Read CHAPTER II - DICK’S TROUBLES BEGIN of Brandon of the Engineers , free online book, by Harold Bindloss, on ReadCentral.com.

It was with mixed feelings that Clare Kenwardine got down from the stopping train at a quiet station and waited for the trap to take her home.  The trap was not in sight, but this did not surprise her, for nobody in her father’s household was punctual.  Clare sometimes wondered why the elderly groom-gardener, whose wages were very irregularly paid, stayed on, unless it was because his weakness for liquor prevented his getting a better post; but the servants liked her father, for he seldom found fault with them.  Kenwardine had a curious charm, which his daughter felt as strongly as anybody else, though she was beginning to see his failings and had, indeed, been somewhat shocked when she came home to live with him not long before.

Now she knitted her level brows as she sat down and looked up the straight, white road.  It ran through pastures, and yellow cornfields where harvesters were at work, to a moor on which the ling glowed red in the fading light.  Near the station a dark firwood stretched back among the fields and a row of beeches rose in dense masses of foliage beside the road.  There was no sound except the soft splash of a stream.  Everything was peaceful; but Clare was young, and tranquillity was not what she desired.  She had, indeed, had too much of it in the sleepy cathedral town she had left.

Her difficulty was that she felt drawn in two different ways; for she had inherited something of her father’s recklessness and love of pleasure, though her mother, who died when Clare was young, had been a shy Puritan.  Clare was kept at school much longer than usual; and when she insisted on coming home she found herself puzzled by her father’s way of living.  Young men, and particularly army officers, frequented the house; stylish women came down from town, often without their husbands; and there was generally some exciting amusement going on.  This had its attraction for Clare; but her delicate refinement was sometimes offended, and once she was even alarmed.  One of the young men had shown his admiration for her in a way that jarred, and soon afterward there had been a brawl over a game of cards.

Kenwardine had then suggested that she make a long visit to her aunts, in the cathedral town.  They had received her gladly but she soon found her stay there irksome.  The aunts were austere, religious women, who moved in a narrow groove and ordered all their doings by a worn-out social code.  Still, they were kind and gave Clare to understand that she was to stay with them always and have no more to do with Kenwardine than duty demanded.  The girl rebelled.  She shrank with innate dislike from license and dissipation, but the life her aunts led was dreary, and she could not give up her father.  Though inexperienced, she was intelligent and she saw that her path would not be altogether smooth now that she was going home for good.  While she thought about it, the trap arrived and the shabby groom drove her up the hill with confused apologies.

An hour or two after Clare reached home, Lance and Dick Brandon entered the house and were met by Kenwardine in the hall.  He wore a velvet jacket over his evening clothes and Dick noticed a wine-stain on the breast.  He was thin, but his figure was athletic, although his hair was turning gray and there were wrinkles about his eyes.

“Very glad to see your cousin,” he said to Lance, and turned to Dick with a smile.  “Soldiers have a particular claim on our hospitality, but my house is open to anybody of cheerful frame of mind.  One must relax now and then in times like these.”

“That’s why I brought Dick,” Lance replied.  “He believes in tension.  But I wonder whether your notion of relaxing is getting lax?”

“There’s a difference, though it’s sometimes rather fine,” Kenwardine answered with a twinkle.  “But come in and amuse yourselves as you like.  If you want a drink, you know where to find it.”

They played a game of billiards and then went into another room, where Dick lost a sovereign to Kenwardine.  After that, he sat in a corner, smoking and languidly looking about, for he had been hard at work since early morning.  Two or three subaltern officers from a neighboring camp stood by the table, besides several other men whose sunburned faces indicated a country life.  The carpets and furniture were getting shabby, but the room was large and handsome, with well-molded cornices and paneled ceiling.  The play was not high and the men were quiet, but the room was filled with cigar smoke and there was a smell of liquor.  Dick did not object to drink and gambling in moderation, though it was seldom that he indulged in either.  He found no satisfaction in that sort of thing, and he now felt that some of Kenwardine’s friends would do better to join the new armies than to waste their time as they were doing.

At last Kenwardine threw down the cards.

“I think we have had enough for a time,” he said.  “Shall we go into the music-room, for a change?”

Dick followed the others, and looked up with surprise when Clare came in.  Lance had spoken of a pretty girl, but she was not the type Dick had expected.  She wore a very plain white dress, with touches of blue that emphasized her delicate coloring.  Her hair was a warm yellow with deeper tones, her features were regular and well-defined, and Dick liked the level glance of her clear, blue eyes.  He thought they rested on him curiously for a moment.  She had Kenwardine’s slender, well-balanced figure, and her movements were graceful, but Dick’s strongest impression was that she was out of place.  Though perfectly at ease, she did not fit into her environment:  she had a freshness that did not harmonize with cigar smoke and the smell of drink.

Clare gave him a pleasant smile when he was presented, and after speaking to one or two of the others she went to the piano when Kenwardine asked her to sing.  Dick, who was sitting nearest the instrument, stooped to take a bundle of music from a cabinet she opened.

“No,” she said; “you may put those down.  I’m afraid we have nothing quite so good, and perhaps it’s silly, but I’ve fallen back on our own composers since the fourth of August.”

Dick spread out the music, to display the titles.

“These fellows have been dead some time,” he argued humorously.  “They’d probably disown their descendants if they’d survived until now.  But here’s a Frenchman’s work.  They’re on our side, and his stuff is pretty good, isn’t it?”

Clare smiled.

“Yes,” she said, “it’s certainly good; but I’d rather sing something English to-night.”

She began a patriotic ballad Dick knew and liked.  He was not much of a musician, but his taste was good.  The song rang true; it was poetry and not warlike jingle, but he had not heard it sung so well before.  Clare’s voice had been carefully trained and she used it well, but he knew that she had grasped the spirit of the song.  One or two of the men who had been sitting got up, two young subalterns stood very stiff and straight, but Dick noted that Kenwardine did not change his lounging attitude.  He was smiling, and Lance, glancing at him, looked amused.  Dick remembered this afterward, but he now felt that Lance was not quite showing his usual good form.

When the song was finished, Dick turned to Clare.  He wanted to begin talking to her before anybody else came up.

“It was very fine.  I don’t understand the technique of music, but one felt that you got the song just right.  And then, the way you brought out the idea!”

“That is what the mechanical part is for,” she answered with a smile and a touch of color.  “As it happens, I saw an infantry brigade on the march to-day, and watched the long line of men go by in the dust and sun.  Perhaps that helps one to understand.”

“Did you see them cross the bridge?” Dick asked eagerly.

“No,” she answered; and he felt absurdly disappointed.  He would have liked to think that his work had helped her to sing.

“Have you another like the first?” he asked.

“I never sing more than once,” she smiled.  Then as Lance and another man came toward them, she added, glancing at an open French window:  “Besides, the room is very hot.  It would be cooler in the garden.”

Dick was not a man of affairs, but he was not a fool.  He knew that Clare Kenwardine was not the girl to attempt his captivation merely because he had shown himself susceptible.  She wanted him to keep the others off, and he thought he understood this as he glanced at Lance’s companion.  The fellow had a coarse, red face and looked dissipated, and even Lance’s well-bred air was somehow not so marked as usual.  Well, he was willing that she should make any use of him that she liked.

They passed the others, and after stopping to tell Kenwardine that she was going out, Clare drew back a curtain that covered part of the window.  Dick stepped across the ledge and, seeing that the stairs below were iron and rather slippery, held out his hand to Clare.  The curtain swung back and cut off the light, and when they were near the bottom the girl tripped and clutched him.  Her hand swept downward from his shoulder across his chest and caught the outside pocket of his coat, while he grasped her waist to steady her.

“Thank you,” she said.  “I was clumsy, but the steps are awkward and my shoes are smooth.”

Dick was glad it was dark, for he felt confused.  The girl had rested upon him for a moment and it had given him a thrill.

They crossed the broad lawn.  Half of it lay in shadow, for a wood that rolled up a neighboring hillside cut off the light of the low, half moon.  The air was still, it was too warm for dew, and there was a smell of flowers ­stocks, Dick thought, and he remembered their pungent sweetness afterward when he recalled that night.  Clare kept in the moonlight, and he noted the elusive glimmer of her white dress.  She wore no hat or wrap, and the pale illumination emphasized the slenderness of her figure and lent her an ethereal grace.

They stopped at a bench beneath a copper-beech, where the shadow of the leaves checkered with dark blotches the girl’s white draperies and Dick’s uniform.  Some of the others had come out, for there were voices in the gloom.

“Perhaps you wonder why I brought you here,” Clare said frankly.

“No,” Dick answered.  “If you had any reason, I’m not curious.  And I’d rather be outside.”

“Well,” she said, “the light was rather glaring and the room very hot.”  She paused and added:  “Mr. Brandon’s your cousin?”

“He is, and a very good sort.  He brought me to-night, but I felt that it was, perhaps, something of an intrusion when you came in.”

“You didn’t feel that before?”

Dick knew that he was on dangerous ground.  He must not admit that he suspected Kenwardine’s motive for receiving promiscuous guests.

“Well, not to the same extent.  You see, Lance knows everybody and everybody likes him.  I thought I might be welcome for his sake.”

“It’s plain that you are fond of your cousin.  But why did you imagine that I should think your visit an intrusion?”

Dick was glad he sat in the shadow, for his face was getting hot.  He could not hint that he had expected to find a rather daring coquette ­the kind of girl, in fact, one would imagine a semi-professional gambler’s daughter to be.  It now seemed possible that he had misjudged Kenwardine; and he had certainly misjudged Clare.  The girl’s surroundings were powerless to smirch her:  Dick was sure of that.

“Oh, well,” he answered awkwardly, “although Lance obviously knows your father pretty well, it doesn’t follow that he’s a friend of yours.”

“It does not,” she said in a curious tone.  “But do you know the man he was with?”

“I never saw him before, and somehow I don’t feel anxious to improve his acquaintance.”

Clare laughed.

“That’s a quick decision, isn’t it?  Are you a judge of character?” she asked.

“I have been badly mistaken,” Dick admitted with a smile.  “Still, I know the people I’m going to like.  How is it I haven’t seen you about?  We’re not very far off and most of the people in the neighborhood have driven over to our camp.”

“I only came home to-night, after being away for some time.”

Dick was relieved to learn this.  He did not like to think of her living at Kenwardine’s house and meeting his friends.  It was scarcely half an hour since he met Clare Kenwardine, but she had, quite unconsciously he thought, strongly impressed him.  In fact, he felt rather guilty about it.  Since he was, in a manner, expected to marry some one else, he had no business to enjoy yielding to this stranger’s charm and to thrill at her touch.

They sat in silence for a few moments, and then Lance strolled up with his companion.

“Don’t forget the time, Dick,” he remarked as he passed.  “You mustn’t let him keep you too long, Miss Kenwardine.  He has an important errand to do for his colonel.”

“If you don’t mind, I won’t go just yet,” Dick said to Clare; and understood from her silence that she did not want to dismiss him.

For the first time since they were boys, he was angry with his cousin.  It looked as if Lance had meant to take him away when Miss Kenwardine needed him.  He was flattered to think she preferred his society to the red-faced man’s, and had used him to keep the other at a distance.  Well, he would stay to the last minute and protect her from the fellow, or from anybody else.

A little later Kenwardine joined them, and Dick knew that he must go.  Clare gave him her hand with a quick, grateful look that made his heart beat, and Lance met him as he went into the house.

“You’re cutting it very fine,” he said.  “Come along; here’s your cap.”

“In a moment!  There’s an infantry man I asked over to our camp.”

“You haven’t time to look for him,” Lance answered, and good-humoredly pushed Dick into the hall.  “Get off at once!  A fellow I know will give me a lift home.”

Dick ran down the drive and a few moments later his motorcycle was humming up the road.  He sped through a dark firwood, where the cool air was filled with resinous scent, and out across a hillside down which the stocked sheaves stood in silvery rows, but he noticed nothing except that the white strip of road was clear in front.  His thoughts were back in the garden with Clare Kenwardine, and he could smell the clogging sweetness of the stocks.  This was folly, and he changed the gear on moderate hills and altered the control when the engine did not need it, to occupy his mind; but the picture of the girl he carried away with him would not be banished.

For all that, he reached Storeton Grange in time and, running up the drive, saw lights in the windows and a car waiting at the door.  Getting down and stating his business, he was shown into a room where a stern-faced man in uniform sat talking to another in evening clothes.

“I understand you come from Captain Hallam,” said the Colonel.

“Yes, sir.  He sent me with some papers.”

“You know what they are?”

“Plans of pontoons, sir.”

“Very well,” said the Colonel, taking out a fountain pen.  “Let me have them.”

Dick put his hand into his breastpocket, which was on the outside of his coat.  The pocket was unbuttoned, and the big envelope had gone.  He hurriedly felt the other pockets, but they too were empty, and his face got red.

The Colonel looked hard at him, and then made a sign to the other man, who quietly went out.

“You haven’t got the plans!  Did you leave them behind?”

“No, sir,” Dick said awkwardly.  “I felt to see if they were in my pocket when I left the camp.”

The Colonel’s face hardened.

“Did you come straight here?”

“No, sir.  I had an hour or two’s leave.”

“And spent it with your friends?  Had you anything to drink?”

“Yes, sir.”

“As much as, or more than, usual?”

“Perhaps a little more,” Dick said in confusion.

The Colonel studied him with searching eyes; and then took some paper from a case on the table and began to write.  He put the note in an envelope and gave it to Dick.

“It’s your Commanding Officer’s business to investigate the matter and you’ll take him this.  Report yourself to him or to the Adjutant when you reach camp.  I’ll telegraph to see if you have done so.”

He raised his hand in sign of dismissal and Dick went out, crushed with shame, and feeling that he was already under arrest.  If he were not in camp when the telegram came, he would be treated as a deserter.