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Title: Under Two Skies Author: E. W. Hornung * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1800071h.html Language: English Date first posted: January 2018 Most recent update: January 2018 This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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The Luckiest Man In The Colony
The Notorious Miss Anstruther
Strong-Minded Miss Methuen
An Idle Singer
His real name had gone no further than the station store. There it appeared in the ledger, and sometimes (though very rarely) on a letter in the baize-covered rack, under postmarks which excited the storekeeper's curiosity; but beyond the store verandah he was known only as Jim-of-the-Whim.
He lived by himself at the Seven-mile whim. Most of his time was spent under a great wooden drum, round which coiled a rope with its two ends down two deep shafts, raising a bucketful of water from the one while lowering an empty bucket down the other. The buckets filled a tank; the tank fed the sheep-troughs; and what Jim did was to drive a horse round and round to turn the drum. It was not an arduous employment. Jim could lean for hours against a post, smoking incessantly and but occasionally cracking his whip, yet serenely conscious that he was doing his duty. In times of plenty, when there was water in the paddocks and green life in the salt-bush, the whim was not wanted, and other work was found for the whim-driver. Unhappily, however, such intervals were in his time rare, and Jim was busy, though his work was light.
Jim never neglected his work. Sometimes he took a few days' holiday, and exchanged his half-year's cheque for poisonous bush alcohol; this was only customary; and Jim was highly considerate in his choice of the time, and would go after a rainfall, when the sheep could not suffer by his absence. He never allowed his excesses to degenerate into irregularities. He knew his work thoroughly, and applied his knowledge without sparing his bones; when not actually driving the whim, he was scouring the plains for thirsty stragglers. As a permanency at the Seven-mile he was worth higher wages than he was ever likely to get from Duncan Macdonald, though this squatter would have conceded much (for him) rather than lose so reliable a hand. But Jim never asked for a rise; and Macdonald was perhaps not eccentric in declining to take the initiative in this matter.
Jim's hut was two hundred yards from the whim. As bush-huts go, it was a superior habitation. It was divided by a partition into two rooms; it had a floor. In the larger room stood a table and a bench, which were both movable; and this merit was shared in an eminent manner by a legless armchair mounted on an old soap-box. Prints from illustrated papers were pasted neatly on strips of sacking nailed to the walls. Sacks filled with the current rations hung from the beams. The roof was galvanised iron; the walls, horizontal logs of pine between pine uprights.
Civilisation was met with on the threshold in the shape of a half-moon of looking-glass, nailed to the doorpost on the inside. This glass was only put to practical use on the infrequent occasions when Jim amused himself by removing his beard. At such times, when the operation was over, and Jim counted the cuts, the reflection showed a gun-browned face of much manly beauty, invested with a fine moustache in a state of picturesque neglect. His eyes were slightly sunken, but extremely blue; and he had an odd way of looking at you with his head on one side, owing to a breakage of the collar-bone from a fall far up country, when the bones had overlapped before growing together again.
The station storekeeper, a young Englishman named Parker, who gave his services to the economic Macdonald in return for 'Colonial experience,' and, among other duties, drove out with Jim's rations, was the only regular visitor at the Seven-mile hut. Yet Jim had one constant companion and sympathetic friend. This was Stumpy, the black kitten. The genesis of Stumpy was unknown to Jim, who had found him in a hollow log, while chopping up a load of wood sent from the homestead. Jim had chopped off two inches of what he took to be a new variety of the black snake before discovering that he had mutilated an unlucky kitten. The victim became "Stumpy" on the spot; and from that moment the kitten shared every meal and sentiment of the man, and grew in wisdom with increasing inches.
One cloudless winter's day (it was in July) Mr. Parker, arriving at the Seven-mile hut at high noon, found Jim idly caressing the kitten, and singing. He always did sing when he played with Stumpy, except when he broke off into affectionate imprecations upon some new impertinence on the part of that quaint little creature. In fact, Jim sang a good deal at any time. At general musters of all hands, such as at the lamb-marking, his voice made him popular in spite of his reserve, though he sometimes sang over the heads of his mates. To-day his singing was over the head of Mr. Parker, for it was in Italian, and Jim looked up with a quick change of colour at detection. He had, however, nothing to fear. Young Parker, so far from knowing Italian when he heard it, had been sent away from his public school because the rudiments of Latin were still beyond him at seventeen. Jim was pronouncing his words funnily—that was all that struck young Parker.
"You've heard the news, Jim?" were Parker's first words. "We've a visitor—a lady, ye gods!—Mrs. Macdonald's sister."
Jim had heard nothing about it He appealed to Stumpy, and inquired if he had any information. Altogether he treated the intelligence with indifference, and went on playing with the kitten. Parker was piqued. He was full of the guest at the homestead, Mrs. Macdonald's enchanting sister, and must tell some one about her, even though the only accessible ear was a whim-driver's. He launched into a rhapsody which occupied some minutes, and blended the old public school slang with the stronger-flavoured bush idiom, newly acquired. Jim heard him stoically; then he held up Stumpy by the fore-quarters, and addressed this animal gravely.
"D'ye hear all that, Stumpy? Then just you forget it again, my little feller. Wimmin is nothink to us, as I've told you before; so never think on 'em, Stumps, or you an' me'll fall out! That's it—he says he hears, Mr. Parker."
Parker changed the subject.
"Here's a letter for you," he said, and tossed a square blue envelope across to the whim-driver. It was not one of the well-directed letters he occasionally received, with English postmarks which invited speculation. It came only from Sydney, and the superscription was amusingly illiterate. Jim opened the letter—and turned whiter than the soiled sheet which now began to tremble violently in his hand. There were merely a few written words on this sheet of paper, but a short newspaper extract was pasted below them. The written words danced before Jim's eyes; the printed words became illegible; and if young Parker had not been deep in the contemplation of his own face in the looking-glass on the doorpost (gloating over the promising beginnings of a russet bushman's beard, and wishing he could have his photograph taken as he was, to send home to the old country), he might have seen Jim shiver from head to foot, and push the kitten from his trembling knees. As it was, by the time the youth did turn round, Jim-of-the-Whim looked and spoke like a calm and rational man.
"Mr. Parker, sir—I want a cheque."
"You aren't going on the booze again, Jim—already?"
"No, sir. I want you to make out a cheque for—as much as I'm worth, payable to this name and at this address." He tore off the portion of the sheet of letter-paper above the newspaper cutting, scored out a few words with a stump of pencil, added three words of his own, and handed this upper portion to young Parker. "And please to put in this slip with the cheque, sir."
These were the three words that Jim had written—
"To cover expenses."
The young lady whom Mr. Parker had raved about to Jim-of-the-Whim was Miss Genevieve Howard, of Melbourne; and, to do that young fellow justice, he had but praised one who gained golden opinions on almost every hand.
Miss Jenny had a pretty face, a perfect figure, a sweet soprano voice; and she was run after at the Government House assemblies. She was hardly, however, one of the Melbourne beauties. Her hair was free from special merit; she had no complexion at all. Even her eyes were of a neutral tint, though as a rule they were subject to such clever control that the colour was of no consequence; the rule was broken when emotion softened them; then they required no management to render them quite bewitching. Genuine feeling was no stranger to Miss Jenny, but depth of feeling was. She was emotional. And greater even than her talent for singing was her natural turn for coquetry, which amounted to genius.
But when Miss Jenny came to stay in the back-blocks with her sister (whose invitations she had persistently refused for years) her little fling was over: she was engaged. It was a startling engagement. Her world could scarcely believe its ears when it was announced that the popular Genevieve—with her beauty, her money, her fairly smart tongue—had engaged herself to Clinton Browne, a country curate no better than a pauper. It seemed preposterous. It vexed many; it wounded one or two; but at least it scored off those hanging judges of Miss Jenny's own sex who had averred that Miss Jenny was holding back until the Australian squadron should anchor once more in the bay, or another cricketing team come over from the old country. But these were not the people to be silenced for long. They presently heard of Mr. Browne's translation from the country to a town curacy, and about the same time that Miss Jenny was going up country. They promptly declared that she was frightened of seeing too much of him. She was tired of an amphibious position in society (for Government House had been renounced); her enthusiasm for aboriginal missions and the rest had gone out as suddenly as it had caught fire; the originality, pathos, and romance attaching to the voluntary immolation of the brilliant Miss Howard on true love's altar were losing their fragrance in her own delicate nostrils. All these points, and worse, her judges insisted on—not knowing that their most ingenious malice could not have condemned the accused to a worse servitude than station-life in the remote lonely regions of Riverina, where Miss Jenny now was.
The well-built homestead among the tall pines on the sandhills had absolutely no attraction for the town-bred girl. The surrounding miles of salt-bush plains and low monotonous scrub oppressed her when she wandered abroad. There was not one picturesque patch on the whole dreary "run." Then she was prejudiced against squatters in general, and unjustly accepted her taciturn, close-fisted brother-in-law as a type of the class. Him she could not endure. She pitied her elder sister, the gentle Julia, who, having thrown herself away to begin with, made the worst of the bargain by becoming her children's meek, submissive slave. Their name was legion, and they were young savages one and all; the only one of them that Aunt Jenny would have anything at all to do with, while she could help it, was the reigning baby in arms.
At first, it is true, the young lady thought it rather nice to have a horse to ride at her own sweet pleasure. But this treat was minimised after the first ride, when Duncan gravely cautioned her against galloping his horses while "feed" was so scarce in the paddocks and chaff so expensive; and after Miss Jenny had frightened herself horribly by losing her way in the scrub, and not finding it again for several hours, she removed the ride from her daily programme, and reserved it for those times when her nephews and nieces succeeded in making a perfect pandemonium of the homestead. Her days were spent chiefly among the pines, with a book or some fancy-work, or in the verandah when the children were out of the way. It was here that she made Clinton a gorgeous sermon-case of purple velvet, with C. B. in a crest of gold on one cover and I. H. S. on the other. This touching and suggestive present brought down upon her head a very beautiful letter from the ardent curate, who rashly stated that henceforth his sermons would be inspired. But the letter was far too beautiful to be answered immediately, or even to be read over twice. Not that Browne had rivals in Messrs. Bird and Parker, overseer and storekeeper respectively. Miss Howard took not the faintest interest in either of them, though she had subjugated poor Parker (quite unintentionally) on the evening of her arrival, and been compelled to snub the forward and facetious young overseer a few days later.
"I declare," Jenny wrote to a friend, "except dear old Julia, there's not a soul fit to speak to on the premises! And the children prevent one speaking to Julia—little wretches! My dear, I mayn't even sing in the evenings for fear of waking them, and even if I might it would be no pleasure with a pannikin of a piano, besides which, none of them know a note of music! I wish I had never carted all my songs up here—the sight of them tantalises me. As for the men, they are insufferable—not that I want to go back to Melbourne just yet. After all, I knew what to expect, for, as you know too, all bushmen are the same!"
Fate, coming down from heaven in the form of a heavy and welcome rainfall, proved Miss Genevieve Howard at fault in respect of this sweeping judgment.
On a gray and lowering day that young lady might have been seen cantering by the Seven-mile whim; she was seen, in fact, by the whim-driver, who ran to open a gate for her. The act of politeness did not strike Miss Jenny—as it ought to have done—as abnormal on the part of a station hand; nor did a hint about coming foul weather, spoken with unusual deference, receive the slightest attention. She threw a bone of thanks to the dog her gate-opener, and rode through without once looking under the brim of the gray felt wideawake on a level with her dogskin gloves.
But a few minutes later, as Jim stood at his hut door watching the rain come down in real earnest, there was a muffled tattoo of hoofs upon the soft sandy soil, and a horse pulled up in front of the hut.
The diffident tone and manner in which the young lady now addressed him offered such a pretty contrast to her monosyllable at the gate that Jim very nearly burst out laughing; instead, however, he bared, and ever so slightly inclined, his head, just as a gentleman would have done in his place.
"I think this is called the Seven-mile hut?"
"Is Mr. Macdonald here?"
"But you expect him?"
"No. I've heard nothing about it."
"Oh, but I heard him say he was coming here."
"Then he'll come, you may be sure, miss."
The drops were falling thick and heavy.
"And I thought," said Miss Jenny doubtfully, "I might drive back with him in the buggy, which has a hood. I know Mr. Macdonald is coming here, for I heard him say so. I am only surprised he hasn't come yet."
"He'll come any minute," said Jim with decision. "Help you to dismount, miss? That's it. Now, if you'll step in there out o' the rain, I'll take the saddle orf of the 'orse."
The whim-driver followed Miss Jenny into the hut, carrying the saddle. Then he kicked the log into a blaze, drew near it the legless armchair on the soap-box, observed that Mr. Macdonald was certain not to be long, and, without another word, went out.
Miss Jenny listened to his retreating steps (and those of her horse, which he was evidently leading to some shelter) until they were lost to the ear in the rattle of rain on the iron roof; then she stood irresolute, her mouth pursed into the tiniest crimson circle, and doubt in her eyes. She made a pretty picture in her dark blue habit, the firelight sweeping over the flushed face underneath the white straw hat, and dancing in her hair—a pretty picture in a frame of unbarked pine, with a beading of galvanised iron.
She glanced round the wooden walls. How clean and tidy everything was! She had never imagined that common bushmen looked after their huts like this. Was this a common bushman, by the way? He certainly said "orf of" for "off," and dropped the h from "horse"; but otherwise he spoke almost as well as she did herself; his manners were better than those, say, of Mr. Bird; and he was really handsome—she had discovered this at last. What a pity he was only an ignorant bushman! He was nothing more, after all; or else, for one thing, he would not fight so shy of a riding-habit.
The girl sat down on the quaint seat in front of the fire, and the spurting flames made her thoughtful. . . . Presently she realised that there were no more flames, but only embers: her meditations had taken time. Yet the whim-driver did not return. Where had he gone? Did the absurd creature mean to leave her sitting there all day? She would demand her horse and brave the rain—only, now that she had waited so long for Duncan, it would be weak not to wait a little longer and be driven home dry. She raised her eyes from the red embers of the fire; they had rested on the glowing logs too long; they burned and ached, so that the rest of the hut was dark and indistinct to them.
Had this sensation lasted, Miss Jenny would at least have been spared a more startling one; for her clearing eyesight was greeted by a pair of emerald eyes transfixing her from the blurred gloom of the chimney corner. The eyes had no body, and Miss Jenny jumped up in high alarm, tumbling the legless chair from its pedestal the soap-box. A horrible sound issued from the region of the staring eyes. Miss Jenny leapt upon the soap-box, and thence, with immense agility, on to the table. Her sight lost all its dimness: the owner of the unearthly eyes, the author of the unearthly sound, stood revealed—a small black demon, with a back bent like a bow before the arrow leaves it.
Now, cats were this young lady's pet abhorrence; so she instinctively took the measure that had served her through life on like occasions, and screamed out lustily. Nor did she stop until the whim-driver appeared at the door with a scared face. Then, in an instant, she was sufficiently collected, and more than sufficiently indignant.
"Take that nasty, horrid little wretch away!" gasped Miss Jenny.
Jim simultaneously grasped the situation and poor Stumpy—the latter by that loose skin at the back of the neck which is to your hand what the loop of your overcoat is to the peg.
"Stumpy!" he began, in a terrible voice, "you're a little—"
His teeth came together with a snap. Terror filled his face, for he felt as a man who has driven within an inch of a precipice, and pulled the right rein at the right second. And the words that Jim checked in his throat it would be grossly unfair to conjecture. He relieved himself by tossing Stumpy into the inner room, and banging the door.
"Danger's past," he then said, smiling at the goddess aloft, with his head cocked at the rakish angle which he could not help. "You may venture on deck, miss."
He held up his hands to her assistance. What else could he do? But he may have done it awkwardly, for Miss Jenny stood immovable, vowing she was all right where she was. Jim thereupon threw himself with vigour into mending the fire. A modest idea occurred to him that advantage might perhaps be taken of his back being turned; and he was quite right, for there followed a flutter in the air and a light bounce on the floor; and when Jim looked round, after a decent interval, Miss Howard was standing gazing out of doors. He was glad she had not fallen and bothered him to pick her up.
Out of doors it was raining hopelessly; nor was there any sign of the good Duncan. The heavy framework of the whim loomed dispiritingly through the rain. There was nothing else to look at.
"How do you work a whim?" all at once asked the visitor.
"By driving a horse round and round," Jim answered; and he came and looked out at a respectful distance from her.
"How very lively! I should rather like to see one working."
"We don't do it in wet weather; there's plenty of water without. But if you cared to come some hot-wind day, miss, I'd show you the whole thing, and welcome."
There was no eagerness in his tone; the invitation was inspired by a civil instinct, nothing more; and at that moment Jim-of-the-Whim was as good a misogynist as he had ever been. But Miss Jenny was rude enough not to answer; and Jim became exasperated: and that was the beginning of it all.
"Will you look round again to see the whim at work?" Jim asked, out of pure pique.
"I don't mind."
"Make it a bargain, miss!"
"A bargain, then. If Mr. Macdonald doesn't come at once, I must ride back, rain or no rain."
Jim thought that he should not grieve if she did. "I hope you'll do no such thing, miss," was, however, what he said; and certainly, for a common man, he was wonderfully ready with a polite falsehood. "I'll make you a billy of tea and a johnny-cake in true bush style, miss, if you'll do me the honour to try 'em when made."
Miss Howard consented with light hauteur, and went on gazing out into the rain, wondering by what stages such a good-looking, decent-spoken man had gravitated to the bush; and whether he had ever been anything very much better than a whim-driver.
As for Jim, he made himself very busy indeed, sitting on his heels over the fire in an attitude peculiar to back-blockers; and there was silence in the hut for several minutes. Then Miss Jenny grew tired of looking out of doors, and wandered round the room, examining the prints on the walls. Many of these she remembered in the English and Colonial illustrated papers. One from the Sketcher—one that occupied a place of honour "on the line"—she remembered particularly well; for it represented a scene from an opera of which she was passionately fond, in her passionate little way. The opera was La Traviata. In a twinkling Verdi's airs were chasing each other in her ears. Half unconsciously she began humming the one that came first. This was the duet beginning "Parigi, o cara," which had made a great impression on Miss Jenny once (nay, many times more than once), all because of the soulful tenor who had played Alfred. With this tenor, in fact—one Signor Roberto—Miss Howard, in common with other little sentimentalists, had fallen innocently and entirely in love during the run of Traviata at the opera-house.
But before she had hummed the second bar of that duet, Miss Jenny turned sharply round—with animation practically suspended; for from some quarter of the hut, as if by magic, a tenor voice like unto the divine Roberto's was boldly singing the lines that had risen faintly and formlessly to the girl's lips—
"Parigi, o cara, noi lascererao..."
Genevieve disbelieved her ears; their evidence should have been corroborated by her eyes, but it was not. She rubbed her eyes, and fastened them upon the one possible and visible owner of a tenor voice; but the whim-driver still sat at ease upon his heels, with his face turned to the fire and his back to Miss Jenny; and, before she could make up her mind that the whim-driver and the singer were one, the voice ceased softly.
Miss Jenny knew what ought to happen now: the soprano ought to catch up the refrain, and repeat the solo. It was only a little bit of a solo, of two dozen bars or so; then why not?
Wild with excitement, knowing the thing by heart, she opened her lips, and out it came. It was no humming matter now; Miss Jenny was on her mettle; and if there was a slight nervous tremor in the notes, they were none the less true for that, and all the more tender.
A moment later the pace quickened, and both voices were in the running. Then it was that Jim rose to his feet—that the singers faced one another with sparkling eyes—that the whole hut rang and trembled with enchanting sounds. After that the voices sank and slackened, and died away in a soft embrace—pianissimo. And poor little Miss Jenny knew what she had done, and was instantly stunned by the buffets of a dozen different emotions.
"I've no right to know Italian; please keep it quiet, miss," said Jim humbly, speaking first, and as though nothing much had happened, yet with a rather sad smile; "and some day I'll—show you how the whim works."
For at this moment Macdonald's buggy swept in front of the hut and pulled up.
And Jim said that night to his mate:
"Stumpy, you recollect what I was saying to you not so long since about wimmin? Keep clear of 'em, Stumps, my son. Never let me catch you frightening 'em no more, and getting your master mixed up in it, or I'll chuck you down the blessed whim, little Christian though you are!"
About this time a change came over the whim-driver at the Seven-mile. It was noticed by young Parker, who saw him frequently, and lamented by the landlord of the Governor Loftus Hotel, the nearest grog-shanty, where Jim and his cheque were now several weeks overdue. The fact was, Jim had renounced the luxury of the periodical "drunk," and was coming out as a bush dandy. He shaved himself every morning of his life; he appeared in none but the snowiest moleskins and the pinkest and most becoming of striped cotton shirts; he even went to the extreme lunacy of shining his boots every evening before retiring to his bunk. But, what was far more remarkable, his speech was the speech of Jim-of-the-Whim no more. He dropped no aspirates, his sentences were grammatical; and without any specific deduction from his case, it may be noted as a curious fact that errors of speech may be easily acquired by any educated man who chooses to live long enough in a low grade, and takes pains to forget what culture he once possessed. He seldom swore, and when he did the short sharp pistol-crack was a mere mockery of his former bullock-driving broadside. Stumpy, could he but have spoken, would have borne valuable testimony on the latter point, since he was the party most affected (not forgetting the whim-horse, a hardened drudge) by his master's change in this respect; and the sagacious little animal would have assured you that the endearing epithets now showered upon him were entirely inoffensive in their nature.
It would have been taxing feline intelligence unfairly, however, to have expected the little cat to note the subtler indications of the change in Jim: the look of expectancy and hope with which he rose of mornings, the disappointment in his face at evening, the glances he would cast all day along the track towards the homestead, the frequency with which he sang, whistled, and hummed one tune. These points were too fine for the cleverest cat in the world—even Dick Whittington's might have missed them.
But events long looked for come in the end when least expected; and the coming of Jim's goddess was a case in point.
The whim was out of order, and Jim for once idle, waiting for the blacksmith, who had been sent out from the homestead, and gone back to his forge there with a bit of greasy paper covered with diagrams. Jim sat outside on the ground in the shade of the hut, toes up, arms folded, eyes closed. A clay pipe was between his teeth, but the ashes in the bowl were cold. Jim was asleep, and dreaming of her who was alternately minx and angel in his waking mind, but always angel in his dreams. Suddenly he awoke: and the angel sat not far from him in her saddle.
The pipe fell from Jim's lips as his jaw dropped. Next moment he had sprung to his feet, and a dusky colour flooded his face with one swift wave.
"Good afternoon," he said, snatching off his wideawake. "I—I beg your pardon, miss."
Miss Jenny begged his. "I have come to be shown how a whim works," said she.
"Ah, I feared you had forgotten all about that!"
"So I had," declared Miss Jenny with unblushing readiness. "I never thought of it until, riding this way again, the whim reminded me. I am ready to be shown at once, if"—severely—"you are not too busy!"
Jim stepped diffidently forward, gnawing at his moustache, and proffered his aid as formerly. But she cut him short.
"No, thank you; I'm not going to get off; I can't stay a moment longer than just to see this wonderful whim—then I'm off."
This was delicious. If the whim were admitted to be out of gear she would simply canter away without a thank-you; therefore Jim would admit nothing. In silence he led the way to the whim, Miss Jenny riding after him at a walk. Under the black ugly wooden framework, which was high enough for Miss Jenny to continue sitting upright in her saddle, they both stopped; and Jim began to explain.
He began with the great wooden drum above their heads, and step by step expounded the working of the whim; but when he led the lady's hack into such a position that Miss Jenny could see down into the shaft, he had not yet mentioned that an accident had suspended the working.
The sides of the shafts were lined with horizontal slabs of wood; and the mischief was that one of the slabs near the top had become loose, and had at last fallen the full depth of a hundred feet, and so smashed and jammed the bucket, which was just clear of the water at the bottom, as to make it immovable. One slab having loosened itself, others were likely to do the same; the shafts were no longer secure, and the danger of descending to the injured bucket (without testing every slab on the way, as the blacksmith proposed) was great.
There was only one shaft for Miss Jenny to look down, for the uninjured bucket hung at the mouth of the other. She did not much like looking down the smooth-sided, damp, narrow shaft; it put her in mind of the bottomless pit; yet to gaze down, down, down, rather fascinated her.
"You have not yet shown me how it works," she said presently, glancing across the raised lips of the shaft at the whim-driver, who was leaning over them and grasping the perpendicular rope a little higher than his head.
"The whim's not in working order." As he spoke Jim watched her face, with a rather reckless light in his blue eyes, for the effect of his little sell. He expected her to ride off at once; but she did nothing of the kind. She exhibited no annoyance at all, but would know all about the jamming of the bucket at the bottom.
"Then will some one have to go to the bottom?" she asked, shuddering—"down this endless awful rope?"
"Some one will. There's nothing else for it." Miss Jenny's eyes had been downcast; now she raised them swiftly. Her eyes often were downcast, and she as often raised them thus.
"I shouldn't wonder."
The next sound was a sharp shrill cry from Miss Jenny. The little dainty riding-whip—which she had never once dropped on all her long and lonely rides—had somehow slipped from her fingers and fallen fairly into the mouth of the shaft, and so out of sight.
Then came a shriller, sharper cry from Miss Jenny, followed by the exclamation, "Don't!" reiterated in great alarm.
But it was too late: Jim was descending the single rope into the horrible pit, hand under hand. Jenny's vision grew dim; she lost sight of him in the deeper gloom of the shaft; and as she saw him last his upturned eyes were fixed upon her with a strange, smiling, singular expression.
Suddenly the rope, on which the girl now concentrated her trembling, anxious gaze, ceased to vibrate. He had reached the bottom, then. But why did he not shout up to her his safety? She swayed in her saddle with the suspense.
Watching the rope with an agonised face, she hardly breathed until it began once more to vibrate; then she lowered her eyes into the impenetrable gloom; and at length a figure, spattered and stained with dirt, sweat streaming from the white forehead, and blots of blood upon the hands, with the little riding-whip between his teeth—a figure that ten minutes of strenuous effort had turned into an apparition—climbed slowly into sight, and so, hand over hand, into the open air.
A Count de Lorge would have struck the lady with the whip; but Jim just handed it over without a word, and flung himself upon the ground. Without a word Miss Jenny received her whip; she could not speak; but she could see four deep dents in the whalebone, where Jim's teeth had done their best to meet, in the struggle of the stifling upward climb.
All at once a noise came from the shaft—a thumping and a bumping against its sides—growing more distant, but ending in a loud metallic crash. Jim had leapt to his feet, and was gazing down the shaft.
"What is it?" asked Miss Jenny tremulously; her nerves were shaken.
"Only another slab, miss. It'll about do for the old bucket."
"Are the slabs so heavy?"
"Damp, and heavy as lead."
"Suppose—oh, suppose you had been down below a minute longer!"
"Why, miss, I should have been a stiff 'un!"
There was a long pause between them. Miss Jenny broke it at last in a whisper—
"Did you know the—the danger—before you went down?"
The whim-driver laughed without answering; and a minute later a cloud of orange-coloured sand, far over the plain, was all that could be seen of Miss Jenny from the whim, even from the top of the framework, on which Jim had mounted.
The gate between the home-paddock and the horse-paddock, half a mile from the homestead: half-past nine on a hot Sunday evening in December.
A slim figure all in white leant over the gate, and the full moon shone so brilliantly that any one within a hundred yards might have seen that it was Miss Jenny. Moreover, but for the hindering box clump on the other side of the gate, Miss Jenny might herself have seen some one hurrying across the paddock towards her, and have conquered her uneasiness; for this was Jim-of-the-Whim.
It was their first meeting by design, but there had been accidental meetings, one, two and three, since Jim's risky descent of the whim-shaft: at least, they appeared to be accidents—like the slipping of the whip that day from Miss Jenny's fingers.
All at once the night air was filled with a music that should have silenced every chirruping locust in the land—music whereat Miss Jenny sighed her deep relief and fluttered with delight.
"La donna è mobile" sang the voice, and came nearer every second. It was Verdi at his most tuneful: in the moonlit wilderness: by the sweetest tenor out of Italy.
Miss Jenny had heard Rigoletto with the same tenor that took more than her fancy in Traviata. For the first time—for she had only heard Jim sing once before—she compared his voice with the heavenly Roberto's. And then and there a suspicion entered her soul that would have been torture had not the opportunity of satisfying it been immediately at hand. For the song had come to an undignified end in the full tide of the second verse, and—and Miss Jenny was on one side of the gate and Jim on the other.
"You were singing Rigoletto?" said Jenny.
"Yes; I was forced to sing something for very joy."
"I have heard Roberto sing that thing; and, do you know, you sing exactly like Roberto, and look like him too!"
"Are you Roberto?" cried Jenny, in the greatest excitement.
"Can it make any difference to you? Even so, should I not be miles beneath you still?"
Miss Jenny did not answer.
"You own that I should—and," cried Jim, "that's the best of it! You take me for what I am. Very well; I'll tell you what I was—I was Roberto! Does it make any difference?"
It did not—but it made them practically silent. The full moon sank lower, and peeped under the very broad brim of Jim's wideawake. That was bad taste on the moon's part.
"You were to tell me your whole history." Miss Jenny whispered. "Were you always on the stage?"
"No," said Jim. "Ten years ago I was at the 'Varsity. You wouldn't have thought it, would you?"
"Oh, indeed, I—"
"Oh no, you wouldn't! I had forgotten it myself until—until I saw you! No, it was the common savage you liked, not the ex-gentleman; and by liking him you have saved him! My angel! My good angel! For your sake I'll be the man I was once, so help me God!"
The girl blushed crimson in the moonlight, and Jim liked her the better for it. The poor fellow little dreamt how much she had to blush for.
"I'm the prodigal son of rather a well-known parent," Jim went on. "You can see his name in any English newspaper. It is the parable all through so far, minus the happy ending. That's what you and I are going to bring about."
"You mean that you are disinherited! What was it you did?"
Inquisitiveness was innate in Miss Jenny; but at the same time, to do her justice, she was thinking of her own little dower, and of its possibilities as an aid to reconciling her future husband with his family. Yet she would have given something to know what Jim's original crime had been.
Jim would not answer. He said that it was a long story, and his face showed that the memory pained him still. Nor would he say why he had quitted the stage, on which he had achieved a great though brief reputation throughout the Colonies.
Soon Miss Jenny looked at her watch, and said she must fly. Whereupon Jim opened the gate to fly with her as far as he dare. But they did not fly at all; they walked very slowly indeed; and on this walk they made their final arrangements. There is nothing to conceal in these arrangements. In the circumstances, they were the simplest and most natural in the world. Jim was to get his cheque next day, and set off walking for Wagga-Wagga. He was to wait in that town; if not in the church-porch, at any rate on the platform of the railway-station. He would not have to wait many days, though the date of Miss Howard's departure from her brother-in-law's station was not absolutely settled. She was preparing, however, to go down to Melbourne for Christmas, and she intended travelling by rail from Hay, by way of Wagga and Albury, instead of in the coach by the more direct route to Deniliquin. She would leave the train at Wagga, and be married then and there.
After that, as Jim said, the world lay at their feet. They would go to England. His father would forgive everything; all would be well; the years of exile and degradation should be forgotten. Nor were all Jim's prophecies so vague, and Genevieve quickly shared his high hopes; for among her own people the realisation of half the golden programme that Jim now unfolded would atone for the rash plunge she was going to take. She was intoxicated with joy, for there were prospects, as it turned out, undreamed of till now, though she had suspected from the beginning that Jim had sunk from some better state. But her little heart was honestly on fire as it had never quite been before; and in her happiness she for once shook off the haunting vision of poor Clinton, who at that moment was walking home to his Melbourne lodgings from Sunday supper at the parsonage, hugging to his heart the velvet embroidered case that had 'inspired' his evening sermon.
As for Jim, he carolled all the way back to the hut—still in Italian.
On Mr. Parker's high office-stool at the desk in the store sat Miss Jenny—deep in the composition of a letter. This letter was a long business, and, what was worse, it cost the writer tribulation over every word; when from time to time she looked up, her eyes were swimming with tears. Her letter, in fact, was full of sorrow and remorse: its frankness did the writer some credit—it was the letter of a weak nature rising almost to strength in the honest admission of its weakness: it was a letter to Clinton Browne.
It was strange that she should have the store all to herself this sultry afternoon; but the fact was that all hands were away "mustering" in a distant paddock; and, as it was mail-day, Macdonald had intrusted the key of the store to his sister-in-law, with injunctions about the despatch of one mail-bag, and permission to open the other.
At last the dreadful letter was written, directed, stamped, and dropped into the outgoing bag. Then Miss Jenny dried her eyes, tied string round the mouth of the bag, and sealed it as she had once or twice seen Mr. Parker do. The wax was still warm when the inward mail was fetched into the store.
"The other bag is ready," said Miss Jenny, pointing to it. "You'd better take it."
"No; I'll come back for it in an hour, when me and my 'orse has had a snack. Lots o' time for the other bag then." And the highly Colonial mail-boy swaggered out with characteristic independence, not having demeaned himself by a single "miss," "please," or "thank you."
The weekly mail had always been a source of pleasurable excitement to Miss Jenny, though of late she had neglected her formerly enormous correspondence, and allowed it to dwindle. Still, there were a hundred people from whom she might hear to-day; and it was not a little disappointing to find absolutely nothing addressed to Miss Howard. There was, however, a letter bearing the name that was soon to become her own, and its mere exterior interested Miss Jenny more than whole sheets addressed to herself could have done.
This letter she kept in front of her on the desk after she had poured everything else back into the bag. It bore the postmark of an English town which, until the other day, had been no more than a name to her. It was superscribed in a firm, businesslike, masculine hand. Without doubt it was from Jim's father! Miss Jenny toyed musingly with the envelope. She tried to guess the contents; she even held the letter up to the light; but the paper of the envelope was provokingly opaque. If the letter itself was written on such thick paper it must be a pretty short letter. It has been said that Genevieve was naturally inquisitive; other unfortunate qualities of hers combined to strengthen the temptation now thrown in her way.
Perhaps the drowsy stillness of the store and her entire solitude fed that temptation; perhaps, on the contrary, she argued that she had almost a right to read the letters of the man she meant to marry next week; or it may even have crossed her mind that possibly she held in her hands words of forgiveness from father to son, and that in this case Providence had clearly reserved it for her to break the good news to Jim. In any case, the fact remains that she opened the envelope with a paper-knife, and so cleverly that she separated the flap without tearing it. Having done this she was startled. She told herself that she had done it without thinking. This was partly true, for she made more bones about reading the letter now that it was opened than about opening it. It may have been the sight of a gum-bottle and brush among the inkstands that helped to decide her the wrong way.
When Genevieve Howard had read three lines of the letter to the man she had promised to marry, she sank forward on the sloping desk as if in a swoon, and the letter fluttered to the floor. There it lay in the dust—after all, not much more than the three lines that had been read.
"Dear James," the letter ran, "when I refused to see you or communicate with you any more, after your disgraceful marriage with an opera singer, I took the step after due deliberation. My decision was therefore irrevocable, and I am sorry you again compel me to emphasise it. I am not surprised to learn that this woman has proved your final ruin. That you have separated from her and left the stage may possibly be for your comparative good, unless you once more go from bad to worse. But I must repeat, and I trust for the last time, that you cheat and deceive yourself in looking to a reconciliation, no matter at how distant a date, with—your father."
A jingle of spurs sounded along the verandah outside. The mail-boy re-entered the store.
"I'll take the bag now," said this young Australian; and he was walking off with it when Miss Howard started up from the desk with burning cheeks and flashing eyes, and stopped him.
"Bring it to me!" she cried. "There is a letter in the bag that must not go!"
She cut the string, extracted the letter addressed to Clinton Browne, and tore it into a hundred fragments before the mail-boy's eyes. He saw her tie up and seal the bag once more; he saw her hands tremble so that she burnt herself with the sealing-wax. In his uncouth way he lent a hand; and he went out and told all the men at the hut that "his girl" was certainly "taken worse." Nor did Miss Jenny's white face that evening escape the notice of her brother-in-law, though he said nothing until she told him that she had given up the idea of rail from Hay to Albury via Wagga, and so on, in favour of the more direct and cheaper coach journey to Deniliquin; and then he merely praised her economy, which was after his own heart.
On the railway platform at Wagga-Wagga there was to be seen daily, right through the busy time of the Christmas holidays, and principally at the hour when the train came in from Hay, a man whose appearance, at first gentlemanlike and irreproachable in point of dress, became rapidly shabby-genteel. This man attracted attention at first by reason of his good looks, and at last because people remembered his good looks, and wondered what had become of them. His expression, however, forbade inquiry; and as he never was seen in even the primary and confidential stage of intoxication (being evidently a teetotaller, since he was sober on Christmas Day) he was left unmolested. Just before he disappeared from Wagga, towards the end of January, this man presented an appearance that is familiar enough in cities: he had good clothes on his back and no money to live up to them; his cheeks were sunken, his chin stubbly, his linen grimy. At the first glance the man looked well to do; at the second, you could see that he was starving.
About a fortnight later the same man walked into the store at Macdonald's station, and young Parker cried out in surprise across the ledger—
There was nothing surprising about Jim's return, though he had never before stayed away quite so long. What was surprising was the urban cut and texture of his clothes. Parker attempted to interrogate him lightly on the point, but got short answers. The fact was, the clothes were Jim's wedding garments, which had been made for him immediately after his arrival in Wagga, and which he would not part with though everything else had to go to buy him bread, while he waited for the bride who never came.
Parker gave up the dress riddle, and informed Jim that he had come back in the nick of time, his successor at the whim having that very morning rolled up his swag, got his cheque, and gone.
At the news Jim's eyes lighted up ever so little.
"Is the little cat there still, sir?" he asked suddenly.
"He was this morning," returned Parker—and the light in Jim's eyes grew stronger. "By the way, Jim, here's a letter for you—came the day after you went."
Jim read his father's ultimatum with complete apathy. It was the few words in pencil at the end, in a different hand, over a different signature, that caused him to stagger as though drunk, and to sink down on the nearest box.
Young Parker was going on with his entries, and his back was turned to Jim.
Jim read the pencilled words over and over again without grasping their meaning; yet they were simple enough. They told very shortly how the letter had been opened, what its first words revealed, how the writer would see him no more, yet forgave him, and wished him well. There was not one syllable of reproach. Jim blessed her in his heart.
In a few minutes, when he was quite calm again, he put his hand into an inner pocket, and drew out an old and dirty blue envelope, the same that Parker had handed to him in the hut on the day when he first heard of Miss Jenny, and would not listen. From this envelope Jim took the newspaper cutting which had agitated him on that occasion: it was an announcement of the death of Jim's wife at Sydney.
Jim rose and obtained from the storekeeper a clean envelope, into which he slipped his newspaper cutting, closing up the envelope without adding a written word; merely underlining the date of his wife's death.
"Mr. Parker, will you be so kind as to address this to the young lady that was staying here—Miss Howard, wasn't her name? You needn't whistle; it's only a cutting that'll interest her. Come, sir, as a favour to me."
That was what Jim said. But he was thinking—"I won't add a word. She'll see it all and write. Then I'll go down to her, and after all—after all—after all—"
"Her name isn't Howard, Jim," said Parker, taking the envelope.
"What is it, then?"
"This," said young Parker, squaring his elbows to direct the envelope: and the address began: "Mrs. Clinton Browne."
It was Nettleship's match; or rather, the University match that cricketers persist in calling Nettleship's, because it is generally held to have been Nettleship's long score (and apparently nothing else) that ultimately won the game for Oxford. It was the second day of the match, and the luncheon interval, which occurred shortly after Nettleship had gone in.
The day was gorgeous, as those who were up at Lord's will remember; and the dresses of the ladies were in keeping with the day, as half a dozen newspapers observed next morning. Never, it was agreed, had the well-appointed ground in St John's Wood presented a fairer spectacle than during that interval. A perfect galaxy of beauty floated before your eyes across the trim green sward; behind you the dainty picnic was already in full swing on the tops of the handsome drags; and over all shone the hot June sun. So the papers said, and not without truth. Personally, however, it is more than likely that you took little or no interest in these phenomena. You knew them by heart as well as the descriptive gentlemen who reported them, at long range, from Fleet Street. More probably you spent the time in those exceptionally delightful recognitions which come but once a year, and at Lord's; where you have the annual opportunity of offering a good cigar to your old house-master (who had you flogged for smoking in your study), and of patronising the snob you used to fag for. You and some other fellow strolled about the ground together, sought out the old set, and criticised them horribly; and, no doubt, among other objects, you drew his attention to one of the players who was lunching in a landau, and was somewhat conspicuous, being the only one of the twenty-two, so far as could be seen, who preferred this sort of discomfort to the regular thing under cover. "That's Nettleship," you said; "he's in, you know." And of course the other fellow said pointedly that he could see that Nettleship was having his innings, and laughed; and you laughed too, indulgently, but drew nearer, to stare at the man who seemed already to have collared the Cambridge bowling.
All Oxford knew Nettleship by sight, and probably so did most Cambridge men. He had played the three previous years at Lord's, and though he had been a disappointment in those three matches, no one who had seen him in the field was likely to forget him; not so much because he was the finest cover-point in either team, but almost entirely on account of his good looks, which were not at all of the conventional order. His jet-black hair was a sheer anachronism in its length and curliness, and would have been considered extremely bad form in anybody but Nettleship. Also, his pale face was vexatiously deprived of the moustache which might at least have modernised him; but then his features were notably of a classic cast. So, at least, they had seemed when Nettleship played his first match at Lord's as a freshman. They were now, it was remarked, a trifle sharp and angular. In short—though it was the face of a determined, persevering poet, at least looking the part, rather than that of a born athlete—it was a face that every one knew. Even the ladies at Lord's, who notoriously never look at the cricket, except to furnish their annual supply of high-class "comic copy" in the form of artless comment—even the ladies knew Mr. Nettleship by sight, and really watched the game if he fielded close to the ropes. As for the men of his time, it has been hinted that they judged him by no ordinary standard of "form," though they may have regarded him as a dangerous and even impossible model. It may be added that they did not even speak of him in the ordinary way. It is Brown of Oriel, Jones of Brasenose, Robinson of New. It was Nettleship of the 'Varsity—Nettleship of Oxford. And Nettleship of Oxford was having his innings, it was observed; and the reference was not so much to the thirty or forty runs he had already made, and the hundred he was possibly good for, as to the fact that Nettleship was calmly eating salmon mayonnaise by the side of one of the loveliest girls on the ground, on the apex of whose parasol flaunted a dark blue knot.
The landau patronised by the celebrated Oxonian was a new one, though in point of existence the crest upon the door was a good deal newer. The liveries of footman and page were also very new, and their wearers were at any rate new to London (which was plain from their behaviour). In fact, Nettleship of the 'Varsity was with painfully new people. Their name was M'Ilwraith; old M'Ilwraith was one of the newest of the new M.P.'s; and their town house was an institution whose age in weeks could be reckoned on the fingers of two hands.
Nettleship finished his salmon mayonnaise as regardless of the world's eyes as though he were still at the wicket.
"Let me take your plate," said the lovely girl at his side; and Nettleship let her, or at any rate did not attempt to prevent her until too late. Then he apologised, of course, but coolly.
"Elaine!" said the girl's mother with some severity. "That is Thomas's business. Thomas!"
Thomas, the page, arose somewhat flushed from a playful bear-fight with the Masters M'Ilwraith under the carriage, and was within an ace of spilling the remains of the mayonnaise over Miss M'Ilwraith's dress, in his self-consciousness.
"That boy is quite unbearable," said Mrs. M'Ilwraith with irritation. "Mr Nettleship," she continued, in tones that were artificially hospitable but unmistakably cold, "what dare we offer you? My eldest boy has told me such terrible tales about training, that really one does not know, you know."
There was a moral wheeze in the lady's voice that Nettleship's ear detected with the celerity and certainty of a stethoscope. At once he became alert and attentive. He wanted nothing more—not that cricket demanded any particular training, like the Sports—but what might he get for Mrs. M'Ilwraith? Oyster patties, salad, strawberries, an ice, champagne? He must be allowed to make himself useful, he protested; and for some minutes Mrs. M'Ilwraith received more assiduous attention at his hands than she had ever seen him pay her daughter, or any other woman, young or old. This, of course, may have been diplomacy in Nettleship. His eyes were blue, and keen, and searching; his smile had of late taken a cynical curl; and indeed there were diplomatic potentialities in every corner of his mobile, clear-cut countenance. But there was enough of careless candour in his smiling glance—enough to be largely genuine.
This glance, too, was levelled exclusively at the elder lady. Nor could it have done any violence to his optic nerves to contemplate Mrs. M'Ilwraith closely and long, for, as elderly ladies go, she was among the very prettiest. Stout she undoubtedly was, but her hair was still golden, almost, and her own entirely; while her complexion had resolutely refused to grow any older some thirty years ago, and had carried out its independent resolve without the aid of a single cosmetic. She was dimpled, too, with sympathetic, poetical dimples not in complete harmony with her present character, though they had very well suited those idyllic and comparatively humble days in which Mrs. M'Ilwraith had read her "Tennyson" to such practical purpose as to christen every child out of the well-loved volume. In addition to these lingering charms of a simple girlhood, there was her later, more worldly, but scarcely less pleasing attribute of being always thoroughly well dressed in the best possible taste. This, of course, was greatly en évidence to-day; while, as usual, her face offered a choice study in comfortable serenity. As for Elaine M'Ilwraith, she was precisely what it was plain that her mother had been at Elaine's age; only prettier, you would have said; and less shallow, I happen to know.
"You say you are living in town now?" said Mrs. M'Ilwraith.
"For the last few months," Nettleship replied. "Since I got back from my globe trot."
"Then how does it happen that you are playing for your College still?"
"For his University," Elaine suggested.
"Oh, we are allowed to play four seasons, don't you know?" Nettleship explained. "It wasn't my intention to play this year, and I haven't been up once this term; but they bothered me about the London matches, and I suppose I was too keen, myself, to refuse."
At this moment an elephantine young man rolled up to the carriage and leant heavily upon the door. He was very stout indeed, and extremely like Mrs. M'Ilwraith in face. In fact, he was her eldest boy. But those terrible tales of training mentioned by that lady were evidently not her son's personal experiences.
"Ned, my boy," cried this young man, slapping Nettleship heavily upon the shoulder, "you're drinking nothing! Thomas—champagne for Mr. Nettleship."
"Arthur," said Nettleship, "I don't want any."
Arthur insisting, however, he took the glass, put it once to his lips, and seized an early opportunity of surreptitiously conveying it over the far side of the carriage into the hands of young Launcelot M'Ilwraith, who shared it (unfairly) with the still younger Enoch Arden M'Ilwraith; who flung the dregs in the footman's face.
The bell for clearing the ground was now likely to ring at any moment. Luncheon, so far as Nettleship was concerned, was long over. He took the opportunity, however, before going back to the pavilion, afforded by Arthur's whispering into his mother's ear the names of some nobles on a neighbouring drag, in fulfilment of a solemn charge delivered before leaving home—Nettleship took this opportunity to turn and speak to Elaine.
"What ages it is since we met!" he said, looking at her critically.
"It is just a year and a half," Elaine said simply.
He, for his part, had no idea when it was; he would not have owned to one in any case; but Elaine's long memory did not displease him, and he answered with a laugh:
"Is it really all that? I say, Elaine, how old we are all getting! You must be—let me see—twenty—what?"
"How ridiculous you are! Twenty's a year away still. I'm nineteen on Friday, as you might know if you—if—"
"Friday! Oho, your birthday's on Friday!" whistled Nettleship—as though, until the other year, he had not sent her presents, regularly as the calendar, on that day. "You ought to celebrate it, Elaine, in Sussex Square."
"What is that, Mr. Nettleship?" said Mrs. M'Ilwraith sharply. Her face, however, did not for a moment lose its serenity. That was its way.
"I made so bold as to suggest a birthday party in Elaine's honour," said Nettleship, with the coolness of an old-established family friend.
Arthur, having detected his small brothers in the act of opening a fresh bottle of champagne in their inferno under the carriage, was engaged in brotherly chastisement, so he did not hear what followed.
"A party!" cried Mrs. M'Ilwraith, taken aback for the moment, but yet able promptly to press her daughter's foot with her own. "Oh, I see, an 'At Home,' a Reception. And all because of a birthday! Why, really, Mr. Nettleship—the children are not children now!"
"It appears not," said Nettleship, rising as the bell rang in the pavilion; "when they were I was 'Ned' to you all!" And with a somewhat cold smile, and a short leave-taking, he was gone.
A thousand glances followed his retreating form, in the jacket that was no longer dark blue, but honourably faded. It was its fourth and last appearance at Lord's on this great occasion. A thousand tongues talked "Nettleship" for the moment. It was his last chance in the 'Varsity match. He had never done anything in it before. Yet he was the best bat in the eleven; he had begun well; he did look like rising to the occasion this time, and coming off at last.
But in the new landau Elaine ventured at once upon a mild remonstrance with her mother.
"How very odd of you not to tell him about Friday evening, mamma! You implied an untruth, even if you didn't tell one."
"If it was only 'a lie which is half a truth,'" said Mrs. M'Ilwraith blandly, remembering a phrase but entirely forgetting the context; "if it was only that, my dear, I am sorry. It shows that I need practice. Don't look absurd, Elaine! Town life would be unbearable without the fib—the little, necessary fib. I settled that before we left the country."
"But why on earth not ask him, when we know him so well?"
"Why on earth? Every reason on earth," smiled Mrs. M'Ilwraith, in perfect good-humour. "Must I remind you of some of them? Well, then, they are losing money, the Nettleships, as fast as ever they can. Before long they will fail; nothing can prevent it. Your father has reason to know this. Your father saw reason to cease doing business with them at least a year ago. This young man has no longer any prospects. Why did he hurry home from abroad, after six months, when he went for eighteen, if it was not that supplies ceased? Yes, all the sons had a few thousands from their mother, I know that; but it is the merest pittance, and goodness knows what he is doing for a living in town, or how he dare be playing here. These are a few of the reasons on earth; and they are reasons enough for our not going out of our way to ask him to the house. Because a young man has a room in the Temple, Elaine, it doesn't follow—Elaine! you are not listening! Why, the girl is clapping her hands like a lunatic! What is it?"
"Ned hit two fourers the first over!" Elaine replied, without taking her sparkling eyes from the game.
"Ned, indeed!" said Mrs. M'Ilwraith. But it was obviously of no use to say more just then, when Elaine was so shamefully excited. Mrs. M'Ilwraith subsided into composed silence. After all, it was not so very hard to get into town ways; and, really, when one tried, it came quite natural to show the cold shoulder to one's oldest country friends. . . . Ned, indeed!
Mrs. M'Ilwraith raised her eyes to the box of the vehicle. There sat Enid, the second Miss M'Ilwraith, and by her side a most satisfactory young man. These two were really delightfully engrossed in one another. They were in a planet of their own, from which it seldom occurred to them to turn their heads and look down. The young man was enormously wealthy, though lineally of small account. But everything was not to be compassed at once. There should be no taint of trade in Elaine's bargain, not even of successful trade. The idea of "Ned!"
The hot afternoon wore on, and the fieldsmen's shadows became longer and narrower every over. Launcelot, Enoch, and their friend the page snored happily under the axle-trees. As for Mrs. M'Ilwraith, she had become inured to rounds of applause that did not in the least excite her curiosity, and was herself on the point of dozing, when a peculiarly long and loud uproar induced her to open her eyes. She opened them upon the strangely pale face of Elaine.
"Whatever is the matter?" cried Mrs. M'Ilwraith.
"Hush!" Elaine whispered. "He's out! Wait a moment! There!"
Mrs. M'Ilwraith had descried the figure of young Nettleship walking slowly from the wicket, with bent shoulders—after the first outburst, in dead silence. But as he neared the densely crowded pavilion the shouting and clapping of hands burst forth again with redoubled enthusiasm. Elaine clapped too, clapped wildly, and the pink was back in her face.
"Dear me, it must be something quite out of the way to make all this fuss about," said Mrs. M'Ilwraith, perceiving at last that the occasion was a great one. "In whose honour, pray, is all this din?"
"In Ned's—Ned's!" cried Elaine, still clapping furiously. "See, the other side are clapping too! Oh, I do hope it is a hundred—it must be a hundred—it can't be short of a hundred!"
But it was—by one run. Nettleship's memorable score was exactly ninety-nine!
Sympathy at once made itself felt in a fresh and touching roar. But as for Elaine, tears sprang into her fine, flashing eyes; she leant back in the landau, and the match interested her no more.
Her mother appeared to be thinking. At last she said:
"Has he distinguished himself so very much, my dear?"
A pause. "Then," said Mrs. M'Ilwraith naively, "why don't he come back and sit with us?"
"He might, perhaps," answered Elaine, "if he had distinguished himself less." And for a moment her wishes were at variance.
"Elaine," said her mother, after another and a longer pause, "will there be anything about him in the papers to-morrow?"
"And people will talk about him?"
"Of course, mamma—as the hero of the match!"
"Elaine," said Mrs. M'Ilwraith at last (it was just as they were going), "send Mr. Nettleship a card this evening—for Friday, you know!"
So many men get a hundred runs in the University match, that it would be superfluous to describe the variety of congratulations—from excited clergymen and hardened Old Blues, from hoary veterans and beardless boys—which assailed Nettleship in the pavilion. Of late years "centuries" in first-class cricket have become so terribly common, and at least one century in the University match so entirely inevitable, that Nettleship was rather glad than otherwise to have fallen just short of the commonplace three figures. He had achieved a record all to himself, for ninety-nine is the rarest of scores, and has never before or since been made in the Oxford and Cambridge matches. Indeed, Nettleship would have been perfectly contented but for the tiresome expressions of sympathy, on account of that one run short, which mingled largely with the praises buzzing in his ears. The popular commiseration savoured of strained sentiment, for it could not have been more demonstrative if he had got no runs at all, and it bored Nettleship supremely; in fact, it had a good deal to do with his leaving the ground when he did, half an hour before play ceased, there being no danger of Oxford having to field again that evening.
He tried to get away unobserved; but the penalties of a public personality are inexorable, and the invitations and questions that pelted him between the pavilion and the gates were a little trying. Nettleship refused the invitations, ignored the questions, and eventually rattled off alone in a hansom.
Speeding towards the City in that hansom, the young man underwent a swift transfiguration. His head drooped in dejection, his pointed features grew sensibly sharper, his eyes filled with bitterness; and an ugly distortion—a mere parody of a smile, and a poor one—froze upon his lips. Two pictures, both of himself, were in his mind. Lord's cricket-ground was the background of the one, an ill-furnished room in the Temple that of the other. His back was turned upon the first, his face was set towards the second; and the iron was deep in his soul. He had carried off the honours of this afternoon pretty coolly, if not (from purely physical causes) exactly in cold blood; yet, looking at him now, one would have taken him for a young man denied all his life the happiness of a single triumphal hour. In point of fact, Nettleship was to be pitied; but not at his own computation. For young men are the worst judges of their own hardships; and this one was driving to chambers in the Temple, not to a garret—driving, too, not walking—and had an income upon which it was quite possible to live in tolerable comfort, dress decently, and occasionally even to drink wine at meals. What was impossible for Nettleship was to live as he had been accustomed to live; as he considered Nature had intended him to live from the first; as all the men he had been playing with today lived. But, misery being purely a matter of comparison, even this qualified form of it was in Nettleship's case considerable, not to say grievous.
The hansom was half-way to the Temple when, apparently on a sudden impulse, the fare knocked violently with his knuckles upon the trap overhead. A square of blue sky was stamped for a moment in the roof of the cab, and then hidden by a sun-flayed ear and whiskered cheek. Into that ear Nettleship pronounced the name of a celebrated emporium of fashionable virtu and saleable conceits in metal and fabric. Three minutes later he was in the artistic precincts of the shop itself, asking for the manager by name, and giving his own. The manager came forward at once.
"Ah!" said he, "about your curios; follow me, sir."
Nettleship did so. They paused before a table, artistic in itself, upon which a number of Asiatic curios were effectively arranged.
"Here they are, sir, and in advantageous position, as I think you will admit. But I am sorry to say their number is undiminished—undiminished, sir, by so much as a single spearhead. I told you my fears frankly, I think, at the first; so far, I regret to say, they have been realised. There is no sale for curios now. They have gone out. They are not the Craze, sir. You know what the Craze is now, sir; and two Crazes cannot be co-existent. I am perfectly frank—they must be done to death one at a time, sir, seniores priores." Nettleship smiled. "Now, a year ago it would have been different. We would have speculated in these things then, sir—for they are very pretty things indeed, Mr. Nettleship—we would have nothing to do with them at all, not even on the present terms, if they were not such exceedingly pretty things. But, as it is, we dare not speculate in them; as it is, the speculation must be yours, sir."
The man was voluble, and knew his business. Considering everything, there was a pinch of humour in the situation. Nettleship smiled again, not entirely in bitterness.
"There has been no inquiry at all about the things, then?" said Nettleship, preparing to leave the shop.
"None to my knowledge. But stay: I will make sure before you go."
The manager left him. In less than a minute he returned.
"There has been an inquiry, after all—and a good deal of interest shown—about this." He took up a small bronze water-vase, delicately traced with strange figures. It was the one thing in his collection that Nettleship had supposed to be of real value, though he had kept tobacco in it until the day it occurred to him to make money out of his curios.
"But," said Nettleship, "nothing came of it, you say?"
"No, because we named your price. It will never go at fifty guineas, sir; it's too tall altogether."
Nettleship looked coldly at the man of business: he had a keen eye for Crazes, no doubt, but what was he to know about the antique art of India? On the other hand, Nettleship himself was completely ignorant of that subject. He had only some chance acquaintance's word for it, out in India, that this little vase was a valuable property. Nettleship looked at the man of business very coldly indeed.
"Look here," he said slowly, and in the preternaturally calm tones in which one might warn a fellow creature of one's immediate intention of throwing him through the window. "Look here: next time any one asks, let it go for thirty!"
Without another word he stalked from the shop. The hansom rattled on until it stopped at Middle Temple Lane. There Nettleship got out, walked into Brick Court, and up the stone stairs to his chambers. For the next hour he lounged in a chair, thinking the vagrant thoughts that are encouraged, if not inspired, by the smoking of several cigarettes at a sitting. Naturally, in his case, they were not the pleasantest thoughts in the world; yet, when he got up and stretched himself, and went out to dine, his mood had improved. It was then eight o'clock. He returned at five minutes to nine; so that his dinner, wherever he got it, could not have been a very elaborate affair. Dropping once more into his armchair, he abandoned himself to further thought. Possibly his thoughts were of a more concentrated character than before, for a single cigarette sustained them. The long summer twilight went through all its mellow gradations, and finally deepened into complete darkness, before the young man at last rose and lit the lamp. This done, he carried the lamp to a pedestal desk, and sitting down at the desk drew up his chair close. There was now an appearance of settled purpose in his manner, and his face was full of cool determination; it wore, in fact, the identical expression which the Cambridge bowlers of that year have such good reason to remember.
Nettleship had not sat down to write, however. Unlocking a drawer in the left-hand pedestal, he took out of it handfuls of photographs of various sizes, which he heaped together on the flat part of the desk, close to the lamp. Without more ado he proceeded deliberately to sort the photographs, throwing most of them carelessly on one side, but picking out one in twenty, or so, and placing it carefully on the slope in front of him. So might the modern Paris approach his invidious task, without embarrassment, the fatal apple already packed up and ticketed for the Parcels Post; for the photographs were nearly all of the other sex. But there were evidences that this was no selection of the fairest. In the first place, the greatest beauties of the civilised world were tossed aside without a moment's thought; in the second, the selected photographs were all of one woman, in the various stages of her girlhood. The conclusion was manifestly foregone. The chosen woman was Elaine M'Ilwraith.
Her photographs he now arranged in one long row on the slope of the desk, in chronological order, from left to right. To the disinterested philosopher the series would have offered interesting illustrations of the respective improvements in photography and the female dress during late years, quite apart from the graduated coming forth of a most attractive flower of girlhood. Nettleship's reflections, however, were to the point. He shifted the lamp from the left side of the desk to the right, and turned up the wick. The strongest rays now fell upon the latest photographs. Upon these young Nettleship gazed long and thoughtfully. The act was sentimental; but the expression of the actor was nothing of the kind. It was not even a tender expression; nor was it, on the other hand, coldly calculating—altogether; it was merely thoughtful. Edward Nettleship was making up his mind.
He did make up his mind at last, and put together the photographs of Elaine, and restored them to the drawer—where, by the way, they no longer kept theatrical company, or any company but their own. One of Elaine's photographs, however—the latest and the best—was kept out. It was a full-length portrait in fancy dress, with an expansive hat, a milk pail, a milking stool, and other pretty properties; and this really charming picture was stuck up forthwith on the chimneypiece.
Nettleship had made up his mind at last, once and for all, and for good. The words upon his lips as he blew out the lamp were indicative of an uncompromising attitude.
"She would have liked it well enough once," he said; "she will have to lump it now. The fool of a woman!"
But this, as it happened, was scarcely kind to the lady alluded to, seeing that an invitation card for her "At Home" on Friday was even then gravitating towards Nettleship's letter-box.
"Where did this come from?" said Elaine to Enid.
It was Friday evening, at the new house in Sussex Square. The first carriage might arrive at any moment. As yet the two girls had the drawing-room to themselves, and were delicately disarranging the room in a truly enlightened spirit; though there was in it a newness, a stiffness, and a pervading sense of Tottenham Court Road that only the hand of time could soften. The subject of Elaine's inquiry, however, whencesoever it had come, was not—it was safe to bet—of that thoroughfare. And indeed, as Enid explained, it had come from quite another quarter, that afternoon, on approval.
"Approval!" said Elaine, with a slight and pardonable sneer. "Does that mean that it is to be paraded to-night, and to-morrow returned as unsuitable? It has happened before, you know."
"Perhaps it is to happen again. I don't know. I only know that, as we drove back from the Park, mamma declared she must get something pretty for the room; so we went to Labrano's, and this little oddity took her fancy. It is pretty, isn't it?—and it looks well by itself on this absurd little table. Well, you know mamma's way—her town way. I heard her say, 'Mr. M'Ilwraith is a great judge of Eastern work—quite his hobby, in fact—but it seems an enormous price. I really cannot decide until he sees it.' So it ended in our bringing it away with us in the carriage."
"Hobby, indeed!" cried Elaine scornfully. "When had papa any hobby but one? But it appears to be an article in the London creed—at least, in mamma's interpretation of it—to tell stories whenever you possibly can. I must say, I congratulate her on the ease with which she embraces the new faith. At least she has the courage of her inventions."
"Hasn't she! But let us leave the vase where it is, for it is really very pretty—"
"And no doubt valuable; which makes it meaner still. Yes, it can stay there—but, hush!"
For at that moment Mr. M'Ilwraith entered the room. As his daughter had truly observed, he had but one hobby—and that was political, which made him a dangerous man to meet in quiet corners. He talked of nothing else. Allowances could perhaps be made for him on the plea that he was so very new to St. Stephen's; but those best acquainted with him found it hard to make them. A new Bill, which affected Mr. M'Ilwraith's sympathies as a politician no less than his personal interests as an employer of labour, was then intermittently before the House; and, naturally enough, his head was full of it. It was a fine head, a magnificent head, but he ran fearful risks with it: it was quite distended with that Bill. Even now, in the absence of men of his own weight, the poltroon fell upon his defenceless daughters, and assaulted them with his last night's speech. No. They had not read it. They confessed they had not, and hung their heads.
"Ah!" said Mr. M'Ilwraith kindly. "No time, I see; an exceptional day, I suppose. Well, well, we'll say no more about it at present. The Times is still intact, I daresay; you have laid it aside for a quiet time perhaps. Good! You will find the report of my speech full—satisfactorily full, I may say—though not verbatim. I could wish it had been verbatim. But you will read it, girls, before you go to bed, and we will discuss it at breakfast; when I shall be able to give you, word for word—for my memory is luckily a good one—all that they saw necessary to exclude."
"You are not going to-night, papa?" Enid ventured.
"To the House? Yes, late—in time for the division. I must do that in deference to my constituents. Personally, however, there is nothing of any interest to me going on to-night. What is the division about, you ask, Elaine? Ireland, my girl, Ireland. Now, what is far more important in my eyes—"
Mr. M'Ilwraith took his foot from the stirrup, in the very act of remounting, on the entrance, at this point, of his wife. His wife's want of appreciation or sympathy where his nearest and dearest projects were concerned was notorious, and damaging to the dignity of the senator. She had even been known (while her husband was speaking) to point to one of her ears and snap her fingers at the other, simultaneously, in pantomimic illustration of the velocity with which his best periods passed in and out of her cranium. There was no occasion, however, to stable the trusty animal just yet. Already there were sounds upon the stairs, and old M'Ilwraith smelt the blood of Englishmen to whom resistance and escape would be alike impossible.
Once started, the influx of guests seemed never to abate during the remainder of the evening. Following the very oldest precedents, Mrs. M'Ilwraith had laid herself out for lions, and not without success. There were some entirely tame lions from Westminster, colleagues of her husband—whom they sedulously shunned all the evening. There was the wife of an illustrious lion—Professor Josling—who regretted that that eminent antiquary could not himself be present. There was a fearful and wonderful lion from the Chinese Legation, who was so scandalously guyed, behind his back, by the well-bred Enoch Arden (instigated by the bold Launcelot), that Thomas, the page, disgraced himself with the coffee-tray, and received notice that very night. Then there was the athletic lion captured at Lord's, a literary cub from Fleet Street, and an artistic whelp from Chelsea. To crown all, a professional lion—with a high-class satirical entertainment, free from vulgarity—was due at eleven.
As the evening advanced, Mrs. M'Ilwraith might have been seen moving about among the nobodies of her party and whispering into their private ears interesting personalities concerning the somebodies. For the time being, in fact, she became a kind of verbal paragraphist of the evening press; and as she was, if possible, rather more inaccurate than her prototype, the listener was either distracted or entertained, according to his—or, more generally, her—intelligence.
"That, my dear Mrs. Smythe, is Mrs. Josling, wife of the celebrated antiquary. He is busy with the proofs of a new book, so was prevented from coming—much to his disgust, he sends me word. Proofs, you know—so like these terrible professors—they are for ever proving what nobody wants to know, you know! . . . And that is our delightful oddity, Mr. Ling-Lung—Chinese Embassy, you know. Shall I introduce you? No? Then let me whisper: he came in those lovely garments at my special request! . . . You know Mr. Nettleship, of course? No? Dear me, I thought everybody knew Mr. Nettleship. He is the champion cricketer of England; bowled ninety-nine of the Cambridge wickets at Lord's the other day. Ninety-nine, poor man! So near and yet so far! We had a carriage on the ground, and he lunched with us during the match, you know."
Having thus displayed her knowledge of the national game, Mrs. M'Ilwraith raised her pince-nez with a view to pointing out its doughty exponent. He was nowhere to be seen. Mrs. M'Ilwraith steered a zigzag course down the room, but could not find him. Elaine was missing too. A sudden dread entered the lady's breast.
The windows of the room were tall, narrow, three in number, and opened each upon a small balcony of the most useless type. They were wide open on account of the excessively warm weather; for the same reason the blinds were up; and soft Oriental curtains (from Labrano's) alone—and but partially—excluded the zephyrs of Sussex Square. Naturally enough, among the silky fabrics of window number three, innocently contemplating the night, Mrs. M'Ilwraith discovered the missing pair. Their backs, of course, were alone presented; but Mrs. M'Ilwraith instantly identified Elaine's dress, and tapped her daughter on the shoulder with her fan, in unconscious imitation of the business between the smart detective and the discomfited villain in the fifth act.
Elaine started, of course; nevertheless, the radiance could not and would not at once forsake her face when she turned and confronted her mother. Mrs. M'Ilwraith spoke not a word. Her blue eyes glittered upon Nettleship's cool face for one instant; the next, she turned, as abruptly as was possible in a woman of her size, and sailed away with her prize. The little incident was quickly over, and attracted no notice, owing to forethought in the choice of windows.
Nettleship continued in solitude his survey of the night. He was in no way put out; but he did not immediately step back into the light of the room. When he did, however, his step was a thought jaunty, his smile bordered upon insolence, and his hands were in his pockets. He became at once aware that something of interest was taking place at the other end of the room. A small crowd was surrounding somebody, reminding Nettleship, in a small way, of the crowd by St Clement Danes when the converted cannibal is swallowing the lighted fusees. With a somewhat similar amount of curiosity he approached this crowd. On his way he saw his host lead off the ill-starred Chinaman to political execution in the study. A moment later he heard the silvery tones of his hostess proceeding from the centre of the little crowd.
"Indeed, and indeed, you make too much of my modest little heirloom, dear Mrs. Josling!"
"If the Professor were here, he would make a good deal more of it," that lady stoutly rejoined. "But you must really allow me to obtain a simple impression, with this pencil and piece of paper, of such delicate and utterly fantastic tracery. He shall see what that is like, at all events."
There was a pause. Nettleship raised himself to his full height, and saw an intellectual looking lady carefully pencilling a piece of paper held closely over a spherical surface. He was mildly interested.
"And this has really been in your family for a century, Mrs. M'Ilwraith?" some one asked.
"Since the Battle of Plassey," said Mrs. M'Ilwraith glibly. "My grandfather fought there."
"That's perfectly true," thought Nettleship. "I have heard of it often enough. But I never before heard of any heirloom. What can it be?"
He drew himself up once more to his full height, which it was his bad habit not to make the most of. And then he saw what it was—and would have whistled aloud had he not been a thoroughly cool-headed fellow. For the cynosure of all eyes—the heirloom of the M'Ilwraiths—the spoil of Plassey—was nothing more nor less than the Indian vase of bronze lately in Nettleship's own possession, and but three days ago on sale at Labrano's!
"And still they come!" cried Mrs. M'Ilwraith, smiling—under the public eye—quite sweetly upon the famous cricketer. "Look at it, Mr. Nettleship! Of course you may! With pleasure! But really, it is too absurd! To think that our wretched little heirloom should attract so much attention!"
Nettleship did look at it—with exaggerated interest; with unnecessary elaboration; in every light and upon every side; at ridiculous length. His lingering manner was in itself calculated to attract attention. Mrs. M'Ilwraith began to feel uncomfortable.
"Do you know, Mrs. M'Ilwraith," he said at last, with great distinctness, "I cannot remember ever once to have seen this most interesting curio up North?"
Mrs. M'Ilwraith explained, with a strange mixture of hot and cold in her manner, that she had kept it under lock and key while the children were young. And then, with a sudden determination to carry it off serenely, in spite of her feelings, Mrs. M'Ilwraith laughed. It was a nervous, unsuccessful laugh; nor was there any apparent reason for a laugh at all.
But Nettleship had already attracted the attention that was so undesirable; and this was doubled in an instant when the young man deliberately raised the bronze vase to his nose, and sniffed it suspiciously.
"Why," he exclaimed, looking round upon the company, "it smells of tobacco!"
"Impossible!" said poor Mrs. M'Ilwraith, forcing another laugh. But this time her laughter was worse than unsuccessful and nervous; it was hysterical.
"Oh, but it does, though," chuckled Nettleship, putting the vase into his hostess's trembling hands; "try it! It's tobacco or nothing. What's more, I recognise the brand. It's Callender's Honeydew Mixture. I smoke it myself."
Mrs. M'Ilwraith turned white as a sheet; but she was not the woman to faint, and Nettleship knew it.
"I never knew before," went on the forward young man, humorously, "that Mr. M'Ilwraith smoked Callender's Honey dew Mixture!"
It was here put forward by several persons, who considered Nettleship's manner offensive, that Mr. M'Ilwraith did not smoke at all, but, on the other hand, cordially detested tobacco in any shape or form. Nettleship knew this also; he had known it from his boyhood. Moreover, he was perfectly aware that his manner was offensive; and, at a glance of agonised appeal from Mrs. M'Ilwraith, he had the wit at last to change the subject. And this he did so deftly that the lady experienced in her first moments of relief an emotion of gratitude towards her torturer. In the same way, perhaps, the mediaevals loved the thumbscrew-man when he slackened off on their renunciation of the faith. We hear, it is true, only of those who never, never renounced; but no doubt there was an unpretentious majority that did.
The entry of the distinguished entertainer, however, set Mrs. M'Ilwraith free to begin hating young Nettleship for the rest of her natural life. Still, her presence of mind was shattered for the evening; she had not even enough left to prevent Elaine and Nettleship sitting together during the entertainment. And this is a portion of the whispered conversation that took place between the pair.
"I shall have to win your mother nex."
"I wish I thought you could, Ned."
"I believe I can, though only by scoring off her first."
"Then do, Ned, do! Don't mind me a little bit."
"Well, I don't mean to in this case, my darling. The fact is, I see my way to scoring off her as it is—with absolute certainty!"
If he had seen his way to scoring off the fiend himself (in the shape of the Demon Bowler) with absolute certainty (and on a bad wicket), he could not have mentioned it with greater exultation.
At eleven o'clock the following morning Nettleship strode into Labrano's. He was waited upon by the manager with surprising alacrity.
"I have good news for you, sir; good news at last, Mr. Nettleship."
"Have you, indeed!" said Nettleship coldly. The man's congratulatory tone would have been offensive to him under any circumstances.
"Well, I think I have, sir. That little Indian vase has been taken by a lady customer, on approval—"
"On approval, eh?" cried Nettleship.
"Well, yes; but you may rely upon it that it is in safe hands; and I may tell you that I have every reason to believe they will keep it, and pay the price."
"There you are mistaken. They will neither keep it nor will they pay the price. You must get it back from them at once. Money will not buy it now!"
"I have had a narrow escape," continued Nettleship. "I have discovered that that simple-looking vase is absolutely priceless."
The shopman whistled, and turned red.
"So I must ask you, if you please, to send a special messenger for it at once, in a hansom. My good sir, I'll pay you for the trouble and expense at your own figure—only send off your messenger at once."
But the tradesman's confusion had nothing to do with the young man's request. It was simply accounted for by an overwhelming sense of a marvellous bargain missed—through an imperfect knowledge of Eastern relics, and an exaggerated, narrow-minded, imbecile regard for Craze.
The request, indeed, was immediately complied with. In the course of an hour the messenger returned with the vase, and brought word from Mrs. M'Ilwraith that her custom ceased from that hour. Nettleship paid up as liberally for the trouble as the dignity of Messrs. Labrano would permit, jumped into the emissary's hansom, and drove off to the Temple with his treasure. He entered his chambers in high glee; the prospect of the score looked even rosier than when he had left them an hour ago.
That was on the Saturday. Nettleship waited patiently until the following Tuesday, which was Mrs. M'Ilwraith's day for receiving callers. At half-past four to the minute on the Tuesday afternoon he presented himself in Sussex Square.
Even as he was announced, the flowing speech of Mrs. Professor Josling fell upon his ears; and Nettleship scented the vase. He was received with flawless outward serenity, sat down modestly in an obscure corner (which, however, commanded a fine view of his hostess's face), and flattered Mrs. Josling with a peculiarly earnest attention as that lady resumed her interrupted narration.
"Well, as I was saying, I was prepared to interest my husband with my little reproduction of the tracery; but I did not expect to administer a galvanic shock, my dear Mrs. M'Ilwraith. He pushed back his proofs, and said—indeed, I don't know what he didn't say. He is so excitable, the Professor—and nervous, and almost irritable—when he is busy with proofs. The artistic temperament, Mrs. M'Ilwraith; for, as you know, the Professor is a man of letters as well as a scientist. But above all he is a virtuoso; and my crude reproduction absorbed him at the time to the exclusion of all other subjects. At first I could learn nothing. He was lost in rapt contemplation of the design. But at last he told me that your vase must be a very valuable possession indeed; that he only knew of one other like it in existence, and that in the British Museum. The quaint figures on the vase, he says, probably represent scenes in the life of Gautama Buddha, which would complete the resemblance to the Museum vase. But, to be quite sure, he would like above all things to see the vase itself. He desired me to tell you this, and to crave, on his behalf, the favour of permission to call quietly one afternoon and thoroughly examine the vase."
Poor, miserable Mrs. M'Ilwraith! To be asked a favour by the renowned Professor Josling, and such a favour; to have Professor Josling inviting himself to her house, in the most delightful, unceremonious, and friendly fashion; and to be powerless to say him yea or nay, or to do anything but sit in her chair and gasp for breath! It was a terrible punishment for a few harmless tarradiddles such as were every day demanded from the most virtuous by the exigencies of town life!
"He would have accompanied me this afternoon," added Mrs. Josling, "but for his book; he is sending the final sheets of the revise to the printers this evening."
That he had not come that afternoon was a small mercy, if he was bent upon coming sooner or later; but Mrs. M'Ilwraith had never felt so thankful for anything in her life as for the Professor's present pressing engagements. She shuddered as she figured in her mind the scene she had escaped. She glanced towards the door in apprehension, dreading, even yet, to see him enter at any moment. An acquiescent smile of ghastly serenity froze upon her lips; she wrenched and wrung her fingers with such quiet violence that the diamonds on one hand must have cut the flesh of the other had the hands been less plump.
"And so, my dear Mrs. M'Ilwraith—if you are certain that he will not bother you—if you are quite sure he will not be in your way—if you are positive that it will not weary you to entertain for one short hour, if as much, an old and ardent enthusiast—why then, might we say one afternoon this week?"
Mrs. M'Ilwraith bowed. For the life of her she could not melt or modify or in any way alter the horrid grin that had settled upon her rigid countenance.
"Tomorrow," suggested Mrs. Josling, whose manner was an ingenious blend of persistency and condescension, "tomorrow, perhaps, would not do?"
Then at last, and with a desperate effort, Mrs. M'Ilwraith loosened her tongue. Mrs. Josling was begged to understand that tomorrow afternoon would, as it happened, do beautifully. The Professor would be only too welcome, at whatever hour he chose to come. As for Mrs. M'Ilwraith, her feelings had temporarily prevented her from expressing herself; she apologised for the weakness; but, indeed, nobody could tell what a pride and a pleasure it was to think that her simple little relic should attract the attention of so distinguished a connoisseur. The last sentence almost stuck in her throat half-way; it was helped out only by a tremendous resolve to be taken with sudden sickness that very night, and ordered off to the country by her physician the next day.
So the Professor's visit was arranged. And Nettleship, sitting like a mouse in his obscure corner, admired Mrs. M'Ilwraith for the first time in his life, and determined to make amends in the future for the torture he was inflicting upon her in the present Nor did he add to the latter by contributing a single word to this part of the conversation. On the contrary, when Mrs. Josling was seen with pince-nez levelled inquiringly at the little plush table that supported the vase no longer, it was young Mr. Nettleship, and no one else, who adroitly decoyed the lady's attention, and came to the rescue for a second time with a felicitous change of subject. Thereafter the conversation gradually drifted into safer channels. And presently, one by one, the people went, until there was nobody left but young Mr. Nettleship in his quiet corner. Then he, too, got up to go, and bent over his hostess with impassive face and outstretched hand. But Mrs. M'Ilwraith refused his hand, or rather, did not raise her own to meet it, but looked him full in the face, and said—
"Do not go just yet. Enid, my love, I hear your brothers making a dreadful noise in the schoolroom; go to them." Enid went. Elaine had already gone. "Now, Mr. Nettleship, sit down there; I want to have a little chat with you."
Nettleship took the low chair pointed out to him; it was almost at the lady's feet. He had counted on something of this sort, but not on a manner quite so calm and unruffled. After all, she was a wonderful woman—a woman capable of coping with the occasion, perhaps. It was quite possible that to score off such a woman might prove a more difficult task than it had appeared at first sight. But Nettleship had never in all his life either feared or despised the bowling before going in. He went in now on his mettle.
Mrs. M'Ilwraith opened the attack by coming to the point in the very first sentence.
"About this vase. You know something about it, Mr. Nettleship; more than I do, it would appear. Tell me what you know."
Nettleship drew up his shoulders an inconsiderable fraction of an inch.
"I never heard you speak of it before last night. You kept your heirloom so dark, Mrs. M'Ilwraith." He was beginning with confidence, but with caution—the bases upon which most scores are built.
"Indeed! I will not ask you not to be impertinent. I will merely ask you where you saw it before."
"Why, Mrs. M'Ilwraith, I can't remember your ever showing it to me before in all my life," exclaimed Nettleship.
Mrs. M'Ilwraith tried a plainer ball.
"You know, as well as I do, that one cannot always tell the truth in trifles."
"I know that one does not."
"Very well. You will readily understand it when I tell you that this stupid vase is no heirloom at all."
"I understand that perfectly. But—but which vase?"
He swung about in his chair, with half-closed eyes and craning neck, looking for what was not there. It was an effective stroke.
"The vase is no longer in my house," said Mrs. M'Ilwraith. "You knew that too."
Nettleship glanced at her swiftly. "Did you only get it on approval?"
The lady started. "What makes you think that?"
"Perhaps I go to Labrano's now and then."
"Do you?" demanded Mrs. M'Ilwraith plainly. And indeed the indirect stage was past.
"That is where you saw it?"
"One of the places."
"One of the places! Did you know the owner, then?"
"Yes, I did."
"Then who is the owner?"
"You wish to know?"
"I have asked you."
"Well, then, I am the owner myself. I came by the vase in India. Labrano was trying to sell it for me."
They were sitting near a window. The sun had sunk behind the opposite houses, and the soft summer light made their faces soft—all but the eyes. They were watching one another like duellists. Mrs. M'Ilwraith was a woman, after all, capable at least of grappling with an emergency. She showed it now.
"It was you, then," said she, "who made Labrano send for it in haste last Saturday? You had a motive in that. It was you who tortured me the other night, when you discovered my trifling untruth. You had also a motive in that, I do you the credit of supposing. You had also a motive in stopping this afternoon until every one else was gone. Shall I tell you your motives? I will. But I will first make you easy on one point—they shall not succeed! I would die rather than forgive you for—for the other night!"
For the first time her calmness was shaken. The last words trembled with subdued ferocity.
Nettleship smiled. But the bowling had become uncommonly good. Mrs. M'Ilwraith continued:
"Your motives may be compressed into one word—'Elaine.'"
"Ah!" said Nettleship, "Elaine! I want to marry Elaine, and Elaine wants to marry me. Why should you object?"
The policy was startling, insolent, risky—everything but unwise.
Mrs. M'Ilwraith smiled her scornful answer, and only observed:
"You must have told the story briefly."
"It was an old story retold—that takes less time," replied Nettleship.
"Retold in vain, Edward Nettleship."
The game was slow for a while after that.
"How about the Professor?" said Nettleship at last.
"I am laid up when he comes—sudden indisposition. I leave town the following day at my doctor's urgent advice."
"Such a thousand pities!" murmured Nettleship to himself.
"Are you referring to yourself and Elaine?" inquired Mrs. M'Ilwraith sweetly.
"Oh dear no. I was thinking of Professor Josling. The poor old chap will be so awfully cut up. After looking forward to his quiet afternoon with you—soaking in his favourite subject, and talking shop to a good listener, for once, and generally boring you to his heart's content. He is counting upon an hour's real sympathy, you may depend upon it; for clever men's wives never appreciate them, as you know, Mrs. M'Ilwraith. Poor old chap! It is hard lines on him."
The picture of Mrs. M'Ilwraith and Professor Josling in close confabulation over the vase, and presently over the five-o'clock teapot, and of the firm founding of an intimate friendship with that eminent man, proved quite irresistible. Mrs. M'Ilwraith closed her eyes and gloated over the splendid impossibility for one weak, yearning, despairing minute. And during that minute Nettleship felt that he had collared the bowling at last, and might safely force the game.
"There is," he continued accordingly, in an altered tone, "another thing to consider—the Professor's curiosity. He means getting a sight of the vase, and, like the indelicate little boy, he won't be happy, you know, till he does get it. If you went away, he'd apply to Mr. M'Ilwraith straight. Then the cat would be out of the bag—and the Professor out of your visiting list!"
With a sudden sob Mrs. M'Ilwraith raised her hands to her face. "Then what am I to do?" she wailed.
Nettleship bounded from his chair, knelt before her, took her hands in his, and looked earnestly in the wretched lady's face.
"Give me Elaine—for my Indian vase!"
Oh, beyond all doubt it was the most infamous, impudent price ever quoted in even our marriage market. . . . And yet—Mrs. M'Ilwraith bowed her head.
The game was won.
"You rule Mr. M'Ilwraith in such matters with an absolute rule, do you not?" said Ned, a few minutes later.
Mrs. M'Ilwraith confessed to that.
"Then we must approach him together. I have not time to go to the Temple and dress and come back. May I stop as I am? Thank you. Then we'll back each other up after dinner, and together we'll carry our point in five minutes; and then I'll bring the what's-its-name in the morning. Is it agreed?"
Again Mrs. M'Ilwraith bowed her head.
* * * * * * *
"I have scored," said Ned to Elaine, in the private moment that was granted them before he left the house. "I was a brute about it, I know; but I scored."
"You generally do," Elaine returned, with liquid eyes.
"Ah! But it was a better score than that the other day, if that's what you're driving at. Better bowling, I assure you."
He paused, surveyed the lovely girl before him, inwardly congratulated himself for a lucky rascal, and added with the utmost candour—
"And a better match, too!"
That is never a nice moment when your horse knocks up under you, and you know quite well that he has done so, and that to ride him another inch would be a cruelty—another mile a sheer impossibility. But when it happens in the bush, the moment becomes more than negatively disagreeable; for you may be miles from the nearest habitation, and an unpremeditated bivouac, with neither food nor blankets, demands a philosophic temperament as well as the quality of endurance. This once befell the manager of Dandong, in the back-blocks of New South Wales, just on the right side of the Dandong boundary fence, which is fourteen miles from the homestead. Fortunately Deverell, of Dandong, was a young man, well used, from his boyhood, to the casual hardships of station life, and well fitted by physique to endure them. Also he had the personal advantage of possessing the philosophic temperament large-sized. He dismounted the moment he knew for certain what was the matter. A ridge of pines—a sandy ridge, where camping properly equipped would have been perfect luxury—rose against the stars a few hundred yards ahead. But Deverell took off the saddle on the spot, and carried it himself as far as that ridge, where he took off the bridle also, hobbled the done-up beast with a stirrup-leather, and turned him adrift.
Deverell, of Dandong, was a good master to his horses and his dogs, and not a bad one to his men. Always the master first, and the man afterwards, he was a little selfish, as becomes your masterful man. On the other hand, he was a singularly frank young fellow. He would freely own, for instance, that he was the luckiest man in the back-blocks. This, to be sure, was no more than the truth. But Deverell never lost sight of his luck, nor was he ever ashamed to recognise it: wherein he differed from the average lucky man, who says that luck had nothing to do with it. Deverell could gloat over his luck, and do nothing else—when he had nothing else to do. And in this way he faced contentedly even this lonely, hungry night, his back to a pine at the north side of the ridge, and a short briar pipe in full blast.
He was the new manager of Dandong, to begin with. That was one of the best manager-ships in the colony, and Deverell had got it young—in his twenties, at all events, if not by much. The salary was seven hundred a year, and the homestead was charming. Furthermore, Deverell was within a month of his marriage; and the coming Mrs. Deverell was a girl of some social distinction down in Melbourne, and a belle into the bargain, to say nothing of another element, which was entirely satisfactory, without being so ample as to imperil a man's independence. The homestead would be charming indeed in a few weeks, in time for Christmas. Meanwhile, the "clip" had been a capital one, and the rains abundant; the paddocks were in a prosperous state, the tanks overflowing, everything going smoothly in its right groove (as things do not always go on a big station), and the proprietors perfectly delighted with their new manager. Well, the new manager was somewhat delighted with himself. He was lucky in his work and lucky in his love—and what can the gods do more for you? Considering that he had rather worse than no antecedents at all—antecedents with so dark a stain upon them that, anywhere but in a colony, the man would have been a ruined man from his infancy—he was really incredibly lucky in his love affair. But whatever his parents had been or had done, he had now no relatives at all of his own: and this is a great thing when you are about to make new ones in an inner circle: so that here, once more, Deverell was in his usual luck.
It does one good to see a man thoroughly appreciating his good luck. The thing is so seldom done. Deverell not only did this, but did it with complete sincerity. Even to-night, though personally most uncomfortable, and tightening his belt after every pipe, he could gaze at the stars with grateful eyes, obscure them with clouds of smoke, watch the clouds disperse and the stars shine bright again, and call himself again and again, and yet again, the very luckiest man in the Colony.
While Deverell sat thus, returning thanks on an empty stomach, at the northern edge of the ridge, a man tramped into the pines from the south. The heavy sand muffled his steps; but he stopped long before he came near Deverell, and threw down his swag with an emancipated air. The man was old, but he held himself more erect than does the inveterate swagman. The march through life with a cylinder of blankets on one's shoulders, with all one's worldly goods packed in that cylinder, causes a certain stoop of a very palpable kind; and this the old man, apparently, had never contracted. Other points slightly distinguished him from the ordinary run of swagmen. His garments were orthodox, but the felt wideawake was stiff and new, and so were the moleskins, which, indeed, would have stood upright without any legs in them at all. The old man's cheeks, chin, and upper lip were covered with short gray bristles, like spikes of steel; his face was lean, eager, and deeply lined.
He rested a little on his swag. "So this is Dandong," he muttered, with his eyes upon the Dandong sand between his feet. "Well, now that I am within his boundary-fence at last, I am content to rest. Here I camp. Tomorrow I shall see him!"
Deverell, at the other side of the ridge, dimming the stars with his smoke, for the pleasure of seeing them shine bright again, heard presently a sound which was sudden music to his ears. The sound was a crackle. Deverell stopped smoking, but did not move; it was difficult to believe his ears. But the crackle grew louder; Deverell jumped up and saw the swagman's fire within a hundred yards of him; and the difficult thing to believe in then was his own unparalleled good luck.
"There is no end to it," he chuckled, taking his saddle over one arm and snatching up the waterbag and bridle. "Here's a swaggie stopped to camp, with flour for a damper and a handful of tea for the quart-pot, as safe as the bank! Perhaps a bit of blanket for me too! But I am the luckiest beggar alive; this wouldn't have happened to any one else!"
He went over to the fire, and the swagman, who was crouching at the other side of it, peered at him from under a floury palm. He was making the damper already. His welcome to Deverell took a substantial shape; he doubled the flour for the damper. Otherwise the old tramp did not gush.
Deverell did the talking. Lying at full length on the blankets, which had been unrolled, his face to the flames, and his strong jaws cupped in his hands, he discoursed very freely of his luck.
"You're saving my life," said he gaily. "I should have starved. I didn't think it at the time, but now I know I should. I thought I could hold out, between belt and 'baccy; but I couldn't now, anyhow. If I hold out till the damper's baked, it's all I can do now. It's like my luck! I never saw anything look quite so good before. There now, bake up. Got any tea?"
"Well, we could have done with meat, but it can't be helped. I'm lucky enough to get anything. It's my luck all over. I'm the luckiest man in this Colony, let me tell you. But we could have done with chops. Gad, but I'd have some yet, if I saw a sheep! They're all wethers in this paddock, but they don't draw down towards the gate much."
He turned his head, and knitted his brows, but it was difficult to distinguish things beyond the immediate circle of firelit sand, and he saw no sheep. To be sure, he would not have touched one; he had said what he did not mean; but something in his way of saying it made the old man stare at him hard.
"Then you're one of the gentlemen from Dandong Station, sir?"
"I am," said Deverell. "My horse is fresh off the grass, and a bit green. He's knocked up, but he'll be all right in the morning; the crab-holes are full of water, and there's plenty of feed about. Indeed, it's the best season we've had for years—my luck again, you see!" The tramp did not seem to hear all he said.
He had turned his back, and was kneeling over the fire, deeply engrossed with the water-bag and the quart-pot, which he was filling. It was with much apparent preoccupation that he asked:
"Is Mr. Deverell the boss there now?"
"He is." Deverell spoke drily, and thought a minute. After all, there was no object in talking about himself in the third person to a man who would come applying to him for work the next day. Realising this, he added, with a touch of dignity, "I'm he."
The tramp's arm jerked, a small fountain played out of the bottle neck of the water-bag and fell with a hiss upon the fire. The tramp still knelt with his back to Deverell. The blood had left his face, his eyes were raised to the pale, bright stars, his lips moved. By a great effort he knelt as he had been kneeling before Deverell spoke; until Deverell spoke again.
"You were on your way to see me, eh?"
"I was on my way to Dandong."
"Wanting work? Well, you shall have it." said Deverell, with decision. "I don't want hands, but I'll take you on; you've saved my life, my good fellow; or you're going to, in a brace of shakes! How goes the damper?"
"Well," said the old man, answering Deverell's last question shortly, but ignoring his first altogether. "Shall I sweeten the tea or not?"
The old man got ready a handful of tea and another of sugar to throw into the quart-pot the moment the water boiled. He had not yet turned round. Still kneeling, with the soles of his boots under Deverell's nose, he moved the damper from time to time, and made the tea. His hands shook.
Deverell made himself remarkably happy during the next half-hour. He ate the hot damper, he drank the strong tea, in a way that indicated unbounded confidence in his digestive powers. A dyspeptic must have wept for envy. Towards the end of the meal Deverell discovered that the swagman, who sat remote from the fire, and seemed to be regarding him with extreme interest, had scarcely broken his bread.
"Aren't you hungry?" asked Deverell, with his mouth full.
But Deverell was, and that, after all, was the main thing. If the old man had no appetite, there was no earthly reason for him to eat; his abstinence could not hurt him under the circumstances, and naturally it did not worry Deverell. If, on the other hand, the old man preferred to feed off Deverell—with his eyes—why, there was no accounting for preferences, and that did not worry Deverell either. Indeed, by the time his pipe was once more in blast, he felt most kindly disposed towards this taciturn tramp. He would give him a billet. He would take him on as a rabbiter, and rig him out with a tent, camp fixings, traps, and perhaps even a dog or two. He would thus repay in princely fashion to-night's good turn—but now, confound the thing! He had been sitting the whole evening on the old fool's blankets, and the old fool had been sitting on the ground!
"I say! Why on earth don't you come and sit on your own blankets?" The young man spoke a little roughly; for to catch oneself in a grossly thoughtless act is always irritating.
"I am all right here, thank you," returned the swagman mildly. "The sand is as soft as the blankets."
"Well, I don't want to monopolise your blankets, you know," said Deverell, without moving. "Take a fill from my pouch, will you?"
He tossed over his pouch of tobacco. The swagman handed it back; he did not smoke; had got out of the way of it, he said. Deverell was disappointed. He had a genuine desire at all times to repay in kind anything resembling a good turn. He could not help being a little selfish; it was constitutional.
"I'll tell you what," said he, leaning backward on one elbow, and again clouding the stars with wreaths of blue smoke, "I've got a little berth that ought to suit you down to the ground. It's rabbiting. Done any rabbiting before? No. Well, it's easy enough; what's more, you're your own boss. Catch as many as you can or care to, bring in the skins, and get sixpence each for 'em. Now the berth I mean is a box-clump, close to a tank, where there's been a camp before, and the last man did very well there; still you'll find he has left plenty of rabbits behind him. It's the very spot for you; and look here, I'll start you with rations, tent, camp-oven, traps, and all the rest of it!" wound up Deverell generously. He had spoken out of the fulness of his soul and body. He had seldom spoken so decently to a pound-a-week hand—never to a swagman. Yet the swagman did not jump at the offer.
"Mr. Deverell," said he, rolling the name on his tongue in a curious way, "I was not coming exactly for work. I was coming to see you. I knew your father!"
"The deuce you did!" said Deverell.
The old man was watching him keenly. In an instant Deverell had flushed up from his collar to his wideawake. He was manifestly uncomfortable. "Where did you know him?" he asked doggedly.
The tramp bared his head; the short gray hair stood crisply on end all over it He tapped his head significantly, and ran the palm of his hand over the strong bristles of his beard.
"So," said Deverell, drawing his breath hard. "Now I see; you are a brother convict!"
The tramp nodded.
"And you know all about him—the whole story?"
The tramp nodded again.
"By God!" cried Deverell, "if you've come here to trade on what you know, you've chosen the wrong place and the wrong man!"
The tramp smiled. "I have not come to trade upon what I know," said he quietly, repeating the other's expression with simple sarcasm. "Now that I've seen you, I can go back the way I came; no need to go on to Dandong now. I came because my old mate asked me to find you out and wish you well from him: that was all."
"He went in for life," said Deverell, reflecting bitterly. "I have the vaguest memories of him; it happened when I was so very young. Is he well?"
"And you have been in gaol together! And you know what brought him there, the whole story!" Curiosity crept into the young man's tone, and made it less bitter. He filled a pipe. "For my part," he said sadly, "I never had the rights of that story."
"There were no rights," said the convict "It was all wrong together. Your father robbed the bank of which he himself was manager. He had lost money in mining speculations. He took to the bush, and fought desperately for his life."
"I'm glad he did that!" exclaimed Deverell.
The other's eyes kindled, but he only said, "It was what any one would have done in his place."
"Is it?" answered Deverell scornfully. "Did you, for instance?"
The old man shrugged his shoulders. Deverell laughed aloud. His father might have been a villain, but he had not been a coward. That was one consolation.
A silence fell between the two men. There were no more flames from the fire, but only the glow of red-hot embers. This reddened the face of Deverell, but it did not reach that of the old man. He was thus free to stare at Deverell as hard and as long as he liked, and his eyes never left the young man's face. It was a sufficiently handsome face, with eyes as dark as those of the old man, only lightened and brightened by an expression altogether different. Deverell's pipe had soothed him. He seemed as serene now as he had been before he knew that his companion had been also the companion of his father—in prison. After all, he had grown up with the knowledge that his father was a convicted felon; to be reminded of it casually, but also privately, was not to receive a new wound; and the old one was too old to smart severely at a touch. The tramp, staring at him with a fierce yearning in his eyes, which the young man could not see, seemed to divine this, but said:
"It cannot be pleasant for you to see me. I wouldn't have come, only I promised to see you; I promised to let him hear about you. It would have been worse, you know, had he got out on ticket-of-leave, and come himself!"
"It would so!" cried Deverell sincerely.
In the dark, the old man grinned like one in torment
"It would so," Deverell repeated, unable to repress a grim chuckle. "It would be the most awkward thing that could possibly happen to me—especially if it happened now. At present I call myself the luckiest man in the Colony; but if my poor father were to turn up—"
Deverell was not interrupted: he stopped himself.
"You are pretty safe," said his companion, in a somewhat singular tone—which, however, he quickly changed. "As your father's mate, I am glad you are so lucky; it is good hearing."
Deverell explained how he was so lucky. He felt that the sentiments he had expressed concerning his father's possible appearance on the scene required some explanation, if not excuse. This feeling, growing upon him as he spoke, led him into explanations that were very full indeed, under the circumstances. He explained the position he had attained as manager of Dandong; and the position he was about to attain through his marriage was quite as clearly (though unintentionally) indicated. It was made plain to the meanest perception how very awkward it would be for the young man, from every point of view, if the young man's father did turn up and ostentatiously reveal himself. While Deverell was speaking the swagman broke branches from the nearest pines and made up the fire; when he finished the faces of both were once more illumined; and that of the old man was stern with resolve.
"And yet," said he, "suppose the impossible, or at any rate the unlikely: say that he does come back! I know him well; he wouldn't be a drag or a burden to you. He'd only just like to see you. All he would ask would be to see his son sometimes! That would be enough for him. I was his chum, mind you, so I know. And if he was to come up here, as I have come, you could take him on, couldn't you, as you offer to take me?" He leant forward with sudden eagerness—his voice vibrated. "You could give him work, as you say you'll give me, couldn't you? No one'd know it was your father! No one would ever guess!"
"No!" said Deverell decidedly. "I'll give you work, but my father I couldn't. I don't do things by halves: I'd treat my father as my father, and damn the odds! He had pluck. I like to think how he was taken fighting! Whatever he did, he had grit, and I should be unworthy of him—no matter what he did—if I played the coward. It would be worse than cowardly to disown your father, whatever he had done, and I wouldn't disown mine—I'd sooner shoot myself! No, I'd take him in, and be a son to him for the rest of his days, that's what I'd do—that's what I will do, if ever he gets out on ticket-of-leave, and comes to me!"
The young man spoke with a feeling and intensity of which he had exhibited no signs before, leaning forward with his pipe between his fingers. The old man held his breath.
"But it would be devilish awkward!" exclaimed Deverell frankly. "People would remember what they've been good enough to forget; and everybody would know what now next to none know. In this country, thank God, the man is taken for what the man is worth; his father neither helps nor hinders him, when once he's gone. So I've managed to take my own part, and to get on well, thanks to my own luck. Yes, it would be devilish awkward. But I'd stand by him, before Heaven I would!"
The old man breathed hard.
"I don't know how I've come to say so much to you, though you did know my father," added Deverell, with a sudden change of tone. "It isn't my way at all. I needn't tell you that from to-morrow forward you're the same as any other man to me. And if you ever go to see my father, you must not tell him all I have said to you about what, as you say, is never likely to happen. But you may tell him—you may tell him I am glad he was taken fighting!"
The old man was once more quite calm. "I shall never see your father again. No more will you," he said slowly and solemnly; "for your father is dead! I promised him to find you out when my time was up, and to tell you. I have taken my own way of breaking the news to you. Forgive me, but I couldn't resist just seeing, first of all, if it would cut you up very badly!"
Deverell did not notice the quiet bitterness of the last words. He smoked his pipe out in silence. Then he said: "God rest him! Perhaps it's for the best. As for you, you've a billet at Dandong for the rest of your days, if you like to take and keep it. Let us turn in."
* * * * * * * *
The worn moon rose very late, and skimmed behind the pines, but never rose clear of them, and was down before dawn. It shone faintly upon the two men lying side by side, packed up each in a blanket—Deverell in the better one. From the other blanket a hand would steal out from time to time, grope tremulously over Deverell's back, lie a minute, and then be gently withdrawn. Long before dawn, however, the old man noiselessly arose and rolled up his swag. He packed up everything that he had brought—everything except the better blanket. Over that he smiled, as though it was an intense pleasure to him to leave it behind, lapped round the unconscious form of Deverell. Just before going, when the swag was on his back, he stooped down once and put his face very close to that of Deverell. The worn moon glimmered through the pines upon them both. The faces were strangely alike; only Deverell's was smiling in his dreams, while the old man's lips moved tremulously, and he seemed much older than before: for the eager look had gone for ever.
A few minutes later the gate in the Dandong boundary-fence closed behind the gaol-bird tramp. And Deverell's father was dead indeed—to Deverell. Lucky for Deverell, of course. But then he was the luckiest man in the whole Colony. Didn't he say so himself?
It is prejudicial to the nicest girl in this unjust world to be asked in marriage too frequently. Things come out, and she gets the name of being a heartless flirt; her own sex add that she cannot be a very nice girl. A flirt she is, of a surety, but why heartless, and why not a nice girl? So grave defects do not follow. The flirt who doesn't think she is one—the flirt with a set of sham principles and ideals, and a misleading veneer of soul—is heartless, if you like, and something worse. Now the girl who gets herself proposed to regularly once a week in the season is far less contemptible; she is not contemptible at all, for how could she know that you meant so much more than she did? She only knows a little too much to take your word for this.
A sweetly pretty and highly accomplished young girl, little Miss Anstruther, came to know too much to dream of taking any man's word on this point. She was reputed to have refused more offers than a good girl ought to get; for what in the very beginning conferred a certain distinction upon her, made her notorious at a regrettably early stage of her career. The finger of feminine disapproval pointed at her, presently, in an unmistakable way; and this is said—by women—to be a very bad sign. Men may not think so. Intensely particular ladies, in the pride of their complete respectability, tried to impress upon very young men in whom they were interested that Miss Anstruther was not at all a nice girl. But this had a disappointing effect upon the boys. And Miss Anstruther by no means confined herself to rejecting mere boys.
The moths that singed themselves at this flame were of every variety. They would have made a rare collection under glass, with pins through them; Miss Anstruther herself would have inspected them thus with the liveliest interest. Her detractors also could have enjoyed themselves at such an exhibition; but the more generous spirits among them, those who had been young and attractive too long ago to pretend to be either still, might have found there some slight excuse for Miss Anstruther. Of course, it was no excuse at all, but it was notable that almost every moth had some salient good point—something to "account for it" on her side, to some extent—say a twentieth part of the extent to which she had gone. There was a great deal of assorted merit scattered among those moths. Looks, intellect, a nice voice, an operatic moustache, an aptitude for the informal recitation of engaging verses, were a purely random selection from their several strong points; but even these, picked out and fitted together, would have furnished forth a dazzling being: whom Miss Anstruther would have rejected as firmly and as finally as she had already rejected his integral parts.
For there was no pleasing the girl. Apparently she did not mean to be pleased—in that way. She had neither wishes nor intentions, it became evident, beyond immediate flirtation of the most wilful description. To many honest minds hers seemed actually depraved.
Her accomplishment was singing. She sang divinely. Also she had plenty of money; but the money alone was not at the bottom of many declarations; her voice was the more infatuating element of the two; and her "way" did more damage than either. She was not, indeed, aware what a way she had with her. It was a way of seeming desperately smitten, and a little unhappy about it; which is quite sufficient to make a man of tender years or acute conscientiousness "speak" on the spot. Thus many a proposal was as unexpected on her part as it was unpremeditated on his. He made a sudden fool of himself—heard some surprisingly sensible things from her frivolous lips—decided, upon reflection and inquiry, that these were her formula—and got over the whole thing in the most masterly fashion. This is where Miss Anstruther was so much more wholesome than the flirt who doesn't think she flirts: Miss Anstruther never rankled.
She had no mother to check her notorious propensity in its infancy, and no brother to bully her out of it in the end. Her father, a public character of considerable distinction, was queer enough to see no fault in her; but he was a busy man. She had, however, a kinsman, Lord Nunthorp, who used to talk to her like a brother on the subject of her behaviour, only a little less heavily than brothers use. Lord Nunthorp knew what he was talking about. He had once played at being in love with her himself. But that was in the days when his moustache looked as though he had forgotten to wash it off, and before Miss Anstruther came out. There had been no nonsense between them for years. They were the best and most intimate of friends.
"Another!" he would say, gazing gravely upon her as the most fascinating curiosity in the world, when she happened to be telling him about the very latest. "Let's see—how many's that?"
There came a day when she told Lord Nunthorp she had lost count; and she really had. The day was at the fag-end of one season; he had been lunching at the Anstruthers' and Miss Anstruther had been singing to him.
"I'm afraid I can't assist you," said he, with amused concern. "I only remember the first eleven, so to speak. First man in was your rector's son in the country, young Miller, who was sent out to Australia on the spot. He was the first, wasn't he? Yes, I thought that was the order; and by Jove, Midge, how fond you were of that boy!"
"I was," said Miss Anstruther, glancing out of the window with a wistful look in her pretty eyes; but her kinsman said to himself that he remembered that wistful look—it went cheap.
"The next man in," affirmed Lord Nunthorp, who was an immense cricketer, "was me!"
"I like that!" said Miss Anstruther, taking her eyes from the window with rather a jerk, and smiling brightly. "You've left out Cousin Dick!"
"So I have; I beg Dick's pardon. It was very egotistical of me, but pardonable, for of course Dick never stood so high in the serene favour as I did. I came after Dick then, first wicket down, and since then—well, you say yourself that you've lost tally, but you must have bowled out a pretty numerous team by this time. My dear Midge," said Nunthorp, with a sudden access of paternal gravity, "don't you think it about time that somebody came in and carried his bat?"
"Don't talk nonsense!" said Miss Anstruther briskly. She added, almost miserably: "I wish to goodness they wouldn't ask me! If only they wouldn't propose I should be all right. Why do they want to go and propose? It spoils everything."
Her tone and look were quite injured. She was more indignant than Lord Nunthorp had ever seen her—except once—for the girl was of a most serene disposition. He looked at her kindly, and as admiringly as ever, though rather with the eye of a connoisseur; and he found she had still the most lovely, imperfect, uncommon, and fragrant little face he had ever seen in his life. He said candidly—
"I really don't blame them, and I don't see how you can. If you are to blame anybody, I'm afraid it must be yourself. You must give them some encouragement, Midge, or I don't think they'd all come to the point as they do. I never saw such sportsmen as they are! They walk in and walk out again one after the other, and they seem to like it—"
"I wish they did!" Miss Anstruther exclaimed devoutly. "I only wish they'd show me that they liked it; I should have a better time then. They wouldn't keep making me miserable with their idiotic farewell letters. That's what they all do. Either they write and call me everything—rudely, politely, sarcastically, all ways—or they say their hearts are broken, and they haven't the faintest intention of getting over it—in fact, they wouldn't get over it if they could. That's enough to make any person feel low, even if you know from experience what to expect. At one time I didn't dare to look in the paper for fear of seeing their suicides; but I've only seen their weddings. They all seem to get over it pretty easily; and that doesn't make you think much better of yourself, you know. Of course I'm inconsistent!"
"Of course you are," said Lord Nunthorp cordially. "I approve of you for it. I'd rather see you an old maid, Midge, than going through life in a groove. Consistency's a narrow groove for narrow minds! I can do better than this about consistency, Midge; I'm hot and strong on the subject; but you're not listening."
"Ah!" cried Miss Anstruther, who had not listened to a word, "they're driving me crazy, between them! There's Mr. Willimott, you know, who writes. Of course he had no business to speak to me. There were a hundred things against him at the time—even if I'd cared for him—though he's getting more successful now. Well, I do believe he's put me into every story he's written since it happened! I crop up in some magazine or other every month!"
"'Into work the poet kneads them,'" murmured Lord Nunthorp, who was not a professional cricketer. "Well, you needn't bother yourself about him. You've made the fellow. He now draws a heroine better than most men. It's a pity you don't take to writing, Midge, you'd draw your heroes better than women do as a rule; for don't you see that you must know more about us than we know about ourselves?"
"They wouldn't be much of heroes!" laughed the girl. "But I heartily wish I did write. Wouldn't I show up some people, that's all! It would give me something to do, too; it would keep me out of mischief, and really I'm sick of men and their ridiculous nonsense. And they all say the same thing. If only they wouldn't say anything at all! Why do they? You might tell me!"
Nunthorp put on his thinking-cap. "You see, you are quite pretty," said he.
"Then you sing like an angel."
"Please don't! That's what they all say."
"Ah, the singing has a lot to do with it; you oughtn't to sing so well; you should cultivate less expression. And then—I'm afraid you like attention."
"Of course I do!"
"And I'm sure it must be very hard not to be attentive to you," Lord Nunthorp declared, with a rather brutal impersonality; "for I should fancy you have a way—quite unconscious, mind—of giving your current admirer the idea that he's the only one who ever held the office!"
"Thanks," said she, with perfect good-humour; "that's a very pretty way of putting it."
"Putting what, Midge?"
"That I'm a hopeless flirt—which is the root of the whole matter, I suppose!"
She burst out laughing, and he joined her. But there had been a pinch of pathos in her words, and he was weak enough to make a show of contradicting them. She would not listen to him, she laughed at his insincerity. The conversation had broken down, and, as soon as he decently could, he went.
That was at the very end of a season; and Lord Nunthorp did not see his notorious relative again for some months. In the following February, however, he heard her sing at some evening party; he had no chance of talking with her properly; but he was glad to find that he could meet her at a dance the next night.
"Well, Midge!" he was able to say at last, as they sat out together at this dance. "How many proposals since the summer?"
She gravely held up three fingers. Lord Nunthorp laughed consumedly.
"Any more scalps?" he inquired.
This was an ancient pleasantry. It referred to the expensive presents with which some young men had paved their way to disappointment It was a moot point between Miss Anstruther and her noble kinsman whether she had any right to retain these things. She considered she had every right, protesting that these presents were her only compensation for so many unpleasantnesses. He pretended to take higher ground in the matter. But it amused him a good deal to ask about her "scalps."
She told him what the new ones were.
"And I perceive mine—upon your wrist!" Nunthorp exclaimed, examining her bracelet; and he was genuinely tickled.
"Well!" said she, turning to him with the frankest eyes, "I'd quite forgotten whose it was—honestly I had!"
He was vastly amused. So his bracelet—she had absolutely forgotten that it was his—did not make her feel at all awkward. There was a healthy cynicism in the existing relations between these two.
She had nothing very new to tell him. Two out of the last three had proposed by letter. She confessed to being sick and tired of answering this kind of letter.
"I'll tell you what," said her kinsman, looking inspired, "you ought to have one printed! You could compose a very pretty one, with blanks for the name and date. It would save you a deal of time and trouble. You would have it printed in brown ink and rummy old type, don't you know, on rough paper with coarse edges. It would look charming. 'Dear Mr. Blank, of course I'm greatly flattered'—no, you'd say 'very'—'of course I'm very flattered by your letter, but I must confess it astonished me. I thought we were to be such friends?' Really, Midge, it would be well worth your while!"
Miss Anstruther did not dislike the joke, from him; but when he added, "The pity is you didn't start it in the very beginning, with young Ted Miller"—she checked him instantly.
"Now don't you speak about Ted," she said, in a firm, quiet little way: but he appreciated the look that swept into her soft eyes no better than he had appreciated it six months before; he was merely amused.
"Because he meant it!"
Nunthorp wondered, but not seriously, whether that young fellow, who had gone in firsts was to be the one, after all, to carry out his bat. And this way of putting it, in his own head, which was half full of cricket, carried him back to their last chat, and reminded him of a thing he had wanted to say to her for the past twenty-four hours.
"Do you remember my telling you," said he, "when I last had the privilege of lecturing you, that you sang iniquitously well? Then I feel it a duty to inform you that your singing is now worse than ever—in this respect. No wonder you have had three fresh troubles; I consider it very little, with your style of singing. Your songs have much to answer for; I said so then, I can swear to it now. Your voice is heavenly, of course; but why pronounce your words so distinctly? I'm sure it isn't at all fashionable. And why strive to make sense of your sounds? I really don't think it's good form to do so. And it's distinctly dangerous. It didn't happen to matter last night, because the rooms were so crowded; but if you sing to one or two as you sing to one or two hundred, I don't wonder at them, I really don't. You sing as if you meant every word of the drivel—I believe you humbug yourself into half meaning it, while you're singing!"
"I believe I do," Miss Anstruther replied, with characteristic candour. "You've no idea how much better it makes you sing, to put a little heart into it. But I never thought of this! Perhaps I had better give up singing!"
"I'll tell you, when my turn comes round again," said he, leading her back to the ballroom. "I'll think of nothing else meanwhile."
He did not dance; he was not a dancing man; but he did think of something else meanwhile. He thought of a pale, young, eager face, which appeared over Miss Anstruther's shoulder in far too many of this evening's dances. Lord Nunthorp hated dancing, and he had come here only to sit out a square or two with his amusing relative. He had to wait some time between them; he spent it in watching her; and she spent it in dancing everything with the same very young man, excepting one waltz, during which Lord Nunthorp transferred his attention from the bow to its latest string, who, for the time being, looked miserable.
"Who," he asked her, as they managed to regain possession of their former corner in the conservatory, "is your dark-haired, pale-faced friend?"
"Well," whispered Miss Anstruther, with grave concern, "I'm very much afraid that he is what you would call the next man in!"
"Good heaven!" ejaculated Lord Nunthorp, for once aghast. "Do you mean to say he is going to propose to you?"
"I feel it coming; I know the symptoms only too well!"
"Then perhaps you're going to make a different answer at last?"
"My dear man!" said Lord Nunthorp's sisterly little connection; and her tone was that of a person rather cruelly misjudged.
The noble kinsman held his tongue for several seconds. Man of the world as he was, he looked utterly scandalised. Here, in this fair, frail, beautiful form, lay a depth of cynicism which he could not equal personally—which he could not fathom in another, and that other a quite young girl.
"Midge," he said at last, with sincere solemnity, "you horrify me! You've often told me the kind of thing, but this is the first time I've seen you with a fly actually in the web: for I don't think I myself counted, after all. That boy is helplessly in love with you! And you were smiling upon him as though you liked him too!"
Nunthorp was touched tremulously upon the arm. "Was I?" the girl asked him, in a frightened voice. "Was I looking—like that?"
"I think you were," he answered frankly. "And now you calmly scoff at the bare notion of accepting him! You make my blood run cold, Midge! I think you can have no heart!"
"Do you think that?" she asked strenuously, as though he had struck her.
"No, no; you know I don't; only after seeing you look at him like that—"
"Honestly, I didn't know I was looking in any particular way." Miss Anstruther added in a lowered, softened voice: "If I was—well, it wasn't meant for him."
Lord Nunthorp dropped his eye-glass.
"And it wasn't meant for you, either!" she superadded, smartly enough.
Lord Nunthorp breathed again, and ventured to recommend an immediate snub, in the pale boy's case.
When he had led her back to her chaperone, he felt easier on her account than he had been for a long time. It was obvious to him that the biter was bit at last. The right man was evidently in view, though he was not there at the dance—which was hard on the white-faced youth. Perhaps she was not the right girl for the right man; perhaps he refused to be attracted by her. That would be odd, but not impossible; and a girl who had refused to fall in love with every man who had ever fallen in love with her, was the likeliest girl in the world to care for some man who cared nothing for her—primarily to make him care. That is a woman, through and through, reflected Lord Nunthorp, out of the recesses of a somewhat recherché experience. But Midge would most certainly make him care: she was fascinating enough to capture any man (except himself) if she seriously tried; and he sincerely hoped she was going to try, to succeed, and to live happily ever after. For Nunthorp had now quite a fatherly affection for the girl, and he wished her well from his heart, which was kindly enough, though turning prematurely gray. But he did not like a little scene, with her in it, which he witnessed just before he quitted that party.
"My dance!" said a boy's confident, excited voice, just behind him; and the voice of Miss Anstruther replied, in the coldest of tones, that he must have made a mistake, for it was not his dance at all.
"But I've got it down," the boy pleaded, as yet only amazed; his face was like marble as Lord Nunthorp watched him; Miss Anstruther was also slightly pale.
"She's doing her duty, for once," thought Lord Nunthorp, to whom the pathos of the incident lay in its utter conventionality. "But she plays a cruel game!"
"You've got it down?" said Miss Anstruther, very clearly, examining her card with ostentatious care. "Excuse me, but there is really some mistake; I haven't got your name down for anything else!"
For an instant Lord Nunthorp held himself in readiness for a scene: he half expected to see the boy, whose white face was now on fire, snatch the card from her, expose her infamy, tear up the card and throw the pieces in her face. His face looked like it for a single instant, and Nunthorp was prepared to protect him if he did it. But the boy went away without a word.
Lord Nunthorp met the girl's eyes with his. He knew she was looking for his approval: he knew she had earned it, by preventing one poor fellow from going the whole humbling length, and he was glad to think that she had taken his advice: but the glance he gave her was very grim. He could not help it. He went away feeling quite unlike himself.
Just outside, in the street, some one brushed past him, sobbing an oath. And Lord Nunthorp became himself again; for this person was Miss Anstruther's last victim.
"That's all right," he muttered; "not a broken heart—only broken pride. That's all that's breakable, after all; and it mends." He walked home rather pleased with Midge, as he called her, for having done her duty, no matter how late, in at least one case. He was vexed with himself for having been stupid about it at the moment. But it delighted him to think that most likely this would be the last case of the kind; for he took always the most good-natured interest in the vivacious young woman with whom, once upon a time, he had himself been slightly smitten.
But how plain it was to the world that Miss Anstruther was motherless! No mother would have allowed her to behave as she did. With a mother she would have married one of the many, whether she loved him or not. Her father, whose time was much taken up, was so blind as to see no harm in her. The only people she had to remonstrate with her were her married sisters. One of these had been Miss Anstruther's chaperone at this dance, where she sat out twice with her kinsman, Lord Nunthorp, and broke a silly youth's pride. This sister ventured to remonstrate with her (but very gently) when they got home, in the small hours of the February morning.
Miss Anstruther had been silent and subdued during the drive home. She was considerably ashamed of herself. She was more ashamed of having ill-treated the white-faced boy over that dance—now that it was done—than she would have been to reject his hand after encouragement; use had blunted her feelings to this sort of sin; but the wrong of breaking in cold blood an engagement to dance was altogether out of harmony with her character and practices. She was notorious for leading men on to certain humiliation; she was celebrated for the punctilio with which she kept her word in the smallest matter. She had injured the good reputation in snapping the backbone of the bad one; and she did not feel at all pleased with Lord Nunthorp, who had said or implied one thing, and then stared its opposite. Her spirits had improved, however, on her arrival at the house: she had found a letter for herself, with three bright blue stamps in the corner, stuck up on the mantelpiece. Her hand had closed eagerly over this letter before the lamp was turned up. She was twisting it between her fingers, under her shawl, while her sister reproved her not too seriously, for her treatment of that boy.
"I know it," she answered rather dolefully; "I know well enough what a flirt I am! I have never denied it in my life, not even to them. But I really never mean them to go so far. And—and I don't think I'm so heartless as I make myself out to be!"
Her sister gazed at her fondly. Her own family, at all events, loved and believed in Miss Anstruther, and held her faults to be all on the surface. The sister now saw in the sweet, flushed face the look that Lord Nunthorp had noticed more than once, but never interpreted.
"Is there some one you care for after all, Midge, dear?" she asked softly.
"There may have been some one all the time," the young girl whispered, her eyelids fallen, her hand squeezing the letter under her shawl.
"Is it—is it Ted Miller?"
Midge looked up into her sister's eyes. Her lip was quivering. She was a girl who seldom cried—her detractors would have told you why. She controlled herself before speaking now.
"It was the most hopeless affair of them all," she said simply; "but—but he was the only one who really meant it!"
His letter was against her bosom.
The married sister's eyes had filled. "You write to each other still, don't you, Midge?"
"Yes—as friends. Good-night, Helen!"
"Good-night, darling Midge; forgive me for speaking!" Helen murmured, kissing her eyes.
"Forgive you? You've said nothing to what I deserve!"
The girl was running up to her room two steps at a time. Ted Miller's letter was pressed tight to her heart.
Ted Miller had been four years in Australia. He had written to her regularly, the whole time, as her friend; and she had written fairly regularly to him, as his. His was the one refusal in which she had not been a free agent; she had been but seventeen at the time. There was love between them when they parted; there was never a word of it in their letters. He wrote and told her all that he was doing: he was roughing it in the wilderness; he was not making his fortune: he never spoke of coming home. She wrote and told him—nearly all.
A pleasant fire was burning in her room. She lit the candles, and sat down just as she was, in her very extravagant ball-dress, to read his present letter. She felt, as always in opening a letter from Ted, that she was going to open a window and let in a cool current of fragrant, fresh air upon an unhealthy, heavy atmosphere; and she noticed, what she had not noticed downstairs, through hiding the letter before the lamp was turned up, that its superscription was not in Ted's hand. The bright blue stamps of New South Wales were really all she had looked at downstairs. She now tore open the envelope with strange misgivings; and the letter turned out to be from the squatter's wife on Ted Miller's station, telling how a buck-jumper had broken Ted Miller's back; and how, before his death, which ensued in a matter of hours, he had directed her to write to his family, and also—but separately—to "his greatest friend."
The fire dulled down, the candles shortened, and in their light Miss Anstruther sat in her dazzling ball-dress, her face as gray as its satin sheen. Her rounded arms had more colour than her face. She moaned a little to herself; she could not cry.
At last she stirred herself. Her limbs were stiff. As she crossed the room, she saw herself from head to foot in her pier-glass—with all her grace of form and motion dead and stiff within her dress. She saw herself thus, but at the time with senseless eyes; the sight first came back to her when she next used that mirror. She was going to a certain drawer; she unlocked it, and drew it out bodily; she carried it to the table where the candles were slowly burning down. The drawer was filled with Miller's letters.
"His greatest friend!" They had been merely friends from the day they parted. He had nothing. Out there he had found fortune but a little less inaccessible than at home; he had written her no words of love, for how could there be any hope for them? She had plenty of money, but that was all the more reason why he must have some. His letters were not vulgarised by a single passionate, or sentimental, or high-flown passage. They were the letters of an honest friend; they were the letters of a good soldier—on the losing side, certainly, but fighting, not talking about fighting—talking, indeed, of quite other matters. And because these letters had been just what they were, Ted Miller himself had been to a frivolous girl, through frivolous years, what no one else had ever been—not even himself as she had known him face to face. Their friendship had been pure and strong and strengthening; their love idealised by improbability, and further by not being discussed, and yet further by being written "friendship." His tone to her had been: "Enjoy yourself. I want to hear you're having a good time. I am—there's nothing like work." She had answered, very truthfully, that she was doing so; and now he knew how! This was the bitterest thought: that the new knowledge was now his, and she, in his eyes, just what she had been in the eyes of the throng!
She sat down and read all his letters. The pure breath of heaven rose from every leaf. They did not touch her yet: her heart was numb. But the tones that had once come to her ears from every written word came no longer; the voice was silenced. She returned the letters to the drawer. She would keep them till her death.
And yet—would he like that?
She sat very still, trying to answer this question. The candles went out, but a leaden light had crept into the room through the blinds. She thought that he saw her, that he had seen her for weeks, that she had been grieving him the whole time, that she might please him now. And he was the one man she had known who would have wished her not to keep his letters.
She rose resolutely from her chair, and with difficulty rekindled her fire; it ruined her elaborate dress, but she was glad never to wear this one again. It did not seem to her that she was about to do anything cruel or unnatural. She was going to do violence to her own feelings only. It would please Ted that she was not going to keep his letters, to read them in her better moods, and less and less as the years went on. For her own part, she felt she would like to have them a little longer. It was a subtle sense of sacrifice for his sake—her first and last—which nerved her to burn his letters. Overstrung as she was, she burnt them every one, and without a tear.
A half-leaf happened to escape. She picked it out of the fender when the rest were burnt black, and as her heart was beginning to ache for what she had done. She took it to the window, and read on the crisp, scorched paper the ordinary end of an ordinary letter—the end of all was, as ever: "Yours always, E. M."
Without a moment's warning, her tears rattled upon the hot paper; she pressed it passionately to her mouth; she flung herself upon the bed in a paroxysm of helpless agony.
When Canon Methuen was offered the least tempting of Australian bishoprics, strong hopes of a refusal were entertained by admirers of that robust and popular divine. His chances of a much more desirable preferment, if he would but wait for it, were, on the one hand, considerable; and on the other hand was his daughter Evelyn. Miss Methuen, an only unmarried child, was not the one to suffer transportation to the bush, while she was the very one to influence her father's decision. So said those who knew her, showing, as usual, how little they did know her. For whatsoever was novel, romantic-sounding, or unattractive to her friends, most mightily attracted Evelyn Methuen; and the Australian bishopric possessed all these merits. Her friends were right about the girl's influence in general with their beloved Canon; they did not over-rate the weight of her say in this particular matter; but beyond this their fond calculations proved sadly adrift. Evelyn never even paused to consider the thing, say in the light of transportation and live burial; she jumped at it; and on this occasion she did not jump back. Her father, who knew her, gave her time for the customary rebound. But for once she knew her mind, and on the fifth day the world learnt that a Colonial bishopric of which it had never heard before had been definitely accepted by the Reverend Canon Methuen.
Miss Methuen had done it, and apparently she knew no regrets. That repentance at leisure of which her father had disquieting visions, founded on past experience of her, did indeed become conspicuous, but only in a delightful manner. She was not, of course, without a proper sorrow at departure; the spires at sunset made her pensive; she duly cried when the wrench came, but performed that wrench strong-mindedly, notwithstanding. This was her accredited characteristic, strength of mind. It enabled her to tear herself away from a grand old town for which she had an unaffected veneration—where she spent most of her life, where her mother lay buried, where two sisters lived married: from some precious Extension Lectures, in the middle of the Browning Course: from her own little room, made pretty with her own hands, at small cost, with fans and Aspinall and photographs in frames: from those very young men who were foolish about her at this time; and almost as easily, six weeks later, from the more mature and less impossible admirers of the outward voyage. But though, to be sure, she had never had absolute occasion for a refusal of marriage, she would have refused Lord Shields himself—the fellow-passenger—on the voyage out. Her heart was set upon the wilderness, and on that Bishop's Lodge there, her future home; and after devouring some Australian romances, she felt that she would rather encounter one bushranger on his professional rounds than plough the seas with a boatload of friendly peers.
Before reading those romances—that is, until there came the prospect of living in Australia—Miss Methuen's ideas of that continent had been very vague, very elementary, and rather funny. Her timely reading gave shape and background to her ideas, but left them funnier than ever; it did not prepare her for the place she was going to, perhaps it did not pretend to do so, that romantic literature; but Miss Methuen had chosen to assume that all Australian scenery would be in the same style. She was prepared for gullies, gum-trees, caves, ranges, kangaroos, opossums, claims, creeks, snakes in the grass, and chivalrous robbers on the highroad; but she was not prepared for a dead level of sandy desert, broken only by the river-timber of a narrow, sluggish stream, nor for a wooden township where the worst weapons of man were strong drink in the head and strong language on the tongue; and this was what she found. Great was the disillusion, and in every respect; it discounted and discoloured all things, even to the Bishop's Lodge, which, with its complete margin of creeper-covered verandah, was charming in everything but situation.
"Call this the bush!—where are the trees?" she said rather petulantly to her father; and, as she looked at his long dust-coat of light-coloured silk, duck trousers, and pith helmet, she might have added: "Call you a Bishop!—where are your gaiters?"
In fact, Miss Methuen's contentment wore away, very nearly, with the novelty. The Bishop saved the situation by taking her with him on his first episcopal round up country. He wore, too, on that round, his gaiters (with a new chum's stout shooting-boots underneath) and black garments, for the cool weather was coming on. They had a delightful cruise among the sheep-stations of the diocese (a little district the size of England), their pilot being the Bishop's Chaplain, who, as it happened, was a son of the soil. They gave the hospitality of the squatter a splendid trial, and found that celebrated Colonial quality rated not at all too high. The Bishop held services in the queerest places, and administered holy rites to the most picturesque ruffians, winning in all quarters the respect and admiration of men not prone to respect or to admire, for his broad shoulders and grizzled beard and his erect six feet, as well as for the humanity and virility of every sentence in his simple, telling addresses. Evelyn, perhaps, was admired less; but she did not suspect this, and she enjoyed herself thoroughly. There were gentlemanly young overseers at nearly all the stations. These young men, naturally taken with the healthy colour and good looks of the English girl, were sufficiently attentive, and seemed duly impressed by her conversation. So they were. But clever Evelyn was not clever in her topics; she talked Browning to them, and culture, and the "isms"; and they mimicked her afterwards—the attentive young men. This she did not suspect either. She returned from the cruise in the highest spirits, her preconceptions of the bush not realised, indeed, but forgotten; and after weeks among the stations the wooden town seemed a different and a better place, and the Bishop's Lodge a paradise of ease and beauty.
But during the less eventful period of the Bishop's ministry at headquarters, the satisfaction on his daughter's part tapered, as it invariably did in the absence of variety. She began systematically to miss things "after old England"; and here the Bishop could sympathise, though the forced expression of his sympathy galled his contented and tolerant nature. He pointed out that comparison was scarcely fair, and hinted that it lay with Evelyn, as with himself, at once to enjoy and to improve the new environment. Naturally there were matters for regret, occasions for a sigh. The service of the sanctuary was necessarily less sumptuous here than in the old English minster; and Evelyn had a soul of souls for high mass, and the exaltation of the spirit through the senses. Then when the service was over, there were no young curates of culture to step in to Sunday supper or dinner, as the case might be. This was a want of another kind; it is not suggested that it was the greater want. The social void, certainly, was an unattractive feature of Bishop's Lodge, where even the young overseers of the back-blocks, who had barely heard of Browning and were not ashamed of themselves would have been royally welcomed visitors. As it was, almost the only visitors were the Chaplain and his wife, who did not count, since they practically lived at the Lodge. Nor was either of this excellent couple to Evelyn's taste. The Chaplain, indeed, was but a bushman with a clean mouth; clerical, to the eye, in his clothes only. No one could have accused him of polish, nor yet, on the other hand, of laziness or insincerity. Evelyn, however, tilted her nose at him. As for the Chaplain's wife, she was just one of those kind, unpretentious women who are more apt to be spoken of as "bodies." She did many things for Evelyn; but she had also many children, and spoilt them all; so that Evelyn could do nothing but despise her. For, in her reputed strong mind, Miss Methuen nursed a catholic contempt for human weaknesses of every shade.
When, however, the time came for further episcopal visitations, Evelyn, who accompanied her father as before, once more enjoyed herself keenly. Her pleasure was certainly enhanced by the fact that the ground traversed was not the old ground. But this turned out to be her last treat of the kind for some time to come. The next round of travels was arranged with the express object of Confirmation, and the Bishop seemed to feel that in this connection the companionship of his daughter might be out of place. He decided, at all events, to take no one but the Chaplain. So Evelyn was left behind with the Chaplain's wife, and neither lady had a very delightful time. The girl spent most of hers in writing exhaustive letters to her friends, prolix with feminine minutiae, but pathetically barren of the adventures which she longed to recount, if not to experience. In particular she corresponded with some old friends in Sydney, at whose fashionable residence she had spent a night before accompanying her father up country. These people sympathised with her on many sheets of expensive note-paper. The letters became mutually gushing; and long before the Bishop's return, Evelyn had arranged to spend the term of his next absence with her opulent friends in Sydney.
When he did return, Evelyn, as it happened, was not in the house. In point of fact, she was reading under the gum-trees by the sluggish little river, but, as usual, the Chaplain's wife was not in the unnecessary secret of her whereabouts. Evelyn's book on this occasion had itself a strong odour of the gum-trees, for it chanced to be the Poems of the bush poet, Lindsay Gordon. Now Evelyn, having attended University Extension Lectures on the subject of "Modern Poetry," was of course herself an authority on that subject; equally of course she found much to criticise in these bush ballads. What, however, not even Miss Methuen could find fault with was their local colour. She had seen it herself up the country; she only wished she had seen more of it—more of Gordon's bush and Gordon's bushmen. Oddly enough, though in his book, the verses that attracted her most were never written by Gordon at all:—
"Booted, and bearded, and burnt to a brick,
I loaf along the street;
I watch the ladies tripping by,
And I bless their dainty feet."
She liked these lines well enough to learn them as she walked back to the house; and it was impossible to avoid glancing at her own dainty feet in doing so. Why did she never encounter the booted bushman who had seen better days?
"I watch them here and there,
With a bitter feeling of pain;
Ah! what wouldn't I give to feel
A lady's hand again!"
"Ah!" echoed Evelyn, looking at her own small hand, "and what wouldn't I give—to pull some poor fellow to the surface with you!"
And indeed she was ready to give much, having some soul for the romantic, and being bored.
Looking up from her book, she was startled to see her father hurrying towards her, his fine face beaming with gladness. Evelyn beamed too, and they embraced in the road, very prettily. The Bishop explained his early arrival; the last stages he, even he, had driven furiously—to get back to his darling girl. Then he thrust his strong, kind arm through hers, and led her home. But as they neared the Lodge his steps hesitated.
"My dear, I have a confession to make to you!"
"A confession! Have you done something naughty, father?"
"Yes! I have taken pity on an undeserving young man. You know, Evelyn, this colony is full of educated young men who have gone hard down hill until reaching the bottom here in the bush. I have come across I can't tell you how many instances up country, men from our Universities and public schools, living from year's end to year's end in lonely huts, mere boundary-riders and whim-drivers."
"Contemptible creatures!" exclaimed Miss Evelyn, with virtuous vigour. "I have no sympathy with them, not an atom!"
Though Gordon was still under her arm, the bushman who had seen better days had vanished quite out of her head, which contained, as we know, a strong mind, and was perhaps rather swollen by conscious strength. The Bishop was not pleased.
"Come, come, Evelyn! I do not like to hear my dear girl settle questions in that way—questions of humanity, too. It was not our blessed Lord's way, Evelyn, my darling! However, the young man I speak of has done nothing to merit any one's contempt—nothing, nothing," averred the Bishop, with disingenuous emphasis. "He is merely a young fellow who came out to the Colonies and—and has not as yet done so well as he hoped to do. And I found I had been at school with his father!"
"Where is he now?" asked Evelyn, divining that he was not far off.
"Here in the house," confessed the Bishop. "He goes on in the coach—it leaves in an hour, at seven; and, Evelyn, my dear, I'd rather you didn't see him before he went. He is going down to Sydney to get himself some decent clothes, and I have also asked him to have his beard shaved off, as he is quite a young man. The fact is, he will be back here in a fortnight, and you will see him then; for he is coming back as my Lay Reader!"
They covered some yards in silence. Then Evelyn casually inquired the young man's name, and her father told her that it was Follet; Christian name Samuel, after the Bishop's old schoolfellow. As they approached the house, the Bishop persuaded his daughter to efface herself until the coach had gone; it was not fair, he said, to meet the young man as he was, when in a few days he would come back a different being. It would have been inevitable, such a meeting, had Evelyn been in when they arrived; but now that it was so easily avoidable, would she not have the strength of mind to avoid it? He knew she must feel very inquisitive. So she did; but she loved, above most things, an appeal to her strength of mind. She promised. To see, however, was not to meet. And strong-minded Evelyn contrived to see, through a window of the room in which the future Reader was waiting, herself unseen in the gathering shades.
She could not see much: a slim young man sitting over the fire; a bronzed face, illumined by the flames with flickering patches of orange; thick black hair, a thin beard, moleskins, leggings, Crimean shirt, and a felt wideawake on the floor between his feet. This was absolutely all that Evelyn saw. But it was enough. The contempt she felt or affected for weak humanity did not trouble her just then. Miss Methuen forgot it. Miss Methuen, for one rare moment, forgot herself. She saw before her the burnt and bearded bushman who had known better days, and the sight was good in her eyes.
In a fortnight he would be back there as Lay Reader!
How a Bishop, who was also a man of the world, came to make so injudicious an arrangement, only Bishop Methuen could explain. The chances are that in contemplation of the evils from which it was to be his blessed privilege to rescue this young man, he lost sight of others of a less shocking description. Certainly that night, when he removed his pipe from his teeth (for this prelate smoked like any shearer) to kiss good-night to his daughter, and when Evelyn said, really meaning it at the moment, that she would do all she could for the permanent reformation of poor Mr. Follet—certainly it did not seem to the Bishop, just then, that he had made an injudicious arrangement.
Within the fortnight Follet duly reappeared—a quietly-dressed, clean-shaven, earnest young man. And within the week after that he found it impossible to sail under false colours with one so honest and high-souled, so frank and strong-minded as Miss Methuen. He told her his story, including the worst part of it, which the Bishop had not told her, in a sudden burst of mingled shame and thankfulness, and in a chance five minutes in the starlit verandah. His curse had been drink. Yet Miss Methuen heard this revolting confession without being visibly revolted—even without that contemptuous curl which came too easily to her lips.
"Forgive me," he murmured, "forgive me for telling you! I couldn't help it! I can't go on pretending to have been what I have not been—not to you, who are so honest, and open, and strong!"
"How do you know I am strong?" asked the girl, colouring with pleasure; for he had flattered her to the quick.
"I see it."
"Oh, but I am not."
"You are! you are!" he exclaimed, contradicting her almost as vehemently as she desired.
"And now you can never think the same of me again—though you will not show it!"
"You are wrong," whispered Evelyn, in her softest tone. "I will think all the more of you—for having climbed out of that pit! You are going on climbing now: only think how much nobler it will be to have climbed from the bottom of the horrible pit, than had you started from the level land, and never fallen!"
And indeed the sentiment itself was not free from nobility. As she uttered it she gave him her hand, frankly and cordially. Then she left him alone in the starlight, inspired to do and to dare glorious things, and burning to scale the glittering heights of divine enterprise—always supported by the strong soul of Evelyn Methuen.
The obvious sequel of that starry night took place just two months later—it was surely very creditable to both parties that it did not take place much sooner. At length, however, on a similar night of stars, only in the warmer air of November, Miss Methuen found herself in the angle of Follet's arm—heard him whisper to the sweet end what others, mere boys, had but timidly and tentatively begun in the old days at home—found her head lying back upon his shoulder—and breathed, scarcely knowing it, a little word which was pleasant speaking, even though the sound of it on her own lips vaguely alarmed her soul. You see, it was the first time she had been properly and definitely asked in marriage, the incomparable Miss Methuen.
Then Bishop Methuen made the force of his character unpleasantly apparent.
For so gentle and godly a man, he showed a truly amazing capacity for anger—and anger of a very downright, usual, and Britannic description. Angry, however, as he was with the culprits, he was still more angry with himself; and—what was not usual, but the very reverse—this made him blame the culprits less and himself more. Putting the pair on parole, he promised to give the matter fair consideration, and he did so in portentous privacy. Then emerging, like the jury, after a mercifully "short delay," he gave what was really, on the whole, a most merciful verdict. Evelyn was to go down to Sydney, and stay with her fine friends there as many months as they would have her—six if possible. There were to be no letters, no direct communication of any kind. But if they were both of the same mind when Evelyn came back, and always supposing Follet was as zealous and earnest a worker then as now, then the Bishop would consider the whole matter afresh. They need not look for an unconditional consent even then. The very promise of reconsideration was essentially conditional.
So Miss Methuen went down to Sydney a month before Christmas; and the Bishop, in his human inconsistency, granted her a long interview with Follet on the eve of her departure. Nor did Dr. Methuen's goodness end then or there: he was ridiculously good to Follet from that time forth. The very next day he made the young man fetch his trunks from the Chaplain's house, where hitherto he had lodged, and keep bed and board henceforward at the Lodge. Both were free; and it was the Bishop, of course, who had paid for those trunks and their contents, not as a present (so he said), but as an advance of salary. He would have had us remember that the young fellow was his old schoolfellow's son. The young fellow, however, had amiable characteristics of his own. More than this, he was of real use to the Bishop, being, in spite of his sins, more to the manner born than the honest (but indigenous) Chaplain. A strong mutual affection came into being between the old man and the young one, and daily increased; an attachment apart from gratitude. Follet's gratitude was a thing by itself, something never expressed in words nor by any conscious look or act. Unconsciously he expressed it every day. And these bonds were supplemented by the impalpable bond of Evelyn. They seldom spoke of her; never in any but the most casual connection. But Follet loved to think of the good old man as Evelyn's father. The Bishop, on the contrary, hated to think of Follet as her lover. He knew Evelyn not only better than Follet knew her, but better than Evelyn knew herself.
The girl's letters naturally were mentioned when they arrived, though they never, of course, contained a message. The nearest the pair came to joining hands over Evelyn was, however, in the matter of a letter from her. It came when the Bishop was busy; it begged him to send her a certain book of poems, and when nobody could find the book, the Bishop said rather testily: "Write, like a good fellow, and tell her it isn't in the house. And you may as well say we're all right, but too busy—well, that we're busy." The Bishop remembered what he was doing; yet he presently added, "Stay! If there's anything to interest her, say it; it will save me a letter; and really I am very busy." Nor was the inconsistency merely human this time; the Bishop was curious to see what notice would be taken of Follet's letter. Would her next be nominally to Follet direct, in answer, or would she thank him in a message? There was justifiable occasion for the former course: but Evelyn did not seize the occasion: she took no notice at all. Whereupon the Bishop became vastly uneasy, and wished with all his heart that he did not know his daughter so well.
This was not until the fourth month of Evelyn's absence, and her friends in Sydney had been only too delighted to take her for the six; but long before that time had elapsed the Bishop was upset by a telegram announcing that she was already on her way home. No reason, no explanatory hint was given. He who knew her so well was prepared for anything. It was a two days' journey, she could not arrive before the evening following the receipt of her telegram. In his perplexity the Bishop took the news straight to Sam Follet.
That young man was now reading earnestly for Orders. He had, indeed, been intended for the Church from early years; but he was a clergyman's son; he had disappointed, and been sent to the Colonies—to the dogs, in other words—for it is so with those who are sent out to be got rid of. But now Bishop Methuen was in communication with his rejoicing old schoolfellow, and the boy was to be ordained after all. The Bishop found him busy reading in his bedroom. This was the first time he had intruded on him there. Follet was seated at a little table touching the wall; from a peg high over the table depended a surprising collection of old garments, crowned by a gray felt wideawake. They interested the Bishop in spite of his errand; he was glad, besides, to curve round to the point; so, as Follet turned round in his chair, he greeted him extempore.
"What in the name of fortune are those things over your head, my dear boy?"
Follet blushed a little, tilted his chair backward, eyed the queer garments, and rather timorously answered:
"They're my old bush togs, sir. I keep them there to—to remind me—that is, so that I shan't forget—"
He stuck. The Bishop hastily changed the subject by coming to his point. In an instant Follet was on his legs, his face irradiated.
"You'll let me meet the coach, won't you?—Oh, I forgot! One of us has to go to Stratford Downs to-morrow!"
"You must be the one," said the Bishop. "I must be the one to see Evelyn first," he added, in a reminding tone. "I can't divine what is fetching her home so suddenly as this!" And as he watched the summer-lightning play of joy and anxiety over the young man's face, his heart pained for him, for he did divine evil.
He knew Evelyn only too well.
"I am glad he is not in," she said when she arrived. Her eyes and manner betrayed excitement with difficulty controlled. "And oh, father! how thankful I am you wouldn't let me be engaged to him!"
"Why?" asked the Bishop, sternly, as he instinctively put her hands from him.
Miss Methuen tremblingly skinned the glove from her left hand, which she held up to her father's eyes, only to dazzle them with the blaze of diamonds on the third finger. The sight hit him to the heart, stopping its beat.
"Yes, I never really loved him! I know it now—now that I really love! What will he do to me, do you think? Will he kill me? I thought I loved him, God knows I did, but I never really loved before! Father! why don't you speak to me? I am engaged. You cannot prevent it—you will not want to when you know all, when you know him! Speak to me, father!"
But the Bishop only stung her with his eye.
"You'll break it to him, father? Then I'll see him myself. He'll be more merciful than you! Oh! but you will be glad some day, when you know him. You will be glad when you see me happy. I never honestly loved before! And he is coming to see you as soon as ever he can leave his business."
"What is his business?" asked the Bishop.
"He is in wholesale jewellery—wholesale."
Few would have recognised Dr. Methuen in the glance he cast at the resplendent diamond ring. He could have torn it from his daughter's finger and stamped upon it under her eyes. Wholesale, indeed! There was scant need to insist on that extenuating word.
That night the Bishop broke the blow: and Follet took it badly. Later, Miss Methuen had the strength of mind to insist on facing him herself; and from her he bore it even worse. Miss Methuen must have felt considerable contempt for his weakness. He locked himself in his room and would see no one else that night. The Bishop came to the door: no, in the morning. The Bishop came later: he was sobbing. Later still, however—much later—his breathing sounded easy and even. The Bishop crept away on tip-toe, and himself lay down, after intercessory prayer; but early in the morning he went again to the door; and there was no more sound of breathing within. The wind came through the keyhole, no other breath touched the ear; a thread of sunlight marked the bottom of the door. In sudden frenzy the Bishop burst it open, and stood panting in an empty room, his beard bisected by the draught between the open window and the broken door. The bushman's clothes had vanished from their peg; those of the Reader lay neatly folded on the little table underneath.
* * * * * * * * *
The wholesale jeweller was for some time prevented by the exigencies of a thriving business from following Evelyn up country.
She had worn his grand ring upwards of a month, when, while driving with her father in the neighbourhood of the river, she descried a man lying on his face in the sun, with his hat off. Evelyn pointed with the finger of contempt to this self-evident case of drunkenness; and the Bishop also took characteristic action. He stopped the buggy, handed the reins to Evelyn, and jumped out. The man lay at a distance, which Bishop Methuen covered at the double. He found a flat stone, placed it under the sleeper's forehead, and fixed the wideawake as securely as possible over the back of his head and neck. Then he returned to the buggy, again running, and drove homeward at an unusual rate.
"How despicable!" Evelyn exclaimed.
"Which of us?" asked her father, with a sarcasm he would not have employed towards her in former days.
"That intoxicated wretch, of course!"
Dr. Methuen lashed his horses. "Evelyn," said he between the strokes, "I profoundly wish that you would be less free with your contempt. There are worse sins than drunkenness, which is chiefly shocking. You should pray to avoid those sins—mark me, they are so much the worse for not looking so bad—and try yourself to be becomingly humble."
Evelyn, not unnaturally, sulked during the remainder of that drive. She was too much offended to take notice even of the unwonted pace. On reaching the Lodge she went straight to her room. And the Bishop, saddling his riding horse with his own hands, galloped back to the spot where he had left the drunken sleeper. The man was gone. The Bishop had recognised him; he was unaware that the man was then in the recovering stage, and that he had himself been recognised.
He scoured the country. Late in the evening, which was very dark, with a sandy wind, he rode slowly home, completely crestfallen. He bitterly upbraided himself for having spared Evelyn's feelings with a result infinitely more deplorable than any scene she could have created on the road. He had imagined the poor fellow to be incapable for hours to come. Leaving the horse with the groom, he was following round the picket-fence to the front gate, as the night was so dark, when a figure rose from the ground at his very feet. Dr. Methuen had no time to draw back. Strong arms embraced him, a heart thumped thrice against his own, and then the Bishop was left standing alone, peering into the darkness and dust, and listening to the dying beat of footsteps he should never overtake.
And this was the last he saw of his old schoolfellow's son. Some few weeks later came the noted night when the wholesale jeweller was at length known to be on his way inland to caress the hand that exhibited his merely representative ring. On that night the Bishop read in The Grazier of the violent death of Samuel Follet, by drowning, many miles higher up the river. It appeared that the young man's condition had become such as to necessitate a constant supply of watchers; that from one of these he had broken away, jumping into the river and being drowned, as stated. This was all. The Bishop had been alone with it more than an hour when Evelyn came in to bid him good-night. The paper was clenched tightly in his two hands. The pipe between his teeth had long been out.
Of late there had been little enough in common between Evelyn and her father; but to-night she desired to say more than the customary three words. She was in great spirits, naturally; she wanted to talk. She shut the door and sat down; she sat down in the chair in which Follet had sat night after night for nearly five months.
"Do not sit there, Evelyn."
Dr. Methuen had found his voice, but to Evelyn it seemed a new voice. It was harsh, yet it quavered. She rose hastily, and as she rose the diamonds on her finger lightened under the lamp.
"Because—because I wish to be alone."
She stooped to kiss him.
"Do not kiss me!" he cried, pushing back his chair.
"Why—why ever not?"
"I am smoking strong tobacco."
"You are not; your pipe is out."
"I don't think so," said the Bishop, pulling in quite good faith at cold tobacco. "Goodnight, Evelyn."
"You are vexed with me!" exclaimed the girl, indignantly. "I shan't go until you tell me the reason. Pray, what have I done?"
Then the Bishop could contain it no longer; though he never forgave himself for what he did. He jumped up, holding out the paper, and answered with a trembling finger on the place:
"I have it!" cried the Editor suddenly.
Adeane, who was spoken to, looked up quickly, but a little mechanically, for his mind was inconveniently preoccupied with the sestett of an unwritten sonnet; and "it" was merely the subject of his prose contribution to the Christmas Number of the Spider. Still, as this contribution meant as many sovereigns in Adeane's pocket as the sonnet would fetch shillings, he was compelled to roll down from poetic heights, to trump up a look of acute personal interest, and to ask what "it" was to be after all.
The Editor of the Spider—who was the Spider—got up from his chair and went into a corner where a small table stood stacked with new books. He chuckled as he found the book he wanted, and he handed it to Adeane with an air of occult humour.
"The Lesser Man," Adeane read aloud from the cover. "But I don't see who it's by?"
"Anonymous—some woman, in spite of the title."
Adeane glanced at the title-page, but it was innocent of previous record: this was a first conviction.
"All right," said he, tucking the volume under his arm, and letting his soul soar back to the sestett. "I suppose you aren't in a great hurry for the review?"
"Review! I didn't say anything about a review, did I?" The Spider spoke rather sharply; and really Adeane was very absent. "We were talking about your thing for the Christmas Number. I want you to fill a couple of pages with your smartest stuff—something in story shape, but topical. And you say you can't get a subject. Very good, here's your subject: write me a smart, tart skit on The Lesser Man, and it'll be the very thing—the very thing!"
"Is it so popular?" asked Adeane, who worked too hard to keep quite abreast of the literary current.
"Now my dear Mr. Adeane!" said the Spider, with a kind of fatherly compassion for his youthful contributor, "both press and public are idiotic about this book; I'm surprised you haven't heard of it. I haven't read it, but I've glanced at it, and it looks pretty good, though plainly feminine; it's highly impassioned, and a little embittered; and the title's ironical—one for us. There's humour in the title before you touch it! I saw no humour anywhere else, but that's all the better; you'll extract lots. Popularity apart, from what I've seen and heard of it, the book was made to burlesque; some books are. Mind you mangle the title; it's a pity there's no author's name to hash up as well; but you must just do your best, Mr. Adeane."
"I'll certainly try to," Adeane said earnestly, with the timorous humility with which he treated all his editors in those days. But he had just skimmed half a page of The Lesser Man and seen a phrase that pleased him, and he could not help adding, a little nervously: "It does seem a bit unkind, though!"
"Unkind!" The Spider seized on the word with evident glee. "That's it exactly; you must make it so. Unkindness is the soul of parody, and we may as well own it. Good nature is insipid, Mr. Adeane, too insipid for the Spider. As for parody, why it is the greatest flattery there is, and a far sincerer sort than imitation; besides which, it's the best advertisement a book can have. But don't try to do the thing by halves. Laugh loud if you laugh at all. Make fun of the whole thing, and of the public that reads it. That's it. Show up the British public and their precious taste. That's the touch! Copy by the twentieth, and your weekly stuff as usual. Good afternoon, Mr. Adeane, and glad to have seen you."
Those were the days of Adeane's apprenticeship. The particular day on which he carried home a copy of The Lesser Man, for what he euphemistically described to a man in the street as "a professional purpose," occurred in the second year of Adeane's sojourn in London, and in the twenty-third of his age. He was at this time beating round the financial Horn, and not yet out of dangerous waters; in fact, his income was trembling between two and three figures a year. He was a literary freelance, and more or less a poet; more by inclination, by necessity less. At present he could afford to mix very little verse with his assorted prose. Verse supplied but a doubtful tithe of that extremely doubtful hundred a year. On the other hand, more than half of this income was derived from the Spider.
There is little to be said about the Spider. It dealt with most things, and it seldom dealt gently. It cost a piece of silver, it was nicely printed, its wrapper suggested respectability and good taste, and from some points of view the paper may have justified its publication. Certainly the Christmas and Summer Numbers were in fair demand; but these were something special. In the ordinary way it was written by a clever, if a slightly lawless, crew; and Adeane was glad enough to be one of them; though if he found one paper absolutely unreadable (with the exception of his own things, over which he was inclined to gloat when they were in type) that paper was the Spider.
Now Adeane was a curious compound, or rather, he would have been a curious compound if he had not been a poet. Being a poet it was no more than his duty to be peculiar; it showed that he did not look upon himself as superior to his position, or to other poets. Yet his peculiarities were not on the surface. His hair was not long. His coat was not velvet. His necktie did not flow, neither did his hat slouch. He shaved himself at least as regularly as other young men whose beards have not yet arrived at their full strength. He even did without glasses, that sure sign of ink, if not of poetry. Externally, in a word, Adeane was the most incomplete of all poets. But internally—
Well, he might have been worse. He was self-centred, but not self-seeking; he was hardworking, and wonderfully persevering, though in many ways weak; and if he was not always quite admirable, he was very lovable—which is something. It is true that he had lofty ideals which he made no earnest effort to realise, and principles which he did not exert himself to live up to personally; and his intimate friend, Digby Willock, who had a legal mind, but no principles and no ideals, had certainly the advantage of him here; but for all that there was some good in Adeane, quite apart from his brains.
He carried The Lesser Man between two and three miles to his lodging, which so far consisted of one room only. But he forgot about the book as he walked; he had got back to his sestett, and his mind did not quit it again for some time. The words seemed very nearly to have sorted themselves by the time he reached his room. He sat down for a minute to write them roughly; and the minute lasted a couple of hours. For it is one thing to get a poem into your head, and another thing to get it out again, on paper. The fitting together of any form of verse is the most soul-possessing employment to be found; but its hard-and-fast requirements render the sonnet the greatest strain of all. Adeane did not even smoke during those two hours, nor pause to put on his slippers; yet he was a terrible fellow for his slippers and his pipe. But when he did rise he had not only ground the thing out at last but rewritten it, and enclosed it in an envelope, with an "accompanying note." Moreover, he took that sonnet to the post before either looking at his slippers or smelling tobacco; and after many days it brought back ten-and-sixpence.
Rid at last of the sonnet, which had been with him all day, Adeane washed his mind of it with bird's-eye, relit the fire (versifying invariably put it out) and carelessly cut open The Lesser Man.
An hour later Adeane's landlady came up with tea and eggs, the poet's repast. She kept him very comfortable up in his garret; there was nothing she would not do for him. The gas was lit, and the poet was lying on his bed reading. The landlady introduced the tea in a word or two of rather timid entreaty, received no answer, and discreetly retired. Her young man was reading much too attentively to look up from his book or to speak to her.
She returned in another hour. Adeane had not moved; his tray was untouched, and the woman felt personally stung, and complained. But Adeane only opened his mouth to refuse sustenance, waved his hand as from another world, and was once more left in peace, reading now with a ravenous, glistening eye.
"Is Mr. Adeane in?" a young fellow inquired at the street door later in the evening.
"Well, now, Mr. Willock, you're the very gentleman I wanted to see," cried Mrs. Trotter, with warm welcome, and an air of personal relief. "He is in, sir; but he wants rousing—he wants rousing very bad. He's lying like a log, a-reading some new trash or other he brought home this afternoon. He won't look an' he won't speak, and, would you believe it, he's never touched his tea, though it was that strong it might ha' lifted his 'air off, which he will persist in, though I tell him what it'll end in till I'm sick and tired. And the eggs done as he likes 'em to a second. What do you think o' that, sir? What am I to do with him?"
"It's very sad," said Willock, clicking his tongue and affecting concern; "but, you see, he's a poet. They're all either sad, or bad, or mad. Our friend's all three by turns. I'll run up and see which it is to-night."
"Do, sir. It's what he wants, to have somebody at him. But, Mr. Willock, happen he fancies his eggs still, I've more good 'uns where them came from, or I could send for a chop, as he's been so long fasting—"
"All right, I'll see," said Willock, running upstairs, and adding to himself: "The spoilt baby! Heaven, what a soft place he manages to find in the female heart!"
Now, Adeane had been intensely moved by The Lesser Man. His eyes had been frequently dimmed by sudden, swift, surprising touches. Over one situation he had cried like a girl. The story was entrancing, in spite of its bitterness. The title turned out to be the finest bit of feminine irony Adeane had yet met with. It was the kind of story he fancied he might have written himself, had he written stories at all; in that case it would have made him jealous, as of words snatched out of his mouth; as it was, it satisfied his soul.
But the spell had relaxed, as such spells will, even before the arrival of Digby Willock. Adeane had thrown down the book after finishing it, and been for some time perambulating the floor with his hands in his pockets and a cutty in his mouth; he had walked himself back into realities; he had smoked himself into the frame of mind required by the Spider. At first, indeed, he had been weak enough to think of returning the book to the Spider, with a sturdy, independent letter; but he had conquered that temptation as he conquered few others. Perhaps it was not a really powerful temptation. And no doubt the smoking had blunted his moral sense. For already, actually, he had seen the comic side of the situation which had upset him, and made a note or two for his own version of that scene; and Willock found him with the fag-end of grin on his lips—in very queer contrast to certain signs about the eyes.
And Willock incurred—on the spot, and without the option of other refreshment—a dose of The Lesser Man, so potent and so absurdly sweet as to prejudice anybody against the best book ever written. But Willock knew better than to listen; he knew Adeane of old.
He hadn't read the book, he rarely did read novels; he only read his law books and the amusing papers; but he was a kind of intimate friend of Adeane—not a very true friend—and he pretended to listen, and caught a sentence here and there. He sneered when the poet paused. He had a trick of sneering at Adeane in a quasi-friendly way, which Adeane used to note, as he noted most things, more on reflection than at the moment.
"So this is the best book you ever read in your life, eh?"
"I believe it is, upon my word," said Adeane, childishly. "In some ways it most certainly is."
"But you always say that," rejoined Willock, rolling up his smooth upper lip and showing his teeth. "It always is the last love with you."
"Not always now, hang it!" cried Adeane, quite earnestly. He was fully conscious of a certain fickle strain in his character; he was beginning to get reconciled to this, as you do get reconciled to your faults between twenty and thirty. "But it is a treat to be able to like a new book unstintedly, and to be in a position to say so."
"Are you going to say so in the Spider?"
"Are you going to review the book?"
"No, I'm not." Adeane hesitated. "The fact is," he explained, with a frank little laugh, "I'm going to guy it for the Spider's Christmas Number; it's had a great run, you know."
"I like that. That's choice!" murmured Willock, in pure self-congratulation. He had a sense of humour which could not be gratified too often; he frequently looked up Adeane just to have it gratified. "So you're going to burlesque the book you've been crying over."
His upper lip was furled nearly to his nose, but Adeane himself was laughing heartily. "My dear fellow, it's the fortune of war—war against poverty," he said; "besides, it will really burlesque rather easily—genius always does."
"But do you like doing it?" asked Willock, who had not to work for his living, and lacked the imagination to appreciate Adeane's position.
"My dear old chap, you know I don't."
"No, I'm not omniscient. For one thing I should have thought it was against those principles of yours to turn into rot what you think so admirable."
"Well, it is against them," Adeane owned.
"Then why do it?"
"Well, I must."
"Then why have principles?"
Willock was filing his fingers upon his chin; he was quite grave, and looking at his friend in a psychological light, as he generally did. The result gratified in some subtle way his peculiar order of mind. But Adeane laughed again, and still good-humouredly.
"Confound you," he said, "I'm not in the witness-box, nor are you public prosecutor—yet. Come, I say, I can't stand your shrewd questions to-night. Besides, after all, there's no greater advertisement for a book than a skit on it; the Spider said so this afternoon, and the thing's obvious."
"Much the Spider cares about the advertisement!"
"But I do."
"Come, I don't think the advertisement has much to do with it in your case either," said Willock, buttoning up his coat; and this rankled with Adeane when he remembered it afterwards: for it was perfectly true.
"Will you come out and see something?" Willock added.
"No, thanks; I shall be working late."
"Good-night, then. No, I won't have anything to drink," said the legal limb, looking askance at what Adeane offered him; he was as bad as a teetotaler, and he could not refuse to drink—at all events with Adeane—without a faint suggestion of personal superiority. Some men are like this.
"I'm afraid he doesn't like me so much as he used to," Adeane said rather sadly to himself; not because he had a particularly exalted opinion of Digby Willock, but because they had been greater friends once than they were now, and he had very few friends in the world; and also because liking to be liked was his weakest point but one.
But Willock had met the landlady on the stairs with a loaded tray. And he was thinking:
"A set of principles, for ornament, not use; the fine art of self-humbug; a secret passage to the feminine soft side, and vanity, which goes without saying. These seem to be the chief points of the poetic temperament; and they're not so amusing as they used to be."
It fell out later that the name of Adeane became known in the town. To his own thinking, and to that of the two or three who had watched his unsigned career, this happened only in the fulness of time; but for the rest of the world his name was made in a moment. It seems incredible, but he did the trick with a parcel of verses. Variations the book was called, and its shade was olive, and its edges rough. On the title-page it came out for the first time, even to many who knew him pretty well, that his Christian name was Bertram; and very old maids, and very young girls, said that Bertram and Adeane "went" sweetly together. The chances are that the queerest name might get sweetened by association with lovable work; and this is just what Adeane's work was. His notes were sweet, his tone tender, his manner airy; but it was a lovable something, on every page, in every stanza, that sold Variations.
A new poet was wanted, to cultivate the masses, to educate the classes, to elevate the age, and to hustle up the millennium. That poet is wanted still. The post remains vacant. Adeane never applied for it. He had neither the qualifications nor the temperament of a professional prophet. He was no Thinker: he could simply sing; and he owed half his success to his doing very well what it was well within him to do—the other half to his knowing where to stop. He lacked the public spirit of a social thorough-cleaner: he let the dust lie on the old order of things, save where he traced his verses in it, and his finger but skimmed it then—he never handled the corruption underneath. For he was confessedly of the minor poets: in an age infested with them he had the insolence to come forward and make one more. He was a minor poet to the marrow; he never tried to be anything better. But in one respect (apart from his unorthodox personal tidiness) he was differentiated from the other ruffians of the band: he was a minor poet with no sort of preference for the minor key.
There were no sonnets in Variations; but sonnet-writing had been good practice, from the architectural point of view, in Adeane's earlier days, and he owed to it more of his grace and facility in easier forms than he was himself aware of. The book was mainly vers de société—elegant, fanciful, and saucily flippant. It contained, however, some sentimental pieces, which secured Adeane a clientèle among the ladies; and it was salted throughout with pinches of a not too sincere cynicism, which made the book popular in clubs. So Adeane pleased on all sides, and if he pleased himself too, and became slightly vain, you cannot blame the boy.
He was enticed from his lodgings—which now consisted of two rooms—into certain drawing-rooms further west. There his eyes were opened to many things—first of all to himself. He simply amazed himself by taking rather kindly to society, for all his life he had spoken of it with the loftiest scorn. His ignorant poet's prejudices died a violent death. He had his eyes opened, which did him good. And he heard many untrue and ridiculous things about his Variations and himself.
He heard that they were so very original. This tickled him. Considering that he had saturated himself with Locker and Praed, among others, and that he said the Variations were on them, their alleged originality tickled him immensely. Yet what he had absorbed came out in such a very fresh form that few but himself could have believed this. Praed had certainly inspired him; his was the standard to which Adeane humbly strove to attain. Yet a lot of original Adeane did come out with the imitation Praed; so much, in fact, that the model was seldom suggested. Adeane, you perceive, was self-conscious on the point; he could not forget his method. Yet even Adeane must have known that there was freshness in his stuff. He did know it; only he was such an excessively modest young man. He heard that this also was being said about him, and the rumour amused his vanity.
For the people who praised his cool-headedness knew very little of what they were talking about. They could not see into the poet's heart; they could not even peep into the poet's den. One glimpse of his den, with him in it, warm from their praises, would have been a sufficient revelation to them. They would have seen him pacing his floor, unable to work, unable to think closely, but gloating inanely over phrases to which he had lately listened with a marble mien. He kept every compliment, no matter how ridiculous—and compliments can be very ridiculous indeed—for private consumption of a contemptible kind. So much for their modest young man.
You can enjoy the sweets of gratified vanity all the more for not putting on a vulgar swagger. That is only possible to the thick-skinned man, who doesn't know how to make the most of things. To play the hedge-sparrow while you feel a peacock is the acme of refined egotistical indulgence; so Adeane said.
Adeane actually took a delight in posing as unspoilt; but nevertheless he did get a little sick of flattery; and he was honestly delighted one evening by a chat he had with a peerless creature, who never flattered him once. At least, he was honestly delighted at first. He forgot to be secretly self-conscious, and for a few minutes he was at his very best; but it dawned upon him presently that the lady had never heard of him, and at that, very properly, he felt slightly piqued—more than slightly, indeed, for he vastly admired her.
He went up to his hostess afterwards to inquire the lady's name. He had not caught it at the introduction. Who ever does? Yet this conscientious hostess seemed sincerely shocked with herself.
"How exceedingly stupid! Now I am sorry! I wanted you two to make the greatest friends."
"But who is she?" pursued the poet, with mild insistence. He had said how glad he had been not to be talked to about his twopenny poems. It is as unnecessary to explain that in reality he was not glad as to point out the insincerity of the commercial adjective.
"It was Miss Cunningham," said the hostess, regretfully—"Maud Cunningham, you know, who writes the novels. Don't you know them? I think you must. But she is only just beginning to own up to them. The first were anonymous, and the first of all was, as usual, the best of all—The Lesser Man."
Adeane's jaw should have fallen: Adeane's bones should have rattled; but the young sinner did not turn a hair. So many things had happened since he had wept over that story before spitting it for the fire; he had written so much since then, and the Spider had so long been incorporated with some other insect, and become unfit to write for, that Adeane had succeeded in forgetting his particular contributions to those obsolete columns. He said he remembered reading the book, he thought, and being struck by it; but he had quite forgotten what it was about. He added that he would go and introduce himself over again. He went off to do so, but did not succeed that night, for the rooms were crowded, and at that moment Miss Cunningham was gravitating towards the hostess from the opposite pole, to say good-bye—and something else.
"Do you know," she began, in an aggrieved tone, "I never caught that young man's name? I think it was too bad of you! He is charming. Only fancy, he spared me the least reference to my stories, which is such a relief!" She looked by no means relieved. "Do at least tell me his name now, so that I may know another time."
The poor hostess was scandalised beyond words: she had not dreamt that her delinquency was two-edged. She explained now, with abject apologies, who the young man was; but that only made the matter worse, for Maud Cunningham knew half the Variations by heart. She went home in high displeasure, and her hostess, who was also her intimate friend, was left considering. She had brought these two together without any important design. They had begun their acquaintance with mutual pleasure, yet with mutual pique—she was shrewd enough to see that. They could not have begun better if they had been brought together with an important design.
As for Adeane, he went home and dipped once more into The Lesser Man, without even waiting to relieve himself of his dress coat. And the old spell held him as before. He only dipped this time; but it all came back to him, and he saw what a book it was; and even now, when he tasted the strong situation, it dimmed his eyes.
He remembered now, of course, how he had read it before simply to burlesque it for the Spider; and when he had closed the book, he fished out that Christmas Number to have another look at what he had written; and when he had done with that, his face was a study.
"Heavens! what a savage I must have been in those days!" he said, with unfeigned horror, as he put the paper behind the fire. "It knocks the conceit out of a man to read his old stuff. I knew it was pretty bad, but I didn't think I had ever done anything quite so brutal as this. After this, I'll believe there's no crime man wouldn't commit for bread. . . . And she . . . she's the ideal I thought I was never, never to find!"
Variations appeared one autumn, and by the following spring Adeane and Miss Cunningham had seen a good deal of each other. They had met many times and in many houses, and Adeane had frequently dined at the Cunninghams'. Old Cunningham was a London M.P.; he was a genial widower; Miss Cunningham was the lady of his house, and the most charming hostess in the town.
It looked a promising thing enough. Adeane would never be rich, certainly; but he was a popular poet, you must be conventional in some things, and one would not have had him rich on any account. Really the money element was all right; and their spirits dove-tailed in a way that was enough to spoil them both for the society of other mortals. They reacted upon each other quite ideally. He modified her opinion of men, which had been early warped; she drew out his finest side as no one had ever done before. For a long time, of course, it was all strictly according to Plato; but Ovid is a jealous Shade, who sooner or later puts a stop to that. The friends of Adeane and of Miss Cunningham said that in this case it would be sooner; and neither of them made friends of fools.
They soon knew each other too well to have their private frailties mutually obscured by their public form. This was a great thing, especially as regards Adeane's frailties, which, I trust, are pretty conspicuous by this time. Miss Cunningham had only one important weakness: she was touchy; bad notices cut her to the heart, and she had very little else but bad ones now, because her first book had been her best. Also she had an incomplete sense of humour, but this is only admitting that she was human, and a woman. Adeane could stand chaff better than some other things, but then he was a man, and his heart had been hardened on the Spider.
The Cunninghams had a country house in one of the Home Counties. Here they entertained small parties—chiefly senatorial—over the various holidays; and hither, at Whitsuntide, came Adeane the poet. It was the first time they had invited him down. He packed up with great care and a little trepidation; and he went down first class, partly because it would run to that now, but more from a strong suspicion that one of the Abbey carriages would be waiting to meet him at the other end. And when the train was clear of Waterloo, and the light of day in the compartment, Adeane discovered that he sat facing Digby Willock, whom he had not seen for years.
Adeane was cordial, as he always had been; and Willock was friendly after his own fashion—which included the sneer of former days. He had heard of Adeane's success, but he was ostentatiously unimpressed by it. Still, he asked some questions, and drew Adeane out. Experience had not taught the poet to be reserved with an old friend; he let himself go in the old, childish way; he amused Digby almost as much as ever. At the element of society in Adeane's later life he was very highly amused indeed.
"Do you remember your ancient fiat on society?" he asked of the poet.
"I recollect that I wasn't very keen to know people," Adeane admitted.
"Nicely put! You had vigorous views on the subject."
"I know." Adeane laughed softly at his own expense. "But, you perceive, I have grown out of those views. And now you haven't told me a word about yourself, Digby. Where have you been? What are you doing?"
Digby Willock smiled; this was so like Adeane! It was his old sweet way to talk volubly about himself until he had talked himself out (for the moment), and then, prompted by some sudden twinge of conscious egotism, to show an almost painful interest in the affairs of his friend. But Digby was not as poets are as regards egotistical talking; his egotism was of the hard-headed, self-sufficing, secretive kind; he would take a man's confidence, not necessarily to betray it, but more as a possible fund of private amusement. He was never caught confiding in anybody himself.
He stated a few facts, however.
"I'm not doing much; I'm still reading. I take my time over it, you see. I have been round the world since I saw you, and on the Continent all this winter. I've only just got home. Travelling spoils you for this climate—at least, in winter. I wonder you don't go abroad sometimes. You can do your work anywhere; and I assure you there are more inspiring spots than London lodgings; only I suppose society couldn't spare you. I must say I like knocking about. You meet a better set of Britishers out of Britain than in it. I am on my way at the present moment to stay with some people of whom I saw a good deal at Schwalbach last autumn. What's more—by Jove! here's the station, so I shall have to say ta-ta, and glad to have seen you."
"But what station is it?" Adeane asked, peering through the window.
"Then I get out here, too," said Adeane, jumping up.
"Going any further?"
"No. I also am going to stay with friends near here. I half expect they'll have sent a trap of some sort to meet me."
On the platform the young fellows were accosted by a male beauty in livery.
"For Bladen Abbey, sir?" said this person ambiguously.
Adeane and Willock said the same thing in the same breath, and were mutually staggered. Adeane laughed heartily, and declared, genuinely, that he was delighted; but Digby Willock did not appear to appreciate the coincidence so highly. For a moment he looked almost put out; but for a moment only; as the young men sat side by side in the Bladen carriage Willock made himself more agreeable than he had been in the train. He enlarged on his relations with the Cunninghams at Schwalbach; told how they had asked him—pressed him, he put it—to let them know directly he returned to England; how he had thought it only civil to take them at their word, since they had made such a point of it; and how he had received an invitation to Bladen by return of post. Adeane subsequently had reason to smile at this version; but it sounded all right at the time; and Adeane, besides being always prepared for sincerity, was generally too preoccupied to see through people in a moment—his insight was all retrospective. And Adeane, in his turn, made no secret of the almost intimate footing on which he himself stood with the Cunninghams; while as to Miss Cunningham—Willock had merely to press that button, and his friend was a bell ringing her praises until the pressure was removed. He praised her unreservedly, with that fine childish indiscretion which was one of the sweet traits of his character. And Willock leant so far back in his corner that his face was little seen; its expression was not pretty. He was silent for some time when Adeane stopped. Then he took a curious line.
Adeane had been wont to tell him everything in the very old days. He reminded Adeane now of things, such as no fellow would care to remember. He did it, of course, very craftily, very innocently, and Adeane answered as carelessly as he could. They were foolish things rather than bad ones; Adeane had crammed many follies into his earlier years; he was a poet. He had tried to realise his ideal more than once before meeting Miss Cunningham; that was all. Willock knew all about those old affairs, and inquired after each in turn, in the ostensible innocence of his heart. Adeane's answers afforded him a certain amount of gratification, which was more subtle than satisfying. But the conversation, very naturally, was not to Adeane's taste just then; and in the end he put a stop to it, though not before they had entered the Bladen drive.
Bladen Abbey lies in a rich little bit of pastoral England. It is an undulating country, with waves of juicy meadow-land curling to wooded crests, and the weather-beaten Abbey in their trough. The woods did not always delight the eye as on this afternoon of budding summer, though on the other hand they became more than delightful under an autumn tarnish; the sky could smile, as now, and it could also frown and weep, and fill with wailing; but there was an air of superiority about the gray old Abbey, which was always the same. Even the Abbey, however, looked the better for the level sunlight now gilding the windows and picking out buttresses and balustrades with sharp black shadows. Adeane's poetic heart leapt against his ribs at the first sight of it. He gazed raptly, looking much more the poet than usual. But immediately the aesthetic fire in his eyes burnt a softer flame, for there, waiting to receive them on the stone terrace, stood the lady of the house.
Miss Cunningham was not the hostess to welcome one young man more cordially than the other. She was charming to them both, as also to those amiable fogies, her father's friends, during the remainder of the afternoon. But Digby Willock was not wanting in perception, and, unlike Adeane's, his vision was instantaneous; he saw from the first moment that the poet stood on very much higher ground in the lady's favour than he did. She did, indeed, take both young men together to see the little room in which she worked; but in that little room Willock had found himself unable to contribute a word to the somewhat esoteric conversation. He had too good an ear not to know from Miss Cunningham's lightest tones that Adeane was the favourite friend, if not worse, for he knew the fellow's wheedling way with women; while he, who had really seen a great deal of her at Schwal-bach, was the mere acquaintance. Considering how much he had seemed to amuse Miss Cunningham in the German hotel, this was galling to Willock. Over there he had amused and delighted her, he was sure of it, with his wit and his personal charm, of course. And, as a matter of fact, he had delighted her, but not quite in the way he imagined. His hair would have stood on end had he dreamt how it was that he came to delight her, or what she was doing with him, or why he had been invited to Bladen. His hair would stand up now if he could recognise himself in the book. But he can't; because he told her himself that she had drawn that nasty fellow to the life.
Adeane dressed for dinner in the best possible spirits; and his best spirits were as effervescent and as pure as an infant's. He had been paid some pretty compliments by the fogies, and poets are very human in these things; but what really exhilarated him was the gracious sweetness of his goddess. Already she had been as he had never known her before. She had never seemed so near him in town.
And yet he had only been two or three hours at the Abbey! They had spoken very few words together—quite together—as yet. But already her dear tones were throbbing in his ears. How he worshipped her! How he adored her! And she—and she—
He threw up speculation, and took to murmuring verses: not his own—another Immortal's:
"I can give not what men call love,
But wilt thou accept not
The worship the heart lifts above
And the heavens reject not,
The desire of the moth for the star—"
There was another moth, also dressing for dinner, who dressed in a vile temper. This one seldom had bad spirits; he had laughed at Adeane, in the old days, for his misfortune hit Digby Willock only in the temper. He was a moth, in a sense, but not one to singe his wings, even if he had been in love; and he was not the least in love with Miss Cunningham. His feeling was that it might be a good move to marry her, some day or other, if she would have him; when, of course, it would make it all the more pleasant to have been in love with her. With this feeling, it was well worth while getting to know her better; for Digby Willock was no deliberate self-deceiver (that was more Adeane's temperament), and he knew well enough how very superficial Miss Cunningham's regard for him must be; though, doubtless, her admiration for him was great. But here was this poetaster, who was certainly the most insidious dog for a woman's soft side, winning her heart under his very nose! It was vexatious and humiliating, especially when you considered the respective incomes of Willock and Adeane; but it was never actively mortifying until dinner, when the poetic moth sat next the flame, while the legal one was as far from her as he could possibly be placed.
He joined in the political conversation at his end of the table. He was no fool, and he argued with the professional politicians both closely and cleverly; it was amusing to hear him. So "shop" was being talked at both ends of the table; for Miss Cunningham and Adeane were rather sinners in this respect But of the two kinds of "shop," the literary is not only far the more interesting—it is infinitely the less debasing. This is not prejudice, but fact. When one or two authors are gathered together you can trust them to saturate the general talk in something under five minutes; and the politicians are only too glad (as they may well be) to get into the purer atmosphere. It is so, honestly; it was more so than usual on the present occasion; only—Mr. Cunningham should have kept out of it.
Some disinterested person should have told himself off to confine this old gentleman to the House. He was all right there; he had enjoyed personal relations with leaders, of which he delighted to speak; but in literary talk he was impossible. He approached the sacred subject in a thoroughly profane spirit. He had no respect for the creative temperament. He was destitute of imagination, and, what was worse, of consideration for those who had it. His daughter's work, about which she was peculiarly sensitive, he had always regarded as the family joke.
"Reviews?" he said, catching at a word, and feeling that here, at least, he was qualified to speak. "How do you stand reviews, Adeane?"
Adeane replied, like a nice little boy, that he tried to find a spark of goodness in the most ill-conditioned notice, though, on the whole, he steeled himself against taking them unduly to heart, whatever they said.
"I'm glad to hear it," said Mr. Cunningham approvingly, "for it's the very thing you don't do, isn't it, Maud? I assure you, Adeane, she was ill for a week after that review of her first book in the Times."
"How absurd you are, father," said the clever girl—girlishly, not cleverly; and she blushed a little.
"But it's a fact," said her father, turning confidently to the lady on his right.
"The ghost of a fact, grossly exaggerated, and all wrong besides!" declared Miss Cunningham, disliking the subject, but disliking still more to appear to dislike it "For it wasn't the Times at all."
"She's right," said Mr. Cunningham to his right-hand neighbour, and to the whole party, for all were listening. "I recollect perfectly. My memory never plays the fool for long—kept too well oiled for that. It wasn't the Times, I beg it's pardon, it was that uncommon smart skit in the Spider."
The ladies shivered—all but Miss Cunningham, who smiled, though her heart frowned heavily.
"I was very young then, and I hadn't written a book before," she said, almost apologetically, to everybody. "But you all remember what a horrid, common paper the Spider was, and that thing about my story was even more odious than its standard."
As she closed her lips she looked at Adeane, perhaps for sympathy, and perhaps unconsciously. And she nearly jumped from her chair to support him, for he wore the look that comes over the face before one faints. There was no colour in his face, no flexibility, and the forehead—the fine, poetic forehead—shone in the candle-light like wet marble.
She watched him with a shocked fascination; he was recovering himself. She heard her father speaking; his voice sounded as if the length of the table had been trebled.
"I thought it pretty rich, you know," he was saying to the lady on his right, "though nasty, distinctly nasty."
"It was detestable!" said Miss Cunningham severely. She had not taken her eyes from Adeane. She heard some one asking:
"Did you say the Spider, sir?" The voice was Willock's.
"Yes; you mayn't remember the paper; dead some time since. I was rather sorry," remarked Mr. Cunningham; "there is plenty of room for that sort of thing."
"Oh, I remember the paper perfectly; but it didn't die, sir—it married beneath it—incorporated with something rather more so," returned Willock cheerily; and quite suddenly he leant forward and twisted himself about until he had discovered a passage through the flowers and ferns and candles, at the end of which was Adeane's white face. "By the way, Adeane," he said airily, "didn't you use to write for the Spider?"
"To be sure, I wrote a bit for them in my struggling days," Adeane replied, with forced frankness. "But"—to all—"you'll write for anything, you know, in the beginning."
"And write anything, too!" said Digby, still leaning forward, with his head on one side, and his teeth showing; Adeane was colouring up; it did his old friend good to watch him.
"Why, Maud!" cried Mr. Cunningham inevitably, "perhaps Mr. Adeane's the culprit! If so, you can have your revenge at last. Was it you that guyed her book, Adeane?"
The old savage was laughing heartily; it was the greatest of jokes to him.
"No, Mr. Cunningham," said Adeane, in a clear voice.
Maud seemed not to have heard her father's question. She had never taken her eyes from the face of Adeane. "Did you write it?" she asked.
Her voice sounded quite unconcerned to all but Adeane. He knew her tones as none other knew them, and his heart beat badly. But he did not look at her; he looked steadily at Willock through the ferns and candles, and answered coolly:
"No, I didn't write it; and I don't know who did."
Miss Cunningham gave him one glance, as he turned and bent his eyes on her, which meant nothing to anybody but Adeane. But Adeane knew her glances as he knew her tones. To him it meant death. She did not look at him again.
Neither was silenced. They talked after that with the greatest energy. But not together—practically not together. And Miss Cunningham made the move rather abruptly—almost clumsily, for so good a hostess. What was worse, she deserted her ladies in the drawing-room; luckily they were ladies whom she knew very well.
She was a woman who had seen something of the world, and known something of men, and of their love. That made it so much the worse. At twenty she had hardened her heart against men for ever. Hence at least one excellent novel. At twenty-five, Adeane—with his boyish winning ways, his taking tone, and all that seemed to lie so much lightlier on him than it really did—had softened her. And now—and now she went to that little room on the ground floor which was her workshop here at Bladen. The window was wide open, and the rising moon shone full upon her writing-table. She put her hands upon the brass-bound desk which contained the work now in hand—which had held, also, the heart of Maud Cunningham from twenty to twenty-five. Adeane had taken this out of it. Adeane had greatly injured the work now in hand. Adeane, the low lampooner, the still lower liar, whose facile talk had charmed her, here in this very room, but a few hours earlier!
Maud Cunningham knelt at the table on which it stood, flung her arms around that brass-bound desk, and let her hot cheek lie on the cold smooth lid.
An hour had passed. The young May moon shone down into the meadows. From the wooded rise beyond them nightingales were singing. The night wind was as the breath of a child asleep. It was a night of nights to inspire the lyric muse. Yet the poet hung over the old stone balustrade of the terrace, unmoved, untouched.
There was no poetry in Adeane to-night The moon, the nightingales, and the sweet breath of May were less than nothing to the miserable young man. A weeping, wailing, passionate night might have spoken to his spirit; but in this peaceful sweetness his spirit was deaf and blind, and no better than dead. His soul was heavy with what had happened and with what might never happen now.
As to the lie he had told, he was less ashamed of it than he should have been. He was filled to overflowing with shame and self-contempt, but not exclusively on account of his barefaced falsehood at the dinner-table; he felt it far more degrading to stand suddenly convicted of frequent contributions to the Spider. Even had his pen been guiltless of that unlucky parody, he would have found it difficult to look Maud Cunningham in the eyes again. But he had written it, she knew that he had written it; and she had learnt this, not from himself, but from his friend. The friend had given him a rude lesson in human nature—a salutary experience for Adeane and his sort; but this bit of education had cost him his happiness. She would never forgive him. She would have forgiven him fast enough had she heard the story as he would have told it to her one day, when he was sure of her. He was bitterly sure of her now; so sure that it would be idle and humiliating even to ask her forgiveness.
The moon became blurred and big: his sight was dimmed.
Adeane dreaded humiliation more than most things. He fancied the proud contempt in her voice; he had already seen it in her eyes; the memory of that look would hurt him enough without a memory of words to double the pain. That look was for the lie; he had not been able to deceive the one soul that understood his soul. The lie alone would never be forgiven him; no power on earth could make Maud Cunningham see its justification; because it was a lie—and she a woman. She was a slave to unreasoning principles, like the rest of them. And she was not only a woman, but a woman who wrote; even a lie would become a venial offence in a woman's eyes when compared with a travesty on what the woman had written. Miss Cunningham had always struck him as too sensitive about her work. Adeane felt that he could have helped her out of this weakness; she would have helped him out of worse failings.
He was deeply distressed, and he did not stand his distress very well. The nightingales sang, and earthlier music floated through the open windows; but he heard neither. It was long before he stirred. At last he turned, and leant with his back against the stone balustrade, fixing his eyes upon the building. He did not try to fix his thoughts upon it too; but the low soft pile, with the even windows unevenly lighted, made a more distinct appeal to his aesthetic intelligence than the moonlit meadows with the woods beyond. The moon was behind him now; he realised his pleasure that it was not behind the Abbey, hardening its outlines and blackening all within them. It threw out every buttress, and let the embrasures sink inward, instead of painting parallelograms of light on a sable screen. Even in his trouble Adeane could not help appreciating the difference; and he watched the windows with a kind of personal pride in the moonshine, which so chastened and subdued the gaslit panes. But, as he watched, the sudden illumination of one window on the basement killed his artistic sense and quickened his heart This window belonged to Maud Cunningham's den, which she had herself graciously shown him, within an hour of his arrival.
He found himself moving firmly towards her window without knowing in the least what he was going to do or to say. He saw the lamp on her desk; he saw her white face behind the lamp; he had the presence of mind to delight in the swift reflection that with the lamp set on this side of her she could not possibly see him. As he came nearer he saw that she was examining a heap of manuscript, turning over the leaves impatiently—merely glancing at them, nothing more. He divined at once that the manuscript was her new novel—which was not going very well. She had told him she was out of love with it; but it was himself she was out of love with now; she had flown to her poor discarded work for consolation and refuge.
"Miss Cunningham!" cried Adeane; and the girl started up from her chair, but sat down again as he came within the outer rays of the lamp. She was extremely pale; but the look she levelled at him across her table was uncompromisingly stern.
He stood a foot from the low sill.
"May I speak to you now, Miss Cunningham?"
"I would rather you chose some other time," answered the girl coldly. "You will find the others in the billiard-room," she added.
"Then I cannot speak at all! I shall be gone before any of you are down to-morrow morning; I am going by the first train."
"Have you ordered something to take you to the station?" asked Maud Cunningham; and she was subsequently ashamed of this sarcasm.
"I intend to walk," returned Adeane shortly. "I told you a lie," he added plainly, after a pause.
She waited for more. She had lowered her eyes; she was putting her manuscript together again. Her indifference irritated Adeane.
"I would tell it you again!" cried the young man, with sudden vigour.
This time he had the satisfaction of diverting Miss Cunningham's attention from her novel to himself; her indignant stare transfixed him, and her hands grasped the arms of her chair.
"I am afraid I should do it again," he said more quietly, though by no means tamely. "That settles it, of course. I ought to thank you for not getting up and going out of the room after that! As you are lenient enough to remain listening, you must judge between this fellow and me. I mean Willock. He is a friend of yours; I don't want to blacken him in your eyes so as to whiten myself; but you must know that some time ago he was a friend of mine. He knew I had written that abominable thing; he was in my room the night I began it, and I remember how he laughed at me. Would you have had him make a scene before you all—as he was trying hard to do—as he would have done had I told you the truth? Wasn't it better to lie as I did, and score off him for the moment, and explain to you afterwards? I meant to explain to you at once; but this is my first chance as well as my last. Well, I am sorrier about the whole thing than you would be likely to believe, even if I could ever tell you how sorry I am. As to the stuff I wrote—shall I tell you why Willock laughed at me the night I began it? It was because your book had made me cry when I read it, though I had read it only to make fun of it, at my editor's orders!"
Miss Cunningham favoured him with a markedly incredulous smile; at the same time she could not repress a slight access of colour to her cheeks.
"You do not believe me!" he cried bitterly.
"Do you deserve to be believed?" Maud Cunningham inquired, in a voice, however, that had certainly been more severe some minutes before.
"Yes, in this; you can ask Willock!"
"Thank you, I will ask him nothing."
"Then it is no good my telling you. At least I liked the book; only at that time—I was forced to write much that I detested," said Adeane, with visible shame, "or I would hardly have written for the Spider."
"I see; for the money.."
"For one's bread—to be bombastic."
There was no need to make a point of this. Maud Cunningham was essentially sympathetic and imaginative. As she gazed at him, certainly he was standing in the moonlight not far from where she sat; but she beheld him at the same moment, and almost as plainly, ill-dressed, ill-fed, and in a garret. Her imagination overdid the garret a little, but at any rate the picture touched her. Before she could help herself she felt the sting of that travesty less, and her sympathy with Adeane greater than she had ever felt either before. She was not likely to say so, however; she wished very much that he would go; her hands went back to her manuscript.
"Is that the novel?" Adeane felt emboldened to inquire.
"Yes," sighed the girl; for this novel had stuck.
"You have taken it up again? I am so glad!"
Miss Cunningham glanced at him sharply. "Why?" she asked. "Do you hope to make fun of this one too?"
"I hope to read it some day."
The manuscript was put away; the desk was shut with some vehemence.
"That you will never do; no one will; I am done with it."
She spoke with the bitterness of the artist who has failed so badly as to have acute conviction of the failure; and the cause of it all stood before her, for Adeane had long ago spoilt her for her work, and sown a nobler interest only to pluck it up and leave her desolate in the end. The tears were in her eyes as she rose from her chair. Adeane saw them.
"If you were to let me see it as it is," he said, with much diffidence, "I might convince you that it is better than you think, or I might even suggest some way of making it so. I don't write stories; but two heads are better than one."
She gazed down upon him with appealing eyes. This was exactly what she had begun of late to realise. But she did not want him to point this out to her now; she wished him to leave her. And, as always, he understood her desire; but for once he could not accede to it. Though a poet, he was a man, and this was the woman he loved; and but a few minutes ago he had dreamt of losing her for ever, of facing life without her.
"Maud, you forgive me!"
Her eyes told him that she did; she was raising her hand to the window sash, to shut it down; but it was caught in his, with a tender roughness not a little refreshing in one whose softer side was so soft as Adeane's.
"Then if you forgive that, you can forgive this! Darling, I love you, and I want to marry you. I want to make you happy; I believe I can. I know we were made for one another!"
* * * * * * * * *
"But to think you should know I wrote for the Spider!"
Miss Cunningham was shutting down the window at last. She paused with her hands upon the sash, and looked long and keenly at her lover.
"You are a poet," she said slowly, "but you are all the man as well. You have told a downright lie, and told it to me, and you are not ashamed of it. You have wounded me deeply, since it turns out that it was you who wrote the cruellest thing that ever was written about me and mine; but no, you are not greatly ashamed of that either. But we have got to know that our popular poet was on the Spider in its time; and that, and that only, has stung you. You are thoroughly ashamed of that. Do you know, I begin to think you are as bad as other men, and very, very vain after all?"
"I always was," he answered, in quite sad and serious humility. "I am glad you have found it out, for I am afraid I always shall be."
"Yet you hide it very well, you know!"
"I do know; but that's the acute form of vanity."
"It's the best form," said Maud Cunningham, with a touch of envy in her tone. "The complaint is common in our tribe. Perhaps you are not the only one whose troubles arise from it!"
Trooper Whitty was off for a holiday at last. The circumstance was in itself strange enough, for Whitty had been two years in the Mounted Police without ever once seeking leave of absence until now. What, however, seemed really unique was that a man who took only one holiday in two years should be content to go and spend it in a dismal, dead-alive hamlet like Timber Town.
"Some jokers are easily pleased, we know, and you're one; but what can be the attraction in that dull hole, Seth?" Whitty's sergeant asked him the night before he started. "If there is one you might have ridden over there any day these eighteen months; but I never heard you had a friend there, did I?"
"No; but then I didn't know it myself until the other day," said Whitty. "It was only then that I heard of an old friend of mine being there."
The sergeant pulled reflectively at his pipe.
"Your friend should welcome you with open arms, Seth," said he presently. "Your friend should leave you his money for looking him up just now, Seth. It will be the making of him, this Christmas, to be seen along with you. It would be the making of any one not a teetotaller, at any time, but Christmas for choice, to be seen along with the man that took Red Jim. I know Timber Town; I know Timber Town ways; there'll be liquor enough going to float an Orient liner. Take my tip, Seth—keep in your depth!"
Whitty laughed. "No fear, sergeant. You don't know my friend. But if it's as bad as you say, you ought to come too, and see me through, since we were both in the Red Jim go. Bad luck to Red Jim! I'm not going to Timber Town to get clapped on the back and made a fool of. I'm going to see a very old friend, sergeant—a very great friend. I'll go in plain clothes."
It was Christmas Eve at the loneliest little police-barracks in those ranges. The verandah was too dark for the sergeant to see how the younger man's face flushed, how his eyes glistened, as he spoke of his friend. Nor did the sergeant know, in the early morning following, with what high spirits his subordinate set off. Seth hummed in his bedroom, whistled in the stables, and burst into lusty song as he rode out of the yard at daybreak; and the sergeant would certainly have been interested had he been awake, for Seth was seldom so ill-advised as to try to whistle or sing, while his normal temper was sedate and self-contained to a degree unusual in young men.
It is a matter of opinion, however, whether Seth Whitty was a young man; and if he was not, there was something highly refreshing in the middle-aged fellow's boyish behaviour. In dry fact, Seth was just thirty; but a man, one knows, does not age only by years. Seth looked more than thirty. Often he looked nearer forty. The times when one would have stood a chance of gauging his years accurately were rare; but this morning was such a time.
Whitty was so very happy this Christmas morning; his face showed it so very plainly, too. It was not by any means a striking face: the cheek bones were prominent, the nose aquiline and thin; but a broad high forehead and good brown eyes, and a certain regularity of features, gave him at least average good looks. Moreover, his short black beard and long black moustache, though they helped to make him look so old, became his dark style very suitably.
The sun had made him very dark indeed; but it had not blistered him as it blisters your "new chum"; he was an Australian by birth, and he only bronzed. And this man's eyes this morning shone with a happy, hopeful, youthful light, having good reason so to shine: for Trooper Whitty had had his chance, and seized it. Trooper Whitty had covered himself with honour and glory; the immediate promotion of Trooper Whitty was certain, and something a million times nearer to his heart than prosperity and promotion and fame Trooper Whitty was all but certain of, and intended to make dead certain of, that Christmas Day.
No wonder he rode away singing. When the sun got up (which was not just at once) and struck fire from Seth's spur and stirrup on the near side, he was singing still, in his own quaint fashion. Ultimately Whitty fell into a more natural mood. He grew silent and sensible. But the joyous light shone as bright as ever in his eyes; though his mind was occupied with some very ticklish questions.
"Shall I find her the same?" This was the main question. "It's eighteen months ago; lots of time to change. We have heard nothing of each other all the time; every facility for getting out of it. But no, no, no: she promised; I promised too, and today I'll fulfil—my future being so certain now—though even if it weren't I couldn't help it, knowing her so near. If only she thinks as she thought then! But all life is change. Eighteen months ago! Who'd have dreamt then that Barbara Lyon would clear out of the station to work for her living? Who could fancy Barbara as schoolmissis? But it shall not be for long, Barbara; it shall be for a very, very little while now, my darling!"
This, in fact, was the "very old friend"—Barbara Lyon. It is not strictly true that she was a very old friend. Whitty's first six months in the constabulary he was quartered near Kyneton, and within pistol-shot of Barbara's father's boundary fence. The very old friendship was squeezed into that half-year.
The ride to Timber Town was a long one: fifty miles. Whitty left home at four in the morning; he hoped to arrive, riding easily, not much later than noon. Rapid travelling was impossible, for the track was not only very rugged, and often steep, but it was so extremely faint, in the hard flinty places, that some vigilance was required merely to follow it. But it was wild, picturesque country, and the morning air was fresh and cool; and Whitty was not much more impatient than most men would have been in the circumstances. At nine he breakfasted at a queer little hostelry deep in a gully of gum-trees. Then came a long, slow, tiresome ascent; but Seth was on the southern edge of the ranges well before noon, winding slowly down to the thickly-timbered flats. Just below him, thin columns of smoke ascended through the tree-tops. The chimneys that the smoke came from were invisible; but deep down there, at the bottom of that leafy sea, and on the very edge of the level country, lay Timber Town; and Timber Town was just sufficiently civilised to have its State school; and the Timber Town State scholars were so inexpressibly privileged as to have Barbara Lyon for their schoolmistress—at the moment.
Whitty's predatory designs upon the Timber Town scholars swelled within him when his sharp eye descried the Timber Town smoke. He pressed on down the steep winding path. The trees closed over him; the track twisted, turned, but still descended; and Seth lost patience at last, and was riding recklessly, when a loud shout from the hill-side on the right startled him. He pulled up with some difficulty. Peering upward through the colonnade of smooth round trunks, he saw a tent, and, what was more alarming, a human ball bounding down headlong through the trees; and in an instant an acrobatic young man—a well-built and particularly nice-looking young man, of the Saxon order—stood breathless at the horse's head.
"Seth Whitty, as I live!" gasped the acrobat.
"That's my name, mate; but—"
"Mean to say you don't know me?"
"I'll be shot if I do."
"You don't remember the new chum who brought a letter of introduction to your father, stayed at your farm at Whittlesea for weeks on end, shot—but you're playing it too low down, Seth! Never pretend you don't remember Jack Lovatt!"
Seth jumped from his horse and wrung the young fellow's hand.
"How should I have remembered you? You were a boy then, without a hair on your face; now you sport a thundering great moustache—"
"And have just shaved off a thundering great beard: made to."
"Then, too, you were a bit of a wild young spark; frankly, I never thought you'd do much good; I made sure you'd either be back home years before this, or at the dogs; but now—"
"Now I've gone in for complete reformation: made to!"
"Who is it that's taken you in hand?"
Jack Lovatt winked, but said there was time enough for that, and that he too had some questions to put. And he soon learnt how Seth's old father had been dead and buried those two years; how the farm at Whittlesea had been sold, and at a cruel figure; and how Seth had joined the Mounted Police and been quartered six months near Kyneton and eighteen at his present station in the ranges. Lovatt said that Seth's being in the force was no news to him—for wasn't Trooper Whitty a public hero? A hand-shaking over the Red Jim affair naturally followed, Lovatt being bound over to hold his tongue about it in the township. Then the two men strolled down the track together, Whitty leading his horse; and it was Lovatt's turn to give an account of himself. He had been four years and a half in the Colonies, and he proceeded to tick off the items on his fingers.
"Those weeks at Whittlesea; three or four months travelling about; three weeks billiard-marking in Queensland, when I'd travelled away all my money. That was the first half-year. Nine months store-keeping, Queensland station; eight months droving—fat wethers—Melbourne market; one month's spree, Melbourne. First two years. Next two years on Riverina station, overseer; another month in Melbourne; rest of my time here. Rest of my days—here!"
"What, never going home again?"
"You still don't write?"
"Not a line."
"So they don't know whether you're dead or alive?"
"They know nothing about me: I know nothing about them."
"Forgive us, Jack; but have you quite forgotten—her?"
Lovatt burst out laughing.
"Years ago, my good fellow. Why—" he hesitated.
"I'm going to marry here! I'm engaged. That tent you saw is the site of my homestead; I've taken up two hundred acres."
Trooper Whitty stopped short in his walk, and whistled. But he did not get a chance to say much; Jack Lovatt took care of that. Jack Lovatt opened his heart.
Whitty listened with very natural sympathy, seeing what his own condition was; but he did not speak of his own condition. He listened with great interest, but with an unpleasantly vivid remembrance of a previous occasion when Jack Lovatt had opened his heart to him about the girl in England who had engaged herself to some one else. Jack's calm, reasonable, blissful state to-day did not contrast to Whitty's liking with the wild, hopeless, honest fervour of four or five years ago. But then Jack was so much older now, so much more sensible. There was no reason for supposing that he was less in love now than he had been then, simply because he showed it less. In any case, Seth, who was such an accomplished hand at concealing his own feelings, should have been the last person to suspect this; nor did he suspect it; it merely occurred to him.
Rather jauntily, perhaps, but with sufficient gusto, Jack told everything—everything except who and what the lady was. But these are really unimportant details when you are telling a fellow about a thing of this kind, if there is no chance of his having met the girl anywhere. Whitty only gathered that she lived in Timber Town, of which he was glad, for Barbara's sake. Before Jack gave him time to edge in a question the road had become wide and level; the trees had parted; they were in the township.
Timber Town was unpretending in those days: it is now a respectable centre. Then most of the houses were public-houses, or at any rate gave that impression; and, of course, on that particular day the public-house verandahs were black with Christmas customers. But even then there were the State school and the police-barracks, cheek by jowl, with the little iron church (now neither little nor iron) opposite—all three at the north end of the single broad and straggling street. This was the end at which the two men entered the township. They stopped at the barracks and leant against the fence, to which Whitty tethered his horse. He was most interested, of course, in the State school; but Lovatt drew his attention to the church over the way.
"They're in at service now, but they'll be out directly; and then, Seth—"
"She's there, of course?"
"Rather! She plays the harmonium for them. Hark! there it goes! That's the last hymn."
It was strange to hear the glad old Christmas hymn across that glaring road, in the breathless heat, under that sky of flawless sapphire; at least, it should have struck the Englishman as strange. As for Seth, his only ideas of English Christmases came from English Christmas cards; and as he stood listening he was wondering how it was that Barbara did not play the harmonium for the Timber Town folks. Barbara was so very musical. He was wondering also why Lovatt was not in church with his sweetheart on Christmas morning, as he himself would have been with Barbara, could he only have managed to reach Timber Town earlier. And as he wondered and speculated, and as his pulse quickened—his meeting with Barbara, who of course was in church, being so very near—the hymn ended. Then there was a short silence; then the voluntary sounded, and the small oddly-assorted congregation poured out.
"I'll go and fetch her," said Lovatt. "Stop where you are; you shall be introduced to her now at once."
He hurried over.
Seth felt that he ought to go too—that he must go; yet he remained where he was. He could not move. He was trembling with excitement. He had no desire just then to see Lovatt's sweetheart; he was straining his eyes to find his own. She did not come. Yet all the other people were now clear of the church—all but the organist. Was she a friend of the organist—of Lovatt's intended? Was she waiting back for her? Stop. The voluntary is over at last. Here is Jack Lovatt—
Seth Whitty started back against the picket fence. His hands clutched it. His eyes fastened themselves upon the pair who came so slowly towards him. A moment, an hour, a lifetime—and he was introduced to Lovatt's fiancée.
Whitty laboured to pull himself together, and uttered a grating laugh.
"You needn't have troubled," he got out at last indistinctly. "We're old friends—quite old friends, eh, Miss Lyon?"
Barbara gave him her hand. In the shadow of her great hat her face seemed gray and bloodless; but her blue eyes never flinched, and her lips only slightly trembled, and her little head was proudly raised. Barbara was lovelier than ever.
"Seth! Seth Whitty! What ails you, man?"
It was Lovatt's voice. Whitty removed the hand he had pressed to his forehead, and stood stiffly erect.
"Forgive me, Miss Barbara; I feel silly like. It must be the sun. These felt things are no protection once you're used to the helmet."
No pretence could have been older, more decrepit; but, as it happened, it was the one pretence of all others that was absolutely certain to take folks in just then at Timber Town. Lovatt looked alarmed, and glanced involuntarily at the front windows of the barracks, where the blinds were drawn. At the same moment, raising his hat to Barbara, Whitty turned hastily away and went in at the barrack gate.
"Stop," cried Lovatt, but softly. "Don't go in there!"
Whitty faced about. "Why not? We receive each other with open arms, we fellows. Why shouldn't I go in?"
"Because the sergeant's lying dead there from sunstroke!"
Whitty had not known that sergeant even by name. He had nothing to say to his death. But he returned to his horse, and unfastened the reins from the fence.
"Where shall you go?" asked Lovatt doubtfully.
"One of the publics."
"Do you feel better?"
"All right again, thanks."
"I feared it was our poor sergeant over again. You had such a jolly bad look a moment ago; hadn't he, Barbara?"
Barbara said nothing.
"But look here; don't be in such a hurry, if you're all right!" Lovatt caught hold of the bridle. "We two are going to picnic at the selection. Join us. Since you know Barbara—a rum coincidence that—you won't mind? And as for us, we shall be delighted; sha'n't we, Barbara?"
Again Barbara did not speak.
"Come and make up a jolly party, and blow the proverb!" said Lovatt persuasively.
Whitty vaulted into the saddle, with another grating laugh, and rode off without so much as a thank-you.
Higher up the street, in the alcoholic region, he met one of his own kind, a trooper, but on foot, and in full uniform. He was the poor sergeant's temporary substitute, and he and Whitty had met before. They stopped and conversed now. The man who was in uniform complained of the man who was not.
"If you'd got the togs on," he said, "you might have been of some use, and seen me through, instead of playing the bloated civilian."
"Then there aren't two men stationed here? Township duty must be pretty light duty if one's enough."
"It is; but not at Christmas," grumbled the war-paint man. "You might have seen a fellow through."
Trooper Whitty regretted he couldn't, and went on to say he was particularly anxious that no one there should know he was Trooper Whitty. Trooper Whitty had been ass enough to make himself notorious, but, oddly enough, had not the least wish to get drunk at the expense of Timber Town. The other trooper made promises accordingly, and claimed to be rendering good for evil.
Whitty rode on, and put up his horse at Burns's Royal Hotel, one of the slightly less disreputable establishments. Already there was a good deal of advanced drunkenness there. Seth had never been a drinking man, but the sight of the men lying serenely senseless in the shade filled him with a sudden, passionate envy. They had forgotten their troubles, those happy wretches. The means lay handy for drowning his trouble too. A savage craving came over him, and held him one hellish minute. He conquered it, and strode alone into the breathless solitude of the surrounding forest.
First the township was left behind; then all its sounds, and there were no sounds at all save the chattering of parrots, the murmuring of leaves, and the swish of Whitty's legs through the ferns and long rank grass. The latter sound was exchanged from time to time for a ringing tread on the dry bed of a creek or in odd spots where the ground was hard and flinty; but the swift restless footsteps never ceased. What was more peculiar, Whitty never raised his eyes from the ground—never directed his steps by one moment's reflection. He was reflecting, indeed, but of the dead past that had died that day. The present was nothing to him; the future, which until today had been all in all to him, was less than nothing to him now. But what was all over now had never been so dear to him. When the body is newly dead, and even more beautiful than it seemed in life, it is sweet to linger by it, to muse upon it, to remember all: and it is sometimes thus with events and time.
The shadows of the tall trees, drawn out until there was no room for their full length on the ground, climbed the trunks of other trees and leapt the bodies of the fallen, overlapping and interlacing in labyrinthine complexity. Here and there the level sun-rays cut the forest like a flaming sword, and the high lights and deep shadows might have embarrassed any one who happened to be walking anywhere in particular. But any direction was Seth's direction; he cared nothing where his wandering led him. If he thought of it at all no doubt he made up his mind that he could not lose himself, simply because for once he wasn't anxious not to lose himself. But it is more probable that, during most of that long afternoon, he was mentally unconscious of the bodily exertions he was making. Yet his clothes were heavy with perspiration, and for some time before sundown he had been tramping steadily up-hill.
At last, quite late, when the sun was setting, Whitty stumbled across a blue-gum newly felled. He went on and came to another, at which he looked up, and there, straight in front of him, was Lovatt's tent. He had come in a circle right round to Lovatt's selection. The rough downward track ran twenty yards below.
Seth smiled bitterly. His unconsidered wandering seemed to show the guidance of a malignant fate, now that it had led him here. He stood still, and inspected the spot grimly. There were the traces of the lovers' picnic, the white ashes of the fire still hot, and the air above it tremulous. Here they had sat, hand in hand, on this smooth round trunk. These nodding sapplings had heard their whispers, their tender talk, their lovers' sighs. Seth stepped over to the place, and sat down where they had sat, with a strange cold-blooded complacency. It did not move him to sit there, lonely and humiliated: so, then, nothing could move him any more, and the jangling of their wedding-bells would fall quite peacefully upon his ears.
His foot touched a book that lay in the long grass, a book they must have forgotten, with the nice, becoming forgetfulness of true lovers. He picked up the book and opened it: it was poetry; he did not look to see whose poetry. He shut the book and laid it on the trunk beside him; there was no poetry in Seth. He rested his elbows upon his knees, and his temples between his hands. The short sharp twilight set in. Seth did not move. Had his attitude been but a thought more comfortable, you would have said that the soft continuous rustling of the leaves all around him had lulled him to sleep; only in that case he would not have detected so instantly a rustle of a different kind—the rustle of a dress.
He did detect it instantly, and looked quickly up, and Barbara Lyon, in her cool white dress and wide straw sombrero, stood calmly before him; and, as if her calmness were not enough, a smile of friendliness and of sweet unconcern stole slowly over her facc.
"My book," said she.
He got up and gave it to her, and did not sit down again, nor walk away, but stood gravely peering into her blue eyes, until they flinched and fell, and Barbara blushed a lively crimson. She drew away from him; then hesitated; then, with an unconcern which this time was but imperfectly feigned, she sat deliberately down upon the felled tree, and looked him fearlessly in the face.
"If you have anything to say to me," said Barbara, "say it here, and now. Of course I did not dream of finding you here; I came for the book I left. But now that we have met, I sha'n't run away."
Nothing could have been colder than her tones. Seth stood before her, upright and grave—more grave than sad, Barbara was piqued to think.
"There is very little to be said, Barbara," he answered her. "There is a good deal to think over, quite calmly; there is a good deal for me to grasp, a good deal for me to—"
There he hesitated.
"Ay, to judge."
"And you will judge so hardly!"
"That will not hurt you."
Barbara's heel went deep into the grass. She took off her great round hat and played nervously with the strings. The soft twilight fell on her with great purity, leaving neither line nor shadow from the undecided edge of her hair to the extremely decided curve of her chin. She raised her eyes.
"Now, Seth, be frank. Tell me candidly that you have not been thinking about me all these months—that you have not been counting upon me. You are hurt, you are mortified; but frankly, admit that you are not heartbroken?"
"You really want an answer?"
"Yes, I do."
"Then I say that I have thought of you all these months, every day and every hour. As for counting, I am human; and until today I believed in things, so I have counted too. My feelings at the moment are beside the point; it is of no account whether I am hurt, or so on. But as for breaking my heart for you, it may seem unmannerly, but I shall not do it. I should also say that I shall not think about you much more."
Barbara winced. Her heel sunk deeper in the ground. Her eyes flashed.
"Is this all you have to say?"
"I said it wouldn't be much."
"Then I may go?"
"I never asked you to stop."
Barbara turned white with anger, rose up, and went. Seth raised his wideawake; she took no notice. He stood watching her until she reached the road, and the trees and the gloaming hid her from him; she never looked round—he could scarcely have expected that. When he knew that she was quite gone, and that this was the last of her in his life, something seemed to strike and shake him to the core. A shiver went through his frame. He tottered to the felled tree, sat down there once more, and buried his face in his hands. It had been quite dark for some time when he got up. And the hard palms of his hands were wet.
His bearing in Barbara's presence had been very different.
* * * * * *
It was seven in the morning when Trooper Whitty got back to the lonely little barracks in the ranges. The sergeant ran into the verandah with the soapsuds on his chin, razor in hand.
"What on earth brings you back at this hour? You must have heard!"
"Your own good luck. I congratulate you—Sergeant Seth Whitty!"
Whitty stared like a fool.
"You're promoted," the other sergeant went on. "I told you they'd take the first opportunity, and they've taken it. You're to be sergeant, and sole boss of the show—for they don't need two there—at Timber Town. What's wrong? Isn't it good enough? You look like death, mate!"
Seth tumbled out of the saddle and stood just outside the verandah, shaking.
"I can't go there!" he said in a low hollow voice. "Anywhere else, but not there. I'll leave the force!"
Certainly his bearing before Barbara had been very, very different.
Of course Seth Whitty did not leave the Mounted Police, and of course he went to Timber Town, as sergeant, in the end. He was the last man to obey on calm reflection the impulse of a craven moment. At the same time, the calmest reflection could not deny that Timber Town, in the circumstances, held out a prospect of personal discomfort such as a man might well be justified in shirking; and Whitty went there with set teeth and a heart of lead.
Timber Town made a fuss about him, but not the fuss it would have made at Christmas. It was a reactionary period: the New Year was just in; Timber Town had a headache: so Whitty got off cheaply. It was not the only respect in which he was to get off cheaply. For weeks and weeks he had nothing at all to do. Timber Town showed its high appreciation of his professional parts (as exemplified in the fate of Red Jim) by a temporary lapse into respectability; so that offences worth troubling about were unheard of, and even common assault became the most uncommon thing in the district. They were slack weeks at the barracks. With the schoolmistress's love affair going on under his nose, the weeks were something worse than slack for Seth. Now, had the authorities only sent some one else to Timber Town, Seth would have been spared all this, while the other fellow might have filled up his odd half hours very agreeably with Lovatt and Barbara. If a student of human nature, he never need have been dull; the characters of this pair were so well worth looking into.
Any one but Seth would have begun by making friends with his little neighbour the schoolmistress—of whom Seth had made an enemy on Christmas Day. He would have admired her greatly, and without danger or reservation, seeing she was already engaged; he would have admired above all things her pluck and spirit in coming out into the world to work for her own living, though not more than Seth did, who knew the circumstances. He would have discovered in her all the sweetest attributes of woman, and some masculine little traits as well. Only—he would have found her a coquette. Any one but Seth, it is to be feared, would have found her a dire and a mischievous coquette—and the worst one in that she had fallen too desperately in love with Jack Lovatt to work off her coquetries any more upon him. To Sergeant Seth (though one would think he might have known by this time what Barbara was) this experience was denied at present for a very simple reason: he was barely on bowing terms with the schoolmistress.
As for Jack Lovatt, he would have afforded a still more entertaining study, though one that required a key. The key to Lovatt's character was his past life. You would not have thought it of the energetic young bushman, but he was a gilded youth, with the gilt gone. Eton had expelled this free-selector; Christ Church had sent him down; at twenty his character had been too bad to be permissible in any commoner. Jack was only the son of a successful public man, and not even his heir; in him such conduct was intolerable. You have no idea what a devil of a fellow he was at twenty. Yet at that very time the fellow was in love. A double crisis ensued. The girl gave up Jack for some one else, who was not going to the deuce, but in quite the contrary direction—got engaged, in fact, to her uncle's curate; and, contemporaneously, Jack's father cut him off with a thousand and closed the doors upon him.
So Lovatt came out to Australia. On the voyage he saw his follies in the plain light of reflection, and brooded fiercely over what he had lost, but railed at his family. And the first thing he did in Melbourne was to take a few letters that were awaiting him, slip them unopened into a big envelope, and post them home with his initials. Then he went to Whittlesea (a fellow-passenger gave him the introduction), and was quiet there. He was quieter still in the far interior. Gradually he came to forget, more than to regret; but, before that, he had made up his mind never to return to England, and had dismissed that thought finally. So he did not hanker for home, as some exiles do. On the other hand, he fell in love with bush life. Moreover, he became a highly respectable member of bush society; in spite of those occasional months in Melbourne, his moral colour toned down to a decent drab; and ultimately young Lovatt saved some money and determined to "select." His selection went rather farther than he had intended it to go; it so very soon included Barbara.
Lovatt was five-and-twenty now, and sufficiently attractive still; his attractiveness had been the ruin of him in England. He had hair like Byron's; nor was his hair the only point in which he plagiarised from that poet: one need not name them all; one need only mention that he was addicted by turns to infectious high spirits and a peculiarly winning form of melancholy. It was when the latter fit was on him that he met Barbara, and told her his story, omitting the love episode. Between them they substituted a new episode of a similar nature. There was plenty of intensity about this one too. Barbara, especially, was quite ridiculously in love; and Lovatt possessed the very qualities to keep her in love: thorough-going masculine selfishness, and a command of others which was as strong as his self-command had been weak.
Sergeant Whitty, during his first weeks at Timber Town, saw a good deal of Lovatt, and, as has been indicated, next to nothing of Barbara. To the sergeant's thinking, the Colonies, and the Colonies alone, had made a man of Lovatt; and, allowing for Colonial bias, there is no doubt that the sergeant was mainly right. Certainly Lovatt had roughed it a good deal, and that is always improving. His English conceit (Seth called it "English") was, at least, no longer conspicuous: those English mannerisms which, in the new chum, had been so very offensive to Colonial Seth, were invisible in the energetic selector. Yet the young fellow's charm of manner remained, and this was considerable; it had made even the new chum popular, and popular even in the bush. It was not difficult to conceive how Barbara had been fascinated by this young man; Seth was fascinated himself. Seth should have hated him; but it was impossible to hate the fellow. Seth came nearest to hating him when he fancied (as he sometimes did fancy, from little things) that Lovatt did not value Barbara quite as he ought.
Theoretically, it is better that you should not think a girl perfection just because you are in love with her, but there is generally something wrong somewhere if you don't. Perfection had once been too weak a word for Seth's estimation of Barbara. Unfortunately it was so still. But it was not a word that would have occurred to Lovatt. There was something wrong somewhere.
Lovatt worked hard and heartily on his selection, clearing the ground and preparing the site for the homestead; Barbara was happily at work in school; their spare hours they spent together. It was only the sergeant who was idle, and lonely, and sad.
Seth was no reader, so books could not help him through. Nor had he ever been a particularly sociable fellow; so the verandah of the Royal Hotel had no attractions for him. He occupied himself during the first week or two by setting his house and garden in order; but the garden, unfortunately, had been very well cared for by his predecessor, so there was no lasting labour there: and crime was still scarce. At length came a regular inspiration. Whitty offered to lend a hand at the selection, and the offer was accepted. Here he toiled the harder of the two. A craving for Barbara's good opinion lent him feverish energy, for it was an odd fact that what had principally troubled Seth of late weeks was the haunting recollection of that uncomfortable interview with Barbara on Christmas Day. He was ashamed of his part in it. Not only did the memory of it prey upon him, but Barbara's cold looks reminded him of it whenever he saw her. If he had only kept her for his friend! As it was, she let him slave out there at her future home without rewarding him by so much as a smile. So at last he gave that up too, and sank into deeper dejection than ever. He gnashed his teeth over the continued law-abiding character of Timber Town, and yearned for another Red Jim to rise up and depredate the neighbourhood.
No such luck was in store; but an exciting thing did happen one evening in February. It was late, and the sergeant was smoking gloomily in his front verandah, when it all came about very suddenly. It began with a single sound: the sergeant just heard it, and it tightened every constabulary nerve; it was a woman's short, stifled cry of alarm.
The sergeant bounded out of the verandah, and crouched an instant to listen and to draw his revolver. In that instant the cry was repeated, still more faintly, but he knew now that it came from a back room in the school-house, and from Barbara's lips. He leapt two fences and was in the school verandah in three seconds. The door was locked. He tried it with his shoulder; it would not yield. Barbara's cry came again. Then Seth stood back a yard and brought his flat foot with full force against the door right over the keyhole. The door flew in. Seth followed. A light came from under a door at the far end of the passage. Seth ran down the passage and opened this door upon a curious scene.
The room was a sitting-room—Barbara's sanctum, in fact; and at the far side of it, under the window, Barbara was sitting at a little round work-table, with her work-basket not twenty inches from her dilated eyes, and a brown snake rearing itself out of the work-basket.
Barbara never took her eyes from the snake when the door opened. The sergeant saw that she was paralysed with fright. Therefore the first thing he did was to say three words in a confident whisper:
"He's not deadly!"
But Barbara did not seem to hear.
Whitty was a fine shot with a revolver. But the snake was in a dead straight line between his hand and Barbara's bosom, picked out sharply against her loose white blouse, like a shadow on a screen. Whitty shifted his revolver to the left hand, crept forward with his right extended, and forefinger and thumb forming the capital letter C—pinched the snake just below the head in this forceps, and whisked it like lightning through the window.
Barbara glanced up in his face one instant; then she lay back in her chair and burst out sobbing.
The sergeant went away and conscientiously despatched the snake. When he had killed it to his entire satisfaction, having smashed the vertebra in seven different places, he stood for a moment in indecision. A faint voice came to his rescue, calling him to the window.
Barbara leant in silhouette across the sill. Seth went up to the window.
"You are very, very brave—and foolish," she murmured. "I don't know what to say to you. Thanks will not do."
"There's no need to say anything," said Whitty awkwardly. "There was no danger."
Barbara took him up sharply.
"You know that there was. You know as well as I do those brown snakes are deadly. I do detest humbug! Yet—I must thank you."
Her tone turned to honey. She held out her hand to him; he gave her his; she turned, and drew it through the window to the light, and critically examined it, her little head on one side. No, there was no bite there.
"If you had been bitten," said Barbara, dropping his hand, "do you know that it would have made me the most miserable woman in the Colony?"
Seth was staggered.
"Because, you see, I should have felt I had killed you! Imagine it. Who could have been happy after that? But, do you know,"—here the coquetry in her voice became sad to hear,—"I rather wish it had been not quite a deadly snake, and that it had bitten you, not quite mortally. Can you guess why?"
Seth hung his head.
"You might have been less rude, and less cruel, the last time we talked together, Sergeant Seth!"
He could contain himself no longer.
"Oh, Barbara," he cried, with an effort, raising his face to her, "please, please, forgive me! Let us be friends. You don't know how I have hated myself ever since for that evening's words. I was beside myself that night. If you will only forgive me—if you will only make friends—"
Barbara raised her hands to the sash.
"Of course I forgive you. There, it is all forgotten!"
She shut down the window. A minute later all was in darkness, and Seth went back to the barracks in a tumult of honest emotions—not suspecting for a moment that he had stultified himself and utterly undone the wholesome effect of his admirable attitude on Christmas Day.
As for Barbara, her vanity had been liberally gratified. Moreover, a sore point, dating from Christmas, was now healed. And lastly, she had played the role she revelled in—the role that was out of the question with the man she really loved. So altogether she may have gone to bed an extremely happy woman. But I try to think that she came to feel slightly ashamed of herself before falling asleep.
Sergeant Seth and the schoolmistress were now good neighbours; and as she did not again treat him so reprehensibly as at their reconciliation (which makes one really think she was ashamed of herself, that time), the sergeant had at least a less bad time than before. Indeed, a nice little larceny in the township, and a pretty case of horse-stealing on a neighbouring run, made it, in part, quite a good time. So some weeks passed. Then fell a thunderbolt.
Lovatt came to the barracks one morning in a state of mild excitement, and got up in his best available clothes. His fingers fidgeted with a letter.
"A solicitor fellow has smelt me out, Heaven knows how," he said. "He is in possession of important documents from home, so he says, and he will only deliver them personally into my hands. So I am off to Melbourne by the coach, to see what they are; it's just as well, you know; and Barbara advises it. I've just said good-bye to her, and she's gone into school. You see, Seth, it may mean money—and money, I suppose," Lovatt added, after a moment's pause, "means marriage."
He said this thoughtfully, and his manner, at the moment, was not sprightly. It was his manner, in fact, that made Whitty look up quickly and scrutinise the young fellow's face. Jack Lovatt was soothing his moustache. Whitty might have remembered that the one defect in Jack Lovatt's good looks, before his moustache grew, was his weak, irresolute mouth.
Whitty went down to the Royal and saw the coach start with Jack Lovatt in the best place (trust him for that) by the driver; and he did not think very much more about Jack Lovatt until three days later; and then, in the evening, the sergeant received a letter which fairly electrified him.
The letter was from Jack Lovatt in Melbourne, and it read thus:
"Scott's Hotel, Collins Street, W.
"Dear Seth—I want you to give the enclosed to Barbara, but first to break to her some news which will, I fear, just at first, distress her greatly. Before this reaches you I shall have sailed for London! Think what you will of me; but do take the trouble to read the circumstances first.
"You are already aware that I have not been in communication with my people for nearly five years—never, in fact, since I left home. I learnt last night that my brother—I had only one—who was heir to everything, has been dead these two years, and that my father was at death's door two months ago. I cabled at once to learn his condition. The reply is just to hand. He is still lingering on; he desires to see me. What can I do but sail at once? The steamer leaves to-morrow; there is no time to go back to Timber Town and bid Barbara good-bye, and I dare not put off starting for a week. As it is, I do not expect to find my poor father alive; and in that case I should return at once—well, long before the end of the year—to marry Barbara. I have a mother and a sister, you know: there will be matters to arrange for them; but they shall not keep me from Barbara one day longer than I can help. My first thought shall be of her. My first thought now is of her; and I am downright cut up on her account. She will feel it sorely; but the letter I enclose is far more explicit than this one; and she is so sensible, she will understand. And she will trust me, and wait patiently, and confidently, till I come back and carry her off. And then, instead of going to two hundred acres and a hut, she will go one day to an estate in Norfolk and another in Scotland! I don't say I relish the idea of all this; I have got so used to the bush, and so content with it; but, as we should have been happy with less than our needs, so we ought to be happy with more than our wishes. At present, however, I can't realise it at all; I only realise that I sail to-morrow in the Orient liner.
"Only one word more. Seth, I know something of your
old relations with Barbara. She told me. She was terribly at fault,
and she knows it. But you will forget all about this now, won't
you? No, I believe you have forgotten about it. Fellows
always do get over these things: you know I did. But even if
you hadn't got over it, I believe you would do what I'm now going
to ask of you without my ever asking at all. Yet I do ask
it—I implore it. I implore you, Seth, to look after her, to
watch over her, to be good to her. She is sensible; she will listen
to reason. So yours will only be a difficult task in the beginning.
The breaking of the news will of course be worse than difficult But
you will do it as nicely as anybody could; and so we two shall be
grateful to you for the term of our natural lives; and one day the
three of us (I hope) will smile over the memory of this
rather ugly dawn of more booming days than ever we dreamt of.
Good-bye. To you I commend her.—Yours ever,
"J. A. Lovatt."
Now there was not a little sincerity in this letter, in spite of its conspicuous egotism and its frequent jauntiness of expression. Moreover, there was a touch or two of genuine feeling, and one questions whether Lovatt wrote the whole letter with dry eyes. Yet, when the letter was written, and the emotion of the moment over, it is very possible that his confidence in himself was as shaky as his confidence in Barbara was profound. He may have trusted to Barbara's great love, and hoped for the best with regard to himself. But the chances are that he had not the pluck conscientiously to investigate his own feelings.
When Sergeant Whitty had read to the end of the letter, he delivered himself first of a round oath, and then of the following peculiar sentiment:
"If my father had turned me adrift as his turned him—well, I'd have let him die first before I'd have left my girl without saying good-bye! No, by Heaven! before I'd have gone at all—without her!"
He looked at the letter again.
"Curse his good spirits!" he cried, and tore it to pieces. Then he fumed up and down the room until his eye fell upon the enclosure, a swollen envelope; and at that he ran his hands through his hair and ground his teeth.
Barbara was seated sewing, alone, and in the same little room where the snake had frozen her blood. She was making—is it difficult to guess?—something or other for her house. But she was not in her usual spirits: Jack was away in Melbourne.
There came an unexpected knock at the outer door. Barbara dropped her work, jumped up, and stood for a moment in alarmed surmise. Then a great thought struck her; it was Jack!
She flew down the passage; it was not Jack; of all people, it was the sergeant.
"Barbara, I want a word with you."
His tone was as extraordinary as the words. She drew back coldly.
"It is a queer time to choose, Sergeant Whitty. Say your word by all means, however." Her attitude plainly added, "Say it here."
The perspiration broke out over the sergeant's face.
"It's news!" he gasped desperately.
She stood one instant, straining her eyes at him through the dark, then seized his arm, dragged him to the sitting-room, caught up the lamp, and held it to his face.
"It is bad news!" she cried in a hard, hollow tone. "He is dead! Oh, is he dead?"
"God forbid!" said Whitty loudly.
"He is not ill."
There flashed across the woman a worse alternative still.
"Then he has—"
She could not get it out She seemed about to drop the lamp. Seth took it hastily from her, and led her to a chair. She sank down, trembling violently. He dropped on one knee before her.
"Barbara," he said very gently, "he is neither dead, nor ill, nor untrue to you. But you must prepare for a terrible surprise, a terrible shock."
"Do not keep me in suspense!" she murmured piteously.
"Then here is a letter that he has sent me to hand to you. It will explain all."
He took the envelope from his pocket. She snatched it from him, and was tearing it open; all at once her fingers closed upon it, and were still.
"I will read it alone." There was new strength in her tones. "Leave me now, please. And thank you, Seth, from my breaking heart!"
Seth went back to the barracks, and strode up and down his verandah. The moon rose, and poured into the verandah in a gleaming flood. Seth marched to and fro, a black sentinel in the pale pure light. For hours the tread of his feet and the jingle of his spurs upon the boards were the only sounds in the sleeping township. Then there came another sound—the click of a latch. Seth heard it, stopped, and turned; and Barbara was coming up the path towards him, her white frock shining mystically in the moonlight. She paused some paces from the verandah, and her face was as ghostly as her dress, and stained with tears.
"He has done right," she said in a low clear voice. "He has done his duty. I say so. Oh, tell me, Seth, that you think so too?"
There was the slightest pause; then, with extreme emphasis, Seth said after her:
"I think so too."
"Thank you, Seth. More than for everything else, thank you for this!" She turned wearily away, and then sobs shook her frame. Seth followed her hastily, took her hand in his, placed it within his arm, and led her to her own door.
He came back and slammed the police-barrack gate, midnight though it was.
"She has begun by making me a liar," he swore savagely, "a mean, miserable, cowardly liar, if there is one in the Colony!"
To follow Jack Lovatt to England.
The first week of the voyage he was wretched. Doubts grew upon him as to whether he had done the right thing after all. He became haunted by the thought that he had treated Barbara inexcusably, and that she was breaking her heart for him across the sea in lonely little Timber Town.
When there was more sea between them, Timber Town seemed still farther away. It seemed to exist in his brain only.
To cheer himself up he made friends with other passengers. He found one who knew his people at home—in fact, a neighbouring Norfolk squire out globe-trotting. These two talked of the old country all day long: of London, of Oxford, of Norfolk, Scotland, and the shooting. Cold fires were rekindled in the young man. Of "pleasures and palaces" he had not seen much, or at all events the pleasures were belittled in looking back on them from the steamer, and home, in anticipation, was all the sweeter.
Not only in point of distance did England come nearer and nearer every day, and Australia sink back, and back, and back. This went on in Jack Lovatt's heart as well.
The five years out there compressed themselves into about as many months. The most recent events of those five years seemed to have happened five years ago. The brain-picture of the little township assumed more and more portable dimensions, and it was more often veiled than not Barbara haunted him still, but less obtrusively.
Leaning over the rail at night and watching the wake reel out like a great, endless, creamy ribbon, the thoughts with which he had last beheld this sight came back to him, and with them the same faces, the same voices, the same regrets that had haunted him then. It was intoxicating to awake from these reveries and to realise that he was not fleeing from those faces now, but hastening toward them. There were, of course, sad circumstances in his return, and there had been cruel circumstances in his going away, which his return revived; but the sense of home-coming was overpowering; it outbalanced everything else.
In due course they steamed up Channel. By that time the five years in Australia were little better than a dream. And what Barbara was, Heaven knows.
Lovatt's sister met him at the docks, with a male cousin. They were both in mourning. The news was broken almost without a word, and it made the meeting, at any rate, silent. But afterwards, in the train, they talked of other things. The sister, Ethel, had been in short frocks when Jack went out; she was now a handsome girl of twenty, and he was enchanted with her. She told him other news besides the family trouble and its phases before they got down to Norfolk—news of an entirely different order, à propos of which Jack was able to ask quite naturally:
"What of Laura Eliot—I mean Laura Brown, or Jones, or whatever it is?"
Ethel leant across the compartment "Did you never hear of that?" she whispered.
"Of what?" Jack turned white. Was Laura dead too?
"Her engagement was broken off. Oh, it must have been directly after you sailed. They were never meant for each other, you know. No one could understand the engagement; and now I don't think Laura will ever marry at all."
For a minute Jack's face was transfigured. It shone with a light that did not seem human, though it cannot have been divine. During that minute Australia was wiped clean from his mind. And it was a disastrous minute for poor Barbara over the seas in Timber Town.
The antipodean winter of that year is still remembered for its excessive rainfall, and for the floods that resulted in certain districts. In Victoria the damage was widespread, but, mercifully, for the most part it was also "spread out thin"; and among scores of Victorian townships, which, without attracting popular sympathy by becoming the scene of any tragical disaster, still suffered sufficiently in an undistinguished way, Timber Town was one; its single street was for many days a running river, and for several weeks a festering bog. Business (what there was of it in Timber Town) was at a standstill, except at the bars. That sort of business received an impetus, until the casks ran dry; and then, the state of the roads entirely preventing the approach of wheels, the excellent township endured a short, bitter period of enforced sobriety. As a local wag put it (in chalk, on the verandah of the Royal Hotel), there was.
"Water, Water Everywhere, But Not A Drop Of Drink!"
The feminine disadvantages were almost as serious. The women saw nothing of one another, save at a distance; and gossip, if shouted across gulfs of rushing water, quite ceases to be gossip. They tried it, and found this out, and waited patiently for the flood to dry up, themselves setting the example. Meanwhile, indeed, the fairest game for gossip was invisible. This was the schoolmistress, who was engaged to that young Lovatt, who had gone away on the coach one day in the autumn, and had never to Timber Town knowledge been heard of since. She was a complete prisoner in the schoolhouse, and very nearly a solitary prisoner. A few parents, however, did from time to time land their offspring on the schoolhouse verandah either from rafts or from the paternal shoulders. These children reported the teacher as being cross and irritable and feebly indulgent by turns; but, on being closely questioned, they also compared her wrists to pipe-stems and her face to a sheet.
Their mothers' curiosity mounted to fever-heat. The moment the mud would bear them they called in person upon Barbara. Idle, gossiping women are not necessarily unfeeling; what they found made some of them shed tears on the walk home.
Barbara was the shadow of her former self—herself of a few weeks ago. Thin and pale and bright-eyed, irascible, listless, limp, she was indeed a proper object for compassion; and compassion was the last thing Barbara could stand. Yet, though the callers were sent away with their sympathy still on their hands, they did not toss it to the winds for that reason. It was impossible to resent the schoolmistress's incivility while the schoolmistress looked so. One or two of them felt for her all the more, and sent the children to school with little presents of butter and eggs and apples. These offerings Barbara accepted ungraciously enough from the inoffensive bearers, but afterwards grew ashamed, and sent those children home with courteous, grateful little letters. All such presents, however, were invariably the servant's perquisites.
Barbara's servant—a mere girl herself, no older than her mistress—had come with her from Kyneton. She knew very well that her mistress was eating her heart out, and she knew why, though not from Barbara, who, as we have seen, was by no means free from pride. The whole township was more or less in possession of this fact and its obvious reason. But Annie, the maid, knew one little circumstance which no one else guessed; this she longed to disclose to some sympathetic ear, and at last she did disclose it to the motherly soul that kept house for Sergeant Whitty.
They had been discussing poor Barbara rather freely, but very far from unkindly.
"Mrs. Waters," Annie said, "shall I tell you a secret?"
"If you like, my dear. You know I can keep a secret. But I don't ask you to tell me nothing." Mrs. Waters was old and guarded.
"Well, but I must! It mustn't go no further, and I know it won't; but I can't keep it to myself no longer. Did you ever guess that my mistress and your sergeant was acquainted before?"
"Are you sure?" cried Mrs. Waters.
"Positive. Two years ago."
Mrs. Waters threw up her hands. "That accounts for everything!"
"For his pacing the room, or the verandy, one or t'other, till all hours, night after night—for a hundred other things—for goodness knows what all! You mean he was in love with her?"
"Mark my words, then, Annie: he's in love with her still, but too honourable to speak it! And he as fine a man as ever walked: and she going throwing her heart away on a villain that's cleared out and left her!"
What Mrs. Waters went on to say there is no need to record. She inveighed vehemently against the idiocy of women generally, and that of Barbara in particular, and worked herself into such a temper that Barbara's servant began to regret having said anything at all. And from that day the sergeant had the old woman's eyes upon him. She noted his moodiness, his depression, the growing shortness of his temper. The latter failing only drew from her daintier dishes than the sergeant had ever before enjoyed at his housekeeper's hands. But the sergeant was not to be comforted in this way. It would have been some comfort to him if the State school had been swept away by the floods, and he had had the rescuing of Barbara. It would have been an inexpressible consolation to the sergeant to have got at Jack Lovatt in some lonely place and torn him to pieces: he would have gone exultant to the gallows after that. But the floods did no important damage at Timber Town; and the scoundrel Lovatt was, no doubt, safe in England, though no one knew for certain; and nothing short of the heroic or the outrageous could have afforded the smallest satisfaction to Sergeant Seth now.
The sergeant saw Barbara often enough, but seldom said much to her, and, when he did, never mentioned Lovatt's name—that is, never after Lovatt ceased writing; and he only wrote once on the voyage—never afterwards. But one day, when the floods were over, the sergeant came across her suddenly, and she asked him without preamble:
"Do you think he is dead?"
"No, I don't," said Seth bluntly.
"I am having the English papers searched, week by week, in Melbourne."
Her eyes filled with tears. "How good you are! Will you keep on having them searched, please? And will you tell me the moment you hear anything?"
The weeks went on—without one word.
Barbara began to live it down. Her expression became sweet, and sad, and gentle—but brave. Had you seen her now you never could have believed that this frail, meek woman had delighted but lately in cruel coquetry; and, indeed, the coquette was dead. The cross schoolmistress was dead, too. The scholars took home glowing accounts of the new Barbara: she never scolded them now; on the contrary, she was making school a far less odious thing than it had ever been before; she had even taken to reading story-books aloud, after lessons, to those who liked to stay. But one day one little boy went home with a sad tale, and cried in telling it. It was a Sunday afternoon; he had been out nesting, and, in striking down to the road, had chanced to cross Lovatt's clearing; and there, seated upon an old, moss-covered, felled tree, he had found Miss Lyon, weeping as though her heart would break. She had called him to her, and kissed him, and made him promise not to tell a soul. But he couldn't help telling his mother, and his mother chanced to be the kind soul who had been the first to send the eggs and things; she sent spring flowers the very next day; and promised her boy a thrashing and a half if he told another soul what he had told her.
That was in September. A week or two later Seth made a delightful discovery: Barbara had taken once more to practising the harmonium in the little church. She had never given up playing it at service, but she had given up practising, which would have been plain enough to a more musical audience. Of old she had practised very often indeed, for love of it. Many a time, during his first weeks at Timber Town, Seth had sat in his verandah and sadly listened to the sweet strains stealing across the broad, quiet road. He heard those strains, for the first time after an interval of months, one evening as he rode home from a neighbouring township. He cantered across to the church, and sat outside in his saddle until the music ceased and Barbara came out. Then Seth dismounted, and crossed the road by Barbara's side, leading his horse. Barbara seemed cheerful, and Seth, who was never mirth-provoking, combed out his wits to amuse her, and to hear her sweet laughter once more. He almost succeeded: Barbara did smile; but before they separated her face changed, and sad eyes asked a question that was never spoken now.
Seth shook his head. There was no news yet. Barbara drooped, and went into her house with heavy steps.
And the very next day the news came.
The people in Melbourne who were searching the English papers for Whitty sent him a London evening paper with the following small paragraph framed in red ink:
"A marriage has been arranged to take place early next year between Mr. John A. Lovatt, of Darley Hall, near Norwich, and Castle Auchen, N.B., and Laura, daughter of Major-General Ralph Eliot, R.H.A."
Seth read it in his verandah while the bell was ringing for afternoon school, and the school-children were straggling past. The news must have had some visible effect upon him, of which he was unconscious, for the children turned round and stared at him Of this he did become conscious, and turned hastily into the house. But the paper had slipped from his fingers the moment the marked paragraph was read; the wind caught it (it was the first hot-wind day of that spring), and, as chance had it, the paper was whisked out of the verandah and fell at the feet of the most incorrigible little boy in the school This small savage appropriated the paper, folded it small, and carried it into school for surreptitious perusal, while the sergeant played the caged tiger up and down the long-suffering carpet of his room.
The news had come at last, and it was no worse than Seth had anticipated; indeed, he had looked with confidence to receiving sooner or later the announcement of Lovatt's marriage. He knew all about Laura Eliot, you see; and five years ago he had told Lovatt—from what Lovatt told him—that he shouldn't be surprised if that engagement with the curate never came to anything. Nor did Whitty think any worse of Lovatt because of this news than he had already thought of him for his heartless behaviour; that, indeed, would have been impossible. What troubled the sergeant now had no reference to Lovatt; it had all to do with Barbara. The news had come; the news must be broken. It was the second time Seth had been compelled to break a blow to Barbara, but then last time Barbara had been a very different woman, one infinitely better able to bear bad tidings. He was seriously considering what use, if any, the motherly Waters might be to him in the present case, and whether the risk of ill consequences was sufficient to justify his taking a third party into Barbara's affairs, when, in a blank moment, he missed the paper.
He hastened back into the verandah; but the paper was not there. He ran out into the road; not a sign of it was to be seen. It had been blown away, then, but how far? Where to? Just then Seth would have given his earthly possessions to have prevented that paper, with its flaming red-inked paragraph, from falling into other hands.
As he stood irresolute, and in despair, there was a sound of commotion in the schoolhouse hard by; the school poured out pell-mell; Seth was surrounded by white, frightened faces.
"Sergeant, make haste!" shrill voices screamed in his ears. "Teacher's dead!"
Seth scattered them right and left, and was in the schoolroom in a twinkling. At the same moment Annie, the maid, burst in by another door.
The benches were empty—not a child had remained; and, on the raised platform at the end of the room, Barbara lay lifeless. Seth ran across the desks, sprang upon the platform, and knelt beside her. Annie stood shrieking at the door, until the sergeant looked up and reviled her.
"You idiot! She has only fainted. Fetch Mrs. Waters." And he lowered her head gently upon the boards, so that it should lie no higher than the rest of her, and fanned her face with both hands.
The young woman returned with the old one.
"She is coming to," said the sergeant quietly, still kneeling and fanning. "Which is her room? Lead the way, one of you."
He lifted her tenderly in his arms, and followed Annie. A moment later he had laid poor Barbara on her own cool little bed, and left her to the women; but he had seen her eyes half open, and breath parting her pale lips: life was coming back.
On his way through the schoolroom he picked up what he had noticed the moment he saw Barbara lying senseless—his missing paper.
The whole school, to a child, were huddled together at the gate, with white expectant faces. Their uniform expression changed when they saw the sergeant. There was a look in his eyes that frightened them; besides, he was the police-sergeant. Not one of them dared to run. Seth shook the paper in their faces, and inquired—in the voice of an ogre—how it had come into Miss Lyon's hands. I regret to say that the Incorrigible was pushed forward with the utmost promptitude; and that the others, who all spoke at once, made unbecoming haste to explain how "teacher" had caught him reading the paper, confiscated it, put it on her own desk, and immediately—without a word—fallen flat upon the floor.
Seth looked more the ogre than ever, but held the culprit with his eye only.
"You stole the paper from my verandah—eh?"
"It b-b-blew out, sir!"
"Why didn't you blow it in again?"
No answer; tears; on the part of the others, preparations for fun—but not, most likely, for what took place. For the sergeant marched off that brat to the barracks, and clapped him into the prisoners' cell; and his schoolfellows heard the bolts drawn with horrible clangs, and slunk away in terror. It was a sufficiently high-handed proceeding, no doubt; though the incarceration lasted only an hour; and though it was from this hour that the young savage's parents (who thanked Seth with tears in their eyes) afterwards came (one hopes not prematurely) to date his reformation.
But Barbara was lying like death upon her bed.
While Barbara Lyon lay senseless in the schoolroom at Timber Town, Australia, Jack Lovatt, in his bed at Castle Auchen, N.B., dreamed a disquieting dream. It must be remembered that, though the Australian time was between two and three in the afternoon, in Scotland it was about five o'clock in the early morning.
It was an emphatically bad dream. The Laird (Jack was the Laird at Auchen, and the Squire in Norfolk) came downstairs looking haggard and even haunted. This was the more annoying because the Laird's fiancée had arrived from London the previous evening. To add to the annoyance (though here one adds effect to cause), he shot execrably all day, and caught the gillies smiling. Up on the moors that day they had a champagne luncheon (planned overnight), the ladies joining the shooters; but Jack was not Jack at all. His mother and sister, and some others of the party (mostly a family party), studied Laura's manner towards him for an explanation; but her manner was all that they, in Jack's place, could have desired. In point of fact, Laura was as deeply mystified as they were, and her grievance was infinitely greater.
That evening Laura's grievance became really grave; for after dinner she took her banjo and gently fingered it on the gray shingly drive; but Jack never strolled out with his cigarette, as he had done the previous evening—as she quite thought he would do every evening; yet he must have heard. Laura stole at last to the billiard-room window; and Jack was there, playing pool with the other men. He played pool with the horrid men until long after she had gone to bed and cried herself to sleep. Then at last Jack crept up to bed himself, but never slept a wink; billiards and brandy-and-soda had done simply nothing for him.
Next morning he looked a wreck, but in Laura's face there was calm determination. Hers was a pale, pretty, delicate face; but there was plenty of character in it. The eyes were dark and frank, the hair black and swept up clear of the forehead, the head most shapely, fitly crowning a slim, firm, graceful figure. And all that day Laura was even more erect than usual, and her head was held higher, and the glance of her eyes was braver and bolder than ever. But in the evening she took her banjo out into the night as before.
It was a warm night for October in Scotland, and there was a luminous moon. Laura wrapped a knitted nothing over her little head and around her shoulders, and felt perfectly prudent. She stole once more to the billiard-room window. The men were behaving themselves better to-night; more had gone to the drawing-room; there was no pool. Only two men were playing a common hundred, and Jack was sitting in an opposite corner by another window, looking gloomily on.
Laura tripped round to that window, and struck up a nigger melody—the silliest, prettiest little thing in the world. Jack, taken by surprise, looked out.
"It's a heavenly night," Laura whispered. "Come out quickly, you queer, melancholy Jack!"
He hesitated a moment, and then did go out—by the window.
"Play me something," he said, and stuck his hands deep into his trousers pockets. She complied sweetly.
The moon shone, the banjo tinkled, the soft wind sighed through the firs. The pair strolled slowly side by side, Laura playing softly. Suddenly and unexpectedly, when they were far down the drive, she whipped the banjo under her arm, half turned, and stood still.
"Tell me what it is."
"What what is?"
"Oh, you must know! Your trouble, your wretched looks, your silence—the way you have avoided me these two days. Jack, darling, tell me what it is: tell me what it all means!"
She pressed forward and clung to his arm. His face was raised to the moon, the curly hair thrown back from the forehead; face and forehead were wrung and wrinkled with pain.
"I cannot!" he groaned—"I cannot!"
She drew back. "Jack, if it has to do with me—with your love for me—"
"It has not! No—do not touch me again. I am not fit for you to touch. Oh, Laura! I am a liar and a villain!"
"I shall never, never believe it!"
"Then I must tell you everything. Can you bear it?"
"I can bear anything but your silence, Jack."
They walked side by side in the moonlight, very, very slowly; but their shadows on the shingly drive went wider and wider apart. Often he paused; but she put in no word, no syllable, until the whole shameful tale was told.
"Is that all?"
"You have kept back nothing?"
"I swear I have told you the worst."
"Ah!"—a deep sad sigh—"well, I was hasty to say I never could believe you a coward or a villain; for I am afraid you have been both."
Her voice was very sad, but equally firm.
"I know it! I own it!" said Lovatt in a low, husky tone. "No one knows except myself the mean despicable cur I have been. Yet it seems hard to hear it from your lips—you that have bewitched me so! I swear, until two nights ago, I was bewitched! I seemed to have forgotten her, and my life out there, completely, utterly. But then I dreamt of her—dreamt I saw her dead! And now she haunts me, now that it is too late. For what can one do after so long?"
"Leave me a little; then I will try to tell you. I cannot think—in your presence."
He moved on, bowed and broken, and leaned over the plain wooden gate at the entrance to the drive. It might have been a moment later or an hour—he never knew—when she touched him on the shoulder.
"Will you do what I tell you?"
He bowed submissively. It touched her to see him so sadly humbled, and all at once, before her stronger will. Her own power rose up before her, and frightened her. With a calm, strong, spiritual effort she nerved herself to use this will of hers for once as her conscience ordered and her heart forbade.
"Will you go back to her?" The words came in a tremulous whisper; but the tremor was only the vibration of taut, resolute nerves. When he had bowed his promise (for though his lips moved, no words left them), and when thus it was all over, a greater calmness, and with it a chill dread feeling, came over this strong-minded girl.
"I tell you to go back to her," she said, speaking quite steadily now. "Go back to her at once. Leave England within a fortnight, at latest, from now. This will be easy; we are all in our last week here; and you and I must act a part until my father telegraphs for me, which must be tomorrow. Then you go back to her, and all is over for ever between you and me. You may find her dead; but between us two all, all is over. All is over!"
Her dress whispered as she turned and went. The tall trees on either side the drive whispered too; and their dewy leaves, quivering in the moonlight, shimmered like phosphorus on a dark and tranquil sea. Over the gate the black hills cut into the moonlit sky as though heaven and hell touched one another; above, the stars were shining like the eyes of angels; below, the fir-trees sighed and sobbed like the spirits of the lost.
One night some two months later, a night of intense darkness and of intolerable heat, a young man tramped into Timber Town from the south. He did not carry the "swag" of the common traveller, nor were his clothes bushman's clothes. He wore a suit of some thin light material, and a pith helmet; yet, for all this, he seemed to know every inch of the way.
His tactics indicated a desire to glide swiftly through the township without either stopping or being stopped, if possible without being seen. He took the very centre of the broad straggling street, and showed in this a nice judgment, for the night was so thick that from neither side of the street could one see half-way across it But the flaring hotel verandahs on either side were plain enough from the middle of the road, and not only could the traveller hear the sounds of revelry issuing from them—for these had been audible for the last half-mile—but he distinguished some of the voices, and caught scraps of the high-toned conversations. In what was generally known (though not from its sign-board) as the "opposition shanty," they were talking politics—Colonial politics, and in that instance tipsy ones. In the verandah of the Royal, however, a more practical discussion was on foot—on the ringing of the Timber Town church-bells. One roysterer wanted to ring them at twelve o'clock—it was then 11.40—while another objected on traditional grounds. The latter said the good old English custom was to ring in the New Year, but not Christmas; the former ridiculed the notion that old English customs should obtain, unchallenged, in the bush; and this one, who was the more fluent swearer of the two, and had all the popular arguments on his side, seemed to have a majority of roysterers with him.
"The ringers win—it's odds on them," said the new arrival; and he hurried noiselessly on.
He was soon in the region of the little iron church for whose bell-ropes those roysterers' fingers were itching. The church was invisible in the opaque darkness; but the traveller knew well enough where it was. The State school and the police barracks, on the other side of the road, were also invisible, at least their outlines were; but faint lights revealed their whereabouts.
The mysterious visitor now left the middle of the road, skirted the police-barrack fence, and came—with steps that all at once became halting and unsteady—to the school gate; and there he paused, and started backward with his hand upon the latch.
* * * * * * * *
Barbara was seated in the verandah, leaning forward, her head bowed and her hands clasped. Seth Whitty bent over her.
"You know how I have waited," he was pleading—and dignity and humility jostled each other in his deep manly tones; "how long I have loved you, how hopelessly once, how deeply all through. You must know that what I profess is at least true."
"I know that. Oh, I know that so well!"
"Yet you still refuse me."
"No, no. I say, give me time. Do not count upon me; never again count upon a woman."
"And I have said I will give you until we both are gray!"
"It shall not be so long as that, if it is to be at all," said Barbara gently; "only do not count."
They were both silent. Seth disturbed the eloquent silence most rudely by flying incontinently to the gate, where he stood motionless in a listening attitude.
"What was it?" Barbara called to him.
"I heard something."
"Can you see anything?"
"Nothing. The night is like pitch. But I feel certain—"
At that moment the bells rang forth, and unholy shouts came with the clangour from the iron church over the way. Seth came back to the verandah.
"It was those men that you heard," said Barbara.
"I don't think it was; it seemed like footsteps quite near, and I thought some one touched the latch. But it doesn't matter now; for it's Christmas morning—Christmas again, Barbara! And I wish you a very happy Christmas, and—and I will wait as long as you like!"
He pressed her hand and dropped it: he took her hand again, and raised it reverently to his lips.
* * * * * * * *
Those merry souls tugged at the bell-ropes until they were tired, and that was not immediately. But before the wild ringing ceased the solitary mysterious pedestrian had retraced his steps rather better than a mile. None knew his coming nor his going; and the single street of Timber Town never saw him more.
Printed by R. & R. Clark, Edinburgh.
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