chapter thirty seven
THE BOAT TRAIN
When Keith Harford, betrayed by his over-anxiety into taking a wrong turning and becoming entangled in the rusty iron labyrinths under Rayleigh Abbey, at last reached the outer court, he could not find Ione anywhere. She had, in fact, escaped through the smaller door with the key Marcus had given her. Bareheaded, Keith ran round the house this way and that, but still could obtain no glimpse of the young girl. Finally, in his desperation, he climbed the garden wall, launched himself into the branches of a pear-tree which the wind was swaying in the direction of the coping, and letting himself quickly down at the expense of a torn sleeve and bruised knee, he reached the Garden House, where he found Caleb calmly laying the table for Ione's frugal supper.
"Has Miss March not returned?" he said, gazing about him wildly.
Caleb looked at Keith in reproachful surprise, for a branch of the pear-tree had scratched his brow, his hair was over his eyes, and he wore neither hat nor overcoat.
“Mr. Harford," he answered sedately, "the young lady has gone to the service in the chapel, what they calls the Temple, by special invitation of the missus."
"I know," said Harford, "she was there! But she has been denounced and insulted by wild beasts, and while I was facing them, she slipped out into the night, and I cannot find her anywhere."
"That old she-tiger! I thought it would come to summat like this," ejaculated Caleb, letting a dish slip from his hand and splinter unregarded on the hearth.
Keith was going out again without a word, but Caleb caught him by the arm. "Wait till I put one of master's overcoats on you! And for God's sake don't go out bareheaded, and you just fresh rose up from a bed of sickness!"
As if he had been putting the harness on his horses, Caleb made his preparations in a few seconds with his usual quiet decision. Then pulling a cap down over Keith Harford's head, he fastened the straps under his chin, as a nurse does to a child.
But before he could finish buttoning the thick overcoat, Keith was stumbling down the steps into the wet and buffeting wind, leaving Caleb vainly calling after him to wait till he could come and help.
"Oh, if master had only been here, this wouldn't never have happened as it 'as happened," he groaned; "the old hag wouldn't have dared to let out her spite and jealousy if young master 'ad bin 'ere! But that is the reason why she encouraged him to go away up to London this mornin'!"
It was with anger burning hot in his heart that Keith plunged into the night, to seek for the girl whom he had acknowledged for his affianced wife before the evil-minded pack assembled in Rayleigh Abbey.
Whither could she have gone — a delicate girl abroad on such a night, and in a strange country? Keith beat his way through the wet leathery leaves of the shrubbery, and emerged with aromatic drops spraying down upon him from laurel and holly.
What shelter could she find? He knew her wounded pride too well to think that she would abide a moment longer anywhere near that accursed habitation of asps and cockatrices.
"Ione! Ione!" he shouted, calling the beloved name aloud, as he ran headlong down the dark avenues. But the winds swept away the syllables as if his shouting had been no louder than the cry of a storm-driven bird forwandered in the night.
Keith Harford grew wild and desperate. He felt that if Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy or her accomplices met him at that moment, he would certainly slay them with his hands. And his fingers tightened upon the palms of his hands as if they were already at the throats of Mr. H. Chadford Eaton and his late coadjutor in Department Z.
So in distress and darkness he wandered about he knew not whither. Instinct more than intention took him inland away from the sea.
He looked back and shook his fist at the long cliff-like wall of Rayleigh Abbey, with its gloomy machicolations and serried tiers of lights. Had he belonged to a former time he would have uttered against its towers a set and formal curse. As it was, he contented himself with a promise to make Ione March's enemies remember that night if ever it should be his hap to meet them again.
So Keith Harford wandered on, now on the streaming road, now brushing the wet from the sides of narrow footpaths where the weight of rain drooped the long, wet grasses thwartwise across like fallen corn. Anon he went swishing and creaking with water-logged boots across flooded meadows — till before him all suddenly shone up the cheerful lights and spick-and-span newness of a railway station.
It came upon him with a quick surprise, that he had not remembered before that the express passed up from the Channel Islands' boat at twenty minutes past midnight, and that it stopped at the station upon being signalled for, in order to convey through passengers for London.
Keith leaped the wire fence, and ran along the line till he came to the platform. A smoky lamp, deserted on a barrow and apparently in the last stages of extinction, was here the sole illuminant, but within the station itself the lights were burning brightly. The ticket-window was already open, and a slim girlish figure, wrapped in a mackintosh, bent before the pigeon-hole, purse in hand. In the most matter-of-fact way possible, Ione was taking a ticket for Town. Nay more, she was counting her change as calmly as if she had only been coming home from arranging her flowers at the Hotel Universal.
Without pausing to speak to her, Keith made sure from a question which Ione asked of the sleepy clerk that she was going to get out at Clapham Junction. Then, stepping quietly before her as she stood aside to put her purse into her pocket, he bend down and asked for a ticket to the same place.
Still with the pasteboard in his hand he turned, pale and worn with anger and fatigue. He stretched out his hand impulsively.
"Thank God, I have found you!" he said hoarsely, after a long pause, during which both stood staring. And even more than his words, his burning eyes and choked and trembling utterance pleaded for him.
Yet even then Keith Harford remained shy, reticent, self-distrustful beyond the wont of men. He had held love at a distance all his life, and now that it had come to him for the first time when he was verging on forty years of age, he knew not what to do with it.
Ione and Keith walked up and down the little platform without speaking. The train was late, and the porter, tired of his vigil, had set himself down on the seat of the waiting-shed near the fire, and slumbered peacefully, folding his arms on his breast and leaning his chin upon them. At the third turning Ione spoke.
"Why have you come?" she said, without looking at him.
Now doubtless Keith Harford ought to have answered, "Because I love you!" Marcus would have answered thus. The average man, both good and bad, the strong man, the confident man, the wise man even, would have answered so. And the average man would have been right. But Keith Harford was neither an ordinary nor yet an average man. His self-distrust, his lack of the excellent quality of business push, led him to put himself aside and belittle himself — than which there is nothing more fatal in the things of love.
"Why did you come?" Ione repeated her question.
Keith was silent a moment longer, then he spoke.
"How could I stay?" he said at last; "how could I remain among those ravening wolves and sty-fed swine, out of whom the devils of foulness and evil speech have not been cast. But tell me, Ione, did you hear what I said to them?"
"Yes, Mr. Harford, I heard what you said!"
"Do not call me that!" said he, wincing at her tone; "say 'Keith' as you used to do when I was ill. You heard what I said, and you are not angry?"
"Why should I be angry," said Ione softly. "Circumstances make these things necessary at times. It is like telling the servant to say one is not at home."
"Then you are angry — for you do not any longer call me 'Keith.' Speak kindly to me if you can. Remember, I have no friend in all the world but you."
"Keith Harford, I declare I could shake you, for a great silly gaby!" That was what Ione said within her heart. But aloud she answered, sighing a little, "I am not angry, Keith. But I fear you will take cold. You should not have come away like this without some protection after your illness."
She looked down at his wet feet. She could hear the water creaking in his boots as he walked.
The train was certainly very late. Ione went and interviewed the man behind the wicket. He was a nice young man — a stationmaster, recently promoted upwards from clerkdom. He stared at the young lady from nowhere in particular, who was travelling at the dead of night without any apparent luggage. But Ione's smiles, even more than her open purse and quick air of practicality, won their well accustomed victory. She came back to Keith with a pair of dry socks, and some brandy in a flask.
"Go and change before the fire," she bade him peremptorily, "and drink this now."
So like a scholar who is chidden by his master Keith meekly obeyed. And when he had finished, Ione added, as seriously as a physician prescribing, "Now I will take a little myself."
At last the train came along, shouldering its way with difficulty eastward right in the eye of the storm. Ione and Keith found an empty "third," with Waterloo above the door in large letters. And all the while Keith Harford was raging at his own impotence. Where were his nerve, his coolness, his determination, tested on a score of mountain-peaks, and a hundred passes? So that Alt Peter had said, half in earnest, if also half in jest, "Do not write books any more, if, as the Herr Marcus says, no one will buy them. Come and be a high-mountain guide like us. We will get you a Führer-buch at the next court!"
But now he dared not even speak to the woman he loved. Why, every slim counter-jumper who sat with an arm about his sweetheart on a seat by the park-gates, had more courage than he. He thought wistfully and enviously of hare-brained Marcus, who, through all their wanderings had known the word to bring the smile to a girl's lips and the pretty coquettish turn to her head. Whereas he, Keith Harford, like a sullen stupid draff-sack, could only sit silent while the bright eyes of maidens looked over his head and Love himself passed scornfully by.
And now when he was in the presence of the woman for whom he would gladly have died — this in sober truth, and as no mere figure of speech — he could find no word to speak to her. At last, however, he managed to begin his perilous tale.
"Ione," he said, falteringly, "I have a word to say to you. Yet somehow I know not how to speak it. I am ill at finding speech wherewith to tell you of my love. But the thing itself is deep in my heart, deep as the roots of my life. I have, indeed, no right to say that I love you. For spoken to a woman that ought to mean, that I am ready to ask you to be my wife. And so much I have not the right to say — I cannot say it. You are too wondrously precious for Keith Harford to ask you to link your bright fortunes, your youth, your beauty, with the failure, complete and absolute, of a middle-aged broken-down man. Ione, I tell you that after I paid my ticket to-night, I had not a shilling of my own in the world that I could count upon. I know not even where I shall lay my head to-night when I reach London."
Ione moved uneasily in her seat, and struck her hands one into the other with the quick impatient movement characteristic of her when she was thinking quickly.
Keith stopped all at once with instant appreciation of her irritation, but with his usual blindness he wholly mistook its cause.
"No, I do not tell you this to move your pity," he said. "I only pray that God may send some better, happier man to find that which I have no right to ask for. Ione, you are stronger than I, brighter, altogether of the younger day. I will never let myself be a burden upon your opening life. That which I said to-night, I spoke only for the ears of the canting crew up there, and for the hasty words I crave your pardon."
For a space of time, which to Keith Harford seemed hours, Ione was silent as the train rushed along, roaring through tunnels, and plunging again with a certain gladness of relief into the clean dense blackness of the night.
"Keith," at last the girl spoke low and gently, "I am tired to-night. I am not so strong as you think. I cannot bear any more. Do not speak to me just now. I will answer you to-morrow when I have rested. But you will come to Audley Street to-night, and sleep in your old bed where you lay so long. Jane Allen will be glad to share hers with me."
She reached over and gently touched the back of his hand twice, so that he might not be very heart-sore at her silence. And Keith, feeling her words to be the best vindication of his hasty speech at Rayleigh Abbey, leaned back and looked at her, marvellously eased at heart.
So the boat-express sped steadily north-eastwards through the night, leaving Rayleigh Abbey far behind glooming huge and sinister over the gusty surges of the Channel.
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First serialised in 'Woman at Home' as 'The Woman of Fortune' in 1899.