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A Strange Friendship: A Story of New Zealand

Chapter I. Dolly's Story

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Chapter I. Dolly's Story.

Was it in May or was it in June, I wonder, that we left England? June I think it must have been, because I know I was twenty that year on the twenty-eighth of April; and my birthday, I believe, was more than a month before we sailed.

Harry would laugh at me, indeed, if he knew that Dolly's memory, which every one appears to page 2 consider such a good one, had broken down so completely at an important date like this; but very much happened before we had been long out here, and I seemed to grow so many years older in a few months that all the life on the other side of the sea has faded away in a shadowy mist.

Did I ever really, I wonder, lie awake in a large old-fashioned room in a Sussex1 grange, and hear the rooks calling to each other in the gray old trees outside? The very paper on the walls—large groups of pansies on a pale buff ground—rises before me as I write; and, looking across the room, I can see Violet, as she used to lie in her little white bed opposite to me, with her mass of rich hair struggling out of the white net she tucked it away in at night, and her blue eyes only half open as, between sleeping and waking, she calls for “Dolly.”

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My mother had been dead so long then we could only recall her as a fair memory of our childhood, and my father died, I believe, when I was quite a baby. We had only each other and Harry, and we lived there with him until Harry married, and then we had Kate to care for too.

Dream-like as it all is now, I can remember very distinctly the day we were bridesmaids for the first time—when Violet appeared such a bewildering vision of beauty, with forget-me-nots in her hair the colour of her eyes, that the young curate who assisted at the ceremony proposed to her the week after, and required talking to for nearly two hours before he could be persuaded to accept “no” as an answer.

“I shall marry a rich man some time or other,” Violet used to say in those days, bridling her pretty white neck as she spoke; “and Dolly shall page 4 always live with me and dress my hair. I shall give you all my tunics and polonaises, Dolly, as soon as I'm tired of them; and you shall have some books, and a horse to ride at the times I don't want you, and then I'm sure you will be quite happy.”

Ah, well, it all seems a long age ago now; and not the real ocean only, but another sea of tears and pain and passion lies now between that time and this. Violet is—where is she? And Dolly is dreaming in the firelight, with her face wet with tears.

Kate called us both her children when she married, being, like Harry, a good deal our senior. It was no false pretence of affection, for she has always been like a mother to us both. And when the subject of emigration was first broached among us, we both vowed that wherever Kate went we page 5 would go, and would do what In us lay to make her life easier for her in a new country.

Harry was one of those men—are there not a large class of them at home?—bred up to no particular profession, and finding when he married that his means were not sufficient, nor ever likely to be, to enable him to live as comfortably as he desired. Letters from a friend in New Zealand had suggested to him emigration as a remedy; and, to pass quickly over those details which are not necessary to my story, it was at last settled that we should sail for one of the New Zealand colonies in the spring of the following year.

The voyage was a truly pleasant time to Violet and me. We had nothing to do except amuse ourselves, and every one was very good-tempered with us, however they might quarrel in other page 6 quarters. It has all faded from my recollection into a sunny haze of light, hot weather and clear frosty days; no storms and no anxieties from beginning to end.

The only real event of the voyage was that Violet engaged herself to a young fellow-passenger, dying, poor fellow, of consumption. It cost Kate some tears, and Violet was indignant.

“Why should not I marry him?” she asked. “I should always he very kind to him, and of course if he were my husband Dolly would nurse him and look after him. Kate, you are very interfering!”

However, I am glad to say that the engagement was broken off by mutual consent of the parties concerned upon their landing.

Settling into the new home was hard work at page 7 first; there was so much to be done, and we knew so little how to do it. But all the neighbours—the nearest was a mile off, and we were nine miles from a town—were very kind and obliging; the bachelors2, who then comprised three-fourths of the population round us, were more than kind, in fact quite pressing in their civilities.

Harry groaned, and said, “One unfortunate man in charge of three good-looking women! A nice life I shall have of it!”

However, Violet, a little sobered by her late romance and its rather abrupt ending, was at first unusually discreet; and Dolly, as Kate observed, was always sober enough to answer to her name. I was called “Dorothea,” after a Quaker3sister of my mother's, whom, so all my relations declared, I also resembled in placidity of disposition. Perhaps it was quite as well, because Kate had a temper page 8 when she chose to show it; and Violet and she occasionally needed some soft, imperturbable substance like myself to interpose between them when the atmosphere was stormy.

I was in the kitchen one evening about a month after we had entered our new abode, helping Lizzie, our inexperienced Scotch maid-servant, to prepare the tea. Kate was not well, and was lying down, and Violet was shut up in her own room. Presently I heard Harry's voice, speaking to a stranger on the verandah.

At the same moment Kate called to me to bring her some tea, and fetch Harry in.

Now I, naturally shy, had not yet entirely recovered from my alarm at the incessant succession of strange masculine faces, therefore I hastened to summon Violet to my assistance.

She was sitting before her looking-glass, page 9 5 studying her pretty face in the glass, as I entered the room. She had on a dress of soft mauve stuff, which seemed to set off the lovely pink and white of her complexion and the shining gold of her hair unusually well. Round her white neck she was clasping a little coral chain4and a locket5, presented to her, I believe, by some long-forgotten admirer.

“Go and call Harry to tea, did you say, Dolly?” she replied to my request. “Nonsense, you do it instead! Oh, is there a strange gentleman with him? How they do persecute us, don't they? Well, I'll go then, entirely to spare your shyness, Dolly.”

When I entered the dining-room at last, she was talking to Mr. Ainsleigh as if she had known him all her life. He was a man of the medium height, rather dark and brown, and broad-shouldered, with close-cropped hair, and with the page 10 air of a person much more used to society than any one whose acquaintance we had yet made.

One slight peculiarity about him interested me a little on that first interview—it was the sad expression of his dark grey eyes; they were pathetic eyes, I thought, excepting when their owner smiled, which was not very often.

On the whole, Mr. Ainsleigh struck me as a quiet reserved man, anything but disposed to “persecute” us, as Violet had professed to believe.

“We thought you never intended to make our acquaintance at all, Ainsleigh,” said Harry, in his hearty, good-tempered way, which is so much appreciated out here. “We have been in this house more than a month, and the whole district called upon us long ago, except page 11 yourself, and you are almost our nearest neighbour.”

“And your sister, Mr. Ainsleigh,” Violet struck in; “won't she condescend to come and see us at all?”

Did I notice it at the time, or only fancy that I noticed it, in the light of after events? He seemed to wince, like a man startled at this question, as though not expecting it, and perplexed what to answer. His embarrassment would certainly not have been noticeable at all, had not his ordinary manner been so perfectly self-possessed, and free from nervousness.

As it was, he nearly dropped the cup of tea which I was just handing to him; and apologized to me for awkwardness, before making any reply to Violet's question. Then he said,—

“My sister will be very happy to make your page 12 acquaintance before long, I am sure. Are you fond of riding, Miss Dolly?”

He smiled when he asked me this question. He had a pleasant smile—sweet and bright.

I told him that the thought of the horses I was to ride had been the great inducement which had tempted me to the colonies.

And this changed the course of the conversation, so that the subject of Mr. Ainsleigh's sister, whom we had heard spoken of casually among the gentlemen of our acquaintance as a good-looking girl and a very bold rider, did not come to the surface again that evening.

But two days after she came to call upon us herself, and the impression she left upon my mind after that first introduction was somehow a disagreeable one.

Violet and I had felt a strong curiosity to see page 13 Miss Ainsleigh—the only other girl in our own rank of life within a circuit of seven or eight miles. We had pieced together all the little fragments of information about her which we could succeed in gathering, and were somewhat divided in our opinions as to whether we should take a fancy to her or not. Therefore, when Violet dashed suddenly into the room where I was quietly reading, with the exclamation, “Mr. Ainsleigh and his sister, Dolly!” I dropped my book on the floor, and felt my heart give a bound.

The next moment Mr. Ainsleigh was picking up my book, and his sister shaking hands with me; and she crushed up all my fingers with her violent squeeze.

She was not a pretty girl exactly, yet not bad looking; with thick curly dark hair arranged into page 14 a large chignon with a plait which I am certain did not grow upon her head, and tied with a blue ribbon; her eyes were bright, and she had beautiful teeth, and a pretty, small mouth.

But there was something about her which repelled me from the first, and I never got over the feeling. She talked so much, and once or twice I thought so strangely; asked us to call her “Madelaine”6 before she had been in the room with us for five minutes, and told us not to let Kate keep us boxed up, but to be sure and ride about and have as many larks as we liked.

Her brother never spoke to her, or took the slightest notice of anything that she said. Once or twice I thought he seemed to repress a slight shudder at some more than usually outrageous specimen of fastness on her part; but if he was annoyed he did not show it in any other way.

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He had drawn a chair near to mine on first entering the room; and I found that the entertaining of him devolved upon me. Violet and Miss Ainsleigh were seated side by side upon the sofa opposite, and soon quite absorbed in their own, conversation.

We commenced, à propos of the book which Mr. Ainsleigh had picked up for me. It happened to be “Idylls of the King.”7 “Had I read the ‘Holy Grail’”?8 he asked me, and after we had discussed that, “What did I think of the first volume of ‘Middlemarch’”?

I had not seen it, I told him.

“Not seen it? Then he would send it over for me the next day.”

I was always passionately fond of reading, so I accepted the offer with gratitude.

After this there was a slight pause; we found page 16 ourselves listening to the talk that was going on opposite.

“What a very pretty dress you have on,” said Madelaine Ainsleigh. “The colour is ‘Eau de Nil,’ is it not? Is it pique?”

“Muslin,”9returned Violet, rather shocked at this specimen of feminine ignorance.

“Muslin, of course,” said Miss Ainsleigh, evidently ashamed of her mistake. “I am so stupid; I always forget. I get all my things from Paris, and my modiste10 sends me what she pleases. I never know the names of half the materials; but in the colonies you soon fall behind the fashions.”

The Parisian dressmaker sounded imposing. Violet glanced at Madelaine's deep gray riding-habit, which was certainly of a first-rate cut, with great respect.

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Mr. Ainsleigh turned to me with an inquiry, how I had enjoyed my voyage.

This opened up a fresh field of conversation, and we chatted away very pleasantly until, in another slight pause, it became evident that Madelaine was talking also about her voyage out, and telling Violet some rather wild stories of life on board ship.

Mr. Ainsleigh rose, saying coldly,—

“Miss Somerset can scarcely be much interested in all your past experiences, Madelaine; and it is high time we set off on our way home.”

His sister coloured a little, and a shade of confusion passed over her manner for the first time. It might have been with annoyance at the cold decision of his words, which amounted to a command rather than a suggestion; however, she also rose, wished us all “good-bye” with far greater page 18 warmth of manner than her brother had evinced, and followed him out.

But when they had ridden off on their homeward way I was astonished to find that Violet's impressions of our new acquaintance were exactly the reverse of my own.

“Such a jolly girl! So bright and full of life!” she declared, almost before Madelaine Ainsleigh was out of hearing. “Not like her, did you say, Dolly? I wonder at you. For my part, I am charmed to have such a neighbour, and intend to cultivate her acquaintance.”

Kate, who had been present part of the time, shook her head, and her verdict agreed with mine.

Violet pouted, and declared we were wanting in taste and discrimination of character. And with this the subject dropped.

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So the first links of this strange friendship were formed. And so Violet crossed the little brook, which was to swell to a great river between herself and Dolly.

1 A county situated on the south east coast of England.

[Note added by A. Brown as annotator]

2 OED definition states: 'An unmarried man (of marriageable age)'. Bachelors or 'single' men were common in the early settlement of the New Zealand colony.

[Note added by A. Brown as annotator]

3 Also known as 'The Religious Society of Friends' the quaker movement was founded in the 17th century. Quakers were also prominent in the early settlement of the United States, particularly in the region of Pennsylvania. They are traditionally noted for an emphasis on plain appearance, frugality and adherence to humanitarian principles

[Note added by A. Brown as annotator]

4 A "clue" in the crime sub-plot, also a feature of sensation writing.

[Note added by A. Brown as annotator]

5 A "clue" in the crime sub-plot, also a feature of sensation writing.

[Note added by A. Brown as annotator]

6 A surrogate name for Richard Carewe.

[Note added by A. Brown as annotator]

7 Poetic sequence by Tennyson concerning the life of the legendary King Arthur, published between 1856 and 1885.

[Note added by A. Brown as annotator]

8 The subject of the Holy Grail is a central theme in the tale of King Arthur's 'Camelot'. However the idealism of the Holy Grail may in this context be more suggestive of satire.

[Note added by A. Brown as annotator]

9 A popular light textured summer fabric in women's clothing both in England and the colonies.

[Note added by A. Brown as annotator]

10 See the author's own reference to European fashions in the colonies in the Preface to 'Over the Hills and Far Away'.

[Note added by A. Brown as annotator]