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Title: The Other Man Author: Mary Gaunt * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1402251h.html Language: English Date first posted: June 2014 Most recent update: June 2014 This eBook was produced by: Maurie Mulcahy 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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CHAPTER I.—A NEW HOME.
CHAPTER II.—THE GRANTS OF KOORINGA.
CHAPTER III.—MRS. GRANT'S PICNIC.
CHAPTER IV.—"I SHALL CULTIVATE HIS ACQUAINTANCE."
CHAPTER V.—"A CHANCE MEETING."
CHAPTER VI.—"YOU OUGHT TO TELL THOSE GIRLS YOU'RE A MARRIED MAN."
CHAPTER VII.—ONE SUNDAY AFTERNOON.
CHAPTER VIII.—"A DAY IN BALLARAT."
CHAPTER IX.—MAITLAND TELLS A STORY AND RUTH MAKES A MISTAKE.
CHAPTER X.—DOLLY'S ENGAGEMENT.
CHAPTER XI.—DOLLY'S WEDDING DAY.
CHAPTER XII.—THE TRUTH AT LAST.
CHAPTER XIII.—DREARY DAYS.
CHAPTER XIV.—TWO YEARS AFTER.
CHAPTER XV.—A DISTURBANCE IN THE FAMILY.
CHAPTER XVI.—THE DOCTOR'S WOOING.
CHAPTER XVII.—TELLING DOLLY THE NEWS.
CHAPTER XVIII.—THE FOREST FIRE.
CHAPTER XIX.—A STRUGGLE FOR LIFE.
CHAPTER XXI.—POOR ALICK FINLAYSON.
CHAPTER XXII.—A MISTAKEN LOVE.
CHAPTER XXIII.—"I MUST GO AWAY."
CHAPTER XXV.—TO MELBOURNE.
CHAPTER XXVII.—EVERYTHING COMETH TO HIM WHO WAITS.
It had been raining all the morning—dull, dreary, cold, penetrating rain, as it does rain in the west of Victoria in the winter time, and though it had ceased towards the afternoon the heavy clouds still hung low and threatening. Now, about 5 o'clock, just as the sun was setting he had made a final struggle, and pierced the cloud bank in the west in long level lines, showing the blue sky beyond edged with clouds golden and rosy red. It was watery sunshine, though, that gleamed hopelessly in the shallow pools on the roadway, without much promise of warmth in it, and the road was only a stock route, bounded on either hand by ugly wire fences, which stretched away in parallel lines across the stony plain far as the eye could see. A lonely, dreary prospect—the stony plain and the ugly fences; there were hardly any trees, only a clump here and there which had been planted for shelter for the stock; and the grass was short, brown, and dingy, for it was the middle of June, the depth of winter, and in the south-west of Victoria the new grass does not begin to spring till August.
Away in the distance the dim hills bounded the horizon; here an isolated bald hill rising abruptly from the plain, indeed part and parcel of the plain itself forced upwards by some primeval upheaval, and there a rugged forest-clad range, its rough outlines softened by distance and the damp, foggy atmosphere. Not a bird or beast was visible, sheep there must have been, of course, but these were all huddled together for warmth wherever a scanty shelter might be found from the bitter cold wind. The only sign of life on all the dreary landscape was a two seated buggy slowly drawn along a somewhat zig-zag course, to avoid the irregularities of the road, by a pair of rough, grey, grass-fed ponies. It was a somewhat dilapidated turnout. The harness was brown and cracked with age, the ponies were unkempt and ungroomed; and the buggy, underneath the coating of mud, to which it was momentarily adding, showed yet other layers, which spoke only too plainly of economy in the matter of cleansing. It was a light, low buggy, without a hood, certainly not built to carry luggage; yet at the present moment it contained, greatly to the inconvenience of its occupants, a portmanteau and two or three bags, which required all their attention to keep from jolting out. They were four in number—three women and a lad about seventeen. Two of the women seemed somewhat out of place, wrapped up as they were in sealskins and furs, with heavy veils drawn over their faces to keep off the cutting wind; but the driver, who handled the ribbons as if she knew what she was about, as indeed she did, went in for no such feminine additions. Her figure was square and thick-set, and her face, hard and weather beaten, might have belonged to any woman between the ages of 20 and 40; and though most people might have been inclined to lean rather towards the latter, Ann Grant was in reality but little over five-and-twenty. As she herself would have said, she had no time to give to vanities, and so made her plain hard face plainer and harder by crowning it with a knitted black cap, while she kept out the cold by enveloping herself in a black and purple woollen shawl, which was crossed in front and tied behind in a firm knot, which as yet it had defied the efforts of the wind to undo. The daintily clad girl beside her thought the whole costume unbecoming, not to say hideous, and had been mentally wondering ever since they had met at the railway station at Gaffer's Flat whether she was not making some mistake—this surely could not be her cousin, the daughter of the rich squatter who was lord over a hundred square miles of pasture land, and worth they said at least £7,000 a year.
Ann Grant made some efforts to entertain her and play the hostess, and pointed out the hills in the distance with the end of her broken whip.
"There's old Saddleback—dear old Saddleback," she said in hard aggressive tones—tones meant to be friendly but which only succeeded in being affected, not to say patronising. "I always know when I see the hollow of his saddle that we're near home."
"Oh," sighed the other girl wearily, "are we near home?"
"Yes, only two more miles. Gaffer's Flat's twenty miles from Kooringa—just a pleasant drive I call it."
"Do you? Well, yes, I daresay it is in the summer," said her cousin politely—every bone in her body was aching; "but—but—the weather is rather cold and wet for driving just at present, don't you think so?" And she shivered, and drew her cloak more closely round her.
"Cold, Ruth!" said Miss Grant, severely, "when you've been with us a little you'll soon learn not to pay attention to the weather. Heat or cold, I let nothing interfere with my duty."
"I'm sure it's very good of you," murmured Ruth, trying to settle the portmanteau, which a heavy jolt had flung against her knees. "I'm afraid I shouldn't see many duties that called me out on a day like this."
"The Lord sends the duties," said Ann, smugly. "It's our blessed privilege to perform His will."
"I'd call it anything but a blessed privilege to drive forty miles on a day like this. I've been thinking all along, Ann, how very kind it was of you to come for us yourself, and not to send a man."
"There are no idle men at Kooringa," said Ann; "each has his appointed work." And for the moment Ruth subsided, feeling horribly snubbed, and more sure than ever that between her and her cousin there was and never could be anything in common.
They drove on in silence; the sun sank beneath the horizon, the golden glory died out of the skies, a heavy mist crept up, driven by the chill north wind, and Ruth drew her cloak more closely round her in the darkness and sighed audibly—a sigh which her sister behind her echoed wearily.
The road was getting worse; the horses splashed through shallow pools of water invisible in the darkness, and the wheels sank deeper and deeper in the mire. "Willie" was ordered by his sister to get down and open another gate, and then she turned to her guests and remarked curtly—
"Were on Kooringa now—dear Kooringa."
"Dear Kooringa" Ruth thought must be principally remarkable for stones to judge by the way in which the unfortunate occupants of the buggy were being jolted about.
A few moments later the horses drew up of their own accord opposite a long, low building surrounded by a wide verandah. There were lights in two of the windows, but most of the house was wrapped in darkness.
"This is the house," said Ann; "jump out." And she proceeded to give vent to a series of wild war-whoops, at first producing no effect whatever, but which at last resulted in the door being flung open by a swarm of tumultuous children, who seemed to Ruth in the darkness to be all about the same age and size. They made straight for the buggy, out of which she and her sister with the assistance of Willie were engaged in taking out their various wraps and parcels, and, regardless of their pinafores, began climbing up over the muddy wheels.
"Ah, children," said Ann Grant, "you're glad to see sister back, aren't you? Come Ethel, come Rosy. Where's my little brother Teddy; and Vera—where's Vera darling?"
None of them paid the least attention to her blandishments, nor did they take any notion of the newcomers. The hall was but dimly lighted by a flat candlestick, in which a tallow candle was guttering in the wind, and the two girls stepped inside to shelter a little from the chilly night air.
"Dolly, dear," whispered the elder, taking off her veil and giving her sister's hand a reassuring little squeeze. They were so cold, so miserable, so tired, that the younger girl was on the verge of tears. Outside Ann's voice could still be heard playing the kindly elder sister.
"How many of you are coming down to the stable with me? All? Take care, then, Teddy; Rosy must not tumble out; Vera must sit on sister's knee; Willie hold——"
The little display of domestic affection was suddenly cut short by the appearance of a tall, thin, angular woman in a huge kitchen apron wielding a long gravy-spoon. Ruth thought at first she was the cook, but a second glance showed her it was Mrs. Grant, her cousin's wife and the mother of Ann and, she supposed, of these children.
"Oh, my dears," she said, advancing and kissing them kindly, "you've arrived, have you? I'm glad to see you, very glad. You'd like to go to your room now, wouldn't you? Now, what are those children doing out there? Ann, Ann," she called at the top of her voice. "I won't have those children out in the cold. Rosy's got chilblains, and you know I was up all last night with Vera with the croup. Come in, you children, this minute."
"It isn't cold, mother," said Ann aggressively. "I told them to come."
"And I tell them to come in," said Mrs. Grant. "It's raining, and I won't have them down in that muddy yard."
"It's not raining," shouted her daughter out of the darkness. "Come, children."
"Children," persisted Mrs. Grant in the same tone, "come in this minute."
And Mrs. Grant dashed out into the darkness, and presently returned driving before her with the aid of the gravy-spoon the little flock. Once having seen them safe inside she banged the door and ordered them back into the school-room.
They filed off, shy little bush children, their fingers and the corners of their dirty pinafores in their mouths, looking shyly and furtively out of the corners of their eyes at the strangers. The smallest went last, a fair-haired, waxen-complexioned little girl, with glorious deep grey eyes and long dark lashes, a marked contrast to the rest of the children, who, ruddy and rosy as they looked, were perhaps somewhat too rudely healthy for beauty. This small girl's coarse holland pinafore was deeply marked where she had leaned against the muddy spokes of the wheel, and her heavy leather boots looked as if she had sounded unknown depths of liquid mud. Mrs. Grant caught sight of her as she passed close under the candle, and laying violent hands on her she drew her back by her short skirts.
"Vera, you naughty child, wherever have you been?"
"In the mud," said the little maiden, raising one extremely muddy boot with the toe of the other and contemplating it calmly.
"In the mud, indeed? Yes, and whatever will become of you if you go on like this?" And Mrs. Grant emphasised her remarks with a little shake.
Vera transferred her attention from her muddy boots to her mother's face with the same air of calmly contemplating someone else's misdoings.
"'Spects God won't love me and I'll go to hell," she remarked, twisting her skirts out of the detaining hand and walking off with childish dignity in the wake of the others.
"Was there ever such a child!" said Mrs. Grant perplexedly. "Now, my dears," she added, turning to the two tired girls, "you'd like to go to your room, wouldn't you? Do you think you and I can carry your portmanteau between us, eh, Ruth? Ah, that's right. Dorothy, you carry the basket, and we can come back for the hat-box. Now, this way."
She led them down narrow passages, unlighted save for the guttering tallow candle she had brought from the front hall, up half a dozen steps, down four more, through a room where were two unmade beds, until finally she dropped her end of the portmanteau and, flinging open a door, said—
"Here we are, girls. I put you both together in the spare room. I thought you'd be happier. The boys sleep in this room, but they're not often in it, and if they are you've only got to knock and they'll let you through."
She put the candle down on the chest of drawers and dragged in the trunk which Ruth had wearily let drop.
"Now, girls, tea'll be ready in half an hour, but you'll hear the bell. You've got everything, I think. Well, my scones 'll burn if I stop any longer," and she bustled out and banged the door behind her.
Ruth began slowly to take off her wraps. She was a tall slender girl, whose Jewish name would more fitly have become her dark-haired, dark-complexioned younger sister, for though she had dark eyes and eyelashes she had the fairest of complexions and golden hair. Dorothy, on the other hand, much as she resembled her sister, was a decided brunette. They were pretty girls both of them, but which bore off the palm it was difficult to say. Ruth's beauty was certainly of a rarer, more refined type than her sister's, and yet many people were to be found who thought she was not to be compared to Dorothy.
At the present moment that young lady was slowly unwinding her veil, and when that was accomplished began with stiff, cold fingers to unbutton her sealskin, apparently lost in such deep thought that she paid no attention to surrounding objects.
"Oh, Dolly, dear," said Ruth, kneeling down and beginning to unstrap their trunk, "how do you think we'll like it?"
For all answer Dorothy flung herself down on the bed and buried her face in the pillows.
"Oh, Ruth, Ruth," she cried, "if we've got to live here for the rest of our lives I'd just as soon be dead."
All their lives Ruth and Dorothy Grant had been accustomed to comfort, not to say luxury, for their father had been in the Government service, had received a good income, and had spent it lavishly, and the girls had wanted for nothing. Unfortunately, Thomas Grant had made very little provision for his daughters' future, and when he died, a month before my story opens, the two girls found that all they had in the world only amounted to £60 a year. Sixty pounds a year is hardly enough for two young ladies accustomed to every luxury to live upon, and the two Miss Grants began to look about them, and to wonder if they could not possibly turn their expensive education to good account. Then came Mr. Grant, of Kooringa's offer, a kindly offer, couched in the kindliest terms. Blood was thicker than water, he wrote; his cousin Tom had been his nearest of kin, and he would be only too delighted to give his children a home. His household was a large one. They would find brothers and sisters in his children, a mother and father, he hoped, in his wife and himself. Two lonely girls could not live in Melbourne by themselves; would they come?
And Ruth had accepted gratefully. She had never seen this cousin, did not know any of the Kooringa Grants, but she accepted his offer gratefully, and this bitter dreary day in June saw them arrive at their new home.
It was depressing, certainly. Put as brave a face upon it as she would she could not but sympathise with her sister's tears. If this evening was to be taken as a sample of their future life she wondered how indeed they were to manage to exist. She looked round the room, dimly illumined by the one candle. It was not badly furnished, and yet over the whole there was a comfortlessness that was painfully evident. To begin with, the floor was covered with Indian matting, which, though it is perhaps better than the bare boards, is certainly cold and cheerless in the depth of winter; the bed was hung with most funereal curtains; the looking glass, perched high on a chest of drawers—for there was no dressing-table—had lost one of its supports, and was propped up on that side by a pile of tracts and a hair-brush that had seen better days; a hard sofa stood in the window, and in the opposite corner was a broken-down child's cot, which had apparently seen good service and was now passing a serene old age as a receptacle for the superfluous family bedding. The fireplace was filled with faded bracken which crumbled at a touch, and the walls were adorned in lieu of pictures with familiar and well-worn texts, picked out in all the colours of the rainbow.
Ruth poured some water into the basin. It was icy-cold, and she rubbed her hands hard with the stiff coarse towel to try and restore animation to her frozen fingers, but she only hurt them, and there was a lump in her throat as she stood gazing out of the curtainless window into the dreary night. Away in the distance faintly gleamed a light—the light from the men's hut—and then it vanished. Was it the rain outside that shut it out, or the tears that filled her own eyes? She put up her hand and brushed away those tears determinedly and defiantly. She was no mere girl, she told herself, to break down and weakly cry just because she was cold and uncomfortable. Dolly might do it, but then Dolly was only a girl still, though she was but a year younger than the elder sister, who had cared for and loved and shielded her all through their motherless lives. She crossed over to the bed and put her hand on her sister's shoulder.
"Dolly, Dolly, dear, don't cry so."
Dolly lifted up her tear-stained face.
"Well, Ruth, isn't it wretched?"
"Yes, dear, but don't cry—please don't cry, or you'll make me cry, too."
"Can we live here?" her sister asked, sitting up on the bed and putting the question with desperate earnestness.
"Dear, we'll have to. What else can we do? What in the wide world is there for two girls like us to do?"
"Other girls earn their own livings, and and—we have £60 a year between us."
Ruth knelt down by her sister's side, and put her arm round her waist.
"And we have spent more than that on our clothes alone—much more. Just look at these furs. Besides, how do girls earn their living? Governessing, I suppose, is about the only thing we could do. And what sort of governesses should we make? I couldn't teach—I couldn't—I'm sure I couldn't. I wonder am I worth £20 a year to anybody. Oh, and Dolly, you don't want to part from me, do you?"
Dolly put a caressing hand on her sister's shoulder, and lifted up her face to be kissed.
"No, dearie, no, we couldn't part, could we? We've always been such mates. Better dependence—humiliating dependence—and the Grants than to be parted altogether," and she emphasised her decision with another kiss.
"Yes, dear, yes."
"You know," she went on, cheering up, as Dolly always did after she'd had a good cry and thoroughly ventilated her grievance, "after all, we always made our own happiness. The house was comfortable, and we had plenty of good things to eat and plenty of clothes, but there was Dad—and, well Dad wasn't a model father."
"I won't hush. You always hush me when I talk about it, but was he a model father, now?"
"Plenty of clothes, plenty of good things to eat, and a comfortable home," repeated Ruth; "well, really, Dolly——"
"I didn't say a comfortable home. I said house—most emphatically house—house—house. Home is quite another thing. I don't think we had a comfortable home. Seriously now, Ruth, do you miss father?"
Ruth hung her head.
"There, I knew it," said Dolly, getting quite cheerful and triumphant. "How could you possibly. Did he ever in his life speak a solitary word to us if he could help himself? Did he love us, do you think?"
"I suppose so."
"He had a funny sort of way of showing it. Do other fathers shut their daughters up, I wonder, and not let them have a single friend—man, woman, or child. Do other fathers never address a word to their daughters unless it is to growl at something that has gone wrong that is as much their fault as the man in the moon's?"
"Oh, Dolly, don't talk like that."
"Well, but it's true. And it is cruel, whatever you may say, to bring us up in luxury all our lives and then turn us adrift with barely enough to keep body and soul together."
"He was our father."
"So he was; so I won't say anything more about him; but, oh, Ruth! his relations are worse than himself. However are we to live in this awful hole? At least, Dad was a gentleman; but Ann, and Mrs. Grant, and those children—Ruth, aren't they just awful?"
"I wonder did we expect too much," pondered Ruth. "Perhaps we have seen so little of the world. Perhaps they wouldn't strike other people as strangely as they do us."
"H'm; I don't know. They're awfully pious, aren't they? How'll you and I get on with a pious family, Ruth, when Scripture and manners were entirely left out of our education? What do you suppose we'll be expected to do?"
"Help in the Lord's work by teaching in Sabbath-school," quoted Ruth. "At least, that's what Ann told me on our way here."
"What a prospect. But I'm hungry. What time's dinner!"
"Dinner? Tea, you mean. It's a movable feast, I believe, held some time between six and eight. Come now, Dolly, since we've decided to make the best of it, suppose you take off your things, brush your hair, and let's go and be introduced to our new family."
Five minutes later the two girls stood timidly before a fast-closed door, and Ruth raised her hand and knocked.
"It mightn't be the right room after all," she said. "I'd better knock."
"Come in," said someone from the inside, "Come in," and they pushed open the door and entered.
The dining-room at Kooringa was a long low room crowded with furniture. No one would have dreamt of calling it a handsome room, though some of the furniture had evidently cost money. It was not even a cosy room, for the linoleum which covered the floor was a very poor substitute for a carpet, and the blindless windows, over which it had occurred to no one to draw the curtains, let in the dreary night, and made the room seem cold and comfortless, even though there was a roaring fire on the hearth. At the first glance Ruth decided that never in all her life had she seen such an untidy room, but she had no time to look round, for a grizzled rough old man struggled up out of a shabby arm-chair as they entered, and greeted them kindly enough.
"Well, my girls," and it struck her at once that his accent was not that of an educated man; it was so different from her father's cultivated tones, "Well, my girls; welcome to Kooringa. Take a seat now and warm yourselves till tea's ready."
They drew up two cane chairs to the fire, and while he asked Dolly questions about their journey, Ruth took stock of the room. A long dining-table ran down the middle of it, covered with a course white cloth roughly laid for tea. A common earthenware flower pot turned upside down formed a stand for a kerosene lamp, which smelt so abominably she found herself wondering if her new relatives could possibly have any noses, and round this were ranged tumblers of various sorts and sizes, which did duty as jam pots. The cutlery, crockery, and plate were all of the plainest, commonest description, and the table lacked those adornments in the way of flowers which she had always considered necessary additions to a meal. At the further end of the room, blocking a window, stood a handsomely carved American organ, the top of which was covered with cheap Bibles and hymn books piled up in the most hopeless disorder and overflowing on to an old horsehair sofa, out of which the stuffing was protruding. There were two bookcases in the room, but the upper halves were carefully locked, while the lower were stuffed so full of papers, principally, it seemed, tracts, that they, too, overflowed on to the floor. Indeed, the Grant family seemed to have a difficulty in stowing away their numerous possessions. The sideboard and the dinner-waggon were so laden with entirely foreign material that they themselves were hardly distinguishable, but the mantel-shelf was first favourite. Each member of the family had apparently put something down there, till now there was not an available square inch of room.
A clock stood in the middle—a handsome bronze clock which ticked away busily—but something hand gone wrong with the hands, and they both hung down together, hopelessly pointing to half-past 6. Two candlesticks in the form of mailed warriors stood at each end, but one had been temporarily extinguished by a child's sun bonnet, and the other, being broken somewhere about his middle, leaned drunkenly against the wall in a manner hardly in keeping with the ferocious expression of his countenance. Besides these three articles it was difficult to say what there was not on that mantelpiece. Packets of letters supported the clock on either hand and protruded from behind it; on top was a small white jar containing about a teaspoonful of honey and a large medicine bottle marked "Lotion" and "Poison." There were three or four other medicine bottles at intervals on the shelf, mostly half empty and corkless. There were two or three half-finished socks with knitting needles attached, an old slipper, evidently belonging to Mr. Grant and in the last stages of decrepitude, two odd children's shoes, a half-empty pot of marmalade, a crust of bread and half a jam turnover, three candle ends, four skeins of mending cotton, a reel of thread, a slouch hat, a pair of broken shears, a rusty spur, a pot of vaseline, several crumpled newspapers, and various other odds and ends, such as broken shoelaces and discarded hair ribbons. There were no pictures on the walls, and the only pretence at adorning them and breaking the monotony of the bare plaster was a large framed text over the fireplace, "God Bless Our Home."
"Want your tea, my girl, eh?" said Mr. Grant. "Well, hold on a bit. We're only waiting till the others come in."
"Out on such a day as this," murmured Ruth.
"A prayer meeting and mothers' meeting at Dog Leg Gully," said Mr. Grant. "We never neglect the Lord's work. I pray we never may."
A moment later "the others" came in. Two women wrapped up in wet woollen shawls and the very muddiest ulsters Ruth had ever seen. One was a tall, strapping, buxom young woman, about her own age, and so like Ann it was hardly necessary her father should introduce her as his second daughter Lily. The other was a little shrivelled-up old maid of fifty, with an aquiline nose, and a sharp voice, whom Lily introduced as "our Auntie."
"Just an adopted auntie, you know," she added. "Her real name's Miss Kennedy. But we like her, and she likes us, and we're all so earnest in the same work, that she lives with us, and is our Auntie. Aren't you, dear?"
"Yes, and yours, too," said Miss Kennedy, bestowing on each girl a frozen peck, which Dolly afterwards declared nearly turned her to stone.
"Tea, tea, tea," said Mr. Grant, rapping with a knife-handle on the table to call attention to his wants. "We'll have tea now you've come."
"Oh, Cousin John——"
"Call me 'Uncle,' my girl. It sounds better."
"Oh, uncle," said Dolly, "I was only going to ask you not to hurry them for us. We can easily wait while they change their things."
"Change," said the florid Lily, somewhat contemptuously, "change, that's just one of your town notions. We don't spend much time on titivation here, I can tell you. We'll just slip out of our wet ulsters and we're ready. Ring the bell, Auntie."
Miss Kennedy seized an old cow bell, which was evidently past service in the field, and rang it as loud as it would ring. She and Lily slipped off their wet muddy outer garments and flung them on top of the Bibles and hymn books, just as Mrs. Grant, bearing a huge tray of scones, and followed by her numerous family, appeared on the scene.
"I've had no end of bother with these scones," she said somewhat fretfully. "Ann, where's a plate for them?"
"Oh, never mind," said Ann. "Here, clear a space and the tray'll do as well as anything else. Now children—children—don't make such a noise, but take your places quietly if you can. Children—children—what will your new cousins think of you?"
There were such an array of them—twelve in all—ranging from Will, a great hulking fellow of seventeen, who thought himself a man, down to the fairy-like little Vera, whom they had before noticed. Seven girls and five boys. Ruth wondered if she should be ever able to remember them all. All, with the exception of Vera, were like their two elder sisters, stolid, healthy-looking country children, two or three of whom were curiously unlike in features to their brothers and sisters.
"You see you have plenty of cousins, Ruth," said Mrs. Grant, smiling as her family shuffled into their seats, not without much wrangling and bickering.
"Yes, I had no idea, Aunt, you had so many children."
"Well, they're not all mine. You see, your uncle, he has views, and he don't approve of orphans. He thinks when all the world's true Christians there'll be none. They'll all be adopted into other families that can afford to keep them."
"And you ——, how good of you," murmured Ruth, hardly knowing what to say, and wondering if the adopted orphans minded being spoken about thus publicly.
"Good, oh, not at all," said Mrs. Grant, "four of these are adopted, and they're very good children, too, ar'n't you, Teddy?" and she laid her hand on the shoulder of a smiling, good-humoured black-eyed boy of thirteen.
Mr. Grant rapped the table again with his knife-handle.
"Mother, mother," he called out, as if his wife were somewhere out on the run and not at the opposite end of the table, "mother, mother, we want a blessing."
"Vera," said Mrs. Grant, "say grace."
This child, too, was evidently one of the adopted orphans, so different was she in face and figure from her brothers and sisters. As the youngest there she was called upon to say grace; but there was a mutinous expression upon the pretty little face, and she did not at once obey.
"Vera," repeated Mrs. Grant, "say grace."
"Don't like my tea," said Vera.
"What's that got to do with it, Sis?" asked Willie, bending over her kindly.
The child turned her face away.
"Don't like veal," she said again; "shan't say no grace," and though Mrs. Grant administered what she called a "good sound smack," Vera adhered to her determination. The principal dish on the table was a fore-quarter of cold boiled salt veal, and Dolly kicked her sister under the table in token that she was in perfect accord with her little cousin, and didn't like veal in that form either.
"Vera, you get no tea till you say your grace," said her mother.
"Don't want no tea—don't like it," protested Vera.
"Vera," said Ann, solemnly, unctuously Ruth though, "the Lord will never love little girls who are so wicked as not to thank Him for their good food."
"'Tain't good," protested Vera. "The Lord wouldn't like that veal for tea, I know."
Ruth and Dolly, trying to be grateful to their earthly benefactors for the unsavoury delicacies on their plates, thoroughly sympathised with the child, but it was evident no one else did, for "Vera" came in tones of varying degrees of horror from all round the table, and Mrs. Grant promptly swooped down on the offender, laid her across her knees, and administered condign punishment there and then with a very substantial slipper, taken off for the purpose. Then she placed the child on a chair, with her face to the window curtain, and returned to the table with the virtuous air of a woman who has done her duty.
"Vera is very strange just at present," she said, half-apologetically to Ruth, after she had poured out tea all round. "She has only been with us two months, and her father was a curiously careless man about some matters. However, in time I trust we shall bring her into the fold and make her one of the Lord's own little lambs."
"Shan't be a little lamb," said Vera, from her place of punishment; "I'se goin' to be a pwincess."
"I is. My muvver was a pwincess, an' I'll be one, an' wear a white wilk dwess wif goldie thweads on it, an'——"
Vera's imagination was apparently good for another half-hour had not Ann left her seat and shaken her with truly Puritan vigour.
Mrs. Grant looked at her eldest daughter. The family might be very pious and given over to Christian works, but it was evident to the strangers that mother and daughter were not in accord.
"Come here, Vera," she said.
Ann let her go reluctantly.
"Vera, will you be good?"
The little maid pursed up her mouth and nodded.
Mrs. Grant lifted her up on to the high chair.
"Now, say your grace."
"Thank God, for all his mercies," said Vera, and accepted the cold veal without another word.
"Girls, girls—Ruth, Dolly—where are you?"
Mr. Grant's voice was a good strong one when she chose to raise it, which she did pretty often, and it rang through the house in strident tones that made the two girls pause in their unpacking.
"Snakes alive!" she cried, flinging open the door, "What a mess! You'll never get straight, will you? And what a lot of clothes! Whatever do you want with so many dresses?"
"Well," said Dolly demurely, "we wear them as a rule."
"Do you? Oh, well, they'll last a good bit here. We don't bother about much extra dressing. You'll soon find we've too much to do for that. But I say, would you girls like to come for a little picnic? The father and Willie have gone out mustering, and I thought if you liked we might take their luncheons to them."
Dolly looked out of the window doubtfully. A furious wind was howling round the house, tearing at the windows, shrieking down the chimneys, bending the tall slender gum saplings in the plantation by the lake nearly double. It was certainly not an inviting day for a picnic, and she would have liked to decline the invitation, but Ruth answered for them both.
"Thank you, aunt; we'd like to go very much. When'll you start?"
"Now," said Mrs Grant. "Put on your things and come and help me put up the luncheon."
Ruth would have liked to reverse that order, but she did as she was bid, and they joined their aunt in the dining-room, where she was standing over a fore-quarter of veal, the fellow to the one they had had last night. Dolly made a wry face at her sister, and was caught in the act by little golden-haired Vera, who was also looking on.
She said nothing for the moment, but drew a chair up to the sideboard and, peering through the heterodox collection of goods collected there, surveyed her own fair little reflection in the glass, apparently with much satisfaction.
"How do you do, Vewabella?" she said, nodding her head. "Hasn't seen you for a long time. Is you quite well?"
Verabella in the glass nodded back in friendly fashion to Vera on the chair, and answered,
"Quite well, thank you."
"Cousin Dolly doesn't like veal," went on Vera confidentially, and Dolly shivered, wondering what would come next, when Mrs. Grant, suddenly turning round, caught sight of the child whom she had not apparently noticed before.
"Vera, Vera," she said, "how often am I to tell you not to be so silly? Come down this minute."
But the little girl ventured to stay where she was a moment longer.
"Is your mother cwoss, Vewabella?" she asked, and receiving a confirmatory nod in the glass, added, "cos mine is, vewy," and she pursed up her lips as if to convey that it was a desperate situation.
"Ruth," said Mrs Grant sharply, "lift that child down."
Ruth put a gentle arm round the little one.
"Come, dear," she said. "Mother doesn't like you to do that. Come."
For a moment Vera stiffened her back and resisted, then relenting, suddenly buried her face in the girl's soft sealskin.
"O-o-o-h," she said. "Hasn't you got a nice pussy. Is you goin' to wear your pussy?"
"Yes, indeed, my dears," said Mrs. Grant, "those sealskins are much too good for a place like this. Now look at me."
Whether she considered her appearance called for admiration Ruth could not say. Her rough ulster was coated with mud up to the waist, the inevitable woollen shawl adorned her shoulders, and on her head was perched a battered black silk bonnet, adorned by way of ornament with a wisp of rusty black ostrich feathers, out of which the curl had long since departed.
"Your ulster—it is a little muddy," hesitated Ruth, "shall I brush it for you?"
"Lor no, my dear. If I brushed it whenever it got muddy I might always be at it. I just keep it for days like this. It'll do very well as it is. Who's to see? Now then, girls, are you ready? Vera, do you want to come? Run along, then, and get your things on. I'm not going to take any plates or knives or forks. They're only a nuisance. One knife'll do to cut the bread and meat. I suppose you two won't mind drinking out of the same cup, will you?"
Ruth laughed, and the two girls helped their aunt to carry out the various parcels to the buggy which stood at the front door. It was the same buggy they had arrived in the night before, with just the extra coating of mud dried on, not an aristocratic or distinguished-looking conveyance, but, said Mrs. Grant, "quite good enough for the plains."
Not that it was all flat country either, for the house stood on a gentle swell which sloped down to the shores of the lake, the waters of which could be seen gleaming grey between the trunks of the bluegums which John Grant had planted nearly sixteen years before to form a shelter for the stock. It was along the margin of the lake their way lay, a lake about a mile long and half as broad, its surface now ruffled into tiny white breakers by the fierce north wind, but still reflecting faithfully the dull dead grey sky overhead. And beyond the lake was the bare level treeless plain, and the girls felt that a more unpromising time or place for a picnic could hardly have been chosen. But they did not say so; indeed, all attempts at conversation were soon given up, for the wind blew the words into empty space, and Ruth, who sat behind with Vera, drew her sealskin cap down over her eyes and her jacket up to her ears and was soon buried in her own thoughts, wondering mournfully how she could possibly live the life that lay before her. By and by a tug from the little girl at her side and a wild shout from her aunt made her aware that they had almost arrived at their destination, some lonely sheep-yards about nine miles from the house. Soon came borne on the wind the mournful bleat, bleat of the frightened sheep, the shouts of the men, the barking of the dogs, and, worse than all, the peculiar aroma which always accompanies that useful animal the sheep, and which was now multiplied a thousandfold. They drove right up to the yards, and Mrs. Grant, jumping out, called on the girls to help her unhitch the horses, and that done proceeded to haul out from under the seat a bundle of wood, which she had brought out for the purpose of lighting a fire. It was no easy matter in the teeth of such a gale, but by dint of all three of them standing together and forming a breakwind they at last got it started and the billy in a fair way to boil, and were at liberty to turn their attention to the sheep and the folks they had come to see.
There were three men at work in the yards, Mr. Grant, his son Willie, and a tall young fellow whom he called Marsden. The sheep the girls thought uninteresting. They were foolish, frightened creatures, huddling together in helpless fashion in the dirty yards, their woolly coats wet and evil-smelling after last night's rain.
"How horrid they smell, uncle," said Dolly, leaning over the fence, "and how frightened they are. What on earth are you doing to the poor things?"
"Just mustering and drafting, my girl. Cutting their hair and paring their nails and tidying them up a bit. Now, Marsden, Marsden—that one there by the fence. Haul her up."
Dolly looked puzzled, and the man he had called Marsden, dexterously catching a sheep and dragging it up to where they stood, took upon himself to explain.
"You see," he said, and both girls started, for rough, not to say dirty, as he looked, the voice was that of a gentleman, "their horns sometimes grow into their eye's and their hoofs grow too long, so we have to catch them and cut them. That's what your uncle means."
"Poor things," said Dolly again, looking down into the frank unshaven face turned towards her own; "it frightens them so and makes them so dirty."
"Dirty," he laughed, and blushed through the sunburn on his cheeks, glancing down at himself somewhat ruefully; "dirty—that's a complaint we all suffer from. The yards are knee deep in mud as it is, and the sheep churn it up and spatter everything."
He made a dash and caught an old wether, dragging him over in spite of resistance to show Dolly how perilously near to the poor animal's eye the great curly horn was growing. He had just opened his knife, and was preparing to cut off the tip, when Vera, who had been surveying her own small face with much satisfaction in a wind-blown pool of water, joined them, and clambering over the fence regardless of her clothes immediately precipitated herself on to Marsden.
"Oh, Woger, Woger, my Woger," she cried. "I hasn't seen 'oo for ever so long."
Her unexpected onslaught was disastrous. The old wether in sudden fright freed his bond with one despairing effort that sent the knife intended for his relief deep into Marsden's hand, and bounding away to seek refuge in the middle of the flock, he knocked the little girl flat on her back in the filthy mud of the sheep-yard. Marsden picked her up and set her on the fence.
"My dear little girl," he said in remonstrance.
"Oh—oh—oh," sobbed Vera, paying no attention to Mrs. Grant's voluble reproaches, "Oh—oh—oh—he's hurted hissell—I see—see the bluggy——"
Indeed the blood was falling in great red drops from the fingers of his left hand. He took out his handkerchief and began winding it round the cut.
"Let me," said Dolly, impetuously, "Oh do let me. I'll bind it up for you properly."
"What's that," asked Mr. Grant, "a cut? Well, look out you don't get poisoned, that's all."
She unwound the handkerchief and proceeded to wash the stranger's wound very gently in the pool of water which had been Vera's looking-glass.
It was an ugly gash right across the palm of the hand, and Mrs. Grant came and inspected it dubiously.
"My! Marsden," she said, "you'll have to go to the doctor and get that sewn up. What a naughty child that Vera is! It's all her doing."
"Oh, don't blame her please," he entreated, "it was the merest accident."
"The merest accident—yes; but if it gets poisoned," she went on lugubriously—"I've seen men lose an arm for a less thing."
"Now, Mr. Marsden, you're our patient," said Dolly, who, sorry as she was for the accident, thoroughly enjoyed the situation, "and you must obey us. Patients always do what their nurses bid them. Now, Ruth, hold that, like a good girl, I attended an ambulance class once, Mr. Marsden, so I assure you you may trust me."
"I am sure of that," he said fervently, more fervently perhaps than the occasion warranted, but when two pretty girls play the Good Samaritan to a good-looking young man a little extra fervour is perhaps excusable.
"There," said Dolly, "there, that's done. Now you certainly can't do any more work to-day. You'd better go home."
Roger Marsden rose to his feet.
"Indeed," he said, looking from one to the other—Mrs. Grant had retired to a little distance, and was engaged in wiping down the repentant Vera with a wisp of grass—"You are too kind to me. How am I to thank you?"
"Take care of your hand and get well," recommended Dolly. "Can't you come up to the house to-night and let us put proper bandages on. You certainly ought to have proper bandages put on, and you can't put them on yourself."
"No," he assented, "that's true enough, but don't you know it is as the law of the Medes and Persians on this station; no man is allowed to come near the house except to evening prayers. All communications are carried on by means of Tom Sing, the Chinaman."
"Come to prayers, then," recommended Dolly, "and we'll see about the rest. But goodness me, what are those laws for? I counted seven maid-servants at prayers last night, and two of them are awfully pretty. I should have thought the men would find it rather jolly."
"Well, so they do," began Marsden gravely, and then broke off with a laugh in which the two girls joined, and which made them laugh there and then. "So they do," he went on, "but you see Mrs. Grant, or the boss either for that matter, doesn't approve of—of—of——"
"Carryings on," finished Dolly; "and don't they carry on, then?"
"Well, yes, I'm afraid they do; you see, there's the plantation and the hillside; and—and—the girls can always come out if the men can't go in."
"Of course," said Dolly, as if she had done it a hundred times herself. "And now you come up to prayers and we'll look after you. I don't suppose we'll have to sneak out into the plantations to tie up your hand, will we?"
"Well, I don't know," he said, getting bolder. "If I come into prayers they might deal leniently with me. They call this the 'Hallelujah Station,' you know."
"Oh, do they," said Dolly, "then——"
"Marsden, Marsden," called Mr. Grant.
"To-night then," said Dolly, holding out her hand impetuously, and he shook hands with both of them and turned away.
It was but a trifling incident, but somehow it comforted the two girls. The tall fair young fellow with the kind blue eyes and sunburnt face seemed every bit as out of place among his surroundings as they themselves were.
"Thank goodness," said Dolly, "I really am sorry for that man, but somehow I feel better, don't you, Ruth?"
"Well, yes," said Ruth, who was not so impulsive as her sister, "but there's lunch to be got through yet."
"There's a good deal to be got through, I see with sorrow," said Dolly, "but I begin to think we shall manage it."
"Now, Dolly, what a girl you are! Just because a decent-looking young man speaks civilly to you—you——"
"My dear," said Dolly, slipping her arm through her sister's, and giving it a friendly little squeeze, "that young man was a perfect godsend. Words cannot express——-There, there's the old lady calling us. I suppose we must go and assist at this sumptuous repast. I'll give you my views later on."
It certainly was the funniest picnic they had ever assisted at. The wind was still blowing fiercely across the shelterless plain, and, to form some slight breakwind, Mrs. Grant flung a rug across the wire fence, and held it in its place by heavy stones. To leeward of this they sat and ate their humble meal, which was served in the most primitive of fashions. Mrs. Grant, as the possessor of the only knife, placed the fore-quarter of veal on a newspaper in front of her, and proceeded to dispense "chunks" all round. She cut up her own share with the carving knife. Willie and his father cut theirs into small blocks with their pocket-knives, and Vera went on the good old principle that teeth and fingers were made before forks, while Ruth and Dolly looked at their portions in some dismay. It had not occurred to them, even when they saw the primitive arrangements for the picnic, that they would be expected to take a bone in their fingers and gnaw off the meat.
At last, when a good portion of the veal and all the bread and butter had disappeared, old Grant picked the last crumbs off his waistcoat and solemnly returned thanks.
"And now I suppose, uncle," said Ruth, "you'll have your smoke. However will you light your pipe in such a wind?"
"Smoke? Smoke?" Old Grant scratched his head. "This is a temperance station, Ruth, I don't smoke myself, nor do I allow anyone else on the place to do so. It is simply an abominably disgusting habit. It is——"
"Father," put in Mrs. Grant—she had evidently heard all this before, and was perhaps a little tired of it—"what are you going to do now Marsden's laid up."
"It is a trial," said her husband resignedly—Ruth thought her father would have said it was a "d——d nuisance," and though she had not been given to admiring her father, she really felt that on this occasion his expression was preferable. "It is a trial. We can't do any more here, but it is the Lord's will, and it's not for me to complain. Willie, saddle up those horses, and we'll go home."
"And we'll go too, girls," said their aunt.
"Well, they are queer people," said Dolly when they found themselves once more safe in the privacy of their own room. "Ar'n't they queer, Ruth? I wonder what that young Marsden thinks about it. He's a gentleman, don't you think so?"
"Yes," said Ruth, "his manners are good, but—but what's he doing here?"
"Earning an honest living, I imagine," said Dolly. "Now, Ruth, don't you abuse the young man, for I've taken a fancy to him. He's a perfect godsend, as I told you before, and I intend to cultivate the acquaintance."
"Well, we'll see to-night if he comes into prayers," said her more cautious sister.
"Meanwhile we may as well draw the family out upon him at tea," suggested Dolly.
The tea-table this evening received two additions in the shape of what Mrs. Grant called the station-experience young men. One was a tall, lank youth of twenty, by name Edward Clegg, gawky and red-haired, and the other, Arthur King, was a dark-haired little boy of fifteen, small for his age, and sadly in want of a good wash. They both appeared tongue-tied in the presence of their "boss," and gazed shyly at the two pretty girls who, sitting side by side, formed such a marked contrast to the weather-beaten daughters of the Grant family.
Lily and Ann had been over to Mullin's Hill, a small township about ten miles away, helping at a prayer meeting. They had been "privileged" to meet a captain (feminine) and two other members (masculine) of the Salvation Army whom she had brought in her train, and were so full of their afternoon's experiences that at first all Dolly's attempts to draw them on the subject of her new friend were a dead failure.
"It was a blessed time," said Ann, addressing Ruth specially as the least frivolous of the two; "a blessed time, Ruth, and truly I felt it was specially blest to us. Three souls were called to repentance and rescued to the Lord; and really I felt my soul leap within me when I looked at the captain's face. She is not a young woman, but as she prayed aloud I saw that the beauty of holiness was in her face. Ah, that is the true beauty, Ruth, the beauty of holiness."
"All the same," put in Dolly boldly, "I'd like to have physical beauty; and if I had it and was then damned because of it I'd think it very unfair—and cruel. Yes, I would."
"Dorothy!" Ann laid down her scone and held up both her hands. "You are wicked, you are blasphemous. You are as wicked and lost as the railway navvy I spoke to to-day."
"Why, what did he say?" asked Ruth curiously.
"He was passing in front of the Mechanics' Institute, and I heard him ask another man 'What all the —— howling was about.'" (Ann was not troubled with any false modesty, and gave his expression in full.) "Of course I stopped and spoke to him. I spoke to him seriously. I implored him to wash and be clean, and he said he was clean, and the only use he had for water at present was to put a little whisky in it. Such depravity is terrible, isn't it? But what can you expect when the engineer in charge is just as bad himself. He is just a beer-drinking sot."
Ruth had learned in the last twenty-four hours that to argue against the objectionable manner in which her new-found relatives rammed their religious convictions down the throat of every passing stranger was worse than useless, so she merely said—
"Railway at Mullin's Hill? That'll bring it quite close, won't it? What's the engineer's name?"
"I don't know. Matson—Mayland."
"Maitland," said young Clegg. "Dick Maitland, I know, because he's a great chum of Marsden's. My, how bad Marsden's hand is!"
Dolly pinched her sister. The conversation of its own accord had taken the turn she most desired.
"That's bad. I'm sorry for that," said Mrs. Grant, not in reference to Marsden's wounded hand, but to his friendship with the objectionable engineer of the new railway. "I was in hopes Marsden was turning over a new leaf."
"Why, Aunt, what's the matter with him?" asked Ruth, urged thereto by a nudge from her sister.
"Well, my dear, he is not a true Christian yet; anybody can see that. But we were in hopes—at least Ann said——"
"His case is hopeless if he gets with that Maitland," snapped that young lady.
"But what's the matter with him?" persisted Ruth. "He seems a gentleman."
"He was a son of Dr. Marsden—Dr. Marsden of St. Kilda, you know," explained Mrs. Grant, who apparently had a little more in common with the outside world than her daughter Ann. "When the old man died he didn't leave much—but what he did the son soon spent, gambling and drinking, I believe. He was regularly travelling on his uppers when he came here—not a red cent to bless himself with. Oh, yes, he's a gentleman, if you call that being a gentleman."
"I loves Woger," remarked Vera, "an' he loves me. I'm goin' to mawwy him."
"Oh, I didn't understand it had gone as far as that, Vera; let me congratulate you," laughed Dolly.
When the table was cleared all the women brought out their work and the men pored over the newspaper, and Dolly found a moment to whisper to her sister—
"There, I told you it was all right. I told you he was a gentleman. I shall cultivate his acquaintance."
"I don't know," said Ruth, dubiously; "they didn't speak well of him."
"Would you have liked him if they had?" pouted Dolly. "I'm sure I should hate a man they praised," which was so exactly Ruth's feeling that she decided to say no more on the subject.
"Oh dear," said Dolly, "I wish prayer time would come."
At half-past 8 Mr. Grant folded up his paper.
"Ann," he said, "ring the bell for prayers."
Ann pulled up the window and let in the cold night air, which blew keen across the lake, rung the old cow-bell lustily, and then retiring to the passage outside, rang it again. Lily distributed bibles and hymn-books and took her seat at the American organ, and the rest of the family seated themselves round the dining-table, hardly in decorous silence, for they squabbled in undertones over their places and books, and then the servants filed in. After the maids came the solemn Chinaman, Tom Sing, and behind him—Ruth looked for him eagerly—young Marsden. She could hardly believe her eyes, so great was the change in him. Tall, upright, cleanly shaven all but a moustache, and well dressed, he looked every inch a gentleman—the only gentleman, she thought, in the room. He blushed furiously as he caught her eye, and then, after stealing a glance at Dolly, who was demurely looking down, apparently became absorbed in the Bible that was handed to him.
After Mr. Grunt had read the Bible aloud came a long extempore prayer, in which each member of the family was prayed for separately and by name. Last night Ruth had grown crimson when her uncle prayed aloud that she and her sister might see the error of their ways, and be brought to a sincere repentance for the levity of their conduct. To-night, however, she heard the prayer for herself and Dolly with equanimity, and only felt her cheeks tingle when her uncle mentioned Roger Marsden's name—thanked God publicly that he, too, was turning his face heavenward, and praying that he might be guided and kept in that holy path which he had that evening chosen. Then they rose to their feet and sang two hymns of Moody and Sankey's with rousing choruses, which was the only part of the whole service to which the children paid the least attention. When Mr. Grant had pronounced a blessing, he rose up well satisfied with himself and advanced towards the newcomer.
"Well, Marsden," he said, "I'm glad to see you here. I'm glad to see that at last you have been brought to think on your immortal soul."
Marsden flushed angrily, but he turned it off with a laugh.
"Well, I think it's my mortal hand I'm concerned about just at present, sir," he said pleasantly. "Miss Grant," and he glanced at Dolly, "kindly promised to put fresh bandages on for me."
"If thy right hand offend thee," began Mr. Grant solemnly; but Dolly, drawing her work basket towards her, interrupted him ruthlessly.
"It isn't his right hand, uncle; it's his left—and as for cutting it off, he very nearly did do that. What we want to do is to mend it up again."
"Dorothy, his immortal soul is——"
But Dorothy felt she had had quite enough of her uncle's religion for one night, and determined to stop his flow of language.
"It's no good, uncle," she said, "it's really no good. Don't you see you ought to let him alone for a bit. How is the good seed sown this evening to take root if you go prodding it up in this manner just to see if it's grown."
Her uncle regarded her doubtfully. He could not divest himself of the idea that she was laughing at him while using his own pet forms of speech. Still, according to his lights, there was nothing to complain of in the speech, so he took a turn slowly up the room, while Dolly drew some old linen from her basket and began bandaging Marsden's hand, the whole family looking on.
"We went to school with a Marsden once, when we were little girls, didn't we, Ruth?" said Dolly. "Don't you remember Charlie Marsden?"
"I have a brother Charlie," said Marsden, looking down on the pretty dark face so close to him; "he went to China five years ago."
"Did he?" said Dolly. "Poor Charlie, I hope he's making his fortune. I liked him so much. If I remember rightly, though, the affection was not reciprocated. I believe he preferred Ruth."
"P'raps it wasn't my brother."
"He was a son of Dr. Marsden's of St. Kilda."
"So am I," he said.
"Are you really? Well then, we must be friends," said Dolly, "because I loved your brother so much."
Before the young man could reply to this outspoken offer of friendship, Mr. Grant came up and addressed him again.
"You won't be much good among the sheep, Marsden, for a week or two to come. You can ride, can't you? Well, I think I'll send you down to Titura. The overseer wants a week's holiday, and I told him I'd send a man down to take his place. There's not much doing there just at present, and I think you can manage. You'd better be ready to start at 6 to-morrow morning, and take the old grey mare. Do you understand?"
"Yea, Sir," said Marsden, "I'll go."
"And do take care of your hand, now," said Dolly. "It's really very cruel of you, uncle, to deprive me of my patient when he was getting on so well. Good night, Mr. Marsden, good night. Mind that hand's well before you come back."
That night Ruth took her sister to task once more when they were safe in each other's arms, warm and cosy under the blankets, which Dolly declared was the only cosy place in the whole house.
"Dolly, dear, I don't want to be unkind, but really—really, do you think it wise or right to—to be so friendly with a young man as you were with—with——"
"Roger Marsden, I suppose you mean. Ruth, I told you before I meant to be friends with him. Charlie Marsden's brother, too."
"But, Dolly dear—we are so lonely—there's no one to care for us—and we ought to be careful. We know nothing about this young man, except that he looks nice. Dolly, I don't want to be a prude, but to make friends with a man whom they all say is—well, rather a bad lot."
Ruth got it out at last, and felt virtuous. The fact of the matter was she felt rather drawn to the young fellow herself, and was only abusing him and warning her sister from a strict sense of duty and an uneasy feeling that she, as the eldest, was responsible for all shortcomings.
"You dear old thing," said Dolly, giving her sister a loving hug. "I'm quite sure there's no harm in us two girls being nice and friendly to our old schoolmate's brother. If he's down on his luck, so much the more he needs us. And I'll be his friend and so'll you—you know you will. Come, Ruth, promise to be friendly. Don't be silly and prudish."
"I promise," said Ruth in sleepy tones. "Dolly, I'm so sleepy—do let's go to sleep."
"Having settled the affairs of the nation satisfactorily, we will," and Dolly nestled down beside her sister and was sound asleep long before the elder girl had decided whether she had done right or not.
Before the week was out Ruth felt that she, too, would gladly have welcomed back Roger Marsden. The weather was depressing. It was raw and cold; and the rain—it rained every day. But the weather made no difference to the Grant family. Mrs. Grant and Ann and Lily and auntie, went out driving every day. Each day in the week saw them set off in pairs to some small hamlet or township where they taught Scripture in the state schools, held mothers' meetings, prayer meetings, temperance meetings, and indeed, did their best to do good after their own fashion. Mr. Grant, Willie, and the two station experience young men were out on the run all day, and the nine children left at home to their own resources ran riot and worked their wicked will on everything, doing exactly as they pleased, and setting the maid servants at defiance. Not that the servants took much notice of them. They, too, did much as they pleased in the absence of their mistress, and the way in which the work of the household was done often made Ruth, who prided herself on being a good housekeeper, hold up her hands in horror. The two girls had nothing to do, and found time hang very heavily on their hands. Almost since she could remember, Ruth had kept her fathers house. He had been crotchetty, particular, and unlovable, but the effort to keep things nice and to please him had kept her mind and hands employed. They had been allowed few acquaintances and no friends, but Dolly had helped her sister and they were on the whole not unhappy. But now all this was changed. The very atmosphere of Kooringa was uncongenial, the living was coarse and rough, the elders were absent all day and their only company was the nine children ranging between the ages of fifteen and five, who, in spite, of the advantages of being brought up in a godly household, were veritable imps of darkness and demons of mischief. Their governess had left the week before the girls arrived, but though Mrs. Grant said every day she must get another, as yet she made no move in that direction. There were no books to be had—at least none except tracts and mildly religions stories—for the modern novel was not admitted into the house, and even Dickens and Thackeray were kept under lock and key and only given out by Mr. Grant himself with solemn words of admonition and warning. There were rows upon rows of sermons available, but Ruth did not yet feel equal to tackling sermons, and the newspaper only reached her in an expurgated form, for her uncle very much doubted the wisdom of allowing women to read the papers at all, and in any case took care that the women of his household only saw it after he had ruthlessly cut away what he called "anything objectionable." They had never gone on these expeditions with their aunt and cousins, partly because no one had expressed a desire for their company and partly because neither of the girls cared to go.
But meanwhile, with nothing to do but needlework and nothing in the world to look forward to, they both found it terribly dull, and the ten days that had passed over their heads since they had come to Kooringa might have been ten months or ten years so long did they seem.
Dolly said as much one dull afternoon, as she sat stitching over the fire in the big untidy dining room, listening to the racket which the younger sons and daughters of the family were making in the nursery next door. Only Vera stayed with them sitting on the hearthrug gazing pensively into the fire.
"Oh," sighed Dolly, "how long's this to go on, Ruth? I feel as if I'd been here years and years and years. Do you see any grey in my hair yet? If you don't it'll be there soon. You don't know how old I feel."
"I wis I was old," sighed Vera. "When I's old I's going to mawwy Woger."
"Oh, dear; so matrimony's the end you have in view. Well it strikes me forcibly that we'll be old maids, eh Ruth? It seems we're born to blush unseen. It's a pity, too, for, Ruth, you really are a very pretty girl, you know. Don't you wish somebody'd come along, somebody nice, you know, and make love to you and marry you?"
"Oh, hush, Dolly. You shouldn't talk like that. If we are to be married, we will be, I suppose."
"To a major in the Salvation Army or the local preacher at Gaffer's Flat, who's a grocer by trade. I thought he turned an appreciative eye on you last Sunday. You'll let Kooringa have sugar and tea cheap, of course—at cost price, I suppose. But really I don't think I'd like the grocer—he's got a red nose."
"He samples his schnapps too often, I expect. But who shall I marry? It's a matter for serious consideration."
"Hush, Dolly, don't be silly. Of course you'll marry some day—some nice good man I hope."
"I hope sincerely he won't be too good, but, my dear, where's he to come from?"
"Oh, down the chimney if he can't come any other way."
"He tan't tum that way," put in Vera, "there's ony a teeny, teeny hole up there, and Woger's goin' to mawwy me when I'm growed up. I wis I was old," and the little damsel sighed again heavily.
"Never mind, dear," said Dolly, pulling the long fair curls, "the years 'll soon mend that and Roger's sure to wait."
"You can mawwy him, too, if you like," said Vera condescendingly.
"Thank you very much, Vera. Then that matter's settled. Ruth, do you hear. I'm going to marry Roger Marsden by express permission of Vera Grant, and now its only half-past 3, and what on earth am I to do with the rest of the afternoon?"
Ruth crossed the room, and stood tapping on the window looking out on the gloomy prospect.
"It's not raining now," she said. "Suppose we go for a walk. Vera, will you come, too."
But Vera declined. The cosy fire, and the peace and comfort ensured by the absence of all elders was not lightly to be foregone, and the two girls set off by themselves. The air was damp and raw, and underfoot it was like a sponge. Still there was no wind, and they were well shod and well wrapped up, and the brisk walk round the still grey lake put Dolly in a more amiable frame of mind by the time they reached the little creek which formed its outlet on the other side from the house.
Coortnong Creek was the only picturesque bit of scenery about Kooringa for the plains opened out here in a steep gully, at the bottom of which flowed the creek amidst rocks and ferns and mossy stones, while here and there grew patches of stunted lightwood, always pretty trees—more especially here on these plains where trees were conspicuous by their absence. It was cold and bleak now on this wintry day, but they went down to the banks of the creek and in mere idleness flung stones into the foaming muddy waters.
"I believe," said Dolly, "I could cross quite easily. Look at those stones sticking up out of the water."
"Well, they look rather slippery, I think," said her sister. "Besides, where's the use of risking a wetting? There's nothing to be seen there."
"Two dead sheep, and I believe there's another behind those trees."
"But you don't want to look at dead sheep, or, if you do, I daresay we can find plenty on this side."
"Well, there's a man just coming over the rise there behind those trees. It's Mr. Marsden, I'm nearly sure. I'm going to cooey——"
"Nonsense, Dolly, don't do any such thing. What will he think of you?"
"It's all right," and Dolly with a sigh of relief. "He sees us; he's coming. That's best after all. There! See how easily he crosses the stones. Oh, Mr. Marsden, how do you do? I'm so glad to see you."
Young Marsden shook hands with both girls and seemed equally delighted to see them.
"Who would have thought of meeting you out on such a day!" he said.
"Well, we were tired of being in the house—that's the truth, and I was so bad-tempered, poor Ruth insisted on my coming out just to give her a little peace."
Marsden looked unbelieving, for Dolly's face was wreathed in smiles now, and Ruth said—
"Oh, she wasn't quite so bad as that. Only we do have a lot of spare time on our hands. Aunt and the others have gone to a prayer meeting."
"They generally are at a prayer meeting, aren't they?" asked Roger with a twinkle in his eyes that made the girls laugh.
"Well, I believe they have some faint hope that in the dim future I may be brought into the right path, but Dolly's the stumbling-block, she's so terribly flippant."
"Yes," said Dolly. "But, Mr Marsden, how is your hand?"
"My hand, thanks to you, is quite well."
"I'm so glad," said Dolly.
"Do you want to cross the creek?" asked Marsden.
"Well, we were thinking about it," said Dolly, "only Ruth's afraid of falling in. And really I don't know that there's anything to be gained by crossing. What are you going to do?"
"A horrid unsavoury job I've got on hand. Do you see those dead sheep over there? Well, all of them have to be skinned, and if they're too far gone to be skinned the wool has to be plucked off."
"Oh, how horrid!" said Ruth, while Dolly suggested—
"Help us across the creek, and let's see how you do it."
Accordingly he helped first one and then the other across the slippery stepping stones, and then went to work, the two girls settling themselves down among some stones to windward of the sheep to be operated on.
"You see," said Marsden, settling to work somewhat unwillingly, and rapidly filling a sack with the dead wool, "one of the pleasures of a roustabouts life."
"Never mind," said Dolly, consolingly, "there's bound to be something disagreeable in everybody's life. I was growling over mine most abominably just now, and yet you see there are consolations. Ruth made me come for a walk much against my will, and Providence directed that we should meet you."
"Thank you." The young man blushed and smiled. "It's kind of you to put it that way."
"If it's not being rude," remarked Dolly, "what made you come here?"
"Poverty," said Marsden, "bitter, grinding poverty."
"You needn't be ashamed of that," put in Ruth, "that's just our case. We're very nearly as poor as church mice. We've got about enough to dress ourselves, and that's all."
"I thought your father was a well-to-do man," said Roger, and then blushed and was angry with himself for what he called prying into other people's affairs, but to the girls the remark seemed quite natural, and Ruth merely answered—
"Oh, yes, so he was, but most that he had died with him; but I thought your father was a rich man."
"And left you a fortune which you dissipated in riotous living according to our uncle," put in Dolly.
Marsden smiled grimly.
"And am worse off than the Prodigal in consequence. I'm sure I'd rather tend swine than pluck dead sheep. My father did leave me between four and five thousand pounds, but I unluckily invested it in shares in a big squatting company in Queensland and thought I was going to treble it. I didn't gamble and I didn't drink, but the drought came and the sheep died, I suppose; anyhow, I haven't seen a penny of income, and since my father didn't give me a profession, I'm reduced to this unsavoury occupation for a livelihood."
He spoke very bitterly, and both girls felt sorry for him; but Dolly, as usual, found her tongue first.
"Never mind," she said, cheerily, "better days'll come soon. I suppose it sounds awfully ungrateful to our relations, but we really are worse off than you, because we can't do anything to earn our own livings. But who, then, on earth are those men on horseback?" she exclaimed. "I hope it's not Willie or uncle. Somehow, I fancy they mightn't quite sympathise with our interest in sheep plucking."
They were on a little rise on the banks of the creek, just slightly elevated above the surrounding plain, and in the distance, just entering the big paddock, two horsemen were plainly to be seen.
Marsden looked round at them.
"I think it's Dr. Finlayson and Maitland, from Mullin's Hill. I expect they've come to look for me. May I introduce them?" he asked; adding, as he saw a shade of doubt on Ruth's face, "Indeed, I would not ask you but they are gentlemen and good fellows."
"Introduce them, of course," said Dolly. "It'll be great fun. Now, Ruth, what are you looking so anxious about? I want to meet that beer-drinking engineer. I've heard so much bad about him."
"But he isn't bad," said Marsden, eagerly. "I shouldn't ask you to know him if he was. He's a very nice clever young fellow, and he isn't beer-drinking—at least, of course, I mean——"
"Oh, we understand," said Dolly, "he isn't temperance, thank goodness. Now we'll have to mind our propers. Ruth, put on your Sunday-go-to-meetings manners to meet Mr. Marsden's friends."
The two men rode up at a brisk trot.
"I say, Marsden," began the foremost, and then catching sight of the two girls, raised his eyebrows in astonishment. They both dismounted, however, and coming forward were introduced in due form by Marsden. The doctor, Alick Finlayson, was a tall, raw-boned Scotchman, with lantern jaws and red hair, and a painfully shy manner. He blushed and stammered like a schoolgirl, and soon dropped out of the conversation, while his companion, Dick Maitland, the engineer, seated himself on a stone by Ruth and was soon chatting away with her, as much at his ease as if he had known her all her life. He was a marked contrast to his friend, for while the doctor was an undoubtedly plain man, all the world voted Dick Maitland, with his regular features and beautiful dark eyes, a handsome fellow. True, his mouth showed signs of weakness and vacillation, but it was hidden by his moustache, and as a pleasant smile showed a row of milk-white teeth the defect was lost on Ruth, who truly thought him the best-looking man she had ever seen.
They had come over, he explained, to fetch Marsden back to have dinner with them. They had been at the Melbourne Church of England Grammar school together as boys, and felt it their bounden duty to look after him, because if he joined the Salvation Army he would be lost to them for ever.
"I don't think he'll join the army just yet," said Ruth with a smile, looking across to where Marsden was sitting listening intently to Dolly's graphic descriptions of life in her present home. "But were you at the Grammar school together? And Dr. Finlayson, too." She was sorry for the quiet man who stood aloof and tried to draw him into the conversation. "I should have thought he would have been a Scotch College boy, and would have hated you with a bitter hatred."
"It ought to have been so certainly, Miss Grant," said the doctor, "but my parents were oblivious of their duty, and sent me to school with these fellows. Consequently I'm an anomaly—Scotchman is written all over me and yet by all the traditions of my school I'm bound to hate the Scotch College."
"What a shame," laughed the girl. "It's just a matter of prejudice. Now my uncle thinks that the only place where a boy can get a really good education is a private school kept by a certain strict Plymouth brother of his acquaintance."
"Willie went there," said Dolly joining in the conversation.
"All the same, Willie is an awful young scamp," said Maitland. "He's eternally over at McShane's playing billiards, and a shanty of that description can scarcely be a safe place for a lad of his years."
"Poor boy," said Ruth, pityingly. "I don't wonder he wants a little excitement. He can't be always interested in prayer meetings and Sunday-school treats."
Dick Maitland, looking at her face, thought Kooringa would not be half a bad place to live in provided she were by his side, and though he did not say so, he exerted himself to entertain her and make her forget the flight of time with such success that the short day began to draw to a close before she thought about the time at all.
Ruth woke up to the fact at last, and started to her feet.
"Good gracious me," she said, "I quite forgot the time. It's nearly five, and it'll be quite dark before we get home."
"Don't be in such a hurry," murmured Maitland, "I haven't spent such a pleasant time in ages, and who knows when I may get the chance again."
Ruth blushed—she was unused to compliment, and the implied flattery pleased her.
"I'm glad we've met," she said simply, "and I hope we'll meet again, but indeed we must go home now. Come, Dolly."
"Bother," said that young lady with flattering emphasis; "I suppose we must. Mr. Marsden, are you coming in to prayers to-night?"
"Well, I was thinking of going over to Maitland's camp, but——"
"Oh, yes, do go," said Dolly. "You'll have fun, won't you; and you can tell us all about it next time we meet."
"And when will that be?" asked Marsden, and Maitland supplemented it, "Yes, when will that be?"
"I'm sure I don't know," said Dolly.
"Don't you think Mrs. Grant would take it as a delicate compliment if we called on her," suggested Maitland.
"Well, you might," said Marsden. "I'm her servant, you see, and she mightn't quite see the necessity of it if I did."
"Besides," said Ruth innocently, "she's so often away. Now to-morrow all four of them are going off to hold a prayer meeting at Dog-leg Flat."
"How far off is that?" asked Maitland. "It must be nearly twenty miles from here."
"Seventeen," corrected Ruth, and Maitland made a mental note that they would be away all day.
"Now," said Ruth, "we must really go. Mr. Marsden, will you help us over the creek again."
"Marsden's hands are dirty," suggested Dick Maitland, "you'd better let me," and Ruth went with him, but Marsden, not to be outdone, washed his hands in the running stream, and helped Dolly across while the doctor as usual stood in the background.
"Shall I see you home?" asked Marsden, holding her hand perhaps a trifle longer than was necessary.
"No," she said, "no, I think you'd better not."
"And when shall I see you again?"
"Come to prayers," she suggested mischievously.
"Thank you; and see how closely you attend to your devotions."
"Well, we go for a walk every day."
"To-morrow I have to go to Gaffer's Flat, worse luck; but the next day I have to be down at Davey's Swamp seeing after the lambs. It's not a mile from the house—do you think your walk might happen to be in that direction?"
Dolly looked at his eager face with a demure smile.
"That's making an appointment, isn't it," she said. "And, oh dear, I couldn't possibly do that. But if Ruth walks in that direction I can't help it, can I?"
Then she snatched her hand away.
"Ruth, Ruth, we'll be so late. No, Mr. Maitland, you mustn't come with us. The proprieties at Kooringa might be shocked if you did. Besides, we'll have to run. Good bye, good-bye." And catching hold of her sister's hand the two girls set off at a sharp pace through the deepening twilight towards the house.
That evening Dolly frankly told her aunt and cousins of their meeting with the three young men, and was solemnly warned by Ann against the danger of holding communion with the ungodly.
"I know nothing of Dr. Finlayson," she said, "but that Maitland I have heard James Wilson speak of as a bad man. Willie will tell you how he swears at the navvies, and he has always a pipe in his mouth; and as for young Marsden, we all know how wickedly careless he is in matters connected with his soul, so different from James Wilson."
"I loves Woger," put in Vera, feeling as if an injustice had been done to her favourite.
"But Mr. Marsden is a far better workman than James Wilson, isn't he?" asked Dolly, anxious, like Vera, to vindicate her friend.
"Wilson has the true grip, the true grip," said Mr. Grant, shaking his head, solemnly, as he served out slices of cold mutton, "and what are the things of this world to the man who knows he has eternal life? Mere snares and delusions, mere snares and delusions."
Impetuous Dolly opened her mouth again, but a warning look from her sister stopped her. Ruth seemed herself to have grown very worldly wise since she had entered this family, and she saw at once that if they were to continue their pleasant friendship with young Marsden, or, indeed, with anyone else whom the Grants considered outside the pale, the least said about them the better. At the present moment beyond a word or two of disapproval they passed the matter over and said nothing about the girls' doings the day before, being entirely taken up with the consideration of the great prayer meeting to be held at Dog-leg Flat.
Ann had taken cold, was afraid she would not be able to go, and was terribly distressed thereat.
The elders of the family looked with commiserating eyes on Ann, but no one said a word save Ruth, who really was sorry for her disappointment, and ventured to hint from her own simple creed that "everything was for the best."
Ann was out of temper, and did not receive the consolation in the spirit in which it was offered, and grumbled out, just as though she had been an ordinary bad-tempered mortal with no spiritual advantages whatever—
"Much you know about it."
"I'm sorry for you, though," said Ruth gently, while Dolly, not to be outdone, remarked gravely—
"I believe it's a wile of the Evil One to get rid of you."
Ann looked at her doubtfully. The phraseology was her own, and the idea was after her own heart, but she doubted Dolly's sincerity, and she dared not cross swords with her. Once or twice already she had been worsted in an encounter of that description, so she merely said curtly—
"Probably so, but I shall go if possible and disappoint him."
However, the Evil One probably hugged himself and chuckled over his victory, for on the morrow Ann had lost her voice entirely, and her cold was really so bad that the other three started without her. They offered to take Ruth, but she accepted in such a half-hearted manner that Lily promptly told her she had better stay at home, such a lukewarm adherent would only weaken the cause, and she gladly returned to the dining-room where the invalid was sitting crouched over the fire, a rusty black shawl over her shoulders and an equally shabby purple one muffling her head. Dolly made a face as her sister entered, expressive of her extreme distaste for Ann's company, and then, though Ruth did remonstrate, insisted on her coming out for a walk, which she took care should fill up all the morning.
In the afternoon, though, there was no help for it; Ann's presence had to be put up with, and when the dinner table was cleared she betook herself to the American organ, which she began to play for the first time since she had come to Kooringa. First she played hymn tunes as more suited to the instrument, but gradually her fingers wandered off into other things, old Scotch and Irish airs to which she softly crooned the words.
"I didn't know," said Ann in a hoarse whisper, which was all her cold admitted of, "you played or sang. I hope you'll know some day the awful wickedness of wasting your time on your own bodily comforts and amusements."
"Oh, bother, Ann!" said Dolly. "What on earth were we put into this world for?"
"Not to sing profane songs."
"Well, but when one's got a good voice why shouldn't one use it. And my Maker kindly gave me a very decent contralto, and it's been well trained too. Ruth's got a good voice, too. I wonder you never noticed us at prayers. Now just listen to this."
And she began singing, clear and loud, Blumenthal's "Across the Far Blue Hills, Marie." Ruth left her sewing at the window and crossing the room joined in with her sister, and Ann listened in stolid silence. They went from one song to another, their clear young voices harmonising and blending, and for once perhaps since they had come to Kooringa were thoroughly happy.
They had been singing and playing for about an hour, when the smutty little girl who was called a kitchen-maid, but who frequently waited at table and answered the dining-room bell—the servants at Kooringa never seemed to have any fixed position, but exchanged duties at will—pushed open the door and lolling against the door-post, remarked—
"There's two gen'lemen as wants Mrs. Grant."
The two gentlemen made their appearance immediately, and, greatly to Ruth's astonishment, she saw they were Dr. Finlayson and Mr. Maitland. Very distinctly she remembered having told the latter that her aunt and cousins would be away all day—could he have forgotten it—she hardly thought so. However, he advanced confidently into the room, followed by the doctor.
"How do you do, Miss Grant?" he said. "Your maid tells me your aunt and cousins are away. Still, when we heard you were here we ventured to come in."
"I'm sure we are very glad to see you," said Ruth truthfully, "but one of my cousins is at home. Ann," she said, turning towards the ungraceful figure huddled over the fire, "these are the gentlemen I told you about—the gentlemen we met yesterday—Mr. Maitland, Dr. Finlayson."
It certainly was hard on Ann. Her plain, hard face was plainer than usual by reason of the unbecoming cold; she could hardly raise her voice above a hoarse whisper, and whether she liked it or no, she was being introduced to the man she had told Ruth she specially objected to. She dragged the purple shawl more closely round her face and prepared for the fray.
"I'm making the railway across a corner of your father's run, Miss Grant," said Maitland, "and it seemed only civil I should call on him, especially after I met your cousins yesterday."
"I don't see the necessity myself," said Ann. "We have made it a practice never to hold communion with the mammon of unrighteousness."
"Indeed, Miss Grant. I hardly understand you. Hold communion with the mammon of unrighteousness; I beg your pardon, but what on earth is the meaning of that?"
Ann fairly glared at him from beneath the purple shawl. The soft manner and pleasant smile which won Ruth aggravated her intensely.
"Men like you," she said in her hoarse whisper, "are the mammon of unrighteousness."
"I'm sorry," he said, smiling, "to have fallen under your displeasure, for I'm afraid you don't mean that as praise. Really, Miss Grant, I'm not such a bad fellow, and I should like you to think better of me than that. Tell me what my offence is and I'll try and mend it."
"You are a man of the world," said Ann, softening a little. "How long since you have thought of higher things? How long since you have been in the house of God at all?"'
"Well," said Dick Maitland good-humouredly, "if you mean by that how long since I have been to church I won't be so very bad in your eyes. I was in Ballarat last Sunday, and went to S. Alphius—twice, too; I wanted to hear the wonderful preacher they've got there."
"Mammon of unrighteousness, mammon of unrighteousness," said Ann, clinging to the phrase as to a talisman. "You call S. Alphius the house of God? I call it a popery shop—a place where the real spiritual life is sacrificed to the grossest materialism."
Maitland sighed. He was getting weary of this conversation.
"You have the courage of your opinions, Miss Grant," he remarked. "I'm sorry I can't persuade you to think well of me." Then feeling he had done his duty he turned to Ruth and remarked, "You were singing as we came in."
But Ann had not done with him yet.
"Mullin's Hill," she said, "thanks to you and your men is now a sink of iniquity."
Maitland sighed again. It was evident he wasn't going to have a chance of speaking to Ruth this afternoon, but he took up the cudgels in defence of his men.
"They're not bad fellows," he said, "a bit rowdy perhaps when the drink's in them, but not bad fellows take them on the whole."
"There it is," said Ann solemnly. "Mr. Maitland, do you know anything of the curse of strong drink?"
Ruth looking at Maitland saw him flush to the roots of his hair. Over all his face the hot blood rushed painfully, and she felt that, somehow or other, Ann's random shaft had gone straight home. The self-possessed young fellow looked wretchedly guilty and uncomfortable, and she hardly knew why, but with an impetuosity worthy of Dolly herself, she rushed to the rescue.
"Oh, Ann," she said, "where's the good of bothering about strong drink. Now, really, Mr. Maitland doesn't look as if he went on the spree every Saturday night, does he? But I should think he was thirsty now. Ar'n't you going to give our guests any tea?"
For a moment Ann did not answer, the hospitality she had been bred in struggling with her dislike and distrust of strangers, but hospitality gained the day.
"Tell Jane to bring some tea, then," she said somewhat sullenly. "We allow no strong drinks in this house, Mr. Maitland."
After tea Maitland ventured to suggest that the girls should sing them a song, which they did, and then it was discovered that the doctor had a very fine baritone voice, and he sang for them, and then Ruth sang by herself, and Dolly by herself, and Maitland, who had no voice, listened appreciatively to them all; and so the afternoon slipped away unnoticed; till the doctor drawing his watch out declared with a start it was past 5 o'clock, and high time they were on their way back to Mullin's Hill.
"Good-bye, Miss Grant," said Maitland, shaking hands with Ann. "I shall think over what you said, and I hope you will let me come and see you again."
"I don't know," she said stiffly. "You belong to this world."
"Of course, of course," he said soothingly, hardly knowing what he meant. It was curious how anxious he felt to propitiate the daughter of the house and to make sure this afternoon should not be his last at Kooringa. "But let me come again, you will, won't you," and Ann answered dubiously.
"Come if you like."
She stopped behind in the warm room while Ruth and Dolly hospitably accompanied them to the front door.
"Ann wasn't very gushing, was she, Mr. Maitland?" said Dolly, as her sister, for almost the first time that afternoon, gave her attention to the doctor.
"No, she wasn't," he said lugubriously, and his eyes wandered, as Dolly was quick to see, to Ruth's fair face.
"Will you come again?"
"How can I?" he asked. "Miss Grant gave me no encouragement."
"Well, I presume you don't care much about seeing Miss Grant."
Maitland looked at her a moment as if in doubt, then answered emphatically,—
"I don't care if I never set eyes on her again."
"Then I presume you'd like to see Ruth and me again?"
"I would indeed," more emphatically still.
"Well, if you should happen to be riding by Davey's Swamp somewhere about 4 to-morrow I shouldn't be at all astonished if you came upon us. But if you wish to see Ruth I'd advise you not to say I told you where we'd be or she certainly won't be there."
"Thank you, Miss Dolly," said Maitland gratefully.
They were on the verandah by this time, and the men unhitched their horses from the verandah post.
"Good bye," said Maitland to Ruth. "I have had such a pleasant afternoon, thanks to you, Miss Grant—at least, no, your cousin is Miss Giant, isn't she? May I call you Miss Ruth?"
The old Jewish name sounded pleasantly on his lips, and she answered half shyly—"Yes, yes, I like that much best."
Riding away from the house together in silence both men were probably thinking of the two pretty lonely girls they had found set in such uncongenial surrounding. They had admired them yesterday, and both knew they would have lived next door to Mr. and Mrs. Grant for years without ever dreaming of calling on them, but for the discovery that they had two pretty nieces. Even then the doctor would never have dared to come only his bolder companion had over-persuaded him, and now he was wondering in his own mind whether he had not done a very foolish thing. It was evident Maitland admired Ruth, admired her more probably than even he himself had divined, and knowing as he did all Maitland's sad history, the doctor asked himself again whether he had not done a foolish thing.
Ruth was very sweet and bright and charming, just the sort of girl a man might love and marry. He admired her himself, but she was not likely to fall in love with him—and if she did—well, if she did—the cautious Scotchman felt his heart beating at the bare idea of such a thing—he knew very well he would fall in love with her, even though he had only seen her twice. But with Maitland it was different. He was a handsome fellow whom all the girls looked at and courted, as women will court the man who takes their fancy—he had never been so much taken with anyone as he had with Ruth Grant. And was there not danger for her? She saw no man—she lived a lonely life—was it not more than probable that—that—two good-looking, charming young people, evidently a little taken with each other, and oh, the pity of it—the pity of it—Maitland was not a free man. The doctor stole a glance at his companion as they trotted along side by side, picking their way over the stony plain. He thought the handsome face looked grave and sad, and a great pity filled his heart to think so fair a life should be already spoiled. And yet it was no reason why another life as fair should be ruined. Maitland was weak, he knew, fatally weak, and then he asked abruptly—
"Maitland, where's your wife now?"
Dick Maitland started as if he had been shot. Had he, too, been thinking of that wife of his?
"Just starting from England, I believe," he said, turning his face away.
"And she—is she all right now?"
"Is a woman who drinks ever safe?" asked Maitland, bitterly. Then with a sudden burst of passion he added—
"Oh, Alick, Alick, that woman has cursed my life. For the last eight years she has made it a hell upon earth for me."
"Poor boy," said Finlayson, pityingly, "poor boy. You were such a boy when you married her."
"I was old enough to know better—quite old enough—and you warned me. I remember how angry I was. I have made my bed, and now I must not complain if I have to lie on it."
"You'll live with her again when she comes out?"
"I can't—I can't," he made answer; "Alick, I can't;" and there was imploring treaty in his tones, as if he would have said, "For Heaven's sake, don't judge me harshly."
They rode on for some time in silence. Vainly the taciturn doctor sought for some word of sympathy, but none came to his lips, and at last he spoke out abruptly the thought that had been in his mind ever since they had left Kooringa.
"Dick," he said, "you ought to tell those girls you're a married man," and Dick Maitland answered never a word.
Slowly the long winter wore away, and summer came again at Kooringa. Before October the wide plains were clothed with emerald green, the neglected garden was rich with flowers, and Ruth could hardly believe it was the same desolate, dreary-looking place she had come to four months before. She did not find it dull now—never—and this bright Sunday afternoon, as she lay full length on the grass staring up at the blue sky just flecked here and there with fleecy clouds, she set herself to think out the reason why. A book was by her side, but she was too contented to read, too happy to do anything but lie and think.
For shearing was in full swing at Kooringa, and every man, woman, and child was deeply interested in it. Even such outsiders as Ruth and Dolly were drawn into the general whirl. To get shearers at Kooringa was no easy task, seeing that the shed was run on temperance principles, and no alcohol, tobacco, or swearing was allowed. No man likes to be restricted, so that Mr. Grant, adhering to his principles with the sturdy obstinacy that came to him from his border forefathers, had no little trouble with his shed, and when he dismissed his cook for hard swearing—his fire would not burn, and twenty hungry men were clamouring for their midday meal—the women-kind of his household had to come to the rescue and cook till he replaced him. The new cook had come the day before, the local preacher at Gaffer's Flat had highly recommended him, and Ruth felt she had fairly earned the rest she was taking.
Roger Marsden and Dolly had been with her a few moments ago, and they had strolled along the banks of the lake together until she had sat down, but the other two had gone on, and the elder girl opening her book smiled as she watched them out of sight. She saw what was coming—plainly—plainly. Roger was poor, of course, very poor, but then he was a good fellow, a very good fellow, riches were not everything, and once he had taken up this selection in the Heytesbury forest he was always talking about—well, she saw no reason why Dolly should not help make him a home. Things were beginning to look up in Queensland, he had got a small return for his money, and he began to think if only they had a fairly good season in the north the squatting company would not be such a bad investment after all.
It was wonderful how intimate they had grown with Roger Marsden. He had never come to the house, and yet never a day passed but they met him somewhere. They went for their daily walks and Marsden was sure to appear on the scene sometime or other. They learned to ride and this gave him greater opportunities than ever. At first Ruth was innocently surprised, but at last it began to dawn even on her innocence that this could not be wholly attributable to chance, and one day, a very wet day indeed, when even Dolly, anxious as she was, had to admit that it was impossible to think of stirring out of the house, she had come upon her writing a note. They wrote very few letters and had no secrets from one another, so that Ruth was surprised when her sister guiltily drew the blotting paper over it and began sketching rapidly.
"There, Ruth, do you think that's at all like a spider? His legs are a bit too long, arn't they?"
"Nonsense," said Ruth. "That's not what you were doing when I came in. You were writing a letter."
"Only a little note," said Dolly in extenuation.
"Well, but why wouldn't you show it to me? Who's it to?"
Dolly was silent for a moment and then said somewhat defiantly—
"Mr. Marsden," repeated her sister. "What do you want to write to him for?"
Again Dolly was silent. Then she put her face against her sister's hand coaxingly.
"Don't be angry, dear, please don't. Indeed it isn't any harm. But it was so dull here before we knew him and Mr. Maitland. And—and—to see us is the only pleasure he has, he says, and is there any harm in letting him know where we'll be to-morrow? Don't be cross, Ruth, please don't."
"So that is how it happens he always meets us," said Ruth slowly.
"Yes," said Dolly.
"And Mr. Maitland? He meets us very often."
"Well," said Dolly, "Mullin's Hill is a dreadfully dull hole for a man to live in. It's natural he should like to see us, and I always felt it would be a great pity if he rode twenty miles for nothing, and when he asked me where we'd be, why, of course I always told him."
"Oh, Dolly," but Ruth's tones did not sound either very shocked or very angry. It was sweet to her to think that Maitland should be so anxious to meet her.
"I think he looks very sad sometimes, don't you?" said Dolly, seeing that she had not only interested her sister but carried her own point, "very sad. Roger Marsden says he was such a nice boy at school—a great favourite with everybody. And then he had some great trouble—he doesn't know what. Alick Finlayson knows much more of him than Mr. Marsden does."
"Alick Finlayson," repeated Ruth. "And do you make appointments with Dr. Finlayson, too?"
It was Dolly's turn to flush, and she did it with a will.
"No, no," she said, "that would be more in Ann's line. She asks him to tea. I believe she is quite gone."
It was quite true. Ann, who had barely tolerated young Marsden, and who could not speak civilly to Dick Maitland, in some mysterious manner had allowed her heart to be touched by the shy Scotch doctor. Once or twice he had been called in to attend on one of the servants, and Ann had even been known to stay at home from a prayer meeting when he might be expected. She never attempted to convert him. She never talked religion in his presence, and once a week at least she asked him over to tea, when, as Dolly observed sagely, there was always something decent to eat. And he came whenever he could—was eager to come, in fact—but as Ruth saw only too plainly, the attraction was, not staid Ann, but pretty, flippant, careless Dolly; therefore she said pityingly—
"Poor Ann," and then added. "But how will you send your letter?"
"Tom Clegg will do anything in the world for me."
"Oh, Dolly, I wish you wouldn't flirt so. You flirt with Tom Clegg, poor boy; you flirt with Dr. Finlayson and, worst of all, with Roger Marsden. It's cruel."
"I don't, I don't, I don't," protested Dolly. "I never flirted with Roger Marsden in my life and I never will," from which Ruth concluded that matters between her sister and that young man were likely to be very serious indeed.
They were strangely alone, the two girls, though they lived in the midst of a big family. Mrs. Grant and the rest were so occupied with their own work they hardly had time to bestow on them, and in that work they were never expected to join. They were the idlers. Nothing was ever expected of them unless, indeed, in times of emergency like that when the shearers' cook departed. And if Ann crammed her religious opinions down their throats in season and out of season, and Lily scarcely took any notice of them at all, their uncle and aunt were always kind in their own rough way; and if Ruth endeavoured, as she sometimes did, to thank her aunt for all her kindness, that good lady promptly stopped her.
"Hush, my dear, hush; you're very welcome, as I told you the first day you came. And as for working, there's no occasion. You and Dolly are just for ornament, and I like to see a pretty thing about me sometimes, and so does your uncle for all he says so little. So long as you're content we're happy; besides, you're a godsend with the children. Mrs. Desmond"—the new Irish governess, a pretty washed-out piece of faded gentility—"tells me she never could undertake the children if it wasn't for you. She says you tell them stories."
Impetuous Dolly put her arm round the angular waist.
"Dear old aunt," she said, "I am sure you work too hard. Don't you think life was meant to be enjoyed just a little."
For a moment Mrs Grant unbent, and returned the caress, then she pushed her away, not ungently.
"There are many think like you, I know, Dolly," she said; "perhaps—who knows——But for me I have put my hand to the plough and must not turn back, and I look for my reward in the life to come."
The conversation drew the girls a little closer to their aunt.
"Poor old thing," said Dolly pityingly, when they talked it over. "What an awful warning not to marry into a pious family. However, she said we might do as we pleased, so I vote we do, Ruth."
Thus it happened that Dolly wrote notes to Roger Marsden and made appointments with him and Dick Maitland in the most unblushing fashion, and Ruth, if she had her doubts as to the propriety of the course, was at least a consenting party. She was perfectly and utterly happy, and she never asked herself the reason why. Perhaps deep down in her heart was a latent idea that Maitland had something to do with it, but if so she had not acknowledged it even to herself. Yet waking and sleeping she dreamed of him, and now as she lay on the grass by the lake side waiting for him, for she knew he would come sometime that afternoon, she went over and over again in her own mind all the little incidents of their acquaintanceship till she fell sound asleep.
And Maitland—there was not a more miserable man in all the broad colony of Victoria than Richard Maitland. Finlayson's warning had not fallen on dull ears. He knew he ought to tell the girls he was married, and he fully intended to do so. He met them at Davey's Swamp and when they parted he was looking forward to another meeting, and yet he had not told them. A fortnight, a month passed—their friendship had grown closer, and yet he had not spoken. How could he? How could he? And then he asked himself another question, "What need was there for it? They could be friends, great friends, but what need was there to tell those fair young girls how he had smirched and spoiled his life? Let him enjoy the present—it could not last long. Ruth was very sweet and lovable—someone would marry her ere long—Finlayson perhaps." The thought cost him a pang, but he looked it bravely in the face; the railway would be finished soon and then he must leave the district and their pleasant friendship would be at an end. Where was the good of bothering? But he never told Finlayson how often he went over to Kooringa, nor, indeed, did he ever mention Ruth and Dolly Grant at all.
And the doctor himself maintained a discreet silence. He had fallen hopelessly in love with Dolly; he was wise enough to see it was hopeless, and seeing that he never mentioned her name, kept away as much as possible from Kooringa and flung himself into his work with an ardour which gained for him a big practice, but which separated him more and more from his friend Maitland. So it happened he never knew how intimate the latter was with the girls and how often he went over to Kooringa.
And long before shearing time Maitland had discovered—what many a man has found out before him—that close friendship between man and woman if both are to remain heart whole and fancy free, is an utter impossibility.
Heart whole and fancy free! He had been so, spite of the bonds that bound him when first he met Ruth. And then almost he thought he must have fallen in love with her the first moment he saw her, but he would not acknowledge it even to himself, and it was the end of September before he did acknowledge it. He was miserable enough then, and stayed away for a whole fortnight, and when next he met Ruth he read reproach in her eyes, and muttered something about having been ill and very busy, and ended up by promising Dolly, who declared volubly they had both missed him dreadfully, that he'd never do it again. He ought to tell her, he ought to tell her. It was not likely she would ever care for him as he cared for her, still he was not behaving fairly to her. She did like him, and he was deceiving her—he ought to tell her at once, or he ought to go away. He was not quite sure whether he ought not to do both, and yet he did neither. Each day he said, I will do it to-morrow, or I will not see her to-morrow, and yet when he took her hand to bid her good-bye, and she asked him, "You will come again?" he could not resist the invitation in her eyes and on her lips, and then cursed himself again and again for a fool and a madman.
He ought not to see her—he ought not to see her, he told himself so a thousand times, and yet that Sunday afternoon he mounted his horse as usual and rode over to Kooringa.
As soon as he came in sight of the little lake he dismounted, and, tying the reins to the stirrup, let the old stock horse go, and walked on till he came on Ruth lying fast asleep, her cheek pillowed on her hand. He sat down on the grass beside her and watched her. How pretty she was, how pretty, how dainty, how fair, and to think—to think.
Dick Maitland, looking at his own life and seeing more clearly in her presence what shipwreck he had made of it, covered his face with his hands and groaned aloud.
Ruth rubbed her eyes sleepily, then opening them wide, caught sight of him and sat up with a start.
"Oh, Mr. Maitland," she said. "What must you think of me? I believe you caught me asleep."
Maitland recovered himself, and took her outstretched hand.
"Well," he said, and he had worked himself up to such an extent that he was a little surprised to find he could speak naturally, "what of that? It's a drowsy afternoon, and after all I am late."
"Yes, you are," said Ruth, with just a touch of coquetry in her tones; "it was very good of me to wait for you at all, even though I did go to sleep."
"Very good," he acquiesced, as if he were weighing every word she said.
"What made you late?" she asked.
"I don't know," he said, "I don't think I should have come at all."
He was only playing with the truth; he knew he could not tell her, not now at least, not now; let him have one more happy afternoon, and he flung himself down at her feet and began idly plucking up the grass by the roots.
"It's very unkind of you to say that," she said lightly, "when you knew I was waiting for you."
"I wanted to come," he said earnestly. "Heavens, how I wanted to come."
She flushed and looked conscious under his earnest gaze. He had never spoken so to her before, and while his conscience told him he was a brute and a coward, her heart fluttered with pleasure, though she turned it off lightly as a woman will.
"Well, you did come," she said, "and I am glad. Dolly and Mr. Marsden have gone for a walk down by the creek. They refused to wait any longer; it just shows you how forgiving I am."
"You went to sleep."
"Well, I didn't till I'd finished 'Colonel Enderby's Wife.' There was nothing else to do then."
"And how do you like it?" he asked picking up the book and turning over the leaves.
"Oh, very much, very much indeed. Poor Colonel Enderby, arn't you sorry for him? But Jessie, she is a—a——"
"You cant find words bad enough for her."
"No. I hope she's not true to life. I do hope there are no women like her in the world. Do you think there are?"
"At least she was sweet and lovable," he said with a heavy sigh, "and that is something."
"Oh, no, no, no. She's altogether horrid. Do you know any women like her?"
"Well, I shouldn't recognise them if I did, you see; that's a necessity of the case, but there are many very strange things in this world of ours."
"It's a very nice old world, isn't it?" said Ruth, "though people abuse it so."
She looked so happy, so innocently happy—he could have flung himself face downwards on the earth and groaned aloud, but he only said—
"I don't think you know much of the world, Miss Ruth."
"No, I don't," she said, "I wish I did. How can I shut up here? I never see anything or hear anything or learn anything. You are my only link with the outside world. I'm very happy here, and yet sometimes, when I think it over, I seem to be wasting my time fearfully. I shall be twenty-four next February, and I know so very little; there couldn't be a more ignorant girl anywhere."
"Ignorant? I don't see that. You are a most accomplished young lady. You play and sing beautifully, you make your own dresses, and you tell me you can cook. What more do you want?"
"Oh, I didn't mean in that way. But I am ignorant. Dolly and I live in a little narrow world of our own, with our own little sorrows and our own little griefs, and we know nothing of the ways of the world. I want to know something of the other men and women who live in this world—something of their joys and sorrows. I want to understand more. Don't you see? I'm just beginning to realise that I know nothing whatever."
He looked up at her. She was not looking at him, but was gazing out across the water, her lips just parted in a smile. What was she longing for? What peace, what happiness could a greater knowledge of the world bring her?
"Ah, my child, my child," he said sadly, "the knowledge that you want is only gained at bitter cost. Be content child, be content."
She looked down at him wonderingly.
What could he mean? He turned his face away and rose to his feet.
"Here come the other two," he said. "I'm afraid it's getting late."
That night when he entered his little sitting-room at Mullin's Hill his old chum Alick Finlayson rose up out of his easy chair, where he had been smoking and reading The Argus.
"Hallo!" he said. "Where have you been, Dick? I've been waiting for you the last two hours."
Dick muttered something inaudible, and the doctor went on—
"I've come to apologise. I hope no great harm's done, but I must cry peccavi. The post brought me a newspaper yesterday, which I didn't open till to-day, and there in the folds was this letter, addressed to you."
Maitland took it and read it. It was very short.
"Nothing wrong I hope?" said his friend.
"No." Maitland's voice sounded hoarse and husky. "It doesn't make any difference, I suppose. It's from—from my wife. The Killarney's in, and she says she'll be in Ballarat on Monday."
"Dick, Dick, old chap!" Englishmen are never demonstrative, but the doctor gripped his friends hand as one who would say, 'I understand—I pity.' "Dick, it's hard lines on you."
"My God, my God!" said Dick, giving way for a moment. "I wish I were dead—I wish I were dead."
"Aunt," said Dolly, next morning at breakfast, "we ought to be thinking of our summer things. It's getting quite hot."
"Yes, my dear," said Mrs. Grant, "I thought about that. I ordered two rolls of print from town last week, and there's any amount of calico in the store. The children want new dresses, poor things, but really I'm so busy I don't know which way to turn. I must try and get a sewing girl out from Ballarat."
"Oh, Auntie," said Ruth, "if you'll trust us, Dolly and I'll make the girls new frocks."
"Well, my dears, you're very good and you really do work so much better than Ann or Lily."
Ann looked vexed, but Lily laughed good-humouredly. The world was going well with Lily. James Wilson, the manager at Titura, a man after Mr. Grant's own heart, had come courting his buxom daughter, his affections had been reciprocated, and everything had been comfortably settled the week before, and Lily, therefore, happy in herself, heard with equanimity her mother praise her cousins.
"That's true," she said. "I always hated sticking in the house sewing."
"Well, there're two sorts of print—pink with white spots and white with pink," said Mrs. Grant, calmly. "The pink ought to suit you, Dolly, and the white'll do for you, Ruth."
Ruth saw a look on her sister's face which showed her she hardly relished appearing in the same uniform as the rest of the Grant family.
"You are very kind, Auntie," she said, "but Dolly and I never thought of using your stuff. We thought, perhaps, you might let us go into Ballarat some day this week and lay in a stock of summer things."
"Certainly," said Mrs. Grant, "you can go into Ballarat to-morrow if you like, Ruth. You'd better stop the night at Mrs. Young's, and we'll send into Gaffer's Flat for you on Wednesday."
What woman does not delight in a day's shopping? Ruth and Dolly did, at any rate, and enjoyed to the full their day's outing. Their purse was slender, it was true, but then their wants were few. When young ladies make their own dresses, do their own millinery, go to no balls and parties, and pay no calls, a little money goes a long way; besides which, much to their astonishment, their aunt, just as they were starting, had put a five-pound note into Ruth's hand.
"There, my dear," she said, awkwardly, "you just take it and spend it. I was young myself once, and I liked pretty things. Maybe it was wrong, but I did. Lily and Ann, they don't, but you and Dolly do, so just you go and enjoy yourselves."
And they did enjoy themselves. They made their simple purchases and gazed at the wonders of dressmaking and millinery displayed in the drapers windows with keenest enjoyment, for the woman who takes no interest in her dress must certainly have something radically wrong with her. At last they decided to put off further shopping till they had refreshed themselves with a cup of afternoon tea.
They turned into Lydiard-street, and Dolly stopped opposite a confectioner's.
"Here you are," she said.
A woman stood right in the doorway leaning rather helplessly against one of the door-posts. She was a middle-aged woman, with a broad red face that might have been handsome in a masculine way twenty years before, but now was coarse and bloated. Her eyes were half closed, and her mouth fell open in an imbecile leer, showing that she had lost her front teeth. Her dress was a bright red cashmere, trimmed with some kind of gold braid that glittered in the sun, but one side was all covered with dust and dirt, as it she had fallen heavily; while her bonnet, which was gay and loud, hung on to the back of her head by a pair of crumpled red ribbons.
The woman looked at them with filmy eyes.
"My dears," she said huskily, "I'm so ill; oh dear, so ill. The pain—it takes my breath away"—and she put her hand to her side.
"Poor thing," said Ruth; "she must be ill."
"She looks very horrid though," whispered Dolly.
"Call me a cab," muttered the woman, putting her head on one side. "Oh dear! Oh, dear! I'm so faint, and I'm not used to being alone."
The girls looked at one another, and then back at the gorgeously dressed woman. If she were ill, really ill, they would have gladly helped her, but they had a natural dislike to being mixed up in a street scene, and the girl behind the counter in the shop made no movement to come to her aid, but looked at her with evident disfavour.
"Shall we call a cab?" hesitated Dolly doubtfully.
A tall policeman came along the street and stopped opposite them. He, too, paused a moment, then laid his hand on the woman's arm.
"Come," he said curtly, "isn't it about time you was agoin' home?"
"Oh, policeman," said Ruth, turning to the guardian of the peace with a feeling of relief; "is the poor thing ill, do you think?"
"Drunk as a lord, miss," said the policeman, turning a good-humoured smiling face on her. "She's been in the sun, she has."
The girls drew back.
"There ain't no cause for you to be alarmed, ladies," he said. "Come, missus, you 'ad best be going home."
The woman turned on him.
"Been in the sun, have I?" she screamed. "I'll teach you to take away a lady's character," and she poured out on him a string of the vilest abuse Ruth had ever heard.
For a moment the two girls stood stock still, and, turning to make their escape, came face to face with Dick Maitland.
"Oh, Mr. Maitland," cried Ruth in her delight, "that awful woman!"
But he looked white and stern, and passed her by almost as if he had not seen her.
"I'll take charge of her, constable," he said, and Ruth hardly recognised his voice, so changed did it sound. "Here, call me a cab, will you, please?" and he slipped some silver into the man's hand.
The woman changed her tone, and, clutching at the door-post, again began whimpering—
"Dick, Dick, you always were hard on me. Dick, Dick," and the policeman protested—
"But she's drunk and disorderly, sir. I'd better lock her up, affrightening these ladies."
"Never mind," said Maitland, "call a cab, like a good fellow. I'm the proper person to look after her. For Heaven's sake, don't let's have a scene if we can help it."
The last words recalled Ruth to her senses.
"Come, Dolly," she said, entering the shop, "let's order our tea."
From the window she watched the drunken woman being bundled into a cab by Maitland and the policeman.
"She's a nice one, she is," said the girl behind the counter. "I wonder what that gentleman has to do with her."
Ruth wondered too, and Dolly spoke out her thoughts as they sat over their peaches and cream.
"I wonder what Mr. Maitland had to do with that woman? He didn't look as if he liked it, either."
"I thought he looked rather ill," said Ruth.
"Yes, he did. Did you know he was coming to Ballarat?"
"No," said Ruth. "We agreed to meet at Davey's Swamp this afternoon. And then, when I found we were coming into Ballarat to-day, I sent him a note by Willie."
"I wonder if he came into town because we were coming?" said Dolly.
Exactly what Ruth had been wondering, only she did not like to put her thoughts into words even to her sister, and only said—
"Oh no, of course not. I expect it was something to do with the railway."
"Anyhow," suggested Dolly, "he's sure to come back once he's seen us here. We'd better wait a little," and Ruth, nothing loth, agreed with her suggestion.
But he never came, and when the town clock chimed 5, Ruth, more disappointed than she cared to own, decided it was no use waiting any longer, and they had better go on with their shopping.
But it had lost its charm. Dolly plunged into it again with just the same zest, but Ruth kept asking herself why had not Dick Maitland spoken to her, and what had he to do with that drunken woman who had most distinctly called him "Dick?" They might meet him in the streets next morning, they would be in Sturt-street, and if he were there he would very likely see them; but then—but then the chances were against it.
But whether he wished to see them or not, they did not meet, and at twelve the two girls laden with their purchases started for home, and at Gaffer's Flat Willie met them as he had done four months before. They were glad to see him, and he greeted them with a grin of welcome, and declared he was glad they were back, for the house wasn't the same without them.
"Mother 'll be glad you're back, too; mother will," he said. "I think she gets a bit tired of all the psalm-singing herself sometimes, for all she sticks to it so."
"I took your letter over on Monday night," he went on, "but I didn't get a chance to tell you about it yesterday morning."
"Maitland wasn't there. He'd gone in to Ballarat."
Ruth said nothing, but the pleasant little castle she had built crumbled to ruins at once. He had not gone to meet her, then; and Willie added, "So of course I couldn't give him your letter. He'd left a note for me though in case I called, and inside was one for you. Here it is. I couldn't give it to you yesterday."
"Oh, I daresay. And have father and mother and Ann and all the rest of them clamouring to know what I was doing at Mullin's Hill. You know as well as possible I have to sneak out of my bedroom window when they think I'm in bed."
"Now, Ruth, don't you begin preachee-preachee. I guess you wouldn't like me to tell father how often you girls meet Marsden and Maitland. Why, last week I saw you both in the plantation in the moonlight talking to Marsden. You wouldn't like me to tell that. I expect the others thought you had gone to bed."
"So we had," said Ruth eagerly. "We had, indeed. Only you see, Mr. Marsden was so busy with the shearing we hadn't a chance to speak to him in the daytime. He had something particular to tell us, so he just walked up and down outside our window till we saw him and went out to him."
"You got through your window, too, I'll bet."
"Well, there's no other way out of our room. The boys were in bed. We oftener use the window than the door."
"Oh, I'm not saying it's wrong. Only don't preach to me. If father wasn't such an old donkey you could meet both Marsden and Maitland indoors, and I shouldn't have to sneak over to Mullin's Hill when I wanted a pipe of tobacco or a glass of beer."
True enough, Ruth thought as she read Maitland's letter. It was very short.
"Dear Miss Ruth," he began. "I am so disappointed I shall not be able to come over to-morrow. I find I have to be in Ballarat on that day on most important business, which I fear will occupy me the greater part of the week.
"I am the more disappointed, for my work here is so nearly done that I'm afraid my pleasant times are nearly at an end.
"Sincerely, I am, yours,
Then he added a postscript.
"May I come over on Sunday?"
Short as the letter was it had cost him a great deal of thought. What right had he to write it at all? What right to express disappointment? And yet what else could he do? Even though he were married, he had no right to treat this girl who had been kind to him churlishly. He had made an appointment with her, he must at least apologise for not keeping it. He wrote at least a dozen notes and tore them all up, and folded up the last in sheer despair.
He ought never to see Ruth again. He would get Finlayson to explain everything to her, and go away and never see her again. Then again he remembered how intimate they had become. It would be unkind, cruel, to leave her to be told by a stranger—and never to see her again, never to see her again—if it were only to say good-bye he must see her again once more, so he added the postscript "May I come over on Sunday?" And Ruth, reading his letter, began to count the hours till she should see him.
When they arrived at the house their aunt and all the children met them very much as they had done on the evening of their first arrival.
"Well, here you are, back again, girls," said their aunt. "I'm sure I'm glad to see you."
"We never thought you'd be home so early," said Ruth, kissing her.
"Well, my dear, I stopped away from the mothers' meeting just to be home when you came. I'm afraid I neglected my duty. Children, don't be mauling your cousins now."
"You're a dear old thing," said Dolly, "and we'll be far more grateful than a dozen mothers' meetings. Come along and see what we've bought."
Mrs. Grant had a little struggle with herself. She was woman enough to want to see the things, but feared that it was carnal-minded of her to take an interest in such frivolities. Neither Ann nor Lily being by, womanliness gained the day, and she followed the girls into their room.
Sunday came at last, a bright and glorious Sunday as the last had been, and once more Ruth sat on the margin of the lake waiting for Dick Maitland, and, as usual, Roger Marsden and Dolly had impatiently declared they could not wait, and had strolled away together. It was curious how very eager they were for one another's company now. They saw a great deal of each other, and yet it never seemed to be enough.
As for Ruth, how she wished Maitland would come! She felt as if it would be impossible for her to pass another day without seeing him. Why was he so late? She rose to her feet impatiently, and looked round. Three o'clock—half-past three—oh, why did he not come? Why should she wait here? She had half a mind to go home. But no, she must wait for Dolly, even if Maitland did not come. And she must see Maitland—she must; what would the rest of the week be like if she did not see him to-day?
At last she heard the sound of muffled hoof-beats on the grass behind, and looking round saw him ride up to the woolshed, dismount, fasten up his horse, and come towards her.
He had come, then, at last; then—at last—at last—at last—and she rose to her feet and greeted him calmly, all the more calmly, perhaps, that she had been so wildly desirous of his presence a few minutes ago.
It is a curious thing how people will go round an important point. It is there in their hearts; it is the thing they most ardently desire to speak upon, and yet they will waste their time talking of the most trivial matters. So it was now. All the week Ruth had been full of the scene in Ballarat; she had speculated till she was sick on the relationship of that woman to Maitland, the woman who had called him Dick with an air of proprietorship. She was too young to be his mother, he had told her he had no sister—what was she then? Perhaps she had nothing to do with him at all—was just a woman he had known and protected out of pure kindness; but if so why had he not sought them out afterwards? All this she had made up her mind to ask him on the first opportunity, and now that it had come she was practically dumb, or at least talked about things which interested her not at all, save that it was, she acknowledged it now, even to herself, a keen pleasure just to talk to him.
"You are late," she said, as he took his seat beside her.
"Yes," he said, "I am sorry. Forgive me. You have a great deal to forgive," he added.
"Of course; especially if you ask me like that. I don't think the offence is as terrible as all that."
He turned away his face, and then lay down at full length on the grass. What would she say when she knew everything? Would she forgive him that too? And he must tell her this afternoon; but there was all the afternoon before him—he would put it off a little; there was no hurry, no hurry; and he lay on the ground and stared up at the blue sky, and they discussed every subject under the sun save the one that was nearest their hearts. At last Maitland made up his mind with a mighty effort,
"Miss Ruth," he said, "I have something to tell you; something I ought to have told you long ago. For pity's sake, don't think more hardly of me than you can help because I haven't."
He stole a look at her face. It was flushed and agitated.
"Yes," she said, "yes."
"My child, I—I——"
"Oh, here come those children," said Ruth; "you ought to have told me before." And then, finding her courage as she saw her opportunities slipping away, "And I have been wanting to ask you about—about—that woman."
The children were close at hand now, five of them. He saw he should have no chance of answering her question, and was weakly thankful for the respite.
"What woman?" he asked.
"Why that one—surely you remember—the awful drunken creature you put in a cab and drove away with."
She put no direct question, but plainly as words could say her voice and her eyes asked, "What was she to you?"
Now was his chance. Even with those children close upon them he could have spoken the four little words which would have told her the truth. He had only to say, "She is my wife;" but the children were upon them, and he could have said no more. What he wished to say he hardly knew himself. What he could say in extenuation, in explanation, he did not know, but at least he was not strong enough to blurt out the bare untarnished truth and leave her to think what she might of him, to bear it, if it cost her anything, as best she might.
"It was a disgraceful business," he said, turning his face away, and it seemed to him some other man was speaking, so strained did his own voice sound in his ears—"a terrible business. I was so sorry you should see it."
"But since we did," she began.
"Ruth, Ruth," and three little girls and two boys flung themselves down on the grass beside her, "you said you'd tell us a story."
"Not now, dears; don't you see I'm talking to Mr. Maitland."
"Yes, but you said 'by-and-by' when we asked you before," said Ted.
"What am I to do?" asked Ruth, appealing to Maitland. "I suppose I must tell them the story as I promised. You might have come earlier, you know, if you had cared to," she added a little reproachfully. She was bolder now that the children were there, and said things she would never have dared to say if they had been alone.
"It wasn't because I didn't care," he said earnestly; "but there, tell them the story and send them away. I have something I must say to you."
Ruth's heart began to beat dangerously, but she asked calmly—
"What sort of a story am I to tell you?"
"Wolves and bears and Indians," said Ted.
"About a faiwy pwincess and the wolf what's in the woodhouse," suggested Vera.
"Shut up," said Ted in scorn. "Go on, Ruth."
Thus exhorted Ruth began and told them the story of Jacob and Esau, his brother, and how the younger by craft and fraud deceived his blind old father and robbed the elder of his birthright.
"It was a shame," said Ted, flinging a stone with all his might into the lake, "a beastly shame. If I'd been Esau I'd have chawed Jacob up that time they met afterwards, wouldn't you, Ruth?"
"Esau was a good man, and so forgave his brother, dear. It was the best way."
"All the same, I wish there'd been a fight. I wouldn't have forgiven him."
"It was right," said Ruth again.
Maitland raised his head. He had been lying on his face, his head pillowed on his arms, but she knew by some subtle instinct that no words of hers escaped him. Now he asked—
"Would you, do you think! Would you?"
"Would I what?"
"Forgive if anyone deceived you?"
"How can I tell?" she said. "It depends so much on whether I cared or not. But no, I don't think I could forgive, and then I never could think the same of the person who did it."
"Anyone you loved, for instance?"
"Dolly," said Ruth, thinking of the only creature in the world who belonged to her. "Oh, if Dolly were to deceive me it would break my heart, I think."
"Or anyone who loved you?"
"But—anyone who loved me wouldn't deceive me."
"Ah, little you know, child, little you know."
"Mustn't call Wuth child," said Vera.
The other children, finding the conversation no longer interested them had wandered away round the lake, but this one still kept her seat nestling up to Ruth. Maitland wanted her gone, and yet he welcomed her, because he thought how utterly impossible it was to make the revelation with her sitting by listening with all her ears.
"You were going to tell me when the children came up all about that—that woman," said Ruth, thoughtfully. She felt she could not let this go on any longer.
"Yes, but the reason why I should not still holds good, doesn't it?" he said, glancing at the child.
"Not at all. Tell it in some other person's name. Our friend won't know who you're talking about."
It was an opening and he seized it eagerly. In another man's name he could tell his story, and tell it far better with the child sitting there to act as a check on him, should he be tempted to go too far.
"It's not a pretty story," he said, drawing his hand across his dry lips, and wishing once again he had been dead and buried before ever he had seen her, "but you ought to have known it long ago—only, only forgive me—I never had the courage to tell you—but I hope—I think no mischief has been done except to the unfortunate man himself."
"Yes," said Ruth, her face full of eager interest and sympathy. "Yes, go on."
"Well, it's a little over nine years ago now. About that time a young fellow named Thomson was attending lectures at the University, do you understand?"
"Yes," she said, wondering who Thomson could be.
"He wasn't well off; he couldn't afford much; so he lived in a rather uncomfortable boarding-house in Carlton. You can't expect much for a pound a week; and he didn't, but shared his room with a chum and made the best of it. They had very little amusement, for they couldn't afford to go out much, and both were desperately anxious to get on in the professions they had chosen. Naturally it was dull, terribly dull, but they looked for their reward in the days to come. Then to this dingy boarding-house came one day a young woman—a young widow she called herself—named Lester. She was rather good-looking—not very—but still passable. You saw that woman on Tuesday—well, you can imagine what she was before drink had coarsened her face, and, though she was probably over thirty, even then, years older than Thomson, he, young fool that he was, fell in love with her. Now he knows she made a desperate set at him, but then he thought her everything that was charming. There was some excuse for him, just a little, I think—she lived in the same house with him—he saw no other woman, and it was pleasant of an evening to go into the shabby sitting-room and listen to her singing and playing on the cracked old piano. He thought he was musical in those days, the young donkey, and she flattered him to the top of his bent. She had a little girl, too—rather a nice little thing, about that child's size—and after she had been singing a very sentimental song she used to take little Emmie in her arms and kiss her and cry over her and call her her poor orphaned darling, and then she would look over at the young idiot on the sofa opposite looking on sympathetically at the little domestic drama being enacted for his benefit, and sigh—
"'Ah, Mr. Thomson. It's a terrible thing to be left alone in the world.'
"Don't think I'm defending him. He was a young fool. He walked into it with his eyes open. His chum warned him over and over again; he himself felt instinctively that there was something that did not ring true about the woman, he knew much was put on, but he saw also it was put on for his benefit—he was just at the age to be flattered by the attentions of a woman older than himself, he stifled the inward monitor, he paid no heed to his chum's warnings, he quarrelled with him in fact, and then the flirtation grew fast and furious. He certainly had no intention of marrying her then, but she sought him and he let himself drift. Then little Emmie fell sick—typhoid the doctor said—worse and worse she grew, till at last she died. The mother was frantic. I don't know whether she really cared—I suppose she did—but she carried on like a mad thing. She was alone in the world—the only creature that had loved her was dead, &c.—till young Thomson, like the fool he was told her not to cry, not to break her heart, for she should never feel herself alone while he was alive to take care of her. Even then he never meant to marry her, but she was a clever woman, she understood how to manage him, and before the week was out she had him hard and fast. His chum came round once more and begged him earnestly not to make a fool of himself—to cut and run if there were no other way out of the business. And he took the high horse—he was a gentleman, he was a man of honour, he had passed his word to marry this woman, and marry her he would, and marry her he did, too—three days later at the registry office in Carlton. He was so miserably poor that I have often wondered since why she wanted him; perhaps she loved him after her own fashion. But that very day he found out what a terrible mistake he had made. He attended lectures as usual and when he came home he found his wife—his new-made wife—roaring drunk, tearing round the house half dressed, banging everything and everybody with a half empty brandy bottle."
Maitland paused and moistened his dry lips. Did she understand who Thomson was—why he was telling her this tale—did she understand? If she did, it was evident she did not care for him, for, though she was deeply interested she sat calm and quiet, though the sweat stood on his forehead, and his mouth was dry and his voice husky.
"Well," he went on, "there's not much more to tell. She was his wife—irrevocably his wife. He had put on the bonds himself, and no one on earth could break them. He must make the best of it, and a very bad best it was. She was drunk at least once a fortnight—how she had kept straight during the six weeks of their courting, I'm sure I don't know; but she never did it again. They were turned out of the boarding-house; they went to another, and in a month had to leave that. He never dared trust her with money, and even when she had none she would pawn her clothes for drink. No one knows the misery of his life for the next three or four year but himself; but he won his degree at last, and then an old uncle dying and leaving him a little money he managed to live apart from his wife. For two or three years he lived happily enough; he made it up with his old friend—they were chums once more—he was getting on in his profession, and sometimes even he forgot the existence of the woman who had spoiled his life. Then again, she came to him promising reformation, begging and praying to be taken back. What was he to do? After all, he had married her of his own free will, and he took her back. She was an idle slattern, but she kept straight enough for a year or two; then this year she broke out again. He was doing pretty well at his profession by now, so in sheer desperation he sent her home to England by a temperance ship. She was not to land, but was to come straight out again. During her absence"—Maitland's voice was getting very husky now, and he found it harder than ever to go on—"during her absence Thomson and his chum by the purest chance were introduced to two pretty girls. Again his chum warned him, and again he paid no heed. Every day he said, 'I will never see her again'—sometimes he managed to stay away—sometimes he said to himself, 'I will tell her to-day I am married, and then she will hate and despise me,' but he never did. Don't think more hardly of him than you can help, for indeed his life is not worth living. I don't suppose she gives him a second thought, but he—he loves the ground she walks on; and the Killarney was in the bay last Saturday, and—that woman—you saw her on Tuesday."
He stopped and hid his face on his arms again.
He had done it at last, and did she understand? She was very quiet and still, and the suspense was more than he could bear. He could hear his own heart beating wildly, and almost fancied she must hear it, too. Evidently she had never cared for him, and he had fancied that day in Ballarat in the momentary glimpse he had of her that he had read love in her eyes. It was best not—much best—he would not have her suffer as he was suffering. Then he raised his face again, and Ruth said with infinite pity in her tones—
"Poor fellow, poor, poor fellow. Of course, I know whom you mean. So that is his story. I always thought there was something, he is so quiet and grave, and seems to try and keep out of one's way—but I am not worried about her, I'm glad to say, because——you see you see——"
Maitland looked at her in astonishment. She had not understood him after all then, and for one moment a great rush of gladness filled his heart. He followed her eyes and saw she was looking across at her sister and Marsden, who were close upon them. She surely could not think he was in love with Dolly—but no, it had evidently not struck her he was telling his own story at all—did she think it was Marsden's—and then it came upon him with a flash—she thought he meant Alick Finlayson. He had thought him in love with Ruth, but he might very possibly be mistaken, it might be Dolly after all. He could have cried aloud in his pain and misery. He had tried to do his duty—late in the day though it was—he had tried to tell her, and in the telling he had only shown himself how dear she was to him, while she only thought he was telling Alick Finlayson's story. It was worse than ever now. How could he tell her?
The other two came up and Marsden stirred him gently with his foot.
"Well, I like you, Maitland," he said, "is this the way you've spent the afternoon. It must have been awfully entertaining for Vera and Miss Ruth."
Marsden was in the wildest spirits. Dolly sat down demurely by her sister's side, and Roger seized Vera and tossed her up in his arms.
"Well, my poppet," he said, "I hope you're beginning to think about the marriage festivities."
"Oh, Woger," cried the little girl, putting her arms round his neck, "you said I was too little, an' you'd have to mawwy some one else fwist."
"Did I, did I really? Was I so ungallant as all that? Who shall I marry then?"
Vera looked round and surveyed the two girls critically.
"Mawwy Dolly," she suggested in all good faith.
"A very sensible idea, upon my word," said Marsden, sitting down gravely and looking at Dolly's blushing face, "Vera, you're a very discerning young person. Miss Ruth, I have something to tell you. Maitland I don't think I'll mind you, because you're a friend of the family, but—well—well."
"Well what?" asked Ruth.
It is curious what difficulty a man has in explaining to a woman's family that he has asked that woman to be his wife.
"The fact of the matter is," he said desperately, "I have just asked your sister to be my wife, and she said 'Yes.'"
"Oh," gasped Ruth. She had not expected that communication quite so soon and it fairly took away her breath. Then she recovered herself, gave Dolly's hand a congratulatory little squeeze, and held out her own to Marsden.
"Indeed," she said, "I am very glad—very glad. I hope you'll both be very happy."
Maitland rose up and held out his hand too.
"You're a lucky dog, Marsden," he said. "You always were, but I believe you deserve it. Miss Dolly, I've known him all my life, and I assure you he's a rattling good fellow."
It seemed to him terribly hard. He had just been reviewing his own wasted, spoiled life, and his old schoolmate came and all unconsciously flaunted his happiness in his face.
"We regard you in the light of a stern parent, Ruth, you know," said Dolly, blushing and finding her voice at last, "and we've been awfully afraid of what you'd say."
"Is you goin' to mawwy, Dolly?" asked Vera, who had been eagerly looking from one to another, puckering up her small face in an effort to understand.
"Yes, yes; I hope so," said Marsden, kissing her. "You see," he went on, "it's no good stopping here. I've got on pretty well, certainly. Started last May as rousabout, and now I'm overseer; but there's not the faintest prospect of getting any higher with a true Christian like James Wilson stopping the way, and I don't suppose anyone would take a man from the Hallelujah Station. See this is what I thought of doing. That blessed old investment of mine in Queensland is actually looking up. At present it promises to pay me a hundred a year; it isn't much, but it's better than nothing. Now, I think of taking up land in the Heytesbury Forest. It's awfully rich land and only wants clearing. Dolly"—he lingered over her name half shyly—"says she won't mind being a selector's wife, and though I don't suppose we'll ever be rich, still in time to come we ought to be comfortably off. It's not much to offer, but——"
"But I'm satisfied," said Dolly, shyly. "And I'm the most important person. Ar'n't I, Ruth?"
"Yes, dear," said Ruth, "and, as stern parent, I wonder what I ought to say. Dolly's happy, and that's the main thing."
"You evidently wer'n't cut out for a stern parent if that's all you think about," said Maitland. "The foolish happiness of the young folks is not, as a rule, the first thing to be considered."
"Yes, it is—of course it is. How horridly mercenary you are. Well, Mr. Maitland, since I approve, what's the next thing to be done?"
"Mention it to your uncle and aunt?"
"Yes, I suppose so. They have been very kind to us in their own way, though they have left us a good deal to ourselves. I think it was the kindest thing they could do."
"They're sure to object to me on the score of my godlessness," grumbled Marsden.
"I'm not so sure of that," said Ruth. "They don't regard Dolly as a saint. Do you know, young people, it's getting awfully late, and I think we ought to be going home. We'll be late for tea, I'm sure."
"I'll come with you," suggested Marsden, "and tackle the old gentleman at once. Nothing like striking while the iron's hot. Let's start;" and Dolly and he, with Vera clinging to his hand went on ahead.
"I must go, too," said Ruth, looking up at Maitland, as they stood side by side.
"I hate to let you go," he said, turning and walking with her, "I hate to let you go."
The sun was sinking low now, sending his long level beams right across the lake. The gum-trees in the plantation cast long lean shadows on the grass, but the sunbeams glanced from the still glassy lake, and brought out lines of gold in her fair hair and a bright colour into her fair face. How dainty she was—how lovable, how bewitching and yet she could never be anything to him. He walked beside her in silence, and she, stealing a glance at him in the evening light, thought that, like her, he was silent only because, like her, his heart was full and he was utterly happy. He loved her—he had said no word, but it was written in his face, and who shall blame her if she read it there. Between friends silence is sometimes the very truest sign of friendship, and she had no misgivings in her heart, when she turned by the garden gate to bid him good-bye. She hardly dared raise her eyes to his face, so conscious was she of a vague something between them that had never been there before—something that had been born of the long quiet afternoon together, and that one passionate, "I hate to let you go."
"I shall be late home," he said, with his hand on the gate, so that she could not pass.
"Yes," she said, and then added, raising her shy dark eyes for one brief second to his face, "When will you come again?"
He had meant to tell her this afternoon—he had told her to the best of his ability, and now she did not understand, and it was harder than ever.
"May I write to you?" he asked. "Willie will bring the letter."
"Yes, of course—only—I hope you'll come soon. I shall have a lot of daisy picking to do now, and I think you ought to help me."
She was sure he cared to be with her, so very sure just at this moment that she did not mind asking him to come, and he was miserably conscious that if he stayed a moment longer he would betray himself. He said nothing in answer to her question, he literally could not, and she added, "I must go—we have walked so slowly I shall be late as it is. Good bye, then, for the present."
He opened the gate and let her pass through; then as it closed again he leaned over and took her hand as if to say good bye.
"There is a barrier between us," she said, feeling the silence a little uncomfortable.
"There is indeed," he answered bitterly; and then added, still holding her hand, "My child, you won't think hardly of me, will you?"
"Why should I?" she asked in surprise; "of course I won't."
"No—but—I—I oh, for—God's sake—don't think I did it on purpose."
"What do you mean?" she asked, and before he could answer Ted dashed through the trees,
"Oh, I say Ruth, do come in. The old tuft and Marsden are going it hammer and tongs. Oh, I say, it is a lark. The old man said something about Dolly, and Marsden went at him like a house on fire. My! you'd better come in! You'd better not stand spooning here, or you'll catch it. Tea's ready."
"I'm coming," said Ruth. "I really must go," she added, though she would have given a great deal for five minutes. He had been going to tell her something. What was it? She felt the hand that held hers trembling violently.
"Come on. Mother told me to call you."
Ted turned his back for a moment, and Maitland bent his head over the hand he held and kissed it passionately.
"Good bye," he murmured, and she could almost have sworn he added "my darling" under his breath; but half frightened, half pleased, she snatched her hand away and, with her heart beating madly, ran through the neglected garden up to the house.
On the verandah stood her aunt and uncle confronting Roger Marsden and Dolly, while various other members of the Grant family peeped through windows and out of doors, and evidently listened with interest. The old gentleman was scratching his head, as he always did when perplexed. Roger looked flushed and angry, and Dolly was on the verge of tears.
"What's this I hear, Ruth?" he asked when he saw her.
"Only that Mr. Marsden and Dolly want to get married," she said, wondering if he could hear her heart beating as plainly as she could herself. "Is there any objection? You have been so good and kind to us, uncle, ar'n't you pleased at the prospect of getting rid of one of your burdens?"
"You were never a burden," he said, kindly enough, "you know you were always welcome to the bit and sup we could give you, but I'm concerned about Dolly here. She is stiff-necked." Dolly showed a disposition to giggle, and moved her head about as if to prove to him his mistake. "She is stiff-necked," he went on, "she will not even look at the path of grace, and she wants to marry one in outer darkness."
"I belong to the Church of England, sir," said Marsden coldly.
Ruth went up to her uncle, and put her hand on his arm.
"Dear uncle," she said, "there are lots of good people in this world who don't think exactly as you do."
"Ruth," he said solemnly, "there is only one straight and narrow gate, and few there be that find it."
Ann put her head out of the dining-room window.
"The way of the transgressors is hard," she said sepulchrally and apropos of nothing at all.
"Indeed, Ann, you are right," said her father approvingly.
"Well then, uncle," pleaded Ruth, "if you think they are transgressors, don't make it any harder for them. Give your consent to their engagement. Mr. Marsden isn't very rich, but I know you're the last man in the world to care about riches."
"Wiles of the Evil One," said old Grant, smacking his lips with satisfaction.
"I wish I had some, though," said Roger; and Ruth frowned at him.
"Very well then, uncle," she said, "you have nothing against his poverty, have you; and since Dolly doesn't mind, you don't object to the engagement, do you?" again trying to bring him to the point.
"I can see no blessing on a godless union," he said, shaking his head.
"Well, but they may marry if they like?"
"I have nothing to do with it. Lily and James Wilson are going to be married in December."
"Then we can be married at the same time, I suppose," said Roger eagerly. "Thank you, sir; thank you very much. I haven't many preparations to make; they'll be all made by that time."
"How do you intend to keep your wife?" asked Mr. Grant, coming to business at last, like the canny Scot he was at bottom, and then he listened while Roger detailed his plans.
"H'm, h'm," he said when he had done, "it's not so bad. I must be getting a new overseer, I see. Come in to tea then, and afterwards we'll make it a subject of earnest prayer."
The days rolled on swiftly. Christmas came and went, the grass on the wide plains, so green and fresh in October, begun to be sere and yellow, the waterholes and creeks dried up, day after day the sun rose and set in a cloudless sky, the air quivered with heat, for it was midsummer, and the 6th January was fixed for Dolly's wedding day. It was Lily Grant's wedding day, too, but that was quite a secondary consideration in Ruth's eyes. Her sister was going to be married, the sister she loved so intensely, the only creature she had to love, and they were to be parted for the first time in their lives. She tried to put a brave face on it for Dolly's sake, but it was very hard work.
When first the engagement was settled Dolly had been so blissfully happy that neither of them had thought of the parting coming nearer every day; and then, too, on that first day Ruth's mind had been full of Maitland—he loved her she was sure; hardly to herself dared she acknowledge how much she cared for him—and this new love, though it did not weaken her affection for her sister, at least put her in the second place She rejoiced with Dolly, rejoiced over her new-found happiness, and hugged her own secret bliss to her breast in silence, and lay awake that night long after Dolly, worn out with excitement, was peacefully sleeping, wondering when she should see him again. He had said he would write—when? To-morrow? The next day?
But Monday came, and Tuesday, and brought neither Maitland nor the letter. Then, on Wednesday morning, Willie very mysteriously slipped a note into her hands at prayers, and she had to wait all through breakfast before she could even look at it. Her aunt remarked that she looked pale that morning and that she was eating no breakfast, but it seemed to Ruth that if she was not hungry everyone else made up for it, and ate about twice as much as usual and four times as much as was good for them. There was nothing for it however, but to wait—to wait with what patience she might. "Everything," they say, "cometh to him who waits," and at last a spare moment came to Ruth.
What she had expected she hardly knew, but the disappointment was keen and crushing. He would not, he feared, see her again, he wrote, for at least a month or six weeks. His work was nearly done at Mullin's Hill, would be quite finished in all probability before the end of the year. After that he had to go to the Western district, and it was there he was going for the next few weeks. He was so sorry to leave without saying good-bye; he had hoped to get over to Kooringa, but the fates were against him; but at least he hoped to be back for Miss Dolly's wedding, which that lucky fellow Marsden told him was fixed for some time about Christmas.
And that was all. For very shame she could not cry. She had expected so much—she had hoped so much—she had been so sure he cared for her, and then he wrote her a polite little note to say he was going away for six weeks, and he could not even make time to come over and say good-bye.
She turned it over in her own mind in the weeks that followed, and came to many conclusions, chief among which was that she was to blame for allowing him to meet her in that clandestine fashion. True, Dolly had begun it, and Dolly had always done the same with Marsden, and he seemed to think her perfection; but then Dolly was different—no one expected much thought from impetuous Dolly. More was expected from her. But, but—surely it was not that; there had been no harm, he could think no evil of her. No, she did not know what had gone wrong, but something had, and the sun did not shine so brightly, the glorious November days had lost something of their charm, and life was not so sweet for Ruth Grant as it had been in the early springtime.
But it was no good to sit down and brood, so she threw all her energies into the making of the two trousseaux, and Dolly helped her, for Roger Marsden had gone to make a home for his bride in the Heytesbury Forest, and his sweetheart would else have found time hang heavy on her hands. Ruth looked white and ill, she thought, and was rather quiet and listless, but she set it down with a not unnatural selfishness to grief at the thought of the coming parting, and redoubled her efforts to be tender and loving to her sister. Roger wrote very regularly to his lady love, and she always read out scraps that she thought would interest Ruth. In the middle of November came another bit of news which set her heart beating afresh, and raised into life again all the hopes which she thought she had crushed utterly.
"Here's a bit of news for Ruth," wrote Roger. "At least, it'll interest her more than you. I was in Tamba yesterday, and I met our friend Maitland. He's down seeing about some projected line, I believe—or is it waterworks?—I am sure I don't know. Anyhow, he appeared delighted to see me, and rode over to inspect my little caboose here. I left the room to see about the whisky, and when I came back he was inspecting the photos of you two girls which are hung up over the mantelpiece. I was just beginning to get jealous, for I can't hold a candle to him in the matter of looks, when I saw he was giving all his attention to Ruth. I always thought he was a bit struck there, and, by Jove, yesterday, I thought he was more gone than ever. He couldn't take his eyes off that photo, and whenever he thought I wasn't noticing had another good look. He asked after Ruth, too, at least three times and was much concerned when I told him you said she looked ill. He looks pretty down on his luck himself, and I'm inclined to think I saw some grey hairs. Ask Ruth if she's been treating her adorer badly or what's the matter. He'll be back at Mullin's Hill, he says, in the beginning of next month, so I trust she'll be good to him, and they'll both make up their little differences before I come."
"There," said Dolly, folding up the letter, "ar'n't you interested? I always thought Dick Maitland had a tender corner in his heart for you."
"What nonsense, Dolly!"
"Oh, is it nonsense? We'll see."
And Ruth began to hope and doubt once more.
She had thought he cared for her—then she had not been so foolish after all if both Roger and Dolly had thought the same thing. But if he cared why had he gone away and left her? And again she tortured herself with fears and hopes and doubts, and wondered if next month would bring her any happiness. What could she do? What should she do? If she only had anyone to consult! But there was no one but Dolly, and much as she loved Dolly she could not tell her such vague imaginings as floated through her brain.
December brought Maitland back to Mullin's Hill, but brought no peace to Ruth. He had come across to call in the orthodox manner, and had found only Dolly and herself at home. She had seen a light flash in his eyes when he looked at her, as if she were indeed the one person in the world to him, but he had turned and talked to Dolly—had given his time to describing her future home to her, and she had to entertain Dr. Finlayson. The doctor after tea had begged for some music, and even while she sang Maitland had sat apart at the table listening, leaning his head on his hand, and yet she thought he had listened with interest too. She had met him often after that, but they had come no closer together. Something seemed to have come over their friendship; it was no longer the close intimate union it had been. Ruth wondered if Roger Marsden's absence made any difference, for they were always three now, and three, as the old proverb truly says, is a very unmanageable number. And then she met him alone, and his manner had been so constrained and uncomfortable that for the future she always insisted on Dolly's keeping close by her side.
So Christmas passed and the New Year. Roger Marsden came down to Kooringa, a guest this time and Dolly's wedding-day came at last. It was a great feast day at Kooringa, for the Grants, stern Puritans as they were in many things, believed in feasting and rejoicing over a wedding, more especially over this, which was a double wedding. It seemed like a dream to Ruth, but this was the day when Dolly was to leave her.
She rose up early in the morning and wakened her sister, cheerfully calling to her to see what a sunny day she had for her wedding day.
"As the day is so shall the bride be, Dolly," she quoted, and Dolly was half-smiling half-tearful, and altogether wildly excited, as was Dolly's wont.
The ceremony had to be early in the day, for both brides had far to go—Lily to Melbourne, where James Wilson proposed to spend his honeymoon, and Dolly to Geelong on her way to her new home, for Roger had neither time nor money to spend on a wedding trip and Dolly declared she did not mind. So it was all one wild hurry and bustle, for after the manner of the Grant family nobody seemed to have any appointed task, and the tables had to be laid for breakfast, the brides dressed, and the bridesmaids got ready all before 11 o'clock, and Ruth was glad—it seemed to give her less time to think. Mrs. Grant was quite in a flutter of excitement. Not the biggest prayer meeting that ever was planned could have given her so much pleasure, and since Ann would not be sympathetic she appealed to Ruth on every point.
"You're so good, dear," she said, "and I do hope Dolly will be happy even though Roger Marsden is not a professing Christian. And now there's the breakfast to be seen to, and not a servant among the lot with the least idea of laying a table as my mother taught me it should be laid. What do you think?—which end shall I put the saddle of mutton, and, oh dear, there are those tongues to go on yet, and the blanc-manges to turn out; and how I'm to get those children dressed I don't know, for Mrs. Desmond isn't a bit of good in the world, and Ann's just as cross as two sticks. I'm sure I wish she and Dr. Finlayson 'd make a match of it, but I'm thinking there's no hopes of that—and, dear, dear, how am I to get those children dressed in time?"
"I'll dress them, Auntie," said Ruth, looking hopelessly at the breakfast, where all the provisions seemed to be in the wildest confusion.
Dolly made a lovely bride, lovelier still by contrast with the buxom Lily, whose bridal white seemed to emphasise somewhat unpleasantly her weather-beaten, sunburnt face. Ann was her chief bridesmaid, and all her other sisters, adopted and otherwise, were also in attendance, except little Vera, who insisted on being Dolly's.
Roger Marsden had asked Maitland to be his best man, and when he—much to his astonishment—hummed and hawed and begged to be excused, he had fallen back on Alick Finlayson. It is not a pleasant thing to help marry the woman you love to another man, even though he be your friend, but the doctor had accepted the situation with a grave smile and appeared in church by Marsden's side. The little country church was crowded to suffocation, and Ruth felt weary and faint before the ceremony was over. Then the last solemn words were spoken that made the young couples man and wife, and the brides and bridegrooms left the church together. Everyone else made a rush for the buggies and waggonettes outside, and Ruth found herself standing apart, trying vainly to comfort Vera, who was sobbing heart-brokenly.
"I comed to church to be mawwied to Woger, an' he's lefted me alone—oh—oh—oh," sobbed Vera.
"Dear little girl, poor little girl," said Ruth, in terror lest she should break down herself.
Then she saw Dr. Finlayson at her elbow.
"Miss Ruth," he said kindly, "you look very white. Let me prescribe a glass of wine for you as quickly as possible."
"Indeed," she said, "you are very kind; but where am I to get it? You seem to forget that this is a temperance wedding."
Dr. Finlayson muttered something not very complimentary to his host, and stooped down over Vera.
"What's the matter with the little maid?" he asked. "She seems in terrible tribulation."
"It's about Roger," said Ruth, helplessly. "All the morning she has been dancing about saying she was going to be married to him. I couldn't make her understand, and now that she sees that he has gone away with Dolly she is heart-broken. I never thought she was taking all that nonsense about his marrying her so seriously."
"Poor little girl," said the doctor, picking her up in his arms. "We're both left out in the cold. Will you take me instead?"
Vera stopped crying for a moment, and looked him gravely in the face.
"No," she said. "No. You is too ugly," and she laid her head on his broad shoulder and cried afresh.
"That was cruel," he said, laughing, and yet wincing a little.
"You should not mind what a child like that says," said Ruth, sorry for the young fellow, who seemed to feel his want of good looks so keenly.
"Out of the mouth of babes, you know," he said. "But, Miss Ruth, how are you going home? I see the traps are all getting filled up."
"I must get into one of them, but Vera kept me. I could not get her to move."
"I'll carry her. And I've my own buggy here. Perhaps you'll let me drive you home."
Outside she had seen another buggy, one that belonged to Maitland. She had been conscious of his presence in the church, and afterwards had been hoping he would come up and speak to her, would make the same offer the doctor had just made. But he had never even come near her, and now through the open church door she saw him get into his buggy and prepare to drive off with Willie Grant as his companion.
She turned to the doctor with a wan smile.
"Indeed, you are very good," she said. "They all seem to have forgotten me."
"Oh, no, they know I'm looking after you. I saw Mrs. Grant look around as she left the church," he said mendaciously, and Ruth, though she knew he was not telling the truth, was comforted thereby.
He settled her comfortably in the buggy, put Vera on her knee, and took his seat beside her.
"Now," he said, "I think we shall jog along very comfortably together. I'll let the other buggies go on ahead a bit, and then we shan't get so much dust. Do you mind my stopping at my house for a moment? I want to get some medicine."
Of course Ruth said she did not mind, and once the rest of the wedding party were out of sight he entered his surgery, and returned bearing a glass of wine for Ruth and some milk for Vera.
"There," he said, "that's the medicine I wanted. It'll do you both good."
There is nothing like kindness for winning a woman's heart. Ruth and Vera had both felt forlorn and forsaken amidst the general rejoicings till the plum-faced doctor's kindness had restored their self-respect. Vera nestled down in Ruth's arms, and, worn out with excitement, forgot her troubles in sleep; and the elder girl, her drooping spirits revived by the wine which she had been so unaccustomed to of late, exerted herself to the utmost to respond to her companion's efforts at conversation. After all, she reflected, it was as hard for him as it was for her. He loved Dolly, she guessed, though he had never spoken a word, loved her very dearly, and it must be no easy task to come to her wedding and wear a smiling countenance. She was grateful, deeply grateful, for the part he was playing, and out of pure gratitude—which is a far more unselfish emotion than is love—did her very best to play her part equally well, and succeeded as a woman generally does when she sets her heart on a thing, and by the time they reached Kooringa Dr. Finlayson, sad and depressed as he was, was wondering that he had never before noticed what a truly charming girl Ruth Grant was. He had never had time to notice her before; he had had eyes only for her sister.
The wedding breakfast passed off as wedding breakfasts usually do, only that in this case the brides' healths were drunk in tea, lemonade, cold water, and such like unexciting beverages. A great many speeches were made, and a good deal of promiscuous kissing went on, and then the brides went away and changed their dresses; tearful kisses were exchanged, the last farewells said, and the whole bridal party stood on the verandah and watched the newly married couples out of sight on the road to Gaffer's Flat.
"Miss Ruth," said Dr. Finlayson, looking at her tired face, "take my advice and go and rest. You are worn out."
"No, no," she said; "I feel as if I must keep going. I don't want to think," she added pathetically, "how lonely I am."
The doctor looked across at Maitland, who was leaning against a verandah post looking out idly over the garden. Had he made love to this girl, he wondered; had he won her heart? He had hardly spoken to her to-day, but then Alick Finlayson had learnt from Marsden how intimate Maitland had been with the two girls, and had his suspicions that Dick was in love with Ruth. At first the straightforward doctor had been ablaze with wrath at the very thought of such a thing, and had hardly spoken to his chum since save to say curtly that very morning—
"So you never told those girls you were married after all. What a sweep you must be."
But now, looking across at him, thinking of Ruth's charm, and remembering what his wife was, he realised something of the temptation he had fallen under, and pitied him from the bottom of his heart.
"Poor Dick," he thought, "poor beggar," and then fell to wondering whether Ruth cared for him. Dick was a good-looking fellow, a charming fellow, it was more than likely.
"Poor things, God help them if it's so," thought the doctor; then turning to Ruth, he said aloud, "Good-bye, Miss Ruth. Take my advice and rest."
But Ruth did not take the doctor's well meant advice. She could not rest. As she said herself she felt as if she must keep going, and she worked all the afternoon just as hard at setting the house to rights as she had done to prepare it for the wedding. By tea time she was done up.
She went to her room almost as soon as it was dark, but her sister—her friend—her life long companion was gone, everything spoke to her of Dolly and Dolly would never be there again. Dick Maitland did not care for her—had never cared for her—and she was utterly alone and desolate. She opened the window and went out into the hot still moonlight night. The full round moon hung low in the clear cloudless sky, and the garden was bathed in its light, but in the plantation beyond were great shadows which seemed to lure her on. She went through the little wicket gate and wandered on through the trees, thinking, thinking, thinking. What would her life be now? What had she to look forward to now? She had thought Kooringa a terrible place six months ago—three months ago she had been blissfully happy, and now—now nobody needed her—she was utterly alone, utterly wretched. At the other side of the plantation she saw a horse hitched to a tree. Some man come to see one of the maids, she thought, remembering the rule of the household, and turned her steps in another direction, so as not to disturb them. She was very tired—very, very tired—but still she walked on till, stepping into a little hole hidden by the dark shadows, she gave her ankle a sharp wrench that brought her flat on her face on the crisp, dry grass. It was not much. At another time she would scarcely have noticed the pain, but to-night she was so tired and so overwrought that she simply lay where she had fallen and sobbed as if her heart would break. No one cared for her—no one in all the wide world, and she laid her cheek against the hard earth and cried on bitterly.
Suddenly she felt a hand on her shoulder, and then strong and tender hands lifted her to her feet.
"Ruth, my child, my darling, what is the matter? Are you hurt?"
Was that Dick Maitland's voice? Was it he who was holding her so closely to him?
At first she could answer nothing, could only sob on, conscious only of the strong arms that upheld her. Then suddenly she awakened and drew herself out of his embrace. She felt shaken still, and leaned up against the rough trunk of a gum tree for support, the moonlight just falling on her white dress and showing him her tear-stained face. She felt he was looking at her, and put up her hand to hide her eyes.
"I don't know what you must think of me," she sobbed, trying to speak quietly.
Maitland leaned his hand heavily on the tree trunk.
"What is it?" he asked anxiously, so anxiously she did not doubt now for a moment that he cared for her, and the discovery gave her fresh strength.
"Dolly," she said. "Dolly it is. She is gone—and there is no one—now——"
"Poor little girl—poor lonely little girl—if only I could——"
And then he paused. What right had he to comfort her—what right to speak to her at all?
Ruth wiped away the tears, and putting up her hands tried to smooth her ruffled hair. His very presence gave her comfort. It was very seldom quiet, self-contained Ruth broke down. Such a stormy passion of tears was far more like Dolly.
"Sit down," said Maitland presently. "See, here's a smooth stone, and this tree trunk will make a back for you. You are tired out."
He put his hand on her arm and gently forced her on to the rough seat. She felt he was trembling violently, and looking up saw that his face was white and drawn in the moonlight.
"But I can't stay here," she said. "I must go in. I did not come here to meet you."
"I know you did not, my child," he said wearily. "I never dreamt of such a thing. But stay a little now. Just a moment. God knows when we two shall meet again."
There was something wrong. She did not understand what; but he cared for her she saw, and just at present that weighed down every other consideration. She was content to sit for a little in silence. He leaned against the tree beside her—she could not see his face, but she could hear his heavy breathing. She ought to go straight home, she knew; she had no right to be here, but she felt she could not till she had solved this riddle. His silence between them was becoming oppressive, and in her heart was the remembrance of how closely he had held her in his arms, how reluctantly he had let her go. He did not speak, and at last she summoned up courage and asked—
"What did you come here for?"
No answer, and she said again.
"Why did you come here?"
"I couldn't stay away," he answered hoarsely. "I have been thinking all day how terribly you would feel the loss of your sister."
"And—yet—you hardly spoke to me all day."
"I daren't—I daren't. Oh, have some pity on me—don't be hard on me—what is the good of loving you so desperately when I am married already."
"Married already." For the moment the words conveyed no meaning to her brain, and she repeated vaguely, "Married already."
"Ruth, Ruth"—he flung himself down on the coarse grass at her feet and looked straight up in her fair face as she bent over him—"I ought to have told you long ago, but I couldn't. I tried to keep away and I couldn't, dear—and then I tried again to tell you and you wouldn't understand."
"When?" she asked, helplessly. She felt so powerless before his passionate words. "I—I don't remember."
"One Sunday I told you about a man named Thomson."
"And I thought you meant Dr. Finlayson," she cried, a sudden light breaking in on her. "Then it was—that wretched woman was—that woman who called you Dick?"
What more could he say. He put his face down on his folded arms and drank a bitter cup to the very dregs. That woman—that dissipated, drunken slattern—was his wife, and this fair-haired girl beside him might have loved him and crowned his life with happiness. What more was there to be said? Knowing how he was bound he had behaved shamefully—the truth was out now, and she would have every right to despise and hate him.
And Ruth sitting there in the still hot summer night forgot everything in infinite pity. She had seen the woman—she had pitied Alick Finlayson—twenty times more did she pity Dick Maitland, for she loved him with a great and mighty love that swallowed up all else. Forgotten were the days when his absence made the world seem a blank—forgotten the days when his seeming neglect had troubled and grieved her—forgiven was the tender thoughtfulness, the close intimacy, that in the early days of their acquaintance had won her heart—forgiven the cruel deceit that had kept so much hidden—all was forgiven and forgotten—all was swallowed up in an infinite pity and an overwhelming love. He lay before her crushed and broken, and she had no word to say and not one thought of blame for him in her heart.
"If I could help you," she said at last, "if only I could help you."
He had gone over this scene in his own mind over and over again, but he had never pictured this—never dreamt that her first thought would be for him.
"Ruth," he said, raising his head and stretching out his hand to touch hers lightly, "forgive me, Ruth."
"Forgive you," she repeated, "oh, yes, I forgive you, if there is anything to forgive. It would have been so hard to tell."
He rose to his feet again and walked up and down before her, struggling for calmness, striving to keep back the passionate words that would rise to his lips. She looked so frail, and white, and delicate sitting there in the moonlight. If she had only been his. He must go and leave her. He ought to go at once.
"Child," he said brokenly, "don't talk like that. Be angry with me—despise me, anything—only don't pity me. Of my own free will I did it, and this is my bitter punishment."
Ruth raised her face beseechingly.
"I can't stay here," she said, "I must go home."
"And then—when shall we meet again?"
She loved him so she dared not look him in the face.
"I hope—never," she said, covering her face with her hands and speaking so low he could only guess what she said.
"I have no right to ask," he said pausing opposite to her, "but oh, my darling, I love you so. If I had been free do you—would you—have you ever given one thought to me?"
"Surely you must have known I loved you," she said, speaking low and looking straight before her. The very hopelessness of the situation gave her courage. Just this once she might show him her true self. Why should she hide her feelings with all the pretty bashfulness, the dainty conceits of a happy girl listening to her own first love story. "You must have known," she added, "I loved you from the first day I saw you, I think."
"My darling, my darling, what a cruel mess I have made of your life and mine!"
Then they were silent again. He leaned against the tree close to her, but not touching her, and looked at the delicate tracery made by the shadows of the leaves on her white dress, and on the slim white hands folded in her lap. In a moment or two they would have parted. She had said she hoped it would be for ever, and he knew she meant what she said.
Ruth broke the silence. She had almost forgotten her own trouble in her great longing to comfort him. He looked haggard and wretched and worn. Her life was of no account to her—she would have given all just to bring a look of peace on to that face. Never had it been so dear to her. With all a woman's longing she longed to put her arms round his neck and comfort him as only a woman could, and yet the words she spoke sounded cold and distant.
"What about your—your——"
"My wife, I suppose you mean," he said bitterly. "She wants me to take her back."
"And you will?"
"I can't, I can't child; I can't. You don't know what it means."
"But, have you any children?"
"No. There was one baby, but, thank God, he is dead."
There is something cruelly wrong in a man's life when he can thank God for the death of his only child, and Ruth felt her heart stirred with pity and sorrow. If he had hurt her he had surely suffered—he would suffer again. Down to the very depths his wife had dragged him. Could she bid him take her back?
"Help me—help me," he said. "Tell me what I ought to do?"
"She is your wife," she faltered, "she is your wife. Nothing can alter that. You must make the best of it."
"I would rather die," and Ruth felt it was no idle speech.
"Would you?" she said. "But then we have not the choice. Perhaps it's lucky we haven't. Do you think there is very much to live for in my life?"
She lifted such a white, tired face to his that he could resist no longer, but caught her to his breast and smothered her with kisses. And at his touch her self control forsook her, and she lay quietly in his arms, her head on his shoulder.
"Oh, but you shouldn't have taught me to love you," she sobbed. "I love you so, and I must never see you again. Let me go now; please let me go."
"My darling, say Dick, just once."
"Dick—dear Dick—my own Dick; don't keep me; don't tempt me to stay. You know how weak I am. You can do as you like with me. Let me go home now."
"And I shall never see you again?"
"Never, never. I couldn't bear it. I can't bear to let you go, but I couldn't bear to see you every day. You couldn't, could you?"
"No, my God! no."
Then he tried to speak more calmly.
"Ruth, dear little girl, don't let me spoil your life. You will love some good man—marry some good man—and be happy after all."
"Shall I? It's not very likely. I gave you the best I had to give. I couldn't love any one as I've loved you. They say a woman should never tell a man how much she loves him, but it doesn't matter much between us two. It is wrong, I know; it is wicked, I know, but just this once you may as well know the truth. I love you—no one ever loved you as I have done."
Then she pushed him from her and stood alone. There was a burning spot on each cheek now and her hands were tightly clenched. The tender, loving, pitiful girl was gone, and in her place was a passionate woman, with a fire he had never seen there before in her dark eyes.
"It was cruel, cruel, cruel. You taught me to love you. It was cruel."
Then the passion died out of her face as she looked at his, and she turned quietly homewards.
"I must go," she said once more.
"May I walk with you?" he asked humbly.
"To the garden gate?" she whispered.
"Yes, it is for the last time."
"The last time."
For the last time they walked through the thick plantation side by side. The tall young gum trees flung their dark shadows across the way, but the moonlight shone down between them in great white patches, where it was as light as day. Through the tree trunks to the left gleamed the waters of the lake like a silver shield, and never a breath of wind ruffled its glassy surface. The still, hot Australian night wrapped them close in her warm embrace, and only the sound of their footsteps on the short dry grass broke the stillness.
Silently side by side and hand in hand they went, and each step brought them nearer the garden gate and nearer the inevitable parting. Such a still night—such a glorious night. Surely there could be no wretchedness, no misery on such a night as this.
"It is such a glorious night," whispered Ruth. She had dreamt something on other nights like this of the bliss of having him by her side, and now he was there, his hand was clasping hers so tightly it was almost painful, but he said nothing.
"I see the garden gate."
More closely he clasped her hand and stopped still a moment—but she went resolutely on and he would not let her go. It was so short a distance now—so short and each was counting the steps greedily as a miser his gold. Slower and slower and slower but the gate was reached at last, the shadows round were mercifully deep and dark, but beyond the garden was bathed in the white moonlight and the house stood out clear and distinct—every gable, every post, every chimney. Their walk was ended.
Maitland drew her into his arms. She made no resistance, but laid her head against his breast. The tears would come, tears more of pity for the misery she had seen in his face than for her own sorrow. Her own trouble she could bear, since she knew he loved her; but she wept for his, for her utter inability to help him. She put up her hand and touched lovingly the face that bent over her. A scalding tear fell on her fingers, and she started in affright. Never in her life had she seen a man moved to tears, and it horrified and shocked her unspeakably.
"Dick, Dick," she sobbed, holding him closer to her, "oh, Dick, are you so unhappy as all that? I am not worth it, dear, indeed, I am not worth it. Don't do that, Dick, it makes me miserable."
Still he could not answer her, and his hot tears fell on her face.
"We must never meet again," she whispered. "Oh, my dear one, my dear one."
There was such a pathetic tenderness in her voice, such longing to comfort him, that he utterly broke down.
"I have thought of you," he moaned; "day and night you have been in my thoughts. Oh, Ruth, Ruth, how can I live without you?"
"Poor Dick, my poor, poor boy. You will be a good man Dick, and do your best for my sake."
"Oh, Ruth, think of to-morrow."
"To-morrow," she said wearily, "to-morrow I shall think of all the things I left unsaid, all the things I might have said to you, and I shall know it's useless. You have your work, but there is no place in the world for me."
"My darling, my darling, oh forgive me."
"Forgive you? I love you so much there is nothing to forgive. I would rather have your love than that of anyone else in the world. I am happy when you hold me in your arms—yes, blissfully happy, and now it has come at last—I must go. Let me go."
She was sobbing quietly on his shoulder now.
"Let me go—let me go—I must go."
Great as her pain, it was not as great as his, for he dared not speak. He drew her gently towards the wicket-gate, and with one hand pushed it open. Back flashed the thoughts of both of them to the day in October, when Dolly and Marsden had first been engaged, when they two had stood with the gate between them, and Ruth had murmured unthinkingly—
"There is a barrier between us."
Now they were parting and had no words wherewith to comfort one another. Happy lovers who are sure of meeting again on the morrow may linger and linger over last words, but between these two there were no last words. He held her close in a long and silent embrace.
"God bless you, darling," she prayed, and she raised her face and looked long and gravely into his eyes. Then she drew herself out of his arms, and turning passed slowly into the moonlit garden. The gladioli, the roses, the Christmas lilies, and the tall hollyhocks seemed to be beckoning her in, welcoming her back to her home again; but she paused a moment on the grass-grown pathway and looked back into the dark shadow behind. She loved him so—how could she leave him alone there in the gloom—alone in his sorrow—a broken-hearted man? She made one step backwards, and then all her maiden modesty, her womanly dignity, and self-respect came to her aid. How could she go to a man who had a wife already, who was bound to another woman? For the first time the thought of the wrong he had done her came over her, and gave her strength and courage to keep on, though it was with a breaking heart. If only she could die now—if only she could die! The scent of the flowers—the roses and the lilies—was on the warm night air, the low, contented bleat, bleat of a flock of sheep came from the home paddock, and from the reed-beds on the other side of the lake rose the mournful wail of the curlews. It was good-bye for ever. Such a glorious night! Bright as day was the garden, and every little plant cast a clean-cut shadow. Half mechanically she noticed how her skirts swept the ragged borders, the weeds springing up here and there out of the hard dry earth, and the garden tools which lay scattered across the beds the children called their own. Neatness was not a virtue much prized at Kooringa, and they had lain there for over a week—would very likely be there all the summer. She noticed them now, and, tired as she was, stooped and collected those nearest her. She was weary, she was worn out, she was heart-broken; she had learned that night one of the lessons of her life, she had crossed the great river which divides girlhood from womanhood—with pain and sorrow she had crossed it, and she had parted with the freshness of her youth. Never again would she be the girl who had met Maitland so frankly, who had looked for his coming and longed for him so innocently, who had poured out on him such a wealth of girlish love, and then drawn back ashamed and affrighted that she should have given her love unsought. Never again! She was changed somehow. She had learned a lesson what she could hardly have told herself, and the learning had taken the youth and peace and happiness out of her life.
Heart-broken? She hardly understood the meaning of the word, but heart-sick and weary she was, grieving for her own sorrow, grieving still more because by no act or thought of hers could she lighten by one iota the heavy burden of the man she loved. And yet she walked calmly up the pathway in the moonlight, and gathered up the tools that lay strewn around.
It is always so in real life. In novels the heroine may totter up the pathway; on the stage she may stagger across the room; in real life—if she be a wise woman, a good woman, a brave woman—instinctively she hides her pain; even to herself she makes no unseemly display—she turns and does the work that lies nearest to her hand. And so Ruth gathered up the rakes and hoes, and carrying them up the pathway, piled them up in the corner of the verandah. Then a tall, angular figure emerged from the shadows.
"Lord sakes, Ruth," said her aunt, "wherever have you been at this time of night? And you so tired."
"In the plantation." Her voice sounded strangely in her own ears—to her aunt it told a tale of weariness not to be mistaken.
"My!" she said, turning her round sharply till the moonlight fell full on her tear-stained face; "how you have been crying!—and your cheeks are as white as your dress. Whatever is the good of it, child? You couldn't expect to keep your sister always; besides, you'll be wanting to get married yourself some day."
Dolly—her sister, dearly as she loved her, much as she would miss her, it was a small matter to part from Dolly now. But she could not say that. She felt ashamed to own it, even to herself. She could only stand looking out on the moonlit garden, hoping, praying that her aunt would leave her before she broke down entirely.
"I don't want to be married, Aunt," she faltered out at last, seeing that the good lady expected something.
"Tut, tut; wait till Mr. Right comes along. But there, I hope you won't be in a hurry, for I'll be lonely now Lily's gone. Lily had some fun in her; but Ann is that crotchetty there's no standing her sometimes. Not that she's not a good girl at bottom," added the mother loyally, "but she takes life a bit too seriously sometimes. Now, Ruth, you go straight to bed, it's after 10 o'clock."
"Have you got any matches?"
"Well, well. I'll light the candle for you. And what do you think? Nellie's burnt a big hole in the flounce of her new blue dress. It's quite spoilt, I don't know whatever to do with it."
"Is it very bad?" asked Ruth, feeling she must at least appear interested.
"Oh, Lord, yes. As big as my two fists. I wonder the child wasn't burnt to death. She can't wear it again."
"Perhaps there'll be enough to make a dress for Vera. I can do it to-morrow."
It was hard to speak of to-morrow—hard to parcel out the days, the tasks, when the lilt and go and happiness had gone out of her life.
"That's a good girl. You'll be a treasure to some lucky man, Ruth," said her aunt, whose thoughts were still running on matrimony. "Well, here's your room. I'll light the candle for you, and you just go straight to bed and to sleep, and don't cry any more."
And Ruth went to her bed and tossed and turned sleeplessly half the night, while a voice in a man's deep passionate tones sounded in her ears——
"I love you, I love you. God help me, I must never see you again."
"Weeping may endure for a night," sings the Psalmist, "but joy cometh in the morning;" but he was only mortal man, after all, and mortal men have proved, not once or twice but many a time, that a night of bitter weeping brings no comfort in the morning.
Wearily next day Ruth wakened with a dull sense of pain that at first she could not understand. Through the open curtainless window the sunshine stole into the room, fresh with the freshness of early morning, and as she sat up the remembrance of last night's woe came over her, and she buried her face in the pillows once more and felt she wished never to look at the sunshine again. It mocked her with its garish brightness. Never again to see Dick Maitland—or, if she did, but to meet him and speak and pass on like an ordinary acquaintance. It was sin to think of him now, she thought—a terrible sin, but how could she help it. She had lain in his arms and felt his kisses on her lips. She had tasted of the fruit of the tree of knowledge and it was bitter indeed in her mouth. All before her stretched a dreary waste of years, with no hope, no happiness in them for her. A woman of deep feeling she was, but not a religious woman. It never occurred to her to find consolation in her faith. Her father had been an avowed agnostic, and his motherless daughters had been taught to say their prayers in a hard mechanical way by the nurses, just as they had been taught to fold up their clothes neatly before they went to bed, and equal importance had been attached to both performances. Her coming to Kooringa had been her first introduction to another kind of faith—a faith earnest and sincere indeed, but narrow and crude and cruel in its exclusiveness and, alas, this very narrowness—this crudeness—this want of delicacy and refinement in those who professed it made the faith to her a veritable dead letter. But for very shame's sake she must not wear her heart on her sleeve—must go about her daily tasks—must hide from prying eyes the wound that had gone so terribly deep; but the spring, the hope, the zest had gone out of her life. It was not twelve hours yet since she had said good-bye to the man she loved at the wicket-gate, but it seemed an age. If time were to pass like this her life would be an eternity—an eternity of pain and weariness.
A cracked old bell—the getting up bell—began to peal through the house, and she sat up in bed, and then her door opened and her aunt came in.
"Not out of bed yet?" she said. "My! I was sure you'd be up. Are you all right?"
"Yes," said Ruth wearily.
Her head was throbbing as if it would burst, the result of yesterday's excitement, but her aunt—kind as she meant to be—was not exactly the sort of person she could confide in.
"That's right, but I must say you look rather white," she said. "And here's a pretty to do, the house all higgle-de-piggledy, and not a scrap of bread for breakfast."
"We might have scones," suggested Ruth, feeling that something was expected of her. "I can make scones, good ones; really, aunt."
"Can you, my dear; well if you would it'd really be a relief to my mind. Mind now and make plenty. There's eighteen of us inside, you know—and seven in the kitchen, and the men—that makes eleven, and then I always give some to the Chinaman, and the men'll be over from Titura to-day, and the boy's want to go picnicking down the creek. So you'd better make plenty."
Ruth rather thought she had, and began a mental calculation while her aunt went on talking.
"Well, really I'm bothered. There's Polly, the young hussy—won't be sixteen till February, and last night Ann caught her nicely—away up at the station experience young men's hut. Nice goings on. Young King was away, and Ned Clegg was sitting on the doorstep there with Polly on his knee. Ann says she's sure he kissed her, too—and him as ugly as sin. Really where Polly got it from I'm sure I don't know, but she's only a child, and I rated the young minx soundly. So carefully as I've kept her, too—never a novel—never a story book but the Sunday at Home has she read all her life."
Ruth's white face flushed crimson. So she was not the only one who had sinned last night—if her aunt had only known what she had been doing.
"Polly can help you," went on Mrs. Grant; "I'll send her to you as soon as you're dressed. I must keep a watch on that young lady. She's only a child, of course, so it don't amount to much."
Ruth could hardly put her feelings into words, but instinctively she felt that if Polly cared at all for Edward Clegg, banishment to the nursery and a course of lessons from Mrs. Desmond's old-fashioned Magnall's Questions were not likely to effect a cure.
Half an hour later she met the young cousin in the kitchen, and the two set to work on the family breakfast. At first nothing was said by either of the two girls, but at length when Ruth's arms were covered up to the elbows in the flour she threw a glance at her cousin.
Polly was a tall, fat, overgrown girl, with a pleasant, kindly, if somewhat simple face, and a complexion which might have been good had it not been tanned and burned by the sun and wind. She was pouring milk into the flour as Ruth worked it up, and every now and then wiped a furtive tear, which at first Ruth pretended not to notice. She tried to talk cheerfully about yesterday's festivities but it was hard work feigning an interest she did not feel; harder still when Polly openly showed she did not intend to talk and did not even trouble to answer her remarks. She gave it up after two or three trials, and kneading up the flour and milk into a stiff dough cut a large slice off, put it on the pasteboard, and proceeded to roll it out and cut out the scones with the top of a cocoatina tin, Polly meanwhile leaning up against the wall the picture of sullen misery.
"I hate mother," she began. Then a sob choked her.
"Hush, hush, dear," Ruth looked round at the maid servant, who was supposed to be engaged on the breakfast, but who was manifestly listening with all her ears, "don't talk like that."
Polly looked over her shoulder at the cook, now intent on frying mutton chops, and then came close up to her cousin.
"She says I'm to stop in the school-room; she says I'm not to see Ned Clegg again—she says—I don't care, I will," finished Polly with a sullen determination that made Ruth feel she meant all and more than all she said.
"But," she remonstrated, as in duty bound, "you know, dear, it really wouldn't do for you to be going up to the young men's hut; and in the evening, too."
"But there's no harm in it, and I want to see him, and he wants to see me, and—and—it's beastly slow sticking at home in the school-room all day. I shall see him whether mother likes it or no."
Ruth retired to the griddle, and turned her scones thoughtfully. Then she came back to the table.
"Polly, dear," she said, and a burning blush rose to her face as she thought how near home the lecture went, a lecture that suited her own case even better than Polly's, "I hear Ann saw you sitting on Edward Clegg's knee, and—and—he kissed you, too. And, well, you see, no girl should let a man do that unless—I mean—yes—unless he is her lover—he is going to marry her."
Polly hung her head, and tried to make some excuse.
"It was an accident," she muttered; "I never thought. All the children sit on his knee, and—and—I never thought, and he kissed me, but—but—I don't think he meant to. Oh, Ruth, Ruth, don't you understand," and the simple childish blue eyes filled with tears again.
Did she understand? Did she not understand only too well? Who was she that she should preach to this child?
"Don't cry, dear, don't cry. Wait till the scones are done and then come to my room and tell me all about it."
But once in Ruth's room Polly began to cry afresh.
"What shall I do?" she sobbed. "What shall I do? Mother says I mustn't talk to him—and I can't go by as if I didn't know him—specially when he comes into tea every night."
"What shall I do? What shall I do?" Ruth had been asking herself half the night, and here was this child asking the same question.
"No—no—of course not," she whispered. "Aunt didn't mean that. Talk to him just like you always do. Only don't let him kiss you, and don't go to his hut. See, it's not so bad, and if he really cares for you, you know, he will tell you so. Now, wash your face, dear, it's nearly breakfast time, and you don't want them all to see you've been crying."
This view comforted Polly wonderfully, Ruth was glad to see. She was too much of a child to take desperately dreary views of life, and before the bell had rung for morning prayers there was a smile on her face again.
Next day there was fresh trouble. Etta's throat was bad, and Rosy was ill too, and Dr. Finlayson being called in pronounced it scarlatina. One by one the others sickened—none of them were very ill, but they were all fretful and cross, and needed care and attention, and as no one could amuse fretful children like Ruth, and no one could tell a story like her, her aunt made use of her without scruple.
So in the early days of her trouble, what with Polly's love affair and the sick children, her hands and her thoughts were kept busy, and though she never suspected it herself this was an untold blessing to her.
But it was hard work. Always before her was the utter uselessness of thinking of Dick Maitland. She could not help him—she only made herself doubly wretched, and yet when evening after evening, when she went for her daily walk—the only quiet time she could hope for—Polly would join her in the plantation or beside the lake, and slipping her arm round her waist under cover of the darkness would pour out her whole hurt to her cousin, she felt it was very hard to bear. She might have been worse if she had been left to herself, but as it was the effort to wear a smiling face when it seemed to her her very life had died, cost her so much that her face grew white and worn under the strain, and there was a wistful, weary look in the dark eyes that would have gone to the heart of anyone who had loved her well enough to notice. But there was none such at Kooringa. Her aunt, indeed, was fond of her in a careless, warm-hearted sort of a way that made her say occasionally—
"Why, Ruth, you're losing your roses, child. I daresay the summer's too hot, and it has been a trying time with the children all sick, and one thing and another. I'll be glad to see the cold weather again."
"Yes, you must have been bothered," said Ruth, "but it might have been worse."
"Oh, it's bad enough," grumbled Mrs Grant. "My dear, my dear, my life's just bothered out of me. The Lord sends everything for the best, I know, but I can't see the best of this—unless it may be that Dr. Finlayson might take a fancy to Ann. What do you think? He sees enough of her. I always take care to leave them alone a bit, and Ann is very earnest," and the mother looked for confirmation.
Ruth hardly knew what to answer. That Ann loved Dr. Finlayson she did not doubt—that he gave not a second thought to her she did not doubt either, and out of her own great sorrow she pitied her, even as she pitied her younger sister.
"What do you think, Ruth?" asked her aunt again.
"I don't know, aunt; I'm afraid he doesn't think about Ann yet."
"But he might—in time."
"He might," assented Ruth; and here, to her great relief, Vera broke in,——
"Want to go to bed, Wuth. My head is bad."
"Silly you are to lift her, Ruth," said Mrs Grant, as the girl laid her in her cot. "She's getting too heavy for you. You're as white, as white——"
"No, it's not that," said Ruth faintly. "I feel a little—a little dizzy. It's the hot day I think," and she dropped into a chair and closed her eyes wearily.
"Hot fiddlesticks," began Mrs. Grant. "Why, it's much cooler than yesterday, and—Oh, I say, Doctor, I'm glad to see you—here's a new patient for you."
Dr. Finlayson entered at that moment closely followed by Ann, who fell in with her mother's plans involuntarily, and constituted herself the doctor's shadow as long as he was in the house.
"It's nothing—nothing," said Ruth faintly, trying to smile, but the doctor bent over her kindly and spoke to her almost tenderly, as he never spoke to her, Ann noticed bitterly.
"Nothing—is it nothing?" he said. "I think we have been doing too much, Miss Ruth. Mrs. Grant, we've been working the willing horse too hard, and our head nurse is knocked up. Give her good strengthening things, Mrs. Grant, and see that she eats them."
"Shall I bring you some new books over, Miss Ruth," he added. "I had several up from Mullen's last week, and I think you would like to read them."
"Don't bring any godless literature into this house, Dr. Finlayson," said Ann tartly, a tartness which her cousin both understood and forgave. It was hard, she felt, that she, who beyond a careless, friendly feeling for the doctor cared little whether he spoke to her or not, should receive all attention from him, while Ann, who did care intensely, was passed over and utterly ignored.
"I promise you they are not godless books," he said gravely, "but some of the best works of the day. Your cousin is run down and wants a little taking care of. Well, well, I'll bring the books to-morrow. Meanwhile lie down for the rest of the day and let someone else do your work. You've been working too hard, Miss Ruth; I ought to have seen it before."
So Ruth was despatched to her own room by her aunt, and, tired out, thankfully lay down on her bed. Here later on Polly came flying in to relate tearfully how cruel father was. He was sending Ned Clegg to Titura, and she wouldn't see him again for a whole fortnight.
"And—and—he's gone," sobbed the child. "We only had a minute, and he squeezed my hand hard and said, 'It's fourteen days, but it'll seem like the fourteen years Jacob worked for Rachel.' Wasn't it nice of him? Oh, but do you think he meant he cared for me; do you, Ruth?"
It was a hot summer's day in December—so hot even now at 5 o'clock in the afternoon that no one but hardy Australian country children would ever have dreamt of indulging in violent exercise; but the young Grants were used to heat, and besides this was the first day of the holidays. Mrs. Desmond had taken her departure only that very afternoon, and they were celebrating the event, choosing as their playground as usual the strip of grass between the plantation and the margin of the lake. Ted, now arrived at the mature age of fifteen, despised childish games; but he lay on his back staring at the blue sky, and gave them his opinions on all matters in dispute—and disputes were pretty frequent—when he thought they were called for.
At last he remarked, "It's deuced hot here. I'm going to make a raft with those boards."
"You're not 'llowed to touch those boards," said the girls in chorus; "they're to make a gate to the twenty-acre. Will said so."
"Who cares," said Ted in a lordly way. "Come on, Kids. There's a bundle of rope in the end stall in the stable; you go and get it, Georgie, and don't you get caught, now. We'll leave those girls; who wants girls? I'm going to make a raft like the boy Ruth told us about. I'll be captain and Tom can be mate."
"But you're not let, you're not—let," cried the despised girls. "We'll tell."
"Telltale-tit! telltale-tit! you're tongue shall be slit, and every little puppy dog shall have a little bit."
Whether it was this awful prospect that appalled them, or whether Mother Eve's great failing got the better of them or what was never told, but the girls instead of retiring to carry out their threat, as Ted half feared they would, watched him and Tom with interest from an ever-decreasing distance and at last by the time Georgie had arrived with a bundle of old rope that had been used as a clothes line and discarded they had come close up, and at first without a word began to help their brothers lift the boards together and before five minutes had passed the raft was being made by six pairs of busy eager hands.
Ruth came out of the plantation, and watched them for a moment or two carelessly, then looked for and found a shady spot where she might read her book in undisturbed peace. She was rather tired, for it had been a hot day, and had been given over to the making of gooseberry jam, and every available pair of hands had been pressed into the service, first to pick, and then to top and tail the fruit.
"It's no good making a pound or two," Mrs. Grant had said, and Ruth picking gooseberries in the heat of the day, and then topping and tailing the pile on the kitchen table, which diminished with wearisome slowness, thought that even a hundred pounds or so didn't seem enough. But they were done at last, and Mrs. Grant had decided she'd spend the evening jam-making, an uncomfortable arrangement, which did not meet Ruth's views at all.
"But don't you stop, my dear," she said, greatly to her relief. "You go out for a walk, and just give an eye to the children, will you? They're always wild the first day of the holidays, and I'm frightened for the lake. Georgie was saying he wanted to go for a swim, and he'll be drowned sure as anything if he does. It's all very well for the men, but I won't have the children in it. They've gone down to the lake now, and you just tell them, Ruth, from me, I won't have them bathing by themselves."
"I'm leaving you all the work, Aunt," said Ruth preparing to depart.
"Never mind, you go. You look a bit washed out, and no wonder, the day's been so hot; but I must get that jam made to-night. I want to get quit of it. Lil's coming over in the morning with baby, and I know what that means. Nothing's ever done once we get Lil No. 2 in the house, so I'll just finish up to-night."
Thus dismissed she gladly put on her hat and strolled down through the plantation to the lake. It was hot still, but at least there was a promise in the air of the coming night, and the faint wind that blew across the water was cool and refreshing. She looked for the children, and was relieved to see them all busy over a pile of boards, and apparently not even dreaming of a bathe, so she found a shady spot from which they were just visible, and, seating herself on the ground, opened her book and began to read.
The two years that had passed over her head had not made much change in Ruth. There was a wistful look in the dark eyes sometimes, a tired ring in the voice as if she had found the burden of life hard to bear, but she had borne it, and borne it bravely too, and none else ever suspected, least of all her aunt, the secret she had guarded so carefully.
Nothing was to be gained by sitting with folded hands brooding over her sorrow, so bravely she faced it, and if she did not crush it under her feet, at least she managed to hide her woe from all her little world. She would have gladly died, so she thought, had she her own way, but then, luckily, death does not come to settle our difficulties in that summary fashion, and the days went on drearily till she had fainted over Vera's cot, and from that time forth Dr. Finlayson had been her firm friend.
He half-guessed her story though Maitland had said never a word to him; possibly his silence told him much—more than he wished to know—and Ruth's white face told him the rest. And the careful, canny, silent Scotchman determined to do what he could for her. Indeed, he had a strange fellow feeling for her. He, too, was lonely, and his surroundings at Mullin's Hill were quite as uncongenial as hers at Kooringa. Then, too, he had loved her sister, and for her sake determined to do what he could to cheer the girl's lonely life.
And very circumspectly, and with all the inborn caution of his race did he set about it. Unlike Marsden or Maitland, he made himself the friend of the family, he was intimate with every one of them—Ann, her mother, her aunt, even old Mr. Grant himself had a welcome for the doctor. And the doctor—he owned it to himself—came only to see Dolly's sister, the white-faced girl he had driven home from the wedding. Once on intimate terms with a family so busy about good works he had plenty of chances to cultivate her acquaintance, and he pursued them diligently, and busy man as he was, with a large and growing practice, he still found time to come over to Kooringa two or three times a week. At first he never intended to keep it up. The day she had fainted, reading pretty clearly between the lines, he had promised to try and cheer her up a little, and so he had brought her the promised books, and she in return had read him extracts from Dolly's last letter. A few days later he came again, and the programme was repeated, and gradually, almost imperceptibly, Ruth Grant and Alick Finlayson grew closest friends.
He had only intended to come as long as she was ill, but at first Dolly's letters had proved an irresistible charm to him, and Ruth was glad to talk them over with some congenial spirit, and so he came again and again, until his coming grew into a habit, and Ann claimed him as her property, and Mrs. Grant openly speculated as to when he and Ann were going to make a match of it. It was strange no one should have thought Ruth's charms might stand in Ann's way, yet so it was, perhaps, because both Dr. Finlayson and Ruth instinctively feeling that their new-born friendship was a tender thing to be guarded from every rough breath, took but little notice of one another when others were present, and he resigned himself a willing slave to Ann. And never for one moment did it occur to the modest doctor that he was raising unfounded hopes in the breasts of both mother and daughter; he sought them merely for Ruth's sake. And thus the days and weeks and months flew past, and though Ruth frankly acknowledged to herself that the doctor brought her all the pleasure she had in her life, he still cheated himself with the delusion that he sought Dolly's sister for Dolly's sake.
A year passed, and a son was born to Dolly, and Ruth went away for six weeks to visit the new-made mother in her home in the dense Heytesbury Forest, and Alick Finlayson missed her terribly. Whether she were nothing to him or not he was delighted to see her back again, and their friendship drifted once more into the old familiar well-worn channels. She looked for his coming, he was the one link with the outside world, the only creature who understood her or cared to understand her, who lifted her out of the dull, dead level of her life. She liked him immensely, she esteemed him highly—she was deeply grateful to him, but she had no warmer feeling for him. Ever between them stood Dick Maitland's handsome face, worn with a pain she could hardly understand, and even now, two years later, when she was alone, she would shut her eyes and dream for one brief moment she was in his arms again and felt his passionate kisses on lips and eyes and hair. No room in her heart was there for anything beyond friendship and gratitude for Alick Finlayson. This afternoon as she sat, the open book in her lap, and her eyes wandering from the children over the little lake and the plains beyond, she was thinking not of Alick Finlayson, whom she knew might come at any minute, whom she had come out, in fact, to meet, but of Dick Maitland, whom she had not seen, for nearly two years, and who might be dead for all she knew, so entirely had he passed out of her life. She glanced at the children still busy over the pile of boards, thought with a sigh of satisfaction that they were quite safe and let her thoughts drift back to that Sunday when Maitland had lain at her feet and had told to her blinded ears the story of his life. And she had thought he had meant Alick Finlayson. She half smiled to herself as she thought Finlayson was the last man in the world to have made such a mistake as Maitland had done, or, having done it, to betray himself to another woman. There was stern, good stuff in the doctor.
She raised her eyes and saw him riding towards her, and remembered how ugly she and Dolly had once thought him, and how they had been inclined to laugh at his shy manners. She thought now what a fine broad-shouldered fellow he was—how kindly was that plain face—and as for the shyness, that had long ago vanished.
He dismounted and slipped his horse's bridle over his arm.
"Well," he said coming up and holding out his hand.
She did not rise, but just put hers in it.
"Well," she answered, smiling and he sat down beside her, "I don't think it is well. You look rather tired."
"Then I look what I am," she answered, "I'm very tired."
"Tell me now. What's the matter?"
"I'm not ill, doctor," she laughed. "I'm not going to be cut off in the bloom of my youth. I'm only tired."
"H'm, what made you tired?"
"Gooseberries, I think; nothing more or less romantic than gooseberries."
"You don't mean to say you've been eating too many gooseberries."
"No, no. I've been picking them and top and tailing them all day, and it's tiring work, and——"
"It's the hottest day we've had this summer. What made you choose it to pick gooseberries?"
"Necessity, sir. The jam has to be made."
The doctor muttered something not altogether complimentary to Kooringa housekeeping, and then added as he put her hand down, "Poor little girl."
Ruth wished he would not say that. Dick Maitland had often done so and she fancied she did not like the term from other lips—and yet such is the perversity of feminine nature—she liked Finlayson all the better because for her he softened his usually shy brusque manner and called her sometimes by pitying terms of kindness.
"Oh, I'm not so terribly ill-used. You see I'm resting now—and now that I have been pitied and sympathised with I'm all right again. There, don't you wish you could cure all your patients as easily."
"I'm not quite satisfied about the cure."
"Aren't you? I am. I've got a letter of Dolly's I want to read you. It came this morning. Are those children all right? I don't see Georgie."
"There he is—stooping down behind Ted. Why what do you want with him?"
"Nothing, except to know he's there. I believe he and Ted expressed their intention of bathing in the lake, and aunt naturally is afraid they'll get drowned, so I'm here for the express purpose of seeing they don't."
"Oh, they're all right, building a house or something. And what's Mrs. Marsden got to say?"
"She says she expects me next week, but here's her letter, I'll read it to you," and Ruth took a letter out of her pocket.
It was a long letter and she read it straight through, never doubting for a moment but that her companion was as much interested in Dolly's gossipy chit chat about her husband and child and the doings on the selection as she herself was. And as a rule he would have been, but to-day, somehow the thought of her departure was disagreeable to him, and he lay back on the grass holding his horse's bridle in one hand watching the fair face above him and paying but little heed to what she was reading. Only two years ago, he thought to himself, he would have treasured up every word, would have been glad even to be allowed to touch the paper, while now—well now his whole thoughts were given not to the writer but to the reader. She was going away for a month, probably two months, and what should he do then? He turned his face away impatiently. He was angry with himself. For the past two years he had been hugging the delusion to his breast that he was hopelessly in love with Dolly Marsden, and now during the last few months he had been slowly waking to the fact that this friendship between him and Ruth Grant was no friendship at all, on his side at least, but an overwhelming love—stronger, deeper, more intense, for it was a love born of knowledge, of close, deep intimate friendship. Dolly had been a beautiful ideal, of whom he caught glimpses at rare intervals only to know she could never be for him, but Ruth—could he live now without Ruth? He was her confidant, her friend. Dared he hope for anything nearer and dearer, or should he only lose what he already had? There was no one else, he knew, no one she trusted as she did him, but she did not love him; that he saw only too clearly. Was it only because he had never made love to her, never even thought of such a thing till the last few weeks, or was it because she still thought of Maitland? He dug his heels into the dry, crumbling earth as he thought of it. The scoundrel, he thought bitterly, why could he not have kept away? He had known from the first she was out of his reach. Why could he not have left her alone? If she was grieving over him still——
Ruth finished her letter and he woke up to the fact that beyond "Dearest Ruth," he had heard not a word of it.
"There," she said, "isn't it a nice long letter and you see she wants me at once. I daresay I can be a help to her with baby during these long hot days. Poor little chap."
Finlayson wondered what had befallen the Marsden baby that his fond aunt should call him "poor little chap," but did not dare to ask lest it should show how inattentive he had been. He merely contented himself with remarking—
"So you're going?"
"The day after to-morrow I think; or Friday. There's really nothing to keep me here, and I'd like to be there before Christmas."
Her listener winced. It was evident she gave no thought to him in laying out her plans.
"How long will you be away?" he asked.
"A month, or perhaps six weeks. Dolly wants me to stay at least three months, but that is ridiculous."
"Three months," echoed Finlayson blankly. "And what on earth am I to do?"
He had never spoken so to her before in all the course of her long friendship, never in so many words had he even hinted that he counted her part and parcel of his life. Indeed it was only of late he had found it out himself.
"You," said Ruth surprised. "Why I never thought—I mean—will you really miss me?"
And she looked down, and read in one brief second his heart in his eyes.
She would have given anything to look unconscious, to preserve the same quiet demeanour, but she was no worldly woman who had seen such things over and over again, who was even on the look-out for them, and the discovery that her trusted friend was a friend no longer, but an ardent lover, sent the blood flushing up over her white face to the very roots of her hair. He must have seen that blush, she knew. What would he think of her? Hastily she turned her face away, and sought, as many another woman has done, for a safe subject to bring the conversation back to commonplace channels.
"Oh, the children," she said suddenly, remembering her neglected duties. "I've been forgetting all about them, and I don't see them anywhere."
Finlayson rose to his feet and looked round.
"I—Why! By George! the young scamps are out in the lake!"
Ruth sprang to her feet and saw in a moment that Finlayson was right. Ted, being undisturbed had, with the aid of his brothers and sisters, finished the raft entirely to his own satisfaction. Then it had to be launched, and launching it made them so wet that it seemed a pity not to make some further use of it.
"Let's get on and row to the other side," suggested Ted, "there's two palings 'ill do for oars."
"You can't row," hesitated Etta.
"Pooh, nonsense, as if any fool couldn't row."
Apparently the argument was convincing, for Etta agreed to go, and Ted, picking up Vera in his arms, waded out and placed her triumphantly in the centre of the raft. The rest followed and scrambled on board as best they could, the frail raft more than once threatening to capsize. It was hardly an unmixed success either, for their weight sank it a few inches beneath the surface of the water, but, as Ted pointed out, they were so wet already that didn't much matter. They were not in deep water, and there was really no necessity for them to cross the lake, p'raps, on the whole, he thought, they'd better not; but they might as well paddle round now they were there. So they paddled round to their heart's content for some few minutes, their unconscious guardian being so absorbed in her own affairs that she never even looked at them till, being anxious for a change of subject, she suddenly remembered her charges.
In a moment she had flown down to the edge of the lake, and to her dismay saw they had drifted a good deal further from the shore than she had at first thought.
"Children, children," she cried despairingly, "Ted, Etta, come back this minute. You'll be drowned."
"Drowned," scoffed Ted, "not a bit of it. Georgie, you young beggar, stop your own side. You'll have the whole thing capsized."
"Oh, but it's comin' undone my end," said Georgie, pushing forward.
"Oh! oh! Let's get off," cried the girls, crowding to one side. "It's comin' undone—we'll be drowned."
Ted made one ineffectual effort to keep the thing properly balanced, but it was no good. The children were now thoroughly frightened. The girls and the little boy began to scream, and as they crowded together on one side the light raft tipped up. Ruth caught a glimpse of jagged boards and loose rope ends, and then, with a simultaneous shriek of terror, the little crew were flung off into the waters of the lake.
The water there was shallow, not 5ft. deep, but still quite deep enough to drown the children, and she, hardly knowing what she was doing, dashed into the water, made a grab at some floating petticoats, and dragged Etta ashore. The doctor, she saw, had hold of two children, and she plunged in again and caught Rosy. By the time she had landed her he was just dragging Ted ashore by the arm.
"Is that all of you?" he asked, giving the whimpering boy a shake. "Ted, what devil possessed you to lead your sisters into such a scrape? What'll your mother say?"
"Don't tell her," said Ted, shaking the water off his clothes.
"Don't tell her," echoed the doctor; "and will she be thinking your cousin and I went into the water for our own amusement, to say nothing of the rest of you?"
"Don't tell her you went into the water at all," suggested Ted in desperation. "Ruth could change, and so could the rest of us," said Ted sullenly. "Mother'll be angry if she knows. She told us not to go near the water."
"Humph," the doctor looked across at Ruth, who had dried her eyes now. "Now, lad, be a man and bear your punishment. You've deserved it for disobedience."
They began to walk towards the house, a wet and bedraggled little company, but Ted stuck to his point; he didn't believe in being punished if he could help himself.
"Ruthie," he began, "don't tell unless mother asks you."
"Very well," said Ruth, feeling certain Mrs. Grant would see some of them before they got their wet clothes off, and that she would be asked for an explanation.
"And, doctor," said Ted, who was desirous of having two strings to his bow, "you'll beg us off, won't you?"
"Will I? I'd like to see you get a jolly good thrashing. You're at the bottom of it. But I don't suppose your mother 'd take any heed of me."
"Oh, yes she will," said Ted, brightening up when he saw a chance of escaping the penalty of his misdeeds; "because of Ann, you know."
"Hold your tongue, Ted. Don't be silly," said Ruth sharply, trusting that the doctor had not heard, and hoping even if he had to stop further revelations.
But the doctor had heard, and Ted was too deep in his own affairs to take any notice of her hints.
"What's your sister got to do with it?" said Finlayson turning to the boy.
"Oh you know," said Ted, winking knowingly. His spirits were rising and he began to feel quite safe. "Gammon you don't know. It'll be all right if you put in your word."
"You're silly, Ted," said Rosy. "I told you before you were silly."
Alick Finlayson looked from one to the other and then to Ruth's crimson face. She did not know what they'd say next nor how to stop them, but comprehension began to dawn on her companion.
"You'd better get home, children," he said shortly, "instead of squabbling here. It's not well to stand about in your wet things, and I must get home too."
Ruth looked at him. She was afraid of her aunt's anger. Yesterday she would have told him so frankly and asked him to stay and shield her—but to-day how could she, knowing as she did, that he would stay for her sake and that her aunt would forego her wrath, if he pleaded, for Ann's sake.
He understood this, too, thanks to Ted's revelations, but still as he looked at the face of the tired girl beside him he determined to stay if she asked him—if he could be of any possible use to her.
"Will your aunt be very angry?" he asked when she did not speak.
"Yes, I'm afraid so. I expect the children will be whipped."
"I shall be scolded, and I deserve it too. I never once thought of them. I was talking to you and quite forgot."
She said it as stating a simple fact, without a trace of coquetry, and Finlayson, seeing she was really dreading the meeting with her aunt, was still more determined to stop and see it through, even though, as he now saw, he was allowed to throw oil on the troubled waters only because he was a supposed suitor for Ann's hand and heart.
"I think I will stop to tea," he said, "after all. I daresay Will can lend me some dry things," and the relieved look on Ruth's face was his reward.
She was half hoping they would meet Mrs. Grant as they entered the house and get the inevitable confession over there and then, but no one saw them. The children, glad of the reprieve, rushed away to change their things. Finlayson took his horse to the stable and went in search of Willie Grant, and Ruth went to her room to put on another dress.
It was still so hot, and she so tired, everything seemed a trouble to her. Then, too, she could not help thinking of Finlayson. Did he really care for her, or was she only fancying it—and if so, what would be the end? She had not quite finished before the tea bell rang, and she went hurriedly to the chest of drawers for a clean handkerchief. As she drew open the drawer, much to her astonishment a little note addressed to herself lay on the top of the pile of clean handkerchiefs. It was addressed in a round childish hand that she recognised instantly as Polly's, and wondered how it had got there, for Polly had gone the evening before to stay for a week or ten days at Titura with her sister Lily. Clearly she must have put it in before she left, though why she would want to write at all Ruth could not imagine, for they expected Lily and of course Polly to come over and spend the next day at Kooringa. The tea bell rang again furiously. Evidently she was not the only one who was late, but she stayed a moment to read her letter.
"Dearest Ruth," it began—"I know you'll do me a kindness. Ned Clegg and me—we just can't stand it any longer. He loves me—you know he does—you said you thought so yourself once, and I know I love him, so were going to get married. It's no good asking father, he's sure to say no, so I'm going to run away with him to-night. Simmonds, 'one of the men on the place,' is to drive me over to Titura, and everyone knows we're sweethearts, so he won't be a bit astonished if, about half-way over, Ned comes riding up and asks him to change places. They'll all think me at Titura, and Lil 'll think I've changed my mind and am coming back with her on Friday, and Ned won't be missed, for he got a week's holiday yesterday. I don't know where we're going and I don't know how we're going to be married. Ned 'll manage that somehow; but you've always been so kind about it I want you to tell father and mother. Don't tell them at once, but anyhow before Lil comes because they'll wonder then what's become of me.
"Good-by, with much love from your affectionate cousin,
There was no date, but the letter had evidently been written and dropped into her drawer just before Polly left the night before. Her first thought was to rush off with it to her aunt; her second dismay at the consequences to herself. Who, reading that letter, would believe her statement that she had not aided and abetted the girl?
Very slowly she went down the passage and pushed open the dining-room door, the same dismally untidy room just a shade shabbier, the two sisters had entered two years and a half ago. All the family were seated at tea, and no confession had as yet been made as to the afternoon's catastrophe, and Ruth, as she entered heard Mrs. Grant say—
"You were good children, I hope, and didn't go bathing."
No answer seemed required to this, so no one said anything, but Mrs. Grant asked again—
"Did you go bathing, Ted?"
"No, never thought of such a thing," said Ted promptly, bringing down the doctor's stern glance on him, but comforting himself with the reflection that he was sticking strictly to the truth.
Finlayson glanced across at Ruth to see how she was taking this barefaced statement and then started to his feet.
"Good heavens, Miss Ruth! You are ill."
"No, no," she said, "it's this letter frightened me. I am all right," and she held the letter out to her aunt.
"A letter, Ruth? Who from? Why gracious me, you are white. Sit down, child."
Ruth obeyed, and with trepidation watched her read the letter.
For a moment it seemed Mrs. Grant did not understand, then as comprehension began to dawn on her she was speechless with wrath and dismay. She carried the letter to her husband, and then openly published its contents.
"The wicked disobedient girl," she cried. "I'll never forgive her, never—flying in the face of her parents and her God. Father, can we get her back do you think?"
"I wash my hands of her," said Mr. Grant solemnly; "she has left the fold. She has wandered from the straight path. Let her be as one accursed. I'll have no more truck with her. The Lord hath said——"
Eliza, one of the slipshod maid servants, appeared in the doorway with a pile of wet clothes on her arm.
"Please, Mrs. Grant, what's to be done with them? I found 'em stuffed under Miss Etta's bed."
"Why? What? Why that's the dress Etta had on this afternoon. Why, you've been in the lake, Miss," and she took the little girl by the shoulder and shook her with a severity meant perhaps more for her elder sister than herself.
"The raft—it upset," whispered Etta; "we might have been drowned," she added, as if to enlist her mother's pity.
"You were on the lake then, and Ted you lied to me,"—she paused a moment as if she hardly knew what to do—then asked, "Which of you were in it. Come now, tell me quick, or it'll be the worse for you."
Thus exhorted Etta opened her mouth.
"There was me and Ted and Rosy and Georgie and Tom and Vera."
"Be off to bed with you this minute. No tea do you get this night. You're breaking my heart, you disobedient children. Go to bed now and I'll sort you when I've settled about Polly. Oh, Lord, what have I done to deserve this?"
Ruth pitied the poor mother from the bottom of her heart, but the doctor, who disapproved of fasting on principle, put in a word for the hungry children preparing to leave the table.
"Don't be hard on them, Mrs. Grant, please. They are very sorry. Let them have some bread at least. It's a long while since dinner. Don't let them go starving to bed."
But Mrs. Grant paid no heed.
"Spare the rod and spoil the child—a wiser than you said that, doctor. No, they must be punished. Off with you now. I've been too lenient with Polly. I'll just make no mistake about you," and the children scuttered out of the room like frightened rabbits.
"What about Polly, father?" she went on. "The lord will surely direct us in our search. Perhaps we may get her before they're married.
"Let her be, let her be," said the old man, sternly. "She is no child of mine. She stole away last night, and she shall stay away. She'd better marry Ned Clegg now, if he will marry her. She has disgraced herself. No honest man will want her now. It thine eye offend thee, pluck it out—we've Scripture for that."
"Oh, but, Uncle," began Ruth eagerly, "indeed she——"
Ann, who had been reading the letter struck in. She had never liked Ruth. She was glad enough to find at last what looked like a legitimate cause of complaint.
"It's all her fault—all her fault," she cried. "I knew it, I warned you what would come of holding communion with the unbeliever. She has encouraged Polly all along. Why this very letter says so! She has sympathised with her and encouraged her to deceive us. I know—I told you. She has not the true grip. She is always against us. She has no regard for her duty. Even to-day she let those children nearly drown."
For once in her life Mrs. Grant agreed with her eldest daughter, and since her husband utterly declined to take any notice of Polly, she turned and vented her wrath, as was perhaps not unnatural, on Ruth, and angry and grief-stricken she did not stop to pick her words. Every opprobrious epithet she could think of she heaped on the unfortunate girl. She taunted her with her dependence and her helplessness; she declared her a heathen; she abused her for her ingratitude. "It's true enough what Ann has said. We ought to hold no communion with the ungodly; we're justly served; we've taken a viper to our bosom."
"Aunt, aunt," wailed Ruth, "indeed, indeed, it wasn't my fault about Polly. I never dreamt of such a thing. I forgot to look after the children for half an hour, and, oh, I'm so sorry; but about Polly, indeed I had no idea."
"You encouraged her, you sympathised with her. She says so here."
"I—I—aunt—I thought there was no harm in letting her talk about him. She always used to all day long whenever she got the chance—oh, for a long time——"
"I told you so," ejaculated Ann.
"But she hasn't spoken of him this summer," went on Ruth, "and I thought—I thought she had forgotten—it had all blown over. She was so young."
"That's it," said Mrs. Grant. "She never would have thought of it herself—an innocent girl like her. You say yourself you let her talk to you about him, and you knew I had expressly forbidden her to mention his name. You, a beggar living on our charity, to set yourself up in this way—to eat our bread and then deliberately set yourself to steal our daughter from us, and I to trust you! The fool I was—the fool!"
Poor Ruth, the torrent of words left her helpless. Bitterly she felt the humiliation of her position—they themselves had offered her a home, and now they were in their anger taunting her before outsiders with her dependence.
Finlayson, watching her white face, could stand it no longer.
"It seems to me," he said, trying to speak judicially, and as if he had no interest in the case beyond that of the family friend, "it seems to me you are blaming Miss Ruth for the sins of the rest of them. All the countryside knew Polly and young Clegg were sweethearts—it's only a runaway match after all. Everyone knew it was bound to come to something. You'll have them back in a day or two asking your forgiveness for the abrupt manner in which they settled things up. A runaway match is a little upsetting at first, but what is it after all? Saves the expense of a wedding. Clegg's sterling fellow too. I wouldn't worry about it if I were you, Mrs. Grant. A girl's quite safe with Clegg."
"I'll say good night," he added. "You'll be glad to get rid of me. I assure you you need not worry about your daughter. Clegg is really a very good fellow, isn't he, King?"
King, sitting hungrily at the tea-table hardly knew whether to agree or not, for he had a wholesome fear of his employers, but glancing at Ruth's sad face he boldly took the side of the oppressed.
"Indeed he is," he said, "a very good chap, and awfully gone on Miss Polly. I don't see how Miss Ruth could know anything about it. She slipped out every night for the last month of Sundays and met him by the old stable just beyond our hut."
But King had carried his championship too far.
"And you knew this and never warned us," thundered Mr. Grant, "the evil-doer, the evil-doer encompasseth us on every side. Surely the Lord hath hidden His face from my house. Leave the room, sir; leave the room this moment. Not another bite nor sup do you take at this table."
Arthur King rose and made for the door. If it only got him off the prayers and psalm singing he thought this was not so very terrible a punishment, and before he reached the door Mrs. Grant stopped him.
"How was it you didn't warn us, Arthur?" she asked sternly.
"'Twasn't any business of mine to go telling tales," he said sullenly, "besides you could have seen for yourselves if you'd looked."
"About what time did they meet?"
"I dunno. Between eight and nine generally."
"Nonsense; she was always in the school-room then learning her lessons."
"Oh, was she? I'm blind then, or p'raps it was her ghost," and young King, alarmed at his own temerity, fled, and retiring to the kitchen made interest with the maids for something to eat.
"There," the doctor could not resist saying, "it seems to have gone on in the most open manner right under your very eyes. You can't blame Miss Ruth now, can you? Now, is there anything I can do for you? Send any telegrams? Go anywhere?"
"No, no," said Mr. Grant. "She can go. She has made her bed, and she must lie on it. If she's his wife she must just stay with him, and if she isn't then she ought to be, and Kooringa's no place for the likes of her. Her sin is on her own head."
"Well, well," said the doctor cheerfully; "as I tell you we shall have her back in a day or two imploring forgiveness, and Clegg 'll make her a good husband. Good night, Mrs. Grant. Good night, Miss Grant. Good night, everybody. Miss Ruth, have you finished with that book I lent you the other day?"
"Yes," said Ruth, "I'll go and get it. I'm sorry I forgot."
They went out into the passage together, followed by Willie, who was glad of a chance to leave the room.
"I'll see you safe off, Doctor," he said.
But the doctor had other views, and for once determined to sneak out and have his own way.
"All right, Will," he said, "you get my horse, there's a good fellow. I want a word with your cousin here. I don't think she's looking well," he added with his most professional air.
"Hang it all," said Will, "do you wonder with those old cats nagging at her. I don't wonder Polly ran away. I'm off as soon as I get the chance. Cheer up, Ruth. Everyone knows it wasn't your fault," and good-natured clumsy Willie went off to the stable, leaving the two alone in the passage.
"I'll get your book," said Ruth.
The last catastrophe had driven every other thought out of her head.
"Nonsense, my girl. I don't want the book, it was only an excuse. I wanted to talk to you—to tell you——"
"Someone will hear us—will you come out," whispered Ruth, nervously conscious of how angry Ann would be should she discover that Dr. Finlayson had lingered to talk to her.
"Come outside, then."
Usually it was she who took the lead and regulated their intercourse, but to-night they had changed places, and she meekly, nay gladly submitted when he put his hand on her arm and drew her out through a side door into the garden, and thence into the plantation beyond. Silently they walked on together till they came within sight of the lake, lying placid and calm in the last rays of the setting sun, and then he released her, and gently pushed her down on to the self-same stone—she thought of it even then—where she had sat on Dolly's wedding day, when Maitland had told her of his ill-starred love. The tall doctor stood in front of her, looking down at her, and as she raised her face she read only pity in his kindly plain one.
"Poor little girl," he said, "poor little girl."
"You don't think I was to blame?" she asked.
"Blame, my dear girl, how could you be to blame? The notion is just ridiculous. They are hard strait-laced Puritans, and when they draw the bonds too tight their children rebel naturally, most naturally, and they look round for a scapegoat instead of blaming their own system."
"And I am the scapegoat with a vengeance," said Ruth, her lips quivering as the remembrance. "What shall I do now?"
She asked the question simply, exactly as she would have put it to a woman friend, if such she had had, and the doctor, cautious Scotchman as he was, had it on the tip of his tongue to answer "Marry me," but one glance at her told him how innocent she was of any such thought. Whatever may have been their relations of the afternoon, this evening she at least had gone back to the old friendship, and was glad to have him there, her comforter and her friend.
Ruth never thought of loving Alick Finlayson, and had now entirely forgotten the discovery she thought she had made only that afternoon. It is human nature to be selfish, and all unconsciously she was selfishly forgetting all else but her own particular trouble. As for the man before her, she thought of him only as the safety valve, the kind friend who would listen with interest while she poured out her troubles and relieved her own mind.
"They are unjust, they are unkind," she went on. "Ann always hated me, but—but—of course they have been good in giving me a home. I know that—only it was not my fault, was it? Indeed, I thought Polly had forgotten. She hasn't mentioned Ned Clegg for the last six months, and as she was always talking about him before I thought it must have died out. Besides she spent such a lot of her spare time with me—you'd think I must have been blind not to have seen. Was I wrong in letting her talk about him? Her mother told her not, but, poor child, she was in such trouble I thought it best to let her talk about it. Was I wrong I wonder? Was it my fault after all?"'
"Poor little girl," he said, looking down into the troubled eyes so frankly raised to his. "No, I'm sure you were right."
"I'm glad I'm going away so soon," she said; "I'm thankful. I can never come back again. I will stay with Dolly for a month or so, and then I must see if I can't earn my own living."
If she had been the most finished coquette she could not more successfully have brought him to her feet, and yet she was so absorbed in her own trouble she never gave him a second thought. He saw that, and it stung him to the quick.
"Going the day after to-morrow," he said bitterly, "and glad to go, and you have not one word or thought for me."
"You," she said with a sudden remorse, putting out one hand to lightly touch his; "indeed, how can I help thinking of you—you who are always so good to me? Why, how could I have lived these last two years if it hadn't been for you?"
There was warmth in her manner now—too much warmth, for the woman who loved him and thought of him would never have spoken so frankly. He turned away his face and stood looking gloomingly out across the lake. It sparkled in the fading sunlight, but the grass around was parched and dry, the plains stretching away to the horizon, only broken by Saddleback and the little rise known as Mullin's Hill, looked hot and uninviting. Summer, pitiless summer held the land in his iron grasp, and to Alick Finlayson it only seemed to emphasise his gloomy thoughts. What should he do when she was gone—how should he live without his companion and his friend, and she—that sensitive beautiful woman out in the world alone—he could not bear to think of it, and yet what could he do?
He stood so long silent that at last Ruth rose and went to his side.
"Don't be vexed with me," she implored. "Everything seems wrong to-day. Please don't be vexed with me; indeed, you don't know how grateful I have always been to you. Are you vexed?" and she put her hand on his arm, because he kept his face turned from her.
"Vexed—dear—vexed," and he turned and caught her hand in his own. "Oh, Ruth, must you go? Why can't you stay and let me take care of you? Hush, dear, hush," for she would have spoken; "don't—don't tell me I am a fool for loving you; don't—don't send me away. Try and love me a little, and let me be good to you—let me take care of you—only let me take care of you—it isn't much I ask—is it?"
She tried to draw her hand away, but he held it fast, and then suddenly put his arm round her and drew her towards him.
"Ruth, look at me."
She raised her face obediently.
"Do you think I love you?"
"Yes," she whispered, "but,——"
"But you don't love me, is that it? Do you like me?"
"You know I do."
"Very much?" And he held her closer still.
"Indeed," she murmured, "you know I have liked you very much."
"Is there anyone else? No," he answered himself. "I know there is not—at least I think not. I had a friend once, and—and he—he—was in danger of loving you, but he was bound to another woman, and he, like an honourable man went away. Was it not so? It must have been like the bitterness of death to him. But he went?"
"Yes," she said, lower still.
"And you knew? Did you guess why?"
"You have no right to ask me that," she murmured.
"I know, I know; but, my dear, I love you so, and if you have given all your heart to him it will break mine, I think."
"But I thought—I have always thought—that—you—I mean——"
"That I loved your sister. Yes, you were right there. But oh, Ruth, Ruth, she was never anything to me and you are all the world. My darling, I know there is nothing in me that a woman might love—I know I am a quiet, ugly fellow, but oh, my darling, I would be so good to you; only let me love you just a little, let me take care of you just a little."
He was holding her close in his arms now, and what was she to say? He was dear to her—very dear to her, and there was no one in the world to care for her. Maitland was nothing to her, could be nothing to her. She had not seen him for the last two years—very likely she would never see him again. She was so alone in the world, and must she give up her friend? He did not ask to be loved, only to take care of her; every thought was for her. She saw the unselfishness of it—she compared it even then with that other man's love, and when she would have spoken a sob choked her.
"It isn't fair," she sobbed. "Indeed, indeed, it isn't fair."
"What isn't fair? Am I taking advantage of you? But, darling, there was nothing else to——"
"No—no—I didn't mean that. You—you are goodness itself. You—are so kind and good to me, it wouldn't be fair of me to take everything and give nothing."
"Dear, couldn't you love me a little?"
"I—I—I'll tell you," she said, raising herself up and looking straight into his face, and he saw the tear-drops on her cheeks and the earnest light in her dark eyes; "I like you, indeed you don't know how much I like you and honour and esteem you. You are more to me than anyone else in the world, except perhaps Dolly, and I'm only third with her now," she added sadly. "But that's not love, is it?"
Poor Alick Finlayson! it was cruelly hard on him. He had given his all, and she offered him in return esteem and honour and mere liking—a stone in return for his bread. Did she offer it to him, though? Almost he feared she would refuse, and the thought of her going out alone into the world was more than he could bear.
"My little girl, I would be so good to you—couldn't you learn to love me a little?"
"You have been good to me," she sobbed, with unconscious cruelty; "no one was ever so good to me before, and yet you see I don't love you."
"But if you were to try. I—good God!" he cried bitterly, "other men win love, why cannot I? Is it that I'm too ugly—haven't dainty enough ways—or——"
"Hush, hush," she said. "You mustn't say that. Of course you could win love easily—easily; any woman would be proud of your love. Ugly—I think you have the dearest, kindest face in the world. I could never tell you what you have been to me these last two years, and how eagerly I have watched for your coming."
"And yet you will not trust me? You prefer to go away out into the world to seek your fortune and leave me."
"It isn't that." She drew herself out of his detaining arms and sat down on the stone again. "It isn't that. Indeed, it isn't that. Trust you—I would trust you above everything. Don't you see what temptation you are putting in my way?—and I want to be honest, too—as honest in my way as you are in yours. You are offering me everything. How can I take it and give you nothing in return?"
"Nothing? Only be my wife, the companion and friend you have always been to me, so tender, so kind, and I will do my best to make you love me. I will love you and take such care of you, and surely love will come."
"But if it did not?" and she covered her face with hands.
He bent forward and drew them away, holding them fast in his own.
"Poor little girl, dear little girl. Dear, I love you so, I would rather see you happy than anything else. I long so to take care of you. I know I could do it so well if only you would trust me. But, dear, if you would be happier without me, say so, and I'll leave you."
"No, no, that's just it," she said incoherently. "You have been everything to me. I can't bear to think you should go right out of my life."
He was so kind, so true, so tender; even then she could but compare him favourably with the man she did love, and as she raised her eyes full of tears to his face, he knelt down beside her and put his arm round her fondly.
"See now, Ruth, we must understand each other; and you are so alone in the world. I can't ask anyone else about you, even Dolly could not explain matters to me. You like me, you say."
"Yes, oh yes," and the hand he held pressed his warmly.
"Suppose I were your brother?"
"There could be none dearer in all the world."
He suppressed a sigh. It was very hard.
"Then, my little girl, tell me exactly how it is. Tell me why you don't want to marry me, just as if in truth I were your brother."
"You won't understand," she said with a break in her voice. "I do want to marry you. You hold out such a tempting prospect. I know how good you would be to your wife, what care you would take of her, and we have been such friends. I feel as if I can't give you up—and yet, and yet—it isn't fair to take all that when I don't love you as you love me."
"My dear, my darling, my treasure!" He drew her closer to him and longed to cover her face with passionate kisses, but he feared to frighten her. "Is that all? I am willing to risk that. Surely, if husband and wife are friends that is the first thing. The rest will be sure to come in time."
"But—but—it isn't fair. Oh, it isn't fair."
"Not to me—dear, if you are thinking of me it is perfectly fair to me. See here Ruth," he rose to his feet and drew her up beside him, so that her face was hidden on his breast. She felt his heart beating, and knew by the tightening of his clasp he was nerving himself for a tremendous effort, "See my little girl, I have learned to love you so desperately that, if you would come to me, I should take you gladly, thankfully, even though I knew you had given all your love to another man. I——," but his voice broke and Ruth cried.
"Oh, I knew, I knew, I always knew you were the best man God ever made," and burst into such a passion of weeping as fairly frightened him.
He just held her in his arms and let her cry on.
"After all," he thought to himself, "the best thing is to let her have her cry. It will do her good and comfort her to know somebody does care for her."
He bent down and gently kissed her hair, fondly twining it through his fingers, and bitter as the thought was that his worst fears were confirmed and she had even given her heart to Maitland, yet there was comfort in holding her in his arms, in the thought that she was his now for good and all. How pretty she was—how sweet—and he would be so good to her.
"Hush, my darling, hush; you mustn't cry so. Hush, darling."
"Oh, my eye, is it a dagger that I see before me, or is it—is it——"
The two sprang apart guiltily, Ruth turning away her tear-stained face, while the doctor pounced on Ted and shook him angrily.
"What the devil do you mean by this?"
"Well, come, I like that. What the devil do you mean by it? Kissing and hugging Ruth."
"Your cousin, sir, has promised to be my wife," said the doctor with dignity, seeing that the boy had reason on his side, and there really was some slight necessity for explanation.
"Oh, whew, has she really? What the dickens will Ann say? But, my word, Ruth, you have turned on the waterworks. You're nearly drowned."
"You—you were sent to bed," said Ruth in self-defence.
"Well, who's going to stop there! You weren't sent out to spoon with the doctor. My! there will be a rumpus! I'd run away if I were you. They aint too pleased with you as it is."
"Never you mind, Master Ted. It's my duty to look after your cousin now. Come, Ruth, shall I tell your uncle now? It will make things easier for you."
"Will it? Not unless she clears out at once."
"She is going to her sister the day after to-morrow."
"Oh, is she? Well, I think I'll run away too. The place is getting unbearable."
Dolly's home in the Forest was a very humble one, only a weatherboard cottage with a shingle roof and a broad verandah in front. It was high on the side of a hill facing the south, so that they got refreshing sea breezes sometimes in the middle of the summer, but there was no view. The dense close forest shut them in on every side; only just round the house was a small cleared space, part of which was laid out as a garden, where Roger cultivated vegetables in his spare time, and Dolly managed to grow a few flowers. Not that there was much difficulty about it. In the rich vegetable soil, once the land was cleared, the flowers grew like weeds, and the only trouble was water. Pumping it up from the well took time and labour, and often neither Roger nor the man who helped him on the little selection had time to spare, but even then Dolly herself would pump sometimes rather than her precious garden should suffer.
And she had her reward. The little house nestling among the hills was a charming little home, as different as well could be from the weatherboard cottages surrounded by unlovely potato plots which as a rule are the homes of the selectors in the Heytesbury Forest. In years to come the southern lands of Victoria may be all smiling cornfields, where the fierce heat of an Australian summer is always tempered by the cool breezes from the Southern Ocean, but at present the ranges between Geelong and Warrnambool are densely wooded, covered with immense trees and a scrub so thick that the work of clearing the land and making it fit for the use of man is worthy of Hercules himself. And yet there are many settlers there, for the land, once cleared, is rich and valuable.
The summer of '85-86 was exceptionally hot even in the south of Victoria, and Dolly bemoaned that her garden was being ruined.
"It'll be all dead with the heat, Roger," she said. "Ruth won't admire it at all."
"Oh, yes, she will. She'll understand. Besides, think what the Kooringa-garden must be like this summer."
And Roger was right. To Ruth, coming from the turmoil and discomfort of Kooringa, the little cottage on the hill was a very haven of rest.
"Burnt up, Dolly? Indeed, no. You should just see Kooringa garden. And how well the passion flower has grown over the verandah! It makes quite a little bower. And those gladioli, how fine they are!"
"I do think it's rather nice," said Dolly, pleased. "I water that creeper well, though, for it's so close to the house and no trouble. But, oh dear, there really is a good deal to do about the house. I wonder if you see any falling off. You see baby wants such a lot of attention now he's beginning to walk, and with only one servant there's really a good deal to do."
"You manage wonderfully, Dolly, I think," said her sister, ready as of old to admire anything Dolly did. "It must be such hard work."
"Why, no," said Dolly. "You see, it's all for Roger and myself and baby, so it makes such a difference. You know, you really don't seem to care how hard you work when it's to make your home nice, do you?"
"No," said Ruth, and Dolly went on.
"It's so nice to work for Roger. He's so pleased with everything I do. Oh, Ruth, I'm such a happy woman."
"Dolly, I'm so thankful."
"If only you were happily married too, Ruth, if only——"
"Come wife, come," Roger's voice broke in on their tete-a-tete. "Come out and show Ruth round the estate. It's a little cooler now, and you might open the windows."
Ruth rose up thankfully. She had not yet told her sister of her engagement to Dr. Finlayson, and somehow she was glad to put it off for a space. She must tell her soon, she knew, but the engagement seemed to have been almost forced upon her by circumstances, and she could hardly yet decide whether she was glad or sorry to throw in her lot with the doctor. At least to-morrow would be soon enough to tell Dolly, she thought, as they wandered round the little farmyard in the cool of the evening inspecting the cocks and the hens, and stirring up the pigs to make them show off their good points.
"They're real Berkshire pigs," said Dolly proudly, "and it was my idea entirely having them, wasn't it, Roger. You see, I'm sure pigs pay best of all, and we grow vegetables so easily it seems a shame not to have them. Roger was afraid they'd be a bother, because he and Davis sometimes when they're clearing on the other side of the place arn't in till after dark. But I knew I could feed them. Gretchen and I—she takes as much interest in them as I do—and then they make such a difference. Why, our last pigs we bought when they were tiny little things at 3s. each, and after we'd had them three months we sold them at about £2 each. Wasn't that good?"
"She's a capital little farmer, this wife of mine," said Marsden laughing, but evidently very proud of his wife. "Look at all her cocks and hens there. They're all to be turned into solid cash I'm told."
"Now, Roger, you're laughing. Look here, Ruth. I made £30 clear out of my poultry and eggs last year. Wasn't that a good lot? Pigs go into the general funds, you know, but the poultry is my very own."
"Married woman's property," said Roger. "She's got a stocking somewhere, and she's hoarding, Ruth. She won't let me touch any of that money."
"No, of course not. Don't you think I'm right, Ruth. That's a reserve fund. If we ever want money very, very badly there'll be that, and if we don't I shall save it for the boy. He must go to the grammar school, like his father, and he must have a university education if we can only afford it. So you see it's best to begin saving now."
"Wise Dolly," said Roger, patting her hand, and Ruth, smiling assent, wondered if she could ever be so happy. If ever to her would come the peace and joy of loving and being loved.
To many such a life would have seemed sordid and hard and narrow, but Dolly standing there in the evening sunlight in her neat blue print with her baby in her arms and her husband by her side was a person to be envied by her elder sister.
She called herself ungrateful when next day brought her a long letter from Dr. Finlayson, so tender and so loving—so full of her and her only—surely not Dolly herself had more wealth of love lavished on her. Surely she could be a happy woman too, if only she would take the love which was offered so freely instead of looking vainly backwards at what could never be.
She read her letter in the short Australian twilight; in the next room she could hear Dolly singing softly as she hushed her boy to sleep, and out on the verandah her brother-in-law, his labours over for the day, was puffing away at his pipe.
"A penny, Ruth," he said, coming to the window, "a penny for your thoughts. You haven't spoken a single solitary word since I brought you that letter, and I want to be entertained now my work's done."
"A penny for yours then. I'm sure you leant against that post so long I thought you were never going to move again. Come now, what were yours?"
"I was thinking I ought to get another pig. I could easily put in a few more vegetables, and Dolly manages so splendidly there's always plenty of milk. Then I might put something away towards the boy's education, too."
"Dolly would be so pleased," said Ruth; and then added with a little laugh, "Dear me, the care of matrimony."
"It has its compensations," said Marsden, sitting down himself in a garden seat close to the window, so that he had his sister-in-law in full view. "You haven't embarked on its troubled waters yet, Ruth; why's that."
"Nobody asked me, sir," she laughed.
"Now, what's the good of telling me fibs. As if I didn't see with my own eyes Maitland was awfully gone on you two years ago. I never could make out why that never came to anything, for I used to think you rather liked him, too."
"Just like a man," she said, looking him bravely in the face, though she felt the blood mounting to her cheeks. "Just like a man. We took compassion on one another because you and Dolly were so absorbed in one another that if we had not got up a rival flirtation, we'd have been dreadfully dull and out in the cold."
"Oh, yes; it's all very well to put it that way, but if ever I saw a man in love it was Maitland. You have not met for two years, have you? I wonder if he's got over it. I suppose you know he's at Tamba now."
"Is he?" she managed to ask.
"Oh, yes, Waterworks or something. Shall I ask him over?"
"No, no; what nonsense—not for me."
"What," he asked in astonishment, "you mean to say you wouldn't care to meet Maitland after being such chums. Well, I——"
"Well, you what?" asked Dolly, coming into the sitting room, and putting her arm round her sister's neck. "Well, you what?"
"Don't understand women."
"Pooh, my beloved husband; whoever supposed you did."
"Well, but Ruth says she wouldn't care to see Maitland. Arn't women fickle. We were thinking of asking him down for Christmas, weren't we, Dolly?"
Dolly, with her hand on her sister's shoulder, could not fail to see she was somewhat more agitated than the occasion seemed to warrant. She had always thought there was something between her sister and Dick Maitland, and now that she had the chance determined to put matter straight.
"Yes, of course, we'll ask him," she said. "I expect he'll be awfully glad to come. Tamba's a dull place to spend Christmas in."
"It's so far," objected Ruth.
"Well, I like that, considering Maitland used to ride over 10 miles just to spend an afternoon with you. Do you remember the cold afternoon I was skinning sheep, and you two girls came down, and then Maitland and Finlayson rode up. That was the beginning of it, wasn't it? Weren't they jolly times. Poor old Finlayson, though, he was always a bit out of it. And he's such a good sterling chap, too, is Alick, I suspect he's really the best at bottom, though one couldn't help taking to Dick Maitland. Poor old Alick! He's doing very well, I hear; making his fortune in fact. I hope some designing woman doesn't catch him for his cash."
"What would you say?" began Ruth, feeling that she must tell them of her engagement. "What would you say—if—if—I told you that—that——"
"Not that you're engaged to Dr. Finlayson?" asked Dolly impetuously, and, seeing confirmation in her sister's face, flung her arms round her, and kissed her in the old warm-hearted loving style.
"Oh, Ruth, I'm delighted—delighted! Roger, isn't it good news?"
"You're a lucky young woman," he said, "a very lucky young woman. So that's why you didn't want to see Maitland. Poor old Dick, it will be a blow to him; but, after all, I believe you've chosen wisely."
Dolly could talk of nothing else. Not only that evening, but all the long hot days when Roger and his man went away to their work on the other side of the selection, and the two women were left to their household duties, assisted by one maid servant—a solemn young woman, who, though she was English to all intents and purposes, yet retained enough of the characteristics of her German parentage to make her an invaluable servant.
"It's delightful, isn't it? You mothered me when I was married, and now I must look after you. I suppose you have not fixed the day yet?"
"Oh, yes," said Ruth, bending her blushing face down over the plums she was stoning for the Christmas pudding—for a Christmas pudding is a necessity in Australia, even though the thermometer be at 105deg. in the shade—"oh yes, we have—at least I thought about the middle of February, but Dr. Finlayson wants it at the end of January."
"What!" Dolly spilt all the flour she was weighing out in her surprise. "February! My goodness, you are in a hurry. I'll just write to Melbourne to-night to Moubray's and tell them to send us a roll of longcloth and another of muslin. We'll begin on your trousseau, at once. But my dear child, you can't possibly be married before June at the very least. We might manage by May, but then May's unlucky."
"But I shan't want much," protested Ruth. "It isn't as if I were going to have a grand wedding. Not even as mildly grand as yours was. You see I can't be married from Kooringa."
"Indeed no, you must be married from here, and Roger and I'll do our very best for you. The little church is only five miles away. Really not so far as Mullin's Hill, you know. But have you quarrelled altogether with the Kooringa people? Aunt used to be kind in her way."
"So she is still. Only they were so awfully angry about Polly, you know. And then when I told them next morning I was going to marry Dr. Finlayson, it was worse than ever. I really don't think anybody but the children spoke to me afterwards, and they were all in disgrace for tumbling into the water. So, Dolly, you see I really must be married soon, and if you'll only keep me till the wedding, I'll——"
"Keep you, dear? You know I'm only too delighted to have you for as long as ever you'll stay, and you mustn't be married before June, for goodness knows when we'll ever be together again. Do you hear, Ruth?"
Ruth nodded, and her sister went on.
"I wonder what has become of Polly? Will Ned Clegg marry her, do you think?"
"Oh, it's all right. I was going to tell you, only you've talked so persistently of my engagement I haven't had a chance. In Dr. Finlayson's letter—well, Alick, then—in his last night's letter he says he thought I wouldn't be happy unless I knew what had become of them. So he asked every creature he came across, till at last Arthur King confessed he knew they were going to Geelong, and then he traced them easily enough. They had been married somehow or other, I don't quite understand how, and were having a mild little honeymoon on the £38 he'd saved with a view to matrimony. Alick said he found them in very poor lodgings, and they looked such a boy and girl, in spite of the dignity of the married state, that he gave them a good talking to, and asked them what they intended to do next."
"Go back to Kooringa and be forgiven, I suppose. Fancy Polly married! I can only think of her as a fat, over-grown girl in dresses much too short for her."
"Well, her dresses are still too short for her. I helped her make two new ones just before she ran away, and that's all the trousseau she had, poor girl. No, they won't forgive her at Kooringa though. Alick says both he and Lily tried their very best. He says he thinks though that James Wilson doesn't want another son-in-law on the station, and I can't make him see that he's about the very worst advocate poor Polly could have had, at least with Ann and aunt."
"Poor Ann, it is hard on her, when she thought she'd made an impression, too. But what's to become of the newly-married couple? Thirty-eight pounds won't last for ever."
"That's what Alick said to the young man. He was full of all sorts of wild notions, but Alick recommended him to get a place at once and stick to it, and not to build any hopes on the old folks relenting. However, he says he was able to settle them before he left, for that night at the club he met Lowe, of Bandelowie—you know, on the Darling, not far from Wilcannia. He was growling about his men, so Alick recommended him to try young Clegg. He didn't much like the idea of a wife, but finally agreed to take him. Alick sent for him, and he just jumped at it. Mr. Lowe'll pay their expenses up, give him 30s. a week and a hut to themselves. Poor Polly!"
"Lucky Polly! After all it's not bad. She's got the man she wants—she's never been accustomed to any luxury—and she'll do very well if only she doesn't have too many children. But how good of Alick Finlayson, wasn't it?"
"He is good, you don't know how good he is," said Ruth looking at her sister with flushed cheeks and tearful eyes.
"And are you as much in love with him as he is with you, Ruth?" asked Dolly.
"I—I don't know," faltered Ruth, "we have been such friends since you went away, and till last week I never thought—I—I mean I was so surprised."
"Well so was I," assented Dolly frankly, "but that doesn't prevent me being delighted all the same. Roger thinks you're a very lucky girl, and he'll be the best husband that ever was seen. If he's half as good as Roger—oh Ruth—you ought to be happy."
"So I am."
"No, you're not—not wildly—not as happy as he deserves. I don't think you're even content to sit still and allow yourself to be loved. What is it, Ruth? Once I used to think you were in love with Dick Maitland; but, then, he was so evidently head over ears in love with you that——"
"Oh, nonsense, Dolly, I've told you before."
"I don't care what you told me before, dear. Women always tell lies about their love affairs one way or the other, and I believe the evidence of my own eyes. Roger was always in love with me, I know, in a cheerful sort of way; but, Dick Maitland well, Dick Maitland—I have often thought of it since—was just heart-brokenly in love with you."
"Oh, Dolly, don't."
"What, crying? Don't cry, dear, don't cry; there wipe your eyes. You're not bound to marry a man however in love he is with you if you don't want to, and both Roger and I would much rather you married Alick Finlayson. You don't love him. Ah, but you like him, and esteem him so much that you will be sure to love him in time. I don't see how a woman can help loving a good husband, and he will be the best husband in the world to you. There—there's my naughty boy waking up and crying for his mother. Ruth, as soon as you're done, write to Moubray's for that longcloth."
Ruth wrote for the longcloth, and immediately the two young women set to work. Roger smiled at his wife's energy, and used to ask her if she was sure the farm did not suffer, but she only laughed, and declared she hadn't a sister to marry every day, and everything must give place to the all-important trousseau if Ruth adhered to her plans and insisted on being married in the second week in February. Christmas passed, and the New Year came ushered in by a heat greater even than usual in an Australian summer. Marsden's man, after the manner of his kind, had taken a fortnight's holiday, but his employer went every day to work clearing on the other side of the selection, and the two women were left at their work undisturbed.
Marsden used to read to them every evening as they sewed, and all Christmas Day and New Year's Day he spent playing with his boy and lolling on the sofa watching them.
"It's quite refreshing to see your industry," he said.
"It's rather hard on you, I think though," said Ruth. "Two of your holidays have been completely spoiled by our energy."
"Oh, Roger doesn't mind, do you Roger? He likes reading to us in the evenings, and I only worked on New Year's Day because I intend to have a real holiday on the 6th. We shan't do a thing that we can help that day—and Roger, you must stop at home from work, won't you, all day long?"
"Waste a whole day?" he asked.
"Our wedding day and baby's birthday?" she said with a little anxious quiver in her voice.
"Why, of course, my darling," he hastened to reassure her, "I never dreamt of doing anything else. That is the feast of St. Dolly, you know Ruth, and must be kept with all due reverence."
But Dolly did not have her husband on her wedding day after all.
On the evening of the 5th he rode over to the little post-office five miles away as usual, and came back with a rather vexed look on his face.
"I'm so vexed, wife," he said, "so sorry, but I'm afraid I'll have to go over to Crafer's to-morrow. Here's old Atkinson writes to say he's got a buyer for the wood, a man who buys to sell again in the Melbourne market. He thinks he'll take it all off my hands at a fair price. It'll bring about £40 he thinks, but he's arranged for me to meet this man at his place to-morrow."
"Oh dear," sighed Dolly, "oh dear, that is hard, and we can't afford to miss such a chance, can we? Of course, you must go. Ruth and I will think of you all the same, and we'll get on with our sewing better than ever, because we've been so careful not to leave anything we could help to be done to-morrow."
"And I wanted to stay, but we can't afford to lose this chance."
Nevertheless next morning at 6 o'clock when Roger ought to have started on his journey he felt himself very unwilling to go. Both Ruth and Dolly were up to give him his breakfast and see him off, and Dolly in honour of her fête day had put on a new dress.
The breakfast was dainty and the table was prettily decorated with flowers freshly gathered, even though it was so early.
"By Jove," said Marsden, "I don't expect there's another man in all the district round has such a pretty home and such a charming wife and sister to wait on him." And he threw an appreciative glance round the table as he helped himself to some more salad.
"And you're going to have such a day," sighed his wife. "Just hark to the wind."
Indeed it was a fierce hot-wind day, as they found when they came out together a few minutes later—he to saddle his horse, she to look on and see as much of him as she could. Though it was barely 6 o'clock the sun was like a ball of fire in a copper-coloured sky, and the mighty north wind came raging through the gum-trees, tearing at their branches, tossing up their bark as it rushed roaring away to the sea.
"Now, you two girls, be good, and don't get into any mischief while I'm away. I'll be back by 7 or 8," and he mounted his horse, and waving his hand to them, rode away, and was soon lost to sight amongst the surrounding trees' trunks.
"Poor Dolly," said Ruth, sympathetically.
"If I never have any greater trouble I'll be lucky, shan't I? Come along, Ruth. We ought to make rapid strides in your trousseau—why, its only just after 6. Let's have a cup of tea, and then set to work."
Dolly felt rather low-spirited, so they worked on in silence till about 7, when Roger junior wakened, and his mother bathed him and dressed him in his little white shirt only for coolness sake, and after giving him his breakfast, set him on the floor to amuse himself. But baby, usually so good, was cross and fretful, and again and again his mother had to put down her work and take him in her arms and soothe him.
"Poor little chap, it's the heat," said his aunt. "Give him another bath. Here Gretchen, bring in a bucket of water will you, please."
The girl brought in a pail of water a minute or two later, cool and fresh from the well, and, pouring it into the baby's bath, stopped a moment and looked at the boy splashing about in it.
"There is smoke outside," she remarked solemnly.
"Smoke, is there?" said Dolly, "I hope to goodness the brushwood won't take fire and burn the fences like it did last year."
"I think it will," observed her handmaid, and her mistress sighed.
"What a nuisance! Well, we couldn't do anything against a wind like this. The fences will have to go," and she went on playing with her baby, who had stopped crying, and was thoroughly enjoying himself.
"Don't you think there's any danger," asked Ruth, when Gretchen had gone back to the kitchen.
"What of? Of the house catching? Oh, no, there's a clearing all round. Last year all the scrub was burnt, and a lot of the fencing, too, but it didn't come near the house. It's hard luck, though—30s. a week for a fencer, and as soon as the fences are up they get burnt down again. Look at baby; he's good enough now. I expect he'll go to sleep again when I take him out."
But Baby Roger was by no means disposed to be amiable when his mother did take him out of his bath, and he cried and protested still more vehemently when she tried to lay him down to sleep. So she lay down on her own bed beside him and took him on her arm, and when Ruth peeped in softly half an hour after both mother and child were sound asleep.
The blinds were down both in the sitting-room and in the bedroom, and it was comparatively cool and dark, and Ruth, taking her sister's seat in the rocking-chair, sewed on contentedly for some time. Then the door opened, and Gretchen stood there, looking rather frightened.
"Oh, Miss Grant," she said, "do look here a minute, please."
"Hush," said Ruth. "Mrs. Marsden and baby are both asleep." And she followed her softly into the kitchen. "What's the matter?" she asked.
For all answer the girl pointed to the window, and Ruth saw thick clouds of smoke, driven by the fierce hot wind, rushing past, hiding from sight even the fence that surrounded the garden.
"Good gracious," she cried, rubbing her eyes, as if they might have deceived her, "why Gretchen, is it smoke?"
"Smell it," said the girl laconically, and indeed the air was redolent of the strong aromatic smell of the burning gum leaves. "Oh miss," she added, "it's an awful fire."
Ruth opened the door, and the two women peered out. The little yard was thick with smoke, and the wind was roaring through the tree-tops so that they could hardly hear one another speak. Snatching up a tea cloth from the dresser, Ruth put it over her head and, followed by Gretchen, made her way across the yard to the slip panels. The sky was heavy and overcast, whether by the clouds or by the smoke they could not tell, the air was thick and heavy with it, and, leaning over the slip-rails they could see nothing but smoke like a fog, shutting out even the tree trunks. Two or three wallaby rushed past seemingly too terrified to notice their proximity, and a tiny bandicoot leapt under the rails and took refuge in Gretchen's dress.
"Oh, Miss," she cried, "that's the worst sign, I've heard my father say. We'll be burnt up if we don't run," and she made as if she would have started off there and then.
Ruth laid her hand on her arm.
"Wait a minute. We must tell Mrs. Marsden," and she rushed into the bedroom where mother and child were still sleeping peacefully.
"Dolly! Dolly! darling!" she cried, snatching up the boy. "Oh, Dolly!"
Dolly sat up rubbing her eyes. "Why, Ruth, what is it?"
"Fire, dear! The whole forest is on fire!"
Dolly was on her feet, and at the door in a moment. They knew little enough about it any one of the three, but a glance was sufficient to show Dolly her sister was right. This was no ordinary brush fire, but a raging conflagration, sweeping all before it. The house, the outbuildings—all were of wood with shingle roofs, now dry as tinder—a spark would set them alight, and the fire would be roaring on them in less than half an hour.
She wrung her hands. "Oh, Ruth, Ruth."
"Dear, you know the country best, which——"
"Down to Mitchell's," put in Gretchen; "quick, get baby and let's run."
"But the animals, we can't leave them," sobbed Dolly, "Oh, Roger, Roger."
"Hush, dear. There, I've opened the hen-house door. You let the old hen out of the coop. Now the pigs—we'll leave the stye open—and, Gretchen, Gretchen, catch Maggie."
They rushed about in hopes of giving every living thing a chance of life, and Dolly opened the cage door and let her canary go free. It fluttered round helplessly, and finally perched on the verandah just out of reach.
"It's no good," panted Dolly, "we must save ourselves. We'd better put on our ulsters, or the sparks may catch our dresses."
In the bedroom little Roger was sitting on the floor just where his aunt had left him, crying quietly to himself. His mother, after putting on a heavy winter cloak, wrapped a blanket round him. Then she found that a heavy boy of twelve months old wrapped in a blanket was as much as she could manage, and returned to the sitting-room, where her sister and maid, also in their ulsters, were putting anything that seemed to them valuable into their pockets and into two pillow cases in hasty preparation for departure, while on the doorstep the household magpie, still uncaught, was dancing up and down calling shrilly—
"What's the matter? What's the matter? What the devil's the matter?"
"Oh, poor Mag," cried Dolly, and Gretchen made a sudden dart and caught the bird, and, evading a vicious peck, put him in her ulster pocket and buttoned it down over him, where he relieved his feelings by crowing like the farmyard cock and using up all his voluminous and somewhat profane vocabulary in unavailing protest against his cramped quarters.
It was not ten minutes since Gretchen had called Ruth, but the smoke was growing thicker, and thicker, and breathing was absolutely difficult.
"We must start," said Ruth, and Dolly sobbed—
"Oh dear, I do hope there's nothing left alive and shut up that I've forgotten."
"The fire's quite close," cried Ruth, as another gust of wind threatened to lift the roof from the house, and the three women rushed out and fled before the north wind, down the garden and through the forest, the magpie in Gretchen's pocket shrieking wildly, and the boy in his mother's arms sobbing with fright. Straight before the wind they ran, right through the forest; there was not even a track to guide them, and the smoke was blinding now. Round this great tree, under that heavy branch, across these rough logs, and always it seemed to their excited imaginations that the fire was close behind them.
About a mile and half from the homestead, just after they had left the boundary fence, they came to a creek, which cut right across their path; the banks were rather steep, and its bed was broad, though the heat had reduced the water to the merest trickle, and in no place did it come higher than their ankles. They scrambled down the banks, walked through the water, which was cool and refreshing to their hot feet, and struggled up the opposite side. Then they paused a moment to take breath, and looked back the way they had come. There was nothing much to see; the wind was as high and the smoke as thick as ever, but still, though the smell of the burning gum leaves was so strong, there was no sign as yet of the fire.
Dolly sat down for a moment on a log to rest. The boy was heavy, the heat stifling, and they had come the mile and a half in less than five-and-twenty minutes.
"The creek will stop the fire, Ruth," she panted. "Surely we're safe enough now."
But even as she spoke a small flock of sheep, with one or two wallabies among them, dashed out of the forest, crossed the creek, and were soon lost amidst the fern and undergrowth.
"They don't think so," said Ruth. "Let me carry Baby, dear, just for a little."
Dolly pushed her hands aside and rose to her feet.
"No, no, I can manage," and Gretchen, as if struck with fresh terror at the sight of the frightened animals, resumed her headlong flight through the bush, and the two others followed her as best they might, their only guide, the wind behind them.
Another half-hour's scramble and they emerged on a tiny clearing about an acre in extent, surrounded by a post-and-rail fence, with a weatherboard cottage in the middle. On the verandah a woman and half-a-dozen children were standing anxiously looking out, but so dense was the smoke the newcomers had come half-way across the clearing before they were seen by those on the verandah.
"Hey, honey," called out the good woman as they approached, "but who are yer? What, Mrs. Marsden, from Bolwarra. I was afeard ye might be along, but hey, whaur's your man?"
The tears came into Dolly's eyes as she thought of Roger. What would she not have given to have had him by her side.
"He—He went over to Crafer's," she answered.
"To Crafers? Why, but I seed him myself last night."
"He went this morning," said Ruth.
"This morning! Lord sakes! He never leaved ye this morning. Why, the wind were blowin' such a hurricane as never was."
"It wasn't so bad when he left," protested Dolly, "and I never dreamt of such a fire as this. Last year the brushwood was burnt, but it didn't do much harm else. He said he'd be home at 7 to-night, and now," fairly breaking down, "there won't be any home for him to come to."
"Lord sakes! Lord sakes!" muttered Mrs. Mitchell, looking at Ruth. "The innocents ye are—to leave ye with a north wind a blowing like this. Ye'll be Mrs. Marsden's sister now? Ay, I've heard tell of ye. But come in, come in, an' give the babby a sup o' milk. He's greetin', poor thing. God knows how long we can stop here."
"But Mrs. Mitchell, where's your husband?"
"Down Warrnambool way hoein' 'taters. Last week he went. We can no live by the selection alone ye see—but adeary me"—going to the door and looking out at the drifting smoke, "I dunno can we save the house wi'out 'im. Johnny ha' ye filled everything wi' watter—the pig bar'el an' all?"
"Yes, Mammy," said a bright little lad of twelve, setting down a heavy bucket full of water and leaning against the door-post while he wiped the heat drops from his forehead; "yes, Mammy, there ain't nothen left 'cept the cups, and them ain't no good. What shall we do now?"
Ruth glanced round her quickly.
Some sheds at short distances one from the other stretched from the house to very nearly the edge of the clearing. They were used evidently as stables, cow-byres, and pigsties.
"Do you think we can stay here Mrs. Mitchell?" Ruth asked. "Hadn't we better go while we can?"
"Well, I dunno," said the good woman, "it's the only home we's got. I'd like well to save it if I could, an' we're four full grown women, not to count the children. The clearin's all planted wi' 'taters, too," she went on, looking round at the neat furrows. "Green 'taters can't burn. We's stop as long as we can."
"Very well; we'll help all we can. But the children; they are such mites."
"Oh, they're helpful," said the mother. "Clary's thirteen, and Johnny he's handy, an' Sam he's good, but he's hurted his foot, an' maun just mind the little ones. The babby—she's but three months old. But what can we do, though?"
"Let's pull down those sheds; the bark roofs will burn like anything if we leave them standing. But what shall we do with the little ones, Dolly?"
Dolly had been sitting with her baby on her lap, watching her sister with eager eyes.
"Yes, yes," she said, "I'll put baby among the potatoes."
The two mothers ran out of the house, and Dolly, folding the blanket close around her boy laid him down in a potato furrow so that the bending green leaves might shelter him somewhat. Mrs. Mitchell put her three-months old baby beside him, and a tiny girl of two years, who had no shoes on and who clung terrified to her mother's skirts, was set down and told to "be good now and mind baby," while Sam, a pretty, delicate boy of eight or nine, who had hurt his foot and could hardly walk, was told to mind the lot.
Then the women and the rest of the children set to work with might and main to pull down the outbuildings; even a little boy of five, who had lost his hat and who only had on a shirt and a pair of trousers, helped with the rest. It was hard work—work they were none of them accustomed to—and in their hurry they had no time to look for tools, and though all worked with a will there was no method in it, and they did not progress very fast. The smoke, too, was thicker than ever, and made their eyes smart and water. Just overhead, close at hand almost, it seemed, hung the sun, a round blood-red ball, which they could look at easily with the naked eye, and the children kept crying—
"The moon, the funny moon, mammy, do look at the moon."
They worked on steadily for what seemed like hours till the first shed was level with the ground, and then Ruth suddenly raising her eyes saw the lurid glow of the flames through the smoke and brushwood. They would be right down on the little clearing in a very few minutes. She dropped the axe she had been using and pointing with her finger called—
"Mrs Mitchell, Mrs. Mitchell, look! look!"
"Children, children," called the good woman, wringing her hands, "leave the sheds. We mun save the house," and they all made for the house, which was very nearly in the centre of the clearing.
"Johnny," cried his mother, "you get on the roof, and we's hand you up wet blankets an' sacks."
Like all Australian cottages, the house was one-story and the roof very low, so that the boy had no difficulty in obeying his mother, who, having dragged out the kitchen table, stood on it, handing him up buckets of water and blankets, while the other three women with the children went backwards and forwards to the waterhole bringing water in every available vessel, from the biggest wash-tub to the tin dipper.
The forest behind them was in flames now, the smoke was stifling, and the heat unbearable, while the strong north wind bore before it great burning branches and sheets of bark. The outhouses were on fire, and the fence was a ring of flame; still the little band worked on. Mrs. Mitchell was a stern, hard-featured woman of five-and-thirty, who looked considerably older than her years, and her children evidently believed in her, and worked well under her guidance.
"Johnny, my lad," she said, "it's wet the roof ain't it?"
"Fine an' wet," he answered. "I think we'll save it yet, but the sheds is all afire, an' it's comin' quite close."
"Never heed the sheds if we can save the house," she said. "An' we'll do it, we'll do it."
The workers themselves were wet through, and safe therefore from the flying sparks and Ruth was just beginning to think they might really succeed, when a cry from the eldest girl startled her.
"Mammy! Mammy! it's aglow on the other side. The lean-to's caught."
"No, no," cried the poor woman sharply. "No, no. Oh, God! oh, God! It's the third time I've been burnt out. Not this time, Lord. Not this time."
The boy slid down off the roof just as the flames burst out on the other side, and above the roaring of the bush fire they could plainly distinguish the crackling of the weatherboards, and knew their efforts had been in vain.
Clara called out again that it was "aglow inside," and the poor woman threw one more despairing look at her home.
"We's run now for our lives," she said, and they turned and ran to where they had left the children. The babies were crying in the furrow, while the two elder ones were crouching under the potato plants for shelter from the fierce heat, which was almost unbearable.
"We can't stay here," said Dolly, snatching up her child: "the waterhole—let's get into the waterhole."
Mrs. Mitchell shook her head.
"It's five-foot," she said, "wez'd be drowned. We mun run through the forest."
"But—but it's all on fire."
"No matter, we can't stan' here to be roasted alive. We's wet oursels in the watter, an' there's a clearin' four times this size about a mile away. Here, Sam, you get on Mammy's back," and she stooped to let the lame boy climb up. "Clary, you carry the babby—an'—an'——"
"Gretchen, you must carry the little girl," said Ruth, "I'll take Billy, here," and she caught the bare-footed boy of five and dipped him in the waterhole, "and Johnny must take his brother's hand, and keep close with us, else he'll be lost in the smoke."
"God bless you, Miss," said the woman gratefully as she saw her children disposed of among them, "what should I ha' done wi'out ye this day?"
They fairly raced across the little paddock, and in less than three minutes after the house had caught they were ready to start on their perilous journey through the forest, and Ruth called on Mrs. Mitchell to lead the way. The house was now one mass of flames. It seemed certain death to stay where they were, for even the potato plants were shrivelling up fast, while behind them the forest was one lurid mass of flames from the scrub and undergrowth to the tops of the tallest trees, but ahead as yet only the tops of the trees were on fire, and their hope lay in reaching the clearing before the scrub was impassable. There was not a moment to be lost, as they stepped over the charred and smouldering remains of the post-and-rail fence. Billy Ruth picked up in her arms, but poor little Tom, clinging tight hold of his elder brother's hand, and being dragged on despairingly cried out pitifully as the burning coals touched his bare feet.
"Keep close, Johnny," implored Ruth, fearing lest the children should get lost in the smoke, "Tom, take hold of my dress."
Bravely Mrs. Mitchell led the way; straight on she went, heedless of the dense smoke and the burning leaves and pieces of bark that every now and then fell on her. Luckily the little lad on her back had his wits about him, and swept them off or extinguished them in his hard little hands. Next to her came Gretchen plodding on as stolidly and as calmly as if running for her life with a heavy child on her back was an everyday occurrence with her; and behind her came Clara, frightened, but quiet, and guarding her little charge with the tenderest care; Dolly followed and last of all came Ruth, sometimes carrying Billy, and then when her strength gave out setting him down to run beside her while she gave a helping hand to poor little Tommy, who, very little older than the other child, found his way impeded by the sharp stones and rough logs. If she had had time she would have torn up her skirt or a piece of blanket to bind up the poor little bare feet; but there was no time, for now every dry twig and piece of bark kept bursting into flame, so she could only help on first one and then the other and implore Johnny to hold tight to his brother's hand. Once or twice Dolly in her anxiety looked round, but her sister waved her on.
"Go on, go on," she cried. "You can't help us. We're all right; go on. There's no time to spare."
And, indeed, there was not, for already the fire was roaring overhead—already her ulster was full of smouldering holes, and the boys shirts were nearly burnt off their backs, and she kept putting the fire out and dragging them on with encouraging words. It was barely a twenty minutes' run to the little clearing, but to her it seemed hours and hours. She thought they never could reach it. All her life pissed before her. She thought of herself and her sister, two lonely little girls clinging to one another; of their life at Kooringa; of Dolly's marriage; of Maitland, of her engagement; of her perplexities and sorrows, and wondered if after all she would not be better dead, and out of it all. But not—oh, not such a cruel death as this. She must get out of it, she would; and she picked up again the smallest boy, who was beginning to flag, and implored the other two not to give up yet.
"Such a little way now, boys; such a little way."
Yes, such a little way, but could they do it? All the birds seemed to have left the forest long ago, but lizards and snakes glided past them, rabbits scuttered away through the fern, and dingoes and wallabies fled before the advancing flames, and paid no heed to their human companions in the race for life. At last, just as she begun to feel that she could stand no more, that the smoke was overpowering her and the heavy weight dragging her down, the whole party emerged on a little plain covered with long yellow grass dry as tinder now in the middle of summer. It was nearly two acres in extent, and they made for the centre so as to be as far away as possible from burning branches and falling trees, and Ruth, gathering up the last remnants of her strength, put her arms round both little boys, and more than half carried them up to their brothers and sisters. Then she sank exhausted beside them, feeling that, not to save her own life, no, nor her sister's, which was twenty times dearer, could she have gone a step farther.
"Mrs. Mitchell," asked Dolly, vainly trying to hush her child, who was crying pitifully, "are we safe here do you think?"
"I dunno," said the woman, raising her head and looking round. "I dunno. The wind's that high an' the smoke's smotherin'."
The fire was making headway fast now; the ground felt scorching beneath their feet, and the air was filled with burning leaves and great sheets of bark which were borne aloft on the fierce wind, and which, falling all around them, set alight not only to the crisp grass, but to their clothes as well.
"The grass'll be alight in a minute all over," said Mrs. Mitchell hopelessly. "God help us!—we mun die."
Ruth looked up hopelessly. Dolly had flung herself on the ground with her baby fast clasped to her breast and her head on her sister's knee.
"Oh Roger, Roger," she heard her moaning. "My Roger, you'll never see your baby again. Oh, my Roger——"
The howling of the wind and the roaring of the flames made an infernal din, and every now and then, through the smothering smoke, they could see the great trees, veritable pillars of flame, falling with a terrible crash. The grass on the plain was luckily scanty, but it was burning in patches already.
"Surely we're safe now," said Ruth, grasping her sister's hand, "surely?"
"The grass is catchin'."
"But—but—couldn't we burn it in front of us like people do?"
"I dunno," said the woman wearily. "I reckon if we had a man amongst us we might. But we're done—Eh! my man, my man! but I'll never see ye more;" and Ruth, looking up, saw the tears streaming down her hard face as she rocked herself to and fro with the two youngest children clasped close in her arms.
The others seeing their mother give way, raised a pitiful wail, and the girl felt that now indeed was her last hope gone. Closer she bent over her sister, put her lips down to the dear face she had loved so tenderly all her life, and prayed with all her heart that the smoke might be merciful, and they feel no pain. It was such a terrible death—such a terrible death, such a ghastly horrible death.
"God help us," she sobbed, "God help us! God be merciful to us! If only——"
What was that? Surely it was a man's voice shouting, and surely that was the galloping of a horse, heard even above the crackling of the flames and the roar of the tempest.
Ruth started to her feet.
"We're saved! We're saved! They're coming to help us!" she cried wildly, as bursting through the ring of flame at the southernmost end of the plain came two men urging forward their frightened horses with whip and spur. They saw the women and children at once in spite of the dense smoke and made straight for them. A moment more they were beside them, and Ruth could hardly repress a cry, for the man who sprang from his horse close beside her, put his hand on her arm, and peered down anxiously into her face was the man she had thought never to see again; the man she had parted from with such bitterness and heart-breaking on Dolly's wedding day—this very day two years ago.
"Is it you?—is it you?" she cried, "or am I dead? Or dreaming?"
"My darling," he muttered, "I have come in time."
But Dolly knew him at once. She had no doubts as to his identity.
"Mr. Maitland, Mr. Maitland," she sobbed, "you will help us, you will save us now!"
"Yes, yes. Come on, Hardy," he said to the other man whom they did not know; "we haven't a moment to lose."
It was all done so quickly. The women held the horses, and the two men proceeded to set alight to the grass south of where they stood. Systematically they did it, as the women might easily have done if they had not been so frightened and worn out, and soon all the southern end of the plain was one mass of flame, driven before the high north wind, while the smoke was more stifling than ever.
Help had not come a moment too soon, for the northern end was now alight and swept down on them rapidly, and they retreated on to the patch they themselves had burned, which though hot and black and smoking, had by then burned itself out. The grass fire swept on till it met the burnt patch and then died out for want of fuel to feed it, and the rescued party found they had the little blackened plain for a refuge and were saved.
The hot black ground burnt their feet, the smoke nearly stifled them, but this little patch was an ark of refuge, and they were safe if the forest burned, as it promised to do all night. The fierce wind blew sheets of burning bark, branches, and leaves on to them, and it was only with care they kept the children's light clothes from catching. The men huddled them all together as far from the fire as possible, and Maitland, gently seating Ruth beside her sister, drew the blanket Dolly had round her boy over both their heads, while the little lads Ruth had brought through the burning bush crouched down beside them and buried their faces in their skirts. The others huddled up to them, hiding their faces as best they might, and Ruth felt Maitland close beside her, and his presence gave her courage to bear the cruel heat and the deadly weariness that was creeping over her. Hardy's horse had escaped, and was racing round and round the ring of fire like a thing demented, and Maitland at first had a desperate struggle to keep his own mare quiet, but at last he managed to soothe her, and stooped over Ruth. Dolly was crying quietly, her head on her sister's shoulder, and Maitland, handing over his horse to the other man, knelt down beside them to make his voice heard. His face was burnt and blackened by the nearness of the flames, and Ruth felt her own eyes fill with tears as she met his anxious gaze.
"You are not hurt?" he asked, anxiously.
She shook her head.
"Indeed no. Are we safe now?"
"But—but—you were only just in time."
"Oh, my God," he muttered; "only just in time."
"You came through the fire for us?"
"No, no. We started, Hardy and I, because I heard Marsden had gone to Crafer's and I knew you'd be alone; but we were too late. The fire was on us; we couldn't push through and Hardy knew of this place, so we made for it. I thought—I have been thinking——"
His voice failed, and Dolly raised her head.
"Oh, Mr. Maitland, you're making light of your share. Mr. Hardy told me you would go on till he said he knew we must be dead if we were at Bolwarra or Mrs. Mitchell's. Why your face is all burned——"
"Roger? Do you know——Will he be safe? He will, won't he?"
"Certainly—quite safe. Don't cry, Mrs. Marsden. Oh, don't cry, there's a good girl."
"I—I—can't help it. I'm the selfish one, I know. I haven't been able to think of anything but baby and not seeing Roger any more—and Ruth—she has worked for me and these children—and you—and you—and Mr. Hardy—to whom we are just nothing at all, have risked your lives to save us. Ruth, why don't you thank him? I can't."
Ruth put her hand in his for a moment, and her heart beat so madly she thought Dolly must hear.
He had risked his life for her—he would have given it willingly—she read it in the anxious passionate face bent over her, and she forgot everything in the one glad thought that he loved her still—after all these long weary months—he loved her still, and the pressure of her hand, the gladness in her eyes were all the thanks he needed.
The other man broke in on them.
"I think it's going to rain," he said.
Maitland rose to his feet and stamped out a piece of burning bark that had fallen close beside them.
"I am sure I wish it would," he said. "We're nearly roasted alive here."
"Oh, the worst is over now," said Hardy. "'Tis hot, to be sure, but the brushwood's burnin' itself out, and once the rain comes we'll be all right. We must just be patient; and, indeed, it's a miracle we're alive to tell the tale. Be good now, children, be good; 't ain't no good to cry. You'll come down to my place and get your teas as soon as the rain comes."
They were wonderfully good and patient, those little bush children, as they sat there on the ground leaning one against the other extinguishing the sparks which fell on them, and which as time went on grew fewer and fewer. Dolly's boy raised a pitiful wail every now and then that went to his mother's heart, and Mrs. Mitchell, hugging her baby close, was silently wiping the tears away. Poor thing, her husband was away, she had seven children, and had lost everything she possessed in the world.
"Don't cry, ma'am," said Hardy, with rough kindness, "'t might have been worse. See, the kids are all right, and the fire'll clear the land for you fine. We'll start off for my place soon as we can—it's not above three miles off, an' my old woman'll look after you."
"But are you sure it's all right?" asked Ruth. "Look at the fire. What could stop it?"
"Forty acres of 'taters, Miss," he said, "and the house right in the centre. Oh, we're all right. To be sure the fences have all gone, and that means a pot o' money; but Lord! I'm in luck compared to the rest."
"Is everyone burnt out?"
"Lord! yes. They've been runnin' in ever since seven this morning, mostly women an' children, for the men's all away harvestin'. We're not above a mile from the township, you know, and it's pretty well clear there, but there's not a house standing in the forest for miles round. I saw t'was n't a bit of good trying to stop the fire. It'll burn on till it reaches the sea."
"It was brave of you to come for us," said Ruth. "It was the bravest thing I ever heard of."
She dared not trust herself to speak to Maitland, but to this man she might safely pour out her gratitude.
"Woa, mare, woa then. The devil fly away with you! 'Twas only a spark, an' you've seen plenty of them to-day. Indeed, Miss, you haven't much to thank me for. I was just dodgin' about helpin' the women an' kids, when one comes along wringin' hands and sayin' the Mitchells was farthest out and 'ud be burnt, and then Mr. Maitland come and says quite sharp like, 'What about Marsden, of Bolwarra—anyone seen anything of them!' I remembered then I'd seen your man ridin' through the township quite early before things began to look bad, and——"
"Like a jolly good fellow, Miss Grant," said Maitland; "he just turned and rode with me to your help."
"Well, I don't know," said the man, "I would n't ha' been any good much by mysel', I'd ha' turned back long ago. But Mr. Maitland, he kep on till his hair an' his clothes was afire an' then it was too late. I'm mighty dry I know. I wish that storm'd hurry up."
"It's coming, it's coming," said Maitland, "but it's weary work waiting."
It was weary work waiting, only the knowledge that they were safe kept them up. Maitland stooped over them now and again, and his touch and his presence brought Ruth such comfort and such happiness she could have sat there quietly supporting her sister for hours, wilfully shutting her eyes to the future. Why should she want the time to pass? To-day the man she loved was close beside her, tenderly guarding her, her more than friend, her saviour—the old barrier was still between them—to-morrow—to-night even—they must part. Why should she wish the time to pass?
And so the afternoon stole slowly on—the hot burning afternoon—the heavy smoke lightened a little, and the furious wind gradually subsided. Four o'clock—five o'clock—six o'clock—the clouds had been gathering steadily, and now there came a vivid flash of lightning and a deafening clap of thunder—another and another—and then there followed a perfect deluge of tropical rain which hissed as it fell on the red-hot forest. The two men raised a shout they might hope to get away now—and Dolly awakening Ruth tried to raise her to her feet. But she was stiff and cramped, and would have fallen but for Maitland's sustaining arm.
"You are tired," he said gently, "and cramped. You must let me help you. We shall get away now. Mrs. Marsden," he added, "you must come down to my house. I left word for Marsden I'd bring you there. Hardy says he and Cuningham, the blacksmith, can manage for Mrs. Mitchell between them."
"Thank you," said Dolly, wearily, trying to hush her fretful child. "When can we go? The fire must be out now. I'm wet through already."
"Is it far?" asked Ruth.
"A little over three miles. And you are worn out," he added.
"No, no. I was thinking of the little children. That poor little chap's feet are so terribly cut and burnt."
"He shall ride, shan't you, old man? Hallo Hardy, where's your horse? I saw him a moment ago."
"Made clean tracks the brute, at the first flash. He's gone in the direction of home, though. You put up Tommy and the little girl. Oh, no, by Jove! that won't do. Here's Sam here with a bad foot too. Put them two up an' we must hump the little ones amongst us somehow. Here, I'll take the little chap, and lead the way. And, I say, look out for falling branches an' trees. 'T'aint no joke, I can tell you."
The storm still continued and the rain was pelting down when they started on their journey. All round them the trees were falling and branches were snapping off, but they felt they could wait no longer, they must risk something. Weary as they were, their progress was necessarily slow, but they had hardly gone a mile in the pouring rain when they heard a loud cooey ringing through the forest. Hardy put his fingers in his mouth and sent back a shrill reply, and there came bursting through the blackened forest Marsden and Cuningham, the blacksmith, who, it appeared, was some distant connection of Mrs. Mitchell.
The latter was loud in his congratulations, but Roger said hardly a word. He put his arm round his tired wife and lifted the heavy boy from her arms, while the blacksmith undertook to lead the horse, and thus set Maitland free to help Ruth, who was drooping under the weight of Mrs. Mitchell's little girl.
He took the child, and drew the girl's hand through his arm.
"You must let me help you, just this once," he said, "only this once."
"You are tired," she said, "and Polly is so heavy."
"I am not tired, and Polly is not heavy. Won't you let me help you?"
And they walked on silently through the blackened forest, and the rain poured down in torrents. The little girl put her arms round his neck and rested her cheek against his.
"I does love you," she said. "You putted out the fire, an' didn't let it burn Polly."
He laughed a little.
"There," he said, "there, you see I have my reward."
Ruth would have said something, but a sob choked her, and Maitland drew her a little closer to him.
"Hush, dear," he might have been speaking to the child, "my reward is very great—all I would ask. Bear up a little longer. Brave little girl—only another mile now."
Every now and again they heard the trees falling, and once or twice one fell just in front of Hardy, who was leading, but he just turned aside a little and went steadily on. The sooner they were out of it the better. Cuningham volubly related how Marsden had come riding back from "Crafer's" "like mad," and wanted to push his way through the fire, and how he, Cuningham, and Wilson, of the Shearers' Arms had stopped him and assured him that Hardy and Mr. Maitland had gone already—and if they couldn't help them mortal man couldn't, and now when the storm gathered he would wait no longer, and he (Cuningham) had come with him because he really never had thought to see any of them alive again.
They were plainly visible now, the glimmering lights of the town that seemed to stretch out friendly arms to welcome them. Was it the rain or the tears in her own eyes that made those lights so unsteady? Strangely her thoughts went back to that winter's night, her first night at Kooringa, when she had looked out on the lights through the pouring rain. It had been her first step in the unknown world. Would she go back and wipe out all those months with their few joys and their great sorrow—would she if she could—and be again the innocent girl who had looked out drearily at the light gleaming through the winter's rain? Would she? And then with a great rush of pride and gladness she knew she would not—she knew she was proud and glad because the man beside her had risked his life for them—wildly glad when she thought that this had been done for love of her. Wrong, very wrong, cruelly wrong; but she thought not of that, as they emerged on the main road and the glimmering lights were close at hand.
The blacksmith put his hands close to his mouth and raised another loud cooey, which was answered by shouts and the sound of many hurrying feet. Men and women rushed out into the rain—questioning, pitying, congratulating—and offers of shelter came from all sides.
"It's all right, it's all right," cried Maitland, raising his voice. "Mr. Marsden's people are all coming down to my house. But will any of you help Mrs. Mitchell and her little children?"
"That's all right," said Hardy, "we've arranged all that. Hand over the little girl to Fred here—he'll carry her down to my place, and you let us have your mare for the boys and I'll send her up by an' by. Good night, Mr. Maitland, we've done a hard day's work together, haven't we?"
"Good night mate," said Maitland, handing over the sleeping child to a lad of 16, Hardy's eldest son. "We've succeeded too, that's best, and I'll never forget how you stood by me."
"Cheer up, Mrs. Marsden. It's only a step now. Where's your servant? Come along. My housekeeper 'll look after you."
"Mag 'll be pretty glad to get out," said Gretchen stolidly; "he's been in my pocket all day. I wonder he ain't smothered."
The magpie gave an assenting croak so opportunely that it made Dolly laugh—a laugh that ended in a sob, and Marsden turned and put his hand on Maitland's arm.
"I owe you more than ever I can pay," he said. "How can I thank you?"
"You needn't, old man! you needn't. I assure you I went because—because Hardy went. Any one of the men here would have done the same. Come on, old chap, your wife is worn out and there's my house over there. See the lights in the window to welcome you. I told my housekeeper to expect you, but I thought we'd be here hours ago. And it's getting quite chilly with all this rain."
Maitland's housekeeper, a decent-looking old body, opened the door at the sound of their voices.
The house was small, only a weatherboard cottage like the one they had left that morning, and very plainly furnished; but to the two tired, weary women the little white-curtained bedroom seemed a very haven of rest.
Mrs. Baker showed them into the room and then disappeared, and returned again bearing two glasses of wine.
"Mr. Maitland sent it," she said. "It'll do ye a world of good. Ye can have some tea after."
"Thank you," said Ruth.
"Oh, Ruth, Ruth," sighed Dolly, when the woman had gone, "what are we to do?"
"We must be brave, dear; we have been so fortunate."
"But we have no clothes?"
It certainly was a problem that had to be faced. Their hats were fit only for the dust-heap, their boots were so much charred leather; their heavy ulsters, burnt into holes as they were, had protected in some measure their light cotton dresses; but everything they had on was blackened from contact with the blackened ground; and as for their faces, not even the pouring rain had cooled them after their long exposure to the heat.
"Oh, I'm more thankful than I can say," said Dolly. "It's a little thing to make a fuss over, but what shall we do?"
Then just as they were ruefully contemplating their dilapidated garments there was a knock at the door, and Mrs. Baker reappeared with a bundle under her arm.
"Mr. Maitland went over to Mrs. Scott, the banker's wife," she said, "an' she's sent you over some things with her love, an' she's so sorry. She'd like to come over, but Mr. Maitland said best not, ye was that tired. An' now, as soon as ye're ready, there's supper in the dining-room."
"How good, how kind everybody is!" murmured Dolly, "and oh, Ruth, what should we have done without Mr. Maitland? And he thought of everything, too. Just fancy his thinking about clothes!"
Dolly was quite cheerful again, and a warm bath quite revived her. She had her husband and her child, and though her home was gone and everything in it, that was a misfortune she shared with half the dwellers in the forest. Indeed, she was a thousand times better off than they, for Marsden had some little money, and there was a small insurance on the house and furniture, besides Dolly's savings.
"How good of her," said Dolly, as she unpacked the bundle; "isn't she kind? She's sent us everything we could possibly want."
"Everyone is kind, I think," murmured Ruth faintly.
"Why, Ruth, how tired you look! You're much more done than I am. Go to bed, dear, and I'll bring you something to eat."
"No, no. I'll be all right. I'd rather sit up."
Dolly, looking at her anxiously, thought that the day's events had indeed shaken her sister. For herself, she was so relieved and happy it seemed only natural to talk, and she chattered on, content with monosyllabic replies, till they were both dressed. The dresses were somewhat loose, but they were very plainly made, hardly more than wrappers, and with the Indian scarves Mrs. Scott had thoughtfully sent tied round their waists, they looked rather picturesque when they entered the sitting-room where Maitland and Marsden were awaiting them. Their faces were still hot and burning, scorched with the fierce heat, but altogether they looked so different from the two sodden and bedraggled women who had entered the house that Maitland could not repress an exclamation.
"Yes, rather a difference, isn't it, Mr. Maitland?" And then, changing her tone and laying both her hands on his arm, "Oh, Roger, Roger, how are you going to thank this man? If it hadn't been for him you'd have had no wife and child to come home to."
"I know," said Marsden, "I—I——"
"Nonsense," said Maitland, gently pushing Dolly into a chair and drawing up another for Ruth. "Mrs. Marsden, I've been trying to explain ever since you left that it's nothing. I have only done what any other man in the place would have done—what other men have been doing all round. Hardy, for instance. He left wife and children to help—left his fences to burn—while I—if I had died there isn't a soul to whom it could matter."
"Hardy told me himself, though God knows I don't make light of his share, he never would have gone if it hadn't been for you."
"And how close it was," said Dolly, with a shudder. "Why, your eyebrows and eyelashes are all burnt off."
"Yes, I expect I am something of a show, but one breath of flame did that without really hurting me at all. And Marsden, after all, as I've told you again and again, it was all the merest chance. We only made for Hankey's clearing, when we'd given up all hope. Come now, here's Mrs. Baker with some dinner. It's nothing much, I'm afraid. The township has been in such a fever of excitement; it's difficult to get anything."
It was a very quiet meal. Ruth, though she had touched nothing since breakfast, felt as if each morsel would choke her, and neither could Maitland eat. Marsden had been so wild with anxiety all day long that he was content to sit and listen to his wife, who, having rung the changes from deepest despair to wildest happiness, was now graphically talking over again the story of the day from the time when Ruth had awakened her to the moment when Maitland had ridden to the rescue, and again she overwhelmed him with praises and thanks.
After they had finished Maitland asked them if they could manage for the night.
"It's only a humble little house, you know," he said. "I took the furniture from my predecessor just as it stood, and was somewhat astonished to find how largely it was made up of packing cases."
"The room we were in was very nice," said Dolly, "wasn't it, Ruth? Such dainty white dimity everywhere."
"Uh, that's Mrs. Baker; she's a great believer in the virtues of white curtains and covers up everything in them. Look at my chairs!—they've all got petticoats on."
"A delicate hint," said Dolly. "Mrs. Baker means you should get the house a mistress;" and then seeing with a woman's quickness she had said something wrong, she hastened to add, "and a piano too. Fancy an unmusical man like you with a piano!"
"Old Acheson, poor beggar, was, I believe, very musical. He drank, unluckily, and was stone broke when he left, so he begged me to take the piano at about a quarter its value. They tell me it's a very good one. I hope you'll feel equal to trying it to-morrow."
"Yes, indeed, we will," said Dolly, "and now, if you don't mind, I really think we ought to go to bed. Look at Ruth, she looks as if she really couldn't hold up her head."
Indeed she did look weary, but she did not at once agree with her sister.
"I—I must write a note first, please," she said to Maitland. She had remembered now, she had been remembering all the evening, her engagement to Finlayson, and the thought was a pain to her. She could not think of it calmly as she had done yesterday, with the man she had loved so passionately standing before her.
"A note," echoed Dolly, "why Ruth—oh, of course, Alick Finlayson, to be sure. Yes, do write, Ruth. He'll be wild with anxiety when he hears of the fire," and yet she looked curiously at Ruth. There was something wrong, she felt. Maitland was most evidently in love with her; she had noticed that with a woman's keen perception, even in the midst of the bush fire; and Ruth—he had risked his life to save hers—what would Ruth do?
With trembling hands Ruth scribbled a note to Finlayson, which Maitland stamped and promised to post before he went to bed.
"I hope you will be comfortable," he said. "Mrs. Baker has done her best."
Then he wished Dolly good night. Ruth came last, and he held her hand a moment without saying a word.
She tried to say "Good night," but the words would not come, and the tears would force their way between her down-dropt eyelids.
Dolly had drawn Roger away, so for the moment they were alone, and he bent down and kissed her hand.
But Mrs. Baker came up.
"I'll take care of Miss Grant, sir. Mrs. Marsden's got her husband and her baby, an' she's that thankful she don't want nothin' else; but this young lady's just wore out, ain't you, Miss?"
Once safe in their room Dolly turned to her husband—
"Oh, Roger, Roger, what is to be the end? Dick Maitland's awfully in love with Ruth?"
"Yes, of course, he always was; I told you that long ago. They tell me he rode off like one demented this morning. However, she's engaged to Alick Finlayson, and he's a jolly good fellow, too; so Maitland's clean out of it."
"Well, but Roger—I must tell someone—I believe she's in love with Dick Maitland."
"What the ——. Phew, poor old Alick! He wouldn't have a chance against him, and after he's saved her life too. In love with him? By Jove, I never thought of that, and more unlikely things have happened."
In love with him! Once she had got rid of Mrs. Baker, which was not till that good woman had seen her safe tucked up in bed, Ruth sat up again and tried to think it out calmly. In love with him—the very sound of his voice, the touch of his hand set her heart beating. And Alick Finlayson had never done that—Alick—so good—so kind—who trusted her so entirely—who had been her friend and companion for the last two years—her comforter in her loneliness. She pitied him with the pity that is not akin to love—she was sorry—but another face stood between them—the love she thought she had banished rose up stronger, more passionate than ever. He was hers, hers, hers—and she rejoiced over it. What though he was the husband of another woman—his wife was nothing to him—he never even saw her. Surely there was little harm in loving him. He had kept away bravely, and not till her utmost need did he come to her, and then he had come at the risk of his own life. What should she do? Before her the outlook looked cruelly hopeless. How could she marry Alick Finlayson when her heart was full of another man—when his face, his eyes, his very tones haunted her—when she could even rejoice over the hardships and dangers that had brought them together again? Marry Alick! No, no, a thousand times no; it would be doing him a cruel wrong. Whatever her life might be she must not marry Alick Finlayson, and she almost hated him that he had bound her to him. She tried vainly to plan out her life anew—to remember that save for a bare pittance she had nothing but the few trinkets she had put in her pocket as they left the doomed house. She could not marry the man who loved her. She could not go back to Kooringa. Between her and the man she loved was a barrier stern and inexorable. What should she do? What could she do?
She tried to decide something—the sooner it was decided the better—but her head ached; every bone in her body ached with weariness, and her mind could grasp nothing beyond the one glad fact she loved and was beloved. Toss and turn she did, but no sleep came to her tired eyes. Over and over again she thought out the incidents of the day, and she longed for the morning—the morning when she might make her plans afresh—might break her engagement, and be once more a free woman. The ring Alick Finlayson had given her was still on her finger, and she drew it off and laid it on the little table beside her bed. Why should she wear his ring? What right had he to expect it of her? How she longed for the morning. She had written briefly enough telling him of the fire, but to-morrow she would write a very different letter. To-morrow she would see Dick Maitland again—she wanted nothing more—she did not want to look beyond. How slowly the time went. One—two—three—the clock in the sitting-room tolled the hours and yet she could not sleep. She would be ill she felt if this went on, and then at last, just as the early summer's dawn began to peep through Mrs. Baker's clean white dimity curtains, she fell into a troubled sleep, and dreamt that she was running away from a devouring fire, toiling through the bush with heavy leaden feet. She felt the hot breath of the flames on her cheek. She tried to cry out, and then, lo, it had overtaken her, and it was not a fire, but Dick Maitland holding her in his arms as he had done on Dolly's wedding day, and whispering "My darling, my darling, my darling."
In the morning she awoke unrefreshed, and all the exultation had gone out of her love dream.
She loved Maitland; that was true, unalterable. He loved her; he had saved her life, but—oh, those cruel "buts"—what now? Her very love only made her wretched, and she sat down and brushed out her hair and listened to Dolly's cheerful singing as she washed and dressed her baby in the next room—all sounds are so plainly heard throughout a wooden house—and she heard Roger greet Maitland cheerily and remark that it was raining as if it wanted to make up for lost time.
"Not a bad thing," said Maitland's voice, and she noticed it lacked the cheery ring of her brother's. "It will make the grass grow and give you poor burnt-out people a chance."
"Oh, it's the very best thing in the world for me," said Roger. "Anyhow, the fire must have done a lot towards clearing the land. I must get it refenced, and call for tenders to build again. I'm afraid most of the stock's gone—poor wretches—and it'll come frightfully hard on the poor homeless ones."
"They started a subscription in the township last night," said Maitland. "I expect they'll do it all over the colony. People are never backward in helping."
"By jove!" said Roger. "I'm sure I've found that already. I say, old man, though, you look pretty chippy. Anything wrong?"
"No, no; what should there be? I want my breakfast, I expect. How's your wife this morning? Has she got over her fright?"
"Right as a bank. Dick, old man, I can never——"
"Oh, shut up, Marsden; if you want to be kind do let that subject drop, or pour out your thanks on Hardy. He deserves 'em; I don't."
"But, old man, you don't seem to realise what you've done for me. Well, well, I've done. Here, come back, I say, Maitland," went on Roger, half playfully, half to hide a deeper feeling. "Upon my word, I believe there's something wrong with you. You're as touchy as a bear with a sore head. The old easy-going Dick's vanished into thin air. Why, bless my soul, you're getting quite grey, and you're younger than I am. Now you had a hard day yesterday—you want a wife to look after you—that's what you want. There's nothing like it to set a fellow up. Well, Dolly, so he does. What are you shaking your head at me like that for," for Dolly had entered behind their host and was making desperate efforts to induce her husband to change a subject which in her opinion verged on dangerous ground.
Even if he were in love with Ruth, and she with him, she was engaged to Dr. Finlayson, and while things were in that state, the less said about love and matrimony the better, thought worldly-wise, kindly Dolly.
"I'm sure I ought to feel flattered," she said, trying to redeem her husband's mistake, "but I'm quite ashamed at the way in which Roger thrusts matrimony down people's throats, in season and out of season. Marriage isn't a universal panacea, you silly husband of mine. Why, I know two or three people who I really believe would give all they possess to be unmarried again."
"Ah, that's a knot there's no untying," laughed Roger, and Dolly, quite convinced she had given the conversation a safe turn, looked round for her sister.
"Where's Ruth? I hope she's all right. Ah, there you are. But how tired you look, dear; just as if the night's rest hadn't done you a bit of good."
"I think I am a little bit tired still," said Ruth, who felt so languid and unhappy. She felt she must confess to something.
"Poor girl, you must just lie down all day and do nothing."
"Come and have some breakfast first," said Maitland. "Here are all Mrs. Baker's culinary efforts getting cold."
"And I call that last rather a cool proposition of yours, Dolly," said Roger, when they were seated, and he was busily employed buttering scones. "Are you aware you are calmly taking possession of another man's house and actually inviting Ruth to lie down and do nothing, when the very clothes you stand up in aren't your own!"
"Please, please," said Maitland, "do hold your tongue, Marsden, and let your wife and me do the talking. Mrs. Marsden's right; she know's that my house and everything in it is her's and her sister's, and if they like to invite you to stop—why, of course, I want my guests to be happy, and I suppose Mrs. Marsden wouldn't be happy without you."
"Having saved our lives you are bound to provide for us," laughed Dolly, but her eyes were full of tears.
"Joking apart," said Maitland seriously, "you know I should be delighted to have you under any circumstances. Think what a lonely life I lead, and what a pleasure it is to see you at the head of the table, instead of pouring out tea by myself and eating my solitary chop with a book propped up in front for company. Now you must stay really till your new house is ready. It's doing me a kindness—you know it is."
"In fact," said Roger, who by way of reaction after the anxiety of yesterday was in the wildest spirits, "he really is a most domestic beggar, Dolly. We must manage a wife for him somehow."
Maitland blushed painfully, even through the burn on his face, and Roger, seeing that blush reflected on Ruth's face, touched his wife's foot under the table, as much as to say he wouldn't give much for Finlayson's chances now, and Dolly asked hastily—
"And how long will it take to build the new house?"
"Well, if we've luck and can get the timber and roofing, about a fortnight. We can only afford a humble abode, and if it's to be burnt down periodically the humbler the better. I think I must ride over to-day and look about me a bit."
"Do be careful of falling trees," urged his wife.
"I'll be careful, but there's really not much danger now—not so much as there was last night. And you'd better pay a visit to the store and see if you can get old Christie to trust you for some clothes. Maitland's taken you two under his wing, so you can be idle all day if you like, eh, Ruth?"
Ruth smiled faintly.
"I'm not going to be idle," she said. "Dolly and I will set to work to make clothes again."
"So we'll all be hard at it again. Dick, what are you going to do?"
"I'm going down to the works to see what damage has been done. I hear all the timber has gone."
"What a day!" said Dolly, looking out of the window. "What a day! Could anything look more bleak and miserable?"
It was indeed wretched-looking enough outside. The rain came down in torrents, deluging the blackened hills which surrounded the township, and after the fierce heat of the day before the weather felt almost cold.
Once the men had gone, the women went out and bought calico and dress materials, and set to work again aided by the good natured banker's wife who, not only sent over her machine, but came herself, and helped and listened while Dolly told again the tale of their flight. Ruth sat and sewed in silence. She was wondering how she should write to Alick Finlayson. Break off her engagement she felt she must. How could she marry him? It would be a wrong to herself, a greater wrong to him. She must—she would do it to-day—and yet so careful is a woman of appearances, she put on his ring again lest Dolly, noticing its absence, should question her. But she would write to-day—she must write to-day. And having decided that question she felt more at her ease, and put off writing till the afternoon, but in the afternoon she found it no easier, and put it off till the evening.
And in the evening the men returned, Maitland silent and moody, and Marsden, full of his ride to Bolwarra, describing to them how utterly destroyed the place was, and yet how that the fire had cleared the land to such an extent that in the end he hardly expected to lose much.
Mrs. Scott come in cheerfully talkative. The fact that they had been together all day did not seem to have diminished her conversational powers, and she told Maitland she was just delighted to come over, the evenings were so long and dull when Arthur was away, and his holidays wouldn't be over for a fortnight yet.
"And then I'm so fond of music. You're going to sing to me, ar'n't you, Mrs. Marsden?"
"Oh, yes," said Dolly, "but my sister sings best, and we haven't either of us a scrap of music."
"Never mind. The things one remembers are always the nicest. They're the things you've thrown your heart into."
So Marsden and Dolly and Ruth sang, and Mrs. Scott and Maitland made the audience, the one loud in her praise, the other silent and abstracted. Sitting back in an arm-chair, staring at the ceiling, he hardly seemed conscious of what was going on.
"Now then, Ruth," said Roger, when they had sung a number of duets and trios, "you haven't sung alone yet. Give us something."
"What shall I sing?" asked Ruth.
"Oh, I don't know. Anything. That old song you used to sing. Some old cock wrote it. Shakespeare, I think."
"Shakespeare! Oh my husband! I suppose you're thinking of that thing of Praed's. Come on, Ruth."
"I can't," said Ruth hastily, "I've forgotten it."
"Forgotten it? You'll say you've forgotten your A B C next. Come on, I'll play your accompaniment."
There was no help for it. That song they would have or know the reason why, and the reason Ruth was not prepared to tell them.
Who does not know Praed's pathetic words—
"Why can I not forgo, forget,
That ever I loved thee, that ever we met,
There is not a single link or sign
To blend thy life in the world with mine.
"I know not the faces that thou hast loved,
I know not the places where thou has roved;
Thou art to me as a pleasant dream
Of a boat that floats on a distant stream.
"I would change life's spring for its roughest weather,
If we might hear the storm together.
I would change my hopes for half thy fears,
And sell my smiles for half thy tears."
The words seemed to have a special meaning for Ruth, and since she had to sing it she put her heart into it, and sang with a passion and tenderness she had not put into the other songs. Even Marsden and his wife wondered, and Mrs. Scott clapped her hands and cried—
"More, oh more! Surely that's not the end."
"All I ever heard," said Ruth, glad to turn her eyes from Maitland's fixed gaze. "It would be difficult to say any more after that. He or she, whichever it was, seem to have said all there was to be said on the subject."
"'She,' of course. No man ever gave himself away like that. But, good gracious, it's time I was thinking of going, it's getting late. It's only a short way across, but Mr. Maitland——"
"Oh, I'll take you home," said Marsden, and Dolly added—
"And I'll come too. The rain's stopped, and it's bright moonlight, and I should like a little walk after sitting sewing all day."
"You see," she said, when having deposited Mrs. Scott at the bank, she had her husband to herself again, "I'd like to give Ruth and Dick Maitland a chance. I'm sure she's in love with him. She never would have sung that song like that if she hadn't been, and I don't care how much they're in love, they can't say anything with you and me looking on."
"H'm, I don't like the looks of Maitland. He eats nothing, you see for yourself, and it seems to me he's drinking a great deal more than's good for him."
"That's only because Ruth's engaged to his friend," said Dolly, nodding her head sagely. "I shouldn't wonder if it was all right to-night. Oh, don't let's go in yet. It's such a lovely night. Come down the street a little, and tell me what you're going to do about the house."
And the two Dolly was scheming for.
After the others had left there was silence between them. Maitland sat up by the table and rested his head on his hand. He did not even venture to look at her now, and she, standing by the piano, softly touched the keys with her fingers.
"It's a very good piano," she said, when the silence between them had become unbearable.
"I'm so glad you like it. Won't you sing something more?"
The words were studied and cold, but she felt they were only so, because he dared not be more natural.
"Not to-night," she said closing the piano, and then she crossed over and stood before him with the table between them. "Mr. Maitland."
"Yes," but he never raised his eyes.
"Haven't you thought me very ungrateful?"
"The others have all thanked you, or tried to—while—I—I—have never said a word."
He rose to his feet and came and stood beside her.
It was her turn to drop her eyes now, for she simply dared not look at him.
"Don't you understand that—that—to save you was all I wanted. If you had died—oh, Ruth, if you had died!"
His tones were not cold now, and he took her hands in his and drew her towards him.
"Darling, are you glad to see me again? Did you sing that song for me, darling; did you?"
"I didn't want to sing it," faltered Ruth,
"But you did—you did. Oh, Ruth—my Ruth, how can I live without you?"
She was in his arms now, her head on his shoulder, and he kissed her lips, her eyes, her hair with a mad passion, before which she was helpless.
"You are going to marry Finlayson?" he said at last hoarsely, looking down at the slim white hand, on which glittered the hoop of diamonds.
"No." She drew herself out of his embrace, and sat down on one of the chairs, simply because she felt incapable of standing alone.
"But Marsden told me so."
"Yes, but I—I—can't marry him. I can't."
He walked up and down the room quickly, and at his heart was a great gladness. After all she loved him, loved him so well he dared not think of the temptation she was putting in his way.
"But he is a good fellow, such a good fellow," he found himself saying almost against his will. "No one knows what a good fellow Finlayson is. He would make you such a good husband."
"Do you think I don't know that?" she said, and immediately the tide turned with Maitland.
He might praise his friend. There was a certain nobility in his doing so. It was only his due. True—but he was paying that due at a terribly heavy price to himself, and it was intolerable that Ruth should see so clearly his rival's good points. Much as she loved him, it was evident she was thinking with pity of the man she was prepared to throw over, and he could not endure it.
"Oh, Ruth! Oh, my love! my love!" He flung himself down on his knees and buried his face on her lap. "If you knew what these two last days have been to me. Oh, Ruth! Help me, pity me a little. I wish I had died and ended it all, and you with me."
She put her arms round him and kissed him of her own free will.
"Poor Dick, my poor Dick. I can't help you, dear; I want help so much myself. I—I must go away. I can't stand this."
They were silent, each content to have the other so close, each knowing their bliss must needs be brief. Mrs. Baker was safe in the kitchen, three or four rooms off, but at any moment the others might come back.
"Dick," whispered Ruth, "have you been very unhappy these two years?"
"Unhappy?—oh, my darling! I have been so lonely, so wretched. But indeed, indeed, I have wanted you to be happy."
She stroked his hair, and turned his face that she might look into it. What beautiful eyes he had—beautiful still though the scorching flame had swept across his face, destroying for the time eyebrows, eyelashes, and moustache. He was painfully conscious of this, and would have hidden his face on her shoulder.
"Don't look at me," he said, "I'm all scorched up. Not fit to be looked at."
"And it was for me," she whispered with a rush of tenderness, "all for me, my dear one—it makes you doubly dear."
It almost vexed him, her tenderness.
"I could kill you," he said, suddenly rising to his feet and stamping passionately on the floor. "I could kill you. You sit there and take things so quietly. I want you, Ruth. You—you. My God! do you think I rode through flames to save you for another man? You belong to me now, body and soul, you are mine. Do you hear?" And he put his hands on her shoulders. "I shall not let you go."
"Hush, hush, oh, you mustn't," said Ruth, appalled at the storm she herself had roused. "You have no right."
"Right? Right? What better right can I have? Do you think I do not love you—shall not love you and care for you till the end of my life?"
"But I have a wife already, you would say," he said bitterly, "but she is no wife of mine. I have not even seen her for the last two years. You sent me away once, Ruth. It is my turn now. What is there binding in a pledge wrung out of a foolish boy by a designing woman? You shall——"
"Mr. Maitland," she implored, trying to free herself from his strong arms.
"You shall not go. I say you shall not. You belong to me now, darling, you are mine, mine, mine. You shall come. I shall take you away and keep you for ever and ever."
"Oh!" sobbed Ruth, frightened now, "let me go. Please let me go."
"No, darling, you——"
There were steps on the gravel outside, and Roger Marsden's voice loudly calling on them to let them in.
He strained her to his breast yet more closely in spite of her resistance, then released her just as they heard Mrs. Baker's heavy footstep coming down the passage, but before she could open the door Ruth had escaped to her own room.
"Such a lovely night," said Dolly entering. "Ruth, you ought—why, where's Ruth?"
"Gone to bed, I think," said Maitland. "She said she was very tired."
"Well, I call that mean to leave you all by yourself. However, I suppose it is getting late, and time for us all to say goodnight."
In the privacy of their own room Mrs. Marsden confided in her husband.
"I really don't understand it at all."
"Why Ruth and Mr. Maitland, of course. I went to her room just now, and I'm perfectly certain she ran in just as we knocked."
"I tell you what it is," said Marsden slowly, for he was fumbling with his collar, "I owe Maitland more than I can tell, more, a thousand times more, than I can ever repay, but if Ruth takes my advice——"
"Which she won't," said Dolly serenely.
"Oh, all right. But she'd better stick to Finlayson. He's the better man. Maitland, well, you should have seen the tots of whisky he took this evening after you'd gone. Quite enough to upset two men. It may be only passing—but Maitland was drinking all yesterday. It's no good shaking your head. I'm not a fool, and I know he was. I can't imagine Finlayson doing such a thing under any circumstances. And if he's going to do that sort of thing Ruth'd better be dead than married to him."
If the night before had been sleepless and wearisome to Ruth, this night was ten times worse. She had tried to put a brave face on before her sister, but once she was out of the way she gave herself up to her misery. What had she done? How came she to allow any man to speak to her as Maitland had spoken to her; and oh! why had he done it? How could she meet him again? What should she say—how look calmly and talk about the affairs of everyday life with Dolly's eyes upon her? If he had only been tender and kind, as he had been the night before; but he had frightened her with his rough love making, he had shamed her in her own eyes, and now there came to her a longing to get away—away somewhere where she should never see him again. If she could only go back to the peace and happiness—it looked to her now like peace and happiness—of the night before; if only Dolly had not gone out—if only. She took her sewing and stitched steadily. She would not even go to bed, she would not even try to sleep until she was utterly wearied out. So she sat down close to the candle, and as her needle flew through her fingers a definite plan shaped itself in her mind. She would not stay here—here in Maitland's house—as his guest. She would go away to-morrow—she would not even see him again if she could help herself, she was afraid of him, afraid of herself. In her fear she hardly knew whether she loved him or not; only this she knew, she did not want to see him again. She hardly gave a thought to Finlayson, so full was she of her own affairs, only she drew off his ring and laid it on the table beside her. She would send it back to him, she thought, to-morrow; she would write him a note and thank him for all his goodness to her, bidding him good-bye and telling him she could never be his wife. She did not think he would misjudge her, he would understand, and would know she had done the best she could.
And for herself, what could she do? She must think, for she would have to earn her living somehow. A governess? A companion? It was a dreary look-out, and she had heard that the supply was greater than the demand. And her resources were so slender. In the last two years she had managed to save £15, and in her pocket she had £2, besides the few clothes she had bought at the Tamba store. Seventeen pounds between her and destitution, and all her clothes to be bought out of it. She had some few trinkets that had belonged to her mother, she could sell them, and well perhaps she had better take the first situation that offered, even if it were only a servant's—a parlourmaid, she could be a good parlourmaid, and she stood up and surveyed herself in the glass with a dreary smile. Yes, she would be a parlourmaid till Dolly had a house of her own again, and then she would ask her to take her in and try and make some better arrangement, but from here she would go to-morrow. It would not cost her more than 30s. to get to Melbourne, 10s. would keep her till she could get the rest of her money; then she would buy clothes and do the best she could.
She began to move softly about, getting things ready. Not very much, either, but the day dawned before she was done. Then she opened her door very softly and stole into the sitting-room. It had been shut up all night, and felt close and hot. Maitland had forgotten the lamp, and it was now guttering out, filling the room with a strong smell of kerosene, and on the table was an empty whisky decanter and two tumblers.
Ruth turned down the lamp, drew up the blind, and seated herself at the writing table. It seemed easy enough to write now.
"Forgive me," she wrote, "forgive me if I have treated you badly, but I cannot be your wife. You must not think me ungrateful. I am very, very grateful for all your kindness and goodness to me; I should ill repay it by marrying you. Please be my friend; be my friend as you used to be. I have so few I can't afford to lose any, and you have been the friend of my life. I am bitterly grieved that I did not say 'no' when you asked me to marry you, but I was so lonely and so afraid of losing you, and now I have lost you indeed. Oh, my friend, think as kindly as you can of Ruth Grant."
She read it over and thought it but feebly expressed her feelings, but she felt it must do. Then she folded the letter and addressed the envelope, and carried it back to her room with her. Not till then did she undress, and, flinging herself down on the bed, slept soundly.
In the morning came the inevitable explanation with her sister.
"Dolly," said Ruth, "I want to tell you something."
"Yes, dear, what is it?"
Dolly had noticed the note addressed to Dr. Finlayson. It was clumsy, and had something in it, presumably the ring. So she had broken her engagement after all. It was all right then, she was going to marry Maitland, and she need not have disturbed herself as she had done last night. It was quite the proper thing to do.
"Oh, Dolly; nothing that it will please you to hear."
"Nonsense; I believe I can guess. It's nothing so very dreadful after all. Come now, you've broken your engagement with Dr. Finlayson, and that letter is to tell him so, isn't it? Isn't that it?"
"Well, dear, that's not so very wonderful. I've seen it coming,"
"Yes, but Dolly—dear, dear Dolly—you don't understand." Ruth stood up and tried to look her sister bravely in the face. "Don't you see dear, if I don't marry Dr. Finlayson—I—I—I mean—don't you know—I can't go back to Kooringa. I—they don't want me there. I am quite homeless."
"Good gracious me, Ruth, what nonsense you are talking. Homeless? Well, this place is good enough for me. In a fortnight or three weeks Roger'll get some sort of a house run up. It doesn't take long to run up a weatherboard cottage, and then, you know," and she gave her sister an affectionate hug, "I'm only too delighted to have my dear, dearest sister with me. Oh, Ruth, when we've always been such great friends to talk about being homeless."
"Dolly, Dolly, don't. If you had a home I'd only be too glad to stay, but—but—I can't stay here, I can't—I must go away, I'm going away to-day."
"But why? Where?" asked Dolly, still bewildered.
"To Melbourne, I think. I shall get a situation as governess. I haven't got enough to live on without. I can't be a burden on you?"
"Ruth, you're dreaming. What on earth can you mean by it? You won't be a burden on me. You've got your own money, and besides—you'll marry Dick Maitland."
"I shan't. I won't have my name coupled with Mr. Maitland's. I won't stay in his house an hour longer than I can help. I shall go up to town this very day."
"Oh, Ruth, how can you be so ungrateful when he saved your life at the risk of his own. I know you love him. What's the good of trying to hide it. It's—its horrid of you," sobbed Dolly, "cruel and wicked and ungrateful. I'm sure I don't know what I'm to say to Mr. Maitland. I shall just go and see if I can't find Roger, and see if he can't stop you."
And Dolly rose up indignantly and left the room.
A moment later the front door shut, and Ruth knew her sister had gone "to tell Roger."
Her sister's anger was rather good for Ruth than otherwise. If she had petted her, and coaxed her, and besought her to stay she might have yielded, but when she grew angry Ruth felt she had right on her side, and was more determined than ever. The coach which met the Melbourne tram at Colac left, she thought, at noon, but, to be quite sure, she interrogated Mrs. Baker on the subject.
"Well, as a rule, it is 12," was the reply, "but the fire put them out a bit, and they're going to start at a quarter-past 11 to-day."
The time was getting on. In another hour she must be gone and she sat down and wrote a loving little note to Dolly, begging her not to be angry, for she and her boy were the only things she had to love in the world. She forced herself to drink the tea and eat the toast and butter Mrs. Baker had brought, and then gathered together her scanty possessions. Surely woman never went out into the world with less. It still wanted some time till the coach started, so she began a little frock for Dolly's boy.
In the sitting-room Mrs. Baker was dusting energetically, so she brought her work to her bedroom and sat down by the open window which overlooked the front door. The dimity curtains hid her from view, but she could see out quite plainly.
A footstep made her start. Two men came along and stopped opposite the door. She dropped her work with a half-suppressed cry—for there, standing quite close to her, was Dick Maitland and her lover Alick Finlayson.
Her first impulse was to hide. To face those two—and together! No, it was more than she dared do to see Alick Finlayson alone even. No, when they were safe inside she should leave—and she put on her hat and caught up her gloves.
"Come in," said Maitland, opening the door. "Mrs. Baker, Mrs. Baker."
"Yes, sir," said the housekeeper, and then came the question Ruth was dreading.
"Where are the ladies? Tell the——"
"Oh, if you please, sir, Mrs. Marsden have gone out."
"But Miss Grant——"
"Oh, she? She've just gone too. I seed her mysel," said Mrs. Baker, much to Ruth's surprise and relief.
"Oh, well, I don't suppose they'll be long. Come in, Finlayson, and sit down. Mrs. Baker, bring some glasses."
"Not for me," said Finlayson.
"Oh, nonsense, you've had a tiring journey. Sit down, man, sit down, and have a nip."
The sitting-room was next her bedroom, and Ruth could hear as plainly as if she were in the same room. She had no wish to play eavesdropper, but what could she do? If she moved she betrayed her presence, and face them she dared not. She was conscious of a want of warmth in Maitland's manner; a certain forcedness in his geniality; and on Finlayson's side there was certainly constraint and stiffness as if he too was not quite comfortable in his old friend's company. For a moment or two there was silence between them. Mrs. Baker set down a tray with a certain amount of clatter, left the room, and then Ruth heard the clink of glasses.
"I told you," said Finlayson's voice, with some impatience in it, "I don't want it. I don't drink spirits. I don't drink anything so early in the day."
"Then I shall have to drink your share as well as my own. By Jove! You'd want a little something if you'd gone through what we have."
"You must have had a bad time—a shocking bad time. The country I passed through to-day was the abomination of desolation."
"You should have seen it on fire, man. You should have seen it in flames. By Jove! it was a grand sight. I can't imagine why you should have come, though. I don't see the good of appearing on the scene the day after the fair. All the fun's over."
There was a disagreeable tone in Maitland's voice which the unwilling listener could not fail to note, but the other man hardly seemed more friendly.
"I don't quite see how I was to know you were going to indulge in a fire. After all, I wasn't wanted. You did everything there was to be done; and, indeed, Maitland," he said, evidently trying to throw a little more graciousness into his tones, "I'm very grateful to you—very thankful indeed. I don't know how to thank you."
"Thank me? Why? What business is it of yours? Marsden was always more my friend than yours."
"I wasn't thinking of Marsden," said the other quietly. "I was thinking of his sister-in-law, Ruth Grant. I suppose I may be allowed to be grateful to you for having saved her life."
"Really there's not the least necessity." Maitland had had another glass of whisky, and it had made him more irritable than ever. "A fellow doesn't do that sort of thing for another man's benefit. Ruth Grant is a deuced pretty girl, and——"
"What the devil do you mean?" cried Finlayson starting to his feet.
"Mean, mean, what I say, of course," sneered Maitland. "She is a deuced pretty girl. Oh, yes, I heard all about it. Marsden gave me the full benefit of the information last night. How you were going to marry her—how she was going to marry you—how fond you were of each other—what a good thing it was—how pleased they were about it, &c. Oh, I know all about it, and I wish you joy of your bargain."
"You've been drinking," said Finlayson contemptuously, "or I'd kick you out of the house."
"My own house! Come, I like that. Things have come to a pretty pass. You always come the righteous man over me, but I've got the weather side of you now, old man."
Finlayson took up his hat.
"I'm going out," he said coldly. "I daresay I shall meet Mrs. Marsden and Miss Grant in the township."
"Oh, I have no doubt you will. But you've come too late, as I told you before. You ought to have been here the day before yesterday; then you could have gone to the rescue. It's a mighty nice thing, I can tell you, to have a pretty girl singing to you and adoring you."
"Adoring you? Pooh! Remember, I have the pleasure of Miss Grant's acquaintance, and I can pretty well judge of the amount of adoration she is likely to lavish on you."
"Oh, you can, can you, Dr. Finlayson? Well then let me tell you, it is me she loves. She will marry you, I dare say—it is expedient—but it is me—me she loves."
"You despicable hound, you could not be such a scoundrel as to make love to her—you—a married man."
"Married or not," said the other doggedly, "it is me she cares for, I tell you. I have only to hold up a finger and——"
Finlayson made a step forward, and then a step back, for there in the doorway stood the girl they had been quarrelling about, her face white with shame. Maitland had his back to her, but the look on his companion's face told him something was wrong. He turned clumsily, saw Ruth, and in his agitation caught hold of the table-cloth, bringing the tray full of glass to the floor with a crash. Not one of the three noticed it. Only Ruth stepped forward.
"You—you ought to have left me to die," she stammered. "I hate you—I hate you. You—you have no right—no right—I—Dr. Finlayson," she turned to him with hard dry eyes, "I wrote to you last night—you must try and forgive me."
Then she turned and left the room.
The two men stood there, too dumb-foundered to speak.
At length Finlayson picked up his hat and left the room. Maitland followed him into the passage. Finlayson looked him straight in the face.
"I shan't say what I think of you," he said.
Then he went out of the door and shut it in his companion's face leaving him a prey to bitter overwhelming remorse.
For himself Alick Finlayson felt the light had gone out of his life. The girl he had loved with all his heart, who had been everything to him for the last two years, was it possible—was it really possible, she cared for this man. He had once thought so, it was true—had been very jealous of him, but then, when he thought of his own passing fancy for Dolly Marsden, he remembered how quickly it had vanished away before his deep true love for her sister—surely Ruth's liking for Maitland must have been just such a passing fancy. It was passing. It was only of the imagination, he had already dreamt she loved him—and now—now—could Maitland's words be true? He had had too much to drink, it was true, but still there was sense in them. He posed as a hero—nay, the honest doctor gave him his due as he walked hastily away from the township up the blackened gully, from which every green thing had vanished—nay, he was a hero in very truth. None but a man with more than ordinary pluck, goaded on by a love deep and intense as his own, would have faced the danger.
And so he walked on and on, turning over in his mind the events of the morning, trying to piece together the broken fragments of his happiness. Broken? Oh, yes; it was all gone—his hopes, his happiness—and if Ruth Grant saw her life stretching out before her drearily, still more dreary and empty of happiness was his.
It was characteristic of him that he did not blame her—was only sorry for her, and thought pitifully it was hard she too should have made such shipwreck of her life. For himself he was hardly surprised, now the first shock was over. Much happiness had not come to him, he had never expected it, and it was only natural the cup should be dashed from his lips, but it was hard—cruelly hard—and then he looked around him and found he had wandered far from the township into the blackened forest.
Turning back, he quickened his pace, and found himself close to the township again. He must catch the coach, and he stepped out briskly till he reached the house, on the outskirts, when Dolly Marsden came running up and put her hand on his arm.
"Oh, doctor, doctor,"—she did not seem to be in the least surprised to see him—"I can't find Roger anywhere, and—and—Ruth—Ruth——"
"Well, what of Ruth?" he asked.
"She told me she would go away to-day—I don't know why—I really can't make out why—but go she will to Melbourne. She says she's going to earn her own living. I want to try and go and get Roger to stop her, and I can't find him anywhere, and Mr. Maitland is as cross as a bear. I do believe Roger's right; he's been drinking. When I asked him where she was he said I'd better ask you, and—and—oh dear, the coach started three quarters of an hour earlier and I never knew," Dolly ran on in a series of agitated gasps, that gave the doctor time to collect his ideas.
"To Melbourne, poor child," he said. "She has a perfect right to go if she pleases. Do you think she has any money?"
"About £10, I expect," said Dolly.
"And a few trinkets?"
"They're not of much value except her watch. And, oh, here's a letter she left for you. It's got your ring in it. I suppose she meant to post it and forgot, or did she know you were here."
"I'm afraid she hasn't thought much about me at all," said the doctor sadly, opening his letter and glancing down it. He put it in his pocket with a half sigh, and then turned to his companion.
"Don't fret, Mrs. Marsden. Your sister will be all right She's not a child and if she wants to earn her own living——"
"But—but—what's she breaking her engagement with you for—or—is it your fault," and Dolly turned fiercely on him.
"Certainly it isn't my fault," he said; and he spoke so sadly his listener pitied him for the first time. "She has broken her engagement simply because she doesn't love me enough, and that is fair, I suppose. Walk a little way with me, Mrs. Marsden, if you're not too hot."
Dolly was only too glad. Ruth's conduct had completely mystified her, and she was eager for a patient listener.
She began at the beginning. She told of the fire, their flight, their rescue, Maitland's devotion to Ruth, and she only pulled herself up short when she found herself launching out into a confession that she herself had wished success to Maitland's cause.
"Never mind, Mrs. Marsden," said her listener kindly as he saw her confusion. "I suppose it was only natural you should think it a fitting wind-up. Poetic justice that she should marry her deliverer."
"Why, yes," said Dolly, emboldened by his cool way of taking it. "He's just head over ears in love with her. I believe that's what's been the matter the last two days. He's been unhappy and eaten nothing and drank a good deal."
"You are quite right."
"But why should he be unhappy? That's what I can't understand."
"He can't get the girl he wants. It's a common complaint just now," said the doctor grimly.
"But why can't he? She's free now."
"Probably she didn't care enough about him."
"Oh, stuff! She must love one of you."
"I don't really see the necessity," murmured Finlayson. And Dolly went on,
"It's quite against nature, it really is. A woman must love somebody. If she didn't love the man she's engaged to, she'll love the man who saved her life. And you come and tell me she refused both of you?"
"Well, it looks like it."
They walked on some distance in silence, then Dolly without a word turned back, and the doctor silently turned with her.
"I'll tell you what," he said at last, "do you think you could trust me to look after her?"
"You?" said Dolly dubiously. "How could you?"
"Well, I can go up to town, find out where she is, keep an eye on her, and if she wants help, help her, as if I were her brother."
"It is very good of you," said Dolly faltering, "very good of you, but she mightn't like it."
"How is she to know? I shan't help her unless she wants help. I shan't let her know I'm anywhere about, but I'll see her settled in life before I go back."
"You can't spare the time," objected Dolly.
"McIlwraith, of Gaffer's Flat, is looking after my patients, and I've got a locum tenens going up for two months," he said, "so I may as well have a holiday." And Dolly guessed the truth, that hearing of the fire and Ruth's homelessness he had prepared to marry her at once, and had come down for that purpose. She stole a glance at his grave face, and then and there fell to pitying him from the bottom of her heart, but she did not agree to his proposition.
"I'll ask Roger," she said; "but you're sure she's all right?"
"All right," he assented; pulling himself up as he very nearly added, "much better there than here."
"And you won't come and have luncheon with us? I'm sure Mr.———"
"No, no. Good-by. I shall leave Tamba as soon as I can. There's no use in stopping here."
He shook hands and turned away, and Dolly looked after him as he went quickly up the street.
"Poor fellow, he really is a very fine fellow when you don't look at his ugly face. I wonder if Roger is right, and he would make the best husband after all. But to tell me Ruth refused Dick Maitland! It's impossible, simply impossible. She must love one of them, and it isn't Alick Finlayson." And Dolly turned into the house more puzzled than ever.
They are all alike, these little townships. They stand at four cross-roads, and the land is cleared for a mile or so—just cleared enough to make the place look desolate, and the houses are planted down at intervals along the three-chain road, which is wide and bare and offers no shelter from sun or wind or rain. There are no hedges, no trees, only the three-rail fence, with here and there a picket to protect a garden just struggling into existence, and right at the very corners are the bank, two public-houses, a general store, and a little lower down the blacksmith's shop.
Opposite the principal public-house, the Shearers' Arms, Cobb's coach was standing, the four horses were harnessed up, and the driver was taking his parting glass, all the idlers in the place looking on admiringly. Ruth, who had left Maitland's house and walked slowly up the street, went straight for it, wondering vaguely where Dolly could be that she had not yet returned; but short as the distance was, before she reached it she heard footsteps behind her, and a moment after Maitland was at her side.
He looked shamefaced and broken. The shock of her sudden appearance had gone far towards steadying him. But what shall bring back to us yesterday?—and to Ruth this man could never again be the hero who had come through the fire for her sake. For the moment all his heroism and daring were forgotten. She had learned there were two sides to his character, and the knowledge filled her with disgust and dismay. He might love her, but he had dragged her name down to the depths; he had scrupled not to avow her love for him, and with that avowal it had almost departed. It was no excuse to her that he had been drinking. That he should drink, the idol she had raised on such a pinnacle—oh, the feet of clay were very poor dross indeed, and she could not raise her eyes from them!
"Miss Grant—Ruth," he said at last, seeing she would not speak. "Where are you going?"
"To Melbourne," she said laconically; and he followed her eyes as she looked in the direction of the coach.
"No, no, for Heaven's sake don't do that. I'll go away—I'll do any thing—only for God's sake don't let me drive you away."
"You are not driving me away. I should have gone in any case," and her voice even to herself sounded even and cold.
"It was because of this morning. Forgive me. I was mad. If you only knew what it has been to me these last two days. To see you every day and know—And then Finlayson to come with his air of calm proprietorship. I was mad, I know. But, oh, Ruth! forgive me, don't go."
"You have made it necessary."
"But I'll go—I'll go."
"You may do as you please. I'm going to Melbourne to-day."
How cold and cruel her voice sounded! She felt it herself, and tried to be a little warmer.
"I must have gone in any case," she said. "Don't blame yourself. It is more my fault than yours."
She had reached the group round the coach now, and there was no chance for further conversation.
"At least, let me get your ticket," he urged, and then added in a lower tone. "It will look better."
What woman does not heed appearances, and Ruth let him open the coach door and see her comfortably seated. Then she handed him her purse and saw him enter the coach office, which was in the hotel. A minute or two later he returned and handed back the purse.
"It's all right now," he said in a monotonous heavy voice, "and the coachman has promised to look after you. There are only two other passengers inside, so you won't be crowded. Will you ever come back?"
"Never," she said wearily. "Surely I need not tell you that."
"Then before you go," he muttered, "forgive me. I know, nothing can blot out this morning. I was mad—I was drunk, if you will, but try and think as well as you can of me."
The abject misery in his face and voice touched her.
"I must go," she said gently. "I can't see you again. You see that, but all my life I will think only of the brave man who saved my life. Good-bye."
"God bless you," he muttered, and caught her hand. Then a man laid his hand on his shoulder with rough good nature.
"Come, mister, I say. You're blocking up the gangway," and Maitland stepped back and let him pass.
The other man followed, the coachman climbed to the box-seat, gathered up the reins, and they started off at full gallop down the road, and very soon had left the township behind.
Ruth leaned back and shut her eyes. There was nothing to see beyond the dreary fire-swept bush, but the two young fellows inside talked to each other despite the rattling of the coach, told tales of the fire, and leaned out of the windows to compare notes with the driver and the outside passengers. Then they passed beyond the limits of the fire.
At Colac she left the coach and made her way to the railway station, and found she had fully an hour to wait for the Melbourne train, so she went to the refreshment-room and forced herself to eat a little luncheon. She had a basin of soup, and when she took out her purse to pay for it found its contents intact. Dick Maitland had paid her coach fare then. In very truth, the sight of the slender little store had thoroughly upset the repentant man. The discovery made Ruth angry. What right had he to pity her? What right to imagine she stood in need of help? It was mean to lay her under an obligation—he, of all men. She would write to Dolly and enclose the money, saying it was a mistake, and thanking him for his kindness, and having arrived at that conclusion just as she left the train at Spencer-street, she felt comforted.
The next thing was to replenish her wardrobe and look for lodgings. It was already 5 o'clock, she could not do more that day. She had never been to town since she had first gone to Kooringa and the bustle of the crowded streets fairly frightened her. Ruth was thankful when she found herself in Moubray's shop.
They knew her there, and the shop-walker was all smiling attention, all interested sympathy when she told how they had been burnt out and she had come up to get a few things. She thought of the fortnight's hard work she and Dolly had wasted, and the calico that was not yet paid for, and told them quietly she was poor and her purchases must be of the simplest.
When they were concluded she bought a small bag to put them in, and then calling a cab set out for her lodgings. She had decided where to go. An old servant had invested her savings in the goodwill of a boarding-house in one of the terraces opposite the Exhibition, and there she decided to go. She had never seen Maria the cook since she had blossomed out into Miss Gates, but she had liked her as Maria, and she thought it would be nicer to have a familiar face about her. She rang the bell, and in due course the door was opened, and she was greeted first by a strong smell of dinner, and then by Miss Gates herself, an untidy, good-natured woman with a round red face.
"Bless us, bless us, who'd a' thought it. Come in, Miss Grant, come in."
Ruth explained her situation, and the good woman was loud in her lamentation.
Every blessed room in the house was let, every blessed room, till Easter next, except the small one next her own.
Ruth was so tired she felt unequal to going a step further. She sat down on the rickety hall chair, and inquired about the small room.
"P'raps you'd look at it," suggested Miss Gates.
When a Melbourne lodginghouse-keeper describes a room as small it is a certain sure sign it is not much bigger than an ordinary-sized packing case, but Ruth did not know this, and followed her whilom cook upstairs with the full intention of taking the room, but when the landlady opened the door with a dubious air and ushered her into a small cupboard with a window in it she felt somewhat dismayed. A narrow bed stood against one wall, just allowing the door to be opened at its foot, and an iron tripod in the opposite corner held a basin and jug. That was all the furniture, and Ruth looked more than doubtful.
She was still more dismayed when she heard that the rent of the room was a guinea a week, and the landlady, seeing this, hastened to say,
"But if you didn't mind having your meals in my little room, why I'd let you have it for 16 shilling a week, an' really, miss, I can't say no fairer than that."
Ruth run hastily over in her own mind her various expenses; they rose up like a cloud round her. She must save if she possibly could. She was very tired, too; still she hesitated. The idea of taking her meals in her old cook's sitting-room was repugnant to her, and her hesitation saved her another shilling.
"Well, s'pose we was to say 15s., seeing you're a lady, and not likely to give the same trouble as they dratted men, acomin' in an' out asingin' at the top of their voices, be it six in the mornin' or twelve at night."
Ruth assured Miss Gates she was not likely to indulge in vagaries of that sort, and so the bargain was struck, and she went down and dismissed her cabman and saw her scanty luggage brought upstairs.
That night she repented. She had never even pictured such discomfort to herself. At Kooringa things had been about as rough as they could be, but at least there had been plenty of space, and she had not been cooped up in a tiny room six by eight over the kitchen—she knew it was over the kitchen by the heat—the only alternative her old cook's sitting-room. The view was over dreary dull Carlton back-yards, in which hung out the family washing belonging to the various houses in the terrace. She had no books, no newspapers to distract her from her own sad thoughts, and she sat there all the evening stitching away industriously, brooding over the shipwreck she had made of her life.
At 11 without any warning the gas went out, leaving her in total darkness, and she pulled up her blind and undressed by the dim light of the stars. But though she was tired and weary, aching in every limb, sleep would not come. It seemed weeks since she had left Tamba, years and years since she had listened to Maitland and Finlayson. She was not so passionately angry, so bitterly ashamed now, it seemed so far away. She wondered a little if she had been cruel. Maitland had shamed her, had filled her with loathing, and the remembrance of his bravery and that love which had been such a tender memory to her so many months was wiped away when she learned, as she had learned that morning, there were two sides to his character. She tried to be just to him, even to herself she pleaded many an excuse. It was only weakness, she knew—but the excuse itself was fatal. All through their acquaintanceship she saw the blot, now that her eyes were opened—he had drifted—drifted into a close friendship with her, he a man who knew he was not free to form any ties, he had let her love him, he had won her by his tenderness—for weeks he had not by sign or token let her see he had no right to offer her love. Tenderly, passionately loving he had been, but to-night lying there on the hard lodging-house bed staring into the darkness she only remembered he had had no right to come near her at all. To-night she gauged things at their proper value. And she hid her face in the pillow and cried quietly for the first time, but with those tears she washed away much of the passion of her love.
Then her thoughts wandered to Finlayson. Was he miserable? she wondered. Hardly. He could not care much for her after what Maitland had said. He would count it a lucky escape. They were parallel cases. He had loved and found the loved one unworthy; she had loved and found,—No, no, it was impossible. Only last night she had felt that parting from Dick Maitland was leaving half her life behind her—that the very sound of his voice, the touch of his hand brought her happiness. Only last night she had kissed him of her own free will, and now she was saying to herself she had loved him, forgetting even that he had saved her life at the risk of his own. And so she tossed and turned all the hot night through, and not till the dawn came in at the open window did she fall into a restless slumber.
It is very seldom that a woman of the middle classes is absolutely alone, at least a young unmarried woman. Even if she earns her own living, she lives with her family or friends—there is generally someone to take an interest in her be it ever so slight, to whom she owes some duty be it ever so small. And now for the first time in her life Ruth found herself absolutely alone, no one to question her, no one to control her, no one to take the faintest interest in her. There was no one even to whom she could apply for advice and help. A governess's situation might be hard to get, she supposed she must have so many references; should she give it up, and try for a parlourmaid's, where her appearance would tell in her favour? She would not mind the work, but the associations—no, she would try for a place as governess or companion, and, counting up her resources, decided that, after buying clothes and other necessaries, she must get a situation at once. If she stayed here a month, or even a fortnight, there would be great risk of her starting her new life quite penniless.
Her first thought was for a reference. She did not think she was particularly good at anything, except perhaps music, but she had heard she must have a reference, and surely her old schoolmistress would give her one of some sort—and for another she would apply to the clergyman of St. Anselm's. He had known her all her life and might be trusted to say something in her favour.
But first she would go to Miss Wigram, and accordingly she dressed herself as neatly as possible and journeyed out to East St. Kilda, only to find when she got there the house in charge of a very smutty old charwoman, who, after looking through a drawer, found a crumpled piece of paper which showed that Miss Wigram was spending her summer holiday at some small country place in Tasmania.
And the steamers went to Tasmania so seldom. She must not count on an answer for a week at least, and now her only hope was in Mr. Thompson, of St. Anselm's.
And that, too, failed her.
"Oh, yes. Mr. Thompson's in," said the maid, "and you're to walk into the study."
Rather surprised, she did as she was bid, and found herself face to face with a young fellow in clerical dress, who looked very much astonished to see her.
"The maid told me," she said apologetically, "I should find Mr. Thompson here."
And then he explained he had expected one of his Sunday-school teachers, and he was Mr. Thompson, but not her Mr. Thompson, who had gone for his summer holiday to Sorrento. He was his locum tenens, and anything he could do—-
Ruth shook her head and rose to go, but Mr. Thompson, pitying her tired face—a little taken perhaps by her beauty, for clergymen are but men, insisted on her sitting down again and having some tea.
"It will refresh you," he said pleasantly, "and it's so hot outside."
The tea did refresh her and inspirited her, and she found herself telling her difficulty to the kindly young fellow, who smiled and told her it really did not matter much.
"If you write at once you can get an answer to-morrow or the next day, and I suppose if you don't get a place for a week it doesn't very much matter, does it?"
Oh, no, a week would not matter, and she took her departure somewhat cheered, and returning to Flinders-street by train went straight to the Governesses' Institute, in Little Lonsdale-street, as her new friend had advised her to do.
It was simple enough applying for a situation, but she found it rather hard when she came to be questioned as to her qualifications and references.
No references, and her qualifications were so very meagre. She had not passed the matriculation—she had not even passed the civil service. She knew nothing of Greek or Latin—had not even a smattering of Euclid or algebra. The only thing that in her own heart she felt capable of teaching was music, and that in her modesty and shyness she did not make enough of.
The superintendent shook her head over her kindly enough, but still shook her head.
"Every girl nowadays has passed the matriculation, and knows a little of Latin and mathematics. We get so many applications, more than we can find places for even among the fully qualified. Still a well-educated woman always commands her price. I got a situation for a young lady only last week, she had taken her B.A. degree, and got £96 a year, and next year, I dare say, will be making over a hundred, and she's not as old as you."
"Couldn't I be a nursery governess, then?" she asked. "I love little children, and surely I know enough to teach them?"
Again the superintendent shook her head.
"Every girl who imagines herself too good for a nurse's or a housemaid's place calls herself a nursery governess, and we're just overrun with them; and then the pay is so small, not nearly as good as a housemaid's."
"Then, perhaps," said Ruth, "I had better try for the housemaid's place. I thought of that before."
The lady looked at her critically.
"My dear," she said gently, "don't do that. We will see what we can do for you; but I wouldn't advise you to do that. There's no doubt you'd get a place easily enough and earn from £30 to £40 a year; very likely more, but you wouldn't like the associations. And then—pardon me—but I dare say you know, you are very good looking, and—well—no, my dear, it would never do."
"Then what shall I do?"
"Well, leave your name and address, and we'll see what can be done. Come again to-morrow."
That night came a letter from Dolly, loving and tender, slightly aggrieved, but still rather cheerful than otherwise.
"You are a naughty girl," she wrote; "it really is ridiculous your running off in that way, and I should be very angry with you only Roger won't."
"He says, 'There's reason in everything, even in the roasting of eggs,' and he dares say you have your reasons. And I'm not going to be anxious, for Dr. Finlayson is going up to town and he has promised to look after you. He's got six weeks' holiday, and it'll be nice for you to have him to take you about, and you'll soon get over the awkwardness of it with a dear old thing like him. I'm sure he talked to me about you as nicely as possible, just as if you never had been engaged at all, so just you treat him like the dear old friend he is and you won't find it a bit awkward. I shouldn't mind being looked after by him. I'm sure he'd take the greatest care of one, and never think about himself at all.
"Mr. Maitland is as glum as possible—awfully civil and kind you know—but just deadly dull. I suppose those fascinating sort of men, who talk to you as if you were the only person in the world, are like that—deadly dull at home.
"Our new house is begun, and will be, not finished, but ready for us to go into in a fortnight, and then, Ruth, you really must come and help me, because we'll have hardly anything to spend on furniture, so there'll be a lot of cutting and contriving to do, and we'll want you. I shall write to you to buy me some things soon, but you can keep them and bring them down with you, for if you don't come Roger'll have to come up and fetch you. And you'll never let him do that, for I shall just cry my eyes out if I'm left alone in that desolate, burnt-up place even for a day.
"Baby kisses his fat little hand to you. He really can't send his love, he's too shocked at your conduct, but his mother does and is,—
Ever your loving sister,
The letter cheered Ruth up, and she found herself actually looking forward to seeing Dr. Finlayson again.
Dolly would never have said he was coming unless she had good authority for it, and she was surprised to find how eager she was to see the kindly ugly face again. She heartily endorsed Dolly's opinion, "he never thought about himself." No, never for one moment, and she began wondering if there were any possibility of his coming this evening. The statement about Maitland she hardly noticed. During the past few days he had been so constantly in her mind, she had so worn herself out with thinking of him that she seemed to have exhausted all powers of caring.
But Alick Finlayson—yes—how glad she would be to see him again. She had not the slightest intention of accepting Dolly's offer and going back to Bolwarra, not even though Roger himself should come to fetch her. It might be all very well now; she knew she would be a welcome guest, knew that no sister could be more tender, more loving, no brother kinder than Roger; but they were poor and struggling, and she felt, both for their sakes and her own, it was better she should make a place for herself in the world.
But the letter comforted her, and in her hot little room, with the window-sill for a writing-table, she wrote an answer that was almost gay, and for the first time since the fire went to sleep the moment her head touched the pillow.
The next day was Saturday. There was nothing for her at the Governesses' Institute. The shops shut at 2 in the afternoon, and the whole town takes on itself a dreary deserted aspect, so Ruth retired to her little room and sat there sewing all day. It was a fierce hot day, and the afternoon sun pouring full upon it almost made it untenable; but she stitched on, borne up by the hope that Dr. Finlayson would call.
After her humble evening meal, which partook of the nature of a tea dinner, she went out and walked in the Exhibition gardens till dusk, carefully leaving word with Mary Anne that if anyone called for her they were to be told where she was and asked to wait. But she need not have troubled, nobody called, and she went to bed disappointed.
Next day she went to church as in duty bound—to St. Peter's on the Eastern Hill and there among the congregation saw the man who was occupying all her thoughts. He was in Melbourne then. Dolly was so far right, but evidently he was not thinking of her. He did not even look in her direction, and all his attention was taken up by the girl beside him. Rather a bright-looking fair girl, who found the places and shared his hymn-book with him as if she rather liked his proximity. Ruth found herself hating that fair-haired, happy-looking girl without exactly having any reason for it. She had certainly not cared for Dr. Finlayson. Of her own free will had she broken her engagement. Why, then, did she grudge him to another woman. She speculated as to whether he would speak to her coming out of church, and she lingered a little on purpose. But no, he never looked round, and went down the hill towards Collins-street, still beside the unknown girl, and she went back to her dull, hot little room and sewed on feverishly all the afternoon, to the openly expressed scandal of her landlady, who felt quite sure no blessing would attend such desecration of the Sabbath. Perhaps, he would come this afternoon, but he did not come, and she was ashamed of herself to find what store she set by his coming. It was evident he considered she had broken with him finally, and she admitted reluctantly to herself she had treated him very badly, and he had right on his side.
Next morning brought her a kind little note from Sorrento, regretting there should be any necessity for such a thing, but sending her the reference she asked for and wishing her every success.
She started off at once for Little Lonsdale-street, and there also received some hope. A lady from Western Queensland wanted a governess who would teach three little boys, all under twelve, and at the same time be a companion for herself, as there was no other lady within seventy miles. She was at Menzies' Hotel, and Ruth was to go and see her that afternoon.
Her heart beat high with anxiety as she ascended the broad staircase and was ushered into a sitting-room, where a thin, sickly-looking woman was lying on a sofa.
"Sit down, Miss, Miss—er—yes, thank you, Miss Grant. You are the young lady Mrs. Forest spoke about?"
Ruth bent her head.
"And you wouldn't mind a station in the back blocks?—it's very dull, you know; though to be sure it couldn't be duller than Melbourne at present. And hot—it's very hot, but really not hotter than we've had it these last few days."
Ruth wondered if she were to be engaged there and then, and declared, truly enough, she minded neither heat nor solitude.
"About salary, I give £40 a year, but I expect you to stay with me three years, and then, of course, I pay your fare both ways. The children don't want much teaching, only to be well grounded, and Mr. Kennedy wants particular attention paid to arithmetic, Latin, and Euclid."
And then Ruth had to explain that though she might manage the arithmetic, the Latin and Euclid were a closed book to her.
"Oh dear, oh dear," sighed Mrs. Kennedy, as if she had done her a personal injury. "I quite thought you had passed the matriculation. I'm sure all I've seen—and I've interviewed dozens—had all passed the matriculation. And Mr. Kennedy insists on Latin and Euclid. Twenty girls did I see on Saturday, and they all knew Latin and Euclid, so I never thought of asking you. They were all most suitable, but I couldn't have borne one near me. I'm sure they only thought of young men, and that there'd be more chance of their marrying up there, and you don't look that sort, but it's no good. Mr. Kennedy would never agree. I must look out again, I suppose."
And Ruth went back disappointed to Mrs. Forest.
Next day came Miss Wigram's letter, most prompt and satisfactory, and on reading it Mrs. Forest at once despatched her out to South Yarra to interview another lady who also lived on a station out in the back blocks. She was fat, round, and good-natured, with a jolly red face that no one could possibly call good-looking. She was sitting at tea with another woman in a luxuriously furnished drawing-room, cool and dark after the glare outside, and welcoming Ruth as if she had been a friend asked her to sit down, and gave her cake and tea in the kindest manner, and then after asking a low questions said kindly,
"Well, I may as well tell the truth at once, Miss Grant. You wouldn't suit me. I want if possible an elderly person. I think she could manage the children better."
To that there was nothing to be said. It seemed to Ruth she felt old enough for anything, but once outside in the hall she heard the real reason. She could not open the front door, and as she stood there trying—hoping that the maid, for whom Mrs. Winter had rung, would make her appearance soon—she heard her say quite distinctly,
"She's too pretty, my dear Louey, she's perfectly lovely. My John is a very good fellow, but I believe in not putting temptation in his way. That's the way to keep your husband. Fancy John sitting down and comparing me to a governess. No, I wouldn't risk it. I'd rather——"
And here, to Ruth's relief, the maid appeared and let her out and she heard no more.
It was always the same. All that week she spent interviewing people till she was heart-sick and weary, but always with the same result. As a rule her want of education stood in the way, but sometimes it was evident there were plenty more people of Mrs. Winter's opinion in the world who did not approve of a good-looking governess. If she had doubted her good looks before she was sadly certain of them now that they stood in the way of her earning her bread.
It was very weary work, though, and she thought with a sad little smile that if this went on her looks would not stand in the way much longer. Already she had grown pale and thin, and there were dark lines under her eyes, for the monotonous loneliness of her life told on her. She slept and lived in her tiny room and had her meals in Mrs. Gates's stuffy little parlour. She went to see no one and no one came to see her. She had long given up hope of seeing Alick Finlayson; she had lost even his friendship by her own fault as she acknowledged to herself. He was in Melbourne still, she knew, for she had seen him twice in Collins-street, once in company with the girl she had seen in St. Peter's and once alone; but neither time had he seen her, and she had lacked courage to go up and speak to him, and so the days wore slowly on, the hot dull monotonous days, and her only recreation, if it could be called a recreation, was to stroll or sit in the Exhibition-gardens in the cool of the evening.
"If you please, Miss, there was two letters come for you while you was out."
The week Ruth had allowed herself was past and gone and two days besides, and this evening as she walked in the gardens as usual she decided that to-morrow must end it. She had sought for a situation in vain. She had interviewed ladies in Toorak and Moonee Ponds, in Flemington and Malvern, and the result had always been the same. Her scanty store of money was diminishing, and she was no nearer a situation than she was when she began. To-morrow she would go to the registry offices, and as a parlourmaid she knew she could pick and choose. She came back when she had come to that decision, and as she entered the house Mary Ann thrust two letters into her hand.
They were not from Dolly, and no one else was likely to write to her, and she took them, wondering as she went upstairs that they were both in the same handwriting. In her own room she opened them. They were both from the superintendent of the Governesses' Institute, one written directly after the other had been posted. The first, in kindly terms, said she feared she must be much disheartened at her non-success, and that she, the writer, had just been asked to send a nursery governess up to Geelong to take entire charge of five little children, the salary being £20 a year. It was not much, but it would do to begin on; would she take it and go in a day or two?
The second letter practically cancelled that offer.
A middle-aged widow lady, a friend of Mrs. Forest's, had come to the institute asking for a companion who must be young, good-looking, cultivated, though a technical education such a governess needed was not necessary, while music was absolutely indispensable.
"She has left everything to me," wrote Mrs. Forest, "we are such old friends, so you are practically engaged, and I wish you all success in your new life. Mrs. Hodson is a very cheery woman and a great traveller. She starts next month for America, and thence is going for a three years' tour round the world. I'm sure you will like her, as she is really in need of a companion who will be a friend to her. She only stipulates you must dress well, and your salary will be £90 per annum."
The letter went on to arrange for her to meet Mrs. Hodson next day and added, "Of course the Geelong situation is entirely out of the question now."
Ruth laid both the letters down quietly. She ought to have been pleased, she ought to have been delighted, most girls in her situation would have been overwhelmed by such an offer. She had always wanted to see the world, ever since Dolly had been married. She had longed, ardently longed to get away from her narrow surroundings, and now the chance had come, such a chance as came not to one girl in a thousand, and instead of rejoicing over it she was sitting there mournfully thinking she would have to leave the colony for years. Next month she would be gone, and—and how could she go? But, after all, why should she mind? What was there to keep her? Dolly? Dearly as she loved her she was but a secondary consideration in Dolly's life now. Maitland? She had been imagining herself in love with him for two long years, and yet she knew now that gladly would she put the seas between them, thankfully would she know that she should never see his face again. What was it then? Alick Finlayson—she buried her face in the pillows as she acknowledged to herself at last that the plain, quiet Scotch doctor had all her heart, now that it was too late. And the bitterness of it lay in the knowledge that by her own act she had sent him away. The cup of happiness had been raised brimming-over to her lips, and with her own hand had she dashed it to the ground. Oh, if only she might have blotted out two miserable days from her life—if only——
"Please, Miss, there's a gentleman downstairs in the parlour as wants to see you."
She sat up promptly, and tried to tidy her hair and wash away the traces of tears from her face. It could only be Alick Finlayson come at last, and she would not—no, not for worlds—have him think she had been crying at the thought of leaving him. She gathered up the letters in her hand; they would be some excuse for her tears. It was only natural she should be distressed at the thought of leaving Dolly, and then a burning blush overspread her face, as it struck her he might think she was grieving over parting from Maitland. But he had to be faced. Hard as it was to meet him, it would be harder still to send him away without seeing him, and she went down to the parlour with the letters in her hand. The gas had been lighted, and Finlayson was sitting staring at the abomination in pink and gold paper with which Miss Gates filled her fireplace during the summer months.
He rose as Ruth entered, and held out his hand.
"Well," he said in the old way, and she murmured—
"I am so glad to see you."
"Are you?" he said. "Are you sure? I only came because I promised your sister. She wrote to me the other day to ask if I'd seen you, and so I felt bound to come."
"I'm sorry you only came to please Dolly."
"I would have come before if it had been to please myself," he said, "only, you see, I thought about pleasing you as well."
"You might have known I'd be glad to see you," she said, and then added hastily, "How is Dolly?"
"Well, I left Tamba the day after you did, but she seemed very well and happy, only a little worried about you. You don't look very well," he said, regarding her critically, and she wondered if he saw she had been crying.
"I'm all right, only it's hot, and these lodgings are not comfortable. We have had fearfully hot weather, haven't we?"
He assented, and there was silence between them. It was so awkward, Ruth felt. There was constraint on her side, stiffness on his, and they had been such friends—such dear friends.
The silence grew unbearable, and at last she timidly hoped he had been enjoying his holiday.
"No, I have not; you ought to know I have not," he said curtly, and his very curtness, though it frightened her, made her feel happier. He was not then quite indifferent to her.
"And you," he said, "what have you been doing with yourself?"
"Trying to get a situation as governess."
"Have you done it, then?"
"Not till to day," and she passed over the letters she had in her hand for him to read.
He read them, folded them up, and put them back in their envelopes without looking at her.
"There is not the least doubt, of course, which you will accept."
"Which do you think?"
"Which do I think? Why, there's not the least doubt, of course, if you must earn your own living, Mrs. Hodson's is a splendid offer."
"I—I—would have to go away," she faltered.
"Yes. You will like that, won't you?"
"N—o I shall be so lonely. I think I'll go to Geelong."
"Nonsense, you're missing an opportunity. Your sister is happy without you now. I don't want to be cruel," he said gently, "but it would be a pity to sacrifice yourself for her."
"It would not be sacrificing myself," she faltered. "I—I don't want to go out of the colony."
He rose from his seat and walked up and down the full length of the room. Then he stopped opposite her and spoke with an effort.
"I can't let you do a foolish and a wicked thing," he said, "if you are going to stay because—because—Maitland——"
The blood rushed to Ruth's face. Whatever he thought he must not think she still cared for Maitland.
"Oh, don't," she cried, and for the first time she looked him straight in the face. "I will tell you the truth and you must not think worse of me than you can help. I—yes I did care for Mr. Maitland—I didn't know he was married, and I cared very much—and then I did know, and I pitied him and cared more than ever, but he went away when he'd told me, and I heard nothing of him and you came and were so good to me—in all my life no one was ever so good to me—I should have forgotten—I'm sure now I had forgotten, only there was the fire and—and—he saved my life and Dolly's and baby's—and I was grateful and fancied—I mean—I—I——" She was getting incoherent, for it is difficult to explain away kisses and the look on Finlayson's face confused her. "I hated him that day I ran away. I knew what a mistake I had made. I—if it were only for him I would gladly start to-morrow—I would, indeed," she finished passionately. "I would never come back again."
Finlayson crossed over and took both her hands.
"So it's Dolly you don't like to leave. Is that what you've been crying for?"
There was a tenderness in his voice now, and the constraint had all vanished. It was the Alick Finlayson of Kooringa days who had come back.
"I suppose so," she faltered.
"Ruth," he said gravely, still holding her hands fast, "that is a very attractive offer of Mrs. Hodson's, very attractive indeed. Any girl might be glad to take it—a country doctor would stand a poor chance beside such an offer."
"Do you think so," she whispered, "if it were the right country doctor——"
"How is he to know that? A man doesn't like to make a fool of himself twice."
"It is the girl who has made a fool of herself in this instance," she said, hanging her head. "What must you think of me?"
"Think that if you would only love me as I love you, I would be the happiest man in the colony. Do you think you ever could, Ruth?"
He put his hand under her chin, and turned her face up to his, and he needed no other answer.
"Oh, my little girl, my darling."
And when Miss Gates came into the parlour, she found, to her astonishment, her lonely lodger in a tall stranger's arms.
"I suppose," whispered Finlayson, as he bid her good-bye late in the evening, "as you are so anxious to take a situation next week you can be ready by Tuesday. Remember, you've undertaken to look after a poor country doctor, so you've only to prepare to go round Tasmania instead of round the world. I suppose I may write and tell Dolly and Marsden to be in Melbourne for Tuesday."
And Ruth whispered a shy assent.
* * * * * * *
Ruth is happy; far happier than she had ever hoped to be. The peace and happiness she had envied Dolly are her own, and there is no man she thinks to equal her husband, no man so tender, so loving, so unselfish. Her love for Maitland, she acknowledges to herself as an unalterable fact much to be deplored, but which taught her perhaps to value more thoroughly the other man's unselfish love, and she is grateful to her husband, who out of delicacy and kindness has never referred to that episode in her life.
Once only did he mention Maitland and they were quite old married people then.
"Maitland's going to India, I see," he said, laying down The Argus. "Poor beggar, I hope he'll do well there."
His wife had her baby on her lap then, and what woman is at a loss under those circumstances.
"I'm sure I hope he will," she said. "I'm going to spend the day at Kooringa to-morrow, Alick."
For once she was married Ruth had made peace with the Kooringa Grants. Ann was the only one it was difficult to soothe, and even she came to tolerate her at the end of three months, and Mrs. Grant herself was very glad to be friends. Young Clegg was very steady and doing very well, and Polly was very happy, so that there was really no reason why Ruth should be kept at a distance, and once they had decided to forgive the Cleggs, Ruth, too, had the right hand of fellowship extended to her.
She went over next day as she had promised, and Mrs. Grant took the boy in her arms admiringly.
"Polly's little girl is just his age—only a day younger. Fancy Polly with a baby. Dear, dear, how one's children leave one. And there's Willie wanting to go and settle in the Northern Territory. The three young Littles, from Gaffer's Flat, are going, and he's wild to go, too."
"A good thing, too; I'd let him go if I were you," advised Ruth.
"Well, I don't know. Father thinks the Little boys rather wild."
"Alick thinks they're very good fellows," said Ruth, "only he says their father is ridiculously strict with them."
"Oh, Ruth, what do you think?" Mrs. Grant sunk her voice so that Vera should not hear. "What do you think? I believe old Little is after our Ann. Lil says she's sure of it."
"What a family for weddings! But he's too old for her. Sixty-five if he's a day."
"Well, you see Ann's not like other girls—and—Vera, you bad, wicked, naughty child, what did you do to the baby?"
For Alick Finlayson, the younger, raised a most pitiful protest against Vera's mode of entertainment, and his mother had to pick him up in her arms and rock him backwards and forwards for ten good minutes before she succeeded in soothing his ruffled feelings, Vera looking on with her finger in her mouth.
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