They walked in silence toward the hut. The woods were alive with gentler sounds than the chaos of the last half hour. An owl's call and the steady rustle of leaves a calming backdrop to ease both men's heightened nerves.
The fire had grown quickly, spreading in an instant to threaten the stables. It'd been unnaturally dry for many weeks, but how a flame could spark in an empty field was unclear. The result had been a stream of fire across the long grasses, licking at the barn.
Mellors had rushed to help put out the flames and free the horses. He eyed the Chatterley's and their guests with disdain as they watched uselessly from the sidelines or did more harm than good when trying to help. All except Thornton, who had already been in the thick of things when Mellors arrived. He was unlike the people who regularly visited Wragby. There was steel beneath the starched collar, a practical sensibility Chatterley's guests never possessed. John Thornton was a man Mellors could respect. Once the fire was extinguished, he offered Thornton the use of the pheasant hut to clean off the soot and grime. It was a strange suggestion, made even more so by the quick acceptance.
Thornton wasn't sure why he'd said yes to the gamekeeper's invitation. It would have been faster to go to the Hall; warm water and fresh clothes at the ready. But he'd had his fill of guests and hosts alike. To them he was nothing but a tradesman, there for business and not to join in their "intellectual" pursuits. Their genteel manner did nothing to conceal the crass snobbery he had no time for. Oliver Mellors was real, possessing intelligence and a sensible wisdom that Thornton admired, that he sought in acquaintances. He'd noticed the man's quality from their very first exchange, a chance encounter as he'd walked the grounds. Aloof and uncomfortably formal, Mellors seemed to be a hard man, unforgiving, but Thornton liked him and appreciated his candor.
Nevertheless, coming out to his hut was unnecessary and illogical. But now he stood in the clearing, watching Mellors go inside and return a few moments later with a pail and a thin bar of soap. He filled the bucket from the pump and roughly placed it at Thornton's feet, smirking as water sloshed onto Thornton's shoes. Then without preamble he stripped off his shirt and, using the pump, lathered himself before briefly rinsing the soap in the stream of water and dropping it into the bucket.
Again, the strangeness of this situation struck Thornton, both of them behaving not quite rationally. Still he rolled up his sleeves as he knelt down and began to scrub his arms and hands. He dropped the soap back in the water and concentrated on working in the lather. As he reached back in to retrieve the bar, his hand brushed Mellors' under the water. When did he move so close? Thornton wondered, as his fingers seemed to twitch on their own volition, grazing Mellors again.
The two men stared at each other, unable to look away yet unsure what was happening. Something passed between them, unexpected but not wholly unwelcome. Whatever it is, now is not the time or place, Thornton thought. He let his eyes drop from Mellors' piercing gaze and slowly stood, carelessly wiping his hands on his dirt-stained trousers.
Mellors got to his feet and waited, challenging the man to act with every ounce of his being. He found it disconcerting to realize he didn't know if he'd respond with violence or appreciation, but he refused to show any confusion. Thornton was taller by far and of a wealthier class, but neither trait would give him the upper hand here. When Thornton finally met his eyes once more, Mellors noticed the steel had slipped, but rather than relishing his victory found himself softening, almost as if he wanted to put Thornton at ease.
One more second and the moment passed, blown back into the woods and away with the growing breeze. Both men smiled, polite and detached, before Thornton nodded his thanks and turned away, heading down the path toward the Chatterley house. Mellors briefly found himself short of breath, had to focus to even out his breathing. He wondered if he'd inhaled more smoke than he thought, had exacerbated the weakness of his lungs. Then he remembered the slight touch of long fingers against his own, eyes filled with an emotion he wouldn't name. He dumped the water by the side of the hut, replaced the bucket and soap inside, and headed for his cottage, ragged thoughts occupying his mind.