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The Toll of The Bush

Chapter XXVIII The Dark Lady

page 319

Chapter XXVIII The Dark Lady

Mrs. Angus had desired that the wedding should be from her house in Auckland, but her father declared against the scheme, and it was accordingly fixed that the marriage should take place at Wairangi, the wedded couple leaving the same day by the steamer en route to their honeymoon at the hot lakes.

On the eve of the eventful day the Rev. Mr. Fletcher, having packed his belongings and despatched them to the steamer, sat alone and unemployed in his little study. A lamp burned on the table, and as he leant back, his eyes fixed on the wall, the sharp shadows seemed to create or accentuate an expression of gloom in his handsome features. For the moment he looked almost haggard. The thing he had set himself to do was on the point of accomplishment. All through he had moved with the step of a man whose success is assured, whose confidence in his resources is unshakeable. And until this hour he had been such a man. But now, so close to his reward, the thinness of the earth over which he had moved became suddently manifest. He knew that the girl page 320did not love him; that even at the last she would welcome any accident which might release her from her obligation. He believed that his road to happiness lay across the fragile bridge of a lovers' quarrel, and his mood suggested to him that even yet it might break beneath his tread. Though the mood bordered on the weakness of fear it did not slide away into trivialities of compunction and remorse. His determination to succeed remained unimpaired by the sense of danger which for the moment threatened its accomplishment. He looked here and there with anxious introspective eyes. Presently his gaze lit on a black-letter text pinned near the window and his expression underwent a slow change. 'Be merciful: and thou shalt obtain mercy,' said the text. His mind stilled, struck by the divine serenity of the command and its accompanying promise; then he rose deliberately and turned the card with its face to the wall. Was religion then for him a dead thing? No, or the text might have remained. It had not ceased to be because in the battle with temptation one of its sworn servants had succumbed. Only now it was not of him but apart. A kingdom from which for a space he had withdrawn but wherein God yet lived supreme, to strike if He willed, to spare if it so pleased Him. Some day—grant that it be soon—he would return and make submission, but the hour for that was not yet.

His reverie was interrupted by a tap at the door, and the Mallow boy appeared in the entrance. 'Is there anything else to go to the steamer, Mr. Fletcher?' he asked.

'Nothing more, I think,' said the minister, smiling 'Did you mention about my sleeping on board?'

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'Yes, sir. The captain said it would be all right. He will blow the whistle when he is ready to go up the river, and the steamer will lie off the Wairangi wharf till half-past seven in the morning.'

Mr. Fletcher nodded. 'I daresay you can find use for a couple of sovereigns, Charlie,' he said; 'and as I shall probably not see you again for some time I will say good-bye now.'

Charlie came forward awkwardly and shook hands. 'Good-bye, Mr. Fletcher,' he said, 'and thank you.'

The minister looked him over smilingly with a friendly hand on his shoulder. 'You are growing a big fellow, Charlie,' he said, 'and that reminds me. I have left my house coat out if you are not too proud to accept it. It's in fair order and condition but for a little rent in one sleeve. You're not? That's right. Well, good-bye.'

Charlie retired sheepishly with his perquisites and made his way to the sitting-room, where Winnie sat reading a dog's-eared novelette. She looked up irritably on his entrance and returned to her book.

'He has given me two pounds and a coat,' the boy said slowly, displaying his possessions on the table. 'There is a hole in the coat. I saw him rip it against the wire near the gate, but you could mend it all right, Win, couldn't you?'

'Oh, I suppose so!' said his sister with an impatient twist of her body.

'Could you do it to-night?' the boy persisted, eyeing the garment longingly. 'My best coat's too small, and I could wear this to the wedding to-morrow if it was done.'

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'For goodness' sake leave it there then! What's he doing now?'

'Nothing; just sitting in there.'

'Well, you'd better go and see if mother and Mabel are ready to come home. Father's gone to bed.'

The correctness of this statement was attested by a deep, regularly recurring sound behind the partition wall, occasionally interrupted by a sharp exclamation, which in the family's more sportive moments was wont to be greeted with the cry that father had got a bite. Mr. Mallow was a fisherman even in his dreams. The boy, with a last comprehensive look at the coat, withdrew obediently to do his sister's bidding.

Winnie sat reading awhile in the attitude of one only a portion of whose mind is given to the task before her, then suddenly she crushed the book in her hand and threw it into a corner.

'What abject rot!' she muttered; 'as if life were like that—mountains tumbling down and all the rest of it, that a man and woman may step across and get married. I wonder if the right people ever do get married in reality. Keep a girl in the background long enough, and she will end by believing that any man is the right man, but ask her what she hopes for when she first leaves off being a child and you will hear things. What's he doing in there by himself, I wonder? Saying his prayers?'

With a curling lip the girl dragged the coat from the table on to her lap, but though the action showed the roughness of irritation, her subsequent handling of the garment was marked by a singular page 323blending of fierceness and gentleness. Presently she got a needleful of silk and began to repair the rent in the sleeve, performing the task with the utmost circumspection and at a considerable expense of time. The work completed, she sat musing, her fingers gently touching the fabric here and there. At last they paused at something stiff in the bottom of the lining, and roused to consciousness, she forced the object round, finally discovering a hole in the inner breast-pocket, through which it had evidently slipped to its present hiding-place. When at length the object came into view, it proved to be a letter, folded into small compass and much crushed, as though it had lain for some time at the bottom of a well-filled pocket.

Winnie laid down the coat and rose quickly to her feet, her eyes brightening. Here was an excuse to go into that other room where he sat alone. He had said good-bye more than an hour ago, for it was now well past eleven, but now she could see him again. Half-way to the door she paused and looked again at the thick slip of paper in her hand. A sudden idle curiosity possessed her to see what he letter was about. The Mallows were not overburdened with scruples in little things, and to think in this case was to act.

Winnie returned to the table and rapidly spread out the sheet beneath the lamp. It had been torn across and then gripped together, as though its destruction were arrested, but the whole of it was there and clearly legible.

When the perusal was finished the girl did not continue on her way to the other room; instead, she sat down and began to shiver violently. To page 324the writer of the letter, whoever she was, she gave no further thought, her motive was clear and understandable; but she was aware of some intangible shadow on the character of the man whose righteousness had roused alternately her worship and her contempt. With the letter grasped securely in her hand she sat thinking intently, putting together piece by piece, as though they were the portions of a puzzle, the hints, the rumours, and the suspicions which for the past few months had collected round the names of Geoffrey Hernshaw and Eve Milward. And as the story completed and rounded itself off in her mind, the figure of the man sitting alone in the other room rose up tragic and sinister, a presence not of the morning but the night. At first appalled, then fascinated, the girl sat regarding the image she had created. Hitherto her love, overwhelming as she considered it, had in reality lacked the vital spark that should make it a living thing, but now, with the discovery of this flaw in her idol, her blood warmed suddenly to passion. And at the same moment she recognised that the drama was no longer of three persons but of four, and that the fourth had in these few moments of time become the arbiter of the destiny of the other three. Her lips parted, and she gave a little half-frightened shiver, her mind recurring to the novel she had lately read. The story contained a Dark Lady who had become possessed of a Will, and held in consequence the Balance of Power. The conduct of the Dark Lady thus happily situated had roused Winnie's resentment, even to the point of desiring that the Virtuous Heroine might slay her with a hat-pin, but the author, with a finer appreciation of page 325the truth of things, had eventually allowed her to retire in good order, saying, 'Ha! ha!' The story did no more than flash across Winnie's thoughts, yet in its momentary progress she recognised traits in the character of the Dark Lady which had previously lurked undetected. She also had loved the Titled Hero, and she had claimed both by word and deed that in love all things were fair. Every drop of Winnie's blood leapt to meet that doctrine.

The girl's forehead puckered as her thoughts concentrated on the problem before her. The knowledge in her possession could be used in a number of ways—which of these ways was the best? She rejected at once the idea of challenging Mr. Fletcher with wrongdoing and forbidding him to proceed with the marriage. That course might be successful, but that she would earn his bitter hatred in return seemed a certainty. To whom then should the information in her possession be conveyed? Presently her brows relaxed, her limbs lost their rigidity, and she rose slowly to her feet. The thing to be done was, after all, obvious. There was but one person other than Mr. Fletcher who possessed the power to break off the match even at the altar; that person was Eve Milward. Would she do it? If the puzzle had been put together correctly—yes. If not, then it could be done in no way.

From a shelf in the corner Winnie returned to the table with pen, paper, and ink. For awhile the scratching of her nib was the only sound audible in the room. Mr. Mallow had found an easier attitude, and for the moment his line searched the deep in silence. No arresting movement came page 326from the man sitting a few feet away behind the wooden partition. Once or twice the girl crumpled up the half-written sheet and started afresh, but at last the task was complete, the addressed envelope securely hidden away in the breast of her jacket.

As she restored the writing materials to the shelf, the silence of the night was broken by a prolonged hoot from the river. At the same moment there was the sound of a chair pushed back in the adjacent room, partly obscured by an excited guttural from Mr. Mallow, who was clinging with all his energies to a ten-foot shark.

Winnie opened the door silently and stood in the doorway, her head, with its luxuriant masses of brown hair, poised against the jamb. Mr. Fletcher, his coat across his arm, came softly down the passage and paused.

'Good-bye, Mr. Fletcher,' the girl said softly, without moving.

'Good-bye, my child,' he said with a note of sadness in his voice, extending his hand.

But Winnie, with her hands behind her, made no motion to change her position. 'If I am a child,' she said huskily, 'say good-bye to me as you would to a child,' and she lifted her face in mute invitation.

The minister hesitated, then obeyed, and the girl, trembling like a leaf, turned back into the room. A moment later she sat listening between her sobs to his retreating footsteps as they died away down the beach.

In her tears Winnie differed fundamentally from the Dark Lady, against whom no such weakness was recorded.

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'Winnie!' exclaimed Mabel, bursting into the room. 'Such news! Has Mr. Fletcher gone?'

Winnie nodded.

'Such news!' continued Mabel, drawing the pin of her hat and throwing it on the table. 'There has been a fire in the settlement and the poor things have lost everything. Half the houses are gone, the crops are destroyed, and the big bush is on fire for miles. Mr. Andersen was burnt to death the night before last; the Girds are cut off, and Mark Gird is dead.'

'Dead!' exclaimed Winnie stonily. The sense of the presence of tragedies other and greater than her own came over her with disquieting effect.