"My aunt will be downpresently, Mr. Nuttel," said a veryself-possessedyoung lady of fifteen; "in the meantime you must try andput up withme."
Framton Nuttelendeavouredto say the correct something which shoulddulyflatterthe niece of the moment without undulydiscountingthe aunt that was to come. Privately hedoubtedmore than ever whether these formal visits on a succession of total strangers would do much towards helping thenervecurewhich he was supposed to beundergoing.
"I know how it will be," his sister had said when he was preparing tomigrateto this ruralretreat; "you will bury yourself down there and not speak to a living soul, and your nerves will be worse than ever frommoping. I shall just give you letters of introduction to all the people I know there. Some of them, as far as I can remember, were quite nice."
Framton wondered whether Mrs. Sappleton, the lady to whom he was presenting one of the letters of introduction came into the nicedivision.
"Do you know many of the people round here?" asked the niece, when she judged that they had hadsufficientsilentcommunion.
"Hardly a soul," said Framton. "My sister was staying here, at therectory, you know, some four years ago, and she gave me letters of introduction to some of the people here."
He made the last statement in a tone ofdistinctregret.
"Then you knowpracticallynothing about my aunt?"pursuedthe self-possessed young lady.
"Only her name and address," admitted the caller. He was wondering whether Mrs. Sappleton was in the married orwidowedstate. An undefinable something about the room seemed to suggestmasculinehabitation.
"Her great tragedy happened just three years ago," said the child; "that would be since your sister's time."
"Her tragedy?" asked Framton; somehow in thisrestfulcountry spot tragedies seemedout of place.
"You may wonder why we keep that window wide open on an October afternoon," said the niece,indicatinga large French window that opened on to alawn.
"It is quite warm for the time of the year," said Framton; "but has that window got anything to do with the tragedy?"
"Out through that window, three years ago to a day, her husband and her two young brothers went off for their day's shooting. They never came back. In crossing themoorto their favourite snipe-shooting ground they were all threeengulfedin atreacherouspiece ofbog. It had been thatdreadfulwet summer, you know, and places that were safe in other years gave way suddenly without warning. Their bodies were neverrecovered. That was the dreadful part of it." Here the child's voice lost its self-possessed note and becamefalteringlyhuman. "Poor aunt always thinks that they will come back someday, they and the little brownspanielthat was lost with them, and walk in at that window just as they used to do. That is why the window is kept open every evening till it is quitedusk. Poor dear aunt, she has often told me how they went out, her husband with his white waterproof coat over his arm, and Ronnie, her youngest brother, singing 'Bertie, why do you bound?' as he always did toteaseher, because she said it got on her nerves. Do you know, sometimes on still, quiet evenings like this, I almost get acreepyfeeling that they will all walk in through that window - "
"I hope Vera has been amusing you?" she said.
"She has been very interesting," said Framton.
"I hope you don't mind the open window," said Mrs. Sappleton briskly; "my husband and brothers will be home directly from shooting, and they always come in this way. They've been out for snipe in themarshestoday, so they'll make a finemessover my poor carpets. So like youmenfolk, isn't it?"
Sherattledon cheerfully about the shooting and thescarcityof birds, and the prospects for duck in the winter. To Framton it was all purely horrible. He made a desperate but only partially successful effort to turn the talk on to a less ghastly topic, he was conscious that his hostess was giving him only afragmentof her attention, and her eyes wereconstantlystrayedpast him to the open window and the lawn beyond. It was certainly an unfortunatecoincidencethat he should have paid his visit on this tragicanniversary.
"The doctors agree in ordering me complete rest, anabsenceof mental excitement, andavoidanceof anything in the nature of violent physical exercise," announced Framton, wholabouredunder thetolerablywidespreaddelusionthat total strangers and chanceacquaintancesare hungry for the least detail of one'sailmentandinfirmities, their cause and cure. "On the matterdietof they are not so much in agreement," he continued.
"No?" said Mrs. Sappleton, in a voice which only replaced ayawnat the last moment. Then she suddenlybrightenedintoalertattention - but not to what Framton was saying.
"Here they are at last!" she cried. "Just in time for tea, and don't they look as if they weremuddyup to the eyes!"
Framtonshiveredslightlyand turned towards the niece with a lookintendedtoconveysympatheticcomprehension. The child wasstaringout through the open window with adazedhorrorin her eyes. In achillshock of nameless fear Framtonswunground in his seat and looked in the same direction.
In the deepening twilight threefigureswere walking across the lawn towards the window, they all carried guns under their arms, and one of them was additionallyburdenedwith a white coat hung over his shoulders. A tired brown spaniel kept close at their heels.Noiselesslythey neared the house, and then ahoarseyoung voicechantedout of the dusk: "I said, Bertie, why do you bound?"
Framton grabbed wildly at his stick and hat; the hall door, thegraveldrive, and the front gate weredimlynoted stages in his headlongretreat. A cyclist coming along the road had to run into thehedgeto avoidimminentcollision.
"Here we are, my dear," said the bearer of the white mackintosh, coming in through the window, "fairly muddy, but most of it's dry. Who was that whoboltedout as we came up?"
"A most extraordinary man, a Mr. Nuttel," said Mrs. Sappleton; "could only talk about his illnesses, anddashedoff without a word of goodby or apology when you arrived. One would think he had seen a ghost."
"I expect it was the spaniel," said the niece calmly; "he told me he had a horror of dogs. He was once hunted into a cemetery somewhere on the banks of the Ganges by a pack of pariah dogs, and had to spend the night in a newlyduggrave with the creaturessnarlingandgrinningand justfoamingabove him. Enough to make anyone lose their nerve."
Romance at short notice was her speciality.
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