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- Rodney Stone - 6/52 -
unfortunate woman has been drinking."
"Why," I cried, "she has pulled the chaise up at the smithy. I'll find out all the news for you;" and, catching up my cap, away I scampered.
Champion Harrison had been shoeing a horse at the forge door, and when I got into the street I could see him with the creature's hoof still under his arm, and the rasp in his hand, kneeling down amid the white parings. The woman was beckoning him from the chaise, and he staring up at her with the queerest expression upon his face. Presently he threw down his rasp and went across to her, standing by the wheel and shaking his head as he talked to her. For my part, I slipped into the smithy, where Boy Jim was finishing the shoe, and I watched the neatness of his work and the deft way in which he turned up the caulkens. When he had done with it he carried it out, and there was the strange woman still talking with his uncle.
"Is that he?" I heard her ask.
Champion Harrison nodded.
She looked at Jim, and I never saw such eyes in a human head, so large, and black, and wonderful. Boy as I was, I knew that, in spite of that bloated face, this woman had once been very beautiful. She put out a hand, with all the fingers going as if she were playing on the harpsichord, and she touched Jim on the shoulder.
"I hope--I hope you're well," she stammered.
"Very well, ma'am," said Jim, staring from her to his uncle.
"And happy too?"
"Yes, ma'am, I thank you."
"Nothing that you crave for?"
"Why, no, ma'am, I have all that I lack."
"That will do, Jim," said his uncle, in a stern voice. "Blow up the forge again, for that shoe wants reheating."
But it seemed as if the woman had something else that she would say, for she was angry that he should be sent away. Her eyes gleamed, and her head tossed, while the smith with his two big hands outspread seemed to be soothing her as best he could. For a long time they whispered until at last she appeared to be satisfied.
"To-morrow, then?" she cried loud out.
"To-morrow," he answered.
"You keep your word and I'll keep mine," said she, and dropped the lash on the pony's back. The smith stood with the rasp in his hand, looking after her until she was just a little red spot on the white road. Then he turned, and I never saw his face so grave.
"Jim," said he, "that's Miss Hinton, who has come to live at The Maples, out Anstey Cross way. She's taken a kind of a fancy to you, Jim, and maybe she can help you on a bit. I promised her that you would go over and see her to-morrow."
"I don't want her help, uncle, and I don't want to see her."
"But I've promised, Jim, and you wouldn't make me out a liar. She does but want to talk with you, for it is a lonely life she leads."
"What would she want to talk with such as me about?"
"Why, I cannot say that, but she seemed very set upon it, and women have their fancies. There's young Master Stone here who wouldn't refuse to go and see a good lady, I'll warrant, if he thought he might better his fortune by doing so."
"Well, uncle, I'll go if Roddy Stone will go with me," said Jim.
"Of course he'll go. Won't you, Master Rodney?"
So it ended in my saying "yes," and back I went with all my news to my mother, who dearly loved a little bit of gossip. She shook her head when she heard where I was going, but she did not say nay, and so it was settled.
It was a good four miles of a walk, but when we reached it you would not wish to see a more cosy little house: all honeysuckle and creepers, with a wooden porch and lattice windows. A common-looking woman opened the door for us.
"Miss Hinton cannot see you," said she.
"But she asked us to come," said Jim.
"I can't help that," cried the woman, in a rude voice. "I tell you that she can't see you."
We stood irresolute for a minute.
"Maybe you would just tell her I am here," said Jim, at last.
"Tell her! How am I to tell her when she couldn't so much as hear a pistol in her ears? Try and tell her yourself, if you have a mind to."
She threw open a door as she spoke, and there, in a reclining chair at the further end of the room, we caught a glimpse of a figure all lumped together, huge and shapeless, with tails of black hair hanging down.
The sound of dreadful, swine-like breathing fell upon our ears. It was but a glance, and then we were off hot-foot for home. As for me, I was so young that I was not sure whether this was funny or terrible; but when I looked at Jim to see how he took it, he was looking quite white and ill.
"You'll not tell any one, Roddy," said he.
"Not unless it's my mother."
"I won't even tell my uncle. I'll say she was ill, the poor lady! it's enough that we should have seen her in her shame, without its being the gossip of the village. It makes me feel sick and heavy at heart."
"She was so yesterday, Jim."
"Was she? I never marked it. But I know that she has kind eyes and a kind heart, for I saw the one in the other when she looked at me. Maybe it's the want of a friend that has driven her to this."
It blighted his spirits for days, and when it had all gone from my mind it was brought back to me by his manner. But it was not to be our last memory of the lady with the scarlet pelisse, for before the week was out Jim came round to ask me if I would again go up with him.
"My uncle has had a letter," said he. "She would speak with me, and I would be easier if you came with me, Rod."
For me it was only a pleasure outing, but I could see, as we drew near the house, that Jim was troubling in his mind lest we should find that things were amiss.
His fears were soon set at rest, however, for we had scarce clicked the garden gate before the woman was out of the door of the cottage and running down the path to meet us. She was so strange a figure, with some sort of purple wrapper on, and her big, flushed face smiling out of it, that I might, if I had been alone, have taken to my heels at the sight of her. Even Jim stopped for a moment as if he were not very sure of himself, but her hearty ways soon set us at our ease.
"It is indeed good of you to come and see an old, lonely woman," said she, "and I owe you an apology that I should give you a fruitless journey on Tuesday, but in a sense you were yourselves the cause of it, since the thought of your coming had excited me, and any excitement throws me into a nervous fever. My poor nerves! You can see for yourselves how they serve me."
She held out her twitching hands as she spoke. Then she passed one of them through Jim's arm, and walked with him up the path.
"You must let me know you, and know you well," said she. "Your uncle and aunt are quite old acquaintances of mine, and though you cannot remember me, I have held you in my arms when you were an infant. Tell me, little man," she added, turning to me, "what do you call your friend?"
"Boy Jim, ma'am," said I.
"Then if you will not think me forward, I will call you Boy Jim also. We elderly people have our privileges, you know. And now you shall come in with me, and we will take a dish of tea together."
She led the way into a cosy room--the same which we had caught a glimpse of when last we came--and there, in the middle, was a table with white napery, and shining glass, and gleaming china, and red- cheeked apples piled upon a centre-dish, and a great plateful of smoking muffins which the cross-faced maid had just carried in. You can think that we did justice to all the good things, and Miss Hinton would ever keep pressing us to pass our cup and to fill our plate. Twice during our meal she rose from her chair and withdrew into a cupboard at the end of the room, and each time I saw Jim's face cloud, for we heard a gentle clink of glass against glass.
"Come now, little man," said she to me, when the table had been cleared. "Why are you looking round so much?"
"Because there are so many pretty things upon the walls."
"And which do you think the prettiest of them?"
"Why, that!" said I, pointing to a picture which hung opposite to me. It was of a tall and slender girl, with the rosiest cheeks and the tenderest eyes--so daintily dressed, too, that I had never seen anything more perfect. She had a posy of flowers in her hand and another one was lying upon the planks of wood upon which she was standing.
"Oh, that's the prettiest, is it?" said she, laughing. "Well, now,
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