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for anything I can tell.' The speaker fixed her hollow, gleaming eyes on Iris's face, and spoke with deliberate calmness. He and his beggar-wife are at daggers-drawing, so it is feared murder may be committed and somebody hung for it. What do you think of that for your work, girl? We have all got our sins to answer for, but I should say that was something to have on one's conscience.'
It is not my work, and it need not lie heavy on my conscience,' protested Iris, with her whitening face. But though she knew she spoke the truth, and would not be silent because she was not afraid to maintain her innocence in such hearing, when she got to her room she shed bitter tears. "Grandmamma accuses me, and Lucy bids me rejoice in having escaped such a miserable fate; and I—what can I do but cry to God to have mercy on His lost sheep–His lost children ?'
LADY THWAITE'S LAST PRANK.
SPRING had come, with violets and daffodils adorning the anniversary of the time when Sir William Thwaite had taken possession of Whitehills.
Iris Compton had been spending the morning with Lucy Acton at the Rectory, had remained to luncheon, and was walking back alone to Lambford. She had always been fond of country walks, like most healthy, happy English girls, but after she had grown up Lady Fermor laid certain restrictions on her grand-daughter. Unless when she had Lucy Acton or some other companion with her, Iris must be content to confine her expeditions to the park, or the Lambford woods, or the home farm.
Latterly Iris had been only too willing to comply with the obligation. The truth was
she had an almost morbid terror of meeting Sir William or Lady Thwaite, as she heard of them now, when they had become the scandals of the parish. 'I should feel as if I must die of shame if I saw him as they say he is often to be seen now. And what if she were to come up and speak to me? I could not refuse to answer, and what should I say ?
This day was an exception to Iris's usual habits, for Lucy Acton had been unexpectedly prevented from bearing her friend company on the road between the Rectory and Lambford. However, the way did not lead past any of the Whitehills gates, as the road from Knotley did, and the afternoon was perhaps the least likely time for awkward encounters. Still Iris increased her pace in the slight spring mist which was beginning to descend upon the pastures, with their daisies and marshmarigolds, their colts and lambs. But though the mist might strike human beings as lending a touch of dimness and sadness to the spring landscape, it did not so much as subdue the larks carolling in the hazy air, or the rooks hovering over the equally hazy earth.
Iris started a little, scolding herself for her folly, when she saw a man's figure turn the corner of the hedgerow —on which, as in autumn, thousands of floating gossamers were softening the sharp outlines of the boughs that were no longer of an earth-brown or ashen-grey tint, but had the faintest blush of bluish-plum colour marking where the sap was stirring and swelling, and sending out the first buds. The man was walking steadily along on his proper business, no doubt. He was a biggish fellow, young and active by his gait, carrying nothing save a whip in his hand, with which he was carelessly cutting at the hedge. As he drew near Iris, she recognised that he was a groom from some of the neighbouring country houses, apparently going an errand on foot.
Iris did not look at the man again till he left the footpath to make way for her. Then some intangible peculiarity in the air and gait of the young man in buskins, with the dark frock-coat and the cockade on his hat, caused her to look up suddenly in his face, while her heart began to throb violently.
The man was seeking to push past Iris, while at the same time he pulled out a handkerchief, and buried his face in it, as if in preparation for a sneeze or cough. The move
ment did not conceal the poppy-red which rose and burnt through the brown skin of the cheeks up to the rim of the hat, or stifle a noise of sobbing, or giggling, or both, that had become audible. .. "
Iris had not a moment left to think that one of the meetings she had dreaded had come to pass, but so oddly and incomprehensibly that natural instinct got the victory. She caught the retreating figure by the arm and clutched it. If the person thus stopped had exerted any force, the interruption could have easily been brought to an end; but something stayed the strong, rough arm, and after the slightest struggle its owner stood motionless, while Iris cried out in her trouble:
Honor! Lady Thwaite ! why are you in this absurd dress ? What are you going to do ? Surely this is the height of indiscretion.'
What do it matter to you how I dress, Miss Compton ?' Honor tried to answer with hard defiance. "You ain't a friend of mine. You would not own me or come nigh me. What does it signify to you whether I'm mad or not ? Let me go.' .
'No; since we have met, not till you tell