The Land of The Lost
Esther and Wilfrid Hamilton, having been brought up together, regarded themselves as brother and sister, though their relationship was that of first cousins.
Wilfrid was an orphan, the only son of the doctor's dead brother. From his father he had inherited a small fortune of between two and three hundred pounds a year, which until he reached maturity had been paid to his uncle to be expended on his account. During the last four or five years the cousins had seen but little of one another, Wilfrid having spent the greater part of that time in the study and practice of medicine in England. He had returned about eighteen months ago a full-fledged M.D. and was now on the point of starting a practice in Napier. He was Esther's senior by several years. Since his return Wilfrid had become engaged to the daughter of a wealthy sheepowner in the provincial district of Hawke's Bay, and but for a circumstance with which the reader will shortly be made acquainted the marriage would already have taken place.
Wilfrid was one of those long-headed, superior young persons, the product of the latter quarter of the nineteenth century, who are fast getting the reins of the; world into their hands. In disposition generous, good-tempered, considerate, he was yet thoroughly fitted by nature to safeguard the interests of Number One, and page 125without implying discredit, it may be said that the interests of that gentleman were thoroughly well safeguarded. As Wilfrid himself might have observed, if a man is not capable of looking after himself, can he be trusted to protect the interests of anyone else? And a decided negative would seem to be the sole possible reply.
Putting aside the lady of his affections, with whom these pages are not concerned, there was no one for whom Wilfrid entertained such fondness as his young cousin. The sisterly love and admiration with which that young lady had followed a rather brilliant educational career may have been in part responsible for this regard, but its depth and genuineness were beyond question.
Esther's engagement to Roller had not entirely pleased the autocratic young democrat—singular paradox. Not but that the man was sufficiently personable and well to do, but from what he had seen of him Wilfrid had a strong suspicion that he was a cad—whatever precise collection of undesirable attributes that denomination might imply. His letter in response to Esther's brief note—"You will remember Mr. Roller," and so on—which announced the engagement, was equally short and rather ambiguous. He had hoped she would defer any arrangements of that kind until he was himself a widower. It was his duty to congratulate her. Roller's credit was considered pretty good in town; he was really a desirable connection in several respects. Hoped she would be happy and was her affectionate brother, Wilfrid. It showed something of the state of mind in which the young girl entered on her engagement that a perusal of the carefully worded note brought a smile to her lips.page 126
True to his announcement, Wilfrid presented himself at the doctor's house on the Tuesday evening. In person he was tall and slim, gracefully attired, though without foppishness. His face, in its quick look of intelligent mastery, was probably more pleasing to women than to men. His features were too irregular for beauty and too vivacious for plainness. The dominant weapon in his natural accoutrement, and to which his success in life was probably due, was a strong fund of resolution cloaked by an unruffled placidity of manner.
Wilfrid was considerably disgusted at Esther's condition. "Only a sprained ankle!" he exclaimed, with affectionate roughness; "why, you look half dead!" Nevertheless in a few days' time the girl was moving about the house with the assistance of a stick, and a week later had discarded even this support to her steps.
"I had fully expected," he said one evening, as he sat on the verandah smoking his cigar and carefully nursing one foot across his knee—"I had fully expected after the arduous professional employments of the last twelve months to obtain a little well-merited amusement."
"And how are your expectations disappointed?" asked Esther from the dark corner in which she sat.
"Can you ask?" he inquired, with mock reproach. "Here have I been in the district ten days—or is it eleven? However, I have been left entirely to my own resources."
"I am dreadfully sorry you have found them so inadequate," said Esther. "Pray, am I to consider myself to blame?"
"Certainly you are," returned Wilfrid. "When a page 127man revisits the home of his fathers or his uncles, he naturally expects to be made much of. I don't know if you are aware that my health is in a very precarious condition."
"Poor boy," said Esther. "Is it heart disease?"
"There is not much the matter with yours, at any rate," retorted Wilfrid swiftly.
"You expected me to amuse you, I suppose," said Esther, disregarding the interjection.
"Why else should a man have a sister?" inquired he in matter-of-fact tones.
"Really? You confine us in very narrow limits—unless it is someone else's sister you mean."
"Now I am at a loss to understand that apparently deep observation," said her cousin emphatically after a pause of reflection.
"Ah, Wilf," she said, laughing, "you are spoiled. To amuse yourself will be a beneficial change, for I am sure you are called upon to do so seldom enough."
However Wilfrid might complain of lack of amusement, his time seemed to be fully occupied. A day or two after his arrival he had hired a couple of horses, and immediately after breakfast every morning he disappeared, frequently not returning till nine o'clock at night, and then usually in a condition of ravenous hunger. To all inquiries as to where he had been he gave invariably the same reply, "Riding about the gumfields," which for a man of his stamp seemed a form of amusement singular enough.
"Are you thinking of abandoning the medical profession and turning gum-digger?" asked Esther one evening, when he had been with them rather more than a fortnight
"Well, not exactly," he replied, laughing, and with a page 128slight embarrassment. "The fact is I am looking for someone."
"Looking for someone on the gumfield!" exclaimed Esther, fairly astonished.
But Wilfrid had become somewhat absent-minded of late, and apparently unconscious of her presence, and with, a far-off look in his eyes left the room. Thinking he did not desire to be questioned, Esther did not again allude to the subject.
But one afternoon, a day or two later, while she was occupied with her flowers in the beautiful garden which completely surrounded the house, she saw her cousin ride by on his road to the stables, having returned from his mysterious quest rather earlier than was his wont. A few minutes later he entered the garden and, instead of proceeding immediately into the house, came over to her side and stood looking down on her labours, tapping his boot with his riding-whip. Esther noticed that he was covered with dust and that there was a bored look in his eyes.
"One might as well hunt for a needle in a pottle of hay," he observed presently.
"You have not found him, then?" Esther asked quietly, without looking up.
He replied in the negative, tapped his boot a few minutes longer, and wandered away into the house.
Esther's curiosity was aroused. For whom could he possibly be searching on the gumfield of all places in the world? On reflection, also, she could not determine whether he desired to keep the matter secret or was willing to converse with her about it. The whole thing was an enigma, but, being a sensible girl, she determined to hold her tongue and ask no questions, save such as he himself forced her to employ.page 129
After the evening meal, when in response to his request she had dutifully brought him a light for his cigar, he opened his lips to say, "Little sister mine, are we never to have a ride together?"
"Why not?" asked Esther.
"Bravo!" he said, looking pleased, "Is our foot perfectly well and strong?"
"I hardly remember whether it was the right foot or the left," replied Esther.
"Good; then it shall be so. Prepare yourself for to-morrow."
"Where are we going?" asked Esther, settling herself comfortably in a lounge among the brilliant bougainvillea blossoms of the verandah.
"Where you will," he replied, looking critically at her from between his half-closed lids. "Do you know you are rather a handsome creature?" he interrupted himself to inquire.
"Thank you," said Esther, laughing and colouring. "Even with the qualification, I suppose I ought to consider myself extremely flattered"; then she added, "coming from such an authority."
"What's-his-name ought to consider himself deucedly lucky," he remarked after a pause.
"Oh, Wilfrid," she said, with sudden seriousness, "I wanted to ask you. You don't seem to like Mr. Roller. Can't you for my sake make a point of remembering his name, dear, when you speak to him?"
"I might try," said her cousin slowly, "on the understanding it was for your sake. Yes; surely the offence was unintentional." But he felt a terrible inclination to laugh.
"I don't ask you to call him Albert," said Esther, "though I am not sure——" page 130"But I am," broke in Wilfrid, with an expression of horror; "I am quite certain I never could. I would die for you, Esther, to-morrow, or even as soon as I have finished this cigar, but I cannot call him Albert. No, no; that is beyond my strength."
Esther retained her serious look till the intensity of the strain brought tears to her eyes, then she broke into a laugh like a peal of fairy bells.
"What an absurd creature you are, Wilfrid!" she exclaimed, her eyes dancing wickedly.
But it was his turn now to be serious. He pulled his chair up until he sat facing her, then he placed his cigar on the rail of the verandah and took her hand.
"Esther," he said, "I have laid a trap for you, and I have caught you. Ever since the day I came here I have waited to catch you tripping, but you were wary and until this moment eluded my snare, but I have you now and you cannot escape. Do you know what I mean?"
"No," she said unblushingly.
"Well, I do; but let me hear what you have to say."
"You do not love this man," he said sternly. "It is impossible you should."
"I am engaged to him," Esther replied evasively.
"You do not love him. Had you loved him, could you have endured his being turned into ridicule by another man?"
"It was not himself," stammered the girl, "but his name."
"Esther, you prevaricate," he said relentlessly. "You do not love him. Confess the truth, for I mean to have it."
"That means you assent; you admit that you do not love him?"
"Yes—I suppose so."
"And yet you will marry him?"
"And yet I will marry him."
"What does it matter why? I have given my promise."
Wilfrid released her hand, took up his cigar, and placing it between his lips, leant back in his chair in silence.
"Well?" she asked curiously.
"I have no more to say," he replied calmly.
She was silent for several minutes, swinging a vine of the bougainvillea backwards and forwards and tapping one foot nervously on the floor.
"I suppose you are angry with me," she said presently, with a slight change in her voice.
"No, no," he said indifferently; "let us talk of something else. What a lovely night, and how delightful is the scent of your flowers!"
These things, however, had now no interest for Esther, who remained silent for so long that at length he leant forward and murmured "Sulky?" in interrogative tones. Then he noticed that the eyes turned up to his were wet and shining and the long lashes heavily gemmed with tears. "Well," he said after a moment, "have your own way. I suppose you will punish me for this, and I must take my ride alone as usual."
"I will come if you want me, Wilfrid," she replied.
He seemed on the point of saying something further on the subject of their dispute, then with a movement of irritation threw away his cigar and changed his tone to one of business-like cheerfulness.page 132
"Then the point is where shall we go? Have you any preference?"
"N—o," she said slowly.
"Why such a dubious negative? But if you really do not mind where we go, what do you say to the direction of the 'Scarlet Man'?"
"If you like," she said quietly; "the roads are very good."
He appeared relieved by her answer.
"I have almost confined myself to the westward so far," he observed, "and I think I have explored pretty well every field in that direction. Perhaps a change to the east and your society will bring me better fortune."
"Then you intend to combine business with pleasure," she said in the same low voice in which she had hitherto spoken.
"To a certain extent, yes, but it will not interfere with my attendance on you. I shall merely take advantage of such opportunities as occur on the way."
Then it was arranged that they should start immediately after breakfast, ride as far as a certain native settlement in the bush, lunch there on provisions taken with them, and return some time before nightfall.
Doctor Hamilton, who since Wilfrid's arrival had been on his best behaviour, even going so far as to treat his daughter as a rational being, whose opinions might occasionally be worth consideration, offered no objection to the scheme. Esther was looking pale from a too rigid confinement to the house. A ride, not too prolonged, would certainly do her good.
Nor did Roller, who usually spent a part of each evening with his betrothed, see cause to interfere with the arrangement. In common with everyone else in Parawai, he regarded Wilfrid as Esther's brother, and page 133in no case would it have entered his head to suppose that the girl could be attracted by so ridiculous a person as the natty young doctor appeared in his eyes. He privately expressed his sorrow to Esther that an appointment with some natives — who were coming to discuss an important matter of business on the morrow—prevented him from joining the party.
As she retired to bed that night, Esther could have torn herself for the duplicity of her smiling reply of regret. But how else could she have received his apology?