The Land of The Lost
It was the evening of the following day. Dinner was over and all the house was still. The doctor had not yet returned from the Bay, and Wilfrid, who had undertaken to look after a few cases nearer at hand, had been absent since morning. Hugh had practically had the house to himself all day. He had employed his time in wandering about disconsolately, looking for Esther, who had been wont hitherto to spend a portion of her time among the flower-beds. This day, however, she too remained invisible. At lunch she sent a message by Maria, excusing herself from attendance, but offering no reason.
"Is Miss Hamilton unwell?" he asked.
"Esther may have a small headache," Maria opined, and she reported the inquiry to her mistress a moment later.
"How that young man loves you, Esther!" she said calmly.
Esther shrank as though from a blow. "How dare you say such things, Maria!" she exclaimed, with flashing eyes.
Maria, so far as was possible to one of her leisurely disposition, showed signs of astonishment. "What harm?" she said. "I wish he was half as fond of me. Shall I tell him your head is bad?"page 205
But Esther peremptorily forbade her to again enter the dining-room, and Maria, who really respected and never wilfully disobliged her young mistress, yielded grumbling obedience.
At dinner, which was delayed in the vain hope of Wilfrid's arrival, Esther appeared, but her manner was silent and distrait, and nearly all the conversational embellishments were supplied by Maria.
But now dinner was over; the clatter of clearing away the dishes had ceased and silence reigned supreme. Hugh wandered again into the garden, now delightfully cool and dark after the heat and glare of the day, and seated himself in a basket-chair on the lawn. Across the road a single light burned in the office attached to the store, and he had learned that so long as this was visible Roller was not to be expected. The light, therefore, though it had disagreeable associations, was welcome rather than otherwise, and the young man watched it with satisfaction. Away to the left a few scattered lights were visible from the village, but the native settlement behind was buried in profound darkness. Overhead the sky was full of flashing constellations, and the Southern Cross, like a diving kite, hung away to the southward of east. All through the slow sultry hours Hugh had pined for the night. At last it was with him, but where was she without whom it was valueless? Through all the days of his visit this had been their hour. While the light burned in the store and the stars waxed in the sky, they had wandered through the scented garden, absorbed in one another and dreading only the moment when the disappearance of the beacon should tear them apart. The supposed indifference of the other was the reliance of each, so perilous was the path they trod.page 206
The precious minutes slipped by, the light burned steadily on, but no Esther appeared. Was it possible that to-night she would disappoint him? He rose and moved restlessly about the lawn and up to the verandah, where he could see through the open windows that the dining-room was tenantless. There was no light in the drawing-room, and, saving the gleam that fell through the drawn blinds of the kitchen, the whole house seemed in darkness.
Ten minutes went by. He had drawn the bush-house and found it a blank; he had returned again and again to the lawn, but still there was no sign of her; there remained only the orchard and the path that led to it. Hopeless of finding her, he turned into the narrow black alley and made his way to the gate. Here a movement and the gleam of something white set his heart bounding within him, and he stepped quickly to her side.
"At last!" he said, with passionate relief.
"Isn't it lovely and cool!" she murmured, making room for him beside her. "This is the best spot in the garden after a hot day."
"It is," replied Hugh, with conviction, "the very best. I have never known a day go so slowly in all my life."
"I suppose you have missed Wilfrid and your daily lecture," she said, with a laugh that closed in a sigh. "I wonder what is keeping him?"
"It was you I missed," he said in low, passionate tones. "You and only you. Nothing matters to me now except you."
"Don't say it," she said in a tired voice. "I have heard that townsmen think it the proper thing to talk like that, but I am country-bred and have never learnt the manner. Besides, I am weary and all the brightness page 207has gone out of me, and I could not answer you in kind even if I knew how."
"Say nothing," he said, "until I have told you that I love you. I have never done anything else but love you from the moment I first saw you. I shall never do anything else as long as I live."
"Spare me," she said hopelessly. "How can you tell me that, knowing what you know?"
"Oh, Esther!" he replied, "I know that you are promised to another man, but do you love him? If you tell me that you love him, I must perforce be silent. Your happiness is more to me than my own, and if your happiness lay in a marriage with him I would go away, though it would seem like death. It is the belief that you do not love him that gives me courage to speak to you."
"Even if I did not, it would still be too late to talk of it now. We are to be married on the tenth of March."
"God forbid!" he exclaimed fervently. "Do you remember, dearest, at our first meeting, when I wanted you to do something for your own good, how resolute you were not to do it, and how, when nothing else would serve, I picked you up in my arms and so compelled your obedience? Do you never yield except under compulsion?"
She stood in the pale, diffused starlight and he in the dense shadow. So close together were they that any movement might have brought them in contact. The words, with the tender endearment, sank into her troubled mind, bringing the thought of the refuge that lay in his strength, the temptation to seize it and have done with the bitter struggle that was driving her distracted.page 208
"It would have been better," he said presently, "that you had died then, if you have no more compassion on yourself than this. Tell me, Esther, if this entanglement had not been, could you have cared for me?"
"What is the good of thinking of what might have been?" she answered sadly. "All the misery of the world is locked up in the thought of what might have been. How would it help you if I answered yes or no? It could not change the thing that is."
"Is that an admission that you could have cared for me?" he asked. "Is it an admission that you love me? Dearest, if you have no mercy for yourself, have some for me. I cannot give you up; I would sooner be dead than live without you. Even if nothing is to come of it, even if it is the last word that shall ever pass between us, yet tell me that you love me. Say it to me in so many words."
"If it will help you, knowing what you know and that it can make no difference in the result, then—then—" She stammered and shrank from him. "Ah, why did you come into my life? I was happy until I saw you, or I thought so."
"Then you do love me?" he said, stretching his arms out towards her.
With a quick motion she eluded him and was lost in the shadow of the path.
"Won't you understand?" she said breathlessly.
"That you love me," he replied; "nothing else."
"That I am pledged to another man; that I have given my irrevocable promise."
"You are mine," he said; "you cannot give away what belongs to me."
And he advanced towards the spot whence the sound of her voice had reached him.page 209
"This is madness," she cried. "Don't you see that nothing—nothing can absolve me from a promise twice given? Have mercy on me."
"Have mercy on yourself," he replied. With a sudden movement he gained the exit and commenced to close in towards the gate.
"Come to me, Esther," he said, "my will is stronger than yours."
There was no reply, and he moved cautiously forward. A sound of low sobbing arrested him, and putting out his hand, he touched her dress. She made no further attempt to escape, and he drew her into his arms.
"Pledge yourself to me, Esther," he said gravely. "There is no happiness in the world for us apart from one another."
"Oh, Hugh," she said brokenly, "how can I? How willingly I would, but what are my pledges worth if I dishonour myself to make them? Shall I make my happiness out of his misery?"
"And yet you would make his happiness out of mine. Is my misery of no account?"
"You will soon forget me," she said. "The days will come and go and bury up the past till the pain of it is lost and forgotten."
He stooped and kissed the wet cheeks. "Life would not be long enough to forget you in," he said. "Surrender yourself, my beloved, for I will never give you up, and sooner or later you will be mine. Why do you set this barrier between us? You love me, you do not love him; there alone is reason sufficient. Will you wreck both our lives in the vain hope to save this man suffering? For it is vain. What happiness can there be for him in a marriage with one who has no affection for him?"page 210
"I have thought of it all," she said. "Every argument you use I have put to myself a hundred times, but they make no difference." With a gentle effort she freed herself from his embrace, and they stood together, her hands locked in his. "I am sorry for you, my dear," she said tenderly, "and I am sorry for myself; but I have told him, and he will not release me."
"What have you told him?" he asked, surprised.
"Have you told him that you love another man?"
"Everything but that," she replied. "It was last night; he seemed upset at something and accused me of avoiding him. I told him then that I did not love him, that I would sooner be free, that I could not bring him happiness, and I asked him to release me."
"And what was his reply?"
"That his love would suffice for us both; that he would never give me up. Then I told him that I would marry him, and he appointed the day."
Hugh was silent a long while. "Esther," he said at last, "will you let this matter go into other hands? Will you allow Wilfrid to see him?"
"No, no," she said fearfully, "not for the world."
"He is acting a brutal part," Hugh said strongly after another reflective pause, "and no girl—you least of all—would have any chance with him. Do you suppose for a moment that a man of any honourable feeling would act in the way you describe him to have done? Don't you see that he is using your sense of honour to drag you into an alliance that is nothing short of a blasphemy? What if he does love you? So do I; so may many others. It does not give him the right to possess you. You are your own gift, and if there is any truth in the world it is this, that you cannot give yourself where you do not love."page 211
Again he encircled her with his arms. "Say you love me," he said passionately, "me and only me."
"I do," she said, "I love you better than my life." For one instant their lips met; in the next they had started guiltily apart.
"Esther!" exclaimed Roller's voice in sharp, excited tones.
"Yes," she replied.
Hugh stood alone in the darkness, his heart beating violently. He heard their retreating footsteps dying away in the direction of the house, until at length they became inaudible. What ought he to do? Or what ought he to have done? His brain whirled in the midst of the complex sensations that assailed him as he stood trying to resolve on his course of action. The storekeeper, no doubt, had heard the sound of their voices and come up stealthily, and in this case he had got no more than his deserts. Hugh laughed to himself with fierce exultation over his enemy as he recalled the completeness of the moment on which Roller's voice had fallen like a thunderclap. The indignity of his own position troubled him next, and he grew hot with a desire for action, preferably something physical and final. Then the intoxication of the knowledge that she loved him and only him allayed his anger and led him into sweet paths of self-communing, only to be rudely arrested by the thought of what might be happening in the house. At any rate, he decided there was no sense in staying where he was, and he made his way on to the lawn in time to discover Wilfrid leading his horse through the gateway.
"Well?" asked the latter, coming to a standstill.page 212
"How have you been getting on? I struck a rather interesting case and it has kept me later than I intended. The doctor made a curiously wrong diagnosis of it, between ourselves," he added, with professional pride, "but I twigged what was wrong in less than no time. Is Roller here? How have you been getting on?"
"Well and ill," said Hugh.
"Come round to the stables and let me hear."
Hugh related a portion of the events of the evening, and after the horse had been unsaddled and fed, they returned to the front of the house.
"I won't go in till he goes," said Wilfrid, looking towards the dining-room, where the windows and blinds were now drawn. "This may be the crisis, and professional etiquette directs me to stand by and give nature a chance. I hope he interrupted you at a sufficiently interesting moment."
"Pretty fair," said Hugh.
"H'm! Did he address you at all?"
"Not a word."
For twenty minutes they continued walking up and down discussing the subject, then Wilfrid got impatient.
"He might consider my feelings," he said. "I am dying for a smoke, and I want something to eat."
As if in answer to his words, the hall was suddenly illuminated by the opening of the dining-room door, and Roller came out. He passed down the path, looking neither to the right nor left, and going out on to the road, banged the wicket behind him.
"Dismissed," said Wilfrid slowly, looking reflectively towards the gate. "And now I can almost be sorry for the beggar."