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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesCharles Rex - Part 2 - Chapter 9. The Idol
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Charles Rex - Part 2 - Chapter 9. The Idol Post by :zamrony Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :637

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Charles Rex - Part 2 - Chapter 9. The Idol


"Well?" said Saltash with quizzical interest. "Where is she? And how is she getting on?"

It was the Sunday afternoon of his promised visit, a day soft with spring showers and fleeting sunshine. Maud sat in a basket-chair on the verandah and regarded him with puzzled eyes. She passed his questions by.

"Charlie," she said, "where does she come from?"

He raised his shoulders expressively. "Where do all women come from--and why, _chere reine_? It would be such a peaceful planet without them."

He was in a baffling mood, and she knew better than to pursue the subject under those conditions. She abandoned her effort with a sigh.

"She is not a woman; she is a child, very charming but utterly irresponsible. She is in the training field just now with Jake and Bunny. She is a positive delight to Jake. She can do anything with the horses."

"But not such a delight to you?" suggested Saltash shrewdly.

Maud hesitated momentarily. "I love her of course," she said then. "But--though I have tried to make her feel at ease--I think she is a little afraid of me--afraid anyhow to be quite natural in my presence."

"But are we any of us that?" protested Saltash. "Are we not all on our best behaviour in the audience-chamber?"

Maud sighed again. "They are all great pals," she said irrelevantly. "She and Bunny are terribly reckless. I hope they won't break their necks before they have done."

"Or their hearts?" suggested Saltash, looking mischievous.

She smiled. "I don't think there is much danger of that, anyhow at present. She is a positive child, Charlie,--as young as Eileen in many ways, or perhaps younger. Shall we walk down to the field and look at them?"

"Your servant, madam!" said Saltash readily.

He was on his feet in an instant, and she realized that he had been chafing to go since the moment of his arrival.

"You take a great interest in her," she remarked, as they walked along the terrace.

He made his most appalling grimace. "I have never had an infant to look after before," he said "And--I have to make my report to Larpent."

"Ah! How is he?" questioned Maud.

He shot her a swift glance. "Is the child anxious?"

"Not in the least. I don't believe she ever thinks about him. She told me on the first day that she hardly knows him."

Saltash laughed. "How honest of her! Well, he's getting better, but he won't be well yet. May I leave her in your charge, a while longer?"

"Of course!" Maud said warmly. "I love to have her, and she is a great help to me too. The children simply worship her, and she is splendid with them. I believe Eileen will very soon get over her dread of riding."

"Toby can ride?" asked Saltash.

"Oh yes, like a cow-boy. She is amazingly fearless, and never minds a tumble in the least. She can do the most extraordinary things exactly like a boy. I am always afraid of her coming to grief, but she never does."

"Funny little beggar!" said Saltash.

"I am quite sure of one thing," pursued Maud. "She never learnt these things at any school. She tells me she has been to a good many."

"I believe that's true," said Saltash. "I imagine she is fairly quick to pick up anything, but I haven't known her myself for long."

"She must have picked up a good deal on _The Night Moth_," observed Maud unexpectedly.

He glanced at her again. "Why do you say that? She was under my protection--and Larpent's--on _The Night Moth_."

"I know. She idolizes you," Maud smiled at him somewhat dubiously. "But she must have mixed fairly freely with the crew to have picked up the really amazing language she sometimes uses."

Saltash's brows worked whimsically. "Some of us have a gift that way," he remarked. "Your worthy Jake, for instance--"

"Oh, Jake is a reformed character," she interrupted. "He hardly ever lets himself go now-a-days. And he won't allow it from Bunny. But Toby--Toby never seems to know the good from the bad."

"Has Jake taken her in hand?" asked Saltash with a chuckle.

"Oh yes. He checks her at every turn. I must say she takes it very sweetly, even offered to take her meals in her room yesterday when he was rather down on her. It absolutely disarmed Jake of course. What could he say?"

"Yes, she's a disarming monkey certainly," agreed Saltash. "But I never was great on the management and discipline of children. So she knocks under to the great Jake, does she?"

"Oh, not entirely." Maud laughed a little. "Only this morning they had a battle. I don't know how it is going to end yet. But--she can be very firm."

"She never tried any battles with me," said Saltash, with some complacence.

"No. But then your sense of duty is more elastic than Jake's. You never--probably--asked her to do anything she didn't want to do."

"Can't remember," said Saltash. "What did Jake want?"

Maud's smile lingered. "You'll laugh of course. But Jake is quite right, whatever you do. He wanted her to go to church with little Eileen and me this morning. She's only a child, you know, and he naturally took it for granted that she was going. We both did. But just at the last moment she absolutely refused, told him quite frankly that she was--an atheist."

Saltash's laugh had a sound half-mocking, half-exultant. "What said the worthy Jake to that? Stop! I know what he said. He said. 'You can call yourself by any fool name you please, but you've got to go to Church like a respectable citizen if I say so.' Wasn't that it?"

"Something like it," Maud admitted. "How did you know?"

"Oh, I know Jake," said Saltash dryly. "And what happened then? She refused?"

"Yes, she refused. She was frightened, but she refused. She looked as if she were going to run away, but in the end Jake went off with her to the stables saying they would go to-night. They were quite friends when I saw them again, but she had been crying, poor little thing. I wish I could help her, but somehow I can't get near enough. Jake seems to understand her best."

"Wonder if she will give in?" said Saltash.

They were passing through a shrubbery that led to the training-field, and there came the quick thud of hoofs galloping on short turf as they approached.

"I don't think there is much doubt about that," Maud said.

Saltash laughed again mockingly. "Oh, we all know Jake is invincible, virtuous rectitude incarnate. But you can't hammer a girl into submission like a boy and I rather fancy that Toby is not wholly ignorant of the art of getting her own way."

"Jake never hammered Bunny," Maud said quietly, "But he manages him notwithstanding."

They rounded a curve and came upon the gate that led into the field. The galloping hoofs were close to them. As they reached the corner two riders flashed past at full speed. One of them--Bunny--lay on his horse's neck, yelling wild encouragement to his mount. The other,--a slight, childish figure--was kneeling on the saddle like a small, crouching creature, perfectly poised and wholly unafraid. As the horse that carried her dropped to a canter on the hill, she got to her feet with absolute ease, and stood, arms out and swaying to the animal's motion, till, as they rounded another curve, she dropped to the saddle again, and passed from sight, following in Bunny's tracks.

"Quite a pretty exhibition!" remarked Saltash. "Where is Jake?"

Jake himself appeared at the moment riding soberly, mounted on his favourite horse, The Hundredth Chance. He greeted Saltash with a smile and jumped to the ground to join them at the gate.

"They'll be round again directly. Just riding off their spirits," he explained in his easy drawl. "You motored over, my lord?"

Saltash nodded with a touch of impatience. He was watching with restless eyes for the reappearance of the girl on horseback. She had not seen him at the gate, yet somehow his arrogance rebelled at the fact that she had passed him by.

Jake stood with The Hundredth Chance nuzzling against him. He did not trouble himself to make conversation; that was not his way. He also waited for the reappearance of the riders.

They came, riding side by side and jesting with careless _camaraderie_. Toby's face was delicately flushed. The fair head had no covering. She was dressed and looked exactly like a boy.

At sight of Saltash standing by the gate her whole attitude changed. She uttered a queer sound, half-whoop, half-sob, and flung herself out of the saddle. In a moment she had reached him, was hanging to his arm in mute greeting, everything else in the world forgotten. It was pathetically like the re-union of a lost dog to its master.

Saltash's ugly face softened miraculously at her action. The jest died on his lips. "Why, Nonette!" he said. "Nonette!"

She strangled another sob. Her face was burning, quivering, appealing, no longer the face of a boy. "I thought you'd forgotten to come," she said.

"What? Was I expected to lunch?" said Saltash. "Ah! Was that why you wouldn't go to church?"

Toby looked up, desperately smiling. "It may have been--partly. But I never do go. Do you?"

"Not often," said Saltash. "I might if I stayed here. There's no knowing. You'll be pleased to hear your daddy is better. He's coming down to the Castle to convalesce. And when he's done that, I'm going to have a party--a coming-out party--for you."

"For me!" Toby gasped, staring at him with scared blue eyes. "I hope you won't, sir," she said.

He laughed back at her, his brows working mischievously. "_Mais pourquoi pas, mignonne? You are old enough. Maud will come and be hostess, won't you, Maud? You shall have Jake too for a watch-dog, if you want him. After that, you shall be presented at Court, when you've learnt to curtsey prettily instead of turning somersaults. You must let your hair grow, Nonette, and leave off wearing breeks. You've got to be a credit to me."

"Oh, damn!" said Toby in dismay. "I mean--oh, bother!"

"Yes, it's a good thing you mean only that, isn't it?" laughed Saltash. "If you go on wearing those masculine things much longer, you'll have Jake punching your head for little slips of that kind. He's getting mighty particular, I'm told."

"Not afraid of Jake!" said Toby, casting a swift look at her host.

Jake was lighting his pipe. His face wore a faint smile. He was holding Toby's animal as well as his own. "Aren't you going to ride again?" he said.

"No," said Toby.

"Oh, come on!" Bunny pushed his horse forward without dismounting. "Glad to see you, Charlie, but we must have one more gallop. Come on, Toby! Be a sport!"

But Toby, still holding Saltash's sleeve, would not so much as look at him. "Not coming," she said tersely.

Saltash laughed. Bunny coloured suddenly and hotly. "Oh, all right!" he said, and, wheeling his horse, rode away.

"Now you've hurt his little feelings," observed Saltash.

"Who cares?" said Toby, and nestled closer, till with his sudden reckless grin he thrust an arm about her shoulders.

"I'll tell you what it is, Nonette. You're getting spoilt all round. Something will have to be done. Shall I take her away, Jake?"

"And bring me back when I'm good?" put in Toby eagerly.

He laughed and pinched her ear. "I shall want to keep you myself--when you're good. I haven't yet found anyone to sew on buttons like you do. No, _ma chere_, you'll have to stay and be caned for your sins. Jake is a better schoolmaster than I am, being so eminently virtuous himself. I hope you do cane her, Jake. I'm sure she needs it."

"No," Jake said, preparing to mount again. "I haven't tried that at present."

Toby watched him a little wistfully as he moved away, leading her horse. "I am trying to be good," she said. "He knows that."

"Yes, she's trying hard," Maud said very kindly. "Jake and I are going to be proud of her some day."

Saltash's brows twisted humorously. "I wonder," he said. And then again lightly he laughed. "Don't get too good, Nonette! I can't rise to it."

She turned swiftly, looking up into the derisive face above her with open adoration in her own. "You!" she said. "You!"

"Well, what about me?" he said.

She coloured very deeply. "Nothing, sir, nothing! Only--you're so great!"

He flicked her cheek, grimacing hideously. "Is that your pretty way of telling me I'm the biggest rotter you ever met?"

"Oh, no!" said Toby quickly and earnestly. "Oh no! I think you are--a king. If--if anyone could make me believe in God, you could."

She spoke with a sincerity that held a hint of passion. The grimace flicked out of Saltash's face like a picture from a screen. For a moment he had the blank look of a man who has been hit, he knows not where. Then with lightning swiftness, his eyes went to Maud. "You hear that?" he said, almost on a note of challenge. "Why don't you laugh?"

She met his look with absolute steadfastness. There was a certain pity in her own. "Because," she said with great gentleness, "I believe that it is true."

In the silence that followed she waited for his own laugh of mockery and did not hear it. The odd eyes comprehended her, and passed her by, fell abruptly to Toby and dwelt upon her with a whimsical tenderness.

"I always said you were a little ass, didn't I, Toby?" he said.

And Toby turned with an apologetic murmur and softly kissed his hand.

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