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Title: The Stranger Within the Gate
Author: Fred M. White
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eBook No.: 1100101h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  Aug 2014
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The Stranger Within the Gate

by

Fred M. White

Published in The West Australian, Perth, Australia, 24 December 1906.
This e-book edition: Project Gutenberg Australia, 2014



I

The wind howled in the chimney so that the sparks from the wood fire raced upwards like millions of stars to meet the fury of the night. Then the gale was lulled for a moment, a strange white silence followed, and once again the rush of snowflakes on the windows.

Hetty Dane drew closer to the fire and shivered slightly. She could find it in her heart to wish that all the girls were back at school now, though term time was by no means a primrose path for her. Yet it was so lonely in the great gaunt house that she would even have welcomed Miss Adela and Julia Grimshaw back to their own fireside again. But those austere ladies were not likely to return just yet. Indeed, so far as Hetty could see, their homecoming was likely to be postponed for some days, seeing that the snow had been falling steadily for twenty-four hours now; and there was a prospect before Hetty of passing an exceedingly solitary Christmas. The Misses Grimshaw had departed leaving many rigid instructions behind them. They had intimated to Hetty that, if the weather did not become more propitious, they would probably stay in Castleford and pass Christmas with a brother who lived there.

Well, they would not return. Hetty had made up her mind on that point. As to the solitary Christmas, she cared little or nothing. There had been no festive season so far as she was concerned for some years past. Still, it was just a little unfortunate that the one servant remaining in the house should have sprained her ankle, and thus necessitated a stay in bed. Hetty would have to do all the work, but that she would not mind. She stood there before the fire, dreaming and wondering how many Christmases the old house had seen. It was a grand old place in its way, and at one time had been in the possession of an old county family, whose name was still remembered in the North. Doubtless, in times gone by, many a Yule log had blazed itself away upon that massive hearth, many a time had King Christmas held high revel there. Now it was all prim and bare, as befitted a ladies' school, cold and polished as the hearts of the two women who governed that select establishment.

For some time Hetty stood there, until at length she became conscious of the fact that someone was knocking at the front door. It was a somewhat feeble knock, only half heard above the fury of the gale: and, just for a moment, it occurred to Hetty that she was mistaken. Then the knock came again, followed by a groan. Scared and startled, Hetty hastily crossed the hall, and threw the door open. Had not she done this, had she given herself time to hesitate, she would probably have been afraid to do anything of the kind. She forgot all her fears now, as she saw the figure of a man on his hands and knees in the deep snow which had collected on the doorstep. A furious blast of wind set the old house humming, and a fine powder of snow drifted across the polished boards. With sudden strength that quite astonished herself, Hetty dragged the man inside, and pushed the door to again. She had to fight against the strength of the gale before she succeeded. When she turned her attention towards the newcomer, she did not fail to notice how dreadfully pale and drawn his features were. There was an ugly cut on the forehead from which the blood was flowing freely.

"You are badly hurt," Hetty said. "Sit down here, will you?"

She pushed an armchair up to the fire, and the stranger literally fell into it, without uttering a word. He appeared to be absolutely dazed and overcome; for some moments it was evident that he had not the slightest idea where he was. Then, gradually, as the grateful heat of the fire restored him of something like life again, he turned to Hetty and smiled. It was a pleasant, frank smile, which gave an attractive expression to a countenance which was not exactly handsome, yet pleasing.

"I am afraid I am giving you a lot of trouble," he said. "The fact is, I was going on to Castleford for tomorrow, and our train got snowed up in a cutting. There was a bit of an accident, and that was how I came to be hurt. I believe nobody was damaged but myself, so that when the guard came and told us we could get no further, everybody turned out of the train and went off to find accommodation in the village. I suppose I was a bit too much knocked about to keep up with the rest. Any way, I lost touch with them, and when the last breath of the blizzard came on I might have been miles away from help for all I knew to the contrary. I saw your light here, and, more by good luck than anything else, I managed to reach the house. I am sorry to trouble you."

"It is no trouble at all," Hetty said. "If you will sit here by the fire I will get some warm water to bathe your head. I daresay we can manage to make you comfortable for the night, but haven't you a bag or a portmanteau or something of that kind?"

The stranger replied that he fancied he must have left it on the doorstep. And, sure enough, there it was when Hetty opened the door again. Before half-an-hour had passed her visitor was quite himself again. He seemed to have a wonderful faculty for obtaining information without asking questions, and before Hetty realised that she had told him anything, he knew all about the Misses Grimshaw, to say nothing of the unfortunate servant, and her sprained ankle. In a calm, assured sort of way, he took the situation in his own hands. He might have been master of the house.

"This is a terrible dilemma," he said, with a smile. "It is my plain duty to take myself off at once, but I am not in the least inclined to do anything of the sort. I daresay I shall be able to find some sort of conveyance to-morrow. If you will be good enough to let me have two or three rugs I can make myself quite comfortable before the fire."

Hetty rather demurred to this, but George Barton was quite firm. He would keep up the fire, he said, so that Hetty would not have to light it on the following morning. When she did come down next day, something in the way of a surprise greeted her. There was a roaring fire in the hall, another had been made up in the dining-room, and the kettle was boiling gaily, in the kitchen. Moreover, the breakfast things were laid, and on the old-fashioned hob by the dining-room fire stood a dish of fresh eggs and bacon, flanked by a pile of steaming buttered toast. With a gay smile Barton pointed to his handiwork.

"I hope you don't mind," he said. "Of course, I know it is rather a liberty, but when I woke up this morning the fire was out and I was literally frozen. Then I thought of you and your damaged servant, and well, really, there was nothing else for it."

Hetty laughed aloud, such a laugh as the old house had not heard for years. It never occurred to her that her companion was looking at her with frank admiration in his blue eyes. George Barton was enjoying the situation.

"I daresay you wonder how I managed it," he said. "But, you see, I am used to this kind of thing. I have been a solitary man all my life, and for the last four or five years it has been a whim of mine to live in a tiny cottage, not far out of London, where I do everything myself. I do all my own housework and all my own cooking, though I daresay you would not approve of some of my methods. At any rate, this is done now, and I sincerely hope you will not think I have been taking a liberty."

"Indeed, no," Hetty cried, warmly. "I think it is exceedingly kind and thoughtful. But don't you think—"

"It is a pity to let the breakfast get cold," Barton laughed. "Afterwards I can go and prospect round and see if I can find some avenue to the village."

Barton came back presently with a sufficiently grave face and information to the effect that the snow round the house had drifted to a height of ten or fifteen feet, and that any attempt to get away was absolutely impossible.

"I am really afraid you will have to put up with me for a day or two," Barton said. "Of course it is very unpleasant for you."

Hetty replied suitably enough, and so the day wore on. It was cold and clear outside, a severe frost having followed the snow. Strange, as the situation was, it was still stranger how quickly Hetty fell in with the new order of things. Before evening fell she seemed to have known Barton all her life. She could hardly bring herself to believe that he was the cold, reserved man he professed to be. And then, gradually, she told him the story of her life, how both her parents had died when she was young, and how she had drifted into her present surroundings.

To all of this Barton listened with a quiet interest and sympathy, which Hetty felt to be very soothing. She was surprised at her own candour; she had no idea that she could talk so well and freely. And, on the other hand, she learnt a great deal about Barton, too. He chatted quite openly as they sat by the blazing fireside.

"There really is a great affinity between us," he said. "'Is it not strange that two solitary people like ourselves should drift together in this way? To think that we should be sitting opposite each other like this, chattering just as if we had known one another for years. Don't you think this would make a very excellent short story?"

"Do you know I have been thinking of that?" Hetty confessed. "I don't mind telling you that I am very fond of writing stories in my spare time. How glorious it would be to get a living that way and be independent of the Grimshaws for ever."

Hetty's face was grave and thoughtful as she gazed into the fire. Barton watched the pretty profile admiringly. Hetty was all unconscious of his glance; her thoughts were very far away just then.

"Unfortunately, many people have the same ambition," Barton said. "It is such a pleasant way of getting a living, and it looks so easy. I suppose your experience has been much the same as other people's?"

"I suppose so," Hetty laughed. "Every story but one I have ever written has been rejected, and then the other day I read somewhere that the best thing to do is to write from one's own experience. And I did write a story from my own experience, and sent it to the editor of the 'Imperial Magazine.' I am sure it is the best thing I ever did, and I have great hopes of it; though, as yet, I have heard nothing from the editor I sent it to."

"You wrote from your heart?" Barton asked.

Hetty's face flushed slightly, but the eyes which she turned on her companion were quite calm and steadfast.

"Yes," she said. "I put it all on paper. At first I was ashamed to say too much, but then, gradually, it became so easy and spontaneous that I knew I had done something good. Oh, if the story were only a success! Oh, if I could only get away from here, and the hard and narrow life! Those women mean well, but they are so cold and unsympathetic. You cannot conceive what a difficult matter it would be for me to explain—Oh! I don't mean that."

"I know exactly what you mean," Barton said. "You mean that my being in the house would place you in a cruel position. Believe me. I have thought of that, and I will set you straight. I would have gone away if I could, but you must see for yourself that such a thing is utterly impossible."

Hetty's face flushed crimson. She was too loyal and kindhearted to have uttered her own thoughts. She was vexed to find that Barton could so easily put them into words.

"I think I understand you better than you understand yourself," he said. "Do you suppose I don't know what an effort all this has cost you? Oh, dear, yes. And I shall never forget all your kindness to me. As yet I cannot realise it. I never expected to be talking freely and openly like this with anybody, least of all a woman. But I am allowing my sentiment to get the better of my common-sense. To-morrow I really must make another effort to get away from here. It will be a strange sort of Christmas Day, but, then, during the past ten or fifteen years, the festival has conveyed nothing to me. I only felt a little more remote and lonely than usual. And now let us be practical. Have you enough food in the house to carry us over another day?"

"Oh, you need not be afraid about that," Hetty, laughed. "I think we shall be able to manage. I won't vouch for the turkey or the mince pies but apart from those dainties I think we shall get on very well, only you must be careful with the butter."

"I will bear your warning in mind," said Barton gravely. "I am too extravagant with the toast. But, then, what can you expect from a mere average man like myself?"

II

Barton stood in the open air drinking in the beauty of the morning and the brilliancy of the sunshine. The world still lay under its white covering, but the hard frost had rendered the snow crisp and firm now, so that it was an easy matter to walk upon it without danger of going through the icy covering. Here was the avenue of escape for which Barton had been wishing. But now it had come he felt strangely reluctant to make the most of his opportunity. He ought to go away—that he knew perfectly well. It was his plain duty to do so. Instead of that, he made his way down to the village, where he found his fellow-travellers ensconced in a comfortable inn of more than average pretensions. When he returned to the schoolhouse again he was so laden with good things that Hetty opened her eyes in astonishment.

"I am going to be perfectly frank with you," Barton said. "The frost has rendered it quite an easy matter for me to get into the village. I believe that before the morning is over the line will be clear as far as Castleford. I ought to thank you heartily for all your kindness to me, and to say goodbye. As a matter of fact, I can't do anything of the sort. I feel longing to have one congenial Christmas again, and I was going to ask you to let me pass the day here. See, I have brought all these good things so that we may enjoy ourselves. Don't you think, Miss Dane, that as we have gone so far, we might just as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb?"

"It is all very, very wrong," Hetty murmured. "But, after all, it is good to find that one is still human. We will have a merry Christmas, and you shall stay with me, and help me to cook the dinner. What the Misses Grimshaw will say when they know, I tremble to think. The thought of them makes the situation piquant."

The day crept slowly on, and teatime was past and the lamps lighted. Barton had quite made up his mind what to do. He would stay till the evening was well advanced then he would take his bag and go down to the village inn, where he would stay till the morning. The one romance of his life was drawing to a close now, and the nearer he came to the last page the less he was inclined to close the volume. A quiet, blissful silence had fallen on the two as they sat over the fireside in the dining-room tracing pictures in the glowing coals. Barton stood up at length, and faced his companion. He regarded her flushed face and fair hair admiringly. She seemed to be so different from the quiet, demure little creature who had admitted him into the house not so very long ago. There was a dainty beauty about the girl now, born perhaps, of her unexpected happiness and the companionship of a congenial soul.

"Our little story is nearly at an end now," Barton said. "Another hour, and I must be gone. You have told me a good deal about yourself, but I have said little as regards my own life. Now let me make a confession to you. It was an accident that brought me here the other night, but the accident in question only anticipated events. I fully intended to call here this Christmas, and I should have done so in any case."

"But why?" Hetty cried. "Do you know anybody here?"

"I was born here," Barton said, quietly. "Time was when my family were people of position about here, but those days have gone for ever. My father was a hard-living, soured man, married to a woman who cared little or nothing for him. In fact, she had expected to wed money, and that was the source of all the trouble. There were three of us, two brothers and myself. My brothers were reckless sportsmen like my father; on the contrary, I cared for none of these things. I was too fond of dreaming and reading, so that gradually I became neglected and deserted, and at times was most cruelly used. I grew up to be solitary and secretive, and yet heaven knows there was never a man who had a more tender heart for the troubles of others. When the time came for me to leave home, I went away without one good-bye, and they were only too glad to get rid of me. Then the end came suddenly. My two brothers were drowned at sea, and my father broke his neck in the hunting-field. I came down here to see my mother, but she refused to have anything to do with me. Shortly before she died she sent me a letter, which I have kept ever since. It was no letter of forgiveness; it was a cold, hard, communication, telling me where I should find all that remained of the family property. Curiously enough, that letter never came into my possession until the other day. I will show it you in a minute or two."

"Yours is a sad story," Hetty murmured.

"A tragedy," Barton replied. "But, thank Heaven, it is not yet too late to avert it. I managed to live some way or another. I worked very hard at my writing until I obtained recognition, and finally I got the offer of an editorship, which meant a good, steady income for me, so that now I am practically beyond the reach of poverty. I never had any friends and no inclination to spend money, so that I am in a position—But we will come to that presently."

"But that is not exactly what I am here for. I have been bound to dwell, to a certain extent, upon my solitude and loneliness, so that you should the more fully understand what is coming. A short time ago, out of the dreary rubbish that reaches me in shoals, I picked out a little story, which was a gem in its way. My experience told me at once that the writer was a woman, and that she was writing from her own heart. I pictured her sweet and sympathetic, daintily pretty and loving, and yet surrounded by jealous and sordid natures, which were gradually squeezing from her the light and colour that makes life worth living. I read that story again and again. I took it down to my solitary house and read it once more. Of course, there were faults in the story, but it was the sheer humanness of it that touched me. I did not write to the author: I made up my mind that when this Christmas came, and things were slack, I would go down and see her. It was rather an effort for a shy man like myself, but I am glad now that I made it, glad now that circumstance gave me an opportunity of appearing as my natural self and not as the artificial creature which Fate has made me."

Hetty sat listening, her face half-shaded by her hand, but this did not altogether hide the brilliant tint on her features or the misty look in her eyes.

"I think, I understand," she murmured. "There is no occasion for me to ask if you are the editor of the 'Imperial.'"

"You have guessed correctly," Barton went on. "I am the editor of the magazine in question, and you are the author of the short story that touched me so deeply. As I said before; I was coming down to see you, and I blundered upon you quite by accident. Very likely I should never have looked at that story at all, if I had not discovered from your notepaper that it came from the house where I was born. Otherwise, I might have handed it over to my assistant, whose sympathies do not at all lie with the sentimental type of narrative. What small things turn the current of our lives, and cause the stream to flow in another direction! But I am glad I came; how glad I am I cannot tell you."

Hetty looked up steadily: the delicate pink flush was still on her cheeks. But her eyes were true and steadfast.

"And I am, glad you came too," she said. "'Mr. Barton, I—I really hope you are not disappointed."

"Disappointed?" Barton cried. "It has been the pleasantest time of my life. Thoughtless people call these things coincidences, but there is a deeper significance in our meeting than that. I am going to publish your story, and I am going to pay you for it, though no money could buy the pleasure you have given me. No doubt you will write many other stories in my magazine and elsewhere."

"Do you think that I have the gift?" Hetty asked.

"That is one of your gifts," Barton said. "But you have others infinitely more precious; and now let me read my mother's letter, in which she tells me where to find all that remains of the family property..... You see, it is a cold, unfeeling letter, but that may pass for the present. And now to open the treasure-house."

Barton crossed the room and placed his hand upon the centre of one of the oak panels, and a moment later a little cavity stood revealed. In a matter of fact kind of way, he produced three or four shabby looking cases, which he opened and laid upon the table. Hetty gave a little cry of delight, for here were diamonds and sapphires and a beautiful pearl collar the like of which she had never seen before. Her slender fingers played with the gems, whilst Barton watched her as if the picture were pleasing to his eye.

"Put them on," he commanded. "I want to see how they look on you. Please don't hesitate."

Hetty smiled as a she clasped the collar about her neck and placed the stars in her fair hair. It was, indeed, a sweet and tempting vision that turned demurely to Barton.

"They are lovely," she said. "Once you have made me put them on I shall be sorry to part with them again."

Barton took the two hands in his and held them firmly. There was something about the action that the girl could not resent.

"Then why not keep them?" he said. "They are of no use to me; they never will be. You may say that you cannot accept a gift like that; but does it not strike you that there may be a way whereby your scruples can be overcome? Hetty, do you suppose that we came together by mere accident? Do you believe that it was nothing but sheer chance that sent your story to me? We are both lonely, we are both without friends in the world. You hate your life here the same as I loathe my own solitary existence. In the last few hours I have seen more of you than in ordinary circumstances I should have done in a month. I will not ask you to say yet that you care for me, but there will never be another girl in the world but yourself so far as I am concerned. Let us try the future together, and let your Christmas guest be more than a passing acquaintance. But you are silent: I have frightened you—"

"Indeed, no," Hetty murmured. "I am a little dazed, a little confused in my mind, and yet my heart tells me that you are pointing the way to happiness, to the new life which up to now I have only dreamt of. I have no doubt in time—"

"That is enough," Barton cried. "At least, it is enough for the present. Let me kiss you now and leave you, for it is time that I was gone. But in a few days—"

He stopped abruptly, then he bent down and kissed the girl upon the lips. When she turned again he was gone, and the door had closed softly behind him. But Hetty's heart was glad as she thought of the future and the many glorious morrows that lay before her.


THE END

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