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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesCharles Rex - Part 3 - Chapter 4. The Trap
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Charles Rex - Part 3 - Chapter 4. The Trap Post by :neiltown Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :2412

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Charles Rex - Part 3 - Chapter 4. The Trap

PART III CHAPTER IV. THE TRAP

It was an evening of golden silence, and the larch copse in its stillness was like an enchanted wood. Now and then something moved in the undergrowth with a swift rustle or a blackbird raised a long ripple of alarm. But for the most part all was still. No breeze came up the hillside, and in the west a long black line of cloud lay like a barrier across the sun, so that great rays slanted out over land and sea, transforming all things with their radiance.

A soft low whistle broke the stillness or mingled with it. A snatch of melody came like the strains of a fairy pipe from the edge of the larch wood. Again there came a sharp movement in some long grass near the gate that led from the open down into the Burchester estate. It sounded as if some small imprisoned creature were fighting for freedom. Then in another moment there came the rush and snuffle of a questing dog, and old Chops the setter came bursting through the hedge that bordered the wood.

He flung himself through the long grass with an agility that belied his advancing years, and in an instant there arose a cry that seemed to thrill the whole wood with horror. The enchanted silence broke upon it like the shivering of a crystal ball, for as Chops pounced another cry rang clear and commanding from the other side of the hedge.

"Chops! Back! Back! Do you hear, Chops? Come back."

Chops did not come back, but he paused above his quarry, and looked round with open jaws and lolling tongue. If it had been his master who thus called him, he would have obeyed on the instant. But Toby was a different matter, and the frantic, struggling thing in front of him was a sore temptation.

His brief hesitation, however, lost him the game. Her light feet raced through the grass with the speed of wings, and she threw herself over the gate and upon him before he could make good his claim. He found himself thrust back, and the long habit of obedience had conquered instinct before it could reassert itself. She dropped upon her knees beside the thing in the grass and discovered a young hare caught in a snare.

It was a very ordinary poacher's contrivance fashioned of wire. The little animal was fairly caught round the body, and the cruel tension of the gin testified to his anguished and futile struggles for freedom. The wire had cut into his shoulder, and his bolting eyes were wild with terror. It was no easy task to loosen the trap, and there was blood on Toby's hands as she strove to release the straining, frenzied creature.

She was far too deeply engrossed in the matter to heed any sound of approaching feet, and when the thud of a horse's hoofs suddenly fell on the turf close to her she did not raise her head. But she did look up startled when two hands swooped down from above her and gripped the hare with a vice-like strength that stilled all struggling.

"He will claw you to pieces," said Bunny bluntly. "Shall I kill him? He's damaged. Or do you want to let him go?"

"Oh, let him go--of course!" cried Toby, dragging reckless at the wire. "See, it's coming now! Hold him tight while I slip it off!"

The wire slipped at last. She forced it loose, and the victim was free. Bunny turned to lay him in the grass, and Toby sprang upon Chops and held him fast. She was crying, fiercely, angrily.

"How dare they set that cruel thing? How dare they? He isn't dead, is he? Why doesn't he run away?"

"He's hurt," said Bunny. "Let me kill him! Let Chops finish him!"

"No, no, no, no!" Vehemently Toby flung her protest. "He may be hurt, but he'll get over it. Anyway, give him his chance! There! He's moving! It wouldn't be fair not to give him his chance."

"It would be kinder to kill him," said Bunny.

"I hate you!" she cried back, weeping over Chops who stood strained against her. "If--if--if you touch him--I'll never, never speak to you again!"

Bunny came to her, took Chops by the collar, and fastened him with his whip to the gate. Then he stooped over Toby, his young face sternly set.

"Stop crying!" he said. "Let me have your hands!"

They were a mass of scratches from the hare's pounding feet. He began to look at them, but Toby thrust them behind her back. She choked back her tears like a boy, and looked up at him with eyes of burning indignation, sitting back on her heels in the long grass.

"Bunny, it's a damn' shame to trap a thing like that. Did you do it?"

"I? No. I'm not a poacher." Grimly Bunny made reply. That flare of anger made her somehow beautiful, but he knew if he yielded to the temptation to take her in his arms at that moment she would never forgive him. "Don't be unreasonable!" he said. "You'll have to come and bathe your hands. They can't be left in that state."

"Oh, what does it matter?" she said impatiently. "I've had much worse things than that to bear. Bunny, you believe in God I know. Why does He let things be trapped? It isn't fair. It isn't right. It--it--it hurts so."

"Lots of things hurt," said Bunny.

"Yes, but there's nothing so mean and so horrible as a trap. I--I could kill the man who set it. I'm glad it wasn't you." Toby spoke passionately.

"So am I," said Bunny.

He crumpled the wire gin in his hand, and dragged it up from the ground.

Toby watched him still kneeling in the grass. "What are you going to do with it?"

"Destroy it," he said promptly.

She smiled at him, the tears still on her cheeks. "That's fine of you. Bunny, I haven't got a handkerchief."

He gave her his, still looking grim. She dried her eyes and got up. The hare, recovering somewhat, gave her a frightened stare and slipped away into the undergrowth. She looked up at Bunny.

"I'm sorry I was angry," she said. "Are you cross with me?"

He relaxed a little. "Not particularly."

"Don't be!" she said tremulously. "I couldn't help it. He suffered so horribly, and I know--I know so well what it felt like."

"How do you know?" said Bunny.

Her look fell before his. She made an odd movement of shrinking. He put his arm swiftly round her.

"Never mind the wretched hare! He's got away this time anyway. And I'm not at all sure you didn't have the worst of it. Feeling better now?"

She nodded. "Yes, much better. I like you, Bunny, but I can't help thinking you're rather cruel. You didn't want to kill the poor thing?"

"I think it was rather prolonging the agony to let him live," said Bunny. "Let me see your hands!"

She tried to hide them, but he was insistent, and at length impulsively she yielded.

"You must come down to old Bishop's and bathe them," he said.

She shook her head instantly. "No, Bunny, I'm not going to. I'll run down to the lake if you like. There's sure not to be anyone there."

"All right," said Bunny, but he lingered still with his arm about her. "Will you kiss me, Toby?" he said suddenly.

"No," she said, and swiftly averted her face.

His arm tightened for a second, then he felt her brace herself against him and let her go. "All right," he said again. "We'll go down to the lake."

She threw him a swift glance of surprise, but he turned away to release Chops and unfasten his horse without further discussion.

Their way lay along a grass ride that ran beside the larch wood. Bunny walked gravely along, leading his horse. Toby moved lightly beside him.

Behind them the silence closed like the soft folds of a curtain, but it was not a silence devoid of life. As they drew away from the place, a man stepped out from the larches and stood motionless, watching them. A whimsical smile that was not without bitterness hovered about his mouth. As they passed from sight, he turned back into the trees and walked swiftly and silently away.

It was nearly a mile across the park to the lake in the hollow, and the boy and girl tramped it steadily with scarcely a word. Chops walked sedately by Toby's side, occasionally poking his nose under her hand. Bunny's face was stern. He had the look of a man who moved with a definite goal in view.

They came to the beechwood that surrounded the lake. The Castle from its height looked down over the terraced gardens upon one end of the water. It was a spot in fairyland.

They came to a path that led steeply downwards, and Bunny stopped. "I'll leave my animal here," he said.

Toby did not wait. She plunged straight down the steep descent. When he rejoined her, she was at the water's edge. She knelt upon a bed of moss and thrust her hands into the clear water. He stood above her for a moment or two, then knelt beside her and took the wet wrists very gently into a firm hold. She made a faint resistance, but finally yielded. He looked down at the hands nervously clenched in his grasp. He was older in that moment, more manly, than she had ever seen him.

"What's the matter, little girl?" he said softly. "What are you afraid of?"

"Nothing," said Toby instantly, and threw up her chin in the old dauntless way.

He looked at her closely. "Sure?"

The blue eyes met his with defiance. "Of course I'm sure. That horrid trap upset me, that's all."

He continued to look at her steadily. "That isn't why you won't have anything to say to me," he said.

Her colour rose under his gaze, but she would not avoid it. "Does it matter why?" she said.

"It does when I want to know," he answered. Again his look went to her hands. "How the little brute scored you! So much for gratitude!"

"You don't expect gratitude from a creature wild with fright," said Toby.

She spoke rather breathlessly, and he saw that she was on the verge of tears again. He got up and drew her to her feet.

"Let's walk for a bit!" he said.

She stood as one in doubt and he felt that she was trembling.

"I say--don't!" he said suddenly and winningly. "I won't do anything you don't like, I swear. You shan't be bothered. Can't you trust me?"

She made a little movement towards him, and he put his arm round her shoulders. They turned along the greensward side by side.

"It was awfully nice of you to come," Bunny said in that new gentle voice of his. "I didn't mean you to get there first, but old Bishop is so long-winded I couldn't get away."

"It didn't matter," said Toby with a nervous little smile.

"It did to me," said Bunny. "It would have saved you that anyway."

"But you'd have killed the hare," she said.

"Not if he hadn't been damaged," he said. "I'm not a brute. I don't kill for the sake of killing."

She looked incredulous. "Most men do. Don't you hunt? Don't you shoot?"

"Oh, you're talking of sport!" said Bunny.

"Yes, it's called sport," said Toby, an odd little vibration in her voice. "It's just a name for killing things, isn't it?"

Bunny considered the matter. "No, that's not fair," he decided. "Sport is sport. But I prefer to walk up my game and I never countenance digging out a fox. That's sport."

"There are very few sportsmen in the world," said Toby.

"Oh, I don't know. Anyway, I hope I'm one of 'em. I try to be," said Bunny.

She gave him a quick look. "I think you are. And so is Jake."

"Oh, Jake! Jake's magnificent. He's taught me all I know in that line. I used to be a horrid little bounder before I met Jake. He simply made me--body and soul." Bunny spoke with a simple candour.

"P'raps he had good stuff to work on," suggested Toby.

Bunny's arm drew her almost imperceptibly. "I don't think he had. My father was a wild Irishman, and my mother--well, she's dead too--but she wasn't anything to be specially proud of."

"Oh, was your mother a rotter?" said Toby, with sudden interest.

He nodded. "We don't talk about her much, Maud and I. She married a second time--a brute of a man who used to run the Anchor Hotel. They went to Canada, and she died."

"The Anchor Hotel!" said Toby. "That place at Fairharbour down by the shore?"

"Yes, Maud and I were there too at first. I was a cripple in those days, couldn't even walk. We had a fiendish time there--till Jake came."

"Ah!" Toby's blue eyes suddenly gleamed. "Did Maud marry Jake to get away?" she asked.

Bunny nodded again and began to smile. "Yes. We were in a beastly hole, she and I. Something had to be done."

"She didn't love him then?" questioned Toby, almost with eagerness.

"Oh no, not then. Not till long after. Jake and I were the pals. He was always keen enough on her, poor chap. But Charlie complicated matters rather in those days. You see, Charlie came first--before she ever met Jake."

"Charlie?" said Toby quickly.

"Lord Saltash. You knew he was an old friend, didn't you?"

"I didn't know--that he--and Maud--ever loved each other." Toby halted over the words as if they were somehow difficult to utter.

Bunny enlightened her with a boy's careless assurance. "Oh, that's a very old story. They were very fond of each other in their youth. In fact they were practically engaged. Then Charlie, who has always been a bit giddy, went a bit too far with Lady Cressady who was also a somewhat gay young person, and Sir Philip Cressady, who was a brute, tried to divorce her. He didn't succeed. The case fell through. But it set everyone by the ears, and Maud threw Charlie over. He pretends he didn't care, but he did--pretty badly, and he's never married in consequence."

"Oh, is that why?" said Toby.

"That's why. He's gone the pace fairly rapidly ever since. But he's a good chap at heart. Even Jake acknowledges that now, and he knows him as well as anyone."

"And--Maud?" said Toby, in a low voice. She was not looking at Bunny, but staring out over the still waters of the lake with a rather piteous intentness.

"Maud has always kept a soft place in her heart for him. She couldn't help it. Women can't."

"I see," said Toby. "And doesn't--Jake--mind?"

"Jake? No, not a bit. He's sure of her now. She thinks there's no one like him in the world. And she's quite right. There's not." Bunny spoke with warm enthusiasm.

Toby's brows were drawn a little. "Then--she isn't in love with Lord Saltash?" she said.

"No, not now. She just takes a motherly interest in him, tries to persuade him to settle down and be good--that sort of thing. I believe she feels rather responsible for him. He certainly bolted very thoroughly after she gave him up. It's all years ago of course. But he's never settled--never will."

"I see," said Toby.

A slight shiver went through her, and she looked up at Bunny with a small, pinched smile. "Fancy--Maud--giving him up!" she said.

"Well, she always had her share of pride, and he certainly didn't treat her with great consideration. He might have known she'd never stand it," said Bunny. "He only had himself to thank."

Toby's look was puzzled, oddly pathetic. "But he's such a king," she said. "I don't suppose he'd ever think of that."

Again Bunny's arm tightened about the narrow shoulders. There was something about her that appealed to him very deeply, something he sensed rather than saw.

"Haven't we talked about other people's affairs long enough now?" he suggested. "Don't you think we might turn our attention to our own?"

She coloured up to her blue-veined forehead. "If you like," she said rather faintly.

"Don't you think I deserve that kiss?" urged Bunny softly. "I've been awfully patient."

She lifted her lips with a gesture of submission, saying no word.

"Oh, not like that!" he said gently. "Not if you'd rather not, dear."

She caught her breath sharply; it was almost a sob. Then she opened her eyes wide and laughed.

"Oh, you great big silly!" she said. "You're easier to draw than anyone I ever met!"

His arms clasped her. He drew her close. "My own little butterfly girl!" he said, and kissed her very tenderly. "I've caught you at last--at last."

She laid her head against his neck, and stood so, quivering a little and silent.

"You're tired," he said. "I'll give you a lift towards home. Folly will carry you all right."

She uttered a tremulous laugh, and lifting her face she kissed him of her own accord.

"You're--awful good to me, Bunny dear," she said. "P'raps--p'raps I'll be engaged to you soon."

"You darling!" said Bunny fervently.

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