Days passed, and things went on much the same, Walter not daring to tell the girl all he felt, but seizing every opportunity of a tête-à-tête, and missing none of the proximity she allowed him, and she never seeming other than pleased to be his companion. Her ways with him were always pretty, and sometimes playful. She was almost studious to please him; and if she never took a liberty with him, she never resented any he took with her, which certainly were neither numerous nor daring, for Walter was not presumptuous, least of all with women.
But Lufa was careful not to neglect their other guests. She was always ready to accompany any of the ladies riding out of a morning; and a Mr. Sefton, who was there when Walter arrived, generally rode with them. He was older than Walter, and had taken little notice of him, which Walter resented more than he would have cared to acknowledge. He was tall and lanky, with a look of not having been in the oven quite long enough, but handsome nevertheless. Without an atom of contempt, he cared nothing for what people might think; and when accused of anything, laughed, and never defended himself. Having no doubt he was in the right, he had no anxiety as to the impression he might make. In the hunting-field he was now reckless, now so cautious that the men would chaff him. But they knew well enough that whatever he did came either of pure whim or down-right good sense; no one ever questioned his pluck. I believe an intermittent laziness had something to do with his inconsistency.
It had been taken for granted by Lufa that Walter could not ride; whereas, not only had he had some experience, but he was one of the few possessed of an individual influence over the lower brotherhood of animals, and his was especially equine.
One morning, from an ailment in one of the horses, Lufa found that her mount required consideration. Sefton said the horse he had been riding would carry her perfectly.
"What will you do for a horse?"
"What shall we do for a gentleman?"
"I saw a groom this morning," suggested Walter, "on a lovely little roan!"
"Ah, Red Racket!" answered Lady Lufa, "He is no horse; he is a little fiend. Goes as gently as a lamb with my father, though, or any one that he knows can ride him. Try Red Racket, George."
They were cousins, though not in the next degree.
"I would if I could sit him. But I'm not a rough rider, and much disinclined to have my bones broken. It's not as if there was anything to be got by it, even a brush!"
"Two hours of your sister, your cousin, and their friend!" said Lufa.
"Much of you I should have with Red Racket under me--or over me as likely! at best jumping about, and taking all the attention I had! No, thank you!"
"Come, George," said his sister, "you will make them think you are no horseman!"
"Neither I am; I have not a good seat, and you know it! I am not going to make a fool of myself on compulsion! I know what I can do, and what I can't do."
"I wish I had the chance!" murmured Walter, as if to himself, but so that Lufa heard.
"You can ride?" said Lufa, with pleased surprise.
"Why not?" returned Walter. "Every Englishman should ride."
"Yes; every Englishman should swim; but Englishmen are drowned every day!"
"That is as often because they can swim, but have not Mr. Sefton's prudence."
"You mustn't think my cousin afraid of Red Racket!" she returned.
"I don't. He doesn't look like it!"
"Do you really wish to ride the roan?"
"Indeed I do!"
"I will order him round," she said, rising.
Walter did not quite enjoy her consenting so easily; had she no fear for him of the risk Mr. Sefton would not run?
"She wants me to cut a good figure!" he said to himself, and went to get ready.
I have no deed of prowess on Walter's part to record. The instant he was in the saddle, Red Racket recognized a master.
"You can't have ridden him before?" questioned Lufa.
"I never saw him till this morning."
"He likes you, I suppose!" she said.
As they returned, the other ladies being in front, and the groom some distance behind, Walter brought his roan side by side with Lufa's horse, and said--
"You know Browning's 'Last Ride Together'?"
"Yes," she answered, with a faint blush; "but this is not our last ride! It is our first! Why didn't you tell me? We might have had many rides together!"
"Promise me a last one," he said.
"How can I? How should I know it was the last?"
"Promise," he persisted, "that if ever you see just one last ride possible, you will let me know."
She hesitated a moment, then answered--
"Thank you!" said Walter with fervor.
As by consent, they rode after the others.
Walter had not yet the courage to say anything definite. But he had said many things that must have compelled her to imagine what he had not said; therefore the promise she had given him seemed encouraging. They rode in silence the rest of the way.
When Sefton saw Red Racket as quiet as a lamb, he went up to him, stroked his neck, and said to Walter:
"With me he would have capered like an idiot till he had thrown me. It is always my luck with horses of his color! You must have a light hand!"
He stroked his neck once more, turned aside, and was too late to help the ladies dismount.
It was the last ride for the present, because of a change in the weather. In a few days came "The Field Battery" with Walter's review, bringing a revival of the self-reproach he had begun to forget. The paper felt in his hand like bad news or something nasty. He could not bear the thought of having to take his part in the talk it would occasion. It could not now be helped, however, and that was a great comfort! It was impossible, none the less, to keep it up! As he had foreseen, all this time came no revival of his first impression of the poem. He went to find his hostess, and told her he must go to London that same afternoon. As he took his leave, he put the paper In Lufa's hand, saying,
"You will find there what I have said about the poem."