In imagination he saw himself not only prosperous, but honoured and respected and hailed as a public benefactor. He had a long walk over the hills to the village in which he resided, but it seemed as nothing to him that evening. His heart was beating high with hope, his eyes sparkled with eager anticipation.
From the crest of the second hill the wide sweep of the Atlantic came into view, and for several minutes he stood still, with bared head. He had spent all his life in sight and sound of the sea, and he never tired of it. Relatives, friends, acquaintances by the dozen, slept their last sleep far out in its cool embrace. He had a feeling sometimes that he would like, when his day's work was done, to pillow his head among the seaweed and sleep for ever, while the waves sobbed and sang above him.
The sun was slowly sinking in a sea of molten gold. The window-panes of the scattered farmhouses were flashing back the evening fire. From the valley behind him came the bleating of lambs and the answering call of the mother sheep, and with the cooling of the day a breeze stirred faintly in the tree tops and through the hazel bushes.
He replaced his hat, and was about to continue his tramp when he was arrested by the sound of carriage wheels behind him. A sharp bend in the road hid the vehicle from sight, but he knew it would be on him in a moment. So he stepped aside, as the road was narrow, and waited for it to pass.
The horse came first into sight, and then the Squire's waggonette. Two people sat on the front seat, the coachman and a lady. The back of the vehicle was piled almost to the level of their heads with luggage. The horse came on slowly, which gave Rufus Sterne an opportunity of scanning the face of the lady.
Ralph Penlogan caught his breath and turned his head suddenly. The sound of breaking wood fell distinctly on his ear, and called him back from his not over-pleasant musings. He was angry with himself, angry with the cause of his anger. He had stood up for what he believed to be his rights, had asserted his opinions with courage and pertinacity; and yet, for some reason, he was anything but satisfied. The victory he had wonÑif it was a victory at allÑwas a barren one. He was afraid that he had asserted himself at the wrong time, in the wrong place, and before the wrong person.
The girl to whom he had spoken, and whose command he had defied, was not responsible for the social order against which he chafed, and which pressed so hardly on the class to which he belonged. She was where Providence had placed her just as much as he was, and the tone of command she had assumed was perhaps more a matter of habit than any assumption of superiority.
So within three minutes of leaving the stile he found himself excusing the fair creature to whom he had spoken so roughly. That she had a sweet and winning face there was no denying, while the way she sat her horse seemed to him the embodiment of grace.
Who she was he had not the remotest idea. To the best of his recollection he had never seen her before. That she belonged to what was locally termed the gentry there could be no doubtÑa visitor most likely at one or other of the big houses in the neighbourhood.
Once the thought flashed across his mind that she might be the daughter of Sir John Hamblyn, but he dismissed it at once. In the first place, Sir John's daughter was old enough to be marriedÑin fact, the wedding day had already been fixedÑwhile this young lady was a mere girl. She did not look more than seventeen if she looked a day. And in the second place, it was inconceivable that such a mean, grasping, tyrannical curmudgeon as Sir John could be the father of so fair a child.
He had seen Dorothy Hamblyn when she was a little girl in short frocks, and his recollection of her was that she was a disagreeable child. If he remembered aright, she was about his own ageÑa trifle younger.
Still the minutes dragged along, and Benny came not. The 'busses were crowded with people outside and in, wrapped in huge warm overcoats, and all down Lord Street she watched the hurrying crowds bending their steps homewards. And she tried to picture their cheerful homes, with great blazing fires, and happy children running to greet them, and wondered how none of them ever paused to notice her, shivering there in the shadow of the church.
At length the great clocks all around began to strike five, and Benny had not come; a sense of unutterable loneliness crept over the child, and she began to cry. Besides, she was hungry and cold, and there was a great fear in her heart that something had befallen her brother. The last stroke of the Town Hall clock, however, had scarcely died away when she heard the patter of bare feet around the corner, and the next moment her brother, panting and breathless, stood before her.