Always his big heart had gone out to children; as to everything weak and defenseless. Not always had his treatment at the hands of children encouraged this feeling of loving chivalry and devotion. But Sonya was an exception. Whenever she could steal a minute of time, away from her father's glum eyes and nagging voice and ready fist, she would seek out Lad.
She was as gentle with the grand old dog as other children had been rough. She loved to cuddle down close beside him, her arms around his shaggy neck; and croon queer little high-voiced songs to him; her thin cheek against his head. She used to save out fragments from her own sparse lunch to give to him. She was inordinately proud to walk at his side during Lad's rare rambles around the Place. Child and dog made a pretty picture of utter chumship.
To nobody save the Mistress and the Master had Laddie ever given his heart so completely as to this baby.
Hurried though she was, today, Sonya set down her basket of peaches and, with a shy glance of appeal at the two humans, reached across the veranda edge to stroke Lad's head and to accept in delight his proffered paw. Then, guiltily, she caught up her basket and sped on to the kitchen.
Lad, slowly and with difficulty, got to his feet and followed her. A minute later the Mistress watched them making their way to the orchard, side by side; the child slackening her eager steps in order to keep pace with the aged dog.
"I wish we could arrange to take her away from that brute of a father of hers, and keep her here," said the Mistress. "It's horrible to think of such a helpless wisp of a baby being beaten and made to work, day and night. And then she and Laddie love each other so. They--"
"What can we do?" asked the Master, hopelessly. "I've spoken to the village authorities about it. But it seems the law can't interfere; unless brutal cruelty can be proved or unless the parents are unfit to bring up the child."
"Brutal cruelty?" echoed the Mistress. "What could be more brutal than the way he beats her? Why, last week there was a bruise on her arm as big--"