa, of his subsequent voyaging, of the wreck of _The Night Moth_, but no word did he utter of the gift that had been flung to him on that night of stars in the Mediterranean. He was always completely at his ease in Jake's household, but it was not his way to touch at any time in Maud's presence upon any matter that could not be openly discussed before her. Their intimacy was not without its reservations.

Maud in her quiet happiness detected no hint of restraint in his manner. But he had always been elusive, often subtle. She did not look for candour from Charles Rex--unless she asked for it.

Watching him on that spring evening in the soft glow of the candles, marking the restless play of feature, the agile readiness of his wit, she asked herself, not for the first time, what manner of soul he had behind the mask. Somehow she did not wholly believe in that entity which so often looked jibing forth. Though she could ascribe no reason for it, she had a strong suspicion that the real self that was Saltash was of a different fibre altogether--a thing that had often suffered violence it might be, but nevertheless possessed of that gift of the resurrection which no violence can destroy.

"Why are you dissecting me tonight?" he asked her once and laughed and changed the subject before she could reply.

When dinner was over and she rose, he sprang to open the door for her with that royal _bonhomie of his which somehow gave him the right to enter where others waited for permission.

"Take Bunny with you!" he murmured. "I want to talk to Jake."

She lifted her eyes with a flash of surprise. He bent towards her.

"And afterwards to you, Queen Rose. I shall not forget to claim my privileges in that respect."

She laughed a little, but she obeyed his behest as a matter of course. "Come for a turn in the garden with me, Bunny!" she said. "I've hardly seen you today."

The boy got up, passing Jake with a careless slap on the shoulder that testified to the excellent good fellowship that existed between them.

Saltash turned back into the room, and threw himself down by his host. "That's right," he said as the door closed upon the brother and sister. "Now we can talk."

Jake pushed a box of cigars to him. His keen eyes took Saltash in with the attention of the man accustomed to probe beneath the surface. There were not many who could hide from Jake Bolton anything he desired to know.

Saltash flicked an eyelid under his direct scrutiny as he chose his cigar. He was never more baffling than in his moments of candour.

"There are several things I've come to consult you about, Jake," he said easily, as Jake leaned across with a match.

"I'm listening," said Jake.

Saltash sent him a quizzical glance as his cigar kindled. "Prepared to turn me down at all points?" he suggested.

Jake's mouth relaxed a little. "Prepared to listen anyway," he said. "It's to do with young Bunny, I take it."

Saltash leaned back in his chair with a laugh. "Very smart of you! Bunny certainly is my first proposition. What are you going to do with him?"

Jake also leaned back, and smoked for several seconds in silence. Saltash watched him with semi-comic curiosity.

"Something of a problem, eh?" he said, after a pause.

Jake's eyes came to him and remained upon him with steady insistence. "He's not going to turn into a fancy-dress loafer, my lord," he said at length in his soft, deliberate voice. "I'll see to that anyway."

"Don't be nasty, Jake!" protested Saltash with a smile. "I'm not proposing to adopt him. But I can give him employment, if that's what he's wanting. What do you want to make of him?"

Jake's steady look remained upon him. "Just an honest man, I reckon," he said.

"Ah! Quite so!" Open mockery gleamed back at him from Saltash's half-closed eyes. "All contaminating influences to be kept away. Is that it?"

Jake was silent.

Saltash sent a cloud of smoke upwards before he spoke again. Then: "I agree with you, Jake," he said. "We mustn't spoil the boy. He shan't learn any naughty ways from me. Come! That's a promise. And I'm not such a blackguard as I used to be."

"Sure?" said Jake.

Again Saltash's smile flashed across at him. "Quite sure, my worthy philosopher," he made light reply. "I don't set up for a model of virtue of course, but at least--now-a-days--I never take what I can't pay for."

"That so?" said Jake. He considered the matter for a few moments, then slowly took the cigar from between his lips and spoke. "It's certainly true; Bunny is a problem. He's not strong; and though he's got grit, he hasn't got what I call punching power. He's been ordered an out-door life, and he wants to join me in running the stud. I could do with him of course, but I've a strong feeling against it, anyway till he's older. It's not the right atmosphere for him, and it doesn't bring him in contact with the right people. He ought to be in the Army, but he wasn't strong enough. It's a big grievance with him for there's nothing radically wrong; just weak tendencies that he may outgrow if he leads a healthy life and doesn't strain himself. We're just marking time at present, so if you have anything to suggest--well, I've no doubt he'll be something more than grateful."

"And you?" questioned Saltash, with a grimace at the ceiling.

"I too," said Jake, "if it's for the boy's good."

"You needn't hold a pistol at my head," protested Saltash. "I shan't put him in the way of any short cuts to the devil. All I have to offer him is the post of bailiff at Burchester Castle, as old Bishop has got beyond his job. I can't turn the old beggar out, but I want a young man to take the burden off his shoulders. Do you think that sort of thing would be beneath Bunny's dignity, or likely to upset his morals?"

"He'd probably jump at the chance," said Jake.

"Which is more than his worthy brother-in-law does on his behalf," grinned Saltash.

"No," Jake's steady eyes met the gibe unfaltering. "I know it's a chance that doesn't come every day, and I know you mean well by him. I shan't put any hindrance in the way."

"Then it's done," said Saltash. "Bunny's fate is sealed."

"I hope not." Jake still gravely watched him, but not as if he sought for anything in the baffling, mobile countenance. "What do you want him for anyway?"

Saltash flicked the ash from his cigar. "Perhaps I'm turning philanthropist, Jake. Do you know the symptoms? I've been anxious about myself several times lately."

"Come on rather suddenly, hasn't it?" suggested Jake.

Saltash nodded. "It's old age, I fancy. Anyhow I've a notion for doing Bunny a good turn. The boy can have play as well as work. He can join the polo-club at Fairharbour. I'll introduce him."

"And where will he live?" asked Jake.

"With the old Bishops of course. He'll be safe enough with them and within reach of you and Maud at the same time. It's time you eased the leading string a bit, you know. He'll start kicking if you don't."

"I don't think so," said Jake. "He goes his own way already quite as much as is good for him. I don't need to hold him in very tight either. He's not the bolting sort."

"You mean you've trained him well," laughed Saltash. "I congratulate you. You've a genius for that sort of thing, Jake. The boy will probably answer to your lightest touch and never even know he does it."

"What was the other thing you wanted to say to me?" said Jake.

"Oh that!" Saltash's eyes fell suddenly to his empty wine glass. He fingered the stem of it for a few seconds with a curiously irresolute air. "Do you know I think I'll put it to Maud first!" he said at length, with a smile that was faintly shamefaced.

"It'll come to the same thing," said Jake.

Saltash's eyes flashed upwards. He met Jake's look almost with defiance. "Doubtless you are master in your own house, Jake," he said. "Far be it from me to question it."

"I didn't mean that," said Jake. "What I meant was," the red-brown eyes began to smile, "that Maud and I are friends--and we generally want the same thing."

Saltash nodded. "Not so bad after eight years," he said.

"No. It's pretty great," said Jake. "You'd think we were an ill-matched pair, wouldn't you? But we've learnt to plough as straight a furrow as anyone."

"No, I don't think you ill-matched," said Saltash unexpectedly. "You've always been about the same height and breadth, my friend. I saw that a long time ago. The luckiest day that ever dawned for Maud was the one on which you cut me out."

"Think so?" said Jake. "Well, it wasn't a very lucky one for you, I'm afraid."

"I got over it," said Saltash lightly. "I'm too great a rotter, you know, Jake, to take things much to heart. I've loved heaps of women since--even some good ones. But they never take me seriously; so I presume I shall continue to rot."

"Thought you'd turned sober," suggested Jake.

Again Saltash's look dwelt upon the ruby drain in his wine-glass. For a moment the restlessness of his face deepened to something very nearly approaching melancholy.

"I'm tired, Jake," he said abruptly. "I've run through the whole gamut of amusements, and I'm bored to the soul. I want to do a good turn to somebody--just for a change--to see what it feels like. Perhaps--who knows--it may take the taste of rottenness out of my mouth. You fellows who lead a decent, orderly life don't know what it is when the wine turns to vinegar and all the sweets of life to gall."

"Sounds pretty damnable," said Jake.

Saltash grimaced like a weary monkey. "It's dust and ashes, my good Jake. But we won't discuss it. Let's come to business! You know Larpent--my captain--quite one of the best?"

Jake nodded. "I've met him--yes."

Saltash flung himself back in his chair smoking rapidly. "He was damaged when the yacht went down. He's in a nursing home in town, getting better. He's got a daughter--a girl called Antoinette. She's been at school in France, and Larpent was bringing her home in the yacht when we went down. She's nineteen--a jolly little thing--half French. Larpent doesn't know what to do with her. He has no people. She--quite properly--wants to earn her own living. But she's too young yet to fight the world. Larpent's a rover, he'll never settle on land. She's never had any home life, poor kid. And she wants it. You'll say it's like my damned cheek to come to you, but on my life you and Maud are the only people I can think of. There's my old friend Lady Jo--Mrs. Green as she prefers to be called--but she isn't very strong just now. I can't bother her. Besides she hasn't got a home like yours. She's up in town."

The jerky utterance came to an end. Saltash turned his head towards Jake, watching him half furtively through the smoke.

There followed a silence of some duration. Jake's brows were slightly drawn. He spoke at last, slowly and softly as his manner was. "Are you suggesting that--Captain Larpent's daughter--should come to us?"

"She'd be useful enough," said Saltash in his quick, vehement way. "She'd help Maud with the children. There's nothing she wouldn't do. It would be a kindness on your part, and you wouldn't regret it. She's a taking little thing. I'd like you to have her for a month, and if you don't want to keep her after that--well--shunt her back on to Larpent. He'll be well by that time. If he isn't--I'll look after her till he is."

"Who's looking after her now?" said Jake. "Where is she?"

Saltash pushed back his chair with a movement of impatience. "Did you think I'd bring her to Burchester for all the county to blab about? She's under my protection--and she's safe." He spoke with a certain fierceness, and in a moment was pacing the room, his face arrogantly lifted. "I know very well the sort of story that's going round, but if you're a white man you'll help me to give it the lie. I know I'm a blackguard, Jake,--never pretended to be anything else. But I hope I'm a gentleman as well--at least where women are concerned. That child is none the worse in mind or body for being thrown on my hands. You've got to believe that."

"All right," said Jake.

Saltash paced jerkily on, his hands behind him. "I want you to have her because you're straight, and she'll come to no harm with you. You never even parley with the devil, do you, Jake? Remember that time--it's ten years ago, more--when a man tried to tempt you to tamper with one of your horses and you horsewhipped him for his baseness."

"I prefer not to remember it, my lord," said Jake.

Saltash stopped suddenly by his chair and gripped his shoulder with a wiry hand. "I've liked you ever since," he said. "Look here, Jake! I'm not tempting you to do anything wrong now. I'm asking you to do something that doesn't appeal to you; but if you do it, it'll be one of the most decent actions of your life. That child is quite alone just now--except for me. Will you take her--like a good chap--till something else safe turns up?"

Jake sat slowly forward. "I'll have to talk it over with Maud," he said.

Saltash's grip shifted impatiently. "You know very well what Maud will say. Don't be an ass about it! Say No--if you mean to say No--at once!"

There came the quiet tread of approaching feet on the gravelled terrace and the sound of low voices talking together. Jake lifted his head. His face was grim. He looked Saltash straight in the eyes.

"You've told me the plain truth about her. You swear it?"

Saltash's swarthy countenance was in shadow, but those strange eyes of his gleamed oddly, with the sort of fitful shining that comes from a coat of mail in an uncertain light. They did not flinch from Jake's straight regard, neither did they wholly meet it.

"Is my oath really more valuable than my word, Jake?" he said, with a wry twist of the lips. "Most people don't find it so."

Jake stood up, a figure square and forceful. For a moment he faced Saltash with a level scrutiny that--possibly--pierced the coat of mail. Then abruptly he smiled. "I will take your word, my lord," he said.

"And the child?" said Saltash.

Jake nodded. "The child too--if Maud agrees."

"Thanks," said Saltash, and smiled back at Jake--the smile that gave his ugly face so great a charm. "I am obliged to you, Jake. I think Maud will agree."

"Shall we go to her?" said Jake.

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