Chapter VIII
The Rejected Suitor

Whether he was surprised or not at finding her there, she could not say: she was trying with all her might to appear astonished and unconcerned.

He made her a low and elaborate bow, and she responded with the deep curtsey the fashion of the time demanded.

"Begad! the gods do indeed favour me!" he said, his good-looking, jovial face expressing unalloyed delight. "I come to this forsaken spot on God's earth, and find the fairest in all England treading its unworthy soil."

"I wish you well, Sir Humphrey," she said gently, but coldly. "I had no thought of seeing you here."

"Faith!" he laughed with some bitterness, "I had no hope that the thought of seeing me had troubled your ladyship much. I am on my way to Derby and foolishly thought to take this shorter way across the Moor. Odd's life! I was well-night regretting it. I was attacked and robbed last evening, and the heavy roads force me to spend the night in this unhallowed tavern. But I little guessed what compensation the Fates had in store for me."

"I was in a like plight, Sir Humphrey," she said, trying to speak with perfect indifference.

"You were not robbed, surely?"

"Nay, not that, but I hoped to reach Derby sooner by taking the short cut across the Heath, and the state of the roads has so tired the horses, I was forced to turn off at the cross-roads and to put up at this inn."

"Your ladyship is on your way to London?"

"On a visit to my aunt, Lady Edbrooke."

"Will you honour me by accepting my protection? 'Tis scarce fit for your ladyship to be travelling all that way alone."

"I thank you, Sir Humphrey," she rejoined coldly. "My man, Timothy, is with me, besides the driver. Both are old and trusted servants. I meet some friends at Wirksworth. I shall not be alone."

"But"

"I pray you, sir, my time is somewhat short. I had started out for a little fresh air and exercise before re-entering my coach. The inn was so stifling and"

"Sure your ladyship will spend the night here. You cannot reach Wirksworth before nightfall now. I am told the road is well-night impassable."

"Nay! 'tis two hours before sunset now, and three before dark. I hope to reach Wirksworth by nine o'clock to-night. My horses have had a good rest."

"Surely you will allow me to escort you thus far, at least?"

"Your horses need a rest, Sir Humphrey," she said impatiently, "and I beg you to believe that I have sufficient escort."

With a slight inclination of the head she now turned to go. From where she stood she could just see the road winding down towards Stich's forge, and she had caught sight of Betty's trim little figure stepping briskly along.

Sir Humphrey, thus obviously dismissed, could say no more for the present. To force his escort upon her openly was unfitting the manners of a gentleman. He bit his lip and tried to look gallantly disappointed. His keen dark eyes had already perceived that in spite of her self-control she was labouring under strong excitement. He forced his harsh voice to gentleness, even to tenderness, and he said, --

"I have not dared to speak to your ladyship on the subject that lay nearest my heart."

"Sir Humphrey"

"Nay! I pray you do not misunderstand me. I was thinking of Philip, and hoped you were not too unhappy about him."

"There is no cause for unhappiness just yet," she said guardedly, "and every cause for hope."

"Ah! that's well!" he said cheerfully. "I entreat you not to give up hope, and to keep some faith and trust in your humble servant, who would give his life for you and yours."

"My faith and trust are in God, Sir Humphrey, and in my brother's innocence," she replied quietly.

Then she turned and left him standing there, with a frown upon his good-looking face, and a muttered curse upon his lips. He watched her as she went down the road, until a sharp declivity hid her from his view.

©Blakeney Manor, 2002