'Yes; what of her?'
'She wrote a note at our house to the young woman, saying she lost the letter I brought to you, and you burnt. Our Joe was to carry it, but the old one kept him at home all next day, on purpose that he shouldn't. Next morning he gave it to me to take; and here it is.'
'You didn't deliver it then, my good friend?' said Mr Chester, twirling Dolly's note between his finger and thumb, and feigning to be surprised.
'I supposed you'd want to have it,' retorted Hugh. 'Burn one, burn all, I thought.'
'My devil-may-care acquaintance,' said Mr Chester--'really if you do not draw some nicer distinctions, your career will be cut short with most surprising suddenness. Don't you know that the letter you brought to me, was directed to my son who resides in this very place? And can you descry no difference between his letters and those addressed to other people?'
'If you don't want it,' said Hugh, disconcerted by this reproof, for he had expected high praise, 'give it me back, and I'll deliver it. I don't know how to please you, master.'
'I shall deliver it,' returned his patron, putting it away after a moment's consideration, 'myself. Does the young lady walk out, on fine mornings?'
'Mostly--about noon is her usual time.'
'In the grounds before the house.--Them that the footpath crosses.'
'If the weather should be fine, I may throw myself in her way to- morrow, perhaps,' said Mr Chester, as coolly as if she were one of his ordinary acquaintance. 'Mr Hugh, if I should ride up to the Maypole door, you will do me the favour only to have seen me once. You must suppress your gratitude, and endeavour to forget my forbearance in the matter of the bracelet. It is natural it should break out, and it does you honour; but when other folks are by, you must, for your own sake and safety, be as like your usual self as though you owed me no obligation whatever, and had never stood within these walls. You comprehend me?'
Hugh understood him perfectly. After a pause he muttered that he hoped his patron would involve him in no trouble about this last letter; for he had kept it back solely with the view of pleasing him. He was continuing in this strain, when Mr Chester with a most beneficent and patronising air cut him short by saying:
'My good fellow, you have my promise, my word, my sealed bond (for a verbal pledge with me is quite as good), that I will always protect you so long as you deserve it. Now, do set your mind at rest. Keep it at ease, I beg of you. When a man puts himself in my power so thoroughly as you have done, I really feel as though he had a kind of claim upon me. I am more disposed to mercy and forbearance under such circumstances than I can tell you, Hugh. Do look upon me as your protector, and rest assured, I entreat you, that on the subject of that indiscretion, you may preserve, as long as you and I are friends, the lightest heart that ever beat within a human breast. Fill that glass once more to cheer you on your road homewards--I am really quite ashamed to think how far you have to go--and then God bless you for the night.'
'They think,' said Hugh, when he had tossed the liquor down, 'that I am sleeping soundly in the stable. Ha ha ha! The stable door is shut, but the steed's gone, master.'
'You are a most convivial fellow,' returned his friend, 'and I love your humour of all things. Good night! Take the greatest possible care of yourself, for my sake!'
It was remarkable that during the whole interview, each had endeavoured to catch stolen glances of the other's face, and had never looked full at it. They interchanged one brief and hasty glance as Hugh went out, averted their eyes directly, and so separated. Hugh closed the double doors behind him, carefully and without noise; and Mr Chester remained in his easy-chair, with his gaze intently fixed upon the fire.
'Well!' he said, after meditating for a long time--and said with a deep sigh and an uneasy shifting of his attitude, as though he dismissed some other subject from his thoughts, and returned to that which had held possession of them all the day--the plot thickens; I have thrown the shell; it will explode, I think, in eight-and-forty hours, and should scatter these good folks amazingly.