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Over The Hills, and Far Away: A Story of New Zealand

Chapter XIII. Laura Reappears

page 135

Chapter XIII. Laura Reappears.

And what was Dacre doing all this time? He had been wandering to and fro, like a man with no object in life. He had visited the West Coast and the hot springs; had even tried the diggings (it is not necessary to specify which of the gold-fields 167was the scene of his visit), and worked hard at a claim; but, growing disgusted at his want of success, had bought a nugget from another, and started on a trip to Australia.

From Sydney he was very near commencing a trip to the Fiji Islands; but one night he had a page 136 dream. Lucy Cunningham stood by him, and offered him one of the soft curly rings which lay so charmingly upon her forehead, just clipped from its station on her pretty head. He stretched out his hand for it eagerly, and awoke to find that memory would not consent to be killed even by a constant change of scene.

After this he endured a day of such thorough “blues,” that he decided upon going home; and it seemed to him that he could only carry out this plan by way of New Zealand, and especially of that part where Maungarewa was situated.

He had a hundred excellent reasons why no other route than this was at all practicable. For one thing, he had not yet completed his assortment of moa bones 171 , and he had heard that some excellent specimens were to be procured in the neighbourhood of Maungarewa.

When he took up his abode in the nearest township to Mr. Cunningham's station he found that the musical clique of the district were upon the eve of giving a concert 172 . It was for a charitable page 137 purpose, and every one who possessed any musical talent had promised to give their assistance.

One day Dacre met Clinton Meredith riding through the town. They greeted each other, and then Dacre asked after Miss Cunningham.

“She was quite well when I saw her last,” said Clinton stiffly. He never could divest himself of an unaccountable feeling of jealousy towards Dacre.

Dacre took no notice of his manner. “Are you going to sing at the concert next week?” he asked pleasantly.

“Yes,” returned Clinton; adding, with a touch of his usual self-assertion, “they say they can't do without me.”

“Ah! indeed,” said Dacre. He had found out all he wanted now, and had no wish to prolong the conversation.

If Clinton was to sing, no doubt Lucy would be there, and there he determined to see her and speak to her for the last time, he assured himself, and shut his eyes to the fact that he had come to that neigh- page 138 bourhood for just such an opportunity, and for no other reason.

Lucy, meanwhile, never thought about him at all. Her heart was full of grief at the loss of her girlfriend, and she was trying as far as she could to fulfil her promise to Effie Lennox. As much as lay in her power, she endeavoured to fill Effie's place to poor little Jeanie. She found, too, that this was an easier task at first than she had imagined. Jeanie mourned 173 .truly and sincerely for the sister she had lost, but it was a necessity to her to cling to the one who offered herself in bodily presence to fill up the void.

“Quand on n'a pas ce qu'on aime, il faut aimer ce qu'on a.”

Jeanie's was a nature which realized the truth of this axiom intensely; so that Lucy, who had never dreamed of being looked upon quite in the same light as Effie, found that Jeanie had accepted her, though not without tears, as a substitute, and was daily becoming more and more reconciled to the exchange.

Of course it was out of the question for Jeanie to page 139 attend the concert; but Mr. Cunningham wished to go, and wished to take his daughter, and Lucy herself wanted to hear Clinton sing. So she dressed herself for the occasion on the day appointed, though somewhat sadly, with many a longing wish for the lost friend who would never share any pleasures with her again. She had chosen to wear the very simplest toilet of black and white—half-mourning, in fact. A necklace of Roman pearls, and a red rose which Clinton had given her in her hair, were the only ornaments she had allowed herself.

But there was one person at the concert who thought her looking more captivating than ever the moment he set eyes upon her. Alas for Dacre's good resolutions! He found himself, when seated, on the opposite side of the room to Miss Cunningham, and, in fact, in an excellent position for watching her as much as he pleased without being himself observed. Still he could not help wishing for a glance of recognition, and this he set himself at once to gain. The gentleman seated by Lucy's side he guessed, and correctly, to be her father, and to Mr. Cunningham page 140 Dacre was determined to obtain an introduction before long.

Lucy, for her part, was scarcely seated before she caught a glimpse of a yellow beard, and became aware that Louis was seated a few rows in front of her, and immediately behind a party consisting of two ladies and a gentleman. On the row before her were the Priors and Mr. Winstanley—Mrs. Prior looking handsome in black silk, with scarlet poppies in her hair—her husband obviously proud of her—and Arthur Winstanley half asleep, as usual. Lucy caught her brother's eye and nodded to him, and he came to speak to her for a moment.

After he had gone back to his place, and before the performers had made their appearance on the platform arranged for them, Lucy again became conscious that some one was bending forwards and trying to catch her attention from one of the seats at the other side of the room, and almost in a line with those occupied by her father and herself. She turned her head slightly, and encountered a certain pair of bright brown eyes which she had not page 141 forgotten. “What is Doctor Dacre doing here, I wonder?” was her first thought; and then, “What an uncommon-looking face he has! He is a man to single out of a crowd.”

Dacre, having obtained what he wanted—Lucy's bow and smile—drew back quietly and looked another way. But he told himself next moment that he was rightly punished for having come there at all when he saw that Lucy had forgotten all about him, for Clinton Meredith had come on to the platform and was just about to sing. He was quite right. Lucy had entirely forgotten him. All her thoughts were now absorbed by the evening's entertainment, which had already begun. It was not until the interval between the first and second parts, when the performers had subsided behind a curtain hung to shelter them from profane eyes during their brief breathing space, that Lucy found herself again at liberty to survey some of the audience around her. Suddenly she touched her father's arm,—

“Papa,” she said, “do you see those people in front of Louis? One of those two ladies came out page 142 with us in the ‘Flora Macdonald;’ but she was a second-class passenger. It's the one with the black velvet round her neck. Isn't she handsome?”

Mr. Cunningham looked in the direction she indicated to him, and immediately replied in the affirmative. He did not think he had seen such a handsome woman since he came out to the colony.

Mr. Prior, in front of him, overheard the remark, and was inwardly disgusted, regarding his own wife as a far finer specimen any day! But had the proposition been put to the general vote, Mr. Prior would certainly have found himself in a minority.

The party in front of Louis Cunningham consisted, as I said before, of two ladies and a gentleman. There was sufficient resemblance between all three as to indicate that the relationship of brother and sister existed among them. But the gentleman was short and stout in figure, and could never have had any pretensions to good looks, even had his face not been so exceedingly sulky; while the two ladies, on the other hand, were both tall and uncommonly handsome. They had graceful, stately figures, thick page 143 black hair, and large grey eyes. They were remarkably alike; only when you compared them together you saw that one of them was older than the other, and that her beauty was nearer its wane. The elder lady was dressed plainly in black grenadine; the other was in white, set off with coral ornaments, coral round her neck and wrists, and thick strings of coral twisted in her splendid black plaits of hair. She wore also round her throat a broad black velvet band.

None of those ladies whose costumes I have noticed in this chapter wore dresses cut low in the neck, or what would be considered full dress in England. It was an understood thing at the time I write of, and in that part of the New Zealand colonies, that ladies were never to appear before a colonial audience in anything but demi-toilet 174 .

Lucy had just finished the observations she was making of Mrs. Keith's party, when something attracted her attention nearer home, and her eye fell carelessly on the people immediately before her. Then she gave an involuntary start, for she saw to page 144 her amazement that Arthur Winstanley was awake at last!

The change was remarkable. Five minutes ago he had been languidly studying the programme of the songs which he held in his hand, and evidently wondering when the whole affair would be over. Now the sleepy eyes had suddenly lit up; the sulky month was actually quivering; the man's whole attitude expressed eagerness and alertness in every line. What was it that had aroused him at last?

Lucy followed the direction of his eyes. They were fixed upon the two ladies to whom she had just been calling her father's attention. After a moment she became certain that he was watching them; and even when he recollected himself and drew back into his seat, half shading his eyes with his hand for a minute or two, she saw that his excitement had still by no means subsided.

He was so quiet through it all, however, that no one had noticed him except Lucy, and even she could not tell from the expression of his face what was the nature of his repressed agitation. Whether it were page 145 joy or sorrow, anger or pleasure, she had not the slightest idea. A minute afterwards, however, she saw that his hand was trembling so much, he could no longer hold the little slip of pink paper containing the printed programme of the evening's entertainment 175 ; it had fallen to the ground; and the next instant Arthur Winstanley rose from his seat, and slipped quietly out of the room.

A little while and some one behind Lucy said, not loudly, but in a distinct tone which could be heard all round, “A person outside has fainted! Is there a medical man in the room?”

Doctor Dacre rose at once, making an affirmative gesture with his hand, and then he, too, disappeared; and Lucy found herself feeling somewhat nervous, and her cheeks hotter and more flushed than they had been a short time before.

167 Otago was an early location for gold prospecting or 'digging'. See reference to gold exports in New Zealand History (NZETC collection), http://www.New Zealandetc.org/tm/scholarly/subject-000001.html.

[Note added by A. Brown as annotator]

171 Moa were large to very large birds that lived exclusively in New Zealand. They became extinct less than 600 years ago. They are classed as a member of the ratite group of birds, which includes the reheas (South America), ostriches (Africa and Europe-Asia), elephant birds (Madagascar), emus and cassowaries (Australia and Papua New Guinea) and kiwi (New Zealand). See: http://www.teara.govt.New Zealand/en/moa/1. The giant moa is now part of New Zealand legend.

[Note added by A. Brown as annotator]

172 See reference to local amateur concerts in "The Organ Fund Concert" letter to the editor of the North Otago Times, Volume XXI, Issue 997, 24 November 1874, Page 2. See: http://paperspast.natlib.govt.New Zealand.

[Note added by A. Brown as annotator]

173 Mourning ritual and mourning clothes were observed and catered for early in the new colony. See: North Otago Times 1874, http://paperspast.natlib.govt.New Zealand.

[Note added by A. Brown as annotator]

174 Not full 'formal' evening dress as would be the custom in Europe. See Evans's reference to this in her 'Preface' for the novel Over the Hills and Far Away in the Literature section (NZETC collection). See: http://www.New Zealandetc.org/tm/scholarly/subject-000005.html.

[Note added by A. Brown as annotator]

175 See North Otago Times for an example of community entertainment, 17 November 1874. See: http://paperspast.natlib.govt.New Zealand.

[Note added by A. Brown as annotator]