Waitaruna: A Story of New Zealand Life
Chapter XIX. — Breaking the News
Breaking the News
"The first bringer of unwelcome news
Hath but a losing office."
It was past midnight when Gilbert Langton reached the station. The house was in darkness and everything was quiet. Harry had not been expected to return that evening, so Nellie and Ottalie had retired to rest early, without anxiety, and unconscious of what had befallen them.
"It is no use disturbing them at the house," thought Gilbert; "they will know soon enough without their rest being disturbed to-night."
He therefore took up his quarters at the men's hut, where his sad intelligence produced great consternation, for Harry Ewart was well liked by all his employés. For though he looked after the men pretty closely, and would never tolerate half-done work, yet he was one who always treated them with fairness and consideration, and as a natural consequence, being a good master, he generally had good servants.page 257
"You had better see to the horses the first thing in the morning, Tom," said Gilbert; "for I shall let the ladies have breakfast before I tell them anything, and I expect they will want to start away at once, so it will be as well that everything should be ready."
"I'll see to that," replied Tom; "and it will be just as well to let the poor things have their breakfast before saying a word. They will be able to stand the journey better; for I expect if you told them first, it's not much breakfast that they would eat. Jamie," continued Tom, addressing the other occupant of the hut, "don't go and be telling Bella what has happened. You had better not say a word, for it's best they should hear it from Mr. Langton."
Jamie, who was already half asleep again, grunted acquiescence. Gilbert, exhausted by the fatigues and excitement of the day, pulled off his boots and lay down in a bunk in the hut, where he before long fell fast asleep. In the morning when he awoke, he had a feeling of dread, as though something was about to befall him, a feeling which he for a moment could not account for, till the events of the previous day recurred to him, and the recollection of the task he had taken upon himself asserted itself. He arose, feeling sad, wretched, and miserable. The excitement which had kept him up on the previous day was gone, and instead he felt appalled and desolate, and page 258he shrank from the interview with Mrs. Ewart and Ottalie with something like dread.
He had slept long, and looking at his watch he saw it was not far from the breakfast hour at the house. Tom and Jamie were both gone, but they had left the teapot on the hob, while three large chops lay on a dish on the table ready for him to cook when he awoke. After washing and undressing and dressing again so as to refresh himself, Gilbert proceeded to avail himself of the possibilities of a breakfast, and by the time he had finished, he concluded that it was time he should go down to the house with his melancholy message.
"I love my love, because my love loves me."
To reach the door Gilbert had to pass the open window of the sitting-room whence the sounds proceeded, and as he did so he saw Ottalie standing at the table arranging flowers in a vase, while Nellie was sitting by the window working.
"Mr. Langton!" they exclaimed simultaneously, page 259as they saw him pass, and when he walked unannounced into the sitting-room Nellie rose to receive him and said laughingly—
"Lost again, Mr. Langton?" But observing his grave look, she added more quietly, "Where's Harry? have you left him at the stable?"
"No," said Gilbert; "he has not returned with me," and then he paused awkwardly.
"Why not? Where have you been?" asked Nellie, alarmed more by Gilbert's manner than his words. "Has anything happened?"
"Yes," said Gilbert, "I am grieved to say something has happened. There has been an accident." And once more he paused and looked at the carpet, as though seeking inspiration or intelligence there.
"What accident? Is Harry hurt? Oh! tell us what it is!" exclaimed Nellie anxiously.
"Yes," continued Gilbert, raising his eyes to the anxious faces of both his auditors; "Harry has been hurt—seriously hurt. In short, he—oh! how can I tell you?" Then he added with a tremulous voice, "Harry's dead—drowned in the river."
Nellie answered with a scream, as she fell prostrate on the floor. Poor Ottalie's face showed how she felt the shock, but though the tears rose to her eyes, and her lips quivered, no sound of grief escaped her as she quietly stepped to Nellie's assistance, and with Gilbert's aid raised her to the sofa. Nellie had page 260not, however, fainted, and when raised again, she immediately burst into tears, and sobbed violently for some minutes. When her grief moderated a little, Ottalie asked Gilbert in a low tone how it had happened. They both listened attentively to his brief account of the occurrence.
"My dear, brave, thoughtless brother," said Ottalie. "Our parents will be heart-broken. Oh, my Harry!" and she wept quietly, while Nellie, calling for her husband, renewed her more violent demonstrations of grief. Then suddenly starting up she exclaimed—
"Gilbert Langton, you drowned my husband."
Gilbert was too much startled to make a reply; but when Mrs. Ewart reiterated her accusation, he started to his feet indignantly, and said—
"Mrs. Ewart, you must be mad to make such a statement. How dare you say such a wicked thing?"
"She doesn't know what she is saying, and is beside herself with grief," said Ottalie apologetically. And then turning to Nellie, she said—
"Nellie dear, we must go to Harry. Calm yourself, and let us go."
"Yes, let us go at once," said Nellie, rising from the sofa, and hurrying from the room.
"Pardon me, Miss Ewart," said Gilbert; "if I spoke rudely, and I trust Mrs. Ewart will do so too. Poor thing, she suffers greatly from her loss."page 261
"You need not have been so very indignant, I think," replied Ottalie, "but I hardly know what I am saying. I must go and assist Nellie to get ready to start;" and she too left the room.
It was over. The news was broken, awkwardly enough, thought Gilbert, but he was glad it was over. But a new horror took hold of him. He had been accused of drowning Harry. It was true that it was the wild accusation of one temporally insane, and that there was not even the shadow of a ground to support it, but had he not failed in making any effort to save poor Harry? It was impossible for him to do so, but though he knew that, could those who had seen nothing of the occurrence realise that he had been powerless to render any aid? What did Ottalie think? Perhaps she, too, thought that he had drowned Harry, not actively, certainly, but by passively standing by and seeing him drown. "She must hate—certainly could never love—the murderer of her brother!" Oh! the agony that Gilbert endured. Oh! the misery that such thoughts occasioned. He wished that he had accompanied Harry in his mad attempt to cross the river, or, when he saw he was drowned, that he too had plunged in and shared the same fate, even although he was powerless to render assistance. He had better be dead than be deemed a cowardly cur by the woman he loved.page 262
These agonising thoughts were interrupted by the return of Ottalie in her riding habit, looking so sweet and lovely with her sad face, that poor Gilbert took courage, and thought that he had been wronging her to fancy that it was possible that she could imagine anything so unkind as the thoughts he had been supposing she might harbour.
"How is Mrs. Ewart?" he asked, as she entered; to which Ottalie replied—
"She is calmer, and anxious to start. Will you see about the horses, please. I am going to look for a flower in the garden."
The journey down to the hotel was performed with unusual rapidity, as though Harry's life depended on it. Once only, during their progress, did they come to a standstill, and that was when Nellie asked a question relative to the accident, and drew rein to hear Gilbert's reply, which involved his recounting minutely the whole occurrence, in doing which he put special stress on the fact that he had done all in his power to dissuade Harry from attempting to cross the river, and that as the accident happened so quickly, and at the other side of the river, he was powerless to render any assistance. He felt as though he was guilty of treason to the dead, in giving such prominence to poor Harry's foolhardiness, but he only stated what was true; and had he not been haunted by the idea that Ottalie might page 263think him a coward, if nothing worse, he would probably rather have given prominence to Harry's pluck and bravery in making the attempt, than the rashness and folly of his doing so. He felt this keenly as he spoke, and all the more so when Ottalie said—
"We have no doubt you did everything in your power, Mr. Langton; but surely my brother was a better judge than you could be as to the advisability of swimming the river or not. The horse having struck him appears to have been the cause of the accident, and that of course was a pure accident, and could not have been foreseen."
These words lifted a great load from Gilbert's soul, and yet he was pained by them, and with a tumult of emotions going on within him, he remained silent.
When they arrived at the hotel, they all went straight to the room where the body of poor Harry had been laid. There it lay just as Gilbert had last seen it, still dressed in the wet clothes, just as he had been brought from the river. Nellie exclaimed, "My Harry!" and stepped forward to kiss him, but when her lips touched his cold and clammy mouth, she screamed aloud and fell fainting on the body of her husband, whence she was carried senseless to another room.
Ottalie had brought a couple of beautiful little white rosebuds from the garden at Hawera, and page 264these she placed in her brother's hand, which lay folded over his breast. She asked the landlord if the wet clothes could not be taken off; but he replied that he did not wish to change the position of matters till the police came. Poor Ottalie's white, sad, tearless face was much more trying to look upon than all Nellie's tears and faintings. For somehow Ottalie's grief appeared to be much, very much deeper than Nellie's; for the latter in her wailings appeared to be grieved chiefly for herself, while Ottalie mourned because her brother had been cut off in the morning of his days, and because her father and mother would feel that their home was made desolate. "Would to God I had died for thee, my brother!" would have been the words in which Ottalie's grief would have found expression, while Nellie's said, "Ah! woe is me; I have lost my husband." The grief of the one arose chiefly from the loss which others would sustain, because Harry had been cut off in what seemed to be the midst of his new-found happiness, while that of the other arose solely from the contemplation of the loss she sustained.
When she recovered from her faint, Mrs. Ewart gave way to a paroxysm of hysterical grief, which was heard all over the house.
"How awfully cut up poor Mrs. Ewart is," remarked Gilbert, as he sat in the parlour before retiring for the night.page 265
"Yes, she is pretty bad," remarked one of those present; "but, bless you, those women that make most fuss are those who soonest get over anything of the sort. I would almost be prepared to bet that that woman will be married again before the year is out."
"Hush!" said Gilbert sternly. "How dare you talk like that?"
"Well, well, I meant no harm," persisted the fellow; "and there's no law I know of against a man speaking his mind. Now, there's Miss Ewart, she does not make any noise over it, and I expect she'll carry a real sorrow to her dying day, long after the other one has forgotten all about it, or only looks back upon it as an unpleasant dream."
"For goodness sake, stop talking, man!" exclaimed Gilbert, starting to his feet. "If it was not for the sake of the ladies, and the fact that poor Mr. Ewart lies cold and dead in this house, I would not allow you to talk like that."
"Take it easy, young man, take it easy. There's no need for exciting yourself," replied the other with a smile, who, though seemingly only a "swagger," was evidently from his speech a man of some education. He was probably one of that class who are too common in the colonies—men who, having failed in life elsewhere, have tried the colonies, or who have, perhaps, after a short career of "fast life" as page 266young men, been sent out by friends anxious to get rid of them.
Gilbert, as he saw that this man was not altogether sober, did the best thing he could under the circumstances, and retired to his bedroom.
A few days later the body of Harry Ewart was laid in the grave by his heart-broken relatives and mourning friends. Ottalie and the young widow returned to Pakeloa, where, amid their own grief, every one showed the greatest kindness and consideration to the latter. Mr. Ewart took immediate steps for the sale of the Hawera station, and appeared to be considerably aged by the sudden loss of his son. After giving his evidence before the coroner, Gilbert felt relieved in a measure from the nightmare which had haunted him that Ottalie would think him morally guilty of Harry's death, and this feeling was almost entirely removed when, on the day of the funeral, Ottalie came to him with a message from Nellie asking him to "pardon her wild words, which she felt had pained him." If Gilbert had only known that the authority to bring this message had been obtained by dint of Ottalie's repeated asking, he would have valued it all the more, and would have been completely relieved from the question which ever recurred to him, "What does Ottalie think?"