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Title: The Adventuress
Author: Arthur Gask
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 2000971h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  September 2020
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The Adventuress

By Arthur Gask

Published in the Chronicle (Adelaide, SA : 1895 1954), Thursday 30 October 1941.

The baby had been hushed to sleep, and, with one last lingering look of adoration, the young mother moved very softly over to her desk and sat down to write. She was very pretty, so young, it seemed, to have maternal cares, but as she looked round at the luxuriously appointed room she gave a sigh of deep contentment. Fortune, she knew, had indeed been kind to her! She had everything she could want!

She picked up her pen and continued her interrupted letter. "No, Nancy dear," she wrote, "I never forget I have a cousin in far-off England, although I have not seen her for fifteen years. You left Australia just after mother died, and I was only seven then.

"Yesterday was the first anniversary of our wedding, and I am so happy. Of course everyone said I had made a great catch, but it was a real love-match, and I would have married John if he hadn't had a penny. You will have heard I was working in a café before I was married to him, but that makes no difference to what he thinks of me, and we are devoted to each other.

"Yes, it was a real romance, and I'll tell you all about it from the very beginning when it started, less than eighteen months ago. When poor father died at the beginning of last year we two girls were left almost penniless, and we came up to the city at once to find some way of earning our own living. Hilda got a situation with a kindly old lawyer, but I had no luck at all. Trade happened to be very bad at the time, and the shops wouldn't engage an inexperienced hand when plenty of experienced ones were available. In the offices it was the same. Being nearly twenty-one, I was too old to start as a learner, and the registry offices could supply properly trained clerks to anyone who wanted them.

"One morning, when almost in desperation because funds were getting so low, I saw an advertisement in one of the newspapers for a waitress in a café, and I went after the situation at once. I hated the idea of being a waitress, but what could I do?

"Arriving at the café I found there were a lot of girls waiting to be interviewed, and thought dismally I should have very little chance. However, directly my turn came and I was taken into the proprietress, a Mrs. Lewis, I felt much more hopeful. She had a very kind face, and was undoubtedly a lady. She eyed me critically, and at once started to ask me all sorts of questions about myself, very quickly and without wasting a moment of time. Finally, she said smilingly, 'Well, although you've had no experience, I'll give you a trial. You're pretty, and that counts a lot. Besides, the work can easily be picked up by anyone of ordinary intelligence.' 'But what are the wages?' I asked timidly. 'One pound a week,' she replied, and then, seeing my face fall, as well it might, considering I was paying 22/6 at the boarding house, she added quickly, 'But then, you ought to make as much again or that in tips. My customers are all of a good class, professional men and heads of business houses, and they are most of them quite generous. The charges here are high to keep the place select.' She spoke warningly. 'But you take care of yourself and keep everybody at a distance. There are always plenty of pitfalls in a city for pretty girls.'

"There were four other waitresses, and they soon put me in the way of things. I felt very nervous at first, but in a few days flattered myself I was as quick and competent as anyone. Most of our customers were elderly, but there was a fair sprinkling of younger men. They all seemed well-to-do and, to my great delight, the first week I made over 35/ in tips. It wasn't a nice feeling, taking the sixpences and threepences at first, but I soon got over it and regarded it as quite the natural thing. A number of those I served, both young and elderly, were often inclined to be friendly, but I treated them all the same and never encouraged any conversation when it began to get personal.

"Mrs. Lewis had the eyes of a hawk, and always seemed to know what was going on. 'That's right, my dear,' she said to me one day, 'never make yourself too cheap and they'll think the more of you.'

"I had been there about a month when one morning John came in, and I thought at once that I had met my fate. He looked so handsome and carried himself so boldly and confidently that I was interested in him at once. His eyes roved round the room and then, to my great delight, he came and sat down at one of my tables. 'Hullo,' he exclaimed smilingly, 'and so you're the new star they've got here. I've heard about you and that they call you the duchess.'

"But I only just smiled back and, having brought what he had ordered, moved away. Then I was thrilled to notice that several times he was looking in my direction. When he left he gave me a smiling nod, and I found he had put sixpence under the plate for me.

"Oh, Nancy, that sixpence made me feel so miserable! It woke me with a horrible thunderclap from my beautiful day dream of meeting my Prince Charming while working in that café, for then, for the first time, I realised the great gulf which must always stretch between me and those to whom I was carrying what they had ordered to eat and drink. What a little fool I had been all along, for how could I have ever thought that any man would want to pick for his wife a girl who had been taking threepences and sixpences from everyone who offered them!

"I felt miserably unhappy for the rest of that day, but that night, when I was undressing, all my pride and courage suddenly came back and I felt quite hopeful once again. At any rate, I told myself I would be no easy conquest for anyone and, if I fell in love with this boy and he with me, it would be through the marriage vows alone that I would go to him.

"The next morning John appeared in the café again and my foolish heart started to go pit-a-pat immediately. As I had been sure he would, he came straight to my tables, and smiled as charmingly at me as he had done the day before. But I had got myself well in hand and waited upon him demurely, giving him no idea of how interested I was in him. By then I had learnt from the other girls that he was John McCairne, the only son of old Hugh McCairne, who was very wealthy and owned one of the largest sheep stations in Australia.

"Then John took to coming regularly to the Rialto whenever, as he explained, he was down in the city. 'Mind your steps, young woman,' nodded Mrs. Lewis, who was taking in everything. 'That man likes pretty girls, but he's only a flirt. Lots of society mothers have tried to get him for their daughters, but they've all failed. Besides, he's not likely to mean anything serious with you, even if he were a marrying man.' I only smiled, but when one day he asked me to come out for the evening, with the plan I had mapped out, I shook my head. 'But why not?' he asked with a frown. 'You say you've got no boy friend, so where'll be the harm?' "

"'I don't know you well enough,' I laughed. 'I'm not a prude, but I don't go out with everyone.'

"He looked annoyed and then didn't come near the Rialto for a whole week, although I had heard he was in the city. Then, when he did resume his visits, he renewed his invitation every time. At last I agreed, and it was arranged he should take me to the pictures.

"It was a thrilling moment for me when I met him outside the Theatre Royal, for it was the first time he had seen me when not in my waitress's uniform. But, hoping for such an occasion, I had been preparing for it for a long time, and, indeed, had spent down to my last pound to have every thing ready.

"Never mind what I wore, but it was all good, and Hilda, who saw me off, was positive I looked as well-dressed as any girl in the city could want to be. John told me afterwards that he drew in a deep breath when he caught sight of me, but all he said then was, 'My word, but you do look nice! Why, you're a real little beauty!'

"He was very nice and polite all the evening, and not a bit forward, and I enjoyed everything immensely. He drove me home in his car, which I did not altogether like, because our boarding-house looked so shabby. When we said good-bye we just shook hands, but he squeezed mine ever so slightly.

"Then commenced a most happy time for me. Whenever he was down in the city he used to take me out twice and even three times during the week. He had kissed me now, and I had kissed him back, but I took care the kisses should be always short ones and allowed no lingering over them.

"One night, when we were together in his car upon one of the beaches he kissed me, and then suddenly put his arm round my waist and made to pull me tightly to him. But I disengaged myself instantly, and said very sharply, 'No, John, I won't have it, and if you try that again I won't come out with you any more.'

"'Why not?' he asked in an equally as sharp a tone as I had used, and I could see that he was inclined to be really angry.

"'Because I don't think people should embrace unless things are serious between them,' I replied warmly.

"'Ho, ho, then you are not serious with me!' he exclaimed, and there was just a trace of sarcasm in his tones.

"I shook my head. 'Not yet,' I laughed teasingly. 'I'm trying you out, and I'm not quite certain about you.' I nodded. 'There are several things about you which don't please me. For one thing, you have too many whiskies and sodas for a man of your age. They are not good for you.'

"He reddened furiously, and stared in astonishment. Then a long silence followed, and it was quite five minutes before either of us spoke again. Then he said smilingly, 'Well, you're either a very wise young woman or else a very cold one. I can't quite make out which.'

"'I'm neither,' I smiled back. I became serious. 'I'm just a girl who intends to go to her real lover as God made her, and not with any secrets she'll be always having to hide.'

"'Hum,' he remarked thoughtfully, 'you're dangerous, and I see I shall have to be very careful.' But for all that, his goodnight kiss would have been warmer if I had let it be.

"Then things began to move quickly towards a climax. One afternoon about 3 o'clock and during the slack time when there were few people in the café, a tall, erect man midway between sixty and seventy, I thought, came in and, after a good look round, walked over and sat down at a table near where I was standing. His distinguished, handsome face seemed somehow familiar to me. He regarded me curiously as he asked curtly for coffee and toast and, when I had served him and was attending to other customers, I saw his eyes were following me round. Presently, when at his request I made out his docket, he handed me a one pound note, and then when I returned him his 19 shillings in change, he pushed a two-shilling piece towards me over the table. 'Too much,' I smiled, laying down a shilling and sixpence.

"'Oh, that's it, is it?' he said with his face puckered up into a frown. He spoke scornfully, 'To kind of let me know, I suppose, that the two shillings wouldn't get me any forwarder, and that you preferred younger men.' Then, before I could take in what he meant, he went on very sharply, 'Here, young woman, my name's Hugh McCairne, and I want to know what you think is going to be the end of your going about with my boy.'

"My breath caught in my throat. Now, I realised why his face had seemed familiar. Of course, he was John's father! I could feel myself getting hot all over.

"He went on quickly, raising his voice, 'Yes, you may well blush, but it's about time you thought where things were leading you. With any sense, you must see——'

"'Hush, hush,' I exclaimed sharply, because some of the other customers were beginning to look round in our direction, 'this is not the place to discuss it!' I spoke with some indignation, 'Please, remember I have my living to get here, and you are attracting attention. If you want to speak to me it can be done somewhere else.'

"He calmed down at once. 'Well, will you meet me tonight at my hotel, the Semiris, at 7 o'clock?' he asked curtly. I hesitated, but I had got all my wits about me now, and was perfectly cool and collected. 'And I suppose that means you are asking me to dinner,' I said thoughtfully.

"He raised his eyebrows as if rather surprised and smiled coldly. 'All right,' he nodded. 'I'll give you something to eat. Then it's to be 7 o'clock and don't you be late, as I hate unpunctuality.'

"Now Nancy, my dear old father-in-law will have it that everything I did that night was done of deliberate purpose to entrap him. But if he is right, I only wanted to make him realise that, if ever John did ask me, I was quite nice enough to be his wife. The Semiris, of course, you remember, is about the most fashionable hotel in town, and I learnt afterwards that Mr. McCairne had never intended for one moment to take me to dinner there. Instead, he had meant to go to some quiet little place where it was not likely he would be recognised in my company. So when I arrived at the Semiris, he was waiting outside, all ready to whisk me away quickly before anybody had noticed our meeting.

"But when he saw me very nicely dressed and quite presentable—he didn't recognise me at first—after a moment's hesitation he changed his mind and with a grim and purposeful face took me into the big dining hall of the hotel.

"He did not seem too pleased, however, when we were given a table in the very centre of the room, but the place was crowded and that happened to be the only table available. When we were seated, he looked round frowningly and nodded to some men he knew, but in a few moments he turned back to me and his face broke into a rather reluctant smile. 'Gad, you're good-looking all right, Miss Trevor!' he exclaimed. 'I'll admit that. You're by far the prettiest girl here, and are making quite a lot of interest.' He chuckled, 'There are two friends of mine close near, all eyes and ears for what's going on, and won't they just have a tale to tell about me!' He made a grimace. 'I hope to goodness I get home before they do, to explain everything to my wife.'

"Then, all suddenly, his manner became most friendly. 'Now will you have a cocktail?' he asked. 'Oh, you won't! You want to keep your complexion, do you? Well, it's certainly worth keeping! But what would you like to drink? What, claret! Why, I quite thought you'd choose champagne!' He frowned. 'Has my son ever given you champagne?'

"'He's offered it, but I've refused,' I smiled. I had determined upon my line of action and spoke boldly. 'That's one thing I've talked to John about,' I went on. 'He has far too many nice things to drink. Never, of course, more than he can take easily, but more than are good for a boy of his age.'

"Mr. McCairne fairly gasped. 'But you've got a nerve, haven't you,' he exclaimed, 'talking as if you had some proprietary interest in my son?' He glared at me. 'What are your intentions, young woman?' He could hardly get his breath. 'Do you think he's going to marry you?'

"I interested myself in my fish for quite a minute before replying. Then I said rather hesitatingly, 'I don't quite know, Mr. McCairne. We've neither of us made up our minds yet.' I laughed. 'I'm not quite certain I should accept him, even if he proposed.'

"Mr. McCairne gulped down his astonishment and pretended to be very amused. 'And you a waitress in a café,' he exclaimed, 'in part depending upon your livelihood upon tips!'

"'That's nothing,' I said coolly. 'You were only a station hand once, probably earning far less than I am. Why are you proud of telling people how you have worked your way up!'

"He bowed ironically. 'A hit, Miss Trevor, a good hit!' he exclaimed. He nodded frowningly. 'Yes, you're a clever young woman, and I see my boy will have to look out!'

"'But why should he have to look out?' I asked warmly. 'Why should it be wrong if he wanted me to be his wife? You say I'm quite presentable! Well, I'm educated and I come of good stock. My father was a doctor.' I spoke with some sharpness. 'What do you find wrong about me?' He made no answer, and, the waiter coming to change our plates, quite a long silence ensued. 'Well,' I asked at last, 'can't you think of anything wrong?'

"I saw I had driven him into a corner, and he smiled and shook his head. 'Not for the moment,' he replied. He sighed. 'But come, let's talk about something else.'

"So we started upon quite an interesting conversation, chiefly about ourselves. He told me about his early struggles and how he had gradually made his way, and I told him of my life as a doctor's daughter in a small bush town and, humorously, of my adventures when looking for a situation in the city. The conversation was continued after dinner in the lounge, and ten o'clock came before either of us had realised how quickly the time had flown. Then I said I must be going home. Mr. McCairne made a grimace.

"'Look here, my dear,' he said, 'you've hypnotised me, and I really don't know what to say about you and John.' He smiled with mock resignation. 'I think you'd better come and spend a weekend with us at Riverdale. Then we'll see what John's mother thinks about you. Now, would you like to come?'

"My legs went all wobbly, but I pulled myself together and said I'd like to, very much. 'But I think you might very nicely ask my sister as well,' I went on. 'Then it won't look so obvious that I am being brought down for inspection.'

"'A good idea!' he exclaimed. The grim look returned to his face. 'And then we'll be able to see what the other member of the family is like. Riverdale is only just over a hundred miles from the city, and John can bring you both down.'

"'But one thing, please, Mr. McCairne,' I said. 'I'd like you to invite me openly in front of John. He'll be up in the city tomorrow, won't he? Well, he'll most likely come to the Rialto about eleven. So you appear a few minutes after.

"'You little schemer!' he exclaimed with mock severity. 'You'll be trying to run the whole family soon.' He nodded, 'Still, I'll do as you suggest.' Then he added as an afterthought, 'but I don't think we'd better say anything to John, at any rate, for the present, about our having met here tonight. I'll tell him myself later on.'

"The next morning John came into the Rialto rather later than I expected, and we had had only just time to say a few words when Mr. McCairne appeared and came straight up to us.

"'Ha, ha, my boy,' he exclaimed, shaking a finger reprovingly. 'I've found out at last what has been bringing you down so often to the city! No, no, you needn't introduce us. I came in yesterday and had a little chat with this young lady.'

"John's face was a study, and for the moment he seemed downright annoyed, but then his easy smile came back, and, thinking I must be brightened,?? he nodded reassuringly to me. 'It's all right, Helen,' he said, 'my father's a dear old fellow, and you needn't be in the least bit afraid of him.'

"'Afraid of me!' laughed the old man, as if it were a good joke. 'Why, the boot's on the other foot. I'm the one to be afraid of a girl with eyes like hers.'

"I left them together and did not return to their table until they were getting up to leave. Then, in saying good-bye, Mr. McCairne gave me the invitation for the following Friday.

"Oh, Nancy, that weekend was such a triumph for me! John's mother took to me at once, and treated me as if I were a most honored guest. She was a sweet old lady and not a bit stuck-up. John was very quiet and didn't say much, but I could see he was proud of me, and very pleased with the way things were going. Strangely enough, although we were left a lot together that weekend our love-making was very restrained, on my part because I had no intention of letting John think I took anything for granted, and upon his, because, as he told me afterwards, he never liked things to be arranged for him, and he thought his parents were doing it then.

"On the Sunday night, just before we got ready to go back to the city, Mr. McCairne drew me to one side. 'Look here, little woman,' he said, 'both the wife and I are very happy about everything, and would like to see you and John come to an understanding. But you must first get to thoroughly know your own minds, and so what I suggest is this. Hand in your notice to the Rialto at once, and then come here as my secretary and companion to my wife. I'll give you £100 a year, and if you and my boy don't finally hit it off'— he shook his finger at me—'then, you little adventuress, I'll look out for a husband for you somewhere else. Yes, you can kiss me if you like, but I'm sure it won't be one like those you give John.' You can imagine how thrilled I was.

"I went to them a fortnight afterwards, and things could not have been happier for me. John was most attentive and made very few trips to the city, and then only when he was absolutely obliged to go. I was more in love with him than ever, and we seemed to be drifting into a matter-of-course engagement.

"But suddenly a dreadful thing happened, and if I hadn't acted as the bold little adventuress they all laughingly pretended me to be. I might have lost John altogether.

"All at once John became cold towards me. He didn't want to kiss me any more, and, as much as possible, avoided being alone with me. He took to stopping up in the city, too, for two and even three days at a time, and altogether it was quite plain to everybody that he was intending to drop me.

"His father and mother were most upset, but they said nothing to me, and, of course, I was much too proud to refer to it. I felt terribly hurt, but tried not to let anyone see it, and, outwardly, was just as smiling and bright as before.

"Then one night at dinner John suddenly announced he was going for a trip to Colombo and sailing the following week. He explained he wanted a change, and was sure the voyage would do him good.

"Mr. and Mrs. McCairne looked dumbfounded and didn't say a word, but I made myself appear to be most interested and asked him all sorts of questions about the voyage and what the boat he was going in was like. I was as happy about it as if I were going myself. After dinner, however, when without a word he left the room, I followed him. 'Here, John,' I said firmly, 'I want to speak to you. Come out into the garden.'

He frowned and hesitated, but my manner was insistent and he came after me. I led him into the summer house just across the lawn. My heart was beating like a sledge hammer, but I held myself well in hand.

"'Sit down,' I said, and seating myself down, too, but well away from him, I went on sharply, 'Now, I want an explanation, please, and it's not only myself I'm thinking of but of your father and mother as well. You must see how you're upsetting them.' I spoke disdainfully. 'What does it all mean?'

"'What does what all mean?' he echoed, making out he was surprised at my question.

"'Oh, don't pretend you don't know,' I retorted angrily. 'Something's turned you against me and it's a week since you've offered to kiss me. You avoid me, too, as if I were something hateful. What's happened?'

"He regarded me very coldly. 'I don't like girls,' he said slowly, and holding my eyes with his, 'who make out they're so straight and proper and then, when it suits them, carry on in a way which suggests the exact opposite.'

"'Meaning me?' I asked incredulously.

"'Who else?' he scoffed. Then he rapped out fiercely, 'Who was that old man you were seen sitting with in the lounge of the Semiris Hotel, one night, late, a little while before you came up here?'

"I gasped and, so overwhelming was my relief, I could not speak. Instead, I threw back my head and burst into nervous but rippling laughter. 'Oh, you foolish boy,' I cried, 'and so it's that which has been making you behave all this time like a sulky child?' I was trembling all over and could not keep my voice from shaking. 'Why, hasn't your dad ever told you? It was he who took me to the Semiris that night and——' but I broke down and burst into tears.

"John had his arms round me in two seconds. 'No, no, you shall never kiss me again,' I cried furiously. 'You've doubted me and——'

"But with his face pressed so close to mine I could not get out another word. I just closed my eyes and the next few minutes were among the very happiest in all my life.

"And you just understand, you little witch, that I'll be kissing you now for keeps,' he said masterfully, when at last he let me free to smooth down my dishevelled hair. He pulled me to him again and his voice dropped tenderly. 'Oh, I'm so ashamed of myself. I'll never doubt you again.'

"Presently we went back into the house and his father's face broke into a delighted smile as he saw us walking so close together, with John holding tightly to my hand.

"'But what's happened?' gasped his mother, with her eyes opened very wide.

"'Oh, nothing much,' laughed John. He bent down and kissed me shamelessly in front of them. 'Only that this young woman here has just asked me to be her husband and, to save argument, I've consented.'

"'Oh, you story-teller!' I protested vehemently. 'I did nothing of the kind,' but both his parents pretended not to believe me.

"Six weeks later we were married, and I know I had the very loveliest honeymoon any girl could have ever had. But I must finish now, for I hear John's car in the drive and want to seal this letter up, so that he cannot suggest he should read what I've been writing about. He'd only laugh and say it was at last the frank confession of his little adventuress. So, with heaps of love until I write again,

Your affectionate cousin,

"Helen McCairne."


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