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The Toll of The Bush

Chapter XVII The Cloud in the Sky

page 176

Chapter XVII The Cloud in the Sky

'It's a pity you ever found it out,' said Robert, 'if you are going to let it worry you. I had an idea that there was something of the kind, but it was mostly while father was alive, and if mother could bring herself to take it surely we can.'

'You knew her better than I ever did, Robert.'

'That's the pity of it.'

'You mean if I had known her I should have had no doubt as to how I ought to act now?'

'Something of that.'

'I can't bring myself to seal up the pages again; there would seem to be something underhand about an act of that sort.'

'Then don't seal them.'

'But what am I to do?'

'Nothing.'

Geoffrey looked thoughtfully at his brother, his face slowly clearing. 'I am not sure but what you are right, and if it were not for one thing I should be certain of it. But the one thing seems to make all the difference. I am going to ask Eve Milward page 177to marry me, and I don't want to owe her father £300 at the same time.'

'I am glad you are going to do that,' said Robert heartily; 'and if I were you I wouldn't waste a moment before it was done. As for the money, it's none of your doing, and you are far more likely to do harm by harping on it than by letting it slide. Eve's not likely to trouble nor is the Major. Pride's a proper thing in its way, no doubt, but you can easily have too much of it, seems to me.'

Geoffrey was silent, but his countenance looked much more hopeful than when the matter was first broached.

'And there is another thing,' continued Robert, 'since we are at it, and that's Uncle Geoff. It has seemed to me for quite a long time now that you're treating him pretty hard. Seems to me there ought to be no question of pride between you and a man who has done for you as he has. It's little short of a sin to keep him at arm's length in the way you do, and how he manages to put up with it beats me. He's the sort that if you wired to him for a few thousands, he'd want to get up in the middle of the night to cable it to you.'

'It's true. I'm an ungrateful sort; but it's the confounded stiff-necked way in which I am made, Robert.'

'Well, it may be. But if you want to marry Eve Mil ward, you will have to come down from that. I know you are a great deal cleverer than I am, Geoff, and better educated and that, but it's struck me of late that I've got most of the common sense.'

'I am convinced of it. Go on.'

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'Well, I was just about to say that if you are not going to accept anything from Uncle Geoffrey, you won't have much of a prospect to lay before Major Milward. Have you thought of that?'

'Not very deeply, I am afraid.'

'Well, I would; or—which is better than thinking—I would act. Write home to uncle, tell him the whole story, and throw yourself on his generosity. There's no doubt what the result will be.'

'Then you think I am not capable of earning a living for myself?'

'Why shouldn't you be? But it's much simpler to have a good round sum in the bank, and it gives you a great deal more confidence, especially when it comes to interviewing a wealthy man like Major Milward. Besides, a bird in the hand doesn't prevent you going after the bird in the bush; it's the very thing to make you.'

'As to the round sum in the bank, you can hardly be speaking from experience, Robert,' said Geoffrey, smiling.

Robert looked slightly uneasy. 'It's a good thing for every one,' he said, 'but it's more necessary to some than to others. You've been brought up as a gentleman, and are more fitted to make money by your brains than your hands, therefore it's almost a necessity for you. As for me, I can get along all right, and my wife won't expect a great deal just at the first.'

'You speak of that problematical lady with some assurance.'

'Not more than I feel, however,' Robert said.

Geoffrey looked up a little surprised, and some-page 179thing in his brother's countenance caught his wandering attention. 'Is it possible the lady is not entirely problematical?' he asked.

'It's Lena Andersen.'

'Lena! Good heavens! Why, you are only children!'

'We don't mind that,' Robert said; 'and we shall get over it in time.'

'Of course. I beg your pardon. But you astonished me a good deal. Lena? Yes, I remember her,' and Geoffrey's face, despite his endeavours, clouded slightly.

'She is a very clever girl,' Robert alleged anxiously. 'You should hear her read Shakespeare and—and Green's Short.'

'That's something, Robert, isn't it?' Geoffrey said kindly. 'And she promised to be a very pretty girl too.'

'More than that,' said Robert. 'And good—good as gold. Too good for a rough chap like me.'

'She doesn't think so, however, nor her parents probably.' Geoffrey remembered with misgiving the untidy woman at the slip-rail and the stories current in the settlement of the drunken father. 'I suppose you are not contemplating doing anything just immediately?' he asked.

'Well, I am,' Robert confessed. 'You see the family is in rather a bad way owing to Andersen's habits, and then there is a good deal of talk in the settlement about Mrs. Andersen, and I should like to take Lena clean out of it all before worse happens. There is not a brighter little girl living, Geoff; but she's very tender-hearted, and that sort get hurt easily page 180and badly.' Robert's honest, eager eyes clouded suddenly.

'And how would you get, her out?' Geoffrey asked sympathetically.

'There is only one way, Geoff.'

'But aren't you afraid of taking a responsibility like that?'

'No,' said Robert, squaring his broad shoulders, 'I'm not afraid. At the worst she would be better off than she is now. I have tried to think for her as well as myself, but I can't find any better way. If you see any road out but that I should be glad to know of it.'

'I should like to see her first,' Geoffrey said. 'Is it possible we can do so this afternoon?'

Robert found his coat in silence, and together the brothers set off on their errand.

Now Lena had descried Geoffrey as he rode past on his way to the section, and anticipating this conclusion to the interview, she had tidied the house and arrayed herself in the black velvet frock which was Mrs. Gird's gift. Robert had heard nothing of this garment, and he was consequently as much surprised as Geoffrey at the smart and lovely appearance presented by the young girl as she came out of the house, blushing divinely, yet with a certain charming self-possession, to meet her prospective brother-in-law and her lover.

Lena stood a little in awe of Geoffrey. He lacked, she thought, the serene disposition of the younger brother, and his manner, except when roused, was silent and sunless. Her awe, however, was tinged with admiration for his good looks and his learning, which she and Robert supposed to be page 181without a parallel in New Zealand, if not in the world.

The beauty and naturalness of the young maiden, however, had instant effect on Geoffrey, dismissing completely the cloud of doubt which had gathered round the idea of the Andersen family, and enabling him to tender his congratulations sincerely and hopefully. For a moment the mother with a possible future and the father with a certain past dropped out of sight.

'If you only knew how nice it is of you to say that,' Lena said. 'My heart has been sinking lower and lower in anticipation of this interview, and now it is quite easy after all.'

'That is the mistake one continually makes,' Geoffrey said. 'Opposition, if there is to be any, will come, as it always does, from an undreamed-of quarter.'

'I wonder where—there is only father left now.' Lena looked seriously from one to the other.

'Don't inquire too strenuously of the Fates, and happily they may forget us and pass by on the other side of the way.'

Lena led her visitors into the house, where Mrs. Andersen was waiting to receive them. The children had been smuggled out of the way, and except for a suppressed giggling in an inner room, an unusual peace reigned throughout the establishment.

Mrs. Andersen, with a closer acquaintance with the facts than her daughter, had also had her doubts of Geoffrey, and his attitude in the matter consequently brought her great relief. The whole responsibility for the affair rested, as she knew, on page 182her own shoulders. But for the almost criminal neglect she had shown as to the girl's actions, the engagement of Robert and Lena would probably not have come about so speedily, if at all.

'Of course, you think it quite wrong of me to let things come to this pass,' she said when Robert and Lena had disappeared to discuss their new happiness.

'Probably it was not preventible,' Geoffrey replied.

'But they are such children.'

'In years, no doubt; but Robert has a very wise head on his young shoulders, and Lena, unless her looks belie her, is a young lady of some intelligence.'

'She is no fool,' the mother conceded. 'So you are not put out about it? I was fearing you would be. Robert, of course, might have done better, but she is a good girl—a real good girl.'

'Robert might very easily have done much worse.'

'But the trouble is they are in such a hurry. They want to get married at once—to-morrow if they could; and how they are going to live I don't know. I know what it is when there is no money in the house.'

'As far as that goes, Robert is quite able to keep a wife,' Geoffrey said thoughtfully.

The door of the room whence the giggling proceeded had been opening and closing narrowly at rapid intervals, and on each occasion there had been a row of round blue eyes, one above the other, fixed with varied expressions, ranging from horror at the bottom to mere curiosity at the top, on the page 183visitor who had come in connection with that mysterious affair, Lena's marriage. Now, as Geoffrey ceased speaking, the door suddenly opened wide; there was a whisper, a giggle, a rush, and with a wild whoop the Andersens scattered across the sunlit paddock. Geoffrey looked after them and his original misgivings returned. Was it possible that, in taking Lena, Robert was burdening himself with the support of the whole family, not omitting the mother? And if it were not so, what, in the alternative, was to become of them?

Whether or no Mrs. Andersen guessed what was passing through her visitor's mind, her next remark fell appositely on Geoffrey's thoughts.

'One thing,' she said, not without a taint of bitterness, 'Lena has never been accustomed to extravagant living, and after what she has had to put up with for years, it won't take a deal to make her happy as the day is long. And Robert needn't be afraid that the rest of us will trouble him—not that he's likely to worry, for he's a dear, goodhearted boy, but we're not coming on him to keep us. And so, when you think it over, you can just reckon on their two selves and nobody else.'

'I suppose her father is not likely to raise any objection?' Geoffrey asked, his mind considerably relieved.

'Andersen will do as he is told. It's not for the like of him to come raising objections if the rest of us are satisfied.'

'I think it possible Robert may be able to do a little to help you all by and by,' Geoffrey said cautiously. 'But I quite agree with you as to giving them a fair start without encumbrances. In page 184fact, that does seem to me very important, so much so that should anything occur to—to render you in need of assistance, I hope you will let me hear of it instead of Robert.'

'Nothing will occur,' said Mrs. Andersen evasively. 'We're past all that. Then you are going to let them get married right off?'

'So far as I can be thought to have a voice in the matter,' Geoffrey said, 'I surrender it freely. They shall please themselves. Robert is at least as capable of weighing the pro's and con's as I am.'

Meanwhile Robert and Lena had ascended to a ledge on Bald Hill and were sitting overlooking the hollow.

'To think that I have been misjudging Geoffrey all this while,' Lena said. 'Nothing could be kinder than the way he spoke to me. It made me feel as though I were a princess in disguise and he had found me out.'

'Geoff is the best fellow in the world,' Robert agreed enthusiastically; 'and he behaved just exactly as I told you all along he would behave.'

'Did I look nice—a little? I know I blushed and felt like a gawk, but did it show through?'

'Not through the velvet. My, what a beauty! Where did you get it?'

'Mrs. Gird made it for me quite a long time ago. It's real velvet, not common velveteen, and it must have cost a heap of money.'

'It's nothing to the dresses I am going to get for you directly, Lena. I've mapped it all out—satins and valencias and that. You'll see.'

The valencias puzzled Lena a little, but she was page 185none the less appreciative, and she nestled closer to her lover and slipped her hand into his.

'We are getting closer to it,' Robert said solemnly. 'This is a big step to-day, and there is only your father to think about now. Are you glad?'

'Are you, Robert?'

'Sometimes I think I've no right to be as glad as this. I ought to wait and give you a chance of some one much better than I am.'

'I don't want him,' said Lena. 'I wouldn't have him if it were ever so—the disagreeable, stuck-up thing! We are such dear friends, Robert—such kind companions—and you can talk calmly of some one coming in between to part us. I wonder at you!'

'It's only my great happiness, Lena. It makes me suspicious somehow. It's like that chap we read of who found a big diamond and dared not even pick it up to look at it for fear some one would grab it or it would melt away.'

'How strange! I have felt like that ever since—that first day. And I thought you were so practical and unimaginative.'

'You see I could be hit here,' Robert said wisely. 'I could be hit hard, and I know I should take it badly; so it makes a man disguise his true feelings a little and keep his eyes open more than ordinary.'

Lena laughed softly. 'But it's all true,' she said. 'We take pain to our hearts as a matter of course, but we walk round happiness with suspicion.'

'So, Lena, we will not tempt Fate longer than we need, and—is there any reason why we should not get married almost at once?'

page 186

'And yet there are people who say that this young man is not as clever as his brother,' Lena said, patting his hand.

'And what do you say?'

'I say as you say,' said Lena, springing to her feet. 'There goes Geoffrey. Let us run down and say good-bye to our brother.'

Geoffrey, seeing their approach, reined in his horse at the slip-rail.

'Good-bye, Geoff, and good luck,' said the younger brother.

'Mrs. Andersen and I have been discussing your prospects, young people,' Geoffrey said, looking from one to the other; 'and we are agreed that there are no clouds of any importance in the——'

Geoffrey was interrupted by a horseman who came suddenly up out of the bush, raised his hat to the group at the slip-rail, and set his horse at the hill.

A complete silence attended his advent and succeeded his departure. Geoffrey's sentence remained uncompleted. It was as though a cold blight had fallen on the happy group.

The man was Beckwith.