Colonel Baigent looked at Miss Netta.
‘I couldn’t ask it–I really couldn’t,’ she murmured.
He smiled. ‘The hour is unconventional, to be sure. But if your aunt will forgive a very brief call there is nothing would give me greater pleasure.’
He meant it, too!
He fetched his hat, and the three passed out together–down the High Street, through the passage by the Butter Cross, and along the railed pavement by the Minster Close. On the colonel’s ear their three footfalls sounded as though a dream. The vast bulk of the minster, glimmering above the leafless elms, the solid Norman tower with its edges bathed in starlight, were transient things, born of faery, unsubstantial as the small figure that tripped ahead of him clutching a pair of dancing-shoes.
They came to a little low house, hooded with dark tiles and deeply set in a narrow garden. A dwarf wall and paling divided it from the Close, and from the gate, where a brass plate twinkled, a flagged, uneven pathway led up to the front door. So remote it lay from all traffic, so well screened by the shadow of the minster, that the inmates had not troubled to draw blind or curtain. Miss Netta, pausing while she fumbled for the latchkey, explained that her aunt had a fancy to keep the blinds up, so that when the minster was lit for evensong she might watch the warm, painted windows without moving from her couch.
Colonel Baigent, glancing at the pane towards which she waved a hand, caught one glimpse of the room within, and stood still, with a catch of his breath. On the wall facing him hung an Oxford frame, and in the frame was a cheap woodcut, clipped from an old illustrated paper of the Mutiny date, and fastened in that place of honour–his own portrait!
After that, for a few minutes, his head swam. He was dimly aware of what followed: of an open door; of the child running past him and into the room with cries of joy and explanation, a few only articulate; of the little old figure that half rose from the couch and sank back trembling; the flush on the waxen face, the violet ribbons in the cap, the hand that trembled as it reached out, incredulous in its humility, to his own. He took it, and her other hand rested a moment on the back of his, as though it fluttered a blessing.
Yes; and her hands, when he released them–and it seemed that he had been holding an imprisoned bird–yet trembled on the coverlet after her voice had found steadiness.
‘An honour–a great honour!’ it was saying. ‘You will forgive the liberty?’ She nodded towards the portrait. ‘We are not quite strangers, you see. I have always followed your career, sir. I knew you would grow into a great and worthy man, ever since the day when I dropped a bandbox in the street–a muddy day it was!–and the box burst open just as you were passing with half a dozen young gentlemen from the college. The rest laughed; and when I began to cry–for the ribbons were muddied–they laughed still more. Do you remember?’
Colonel Baigent had not the faintest recollection of it.
‘Ah! but it all happened. And you–you were the only one that did not laugh. You picked up the box and wiped it with your handkerchief. You tried to wipe the ribbons, too; but that only made matters worse. And then, when the others made fun of you, you put the box under your arm, and said you were going to carry it home for me. And so you did, though it made you late for your books; and besides, our house was out of bounds, and you risked a thrashing for it.’
‘I wonder if I got it?’ murmured Colonel Baigent.